Mike grinned over the lunch table at the Record-Herald on Monday, and said, "I heard you had lunch with Carole Carter over at Rick's on Saturday."
Brenda turned several shades of red, and started giggling, but pulled herself together and managed to say, not very nonchalantly, "Yeah, I sort of inhaled a tuna salad while we sat around and yapped." He had to have heard about it, Brenda thought, but he was going to have to dig it out of her. "She's a real interesting person, with a lot of interesting perspectives on things," she added.
"So I heard," Mike said dryly. "I don't know her very well."
"Actually, her sister Wendy is about as interesting, maybe more so," Brenda grinned, hoping to deflect the needling.
"Wendy?" Sally asked, coming to Brenda's rescue. "I haven't heard much about her in years. She's still housebound, isn't she?"
"Very much so," Brenda said. "In fact, chair bound. Except for being able to move her head and a couple fingers a little, a total quadriplegic, but one of the neatest and most interesting people I've ever met. Have you ever seen that computerized rig she's got?"
Mike frowned. "I'm not sure what you're talking about," he said. "I know Mark has done some work on computerized software support for her, but I don't know what it's about."
"Mike," Brenda shook her head. "It's one of the more incredible things I've seen in my life." She went on to explain Jeeves a little, how Wendy could do a great deal with him by voice command, how she had e-mail friends all over the world. "It's actually a little scary," Brenda said.
"How's that?" Mike asked.
"You remember when I first came here, and you told me how much difference computers have made in the newspaper business since you've been in it?"
"Yes," Mike grinned. "The revolutions just keep coming. I don't know what's going to come next."
"I do," Brenda smiled. "I've seen the future. I'm not sure if I like it, but I've seen it." She went on to explain about Della, the voice-to-text secretary.
"I've heard stories about that kind of stuff," Carrie said. "I thought it was all experimental."
"This is very experimental," Brenda said. "Frankly, it doesn't work very well yet. Wendy says she can kick out copy about as fast with it as she can with a mouth stick, which is maybe ten words a minute, if that fast, and she probably can't go long at that rate before slowing down. But the one thing I've learned about software is that it's obsolete the moment it hits the market – there's better stuff being developed."
Carrie shook her head. "I'm not sure I'm ready to give up my keyboard yet."
"Me either," Brenda sighed. "I type at the pace I write, mess around with what I want to say on the screen. I don't even think I could write on a typewriter. I'm not sure how I'd learn to dictate a story."
"I suspect the same way I abandoned the Compugraphic and took up PageMaker," Carrie smiled. "The first hour was tough. By the second hour, you could not have sat me down at that big blue beast again."
"Could be," Brenda thought, getting a mystical glint in her eye, "But, you know, I could almost look over Wendy's shoulder and see Helva sitting out there in the distance and smiling."
"Huh?" Mike said. "You lost me on that one."
"Science fiction," Brenda explained. "Ann McCaffery, The Ship Who Sang. This is off in the distant future. A little girl is born with a severely deformed body. They remove the brain, help it grow and mature, and then give it a new body. A starship. Helva is still a human in lots of ways, but she has adventures she'd never have been able to have trapped in a useless 'meat' body."
"That's a ways off," Janine smiled.
"Maybe not that far," Brenda said. "But I'll bet Helva will be ready before the starship is."
"Coming back to the here and now," Mike smiled, "You might want to think about a feature on Wendy."
"I thought that within one minute after I walked in the door," Brenda said. "If there's no rush, I'd like to hold off for a while. I wouldn't mind getting to know Wendy a little better, because I know that stuck-up English butler of hers has other tricks up his sleeve that she didn't get around to showing me."
Brenda took off work early Monday; she had most of her stuff caught up, but it was a county commission meeting night, and they had a long, if potentially boring agenda. She went upstairs, changed clothes, then headed down Lakeshore Drive for another good run, by herself – Carole was in Camden, of course. The running was getting easier, now. She got back, a little tired, not as bad as a few weeks ago, took a shower, and made herself a light supper. She still had quite a bit of time before she had to go to county commission, so just for something to do, she dialed Wendy's number. She heard Jeeves talking to her in that reserved, unctuous English accent: "Miss Carter is not available at the moment. You may leave a message at the tone if you desire." Brenda just hung up; not available probably meant asleep, Wendy actually rarely went anywhere, she'd learned – but along with everything else, Jeeves was the telephone. She wondered if his voice was a .wav file, or generated. Still, it took a sense of humor on someone's part.
