In the next few weeks, Brenda's already busy schedule became even busier, with the additions of the workouts at the old storeroom above Spearfish Lake Appliance, but somehow, she managed to fit it all in. Probably the only reason she managed it at all was that as October became November, the weather became worse. Not many days came along when the outside was appealing enough to go for an extended run. As it worked out, that was fine; the martial arts workouts took up much of the slack and were more fun and sociable than just getting out and running by herself, or with Carole when she was around. She'd found a new group of friends, not as close a friends as Carole and Wendy had become, but Spearfish Lake didn't seem quite as lonely anymore. She still made it to the Women's Fitness Center three and four times a week, and she was getting to know some of the regulars there, too.
She still spent a lot of time with Wendy and Carole, two very interesting and unusual friends. Over a period of time, she began to realize the two made her question her definitions on a lot of things. Wendy, for example, despite being trapped in a useless body seated semi-reclined virtually all the time, was in many ways more liberated and free than Carole! She had wide-ranging interests, friends all over the world, even though connected electronically rather than in person, and had an active and curious mind. While Carole was serene and happy and friendly, she didn't have many close friends – the Soliels were kind of off-putting to a lot of people, even those with the best of intentions. Carole had realigned her life to be able to live a fairly normal existence, comfortable with wearing the handcuffs; they were not handicaps – but they did make things more difficult for her.
Wendy quickly turned into a serious Dragonslayer player. By the middle of November, Cassiopeia was working her way through the Advanced Level, and Brenda figured the way she was going they ought to be having some battles on the Master level by around the first of the year. Brenda didn't plan on holding back when that day came.
A little to her surprise, even Carole signed onto Dragonslayer, as "Andromeda" – not because she had any serious intent of playing it, but she at least wanted to be able to make some sense of what her sister and Brenda talked so much about. Andromeda never rose above the novice level, but it amused Brenda that now the three of them were all Dragonslayers.
Mithrian wasn't doing very well, sinking slowly in the points – Brenda just didn't have the time to play the character enough to do it justice, but sort of hoped that when things got slow after the holidays she'd be able to put more time into the game. It had been a main focus of her life for some years, and now it seemed a little sad to have to put it relatively low on her priority list, but between work, workouts, and her friends, there were other, more interesting and rewarding things to do.
When Brenda had first moved to Spearfish Lake to go to work at the Record-Herald, one of the downsides she'd perceived was that it was too close to Camden. It was only an hour and a half, two hours tops in heavy traffic, to get home on the south side of town – and worse, it was the same for her parents to drive to Spearfish Lake. If it had been five or six hours, the possibility of her mother dropping in unannounced would have been a lot less.
Brenda's parents had come up to visit once in early September, right after she started working there, and it was an unpleasant memory. Brenda's mother insisted on helping her "clean" an apartment that was clean and orderly enough to suit Brenda, better than her mother kept house, and it took days to get things put back where they belonged. That visit, at least, had been more or less planned, but Brenda dreaded the day that her mother showed up unannounced.
Brenda hadn't gotten along well with her mother for years. Both of them had hard heads and could take positions and hold onto them, and it had led to epic fights. While Brenda couldn't say she hoped she'd never see her mother again, she did hope it could be infrequently, and on her terms.
Having to live at home during her college years hadn't helped the situation much; Brenda was really living on her own for the first time in Spearfish Lake, and was learning to like it.
For many years, Brenda's father had been able to keep a relative peace between Brenda and her mother, at least some of the time, and Brenda did miss him a little. They stayed in touch by phone and by e-mail, and, in addition, Brenda tried to stave off unwanted visits by making it clear that she was pretty busy with work on weekends. About once a month, though, she'd head down to Camden to do some shopping, eat Japanese – a passion of hers – and drop by the house for an hour or two, just long enough to keep up contact without letting the tensions build. It had worked so far.
When Thanksgiving rolled around Mike offered Brenda the Friday after off, so she could spend a long weekend at home, but Brenda instantly rejected it. That much time at home would poison an otherwise pleasant time off, and there were things she wanted to do in Spearfish Lake, anyway. Four days in Camden would keep her from a couple sessions at the gym, at least one and probably two workouts at Spearfish Lake Appliance, and a fair chunk of time with Carole and Wendy. She counter-offered to work Friday, just to watch the office, and Mike took her up on it; it made a good excuse to make Thanksgiving a one-day down and back.
