Sabotage, Chapter 16

With tears rolling down his cheek, Seth made a plea to a reporter, “She killed my buddy in cold blood, and she didn’t stop there! She humiliated our Western Regional Manager in public and framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. She got a vicious dog to attack our vice president. Our head of security is still missing. Our accountant got attacked by a bear. Our recovery agents have lost their minds. I knew she’s after me next! Please, find her before she destroys everyone I hold dear!”

The reporter put up Carmen’s picture alongside Garith’s, who got listed as an accomplice. Peering into the shop window, Carmen’s face turned to pure disgust. “That miserable f-!”

Garith interrupted her by putting his hand over her mouth. Some people stared curiously, so he casually waved them off, “She has Tourette’s Syndrome. Please, don’t stare! She just wants to be like everybody else!” People seemed to accept his explanation and went along their way down the row of vintage, downtown shops. Garith continued to muffle Carmen as he whispered, “He’s a liar, a murderer, and a horrible human being. I’m mad too, but we have to lay low since he’s framing us for his crimes! So please, hold onto your anger until we’re safe!”

Carmen pushed his hand off her mouth and hissed, “He tried to kill me! I defended myself and now I’m getting punished for surviving?”

Before Garith could calm her vexed nerves, a woman proclaimed, “Hey! You look familiar!”

A million excuses ran through Carmen’s mind, but Zartex was first to speak, “I get that a lot. People say I’m a dead ringer for Pee Wee Herman!”

The woman, who hadn’t noticed Zartex until now, realized he was right. “Oh my god, you do! Can I get a selfie?”

“A what?” Zartex replied. The woman took that as a yes and posed for a picture with him. Carmen and Garith slipped away to an alley behind them.

While they trotted through the alley behind the shops, Carmen apologized, “I’m sorry I am so emotional. I feel like such an anti-hero!”

Garith assured her, “No need to apologize for having feelings! You’re human, and you went through a horrific experience, so it’s totally normal to freak out a little. You’re stronger than I am! If I went through what you did, I’d be a big, freakin’ baby about it!” His comment made Carmen laugh, so he went on, “No, seriously! Men actl like we don’t feel anything but hungry and horny, so we stuff our feelings until eventually we blow up over something stupid like a dumb call at a football game!” Carmen laughed again, so he added, “I’m a reporter, so I’m worse! We aren’t supposed to show any emotion even when we talk about horrible stories. I’m a ticking time bomb!”

“Sounds like I’d be safer traveling with a recovery agent!” Carmen joked. Garith laughed this time, and Carmen commented, “I can’t believe it! A minute ago I was really upset. How do you do that?”

Behind them, Zartex teleported and abruptly related, “He uses humor as a defense mechanism.” Carmen and Garith turned to him, and Zartex inquired, “So, how do we get to Sacramento from Roseville?”

Carmen thought out loud, “Well, originally we were gonna take the train, but it’s probably not safe to do that. The city bus is gonna be crowded too. We could take the back roads and alleyways to a point, but eventually, we would walk right into a people-filled area. I don’t know! There’s gotta be a way! Don’t worry, it’ll hit me!”

Immediately, after she said that, she crashed into a business truck! A man poked his outside and yelled, “What are you doing?”

Zartex answered truthfully, “Escaping the police!”

“Very funny!” the man came out to check the damage. “No damage, good! Will you freaks scram? I’m behind on my deliveries! Damn, there better not be too much traffic going down to Fair Oaks!” The man stormed back inside.

“Where’s Fair Oaks?” Garith wondered.

Zartex used his watch to look at a map. “Oh, it’s down here by the American River.”

Carmen also peered over the map. “That river flows to Sacramento! If we went to Fair Oaks, we could get to Sacramento by boat! But…we couldn’t!”

Garith, who already climbed inside, pointed out, “He’s running late, like he’ll check!”

Carmen seemed skeptical, but when Garith reached out his hand, she felt compelled to accept. They heard the delivery driver coming back, but luckily they quickly found boxes to hide behind as he shut the back door. Before he drove off, he saw Zartex standing there and glared at him. “I live in the dumpster.” The driver rolled his eyes and took off. Zartex shrugged and used his teleporter to get out of there.

The delivery driver opened up the back door and started loading boxes onto  his dolly. After he removed a few, he saw Garith and Carmen hiding in there. “Are you freakin’ kidding me!” he reacted vehemently.

“We can explain!” Garith claimed. The man ogled him skeptically. “We’re from the union. We work undercover to see who’s paying attention to safety precautions during their runs. You left your vehicle unsecured and overweight. We’ll have to report you!”

The driver’s tuned totally changed. “Oh please, don’t turn me in! I need this job! If I don’t pay my rent, me and my kid will be out on the street!”

Carmen and Garith made eye contact and pretended to silently debate the issue. Carmen told him, “Well…we’ll let you off with a warning this time, but only because we wouldn’t wanna see a kid on the streets!”

“Oh, thank you!” The man seemed truly grateful. As they hopped out of the truck, he secured his vehicle even though the restaurant owner, who had been waiting for her delivery, came out to yell at him.

Once they were out of sight, Carmen and Garith gave each other a high five. “Good thinking!” Carmen complimented.

“I don’t even know where that came from!” Garith relished.

Zartex appeared behind them, almost making them jump, and remarked “It came from you subconscious instincts.”

“You gotta stop doing that!” Carmen admonished him.

Zartex ignored that and informed them, “I got us a boat. Don’t ask me how!”

“We know how,” Garith responded. “What are we gonna do? Call the police?”

Zartex explained, “I hid it by the river. If we go by night, no one should spot us. All we gotta do is walk a couple of blocks down Sunrise Boulevard, which is right over there!”

“A couple of blocks?” Carmen lamented. “We’re doomed!”

“After all of the walking we did, you’re afraid of a couple of blocks?” Garith probed. “It’s almost too easy! Oh, I see your point now. What do we do?”

“What choice do we have?” Carmen said sagely, “We can’t stay here. We gotta move forward. All we have to do is walk briskly and try not to look too guilty.”

As they walked down Sunset Boulevard, Garith and Carmen avoided eye contact with everyone. Zartex whispered, “Act more normal!”

Carmen quickly noted, “An alien is giving advice on being normal!”

