Short Cuts

A/N: This story is rated 'R' for adult themes and language! It takes place when the gang is about 28 years old, so those R-rated things sort of go with the territory! But there is nothing explicit or ridiculously out of character taking place here. Enjoy!

Short Cuts

I followed the night

Can't stand the light

When will I begin

To live again?

One day I'll fly away

Leave all of this to yesterday . . .

What more could your love

Do for me?

When will love be through with me?

Why live life from dream to dream?

And dread the day

When dreaming ends . . .

Part One: From Dream to Dream

Phoebe Gamelthorpe dragged her feet across the hallway and reached the door of the small apartment on the upper east side that she shared with her husband of five years. She glanced at her watch in the dim light of the hallway: it was past three o'clock in the morning. She slumped against the shut door and sighed.

Curly thought she was having an affair, and she didn't blame him. Her work at the lab kept her out at all hours, and there was little information that she was allowed to disclose about her experiments. The rest of her team went home to their children and spouses around midnight at the latest, but Phoebe pressed on through the night. She couldn't tell Curly that she'd rather be at the lab, that she felt it was the only worthwhile part of her life. She'd rather he imagined an affair.

Phoebe let herself in and left her shoes in the foyer. She dropped her purse and her lab notebooks on the floor – she would leave them there, almost begging Curly to peek inside them. She wanted him to poke and pry, to be curious about her work, to press her when she told him that she wasn't supposed to talk about it. She wanted him to find out so that he could awaken the moral part of her that would put a stop to what she was doing. Yet Curly restrained himself. He stayed away from her notebooks, her mail and the cell phone they'd given her for 'top secret' calls. His loyalty made her feel even worse.

She grabbed her pack of Menthols from the top of the fridge, and let herself out onto the porch. As a child, Phoebe never would have envisioned herself smoking. She stayed away from drugs and alcohol in high school, and even avoided them in college, saving room for studying and getting plenty of sleep. Health used to be top priority, Phoebe thought with a scoff. If only she'd known that it would be all for nothing!

Walking over to the right side of the balcony, she peeked in through the glass doors that led to the bedroom. Curly was lying on his stomach in their bed, one arm flung fitfully over the side as he slept. He was perfect for me, Phoebe thought, blowing a line of smoke at the door and watching it bounce off in a cloud. What have I done to him? She almost wished that Curly could be the one to have the affair – be it with his work or another woman – so that he wouldn't be so lonely, so crushed, when she could no longer offer him anything.

Phoebe walked to the balcony's ledge and tossed the cigarette over the railing, watching it catapult down forty stories to the noisy streets below. Three o'clock in the morning and downtown New York was still awake and honking. Phoebe sometimes missed the quiet burrow in Brooklyn where she and Curly had grown up.

What did I think of him, then? Phoebe wondered. I was in love with that black kid, Gerald. He'd had problems with their differing races as they got older, though; he'd left her for Tasha, the high school homecoming queen who's skin matched his.

Curly, in the meantime, had been just another psychotic white boy, underachiever and class maniac, he was small for his age and wore unattractive glasses. In high school he blossomed while Phoebe faltered; Curly recognized his potential and excelled in science and history, but while Phoebe continued to make the grade, she began to have feelings of worthlessness, her optimistic philosophies were slipping, her parents were divorcing and Gerald was practicing affirmative action in the dating sense, leaving her high and dry just as she was beginning to feel her oats sexually.

So she had needed Curly, then. They were in science club together, and they bonded during a token club trip to the aquarium, where they reminisced about having taken the same trip during elementary school.

" My father is a fisherman," Curly had told her that day, " But I'm a naturalist. I could never hack the heads off these beauties, not for money or genetic loyalty." He'd put his hand to the glass, and Phoebe did the same. She could feel his healing energy reaching out to the fish behind the see-through wall, apologizing for his father's cruelties, and she could feel him reaching for her, too.

She'd looked at him for the first time then – really looked, and saw not the wild little boy she'd known as a child, but a tall, lanky young man with floppy black hair and skin like pure snow, saved from the sun by his moralistic refusal to join his father at sea. His gray eyes strayed then from the fish and met hers with a jolt of electricity, and Phoebe felt the bridge of her nose flush red.

She had been a bit reluctant to allow herself to have feelings for a boy again, after Gerald's easy dismissal of her had cost her an innocent piece of her soul. But by the end of high school she and Curly were having a passionate affair that felt nothing like puppy love. They would sit outside in the cold during lunch and eat from a thermos of miso soup that Phoebe brought, because they both hated the obnoxious noise of the cafeteria, the depressing lighting of the public school and the just-add-water food they served. When they were through Curly would pull her close and wrap the folds of his long, winter coat around her. With her face buried against his scratchy sweaters, Phoebe felt that she was home at last.

In stolen moments in the spring, Phoebe allowed him to come home with her after school while her parents will still at work. Though the sex they had in her narrow twin bed was amateurish, Phoebe knew that underneath the botched movements and quick finishes, they were 'making love', and she felt grown up and complete. They would lie together afterwards and try not to fall asleep, so they would not be found out, slumbering blissfully when her parents arrived home.

To keep themselves awake, they talked about the science of what they were doing.

" Human biology ruins everything," Phoebe said once, posing seductively beside him on the thin linen sheets. " Who wants to think about sex in the procreational sense?"

" Right," Curly said, rubbing his eyes and yawning, spent and not looking forward to the evening's homework and studying, " Its all the urge to further the species. That's what they tell us, anyway."

