Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Growling sounded from behind a nearby shrub, and Gwynivara’s nerves filled with dread. She stood with her sword at the ready, but Emorick pushed her arm aside. “That won’t be necessary.” Despite her nerves still needling inside her, she relaxed her arm more, yet she watched warily as a creature stirred the bushes. An almost metallic-looking hyena emerged, and everything in Gwynivara’s impulses made her muscles tense up in anticipation of a fight. She kept glancing over to Emorick, who stood coolly as the beast crept closer and closer. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her questioning expression, so he assured her, “Wait for it!” When it came to the point between the catacombs and a large tree, it activated a tripwire, which made a gun in the tree blast it in the chest. With a final yelp, it fell backwards and remained motionless. As Gwynivara’s body flooded with relief and admiration, Emorick grinned. “What? You think I’d establish a hideout without any protection?”

His comment made her laugh a little, but soon after, she apologized, “That was probably from me, sorry!”

“Never apologize for being human!” As Emorick pulled the stone slab far enough for them to enter, he told her, “Besides, it happens a lot around here.” She realized that he had a point and decided to let it go, which became easy to do now that the door had opened.

Upon the first impression, the inside had all the markings of what one would expect from a catacomb tomb. Cavern rooms were barricaded by small, rod-iron fences. A few torches lined the walls to give the space a dim light. The center of the vast room was empty save for the stone floor, but as Emorick put the stone slab door back into its original place, Gwynivara observed that each cavern room contained two polished, wooden coffins, which prompted her to ask, “Whose bodies are in there?”

He finished closing the stone slab door and then answered her, “An old family. We like to think their spirits help protect us, but, more often than not, we find that anyone who ventures down here doesn’t have the gall to stay long.”

Emorick led Gwynivara down the long row of cavern rooms, and, at the end, a broad indentation filled the center of the wall. An ornate coffin propped up inside a glass case took the majority of the space, and a fresco painting of early townspeople covered most of the facade behind it. Emorick went behind the casket, and after Gwynivara joined him, he told her, “If you’re ever followed by police or anyone else who isn’t welcome, make sure they don’t see this.” Giving him the utmost attention, Gwynivara watched as he pushed the fresco wall, and to her astonishment, it opened up like a door! They stepped inside quickly and shut the door.

They stood on a foyer where the walls, ceiling, and floor were all made of stone. The end of the platform had a steep staircase whose darkened walls gave no indication of what may exist on the other side, but Gwynivara could see a small light glowing at the end of the staircase. At that moment, an elderly woman’s voice called out, “An bhfuil tú ina chara?”

“Is cara liom!” Emorick called back. He turned to Gwynivara and instructed, “Memorize that.” Gwynivara nodded and whispered it quietly to herself.

They watched as the tiny speck of light grew larger and larger. The echo of the individual’s footsteps sounded soft but grew louder as someone climbed up the stairs. A woman surfaced with a lantern in her hand. She had to be at least in her eighties, but she had a vibrant glow in her skin suggesting that she had an almost youthful amount of energy. She had a very gaunt body, but the way she carried herself conveyed that she was by no means frail. Gwynivara heard her speak in Gaelic, so she was a little surprised to see that she was Asian. Her wide eyes flickered over to Gwynivara and gleamed delightfully. “Oh, ni hao! I’m Niqun!”

“Gwyn.” She extended her hand.

Niqun shook her hand and said, “Welcome! Follow me!”

Niqun headed back down the stairs, Gwynivara went after her, and Emorick brought up the rear. Emorick explained, “Everyone takes turns guarding the front entrance. We’re not likely to have any problems, but if an adversary ever shows up-”

“They better not cross me!” Niqun interjected. “They’ll be sorry if they do!” Gwynivara giggled a little by her abrupt boldness. Meeting Niqun made her feel more at ease about her time here. She had hoped that the rest of the residents here would offer an equal amount of personality. At the bottom of the stairs, Gwynivara saw a cushioned bench and a long curtain rod with red drapes that obviously had the purpose of providing the door guard some privacy if they required it. Niqun dimmed the lantern and flopped back onto the bench. “Okay, Gwyn! Here we are! Wan’an!”

Gywnivara smiled and replied, “Thank you.” She could hear a quiet babble of conversation and commerce coming from the other side of the curtain. Her anticipation surmounted as Emorick strode over to the curtains. He noticed Gwynivara’s eagerness, grinned, and announced, “Welcome to the Rebel Hideout!”

