A Simple Modification

by Yisroel Goodman

Since that argument, the relation between Bill and Mark was strained. It was not that Mark was upset, it was that Bill now avoided discussing anything with him except for their work. During the next few weeks, steady progress was made at Wolf Media, both in the program development and in re-establishing customer satisfaction with Landmark's commitment to the project. But the improvement at Wolf was matched by a decline at Orange Bank as Mark reduced his hours there. Bill saw his schedule falling behind and panicked. He asked his development team to work longer hours. They balked.

"It's not that we don't appreciate what you did for us," Monica explained, "but we didn't sign up to become indentured servants. We do have lives outside of Orange Bank, you know."

A demo scheduled for Thursday was postponed to Friday because the program just wasn't ready. On Friday it was delayed again to Monday. On Monday the demo was held and everything appeared to be in order, until Simms took a close look at some of the documents produced by the program.

"What's going on here?" he asked, "The amounts in US dollars are greater than the amounts in Canadian dollars. That doesn't make sense. It should be the other way around."

Bill almost grabbed the paper out of Simms' hand. "It's the statement summary report," he announced. "Monica, that's your program. Didn't you test this last week?"

Monica flushed in embarrassment. Bill had just broken one of his own cardinal rules. Having suffered under Owen for so many years, he had insisted that problems be identified and corrected without placing blame. To be publicly criticized, particularly in front of a client, was mortifying.

"I did test it last week," she said.

"Obviously not well enough," Bill remarked.

Monica started to retort, then controlled herself. "I'm sorry," she said, "I'll fix it immediately."

"Don't think of leaving tonight until you do," Bill told her.

"Now wait just a minute!" she snapped. Then she stopped. "We'll discuss this later."

Bill and Simms met in Simms' office afterward to discuss the results of the demo.

"You're slipping," Simms said, "you're about two weeks behind your schedule."

"That's the six month schedule," Bill pointed out, "we did actually have eight months."

"How long will it take you to fix that bug?"

"Seems like a quicky. Monica will have it done by tonight."

From Simms' office he went to his own. Moments later, Monica entered without knocking. From the way she glared at him, Bill could tell that she was furious.

"I can't believe that you did that to me!" she said, "call me out like that in front of everyone!"

"Maybe I should have waited," Bill admitted, "But after Simms pointed out an obvious error like that, I just had to respond."

"I had enough of that crap at AMI!" she said. "Here it was different. You made the rules. 'Mistakes happen. Just fix them and get past it. Don't place blame.' What happened to all that?"

"I'm under a lot of pressure. On top of that, Mark's been so busy on another project that he's cut his hours here. I'm counting on you guys to fill in and lately you've been taking it easy."

"Easy? I haven't put in less than a forty five hour week since I started."

"But last week you went home at five Thursday and Friday, though we had a demo scheduled that had already been postponed twice. And then your program shows an obvious bug that the client has to point out."

"I don't know how I missed that bug. I did test the program pretty thoroughly. And I left at five thirty, not five and I started at eight in the morning. And as I already told you, I have a life outside of Orange Bank."

"Right now your life is interfering with my project."

"You're making it sound deliberate. I can't help having other interests."

"Just put those other interests aside until we finish this project."

"I did not promise you one hundred percent of my time."

"I'm not asking for one hundred percent of your time. Just one hundred percent of your effort. Maybe I made a mistake raising your rates so fast. I should have let you work up to it. I'll tell you what. For the time being, I'm cutting you back to thirty dollars an hour."

"You're doing what?" she shouted, "that's not fair!"

"Hear me out, please. When this project is over, in four to six months, I'll pay you an extra thirty an hour for every hour you put in from today. You'll be getting sixty dollars an hour, just half now and half later."

"You can't take back a raise after I've earned it!"

"I'm not taking it back. In fact, I'm giving you even more. Just as a bonus instead of a straight raise."

"I don't think it's fair."

"There's a lot of things that I don't think is fair, but I have to live with them. All I can tell you is my neck's on the line in this project and if we don't complete it on schedule, I'm finished. I'm looking for ways to motivate my team. Maybe if they have something on the line themselves, they'll try just a little bit harder. So why don't you get back to your computer. You've got a bug to fix."

Two days later, Monica reported that she had not been successful in tracking down the bug. "I've been through all of the code on the report," she said. "I printed each transaction and added the numbers manually. The totals I get agree with my report. Wherever the error is, it happens before my program is even executed."

"Are you blaming the conversion routine?" Bill asked, "Mark wrote that one before you even came to AMI. If there's a bug in it, we would have found it long ago."

"All I can tell you is that I can't find the bug in my code."

"I have to be able to report to Simms that it's been fixed. Why don't you tell Alex that I said he should drop what he's working on and help you solve this?"

"Okay, as soon as I get back from lunch."

"You're going out to lunch now? Why don't you order in and work on this problem?"

"Because I'm meeting somebody and I can't rearrange it."

While Monica was out, Bill asked Alex to look into the problem. Monica returned almost two hours later and joined him. At the end of the day, they had nothing concrete to report.

"I agree that I see no problem with her program," Alex said.

"Then keep at it until you find it."

"I have plans for tonight," Monica said.

"So do I," Bill told her, "or rather, I would if the program worked and we weren't behind schedule. So I'm working late and I expect that everybody else will, too."

"Wait a minute. First you humiliate me in front of the client. Then you make me put in all this time going over my code. Now that Alex agrees that it wasn't my code, not only don't you apologize, you're demanding that I cancel my plans and work late to resolve it. This project is becoming as bad here as it was at AMI."

"Okay, I'm sorry that I blamed you. But I'm not asking you to work late because it's your fault. I'm asking you as a member of this team to put in a lot of effort over the next few months so that we can be finished on schedule. Not to mention getting your big bonus."

"Some things in life are more important than project schedules and bonuses," Monica retorted. "I've had enough for today. I'm going home."

The next day, the three programmers entered Bill's office in the midafternoon.

"Natalya found the bug," Monica reported.

"Finally," Bill said, "and where was it?"

"In my credit invoicing program," Natalya admitted. "When transaction is credited back, I called conversion routine but I put parameters in wrong order. Instead of sending program initial amount, code for initial currency and then code for converted currency, I reversed codes. Instead of converting thousand American dollars to Canadian, program was converting what it thought was thousand Canadian dollars to American. Then it updated invoice. Monica's program was only reporting error that was already recorded in data."

"Is a very hard error to spot," Alex chimed in, "and it happens so unusually that even thorough testing could missed it."