" You don't believe that's all it is?" Phoebe asked, testing him. She'd always been afraid to love a fellow scientist, afraid he'd shoot down her secret longings to cling to the eastern religions her father had taught her as a girl, to her hopes that she would live forever in enlightening cycles, every new body a chance at improvement or a step back in punishment.

" Of course not," Curly said, frowning and touching her shoulder gently, " If it were true, wouldn't educated blokes like us avoid empty pleasure, the whole idea of love?"

" I don't know," Phoebe breathed, almost sorry she'd brought it up, " Maybe we're fooling ourselves."

" I don't think so," Curly said earnestly, pulling her into his arms, " Science hasn't squashed my sense of spirituality and emotional purpose – if anything, its enhanced it. I mean, something had to put all of this work into the universe to make every little muscle tendon and water molecule we study reliable and constant, right?"

" Yeah," Phoebe said with a small laugh, squeezing him, " But what?"

" That's the great mystery," he'd said, " Don't think about it too much. I think it defies logic."

Phoebe scoffed to herself now as she thought of their long-ago pillow talk. She kept telling herself to go inside, curl up beside him and get some sleep, maybe take the day off tomorrow. She felt wrecked. But something held her there, kept her on the balcony, staring out at the jutting skyscrapers and crowded streets of the city, evidence of so many lives being lived simultaneously, and so many lived before.

She wrapped her fingers around the railing that separated her from the edge of the concrete slab she stood on. Phoebe knew what she was doing in the lab was wrong. She was destroying the very spiritual fabric of life that she and Curly had discussed in bed as teenagers. Taking the emotion out of humanity, making them efficient machines, bombardiers, the kamikaze pilots of the silent war in the making.

Phoebe shut her eyes. She knew android technology had been inevitable since the invention of computers. Electronic memory had paved the way for electronic people. But the project she was working on was too much, as often as she tried to deny it. She felt she was in the middle of a science fiction novel where people's ambitions had gone horribly awry: a field of mad science, of great leaps taken too quickly and carelessly.

Her grip on the railing tightened. She knew she would be dead before her project was finished, but just the few breakthroughs she'd made in the last years would haunt her forever. If the reincarnation and life debts that her father had spoken of were the true path of the afterlife, she knew she'd return to earth as a worm, squashed quickly beneath the steel-footed warriors she had helped to create.

Phoebe put one foot on the bottom rung of the railing. The cancer would take her in a few years, anyway. She thought of Curly's optimistic research, his life devoted to curing her, and she had to pinch her eyes shut against the cruelty of emotions, of hopes. Maybe we'd all be better off if our intentions were carried out by machines, she thought coldly, our evolution continued into the unfeeling territory of technology. The sad sap cancer research that an ineffectual man did for his ungrateful wife was too depressing to bear – bring on the machines, the indifference.

She heard the glass door sliding open behind her and she stepped back from the edge of the balcony, her hands slipping off of the iron railing. Curly's arms went around her from behind, and she shook with sobs, embarrassed, but her pride momentarily defeated for the sake of release.

" Phoebe," he whispered in her ear, squeezing her closer to him, " What are you doing? Come inside."

" I can't," Phoebe cried, " I don't deserve to live. The cancer is my life debt, Curly. God is telling me to turn back."

" Hey," he said, turning her so that she faced him. He wiped some tears away carefully, his gray eyes searching hers. " Quit it. C'mere." He led her inside, and Phoebe could feel his hand shaking on her back. He doesn't know what to do with me, she realized, I'm scaring him.

Curly had her sit on the bed while he removed her clothes, and then he tenderly pulled her into bed, into his arms, and yanked the covers over them. Phoebe shut her eyes and felt the soft fabric fall lightly onto her legs, felt Curly's hot skin against hers under the cool sheets. She sniffled weakly, and looked up at him.

" I'm sorry," she said. He stared at her, quiet for a long time. Phoebe twitched under his gaze, nervous about what he might say.

" I'm taking you home," he said finally. Phoebe blinked.

" What do you mean?"

" We're going back to Brooklyn," he said with a nod, " I think you need a vacation – God knows I do. We're both . . ." he trailed off for a moment, then kissed her with trembling lips. " We need to remember what we were."

Phoebe started to protest – her work – they wouldn't hesitate to hunt her down and kill her if she disappeared, her mind choc full of classified information.

Curly rolled over in bed, and she pressed her face to his back. She was willing to take the chance. What kind of life was this, anyway? It would be refreshing to see the old neighborhood. She wondered briefly, before she drifted to sleep, what had ever happened to her childhood best friend, Helga Patacki. She'd been a real hellcat, as a kid.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Helga pushed through the crowd at the ceremony, pulling on her stockings as she went. They were bunching up around her ankles – Miriam had told her to buy them a size too big for comfort. Comfort my ass! Helga thought, scowling at the backs of the scholars that chuckled in tight circles throughout the open auditorium.

She finally spotted Olga standing with her mother and two younger looking men near the stage. Olga's new medal shone brightly from its place between her perky breasts, swinging slightly as she moved in delicate laughter. Helga braced herself for the sloppy praise that was surely being piled on her older sister before she joined the group.

" Helga!" Olga beamed. Helga still couldn't decide if Olga's requisite elation at seeing her was phony or genuine. Perhaps that was her sparkling sister's greatest accomplishment – the ability to be not quite honest nor sneaky, to keep people guessing about what she was capable of.

" Hey," Helga returned her sister's smile – she was, admittedly, a little bit drunk – the free champagne at the door had kept her cheeks rosy and her thoughts light throughout most of the ceremony. " Nice speech."

