"ONE STEP BACK, TWO STEPS UP"

Part I

Larry sat at the kitchen table, looking through his latest volume of published articles he'd written for the Chicago Chronicle. He'd already bound three volumes and was working on his fourth, an accomplishment he'd never imagined in his wildest dreams. He focused on one of his recent favorites – an investigative piece about a bribery scandal in the city sanitation department. A pair of upper-management members had been receiving kickbacks from a City Councilor for fabricating the accounting records to give the voting public the impression that the department's skyrocketing costs were recovering substantially. Larry had adeptly noticed a minor flaw in the numbers reported to the media, and quietly went to work on his hunch that there were some definite suspect dealings occurring. After several weeks of intense investigations, including his discovery of a willing informant, Larry broke the story and helped the Chronicle alert the public to the truth. The public outcry led to criminal charges being filed against the City Councilor and members of the city sanitation department. For his efforts, Larry received high praise from his boss Mr. Wainwright, from his peers, and even from Marshall and Walpole, the famous investigative reporting team who Larry worked under.

He couldn't help but smile as he stared at the article.

Balki came roaring out of his bedroom, flailing his arms as he clumsily tried to put on his best Myposian vest. "Cousin, I'm sorry I'm running late!" he gasped, as Larry looked up from his scrapbook. "I was organizing the woolballs for my collection of 3D barnyard murals, when I lost all track of time!"

Larry peered at his frantic cousin. "Woolballs?"

"Yeah. They're like hairballs, except they come from sheep!"

His cousin reeled with nausea over the thought of someone actually collecting something a sheep would cough up. "Balki, that's repulsive!"

"Oh, no – we don't check their heart rate until after they give us the woolballs."

"I'm not talking about their pulse. I'm talking about how disgusting it is to collect something that was not meant to be collected, let alone included in a piece of artwork!"

"Oh, Cousin, that not disgusting is! Using woolballs is a strong artistic statement on Mypos. Disgusting is when you take sheep bile that's been sitting in the sun for three days and—"

"Ok, ok, ok, ok!" Larry halted, holding his stomach. "I get the picture."

"Really?"

"Yes. A very, very vivid one. And right before dinner, too – nice touch."

Balki smiled, placed a hand on Larry's cheek and shoved, nearly knocking his cousin out of his chair. "Oh, go on with you!" He instantly grabbed Larry by the face and hauled him up to his feet. "Come, the girls are waiting!"

"Ok," Larry replied, somewhat disheveled from Balki's manhandling. He adjusted his tie then picked up his scrapbook. "Let me just put this away."

"What that is?"

"It's Volume 4 of my articles," Larry said lightly as he carried the book over to the bookshelf. "I was just perusing some of my work."

"Oh, Cousin, don't do that! Why you would want to exploit your hard work for money?"

"No, Balki; perusing, not prostituting. Perusing means reading. Looking over my past work reminds me how well things have turned out for me at the paper."

"Well, no special bulletin there," Balki replied. "The Chronicle is lucky to have an infest-laden reporter like you!"

"Investigative reporter," Larry corrected, as Balki stared into his cousin's mouth while he pronounced the word again, "investigative."

"That's what I did say."

"No."

"You are sure?"

"Absolutely." Larry walked across the room and opened the door.

Balki followed, then stepped into the hallway as Larry locked the door behind them. "Well, it don't matter. What matters is that Marshmallow and Whirlpool will soon see what a great reporter you are. Before you can say 'ohki po po lo po', they'll make you a partner in their indigestive news team!"

"That certainly would be an interesting turn of events," Larry quipped at Balki's last misinterpretation. The cousins climbed the stairs and made their way to Jennifer and Mary Anne's apartment. Balki knocked on the door once, paused, then knocked again. He looked to his cousin and grinned before he began thumping the wood to a specific beat.

"We will, we will rock you!" he sang. He stopped suddenly and turned to Larry, confused. "Cousin, why those people sing about rocking someone? Are they punishing someone for stealing their chickens?"

Larry looked at Balki. "Actually, the song's about rocking chairs," he answered facetiously. "They're singing to their grandmothers."

Balki smiled. "That's so nice. They're promising to rock their nanas to sleep!"

The door opened. "Hi, guys," Mary Anne greeted as she let the boys in.

"Mary Anne, you are a mite for boars' eyes!"

"Thanks, Balki!" Her enthusiastic smile suddenly disappeared. She stared at her boyfriend, then asked blankly, "what does that mean?"

"And you," Larry said as Jennifer moved over to him, "are a sight for sore eyes!"

"Why, thank you," Jennifer responded with a smile as Balki looked on in confusion.

"Cousin, if your eyes is sore, why you don't just put drops in them?"

"Balki—"

"Just be careful to grab the right drops. Last month, I meant to use eye drops but grabbed the peppermint extract instead, and--

"How did you manage to mistake peppermint extract for eye drops?"

"Well, I was in the washroom, and ended up grabbing the wrong bottle."

"Why did you have peppermint extract in the bathroom?"

Balki paused with a shrug. "How else I give my yak tonsil stew its minty aftertaste?"

Larry turned to Jennifer, who gave him a 'Well, you started it' look, then back to Balki "Ok, ok," Larry said, squinting as he tried to make sense of this conversation. "Please, please tell me you were merely eating your stew in the bathroom."

"I was."

"Oh, thank God," Larry gasped, his fear of the worst now subsided.

"I had to taste test it after I mixed it all up in the sink."

"Wait a minute. Hold on now. Are you telling me that the yak tonsil stew – the same yak tonsil stew you made me eat, the same yak tonsil stew I was only able to stomach through some unexplained miracle, the same yak tonsil stew that bore at least eight colors not found in nature – was mixed in our bathroom sink before you served it?"

"Well, of course it was, don't be ridiculous! That's how we know it's ready. When it strong enough is to clean your porcelain—"

"I beg of you," Larry gagged, "do not finish that sentence!"

"I guess you're not in the mood for dinner now, are you, Larry?" Mary Anne asked.

Larry glared at Balki. "I may never eat again."

"I know just what you need, then, to threat your appetite," Balki announced. "Mama's special hunger-inducing smoothie. You just take some eel tongue—"

"Stop right there! I draw the line at ingesting anything that has eaten algae!"

"Even if you dip it in stiminiki sauce?"

"Ooh, what's stiminiki sauce?" Mary Anne asked enthusiastically.

Jennifer spoke up as she noticed the look of nausea appearing on Larry's face. "Uh, maybe we should talk about something else to get Larry's mind off of—" she paused, trying to avoid the topic of yak tonsil stew, "--what he's trying to get his mind off of."

"You mean the yak tonsil stew."

Larry clutched his stomach as Jennifer eyed her friend. "Forget the stew," she instructed.

"Well, ok," Mary Anne said helplessly, "but I thought it would be a nice thing to use to get that mildew out of the corner of our shower."

"Mary Anne," Larry begged, "please…"

"Oh…..sorry."

"Well, what you say, Cousin," Balki began, "are you ready to go?"

"Balki, I think we need to give Larry a little time to digest—" Jennifer suddenly stopped. "Sorry, Larry – bad choice of words." She faced Balki and Mary Anne again. "I think we need to give Larry a little time to settle." Jennifer led her boyfriend to the couch. "Larry, why don't you have a seat and I'll go get you some water."

"Thank you," Larry burbled.

Mary Anne and Balki joined Larry in the sitting area as Jennifer headed for the kitchen. "So, Larry," Mary Anne said, trying to get his mind away from Myposian food, "how about this weather we've been having? One minute it's sunny, and the next minute the barometric pressure is falling and creating a ridge of low air flow that brings heavy cumulonimbus clouds and decreasing kilopascals."

Balki and Larry looked at Mary Anne, then assumed in unison. "Willard Scott once changed your tire."

Mary Anne's mouth dropped open. "You were there?"

Jennifer exited the kitchen with a glass of water and a copy of Chicago Weekly magazine. She handed the glass to Larry and sat next to him. "How are you feeling?"

"Bewildered."

She looked at Mary Anne and read her expression. "Somehow, I can imagine why." She turned her attention to the magazine, opening it to a marked page. "I almost forgot to show you this. There's an article here about someone who graduated from Madison Collegiate the same year you did."

"Cousin," Balki said, "isn't that your old Alka Seltzer?"

"Alma mater," Larry amended.

Jennifer looked at the article. "Apparently, your old classmate is now a very, very successful magnate in the media industry."

"Really?" Larry accepted the article from Jennifer and began to scan it. "I wonder who it is."

"I don't remember the name," Jennifer admitted, "but the article says she was the Class Valedictorian at both your high school and her university."

Larry automatically lifted his head as his eyes widened. "Valedictorian?" he repeated intensely. He turned to Balki. "Valedictorian?"

"Oh, po po. That mean it's—"

"That little tramp Becky Jo Quinn!" Larry growled sharply.

"You know her?" Jennifer asked.

