Sabotage, Chapter 9

Seth hovered over Elden’s shoulder as he scrolled through the Dropbox system on a company computer. Elden concluded, “It is no use, sir. Colt erased all of the company’s records on Carmen’s background!”

Seth raged, “Damn you, Colt!” Arius, who stood in the doorway with his arms folded, shook his head in disappointment.

Lilith silkily walked across the dark computer lab and nudged Elden out of his seat with her hip. “Amateurs! Scoot over!”

As she took his spot, she quickly typed in a web address. Seth scoffed, “You won’t find anything in Dropbox. That prick erased everything!”

Lilith leered, “Good thing I’m not looking in Dropbox!”

Seth, with his curiousity peaked, glanced over her shoulder. “Facebook?”

Without losing her concentration, Lilith explained, “People put their whole life on social media. Let’s see, she has a mother stationed in Afghanistan, so she wouldn’t be going there. Her father lives in Santa Cruz, California, which is where she listed as her hometown. Two of her featured photos have her father in it. She’s going to Santa Cruz.”

Seth appeared impressed but did not outwardly admit it. “She was spotted at an Amtrak station. She could have gone to Denver and flew to California. She may also be on the train. We need to figure out which route she went.”

Elden volunteered, “I’ll send recovery agents to Santa Cruz to scope out her father.”

“Thank you!” Seth turned to Arius. “Can you have men check out train stations that could get visited on the way to California?”

“You got it!” Arius winked and left the room.

Elden dialed a number on his cell phone. “Jorden Kasper? This is Elden Gundulf, head of security for Mirage.” He paused while the lady on the other line spoke. “Yes, you are right. This is about Carmen’s disappearance. She has secrets tthat cannot get revealed, and we have reason to believe that she may be heading to, or may already be at, Santa Cruz, California. Please send recovery agents to investigate.” The lady on the other end agreed and sounded like she had a lot of angry opinions on the subject.

Lilith cackled, “That’s right, you little bitch, you can run but you can’t hide!” Seth grinned maliciously.

On a construction site, Hank gave directions to some contractors. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of light. “What the hell?” He scanned the area but could not see a thing. He shook his head and continued his work.

Later that day, Hank played pool in a small bar with one of his buddies. They had a pint of beer and had a good chat as they played pool. His friend said jovially, “I don’t have a team! The Raiders lost my loyalty by moving to Vegas. They betrayed their fans who grew up watching them in Oakland.”

As he put chalk on the end of his cue stick, Hank argued, “They were in LA before they were in Oakland. If you’re a real fan, you’ll support them no matter where-” He stopped mid-sentence as he saw the same flash of light again. He abandoned his conversation and visually searched the side of the bar that the flash came from. He saw a young, stocky man in a suit staring at him in a cocky way. He knew it must have been him, but he could not prove it. He continued playing pool but had considerably less fun since he felt eyes constantly on him.

The next day, he was unloading groceries from his SUV when he saw a dark figure out of the corner of his eye. He gave an exasperated sigh and shouted, “She isn’t here!”

He turned around. At first, no one seemed to be there. Eventually, once he realized his cover was blown, the same man he saw in the bar emerged. Totally devoid of emotion, the man told Hank, “If you’ve truly done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.” Hank rolled his eyes and angrily shut his trunk. As he stormed into the house, the man across the street snickered.

Carmen, Zartex, and Garith sat on some rocks that rested next to a small, Old West building remake. In the distance, they could hear an actor portraying an old miner while giving a tour of the historic district. Zartex handed Garith his clipboard and clicked his pen open for him. Garith turned to Carmen and instructed, “Okay, let’s start from the beginning.”

“The beginning…” Carmen felt a flurry of mixed emotions. Before she started working for Mirage, she went through a lot of stress. Now that a little time had passed, she started to feel the emotions that she had buried. That line of work required a lot of focus on numbers and not feelings, and now she realized they went too far with that idea. She had to internally search for when her time with Mirage truly began, which was painful. If she had to go back in time, she wished she never came across them. Perhaps she could be leading a normal life right now! That thought gave her a proper starting point though. “Well, I guess it began before I even knew Mirage existed. I graduated college right after the stock market crashed, so it was hard to find steady work. Instead of going back to Santa Cruz, I stayed in Las Vegas to find work in my field. It was the entertainment capital of the world, so where better to find a theatre job, right? The best I could do was retail, and since the recession hit the city’s economy hard, lots of stores closed down. I gave up after a few years and tried my luck in Florida. I got a job at a community center teaching theatre. Things were okay for a while, but then the hurricane destroyed my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle didn’t want me to live in the shelter with them because rebuilding their house would take a while. I couldn’t live on my own out there, not with the lousy hours I got at work. I had no choice, I had to go back to Santa Cruz. I was tired of moving around and changing jobs, so I vowed to find something I could stick with. That’s when I saw this ad on Craigslist…”

“You weren’t at all skeptical of a job advertising on Craigslist?” Garith questioned.

“That’s not fair!” Carmen defended herself. “You have the foresight and know how the story ends. I found jobs and roommates on that site before, so I had no reason to doubt it. I saw a place saying that they were looking to train a high amount of managers and didn’t require a lot of experience. Everything they promised seemed so appetizing to me.”

“They offered food to bribe you to work?” Zartex asked.

Garith answered him, “She didn’t mean a literal hunger.” He paused because he had just thought of something. “How come you never eat?”

“I only need to eat once a month,” he replied. “I ate enough to survive while I’m here.”

Garith seemed skeptical of this information but shrugged and went back to his notes. “So, they advertised management and promotions. What else?”

Carmen had to practically rewind her brain to remember the ad. “Training from a peer mentor. They said there was the ability to make a six figure income. Coworkers offered a family-like environment…”

Garith surmised, “In a weak economy, they took advantage of the people who were victims of all the financial setbacks. I can see why a lot of people may be attracted to that. It’s not often people with no experience can make a lot of money.”

That sparked a connection in Carmen’s mind. “Voracity. They applied THE VOBS to recruit! That’s the key to this all! It’s what they’re trying to prevent me from leaking!”

Garith and Zartex stared at her in confusion, but before Carmen could explain, they heard the sound of spurs clinking onto the desert floor. Garith whispered, “Part of the tourist attraction?”

“A miner is giving the tour, and they’re heading in the opposite direction,” Carmen said quietly.

They heard the footsteps getting closer. Zartex quickly transported the paper in Garith’s hand through a program on his phone. Garith stood up and blocked him to protect the view of what he was doing. Zartex made the paper disappear just in time because before they knew it, an unfriendly-looking man stood before them in a black cowboy outfit. He leered, “What are y’all doing away from the tour group? Hmm? It’s like you don’t wanna be seen…”

Zartex sprung up at that moment. “We were doing drugs! You know, illegal stuff…” Carmen and Garith nodded vigorously in agreement.

The man seemed suspicious of this response. “You mind if I take a look?”

“Sure, we have the drugs right…” Carmen bent down to the ground. “…here!” She threw a fistful of sand in his eyes. The three of them ran away, which incidentally took them towards the tourists. The man, now visible to the crowd, fired a gun at them. The crowd gasped and awed as if they were watching a play. Garith shouted, “Not part of the show, people!”

