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The World At Large

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Much later, when it seems like every other article in the Mercury News is rhapsodising the endless potential of the internet, the site finally finally manages to get some traction with the media.

While Donna is thrilled at the opportunity to talk about all their hard work, it soon becomes apparent that every piece written about Phoenix will, invariably, focus on Donna's "epiphany" in the diner. Or, worse, her "Eureka! moment".

Donna can't help but bristle at either term. In her mind, that morning at the diner had felt more like a synthesis. The inevitable conclusion of a million hazy concepts and half-formed thoughts Donna had been turning over and over in her mind for what felt like years. That morning they had, without warning, clicked into place one by one like tumblers in a lock.

Yes, the realisation had come suddenly. Yes, it had hit her like a two-by-four while half her brain had been preoccupied, anxiously calculating whether she'd accidentally undertipped the waitress. But for the press to call it an epiphany seems to cheapen it somehow. As if it had come out of nowhere. As if Donna hadn't spent her entire adult life in tech. Hadn't spent the better part of a decade in a role where her primary job requirements were analysing industry trends, recognising potentially world-changing technology.

Maybe she objects to the way that word makes it sound like it all came so damn easy.

The first of what will be many articles refers to her "epiphany" three times, and is accompanied by a (thankfully otherwise flattering) photo of Donna with a lightning bolt zigzagging down to meet her head.

Subtle.

The article itself is favourable to the point of being a puff piece, which is equal parts gratifying and embarrassing.

Cameron, predictably, thinks it's hilarious. "You're a visionary now! They're gonna put you on the cover of Wired, we'll have to get you a black turtleneck and some pretentious eyewear."

Eventually the story has been recounted so often that it becomes something of a well-worn legend around the office: Donna Emerson, bleary after a long sleepless night, had been paying the check at a crummy diner when it had hit her; a lightning bolt of clarity that came out of nowhere and suddenly it was as if she could see for miles. Still clutching the check, she had bolted outside to intercept Cameron, who had been sat in her truck ready to drive across the country. Drive out of Donna's life. She'd explained her idea. Cameron had gotten out of the truck. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Donna doesn't mind, really. Why would she? It's a great story, as far as company founding myths go. It's compelling and, according to the marketing team, all the best company founding myths involve an element of serendipity. As if this startup were predestined, meant to be.

And Donna can't say she disagrees with that part. If nothing else, the timing had been staggeringly fortunate.

So she'll happily trot the story out for potential investors, wide-eyed new hires and eager journalists alike. If it helps her business she'll tell it a thousand times.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a few reservations about it.

Although, as Cameron loves to point out, most company creation stories are total nonsense anyway - "You really think Omidyar built eBay to help his wife complete her Pez dispenser collection? Please. That's the kind of saccharine bullshit only a marketing department could dream up. He wanted to create the perfect marketplace as some kind of weird wet dream for economists! At least your story is basically true: you had a great idea while you were sleep deprived. You sold me on it over waffles. We made something awesome."

Which, fine. It's not untrue.

But Donna would like it on the record that getting here was a hell of a lot more complicated than that.


---
1994
---


Donna is good at her job. Brilliant, even.

Women in VC don't make managing partner by simply being "good" at their jobs. She has had to be exceptional. And she is. Over the years she has guided countless fledgling businesses to market and sat on the boards of a dozen companies. She has given flawless presentations in front of hundreds of people and negotiated highly lucrative deals with the some of the most powerful men (they are always men) in the tech industry without breaking a sweat.

The point being: Donna is more than capable of pitching an idea to Cameron over coffee. This is not a high-pressure scenario. At least it shouldn't be. And yet her mouth is dry, her heart is thundering in her chest and she can feel her legs sticking uncomfortably to the vinyl seat of the diner booth.

Her mind drifts unbidden back to lugging the Symphonic into investor meetings with Gordon, young and hopeful and jittery with nerves. But instead of a dead-eyed investor staring at her with distaste she's sat across from Cameron, who's too busy stirring heaping spoons of sugar into her coffee to notice Donna's rising panic.

The trouble with sudden bolts of inspiration, Donna thinks, is that they are simultaneously so simple and almost impossible to articulate.

It had been a powerfully strange feeling. She'd been leaning against the counter when time had seemed to slow down to a crawl. It was as though everything she'd been thinking about for so long had lined up in her head so perfectly, so obviously that it seemed ridiculous she hadn't realised it before. Suddenly, it was as if she could see the possibilities of the web unfolding before her in a hundred different directions and she had been awed by it. The scale of it. The sheer potential of it.

Donna had immediately rushed outside so Cameron could be awed by it too. And maybe she would be, if Donna could manage to wrestle her racing thoughts into something semi-coherent. Whether it was the adrenaline rush or the lack of sleep, the fact remained that the moment Cameron had looked up from her map and Donna had felt the full force of her gaze her brain had, essentially, short-circuited.

This was not ideal.

Donna had hoped that by the time she'd ushered Cameron back into the diner, sat them in a booth and ordered coffee from the bored-looking waitress she'd have gathered her thoughts.

Instead her mind is racing almost as fiercely as her heart. It's still early morning, the California heat barely underway, but she can feel sweat prickling the back of her neck. Donna places her palms on the cool, polished metal tabletop to try and ground herself a little.

Cameron seems outwardly calm, leaning back in the booth, both hands wrapped around her steaming coffee cup. But Donna can tell she is bouncing her foot by the way their knees keep bumping together under the table and oh god the longer this silence stretches the more it looks like Donna has contrived a reason to delay Cameron's departure, yet again.

Like she has fragrantly pulled an idea out of thin air rather than let Cam-

"So." Cameron says suddenly.

Her voice breaks into Donna's thoughts and snaps her to attention. She looks up guiltily, but when she meets Cameron's gaze there's none of the impatience she's expecting.

Cameron leans forward conspiratorially and drops her voice to a low whisper: "This idea... is it porn?"

The question takes Donna off guard. She cocks her head, puzzled.

"Because the audience is there," Cameron continues, voice dripping with fake solemnity and eyes dancing with amusement. "But I just don't know if we have the infrastructure in place to compete with Smut Hut." Cameron tries to raise what Donna thinks is meant to be a salacious eyebrow, but it only ends up leaving her looking a bit bewildered.

And just like that Donna feels the pressure in her chest ease a little. Because yes this moment feels heavy with significance, and she desperately wants to get it right, but it's still Cam. She's smirking a little but behind that Donna thinks she looks hopeful, quietly expectant. She wants this to be a good idea, Donna realises. She needs this as much as I do. If anything it makes Donna's throat feel even thicker, but she manages a dismissive huff of amusement and an eye roll.

Donna straightens her shoulders and takes a controlled breath. She has to swallow past the lump in her throat before she can speak, but when she does it is in her very best Managing Partner voice.

"Okay, so. The internet is going to be a game-changer, right? Since Mosaic we've got the number of web users doubling every few months, and when Netscape releases that is only going to accelerate. We are talking-" Donna waves a hand "-exponential growth."

Cameron only nods. She knows all of this already, of course. Donna carries on, her words picking up speed.

"Right now, the internet is in its infancy. But I don't think it's a reach to say that someday, not even that far off, all aspects of people's lives will be mediated through a computer. We've got a web magazine with Hotwired. We've got classifieds on EPage. IBM and Microsoft have websites, which means all the other corporations are going to follow." Donna's ticking these points off on her fingers in a way that hopefully looks like she knows where she's going with this. "There's a bunch of kids at MIT who set up a virtual mall that takes credit cards. There's a place in Santa Cruz that let's you order pizza online. All the big publications are calling this a fad, a gimmick. But this is not going to slow down. The Web is happening. I can feel it."

Cameron quirks an amused eyebrow. "You're saying you want to sell pizza online?"

"I'm saying that the internet has all this incredible potential. Not everyone can see that, but the people that can are laser-focused on media and e-commerce, because it's easy to understand, right? It's just taking the stuff we already know makes money, banks, stores and papers, and putting it online. But at it's core the internet's real strength isn't technological. It's social."

Cameron narrows her eyes. She shifts forward in her seat, setting her mug down on the table, hands still wrapped around it. Donna sweeps a hand across the table, brushing grains of sugar to the floor before she leans forward on her elbows.

"It's connection. That's the web's killer application." She gently slaps the table for emphasis, and also because her body is thrumming with nervous energy and it needs to go somewhere. "People have always wanted to communicate. Whether it's through HAM radio, forums on Compuserve or the Prodigy bulletin boards-"

"And now AOL," Cam interjects. "The house that horny chatrooms built."

Donna feels a smile tug at the corner of her mouth. "They really hate when you bring that up. But, yes, it's all about making those connections. People are looking to reach out. It's exactly what we saw with Community. And if we can tap into that need for connection-" Donna presses her palms together, "-if we can get people sharing their ideas, then that is a far more powerful use of the Web than banking or buying a pizza online."

Cameron taps a nail against her mug. "And you think you know a way to do that?"

Donna nods, confident now. "I do."

Cameron smiles, waving her hand in a by all means gesture.

Donna takes a breath. "The beauty of the internet is it's this uniquely democratic medium. It lets people participate in a way that we haven't seen before. TV, newspapers, radio, they're top down models. Which means-"

"-It's all one way traffic." Cameron speaks slowly, looking thoughtful.

"Right. Historically, people have been these passive consumers. They just take in whatever content is churned out. But here's this brand new thing that was literally built to be collaborative and open. Think of all those people out there with all that individual knowledge and unique experiences and, and stories!"

This is a valid point, but she makes it with maybe a little too much breathless enthusiasm. Donna thinks she might be skirting the line between building a persuasive narrative and sounding like a character in a bad Christmas movie.

There's a pause, while Cameron presumably thinks about all those people and their stories! The air is filled with the low murmur of conversation from the other diner patrons. A distant siren wails outside. Donna barrels on.

"What if we could give people the power to take what they know and put it on online? Make it so anyone can do it."

The door to the diner swings open, letting in a gust of cool air. An elderly couple enters, hands clasped together tightly. Cameron doesn’t seem to notice, just tilts her her to one side, frowning slightly.

"But anyone can do it. Already. You just said it, there're new websites popping up all the time."

That is not true. For one thing, Donna has a Computer Science degree and she's not sure that she could set up a web page without consulting Haley for some pointers, much less the average computer user.

Donna shakes her head. "That's the thing, not everyone knows this stuff. Most people don't have an advanced technical degree. Most people can't even program their VCR."

Cameron is nodding like she gets it but Donna knows programming is something that comes as easy to her as breathing. It's odd, working in this industry. Tech can be like an echo chamber, where everybody is constantly working on the next new thing. Innovating, creating, on and on. Technology built and bought and sold and obsolete within a year. It had been like that in Texas, but it's magnified by a thousand living in Silicon Valley. A place where everybody eats, sleeps and breathes technology.

It's so easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn't share their obsession. That 75% of Americans don't even have a computer.

At least, not yet.

But the way Donna sees it, with the way things are going, computer usage is going to skyrocket. Soon there will millions of people online with zero technical knowledge, and they deserve to be able to participate too. If they want to be heard they'll need tools, and Donna wants to provide them.

Donna gestures at their waitress, a ruddy-faced woman in her forties with witchy black hair, making her way towards the couple who have sat close by.

"What if she wanted to set up a website right now. What would she need?"

"Her?" Cameron's quiet for a moment, thinking. "What kind of website?"

Donna shrugs, exasperated. "Maybe she wants to put the menu for this place online, or she wants to publish her short stories. Or maybe she's just got a lot to say about, I don't know, Prince, or bio-mechanics. It doesn't matter. How would she do it?"

"Well, she'd need to know HTML I suppose," it seems to occur to Cameron that their waitress probably does not, in fact, have a working knowledge of HTML. "And I guess she'd need her own server to host it..." Cam's brows are furrowed now.

Donna picks up her own coffee. It is lukewarm, but the heat from the mug is soothing.

"As it stands, if you don't have the technical knowledge you are essentially locked out of having a real voice on the internet." Donna points out gently. "It's pretty elitist. Mosaic took the internet mainstream, but a lot of people still subscribe to this idea that it's for the geeks and the academics. They don't want to make the internet accessible, because that means letting the rabble in. But they're coming, it's only a matter of time."

"And you want to lower the bar for access."

"Exactly. If we can make it cheap and easy for ordinary people to create web pages we can give them a voice. We can give them a sense of ownership over the internet, because it belongs to everyone, not to Microsoft or IBM. We can give them a gateway and let them be a part of it."

She sets her mug down with a flourish, as if punctuating the end of her pitch. It's a little dramatic, and she feels a slight blush at the tips of her ears but aside from that she's feeling good now. There's a low buzz in her stomach that might be pride or anticipation.

There's a long moment where Cameron doesn't say anything. Donna can almost see the gears turning in her mind. But she isn't worried. Donna had had a feeling before, but now that she's spoken it out loud she knows for sure. This is a good idea, and Cameron will see that too. Donna has barely formulated this thought when she sees Cameron break into a slow smile.

It is so bright Donna feels it all the way down to her toes.


---


Donna's not sure how long they talk after that, only vaguely aware of the other diners coming and going around them. By the time the sun is high above them in the sky outside, Donna has a neat stack of napkins scrawled with notes at her elbow.

Cameron orders chicken and waffles, drenching her plate in so much syrup it makes Donna's teeth itch. She is sticking with coffee, her stomach still churning, but now with excitement rather than trepidation.

Cameron clearly likes her idea, judging from the way she's talking a mile-a-minute about CGI scripts and mark-up languages and, yes, Donna knows she should be paying closer attention but Cam is gesturing expansively with her fork to illustrate whatever point she's making, oblivious to the syrup dripping into her lap and she's got this look in her eye.

Donna remembers it from their Mutiny days, back when they'd be kicking ideas around and hit on something, and suddenly it would be like someone had dialled Cameron's intensity up to eleven and it wouldn't matter that they'd just worked a 14-hour day already, they were going to chase this idea down. It's a look that says I'm excited about this and we've got something here.

Donna has missed that look, and now she feels a deep swell of pride that she's the one who put it there. She's sure if she looked in a mirror she'd see the exact same look on her own face.

"-I haven't figured that part out yet. Good thing I've got 3,000 miles to think it over."

That part Donna hears, and it hits her like a bucket of ice water.

If she's being honest with herself, she had half-hoped that Cam would push off her road trip so they could get a running start on this project.

Okay, more than half-hoped.

She tries to school her face into something other than deep disappointment.

She can't be much of an actress, because now Cameron looks uncertain. "Unless you want to get started on this right away? I understand if you don't want to wait, and I'm not really sure how long I'll be gone-"

Donna cuts her off. "Of course I'm going to wait for you." Because she is. There was never any question in her mind about that. "You're right, you take the time to think about the mechanics of this thing and I'll do some digging into the competitive landscape, see if there's anyone out there that looks like they're doing something similar."

It's a solid strategy. It makes sense to scope out potential competitors before they jump into anything. Donna reminds herself of this as they walk out to the parking lot together. The sun is glaring off the brushed metal of the Airstream, which suddenly seems enormous and unwieldy, like it could tip over at the first sharp bend. Cam's going to drag that thing behind her all the way to Florida?

Donna is a very good driver (DUI notwithstanding) and she would be nervous. As a driver Cameron is... Well, distractable would be the generous way of putting it.

Donna suddenly has a distinct memory of Cam swerving the two of them around Dallas in that old Jeep she used to have, milkshake in one hand, fiddling with the radio with the other, Donna hiding behind her hands.

This does not seem safe.

But if Cameron is daunted by the journey ahead of her she doesn't show it. She squints at the map spread across the dashboard and scrubs at her eyes absently with the back of her hand. When she looks up at Donna her eyes are red-rimmed but bright.

"So... I guess this is really it. Unless you have any other groundbreaking ideas you want to run by me real quick?"

Donna attempts a smile but her stomach gives a strange little half-lurch, as if rebelling at the very idea of Cam leaving. She can tell this trip is important to her, and she wants to be supportive but every instinct she has is screaming at her to get Cameron to stay.

Instead, Donna places her hand on the open window and keeps it there for a few seconds, like she’s trying to buy herself just a little bit more time.

"Please be careful."

She tries so hard not to sound pleading that it comes out closer to reproachful, but Cameron just grins easily at her.

"Sure thing" she says, in such an offhand way that it does precisely nothing to alleviate Donna's worry.

The apprehension must show on her face because Cam rolls her eyes a little and then, with surprising gentleness, says, "I'll be back before you know it." She flicks off an awkward little salute then rests her hands on the steering wheel, flexing her fingers.

Donna opens her mouth to say - she's not sure what, something else embarrassing probably, but then Cam's putting the truck in gear and easing out of the parking lot with a soft screech, the Airstream rattling behind her.

Donna stays standing there long after she's out of sight.

Chapter Text

---

California
---

She's not paying attention, is the problem. Not to the road at least - her focus squarely fixed on the mess of ideas currently packed tightly into her brain, sardine-style. It's not until she's entering Sunnyvale and spots the familiar green-and-red-stripe awning of the little taco place she likes that it dawns on Cameron that she's driving in the wrong fucking direction.

Sat behind a garbage truck at a stop sign, her hands grip the steering wheel hard and give it a quick, frustrated shake. After she'd pulled out of the diner her thoughts had started coming at her at warp-speed. She must've gotten so wrapped up in them that she'd managed to take a wrong turn almost instantly, which is sort of impressive given the map laid out on the dash mere inches from her face. 

The map had been a compromise. Originally, she'd entertained this grand romantic notion of picking a direction and just driving. No map, no plan, no destination. She would just head vaguely East and let the road take her where it would take her. That whole see-where-the-wind-blows-me type of deal. 

When she'd floated this by Bos he'd levelled her with a flat stare. "Uh-huh. That's a fine idea, Cam." He'd said, deadpan. "And when should I expect the call tellin' me you been found lost in the damn desert picked clean by buzzards? At least take a goddamn map." 

She'd taken the goddamn map. 

At Bos's insistence she'd also been gifted a baggie of peanut M&Ms (for sustenance), a roll of quarters ("for a payphone in an emergency not vending machines, you hear?"), sunblock and a canister of bear spray that bordered on the comically-large side. All this struck her as a little over the top (she's driving through the Midwest after all, not trekking through the Russian tundra) but then something about Bos's tone had told her it wasn't up for negotiation so she'd dutifully stuffed it all in the glove box. 

He had gotten this weird, watery look on his face around the time she'd been packing up the last of her stuff and Cameron had been afraid he might do something awful like start crying, so she'd nodded in all the right places while he'd imparted his wisdom on the finer points of road safety and resisted the urge to argue when he'd insisted on double-checking the tire pressure and changing the oil in her truck even though she'd just done all that the day before. 

Cameron tried to find his heavy-handed fatherly routine irritating, but mostly it had just put a golfball-sized lump in her throat that had sat lodged stubbornly long after they'd said their final goodbyes.

Anyway, it's not like it hurts to be sure that her truck isn't going to immediately crap out on her. And now she's glad she took the map, although it'd be embarrassing to have use it before she's even left the state. If she can ever manage to get out of this godforsaken state. 

Seriously, this past 24 hours has been one improbable stumbling block after another. Literally - the smell of chlorine is still lingering in her hair after that mortifying tumble into the pool. She's already a full day behind schedule and now she's actually managed to get further away from her destination than she was an hour ago. Because even getting out of the zip code is a Herculean task, apparently. At this rate, a hydra will cheerfully pop its nine writhing heads out of the Bay and cut off access to the highway. Or there'll be a sphinx lurking at the state line with some bullshit cryptic riddle for her to solve. Or, wait. Was that Oedipus?

It's possible she's mixing up her mythology. And maybe being a little melodramatic. But Jesus H. Christ it is getting a little ridiculous now. 

Case in point: she's been waiting at this stop sign for what seems like an eternity. Cameron drums her fingers on the steering wheel then glances in the rear-view to see nothing but the hulking silver mass of the Airstream looming behind her. 

Oh, right. That.

Seat belt digging into her ribs, she twists in her seat and sticks her head out of the open window to get a good look at the road. It's early afternoon still, the streets aren't quite jam-packed yet. She's half-considering attempting a U-turn when a big, shiny convertible pulls up right beside her. Top down, bass-heavy dance music pounding out of the speakers. A balding guy in dark sunglasses nods along in the driver's seat. 

Scowling, Cameron ducks her head back inside the truck and hesitates. Her insurance premiums are already through the roof without adding side-swiping some wiener's mid-life-crisis-mobile on top. The garbage truck in front haltingly inches forward as Cameron grits her teeth and resigns herself to her fate - she's going to have to circle back. 

One positive is that by the time she's fought her way back through what feels like every single red light in San Jose and managed to hit the highway her head is a lot clearer. In fact, her mind feels elastic - like it's expanding, stretching out. Hurrying to make space for big ideas growing fast. 

It's been a while, so it takes her a moment to recognise the feeling for what it is: actual, honest-to-god inspiration

Her mind has been racing since the diner, Donna's big speech having left her feeling keyed up over a project in a way she hasn't really been since Pilgrim. She'd felt the stirrings of it playing around with her self-learning AI stuff - there had been some real enthusiasm there, at least for a little while. But after Alexa had been decidedly underwhelmed by the whole endeavour Cameron had eventually lost interest and consigned it to the scrapheap. 

It's like, even though Alexa had basically given her a blank check and told her to go do whatever-the-hell she wanted it had still felt like a job. A job she could do in her underwear from the comfort of her own kitchen table maybe, but a job nonetheless. 

Historically, computers have never really felt like work to Cameron, even when she was running herself ragged at Mutiny or frenetically churning out four games in four years for Atari. Computers had always felt like more of an obsessive hobby she sometimes got compensated for. Something she got to do rather than had to do.

This idea of Donna's has that kind of obsession written all over it. Whether she knows it or not Donna has given Cameron something impossibly precious, in that she has hit upon a problem. 

A big, messy, beautiful problem.

Hosting personal web pages. How are they going to do that? As far as she's aware there's nobody else doing it, so they are headed straight into uncharted territory. There's no blueprint to follow, no model to work from. They'll have to figure everything out from scratch and build it all themselves.

How is she meant to resist a challenge like that?

She hadn't been sure quite what to expect when Donna had pulled her back into the diner. True, Donna had been practically vibrating with the strength of her own conviction before they'd even sat back down so Cameron had figured that it would be good but, at the end of the day, it wouldn't have really mattered. The idea itself is secondary.

What's important is the two of them working together again on something, anything. Honestly, Donna could probably have suggested they build a soap box derby car together and Cameron would have jumped at the chance. But what Donna actually came out with... Well.

It's good.

It's big and it's ambitious and it has incredible potential if they can get it right. 

If they can get it right they have the chance to do for web building what Mosaic had done for browsing: make it so simple any bozo could do it. Aspiring musicians and poets, hobbyists and obsessives and enthusiasts of every stripe building their own websites. Letting the rabble in, isn't that what Donna had called it? The normal, non-techie people. 

Donna has always been eerily good at that part - the people part. She seems to just get social behaviour online. Spotting the patterns. Sensing people's motivations, what makes them tick, in a way Cameron has never been able to. After all, Donna had been right about Community all those years ago. Donna had known what the people wanted, seemingly before they even knew it themselves. It still makes Cameron wince to think how close she'd come to pulling the plug on those community rooms. This time around, if Donna says that personal homepages are the way the internet is going Cameron is inclined to believe her.

But herein lies the problem: if this site is going to appeal to every Joe Sixpack off the street, Cameron needs to come up with a way to integrate text, graphics and formatting in a way that's instantly engaging. Most people won't bother grappling with HTML, so everything will need to be stripped back in the name of accessibility. If Pilgrim being shelved has taught her anything it's that most people don't like having to work at something. They want instant gratification, and if they can't get it from you... Well, they can always go play Doom instead. So manual code editing is out. And she'll need to make the the UI user-friendly to the point of being idiot-proof. 

But it can't be cookie-cutter - Cameron doesn't do boring. This needs be a platform for self-expression, which means letting people play around and get creative. You've got to respect the user. What she needs is to strike that impossibly perfect balance between making it simple without letting it become simplistic. Which is easier said than done. In her experience, the cleaner and more intuitive software is for a user on the front-end, the more sophisticated and complex it is to develop on the back-end. Put another way: making something simple is really fucking difficult. 

Fortunately, Cameron lives to solve really fucking difficult problems. It's what she's best at.

Unfortunately, this one looks like it's going to have to wait.

There's nothing Cameron would love more than to pass the time on this trip by taking a mental deep-dive down this particular rabbit hole, honestly. But the fact is that she is a little preoccupied with not dying. It turns out hauling a trailer on unfamiliar roads requires actual concentration, so most of her brainpower is tied up with making sure she doesn't brake too late and go slamming into some poor sucker in front or take a turn too quickly and go jack-knifing across the road like she's in that part of every shitty action movie with the badly choreographed car chase.

She hasn't even hit Sacramento when it occurs to her that maybe she's not quite a good enough driver to be multi-tasking. She can't let herself code a entire website in her head, follow road signs and calculate brake distance at the same time. Not with a 3000-pound tin can tethered in back. Maybe not even without.

Cameron knows she's not an amazing driver - her mind drifts and she likes to go fast which has gotten her in trouble before - but she's not like, a menace or anything. She's not terrible. She's a damn sight better than anyone who taught themselves at 14 by driving at a crawl around parking lots at night ought to be. Len didn't drive and her mom sure as hell wasn't going to be teaching her, so Cameron had taken the initiative - she'd sneak the keys to her mom's Oldsmobile while she was sprawled out on the couch "resting" (read: passed out drunk by dinnertime) and go lurching off to practice outside the Lowe's down the street. 

She'd puzzled out the basics from watching the school bus driver - Mrs Moscowitz - like a hawk every morning and the rest from library books. It had taken a lot of trial and error, and it hadn't exactly been an elegant process but she'd figured it out eventually.

Looking back now, it seems likely the only reason she'd passed the driving test first try had been that she'd worn her punkiest vest - the X-Ray Spex one that she'd heavily customised until it had been more safety pins than actual fabric. Her instructor, a pimply-faced guy with peach fuzz despite being well into his twenties, had been too busy sneaking furtive glances at her chest to notice just how badly her driving had sucked. 

She's way better now, obviously. Although she does nearly rear-end a church bus at the lights in Roseville, and there's a gut-churning moment when she thinks the Airstream's going to tip after she clips a curb before she reluctantly concedes that figuring this web problem out might need to be put on hold for the time being. 

Now, she's resigned herself to driving in the right-hand lane at such a glacial pace she'll be lucky to make it to Carson City by March. The traffic around her is getting heavier and the rusty Honda in front has had its turn signal on for the past 40 miles - the sickly orange light blinks insistently, periodically illuminating a peeling LA Raiders bumper sticker.

Feeling restless, Cameron flicks a hand at the radio. It crackles to life midway through one of those depressing old country songs her brain always associates with Bos nowadays. She actually kind of likes this one - the slow scratch of the guy's guitar, his voice deep and mournful - but her head already feels too crowded, so she quickly shuts it off again. 

Rolling her shoulders, Cameron takes a deep breath, settles back in her seat and tries to focus on the smooth sound of the road rolling past beneath the tires below.

---
Nevada

---

Either she misses the sign or there isn't one, but it's obvious she's crossed into Nevada from the way slot machines are suddenly glittering enticingly at her from the windows of every grocery store she passes. 

It's early evening when she pulls into Carson City, the sky steadily darkening with deep purple clouds. Cameron steers the truck towards the riot of flashing neon lights of the first casino she sees and parks around the side near a cluster of RVs. The engine cuts out as she pulls the keys from the ignition and finally lets her head fall back against the headrest and her eyes drift closed. 

In retrospect, starting this trip on zero sleep may not have been a smart move on her part. Truth be told she'd been running on fumes by Lake Tahoe. As she'd carefully rounded the bends overlooking the brilliant blue water the trees had gotten taller and their shadows had gotten longer and her eyes had gotten heavier and heavier to the point where she probably (definitely) should have pulled over. 

She hadn't. 

Even as her eyelids sagged it had suddenly seemed of critical importance that she cross the state line. Leaving had been... difficult. More so than she'd been expecting. And not just in a bumper-to-bumper-traffic-along-El-Camino-Real way. It's more like a persistent itch in her brain, a voice in her head that refuses to be beaten back telling her that she's making a big mistake. 

Rather than examine this line of thought too closely she'd come up with a brilliant solution - put enough distance between herself and California so that when she did eventually stop she wouldn't be tempted to turn her truck around and head straight back the way she'd come. Turning back is tempting, but it's not the answer. 

Right? 

The past few months it's like she's been leaping headfirst from one calamity to another. First her divorce. Then Bos's heart attack. Gordon's death. Comet's collapse, and the part she played in it. The shit-show that had been her trip to Europe with Alexa. 

And, of course, there's Joe. The most recent addition to her ever-expanding list of interpersonal disasters.  

The last thing she wants to do is add Donna to that list. Sure, they're on good terms right now but Donna had said it herself: working together is the surest way of ruining this tentative friendship thing they've got going. If Cameron turns back now while she's still exactly the same person with all the same weird baggage she's been lugging around her whole life, she runs the risk of ruining everything. As much as she wants to go back, bang on the door of Donna's big, fancy house and get to work, she can't. She knows that what she needs right now is some time away from California, some space to find her head. 

Because if she goes back now, Cameron knows what will happen. It's what always happens. She won't mean to, she never really means to, but her relationships have a tendency to blow up in her face in the most spectacular way. Look at how things ended with Tom. Alexa. Joe. Not to mention her mom. Cameron doesn't want to go through that with Donna, not again. Not when they've only just started to reconnect.

No. It's time to take a step back. She doesn't want to be mired in the muck of her shitty past anymore. She's going throw herself fully into this road trip, see the sights, make some memories, figure all her weird shit out with her mom and come back in a few weeks time a whole new and improved Cameron Howe. Cameron 2.0. The bug-fixed, stress-tested, newly-updated version of herself that's capable of forging meaningful connections and maintaining real relationships.