They peeked their heads up to take a look at their surroundings. People didn’t seem to notice them much. A mother and father walked their baby in her stroller. People drove to and from their jobs. A group of teenagers hung out and goofed off with each other. Everything just seemed so normal! It just felt so unbelievable that as her world came crashing down, life still carried on. Carmen wondered if her life would ever be so ordinary. At this point in her life, she couldn’t fathom going to work that she didn’t have stress about so much. As she stared at a businessman on his cell phone driving by, she saw him crack a smile. His worst worry right now would be paying a ticket for using his cell phone while driving, a minor inconvenience that he would forget about it as soon as he saw his buddies at the office. How perfectly extraordinary it was that all this unexceptional behavior went on while this madness happened in Carmen’s universe!

The last block was the most difficult. Carmen’s heart pounded in anticipation. She tried her hardest to walk normally, but she knew that any minute something dangerous would come along. Any minute someone would jump out of the shadows and take her whole world away. The park got closer and closer. She felt faint. Danger lurked around the corner, she just knew it! She lost awareness of her surroundings. She couldn’t breathe. Instincts took over as she walked through the shadows. She  wished it would just happen already so she could get it over with. The anticipation was too much to bear!

Suddenly, she saw sunlight and took a deep breath. She found herself in front of a riverbank. It took her a minute to see a canoe hidden by brush, and she realized that she had made it safely! They didn’t get attacked or captured! Apparently, Garith thought along the same lines because Carmen heard him say, “I’m alive?”

Zartex pleasantly chuckled, “You guys got some funny looks, so I told them you just saw a scary movie. It’s kind of true. I can only imagine the images running in your heads!”

Garith and Carmen giggled nervously. It took them a moment to compose themselves. Garith asserted, “Now all we have to do is wait for the sun to set. And then find a place to hide in California’s capitol! That should be easy, right?”

Zartex was about to answer, but Carmen stopped him. “Don’t answer that.” Garith and Carmen laughed a little, starting to relax again.

As dusk loomed close, the three of them finished eating some chicken. Garith asked Zartex, “Where did you get this? I will make a trip back to Sacramento just for this!”

Zartex recalled, “It was on a picnic table by the lake. I wanted to steal the boat, so I shouted ‘Bear!’ The humans went running! I remember you guys like to eat every day, so I thought that since I’m already stealing from them, I may as well steal some more!”

Garith mused, “You should probably stop admitting to stealing so often!”

“Psh!” Zartex countered. “If I get arrested, I’ll just teleport out! The worst case scenario is my boss will lecture me about breaking the rules. Actually, she can be scary when she’s mad!” Zartex raised an eyebrow at the thought.

Carmen remarked, “You sure do move your eyebrows a lot for someone who doesn’t have any human muscles!”

Zartex retorted, “What kind of disguise would it be if I had a face that didn’t move? Besides, the human body is fun to play with!” He wiggled his eyebrows one at a time.

The three of them laughed, but Carmen shushed them shortly after. They listened for a moment, and the other two heard what she did-footsteps. They hid behind some bushes as Jorden came into the scene, surveying her surroundings with a flashlight. As she scanned everything, she spoke spitefully, “I know you’re here, Carmen! I heard your laugh! You’re here with that reporter! You guys can’t hide for long! I’m right here! I will find you!” She shined her light to where the canoe was hidden. The three had to hold their breath since Jorden had no idea how close she actually was to them. “Oh, this must be your canoe. I’ll wait.” She sat on the edge of the canoe but couldn’t resist baiting Carmen. “You really pride yourself in breaking the rules, don’t you? You’re just like your father!” Carmen felt herself get riled up but didn’t dare act on it. “Maybe we’ll just forget you and focus on him! He’s been successful at keeping secrets so far, so we can use him! And if he doesn’t cooperate, we would have no trouble getting rid of him…”

Carmen felt herself tense up with rage. Jorden was threatening her father and she couldn’t tolerate that! Jorden sat up and spoke to the river, which put her back in the position of being within inches of their hiding spot. “You wanna hide like a coward, fine! Don’t face your charges like an adult! I’m gonna call a recovery agent and tell him to go retrieve Hank! Forget giving him a job in Mirage! We’re gonna send his brown hyde back to the ass of Europe!” Without even thinking about it, Carmen stormed out of the bushes. Before Jorden had time to react, Carmen punched her in the face! Jorden fell to the ground, knocked out!

Garith emerged from the bushes and celebrated, “Yeah! Take that, you racist bitch!”

As Zartex came out, he noted, “The sun is almost down, we can probably get going.”

As they cleared the brush from the canoe, Carmen noticed that Jorden kept slipping closer and closer to the water. As they got the canoe out and began to climb in, Jorden’s head went totally underwater! “Oh no!” Carmen cried out.

As she waded through the water, Garith questioned, “Are you really gonna save someone who wants to kill you?”

“I hate her guts!” Carmen explained as she retrieved her. “But I’m not about to stoop to their level and be responsible for a loss of life!” She got her back onto the land, and as Zartex and Garith rowed to the bank, Carmen pushed down on Jorden’s chest to give her CPR. Finally, Jorden coughed up water, and as she came to, the other two grabbed Carmen. The three of them rowed out of sight before Jorden realized what was going on.

As they rowed down the shadowy river, Garith complimented Carmen, “You’re a better person than me!”

Carmen grinned, “Thanks!” She felt herself blush and was really glad it was so dark! She changed the subject, “How are we going to get away with this?”

Garith replied, “With dumb luck, just like every other part of the journey!”

The three of them laughed together as they rowed down through the shadows.

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Sabotage, Chapter 12

“What did they do to you?” Seth peered at the scruffy recovery agent, who had googly eyes and, even though he sat in a chair, he swayed to music that no one could hear.

Lilith observed, “Here’s trying to speak!”

Seth, Lilith, Arius, and Elden all leaned in and listened carefully. The recovery agent indeed whispered something unintelligible. The more they listened, the more pins and needles of anticipation grew. Suddenly, he bolted up and sang, “Zephyr in the sky, at night I wonder/do my tears of morning sink beneath sun?”

The other four all deflated. Seth kicked a small table and exclaimed, “Damn it! They broke him!”

She did,” Lilith corrected him. “We taught her how too. Now she’s using it against us!”

