Sabotage, Chapter 4

Just keep smiling, Carmen told herself as she unlocked the front door. Two of her roommates, Mario and Thomas, were playing video games, so their backs were towards the entry way. Carmen hoped she could pass the couch and slip into the hallway without speaking to them. They were two people who struggled in the company, and thanks to her advice, they were swimming in sales. Now she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad thing. As soon as she shut the door behind her, Mario grunted, “Tucker?”

She steeled herself up and answered, “Nope, just me.”

“Oh hey.” Neither of them looked away from their game, which Carmen was grateful for. Without saying another word, she slipped into the hallway and darted into her room.

Zartex sat criss-crossed at the foot of her bed. “I hope you don’t mind that I sat on your bed. There isn’t anywhere else to sit in your room.”

“No, that’s perfect actually,” Carmen responded. “The floors in these mobile homes creak a lot. My roommates and I can’t hide anything from each other.” She started to take off her winter gear and a thought occurred to her. “You…aren’t gonna watch me sleep too, are you?”

“No, of course not!” Zartex replied hastily. “I won’t learn much by watching your private moments like that. Are you changing? I could step out.”

“How would you know when I’m done?” Carmen could just imagine shouting ‘I’m done!’ after every she changed, went to the bathroom, showered, etc. Or worse, he could close his eyes and accidentally catch a glimpse every now and then.

Zartex pulled up his floating screen and pulled up a heart app. “It’s called an Emotional Reader. It reads a measure of energy my subject and I feel. If you’re sleeping, for example, it would show me your mood-unconscious, and mine, probably bored. I usually have an even keel. Only one things really stirs my emotions-music. Only certain music though, stuff with high energy. Try not to play music like that or I’ll go into an emotional overload. You wouldn’t like it when I go into an emotional overload!”

“Well, I can’t control what a customer might listen to in the field.” Carmen felt insanely curious yet dreaded what obstacle that this might prevent. “What happens during an emotional overload?”

Zartex revealed, “My energy beams into the atmosphere around me and everyone gets pulled into my thoughts. Whatever image the song pours into my heart basically broadcasts out and everyone gets transported into a music video-like experience.” Carmen gazed at him in utter disbelief. “You want me to show you?”

“No!” Carmen’s bewilderment of this fact was more unbelievable than the fact an alien was sent to Earth to observe her behavior. “How is it that you’ve never been discovered on our planet before?”

“Oh, only people who I’ve told about the E.O. effect actually remember it,” he explained. “Everyone else just blacks out a little.”

Carmen felt a jolt of excitement. “So, since you told me about teleportation, that means you can use it on me right? This solves so many of my transportation issues!”

Slightly guilty, Zartex informed her, “I can alter the area around me, but to actually make physical matter move from one place to another is different. It doesn’t work on carbon-based life forms.”

Disappointment washed over her. She sighed, “I’m going to get my jammies on in the bathroom.” Zartex twiddled his thumbs for a few minutes while she changed. She came back, threw her work clothes into the hamper, and grabbed her very square laptop. She sat on her bed like it was a sofa. “I catch up with my friends and family on social media after work.” She didn’t know why she was narrating her life to him except it felt awkward to sit in silence with someone else in the room. “Let’s see…a friend request from…ew, Garith Kendric!”

“Who’s that?” Zartex asked.

She replied, “A reporter from San Francisco. Reporters are always trying to talk to us and gain our secrets. I’m not a traitor though!” She paused as a flurry of ill feelings stirred inside her. “I don’t think so anyways. I mean, maybe I should. Maybe the world should know what’s going on. But what if I’m not being fair to Mirage? Okay, they’re kind of a cult, but are all cults bad? I have a future set up here-I just can’t imagine doing anything else! Oh, I don’t know! I don’t know how I feel! Zartex, how am I feeling?”

Zartex glanced at his watch. “Uncertain.”

“You don’t know?”

“No, that’s how you feel.”

“Oh!” Zartex was right, she thought. She kept cruising the internet, trying to distract herself enough to relax. If she didn’t know how she felt, she knew she couldn’t pressure herself to figure it out tonight. She could be on the verge of making a major decision, and that wasn’t something to do hastily. She had no other choice but to live her life normally until she figured it out.

The next day, a group of thirty professionally dressed people in their late teens to early thirties stood in a circle in an empty meeting room. Motivational posters lined up around two walls, a window laid on the third, and a giant white board roosted on the side opposite of the door where a bell hung. The people in the room stood with a pen and notebook in hand and wide smiles on their faces. Bob stood next to Carmen, who really hoped she had succeeded in fooling the room of her current mood. Bob whispered, “What’s wrong?”

Of course Bob would figure it out, she reasoned, he’s been her team leader/coach for years now. “Nothing. Just tired,” she fibbed.