Normal, healthy relationships that don't end with adultery on both sides or someone abruptly putting an ergonomic desk chair through a glass door. 

A wet gurgling sound fills the truck, startling her. As her eyes flicker open to a bug-spattered windshield, her first thought is shit, the radiator but after a second she recognises it as her stomach. She's hungry. Ravenous, really. The chicken she'd eaten at the diner seems like forever ago. For a moment she considers heading into the casino and really going to town on the shrimp buffet but before she can reach for the door handle a huge group of thick-set business types stagger out of a metal side-door, ties loosened, heads thrown back laughing and shoving at each other.

Yeah, scratch that.

Casting a quick glance around the shadowy parking lot, she slips out of the truck and into the Airstream. 

Inside the trailer, it's dark and still. She doesn't bother turning on the light, enjoying the way the dancing neon sign outside the window casts an eerie technicolour glow on the unmade bed, the laptop on her desk, the rough sketches tacked up on the walls. Tucked in the corner, the refrigerator rattles and hums with a ferocity disproportionate to its tiny size. The air in here is getting a little stale, Cameron notes absently, she'll need to air it out before it gets too college dorm-room. Still, she takes a moment to appreciate the quiet comfort of this space that, while cramped and messy and just edging past its prime, is hers.

The wall is cool through Cameron's sweater as she leans her shoulder against it, thinking. Now what? She knows what she should do. She should shower, change her clothes, heat up a can of something with vegetables in it on the stove and eat it at the little table. Instead she toes off her sneakers, collapses face down onto her gently sagging mattress and closes her eyes. 

She's not sure how long she sleeps before she jerks awake to the rumble of raised voices, close enough to reach out and touch. The crunch of heavy footsteps just outside her window.  Men's voices, deep and loud. Angry? Her heart rate picks up as she wracks her brain to remember if she'd bolted the trailer door behind her.

Disoriented, Cameron casts her eyes around the darkness of the trailer for something heavy. Her gaze lands on a familiar shape propped in the corner by the stove - on a cosmetic level the hockey stick is a bit battered, but it still has a decent amount of heft to it in an emergency. Not bad for five bucks, she'd picked it up at a yard sale right after she'd gotten set up at Bonny Doon. At the time, she'd mostly just needed a jabby-looking stick to wave threateningly at the raccoons that insisted on cavorting around outside all night long and knocking over her trash cans. But also, y'know, the world is full of creeps and weirdos and she'd been living alone in a field in the middle of nowhere. Isn't that how women end up on Dateline? 

Although, thinking about it now, she hadn't even managed to chase those raccoons off. They'd just sort of frozen for a second, given her a bland who do you think you're kidding, lady? look then resumed enthusiastically ransacking her trash bags with their stupid tiny hands.

Cameron lies very still in the dark, listening hard. She spares a thought for the bear spray, safely stowed in the glove box of her truck, a few feet and a million miles away. For a long moment all she hears is her own shallow breathing and the blood rushing in her ears. 

There's a muffled thump, then the unmistakable jangle of keys hitting gravel. A weary sigh. Then-

"Oh, fuck me sideways. Did either of you see where those went?" 

The assortment of noises that follow are ones made exclusively by large, ungainly men as they drunkenly scrabble around on the floor of a poorly-lit parking lot in search of an errant set of car keys. There's a lot of muffled swearing, scraping and just enough helpless giggling that Cameron relaxes, adjusts the pillow under her head and rolls onto her side.

She must drift off because next thing light is spilling in through a crack in the curtains. Her stomach emits a low growl as she rubs at gritty eyes. Cameron stands, stretches and peers through the window, squinting against the bright early morning sun peering over the casino rooftop. The view that greets her is of an overflowing dumpster - a few dark-winged birds inspecting black bags bursting with cocktail sticks and shrimp tails. Her stomach gives a queasy roll, then rumbles again with renewed insistence. Stood angled over the sink, Cameron pours herself a huge bowl of sugar-frosted flakes, adds the last of the milk from the fridge and eats them fast, trying to ignore the way they settle heavily in her stomach.  

To stave off her uncertainty, Cameron mentally talks herself through the benefits of a solo cross-country road-trip while a pot of coffee brews on the counter. For one thing, she finally has a chance to explore this colossal country that she has seen so little of beyond Texas and California. For the first time in her life she's going to take the time to see national parks and historical monuments and museums and... Giant balls of string or whatever. Cultural experiences. Enriching experiences. This is her opportunity to become the type of person who has enriching cultural experiences. All she needs to do is pick one. 

An hour later she's back behind the steering wheel, nestled in the sun-warmed seat of her truck. Her hair is still damp from the shower and the soft cotton of her tank top grazes against her skin where fresh air is wafting in through the open windows. Crucially, she's drunk three mugs of strong dark coffee and is feeling highly-caffeinated enough that it could pass for enthusiasm if she doesn't examine it too closely. The map is right where she left it, lying flat and limp across the dashboard. She traces the colourful spider's web of roads with a long pale finger, pauses on a tiny black dot and taps it once, decisively. 

There.

 It's as good a place as any to start. 

---

It's honestly a relief when the whirl of music that has been filling the truck starts to fade out. The afternoon sun has moved around to slant directly into her eyes and she's just flipped down the visor when the cassette in the tape deck announces its end with a gentle click. It's only the first side, but rather than flip it over Cameron pulls it out with one hand and gently places it on the seat next to her. 

In a determined effort to keep her eyes on the road at all times, she had been groping around blindly in the foot well amongst the shaky mountain of her cassettes and come up with Goo by Sonic Youth. It had been about three tracks in before she started regretting her choice. Don't get her wrong, she loves Sonic Youth and Goo is a great album - loud and weird in the best possible way, like the soundtrack to a peculiar recurring dream. Usually she'd be into it - any other day the discordant sounds of the strangely tuned guitars would be soothing to her but right now, on this barren highway, all it's doing is conjuring up a frightening air of unreality that is only compounded by the scenery. Or lack of scenery - it feels a little like she's crash-landed on a bizarre alien planet solely populated by dense tangles of sagebrush. Miles of the stuff, stretching out around her in every direction like an ugly silver-green carpet as far as the eye can see. 

It's a good thing she stocked up on gas and snacks (orange soda and beef jerky) back in Carson City because three hours into this six hour drive Cameron has yet to see a gas station that doesn't look ready to collapse under the weight of its own weather-beaten sign. 

The only other things she's seen so far on this seemingly endless stretch of highway are a few rusted hunks of metal that might once have been cars, a couple of dog-eared motels and a steady parade of road signs so bleached with sun she has to squint to read them. 

It carries on like that for hundreds of miles, a mind-numbing blur of scrubby desert whipping past the windows until, suddenly, there it is.

Rising abruptly from the desert are the towering mountains of Great Basin National Park.

---

She doesn't drive too far up the snaking mountain road. For one thing, it's all narrow curves and sharp overhangs and she doesn't fancy her chances negotiating them in the steadily creeping darkness. For another thing, she doesn't really need to. This place is so far removed from any town or city that elevation is a non-issue, all she really needs is a quiet place with an unobstructed view to set up camp. 

Finding somewhere isn't too much trouble -  she follows a promising-looking trail road lined with tall trees and emerges onto a wide open clearing that's completely empty except for a scattering of twisted, ancient-looking bristlecone pines. The ground is uneven and the Airstream scores a big fat zero in terms of off-road capability but she eventually manages to guide the trailer to a creaking stop and, relieved, clambers out of the truck. Dry grass crunches underfoot as her knees protest underneath her, trembling like they've forgotten how to hold her up after all that time stuck behind the wheel. 

Her breath clouds the air where she stands in misty blue puffs. It's cold up here, and it's only going to get colder. She darts into the trailer to pull a thick sweater over her head, then another one over the top, then snags the comforter off of her bed for good measure. 

Outside, the night is clear and moonless. The sky above is slowly darkening to a deep, bottomless indigo as Cameron scrambles to set up her folding lawn chair and cooler of beer on the grass before she's left fumbling around in the pitch black.

By the time she's wrapped the comforter tightly around herself and settled back into the chair, beer bottle swinging lazily from her fingertips, it's safe to say that night has officially fallen. Try as she might, she can't make out anything much more than her hand waving in front of her face and the vague outline of her truck somewhere to her right. 

The forlorn howl of a distant coyote rings out through the air and it occurs to Cameron that this might just be the dumbest idea she's ever had - sat out here completely exposed in the dark with a hundred unknown dangers hidden away in the trees. If she winds up getting eaten by coyotes Bos is going to fucking murder her. Her thoughts are just gearing up for a quick left turn straight into panicky-town when it happens. 

They appear one by one, at first so tiny and far apart that she thinks she's imagining things until, out of nowhere, the sky is ablaze with thousands upon thousands of stars. Cameron stares, transfixed, as they continue to emerge out of the thick velvety blackness until the sky is alive with dancing light. It's as though the world drops out from under her and she's weightless in her wonder, beer bottle hanging forgotten in fingers now stiff with cold. A silvery streak that Cameron thinks might be the Milky Way sweeps wildly across the sky, a shimmering opaque spiral. Cameron sits absolutely still, eyes saucer-wide, and thinks it might be the single most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

The wind picks up then, frigid air biting through her layers of clothing and sending a violent shiver shuddering through her body but she barely feels it. She tips her head back further and tries to pick out the constellations. It's hard to remember the names. A long time ago she'd known them all, had memorised them over one feverish weekend.

 Without warning, Cameron has a vision of her dad in ripped jeans and a ratty Pink Floyd t-shirt. His hair touches almost to his shoulders and he is balanced precariously on her childhood bed as he painstakingly arranges those little plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on her bedroom ceiling. A version of herself she barely remembers hovers in the doorway, looking up at him with a frown. A sky atlas open in her hands, she is supervising his work with the intensity of a six-year-old with exacting standards. 

The memory makes her stomach twist in a way that isn't entirely unpleasant. It's the kind of hurt that satisfies, like pressing down on a bruise. 

That had happened a lot when she was a little kid, back before she'd discovered computers. She would get suddenly, intensely preoccupied with something to the point where it would become her sole focus and only topic of conversation for days or weeks or months. It could be stars, stamps, geology. A song or an album or a movie she'd play again and again until the tape wore out. It was like tunnel vision - her entire world would narrow at the edges down to this one particular thing, and she'd have to know absolutely everything there was to know about it. 

Her dad had called it getting stuck - he would walk her to the library and guide her back, his deep laugh booming as she struggled to see over the stack of books in her arms where she'd cleared out an entire section on Greek myths or the life of Alexander Graham Bell. 

Her mom had called it spooky and deeply fucking irritating. Her mom-

Cameron shakes her head sharply once, twice, like she's clearing an Etch-a-Sketch. She doesn't want to think about her mom right now, not with thousands of miles between them still to go. She's got plenty of time.  

Andromeda, she thinks triumphantly. That's one. Orion, the Hunter. Ursa Major, the Great Bear. 

In her head, Cameron reels off the name of every constellation she can remember as she takes a swig from her beer bottle, feeling it slide icily down her throat. She hugs the comforter closer to her chest as she looks out at infinity, oddly comforted by the knowledge that she's just one microscopic pixel in the vast, never-ending bitmap of the universe.

Chapter Text

Donna watches Cameron's truck disappear around the corner in a cloud of exhaust and feels instantly, acutely ill. All the exhilaration she'd felt inside the diner has washed away, leaving her with only a faint ringing in her ears and a stomach that clenches uneasily - a cold, greasy feeling, like a belly full of eels. 

It would be simple enough to wave it off, explain it away - it's been a long night, after all, and she could easily put it down to being over-caffeinated and under-slept. But Donna knows better. This may be an awful feeling but it is not an unfamiliar one - it's the same feeling she had as Haley guided her out of the airport with a gentle hand to her shoulder while Joanie boarded her flight to Thailand behind them. That sharp pang of upheaval. Of loss. That sense of something significant wrenching itself away from her, carrying a part of her off with it. 

Get a grip, Donna scolds herself, It's just a road trip, she's not being shipped off to war.

Still, the feeling persists. 

Donna stares stupidly out at the now-empty street for an embarrassingly long time, as if she's going to blink Cameron back into existence through sheer force of will, before she lurches across the lot to her car on unsteady legs. Her hands feel oddly numb, clumsy, like they don't quite belong to her, and it takes her a couple of tries to get the key in the lock.

The leather seat is warm against her back where the car has been sat in the sun. Leaning forward to rest her forearms on the wheel, she clenches her fists so tight her nails leave pale half-moons in her palms. Then Donna shuts her eyes, takes a series of deep steadying breaths and tries very hard not to take it personally how the people she cares about the most seem hell-bent on getting as far away from her as humanly possible.

The tires make a piercing burnt-rubber sound as she wings her way out of the parking lot faster than she means to. She relaxes her white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel and forces herself to slow down. It would not do to get pulled over by the police again - once is a stupid mistake, twice is a pattern. 

She drives straight home just under the speed limit, weaving through the streets with deft, careful movements. More than anything else right now she wants to see Haley. Her throat feels tight with the urge to pull her daughter close and ruffle her soft hair, even if Donna knows Haley will probably bat her away and grumble mooooom stop because she's fast approaching that age where everything your mother does is uniquely mortifying.

The streets begin to narrow and bend as she gets closer to her own neighbourhood. Even on the weekends there aren't many cars around here, all neatly tucked away in their wide gravel driveways and three-car garages. The neighbourhood kids are out in full force as usual, taking advantage of the near-empty streets. 

It may be edging into Winter but the sky is still a waxy crayon-blue, the sun bright and blurry with enough warmth that some younger children tear around after each other bare-chested, all skinny ribs and brightly-coloured surf shorts. The older kids ride their bikes in big lazy circles, looking drowsy and bored. 

Down her street a dozen adolescent boys with scabby knees have set up a street-hockey net and are jostling each other good-naturedly, sticks clattering as they fight for possession of the orange ball at their feet. When they see her car they stop, the ball rolling away into the gutter. The boys stand back to let her pass with their battered hockey sticks hanging loosely at their sides, like a strange, scrappy honour guard. Donna raises a hand in acknowledgement before she swings into her driveway. 

For a moment Donna watches them resume their scuffling in her rear-view mirror, then meets her own gaze in the reflection. It's not as bad as she'd thought - her face is pale, which makes the dark shadows under her eyes seem more prominent than she'd like, but other than that she looks pretty put-together for a woman who hasn't slept in thirty-two hours. 

The queasy feeling in her stomach hasn't abated though. She can feel herself tensing against it, the muscles in her neck and shoulders stiff and solid as extension cords. She rolls her neck and climbs out of the car, closing the door with a satisfying thunk.

The whole way back Donna had been silently dreading the thought of coming home to an empty house - Haley out with a friend or at the library, Donna left alone to bounce her swirling thoughts off the walls. So she can't help the sigh of relief that comes when she opens the front door to a wall of sound blaring from the TV - a familiar pulsating synth-beat punctuated by the occasional animal screech or loud crash that over the past couple of weeks she's come to recognise as the sound of Donkey Kong happily smashing barrels over the heads of his pixelated enemies. 

"Haley, I'm back!" Donna calls out from the hallway, slipping off her shoes and placing them beside Haley's haphazardly kicked-off sneakers.

"Hey, mom!" Haley yells back, voice slightly muffled over the noise from the television, as if coming from deep within the couch.

 Sure enough Haley is draped across the couch cushions like a wet towel, clutching the controller of her Super Nintendo to her chest. Her gangly teenage legs poke out from the blanket she's buried under, exposing fuzzy-socked feet. 

From the way the tempo of the music has suddenly picked up and Haley's gaze is laser-focused on the TV screen Donna surmises that Donkey Kong is about to find himself in a whole heap of trouble, but when she steps into the living room Haley pauses her game and slings the controller to one side. 

Haley's dark hair, once so short (what had Gordon called it? Mid-Hamill?) is starting to grow out again. Right now it's unbrushed, sticking out from her head at odd angles to give her the look of a ruffled baby bird. The sight makes Donna's chest ache, like her heart is too large for her rib cage. Donna is so glad to see her that she pointedly does not notice the mess that surrounds her daughter - the long-abandoned Chinese takeout cartons open on the coffee table, the crumpled napkins covered in greasy stains littered alongside, the cloying scent of lemon chicken hanging in the air. 

Donna is so busy not noticing these things that she almost misses the careful look Haley is giving her. "Did you have... fun?" Haley asks uncertainly, as if she can't quite picture her mother doing such a thing. "You were with Cam, right? What were you guys even doing?"

That's a good question. What had they been doing?

 They'd been standing awkwardly on the sidewalk outside the old Mutiny building, Donna wracking her brain for a subtle way to drag the evening out a little, when Cameron had opened the passenger door of Donna's BMW and climbed in without a word. Donna had looked on, bemused, then followed quickly before Cameron could change her mind. Then they had just... driven around. Donna steering them aimlessly through the quiet streets, dimly lit by struggling streetlights. They'd talked a little, brief exchanges about changes to the neighbourhood Cameron had missed.

("What happened to Johnny's Charcoal Grill? I loved that place."

"It was a dump! The Public Health Department ended up shutting it down in '91. They found chicken defrosting in a bucket on the kitchen floor."

"Yikes...")

Mostly though, they hadn't said much. Cameron had been in a thoughtful mood and seemed content to sit in the quiet. 

That was perfectly fine with Donna. How many years had it been since they'd shared a comfortable silence? Far too many, and Donna wouldn't be the one to shatter it. Besides, it had felt surprisingly wonderful to just exist in the same space, to have Cameron close by - her long limbs curled up pretzel-like on the seat next to Donna's. 

As she drove, Donna couldn't help stealing glances at Cameron's profile - the slant of her jaw, the still slightly pool-damp hair tucked behind the perfect seashell curve of her ear. Outside the dark window, glowing neon signs of passing bars and movie theatres and pizza parlours spilled their light into the car, softening the angles of her face with colour. 

They'd driven around like that until the sky had begun to lighten into a soft pink. Cameron had been so still and quiet for so long that Donna had thought she was asleep until she'd heard her stomach rumble over the gentle hum of the radio. Then Cameron had turned to face her, sheepish, and suggested they go get breakfast at some diner she liked. Donna hadn't been hungry but she'd agreed, eager to draw this - whatever it was they were doing - out for a little while longer.

And then-

Haley is looking at her expectantly, and Donna feels suddenly, inexplicably embarrassed. A heat creeps on the back of her neck as she jingles her keys in her hand. Turning, she moves across the room to drop them in a crystal bowl on the bookshelf. 

Haley's question hovers between them, seeming to swell to fill the unnaturally long pause, until eventually Donna finds herself stammering, "We, uh -- we just talked. Mostly."

Haley raises an eyebrow. "All night?" 

"Well, we had a lot to talk about," Donna points out, setting her bag down on the side table. 

Part of her is desperate to tell Haley about the idea she'd had in the diner, the plans she and Cameron had made. Mostly because she and creativity have barely been on nodding terms these past few years and now she has this idea that is positively brimming with potential. Donna's so thrilled with herself that she kind of wants to scream it from the rooftops for all of Silicon Valley to hear. 

Also, because once someone else knows about her idea it becomes real. A tangible thing, out in the world. Our new project. Hers and Cameron's. But-

But. 

Making something real makes it dangerous. Right now, it's just an idea. A concept she and Cam threw around over breakfast. If Donna tells Haley about the site that will give it a shape, give it a form. It will stop being an idea and become an undertaking.

With just a few careless words she will speak this project into existence. And then it will be real. And real things can fall apart or disappear. They can be taken away. 

Donna's not sure she could handle that. So she will keep it to herself, for now. Safely tucked away in her head. Untouched and untouchable.

When she turns back around, Haley has her head tilted slightly to the side, clearly not buying what Donna is selling. For what must be the millionth time Donna readies herself for the onslaught of questions sure to pour out of her perpetually-curious younger daughter, but Haley just shrugs a shoulder and smiles. "Okay," she says, apparently willing to let it rest for now. 

Donna smiles back at her, relieved. She makes her way over to the couch, carefully stepping over the small grey games console, a snarl of cables and a scattering of video game cartridges spread out on the floor, Mega Man X and Super Metroid just about edging away underneath the cabinet. 

Haley stretches her arms above her head, yawning loudly, and Donna raises an eyebrow in her direction. Now she's close enough to notice that Haley's eyes are bleary and bloodshot in a way that would have had Donna sniffing suspiciously at her older daughter to catch a whiff of pot smoke, but in this kid is more likely to suggest a night spent playing video games deep into the early hours. 

Between that, the mountain of takeout and the carefully constructed blanket nest, Donna gets the feeling that Haley very much enjoyed having the house all to herself overnight. But she asks her just in case, "Were you alright here by yourself?"

Donna had called last night from a grungy pay-phone under a flickering streetlight when it had become clear that she wasn't going to be making it home any time soon. Some combination of the success of her soirée, the late hour and the uninterrupted one-on-one time with Cameron had left Donna in rare high spirits and she'd found herself telling Haley to take money out of her purse for dinner, even with the fridge packed tight with uneaten hors d'eouvres. 

It was something of an experiment, leaving Haley to her own devices overnight. One that Donna never would have dreamed of attempting with Joanie at this age. No doubt Donna would have come back to find the house in ruins - food cupboards stripped bare, every piece of fruit in the house crudely whittled into a bong, a hoard of shaggy-haired teenagers passed out drooling on her sun-loungers. 

It's always been different with Haley. Donna remembers a painfully shy five-year-old Haley winning a goldfish at a carnival. She had proudly claimed her prize - a pale, sickly thing that listed alarmingly to the left in its leaky plastic sack. Gordon had taken one look at the wretched creature and quietly estimated its life expectancy at a week, tops in Donna's ear.

While Donna had prepared for floods of tears and the impending matchbox funeral, Haley had cared for that fish meticulously and "Flipper" had flourished under her attention, doubling in length almost overnight. He'd lived three long, carefree years before Gordon had stumbled in drunk one night and knocked his bowl off the end table. 

Point being, Donna hadn't been worried for a second about Haley acting irresponsibly left unsupervised. No, the only thing that had given Donna pause was leaving her alone so soon after she had ended things with Kevin. Not that Haley had seemed particularly cut up by their breakup at the time. Donna has her own theories regarding that but still... Her first breakup. Maybe she'd be upset after it had sunk in a little more? Unlikely as it seemed, Donna couldn't quite shake the image of Haley sat all alone at the kitchen island, crying fat tears into a pint of Cherry Garcia. 

It's a scene plucked straight from the melodramatic teen dramas Joanie watches obsessively (and mocks mercilessly) and it couldn't be further from reality. As far as Donna can tell, Haley doesn't appear to have wasted a single second thinking about Kevin, let alone wallowing over him.

In fact, she is in powerfully good mood. This is due at least in part to the double order of pot stickers she'd ordered from Golden Bowl, chased down with a night of undisputed control over the TV - it sounds like she watched a lot of Discovery Channel. 

While Donna clears away the cartons of leftovers, Haley enthusiastically recaps what sounds to Donna like an impossibly depressing documentary about declining bee populations. She chats away over Donna's shoulder while Donna pulls an icy-cold bottle of water from the fridge door, draining most of it in one long swallow.

Last night, the caterers had boxed up all the leftover food and stacked it neatly in her fridge. Every shelf is crammed with creamy white boxes she knows are filled with enough crab rangoons to feed a small army, but aside from that you'd never know that last night this house was overflowing with practically every tech-minded woman in the Bay Area. The caterers have left the place pristine, the kitchen immaculate.

Donna makes a mental note to hire them for her next event as she watches the sunlight glint off her irreproachably clean counter tops. She exhales a slow breath and notices that she feels better now. Here in her beautiful home with her impossibly bright, sweet, funny kid. 

When she turns back around Haley has moved on from the bees (mercifully) and is giving Donna an exhaustive rundown of the aborted mission of Apollo 13.

"Sounds like you had a lot of fun." Donna puts in when Haley finally pauses to suck in a breath. "Is having your mom back here going to cramp your style?" Her tone is light but even as she says it she hears the faint whiff of desperation behind it. She cringes inwardly.

God, what is wrong with her today? Please don't let her become one of those weird, needy mothers who can't handle their kids becoming self-reliant. Fortunately Haley doesn't seem to notice, her only reply being to roll her eyes and swing her legs around to make room for Donna on the couch. 

Donna collapses gratefully beside her and relaxes back into the soft cushions, suddenly exhausted. They are both quiet for a moment, the clock ticking on the wall. Then Haley leans forward, hands on her knees, and turns to look at Donna. Her eyes are wide and dark.

"So- Cameron," Haley starts, haltingly, "is she- is she gone?" 

Donna feels her throat constrict. If she speaks she knows her voice will shake, so she just nods her head. Haley's expression goes slack and her shoulders sag downwards, clearly unhappy with this development. Donna knows exactly how she feels but attempts to muster up a reassuring smile from somewhere.

When it comes it feels like more of a grimace, but it doesn't matter because Haley isn't looking at her any more. Instead she frowns at the floor, her dark eyebrows pulling together in that perplexed way that Donna thinks makes her look just like Gordon when a hardware problem had him flummoxed. It makes her throat constrict tighter. 

Abruptly, Haley heaves a sigh and flops back against the cushions, knocking her head softly against Donna's shoulder like she did when she was a little girl. 

These opportunities don't present themselves so often these days, so Donna quickly slings an arm around Haley's narrow shoulders, drops a kiss to the top of her head and pulls her in tight. All the softness has fallen off of her this past year - her bony elbow digs into Donna's ribs and when, exactly, had Haley gotten so tall? There's barely room enough for the both of them on this couch anymore. But Donna doesn't let her go.

 Just you and me now, bug. Donna thinks, but doesn't say. 

Haley tolerates her mother's affections for a full minute before gently squirming away. She rolls off the couch with a thud, the Super Nintendo controller hitting the floor with a plastic clatter, skittering away across the hardwood to rest somewhere Donna is sure to trip over it later. Haley delves a hand deep between the couch cushions, groping blindly for the remote.

When she eventually retrieves it it's dotted with lint and crumbs but she holds it aloft with a triumphant grin, like it's a prize fish she's just pulled from the river. "Do you wanna watch The X-Files?" she asks earnestly, tilting her head. "Fox is having a marathon."

"That sounds perfect." Donna can barely get the words out before Haley hurls herself back down onto the couch and rearranges the blanket so it covers both of them.

A few minutes later, Donna is watching Dana Scully rock a neutral pantsuit only to the extent that her eyes are, technically, on the screen. She's more focused on her daughter's steady presence next to her, the warmth of the room and the reassuring weight of the heavy Navajo blanket that absolutely does not fit her decor but had once belonged to Gordon. Her head feels thick with tiredness and her body feels comfortably heavy, like slowly melting wax.

Without moving her head Donna slowly flicks her eyes to Haley's face. Her daughter is oblivious to her attention, totally absorbed in whatever Gillian Anderson is saying onscreen. Haley's gaze is transfixed, reverent in a way that betrays something a little more than casual interest. Donna tucks this information away for later examination.

With a half-smile playing on her lips, she turns her eyes back to the TV screen, content to let it all wash over her.

 

---

 


The next morning Donna jolts awake with her legs tangled in the bed sheets and her heart hammering in her chest. She'd been so eager to fall into bed last night that she'd forgotten to draw the curtains and now sunlight tears angrily through the windows, landing on her face in a hot strip. 

Donna groans softly and rolls her head away from the light. Why is her heart beating so fast? She tries to think. Her brain is foggy and sleep-stupid so it takes her a minute to dredge up an explanation. She doesn't like what she comes up with - she'd been dreaming about Cameron. 

As dreams go it had been fairly pedestrian. She'd been here, at her house. Everything familiar in that way things always are in dreams, even when the details are slightly off-kilter. A little warped and to the left.

It had been dawn, the sun barely risen as she stood barefoot in her backyard, toes curled around the edge of her pool. Except it hadn't been her pool, it was far too large for that. More like a vast lake - the water stretching out for miles. Black and skateably-smooth in its stillness.

Just as she'd bent her knees ready to leap, she'd heard a steady rap at the front door. She walked quickly through the darkened house and stopped in the hall to see a familiar silhouette framed in the doorway.

Cameron stood on the other side of the glass, scuffing a sneaker against Donna's doorstep. The early morning sunlight was hitting her just so, lighting up her face and glancing off the buckles of those godawful overalls. Their eyes met through the glass. Cameron smiled tentatively and raised an awkward hand in greeting. Her broad, pale palm hovered inches from the door.

Donna felt her stomach flip. She reached for the door handle slowly, her fingertips just touching the cool metal and then... she had woken up. 

That's it. 

It's not exactly high-octane stuff. There's certainly nothing there to justify the way her heart is pounding like she just puffed her way through a particularly hardcore step-aerobics class. 

Once her heartbeat slows to something resembling normal Donna kicks off the sheets and makes her way downstairs, determined to forget about it.

Even wearing her softest slippers, her footsteps seem to resonate in the perfect stillness of her kitchen. The strong mid-morning sun bounces off the surface of the pool and streams in though the floor-to-ceiling windows, leaving the house swimming with golden light.

On the counter is a note from Haley that says she's gone to work on her coding project in the computer labs up at Foothill College.

As in any computer lab, the competition for the newer, faster workstations is a fierce thing. High-school kids like Haley have to play it smart.

Rather than fighting a losing battle against the bigger, older college kids during the day they seize the opportunity on Sunday mornings, swarming the campus at the crack of dawn to lay claim to the most sought-after machines while the college kids are immobilised with exhaustion and dehydration after heavy Saturday nights of beer pong and keg stands.

It's ingenious and Donna respects her dedication, but it does mean that Haley probably won't reappear until the evening, when hunger forces her hand. Then she will inevitably come crashing through the front door with a big grin and screen-glazed eyes, just in time for dinner.

Donna pours herself a generous mug of coffee and lingers for a moment in her empty kitchen, the day stretching out ahead of her.

The air that hits her face is warm and fragrant as she heads out the back door. The sun beats down steadily as she takes her coffee by the pool, stretched out on a sun-lounger like a contented cat.