Seth concluded, “It’s not safe for us to keep sending out recovery agents after her. They’re good for the entry level who escape. Their minds are weak, and they can get silenced easily. There’ll be no point in trying to get to get to her mind, she’s proven she’s too strong for that…”

“And obviously she’s proven she can outsmart the recovery agents too,” Elden added bitterly.

“Like a ray of light, she’s flying!” the recovery agent crooned enthusiastically.

Lilith sat him down and commented, “Too bad she had a change of heart; she could have been a great asset to Mirage!”

Seth responded, “That’s exactly why she’s so dangerous now! We only have one option-”

Arius stepped in and finished, “We’ll need to go after her ourselves! Since she’s in my region, I volunteer to get her! It’s my region, I have to protect it!”

Seth nodded in approval. Elden looked to his notes and informed him, “The Recovery Agent found her heading towards Provo. The rail heads to Salt Lake City, so, more than likely, she’s heading there.”

“More than likely!” Lilith reacted sourly. “How is it that we can’t get any video of her? They must pass by cameras sometimes!”

Seth and Elden shrugged at each other. Arius disregarded this, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll find her! I’ll go to Salt Lake City and turn every corner!” Everyone but the recovery agent laughed.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex walked down a bustling street in downtown Salt Lake City, Garith argued, “Oh come on! We could’ve gotten those tickets for free! It’s not like we have gotten a lot of chances to have fun!”

“Fun?” Carmen questioned. “How is Nightmare on Thirteenth fun? Haven’t we had enough scary people popping out of the corner brandishing weapons?”

“It’s almost Halloween!” Garith pleaded. “Let’s go back and find that guy before someone else grabs those tickets!”

“You really wanna make it easy for them to corner us?” Carmen said wryly.

“Why would they look for us there?” Garith retorted

Zartex opinionated, “I’ve yet to learn why humans enjoy getting scared. How does fear release endorphin?”

“See, we need to go there and find out the answer to his question!” Garith implored.

Carmen shook her head and smiled. She decided to change the subject, “Do you know anyone in San Francisco that’s hiring? You know, in case we make it back…”

“We will make it back!” Garith asserted. “I have no idea what’s happening in San Francisco right now. How can I? I had to ditch my cell phone in Colorado. It has been strange for me, as a reporter, to be so uninformed about what’s happening in the world.”

Zartex pointed out, “Except your involvement in a story that will get broadcast from coast to coast!”

“Thank Captain Obvious,” Garith responded. “I didn’t realize how glued I was to my cell phone until now. I used it all the time for work and communicate with people.”

Carmen inquired, “Is there someone waiting for you back home?”

“Oh no!” Garith replied. “I communicated with my family and friends via text. I hardly had time for them let alone a personal life. I spent so much time in the field interviewing people, but I spent more time doing research in the office. That’s how I ended up with my ex wife. And that’s also why we divorced. Well, one of the reasons.”

“What was the other reason?” Carmen felt compelled to learn more about him. After all this time they spent together, she didn’t know much about him. They had devoted their energy to surviving the journey and writing the article, and now she felt a twinge a guilt for not getting to know him.

Garith blushed a little. “I normally don’t talk about this in front of a lady.”

Whatever response Carmen was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Well…tell Zartex then!”

“Okay, Zartex!” Garith recalled, “She didn’t like having sex. Like, we hardly ever did it, and when we did, she would just lie there like a cold fish. When I love someone, I like to really get into it, like really make her moan and squirm, you know?”

“Do I?” Zartex looked to Carmen, who nodded. “Okay, yes, I know what you mean.”

“I wanted to please her,” Garith explained. “But, get this, she didn’t even like to orgasm!”

“What?” Carmen reacted vehemently. “If Teddy ever gave me a real one, maybe I wouldn’t have ran out on him!”

Garith had no idea she would be so comfortable about the subject, but since now he knew that she was, he abandoned all pretense. “A real one? You mean, you faked it?”

“It’s like we both did,” Carmen divulged. “We were both so convinced we were in love that we believed our lovemaking was passionate and pleasurable. I realize now that I brainwashed myself to loving him as much as I tricked myself into liking that job. I moaned deeply because I thought I was supposed to feel orgasmic. Teddy did too. But really, I felt nothing. I mean, how could I? We were lying perfectly still!” At this point, Garith burst into mirthful laughter. “It’s not funny!”

“Are you kidding me?” Garith howled. “You were both lying still like statues but still shouted in passion? Teddy must’ve looked like a beached whale!” Garith stood perfectly still and let out a huge moan.

“Stop that!” Carmen playfully hit him. Now that she heard, and saw, it out loud, she did realize how comical her relationship was. Everything about it was fake, just like Mirage. They made everything look flashy and prestigious, but it was just theatre. She got so lost in the act that she never realized that she was just playing a role. She had adopted a whole other identity! “We should probably stop talking about sex so loud. Isn’t this the Mormon capitol?”

Garith pointed to a sign in front of them. “There’s a bar! Look around, do these people look like religious fundamentalists? Plus, it’s not like Mormons don’t have sex. How do you think they make so many kids?”

Carmen laughed, “You have a point. Not that all Mormons have a particular ‘look,’ but these people staggering out of the bar definitely don’t look like Mormons!” She had referred to a group of young people dressed up to clubbing.

“That guy definitely isn’t.” Garith pointed to a rabbi that passed by them. The three of them laughed.

Zartex joined in, “Well, we know that guy isn’t Mormon! Not enough morals!” Zartex pointed to the distance and laughed.

Garith and Carmen stopped dead in their tracks. The man he pointed to was Arius! Garith and Carmen hid behind a building around the corner, and Zartex followed. “What is he doing here?” Carmen groaned. She was not mentally prepared to see him again. She was starting to move on with her life, and seeing a person from her past was like seeing a ghost. She figured she would run into nameless henchmen, but she didn’t think she would have to confront him or any of the Mirage executives unless they were in court. At that point, more time would have passed and they would have the barrier of police and legal teams to prevent them from hurting anyone. Now there would be very litte to stop him, especially since Mirage had the police convinced Carmen was a murderer.

Zartex remarked, “They know you can outfox their recovery agents, so they didn’t have a choice but to send their best and brightest.”

Carmen began to panic, so Garith snapped his fingers. “Don’t you give up on me now! Don’t let your fears cloud your mind! Now think…you’ve known him for several years, and you know these executives better than anyone. You know his strengths and his weaknesses, so tell me, what do we do?”

