Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 18

We think he got kidnapped!” Bernadette revealed.

“Kidnapped?” Gwynivara couldn’t wrap her head around the idea. It just didn’t seem possible, and her mind just wouldn’t accept it. “Kennith is a big, strong dude who could easily fight off an attacker! With or without his Venenatus Sanguis abilities! He’s one of the least likely people for this to happen to! Are you sure?”

Riley explained, “When you all left for the mission, I formed a search party like you said. We hadn’t even left the graveyard when we ran into two kids, scared to death, hiding behind a couple of tombstones. They told us after they escaped quarantine, they were trying to run to their grandmother’s house when some really tall man snatched them up and tried to bring them in his house. The kids were kicking and screaming enough to slow the man down, and Kennith heard them. He held a sword up to the guy’s neck and ordered him to let the kids go, which he did, but then he slapped the sword out of his hands! They started fighting physically, but the other guy was so big that it was easy for him to get the upper hand. At one point, he threw Kennith to the ground by where the kids were, and he whispered to them, ordering them to run to the graveyard. The man used this split second distraction to knock Kennith out. The kids did as they were told, but before they got out of eyesight, they looked back one more time and saw that he was gone.”

Gwynivara knew that the kids more than likely didn’t lie about the situation-they’d have no motive to do so, but something still didn’t feel right to her. “You said you think he was kidnapped. Kidnapped, not killed. How do we know he’s still alive?”

Bernadette told her, “The search party staked out the place. They saw what looked like a backhand slap to someone on the couch. No one actually saw him, but they heard some banging around. We were waiting until you started the officers’ meeting to determine what to do about this situation.”

Gwynivara found this so odd. She tried to comprehend what would possess the man to capture Kennith and hold him against his will. She mused whether or not the man got off on pain and torture or if he had a more sinister desire. She briefly considered calling the police and letting them do some good for a change by putting this prick behind bars, but that would risk Kennith getting arrested for quarantine evasion. She concluded that they would have to rescue him themselves, but something still gnawed at her. Before kidnapping Kennith, he tried to take the kids…that’s when it clicked for her. She uncermoniously got out of her seat, brusquely telling the others in the room, “Come on!”

They followed Gwynivara as she marched into the training room. The officers that had already assembled got startled by Gwynivara’s abrupt determination and snapped into attention. As soon as Bernadette, Riley, and Cody fell into place, Gwynivara stood before them and stated boldly, “It’s a trap!”

The officers were surprised by her assertion, and one of them reacted, “How do you know?”

“Because,” Gwynivara justified her belief, “the man tried to kidnap the kids first. He didn’t try to take them to authorities to claim the reward for capturing quarantine escapees. Then, when he’s stopped from doing that, he kidnaps someone totally different than who just tried to nab. Who does that? Criminals who prey on people stick to a type, and yes, I suppose it’s possible to kidnap anyone who just happened to be available for the sole purpose of torture, but how likely is that? The victims do have one thing in common though- they all have Venenatus Sanguis. If the man knew that, why would he risk his own life by putting them under extreme stress and making them conjure up a beast? What are the odds a kidnapper would pick up people at random not knowing that they all have this commonality? The only other explanation is that this guy works for the origin, and they’re trying to lure us in. They know we’re getting close to the truth, and they’re hoping we’ll feel we have no choice but to go in and save him. As soon as we’re inside that place, they’ll give us nowhere to run and do us in. That scenario seems more likely, don’t you think?”

Another officer inquired, “So, you’re saying that we shouldn’t rescue Kennith?”

“No!” Kierram refuted that notion. “She has a plan to use this knowledge to our advantage. We’re going to pretend to buy into it and spring a trap of our own!”

“Exactly!” Gwynivara didn’t expect Kierram to rush to her defense like that, but she felt so grateful to have that kind of solidarity. She continued, “We’re going to use this opportunity to plant the tracking device. We’ll deliver them what they want, at first…”

If it wasn’t for the adrenaline from anticipating an ominous mission, Gwynivara would have been exhausted! The walk took longer than she thought it would, and she wished that it wasn’t so far out so that they could get this done and over with! To keep her nerves from paralyzing her, she made small observations about her surroundings. The houses lined some grassy hills, and she guessed that the residents here liked being nestled close to town while simultaneously living almost within walking distance to the mountains. This neighborhood seemed like it was lower middle class, and she briefly wondered if they stood out walking through the area with their crisp, black suits. Kierram noted, “We’re almost there.” Butterflies fluttered through her stomach. She rubbed her head slightly, wondering if the wig would stay on during the battle. She didn’t know for sure what would happen, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t be so easy to rescue Kennith or to outwit the origin!

They didn’t need to see the address to know that they had come to the right spot. The house looked as though it had never been painted, and the wood was so dilapidated that Gwynivara was surprised that it stayed structurally sound. The fence, made of the same shabby material as the house, was lopsided in some areas, and the holes gave them a clear view of the unkempt grass on the side of the yard. When they rounded to the front of the home, they saw a void in the grass by the backyard gate, and the two of them instantly knew that this was where Kennith got knocked and dragged into the house. They both exchanged worried glances and tried not to think about it as they entered the front yard.

The pathway to the front door, made of that same rickety lumber, buckled slightly under their feet. Reaching the front porch didn’t provide much relief for them. Dirt covered everything except for the dead plants, and the state of the windows and door gave the place an almost abandoned feel to it. The only personal touch came from the slender, white figures dangling from the low hanging ceiling that made an unusual clinking sound in the wind. Kierram commented, “Wow, what strange wind chimes!”

Gwynivara studied them, and a sickening feeling rose in the pit of her stomach. “Those aren’t wind chimes!” Kierram took a closer look and realized that they were pieces of bone! He practically jumped away from fright, and Gwynivara inquired, “Do you think they’re human?”

Kierram pulled himself back into focus and replied, “Either way, it’s not a good sign!” Gwynivara grimaced and knocked on the door.

The few seconds it took for someone to answer seemed to last forever. Gwynivara heard footsteps creaking towards them, and she quickly fell into character. That didn’t stop her heart from pounding wildly as the door swung open. She expected to see a stereotypical convict, but what she got was a very tall man with straw-like hair matted down by a cowboy hat with alligator teeth around the base, which clashed terribly with the olive-drab green zebra striped vest he also wore. For a second, his cartoonish appearance threw her off, but the pronounced scowl and intense glare let her know that they had found the right guy. He growled, “Can’t you read?” He pointed to a sign that said ‘No Trespassing.’ He seethed, “Get off my property!”

Gwynivara coolly pulled out a piece of paper and informed him, “FBI. We have a warrant to search the premises.” While he read the sheet in total astonishment, Gwynivara pushed him aside and entered the building with Kierram.

Kierram and Gwynivara pulled out their flashlights and scanned the small living room. Bernadette had told her that the search party had seen the man slap someone in this room, but all they could see was old-fashioned, hardly used furniture. Gwynivara reasoned that he must’ve moved Kennith to somewhere less conspicuous, but that didn’t comfort her much. Although they had planned for this, she had partly hoped to get in and get out quickly. While they roamed the living room, the man staggered over and remarked, “I ain’t hiding no quarantine children!”

Kierram responded, “A witness placed them in your yard the night of the fire. If you’ve got nothing to hide, then you don’t have anything to worry about.” He saw some mail on a coffee table and casually glanced at the name on the address. “So, I assume you’re the homeowner, Rick Actaeon?”

He answered snidely, “I dunno, am I?”

“That’s him,” Gwynviara confirmed. “If he wasn’t, he’d deny it.” Rick pouted, not being able to refute her logic. As she peered at the couch by the window, she noticed blood spatter on its arm. “What happened here?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rick said spitefully. “It ain’t kids’ blood.”

From behind a pair of wooden swinging doors, Gwynivara and Kierram heard a loud bump. Kierram asked, “What was that?”

“None of your business,” he retorted.

“We’ll see about that!” Gwynivara stated. They each took a door and slowly eased it open. The doors revealed a decrepit, neglected kitchen with flies hovering around a sink full of dirty dishes. The room appeared empty, but they were not so easily fooled. They tiptoed into the room, ready for an ambush. They heard another bump coming from a room in the nearby hallway. While Gwynivara crept towards the hallway, Kierram put his back to hers and eyed the room before him.

Gwynivara peeked down the hallway, which seemed dark and empty. She knew that they had not fully vetted the kitchen, but there was no signs of Kennith there. However, she did not budge. Something didn’t feel right. She thought, perhaps, it stemmed from the lack of escape routes in that part of the house, but her instincts seemed to indicate that they weren’t done in the kitchen. She heard another bump sound from what looked like the bedroom, but this area gave off an aura of being completely vacant. Puzzled and unsure of what to do next, she stayed rooted to the spot. A split second after she made that decision, a familiar male’s voice leered, “Well, well, well! What have we got here?”

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Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 12

Gwynivara quickly stepped aside as a few men ran up with a cloth, hand-held gurney. They hastily holstered up his limp body and carried him down the stairs. Gwynivara glanced at Bernadette, who stood completely still with her eyes wide open. One the opposite side of the landing, Kierram sat on the edge with his head hung low. Gwynivara still felt devastated by this attack, but she realized that it was especially hard on him. He deserved to know the truth. She handed Cody the torch and sat down next to Kierram. He didn’t acknowledge her presence, but she didn’t expect him to. The way he had his head bent made his hair cover his face, but through his bangs, Gwynivara could see tears welling up in his eyes. She put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder and revealed, “Your dad is still alive.”

“For how long?” Kierram wiped his cheeks with his sleeve, and without thinking about it, Gwynivara wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him tight. She could tell he wasn’t used to receiving affection and didn’t know how to handle it, but he didn’t fight it. He let the tears just flow at this point. Gwynivara felt her own eyes watering. She hadn’t known Emorick for that long, but they already had been through so much. He made this rebellion possible, he saved so many lives… he saved her too. With her own family far away from her, she had started to feel like she had found family in him. She couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him, and the thought made her start bawling into Kierram’s shoulders.

This moment of tenderness didn’t last long. Bernadette shouted, “Guys, we got company!” They raised their heads up to find a panther-like monster crawling towards them! Gwynivara, Kierram, and Bernadette were ready to strike, but Cody was first to act. He hurled the torch at it, and it roared out in pain as it caught on fire. Bernadette used its distraction to create a ball of light and threw it at the beast. It disintegrated, but, oddly enough, they still heard creature noises. Bernadette concluded, “There’s more downstairs!”

“Sounds like a lot of people were upset by what happened!” Gwynivara remarked as she heard a lot of them getting fought off by people downstairs.