Olga let some fake/authentic tears pop into the corner of her eyes. She said something about how important it was to her to dedicate this particular medal to 'Daddy'. Big Bob had died during his third bypass two years ago, and ever since, Olga had been fond of dedicating various awards to his memory.

" Oh, Olga," Miriam droned, half in the bag herself. She placed a hand on her oldest daughter's graceful back.

" Where's Duncan?" Olga asked of her husband. They had been married for almost six years now. Helga had been having an affair with him for three.

" I'll find him," Helga assured her, " I need another drink, anyway." She pushed her way back toward the bar, where she figured Duncan would be sulking, sober but considering. His father had been an alcoholic – something that Helga proudly knew while Olga didn't – and he stayed away from alcohol for insurance purposes.

Sure enough, when she'd made her way past the sloshed celebrity geniuses that had been shaking hands on stage only an hour ago, she found Duncan sitting alone, looking at his hands. Helga sighed. He was not the love of her life, but she felt something for him that made her sad, made her wish that she could have the kind of relationship Olga had with him – emotionless and dull, but safe and appropriate, occasionally looking up from her photo sessions and business dinners to squeak approval at his quiet reverence.

Duncan Coy was the son of a prominent paper broker in Massachusetts, a cold man with a young wife who Duncan had gone to high school with. They no longer spoke to each other – Duncan couldn't stand to look at him after what he'd put he and his mother through, money or no. So he was cut off, broke, a lonely, unemployed and uninspired man before he met Olga. They met at Harvard, where Olga was doing a series of free lectures on Post-modern Japanese culture. Helga didn't blame Olga for falling for him despite his lack of motivation at the time when they'd met: Duncan was beautiful. She'd fallen for him herself, despite other things.

" Ahoy there," Helga said, pushing through another line of people to reach him. When she did this she stumbled, and caught herself on his shoulder. He turned to look at her and smiled.

" Helga," he said, " I'm sad. Sit down." She hopped up into the bar stool beside him, and rubbed the back of his neck.

" What's the matter?" she asked. Helga was a psychologist, she had her own office in the city and she did okay. Mostly she felt her field was a complete crock in the medical sense – people just wanted someone to listen to them. If they wanted to give her money in the meantime, that was fine. But with Duncan, her services were free.

He sighed, " Six months," he muttered, " Olga has been off of birth control for six months."

" Oh," Helga rubbed her knee, felt jealous but pushed it down. She'd told herself when she began this fling that she knew she was just Duncan's relief – that Olga was often away, that he was only lonely for physical contact, he wasn't looking for another wife. " And still nothing?"

" Nothing," he said, narrowing his eyes slowly, " I'm starting to think she's lying to me. I wish – I mean, if she doesn't want kids, why doesn't she just tell me?"

" Duncan," Helga groaned, beckoning for the bartender and ordering a martini with two olives. " You know what my opinion on my sister is. She'd rather love her trophies than a man, or a child."

" Don't say that," he said, watching hungrily as she drank her martini in a few gulps, " You're so unladylike," he remarked.

Helga burped, and rolled her eyes at him.

" But I take good care of you," she reminded him, trying to keep her tongue despite the fact that she was becoming rapidly wasted. He kissed her, and then glanced behind him.

" You do," he said, looking over his shoulder.

" She won't notice," Helga said dryly, " We're invisible to her when there are fellow world leaders around."

" Maybe so," he muttered, " But your mother has her eye on us, lately."

" Bull," Helga returned with a scoff, " Miriam wouldn't notice if I got a sex change. She's practically comatose since Bob died."

" God," Duncan said, " Families are so depressing."

" Then why the hell do you want to start one of your own?" Helga asked, her tone shifting to accusing. He shrugged, and smiled at her.

The auditorium started clearing out before too long, and Helga finished a bottle of red wine before Olga was finally ready to leave. The four of them got a taxi for the ride home, and Miriam sat up front with the driver while Helga squeezed into the back with Duncan and Olga. Duncan sat in the middle, and he sneaked a finger under her shirt as they drove. Helga wondered if he was doing the same thing to Olga, if he got off on playing them both at once.

They rode back to Olga and Duncan's penthouse in Manhattan for coffee and dessert. Apparently Olga had made some lemon-frosted cocoa peppermint concoction. Helga was starving: she always got hungry when she'd had too much to drink.

She threw her coat on the floor when they arrived, and Olga quickly collected it, embarrassed for her sister, who was obviously trashed. Miriam wasn't much better – she went into the open living room and laid down on the couch, putting her feet up on some pillows that Olga had bought in India. Duncan sat on the loveseat, and Helga plopped down next to him.

" Its so nice for us all to be together at last," Olga gushed, oblivious, from the kitchen as she collected her dessert and poured the coffee. Duncan eyed Helga. She felt shivers move through her – they'd made love on this couch before, and on that carpet, in that kitchen – often while Olga was off researching the Egyptian tombs or the Hawaiian volcanoes, but sometimes when she was right in the next room on the telephone.

Miriam was quickly asleep on the couch. Duncan reached over and ran his hand over Helga's thigh before Olga bustled in with the refreshments.

" Here we go," Olga said, fixing three plates and clucking her tongue at her mother, " I got this recipe from one of the Kennedy cousins."

" Ah," Helga said, feeling brave, " Name-dropping cake. The best kind." Olga laughed nervously. She heard Duncan suppress a snort of laughter.

