Becky knew it wasn’t going to be a good day as soon as she turned on the morning news and saw a reporter standing in front of the Archlinger Building. The media had learned of the raid on Lintner’s office yesterday by that loudmouthed cop. Becky sagged onto one of the beanbag chairs, listening to the report. It didn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know; just a thirty-second sound bite saying cops had taken some papers from the office.
Becky was glad this came on while Emma was in the shower. Her friend had enough on her mind already without worrying that Becky was going to lose her job or wind up in prison. Becky shivered as she thought of waking up to Emma’s screams. She had heard these screams before, back when Emma was just eight years old, not long after her parents died. Since then Emma had seemed fine, more or less. It was true the girl kept to herself, usually with her nose planted in a book, but she had always been that way. It was also true Emma didn’t have any other close friends, but she had been bouncing from school to school for her degrees so that she didn’t really have time.
Maybe it was moving back here that had done it. Becky promised herself to keep a closer eye on Emma, to make sure nothing bad happened to her. That was the promise she had made to Emma’s mother years ago.
That promise came in a Kmart bathroom of all places. Not long after Emma and Becky met in kindergarten, Emma’s mother had insisted on taking Becky to the store for some new clothes, ones that fit her. All her life, Becky had never gone clothes shopping before; her mother’s idea of clothes shopping was to give Becky whatever she might rummage out of the trash or a donation box. For the first time, Becky actually got to try on clothes without stains or strange odors.
Emma’s mother bought an entire new wardrobe for Becky that day: T-shirts, pants, dresses, socks, underwear, and a new coat for the winter months. The Earl family was far from rich, though Becky didn’t realize this at the time. She only knew that Emma’s parents were richer than her mother.
Before they went home—Emma’s home so that Becky could show off her new clothes—they stopped at the bathroom. While Becky sat in one stall with Mrs. Earl in the other to keep her company, Mrs. Earl said, “I really think Emma has taken a shine to you.”
“It means she likes you. Do you like her?”
“Yes. She’s nice. But she talks funny.” Though she was only five, Becky knew she shouldn’t have said the last part to the woman who had just bought her a lot of expensive clothes. “I’m sorry.”
“No, that’s all right. Emma will outgrow her speech impediment.”
“I hope so.” Becky finished her business and then emerged from the stall. Mrs. Earl helped her to reach the sink so that she could wash her hands. Looking in the mirror, Becky saw the sadness on Mrs. Earl’s face. “Why are you sad?”
Mrs. Earl knelt down to look Becky in the eye. “I want you to be honest with me, Becky. Have the other kids been picking on Emma? Do they tease her because she’s different?”
Becky was only five, but she knew how much the truth would hurt in this case. “Not much,” she said, trying to soften the blow.
This didn’t seem to make any difference, as Mrs. Earl looked even sadder. She didn’t cry, but the sadness in her eyes almost prompted Becky to do so. “I understand. It’s going to be hard on her. She’s so very gifted, but she’s also so gentle. That’s why she needs a friend like you, Becky. She needs someone who can look out for her, like a big sister.”
Becky began to understand that the shopping trip hadn’t merely been to buy Becky some new clothes. It had also been a bribe. Mrs. Earl wanted Becky to be not only Emma’s friend, but her protector, to insulate her from the taunts of other kids on the playground. What Mrs. Earl didn’t understand—what Becky didn’t really understand until later—was that she would have done this anyway. Just as Becky was Emma’s only friend, so too was Emma Becky’s only friend; they only had each other. And Becky had seen the same things in Emma that Mrs. Earl did, even though they had known each other just a few days.
“Do you think you can be her big sister, Becky?” Mrs. Earl asked.
“Yes,” Becky said.
“Thank you, Becky. That means a lot to me. But you mustn’t let her know about this talk, all right?”
Becky had taken that promise to heart. She had done what she could to protect Emma, though there were times when she failed, like the incident on the playground with Jimmy Gates. Then of course Emma’s parents dying, followed five years later by Emma leaving the state to go to college. But now that Emma was back and they were here, together, Becky intended to keep the promise she had made.
“Are you ready to go?” Emma asked.
Becky turned around to see her friend dressed and ready to go, looking none the worse for her rough night. She seemed able to handle nights with little sleep much better than Becky, who woke with bedhead and bloodshot eyes if she didn’t get at least seven hours of rest. “I’m fine,” Becky said. She pushed herself up from the beanbag chair, turning the television off as well. “How about you?”
“I’m fine,” Emma said. She went into the kitchen, taking out a protein shake she had prepared the night before. Becky’s stomach churned at the thought of how awful that tasted. “It was just a bad dream.”