He pulled back the drapes, and Gwynivara was pleasantly astonished to see a warmly lit hallway with large, cavern rooms where a small array of folks roamed in and out. The vast hall stretched as far as the eye could see, and the people roaming the hall all seemed so relaxed for the most part. A few people had despondent faces and walked alone, but the majority had a cordial demeanor. Like the catacombs, everything from the ceiling to the floor was made of stone, but the amber light and amiable conversation gave it more of a homey feel. Gwynivara remarked, “Wow!”

Emorick chuckled, “Were you expecting a rat’s nest?” Gwyinvara didn’t want to admit it, but she also didn’t want to lie, so she smiled sheepishly. Emorick didn’t seem offended by that at all. “That’s alright. Generally, criminal hideouts aren’t so nice. But considering we’re all suffering from a disease that feeds on darkness, I didn’t think it was smart to have us live in doom and gloom.”

Gwynivara nodded in comprehension. “That makes sense!”

Emorick informed her, “Everything you need for day to day function can be found in one of these rooms. The first room on the left has women’s clothes and shoes, men’s clothes are on the right. Feel free to take what you need, but keep in mind we only get supplies a little at a time, so no hoarding. Let me get you settled in before you explore though.” Gwynivara agreed, and they walked on. “This room has any toiletries you may need-shampoo, toothpaste, et cetera. Over here, we have snacks and dry food. Next to that is a shared kitchen. We have volunteer chefs that prepare meals for large groups sometimes, but if you’re hungry any time, feel free to use it. Across from the kitchen is our first aid station. We can treat minor injuries and illnesses, but if you have any major injuries, we’ll have to rush you to an actual hospital. Next to that is a ceremony room that people use for worship services; Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or whatever other religion is welcome! Across from that we have an activity room with games and other things in case you get bored.”

They reached a fork in the road, and whether Gwynivara looked left or right, the cavern rooms all seemed much smaller than the ones behind them. She also noted that these rooms all had doors. Before they went on, Gwynivara inquired, “How do jobs get assigned?”

“It’s all volunteer based,” Emorick answered her. “Each room has a schedule, and generally people are pretty good about making sure the vacant spots are filled before it’s too late. Now, if you go all the way to the left, we have a large auditorium where we practice combat. You’re going to to live in the far right with the other officers. I purposely put our practice grounds on the opposite side of our living quarters so that the officers have to pass by everyone and help anyone in need.”

“And I’m an officer?” Gwynivara was surprised by this title.

“Clearly, you’re a fighter and have the mentality of an officer!” He bent in close and whispered, “You saw the video. We need strong minds to make sure that never happens here.”

Gwynivara’s eyes widened with concern. She sincerely hoped that an incident like that occurred seldomly in the hideout. As they passed by the houses, Gwynivara noticed that some people kept their doors open, but most people had them shut. She hoped that this was simply due to the hour of the day and not a usual occurrence, otherwise she didn’t know how she would be able to watch over the other inhabitants.

At the end of the hall, Gwynivara saw one cavern room that appeared to be larger than the rest. Emorick explained, “That’s my room. It’s also the armory. For safety purposes, we can’t have easy access to dangerous weapons. If anyone would like to learn how to use more advanced weapons, they’re certainly allowed to stop by and request lessons though. I do give everyone a large dagger for protection, just in case.”

Gwynivara briefly wondered where the weapons and the other supplies came from, but she now felt a little tired and decided to ask about that at another time. So, she simply asked him, “Which one is my room?”

“Two doors left of mine,” Emorick answered. He opened her door, and Gwynivara’s eyes sparkled as she saw her new living quarters. Even though her space comprised of a single room again, there was more space than what she had before. The bed looked a little larger than her last one, and the pillows and sheets seemed more cushiony than the old one too. She had a nightstand with a radio like she had previously, but this one stood next to an ornate candlestick. The side opposite to the nightstand had a small fireplace nestled nicely into the wall. On her right, next to the dresser, she saw another door. Emorick saw where her eyes rested, so he revealed, “That’s a bathroom. You’ll have to share it with your neighbor, who happens to be my son. You guys…should get along.” Gwynivara noticed the hesitation in his voice but decided not to ask. If there was any issue involving his son, it was probably none of her business, she thought. “If you need more batteries for the radio or matches for the fireplace, you can find them in the toiletries room.”

