The water shined orange and black at the same time. Undecided still about the inevitable choice. Two girls sat on the beach. The bespectacled blonde was deep into her book while her friend, the curly-haired blonde watched her impatiently with lips pursed. It seemed like she was trying to communicate through mind waves yet her friend paid no heed. The impatient one was Miriam Page. She was upset because her friend had forgotten their plans. You give Penny Black a book and she forgets the world around. She devoured knowledge with such gluttony that it could be alarming to the onlooker but Penny had big plans and she must make the right choices from the start. Amassing knowledge was the first step to climbing all ladders she had to face in the future.
"The assignment is due only next week. And here we are sleep deprived over it. I can't believe you talked me into this... No one is even thinking about the assignment. I promise you will be the best. Please, can we stop now?" Miriam asked pleadingly, "We need to get some sleep before the trip. You know I have been looking forward to going camping with the guys. This might be the only fun activity we have in school. Do you always have to be so competitive?" The last words sound venomous.
Penny acknowledged with a positive grunt. She lifted her head to look at her friend which caused her to expand, "You know my reasons. I have ambition. We will leave in ten minutes. Mir, I won't believe you if you say you have no ambition. We are cut from the same tree. I wish you would follow my example and prepare for what lies ahead. I don't want you to regret your choices—"
"Stop patronizing me. You always do this. I will be the best of the best but in my own way. I don't want to have this fight again. Can we go?"
Her friend was gazing into the ocean. The sea was orange for a moment and the warmth was cooling. The sun had risen.
"Mångata…. It means the reflection of the moon on water."
"All the studying has rotted your brains." said Miriam sarcastically, "We are watching a sunrise and quite a magnificent one."
"Agreed. I only think mångata is a musical word. Man-ga-ta."
"You are putting Miriam on the Leeuwenhoek story. I sniffed the story out and she gets to go after it. That's bullshit. BULLSHIT.” Penny had marched into the boss’s cabin. She was fuming.
Apathetic eyes met her, "You know how things work here. You say it's unfair, I say it's fair. Do you want to antagonize me right now?" Ms. Ava Altman, chief of the investigative journalism department at 'Current Times' considered the young woman sternly, daring her to dispute. When no argument came , she continued in a calmer tone "You are good. So is she. But the two of you are still green and it's my job to show you the reins. You are ahead of her in this one lesson and the lesson is: I decide what's fair and not."
Penny sat in front of her boss, frustrated and defeated.," I went to Cambridge. Always finished first out of every class. I am smart and dedicated. It should have made a difference.”
"It did. You got the job ahead of all your counterparts. But Ivy league degrees can take you so far. The rest of the way is knowing the right people and a lot of ass licking. Think you are up to it?"
Back at her desk, Penny sat disgruntled. She was not an intern anymore to be pushed back and forth. She knew journalism was a competitive world and that was the reason why she prepared all her life and today for the first time she felt foolish for working hard. She was pulled away from her thoughts by a hand on her shoulder.
It was Sue Ann, the bubbly new intern, she placed some files on the desk and wiping her brows, she said," John has been drinking again. Now I have to take up his load too. I hope they fire him. I am sorry to I say that. But he- is- on- my nerves. Maybe it will do him some good. Thinking about his choices and hopefully, he takes control of his life. Alcohol is dangerous. We don't realize its seducing grip till it's too late. My Uncle Brad, good man, a great provider. He hit hard times and took up to drinking. Now he is not welcome at any family gatherings. I always told –"
"Sue Ann, where are the interviews with the family. I don't see them in the files. Less talking and more working is the best policy"
The intern scrambled away, apologizing. Penny had fibbed to get rid of her without hurting her feelings with some rude retort. It was then that Miriam Black entered the office. They were no longer friends. They drifted apart when they left for different colleges and the one year together at ‘Current Times’, removed all warm feelings. Today Miriam donned a haughty smile instead of the jealous one she has had of late regarding Penny's rising worth.
"Good day to you, Penny."
"Not so much. My case has been assigned to someone else, I hear. The rumor is that this person is much less talented. Nothing I can do about it.” She pursed her lips while shrugging, “I am sure the boss will regret it once the story hits the stands…”
"You will imagine so, of course. It has been a wonderful day for me. I have been assigned a big story. Quite unusual for someone new like us. It wasn't mine, to tell the truth. Boss said something about the person being no better than-- a sniffer dog. But we journalists are creative souls. So, I am the best person for this job."
"You poor soul. Believing every word that comes out of Ava Altman's mouth. A better person would know not to. I promise I will help you. I would write the whole article for you if that would allow you to keep the job. We don't want you fired because you are not good enough. Wait... that is a good reason to fire people." Penny said coolly before turning her back.
She leaned to get her keys only to be met with stale coffee over her head. They were so not friends from that point. In fact, during Penny's remaining year at ‘Current Times’, they would often lock horns over stories and ideas. Sometimes it would get incredibly personal and very distressing for their colleagues. The people at ‘Current Times’ were entertained, disgusted, and perplexed by the infighting. They wondered why these girls were never properly chided. They knew the answer: those two were exceptional at their jobs and the management did not want to miss out on the great things from them in the future.