They pushed past the crowd, and the man chased them. They came across a fake gold mine with a cart on a real track. Garith and Zartex hid around the corner while Carmen hid closer to the cave. When the man came into their vicinity, Zartex quickly stretched out his leg, tripping the man. Garith pushed him into the cart, and Carmen pushed the cart, sending him flying into the makeshift cave. As they ran away, they heard a crash come from the cave. They knew this bought them some time, so they ran away to get a head start.

When they came back to the fake Old West town, the tourists clapped politely. “Good show!” one woman cheered.

A man complained, “That was an unsatisfying chase scene! You hardly ran far, and it was over way too quick. You could’ve done more to make it more exciting!”

Garith seethed, “Sorry that our desire to live got in the way of your entertainment!”

As they continued to retreat, a young boy asked, “Why is she wearing a tutu? They didn’t have that in the Old West!” The three ignored the tourists as they continued to escape.

They retreated to a Catholic cathedral and shut the door behind them. They breathed heavily but felt relieved to get a break. A couple of old nuns gazed at them curiously. The three of them waved hello as cheerily as they could portray themselves to be. The nuns raised an eyebrow but decided not to ask questions. As they got back to their busywork, Garith asked Carmen, “Who was that?”

“Probably a recovery agent,” Carmen replied breathily. “They get called when someone goes missing in each region.”

Garith probed, “Seriously, that didn’t raise any red flags for you?”

Carmen hissed “I thought they were helping! I got duped, okay? I get it. Can stop rubbing it in? Don’t you think I’ve feel bad enough?”

Zartex butt in, “It’s scary how the things about Mirage that you thought were designed to help you were actually hurting you!”

Carmen couldn’t help but agree, but she didn’t say it outwardly. She went to a pew and braced herself. She felt so much rage burning inside her. She couldn’t believe that she allowed herself to get fooled. She hated that they used her for their own ill gain. She loathed the fact they made her homeless and an outlaw. She had to walk across two states in a ridiculous outfit with people that got on her nerves. Nothing about this journey would be easy, and she had a hard time believing that their struggles would lessen anytime soon. The fact that made her the most angry was that while she had escaped, there were thousands of people still out there still going through all of that. They were all brainwashed into thinking their misery meant something and that they had no choice but to go forward with the cult’s program. People signed up for this not knowing what they were getting into. That really incensed her and motivated her to proceed with the article. She turned to Zartex and asked seriously, “Did you send it to him?”

“Yes,” Zartex answered. “Are you sure that he can hide it from them?”

“Yes!” Carmen asserted with absolute certainty. “They will go after him, but he’s clever enough to keep it hidden. He will have tons of questions later though!”

“I should hope so!” Garith remarked. “A paper appears out of nowhere with bits of random information, any rational person would have questions! Speaking of questions, if your paper isn’t carbon based, what is it made of?”

Zartex laughed, “Material from a plant on my planet, both of which you’ve never heard of!”

All of a sudden, they heard a gun cock behind them. Fear flooded their bodies as they turned to see the recover agent, thoroughly roughed up and holding a gun. They didn’t see a way out of this situation and started to panic as if they were done for. At that moment, the two nuns appeared behind him, and one of them hit him on the head with a candelabra! He dropped his gun out of surprise but could not recover it as the two old nuns beat him with candelabras. They scolded him, “How dare you soil our sacred grounds! This is the Lord’s house! You don’t sin in our holy place! Especially against those who seek sanctuary!” They continued to beat him as they chased him out the door. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith watched in both impressed and humorous views.

Zartex was the first to break their silence, “So, now what?” Carmen and Garith simply shurgged.

Sabotage, Chapter 8

“Look what I found!” Garith held up a dusty red CD player. He trailed behind Zartex and Carmen, all of whom hiked alongside a railroad that ran through a high desert mountainside. The ground was a dark brown and didn’t feel as sandy as they expected. The plants that grew next to the formations didn’t offer a lush landscape but still bore enough foliage that made this route less bare. The mountain itself was smooth and dark brown and gave the added benefit of a nice shadow that cast over the three of them as they walked.

Carmen and Zartex turned to him, and Carmen laughed, “A discman! I haven’t seen those since high school! It reminds me of cheerleading; I used to have one when I practiced routines.”

“Speaking of cheerleading..” Garith, who opened up the CD player, showed Carmen the disc inside. “Gwen Steffani’s L.A.M.B. album!”

“Ooh yeah!” Carmen sang, “A few times I’ve been around that track…”

Garith sang, “…so it’s not just gonna happen like that…”

Carmen and Garith both sang, “…’Cause I ain’t no hollaback girl!” They both laughed.

Zartex chimed in, “I’m familiar with cheerleading but I have not heard of this hall-la-back girl.” He peeked at the CD in Garith’s hand. “Love Angel Music Baby?”

Garith offered, “It looks like the CD player still works. Do you wanna listen?”

“Careful about this,” Zartex warned him. “If I get really into a song, I go into a sensory overload, which will pull anyone around me into my vision. It’s kind of like a music video.”

“Yeah right.” Garith handed him the CD player, and Zartex immediately listened to it. Garith conversed with Carmen, “You were a cheerleader? I thought you did theatre.”

“I only did cheerleading for a year,” Carmen stated. “I took a theatre class freshman year ’cause I thought it would be an easy A. I didn’t think I would fall in love!”

“That makes sense.” Garith shivered a little. “How are you not cold?”

Before Carmen could answer, Zartex started hum and awkwardly dance to song playing. “Wow, I didn’t know aliens could dance!”

“If you call that dancing!” Garith remarked. “Or an alien.”

“Didn’t you see his badge picture?”

“I saw the picture, but…”

“Are you calling me crazy?”

“No, no, no!”

“Do you honestly think I’m so crazy or stressed that I actually bought an insane claim? I saw his face! He can do extraordinary things that we can’t fathom!”

“Excuse me for being skeptical for-”

As a train sped by, the world suddenly stopped and morphed into something entirely new. They found themselves on a high school football field with half of the train passengers on the stands. The mountain still remained on the side of the field opposite of the bleachers. The song “Wind It Up” plays:

High on the hills with the lonely goatherd,                            Zartex, dressed as a nun,

lay-od-lay-od-lay-he-hoo                                                          appeared at the top of the

he yelled back with the girl and goatherd                            mountain and sung this

lay-od-lay-od-low                                                                      stanza.

 

Wind it up!                                                               Carmen, who stood at the head of a

Wind it up!                                                               cheer squad, summoned their

Wind it up!                                                              attention. Garith drummed in a

Yodellay, yodellay, yodel-low!                              marching band that formed around

(Yeah!)                                                                      the field.

 

This is the key that makes us wind up.                           The cheer squad began their

When the beat comes on, the girls line up,                    routine that flows with the

and the boys all look, but no, they can’t touch,             song. The marching band and

but the girls want to know why boys like                     a mascot, a goat, also danced

us so much.                                                            around them. Zartex swayed on

They like the way we dance, they like the                  the mountain.

way we work.

They like the way that LAMB is going ‘cross

           my shirt.

They like the way my pants, it compliments

          my shape.

