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Chapter 16: The Finale

Ron and Rhonda don’t startle when I walk into the writers’ room a half minute after 1 PM. They don’t leap to their feet and shout at me to get out. They don’t even get up and leave. They just stop talking.

I guess that’s as good as a reaction as I can hope for when they were expecting to see Terry at this “emergency meeting.”

Then again, maybe it’s the shock factor that keeps them in place. I know what I look like—barely contained hair, baggy eyed, and looking like roadkill ruining a good suit and pair of high heels. That’s what happens when you pull an all-nighter and abuse the hell out of caffeine. I march up to the front of the room and queue up Terry’s story boards from yesterday. I can’t draw so well, and his are the best thing I’m gonna have to work with except for the poor, sorry excuses of essential scenes I made myself.

A minute passes while I make my preparations.

Finally, Ron clears his throat.

I tap the pages of my script against the desk twice and then look up at them. I’ve never seen Rhonda’s eyebrows so high up in her hairline. Ron looks like one of my neighbor’s German Shepherds when they don’t like the way someone smells. Rhonda opens her mouth, I can only assume to ask me what exactly I think I’m doing, but I cut her off. It’s the only thing I could think to do, anyway.

“Last Saturday, Titania Walsh died in a mass shooting in Boring, Oregon.”

Rhonda’s mouth shuts.

Ron’s scowl disappears.

I continue.

“Terry wasn’t in Hawaii on vacation. He was at a wedding. With me. In Boring.”

There’s an ounce of “I knew it” in Ron’s eyes, a spoonful of disapproval in the twist of Rhonda’s lips.

Well, no one said this was going to be easy, I think with a deep breath.

“I know that both of you think I’m…” I can’t look at them when I say this next bit. “…just a fan. Maybe not even that, maybe just a groupie that talked her way into this and charmed Terry into giving me something that I don’t deserve and that doesn’t benefit him or the show at all…”

I raise my eyes back up. I need them to see my sincerity in the words I say next. “But that’s why I asked you here today. That’s why I’m telling you this. He asked me not to, I promised not to, but… I know you love him just as much as I do, and probably know him and this show better than I do… So I know that’s why you’ll tell me if I’m overreacting when I say that I think his recent decisions concerning the show are being influenced by his grief and if what I have here for you today isn’t what he’d want for the show under normal circumstances.”

I tap my papers back into order again. When did my hands start shaking?

“That said, I did pretend to be him to get you here… A-and I understand how completely unprofessional and against protocol that is, but if you can find it in your hearts to listen, I’d…” My voice dies away as Ron looks at Rhonda.

She regards him for a moment.

I feel like Luke Horizonwalker just before the Doom Star blows up: …Did I hit it?

Then she faces me. “If you would, Miss Ainsley. Please proceed.”

So I take them through it. I take them through how Buck still snaps his fingers and puts Cassie to sleep, how he traps her in her own guilt to keep her from doing anything to mess up his existence in reality. I give them a new reason for her being important: it’s not her mindscape Buck needed, but rather her symbol. Cassie has come to symbolize the shooting star on his summoning wheel, and the symbols on the wheel are what tether Buck to this reality. So long as he has one of them in his possession, he’ll be able to exist in this realm. That’s why Cassie is important, and why he locks her away and why she’s taken out of commission. But instead of sending Clint after Buck, I send him after Cassie.

I show them my terribly drawn storyboards of Clint going to rescue Cassie, of him talking her out of thinking it’s her fault that Buck managed to get his hands on the rift, and how the twins’ relationship has been a key theme in the story of Serenity Peaks, so it only makes sense to see them united again before they go to take down the big bad.

“What about Buck’s tether to reality?” Ron asks me at this point.

I smile and flip back to one of Terry’s previous boards.

“Remember when Buck turned Xander into a backscratcher?”

“Ah,” Rhonda says. “Ready-made tether.”

I take them through the twins finding Stan, everyone going up against Buck, Alex sacrificing himself to give them the opening they need, and the strange return to normal and non-normal afterwards that the Mystery Twins and the original owner of the Conundrum Cabin tearfully deal with together before the twins go home.

