Chapter One

 

 

“BRADLEY, come to my office now,” Mr. Carew snapped, and Brad nearly dropped the sheaf of papers he’d just pulled from the printer. He knew that tone; he’d heard it enough lately.

“Yes, right away, sir,” Brad answered. He rushed back to his desk in the very back corner of the newsroom and set down the papers before hurrying back toward the editor’s office. He’d taken three steps when he remembered he’d better have a pad and pen, so he raced back to his desk and grabbed the pad and pen, nearly knocking the sheaf of papers to the floor in the process. Then he hurried to Mr. Carew’s office.

“Close the door,” his boss said without looking up from the paper he was reviewing. “This is total crap.” He thrust the pages toward Brad, and they dropped to the floor before Brad could grab them. “Leave them. There’s no use in trying to do anything with that story. It’s totally unredeemable, and no one wants to read an exposé about school lunches or about how bus drivers sometimes nap while they’re waiting for the kids to get out of school. There are no kids in the vehicles, for God’s sake! How long did you sit in the bushes, or wherever it was you did to get your data?”

Brad opened his mouth to answer and then snapped it closed again when he realized an answer wasn’t expected. “I….”

“Does stuff like this really excite you? Do you really feel passionate about high school cafeteria food or what bus drivers do on their downtime?” Mr. Carew leaned forward across his desk. “Does shit like that get your dick hard? Because if it does, kid, you’re one sick puppy.” He sat back in his chair, and Brad’s stomach tightened. That stance always meant bad news. It meant the editor had made up his mind about something, and even after being at the paper for less than six months, Brad knew those decisions were rarely good.

“But it’s important,” Brad protested weakly.

“No, it isn’t. We need to sell papers and get website hits so people will subscribe and help pay your salary and mine. Without paper sales and website ad revenue, I’m out of a job, and I can tell you that long before I’m out of a job, you’ll be on the unemployment line.”

“Yes, sir,” Brad said softly.

“I’m starting to think that you wouldn’t know a story if one dropped in your lap,” Mr. Carew told him, and the last of Brad’s hope that he would be able to keep this job dropped through the floor. “I know you moved here and all, but I’m not sure what to do.”

“I’m a good writer,” Brad said, lifting his chin.

“Yes, you are, but the stuff you choose to put your talent toward is crap. I mean, it’s dull, boring, and sleep-inducing. I wonder if you could make a county commissioner screwing his dog worth reading.” Mr. Carew smiled at his own joke, and Brad braced himself for the worst. “I certainly don’t know what to do, but I’m going to give you another chance. By damn, you’d better come through somehow, though. Find something that interests you and come back to me with a viable story idea by the end of the day.” The heat and finality in the editor’s eyes chilled Brad to his bones. This was it—he could feel it. He had to find something, or he would be out of a job and probably out in the street as well. He’d lose the car he’d just bought, and a whole cascade of failures stretched out in front of him. “What are you waiting for? Time is wasting, and you don’t have much of it left.”

“Where should I….”

“You want me to tell you where to look?” Mr. Carew picked up a copy of the previous day’s paper and handed it to him. “Try the classified ads.”

Brad took the paper and blinked a few times. He didn’t think his editor was serious, but he wasn’t sure, and since Mr. Carew didn’t say anything more, Brad pulled open the door and left the office before hurrying back to his desk and flopping in his chair.

“Cubbie, what happened to you?” asked Harold Piety, a reporter with years of experience and the stooped shoulders to prove it, as he stood in front of Brad’s desk.

“I have to come up with a story Mr. Carew will love by the end of the day,” Brad said softly, still clutching the newspaper like it was some sort of lifeline.

“Did he give you any idea what he wanted?” Harold asked.

“He said to check the classified ads,” Brad said.

Harold hissed, looking toward the windows on the far side of the room.

“What?” Brad asked.