Kierram grabbed the torch, and with some concentration, he conjured up some fire and re-lit it. “Come on, let’s go help!”

They rushed down the stairs to see dozens of different beasts lurking in the hall! A few people were fighting them off with whatever make shift weapons they could find, but only a small amount of creatures were destroyed. Bernadette, Gwynivara, and Kierram could only fight one at a time, and they were outnumbered. Luckily, Riley showed up with two handfuls of swords. People grabbed them immediately and the fight became more even. No one could tell just how much time had passed, but soon the hall became quiet again. Gwynivara scanned the room and saw a lot of beasts’ bodies as well as people who, like herself, were trying to figure if the coast was clear. “Is anyone hurt?” Everyone looked around thoroughly, but no one came up with anything. The whole group took a collective sigh of relief.

“That’s a miracle!” Riley commented.

Gwynivara spoke up, “Speaking of miracles, how’s Emorick?”

Everyone rushed over to the first aid station, but Niqun somehow blocked the large entrance with her small body. “No! We don’t have room for all of you! We need to keep working on him!”

“That’s my father!” Kierram objected. Niqun let him pass.

Gwynivara and Bernadette quickly followed. Some people in the crowd objected, so Gwynivara addressed them, “We’re officers!” Some of the other officers rushed forward, so Gwynivara requested, “Can you guys help Niqun stand guard?” They felt their role was important, so they complied earnestly.

Gwynivara watched as a couple of first aid medics sew up his wounds and patched him back up. Cody was also in there answering their questions. “No, it was more like a dagger.”

“Did you happen to grab it?” one medic inquired.

Cody replied, “No, he took it with him. They got an urgent page, so they needed it.”

“A page?” Gwynivara turned to Cody with a tone of vitality, “The people who attacked him were police officers?”

“Yeah,” Cody confirmed. “They were a couple of the new Disease Safety units. Apparently, they only carry knives.”

“They were gonna bring you into quarantine ‘til Emorick stepped in?” Bernadette surmised.

“Quarantine?” Cody puzzled. “I don’t have Venenatus Sanguis!”

Everyone in the room turned to stare at him. Gwynivara didn’t know everyone who lived in the Rebellion, but it was her understanding that only people with the disease resided here. She couldn’t think of anyone else who would even want to live in a place where they could get it! But if he didn’t have a Venenatus Sanguis…Gwynivara probed, “Why were those police after you then?”

Cody recalled, “They had this giant dog-looking thing on a leash. They saw me sleeping under the playground, and they didn’t see that my eyes were kinda open. Then, all of a sudden, they took off the chain! Luckily, I carry a baseball bat with me at all times. Well, when you’re homeless, you gotta do it for safety. Anyways, I managed to beat that thing to death! I was too busy dealing with the dog to notice what the other officers were doing though, and one of them tried to stab my back! But Emorick stopped him! They were wrestling to get control of the knife, and I managed to get him off him with my bat. The other officer came out of nowhere and stabbed in the chest! That’s when they got the page and ran.”

Everyone who heard Cody’s story reacted with shock and appall. Kierram said in disgust, “The new cops are purposely infecting people with the disease? That’s sick!”

Bernadette added, “Whoever the origin is, they successfully infiltrated the police department. I do think Chief Forsythe is acting of his own will, though that’s not really much more reassuring. This new division doesn’t care about people in quarantine, they’re helping to spread it! That’s horrible!”

“Not to the origin!” Gwynivara put in. “For whatever reason, this individual wants to destroy the planet using Venenatus Sanguis. Quarantine would contain most of the beasts that form, and even though some could get out and spread it a little, if the origin wants the disease to spread more rapidly, they would have to purposely infect people. So, they find vulnerable people, people who are outside and not surrounded by witnesses, and they unleash the creatures.” Bernadette and Kierram nodded in agreement. After she got the thought out, something else occurred to her. “But they work for the police now. You can’t exactly stroll down the sidewalk in an area as crowded as downtown with a beast like that! So, where are they bringing them?”

A lightbulb went off in everyone’s heads, but Kierram was the first to say it outloud, “If we track down where they’re hiding them, we’re likely to find the origin!”

Before they could say more on the subject, the medics finished up their work on Emorick. They turned to Gwynivara and the others, and one of the medics informed them, “We’ve done all we can do. He lost a lot of blood, and he’s not responsive. But, with some rest, he should recover. However, the handkerchief that Cody used to clog the burst artery would have to have been completely sterilized to prevent infection. It came from Emorick’s pocket, and it was handled by a homeless person. Plus, we don’t know how clean the knife’s blade was, so we think the potential for infection is high. We can treat minor infections, but if he gets an infection in his blood stream, we can’t help him. However, if we take him to the hospital, there’s a chance that his identity could get discovered, in which case, they would take him to quarantine. So, basically we have to pick the risk we wanna take. Keep him here where we know he’s safe but risk his health, or we take him to the hospital where he would be more likely to stay healthy but only if he doesn’t get sent to quarantine. What do you wanna do?”

Gwynivara, Bernadette, and Kierram all turned to each other for answers, but it was such a difficult choice that no one could give a recommendation one way or the other. Cody helpfully threw in his opinion, “I was gonna take him to the hospital, but he told me to take him here. He said he would only go to the hospital if he wanted to die. I mean, I know I just met him, but I feel like if he were awake, he would tell us to keep him here. He risked so much for me, so I just wanna do right by him. I think he’d be mad if he woke up in a hospital.”

The other three agreed with him. Gwynivara asked the medic, “You said with rest, he should recover?”

The medic nodded. “Yes.”

Gwynivara reasoned, “So, it makes sense to me to keep him here for a while, and if he shows signs of an infection, then we bring him to the hospital under an assumed name and pray that no one figures out who he really is. What do you guys think?”

Bernadette and Kierram agreed with Gwynivara, so the medic told them, “Okay. We’ll have a different medic keep an eye on him all hours of the day.”

The two medics sat by Emorick to immediately begin monitoring him. The rest of the officers walked in, and Kennith asked them, “What’s going on?”

Kierram answered, “My dad should make it, but if he gets an infection, we will have to take him to the hospital.”

The other officers were relieved to hear he was alive, but no one liked the idea of Emorick going to the hospital. One officer commented, “We’ll send prayers and positive vibes that he doesn’t go there!”

Another officer suggested, “So, should we find this young guy a room?”

“Poor kid!” a third officer remarked. “I don’t like to hear children getting the disease!”

“I don’t have it,” Cody stated.

The other officers’ tone changed to distrust and a little fearful. “Then he’s gotta go!” Kennith reacted.

Bernadette pointed out, “Cody saved Emorick’s life, and he doesn’t have anywhere to go!”

The second officer sided with her, “He’s homeless, who’s he gonna rat on us to?”

“The police,” Kennith brought up. The other officers hadn’t thought of that and agreed with Kennith’s point.

Cody denied that, “No, two cops tried to kill me. I’m just as wanted as you guys, so I got nothing to gain from turning you in.”

Kennith’s demeanor softened a little. “Look, I’m not trying to be a dick, but Cody’s also not safe here. He could get killed by a creature. Or bit. We’re trying to prevent it from spreading, right?”

“There’s a chance of that happening anyways,” Bernadette opinionated. “They tried to infect him before. And Emorick risked his life to stop that from happening! He would want him to be safe. I think he should stay.”

Kennith debated, “He’s safer out there! What if the origin comes and wipes us all out? What would he do? He doesn’t have to live a life of seclusion like we do. He should be free! I think he should go.” The other officers agreed with him.

“Well, it’s not up to you guys!” Kierram spat.

“What are you talking about?” Kennith folded his arms defiantly.

Kierram explained, “My dad said that if something happened to him, Gwynivara was supposed to take over his position. That means until my father wakes up, Gwyn is in charge!” Everyone turned to look at her, almost in shock of the truth. Gwynivara was too stunned to speak, but inwardly, she knew Kierram was right- she was now in charge of the Rebellion!

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 11

We believe these individuals to be armed and dangerous!” Chief Forsythe held up a picture of Gwynivara and Bernadette in their maid outfits as well as Kierram in his fedora. “If you see them, do not approach them! Find the nearest phone and call nine-one-one. Be assured the Great Dismal Falls police department has stepped up its patrols for the safety of its citizens! Go about your business as normal, but keep an eye out for these criminals! I’ll take your questions now.”

A flurry of reporters threw questions at him, but Chief Forsythe ignored them until he called on someone. The reporter he pointed to asked, “You mentioned earlier that these three were responsible for the death and serious injuries of five doctors, but reports show that they were attacked by Venenatus Sanguis creatures. Is it your opinion that the three fugitives have the disease?”

Chief Forsythe mulled it over for a second, and then he replied, “At this point, we cannot make that determination. The creatures in question may have come these individuals, however, the amount of chaos that ensued as a result of their escape may have triggered the emotions of other unreported cases. Either way, we have a team of specifically trained to hunt these people that are set to patrol for the first time later today. With the extra manpower, we’ll round up all of these lawbreakers and put them in quarantine where they belong. Next question.”

Another reporter asked, “Chief Forsythe, do you have any clues as to the identities of these individuals?”

“Our team is working hard to identify the individuals in question. We will contact the press with any new developments. That’s all the time I have. Thank you.” He turned away from the reporters and walked into the police station, which still had visible damage from the earthquake. The reporters chased him down and continued to barrage him with questions until Chief Forsythe slammed the door in their faces.

Gwynivara turned off the radio in disgust. She sat on her bed and rubbed her face in frustration. Bernadette walked in without knocking and shut the door behind her. Gwynivara didn’t look up at her. She now felt ashamed that her behavior garnered her some pity and compelled someone to check on her. Bernadette sat on her bed and tried to make eye contact with her, but Gwynivara turned her head towards the bathroom door. She felt like crying but refused to let the tears come out. Bernadette calmly told her, “Stop trying to be strong all the time! If you keep it all pent up, you’ll create another beast! What’s wrong?”

Gwynivara knew that she was right, but that made her feel a little guilty. “What’s wrong? I got someone who had a knife in her back and could’ve died worried about how I’m doing!”

Bernadette softly chuckled, and then she assured her, “Believe it or not, I’ve been through worse!” Puzzled, Gwynivara looked at Bernadette questioningly. Before she could ask about it, Bernadette went on, “We can talk about that later though. Talk to me! Let it all out!”

“Well…” Gwynivara took a deep breath. She didn’t know where to begin. She decided to go with the freshest wound. “Chief Forsythe has our picture out all over the media! I mean, I realize we’re all technically criminals, but now people know what we look like. Someone will recognize us, so I guess we can’t go on patrols anymore.”