 These days, Donna prefers it out here. More and more since Joanie left, Donna's found the house too quiet. Almost oppressively so.

From the day she'd entered the world, red-faced and howling with startling force for a newborn, Joanie had operated the same way - maximum decibels to be deployed at all times.

Though it had driven her crazy just a few months before, Donna now finds herself missing the hundred daily headaches Joanie could inspire. Tying up the phone line scream-laughing with a friend for hours at a time. Blasting her stereo loud enough to rattle the walls. Thundering around upstairs in her combat boots like a herd of spooked cattle. Always always slamming the front door.

All the petty little things they'd fought about (although what hadn't they fought about?), and now Donna can't help but think that maybe they'd needed at least a little of that to make this big house feel full. Make it feel alive.

It's a better kind of quiet out here. More natural. The lazy buzz of insects. A lawnmower droning a few houses down. Pigeons cooing lethargically from the branches of a tall Sycamore to her left.

The sun is warm on her shoulders when she stands, and it feels good to slip into the cool, clear water and float for a while, listening. Then Donna closes her eyes and sinks beneath the surface, all the sounds fading to nothing, and starts to swim.

She glides smoothly through the water, finding her rhythm. Back and forward. Forward and back. Don't forget to breathe. She swims until her arms are rubbery and her legs ache and her head is blissfully empty. 

By the time she's towelled herself dry and padded back into the kitchen, hunger is gnawing at her stomach. She sticks some crab rangoons in the oven to reheat and leans a hip idly against the counter while she waits for the buzzer.

Donna notices that Haley has stuck Joanie's most recent postcard to the fridge with the others. This one is held in place with a banana magnet - two colourful fishing boats bobbing on astonishingly blue water. Donna smiles and gently touches a fingertip to it. She doesn't need to take it down to know that on the back are the words - Greetings from Maya Luy! - J.

Five words written so large and balloon-animal round that they fill the space completely, leaving barely enough room for their address. It's squeezed in the top-right corner below the postage stamp, like an afterthought. 

It's not the detailed update Donna had been hoping for, but maybe it doesn't need to be.

Donna can still imagine Joanie - picking out the postcard at a tiny stall. Scrawling it out in a rush, tucked somewhere her friends won't see. In her bunk at the hostel, maybe. Or leaned against the wall of a dusty payphone.

The thought makes Donna smile.

It's so easy for her to picture Joanie laughing with all the new friends she's inevitably making, because when she's not being a sardonic asshole to drive her mother insane Joanie is warm and funny and so intuitive she could find common ground with a freshly crash-landed martian.

At this very moment, Joanie might be hefting a backpack almost as big as she is along a white sandy beach. Or swimming in the ocean - but not too far out. Ever since she was a little girl she'd been terrified of not being able to touch the bottom.

Donna only has to close her eyes and she can see Joanie so clearly. She does this now, and it helps Donna miss her less.  

But when Donna attempts to repeat this exercise with Cameron she finds it nearly impossible. A blurred image that stubbornly refuses to come into focus. Donna furrows her brow, thinking hard.

Cameron would be in Carson City by now, but doing what exactly? Donna can't imagine she'd be holed up in a casino at the craps table. Come to think of it, Donna has no real idea what Cam would be doing on her trip, what she might find interesting or compelling.

 What might she go out of her way to see? An art museum? The Grand Canyon?

What does Cameron like to do that doesn't involve sitting at her computer? 

The oven timer buzzes faintly behind her and Donna plates up her food mechanically, without really registering it. Her thoughts are furry static as she wracks her brain, discomfited.

She knows Cameron, right? Or at least she had done, once upon a time. For god's sake, they'd worked side by side for years! They'd lived together. You can't do that without getting to know someone, it's impossible. 

So let's start simple, approach this logically. 

Donna knows that Cameron grew up in Texas. That she attended Austin Tech, before Joe got his hooks in and suckered her into dropping out. Then Cardiff. Mutiny. Japan. Comet.

Now harder stuff. Personal stuff. Okay.

From sharing a house with her Donna knows, for instance, that on the rare occasions she managed to drag herself away from her computer Cameron would read. Donna would find her sometimes, stretched out on Donna's couch like she belonged there with a bowl of cereal balanced on her stomach and a battered paperback in her hand.

Old, yellowing science fiction picked up at yard sales for a dollar - Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson. She would insist on marking her place by leaving the books face down on every available surface, cracking the spines like some kind of barbarian. (Then act surprised when all the pages started falling out!)

Donna knows that Cameron has a knowledge of video games so broad and detailed that it borders on the encyclopaedic, and that she can eat liquorice by the pound.

 That Cameron tends toward music that sounds like a bunch of trash cans falling down a spiral staircase, and that she's capable of programming games so beautiful, so poignant they have moved Donna to tears. 

That she has an incredible work ethic. An odd sleep schedule.

Utterly appalling taste in men. 

But these are just facts. 

Bite-sized bits of trivia you pick up when you live and work with someone. When you know their schedule and see them every day.

But knowing pieces of a person isn't the the same thing as really knowing them, is it? Not in any meaningful way.

It's so easy to mistake proximity for closeness and Donna can know how Cam takes her coffee and what her favourite Halloween candy is, but that doesn't mean Donna knows anything real.

Like how Cameron really feels about this trip to visit her mom. Or even what happened to cause the rift between them in the first place. 

Barefoot in the kitchen, holding a steaming crab rangoon, it strikes Donna how little she really knows about Cameron.

Back in the Mutiny days, all they had ever really talked about was work. Because, at the time, that had seemed the most important thing.

But how many essential parts of Cam's life, her past, has Donna been oblivious to? Donna thinks about how cagey Cameron had always been about her childhood, her family. How expertly she'd deflected when the conversation turned to holiday plans - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother's Day.

And Donna had never pressed her.

Why the hell hadn't she ever pressed her?

Donna supposes that she'd just assumed that certain subjects were conversationally out of bounds and left it at that.

At the time it had seemed sensible enough. Why risk driving Cameron away by pushing her too far? She'd certainly never seemed like she'd be receptive to Donna peppering her with invasive questions.

Even so, now it seems like yet another massive miscalculation on Donna's part. Cameron might have been reluctant to provide answers, but Donna still should have asked

Because now Cameron is gone, again, and Donna doesn't know what she might be doing or who she might be doing it with.

Donna doesn't know if she's dreading seeing her mom again, dawdling at every cheesy roadside attraction, or if she's so impatient to reconcile that she'll blow past every single one, non-stop, all the way to Florida.

 Donna doesn't know, and that realisation settles in a tight knot just below her sternum. She feels a familiar rush of regret for all the time wasted, all the opportunities missed. 

Her plate of food cools beside her on the counter, forgotten.  

 

---

 


After an hour spent stress-cleaning the already spotless oven Donna doesn't feel much better. The stainless steel gleams but her thoughts continue to circle each other like wild dogs.

She runs a hot bath, fills it with essential oils and sits obstinately in it until the water goes tepid, her fingers pruned and the bathroom thick with French lavender-scented steam. It kills another hour but doesn't do much to relax the knot in her chest or the strange, jittery sensation in her stomach. 

She's restless, all jagged edges, as she makes her way over to the walk-in closet. Even so, the moment she steps inside and her bare toes sink into the plush, creamy carpet she can't help but feel a spark of satisfaction. It's an instinctual response to a beautiful space.

The room is airy and spacious, with natural light that pours in through the linen curtains above the window seat, casting golden hues on orderly racks of formal gowns and tailored blazers, expertly folded stacks of cashmere sweaters and neat rows of glossy shoes. 

It's also as close to the one in Diane's Sonoma house as Donna could get it without simply saying fuck it and asking Diane for the name of her interior decorator and a set of schematics. 

Donna pulls a freshly-laundered silk blouse from a partition where a dozen other freshly-laundered silk blouses hang alongside. She weighs the padded hanger in her hand along with the possibility of heading to the office, just for a few hours until Haley gets back. 

Yes, it's a Sunday, she's aware. But this week promises to be a chaotic one, with only a few days left to finalise all the last-minute details before she flies out to Las Vegas with her 3D-imaging team, Delphi.

They're young and inexperienced and it's their first time presenting at Comdex. Donna knows from experience how easy it is for things to go horribly wrong out there on that stage. It certainly wouldn't hurt to put in a little overtime. Well, a little more overtime. 

She goes to pull the pull the blouse from the hanger. Hesitates. 

Back when she'd first agreed to take on the Managing Partner role she'd done it with a caveat. Without wanting to sound like a sanctimonious article lifted straight out of Working Woman, she'd thought it important to maintain some balance in her life, and made a promise to herself that she wouldn't let this job become her whole identity.

Her lofty ambition had been to take a day to herself every week, without fail. She'd even made a dutiful list of potential hobbies, each one more depressingly age-appropriate than the last: Take a language class. Join a book club. Take up gardening. Golfing had even made it on there, until Donna realised with horror how perilously close she'd be coming to channelling her mother. 

After some quick mental calculations Donna finds that she's already worked sixty hours this week, not including time spent reviewing paperwork in her home office in the evenings. Donna sighs and hangs the blouse back up with the others, pulling some light-wash jeans and an old Berkeley sweater from a shelf instead. 

As much as she needs the distraction that only burying herself in work can reliably provide, Donna knows that going into the office now would make her feel oddly guilty. As if she were letting herself down somehow by not using her downtime to do something enriching, like take a pottery class.

But is that really what she wants? To spend an afternoon sculpting a misshapen vase and chit-chatting with all the other overworked divorcées over at the glazing station?

Just the thought makes her feel exhausted. 

Usually, Donna winds up compromising by setting herself up on the couch with her laptop open to tackle her endlessly overflowing inbox. She'll even put the TV on in the background, thereby maintaining the illusion that she is a woman with a perfectly healthy work/life balance, thank-you-very-much.

Uninspiring as it sounds, there's not much else to do. After grabbing her glasses off the bedside table, Donna is about to make her way downstairs to do just that when something in the hallway stops her in her tracks.

Upon leaving for Thailand Joanie had left her bedroom door firmly shut, and in the car en route to the airport she'd been dropping hints about trust and privacy that were about as subtle as sledgehammers.

Donna, to her credit, had listened. Despite her curiosity - and despite her deep suspicion that the plates missing from the cabinet are lodged somewhere under Joanie's bed, caked with fossilised pop-tart crumbs -  she'd resisted the urge to venture beyond the closed door. 

Haley, by contrast, had respected Joanie's privacy for about three hours before gingerly stepping inside, peering around as if she'd been expecting her sister to leap out from behind the curtains and give her a savage charley horse for spying.

Now, weeks later, Haley seems to consider her sister's room her own personal treasure trove - she is forever ducking in and out to facilitate the slow but steady migration of Joanie's collection of books and CDs into Haley's own.

No doubt this will result in Donna being expected to mediate the mother-of-all squabbles when Joanie eventually returns, but that's a problem for another time.

For now, Donna is far more interested in what is right in front of her face. 

Because this morning, in her rush to get to Foothill, Haley has left Joanie's door open. Not by much. Just three tantalising inches that means Donna can just see the thin layer of dust covering the portable TV, the desk overflowing with magazines and the dog-eared corner of a poster for a band Donna's never heard of.

It wouldn't take much to stretch out a hand and palm the door open until it swings wide.

For a moment Donna stands frozen in the hallway, hand to her chest, seriously considering a little light snooping. Not for a diary or condoms or anything like that. No good can possibly come of that. To say nothing of the fact that Joanie is technically an adult now (something Donna is still struggling to wrap her head around) she knows that if she finds condoms she'll worry that Joanie is using them, and if she doesn't find them she'll worry that Joanie isn't using them. It's a lose-lose that guarantees a sleepless night either way.

As for the diary, Donna would never even dream of reading it, but she wouldn't have to go snooping to find it. Joanie has kept her diary hidden in the same place since she was seven years old (wedged between the mattress and the box spring).

 No, all Donna wants is to do the briefest, most perfunctory sweep that will inevitably reveal the baggy of pot Joanie has stashed away in her sock drawer or the pocket of an old jacket.

It will almost certainly be ditch weed, all seed and stems. The kind of mediocre drugs teenagers buy with the money they make from babysitting or mowing lawns.

All the same, it would be enough to take the edge off.

For a moment Donna allows herself to imagine how good it would feel to stretch out on the rug downstairs with her old Fleetwood Mac records playing, to take a long, lazy draw of sour smoke into her lungs, to hold it there and feel the world flatten out magnificently around her. 

Or, even better, a glass of perfectly chilled Sancerre.

Just the one glass, but a generous enough pour to muffle her pounding thoughts, soothe her mind's staticky hum. 

This is a dangerous line of thought and Donna veers away from it reflexively, her mind giving a quick warning jolt. It makes her stomach drop, like she's just missed a step on the stairs, and Donna thrusts out a hand to pull Joanie's door sharply closed.

The brass handle is warm under her palm as she raises her eyes to the vaulted ceiling in silent appeal and sighs. Her emails will have to wait a while.  

She knows where she needs to go. 

 


---

 


It's not something she is looking to advertise, but once her court-mandated sessions are over Donna keeps going to AA.

Very occasionally, you understand. Only if it's been a particularly hellish week and only if her schedule allows for it.

Obviously, she'd much rather spend her very limited free time with Haley or catching up on reading.

Honestly, even tackling the mounting pile of laundry in the basement holds more appeal for her than dragging herself out to some run-down community centre in Palo Alto, or draughty church basement in Cupertino. 

She's wary about becoming a recognisable face, so it's never the same meeting twice.

Except it kind of is.

No matter where she goes it's always the same watery coffee, the same day-old pastries. The rickety folding chairs arranged in a shaky semi-circle. Unflattering fluorescent lighting, unforgiving on desperately hopeful faces. 

Today, it's an Episcopal Church in downtown Los Gatos. A small, ivy-covered building with a terracotta roof and a tidy courtyard, it looks more like a Spanish casa than a church at first glance, made to look even more out of place by contrast to its neighbours - a trendy coffee shop on one side and a freshly-opened Banana Republic on the other. 

Donna's been to enough of these things by now that she no longer feels sick with nerves and embarrassment, but still an old reluctance has her dragging her feet as she slides out of her car and makes her way towards the entrance. In front of her is an older man in an long olive army coat, who she thinks would be well over six feet tall if his back weren't curved forward like a fishing pole. 

He holds the door open for her and smiles broadly, exposing crooked, nicotine-stained teeth. The doorway is narrow, and she has to squeeze her way past him close enough to smell the stale smoke and aftershave clinging to his clothes.

"Thank you," Donna says, taking a step sideways into a tiny reception area, her purse knocking against a notice board covered in flyers for local businesses and a signup sheet for the church choir: 

RELIGHT MY CHOIR 
THURSDAYS 5PM
JOIN US AND SING FOR JOY!

So far there are no takers.

 Donna has the sudden, desperate urge to laugh and entertains a brief fantasy of pushing past this man, hopping into her car and peeling off down the street to go get a manicure instead.

The man peers at Donna intently like he can read her thoughts. His face is weathered with years of hard-living but his eyes are bright and intelligent.

"You're just in time," he says, his voice a low rumble, "help yourself to coffee then come grab a pew." He jams a thumb over his shoulder and strides away through a set of heavy wooden doors before Donna can formulate a response. 

Turns out grab a pew was not a turn of phrase. Instead of the usual side-room or basement volunteered by larger churches, this meeting is being held in the church proper - a narrow hall lined with hard wooden benches, worn smooth from years of use.

It smells of dust and stale incense. The cheap stucco walls are embedded with colourful stained-glass windows, the late afternoon sun shining through illuminating sorrowful-looking saints that Donna, whose parents took her to church once a year for Christmas Mass, does not recognise.

The limited space of the tiny chapel is dominated by an enormous, ornate pipe organ, all dark polished wood and metal dulled by time and wear, so tall it almost touches the ceiling.

Donna finds herself longing to hear what it sounds like, her fingers itch to run over the rows and rows of gleaming keys.

In front of the organ, looking miniature by comparison, is a podium where the stoop-shouldered man from earlier stands, frowning at a piece of paper and slurping coffee from a paper cup. 

Donna balances her own cup carefully on her knee as she perches awkwardly on an empty pew at the back. The coffee is engine-oil dark with a greasy film on top. She won't be drinking it but it makes a useful prop, something to occupy her hands while she subtly scopes out the room. 

It's well-attended as meetings go, a steady hum of clearing throats and shuffling feet fills the hall as perhaps thirty men and women scattered around the room wait for the meeting to begin. Some stand, talking quietly in pairs or groups, heads bent low together.

In the next row an elderly woman sits alone, calmly fingering a set of prayer beads.

To her left, Donna spots a likely first-timer - a scruffy man who can't be much older than Joanie, with a tangle of blonde hair and a grim set to his jaw. He's restless - twisting his fingers in his lap while his eyes dart uncertainly around the room, flicking between the man at the podium, the crucifix on the wall and the exit with the desperate look of a man who would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else.

Donna is very familiar with that feeling. 

Even now, all these months later, she's not entirely sure why she'd come back. 

The drink-driving arrest on its own had been eye-wateringly mortifying, the weekly court-mandated AA meetings only adding insult to injury.

Those first meetings had been a chore at best. A weekly exercise in renewed humiliation at worst.

The way Donna saw it, it was a complete waste of her valuable time. An arbitrary punishment for an incident that had been blown way out of proportion.

But she'd pushed down her simmering resentment, sat there quietly and tried her best to keep the horror from her face while strange men in trucker hats told horribly graphic stories of bodily functions that would surely be better left discussed with a doctor.

She hadn't complained (much), she'd just put her head down and powered through it. And when Donna had walked out of that last mandatory meeting she'd had to fight down the urge to hold her signed certificate of attendance aloft in triumph. It was over - she was free! 

That should have been the end of it. 

And then Gordon had died. Just like that. Here and gone. 

poof!

Like a gut-wrenching conjurer's trick.

And it had wrecked her. Wholly and completely. 

She'd lost her oldest friend. Her first true partner. The father of her children. 

Nothing could have prepared her for the pain of that. No one would have blamed her if she'd climbed into bed with a bottle of Zinfandel and closed the curtains for few days. A week. A month. God knows, she'd wanted to. But there had been the funeral to arrange. Attorneys to contact. Gordon's house to go through.

The multitude of mind-numbing bureaucratic details that come alongside the agony of losing someone so unexpectedly.

Donna couldn't afford to fall apart, there was simply too much to be done. And she'd had to be strong for her daughters. 

There had been a hundred good reasons to divorce Gordon, and even once they were long separated he could always be counted on to grate on her last nerve.

But still, their history ran deep and Gordon had known her better than anyone else. He'd been someone she could count on and, for all his faults, he had still been her go-to. Right up to the end. 

With him gone it had become excruciatingly clear to Donna that she didn't really have anyone left to talk to.

Diane was, first and foremost, a work friend. They'd never had the kind of relationship where Donna would feel comfortable talking to her about something this emotionally charged.

She'd considered Bos, but things had been strained after his heart attack. They'd worked it out eventually, but it had taken time and Wal-Mart didn't exactly carry a greetings card that captured the nuances of the situation. 

(Sorry Our Work Disagreement Became Your Full-Blown Cardiac Event!)

 And there'd been no chance of her dumping her feelings on her daughters, they already had enough to worry about.

No, the only person Donna had found herself aching to talk to was Cameron.

Cameron who had loved him too, in that odd aggravated-sibling-relationship way they had formed when she hadn't been paying attention. But Cameron had not been an option. Not back then.

So when the next AA meeting had rolled around she had gone back there and just... told them all of this.

She had let her grief pour out of her in front of a dozen total strangers, quietly assembled in a dilapidated room of what had once been the old post office building in Saratoga.

And they'd listened, these strangers, unflappable as she'd assaulted them with her anguish and her heartbreak and when the words finally dried up she'd been too wrung-out to feel embarrassed (although that would come later). 

They'd thanked her for sharing, with what seemed to her like genuine compassion. Then it had been someone's anniversary, thirty years sober, and they'd brought out coffee and the world's driest walnut cake. And that had been it. 

She'd driven home that night feeling better. Lighter. As if a crushing weight had been, not lifted, but at least eased a little. She felt less alone and had to concede that maybe it wasn't a complete waste of time. 

Maybe.

Of course, most of what she hears at the meetings that follow is gruelling - a steady rotation between the tedious, the trite and the downright devastating. But... There's a realness to it. To these strangers owning up to their failures and shortcomings and mistakes and resolving to do better. There's something inspiring about that. 

But that doesn't mean she wants to stand in a circle holding their gnarled hands while they recite some hackneyed slogan and offer themselves up to a higher power. That part makes her want to roll her eyes, which is not encouraged.

Usually, she takes the seat closest to the door so she can make a quick exit when they start wrapping up. She's not looking to chat, or get roped into helping put the chairs away. 

Donna is pulled away from this line of thought by Stoop Shouldered Guy clearing his throat at the front of the room. He's now wearing a pair of wire-framed glasses and looking out at them all with those piercing eyes, ready to begin. He introduces himself as Michael and an alcoholic. 

"Hi Michael," the room echoes back dutifully, as one. The effect is a little eerie if you're not used to it, and Donna watches the young guy to her left visibly flinch and twist his fingers together tighter.

Michael clears his throat and goes on to lead the room in reciting the Serenity Prayer, his gravelly voice echoing off the walls.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change 
Courage to change the things I can 
And wisdom to know the difference."

They love that one around here.

Donna hears it at every meeting she goes to. It's a little Jesus-take-the-wheel for her taste but still, she can see the value in it. God aside, it's a neat psychological trick to play on yourself on those days when the world feels like it's spinning too fast.

There have been a lot of days like that lately, since Gordon was unceremoniously ripped from their lives and it became an undeniable fact: life is chaos.

A furious, tumultuous wave that that refuses to be held back and tosses you this way and that like an errant beach ball. Gordon had known it and now Donna knows it too. 

There is so much in her life right now that lies beyond her control. 

She can't give her daughters their father back. 

Or guarantee Delphi's success at Comdex. 

Or make Joanie want to go college.

 Or get Cameron to quit playing Kerouac and come home. 

Donna can't control these things any more than she can stop the sun from shining or the relentless pile-up of traffic on I-80. 

Coming to meetings like this helps, if only to serve as a reminder to herself that when she feels like this - lost and powerless and so lonely she wants to scream - it doesn't solve anything to go crying into a glass of Pinot Grigio. 

The best she can do is focus on the aspects of her life that she can control. 

What she does.

What she doesn't do.  

"-so I wake up in the hospital with a collapsed lung and a prolapsed colon. This is around the time my second wife left me-"

Michael is gone from the podium, replaced by a new speaker - a bald-headed man built like a Sherman tank. His voice is soft and so matter-of-fact he could be giving out directions.

This is how you can spot the hardened AA devotees - by the offhanded ease with which they can present the lowest moments of their lives for inspection to total strangers. 

Next up is a leather-face woman with big, beehive hair.

Donna steels herself for more clichéd Words of Wisdom or perhaps a blow-by-blow account of that morning's bowel movement.

Instead the woman adjusts her giant hairdo and chirps, "Just some housekeeping to finish up, remember that next weekend is our bi-monthly AA and Friends Sober Barbecue and Picnic!" The woman beams at them all, showing straight white teeth. "It's in Blossom Hill Park at noon. We'd love to see you there!" 

Donna would rather do a cartwheel off the Golden Gate Bridge at low tide than socialise with these people voluntarily.

 Okay, okay, yes. That's the wrong attitude. But Jesus Christ can you imagine? 

Besides, she's here isn't she? Out of all the other places she could be right now, she's chosen to be here.

That's not nothing.

Donna takes a deep breath through her nose. Then another.

 It's a start. 

Chapter Text

That weekend, Donna cannot stop thinking about Phoenix.

What it could be. What they could make it.

She's filled up half a yellow legal pad with notes and ideas before the tendrils of doubt begin to wriggle their way into her head. 

What if Cameron doesn't come back? 

Or what if she does and their partnership implodes again?

Equal say in everything. That sounds great in theory, but in practise...

And what about Symphonic? 

Diane was right, Managing Partner is not a part-time job. Is Donna really going to throw that away? 

And for what?  

One garbled breakfast meeting conducted on zero sleep, a list of potential features scrawled on a few crumpled napkins and not much more than a vague I'll see you when I see you! from her notoriously unreliable co-founder.  

Let's not forget that the last time Cameron went off to patch things up with her mother she had fallen off the face of the earth for a full week, only to waltz back into the office, completely unrepentant and secretly married to that world-heavyweight asshole.

"I have a solve for transactions."

As if Donna hadn't racked up hundreds of dollars in long-distance charges calling every damn hospital in Dallas.

The thoughts run together, tangling like wires in her head.

The longer she dwells on it the more the whole thing seems like a ludicrous pipe dream than a credible business opportunity. There's certainly not enough there for Donna to justify even dreaming about leaving a stable, well-paying job at an established firm where she actually, finally, holds some sway.

So why is she even considering it?

 


---

 


It's a relief to get back to work on Monday. 

One advantage of having a demanding career is that there are a million things that require Donna's immediate, undivided attention, leaving her with very little brain capacity to obsess about Cameron, Phoenix, or anything else that isn't the problem at hand.  

It feels good to focus on something tangible. Donna has barely gotten settled at her desk before Ashley is bustling into her office with a stack of files in one hand and a glass of thick juice the colour of clay in the other. Donna can see a gritty sediment settling at the bottom and even as she graciously accepts the glass she knows it will end up in the plant pot. Ashley is a sweet girl and a capable assistant but her juice creations are, more often than not, undrinkable. 

(On the bright side, the Peace Lily Donna keeps on her desk is positively thriving.)

 Donna leans back in her executive armchair as Ashley runs through her schedule for the week. It is reassuringly jam-packed, scheduled almost down to the minute - in addition to the usual barrage of pitch meetings and conference calls, she has her biotech team gearing up for their IPO, which means mountains of paperwork. And, with the end of fourth quarter rapidly bearing down on them, the accounting department have scheduled three (three!) separate budget meetings, each of which promise to be about as enjoyable as having her wisdom teeth extracted.

On top of all that, Trip keeps trying to corner her. From the desperate look on his face she suspects he wants her advice on Strata, the digital security company he's sunk a sizeable chunk of Symphonic's money into. The "uncrackable" encryption software he had been promised months ago has yet to materialise and the whole deal is fast threatening to become a large, smoking crater. 

Donna had never liked the Strata deal. It smelled like vaporware from the get-go. But of course, Trip had been adamant. Now it's blowing up in his face in such a spectacular fashion that Donna might take some pleasure in it, if it wasn't company money being flushed down the toilet. Still, it's his mess and she has neither the time nor the inclination to step in and play caretaker. She's got enough on her plate this week as it is.

Donna's schedule is something of a finely tuned instrument at the best of times, but this week promises to be even trickier - she knows that when she's not slamming from meeting to meeting, chipping away at the endless influx of emails, or fastidiously avoiding Trip, she'll need to be spending every free moment she has overseeing the final preparations before Friday. 

Before Comdex

It's taken months of hard work and careful planning to get to this point. Now it's finally upon them - in just four days time Donna will be on an early morning flight to Las Vegas with Delphi Graphics, her 3D imaging team, for the single most important date on the high-tech marketing calendar, where Delphi are scheduled to debut their software, onstage, in a highly-anticipated public demonstration. 

Their first public demonstration, in fact.

Ever.

It's a gamble, admittedly - Comdex is not a forgiving place. Especially not for a young, inexperienced start-up. Donna supposes it's a bit like how her dad had taught her brother to swim when they were kids. You shove someone into the deep end of the pool and either they'll rise to the occasion or they'll sink like a stone.

Harsh? Maybe. But it works.

Some companies simply do not have what it takes to succeed, destined to slide away into the start-up sewers without so much as a ripple... 

But that won't happen to Delphi. Not if Donna can help it. She had gone out on a limb to get them funded and now it's a point of professional pride for her that they knock this demo out of the park. 

After she'd taken the Managing Partner position at Symphonic, one of her first directives had been that the firm should diversify its portfolio by investing in start-ups. Brand-new companies with products in the early-development stages. The more high-tech the better. 

Initially, this had been met with some resistance from her older, more conservative partners. This was understandable. Early-stage investments are risky, yes. But, done correctly, they are also highly lucrative.

And quite frankly they needed to do something. Competition among the venture capital firms in Menlo Park is brutal. Just by looking out of her office window Donna can see four of their competitors, and before she'd stepped into her new role Symphonic had been slowly but surely falling behind. They'd dropped the ball on the Intuit deal last year, with Kleiner Perkins outmanoeuvring them to lead the funding round right at the last minute. That had been embarrassing. Then, as the icing on top of that particular shit-cake, Intuit's stock had exploded and Kleiner Perkins had been rolling in profits after that blockbuster IPO (as if those KP executives weren't insufferable enough already). 

With Rover dismantled and sold off for parts, and Yahoo! squatting smugly in the Netscape Navigator toolbar, search was currently deader than Elvis. Not to mention all that money Symphonic had tied up investing in hardware companies. Donna is a self-confessed hardware geek but come on. Why were they still sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into hardware when everyone knew the industry had been quietly stagnating for years?

Before she'd accepted Diane's offer she'd gotten hold of a comprehensive breakdown of Symphonic's investment portfolio. What she had seen hadn't impressed her. Everything about it had screamed behind the curve! Symphonic had fallen into the trap that ensnared so many well-established companies - they'd gotten complacent. And she had known in her gut that if Symphonic Ventures wanted to differentiate itself from every other lumbering VC on Sand Hill Road they needed to adapt. To evolve. They needed to be taking big swings and getting in on the ground floor by funding fledgling start-ups. 

And they needed to be doing it yesterday.

That first week in Donna's tenure as Managing Partner, she'd called a strategy meeting and laid out a proposal highlighting these points for her partners. Wearing her most authoritative pantsuit (the black silk Chanel), she'd arrived with coffee, a brown paper bag stuffed with bran muffins and a very persuasive presentation that soon brought her partners around to her way of thinking.

