|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets Serious.||Rowena Gets A Surprise, Part 9|
Rowena shut her folder with a flourish. “Done!” she said. “And only half an hour past bedtime.”
“Excellent,” said Sammy.
“And tomorrow I can return Maralynne's call and maybe even redeem myself from Worst Sister in the World status, for Putting My Stupid Job Ahead of My Family and Especially My—”
“Your sister,” said Sammy, “makes it so easy. What exactly did she say?”
“Something about clouds. We did have some pretty ones today.”
Sammy shook his head. Rowena stretched. “But for now I can get almost a full night's sleep and wake up nice and refreshed and able to give a halfway decent report.”
“Better than that,” Sammy said, “we can go to bed.” And he grinned at her in a way that made Rowena laugh, and would have made her close her folder if she hadn't already done so. Despite this, it wasn't really very much longer before Rowena was nearly asleep . . . or would have been, if she could have stopped thinking about her presentation.
“Stop worrying,” Sammy mumbled beside her.
“I'm not worrying,” Rowena said, because she wasn't, just then. “I was thinking about the introduction to the second section, which I happen to be very pleased with.”
“Well, don't do that either,” Sammy said. “Not until tomorrow.” She felt his hand in her hair. “You can tell me about it after you come home triumphant.”
“Fair enough.” Rowena snuggled deeper into her pillow. She tried not to think of her second-section introduction and found herself worrying about the first diagram. She really should have found a brighter shade of blue. She really . . .
Eventually she managed, somehow, to stop thinking about her presentation at all and to drift, comfortably, into a doze . . . and almost into sleep . . .
Until the phone rang.
Rowena glanced over at the clock as she jumped for it. At this hour! “Hello?”
“Rowena!” yelled her sister. “I've just had the worst—it's awful!”
“Maralynne? Maralynne, what happened?” Rowena was just aware, somehow, of Sammy there in the bed, of his crooking an arm over his eyes.
“There was a cloud shaped like a rooster today and one shaped like a hammer! And I needed a midnight snack so I did a popcorn reading and it's the worst!”
Now Rowena covered her eyes. “Maralynne, what are you talking about? Do you know what time it is?”
“Well, okay, so it was a twelve-fifty-seven snack. But the—”
“Maralynne, if you don't start making sense in about five seconds I am going to hang up on you.”
Maralynne began talking very rapidly. “I had this bad omen this afternoon so when I did my popcorn I made a hole in the bag so it could get out and when I opened the microwave door some of it fell on the floor and so I did a reading on it—”
“You did a reading on the mess you made with microwave popcorn.”
“It's the I Bing. You know? Chester told me about it. See, you—”
“No,” Rowena said. “I do not know, and I do not want to know. Maralynne, go to bed. And don't mention this to me again. Let me think I dreamed it.”
“You can't just ignore me! Or the I Bing! It's terrible.”
“So clean up the popcorn first and then go to bed.”
“Rowena! It's a matter of life and death! Or something. And I'm supposed to seek the help of an older female relative.”
“‘Older female relative?’ Maralynne, I'm only—”
“But if I call Mom I'll get in trouble.”
Rowena could just see Sammy turn over and squash his pillow over his head. “You're already getting me in trouble. Maralynne, I have to make an important presentation tomorrow and Sammy has to—”
“Important! More important than me? Your stupid presentation got me into this mess. If you'd helped me the first time I called—”
The presentation may not have been more important than Maralynne, but it was certainly less of a problem. “Maralynne. What do you want me to do?”
“You're supposed to give me some wise advice.”
“Good. My advice is: Go back to bed. Stay there until morning, and get some sleep.”
“Tell you what. Get a whole night's worth of dreams, and then tell me about them tomorrow. Okay? Tomorrow at lunchtime.”
“Okay,” said Maralynne, but she sounded unconvinced. Rowena took her at her word, wished her a good night, and hung up.
Sammy put his pillow down flat and turned to face her; apparently he'd heard everything despite the padding. “And to think I used to wish for a sibling,” he said.
Rowena snuggled against him. “Oh, I don't know,” she said. “I understand some of them can be pretty nice.”
“The elder ones, right?”
