Sabotage, Chapter 20

She never thought she would ever see him again. That was always the goal, but until now, it didn’t feel real. She bellowed, “Papi!”

Hank, still in in his pajamas and robe, clearly had been stressed for a long time, but when he saw his daughter, his tension melted. He grinned broadly as he ran to her. “Carmen!” As soon as she got close enough, he scooped her up and hugged her tight. “Mija, thank god!”

Carmen, overwhelmed with emotion, hugged him tight and started to cry. All of the fear she felt vanished from inside her and came flooding out. when she was a little girl, her dad was a source of strength and comfort whenever she had a nightmare or got hurt, physically or emotionally. At thirty years old, she found that nothing had changed. Now that it was over and he was here, she had a chance to really process all of her emotions. She didn’t realize how scared she was before, but she felt safe now. “I’m so sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Sorry for what?” Hank asked, slightly surprised.

“I’m sorry for leaving you!” she wailed. “I’m sorry for making you worry about me! I’m sorry that-!”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Hank interrupted her. “None of that matters. All that matters is that you’re safe!”

In the midst of their hugging, Carmen heard a familiar female’s voice call out, “Carmen!”

Her heart fluttered. It just couldn’t be! Carmen lifted her head to see a blonde woman in her fifties who closely resembled her own facial features and wore army fatigues. “Mom?”

Greta smiled and ran to her. She got on her knees and grasped Carmen tight. “As soon as I found out you were in danger, they sent me back. Oh baby, you had me so worried!” Greta sobbed uncontrollably as she clutched onto her daughter.

After a moment, she glanced over to Zartex and Garith. Zartex bawled unabashedly, and even Garith seemed a little overwhelmed with emotion. As a couple of reporters greeted Garith, Greta and Hank reunited with each other. Carmen told them, “I gotta say goodbye to them.” Her parents were too busy hugging and kissing each other to say anything, but they nodded to acknowledge that they heard her.

When she approached Zartex, she wanted to ask how long he had left, but before she could, he informed her, “It’s almost time.”

Carmen felt a surge of sadness sweep over her. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything!”

“I know how you feel,” Zartex replied. “Literally, I have been watching your emotions this whole time!”

Carmen softly snickered and turned Garith. She was sure he would want to say goodbye to Zartex too. He chatted with his reporter colleagues, so she waited a moment. She didn’t want to appear as though she were eavesdropping, so she watched the crime scene investigators clean up the scene and listened to the rock music the park had turned on. She couldn’t help but hear what Garith had been saying, “Thanks again, Marge! Oh, did you guys hire my production assistant?”

As Marge revealed that she hadn’t, Carmen’s heart stopped. She felt hurt and utterly betrayed. Abandoning all pretense, she grabbed Garith’s shoulder, spun him around, and barked, “You lied to me!”

Completely confused, Garith responded, “What?”

“Remember in Utah, I asked you if you knew anyone that was hiring in the Bay Area?” Carmen vented. “You said you didn’t! That wasn’t true, obviously! You must’ve known that, with my theatre degree, that I could qualify to be a production assistant! You didn’t even consider me for the job! You must not think much of me! And to think I was starting to feel-!” She cut herself off right there. He didn’t deserve to hear anything positive about himself right now.

Garith, with a hopeful gleam in his eyes, stepped up to her. “Yes?”

“Nevermind!” She snarled. “I hope that article was worth it!”

Fuming, Carmen turned her back to him. She saw Garith struggle with a decision, but she didn’t care. As she walked away, something stopped her dead in her tracks. It was Garith, who cried out, “It’s because I love you, okay?”

Garith sighed and confessed, “Things at the studio grew tense as my marriage went sour, and after a bitter divorce, they made a rule about inter-office romances. I know you would be perfect for the job, but…well…The more time I spend with you, the more these feelings grow. I could pretend that there was nothing there, but every day I would see you, and they’d come right back. I would remember what an amazing woman you are, and I couldn’t resist your smile, your curves, your eyes…oh, those eyes!”