Soon they'd had to repurpose one of the larger conference rooms to make space for all the talented young people doing brilliant, ambitious things with robotics and lasers

And 3D imaging. 

It had been Ashley who came across Delphi's prospectus that day, idly sifting through the slush pile while she fielded Donna's phone calls. Amongst the dozens of uninspiring business plans that routinely made their way onto Donna's desk (constantly, they seemed to multiply overnight like rabbits), Delphi's actually made for a stimulating read. Interest piqued, Donna had Ashley call them in for a meeting.

They hadn't looked like much at first glance. A three-man outfit of reedy twenty-somethings had arrived at the Symphonic offices looking like pretty much every team of software engineers Donna had ever known - in need of a hot shower, a haircut and a strong dose of sunlight. They stood awkwardly in the reception area, sipping their bottles of complimentary water and fidgeting with the collars of dress shirts so brilliantly white and sharply creased they could only have been pulled from their plastic packaging hours before.

Delphi's pitch was to be made for all the senior partners, which meant the usual rigmarole of introductions in the hallway before everyone tromped into the conference room to take their seats. After Trip had bestowed a firm handshake and a flash of his toothy smile on each of the Delphi guys, he had sidled up beside Donna. He leaned in close to her, smile still plastered on his face, and quietly said, "These guys smell shopped. I hear Sequoia Capital, Draper Fisher and Menlo Ventures have already passed on this thing." 

Of course.

Because for as aggressively macho and cut-throat competitive as all the rival VC firms insist on being with each other, these men just love to dish the dirt. They can't help themselves. Honestly, with the way they gossip it's like a knitting circle. A multi-million dollar knitting circle with a propensity towards corporate raids.

Donna gave Trip a tight smile and hoped he was wrong. Then Perry White, Delphi's co-founder and head engineer, had stepped forward to lead the pitch and within minutes Trip had been shooting her smug little told you so looks that made Donna want to drive the pointed toe of her patent-leather pump into his bony shin under the conference table.

Perry, a rail-thin twenty-five-year-old just out of MIT, seemed to Donna the embodiment of the brilliant-but-barely-socialised engineer. Thick glasses slipping down his long nose, he had immediately launched into a perfectly baffling presentation, detailing the inner workings of the 3D imaging software they'd created. He spoke in a quick, eerie monotone, beads of sweat trickling down his pale, angular face as he frantically flicked through his slides, each one a warzone of graphs and arrows and polygons. 

A good presentation tells the company's story in twenty minutes or less. Perry spent twenty minutes talking about the proprietary algorithm the software was built around in such an abstract way that even Donna, with her impressive technical background, had lost the thread. Trip, predictably, was gone by the second slide. His face had that glazed, mirror-eyed look it always got when he was deep in a daydream about either his electric guitar or the California rolls he'd have for lunch.

 Around the twenty-five-minute mark, with no end in sight, Donna had been pointedly checking her watch. She was half out of her seat, ready to cut them off and give them the whole very-interesting-stuff-we'll-definitely-be-in-touch spiel, when they'd cued something up on the projector screen.

It was impressive. Rough, certainly. But prototypes always are, and if there's one thing Donna's gotten good at in her years in VC it's recognising potential. Cultivating it. Shaping it. 

Donna knew to look past the clunky interface and pay attention to the graphics - complex, photorealistic 3D images, skilfully rendered. And on a PC no less. Typically, generating quality 3D graphics was an incredibly computation-intensive process, possible only with powerful 32-bit VAX machines or those hulking great supercomputers only the big film studios could afford. 

If they had found a way do this with personal computers... 

Donna's mind had started working very quickly then. And suddenly it hadn't mattered that Perry's presentation was borderline incomprehensible. Or that he spent most of it making intense eye contact with the ceiling fan slowly rotating above their heads. That was all immaterial as far as Donna was concerned. The software spoke for itself. 

As the demo came to an end, the conference room was still and silent. From the front of the room three smooth, hopeful faces peered back at Donna and her partners, eyes wide and watchful. Donna made sure to keep her face carefully blank, a cool mask of professional detachment. Still no one spoke. Eventually, Perry opened his mouth as if to speak but Donna held up a manicured hand to stop him and he closed it again. 

"Gentlemen," Donna started, voice genial, "if I could offer you some advice?" There was no answer from the coders. But then, it hadn't really been a question. "In future, when you come to meetings like this, I suggest you lead with that." She pointed her pen at the screen behind them. Three heads turned in unison to regard the screen, now dark. To her left one of her partners, maybe Gilson, grumbled his agreement. Donna leaned back in her chair, dropping her pen to the table. "Just a thought."

After that it was easy enough.

Five minutes and a few incisive questions later Donna had managed to ascertain that Delphi's algorithm was unique, optimised in such a way to have none of the memory restrictions that impeded the better-established graphics engines. Simply put, there was no limit to the amount of data that could be fed into the program before it got overwhelmed.

This allowed for the creation of complex graphics on personal computers. Computers that, prior to this, simply would not have had the processing power to cope. 

Once Perry had stopped blinding them with science it had been obvious - this was huge. Like, potentially the best thing to happen to computer graphics since Jim Clark's Geometry Engine huge. 

That evening, Donna had holed up in her office doing her due diligence on Delphi's financials and, satisfied, set a meeting with her partners the next day. 

Now, her partners are indisputably excellent businessmen. They're smart, shrewd and competitive. But when it comes to the technology itself they can be a little... out of touch. Take Trip, for instance. As he'll tell anyone who stands still long enough to listen, he graduated summa cum laude from Wharton, but he wouldn't know good code if it crammed itself down his throat. Consequently, their reaction to Delphi's (admittedly dry) presentation had been lukewarm at best.

But she had persisted, talking up projected growth, potential customers and lucrative licensing agreements until she could practically see the dollar signs dancing in their eyes. By end of day, it was unanimous: Delphi Graphics were to be offered a term sheet.  

That had been almost three months ago. 

The week before Comdex passes by in a blur of meetings. It's all just routine business but there is a lot of it and before she knows it it's Wednesday and she still hasn't found the time to visit the Delphi offices to check in. She's been exchanging emails and phone calls with Perry every day and while he's quick to reassure her that everything is on schedule there is no way she is flying out to Comdex without having seen the finished product with her own eyes. 

She's at her desk nursing her fourth cup of coffee and scanning her schedule trying to work out if she can skip lunch and make it there and back in 45 minutes before her next meeting, when Ashley appears in her doorway with a soft clearing of her throat and the best news Donna's heard all day. "Okay, so, your meeting with Oracle has been pushed to Thursday next week," Ashley says, squinting at a bright yellow post-it stuck to the back of her hand. "I just got off the phone with Larry's assistant and apparently he went to brunch at that new seafood place in Daly City and ate some bad crab." Ashley's brow furrows slightly. "Or was it a clam? What's the lumpy one with the-?" Ashley twists her fingers into claws and gives them an experimental pince. "I want to say... crawdad?" 

Donna honestly has no idea, but she nods encouragingly at Ashley anyway. All she knows is that the universe has given her a boon in the form of an as-yet-unidentified crustacean and now she has two whole hours free while Larry presumably gets better acquainted with his toilet bowl.

What a stroke of luck. 

Not for Larry, of course. But then, after one too many Amaretto Sours at last year's MacWorld Expo he had put his rough, blunt-fingered hand on her waist and called her sweetheart, so excuse her if she doesn't send him a get-well-soon fruit basket. 

Donna hides her smile behind a long sip of her latte and stands up. 

"Take a long lunch, Ashley," Donna tells her, hoisting her purse onto her shoulder. "Skip the seafood though, maybe? I'll be back for my three o'clock." She grabs her jacket off the rack and hustles for the elevator and out through the parking lot before anyone can protest.

It's a beautiful afternoon, clear and bright but with a enough of a cool breeze in the air that her walk is a pleasant one. She cuts through the park and up along Santa Cruz Avenue, under the tall trees and past the coffee shops until she reaches a crumbling strip mall. There, wedged between a seedy-looking bail bonds office and a laundromat, is the new and improved Delphi office. 

It's a dump. 

It almost makes Donna laugh - all those modern, well-lit, fully-furnished office buildings up for lease in the Bay Area and they'd vetoed every one of them as too corporate, opting instead for a derelict former tanning salon that looks like it's one minor earthquake away from being condemned - roof sagging, paintwork flaking away in great drifts. 

There's no sign, nothing to suggest from the outside that there's a start-up here unless you're close enough to peer through the grimy window. Then you'd see a dozen scruffy college-aged guys sat shoulder-to-shoulder behind bulky computer monitors, their desks packed so close together it's probably a fire hazard and the rusty back door that's constantly propped open with a tangle of bicycles, which definitely is. But there's no AC, and on particularly hot days the office tends to fill with a faint, yeasty tang where years of spray tan has seeped into the walls. 

It all comes together to make a workspace that makes Donna's skin crawl. 

No doubt part of it is probably because she's in her forties now, her tolerance for soaring pizza box towers and sticky pyramids of empty Cactus Cooler cans having dwindled over the years, but part of it is that the office is legitimately unsanitary. Donna looks around for a place to set down her bag but there's nowhere that wouldn't risk disturbing layers of crusty plates, Hot Pocket wrappers and various eighties action figures. He-Man stares blandly up at her from an overflowing in-tray, and Donna settles for hoisting the bag a little higher on shoulder. 

But even if she sometimes leaves the Delphi office feeling like she needs a hot shower, the rent is a steal and she can't deny that it's good business. Donna's worked with enough companies that had immediately blown their funding on lavish offices. She even had one place install a slushie station for "company morale". They didn't last. Delphi, by contrast, are using Symphonic's money primarily to add bodies to the coding team, offering competitive salaries to attract the top talent in the Valley. It's a smart move. After all, they're software engineers. They'd code in a haunted mansion as long as they liked the work.

And just because the carpet makes a gross peeling sound when she walks across it doesn't mean that great work isn't happening. Professional doesn't necessarily mean productive - they'd proven that years ago at the old Mutiny house. They'd accomplished some incredible things in that place, even if it looked like a fraternity had set a bomb off at Radio Shack then thrown a kegger in the rubble. 

With T-minus 48 hours until Comdex she's expecting pandemonium. Usually it's loud and boisterous, coders tearing around like kids at the pool on the hottest day of summer. Today it's still chaos, but it's the kind of tightly controlled chaos she immediately recognises as crunch mode. There's a tension in the air as a dozen bleary-eyed code monkeys hunch over their desks, gazes firmly locked on their screens, fingers flying over the keyboards.

They look ready to drop, the kind of exhausted that comes from pulling all-nighter after all-nighter and Donna knows they've been working around the clock all week, stuck playing whack-a-mole with some particularly persistent bugs. 

Donna sticks out like a sore thumb in her navy Donna Karan blazer and sensible heels but the coders are well-used to her presence in the office by now. They barely look up as she picks her way across the room towards a corner desk piled high with stacks of legal pads and back-issues of Sports Illustrated.

 It's there she finds Josh Ramsey, his mop of chestnut curls falling across his face in a tangle, soft shoulders slumped forward over his keyboard. The youngest founding member of Delphi, he's a USC drop-out, a shit-hot graphics ninja (his words, obviously) and a real California boy, born and raised in nearby surf town Half Moon Bay. Although he's never touched a surfboard in his life he seems to have absorbed the easy-going, far out man sensibility, to that point that it's hard for Donna to reconcile the cheerful, even-tempered young man sprawled before her in his rolling desk chair with the terrified kid who'd shaken her hand far too vigorously in Symphonic's immaculate lobby, sweaty-palmed and shaking in his stiff white shirt and khakis.

He looks at lot more relaxed now, if a bit dishevelled, clad in a baggy Golden State Warriors jersey, shiny gym shorts and flip-flops. There's a soft-looking bundle balled up on floor by his chair, and it's not until Donna nudges it with the toe of her shoe that she realises it's a sleeping bag. She has a sudden vision of him curled under his desk on the sticky carpet with a pizza box for a pillow and has to suppress a shudder.

Donna knocks a gentle finger against his computer monitor and he looks up at her with bloodshot eyes. He smiles when he sees her, his usually smooth cheeks bristling with dark stubble, but he still looks obscenely young, like he should be cutting gym to hang out under the bleachers, not leading a programming team. 

Josh sits up straight in his chair and swings around to face her. "Hey, if it isn't the lady who made it all happen! Our esteemed benefactor," he drawls, throwing up his hands and making an exaggerated we are not worthy-type bowing motion. "Come to crack the whip?"

Donna rolls her eyes at him but his grin only widens. She casts her eyes around the office as a coder she doesn't know shuffles past her towards the coffee maker, eyes glazed. "It doesn't seem like I need to. It's like Night of the Living Dead in here. When was the last time you guys went home?" 

Josh sighs. "I couldn't tell you. Time has lost all meaning. Let's just say I'm pretty sure my fish are dead." She must pull a face because he laughs. "I'm kidding," he says. "They are definitely dead." He shrugs a shoulder. "But it's cool, when we IPO and become millionaires I can buy a whole freakin' aquarium. Maybe rent out SeaWorld for the day."

He says this with the bright certainty of youth, as if his company's success is a foregone conclusion, and despite herself Donna feels her lips twitch into a smile. "Love the confidence, Josh. But let's not get ahead of ourselves." 

He frowns at her, stifles a yawn behind his hand. "Is that scepticism I hear? From the woman who's always telling the press how awesome we are?"

Donna considers this. Does she think Delphi are something special? Of course. She wouldn't have pushed so hard for them otherwise. But Donna knows all too well that there is a huge gulf between being a promising start-up and being a viable company. Hadn't she thought Rover were something special too? And that hadn't stopped them from going out with a whimper, sold off to a goddamn medical indexing company, in an awful O. Henry twist. 

"I have the utmost faith in you," Donna tells him evenly. "And in this company. I've no doubt you're capable of great things. But it's early days, you might want to manage your expectations." She smiles at him wryly. "Maybe hold off on picking out the colour of your Lamborghini, just for now." 

"Uh-huh," he says, raising an unimpressed eyebrow. "First look at this and then tell me we're not going to be rich." He reaches for the keyboard, hits a few keys and then swivels his monitor around to face her. "Check it out."

Donna looks, then leans down to look closer. Josh scoots his chair to the side to make room and she can feels his eyes on her, watching her face as her own eyes widen.

It's an apple, expertly rendered in three dimensions. It's motionless at first, resting at the far end of a polished wooden table. Then it begins to move, waxy skin catching the light as it rolls steadily across the screen towards her, over and over, growing larger as it approaches. 

Logically, Donna knows it's just geometry, just a million little triangles squeezed onto a computer screen, but it's so realistic that part of her wants to cup her palms in her lap, prepared for it to tumble out of the screen and land in her outstretched hands, crisp and red and perfect. "Whoa," she says softly. "This is-"

"I'm thinking yellow," Josh breaks in conversationally, his mouth twisting into a smirk. "Maybe with black racing stripes. Or is that too much?"

Donna ignores him, elbowing past him to grab the mouse and navigating through the rest of the program with a series of rapid clicks. It looks good. Good enough to send a faint thrill of excitement through her. "This is the final version for Comdex? It's all locked in?" 

Josh nods once, his curls bouncing. "Should be. We're officially debugged. This is it, assuming Perry signs off on it." He leans back in his chair and stretches his arms overhead, grimacing as something in his back pops audibly. 

Donna straightens up, makes a sympathetic face. "Perry's still being... finicky?"

"Finicky?" Josh snorts a laugh. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. He's had us busting our asses on this thing for weeks. We are edging into tyranny here. We're talking Steve-Jobs-leading-the-Macintosh-team levels of despotism." He rubs the back of his neck, clearly exasperated, but his tone is light. Affectionate, even. 

Donna looks back at his monitor, and can't help the excitement that rises up again. "You know Josh, it seems like despotism might be working for you."

"Well, sure," Josh concedes with a rueful shrug. "The graphics looks great. But I need to shower. Sleep in a real bed. And eat something that isn't pizza for once, because these dipshits have no sense of adventure!" He raises his voice pointedly on the last sentence, waving a skinny arm in a broad gesture that encompasses the entire office. 

This is met with a flurry of good-natured catcalls and derisive hoots from said dipshits, i.e. the coding team.

"Let it go, dude," one long-haired heckler calls out. "Nobody wants Sushi Island but you." 

There are general murmurs of agreement at this. Josh shakes his head, affronted. He's just launching into a loud and passionate defence of the Salmon Katsu Lunch Special when a black-and-yellow Nerf football whistles past Donna's ear like a monstrous hornet. It pegs Josh in the side of the head with pinpoint accuracy, snapping his head to one side and landing with a clatter on his desk, where it upsets a stack of floppy disks. 

The room fills with jeering laughter as Josh grabs the football and launches it back across the office. The coders watch impassively as it arcs over their heads and bounces harmlessly off a wall. "You guys know I'm technically your boss, right?" Josh calls out, rubbing at the red mark blooming on his cheek. "I could send out for freakin' mung bean salads every day if I wanted and you'd all just have to live with it." 

More laughter at this, and a chorus of defiant boos. "Majority rules, Joshy," a coder in a faded Super Mario shirt gloats, his eyes gleeful. 

Josh looks Donna dead in the eyes. "Philistines," he intones sadly. "Everywhere I look. I've been out-voted every day this week. And they have such a good Zagat score..." he trails off, dejected. He's shaking his head in disparagement when a hail of paper balls whip in from every direction to pepper him from all sides. Donna takes an instinctive step back and out of the line of fire while Josh yelps, ducking over his desk and raising his hands in defeat. "Fine!" he yells, paper balls still bouncing off his back. "Jesus! Sbarro's it is, I guess. Again!"

It's juvenile behaviour.

The kind of hyperactive rough-housing that Bodie, Wonderboy and Arki always seemed to get into whenever Donna found herself really needing to concentrate. It had always driven her nuts but now, watching Delphi's office antics with paper balls piling up around her ankles, Donna feels a sudden spike of what might be nostalgia or might be envy in the pit of her stomach. 

His assault over, Josh picks his head up off the desk. He looks exhausted but exhilarated and suddenly Donna wants to grab him by the shoulders, look him in the eyes and tell him to savour every second

Because this is the best part. The sweet spot, where they still have the easy chemistry that comes from being a small team with big plans. No bureaucracy yet, no hard decisions, just raw potential and opportunities stretching out before them. 

And this, this is why she was so excited to invest in small companies. For weeks this tiny team has been holed up in a crappy strip mall, coding and stress testing and adding features, all to make their software better, stronger and faster. And now their collective talent is reflected in the program running before her very eyes on Josh's smudged computer screen. 

All that potential Donna had seen at the beginning is being realised, and they have a working beta with graphical capabilities not just better than anything currently on the market but in a different weight class entirely. 

And word is spreading. 

Last week, Silicon Graphics had come sniffing around with an insultingly low-ball acquisition offer. They said they were looking for a "partnership" which meant, of course, that they were looking to buy Delphi outright. That way they get the tech and get rid of a potential competitor with the stroke of a pen. 

Delphi had rejected the offer, of course. But this is good. It means Silicon Graphics are worried. 

And they should be.

Delphi are set to make a huge splash when they unveil this tech. And Comdex is the place to do it. After calling in multiple favours, Donna had managed to secure Delphi a spot to demo their software on the main stage in Vegas. The same stage Bill Gates would give his keynote speech on later that same day. It's a massive coup, if she does say so herself. An incredible opportunity for a small, unknown start-up to establish a presence in the industry. And the timing couldn't be better - with computers getting faster and more powerful every year, 3D imaging is set to blow up in a big way. 

Of course, any burgeoning industry is bound to attract young, hungry companies who want to get in on the action. It's getting crowded out there, with new start-ups with similar products popping out of the woodwork all the time, jostling for position. Delphi might have superior software for now, but some of their competitors have some serious venture money behind them. It won't take long to bridge the gap. If Delphi are going to pull away from the pack this presentation needs to go flawlessly. And for it to go flawlessly, Donna had needed to make some minor adjustments to Delphi's organisational structure.

Donna likes the Delphi guys. They're gifted programmers and they've worked incredibly hard over the past few months, but from the very beginning it had been clear they were far more comfortable building their software than selling it. They're coders, not showmen. And that's fine in the beginning, but if they want their company to last they need a spokesman. An evangelist. Someone who can get up on that stage and speak about the software confidently, enthusiastically and without sweating through his shirt.

Someone who can communicate the company's vision to the public and the media. 

Perry White, strange even by computer programmer standards, with his robotically precise diction and his curious, prickly intensity, is not that someone. And, for all his intelligence and youthful arrogance, neither is Josh.

As if he can read her thoughts Josh says, "Not that I don't appreciate the visit, but I'm guessing you didn't come here just to see me get blitzed by paper balls." 

"No," Donna allows with a smile. "But it was an added bonus."

He huffs, mock-wounded. "Yeah, yeah," he says, waving her away with a smile and turning back to his work. "He's out back."

"Out back" is a narrow, windowless room closer to a storage closet than an office. It's dominated almost entirely by a cheap folding card table bowing in the middle under the weight of a computer monitor, a printer and a telephone. 

The door is open and Donna peers in to see Mateo Neri Vela hunched behind his desk in a folding chair, squinting at a sheet of paper. He looks as wrecked as the others, eyes hollow, his dark hair sticking up in tufts, but he leaps to his feet when he sees her in the doorway. For a moment Donna thinks he's going to shake her hand but he just bounces on the balls of his feet, his head nearly touching the ceiling. "Donna," he says, blasting her with a mega-watt smile. 'I didn't know you were coming today." 

"My schedule freed up unexpectedly," Donna explains, returning his smile politely. "I thought I'd check in."

"God, free time," Mateo mutters, his smile turning grim. "I remember that."

Donna has a somewhat dim recollection of it herself. "It'll be worth it," she assures him firmly. "I just saw the latest version of the software, it looks incredible."

"Yeah?" He brightens, scruffing a hand through his hair, then stiffens suddenly. His gaze drifts over her shoulder to scan the main office. "Who, uh, who showed it to you?" he asks, too casually. 

Donna looks at him curiously. "Josh," she says slowly. "Why?" 

"Ah." Mateo lets out a breath, visibly relieved by her answer. "Okay. It's just that Perry's been a little stressed about the demo. He wants it to be perfect and it's making him a little uh- intense.' 

Donna arches an eyebrow. 

"More so than usual," he amends playfully. He laughs low in his throat and throws her a disarming smile, dimples popping and amber eyes dancing and yeah, the press are going to love this guy. 

Donna had tapped Mateo as the face of the company after a week of carefully observing the three of them together. Mateo is whip-smart but affable, with a quiet charisma. He's more reserved than Josh, but more accessible than Perry. Crucially, Mateo can talk about the product without sounding like he's swallowed a book of Boolean algebra.

"Hey, while I've got you here do you want to do a quick run through?" Mateo rummages through his desk and comes up holding up a neat stack of index cards secured with an elastic band. "I've made a few tweaks I think you'll really like."

Donna doesn't audibly groan but it's a near thing. They'd written it together, her and Mateo. The watered down, media-friendly, Easy-Listening version of The Delphi Story (a tight nineteen minutes, sans technical jargon and not a polygon in sight.) For weeks they've been drilling this presentation together, so exhaustively Donna almost feels like she's prepping him for a deposition.

He knows it backwards. She knows it backwards. The rats in the walls know it backwards.

"Sure," Donna says instead, leaning a shoulder against the door frame. "Show me what you've got."

 


---

 


"Tea? Coffee?" 

The flight attendant is young and pretty, her royal blue uniform spotless. She pours Donna's coffee with a practised smile and moves along the aisle towards Mateo, his long legs gleefully stretched out in front of him. He'd been surprised and delighted to hear Symphonic were flying them out business class, a reaction Donna found oddly endearing in a business where most start-ups tend to view VCs as their own personal ATMs. Donna had been expecting some pre-Comdex jitters but so far he seems perfectly relaxed, blowing noisily on his coffee and calmly perusing the in-flight magazine. 

Perry, rigid in his seat across the aisle, does not. He's here to troubleshoot any technical issues, which Donna appreciates, but his presence is not a calming one. He's still brooding over motion blur, a feature that uses a long-exposure effect to make moving objects seem that much more dynamic. It's clever piece of code admittedly, but they hadn't been able to integrate it into the demo without bringing everything else to a grinding halt. It's a shame, but for the purposes of the demo doesn't really matter.

It's a prototype, after all. Proof of concept to get the press and potential investors interested in Delphi. But when Donna had pointed this out to Perry he had made it abundantly clear that her input on the matter was about as welcome as a swift knee to the groin. He's been moping around like a kicked puppy ever since.

Watching him now, Donna can feel the tension pouring off him as he alternates between scribbling furiously in his pocket notebook, running agitated fingers through his straw-blond hair and leaning forward to give terse instructions to a couple of baby-faced interns they've brought along to mind the booth and play pack-mule with the bulky computer equipment.

Donna looks away from them, letting the steady churn of the engine drown out their chatter and turning her attention to the sun outside her window. She sips her coffee, letting it do the work of waking her brain up as the sun struggles over the horizon, spilling watery orange light into the deep blackness of the morning.

The coffee manages to prop up her eyelids but her eyes still itch with tiredness. She'd been up late last night, putting out some last-minute feelers to make sure there were no nasty surprises waiting for them in Nevada. She hadn't liked what she'd come up with - the CEO of Appian, Delphi's closest competitor, is rumoured to be a panellist at the Comdex panel discussion The Future of Computer Graphics. It's not a disaster, exactly, but it is good exposure and a bunch of free press for Appian.

It shouldn't matter - Donna's seen the Appian software and while it's not bad Delphi's is infinitely more sophisticated.

 It's like putting a Lincoln Log cabin next to a scale model of the Taj Mahal meticulously hand-crafted out of toothpicks - there's barely even a comparison to be made.

So it shouldn't worry her, and if this were any other industry it wouldn't worry her, but this is tech. It's as unpredictable as a goddamn bucking bronco and twice as volatile and Donna's seen better companies than Delphi unseated by second-rate products. 

It makes her nervous. 

She's still thinking about Appian when the plane touches down at McCarran International with a thump that makes the coffee slosh in her stomach. Then there are four sets of footsteps hurrying along behind her as Donna leads the coders through the busy terminal, past the newsstands and banks of blinking slot machines, and out through a set of sliding doors that open with a whoosh onto the street. There's a chill in the dry, desert air and a battered Econoline waiting for them at the curb. 

Between the five of them and their gear it's a tight squeeze. Donna ends up wedged between a bulky box of Delphi promotional literature and Mateo, his knees knocking into hers as they move down the Vegas Strip at a crawl. The early morning traffic is pressed tight around them as they pass by enormous casinos, each one a sprawling spectacle of light and colour and sound. The car edges past Treasure Island, 8,000 pounds of fibreglass in the shape of skull looming overhead, its hollow eyes leering sightlessly above a huge billboard of Siegfried & Roy, bronzed and bare-chested, posing theatrically beside a sad-eyed white tiger. Donna frowns, rubbing an eye with a knuckle - it really is far too early for that sort of thing. 

The traffic starts moving again and soon an enormous flashing neon sign shaped like a genie's lamp marks their destination. The car pulls up with a rattle outside the Aladdin Hotel and Casino, under a sign that reads:

COUNTRY TONITE 
THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND
STEAK N LOBSTER $7.95 

Then another, smaller sign below: 

HOST OF COMDEX '94 

Donna leaves the coders to unload the car and makes her way through the extravagant port-cochere entrance and into a cool, vast lobby. What she sees inside makes her wince - Las Vegas is not a town known for its subtlety and this place is leaning into its ersatz Arabian Nights theme hard enough to bruise, all high horseshoe arches and intricate columns hung with signs pointing the way to the Baghdad Theatre and the Flying Carpet Restaurant. The lobby bustles with activity as people, clearly convention-goers, stagger around with their arms full of branded tote bags and t-shirts. Two young women scuttle past Donna, wrangling a folding table between them. Donna follows them through the crowd, her heels clicking against the intricately tiled mosaic floor, then stops, casting her eyes around to get her bearings.

Across the lobby dozens of slot machines clang and clatter. Nearly every machine is occupied, mostly by snowy-haired senior citizens clad in flammable-looking shell-suits. 

"It looks like a Microsoft booth exploded in here."  

It's Perry's voice, dripping with derision. She turns to see him with his laptop open, cradled in the crook of his elbow, Mateo half a step behind him. The interns are nowhere to been seen, presumably struggling through the throngs of people while buried under a mound of gear.

Perry's right though - it seems Microsoft aren't leaving anything to chance this year. Everywhere Donna looks she's assaulted by billowing banners advertising Windows 95. They hang from the ceilings and dangle from the walls, rippling steadily with the flow of air from the AC.

Perry's gaze lingers on a particularly large banner trailing between two tall columns. "Bloodsuckers," he mutters darkly under his breath.

And it's true that Microsoft hasn't been making itself many friends in the Valley these days. Mostly due to their unfortunate habit of cosying up to promising start-ups and sneaking a look at their proprietary code before promptly sucking them dry. It reminds Donna of IBM in the '80s, just another corporate giant throwing their considerable weight around.

"That is an awful lot of Microsoft for one room." Mateo stops at Perry's side, clapping him on the shoulder with one hand and gesturing to a mural on a nearby wall with the other. It's enormous and ugly, depicting a dark-bearded man lurking in the shadow of a sand dune. He's holding a scimitar in one hand and leading a camel by the reins with the other. "But think of it this way," he offers cheerfully, pretending to admire the artwork, "at least they cover up some of the casual racism."

The interns eventually reappear, red-faced and sweating, and after picking up their laminated exhibitor passes from a harassed-looking woman with a clipboard, the five of them manage to fight their way through the lobby down to the exhibition floor, then through the densely packed aisles of booths in various stages of assembly to find their spot. They aren't due to present for a few hours yet, so Donna leaves the guys to unpack the boxes and get the booth set up while she goes to walk the floor, jostling through the crowds, her lanyard bouncing against her chest. 

