So, as an experimental last gasp, I was sent down here, where the walls are thick, the neighbors are paper, and nobody minds that my singing voice is terrible.

It works for them, but more importantly, it works for me.

And here I’ve remained for almost six years, working metadata analysis and market trends, making people with money even more money.

Not that the company’s treated me poorly. I’ve gotten a bonus for seven quarters straight, and I’ve always managed my own investments.

For a girl who still has a few years until she hits thirty, I’m doing well on the ol’ nest egg.

But I’m pigeonholed. Other than dropping off files from time to time, I almost never see anyone in my day to day work, which I guess is okay with me. I’ve never been someone who likes the social scene of an office.

On the other hand, I can wear my pink and blue streaks in my hair and not have to see people’s judging glares. And I don’t have to explain what my lyrics mean when I decide to sing along.

“Another one for the Motherland!” I exclaim as I see what I’ve been looking for. This isn’t a hard assignment, merely an optimization analysis for some of Goldstone’s transport subsidiaries. But I prefer to celebrate each victory, no matter how small or large, with glee.

I swipe all the data to my side monitors and bring up a document in the center and start typing. I’ve already included most of the boilerplate that the executives and VPs want to see, the ‘check the box’ sort of things that my father would understand with his background.

After all, he is Russian. He knows about bureaucracy.

Finally, just as the Elf Clock above my door dings noon, I save my file and fire it off to my supervisor.

“In Russia . . . report finishes you.”

Okay, so it’s not my best one-liner, but it’s another quirk of mine. While I’m as American as apple pie, I pay homage to my roots, especially at work, for some reason. It seems to help, so I’m sticking to it.

Heading to the elevator, I go upstairs before punching out for lunch and jumping into my little Chevy to drive to my ‘spot’, a diner called The Gravy Train. An honest to goodness old-fashioned diner, it’s got some of the best food in town, including a fried chicken sandwich that’s to kill for.

As I drive, I look around my hometown, still surprised at how big it seems these days. The main reason, of course, is tied to the dark tower on the north side of town, Blackwell Industries.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Blackwell located his headquarters here in the sleepy town of Roseboro and proclaimed it to be the bridge between Portland and Seattle. A lot of people scoffed, but he was right, and Roseboro’s been the beneficiary of his foresight.

I’ve been lucky, watching a city literally grow with me. Roseboro is big enough now that some people even call this a Tri-Cities area, lumping us in with Portland and Seattle.

I get to The Gravy Train just in time to see the other reason that I come to this place so frequently for lunch wave from the window. Isabella “Izzy” Turner has been my best friend since first grade, and I love her like she’s my own flesh and blood.

As I enter, I see her untie the apron on her uniform and slump down into one of the booths. Her normally rich brown hair looks limp and stringy today, and the bags under her eyes are so big she could be carrying her after work clothes in them.

“Hey, babe, you look exhausted,” I say in greeting, giving her a hug from the side as I slide in next to her. “Please don’t tell me you’re still working double shifts?”

“Have to,” Izzy says as she leans into me and hugs back. “Gotta keep the bills paid, and doing double shifts gives me a chance to maybe get a little ahead. I’ll need it once classes start up again.”

“You know you don’t have to,” I tell her for the millionth time. “You can take out student loans like the rest of us.”

“I’d rather not if I don’t have to. I owe enough to other people as it is.”

She’s got a point. She’s had a tough life and has seen tragedy that left more and more debt on her tab, and student loans are tough enough without all the other stuff in her life.

And even though she always turns me down, I have to offer once again, just on the off-chance she’ll say yes this time. “Still, if you need anything . . . I mean, I’ve said it before, but you can always come live with me. I’ve got room at my place.”

Izzy snorts, finally cracking a smile. “You mean you want someone to stay up with you until two in the morning on weekends playing video games.”

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