Carmen often wondered why certain people couldn’t accept a compliment, but now she got it. Garith was the kindest, bravest, and most handsome man she had ever met. She didn’t feel worthy to inspire these kinds of feelings in him. “But…I…I’m just…I don’t have much to offer. I’m a penniless, jobless thirty year old who still lives with her parents! How could I…How could you…?”

Garith stepped close to her again, putting his hands around her hips. “Hey, you’re enough! Okay, so you got some baggage. I can carry it! I’m real strong, remember?”

Remembering the day they met, Carmen laughed. Garith gazed intensely at her, and her heart fluttered. She couldn’t believe this was real! She didn’t want to admit to herself before, but those feelings that she couldn’t figure out before were romance. Her nerves were all lit up, and she relished in the fact that she would now get to experience the exciting type of love that she so ardently craved. Garith leaned in for a kiss, and her heart beat wildly….!

Suddenly, Garith and Carmen found themselves kissing Zartex’s cheeks! “Sorry guys! I really hate to interrupt, but it’s almost time for me to go, so could I…? One more time? Please!”

Carmen laughed, “Go ahead!”

“Yes!” Zartex exclaimed as the song Nothin’ But a Good Time by Poison played. They soon felt their world morph to a nineteen-eighties concert venue…

(Zartex, totally decked out like an eighties rocker,
sang into a microphone. Garith played the
guitar, Carmen played the tamborine,
Hank played the drums, and Greta
played the bass guitar. Garith and Carmen
stood together to sing back up. All of them
dressed like eighties rock stars.)
Zartex:     Now listen,
Not a dime, I can’t pay my rent,
I can barely make it through the week!
Saturday night, I’d like to treat my girl,
but right now, I can’t make ends meet.

I’m always working, slaving every day!
Gotta get away from the same old, same old!
I need a chance to get away!
If you could hear me think, this is what I’d say:

Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time,
and it don’t get better than this!

(Everyone abandoned  their instruments
and took turns singing into the camera.)
Garith:     They say I spend my money on women
and wine,
Carmen:     But I couldn’t tell you where I
spent last night!
Garith & Carmen:     I’m really sorry for the
shape I’m in,
I Just like my fun every now and then!

Hank:     I’m always working, slaving every day!
Greta:     Gotta get away from the same old, same old!
Hank & Greta:     I need a chance to get away!
If you could hear me think, this is what I’d say:

Garith:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
Carmen:      How can I resist?
Greta:     Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
Hank:     And it don’t get better than this!

(Zartex, now raised on a platform high above
the rest of the stage, sang as the other
four watched below).
Zartex:     You see, I raise a toast to all of us,
who are breaking our backs every day!
If wanting a good life is such a crime,
Lord, then put me away!
Here’s to ya!

(During the musical break, the other four
dance. During the guitar solo, Garith
grabbed Carmen’s waist, dipped her,
and kissed her passionately. The others
silently said rock on.)

(Greta and Hank dance together as does
Carmen and and Garith. Zartex sang.)
Zartex:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
And it don’t get better than this!

(Zartex’s stage leveled down to theirs and
he partied with them.)
Zartex:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
and it don’t get better than this!

(The audience, which consisted of the police and
the park workers, all sang with the five on
stage for the last verse.)
Everyone:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
And it don’t get better than this!

(As the song faded, the crowd cheered. Confetti
rained down on the stage. Greta, Hank,
Garith, Carmen, and Zartex took a bow.)

The world morphed back into the amusement park crime scene, but Zartex didn’t come back. A thick, azure blue light hovered over Garith and Carmen, who waved goodbye fervently with one arm while their other arm was around each other. Before the light disappeared completely, Hank saluted it with two fingers. Garith and Carmen watched it disappear. Though they were sad to see him go, they were proud of Zartex and really appreciated his role in their journey.

