Stargazers: Chapter 5

"As Minister of Profanity, I must declare that bullshit," Cathy said very firmly.

"Thank you," replied Shane dryly.

"Seriously, though," Cathy said, "it's silly. Buying your wife a star for your first anniversary? It's not like you'll actually own anything, so basically you're just getting her a piece of paper."

"I don't know," Emily interjected, "I think it's sweet."

"You see?" said Shane emphatically to Cathy, gesturing at Emily. "It's sweet. A gift like this isn't about acquisition, it's the thought that counts."

"That's a bit of a cliche, I think," remarked Rowan carefully. "It's the thought that counts? Going on that, I'd refrain from buying anything and just give her the gift of you."

"I would, but that's what I gave her for our wedding," Shane replied with a grin.

Rowan laughed, and Cathy made a face. "I still think the idea that 'it's the thought that counts' has gone too far," continued Rowan. "I mean, someone could say that about anything. Could I be convicted of murder just for thinking about killing someone? After all, it's the thought that counts."

"If so, then I'm screwed, I think about killing people all the time!" remarked Cathy.

"Cathy, that's scary," said Hazel. "But I think we're taking this all a bit too far. How did we get from helping a friend get his wife an anniversary present to discussing the ethics of murder?"

"I blame Rowan!" declared Shane.

"I still don't like the star idea," Cathy insisted, finishing off her beer.

"Point it, this has got nothing to do with what you like," said Hazel. "Just get her whatever you think will make her happy."

"That's what I was saying all along," Sophie remarked with a smile. "I guess you and I think along the same lines."

Shane sighed deeply. "Somehow, I gotta make my way through this muddle of advice and figure out what to get her. I'll head out now. I don't want to wait till the last minute."

Despite her contrariness, Cathy was and would be a friend. "Luck!"

"Yeah, good luck," everyone else agreed.

Shane took his coat, paid for his drink and left the women in the bar, alone. Shortly thereafter Cathy left, too, with much swearing about the time and all the chores that were waiting for her at home. Sophie yawned and blinked for fifteen minutes before finally admitting she was tired, and being sent home almost forcibly, with hugs to keep her going all the way to her bed. At last, only Hazel, Emily and Rowan were left.

"Anyone ready to go out on the town?" teased Rowan.

"Yeah, I definitely see us staying out till dawn," said Hazel.

"How about another round of beers instead?" Emily suggested.

Rowan half-frowned half-smiled. "Sure, why not?"

"Well, we're an enthusiastic bunch," Hazel commented.

Emily shrugged with acceptance, and Rowan leaned her elbow on the counter and her round cheek on her hand. "So what's been going on in your life, girl?" she asked Hazel.

She only grappled with the idea of telling them momentarily. "Oh, not much. Val and I have been exchanging E-mails," she said casually.

"One wonders why you'd mention it, if it's nothing much," Rowan said, immediately alert.

"What's going on between you two?" quarried Emily.

"Nothing serious, Emmy," Hazel said reassuringly. "We have a lot in common, so we started a correspondence. I think he feels more comfortable expressing himself in writing. I know I do."

"E-mail's good for topics you can't quite bring yourself to discuss in person," Rowan said by way of agreement. "Or do you just blather on to him about topics that you know would bore us?"

Like Rowan, Emily was looking at Hazel intently, beneath the facade of her relaxed, half-lounging posture. "Yes, what do you two talk about?"

"All sorts," answered Hazel vaguely.

"Whatever comes to mind," she explained with a sigh when her two best friends' eyes would not relent. "Hobbies, memories, politics, mood-swings."

Emmy and Rowan exchanged a look.

"We listen to each other," Hazel went on obliviously, "instead of futile arguing. If we don't agree on something, we say so and then drop the subject rather than dwelling on it until we get angry with each other."

"Flirt?" asked Emily casually.

Hazel shrugged. "At lunches, sure."

"You meet him every day at the office," Rowan said. "How can you share meaningful conversations with him and still work at the same office? Doesn't that undermine the distance provided by the anonymity of E-mail?"

"Not really," answered Hazel, but her face was thoughtful. "I suppose we just keep the two separate. Our topics of discussion have little bearing on work, so it doesn't come up in the office. It's just like with us, I guess. We have a friendship that extends outside of being colleagues, but the two have no cause to mix."

Rowan, a rather private type, looked doubtful.

"You like him, don't you?" asked Emily.

Hazel smiled. "Yeah, and I think he likes me, too."

Once again, a glance passed between Rowan and Emily.

Rowan pointed an accusing finger at Hazel. "You're in love with him!"

Hazel blinked.

"Hazel, we know you," said Emily, a hint of concern in her soft voice, usually prone to giggles. "You're in the process of falling in love, if you haven't already."

"You're perfectly capable of not noticing it until you're knee-deep," agreed Rowan.

"And you fall so easily…" Emily added.

It was a moment before Hazel answered, eyes staring straight ahead, quiet in the loud environment of the bar. "I think you're right."

---------------

Jerod was driving, full of eloquent unpraise for the other drivers on the road but typically blind of his own shortcomings. Val stared out of the passenger-side window blankly, while Jon, in the back, read a tattered paperback. When Jerod turned on the radio to his favorite classical station, he protested.