There's a comforting familiarity to Comdex. The whirr of electronics. The excitable buzz of thousands of people geeking out in unison. The cheerful chaos of the rows of booths packed tight side-by-side. It's barely even 9am but the convention floor is already a rolling boil of bodies and sound - and this is just the exhibitors and the press, in an hour they'll open doors to the general public and this place will be like Woodstock.

It's an incredible thing. 

Donna remembers starting at Berkeley in the early '70s, back when computers were regarded with suspicion, even contempt. She'd picked Berkeley solely because her guidance counsellor told her they had the strongest Computer Science program in the country. But this was the Vietnam era. Donna had arrived on the West coast to a campus that was highly-politicised and vehemently anti-war. Back then, even the most free-loving, dandelion wine-drinking students saw computers as tools of The Man.

Nefarious machines the government used to oppress and control the public, computers were to be hated and feared. Her freshman year Donna had quickly learned to keep it vague if asked about her major - say Computer Science and you risked getting cornered by some patchouli-smelling guy in a tie-die poncho who wanted to tell you all the reasons why computers were war machines, man.

It wasn't really until after she'd graduated and Saigon had fallen that attitudes started to shift. Then she noticed people were starting to pull a 180 into that kind of acid-tinged Techno-Utopianism - suddenly computers weren't so bad after all! In fact, they were going to heal mankind and elevate our minds and free our souls.

Like something out of that old Brautigan poem - they'd all sit around holding hands in a field of wildflowers. Smoking jays, dropping acid. Dylan on the stereo. 

"All watched over by machines of loving grace."

Honestly, Donna's never been totally sold either way. As far as she can tell, any new technology is just a tool. Whether it's the television or the computer or the internet, to say they are inherently good or bad is to miss the point entirely. It's like saying a hammer has an agenda. It doesn't, not until someone picks it up. Then they can use it to help, or they can use it to hurt. She knows what she'd prefer, but the hammer itself remains impartial.

Ideology aside, the fact remains that by the end of this weekend 200,000 people will have walked through these exhibitions. All of them united by one thing: a love for technology. 

And the crowds are getting bigger every year. It makes her jaw drop to see just how far they've come.

All the familiar faces are here - IBM, Apple, Intel and, of course, Microsoft. She stops to network with some people she knows but all anyone can talk about is Windows 95 and after a few minutes of polite nodding she excuses herself and slips away. It might be her job to keep informed about the whole tech landscape but the incessant software talk sends her to sleep after a while. Her heart will always belong to hardware and as she moves deeper into the maze of booths things start to get interesting. There's a company from Taiwan doing some stuff with wireless that looks promising, a couple of Apple clones and a low-cost touch screen for the PC. She spots a dual-Pentium-capable motherboard that she knows Gordon would have killed to get his hands on and ends up spending far too long playing with a wireless mouse while she waits for the ache in her chest to pass. 

When she gets back to the Delphi booth she's pleasantly surprised by how professional it looks, and how popular it seems to be. Knots of people gather around monitors the interns have carefully installed well above eye-level so spectators can appreciate the graphics without straining their necks. And, miracle of miracles, the coders are actually talking to them, albeit awkwardly. Even Perry has put his laptop down long enough to stiffly flap brochures at passers-by, while Mateo is engaged in what looks to be an animated conversation with a barrel-shaped man in a sports jacket.

At Donna's insistence, all the Delphi guys are dressed alike in blue jeans and matching black t-shirts with Delphi Graphics printed in clean sans-serif lettering across the front. And they look good. They look like a real company, the company she'd known they could become and, as she watches them, Donna is mentally patting herself on the back.

She even allows herself a small, satisfied smile.

So of course, that's about the time all hell breaks loose.

 


---

 


It started with the stage. 

She had been so convinced that the Delphi guys had everything under control at the booth that Donna had pulled Mateo away and taken him over to the theatre to walk the stage before the demo. Donna's bright idea being to try and get him comfortable with the space beforehand. This, in retrospect, may have been a mistake. 

The moment he had set foot on the cavernous stage and looked out at the ocean of empty seats stretching before him his body had gone rigor-mortis rigid, his face chalky-white. Then he'd leapt off the stage with more agility than Donna had known he possessed and sprinted for the bathroom. 

He has yet to emerge.

Mateo had never struck Donna as the freak-out type but after ten minutes of knocking tentatively and making what are hopefully reassuring noises through the door, Donna is considering abandoning the softly-softly approach in favour of threats. Or maybe brute force. That's when Perry comes hurrying down the corridor towards her, pushing through the crowd and hugging his laptop to his chest like a shield. He looks uncharacteristically sheepish, his narrow face pinched with worry and Donna immediately knows that something is wrong.

He stops a few feet from her, eyes darting around erratically, never once meeting hers. "Where's Mateo?" he asks without preamble. 

Donna steps away from the bathroom door, straightening her shoulders. "Why?" she replies, narrowing her eyes at him. "What's the problem?"

"No problem," Perry says, too quickly. He shrugs. "I just need him to take a look at something." His voice is casual but his fingers are clenched around his laptop so tightly that Donna swears she can hear the plastic creak. 

They do not have time for this. 

Donna sticks out her hand and gestures impatiently for the laptop clasped tight to Perry's chest. "Show me," she says, in a tone that doesn't welcome argument.

Perry wavers for just a moment, then meekly hands it over. 

The laptop is heavy in her arms and Donna braces it half against the wall with one hand and opens it with the other. She looks down at the screen then up again at Perry slowly, disbelievingly, a what the fuck have you done look on her face.

"I had it all working a half hour ago," Perry protests weakly, running a hand through his hair. "It looked good." 

Donna turns the screen to face him, so close that the glare of the SYSTEM ERROR message gives his pale face a faint blue sheen. She snaps the laptop shut and hands it back to him wordlessly.

Anger rises in her throat, pounds hot in her temples. The urge to do violence surges in her chest like a hot wave but she bites her lip and pushes it back down. 

Honestly, she should have seen this coming. 

Managing coders is always like trying to herd a pack of feral cats. Donna should have known that when she'd explicitly told Perry do not, under any circumstances, make any changes whatsoever before the demo, that of course Perry would take that to mean try to shoehorn motion blur in at the last minute and, in doing so, completely skullfuck the whole thing.

"This can be rectified," Perry is telling her with confidence, even as he shifts fretfully from foot to foot. "I just need to find Mateo and then we can recompile and-"

"Shut up," Donna says, holding up a single, shaking finger. "Just- stop talking." She casts a glance at the locked toilet door behind her. 

She needs to think. 

True, Mateo might be able to fix it. Then again, Mateo might also be one piece of bad news away from squeezing out of the bathroom window, making a break for the highway and hitch-hiking back to California. Donna thinks of Mateo on that stage, his stricken face and panicked eyes and makes her decision. She turns and strides away a few paces, motioning for Perry to follow. When she's a safe distance away from the door she whirls on Perry cobra-fast, hands on her hips. She tries not to take too much satisfaction in the way he takes a nervous half-step backwards. When she speaks her voice is low and dangerous. "Need I remind you that you are demoing in-" Donna checks her watch "-three hours? Why are you making changes you knew could compromise the stability of the software?" 

Perry huffs defensively, a petulant set to his jaw. "I just wanted to optimise it." 

Donna can't help it, she laughs. A small, disbelieving laugh that sounds menacing even to her own ears. "Optimise it. Right, of course. Tell me something though, Perry," Donna says, leaning towards him and fixing him with a look that could strip the bark off a tree, "does this seem optimal to you?"

To Perry's credit he doesn't wilt under her glare. In fact he raises his chin at her, unrepentant. "It will once we go over it," he says, lifting the laptop to illustrate his point. "I don't understand why you're so against this, shouldn't we be demonstrating the full graphical capabilities of the software?" He frowns, waving an irritable hand at the air. "Isn't that the whole point of being here?" 

"We are here to prove that we have a marketable product," Donna says, slowly curling her fingers into loose fists at her sides. "Not for you to get into a dick-swinging contest over features." He bristles at that but it's true. This is classic I'm-smarter-than-you posturing coder bullshit and honestly, she could wring his skinny neck. "Once you have some actual customers, then you can add all the bells and whistles you want. But right now, today, the people you need to impress don't care about motion blur, okay? They just need to see the software work." 

Perry opens his mouth ready to protest but she cuts him off before he can speak.

"You are not going to get a second shot at this," she says, with barely restrained patience. "You get that, right? If you blow this demo Appian are going to capitalise on it. They will corner the market and land your customers and then that's it. It's over.

Perry rears back like she's shoved him. "Appian?" His usually monotonous voice is high-pitched with incredulity. "Their software sucks! Their graphics engine is held together with paperclips. Meanwhile, we're doing things with rendering no one has even dreamt about!"

"That well may be," Donna snaps coolly. "But it won't matter. This market is a never-ending parade of second-rate technology winning out and if this demo goes badly it will put a bullet in your company." Perry's pale eyebrows furrow, his birdlike features twisting into a disbelieving scowl. "I mean it," she says almost pleadingly, willing him to understand. "Technical excellence will not protect you from landing in the product graveyard, along with Betamax and the 8-track tape." 

He's practically quivering with indignation now. With his narrow face contorted, wide eyes blazing behind thick glasses, and pale, stick-like arms rigid at his sides he looks like a furious praying mantis. 

A group of men move past them, talking quietly with press passes dangling from their necks and Donna has to hug the wall of the narrow corridor. One man notices Perry, red-faced and fuming, bouncing in place in his pristine New Balance sneakers, and turns his head as he passes to watch him with interest. 

It occurs to Donna that this place is positively crawling with reporters. Maybe it's time to try a different approach. 

She takes a long meditative breath and forces her voice into something smooth and composed and hostage-negotiator reasonable. "You know I presented at Comdex once? When I was about your age, in fact. Although-" she looks around at the swelling crowds "-it didn't look quite like this."

It's true. The Comdex of 1981 looked like a humble county fair in comparison to this circus but she immediately recognises her mistake. Perry is giving her that same half-sceptical, half-pitying look that Joanie sometimes gives her mother when she has unwittingly said something that reveals her to be woefully unhip.

From the look on Perry's face, she might as well have said, Back in my day Comdex was three booths in a field and a single Xerox Star that we took turns holding. TVs only had two channels and we got our water from a well. 

Well, so what? She might have been coming to these things since he was a greasy pre-teen but no way is she going to let this arrogant little asshole generation-gap her.

Donna ignores him and presses on.

"Back in 1981 I came here with my husband. Ex-husband," she amends, after a moment's pause. "We started building machines together back when machines were almost impossible to build. Then we figured out how to integrate a two-octave keyboard and a synthesiser and ended up with a computer that could be a kind of musical instrument."

Perry gives her a measuring look. "That must have been a hard sell in 1981." 

A hard sell? Try utterly inconceivable. Donna coughs a laugh, "Yeah, you could say that."

"It's a noble pursuit," Perry concedes with grudging approval. "The union of music and technology." There's a pause where he just looks at her without really looking at her. It's a little unnerving. Then, abruptly, he blurts out, "The Vitriviun Man."

Donna blinks. That is honestly the very last thing she was expecting him to say. She gives him a quizzical look. 

"Da Vinci? The perfect unification of mathematical and artistic objectives?" Perry says, with complete earnestness. He must mistake her bafflement for ignorance because he gives an exasperated huff. "It's a drawing from 1487. Paper on ink." He adjusts his thick-lensed glasses as they slip their way down his nose and looks at her, unblinking and Donna has never been more confident in her decision to not put this man on a stage in a room full of reporters. 

"Right..." Donna manages. "Well, I don't know about that. But I can say it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. I mean, you had everyone going wild over this beige box from IBM then there was us with our weird little machine." She takes a moment to think fondly about the Symphonic. It had taken months of sleepless nights to build. Her and Gordon turning their garage into a makeshift clean room, laying down thick sheets of plastic on every surface. Hours spent with soldering irons in hand, bent over a worktable with a baby monitor crackling static between them. All to create a prototype that ended up weighing a ton and looking like a cross between a clunky stereo, a child's toy piano and a breadbox. "But it was brilliant," she says. Because it was, in its own way. "And it worked. We poured our hearts and souls and every cent we had into that machine. We were ahead of our time, like you guys are ahead of your time."

And part of Donna hates herself for that shameless bit of ego stroking but it works.

(Of course it works, men are so predictable.)

Perry preens at the praise, jutting his non-existent chin and nodding. He's mollified by it enough to ask, "So what happened? At Comdex, I mean." 

"Oh, it was a spectacular failure." Donna says mildly, shrugging a shoulder like what can you do? "The system glitched and we completely bombed our demo in front of some of the biggest names in the industry." She can still remember the white-hot panic she'd felt when the screen had frozen, the horror and disbelief all over Gordon's face. "It was humiliating," she admits. "They essentially chased us off that stage with pitchforks. Journalists were tripping over themselves to write us off as a dud. We were dead in the water before we even got back to Texas. Then I got to spend the next two years peeling my husband off the pavement while he got drunk and tortured himself over what could have been."

Perry says nothing, just blinks at her owlishly, looking uneasy. 

Donna clears her throat. "My point being, these people have long memories and big egos. They love nothing more than a car-crash debut. If you blow it up on that stage I promise you it won't matter how brilliant your software is. That is all they will ever remember. And this thing you are trying to build will come crashing down around your ears before it's even begun." 

Donna lets this sink in as they regard each other warily, Perry awkwardly shifting the laptop from one arm to the other. He's about to say something when when their odd stand-off is broken by the muffled but unmistakable sound of retching.

Donna eyes flick to the bathroom door and Perry follows her gaze, turning. "Is that-?" 

There's another, wetter retching sound followed by a groan and a weak "mierda"

Donna says nothing but her face is apparently answer enough for Perry because he removes his glasses, jams the heels of his hands into his eyes and moans plaintively.

Donna swallows hard. She can see disaster swirling on the horizon like a looming tornado. 

"Here's what's going to happen," Donna tells him, aware of exactly how strained her voice sounds. "I'll handle Mateo, but you need to fix this. I don't care how you do it but do it quickly." A muscle in her jaw twitches. "I don't know if you've noticed but we're on a bit of a time crunch." 

He doesn't look at her, just nods once to himself, adjusts his laptop under his arm and scuttles off into the crowd without another word, leaving Donna alone again. It's a victory of sorts but she can't enjoy it. She is pacing up and down the hallway, pinching the bridge of her nose against the headache building behind her eyes when she hears the toilet flush and turns to see the door creaking open behind her.

"Sorry about that," Mateo says, shuffling towards her. He's pale, his forehead shining with a thin sheen of sweat. "I haven't been on a stage in a really, really long time." He stops in front of her and rocks back on his heels, hands deep in his pockets like a guilty schoolboy. "Actually, the last time I was on stage I was a shepherd in my third grade nativity. I threw up in the manger. It was mortifying." He tries for a self-deprecating smile that ends up more like a grimace, and now he's up close Donna can see that his breaths are coming fast and irregular, like when the girls were little and would skin their knees on the asphalt and look up at her, shocked and terrified by the blood and the pain.

This isn't good, Donna realises, her stomach sinking. This isn't good at all.

 


---

 


Which is how Donna ends up kneeling on a grimy stage, dirtying her palms and getting dust all over her deep burgundy Gucci skirt suit. Brow furrowed with concentration, she's painstakingly adjusting the wire connections to a slide projector that is almost comically outdated considering where they are. The screwdriver in her hands is a loaner from her new friend Hank, a heavily bearded stage hand who stands above her, clutching his clipboard and tersely bombarding her with questions about what sound cues she needs. And what about music? Lighting? 

Donna likes Hank. 

Hank seems competent at what he does. Donna likes competent people. And because he is clearly overworked and underpaid Donna tries very hard not to lash out at Hank and his many questions that she is mostly just guessing the answers to. 

Because this is not in her job description. Her role here is strictly oversight. Donna is here strategise and socialise. To glad-hand the press, generate some buzz around the company and cosy up to potential customers and/or investors. To sell the idea, basically. That is what she is meant to be doing. 

But after another ten minutes Mateo had still been breathing hard and shallow, the tendons in his neck sticking out like just standing and speaking to her was a test of endurance. In fact, he'd looked so frighteningly close to tears that Donna had installed him backstage on a stool in the quietest corner she could find, pressed a bottle of water into his hands and left him doing some complicated breathing exercise that seemed to involve a lot of counting and puffing. 

Then Donna had whirled into efficiency.

It's hard work, and well below her pay-grade, but part of her gets a strange satisfaction from it. She knows what everyone says about venture capitalists in the Valley -  that they are the money people. The grasping suckerfish of the tech community. The people who write the checks then kick back and watch with Olympian disinterest to see how their investment pans out.  

Well, Donna wonders, what would those people say if they could see her now? She's up a ladder for Christ's sake, sweat beading on her lower back as she and Hank grapple with a projector screen roughly the size of a ship's mainsail. That doesn't exactly scream professional detachment to her.

It takes a while but they finally manage to get the projector screen something close to level. She's standing back with her hands on her hips, admiring their work when Perry comes sauntering out from the wings. He steps deftly over a thick bundle of cables as he crosses the stage towards her, arms full of computer equipment. 

"We are good to go," he tells her brightly. He sets the equipment down on the stage and smiles at her expectantly. Donna does not smile back, even as a cool relief floods through her. Her feet hurt and her neck aches and Perry is looking far too pleased with himself and it's making her hackles rise. It's good news, sure. But what does he expect? That she's going to break out the glitter cannons because he cleaned up the mess he created?

"Wonderful," Donna says flatly, then points over Perry's shoulder. "That's Hank. He's great." Perry turns to see Hank waving his clipboard threateningly at a young man in a headset. "Answer his questions and do what he says and maybe we'll pull this off." Perry blinks at her, taken aback, while Donna pointedly slaps the worst of the dust from her hands, then brushes past him and slides off the stage as gracefully as she can manage in a pencil skirt.  

This leaves her with forty-five minutes to do her actual job, and while it feels a little like playing Russian Roulette with every chamber loaded but one, if by some miracle this demo doesn't turn out to be a complete shit-show it would help if there were some press in the audience to document the occasion. Plastering on a professional smile, she pinballs around the convention floor talking to reporters from ComputerWorld and Datamation and PCWeek and even that creepy guy from Byte magazine, who smiles and pretends he's interested in Delphi's graphics engine, while Donna smiles back and pretends he isn't standing just a fraction too close to her until eventually he promises he'll be there to cover it and their business is, mercifully, concluded. 

Back at the theatre, seats are filling up fast. If Donna had to guess she'd say it's about two-thirds full, which means about 4000 people. It's a great turnout, and if you'd told her that number yesterday she'd have been thrilled.

Right now, not so much.

But Mateo looks better when she finds him backstage. Not great, admittedly. But less like he would rather be anywhere else in the known universe. He's talking lowly to himself as he paces back and forth, squaring and re-squaring the index cards in his hands.

"You don't need those," Donna calls out airily, gesturing at the cards as she strides forward, closing the gap between them. "I've heard you do this from memory a hundred times." 

He hums his acknowledgement, squaring the cards one last time before slipping them into his back pocket. Donna studies his face. "You're looking better," she observes with no small amount of relief.

Mateo rubs the back of his neck, then nods. "I am feeling better. That whole thing, with the sweating and the shaking and the vomit-inducing dread? That's just something that happens sometimes," Mateo says with a strained breeziness, waving a casual hand at the air. "Like when it's a full moon. Or the Spring equinox. Or when the future of my company is riding on me impressing thousands of strangers." He laughs hollowly, rubbing his eyes. "You know, that kind of thing."

"Sure," Donna says sympathetically. "I can see how that might do it."

Mateo sighs. "It's just- I never thought I'd be here," he says, pushing a hand through his dark hair. "This time last year I was a systems engineer at Sun, breaking my back writing code for a manager who wouldn't recognise me if he ran me over in the parking lot. And now here we are." He looks past her, out to where the audience lay in wait, and swallows hard. "I'm really nervous. Should I tell them I'm really nervous?" 

"No," Donna says quickly. "Don't do that." Not unless you want to destroy your credibility the second you step out on that stage. "Just pretend." 

"Pretend?" Mateo frowns at her, unconvinced. 

"Trust me," Donna says, "people are very suggestible. As long as you go out there and act like you're completely in control, everyone will just assume that you are."

"I see." There's a pause. Then Mateo cocks his head at her and smiles slyly. "Is that what you do?"

And yeah, no way is Donna touching that one. Instead, she puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You're going to be great." 

Suddenly there's a crash of footsteps as Hank comes lumbering over to them and irritably presses a microphone into Mateo's hands. Mateo blinks down at it like he's never seen one before and when it's his cue Donna has to more or less propel him out onto the stage. He disappears into the flare of a spotlight and all Donna can hear is a wave of polite applause that quickly dies down to a dull, deafening silence.

And then it's out of her hands. 

 


---

 


It's an hour later and Donna has found the hotel bar. 

After what she'd seen in the lobby, she'd followed the signs for the Sinbad Lounge with a sense of trepidation. She's not sure what she'd been expecting. Maybe the proud display of a life-sized taxidermy camel, a dagger between its teeth and mirrored disco balls for eyes. But, no. In what might be a first for a themed hotel in Vegas, the bar has been decorated with restraint. Taste, even.

The first thing she notices is the ceiling. A canopy of dark gauzy material hangs above, lit up with hundreds of tiny string lights to look like a starry sky. The room is large, softly lit by hanging lanterns, and as she makes her way across her low heels sink into a patchwork of overlapping Persian rugs, the vibrant colours offset by the dark wood of low tables lining the walls. Each table is topped by a heavy-looking copper Hookah pipe, as tall and sturdy as a toddler, and surrounded with a scattering of fat, jewel-toned cushions with thick golden tassels. Despite the chaos upstairs, the bar is pleasantly empty, with just a small group of older businessmen lazily reclining on the cushions around one of the tables, carefully sipping their beers at an awkward angle. 

Their salt-and-pepper heads turn her way as she passes by, heading straight for a tall stool at the bar. It's one of those backless swivel stools that demands perfect posture, and her lower back hurts just looking at it. But as comfortable as the cushions look, Donna knows that if she lowers herself down onto one there will be no graceful way of getting back up. 

Worse, she might fall asleep. It's been a long, tiring day and while dropping off on the floor of an Arabian-themed casino on a business trip might have been all-too-feasible for the Donna of six months ago, the Donna who was on a first-name basis with the cashier at the liquor store, she's really trying to be better than that.

A drinks menu bound in black leather lies on the polished wood of the bar. She's reaching for it when a boyish bartender with slick-backed hair appears in front of her. He gives her an appreciative once over, taking her measure with the confidence of a used-car salesman. "Well, hello there. What can I get you?" 

She pulls her hand back into her lap, smiles stiffly. "Club soda. Thanks."

And six months ago Donna would have rewarded herself with a big pour of something off the top shelf - a nice single malt, maybe - and charged it to the company Amex to celebrate a job well done. Or, at least, a catastrophe narrowly avoided. Instead, the barman sets her sad little club soda down with a flourish and what he probably thinks is a winning smile. It lands closer to wolfish and really, she needs to shut this down right this minute. A few withering remarks dance on the tip of Donna's tongue but it really has been a very long day. She settles for looking at him blandly, letting her eyes rest on, then through him like he's a particularly uninspiring piece of scenery passing by her window on a long train journey. Then she picks up her drink and spins away on her stool so her back's to him, effectively dismissing him with a flick of an ankle. 

He makes a petulant noise somewhere behind her and Donna waits until he's called away by another customer before she takes a sip of her drink. It's ice-cold and tastes of nothing in particular. She leans an elbow back against the bar, fighting the urge to let her eyes drift closed. The glass is wet with condensation. Donna places it gently to her temple, cooling her skin against it. The buzz of adrenaline that comes with a day spent flirting with disaster has burned away, and now Donna can feel the headache thundering towards her. That dull tell-tale throb swelling behind her eyes.

God, she needs this day to be over.

Oh, Comdex. Never a dull moment. For a day that threatened to become an absolute clusterfuck no less than ten times before lunch, it had all turned out quite well.

Considering.

Donna had watched the whole thing from the side of the stage, arms crossed tight across her chest, clasping and unclasping her hands until her fingers hurt, waiting for the demo to glitch out, for Mateo to freeze.

But it didn't. And he hadn't. 

The demo ran smooth as silk, the graphics gorgeously rendered and made all the more impressive by the floor-to-ceiling screen she herself had wrestled into working order an hour before. 

Mateo had been brimming with manic energy, bouncing around the stage like a rubber ball, but he kept his voice so strong and steady that it made him look more enthusiastic than nervous, even if Donna did spot him wiping his sweaty palms on the thighs of his jeans a few times. The apple had rolled, then a computer-generated race car had swung around a hairpin bend, spraying gravel, and there may not have been motion blur but the visuals were still pretty stunning and the audience had oohed and aahed and murmured approvingly all the same. 

But it was only as Mateo gave an awkward little bow to ear-splitting applause that the knot in her chest had loosened, like she'd taken a deep breath after being too long underwater. Mateo hopped down off the stage to be clamped into an awkward side-hug by a wide-eyed Perry, clearly equal parts elated and relieved. The reporters were just starting to hover around them like mosquitoes when Donna had stepped away and into the crowd.

The keynote, Donna realises suddenly. That's where everyone is. That's why the bar is so empty. Despite the unspoken technological holy war against Microsoft, everybody, including the Delphi guys, will be upstairs crammed into the theatre listening to Bill Gates wax lyrical about his new OS.

Maybe she'll have Ashley dig up the transcript, but she can't stomach any more Microsoft talk today. Plus, Donna had once watched him being interviewed with Haley and after a solid five minutes of frowning at the TV screen, Haley had turned to Donna, mouth full of popcorn, and exclaimed I know who his voice reminds me of! It's Kermit the Frog!, sounding so triumphant that Donna had laughed until her cheeks were wet with tears. 

Now she can't ever unhear it, can't listen to him speak without feeling that ghost of hysterical laughter bubble up in her stomach. 

Besides, she likes it in here. It's peaceful. 

Here's to another successful Comdex, Donna toasts herself inwardly, lifting her glass to her lips and grimacing. In the time it's taken for the ice in her drink to soften, her headache has progressed from pounding to splitting.

 Every inch of her body itches for sleep. She thinks longingly of her bed, calling to her from 500 miles away. Just a few more hours and she'll be curled up under the crisp white sheets of her California Queen. It's a comforting thought, spoiled slightly by the knowledge that when she wakes up tomorrow morning she'll be another year older. 

Jesus.

Forty-one.

Where does the time go?

Sometimes it feels like only yesterday she was sleepwalking through her days at TI, writing reports no one ever read and spreading the cost of the girls' dentist visits over three credit cards.

How does that person become someone who parks her BMW in the driveway of her mid-century modern? A heated pool around back. Someone with a great healthcare plan and stock options and a wardrobe full of clothes that are dry-clean only.

The life she has now would have been inconceivable to Donna at 26, crammed into a two-bedroom with two kids under four and a kitchen drawer full of meticulously clipped Save-Mart coupons. If someone had told her then that this is where she'd end up she would have laughed. First dubiously, then sadly. Then, if the kids were at pre-school, she'd probably have ducked into the garage to smoke a joint until she felt better. 

Donna rearranges her legs on the stool, props the glass on her knee and hears the ice clink faintly. She can feel the weight of this day, this week, this whole fucking exhausting year sinking into her. She feels dazed, distant. Far away from herself. A shrinking object at the wrong end of a telescope. 

Most of the time, Donna loves her job. She does. 

She likes guiding companies. Helping them turn their visionary ideas into something real, something people can use.

That's the part of it she enjoys, more than the windfalls that come from a successful IPO or big acquisition. The feeling like the one she got today, watching the Delphi guys huddled by the stage, faces flushed with accomplishment, knowing that by the time she's back in the office on Monday Delphi will be fielding offers from video game companies and film production studios across the country, all looking to negotiate licensing agreements. 

And by next year, who knows? People could be using Delphi software to make the next Doom or Jurassic Park.

 Venture firms may not be liked by the tech industry, but they are tolerated. Because everybody knows they are an essential part of the ecosystem. Money is the lifeblood of any company, which makes VC the driving force behind innovation. 

So Donna lets people talk disdainfully about the money people as much as they want, because she knows that without people like her the whole tech scene today would be unrecognisable. 

Still, she's getting restless. For all the things she loves about her job it also involves an ungodly amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. And then there are days like today, where she feels like her business cards should say:

Donna Emerson: Head of Nerd Wrangling, Pep Talks and Hand-Holding.

At Symphonic she'll always be running herself ragged putting out other people's fires. Taking care of someone else's baby. 

She thinks back to Mutiny, when every day promised a new disaster. Another crisis to be averted. She misses it. The thrill of having a huge problem to solve in real time, with real stakes. Of falling into bed exhausted every night, and waking up exhilarated every morning. 

Because there's nothing that compares to the feeling of building something yourself, fighting every day to make it look just how you saw it in your head. 

And as appealing as Diane made it look, striding through the Mutiny offices exuding hyper-competence in those exquisitely cut power-suits, Donna had never once pictured herself working in venture capital before she got the job offer.

Part of it was just timing. The work had given her direction, purpose. And she'd needed it in those weeks after the listing ship Mutiny had become finally sank for good. After the company she loved so much had died a slow, excruciating death.

They'd never fully recovered from the botched IPO. Not that Donna hadn't tried to turn things around. She'd spent all those years struggling and strategising, rebranding and relaunching, fighting tooth and nail to get the company, her company, back on track. And Mutiny had hobbled along.

Until it hadn't. Until there was nothing left to do, no angles left to work. Mutiny was done. Finished. Kaput.

And so was she - a businesswoman without a business. She'd seen it coming, of course, but it still left her in a state of such acute misery that when Diane had offered her a junior analyst position, ("The starting salary isn't great, but there's room for advancement-") Donna had clutched onto it like a lifeline in a swirling ocean. 

Mutiny was gone and she wouldn't let its failure define her for one more second. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate just how capable she was. Diane was offering her a second chance, and Donna had thrown herself into it with an intensity that had bordered on obsession.