“That’s not true,” Bernadette refuted. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to hide in plain site.” Gwynivara looked skeptical, so she added, “No, seriously! My father is…um…was rich and somewhat famous, but no one has made the connection. Change your hairstyle and lay low, and you’re instantly invisible! Besides, I’ve heard that you’re already good at changing your identity. It’s not that different.”

Gwynivara’s curiosity peaked after hearing this. She had so many questions reeling in her head about Bernadette’s past, but she had already indicated her disinterest in explaining her history, so she forced herself to table the notion for the moment. Gwynivara knew she was probably right about patrolling, and she was intrigued about the methods of execution. Again though, she had to table the notion. She knew Bernadette would insist on talking about her feelings and wouldn’t let the subject go until it was all out, so she decided to get it over with. “Did anyone tell you about my dreams?”

“Riley did,” Bernadette replied.

Of course he did, she thought. His story probably was what prompted her to visit. “No one believes me. They don’t think my dreams are anything more than pure fantasy.” She paused and added, “I don’t need anymore reminders of that!”

“I wasn’t gonna say that!” Bernadette refuted. “Dreams can be a powerful window into the subconscious. It’s a part of your brain that tries to sort out problems you conscious brain can’t. I would still share what you learn from them, but if you want them to take your insight seriously, I just wouldn’t present the dreams as real.”

“But the dreams are real!” Gwynivara objected. “If I don’t tell them the whole truth, then it’ll feel like lying! I could be leaving out important information that could lead us to finding the cure! I have to tell them everything!”

“How do you know it’s real?” Bernadette’s tone wasn’t judgmental or argumentative but more of observant wondering.

Gwynivara felt she had a valid point. She hadn’t really questioned how she knew it was real before but accepted it as fact. After evaluating it, she noted that she never got out of her bed, so she obviously hadn’t actually been there in real life. She didn’t personally know the woman she saw, and the only reason she knew any of her men stemmed from the fact that they had tried to kill her. She didn’t know any of them enough to have a psychic connection either. Actually, she remembered that she didn’t even believe in that stuff. She could now understand Riley and Kierram’s reactions. It didn’t have much logic to it, and they may have even pondered about her sanity. She told Bernadette, “All I have for proof is is this strong feeling in my gut. But I understand what you’re saying. I really don’t have any solid proof. I guess I figured that the feeling was strong enough that people would take my word for it. I won’t mention my dreams until I have more proof.”

Gwynivara could tell that Bernadette didn’t believe in the idea of her dreams being real visions, but she knew Gwynivara’s conviction was so strong that there was no point in arguing. Instead, she smiled and then changed the subject, “You must be starving! I know I am! Let’s go grab a bite to eat!” Gwynivara agreed and they left for the kitchen.

As they walked down the hall, they saw a small group of people gathered with plates in the activity room, so Bernadette exclaimed, “Ooh, someone’s cooking something!” They went inside, and the people who had gathered scooted over to make room for them. It was a tight squeeze, but no one seemed to mind. Gwynivara didn’t recognize the people there, but they all seemed very cordial. Even though the group ranged in ages and cultures, she felt like she was attending a family gathering. After everything she had went through lately, she definitely needed this! Despite all evidence otherwise, Gwynivara had a gnawing feeling that this was too good to be true. She shook the feeling off and forced herself to enjoy the moment.

From the kitchen, a male shouted, “Food’s ready!” The people gathered were excited, and Gwynivara couldn’t wait to meet the cook. To her astonishment, Kierram walked in carrying a wok of steaming food! He met her eyes and also seemed stunned. For a moment, they just stared at each other. But before they could process the moment, they heard the hallway behind them fall deadly silent!

The dinner guests turned towards the hallway, and they saw everyone taking cover. They felt confused until they heard Niqun shout, “Tha coigreach an seo!” The dinner party gasped, snuffed out the lights, and hid under the table. Gwynivara whispered, “What’s happening?”

Kierram answered, “Do you remember when I trained you on door guard duty? If you shout ‘An bhfuil tú ina chara?’ and they don’t say ‘Is cara liom!’ back, you shout-”

“Tha coigreach an seo!” Gwynivara remembered. With horror, she realized, “An intruder!”

They strained their ears to hear what was happening, but they couldn’t hear a thing. Bernadette observed, “It’s too quiet! Something’s wrong!”

Gwynivara responded swiftly, “Well, whether Emorick likes it or not, we got work to do!”

They quietly crouched down and tiptoed out of the door. The hall was dark and eerily quiet, and they couldn’t hear anything happening near the stairs. They crept close to the curtains, and Bernadette spoke in a barely audible whisper, “Niqun, are you hurt?”

She whispered back, “I’m fine. He’s still up there.”

Gwynivara couldn’t tell if the man had heard them or not, but right after Niqun spoke, he shouted, “Hello? Is anyone still there? Please, we need your help! It’s dark, and I can’t do it alone!”

Without speaking, Gwynivara could tell that Kierram was ready to fight off the intruder, and Bernadette seemed seriously skeptical. Gwynivara detected as sense of urgency in his voice that sounded genuine, but she didn’t totally let her guard down, just in case. She grabbed a lighter and relit the torch. Bernadette and Kierram gave her a panicked look, so she told them, “If there’s an enemy, I wanna see who I’m facing!”

As they accepted her explanation, the man hollered, “Are you someone who can help us?”

Gwynivara put a foot on the staircase. She felt like her nerves were on fire, but she had to investigate. If danger laid on the other side of the staircase, she wanted to face it right then and there so she could corner him and give the others a chance to escape. If the intruder wasn’t an adversary, she felt mystified as to who else it could be. “Who’s us?”

He replied, “My name is Cody. I don’t know who this is, but he told me to come here.”

Gwynivara took the torch and slowly climbed up the stairs. Kierram and Bernadette immediately followed her, ready to fight as backup if Cody attacked her. Gwynivara probed, “If he told you to come here, why didn’t he give you the password?”

Cody answered her, “There wasn’t time!” They got closer to the top, and they saw Cody for the first time. He was a skinny, pale boy in his late teens. He wore overly baggy clothes that had numerous dirt stains, and coupling that with the troubled expression on his face, the three of them let their guard down a little as they didn’t totally think he was a threat anymore. They still held a little caution as they listened to his claim, “He’s badly hurt and told me to take him here! Please help him! He saved my life! I don’t want him to die!”

Gwynivara saw a hand on the ground, and she now absolutely had to see who it was. When they got to the top of the stairs, their hearts stopped. His body was limp, and blood poured out from his chest! Gwynivara’s mind wouldn’t accept what she saw. Without thinking, she instinctively shouted, “We need medics now!” She heard people downstairs scrambling, but she couldn’t think about them. She raced to his side to feel his pulse. She couldn’t accept that his life could be in danger, she absolutely wouldn’t! She closed her eyes, and with trembling hands, she put two fingers to his neck. With her her heart pounding, she got the result…

Heaven’s Headquarters

“How did I get here?” Ethan, a man with silky brown hair, green eyes, and a slim physique, realized he fell asleep on an elevator. He doesn’t recognize this elevator, which has ornate, gilded walls, and he’s mystified as to how he ended up inside. Last thing he remembered, he was walking down the street. He suddenly realized that the elevator had no buttons! The elevator kept going up, and Ethan had no idea where he was going, so he started to worry. Suddenly, the elevator stopped and the elevator doors opened. Ethan stepped out cautiously.

Ethan walked into a reception area and looked around to figure out where he was. The walls and floors were cloudy white. There wasn’t much else there except a lot of doors and a pearly, circular desk at the center. A perky, blonde secretary popped up behind the desk and watched Ethan. Ethan, not knowing what else to do, went up to the secretary, who had a name plate that read: Hailey. Before Ethan could ask her anything, Hailey chirped, “Welcome to Heaven’s Headquarters! Please fill out these forms.” She slid a white clipboard with a couple of crisp papers on it to to him.

Ethan felt totally confused. He had no clue where he was, and yet this woman seemed to have been expecting him. “Forms?

Hailey simply explained, “Yes, to show us what would make your eternity the ideal level of blissfulness.”

Ethan started to think that he either got too drunk at dinner or else someone had slipped something into his drink. Either way, he thought that maybe he had blacked out and had booked some spa getaway in his haze. That didn’t seem like a smart idea, so he tried to clear this up with Hailey, “Look, I’m not sure how I got here, but I gotta leave. I got work in the morning, so-.”

Hailey interrupted him, “Work? No, you don’t work in Heaven. It’s your time to relax.”

Ethan got a little annoyed by this. He knew that companies often had their secretaries try to save their sales, but she didn’t seem to get it, he really didn’t have time for this. “Relax? I got a big presentation in the morning. So, can you-?”

“Listen,” Hailey looked him square in the eyes and talked in a very serious tone at this point. “you’re not going back to work. Or your home or anywhere else. You’re dead.”

Whatever response he had expected to hear from her, it wasn’t that! The ease he felt from what he thought was a logical conclusion to this situation had vanished, and if he hadn’t booked a luxurious hotel in a drunken haze, then he didn’t know what else would bring him here. The fact that she mentioned that he was dead now sent him to a panic. “Is that a threat? Are you holding me hostage?”

“Oh boy!” Hailey sighed. She coolly hit a pager button on her office phone and spoke into it, “Peter, can you come to the Pearly Gates please?”

A handsome man with a nice suit and a clipboard in his arm appeared next to Hailey instantly. Ethan had to blink. He couldn’t explain how the man, who he could only assume was Peter, could appear from nowhere unless it was some kind of theatrical ruse to scare and confuse him. Peter glanced at Ethan and then regarded Hailey, “Who’s this? Let’s see…ah, Ethan Miller. I told you already that he is most definitely welcome here!”

Hailey calmly revealed, “I know, but he hasn’t accepted.”

Ethan, in addition to feeling a little scared, grew frustrated by the lack of answers. He had a right to know what was happening! He spouted, “Who are you?”

Peter smiled gently and introduced himself, “On Earth, I’m known as Saint Peter.”

Ethan rolled his eyes. He didn’t believe that was his real identity, and he resented the task he now had of figuring out who these people were. He remarked to Peter, “Saint Peter, huh? What are you guys, the mob or something?”

“Wow!: Peter seemed bewildered by Ethan’s response, but he kept his composure. “You weren’t kidding about this man! Better send him to the Big Guy.”

“Who? Where are you taking me?” Ethan decided he wasn’t going to let them take him anywhere and prepared to put up a fight.

Peter snapped his fingers, and Ethan instantly disappeared! Ethan reappeared in a huge office. It seemed to be empty except for the same cloudy walls and floors and a big, wooden desk with a computer on it. Whoever “the Big Guy” was, he wasn’t in the office right now. Ethan looked all around him in utter confusion “Okay, what the hell just happened?”