They like the way we react every time

         we hear the…

 

Every time the bass bangs, realize it                           Zartex sang these lyrics.

it calls your name.

Let the beat wind you up and don’t

          stop ’til your time is up!

(Get in line now!)

 

Wind it up!                                                          The crowd, the band, Zartex, and the

Wind it up!  (C’mon)                                          cheerleaders all sang the chorus.

Wind it up!

Yodelay, yodelay, yodel-low!

 

You’ve got to let the beat get under your skin.                  Zartex sang this part.

You’ve got to open up and let it all in.      

But see, once it gets in, the popping begins,

then you’ll find out why all the boys stare.

 

See, they’re trying bite our style,                                       Carmen and the cheerleaders

they try to study our approach.                                         sang this part.

They like the way we do it, so original.

I guess they are slow, so they should leave the room.

This beat is for the clubs, and the cars go-

 

Every time the bass bangs, realize it calls                          Zartex sang this part.

your name.

Let the beat wind you up and don’t stop

            ’til your time is up!

(Get in line now!)

 

Wind it up! (When you’re ready)                                     Everyone sang this part.

Wind it up!

Wind it up!

Wind it up!

Yodelay, yodelay, yodel-low!

 

This is your moment. (Uh huh)                                       Zartex sang as every cheerleader

Come on, girl, you know you own it.                             but Carmen did a floor routine.

(Uh huh) You know your key is still                              The cheerleaders sang the words

  tick-tocking,                                                           in parentheses.

(Hell yeah) but you know they’re watching.

 

Get it, girl, get it girl, get it girl!                                   The cheerleaders pose on the floor.

Get it girl, get it girl, get it girl!                                   Everyone but Carmen sang as she

To the floor, to the side, to the back,                         did a solo.

but don’t let him ride.

Keep going, girl, it’s your night!

Don’t let him steal your light!

 

I know he thinks you’re fine and stuff,                       Zartex sang this part as Carmen

but does he know how to wind you up?                     finished her solo.

(C’mon)

 

Wind it up!                                                                    The cheerleaders got up, and

Wind it up!                                                                    everyone went back to singing

Wind it up!                                                                    and dancing.

Wind it up!

Yodelay, yodelay, yodelay, hey!                                As the song ended, everyone on the

field posed together, and the crowd

cheered.

 

After the song was over, the world shifted back into its original shape. The train, while a little farther than where it was before the song, continued on its way. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith, who were also further than they were before, still stood in the poses they had at the end of the song and started to become more cognitively aware, as if they got pulled out of a trance. Zartex scaled down the mountain. Garith figured out he didn’t have any drums in front of him and stopped motioning his hands like he was still playing the instrument. Carmen realized she stood in a way where she was doing a half split and winced as she got back up.

Carmen figured out pretty quickly that his phenomenon must have been the sensory overload that Zartex warned her about. This discovery made her calm down a bit, but Garith was still freaking out. “What just happened? Why did the world flip like that? How? Why?…”

Zartex jumped back onto the desert floor. “The energy beamed from my emotions and manipulated the environment around me. For a moment, my surroundings absorbed my energy and became part of my vision. I don’t think humans fully understand how powerful one’s energy can be!”

“I get what you’re saying,” Carmen opinionated. “Vibes can be felt and measured. Like, when I would go to certain houses, once in a while, I would get a bad feeling. Or, if someone is in a good mood, it rubs off on you and you can feel it too. I guess our intuition can measure frequencies our body can’t!”

” How come no one on the train is freaking out?” Garith probed.

Zartex informed him, “They just have a lapse in memory, like a mini blackout. You two remember the experience because I told you about it beforehand.”

“Lucky me!” Garith said sarcastically.

“Now, don’t go publishing about an alien’s presence on your news site!” Carmen warned him.

“I know that!” Garith snapped. “I’m a reporter for the world news, not a gossip rag!” He paused for a moment and apologized, “Sorry! I didn’t mean to yell. I’m sure you understand why I’m freaking out. How did you react when you found out?”

“I was too stunned to move let alone comprehend it all,” Carmen related. “Once I did figure it out, I just kind of went with it. Everything happening around me was so crazy that I guess an alien was the least of my problems!”

Zartex exclaimed, “Boy, that was fun! We got a little farther ahead with very little effort on our parts! We should do this the whole way there!”

“Please don’t!” Garith requested.

Zartex tried to play the CD but it wouldn’t even turn on. Carmen told him, “The batteries probably died.”

“Good!” Garith requested.

Carmen grinned. “Party pooper!”

Garith reacted fervently, “You call this a party?”

 

 

Sabotage, Chapter 6

“Dangerous?” Carmen suspected as much, but the reality of it all still didn’t feel true yet.

“You knew that Mirage was a cult?” Garith asked, slightly surprised.

They came to a main road, which was devoid of landmarks save for a mini mart across the street and a bus stop next to them. Carmen remarked, “Oh good! We can take this bus to the transfer station and then take another one to the Amtrak station. I can leave town and figure it out from there. Oh no! I don’t have my purse or phone, so I can’t pay for it! Zartex, I guess you just teleport. Maybe someone on the bus will feel sorry for me…”

“I have cash!” Garith pulled out his wallet and gave her a couple of dollars.

“Oh thank you!” Carmen gushed. “Thanks for getting me out of that situation! I’ll let you know how I’m doing once I get…” After he gave Zartex a couple of ones, and she got a jolt of surprise when he pulled out a couple of ones for himself too. “You’re going too?”

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “You still need me!”

Carmen felt a little skeptical after this statement. “Why? Do you have a weapon?”

“No, but-”

“Are you a skilled fighter?”

“No, but-”

“Ah, well, you’re a reporter, so you must have some skills in hiding, right?”

“I’m not a paparazzi!”

“Then why do you wanna come?” Carmen felt a little bad for raising her voice. He did save her neck back there. “Sorry, I’m just a little stressed!”

“I can’t imagine why,” Garith chuckled.

Zartex opened his mouth to explain, but Carmen held up her hand to stop him. “That was sarcasm!”

Garith divulged, “There’s a story here…”

“Oh, I see!” Carmen fumed. “You don’t really wanna help me! You’re just using me! Just like them!”

“No!” Garith gently argued. “I want to to help too!”

Carmen disputed, “I already have an annoying man asking a bunch of questions about my life for his line of work, and that’s him!” She pointed to Zartex.

Zartex waved jollily. “That position is filled! Although technically I’m not a man.” He turned to Carmen. “He did save your life. You could let him tag along at least for a while.”

As the bus approached, Carmen pouted, “Fine!”

Zartex got excited. “Oh boy! I’ve never ridden the bus before!”

“Seriously?” Garith reacted.

“Yeah,” Carmen confirmed. “He’s an alien. There’s your story!”

Carmen got on the bus first. The bus driver gave her a particular look. Carmen had forgotten that she was wearing a wet, torn wedding dress! “Don’t ask!” She went to the middle of the bus where there were three open seats.