“Thank you so much!” Gwynivara truly felt grateful for everything. At the same time, it also felt so strange! When she woke up this morning, she was just a janitor renting a room in a mobile home, and now she was an officer in a rebellion! Her new surroundings and title definitely were an improvement, but it was so different than before and she still found it hard to believe. Everything changed so fast that she found it difficult to accept it mentally!

Emorick softly pat her back. “If you need anything, you know where to find me. Training begins at o eight hundred hours. See you in the morning!”

“Good night!” she chimed as he left. She took a moment to soak it all in. It still didn’t feel real to her. She saw what time it was and decided to get ready for bed. She set her sword down by the dresser, and she remembered that she had already dressed in her pajamas, so she didn’t need to do much to get ready for the night. She shook off the disbelief in her thoughts and went into the bathroom.

The bathroom was small, but the way it was built almost made it seem luxurious. The shower door was made of glass, but the rest was made of stone. They had a small bowl in place of a sink, and there was a faucet right above it. The toilet gave the feel of an outhouse, but it didn’t have a bad smell to it at all. Gwynivara vaguely wondered who was responsible for cleaning it. Since she got appointed as an officer, she relished in the fact that she was, most likely, done with janitorial duties!

As she washed her face, she noticed another door on the opposite side. That had to be Emorick’s son’s room, she figured. She saw a razor and shaving cream on the sink, and she pondered what it would be like to share a bathroom with a guy. So much curiosity surfaced now! She had so many questions about who he was. He must be an officer too, she thought, to live in this section. She wondered about his history and how he got Venenatus Sanguis. She figured that she would find out tomorrow at training and would get to know her new neighbor in the morning. It would be rude to introduce herself at this time of night; after all, he was more than likely sleeping right now. Or was he…?

She heard a loud crash coming from his son’s room! She pressed her ear to the wall, and it sounded like flapping wings. It sure sounded ominous, but she wasn’t sure if it was what she thought it was. If she was wrong and it was a pet or the radio, she would feel terrible for barging in. However, she remembered that Emorick had mentioned that it was part of her duties to watch over the other members. She decided it was best to take the risk and apologize later if she was wrong. She opened the door slowly, and in an instant, she knew that she wasn’t wrong!

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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 24

Lavena, Feliz, Ashlynn, and Will sat a park’s picnic table while Michael and Hannah ran around the grass area beside it. The park area had a trail against a high hill. The grass had started to yellow, and the leaves on the tree were starting to change color. Feliz slumped on the table with a glum look on his face. Lavena conversed with Feliz, “Why did she destroy your car? Was she punishing you for your sexuality?”

“No,” Feliz answered. “She was punishing me for making her angry. Of course she was hurt-I broke up with her, and that’s always a hurtful experience. Some people react inwardly for emotions, and some people channel it out. I read that in a Cosmo a long time ago. One time, I got her a workout DVD for her birthday. She thought I was calling her fat and tore up my Sex and the City posters.”

Will commented, “I can’t believe she didn’t know you were gay!”

Michael and Hannah overheard this part of the conversation, and Michael asked his mother, “What’s gay?”

Lavena was not sure how to explain it, so she tried to find the easiest way to appease them, “Uh, it means you’re happy.”

Hannah observed, “He doesn’t look very happy.”

“Okay.” Lavena knew the time had come to explain this concept to the children. “So, you know how men and women fall in love? Sometimes women fall in love with other women, and men can fall in love with other men. It’s probably hard for you to understand…”

“Nope,” Michael replied. “Makes sense to me.”

“Me too,” Hannah agreed. They went back to playing, totally unfazed. Lavena blinked. She could not believe how accepting they were to this kind of thing.

Will complimented Lavena, “You’re kids are awesome! Weird, but totally awesome”

Ashlynn commented, “It’s funny how some people never grow out of that!” They all laughed.

Cera and Tadd came into the vicinity. Cera was holding Tadd to guide him in the right direction. Tadd looked totally lost while he held a flower stem. Cera revealed to them, “I found him sobbing by the tennis courts. Apparently he played the ‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’ game…”

“She loves me not!” he moaned. No one responded except to shake their heads.

Ashlynn talked to him in a cheery tone, “Your birthday is this weekend! What do you wanna do?” Tadd shrugged. “My parents offered to go out for the night if you wanted to have a party. Did you wanna do that? Or something more quiet?” Tadd shrugged again. Ashlynn got depressed. Tadd’s thirtieth birthday was practically upon them, and she had not succeeded in cheering him up.