Bob advised, “Don’t forget our treat-Arius Delaynie is here! Let his meeting jazz you up for the field today!” Carmen but said nothing.

Suddenly, a man with a fine Italian suit burst into the room. He had hair styled with gel, a five o’clock shadow that somehow made him look gruffly handsome, and the build of a former football player. His brown hair matched his eyes, except for the redness. Even though everyone figured he must always feel tired, he hid it extremely well and practically bounced off the walls. He had to-managers set the tone of the whole company. He exclaimed, “Hiiiii yaaaaa!”

“Hi ya!” the room chanted back.

“Hi ya!” he exclaimed again as he pranced over to the white board.

“Hi ya!” the room chanted again. Carmen briefly wondered what Zartex would think of their morning meetings’ rituals.

“Who’s ready to learn?” Arius shouted enthusiastically.

“Ohhhh yeahhhh!” they shouted back.

Arius concluded, “Great! Pens out, and get ready to gleam some knowledge!” Everyone eagerly awaited his presentation. Arius wrote on the board as he spoke, “Back to basics. We have some new people in the room who may not have heard this before, but old hats in the room, take notes too. Numbers are down, so I need to remind everyone the System of Success! THE VOBS! T-turn every corner! Leave no stone unturned! Search high and low-sales can hide anywhere and if you don’t check everywhere, you’ll miss some. H-hustle! Move quick; procrastination gets you nowhere. The faster you move, the quicker you find sales and complete personal goals. E-envy. Customers are people, and people want what they can’t have. Play on that! Remind them others have it and they don’t. V-voracity. People always want more-more bang for their buck and more things in their life! They love upgrades for a reason, remind them! O-optimism. Gloomy gusses don’t gain greatness. Focus on the positive and you’ll attract the positive. Any negative thought should get washed away! Your vibe attracts your tribe! B-big picture. When you’re out there and things get rough, don’t forget about the light at the end of the tunnel. Delayed gratification-we pay now so we can play later. Let your goals be the torch that burns brightly in the dark cave and let it comfort you when you need motivation. Lastly S-seize control! You are in charge! You dictate the conversation! You decide what you want the customer to do and accept nothing less!”

Carmen’s leg started to ache. She wished that they would sit down for these meetings. Actually, she really didn’t need to hear this meeting at all. They reused the same meetings every few months or so and just reworded it slightly to sound original. It was drilled so hard in her head that she could never forget them. Arius concluded the meeting, “The vobs! Never forget the vobs! The vobs will take you to success and…”

“Beyond!” Everyone but Carmen shouted. As Arius started talking about pricing changes, Carmen found her mind wandering. The giant blister from her frostbite must have been healing, but it still hurt. She tried to be a good worker and pay attention, but she found the subject to be dry. The sales tablet automatically updated pricing changes, but some people always get confused when this happened. She realized at this moment that she told herself that she loved morning meetings because she wanted to gain knowledge and help her future, but now she wasn’t gaining any knowledge. Morning meetings had become quite dull!

Colt stuck his big head in the room. Carmen admonished herself for thinking so, but all of his features just seemed larger than normal. He had big ears, big black eyes, and a big nose. His black hair clashed terribly with his pale skin. Carmen wondered why she criticized him so much in this moment. Incidentally, Colt pointed to her and motioned for her to come over. Carmen slipped behind everyone without their concentration and left the room.

At first glance, Colt’s office looked impressive. He had a big, dark stained oak desk that faced the door. The windows opposite of the door, which rested behind the desk, showed off a gorgeous view of the mountains. One corner by the door had a steel cabinet and the other had a trophy case. Carmen could understand how this exhibit of grandeur could intimidate yet amaze prospective employees, but interviewees probably never noticed the details that she saw after a few years-the various knicks and scuffs on the wood, the dust on the trophy case, and the files stacked so high that his picture frames could barely be seen. Carmen sat in one of the weathered leather chairs expecting bad news from him. He pushed over a form and simply instructed, “Can you verify that this information about your injury is correct for the workman’s comp insurance so they can pay your medical bills?”

“Oh!” Carmen felt a little relieved and a bit silly for fearing ill will.

Colt laughed warmly as if he could read her thoughts. He pushed his pen to her, but Carmen missed it causing it to fall to the floor. As Carmen bent to pick it up, Arius burst into the room. “Whoo! I love visiting the Grand Junction office! You totally suck at promoting people, but you keep ’em happy! Is my beer still in here?” Carmen stayed hidden from his view because she had a funny feeling that he was divulging information that would otherwise not be privy to her. Arius went into the cabinet, opened up a mini fridge, and cracked open a beer. He guzzled as much as he could and took a refreshed sigh. “I have them playing a game for ‘team work.’ I’m gonna go join them!” He laughed boisterously as he put the rest of the beer in the fridge. “Hey, keep up the cancellation rate! We’re racking in the dough!” He guffawed and left the room.

