Mac versus PC

 

 

Sometimes, choosing a computer can change your life...

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my beta readers, Alma, Caren, and Maria. Their input, both geeky and nongeeky, is always to the betterment of my writing. Special thanks to Maria for allowing me to share what was originally a story written just for her birthday. ("You should write a story about two women who meet in a coffee shop," she said. "And one of them is using a Mac, the other a PC...")

© 2009 Fletcher DeLancey

 

 


Chapter 1

 

 

Anna was a creature of habit. Every Saturday morning, sometime between nine and eleven a.m., she packed up her laptop in its case and walked to the Bean Grinder for her double caramel mocha and chocolate cherry scone—a travesty of sugar and empty calories, but one she simply could not live without. Though she always wished she could lose those last ten pounds, giving up her mochas and scones was too high a price to pay. She had compromised by limiting indulgences to once a week, and even that loss had been painful.

It was a two-mile walk to the Bean Grinder, which enabled the happy delusion that she was burning off those calories before she even imbibed them. She did try to extend the walk somewhat by not taking the direct route, but Sherman was a small town and there was only so far she could deviate before ending up in either the river on the east side, or the hay fields on the west. Today she was opting for the river route, which had the advantage of good birdwatching potential and the disadvantage of high skateboarder or rollerblader collision potential. Of course, if she made this walk two or three hours earlier, there would be more birds and fewer kids on various-sized wheels. But that would require getting up earlier, and that she would not do. She worked the seven to four shift five days a week, and she’d be damned if she’d sacrifice a moment of sleep on her precious weekends.

She swung along, her legs eating up more ground than most people expected of someone her height. For some reason, it never seemed to occur to them that shorter legs could move more quickly than longer ones. With every step her computer bag bumped her hip, its presence comforting as always. As long as she had the laptop and an internet connection, she wasn’t alone.

A group of kids whizzed by on their rollerblades, laughing and gossiping as they went. Anna smiled, watching as they roared around the curve of the river path and vanished from sight. She’d once been a part of a group like that, a few hundred years ago. But that was back in her home town, and it never seemed to be as easy to find social groups as an adult. At least, not groups where everyone shared the same history, background, goals and aspirations. Except her group hadn’t really shared the same aspirations. She was the only one who had left.

Rounding the curve, she took the next right turn off the path and within a block was back in the business district. Two more blocks and a left turn and there it was, her favorite coffee shop in the whole world. With a gustatory tingle of anticipation, she opened the door and went straight to the counter.

“Hi, Kyung,” she said, pulling the laptop case over her head and depositing it on the floor at her feet. “Are you ready for that chem test?”

“Hi, Ms. Petrowski. Yeah, I’m ready. It’s not chem that worries me, it’s biology. Chemistry makes sense. Biology, you just have to memorize everything. The usual?”

“Please.” She watched as he pulled a small covered plate out from under the counter, winking at her as he did so.

“Saved it for you,” he said in a near-whisper. “We had a run on ‘em half an hour ago; I could tell they were going to vanish.” Indeed, the space in the glass display reserved for her favorite pastry was empty.

“You are a god among students and men,” she said, happily drawing the scone closer to her body. “Now if we could only get you to call me Anna, you’d be perfect.”

He smiled, his teeth flashing white against his dark face as he pulled a mug from the stack. “No can do. Someday you’ll quit trying.”

“That would mean giving up, and I never give up.” It was an old game between them, and she was probably never going to win. Kyung had been raised by a fiercely polite mother, whom Anna knew through her IT work on campus. Mrs. Choi was a tiny woman, making Anna look like a Viking by comparison, but her force of personality was such that people’s spines unconsciously straightened around her. Anna could only imagine what it had been like to grow up under her watchful eye.

Kyung efficiently whipped up her caramel mocha and set it on the counter. “There you go. One double shot of caffeine, with sugar drip. Would you like an IV with that?”

She laughed as she handed over a five-dollar bill. “If only I could. Keep the dollar, Kyung.”

“Thanks, Ms. Petrowski.”

“Call me Anna and that tip could be a lot more.”

He looked wounded. “Now you’re resorting to bribery?”

“Would it work?”

“No.”

“Then I guess I’m not resorting to it.” She settled the laptop case over her head again, picked up the coffee in one hand and the scone in the other, and turned to look for a table.

She was on the early end of her usual arrival time, which meant there were more tables available. Unfortunately, her favorite one in the corner was occupied by a woman peering intently at her laptop while sipping from an immense travel mug. Anna frowned, then walked to the next table over. Here she could still be by the windows, and the moment that other woman left, she could scoot into her favorite spot.

She sat down, opened her laptop and began the next part of her Saturday routine: catching up on all the blogs she didn’t have time to read on weeknights. This was usually a two-hour process, and one she looked forward to. In the IT world, if you didn’t keep up, you were soon obsolete. So she spent hours at work reading about software updates, hardware advances, networking solutions, creative problem solving techniques, and every other thing that kept her on top of her profession. But on the weekends, she didn’t want anything to do with computers other than using hers as a reading platform. This was her time to catch up on world news, some politics—though her tolerance threshold for that was very low—a little entertainment gossip, and her favorite thing, travel blogs. She loved to read about faraway places, and had a running list of the top ten locations she wanted to visit someday. On her salary, a few of those locations were probably out of the question, but she could still dream.

At the moment, she was reading obsessively about Portugal. One of her coworkers had recently returned from a European tour, and had raved about how Portugal was the last place in western Europe where one could travel without selling a kidney to finance the trip. Always alert for frugal traveling options, Anna had seized upon the idea and begun researching. What she’d read had piqued her interest and at the moment, Portugal was sitting at the top of her list. She also liked the fact that Spain could be easily added to the itinerary, and was giving serious thought to a quick side trip to Gibraltar. And from there—holy moly, she could hop a ferry to Tangier and actually set foot in Africa.

She was just checking out the ferry costs when a voice next to her said, “Shit!”

Anna raised her head and glanced over at the woman who had usurped her table. As their eyes met, the woman’s cheeks pinked. “Sorry,” she said in an embarrassed tone. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”

Nodding, Anna returned her attention to the ferry schedules. Hm, there was a shorter ferry route from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier. But she really wanted to see Gibraltar. Maybe she could take a bus to Gibraltar, then return to Tarifa and hop the ferry from there? Would the fare difference be worth it?

“Goddamn piece of crap!”

Anna looked up in time to see the woman deliver a sharp smack to the side of her laptop’s screen. “I hate these things,” the woman growled. This time when she met Anna’s eyes her ire had clearly overtaken her embarrassment. “All I want is to finish this report and save the edits, is that so much to ask?”

“Given the computer you’re using, it probably is.” Anna smiled in spite of herself. She’d pegged the woman as a computer twit the moment she’d seen the machine on her table. ‘Twit’ was the slang term in her department for the high-powered people on campus who demanded the latest and most expensive computers despite having no actual need for them. They were a drain of money in every department’s budget, but no one ever thought of cutting their equipment line item. Instead, it always seemed to be cut for the research assistants and admin assistants who actually needed the processing power.

A cool brown gaze rested on her. “This is supposed to be the best computer out there. How can I be asking too much of it?”

“Who told you to buy a Dell? Your admin?”

“No, my—” She paused, scratched the side of her forehead with a long finger, and finished, “My friend. Who, now that I think about it, doesn’t know jack shit about these things and I have no idea why I listened to her.” Sharp eyes scanned Anna’s computer and lifted to her face. “Apple? Are you one of those Mac bigots?”

It was insulting on the surface, but there was a trace of humor in the woman’s face that allowed Anna to relax. “Guilty as charged. Worse, I’m a knowledgeable Mac bigot. That makes me dangerous.”

“Knowledgeable, how?”

Damn. She hadn’t meant to put herself in that corner. With a sigh, she said, “I work for the IT department on campus.”

And there it was, the look she recognized so easily. The you can save me expression that meant she was about to end up either being rude to salvage her morning, or being polite and giving up her free time to do yet another computer intervention.

“Do you think you could—” The woman stopped herself again. “I’m sorry. You’re here trying to relax, aren’t you? I shouldn’t be horning in. By the way, I’m Elizabeth Markel.” She leaned out of her chair and held out a hand.

Anna leaned over to take it. “Anna Petrowski. Nice to meet you. And thanks for not asking me to fix your problem.”

“Just because I’m working on a Saturday morning doesn’t mean everyone should.” She glanced at Anna’s laptop again. “You’re IT but your personal computer is a Mac? I thought everyone in IT used PCs.”

“Which IT department are you talking about? The one I work for wishes the whole campus would switch to Macs. It would make our lives a hell of a lot easier.”

Elizabeth looked slightly embarrassed again. “I guess I’m talking about my old IT department. I’m new here. Just came over from Michigan State.”

“Really? That’s kind of a step down in size, isn’t it?”

“In student body, yes. But it’s a step up for me personally. I’d hit the ceiling in Michigan.”

Anna nodded her understanding. It was a fact of university life that one often stood a better chance of promotion by leaving than by expecting recognition where one was. The IT world was a little different and somewhat immune to that rule, but she’d seen many campus acquaintances transfer out in order to advance. “Well, in that case, welcome to the land of the Beavers.”

“Thanks.” Elizabeth’s smile was sudden and a little blinding. “And can I just tell you that your choice of mascot gave me serious pause? I wasn’t sure the promotion made up for going from being a Spartan to being a Beaver.”

“Could be worse. You could be a Duck,” said Anna, naming the mascot of their rival state university.

“Believe me, I know. What is it with Oregon mascots, anyway? Don’t you have bears here? Cougars? Wolves? Something a little more impressive?”

“Tons of bears, but how common is that? Montana, Missouri, Northern Colorado, the University of California system—there are bear mascots everywhere. We’d rather be original. The Cougars are Washington State. And ranchers shot the last of our wolves sometime before World War Two. Every now and then one wanders over from Idaho and the whole eastern half of the state wants to pick up their rifles and take care of it.”

“Yes, I’d heard this was still the wild west.” Elizabeth’s eyebrows waggled a bit and Anna couldn’t help but laugh.

“I hate to say this, but you’ve got easterner stamped all over you.”

“Only someone on the west coast would think that Michigan is ‘east.’ You do realize that there are several states between us and the Atlantic.”

“Yes, but you’re in the eastern time zone,” Anna pointed out.

“Oh, for god’s sake. That’s how you determine who’s east?”

“No,” Anna admitted, before adding, “We think anyone on the other side of the Rockies is an easterner.”

Elizabeth, who had looked satisfied a moment earlier, now burst into laughter. “Well, that explains a lot.”

It was the laughter that decided her. Anna gestured toward the recalcitrant laptop and said, “Would you like me to take a look?”

“You don’t mind?”

“I wouldn’t offer if I did. I’d make you fill out a service request instead.”

“And that is universal no matter which campus you’re on.” Elizabeth scooted her chair aside to make room for Anna, who got up and slid into the chair next to her.

“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got here,” she said, angling the laptop for a better view. “Ah. Microsoft Word. Another bane in our lives.”

“And a big one in mine, too, believe me. But what other option is there?”

“Oh, please. For what you’re doing here? Practically any word processing program. These charts aren’t even linked, are they?”

Elizabeth looked blank. “I don’t know what you just asked.”

“You don’t have them set to automatically update when the original Excel file is changed.”

Dark eyebrows lifted. “I can do that?”

Anna shook her head. “Oh boy. Yes, you can, but if you want me to teach you that, you will have to fill out a service request.” She scrolled up and down the page. “What exactly is the problem? It looks normal to me.”

“The problem is that the damn thing crashed and when I reopened it, it was the old version. None of my changes were saved!”

Anna hid a smile. “They probably were; you just didn’t know where to look for them. Word does do autosaves, but the files are somewhat…difficult to find.” She opened up the file explorer window, clicked through several folders and subfolders, checked the modification date of a file and then opened it. “Is that what you were looking for?” she asked, angling the computer back toward Elizabeth.

Quickly scanning up and down, Elizabeth smiled in clear relief. “Yes! God, thank you! How’d you do that?”

“I just pulled it out of the temp directory. That’s one of the two places that Word automatically puts its autosave files.”

“Can you show me how to find them?”

“Sure.” Anna slid her chair a little closer so that they could both see the screen. “Go to Documents and Settings, then click on your user name, then click on Local Settings, and then click on the Temp folder. The autosaved files are the ones with this .asd extension.”

Elizabeth scowled at the screen. “You must be joking. How am I supposed to remember all that? Why doesn’t Word save those files in a location where you don’t have to be an IT specialist to find them? And what the hell is an .asd file? I thought Word documents were .doc files. Well, .docx now.” She rolled her eyes. “Every time you get used to something, they change it.”

“Word documents are .docx files. But Word doesn’t consider this a document, it considers it a temporary file. It won’t be a document until you manually save it again. Ordinarily, you’d never even have to look for this, because Word is supposed to automatically bring up the most recent .asd file when it restarts after a crash.”

“But sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Right. And then you have to know where to look for it.”

“Arrrg…” Elizabeth buried her face in her hands, rubbed briskly, then looked up again. “Where do I sign up for your class?”

Anna almost felt sorry for her. “I don’t teach one.”

“Why not? You should. I actually understood what you just told me, and that’s a first.”

“Well, thank you. But I don’t have nearly enough time to teach; I’m too busy saving the asses of people like you.”

Elizabeth let out a very unladylike snort. “Touché. And we’re grateful, I can assure you.”

Liking her more by the second, Anna said, “Tell you what. We’re going to set your Word program to put those autosave files somewhere a little more intuitive. If you were going to look for an autosave file, where do you think it should be?”

“Um…” Elizabeth clicked back into the file explorer and looked through the directories. “I think there should be an autosave folder right here in my main directory.”

“Okay. Then make it.” Anna sat back as Elizabeth created a new folder and named it. “Good. Now make a folder inside that one and call it Word.”

“Why? Can’t I just assume that any file in here is going to be the one I’m looking for?”

“That depends. Do you use any other programs besides Word that create autosave files?”

“Ah. Good point.” A moment later another new folder had been created and named.

“Perfect. Now go back to Word…all right, now click on Tools in the menu. Now Options…and now you want the File Locations tab.” She pointed. “See where it says File Types? Now click Autosave.”

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Elizabeth as she clicked. “Why do they make it so hard?”

“Is now a good time to tell you that it’s much, much easier in just about any program written for a Mac?” Anna laughed at the glower that earned her. “Didn’t think so. All right, click Modify.”

“Aha. And this is where I tell it to go to the folder I just made.” Elizabeth was off and running. “There. Right?”

“Right. Now you’re set. The next time Word crashes and fails to bring up your temp file, you know right where to find it.”

Elizabeth looked over with an expression of true gratitude. “Thank you so much. You really did just save my ass.”

“No problem. I’m always glad to help demystify things that are supposed to be simple.” She rose from her chair. “Well, I’ll let you get back to your report.”

“Wait.” Elizabeth stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Can I buy you another coffee or whatever it is you’re drinking?”

“Thanks, but one a week is all I’m allowed. I appreciate the offer, though.”

“Will you take a raincheck?”

Anna saw more than just courtesy in Elizabeth’s expression. And then it occurred to her that this woman was new in town, and probably looking for friends. She knew from her own experience that building a social circle from scratch was the hardest part of moving. Finding a decent mechanic or hairdresser was simple by comparison.

“I come here every Saturday morning,” she said. “How about next week?”

“Deal,” said Elizabeth. “Same time?”

Nodding, Anna said, “And same table.”

“Great. I look forward to it.”

They exchanged smiles as Anna stepped over to her own table. Her mocha had cooled a bit, but she didn’t mind. She was a sucker for a great smile, and Elizabeth’s definitely qualified.

Okay, where was I? Right—the ferry to Tangier.

 

 

 

 


chapter 2

 

 

After a busy week at work, Anna had nearly forgotten about her Saturday appointment. She’d slept in a bit and was puttering around the house when her memory finally decided to kick in, reminding her that she needed to be at the Bean Grinder in about—she looked at the clock—ten minutes.

