“Are you done?” Sean Bolden, our sports journalist, reaches in front of me for a cup. I nod, grab my coffee and make my way to the center of the newsroom, trying not to read too much into Maisie’s comment.
Hugh leans against a nearby desk with his arms folded, causing the buttons of his shirt to strain against his broad chest. He was a reporter in this very newsroom back when I interned, before the travel bug bit him and took him overseas. He’s seen a lot in his time. But after a marriage breakdown, he returned to the Autumn River Daily, and has been here ever since, working his way through the ranks to become editor-in-chief.
I place my things on the desk, and sit down ready for our daily meeting. Sean sits beside me. Maisie, Angela, and Robert take their seats around the table. Two others are out on assignment, but Hugh will catch them up when they return.
We discuss breaking news—a house explosion in Napier Valley, Autumn River’s neighboring town. Cargo ship debris washed up on a beach in Florida. Floods in Asia. And the tumultuous world economy.
We move on to taking turns discussing our current projects.
Angela, a self-confessedembracing-the-gray-hairmother of three teenage boys, has almost finished her finance report. I tune out partway through, because—yawn. It’s a special person who can get excited about numbers and financial spreadsheets, and I am not one of them. Robert pitches a different angle on a new housing development, calling it “Sprightly Subdivisions: Unveiling the Zany Zoning.” To which we all try to hide our amusement at his creativity.
“Come on,” he says. “At least it’s attention-grabbing.”
“It’s imaginative.” Hugh chuckles. “And bound to get hits, so that’s a win.”
“I’ve drafted the Reilly-Ashton wedding,” I say when it’s my turn. “And I should have it to you by this afternoon.”
“Wonderful. I can’t wait to read it,” Hugh booms, his chest puffing out with pride that we’ve nabbed the rights for a celebrity wedding. I mean, what other small-town newsroom can boast that they were one of two outlets given the opportunity to cover the wedding of the year? Sometimes in this business, it really does make a difference with whom you know.
“I’ve got the Angels and Giants game on the weekend.” Sean, our sports reporter, leans back in his chair, stretching an arm across the back of the empty one beside him. The movement sends a waft of stale cologne my way, causing me to scrunch up my nose. Sean’s a lovely guy in his late thirties, but he’s never going to find a life partner if his antiperspirant isn’t strong enough to endure beyond lunch time.
I take a sip of my coffee as the chatter continues. My thoughts drift back to Saturday night and my spontaneous, so-out-of-character moment with the stranger at the bar. Now that would make a great article, and would be a nice change to the middle of the road items about the school football team, or who won the town’s annual gardening competition. I can see the headlines now.Be daring in your forties. Bucket list adventures.Romance at the bar.Something about living impulsively and stepping out of your comfort zone. Perhaps I could suggest a love interest column. Then again, what do I know about relationships, except how to fail spectacularly?
As a special interest writer, it’s part of my job to think of topics to write about. Sometimes Hugh assigns the task, other times, he gives me full creative licence. One day I could cover town events. The next, I might interview a shop owner, or write about the Christmas Tree Farm. It’s not always enthralling news, but it’s a welcome change from the life I left behind. Perhaps I could pitch my ideas to Hugh about being spontaneous over forty. Oh, who am I kidding? Spontaneity and Penelope Reilly don’t belong in the same sentence. I wouldn’t know the first thing about doing anything outside a schedule.
“Penelope.” Hugh draws me from my thoughts about middle-age inadequacy. I glance up, taking in his rumpled appearance. His collar-length gray hair appears tousled. His shirt sleeves are rolled up, and the top button of his shirt remains unfastened. A pencil is nestled behind his ear. It’s not even midday, and he already looks like he’s been through the wringer. “I know you’re scheduled to do a write-up about the vineyard.”
I nod. Not exactly riveting stuff, but I’ll do it. After all, the vineyard is one of Autumn River’s biggest attractions and I can probably throw in a sentence about Aaron and Jenna’s celebrity wedding. Funny that I won’t be able to fully appreciate all the vineyard offers, though, because I don’t drink. Well, apart from that one drink I had on Saturday night… And once again, my thoughts drift to that brief but incredible moment where a single kiss with a stranger left me craving more.
“I’d like you to do a feature on Clarissa McArthur,” Hugh says, tapping his chin.
And… back to reality once more. “Clarissa McArthur?” My eyebrows lift. He wants me to do a feature on the old lady who lives in the sprawling Victorian near the river? “Why?”
Hugh gives me a knowing nod, as if he’s about to spill a huge secret. “She’s a bit of an enigma. It would be good for people to hear about the unknown celebrity in our midst.”
“Celebrity?” And now I sound like a parrot. I’ve lived in Autumn River for most of my life, but I didn’t know that about Mrs. McArthur. I guess it’s not something you pay attention to when you’re growing up. I was too busy trying to get the attention of boys and too self-absorbed to care about the older generation. It’s sad, but true. To me and my friends, Clarissa McArthur was known as the old lady who lived in the big house. She wasn’t one of those crazy old cat-loving widows portrayed in movies. She never yelled at us when we swam in the river along the front of her property. We just didn’t think about her much at all.
The meeting continues while my thoughts spark with curiosity about this mysterious woman living in our midst. Human interest stories are my favorite to write. People are really interesting when you take the time to listen and get to the nitty-gritty of what makes them tick. Some people live a thousand lives in one lifetime. Others, not so much. I’m guessing Clarissa falls into the first category if Hugh’s calling her a celebrity.
I spend the rest of the day scouring the internet to see what I can glean before making arrangements to meet the town’s heroine for an interview. What I discover blows my mind. Clarissa sounds like one phenomenal lady.
To my surprise, I not only discover that was she a rookie reporter in the Vietnam War, but she has also published three award-winning books. Her life reads like a bucket list of things people only dream about doing, and I can’t help feel a sense of inadequacy with my limited achievements. My notebook soon fills up as I jot down pages of information on the highly successful woman who’s been living right under our noses. I wonder if anyone else knows her story.
“Are you staying the night?”
Bleary-eyed, I glance up to find Hugh standing at my desk.
“Er…” A glance at the time reveals it’s after six and the rest of the newsroom is empty. When did everyone leave? “No. I’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole of Clarissa McArthur’s life. She’s fascinating. Inspiring, to say the least.”
“I thought you’d be keen on this one.” Hugh gives me a cautious, lop-sided smile.
I lean back in my chair, tapping my pen on the desk, and narrow my gaze at my boss. “Hugh, I’m not going anywhere, anytime soon, if that’s the reason you gave me this one.” He’s always dropping things into conversation about how the Autumn River Daily isn’t as big as the LA Times. Or that news in Autumn River isn’t as exciting as that in the city. Which is all true. But it’s almost as if he’s apologizing to me. As if he thinks I’ll be bored with the lack of excitement or lack of challenging news stories. As if I’ve already got one foot out the door, ready to chase after the next shiny thing.
He lifts a bushy eyebrow. “If you say so.”
My editor, who would look just at home on a ranch as he does in the newsroom, has a heart of gold beneath his gruff exterior. He nods, as though agreeing to disagree, before walking away.