‘The Herald’ placed an offer too good for Penny to say no to. With her gone, one would think they would move on. But their animosity ran deeply and any previous friendship was far from sight. So, when Miriam was promoted, she found no gratification. She was upset that she was not promoted despite Penny but rather after Penny's departure. Penny had moved to a smaller paper than 'Current Times' but for a better post than hers. She would say spitefully to her colleagues that Penny would rather be the big fish in a pond and was intimidated by Big Leagues. Privately, she wondered what was Penny's play here. Penny always had some angle that would lead to her self-elevation. She would soon learn that Penny would grow to be the person carrying ‘The Herald’ to a position equal to ‘Current Times’. They were even once more.
In the coming years, they contended for stories, scoops, sources, awards, and recognition. No one person ever winning always. While they worked for the same paper, their quarrels never involved backstabbing as that could affect the paper resulting in both their terminations. Now they resorted to every crude means to undermine and humiliate the other.
Miriam Page was now the Chief Editor of Current Times. She had captured every summit of her career. Today, she was moving to the new penthouse in the city. The movers will be here at any moment. At the corner rested a box which she had carried from apartment to apartment but never opened. The last time she saw its contents was when she packed her school memoirs in that box and moved out of her parents’ home. Miriam was inquisitive about its innards; she had forgotten what it held. Her husband and the youngest had gone for ice cream and this was the best time to discover any embarrassing high school photos.
In all the photos, Penny and Miriam were together. Miriam hadn't heard anything about Penny for two years. It seemed like Penny had retired. It was unlike Penny to retire a minute before the time comes but maybe she did not know her friend anymore… She must hurry for the meeting with the Directors.
"I am not going to mince my words. The board has decided that you have to check into rehab immediately and we hope—", said the Nice Director.
"Are you firing me? I know you are aware of my difficulties but they are under control. You are worried about nothing."Miriam's voice was quiet.
"Let me stop you right there. We are not idiots to not see the problem. And we are not firing you. We are giving you a paid vacation to get back on your feet. If you refuse, we will have to fire you. We can't have a drunkard for our editor,” interrupted the Rude Director.
"We would hate to lose you. You are the best editor this paper had since Ava Altman. We hope you take our offer seriously,” interjected the Nice one but with steely resolve.
Penny had been in the lobby of Richmond Rehabilitation Center since morning. She thought she should be present to welcome the new inmate. She had been in and out of rehab for seven years, making her a veteran. Her drug abuse began as she got more successful and sometimes the stress was overwhelming. She would admit herself to rehab when things got heavy and then go back to her old habits when work got harsh. Penny had not been a journalist for four years; she had branched out to book publishing and television. She was a minor celebrity. More famous celebrities would opt for a more secure rehab. She enjoyed the rustic and serene atmosphere of Richmond. She was pulled out of her thoughts by the arrival of the new inmate.
"Hell No!" yelled Penny before storming off.
Miriam was just as shocked. This was some reunion. Little miss goody shoes Penny Black was an addict!
Penny was sitting with a group of her admirers. She enjoyed discussing her past work with an audience and although they were addicts, they were quite enlightened. She was at the favorite part of her story when Miriam caught her eye. "The biggest hurdle of my life was when I ran a story from a source which I later realized to be false. The story discredited my work. It was with great difficulty that I rebuilt my career. A resurrection. I am grateful to the bitch who fed me lies"
"Isn't it Journalism 101 to check your sources before you run any story? I would say you got greedy and caused your own ruin. Even then you are no saint. You had spies stationed at 'Current Times' to leak information to you. That is highly unethical but a lowlife like you would stoop down to that.
"Low life?" Penny chuckles, "That was rich coming from you. Didn't you go to court with the spying and if I remember correctly, it was dismissed because there was no proof."
The two women were dangerously close and one can't be sure who fell the first blow. The parlor was now a battleground. Two bloodthirsty gladiators fought for their lives. Two titans fought in the skies causing thunder and lighting. Battle worn knights dueling for the honor. But in truth, they were two middle-aged women having an ugly spat. Abuses were thrown at each other; more blows were missed than landed and a lot of hair-pulling. A crowd formed around them howling and hooting. They never expected a fight between two respected journalists to be amusing. Miriam must have realized the humiliation they were putting themselves in. She pushed Penny away. The last sight she saw before she walked away was the shame on Penny's face.
Miriam had been walking for hours; her legs were tired. She ended her stroll at the lake. The moon smiled at her. She felt undeserving of that beauty so she turned her eyes away. Now the moon smiled at her from the dull reflection it had made on the lake. " Mångata ", she smiled.
She could see the lean form of Penny some distance away. She congratulated her courage to approach Penny and sit close to her. They sat in silence for some time. Penny thought she had had enough with the uncomfortable hush. She asked, "You remember Sue Ann. Sweet girl, not very clever nevertheless lovely", Taking a long puff from her cigarette.
"Sue Ann was a sweetheart...The best. She used to leave treats and little love notes for everyone on their desks"
"Whatever became of her? I never kept in touch after I left 'Current Times'. You might be knowing?"
"Oh…she shot her husband. It was all over the news. Of course, I had to let her go after all that" Miriam replied nonchalantly.
"Of course," Penny seemed taken aback "Was he like a bad person?"
"Jack was a sweetheart. You would love him in one meeting. But you can't —"
"Because he is dead…I got that. If Sue Ann did not like him much, I am not sure if I would"
"We are stuck in rehab…. I could tell you the crazy story of Sue Ann and Jack that is if you are interested"
Miriam and Penny were too far apart to rediscover their friendship after one decent interaction. But that might be enough for them to realize later that their acrimony made them weak, taking them several steps behind in career and life. They could have been each other's sustenance. Once they have recognized that, they can no longer delay a bumpy dialogue of past pettiness and the apologies that were to follow.