Busted Axle Road
Chapter 51

Copyright© 1993, 2001, 2010

Mike was still all smiles when he walked into the office Thursday morning. He was late; after he'd taken the kids out to the club for the day, he'd come back and spent some time at the hospital with Kirsten and Susan. It looked like Kirsten would be there another day, but Thursday and Friday weren't exactly real busy around the Record-Herald, anyway.

It took Mike a while to work his way around the staff. It was, after all, his third kid and almost certainly his last, but there was still some obligatory backslapping and bullshooting that had to take place. Finally, he settled in behind his desk, and started in on the stack of mail that Webb had left there.

Gradually, he became aware of someone standing in the doorway. He looked up and said, "Jennifer! Sorry I didn't get to say much more than 'hi' yesterday, but you know how it was. Thanks for helping."

"Thanks for letting me stay," Jennifer said quietly. "I know it wasn't as exciting for me as it was for you, but congratulations."

"I didn't mind," he said. "How've you been, anyway?"

"Mike," she replied, "Can we talk?"

Mike could see that Jennifer had something on her mind. "Sure," he said.

She came in, closed the door, and sat down. "Look, Mike," she said. "I've got a problem, and I hate to come to you with it, but I don't want my family to hear about this. I had a heck of a time acting through yesterday afternoon and last night, before I realized I could talk to you."

"What's the problem, Jennifer?"

"Mike, if you were to walk out in the front office and look across the street, you'd see a green Dodge and two guys with a videocamera. They're a field team from 'Inside Hollywood', and I told them weeks ago that not only that I wasn't going to give them an interview in Spearfish Lake, I didn't want them here."

"They came anyway, huh?"

"I don't know what they want, Mike. An interview, maybe, but if I give them one to make them go away, it'll be like paying blackmail. If I just let them hang around town, and they find out about my parents, I'll never be able to come home again without filling all the local motels with paparazzi." She seemed near tears.

"They might not find out," Mike said.

Jennifer shook her head. "They're bound to be asking around about me, and sooner or later someone's going to give them the connection."

"Yeah," Mike conceded. "It wouldn't take more than a dirty smile on the right person to set them on the right track." He laughed. "Take them out there and give them an interview. It won't get on the air."

"It wouldn't work, Mike. I mean, what do I do when I want to come home again? I live in a goddamn media circus as it is. I come home to get away from all of that shit, and as soon as anybody from that nuthouse finds out about it, if I come home, you would't be able to see the trees on the far side of the lake for all the camera lenses, trying to get a nude shot of me. That's why I quit going out there." She shook her head and dropped her voice, seeming very vulnerable now. "Mike, I have to get away from that sometime. Being able to come back to Spearfish Lake is the only thing that keeps me going. I can't have the only refuge I have taken away like that."

Back when Webb had sat in Mike's chair, he'd kept a pack of cigarettes in the desk drawer for when it came time to think things out. "Greatest aid to concentration ever invented," he'd said; it was the only time he smoked. Mike didn't smoke at all; mostly he'd given away chocolate cigars this morning, except to people that he knew actually did smoke cigars, but right now, he ached for one of Webb's cigarettes. "Look, Jennifer," he said. "I know the last three or four years, every time we've talked, I've gotten hints that things could be going better for you," he said. "Is it that bad?"

"The career is going great," she sighed. "I could be working forty-eight hours a day if I wanted to, and stacking it up like the IRS. But when I get home at night, I'm so lonely and bummed out that there's been times that I've been surprised that I haven't tried to kill myself. Without being able to come home, and without Blake, I don't know what I'd do."

"Blake is a little more than just your housekeeper, then?"

"I love Blake, I respect Blake, I adore Blake, I depend on Blake for my life sometimes," Jennifer admitted. "I couldn't make it without him. But Blake and I aren't in love, mostly because he's gay."

Mike let the last word reverberate around in his skull for a second before he managed to say something. "I can see how that would put a different slant on things," he said finally.

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