Countdown: Alan and Sally

Carol Davis

 

 

[From the author: the usual disclaimers apply – the copyrights belong to 20th Century-Fox and the relevant other parties. This is a work by a fan for the enjoyment of other fans, and no financial profit is being made. Please don’t post the story on other sites without asking permission. As always, feedback is welcome and encouraged, to fanficwriter1966@yahoo.com.]

 

The singing sure didn’t help.

The AC had been on the fritz since yesterday—“on the fritz,” that’s what the office manager had said, and though Kelly didn’t have a clue where that saying had come from, she could figure out what it meant. It meant the office was muggy and about ten degrees too warm.

Then there was the quiet. Half the attorneys and a few of the staff (paralegals, mostly) were off at the conference in Chicago, and half the ones who weren’t had taken the day off. With Sally’s okay, Kelly had switched on the radio to the only station the secretaries were allowed to play during office hours, only to find that the jocks were trying to put the whole world to sleep. And Kelly’s eyelids were happy to cooperate.

“…and time goes by so slowly,” the voice on the radio sang.

No kidding, Kelly thought.

Prying one lid open, she squinted at the clock. 11:17? With a scowl she leaned closer to make sure it was still running.

It was.

Whimpering in dismay, she tried to look at the stack of file folders Sally had left for her to organize. Even after three weeks, the titles on some of the labels confused her to the point that they might as well have been printed in Russian. She’d tried asking for an explanation, or the name of someone who could provide a little help, but Sally, gathering up her purse and briefcase, had simply said over her shoulder, “Just try your best, and I’ll take a look at it later.”

Later.

There was a little film of sweat in the small of Kelly’s back. As she sat twitching in her chair, she could feel a bead of it trickle down into her underwear. Why she’d been stupid enough to wear a long-sleeved blouse today, she couldn’t remember. The blouse and her pantyhose made her feel as if she were wound head to toe in Saran Wrap. With another whimper she dropped her head onto her hand and shut her eyes. Just for a second, she told herself. Nobody was around to see.

Just one second.

Or two.

The raucous jangle of the phone jolted her awake with enough momentum that her elbow connected with the pile of folders, sending them sliding into her cup of Diet Coke and then off the desk onto the floor. She made a grab for the cup and the phone simultaneously, missing the cup as it rolled off the desk, splattering its contents onto the scattered papers, and cracking the phone receiver into her nose. “Shit!” she squealed, then realized whoever was at the other end of the phone call could hear her. “Uh…uh…Ms. Hayes-Virdon’s office,” she stammered. “Hello?”

If there’d been anyone at the other end, they were gone now, no doubt to report her to the senior partners. Kelly sat staring at the receiver for a moment, then, as her stomach turned over, put it down in the cradle and bent toward the papers on the floor. The half-cup of Diet Coke had spread remarkably well: it looked as if not a single sheet had been missed. “Nooooo,” she moaned. “Oh. Shit. Damn. Shit. Now…”

Tears welled up in her eyes as she crawled out of her chair, onto her knees on the floor. In the bottom drawer of her desk she found a handful of paper towels she’d brought from the ladies’ room a few days ago to mop up trickles when she watered Sally’s plants, but right now they were too little, too late. She blotted at the papers with them anyway and made the stains worse.

“I am such a dork,” she shrieked.

And realized that someone was watching her.

I’m fired, she thought. They’re gonna fire me, I’m fired, it’s my first job and I’ve only been here three weeks and I’m fired.

It occurred to her, fleetingly, that the legs she could see from her crumpled position on the floor were wearing jeans, not a business suit, which made it somewhat unlikely that the person watching her worked here. A repairman, maybe. Or a messenger. Swiping at her nose with the back of her hand, she lifted her head.

The word came out as another shriek: “Colonel!”

And she thought, I am so fired.

She scrambled, trying to get up, but a file folder under her shoe made her slip and her head connected with the corner of her desk. An instant later, Sally’s husband had crossed the short distance that separated them and scooped her elbow into his palm to help her up. “Slow down, slow down,” he told her as he sat her down in her chair.

She kept her eyes on the floor rather than look at him.

“Here,” he said. “Your nose is bleeding.”