Larry turned back to Jennifer, his eyes flickering as he attempted to hold back a wild frustration he'd been holding since high school. "She was my greatest rival in high school. She made life miserable for me. No matter what I did or what achievement I accomplished, she was always able to just barely beat me. I had the Regional Spelling Bee all wrapped up, but she won it in sudden death with an easy word – I got , and she got . I lost the tenth grade Student Council Presidency to her by four votes. I got a ninety-four on my final geometry exam, and she scored higher by getting the extra credit question about how many pages were in the textbook. That small extra credit cost me the title of Valedictorian, and she got the honor that should have been mine!" He shook his head. "She was my Kryptonite. A real Jezebel. A back-stabber. A two-faced, fork-tongued, black-hearted, slithering, sneaky, shallow little tramp!"

"And she was taller than Cousin Larry, too!"

"Only when she wore those boots," Larry retaliated. "Or when she was standing on someone's heart!"

"Larry, did you by any chance date this girl?" Jennifer asked.

"Oh, no. Not on your life. I had no interest in being a devoured alive by that black widow!"

"Besides, Cousin Larry have no girlfriends in high school."

"Balki—"

"As a matter of fact," Balki reminisced, "I believe Cousin Larry's exact words were, 'Girls thought I was a troll and would draw pictures of me dwelling under a bridge and scaring children'!"

"Balki—"

"Cousin, if you are a troll, how come you don't make trollhouse cookies?"

Larry clasped his forehead with grief. "Her antics even have my cousin driving me crazy!" he muttered to himself.

Jennifer studied Larry's face. "This really bothers you, doesn't it?"

"I usually don't bring up her name," Balki said quietly. "It's a door stop for Cousin Larry."

"Sore spot," Larry corrected. "It's a sore spot for Cousin Larry, and it very well should be! It wasn't bad enough that she'd frustrate me with those slim victories, but she always taunted me and made sure I never forgot them."

"And she turned him down for the junior prom!"

"You asked her to the prom?" Jennifer gaped.

"No," Larry denied, facing Balki with a cold squint. "I once told her that her face looked like a dried-up plum, but she heard 'prom' and assumed I asked her."

"Gee, Larry," Mary Anne cooed, "you really have a way with the women!"

"He does just fine with the women!" Jennifer responded in defense. "At least he does with this one!"

"Really?" Balki and Mary Anne asked together with surprise.

"Well, usually."

"Oh, God!" Larry complained.

"Larry, why does your rivalry with Becky Jo Quinn still bother you so much?"

"Why does it bother me so much? Jennifer, imagine if you lost great opportunities and experiences because someone was just that much better than you," Larry said passionately, emphasizing his words by holding his thumb and index finger approximately a quarter-inch apart. "Just that much cost me time and time again, and gave that little tramp every chance to rub my face in it!"

"So that's why he's so uptight!" Mary Anne concluded quietly to Balki.

"Believe me, Mary Anne, that only a small part of it is!" her boyfriend replied as Larry glared at both of them.

Jennifer garnered Larry's attention once again. "You know, this article says she's in town for her company's announcement of a major acquisition. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to go see her."

"Are you serious? Why would I want to see that….that…." Larry struggled, trying to find the best insulting definition.

"Ichbisabookus?" Balki offered.

Larry turned to Balki. "Is that anything like a barracuda or a shrew or a…..a….."

"Little tramp?"

"Yes, thank you, Mary Anne." He faced Balki again. "Or a little tramp?"

"Actually, it's the fuzzy black stuff that grows on the gummy things you pick out of your toes after you don't bathe your feet for a month."

Larry turned to Jennifer. "As I was saying, why would I want to see that ichbisabookus?"

"Well, maybe you need it to move on. Let me ask you, when was the last time you saw Becky Jo?"

"I'll never forget it," Larry said with a grimace. "It was the summer after graduation. I was a busboy at some second-rate diner when she walked in just as I was clearing a table right by the door. She snickered and said I'd finally found something where I could reach my full potential. She made sure to let me know she was working as an intern at the local radio station; the same radio station I applied to for a news department internship. Of course, I wasn't accepted." Larry's expression turned into a slight frown as he recalled. "Before she left the restaurant that day, she came over to me and said, 'See you nowhere.'" He paused. "And that's where I felt I was all of a sudden. Nowhere."

"Oh, Larry," Jennifer sympathized softly as she guided his head onto her shoulder. "You know, it sounds like you need some closure."

"Why he would need someone to dress him?" Balki questioned. "Benji's Short and Small Shop already take care of that."

"Not a clothier, Balki. Closure."

"What that is?"

"The sense of finality, and coming to terms with an experience, felt or experienced over time," Mary Anne explained. All three looked at her. "Or maybe it's that Irish plant with three leaves. I always get the two mixed up!"

"I don't know, Jennifer," Larry confessed, "I can't imagine seeing her again. I mean, I've always wanted to beat that little tramp just once…..but she's a major player in some multimedia conglomerate now, and I'm working in a basement without so much as a nameplate for my desk."

"Oh, Cousin, so what if she is working with an encyclopedia pomegranate…..whatever that is….."

"Multimedia conglomerate. She works for a multimedia conglomerate, not an encyclopedia pomegranate."

"Right. So what if she is working for a Milk of Magnesia condom-erate? You went from busting tables to working at a major neapolitan newspaper! That's like going from Miss Pig Trough to Miss Mypos! Like going from pauper to the Artist Formerly Known As Prince! Like going from Starsky to Hutch!"

Larry furrowed his brow and looked at his cousin. "What are you talking about???"

"What I think Balki means," Jennifer interjected, "is that you have a lot to be proud of. You don't have any reason to feel like you're second best to Becky Jo Quinn."

"Then why do I still feel like I'm three feet tall to her ten feet tall?"

"Well, for one thing, Cousin," Balki said, looking at Larry's feet, "you're not wearing your shoes with the lifts; you know, the ones you put on when Jennifer is going to wear heels, so you don't look her in the nose all night."

"Doesn't he look her in the nose already?" Mary Anne asked innocently.

"Well, yes, but when he wears his lifts, he looks at the bridge of Jennifer's nose, instead of the little nub above her nostrils and—"

"Balki!" Larry exclaimed. "Enough about my shoes and Jennifer's nose already! The point that I am trying so very, very hard to make here, is that I still feel like no matter what I do, I'll always be bested by Becky Jo Quinn…..that little tramp!"

"Oh, po po!"

"Oh, go po po yourself!" Larry sighed in exasperation. "And don't even think of telling me I'm being ridiculous," he added, mocking Balki's accent with his final two words.

"Well, you are being ridiculous, not to mention overly-aggressive with your Myposian accent." Balki looked at Larry seriously. "Cousin, why you do not give yourself enough credit? You are working with Mushmouth and Waterhole, as part of the Chronicle's intestine-related reporting team. Not many people get a chance to make that stain!"

"Uh, I hope you mean 'claim'."

"That doesn't matter, Larry," Jennifer said. "Balki's right. You've done so much at the Chronicle and we're all so proud of you!" She turned to her roommate. "Right, Mary Anne?"

"Oh, absolutely," Mary Anne responded. She looked at Larry. "You're a great reporter! And you write about internal organs, too! Now that's talent!"

"Investigative!" Larry corrected with great frustration. "I'm part of the investigative reporting team! I have nothing to do with intestines!"

"Oh, I don't know about that, Cousin. You always seemed pretty gutsy to me!" Balki laughed out loud, with Mary Anne joining along. He smacked his knees, raised his arms and looked to the ceiling. "Where do I come up with them?"

"I don't know, but would you please put them back?"

"Come on, Larry," Jennifer coaxed gently, nudging her beau's arm. "What do you say?"

Larry looked from Jennifer to Mary Anne to Balki, then back to Jennifer. "I'm still not sure."

"What are you unsure about?"

Larry sighed. "Past experience, I guess. I just don't want to end up like I always did in high school – second fiddle to Becky Jo Quinn."

"But, Cousin, don't you see," Balki pointed out, "you're not the Cousin Larry Appleton from Madison Colgate anymore; you're Cousin Larry Appleton of the Chicago Chronicle's domesticated reporting team! You no have to feel second piddle to anyone! And if you no take this opportunity to get clover with Becky Jo, you feel like you never get out of her eyeshadow!"

"Larry," Jennifer began, "normally I'd tell you that just knowing how much you've accomplished and how well you've turned out should be enough, and that you shouldn't have to prove anything. But this really seems to weigh on your shoulders. Maybe you shouldn't back down from this opportunity."

Balki leaned in to Larry as he contemplated. "Well, I won't back down," he began singing softly, quoting Tom Petty. "No, I won't back down; you can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down—"

"How am I going to get past her victories over me?" Larry asked.

"I'll stand my ground; won't be turned around—"

"How do I prove to her that I've never been second best?"

Jennifer and Mary Anne looked on, somewhat perplexed.