It was not the most memorable Thanksgiving that Brenda could imagine. "Brenda, you don't look well," were about her mother's first words. "You must not be eating right. You look like you've lost weight."
By that time, Brenda had lost thirty-nine pounds and had sweated buckets for every ounce of every one; it was not exactly congratulatory, but it set the tone.
When dinnertime rolled around, Brenda found that her mother had cooked a huge meal – and she kept urging Brenda to eat hearty. "We don't want to let it go to waste, dear," she said.
"I'm not really very hungry, Mom," Brenda protested. "And if I eat that much, my waist is right where it would go."
"But, dear, you have to keep up your strength."
With all the exercise Brenda had been doing, she was probably the strongest she had ever been, and the end wasn't in sight, especially if she continued with the Fitness Center and the Masters of Mayhem. It finally degenerated close to a fight, as her mother didn't get the point, and was dead set on getting her way.
Fortunately, Brenda's father was there to intercede, just like he'd done so many times in the past. "I don't care what your mom says, I think you're looking pretty good," he said. "I think life up there is agreeing with you."
"I'm a little surprised, but it is," Brenda replied, glad to have a slightly different topic to discuss. "It's not quite the out-in-the-sticks, nothing-happening town I thought it was. I'm making friends and doing things I'd never have done around here. The job is a lot of work, but I'm learning a lot, too."
"You could be making more money if you had a job down here and lived at home," her mother commented.
"Money isn't the issue, at least not right now," Brenda protested. "This is getting my foot in the door. You know they wouldn't do much more than put my resume on file at the Press. I don't stand a chance there, not even now, but maybe someday."
"I don't understand why you're so insistent on being in newspapers," her mother said. "There was an ad just the other day. The Harry's Hoagies chain is looking for assistant managers, and they're talking more money than you're making."
"But I don't want to spend the rest of my life messing with fast food," Brenda protested. "I did enough of that in college. I'd gladly starve before I worked in another place like that. I didn't spend all that time in college to waste it in a burger joint."
"But Brenda, it's a perfectly reasonable job . . ."
"What are your friends like?" Brenda's father interceded again.
"Pretty neat, I've learned a lot about them, kind of fun," Brenda grinned, thankful for the second change of topics in a couple minutes. "There's this one girl from the office I hang around with some, Debbie Elkstalker . . ."
"She's an Indian, with that name?" her mother asked.
"Yeah, a Shakahatchie," Brenda grinned. "Grew up on the Three Pines Reservation . . ."
"Don't tell me you've been hanging around the casino with her!" Brenda's mother said, shocked.
"No, never been there," Brenda said. "Debbie says the casino's there to take money from white people. She doesn't gamble and doesn't drink. What she does do is talk. She's the kind of person where you put in a sentence and get back twenty. Kind of neat, I like hanging out with her. And, then I hang out with a couple of sisters, Carole and Wendy, too. They're both pretty interesting people. Carole is a psychologist, works down here several days a week, then goes back home to Spearfish Lake. She's a little older, a beautiful woman, has some neat views on things." She was not about to mention the Soliels; it would have shocked her mother into next week. Which might have been a good deal, but next week was bound to come . . .
"How about this Wendy?"
"She's a little different," Brenda said. "She's homebound, stuck in a wheelchair."
"That must be sad for her," Brenda's mother said patronizingly.
"It is, in a way," Brenda said. "But, she's learned to accept it and adapted to it pretty well. Just because she has a useless body doesn't mean she has a useless mind. I've learned an awful lot from her."
"The poor thing," Brenda's mother said, again missing the point. "How about any boys?"
"Well, I have met this one guy," Brenda said. "Good looking, good job, got money, but I don't stand a chance with him. I'd be too far down the line."
"Too far down the line?"
"Yeah," Brenda grinned. This was a good one to twit her mother with while not getting personal. "He has three main girlfriends, all of them good friends, all of them pretty awesome people, each in their own way."