They all heard some cheerful whistling in the distance. Tears welled up in Tadd’s eyes, and he ran off. Cera volunteered, “I’m already up, I’ll get him.” She ran in his direction.

“I thought he was past this stage.” Ashlynn hung her head, feeling like a failure.

Lavena wondered, “How is it that over two months later he still looks like hell and Feliz has been broken up for a couple days and is in way better shape than he is?” The whistling slowly grew louder and louder as the perpetrator grew closer and closer.

They turned to Feliz, who thought about what she said for a moment. “I had been mentally prepared for this for a long time, and I think Tadd got blindsided. He just needs closure.”

It was uncanny. The person who had been whistling came into view, and it was Brie! Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched her like a ghost appeared. She walked on the sidewalk outside the grass area to a small, white car. She appeared very happy. Her looks had not changed much since high school except for the wear and tear stemming from her hardcore party lifestyle. Even Hannah and Michael stopped playing to watch this moment that froze everyone. Between Lavena, Feliz, and Will, so many mixed emotions stirred up, and they did not know how to react. The were not sure if they wanted Tadd to find her or not. Ashlynn’s blood was boiling. She felt so much hate for that woman. She was half tempted to run over and rip Brie to shreds. She despised her for what she did to Tadd. She did not want Tadd to see her because she was afraid this meeting would make him even more crazy. She also worried that she would lure Tadd away. Tadd could not be happy with Brie, and Ashlynn could not stand the idea of Tadd getting ensnared by her poisonous trance again.

Brie got to her car and appeared to be searching for something. “Where did I put you?” She checked inside and out of her car for whatever she was missing. “Oh wait, I remember!” She went to the trunk and found what she thought she lost. “Ah, there you are!” She pulled out a small baby. Lavena, as a mother, could not hide her disgust at this and made a disapproving noise. Brie heard this, and she finally noticed them. “Oh my gawd, hi!” Brie seemed oblivious to the negative emotions of everyone present and approached them happily, “Do you remember me?”

“We can never forget you.” Ashlynn’s tone was pure ice.

Brie either did not notice her attitude or did not care. She merrily filled them in, “Oh, awesome! I got married, but I think we’re getting a divorce. Married life is so boring! Oh, this is Brandy. I named her that ’cause that’s what I was drunk on when she was conceived!” She had a very obnoxious laugh, which made them cringe. Will stared at her in total confusion, and she finally started to notice the collective mood. “What?”

Will continued to stare at her incredulously. “I don’t get it. Why would Tadd go so nuts over you?”

Brie questioned, “Tadd? Tadd who?”

“Oi!” Lavena exclaimed.

Ashlynn felt compelled to yell at her, to completely tear her apart. How dare she have such utter disrespect for such a good man! However, she did not act on those impulses. Cera had come back, leading Tadd by the arm. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw what was taking place. Tadd did not notice her for a moment. Everyone stood on edge, waiting for an explosion, not knowing how he would react.

When Tadd looked up and saw her, he froze completely. He barely even blinked. He went totally blank, like her presence had removed all sense of reality. His friends could practically hear his heart racing. His mind could not fathom this moment. Cera, Lavena, Will, Feliz, Hannah, and Michael all stood still, again, not knowing how to react. Ashlynn could not move either. She did not know whether to rescue Tadd or let the inevitable unfold. This was really happening, they all thought.

Brie nimbly approached Tadd. “Oh yeah, Tadd! Hi Tadd!” He continued to look at her in utter surprise. There was a long, heavy pause. Brie broke the tension, “Did you miss me?”

Without thinking, Tadd answered, “No.”

“Lies!”

“Untrue!”

Feliz and Feliz could not suppress themselves from saying that. Lavena and Cera concurred.

Tadd finally asked her, “What are you doing here?”

Brie answered, “I took Brandy to the park.”

“Oh, you’re drinking in public again?” he questioned.

Brie laughed, “No! I wish! I get lots of dirty looks when I drink with the baby for some reason.” The more she talked, the more disgusted they all became with her. “I’m in town to sign some legal papers. I’m divorcing Jose.”

Everyone dreading her saying that to him. They all wondered how Tadd would react to hearing that she was single again. Tadd looked as thought he could not process anything that was happening. He asked her, in an accusing tone, “Did you cheat on him too?”

Brie giggled. “Yeah, but he doesn’t know that. Gosh, being back in this town brings back so many many memories! But this town is all used up. As soon as the divorce papers are signed, we’re going to Me-ahm-me!”