“Right.” Still, Becky kept looking at her friend as they rode the bus, searching for any cracks in Emma’s armor. She didn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something going on. While not a gifted liar, Emma had become quite adept at repressing her emotions.
After they got off the bus, Becky lingered for a moment. “We’re meeting in Chinatown at five-thirty, right?”
“If you want to go somewhere else—”
“No, it’s fine. I liked it.”
Becky nodded and then checked her watch. She would have to hurry to make it on time. “Well, I better get going. See you later, kid.”
“See you later.”
With that, Emma was gone and Becky was alone in the city of nine million. She made her way across Executive Plaza, as always feeling out of place among the people in their expensive suits. She kept waiting for someone to stop her and tell her to get out of here, to go back to the trailer park where she belonged. The way things were going, though, she might end up there before much longer.
She didn’t say anything to Connie as she began stuffing envelopes. Her mind was too preoccupied with the strange scene during the night. Emma could say that it was just a bad dream and she couldn’t remember, but Becky knew this wasn’t true. She knew that only a dream about her parents could make Emma scream like that.
Maybe it was time to call in a professional. The police had given Emma’s aunt the name of a grief counselor after Emma’s parents died. Aunt Gladys and Becky had tried to get Emma to go, but she refused. She didn’t want to go to a stranger’s office and talk about her feelings; she just wanted to stay in her room and read her books, listen to her opera tapes, and cry for her parents in peace. While Aunt Gladys could have forced Emma to go, in the end she had respected the girl’s wishes, as had Becky.
Maybe they shouldn’t have. Maybe she needed to see a shrink, to get everything out into the open. The problem now was that Becky didn’t know how to find a psychiatrist. She could look in the phone book, in which case she might as well throw darts at the page and hope for the best. She didn’t want just any quack to work with Emma; someone as strong-willed as her friend would need a really good head shrinker.
Lintner interrupted these musings by stomping into the room. “Listen up, people,” he said. “I know you all saw it on the news today. It’s not looking good. They think they have us by the short and curlies.”
Becky hunched down in her chair, sensing that this was not going to be good. Lintner, not caring about the building’s rules, lit a cigarette and then began pacing back and forth. “Those people are assholes. We are not licked yet, not by a long shot. We still have almost three months to turn this thing around. All we need is a little luck and a lot of hard work.
“So from now on no one is going to leave until every envelope is mailed and every phone call has been made. No one is going to call in sick or take vacation days. You will eat lunch at your desk and take bathroom breaks only when you’re going to piss down your leg. Any questions?”
Becky knew better than to raise her hand and ask if they were going to be paid overtime. Of course not. They were “volunteers” after all. They were lucky to get any pittance they received for their effort on behalf of the noble Lintner campaign. She thought of Emma and their dinner for tonight; she wished she could use the phone to call the museum and say that she was going to be late, but she supposed that would be against Lintner’s new rules.
The candidate blew out a stream of smoke and then clapped his hands. “Now, all of you get your asses to work!” As Lintner stormed out, Becky wondered if she could find a shrink for him as well.
Emma waited two hours at the restaurant for Becky. She tried calling Lintner’s headquarters five times, but every time the lines were busy, no doubt with outgoing calls. She called the apartment as well, but no one picked up. Grim scenarios ran through Emma’s mind about what might have become of Becky on her way to Chinatown. To block these out, Emma took a book from her purse and began to read the latest issue of Geology Quarterly.
She had finished the journal and an issue of a local newspaper written in Mandarin when Becky finally did show up. Emma threw herself against her friend, hugging her until Becky gasped for air. Her face burning with embarrassment, Emma let Becky breathe. “I’m sorry. I was just so worried about you. What happened?”
“Lintner went all Captain Ahab on us. Or maybe more that like guy on the Bounty. Whatshisname.”
“Whatever. He’s going to have a mutiny on his hands if he keeps this up.” As they finally sat down for dinner, Becky explained that Lintner had come in ranting about everyone needing to put more effort in to win his campaign. “He doesn’t even want us to use the bathroom until we’re going to pop.”
“That’s terrible. Isn’t there something you can do?”
“I could quit. That’s about all.” But Emma knew that Becky wasn’t about to quit, not without earning her college credits. “It’s going to take a lot more than taking away potty breaks, though.”
“Don’t worry about me, kid. I’ll be fine. The worst that can happen to me there is a paper cut.”
