"Rose! Hey Rose!" Albert burst into the office excited and out of breath, brandishing a fistful of papers in his hand. "Rose, I think I found us a new client!" Rose put down the files she'd been sorting and rushed to Albert's side.
"You have? That's wonderful, who is it?"
"Uh... just a minute." Albert put the papers down on his desk, frowning slightly as he searched for the one he needed, then he pulled a single sheet from the stack and began to read aloud. "His name's Conrad Birdie... seventeen years old—”
"Currently enrolled at Eastside Reform School!" Rose read over his shoulder. She gasped and snatched the papers from Albert and began to read them herself while Albert looked on nervously. "Reform school… underage drinking," she murmured. "Albert, we can’t— I mean… we really shouldn't. I certainly wouldn't recommend him," she finally sighed, and gave the papers back to Albert.
"Aw c'mon Rose, he's perfect!" Albert pleaded. "Sure he had a bit of a rough past, but maybe this is the kind of break the kid needs! I only met with him the one time, but he can really sing, and besides, he's the kinda guy teen girls will swoon over. Rose, I just know his songs will sell!" Albert said earnestly.
"Oh, FINE!" Rose spat, throwing her hands in the air. "Contact Conrad… whatever his name is, and set up a meeting for tomorrow. He'll need to fill out a good deal of paperwork, and of course I'll want to meet with him before he signs on with us!" Albert nodded eagerly and grabbed the phone from his desk. As he scoured his papers for a phone number, Rose sighed heavily and dropped into a chair.
Please don't let me regret this... she thought.
Albert glanced at his watch for the third time in the last hour. It's almost six, where is he? He looked up and saw Rose giving him an 'I told you so' look. Which Albert pretended not to notice.
"Mr. Peterson?" The office door had opened, and poking her head through the door was Mary, their receptionist. "Mr. Birdie is here," she announced.
"Great!" Albert said, grinning broadly. "Send him in!"
A moment later, Conrad Birdie stepped into the offices of Almaelou Music Co. To Rose, he looked like a typical teenager. Teen delinquent really, Rose thought. Dark, messy hair, rumpled jeans, a leather jacket, and an expression that said 'You can think whatever you want about me. I won't care.' He whistled softly upon seeing Rose, and winked at her. She gave him a look of disgust and got up in a huff to stand behind Albert at his desk.
"This is not very reassuring, Albert!" she hissed in his ear. Albert waved her off and motioned to the seat in front of his desk, telling Conrad to sit.
"So, Mr. Birdie—”
"Conrad. Call me Conrad."
"All right. Well Conrad, I'm Albert Peterson, hopefully I will be your new manager. Oh and this," he gestured to the woman beside him, "is Ms. Rose Alvarez, my secretary." Rose crossed her arms and gave Conrad a stony glare. "We're both looking forward to working with you," Albert said with a smile. Rose rolled her eyes.
"Anything to get out of that school," Conrad muttered. Albert tugged uncomfortably at his collar.
"Ah. Yes, well—”
"Conrad," Rose interjected, "why do you attend a reform school?" Conrad's eyes grew wide and he gripped the arms of his chair tightly. In an instant, his confident attitude melted away, leaving a startled and uncomfortable-looking young man sitting in front of Albert and Rose.
"Now wait a minute," Albert protested, turning around. "Rose, we really don't need—”
"It's fine," Conrad said quickly. "It's fine. I'll tell." He leaned back in his chair and directed his attention to Rose, looking her right in the eyes. "If you must know, Ms. Alvarez, I ran away from home when I was fifteen. See, my momma died when I was young. Leaving me alone with my father. He had a drinking problem." Rose glanced at Albert, but said nothing.
"And a terrible temper," Conrad went on. "He didn't like me. So... I ran away. Lived on the streets for a few months. Eventually got a job at a drug store by lying about my age. I started smoking. Then drinking. I was a real mess by the time my employer found out I was only sixteen, and reported me to the police. They had me enrolled at Eastside by the end of the week." Conrad finished and crossed his arms, avoiding Albert and Rose's eyes. The three of them sat in silence for a minute or two before Albert finally spoke up.