Carmen’s mind raced. Arius always reminded her of a wolf, and when he’s on the hunt, he chased his prey until the bitter end. He rarely made mistakes. Zartex suggested, “That bar is playing music, maybe we can do another song.”

Garith liked that suggested, and the two guys started to head out, but Carmen physically stopped them. Zartex’s suggestion triggered a memory for her. “A bar…he’s a booze hound! That’s how we’ll get him! Zartex, is there any music that won’t give you an emotional overload?”

“Country,” Zartex replied firmly.

“Let’s find a country bar!” Garith directed.

Arius walked down the streets with a determined look on his face. He scanned every person’s face and even read between the lines. His instincts told him she was close by. Suddenly, from across the street, he heard a small crash. He saw Carmen recovering from tripping. When she saw him, she suddenly grew a deer-in-the-headlights look and bolted into a nearby bar. Arius darted after her.

His heart pumped knowing that he was getting close to catching her. When he entered the bar, there was no sign of her. A couple of people in Western wear sat at the bar. The jukebox played a country song that reminded him of home, which made him feel at ease. At the opposite side of the bar stood a beer pong table. After he noticed that, a very tall man came up to him and jovially invited, “You up for a game? I’m losing terribly. You any good?”

“Are you kidding? I’m the best!” Arius boasted. “But I can’t right now. I’m looking for someone important.”

“You mean that girl?” Zartex said as casually as he could. “She got chased out by police.”

“Really?” Arius seemed pleased. “She’s not a very fast runner, so they probably got her. So, yes, I do have some time to play!”

Zartex and Arius played against a couple of strangers, and Arius had not lied aobut his prodigious skills at this game. He helped Zartex win easily. As the evening went on, the bar got different patrons, and since his adrenaline was up, he challenged more people each time they finished a game. After a few hours, Arius had less control of his body and slurred speech. He craned his head to the front door to welcome a new challenger. He saw Carmen, which prompted him to remember his mission. “Youuuu! Y’er supposed to be in ja-il!” Arius uttered.

Carmen ducked away, and Arius clumsily went after her. At that moment, Garith shouted, “Bartender! That man’s trying to run out on his bill!”

Arius stopped and swiveled around. “What bill?”

The bartender informed him, “You said you would cover the tabe from all these beer pong games!”

Arius got a confused expression on his face. “Wha….? No, I gotta go!” Arius ran out and ignored the anger from the people in the bar.

He went out on the street, but everything felt blurred. “Wherrre did you go?” He meandered down the road, glancing at everyone. People could tell he was drunk and felt uneasy by his appearance. He asked multiple people if they were Carmen, but they shook him off.

He came to a statue and saw her from across a plaza. He stumbled, and the next thing he knew, he was being awakened by a police officer poking him with a baton. “Wake up, buddy!”

Totally disoriented, he woke up to see himself on top of the statue buck naked. “It wasn’t me!” he slurred. “It wasss the wanted killller, Carmen!”

“Sure, you lush!” The police clearly didn’t believe him. “You’re wanted on multiple charges: larceny, drunk and disorderly conduct, public nudity…” Arius protested more, trying to get the police to look for Carmen. They ignored him and put him in their squad car.

Just outside of town, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith hiked along a railroad. Carmed buzzed, “Oh, I wish I could see the look on his face as he got arrested!”

Garith wondered, “We are safe from him for a few days. But, do you think he’ll go after us again once he’s released?”

“No,” Zartex stated. “They’ll try again with someone else to solve their problem faster. You know what’s ironic though? He got arrested for stealing, but technically, I’m the only thief here!” Garith and Carmen stared at him in disbelief. “I technically ran up that bar tab. I also stole that food from the dumpster. Oh, and I stole that boat at the lake on your wedding day!”

“That was you?” Carmen was shocked, but she felt a rush of gratitude for him. If Zartex hadn’t done that, she may not have been able to escape. Garith also played a huge role that day too. If weren’t for the two of them, who knows what would have happened to her? She may have escaped one day, she was certainly capable of it. But she realized that no one could do everything alone all the time. She now had powerful allies. She didn’t know if she would be successful, but, thanks to Garith and Zartex, she at least had a chance. She compulsively gave them both a hug. They were surprised by this gesture, but they accepted it and hugged back.

Sabotage, Chapter 11

With a dour face, Hank typed an email on his laptop. He had to pause, take a sip of his hot apple cider, and sigh. Right after that moment, a heavy knock sounded at the door. He set down his computer and prepared to face an ongoing nuisance. He seriously doubted that they came to deliver bad news. sure, it was a possibility, but he had a strong hunch that if Carmen got hurt in any way, they would not have the decency to tell him first. He saw the way they kept trying to discredit her in the media, so they would only revel in her destruction. He knew why they were here, and he was willing to put up with it to help bring justice to Carmen.

He answered the door and came to face a young but short woman with dark blonde hair tied back tightly. She had remarkably plain features except for her dark blues, which had a glare that could scare anyone into attention. Hank couldn’t guess her role in Mirage based on her appearance. Her clothes looked as though they could be expensive, however, she did not fit into them very snuggly as the tightness exposed her muffin top. Regardless of her position, he knew she represented those vile snakes from that evil so-called company, so he took pleasure in telling her, “Sorry, no soliciting!”

He relished in the brief emotion she showed at that insult, but as he tried to slam the front door, she stopped it with her foot and sharply informed him, “Actually, Mister Alvaro, I’m Jorden Kasper, head of the Northern California division of Mirage.”

Hank figured that her titled must usually command respect and obedience, but it did not work on him. After all, he dealt with wealthy and glamorous clients all the time. He saw a flicker of annoyance on her face as her ploy didn’t work. Instead of cowering at her presence, he kept cool. Knowing full well why she was there, he decided to tell her, “If you’re interested in real estate development, you’ll have to come back during business hours.”

Once again, she tried to hide her vexed mood. Jorden motioned behind her, and two police officers approached the front porch. “These guys have a warrant. We believe that you have illegal information that I’m here to recover on behalf of our company.”

Hank, in mock politeness, gestured for them to enter. “The passcode for the safe is five one two two.” Jorden came in, scowling fiercely at his impertinence. “Yes?” Hank grinned.