Zartex went on next. “Hello Mister Bus Driver! How are you today?” The bus driver, who was taken aback by his high level of enthusiasm, didn’t answer. Zartex couldn’t figure out where to put the money, so Garith showed him. As the fare machine sucked in his first dollar, Zartex exclaimed, “Oooh! Neat!” It sucked in his second dollar, and he clapped. “Oh, what fun!” The bus driver still looked weirded out, so Zartex went to take his seat. Carmen couldn’t believe that he was getting more strange looks than her! Zartex told an old man sitting across from him, “I’m on a bus!” The old man scooted far away from him. Garith sat on the other side of Zartex and handed both of them a transfer ticket. The bus driver started the ride, making Zartex lurch sideways into Garith, who promptly pushed him back upwards. “Woah, this a bumpy ride!”

Carmen and Garith chose to leave that comment alone. Carmen asked Garith, “So, what else can you tell me about Mirage?”

Garith tried to make eye contact with her but found it difficult because Zartex, who sat between them, had trouble keeping his balance. “I don’t know much about them.”

“What?” Carmen found that information troubling. “You told me that they were dangerous! You lied?”

“No!” Garith refuted. “Mirage is dangerous! Worse than the Manson family! They have been getting away with slavery for over twenty years! People who wanna quit either mysteriously disappear or their memory seems to get erased. We know the breadth is enormous-spanning across the United States, Canada, and maybe even Europe. Their lust for power knows no end, and right now, it’s all legal!”

The bus reached its next stop, so Zartex asked, “Does that mean we’re there?”

“No, not even close! It’s gonna stop a lot, so try to get comfortable!” Carmen informed him. Then, she turned back to Garith. “How can any of that be legal?”

Garith explained, “They’re masters at covering their tracks. We have suspicions but no solid proof. We can’t even prove what organizations Mirage actually owns. They claim to provide back end support to other businesses, and that’s all we got!”

Carmen remembered, “Every time we get promoted, we open up our own branch and it becomes our own business, so we get to call it what we want and everything. It’s like a franchise, but they call it an Independent Syndicated Chapter, or ISC.”

Zartex randomly put in, “So, they gleam from the profits, but if one branch gets caught doing something immoral or illegal, they can throw up their hands and claim no ties.” He paused and commented, “Another stop? Why didn’t you guys tell me how slow it is to take the bus?”

Garith told Carmen, “See, we need this kind of evidence to sabotage their work! This is the proof, the link that we’re missing! If you tell me everything you learned while working there, I’ll write a huge article online to expose them! We can finally connect the dots and stop these guys!”

Carmen hesitated. She was still fresh on the other side of society, so some of her old instincts to protect her old company lingered. She still felt guilty for running out on them like that. This whole escape still felt like a dream, and she wasn’t totally sure she could trust her own judgment. She briefly wondered if she was the ungrateful wrongdoer and totally misjudged the situation. “I don’t know…”

“Think of everything you’ve been through!” Garith urged. “They took your life, and you’re just one of thousands. If you say nothing, they win. They get away with slavery and murder, and they’ll grow all over the world. If you tell your story, you can put a stop to a lot of suffering. Think of how many lives you can help!”

Carmen closed her eyes. She knew that he was completely right, but it was still hard to cut the final thread. She opened her eyes and thought out loud, “Until this article gets out, my life is at risk. You’re putting you’re own life on the line!”

“I’m okay with that!” Garith avowed.

Carmen wanted to press her point to him. “No, don’t just say it like it’s nothing. It’s not like going on a scary roller coaster or crossing the freeway. These guys have access to resources that you wouldn’t believe! They have a whole department dedicated to security. They always told us it was for our protection, but now that I know it’s for theirs, it’s scary! They’ve gone to the ends of the earth to find people! These people that you talked about-the ones who got their memories erased and the missing-that’s not a coincidence! The face that no one has exposed these secrets after over twenty years should tell you how many people have tried and failed! ‘Cause I will do it, but only if you understand just what a sacrifice it would mean on your part…”

Garith affirmed, “I understand. This is too important to ignore. The truth must be told! I can’t pass the opportunity to save countless lives! I’m all in!”

Carmen still felt a little skeptical but she accepted his answer. Before they could say anything else, Zartex noted, “Goodness! I think that vagrant is living on the bus!” Carmen and Garith silently snickered.

On a woody knoll, Carmen marched determinedly closely followed by Garith and Zartex. “Is this really necessary?” Garith tried not to sound like he was worried.

“You can leave!” Carmen replied coolly.

Garith did not object anymore. They came to the rushing Colorado River.  In the past, Carmen often sat here on a bad day because she found the quiet babble of the stream comforting. She found it strange to come to it under these circumstances! She instructed, “Alright, anything that can get tied to you-your ID, debit card, car keys-dump them here!”

Garith held back a little. “All of the important things.”

Carmen told him brusquely, “All of those things can get replaced. On our journey, you can’t use any of them! It’s best to get rid of the temptation. If they figure out who you are, they’ll use it to find us. Plus, if any of the townspeople stumble across them, Mirage will get to them. We have to be untraceable!”

Garith took a deep breath and flung each card in his wallet into the river. After it was all gone, he watched them float away forlornly. “Okay, it’s done! Let’s go! We got a train to catch.” Garith and Zartex turned around to leave.

“Wait!” Carmen said. Garith and Zartex turned back around and gave her their utmost attention. “I still have to get rid of the only thing that I brought with me that can traced.” She took off her engagement ring. “We can’t pawn it, though I wish we could, it’s worth hundreds! It has to go!” Before she moved a muscle, her heart grew heavy. “It’s gonna be tough to say goodbye to this!”

“Because it’s so expensive?” Zartex inquired.

“No.” Carmen stared at it wistfully. “Colorado took me away from my family, and Teddy made me feel less alone. He wasn’t much company, in fact, it was hard to coordinate time to spend together, but no matter how lonely I felt, this made me believe someone close by loved me.” After a moment, she softly laughed. “I just realized that I loved this symbol more than I loved Teddy. Actually, I never liked the ring itself, too gaudy! I always pictured my future husband giving me something simpler but meaningful. I have always believed that it’s the thought that counts, I really mean that! I would rather have something cheap that had a lot of thought behind it rather than something random but expensive. Teddy was important because I needed to feel like I belonged, but I liked the idea of a boyfriend more than I liked him. Or Colorado! I don’t belong here!” She willingly threw it into the river and watched it until it disappeared from her sight. She told Garith and Zartex, “Come on guys, let’s go make some memories that are actually real!” The three left the river without looking back.

Sabotage, Chapter 5

“I can’t breathe!” Carmen croaked. She always knew this day was coming, but it felt like a fantasy this whole time. Carmen had a comfortable rut for the last three years that she realized that she never really liked but had become accustomed to this lifestyle. Even on bad days or weeks, she could foresee the consequences of her actions. On the flip side, once the wedding finished, she knew her path. After her honeymoon, she would move in with Teddy and work on becoming manager. Today was a different story though. Today felt as though it would never come. Yesterday, she was in the field as normal. She didn’t felt any pressure during the week to make sales because she couldn’t earn any interviews while she was out of town. That level of indifference should’ve garnered her some promising sales, but it didn’t. When she got back, she would have to work really hard to get sales so that she wouldn’t have to scrimp so much. That was a normal thought on a normal day for her, but today was far from normal. The change she spent so much time working toward was upon her, and she wasn’t ready!

