Matilda Michaels held her microphone close to her chest as she stood in the shade beneath the willow tree. She was positioned on top of a small hill that provided a nice view of Selmington’s bustling central park behind her. Standing a few paces in front of her was her cameraman, a fresh college graduate named Kevin Thompson, who held up the monster of a camera balanced on his shoulder. He was peering into the viewfinder with his other eye closed and scrunched up, while Matilda used her free hand to fuss with her hair and stared at her frown reflecting back at her on the small monitor, which was attached to the camera beside the teleprompter that previewed what would be broadcast.
“Should be any minute now,” Kevin said to her, pulling his head away from the camera and grinning.
Matilda nodded and was quiet. She was a slender woman, if a little on the shorter side of the height range, in her early forties with plain brown hair and green eyes that were forever narrowed with unvocalized criticism. Even now, as she glanced at her cameraman, she was no different. She hated the boy, for a number of reasons, most of them little things, small infractions he was guilty of; forgetting that she preferred iced coffee and not hot even when it was cold out, taking too long to set up his equipment, accidentally tripping her with the wires, things like that. Matilda was a very particular person and there were not many people in the world that she enjoyed.
With a sigh, Matilda held up a hand to her ear and concentrated on the voice coming from her earpiece. It was that of her chief reporter, Trip Miller, giving his morning telecast from the studio back at the office.
“…local Selmington congressman Simon Wei is excited to announce that he will be seeking reelection this upcoming…”
It didn’t seem like he would be handing over the reins of the telecast to Matilda “any minute now.” He was droning on and on about the stupid congressman. He was always doing this, Trip, purposely dragging out a dull topic, an unspoken way to slight Matilda and the studio’s other ten reporters by making them wait… or so she had always assumed. Ever since they met when she joined the studio as a junior reporter and Trip shook her hand too hard, she knew he was a bad egg. He had spent the next fifteen years proving her right.
Shifting in her position and thinking happily about what she’d say in a hypothetical telecast where she got to be the one to break the news that Trip had been fired, out of the corner of her eye Matilda spotted a young boy no older than ten racing up the hill towards them, carrying a stick of queasy-blue cotton candy. She didn’t say anything to stop him trying to get into the shot: that was Kevin’s job, after all. However, her cameraman said nothing except for a quiet “thanks” as the boy approached him, handed over the cotton candy, accepted a five dollar bill, and disappeared back down the hill towards the festival.
Oh my God, is he having a snack now? Matilda thought, staring at Kevin. She hoped he was. It would just be another reason for her to report him to the higher ups.
But without taking a bite, Kevin held the stick out for her. “Here, Mattie.”
Matilda blinked. Her eyes moved from the cotton candy back to her cameraman. “What?”
“Take it,” Kevin said, nudging the stick slightly. “For the telecast.”
“It shows you’re having fun,” Kevin said. “That you’re really engaged in the festivities.” He paused before adding, “Trip explicitly told me to make sure you have it for your report and that the audience can see it in the frame.”
That explained it. Matilda rolled her eyes. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not doing that.”
“Mattie,” Kevin said slowly in his serious-idiot tone that Matilda so hated, “he said you need to. Now come on: he’s started his intro.”
Matilda breathed deeply to calm herself. If smoke could have come out of her nose, in that moment it would have. She accepted the cotton candy, holding it lopsided in her free hand.
“A little higher up, Mattie,” Kevin said, peering back into the viewfinder.
Matilda glared at him, internally screaming. This was so stupid. She was a reporter for God’s sake. She deserved a little more dignity than being forced to do something childish like this…
She held up the cotton candy properly. Kevin extended a hand and gave her an “okay” sign. In Matilda’s ear, Trip was saying, “…as every Selmington resident knows, the Fall Festival Celebration is a welcoming in of the new season. Celebrated every year on…”
Kevin held up a hand, all five fingers extended. He began retracting them, one at a time.
“…and now we go to Matilda Michaels, who is on the scene with the full story on the festival’s special thirtieth anniversary. How’s it been going so far, Mattie?”
A light on top of Kevin’s camera turned green. It was go-time.
Instantly Matilda’s frown vanished, replaced with a bright smile, the kind that shows teeth. Her grip on the microphone tightened, her fingers digging deep into the grip’s material.
