Sabotage, Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zartex answered truthfully, “Escaping the police!”

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

“Where’s Fair Oaks?” Garith wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning 30, Chapter 25

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

They all replied, “Nah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy birthday, Tadd!” Ashlynn exclaimed.

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

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

 

The End

Turning 30, Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie questioned, “Tadd? Tadd who?”

“Oi!” Lavena exclaimed.

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

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

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

Without thinking, Tadd answered, “No.”

“Lies!”

“Untrue!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Tadd, baby?” Brie cooed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

“But…but I…I…!” Cera stammered.

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

Feliz explained, “Cera is drunk.”

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

Feliz told Davida, “She is VERY sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t ready!” he lamented.

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

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

“No,” Feliz answered.

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

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

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

“Cera will be here all night probably.”

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 20

Ashlynn hung out in Lavena’s living room. The mismatched furniture, though in good condition, looked as though she got them free from various online sites. Lavena has random decor, and although the house is blanketed in toys, it appears very clean and well maintained. Lavena also had several framed pictures of her two kids,and they could be heard playing in the back rooms. Both Ashlynn and Lavena were on their laptops. Ashlynn commented, “I can’t believe how many people post ads for jobs and have huge descriptions but never say the name of company! Who applies for these jobs?”

Lavena laughed but kept scrolling on her laptop. “I love these dating sites! It’s like shopping for men!” Michael ran up and stared at her. “Oh, I got a message. It’s from Ramrod sixty-nine. Oh yeah, that sounds like my future husband!”

“Mom!” Michael said.

Lavena ignored him to finish her thought. “My profile clearly says that I want someone who would make a good father…”

“Mom!” Michael repeated.

Lavena, again, ignored him. “So he says ‘You can call me daddy!'”

“Mom!” Michael repeated.

Lavena kept talking even though Michael continued to repeat himself. “Isn’t that lovely? What kind of mom do they think I am? As much as I want a man, I am a mom first! These guys are my angels-I love them so much!” Michael’s repetition finally got under her skin, so she screamed, “WHAT? What is so important that you feel you need to keep interrupting me when I’m talking?”

“Can I go to the bathroom?” Michael requested.

That question flabbergasted Lavena. “Since when do you need my permission to go potty?”

Michael answered with another question, “Did you fix it?”

“Fix it? What hap…?” She put down her laptop and decided to investigate for herself. She made a beeline for the bathroom, and a moment later, she yelled, “Are you kidding me?” Lavena stormed into the living room. “Hannah, get your butt in here!” Hannah sheepishly walked into the living room. Both kids hung their heads guiltily. “Who flushed Spiderman down the toilet?”

Hannah inquired, “How did you know it was Spiderman?”

Lavena put her hands on her hips and gave Hannah a stern look. “You can see part of his arm still. Hannah! Why did you do that?”

Hannah abandoned all pretense of innocence. “He broke my Tiana doll!”

“I tripped on her by accident!” Michael defended himself.

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“SHUT UP!” Lavena interjected. They recognized that tone and came to attention. “You’re both in trouble! And you’re going to get punished as soon as I’m not angry enough to land an episode on us on Snapped!”

Michael and Hannah gave a remorseful expression, and Lavena paced to try to calm down. Ashlynn joked, “I can see what you mean about them being angels!”

“Of course they have a dark side-they get half their genes from their father!” Lavena stopped pacing and thought for a moment. “It’s Sunday, so I can’t call the super. Michael, Hannah, you’re on time out! Ashlynn, can you keep an eye on them while I try to unclog the toilet?”

“No problem,” Ashlynn consented. Lavena looked irritated but somewhat mollified as she went to the bathroom to fix the toilet. Michael and Hannah stood in separate corners of the living room, and Ashlynn kept an eye on them as she scrolled through Facebook. Michael tried to peek, and all Ashlynn had to do was point at him to get him to behave. Suddenly, she saw something troubling on her screen. “Uh oh!”

From the bathroom, Lavena shouted, “What did they do now?”

“Nothing,” Ashlynn explained, “But I noticed that Tadd used to post things on Facebook several times a day, but he hasn’t posted anything in a couple of days. And the last thing he posted was a Sylvia Plath poem…”

Lavena came into the living room with the plunger in her hand, and she looked kind of scared. “But we just saw him! I guess that was a couple days ago…”

Ashlynn started, “He hasn’t returned my texts either. You don’t think he would…”

Lavena and Ashlynn looked at each other with fear. They rushed out of the apartment. Out of curiosity, Hannah and Michael followed them.

Ashlynn and Lavena burst into Tadd’s living room, fearing the worst. Their hearts were pumping, but they felt a rush of relief to see Tadd laying on his couch watching the music video for “Gangsta’s Paradise” in a trance-like manner. He reacted to their entrance by gazing at them in confusion. Ashlynn, relieved, said breathily, “Tadd! You’re okay!”

“Physically or emotionally?” Tadd asked, half joking. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

Lavena explained, “You haven’t texted us in a while, and we saw this depressing poem on Facebook…”

“Oh that,” Tadd told them, “I reposted that ’cause it’s supposed to raise suicide awareness. But they cut off my internet three days ago, and I’m running low on texts and data. I’m having trouble paying my bills since I’ve been too depressed to take any catering jobs.”

Ashlynn sat by him on the couch. “You’re scaring me! You love to cook, I remember that from when we were kids. Wouldn’t you rather be doing that right now? Why are you here watching old school music videos?”

Tadd told them sadly, “I watch this one all the time. It was…our song!”

Lavena reacted, “Your song? Wha…?”

Hannah went up to Tadd and told him a story, “When I was in kinny-garten, everyday, we would walk in, put our backpacks away, and listen to Miss Rastmusen talk, and then we go do worksheets, and then we went to room two to play, and then we did learning games. Then it was recess. Then we would do more work…” Tadd tried to hid his confusion and listened politely. Ashlynn looked amused while Lavena felt like she should say something but let her keep going to see if she was going anywhere with this. Hannah continued, “and we lined up. If we did good, Miss Rastmusen would give us a sticker. Then we did free time. The mommy would come get me. Miss Rastmusen gave me a hug goodbye. It was my favorite thing.”

“Uh huh…” Tadd tried to follow the logic of her telling him this story.

“But then it was summer, and I didn’t go to school. I was so sad ’cause my friends were gone, and I missed my teacher. Then it was first grade. It wasn’t the same as kinny-garten. There was no room two, and also, the worksheets were harder. My teacher didn’t hug me. But it was okay ’cause I saw my friends again. I finded new things I liked about first grade, like Mrs. Underhill taught us about animals! It was weird, but I liked different things.” Hannah concluded, “Sometimes good things go away, but it’s just a for a little while. It’s not the same, but you find your new favorite things and feel better. You were happy before, but you can be happy again. You just need to find your new kind of happy!”

Everyone was surprised by the depth of her story. It ended up having a very touching, heartwarming effect. Tadd’s eyes well up, but they do not look like sad tears. Michael and Hannah give him a hug, which he found surprisingly comforting. Ashlynn and Lavena both cooed, “Awwww!”

Lavena was close to tears herself. “My angels!”

Ashlynn felt very touched by the emotions of the moment, but her thoughts on the subject got interrupted by a text message. She looked at her phone and frowned. “Uh, guys…!” They all gave her full attention because of her tone. “Cera signed us up for a speed dating event…”

Lavena growned, “I’ll go call the babysitter!”