"And I'll keep this world from dragging me down; but I won't back down—"

"If I could just get that one step on her—"

"Gonna stand my ground—"

"Just one moment to show her who Larry Appleton really is—"

"—and I won't back down."

"—I can finally say, 'Becky Jo Quinn…you have never been better than me, and I refuse to have my life cast under your shadow'," Larry said proudly, rising to his feet. "And I will have prevailed!" he concluded triumphantly.

Jennifer and Mary Anne leapt to their feet. "I won't back down," they sang in support.

"Hey, baby!"

"There ain't no easy way out—" Balki crooned as he stood.

"And I won't back down—", the girls vocalized.

"Hey, now—" Larry continued before Balki joined in. "I will stand my ground—"

"And I won't back down—" Larry sang alone.

"No, you won't back down!" Balki, Jennifer and Mary Anne echoed.

"I just can't back down—"

"No, you won't back down!"

"And I won't back down!" all four finished in majestic harmony.

"I'm going to do it!" Larry announced, inspired. "I'm going to see Becky Jo Quinn!"

"That little tramp!" Mary Anne added excitedly.

Jennifer leapt into Larry's arms with a hug as Balki patted his cousin's back. As Larry and Jennifer parted, he said, "Thanks to you all, now I'm ready to close that chapter! I am psyched! In your face, Becky Jo Quinn!" All four cupped their right hands as though ready to grab something underhanded, and grunted with enthusiasm as they clutched the air in front of them.

"Then maybe we can celebrate with some yak tonsil stew!" Balki exclaimed. Larry's excited face drooped into an expression of nausea as he wilted to the couch with Jennifer supporting him. Balki looked down at his cousin. "Too soon?"

Part II

Larry exited his bedroom with a confident stride, seemingly ready to take on the world. He looked dashing in his finest navy blue suit, without so much as a wrinkle to be found on his attire. His shoes were shined with an immaculate touch, he'd given himself the smoothest shave he'd ever had and his dark, curly hair had been fussed with to near-perfection.

He moved over to the window and glanced out at the clear early-evening sky. He saw a star, barely visible yet still offering a meager twinkle that could capture anyone's attention. It almost inspired him to make a wish.

"Balki?" he called out. "Are you almost ready?"

Balki appeared from his bedroom. He was decked out in his nicest Myposian outfit, complete with shorts and knee-high socks. His black hair hung down neatly and effortlessly as a glint appeared in his eyes. "Cousin, I'm so excited! I've never been to a major medium event before!"

"Media event, Balki. Media event." He studied his cousin. "Is that what you're wearing?"

"At present time, yes," Balki answered, taking Larry's question literally. He looked himself over. "I'm also wearing my Wayne Newton underwear, because this is a special event and I thought I should wear something stylish."

"What I meant was, don't you have something a little…..more media-friendly?"

Balki panicked. "I don't look friendly?"

"No, you look very friendly! But maybe you should…..should, uh….." Larry paused, looking over his friend, who stood proud as he donned an outfit that displayed his Myposian heritage. Usually, Larry could sometimes be embarrassed being seen in a high profile arena with Balki when he sported Myposian garments that included anything from sheep wool accessories to large and wild hats to shoes with bells on the toes. As he looked at his cousin, he suddenly contemplated the purpose for going to this event – not to make an impression, but to show that he was proud of who he was. That strong sense of self-worth included his pride in his cousin and the heritage Balki was never ashamed to show. A heritage that was also a part of Larry. He felt reassured he had no reason to feel embarrassed. "Maybe you should wear your mingabouknouk necklace tonight."

"Oh, Cousin, what a great idea! It's perfect for this evening! It's the symbol of brotherhood and strong relationships," Balki explained. "And it's got a sharp point you can use to pick out pig snout from between your teeth!" He ran into his bedroom to retrieve the necklace. Moments later, he returned, proudly wearing the jewelry around his neck. "Cousin, how you feel about tonight?"

"I have to admit I'm a little nervous. But in all honesty, I really think that little tramp Becky Jo Quinn is going to be surprised at her old nemesis."

Balki gasped with excitement. "There's going to be a flying horse there?"

"Not Pegasus. Nemesis. Nemesis. A rival." Larry paused. "When she sees how well I'm doing, she's really going to be surprised. I'm going to knock her socks off."

Balki's face contorted. "Why you would want to knock off her socks?" He leaned in and whispered. "She could have foot ogre, you know."

Larry looked at his cousin's innocent face. "You're right," he said, indulging Balki, "I'm not sure what I was thinking. We certainly wouldn't want anyone to be asphyxiated by Becky Jo's foot ogre now, would we?"

"I should think not. Ha!"

There was a knock at the door. Larry walked by his cousin and opened the entryway.

"Jennifer, Mary Anne -- hi. What are you doing here? We were going to pick you up in about twenty minutes." The girls stepped inside and Larry closed the door behind them. Jennifer beautifully adorned a royal blue skirt with a black blouse, highlighted by a white gold pendant Larry had bought her for her last birthday. Jennifer's wearing of the jewelry this night didn't go unnoticed by Larry. Mary Anne, meanwhile, looked stunning in a long pink skirt with a white blouse and a matching vest that boasted definite but subtle Myposian accents. Balki had hand-made it himself.

"We just wanted to come down early and see how you're doing," Jennifer explained.

"Yeah, we were worried you'd be drowning in antacid by now!" Mary Anne blurted innocently.

Balki moved over and wrapped his arms around his girlfriend. "Cousin Larry is fine," he said, "except for wanting everyone to smell Becky Jo's feet." He looked to Mary Anne. "Just between you and me, I think Cousin Larry's circuits are short!"

"Just like the rest of him!" Mary Anne declared brightly.

"What is this about Becky Jo's feet?" Jennifer asked Larry.

Larry chuckled. "Nevermind. Just another Myposian misunderstanding. Listen, I really appreciate you both coming down, but I'm actually doing alright."

"You're not nervous?"

"No," Larry scoffed.

"Really?"

"Really."

Jennifer tilted towards Larry, gazing deeply into his eyes. "Larry…"

Larry tried to withstand, knowing he couldn't hide the truth from his girlfriend, but he felt his eyes begin to shift back and forth and his blinking increase in speed. He knew it was these traits that always gave him away. "Alright," he finally succumbed, "I'm a little nervous. Wouldn't any of you be?"

"Cousin, we already told you that you have nothing to be nervous about. You are a successful reporter with the top newspaper in the city."

"And you have friends who really care about you," Mary Anne added.

"Not to mention a girlfriend…" Jennifer said. She continued, softening her tone, "…who thinks the world of you."

Larry looked to each of his friends and smiled. "You're right. What's there to be nervous about?"

"Now, that's the spearmint!" Balki exclaimed.

"More or less," Larry retorted. "Alright, I think we're ready to go now. What do you say?"

"Ooh, just a minute," Mary Anne called, digging in her purse. "I want to take some pictures before we go!" She pulled out her camera. "Ok, first I want to get Balki and Larry."

"Oh!" the cousins replied happily in unison. Larry and Balki posed together in front of the bookshelf as Mary Anne set up the shot.

"Ok," she said, "say 'Balloons'!"

"'Balloons'?" the boys questioned as Mary Anne snapped the shot.

"Oh, I don't think that one worked out at all!"

"Mary Anne," Jennifer began, "why would you want them to say 'balloons'? Don't you want them to say a word that will make them smile?"

"Well, balloons always make me smile." She looked to the boys and asked naively, "don't they make you smile?"

"Well, of course they do, don't be ridiculous," Balki answered, "my little pork loin."

"See, Jennifer?"

Realizing the argument was futile, Jennifer gave in. "Ok, you're right. My mistake."

"Ok, let's try this again…"

"Maybe this time we should say something that will make our mouths turn into a smile when we pronounce the word," Larry suggested.

"You don't do that with 'balloon'?"

Larry pulled Balki back into position. "Ok, take the picture on the count of three and we'll do the rest."

"Ok." Mary Anne lined up the shot again. "One…two…three!"

"Cheese!" Larry said, smiling.

"Babasticki!" Balki said simultaneously, also smiling, as Mary Anne took the picture.

Mary Anne looked over the camera. "Oh, Balki, you look so handsome!" She moved over and gave him a kiss on the lips.

Jennifer walked over to Larry. "You look very handsome, too," she said.

"Why, thank you," Larry replied. "And you look simply ravishing!" He leaned in and gave his girlfriend a gentle kiss on the cheek.

Jennifer smiled, then suddenly grabbed him in her arms, bent him over backwards and kissed him deeply, as Balki and Mary Anne looked on. After the kiss, she brought Larry back to an upright position and gazed at him with a grin.

Dazed, Larry gasped for some oxygen before stammering, "W-w-wow!"

** ** **

Larry led Jennifer, Mary Anne and Balki through the underground parking garage of the Chicago Metropolitan Convention Centre. He looked at his watch. The scheduled start for the press conference was fifteen minutes away. Larry stopped about forty yards from the elevator that led to the main floor of the convention centre. "Ok," he said, setting his camera bag down on the trunk of a car. He reached in the bag and pulled out four thin plastic cards the size of name tags. Each card hung off of a blue string tied into a long loop. He handed out a card to each of his friends before hanging one around his neck. "These are your Press Passes. We shouldn't have any trouble getting in with these."