Carmen sat up and stared at Colt for an explanation. “He was joking!” Colt quickly countered. “He’s a kidder! Deep down, he’s a good guy. You should reach out to him. You’ve been here three and a half years, but it took him eight!”

“But, since our business model said that the average promotion takes a year or two,” Carmen mused, “Why would his manager keep him around for so long?”

“For the same reason I keep you around-you’re too nice of a person, too sweet and kind, for you to face the reality of quitting Mirage.” Colt suddenly had a look as if he just said too much and casually tried to cover it up. “Anyways, we’re good. Go back to the Semblance Room and remember to have a good day. I wanna start giving you interviews again!”

Later that day, Carmen laid flat on a twin bed that was not her own. The room matched hers except that it was blue and more bare. The lights were out, and a man with a somewhat husky body laid on top of her. Although he seemed pretty motionless, he grunted mightily. Carmen gazed vaguely off to the distance. He rolled off of her and sighed happily. Even though she called him her teddy bear, Carmen always found him to be very square. He had a square jawline, a flat top hair cut, and even somewhat square glasses. His glossy brown eyes sprinkled for a moment but suddenly darted to her. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Nothing,” she automatically responded.

He turned over to see her better. “You’re lying. You usually make way more noise when we make love.”

“Teddy,” Carmen decided to try some emotional honesty, “do you ever feel like you’re telling yourself that you enjoy our sex or do you seriously get satisfied?”

“What’s the difference?” Teddy chuckled.

“Oh, never mind,” Carmen relented. She turned away from him. “I think I’m just having wedding day jitters.”

“Ah, that’s normal.” Teddy wrapped his arms around her. “Plus, you’ll be away from the field for a whole week! I don’t think you’ve ever taken this much time off! It’s been a while for me too. It’ll be weird to have Lilith take over our accounting for a week. That makes me a little nervous.”

“I won’t earn any money during my time off, that’s scary!” Carmen tilted her head towards him and probed, “Teddy, do the managers make money even if the customers cancel?”

“The clients pay each branch a bonus for the initial sign up but get more if if the customers get it installed,” Teddy explained. “That’s why we gotta get you promoted! That way you won’t stress on sales or worry if a customer cancels. You’ll get paid no matter what happens!”

Carmen felt uneasy about this. She didn’t understand why the managers didn’t tell them this. Why didn’t they get a piece of the sign on bonus? What more secrets would she learn as manager? It started to be harder to even picture herself as manager. She half joked, “Since you’re a big shot regional accountant, couldn’t I just be your darling little housewife?”

Teddy laughed heartily. “Nonsense! You’ll be a great wife and a great manager! Now get some rest.”

Teddy kissed her cheek and fell asleep. Carmen couldn’t sleep. She stared at her ring. Teddy gave her a round cut diamond with more diamonds embedded in the band. She initially hated it-it seemed so garish! She learned to love it because of the sentimental value. Teddy really marked her as his trophy wife. She knew that they would be a power couple- Western Colorado’s head accountant and a soon to be regional manager. Her future spelled out simply before her, and a life of luxury awaited. It was the life that most people dreamed of, and many of her goals aligned with this vision. Simplicity was a treasure that everyone sought, so predictability was a good thing, right? One week and she would be a lucky wife. And how nice was it that her manager wouldn’t give up on her getting promoted! So, she now wondered…with all this before her, why didn’t she feel more excited?

Sabotage, Chapter 1

Crunch, crunch, crunch! Carmen watched her faux-fur lined boots tread carefully along the snowy riverbank. She always felt like a penguin in this weather because of the way she walked. Plus, she had to keep her arms out for balance. Even if she wanted to put her arms down she couldn’t considering she had to wear five layers. She always hated wool growing up in California, but Colorado’s frigid weather changed her tune on that! She couldn’t tell if her jacket felt so still because of the temperature or the cheap material that Aeon Purl used to make them. The wind beat against her, and she cringed as it brushed through the small holes in her gloves. She looked behind her just to see if she made any progress. The trees from the neighborhood she just came from looked a little smaller. She used that to motivate herself. She still had time to make her sales goal. She kept putting one foot in front of the other, not letting herself get distracted by her abnormally pale skin. She made herself ignore her chapped lips and numb body. She could only imagine how evil she must look with redness surrounding her golden-brown irises. She got some of her hair in her face, which momentarily swayed her from her trance. She found it hard to pull her arm up and bend her elbow because it was so stiff. As she brushed off her hair, she saw the color-it looked blonder than usual. She figured it must be from the snow, shrugged it off, and kept going.