"I guess it's a good thing that it was found before the system went into production," Bill remarked. "Still, I'm a little disappointed that it took so long to find. We're really behind schedule now. I hope you guys plan on making up for the lost time."

"That's something else I want to discuss," Monica said. "I can't keep working these hours. My fiancé is getting really annoyed."

"Your fiancé? You're engaged?" Bill asked.

"Last night. I told you I had a life."

"Congratulations. I guess that bonus will come in really handy in a few months."

"We're not waiting a few months. We've been planning this for a long time and we're ready now. That's why I'm leaving the project."

"You can't mean that!"

"I've been thinking about it for a long time. You were right. It was too early in my career to become a consultant. I need a steady, nine-to-five job without too many emergencies. That's why I've accepted another offer. I start in two weeks."

Bill's heart skipped a beat. "You have to be kidding! You're abandoning me with only a few months left to this project?"

"I explained why I can't wait a few months."

"I can't believe this! I hired you as a consultant when you got fired and you had barely a year's experience! I had my doubts. I considered telling you that I needed someone more experienced. But I decided that you didn't deserve to lose your job because of Owen's screwups and that you showed dedication to your job. If I had known that you would walk out just at the most critical juncture, I wouldn't have done it."

"And if I had known that working for you would end up being as demanding as working for Owen, I never would have taken it. And don't pretend that your decision to hire me was purely altruistic. You pay me only thirty dollars an hour."

"I raised you to forty five."

"And then dropped me back to thirty because of a bug that wasn't even mine."

"I didn't drop you to thirty, I raised you to sixty. Half now and half later."

"I'd have preferred the forty five now and nothing later."

"Is that what it will take to keep you here?"

"I'm sorry, Bill, it's too late for that. I've already accepted another job. It's at New Empire Records. Some friends of mine work there and they told me it's a rare occasion when they don't get out by five. In terms of money, it's less than I'm making now, but it's safe and steady and it's what I need right now."

Though the junior member of the team, Monica's absence had a significant impact on the project. Despite the increased overtime they put in, they fell further behind schedule. Alex suggested that they hire an additional programmer to replace Monica. Bill realized that only an expert could jump in at this late stage and become immediately productive. He was given the names of some consultants who came highly recommended. They also came highly priced. Though Orange Bank would pay the hourly rate, it would be added to the personal debt Bill had accumulated. So Bill put off hiring an additional person until they were over a month behind schedule. Then in desperation, he added Rick Weinhart to the team, hoping to make up for the lost time.

Bill was also stretching his budget to cover all the expenses now that he wasn't getting paid for all the hours he spent at Orange Bank. Debbie's part-time salary from Wolf Media hardly made up for the loss. So Bill was forced to spend even more time juggling accounts, borrowing from one credit card to pay another.

Bill was now leaving home early in the morning and returning late at night. He spent all of his time at Orange Bank, including weekends. The lack of sleep was making him lose his sharp edge. He constantly felt sluggish and tired. He became short-tempered and the slightest problem would set him off in a rage. In the brief time that they shared together, Debbie and Suzie learned to tiptoe around him.

"Daddy, are you coming to my school play tomorrow?" Suzie asked on one of the few Sunday mornings that Bill was still home when she awoke.

"I can't," he answered, "I have too much to do."

"Surely it wouldn't hurt your precious project to take an hour off one day," Debbie said.

"It's a lot more than an hour off!" Bill shouted, "I'll have to leave the bank a few hours early to see the play, drive for an hour here and then spend another hour driving back. I just can't spare the time."

"I can't believe that you can't even give up half a day one time. What if you were sick?"

"I can't afford to get sick. I've only got a few months to finish this job."

"So make it a few months and one day. You know I would go to this play if I could. But I can't and there's no reason for Suzie to be the only child without a parent present."

"Suzie will just have to understand that sometimes there are other things that are more important than her silly school play."

"It's not a silly play!" Suzie shouted, bursting into tears and leaving the room.

"See what you did!" Debbie screamed at him.

"So she's throwing a tantrum. Kids do that."

"Well, don't just sit there. Go to her and calm her down."

"I don't have the time. I'm already late."

"Late to what? It's Sunday, for Pete's sake!"

"I've got to go."

So it was Mark who sat through Suzie's play and congratulated her and took her out for ice cream later. And it was Mark who helped Debbie organize Suzie's birthday party and entertained her friends with a magic show. Mark took Suzie out for burgers when he felt that the child just needed to get out of the house, drove her friends to their weekend events when it was Bill's turn to drive and brought take out food to their house when he felt that Debbie needed a break. And thus Mark became the confidant with whom Debbie and Suzie shared their frustrations in Bill's frequent absence. Mark tried to calm Debbie down, making excuses for Bill and suggesting that she wait just a few more months when the project would be over. But when Debbie found herself sharing her wedding anniversary with Mark because Bill was too busy at the office to even consider coming home, Mark found himself running out of excuses.

Bill arrived home late one evening and tiptoed up the stairs. As he silently entered the bedroom, Debbie snapped on the bedside lamp.

"Honey," Bill said in surprise, "you're still up."

"Yes, I'm still up," Debbie said, anger in her tone. "How am I supposed to sleep when I'm concerned that my husband has lost his mind?"

"Debbie, what are you talking about?"

"I finally learned why you're so obsessed with this project. What on earth possessed you to stake everything we own and our entire future on this? And how dare you make such a decision without even consulting me?"

"Mark wasn't supposed to tell you!"

"You're absolutely right! Mark wasn't supposed to tell me, you were! And you were supposed to do it before you sold your whole family down the river."

"I did not sell you down the river. I have every expectation of completing this project on schedule."

"Whether or not you can finish this project is beside the point, or don't you understand that? You put up everything we worked for and mortgaged our whole future on this one deal and you did it without consulting me. Then you concealed it from me after the fact. As far as I'm concerned, you betrayed our marriage. Why didn't you just have an affair like normal husbands?"

"You can't seriously suggest that would have been better?"

"An affair at least I can understand. Betraying your marriage for wild sex with some gorgeous slut makes a certain amount of abnormal sense. Betraying your family for a client makes no sense and when it's a client who cheated you, it's looney-tunes time. We've got a serious problem and I don't know whether to call a marriage counselor or a psychiatrist."

"Debbie, I didn't tell you because I didn't want to worry you right now and in a few months it wouldn't have made a difference."

"That still doesn't explain why you made the deal in the first place."