" Well," Olga said quietly, " Since she's asleep – there's something I wanted to talk to you about, Helga." Helga raised her eyebrows, and scarfed down her cake. It was good – she wondered why Olga didn't win another Nobel prize for cooking - it was the only attribute of hers that Helga gave a damn about, the only work of her sister's that she saw the benefits of.

" Mom's house in Brooklyn," Olga began, daintily sipping her coffee, " Its really getting too cumbersome for her to keep up all by herself. And there's an opening here in our building – I thought maybe she could sell the old house and move into something more reasonable."

Helga laughed, " You want Mom to live here?" She saw Duncan's face go white – as if their relationship wasn't messed up enough, her sister wanted to basically live with her mother at age 32?

" I know what you're thinking," Olga assured her, " It will be hard to see our childhood home sold to someone else." She made a sympathetic face. Helga giggled.

" Right," she said, rolling her eyes, " All the good memories."

" Olga –" Duncan began.

" What the hell do you want me to do about this?" Helga asked, cutting him off, " You need my permission to sell the house or something? I'd suggest asking for Mom's."

" Well," Olga said quietly, " You know how older people can be . . . set in their ways . . ."

" Olga," Helga said, rolling her eyes, " She'd do anything you told her to."

" Perhaps," Olga admitted, putting down her cup and straightening her responsible tan skirt. " But I was wondering if you could go into town this weekend and see about getting it sold? I would do it myself, but I've got conferences on Saturday and Sunday morning. And it would be just the perfect time to do it, since Mom is staying here until Monday."

" What?" Duncan asked, hurt, " She's staying here this weekend?" Olga nodded, frowning. " But I thought – I thought we'd be together this weekend, Olga. For God's sake – you just got back from goddamn Alaska, I haven't seen you in over a month!"

" I don't understand," Olga said, frowning, " What's the big deal if Mom is here? I'll still be able to see you."

Duncan grumbled something inaudible and stormed into the kitchen. Olga excused herself and followed him in, and Helga strained to hear their quiet married-people argument.

She gave up on eavesdropping after awhile, and thought about Olga's suggestion to go back into town and try to get the house sold. She knew it wouldn't be hard – houses in and near the city were hot objects these days, and the brownstone was still in good shape. She wondered if any of the 'old gang' was still in town – she hadn't seen most of them since high school, after she'd gone off to college in Vermont.

Namely, she wondered if Arnold was still there. She doubted it – she remembered him leaving for Boston after graduation. That Arnold. He was really something when they were kids – the object of her first fantasies, from girlish innocence to the more hormone-induced desires of adolescence. The boy with the cornflower hair. She laughed out loud when she thought of their one moment of intimacy after years of teasing and chasing him: a drunken tryst in Nadine's bathroom during an after-prom party. Helga rubbed her temples and wondered if the culmination of her love for Arnold hadn't set the tone for the relationships of her adulthood. Lately she felt like most of her relationships were nothing more than drunken trysts. Hers with Duncan was certainly going nowhere fast.

Suddenly Duncan came rushing out of the kitchen. He looked at Helga and grabbed his coat from the foyer. Olga came running after him.

" Duncan!" she cried, pools of black mascara staining her cheeks, " Don't go!" Despite her pleas her husband walked out the door and slammed it behind him. Olga collapsed onto the floor, sobbing.

" Olga," Helga moaned, rising and going to her sister as Miriam slowly woke in the commotion. " What happened?"

" He's upset," Olga cried, trying to steady her voice, " He's just upset. He didn't mean it. He's … he just needs to cool off."

When Miriam took over comforting Olga, Helga got her own coat and excused herself for the evening. She couldn't take much more of her sister's drama-queen act: what did she expect, when she took off for the four corners of the world and left her husband alone to wring his hands?

Helga pushed her way out of Olga's plush apartment building, only to find Duncan sitting on the steps outside, waiting for her. He stood and walked over to her. Helga noticed that it was raining – a light sprinkle that fell almost silently from the night sky.

" What did you say to her?" Helga asked. She was sobering up fast, and the cool rain felt good on her forehead.

" I told her I was leaving her," Duncan said slowly, frowning. " God. What will I do?" Helga thought about embracing him and offering him her couch. But he wanted to be alone with Olga. That was what this was about. He wanted to have Olga's baby, but she wouldn't coincide with his plans. Helga couldn't be his consolation prize; she was tired of being the too-easy second choice. She'd been second to somebody all her life.

She shut her eyes. " Its raining," she said aloud, and the cool drops poured down harder onto her upturned face.

" No kidding," Duncan scoffed. " So," he said, " Where are you going now?"

" Home," Helga said with a smile, and she felt a rush of warmth surge through her despite the chilly rain.

" To your apartment?" Duncan asked, fishing for an invitation.

" Nope," Helga said, walking away from him, " Home for real." She decided to walk back to her apartment instead of hailing a cab. She would go back, take a warm bath, and then get some sleep before packing up tomorrow and heading back to Brooklyn. It would be a relief to spend some time in the old brownstone on Hill Street, a vacation from the big city and a chance to do some thinking.

She thought again about Arnold as she walked into her building and shook the water out of her short blond hair. She hoped he would be there, though she didn't know what to expect after more than ten years. She had a few things she still needed to say to the football head.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Arnold couldn't sleep. He was at Miranda's house, in her small-ish double bed, staring up at her plaster ceiling. Her bedside clock was a loud ticker: after nearly five hours of tossing and turning, every move of the second hand was like a deafening crack. He looked over at the clock in the semi-darkness of early morning – it was almost seven o'clock. He decided to get up.