He pulled her in closer, and Rowena prepared to sink into sleep. But the conversation with her sister had destroyed her hard-won drowsiness, and she found herself thinking about Maralynne's New Age shenanigans—could anything ever calm Maralynne down?—and then about her own presentation again. She tried to will herself to fall asleep, or at least to stay still so that Sammy could sleep—Sammy who was already breathing so peacefully . . .
Her legs grew stiff; she moved them carefully. She wriggled as gently as she could. Her sister . . . her presentation . . . She tried to push everything from her mind. What time was it?
She was finally nodding off when the phone rang. Again.
“Hello?” She felt, somehow, more resigned than angry.
“Rowena! You're still alive?”
“Barely. Maralynne, I thought I told you—”
“I had this dream that you got grabbed by a tentacle and pulled onto a mountain and you caught sleeping sickness—”
“No such luck. Maralynne, do not call me again until lunchtime unless there's an emergency. A real emergency. A bad one. Where something very very bad actually happens. Not a dream, a real emergency. Got it?”
“But—but what'll I do if you get—”
“No buts, Maralynne. I'm—” But the phone was taken away from her.
“Maralynne, stop it,” Sammy said. “Do you hear me? No more.” There was a brief silence, and then he said, “Yes, I care about Rowena very much. And I want her to get a decent night's sleep. . . . Everything's under control. I am right here. I will protect her. . . . Yes, the door is locked . . . and the windows . . . We have all the emergency phone numbers . . . and the dog is here . . . If you call again I will make bone-chomping alien noises at you and hang up and you'll just have to wonder. Good night, Maralynne.” And he put the receiver down.
“What'd she say?” Rowena asked.
“She told me to stop being so selfish.” He rolled over and went back to sleep. Rowena considered unplugging the phones just in case, but was afraid her sister would simply drive over and pound on the door. She sighed. She wondered where her sister's own boyfriend was during all this. Not that Chester really resembled a knight in shining armor, but still.
Chester, she remembered, was the one who had told Maralynne about the I Bing in the first place.
She turned over and pulled the covers up. That blue ink . . .
She stretched, tried to clear her mind, and ended up rising to get herself a glass of water. How could she possibly be so tired and yet not sleep? On the way she passed Linus, curled up in his doggie bed, fast asleep. She stopped a moment to watch him. “Showoff,” she whispered; he did not stir. She went and got her drink, then stood a while, looking out the window, before going back to bed, passing, on her way, the unconscious Linus. In her own bed she curled up as well, and, finally, she eventually began to drowse.
This time her near-slumber was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a cat throwing up. Rowena hauled herself woozily out of bed and tracked down the culprit, still in the act. “Oh, Caesar,” she whispered. She fetched the cleaning product she used, and some paper towels. She cleaned the mess up, petted Caesar, who was already loading himself up on kitty grass, and went, again, back to bed.
And to thinking about her presentation again.
And about her sister. Was she really so upset? Maybe Rowena should . . . well . . . Maralynne . . . If she . . .
The garbage men came for the dumpster.
And then it was getting to look like daylight.
She managed to drowse at about 7:00, half an hour before the alarm was set to go off.
And the phone rang. Rowena was tempted to let Sammy handle it as he had promised, but picked it up herself.
“Rowena!” cried her mother. “Have you been threatening your sister?”
“Maralynne says you threatened her at three AM! She says she was so upset she could hardly sleep!”
“She could hardly sleep? I couldn't sleep at all. Mother, I did not threaten Maralynne. I just told her not to—”
“Rowena, remember, she's littler than you are.”
“Litt—Mother, she is no such thing! She's a grown—” Sammy held out his hand, patiently, and Rowena put the phone into it.
“Good morning, Babette,” Sammy said. He looked over at Rowena, then rolled his eyes. “Oh, rather tired, but otherwise fine. . . . Yes, Maralynne called twice last night and woke us up. Twice, yes. But Rowena didn't threaten her; I threatened her. . . . Yes, well, I only told her that if she called back again, I would make science-fiction noises into the phone and hang up. It doesn't make much sense now, but you see it was three AM or so, and I was very tired and sleepy . . . Yes, that's what we thought . . . Yes, she can be, can't she? Okay. You, too. Talk to you later . . . Yes, you too. Say hi for me . . . Oh, and Babette? Could you not call quite so early in future? That's all right. No, don't worry about it. No, really. Okay? Right. Okay, 'bye.” He hung up the phone and turned to Rowena, who was staring frankly.