She leered, “You’re hiding confidential information only privy to our people. You have no right to possess it! We’re far more clever than you think! We’ll find what you’re hiding!”

“By all means, Pintamonas, feel free to look for yourself!” Hank invited.

Jorden took him up on his offer. She searched every end of the living room while one officer searched upstairs and the other searched the kitchen and backyard. Jorden checked each nook and cranny-the entertainment center, the couch cushions, even the rug. When she checked under the couch, she gasped. The cat hissed and ran out of the room. Hank chuckled, and she shook her head and maintained a nonchalant attitude. She pat him down, which prompted him to joke, “Hey, Cabrona, I’m a married man!”

She gave him an evil eye and kept searching. She saw a bowl next to the front door where Hank stored a pile of mail. “Of course!” she deduced. “While we were so busy sifting through your electronic communications to find hidden messages, she slipped under the radar and conveyed her status the old fashioned way!”

“Don’t look through that,” Hank said pleasantly. “It’ll  totally waste your time!”

“Ohhhh, you don’t want me to look here!” Jorden practically cackled. She scanned each letter and examined each detail scrupulously. Hank sat down on a chair that faced the front door, kicking back and not bothering to disguise his amusement at her fury. She turned back to see the cat sitting next to him on the arm of his chair wearing a pumpkin sweater. He pet the cat’s unadorned fur and grinned toothily at her. She gritted her teeth and kept foraging for suspicious letters. finally, something caught her eye. “Since when are you friends with Hermione Granger?”

“Don’t read that.” He pretended to be worried. “You won’t be happy.”

Jorden smiled maliciously as she opened the envelope and took a look at the letter. She read out loud, “Nine, apostrophe, thirteen, space, fifteen, fourteen, space, twenty, eight, five space, eight, nine, seven, eight, twenty-three, one, twenty-five, space, twenty fifteen, space, eight, five, twelve, twelve, period. The bottom of the page says seven, fifteen, space, six, twenty-one, three, eleven, space, twenty-five, fifteen, twenty-one, eighteen, nineteen, five, twelve, six. This is an easy encryption to decipher. She thinks she’s so clever! The numbers clearly correspond to their position in the alphabet.” She took a pen off the table and began to translate. “Nine would be I, and thirteen is M. Yup, that’s what she did. The first word is I’m. Let’s see…I’m…on…the…highway…to…” She eagerly anticipated the answer, fully believing it would reveal important information. “I’m on the highway to…hell? Very funny! I bet the bottom of the page is more serious.” She translated the bottom and stood up in anger. “Go fuck yourself!?!”

Hank roared in laughter. “I told you not to look at that! Didn’t I say it would waste your time?”

“Why you-!” She stepped towards him as if she was going to attack him.

Just then, the police officers returned from the kitchen and upstairs. The cat ran into the kitchen, almost tripping the cop. The other officer reported, “We searched every inch of the house. It’s clear.”

Jorden didn’t like hearing this. she ogled Hank, who simply smiled and shrugged. She reluctantly relented, “We’ll come back again another day. He’s hiding something, I know it!” Giving him an angry face, Jorden stormed out. The police indifferently followed.

The cat returned to the living, staring up at Hank, who praised him, “Good boy, Orlando! They have no respect for your prowess, so they underestimated your worth.” He peeked under the sweater and saw the three pieces of Zartex’s papers rolled up into a fine tube. He put the sweater back into place. “Good boy!” He pat Orlando on the head, and the cat seemed pleased.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex gingerly scaled down a sandy, pebble-filled hill, Garith discussed, “Okay, let’s go over it one more time. THE VOBS were the company’s sale system?”

“Yes,” Carmen concurred. “But after we got promoted and began to build our teams, they said it would help us with managing a company too. It wasn’t a sale system-they called it the system.”

“Right. So the T stood for turn every corner,” Garith recited. “In sales, it referred to thoroughly working your territory.”

“And in management, it referred to recruiting people from high and low,” Carmen explained. “Sales are a numbers game, but so is recruitment, especially for a job people generally aren’t willing to do.”

Zartex added, “On a corporate level, they turn every corner to find people who escape, as we’ve seen.”

“That’s true!” Garith agreed. “H stood for haste. The quicker you move, the quicker you reach your goals. People forget about a deal if you don’t nab it quickly. And managers will lose recruits to other jobs if they don’t act fast. And corporate wants to grow quickly, of course. If they can get ahead enough, one failure won’t mean that much of a loss. That’s why they were so fast to kill off one of their managers. Find the problems quick. Like escapees, find them fast!”

“E is for envy,” Carmen continued. “They turn sales people into the cool kids on campus so everyone will get jealous of their life. It gets recruits excited for a chance to share the spotlight. They dress sharply and make it look like we did all these fun things to create that insatiable desire to be trendy and fabulous. That’s how they motivated people to stay.”

Zartex stated, “That goes along with V for voracity. They play on people’s greed to get sales and to trick people into thinking they want to get promoted. They got so focused on making lots of money and doing flashy things that their voracity clouded their judgment, which allowed them to heinous things like murder.”

Carmen bitterly commented, “O is optimism. They claim it was to attract positive things by thinking positive. They didn’t want us to think any negative thoughts. So, any negative impulse we had about the job we had to ignore or destroy. They brainwashed us into thinking we were happy. It made us compliant to their whims.”

“B, big picture, did the same sort of thing,” Garith appended. “They talked about delayed gratification, paying now so you can play later. Forget about how miserable you are now, focus on the goals we made for you stemming from greed and envy! It made you forget your identity.”

Zartex finished with, “S is for seize control. That’s the obvious end goal.”

At the bottom of the hill, they came to an expansive lake with a clear view of the mountains on the opposite side. Carmen breathed, “It’s beautiful!”

“Didn’t I tell you that Utah Lake would be a great place to camp out?” Garith remarked.

“I won’t say you were right,” Carmen bickered.

“You don’t have to,” Garith gloated, “not wehen it’s obvious.”

“Who are you bragging to?” Carmen retorted. “There’s no one here that cares.”

“I’m sorry, I won’t be cheerful then,” Garith said sarcastically.