"I didn't feel that I had any choice."

"Maybe if we had discussed it first, we could have come up with something. But that's a ship that's passed."

"Debbie, I didn't discuss it with you because I didn't want to worry you."

"Oh, how sweet. You didn't want to worry me. You didn't consider that maybe I could have some suggestions of my own. After all, I'm only good enough to raise your child, keep this house in order, work my way up to regional account manager at my station and get you your biggest client that actually pays you. But I'm not smart enough to maybe come up with an idea."

"Daddy?" came a quiet, sleepy voice at the door, "are you and mommy fighting?"

"No, honey," Bill said, turning to Suzie, "your mother and I are just having a discussion and we got a little loud, that's all. Go back to bed."

Once Suzie had left, they discovered that the fervor of the argument had been extinguished and it seemed pointless to continue. In angry silence, they retired for the night.

"How dare you tell Debbie about my deal with Orange Bank?" he shouted at Mark the next day, "I told you that in confidence!"

"I didn't have any choice, Bill," Mark explained. "Debbie was ranting and raving about how you consider Orange Bank more important than your family. She was working herself up into a state. I had to put it into perspective. I had to tell her that you were spending all this time at the bank in order to protect your family from financial ruin."

"Mark, we've been friends for many years and I appreciate that you've always been there. That's what friends are supposed to do. Be there when their friends need them. But you're always there, whether we need you or not. You're there to hear all my secrets and you're there to spill them to Debbie when I ask you not to. I want it to stop. I want you to stay away from my apartment and from my wife."

"Bill, I was only trying to help."

"Who were you trying to help, Mark?"

"Bill, you don't really mean that."

"I don't know what I mean!" Bill snapped. "I'm too angry to thing straight right now."

"Then why don't we stick to purely business conversation until you decide what you mean," Mark suggested in a quiet voice.

"And in the meantime, you'll stay away from my daughter and my wife."

"I'll be glad to, Bill. If you'll agree to fulfill your obligations toward them yourself."

"How did you become an expert on the obligations of a father or a husband, having never been either?"

"By observing my own father. He worked hard, sometimes at two or three jobs. But he always came home and he always had time to do the shopping and attend our school plays and little league games. He recognized his priorities."

"I assume you're implying something there."

"I'm not implying anything, I'm stating it. You've all but abandoned them and at a time that they really need you."

"Mark, stay out of my business and out of my house!"

Since that discussion, they avoided each other as much as possible and when they did speak, the topic was limited to Landmark business.

One Sunday evening, Bill returned home late as was his custom. He entered the house as silently as he could. Stopping in the kitchen for a bite, he glanced at the magnetic clips on the refrigerator where Debbie stuck up notes and reminders. There was a set of legal papers hanging on the door. Bill glanced at them and his heart stopped. The next moment, he was charging up the stairs and into the bedroom.

"Debbie, what is this?" he shouted, waking her up, "is this some sort of a joke?"

"It's no joke, Bill," Debbie said, "it means exactly what it says."

"And this is how you break it to me? You leave it on the fridge for me to find?"

"It's been on the fridge since Thursday. I was curious to see how long it would take you to notice."

"I can't believe you just went ahead without any discussion."

"Like you discussed gambling away our entire financial future with me? Besides, when are you ever around to discuss it?"

"Debbie, there are couples out there with worse problems than we have. A lot worse. And they don't just jump into divorce without at least some counseling."

"I made some inquiries about counseling," she told him, "are you prepared to see a counselor twice a week during business hours for several months at a cost of a hundred dollars per session?"

"Yes, whatever it takes. As soon as I have some breathing time and some spare cash. If you could wait a few months, all our problems will solve themselves."

"It's always a few more months. It's been that way on and off for years. How many years ago was it that you first missed our anniversary because of Orange Bank?"

"I can't believe that you're throwing that up in my face now!"

"Why shouldn't I? You obviously haven't learned anything from the experience. This year you didn't even pretend you were going to celebrate. Orange Bank has been the priority of your life for years and I'm tired of it."

"And in a few months it will all be over."

"That's what you told me then, too."

"This time it's a fact. The project ends for good in four to six months."

"Unless they extend it or another big client comes along. I don't want to hear it any more."

"Have you considered a trial separation first?"

"As far as I'm concerned, the past few months have been a trial separation. Except that I had sole custody and you didn't even exercise your visitation rights."

"Debbie, this is a real bad time to be doing this."

"Why? Is it interfering with your precious bank project?"

"As a matter of fact, it is. But I meant that you can't get around right now and you need me to do the shopping and the other chores around here."

"When was the last time you did the shopping or anything around the house besides eat and sleep? I'll be okay. I have Bati to help around the house and Mark's been doing the shopping."

"Mark's been doing the shopping?"

"That's right. Mark noticed that you hadn't been around lately and he realized that this meant that certain responsibilities weren't being met, so he did your job. Then you had the nerve to order him to stop."

"He told you about that, too?"

"It had to come out, Bill. You left him so torn between trying to honor your request while not leaving us high and dry."

"Is Mark going to be in the delivery room when you have the baby?"

"It wouldn't surprise me. After all, you'll be too busy with your precious bank."

"Debbie, think it through. Is this really you talking or is it the pregnancy hormones?"

"I've thought it through, Bill. Sitting at home alone, I've had plenty of time to think. And to consult with an attorney. And he advises me that the best way to protect my financial future it to separate it from yours. He's drawn up a set of papers that I expect you to sign. You claim full ownership of Landmark, absolving me from any obligations. You assume full responsibility for any debts. It's too late to save the house but at least we can protect my future earnings from any attachments."

"But in a few short months, this project will be over and we'll be rolling in money!"

"I hope so. But I have be prepared for the possibility that it just won't happen. To protect myself and our daughter, we need a complete break. It will be best for all of us if you just leave. Why don't you just move into Orange Bank? I'm sure they could provide you with a room."

For a brief instant, it crossed Bill's mind that this was an idea that should have occurred to him long ago. Finding an apartment near Orange Bank would save him at least three hours of commuting time each day. The thought almost made him smile. Then he recollected the argument he had been having and kept his face expressionless.

"I don't believe this!" Debbie shouted, "Here you're trying to convince me that our marriage is worth saving and you just smiled at the idea of sleeping at the bank and never coming home. Don't you deny it!" she continued, cutting off his protests, "I saw that little grin flit across your face. Why not admit it's over, Bill? In your world, business takes priority over your family and since business takes fourteen hours a day, that leaves three hours for driving, an hour for meals, five hours and forty-five minutes for sleep and fifteen minutes to make excuses to Suzie and me about why you're never around. So let's not drag it out any longer. You might as well sleep on the couch tonight, it's too late to go back to the bank. But tomorrow I expect you to pack a bag and find somewhere else to stay."

