Sabotage, Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t!” Zartex jumped in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No you don’t,” Garith debated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” He perked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zartex yelled, “Yeah, a bear!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sabotage, Chapter 13

“Thank you kind sir!” Zartex waved to a trucker as he left an old gas station. He turned to Carmen and Garith, who had a look of discomfort mixed with surprise. “I don’t know why you were so worried about taking a ride from a stranger!”

Garith noted, “People are rarely that nice without wanting something in return.”

Carmen observed her surroundings and remarked, “Who decided to call this place Oasis? Were they trying to be ironic?”

“So, this is Nevada, huh?” Zartex also looked around. “This doesn’t look that different than Utah!”

“Wait ’til we get to Elko,” Garith responded.

As the three of them walked through the desert alongside the highway, they ate breakfast sandwiches that they got from the gas station they passed. Carmen commented, “I never imagined I’d be in a situation where gas station food would taste amazing!”

Garith nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and I can’t believe how excited I got about using a gas station toilet!”

“I got you guys some of these free samples.” Zartex pulled some beef jerky out of his pocket.

“Those weren’t free!” Garith pointed out. “You’re supposed to bring it to the register.”

Carmen burried her face in her hands and shook her head. “Stop stealing things! Like we need another reason for the police to come after us!”

They all heard a low growl, and Garith joked, “Gee, Carmen, you don’t need to get that mad about it.”

“That wasn’t me!” Carmen stood still and looked around. The other two stopped and joined her in the search. They heard some rustling from a bush with inverted, whip-like branches, so they huddled together in preparation for an attack. The growling grew louder as the perpetrator emerged. “It’s a dog!” Carmen exclaimed as a tan, coyote-looking dog reared its teeth at them.

“Run!” Garith started to flee.

Carmen grabbed his shirt to prevent him from sprinting. “You can’t outrun a dog! Why do you think they have canine units in the police?”

“You want to fight it?” Garith asked incredulously as the dog crept closer to them. Carmen studied the dog closely and saw something the other two didn’t. She slowly approached it, prompting Garith to shout, “Are you crazy?”

Without breaking eye contact with the snarling beast, Carmen informed Garith, “She’s hurt!” After she said that, Zartex and Garith noticed the dog’s limp gait.

The dog let Carmen kneel before her, which made Garith really nervous. “Be careful!”

“Duh!” Carmen gingerly reached for its paw, which made the dog snap at her a little. That didn’t ease Garith’s nerves, so she assured him, “It’s okay. She’s in pain and isn’t sure if she can trust me.” Carmen’s pulse raced as she picked up its paw. Despite her assurances to Garith, she got forcibly reminded of when a dog bit her before. Her instincts made her trust this one though. She really hoped her gut feelings wouldn’t betray her since she just vouched for this dog. She saw a thorn stuck in her paw with some blood caked on around it. “You’ve been hurt for a while! Poor baby!” As she removed the thorn, the dog snapped a little again. Finally, the thorn wriggled out. Carmen felt a wave of relief, and evidently the dog felt the same way as they watched it scamper around and enjoy full use of her paws.

She licked Carmen in the face, which made her cringe a little. “Not the face!” She laughed and pet it. She glanced over at Garith, who appeared to be recovering form a near faint. “You’re not gonna say that’s what she said?”

“Don’t ever do that again!” Garith breathed.

Carmen laughed and stood up. As they continued their journey, Carmen noticed the dog following them. “Go home, doggy!” The dog happily followed them still. “No, no, no! Don’t pick us as your humans! Your life will constantly be in danger! Plus, you wouldn’t even have a home to go to. You’re better off finding someone here. Go on! Shoo!”

Garith laughed, “You can’t reason with an animal!” He grabbed Zartex’s beef jerky and threw it. The dog scampered after it and enjoyed gnawing on it. “That jerky was hard as a rock, that’ll keep her busy for a while!”