“Cubbie, that’s the kiss of death. Classified ads have been drying up since everyone started using Craigslist and stuff like that. Basically what he told you was to pound sand. He’s given up on you, and he’s giving you one last chance at a ‘Hail Mary’ pass before you’re done.” Harold walked around the desk and patted him on the shoulder. “It was nice knowing you, Cubbie.” Harold then turned and walked away. Thankfully, he seemed to be looking at the floor, at least slightly, and not meeting his eyes, so Brad figured there was one person here who might miss him for ten minutes after he got fired and had to clean out his desk.

Brad sighed and forcefully tossed the newspaper in the trash can. Of course, he used too much force and the damn thing tipped over and spilled everything onto the floor. Brad shoved everything back into it and righted the trash can before once again staring at the now soiled newspaper in his hand. “What the hell…,” Brad muttered half under his breath and sat back down before opening the newspaper to the classified section and starting to read. “Ten speed for sale, good condition.” He scanned down the page. “Boat motor, runs good.” He continued glancing down the page, afraid to look up in case everyone else in the room was staring at him. He was desperate, and he had to come up with something. Brad had lifted the paper off his desk, getting ready to wad it up and pitch it for good, when he paused. “For Sale: crib, car seat, stroller, changing table, clothes, diapers, shoes, rocking chair, everything you need to start a nursery… all new.” Brad stopped as a chill went up his spine. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out slowly as memories and pain poured over him.

After a few minutes, Brad looked up from the paper and slowly stood up. He stepped away from his desk and then returned, grabbing the newsprint with a loud rustle before heading to Mr. Carew’s office. Pages dropped to the floor, but he didn’t notice them. He clutched the page that contained the ad and knocked on the editor’s door. Mr. Carew looked up, and Brad stepped inside and plunked the paper on his desk. “There’s my story,” Brad said, pointing to the classified ad.

“I was pulling your leg. That joke is as old as dinosaur crap.” He sat back once again and shook his head.

“No. I want to do a story on how mothers grieve after they lose a child. That ad is filled with pain. She furnished a nursery, bought all the stuff, and probably spent time painting and decorating it just like she’d always dreamed, and then, for whatever reason, she never got to bring her baby home, never got to hold or rock him or her to sleep. She was pregnant, hoping and praying, but all she got was an empty nursery. How do you come back from that?” Brad pointed to the ad. “There’s an air of finality about it. I mean, if she could have more children, then why sell all the stuff? Just try again and hope. No, that’s gone too. It’s all gone.”

Mr. Carew looked at the ad and then up at Brad, blinking a few times. For the first time in all the months since he’d started working at the Mechanicsburg Crier, Brad saw a hint of emotion on his editor’s face. Well, at least an emotion that didn’t include swearing, cursing, or yelling at the top of his lungs, usually in Brad’s direction. “Is this something you really feel passionate about?”

“Yes,” Brad answered without letting go of the paper. That flimsy piece of paper felt like a lifeline and the only link he had to the person who’d placed the ad. “This I want to write.”

Mr. Carew stared at him for a few seconds, but they felt like an eternity. “Okay. You have a week. By then I want a draft of the story, and it better have an angle that will sell papers. I don’t want just some tearjerker that I’d see as a movie on the schmaltz channel.” Brad nodded. “What are you waiting for? Go! Get out of my office and get to work.” Brad turned and did as he was told as fast as he could.

When he got back to his desk, he jotted down the information from the ad and then hurried down to the advertising department. It took him a few questions before he was directed to the desk of the person who ran the classifieds. “Are you Gloria? They said you might be able to help me,” he said from the office doorway, and an older woman with steel-gray hair swiveled her chair around.

“Yeah, I’m Gloria.” An unlit cigarette hung from between her lips, and Brad stared at it for a second. “They don’t let us smoke in here anymore, but sometimes I just need one of the things,” she said in a gravelly voice. Obviously she’d smoked plenty of cigarettes in her time. “What can I do you for?”

Brad handed her the newspaper. “I need to get in touch with the person who placed this ad. I was wondering if you have an address,” Brad said.

