"Can I get you anything to drink, Tara?"
"Orange juice please, thanks Charles."
"Do you come here often?"
"No, I'm not a big fan of clubs."
"Then I'm doubly glad you're here with me. You don't know how many times I've wanted to ask you."
"Well I should be the one who is flattered. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"Directly to the point, I like that. I'll be straight with you, Tara. I want to be the number one Product Head in the whole West Coast and I want you to join my team."
"Wow, thank you for thinking of me."
"Is that a yes?"
"Can I think about it?"
"Yes, but this is not an open-ended offer."
"How long do I have?"
"Smart. By the end of the evening, when we leave this club, I want an answer from you. Now tell me, are you sure orange juice is strong enough?"
"Yes, I want to keep a clear head."
"Fine. I'll get our drinks then."
Tara watched the tall man who was her ... date? no, more like colleague and potential boss ... walk purposefully to the bar and ordered the drinks. Charles Gunn was one of the hottest product managers in her company and a place in his team was highly coveted. Tara knew that anyone in her position should be chomping at the bit, but she was happy in her current team, her boss treated her very well and she had heard about how everyone in Charles' team competed against each other. They had a reputation for being ruthless and unscrupulous. She wasn't sure if she would fit in.
"One orange juice, sorry for the wait," Charles returned with drinks firmly in his hands.
"Not at all, thank you," Tara replied.
"So how do you like this club?"
"It's better than some I've been to, although my experience of clubs is limited," she said, taking a small sip from the glass.
"You'll have a chance to go out more, Tara. Network. Clients love being entertained."
"I thought I have until the end of the evening to decide."
There was something niggling at the back of Tara's mind, as if needing her attention. She couldn't quite put her finger on it though.
"Are you going to answer that?" Charles nodded at the metallic object a little way away from Tara's elbow.
"Oh! My phone! I didn't hear it."
She reached out to retrieve her cellphone, currently engaged in a spastic dance for her attention. She glanced at the display, the number on the caller display was unfamiliar, and she generally made it a rule to let unknown numbers go to voicemail so she could screen out the unwanted callers or junk calls. It had been ringing for a while and it would jump to voicemail any second. Later Tara could not say accurately why she picked up.
"Umm, hhhhello," Willow managed to stammer out.
"You have reached the voicemail of Tara Maclay, please leave a message after the tone."
For a moment Willow thought she had connected to the girl, and was thrown when she discovered it was voicemail.
"Aaaaah, uuummm, t-t-this is Willow Rosenberg. Cups! Thank you for the cups, that’s right. I'm calling you to thank-- ow!!! How come tables have such hard corners? Oh yikes, sorry, that wasn't meant for you. Um, Tara, is it? I want to say--"
She was interrupted by the high pitched beep that signified the end of the recording, swiftly to be replaced by the flat ringtone of a line that was cut off. She rang off in a wave of disappointment.
It was late at night, and she wondered what Tara would be doing that took her away from her cellphone. It didn't take long for her over-active imagination to start painting impossible scenarios.
Cue Righteous Brothers.
"No!!" Willow shouted, her mind full of the sounds and images of a crumbled piece of clay spinning forlornly on a potter's wheel. "No, her fingers aren't entwined in Patrick Swayze's as they mold wet clay. She's busy with something else."
Slowly another image built in her konfuzzled mind.
Darkness. Obsession. Despair.
"Aaaaaaahhh!" Willow yelped. She had to stop thinking unpleasant thoughts. She looked at the computer and considered checking in with her online group, but they were bound to interrogate her on calling Tara and she felt like a failure for not getting through.
It was time for bed. The day's excitement finally caught up with her and suddenly her whole body felt heavy. She was still holding her cellphone. Normally she'd place it on the charger overnight, but tonight she brought it to bed with her. It made her feel a little closer to the mystery woman who was Tara Maclay.
"You're late again, Chief!" Willow's friends, the two young boys, ran up to her on her way to work, as they did almost every day.
"Sorry sorry. Let's see what you have here?" She squatted down and was immediately handed the PSP for inspection.
"We don't know how to get out of the flea market," one of the boys said.
It only took Willow a few seconds to find the solution.
"Go to the large tent, ask the man with the flute about his girlfriend," she explained. "People like talking about their girlfriends, he'll tell you but you have to listen to him for a few screens."
"You're right. Thank you," the boys said. "Hey Chief, do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?" they asked as they ran off toward their school bus.
"Huh?" Willow was taken aback.
"Shhh, don't ask. If you say something wrong, she won't help us with the game," she heard one boy tell the other.
Willow took out her cellphone and brought up the last number dialed. It showed Tara Maclay's number; she had already programmed the name in. "A girlfriend," she mused. "Don't be ridiculous, Rosenberg."
"How did the date with Charles go?" Cordy pounced on Tara as soon as she arrived at the office next morning.
"Morning Cordy, you're in early. Unusually early," Tara greeted the brunette just as she settled into her desk and powered up her computer.