"Wow. I—” he cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Conrad."
"Me too." Rose whispered, without looking up.
"It's fine," Conrad shrugs. "I'm used to getting pity from people. That's about all I ever get. I'm used to it." A feeling of tense silence returned to the room.
"Well, maybe Rose and I will be able to give you a fresh start," Albert said brightly, trying to both change the subject and hide his growing discomfort. "Rose, do you think you could get the paperwork for Mr.— for Conrad, I mean, from the other room?"
"Of course, Albert," she said quickly, glad for an excuse to leave, if only for a brief moment. She returned soon after with a sizable stack of papers, which she placed in front of Conrad. Albert handed him a pen.
"These are just the rest of the forms we need you to fill out before you can officially sign on with us and start working with everyone here at Almaelou," Albert explained. "Now, um, if you don't mind, I'll just step into the other room to help Ms. Alvarez with— ah...some filing. Yes, filing. Come on, Rose." He took Rose by the hand and promptly dragged her into the other room, shutting the door behind them.
Albert fell into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair. "Poor kid. Didn't think his backstory would be this bad." Rose sat down on the spare desk and sighed in assent.
"I guess you were right, Albert. From what I've seen, Conrad is simply a troubled teen who could use a second chance." Albert nodded, starting to stare off into the distance. Rose hopped off the desk and grabbed a huge pile of folders, half of which she dropped in Albert's lap. He jumped in his seat and almost sent the pile tumbling to the floor.
"What's this?" he asked, grabbing at the papers before they slid off his lap.
"Didn't you say you would help me with filing?" Rose smirked at him and turned to begin sorting through her share. Albert sighed, rolled up his sleeves, and got up to help Rose. It was dark by the time the pair had finished putting away the last of the forms and files. Albert looked at his watch.
"Nine o'clock. Guess we're done for the night." Rose nodded and opened the door leading to the main office. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw who was fast asleep at Albert's desk. She groaned in exasperation and rounded on Albert.
"Albert, you told me two hours ago that you would check on Conrad to see if he had finished or needed help, and now look!" Albert stepped back and put his hands in the air.
"Rose, I'm sorry, I— I forgot!" Rose sighed loudly and strode over to his desk to wake Conrad.
"Conrad?" she whispered, shaking his shoulder. "Conrad!" He sat up suddenly.
"Oh, sorry Ms. Alvarez. I got most of them done, but—” he stopped abruptly to turn his head to the side. "AH-CHOO! But then I fell asleep," he said, dragging his sleeve across his nose. Rose was suddenly concerned.
"Conrad, are you feeling all right?" He nodded.
"I'm fine, it's just… AH-CHOO! Just a cold," he sniffed. Rose put her hand to Conrad's forehead.
"Don't be ridiculous, you've got a terrible fever! You know, it is far too late for you to be going home alone, maybe you should come spend the night with us."
"Us?" Albert, who had been standing near the door with his and Rose's coats, finally spoke up, sounding shocked. “But... but Rose!"
"Yes, Albert, I said us," she told him impatiently. "We can take Conrad back to my apartment, I've enough room for the three of us. You can see he has a terrible cold, Albert, I can't care for him alone and he's certainly not going home by himself!" Albert looked torn for a moment, then sighed.
"All right..." He handed Rose her coat and started putting away Conrad's paperwork.
“Ms... Ms… AH-CHOO! Ms. Alvarez, you really don't have to do this," Conrad persisted. "I'll be fine..."
"Well unfortunately, I am not giving you a choice," she said firmly. Rose turned off the office lights (causing Albert to cry out) and opened the door, gesturing for Conrad to go out ahead of her. "Come on, Albert!" she called over her shoulder before walking out.
Rose unlocked the door to her apartment and opened the door for the two men. They followed her inside, looking around with that cautious air of curiosity one usually adopts when entering someone else's home for the first time.
