A Breath of Air
A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
She knew it was time to go home when the ventilation system shut down for the night.
Betty sighed, pulling her hands from the typewriter keyboard and flexing them to work the stiffness out, then rubbed her eyes for a moment. Her eyes hurt, her wrists hurtbut her strongest feeling at the moment was to hurt Scott Sherwood. And after a lesson or two many years ago from her sister on what to do if a date "got fresh," she knew exactly where, too.
He'd asked Pruitt for three days off last Thursday and here it was a week later and he still hadn't returned. Bad enough she was writing new scripts, but now she was rewriting old ones in an effort to cover Scott's disappearance as well as not overburden Mackie again. She'd invented a long-lost sister for Mavis Baxter, sent the male contingent of Bonneyville Mills off to fight a prairie fire while Becky and Trish prepared to protect the family homestead, changed the featured Book at Bedtime to Jane Eyre from The Three Musketeers. The only positive aspects of the entire situation were that Pruitt was absolutely gleeful at Scott's absence and Mr. Eldridge was having a high old time playing the father of the by-now infamous Simmons the Gardener.
Just chalk it up to the newest disaster of the week. After the spectacular failure of last Friday's recreation of "Don't Look Now," people's complaints about A Book at Bedtime being replaced by a ghost story (she'd had to spend an hour on the phone with Mr. Medwick just to get him to calm down), lingering electrical and transmitter problems from the stormy weather that weekend, and the breathless, uncomfortable heat wave following those storms, Scott's defection was the proverbial icingthis time rancidon the cake.
Betty said grimly to herself, "I should have known he'd finally run out," as she whisked the typewriter cover in place for the night.
But truth be told she was disappointed. There was a part of her that could never forgive his deception with Victor's signature, but, another, more practical part of her knew that despite Scott's conniving ways, he had done the best by the station he could, especially when compared to Pruitt's languid control, gone for days on other more "interesting" business, or vanishing for weeks to the family estate. Victor had been right, that day long ago when he'd left WENN in her hands, she was up to the job of management, but there were so many times her dual responsibilities became too much. Scott had taken part of the burden from her, despite the extra work his newest idea had usually caused. And he had worked hard on promoting the station; he enjoyed buttering up the advertisers where she found it increasingly annoying to have to drum up new business while Pruitt squandered time at the Yale Club or talked endlessly on the phone to his broker or his friend Seldon Sentry.
She picked up her purse, and, as was her habit these days, instead of leaving the building she padded as silently as possible into the Green Room, although she knew no one would be there to hear her tune in the shortwave station from Berlin. She hadn't heard "Jonathan Arnold" in over a week; during the day she was either pounding away at her typewriter or someone would interrupt her surreptitious listening, and her fruitless nighttime vigils made her more uneasy as time passed.
Did Victor know, she wondered, that she prayed for his safety every night?
She sat at the edge of the sofa fanning herself with one of the thicker magazines as she endured the broadcast. Once again the station's other propagandist, a cheerful young woman named "Down Home Annie," seemed to have center stage. Betty hated "Annie" more than Victor's Jonathan Arnold persona, not only because the woman really meant every word she said, but because she seemed a grotesque parody of the people Betty had known in Elkhart: earnest, patrioticand representing a government that overran countries, destroyed everything in its path, killed innocent people...
After fifteen minutes it was clear that it was too hot and close for her to endure the woman's sweetly relentless propaganda any longer and she snapped off the radio with a frustrated twist of her wrist. It was time for her to be home anywaynot that it would be any cooler there. The window of her room at the Barbican faced the Monongahela and most of the time her small fan, coupled with the breeze from the river and a cool shower before bedtime, made the summer nights bearable to some extent, but the past week had been like a sojourn into the Underworld.
Underworld. Brimstone heat populated by Satan's minions. Nazis. Berlin.
"Please God," she murmured to herself, "let Victor be all right."
She needed a breath of air, right now.
She snatched her purse and fled the green room, back up the hallway, not to the writer's room, but to the short corridor that led to the window and the fire escape. It had been everyone's refuge this week, although Betty knew it was an escaping place for more than one of the staff occasionally. She had even caught Hilary there once, following Pavla Nemkova's visit, crying nearly soundlessly in its furthest corner. The fire escape held secrets as well as she did.
Funny, she recalled as she reached the window, it was Scott who had pulled her away when she had heard Hilary's sobs. She hardly knew what to make of that situation: although they argued tremendouslynot two days seemed to go by that Hilary wasn't shrieking at Scott about one of his cockeyed performancesbut he was equally protective of her since Jeff's defection.
Betty felt almost wicked creeping out the window this late at night, as if she were a burglar escaping the building. She took a deep breaththere was indeed a languid, if sultry, breeze making its way up the streetand straightened-
She gasped and dropped her purse, which struck the bars of the fire escape with a hollow metallic thump, then immediately felt foolish. The voice was familiar, the person seated on the milk crate equally so.
