John clicked off his computer, his way of clicking off the whole cussed day, the whole miserable mess, the whole circus that made him the clown. He just wanted to get out of there.
Leslie pulled up a chair and sank into it, looking very tired. She’d stuck around almost three hours longer than she had to, watching the entire outcome.
“Was that Max [on the phone]?” she asked.
“Hoo boy, was it ever. Forget the dark alley — I wouldn’t want to meet him in broad daylight right now.”
She nodded. “I would guess we’ve exhausted our friendship with the Brewers. We’ve blown the whole wad.” She added a thought she wasn’t too excited about. “I could probably call Deanne tomorrow and try to explain this to her.” Then she just sighed through her nose and shook her head despondently. “But how good an explanation am I going to have? Right now I don’t like the explanation myself.” She glanced across the newsroom. “I had it out with Marian and I talked to Rush too and . . . I knew what they were going to say.”
John supplied the answer. “It was news. It was happening . . .”
Leslie prompted, “And . . .”
“And . . . everything in the story was true, factual.”
“And . . .”
“And they got reacts from both sides.”
Leslie threw up her hands, rested back in her chair, and said, “And I am quitting.”
John stopped short upon hearing that. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. “You sure?”
She wanted to answer right away, but then hesitated. “I’m not sure about anything anymore. No, I take that back. I know one thing for sure: I’ve let down my friends, I’ve compromised my ideals, I’ve gone with the flow, but . . . at least I saved my precious little rear. Leslie Albright the reporter is safe.” She stopped to brood about that.
John suggested, “Well, really, did you have any choice?”
She leaned forward and spoke intensely. “You better believe I did! Surprised? Well, it dawned on me today — no, actually I’ve known it all along, but it’s been so easy, so handy to forget — I have a choice. I can choose right from wrong — we all can. The problem is, it’s this beast, John. We’re in the fish’s belly and it’s swimming away with us, remember? Once you get inside this workplace and you get so used to going with the flow and protecting your rear, you don’t even think you have a choice, and you don’t even consider choosing the right thing over the wrong thing, you just do what the machine tells you to do. Sure, you gripe about it in the news care or at the lunch table; you talk about the blind producers sitting in the windowless rooms forcing their reality on your, telling you what they want to see whether it’s really there or not — but you do it. Even for the dumbest reasons, you do it. I let Tina walk all over me because I was afraid for my job, and you let Ben Oliver crack the whip over you and make you do your tricks because you’re afraid for your job, and when it comes to keeping our jobs, our important, hard-to-get, major-market jobs, we have to be professionals, so right and wrong don’t even enter the formula because we think we don’t have a choice!”
John was getting uncomfortable with this. “Leslie, come on, you’re not being fair — not to the business, not to yourself. You . . . you can’t bring morals into it when there’s news to report —”
She didn’t raise her voice, but just whispered so hard she hissed. “John, don’t we get to be people? Who are we anyway? I don’t know who I am — or who I’m supposed to be. I don’t know who you are!” She stole a glance around the room, hoping no one was overhearing them. “John, what were we when we talked to the Brewers? Who was I, what was I when I spent all that time with Deanne? Was I just a news gathering machine or did I really care, did I really feel for Annie Brewer? What do you do, John? Hang up your humanity when you come into the newsroom? Does John Barrett ever feel anything?” She swallowed her emotion and ventured, “You intro’d a story that betrayed people who trusted us, and you did it so well! You were so . . . so professional!
“Well, I can’t do that. John, the Brewers have been through the machine; they’ve had their two-minute spot on television and now they’re gone; they’ll probably never come across that assignment desk again, but you know what, the Brewers, the real-live, breathing, feeling Brewers, are still out there, still living in that little house with one less daughter, and I can’t just crumple them up, toss them, and go on to the next story.”
“Leslie . . .” John had to make sure she knew. “I felt something.”
Leslie was pained as she grappled with that. “Then . . . John, in God’s name, why did we let this happen?”
John couldn’t fight it anymore. His head, his professionalism, told him one thing, but his heart kept listening to Leslie and to what he knew deep inside. He had to give in. He leaned his elbows on his desk and rested his forehead in his hands. For a moment he said nothing, but then, as if confessing, he spoke in a weak, barely audible voice, forcing himself to say it. “Tina Lewis called the Women’s Medical Center right after you talked to her on Thursday. She told them all about the Request for Medical Records, and she told them about Annie’s code name, Judy Medford. She even spelled it for them. She told Alena Spurr that you and Deanne were going to be there the next morning, and Alena Spurr told Tina about Max Brewer being arrested and his jail time, the whole thing. That’s how Tina knew about it this afternoon.
“Last night Alena Spurr went through all the records and purged Judy Medford’s name out. She even rewrote the daily schedule by hand so she could omit Annie’s code name.”
Leslie was speechless. Sure, it’s what she’d thought, and yet . . . this sounded so direct, as if John really knew, as if he’d been there.
John continued in the same quiet voice, as if he were spilling his guts, confessing secrets he’d been hiding. “Tina is a deeply wounded woman . . . She’s scared, and she’s running, and when she fights and pushes like she does, it’s because she’s trapped, she’s trying to defend herself.”
Leslie leaned closer to hear him better, his voice was getting so quiet.
John stopped to gather strength and then continued. “Three years ago . . . September 16th . . . Tina had an abortion. It was a boy. The only child she ever had. The anniversary was just two weeks ago, and I heard her screaming.”
“Screaming?” Leslie whispered.
John held his hand up. “I heard her screaming . . . Screaming inside. She’s still thinking of him, and every time an abortion story comes along, it reminds her, and so she had to fight it off. She has to show herself, show the world, that what she did was all right, that she had the right to do it, that she isn’t guilty of anything. Leslie . . . when you pitched the story idea to her, you came too close to the wounds.”
For the first time John looked at her. “It’s not you or me she hates. She’s not fighting against us. It’s the Truth she hates. The Truth won’t let her alone, and she hates it.” He stopped as another thought came to his mind. “And . . . I don’t know who they are, but . . . Annie isn’t the only one. Some other girls have died there.”
Leslie believed him. “John . . . how do you know all this?”
He looked as if he would break into tears and shook his head. “I don’t know.”