"There's a guest room over there, that's where you'll sleep, Conrad," she said pointing down a short hallway. "Albert, there are sheets in that closet there, can you start making the bed for Conrad? I'm going to put on water for tea and see if I have soup or something I can heat up." Conrad sat down on the couch in the small living room, feeling very out of place as Albert hurried by into the guest room, meekly obeying his secretary's orders. Meanwhile, Rose went into the kitchen and started rummaging through cabinets.
Before long, Conrad found himself in Ms. Alvarez's guest bed, along with a mug of still-steaming tea, a bowl of soup, and what seemed like half a dozen pillows propped up behind his head. Rose had just finished taking his temperature (again) and Albert was standing quietly in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall and waiting for an opportunity to be useful.
"Fever's gone up," Rose muttered, checking the thermometer. "Albert? Could you come here?" He stepped forward and hurried to stand by Rose at the bed, beginning to ask what was wrong. Rose answered before he could open his mouth, telling him that Conrad's fever was still going up. "He'll need medicine, and a damp towel for his forehead wouldn't hurt," she said. With that, she thrust the thermometer into Albert's hand and left the room without another word, leaving Albert alone with Conrad, and also a little confused by her abrupt departure. He stared after her for a moment, then shrugged and turned to Conrad, kneeling by the head of the bed and folding his arms to rest them on the mattress. Still holding the thermometer.
"You doing all right, Conrad?" The boy shrugged back at him and resumed picking at his soup. Which he then sneezed into.
"I've been better," he sniffed. Albert nodded, rolling the thermometer back and forth across his palm. He was about to ask Conrad how long he'd been singing, and maybe what kind of music he liked best, when Rose came bustling back into the room, balancing a large bowl of water, a bottle of medicine and a teaspoon with a towel draped over her arm.
"Excuse me, Albert," she said as she shouldered him away from the bed so she could start tending to Conrad. Albert watched as Rose practically forced medicine down Conrad's throat and then proceeded to sponge down his forehead with the damp towel. Albert coughed quietly, trying to get Rose's attention.
"Rosie?" Rose glanced at Albert over her shoulder before resuming her care of Conrad.
"I was just wondering if there was anything you wanted me to do. Anything I can do to help."
"Hmm? Oh, no, I think I've got it from here. If you could just remember to take his temperature again in another hour that would be great. Oh, and Albert?" He had started walking out of the room, until he heard his secretary call again.
"If you're planning on staying, there are more sheets in the closet. I hope you don't mind the couch."
Stay? As in... spend the night?! Until now, Albert hadn't considered the thought of spending the night at his secretary's house. It did seem a little odd, perhaps even a little inappropriate. After all, he was her boss. But he had to think about the alternative. It was almost eleven at night, and if he went home he'd arrive at eleven thirty at the earliest. Mama would have a fit if she knew he had come home alone that late at night. So it seemed staying at Rose's was the better option. He would just go into the office early the next day and tell Mama he had lost track of time at work, and fallen asleep at his desk. Of course, she wouldn't be very happy with that either, but at least he could pass it off as an accident.
"Thanks, Rose. I'll get the couch ready, if there's nothing else you need."
"I'm fine, thank you." Albert nodded (though Rose couldn't see) and stuck his hands in his pockets as he left the room, leaving Rose alone with Conrad. He lined the couch with sheets and tossed a few pillows at one end. Albert sat down on the couch, at a loss for what to do next. Maybe there's some tea left, he thought. He just wanted to be doing something; sitting by himself in his secretary's quiet living room was a little uncomfortable. And he couldn't go to sleep yet, as Rose was expecting him to take Conrad's temperature in an hour (though he suspected Rose gave him that task simply so he would have something to do). Albert laughed to himself as he poured a mug of tea. This is certainly not how I expected this evening to turn out, he thought. I figured we'd get Conrad to sign on with us, I'd go home, have dinner with Mama... instead I'm standing in Rose's kitchen drinking tea while she cares for our newest client because he has a cold. Albert laughed again and sipped at his tea, heading back to the couch to sit. And wait, he supposed.
