"And on a lighter note," chirped the chipper news-reader to her onscreen partner, "You remember that high-school boy who raised such a fuss about taking a school test? Well, now his mother has made the news, too; she says her daughter can't have a vaccination that would protect her against cancer. And she says she's willing to go to jail to prevent it."
The co-anchor shook his blow-dried head ruefully. He chuckled, "Boy, that's one family I wouldn't want to mess with. Sounds like the whole bunch of 'em enjoy fighting like Tasmanian devils. Cousins of Jeff Foxworthy by any chance?" The lovely and lissome onscreen pair shared a bright-toothed chuckle.
Charlotte aimed the remote at the TV as if it were a handgun. She poked the button. But not before Jennifer, wandering from her bedroom into the kitchen, heard the report.
"Mommmmmmm!" she wailed. "How could you do this to me? I've never been so embarrassed in my whole life!"
Charlotte and Tonio both turned. Charlotte considered her complaining daughter. Guiltily, she realized she'd heard that tone of voice and that phrase all too often -- and not from Jennifer. "Kid,", she announced, "suck it up. Things are going to get a whole lot tougher." She bit the end off a carrot stick for emphasis. "Just remember, whatever happens in the future -- and lots of things are likely to happen -- I still love you."
Jennifer thumped back into her room, slammed the door, and threw herself dramatically onto the bed with a groan of grief and bed-springs that could be heard clear into the living room.
* * *
The media coverage hadn't been totally catastrophic. One local TV station had quoted Charlotte saying, "Representative O'Day and school officials don't seem to understand: You can't make up for forcing people to do one thing by turning around and forcing them to do another. It's the forcing that's the problem in the first place."
A newspaper had almost entirely accurately reported her other best moment from the news conference: "How strange. Kids can't legally take a sip of beer until they're 21. They can't hold real jobs. They can't sign contracts until they're 18. We tell them what to think, not how to think. We tell them personal responsibility is years in their future. Then we turn around and say, 'Have sex! Have babies! It's your decision! Join the military! Kill and be killed! It's as if we're trying to keep them babies in their minds, but turn them into 30-year-olds in their bodies. Does that make sense to anybody? Because it doesn't to me."
But good or bad, what was done was done. The question now was what to do next, now that she'd made such a dramatic declaration of her change of ways? She took a nibble of cauliflower, pulled a little face, and put the offending veggie back into the dish. Some of this "healthy change" stuff was going to take getting used to. But by damn, she wasn't going back.
She had one idea to put in motion. She wasn't exactly sure how, but she thought maybe she had the resources at least to begin the job.
"Tonio," she said, in the TV-less, Jenniferless silence, "You know, that Representative O'Day, he's the one behind all this -- what's happening to you and Jennifer."
"I guess. Yeah. He's one of the people for sure."
"Well, he's the one who stuck his nose in when he gave that speech at the high school."
"Yeah ... So ...?"
"I think it's time to try to cut that busybody nose right off that fat ugly face. Who do you know who's really good at research on the computer?"
* * *
And Qwai Ching Paine gazed deeply into the mirror -- or rather, into the glassy eye of a television set -- and saw that monkey-fu continued to work its mysteries. He was humbled by his "leaf on the wind" role in the great chi flow.
All was as he had hoped when he first cast the stone of monkey-fu into the stagnant pond of the Carolina family. But -- he was astonished to see -- the power of an aroused and indignant Charlotte Carolina had potential to be more like a tsunami than a stone's watery ripple.
He smiled. Yes, once again inscrutably. For all his humble failings as a monkey-fu student, at least he was getting good at inscrutability discipline.
* * *
Charlotte didn't know much about research on the computer. But she did know that her employer, CYACorp had a lot of government contracts and did a lot of lobbying. And corporate headquarters was in Toad O'Day's district. Surely, she thought, somewhere there's a 2 and a 2 to be added up to 4. So she used just a little more of her employer's time to search a little further into filing cabinets when she placed folders there. And a little more of her employer's time to read emails from her boss's boss (who had so very kindly left login data where anybody bringing coffee into his office could see it).
In the next few days, Charlotte occasionally had a passing thought. Several of them, actually. Who is this person doing this? It can't possibly be me. and If I get caught ... no, I'm not even going to think about that. But if I get caught ...
After a handful of days, with a little help from some of Tonio's angry hacker friends, Charlotte had before her a stack of information about Rep. Ted "Toad" O'Day bigger than she would have imagined.
Unfortunately it didn't amount to much. Carefully altered biographies. Puff pieces about his fabulous family life. PR statements. There were a few critical news stories and a few unconfirmed but highly believable rumors. Some routine correspondence between CYACorp officials, or their lobbyists, and the representative's office. But ... it was all very thin. And ditch-water dull to read through, Charlotte thought as she sat in the dim light at her home computer desk one midnight. Still, she had to. That man was trying to hurt both her kids. And that, a mother simply couldn't tolerate.
She slugged another dose of coffee, turned to the next sheet of paper, visited the next web site. She was going to find out everything there was to know about Toad O'Day.
And it wasn't long before one of her filing-cabinet forays struck pay-dirt. With "pay" and "dirt" both perfectly appropriate terms. The photocopied note was vague and short. It didn't come right out and say, "Thank you for doing tat. In exchange, here's tit." But it was close.
I hope you and your companions enjoyed your visit to Parrot Cay. Just remember, I'm always glad to be of personal service in any way. And of course you can count on me to be among your most steadfast campaign supporters.
The letter was on personal stationary and signed by the president of CYACorp.
Charlotte went back to her desk and looked up Parrot Cay. Hm. Not bad. Then she made her way over to Thomas. That was a site she'd never even heard of two weeks ago. Now she was so familiar with it she needed to go only to refresh her memory about a particular bill. Yep. That 2,000 page appropriations bill that contained a quiet little page with a special project for CYACorp got the Good Congressman's vote, and his helping hand, just three weeks after the date of the letter.
Sliding the filing-cabinet drawer closed, Charlotte put a lid on her elation. Her co-workers should only see the usual bleak old Charlotte Carolina, hunched grudgingly over her work, half asleep. But she was so thrilled by the hunt -- and by this glimpse of success -- that she didn't think she'd ever sleep again.
With the photocopy hidden deep inside a file of sales field reports, she casually ambled into the copy room and ran off the letter along with a load of routine expense accounts and appointment memos. Just as casually, as if she had carelessly forgotten something in the file room, she slipped the letter back into its old place.
At her desk, she furtively folded her new copy into a small square and tucked it into the bottom of her purse.
She wasn't sure what she'd do with it. She wasn't sure whether it would be enough. But she'd get it to one of those reporters she'd just met. One of the serious ones. She wasn't sure who, just yet. But she was absolutely, certainly sure that nothing was going to stop her.
The phone on her desk shrieked.
"Mrs. Carolina?" The woman's voice sounded odd -- both self-righteous and apologetic at the same time, as if two people were inhabiting the same body. "This is the school nurse at Alexander Hamilton High School. I'm calling to inform you that your daughter, Jennifer, is on her way to the hospital. The ambulance just ..."
"... on her way to the hospital. She apparently had an ... well, you see, you must understand, it wasn't the school's fault. It was no one's fault. No one could have predicted. It was ..."
"Shut up!" Charlotte barked. "Shut the" -- she interjected an obscenity that had never before parted her lips -- "UP! Just tell me what happened and what hospital. And don't say one other word!"
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.
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