“Shit! Damn, damn, damn!” She hated being in a rush on her only relaxing mornings. Frantically she dashed about the house, dumping her breakfast dishes in the sink, trading her baggy sweatpants for some decent jeans, then running into the bathroom to brush her teeth. A hopeless case of bedhead defied all efforts to tame her much-too-curly blonde hair, and she had no time for a shower. Great. Nothing for it but a ponytail, then.

With her hair corralled into a scrunchie, she stopped in the hall long enough to slip on some shoes, then grabbed her keys and coat and went out the door. As much as it killed her to drive, she didn’t have enough time to walk. As it was, she pulled into a parking spot right on time, and hastened through the door looking for a familiar face.

Elizabeth waved from the corner table, an open smile lighting her features. “Hi there,” she said as Anna came within speaking distance. “Thanks for coming.”

The in-a-hurry tension drained from Anna’s body as she stopped next to the table. “I told you, I come every Saturday.”

“Yes, but do you always come at this time?”

Was it that obvious? “Well, I do vary it a bit, depending on how long I sleep in.”

“No doubt. I just got here too, and haven’t had a chance to order anything. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get our drinks?”

Anna turned and gazed at the display case. Though she couldn’t distinguish the individual pastries from this distance, she could see the empty plate where her precious scones were supposed to be. “Can’t do that,” she said. “I have to get my chocolate cherry scone, and they’re not in the case. Which means Kyung is holding one back, and he won’t give it to anyone but me. At least he’d better not.”

“Kyung. That charming young man working the front counter?”

“That’s him. Double chemistry/biology major. Last week he was sweating a biology midterm; I want to hear how he did.”

“I’ll go with you, then.” Elizabeth rose gracefully, and with a start Anna realized she’d never seen the woman standing up. Elizabeth topped her by a good four inches, and a quick glance revealed that none of them were heels. Damn. She hated being short.

Together they walked to the counter, waiting patiently while Kyung put together what might have been the world’s most complicated coffee order for a young student whose ears could hardly be seen for the piercings.

“I swear,” said Elizabeth in a low tone, “every year the kids get younger. It’s to the point now where I see the freshmen come in and I wonder how they can possibly have driver’s licenses.”

Anna smothered a chuckle. “I know,” she murmured. “And have you noticed that the older you get, the more invisible you become?”

“God, yes. It’s like they’re not programmed to recognize anyone over twenty-five unless the person is giving a lecture.”

“And sometimes not even then.”

Elizabeth laughed, earning a quizzical look from the young woman who was just turning away with her drink. Anna stepped up, meeting Kyung’s expectant grin.

“Hi, Ms. Petrowski.”

“Ms. Petrowski?” echoed Elizabeth with a raised eyebrow.

“I’ve tried for two years to retrain him to call me Anna. This year I really had high hopes, but no.”

Kyung’s grin grew larger. “Keep trying. The usual, or are you going to amaze me today?”

“No shocks today. And she’s buying.” Anna pointed. “She’s also going to give you a big tip for saving my scone. You did save my scone, right?”

With a flourish, he produced a covered plate from beneath the counter. “Of course. And what will you have, Ms…?”

“Elizabeth,” said Elizabeth firmly. “And I’ll have a latte with extra foam.”

“Coming right up.” Whistling, he pulled down two mugs and began the process of alchemy.

“So what’s so special about this scone?”

Anna followed Elizabeth’s gaze and pulled the plate a little closer to her. “It’s the best pastry in this whole town, and they only bake them on Saturdays. I’m sure if you got a chance to taste one you’d agree. Unfortunately, there’s only the one.”

With a chuckle, Elizabeth said, “Message received. I’ll keep my paws off.”

“It’s best that way. Kyung,” she called over the sound of the steamer, “how’d the midterm go?”

He looked over his shoulder. “I don’t know yet, but I felt good about it. Just had a moment of panic when I couldn’t remember the difference between xylem and phloem.” He faced forward again and began fine-tuning the foam in the milk he was steaming.

“Good lord,” said Anna. “I don’t think I ever knew the difference between whosit and whatsit.”

“Xylem and phloem,” said Elizabeth. “Vascular tissues in plants. Xylem circulates water from the roots throughout the stems and leaves, and phloem circulates sugars from the opposite direction. The sugars are the product of photosynthesis. Just remember that water goes up, and sugar comes down. Simplistic, but fairly accurate.”

“Well, it’s obvious where you work,” said Anna. “And it’s not in Technology Support Services. Forestry?”

“In a manner of speaking. I deal with forestry research.”

Kyung finished his alchemy and brought two mugs back to the counter. “Here you are, Elizabeth. One double caramel mocha and one latte with extra foam.”

“What?!” Anna looked at him in shock. “Elizabeth? Just like that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know her last name.”

“And you’re not going to,” said Elizabeth. “What do I owe you?”

“Eight fifty, please.”

“But—wait a minute! That’s not fair, you already knew my last name from your mother!”

“Thank you, Kyung.” Elizabeth’s voice betrayed her amusement as she handed over a ten dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

“Thank you, Elizabeth,” he said happily, and rang up the sale.

“Did you two prearrange this?”

“Are you coming?” asked Elizabeth, who was already walking away.

“Enjoy your scone, Ms. Petrowski,” said Kyung, barely restraining a laugh.

Anna leveled a mock glare at him, but it was impossible to hold it in the face of his obvious delight. She shook her head and followed Elizabeth to their table. Dropping her laptop into one chair and sliding into another, she said, “I never had a chance. And now I’m envious. Just so you know, I had considered letting you sample my scone, but now I’ve changed my mind.”

“Well, how was I to know that? You just got finished intimating to me that you’d never share. Besides, how is any of this my fault?”

Having no answer to that one, Anna bit into her scone, moaning in bliss as the flavors burst across her tongue. “Mmm. I do love Saturdays.”

Elizabeth sipped her latte with considerably less drama, a smile hovering at the corners of her mouth. “Wow. I guess you do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so—” She paused as a pink flush crept up her neck. “Happy while eating,” she finished.

“Go ahead, you can say it.” Anna picked off a chunk and noted the fat chocolate chip nestled inside. “Looks orgasmic, doesn’t it?” She popped the piece in her mouth and rolled her eyes back, mumbling, “Oh, yeah. So good.” By the time she looked at Elizabeth again, the pink had spread up to her cheekbones. “Nice blush you have going there,” she observed. “I guess now we’re even.”

“Jesus.” Elizabeth fanned her face with a napkin. “Do you really look like that every time you have a scone, or is this just a show for revenge?”

“Well, I don’t actually know what I look like when I eat a scone. Never did it in a mirror.” She winked. “But I don’t usually do the ‘so good’ part.”

“That’s a relief. For a minute there I was flashing onto the restaurant scene in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’”

“I love that scene! When the waiter asks the woman in the back what she’d like to order, and—”

“And she says, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’,” finished Elizabeth as they both laughed. “God! I thought I’d pee my pants when I saw that in the theater.”

“Me too! The other one that killed me was the airplane scene, when Harry describes his dancing as the white man’s overbite…” Anna bit her lower lip and raised her fists to chin level as she imitated the awkward, jerky head movement.

“Yes! And it’s so true! How many guys have you seen who dance like that?”

“Every guy in my high school.”

“Exactly.” They snorted over this truism and then lapsed into silence while sipping their drinks. Before it could become awkward, Elizabeth asked, “I’m curious. If you’re not working on weekends, why do you bring your laptop? You were studying it pretty hard last Saturday.”

“Oh, that wasn’t studying. That was research. For fun, I mean.”

“On what, if I can ask?”

“You can ask. I’m saving up for an overseas trip. And I’m seriously thinking about going to Portugal and Spain, with a quick side trip to Tangier just to set my feet in Africa.”

“Really? That sounds fantastic! I’ve dipped into northern Spain from France, but never got any further south than that.”

“Where did you go?” Anna was instantly fascinated; the only thing better than reading about travel was talking to someone who’d done it.

“We did kind of a loop. Down through the Pyrenees to Barcelona, and then over to…damn, I can’t remember the name of the city.” She frowned in thought.

“Hang on.” Anna set her drink down and pulled out her laptop. As she waited for it to boot, she said, “We’ll just pull up a map and you can show me. Ah, here we go.” She typed in her password.

“It boots that quickly?”

“It’s a MacBook Pro,” said Anna. “They’re fast. And the operating system is fast, too. There’s a big advantage to having an operating system that’s fairly clean versus one that’s been built layer upon layer upon big, heavy layer like Windows.”

“Mac bigot,” said Elizabeth with a smile. “Aren’t you supposed to be more open minded when you’re working in IT?”

“I’m a Mac bigot because I work in IT. I have to deal with all the crap Windows creates on a daily basis, when people like you need something done and your computer gets in your way instead of helping you. Believe me, my distaste comes honestly. Besides, Macs are fun to work with. Here, watch.” With a keyboard shortcut, she activated the Google search in her launcher, typed in ‘Spain map’ and hit the enter key. Instantly her browser launched, opening on the Google search results. She clicked on the best-looking image link and sat back as the map filled her screen, the entire exercise having taken all of four seconds. “How’s that?”

Elizabeth’s mouth was open. “Shit! How did you do that? I didn’t even see half of it!”

“Do you really want me to show you?”

“Yes!”

“Okay.” Anna quit the browser and went through the steps in slow motion, explaining what a launcher was as she typed. Even with explaining the process, it still took no time at all. Elizabeth was enraptured.

“Can you teach me how to do this on my computer?”

“Yes, but it won’t look the same. This is a launcher written for OS X. We’d have to install a launcher written for Windows on your computer.” She activated her launcher again, typed in the name of a program, and a moment later brought up a screenshot in a new tab. “The best one that I know of is this one.”

Elizabeth examined it with a jaundiced eye. “I like yours better. It’s cleaner and doesn’t take up so much space on the screen.”

“You can’t have mine unless you buy a Mac. And if you buy a Mac because of me, I get a toaster.”

“You what?” Elizabeth began to laugh. “I had no idea!”

“We spread our disease insidiously,” Anna said in a low voice. “Converting innocents with the eye candy on our sleek silver machines…forcing them to enjoy their computers rather than fighting with them…terrible, all of it.”

Snorting, Elizabeth said, “And it is a sleek silver machine, I have to say. It’s really gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a laptop before that I’d actually call ‘sexy’. But this one is.”

“Thank you.” Anna patted her laptop. “I think so too, and I will freely admit that sex appeal is part of the attraction for me. But the rest is much more pragmatic. The operating system is intuitive, which means that the average user can do a lot more on her own before having to give up and call IT for help. It doesn’t crash as often. It’s much more secure. My god, if you knew how many trojans and worms and viruses and spyware I’ve had to take off the PCs on this campus…if everyone at OSU used Macs, the time savings on security alone would probably free up three, three and a half FTE for other things. Other, much more useful things.”

“You spend the equivalent of three and a half full-time positions each year just pulling off spyware and viruses?”

“At least. It’s a big campus; there are a lot of PCs. And most of them are constantly online and constantly exposed, despite the university firewall. And then they share that crap with each other.”

“Anna, you’re talking about a lot of wasted money there.”

“Tell me about it.” Anna shrugged. “What can I do? People want what they’re used to. And the managers all think PCs are cheaper, so they never even consider Macs. But they’re basing their cost comparisons on an incomplete picture. And my department pays the price instead.”

“Hm.” Elizabeth seemed a little faraway for a moment, then refocused on the screen. “Show me what else this thing can do. Maybe you’ll earn a toaster. I’ll bet you’ve got a lot of them stashed at home.”

There was something about the way she said it that caught Anna’s attention. And when their eyes met, her suspicion was confirmed. Elizabeth understood the reference all too well—she was family.

The knowledge sent a tingle down Anna’s spine, and for a moment she was tongue-tied. Interaction as a friend or as a computer geek was easy and second nature to her. Interaction with a possible romantic undertone was something entirely different, and she frankly sucked at it.

Elizabeth, still looking at her, said, “Zaragoza.”

“Wh…what?”

Mercifully, Elizabeth broke their gaze and gestured at the laptop. “May I?”

“Uh, sure.”

Elizabeth clicked on the first tab in the browser, bringing up the forgotten map of Spain. She pointed. “Zaragoza. The city I couldn’t remember. We started in Toulouse and came down to Barcelona this way. It looks fairly straight, but believe me, it’s not. And then we took this route over to Zaragoza—really pretty countryside—and then to Tudela, here. Then we went north to Pamplona because I’ve always wanted to see it, and from Pamplona we zigged over to Irun, and then up and around back to Toulouse.”

“You skipped San Sebastian?”

“At that point we were more interested in the countryside and the smaller towns. Barcelona was big enough to satisfy any big city cravings—we could have spent a week there and not seen half of it. So, you were going to show off your sleek silver baby?”

“Not so fast. I want to hear more about this trip.” She smiled, some of her normal ease coming back to her. “And then I’ll show off my sleek silver baby.”

“Deal.”

 

 

 

 


chapter 3

 

 

“I don’t understand what happened! I was just typing along and suddenly the whole screen lit up blue and then all my text vanished! Everything! I’ve been working on this for hours and if I lose all that work I’ll never make up the time and Professor Gimbal needs this done by Friday and—”

“Cynthia…Cynthia…CYNTHIA!” It wasn’t until the third, rather loud call that Cynthia Robertson subsided.

“Yes?” she said in a small voice.

Anna took a relieved breath as she switched the phone to her other ear. “It might not be as bad as you think. You’re still in Word, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you touched anything since it happened? Typed anything else?”

“No, I was afraid to. I called you right away.”

“Okay. Now I want you to try this. Go up to the menu and click on Edit.”

“All right. Now what?”

“See where it says ‘Undo’?”

“Oh! Is that what that’s for? Should I click on it?”

“Go ahead.”

The squeal pierced Anna’s eardrum and she jerked the phone away from her head. Martin, whose desk was eight feet away, grinned even as he continued typing.

“I heard that over here,” he said. “Your ear’s gonna be ringing for an hour.”

“OH, THANK YOU!” Cynthia was effusive in her joy. “Thank you so much! You just saved me, I’m so glad I called you, what can I do for you, can I send you some cookies?”

“Tell her yes,” said Martin.

Anna rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help the smile. Bringing the phone closer, she said, “You don’t need to do that, Cynthia. This is my job.”

“Yes, but you’re so good at it! I really want to send you some cookies, you have no idea how much time you’ve saved me, and Professor Gimbal too if he only knew it but of course I’ll never tell him I almost lost the whole file.”

“Well, in that case, we’d love the cookies. Thank you. And Cynthia? That little trick has a keyboard shortcut, too. Just press Control-Z. It’ll do the same thing. And it has a memory of your most recent keystrokes and mouse clicks, so even if you’d typed a few letters, it would have been okay. You could just keep clicking Undo or keep pressing Control-Z until you got back to the point where your text vanished.”

“How lovely! But what happened to the text in the first place? God, I hate these damn computers sometimes. I swear they’re possessed.”

Anna stifled a snort. “Actually, the program did exactly what you told it to.”

“I most certainly did not tell it to erase my entire document!”

“No, but from what you’ve described, I think you just made a common typing slip. Somewhere in there you probably hit Control-A without realizing it. Control-A is the keyboard shortcut for selecting all of your text. So what happens when you’ve selected all of your text, and then you hit the enter key? Or any other key, for that matter?”

Silence.

“I see what you mean,” said Cynthia, more subdued now. “You know, my old IBM Selectric was a lot more forgiving.”

“Yes, but could your old IBM Selectric copy and paste entire paragraphs and pages?”

“No, but it never took five years off my lifespan in a single moment, either.”

“You’ll be fine, Cynthia. If you have any other problems, just call.”

“You know I will. Bye, Anna. Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome. Talk to you later.” Anna put the phone back in its cradle and rubbed her ear. “Ow.”

Martin laughed. “Better you than me.”

“Thanks a lot. Next time I’m transferring the call.” Cynthia was one of their more frequent callers. She was sweet as could be, but tended to freak out rather easily whenever a computer was involved.

“No, you won’t. She prefers you. I frighten her.”

“That’s because you don’t know how not to speak geek.”

“Works every time, too.” He pressed a key with a flourish and then pushed his chair back. “Let’s see if that did it.” Turning to his secondary computer, he entered a few commands and pumped his fist in the air. “Yes! The College of Engineering website is back and intact!”

