Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 15

No one spoke for several moments. Just when the tension reached its thickest, Bernadette cut the silence by shouting, “God, I hate that man!” Everyone’s attention shifted over to her as she ranted, “What he’s done to our people is bad enough, but this is his child! How could he? How could he? Was he hoping to get his baby murdered?”

“No way!” Rebekah refuted her claim.

Bernadette felt a twinge of guilt and apologized, “Look, sorry kid! I know that’s not something you wanna hear about your parents, but-.”

“No, it’s not that,” Rebekah explained, “If he was guilty, I’d be the first one to throw him under the bus, but my dad was a regular Dudley Do-Right. He joined the police force to save lives, and it always got under his skin when someone got away with murder. He’s been like that all my life. I mean, for the last year and a half I’ve been in quarantine, and even though I haven’t seen him, I know he’s still the same way. He’s so obsessed with finding the cure ‘cause he misses me so much. The only time I ever heard him wanting someone dead was to the thieves who took the research from the Public Health Center. They had some insight about where the disease came from, and it all went missing! Daddy said with so many people dying from Venenatus Sanguis that when he arrested the people behind the theft, he’d charge them with murder and seek the death penalty. My dad’s a good man. All he wants to do is help.”

Everyone looked stunned by her revelation. She seemed to be honest and would have no reason to lie to them. Kierram remarked, “No wonder he put us on the most wanted list! He believed the orderlies’ story about what went down that day.”

Riley pondered, “But if Chief Forsythe is so adamant about finding a cure, why did the fireman say he ordered the quarantine escapees to be returned dead or alive?”

“He didn’t,” Gwynivara concluded. “Chief Forsythe is grief-stricken and has tunnel vision. The origin sensed his vulnerability and took advantage of it. He created this new police force out of desperation. He has no idea what they’re doing or what they’re capable of! That just makes these henchman that much more dangerous!” She turned to the newcomers, particularly focusing on Rebekah, and informed them, “This Rebellion’s mission is to find the cure and to stop the individual who’s responsible for creating it. You’re free to live your life here, and you have the support of people who have the disease too and know what you’re going through. You have a little more freedom and a lot less judgment. You’re welcome to stay until we find the cure!”

John commented, “Thank God! We can walk around more!”

Max added, “And no more experiments!”

“Experiments?” Gwynivara questioned.

Max explained, “They fed us different drugs, not cures, more like mood stabilizers and ways to ease the pain.”

“None of it worked,” John put in. “They made me feel worse.” The other quarantine victims agreed.

Gwynivara felt horrified by what she learned just now. She couldn’t believe that the quarantine medical team would experiment on their victims without their consent! She didn’t want to picture any of the negative side effects that they had to endure, so she turned her focus onto what was happening at this moment. “Well, I know you’ve all had a long night. Every night for a long time, right? We’ll get you guys situated in rooms, and we’ll go over the rules in the morning. Don’t worry, there’s not a whole lot! Riley here has the inventory of all the available spaces. If you need anything, come find me. I’m Gwyn, by the way, and I’m in charge, for now. Anyways, get some rest, and we’ll see you all in the morning!”

The newcomers gathered by Riley, who immediately took to having an organizational role. Gwynviara felt pleased by this. She also enjoyed seeing the rest of the Rebels heading to their rooms unprompted. A few lingered to introduce themselves to the quarantine victims, and that made her smile a little. She decided to head to her room to plan out the day tomorrow. She didn’t count how many additional people now resided here, but she would need to find out what kind of part they would play whether it would be volunteering at one of the shops or if anyone was suited to become an officer. She was about to walk out until Cody came up to her. “What’s going on, Cody?”

Cody told her, “So, I noticed a daily inventory sheet of the arsenal, but I couldn’t get it open. Do you have the key?’

It had never occurred to her that Emorick had kept the weapons locked up in his room until now. It made sense, but she remembered Riley bringing swords to them when they were battling the beasts, so she assumed the public had access to them. “Hang on.” She went over to Riley and gently interrupted his flow by tapping his shoulder. He switched his attention to her, and she asked him, “Do you have the key to the arsenal?”

