The next few minutes were probably among the more interesting ones Brenda had ever spent in her life. It was probably just as well it was a slow Monday morning, because very little useful work got done around the Record-Herald in those first minutes. At least Mike and Kirsten had had fair warning about the Soliels – but no one else had been given a clue about them, or Brenda's makeover, either.
Although it happened several different times, the reactions were almost the same every time; a surprised double take at the gorgeous babe of a redhead who had somehow appeared behind Brenda's monitor – "Brenda! What have you done?"
The answers to that were always easy and straightforward – "Oh, I hit my weight loss goal and decided to reward myself with a little makeover. You like it?"
She only got a response a couple of times, because that was about the time that the onlooker discovered the Soliels, let go of a shocked gasp – "Brenda! What have you done?"
Brenda had already made up her mind to have some fun with it. After all, with the exception of the Carter family and maybe some of the regulars above Spearfish Lake Appliance, her co-workers were the best friends she had in Spearfish Lake. Carrie was the first to make the discovery and fire off both questions, and Brenda's snickering reply was to hold up the Soliels and say innocently, "Oh these? They do make an eye-catching accessory, don't they?"
"But . . . but . . ."
"Shhh . . . " Brenda grinned. "Here comes Debbie. Let's see what she says . . . "
She ran through the script again with Debbie, whose response was a simple shake of the head, and an "I think you've been hanging around Carole Carter too much."
By the time she got down to Janine, the last to arrive, a few minutes after Carrie, there was no way Brenda could have answered the second question, she was laughing so hard – but Janine gave her a different response: "All right, where's Hjalmer?"
Brenda did a double take of her own at that one, until she remembered Hjalmer Lindahlsen, the town practical joker. He would have been proud of her, she thought, although it wasn't his kind of joke. Still, her co-workers standing around, a little stunned by the Monday morning spectacle, apparently thought Brenda was just having a little leg-pulling fun at their expense – which was correct. It was fun to be the center of attention! "OK, everybody, look," she said finally. "Yes, these are Carole's handcuffs, her spares. I'm going to be wearing them for a while to try to get a little understanding of her for a feature story."
"But Brenda," Sally protested, "How does it feel?"
Brenda grinned. "That's what the feature is all about. Right now, I can only give you one word."
Debbie nodded. "Yep, it fits, all right."
"I have to say, you sure look different," Carrie smiled. "And, I don't mean the handcuffs. I like it, Brenda. That really is a very striking outfit, and it looks very nice on you."
"It is a little hot," Brenda admitted. "But I wanted to draw attention away from the handcuffs a little, if I could."
"I think I can say you managed that," Sally added. "But it balances out. It draws a lot more attention to you. But I agree with Carrie. I like it too."
It wasn't as busy a Monday morning as usual – as predicted, the week between Christmas and New Year's was slow. Things happened a little different, partly because of Brenda and her new accessories, but more because of the new internal organization that was involved to deal with the digital full-page makeup. There was a little more work to do with the mouse than the straight typing Brenda had done the night before, but not enough more that the Soliels became more of an irritant than they'd been the night before – she was starting to get the hang of this, anyway.
As things turned out, Brenda didn't have to go out again that morning and was able to stay in the office. The morning was slow enough that the staff was able to gather in the lunchroom for lunch, rather than trying to eat it on the fly. Needless to say, Brenda's new fashion accessories were the main topic.
"I'll bet you're going to get some interesting reactions around town," Kirsten commented wryly.
"I already have," Brenda said. "I haven't been out much yet, but, you know, that was one of the things that made me curious about this in the first place."
"What, people looking at you like you're nuts?" Debbie snorted.
"Exactly the opposite," Brenda said. She hadn't really articulated it well in her own mind; it was more of a feeling than something she could put her finger on. "You know I've been hanging around with Carole off and on for months, now, and one of the things that's really gotten to me is how little comment there is about her, at least that you hear. I don't know if it's that people are familiar with it and just don't pay attention to it anymore, or whether people think she's nuts, and are just being polite about it. Either way, you rarely get a reaction. That seems a little strange, if you know what I mean."
"I suppose it's a mixture of both," Mike said thoughtfully. "I mean, for years now, if you saw Carole running around, she was wearing her handcuffs, and that was that."