Bill realized that it was useless to argue when she was so determined. Without further discussion, he took a blanket and pillow and made himself a bed on the couch. Comfortable as it was, he had great difficulty falling asleep. It was hard to relax when faced with the realization that his life was about to undergo a cataclysmic change. He discovered that, like a man facing his final moments, flashbacks of his life passed before his eyes.

He remembered the first time he had set eyes on Debbie and gazed with admiration at what appeared to be a beautiful little girl holding her own in adult conversation. He recalled how he had moved closer and been awestruck by the ease with which she carried several discussions simultaneously. Later he had watched her in action at business dinners, sparring with buyers who controlled multi-million dollar accounts. Bill smiled as he recalled how Debbie always sized up her "opponent" and said exactly the right thing to clinch the deal. He remembered how she had pleaded his case the first time he and Mark had bid on the WIND project. If only they could have foreseen the results of starting Landmark.

"Daddy, why are you sleeping on the couch?"

Bill opened his eyes to discover that it was morning and Suzie was standing over him.

"Good morning, honey," he said, trying to sound cheerful.

"Good morning, Daddy," she responded, smiling, but the worry in her blue eyes was evident. "Did you and Mommy have another fight?"

"Not really," he tried to assure her and then realized that it would be futile to pretend, "Yes, I guess we did."

"Maybe you can bring her breakfast in bed and try to make up," she suggested.

"Honey, I don't think it's going to work."

"It can't hurt to try."

"I think that right now Mommy doesn't want to see me."

"But she'll have to see you, you live here!"

"I don't think I do anymore," Bill told her, his voice breaking.

"Are you and Mommy getting a divorce?" Suzie asked, tears sliding down her cheeks.

"It's what Mommy says she wants."

The sight of his daughter crying broke his heart and his eyes filled. He struggled to hold it in, not wanting Suzie to witness his pain when she was dealing with her own. He was just now beginning to realize the full impact of his loss. It was hard enough to consider that he was losing his companion for over a decade, the person he had turned to for comfort and support when the stress of his life took its toll. But now he was faced with the crushing reality of what his decision had done to his sweet, innocent child. He could not believe that she would no longer be there to greet him when he came home and discuss with him her little concerns, which to her always seemed monumental. There would now be an empty place at the table and in both their hearts.

"What do you want for breakfast, sweetheart?" Bill asked, trying to inject some normal routine into a day fraught with turmoil.

"I'm not hungry."

"You have to eat something. You have a whole day of school ahead of you."

"I don't want to go to school. I don't feel well."

"Honey, I know you're feeling bad, but you're not really sick. Staying home from school won't help. I feel bad myself, but I still have to go to work."

"How long will I feel this bad?" she sobbed.

"The bad news is that you'll probably feel bad for a while. But every day, you'll feel just a little bit better. And soon you'll have a little brother to take care of and play with and you'll have to be a strong big sister and help your mother. Now can you do that?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Now, go eat some breakfast and then I'll take you to school."

Through her tears, her eyes lit up. "You're taking me? You never take me."

"I know, and I'm sorry, sweetheart. I should have done it more often. But I'm definitely taking you today. And I'm sure I'll be taking you and picking you up again."

"But how, if you're divorcing us?"

"Sweety, I'm not divorcing you. Your mother is divorcing me. And no matter what happens between your mother and me, you'll always be my daughter and I'll always be there for you. Remember, I'm never more than a phone call away. Okay?"

"Okay, Daddy."

"You feel better now?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Now eat your breakfast, so we can get going."

Though he had put Suzie in better spirits, there was no reduction in the basketball-sized rock in his belly. While Suzie poured herself a bowl of cereal, Bill dawdled over a cold cup of coffee, before finally pouring it into the sink. When Suzie was finished, she ran into her mother's room.

"Bye, Mom," she said, "I'm off to school."

"But it's still early, honey," Debbie said, "I didn't hear your car pool honk."

"Daddy's taking me to school."

"Daddy's taking you? Did Daddy say why?"

"He said that you were divorcing him. Is that true?"

"Yes, honey, it's true. I'm sorry," Debbie answered calmly, struggling to present a calm facade, "I was going to talk to you about it when you came home from school."

"Why are you doing it?"

"Sweetheart, you may not understand this. It's not that I just woke up one morning and decided that this would be an interesting thing to try. But husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, have to love and respect each other. They have to be there for each other and for their children. Daddy just hasn't been there for us. For years now, he's put his business first and his family second. I just can't see spending the rest of our lives this way."

"But he's sorry, Mommy. He was almost crying in the kitchen before!"

"He's always sorry, until the next time. I remember him crying the first time he missed our anniversary and that was years ago. That night he told me that an emergency made him forget. This year he didn't even plan on celebrating because he had work to do. Think of all the important events of your life he missed. When was the last time that he was at one of your school events or even your birthday party? I really don't want to go into all this with you because it only makes me sad and angry. You'll just have to trust my judgement when I tell you that this is what's best for us. I thought about it for a long time and it wasn't easy to decide that I had to do this. But it's done and nothing's going to change that. Now please go to school. Just remind your father to come right back and pack his things. I don't want him coming home tonight."

Seconds after Suzie had left the room, Debbie collapsed back on the bed sobbing.

Bill pulled up in front of Suzie's school. "Bye, sweetheart," he said, "have a good day."

"Bye, Daddy," she said, struggling to appear casual in front of her friends. Then she threw herself into his arms and hugged him tightly.

"Okay, sweetheart," he whispered, "you'd better go."

After she left the car, he watched her until she entered the building and disappeared. Then he put his face in his hands and began to weep. The honking of other cars waiting for him to move, jarred him back to reality and he pulled hastily away.

Back at his house, his former house, he reminded himself, he silently packed his suitcase. His mind was in a turmoil. Should he pack his computer, with all the Landmark information on it and all the accounting? He still didn't know where he was going and there was a risk of keeping an expensive computer system in a car parked in a downtown garage. He settled for taking his portable drive, an external device upon which he had backed up his important files. Then he left, knowing that other than basic clothing, he was leaving most of his belongings behind. It was difficult to believe that he would be unable to simply stop by to run his monthly billing and check his E-mail. The finality of his departure still hadn't registered. He turned to say something to Debbie before he left, but found that he had nothing to say. Wordlessly, he dragged his things to the car and drove away.