Rose knelt by the bed, still pressing the damp towel to Conrad's forehead in an attempt to bring his fever down.
"Ms. Alvarez?" Conrad said. "Why are you doing this?" Rose paused briefly to look at Conrad.
"You're sick, Conrad. Someone has to take care of you," she said matter-of-factly. "Besides, as you were with us in Almaelou, I feel that Albert and I are responsible for you."
“So... it's not because you pity me?" Rose stopped and looked at him again. She smiled.
"Of course not," she said, and she was surprised by the honesty of her own answer. "You should eat your soup," she said, standing up. "You'll feel better, and it's best when it's still warm." Conrad reluctantly began to eat his soup as Rose started to collect everything she had brought into Conrad's room. Eventually Conrad's bowl and the mug that had once held tea were added to her load. Rose gathered it all into her arms and made to leave the room when she heard Conrad speak again.
"Ms. Alvarez?" Rose turned around.
"I..." Conrad couldn't finish his thought, as he promptly fell into a deep sleep. Rose found herself smiling and left Conrad's room, closing the door softly behind her.
Albert sat up suddenly. He must have fallen asleep! He turned around in time to see Rose coming out of Conrad's room carrying his dishes and everything else she had brought into his room. Albert jumped up from the couch, already beginning to apologize.
"Rose, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to fall asleep, I can still go—”
"Don't bother, Albert," Rose interjected. "Conrad's asleep."
"Oh." He rubbed his neck a bit. "All right. Do you want any help with that, Rose?" he asked, still hoping to do something useful.
"No, no I'm all right," Rose answered as she dumped her load on a table in the kitchen. Albert's shoulders drooped slightly as he sat back down on the couch. Moments later he was joined by Rose, who curled up next to him with her feet on the sofa, and immediately dropped her head onto his shoulder. Albert tensed up at the unexpected (but not necessarily unwelcome) contact, but Rose didn't seem to notice.
"Mmm... sorry, Albert," she mumbled into his arm. "Just tired. Didn't think taking of an under the weather seventeen year old would be so exhausting," she murmured.
"Oh. Okay," Albert said, watching as Rose sighed and buried her face deeper in his shoulder.
"Do you want to have kids?" Albert felt his face turn bright red. Kids?! With… Where did that come from? Albert shook his head.
“Rose— I… you— I mean—” Rose cut him off, laughing weakly and shaking her head.
"Not with me!" she told him.
"Oh," Albert laughed in relief. “Well... I suppose, at some point. Maybe. I haven't really thought about it. Why do you ask?" Rose shrugged.
"I was just thinking about Conrad. Kind of wondering what it would be like if he were our child." That blush crept its way back onto Albert's face.
“Our— our child?" he choked out.
"Mm hmm," Rose murmured. "We'd take care of him all the time, just like tonight." There was a pause. "Albert," Rose said softly, "do you think I would be a good mother?"
“Oh! Well… of course! You would be a wonderful mother," he assured her. Rose smiled.
"And you would be a great father, Albert. I'm sure we'd both—” Rose let out an enormous yawn. "We'd both be great parents." Albert tugged at his collar, his cheeks still tinged with pink. He wasn't going to deny that— that he and Rose... well maybe they would be wonderful parents some day. Who knew? But at the moment, all Albert could think about was this conversation, which was getting a little… awkward.
Albert turned back to Rose, whose eyes had drifted shut, and was now softly snoring. Albert smiled to himself.
"You must have been exhausted, Rose," he whispered. "Don't think I've ever seen someone fall asleep that fast." Not thinking, Albert reached down and brushed a piece of hair out of Rose's face and sighed softly. He stopped suddenly, hand frozen in place when he realized what he had just done. His fingers had trailed down until they were just touching Rose's neck, his hand somehow cupping her cheek. Albert couldn't stop himself. In another moment, he found himself looking all over his secretary's face, feeling as if he were seeing her for the first time. How could it have taken me this long to realize what a beautiful woman I have working for me?