"Can't you read at home?" Jerod half-demanded. "It's not very sociable, immersing yourself in a book when in company."

Jon glared. "You two aren't talkative tonight, either! Am I meant to talk to myself?"

"I have to keep my eyes on the road!" retorted Jerod.

"You don't talk with your eyes, you know," Jon remarked tartly.

"Val!" they chorused.

That finally drew their friend from his thoughts, albeit slowly. "Hmm?"

"Crabby, here, thinks we ought to entertain him, just because he's at the wheel," explained Jon.

"What are you contemplating so deeply, anyway?" Jerod asked.

"And does she have a sister?" Jon added wickedly.

Val glared, and Jon's consequent smile was half impish, half apologetic.

"Hazel, if you must know," Val answered with a faint air of loftiness.

Jon dropped his book to stare at him. "Our Hazel?" he asked. "Hazel from the office?"

"Yeah," answered Val, looking back out the window at the passing street-lamps.

An elastic silence stretched.

"Do you love her?" Jerod finally demanded.

"WHAT!?"

"You heard me," insisted Jerod, stone-hard.

Jon agreed grimly. "It's a valid question.

"For God's sake, Jerod, we're just friends! She listens. I talk to her about things I can't bring up with you oafs!" Val replied, indignant.

"If you do, you better tell her," advised a calm Jon.

Val shook his head, refusing to listen to any more.

"You know you never do, even when you should." Jon wouldn't let go.

"My advice," started Jerod, "get yourself a new job and see where it goes. It's hard finding someone in this cold, cruel world of ours. If there's even just a chance, you gotta hang on and not let it slip away."

"Keep your melodrama and your advice," said Val, glaring out the window at the street. "You're making something where there's nothing!"

"I hate to say it, brother, but Jerod is right," Jon said. "There won't be anything there before you make it, and I think you should."

Val shook his head, but his shoulders sagged. "I'm not hanging my hopes and dreams out to get a flogging," he said quietly.

"You can't suspend your emotions, Val," Jerod disagreed with surprising gentleness.

"It's a risk I can live without," he retorted bitterly.

"Risks are part of it." Jerod was very firm. "No pain, no gain. We all know that." Jon nodded agreement.

Val's eyes focused on his friend's driving silhouette. Very quietly, he demanded to know, "When did yogo out on a limb, my all-knowing oracle?"

Jerod clenched his teeth and did not answer.

"Where would I work?" Val asked, melting the icy quiet of the car some fifteen minutes later. "I can't ask her to quit, that's not fair." And too risky, he added to himself.

"Woodsbridge is less than an hour's commute," offered Jon. "There's a publishing house there that may be hiring. They specialize in Braille."

"And if they're not hiring?" asked Val.

"Look for other places within commuting distance," Jon answered firmly. "Don't give up."

"Do you absolutely have to work in publishing?" Jerod asked. "It seems odd. You have other skills; we know that. Hell, you might end up landing a better job."

"What if I went to all that trouble to relocate and nothing came of it?" Val wondered. "I mean, all of this, making all these changes in my life just for the slimmest possibility?"

Jon shook his head sadly, and didn't answer.

"Think about it, man," Jerod said, the frustration telling in his voice. "You're the only one that knows if there's something there, and if there is, how strong it is and how much you're willing to sacrifice to see it through. We can't tell you how you feel. Whatever is going on between you two, sit down and decide right now if it's enough for you. Should you and yourself come to the conclusion that it's not, you owe it to yourself to spare no effort, not to give up on this opportunity and let it slip away."

Jon applauded daintily. "Quite the speech."

Jerod scowled, then grinned.

"Is there something you want to talk about?" Jon then prodded. "I know that little monologue didn't come from nowhere."

"Nothing."

"C'mon," said Val. "Here I am, spilling my guts and all, it's not fair that you get away without talking about your feelings, too."

"Yeah, let's discuss someone other than Val, for once. I'm getting bored," Jon agreed, smirking.

"Thanks, brother," replied Val dryly.

"Don't mention it."

Throughout this exchange Jerod's expression hardened, then melted into misty melancholy. "Why is it that the women at the office are the only ones that /I'm ever interested in that don't look down at me, aren't taken and are actually people I can like and respect, not just spend a month with before I get bored?" he asked.

"Are you thinking of any particular Minister of Profanity?" inquired Jon lightly.

The brakes screamed.

Jerod stared at Jon, mute, and eventually managed to force out, "The hell?"

Jon shrugged, feigning innocence.

"You gossip like a rosebush-pruning grandmother, Jon," remarked Val, unsure if to be earnest or laugh wildly.

"Knowledge is power," retorted Jon.

Amidst the honking of horns, Jerod finally got his numb mind and hands to move and rejoined the natural flow of traffic. "What power could you possibly gain by knowing that, you man-hag, unless you intend to blackmail me?" he demanded of Jon as he pulled over.

Jon would not answer. He just got out of the car and went home, whistling and cradling his pulp horror paperback. Eventually Jerod gave up and went on to Val's home, then his own, avoiding the topic along the way and instead discussing movies, politics and work.