She gazed at her stricken expression in the full length, antique mirror. She had a v-neck bodice with a lacy flower pattern that went down to her waist with a tiered tulle skirt that flowed down to the floor. Normally, stilettos hurt her feet, but she couldn’t feel anything right now. She had her make up professionally done, and they had added heavy eye shadow and lots of blush, a level of cosmetics she had not dealt with since her theatre days. She didn’t have her hair in an up-do but only because the veil,which her maid of honor would bring soon,had such an intricate template. She reminded herself of a Barbie doll that she had in the nineties! The gown itself was worth more than she made from a whole month of sales. Every detail down to the most minute facet wreaked of luxury. This was the moment every woman dreamed of, and so now she wondered why she didn’t feel more excited.

The gossamer curtains of her preparation tent ruffled. The area was now empty except for the mirror and various things left behind from her bridesmaids. From one of the flaps at the entrance, Lilith entered. She commanded the attention of any room she went into. Her ivory skin was so smooth that people often forgot that she was in her forties. She had chestnut colored hair with a natural bounce, and her piercing brown eyes could terrify even the meanest person around. She wore a lavender chiffon gown with an empire bodice and a sweetheart sweep train, which made her look like a fierce princess. She could hardly believe that the vice president of Mirage agreed to be her maid of honor! Then again, Lilith was the one that set them up in the first place. She brought in Carmen’s elaborate rose bouquet and ornate flowery veil. Lilith leered, “Uh oh! Someone is getting cold feet!”

“This is different!” Carmen wailed. “I’ve gotten butterflies in my stomach before, plenty of times! Before running my first meeting, before my first play I was in…this is bigger! I’m scared! I’m petrified! I…I can’t breathe!”

Lilith straightened Carmen up and started to put on her veil. “It’s just nerves! You and Teddy are perfect for each other! That’s why I set you two up. I’ll never forget the day he first laid eyes on you. While I was in the western Colorado main office, he happened to see a picture of you on my phone. I just got off the phone with you after a one-on-one, which, by the way, I normally never do for anybody who isn’t a manager, so Teddy saw your picture ID. Teddy said he never saw anyone so beautiful! Just wait ’til he sees you today!” She heard music starting to play. “That’s my cue. I’m so proud to be your maid of honor! See you soon!” She winked and left the tent.

Carmen knew that she needed to walk to the other pier, but she was having a hard time moving. Zartex pulled up the back of the tent and checked in, “Oh good! I thought you were dying! Your emotional reading is off the charts!”

“I can’t do this!” Carmen shrieked.

Zartex slipped into the tent and encouraged her by saying, “You’re scared, but you get scared a lot. In the past week, I’ve seen you constantly brave your fears and knock on all of those doors. Do you know how many people fear all of that? Talking to people, going to strange houses, failure…Yet, you always persevere! I’m quite convinced you can overcome anything! Are you telling me that you don’t have the nerve to participate in this ritual?”

“Yes!” Carmen cried out. “I got good at ignoring my feelings for work, but I can’t ignore this Even on the days I got a serious injury I didn’t have anxiety like this! I feel like I’m walking into my own funeral!”

Zartex pointed out, “Well, you have to do something! You can’t stay in this tent forever!”

“You’re right!” Carmen bitterly admitted. “As we said in theatre, the show must go on!” She took a deep breath, opened the tent flaps, and marched outside.

As she stood on the old pier, a cold wind hit her face. She heard the attendees gasp in admiration as she stepped out. She jerked her head over to the other pier, and everyone looked like ants. She would have to walk fast to catch up. The sound of her heels hitting the pier seemed so loud. Everyone of note from Mirage and all of the Grand Junction office were there. She could see Seth Dabria, the president of Mirage, take a picture with a digital camera. It was hard to tell one person from another from a distance, but she knew it was him because he always wore the loudest suits. Today was no exception; he wore a purple plaid suit with a periwinkle tie! He always wore his Buddy Holly glasses, and the only ordinary thing about him was his brown, curly hair. The president and the vice president were there to honor her, so she should feel grateful, right?

Teddy stood at the alter waiting for her. As she quickened her step, she thought about how often people congratulated Teddy for finding a bride like her. They were happy for Teddy more than her. She never really thought about it before, but they never really made a big deal about her milestones. Why, in exactly two weeks she would be turning thirty, and no one had mentioned it yet, just like all her other birthdays. Her big days were never a big deal. In fact, she reasoned that Seth, Lilith, and the other executives were way closer to Teddy than her, so most of this ceremony was celebrating Teddy. They were all here because Teddy wanted to marry her, just like they wanted her to be a manager for them. Suddenly, she realized this whole thing was never about her! The field, the promotion, the wedding, they weren’t about her goals or needs. Sure, some of it fit her long term goals, and they knew that! They sold her on the idea to help them, not her! So no, they weren’t there to honor her, and they won’t make a big deal on her milestone birthday either. And they never would! This was the first day of the rest of her life!

Instinct overtook her body. The truth radiated through her body, and she stopped dead her tracks. The wedding party stared at her in bewilderment. She knew what she had to do. She turned around swiftly and ran in the other direction. She could hear chairs scraping and people rushing over. She couldn’t let them catch her. She didn’t know why, exactly, she needed to avoid them, all she knew was her intuition told her to run! Run! And never look back! Before they could get any closer, she jumped off the pier and into the lake!

Carmen sank down but bobbed back up a little. She then swam over to under the dock. She got her head above the water and took a deep breath. She heard almost the whole wedding party calling her name, so she knew eventually they would peek under the dock. Serendipitously, a motor boat jetted in her direction. She quickly pulled off her veil with one hand, and as the motor boat passed by, she threw the veil on it. She heard Arius shout, “She’s on the boat!” Everyone ran off the pier, and Carmen hid behind one of the support poles. She watched them all run along the lake shore, and once they were far enough away, she swam to shore.

Carmen could feel her heart pounding rapidly, and all of the nerves in her body were stirred. She ran for the nearby woods. Soon they would discover that she was never on that motorboat and would come looking for her. She had no time to ponder why her instincts told her to escape them, but she trusted her intuition. She ran, and she kept running as fast as she could. She ran and ran, dodging every bush and gnarled branch in her path. Suddenly, part of her skirt got caught onto some shrubbery. Panic flooded her body as she heard footsteps in the distance. She ripped off the bottom layer of her dress! When she freed herself, she heard footsteps coming from multiple directions. She spun around frantically, trying to figure it out. All of a sudden, Zartex appeared before her and commanded, “Stay hidden!” He threw her up into a tree.

After recovering from the momentary shock of getting flung into the air, she clung onto a large branch well above the ground. She laid on her stomach and watched the scene below her. Zartex must’ve teleported out of there. She didn’t move and even tried to slow down her breathing, although they worried that they could hear her heart pounding inside her ears. From one end, she saw Seth, Lilith, and a few executives searching across the forest floor. In the next moment, Seth held out his arms to stop the others as they glared at someone approaching from the other direction. Seth forcibly pried, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Carmen caught a glimpse of the man from the back. He wore a brown suit, so Carmen’s curiosity was roused; what would someone like that be doing in the middle of the woods? She couldn’t tell if he was young or old, but she guessed that he must be somewhere close to his age since his dirty blond hair had no gray. From the sound of his voice, he projected strength and knowledge. The mysterious man pushed back, “I was gonna ask you the same thing! What business do you have here?”

