“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.