“I don’t have a problem with your cheerfulness!” Carmen argued. “In the last week, I had to deal with failing in sales and running out a doomed marriage. I have to walk to California with company that I didn’t have a choice on! I gotta live like a homeless person to survive while trying to avoid getting killed by hit men! I’m usually hungry and always tired! I’ve had so much go wrong that I don’t need a smug jerk pointing out another reason why I suck at life! So, I’m sorry if I’m a little cranky, but if you know this, why are you purposely making it worse?”

Carmen was clearly fuming, which immediately made Garith uncomfortable. “I’m gonna…I gotta go to the bathroom. There’s no bathroom here, but you know what I mean. I’ll find a tree to hide behind far enough away so that I don’t disturb you…again!” He ran off.

Zartex observed, “You sure scare him when you’re angry!”

Carmen didn’t respond. She sat down and faced the lake. As she gazed at the lake, she felt a little more peaceful. She shifted a little to make herself more comfortable, which made her remember that she had to sleep there. The prospect made her a little more disappointed. She thought about their discussion on THE VOBS and how they had used that on her to trick her into joining their cult. “Why didn’t I see it sooner?”

“See what?” Zartex asked.

“The red flags!” Carmen answered dramatically. “They exaggerated the earning potential, but I ignored this because of the big picture. For once in my life, I felt like a somebody! I thought I closed the chapter on petty, dead end jobs. No one gave me a shot at leadership because I’m an actress and I’m pretty; no one took me seriously! II never cared about management though, I just wanted to make enough money to pay rent so I didn’t have to be an adult dependent on family to survive. I don’t care about making a ton of money, and I’ve never cared about materialistic things. I wanted a circle of friends and a sense of being part of an important team. I wanted to belong somewhere! And I just wanted to prove myself to the world. When I make a goal, I see through it ’til the end. I’m fine closing that chapter of my life, but I just wish I knew what was coming next! So far, this has been a miserable experience, but when it’s over, what’s next? Will it, just be more of my old life of floating from place to place never truly finding my sense of independence or belonging? They say everyone goes through hard times, but my whole life has been this way! Why can’t I just be happy? This job made me give up on my dream, and I gave up on this job too. I’m just an all around failure, aren’t I?” As she said this, tears welled up in her eyes. Suddenly, all of her hurt seemed to surface. All of the hard times that THE VOBS made her bury came out. The sacrifices she made, the heartbreak, the defeat…she didn’t feel it then, but she felt it now!

Carmen buried her head into her knees and sobbed uncontrollably. Zartex noted, “I don’t need to use my emotional reader to know how you feel!” Carmen heard him but did not acknowledge his assessment. She couldn’t. Zartex observed, “I spent my whole career analyzing humans and their emotions, but not once did I learn how to deal with them. I understand you’ve been through more hardship than most people have ever or ever will deal with. This is overwhelming and caused an out pour of emotion. I know all of this, but I don’t know how to make it better. I’ve never had to know. It’s not a requirement of the job to make our subjects feel better, just understand them. I do understand you, but you’re different than my other clients because I actually want to make you feel better! You’re the first subject I’ve ever cared about! I never had an Earthling as a friend. The problem is my species doesn’t process emotions the same way yours does. So, I don’t know how to help you. But I want to, I really do!” Carmen continued to sob, so he made an awkward attempt at comfort by stiffly patting her back and spouting, “There, there!”

She continued to cry as Garith came back. “Oh good! You can show me what to do!” Zartex requested. “You are human and experience these emotions. Help!”

Garith ineptly sat next to her and gracelessly pat her back much like the way Zartex did. He bumbled, “There, there!”

Carmen wailed, “Forget it guys! I’m hopeless!”

Zartex looked to Garith, who quickly analyzed the situation. “What was she saying before it happened?”

“Um…” Zartex thought back. “She wanted to be successful in Mirage because she didn’t succeed in acting or getting a job that pays rent. She gave up on her dreams and she gave up on Mirage too, so now she wonders if the next part of her life will ever make her feel like less of a failure.”

“Okay, I got this!” Garith put his arm around her and rested his hand on her shoulder. “There’s a big difference between giving up and realizing that you’ve had enough. Like, it’s why I stopped getting houseplants. I got busy at work and went straight to bed when I got home. I forgot about it until Fourth of July. I stayed home ’cause it was a holiday, and as I tidied up, I saw it turning yellow. I felt guilty and vowed to bring it back to life. I kept giving it plant food and watered it like crazy, but it just grew more and more brown. One day, I realized that there’s no point in watering something that will never live. when something in your life is over, it’s better to let go ’cause holding onto the past will break your back. Your life will get better as long as you do something different. Doing the same habits will get you the same results. I can’t guarantee success, but at least you can take pride in the fact that you gave a shot. No matter how often you fall, get back up again! Keep trying different things until you succeed. If you don’t give up, at least you can say you did everything you could. If you try, you might fail, however, if you never try at all, failure is guaranteed. You’re not a failure from walking away from an unhappy situation. I’m proud of you for overcoming all you went through and for having the courage to move on!”

Carmen pondered his words for a moment. Mirage always made anyone who gave up on their goals feel lower than dirt, but sometimes important to let yourself fail so you can move on. It’s true that a person can’t focus on new ideas if they stick to the old ones. She still feared perpetual failure, but she knew she wouldn’t stop trying and took some pride on that. This didn’t make her feel optimistic, but she realized that she had stopped crying. Zartex inquired, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling…”Carmen listened to her innermost feelings and heart before she finished her thought. “I’m feeling like I gotta pee!” She had so much mixed emotions that she couldn’t even process it all right now, and she said that without even thinking about it. She had decided that she didn’t have to understand it all tonight. She gingerly got up and headed for the trees. Garith and Zartex high fived, and Garith sprawled out to go to sleep.

Sabotage, Chapter 7

“Come on!” Colt frantically flipped through a stack of paperwork, which sat on top a myriad of scattered files. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he flung the file in frustration. He laid his hands on his temples and just sat there, trembling. He almost hit his head when Colt walked in with an intimidating man. This guy had dark skin, clean shaven hair, and cold, dark eyes. Seth greeted curtly, “Colt! You remember our head of security, Elden Gundulf?”

“Of, of course,” Colt replied shakily.

Elden, with a thick South African accent, asked Colt forcefully, “Did you find anything helpful?”

Colt groaned, “Carmen has been such a gypsy in the last five years! I have no clue where she went! She could be in Florida with her grandparents…”

“Bull!” Seth exclaimed. “Where did she say she wanted to open up a branch?”