“I wanted to include the idea of impermanence and how things change even when you don’t want them to,” I say. Ron is actually wiping tears from his eyes. Rhonda’s eyes have a strange, fierce fire I’ve only ever seen when she’s in full-on producer mode. “Terry’s original draft seems to be centered around the idea of second chances. And, while everyone has a second chance at living in the world as we know it, it’s also undeniably different, and that’s—”

“I am so sorry!”

Terry stands in the doorway, chest heaving. The door settles gently against his back as he catches his breath.

“I didn’t realize we had a meeting today, and then I saw your message, Ron, and for some reason my car was gone, but I came as quick as I could—you wouldn’t believe the price of taxis these days…” His words trail off as his eyes land on me.

I color. Not just because his car being gone was totally my fault, but because of the horrified look he’s giving me.

No. No. I told myself I wouldn’t be ashamed, that I would own this, whatever the cost. I love him, and I’m doing what I think is best. Rhonda and Ron love him. They love this show. They’ll tell me if I have reason to be ashamed.

I clear my throat and smile. “Morning. Sorry about the car.”

He just stares at me. Then he switches back to Ron and Rhonda. Then his eyes go to the projector and finally to the papers in my hand.

His raises his eyes slowly to mine, the surprise gone. It’s been replaced with a guarded coldness. “What are you doing?” His voice is low. Dangerous. The same soft, quiet deadly he used with my father.

“Filling my Saturday hours,” I say. I stand firm, but I clench my script in my hands, scared.

“That’s not an answer,” he hisses.

Ron gives him a pained look. “Listen, Terry… She told us what happened.”

His head jerks to Ron. “What do you mean? Nothing’s happened.”

Rhonda has such expressive eyebrows…

“He means about the unfortunate business with your sister, Mr. W—”

Terry rips from the doorway towards me.

Ron is up in an instant, barring his way.

“You promised!” Terry shouts at me. “You promised you wouldn’t tell them! You know how important the work is to me! To her!

Ron holds Terry by his shoulders, keeping him away from me. He looks back at me with a panicked look in his eyes. I’m frozen, just as panicked.

“That is enough, Mr. Walsh.” Terry and Ron’s heads turn to Rhonda. To her credit, she’s still in her seat, seeming to be for all the world completely unruffled by Terry’s outburst. She carefully rearranges a curl in the new stillness of the room and then returns her attention to Terry.

“Miss Ainsley broke her promise to you because she felt it was in your best interests. Now, I’m not sure as to why you felt you needed to keep the news of your sister’s passing from us in the first place, but given that you have kept it from us despite your own standards of personability and openness within your own team, I would say the choice warrants some examining.”

“Please…” He’s begging. I can hear it in his voice. “Please don’t take the show away from me.”

Rhonda gives him a sympathetic look. “I said ‘examining,’ Mr. Walsh. It’s not a death sentence. And the show could hardly continue without you.”

His posture regains some of its composition. “So then, you’re not listening to her?”

I step back, wounded. “What the hell do you think I said?” I cry out.

His head whips back around, teeth bared angrily. “How am I supposed to know when you—!”

Mister Walsh.”

Terry ducks his head and swallows before raising his eyes to Rhonda’s again.

“I think, for the moment, you should sit down and look through Miss Ainsley’s script and storyboards on your own. When you’re finished, you may come to my office, and we can discuss how best to proceed with your production schedule from there.”

“Please don’t,” he whispers.

“Terry, shut up,” Ron says. His tone is familiar, deep, and affectionate. “You think we’d take the show away from you after you’ve already lost your sister?”

Terry sucks in a breath and looks at Ron like a lost puppy.

Ron pushes him down into the chair he vacated. “Sit the fuck down and take a minute to come at this like the pro you are.”

Rhonda puts a hand on his shoulder. “I did say ‘production schedule,’ Mr. Walsh.” Terry turns to Rhonda, still looking lost. She smiles at him the way my mother used to smile at me during thunderstorms: warm, reassuring, promising me that the rain and noise would pass and then we’d see the sun again. “I hardly use those words for shows I intend to put on permanent hiatus.”

Terry makes a sound that makes it seem like he’s forgotten how to breathe properly.

Rhonda looks away politely and refocuses on me.

“Miss Ainsley, your script and the remote control for the projector, if you please. I trust the slides are currently in the right order?”