“Good,” said Anna. “Now tell whoever screwed it up to never, but never mess with it again.”

“Dream on. Someone over there has to maintain it.”

“More’s the pity, too.” Anna could never understand the shortsightedness of university bean counters. Central Web Services created all university web sites in order to assure across-the-board compliance with style, as well as universal access. But maintenance of those same websites fell to the individual colleges and departments, because the bean counters felt it was better to spread the budget across all of them rather than concentrate it in Central Web Services, where people actually knew what they were doing. Inevitably, things got screwed up, and then whose phones rang? Not Central Web Services—their job was design only. No, it was Tech Support Services that got the call. Which meant it was their time spent cleaning up the mess and their budget that took the hit.

Ah, well. Anna finished filling out the call record on Cynthia Robertson’s call and picked up her Service Request clipboard. Time to get out of the lab and into the open; she had several requests from departments scattered all over campus. It was a nice day and she was ready for a walk.

“I’m heading over to Admin,” she said, pulling her coat off the hook on the wall behind her desk. “Try not to break anything while I’m gone.”

Martin grunted, his attention already diverted by the site he was clicking through, and Anna closed the lab door behind her. A few short steps brought her to the building exit and she emerged into the crisp air of late October, where she stopped for a deep breath and an appreciative look around. The sky was a flawless blue and the oaks and maples on campus were flaming with color, and at the moment she felt she should probably be paying someone for the privilege of working here. Sometimes she couldn’t believe how lucky she was to live in such a beautiful place. It was a long way from her hometown in Kansas.

She smiled to herself as she remembered teasing Elizabeth for being an easterner, without ever letting on that she herself was fairly new to the West. They hadn’t really gotten around to autobiographical details—there was just too much else to talk about, especially after they’d found their mutual interest in travel. But she was looking forward to covering some of that territory next Saturday, when they had agreed to meet again. And the first thing she planned to ask was where the heck Elizabeth worked on campus.

For the last three days she’d been looking for Elizabeth around every corner, irrationally hoping that thinking about her would somehow translate into a physical manifestation. But the campus employed thousands of faculty and staff, and the chances of finding one person in particular were pretty slim unless one knew where to look.

Anna had thought she’d known where to look. On Monday morning she’d called her friend Michelle over at the College of Forestry, casually mentioning that she’d run into someone from her college recently, and did Michelle have an Elizabeth working with her on research?

“No, but Forestry’s a big college,” Michelle said. “We’ve got four departments, and I wouldn’t necessarily know about a new hire in one of the other departments. But if this person is doing forestry research, she may not be in the college at all. She might be part of the lab, and I don’t know anyone over there. Why don’t you just look her up in the school directory?”

“I don’t remember her last name,” admitted Anna. “When we first met I wasn’t really paying attention. And the last time I talked with her, I was too embarrassed about forgetting it to ask. The only thing I remember is that it started with an M.”

Michelle was sharp; she’d read between the lines in about two seconds. Within two minutes she’d wormed a confession out of Anna that she had met the mysterious Elizabeth for a breakfast that had ended up turning into lunch, and then into a river walk, and that they were meeting again on Saturday. All told, Anna had undergone far too much teasing considering that she hadn’t learned anything from the call. After that she’d searched the faculty and staff listings for both the College of Forestry and the Forestry Research Lab, once again coming up empty. But if Elizabeth was a new hire, she might not be on the staff listings yet. In the end Anna had reconciled herself to the fact that she would simply have to wait until Saturday, which didn’t stop her from looking at every woman on campus with mid-length brown hair and long legs. In a clear sign of the perversity of the universe, half the women she saw appeared to fit that description. But none of them were Elizabeth.

At this mid-morning hour, the rush of students hurrying to their morning classes was reduced to a trickle. By now, most students were either in class or at home studying, and a higher percentage of pedestrians were faculty and staff. While crossing the grassy quadrangle behind the library, she waved at several people she knew and scanned the rest out of habit, coming up empty as usual. She reached the other side of the quad, walked past the library and crossed the street that cut through the middle of campus. Turning left, she headed downhill and was soon pushing through the large glass doors of the Administration building. This place had a different atmosphere than anywhere else on campus, with the ground floor reserved largely for cashiers and student services staff, while the upper floors were full of staff who managed all the bits and pieces that keep a large university running. Everything, in other words, except teaching and research.

Her service request had been filled out by a Chanda Podhar in the office of the Vice Provost for Research. She’d never been to that office before, and had to look it up in the building directory before taking the stairs up to the third floor. Choosing a direction at random, she walked down a long corridor, scanning door numbers. Ah, she’d chosen correctly. Room 315 was only four doors down from the stairs.

“May I help you?” asked the woman behind the reception desk. She spoke in a musical Indian accent, and Anna was instantly charmed.

“Yes, I’m looking for Chanda Podhar?”

“I’m Chanda.”

“Hi, Chanda, I’m Anna Petrowski from Technology Support Services. You filed a service request for someone to consult with you on a computer purchase?”

“Ah, yes. Thank you for responding so promptly.” Chanda rose gracefully from her chair, but instead of coming around to Anna, she floated across the room and knocked on an interior door. A moment later she cracked the door open, spoke briefly with the occupant, then opened the door more widely and returned to her desk. “Please go in.”

“Thank you.” Anna crossed the room, rapped her knuckles on the doorframe and walked in. “Hello, I’m—” She stopped in mid-sentence, staring at the woman behind the desk.

“Hi, Anna! Good, I was hoping you’d be the one to come.” Elizabeth smiled as she stood up, gesturing toward a small table with two chairs. “Shall we sit?”

Anna was too stunned to move. “I thought you said you worked in forestry research?”

“No, I said I deal with forestry research. And I do, along with a few other things.”

“You’re the Vice Provost for Research?” Shit, Elizabeth was way up in the campus feeding chain. She reported directly to the Provost, who reported to the university President. She was a big shark in their little ocean, and Anna was somewhere down with the cod.

Elizabeth made a show of opening her door and checking out the nameplate. “Well, it says so right here, so I must be.” She closed the door and sat at the table, her smile dropping when Anna remained motionless. “Are you okay?”

“Um…I’m a little surprised.” Anna forced her legs into action and sat across from Elizabeth. “I feel a bit funny calling you by your first name.”

“Which is exactly what I don’t want, and why I didn’t come right out and tell you what I did. Come on, Anna. It’s hard enough making friends as it is without having people write me off because of my job.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t, not really. Elizabeth the Vice Provost was not at all the same thing as Elizabeth the Coffee Shop Friend, and Anna felt blindsided. She was nervous, out of her depth, and utterly unable to act naturally. But she’d come here with a specific task to perform, and instinctively took refuge in that. “So are you the one thinking about a new computer purchase? Didn’t you just get your supercharged Dell?”

“Yes, but after your little demonstration last Saturday, I came in on Monday and told Chanda that the Dell is hers as soon as I can get a new one. She’s pretty excited about it; her computer is a five-year old clunker.”

“Then you want to buy a Mac, I assume,” Anna said, her tone cooler than it might have been. Elizabeth was already replacing a new laptop? Just because she wanted something different now?

“You assume correctly,” said Elizabeth. “You’ve earned your toaster.”

“All right then, let’s talk about your needs.” She could see Elizabeth’s puzzlement at her lack of response to the joke, but she didn’t have it in her to act any other way. “Tell me how you use your computer on a given day, and what sorts of big projects you might need it for.”

Elizabeth gazed at her for a moment, then straightened her posture and began talking. In a professional voice that betrayed her managerial background, she succinctly outlined the programs she used on a regular basis, the sorts of graphics she dealt with, how many hours she spent in front of a screen, and how she saw her future usage changing. Anna jotted a few notes as she listened, already knowing what her recommendation would be. When Elizabeth finished, she asked a few follow-up questions, then pulled an illustrated price sheet from the bottom of her clipboard.

“Since you want a larger screen, I’d recommend the fifteen-inch MacBook Pro,” she said. “Same thing I have. The thirteen-inch is easier to carry around, but if you’re going to be using the laptop screen a lot, you’re better off with a bigger one. The seventeen-inch would be overkill.”

“No, I don’t want to carry a seventeen-incher around. And I already don’t like the smaller screen on my Dell, so fifteen sounds perfect.”

“Right. Now, there are three versions to choose from, but the only differences are the processor speed, the size of the hard drive and the speed of graphics processing,” Anna said, pointing out the line items on the spec list. “Since you’re not doing heavy graphics work, like editing movies or photo libraries, I don’t think you need the top model. Either of these two models would work for you.”

Elizabeth bent her neck to see the models, then pointed at the middle of the line-up. “This one. How soon can you place the order?”

“I’ve got a batch of orders to process on Friday. Apple’s pretty quick; it should be in by Tuesday.”

“Great. What about a display monitor? Will the Mac work with my existing one?” She gestured toward what looked like a twenty-one-inch monitor on her desk. The black and silver plastic casing told Anna which brand it was.

“If you’re asking will there be any compatibility issues, no, there won’t. But I’m guessing that once you get used to your new laptop screen, you’re not going to like this one anymore. It will look dark by comparison. Plus—” She got up and circled Elizabeth’s desk to get a better look. “Yeah, this is an older model, and the resolution is comparatively low.”

“So what does that mean? Things will look bigger on the monitor than they will on the laptop?”

“Right. And they won’t be as crisp or clear. More to the point, even though this monitor is physically a lot bigger, you’re not actually going to have much more real estate on this screen than you will on your laptop.”

“Should I get a new monitor, too?” Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled. “I was ogling those Apple displays in the bookstore yesterday. Those are niiice.”

Forgetting herself for a moment, Anna laughed at her tone of voice. “Yes, they are. And expensive.”

“I noticed that too. Is it worth it?”

“Depends on how picky you are. Dell’s Ultrasharp really is a good monitor for less money. Since you’re not doing color-sensitive graphic work, the Dell or a comparable Samsung would be fine. But if you’re really picky about how your screen looks, you’ll probably prefer the Apple—it’ll match your laptop screen perfectly in terms of brightness and color calibration. And it’s designed specifically for MacBooks, so hooking up is clean and simple. Plus it has the best speakers on the market, not to mention the built-in camera. If you do video chats, those two features might make or break the deal for you. But it will cost.”

“I have video conferences all the time. Done deal; get me the Apple.”

“Did you even consider the others?”

“Of course,” said Elizabeth, sounding vaguely insulted. “But you listed the pros and cons and I made a decision. Am I supposed to take more time to decide?”

Anna shook her head, the sense of awkward nervousness rushing over her once more. Nobody at her level ever made a purchasing decision like that without having to research alternatives and justify the choice to a higher-up. Watching Elizabeth do it just reinforced how different they were, and how much power Elizabeth had.

“No, of course not,” she said. “I’ll put the order in. We can probably install it and set up your laptop on Wednesday; will that work for you?”

“I think so.” Elizabeth got up and moved over to an enormous wall calendar. “Yes, I’ll be here after two o’clock. Does ‘we’ mean someone besides you?”

Caught. “Well, we usually just go out on whichever service request or installation is on top of the stack when we’re available—”

“I’d prefer you,” said Elizabeth firmly. “If that’s all right.”

How was she supposed to say no? “That’s fine,” she said, and scribbled a few last notes on her purchase list. Collecting the price sheet, she slid it back onto her clipboard and rose. “Unless you hear otherwise, I’ll be here at two. Congratulations on seeing the light,” she said, trying to go out on a more humorous note.

“Thanks. You’re the one who showed it to me. Are we still on for this Saturday?”

Anna wasn’t at all sure she wanted to meet again. Elizabeth was much more than she had believed just three days ago, and she was still reeling from the unwelcome surprise. But she didn’t know how to get out of it gracefully. “I’m there every Saturday,” she said instead, and with a final wave was out the door. A cloud of nervous dismay made her take the stairs faster than usual, and she emerged into the bracing air outside with a sense of having escaped. God, that had been awkward. She’d had no idea Elizabeth was so unattainable, or that she herself could be so easily reduced to a stumbling idiot in her work environment. Neither discovery was remotely pleasant. And she felt…disappointed, somehow, that Elizabeth really was one of those powerful campus people who went through top-end gear like it was going out of style.

It wasn’t until she finished her rounds several hours later that it occurred to her how judgmental she’d been. If anyone else had wanted to replace a crappy Windows machine with a sleek Apple setup, she’d have been delighted to help. So why was she so critical of Elizabeth?

Because that Dell was practically new. It’s not fair.

But Elizabeth was giving the Dell to her administrative assistant, who was apparently thrilled. So what wasn’t fair about it?

She had no answer, and was left with that vague feeling of disappointment which seemed to be applicable only to Elizabeth. She’d filled many orders for top-end gear that, in her opinion, was neither needed nor deserved, but until now she’d never had a reaction like this. It was ridiculous, and she put it firmly out of her mind.

Which worked for exactly one day, until she was processing her orders on Friday. There was the usual blatant pattern—the people who did the most intensive work with their computers were the ones on a four- or five-year replacement schedule, while the higher-paid managers, department heads and lab directors, who didn’t actually need fast processors or a ton of RAM, were replacing theirs after a year or two. And then there was Elizabeth, getting rid of a laptop that couldn’t be more than five months old.

By Saturday morning, she couldn’t work up the mental readiness to meet Elizabeth at the Bean Grinder. She’d felt intimidated and nervous around her during their last encounter, and why should she subject herself to stressful work dynamics on a day off? What did they have to talk about? Elizabeth obviously moved in a stratospheric social circle, and Anna had no place in it. She felt a twinge about not showing up, but reasoned that as of their last contact, they hadn’t actually agreed to meet. She’d just said she was there every Saturday.

And she would be. But first she spent a leisurely morning puttering around the house until she was reasonably certain that Elizabeth would have given up on her. Then she took the long way round to the coffee shop, since it was such a nice day. Her heart pounded when she reached the shop and walked past the floor to ceiling windows, trying to scan the tables out of the corner of her eye. It wasn’t until she pushed the door open and made sure of Elizabeth’s absence that her heart rate began to slow.

“Hi, Kyung!” she said cheerfully.

“Ms. Petrowski, good morning!” He was busily stacking mugs, so she waited at the counter until he finished. With a flourish, he dropped the last mug on top of the stack and turned to her. “Are you making it a triple caramel mocha this time?”

“No, just my usual double. Stop trying to change my order.” She’d seen at a glance that the chocolate cherry scones were long gone, not that she expected otherwise. “Do you have my scone?”

“I gave it to Elizabeth,” he said. “She’s been waiting for you over—” He stopped and looked around the coffee shop. “Huh. Well, she was in the corner.”

Anna turned to look at the perfectly clean, empty table, and stood rooted to the ground in dismay. Elizabeth had taken her scone?

Her scone??

“I’m a little late,” she said weakly. “Guess I missed her. Just the mocha, please.” She forced a smile meant to assure him that none of this was of any consequence, but the moment he turned away, it dropped from her face. That had to have been a message to her, and she didn’t care for it one bit.

 

 

 

 


chapter 4

 

 

On Wednesday afternoon Anna stacked her cart with two shiny new boxes—one of which was quite large—and began pushing it across the campus. All week long she’d planned out what she was going to say when she saw Elizabeth again. It wasn’t that the scone itself was such a big deal, it was the principle of the thing! Elizabeth had known exactly what she was doing. It was catty and immature, and clearly just a petty revenge over Anna not showing up. And while it was true that skipping out certainly hadn’t been Anna’s finest hour, at least her actions hadn’t been motivated by spite. She’d thought better of Elizabeth, and had every intention of telling her so. It was for that reason only that she was doing this installation herself; otherwise she’d have turned the whole thing over to Martin and washed her hands of it. But without the computer gear, she had no real reason to be in Elizabeth’s office. Nor did she ever plan to enter it again after today.

Her wheels rattled over the sidewalk cracks, making a racket in perfect keeping with her mood. She pushed it up the wheelchair access ramp outside the Admin building, nodding her thanks to a student who held the glass door open for her. The elevator was already on the ground floor, and as she rolled the cart inside and began the ride upward, she felt the knot in her stomach getting larger and heavier. Anna hated conflict, and would normally go out of her way to avoid it, but this time was different.