Detective Dinsung shook his head, pulling himself out of a reverie he didn’t remember having. He went over to where Zartex had stood, searching around the area in confusion. “Where did your friend go? We still have questions for him!”

“You wouldn’t believe it if we told you!” Garith replied truthfully.

“Is he coming back?” Detective Dinsung asked.

Hank answered, “He wishes!”

Totally confused, Detective Dinsung shook his head and moved onto another part of the investigation. Carmen grabbed Garith’s other hip, and they both snickered delightfully. Hank pushed himself between them, faced Garith, cleared his throat, and said brusquely, “Excuse me, who are you? I’m the daddy!”

“Papi” Carmen groaned. “I’m thirty years old!”

“What’s your point?” Hank surveyed Garith with high skepticism.

“Mister Alvaro, I’m Garith Kendric.” Garith offered him a firm handshake.

As Garith introduced himself, Carmen stood by his side. Greta joined Hank’s side and surveyed Garith in a very different way than her husband did. She met Carmen’s gaze and silently mouthed, “He’s cute!”

Carmen silently giggled as Hank and Garith got to know each other. After all the wondering about what laid on the other side of her journey, it laid out before her now. She may not have instantly found a job or ran into her own place, but she had something she hadn’t thought of-lots of love and support. In all of Mirage’s secrets to success, they hadn’t counted on how magical having these kind of people in one’s life could be. Money and status would come and go, but friends and family were a constant value that should never get discarded again! In a way, she felt sorry for the higher ups of this cult because they would never know this kind of happiness. They never had a chance because they were always chasing the next big thing. They focused so much on the future that they forgot about the now. The present was important too, and some moments and opportunities will leave if they aren’t captured immediately. She decided to stop worrying about the future and enjoy the bits of joy that would come her way in the present. The biggest lesson she learned was that she had no way of knowing any good or bad in her future, but if something good was here and now, she must savor it!

The End

Epilogue: On a clear television set, a judge asked, “How do you plea?”

The camera panned to Jorden, who stated, “I plea guilty.”

The camera panned to Arius, who stated, “Guilty.”

The camera panned to Elden, who stated, “Guilty.”

The camera panned to Lilith, who stated, “Your Honor, I plea guilty.”

The camera panned to Seth, who very begrudgingly stated, “Guilty.”

On the other side of the court room, Carmen, who now looked relieved, sat by her lawyer, Jayesh Chakrabarti. Garith, who sat in the audience behind her, put his hand on her shoulder. She put her hand on his hand, which showed a simple but very elegant engagement ring!

Munching on some popcorn and lounging on a white couch in a room with mostly white furniture, Zartex, back in alien face, commented delightedly, “Yes Oh, I love Earthlings-my favorite aliens!”

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Sabotage, Chapter 4

Just keep smiling, Carmen told herself as she unlocked the front door. Two of her roommates, Mario and Thomas, were playing video games, so their backs were towards the entry way. Carmen hoped she could pass the couch and slip into the hallway without speaking to them. They were two people who struggled in the company, and thanks to her advice, they were swimming in sales. Now she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad thing. As soon as she shut the door behind her, Mario grunted, “Tucker?”

She steeled herself up and answered, “Nope, just me.”

“Oh hey.” Neither of them looked away from their game, which Carmen was grateful for. Without saying another word, she slipped into the hallway and darted into her room.

Zartex sat criss-crossed at the foot of her bed. “I hope you don’t mind that I sat on your bed. There isn’t anywhere else to sit in your room.”

“No, that’s perfect actually,” Carmen responded. “The floors in these mobile homes creak a lot. My roommates and I can’t hide anything from each other.” She started to take off her winter gear and a thought occurred to her. “You…aren’t gonna watch me sleep too, are you?”

“No, of course not!” Zartex replied hastily. “I won’t learn much by watching your private moments like that. Are you changing? I could step out.”

“How would you know when I’m done?” Carmen could just imagine shouting ‘I’m done!’ after every she changed, went to the bathroom, showered, etc. Or worse, he could close his eyes and accidentally catch a glimpse every now and then.