"Cousin," Balki began, looking at his Pass, "where you did get these? And why mine does say 'Photographer'?"

"It's simple, Balki. This is a major media event, but not just anyone can walk in. I was able to convince Mr. Wainwright to let me cover this story for the paper, but that only gave me one Press Pass. I had to fudge three others so we could all go in together."

"You didn't use my ergidinos fudge from the fridge, did you? It took me months to age the weevils to the proper melting consistency!"

"No, Balki, I didn't use your ergidinos fudge, and I can't tell you how glad I am that I didn't eat any of it!"

"Oh, Cousin, you don't know what you're missing! The bitterness of the weevil is complemented quite well by the sweetness of the chocolate and the creaminess of the pig fat!"

Larry took a moment to shake off the thought of anyone eating ergidinos fudge. "To fudge something means to fake it. I had to create bogus Press Passes for you, Jennifer and Mary Anne, otherwise none of you could have come with me. I've set you up as the photographer, with Mary Anne as your assistant and Jennifer as the newspaper's public relations liaison."

Mary Anne looked at her Pass. "But that's not fair! Why am I only an assistant while Jennifer gets to liaisonicate?!"

Balki gasped. "Cousin, how you could ask Jennifer to do that! That's unholy!"

"Now, hold on a minute," Larry said authoritatively. "Balki, I'm not asking Jennifer to do anything immoral. 'Liaisonicate' isn't a bad thing."

"It's not even a word," Jennifer said with slight exasperation as she looked at her roommate.

"And Mary Anne, a public relations liaison merely acts as a go-between for two sides. In this case, between the reporter and the subject of the article. Jennifer is basically posing as my assistant, just as Balki is posing as a photographer and you're posing as his assistant. Nobody here is really doing what their Press Pass says they're doing. Well, other than me, of course."

"But is this not dishonest?" Balki queried.

"Not in the full sense of the word," Larry reasoned as best as he could. "Jennifer is assisting me in my quest to gain closure with—"

"That little tramp Becky Jo Quinn!" Jennifer snapped, causing the other three to look at her. She turned slightly red with embarrassment. "Oh, uh…sorry, Larry."

Somewhat taken aback, Larry turned to Balki. "And Mary Anne is assisting you, and you're assisting me. So, you see, we all have a reason to be here, and we shouldn't feel guilty because you're using doctored Press Passes."

"I thought I was a photographer," Balki said, puzzled. "How I can pass for a doctor when I'm carrying a camera?"

"Does this mean I get to be a nurse now?" Mary Anne asked expectantly.

"I think what it may mean," Jennifer interjected, looking at her watch, "is that we may not make it inside in time if we don't get going!"

Larry looked at his own watch. "Ooh! You're right! Come on, let's go!" He led the way, with Jennifer quickly catching up to him.

Balki turned to Mary Anne. "So, my little medical muffin, care to join me in a little lip examination?"

"Oh, Dr. Bartokomous. You have quite the bedside manner!"

Balki leaned in to kiss Mary Anne.

"Let's go!" Larry hollered from the elevator, startling the two before their lips could meet.

Composing himself, Balki looked to Mary Anne. "Perhaps we could reschedule this procedure? By then, I'll have found my stethoscope." He bobbed his eyebrows romantically.

"Ooh, I can't wait! I've always wanted to ride in a submarine!" She saluted. "Up stethoscope!" She ran off to join Larry and Jennifer as Balki stood perplexed.

"She wants to ride in a sandwich??" He shook his head. "Americans can be so contusing sometimes!"

** ** **

"Press Passes, please," a burly security member requested sternly to Larry as he, Balki and the girls reached the entry to the event.

"Certainly," Larry responded with as confident a voice as he could muster while trying not to allow his nervousness to show through.

Balki, Jennifer and Mary Anne all looked at the security guard with anxious doe eyes as he peered at each of them. The guard took careful looks at each Pass, then eyed each of the four individually before turning his attention back to Larry.

"Four?" he questioned with suspect. "Your newspaper sent four people to cover this event? Why can't one of you do the job?"

Larry gulped as his eyes started to widen slightly. He quickly turned to face his friends, who all looked at him to handle the situation.

"I'm talking to you," the guard said stiffly, poking Larry on the shoulder. "Why does your paper need four people here?"

Larry turned back towards the guard. He stared at his menacing face and felt his heart plunge into his stomach. A twinge of nausea swirled inside. 'Where's my Maalox when I need it?' He felt an inferiority and an intimidation he hadn't felt so strongly in years. Not since he was a teenager. A high school student. He suddenly went back in time to when he was sixteen years old – when he was a smaller-than-average boy, often picked on by jocks and other large teenaged boys. Often made fun of for his dedication to scholastics. Often on the receiving end of jokes and pranks by his classmates. More importantly, often made to feel smaller in worth than everyone else. Despite his efforts, and no matter what he did to prove everyone wrong, he always felt the burn of acid-tongued comments. He always felt a resistance whenever he tried to overcome any obstacle preventing him from proving himself. He always seemed to end up taking a backseat. Particularly when it related to one person – Becky Jo Quinn.

He thought about Becky Jo Quinn and how she'd made him look and feel so poorly during their time together in school. He thought about how he never seemed to be the best because she always managed to be that much better. He thought about what an effect that had on him, and how he still carried it around. How it still weighed him down. How it continued to eat at him. He thought about how he was ready to eliminate those past feelings of inferiority. He thought about how he had made the first step to do so, and how close he was to overcoming his past now that Becky Jo Quinn was in the very same building where he stood at that very moment. The intensity and the desire and the urge began to grow within him, and flourish into a strong will of confidence. His posture straightened, his chest expanded, his chin was raised and his eyes flashed a beam of power. Larry stared straight into the eyes of the guard.

"This is a major media event," he proclaimed, "and we are from the Chicago Chronicle, the largest newspaper in the city. We are not only the largest, but we are also the best newspaper in the city, and do you know why? Because we are the most in-depth, thorough, dedicated and elite group of journalists the state of Illinois has ever seen! We don't merely cover an event through one set of eyes – we report the news from as many angles as possible, so our readers receive the most comprehensive account of the story!" He glared up and down the guard. "Now if you'll excuse us, we have a job to do – a damned important one -- and we fully intend on doing it right!" He proudly pushed past the speechless security guard.

Balki looked up at the guard. "How dare you try to stop an infected-ative journalist and a man with a pornographic lens!" He clutched the camera bag and strode past the confused guard with vigor.

Jennifer glared into the guard's eyes. "And to think we were going to interview you for a special article on the security behind this event!" She stormed through.

Mary Anne stopped at the guard, who looked down on her with expectancy. "Ooh, nice tie!" she cooed, before dashing off to join her friends.

The four hurried down the corridor, turned a corner and came to a halt.

"Oh, my God!" Jennifer gasped. "I thought we were going to be shown the door!"

"That was harder than I thought it would be!" Larry confessed.

"I thought he was nice," Mary Anne smiled, referring to the guard. She exchanged looks with Balki. "But not as nearly as nice as you," she said dreamily. The couple leaned in to kiss.

"Larry," Jennifer exclaimed as she recovered from the experience and startled Mary Anne and Balki before their lips could meet, "you were wonderful back there!"

Stunned, Larry looked from Jennifer to Balki and Mary Anne. "I was?" He turned back to his girlfriend with a smile. "Really?"

"Really!"

"Cousin, you were really molested!"

Larry looked at Balki with confusion. "What???"

"I think he means majestic," Jennifer clarified.

"Wow! He does tricks?" Balki turned to Larry. "Cousin, can you do the one where you pour milk in a newspaper funnel but it don't come out the bottom?"

"Majestic, Balki, not magical!"

"Well, nevermind that now," Larry said, looking at his watch. "The conference is going to start in three minutes. We've got to get to Suite 7B before they close the doors! Come on!"

Larry took off down the hallway, dodging people left and right, as Balki, Jennifer and Mary Anne did their best to keep up. Moments later, Larry spotted an open door at the end of the hallway. When he noticed a man with a Press Pass walking into the room, he knew he'd found the right suite. Suddenly, he saw another man exit from the room and begin to close the door.

"Wait!" Larry shouted, garnering the man's attention. "Hold the door! Hold the door!"

A look of utter confusion covered the man's face as he watched Larry and three other frantic people rush down the hall at him. "Well, hurry up!" he called. "The press conference is about to start!"

Larry skidded up to the door, miscalculating his ability to stop in time, and bowled over the man who was holding the door open. Balki yelped as he also failed to stop in time and crashed down on top of Larry and the man. Jennifer managed to come to a halt at the very last moment, until Mary Anne bumped into her upon her arrival, sending her roommate down onto the pile.