Lilith seethed, “We’re looking for a fugitive!”

Most men would cower when Lilith gave them a stare down like that, but this man had the bravado walking up to her and staring at her dead in the eye! “Oh, you’re federal agents? I don’t like your type! Just ask your friend in that clearing!”

“A friend in the clearing?” Seth inquired skeptically.

“Yeah, let me help you get reacquainted.” The man reached into his back pocket as if he was pulling out a gun. Seth, Lilith, and the others unwillingly backed away.

Carmen didn’t move. She didn’t want to get mixed up with gangsters at a time like this, but somehow she didn’t think he was dangerous. There was something about his aura that made her trust him. He stood in the same place with a fixed stare in the direction where the Mirage executives came from. After what seemed like an eternity, the man gently instructed, “You can get down now, Carmen.”

Carmen’s heart fluttered at the mention of her name. She wondered how he could possibly know who she is! She hesitated as she silently debated if coming down would throw her from one danger to another, but since he already knew she was there, she didn’t have much of a choice. She couldn’t just stay in the tree! Besides, her nerves had calmed down, so she took that as a cue to follow him. She gingerly climbed down and saw him holding his arms out to catch her. She wanted to get a little closer so her fall didn’t have too much of an impact on the mysterious man, especially if he could turn into her ally! At that moment, a branch snapped, and she lost her footing. She fell threw a few more branches and…smack!

She landed on top of the man on her back causing the man to fall onto his back with a huge grunt. Carmen anguished, “I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”

He breathed, “Get off! You’re too heavy!”

“Excuse me?” Carmen replied, slightly offended.

Zartex appeared and grabbed her by the hand. “I think he’s having trouble breathing ’cause you’re on his throat.”

Carmen took Zartex’s hand, and the man got up, gasping. Carmen apologized, “Are you okay? I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly!”

“It’s okay; I’m real strong!” the man responded breathily.

Carmen finally got to take a glimpse at his face. He had kind, blue eyes and facial features that conveyed a mix of fortitude and softness. He did seem to be in good shape as he claimed. It took her a while to realize that she had been staring at him too much, so she looked away shyly. She couldn’t believe that, for a moment, she forgot about what danger she was in or that she had a lot of hurt from the past that made her miserable. She remarked, “Thank you for helping me! You seem to know who I am, so can I know who you are?”

“Garith Kendric,” he told her.

“The reporter from San Francisco?” Carmen got surprised by discovering this, but then it occurred to her that she recognized him from all of his social media friend requests. “What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Garith explained hastily, “I came to spy on a big corporate wedding, but now I’m here to rescue you!” Now that he had recovered from the fall, his senses were reawakened. He finally registered that Zartex was there and made a strange face. “Who is this?”

“Zartex the alien!” Zartex held out his hand.

“What?” Garith didn’t believe him, but he didn’t have time to object. He absentmindedly shook his hand and notified Carmen, “Whatever. Look, they’ll be back soon, and we gotta get you out of here! You’re in terrible danger!”

Zartex grabbed Carmen’s hand and ran in the direction he came from. Zartex followed them as Garith led Carmen through the woods. Carmen felt compelled to ask, “I know I’m in danger, but could you explain to me exactly why I suddenly felt like I was at death’s door?”

Determinedly focused ahead, Garith told her, “Because you’re escaping from the world’s most dangerous cult!”

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 2

“What are you?” Carmen uttered without even meaning to. The thing in front of her stood seven foot tall and had rubbery, red skin. The head was bulbous, the eyes resembled a fly, and she had never seen a mouth so round. The creature, however, stood up straight, wore a white linen suit, and held a clipboard and pen. The watch it wore was the most high tech thing she had ever seen. Whatever stood before her certainly didn’t seem to be primitive or have any desire to attack her, but because she had no clue what it was capable of, her nerves were on fire. There was no doubt about it, this was a very strange situation! Despite the oddity of it all, she reminded herself that every surreal thing that had ever happened to her, like getting seriously injured, gave her the knee-jerk reaction of total incomprehension at first, but it was always followed by an autopilot-like mode where she knew the phenomenon must be dealt with. First, she had to know what she was dealing with!

Carmen had no idea how it would respond to her question. It didn’t have an expressive face, so she didn’t have any indication as to what it was thinking or feeling. She worried momentarily that she had offended it. Finally, it spoke, “Rude! Most people say hello when meeting someone new!”

So, it sounded male, and although he sounded mildly offended by what she said, his voice also conveyed a sense of amusing energy like that of a game show host. She apologized, “Sorry! Uh, my name is Carmen.” Out of habit, she held out her hand for him to shake. She instantly regretted it. She still didn’t know what he was and certainly didn’t want to touch his abnormally textured skin!

He shook her hand, and it felt like shaking hands with a basketball! He pleasantly greeted her, “Hello! I’m Zartex, behavioral analyst from the Universal Coalition.” He picked up his badge and showed it to her. It had his picture and name displayed as it would on a badge for someone working in a CIA office. Before Carmen could ask more questions, Zartex prompted her, “Please take me to your leader.”

“Seriously?” Prior to that comment, she had no clue what he wanted from her, but whatever she was expecting him to say, it wasn’t that! “You want to see my leader?” she thought out loud. Gosh, I don’t even know where to begin! I suppose we would have to travel to Washington DC. But you can’t just walk into the White House all willy-nilly! I guess I can call our congressman…”

“No, no, no!’ Zartex interrupted. “I’ve met the president, and trust me, once was enough! I meant take me to your leader. I’m here to learn more about humanity, and you were randomly selected for observation. I will be following you as you interact with various authority figures to learn more about human social hierarchies. ‘Take me to your leader’ is my little way of breaking the ice.”

“It’s kinda cliche’.” Carmen spoke without thinking again. Did she just make a joke? She was still trying to absorb what he just told her. It sounded like an intergalactic government wanted to watch her live her life like the way scientists observe animals at the zoo. That just couldn’t be true though, she thought. She refused to let it sink in.

“Hey! This is kind of a weird situation, how would you approach the first encounter?” Zartex countered.

Carmen was surprised to hear him call this situation weird. She decided to learn more about what was happening so she could mentally move on. “So, what is the Universal Company?”

“Coalition,” he corrected her. “The Universal Coalition, or the UC, is an organization designed to promote cooperation and order between the planets in this universe, kind of like Earth’s United Nations except that we can execute disciplinary actions towards anyone who breaks interplanetary laws.”

Carmen didn’t like hearing this information. “So, you’re going to follow me around because there’s an interplanetary order for it?”

“Yes,” Zartex divulged, “We found that humans are the least cooperative and tolerant aliens in the universe, so, in order to promote peace in this galaxy and all of the neighboring galaxies, we need to understand why humans are the way they are.”

“Kind of like how I learn about customers in order to turn a no into a yes,” Carmen related. “My god, it’s all starting to make sense!” She paused for a moment, feeling surprised at her comprehension of the mater. “Do I have a choice?”