At that moment, a very tall, clean shaven man with gray hair and a light gray suit walked into the room. The man reproached him gently, “Sir, we don’t swear here.” Ethan jumped at his sudden approach. The man kindly instructed, “Go ahead and have a seat.”

A cushy chair appeared before the desk right behind where Ethan stood. He reluctantly took a seat. He needed answers, and he figured that they must lie with this man. “You’re the “Big Guy?”

The man replied, “I’m known by many names. A higher power, Nirvana, Inner Peace, Mother Earth (somehow)…but you probably refer to me as God.”

“Oh, you’re God? Yeah right!” Ethan wondered what was wrong with these people. They were either giving him their nicknames or else he had come across a very delusional cult.

The man seemed unruffled by Ethan’s disposition. He probed, “What makes you doubt me?”

Ethan couldn’t believe that this guy had really believed that he was God! He had to put him in his place, “God isn’t some businessman! He has a really long beard and a robe…”

The Big Guy chuckled, “You mean like this?” He snapped his fingers and, to Ethan’s astonishment, hechanged into Ethan’s description of God. “Yes, this look was all the rage when the Bible was written, but we’ve made some updates since then.” The Big Guy snapped his fingers again and changed back into the outfit he previously wore.

Ethan still didn’t totally accept their claims that he had died or that he was speaking to God, and he didn’t want to feed into that delusion. He had to try to get home. “Look, I don’t wanna be here, in ‘Heaven,’ I want to-!”

“No?” the Big Guy remarked. “Would you rather be in Hell? It’s not as fun as rock stars make it seem. Here, have a look.”

The Big Guy turned his computer monitor around to face Ethan. An automated voice greeted him, “Welcome to Hell Dot Com! I’m Jaime, your virtual host. Let me give you a tour!” The screen changed into a red office with a blonde man in a pepper-gray business suit sitting at a dark, wooden desk. “This is Lucifer’s Chamber! He decides how cruel of an eternal punishment a sinner gets.” The screen changed into a room with some fiendish monsters standing in front of some sharp rocks. The monsters smile and wave to the camera. “This is the physical pain and torture chamber where sinners go to receive a Hell of a lot of, well, pain and torture.” The screen changed to a completely empty room with a small green couch and a wide screen television “This is the viewing room where sinners are forced to watch their worst nightmares over and over again.” The screen changed to small, run down town. “This is Sinners’ Living, the living quarters of sinners. Their homes turn into whatever they would consider the most unbearable living conditions.” The screen changed to a door with the number 666 on it. “This is Area Six Six Six, where the most evil sinners go. It is so gruesome that we cannot display it on the web.” The screen changed to a room full of what looks like operators and telemarketers. “This is the communications room where our “devils” tempt ordinary people to commit a sin.” The screen changed to a picture of an empty reception desk. “That ends our tour of Hell Dot Com. We are currently seeking a Hell Secretary if you’re interested. See you in Hell!”

The Big Guy turned the computer off and swiveled it back so it faced him. Ethan now felt very much perplexed. Ethan supposed that the Big Guy thought that this presentation would convince him that he had died, but he wasn’t buying it! “I can’t be dead! The world couldn’t go on without me!”

“You don’t think so?” The Big Guy reacted. “Well, I can show you that’s not true either. Oh Joseph!” He pushed a button on his phone to summon him. A young man with a gray suit and a white tie, black hair, muscular build entered and looked to the Big Guy to await his instructions. The Big Guy directed Joseph, “Show Ethan his world without him. I gotta go. I’m helping my son throw a party tonight! Hope to see you there!” The Big Guy winked and disappeared.

Joseph grumbled, “Thanks a lot, now I’m going to miss that party!”

Ethan could care less about this man’s desire to go to some party. He didn’t know what they wanted with him, but it seemed like he had no choice but to play their game. He scoffed, “So, who are you? Saint Joseph?”

Joseph forgot about the party and pleasantly answered Ethan, “No! My name is Joseph Love. I was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.”

Whether it was real or not, Ethan grew curious about Joseph’s back story. “Oh, you got killed in battle?”

Joseph told him, “No, after we won, my friends and I had a party and I died there.”

“How’d you die?” Ethan asked him.

“I don’t know.” Joseph shrugged.

This notion triggered a thought, and again, whether it was true or not, Ethan was owed an explanation. “Wait a minute, how’d I die?”

“No one in Heaven is supposed to know,” Joseph educated him. “If they think about their death, they’ll never stop dwelling on it. Though the last thing I remember is swimming, so I think I drowned. But who knows! Anyways, you think the world can’t survive without you, huh? Who depended on you?”

Right away, Ethan came up with, “My fiancee, Diana Shaw. She’s in love with me, so there’s no way she’ll survive without me!

Joseph’s mouth twitched, but he hid his grin. “Is that right?” He snapped his fingers, and they both disappeared.

Ethan and Joseph reappear in a gourmet restaurant that is mostly full of delighted patrons. With all of these magical entrances and exits, Ethan now thought he was in a dream or having some kind of coma vision, so he decided to stop fighting the acceptance of whether or not this was real and just rolled with it. The only way he was going to get through this was to show these people that he told the truth about the world needing him to stay around. He inquired, “Can anyone see me?”

“Nope,” Joseph answered. “Where’s Diana?”

Ethan scanned the restaurant and sees her at a table. His heart fluttered when he gazed at her beauty. She was unlike anyone he had ever met before. Her strawberry blonde hair was done up in a bun and she wore a chic red dress, which made her look even more devestatingly beautiful. For a moment, Ethan wondered what she had been doing there. It took him a while to see that Diana was sitting with a very handsome man that he could only hope was a new boss. If he wasn’t invisible to them, Ethan would have confronted the man. All he could do was stand next to her, listening to her dialogue. Diana confessed, “This the first date I’ve been on since my fiancee died three months ago.”

Ethan stared at Joseph questioningly. “Three months?”

Joseph apologized, “Sorry, Heaven doesn’t have a real concept of time.”

The man admitted to Diana, “I have to confess when I befriended you at work, I always hoped that you would break up with your fiancee. I mean, he’s the greatest guy I know, but I had such a crush on you for a long time! I only hope that I can give you as much happiness as Ethan did.”

“I think you will.” Diana told him. “I have to make another confession. I loved Ethan with all my heart, but ever since I met you, my heart was torn between two men. I know that he would’ve wanted me to move on and be happy.” Ethan wished she could have seen the cross look on his face! She went on, “I could really see myself have a future with you. I think I could be falling for you!”

The man beamed upon hearing this, but he still felt like he needed to ask, “Are you afraid of moving too fast?”

“Ethan will always be a part of my past, but you are my future!” She reached across the table and stroked his hand, smiling lovingly at this man. He held her hand and returned her sentiment.

Ethan blew up, “That bastard! This whole time he was trying to steal my woman! I’ll kill him!” Ethan tried to strangle Frank, but his hands went right through him.

Joseph stood next to him and reported, “A few things. First of all, remember you’re not supposed to swear. Second, you’re invisible, so he can’t see or feel you. And lastly, I doubt the Big Guy will let you into Heaven if you actually did kill someone. I know you’re hurting, so I’m gonna pretend I didn’t see that.”

Ethan still looked frustrated, but he knew that Joseph was right. He sighed, and then he remembered why he was there. “Okay, so maybe she’s move on, but my parents will be devastated!”

Joseph didn’t seemed convinced. “If you say so.” He snapped his fingers, and they disappeared from the restaurant.

Joseph and Ethan reappeared in his parents’ living room, a very neat and clean space with a lot of comfortable furniture. Mrs. Miller was knitting on her flowery couch with her orange cat curled up beside her and a faint smile on her face. Mr. Miller entered the front door with a broad grin. He announced, “Good news, honey! I got a huge promotion!”

“Oh really?” Mrs. Miller reacted merrily. “That’s wonderful! What’s your new position?”

Mr. Miller proudly told her, “You’re looking at the new manager of the Animal Buffet Pet Food factory!”

“Manager? Oh honey!” Mrs. Miller got up and gave her husband a huge hug. “Ethan would be so proud of you!”

Mr. Miller agreed, “Before he died, he kept trying to get me quit drinking and work harder. If only he could see his old man now! Now we can stop using his inheritance he left us to pay bills and really treat ourselves! Maybe we can visit Cally in France!”

“That would be wonderful!: Mrs. Miller rejoiced. “And instead of selling these blankets to supplement, our income, I’ll give it charity! Oh, I’m so glad we’re going to be alright! I dreaded what life would be like without him, and I’ll always miss my baby boy, but I’m so glad we will be okay without him! He is probably looking at us now, smiling.”

Ethan was frowning. “Now they don’t need me? They even said it! Ugh! My fiancee has moved on, and my parents are happier than ever with me being gone!”

Mr. Miller suggested, “Let’s go out to a nice restaurant to celebrate!”

Mrs. Miller reacted, “Wow, this will be the first time we’ve really dined out since Ethan died six months ago!”

Ethan turned to Joseph, “So, every time you snap your fingers, it’s been three months on Earth?”

“I guess,” he replied. Then he addressed Ethan seriously, “So, your fiancee and your parents can live without you. Are you ready to admit that the world doesn’t need you to go back?”

“No!” Ethan denied it. “My sister must need me! We were best friends-how could she live without me?”

Joseph laughed, “Let’s find out together, shall we?” He snapped his fingers, and they disappeared.

Joseph and Ethan appear at the end of a lecture in a large university classroom, and the professor spoke entirely in French. Joseph told Ethan, “Hold on, I can get subtitles.”

Ethan seemed a little relieved, but his mind was elsewhere. “Cally went to another country to study? She probably had trouble making friends so wanted to get a fresh start in France. She was really shy, I was trying to help her with that. She must be so lonely and miserable here!”

Joseph smirked. “Sorry to disappoint you, but she doesn’t look so sad.”

They found Cally pretty easily. She looked a lot like Ethan except she had golden brown eyes and curvy, womanly figure. She listened to the lecture with a lot of interest. After the lecture concluded, Cally gathered her things and walked out of the classroom alone. Ethan pointed out, “See, alone and miserable!”

Cally soon got joined by a handsome young, handsome blonde French man. “Bonjour Cally!” His subtitles read, “Hello Cally!”

Cally smiled big and greeted him, “Salut Jean! Ça va?” Her subtitles read, “Hey Jean! What’s up?”

The young man replied, “Oui, ça va. Et toi?” His subtitles read, “I’m good. How are you?”

Cally replied, “Oui, ça va. Où est-ce que tu vas?” Her subtitles read, “Yes, I’m good. Where are you off to?”