Unfortunately, her stomach knot wasn’t listening to her sense of righteousness, and persisted in growing more debilitating the closer she got to Room 315. By the time she greeted Chanda, it was an effort to speak normally.

“Anna, hello!” said Chanda. “Dr. Markel has been looking forward to this.” She rubbed her hands together gleefully. “And so have I. It feels a bit like Christmas! I can’t wait to get my hands on my new computer.”

Anna couldn’t help but smile. “Given what you’ve been used to, you’ll love the speed, that’s for sure.”

“I know! And it’s a laptop. I’ll be able to do my work anywhere! Dr. Markel has already said that if I’m doing a project that needs high concentration, I can go to the library or the student union for awhile. Somewhere the phone can’t interrupt me.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Anna. Indicating the door, she asked, “Is she in?”

“Yes, she’s been waiting for you.” Chanda went to announce her arrival while Anna took a deep breath. Receiving the affirmative nod from the admin assistant, she pushed the cart across the office and through the inner doorway.

Elizabeth sat behind her desk, a carefully blank expression on her face. “Hi. Thank you for being on time.”

Anna heard the unspoken this time loud and clear, and her stomach knot instantly expanded to take up her entire abdominal cavity, effectively driving her planned speech right out of her head. In the ensuing silence, Elizabeth got up and closed the office door. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes, fine,” she answered automatically.

“That’s good.” Elizabeth leaned against the front of her desk, arms crossed over her chest. “When you left me sitting in the coffee shop for ninety minutes, I was worried that something had happened to you.”

Now the knot twisted painfully in place. It had never occurred to her that Elizabeth would worry about her.

“I called your office Monday morning just to see if you were in,” Elizabeth continued, after waiting for a response that Anna couldn’t make. “A very nice gentleman by the name of Martin told me that you were over at Soil Sciences on a service request. So then I worried that something else was going on, something personal that kept you from meeting me. I thought maybe you’d call to let me know—since of course you couldn’t call on the weekend. We never exchanged numbers.”

She watched Anna, still keeping her expression blank, and in that moment Anna realized she’d seriously screwed up. It shouldn’t have mattered how uncomfortable she’d felt around Elizabeth; she had agreed to meet and she should have kept her agreement. Even if it was just for an awkward, ten-minute visit before she made her excuses and left. The justifications she’d given herself all week, which had seemed so compelling at the time, now looked flimsy and immature.

“I did go,” she blurted out. “But you’d already left.” And then, because she couldn’t quite stop herself, she added, “Taking my scone with you.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose. “Your scone? I took a scone that I paid for. It would have been yours if you’d shown up. But you didn’t, and I’m still hoping you’ll tell me why.” The guilt must have shown on Anna’s face, because Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. “Okay,” she said, “clearly I’m the only one who thought we had a date. My mistake. Shall we get on with this, then?” She gestured toward the cart.

“No, wait,” said Anna, whose brain had taken a moment to stumble over the word date. “Elizabeth, I—shit, I’m sorry. It never occurred to me that that was a date. And we never actually confirmed a time.”

“As I said, my mistake,” said Elizabeth coolly. “I made some assumptions. Including the assumption that when we said ‘same time next week,’ it meant that we’d meet at the same time.”

How had she thought that was defensible? “No, it was a fair assumption,” she said, cursing the blush she could feel heating up her face. “Even as a friend I shouldn’t have skipped out.”

“Then why did you? Anna, you left me sitting there for an hour and a half. At first I thought maybe I’d gotten the time wrong, that we were supposed to meet at ten thirty instead of nine thirty. But by eleven o’clock it was pretty obvious that you were standing me up. And I really didn’t think you were the type.”

By now Anna felt an inch high. Elizabeth wasn’t saying it, but she’d obviously been hurt. And everything Anna had been grumbling over for the past week melted away in the face of her own culpability.

“I’m not the type,” she said. “Not normally. I just—” She stopped, trying to find the words. The expectant look on Elizabeth’s face tied up her thought processes, and in the end she could manage nothing more eloquent than a quiet admission. “I’m not in your league. You’re a vice provost, for god’s sake. You make me nervous, and I didn’t want to spend any part of my weekend dealing with work relationships.” She winced at how that had sounded. “I mean—”

“You mean you wrote me off the moment you saw my nameplate.” She sighed. “I knew there was something wrong last Wednesday. You walked in here and just froze. But I was hoping it wasn’t that.”

Stung, Anna went on the defensive. “Well, it was a bit of a shock. You could have told me earlier!”

“Would it have made a difference?”

Anna opened her mouth to answer, then closed it and shook her head.

“Okay.” Elizabeth’s quiet voice was worse than any anger she could have shown. “Better to know now than later. It would be nice to be judged by my actions instead of my job title, but perhaps I should thank you for saving me from what would undoubtedly have been an awkward friendship at best.” She paused, then added a little sadly, “It’s too bad, because I really liked that person I met in the coffee shop. I just haven’t seen her here.”

Oh, that hit hard. I am that person in the coffee shop, she wanted to say, but was it even true? Certainly she had no way of convincing Elizabeth of that. Not based on her behavior so far.

“I’m sorry,” she said. It was completely insufficient, but it was all she had to offer.

Elizabeth nodded. “Me too. And I guess that’s all we need to say about it.” She turned away, walking behind her desk once again. “What do you need from me for this installation? All of my files are in one of two directories, so that should be pretty simple. I don’t know what to do about the email, though.”

Jarred by the sudden end to the conversation, Anna could only marvel at the mantle of professionalism Elizabeth had so easily drawn about herself. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” she said. “If you’ll just show me which files you want transferred, you can leave the rest to me. I’d like you to be nearby for a few necessary questions, but otherwise you don’t need to stand around waiting.” She turned to the cart, opening up the smaller box and pulling the laptop out of its packaging. It was a relief to take shelter in what she knew and was good at, but at the same time, she had the feeling she’d just lost something valuable. And she had no one to blame but herself.

She carried the laptop over to the desk and plugged it in. “You’ll need to charge and condition the battery first thing. Here’s a little instruction set…” She held out the single sheet of paper that she’d tucked into the box earlier, “…to tell you how to do it and how often it should be done.”

“Great.” Elizabeth took the paper and immediately began reading it as the laptop booted up. The little “Welcome” movie got her attention, though, and she was actually smiling by the end of it. “Well, that was new,” she commented as she peered at the screen, which now featured a single icon of a hard drive. “Wait a minute. Is this all there is? Where are all the useless programs and web service ads and trial softwares that get packaged with it?”

“Ah, the joy of crapware. It’s not here.”

“Crapware?”

“Geek speak for all the crap that gets bundled with Windows.”

“What an apt term. I hate all of that. The first thing I do when I get a new computer is go through and uninstall half the programs on it.”

“You and everyone else,” said Anna. “But this isn’t a Windows machine. You’re going to have to get used to that.”

She received a quick tour of Elizabeth’s files on her old laptop and the university intranet, then waved her off and began the process of setting up a user account on the new machine. Elizabeth moved over to the table, settling in with what looked like a stack of reports while Anna clicked away on two different keyboards. It was an easy and straightforward installation, and Elizabeth was visibly shocked when Anna called her over an hour later to run through some basic training.

“But…it usually takes half a day before I can use a new computer! Hell, once it took three days just for IT to upgrade my computer to Windows XP.” She stared at the screen in astonishment.

“This isn’t Windows.”

“I’m beginning to understand that.”

Anna gave her an overview of her new operating system, showed her where her files were now living, and then left her to experiment while she unplugged the old monitor’s cables and carried it to the cart. The old laptop, now swept clean of Elizabeth’s files, soon joined it and she pushed the cart into the outer office. “Chanda, are you ready for your new computer?”

“Oh, yes.” Chanda scooted her chair back to make room and hovered in general delight while Anna set the laptop on her desk and created a new intranet access. Then she plugged her portable hard drive into the old desktop PC and began copying Chanda’s files over.

“Do you have much on your hard drive, or is most of it on the intranet?” she asked.

“I keep most of my current work on my hard drive and use the intranet for archiving and backup,” said Chanda. “Will that need to change with the laptop?”

“No. In fact, you’re going to want any current work on your hard drive if you wander out to sit in the sun while you’re working.”

“Ohhhh, I am so looking forward to that!” Chanda swayed back and forth in a sedate version of a happy dance. “I still can’t believe Dr. Markel is just giving her computer to me.”

“Why wouldn’t she?” asked Anna, selecting another set of folders to copy. “Trickle-down equipment is a fine university tradition.”

“Yes, but this isn’t university property. It’s Dr. Markel’s personal laptop.”

Anna stopped dead. “It’s her personal laptop?”

Nodding, Chanda said, “There was a mixup when she was hired. The candidate search took more than a year, and in the meantime I think the Acting Vice Provost just kind of moved in. He gave his older computer to someone else in his office. When Dr. Markel was hired and he had to leave, he didn’t have a computer of his own anymore. So he took the one he’d been working with here, and Dr. Markel said it wasn’t a big deal, she’d just use her own laptop until the university got her a new one. I’m surprised it took her this long to put in the order, but she’s been very busy getting settled into the position.”

“So she’s donating her almost brand new personal laptop to the university?” Anna asked incredulously.

“No. I thought I told you—she’s donating it to me.

Anna’s brain disengaged for the second time that afternoon. “That’s…incredible,” she managed. “I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before.”

“I know! Unbelievable, isn’t it?” Chanda lowered her voice slightly. “She said that having me using personal equipment at work would give her the perfect justification for slipping a new computer into the budget. Something like ‘Chanda’s existing equipment was so slow and outdated that she had to bring in her own computer to get the work done.’ She thinks she can get it approved in the next quarterly budget update in January. Then I can have a nice new computer at work and this at home. I still can’t get over it. Do you know how much this laptop would cost if I had to buy it?”

In fact, Anna knew exactly how much it would cost, and her conscience helpfully pointed out that she hadn’t just misjudged Elizabeth—she’d done a world class job of it. She couldn’t have gotten this one more wrong if she’d tried.

“She must feel pretty strongly about the work you do for her,” she said.

Chanda beamed. “She says I’m her biggest asset. I only try to do my job well. But I have never had a boss like Dr. Markel. I hope she never leaves.”

The hero worship shone in her face, and Anna could certainly see how it had been earned. She herself felt about as worthy as the gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe. She couldn’t even apologize for being so mistakenly judgmental, because Elizabeth had never known she was being judged in the first place—at least, not in that way. And Anna wasn’t about to enlighten her.

It was a relief to go back to copying files, which required just enough concentration to occupy her mind. Right now, she really didn’t want to think about anything else, since every pathway of thought led to the same conclusion.

She finished transferring Chanda’s hard drive files to the portable drive, plugged it into the new laptop, and began copying them over. After that it was a simple matter of disassembling the PC tower and monitor, dumping the whole mess on her cart—she’d frag the files and wipe the drive back in her office—and then setting up the new monitor. Chanda hurriedly cleaned the dust and debris from where the old computer parts had sat on her desk, then hovered with an almost lecherous expression as the bigger, thinner monitor was positioned. Anna recognized geek lust when she saw it, and managed to enjoy herself while showing Chanda how to dock the laptop with the monitor and keyboard. But her elevated mood vanished when she went back into the inner office.

Elizabeth had an elbow on her desk and her head propped in one hand as she read something on her screen. She was intently focused, her dark brows drawn together, looking impossibly appealing to Anna’s newly appreciative eyes. In that moment, she suddenly understood her reaction of the previous week. She hadn’t been disappointed in Elizabeth for ordering a new computer—she’d been disappointed in her for being so out of reach. For being a vice provost. Yet Elizabeth hadn’t seen them as being in different leagues at all. She’d thought Saturday was going to be a date.

But Anna had thrown that away, with both hands and a bad attitude on top of it.

The sharp sting of regret kept her motionless, reluctant to disturb the silence and put an end to this precious minute of voyeurism. Then Elizabeth looked up, her expression cooling noticeably as she saw Anna in the doorway, and the moment was lost.

“All done with Chanda?” she asked. “If I know her, she’s out there dancing the cha-cha on top of her desk.”

“Pretty close,” said Anna. “She’s not on her desk, but it’s the cha-cha.”

A smile crossed Elizabeth’s face, but it was gone too quickly. She looked back at her screen and said, “I’ve been reading some Mac 101 articles. Felt a bit like an idiot when I couldn’t figure out how to rename a file. I was looking for the Rename command in the contextual menu.”

“And then you discovered that it was much easier than that,” said Anna, taking the few steps to stand in front of the desk.

“It is. I think I’m going to be on a steep learning curve.”

“Not for long. The problem most switchers have in the beginning is that they’re used to things being more complicated. So they look for complicated ways to do things, and get frustrated when what they’re trying doesn’t work. Just remember, think simple. This operating system is designed on two levels instead of one. All the complicated stuff is hidden under the surface. You can get to it if you need to, but most of the time you’ll never have to go past the surface. You’re used to a system where you need to be a geek to do almost anything. You’ll have to break yourself of that expectation. And in the meantime, if you have any questions at all, call me.”

“I’ve got the Tech Services number right here.” Elizabeth tapped a yellow sticky note attached to the front corner of her desk. “I figure I’ll be using it fairly often for a couple of weeks.”

Anna hesitated, then said, “That’s the general number. If you want, you can call my extension directly. It’s twenty-two fifty-three.” She held her breath, fully expecting the offer to be rebuffed. Instead Elizabeth wrote the number on the note.

“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate the way you explain things, and I think you’re very good at translating geek speak into something that everyone can understand. I’ll be glad of your help if I get stuck.”

Her professionalism made Anna feel even worse, and she took refuge in the task at hand. “Are you ready for the bigger toy?”

“Absolutely. Bring it on.”

It was the work of minutes to unpack the sleek aluminum monitor and plug it in. Elizabeth didn’t need any prompting before attaching the cables, but she did need a quick lesson in where to find the monitor settings on the computer. As she began happily experimenting with mirroring the displays, Anna gathered up the materials and closed the box. Picking it up, she was just preparing to say goodbye when Elizabeth said, “Don’t leave yet! You still have to install that cool little launcher program.”

“Oh, right, I forgot.” Anna smiled; this was one of the fun parts of teaching a new Mac owner. “I’m not going to install it; you are.” She wrote the name down on a sticky note pad. “Here, Google this and go to the developer’s site.”

Elizabeth had the site up in seconds. “Okay. Click the download button?”

“Yes.”

They didn’t have to wait long before an icon appeared on the desktop. “Now what?”

“Double click it.”

A dialogue box opened, showing the software icon and a blue folder labeled ‘Applications.’

“And now?” asked Elizabeth.

“Now you drag the software icon into the Applications folder.”

Elizabeth gave her a disbelieving look, but did as she was told.

“Okay, you’re done,” said Anna.

“That was it?

“Yeah, you just installed a new program. How does it feel?”

Elizabeth laughed. “Like it was way too easy.”

“Get used to it, you’ll be feeling that a lot. Anyway, all applications go into the Applications folder on a Mac. Period. There are no directories and subdirectories for various programs, unless you want to create them. So, do you want to launch your new program? Click this little button right here.”

She pointed to the top corner of the dialogue box. Elizabeth clicked it and watched the box expand into the normal file finder window. It was impossible to miss the Applications icon sitting on the left side, and Anna didn’t have to say a word as Elizabeth clicked into it, scrolled down the list of applications and double clicked the one she’d just installed. The application launched, and Anna spent a few minutes helping her personalize it.

“Well, thank you,” said Elizabeth when they were done. “This was actually kind of fun, and I can assure you I’ve never said that about a computer before.”

“I know what you mean. Don’t forget, if it stops being fun because something isn’t working the way you’d expect it to, give me a call. There are enough differences between the operating systems that you’re going to have to lose a few habits and pick up some new ones.”

Elizabeth nodded her understanding, and they looked at each other for a few seconds before Anna realized she had no more reason to be there.

“Well, time to pack up and get back to the Bat Cave,” she said, turning to pick up the box.

“Bat Cave? Your office?”

“It’s kind of dark and it’s always a little on the cool side. The name just stuck. Enjoy your new toy.”

“Thank you, I will.” Elizabeth got up and walked her to the door.