“Perfectly nice and reasonable, once she was talking to the prospective son-in-law,” he said. “All but dripping syrup. We should have thought of that long ago.”
Rowena closed her eyes and put her head down. “Is Maralynne in trouble?” she asked.
“Sounds like it. Unless Chester can bail her out.” Rowena could feel herself fuzzing over with sleep. From a distance, she heard Sammy sigh. “Not much point in leaving the alarm on,” he said. Rowena wanted to cry.
“I did not get any sleep at all last night,” she said. “And now I have that presentation.”
“Oh, Rowena.” She felt his hand on her face. “Why don't you grab a few minutes. I'll wake you.”
She mumbled something that was meant to be “Thank you,” and fell asleep. When Sammy woke her, 7:30 had come and gone, and the apartment was filled with the smell of coffee.
“Oh, Sammy—look at the time!”
“You're okay; it's just a few minutes late. And breakfast is all ready.”
He had not only turned off the alarm; he had unplugged the phones. And while Rowena ate breakfast he went to the shower and ran the water so she wouldn't have to wait for it to heat up. They staggered all their getting-ready routines, and they both got out the door on time, with a little extra coffee in them.
By the time Rowena got to work, she was jittery with caffeine. She filled the two hours before her meeting with attempts to wake up, including one or two visits to the Ladies' Room to splash cold water on herself. She even went back to worrying about her presentation, but this didn't seem to make her as alert as it had the night before. Finally it was time, and she went to her meeting armed with only her presentation, a cup of water, and some very strong peppermints.
There was no way she could handle more coffee.
Rowena's presentation was the last of three. She tried to look as alert and efficient as possible through the first one, which seemed to consist of a very long, very boring string of numbers. Mostly just numbers. It seemed to Rowena that she could only just manage to keep her mouth closed when she yawned, and not topple over. Tired and jittery at the same time. And then the presenter, Tom, paused slightly.
“I thought I'd have an expert explain to you exactly how the computer came up with these numbers. So . . . here's Boris to do just that.”
Boris, the head of the company's IT department, walked to the head of the room. Rowena was sure she was going pale; Tom's numbers were bad enough.
Boris dispensed with preliminaries. “This would have worked better if I'd been allowed to use the so-called ‘expensive’ statistics package,” he said. “But when you do things on the cheap . . . well . . .” He shrugged.
Tom coughed in a manner that was doubtless meant to be discreet. “Boris,” he said, “you got the approved system working very nicely.”
“After three patches and a major systems crash. The thing is—”
Rowena took a drink of water. Don, who had called the meeting, said, “We appreciate all your work, Boris. We can't wait to hear what you came up with.”
Boris shrugged again. “Like I said, this would have worked better with—”
“Yes, well, it's a very good thing, given our budget, that we have Boris to work out a solution for us,” Tom said. “And, as usual, he's done a great job, and he's delivered the goods. Which are . . .”
Thus goaded, Boris finally began his impenetrable explanation, though whether he was talking about hardware or software or indeed about anything managed to escape Rowena entirely. She let the words and acronyms wash over her, and tried very hard not to yawn, and then tried very hard not to yawn very noticeably. She had another drink of water. It occurred to her that Boris could probably spout complete gibberish and no one would be the wiser. Even if someone did suspect, who would challenge Boris?
“Of course, since I wasn't given the resources to back up the external storage, and I had to make do with Warthog and Porker while Razorback and Peccary were . . .”
Rowena took a deep breath and studied her water cup. She shouldn't drink too much . . . No, she wouldn't think about that. Not about that.
“. . . And Porker needing a serial port . . .”
For somebody so reticent about dealing with people, Rowena thought, Boris sure could talk a lot. At least about computers. Her head drooped forward and she snapped it up again. She was in no shape to give a report. She wasn't even sure the fear of failure would revive her enough.
After what seemed an eternity, Boris sat down and Tom continued to talk. Tom spoke English, more or less, but Rowena still had a hard time listening. After a while—a long while—Tom sat back down. But somebody thought up a tardy question, and he got back up. And there was another question, and another . . . Finally, finally, he sat back down for good. And then it was Carla's turn.
After Carla, the moment of truth.