He shrugged, “Chez moi.” His subtitles read, “My house.”

Cally invited, “Je vais aller au café. Tu veux venir avec moi?” Her subtitles read, “I’m going to a cafe. Do you want to go with me?”

He emphatically replied, “Mais oui!” His subtitles read, “Yes, of course!”

As the young man and Cally leave the class together, Joseph pointed out to Ethan, “She asked a guy out. Sounds like she got out of her shyness!”

Ethan was flabbergasted by this development, but he wouldn’t admit defeat. “Hold on. Let’s see how well she does on this supposed date.”

They followed Cally and her date to a small bistro down the street from the college. The young man and Cally sat outside and studied a menu. Joseph sat down and lounged casually but Ethan watched them anxiously. Her date asked, “Qu’est-ce que tu veux manger?” His subtitles read, “What do you want to eat?”

Cally decided, “Un croissant et des thé.” Her subtitles read, “A croissant and some tea.”

The man laughed, “C’est toût?” His subtitles read, “That’s all?”

Cally replied, “Oui. Qu’est-ce que tu vas manger?” Her subtitles read, “Yes. What are you

going to eat?”

He told her, “Je pense que je vais manger un sandwich et un chocolât.” His subtitles read, “I think I’m going to eat a sandwich and some hot chocolate.” He motioned to the waiter. “S’il vous plaît, Monsieur!” His subtitles read: “Please, sir!”

The waiter promptly came to their table and asked, “Vous desirèz?” His subtitles read, “What would you like?”

As Jean repeated their food choices they just made, Joseph nudged Ethan. Ethan responded, “What? I’m trying to read!”

With a hint of mischievousness, he replied, “Just checking on you.” Ethan groaned and returned to reading their subtitles.

The waiter brought Cally and Jean their food, and as they happily munched, Cally inquired, “Qu’est-ce que tu faire avec ton vie?” Her subtitles read, “What do you want to do with your life?”

Her date answered, “Je suis acteur.” His subtitles read, “I’m an actor.”

Cally replied honestly, “Ah bon? C’est cool.” Her subtitles read, “Oh really? That’s cool.”

The young man asked, “Et toi?” His subtitles read, “And you?”

Cally told him, “Je veux être employée de bureau. C’est quoi mon frère a fait.” Her subtitles read, “I want to be an office worker. It’s what my brother did.”

He responded, “Qu’est-ce qu’il fait maintenant?” His subtitles read, “What does he do now?”

Cally revealed, “Il est mort.” Her subtitles read, “He is dead.”

Her date said sadly, “Je suis très desolé!” His subtitles read, “I’m so sorry!”

Cally didn’t seem upset by this. “Ne suis pas. C’est parce que de lui je suis ici.” Her subtitles read, “Not me. It’s because of him I’m here.” She paused for a moment, and then she confessed, “J’aime toi beaucoup!” Her subtitles read, “I like you a lot!”

This made the young man smile broadly. “J’aime toi aussi. Est-ce que tu es ma copine?” His subtitles read, “I like you too. Will you be my girlfriend?”

Cally gushed, “Oui, bien sûr!” Her subtitles read, “Yes, of course! Cally stood up and leaned close to her date, giving him a kiss. He gladly kissed her back.

Ethan was furious, and Joseph rubbed it in, “Wow, not only is she not shy, but she’s gutsy! She made the first move!”

“She’s using my death as a way to pick up men!” Ethan scathed. “Well, I guess she’s okay with my death too!”

“Ready to give up yet?” Joseph grinned and stared expectantly.

Ethan retorted, “No! Let’s go to my old work. They’ll miss me for sure! I just hope they didn’t move the company to somewhere that requires more subtitles!” Slightly disappointed, Joseph dully snaps his fingers, and they disappeared again.

Joseph and Ethan reappeared in a row of cubicles, and it was apparent that the office was in the middle of a huge party. People were dancing, drinking cocktails, laughing, and conversing animatedly. They wore much more formal attire than usual with the exception of nametag stickers. Joseph remarked, “Sure doesn’t look like they’re depressed!”

Ethan’s face fell. “We’ve never had an office party before! What’s going on?”

At that moment, the best dressed man there, Gregory, turned off the music. Everyone paid attention as he prepared to speak. “I just wanted to take a moment to remind you all why we’re here and we’re celebrating today. Exactly one year ago we lost a brave hero. Ethan Miller died tragically. He was certainly an asset in his life, but he proves to be an even greater influence through his death. His actions have inspired us to be the company we are today. Profits have soared higher than ever, thanksto his philosophy! So, let’s all have a toast!” He raised a champagne glass over his head. “To Ethan!”

The rest of the office raised their drinks and toasted, “To Ethan!” Gregory turned on the music back on, and everyone resumed the party. Ethan told Joseph, “Don’t even ask. I’m not ready yet. Just because the company doesn’t miss me and is more profitable than ever since I died doesn’t mean my coworkers don’t miss me.” Joseph looked skeptical but said nothing. He let Ethan listen to his coworkers chat.

A man named John commented, “I hope this party makes Ethan proud!”

“You know it does!” Gabriel replied.

A younger man named Paul inquired, “Didn’t I replace him?”

“You didn’t replace him. No one could replace what he did,” a woman named Esther put in. For a moment, Ethan got his hopes up, but then she went on, “ But essentially you took over his duties when he was gone.”

Gabriel told Paul, “You were the only one that was not intimidated by taking his old cubicle. No one thought they could fill his shoes. Lucky you did! The company is doing so well now!”

“Thanks guys!” Paul swelled with pride upon hearing this. “Hey, John! Isn’t that the girl you like over there?”

John noticeably blushed, “No!”

“Yes it is!” Esther almost shrieked with delight. “Look at Sarah standing by herself. Go ask her to dance!”

“Oh, I couldn’t!” John dismissed the idea passively. Everyone could tell he really wanted to go for it.

Gabriel urged John, “Do it dude! Or someone else will!” Although he didn’t want Gabriel to flirt with Sarah, he was still really nervous. The others kept encouraging John to go ask Sarah to dance. He hesitated, but eventually they convinced him to go for it. They watched him from a distance. When she said yes, and they all cheered. As John danced with Sarah, the group changed subjects and talked about their favorite cocktails.

Ethan looked absolutely crestfallen. Joseph put his arm around either and leveled with him, “Your fiancee moved on. Your parents are doing well. Your sister turned out fine. Your coworkers are flourishing. Is there anyone else you want to see, or can we finally go back to Heaven’s Headquarters?”

Ethan inwardly knew that he was losing this argument, but he refused to believe the whole world had moved on without him. He didn’t want to die, so he decided to fight for his life. “I’m not a quitter! Someone in this town must miss me!” Joseph groaned but snapped his fingers to take them away anyways.

Joseph and Ethan popped inside a pub where they see a group of Ethan’s friends toasting to a victory with cocktails. Ethan folded his arms in annoyance. Joseph snapped his fingers and they disappeared.

Ethan stood outside in his old neighborhood. He noted, “I see someone bought my house!” He watched a mother load her infant into a car in the driveway where he used to live. The mother waved hello to the across the street neighbor, who was dressed in a suit and obviously leaving for work. One of his next door neighbors was working on a garden while the other watered his lawn. Ethan walked down the street and saw everyone getting ready for their day. They all seemed so untroubled, which made Ethan pout. Joseph snapped his fingers and they disappeared again.

Next, Ethan and Joseph watched his dentist smiling while working on a patient. Joseph shook his head and snapped his fingers to make them disappear.

After that, Ethan walked down a street that was full of shops and restaurants, listening to several conversations. When he realized no one was talking about him and everyone seemed to be in a pleasant mood, Ethan shook his head despondently. Joseph snapped his fingers to make them disappear.

Ethan then watched as travelers at the airport. People went to baggage claim, headed towards their gates, got food and drinks at a nearby coffee stand, and waited for their friends and loved ones on vacant seats. He desperately listened, truly hoping to hear one person mention him. Finally, one traveler asked another, “Did you hear about Ethan?” Ethan looks hopeful. When the traveler said he hadn’t, the first traveler revealed, “He’s directing a new movie in L.A.” Ethan was heartbroken to hear this. Joseph snapped his fingers to make them disappear.

This time, Ethan watched as the mayor gave a speech about public safety. The crowd appeared enthused. Joseph looked at Ethan, who is walked away from the scene with his head down. Joseph quickly followed him.

Joseph caught up with Ethan at a graveyard and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Sniffling a little, Ethan admitted, “I get it. I guess no one misses me.”

“That’s not true!” Joseph disputed.

Before Joseph could say more, Ethan ranted, “Clearly the world is better off with me not in it!”

“Don’t say that!” Joseph reacted with complete sympathy but genuinely disagreed with him.

Ethan argued, “It’s true! If it’s not true, then you wouldn’t have shown me all this!”

Joseph assured him, “You were missed! But you needed to die! I can’t tell you why!”

Ethan didn’t believe him. “Whatever. Maybe Heaven can cheer me up.”

Joseph gently asked, “You ready to go?”

“Can I have a minute?” Ethan requested.

“Of course,” Joseph relented. A cell phone in Joseph’s pocket rang, and Joseph exclaimed, “Hey, it’s J.C.!”

“Who?” Ethan’s curiosity perked up even though he was severely depressed.

“The Big Guy’s son.” Joseph answered the call. “Hey!” He paused while J.C. spoke, and then he reported, “Yes, we’re almost done. How’s the party? George Washington did what?” As Joseph talked on the phone, Ethan gazed forlornly at the graveyard. Suddenly, something caught his eye. He can’t explain why, but he was compelled to look at a statue with a huge angel on it. He ran over to it. Joseph kept chatting, not noticing that Ethan was reading the epitaph on the grave he was drawn to. “Sounds like a great party!” He paused again when J.C. asked him something. “Yeah. I’m watching Ethan! What do you mean, where is he? He’s in the graveyard and…oh shi-! Shoot!”

It was too late. Ethan read, “Here lies Ethan Jacob Miller, who sacrificed his body to save his sister’s life. Even in death, he encourages his loved ones to live life to the fullest. God rest this brave soul!” Ethan closes his eyes, remembering.

His memory flash-backed to Cally and Ethan coming out of a restaurant, laughing and conversing pleasantly. As they strolled down the street, a man came up from behind them with a gun and pushed them into a nearby alley. Ethan and Cally are pushed to the ground by the gunman. They stand up and face him. The gunman growled, “Hand over all your money!” Ethan handed over his wallet, but Cally did not move The gun man ordered, “Gimme your money too, you dumb girl!

Frantic, Cally sputtered, “I don’t have any money, so I didn’t bring my purse! I don’t have anything!”