"I really don't think this is a good time to play Dogpile!" Mary Anne complained to the group on the floor. All four stopped their efforts to get up, and glared at Mary Anne, who looked down at them sheepishly. "Sorry."

Larry quickly got to his feet and helped Jennifer up, as Balki began assisting the man who'd held the door. "Are you ok, Jennifer?"

"I—I think so," she replied, smoothing her skirt and blouse.

"Ok, let's get inside." Jennifer and Mary Anne scooted through the door as Larry grabbed Balki and hauled him towards the suite, causing Balki to drop the man.

The four stood inside the door as all of the media representatives in the room stared at them after hearing the commotion outside. Larry shrugged. "Who'd have thought you'd need cleats at a press conference," he joked. The members of the media shook their heads and turned back to face the front of the room. Larry faced his friends. "I guess journalism really is a humorless profession."

"Larry, look—" Jennifer said, guiding his attention to the front of the room, where a door opened for a line of people to enter the stage area. "I think they're about to start."

Larry scanned the scene. He eyed each person as they walked through the door and took a seat in the row of chairs behind the podium. They were all very serious and dressed to the nines. None of them showed so much as an ounce of emotion. Suddenly, his eyes locked on a very familiar sight. "Oh, my Lord," he said quietly, as Balki, Jennifer and Mary Anne looked to him. "It's Becky Jo Quinn."

Part III

Power Supply Media Inc. had made a deal to purchase Chicago-based Wingspeed Vibrations, the world's second-largest company in the recording industry, with the full intention of overtaking the top recording giant, Goliath. The transaction, which had been predicted by few and previously dismissed by so many others as nothing more than a rumor, was going to shake the entertainment world to its foundation. With the financial and corporate support of PSM Inc., Wingspeed looked to become David to Goliath.

The press conference had gone off without a hitch. All members representing the two companies, while appearing stoic at first, soon allowed their successful merger to create a positive energy within the walls of the suite. Following the initial announcement by Power Supply Media President, Jeffrey Elliot, one after another of the panel members on stage took their turn at the microphone to gush about the future of Wingspeed under PSM, and the increased value of PSM stock due to the purchase. By the end of the conference, the satisfied and smug smiles of each member of the panel seemed to become permanent fixtures on their facades.

Larry had done his utmost to accurately detail each and every minute of the meeting – from the finest points of the deal itself right down to the style and makers of the shoes each panel member wore – but was more than distracted by the presence of Becky Jo Quinn. In between taking notes, Larry took quick but focused glances at Quinn's face, noting how little had changed in her expressional appearance and body language since the last time he'd seen her many years before. He wondered if, when she scanned the media gallery, she had seen and recognized him. If she had, it was impossible to tell just by looking at her expression.

Jennifer had stood by Larry's side throughout the conference, eyeing Becky Jo after Larry had subtly pointed her out to his friends. Almost instantly, Jennifer developed a natural dislike for Quinn, solely because of how she'd made Larry feel second-best in high school. The longer the press conference went on, the more Jennifer studied the face of the woman on stage. Jennifer's women's intuition wasn't to be doubted this day.

Balki seemed lost at first, surrounded by the commotion of a major press conference. He was dazzled by the event, something he'd never been a part of before. His bubble was soon burst when he was hushed by every journalist he had attempted to introduce himself to, until Mary Anne began pawing at his dangling Press Pass like a kitten until he smiled. Moments later, he'd noticed the security guard from the front entrance make his way into the room and over to the side of the stage. Without hesitation, to ensure the guard wouldn't suspect anything, Balki began snapping pictures of the announcement taking place on stage. After he had taken about thirty shots, Mary Anne looked at the camera, reached up and removed the lens cap. Embarrassed but good-humored about the mistake, Balki took a couple of pictures of the stage, then began shooting everyone around him before he focused his camera on Mary Anne. His girlfriend playfully posed as Balki snapped away, and surrounding media members scowled with disdain at the couple.

Balki's antics with the camera earned a double-take from Larry, who, with a tug of Balki's ear, a dirty look and a point to the stage, made his cousin aware that their cover could be blown if he didn't act like he was covering the event.

Upon the end of the press conference, Larry turned to face his friends with a look of awkward hesitation. A few times, he opened his mouth, seemingly to say something, but always stopped before any words could come out. He was definitely lost for words. "Well…" he finally managed to say.

"How do you feel, Larry?" Jennifer finally asked.

Again, Larry seemed to have trouble formulating any thoughts into words. His eyes opened a little more while he nodded and shifted his attention to several points within his vicinity. "Well…I, uh…" He looked at Jennifer and nodded once again. "I really don't know. That was, uh…..pretty surreal."

"Cousin, what we should do now?" Balki asked as the journalists filed out of the room like cows in a herd, colliding with the four friends every so often. "I'm starting to feel like a bumper car."

"Oh, right," Larry stuttered. "Well, uh, why don't we move over to the side until the crowd dies down."

"They're sick?" Balki gasped. He developed a very sad look on his face before he began weeping. "But I've only just met them!" Mary Anne consoled her boyfriend.

"They're not dying, Balki. They're not even sick. At least, not in the physical sense," Larry quipped, mocking those who brought sensationalism to his profession. "We'll wait here until they thin out."

Balki looked to the crowd, then back to his cousin. "I don't think any of them need to lose weight."

"Leaves!" Larry snapped. "We'll wait until the crowd leaves!"

"Ohhhh!"

"So, Larry," Mary Anne began, "has she changed much since high school?"

"Well, not a whole lot as far as her appearance goes," Larry answered, "except for the fact that she presents herself in a much more bombastic way. I never thought that was possible," he sniffed. He shook his head. "I just can't get over it. Junior Vice-President of PSM." He looked away, like he was gazing into space. "Maybe this was a mistake. I don't think I could ever live it down if the Junior V.P. had that over me, too." He looked to his friends. "I didn't even make Treasurer for the Chess Club!"

"Come on, Larry," Jennifer said encouragingly. "You have nothing to feel ashamed of. Don't feel like you're not good enough to be in the same room with her. Don't ever feel that way. It's her that should feel nervous, not you. You're so much better than that little tramp Becky Jo Quinn!" She realized she'd nearly growled that last sentence and noticed the eyes of her friends on her. "Uh, well…..," Jennifer reacted softly, "it's true."

"Thanks, Jen."

"Look," Mary Anne pointed out, "everyone's nearly gone now. Maybe you should try to find Becky Jo."

Larry looked at the last few journalists leaving the room, then let out a deep breath. "Ok, I guess this is it. I think all the panel members are giving individual interviews down the hall. I should be able to see her there."

"Cousin, you want I should go with you?"

"That's not a bad idea, Larry," Jennifer added. "You might be able to use the support."

"Well, ok – but aren't you coming, too?" Larry asked of Jennifer and Mary Anne.

"It's probably best if we don't. You don't want to overwhelm her."

Larry pondered the thought as a small smirk appeared on his face.

"Larry…"

"No, you're right, Jennifer." He turned to Balki. "Ok, buddy. Let's go."

"Right behind you, Cousin."

Jennifer and Mary Anne watched the boys exit the room and turn left. After a few seconds, Jennifer grabbed Mary Anne's arm. "Come on, Mary Anne! I want to see this!" She dragged her friend a few feet towards the door before Mary Anne held back, stopping them both.

"I thought you said we shouldn't be there."

"Well, we shouldn't. At least, not up close." She tried pulling Mary Anne again. "Let's go!"

"Wait a minute!" Mary Anne concluded, holding Jennifer back. She looked at her friend. "You're jealous, aren't you?"

"Well, of course I'm not, don't be ridiculous!" The two women paused for a moment. Jennifer shook off her use of the last phrase. "Uh, I mean…Jealous? Of what?"

Mary Anne's expression of discovery grew brighter. "You're jealous of Becky Jo Quinn!"

"Why would I be jealous of that little tramp?"

"Because she has a history with Larry!"

"A history with Larry?" Jennifer scoffed. "Her history with Larry is that she used to drive him up the wall!"

"And you're worried that their antagonism for one another will manifest into an emotional eruption of a repressed passion that was transferred into a mutual dislike which masqueraded their true feelings!" She was met with an expectant glare from Jennifer. "Oh, it doesn't matter where I learned it – you're jealous!"

"I am not jealous!" Jennifer reiterated. "Now let's go before we lose them!" She darted from the room, yanking Mary Anne behind her.

The girls quickly weaved their way down the hall, trying their best to avoid journalists clamoring for the perfect interview positions near the scattered members of PSM and Wingspeed. Jennifer craned her neck as she slowed down in the thick of the media mass.

"Do you see them?" Mary Anne asked, trying to look around a group of reporters huddled around a Wingspeed big-wig.

Jennifer spotted the top of a head of curly dark hair. "I think so!" She squinted to focus on the man next to her target. He was taller and had longer, thicker dark hair. She was just able to make out a very unusual fringe along the neckline of his blazer. There was no mistaking that Myposian detail. "Yes, I see them! Come on!" Again, she led Mary Anne through the maze of humanity.