Albert was pulled abruptly from his thoughts by a soft chiming, Rose's clock. Albert glanced down at his own watch. Midnight. Albert sighed, at a bit of a loss for what to do with the sleeping woman beside him. After slowly and awkwardly getting to his feet (not wanting to wake her), Albert hesitantly slid an arm around her shoulders, and the other under her knees, and lifted his sleeping secretary from the couch. As carefully as he could, Albert carried Rose to her bedroom and laid her down on the bed, pulling the covers over her sleeping form. On his way out, Albert found himself pausing at the door, almost hesitant to leave and close the door behind him. He darted back to Rose's side and stooped down to plant a quick kiss on her forehead.
"Good night, Rose," he whispered, and hurried out.
Rose's dreams were unusually pleasant for those following such a long, tiring night. She was in her living room (or she assumed it was her living room, for it was a dream, and it was always hard to tell with dreams). She was sitting on the couch, closely curled up against Albert. They were… yes, they were holding hands. In a chair beside the sofa sat Conrad, strumming gently on a guitar and humming to himself. Rose looked at the scene before her and was surprised by how right it all felt. Conrad and Albert...the three of them together. Maybe...
Albert shut Rose's door as quietly as he could, glad that he had gotten her into bed all right. Maybe I should check on Conrad too... Albert stuck his head into the guest room and (satisfied that Conrad appeared to be sleeping soundly) returned to the living room, hoping to get some sleep himself.
But Conrad was not sleeping soundly. Not sleeping soundly at all. What should have been a restful and restoring slumber was peppered with fuzzy and distorted images. Bits and pieces of his life, all thrown together at random. The drug store. Eastside. Countless streets and alleys he recalled spending sleepless nights in. Just when he thought he could not take it any longer, the storm in Conrad's mind seemed to clear. Conrad relaxed as he realized he was back home, sitting down to dinner with his father. They talked and joked, simply two men enjoying a meal. Wait... Conrad thought. This… this isn't right. I ran away from home over two years ago, and my father was never this kind to me...
"You know," his father said smiling," I'm so glad you got enrolled at Eastside. Perfect for kids like you," he said brightly. "Shame it took you so long to get out of this house onto the street," he went on. "Would've loved to be rid of you sooner. I have to say though, I am so glad your mother isn't here! So she never had to see the mess you've become!"
Conrad sat up with a start, his face beaded with cold sweat. He looked around wildly and gradually remembered he was in Ms. Alvarez's guest room. He relaxed slightly and slumped back against his many pillows.
"That wasn't real," he muttered to himself. "That was a dream; it wasn't real." But the images kept creeping back. Conrad began trying to distract himself by thinking about Albert and Ms. Alvarez. He was still surprised they had taken him in. Especially Ms. Alvarez. When he first met her, he thought for sure she hated him. Of course, that attitude seemed to have changed quickly when he told her why he was in reform school. Because she pities me, Conrad thought dejectedly. Then again, he'd been pitied his whole life, and he'd never been treated like this. Maybe Albert and Ms. Alvarez actually...care about me. Maybe...
Despite the lateness of the hour, Albert could not sleep. Instead he lay awake on the couch, arms folded under his head as he stared at the ceiling, thinking. About Ms. Alvarez, surprisingly. Albert just could not explain why he had been so suddenly drawn to Rose. I have to admit, he thought, Rose is a very beautiful woman.
Where had that come from? When did he begin to think about Ms. Alvarez like that? Albert sighed. It was true though. He may have only realized it tonight, but Rosie was— well, an attractive woman. Maybe it was seeing her outside the office for once that had done it...
Albert blushed as he recalled other… events from that night. Specifically when they were on the couch together. He had never thought that something— something like that— would ever happen... or why something like that would happen, for that matter. Albert sighed again. Maybe I should just admit it, he thought. I might— I mean, it's possible— I may be falling in love with Rose. Maybe...
...maybe I've found someone I can belong with.