Beneath the conference room table, Taylor Gardner’s foot drummed a violent rhythm. He flipped through copies of the email, still warm from the printer, waiting for everyone to arrive. It had finally happened. After all this time.
The station’s producers and writers trickled in, brows furrowed in confusion or annoyance at his request for an immediate meeting. Anchors were only the pretty faces and baritone voices hired to read the teleprompter. He didn’t have the authority to tell anyone to do anything or go anywhere. A few glanced at him between questions to their coworkers about how long they thought this would take. They never asked Taylor directly, probably expecting to receive the same silence he’d given everyone over the past few months.
When someone knocked on his office door to notify him of a story change, his only response was a polite smile or distracted nod. If asked about weekend plans or the hottest sports highlights, the reaction was the same. These were unimportant questions. Intrusions to the task at hand. His body might stand before them, but his mind was at his desk, tucked between pages of law books and connected to his phone and filtered into various email folders and sorted through stacks and stacks and stacks of research. All in pursuit of this moment.
Jake shuffled in last, asking everyone to sit down while peering over his glasses at the phone clutched in his swollen fingers. “Taylor’s asked us to meet today for what I assume is a very good reason.” He placed his glasses on the table and leaned into his well-worn chair, interlocking his hands across his gut. A soft smile crossed his face.
Jake still handled Taylor with kid gloves, long after everyone else at the station moved on and stopped trying to connect. But whenever Taylor brought it up, the man just shrugged and acted like he didn’t know what he was talking about. “What’s on your mind, Mr. Gardner?”
Taylor licked his lips. His fingers quaked as the pieces of paper refused to separate from each other. He cleared his throat.
“I got him. I got Hudson.”
A producer stopped typing copy into his phone. Another slowed the rocking in his chair, and turned to his neighbor, whispering. Jake narrowed his eyes. His chair creaked as he leaned forward. He pressed his hands to the table, spreading his fingers.
“You got him?”
“Yeah. Well, I mean I got him to email me back. Or his assistant at least. A woman named Linda Howard.” Taylor sent the stack of emails around the table. Paper rustled as producers snatched copies off the pile. Jake kept his eyes on Taylor until the stack came all the way around the table. He placed his glasses back on his nose and read the page aloud, despite everyone already dissecting it. Taylor’s foot continued to shake underneath the table.
“‘Mr. Gardner. Please find Mr. Hudson’s response to your emails below. Please excuse the…’ yada yada yada… Okay, here we go: ‘It has been my pleasure to watch you present nightly news in Hamington over the past few years and get to know you through your interactions with local citizens. Your dedication to the city and its commitment to you through difficult times is encouraging, and, in a way, a confirmation of my lifelong goals. I’m writing now to acknowledge your plentiful emails and…’” Jake paused and looked up at Taylor.
“Are you sure this is real?”
“Positive,” Taylor said. “I checked everything this morning. Verified the email address with his old advertising agency and the station’s security software detected nothing suspicious. It’s real.”
Jake adjusted his shoulders and continued reading. “I’m writing now to acknowledge your plentiful emails and to accept your request for an interview. I have reached the age when I would like my story to be told, and I believe you are the person who would do that story the most justice.” He stopped short of reciting the rest but continued in silence. Taylor watched his gaze travel down the page, his brow furrowing the closer he got to the end.
Jake folded the paper in half, covering the words no one in the conference room could look away from. Taylor did not move. Did not participate. He simply stared at the top of his boss’s head while the man deliberately folded the paper’s corners like origami, back hunched and stomach rolling over the end of the table.
The producers’ discussions started as whispers. What questions should be asked in the interview? What kind of equipment would be necessary? What would be a good release date for the special? Is there any way this could finally be actually happening?
“Excuse me, everyone,” Jake said. “You can all go back to your offices now. Mr. Gardner, will you sit here with me for a moment?”
The producers evacuated the room, finally able to speak outside the parameters of hushed voices and jotted notes. Jake closed the door behind them and returned to his seat. He lifted the paper between two fingers like a soiled diaper.
“I cannot have you do this.”
Taylor’s foot ceased its vibrations. “You’re not serious.”
“I’ve allowed you to pursue this on company time because I thought it would be good for you to have some closure. It was a managerial decision for the development of an employee. I never thought… Hudson hasn’t made public contact with anyone in almost twenty years. He’s only granted two interviews his entire life.”
Jake rolled his eyes and tossed the paper onto the table. “Okay, sure. If you count a two-minute radio call when he told the press not to bother him anymore.”
“I don’t understand. Doesn’t that make that make this more important?”
“Of course it’s important.” Jake pointed at the folded square, keeping his distance. “This story is a whale for viewership and ad revenue. I don’t even care that he’s demanding to set the when and where, and how all the logistics are handled. This has potential to be an historical moment in broadcast history. But I’m talking about you, Taylor. This… this is not healthy for you.”
“You read the email. He said it has to be me. No cameramen. No sound guys. That’s it. There shouldn’t even be consideration about this. If it were anyone else, you’d be right in the conversation planning out how to best–”
Jake stood and ran his hands through his thinning hair.
“Stop. You’re not listening to me. You shouldn’t be alone with this guy. I hoped the process of researching and keeping your mind on something would be helpful, but I honestly never expected anything to come out of it. And now? You… you get an email that says you have to be at his house in less than twenty-four hours? That’s no time to prepare for a standard assignment, nonetheless something much bigger than that.
“I wholeheartedly understand what you’re trying to pursue. We both know that you aren’t the same person you were before… Alice. But I have to say, for the last time, this is not healthy for you.”