Suddenly Anna found that she couldn’t leave without saying it. “Elizabeth…I’m really sorry about Saturday. I was a moron.”

“You don’t need to apologize again,” said Elizabeth. “It’s over and done. Thanks for all your help here today. And take care,” she added, before Anna could say anything else. She turned and walked back to her desk, leaving Anna feeling dismissed and thoroughly miserable.

“You too,” she said to Elizabeth’s back, and closed the door behind her.

 

 

 

 


chapter 5

 

 

Anna fielded frequent calls from Elizabeth over the next two weeks. All of them were basic switcher questions and easy to answer—too easy, as it turned out, because she never had a decent excuse to stay on the line. Elizabeth treated her with perfect professionalism, but it never translated into the kind of easy work relationship that she had with so many others. Heck, she had people on the branch campuses whom she considered friends even though she’d never physically met them. Regular phone contact and a common work culture tended to create an odd kind of intimacy, but she couldn’t make it happen with Elizabeth. Not that it should be a surprise; Anna herself had guaranteed that Elizabeth would never trust her that way.

The help calls dwindled as Elizabeth became more proficient with her new operating system, until one day Anna realized she hadn’t heard from her at all in several weeks. Their paths certainly didn’t cross naturally; they moved in very different spheres on campus. And without the need for Anna’s services, there was no longer any reason for Elizabeth to reach out.

Of course she had never again shown up at the Bean Grinder. Though Anna had spent more time there than normal, stretching out her Saturday visits and even dropping in on a couple of Sundays, it did no good. Elizabeth must have found another shop to patronize. Which made Anna feel even more guilty, because the Bean Grinder was the best place in town. It wasn’t fair for Elizabeth to have to go somewhere else just to avoid her.

By now she could acknowledge that standing Elizabeth up ranked somewhere in the top ten stupidest, rudest and most damaging things she’d ever done. Possibly the top five. Looking back at it, she could no longer believe she’d ever managed to justify that to herself, let alone work up the righteous indignation she’d felt over that ridiculous scone. When she remembered her feeble defense in Elizabeth’s office—that she’d shown up for their date but Elizabeth had already left—she wanted to sink into a hole in the ground. God, that was embarrassing. Occasionally she’d fantasize about going over, explaining everything, and asking for another chance, but then reality would intrude. Codfish did not ask sharks out for dates. And Elizabeth wasn’t just a shark, she was one of the biggest sharks. As Vice Provost for Research, she was responsible for one entire satellite campus, the grant administration for the whole university, both the Sea Grant and Space Grant programs, and almost everything to do with scientific research, technology transfer, and trademarks. Anna didn’t even know how one person could do all that, but it was right there in her job description, which was easily accessed on the university intranet. Also easily accessed were the announcements of her hiring in back issues of the campus newspaper and several college and research program newsletters. Not that she was obsessing, but she felt a little closer to Elizabeth by learning more about her. Unfortunately, the more she learned, the more unattainable Elizabeth became. She had a Yale biochemistry degree with a one-year exchange to Cambridge, then she’d turned around and gotten an MBA, followed by an accelerated Ph.D. back in her original discipline. It was as if she’d designed her academic program specifically to launch her into university administration, since she had both the science and the business expertise. And it had clearly worked; from her first job out of college until now, Dr. Elizabeth Markel had been on the fast track.

Anna’s own BS degree in Computer Science had been a big deal in her family. She was the only one of three children to complete a university education, and her parents still gloated about it to their friends. But looking at Elizabeth’s CV, Anna’s background seemed pretty tattered by comparison.

That feeling was reinforced at Christmas, when she flew back to Kansas for the usual family gathering. Surrounded by her siblings and extended family—there were eleven of them at the dinner table this year, with her sister’s new baby—she tried and failed to imagine Elizabeth fitting in with the boisterous crowd. It was all very well to fantasize about going back and fixing her mistake, but really, how far could it go, even if she herself could get over their differences? She loved her family, but her life away from them had changed her enough that she could see the narrow world they inhabited. They didn’t lack for intelligence, but they had little curiosity about anything outside their own lives. Conversation centered around the children and especially the new baby, local and state politics, bad management decisions at the phone company where her father and brother worked, and the dismal performance so far of both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos.

As the traditional arguments began about whether or not they should start supporting the Dallas Cowboys ‘just to have a winning team,’ Anna suddenly missed Elizabeth fiercely. She thought about the single day they’d had together, when the conversation had flowed so easily and over such wide-ranging topics. They’d talked about places she could visit on her planned European trip, national and international politics, how European colonialism had changed the fortunes of so many nations worldwide, how those changes still resonated even today…she couldn’t imagine talking about any of this with her family. Most of them had never traveled outside the midwest, though her sister still rhapsodized about her family vacation two years ago at Disney World.

With that thought came another, much more disturbing one. In many ways, Anna didn’t fit in here much better than Elizabeth would. Her family was just the same as it had always been, barring an ever-increasing number of grandchildren, but she was not. Her world had grown larger.

And yet, when she’d learned Elizabeth’s job title, she’d reacted like the daughter of a phone company lineman. Like a blue-collar worker feeling utterly out of place with the vice president of the company.

But that’s not who I am, she realized. And it wasn’t who Elizabeth had seen that day in the coffee shop.

As the debate about the Cowboys raged around her, she tuned everyone out in order to examine this new and startling realization in more detail. Was the difference between her and Elizabeth all of her own making? Had she really been that stupid? She remembered Elizabeth’s quiet voice saying, Clearly I’m the only one who thought we had a date. My mistake, and shook her head. That wasn’t Elizabeth’s mistake, it was hers. And she was beginning to think it might haunt her for a long time to come.

After dinner, the men trooped off to the family room to watch television while the women set themselves to clearing the table and washing the dishes. It was a tradition that Anna hated with every fiber of her being, but she could also admit that the conversation got a lot more interesting once the women and men had separated. This was when she heard all the juicy bits about her siblings’ marriages, as well as the more colorful local news, and more than once her mother’s storytelling skills had them all cracking up in laughter. It was a wonder that nothing got broken.

They were down to the last few pots, having cleaned, dried and put away everything else, when her mother broke from tradition. “Kim, Melanie, you get on out of here,” she said, making shooing motions with her dishtowel. “Anna and I will finish up. There’s not much left and it’s a two-person job now.”

Her sister and sister-in-law were clearly surprised to be excused early, but wasted no time taking advantage of it. Within seconds Anna and her mother had the kitchen to themselves.

“Now then,” said her mother, handing over the scouring pad, “tell me what’s had you so far away all weekend.”

“What do you mean?” Anna set the mashed potato pot in the deep sink and got to work.

“I mean you’ve been much too quiet. Something’s bothering you. Normally I’d let you chew on whatever it is in peace, but we only get to see you a few days out of the year, and I hate to see them wasted like this.”

Anna smiled to herself. “You sure you want to hear about it, Mom? It involves a woman.” It had been years since she’d come out to her family, who had been accepting once they got past the initial shock and dismay. But that had never translated to ease, and after a few very uncomfortable attempts, she’d learned to keep her romantic life out of the general conversation.

A sigh told her that the topic still wasn’t a welcome one, and she scrubbed harder at a stubborn bit of potato.

“I’m sure.”

Startled, Anna dropped the pad and straightened. “You are?”

Her mother had determination stamped all over her face. “Of course I am. You never talk about yourself, not like that. I don’t even know if you’ve got someone.”

Amused at the careful wording, Anna said, “Girlfriend, Mom. You don’t know if I have a girlfriend.”

“Don’t correct your mother.” She paused. “Do you? Is that what’s bothering you?”

Suddenly Anna was the one who felt uncomfortable. “I think I need a glass of wine to answer that question.”

“To hell with the pans,” said her mother, tossing the dishtowel on the counter. “Make it two and let’s sit down.”

A few minutes later Anna found herself pouring out the whole sordid tale. Her mom listened without comment, but also without any signs of discomfort. Encouraged by this reaction—and probably by the wine—Anna went into more detail than she’d intended, spilling out her doubts and regrets, and the fact that she missed Elizabeth far more than was reasonable after just one day of time together.

“I think I screwed up something really good,” she said sadly. “And now it’s too late to do anything about it. Even if she was thinking about me that way, she certainly isn’t anymore.”

“How do you know? Did she tell you that?”

“No, but she didn’t have to. We’ve lost all contact, Mom. If she were still interested, she’d have kept that line open.”

“Seems to me she had no reason to when you were being such a snob.”

Startled, Anna hastily swallowed the sip she’d just taken. “What?! I’m not a snob! I don’t look down on her—it’s just the opposite. I look up to her.”

“You dismissed her as a human being because of what she does for a living. That makes you a snob.”

“But I—”

“And I certainly didn’t raise you that way. Did you pick that up at college? I thought your degree was supposed to open your mind, not close it.”

Dumbfounded, Anna could only stare as her mother continued, “Your father and I had one goal in life. We wanted our children to have better lives than we did. We wanted to give you the opportunities we never had. Now, your brother and sister made their own decisions and though I might wish they’d chosen differently, at least they had a choice. That was more than we had. But you—you went off and did everything we hoped for. You graduated from college, got a wonderful job, put yourself in a place where you’re open to more opportunities than we could probably imagine. You’ve got a great future in front of you. You can do anything, Anna. So why you would shut yourself away from one of those opportunities, even when you want it, is something I really don’t understand. I raised you to go out and get what you wanted, and until now I always thought you did.”

Calmly, she lifted her glass and took a sip of wine without breaking eye contact. Anna recognized the pattern; it meant that she’d said her piece and was now waiting for her daughter to see the light.

“Do you really think I’m a snob?” she asked.

Her mother set her glass down. “I think the more important question is, what does Elizabeth think?”

Anna groaned. “God, you’re right. I hate it when you’re right. She knew who I was and what I did from the very beginning, and she was still interested.”

“So what are you going to do about it, then? Give up or go after what you want?”

Anna swirled the wine in her glass, thinking hard. “Well, her admin is getting a new computer in January. I can make sure I’m the one who installs it. Try to make a new connection somehow.”

“Now, that sounds more like my Anna,” said her mom in a satisfied tone.

Anna shook her head. “You know, I’m still a little amazed that we’re having this conversation. The last time I tried to talk about my love life, there were big blinking I Don’t Want To Know signs over everyone’s heads.”

“Well, that sign is probably still over your dad’s head. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want you to be happy.”

“What happened to your sign?”

Her mom smiled. “I decided not to be such a snob about your sexuality.”

 

 

 

 


chapter 6

 

 

“UPS!” came the cheery call as knuckles rapped sharply on the doorframe of the Bat Cave.

“Hey, Nick,” said Anna, rising from her chair. “What do you have for us?” Martin had processed the last order, so she had no idea how big it was.

“Enough that you’re going to need to clear some space.” Nick looked pointedly at the area that was supposed to be for his deliveries, but which was currently occupied by six PC towers that Martin had brought over from Chemical Engineering the day before.

“Yo, Martin! Get up off your ass and clean up your mess!”

“All right already!” Martin made a few more clicks with his mouse and then stood. “Is it my fault that Chem Engineering decided to upgrade a whole lab at once? I haven’t had a chance to process those yet.”

“No one’s asking you to get them processed right now,” said Anna. “Just to get them moved. You know, if you’d keep the storage area a little cleaner—”

“Talk to the hand,” said Martin, raising his hand as he walked over to the jumble of towers.

“Do you see what I put up with?” Anna asked as Nick shook his head with a smile.

“That’s why I work alone,” he said, handing over his clipboard.

“Smart man.” Anna scanned the list, automatically cataloguing which computers were going where. Fisheries and Wildlife were finally getting some decent computers, good for them. Speech Communication, that was on the other side of campus…Student Counseling and Psych Services…Ethnic Studies…Nuclear Engineering…and the office of the Vice Provost for Research. Well, Elizabeth hadn’t wasted any time, had she? She must have gotten her budget update approved practically the day after New Year’s. Curious as to what Chanda had ordered, Anna traced the line across the page and chuckled when she saw the sender. Chanda had gotten a Mac.

“All right, Nick,” grunted Martin, shoving the last of the towers up against the wall. Nick vanished out the door and reappeared a moment later, his dolly stacked head height with boxes. He left them in the delivery area and trundled back out to his truck for another load as Anna began checking off the orders against the list.

“Ooo, twenty-four-inch iMac, good job, Chanda,” she said when she saw the addressee on the big white box.

“Dibs on installing that one,” said Martin.

“Dream on. That one’s mine.”

“Says who? I placed the order.”

“Yes, but I know the people in that office. They’d rather see me than your geeky mug.”

Martin grumbled but said nothing more as Nick returned with another stack of boxes. Anna quickly finished checking off the list, signed at the bottom and handed the clipboard back. “Thanks, Nick. See you next time.”

“Have a good one,” he said, sketching a quick wave before collecting his dolly and hustling out the door.

“Aren’t you glad you don’t work for a company where you’re practically running from one place to the next, all day every day?” Martin shook his head. “Man, I’d hate that life.”

“Yeah, but you’d have much better-looking legs,” said Anna.

 

 

-----

 

 

Chanda was delighted to hear about the arrival of her new computer, and laughed when Anna teased her about her sudden conversion. “What can I say? Dr. Markel loves her new laptop and I kept hearing all these stories about how wonderful it was. And she showed me a few things that would make my life much easier. So I did a little research and made my choice.”

“Well, you made an excellent choice,” Anna said, shifting the phone to her other hand as she reached out for her calendar. “But I thought you wanted a laptop?”

“I couldn’t justify that, not with university money. Dr. Markel would have signed off on it, but…it just didn’t feel right. If I want to do a project away from my desk, I can always use my own laptop. The iMac is better for my needs.”

“Makes sense. So, is there a good time to install this? When Dr. Markel is there to see your shiny new toy that she talked you into?” She threw the bait out, hoping for a bite.

“She’s here right now,” said Chanda, the smile evident in her voice. “And she’ll probably be almost as excited as I am. I’m in between projects at the moment, but I don’t suppose you can do it on such short notice.”

“Actually, I can.”

“Really?”

“Shall I bring it over?”

“Oh, yes!” Chanda’s excitement was palpable. “Thank you, I can’t wait to see it!”

“Okay, I’ll be there in about five minutes. And Chanda?”

“Yes?”

“When I get there, try not to drool on it.”

Chanda laughed. “I already drooled on the ones in the bookstore when I was doing my research. I think it’s out of my system.”

Anna had the box on the cart moments after they hung up, but paused as she was wheeling it out. She went back to her computer, did a quick Google Images search, and printed out a single sheet of paper. Folding and tucking it into her inside coat pocket, she smiled to herself and headed out the door.

Trips across campus were a lot colder these days, and she was glad to get into the warmth of the Admin building. Chanda took one look at her red nose when she arrived and said, “You poor thing. Would you like a cup of coffee or some tea?”

“Tea would be lovely. With a half packet of sugar, if you have it. Can I start on your laptop now, or do you need to close anything out?”

“No, nothing’s open. Please go ahead.” Chanda ogled the box as she passed by, then hurried down the hall.

Anna took off her coat and hung it over a chair, glancing toward the inner office door. It was ajar, and she could hear nothing from inside. Most likely Elizabeth wasn’t on the phone, then. Pulling the folded paper out of her coat pocket, she walked up to the door and tapped lightly.

“Come in.”

Though she hadn’t heard that voice in almost two months, it had the power to send a chill down her spine. Holding her breath, she pushed the door open to find Elizabeth looking up curiously, though her expression instantly became more blandly professional. “Hello, Anna. I hear you’re about to make Chanda a very happy woman.”

“Actually, I’m here to give you your award,” said Anna. She walked across the room and handed over the paper.

“What’s this?” Elizabeth unfolded it, stared for a second, and burst into laughter. “My first toaster! And a nice one, too.” She let the photo of the silver toaster drop to the desktop and smiled up at Anna, who was thrilled with the results of her joke. “Don’t you think you should have some part of this award as well?”

“No, this isn’t a pyramid system. The award is all yours; you recruited the newbie.” Anna could feel her own smile splitting her face. It was probably much too big for the occasion, but with Elizabeth looking at her that way, she really couldn’t help it.