"Scott Sherwood! What on earth are you doing out here?"
He had leaned forward, as if ready to rise to help her, but sank back against the grimy railings when her words revealed she was over her panic. "Just needed a breath of air."
Betty glared at him. He was in shirt sleeves and a pair of well-wrinkled trousers, his feet pushed into a comfortable pair of shoes. He had his face turned away so that it was in shadow despite the streetlight below, but he looked whole, in fact very like he had spent the evening playing pool or having a beer or two at O'Malley's. And that fact alone made her furious.
She abandoned her first line of questioning to launch into a second. "Where have you been? I've been stuck here rewriting your parts for the past four days! I have better things to do than waiting for you to come back from gallivanting off God knows where..."
He cocked his head at her, and now as he moved she could see more of his face and the wry smile upon it. There was something wrong with the smile, but she was too angry just then to analyze it. "'Waiting' for me did you say, Betty?"
She made an incoherent noise in her throat, realizing her slip of the tongue. "Oh, don't you just wish!"
Scott leaned his head back, closing his eyes and taking in a deep breath. From the streetcorner, the lighted neon sign for Chow Lo's restaurant provided more illumination, and, now that her more intense anger had ebbed, she could see that he looked exhausted and it took her aback.
"A guy can always hope." It seemed obligatory, not the customary Sherwood quip.
She steadied her voice, but she was still speaking through nearly clenched teeth. "I take it you had a good vacation?"
Scott opened one eye. "Who said I was on vacation?"
"That is usually the reason people take time off," Betty responded more sharply than she actually intended.
He shrugged. "I suppose you could call it a vacation. I hadn't seen my father since last year, so when he said he needed to talk to me, I thought I'd take him up on it." He paused. "He had a deal going, and thought with my connections in London I could help him."
Betty's frustrations had been simmering too long: Victor's revelations, Jeff's desertion, Pruitt, hapless Miss Cosgrave, late nights, rising piles of scripts to be reworked, and now the smothering heat. She exploded, "And that's where you've been, haven't you?helping pull off another scam. You know, there are times I when think you've changed, Scott Sherwood, and I'm always proved so, so wrong..."
He raised his voice to cut off her tirade. "I didn't."
It worked. "You...what?"
His voice dropped to normal, as much from a desire not to quarrel as from the curious glance of the cop on the beat as he strolled the opposite side of the street. The officer halted, watching them for a moment as if determining if Betty needed help, then continued along his route. Scott repeated, "I didn't throw in with him. Not that it wasn't a sweet deal..." He turned his attention away from the street, looked at her standing there just outside the window, one hand gripping the railing of the iron steps that led downward. She was illuminated by the streetlight, by the rosy glow of the restaurant sign, by lights left burning in other offices, the hem of her skirt just ruffled by the sticky breeze coming off the river. "He said I was a damned fool. Probably true."
The matter-of-fact words leeched what was left of Betty's anger from her. Now that she could think clearly again, she realized the steel below her feet was not ideal footing for high heels. Carefully, she lifted one foot, then another, removing the shoes and placing them on the windowsill.
Scott pushed the already upended second milk crate toward her. "Pull up a seat."
She remained where she was. "I really need to get home."
"Suit yourself." He leaned his head back again.
His attitude chilled her. Even when Pruitt had fired him, Scott had fought back; even when she confronted him with the forged letter, his responseas thick with sorrow as it had been, she recalled nowhad some spirit to it. This man she could hardly tell was Scott Sherwood, the brassy, the aggravating, the unquenchable.
She pulled the crate toward her, adjusting it so she could sit down with her back to the brick wall, then pulled out her handkerchief to spread over the rough surface powdered with the ubiquitous coal dust. Although she did not lean against the bricks, she could still feel them radiating warmth absorbed from the day's relentless sun.
"Can you believe this heat?" he asked after a moment, his tone conversational.
She was, she considered, light-headed from being tired and hot. Scottmaking small talk?
"I wish I didn't have to believe it," she responded carefully, pushing back an errant hair from her forehead. She'd always wondered what it felt like to be "wilted" like the descriptions in romance novels. Tonight she was about to find out. "I feel as if someone ought to be wringing me out."
There was at least a trace of humor in his voice when he answered, "Anyone trying to wring you out, Betty Roberts, will have to answer to me."
"You hardly qualify as a knight in shining armor, Scott."
"I'm working on it, Betty."
She recalled what he had been saying before she had exploded, wondering if it had anything to do with his subdued manner. "Was your dad very angry?"
"Your...father. You said he called you..." She paused, reluctant to use the adjective and finally skipped it. "...a fool. Was he very angry?"