“Thanks, Trip. Well, it’s been going pretty well so far,” she said, allowing the words on the teleprompter to tell the story for her. “Today is a day that many Selmington residents have been looking forward to all year. The Fall Festival Celebration has become a staple of our town just as turtles, our home-grown pottery industry, and pears have. The vendors have been up and running since early this morning, selling snacks and goodies such as these-” she motioned weakly to the cotton candy “-and local bands Outside Rock and-” she squinted at the name, unable to believe anyone could come up with something so stupid, “-and The Running Bowls have been doing a fantastic job providing the music and entertainment. With this year being the thirtieth anniversary, our town has gone all out to make sure that…”
Behind the camera as Matilda continued, Kevin was grinning. He kept the smile for the duration of the three minute report. The time flew quickly and before she knew it Matilda was already wrapping things up.
“…and later today an assortment of competitions taking place on the stage will close out the festivities, as they have done every year in the past. This includes the pie-eating competition, dart-throwing competition, and quite a few more. I’ve also been hearing some rumblings that a special ceremony will be taking place to honor the thirtieth anniversary, although more on that will be revealed later. It’s been quite the big event fitting of the thirtieth anniversary! Back to you, Trip.”
The light on top of Kevin’s camera went out and Trip’s voice came back on in her earpiece, though Matilda had already pulled it out while he was still in the middle of thanking her.
“We’re out,” Kevin said. He lowered the camera and gave her a thumbs up. “Great job!”
Matilda nodded, now working quickly to remove the various wires attached to her person. She handed them in a crumpled bundle over to Kevin, thankful to be unburdened of them.
“So you heading home now?” Kevin asked, fitting the camera into its equally massive case he’d left open on the ground. “Or you sticking around for the rest of the festival?”
Matilda turned her back to him and began buttoning up the coat she was wearing; the weather had turned rather chilly over the course of the telecast. “I actually have to stick around,” she said, notching in the final button. “My daughter’s doing something with the festival. Something with the special ceremony.” A small laugh escaped her. “She’s been pretty secretive about the whole thing, won’t tell me a word about what it’s about. Said it was a surprise…” She paused a moment before cautiously asking, “Do you have any idea what it’s about?”
“No,” Kevin replied, “but do you want some company while you wait to find out?”
Internal alarm bells went off as Matilda, white-faced, turned around and saw Kevin staring at her bare fingers. “N-no,” she stuttered, looking away and suddenly unable to match his gaze. “That’s alright.”
Through short glances made before returning to the safety of the grass, Matilda saw Kevin shrug before slamming the camera case closed and bolting it shut.
“Alrighty then,” he said simply enough as he picked the thing up and held it in front of him with two hands. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night for the LDsomething or other report we have lined up.”
“LDM,” Matilda corrected. “And please remember not to be late.”
“Right.” He turned and started walking away. ”Anyway, see you. Have a good one.”
“What about the cotton candy?” Matilda called after him, holding the stick out.
Kevin stopped and turned his head. “Oh,” he said, “um… keep it, I guess.”
Without another word he continued on his way and was gone. Matilda didn’t watch him go. She turned and made her way into the fair, dropping the untouched cotton candy into the first garbage can she passed, her mind swimming with intrigue about what this special ceremony might just be about…
The Selmington Fall Festival Celebration was a monument of all the things Matilda hated about her town. First there was the excessive garbage: how people would just go ahead and drop things randomly and litter the good grass (this was the reason the park had to hire a special clean-up crew every year — she’d interviewed the staff about it for an article and they were not happy to have to do so). Then there was the smell, one of burnt kettle corn and cannabis smoke that polluted the air and made her want to puke: legalization was a mistake (What were they teaching the children?!).
Finally there were the overweight police officers riding around on segways with dark sunglasses and black baseball caps, looking at everyone as if they were guilty of something. If you can’t catch a crook on foot, then you shouldn’t be a police officer, or at least shouldn’t be out working the streets, Matilda had always believed. And what a waste of the town’s money those stupid machines had been. A story was just waiting to happen where one of them would ride over some poor sucker’s foot and break a couple bones, and when it did, Matilda would love nothing more than to be the person to get to report on it. That would show them.