Zartex chirped, “Well, we helped her nurse her injury, and she helped us dispose of evidence!” Carmen shook her head but smiled.

Hours later, the town of Wells could be seen in the distance. Carmen conversed, “Wasn’t it uncomfortable working with your ex-wife?”

“She moved to L.A. once I said I wanted a divorce,” Garith told her. “It’s something she always wanted to do but didn’t because of me. It’s not like I ever said I wouldn’t leave San Francisco, but she said I held her back. She accepted a high end position at our headquarters and left me behind. Actually, I was okay with her getting far away from me ’cause it was easier to pick up my life where it was before I met her. The only difference between my old life and my single life was nicer furniture and Phoebe.”

“Phoebe?” Carmen questioned. “You have a daughter? Or is Phoebe one of your ex’s friends that you hooked up with?”

Garith chuckled, “Phoebe was her cat. I didn’t like cats much, but she grew on me. I felt bad for her, actually. I mean, her mom just abandoned her. Who does that?”

Carmen felt a surge of guilt hit her heart. “I left my cat behind when we moved to Colorado. I couldn’t have pets where I lived, so I let my dad take care of Orlando. I didn’t think I’d be gone long. The Grand Junction office was new, and it was supposed to give me more opportunities for building my team and getting promoted quicker. I thought I’d get promoted in like a year ’cause that’s what they told me. I didn’t think I’d be away from him for so long, and once I became a manager, It never occurred to me that they could be wrong or mislead me. I never got that promotion. I just abandoned my poor cat!”

Before Garith could reply, a sheriff’s car pulled up to them. The three of them tried to remain cool, but they were silently praying that this officer wasn’t here to arrest them. They had nowhere to run or hide in the middle of the desert! “Hey! You look like you’ve traveled across this highway for a while. Tell me…” Carmen felt like he could hear her heart pounding because she could feel the tension from the other two. “…have you guys seen my dog?”

Everyone took a breath of relief. Zartex addressed him, “A brown, coyote-looking dog?” The policeman nodded. “Yeah, she was just outside of Oasis. She helped her nurse an injury and he gave her my beef jerky.”

The officer clearly felt overjoyed to hear this news. “I sure do appreciate that! Y’all are decent folks!” He made a quick u-turn and raced towards Oasis.

Sometime later, they came just outside the town of Wells where, once again, all they could see was a gas station. Zartex inquired, “Why are there people gathering here?”

Garith squinted his eyes to get a better look. “It’s a sign for the Red Lion Casino. Oh, they must shuttle people to Elko.” Carmen gave him a glance that non-verbally told him that she wanted to go on the shuttle. Garith objected, “Oh no! Don’t you remember what happened last time we took a shuttle?”

Carmen argued, “There aren’t any mountains going from here to Elko! Plus, after over a week of non-stop walking, it sure would be nice to get a break!”

Garith still seemed weary. “I don’t like the idea of endangering so many people in an enclosed…” He stopped mid-sentence as a nearby bush rustled. The other two also stopped and gazed at directly at it. “Maybe the police dog followed us here.”

Carmen differentiated, “I think there’s a different bitch that’ll emerge from that bush.”

As Carmen predicted, Lilith came out from hiding and pointed a gun at them. They threw up their hands, and she gently told them, “Guys, I’m not here to kill you.” She threw the gun to the floor. They slowly put their arms down, but they did not trust her. Each of them kept an eye on her. “You got me all wrong. I’m here to save your life!”

“A Mirage executive wants to help us?” Garith challenged. “I have a hard time believing you care about anyone but yourself!”

Lilith tried to appear as docile as possible and spoke softly, “Look, they need a high ranking member to watch over people, that’s why I’ll never leave. I don’t like hunting people down like animals. I didn’t come to commit murder! But, I did catch you. If I wanted to, I could turn you over to the police. I’m not gonna do that. Actually, I want to promote you!”