Carla apparently was having a rough time as well. “The copy place lost my transparencies, so I made up some posters . . . I apologize for the crudeness of the charts.” She tried to hold one of the posters up and, as she looked around for a place to prop it, the others all slid unceremoniously to the floor and scattered everywhere. Carla rounded them up again, with just a little help, but it appeared she had neglected to number them, and a certain amount of confusion set in. Poor Carla. Soon she was flustered and stammering, and she dropped nearly everything she picked up. Rowena wished she could think of some way to help, but wasn't sure anything could be done, even if she were not herself in such a sorry state. Everyone else seemed content to just pretend nothing was wrong, which was better, Rowena thought, than yelling at her. And yet . . .
Rowena's own impending debacle seemed to be waking her just enough to allow her to almost focus on the difficulty Carla was having. And to think that, aside from having professional-looking charts, she wasn't going to do any better.
She took another sip of water. Following a bad performance ought to make a person's own presentation look good by comparison. But she didn't think it would save her.
After another long struggle to stay awake—or become awake—she heard Carla end her presentation and step down. This is it, she thought, straightening her back and somehow raising her head. This is it.
“Okay,” Don was saying. “Keep us, ah, posted, Carla, and you might use a different copy place next time. Last item—Rowena. Let's see; you were to tell us—what time is it, anyway?” He looked at his watch. “According to this, Rowena, you have three minutes. Can everybody stay—wait, I can't; I have a meeting with Mr. Schmed. How could I forget?” He laughed, and the two or three people who always laughed at managers' jokes laughed with him. “Rowena, can we reschedule you for, let's see . . .” He consulted his organizer. “Two o'clock tomorrow? Can everybody make that?”
They settled on two-thirty, and dispersed. And Rowena signed herself out for lunch, went out to her car, set the alarm on her watch, and took a nap.
Back at her desk and feeling somewhat better, Rowena found an email from Sammy. “Didn't want to call and disturb you,” he wrote. “Hope all went well. Phone if you like and if you beat me home don't worry about dinner; I'll get us some takeout. See you tonight. I love you.”
She smiled at the screen. Sammy. Before she could decide whether to call him immediately despite having just returned from lunch, her phone rang.
“Rorschach & Schmed.”
“Rowena!” wailed Maralynne. “I tried to get you on your cell but you didn't answer and it was lunchtime like you said and I was so worried!”
“Maralynne, I—I'm sorry; I took a nap, I had the phone in my purse—I must not have heard it ring.”
“Don't you check your messages? I left three of them!”
“I'm sorry, Maralynne—”
“I did another I Bing at work and it said I should pay more attention to details and the boss saw the popcorn all over the floor and he yelled at me and made me clean it up and he says I can't do the I Bing any more and Madame Zelda isn't returning my calls and I don't know what to do.”
“Maralynne.” Rowena fixed her eyes on Sammy's email. She was more rested than she had been but she still felt tired. “Don't make messes at work.”
“Now you tell me! Now that it's too late! You wouldn't talk to me last night because of your precious job and I'm family and I did the I Bing for you and—”
“Maralynne, I wouldn't talk to you because you didn't tell me until one AM that there was anything wrong.”
“I told you I saw a cloud—”
“And I'm supposed to take that as an emergency?”
“I—but I said—”
“You said that you were my sister. And I already knew that.” Rowena, waiting for a response, thought, Maralynne's related to me but Sammy is family. “And at one o'clock you were telling me you were worried about me and I knew there was nothing to worry about. Maralynne, it was very good of you to be concerned, but—”
“And Sammy threatened me!”
Rowena closed her eyes. “Maralynne,” she heard herself saying, “he's a guy. You know how they are. He probably just wanted to protect me himself, and not to need you to do it for him.”
“H'mmmm,” said Maralynne.
“It was probably a blow to his male ego,” Rowena said. “That, and he needed to get some sleep.”
“Um,” said Maralynne. “I, um, I thought you needed me.”
Rowena closed her eyes. “Well, not so much last night.”
“Ooh, Rowena, the boss is coming. I gotta go.”
“Okay,” Rowena said. “Talk to you later. I wouldn't want to cause you a problem with your job.”
She was sure, hanging up, that this had gone right over her sister's head. She looked again at Sammy's message on her screen. Male ego. How he would laugh.
So what if I get in trouble, she thought, reaching for her phone. I do have some priorities. And tomorrow I'm giving an excellent presentation, blue ink or no blue ink.
And she dialed Sammy's office.
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