Carmen kept telling herself that her managers would be so proud that she braved these odds to make it happen. She felt her phone vibrate but didn’t feel like digging in her coat pocket right now. Someone in her group must’ve made a sale. She wasn’t going to let that discourage her. Even if she wasn’t the only successful person today she would keep her title of Miss Consistency. This would be her year! She worked longer than anyone else to get promoted, and each day gave her a chance to inch her way to the top. She could see the other side of the neighborhood vaguely ahead. The white sheet of the storm couldn’t totally hide the barren gambel oak trees. She felt motivated like crazy and quickened her gait. The hard part was almost over. She felt so heartened that she knew she would close the first person who answered the door. She could see the small hill leading to the houses she wanted to hit. Part of the reason she was so good at her job was that she was willing to work in the faraway streets. They were so out of the way that no one would talk to them. They were all fresh leads, and their gas bills were always high. They didn’t even know there was another option! She always loved the look on people’s faces when she presented them the options to save them money each month. She got herself so excited-she was almost there Then suddenly…crack!

The ground beneath her sank in without warning! She didn’t think the river came out that far! She army-crawled out of the hole, but she could still hear the ice cracking. The leg that fell in got stiff enough where she could get up. She pulled herself toward the hill and climbed about halfway up. She finally found a place where she could sit up without sliding, and so she flipped herself over and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Her breath came out like dense fog. She started to feel intense pain in her leg. She collected herself the best she could and dug into her coat pocket. Then, she used a small hole in her glove to open her cellphone screen, which was cracked like spider webs. She navigated to her contact lists and called Bob. As soon as she heard him pick up, she cried out, “I need help!”

“Are you okay?” Bob’s voice clearly showed that he recognized Carmen’s tone, which didn’t bode well.

“No!” Carmen shouted in agony from pain and embarrassment. “I fell into the river and now I can’t move my leg!”

Bob immediately probed, “Where are you?”

“On the hill by the river behind Swan Song Terrace,” she informed him, wincing.

“I’ll be right there!” Bob hung up without saying goodbye. Carmen understood why though. He helped her through the last two injuries she got. She felt so foolish for letting herself get hurt again. The office already teased her for being the lightning rod for these kinds of things. She still had the scars from the dog bite on her hand. She got four stitches that day, and the pain medicine only worked on two of them. That happened a few months ago. About six months before that she broke her elbow. Sometimes she could feel a twinge of pain there. She reasoned that it could be psychosomatic, but who wouldn’t have strong memories from being robbed? The thief had pushed her down and stole her purse. Both times the injuries happened during work, and that didn’t include the occasional minor wounds she received. She silently admonished herself for landing herself in this situation…again!

The pain got worse, and tears formed in her eyes. She wondered where Bob could be. She felt so helpless since she could do nothing but sit there waiting for help. She picked up her phone and called Colt. Colt Duncan was the manager of the Grand Junction office, so he needed to know that she would be going to the emergency room. He didn’t pick up, so she left a message, “Hi Colt! This is Carmen. I fell into a river and I think I have frostbite.  Bob’s gonna take me to the hospital. I’ll keep you posted!” She hung up and called Teddy. Teddy didn’t answer either. “Hi Sweetie! I’m going to the hospital. Call me soon!” She hung up, half expecting Bob to be there. Bob was the best friend that she had at the company, so she trusted that he was doing all he could to get there quickly. She felt a jolt of pain in her leg and moaned. All the waiting she did felt like an eternity!

A couple days later, Carmen sat on her lavender-sheeted bed in a room with faint lilac walls. The room was small but very well kept. She had a few motivational posters on the wall but not many decorations. She had her pillows propped up against the headboard and sat on it like a coach. She felt very comfortable without all of the layers she wore in the field. She blamed California for spoiling her on the weather, but she hated wearing so many clothes. It was fine and dandy for skinny girls, but a curvy girl like her couldn’t enjoy that. She was by no means fat, but wearing all of that winter gear made her feel like a huge marshmallow! Besides the challenge of looking cute, it was so hard to move around! She felt way more comfortable in her shorts and tee shirt. She never did much on her day off, but she loved it because her work was so rigorous that she earned this rest.

Carmen pulled out her phone and initiated a Skype call with someone she labeled Papi. Her father, Hank, answered with a big grin. Most people couldn’t guess by looking at her that she was birracial, but her father was actually the son of two immigrants from Spain. He had fairly light skin for a Hispanic man, and a lot of people thought he could be Italian. She secretly inherited his hair color, but since she fell heir to her Swedish mother’s skin tone, the blonde actually looked totally natural. Hank had more hair than most men in their early sixties, and his salt and pepper hair color mad him look very distinguished. Hank greeted her, “Hola Mija!”

“Hi Papi!” she chirped.

“How’s the leg?” Hank inquired.

Carmen pointed her camera at a giant blister just above her left knee. Hank cringed, so she piped in, “It’s okay! It looks worse than it feels. It hasn’t stopped me from working.”

“What?” Hank raised an eyebrow. “They made you go back to work?”