And she was good at it. Right away. At her first performance review they told her she had all the right instincts, the cut-throat pragmatism and an innate sense of competitiveness that made her a perfect fit. 

But she also had something else - practical experience running a company day-to-day. A failed company maybe, but the clients responded to it. They trusted her, knowing that she knew how it felt to wake up sweating in the middle of the night, sick to your stomach, not sure if you'd make payroll that month. Knowing that people were counting on you for their livelihoods. And it didn't hurt that she knew her bitmap from her baud-rate. That went a long way with some of the tech-types. The ones who were wary of so-called "suits". 

And so, under Diane's tutelage, she'd thrived. She'd climbed the corporate ladder like she was born to do it and after years of watching Mutiny struggle it felt so good to succeed at something. 

Even if it was helping other people succeed at something. 

Because VCs are not in the business of creation. A VC's job is to spot the promising idea, the profit-making idea, in an ocean of mediocre ideas. She'd gotten good at that over time. But at the same time, she'd felt her creativity ebbing away. Like she was slowly forgetting a language she had once been so familiar with. 

And if she thought she was far removed from creative side of things before, becoming Managing Partner has only made it worse. Right now, the closest thing Donna has had to a creative outlet in years is curling up on her couch to watch Bob Ross paint landscapes.

But does she really want to throw herself back into the uncertainty of entrepreneurialism? She's already got one failed start-up under her belt, and only recently has thinking about Mutiny stopped making her feel like somebody kicked her in the solar plexus. 

After all that, diving right back into something new feels foolish. Absurd, almost. Like narrowly surviving a lightning strike, only to charge straight back into the storm waving a tire iron. 

And she doesn't want to leave Symphonic. Not when she's spent the better part of a decade breaking her back working twice as hard for half the recognition, clawing her way up past the likes of Trip Kisker.

But she can't deny that a very real part of her is dying to do something creative again. To build something real. And the web is going to be big. 

Like, printing-press-meets-the-Industrial-Revolution big. 

Just the thought of missing out on it makes her gut clench painfully. If she lets this pass her by she'll regret it. A month, a year, a decade from now, she'll regret it. She knows it in her bones.

Donna looks up as a bearded man in a polo shirt sits down at the bar a few stools down. He orders a cocktail, something dark in a highball glass. He drinks half of it in one long gulp and sighs contentedly. When he sets it down Donna can smell it, strong and sweet and citrusy. It makes her mouth water. He catches her looking, raises his glass to her uncertainly and she turns her head away, embarrassed. 

She doesn't even want a drink. 

Or, she does. 

But only as a substitute for what she really wants. And suddenly she can see it so clearly she has to close her eyes against it.

There's still so much to be done at Symphonic, and she's not ready to leave it behind. She wants to stay on as Managing Partner.

But. 

She also wants late nights, Cameron sitting across from her at her dining room table. Working knee to knee, laptop to laptop. Like they used to. 

She wants coffee and brainstorming at 11pm. 

She wants to sleep with a notepad beside her bed, just in case she wakes up in the middle of the night with an idea she absolutely has to write down before it's lost forever. 

She wants to do something. Wants to get grit under her fingernails. Wants that messianic sense of purpose that comes with creating something of your very own.

She wants all of that for herself. And she wants to do it with Cameron.

Both, then. 

At least for now. Symphonic and Phoenix. Phoenix and Symphonic.

A feeling floods her stomach then, a sudden rush of energy and heat that carries Donna to her feet.

Of course, it will be impossibly hard. And she's not quite sure when she's planning to sleep.

But then, who needs sleep when you have vision?

 


---

 

Per Donna's request, her 41st birthday passes by with mercifully little fanfare. She gets a crackling 30-second phone call from Joanie, some VHS tapes and a gently-melted ice cream cake from Haley, and a big bottle of Wild Turkey with a bow on it from a grinning Bos.

Because he doesn't know. Because she hasn't told him.

She tucks it away under the sink - out of sight, out of mind- until she can subtly regift it. Maybe to Tanya Reese, who's just been enlisted to work under Trip on his doomed Strata project. God knows she needs it more than Donna does.

Then it's back to Symphonic. With Comdex out of the way she falls into her old routine: get up at 6am, swim, work, eat dinner with Haley, work some more, then fall asleep watching the The Food Network. Rinse and repeat.

It's been two weeks since Cameron left and Donna still hasn't told anyone about her web-builder idea. There's been no word from Cam. Not a postcard, not a phone call.

Which is fine. It's not like Donna's expecting one. Cameron's never exactly been one to call just to chit-chat. 

(Although a call would be nice, if only to reassure Donna that she hasn't sent her truck splintering through the guard rail.)

Anyway.

With Cameron still off-grid, telling people about Phoenix still feels too much like tempting fate to Donna. But now she's fully committed herself to the project she finds herself wanting something tangible. A business-card, maybe. Or some stationary with a nice personal letterhead. Something she can point to and say "This is us. This is Phoenix."

 Over the next few days Donna spends her lunch breaks sifting through the competitive landscape. There's nothing very threatening. The only site offering anything close to what Donna has in mind for Phoenix is called Beverly Hills Internet, which builds crude table-based websites for local businesses. It's still in the very early stages, and it's based all the way out in LA where there's not much in the way of a tech scene and even less in the way of venture money.

Still, it's enough to make her eager to get the ball rolling on this thing. 

New technology is always on a deadline. There's always that ever-present danger of being pipped to the post by a faster-cheaper-better version.

But what can she do? Donna can have all the brilliant ideas she wants but she still needs Cameron here so they can build the damn thing.

It's frustrating - being left to spin her wheels on the first creative idea she's had in forever. For lack of anything better to do, she turns to her computer and gives the mouse a sharp shake. Then she stops, thinking. It's almost on a whim that she opens her browser and types phoenix.com

Nothing. 

Within minutes she has Ashley following up with the people over at Network Solutions. The registration forms are on her desk by the next morning. They take twenty minutes for her to fill out and she mails them back the same day. Five business days later, on December 3rd 1994, the domain name phoenix.com is officially created.

And just like that it's real.

The site is not operational yet, of course. But Donna likes knowing it's there, waiting for them. 

It feels like a beginning.   

 


---

 


(Years later, Donna will look back and recognise this as one of the best business decisions of her entire career. 


The whole thing costs twenty-nine cents. The price of postage.) 

 

 

---

 


The weeks drag along.

Donna works and she swims and she works some more. Then one day she looks up from the trade journal she's reading and it's almost Christmas.

 Just the thought of Christmas makes dread corkscrew in her gut. It will be their first without Gordon and it looms ahead of her, approaching fast and threatening, like the glare of high-beams on a dark, twisting highway.  

So, of course she overcompensates. The mall is dizzyingly overcrowded with holiday shoppers and Donna struggles home weighed down with bags filled to bursting with video games and books for Haley, CDs and a new camera for Joanie. She's just crammed the last of the gifts under her bed, vowing to pay the next credit card bill without looking at the statement, when the phone rings downstairs. 

It's Joanie, and for a moment Donna's stomach twists with fear because her daughter's voice sounds so strange, almost creaky with emotion. Donna's fingers grip the receiver tightly as her brain promptly starts running through a mental index of worst-case scenarios, many of which involve earthquakes and typhoons, so she finds herself oddly relieved when Joanie chokes out, "I'm not coming home for Christmas. I want to stay here, with my friends." Her voice is a mixture of defiant and apologetic, like she's not sure if Donna's going to yell at her or start sobbing down the phone. 

Donna's proud to say she does neither, despite the lump in her throat and the coil of bitter disappointment in her chest. "Okay," is what she says eventually. "If this is what you need. But know that I'll be thinking of you." The line goes quiet for a while, just the gentle buzz of static, before Joanie's voice comes back. 

"Thanks, Mom," she says softly. There's a pause. Then, apprehensively, "Um, could you put Haley on?" 

So yes, it hurts. But Donna's happy with the way she handles it. She certainly takes Joanie's news better than Haley does, whose side of the conversation she can hear from the kitchen. "Seriously? You're seriously doing this?" There's a long tense silence. Then, "Fine. No, it's whatever. See you next year, I guess." The phone clatters hard into the cradle and Donna feels a painful twinge in her heart.

Haley has been quiet these past few weeks. On edge. As far as Donna can tell, she spends most of her time in her room listening to her Walkman, headphones clamped tightly over her ears. But when Donna goes over to comfort her, Haley side-steps her, gaze lowered. "It's okay, Mom. I'm okay." 

But she's not. And neither is Joanie and neither is Donna, really. 

Her heart breaks for all of them. But Haley... Haley has a way of holding her feelings so tightly to her chest that sometimes Donna struggles to know what she's thinking. 

Does Haley want a low-key Christmas at home, just the two of them? Turkey sandwiches and bad movies? 

Or does she want to fly out to Texas and spend the holidays with Donna's parents? With the Christmas tree meticulously decorated with ornaments so delicate you're scared to go near it, lest it crash to the floor. Her mom sweating in her high-end holiday knitwear while she glazes the ham, polishes the sterling silver cutlery. Her dad drinking spiked eggnog, one eye always trained on the football game on TV. Both of them frantically wracking their brains for a kind word to say about Gordon. 

A courtesy they'd never once extended to him while he was alive, Donna thinks sourly.

Donna tries to talk to Haley about it, but she doesn't seem too enthusiastic about either option. 

Honestly, neither is Donna. Both choices seem endlessly depressing. 

It's Diane that saves them in the end. With both of her daughters off doing their own thing this year, Diane extends an invitation for them to spend the day with her and Bos, who has apparently bought enough food to feed a small army. When Donna floats the idea to Haley she gets a listless shrug.

But hey, it's not a flat-out refusal.

It's a small victory but she'll take it.

The day itself is somehow simultaneously not as bad as Donna thought it would be and so much worse. 

It shouldn't feel any different.

After all, it's been years since they'd celebrated Christmas as a family. She and Gordon had been semi-amicably trading off holidays since the divorce - she hasn't seen him on Christmas morning in a long time. So why does it feel so weird without him? Like she'll go downstairs and he'll be in her kitchen making his Famous Christmas Pancakes, which were just Bisquick but with a ton of food colouring added to turn them a sickly shade of green, then cut into triangles and topped with silver sprinkles. Loaded with enough sugar to fill Joanie and Haley with manic, banister-shaking energy until at least 3pm, those pancakes were lethal. Every year Donna had begged him to retire the recipe. 

Now he'll never cook pancakes again. Or clumsily carve a turkey. Or feign delight when the girls buy him socks. The thought makes Donna's throat feel thick and hot.

Joanie's absence makes it even worse, Christmas being the one and only day Joanie wakes up before noon, rising at the crack of dawn like a rooster, cheerfully demanding everyone open their stockings. Without her, Donna and Haley wake up late, bleary and disoriented. Haley is quiet, bordering on morose, all morning and Donna finds herself doing an inanely-cheerful Stepford Wife-type routine to make up for it.

By the time Diane answers the door looking effortlessly chic in a chunky-knit, oatmeal-coloured sweater Donna is ready to throw herself at her feet in gratitude. She settles for a hopefully normal-looking smile, and Diane greets them warmly, taking in Haley, looking dejected behind the teetering stack of brightly-wrapped gifts piled in her arms, and Donna, a pie balanced in her hands and a good bottle of Bordeaux tucked under her arm. 

"You two have certainly come prepared. You shouldn't have," Diane scolds her playfully. "In fact I'm pretty sure I said not to."

She definitely did say that. "All you need to bring are yourselves" being the exact words. Donna had tried to respect that, but everything in her had rebelled at the idea. God, if her mother knew that Donna had arrived at a social gathering empty-handed she would break out in hives. "I know, I know. Sorry to be that guest." Donna smiles apologetically, helplessly. "But it's from that nice place on Market Street."

"Well, we certainly won't go hungry," Diane says, moving aside. They both follow her into the house, Diane taking their coats and waving them down the hall. "Go on through to the kitchen. Don't mind the mess. John's gone completely overboard, at usual."

She's not wrong. Diane's usually immaculate kitchen looks like it has been hit by a hurricane. Every inch of the white marble counter tops are covered in dishes topped by sweating silver foil. A pot of green beans bubbles furiously on the stove, threatening to spill over at any moment, and the white backsplash is spattered with thick brown droplets that Donna thinks might be barbeque sauce, judging by the downright Flintstonean rack of ribs Bos has just heaved out from under the grill. He's wearing a striped apron, also spattered with sauce, and his face is flushed from the heat of the kitchen. 

He sets the steaming dish down on the side and gives Donna a broad smile. "Now, I know what you're going to say. Ribs? For Christmas? What in the hell is this old man thinking?" Donna had been thinking some variation of that, in fact. That morning she'd put on her new long-sleeved cream silk blouse from Krizia, so she's not exactly dressed for barbeque. "But," Bos continues, "that's just because you don't know about the secret sauce." He lifts up a saucepan and presents it to Donna with a showman's flourish, the sweet, smoky fragrance hitting Donna's nose. "It's a barbeque cranberry sauce," he says proudly, "so it's festive."

Donna rolls her eyes, amused. "You can take the man out of Texas..."

Bos snorts a laugh, his eyes dropping to Donna's outstretched hands. "This coming from the woman who brought pecan pie," he observes mildly, taking it from her and turning to find a space for it in Diane's French-door refrigerator, a hulking mountain of brushed steel that's roughly the size of Donna's car. "We got smoked turkey in here too, don't worry. Hell, we've got pretty much everything," he says with his head still in the fridge. He turns back to her, looking a little sheepish. "Diane thinks it's excessive." He pauses, looking thoughtful. Then he shrugs a shoulder. "But then, if I let Diane have her way we'd all be eatin' Chinese takeout. Around an artificial tree." He sounds mildly horrified by this, as if Diane had suggested they eat around a flaming trash can.  

"I like Chinese takeout," Haley mutters from behind Donna, and Donna thinks it might be the most she's heard her say all day. 

Bos's gaze moves past Donna to Haley, partially concealed behind the kitchen door. "Haley!" Bos exclaims happily. He puts a hand to his chest and heaves a melodramatic sigh of relief, as if he's balanced on a treacherous ledge and Haley is Mountain Rescue. "Thank goodness you're here," he says, his voice turning solemn. "I need a sous chef to help me peel these sweet potatoes." Looking around the kitchen, Donna can spot two huge dishes full of sweet potatoes, already peeled. 

"Are you sure?" Haley asks dubiously, clearly having spotted them too.

"Am I sure? Of course I'm sure," Bos huffs, making a show of straightening up his apron. "Who is the master chef here? Those" -he points to the first dish- "are for the sweet potato pie. Those"  -he points to the second- "are for the sweet potato casserole. And these" - he bends down, disappearing behind the counter, then pops up again, a bulging sack of sweet potatoes in his arms- "need to be peeled and candied."

Haley's face is bemused, like she's not quite sure if he's joking. 

"Well don't just stand there, sweetheart!" Bos sets the potatoes down with a heavy thump, then pulls a second apron off a peg, balls it up and throws it across the kitchen. The apron sails across the room and hits Haley in the face with a gentle thwap. When she pulls it away Donna thinks she can see the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips.

Haley hesitates for a second, then relents, pulling the apron on over her head. Bos catches Donna's eye then, and she shoots him a grateful look. 

Bos turns his attention back to Haley, beaming at her and beckoning her across the kitchen. "Grab a peeler and get on over here. This is a time-sensitive operation!" 

"Alright, alright," Haley says, rolling up the sleeves of her sweater. "Can I at least wash my hands first?" 

"Nope, 'fraid not," Bos says. "There's no time for that." 

"Hmm." Haley squints at him in mock-suspicion. "That sounds like an OSHA violation, are you sure this place is up to health code?"

Donna watches as they bicker back and forth, squabbling over the "good" potato peeler, Haley looking more at ease than she has in weeks and Donna's chest feels a little lighter. 

"Well," Diane says lightly from behind her, "they seem to have this under control. Shall we?" She leads Donna into the dining room and over towards a fully stocked drinks trolley. "Gin and tonic?"

Donna pretends to think about it. "I'd better start with just the tonic, I think," she says, smoothing her skirt. "I'm driving after all." And it's a perfectly reasonable thing to say, responsible even. But she feels absurdly self-conscious saying it, as if there's neon sign flashing PROBLEM DRINKER across her forehead. 

Of course Diane thinks nothing of it, she simply nods. Ice clinks on glass as she turns to the trolley to fix their drinks, leaving Donna to admire the room.

It's warm and softly lit, fragrant with the faint smell of pine from the Christmas tree in the corner, one of those tall, unruly ones that looks like it might still have a woodpecker living in it somewhere, but it's been carefully strung with hundreds of tiny white lights. The mantle is overflowing with colourful holiday cards, and in the center of the room the dining table is set for four, simply but elegantly decorated with candles and Poinsettias. Normally the table would seat eight but Diane, ever the thoughtful hostess, has tactfully removed the empty chairs. A gesture that puts a lump in Donna's throat.

"One gin and tonic." Diane hands her the glass, smiling. "Hold the gin."

"Thank you." Donna accepts the proffered glass with only slightly trembling fingers and clears her throat. "Diane, listen, I just want to say thank you for having us-" She trails off as Diane lifts a hand and graciously waves her gratitude away. 

"That's not necessary, Donna. It's a pleasure to have you both. Truly," Diane says kindly. She gestures across the room to where two overstuffed leather armchairs nestle in the corner, bracketing an old bookcase. "Let's sit."

Once they're settled across from one another and Donna has heard all about Jennifer's new boyfriend ("a philosophy major but very polite") and Kimberley's pregnancy ("terrible heartburn, poor thing. And the peeing! That baby is using her bladder as a punchbag!"), Diane leans forward in her chair and gives Donna a concerned look. "And how about Haley? How is she coping with all this?" 

Donna sighs. "Oh, you know. She's missing Gordon. And she's furious with Joanie for staying away, because it's easier than admitting she misses her too." Donna rubs her eyes wearily. "It's a mess."

Diane nods. "Have you heard from her? Joanie, I mean." 

"Oh, yeah," Donna says, reaching for her drink on the table. "She called this morning. The line was terrible but I think she said she and her friends were going to spend the day hiking up some mountain. There's an alpaca farm up there or something." Donna shrugs, shakes her head. "I don't know. Maybe it's for the best." 

"Maybe," Diane agrees, smiling sympathetically. "And how are you doing?" 

Ice rattles thinly as Donna takes a long, contemplative sip of her drink. To answer honestly she'd have to say that she's not doing so great. Her tears had mostly dried up the night before, thank god, but she still feels shaky and loose around the edges. Like a strong wind or a kind word could unravel her completely. And she could tell Diane that, she supposes. But that's not the kind of relationship they have, is it? "I'm... keeping busy," Donna says slowly. "Work keeps me busy." 

Diane's brow furrows ever so slightly at the obvious deflection but, thankfully, she takes the hint. "How is work?" Diane asks, adeptly changing the subject. Her eyes glint mischievously. "Still dragging the firm into the future, kicking and screaming?"

And Donna feels some of the tension leave her shoulders, because this is familiar territory. Work talk was how they'd bonded in the first place, and now that Diane's retired she's more than happy to talk shit about their mutual acquaintances, much to Donna's delight.

The conversation turns to trading bits of industry gossip and a lively dissection of the insolvency rumours that have been swirling around Zenith for weeks. The time passes easily, and Diane's well into her second gin and tonic when Haley appears in the doorway, apron spattered with food. "Dinner is served," she announces brightly, her dark hair falling about her face, curly and damp with steam.

Soon Diane's gorgeous walnut dining table is laid to creaking with the turkey and the huge dish of ribs (which Donna has to admit smells heavenly), as well as smaller dishes full of green bean casserole, glazed pecans, Brussels sprouts topped with Parmesan and, of course, the three different types of sweet potatoes. 

When their plates are piled high and glasses have been refilled and Bos has smothered his ribs in what is surely far too much barbeque sauce for a man with a history of cardiac failure, there comes a moment of strange, uneasy silence that's broken only by Diane clearing her throat and raising her glass in the air. "I think we should toast," she says. Her voice is steady and earnest as her gaze moves slowly around the table, resting on each of them in turn and it occurs to Donna again how big this table is, how their seats are spaced just that little bit too far apart. "To absent friends." 

And just like that the thickness in Donna's throat is back. Eyes burning, she somehow manages to clink her glass without it shattering in her hand. Across the table, Haley sucks in a shaky breath. Her fingers are tight around her glass of cherry coke, and Donna reaches out her free hand to lay it gently on Haley's forearm. She doesn't look at Donna but she doesn't pull away either and, after a moment, Donna feels her relax under her touch.

Having addressed the elephant in the room, the undercurrent of tension eases a little and conversation flows freely. This is mostly down to Bos, who seems to be on fine form today, regaling them with anecdotes from their recent trip to Texas that have Diane rolling her eyes, alternately exasperated and fond, interspersed with a few of those long, rollicking jokes that go on forever and always seem to involve somebody's ex-wife and a bear.

Donna invariably manages to lose interest halfway through and miss the punchline, but he has Haley snorting soda out of her nose so he can keep them coming all night long as far as Donna's concerned.

Later, when their plates are nearly empty, Bos gets up and returns with the Bordeaux and three glasses. He slides one glass across the table to Donna with a roguish smile. "There now, one won't hurt," he assures her, sloshing wine into his own glass with reckless abandon. It catches Donna off guard. 

"Oh, thank you," she stammers after a moment. Her heart thumps and her cheeks feel hot, as if she's been caught in a lie. It's an utterly ludicrous reaction to an innocent gesture, and she lifts the glass to her lips to cover her awkwardness. She takes a careful sip, so minute that the immediate rush of warmth she feels in her stomach must be her imagination. The glass clacks against the table where she sets it down too quickly, and Donna looks up to see Diane watching her, loose and pink-cheeked from food and three large gin and tonics.

Diane picks up her own glass, carefully swirling the contents so the wine climbs the sides but never quite spills over. "Has anyone heard anything from Joe?" The question comes quite suddenly, and is addressed to the whole table.

Donna is just opening her mouth to say no, there's been no word for months when Haley looks up from her plate and nods eagerly. "I got a letter last week," she says, words muffled around a giant mouthful of potatoes. Donna throws her a look and she swallows, apologetic, and tries again. "Yeah, he got a job at some fancy private school in New York. Teaching English, I think." Haley frowns, then shrugs. "Something like that, anyway. He starts in the New Year." 

It's the first Donna's hearing of it, and she feels her eyebrows almost hit her hairline. Over the years, she's always tried her best to avoid thinking too much about Joe, as if thought alone might summon him Bloody Mary-style, but Joe MacMillan, English Professor

With what credentials, exactly? The man's résumé must read like a rap-sheet. 

Although she supposes it makes a certain amount of sense. Joe always has had a politician’s fondness for hearing the sound of his own voice. A class of kids would make the perfect captive audience. 

But Joe always had a knack for failing upwards. Part of Donna always imagined he'd end up a state senator. Or a congressman. 

Or a cult leader.

But, of course, there's still plenty of time for that. 

Because over the years Donna has seen Joe MacMillan shed his skin over and over again. She's seen Joe the ruthless technological visionary and Joe the humble Zen master and Joe the Silicon Valley bigwig. And now there's apparently Joe the East Coast Professor, who presumably comes complete with elbow patches on his tweed blazer. 

But she'll never forget the first Joe. The Joe who followed her family to a movie theatre. Who sabotaged Cam's BIOS for a PR stunt. And yes, okay, he's wonderful with Haley, but Donna won't let herself forget that Joe is essentially a high-functioning megalomaniac. Albeit one with impeccable dress sense.

Still, if Joe wants to go play the affable book-loving teacher on the East Coast for a while that's fine with her. But she can't help but wonder what Joe's next incarnation will be, and whose life it will bulldoze. 

Bos, it appears, doesn't share any of Donna's reservations. 

"An English teacher? Well, I think that sounds just fine," Bos announces happily, spearing a baby carrot with his fork. "Hell you've heard him talk, the man could sell sand to an Arab." At this, Haley elbows him sharply in the ribs without looking up from her plate. Bos winces and lifts an apologetic finger. "What I mean to say is that the man's got a way with words. When Joe talks people tend to listen." Donna twists her fingers in her napkin, says nothing. "If anyone can get young folks engaged I'd say it would be him."

"And what about Cameron?" Diane asks, regarding Donna thoughtfully. Across the table, Haley's head snaps up from her plate. "Have you heard from her at all?" 

Donna shakes her head. It's been almost six weeks and there's been no word from Cameron, who could have been carried off into the desert by long-haul truckers for all Donna knows. Sometimes when it's late at night Donna can feel her absence like a physical ache in her chest. As much as she tries to shake it off, she can't. It's just something she has to endure, like a particularly stubborn flu.

Donna turns to Bos. "What about you?" she asks, pleased with how casual she sounds. "Any word?" 

"I got a post-card a few weeks back but nothing since." He shrugs with a father's fondness, like kids, am I right? and sighs. "But you know Cam, that girl is like a travelling circus. Here and gone. But she'll be back." He takes a slow, pensive swig of his wine and nods to himself, suddenly wistful. "And this trip will be good for her."

And Donna might be imagining the sudden tension that settles over the table but she doesn't think so. Bos flicks his eyes to Diane as if waiting for her to speak, but her face remains impassive. She says nothing, just pops a green bean in her mouth and crunches it.

"Do you think she's spending today with her mom?" Haley pipes up suddenly, her voice so carefully casual that Donna worries that, on top of everything else, Haley might be torturing herself with thoughts of Cameron alone on Christmas, eating ramen noodles in that miserable trailer. The image pops into Donna's head with startling clarity, and it makes her stomach lurch.

While Donna's brain stutters, Bos doesn't miss a beat. "I'm sure that's where she is," he says smoothly. "I know it's been a long time," he continues, waving his fork in emphasis, "but it's Christmas! They'll work it out, you'll see." He grins and spears another carrot from his plate. "That's what family does."

Donna hopes he's right. He certainly sounds like he believes it, enough that it pulls a tentative smile out of Haley, who nods, turns her attention back to her plate and resumes shovelling candied sweet potato into her mouth with renewed determination. 

But Donna doesn't miss the way Diane's jaw tightens, as if there's something she wants to say. It's a dangerous look. One Donna's seen a dozen times before, usually across what was then the AGGEK conference room table, whenever Trip or Gilson or Amador came out with something particularly obnoxious.

That's a question to ask later.

 


---

 


Donna gets her chance later that evening.

The conversation has long since moved on and while she and Diane clear the table, Haley and a slightly-tipsy Bos disappear into the den, a large but crowded room just off the dining room that Diane's daughters had long ago kitted out with squashy armchairs, a pool table, a bookcase crammed with board games and a boxy old Zenith with built-in rabbit ears.

They might be playing pool, judging from the distant thumps Donna can hear even from the kitchen, which now resembles what she imagines a school cafeteria might look like after the children have clambered up onto the tables and screamed FOOD FIGHT! to the heavens. But Diane doesn't seem phased by the mess, and they make easy conversation as they methodically wipe down the surfaces.

It's almost soothing, the ritual of cleaning, and soon the kitchen is spotless, the dishes washed and dried. But it doesn't stop Donna from wracking her brain for a graceful segue into asking the question that is by now burning on the tip of her tongue. There isn't one, and she's just trying to lift Diane's cast iron casserole dish into an overhead cabinet without giving herself a hernia when she finally hears herself breathlessly blurt out, "What was that in there?" 

"Hmm?" Diane hums distractedly, her attention fixed on wrestling a lid onto an overflowing Tupperware container of potatoes. Finally, the lid clicks into place. Diane straightens triumphantly and brushes off her hands, then turns to give Donna a quizzical look. "What was what?"

"Earlier on," Donna clarifies, feeling the blood prickling in her cheeks. "At dinner. When Bos was talking about Cam." 

There's a long, excruciating moment where Diane just looks at her. Eyes flat, face inscrutable. Donna is standing with her back pressed against the enormous fridge and she suddenly finds herself wishing it would topple onto her, all 400 pounds of it, as the seconds tick by in agonising slow motion. But then Diane softens. She sighs, leaning a hip against the counter. "Can I interest you in a whiskey?" Donna blinks as Diane produces a squat green bottle from somewhere and holds it up for her approval. "Twelve years old. We picked it up in Ireland."

Donna manages a weak shake of the head, thrown by the sudden change in direction. "Is this really going to be a twelve-year-old whiskey kind of conversation?" she jokes awkwardly. It's a feeble attempt at lightening the mood and Diane's smile is thin and fleeting. Donna watches as Diane sloshes two fingers of the amber liquid into a glass, then picks it up and crosses the kitchen to stand next to Donna at the counter. Diane leans forward conspiratorially, so close Donna can smell her perfume.

"John and I have... a difference of opinion." Diane speaks slowly, carefully, as if she's weighing every word and Donna finds herself listening intently. "Cameron is driving across the country to reconnect with a woman she hasn't seen since she was seventeen years old. That's younger than Jennifer is now, younger than Joanie. What does it take to make a person, a child, cut their only living relative out of their life?" Diane stops suddenly, takes a sip of her drink.

And Diane means the question rhetorically, but Donna finds herself wondering all the same. Not that she herself is in the position to be teaching any parenting seminars, but still. Just how badly do you have to fuck up for your children to conclude that actually, you know what, they're better off without you? 

"But John thinks it's just wonderful." Diane continues, rubbing wearily at an eyebrow. "'A fresh start for the both of them'. As if fifteen years of estrangement can be wiped away with a few apologies and a dose of holiday cheer. Then they'll just, I don't know, fall into each other's arms and that will be that. Forgive and forget. Because "'that's what family does.'" Diane's lips tighten around the words, Bos's words, as though they are sour in her mouth. 

Donna is suddenly aware that her fingers are throbbing painfully. When she looks down she sees that she's gripping the marble counter top like she's bracing for impact. "And what do you think?" Donna makes herself ask, even though she thinks she knows the answer, feels the weight of it settle in her gut like a stone.

"I think it's a fantasy." Diane says bluntly. "John means well. Of course he does. He just wants her to be happy. That's all any parent ever wants for their child, isn't it? Or, it should be."