“Well, thank you. I have to say I’m pretty proud; Chanda was a diehard anti-Mac person. She thought Macs were for people who didn’t actually know how to use computers.”

“Hard to keep up that line of thinking when the boss she respects is using one.”

“I guess. How were your holidays?”

“Eh.” Anna shrugged. “I went home and remembered why I left.” And my mom kicked me in the ass.

“And home is…”

“Kansas.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “What? You’re an easterner! At least by your definition. I thought you were an Oregonian born and bred.”

“No, but I assimilated quickly. Including all of the bad habits and prejudices against easterners. How about you, where’s home for you?”

“I really am an easterner. Maine.”

“Whoa. Yeah, that qualifies.”

“It’s one reason I was so happy to come here,” said Elizabeth. “Lansing had a lot going for it, but it sure wasn’t Maine. I missed the wildness. And there’s even more wildness here than there was back home. Did you know there are forty thousand square miles of forest in this state?” As Anna shook her head, Elizabeth added, “Now guess how many square miles Maine has. Not of forest; I mean how big the entire state is.”

“Um…I’m a computer science major…”

“Thirty-five thousand. Maine could fit inside just the forests of Oregon. I love this state.”

“Sounds like you’re assimilating, too.”

“I am,” said Elizabeth, just as Chanda poked her head in the office.

“Ms. Petrowski? I have your tea.”

“Oh my god, it’s Anna, please. Ms. Petrowski is my mother.” Anna reluctantly turned away from Elizabeth’s smiling face and accepted her tea. “Thank you. Guess I’d better get started.”

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Chanda, but anyone could have seen how anxious she was to get her hands on her new computer. Anna nodded a farewell to Elizabeth and went back to the outer office.

Since Chanda was hovering like a woman waiting for the birth of her new grandchild, Anna put her to work unpacking the new computer while she unplugged the old monitor and parked it on the cart. Together they lifted the large new computer to the desktop, and Chanda dove into the packaging to unwrap the keyboard and mouse.

“Oh, they’re so nice,” she said, holding them up for inspection.

“I take it you don’t want to keep the old ones, then?” Anna took one look at Chanda’s disdainful expression and laughed. “Guess not.”

The installation went through with no hiccups, and soon Chanda was seated at her desk, demonstrating what she had already picked up about the operating system as she quickly began customizing her desktop. She asked a few questions which were easily answered, and was intrigued when she learned that she could rename the hard drive.

“You mean Elizabeth still has an icon on her desktop that says ‘Macintosh HD’?” asked Anna incredulously.

“So far as I know.”

“Oh, that will never do. Part of the fun of having a Mac is customizing it. We need to fix that.” Anna thought for a moment. Did she dare? Well, Elizabeth had laughed at her joke with the toaster photo…why not? She turned around and poked her head through the doorway. “Elizabeth? I’d like to check on your intranet connection, is now a convenient time?”

“Sure.” Elizabeth rattled off a few more keys, clicked several times with her mouse, and rose from the chair. “Have at it; I’m going to check out the new baby.”

Anna stood back to let her pass before walking in and taking the still-warm seat. She brought up the browser, found the image she was looking for, and quickly copied it to the desktop. From there it was a matter of seconds to replace the original icon image of the hard disk with the new one, and give it a proper name. Smiling at the results of her work, she closed out the browser and returned to the outer office. “Have you had to wipe off any drool yet?” she asked.

“Wow, that was fast,” said Elizabeth.

Anna shrugged. “Doesn’t take long.”

“I love this computer,” said Chanda. “But I’ve managed to keep any drool from hitting the keyboard.”

“Good. Now, let me show you how you two can share files wirelessly without using the intranet.”

After a five-minute lesson which left both women delighted with the possibilities of this new convenience, Elizabeth turned to Anna and asked her to step into her office. Her tone was serious, and Anna was instantly worried—especially when Elizabeth closed the door behind them.

“Have a seat,” said Elizabeth, indicating one of the chairs at the little conference table. She slipped into the other and folded her hands in front of her, exuding a quiet confidence. “Anna, I’d like you to do something for me.”

“If I can, sure.”

“I’ve been picking up a few more details on the work culture around here, and I’ve found something pretty surprising. Did you know that quite a few colleges and departments on this campus won’t allow their employees to use Macs?”

Relieved that it apparently had nothing to do with her, Anna nodded. “Yes, I am. And I think those policies come from sheer ignorance, but there’s not much I can do about them.”

“Actually, there is.” The look Elizabeth was giving her was almost predatory. “The vice provosts and vice presidents are meeting at the end of the month, with the provost and president attending. I’d like you to come to that meeting and give a presentation on precisely why those policies are short-sighted, and what advantages Macs can offer the users.”

Anna gaped at her, unable to believe her ears. “What? You want me to lecture the top management of this university on computer policy?”

“Did you hear me say ‘lecture’? I said ‘give a presentation.’ If I wanted a lecture I’d ask someone else.”

“But…Elizabeth, that’s not my job! At the very least, you should be asking my director, if not Aaron Lawrence,” she said, naming the Vice Provost for Information Services.

“Aaron isn’t a computer geek, he’s a manager. There’s a big difference. As for your director—he’s the one I’d ask if I wanted a lecture. No. Besides, I already spoke to him about it, and he’s fine with you taking the role. I need someone on the line, someone who knows exactly what the situation is on the user level.” Elizabeth leaned forward, tapping the top of the table with a single finger as she made her points. “I want you to go in there and lay it out in terms everyone can understand, even if they aren’t geeks. I want facts and figures. I want you to tell them that your lab wastes three to three and a half FTE on nothing but pulling malware off PCs. I want you to give statistics on virus infections among PCs versus Macs, and to talk about the relative percentage of time you spend helping or training people on PCs and on Macs. But most of all, I want you to take your laptop in there and dazzle them with the things it can do, the way you dazzled me at the Bean Grinder. Anna, I bought a Mac because of what you showed me that day. Because of the way you talked about it. You have a real gift for making the technical accessible, and I don’t think you have any idea how rare that gift is. I’d like to take advantage of it to conclusively demonstrate that these policies are outdated and obstructionist.”

Her gaze was so intense that it took Anna several seconds to realize that she was waiting for an answer.

“You bought your Mac just because of that day at the Bean Grinder?”

Elizabeth looked at her for a moment longer before shaking her head with a chuckle. “Is that the only thing that got your attention out of everything I just said?”

“Well, no, but…did you?”

“Yes. You got me started. I went home and started doing some research, and the more I read the more I liked the idea. I don’t think I’d ever have considered it if we hadn’t had that day together.”

Elizabeth had gone home and done research based on their day together? She’d had that kind of effect on her?

Well, why did you think she bought a Mac? Because her horoscope told her to?

No, but…she’d just never thought about it. And right now the idea of her being able to influence Elizabeth was oddly gratifying. As opposed to the idea of giving a presentation in front of the entire assembled upper management of the university, which was completely terrifying.

But you and Elizabeth can work on it together. This will keep you connected.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” she said slowly.

“Yes, you have. You did at the Bean Grinder.”

“That was just you!”

“And this is also just me—plus a few other people. Anna, I don’t want a polished lecture. I want you to talk to them just the way you did to me. With a few more facts and figures at your fingertips.”

Anna studied her for a moment. “You really think I can do this?”

“Do you think I’d ask you if I didn’t?”

“No.” If there was one thing she knew for sure, it was that Elizabeth would not take chances on the job. She was a professional.

So are you, her inner voice pointed out.

“Your director thinks you can, too,” added Elizabeth. “He told me you know your stuff. That’s a quote.”

“I can’t believe he’s turning down face time with the president and provost,” said Anna.

Elizabeth’s mouth quirked up on one side. “He didn’t get the chance to turn it down because I didn’t ask him to give this presentation. I asked for you to give it.”

Whoa. That meant Elizabeth was pulling rank to get her in that meeting. She couldn’t possibly say no.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it. But I’m going to need your help.”

“You have it.”

“Great. Excuse me now while I rush to the ladies room and throw up.”

Elizabeth laughed. “It won’t be that bad. And if you get nervous, just keep your eye on the ball. Your goal is to change those policies.”

That was a good point, and it served to solidify Anna’s resolve. Those policies were outdated and obstructionist, as Elizabeth had so succinctly put it. If she could help change them—damn, that would be worth the effort.

“You’re right,” she said. “I know a lot of people who wish they could have Macs, but their departments won’t let them. I’d love to help them.”

“Good,” said Elizabeth approvingly. “What kind of help do you need from me?”

“Could you…write down what you just said to me? About all the things you want me to do? If I could get that in email form, I could use it as a kind of guide to building a presentation.”

“You got it.”

 

 

-----

 

 

Elizabeth worked fast; Anna hadn’t been back in her office half an hour before that email arrived. It was exactly what she’d asked for, in a bulleted list to make it even easier for her. And at the end, there was a PS:

By the way, would you have any idea how my hard drive was somehow named Supertoaster?

Anna pictured Elizabeth staring at her computer screen, noticing for the first time the little silver toaster with wings that hovered at the top right corner. The image made her laugh, and she was still chuckling as she hit Reply.

No idea at all. It does seem apt, though.

Five minutes later another email arrived.

Thanks. You really gave me a good laugh, and I keep smiling every time I look at it. And, of course, now I’m wondering what you named yours.

Anna took a screen shot of her desktop and attached it to an email with only one comment:

You probably could have guessed this one.

It was an image of an old-fashioned signpost, with wooden signs pointing in every direction. Anna’s hard drive was named Wanderer.

 

 

 

 


chapter 7

 

 

That first email exchange opened the gates. Over the course of the next three weeks, a flurry of emails passed between Anna and Elizabeth, most of which were ostensibly about the presentation but still managed to wander into other topics. Somehow, and with a suddenness that dazzled Anna, her relationship with Elizabeth had become just the sort of friendly coworker type that she had wished for back in October, after she had stupidly thrown away her first chance. Now she was being offered a second, and this time she wasn’t about to waste it.

The only problem was that Elizabeth’s friendliness remained quite professional, and Anna had no idea how to move it beyond that. How did one say, “Hey, I’ve changed my mind and I’d like to pick up where we left off before I was an idiot”? Nothing in their email exchanges came remotely close to an opening for that sort of statement.

The weeks flew by a little too quickly for her own tastes, and before she knew it, she was walking a familiar path across campus to the Admin building, this time with her stomach somewhere around her ankles. Her steps dragged a bit as she pushed through the glass doors, and when she pressed the call button for the elevator, she could see her finger shaking slightly. Good god, it wasn’t like she didn’t know what she was talking about! But of course that wasn’t the problem. The problem was who she was talking to.

Chanda was on the phone when she walked in, and merely smiled and pointed toward the inner door as she continued her conversation. Anna clutched her laptop bag more tightly and rapped on the door.

“Come in.”

Elizabeth was standing at her desk, sliding folders into her briefcase. She glanced over, then paused and took a more careful look as a smile grew on her face. “Wow. You clean up nicely.”

Anna blushed. “I haven’t worn this since my job interview. Computer geeks don’t often have a need for pantsuits.”

“And most computer geeks don’t look that good in one.” Elizabeth turned away to gather a few more folders, leaving Anna stupefied at what sounded an awful lot like a flirtatious comment.

“Um…thank you,” she said. “I’d compliment you on your outfit, too, except that you always look like you just stepped out of a stockholder meeting.”

Elizabeth flashed her a smile. “Thanks. Though I have to say I envy your dress code sometimes. Most of the people in this building would probably pass out if I showed up for work in jeans. Chanda would be the first.” She flipped the top over on her case and shouldered it. “Are you ready?”

“I’m ready to get it over with.”

“You’ll do fine. The run-through you did with me was perfect.”

“Yeah, but that was just with you. This is with everyone else.”

“Just remember the first rule of public speaking if you get nervous,” said Elizabeth, walking past her to the door. “Imagine everyone in the room is naked. Take away the power suits and people are pretty much the same.”

Anna needed a moment to catch up, having been temporarily glued in place by the thought of a nude Elizabeth sitting at the conference table. No, that was not a good strategy for combating nervousness. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d really rather not imagine President Ross naked,” she said as she followed Elizabeth to the outer office. Chanda was looking at them wide-eyed, and Elizabeth chuckled.

“I was just giving her a little public speaking advice,” she said.

“Good lord,” said Chanda. “That would scare anyone. Try some different advice; that one seems to have turned her green.”

Elizabeth turned around, looking at Anna with a concerned expression. “Anna, you’ll do great. You’re not giving a presentation on the comparative gross national products of first and third world countries. You’re talking about something you do every day, something you know inside and out. Something you know much, much better than anyone else in that room. That’s why we need your expertise, because you know much more about this than we do.” She paused, then reached out and laid a gentle hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Just imagine it’s you and me in the Bean Grinder.”

Her dark eyes held something that Anna hadn’t seen before, and she felt a warmth begin to displace the butterflies in her stomach. “Okay,” she said. “If anything can help, that will.”

Elizabeth held her gaze a moment longer, then smiled and patted her shoulder. “All right then. Let’s go change some policies.” She turned and walked out.

“Good luck,” said Chanda, giving her an encouraging smile. “Tell them I wouldn’t go back to a PC if they paid me.”

That worked. Anna laughed, waved at Chanda and chased Elizabeth down the hall.

 

 

-----

 

 

The conference room was on the sixth floor of the Admin building, which coincidentally housed the offices of the president and provost. Anna had always theorized that in a university structure, power could be inferred by the physical distance of one’s office from the nearest conference room. Which meant she personally had no power at all; the nearest conference room to her office was over in the library.

And it didn’t hold a candle to this one. Anna felt a bit intimidated just by the empty space, and the fact that a single page agenda was already squarely placed in front of ten seats around the table. Apparently sensing her resurgent nervousness, Elizabeth once again calmed her with a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you get set up?” she suggested, indicating the projector that was waiting on the table.

Relieved to have something to do, Anna dropped her bag in the seat nearest the projector, pulled out her laptop and booted it up. Elizabeth set her briefcase right next to her and went off to a refreshment cart that Anna hadn’t noticed when they came in.

“Hey, they have cookies from the student union,” Elizabeth said. “Do you want one?”

Anna typed in her password. “Do they have chocolate chip walnut?”

“Um…well, they have chocolate chip some-sort-of-nut, but I’m not sure what it is.”

“Sounds fine. I’ll take one,” said Anna, digging out her video adapter.

She had the first slide showing on the screen by the time Elizabeth returned with cookies and tea, but before she could thank her, the doors opened and several people walked in. Then she was too busy being introduced and making small talk to remember how nervous she was, even as she shook hands with President Ross and others whose names she knew well but had never met before. After several minutes of general chatting—during which the cookie supply was dramatically reduced—Ross made his way to the head of the table and everyone else took their seats as if a whistle had been blown.

“Well, let’s get this meeting started,” he said. “We’re doing things in a little different order today, since we have a guest with us. As you can see, the issue of employee technology policy is first on the agenda, and Anna Petrowski will be giving a presentation to fill in some holes we may have in our understanding of the topic. Anna, we’re grateful for your participation.”

“Thank you, Dr. Ross. I’m glad to be here.”

“Elizabeth, would you care to introduce us to the topic?”

“Certainly.” Elizabeth folded her hands together in a relaxed posture. “I’ve recently learned that our policies regarding employee computer usage are not consistent. Some colleges and departments allow employees to use whichever computer platform they’re comfortable with, while others limit employees to the Windows operating system. I think we could benefit from reexamining these policies, particularly in terms of how much the computer industry has changed since some of those policies were first instituted. As we all know, it’s an extremely fast-moving industry, and we need to make sure that the university doesn’t get left behind.”

“In other words, you’re in love with your new laptop and you think everyone else should get a Mac, too.”

Anna looked across the table at the speaker, whom she recognized as Del Martinez, Vice President of University Advancement and the only other woman in the room. From her smile it was clear that Del was teasing Elizabeth, however aggressive her words had seemed.

“In other words,” said Elizabeth, “I’m in love with the way my new laptop has made my work life easier, and I think every employee on this campus should have the same choice that I did. I was frankly surprised to learn that in many cases, they don’t.”

“And that is not the preference of Information Services,” said Aaron Lawrence. “I know for a fact that our computer techs often prefer the Mac service requests over the PC ones. Can you tell us why that is, Anna?”