“They didn’t make me!” Carmen refuted. “They gave me the option to go on workman’s comp, but I can make more money in the field.”

“So, sales are good?” Hank asked, looking skeptical.

Carmen made an uncomfortable face. “Well, not this week. They have been pairing me up with people since it’s kinda hard to balance. My partners kept getting the first sale and we couldn’t get me one. Well, Bob helped me get a small sale, but most people aren’t as selfless as he is. He’s always been a good coach to me. I’ll bounce back; I always do. Sales are always up and down.”

Hank appeared like he wanted to argue but decided to change the subject, “Is it still snowy?”

“Just icy,” she replied. “It sure doesn’t feel like October! We skipped right over fall into winter!”

Hank panned his camera to the backyard, which had lush plants and plenty of sunshine. “Miss California yet?”

Carmen rolled her eyes but smiled. “When I get promoted, I’ll open up a branch in California.”

“How close to that are you?” Hank took a sip of ice tea.

Again, Carmen looked a little uncomfortable. “Well, since I got injured, I haven’t earned any interviews. It’s hard to build a team when I got an injury to nurse and a wedding to plan.”

Hank almost forgot about that. “How is that going?”

Carmen half smiled at the thought of her upcoming wedding. “Well, Teddy’s hired a great wedding planner, who has taken care of most of the arrangements. I got my dress back from the tailor and it fits great now. I can’t believe I’ll be married in a couple of weeks!”

“So, this is the first ceremony?” Hank clarified. “Next year, you’re having a bigger one in California, and that’s the one you want us to go to?”

“Yes,” Carmen affirmed. “By then, mom will be back from deployment.”

Hank became more serious on that subject. “You know, it really hurts your mom when you miss her calls.”

A twinge of guilt surged through her heart. “I know, but I don’t have a choice. I have meetings I gotta go to. Training to be a manager is so time consuming!”

Hank sighed, “I know. Well, I’m glad you took the time to say hi. I miss you, Mija!”

“I miss you too!” Carmen truly meant this. She didn’t have any family near her. She had a few friends and a fiance, but nothing could replace replace her actual family. She had to keep assuring herself that she did all this to help them. She sacrificed time with them now to do so much good for them in the future. Plus, managers could set their own schedules, so she assured herself that this wouldn’t be a permanent setback. Carmen and Hank said goodbye to each other and hung up. Carmen felt a little despondent, but she decided to shake it off with a leadership book.

A couple of days later, the snow melted and the streets looked like fall again. She loved all the Halloween decorations people put up. Since it was a little warmer, she wore a little less layers and held her sales tablet in her arms. She limped slightly but felt relieved to finally hit doors on her own. It was still fairly early, so not many decision makers were home yet. She glanced at her watch and saw that it was just after four. This was when she usually took a quick lunch break. She walked to a set of parted trees to a hidden pathway, which led to a park. It may not have been big, but it was charming with the beautiful scenery. There wasn’t a playground but it had a couple of benches and beautiful trees with colorful autumn leaves that covered the ground. Carmen sat on a bench and pulled a semi-crushed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She munched happily as she gazed at her surroundings. After a couple of minutes, she heard some of the trees rustling behind her. She immediately got up and peered into them closely. She had yet to run into a bear, but she didn’t want to take any chances. If she got another injury, Colt would kill her! She laughed slightly at that thought but stayed focused on the bushes.

Carmen tenderly brushed a couple branches to see what laid behind the brushes. The perpetrator of the noise then emerged from the bushes, and Carmen’s jaw dropped! She had such a shock that she stood frozen solid. Her mind couldn’t even comprehend what she was even looking at. She wondered if she was dreaming. She wanted to scream but couldn’t muster a sound or a thought as the figure crept closer…

Turning 30, Chapter 21

Cera lead Tadd, Ashlynn, and Lavena into a trendy cafe that had a room cleared out for the event. Nine men stood on one side of the room and seven women stood on the other side. The host was setting up ten tables with numbers and score cards as they arrived. Cera told them, “Thanks for coming, guys! They were gonna cancel it if they didn’t get more people.”

Ashlynn looked uncomfortably at Tadd. She did not trust that his emotional state would hold up in this situation. Tadd noticed her non-verbal observation. “I’ll be good.” Ashlynn still looked uneasy as he walked over to the men’s side.

As the three women joined their side, Cera felt really excited. Lavena surveyed the men. “Hmm…still not sure if this will be worth paying Mrs. Hollingsworth for the afternoon.”

Cera asked, “Mrs. Hollingsworth? Do you mean our old history teacher?”

“Yeah,” Lavena replied. “She retired a few years ago, and she needed some odd jobs mostly to fill up time more than anything else. I found her ad in the Penny Saver. I love the Penny Saver!”