“Oh, um, just a sec…” I scurry to Frankenstein the slideshows together into one file—would have done it earlier if I hadn’t been so busy scanning mine to Terry’s computer… Then I set it to the beginning and take my script and the remote to Rhonda.

I try to hand them to her.

She gestures to Terry.

I hesitate.

Ron gives me a go-on look behind Terry’s back.

I hold them out to Terry like an olive branch. “H-here.”

He takes them from me meekly. “…Thanks.”

Rhonda gathers her things and then stands, putting her hand on my shoulder. “We’ll leave you to it then,” she says to Terry, steering me steadily out of the room. “We’ll be waiting for you in my office when you’ve finished.”

Terry nods, already starting to shuffle through the papers in front of him.

Ron holds the door for us and then hesitates. “Do you want me to…?” he asks Rhonda quietly.

“Stay with him,” Rhonda says. “You know how he doesn’t like to feel like he’s talking to himself.”

Ron nods and then goes back into the room, closing the door behind him.

Rhonda turns back to me and then chuckles. “You know that too, I see.”

“Huh?”

Rhonda passes her finger across her lips in a gentle curve. “Your smile.”

I press my fingers to my mouth, and she’s right. I didn’t realize… “I guess I’m happy you and Ron are here to take care of him.”

Rhonda’s face takes on an enigmatic expressions as she strides past me. “Come along. I want to speak to you before he’s finished.”

“Y-yes, of c-c-course.” I trot to catch up to her, my anxiety kicking up a twister in my head. I don’t know what she’s going to say, but one way or another, this won’t be the same afterwards.

Rhonda is quiet until we reach her office. Once inside, she speaks. “That was quite a gutsy thing you just did there, Miss Ainsley.” She hangs up her purse and fluffs her hair in the mirror next to her door. She goes about the office, adjusting little things, as if they’ve gone out of place since she was there before. It makes me shift uneasily. She gestures to one of the chairs in front of her desk and I nervously sit down. She settles in the chair across from me and laces her fingers in a relaxed manner on top of her desk. “Impersonating your boss and calling in two senior staff members. And on a Saturday, no less.”

“I know.” I brace my elbows against my knees and lean my head into my hands, curling around myself defensively. “I didn’t know how else to get you to believe me after yesterday. I’m sorr—”

“Do not for even an instant dream of apologizing to me, Miss Ainsley.”

My head springs up out of my hands. “I’m sorry, what?” Shit, that’s the tired and the caffeine wearing off, making me forget who I’m talking to!

Rhonda is grinning at me like a shark. “Gutsy is exactly what we need here at Bizney.”

I blink. “I’m sorry—”

“Stop using those words. They don’t suit you.”

I eye her, disbelieving. “Are you… are you offering me a job?”

Rhonda’s grin widens.

I start to guffaw. That’s the only word for it. It’s huge and loud and unrestrained and so completely mirthful that there’s no other word for it. “You can’t be serious,” I say when I come down enough from my manic episode to speak again, wiping laughter tears from my eyes.

“Do I seem like the sort to ‘joke,’ Miss Ainsley?”

“No, no, but… You saw what happened back there. He’s furious. And just yesterday, you told me—”

“What I said yesterday had to do with your actions sans the frame of reference I have now.”

I blink again. This morning is really throwing me for a loop. “Is that supposed to be an apology?”

Rhonda shakes her head. “Never apologize, dear. It insinuates you think you were wrong at the time.”

I give her a bemused look. “So…?”

“I’m not sorry for what I said to you yesterday. I hold to what I said, but I now understand why you acted in the way that you did, and—given the things I now know—would like you to know that I think you had every reason to make a fuss in the writers’ room yesterday.”

“So,” I say again, calculating a result from all this new input, “you don’t think I’m just some talentless groupie?”

Rhonda snorts. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

I grit my teeth nervously. “The bit about personal feelings?”

“Still true,” Rhonda says. “But that’s not what you were doing to begin with, was it?”

“No… No I guess not.”

“If anything, Miss Ainsley,” Rhonda says, raising her hands and resting her perfectly powdered chin lightly on the backs of her fingers. “I think this company and I may have seriously underestimated you. So yes. I am, in fact, offering you a job.”