Emma wanted to argue about this, but it wouldn’t do any good. Once Becky made up her mind about something, she wouldn’t change it. That was the spirit Emma had always admired, ever since they met back in kindergarten. Becky wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or even to step on a few toes if need be. She didn’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings—except Emma’s. Becky was always so careful around her, especially after Emma’s parents died. As much as Emma appreciated this, sometimes she wished her friend wouldn’t treat her special.
“Enough about me,” Becky said, stabbing into a piece of mushu pork. “How are things going at the museum with you and whatshisname?”
“Dr. Dreyfus,” Emma said. She looked down at her mostly-untouched plate of stir fried vegetables. “He showed me the exhibit today.”
“Oh, a personal tour?”
Though Emma was still looking down at her food, she sensed Becky’s leer. “It’s not like that,” Emma said. “There were a lot of workers around. We just walked around and talked.”
“I see. That’s all there was to it?”
“Well, no, not exactly.” Emma forced herself to look up at Becky, to meet her friend’s eyes. “Promise you won’t overreact to this.”
“What is it?”
“He asked me to go to dinner before the presentation.”
The left side of Becky’s mouth curled up with a smile before she reached for her napkin to dab at phantom stains. “I’m sure it’s nothing important,” Becky said. “Just dinner like a couple of colleagues, right?”
“Yes.” Emma looked back down at the plate. Despite what Becky had said, Emma could hear the gentle mocking in her friend’s voice. She still thought Dr. Dreyfus was taking her on a date. It was starting to look that way even to Emma. She cleared her throat before adding, “I thought I’d go back to the house tomorrow. Aunt Gladys probably still has some clothes I could wear.”
Becky’s fork hit the plate with a sound like a bell. “Are you serious?”
“Why not? I’m sure Aunt Gladys has some very nice things.”
“Jesus, Emma, your aunt was never much of a snappy dresser and that was ten years ago.” Becky shook her head. “This is a big deal. It’s going to be an A-list crowd. Even Lintner’s going to be there, or so I’ve heard through the grapevine. You can’t go wearing something that’s spent ten years in a box in the attic.”
“It’s only a presentation,” Emma said. “It’s not a ball.”
“It’s close enough,” Becky said. She pushed away from the table, getting to her feet. “And we can’t have you going in rags.”
“Where are you going?”
“Let your fairy godmother work,” Becky said.
They wound up at Marston’s, the oldest department store in the city. Emma hadn’t been to the store since she was a little girl, when she had gone with Aunt Gladys for a dress to wear at the funeral. Emma had spent most of that trip clinging to her aunt like a toddler, intermittently sobbing whenever she saw a family or anyone who even vaguely resembled either of her parents.
These memories forced their way back into her consciousness as she rode the escalator up to the women’s clothes section. She tried to tell herself that this time things were different, that she was here for a much different reason, a happy reason. She was going to an exclusive party with a handsome young Egyptologist, not to a funeral. No one would be buried this time.
“Relax,” Becky said. “I’m sure they’ll have something really pretty.”
“I can’t really afford much,” Emma said. “I haven’t been paid yet.”
“Don’t worry, this one is on me.”
“I couldn’t let you do that.”
Becky took Emma’s arm and looked her in the eye, her gaze turning steely. “It’s not a problem. You can pay me back once you get your first check.” As quickly as it appeared, the severe look faded and Becky smiled. “It won’t be my money anyway. It’ll be the credit card company’s money.”
Emma thought of arguing about the interest charges and fees inherent with credit cards, but she decided against it. Becky wasn’t going to listen, not in this case. And as Becky said, Emma could pay it off with her first check, or so she hoped. If anyone at the museum decided she and Dr. Dreyfus were going out on a date, she might not have much of a first check.
A salesgirl intercepted them as they neared the women’s clothes. The salesgirl was only a few years older than them, probably just out of college. She hardly glanced at Becky, intuiting that Emma was the one to focus on. “Can I help you ladies?” she asked, her voice unnaturally cheery.
“I need a dress,” Emma mumbled.
“A formal dress,” Becky amended. “Something classy but not too pricey, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, I think I might have a few things we can look at.”
Despite that she was the one the clothes were for, Emma lagged behind Becky. She hadn’t enjoyed clothes shopping since her mother died. Back then she had always been so happy to come running out of the changing room in a new outfit and see her mother’s smile. It just hadn’t been the same with Aunt Gladys and once she went off to college, Emma rarely did much in the way of buying clothes. When she did, it was usually just at the local discount store, where she quickly plucked things off the rack and then took them to the checkout.
The salesgirl held up a bright red dress. “This would look stunning on you,” she said. “It would go beautifully with your hair.”