“Of course not!” Zartex chuckled.

Carmen got herself out of the denial phase and began to start planning out this new obstacle. “Um, aren’t you going to draw a lot of attention to yourself following me around? Oh, a giant red being following me around will be great for sales!”

“Oh, hang on!” Zartex pushed a couple of buttons on his watch. A screen popped up and scanned his face. It made some whirring noises and poof! A cloud covered Zartex’s face and body, and when the smoke cleared, Zartex re-emerged looking more human. He was still seven foot tall, but now his skin was a creamy flesh tone. His head wasn’t bulbous, he had a nose, his head had neatly parted black hair, his mouth was normal shaped, his fly-like eyes were a normal dark brown, and he even wore round-rimmed glasses. “Like it? I designed it myself!”

“You could design any body you wanted and you picked this one?” Carmen reacted.

“I was going for non-threatening!” Zartex explained. “It isn’t easy when you’re seven foot tall not to scare people, but I found that people respond well to a tall dork, like a stretched out Harry Potter.”

“That makes sense,” Carmen responded. “The really tall guys at work have to make themselves less intimidating.” She then realized something. “How are you going to follow me at work? My job relays a lot of confidential information. It’s not like they would let a random tall dork join in unexpectedly!”

“Not a problem!” Zartex chirped. Carmen figured he had an answer for that but really hoped he didn’t. Zartex pulled out a set of silver stud earrings. “They’re spy cameras! And don’t worry, the technology is way too sophisticated for your boss or coworkers to detect.”

“I don’t have pierced ears,” Carmen pointed out with the gut feeling that he had a remedy for that.

Sure enough, Zartex pulled out a small piercing gun. “Hold still!” He pierced both of her ears, which didn’t hurt much but still made her wince. “I’ll follow you to ask questions when you’re out and about though.”

Carmen still couldn’t fully comprehend the reality of the situation. She woke up this morning expecting a normal day, and now she wondered if she would ever get back to her usual routine. He would watch her get ready for work and observe her during morning meetings. Then he would follow her around in the field too. She wondered if he would interfere with her sales! After all that happened at the moment, she forgot where she was. She looked at her watch and exclaimed, “Holy smokes! I need to get going!”

Carmen dashed out of the park and opened up her map on her sales tablet. She saw the street she needed to visit and headed back to it. She walked fast to make up for lost time. She could sense Zartex behind her. Zartex pulled out a pen to take notes and asked Carmen, “It says here that you do door to door sales, is that correct?”

“No!” Carmen grimmaced. She hated it when people used that term for what she did. “It’s business to consumer sales. We’re different that traditional residential sales companies, who hit random doors in random areas. We have leads.”

“Ah,” Zartex reacted, “So these are people have signed up for something and know you’re coming?”

“Well…no…” Carmen admitted.

“So where do these leads come from?” Zartex inquired.

“From Mirage,” Carmen educated. “Mirage is our mother company who manages the hundreds of branches we have across the United States and Canada. They take care of all of the back end business for us, like legal aid and accounting. They find our clients, who are the best services or utilities in the region. In our case, we represent Aeon Purl, the most advanced natural gas in Western Colorado. They give us the list of potential customers on this sales tablet. Our territory is determined by whose neighborhood hasn’t been hit in a while.”

“I see…” Zartex trailed off. “Actually, no I don’t. It still sounds like they pick out random neighborhoods, especially since the people only know you come because you have visited their neighborhood before. It sounds like Mirage gives you random neighborhoods and random customers.”

Carmen recoiled at those remarks. She knew that his words held a little truth, but her work was more meaningful than he was making it out to be. “We’re trying to help out as many people as possible. Most people have inferior gas and pay too much for it. We found people prefer the face to face approach to get information, so we do door to another door. Plus, we’re different than other residential sales because we don’t have to hoof it forever. We have fast promotions and become business owners.”

“So, it’s a franchise of Mirage?” queried Zartex.

“Sort of,” Carmen said. She got to the street she was working on, so she couldn’t explain more. She told Zartex, “I will explain more after work. This is my street.”

“I’m ready!” Zartex remarked.

“I wish I was!” Carmen thought out loud. Zartex raised an eyebrow, so she explained, ” I meant ’cause you were here! I’ve done this a million times!” Zartex looked skeptical but said nothing. Carmen already felt annoyed, and it was only the beginning!

Turning 30, Chapter 25

Feliz, Cera, Will, Lavena, Ashlynn, and Tadd sat a table in a large chain restaurant. The restaurant was busy and full of happy people. Even though their table had balloons, party hats, and noise makers, the six friends looked pretty morose. Feliz asked the group, “Should we sing Happy Birthday?”

They all replied, “Nah.”

Ashlynn apologized to Tadd, “I’m sorry I didn’t plan a more exciting party. We all got wrapped up in issues-ours and everyone else’s. It’s funny how when someone reaches a milestone how you start evaluating your own life. What kind of birthday could I possibly have with no job and still living with mom and dad?”

Feliz sniffed a little. “You think your birthday will be a bummer? At least your family supports you. Mine disowned me. I can finally start dating who I want, but I will probably still be single when my thirtieth comes ’cause what guy’ll wanna enter that family drama?”

“You think you’ll still be single on your birthday?” Will put in. “I work in an arcade and live with a crazy cat lady-I know I’ll be single! What are the odds I’ll have my shit together in two months?”

“At least you have some dignity!” Cera opinionated. “I’ll be a thirty year old virgin! Probably. I mean, who would sleep with me? I live with my parents too, but it’s worse ’cause I’ve never even had a real job. I’m like a kid, and my birthday party will probably get treated like that too!”

Lavena lamented, “My birthday will probably be an actual kid’s party! I turn thirty the same day as Mrs. Hollingsworth, so who would babysit them? If I had a husband, we could celebrate as a family. Being a single mom is so hard, ad it’s just gonna keep getting worse as I get older.”

Everyone except for Tadd had a glum look on their face. Tadd observed his friends in surprise. He had been so obsessed with his own woes that he didn’t think about their issues. He was there through all of this and saw everything, but he didn’t have the confidence to say anything…until now. “Wow. Look at the effect I had on you. You all think your life is over and that you’re failures. You’re wrong! There’s nothing wrong with us! When you turn thirty, everyone has all these expectations for how your life should look. Your parents, your religion, your family, neighbors, random community members-everyone expects us to have our life totally together. We’re supposed to have a good job, a happy marriage, a perfect body, et cetera. It was okay to not have it all figured out when we were in our twenties; we still had time to go wild and crazy and figure out this whole ‘adult’ thing. Suddenly, thirty hits and at the drop of a hat, we’re supposed to just have it all figured out. There’s still a lot of things we’re figuring out. We’re only human, and we’ve gone through a lot, probably more than most people. Excuse me if our life isn’t put together yet. I’m sure we’d all like to be there, and we tried our best to make it happen, but the things we want are gonna take a little more time than we thought to come to fruition. What, suddenly we have a deadline ’cause other people are judging us? Screw them! We’ll get there at our own pace!