Zartex pulled up his floating screen and pulled up a heart app. “It’s called an Emotional Reader. It reads a measure of energy my subject and I feel. If you’re sleeping, for example, it would show me your mood-unconscious, and mine, probably bored. I usually have an even keel. Only one things really stirs my emotions-music. Only certain music though, stuff with high energy. Try not to play music like that or I’ll go into an emotional overload. You wouldn’t like it when I go into an emotional overload!”

“Well, I can’t control what a customer might listen to in the field.” Carmen felt insanely curious yet dreaded what obstacle that this might prevent. “What happens during an emotional overload?”

Zartex revealed, “My energy beams into the atmosphere around me and everyone gets pulled into my thoughts. Whatever image the song pours into my heart basically broadcasts out and everyone gets transported into a music video-like experience.” Carmen gazed at him in utter disbelief. “You want me to show you?”

“No!” Carmen’s bewilderment of this fact was more unbelievable than the fact an alien was sent to Earth to observe her behavior. “How is it that you’ve never been discovered on our planet before?”

“Oh, only people who I’ve told about the E.O. effect actually remember it,” he explained. “Everyone else just blacks out a little.”

Carmen felt a jolt of excitement. “So, since you told me about teleportation, that means you can use it on me right? This solves so many of my transportation issues!”

Slightly guilty, Zartex informed her, “I can alter the area around me, but to actually make physical matter move from one place to another is different. It doesn’t work on carbon-based life forms.”

Disappointment washed over her. She sighed, “I’m going to get my jammies on in the bathroom.” Zartex twiddled his thumbs for a few minutes while she changed. She came back, threw her work clothes into the hamper, and grabbed her very square laptop. She sat on her bed like it was a sofa. “I catch up with my friends and family on social media after work.” She didn’t know why she was narrating her life to him except it felt awkward to sit in silence with someone else in the room. “Let’s see…a friend request from…ew, Garith Kendric!”

“Who’s that?” Zartex asked.

She replied, “A reporter from San Francisco. Reporters are always trying to talk to us and gain our secrets. I’m not a traitor though!” She paused as a flurry of ill feelings stirred inside her. “I don’t think so anyways. I mean, maybe I should. Maybe the world should know what’s going on. But what if I’m not being fair to Mirage? Okay, they’re kind of a cult, but are all cults bad? I have a future set up here-I just can’t imagine doing anything else! Oh, I don’t know! I don’t know how I feel! Zartex, how am I feeling?”

Zartex glanced at his watch. “Uncertain.”

“You don’t know?”

“No, that’s how you feel.”

“Oh!” Zartex was right, she thought. She kept cruising the internet, trying to distract herself enough to relax. If she didn’t know how she felt, she knew she couldn’t pressure herself to figure it out tonight. She could be on the verge of making a major decision, and that wasn’t something to do hastily. She had no other choice but to live her life normally until she figured it out.

The next day, a group of thirty professionally dressed people in their late teens to early thirties stood in a circle in an empty meeting room. Motivational posters lined up around two walls, a window laid on the third, and a giant white board roosted on the side opposite of the door where a bell hung. The people in the room stood with a pen and notebook in hand and wide smiles on their faces. Bob stood next to Carmen, who really hoped she had succeeded in fooling the room of her current mood. Bob whispered, “What’s wrong?”

Of course Bob would figure it out, she reasoned, he’s been her team leader/coach for years now. “Nothing. Just tired,” she fibbed.

Bob advised, “Don’t forget our treat-Arius Delaynie is here! Let his meeting jazz you up for the field today!” Carmen but said nothing.

Suddenly, a man with a fine Italian suit burst into the room. He had hair styled with gel, a five o’clock shadow that somehow made him look gruffly handsome, and the build of a former football player. His brown hair matched his eyes, except for the redness. Even though everyone figured he must always feel tired, he hid it extremely well and practically bounced off the walls. He had to-managers set the tone of the whole company. He exclaimed, “Hiiiii yaaaaa!”