Then she had to look. He was holding a tissue from the box on her desk, and meant for her to take it. Before she could, she felt something trickle down her chin and drip off onto her skirt. Her brand-new linen skirt. Her eyes brimmed over, and she bit down hard on her lower lip. She could feel her face reddening. If there had been a hole nearby to crawl into, she would have made a dive for it.

She wasn’t sure what she expected Colonel Virdon to do, but what he did do wasn’t it. Smiling, he crouched down a little and used the tissue to dab gently at her nose, then pressed it into her hand and indicated that she should hold it in place. He had stepped around the mess of files on the floor, and when Kelly’s gaze moved in that direction, he told her, “Let me get those, so you don’t lose an eye.”

She tried to laugh, but it sounded more like a hiccup. “I ruined…”

“That’s what computers are for, isn’t it?” he said kindly. “I’m sure you can print out another copy.”

“But her notes…”

“I’m sure she’ll understand it was an accident.”

Kelly burst into tears and buried her face in her hands.

“Hey, hey, now, don’t do that. It’s all right. Come on, don’t cry. It was just an accident.”

A stream of babble escaped, of which two words were identifiable: “dork” and “fired.”

The Colonel laughed softly. When Kelly opened her eyes, he was looking at her, his hand stopped in midair halfway between them. He gave in to his impulse then and briefly rubbed her upper arm in a gesture of comfort. “Ask Sally sometime about the time she dropped the tape of a deposition in the toilet.”

Wha—?”

“She was at the airport. It was one of those microcassettes, and she had it in the pocket of her suit jacket. She turned around too fast, or something, and plop, it went right into the drink. Automatic-flush toilet, too.” He disappeared for a moment into his wife’s office and came back out carrying a bottle of water from her mini-fridge. “Here,” he offered, holding it out to her after he’d twisted the lid off.

“I dunno why she hired me,” Kelly snuffled.

“Because you’re talented, and she likes you.”

Half convinced that the plastic bottle would explode in her hand, Kelly took a tentative sip. “She does?”

“Sure.”

“You’re a nice man.”

The Colonel grinned at her and used one hand to rake his hair back from his forehead. If he’d noticed the color her face had turned as she realized what she’d said, he didn’t show it. “Thank you,” he told her.

The water did help. After a few swallows, Kelly felt settled and somewhat normal. Bloody, bruised, and humiliated, but normal. As she drank some more, the Colonel stooped down, gathered up the papers, pushed them into a reasonably neat stack, and placed it carefully on her desk.

“The rug,” Kelly mourned.

Nodding, he took a handful of paper towels out of her still-open bottom drawer, pushed the drawer shut, and used the towels to blot cola out of the carpet. When he was finished, the nap still looked stained but not as badly. “It’ll look better when it dries,” he said, and dropped the damp towels into the wastebasket, then straightened up. “Now—got any idea where my wife might be?”

“She’s at a meeting with Mr. Powell.”

“What’s her calendar look like for lunch?”

Kelly grabbed a fresh tissue and blew her nose, wincing when the pressure of her fingers irritated something tender, then brought up the day’s calendar on her computer monitor. “Free, I guess.”

“Good.”

“You could wait—”

“I’ll do that. Thanks.”

He vanished into Sally’s office again. Kelly could hear him sit down on the couch and pick up a magazine.

He wouldn’t want to be bothered, she thought. Not an important man like that.

She stood up anyway and moved into the doorway. Sure enough, he was paging through a magazine, and looked up when she approached, asking with a raised eyebrow if she wanted something. “Do you—um, you go soon, now, huh? On the, uh, thing?”

“The mission?”

“Is that what they call it?”

“We launch two weeks from yesterday.”

“Are you—” She stopped, but his expression prompted her to go on. “Excited?”

“Yes. I am.”

“It’s kind of scary, though, isn’t it?”

Colonel Virdon nodded her into one of Sally’s guest chairs. She sat on it primly at first, hands folded in her lap, then took note of his polo shirt and jeans and relaxed a little.

“It is,” he admitted. “It’s something—you have to have a great deal of respect for what you’re doing, and the awareness that small actions can be critical. Your dad has a boat, right?”

Kelly nodded.

“In a way, it’s not much different from your dad taking the boat out into the Gulf,” Virdon went on. “But on a bigger scale. I’m sure he’s aware every time he sets sail that he needs to have certain things in order. That he has to respect the power of the sea, and not take anything for granted. The Alpha Centauri mission is the same, but bigger. Bigger sea. Not much bigger of a ship.”