The robber directed, “Give me your jewelry then!”

Tears forming, Cally cried, “I don’t have any jewelry!”

“Ugh! Quit playing me, bitch!” the mugger was losing his patience.

“I don’t have anything, honest!” Cally was now in tears. The gunman let out a roar of frustration. He aimed his gun at Cally and fired. Cally winced, expecting to get hit. Ethan threw his body in front of her and took the bullet! The weight of Ethan’s body knocked Cally to the ground. Cally howled, “Ethan!”

Someone on the street yelled, “Was that a gun? Call nine one one!”

The robber ran off as witnesses poured in to see what happened. Cally turned Ethan’s body around to face her. She looked at his wound in horror and is horrified to see Ethan’s labored breathing. Cally pleaded, “No! Ethan! Don’t die! You’re gonna make it! Hang on!”

In betwenn breaths, Ethan told her, “There are some things worth dying for! I don’t want anyone to be sad for me. They’ll show me they care by having fun and achieving their potential. Tell Diana not to become an old maid! Tell Dad to quit drinking and get ahead at work! Tell everyone we know to live life to the fullest! Cally, you’ll be getting a lot of money. Use it to go to school in France like you’ve always dreamed of! Don’t cry! It’s my time! I love you, sister! Tell everyone!”

Ethan stopped breathing just as the paramedics came. As they put his body on the gurney, through thick tears, Cally swore, “I’ll tell everyone! I promise!” She cried hysterically as the paramedics took her older brother away.

Back in the graveyard, Joseph came running up to Ethan, who was in tears. Joseph asked, “Are you okay?”

Ethan nodded and wiped away some of his tears so he could speak. “You were right, I needed to die! Everyone moving on was honoring my last wishes! I inspired them! I wouldn’t change a thing!”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Joseph inquired, “Ready to go now?”

Ethan stated firmly, “Yes.” Joseph was about to snap his fingers, but Ethan stopped him. “Wait! I got an idea.”

Ethan took over the empty reception desk at the entrance to Hell. He used his office phone to call the Big Guy. Ethan conversed,“Whew! What a busy morning! A group of Somali pirates’ boat went down, that’s a lot of paperwork! No really, I’m loving this! I get a lot of satisfaction sending evil people where they deserve to go! Oh, someone is coming, gotta go! Thanks again for everything, Big Guy!” Ethan hung up the phone and waited expectantly. A portal appeared and spat out the gunman who murdered him! Ethan smiled triumphantly at him. “Ah, Mister Gun Man! Thought you could out gun the SWAT team, huh? Wow, you’re a lot more evil than just murdering me! Please go straight to Area 666!” Ethan pulled a lever and flung him away. He then put up his feet and sighed happily.

 

 

 

 

 

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 8

The officers fell silent after Gwynivara announced her idea. She had expected this reaction. After a reckless mission in a high risk zone, she would’ve been surprised if anyone expressed any enthusiasm for this idea. Finally, Bernadette spoke up, “How are we going to find them?”

“When we patrol,” Gwynivara explained. “We would still need to keep an eye out for signs of Venenatus Sanguis and help when needed, but we need to pay attention to the others who respond to it. If they’re not horrified by the results, they may be a part of the origin.”

Kennith objected, “Our protocol is to leave before the police arrive to avoid capture!”

Gwynivara was about to argue, but Kierram did instead, “Protocol can change! Especially when the police could be working for the enemy.”

One officer objected, “That’s too dangerous!”

Emorick scowled at this remark. “Do the rest of you agree with Blake? You don’t wanna do something so dangerous?” Everyone but Gwynivara, Kierram, and Bernadette murmured in agreement. “So, what is training to you? A chance to learn skills you can use to show off and pick up chicks?” The murmur morphed from accord to shame. “I didn’t make you officers so you can act like you got a bigger cock than everyone else! We’re here to fight for the cure! Yes, we have a battle coming, and you’re too scared to do some surveillance work?” The room fell quiet as if everyone were holding their breath. “God, what would you do if I wasn’t around? Hide with your tails between your legs? Sooner or later, we’re all gonna face danger, and you’re here to make sure you’re ready when it does! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir!” Everyone said, though not in unison.

Emorick shook his head with a mix of bubbling anger and blatant disgust. He ordered, “I’m gonna pair you all up and stagger your release. Before you leave, grab a camera and take a picture of anything abnormal. Wear disguises too! Oh, and if something happens to me, Gwynivara is in charge!”

He stormed out. Everyone turned to Gwynivara, who looked utterly dumbstruck. It sounded like he just made her his successor! The idea of it seemed too incredible to be true! It would be so much responsibility! The fate of hundreds of people would rest in her hands! Actually, if this disease kept spreading, the future of the entire planet could rest with her! It happened so fast that her head was spinning! It was kind of a scary prospect, but she definitely felt honored.

Walking down the hall of shops with Bernadette, Gwynivara couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. She conversed, “I should’ve said no. Everyone hates me now!”

Bernadette differed, “They don’t hate you! They’re just jealous! After Kierram refused the job, Emorick told us he’d observe us and pick one of us when we proved ourselves worthy of the title.”

“No wonder they’re mad!” Gwynivara remarked. “I practically just got here, and he gave me the title! Do you think he’s bluffing?”

“You mean like he just made you lieutenant just to get under their skin and he’ll take it back when they behave?” Bernadette inquired.

“Yeah,” Gwynivara replied. “I mean, he did say it out of anger.”

Bernadette shrugged. “It’s possible. Look, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Just be prepared if he names someone else as next in line. Until then, be prepared to step up if needed. If it makes you feel better, I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Thanks!” Gwynivara grinned.

“And it doesn’t look like Kierram did either,” Bernadette added. “which is weird ‘cause normally he objects to everything! And Emorick has tried everything to snap his attitude into shape! What did you say to Kierram, exactly?”

“I didn’t say anything!” Gwynivara reported. “He told me yesterday he likes my missions.”

Bernadette slyly joked, “You do have nice ‘missions!’”

Gwynivara covered her chest but laughed, “It’s not like that!”

“You don’t know that!” Bernadette winked.

“Oh please!” Gwynivara completely denied the notion. “He doesn’t-!”

The heard a shrill scream coming from the clothing shop, so they immediately ran to it. They found Niqun kneeling over Riley, who laid on the floor in a pool of blood! On the wall, a scorpion-like monster snarled at them! Niqun, who was applying pressure to Riley’s neck, shouted, “I can’t let go or he’ll bleed out!”

As the creature crept closer to them, Gwynivara turned to Bernadette and rapidly asked, “Did you bring any weapons?”

Bernadette quickly answered, “We are a weapon!”

The beast got close, and in unison, Bernadette and Gwynivara thought fast. In unison, they cried out, “One, two, three!” They each conjured a ball of light and threw it at the fiend, who shrieked one last time before it exploded. Everyone who witnessed this clapped and cheered for them, but they didn’t soak it in much. They ran to Niqun and Riley, and Bernadette questioned, “Is he gonna be okay?”

Niqun replied, “He’ll be okay. We can treat his wound here. Someone get my kit!”

One of the people in the crowd ran to get it, and Gwynivara stared at Riley’s pale face in horror. “He conjured a beast? He didn’t seem so miserable!”

Bernadette sagely commented, “Well, you never really know what’s going on inside someone’s head.”

“True!” Gwynivara watched Niqun administer medical attention to Riley and shuddered. “I can’t think about this! I won’t get through this mission if I do!”

“Come on,” Bernadette suggested. “Let’s grab disguises and go before anything changes!” They found a couple of uniforms on top of the mess left in the shops and, turning back to get one last helpless glance at Riley, they darted out and set out on their mission.

Gwynivara and Bernadette walked down the sidewalk with maid costumes on their bodies and somber looks on their faces as they scanned the minimalist traditional, nineteen-fifties houses. “He’ll be okay.” Gwynivara meant to assure Bernadette, but inwardly, she knew she was talking to herself too.

“Yeah…” Bernadette responded sadly. “I hate it when…the kids color on the wall! Crayons are so hard to wash off!” A couple of women walked by with their kids, so Gwynivara figured that she had to improvise to keep their cover. Bernadette whispered, “We can’t talk about that anymore!”

“Right!” Gwynivara tried not to and concentrated harder on the mission so she wouldn’t think about it. At that moment, it began to rain, which prompted them to stop for a moment. Gwynivara glanced down at their uniforms and remarked, “Good thing the colors don’t run!”

Slightly miffed, Bernadette pondered, “Should we take cover ‘til it stops?”

“No.” Gwynivara eyed the houses in the vicinity. “There really isn’t anywhere to-” Gwynivara spotted something that sent chills down her spine. Bernadette looked to Gwynivara for an explanation, but all Gwynivara could do was point. Bernadette turned her head to the direction she indicated, and her eyes widened in horror.

At a white house, by the basement entrance, the words “Not There” were written in blood! Gwynivara snapped a picture and then ran over to it. Bernadette cried, “Wait!” She caught up to her and exclaimed, “We don’t have permission to go into this house!”

“They may not be alive long enough to give us permission!” Gwynivara zipped down the cellar stairs and peered into the window on the door. Bernadette reluctantly joined her, and when they peeked into the house, they saw a man laid sprawled on the washer and dryer with a huge, bloody hole in his chest! Their jaws dropped at the pool of blood dripping onto the floor. Gwynivara took a deep breath and then declared, “We’ve gotta call the police!”

“Are you crazy?” Bernadette hissed as Gwynivara jammed the door open. “We can’t put ourselves in a position to get arrested or the mission will fail!”

Gwynivara reasoned, “No one knows this man is dead! If they’re gonna catch his killer, the police need to know right away!” Gwynviara slowly opened the door and prepared to step in.

Bernadette pulled her back. “What if it’s Venenatus Sanguis? Calling the police wouldn’t do any good!”

Gwynivara considered this for a moment, and she came up with, “If we don’t see any monsters, we’ll call the police and report the murder anonymously. Afterward, we’ll hide from the police and document them like we originally planned. Okay, you document the crime scene while I make the call.” Despite Bernadette’s misgivings, she followed Gwynivara into the basement.

They scanned the entire room for movement as they entered the room. They tiptoed and kept an ear out for any signs of danger. All they could hear was an echoing drip. Once they gave it ample time, they silently determined that there was not likely any beasts around. Gwynivara said quietly, “I don’t see a phone down here. You take pictures while I go upstairs.”

“Be quick!” Bernadette barked because of her shaking nerves. She began taking pictures immediately, and she felt it necessary to get multiple shots from the same angle since she was trembling. She heard Gwynivara talking upstairs, and she muttered, “Please hurry!” under her breath.