He kicked the covers off his feet and shook his head. She kept her small house way too cold – he shivered as he climbed from the warm bed, goosebumps rising on his arms.

Arnold turned and looked at her, still sound asleep, her arms collapsed around a hollow space where he had been lying. He'd met Miranda at his new job: a 'production assistant' on the set of a low-budget movie that she was starring in. It wasn't the next big thing – a stale coming of age story in which Miranda played the older sister – and he was mostly just a coffee boy, making runs to Starbucks to 'assist production'.

But they were lucky to have met: she the tainted, hopeful starlet, and he the sensitive, starving artist. Last night was their first official 'date' after weeks of flirting, and it had ended at 3 o'clock in the morning with a roll in the hay. Arnold vaguely remembered stumbling in the door last night, and could recall pieces of what had happened afterward: an awkward tumble into bed, his face pressed to Miranda's flat stomach. And the feeling of exhaustion afterward: he remembered that clearly, as he hadn't slept since.

Arnold almost hoped she would wake up to keep him some company, but she was a deep sleeper – a trait that he envied – so he pulled on his boxers and wandered out to find her kitchen, get something to eat.

The light was on in the living room when he walked out of the bedroom, and the TV was blasting Saturday morning cartoons. Arnold frowned, and crept out further to investigate – when he peered around the corner at the couch, a be-speckled eight-year old boy with a bowl of Frosted Flakes in his lap stared back.

Arnold jumped. The boy took another bite of his cereal, chewed thoughtfully.

" You left your pants on the floor," the boy said, annoyed, pointing to Arnold's jeans, which had been tossed in the lobby during the process of undressing that had taken place from the foyer to the bedroom.

" Oh, shit," Arnold said, his cheeks burning into bright red circles. He didn't know Miranda had a kid – he realized that he'd cursed and put his hand over his mouth, " Sorry," he said. The kid rolled his eyes.

" I've said worse," he informed Arnold. He turned his attention back to the small television and continued eating his cereal. Arnold stood in his place, dumbfounded, wishing he wasn't wearing only his underwear.

Eventually he went into the kitchen and pulled out the orange juice, poured some with a shaking hand. He had a hangover and needed coffee, but he didn't feel like poking around in Miranda's cabinets looking for coffee components – who knows what other things he'd find out about her? She had a kid – what if she had a husband here somewhere, too?

Arnold timidly joined Miranda's son on the couch with his own bowl of cereal. They sat in silence for awhile, watching raptly as the road runner avoided Wile E. Coyote yet again. Arnold wanted to ask the kid his name, but he was afraid of giving the impression that his mother hadn't even mentioned him, which would probably hurt the boy's feelings.

" So," the kid said eventually, putting his empty cereal bowl on the coffee table in front of the couch, " Aren't you going to ask me if she brings home lots of guys?"

Arnold eyed him, " No," he said, " Its none of my business." The kid rolled his eyes, seeing through him easily. Arnold had the feeling he'd been through this sort of morning encounter plenty of times, and he had his answer.

" I'm Evan, by the way," he said. " And just in case you're interested, my Mom's real name is Louise Henderson. Miranda Brooks is just her 'stage name'."

" Oh," Arnold said, feeling cheated. For some reason he'd thought 'Miranda' might be The One. He was almost thirty, after all. It was about time to have some smart-ass, cartoon-watching kids of his own. " Well, I'm Arnold," he added.

" Yeah," Evan said, changing the channel, " I heard." Arnold wondered what he meant for a moment, and then vaguely remembered Miranda shouting his name last night during – he winced.

He sighed and finished his cereal. Is my life a mess? he wondered, leaning over and glancing at his reflection in the mirrored surface of the coffee table. This was the third struggling actress that he'd tried to have a relationship with this month. Was he just looking in the wrong places? He ran his hand over his cheeks – rough stubble scratched his fingers.

Did he really go to college to land jobs buying coffee for low-rent producers and hack directors? Of course not – he transferred from Boston College his sophomore year to USC, starting over in the golden land of Hollywood, graduating with a degree in film and unfaltering confidence that out of everyone in his class, he would be the one to make it, to go far. But that was four years ago. And now here he was, on the sofa with a B-movie actress's illegitimate son, watching Road Runner cartoons.

" Oh," he heard Miranda's groggy voice in the doorway, and turned to see her leaning there, wearing a robe open over a white tank top and bikini briefs, rubbing her eyes and squinting at the two of them on the couch. " You're both up," she muttered, shuffling into the kitchen.

Arnold collected the two cereal bowls and followed her in. She was fumbling with a coffee pot, not quite awake yet.

" I normally don't get up this early," she said, yawning. " But Alik is coming over with the check at eight. He's got a flight out to Seattle at nine-thirty. The shithead. Figures he would apply himself and start making money after we broke up."

" Who's Alik?" Arnold asked, and then: " I didn't know you had a kid."

" Oh, Evan?" Miranda said, waving a hand in the direction of her son, " He's cool. Alik is his dad, my ex. He's French. But not like, classy French. Obsessed with stock cars. A real dick."

" Maybe I should put on some clothes," Arnold muttered, wishing intensely that he could be home in his own bed. Sure, his apartment was a dank hole-in-the-wall, but it was over an old-fashioned movie theater on Sunset, and it felt right to him. He had bird feeders on the window sill and shelves of old jazz records lined his bedroom walls.

" Why bother?" Miranda asked with a sly grin, " I like you to show a little skin, hon." She winked. Arnold felt suddenly like a piece of meat. Who was this woman? The doorbell rang.