As expected, he arrived at the bank later than usual. Then, unable to concentrate on his work because of the turmoil in his personal life, he was forced to announce that he would be taking some time off to find an apartment. He wasted the best part of several days searching, spending nights in a hotel he could ill-afford. Finally, his ad on Orange Bank's electronic bulletin board was answered by another employee of the bank who was seeking a replacement roommate for the two bedroom apartment he rented. By the end of the week, Bill had a residence and a new phone number. Over the weekend, he took the time to begin responding to all the messages that had been left for him at Orange Bank during his absence. Quite a few were from Wolf Media, expressing concerns about Bill's prolonged absence and ability to handle the project. A number of them were from Mark.

"Bill, I just heard the terrible news and I feel just awful. Look, if you need anything, a loan, a place to stay, someone to talk to, just call me."

"Bill, this is Mark again. Just call me and let me know you're okay."

"Bill, Mark again. Please, let me hear from you."

Bill chose to ignore these. After returning those calls that could be handled on a weekend, he turned his attention to the backlog of work facing him. Firing up the personal computer he had brought over from his former house along with the last of his belongings, he sat down to tackle the list of bugs to fix and enhancements to add. But it was hopeless. The pain of his separation, the pressure of the projects and of trying to complete Orange Bank while satisfying Wolf Media, it all came crashing down on him. The words on the screen blurred as his eyes filled with tears. He put his head down on his arms and cried silently. Then he drowned himself in self-pity as he relived every highlight of his life, recalling each moment and each decision that had led to this inevitable result.

Sometime during his introspection, he dozed off. He awoke in middle of the night with pins and needles in his arms. He was too exhausted to do more than drag himself to bed, fully clothed. The next thing he knew, it was early Monday morning. He had slept for over twelve hours. Still, he did not feel very refreshed and the thought that he had wasted the weekend and had not even started to catch up on his backlog, did not make facing the new week any easier.

One advantage to living in the area, he was able to arrive at Orange Bank very early. He hoped to get a head start on his work before the others arrived and tied him up with the ubiquitous meetings. He fired up his computer and brought up the source code of the first program he wanted to change. Then he began to scroll through the lines, looking for the best place to insert the fix. He scrolled to the bottom of the file. Then he scrolled back to the top. He did this several times, pressing the keys automatically as he continued to replay in his mind all of the discussions and arguments that had led to his current situation. His fingers were still running on autopilot when the first programmer entered the office. It was Mark.

"What are you doing here?" Bill snapped, "I thought you were giving all your time to Wolf."

"I do have some outstanding items here as well," Mark answered quietly. "But that's not the real reason I'm here. I came to talk to you."

"Does it pertain to Orange Bank or Wolf Media?"

"Indirectly, it does."

"But it is not the focus of what you wish to discuss."

"Bill, we have to talk."

"Mark, this is not the time or place."

"Then what is? You're never around and you don't answer calls."

"I return those calls that I feel are important."

"Bill, it's important that we talk. I came in early so we shouldn't be disturbed."

Bill realized that Mark must have left his apartment at six in the morning to have arrived at this hour.

"Okay, since you're already here and you obviously won't go away until you've had your say, go ahead and say your piece."

"Bill, I'm not here to gloat or say I told you so, I'm here as your friend."

"The friend who bailed out of our most important project and is leading me into financial ruin? The friend who divulged confidential information, leading to my divorce? Or the friend who's moving into my family's life, looking to replace me?"

"I'm the friend who's worried about you. And since you don't seem to be capable of helping yourself, I had to do my best to look out for your family. As I told you before, if you wanted to assume that responsibility, I would have been more than happy to step aside. But I suspect it may be too late for that."

"Don't kid yourself. When I finish this project and the pressure winds down, things will go back to normal."

"At least you're finally admitting that this project is at the root of your problems."

"There you go again. It's not this project, it's the pressure of managing two large accounts on top of all our personal problems.."

"Come on, Bill, wake up and smell the coffee!" Mark shouted, interrupting him. "Is Wolf Media threatening to take away your house, your life's savings and your future earnings? Did you and Debbie break up because of the deal you were forced to make with Wolf Media?"

"Okay, you're right," Bill conceded, "the Orange Bank project was a trap and once I fell into it, there was no way out."

"You could have cut your losses and gotten out."

"I could have. But rather than let all my hard work go down the drain, I chose to gamble. I didn't consider the other consequences and who else I could be hurting."

"Knowing what you know now, would you have taken the project?"

"Certainly not!"

"Then why don't you get out now?"

"Because it's too late. I'd lose everything."

"Maybe not everything. Maybe you could still save your marriage."

"Debbie didn't want me when I was a successful businessman. Why would she want me when I'm broke, unemployed and have a judgement against my future earnings?"

"Because she wants you, Bill Landey, husband and father. Not Bill Landey, big businessman with no time for anything else."

"You think Debbie will take me back despite everything?"

"You know she will."

"But she said her lawyer advised her to make a complete break in order to protect herself financially."

"And he did. But Debbie told him it was out of the question."

"Then why did she say it to me?"

"She was trying to shock you to your senses. She was trying to show you what it sounds like when you put business before family."

"What reaction was she hoping for?"

"She was hoping that you would say something like since when is she so calculating, putting finances ahead of family. Then she could have responded that you were doing the same thing. But you just seemed to accept it."

"I thought that she accepted it."

"Then you've really lost touch. You don't seem to know Debbie as well she thought you did."

"So what do I do now?"

"Get out of this project. Cut your losses. Work out a settlement with Orange Bank. And go back to your family."

"I wish it were that easy," Bill said, "but I have my family to think about. Can I really do this to them? I'd be leaving them with nothing."

"You're putting finances ahead of your family again."

"No, I'm thinking of my family. Maybe Debbie's lawyer is right. She should go through the legal motions to separate her income from mine, just in case."

"Bill, you have to put your family back together now!"

"Do I move them to some low-income apartment and put Suzie in public school?"

"It won't come to that and Suzie can stay at her school."

"How do you know that? Oh my God, you're the annonymous benefactor who paid her tuition, aren't you?"

"Let's not get sidetracked. The important thing is that you have to save your family."

"And then have Orange Bank destroy everything? No, I have to come up with a better way."

"You don't have much time."

"As always, time is the enemy."