“Where?” Tadd’s thoughts were clearly swimming, and he continuously tried to get a handle on this moment.

“Miami!” Brie smiled. Impulsively, she invited him, “You should come with me.”

The dreaded moment had arrived. No one wanted their friend to go with this awful woman. Ashlynn’s head was screaming, but she was too horrified to move. No one could. They silently prayed that he would do the right thing. Tadd’s mixed emotions were agonizing him. He could not process anything. He asked her, “You want me to go with you? What, so you wanna get back together?”

“Well, I’m not a one man can of girl, but we can live together in paradise. You and me, side by side on the beach, going on adventures! Sure, we’ll screw each other, but there will be threesomes, orges, just everything our bodies desire. And you can help me take care of Brandy!” She went up to him and purred, “So, what do you say?”

Tadd mulled over everything. Everyone else was paralyzed. They could not believe this was happening. Ashlynn’s heart thumped hard, and she could not breathe. Everyone worried that they were going to lose him. Tadd agonized over how he felt, and suddenly, it clicked. Everyone saw the light bulb go off in his head, and the anticipation was palpable. Tadd realized he knew how he felt and what he wanted. He cut through the mounting tension and spoke softly, “Brie?”

“Yes, Tadd, baby?” Brie cooed.

Tadd stated honestly, “I’ve been waiting to hear those words since you left. I’ve been going crazy wishing things could go back to the way things were. But my answer is…” Everyone’s pulse climaxed. They watched like their friend was about to get killed. Ashlynn felt faint. Brie smiled victoriously. Tadd concluded with, “…Fuck you!”

Time stood still. Relief slowly flooded their bodies. They could not believe what they were hearing. Ashlynn was practically shaking. Could this be real? After everything Tadd went through lately, they could not believe that he was actually doing the right thing. Ashlynn’s adrenaline was still up as if she survived a collision. This was real. Tadd, for once, felt angry, and it showed. Brie backed up, and she felt like she got slapped in the face. “What?”

Tadd’s body surged with rage, and he unloaded on Brie, “You think you can put me through hell and come back like nothing happened? You’re a manipulative bitch! You know how to charm people to serve your selfish needs, and then you through people away like they’re nothing just ’cause you’re bored? You made me believe that I was something special, and I spent the last couple of months believing that I lost someone that made my life magical. None of it was real. You got what you wanted from me and destroyed me without a hint of guilt! How dare you! Do you even care how much of a crazy person you turned me into? You’re like an animal drifting from one place to the next, living hedonistically. And, what, I’m supposed to follow you and be your little bitch, let you use me and throw me away? I’m not falling for it!”

Brie seethed, “Do you know how many boys would kill to just screw around with no commitment?”

“Yeah, boys do that!” Tadd bellowed. “I’m no boy-I’m a man!”

Brie laughed derisively. “You, a man? You’re a loser! You and your friends were always losers! You grew up to be handsome, so you had potential. So, what, you’re saying that instead of living a life of pure pleasure with me, you wanna be buddies with a bunch of thirty-year-olds with no lives?”

Feliz, Cera, Lavena, Will, and Ashlynn all got offended by that, but Tadd reacted before they could. “They’re not losers! They’re true friends! They stuck by my side even when I acted insane, and they sacrificed most of their free time to help me. So, they encountered some obstacles, but they have goals, and they won’t give up ’til they achieve them. That makes them amazing people. And you-you call them losers?You’re like a hooker without the pay! They’ll make something out of their life, but you, you don’t know where you’re going! You’re the loser!”

“Hmpf! Well, congratulations, you just got dumped by a loser!” Brie stomped to her car and drove off. She quickly reversed, grabbed her baby, stomped back, and peeled off. It was over. Everyone took a moment to let this sink in.

“He’s back!” Ashlynn exclaimed. Everyone gave him a hug. Tadd appeared winded but the sadness and insanity that he displayed before had clearly vanished. He seemed a little depressed, but he clearly had way more thought than he had before. Ashlynn looked him in the eye and told him, “I’m so proud of you!”

Everyone agreed. Tadd felt a little disoriented, like he was coming out of a trance. He blankly asked, “So, now what?”

Cera replied, “We gotta watch over you ’cause now you’re in the rebound stage.”

“Nah,” Tadd stated, “I don’t need to replace her. Not when I have friends like you!” Everyone beamed and gave him another hug.