She heard Gwynivara slam the receiver down, and she breathed, “Oh good!” As she heard Gwynivara’s footsteps head back, she heard a very different sound coming from the other entrance. She turned to see a wolverine-like creature lick his lips while it stared at her! She gasped, but before she could arm herself to fight it, she noticed something strange about it…Before she could fully comprehend its meaning, she felt something on her back that made her scream!

Sabotage, Chapter 18

“Whooooo-hooooo!” Zartex cried out in jubilee as the dragon roller coaster cascaded down the tracks. He appeared to be more animated about the experience than the kids that were also on the ride, which the park manager was quick to notice. Carmen simply explained, “He’s European.” The park manager seemed to take that as a justifiable explanation and walked away.

As he walked away, Garith slipped a newspaper in his tool belt. Garith told Carmen, “That was my last one. They’re all out!”

“Great!” Carmen responded listlessly. She joined the crowd of parents watching the roller coaster to watch Zartex enjoying himself. All the newspapers were out. The bombshell information about Mirage now could be seen by people outside the cult. Their secrets were now out, which is what Carmen had been waiting to do for a long time. And yet, now that this moment was here, she actually felt pretty depressed.

Garith seemed to notice this and joined her in watching the ride. “It’s not exactly happily ever after, is it?”

“I guess I was hoping that once the article got out that people would get outraged by the truth and that Mirage would go down immediately. It would set me free from sneaking around and I wouldn’t have to survive assassination attempts anymore. But people aren’t reading it. I know they gotta look after their kids, but not one person has read it! So, that means we gotta keep living like criminal nomads for a little longer. Or a lot longer, who knows! I just wanted this nightmare to end!” Carmen sighed.

Garith assured her, “These things take time. At some point on our way back to the Bay Area, the right person will read the article and spread the news. It doesn’t end here, trust me!” He pat her back, which made her feel a little better. She couldn’t shake the surge of disappointment, but it was nice to have someone who had faith in her.

Zartex surfaced by them with an exhilarated expression and slightly staggered walk. “I’m a little dizzy and a little nauseous, but I would do it again in a heartbeat! These machines are awesome!”

“So, now what?” Carmen asked.

“How about the teacups?” Zartex suggested.

Garith pointed out to him, “I think she meant travel-wise. Besides, you were lucky enough finding one ticket, good luck finding three more!” Zartex took him literally and began to search the grounds. Garith talked to Carmen, “We don’t have much money left, but I do remember that there’s a charter bus that goes to San Francisco for a discount. If we leave at six a.m., our tickets would only be a dollar. I think people would be too groggy that early in the morning to pay to us. What do you think?”

“I think I would pick a green teacup,” Zartex remarked.

Carmen noted, “We’ll have to spend the night here again. But yes, I think you have a good idea. I don’t feel much like walking long distances again! Once we get there, I could take the BART to…wait, I don’t have any money. I could borrow a phone to call my dad to come get me. Oh, but they’re probably monitoring his phone calls. I don’t know! Ugh!”

Garith put his hand on her arm, “You’ll figure it out. You always do.”

Carmen smiled. Even though she didn’t quite believe it, she found comfort not necessarily in his words but for the fact that he really cared. Before she could respond, Zartex showed them something. “Hey guys! I found three tickets! Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah…” Garith and Carmen said unison.

Zartex didn’t catch their tone and grabbed their hands. “Yes, let’s go!” Zartex dragged them towards the teacup ride. “Garith, I thought you wanted to have more fun?”

“You know what sounds fun right now?” Garith responded, “A stiff drink!”

As they stood in line, Carmen inquired to Zartex, “You steal these tickets, did you?”

Zartex handed them each a ticket and revealed, “Of course not! I found them in a puddle!” As soon as it hit their hands, they felt the wetness of the paper and grimaced.

Jayesh Chakrabarti brought up the last of their belongings from their day trip to their apartment. He took a deep breath to decompress from all of the exercise he just did. For a moment, everything was peaceful. Suddenly, a teapot whistled and his toddler came out of the kitchen, bawling. His wife, carrying their six month old, chased after the screaming child. “Oh good, you’re finished! Change his diaper!” She handed the baby to him.

Jayesh groaned, “Sweetheart, can’t I rest a moment?”

“Do I get to rest? she snapped. “It’s hard enough to cook dinner with a child who won’t-!”

“Alright, alright!” he relented. His wife gave him the stink eye but quickly got back to what she was doing before.

As Jayesh reached for a diaper on the changing table shelf, he realized that the shelf was empty. He grumbled a little and grabbed the diaper bag. After he unzipped it, he saw a map from the amusement park they were just at. He did not want to remember that chaotic experience at the moment and threw it to the ground. As he reached for a diaper, he felt a newspaper. That was strange since he typically didn’t read a newspaper let alone pack one for a family outing! He unfurled it and began to read out of sheer curiosity. Something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he dodged out of the way just in time to avoid getting sprayed by his son.

After he quickly changed his son’s diaper, he went to the third bedroom where his home office stood. He had several shelves of law books behind his desk, which had a computer and a few case files on it. He sat down and red the entire article, growing more agitated the more he read. When he finished, he set the paper down and looked up a phone number on the computer. He got on his office phone and waited for someone to pick up. When someone did pick up, he immediately jumped in, “Hi, this is attorney Jayesh Chakrabarti. We need to take immediate action against Mirage…”

“Noooo!” Lilith growled. Limping quite a bit, she hobbled over to Seth, who was asleep at his desk. She shook him, but he did not budge. She turned on the light, revealing his decadent space with ebony walls, tabriz carpet, oil paintings, a marble fountain, and yew desk. As he groggily sat up, she turned her laptop towards him. “They got the article out!”

Rubbing his eyes, Seth told her, “So? Just delete the article from whatever site they published it on. It’s not like the first time someone has tried that.”

“The article isn’t online,” she informed him, growing more and more angry by the minute. “Our tech caught an email conversation between a lawyer and a government official! They want to find Carmen and this reporter so they can testify against us! How do we stop them?”

Seth, finally awake, read everything on her screen and concluded, “Their article isn’t a nail in the coffin. They want to talk to get more details. Well, they can’t prove anything if they don’t have their witnesses! We’ll have to get to them first.”

Lilith thought for a moment. “If they didn’t publish their article online or on television, they must have distributed it on paper. So, this lawyer must have visited wherever they are hiding! I’ll have our tech look at his credit and debit purchase history.”

“While you do that, I’m gonna start packing!” Seth took his gun out and cocked it.

Meanwhile, Hank couldn’t sleep. He got out of bed and started pacing. He often got inklings that Carmen was in trouble, and he did his best to figure out where she was. He turned on his newly purchased police scanner and opened up his laptop. He searched crime news from various stations in Northern California. Orlando jumped onto the bed and rubbed his head on the police scanner. Keeping his eye on the screen, he spoke to the cat, “I haven’t seen any articles about spotting her. I lost track of her after she left Reno. I know she was in Reno ’cause a man named Teddy got attacked by a bear. That isn’t a coincidence! But where is she now?” Orlando began meowing, but Hank ignored him. “I just need some clue or sign where she might be!” He couldn’t ignore Orlando’s meows anymore and snapped, “What?”

When he turned to the cat, he noticed the police radio next to him. That’s when he heard an officer report, “That’s a negative. Truck was clear. Suspects are likely still in Sacramento.” Orlando was now silent but stared at him expectantly.

“How did you…? Oh, whatever!” Hank bolted out of bed and grabbed his jacket as he ran out the door.

Carmen opened her eyes, but she had not slept. She feigned sleep for the sake of normalcy, but she couldn’t relax. Something about this part of the journey made her incredibly nervous. She reasoned that perhaps it stemmed from the increase in police presence. She felt like a mouse getting chased by a cat; the moment she got caught, her life was over. “You could just get a lawyer,” Garith suggested.

Carmen jumped slightly. She thought she was alone in not being able to sleep. “Can you read my mind?”

Garith chuckled, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you’re thinking. You’re innocent. How can they convict you?”

“Because Mirage executives are professional liars!” Carmen told him. “Besides, do you think that they would get a conviction out of me and leave it at that? There’s nothing to prevent me from talking in prison. And I’m willing to bet they have connections on the inside. No, they didn’t involve the police to put me away. They used them to make it more difficult to get away from Mirage! They used them to trap me.” The thought hadn’t occurred to her until now, and it completely creeped her out.

“They also probably wanted to discredit her,” Zartex chimed in. At that moment, a notification sounded on his watch. He viewed it and frowned, “Uh, guys…”

“We know, it’s time for us to go,” Garith responded. He hopped out of their hiding spot and began to help Carmen down.

“Well, it’s time for you to go,” Zartex said sadly, “I’ll be going home in a few hours.”

“What?” Carmen and Garith replied in unison. Out of shock, Garith stood still, and Carmen was so stunned that she didn’t realize she was dangling off the pergola.

“No!” Garith lamented. “You gotta leave the planet today?”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Carmen asked ruefully. Her arms began to feel sore. “Uh, a little help?”

As Garith’s attention snapped to her, Zartex also climbed down and explained, “I requested an extension, and since my subject was in mortal peril, I really thought they would grant it. I got denied, so they’re going to beam me back today.”

“Wow, this really sucks,” Carmen said forlornly.

“We’ll miss you!” Garith remarked. “I can’t imagine going on without you!”

“Guys,” Zartex related to them, “I still have a little while. It’s not time to say goodbye yet!”

“I disagree!” Seth seethed. With the utmost horror, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith turned to see Seth, Lilith, Elden, Jorden, and Arius all smirking as one does when they catch their prey. Seth cocked his gun.

Sabotage, Chapter 15

“I can’t believe it’s finished!” Carmen exclaimed as they walked down a rustic neighborhood lane with historic shops that still got used in modern times. They still, technically, were in Reno, but as they headed closer to the mountains, the area began to look more like a small town. Actually, Carmen got a small town vibe from the way everyone stared at them-incredulously as if they didn’t understand what was happening. Everyone probably knew everyone, and, more than likely, the three of them would be the source of gossip around here. Luckily, they just needed to get provisions for the night. In the morning, they would take a charter bus to Roseville, California. As long as this journey felt, it also felt like it went by so fast! They just had to survive a night in Reno, then Sacramento, and then they’d be back in the Bay Area! She didn’t let herself get too hopeful yet though-a lot could happen between now and then!

Garith seemed to share her sentiments. “I’m glad we finished the article! It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was just soliciting people involved with Mirage. I began to give up hope that I would ever get to do this story. The last step will be the hardest though. Nowadays, it isn’t easy to publish anything without electronics.”