"Look, Bill, why don't you go to Orange Bank and lay it on the line. You can't keep working at this pace. They're going to have to give you more time or more money to hire another programmer. If they won't go for it, then you have no choice but to bail out of the project. Use this as your threat of last resort."

"And if they don't go for it?"

"Talk to your lawyer. Figure out a way to shield some of your income. I still have some of the money you paid me. It should be enough to make the payments on your house."

"Which Orange Bank will take in lieu of my other debts to them."

"Not if we put it in my name."

"So you're buying my house?"

"You paid me a lot of money for half a company that's about to disappear. It's only fair that I return it in any way that helps."

"Even half a million dollars won't quite do it," Bill pointed out, "I owe two fifty on the house and almost four on what they advanced me on the consulting fees."

"I don't have half a million," Mark told him, "less than half that."

"What about the quarter million you were paid? I haven't seen you go on a spending spree."

"You remember my beliefs about having too much money? I had to get rid of it. Despite my misgivings, I held on to some only in case you needed it for emergencies."

"You gave away a quarter million dollars?" Bill asked in disbelief.

"Why are you so shocked? I'm about to do the same for you."

"But that's only because the money came from me in the first place."

"Look, Bill, I don't want to mention this again, because I don't want you to feel uncomfortable about this, but you bought my share of Landmark. Legally, I don't owe you any money. But I'm doing this because of our long friendship, because if not for you, I wouldn't have had the money in the first place and because for all your efforts, you deserve it. But there are a lot of other deserving people in this country, some of them in worse situations than you. Don't you presume to tell me what I can do with my money."

"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to tell you what to do. I was only commenting on your action. Giving away a quarter of a million dollars! That takes some guts."

"No, it doesn't. It takes guts to have that much money and gamble it all away on the chance to make more."

"Okay, point taken. But a quarter of a million dollars?"

"I had more than I needed, more than I could even manage, so I delegated control of it to others. I lent money to some start-up business ventures that had good possibilities but no collateral for bank loans. I made donations to some community groups and schools. The rest I invested in mutual funds so that it stays liquid and available. Now I don't have to worry about it. The money's out there and working hard for me and that's better than me working hard for money. Hang in there, Bill. In a short while, this craziness will all be over and you'll have your life back again."

"Absolutely out of the question!" Albert Simms stated emphatically. "We've been over this, Landey. We've renegotiated the contract. You agreed to a firm deadline and a specific payment schedule. There is no way that I can ask my superiors for any additional time or money."

"Two extra months or one more consultant, that's all I ask," Bill pleaded, "and the final cost to Orange Bank will stay the same."

"Does that mean that you can't finish the project on schedule?"

"I can finish it," Bill said quickly, "but it will mean working ten hours a day and weekends. It will introduce the possibility of bugs getting past us. I already lost one programmer because of this and it cost us at least two weeks to make up for it. I'd hate to lose another one this late into the project. We'll never be able to catch up."

"But the project can proceed on schedule?"

"That's what I'm trying to explain. It's possible, but it relies too heavily on long hours and overtime. That's good for the short run but you can't sustain that kind of schedule for months."

"Then how did you agree to it in the first place?"

"I thought that the two extra months I had built in would prevent that, but somehow, with the programmer leaving and other problems, we lost that safety net."

"I'm sorry to hear that. But the schedule remains as is."

"It could cost you the project."

"Not the way we see it. We recover your house, your bank accounts and your company. We use the money to hire programmers to complete the system. If delivery is late, at least we recover a large part of the cost. Face it, Landey, you're out of threats. Landmark has to deliver the system on schedule."

"So where do you stand?" Mark asked after the meeting.

"Back to square one. Either I quit now and lose everything but maybe save my marriage or I try to make a go of it, maybe save my financial future and maybe lose my family. It's a tough call."

"Bill, you've got to try to save your family."

"I'm not sure I can. And with no financial future, I'm not sure I want to. I don't want to put them through that."

"Isn't that a decision you should leave to Debbie?"

"I don't want Debbie to be the martyr who sacrificed herself for me. I don't want her to take me back out of pity. I want to be able to present her with financial security."

"By then it may be too late."

"We're talking five months here. She's currently pregnant and confined to bed. I hardly think someone's going to come along and sweep her off her feet in that time."

"Once again, you're missing the point."

"Once again, I'm being practical."

"Speaking practically, can it be done?"

"I've gone over the schedule again. It can be done, but it will require lots of overtime and there's absolutely no room for error."

"Sounds a lot like an AMI special," Mark commented, "How many projects do you know that were completed following this standard?"

"This will have to be the first. I don't have any choice."

"I think you do," Mark said, "and I think you're making the wrong one."

At the end of the first month, they were several days behind schedule. Bill urged everyone to work late and work Sundays. Mark, seeing Bill's desperation, agreed to come in. But the schedule called for productivity at a rapid pace and as Bill had often pointed out, developers could be fast or they could be good, but it was difficult to be both fast and good. The schedule did not provide sufficient time for thorough testing and as a result, bugs slipped in. Sometimes these were discovered in the late stages of testing and fixing the bugs then took priority over completing additional enhancements that were part of the requirements. Even more embarrassing was when one of the bank's users discovered the flaw.

By the end of the second month, they were more than a week behind schedule and the list of problems to fix would add another few days. The mounting pressure took its toll. The developers became terse with each other and did not take the time to assist each other as before. No longer did Bill hear the typical programming discussions, interspersed with casual conversation and the occasional joke. Instead, the team showed up quietly, took their seats and immediately began to code. The "war room" was now quiet, the near silence broken only by the clicking of computer keys. Morale was at an all-time low.

Bill's calls to Debbie became fewer and further apart. With each call, she made it quite clear that since he had chosen Orange Bank over her, he could live with his choice. She did not prevent him from talking to Suzie, but even his daughter had grown tired of his promises that he had yet to keep and soon, she didn't bother coming to the phone.

Wolf Media had hired their own manager and informed Bill that his services were no longer needed. If not for Mark, they would have discharged Landmark entirely. Now Bill's only income was the fees paid Landmark for Mark's work, which Mark allowed Bill to keep. A good part of this income was sent to Debbie. But Bill didn't need much. He never went out, entertained or socialized but spent all his time at Orange Bank or at the personal computer in his apartment.

But as hard as he pushed himself, the project continued to lose ground. Rick Weinhart, the last addition to the team, gave his notice. Alex and Natalya announced that they would not be far behind. Bill knew that at this point, it was too late to start looking for replacements.