"I gotta ask, how does he manage three girlfriends without them all ganging up and killing him?" her father smirked.
"That is one of the main topics of the rumor mills of Spearfish Lake," Brenda grinned. "It's actually pretty simple," Brenda said. "Randy is in the family construction business, and pretty much will have to be living in Spearfish Lake. One of the three, Nicole, seems to be the only one of the three who plans on living there, and the others know that. It's clear to everyone she has the inside track. But, he's a nice guy, I've hung around with him a little, learned some stuff from him." Better not get into what kind of stuff, either, she thought. Her mother would react to her adventures with the Spearfish Lake Appliance regulars about like she'd react to Carole and her handcuffs . . .
"Interesting," her father said. "Sounds like quite a guy."
"He is," Brenda said. "I mean, I'd like to wind up with someone half that good, but, well, I don't want to get hooked up with someone in Spearfish Lake. I'm like Crystal and Myleigh, I don't plan on living there forever."
"Are you planning on coming back here, then?" her mother asked.
"I don't know, yet," Brenda replied. "Probably not. Mostly, the junior reporters hang around the Record-Herald for a year or so to get some experience, and move on. Some of them have moved quite a ways on. You ever watch CNN?"
"Sure," her father said.
"The guy who covers the White House for CNN got his start at the Record-Herald," Brenda grinned. "That was years ago, of course, but they're all pretty proud of that. It's not a bad line to have on a resume in my field."
"You're enjoying it, then?" her father asked.
"More than I ever dreamed I would," she said. "I enjoy the work, I've got friends, I stay busy, and I like to think I'm making some good changes in my life. This won't be a wasted year."
"But dear, it must be so lonely up there," her mother said. "Wouldn't you rather be down here where your friends are, and doing something useful?"
"Mother, really," Brenda said, realizing that her mother had totally missed the point of the discussion the last few minutes, as if she had never heard it. "My best friends are in Spearfish Lake now, and I am doing something useful. No, I don't want to be here, not now, maybe not ever. Right now, if the choice were going to be stay here or stay there, there wouldn't be any choice. I'd stay there."
"Changing the subject on you," her father said. "If you weren't able to come down here over the holidays, would you feel terribly lonely?"
"Why? You got something planned?"
"Your mother and I were thinking of taking off to Florida," he said. "We both have relatives we haven't seen down there for years, and were thinking about going down to see them. At one point we'd discussed asking if you'd like to go along, but I didn't know if you could get off."
"You really should see some of them," her mother sniffed. "Some are quite elderly, and haven't seen you for years. You don't even know some of them."
Brenda rolled her eyes. Two weeks in Florida, visiting relatives she barely knew, maybe didn't even know – with her mother? Frank and Laurel came to mind – it would be an even worse torture than anything they could think of. Thank God her father had left the door open to say no. "There's no way I could get off," Brenda said, trying to cover up her thankfulness. Now, this was something to give thanks for! "But, you go and have fun. I shouldn't have trouble taking care of myself."
"Are you sure you don't mind?" her mother asked.
"No, not a problem," Brenda assured her. "I'll come up with something." Thank God, it wouldn't have to be here, either!
"Well, then, I guess we'll just have to go without you, then," her mother said. "Are you ready for dessert?"
"Dessert? Mother, I'm stuffed as it is!"
"Why, you've barely touched a thing," her mother protested. "Are you sure you're all right? Maybe you should see a doctor."
Good God, if her mother knew . . . Brenda could hardly believe it herself. She'd met this big, mean-looking biker guy with a Harley hanging around the fire station with the EMS crew one day, the kind of guy who looked like he'd be happiest in some biker bar busting a pool cue over someone's head. The kind of guy it looked like it would take at least two of the Masters of Mayhem to handle. Maybe more. The EMS guys called him "Shovelhead," but they were talking about emergency protocols . . .
