Rising Tide: The Truth

Christine Chen's short story, "Rising Tide: The Truth", was competing for the PLA 2018 Short Story Contest and was selected by the Free Library of Philadelphia to be published in this Short Story Dispenser.

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When her coworkers label Erna Holmes the best in the field, they’re not exaggerating. She is the embodiment of journalism—fair, keen on details, gives a voice to the silenced. She pursues the truth like a hunter, sniffing out hidden stories. She follows every lead like a dogged hound chasing a hare and a detective trailing a mystery. Her pieces are impeccable—clickbait headline, anchoring deck, strong hook, straightforward graphs packed with unbiased details, a profound quote to ponder upon. Her articles are always planned down to the word, without a superfluous adjective in the midst. They suspect it’s her name—Erna like Ernest Hemingway and Holmes as in Sherlock Holmes. The best of both worlds. She is the investigative journalist The New Yorker prides.

Erna Holmes spots a story.

“Following the recent amalgamation of Wells Biotech into Wilson Incorporated, Harry Zimmerman, CEO of Wilson Incorporated, announced today the relaunch of Wells’ Rising Tide project...” She turns up the volume. By the end of the program, she has jotted down “Rising Tide” and “Wilson Inc.” and drafted a pitch to her editors. Since her last feature, she has been aching to go back in the field.

“This isn’t your beat.” The cold reply is a slap on her heart of passion. She slogs back to her desk, then immediately rejuvenates as she scribbles away in her notepad.

“Rising Tide turns to tidal reserves for clean renewable energy.” She reads enough to know something isn’t right. The cause is almost too noble; Zimmerman is not one to invest in what nearly bankrupted Wells. Holmes understands that this ostensible act of generosity obscures a dirty secret.

When her brother, Ed, comes home with a position in the Rising Tide, she hugs him and later almost pulls her hair out. “You’re too close to conduct an impartial investigation, let alone write.” It’s true; she’d rather jump out her window than hurt him in any way.

But she has to.

“I’m a reporter, Mr. Crawford. I’m sure, as my editor, you know I’m basically married to my job. I’ve sworn to myself and this paper to stay neutral.”

“Fine, Miss Holmes,” she can taste his bitter reluctance, “Go get me a true story.”

The minute she leaves, she drives to Ed’s new office for a visit.

Soon, sticky index cards have conquered her walls, with “Rising Tide” occupying the center in giant letters. To-do lists litter her shelf, revealing names, times, and contacts. Annotated news clippings lay in labeled files. Transcribed interviews pile up everywhere, while journalist’s notebooks mound a collapsing tower atop her desk, obscuring a treasured photo with young Ed which used to remain uncovered.

“Thank you for meeting me on such short notice, Mr. Zimmerman.” She sits down opposite the magnate, opens her notepad, and sets her phone on his desk. 
“Once again, Erna Holmes with The New Yorker. Could you please state your name, the date, and read this statement?” She slides over a pre-printed paper slip.

“Today’s July 2nd and I, Harry E. Zimmerman, representing Wilson Incorporated, give consent to be recorded during this interview.” She presses record and catches a glimmer of his cunning, industrial smile.

She knows.

“So, why Rising Tide? Why save Wells when you’re better off in your automotive magnesium business? Last time I checked, their debts dragged down your stocking prices by 8%.”

“I see you did your homework, Miss Holmes.” She notices him looking up and to the right, “Wilson Incorporated has always wanted to do what’s right and that includes protecting the environment. We recognize the research Wells has done and with energy demands rising as we speak, we’ve found what we’re looking for to help better the world...”

As the interview unfolds, he manages to evade her every challenge and attack, inflicting questions back at her. She knows.

“It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Zimmerman. Thank you for your time.” She ends the recording and stands to shake his hand, her own cold by contrast in the air-conditioned office.

“Likewise.” Another crafty smile. “Off-record word of advice—stop. You’re probing deep waters here, young lady. It’s not worth putting your brother Ed on the line with your little investigation.”

“Is this a threat?” She steadies her grip on her notebook.

“As I said, off-record word of advice.” Her jaws hurt from clenching her teeth while trying to look unaffected. “Do you know it’s the lowest tide of the year today, Miss Holmes? The tide is rising.”

“I have no doubt.”

In the following months, she’d come home to blackmail, hate notes, anonymous phone calls screaming “drop it.” Once someone flooded her apartment. She found her car windows smashed and the hood scratched with death threats. She received worried and later frustrated calls from Ed, begging her to stop. “Sorry, Ed. You know how important this is to me.” When he failed to fathom why she’d risk her life, her sanity, his career, their family, and her everything for an article, she hesitated. Indeed, she has doubted. “Is it really worth it?” She feared. “Is it really worth the hate?” She pained. “Is it really worth all the nights you cried yourself to sleep and small hours writing and researching with the acrid aftertaste of coffee in your mouth and dried tears on your face?” She has been hunted like a felon when all she desires is to do justice with words, to unearth the buried truth, to give people a voice. “Is it really worth the pittance of an endangered field of journalism in the world of fast food news and social media?” She has asked herself, “Is it really worth it, Erna?” She has been tempted to give up.

But she doesn’t.

“There’s too much wrong in this world to just do nothing. Someone has to stop it. I’ve found a way, Ed. I know it’s cost me a lot, even you. But it’s my duty to report the truth. I can’t stop now.”

“What if they force you to? Zimmerman can easily put you out of work, or worse, point a gun to your head!”

“I’d rather die writing the truth and protecting my sources than live a stolen life knowing I’ve turned against everything I believe in.” When Zimmerman threatens to silence her, she spits out every word as her heart pulses to the flow of waves.

“You’re a fool.”

“At least I have morals.” She stares at him with determination in her eyes.

“I admire your courage, Miss Holmes, although misguided. You’re bold, meant for greatness. It’s still not too late—”

“Never.” she shakes his hand off her shoulder.

After a year of research, interviews, threats, and struggle, she finally puts her byline in The New Yorker again. Zimmerman has pulled out every copy but her article has already drawn public attention to his hypocrisy. Environmental organizations around the globe have opened investigations of his company.

“Rising Tide: The Truth"
An investigation of the alleged environmentally friendly clean energy program
By Erna Holmes

Behind the salvation of Wells Biotech and the relaunch of the Rising Tide program in January 2017, Wilson Incorporated harbors another rising tide...

“The magnesium industry commonly uses sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) to prevent the rapid oxidation and burning that occurs when the molten metal directly contacts air... The continued emission of this long-lived, extremely potent greenhouse gas is a costly business practice with lasting environmental impacts...

“With Rising Tide as a front, Wilson Incorporated has found a way around pollution regulations by disposing SF6 into the ocean despite its poor solubility in water.

“The unabsorbed SF6 continues to enter the atmosphere at a record rate, further accelerating global warming...

“Perhaps the true irony is that the Rising Tide is literally causing the world’s sea levels to rise.

“In the discovery of truth, I also discovered humanity, especially my faith in and allegiance to the truth.” 

What she does not tell the press as she accepts her Pulitzer later, is that she has discovered her unyielding courage as well.