“Oh, no. I put it back in Emorick’s pocket.” As soon as he answered her, he returned his attention to the commotion in front of him. Gwynivara realized that retrieving the key would mean seeing Emorick’s body barely clinging to life. This wasn’t something she wanted to see again. She wanted to preserve the image of him feeling strong and happy, and she had really hoped that he’d be awake and coherent the next time she saw him. But the Rebellion certainly couldn’t go through any length of time without access to their weapons, so she resolved herself to the fact that she would have to see him in that grave state.

Cody followed behind her as she headed to the first aid room. He conversed, “If Rebekah wrote to her father every day, how come he didn’t put a stop to all of the horrible things that happened in quarantine?”

Gwynivara mulled it over for a moment, and she came up with, “She either didn’t tell him everything to protect his feelings, or the truth was too horrible for him to accept.”

“Do you think having the police chief’s daughter here will make it more dangerous?” Cody probed. “I mean, Chief Forsythe will totally freak out when he realizes his daughter is missing!”

“Her presence here is no more dangerous than having three most wanted criminals!” Gwynivara replied. “Not unless she has a tracking device…” Suddenly, inspiration struck her. She had a plan that seemed a little far fetched, but she would have to consult an expert to see if it was plausible.

Her attention immediately swayed to Emorick’s limp, unconscious body. “He still hasn’t woken up?” Gwynivara asked the medic watching over him.

The medic’s full attention had been on Emorick, so her sudden company jerked him out of his torpor. “I saw some movement from his eyelids. I think he’s trying to.”

“Of course he is!” Gwynivara responded. “He’s a fighter!” Even though her voice portrayed confidence, her gut wrenched seeing him in this condition. She felt like if his health were getting better that he would have shown more improvement than this. She didn’t dare mention this opinion, hoping she was wrong. “I need to get a key from his pocket.”

“Oh, okay.” The medic moved out of the way for her.

It was weird to dig through someone’s pocket like that! It felt like she was invading his privacy by doing this, but what choice did she have? She felt something round, smooth, and cold to the touch. She pulled it out of his pocket, and she realized that it was the orb. The memory of its ability was impressive enough, and a chill went down her spine just thinking about what omnipotent powers it could contain. She almost put it back, but an overwhelming instinct compelled her to keep it. She didn’t understand all that it did, but she did recall that he played an important video related to his investigation of the origin, so she reasoned that as acting leader of the Rebellion, she must hold on to it. She quickly dove into Emorick’s pocket and retrieved the key as she slipped the orb into her pocket. “Got it! Let’s go.” She nodded to the medic, who nodded back. After this silent goodbye, they headed out. Cody and Gwynivara made more small talk on the way to their rooms, but she didn’t remember any of it. Her mind stayed transfixed on the orb in her pocket, and the wheels in her head were turning about its potential.

She handed Cody the key and said goodnight. As soon as he closed the door, Gwynivara knocked on the door next to his and entered without getting an answer. She couldn’t wait. She had the strangest feeling, and a nervous excitement bubbled at the pit of her stomach. She had apparently walked into Kierram laying on his bed staring at the ceiling. He got up and could sense the peculiar mood that Gwynivara was in, so he inquired, “What’s going on?”

“How hard would it be to find a tracking device?” Gwynivara asked him.

He seemed a little taken aback by her question, but at the same time, he knew she wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, so he considered it carefully. “It’s not really in commercial use. The military are the only ones using them, so Fort Croga would be the place to look. Maybe a military supply store. Why? What are you-?”

“Could you connect one to this?” Gwynivara took the orb out of her pocket and displayed it on her hand so that Kierram could see it.

Instantly recognizing this object, Kierram nodded. “Yes it could.”

“How does it work?” She stared at it curiously. If she hadn’t already seen its ability, she would think that it was merely a beautiful piece of glass. She knew better though, and it was important to the mission to find out how to use it.

Kierram told her, “You have to hone your Venenatus Sanguis enchantments into it.”

“Can you teach me how to do that?”

“Absolutely!”

Advertisements

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a miracle!” Riley commented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The medic nodded. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have it,” Cody stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven’s Headquarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d you die?” Ethan asked him.

“I don’t know.” Joseph shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan stared at Joseph questioningly. “Three months?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

going to eat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know it does!” Gabriel replied.

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

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

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

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

John noticeably blushed, “No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not true!” Joseph disputed.

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph gently asked, “You ready to go?”

“Can I have a minute?” Ethan requested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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…