Oh, well, there was always Dragonslayer. She booted up her computer logged on, and checked Windham first. Good, Cassiopeia had spotted the opening and literally driven a truck through it. Good countermove. Brenda wasn't one to play the game to lose, but that was the plan, this time. She thought for a moment, then sent commands for some countermoves. These were rather more skillful – still easy, but nothing quite as obvious. Let's see how she does with that. She logged off as Windham, and back on as Mithrian.
Good! Her moves yesterday had caught Falconswing off-guard, leaning the other way, and she'd creamed him, she was back up to eighth. Now, to follow up while he was still down . . . no, the little sneak was tricky. Best to back off while she was ahead, take a shot at someone else, Cadence, maybe. There were a couple moves he could usually be suckered with . . . this is pretty damn juvenile, she thought, but it is fun. Maybe a little time on the chat room? Better not, if I get going there, I'll get wrapped up and I don't want to be late for commission.
Commission proved to be frustrating. City council was non-partisan, and Brenda wasn't even sure that some of the members even belonged to parties. They might disagree, but they got along pretty good. Commission was another story. There was a 5-4 Democratic-Republican split, and personal animosities that ran both along and across party lines, and it was a major miracle for the commissioners to agree on even a recess for a potty break. It was pretty crazy. If she'd had to cover the meetings as long as Mike had, she could write a book. She already had a name for it: Sins of Commission . . .
She stopped off downstairs to write the story of what hadn't been accomplished, but it didn't take long. It was getting late, but out of curiosity, she logged into Dragonslayer. Not much had happened with Mithrian; Cadence must not have checked in. Well, sometimes he went a couple days, just like she did. Windham was different: Cassiopeia had creamed her again, and set up a sneaky countermove. There was an opening, but probably a trap. If it was the case, it was a skillful one . . . she checked points. Windham had lost a lot of novice points, and was getting close to getting killed. If she tangled with Cassiopeia, it would end the sock puppet before it got going good. She backed off hard, selected another novice player's opening moves, and set up a move worthy of Mithrian on him. Sorry kid, whoever you are, I need the points right now, and this is in a good cause. Cassiopeia's trap will still be there in a day or two, unless someone else walks into it. Tough for them if they do.
She checked e-mail again, nothing new, and felt bored. Might as well go to bed, she thought, then the thought struck her that if Cassiopeia had made some moves, Wendy must have woken up. She said, call, any time day or night. Well, it was pushing midnight, let's see.
"Hi, Brenda," Wendy's voice said brightly. "What's up?"
"My temper, mostly," she laughed. "The county commission will do that to you. You doing anything?"
"Just surfing, nothing I can't put down," she said. "Everybody's asleep. I tried to go on internet voice with a friend in Australia, but he's been away from the phone for a couple days, I think in the hospital. Surgery, I think – he's another quad, like me."
"Wired in like you are?"
"Not as good, I think, but there's a couple of interesting things he can do that I can't. Dad and I have kicked it around some. He has a page-turner that works, hooked to a digital camera. He seems to have most of the bugs worked out of it."
"It'll be interesting to see how he cracks that one," Brenda said. "You been playing Dragonslayer at all?"
"A bit," Wendy giggled. "I made a few moves, beat up on some player named Windham pretty good, got some points. I spent some time reading the docs for the game."
"There's a lot there I didn't tell you," Brenda said, thinking that yeah, she had beat up on Windham pretty good, but she couldn't say anything to let her know that Windham was a training sock puppet. "I should have probably told you to read the docs, but you did the smart thing."
"So, how was your day?"
"Typical Monday. They had a real knock-down, drag-out fight at the Pike Bar Saturday night. I guess the cops had to work overtime. That wound up taking some time . . ." Over the course of the next half hour, Brenda gave Wendy a fairly detailed account of her day, with Wendy prodding her for questions and detail. Yeah, she thought, she does a lot of living vicariously through her sister, and now me, I guess. Get used to it. Well, I don't mind, it's nice to have someone to share the frustrations with, and it's interesting to her. Beats brooding about some of this stuff . . .
"Hey, over lunch, I was talking with Mike," Brenda said after some time. "He thinks your J-guy is pretty interesting, and was thinking maybe I ought to do a feature on it, or him, or whatever."
"You think people would be interested in that?" Wendy asked curiously.
"I'm sure they would. I thought I said it pretty well yesterday – I've never seen anything like him."
"I suppose I ought to talk it over with Dad and Mom and Carole," Wendy said. "But, I've got no problems with it. It'd be fun."
"No rush," Brenda said. "But, hey, look, I've gotta pull the deal on you that you pulled on me last night. I'm gonna be falling asleep on you, and unlike you, I have to get up in the morning."