“That would give me the creeps.”

“It does me, too, sometimes.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. You have to be aware of the power of what you’re dealing with.”

“But is it, like, something you wanted to do your whole life?”

Virdon turned slightly and looked over his shoulder, out the window at the hazy Houston sky. They were on the 45th floor, not that far from the sky in some ways. “When I was a little boy,” he told Kelly, “I used to lie outdoors on summer nights and look up at the stars. They were fascinating enough when I thought of them as little points of light that formed patterns that you could invent stories about. Or repeat stories that were first told a long time ago. When I got older, and I found out that some of those points of light weren’t just stars like our sun, they were entire galaxies—that took my breath away. The enormity of that made me feel very small. And it made me want to see more. See everything I could, from as close as I could get.”

A thought occurred to Kelly, and she asked, “Is it like that poem? You want to touch the face of God?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s very much like that.”

“My dad took us to Cancun once, on the boat.”

Virdon chuckled softly. “Every adventure has its own value.”

“I like flying. We went to Phoenix once, to visit my aunt and uncle, and I went to Reno last year with my boyfriend.”

His forehead crinkled.

“What?” Kelly asked.

Virdon looked around for a slip of notepaper and a pen, and jotted down a phone number that he handed to Kelly. “This is a friend of mine,” he explained. “He owns a small plane, and does charters on the weekends. Give him a call and tell him Alan Virdon wants him to take you and your boyfriend up for a ride, no charge. You might have to let him pick the day—he’ll know best when the weather’s right.”

“I—thank you, Colonel.”

“You’re welcome.”

Voices outside the office—down by the elevators, Kelly thought—made them both turn toward the doorway. They could see Sally approaching, head down, reading through several sheets of paper she held in both hands. She was a few steps from the door when her gaze shifted enough to allow her to notice her husband. Her pace picked up then, and she reached him as he got up from the couch to give her a kiss.

“When did you get in?” she asked, her delight at seeing him evident on her face.

“About an hour ago.”

Eager to leave them alone, Kelly inched around her boss toward the door. As she turned to walk out, she saw the Colonel wink at her.

“Thought I’d treat the prettiest lawyer in Houston to lunch,” he told his wife.

 

Using the document numbers on the cola-drenched sheets of paper as a guide, Kelly had printed off the computer fresh copies of almost the entire stack by the time Sally returned from her lunch with her husband. To Kelly’s surprise, she didn’t seem mellow, or happy. There was a tightness around her blue eyes, and her right hand was clenched into a fist, as if she’d intended to punch someone, or something.

“I thought maybe you wouldn’t be back,” Kelly ventured.

Sally pushed out a long breath and shook her head. “I have some things to finish up. I’m going to try to get out by four.” With a glance at the results of Kelly’s reprinting project, she said, “Alan told me what happened with the files. Don’t worry about it.”

Before Kelly could reply, Sally had gone on into her office. Through the doorway Kelly could see her drop wearily into the chair behind her desk and lower her head into her hands.

“Are you all right?” Kelly asked softly.

“I’m fine.”

Fourteen years of age, several years of schooling, and a world of experience separated the two of them, but even so Kelly knew what was wrong. Since she was going to be fired anyway, as soon as someone upstairs found out she’d used four-letter words on the phone, she decided to plunge ahead. After a brief look at the carpet to assure herself that there was nothing there to trip over, she walked as far as the doorway and offered, “I’m sure he’ll be okay.”

Sally peered at the younger woman through her fingers but said nothing.

“Kevin was talking about it the other night,” Kelly went on, trying to sound cheerful. “He said they’re all, what was it—confident that everything’s going to go fine.”

“That’s PR language, Kelly.”

“Oh.”

With a sigh Sally got up from her chair and wandered over to the window to look out at the Houston skyline. Everything past a certain distance was obscured by haze, and the sky was more ivory than blue.

“But they wouldn’t—I mean, if something wasn’t right—”

“He’s been up twice before,” Sally said, still looking out the window. “Space station the first time, then the loop around Mars. Every second of it seemed like an hour, but I could see the space station when it went over at night. And I could hear his voice over the comm link on the Mars run. This time—” Her voice caught, and it took her a moment to start again. “This time I won’t be able to see him, or hear him. They’ll be out of communications range after an hour or so. Then we wait. Eight and a half months we wait for him to come back.”