Startled for a moment to be asked a direct question, Anna nevertheless managed to answer immediately. “Partly because the problems are usually easier to solve, and partly because the people who use Macs tend to have a better understanding of exactly what the problem is, which cuts down on our diagnosis time.”

“Interesting,” said President Ross. “Why do they have a better understanding of the problem?”

“Well…I’m going to take a side step into psychology here, because that’s where I think the answer lies. Computer operating systems are complicated things, and that’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t build a machine that responds to thousands upon thousands of discrete commands and expect it to be simple. Both the Apple and the Windows operating systems put a nice cover over that underlying complexity, but with Windows, the cover isn’t solid. A lot of the stuff underneath shows through, and it can get pretty confusing to the average user. So a lot of Windows users tend to learn exactly as much as they absolutely have to know, and no more. The Apple cover is much more solid, giving the appearance of a far simpler system. People feel more comfortable with it right from the beginning. They feel safer and better able to explore, and in the process they learn how to move around their OS much more easily. So when it comes time for someone like me to sit next to them and ask them what’s wrong, they can give a better answer. Because they know more about the system they’re using.”

“I can attest to that,” said Elizabeth. “That’s been precisely my experience. On my Windows machine I’d be calling for Tech Assistance the moment something went wrong, because I didn’t even want to begin to try to figure it out. With my Mac I feel more comfortable checking things out on my own, and I’ve solved a few problems myself without having to call for help. Which has saved Tech Assistance quite a bit of time.”

“That doesn’t seem to be a valid argument for the benefit of Macs,” said Vincent Mackowitz, Vice President of Finance and Administration. “Your time is more valuable, on an FTE basis, than the time of a computer tech. There’s no savings in having you troubleshoot your own machine.”

Anna instantly decided she didn’t like him.

“Certainly there is, when you compare that to the time I would otherwise lose sitting around, being nonproductive, while waiting for a computer tech to respond to my call,” said Elizabeth, and Anna silently cheered.

“All right, I think we’re getting a little sidetracked here,” said President Ross. “Anna, I believe you have a presentation to share with us?”

“Yes, I do.” Anna tapped a key on her laptop to bring it out of sleep mode and launched into her presentation. As per Elizabeth’s suggestion, the slideshow portion was short and to the point. The idea wasn’t to spend an hour expounding on the details of the Mac vs. Windows debate, but simply to present a few pertinent facts and statistics. When she finished with that, she closed down the presentation software and used the projector to demonstrate several features of her laptop’s operating system, hearing more than one ‘ooh’ from her audience in the process. As part of her discussion regarding compatibility between PCs and Macs on the same server, she asked Aaron Lawrence to boot up his own laptop. It wasn’t a planned part of her talk, but the moment she’d seen that he’d brought his laptop with him, she had decided that a demo was worth a thousand words. As soon as his laptop was booted and had found the wireless network, she went into her own file finder and silently pointed to the sidebar, where ‘Aaron Lawrence’s PC’ was clearly listed under Devices. She clicked on it and waited as his public directories became available on her machine. “Which would be a good one to open?” she asked him. He looked at the list, suggested a filename, and a moment later Anna had his file open on her laptop, to the obvious surprise of half the people in the room. Aaron Lawrence himself was smiling at her, and she grinned back before going into her last demo.

“I have just one more thing to show you,” she said, rebooting her machine. “And I think this pretty much finishes off any arguments about compatibility.” She stood back as the familiar Windows Vista screen came up on her laptop, hearing at least one murmur of surprise in the room. “Apple’s OS can run Windows. So even if you have an employee who prefers Macs but needs to run software that is Windows only, that’s no longer a barrier.”

“I didn’t know it could do that,” said President Ross.

“A lot has changed just in the last two years, Dr. Ross. The barriers really are falling. The Mac vs. PC debate is rapidly becoming a much simpler question of preference, not necessity.”

“I can see that,” he said. “Well! This has been a rather educational presentation. Does anyone have questions for Anna?”

Indeed they did, and it was another half hour before Anna was finally able to disconnect her laptop and pack it up. She offered her farewells to the group, detoured past the refreshment table for another cookie, and stepped out into the hall. The moment the door closed behind her she let out a long, relieved sigh. Thank god that was over.

She bit into the cookie and smiled. Funny thing, though—it hadn’t been that bad. She’d actually enjoyed herself once she got past the slideshow and into the demos. And her own vice provost had smiled at her when she’d used his computer to illustrate cross-platform compatibility. That was worth some serious points.

With a swing in her step, she headed down the hall to the elevators.

 

 

-----

 

 

Elizabeth finally called at a quarter to five. Martin had left long ago, teasing Anna for staying late and accusing her of turning into management, what with the suit and the overtime. Anna could have cared less; she’d have waited until midnight for this call.

“Well? What happened after I left?” she demanded.

A chuckle came down the line. “Impatient, aren’t you?”

“If I were impatient, I’d already have gone home.”

“Oh—damn, I forgot you get off at four! What are you still doing here?”

“Waiting for you. Now will you tell me what happened?”

“What happened was that there was practically no debate at all. You didn’t really leave room for one, Anna. Congratulations.”

Anna put a hand on her tingling stomach. “You mean they’re changing the policies?”

“Presidential memorandum, effective as soon as he gets it off his desk. Probably a week or so.”

“Woo!” Anna shouted, grinning as she heard Elizabeth laugh. “That’s fantastic!”

“I agree. You did a great job. I knew you were the one to do it.”

“Thanks for believing in me.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for doing it, even though you were scared to death.”

“I wasn’t scared to death. Just to the point of immobility. And actually it got a lot easier once I started doing the demos. You were right, it was just like we were at the Bean Grinder. Except everyone was a lot better dressed.”

“And the coffee wasn’t nearly as good.”

They both chuckled, and the pause that followed swiftly grew awkward. Anna felt a stab of fear. Without the presentation project to keep them connected, what did they have to talk about? She couldn’t stand to see this fade away; it meant too much to her.

“Elizabeth…” She hesitated, trying to dredge up the courage she’d lacked for the last three months.

“Yes?”

“I have a personal question for you.”

“Okay. What is it?”

“Would you like to meet me at the Bean Grinder this Saturday?”

There was a long pause, during which Anna kicked herself for doing this over the phone, when she couldn’t see Elizabeth’s face.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth finally said. “I’m not sure that’s wise.”

“This has nothing to do with work,” Anna said in a rush. “It has to do with you and me. That’s why it’s a personal question. Elizabeth, I really screwed up last October and I’ve been regretting it every goddamned day since, and I’m asking you to give me a second chance. Actually, I’m…I’m asking you on a date.”

“A date?”

“I could ask you out for dinner if you’d prefer. It just seemed like coffee at the Bean Grinder might be more…well, symbolic.”

“You’re asking me on a date.” This time, Anna thought she could hear a smile in Elizabeth’s voice.

“Yes. I’m just hoping it’s not too late.”

“No,” said Elizabeth, and Anna’s heart dropped into her shoes. “It’s not too late.”

“I’m—what?” Her heart rebounded with a suddenness that left her dizzy. “Does that mean yes?”

“It means yes. What time?”

“Nine thirty,” said Anna, for whom the hour held special significance.

“All right.” It was clear from Elizabeth’s tone that she understood. “I’ll see you then. And Anna?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t be late.”

 

 

 

 


chapter 8

 

 

So terrified was Anna of being late that she walked through the doors at ten after nine. Kyung looked surprised to see her, but true to form he already had a scone hidden beneath the counter. There were still plenty in the display case, though, so she bought a second one for Elizabeth—and upon further consideration, a third to take home with her. Juggling scones, laptop and mocha, she made her way to her favorite table in the corner, which had recently been vacated but not cleaned. She didn’t mind; better to do a little work and get the table she wanted. As she carried the used cups and plates to the collection trays, Kyung dashed out with a wet cloth and wiped the table down for her. Soon she settled in with mug in hand and news up on the computer, but it was nearly impossible to focus. Every few sentences she’d find herself looking out the window, straining for a glimpse of Elizabeth even though it was much too early for her to be there.

As nine thirty drew near, her ability to concentrate fell to somewhere near zero, and she finally gave it up after reading the same paragraph three times without retaining a word of it. With the remains of her mocha in hand, she stared out the windows, looking up and down the sidewalks in both directions, her nerves taut with expectation.

By nine thirty-five Elizabeth still hadn’t arrived. Ten minutes later, Anna was feeling like an idiot. If Elizabeth had decided to teach her a lesson by turning the tables, she certainly deserved it. But that would mean they had no future, not even for a friendship, and that hurt more than she would have imagined.

By nine fifty she felt tears pricking her eyes, and with a sigh she drained the last dregs of her now-cold mocha and got up to carry the cup to the collection tray. It was when she was returning to her table that she caught sight of Elizabeth running up the sidewalk. In jeans and an open leather coat, her face flushed and her hair flying as she ran, she looked absolutely beautiful, and Anna stopped in the middle of the coffee shop to stare.

Elizabeth burst through the doors, took one look around the shop and came straight for Anna. “I am so sorry,” she gasped, then leaned over to put her hands on her thighs and suck in air.

“Are you all right?” Anna asked worriedly. “What happened?”

Elizabeth straightened long enough to walk to the table and collapse into a chair. “I’m fine, just a little out of breath. I ran all the way here from Haversham Heights. Oh, god, I’m going to pay for this tomorrow.”

Anna watched in concern as Elizabeth laid her head on the back of her chair, still panting. “Can I do anything?” she asked. It was a stupid question, but she felt helpless.

Elizabeth waved a hand. “No, it’s all right.” She lifted her head again and glanced toward the counter. “Actually, I’d kill for a glass of water.”

“You got it.” Anna practically leaped across the shop to the water jug and poured a tall glass. By the time she got back to the table, Elizabeth had stripped off her coat and her breathing had mercifully slowed somewhat. The water was accepted with a grateful smile, and the entire glass went down in several long gulps.

“Ahhh. Thank you, that’s much better.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“You’re not going to believe it,” said Elizabeth. “I took my dry cleaning in on the way over here. And when I went back to my car, guess what was hanging in my ignition?”

“Oh, no. You locked yourself out?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Last time I did that, I think I was an undergrad! I never do shit like that. And this morning of all mornings. But I figured, it’s okay, I’m a member of AAA, I’ll just call and they’ll come take care of it. How long can it take AAA to get anywhere in a town this small?”

“Uh oh,” said Anna, who knew the answer from prior experience. “It can take them up to two hours.”

“I see you’ve had the pleasure. Yes, they told me it would be ninety minutes. So then I called for a taxi, at which point I learned that there’s some big convention in town this weekend, and there was a half-hour wait at least. And I couldn’t call you, because we never exchanged cell numbers. So I gave up and started running. I’m sorry, Anna. I can only imagine what you were thinking.”

Anna looked her in the eye and said, “I was thinking I deserved it.”

“No…” Elizabeth shook her head, but Anna stopped her with a touch to her hand.

“It’s true. And that’s partly why I asked you here today.”

“I thought you asked me here on a date.”

“I did. But I needed to get a few things off my chest before we started.”

Elizabeth began to say something, then thought better of it. “Okay. But can I get my latte first?”

“Will you let me get it for you? After all, I asked you out. This should be my treat.”

“All right. It’s a latte with—”

“Extra foam, I remember.” Anna stood up. “Oh, by the way, one of those scones is yours.”

Elizabeth looked at the two plates as if seeing them for the first time. “I’m twenty minutes late and you still haven’t eaten your scone?”

“I was waiting for you.”

The smile that earned her kept her warm all the way across the shop, and Kyung gave her a little wink as he whipped out the latte and a second caramel mocha. “You sure you wouldn’t rather have the IV? I hear it’s easier.”

“But it doesn’t taste half as good.” Anna overtipped him and headed back to the table. With Elizabeth’s eyes on her every step of the way, she considered herself lucky that she didn’t trip over her own feet.

“You didn’t have your mocha either?” Elizabeth asked as she accepted her drink.

“No, that much I couldn’t wait for. This is my second. I’ll be vibrating off the chair in half an hour.”

“As long as you can drive. Because in an hour I’m going to ask you to take me back to my dry cleaners so I can meet the stupid AAA truck.”

“I’d be happy to. But we’ll have to walk back to my house first, because I didn’t drive here.”

Elizabeth paused in mid-sip. “Please tell me you live close by?”

“Two miles.”

“Damn. I was hoping you’d say two blocks.” Elizabeth stretched one leg out to the side of the table and began massaging her thigh, an action that swiftly reduced Anna’s cognitive abilities as she watched.

“Closer than Haversham Heights,” she said absently.

Everything is closer than Haversham Heights.” The second leg joined the first, and silence settled on the table until Elizabeth looked up from her massage. “You said you had something you wanted to get off your chest?” she prompted.

Anna snapped back to reality. “Right.” She took a hefty sip of her mocha, set it down and plunged in. “Three months ago you asked me for an explanation of why I stood you up, and I never really gave you one. I’d like to now, if you’ll listen.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, though she didn’t sound entirely certain. “I’m listening.” She folded her legs back under the table and gave Anna her undivided attention.

God, this was hard. “First of all, I want to apologize for my behavior that day. I managed to justify it to myself then, but my excuses were shit and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted a do-over. I know I hurt you, and if how I felt when I thought you were blowing me off today is any indication, I probably hurt you a lot.”

Elizabeth nodded slowly. “You did,” she said. “That day we had together was honest to god one of the best days I’d had since I moved here. I was so excited about finding someone I clicked with, someone that I thought had real potential as a—” She hesitated, an unfamiliar look of nervousness on her face, and Anna finished the sentence for her.

“A romantic partner.”

Elizabeth broke their gaze and looked out the window. “Stupid, isn’t it?” she said. “On one day’s acquaintance.”

“It was a special day,” said Anna. “And no more stupid than me coming up with the same conclusion four days too late.” She watched as Elizabeth turned back with a surprised expression. “Yes, I figured it out an hour after I told you it wouldn’t work. Now that was stupid.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because my main reason for thinking it wouldn’t work still applied.”

“My job,” said Elizabeth flatly.

Anna nodded. “Your job. And mine, too. And…this is the part where I owe you a couple of explanations.” She took a gulp of her mocha, closing her eyes as the heat seared down her throat. “Okay. First confession. I made a judgment on you that was completely wrong. I thought your Dell laptop was university property, bought for you when you first hired on.” She saw Elizabeth start to shake her head, and held up her hand. “I know it was your own personal laptop. But I didn’t know it then. So when you decided you wanted a Mac instead, it looked to me like you were a twit. That’s what we call the high-powered people on campus who go through top of the line equipment like it costs nothing, even while people in the same department are doing much more processor-intensive work on far crappier equipment. We’ve got people on that campus using computers that are so old that when they’re finally replaced, I can’t give away the old equipment. Not even the elementary schools will take them. Not even the Salvation Army! They’re so outdated that all I can do is recycle them. But up in the higher levels, cost doesn’t seem to be an issue. It’s not fair, and it really pisses me off, and…I thought you were one of them. And it colored my perception of you.”

Elizabeth set her mug down and leaned forward. “Even if that laptop had been university property, you had no right to judge me that way. My getting new equipment does not mean that someone down the line is getting cheated out of theirs. For god’s sake, Anna, you should know better than anyone else how the trickle-down system works! How can you be so judgmental when there’s no actual fault?”

“Because just once, I’d like to see some poor research assistant who’s crunching huge data sets for her lab get a nice, shiny new computer before her lab director does. The lab director who does zero data analysis and doesn’t need the processing power. The system isn’t fair and yes, there is fault, Elizabeth!” She stopped, realizing that she was going down a road she’d had no intention of traveling. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get into this, and it’s not your responsibility. Anyway, what I was trying to say was that I misjudged you, and that played into the whole picture.”

“Which is…?”

“I’m getting to that.” She needed another hit of her mocha, and took a moment for a gigantic swallow. “Okay. For this part I have to give you a little family history.”

“Oh, good,” said Elizabeth, reaching out to break a corner off her scone. “Now this part I’ll look forward to.” She gave Anna an encouraging look as she popped the piece of scone into her mouth.