That statement took everyone by surprise. Mirage had spent over a week chasing them down and tried to assassinate them, and now she claimed that they wanted to promote her! Carmen didn’t buy it. “Even if you decide to bypass the rules of building a team, I don’t wanna be a manager!”

“Actually,” Lilith revealed, “We want you to replace Elden Gundulf as head of security.” Zartex and Garith got a jolt of surprise from this, but Carmen did not. She stared at her hard. She wanted her to keep talking to see what game she was trying to play. Lilith continued, “You beat us! You won! We threw every trick in the book at you and you made it through each time. No one has ever gotten this far! Instead of trying to destroy you, we want to use you. You can think like the most clever employee that goes astray, so you can help us humanely rescue them. We need someone like you to make sure what you went through doesn’t happen again. Think about it. You can dedicate you life to saving lives!”

Garith and Zartex looked to Carmen, who did not seem remotely tempted by this offer. In some ways, her argument made sense. If she was head of security, she could stop them from murdering and kidnapping people. Carmen’s gut instincts would not let her consider accepting this offer. Zartex spoke up first, “What about the way you treat your low level employees? Would you expect her to condone that?”

This touched a nerve for Lilith. “We do not mistreat our employees! We have a success plan that has been proven to work! Even our lowest level employees can make over a grand in a week! What other company offers that for people with no experience? We help people get careers and fabulous lifestyles, and that’s supposed to be a bad thing? We’ve also given hundreds to charity-does that sound like an evil, malicious company?”

“Lots of wealthy people do that for tax purposes,” Garith pointed out.

Lilith almost blew a gasket, but she closed her eyes and collected herself. “Carmen, you have a choice. You can choose to believe the lies this reporter has filled in your head and go to prison for the rest of your life. But, if you want a better life, listen up. We’ll get you a lawyer and get that murder charge thrown away at no cost to you. We’ll send you to luxurious training camp at Mirage headquarters. We have the best training! The classes take dull leadership lessons and makes them fun. And, after class, you can get spa treatments, eat fine food, all sorts of stuff! After training, you’ll make a six figure income and live in a nice place all on your own. You can help your whole family out too. Isn’t that what you always wanted? I don’t think I need to ask which life you want-prison or luxury? So, come on, let’s go!”

Lilith turned away and started walking to her car. When she realized that she hadn’t followed her, she turned back around. “What’s the problem? Is it all that walk you did? Don’t worry, I’ll bring the car to you!”

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Carmen said firmly. “The only thing that you said that I believe is that you wanna use me. A few weeks ago, I was just like you. I defended Mirage like it was my own family. Whenever someone criticized us, I responded exactly like you did. How dare they! How dare they spout such hate and disrespect! I did the same thing as you-I seduced people into Mirage by waving these temptations over their heads. Who doesn’t want to live a life of luxury? Only a few people get that posh lifestyle, and it comes at the price of the lowest level employees’ blood, sweat, and tears! You exploit hundreds to help a few people live well. You keep people in by distracting them with things they want to make them forget what they stand to lose. You got me for over three years, but you’ll get me no more! I won’t by snared by getting shiny things waved at me! How dare you insult my intelligence like that! Believe it or not, I’d rather sit in a prison cell than sell my soul again!”

Lilith’s frown was so pronounced that her lips practically disappeared. “Fine, have it your way!” She bent down as if she was retrieving her gun. Before the three of them could react, she spotted something behind them that made her eyes grow round as dinner plates. She darted off and ran in the opposite direction. They tried to comprehend why, but everything moved so fast that they didn’t have time to question it. A flash of brown brushed past them and made a beeline to Lilith. The flash caught her, and now that it had slowed down, they recognized it as the dog they saw in Oasis!

As the dog continuously bit her, the officer that owned her pulled up. He exclaimed, “Atta girl, Trigger! Good girl, you got a bad guy?”