Emma didn’t need to hold the dress up to know it would be short, far too short for a formal party that wasn’t a date. And while the color might complement her hair, she remembered that red was the traditional color of prostitutes. “I think something a little more neutral would be better,” Emma said in almost a whisper.
“Of course,” the salesgirl said, putting the red dress back. She took a few steps over to another rack to hold up a dark blue dress sparkling with sequins. “This is very elegant.”
Becky checked the price tag and then shook her head. “It’s also a little more than we can spend,” she said.
“I understand. I think I have something else that might do the trick.” The salesgirl led them over to another rack, where she pulled out a black dress. “Every girl needs a little black dress. And it’s on sale for thirty percent off, but for you girls I’ll make it forty percent off.”
Emma took the dress, holding it up against her body. The hem of the skirt came down to the tops of her ankles, which would be fine for the occasion. What worried her was the back—there was almost no back to the dress. Still, it was elegant and well within their price range with the deal the salesgirl was giving them. “Can I try it on?” she asked.
“Of course. Right this way.”
For a dress off the rack, it fit well enough. The spaghetti straps held it up and the neckline didn’t plunge too much. As she had feared, though, it did show off most of her back, which looked terribly pale against the black fabric. She could always try going to a tanning booth, except usually she wound up looking like a broiled lobster after a few minutes in the sun; she had found this out her first day in sunny California. She reached up to free her hair; this covered most of the exposed skin.
She let Becky be the final arbiter since it was her money. Stepping out of the dressing room, Emma felt like a little girl showing off for her mother again. Just like Mom, Becky smiled as Emma came out. “You like it?”
“You look like a million bucks, kid,” Becky said. “Go on, give it a turn.”
Emma did so, nearly falling over in the process. She was glad there wasn’t supposed to be any dancing at this presentation so Dr. Dreyfus wouldn’t see how clumsy she was. “You don’t think the back is too much?”
“It’s fine, especially with your hair like that.”
“Well, all right, if you think it’s good enough,” Emma said.
The problem, as it always did, came with the shoes. Emma never wore heels of more than a half-inch, not wanting to exaggerate her height any more than she had to. The real problem, though, was with the size of her feet. For as long as she could remember, her feet had always been big. She had inherited them from her father’s side of the family; her father had ordered his shoes from a cobbler’s shop on the east side of the city, where they could be custom made for him. “If I ever need a job, I can always go into the circus,” he used to tell her. “All I need is the red nose.”
Marston’s did not have any shoes in her size, at least not women’s shoes. If she wanted to go to the presentation in men’s work boots then it would have been fine. “I can order some,” the salesgirl said.
“As long as they’re here by Friday,” Becky said.
“That might be a problem. It takes a few days to ship them from the warehouse.” The salesgirl checked her computer and then looked up. “I do have some in a size fourteen. It might be a tight squeeze, but if you’re only going to wear them for a little while—”
“Let’s try that,” Emma said. The shoes turned out to be snug, but she could compact her feet enough so they fit. Just to make sure, she took a few practice steps in them. “I think these will do,” she said.
“Great,” the salesgirl said. “Let me just write this up and we can get you ladies on your way.”
The total—even with the discount—almost prompted Emma to faint. Her entire wardrobe probably didn’t cost that much. She knew better than mentioning this to Becky, who seemed so happy once they had found something; Becky hadn’t stopped smiling since Emma came out of the dressing room.
It was afterward, when they were on the bus with the dress in a bag, that Becky said, “You really do look great in that dress,” she said.
To Emma’s surprise, Becky wiped a tear away. “I’m sorry,” Becky said. “It’s just that when you left you were still the gawky kid with zits and now, seeing you dressed like that, it finally hit me. You’re all grown up now. Maybe you don’t need me after all.”
“Becky, no, don’t talk like that. You’re my best friend. I’m always going to need you.” She smiled at Becky. “I couldn’t have bought it without you, remember?”
Becky nodded at this. “That’s true. You’d probably be wearing some old leopard print caftan.”
They laughed at this, the tears gone from Becky’s face. Once the bus reached their stop, they got off and Emma gave Becky another hug, albeit one more restrained. “Thank you for this. It was really special.”
“You’re welcome, kid,” Becky said, her lip trembling as if she were going to cry again. “Now let’s get inside before someone steals it and some crack whore is wearing your dress.”
They went inside, Emma hanging the dress in her closet. She stared at it for a moment, wondering what Dr. Dreyfus would think of it. He hoped his reaction would be similar to Becky’s.