“Please stop talking about the Penny Saver!”Ashlynn cringed. She didn’t need to be reminded of her mom’s seedy past while she was feeling so nervous and agitated.

Lavena commented, “Don’t be nervous. It’s just a five minute date; it’s not like anyone is obligated to sleep with anyone.”

Cera said, half joking, “Aw, don’t tell me that!” Lavena and Cera laughed. Ashlynn still seemed antsy. None of the men looked interesting to her except for Tadd, who was almost too interesting. The girls that were attending the event had vapid smiles and inane conversations. They reminded Ashlynn of Tadd’s ex, which made her more on guard. She felt very protective of him and silently prayed that no one would say or do anything to upset him.

The host finished setting up the tables and addressed everyone, “Thank you everyone for participating! I’m Stefan, and I’ll be your host today. The rules are simple: you have five minutes to get to know each other, and once the bell rings, gentlemen, you must go to the next table going clockwise. At the end of the session, you will take your score card and rate your dates. A one means yikes and a ten means yowza. If your scores are above a six and are within a point of each other, we’ll contact you to set you up on a longer date. If we get two people give each other a perfect ten, you will get a free meal here for your long date! Ladies, take a seat.” All the ladies sat down. “Gentlemen, I gave you your starting numbers a minute ago. Find your ladies now, and you may…” He paused dramatically as the men scurried to their tables. “…begin!” He rang a service bell.

Ding!

Tadd sat down at a young but pretty girl’s table. She introduced herself, “Hi! I’m Cynthia!” She held out her hand for him to shake, but instead Tadd collapsed onto the table. “Are you okay?”

Tadd did not pick up his head as he replied, “No! The she-devil took my heart!”

“Ohh…” Cynthia looked at her watch because of her discomfort.

Ding!

A man that looked like an overgrown frat boy sat at Ashlynn’s table. “Hey!” he said while nodding his head at her.

“Hey.” Ashlynn did not look amused.

The man blatantly stared at her chest and pointed, “So, are those real?” Ashlynn found this to be extremely offensive and threw her water at him. This did not deter him. “So, can I have your number?”

Ding!

A somewhat disheveled man sat across from Lavena. He conversed, “So, I think I wanna start a family someday.”

“That’s great!” Lavena smiled. “I have two kids, so a prestarted family!”

“Kids?” He remarked, “I don’t want any kids.”

Lavena looked confused. “But you just said you wanted to start a family!”

He gazed at her mysteriously, “A religious family! I inherited a ranch. I will turn it into a compound for souls who seek enlightenment!” Lavena got totally creeped out.

Ding!

Tadd sat a table where a bubbly, brunette girl sat. She complimented him, “You have pretty eyes!”

Tadd eyed her suspiciously. “You remind me of my ex!”

“I do?” She seemed taken aback by his harsh tone.

Tadd badgered her, “Are you addicted to drugs? You gonna bang every guy that wants you? Are you? Huh?” She pushed her chair away from the table, obviously unnerved.

Ding!

A man dressed in a cheap, tacky suit went to Cera’s table. She thought he was okay looking, and even though she was super nervous, she was blunt, “I just want a fling, nothing serious.”

He shrugged. “Okay.”

Cera did not mentally prepare for that. “Are you serious?” Her pulse raced rapidly.

He told her nonchalantly, “Why not? You’re not really my type, but I’d be willing to do it with you.”

Cera hyperventilated and fainted. The man peered over the table to make sure she was okay.

Ding!

A man whose hairstyle can only be described as Sonic the Hedgehog sat across from Ashlynn. He asked her, “So, what are you looking for in a man?”

Ashlynn found that to be an excellent question because she had not really thought about it before. “Well, I really ant someone I can talk to, like a real conversation. I want someone who can have fun staying in and can be a total blast traveling the world. I guess I want a man who’s my best friend, someone who-”

He interrupted her, “How many inches?”

“Inches?” she repeated.

“Yeah, down there, ya know?”

“I don’t know! What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m small. Really small. They thought I was a girl for a long time.”

Ashlynn did not try to hide her disgust.

Ding!

An overly enthusiastic young man sat across from Lavena. Lavena told him, “I’d like to get married before I turn thirty.”

He responded, “Okay, let’s go.”

“What?”

“Right now! Come on!”

“Wait, you wanna get married right now?”

“Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! Oh Lavena, you’ve made me the happiest man in the world!” He tried to kiss her, but she blocked him.

Ding!

The man who wanted to start a cult sat at Cera’s table. Cera was still passed out on the floor, so he sat there twiddling his thumbs.

Ding!

A very skinny, nerdy young man sat at Ashlynn’s table. He gave off a terrified vibe, and Ashlynn felt sorry for him. She talked to him gently, “How are you?” He opened up his mouth like he wanted to say something, but all he could do was gulp. She assured him, “There’s no reason to be nervous!” She pat his arm reassuringly. This was too much for him to handle. He got so scared that he fainted. “I wonder if it’s normal to have this many people faint at an event!” Ashlynn thought out loud.