Bill sat in his office at Orange Bank late one night, reviewing his schedule. He would have gone to his apartment earlier, but it was raining heavily, so he decided to simply wait the rain out or sleep in the office if necessary. No matter how he juggled priorities and resources, the result was the same. There was no way that he would complete this project on schedule. Dates and numbers danced before his eyes. It was all over. He had lost everything. How would he provide for Debbie, Suzie and the new baby? As he sat there in his despair, he could think of only one answer.

Braving the downpour, he ran to his car. Then he set out in the direction of the house that he had shared with Debbie. He arrived after midnight. Rushing to the porch, he rang the bell repeatedly until he saw lights going on. Moments later, he saw the housekeeper's face peering through the glass at the front door.

"It's Mr. Landey," he heard her call to Debbie.

"Bill? What's he doing here at this hour?"

"Should I open the door?"

"Yes. Let him in."

Bill entered the house, dripping water on the carpet. Suzie straggled sleepily down the stairs as Debbie waddled in from the ground floor guest bedroom, which had become hers until the baby was born.

"Bill, what is it?" Debbie asked, in tone that conveyed worry yet caution at the same time.

"It's all over," Bill said, "Orange Bank is all over. I don't have a prayer of completing it. I failed. I failed you. I'm sorry."

"After all that? Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. But couldn't this have waited until tomorrow?"

"I'm sorry for coming in like this, but I just had to see you. I just had to tell you how sorry I am for everything. I wasn't a good husband and I wasn't a good father and in the end, I wasn't even a good businessman."

"Bill, lots of people have setbacks. You'll start another company or get a job."

"It's too late for me to think of that now. I just wanted to see you both. I just wanted to tell you that I love you both very much." He began to cry.

"I love you, too, Daddy!" Suzie shouted, hugging him. Now she was sobbing as well. "Are you coming back to live with us?"

"I wish I could, but I can't, honey. If I lived here, the bank could take the house away."

"Their going to take it anyway," Debbie said.

"No, Mark and I worked something out. He'll pay off the mortgage. But it won't work if I live here and the bank can try to claim that it's really my house. Your lawyer was right. It's best if we separate what yours from what's mine."

"What will you live on?"

"I'll worry about that later," Bill answered, in a tone that indicated he hadn't really given it any thought. "I just had to see you again. Remember that I love you."

Still weeping, he turned and left. Debbie saw him enter the car and drive away. Something in his tone bothered her. The implication of his words chilled her.

Bill Landey's knuckles whitened, as he clenched the steering wheel and raced into the driving rain. The pounding of the water on his car's tin roof and the howling of the wind as his vehicle fought the storm, echoed the rage that tore through him. He passed the only other driver foolish enough to be out on the highway at this hour and in this weather. The headlights receded behind him so rapidly, the other car might have been standing still. Bill glanced at his speedometer and quickly took his foot off the accelerator. He had been moving at almost a hundred miles an hour.

Normally, he was a man who prided himself on his speed. He accomplished everything quickly, from completing his assignments to driving his car. But this was a bit much even for him, particularly in this miserable weather and in view of the fact that he had no reason to hurry. After a shining career, Bill Landey had suddenly discovered that he had spent the best part of his life rushing toward failure. There was nothing ahead of him but the bankruptcy of his company and the all but impossible task of re-entering the job market and starting his career anew, competing against fresh young blood untainted with the disease of long-term failure.

Now he was concerned with only one thought, providing for his family. Years ago, he had made an investment that would provide for his future and his family's. He had purchased a whole life insurance policy. For seven years, he had paid his premiums faithfully until the day came that the policy required no further premiums. The interest on its value was now sufficient to both cover the premium and generate future income. There was a good chance that Orange Bank would attach the cash value of the policy against his debt. But they couldn't touch the policy itself. Should anything happen to him, Debbie would collect a quarter of a million dollars. Sitting in a speeding car in middle of a torrential downpour, Bill realized how easy it would be to provide for his family. One little extra turn of the wheel and it would all be over. There would be no way to prove that it hadn't been an accident. He knew exactly the right place to do it.

Just about five miles ahead, the road suddenly veered sharply to the left. Several accidents had already occurred where vehicles had missed the turn or over compensated and crashed into the guardrail. At one point just beyond the curve, stood a large tree. If he timed his skid properly, he would hit it head on. He began accelerating.

His cellular phone rang. Who would be calling him at this hour? He debated not answering. Then curiosity won out. It might even add further "evidence" of a genuine accident if it could be claimed that he had been distracted by the phone at the moment of impact.

"Bill Landey."

"Bill, it's Mark. Debbie just called me and she's worried."

"Then tell her that she has nothing to worry about. Her problems will be over soon."

"She's worried about you."

"Tell her I'm a big boy and can take care of myself."

"Bill, don't do anything rash. I've come up with a solution to your problem."

"You can singlehandedly put Orange Bank back on schedule?"

"Maybe even better. Look, I have an idea. What could it hurt to try?"

"So tell me about it."

"I'll have to show you. We'll have to meet."

"Okay. When and where?"

"How about right now? Remember that Vincent's I took you and Debbie to?"

"Yeah, in the mini mall."

"See you there in half an hour."

Twenty minutes later, Bill pulled up in front of the local Vincent's. It appeared to be closed, but as he approached, the door opened and the maitre 'd ushered him in. Mark was already waiting at the bar.

"So what's this great idea?" Bill asked.

"Remember when I told you about Vincent's theory of the First Chance?"

"Vaguely. Something about going back and making a different choice?"

"That's it. Sometimes a person has the chance to go back and face a big decision that he made and pick a different option. It's very rare. Most people never get it and of the few that do, they only get to do it once. If they choose correctly, then time goes on as if they had never made the original bad choice. That's why it's called the First Chance."

"So what does this have to do with me?"

"When you contemplated the situation you're in, did you think about every big decision you ever made and how it affected your life?"

"Yes, I have."

"And did you pick the one you would most like to change?"

"I think so."

"Then follow me."

He led Bill upstairs to the private rooms. Opening a door, he motioned Bill to enter. Inside was a small dining room. Debbie was seated at the table. Something about her looked different.

"How did.." Bill started to ask, but Mark cut him off.

"Take a seat and wait."

"What are we waiting for?"

"A replay of your big decision. Don't be surprised by anything that happens here. Just act natural. And remember, you only get one shot at this. Make the right decision."

The door opened and the maitre d' led in Albert Simms and his executive director, Walter French.