Hearing her name didn’t sting as much as it had immediately after she’d died, but it still took him by surprise, even with Jake saying it as softly as he could. The kid gloves needed to be removed, even if Taylor had to rip them off himself. The sensitivity was a kind gesture, but it was only needed or tolerated for so long. An interview with Hudson could help Taylor put his career back on track and put an end to the puppy-dog looks of pity from passersby that followed him wherever he went. And it could help him understand why it had happened. Where it all started
Taylor rose from his seat to match Jake’s height. His voice was steady. “You don’t understand. You can’t. I appreciate your concern, but I didn’t set this meeting so you could have an opportunity to talk me out of something. You read the email—he wants to do this tomorrow morning, and I need producers to help me develop the right questions. I need tech to talk me through how to work sound and camera equipment. This needs to be done now. And if it doesn’t happen after everyone in this meeting read that email, they’ll know it was because you killed the biggest lead on a story this station has ever had.”
Unfamiliar sensations flooded through Taylor’s body. His heart beat heavily. He tasted copper. Adrenaline prickled in his veins.
“I don’t…” Jake said. His shoulders dropped and he shook his head. “Talk to your producers, make your meetings. Do whatever you need to do. Please just remember that I tried.” He closed the door quietly as he left.
Taylor breathed heavily. Maybe he’d gone too far by threatening him, especially after Jake had been so patient. But no number of good intentions could separate Taylor from the answers to his questions. They kept him awake at night, flitting above his head like moths. Sleep would not come easily until they’d been exterminated.
He sank his face into his palms, rubbing his eyes. Shook his head. There was no time for exhaustion. No time to be distracted by guilt. He had to be ready. Tomorrow he would meet the man whose existence had haunted him for months. Timothy Hudson. Tomorrow.
Sleep almost came for Taylor around two in the morning, but a man and woman started screaming at each other outside his townhouse and all hopes were lost. Sweat accumulated in his sheets. He kept feeling for a puddle to roll out of, but even the other side of the bed was hot and sticky. He stared at the ceiling, watching car lights pass between the curtains every few seconds.
Famous images of Timothy Hudson refused to leave his brain. Front pages, cereal boxes, magazine ads. A man with a hero’s clean, white smile on top of a tall frame with broad shoulders that seemed capable of holding up the city itself. An invincible human being. This was the man he was supposed to confront.
He rolled over, grabbing at the pillow on the other side of the bed, unwrinkled from a night’s tossing and turning. Wrapped his arms around it and breathed in deep, hoping he would smell something different than clean cotton.
He told himself he wasn’t nervous when the clock alarm went off, but his chin refused to stop bleeding after he cut it shaving and it took several attempts to knot his tie. He missed the keyhole more than once when locking the door as he left.
The sun had barely peeked between the buildings on his block. It was a quiet morning but wouldn’t be for long. West Ham rose early. Runners, cyclists, and newspaper deliverers controlled the streets for now, the steam from their lungs casting a mist over the city. Plumes of exhaust grew long from the tailpipes of taxis, and the few people walking to work had grabbed an extra layer before leaving the house. Taylor took the steps from his front door and joined the working world on the sidewalk. Street vendors were beginning to cook for the inevitable passersby who had woken too late to toast their own bagels.
He bumped his briefcase against his thigh while waiting for the signal to cross. No one carried briefcases anymore, but this one was lucky. A little bent and torn on the corners with the leather worn out on the bottom, it helped him look older and more mature when he brought it to his first interview for Action News 3 in college. Even now that it was falling apart, he knew he’d never get rid of it. If a day finally came when it was only held together by string, unable to carry anything more than the memories of the college graduation day when it was given to him, it would still have a special place in his home, in the side closet full of clothes and pictures and stationery he couldn’t bear to throw away.
Pedestrians started crossing the intersection and Taylor retreated from his thoughts. It was too early to get lost in them today. And he was too early for the interview. Five minutes early was good, half an hour was desperate. As he rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand, he decided to stop for coffee to waste time on the way to catch a cab. He took his normal turn though the alley that was the fastest way to his Starbucks.
The homeless man who had been there for the past week stretched beside a garbage can as he rose from the ground. Taylor accidentally made eye contact with him and looked away, walking faster as he passed. When would this guy leave? Some hobos would pass out from a night of cheap boozing in the alleys and beg for change as people walked by, but most stayed in the underpass, confined to their own area. This one had made the alley his home and tried to talk to Taylor every morning, almost yelling at him when he passed.
There were mornings when Taylor considered changing his route, but with everything he’d gone through, a harmless whino wasn’t going to be the thing that pushed him to change.
“Hey man, you got the time?” The hobo tapped his naked wrist. Taylor shifted his shoulder, hoping the sleeve of his blazer covered his watch. He continued to look straight at the exit of the alley.
“Did you hear me? You know the time?”
The hobo pointed at Taylor’s wrist as he walked by and said, “I can see your watch right there!” He followed him. “Come on, man. Just help me out. What time is it?” He kept following. Kept asking. Close enough for Taylor to feel his breath. “What time is it? What time is it? What time is it?”
Taylor’s heartbeat pounded. He picked up his pace, turning the corner onto the sidewalk as the hobo called him a fucking asshole before stopping at the mouth of the alley.
Taylor released a deep breath. The homeless from the underpass never followed him or deviated from the usual beggar’s script. Change or food or smokes. This guy was like the rest. There was always something he wanted. Today he said it was the time, but Taylor knew he was asking just to get his watch out in the open so he could easily steal it.
He readjusted his jacket over his neck to combat the cold. By the time he stepped into the coffee shop, his only thoughts were if he should be polite and get Hudson a cup, or if the man could rot in hell with or without it.