Ding!

Tadd pushed the fainted guy away. He smiled at Ashlynn awkwardly. She smiled warmly back. “How’s it going, Tadd?”

Tadd answered sheepishly, “Lousy! I think I creeped out every girl in the place.”

Ashlynn chuckled, “Trust me, you weren’t the only guy to have that effect. None of these girls are going home with that they want, unless they like cults or small penises.” Tadd laughed, and Ashlynn grinned. “Well, I’m gonna give you a perfect ten!”

Tadd got surprised by that. “Why? I’m a terrible date.”

“I want the free meal,” Ashlynn joked.

“Oh.” He looked slightly disappointed.

“Just kidding!” she laughed. “I want you to feel better. That’s all I ever wanted.”

Tadd chuckled, “Oh! Well, what makes you think I’ll give you a perfect ten?”

“Hey!” She playfully hit him.

They took out their score cards and each wrote down a ten. Tadd noticed, “There’s a place to put comments. Hmm, what can I say about this perfect ten…” He pretended to write, “Great rack..!”

Ashlynn exclaimed, “Don’t write that! Every guy has said that! To my face! Well, not Raj over there!” She indicated the fainted man. Tadd and Ashlynn laughed. “You’re showing again!” Tadd looked down at his pant zipper. “No, your personality! I love this!” They continued to laugh and joke about what they would write on their comments and scores for the other dates.

 

 

Turning 30, Chapter 8

Ashlynn sat alone at a table for six in a busy pizza parlor. She anxiously watched the doors and glanced at anyone who passed by. A young, bubbly girl in a sorority sweatshirt came up to her and whispered, “If you’re getting stood up, you should move to a smaller table. This big, empty table makes it super obvious that you’re all alone!”

“I’m waiting for my friends, not a date!” Ashlynn could tell she sounded harsher than she meant to portray.

The girl looked slightly offended and went back to her table, which had a bunch of college students. Ashlynn heard her say, “God, I hope I’m not that cranky when I’m that age!” Her friends all laughed. Ashlynn rolled her eyes, but it made her think-was she really that far apart from the new generation?

She got so distracted by her train of thought that she did not notice Lavena had arrived. She sat down, looking lost. “I got here so quick! It feels a little weird to come where without the kids!”

Ashlynn laughed. Feliz tapped Lavena’s shoulder. Lavena let out an excited little shrie and they hugged. Ashlynn forgot that she met up with everyone this week, but they hadn’t seen each other in twelve years. Cera arrived next and looked a little intimidated to be ambushed by Lavena and Feliz. While they reacquainted, Ashlynn turned to the sorority girl and said indignantly, “See! I have friends!” The girl rolled her eyes and whispered to her friends, who all laughed. Ashlynn said to herself, “Young people are so rude!”

Lavena, Cera, and Feliz sat down, chatting excitedly. When Will arrived, he hopped in front of the table with his hands in the air showing the “rock on” sign. Lavena, Cera, and Feliz all joyfully got up and gave him a hug. Cera exclaimed, “This is awesome! I can’t believe we haven’t seen each other in over a decade!”

Lavena responded, “Well, I didn’t go to the reunion…”

“I don’t think I got the ten year reunion thing in the mail,” Will commented. “Don’t they usually mail it to you?”

Feliz replied, “Our parents got it in the mail. We got an event invite on Facebook. I went and was rather bored. The only person that recognized me was Tadd. Well, Brie did too, but she thought I was Enrique Iglesias.”

Ashlynn piped in, “Speaking of Tadd, he should be here soon. I gotta warn ya, he’s beyond hot mess status. Don’t expect him to be super excited, but let’s stay excited. Maybe it’ll be infectious. At least, I hope it prevents any kind of screaming fits…”

“If he’s such a killjoy, why’s he gonna help plan a party?” Will inquired.

Cera answered, “I think it’s a great idea. After twelve years, we don’t know what he likes and doesn’t like. But how do you know he’s even gonna show up?”

Ashlynn smiled mischievously. “I forced his aunt to bring him here. She’s also paying for dinner for everyone. Now we’ll be even for five hours of babysitting!”

Feliz asked, “Aren’t her kids all adults?”

“Yup,” she answered.

Lavena put in, “Don’t ask.”
Feliz looked confused but he decided to change the subject. “Well, while we’re here to get to the new us and catch up on how things changed, I should start with an important discovery that I made about myself. Guys, this is difficult to tell you, but…”

Will interrupted, “You’re gay. We know.”

Feliz gave Ashlynn a look. “You told them?”

Ashlynn bemusedly informed him, “No. We all knew. We figured it out ages ago!” Cera, Will, and Lavena all nodded in agreement.