“Hi ya!” the room chanted back.

“Hi ya!” he exclaimed again as he pranced over to the white board.

“Hi ya!” the room chanted again. Carmen briefly wondered what Zartex would think of their morning meetings’ rituals.

“Who’s ready to learn?” Arius shouted enthusiastically.

“Ohhhh yeahhhh!” they shouted back.

Arius concluded, “Great! Pens out, and get ready to gleam some knowledge!” Everyone eagerly awaited his presentation. Arius wrote on the board as he spoke, “Back to basics. We have some new people in the room who may not have heard this before, but old hats in the room, take notes too. Numbers are down, so I need to remind everyone the System of Success! THE VOBS! T-turn every corner! Leave no stone unturned! Search high and low-sales can hide anywhere and if you don’t check everywhere, you’ll miss some. H-hustle! Move quick; procrastination gets you nowhere. The faster you move, the quicker you find sales and complete personal goals. E-envy. Customers are people, and people want what they can’t have. Play on that! Remind them others have it and they don’t. V-voracity. People always want more-more bang for their buck and more things in their life! They love upgrades for a reason, remind them! O-optimism. Gloomy gusses don’t gain greatness. Focus on the positive and you’ll attract the positive. Any negative thought should get washed away! Your vibe attracts your tribe! B-big picture. When you’re out there and things get rough, don’t forget about the light at the end of the tunnel. Delayed gratification-we pay now so we can play later. Let your goals be the torch that burns brightly in the dark cave and let it comfort you when you need motivation. Lastly S-seize control! You are in charge! You dictate the conversation! You decide what you want the customer to do and accept nothing less!”

Carmen’s leg started to ache. She wished that they would sit down for these meetings. Actually, she really didn’t need to hear this meeting at all. They reused the same meetings every few months or so and just reworded it slightly to sound original. It was drilled so hard in her head that she could never forget them. Arius concluded the meeting, “The vobs! Never forget the vobs! The vobs will take you to success and…”

“Beyond!” Everyone but Carmen shouted. As Arius started talking about pricing changes, Carmen found her mind wandering. The giant blister from her frostbite must have been healing, but it still hurt. She tried to be a good worker and pay attention, but she found the subject to be dry. The sales tablet automatically updated pricing changes, but some people always get confused when this happened. She realized at this moment that she told herself that she loved morning meetings because she wanted to gain knowledge and help her future, but now she wasn’t gaining any knowledge. Morning meetings had become quite dull!

Colt stuck his big head in the room. Carmen admonished herself for thinking so, but all of his features just seemed larger than normal. He had big ears, big black eyes, and a big nose. His black hair clashed terribly with his pale skin. Carmen wondered why she criticized him so much in this moment. Incidentally, Colt pointed to her and motioned for her to come over. Carmen slipped behind everyone without their concentration and left the room.

At first glance, Colt’s office looked impressive. He had a big, dark stained oak desk that faced the door. The windows opposite of the door, which rested behind the desk, showed off a gorgeous view of the mountains. One corner by the door had a steel cabinet and the other had a trophy case. Carmen could understand how this exhibit of grandeur could intimidate yet amaze prospective employees, but interviewees probably never noticed the details that she saw after a few years-the various knicks and scuffs on the wood, the dust on the trophy case, and the files stacked so high that his picture frames could barely be seen. Carmen sat in one of the weathered leather chairs expecting bad news from him. He pushed over a form and simply instructed, “Can you verify that this information about your injury is correct for the workman’s comp insurance so they can pay your medical bills?”

“Oh!” Carmen felt a little relieved and a bit silly for fearing ill will.