"Oh, no problem," Wendy said. "Give me a call tomorrow sometime. Good talking with you tonight, Brenda."
"See ya later, Wendy."
Brenda shook her head and looked at the clock. Jeez, after one, and she had to be downstairs in less than seven hours! Gonna have to watch that jazz when you've got a phone buddy who can go at all hours . . .
They already had the paper wrapped Tuesday afternoon and they were sitting around, winding down, feeling the glow of a job well done, when Carrie picked up the phone, and said, "Brenda, line two."
Hoping it wasn't something that would involve a late change in a story, Brenda answered, to discover it was Wendy. "You got a meeting tonight, or anything?"
"No, thank goodness," Brenda smiled. "Nothing planned for tonight except for an exercise session and some on-line time."
"Well, Dad had to make a run to Camden for the shop, and Mom and I were wondering if you might be able to come over and lend a hand for an hour or so. I gotta change clothes and get a bath, and it's a four-hands job. Well, three and a half, if it's Carole helping. She says stick around and have dinner afterwards."
"Yeah, sure, no problem," Brenda grinned. "It'll beat heck out of going upstairs and being by myself. We'll be knocking off here in a few minutes, and I'll come right over."
It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to do, but it wasn't difficult, and Brenda soon discovered a number of new things about her new friend – mostly how incredibly frail and shriveled she really was. She'd wondered why she sat fairly upright; it seemed like she'd be more comfortable more reclined. But comfort didn't matter; there was no way she could feel being comfortable or not, anyway. Sitting upright was the best way she could breathe. Even in that position, she could barely breathe at all; she had to wear an oxygen mask for Brenda and Denise to lay her down to change her relatively shapeless bedclothes, to bathe her, to roll her on her side to check for bedsores, and she really couldn't talk much. Her body was frail, atrophied, and she didn't weigh much. While Brenda and Denise moved her together, Brenda could have easily picked her up by herself.
Part of the procedure was Wendy's exercise program – well, it was exercise for Brenda and Denise, anyway, since Wendy couldn't contribute anything. It involved moving her arms and legs in various positions, mostly to keep circulation up, to help prevent bedsores, and some massaging for the same reason. A sore seemed to be forming on her lower back, and Denise made some changes to the chair, to reduce the pressure on the affected area. It all took time, and gave Brenda insights on how nearly useless most of Wendy's body was.
It was a relief for all to have Wendy back in her familiar chair, Jeeves back beside her and ready for duty, oxygen mask off and able to breathe by herself again, to be able to talk freely. "That's really kind of a pain to have to use the mask," Wendy said. "But I was on a ventilator for two years, and this is a heck of a lot better."
"Thanks for helping," Denise smiled. "I hope it wasn't too odious. We're used to it, I guess."
"No problem," Brenda said. "Glad to help out. I appreciate you thinking of me."
"Well, we're glad to have you around," Denise told her. "Carole commented that you're an unusual combination of tough and sensitive."
"I'm just the way I am," Brenda grinned.
"Aren't we all?"
Wendy faded shortly after dinner. Brenda thanked Denise for dinner, and Denise thanked Brenda again for helping. Brenda drove back to her apartment, and, since it wasn't a particularly nice evening, changed clothes, went over to the Fitness Center for a workout, came back, and made some Dragonslayer moves. Windham had waxed the novice for the points she needed; she took them right back over to Cassiopeia's trap, planning on giving her a little harder workout. The Mithrian moves went off easily – no sign of Cadence, darn, she sort of liked him, and on the chat room the comment was made that he hadn't been around for days. Brenda backed off and made a move on Valleywitch, then logged off the game, ran e-mail, and did some other online chores. About eleven, she decided to call Wendy again – she might have gone through her sleep cycle, she reasoned.
Sure enough, she was up. "We can't go late," Brenda told her, "But I can yak for a few minutes."
"Good to talk to you," Wendy said. "We didn't get much chance to talk this afternoon. Sorry about that, but it's the way it is."
"No problem," Brenda said.
As usual, the talk wound all over the place, taking longer than expected. Brenda had already given a fair account of her day at work, more of a running chatter while working with Wendy earlier, so it ranged off into different areas. Brenda hadn't spent that much time with Wendy, but in the short period she'd noticed that the subject of Carole and her handcuffs rarely came up around the Carter household, and when an opening came up, Brenda mentioned it.
"No big deal," Wendy said. "I think it's rather stupid, so does everybody else, but it's the way things are, and I guess there's no need to comment on it. It's just her little psychosis."
"Psychosis?" Brenda asked. She'd figured obsessive-compulsive, but she didn't really take it out to psychotic.
