Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.
The Grind was small coffee shop in the tenth ward. It was new enough that it had few customers, which was why Claire had picked it for her meeting. She sat nervously in the back, out of view of the front windows, her knees bouncing beneath the table. She'd already drank half her coffee which had given her anxiousness.
"This place is cute," said Elle with a handbag over her forearm, neck craning in all directions. She sat across from Claire. "I love the motifs of the students studying or practicing their magics. Makes me wish I'd had an ounce of faez to join the Halls."
The reporter was wearing a pattered flower dress with matching headband reminiscent of the 60s. She set a notebook and recorder on the table between them.
"Magic can be a curse sometimes," said Claire, fidgeting with her fingernails beneath the table. If Elle wasn't across from her, she'd already be chewing on them.
Elle pulled a pink pen with a piece of pink fluff on the end from her purse. She froze when she looked up.
"You don't have to be nervous. I'm just asking questions, getting your side of the story, which frankly Claire, you need. Annette has a whole team of PR professionals tearing you down one article at a time in the Herald of the Halls."
Claire's stomach sank into her knees. She'd avoided reading the paper, but knew that her classmates were. Some tried to mistakenly engender solidarity by telling her some of the awful things being printed, while others just gave her side-eye in the halls of Metallum Nocturne.
"I don't read the paper," she said.
Elle put her hand out halfway across the table. Her nails were a bright pink matching the pen.
"That's probably a good thing right now."
"What are they saying?" asked Claire.
"Are you sure?" asked Elle with a raised eyebrow.
"No, but yes."
"Keep in mind that she's doing this to further her mayoral campaign. She's been rising in the polls, partially from her anti-Halls rhetoric, but also sympathy for what happened to her daughter."
"Just tell me," said Claire.
Elle didn't look away. She stared straight back at Claire as she explained.
"They've gone after your parents, dredging up their death and insinuating that they were drunk."
"What? Why would they do that?"
"They're pushing the narrative that you come from a family of degenerates. They've also published little accounts from your years at the Halls, like the time you nearly beat up one of your fellow students over a minor problem in the foundry. Something trivial about temperature."
"That? That's bullshit. And fucking Mark. I can't believe he was talking to reporters about me. I didn't yell at him, well, not really, but when the induction furnace is humming, you have to speak loud to be heard. He'd set the wrong temp on the furnace. Had I not found it, it might have blown up. Hardly trivial."
"See," said Elle. "That's how they're tearing you down. Making you a villain for their campaign. You see, most people don't care about the issues, but they understand sides. Politics is a lot like professional wrestling. You're the heel. The villain everyone loves to hate."
"You don't seem the wrestling fan type," said Claire.
"I had four older brothers who watched it obsessively. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it too. I even considered trying out, but journalism was more my thing."
Elle pulled back her sleeve, flexing a tightly muscled arm. "I was in gymnastics and dance and some martial arts, though I didn't go far."
"I wouldn't have guessed."
Elle flashed an inviting grin and held up her pink pen. "Shall we begin?"
"What happened on the day of the accident?"
Claire explained the events as she'd already done a dozen times, making it clear she hadn't been the one to sign the paper, and why that should make sense. She felt as she was talking to Elle that she was really talking to the city. After the initial round of questions about Mara's death, Elle switched to stories about her life and experiences at Metallum Nocturne. Claire found talking to Elle was frighteningly easy. She knew she should be more guarded, but the reporter had a way of making her feel like they were old friends. By the end of the interview, Claire felt a profound sense of relief as if talking about it to a relative stranger had allowed the weight of the events to lift from her shoulders.
"I think that should be everything," said Elle, switching off the recording device and setting her pink pen down on the table. She had a heart-shaped face and brown luminous eyes.
"Oh, I almost forgot," said Claire, reaching under the table for a small gift bag. "I had it dry cleaned. Thanks again for letting me use your jacket. I can't imagine how much worse that day would have gone if I'd shown up sleeveless."
"It's a real shame that you couldn't. You have impressive arms," said Elle as she rose from the table, putting away her gear.
"What happens now?"
"A lot of scribbling and arguing with my editor about the pertinent facts of the article I'm going to write. Given your profile in the city, I'll be given latitude for a long piece. I might have follow up questions for background, but I'll text you. After that, who knows? Good luck with your new project."
After Elle left, Claire slumped into the seat, the anxiety from before coming back two-fold. She ran through everything she'd said to the reporter, wondering how it could be turned against her.
"It's gonna be fine," she told herself. "How much more could really go wrong?"