Moments later, Jennifer and Mary Anne slowed to a regular walking pace when they regained Larry and Balki fully in their sights. They quietly followed at a distance.

"There she is," Larry said abruptly as he noticed Becky Jo Quinn giving her own personal press conference to a number of media members. Larry nearly sneered at the sight of Quinn's simpering expression amid the dozen or so microphones and tape recorders held up to her face. It almost churned his stomach to see her making love to the spotlight without hesitation.

Balki noticed his cousin's apprehension. "Cousin, why you do not go talk to her?"

"I don't think this is how I want to do it," Larry responded, "with all of the other reporters crowding her. I can't really talk to her that way."

"But should you not interview her for your article? Maybe she recognize you then and see what a good undressed-igative journalist you become!"

"I don't know, Balki," Larry pondered aloud. "I think I'd rather not have a crowd around when she tells me how short I am."

"Cousin, you don't think she still be like that, do you?"

"I won't know until I talk to her."

Balki looked from his cousin to Becky Jo Quinn, then back to Larry. He noticed the expression on Larry's face was not only displaying mixed emotions, but there also seemed to be a very familiar look in his eyes. Balki then realized what he was seeing. "Cousin," he began, "I know that look, and I know you like I know what I know, and I know what you are thinking. I know it, and I know you know it, and I know that you know I know it, and if there's one thing I know, it's that when I know what you know and you know it, no way can I make you say 'no' to what I know you plan to do!" Balki nodded. "I think you know what I mean."

"No, I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"No."

"No?"

"No!"

"Well, what do ya know!" Balki shrugged. "I thought you know, but I guess I didn't know that you didn't know--"

"What are you going on about?" Larry asked, holding his head.

Balki took a breath. "Cousin, you are thinking of embarrassing Becky Jo Quinn. You want to make her feel the way she made you feel long ago, and that is no good."

"Why not?" Larry asked quietly, almost as though he was trying to convince himself. "Why shouldn't she feel at least a little of what I felt all those years." He paused. "What I still feel."

Balki put his arm around his cousin's shoulder as Larry watched Becky Jo Quinn continue to address the media. "Cousin, what good it would do? If you try to pull her down from the mountaintop instead of trying to reach the summit yourself, you both be at the bottom and someone else make it to the top."

Larry looked to the floor. "I never thought about it that way." He faced Balki. "I guess my ulterior goal since I was a teenager has always been to put her in her place just once. To make her feel the sting of humiliation."

"Cousin, that's not the Cousin Larry I know. Deep down, you know you are better than that."

"Thanks to you, I am."

"You no have to thank Balki. That Cousin Larry Appleton is in there, and that's why you are a bigger person than Becky Jo Quinn." He looked at Larry's frame. "Maybe not taller, but definitely bigger." Larry shot him a look of disdain. "Oh, I'm only kidding! Cousins should joke more!" He jostled his buddy in fun.

Larry sniggered. "Ok, you're right, Balki. I don't need to humiliate her. I'll just go up and talk to her." He looked over to Becky Jo. "Maybe it's time I simply bury the hatchet and move on with my life." Larry smiled at his cousin. "Thanks, Balki."

"You're welcome. And now we are so happy, we do the Dance of—"

"Uh, not here, Balki. I'd like to make a better impression than doing a jig that no one outside of Mypos knows." He nudged his cousin's shoulder. "I'll take a rain check though, ok?"

Balki grinned brightly. "Well, of course you will, don't be ridiculous!" He leaned in to Larry. "Is that anything like a coat check?"

Jennifer peered at the cousins as she and Mary Anne stood partially behind a large potted plant. "Why aren't they going over?"

"Jennifer, I think we should get one of these for our apartment," Mary Anne commented, stroking the leaves of the plant. "It looks so healthy!"

"Mary Anne, it's plastic."

"So that's why it smells like Tupperware!"

Jennifer shook her head and looked back to Larry and Balki.

Larry watched patiently as the reporters around Becky Jo Quinn dispersed gradually, until the final two remaining thanked her for her time and walked off to find another panel member to interview. "Ok," he said. He quickly strode over to Becky Jo, who had turned to walk away from the media circus. "Excuse me," he called from about ten feet away, "Ms. Quinn?"

Becky Jo turned towards where the voice had come from. Her face no longer exploited arrogance through a simpering smile, but still displayed an air of superiority. She took a look at Larry before her eyes rolled over to meet the sight of Balki, decked out in a traditional Myposian formal suit. She looked down to his tasseled shoes, high socks, shorts and Myposian details and accessories. A disbelieving smirk appeared on her face.

"Let me guess," she quipped, "you want to know how this merger will affect the matador community."

Balki smiled. "No, we didn't come here about space rocks, you big kidder!"

"I'll bet you didn't. Excuse me." She turned away.

"Becky Jo?" Larry called.

Becky Jo Quinn stopped on a dime and turned to face Larry. "It's Rebecca. Rebecca Quinn." She stepped towards Larry. "How do you know about 'Becky Jo'?" she demanded in a hush.

"You don't recognize me?"

"Should I?"

Larry looked her dead in the eyes. "I would hope so."

From behind the potted plant, Jennifer's eyes grew in size. "I wonder what they're saying?"

"I wish our Tupperware could smell like this," Mary Anne said, sniffing a leaf of the plastic plant. "It almost has a leafy after-odor!"

Ignoring her friend's comment, Jennifer grabbed Mary Anne's arm. "Come on, we're going to get closer. I want to hear what they're saying."

"Wow, you're almost as green as this plant!"

"So what if I am? That's my man over there, and I'm not going to let that little tramp get her hands on him!"

"Jennifer, aren't you overreacting a little? I mean, Larry is devoted to you! At least, that's what Balki says Larry wrote in his diary!"

"Mary Anne, how would you feel if it was Balki over there, in danger of being seduced by someone from his past?"

Mary Anne gasped. "Why would anyone want to give Balki tranquilizers?"

"The question is," Jennifer retorted, "why aren't I giving them to you! Now, come on!" She guided Mary Anne along the wall of the expanding hallway, being careful to keep from being in the line of sight of Becky Jo Quinn. They huddled down behind another large plastic plant only a few feet from Larry, Balki and Becky Jo.

Becky Jo focused on Larry's face. "I have to admit, you do look familiar."

"Think Madison Collegiate."

"Oh, my God!" she gasped. "'Flood'!"

"Where?" Balki gasped, looking all around for rushing waters. "We have to get the livestock to higher ground!"

Larry grabbed hold of his panicking cousin as Becky Jo looked on derisively. "Balki, Balki! There's no flood! She was using a nickname! 'Flood' is a nickname!"

Balki quickly recovered from his excitement. "Oh." He looked at Larry. "Why she did call you 'Flood'?"

"It used to be because he wore pants that were too short for him," Becky Jo chuckled. "Like he was preparing for a flood!"

"When we prepared for a flood on Mypos, we wore speedos, snorkels and inflatable hooves."

"You don't say?" she oozed, eyeing Balki from head to toe.

"Cousin, how you could wear pants too short? Every time you buy pants, they're too long! Even the ones from Benji's Short and Small Shop!"

"Balki, my nickname wasn't 'Flood'," Larry explained. "Jimmy Rayburn was 'Flood'."

"You're not Jimmy?" Becky Jo questioned.

"Look harder."

Becky Jo focused on Larry's face. "Oh, my God! The curly hair, the chubby cheeks, the lack of a set of lips—"

Larry frowned.

"—'Mudflap'! 'Mudflap' Appleton!"

Balki turned to Larry. "'Mudflap'?"

"Just a nickname, Balki."

Balki faced Becky Jo. "Why you did call him 'Mudflap'? Did he used to stand at the village dungheap and flap his arms to keep away the flies?" Both Larry and Becky Jo looked at Balki with disgusted expressions. "It's an important job on Mypos. Only those with strong arms and absolutely no sense of smell are chosen!"

"That's not why she called me 'Mudflap'."

"No, I called him 'Mudflap'," Becky Jo answered with pride, "because he never could seem to do anything but eat my dirt."

"Cousin," Balki gasped, "why you did eat her dirt but you still refuse to try my Mud Grub Tarts?"

"Well, I can say one thing for sure, Mudflap. You sure keep more interesting company than you did in high school. Of course, that's not hard to do when the only friend you had was yourself!"

Larry forced a condescending chuckle as Becky Jo snickered. "Ah, yes. I see success hasn't changed you a bit, Becky Jo."

"It's Rebecca, ok?"

"Fair enough," Larry responded. "And it's Larry."

"Alright," she agreed, "Larry." She looked at him. "Well, you certainly have grown up, haven't you?" She eyed his stature. "Well, at least in maturity."

'Another short joke,' Larry thought. 'I'm surprised it took this long.'

"So, what are you doing here, Mudflap…..uh, Larry?"