"Yeah, I'm not a psychologist, and I don't even play one on TV, but I've learned a heck of a lot from Carole over the years, and basically, I guess it's a case of takes one to know one."
"Could be," Brenda laughed.
"Oh, there's no question she's psychotic," Wendy snickered. "But, you get right down to it, it's harmless to anyone else, harmless to her, and it makes her happy."
"She is one of the more serene, happy people I've ever met," Brenda said. "Somehow I don't think of that as psychotic."
"You remember her telling you about Frank and Laurel?" Wendy giggled. "How the definitions break down with them?"
"Think about it, Brenda. The definitions break down with her, too."
September turned to October; the leaves turned from an aged green to gold and brown, and fluttered to the ground as the season advanced. As the days and weeks went by, Brenda became more comfortable with her new job, and with her new friends in Spearfish Lake.
Brenda didn't see either Carole or Wendy every day; Carole was gone three and sometimes four days a week, on a slightly irregular schedule. Wendy's wake periods sometimes didn't coincide very well with Brenda's free periods, considering how busy Brenda was as a junior reporter covering a wide range of topics and going to many public meetings a week. Sometimes two or three days might pass between visits or phone calls. But, Brenda and Wendy managed to get together in person or on the phone often enough to build a solid friendship; sometimes Carole was around when Brenda visited, and Brenda and Carole often exercised or did other things together. Most of the time Brenda spent with either or both of the Carter sisters was time well spent, and very enjoyable; life in Spearfish Lake would have been considerably more bleak without them.
Brenda kept up her exercise and weight-loss program. It had its ups and downs, as well; she reflected later that she never would have been able to keep it up without the support of her friends. Not that either Carole or Wendy ever goaded her about it; they just maintained an interest and set some examples that Brenda found herself striving to live up to. Wendy's exercise program, at least the part she did for herself, was limited to two fingers, but most times when she and Brenda talked, Wendy would ask about how it was going. With nothing being said, Brenda knew that falling off the wagon would be a disappointment for Wendy. So she stayed on it. Besides, getting out to run or work out at the Women's Fitness Center with Carole was fun of itself, and slowly, incrementally and almost unnoticeably, Brenda began to discover that the exercise was fun and rewarding of itself.
Fridays became a big day in the life of each of the three of them, when Brenda would announce the weekly reading of the scales – she was smart enough not to weigh herself every day, lest routine ups and downs depress her. The progress was steady, and after a while the total numbers were beginning to add up to enough to mean something.
But, that wasn't the only area where progress was being made, and Brenda wasn't the only person making it, and it wasn't long before Brenda started to wonder if introducing Wendy to Dragonslayer hadn't created a monster.
Simply spoken, Wendy took to Dragonslayer like a duck took to water. Windham tangled with Cassiopeia one more time, and was lucky to escape with any points at all. As Brenda studied the moves that Cassiopeia had put on her sock puppet, she was impressed by the job that a beginner had done. She was still a beginner, obviously, by the types of moves she made, but Cassiopeia's game sophistication increased rapidly. After that last encounter, Brenda decided that Cassiopeia was on her own, gave the novice she'd mangled for extra points what points she had left, and retired the character. Within a week, Cassiopeia wasn't playing at the novice level, but the intermediate level; in two more weeks, she was a journeyman and advanced level was clearly not far off. The competition got tougher at the higher levels, but if Cassiopeia continued to improve at the rate she was going, Brenda had no doubts that in a few months Cassiopeia was going to be the Queen of Dragonslayer. All in all, she was glad that she'd been able to put them together. Mithrian had continued to slip slowly lower in the rankings, as Brenda just didn't have the time to play the character enough to do what it was capable of, but she anticipated some epic battles when Cassiopeia made it to the master levels. When that happened, she'd make the time if she had to.
Brenda once mused that she knew gamers who would sort of envy Wendy – after all, she didn't have to get up from the computer for such mundane irrelevancies as going to the bathroom, eating, working, or other such distractions from the serious business at hand.
A couple weeks after she'd met Wendy, Brenda put together a nice feature story about Wendy and Jeeves. It was an upbeat piece, mostly discussing how well Wendy had adapted to her disability with the help of Jeeves and the loving family that surrounded her. It was a good story, nothing spectacular, but the Mike and the Carters were happy about it.
While Carole was mentioned in the story several times, absolutely nothing was said about her wearing the Soliels for the last five years – simply because they didn't figure into the story. Brenda didn't even think about it.