I keep my eyes on hers, but I’m not looking at her. I’m mentally scrambling, running around my sleep-deprived brain checking every sensory organ and cognitive ability to make sure I’m not dreaming or passed out in a hallway somewhere.

“I don’t actually live in Los Angeles,” I say.

Rhonda nods. “Easily changed.”

“I haven’t… I’m still finishing up my M.A.”

“I do believe we can come to some sort of arrangement to allow you to finish your schooling and to continue working for us.”

My mind goes blank, white static taking up the space of all of the walls and hurdles and hoops I thought I’d have to get through in order to ever have a chance like this. But there’s nothing in my way. What… What do I do?

Say “yes.”

I swallow, my throat suddenly feeling very dry. “Um, what about Terry?”

Rhonda raises an eyebrow.

I gesture incoherently—I used up all of my articulate ability presenting. “You know… What if he…”

“Doesn’t like your script?”

Well that’s putting it lightly, but I nod. “Wouldn’t that make it difficult for you to hire me?”

Rhonda chuckles. “I suppose there are still some areas where I still know him better than you after all, Miss Ainsley.”

I’m about to ask her what she means when the door knob turns. The words die in my throat as I watch Terry come through the door. He looks… Well, he looks ruined. His hair’s a mess, his eyes are bloodshot, and he looks exhausted. You’d think he was the one who pulled an all-nighter, not me—but there’s a calm radiating off him that I hadn’t felt before.

“Finished?” Rhonda asks him.

He nods and flops down in the chair next to me. “Ron’ll be here in a sec. I’m just having him make some calls.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not even breathing anymore. What kind of calls?

“And? What did you think?” Rhonda asks.

Terry’s eyes flick over to me and then away. He looks… guilty?

Shit, what is he gonna say?

He clears his throat. “You sure… You sure you want her here for this?”

Rhonda gives him an incredulous look. “Honestly, Mr. Walsh, I think Miss Ainsley is entitled to your opinion of her work after everything she’s been through this afternoon.”

Terry nods, like he thinks she’s right.

“So?” Rhonda prompts.

“It was… It was good.”

That doesn’t sound like it was good!

“But…?” Rhonda says.

“Well, the ending was a little weak, and we’re definitely not killing Alex off, that’s going too far for him, plus Buck’s laughter count was waaaaaaaaay over the top—seriously, I can’t handle doing that many, I’ll die.”

Great. Awesome. Fantastic. He’s back in writing mode, and my relationship is over. Mission accomplished, self. Good job.

Rhonda catches my eye and smiles at me. “But?” she says again, this time more softly.

Wait, there’s MORE??

He sighs and scrubs at his face and then turns to me. He lays a hand over mine and waits until I look at him—which takes a while, because this has not been a great day for us intimacy-wise. After a few false starts, my flickering eyes manage to hold his.

“But you’re right about Cassie,” he says. “That part was awesome, and it parallels the problems Alex and Xander had and shows Cassie and Clint surpassing the original Mystery Twins and saving the world together.”

He throws up his hands like an angry fan. “It was so much better than mine! So much better! Ugh!”

I stare, not sure if he’s happy or angry, but Rhonda’s laughing, and then Ron comes in and says, “Oh, did he get to the part about him crying?” and Terry leaps out of his chair, whirls on Ron, and says, “You promised you wouldn’t tell!”

I’m still not computing any of this and back to wondering if this is all just some fever dream and I’m just face down on Terry’s kitchen table collecting drool on my half-finished script and missing the meeting I risked my internship and relationship to set up.

“Y-you liked it?” I finally manage to ask.

Everyone stops. Terry puts his hand on the wall and won’t look at me.

Ron does that weird mental conversation eye contact thing he and Rhonda do, and in the next moment, Rhonda has thrust a key in my face.

“I think I’d like to give you two the room for a bit,” she says. I reach up slowly and take it, unsure of what she’s doing. She turns her attention to Terry. “I believe we can safely say the production schedule of Serenity Peaks may continue with a small delay for some editorial changes, don’t you Mr. Walsh?” He nods. “Good,” she says. She waves a finger at me. “Make sure that gets into my mailbox on your way out, and please do have an answer for me about that job offer by Monday, Miss Ainsley. I’m a very busy woman, and I don’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Wait, but… This is your office key?” I ask.