"I'm covering this event for the Chicago Chronicle, actually."

"No kidding. You became a reporter, did you?"

"Not just any reporter," Balki intervened boastfully, "Cousin Larry's a member of the Chronicle's insectigative team, under the Pullmyfinger Prize-winning duo of Marshland and Wallhole!"

"What???"

"I'm an investigative journalist," Larry summed up.

"Well, that's quite an accomplishment. The last time I saw you, you were bussing tables, I believe."

"Yes, well, those dirty dishes helped put me through college," Larry replied with a tactful smile.

"College," Becky Jo repeated, obviously unimpressed.

Larry opened his mouth to rebut, but decided it was a pointless endeavor. "Oh, Rebecca, where are my manners? This is my cousin, Balki, who also works at the Chronicle."

Balki moved over and hugged Becky Jo, whose expression turned to dismay. Larry pulled Balki away as Becky Jo smoothed her blazer. "Well, uh, nice to meet you, Binky."

"Balki," Larry corrected.

"Yes, of course." She faced Balki. "So, Bilko, what do you do at the Chronicle?"

"Balki's a photographer," Larry responded, pointing to the camera bag in Balki's hand.

"Well, did you get any good pictures of the press conference?" Becky Jo hinted obviously, patting her tightly clipped brown hair.

"Oh, yes," Balki said. "I got a picture of the nice man with the toupee, and one of Cousin Larry chewing the end of his pen—" He looked at Becky Jo's expression. "Oh, and I got one of you right when you were sneezing! I think I could win a Pulipservice for that one!"

"Wonderful," Becky Jo grimaced.

"It must be so exciting being part of such a huge burger!" Balki exclaimed.

"Merger," Larry translated to Becky Jo.

"I love the people who sing with Wingspeed – especially Wayne Newton – and I just know it's going to fluoride under you and your PMS!"

"I beg your pardon?" Becky Jo spouted.

"PSM, Balki," Larry corrected, trying to stifle his amusement. "Rebecca works for PSM."

"What I did say?"

"PMS."

"Ohh! How silly of me! You must think Balki is off his jock-itch!"

"I really hope you mean 'rocker'," Larry cringed.

"Question," Balki said in all seriousness. "What PMS is?"

"It's, uh…it's…..it's another company altogether," Larry lied before he looked to Becky Jo, slightly nervous. "Some things don't translate well from Myposian to English."

"Obviously," Becky Jo replied. "Although, I have to admit it's kind of intriguing. Almost infectious."

Balki turned to Larry with a shy grin on his face. "She called me an infection." He paused, suddenly straight-faced. "You don't think she mean I'm contaminated, do you?"

"And with an odd sense of humor, too. Are there any more like you at home?"

"Well, Cousin Larry is there, but he's not so much like me. He's more like a chipmunk." Balki faced Larry. "I think it's his cheeks," he said, grabbing one between his fingers and shaking it. "You see, they're very round, like he's storing nuts for the winter, and—"

Becky Jo chucked. "You are something, Milky."

"He's something alright," Larry responded, unlatching Balki's fingers from his cheek, "but what he is hasn't been defined yet."

Jennifer continued to look on from nearby. "You know what, Mary Anne? I think I was wrong. Look at them. Larry clearly has no interest in Becky Jo, and she barely even acknowledges him." She smirked. "I feel so silly for acting so jealous. Come on, why don't we go to the cafeteria?"

"Not yet."

Jennifer looked at her friend, who was now focused on the conversation between Larry, Balki and Becky Jo. "Mary Anne, it's ok. I was wrong. We don't need to be here anymore."

"Maybe you don't, but I'm not going anywhere as long as my man is anywhere near that little tramp!"

"What?"

"Did you see the way she was coming on to him? You think she'd never heard a Myposian accent before!"

"Mary Anne, are you jealous?"

"What makes you think I'm jealous? The fact that some little tart is eyeing Balki like a piece of ding ding machmoud? Or the fact that I can hear her heavy breathing from here?"

"Well, yeah, that…..and the fact that you're squeezing the life out of this plant."

Mary Anne looked at Jennifer, who motioned towards the plastic plant's twisted stem gripped tightly in Mary Anne's hands. She returned her vision to Jennifer. "So, maybe I'm just prone to violent attacks against inanimate objects. Sue me."

Balki looked at Becky Jo with an expectant smile. "Miss Quinn, I was just wondering, have you ever met Wayne Newton?"

"Yes, once or twice," Becky Jo answered in a business-like manner, like she was on auto-pilot anytime work-related topics appeared in conversation. "I really don't recall."

"You don't recall?" Balki asked, dumbfounded. "You don't recall? How you can not recall meeting one of the legends of music? He is the biggest selling record artist on Mypos. People in my country would give their first corn to meet Wayne Newton!"

"Well, as much as a Mypiot's first corn must be worth, Wayne Newton doesn't exactly appeal to the market we're going after, Belchy. We want to completely—" She turned to Larry and instructed him like a child, "You may want to write this down, Mr. Investigative Reporter." Larry quickly pulled out his pad and pen as Becky Jo continued. "We want to completely make-over Wingspeed. Target a younger, hipper market. Bring in the acts that will make all those pimply-faced teens and drunk twentysomething club-hoppers carelessly spend their money on whatever garbage they listen to." She looked Balki dead in the eyes. "And Wayne Newton doesn't fill the bill."

"Are you saying you're going to drop Wayne Newton from the Wingspeed label?" Larry queried.

"No wonder you're with the investigative reporting team," Becky Jo scoffed sarcastically. "Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Goodbye Wayne Newton, so long country music artists, adios '80s rockers, take a hike hippies and adult contemporary radio mainstays!"

"How you can do that?" Balki asked innocently. "Wayne Newton is a legend. You cannot just drop Wayne Newton in the butter or send him to skid toe! He make many, many people happy with his music."

"He hasn't made me happy, so he's out." She looked at Balki's sad eyes. "No offense, Buggy, but if he don't make a dime, he ain't worth the time."

"I can't believe you're going to do this," Larry protested. "I can't believe PSM would do this. These artists have been loyal to Wingspeed and have made it the number two name in the music industry, and you're going to send them to the curb?"

"You bet. After all, like you just said, Wingspeed is number two. We're not settling for any less than number one. PSM only dines on the best." She looked to Balki with a gaze. "And I like my prime beef."

Suddenly, a loud growl was heard amid a thrashing noise. Larry, Balki and Becky Jo quickly turned to see, just around a corner, Mary Anne wrenching a large plastic potted plant with her hands while Jennifer looked on, speechless. Balki made his way over to his girlfriend.

"Mary Anne?" he said softly, reaching out to her. "Mary Anne?" Mary Anne suddenly stopped the attack on the tree to see all eyes were on her. "Are you alright?"

"Uh, sure," Mary Anne replied nonchalantly. "I heard this was good for plants."

Balki took Mary Anne's hands in his and led her away from the plant, as Larry motioned Jennifer to follow. The girls were guided over to where Larry and Becky Jo were standing.

"Rebecca," Balki said, "this is my girlfriend, Mary Anne."

"You've got quite a man there, honey," Becky Jo offered coldly. Her brow furrowed as she leaned forward slightly, before turning to Balki. "She smells of Tupperware."

"And, this," Larry interrupted quickly as Mary Anne glared at Becky Jo, "is my girlfriend, Jennifer."

Becky Jo eyed Jennifer, who tried to offer a pleasant smile. "She's prettier than the escort you rented to be your date for the Junior Prom," she chuckled. "Remember that?"

"Uh, vaguely," Larry responded in an appeasing manner.

"Well, as much fun as this has been, the press conference is over and the media has left. That's my sign that it's time to move on. Falco, it's been a riveting experience," she said to Balki with a sly smile as Mary Anne's eyes bugged at Becky Jo's lack of subtlety. "And Mudflap," she began to Larry, completely overlooking Jennifer and Mary Anne, "I can honestly say that you haven't changed a bit." She gave a condescending grin to Larry before abruptly turning and exiting the door behind her.

All four stood in silence. Balki, who misread Becky Jo's flagrant flirtatious final comment for a simple compliment, had a bashful expression on his face. A look of anger smudged Mary Anne's usually cute features, while Jennifer stood stupefied by the experience. Larry, meanwhile, looked away from his friends as he pondered Becky Jo's final words to him.

Part IV

The four sat quietly in the car as Larry drove through the streets of Chicago, en route to their Caldwell Avenue apartments. Larry seemed lost in thought as his expression remained sloped and he peered though the windshield. Jennifer sat next to him, looking worriedly in his direction more often than naught, but not quite knowing how to ask him what was on his mind. Sitting behind Jennifer was Mary Anne, who remained agitated by Becky Jo's actions and glared out the window on her right. She was regretting not giving Becky Jo a piece of her mind for her obvious mental undressing of Balki. What made Mary Anne even more disgusted was that Becky Jo's interest in Balki was purely physical – she hadn't even been interested in him enough to get his name correct. Balki, meanwhile, sat in silence, feeling the tension within the confines of the car. He was worried about all of his friends, and was not quite sure why there was such a strong stillness.

