Chapter 1

On Sunday night I woke up pretty much once an hour to check my alarm. Funny how your brain won’t let you get a good night’s sleep when you have a big day in store. Of course, I finally fell into a deep slumber about thirty minutes before the piercing bleet-bleet-bleet managed to work its way into my dream, materializing as the backup signal of a giant dump truck getting ready to flatten my car. I don’t even want to get into that symbolism.

After slamming the snooze button with enough force to make me wonder if it would ever function again, I stumbled out of bed and somehow made my way to the bathroom, where the harsh fluorescent lighting accentuated every flaw and imperfection, past, present and future. Red, puffy eyes? Check. Blotchy skin? Check. Tiny scar on my chin from a childhood jumping-on-the-couch accident? Check. Nascent zit getting ready to take over my nose? Double check. People tell me I’m a fine looking young woman (that’s how they say it), but they’re friends and family so they don’t count. I’d trade a hundred of those well-meaning comments for one “hot.” Maybe in my next lifetime I’ll bargain away 20 IQ points for an extra cup size.

A hot shower, a few drops of Visine and some hastily applied makeup helped a little, as did the large coffee and Kind Bar I grabbed at the Grab ‘n’ Go. On the five minute drive to work, I practiced my speech for the hundredth time.

“Mr. Knudsen, I’ve been with the paper almost two years now . . .”

Second thoughts. He knows how long I’ve worked for the “Finlandia Gazette.” Or does he? Couldn’t hurt to remind him. The opening stays. But what’s the proper grammar? “Almost” or “nearly?” Better check my AP Style Book.

“I’m a good reporter. You said so yourself at my review. (A review that lasted all of five minutes and resulted in a $25 a month raise, which enabled me to add the Kind Bar to my morning routine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.)

In my mind’s eye I could see Mr. Knudsen (I could never imagine myself calling him “Bill”) glance at his watch impatiently. Okay, time to speed things along. “Please don’t make me cover another butter-sculpting contest or town hall meeting.”

Ick. That sounded needy. Mr. Knudsen doesn’t respond well to needy. “Isn’t it time you put me on a real story?”

Dummy, don’t make it a question. Too easy to say “no.” How about this? “I deserve to work on a real story.”

On cue, a scene from my father’s favorite movie flashed into view. Clint Eastwood telling the bad guy, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Right before shooting him between the eyes.

Now what? I thought of something yesterday. Why didn’t I jot it down? Maybe I wasn’t such a good reporter after all.

These unproductive thoughts swirled around my head like angry hornets as the car pulled into the parking lot. My car does that a lot, operates on automatic pilot. Darn it, I wasn’t ready.

“Hey, Anna,” Barbara our receptionist said cheerily as I walked through the door. “Mr. Knudsen’s ready for you.”

No time to settle in or even refill my coffee. I swallowed hard, not an easy thing to do when your mouth is as dry as a sand dune. “Thanks,” said a thin voice that might have been mine.

Before I could announce my presence, Mr. Knudsen motioned me in without looking up from his paper. He maintains an open door policy at all times, although most people don’t take advantage of it because it would mean having to actually talk to him. He’s a gruff old guy with a shock of white hair that’s always the same length. How he pulls that off I’ll never know. The office, piled high with old

newspapers and God knows what else, smelled like dust and cigarettes. I sat in the one metal chair in front of an ancient desk and smoothed my skirt, trying to look professional. When he spoke, I could hardly hear the words because of the pulse beating in my ears. Whatever I had practiced went out the window in that instant.

“How old are you these days?” he asked, peering at me from under his glasses.

The question caught me off guard and I had to think for a moment. “Twenty-five next month.” A quarter of a century. It sounded old to me because it’s the oldest I’ve ever been.

He tore his gaze away from the printout, moved his glasses to the top of his head and fixed me with an appraising stare. “When you get to be my age, you’ll start subtracting years instead of adding them.”

I smiled weakly, not knowing what to say.

Clearing his throat, he continued, “So Jeremy’s out sick, some kind of stomach bug, and Carol had to go to Lansing on a family emergency. Not life or death I’m told, but we’re shorthanded nonetheless. I know you’re tired of all this county fair crap and I’ve got nobody to cover tonight’s concert at the Royal. A band called the Dickweeds. Supposedly making a name for themselves out West. Ever hear of ‘em”

My heart gave a little flutter. They were on my Spotify rotation, a retro alt country blues band with a horn section. “Yes, sir.”

“What the hell kind of name is that for a band anyway? In my day, all the groups had normal names. Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Electric Prunes. Anyway, I need a review plus a profile of the lead singer. 1,200 words give or take, on my desk Wednesday morning. I’ll run it front page of the Living section, above the fold. The ad department wants younger demos, I’ll give them younger demos. Interested?”

By way of response, I jumped up, leaned across the desk and kissed him on the cheek. He didn’t look shocked exactly, but close for a man with only two expressions.

“Can’t you read the sign?” he asked, regaining his composure and pointing to a yellowing hand-lettered poster on the wall that said Do Not Touch the Editor.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” My face felt like a furnace. I backed out of the room and right into a filing cabinet. It made a loud thump, causing a couple of coworkers to look up from their desks. “Thank you for the opportunity, sir.”

“Don’t let me down,” he said. I had a feeling I already had.