Feliz looked a little confused. “But I dated women in high school! I never revealed my secret feelings!”

“Look,” Will said to him, “You were in closet, but that closet was covered in sparkles and rainbows!”

Lavena added, “Yeah, you were in the closet…with a naked man!”

Everyone laughed heartily. Tadd arrived with a very somber look. his posture was somewhat slumped as he moped over to the table. Cera, Will, and Feliz had not seen him in the state yet, so they had a horrified look on their face. Lavena’s motherly instincts prompted her to wrap an arm around him and guide him to his chair. Ashlynn evaluated him. So far, he didn’t seem like he would rave like a lunatic. She wasn’t sure what to expect from him and kept an eye on his every move. Tadd forced himself to look at the group and say, “Hi.”

No one could respond for a second. Clearly, like Ashlynn, they were stunned to see their once happy-go-lucky friend in a state like this. Eventually, Will chimed, “Hey Tadd! How ya doin’, buddy?”

Tadd looked at an empty plate on the table as he responded listlessly, “I am only half here because my other half is gone. I gave her my heart, but she didn’t want it. So now I’m left with is a life a pain!”

Again, no one knew had to respond. Feliz decided to joke, “You sound like a bad country song!”

Everyone but Tadd laughed. At this point, the waiter came over with a large, New York style pizza. He put it on the table and left. Everyone but Tadd picked up a slice and put it on their plate. Automatically, Lavena picked up a fork and knife and attempted to use them on her pizza. Ashlynn, Will, Cera, and Feliz all stop her by saying, “Woah, woah, woah!”

Will probed, “You’ve lived in New York for how long?”

Lavena just realized what she almost did and tossed away her utensils. “Sorry, force of habit! I’m used to splitting a slice for the kids.”

Ashlynn asked, “You don’t get out without the kids much, do you?”

Lavena admitted, “I really don’t! No wonder I can’t find a man! How am I supposed to get married before thirty at this rate?”

Cera unexpectedly interjected, “I don’t care if I ever get married…I just wanna find a guy to screw!” Feliz, Lavena, Ashlynn, and Will looked at her in disbelief. Cera looked shocked at her bravery and burried her head in her hands.

Tadd, who still stared at his plate, bemoaned, “Brie found a guy to screw! Several actually. And a girl.”

Tadd started to bawl, making everyone immediately uncomfortable. Once again, no one knew how to react. Ashlynn knew that this behavior could be ignored and held her pizza up, “Here’s to our old friends!”

Will exclaimed, “Here, here!” Ashlynn, Will, Lavena, Cera, and Feliz clinked their pizzas together like a toast. Everyone then began to eat.

After a moment of eating, it felt awkward again. Feliz cut the tension with, “So, Tadd, where do you work nowadays?”

Tadd wiped away some tears and stopped crying momentarily. “I own a catering business.”

Everyone looked impressed. Lavena complimented, “That’s great!”

Tadd woefully said, “I wish I never learned to cook! It was what brought us together one fateful day. She tempted me to her evil love with a kind word about my cooking. How can I be so fucking stupid!”

Tadd stared blankly ahead. Everyone else just looked surprised that he didn’t start crying again, but they did stare at him in a stunned silence. Will reacted, “Jesus Christ, Tadd!”

Cera scolded him, “Don’t say the Lord’s name in…” She paused. “Wait, that’s not me anymore. If I’m committed to breaking the rules, I gotta start now. Time for freedom…dammit!”

Everyone but Tadd smiled at her awkward courage. Ashlynn conversed, “My idea of freedom is to start making enough money to support myself. My parents are kind for for helping me out like this, but I can tell living with them again is gonna drive me insane! Earlier today, they found my box of liquor and now they think I have a drinking problem!”

Lavena asked, “Do you?”

Ashlynn blushed. “I don’t think it’s a problem!”

Lavena, Feliz, Cera, and Will laughed heartily again. At that moment, a frat boy walked past their table, clearly lost and looking for his friends’ table. One of the sorority girl’s friends stood up and shouted, “Hey Tony!” He gave him a wolf whistle, and Tadd immediately went into tantrum mode.

Ashlynn’s heart dropped, but she took action right away. “Shit! Well, time to go!” She grabbed his flailing his arms and turned to her friends. “Remember how Brie used to constantly whistle? Every time he hears a whistle…well, you can probably guess.” He fought her grip, but Ashlynn gained control. As she pushed him towards the exit, she told her friends, “We need to take turns trying to cheer him up, ‘kay?” She pushed him out the door.

Cera, Feliz, and Lavena all gave each other a a look that said non-verbally how impossible they thought the task would be. They hear chewing, and they turn to see Will eating the pizza. They gave him a “how could you?” look, and he responded with his mouthful, “What? Am I supposed to waste a perfectly good pie?” They all agreed that he had a point and grabbed another slice.