Chapter 1

Nov 28, 2017

Madison, Wisconsin

"You want me to write a story about what?"

Visions of cutesy reindeer automatons, paper snowflakes, and cheesy mall Santas danced in my head as I stared in horror at my editor.

Randall glared at me from around the papers on his desk. His whole office looked like it should be on a reality show called Hoarders at Work. There were stacks of newspapers and magazines, enough coffee cups to supply a Mormon family reunion, his commuter biking clothes, and even a small fake Christmas tree resting on a cardboard box. The Christmas tree was not a sign of the impending holidays. It had been there since I started as an intern in August.

"The Elks Christmas Charity Dinner," Randall said slowly, as if I were hard of hearing. "It's a city tradition."

"So is roto-rootering the toilets at the YMCA. But we don't write about that," I pointed out.

Randall glared harder. "You've been bugging me for weeks to give you a story. I finally give you one, and all you do is complain. What? You got something against Christmas?"

I squirmed inside. He was right. I'd been working at the Wisconsin State Journal for only three months. So far, my part-time internship had been spent editing other people's work or doing basic cut-and-paste columns like the weather and stocks. I'd begged Randall for a chance to do an original piece and knew I should say "yes, sir, thank you, sir." But I couldn't help my disappointment.

"Hey, I love the holidays. It's a break from classes," I said cheerfully. "But if I have to write a story about Christmas—"

"Your employment was 'at will' last time I checked," Randall retorted dryly.

"—how about something interesting? Like an exposé about how the bell ringer at the East Towne Mall spent his take on booze? Or black market scams for the most-wanted Christmas toys? Something that can draw more than regional interest?" I added a hopeful and deliberately cheesy smile.

"Oh for fuck's sake." Randall wiped his face with his hand. He was in his fifties and had been at this newspaper since his first toddling steps as a journalist. I respected his editing skills and his instincts, not to mention the fact that he still had all his hair and was in pretty good shape for an ancient person, being a big bike rider and all. However, in my humble opinion, he'd lost his hunger. Fortunately, I had plenty of my own.

"Gabe," he said patiently. "I need a nice, cheerful piece for the holidays. Something feel-good. We're not the Washington Post and you're not Bernstein."

"Who?" I frowned. Honestly, my first association was the Berenstain Bears. Then my history class clicked in. "Oh. You mean, like, Watergate?"

Randall rolled his eyes. "Anderson Cooper then. You're not Anderson Cooper."

I made a face.

He sighed. "Okay, then who? Who's your idol, Gabe? Seriously?"

"Is this a 'understanding millennials' sort of question?"

"Yeah, let's call it that." He folded his hands on what looked like a stack of invoices on top of a Chipotle wrapper.

I shrugged. "I dunno. Will Ripley. Errol Barnett." They were two of my favorite international CNN correspondents. In the trenches. Reporting from war zones. Standing firm against hurricanes. That was my future.

Randall's dry expression said I was naive. "Okay. Well, right now, you're not Will Ripley. Right now, you're an intern for a little Wisconsin print newspaper. So we're not going to do a thing on black-market crimes during the holidays." He glowered. "Cutesy. Christmassy. Heart-warming. That's what I want. You have to start somewhere, kid. Christ, I wrote recipes as Mama Llewellyn for three years before I got a break."

I snorted. "Mama Llewellyn? Seriously?"

He gave me a lopsided grin. "She was a widow from the U.P. Hey, I got fan mail! Even a marriage proposal from a farmer once. Don't knock it."

I had a good chuckle over that one before remembering my own predicament. "But… an Elks charity dinner?" I gave him one last pleading look. "Will anyone read about the Elks? Aren't they all, like, over eighty years old? I'm asking for business reasons. Surely you have subscription quotas to fill."

Randall jabbed a finger at the door. "The dinner is Saturday, December 16th. So you have two weeks to dig up some background. You'll attend the dinner and your piece will run the following Monday. If you've got that much fire in your belly, Gabe, take this story and make something out of it."

I walked to the doorway and turned around. "Oh I'll make something out of it!" I insisted, in a tone that promised I'd show him and his little dog too.

But later, as I slumped at my desk, I despaired. I had no idea how I'd make something out of a bunch of seniors sitting around in some crusty old dining hall eating mashed potatoes and turkey.



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