“I like this place!” Zartex randomly commented. “It reminds me of a town I was assigned to years ago! I didn’t get to stay there long enough to stay long though because my subject died of cholera.”

“Cholera?” Garith questioned. “How old are you?”

Before Zartex could reply, they heard a man cry out, “Yep, I think we found an alien!”

The three of them froze immediately. They turned to see a scruffy man whose scraggly appearance could have fit in naturally as a scalawag in the Old West. He marched over with a slight limp and ogled them blatantly. Carmen spent so much time worrying about someone turning them into the police that she forgot that Zartex’s true identity could be detrimental if revealed. Zartex stammered, “What? Me? You’re quite mistaken!”

“Not you!” He pointed to Carmen, whose heart skipped a beat from shock. She couldn’t believe that he thought she was extraterrestrial! She thought he was utterly mad and was ready to dismiss him until he probed, “Do you have your papers?”

Carmen’s temper flared up. It seldom came up anymore, but occasionally people discriminated against her for being biracial or for her Hispanic heritage. It incensed her! She firmly believed in not judging people based on their ethnicity but their actions and character, and she grew very defensive to see discrimination against her family or anyone else. It didn’t make it easier when it happened to her though. She seethed, “I am a citizen! I was born here!”

“I wasn’t!” Zartex jumped in.

The man ignored him and focused on Carmen. “You’re legal, fine. Prove it!”

Carmen’s blood began to boil. Before she could let her steam out on him, Garith stepped in, “Why don’t you ask her mother, Sergeant First Class Greta Alvaro?”

“Greta? Oh, you’re white! My apologies!” He scuffled away.

Carmen still burned inside and marched towards him, but Garith stopped her. “Fools don’t listen to reason, and we can’t afford his hospital bills! Let that asshole think what he wants, he’s not worth it!” Carmen realized that he was right, but she still felt amped up. Garith directed, “Zartex, take her to our home base. I’ll grab the supplies.”

Zartex agreed, but Carmen couldn’t move. She was still fuming. “Come on, Carmen!” He physically had to steer her before she found her footing and began to recover from that emotional upheaval.

That night, Carmen and Garith laid on a cave floor while Zartex sat by the cave entrance, gazing at the expansive view. Carmen opened her eyes, too wrapped up in thought to really sleep. She still hadn’t fully absorbed everything that happened in the last couple of weeks. This all felt like a strange dream, and she wasn’t sure where it was heading. She couldn’t help but worry about what would happen in California. If they didn’t get killed by anyone in Mirage, they still could get captured by police, especially as they distributed the article. She scolded herself for being so pessimistic, but she realized that this was THE VOBS talking. She got taught to dismiss negative feelings, but that isn’t healthy for anyone, spiritually or mentally. Negative feelings should be felt! She needed to go through the motions and find a way to release the negativity. Having Zartex around during this process actually seemed to really help her because he could read her emotions and she couldn’t lie about her feelings. She found it funny that an alien had taught her how to be human again!

She decided to search deep inside herself and really delve into what she felt right now. First off, this cave floor was totally uncomfortable and the entrance let in too much light for her to sleep soundly. She was nervous about completing the journey, and she was afraid of what would happen afterwards. She felt really low. She used to feel like she was working towards a higher goal and got accepted by a higher class of people-alphas who were at the top of their game. She wanted to get to an elevated place socially so that she could build others up, but she didn’t know where to go for comfort or guidance as she took the first steps towards her new goals. She saw Garith shuffle in his sleep, which reminded her that one person had been helping her. He did benefit by having the groundbreaking exclusive on a dangerous cult, but no one had to go through all that he had. He could easily walk away-he could go back to San Francisco, beg for forgiveness, and get famous from the article, but he chose to stick around until the end. It took a really selfless person to show such loyalty! She felt a rush of admiration towards him now.

Garith peeked behind him and inquired, “Still awake?”

“No, I sleep with my eyes open,” Carmen kidded.

Garith glanced at his watch and then conversed, “A penny for your thoughts?”

“I don’t have a penny,” Carmen lamented. “I don’t have a dime to my name.” She realized the truth of these words as she said it, which made her feel a little shame. “I know money isn’t everything in our society, but you gotta have a little to be normal.”

“No you don’t,” Garith debated.

Carmen groaned, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it’s what on the inside that counts! I know I’m a good person, but it doesn’t really fill the void.”

“Actually,” Garith checked his watch again and told her, “I was gonna say a lot of people are satisfied being dependent on others for their whole life. Some kids choose to live in their parents’ house, even when they’re middle aged. Or, some women find a sugar daddy who dotes on them like a child. You chose to leave a man with money and make it on your own. You would rather be penniless than be dependent on a man you didn’t love. You are strong enough to leave a life of comfort to start over on your own! A lot of people wouldn’t have the courage that you have!” His words really heartened Carmen. It was true that she actually wanted to be independent, and that was a trait she could be proud of. And, obviously he didn’t think less of her for having no job and no place of her own. He concluded, “You got a lot of hoo-eh-vos!”

Carmen giggled, “I’ts pronounced huevos! You don’t pronounce the h in Spanish.”

Garith puzzled, “Then why did your father’s immigrant parents name their son Hank?”

Carmen reminisced, “Right before my dad was born, literally right before my grandmother went into labor, they got their green cards. A lot of people thought they couldn’t assimilate to American culture. They couldn’t even speak properly! Hank Aaron was the all-American player of the moment, so they named their son Hank. He kind of symbolized that they decided that they belong here. They didn’t let negative people show them who they should be-they took charge of their life, persevered, and made the life they wanted!”

“That’s great!” Garith fiddled with something and tried to hide it from Carmen.

Carmen caught on that he was concealing something. “You better not be doing anything nasty over there!” Garith laughed as he tried to flick on a flame to a lighter. “What on Earth are you doing?” He didn’t answer. The flame lit up, and he set it up to something. Carmen sat up as he put out the flame. “What are you-?”

The wind escaped from her lungs from total surprise. He held up a brown little cupcake with a birthday cake candle lit up on top. “Make a wish!” he invited.

“Wha…?” Carmen’s brain couldn’t comprehend what was happening right now. It felt exciting but she couldn’t totally accept that something amazing was happening right now before her eyes!

Garith showed Carmen his watch. “It’s after midnight, which means now it’s the twenty-seventh!”

“Oh my god, it’s my birthday!” Carmen gasped.

“I don’t blame you for forgetting,” Garith remarked. “It’s not much of a birthday stuck in a cold cave with none of your friends here. I know it’s not much, but…” Garith trailed off, his face looking a little crestfallen.

“Are you kidding?” Carmen’s heart practically exploded from mirth. “This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me!”

“Really?” He perked up.

“Given our circumstances, it’s a treasure! I’ve had years of half-baked gestures that had no thoughts behind them, but this…this!” Carmen started to tear up. No one had ever done anything so sweet! She could still hardly believe that it happened. She closed her eyes an thought of a wish. She decided to wish for more moments like this in the future. She opened her eyes and blew out the candle. He took out the candle and handed her the cupcake. She felt herself smile. Literally, she had to put her hands on her mouth to see that it was true. She couldn’t remember the last time anything made her genuinely grin from ear to ear! Garith beamed warmly. Words couldn’t express how much it meant to Carmen to have someone actually and honestly care about her like this! She flung her arms around him and hugged him tight. He hugged back very willingly. They lingered for a moment, and Carmen felt as if her heart radiated with light. She realized that she didn’t want to let go! How strang it was to have such a feeling!

All of a sudden, Zartex ran up and scooped them both up. Utterly bewildered, they looked to him for clarification. “Sorry guys, we have company!” They assumed that he meant an assassin or a police officer, but they heard large footsteps and growling. They screamed, which alerted the bear to their presence! Zartex raced to the back of the cave, where there was an opening in the ceiling. “Meet you outside!” He tossed up Carmen then Garith and then he used his teleportation device to beam himself out, leaving the bear totally confused.

In the morning, by a small creek, a figure found Zartex, Carmen, and Garith huddled together, asleep. The figure pulled out a gun and used it to poke Carmen awake. She opened her eyes and gasped, which woke up the other two. They jolted up out of fright. Carmen probed, “Teddy?”

Teddy, who kept his gun pointed at them, greeted her coldly, “Hello, darling.”

This is Teddy?” Garith surveyed him in disgust. Carmen thought she detected a hint of jealousy, but the situation warranted no time to acknowledge it.

“I’ve got a job to do,” he stated firmly.

“So, kill us and get it over with, ” Carmen dared him.

“He won’t kill us,” Zartex remarked. “If he wanted to, he would’ve done it when we were unconscious.”

“You’re right,” Teddy acknowledged. “They want me to, but I can’t! I miss you, Carmen. Come back with me! I’ll protect you. We could have a nice life together.”

Carmen stood up and enspeeched, “Teddy, I don’t love you. It took me a while to realize…I never did! I’m a new person now. Even though the circumstances suck big time, I’m glad that I left my old life behind. I can finally be myself again! I can never go back. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I don’t belong in your world. Sorry, but I have to be true to myself.”

Teddy obviously tried to hide his hurt at her rejection. “Where are you going?”

“To the girl I was the night before Mirage found me,” she replied.

“I’ll figure it out.” He looked around and observed, “You left your stuff somewhere.”

“It’s in that cave.” She tried to warn him, “Don’t go in there!”

“I’m going!” he defied her. “I can’t bring myself to kill you, but I can at least get that article for Mirage!”

As he started scale the ridge the cave was on, Carmen shouted at him, “The article isn’t in there!”

“You’re hiding something there!” Teddy said defiantly.

Zartex yelled, “Yeah, a bear!”

“Yeah right!” He ignored their warnings and cries to stop as he entered the cave. After a moment, they heard him scream.

Carmen immediately sprinted towards the village. Garith caught up with her. “What are you doing?”

“I may not like him, but nothing he’s done deserves him the death penalty!” she exclaimed.

They got back to the shops and ran into the same man that accosted them before. “Help!” Carmen cried out. “There’s a man getting attacked by a bear!”

The man sprang into action. “Ya hear that, boys? Gear up!” A few men came out with rifles.

“You’re not calling the police?” Garith asked.

The man answered, “Listen, it’ll take twenty minutes for the police to come to our neck of the woods. If y’all really wanna see results, always go with a bunch of rednecks with guns!” They hollered to bolster their spirits and ran into the woods.

Carmen stood there looking very shocked. Garith tapped her shoulders. “Teddy has a whole posse to look after him. We have a bus to catch!” She still felt surreal about running into her ex, but she knew Garith was probably right about the townsmen protecting him. Either way, she did all that she could. She very willingly walked off with Garith and Zartex.