Walking by the random booths, trying to see if she could spot her daughter somewhere in the crowd, Matilda stopped at a local politician’s booth to pretend to read their signs talking about their views (all preachy liberal nonsense), while she adjusted her pants and bra. As she did, she looked over and noticed that the aforementioned, ridiculously-named band, The Running Bowls, had taken the stage again. They were a bunch of grungy-looking kids with long hair and shirts with pictures of skulls and alien heads. They introduced themselves in dull, dry voices, as if just having woken up from a nap, before launching into an erratic and indulgent cover of a pop-punk song Matilda could vaguely remember the title for. It was the kind of music her daughter really seemed to like.
Fittingly, a small crowd of girls gathered by the stage, some throwing their hands in the air, others singing along to the music in screams. The more extroverted ones danced, kicking their legs and making weird punching-movements into the air. There was quite a bit of head-banging going on as well. Matilda felt sorry for their parents.
Turning back to the politician’s booth, Matilda noticed that a tan boy, who looked to be about seventeen, was staring at her from a few feet off. When he wouldn’t look away, she marched right up to him.
“You know it’s rude to stare,” she snarled. “So can I help you?”
The boy blinked once and took a step back. “I’m sorry,” he said, recovering from the initial shock. “It’s just, I couldn’t help but noticing-” he leaned his head in towards her “-are you Matilda Michaels? The Matilda Michaels? The one with The Selmington Observer?”
Matilda nodded, arms crossed, with a “what’s-it-to-you?” look. She shrugged one of her shoulders. “Yeah,” she said, “and I’m trying to enjoy my day without being stared at.” So kindly go ahead and screw off, she finished in her mind.
The boy looked up and down the line of booths they were standing on. “Look,” he said in a hushed voice, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. My name is Darren. Darren Gonzales, and I actually have something I’d like to discuss with you, if you have a minute that is.”
Matilda nearly laughed in the boy’s face. Her, an important woman doing her civic duty to the town to inform the public of the transgressions of its citizens, listen to a stupid boy’s story? Ludicrous! It was probably about something ridiculous that no one in their right mind would care about. Probably something like how his teacher had slighted him- oh, the absolute horror! -or another grievance he had with one of his classmates. Boo freaking hoo. “I’m sorry, but I really have other things I need to get to. And I’m off duty so-”
Darren shook his head. He stole another glance up and down the booths. “It’s important,” he breathed, as if the simple act of saying the words too loudly would result in damnation. “Really important, you see.”
Matilda groaned. She reached a hand to her pants’ back pocket and pulled out her handy-dandy pad of paper. A pen was pressed down into the spiral binding. “Alright, let me hear what you’ve got,” she said, opening the pad to a fresh page and adding the date to the top of it with the pen. “Make it quick though.”
“It’d be better if we spoke alone for this.”
Matilda groaned again, but a few moments later she found herself in the park’s parking lot. Darren kept behind a large bus at an angle where he couldn’t be seen by the people at the festival. Only then did he start talking. “I just want to say, before we start, I’m a huge fan of yours. Been watching your reports for years and-”
“Stick to the topic,” Matilda interrupted sharply. “What’s going on?”
Darren nodded and took in a deep breath. His hair was buzzed on the sides and what remained was gelled up. His gray t-shirt hidden behind his sweatshirt had a picture of what appeared to be a rosy-cheeked leprechaun winking and giving a thumbs up. Matilda tried hard not to pay attention to it. “The man who coordinates the festival every year is a man named Paul Stewart-”
“Oh, I know Paul,” Matilda interrupted again. “He’s a friend of the paper. Good man, does a lot of advertising with us.” She pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “I believe he’s the one in charge of organizing this whole festival. And he’s one of the high school board members, too, I think. We ran a story on him getting a nomination for something or other just the other week.”
Darren shifted uncomfortably, his eyes darting about. “Well, I need to tell you something about him,” he said. His eyes widened and the words burst from his mouth as if he’d kept this secret for quite some time. “He’s a crook! A conman! And he’s planning something big for today!”
Matilda blinked, sure she had misheard the boy. “I’m sorry, what?”