Balki's upbringing was naturally geared towards communication, and he was quite uncomfortable to be witnessing such a silence. He began to think his friends were hurting, and he felt it was time to adjust the mood.

"Cousin," he began with an upbeat lilt in his voice, "what say we go to Antoine's Cajun Kitchen for dinner? I think a full tummy of Antoine's special Ay Carumba Jambalaya is just what the Doc Martins ordered!"

"Thanks, Balki," Larry responded without much tone, "but I don't know if I'm really up to eating right now."

Balki turned to his girlfriend. "How about you, lamb of my life?"

"No, thanks, Balki."

"Jennifer?"

Jennifer looked back to Balki, who arched his eyebrows at her. She got the message and tried to help Balki alleviate their friends from their distractions. "Oh, yes, I think that's a great idea. Don't you, Larry?"

Larry stared straight ahead, his eyes not fully open. A moment later, he turned to Jennifer. "I'm sorry, Jennifer. Did you say something?" He looked back through the windshield.

"Larry, are you alright?"

"I guess so."

"Cousin, what troubling you is?" Balki asked.

Larry let out a deep sigh. "She did it again. Becky Jo Quinn still has that step on me. She's still beating me in everything." He shook his head. "I'm still just 'Mudflap' Appleton."

"Oh, Cousin, that's no true! You don't have gut flab!"

"Mudflap," Larry reiterated, embarrassed to think that Jennifer would imagine him with a little extra weight in his midsection. "Not gut flab!"

"Larry," Jennifer began sternly, "how many times do we have to tell you that you don't have to take a second seat to Becky Jo? As a matter of fact, I don't see what the big deal is about her! She's obnoxious, arrogant, self-serving and rude. As far as I'm concerned, she couldn't compare to you on her best day!"

"Jennifer's right, Cousin. Why you want to compare yourself to Becky Jo Quinn?"

"Balki, didn't you hear the last thing she said to me?" Larry retorted. "She said I haven't changed a bit since high school."

"You mean you haven't gotten any taller? Cousin, I could have told you that, and I never even knew you back then!

"No, she was saying that she still thinks of me as a stumbling, bumbling fool that can't finish first in anything. She was saying that she's better than me and always will be. She was saying I'll never be good enough."

"Why do you care what she thinks?" Jennifer interrogated. "What is so important about her opinion? Don't our opinions mean more to you than hers?"

"Well, of course they do."

"So what's the big deal about Becky Jo Quinn and her fabulous opinion?"

Larry sighed heavily. "Because it wasn't just her opinion. It was never just her opinion."

"I don't understand."

"Back in high school, there were a lot more Becky Jo Quinns in my class. Pretty much everyone was another Becky Jo Quinn. No matter what I did or how well I did it, a lot of the other kids made me feel like it wasn't good enough. It was always so important to me to prove everyone wrong, to show them I wasn't 'Mudflap' Appleton." Larry paused. "But that day never came. I tried really hard, but I always came up one step short."

"Oh, Cousin."

Jennifer reached over and touched Larry's arm. "Larry," she began tenderly, "you shouldn't have to worry about what those kids thought. You shouldn't have to worry about Becky Jo Quinn. Just look at yourself. You're a wonderful man, you're doing what you always wanted to do and you're doing it extremely well, and there are three people in this car who care deeply about you."

"And you've got us, too!" Balki exclaimed, leaning over Larry's seat and hugging his cousin. "So that makes six of us who care about you!" He lowered his voice. "Although I don't know where Jennifer see the other three people."

Larry couldn't help but to chuckle. "Alright, alright, I see your point."

"So, do you feel better now?" Jennifer asked.

"A little. But there's still something that's really bothering me."

"What is it?"

"It was one thing for her to be miserable to me tonight, but she was pretty rude to all of you as well. There was no reason for that."

"There was no reason for her to treat you poorly either."

"It's different when it comes to me and Becky Jo. We went to school together and she was always somewhat snide to me. Although, she sure seems to have become worse. But she only met the three of you tonight, yet she still took it upon herself to treat you like dirt. And for what reason? Because you're friends of mine?" He shook his head. "That, I can't understand."

"Cousin, she don't seem as bad as you say."

"Balki, she completely ignored Jennifer and Mary Anne, and she looked at you like you were nothing more than a slab of beef."

Balki's eyes widened. "She's a cannibal? She wanted to eat Balki?"

"No, no," Larry said quickly, trying to quell his cousin's fear. "I mean she only looked at your physical prowess."

"But I'm not wearing a prowess. I don't even know if I own one!"

"She only saw you as a sexual object!" He clarified. "It was very disrespectful. Didn't you notice how angry Mary Anne was?"

Balki turned to face his quiet girlfriend, who's eyes met those of Balki. "Mary Anne, you are angry?"

"Oh, Balki," Mary Anne said quietly, "I was never angry with you. I was angry at Becky Jo."

"'Was'?" Jennifer repeated. "You're not angry anymore?"

"No. I've been sitting back here, thinking about it, and you know what? I feel sorry for Becky Jo."

"You do?" Larry questioned.

"Sure. She has to be number one at everything, which means she has no room for failure. That's a lot of pressure she's put on herself. The sad thing is, she'll never be perfect and she'll never always be number one, and that must make her very unhappy."

"Not only that," Balki added, "but she no have anyone to love. If she only look at me the way you say she do, then she must be starved for love and affection. She must be very lonely."

"And she'll always be lonely," Mary Anne continued. "She didn't get Balki's name right once. That means the value of other people and their feelings don't mean much to her. I can't imagine anyone could love someone like that."

"That's right," Jennifer realized. "And she goes through life making other people feel bad so she can feel better about herself. Instead of reacting to anything positively, she's trained herself to come back with a negative reply." She smiled as she looked at her boyfriend. "Larry, don't you see? Becky Jo Quinn is the way she is because that's all she's got. It's all about being number one."

"Well, she sure does a good job at it," Larry replied.

"Sure she does. She's got the high profile job, the power and the money -- and that's all. There's spite in everything she says and does, and I can't imagine anyone wanting to be around that." Jennifer lowered her voice. "Larry, all these years you've felt second best to Becky Jo Quinn, when the fact of the matter is that you have so much more than she'll ever have. Everything she has is superficial. There's no substance there."

"It's just like that episode of Three's Company!" Balki exclaimed. "Jack's brother came to town for a visit, and Jack was really upset because, when they were growing up together, Jack's brother was always the best in everything. So when his brother visited, Jack still felt like he was second Falana, until Chrissy talked about cake!"

"Talked about cake?" Larry questioned.

"Yes! Chrissy said Jack's brother was a cake that was all icing, and that Jack was a cake with a lot of layers. And that's what you are, Cousin!"

"I'm a cake??"

"No, you're all layers," Jennifer said. "Larry, you've never been second to Becky Jo. I don't even think she's ever been in the running."

"I don't think she could run in the shoes she was wearing tonight," Balki returned.

"You shouldn't feel beaten by her, Larry," Mary Anne began. "You should feel bad for her. Do you know why she's wanted to be better than you all this time? Because you have things she's never had, and probably never will. Being better than you is her only way to prove to herself that she doesn't miss the things she doesn't have."

Larry pondered a moment. "I guess I never thought of it that way." A few moments later, he slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road.

"Cousin? What you are doing?"

Larry pulled his wallet out of his inside blazer pocket as his friends watched closely. He unfolded the billfold, pulled out an old newspaper clipping that was tattered at the edges and held it up for his friends to read. Jennifer turned on the light overhead then read the headline aloud. "Quinn Captures Spelling Bee Championship."

"Is that her in the picture?" Mary Anne said, squinting at the faded article.

"It sure is," Larry replied softly, pointing to a small figure behind Becky Jo. "And there I am, the runner-up." He smirked. "Didn't even get a mention in the article. It always used to bother me so much. It was the perfect symbol of how it was with Becky Jo Quinn." There was a slight pause. "Suddenly, it's lost all meaning." He tilted the article towards him and looked down at it. "In your face, Becky Jo Quinn," he said quietly. Larry then gently crumpled up the paper and held it out to Jennifer. "Would you mind?"

Jennifer smiled brightly and accepted the clipping. "I'd be happy to." She leaned over and kissed Larry on the lips before placing the article in her purse for discarding later.

"Well, I don't know about the rest of you," Larry announced, "but suddenly, I'm famished. Anyone for some Ay Carumba Jambalaya?"

"Count me in!"

"Me, too!" Mary Anne sang.

"Wild horseradishes couldn't keep me away!" Balki exclaimed.

Larry pulled his vehicle back onto the road, made a U-turn and headed towards Antoine's Cajun Kitchen. As the New York-bound PSM corporate jet taking off from O'Hare International Airport shredded through the sky overhead, Larry and his friends glided freely down the road in the opposite direction.

The End