"I had the sniffles a little last month," Brenda reported. "I went to see Dr. Metarie, and he says I'm fine." Most adults called him 'Dr. Metarie,' but only in the office – the kids got to call him 'Dr. Shovelhead'. His wife, Lex, was a biker, too, with about half a square yard of tattoos. She was a nationally known artist and ran an art gallery of her own paintings. The price tags on them ran into five figures . . . just two more of your typical Spearfish Lake residents. Maybe Carole wasn't that far out of place. "What's for dessert?" she conceded.
"Cherry pie," her mother said.
"Oh, all right," Brenda said, giving in. "Just a sliver, no more than a quarter of a piece."
What resulted was about a quarter of a pie, by Brenda's estimate, stacked high with whipped cream. Good God, there was a normal week's worth of eating there! She pointedly took a knife, sliced off about a third of the piece, and ate that, feeling full anyway.
"I swear, Brenda, you're eating like a bird . . ."
There was a huge pile of leftovers in plastic bags and containers in the back seat as Brenda pointed the Olds back toward Spearfish Lake not long after dinner. I'll probably eat some of the turkey, Brenda thought, but the rest is just going to have to sit in the refrigerator until it gets moldy enough to throw out.
Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty . . . how in hell had she managed to put up with her mother trying to run her life like that for so long? The job in Spearfish Lake was proving to be the best thing that ever happened to her, just to get her free of that atmosphere. It had given her the freedom to have her own life, to work on some of the issues that had bothered her. Some day, she was going to have to settle things with her mother, but she wasn't ready yet. She needed to be a little more free, a little more independent, when that happened, a little more comfortable with some of the changes that had happened in her life. But, for the moment, she was happy the way things were going, and was even happier to have put home behind her.
Two weeks after Thanksgiving came the first word of what Brenda would eventually come to think of as "The Never-Ending Story."
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and the paper was pretty well wrapped. Brenda was at her desk, giving a story a trim job to make it fit a hole on the front, when the phone went off. She picked it up, to discover Anissa Hodges, the sports reporter.
"Brenda, there's been some trouble," she said. "I just found out the boys' basketball season opener tonight has been cancelled."
"Not ready?" Brenda asked. She didn't pay much attention to sports in Spearfish Lake; that was what Anissa did. Anissa was a regular staffer – technically, the "senior reporter," although only through seniority, and a full-timer, although the vast majority of her time on the job was spent at home, writing sports stories while she kept an eye on her preschoolers, or at the games themselves. Brenda didn't know her very well for that reason, but was thankful that she was on staff. She'd never gone to a school sports event at Ackerman, and was also keeping a clean record with the Spearfish Lake Marlins.
"No, not that," Anissa said. "Some sort of court thing, I don't know. It seems like front-office stuff so I thought I better call you."
Although Anissa often heard things around the school and tipped Brenda off about them, her responsibilities basically ended at the gym door. "I'll call Hekkinan and find out what's happening," Brenda offered.
A couple minutes later, she had the principal on the phone. "Damned if I know," Hekkinan said. "All I know is that we got an injunction signed by Judge Dieball enjoining us from holding basketball games until next week, pending a hearing on a permanent injunction on them for Title IX violations."
Brenda knew what Title IX was, even if she didn't know much about school sports. It was a federal law, passed twenty years earlier, intended to create parity between boys' and girls' sports. She also knew that girls' sports programs had been few and far between in most schools before the law went into effect. Many years earlier, there had been a mad scramble to set up girls' programs, and really it had been a good thing, she realized, maybe the only fair thing to do. Mike, who had been a varsity volleyball player at State, had been the junior reporter covering sports back then, and he'd gotten pressed into service to coach the first Spearfish Lake Marlins girls' volleyball team – he still had stories of those days.
"What Title IX violations?" Brenda wanted to know. "You have girls' and boys' basketball, right?"
"That's what I'd like to know," Hekkinan said. "If you find out, tell me. But the bottom line is, no basketball tonight. They're gonna love starting the season with a couple forfeits."
"Yeah," Brenda said thoughtfully. Spearfish Lake was pretty much known as a football town, but the football team was in a down cycle right now, and had gone 2-7 on the season – she couldn't help but be aware of that. But, she also knew that the outlook for boys' basketball was pretty good – they'd been the district champions last year, and had a lot of returning starters. There was hope of getting into the high level of the state playoffs, if not grabbing the whole thing. This would hurt. "I'll see what I can find out."