"Yeah," Brenda smiled. "Now, here's the funny part. Every time I've talked to someone this morning, and that includes you people here, the initial reaction is, 'Brenda, what's this all about?' or something like that. The instant I explain I'm doing it for a feature story about Carole, everybody more or less says, 'Oh, OK, that I can understand.'"
"Well, you mostly have been around people you know, anyway," Sally pointed out. "That's got to make a difference. It could be a little different with someone you don't know."
"That's kind of the point. But, in a sense, it's no different than Jennifer," Brenda replied, nodding in Carrie's direction. "I mean, everybody knows about her, who she is, and everybody in town respects her desire to be sort of anonymous, just another regular person. And pretty much, she is, at least in Spearfish Lake. I really have an almost impossible mental jump imagining Jennifer, the woman who fills in on the Saxmayer sometimes, could also be the same person as Jenny Easton. I mean, I know it, but somehow, it's not real. Look, I know I'm not explaining this very well, but it's somehow like I'm exploring the same territory."
"I know what you're saying," Carrie smiled. "I mean, I've watched it for years, even been pulled into it a little, and I don't understand it either. Jennifer does have a talent at turning rather anonymous, so I suppose that helps, but it's going to be hard to be anonymous wearing chrome handcuffs."
"I don't know," Debbie said a little sarcastically. "I always thought Carole was crazy, and now I know you are, too."
"Probably," Brenda grinned. "But then, who isn't? I mean, I could name names, but hasn't everyone around this table done something most people would consider a little crazy, at one time or another?"
"Of course," Janine said thoughtfully. "But you know, this morning, I keep thinking what a leap of faith it is for you to try it."
If there was anyone around the table who Brenda thought was crazier than anyone else, it was Janine. As she had learned long before, the long-haired middle-aged bookkeeper was intensely religious – but it was a twist to religion that Brenda had never quite encountered before. Most of the people there were Christian, to some degree, of various flavors. Debbie was the exception, at least partly – although nominally a Methodist, she had turned to tribal shamanism in recent years. Janine belonged to a small fundamentalist sect, but her interest in religion was wide-ranging. She never proselytized, but often analyzed. She was as likely to quote from the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita as she was to use the Bible, and she could talk Native American beliefs knowledgeably with Debbie, who wasn't above asking Janine for her input on some issues. Lunchtime discussions at the Record-Herald could wind up on a wide range of topics.
"It wasn't exactly that," Brenda said. "I admit, it did take a little courage to even consider it."
"No, it was a leap of faith," Janine said. "Think of Jesus walking on the water. Simon Peter couldn't believe his eyes, but found he could walk on water as long as he kept his faith. When it faltered, he found himself sinking. I admire you for having Peter's courage, but you'll have to confront the issue of keeping the faith."
"Carole said that there would be high points and low points, and I'd just have to work through the low points and carry on," Brenda said, realizing that there was more to what Janine was saying than was visible on the surface.
"Actually, I rather envy you, and envy Carole," Janine said. "I recall Paul, wearing chains in the latter part of Acts. In a way, the chains freed him, strengthened his message, strengthened his will, and strengthened his faith. I'd be surprised if you didn't come out of this experience a stronger, more mature person than you were before."
Janine's comment at lunch was considerable food for thought. Yes, Brenda thought as she headed back to her desk, Janine understands more than anyone else. She was still ruminating over it when she heard Carrie speak up: Brenda, line two."
The caller proved to be Lisa deLine. Lord, grant me the serenity to deal with this nut ball, Brenda thought . . . "What's happening in your world today?"
"Great news," Lisa said. "We got an appeals court date set for next Tuesday."
"What's this?" Brenda asked.
"James D. Moore and I are asking the court to overturn Dieball's inane ruling . . ."
It took a few minutes to get the few relevant facts out of Lisa's routine rant, but Brenda soon got the drift and was able to weasel out the basics.
Really, it seemed to be more Moore's hardheadedness than it was Lisa's. He wasn't the kind of man to take "no" for an answer; he was asking the appeals court in Camden to overrule Judge Dieball's ruling setting aside the original injunction on the cheerleader and basketball issue from back in early November. He asked for reinstatement of the original injunction, barring the school from holding any athletic contests where cheerleaders would normally be involved until a plan could be presented for equal coverage by cheerleaders under Title IX.