“I’m sorry.”

That made Sally turn. She frowned at Kelly for a second, then shook her head. “He loves it. It’s what he’s good at. And we need to know. What’s out there.” After another pause, she said, “I couldn’t do it.”

“Go out in space, you mean?”

“Take command. He’s so—he has responsibility for the other two. And the ship.”

“You’ve got responsibility too. As a mom.”

“True,” Sally said, but she didn’t sound convinced. Then she shrugged off whatever was weighing her down and produced a smile. “I need to get down to work. I’ve got to put a memo together from my meeting notes and send it upstairs. Do me a favor and get me a couple of aspirin from the kitchen, would you?”

“Sure. I’ll be right back.”

Something made Kelly stop walking a few steps past her desk. The office was quiet enough for her to hear Sally make a muffled noise, a sound of pain, as if someone had twisted her arm. When Kelly returned with the aspirin, she accepted them with a smile and a nod. The crease in the middle of her forehead did make it look as though she had a bad headache. Then Kelly noticed the crumpled tissue near Sally’s phone and knew her boss had been crying.

“Can I help?”

Sally shook her head. “No. No.”

“Maybe you should go home. I could tell Mr. Powell you didn’t feel well.”

“They’re all waiting for this memo.”

Fired anyway, Kelly thought. “You could write it later on and e-mail it. The world’s not gonna come to an end if they don’t get their stupid memo right away.”

That made Sally smile. Wanly, but it was something. “Probably not.”

“Why don’t you go home, then.

The Colonel’s wife didn’t take much more convincing. It took her barely five minutes to gather together the materials she’d need to prepare the memo and a few other necessaries for the weekend, then, stopping just long enough to give Kelly a hug of thanks, she headed for the elevator.

Once she was gone, Kelly began to tidy up the office, pushing the desk chair into place, straightening the magazines on the end table, putting a stray pencil back in the pencil cup. Fingerprints dotted the glass top of Sally’s desk, so Kelly fetched a bottle of Windex and more paper towels from the kitchen and wiped the glass until it gleamed. When she stepped back to examine it from a different angle, checking for spots she’d missed, her gaze fell on the framed photograph on the corner of the desk: the Colonel and Sally and their son, standing under a tree somewhere. They looked happy, the three of them. She couldn’t guess about Chris, but neither of his parents seemed happy today, even though they had the whole weekend to be together.

Kevin, her boyfriend, worked in the major appliances department at Best Buy. He’d been in cameras and electronics up until two weeks ago, when his boss had decided he’d be better at pushing refrigerators. She’d see him in a few hours, for dinner at Chili’s and a movie. During the day, if she could sneak a moment she knew coincided with his break, she could call him. Hear his voice.

What if…? crept into Kelly’s mind.

She looked again at the framed photograph, then thought of the Colonel, sitting here on the couch before lunch. He was handsome even in jeans and a casual shirt, more so in his uniform. And Sally was stunning—tall, slim, as blonde as her husband. Kelly had seen a picture of them together that made them look like movie stars, as unlike herself and Kevin as it was possible to get.

She remembered the feel of the Colonel’s hand, helping her up from the floor, and gently swabbing the blood from her nose. Very warm, very capable.

Kevin had shown her a picture of the inside of the ship the Colonel was going to travel in, in one of the geek magazines he liked to buy but never really read. It didn’t show much, just a little bit of the controls, which were a thousand times more complicated than the ones on Dad’s boat. How you could learn to understand all those switches and displays and buttons, let alone make the decisions to operate them properly, Kelly couldn’t imagine. But those three men had learned—the Colonel, and Major Burke (the hot one, with the gorgeous eyes), and Major Jones (the bald one, though he was cute too)—and they were going to fly that ship out of the solar system all the way to another star.

All the way to another star, and even if her life had depended on it, Kelly could not have managed to pilot Dad’s boat to Cancun on her own.

The sound of a helicopter buzzing overhead brought her over to the window.

It was hard to see any stars from where she lived, out in the suburbs of Houston. Too much light bleed from the city, Dad said.

She’d have to ask him tonight to show her where Alpha Centauri was.

 

 

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