Even in the streetlit darkness, she could see Scott grin at her omission. "Nah, just disappointed. You remember, Bettydeception and deviousness is the Sherwood way of life. Aunt Aggie did go home and tell him I was a 'real Sherwood' after all. He can't understand why I'm not living up to the family ideal."
Some ideal, she thought to herself cynically. "Hopefully your mother is more happy with it."
Scott shrugged. "Dunno about that, Betty. She died when I was about eight. Don't remember much about her, actually, except that she made a mean cupcake." He emitted a short laugh. "You know, as a con man I pale before my father. I remember after mom passed away, he started escorting an assortment of young ladies around town, but the one he was really after was a daughter of one of his customers. She was nineteen and an eyeful, even to me. The town gossips were having a field day. Anyway, he had his eye set on her because she was going to business school, training to be a bookkeeper. Mom always did dad's books, and he didn't want to have to bother with them, so he figured he'd kill two birds with one stone. You should have seen his face when she ran off with a guy her own age six months later."
He added, "Of course at eight I wasn't too saavy on business deals. I thought it was great she was out of the way. For all that bookkeeping training, in the bimbo department she could have given some of the girls at the Crimson Follies a run for their money."
Betty couldn't imagine being left alone at age eight without her mother, even if she had always been "Daddy's girl." It would have been if the moon had gone away one day, never to return, one half of what had kept her childhood safe and warm. Boys must be different, she thought offhandedly. Lord knew her brother George was Mr. Independence enough, but even at eight, proclaiming himself "too big" to be tucked in, he still enjoyed her reading to him as long as it wasn't one of her "icky girl books," his head pillowed on Edgar, who Betty would never tell her mother was sleeping on the bed...
"So...who took care of you after that?" she asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
"Took care of me?" The expression on his face was one of astonishment. "What for? My dad had deals with just about everybody; he finally hired a housekeeper to cook and clean for us. Yep, I was footloose and fancy free. Even did the Huckleberry Finn thing when I was about ten. Harv Hardin and I built a raft, and were planning to sail down to the ocean. I figured we could go on to Europe if we made it downriver okay! Packed my stuff, sneaked out of the housewe were gone for two days. Ran into a sandbar about five miles down and spent the rest of the time trying to salvage the raft and my clothes. Ended up hitching a ride home in farmer's pig wagon." He chuckled. "I lucked out on that one. My father was gone that week and the housekeeper barely noticed I'd left. All she made me do was scrub the pig smell out of my clothes. Poor Harv couldn't sit down for a week!"
Could George have left for two days and no one noticed? At nine he'd "run away", with the big collie at his side. Her mother was frantic before noon; Dad had found him before three.
She realized Scott was still speaking. "...sometimes I used to go to Aunt Aggie's. Did I ever tell you-"
He paused expectantly and Betty supplied hurriedly, "What was that, Scott?"
He grinned. "Aunt Aggie used to bake cupcakes for me."
Betty remembered the formidable elderly woman. "You're putting me on."
"Have I lied to you lately, Betty Roberts?"
She considered, answered honestly, "I have to admit you have not."
Clearly Scott had shaken off his reticence. "By then my uncle Milt had died and all her kids were grown, so she tried the mother bit on me and baked me cupcakes. Don't know how she did it, but they were terriblehard as rocks. Made Hilary's spaghetti and ketchup look like fine French cuisine, let me tell you. But I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I lied through my teeth and told her I loved them. Then we'd sit down on the front porch and she'd tell me stories about the scams she and my father had teamed up on. She loved to talk about the time..."
Betty leaned her head back and let him rattle on. Earlier he'd told her that as a con artist he paled before his father. As his stories continued, she had no doubt to the veracity of that statement. Agatha Sherwood Finch was no slouch either; to her embarrassment, she actually smiled to herself several times at one of his aunt's escapades.
As the hour passed the breeze picked up. Betty let it wash over her as the stories did, a release for both of them. There was a purpose to the narrative, she could tell, but she wasn't certain of what it was yet, save for Scott to listen to his own voiceor perhaps to keep her nearby. For some reason it reminded her of George again...
She did not realize she had dozed off until she felt the touch of Scott's hand on her shoulder.
"Time for you to go home, Betty," he said gently.
She blinked up at him. "Same goes for you."
Scott gave her a lopsided grin. "Why do you think I came here?"
Home. Talking. What was it she had been thinking? Something about George? No, it was about Edgar...
The dog was supposed to have been hers; he was black from nose to tailtip and she'd named him after Edgar Allan Poe. But as she grew older, involved with other things, George had adopted him. Edgar was George's constant shadow, slept and ate at his side, was privy to all George's secretsuntil he had been run over by a truck just after George's twelfth birthday. George had tossed Edgar's bowls and balls away and refused to speak about him.
One night Betty had been awakened by a dog barking outside. She had rolled over, prepared to go back to sleep, when she heard movement from her brother's room. She'd found him at the window, gripping the sill.