Though Brenda – and Judge Dieball, and anyone else she'd talked to when the original story had broke weeks before – thought the request was about as asinine as could be imagined, apparently it wasn't about to go away. As soon as Brenda got off the phone, she was headed for Mike's office with the news.
"It's just another shin-kicking contest," Mike grumped. "It means absolutely nothing. Lisa, and now Moore, are just looking to make the schools look bad. The whole idea is laughable. But, now that it's gone to the appeals court, something stupid could happen."
"Could be," Brenda said thoughtfully. "It strikes me as one of those things no normal person would even think of. It'd cost too much money for attorneys, for one thing. But, Moore is apparently doing the legal work himself."
"Yeah," Mike said slowly. "That could put a different spin on things. If nothing else, they're going to twist the school's arm pretty good."
"And, their attorneys don't come for free," Brenda added.
Mike let out a sigh. "Well, we're not going to run a story just on the basis of what Lisa says. Better try to get hold of someone at the school, if you can find anyone over the holidays, maybe the school's attorney. And, call down to the appeals court in Camden and confirm the date and time."
"I don't like this, Mike. I'm getting a bad feeling."
Mike nodded. "I do, too. Look, if this comes off, you're probably going to have to go down and cover the hearing."
"That'll rip next Tuesday up pretty good," Brenda said.
"I wasn't thinking about that," Mike said. "You can get away with wearing handcuffs in Spearfish Lake, I think, but you better think about how you're going to get away with it in Camden."
"Brenda, that was ten bucks I'd really rather not have won," Gil said up above Spearfish Lake Appliance that evening. "Although I will agree with Carrie that I barely recognized you when you walked in."
"That's been kind of strange, too," Brenda told him. She didn't have the 'eye-candy' outfit on right now, just routine, oversized gym shorts and T-shirt, and they didn't feel all that well, now. The shopping trip hadn't extended to those clothes, and maybe another shopping trip would be in order, soon.
"I wish you'd given us a little warning," Rod grumped. "This did come as a surprise."
"It sort of came as one for me, too," Brenda told him. "It was one of those things that just, well, sort of happened."
"Well, what's done is done," Randy said. "So I suppose we don't have any choice."
"Oh, hell, it's probably not going to matter for you," Gil said. "You're probably not going to have to really use the steel wrists moves anyway. Carole never has had to use them, but she's a little careful about not going places where they might be needed, and that should be your first defense, too. They aren't going to be a lot of use to you after the cuffs come off, but training is training, and you'll probably get some good out of it."
"I kind of figured that," Brenda frowned. "Look, I appreciate you guys coming out tonight and doing this special for me."
"Aw hell, the kids have been driving me nuts," Rod grinned. "I wanted to beat on someone, anyway. You know, that really is a little dumb?"
"No, it's probably a lot dumb," Brenda said. "The heck of it is, I was just getting to the point where I felt I was making progress in the regular sessions. It's going to be boring, just messing around at the Fitness Center."
"Don't see why that would matter," Randy commented.
"Well, I'm not going to be able to do the regular sessions very well while I'm wearing these handcuffs, am I?"
"Oh, come on anyway," Gil said. "Carole isn't a martial arts person, but you're well on your way to becoming one. There's still a lot you can learn. I'll get Blake to work with you on some Aikido moves. There's some stuff there that's done with hands tied, anyway, at least to show off. You'll still learn something."
"Come to think of it," Randy added. "It might not be all bad. You're bound to learn things about balance and thrust and process that you didn't realize before."
Rod shook his head. "Just don't even think about using steel wrists in regular sessions," he said. "We won't have protective gear on, and there's stuff there that we don't want anyone but the regulars and you and Carole to know unless you have to use it."
"I can do that," Brenda told him. "Look, I want to thank you guys again for this. I know this is kind of a dumb thing for me to do, but I appreciate the support anyway."
"Don't worry about it," Gil said. "I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we've all done dumb things in our lives that we thought we had good reason to do. This one is yours."