"Don't change the subject, I want to know why Charles Gunn took you to Delaney's last night but most importantly, why you agreed. Is there something going on between you two?"
Tara looked mildly irritated at the insinuation. "Cordy, you have an unusual knack of thinking the worst of people. It was a business meeting, he asked me to join his team," she clarified.
The shot of envy that passed through Cordy's face was plain to see, even though she quickly hid it. "Oh my god, that's wonderful! Do you know how prestigious it is to be in his group? They get the fattest bonuses, the best offices and the most important clients! You must have caught someone's notice," Cordy almost squealed in delight.
"I'm going to be noticed alright. I turned him down," Tara said.
Cordy stopped her celebration abruptly. "Are you nuts? You do NOT turn down Charles Gunn, you trying to commit career suicide?" her squeal turned into a shriek.
"I like my job now, and Jenny treats me better than he will ever do," Tara said resolutely.
"He can destroy you, and by association, me. Did you even think of that?" Cordy asked.
Tara looked at her friend exasperatedly. "No I didn't. The world doesn't revolve around you, Cordy," she sighed.
"My world does," Cordy challenged.
Tara took the option she always took when Cordy got too much for her. She started busying herself with her tasks and soon Cordy grew bored of waiting for Tara to answer and stomped back to her own cubicle.
Upon checking her cellphone, Tara discovered that she had a voicemail message. At first she wasn't sure who the stuttering mumbler was but she soon figured out it was the redhead who saved her from the drunken old man on the train. She smiled warmly at the memory of the petite girl taking on someone larger and more violent than herself.
The message was largely incoherent and Willow seemed to be able to speak without taking a breath. Even then the recording was cut off because she took too long. Tara noted the number for Willow and hit 'dial'.
At the office building on the other side of the park, Willow's cellphone rang. As luck (or misfortune) would have it, she was engaged in a conversation with her boss, being told that she had to attend a company dinner with clients that night. She watched the phone vibrate, then ring, then jerkily breakdance across her desk's surface. And in disbelief as Faith picked it up and switched it off before it had a chance to go to voicemail. She rushed back to her desk as soon as the conversation ended and almost dropped the phone when she saw she had missed Tara.
"I can't call her out here in the open office, I need privacy. Think, think," she was so intent on her task that she didn't notice the strange looks her colleagues were giving her as she ran around while muttering to herself.
"Aha!" She finally found a solution, and hid herself inside the stationery cupboard. She switched the dim fluorescent light on and was about to call Tara back when the phone rang by itself, making her jump.
She glanced at the display and seriously contemplated not answering, but relented. "What do you want, Faith?"
"Why are you streaking around like a headless chicken? Bosses got you by the tail again?" She could hear Faith's smirk over the phone.
"Well, no help from you," Willow pointed out.
"I'll ignore that comment. What I want to ask, Willow, is who is this 'Tara' calling you? Some hot chick?"
"None of your business," Willow retorted.
"Hot damn. You find a hot chick and you forget your friends. I'm hurt," Faith continued.
"You're not my friend."
"Burn! You're getting better at this sarcasm business, I should take credit for training you."
"Wait, wait, Faith. I have a call on the other line," Willow was all a-flustered.
"So? They can call back when I'm finished," Faith directed.
Willow risked a glance at the display. Tara!
"Please, Faith," she pleaded. "I really have another call."
"Just ignore it."
"If you hang up on me now, I'll tell the bosses about the smut fics you have on your hard drive."
"How did y--? Never mind, what do you want?"
"Get all serious on me now. I want to know if my presence is required for the dinner tonight because I have plans with the softball team. The entire softball team."
"I don't know, they didn't say."
"Well if they didn't specifically ask for me, I'm not going. You'll cover for me won't you?"
"Sure you will."
The beeping had stopped. Willow checked the display and it was blank. Tara had rung off. Then suddenly the entire phone went silent.
No response. Faith had disappeared too.
"Stupid." This was directed half at herself for being a wimp and half at Faith for being her usual inconsiderate self.
The door to the room opened suddenly and she blinked at the brightness that invaded her hideout.
"Oh sorry," a co-worker entered the stationery room in search of, well, stationery. The room was far too small for more than two people and Willow excused herself to find another private place to call Tara.
Eventually she found herself on the roof, at the opposite end to where the smokers were enjoying their break. She rounded a corner and made sure no one was within hearing distance.
With trembling fingers she hit the key combination that brought up Tara's number. It was now or never. She took a deep breath and prepared to hit 'send'.
The screen went blank.
She couldn't believe it.
She shook the phone, and tried to hit all the keys, to no avail.
"What the frilly heck?"
Finally it came back on again, only to flash Battery level low before blanking out again.
"No, no, no. Why now? Why me?" She was becoming frantic.
Then it hit her. She hadn't charged the phone last night, she had taken it with her to bed to be closer to Tara, and now the battery was flat. How could she be so stupid?
She and Tara had been playing phone tag all day, and now this. May be it was fated that they would never speak.
She found that thought truly horrifying.