Beach Lane

By: Sherryl Woods

Worse, of course, was that Mack was the highest-paid writer in the sports department. By firing him, they could hang on to a couple of low-paid interns and turn them into reporters. As the theory went these days, what they lacked in experience they’d make up for in energy.

“I’m sorry,” Don said, looking miserable. “You’ll get a decent severance package that should give you some time to look around for something else. Not that someone as good as you are will need them, but I’ll give you glowing references and every contact I have in the business.”

“But the bottom line is that I’m going to run into the same cutbacks anywhere I go,” Mack said realistically.

He’d tried to plan for this. The handwriting had been on the wall for months, but getting the news was still a blow. And none of his ideas for the future so far had excited him.

Still, as Don said, he’d have some time. It wasn’t as if he was going to be destitute. He was, however, going to be unemployed. Even though it was through no fault of his own, it left him feeling like a failure. He wondered if this was the way his own father had felt when he’d been jobless. Was that why he’d taken off before Mack was even born?

“How soon?” he asked Don. “Will they keep me on through football season?”

“Nope. End of the week. The publisher thinks keeping people around once they’re fired is bad for morale.”

Or maybe he was just afraid that if the body count became obvious, the remaining employees would cut and run. That’s what a few had done immediately after the last round of cutbacks.

Mack wasn’t sure he had the stomach for finishing out the week, much less football season, anyway. “How about I write a couple of columns from home this week?” he suggested. “Wrap things up from there?”

Don looked torn. “You want to just slip away? People are gonna be real unhappy about that. You should at least stick around long enough for the kind of blowout party you deserve down at Callahan’s.”

“No, thanks,” Mack said, shuddering at the thought. Being fired sucked, no matter the reason. He didn’t want to wallow in the humiliation in front of his colleagues. He didn’t much want to commiserate with them, either.

“Okay, then, whatever works for you,” Don agreed with obvious reluctance.

Unfortunately, what worked for Mack was keeping a job he loved in a business that was disappearing practically overnight.

At home that night, as the news really sank in, along with all of the financial implications for the short term, Mack stared morosely at the black velvet box sitting on his coffee table.

He’d finally decided to take a huge leap of faith and ask Susie O’Brien to marry him, even though she’d always said she’d rather eat dirt than even go out on a date with a promiscuous player like him. He’d figured several years of dating without acknowledging it ought to just about equal officially courting her for a few months.

Maybe she’d overlook the fact that they’d shared only one memorable, bone-melting kiss in all that time. He doubted she’d forgotten it. He certainly hadn’t. The heat and sweetness of it were burned into his memory. He’d never anticipated falling in love, much less with a vulnerable bundle of contradictions like Susie, but it had happened. It had caught him completely off guard.

Now, however, with his financial prospects in doubt, proposing was out of the question. He couldn’t even think about marrying anyone until he figured out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. And right this second, with a couple of glasses of scotch dulling the pain of his firing, he didn’t even want to cross paths with Susie, who’d been telling him for weeks now that he was in a dying profession. Not that he’d ever contradicted her—how could he?—but he wasn’t quite ready for an I-told-you-so.

When his phone rang repeatedly that night, he ignored it. When his cell phone rang off and on the next day, he ignored that, too. Messages were accumulating on both lines, but he wasn’t interested. Normally an upbeat, positive guy, he was in an unparalleled funk. He figured he was entitled to wallow there for a few days at least.

Unfortunately, his friends Will Lincoln and Jake Collins had other ideas. After one day of not joining them for their regular lunch at Sally’s, they were banging on his door. Since each of them had a key for emergencies, Mack wasn’t surprised when they barged right in two seconds after knocking. Both of them stopped and stared at the mostly empty bottle of scotch and the box of half-eaten pizza, then took in his disheveled appearance.

“What the devil happened to you?” Will demanded. “You’re not answering your phone. You didn’t show up for lunch. You didn’t call. And, sorry to say, you look like hell.”

“Actually you look worse,” Jake added, regarding him speculatively. “When was the last time you shaved? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking less than immaculate. Did you and Susie have a fight?”

“Susie and I don’t fight,” Mack said wearily. “This has nothing to do with her.”