“Well, I’m the daughter of a phone company lineman and a mom whose job was raising three children. My brother works for the same phone company, and my sister followed my mom’s example—she just had her third kid and has never worked anything other than a part time job here and there. I’m the only one in the family who went to college for more than a term, and practically the only one from my high school who left Kansas and made a life somewhere else. I launched myself into the white collar world, but I still felt like a blue collar worker.”

Elizabeth was watching her with a look of concentration. “This ties in to the part where you judge me for having new equipment, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. I grew up being very aware of my family’s place in society. We like to think the U.S. doesn’t have a class system, but that’s bullshit. Blue and white collar don’t mix—not in high school, and not as adults. The perception among my family and friends was that blue collar works its collective ass off getting shit done, while white collar doesn’t do squat and gets paid ten times more. We resented those people. The irony is that I could still be operating from this line of thought when in reality, I’m now exactly the kind of person I used to resent. I don’t do anything physical, and I get paid quite well for it. But I didn’t figure that out until Christmas.”

“Did something happen?”

She actually sounded concerned, and Anna felt warmed out of all proportion to the question. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “The only thing that happened was that I sat at our kitchen table with the extra leaf in to accommodate the whole family, and everyone around me was talking about all the usual topics, and I suddenly realized that I don’t fit there the way I used to. I fit better with you.”

Elizabeth’s face lit up. “I’m really glad you feel that way. About us, I mean. Three months late, but at least you got there.”

“Yeah, but not before I caused both you and me a whole lot of hurt. I loved that day we spent together. Heck, I was practically floating for three and a half days afterward. And then I found out who you really were, and all of my prejudices came crashing over my head. Blue and white collar don’t mix. I thought you were completely out of my league, and it hurt to realize that, and so to keep myself from feeling hurt…” She trailed off, having a hard time saying the next part.

“You found a way to turn it into something else,” said Elizabeth. “So you judged me.”

Anna nodded miserably. “And then I stood you up, and justified it to myself by thinking that the last time we’d talked about it, we’d never actually agreed on a time. I just said I was here every Saturday. Pure semantics, and I actually believed I was in the right. So much so that I was righteously pissed off when I found that you’d taken my scone. I had a few choice words ready for you when I delivered your computer. And then when I got to your office, you took all the wind out of my sails by telling me that you were worried about me.”

“I was worried about you. I just couldn’t believe that the person I knew from our first two meetings could stand me up that way. There had to be another explanation. And I was really afraid that the explanation was just what it turned out to be.”

Anna summoned up all of her courage as she reached across the table and covered Elizabeth’s hand with her own. Startled, Elizabeth looked down at their hands and then back at Anna, the question clear in her eyes.

“I am very, very sorry,” Anna said quietly. “For judging you, for letting my prejudices screw up something beautiful, for treating you so badly. And I was sorry then, too. I built a whole house of cards to support my position, and you knocked most of it down in thirty seconds. The rest fell when Chanda told me that the laptop wasn’t university property. But my prejudices were still there, and I still thought you were out of my league. So I never fought for this, even though I wished I could.”

Elizabeth turned her hand over, interlacing their fingers. “Then I need to know one thing. Are you fighting for it now?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Why?”

“That’s two things.”

A slow smile curved Elizabeth’s lips. “Semantics are the bane of your life, aren’t they?”

“They’ve gotten me in a lot of trouble, yes.” Anna smiled back, then added more seriously, “Because I figured out that there’s more to both you and me than our job titles.”

“And when did that happen?”

“This month. It started at Christmas, when I had that realization with my family. Plus my mom seriously kicked me in the ass when I told her what happened. I came back determined to at least rebuild a friendship with you. And then when—what?” she asked, seeing the aha expression on Elizabeth’s face.

“You just answered a question I’ve been wondering about since you delivered Chanda’s computer. I couldn’t believe it when you walked in my office and gave me that photo of a toaster. You were joking with me. It was like you’d suddenly reverted back to the person I met here in this coffee shop. And then I found that you’d played another joke by changing my hard drive icon. Something had changed, but I had no idea what. Not that I was complaining.”

“I didn’t realize it was that obvious.”

“Trust me, it was.”

“Well…anyway,” Anna continued, embarrassed and eager to move on, “when we were working together on that presentation, I started to see you more as Elizabeth and less as the Vice Provost for Research. But I think the most important thing was that I started to think of myself as someone with valuable expertise. A person with something to offer.”

Elizabeth squeezed her hand with a delighted grin. “Yes! That’s exactly what I hoped would happen.”

Anna stared. “You set this up?!”

“Not the way you’re thinking.” With a final squeeze, Elizabeth let go and reached for her scone. “I set up your involvement before I saw you after Christmas, remember. When I still had no reason to think you’d ever see me as…well, romantic potential. Or even a friend.” She broke off a piece and popped it into her mouth. “Mmm. You know, you were right about these. They’re fantastic.”

Anna’s impatience was clearly conveyed in her look, because Elizabeth laughed as she picked up her mug for a sip. “Sorry, but I can’t let it get cold. Anyway, you made your self-perception pretty clear when you told me I was out of your league. And afterward, every time I called you with a question about my new computer, I’d sit there amazed all over again that you could have such a low perception of yourself when you were obviously extremely good at what you do. When I found out about those inconsistent computer policies, I saw an opportunity for you. There was no question in my mind that you’d be the perfect person to talk at that meeting, and I hoped that in the process, you might come to see yourself a little more clearly. I have to say, I’m quite proud of myself now.”

Anna sat back in her chair with a thump. “I can’t believe it. Now I feel like I did in the seventh grade, when my teacher had me grade papers for her so I could figure out that getting two wrong out of twenty wasn’t actually a bad thing.”

“I am not at all surprised that you’d have thought a ninety percent score wasn’t good enough,” said Elizabeth. “But I really hope you don’t see me as the equivalent of your seventh-grade teacher.”

“No. For one thing, I can’t imagine her looking that good in a leather coat.” She saw the pink rise to Elizabeth’s cheeks, and felt that she’d recovered at least a little equilibrium in this conversation.

“Well, thank you. And thanks for explaining everything. You didn’t have to, but it really does help.”

“Of course I had to. Elizabeth, this has been weighing me down for three months. I want to start over with you, and I couldn’t do that without coming clean.”

“We can never start over. That’s not how it works. Where we are now is a product of the last three months, and we can’t change that. And I wouldn’t if I could.”

“You wouldn’t?” Anna thought that if she could wave a magic wand and wipe out her colossally bad behavior in October, she’d do it in a heartbeat.

“No. Look at how much you’ve changed in those three months. Would you take that away from yourself?”

“No,” said Anna instantly, now seeing Elizabeth’s point.

“And in that same time period, I’ve come to appreciate your professionalism even when I couldn’t have your friendship. You could have dumped me off on anyone else in your department just because things were so awkward between us. But you didn’t. And I’ve seen you extend the same perfect courtesy to Chanda, who by your definition of the American class system is pretty far below you.”

“Whoa, wait a minute! Chanda isn’t in a different class from me, she just has a different job.”

“Exactly.” Elizabeth sat back in her chair with another bite of scone, smiling as she watched Anna catch up.

“Oh, that was very clever.”

“That was semantics.”

Anna couldn’t help but laugh. “Point made. And very well, I must say. It’s a bit scary to think I might have met someone who can beat me at my own game.”

“You need someone who can beat you at your own game sometimes. We all do. It’s what makes relationships dynamic instead of static. We need people who can help us grow.”

Anna thought back to her holiday, when she’d been utterly bored by at least eighty percent of the conversation. “I think you’re right. That’s why I left Kansas. I couldn’t grow there anymore.”

“And that’s why I left Maine. Though it wasn’t so much the people as the limitations of the place.”

“You couldn’t grow in Maine?”

“I love my parents, but I couldn’t do what they did for a living. It wasn’t enough for me.”

“What did they do?” asked Anna curiously.

With an odd little half-smile, Elizabeth said, “They ran a lobster boat. My background is probably even more blue collar than yours. I worked on the boat until college.”

Anna stared, for once in her life struck absolutely speechless. “But…you went to Yale? And Cambridge?” she said faintly.

“Yale gave me a full ride, and Cambridge was courtesy of a Rotary Ambassador scholarship. I could never have afforded those universities on my own, and my parents sure couldn’t help.”

“Oh god.” Anna laid her head down on the table, mortified beyond any prior standards. “Remember what you said about not wanting to start over?”

“Yes…?” There was laughter underlying the single word.

Anna sat up again, meeting Elizabeth’s amused gaze. “I think we need to in at least one way. Will you tell me about yourself? Start from the beginning, and don’t leave anything out. Because if you do, I’ll almost certainly find a way to embarrass myself with it.”

“Deal, on one condition. You do the same.”

“Deal.” She held her hand out, and Elizabeth gave it a formal shake.

The conversation flowed easily after that, though Anna continued to mentally kick herself as she learned more about Elizabeth’s life. They had far more in common than she’d ever have believed, and the time flew by as they compared their experiences growing up and moving out. Before she knew it, Elizabeth was pointing at her watch and saying they needed to go.

They waved goodbye to Kyung and started down the street, with Anna swinging out at her usual pace until she realized that Elizabeth wasn’t keeping up.

“Can’t move those long legs fast enough?” she teased.

“Hey, I moved them fast enough to get here only twenty minutes late. Now they’re stiff as a pair of two-by-fours. I think my quads are on strike.”

“Oh, damn, I didn’t think about that.” Anna was instantly contrite. “Do you want to just rest here while I get the car and come back?”

“No thanks. Actually, a two-mile walk is probably exactly what I need. I can get my muscles warmed up and then stretch them out.”

“Okay,” said Anna doubtfully, watching as Elizabeth walked stiff-legged beside her. “But you’re making me hurt just looking at you.”

“Maybe you can take care of me later.” Elizabeth kept her eyes straight ahead while Anna stared in surprise, unsure if she’d heard that right. Then she saw the small smile.

“Are you trying to get my heart rate up?” she asked. “Or is that just cruel teasing?”

“Which would you prefer?” Now the smile grew larger, and Anna couldn’t help but smile in response.

“I like it when you tease me,” she decided. “But I also believe in the health benefits of an aerobic heart rate.”

“Excellent answer,” said Elizabeth. “Very diplomatic. You could be a manager yet.”

The river path was nearly empty, the chilly January weather not being conducive to skateboarding or roller blading. Anna hardly noticed the cold, nor anything around her other than Elizabeth’s presence at her side. Every now and then she would steal a glance as they chatted, still not quite believing that they had managed to get to this point. Wasn’t it just a few days ago that she was certain this would never happen?

They were halfway back to Anna’s house when Elizabeth stopped at a viewpoint. “Hold on, it’s time to stretch these things out.” She bent over, her hands flat on the ground as she stretched her legs. “Ahhh. Okay, this is helping.”

“You’re pretty flexible for a runner,” said Anna, looking on in envy and considerable appreciation.

“That’s because I’m not a runner. And after this morning, I’m remembering why I’m not a runner.”

After half a minute of unabashed staring, Anna asked, “Can I make a confession?”

Elizabeth straightened up, then balanced on one leg as she went into a quad stretch. “You mean you still have some left to make?”

“Very funny. I was just going to say that I’m actually kind of glad you locked your keys in your car.”

“Why?”

“Because now I can say that I took you home with me on our first date.”

Elizabeth laughed, nearly losing her balance and hopping around on one foot until she regained it. “Well, that’ll probably do your reputation a world of good.”

“Given the fact that I don’t even have a reputation, yes, I think it will.”

“Just as long as you tell the story straight. ‘It was either a taxi or my beautiful gleaming Prius; how could she resist?’”

“Why would you assume I have a Prius?” asked Anna in confusion.

“Because I read a study that conclusively showed that all Mac owners are high income intellectuals, obsessively recycle everything recyclable, buy organic and drive Priuses.” She let go of her ankle and switched legs.

“Oh, perfect, every stereotype wrapped up in a single study. What was that, a sample size of twelve? I’ll have you know I drive an Audi, thank you very much. Four door sedan. I like to be comfy when I travel.”

“What?” Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up in exaggerated astonishment. “An Audi? I’m sorry, but that has no blue collar credibility whatsoever. You’ve really been fooling yourself. At the very least you should be driving around in a beat up old Ford, preferably an F150.”

“Let me guess, that’s what you drove in Maine.”

“You know it. Lobster pots take up a lot of space.” Elizabeth gave her a quick grin. “But it was my parents’ truck. My tastes run a bit differently now.”

Anna crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you drive? Lexus? BMW? No, wait—I think you’re the Acura type.”

“None of the above. But I am a Mac owner…”

“Oh my god, you drive a Prius!” Anna cracked up laughing, and Elizabeth soon joined her, losing her balance in the process. She put a hand on Anna’s shoulder to catch herself, leading Anna to reach out with both hands to steady her by the waist. They stood there looking at each other, until Elizabeth quietly released her ankle, took a single step and leaned down to brush their lips together.

It was a fleeting, light kiss, the kind a person gives when she’s not sure of the reception. But Anna didn’t let go, and after a moment Elizabeth closed the distance again, this time for a kiss that conveyed a bit of passion and a promise of more to come. Her lips were wonderfully soft, never too demanding, and soon accompanied by gentle fingers sliding into Anna’s hair. Glad for the tacit permission, Anna slipped one hand behind Elizabeth’s neck and the other around her back, pressing her close as she gave herself over to a deeper exploration. She marveled at the intimacy of this simple touch, still unable to believe that it was Elizabeth she was holding in her arms.

So lost was she in the kiss that she forgot where they were, and would have been happy to stand there for the next hour had her partner not been slightly more aware of their surroundings. With a last kiss, softer than all the rest, Elizabeth pulled back to a safe distance.

“Shall we get my car?” she asked, a smile on her face that Anna had never seen before.

Anna couldn’t tear her eyes away from it. “Sure,” she said faintly, “but I think you’ll have to drive us there. Your legs might be stiff, but mine just turned to jelly.”

Chuckling, Elizabeth reached for her hand as they resumed their walk. Anna looked at their clasped hands, then faced forward with what she knew was an ear-to-ear grin. Try as she might, she couldn’t wipe it off.

Apparently, a codfish could ask the shark out.

 

 

 

 


epilogue

 

 

Anna found a parking space and dove into it, grateful for once that the car she was driving was so little. It did make it easier to park, but that was about the only good thing she could say about it. “God, I miss my Audi,” she groaned, pulling the key out of the ignition.

“You are such a car snob,” said Elizabeth, opening the door on her side and unfolding her frame. “I’ve got four inches on you and I don’t think this is so bad.” She went around back and popped the trunk, rustling through their bags as Anna painfully maneuvered herself out of the driver’s seat.

“That’s because you’re used to puny cars,” she said, shutting the little tin can door and walking around to get her own bags. “Plus I think your legs are double-jointed.”

“Don’t tell, I’ll have women chasing me wherever I go. And I prefer the one I have.” Elizabeth winked at her as she shouldered her daypack and picked up the overnight bag. “Ready?”

“Hang on.” Anna got her own bags situated, shut the tailgate and pressed the key fob. The satisfying clunk told her that the car was locked, and she dropped the key into her pocket. “At least it has electronic locks.”

“That’s it,” said Elizabeth. “Next time we’re bringing the Audi, so I won’t have to hear about all the shortcomings of this car.”

“I wish. Might be a little hard to get it here, though.” She reached for Elizabeth’s free hand as they walked, and not for the first time wondered if she’d ever get tired of holding it. Probably not. “Have I mentioned that I’m a snob about women, too? I only travel with the best.”

“No, but I already knew that.” They shared a smile, then focused on the bustle around them. “Wow. Busy place.”

“Not hard to see why,” said Anna, nodding toward the distinctive rock that loomed over the town.

“Do you know, I never realized it was that big,” said Elizabeth in wonder.

“Me either. I’m hoping we’re about to get an even better view.”

The signs directed them toward a ticket window, where a young man greeted them. “Good morning, ladies! What can I do for you?” he asked in a rich British accent.

“Two round trip passenger tickets, please,” Anna told him. Squeezing Elizabeth’s hand, she added, “To Tangier.”

 

 

 

~ fin ~