“Feliz, if your family won’t accept you for who you are, fuck ’em! You deserve to be happy, and if being with a man will give you that, then you should find a good guy! Don’t rush it though-the right man will come around when you least expect it.

“Lavena, you ever wonder why so many skeezy guys hit on you? It’s cause you’re desperate, and men can sense that. The right man gets turned off by that and it turns the wrong guy on. If you want Mister Right, be Mrs. Right. Be the strong, confident woman we both know you are! Enjoy single life, and your prince charming will come around!

“Will, if you don’t like your house or job, then do something about it! Find a new place and a new job. Take classes to get a good job so you can afford a better place. That bartender, Leon, seemed to really enjoy his job, and I can totally see you doing that! Be proactive!

“Cera, you can’t follow every rule in the Bible, it’s impossible! You can still be a good Christian and do more adult things. If you don’t wanna follow your parents’ lifestyle, then don’t. Get a job and move out. I’m sure your church has a dating group, and there’s plenty of online religious dating sites. This is how you find a middle ground between being overly devout and being a deviant: go on dates, find a nice guy, and hey, what happens between you is between you and God. Virgin or not, it’s none of our business!

“Ashlynn, no one cares if you’re broke. You’ve done so much good with your time off, and that’s worth more to society than wasting away at some dead-end job. You turned something very negative into something positive. You brought us together, and your saint-like patience changed my life! I’ll be forever grateful!”

Feliz, Lavena, Will, Cera, and Ashlynn beamed. They went from feeling lousy to almost glowing. Tadd made them feel so good about themselves, and it was such a relief to let go of some of their self, and society’s, criticisms. Ashlynn exclaimed, “This is the Tadd we remember! You’re amazing! Thank you so much for that!”

“Yeah, thanks man!” Will added. “You guys think I’d be a good bartender?”

“You’d be a great one,” Feliz told him. “And I don’t want you to worry about paying for bartending school on your arcade salary-I’m paying for it! Just promise me when you get your own bar that my future boyfriend and I get free drinks!”

“You got it!” Will happily agreed. They bumped fists.

Lavena remarked, “You know, I think I’ll go back to school too. I can squeeze in an online class with my schedule. I wanna set a good example for my kids by going to college and going for a career versus a job!”

“I’m gonna get my first real job!” Cera stated, excited by the idea. “Just something to get me experience and pay for an apartment. And I shouldn’t be ashamed for what I do or don’t do behind closed doors. I don’t know when I’ll lose my virginity, but I’d rather take my time and do it right.”

“Let me know when you find a job,” Will said to Cera. “We can find an apartment together-split the costs and be roommates.”

“Okay!” Cera looked elated. They bumped fists too.

Feliz got a text message, and when he looked at his phone, his heart melted. “Nonna said she knew all along and loves me anyways! She’ll accept my future husband, but he can’t know the family’s cannoli recipe. Oh Nonna!” He wiped away a tear.

Ashlynn was so happy that her friends were planting seeds that would grow into something that would make their life grow into something that would make their life better. Now she just needed to figure out where she wanted to work so she could move out too. She wished that she could find an answer as easily as her friends did. As if the universe read her thoughts, Tadd got an email. He read it immediately, and then he breathed a sigh of relief. “I got approved for a small business loan! I haven’t took a gig in so long that I’m a little behind the finances of it all. I got that loan so I could hire someone to do my bookkeeping. So Ashlynn, that was part of your duties at your old job right? Do you think we’d work well together?”

Ashlynn felt thunderstruck. “Are you offering me a job?”

“Yes.” Tadd grinned. “Would you accept it?”

Ashlynn’s heart practically danced. “Oh Tadd! Of course I’ll accept it! You don’t know how much this means to me!”

Tadd shrugged but smiled knowing how happy this gesture made her. “It’s the least I could do!”

They gave each other a hug. Cera, Feliz, and Will also smiled, but it was more of a knowing way. Lavena looked like she was about to burst if she didn’t say something! Feliz, Cera, and Will silently urged her not to do it, but Lavena blurted out, “Kiss her already!”

Ashlynn and Tadd stopped hugging because they felt shocked by the outburst. “What?” Tadd reacted.

“Why would we kiss?” Ashlynn felt like she knew why she would say that but also felt a denial, like she did not want to jump to conclusions.

“Oh come on!” Lavena commented excitedly. “You know how it was so obvious to us all that Feliz was gay? Well, we’ve all known for, like, forever that you two have feelings for each other. Why did it take so long to admit the truth? Quit lying to yourself! You two have a romance budding; you are long overdue for your first kiss together!”

Tadd and Ashlynn gave each other a look of disbelief. When they looked back at their friends, they all seemed to agree more with Lavena. It could not be true. How could she have suppressed feelings like that for so long? She held Tadd in the highest regard, he was the most amazing person that she ever met, but to have romantic feelings? Furthermore, even if she did find a fleeting feeling, she shook that notion because she never felt good enough for a guy like him. Wait, that thought sounded like it agreed with them. It just could not be true! Ashlynn stammered, “I just…it can’t be…I…”

Tadd was on the same page as her. “But I…”

Cera, Lavena, Will, and Feliz now all started to chant, “Kiss her! Kiss her! Kiss her!”

Ashlynn turned to Tadd for answers. Tadd suggested, “We could humor them…”

Ashlynn felt totally awkward but complied. They gave each other a quick peck, but then they lingered. They felt something-electricity. The truth flooded Ashlynn like a dam suddenly sprung a leak. There was feelings-strong ones. Tadd was everything she ever wanted, and she could not believe it took her this long to wake her heart up. Tadd obviously felt the same way too. They kissed each other again, but this time it was longer and more passionate. There was no denying it now-she was in love! They broke apart from their embrace, but they kept their heads close. Ashlynn told him sweetly, “What d’ya know, they were right!”

“How did I get so lucky?” Tadd beamed and grabbed her hand, caressing it gently. Ashlynn blushed-he felt like the lucky one?

Cera and Lavena reacted with, “Awwww!” while Feliz and Will reacted with “Finally!”

Cera raised her glass to make a toast, “Here’s to new beginnings!”

“To the end of blaming society and to the realization that we are society, so we can change it for the better!” Feliz added while raising his glass.

“To our generation, not quite millennials but not generation x-the bridge generation! To generation xy!” Will added while raising his glass.

“To choosing happiness above anything else!” Lavena added while raising her glass.

“To good friends!” Tadd added while raising his glass.

“To a happy thirtieth birthday!” Ashlynn added while raising her glass.

They clinked their glasses together and drank. Tadd smiled from ear to ear. “This turned out to be a great party after all!”

“Happy birthday, Tadd!” Ashlynn exclaimed.

Everyone gave him a hug. They all had a flashback to twelve years ago when Tadd turned eighteen and they hugged him the same way but in their high school’s quad. They came back to this moment and cherished it. It took them a long time to notice a waiter tapping his pen and impatiently waiting for them. “So…are you gonna order or what?” They happily sat and decided what they wanted to order.

It’s funny how ordinary moments become the greatest memories. No one knew what exactly the next chapter of their life held, but they were too happy to care. It took them many years to gain the wisdom that there was no point in worrying about the future-happiness came from enjoying the little moments in life happening right now.

 

The End