" Arnie," Miranda said, calling him by his most dreaded nickname, the one that reminded him of his weird cousin from the country. " Be a dear and get the door, would you? I'm going to make us some eggs."

Zombie-like, Arnold did as he was told. When he opened the door a tall, almost middle-aged man with beady eyes gave him a once over.

" Not bad," he called to Miranda in a faded European accent, raising his eyebrows and giving Arnold a smart-ass grin, " Could stand to do some sit-ups, though," he said, pushing past Arnold.

" Shut up, Alik," Miranda moaned. Evan stayed slumped on the couch, chewing on his fingernails and not acknowledging his father's presence. Arnold looked down at his stomach. Sit ups? He sucked it in a bit.

" Bonjour, fils," Alik said to Evan, who glanced up at him, bored. " Comment vous aiment aller à un jeu de base-ball avec moi la semaine prochaine?"

" Huh?" Evan said, making a face at his father. Alik clucked his tongue reproachfully.

" Haven't been practicing your French, have you?" he asked with a condescending grin.

" Maybe if you spent some time with him he'd pick it up more naturally," Miranda spat from the kitchen. Arnold felt like he had accidentally woken up in the wrong house – now here he was, standing out of place in the middle of a domestic dispute.

Alik muttered something fiercely in French, and yanked a white envelope out of his pocket.

" Here's the monthly installment," he said coldly, and Miranda hungrily snatched the check out of his hand. " I wish you'd go ahead and marry again so I could quit this whole exchange. Who's the latest candidate?" He looked at Arnold disapprovingly, " This guy?"

" We just met," Miranda growled, " Lay off."

" Ah, you just met?" Alik scoffed, " What, he wandered into the house and introduced himself in his boxers?" Arnold heard Evan laugh quietly to himself on the couch. He opened his mouth to defend himself but couldn't come up with anything.

" I need to go," he said, to no one in particular. Miranda gave him a pouty look, but he ignored it and went back into the bedroom to get dressed. He searched the trashcan as he buttoned his pants, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found an empty Trojan wrapper floating near the top – all he needed was another pregnancy scare with a girl like Miranda.

" I'll see you later," he called to Miranda as he breezed past the kitchen, where Alik was reaching into the frying pan to sample some scrambled eggs with his fingers.

" Aw, Arnold," Miranda whined, " You don't want to stay for breakfast?"

" C'mon, Mom," Evan muttered from the sofa, nervously adjusting his glasses, " They never do. Next time I'll sleep in," he added, giving Arnold a dirty look.

" Its not that," Arnold assured them, backing toward the door. He wanted to stay and apologize, to explain himself, for Evan's sake at least. But his flight reflex was kicking in and he obeyed it. He waved to the motley crew and whirled around, grabbed the door and felt a sense of freedom as soon as he was outside.

It was a bright summer day. Arnold's car was burning hot when he climbed inside, but he didn't mind. He felt slightly enlightened. Maybe he'd think twice before he went home with a girl like Miranda, now.

He tried to remember the last healthy relationship he'd had as he drove home, past the palm trees and tattoo parlors that lined the streets of downtown Hollywood. In film school, most of the girls were wannabe actresses who either weren't going to make the cut because of weight problems or no talent. A few of the better looking ones got gigs doing aerobics in the background of Cindy Crawford's exercise videos, and they considered that their big break. Arnold found them disheartening. He missed Fiona, his girlfriend from Boston. He'd broken it off with her when he transferred to USC, and later attempts to crawl back to her were thwarted by her new boyfriend, Quinton, a loud-mouthed History major.

I should have stayed in Boston, Arnold thought with a pang of defeat. Maybe Fi and I would be married by now. He'd really loved her – she didn't play the guitar or act, didn't even write poetry with a pompous sense of melancholy. She was just existing, small and cute with a Mid-Western accent that just slew him. She drank hard apple cider on Tuesday afternoons and put up with his addiction to Dragon Ball Z. She wore yellow sweaters. He should have hung onto her for dear life, but back then he'd thought that since he'd found Fiona right off the bat when he'd started school in Boston, that he'd find someone else in California just as easily – someone more spectacular, someone who could discuss Chaplin and Lurman over Earl Grays.

Arnold laughed now at his former idea of the perfect woman. He sighed, and decided he needed to get his mind off of all of this for awhile. Maybe he needed a new job, too. He'd go for a run when he got home, he decided, past all of the celebrity mansions, silently denouncing their gluttony in a jealous rage.

When he pulled up to the old theater that housed his apartment, he noticed someone sitting on the steps outside. Was that – his grandfather? Puzzled, Arnold parked the car and hopped out – sure enough, when he walked closer, he discovered that it was Phil, sitting right there on the streets of Hollywood, clutching an old bowler hat in his hands – wearing his best suit, his 'traveling' suit.

" Grandpa?" he called, jogging over when he saw the rare look of sadness on his usually jovial grandfather's face. Phil stood slowly and mustered up an insincere grin for his grandson. They embraced.

" Hey, short man," Phil said, squeezing him. Arnold could smell the boarding house and the neighborhood he'd grown up in all over the old man – memories came rushing back in a flood that threw him off balance for a moment.

" What are you doing here?" he asked, stepping back when he'd regained his composure. " Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"

" I tried to call last night, kiddo," Phil explained, " But you must have been asleep," he rationalized innocently, " I'm afraid I have some bad news . . ."

" Its grandma, isn't it?" Arnold asked, his eyes filling. He surprised himself. He hadn't been very close to his near-senile grandmother in the past years, but the loss of her would still hit hard . . .