Donna nods. "Of course."

"But the truth of the matter is," Diane continues, grim and precise, "that when a child severs ties like that you can bet they did it for a damn good reason. That's not a decision that gets made on a whim. It is an act of self-preservation. It-" Diane cuts herself off with a sigh, her face strange and distant, twisted up in an emotion Donna doesn't recognise. 

Suddenly it occurs to Donna that she has never heard Diane talk about her parents. Not once in all the years she's known her. There's a long pause, and Donna can hear the blood pulsing faintly in her ears.

"Cameron's had a tough year," Diane says eventually. "With the divorce and Atari and Joe," her eyes darken at this, then soften again, "and we all know she thought the world of Gordon. We all did, of course. But-" Diane hesitates, her brow wrinkling. "She's feeling lost, I think. And when you feel lost it's sometimes tempting to go opening up old doors. Enough time goes by and you can forget why you closed them in the first place." Diane's lips twist in a wry smile. "I really hope she finds something of what she needs in Florida. But people so rarely change. No matter how much we might want them to. Or need them to." There's more than a hint of resignation in Diane's voice now, and it makes Donna's chest clench painfully. 

Diane shakes her head softly, then her face clears as she abruptly straightens her shoulders and takes a step back. "I'm sorry," she says, moving away to place her now-empty glass in the sink. "This isn't exactly lighthearted Christmas conversation, is it? Maybe we should talk about something more pleasant. The situation in Chechnya, perhaps?" She turns back to Donna, smiling dryly. 

"Honestly, it's fine," Donna says quickly, holding up a placating palm. "I don't think a lighthearted Christmas was ever really on the cards for us this year. Maybe next year when things are a little less-" she gropes for the word, "- raw." 

Diane hums thoughtfully, cocking her head to one side. "This time of year is tough," Diane agrees, "but so are Haley and Joanie. It will take time, but you're going be fine." Diane reaches out to give her shoulder a light squeeze and Donna is oddly touched by the warmth of the gesture. "All of you. Cameron, too. Regardless of what happens on this trip. Blood isn't always everything," she adds, in the even tones of someone who knows this to be an indisputable fact. 

Donna nods slowly, thinking of her own family. Her grandparents, vicious and long-buried. Her brother, who she loves dearly but barely sees, having returned to the homeland of his lovely Canadian wife years before. Her parents. 

If she were in Texas they'd be on after-dinner drinks by now, Donna biting her tongue while her dad furiously railed against the Clinton administration's health care plan and her mom gleefully reported which of her friends from the country club had most recently gotten fat or divorced or fallen foul of an unskilled plastic surgeon ("simply tragic"). 

Her thoughts are broken by the noises spilling from down the hall - a resounding clatter of pool balls clacking together, followed by a loud hoot of triumph from Haley. Bos's hearty voice ringing out in the background, cheerfully demanding a rematch and insisting that they switch cues. More muffled laughter follows, and warmth surges in Donna's stomach, heat spiking behind her eyes. Because Diane's right, of course.   

"Now," Diane says briskly, one hand on the refrigerator door, "be honest. Do you think it's too soon for desert?"

 


--- 

 


It's late when they finally leave Diane's. Haley's quiet on the way home but not morose, just tired and sluggish with too much food.

When they get home she makes a beeline for her bedroom, but not before she wraps her skinny arms around Donna in a bone-crushing hug. She feels awfully small in Donna's arms as she buries her face in Donna's neck and murmurs "Merry Christmas, Mom" into her collarbone before she extracts herself and disappears down the hall.

Donna is exhausted too, but somehow she doesn't think she'll be able to sleep just yet. Instead she makes herself an herbal tea, dims the lights and flops heavily down onto the couch, intending to channel surf until she finds some terrible syrupy Christmas movie. She's reaching for the remote control when she notices the red message light of her answering machine flickering in the gloom. She reluctantly drags herself off the couch with a groan, cradling her mug to her chest and pads across the room. Before she even hits the button she's tense, steeling herself for a long-winded, moderately passive-aggressive holiday message from her mother, tongue loosened by Peppermint Schnapps.

That's what Donna's expecting. Which is why when the voice she hears is Cameron's it takes her so completely off guard that her stomach swoops fast and low, like she's missed a step on the stairs.

Donna, hi. It's me. Uh, it's Cameron. The line isn't great - her voice sounds fuzzy and distant - but yes, Donna thinks faintly, dazedly, her heart quickening. It's definitely her. Sorry, I know it must be getting late there... I just realised that today is the first one- The first Christmas, I mean since- Since Gordon- I just mean, the first one is hard. They're all hard. But it'll get easier. Donna scarcely dares to breathe in the pause that follows, then, No actually, that's a lie. It never gets any easier. A gust of breath whooshes into Donna's living room, Cameron sighing heavily on her end. Shit, I'm sorry. I bet you're glad I called. Spreading my Christmas cheer, right? She laughs awkwardly then clears her throat. I just, I hope you're doing okay. All of you. So I thought I would call. To tell you that. 

As messages go, it's completely artless. Clumsy, clunky. Clearly unrehearsed. 

And so achingly sweet - a straight shot to Donna's racing heart.

The line goes quiet and in the silence Donna can hear the hiss and crackle of static rushing down the phone line. The ugly buzzing sound of all the miles between them. Then there's the unmistakable rumble of tires, a vehicle roaring past. She's at a pay phone, Donna realises. It makes her stomach rock. 

Hey, Cameron's voice comes back again, more animated now, merry Christmas, Donna. Or, wait. Did I already say tha-

The message cuts off with sudden, unceremonious click and she's gone. 

Donna stands for a moment in the quiet darkness of her living room, listens to the wind whistle outside, the hum of the refrigerator. She sips her herbal tea, feels the steam warm her face. 

Then she rewinds the tape, the high-pitched whine piercing the quiet. Hits play. 

Donna, hi. It's me. Uh, it's Cameron...

Chapter Text

There are no sycamores on Sycamore Street, as far as Cameron can tell. Just a few stunted palm trees with strings of Christmas lights wrapped tight around their skinny trunks. Big houses sit far apart, separated by picket fences shining eye-searingly white in the afternoon sun.

It's the second week of December. By now, most of the street's residents have dutifully adorned their doors with Christmas wreaths. Some are tastefully studded with small gold ribbons, others with frosted red berries or pine cones, but all the front yards are uniformly bare - empty plots of hard-baked dirt and crispy grass, yellowing in the heat.

All the yards, that is, except one.

Cameron sits in her truck, the Florida sun beating through the windshield hot and bright as a flare, and stares out across the street at the hulking blow mold of Santa Claus. Tall and solid, the colourful plastic figure leans slightly askew where it's propped heavily between two spindly shrubs. The Santa seems to stare right back, his unnaturally blue eyes boring into hers, one mittened hand frozen over his head in a jaunty wave that should be friendly but falls just short. There's something about the way he's arranged - all six feet of him casting a long shadow across the sun-scorched lawn - that puts her in mind of a grizzly bear rearing up on its hind legs.

Cameron bites her lip, tastes salt. Even with the windows rolled tight against the thick, soupy air and the AC roaring away valiantly she can still feel pinheads of sweat beading on her forehead, the steady flow of cold air turning it to ice against her skin. The scrap of paper she's been clutching has gone limp, softened by the damp heat of her palm. When she smooths out the creases the black ink is smudged, the letters blurry with sweat but still legible.

206 Sycamore

This is definitely the place.

Aesthetically dubious Christmas statues aside, there isn't much to distinguish her mom's house from any of the other houses out here in this bland little suburb. It's just another tidy, biscuit-beige split-level on a street full of tidy, biscuit-beige split-levels. Peering out the window, Cameron studies the house for signs of life. A shadow in a window, the twitch of a curtain. The flickering flash of a TV screen. But there's nothing. The place is closed up tight, still as a painting.

The strangest sensation creeps over her then. A faint prickle of awareness, like someone reading over her shoulder, and Cameron is suddenly struck by the image of her mom stood motionless in the upstairs window, carefully concealed by those tilted Venetian blinds. Patient as a spider, studying her right back.

She shakes her head sharply, irritated with herself. It's a ridiculous thought and more than a little paranoid, but even as she clamps down on it she finds herself slouching deeper into her seat. Her fingers clench hard around the slip of paper until it's crumpled spitball-tight, then she flicks it away. The sun seems to throb overhead, swollen as an over-ripe fruit, and she puts a hand over her eyes against it.

It's been many weeks and many miles since she sat out all night, numb with cold under a star-choked Nevadan sky. Her teeth had still been chattering in her head the next morning, inching her truck back down the mountain with stiff fingers and eyes dry as salt. But she hadn't frozen to death in her foldout chair or been torn apart by wolves. So. A successful little field trip, overall.

In fact, apart from a few wrong turns the rest of the drive up through Nevada and across Utah had been a cinch - good weather, minimal traffic and the truck running like a goddamn Swiss watch. All she had to do was sit back and watch the miles melt away under her perfectly aligned tires.

This run of good fortune had held out only until Wyoming.

It'd been somewhere in Sweetwater County, and she was driving a little later than usual. The sun had long since set, the sky turned a dark, heavy purple, but she had a full tank of gas and a smooth stretch of road - narrow and straight as a surgical incision, with tall trees pressing in close on both sides making her feel like the truck was burrowing through a long, verdant tunnel. It felt good to be cutting through the darkness with the windows down. Last Splash blaring from the tape deck, the grind of the guitars buzzing in her chest. Even the familiar dead weight of the Airstream felt lighter, bouncing gamely over the dips in the gravel as if to the beat. The chorus had just crashed in on Cannonball and she'd been drumming the steering wheel with her fingers, half-singing, half-yelling along when the light from her high beams had bounced off two huge eyes, blazing bright and round as silver dollars in the gloom.

On instinct, she'd slammed on the brakes hard, the Airstream shuddering alarmingly at the sudden drop in momentum, listing left then righting itself as she screeched to a halt with her front bumper just inches away from a white-tailed doe. Close enough to see the soft bib of white at its throat, its lithe muscles rigid with terror where it had stopped dead in its tracks, blocking the road ahead.

You've gotta be kidding me, she thought, still clenching the steering wheel so tight that the tendons stood out of her forearms in hard ridges. Because what was the protocol here, exactly? Was she supposed to get out and, like, shoo it away? Honk her horn? Or, wait, weren't you meant to kill your headlights? The glare freaked them out or something.

It didn't seem smart to go dark out here, though. Not on a back road at night, where any moment a ten-tonne tractor unit could come screaming out of the darkness and flatten her sturdy F-150 like a tin can. Mercifully, before indecision could paralyse her completely, the deer had blinked. Once, twice. Three times. Thrust back into its body, the strange spell broken, it flicked an ear and frisked away into the trees, barely shaking the branches.

Cameron relaxed her grip on the steering wheel, let her head fall forward as she blew out a long breath. That could have gone a lot worse, she knew that much. If she'd been driving any faster - or reacted any slower - she could've had two hundred pounds of fur and flesh exploding through her windshield. Maybe taken a thrashing hoof to the temple for good measure. At the very least, it would have taken forever to scrub the gristle and gore off her front bumper. Not to mention the karma points the universe surely must shave off your tab when you turn a fuzzy woodland creature into cold cuts. She'd caught a break, really.

Still, it had shaken her up enough that she'd pulled over into the first empty lot that came along. She curled up in the Airstream, the neon light of a 7-eleven pinching at her eyes as it smeared through the windows, painting the walls with its green-and-orange glow.

Suddenly exhausted, she'd fallen asleep in her jeans and awoken, sandy-eyed, the next morning to the sound of screeching tires and beeping horns. Stomach sinking, she glanced out of the sleep-fogged window to see that yes, the parking lot was now packed tighter than Tetris with trucks and hatchbacks and SUVs.

Motherf-

She closed her eyes, let her head clonk forward against the glass then rubbed at it, wincing. She thought of Bos - his slow Texan drawl ringing in her head as clearly as if he were standing right beside her.

Listen up sweetheart, because this here's Towing 101: unless you wanna get stuck like a mouse in a glue trap out there, remember that just because you can squeeze that contraption of yours into a parking lot ain't no guarantee you're gonna be able to weasel your way back out again.

And there she was, boxed in from every angle. Outside of bending the laws of physics, there was no way in hell the Airstream would make it through the deadlock. There was nothing to do but wait. And so she'd huddled in her bed and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In the end, she'd wound up losing a full day trapped in that stupid parking lot, rereading Timequake and impatiently sucking down cherry Slurpee after cherry Slurpee until her teeth ached and her head throbbed.

After that debacle she'd made sure to stick to truck stops at night, where the parking was ample and the gas was cheap. It had seemed like the smart play right up until the night she'd pulled off the highway and into the barren wasteland that was the Food-N-Fuel Travel Supercenter. With the chill wind whistling between rows of long-rusted gas pumps and a few dimly flickering lights that did nothing to illuminate the dark, desolate corners, it felt less like a rest area than a homing beacon to every depraved serial killer in the tri-state area.

That night, Cameron lay wide-awake in her narrow bed, painfully aware that a thin sheet of aluminum panelling was all that separated her from whatever Hills Have Eyes situation was no doubt unfolding outside.

So, yeah.

The grubby reality was that the nights were scary and the driving was monotonous and every evening without fail she would unfold herself from behind the wheel with her whole body creaking like a fucking haunted marionette.

But there was a freedom in it too. A kind of exhilaration in answering to no one. Doing exactly what she wanted to do, exactly when she wanted to do it. And for all her big ideas about this trip being a grand odyssey of self-discovery, it turned out she didn't really want to do all that much. She found she was happy enough to just... meander along. Blasting her tapes and taking in all rural America had to offer.

After the first thousand miles she still hadn't discovered anything more profound than the fact that - given adequate refrigeration - string cheese was by far the superior road-trip snack, and that driving more than six hours without stretching made her legs cramp up.

Oh, and she still couldn't pick a favourite Pixies album with a gun to her head.

Surfer Rosa or Doolittle?

Multiple re-listens had only cemented her belief that it was impossible to say. Both albums were shit-kicking masterpieces, each one perfect in its own right. To elevate one above the other was like being asked to pick between your children.

Or so she'd imagine.

Her thoughts continued in this vein all through Nebraska, then into Iowa. Nothing too insightful, as far as navel-gazing went. Not quite the life-changing epiphanies she'd been hoping for. Still, once she gotten used to the smell of fertiliser she was surprised and delighted to find that she was actually enjoying her whistle-stop tour of the Corn Belt.

There was something about the prairie - so wild in its emptiness - that had her driving with a kind of slow deliberation. Like checking code for errors, line by meticulous line. It was almost meditative - the steady metal churn of the engine as she moved under wide open skies that seemed to stretch out forever, the setting sun spilling light over the cornfields in a perfect golden halo.

It was in Iowa that she'd taken to hunkering down in Walmart parking lots when her body cried out for sleep. She liked the way they stayed lit up like football fields all night long, chasing away the shadows until morning broke. Then she'd set off again, rolling her eyes at the cheesy roadside attractions, stopping for coffee in tiny bump-in-the-roads towns. She'd lost count of the number of times strangers had waved to her from their cars, beamed at her at gas stations, or directed her to the nearest Sani-Dump station with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm.

Midwesterners were friendly. And not in that weird Texas way, where the women would smile those big dead smiles that never quite reached their eyes. She thought she'd find their endless good cheer irritating, but after weeks of being alone it was kind of nice. Comforting.

Those loose Midwestern weeks turned out to be a great shock absorber. A soft cushion between her stuttering California departure and the inevitable weirdness waiting for her in Florida.

Unfortunately, she could only drag her feet for so long. This became abundantly clear in Cedar Rapids, where she'd stepped out of the Dollar General and gotten tangled up in an unruly line of beleaguered parents and their shrieking children, delirious at the prospect of meeting what was probably an ex-con in a rented Santa suit.

It was there, watching the dusty tinsel glinting in the sunshine with her arms full of Top Ramen, that the truth had hit her like a slap to the back of the head - that while she'd been goofing off in Whistledick, Iowa getting her American Gothic on, November had been doggedly forging ahead into December. The clock was ticking, whether she liked it or not.

Did she really want to pile the stress of Christmas on top of an already teetering shit-heap of family drama?

The answer, she realised, was a definitive fuck no.

She needed to burn some rubber and soon, or else run the risk of showing up on her mom's doorstep while she was smack in the middle of decking the halls, or stuffing the goose, or... whatever the hell it was her mom did on Christmas now that sucking mulled wine straight from the bottle was apparently off the table.

No, a dramatic holiday homecoming would only succeed in escalating a delicate situation from pressure-cooker to powder keg. So she'd swung her truck onto the I-65 and put her foot down as much as she could in the stop-and-go traffic through Hannibal. Then past St. Louis and towards Mt. Vernon, with the air pouring through the open windows getting heavier, more oppressive, the closer she crept to the Gulf of Mexico, and as the miles on the odometer ratcheted up so had the tight knot of tension in her stomach.

Any lingering sense of calm had gone out the window somewhere around Nashville, leaving her brimming with a nervous energy so electrifying she'd hurtled through the last five hundred miles overnight in one frantic, sleepless burst. Her thoughts an incoherent jangle as the truck shimmied loosely in the slipstream of a Freightliner.

As Friday night rolled into Saturday morning the sky began to lighten, the flaking blue-and-white sign finally emerging out of the low-hanging trees, welcoming her to Florida, The Sunshine State! But she barely registered it. By this time her eyes were gritty and raw, her stomach churning like she'd swallowed something that had no business going down a human throat. A hot coal, maybe. Or a pit viper.

Squinting against the early-morning sunlight, she pulled the Airstream into an RV park at the end of a dirt road just off the interstate, found a spot between a Winnebago and an ancient VW camper, and parked with a jolt in the shade of a sheltering pine tree.

Outside, an early morning breeze carried the smell of hot tarmac and vegetation. Apart from a flurry of chirping in the trees above, the park was still and quiet. With the residual heat of the engine warming the seat of her jeans, Cameron sat on the hood of the truck and watched tiny lizards skitter through the undergrowth. They seemed absurdly green. Unrealistically so, like their saturation setting was too high.

She stayed like that for a while, absently swatting away blood-swollen mosquitoes while she gulped down fresh air and waited to stop feeling like an unexpected visitor in her own head. What she really wanted to do was sleep for about a week, but with the amount of adrenaline still flooding her system she figured she had a better chance of being hit by a meteor. It wasn't even worth the effort of lying down.

In the end, she settled for a tepid shower, fresh clothes and a Jolt Cola from a coin-op soda machine, the sugar and caffeine hitting her brain like 50,000 volts. Then, before it could wear off, she picked up the pay phone and dialled her mom's number with shaky fingers. It had been Len who answered on the third ring, sounding irritatingly chipper as he relayed directions down the line.

They hadn't been complicated, a straight shot back along the I-10, but she'd driven southbound at a geriatric pace, then accidentally-on-purpose missed her exit, skillfully dragging out what should have been a half hour trip into a two hour expedition.

And that's not including the time she's been parked across the street with the engine idling. She's not sure how long she's been sat here. Long enough that pins and needles have started doing wind sprints up and down her legs, toes to butt and back again. Wincing, Cameron shifts around in her seat to get the blood flowing, but makes no move to exit the vehicle.

The idea had been to take a few minutes to just sit with the anxiety swirling in her stomach like a sickness. To let it run a few laps, tire itself out. Except it doesn't seem to be tiring itself out. If anything it's gotten a second wind, rallied itself into a sprint. She feels jittery. On edge.

Jumpy as a flea on a skillet, as Bos might say.

And behind all that is the sneaking sense of déjà vu. Holed up outside her mom's house, staking the place out like a low-rent Sam Spade, daring herself to walk up the drive and close the gap. All of it feels horribly familiar.

Only last time it was a blazing hot Fourth of July Weekend in Texas, stuffed into a crappy airport rental that smelled like chorizo and onions from the breakfast burritos Bos was snarfing down in the driver's seat. Sitting there paralysed, watching that crusty biker dude put his big meaty hands all over her dad's Panhead Harley. The ache in her chest as the familiar, rumbling pop-pop-growl of the V-twin engine faded away. Watching him disappear around the corner in a cloud of exhaust and hating him for buying it. Hating her mom for selling it. Hating herself for letting it happen.

What was it Bos'd told her back then? People don't make mistakes because they don't love you, Cameron. They make mistakes because they do.

At the time she'd thought that was such a crock of shit. Now she's not so sure. Because now she sees how easy it is to fuck up your life. To make perfectly horrible, life-altering mistakes. And how once you've made one mistake it's almost impossible to stop - they all seemed to feed into each other, feed off of each other. Until your life became this writhing knot of fuck-ups that refused to be untangled.

It's appallingly easy to hurt the people you care about. She's known this for a while now.

But she's been holding onto this resentment for longer, the satisfying burn of righteous anger warming her belly as far back as she can remember. The thought of letting it go, of letting her mom off the hook, feels uncomfortably close to rolling over.

But maybe once they talk they can... clear the air a little? They don't have to be close, but maybe they could smooth things over enough to be normal. Phone calls on birthdays, cards at Christmas. That could be enough, Cameron thinks. Even that much would go a long way to putting a stop to the uncomfortable questions.

All her life she's had people looking at her like they can't quite figure her out. As if she were an interesting but ultimately volatile science experiment, liable to explode in their faces at any moment.

That's what happens when you're five-foot-ten and more comfortable around computers than people. She's used to it. She's long since grown accustomed to people furrowing their brows and throwing her sideways glances. And all this is before they've discovered the skeletons shrivelling away in her closet - that her father is dead and that, aside from a few terse phone calls in her twenties (disorienting events that always left her feeling simultaneously like she should call more often and never again), her relationship with her mother had settled into a nuclear winter of silent estrangement since she left home at seventeen.

That's when the party really starts. Because it is officially Very Fucking Weird to cut off contact with your mom, and once people find out it's like some garbage magic trick. Watch and be amazed as the person you're talking to becomes shocked, dismayed and personally offended by your shitty family situation!

Marvel as they metamorphosize into Dr. Dipshit: Licensed Family Therapist before your very eyes!

And then comes the curl of the lip and the sad shake of the head. The reprimanding you must be breaking your mother's heart. Or the condescending you'll understand when you have your own kids. Or even once, a vitriolic you'll regret it when she's dead! 

She must've heard them all. Every last one of those classic knee-jerk responses that set her teeth on edge even as they make her stomach roil hotly with guilt and shame. Because while the rational part of her recognises them for what they are - the unsolicited opinions of busybodies, shitheads and morons - it doesn't stop the flickers of doubt that come creeping in at 3am, spreading through her mind like cracks in a mirror.

The tiny, cringing part of her that would always wonder what if they're right? Maybe she was being unfair. Being selfish. Maybe it was wrong of her to cast her mom aside, to cut her away like a diseased tree branch. And maybe some day when her mother dies she'll realise exactly how stupid and cruel and childish she's been and she'll be filled with regret but it'll be too late.

There will be no fixing it. There will be no taking it back.

These are the thoughts that have muddied the waters of her mind for years. The unrelenting soundtrack to countless sleepless nights. Her own personally infuriating Cantina Band theme.

But it had all seemed so clear cut at the time. The day she'd left home she'd been so desperate to move forward that the sledgehammer approach seemed her only viable option. Total factory reset. Ties severed, contact cut. A life wiped clean.

Austin Tech had been her ticket away from all the drama. A new city and a new start.

She doesn't regret leaving. Not for a second. But try as she might, she's never quite been able to shake the sneaking suspicion that she'd overreacted somehow. Blown it all out of proportion in a ridiculous fit of teenage melodrama.

Sure, her mom had been a mess after her dad died. Fall-down-throw-up drunk on her best day, genuinely frightening on her worst. But didn't the headshrinkers say that it's always the bad memories people remember the most clearly? That's why everybody remembers exactly where they were when Kennedy got shot. Or when the Challenger exploded. Or when We Built This City went to number one.

Shit sticks, in other words.

There must be some truth in it - she remembers some of the worst parts of her childhood with a kind of dizzying clarity. Those nights when her mom would stomp and seethe and shout so loud it felt like she might tear the whole house down around them. And that day in the hospital. She can remember every tiny detail. From the tang of disinfectant, to the re-run of Jeopardy! playing on a cheap TV bolted high to the wall. All of it, right down to the pattern of the scuffed linoleum floor.

But the rest of her childhood is just a blur. One long hazy jumble that refuses to come into focus. It's probably because she spent her entire adult life deliberately side-stepping thoughts of the past that now, no matter how hard she tries, her memories seem determined to twist away from her, dropping out of sight before she can get a good look.

Sometimes there are fragments. Funhouse mirror memories that warp and distort, rearranging themselves over and over in her mind until she's not sure who said what, or who did what, or when they did it, or why. Or if it any of it happened at all.

Until she's not even sure what she's looking at anymore.

And maybe that's why it's been so easy to lay the blame squarely at her mom's feet for so long. It makes a certain amount of sense. If she's spent all this time laser-focused on a string of isolated incidents, the worst of the worst, then of course it's easy to take her childhood and paint the entire thing with the shitbrush. It's easy to make her mom the moustache-twiddling villain of the piece.

But it's never that simple, is it? After all, she's been wrong before. With Joe, then with Donna. There had been times when she'd walked away from both of them, convinced that they'd wronged her. That she was the injured party. Conveniently overlooking the fact that there was plenty of blame to go around.

And here she is again, with that same sick, sinking feeling that maybe she'd gotten it all wrong. Turned her back on her last living family member based on a jumble of fuzzy kid-memories, now twenty years degraded.

A loud metallic thunk shakes her out of a reverie so deep it's bordering on catatonia. Startled, she looks out the passenger-side window to see a huge pair of wide brown eyes peering up at her.

It's a kid. A dark-haired shrimp of a boy dangling a catcher's mitt that looks bigger than his head. She's about to roll down the window, ask him what his problem is when the little wiener ducks down out of her line of sight. He pops back up, guiltily clutching a baseball to his chest. His mouth is a tiny, perfect O of fear that Cameron figures must mean her passenger door now has a distinctly baseball-shaped dent in it.

It's no big deal - probably she can fix it herself with a plunger and some determination - but the kid is frozen to the sidewalk, lower lip trembling like a leaf in a high wind. Cameron finds herself smiling down at him, suddenly anxious to reassure this strange, skinny child that she's not about to leap out of her truck and bounce his head off the sidewalk. He doesn't return her smile, just watches her, unsure, until she mimes clonking herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand, crossing her eyes and lolling her head back like she's been sucker punched.

That does it - his face splits into a tentative smile that showcases the gap where his two front teeth should be. He motions to the door with his enormous glove, then either mouths sorry or says it so quietly it's silenced by the glass between them. Cameron shrugs, throws up her hands. The universal gesture for what can you do, kid? 

He nods back at her in that deeply solemn way unique to little kids, then turns tail and hops a fence to land cat-soft in a front yard where two taller kids, probably his older brothers, are gawping at her.

And why wouldn't they? This is a nice neighbourhood and her huge, filthy pickup - bug-spattered and road-dusty - doesn't exactly blend in on this street of sensible minivans and spotless sedans. Plus she's a total stranger who's been sat here forever, staring into space and gripping the steering wheel like she's going to tear it off. It's only a matter of time until some friendly neighbourhood rent-a-cop shows up to haul her out by her elbows.

Eyeing herself in the rear view mirror, she combs her hair through with her fingers. Checks her nails to reassure herself that they're clean. They're old childhood habits, long buried, and she's suddenly irritated with herself. Why should she care what her mom thinks? She runs a defiant hand through her hair, roughly mussing it up again, then reaches for the handle and throws the door wide with a boldness she does not feel.

It's like stepping into a sauna. The air is stultifyingly humid as she makes her way up drive, past the Santa statue. He's even creepier up close. Her knees feel loose. Every step is an effort, like she's wading through molasses. The door is heavy and wooden, so thick that when she knocks it seems to absorb the sound. Long seconds tick by without an answer, insects chirring in the grass, the sun baking down. Sweat rolls freely down her back as she indulges in a brief fantasy of sprinting for the truck and launching herself through the window Dukes of Hazzard style. She could be hurtling back along the interstate before you could say mommy issues.

Back to California. Back to-

The door swings open with a creak, and there she is.

 

---

 

Cameron's first thought is that her mom looks pretty much the same.

Those keen steel-blue eyes. The dainty, slightly-upturned nose. Those high cheekbones, sharp enough to slice a finger on. Years of sucking on Newports and squinting through the smoke have left dozens of fine lines around her mouth and eyes, but there's no denying that Virginia Howe is still beautiful. Dressed for the heat in a sleeveless lemon sundress, she looks every inch the former Miss Tex-Arcana, 1956.

"Hi, Mom." She means the words to sound strong, nonchalant, but it's been a while since she spoke to another living, breathing human being. Her voice is hoarse, unsteady.

"Catherine," her mom says pleasantly, squinting against the sunlight. "Look at you, all grown up." She stands with one delicate hand braced against the door frame, the other on a slim hip. Her expression is mild, smooth as glass, but she holds herself taut, like the dancer she used to be, and her eyes are watchful, studying Cameron with an intensity that makes the back of her neck prickle. Her shoulders tense under the the weight of her mom's gaze, and Cameron tugs lightly at her sleeve.

While unpacking the boxes of her personal effects directly into the dumpsters outside Joe's apartment building had been cathartic, it had also left her with seriously limited wardrobe options. Even before this past month, where anything that couldn't be washed in the sink and dried overnight on the steering wheel got kicked out of sight under the bed and forgotten. After careful examination of the few clean clothes she had left, she'd landed on her least-threadbare jeans and a forest green crew neck Joe left behind. It's long-sleeved and a bit tatty, the stitching on the collar just beginning to unravel, but it's plain and it does the job of covering up her stinging left arm, sunburnt to a peeling crisp after driving through most of Alabama with it dangling out the window against the breeze. It's not exactly a high-fashion look, but if her mom finds anything objectionable in her appearance she doesn't comment. Instead, her mouth curves into a soft smile, slim fingers twitching against the door frame, as if she's stopping herself from reaching out. "You grew out your hair. Makes you look different. Softer."