He got out of his car to get Trigger off of her, but he continued to praise her for a job well done. The other three saw the shuttle for the Red Lion Casino pull up, so they ran to it before Lilith talked to the police. As they boarded, Carmen playfully teased Garith, “See, didn’t I tell you that you can’t outrun a dog?”

Garith rolled his eyes but didn’t look bothered. He smiled as he said, “That’s your favorite phrase, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” Carmen grinned as they took their seat. Garith chuckled as he slumped against the seat, ready to take a nap.

As the shuttle took off, Zartex noted, “We weren’t there to tell the police officer the crimes she committed against you, so she probably won’t get charged with anything.”

“That’s okay,” Carmen responded thoughtfully. “I’ve been bit by a dog before, so, trust me, her injuries will be punishment enough.” Carmen, too, slumped against her seat to take a nap. Zartex shrugged, kicked back, and relaxed as the other two dozed off.

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 1

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

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

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

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

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

Bob immediately probed, “Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Papi!” she chirped.

“How’s the leg?” Hank inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 25

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

They all replied, “Nah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy birthday, Tadd!” Ashlynn exclaimed.

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

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

 

The End

Turning 30, Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie questioned, “Tadd? Tadd who?”

“Oi!” Lavena exclaimed.

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

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

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

Without thinking, Tadd answered, “No.”

“Lies!”

“Untrue!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Tadd, baby?” Brie cooed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 23

Cera cried her eyes out on Feliz’s couch. Feliz and Ashlynn sat by her to comfort her. Cera wailed, “I can’t believe I did that! I just abandoned my faith like it was…nothing! For what? Some uncomfortable, awkward interaction with a stranger in a dive bar parking lot! I’m a sinner!”

Feliz tried to reassure her, “Don’t beat yourself up! You didn’t actually do anything wrong. You’re still a virgin.”

Cera refuted, “I interacted with his…manhood! Even thinking about a man that way is a sin! I’m a terrible person!”

“No you’re not,” Ashlynn expressed, “You just had terrible sex!”

“But…but I…I…!” Cera stammered.

Davida came out of their bedroom in her pajamas. “What’s going on?”

Feliz explained, “Cera is drunk.”

“I’m not drunk!” Cera argued. “I’m sad!”

Feliz told Davida, “She is VERY sad.”

“Oh I see. Well, I can make her some coffee then.” Davida went into the kitchen.

Ashlynn stated to Cera, “Look, no one is perfect. It’s impossible to follow every single rule, and you should chastise yourself for not obeying every minute detail and technicality. The most important thing is to treat people with kindness, and as long as I’ve known you, you have always loved to help others. You can’t put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect. All you can do is try your best to be a decent person.”

Feliz added, “I consider myself to be a good Catholic, but I am not perfect. Like, last Friday, I had some steak, but we’re not supposed to have meat that day. Does that mean I’m doomed? I won’t get into Heaven for that? The little things won’t ultimately matter in the end, so I don’t fret about them. God forgives mistakes as long as the list of good you do for the world is bigger than anything else.”

Cera sniffed. “I feel like such a whore!”

“Mary Magdalene was an actual whore,” Ashlynn pointed out, “and she was one of Jesus’ best friends. She wasn’t perfect, but she was forgiven, and no one judged her. They moved on and did greater things. I”m not a Catholic. I had premarital sex. Do you think I’m going to Hell?”

“No!” Cera saw her point. “And Feliz, our religion is not kind to your people, but I won’t stop being your friend!”

“What do you mean by ‘your people?'” Davida probed. No one saw her come back into the living room with the mug of coffee, and when they realized she was there and that she heard that part of the conversation, they jumped out of their skins. Ashlynn looked nervous, Cera felt guilty, and Feliz trembled in fear. Davida noticed their reactions. “What are you hiding from me? I’m your wife, you owe me the truth! Be honest! Tell me, please! Why won’t you say anything? Speak to me!” Feliz tried to speak but could not get the words out. An email notification went off on his phone. Feliz tried to grab it, but Davida reached it first. She saw the title of the email and read outloud, “In response to Need Help Coing Out. Coming out where?” Feliz could not say it. She asked Ashlynn and Cera, “Do you know what this means?”