Phil nodded solemnly, " Pookie passed away on Friday afternoon," he explained carefully, " She went in her sleep. In her favorite chair, even." Arnold attempted a smile to make his grandfather feel better.

" She's in a better place," he insisted, an empty phrase that he wasn't sure he believed. " She's with mom and dad," he added, more earnestly. Phil nodded.

" I hope you won't be too busy to come home for the funeral –" Phil began gingerly. Arnold couldn't believe Phil would even assume the possibility that he couldn't make time to attend the funeral of the woman who'd raised him.

" Of course I can come, grandpa," he said, squeezing Phil's shoulder. " How soon can we leave?" he added with a scoff, " Its been too long . . . since I've been home. I need to get out of this city."

" We can leave for the airport now, if you'd like," Phil said, his face brightening a bit. Arnold placed his hand on his grandfather's back and asked if he'd like to come up for a drink while he packed a few things for the trip. He was thankful that he'd left Miranda's while he had – Phil didn't need to be alone for a moment longer. He knew that, despite their bickering, his 'Pookie' had meant the world to him. Arnold almost felt a flicker of jealousy, wondering if it was possible to have a love like that anymore. Wondering if it was possible for a guy like him.

Upstairs, he hastily poured his grandfather a glass of cranberry juice and thought about the last time he'd been home. He'd bought a flank steak from Harold at Green's butcher shop, visited Eugene in the hospital, and gone to see Gerald play at the old jazz club on Eubanks Street. He remembered with some sadness that he and Gerald hadn't had much to say to each other, though they'd been friends from elementary through high school. But their lives had followed such different paths … He wondered how Gerald was doing now.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Gerald sat still at the piano bench. He was supposed to be warming up, but instead he sat silent, listening to the noises of preparation that broke the silence of the empty bar. The tiny details that went into the place before opening. Mark, the bartender, polished glasses at the bar – the sharp static of the sound of glass against glass clicked through the empty room. Nonnie, the owner, sat at the end of the bar shuffling through papers and answering the phone. Every now and then the piercing whine of the phone's ring shook the quiet air in the club before she picked it up.

Later, this room would be filled with smoke, noisy laughter and his own music. But for now, peace. Gerald shut his eyes.

He was supposed to visit his daughter, Timberly, today, but he didn't think he'd have time. He needed to spend more time with her, but she still felt like an alien to him. Maybe it was just his own denial in the face of having a surprise child. He'd named her after his sister, who had died in a car accident when she was 15. Annie had never known his sister, and she hated the name.

Annie had worked as a waitress in the bar, back when Gerald was still 'The Man', smooth with the ladies and the customers, taking home generous tips and suggestive hotel room keys. Annie's unexpected pregnancy had put an end to all of that. Six years ago she'd given birth to Timberly.

Gerald had actually been there, seen his daughter born. It hadn't been the most tender moment – he and Annie weren't exactly sweethearts – but his daughter's newborn cries had brought tears to his eyes. He tried to remember those tiny moments when he saw her now - an uppity, strangely street-wise six year old whose mother was already training her to 'act white' so that she wouldn't be chastised by black kids for being so 'mixed', so light-skinned and sloppily thrown together. But she was beautiful. Gerald knew Timberly would never have trouble fitting in – beauty outweighed background these days.

He saw someone knocking on the front door and got up to let them know that the bar wasn't open yet – then he realized it was Rhonda. A grin spread across his face when he saw that she'd finally washed the fake blond dye out of her hair – her old color, raven black - which he hadn't seen on her since high school – hung in a short new cut, just barely past her ears. She returned his smile and waved.

Rhonda Lloyd was probably his best friend. She'd gone off to the big city right after high school and made it big as a model. Rhonda had class like nobody else he knew. She'd been a show-off as a kid, but grew more refined and mature with age, earning herself acclaim in all the right circles. A sudden passion for acting had led her out to Hollywood in her early twenties, where she'd dyed her hair blond and caught a few good parts right off – played Tom Hanks' daughter in the war movie du jour, then got the lead in an offbeat dark comedy with the kid from Terminator 2.

But she got a big head, and started making some bad choices. Offered her own television sitcom, she foolishly took the job and accepted the writers' idea that she help fund the project. Rhonda lost both money and face after the sitcom bombed, and ended up washed out at twenty six.

Her parents, who were constantly going through extreme ups and downs, had lost all of their money yet again, and moved to Pittsburgh to try and start a restaurant chain. They were doing okay for themselves now and they helped Rhonda out when they could. She lived in a tiny apartment near the old elementary school and did what she could without attracting much attention – cleaned houses, waited tables at the bar, avoided the lure of posing topless for quick cash. Gerald gave her free piano lessons every Thursday. Her new, more humble dream was to play piano and sing at the Rainbow Room or the Plaza downtown.

" Hey, girl," he greeted her with a hug, and tugged at her new hairdo, " You look great. Its about time you let your roots take over."

" Yeah," Rhonda said, rolling her eyes, " Who was I kidding, right? But I don't know. I need to get used to this again," she looked at her reflection self-consciously in the glass on the bar's front door.

" Well, you look about ten times younger," Gerald told her, and she did. She was like a ghost image of the girl he'd known in high school – her former, bright-eyed, self, strutting her stuff on mini cat walks at the mall for traveling designers. Rhonda grinned.

" To go with the new coif," Rhonda said, walking inside and taking a seat on one of the small bar tables, " I have a new mastermind scheme!"