Colt laughed warmly as if he could read her thoughts. He pushed his pen to her, but Carmen missed it causing it to fall to the floor. As Carmen bent to pick it up, Arius burst into the room. “Whoo! I love visiting the Grand Junction office! You totally suck at promoting people, but you keep ’em happy! Is my beer still in here?” Carmen stayed hidden from his view because she had a funny feeling that he was divulging information that would otherwise not be privy to her. Arius went into the cabinet, opened up a mini fridge, and cracked open a beer. He guzzled as much as he could and took a refreshed sigh. “I have them playing a game for ‘team work.’ I’m gonna go join them!” He laughed boisterously as he put the rest of the beer in the fridge. “Hey, keep up the cancellation rate! We’re racking in the dough!” He guffawed and left the room.

Carmen sat up and stared at Colt for an explanation. “He was joking!” Colt quickly countered. “He’s a kidder! Deep down, he’s a good guy. You should reach out to him. You’ve been here three and a half years, but it took him eight!”

“But, since our business model said that the average promotion takes a year or two,” Carmen mused, “Why would his manager keep him around for so long?”

“For the same reason I keep you around-you’re too nice of a person, too sweet and kind, for you to face the reality of quitting Mirage.” Colt suddenly had a look as if he just said too much and casually tried to cover it up. “Anyways, we’re good. Go back to the Semblance Room and remember to have a good day. I wanna start giving you interviews again!”

Later that day, Carmen laid flat on a twin bed that was not her own. The room matched hers except that it was blue and more bare. The lights were out, and a man with a somewhat husky body laid on top of her. Although he seemed pretty motionless, he grunted mightily. Carmen gazed vaguely off to the distance. He rolled off of her and sighed happily. Even though she called him her teddy bear, Carmen always found him to be very square. He had a square jawline, a flat top hair cut, and even somewhat square glasses. His glossy brown eyes sprinkled for a moment but suddenly darted to her. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Nothing,” she automatically responded.

He turned over to see her better. “You’re lying. You usually make way more noise when we make love.”

“Teddy,” Carmen decided to try some emotional honesty, “do you ever feel like you’re telling yourself that you enjoy our sex or do you seriously get satisfied?”

“What’s the difference?” Teddy chuckled.

“Oh, never mind,” Carmen relented. She turned away from him. “I think I’m just having wedding day jitters.”

“Ah, that’s normal.” Teddy wrapped his arms around her. “Plus, you’ll be away from the field for a whole week! I don’t think you’ve ever taken this much time off! It’s been a while for me too. It’ll be weird to have Lilith take over our accounting for a week. That makes me a little nervous.”

“I won’t earn any money during my time off, that’s scary!” Carmen tilted her head towards him and probed, “Teddy, do the managers make money even if the customers cancel?”

“The clients pay each branch a bonus for the initial sign up but get more if if the customers get it installed,” Teddy explained. “That’s why we gotta get you promoted! That way you won’t stress on sales or worry if a customer cancels. You’ll get paid no matter what happens!”

Carmen felt uneasy about this. She didn’t understand why the managers didn’t tell them this. Why didn’t they get a piece of the sign on bonus? What more secrets would she learn as manager? It started to be harder to even picture herself as manager. She half joked, “Since you’re a big shot regional accountant, couldn’t I just be your darling little housewife?”

Teddy laughed heartily. “Nonsense! You’ll be a great wife and a great manager! Now get some rest.”

Teddy kissed her cheek and fell asleep. Carmen couldn’t sleep. She stared at her ring. Teddy gave her a round cut diamond with more diamonds embedded in the band. She initially hated it-it seemed so garish! She learned to love it because of the sentimental value. Teddy really marked her as his trophy wife. She knew that they would be a power couple- Western Colorado’s head accountant and a soon to be regional manager. Her future spelled out simply before her, and a life of luxury awaited. It was the life that most people dreamed of, and many of her goals aligned with this vision. Simplicity was a treasure that everyone sought, so predictability was a good thing, right? One week and she would be a lucky wife. And how nice was it that her manager wouldn’t give up on her getting promoted! So, she now wondered…with all this before her, why didn’t she feel more excited?

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