It had been a night almost like this one, so heavily warm it took your breath away. The windows stood wide open to catch any semblance of a breeze, but the curtains had drooped limply in the humid air. He'd mentioned the heat, she'd concurred, they'd settled cross-legged at the foot of his bed. Eventually he'd started to talk about Edgar...
"Betty?" Scott asked curiously.
"Scott? You've been square with me all night, haven't you?"
He tilted his head sideways at her use of one of his expressions. "Absolutely, Betty Roberts."
"Then will you tell me where you've been for the past four days?" she asked, softer.
The pause was so long before his answer that her heart thumped once in her throat.
"I was packing to leave on Sunday when we had a telegram from Nantucket," he finally responded.
There was a memory she couldn't forget. "Nantucket? Isn't that where your Aunt Agatha..."
He said flatly, "She had a stroke."
Betty had braced herself after the word "telegram," but she still had to swallow before managing, "I'm so sorry, Scott. Is...is there anything I can do?"
He turned away from her, pacing quickly to the rail that overlooked the street. Below, a couple was walking a dog, a little terrier like in the Thin Man movies. Scott could see they were holding hands.
"She's okay," he said, his voice offhand once again. "I stuck around until her daughter and her husband got in from Detroit this morning. They're closing up the house and taking her back with them when she's well enough to travel. Man, she's going to lead them a merry chase. It was pretty quiet Monday and Tuesday, but once she was able to sit up it was one thing after the other. Nothing wrong with her tongue! Sure the nurses were there for the medical junk, but once they were gone..." He grinned conspiratorially. "You know there are ways to smuggle ice cream into a hospital room without the old battleaxe of a head nurse finding out."
Betty padded across the fire escape, flinching slightly at the feel of the edges of the bars against her feet. "And I'll bet you know all of them."
"Well, I'm working on that, too," he said, looking sideways at her.
They stood watching the dogwalkers disappear. It seemed the wind had shifted, even picked up a bit; now they could hear the distant noise from third shift at the steel mills, with the perpetual activity at the docks as background hum. Suddenly there was a low rumble in the distance that could not be mistaken for a heavy truck, and a moment later a flash illuminated the western sky.
Scott straightened, stretching. "Looks like we'd both better get a move on." He stopped, considered, attempted, "Walk you to the trolley?"
Would she ever be able to hear that again without thinking of Victor?
"Guess not, huh?" he answered himself when she didn't reply promptly. "All right. I guess it's what I deserve."
Quietly, she watched him pick up her shoes for her, and slipped them back on. When they were both safely back in the building, the window closed behind them and just locking the front door for the night, she broke her silence to finally answer, "Considering how late it is I think I would feel more comfortable with an escort, thank you, Scott."
His eyes widened, but he managed not to let his jaw drop. "My pleasure."
"With the understanding," Betty added in a stern voice, "that this is not an invitation."
Scott grinned a little. "Understood completely...Miss Roberts."
The next trolley along her route was one of the older, open coaches that the Pittsburgh Line still used on hot summer evenings. When Scott hopped aboard with her she made no complaint; they remained on the back platform, both keeping their thoughts to themselves as they leaned on the railing watching the thunderclouds advance behind them, the lightning darting from cloud to cloud like the ball in a game of keep-away. As she lifted her head to catch the welcome, cooling gusts preceding the storm, Betty wondered if he was thinking about the nights he had followed her home after the report of Victor's death.
Rain had just begun to dot the pavement as they took the last few steps to the Barbican's front door. Scott halted on the second step, not, she noticed, pushing his luck. "See you tomorrow, Betty Roberts."
His voice, as she expected, was jaunty once more; by the time next morning came, both storms would have blown themselves out save for the renewed complaints of an outraged Miss Booth.
"If Hilary doesn't kill you before I see you," she replied tartly.
"Aw, I can handle Hildypiece of cake."
"You're incorrigible," she said, hand on the doorknob.
"So don't 'incorrige' me," he grinned, parroting one of Mackie's favorite jokes.
Now the rain began to splash down, large drops that spread dark splotches on the concrete, raising faint wisps of mist as the last of the day's heat was released. "Let me loan you an umbrella, Scott" she said as he turned away. "You'll be soaked."
"Soaked? From this? Naw. Sometime let me tell you about the storm I ran into south of Sumatra. Now that was soaked..."
As he spoke, he jogged down the remainder of the steps and onto the sidewalk, only to halt before he had gone a few feet, turning back to where she was just closing the door.
Illuminated in the doorway, she lifted her eyes to him, the most direct glance she had given to him in weeks. The smile was gone from his face, but the warmth remained, despite the rain already damping down his hair.
"-thanks for letting me talk."
Betty bit her lip, smiling. "See you tomorrow, Scott," she said, and shut the door.
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