When she finally got back from Spearfish Lake Appliance, feeling a little the worse for wear – the steel wrists moves weren't as easy as Carole made them look – Brenda thought about of call Wendy, just to report on her day and share some of the experiences. However, Jeeves told her that Miss Carter was not available, so Brenda turned on her computer and started in on her journal. A lot had happened, most of it pretty interesting, and she was eager to get some of it down.
The phone rang only a few minutes after she got started; it proved to be Carole. "So, how did it go today?" her Soliel sister asked.
"Amazingly well," Brenda grinned. "On the whole, it was an exciting and memorable day, other than I wished I knew a little first aid."
"How to put bugged-out eyes back in their sockets," Brenda laughed. "Especially when I went into work, you wouldn't believe some of the looks I got, between the clothes and the Soliels."
"You liked it, huh?"
"Yeah, it was kind of neat," Brenda laughed. "Virtually everybody noticed the clothes and the hair first, at least when I was dressed up, and everyone thought it was sort of striking. Then, they'd notice the handcuffs, and it was 'Brenda, what have you done?'"
"Note that down," Carole said when she got done laughing. "I almost never had it happen to me like that. Almost everyone I knew at all knew what I was doing before I did it. And then, I didn't have the effect of the makeover, too. You know, that is pretty striking, all by itself."
"Yeah, and I like the feeling," Brenda admitted. "All in all, it's been a delightful, exciting day."
"Don't expect tomorrow to be quite like it," Carole warned. "You had surprise and pride on your side. It's going to be hard to keep up that kind of high."
Tuesday proved Carole right. Even though Brenda was still sharply dressed, this time in navy sweater and tights with a plaid skirt, there just wasn't the shock value she'd had the first morning with the people she knew well.
Without that sort of high, the limits of the Soliels were starting to get her attention, now. They were heavy, they were irritating, and they limited her motion in awkward ways. The reality of them was starting to hit home a little, now – she was going to have her wrists encased in that stainless steel for a long time, longer than she could contemplate, and as loose as the Soliels were, they still seemed very confining.
The excitement of starting down a new path, of trying a new thing, was starting to wear off with the persistent presence of the handcuffs. They were always there, they never went away, and that reality was starting to sink in, now.
Tuesday was as bad as always, maybe even worse. Not unexpectedly, there was a lot of confusion during the coordination of getting the paper out, and they ran as late as they had ever done on a busy week, just learning how to deal with the problems of the new system. People were tired when they finally started to FTP the pages down to Camden, and only the knowledge that someone would no longer have to head for the printing plant at two in the morning took some of the sting out.
While the server was sending out the pages – it took a while, since they only had a 56k dialup – Mike called everyone together. "I know it didn't go well today," he said. "But, I think we learned a lot, and I think it'll go better next week."
Brenda was happy to head for the Fitness Center after work, just to get her mind off the frustrating day, and all of the problems – and to get her mind off the handcuffs, which were getting to be a real irritant, now.
Connie and the women at the Women's Fitness Center had become used to Carole, long before, but Brenda wearing handcuffs was a new sight. Again, Brenda had to explain that she was trying the Soliels out for a while as part of a feature story made the whole thing understandable. In fact, she'd started to come to realize that it would have been nearly impossible for her to contemplate doing this had people not already been used to seeing Carole wearing the Soliels for years – the path had been cleared for her to do it. The thing was that Brenda was getting tired of repeating the explanation – it was true, as far as it went, and everyone could understand it, but it was a lie, too, as she wasn't sure a story was ever going to result. There were deeper reasons she wanted to be doing what she was doing. Those, though, were harder to explain, and she wasn't sure she could explain them to herself.
At least the new hairdo drew a lot of favorable comment – more than the handcuffs, in fact, and especially so when she told Connie and some of the regulars there that the makeover had been to celebrate her weight-loss goal! That drew more praise and congratulations than the hairdo itself, and was a real boost. Brenda wished that she had some decent workout clothes, rather than the hideous oversized shorts and shirt she had on; she'd liked to have shown off her new look a bit more.
Perhaps the high point of that night was in a quiet discussion with Connie, where they did a little setting of new goals. "The problem is going to be maintenance, now," Connie told her. "That may be harder than losing the weight in the first place." With a bit of discussion, they set some new goals, targeting maintenance, strength training and definition – it was clear that fitness wasn't a one-time goal, but an ongoing process. Like Carole had said, it would involve developing new habits.