Cameron feels her cheeks warm. "Thanks."

"It's funny," Virginia says, tilting her head to the side, "I almost didn't recognise you." Then she is stepping back, waving her inside. "Well, come on in. You're letting the air out."

The hallway smells like cold air and new carpets. There's a shoe rack under the stairs and, shuffling her feet awkwardly on the doormat, Cameron is suddenly hyper-aware that under her boots she is wearing ancient, dish-water grey tube socks with elastic so far gone they collapse forlornly around her ankles. She sends up a silent prayer that Japanese shoe etiquette hasn't made it to Florida just yet.

Somebody must hear her, because her mom turns and starts off down the corridor. "Excuse the mess," Virginia urges, putting a hand to her hair as she leads Cameron through a house that is so immaculately kept it looks fake, more like a model home than the real deal. Cameron gets the sense that if she went to open a drawer she'd find it glued tightly shut. "We've been renovating." Her mom stays a few steps ahead, that familiar gait - light steps, toes pointing slightly outward.

"It's nice," Cameron offers weakly, quickening her pace to keep up.

"It's getting there, I suppose," her mom allows, shrugging, then launches into a detailed account of her month-long hunt for the perfect blond wood cabinets for the kitchen. Cameron trails behind her, nodding along as though she can hear much of anything over the harsh pounding of blood in her ears. She's not crazy, right? It's weird - deeply, utterly, Outer Limits-tier weird - that she's here. In Florida. In her mother's house, pretending to care about the difference between hickory and maple.

So why does her mom seem so calm? She's practically radiating tranquillity, chatting away like nothing could be more normal than her estranged daughter swinging by to visit. It could be a pharmaceutical calm, Cameron supposes. A cloudless, Klonopin glaze. But when she looks for the slight give in her mother's step, the tell-tale sheen of glassiness in her eyes, she finds nothing. Her steps are sure as she leads them through a kitchen straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue, and when she turns her head Cameron glimpses eyes that are clear, ice-blue and watchful. She doesn't look stoned. If anything, she looks razor-sharp. Totally put together.

Sober, Cameron realises with a pang. But that doesn't mean anything, she reminds herself warily. Her mom could always look like that when she wanted to. It was jarring, the way the woman who passed out with lit cigarettes in her mouth most nights could be the same woman who emerged, immaculate, from the bathroom in a cloud of hairspray the next morning.

They come to a sudden stop in a living room so awash with colour that it takes a moment for Cameron's eyes to adjust. The walls are a riot of pink, white and aquamarine on every side, like somebody filled a kid's birthday cake with Semtex. The sofa her mom ushers her towards is no better - a flower-patterned monstrosity, pastel-pink and frilly as a parade float. Worse still, it's encased in a shiny plastic covering that squeaks as she sits down.

Her mom had insisted on saran-wrapping their old three-seater back in Houston, too. While this one is smooth and unblemished, back then it had been smudged with grime and pitted all over with perfect circles of hard-ridged cigarette burns. Cameron remembers long Texas Summers slipping and sliding all over the damn thing, its sticky heat against her bare legs as she balanced a bowl of cereal on one knee.

The memory is sudden and searing and she quickly blinks it away, refocusing her attention on the stockings hanging over a wall-mounted fireplace she can't imagine much use for in this heat. Photos beam at her from their frames on the mantle, her mom and Len pressed close against a variety of backdrops. Soft-focus shots of clasped hands and matching bland smiles, Marital Bliss brought to you by Sears Portrait Studio.

Virginia follows her sight line, adjusts a picture frame. "You thirsty? I made iced tea."

No shit? a bitter part of Cameron's brain snipes without her permission. And is that Long Island or Texas? 

"I'll bring us some," Virginia continues. "It's good. Not too sweet." She still says sweet like swayte, seven years in Florida apparently having done nothing to dilute her thick, syrupy Southern accent, in much the same way that the Florida humidity has done nothing to flatten her big, teased Texan hairdo. It stands out from her head like a halo, stiff with hairspray.

"Sure," Cameron manages. "Thanks."

Her mom bustles off into the kitchen, leaving her alone in a room swamped with holiday cheer. The Christmas tree is a far cry from the sad Charlie Brown-looking trees of her youth. Spindly branches draped with matted tinsel, always half-dead by Christmas Eve. This tree is full and fragrant, crammed with baubles and lit with a cacophony of candy-coloured string lights.

She's still admiring it when Len comes thumping down the stairs, whistling tunelessly. Something about the air down here in the Panhandle must agree with him, because he too looks much as she remembers - built like a wrestling coach, with broad shoulders and sturdy legs. A ruddy face, fleshy but still handsome, adorned with a bristly Tom Selleck moustache that's now threaded with grey. His neck, freshly-shaved and pink as a dog's tongue, is a little thicker than before, but he looks fit and strong.

"Well now, look what the cat dragged in!" Fast too - within seconds he's standing over her, grinning. Before she can form a reply he reaches down, puts a sirloin-thick hand on her shoulder and squeezes. "It's good to see you, kiddo."

It's a level of familiarity Cameron is not prepared for - it might be the most physical contact she's had in weeks, in fact - but she doesn't shrug him off, and the warmth of his gesture makes her stomach bunch up.

She's never had a problem with Len. Probably no one in the history of the universe has ever had a problem with Len. The man's a slice of Wonderbread come to life, with his office job and his golf and his cargo shorts. For as long as she's known him, his favourite band has been the Eagles.

Now as far as Cameron can tell, soft rock exists on a kind of sliding scale of awful. At one end you've got your standard, garden-variety bore-you-to-tears soft rock schlock. That's your Billy Joel. Your Foreigner. Your REO Speedwagon. Then, at the other end, you've got the fucking Eagles. A band whose body of work is so singularly bad Cameron can only think to categorise it as music for people who hate music. 

Not that she'd ever hold his shitty taste against him. Even as a kid, Cameron couldn't have cared less that Len had all the personal charisma of an aging museum docent. All she knew was that when Len started coming around to the house all of her mom's sketchy sometime-boyfriends had disappeared. No more random dudes with stubbly faces and scratchy voices leering at her over her cornflakes. Just Len. Steady, reliable, gainfully-employed Len, who could always be counted on to empty his pockets of change whenever she wanted to go to the arcade and who, as far as Cameron knew, had never pawned any of their shit to pay off his bookie.

"You're white as a snowbird," Len chuckles, releasing her shoulder. "I thought you were living out in California, you should be as tan as I am!" Without warning, a thickset arm appears inches from her nose. Against the brilliant white of his Ralph Lauren polo his golf-tan skin is a deep glossy brown, almost like he's been dipped in varnish.

"He's right," Virginia announces, bustling back in with sweating pitcher of iced tea and three glasses on a tray. "You're practically translucent, Catherine. Like a peeled prawn." The glassware rattles as she sets down the tray, then she sniffs and straightens, smoothing the skirt of her dress. "I suppose you're still shut up in a dark room all day long, tinkering."

Cameron's sunburned arm gives a sudden throb under her shirt, flaring hot like a reprimand. She fiddles with a loose thread at her sleeve, then shrugs. "I mean, yeah. I guess. But that's kind of an occupational hazard in my line of work."

There's a pause as Cameron waits for her mom to ask just what line of work that might be, exactly. In anticipation of this moment she's prepped a great answer: freelance video game developer. True, it's just a fancy way of skirting around the fact she's currently, technically, unemployed, but it sounds impressive in her head and holds just enough truth to be credible. But the moment stretches and her mom doesn't ask, just nods and settles herself into a nearby armchair, legs crossed primly at the ankle.

Len plonks himself down next to Cameron on the sofa with a grunt, springs groaning in protest under his weight. There's a slow beat of pin-drop silence where the three of them just look at each other. Cameron can hear the distant squawk of gulls, the hum-hiss-hum of the air conditioning. Len reaches for his iced tea and she follows suit just for something to do with her hands. It's ice cold, refreshing between her fingers, but when she takes a sip it sucks all the moisture from her mouth, strong and Tylenol-bitter where it's been left to brew too long. Len doesn't seem to mind, his Adam's apple bobbing furiously as his drains his glass in one long swallow, then wipes his mouth with the back of one huge hand.

"Delicious, Ginny" he declares, grinning and raising his empty glass as if to toast her.

Jesus, the man must have a stomach of cast-iron. Or else he's a world-class bullshit artist. Either way, her mom doesn't acknowledge the compliment, doesn't even spare Len a glance. Her eyes are fixed on Cameron, lips pursed, face thoughtful.

Unperturbed, Len reaches for the pitcher again. It's a heavy pour, ice cubes clattering together, nearly overflowing the glass. Cameron watches his eyes widen as he jerks the pitcher upright, sending a fine mist of droplets flying. That certainly gets her mother's attention. Her head snaps around to him like it's spring loaded.

"Len, honey, could you give us a minute?" Her voice is acid-sweet. Len's up and off the sofa so fast Cameron thinks she hears the cartilage in his knees crack.

Same old Len, then. Still besotted after all these years. Poor sucker. He'd probably stick his tongue into the wall socket if her mom asked him to. Carefully holding his brimming glass in both hands, he hip-checks his way through a pair of french doors and out into a yard full of wilting plants. The doors swing shut behind him with a soft click, and Cameron watches as he ducks carefully under the bed sheets hanging motionless on the washing line and out of sight.

She's sad to see him go.

 

---

 

As soon as they're alone Virginia leans forward in her chair, a pained expression pinching her face. It's a subtle change in demeanour, but one that tells Cameron exactly what's coming.

Historically, whenever her mom would shunt Len out of the room and start affecting an air of grim-faced gravitas that was usually Cameron's cue settle in and get comfortable, because fifty bucks says there's some big speech on the horizon. Sure enough, her mom clears her throat theatrically and it's all Cameron can do to suppress her eye roll.

She's heard the spiel before. Even fallen for it once or twice. Those times when her mom was making a big show of emptying all the bottles down the drain, when it looked like AA might actually stick once and for all. Back when she was young and trusting and hadn't yet figured out that while her mom could talk a good game about letting go and letting god, it didn't stop her from locking herself in the bathroom every night, chugging bottles of NyQuil like Mountain Dew.

So Cameron has a theory about what's in store - her mom will spend a good half hour rattling through a selection of excuses that conveniently justify every fucked-up choice she's ever made, never so much as grazing up against an apology and then, as her grand finale, get overwhelmed with emotion and make a few grand, misty-eyed promises that will ultimately amount to nothing.

It's a fucking joke, and just the thought of sitting through it makes her face feel hot. Cameron clenches her jaw, suddenly furious at herself for coming here. For thinking that things could be different, when it's always, always the same old bullshi-

"I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry."

Well, shit. That's a new one.

Cameron blinks, thrown. "You're sorry," she repeats slowly, carefully.

"I am." Virginia says, nodding. "Truly, for all of it. You have to know that. You have t-"

"I don't have to do shit," Cameron interrupts, holding up a shaky hand. Her mom blinks hard, her perfectly painted mouth twisting. The air seems to condense around them, growing thick with tension, and just as Cameron starts to worry that the silence might swallow the room her mom lets out a sharp little laugh.

"You know what, you're right. You're a grown-up now," Virginia says, tilting her chin to look at her shrewdly. "Thing is, part of being a grown-up means realising that life is complicated. It's hard and it's messy and people won't always live up to your standards. But that doesn't mean they weren't trying." She closes her eyes for a moment and sucks in a breath. "I know you think you had it rough, but there are a lot of people out there who've had it a whole lot worse. Lord knows my childhood wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise." Virginia shakes her head, the motion sending a stray blonde curl tumbling free from her elaborate, beauty-parlour hairdo. When she reaches up to tuck it behind her ear, Cameron spots a pearl drop earring as fat and round as a baby's fist. "Do you remember your Nana Beatrice?"

There's the faintest ghost of a memory - pressing her nose into a soft cardigan, the smell of lavender - but Cameron can't quite tug it loose. "Not really."

"Be glad about it. That woman was meaner than a wet cat. And for the longest time I held it against her. But now..." Virginia trails off and shrugs. "People can't help the way they are. My momma could be a nasty piece of work but she fed me. Clothed me. Put a roof over my head."

A clot of heat rises in Cameron's chest, rattles there. "That's a real heartwarming story, Mom. So, what, I'm supposed to thank you for not letting me starve to death? 'Cause I'm pretty sure they don't hand out blue ribbons at the parenting awards for doing the absolute bare minimum."

Virginia stiffens. "Are you gonna to listen to what I have to say for once in your damn life?" she demands, eyes flashing dangerously. "Or did you come all this way to make smart-ass comments?"

Cameron bites off a laugh, shaking her head. "Honestly, I don't know why I came here."

Virginia gives her a meaningful look, a knowing smile dancing around her lips. "Sure you do."

"So you're psychic now, too? That's fascinating."

Virginia ignores her. "It's because deep down you knew that it was the right thing to do. That you don't turn your back on family." She stops, bites her lip. When she speaks again her voice is softer. "Can you meet me halfway here? All I'm asking is for you to hear me out. Don't I deserve that much at least?"

Cameron doesn't know what to say to that. She doesn't know what her mother deserves.

Virginia inches closer, reaches for her hand. Her mom's grip is weak as a baby's, the skin of her palm as cool and dry as paper. The soft pad of her thumb rubs thoughtfully over Cameron's ring finger. "No husband?"

Cameron shakes her head mutely, some instinct telling her not to elaborate.

Virginia sighs and pulls her hand away. "Then you could never understand how it feels. I married Cameron when I was nineteen years old. It does something to you, promising yourself to someone like that. You become something bigger than what you were, and losing that..." She trails off. "It loosens your moorings", she admits, finally. "The day he died... it was like my whole world went dark."

And that's all it takes to unmoor her, apparently. Even after all these years, that's all it takes to send her somersaulting back in time. There's a sharp, tilting vertigo and suddenly Cameron is nine years old, stretched out on her bedroom floor in an old stripy Houston Astros shirt. Carpet burn on her elbows, her knees. An atlas flopped open before her, tracing the curve of coastline with a slow finger. Hearing those three slow raps at the front door, heavy like a portent, and knowing, just knowing, something was terribly wrong. Crouching on the stairs out of sight, heart hammering in her mouth. Two solemn-faced men shoulder-to-shoulder in the doorway. Her mom crumpling like tissue paper.

That was the day her world had split down the middle, forever divided into the before and the after.

When reality reasserts itself, her mom is fidgeting with the hem of her skirt, her eyes distant. "That day was..." She takes a deep shaky breath. "It was the worst day of my life."

"Mine too." Cameron murmurs, almost to herself. Her voice sounds distant to her own ears, like it’s coming from another room.

Virginia gives her a soft look, not quite crying but close. "I know, baby girl. He loved you very much. I think he saw a lot of himself in you. I see a lot of him in you too."

Over her mom's shoulder Cameron can see the Christmas lights pulse and flicker urgently, epileptic bursts that don't seem to follow any pattern she can work out. It's making her head hurt.

"The only blessing I can find in all this is that he wasn't there to see the way things played out between you and me." She shakes her head slowly. "If your daddy had lived to see all this... this animosity between us. Well. It would have broken his goddamn heart."

Critical hit.

The guilt sloshes through her like motion sickness, sinking heavily into her stomach like industrial sludge sliming its way to the bottom of a riverbed. Her stomach heaves and she has to fight the impulse to duck her head like a little kid. Because her mom's right. He'd always hated it when the two of them fought. And they had. Constantly. Even before her mom developed a taste for hard liquor.

She thinks of her sweet, good-natured father coming home most evenings to raised voices and slamming doors. Forever caught between his hot-tempered wife and his over-sensitive daughter. Constantly stepping in to play peacekeeper, when probably all he wanted to do was crack a beer and shut himself in the garage to tinker with his restoration project (a 1951 Indian Warrior, Cameron remembers. Springfield Blue and an engine that leaked oil like a sieve.)

"I know you think I failed you somehow," her mom presses, "and maybe I did. In a perfect world we'd all make perfect choices. I'm sorry if you feel like I made all the wrong ones but you have to understand that I was doing the best I could with what I had. And you certainly didn't make it easy on me." She lets out a rueful laugh, the dry rattlebox chuckle of a woman who has spent her life with a cigarette in her hand. "I know we've caused each other a great deal of pain, and we can't get back any of the time we've lost," Virginia continues breathlessly, and the tears do fall then. Fat droplets roll down her face, leaving twin trails on her powdery cheeks. "But what we can do is forgive each other. We can move forward." She lifts her eyes to Cameron's, hopeful. "What do you think, Catherine? Can we leave the past where it belongs?"

There's a tumbleweed moment. Cameron hesitating, her mom watching her hesitate. The air conditioner gurgles, slamming a chill through her. Her keys are cutting into the soft meat of her thigh where she'd jammed them in her pocket. She adjusts her legs awkwardly, every movement feels magnified with Virginia's eyes hard on her, slate blue and wet with fresh tears.

It's a good speech, but it's not how she pictured it. And she has pictured it, in her weaker, pettier moments. Her mom down on her knees, begging for forgiveness. The whole sackcloth and ashes routine. This isn't quite that.

But it isn't nothing either. Her mom's face is etched with contrition but her gaze is unwavering, those blue-grey eyes so like her own. So familiar, yet so unfamiliar and this doesn't seem like the woman she remembers from her childhood. The woman who'd backed her Oldsmobile out of the garage without opening the door first. The woman who'd gotten wasted and missed her daughter's high school graduation. The woman who'd once, on Cinco de Mayo, drank so many micheladas she'd stumbled home barefoot then almost drowned in the bath tub.

That Virginia Howe would rather have crawled over broken glass than say she was sorry for any of it. But here she is, all apologies. Olive branch fully extended.

Can we leave the past where it belongs? 

It's a complicated question, but when Cameron tries to answer it her thoughts come through disjointed and clunky. Fuzzy fragments that won't line up in her head the way she needs them to, like trying to do calculus with a 103 fever. It's exhaustion, is all. Too many miles on too little sleep finally catching up with her, leaving her muscles aching and her eyes itching and her head heavy and thick as Jell-O.

Through the mental fog she's dimly aware that this is one of those Kairotic moments life sometimes throws up at random, like an error message. Those instances where the whole trajectory of your life hinges on the next words out of your mouth. Memories struggle to the surface of her mind then, rising slow like swamp bubbles.

(Sitting in a dingy taqueria, Joe pitching Cardiff with a maniacal glint in his eye. I was scouting you. Scouting you for this exact moment.)

(Lying naked with Tom in his childhood bedroom, his mom clattering plates in the kitchen. I won't move to California for a girlfriend, but I would move there for my wife.)

(Newly wed and newly ousted, hiding from the world in the house Donna had picked out for her. How do you feel about moving to Japan?)

Now here she is again. Another tipping point. Another crossroads. She could say no.

No, I can't get past it.

No, it's too hard. It's too much. It's too little, too late. 

No, you don't get off the hook that easy.

No, eat shit. You ruined my life. 

It would feel good, maybe. To say these things and watch her mom flinch away, eyes wide with shock and hurt. Then, another flash of the past:

(She's seven years old and she's in trouble again. She's not sure what she did but it made her mom stomp downstairs and start yelling. Something shatters in the kitchen, so she focuses all her attention on picking at a bobble on her comforter. This way, she can usually tune the loud noises out. After a while the front door slams, the house shudders, then all is quiet. Her dad appears in her doorway looking tired and she scooches over in her twin bed until her butt hits the wall. He slides in next to her and they lay side-by-side, two tall candles in a box. He's got his boots on and smells musty like the garage, but she doesn't mind. Don't worry, he reassures her, she'll come back. But Cameron doesn't want her to come back. She hates her and she tells him so. His shoulder tenses against hers and for a moment she thinks he'll get mad too. But he only rolls over to face her, jostling the bedsprings until she giggles. Your mom's not perfect, but she loves you. He smooths her hair with a huge, oil-stained hand and sighs. You only get one mom, sweetheart. Remember that.)

The memory slams into her like a nailgun to the temple and her heart twists. "Okay," Cameron hears herself say. Her voice is thin and faint. "Okay," she says again, a little more forcefully. "Let's do it. Let's have a fresh start."

"A fresh start," Virginia echoes softly, almost reverently, as she delicately dabs a tear from the corner of her eye with the pad of a manicured finger. Her nails are polished to a shine, painted pink as lungs. Then her face splits into a smile, revealing perfect rows of straight white teeth. Before Cameron can make herself smile back her mother has moved to sit beside her and wrapped her in a powdery hug. It's an awkward angle, their knees knocking together as her mom holds her tight to her chest, one hand cradling the back of her head.

It's a bit much, Cameron thinks. Like they're in a disaster movie, her mom shielding her from a hail of falling debris. But it's nice, too. Kind of. Cameron doesn't hug her back, exactly, but she doesn't pull away either. The smell of her is familiar, menthol cigarettes and Diorissimo and Aquanet hairspray.

When Virginia finally releases her she's wiping at her eyes again. Cameron looks away, embarrassed. Jesus Christ, she thinks, now what? Are they going to break out the photo albums? Watch Murder, She Wrote? Play Monopoly?

Would it all unravel if she just left now?

Because she kinda wants to leave now.

"You picked the perfect time to visit," her mom tells her, clasping her by the elbow, "Dinner's your favourite."

 

---

 

A lot has changed the past few years, and she gets brought up to speed over meatloaf (which is not and has never been her favourite).

According to her mom, they'd left Miami for Tallahassee in '91 after Len's construction firm sent him to oversee development of a complex of high-rise condos. A big fat promotion, Virginia preens while Len flushes, eyes firmly on his meatloaf. Cameron figures it must have come with a big fat pay rise too, because, oh yeah, her mom has her own dance studio now and there is no fucking way that happened without serious financial backing from the Bank of Len.

Back in Texas her mom had taught ballet and tap at the elementary school, square dance and ballroom at the senior centre. Now she reigns over her own little kingdom - the vomit-inducingly named Tiptoes Academy- behind the Walmart in Perkins. Cameron finds it all too easy to imagine her mother barking instructions at a room full of preteen girls with rictus smiles and budding eating disorders.

After dinner Virginia excuses herself to the yard to smoke, leaving her and Len to clear the table in companionable silence. Len scrubs the dishes while she stacks them into cabinets, carefully examining their contents while his back is turned. She's half-convinced that if she looks closely enough she'll spot a dusty bottle secreted away amongst the pots and pans.

"If you're looking for booze you won't find it." Len's voice comes from behind her, shattering the quiet.

"Shit," Cameron startles, stepping back, "sorry, I wasn't-"

"It's okay," Len smiles at her from where he's stood at the sink, up to his elbows in soapy water. His eyes flick to the window, then back to hers. "Things are different now, Catherine. Your mother had a health scare a few years back," he explains quietly, "hasn't touched a drop since then. Doctor's orders."

Cameron frowns. "Health scare?"

"We did try to call you, but I guess your number changed?"

"Yeah," Cameron mumbles, rubbing the back of her neck, "I moved."

It's not much of an explanation but Len nods. "Well, you're here now," he observes, decisively clattering a dish into the rack. "And Ginny's willing to forgive and forget. It'll be good for the two of you to get a clean slate."

"What are y'all whispering about in here?"

Len jumps with her this time, both of them turning as one to see Virginia standing in the doorway, the faint smell of smoke clinging to her. Her tone is light enough, but her eyes are sharp. Cameron finds herself looking to Len for guidance.

"Just doing dishes," he replies evenly, holding up his dripping hands as evidence.

"Oh, leave all that 'til later." Virginia flaps a hand at him airily. She turns to Cameron and smiles. "I want to give Catherine the tour."

 

---

 

Her mom her is clearly angling for a long flattering commentary as she leads Cameron up the stairs and around the second floor. Cameron does her best to provide - she makes appreciative noises over three identical-looking rugs, a hideous art deco vase, and even drudges up a compliment for the grouting in the salmon pink master bathroom. But there's only so many times you can say that's cool and be convincing.

She's trying to think of a way to politely extricate herself when they reach a closed door at the end of the hallway. Her mom stops and turns to her, one hand resting on the door knob. She beams like a game show host before opening the door with a such a flourish Cameron almost expects confetti to come exploding down from the ceiling.

The room is covered in ruffles. Ruffles on the comforter, ruffles on the pillows, ruffles on the curtains. It's like someone took Marie Antoinette's petticoats and converted them into a guest bedroom, yet somehow it still manages to be as sterile as an operating theatre. Maybe it's the smell - dead air and furniture polish, like it's been dusted and vacuumed a million times but no one has ever once slept here.

Her stomach sinks as she realises exactly what's coming next. And sure enough-

"And this is your room," Virginia informs her brightly, stepping inside and straightening the comforter.

Oh, absolutely not. 

"That's a really kind offer," Cameron says carefully, "but I'm not going to be staying here."

"Of course you are, we've got plenty of room! It'll save you wasting your money on one of those awful motels." Virginia lowers her voice conspiratorially, "those places are simply crawling with disease. A woman in my bridge club caught lice at a Holiday Inn. Big as blueberries, she said."

Jesus Christ. 

"I won't be in a motel room. I have the Airstream, remember?"

Virginia just looks at her, equal parts wounded and uncomprehending.

"It's a mobile home," Cameron clarifies. "Remember, like the Lowmans used to have?"

"Like a trailer?" Her mom ventures, wrinkling her nose.

Cameron grits her teeth. "Yes, Mom. Like a trailer. You know, the thing I drove cross country to get here? I told you about it on the phone."

Her mom rolls her eyes. "Honestly, Catherine. If you'd told me that I wouldn't have spent all day setting up your room, now would I?"

A dull pain has settled behind Cameron's eyes, she rubs them absently with a knuckle. Had they talked about sleeping arrangements? Now she thinks about it she can't be sure. It suddenly seems like a lifetime ago since she made that call, that day in the diner with Donna. California feels very far away.

"What's wrong?" Len asks, poking his head round the door.

"Catherine doesn't like her room," Virginia tells him mournfully. "She'd rather stay in a trailer park." She says trailer park with palpable distaste, the way you might say dumpster full of dirty needles.

"That's not-" Cameron tries, but Len is already turning his disappointed eyes on her and the words die on her tongue.

"Your mother worked really hard to get all this ready for you, kiddo."

Over his shoulder, through the window, movement catches her eye. The wind has picked up out in the darkening yard, bedsheets white as sun-bleached bone twitch and shiver in the breeze. Len's still talking, but for some reason it's the sight of those sheets that do it. The way they seem to be quivering with displeasure tugs at her, and she feels the last of her resolve crack like a wishbone. She wants this day to be over. Needs this day to be over.

And it can be.

All she has to do is give in.

"You know what, I just- I'm really tired." She swipes a hand over her face. "This is great. Honest. Thank you."

"Good," Virginia exclaims, clapping her hands together. "It's settled. Now let me get you some towels."

 

---

 

Later - when she's finally, mercifully alone - she sits down heavily on the bed, covers her face with her hands and groans.

Because this was not part of the plan. In fact, this might be diametrically opposed to the plan - get through dinner, then get the hell out. She should be back in the Airstream right now, blasting some Minor Threat and processing the events of the day in the privacy of her own (trailer) home. Instead, she'd let herself be ushered straight into the belly of the beast and agreed to a fucking slumber party.

She should have seen this coming. Her mom always did have a knack for talking people around. It's a gift, Cameron supposes. Getting your own way. Joe had it, too. With a few choice words he could Jedi mind trick you into jumping off a cliff. You would be half-way to the ground before you'd even realise what he'd done.

She'd let herself be Obi-Waned, like an idiot. And now she's here, in a strange room in a strange house in a strange city, with unfamiliar walls pressing in on her from every side. There's a sensation brewing inside her like a storm, as achingly familiar as it is unwelcome.

Probably there's an actual medical term for what she has always simply thought of as the fuckfuckfuck feeling. The one where her lungs suddenly feel like they've been vacuum sealed shut and her heart starts thundering along like a high speed train. Blood pulses in her fingertips and she knows she has maybe a minute to sort out her breathing before her body goes all HAL 9000 and decides to lock her out of the controls completely.

Lurching to her feet, she half-stumbles across the carpet into the en suite bathroom. Her nose fills with the reassuringly sharp tang of Clorox as she grips the sink, making herself take deep, even breaths. Eventually - after the iron band gripping her chest loosens and it stops feeling like she's trying to suck every breath in through a Krazy Straw - she straightens up, splashes some cold water on her face and goes in search of a telephone.

There's one on the bedside table, between a seashell lamp and a clunky clock-radio flashing the time. She lifts the receiver, does the math in her head. 5pm in California. Bos would be home now, probably in his garage farting around with fishing lures. He'd pick up if she called. But what is she going to say?

Help, my mom offered me a place to stay? 

Pathetic.

She drops the phone back in its cradle, then flips off the light, strips down to her underwear and gets into bed. She's being ridiculous. So she has a bad feeling. When doesn't she have a bad feeling? It sometimes feels like her whole life is nothing but a constant, irrational jumble of bad feelings. This is just something her brain has always done, scream danger at her where there is none.

It had happened constantly those first few months in Japan. Everything felt so strange, so alien, like she'd stepped out of one dream into another. Her first time at the Tsukiji fish market she'd almost lost her shit completely, no matter that the most immediate threat to her safety had been the extremely dead fugu laid out over ice. It was lucky Tom had been there - his hand at the small of her back, guiding her through the crowds - or she would have ended up the crazy gaijin hyperventilating in the street. He'd always been good at that, Cameron thinks wistfully. Making her feel safe. Cared for.

Probably that wasn't enough to base a marriage on, in retrospect. But still.

Through the window, the moon hangs a sickly yellow in the sky. A perfect half circle, like it's been sliced straight down the middle. From below her comes the slow scuff of slippered footsteps. Tensing, Cameron tracks their progress from living room carpet to kitchen tile and back again. Pulling the sheets tightly around her, she rolls onto her side and curls up as small as she can go.

She stays like that for a long time, eyes wide to the dark.