“Probably, but I can’t give it to you. It’s against policy. That sort of information’s private,” Gloria said as she took the paper and glanced at the ad. “One of the sad ones,” she said as she handed it back. “We get all kinds. Your run-of-the-mill stuff, mostly. Sometimes you get the weird things, like the guy who wanted to place an ad to sell slightly used bondage gear, or the man who was interested in buying high heels in size fourteen.” She laughed. “We’ll place most ads people want unless they’re offensive. My advice is to call the number in the ad and see if they’ll talk to you.”

“I guess,” Brad said. He’d really been hoping to be able to get more of a feel for the situation, but that didn’t really seem possible. “Isn’t that sort of devious?”

Gloria rolled her eyes. “Kid, I’ve been here thirty years, and I’ve seen them come and go. The ones who stayed are the ones who’re hungry for it. They have passion and want to change the world. If you’re afraid of pissing someone off by calling and asking questions, then you’re probably in the wrong business.”

Brad swallowed hard. “Thank you,” he said before turning to leave. Upstairs, back at his desk, he checked the clock and was thankful it was nearing the end of the day. He wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe everyone was right, and he wasn’t cut out to be a reporter. He was a good writer, everyone had told him that, but no one seemed to believe he had what it took to be a journalist. He always thought he had, but….

“No guts… no glory, Cubbie,” Harold said as he walked up. “The story isn’t going to write itself, and it isn’t going to fall in your lap.” He sat down in the old chair next to Brad’s desk. “I know you’ve had a tough time of it lately, and everyone here can see you’re trying. You get here early and you stay late, but if you want to make it in this business, you have to be tenacious.” Harold leaned a bit closer and lowered his voice. “Journalism is a lot more than being able to write well. Because you do that, there’s no doubt. It’s about reporting your stories objectively and remaining objective.”

“I know that,” Brad said.

“Yes. That’s what they drill into every journalism student. But there’s a whole hell of a lot more. It’s about taking stupid stories like the township filling potholes and somehow making them, if not interesting, at least worth reading. It’s also about the desire to change the world.” Harold looked around the room. “There isn’t a person here who didn’t start out wanting to make a difference. Most of us got jaded and cynical along the way, but we still have that fire.” Harold looked Brad square in the face. “Do you?” He didn’t wait for Brad to answer. “Because it’s that fire that will keep you going when you’re stuck writing stories about road repair, or covering borough council meetings that would put anyone to sleep. But sometimes, out of those meetings come stories that touch people’s hearts or change lives.”

Brad glanced down at the classified ad once again. “Or maybe a story about something that changed someone else’s life?”

Harold followed his gaze to the ad. He lifted his eyebrows and shifted slightly so he could get a better look. “That’s an old standard. When one of my professors talked about finding a story he used that example. ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn,’ were his exact words, I believe.”

Brad’s heart fell through the floor. “I guess I better pack my things.” Brad opened his desk drawer.

Harold shook his head. “I meant what I said: no guts, no glory. It’s not the idea that makes a story, but the angle. What are you going to do to make this story fresh?” Brad shook his head. “Then that’s what you need to find, and it won’t happen here sitting on your butt.” Harold jabbed at the paper. “Your answers are there, and all you can do is make the call.” Harold stood up, and Brad watched him take a few steps before he turned around. “There is a story there; I can feel it too. Go find it.” Then he continued walking back to his desk.

Brad closed his eyes and released the breath he’d been holding. Maybe there was a chance he could do this. Maybe, just maybe, he actually had some sort of journalistic instincts. Although the excited feeling he’d gotten in the pit of his stomach could have been lunch. Brad closed his eyes and prayed the stomach tightness was more than his chicken salad sandwich, then picked up the phone.

A man’s voice answered. “Hello, this is Cory.” He sounded pleasant, and Brad smiled.