"This is some elegant place," Simms remarked, "I wonder why I haven't heard of it."

"It's kind of a strange place," Bill told him, feeling a tremendous sense of deja vu, "they don't advertise. You can only get in by invitation from a member. And you can't apply for membership, they decide who they accept."

"How did you get accepted?"

"I didn't. Mark here is a member. He and the owner share a passion for magic."

"I hope the food is as good as the atmosphere," Simms remarked.

"Don't worry. The food's out of this world."

"What nationality?"

"All of them, I think. Don't look for menus, because you won't find any. They'll bring in their house specialities and you'll sample everything until you decide what you like best. But I warn you, it will be a tough decision."

Just as Bill finished speaking, waiters entered bearing trays of food and pitchers of drink. The serving dishes and tureens were placed on the table and the servants departed without a word.

"That's it," Mark announced, "they're going to leave us alone until we're finished."

"This is a little unusual," Simms said.

"Just try the food," Bill told him. "Taste anything."

Simms and French began sampling and raved over each savory dish. As they moved around and chatted, Bill suddenly realized what looked different about Debbie. She wasn't pregnant. When everyone had chosen what they wanted, Simms leaned back and announced that it was time for business.

"So, is the contract acceptable?"

"The contract?"

"The contract we messengered over to you."

"He's talking about this," Mark said, putting a sheaf of papers in front of Bill. It was the original contract he had signed with Orange Bank.

"That contract precisely," Simms said.

All eyes turned toward Bill. He was brought back to that day so long ago when he had made the worst decision of his life. He could see the same look in Debbie's eyes, the one that said, "I love you and I support you even though I think you're making a terrible mistake." He saw the look in Mark's eyes, begging him to turn down the project.

"Actually," he said at last, "it's not acceptable at all."

"What!" Simms shouted, "we've already been over this. It's the same deal we had with Arthur Mitchell."

"That's precisely the problem."

"That's a problem? Where else will you find a client willing to pay a hundred and twenty five an hour for programmers and a hundred and fifty for you?"

"Only if we agree to abide by the same schedules that AMI set up and we know that's already months behind. After that, you stop paying."

Simms turned to French. "Lotti said he'd be so eager that he'd never notice that."

French replied, "Lotti said a lot of things. He was wrong about those, too."

"Very well," Simms said, "I'm authorized to extend the deadline by four months and four hundred thousand dollars."

"That's not nearly enough."

Simms and French conferred in whispers. "Six months and six hundred thousand. That's a good offer."

"Not good enough."

"Landey, be reasonable! What do you want?"

Bill waited for a good minute, considering his reply. He now had the knowledge to demand that the deadline be extended so that he could complete it on schedule.

"What I want," he said finally, "is to be done with Orange Bank."

"What!" Simms gasped, "Why?"

"Because with a little input from my wife and my partner, I've come to the conclusion that this is just not the kind of project Landmark needs."

"We're talking millions in fees here!"

"And a great deal of shenanigans and behind-the-scenes backstabbing that we just don't need. I like clients that are aboveboard and forthcoming with their requirements, not shrewd operators that are out to screw everyone else. I can't program effectively if I have to keep turning around to watch my back."

"But we discharged Arthur Mitchell because we had an understanding."

"That understanding did not include a hidden clause in our contract. As far as I'm concerned, the agreement is canceled."

"So what do you suggest we do?"

"Call AMI. They'll be glad to mishandle it again. At least when you sue, you'll be going after a firm with lots of bucks."

"Okay, Bill," Mark said, "let's step outside."

They walked out of the room to the sound of French and Simms arguing. As soon as Mark closed the door, the noise stopped abruptly, as if the door were soundproof.

"What about Debbie?" Bill asked, opening the door again.

The room was empty.

"Debbie's waiting downstairs," Mark said, "we were just getting ready to celebrate."

"Celebrate what?"

"A successful year at Wolf Media. The impending birth of your child. My forthcoming engagement."

"But what happened to French and Simms?"

"What about them?"

"We had a meeting with them."

"Sure we did. A year ago."

Bewildered, Bill followed Mark downstairs to the main dining room. Debbie sat waiting at a table, visibly pregnant. A woman's purse lay on the chair next to her.

"She'll be right back, Mark," Debbie said.

"But what about the divorce?" Bill whispered to Mark.

"It never happened," Mark whispered back. "We only have one major client. You didn't have to put in so much overtime. Consequently, you were home often and your marriage is stable and looking forward to a new addition."

"What about Debbie's condition?"

"Landmark is doing okay. Not spectacularly, but okay. Your luck quotient is right in the range. Not bad, but not so great that you need a real tragedy to put things into perspective."

"And we never worked for Orange Bank?"

"No, you rejected that engagement completely. Remember Owen gloating when AMI got it back?"

Slowly, like new images replacing old ones on a computer screen, Bill began to remember how Owen had called, shortly after his meeting with Simms to tell Bill "I always knew you never had what it takes."

"I'm beginning to remember."

"Well, Owen's not laughing anymore."

Bill recalled the major lawsuit that Orange Bank had filed against AMI when it was discovered that there was a major bug in the system. The program had converted Canadian dollar figures to American, instead of the other way around. Every thousand Canadian dollars was converted to thirteen hundred American dollars. By the time the problem was discovered, Orange Bank had lost millions. They had won their lawsuit against AMI easily and the settlement was somewhere in the fifty million dollar range. Naturally, AMI had demanded sacrifices and simple programmers were not sufficient. Owen, Jean and even Bruno had been abruptly terminated. Their counterparts at Orange Bank, Simms and French, had been similarly treated.

"And here's my fiancé. Looking beautiful as ever."

Lifting her purse, Monica took the seat next to Debbie. "What did I miss?"

"Just a little reminiscing," Debbie told her.

"Bill, I hope you're not still upset at me for not putting in more overtime last week?" she asked. "But you know how Mark is about that."

"Consider it forgotten," Bill said, his mind still spinning, "there are so many more important things to wonder about."

"Such as?" Debbie prompted.

"Such as, who could ever have imagined a year ago where we'd be tonight," Bill answered. "I had a dream that things were very different."

"Better or worse?"

"Oh, much worse. Anyway, things couldn't be any better. Not even if I planned them myself."

"You mean you didn't?" Debbie asked, laughing, "I thought you always planned everything."

"Life isn't like Owen's schedule. You can't just put down what you'd like it to be. What do you do if it doesn't work out? Fire God?"

"No need for that," Mark said, "you just make a simple modification."