“It’s the special ceremony!” Darren cried, throwing his hands in the air. “He’s planning something during it! While everyone’s gathered at the stage, he’s going to be making his move!” Now that the bottle had been uncorked, the boy was speaking a mile a minute. “He’s a bitter, wicked man! He’s cruel to his employees and everyone secretly hates him! They’re afraid of speaking out about him though because of how powerful in the community he is!”
Matilda’s eyes narrowed. Her skepticism instincts born of having worked in the journalism field for years were buzzing. Coming from the festival, she could hear that The Running Bowls had switched things up for a rather mournsom and exhausting ballad that had the lead singer wailing like he’d just been told video games had been cancelled. “How do you know all of this?”
“I used to work with him as an assistant,” Darren said. “I was in a teen summer internship program; always wanted to work in management, you see. I’d come in every day and he’d always be on his phone, yelling at someone. He was always yelling. People were afraid to say anything to him, worried he’d fly off the handle at them instead. And sometimes he would.” The boy suddenly became very interested in picking at his fingernails. “The program ended with the summer, but I still have some friends working there. They told me about this new scam of his.”
“And how am I to believe that you’re telling the truth to me now?” Matilda said. “That this isn’t all just a prank to tarnish a good man’s reputation? He has a lot to lose you know; he’s very respected by a lot of people. And what are you, some school boy? What do you have to lose compared to him?”
Darren drew in another deep breath and looked up from his fingernails. “I’m not lying,” he said, his tone set, assured. “I know something is going to happen. It’s why there’s a special ceremony in the first place. You notice how everyone’s been tight-lipped about it? It’s because it’s really just being used as a distraction, a way to get people away from where Paul’s going to be setting his plan in motion. He wants everyone by the stage. Don’t you get it?” Then, as if thinking he’d been doing too much talking, he lowered his head again and resumed picking his fingernails. “I mean, you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but I’m not lying. Go speak to him before the ceremony starts and you’ll see what I mean.”
Matilda thought about everything she knew with this special ceremony: a lot of people around town had been talking about it, but didn’t quite know what it was about. And every time she’d try to ask her daughter to tell her what was going on with it, she’d get a curt response of, “You’ll see, Mommy,” and nothing more. It was strange for her usually open and accessible daughter to keep secrets from her, but since school had been involved and she’d been so excited about it, Matilda had let it slide. Still, now more than ever her interest was piqued. Matilda didn’t like a lot of things, but she did love when there was a mystery for her to unravel and solve, particularly if it could mean the downfall of a prominent community member in the process. She could already imagine the headline: “Respected Citizen Exposed As Con Man!” The idea of getting to be the one to break the story nearly had her salivating.
“Where’s Paul going to be during the special ceremony?” Matilda asked. “Where’s this scam going to be taking place?”
Darren gave Matilda a look reminiscent of a puppy having just been told he’d been adopted. “In the park’s main offices,” he said. “Twenty minutes before the special ceremony he’s going to kick all the workers out and get ready. Someone’s going to be coming to make a certain delivery. That’s what my friends told me.”
Matilda nodded and returned her notebook and pen to her back pocket. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said. Then, she gave the boy a rare wink of approval: high praise from Matilda Michaels. “Thanks for the tip, kid. Let’s see if it’s got any truth to it.”
“You’re welcome,” Darren said in a quiet voice with a small grin, looking rather proud of himself. “Now expose the bastard.” He turned to go, but stopped after only a single step. “I don’t want to be mentioned in this article. Please keep my name out of if.”
“Of course.” Matilda pinched the thumb and pointer finger of her right hand and zipped them across her lips, sealing her vow of secrecy. Perish the thought, she mused. Don’t worry: you won’t be mentioned at all. All the credit will go to me.
With a final nod, the boy scurried away. He held his left hand over the side of his face, doing a poor job of hiding his complexion, as he disappeared back into the fair’s crowd. Matilda muttered a silent prayer to the deity of her choosing (today the Inca gods) to bless his idiot heart.
Matilda couldn’t help grinning. She stuck her hands in her coat pockets, thinking about Trip’s face when she marched into the office and shared the news of the story she was about to break. Oh, it was going to be just priceless!
She thought over what the opening sentence of her article was going to be as she began to walk to the park’s main offices.
– – –
To be continued in Part III…