As soon as she hung up the phone, she called over to the courthouse for Judge Dieball. She knew him pretty well by now, after the coffee and stories over in the jail each Monday morning, and figured she could get the straight scoop from him – but he was in a meeting, and couldn't be called out. Somehow, though, she felt there was a lot more to this than she'd heard. She went back to the paste-up room, told Mike to hold off on rolling down the front page, and then tried to figure out how she could find out more about the story.
There weren't many ideas. Finally, she frowned and shook her head. If there were anyone who would know what was happening if someone was trying to cause trouble for the school, it would be Lisa deLine.
It took a half dozen phone calls, ranging over forty-five minutes – most of that with Lisa deLine, trying to get a few basic facts out of a mountain of invective. It took calls to Judge Dieball, Harold Hekkinan, and Anissa, as well as three silent trips by Mike from the pasteup room wondering what was going on before Brenda had worked out enough of the situation to put a story together.
The trouble had actually started six weeks before, and, not surprisingly, Lisa had been at the heart of it. The heck of it was, at least in the beginning, Lisa had a valid point.
In Spearfish Lake, girls played basketball in the fall – it was statewide, the decision of the state high school athletic association – and the girls, Cindy deLine among them, had a banner season going. They were, at that point, 18-2 in the regular season, and had made it up to the District level of play – as far as the boys' team had gotten the winter before. But, the boys had done it with great hoopla, and even in the Record-Herald, girls' basketball didn't overshadow football, even when the football team had a lousy season, one of the worst in decades. They were two and six heading into the season finale with Moffatt Eastern. Literally everyone had figured that they were going to be two and seven when the evening was over with, unless a miracle happened, like Hjalmer Lindahlsen secretly dosing the entire Moffatt Eastern football team with some of his special chili.
The football team played on Friday night – and so did the girls, for the district championship.
Irked – and rightly so, in Brenda's mind – that the all-conquering girls weren't getting anything like the respect the doormat football team was getting, Lisa had pitched a complaint at Harold Hekkinan: how come there were never cheerleaders at the girls' games? Was that fair?
He and Lisa had locked horns many times before, but this time Hekkinan, the former football coach, thought she might have a point. The football team didn't exactly deserve cheerleaders, the way they'd been playing. So, he called up the cheerleading coach, and told her to take the girls to the girls' basketball District games.
Hekkinan had gone to the Districts, so had Anissa, and so had Lisa – but there was no sign of a Spearfish Lake cheerleader in the arena.
"I was just a little pissed," Hekkinan told her. "I mean, I told that woman to have the girls there. But the girls didn't want to go."
"Let me guess," Brenda had said, a touch angry at the revelation herself. "The girls wanted to go nuzzle up against their boyfriends and show the football crowd their cutsie-poo little tushes in their cute little skirts."
"That's a fair statement," Hekkinan agreed. "I'm told they didn't have on their uniforms, but matching black short shorts, and hell, it was blowing snow out there that night. But, they were out there in front of the football crowd, just like always. When Lisa found that out, you can guess what she told me."
"Uh, yeah," Brenda said. "I just got off the phone with her."
"Well, I had a screaming match with the cheerleading coach and yelled at the girls, and I thought that was the end of it. Guess not."
It had turned out that Lisa deLine wasn't the only girls' basketball parent upset. There was another one: James D. ("Never forget the 'D.'" the Reporter's Handbook said) Moore. He was an attorney, specializing in compensation claims handled on a contingency fee basis, and actually practiced in Camden, although lived in a big house out on the north shore of the lake and commuted.
Brenda figured afterward that Lisa deLine and James D. Moore had never quite intended to let things go as far as they were to go, but that happened later. The opening move was to ask the Spearfish County Circuit Court for an injunction enjoining the school from holding any athletic contests where cheerleaders would normally be involved until the school could offer a plan for equal coverage by cheerleaders at both boys' and girls' events, just to be fair under Title IX.
"It's absolutely asinine," Judge Dieball told her off the record after he got out of his meeting. "But the school didn't have any kind of representation there, so I had no choice but to order a temporary injunction till next Monday. That'll give them time to get their act together."