“Hello,” Brad began and immediately wished he’d rehearsed a bit of what he wanted to say. “I’m a reporter with the Mechanicsburg Crier. I’m working on a story, and I was wondering if I might be able to stop by and talk with you.” God, he knew he sounded lame.

“Where did you get this number? Is this about the ad in the paper? Is something wrong?” The questions came at him in rapid succession.

“No. Nothing is wrong, sir. I saw your ad, and I realize this must be a difficult time for you and your family, but like I said, I’m working on a story and would very much like to talk with you.” Brad made a concerted effort to keep his voice as calm and soothing as he could. He didn’t want to come off like some predator.

Brad waited but heard nothing. He checked the display on his phone to make sure he still had a connection. “I don’t know…,” came through the line in a whisper.

“I understand,” Brad said as he too lowered his voice, and he wondered what he should do now. Maybe he should have posed as someone interested in looking at the baby things, but that seemed unethical and wrong to him. Of course he was close to losing his job, so maybe he was all wet. He had to say something, or the man on the other side of the phone was going to hang up, and Brad would lose his only lead. “When I saw your ad, it touched me,” Brad said honestly. “I understand some of what your family is experiencing.”

“How could you?” the man snapped.

“Because when I was growing up, my family went through the same loss,” Brad answered.

Once again the man was quiet, and Brad wondered if he’d pushed too far, or not far enough. But at least he’d been honest.

“Okay,” the man whispered, and Brad’s heart began beating again. “If you’d like to come by tonight, say, about seven?” he said and gave Brad the address. Brad recognized the address as being in the more historic part of town, but only because he’d made an effort to learn as much about his adopted town as he possibly could.

“Thank you. I’ll see you then,” Brad said and hung up. Then he grabbed a notepad and wrote down everything he could remember. Once he was done, he glanced at the clock. He had a few hours before the interview, but he wanted to be prepared, so he tried to develop some questions to bring out the basic information he’d need. Harold had said to look for an angle on the story, but he wasn’t quite sure what it would be. All he could hope for at this point was to ask good questions and pray he stumbled on the story angle he needed.

 

 

“SO DID you get it?” Mr. Carew asked, and Brad jumped in his chair.

“I’m supposed to talk to them at seven,” Brad answered, his mouth dry. “I have some questions prepared.”

“Good,” Mr. Carew said. “Be polite, sensitive.” He leaned over the desk. “And get a damned fantastic story.” He turned and walked back toward his office. Brad swallowed hard and returned to writing possible questions.

“The ad seemed very final to me. Are you not able to have more children?” The question sounded so insensitive, but he needed the information. He had to get the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. What he would do with them was another matter.

 

 

“OKAY, Cubbie, let’s see what you got,” Harold said. Brad handed him the list of questions, and Harold read them over. “Not bad, and I can see where you’re going for the recovering grief angle, but that’s expected. You’re going to have to find something different if you want to impress our illustrious leader.”

“I know,” Brad said. “But I don’t know what it is, so all I can do is try to think of general questions. I’m hoping that something will reveal itself.” Harold handed him back the pad. “I have my phone, so I was going to ask if I could tape the interview.”

Harold hissed softly and then shook his head. “Take notes. People tend to clam up when they’re being recorded, and especially during potentially emotional interviews, you want them thinking about their own experiences and talking to you, not worried that they’re being recorded. I know I’m old-fashioned, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways. This story is only going to work if you make a connection with them. Don’t lie, but while you’re talking to them, you need to project the image that you’re a friend.” Harold turned toward the clock. “Your interview’s at seven, right?” Brad nodded. “Then go home, get something to eat, and freshen up. You’ve done this before, and you’ll be fine.” Harold went back to his desk, grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair, and smiled quickly at Brad before going home for the night.

Brad took a deep breath. Harold was right. If he was a nervous wreck, he wouldn’t have a good interview. He got his jacket and took his pad and pen, along with the laptop, and headed toward the door. He forced himself not to look into Mr. Carew’s office as he passed. He was nervous enough as it was.