In fact, as time went on, Brenda found herself not thinking about the handcuffs very much, to the point that it surprised her one night when she did happen to reflect on it. Whatever Carole's reasons were, they had become familiar, part of the scenery, a part of Carole, much as the disability and Jeeves and all the support were a part of Wendy. It was much the same as a person might not notice a friend wearing glasses, once they'd become familiar with them, she reasoned.
What Brenda did realize was that quite clearly, she had two very interesting and unusual friends, and on the whole, Wendy and her adaptation to her disability were less unusual than her sister and her handcuffs. But then, after all, Carole was nearly normal, at least compared to Wendy.
When Brenda had first met Carole, her reporter's sense immediately smelled a story – and there might be a story there, but now it seemed the less important one to write. Oh, there were still interesting things about Carole and the handcuffs, but the reasons she wore them now seemed to be intensely personal, and, frankly, not much of anyone's business. Brenda knew she could be right or wrong about her supposition about the deep reasons for Carole wearing them, but her working hypothesis of those reasons seemed to answer most of the questions about why she was doing it. Maybe Carole wasn't even fully aware of it, but, if that was the case, it was her business, and not anyone else's.
There were questions remaining, of course, but familiarity with Carole cleared up many of them. What it was like to do it and how she managed to do it seemed to fade as outstanding questions – the bottom line was that she managed quite well, again, in comparison to Wendy. There were things that Carole had difficulty doing in handcuffs, but they didn't seem to bother her much.
As the prospect of a story about Carole started to fade, so did the notes about her and her handcuffs in Brenda's journal. The journal became more fragmentary, the entries shorter, the questions and observations muted. But, there were times when something really interesting would happen, something Brenda knew she just had to record.
One of those times came along late in October, when the three were sitting around talking about Brenda's experiences of the day. It wasn't infrequent; Brenda had become used to Wendy's vicarious participation in her life, and she was glad to share it with her. But, this had been a rather trying day.
A lot of time – maybe too much, in Brenda's opinion – had been spent on an assault case that had happened the evening before. A woman had been beaten up and raped by her ex-husband. Both alcohol and anger had been heavily involved, and the cops had encountered some violence in subduing the perp. Shots were involved, which made it especially newsworthy; it was the first time in years that a Spearfish Lake cop had the need to take out a weapon and use it. As far as that went, the assault and rape itself were pretty rare, too – but it had shaken Brenda a little. In discussing the incident, it made Brenda wonder a little, wonder enough to ask Carole: doesn't having the Soliels on make you something more of a target for some bozo like that?
"Probably," Carole said nonchalantly. "But, I'm not worried. It's probably less likely to happen to me than it is to you."
"I don't see how," Brenda frowned. "I think you'd be seen as a pretty defenseless target."
"I suppose," Carole grinned. "But then, Wendy would seem pretty defenseless, too."
Wendy did seem pretty defenseless to such violence, Brenda knew – and she'd also known from the first day that she'd met her that she wasn't quite as defenseless as she seemed. After all, she had Jeeves. From his earliest versions, he'd been equipped with a capability that Brenda had pointedly not mentioned in her story, but it ought to have been pretty obvious – at a single word from Wendy, Jeeves could silently call the cops, the fire department, or EMS, depending on the word used. Those words were not filtered to only respond to Wendy's voice; anyone could use them, so the words were German, and not common words at that. Jeeves would respond to them even when in "deep sleep" mode, and the only way to shut off the capability was to shut Jeeves' Pentium down entirely.
"That's different," Brenda protested.
"Oh, I have a few tricks up my sleeve," Carole grinned mysteriously. "Someone who tried me on might find themselves with more than they bargained for."
"Does she ever," Wendy grinned. "I've never actually seen it, but I've seen videotape. It's pretty awesome."
"Now, you've got me curious," Brenda replied. "What's this all about?"
"I don't know if I should say or not," Carole said. "Part of it is the surprise factor. They wouldn't be anywhere near as effective if anyone knew about them."
"Hey, come on," Brenda grinned. "It's not fair to dangle something like that out in front of me and not tell me about it."
"Oh, all right," Carole grinned. "But I want your word that you don't tell anyone about it, and you don't even think of writing about it."
"I can keep a secret, you know that," Brenda protested.
"I know you can, and you'll see why it has to be kept a secret. You doing anything Saturday morning?"
"Nothing but the normal workout, I guess."
"We can put it off till the afternoon," Carole replied with a grin. "I'll call and see if I can get a demonstration set up in the morning. I need a tune-up, anyway."
"You can tell me," Brenda said.
"It'll be more effective if I show you," Carole said, still being mysterious. "It won't seem quite real if I just tell you about it."