Gerald rolled his eyes. Rhonda was her father's daughter: she always had some get-rich-quick plan on the backburner while she scrubbed other people's toilets for a living. But while her father's projects were hit or miss, Rhonda's were usually miss.

" This is no-fail stuff, Gerald," she insisted, snapping her fingers at Mark and asking for a martini with two olives. Some things never change. " I can make an easy $5000 bucks for next to nothing!"

" So what's the catch?" Gerald asked, sitting down opposite her.

" No catch!" Rhonda insisted, " All I have to do is sell my eggs! Let some other couple use them for in-vitro fertilization."

Gerald rubbed his chin, " I've heard of this," he said, " They make you take hormones, you know. You might gain some weight."

Rhonda shrugged and rolled her eyes, accepting her martini from Mark. " I can always just get liposuction after I have the money!" she said with a wink. " And I've given up on dating, anyway. This neighborhood has completely dried up. Who's left? Harold? Mark?"

Gerald glanced at Mark, who was wiping down the counter of the bar – he'd always had a crush on Rhonda. But then, who hadn't? Even Curly had black-mailed her into dating him when they were kids. Rhonda had always been the most beautiful girl in school – next to maybe Lila.

" God," he said, remembering the pig-tailed cutie with a smile, " Remember Lila? From high school?"

Rhonda laughed, " How could I forget?" she asked, " My fresh-faced rival for prom queen. Of course I beat the little bitch into the ground," she said with a wink,

" And your girlfriend, Tasha, too." She sighed, " Those were the goddamn days, eh? You got a cigarette?"

Gerald shook his head, " I quit, remember?"

" Oh, yeah," Rhonda mumbled, examining her nails.

" I remember Arnold chasing Lila around," he said, " Ever since fifth grade. Man, that girl drove him crazy."

" And then she went and lost her cherry to Kevin O'Fallen on prom night," Rhonda said with a snicker, " He freaked out."

Gerald shrugged, " I don't blame him," he said, " He'd been dating her for years, her waving her ' I must wait until marriage' bullshit in his face, stringing him along. Then with Kevin, just like that – man, he flipped."

Rhonda nodded, " We were all drunk as hell," she said, finishing her martini

" Whatever happened to Lila?"

" Who knows," Gerald said, rolling his eyes, " She probably married that asshole Kevin out of principal."

Rhonda grinned wickedly, " Did he ever tell you what happened that night after he found out about Lila and Mark?" she asked, popping an olive in her mouth. Gerald grinned – Rhonda was so gossipy.

" Yeah," he said, helping himself to her second olive, " With Helga." Rhonda laughed.

" I can't believe he had her in Nadine's bathroom," she said, " For crying out loud. But she was always so in love with him, I'm sure it was alright with her. And its not like my own little fling with him was much classier."

Gerald raised an eyebrow, " You and Arnold?"

" What, I never told you?" Rhonda said, her eyes sparkling, always glad to relay new information, " Arnold and I met out in Hollywood when I was still acting. He was in school out there, doing some bullshit documentary for his thesis. He asked me to narrate it, I told him to go to hell. I mean, I was making hundreds of thousands of dollars per picture, then. Anyway," she said with a sigh, " We ended up having sex in the backseat of his car, for old times sake. It was a convertible, top down. I felt like a slut, but, hey – Helga told me he was a great lay." She ran her finger around the top of her empty martini glass, " He didn't disappoint."

Gerald faked a shudder, " Quit it, you're grossing me out," he said, making a face, " That's my childhood best friend you're talking about!"

Rhonda laughed, " What, are you still picturing that little kid with the tiny baseball hat and the shirt that looked like a kilt?" She winked at him, " He's a real dish now."

Gerald shrugged, " I saw him last year," he said, " He comes to town from time to time to see his grandparents. If I'd have known the two of you were such – old chums – I would have invited you out with us."

" Yeah," Rhonda said with a chuckle, " Come find me the next time he's in town. Unless he's made something of himself by then. I don't think I could stand to have him be the one showing me up."

" He's really the only person I still see from high school, save you and Harold," Gerald said, his eyes growing dark, " Haven't seen Phoebe in years."

A knowing smile crept across Rhonda's dark red lips, " Your old flame." Gerald nodded, and felt the familiar punch in his stomach, crack in his heart. He'd loved Phoebe intensely, even as a child. But he was so jealous of her. He couldn't keep up with her grades, her sobriety, her perfect reputation. So he grew an attitude. He started playing football, and decided she was too nerdy for the likes of him, Gerald, God of Cool. He was an idiot. He told her that dating her made him feel like a traitor to his race. What a load of crap.

" You know who she married?" Rhonda asked, sitting back, probably thankful that she didn't have any 'old flames' that could drag her over the coals of regret from time to time. Gerald knew.

" Curly," he said with a sneer, " Totally bizarre. I remember seeing them at prom together. She looked . . . happy."

Rhonda sighed, and grew distant. " What might have been," she muttered.

" Yep," Gerald said, looking at the floor. Phoebe, the great and maybe only love of his life. After her, he dated only empty-headed girls, to boost his self esteem and serve as accessories to his greatness. He wondered if Phoebe was still as happy without him as she'd looked on prom night, over ten years ago.

To be Continued in Part Two!

A/N: As you've probably realized, there will be a 'Clash of the Titans' of sort when the PS-118 gang meets again in the old neighborhood. Look for it soon!

And a note about 'She's Killed Again!', my other work in progress: I like the story, but there are certain things about the first chapter that I want to change. So I might come out with a revised version after I finish 'Short Cuts'. Sorry for the delay! ~Mena