Rhonda nods. “Yes. Do be careful with it.” Ron’s already halfway out the door and Rhonda is collecting her coat.

I fumble. “You don’t have to—we can just leave instead, I mean.”

Rhonda shakes her head. “Matters pertaining to Bizney works should be settled on the premises. And—” She tips her head back to give me that motherly, thunderstorm smile again. “This does seem rather urgent.”

Ron holds the door for Rhonda as she departs, and then reaches back through to punch Terry lightly on the shoulder. Terry’s lips curve slightly. “Yeah, okay, man. I’m getting to it.”

“You bet you are,” Ron says gruffly. He’s using the same tone of voice he always used to with me when I was first starting out. “She deserves better.”

Wait, what? Since when does Ron defend me?

“I know, I know.” Terry waves him off, lips still curved lightly. “Get out of here.”

But now I’m nervous. As the door clicks shut behind Ron, I can feel my stomach clenching. “W-what does he mean?” I ask. “That I deserve better?”

Terry thunks the wall lightly with his forehead.

“While we were going through your storyboards, I told him I owed you an apology.” He lifts his head and taps it to the wall again. “He told me I owed you a hell of a lot more than that.”

Relief spreads through me.

“So you’re not breaking up with me…” I whisper.

Oh, I didn’t think I had any tears left after all of that caffeine. It always dehydrates me. Tea’s better than coffee, but still, my blood to caffeine ratio’s gotta look like hell right now. Stupid relief—I don’t have the water to waste on these!

“What? Why would you think—” Terry lifts his head and turns. I dash the water from my eyes, but I’m not quick enough. His face changes when he catches sight of my tears. “Oh! Oh. No, no, no.” He leaves his place at the wall and kneels next to my chair. He grasps one of my hands tightly, his other hand immediately jumping to my face to wipe away the newly emerging tears.

“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” he says.

“Why are you sorry?” I hiccup. “I’m the one who stole your car and tricked your coworkers and went behind your back and—”

“Because I was being asshole.” He sighs. “Look, you were right about that too: I wasn’t listening anymore. I was so sure, so sure I had figured out how to deal with my grief. So much so I almost fucked up this whole finale. It deserves better than that. The show deserves better, and the fans…” He squeezes my hand. “The fans definitely deserve better.” He looks at me lovingly with those great big brown eyes of his and then ruffles his hair bashfully. “I’m just, ah… I’m just glad you were talented enough to show me that. And that you’re not breaking up with me either?”

I sink out of my chair and onto my knees on the floor before clinging to him. I’m still crying, but it’s all relief and happiness. “You’re an idiot,” I tell him.

He hugs me and huffs into my hair. “Yeah, I know.”

“And you should really get a therapist. It helps to talk about it.”

“Honestly surprised Rhonda hasn’t already made that one of her stipulations for continuing with the series. You should hear that woman sing the praises of stress management through therapy and massage.”

“You know, I had a friend in college who thought the key to world peace was therapy and massage?”

“…Did you go to school with Rhonda?”

“Hey!”

“You’re right, you don’t look that old.”

“I’m going to tell her you said that.”

“Oh, god, please don’t.”

I make a thoughtful noise, but then let it drop. I nuzzle his shoulder and then say, “You really liked it?”

He strokes my hair. “Yeah. I’m just sorry you had to make it.”

I sit back so I can kiss him. When I pull away I say, “If it helped at all, I’m not.” Then I grin at him deviously. “Plus, guess who got a job offer out of it.”

“Haha! So that’s what Rhonda was talking about.” He grins and messes up my hair. “I told you you could make it here by yourself.”

I laugh and bat his hands away from my hair playfully.

“Maybe,” I tell him, leaning in to nuzzle his nose affectionately. “You and your inspirational show really helped.”

He looks really and truly happy for the first time since Saturday. “Well, inspiring people like you sounds like a better reason to keep making it than any of the other ones I’ve had lately.” He cups my face and places his forehead to mine. “Will you help me?”

There are a lot of words that I could use to express how I felt when he asked me that question. I can only hope he felt some of them when I leaned in, kissed him, and whispered, “Always.”

 

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