Ashlynn shook her head, refusing to be a part of that argument. Cera, because of her lack of sobriety, honestly said, “We all figured it out, even before he did! You know! We don’t need to say anything. You know!”

Davida just looked angry, like she wanted to yell but didn’t know why, so she held it in. Feliz stepped up to her and softly said, “This isn’t how I wanted you to find out…” Davida had a look of denial on her face. She knew what was coming, and she knew she didn’t want to hear it but had to. Feliz took a deep breath and confessed, “I’m gay.”

“No!” All of the fight got drained from Davida. “I can’t believe it! Don’t you love me?”

“I do love you, but I’m not attracted to you,” Feliz told her.

Davida started to cry. “My husband isn’t attracted to me!” She sobbed, but when Feliz touched her arm to comfort her, she shrieked, “Don’t touch me, you pervert!”

“Pervert? I haven’t slept with any men yet!”

“You’re a pervert, and you will soon have to answer for your sin! What did your family say?”

“I…”

“When they find out, they will disown you!”

“I hope they will love me no matter what.”

Davida laughed derisively. “If I can’t stand to look at you, I don’t see how they could want you in their life still. I’m leaving, and they won’t be here for you either, so I hope you’ll be happy with these perverted thoughts because you’ll be all alone with them”

Ashlynn stood up and defended him, “He’s not gonna be alone! He has us! We’ve known this all along, but we never cared! He’s a loving, sweet man, and if you don’t want a friendship with him, it’s your loss! We don’t need your narrow-minded ass around!”

Davida gave her a dirty look and stomped into the bedroom to pack her bags. Feliz sank onto his love seat and cried. Ashlynn put an arm around him to comfort him. Cera stepped towards him, but her legs felt too heavy to move because the alcohol kicked in full swing at this point. She slurred, “You’re not a pervert, I am!” She pased out onto the couch.

That momentarily distracted Feliz, but after a moment, he buried his head in his hands. “I knew this would be horrible.”

Ashlynn responded, “How much longer were you planning to sacrifice your happiness for hers?”

“I wasn’t ready!” he lamented.

“No one is ever really ready. Life happens unexpectedly, and when the universe wants you to open up a new chapter whether you’re ready or not!” Ashlynn exclaimed. “When you get to that pivotal point in your life, you have two choices-drown in the ocean or surf with the tide. That thing you were dreading to tell her is out now. You’re free! You can stop worrying and move on!”

Feliz seemed somewhat appeased by her words. Davida came out with a suitcase. “I’ll be back for the rest of my things when you’re at work. Do your coworkers know?”

“No,” Feliz answered.

Ashlynn corrected him, “Yes, trust me, it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain!” Davida glared at her and left without saying goodbye. Feliz looked relieved that she did not have a stronger response. Ashlynn told him, “You don’t recognize a storm brewing, do you?”

Feliz shrugged. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

“Are you sure? You probably shouldn’t be alone.”

“Cera will be here all night probably.”

They turned their heads to Cera, who was still passed out. Ashlynn gave Feliz a supportive hug. After a moment, she gathered her things so they could leave. She asked again, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

He answered, “It’s gonna be weird, but I’ll be okay. I think the hardest part will be letting go of that loving feeling towards her.”

As they left, Ashlynn looked over the balcony and saw something alarming. “Uh, Davida is smashing your car with a golf club!”

“WHAT?” Feliz ran to the balcony and perched, glaring towards the direction where he was parked. “That bitch! I’ll kill her!” He grabbed his phone and called the police. While he was on hold, he observed, “Oh, hey! The loving feelings are gone!” Ashlynn laughed, and Feliz grinned a little.