Brenda didn't find out until weeks later the reason why the school's attorney didn't show up for the original hearing: he thought the suit was so ridiculous that it was a practical joke, possibly something of Hjalmer Lindhalsen's, and wasn't going to be the patsy.
"Cripe, I don't know how to play it," Mike said when Brenda explained the situation to him. "It's not a lead story, for sure. On the one hand, the boys' team has the possibility of a good season, and forfeiting two non-league games right at the beginning isn't going to hurt them that much, but people want to know what the hell is going on. On the other hand, Dieball is right – it's totally asinine, and that's a story in itself. On the third hand, Lisa deLine is involved. Write it pretty short, Brenda, and I'll find a hole on the bottom half of the front. Can you wrap it up pretty quick? I promised Tiffany I'd take a dog team of hers out for a practice run."
"Yeah, I've got a workout at Spearfish Lake Appliance, too," Brenda said. "I'll be quick."
By this time, Brenda had been working out above Spearfish Lake Appliance for nearly two months. She was a long way from being the sort of experts that the regulars were – it took years of training and dedication to get that good. But, for only two months' experience, she was coming along pretty well.
Gil had been right that the levels of experience of the regulars were intimidating Jason Bailey, whom Brenda met there for the first time. That same level of experience intimidated her, too. Being able to work with someone who was as much of a novice as she was – at least a little, while the regulars coached them – gave them both a better degree of confidence in the idea that they were really learning something. Jason was pretty serious about it; he'd had the motivation and the grim determination to pick up those skills by a really serious object lesson – and the way Randy had manhandled her in the demonstration in comparison to the way Carole had handled him made her just a little grim about it, too.
Mithrian helped with that, at least a little. At least when she was really serious about playing the character, Mithrian had an aggressiveness and risk-calculating behavior that had stood her well in Dragonslayer wars. But, to translate that same behavior to the practice mats up over the appliance store wasn't a simple thing, although it did give Brenda a running start.
Jason Bailey turned out to be a little snot of a guy, just fifteen, like she'd been told, smaller by a margin than Randy, smaller than Brenda. A nice enough kid, with a streak of independence that showed through, although he'd still seemed pretty cowed by the ongoing hassles he'd taken at the school. Brenda was able to lend a sympathetic ear – after all, she'd been through many of those same problems herself – and was able to pass along a few lessons in how to bear up under that kind of pressure, how to avoid problems.
Gil stressed again and again – the others did too – that they weren't training at fighting so they could go looking for fights. In fact, that was exactly the opposite of what they were trying to do, and they'd refuse to train someone who showed too much of that kind of aggressiveness. Rather, the purpose was to train them in what to do when things went to hell and there was no recourse but to fight.
The first time Brenda had been up to the workout rooms above Spearfish Lake Appliance, she'd heard Randy say that sometimes they sat around and talked philosophy as much as they worked on skills. She'd let the remark go as so much bushwa – but it proved to be right. In fact, he was dead right. They spent many hours sitting around on the mats in lotus position – Brenda had never tried it before, but the increased flexibility that came with the workouts and exercise soon made it surprisingly easy – and talked philosophy. But, it was philosophy with a point: offense and defense, two sides of the same coin, aggressiveness versus passiveness, again much the same thing, violence and nonviolence, pain and anger. The talking points could be anyone from Sun Tzu to the Green Berets, from Confucius to Sartre, from Luther to Kierkegaard. Many were names that Brenda had never heard, but the points were driven home again and again: violence carries with it a number of responsibilities, among them careful use – but doing the job when it happened. It was an education in itself to hear, and Mithrian learned from it, too, although it was a little surprising to hear someone like Gil, a big, grizzled, late-fiftish ex-Special Forces Master Sergeant using a quote from Martin Luther to discuss how to clean someone's clock.
But, all in all, it was coming along well, even better than she had expected. Blake told her several times that if she stayed with it a year or two, she might start thinking about working for a black belt of her own. It was a nice thought, but somehow, she doubted that she'd be around Spearfish Lake that long. The next place she worked, though – well, she'd have to think about it.