“California,” he supplied unhelpfully.

Elden commented, “California is a very large place. Can you narrow it down?”

“No, I tried!” Colt said ruefully. “I never narrowed it down ’cause she wasn’t even close to getting promoted!”

“Where did she live before she moved to Grand Junction?” Seth asked swiftly.

“I don’t remember!” Colt wailed. “She lived near a beach. I know, I know, that doesn’t narrow it down much. I’m sorry! I wanna find Carmen as much as you do!”

Elden picked up a torn file and handed it to Seth. “Sir!”

Seth read the file, his face twisting into an angry confusion. “This is Carmen’s employee file. Her personal information is gone!”

“I know!” Colt showed him a couple more files which had similar tears. “I don’t know what happened!”

Elden eyed Colt suspiciously. He stepped up to just inches of his face and propped open his jaw. “Ink stains on the tongue!”

“You ate her personal info?” Seth shrieked. “You knew we needed it, and you purposely destroyed evidence!” He glared at all of the strewed documents. “You destroyed anything that may help us locate our fugitive!”

Colt abandoned all pretense. “Carmen is a good person and doesn’t deserve to go through this!”

“You know that this kind of defiance leads to termination?” Elden pointed out menacingly.

“I don’t care anymore!” Colt picked up a picture frame with his wife and son, staring at them forlornly. “I started with this company to make money, but I stayed ’cause I thought I was doing good for the world. I thought I could positively influence some of our erroneous policies. It’s clear that I’m doing more harm than good, so my time with Mirage is up. It’s time for me to go! I miss my family! It’s time to leave this place and join them!”

“Ohhh Colt!” Seth stood behind him and put his right hand on his shoulder. “You had so much potential! But I’m afraid that you’re officially terminated!” With his left hand, he shot Colt in the back of the head! Colt instantly died with head landing on top of the photo, his blood trickling down the desk. With a tissue wrapped around the barrel, Seth handed the gun to Elden. “You know what to do.” Elden nodded and left the room.

Hank came home late that night. He opened his front door with one hand while he held his cell phone with his head and while he cradled an armful of blueprints. “No, Mister Windshift! You misheard me! I didn’t say that I wouldn’t make your changes, I’m saying you’d put yourself in an impossible situation.” He took his keys out of the lock and used his leg to shut the door. He tossed everything but his phone onto a glass coffee table and sat on his sofa. He rubbed his forehead in frustration. “Listen, I’ve heard all of the reasons why you want to move the kitchen to the back. I know, I wouldn’t want to walk into my kitchen right when I got home either, but we can’t move it!” He turned on the light and rolled open one of the blueprints. “I’m looking at the floor plan now. The back of the house doesn’t have the equipment you need to function as a kitchen. There’s no pipes and no-” The man on the other end asked a question. “Yes, in theory, we can have them installed, but you’re already at the top of your budget for renovations. If you really want to move the kitchen, you’d have to finance it outside your home loan. If you come up with the money, I’d be happy to accommodate. But really, we toured the house before you purchased it…didn’t you have some idea of what you were getting into?” The man on the phone relented and said goodbye. “Alright, have a good night.” Hank chucked the phone and sighed.

A black cat hopped onto the back of the coach and meowed. Hank pet the cat, which reminded him, “Oh yeah, your mom got married today!” He picked up his cell phone and checked the time. “Well, it’s an hour ahead in Colorado, so the ceremony is definitely over. I’m sure the reception must be winding down too. Perfect, I can catch her before they take off for their honeymoon. You think she’ll answer?” Hank half expected the cat to answer, but it simply stared blankly. “Well, I don’t get a lot of chances to talk to my little girl, so I’ll always give it a shot, even if it’s a long shot.” He went to his contacts and dialed the number for someone named Mija. It came back as an operator saying the phone was out of service. “That’s weird! Well, I can always write to her online. I’m sure she’ll check it eventually.” He clicked onto the Facebook app, and his brow furrowed. He read aloud, “Traitor! How could you? Traitor! Traitor! You deserve what’s coming to you…”

A wave of fear washed over him, and his parental instincts kicked in. “Something is wrong!” He turned on the television, and it was at a commercial. “Come on, come on!” His nerves were completely on edge. Finally, a young anchor appeared on the screen. “Finally! Come on, give me a clue!”

The young anchor somewhat awkwardly informed the audience, “Breaking news from Colorado! A local businessman is dead, and the suspect is on the run. Carmen Alvaro ran out on her wedding, which is where she was last seen. The attendees searched frantically for her whereabouts only to find her former boss, Colt Duncan, dead at his desk. The police don’t have any leads as to where she’s fleeing to, but they believe that my colleague, Garith Kendric, may be connected to her. He, too, disappeared after attending the wedding ceremony. It is unclear whether he’s a hostage or an accomplice. Grand Junction detectives set up a hotline for anyone with information about her current location. Please, if you see them, call the number that is on your screen now.”

“Those bastards!” Hank fumed. He turned off the television and threw his phone across the room. The cat folded his ears, obviously alarmed. “She’s getting framed! I know my baby girl didn’t do this! She wouldn’t! I know it!” He stopped his pacing as he had a realization. “I’m an idiot! This place sounded fishy from the beginning, but Carmen always had an explanation for everything. I believed her! I thought she was happy! God, I could’ve prevented this! Now this cult is pinning a murder on her!” He slumped back onto the coach. “Well, she’s escaped. She might come here. We’ll have to prepare for it if she does.” He talked directly to the cat now. “They’ll come looking for her here, regardless if she’s coming here or not. We don’t know what they’re capable of, so we’ll have to prepare ourselves. Prepare for what? Well, clearly they’re capable of anything, so we gotta prepare for everything. We’ll keep our eyes and ears open, and if push comes to shove, we’ll be ready to shove!” The cat gazed at him blankly. The phone rang, and it made him jump. He picked it up and after he saw that it was one of his clients, he rejected the call and threw it again. He collapsed onto the coach in tears, and the cat curled up next to him to comfort him.

“Say cheese!” a man in a mid 1800’s outfit pointed a camera and tripod at a cardboard cutout of a train conductor, a man, and a woman at an old timey train station. Zartex, Garith, and Carmen stuck their heads in the cardboard cutouts, and while Garith and Carmen smiled awkwardly, Zartex beamed from ear to ear. After they took their heads out, the photographer informed them, “It’ll just be a few minutes while the picture prints.”

Zartex rejoiced, “This is great! I’ve never gotten to go on an adventure before! The other humans I observed were so dull. For the most part, they stick to the same routine every day. I literally don’t know what to expect next! What’s gonna happen tomorrow? No clue! How exciting!”

Garith responded less enthusiastically, “I’m glad you’re having fun. By the way, this will have to be it for souvenirs. I only had three hundred in cash in my wallet. This is so strange! We have to live like pioneers! No credit cards! No cell phones! No place to stay!”

“At least we won’t go hungry!” Carmen pointed out. “If we’re careful, we can use the last of our money on a bus so we don’t gotta walk the whole way. Jeez, after quitting my door to door job, I thought I would do less walking!”

They saw that the souvenir shop was still open, so they wandered inside. Zartex had fun playing with the various knickknacks that had the Greenriver, Utah logo on it. Garith looked at the clothing section while Carmen explored the small grocery area. “This souvenir shop is so small!” Garith observed.

“Well, Greenriver is a small town,” Carmen responded, “I think most just pass through it.”

Garith held up a pair of hiking sandals with a gawdy pattern. “What do you think of these?”

“They’d look great on you!” Carmen replied sarcastically.

Garith tossed them towards her. “Try them on.”

“What?” Carmen reacted, appalled. “I’m not wearing those things!”

“Well, they look like they’re the only shoes that will fit you.”

“Are you saying I have big feet?”

Garith held up a pair of children’s flip flops. “It’s either these or you can walk to California in your stilettos. I don’t care!”

Carmen refused to admit he was right, but she did try them on. “They fit.”

Garith took them from her. “You’re welcome!”

Before Carmen could argue, Zartex came over and said seriously, “Guys!”

He pointed to an old television set playing the news. The anchor informed the viewers, “The Runaway Bride was last seen at the train station in Grand Junction, Colorado with the missing San Francisco reporter and a very tall man. They could be anywhere tonight, so police are urging everyone to be vigilant. These people are considered to be armed and dangerous.”

Zartex whispered, “They’re accusing you of murdering Colt.”

Carmen felt her stomach drop. She knew Colt for almost two years now, and while they were never really as close as other coworkers at Mirage got to each other, but she liked Colt. He was always kind to her, and she just saw him at her wedding! She couldn’t believe that he was killed! “He’s dead?”

“And they think we had something to do with it?” Garith also appeared extremely troubled.

The cashier shouted, “You three!” Zartex, Garith, and Carmen all had their nerves shaken as they cautiously turned to the cashier. The cashier pleasantly told them, “Your picture is ready!”

They breathed a sigh of relief. Garith asked, “Can we buy it with some supplies here?”

Garith helped Carmen rinse her hair in a railroad bathroom sink. “Is it out yet?”

“Yeah, it’s out and I’m doing this out of sheer enjoyment,” Garith answered sardonically.

“This water is freezing!” Carmen complained.

“What did you expect? A four star hotel?” Garith finished washing her hair. “There’s an electric hand dryer over there.”

“I know that!” Carmen grumped. She squat under it but nothing came out. Zartex waved his hands below it periodically so it would dry her hair. When it was finished, she peeked at herself in the mirror. Her new hair color was extremely dark and clashed garishly with her pale skin. “I look like Snow White!”

“As long as you don’t look like Carmen Alvaro it’s perfect!” Garith handed her a tee shirt, and she begrudgingly took it inside a stall to change. Garith took off his suit jacket and put on a baseball cap with a picture of a train going up a mountain. “I’m sure ready to hit the road! We were seen in our old clothes and hair here, so we need to get out quickly! Which we will since now all that we’re waiting on is for you to get out of your wedding shirt thing.”

“It’s called a bodice,” Zartex put in.

“How do you know that?” Garith remarked.

Before Zartex could answer, Carmen awkwardly told them, “Uh, guys, we need to get one more thing…I need some, feminine items…”

Zartex inquired, “You mean like jewelry?”

“No!” Garith cringed. “Come on, man! Everyone on the planet knows that’s code for tampons.”

“I use pads,” Carmen stated.

Garith grumbled, “Are you serious? Why now? We’re about to go on a long journey and you get your period?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Carmen disputed. “And believe me, I’m just thrilled about it!”

Garith moaned, “Ugh, my money is sure disappearing fast!” He left in a hurry.

Carmen asked Zartex, “You seriously don’t know about women’s menstration?”

“Is that a bathroom thing?” Zartex answered with another question. “I don’t observe humans in their private mode, remember?” Carmen laughed unexpectedly, so Zartex probed. “What’s so funny?”

She explained, “Tonight was supposed to be my honeymoon! I don’t know if you know the tradition, but it’s custom to have passionate sex on your wedding night. Teddy never did it with me during this time of the month, so he would’ve been so devastated!”

“And that’s comical now because you hate everyone associated with Mirage after what they did to you?” Zartex tried to understand.

Carmen had not thought about it before. “Yeah, I guess I do. It’s so strange to have these feelings come out when not that long ago I felt so much loyalty to them. How weird is it that I could fool myself like that?”

“You find that weirder than talking to an alien while you sit on the toilet?” Zartex asked curiously. Carmen cracked up, and Zartex even guffawed a little. “Is that a yes?”

Garith came back with a package of pads and slid it under Carmen’s stall. “I don’t know what kind you like, but the girl on the box looks happy, so…”

“Thank you!” Carmen told him sincerely. She came out wearing a purple shirt with a cat that had a train conductor hat on. She still had her tulle wedding skirt on, so that coupled with her outlandish sandals made her look a little goofy. “Wow!” she said while gazing into the mirror. “Well, I doubt anyone will associate me with murder! My only crime is against fashion!” She sighed, and then she declared, “Alright, I’m ready to go!”

Sabotage, Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but-”

“Are you a skilled fighter?”

“No, but-”

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

“I’m not a paparazzi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?” Garith reacted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m okay with that!” Garith avowed.

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

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

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

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

“You can leave!” Carmen replied coolly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t do this!” Carmen shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” Carmen replied, slightly offended.

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

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

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

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

“Garith Kendric,” he told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

Bob immediately probed, “Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Papi!” she chirped.

“How’s the leg?” Hank inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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