Sabotage, Chapter 7

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

“Of, of course,” Colt replied shakily.

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

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

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

“California,” he supplied unhelpfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you saying I have big feet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This water is freezing!” Carmen complained.

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

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

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

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

“How do you know that?” Garith remarked.

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

Zartex inquired, “You mean like jewelry?”

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

“I use pads,” Carmen stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but-”

“Are you a skilled fighter?”

“No, but-”

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

“I’m not a paparazzi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?” Garith reacted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m okay with that!” Garith avowed.

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

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

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

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

“You can leave!” Carmen replied coolly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 16

Ashlynn was lying upside down on her couch with her head hovering over the floor. Her parents had the same furniture that they had when she was a kid. The couch matched the love seat, both were tan with black, plaid-like lines. They had a dark brown recliner facing the television. The entertainment stand was small, and next to that was a collection of DVD’s and VHS tapes. On the other side of the entertainment center was a cat tree where a gray cat slept. Ashlynn had the Golden Girls on the TV, but she appeared too lost in thought to be paying attention to it. Jon walked in and cocked his head, trying to figure out what his daughter was doing. “Are the Golden Girls more funny upside down?”

Ashlynn glanced over to her father’s direction but did not move out of that position. “I just blew my brains out trying to think of what to do about Tadd.”

Patty, who had overheard this, entered the room and stood with her husband. “Who’s Tadd? A new boyfriend?”

Ashlynn got completely taken aback by that question. She lost her balance and fell to the floor. She crashed into the coffee table that was in front of her, which woke up the cat. The cat howled and ran across the living room, running over Ashlynn’s body. Ashlynn picked herself up and sat on the couch. “Really?”

“Well, is he?” Patty inquired.

Ashlynn replied, “Tadd is my friend from high school. You don’t remember him at all?”

Jon remembered, “Oh yeah, he sounds familiar now. Too bad. We were really hoping you found a potential husband.”

Ashlynn raised her eyebrows. “You jumped from boyfriend to fiancee pretty fast!”

Jon and Patty sat on the love seat, but Patty spoke, “We need to talk about a few things now that you’re getting older. First of all, if you don’t use your baby factory soon, it’ll shut down forever!”

Ashlynn could not believe that they were having this conversation. She could not even fathom that notion at the moment. “What?”

Jon backed Patty up, “It gets harder to conceive a child when you’re in your thirties, and the pregnancies can be complicated. You’re our only daughter, and we want grandkids…”

Ashlynn did not entertain the idea. There was no way she was going to think of having kids at a time like this. “Too bad, you’ll have to wait. You want me to have kids? Really? I don’t even have my own place! Let’s focus on one thing at a time!”

“I don’t think it’s normal for a girl your age to not want a family,” Patty stated.

Ashlynn felt indignant. She always took things one day at a time and did not want to rush into a major life decision. She wanted a career, and if she got married right now, she would be a housewife. A traditional role of being a being a little wife and raising kids in a small house with a white picket fence did not entice her. She wanted to be married with kids one day, but it would not be conventional. She wanted an adventurous sort of life and did not want to pursue that right now. She simply told them, “I’m fine being single.”

Jon said, “Sweetie, we just want you to be happy. You don’t seem very happy.”

“Of course I’m not happy! I just hit my head!” Ashlynn pouted.

Jon pat her knee. “Look, you’re our baby. Yes, we still think of you that way. Even Sophia looks at Dorothy that way, and obviously everyone on the show is considerably older than us. When we see our child suffering, our hearts bleed. It’s painful to see our baby unhappy.”

Patty added, “You’re past the stage in your life where you dick around while trying new things and investing your time in stupid stuff. It’s time to think about what would make you happy and have a balanced life.”

Ashlynn thought about this for a moment. “Well, I supposed a good job would make me happy. Then I could get my own place and my own life.”

Patty debated this, “Yes, that’s a part of being well rounded. But family is important too, and how fulfilling would your life be by yourself?”

Jon agreed, “There’s no reason why you couldn’t build your career and find a boyfriend. A man could be a great support system for that, like Naveen was for Tiana in The Princess and the Frog.”

“You watch Disney movies by yourself?” Ashlynn kidded, “Practicing for those grandkids you don’t have?”

“Cartoons relax me.” Jon pouted.

Patty steered the conversation back to the original subject, “You don’t wanna focus on just your job, especially a job you don’t care about. I made that mistake before. I sold my soul to earn a lot of money. When I met your father, I realized that money wasn’t the most important thing.”

An idea struck Jon, “Have you thought about buying some space in the personal ads?”

Ashlynn almost had to translate that in her head. “Buy space in the personal ads? I don’t think I’ve heard that expression in over a decade. Most people just use dating sites and apps now.”

Jon grimaced. “Thanks for making me feel old, sweetheart.”

Ashlynn felt a little bad. “Sorry, Dad. I know how that feels. How do you deal with that feeling?”

Jon answered, “I go visit Pop in the nursing home. All his friends call me young man!” Ashlynn laughed.

Patty remarked, “I love that idea!”

“What? Visiting Pop?” Jon phased.

Patty shook her head. “No. A personal ad, or whatever kids use nowadays. Ashlynn could have some luck with that. I mean, it worked out for us, right?”

Things started to not add up for Ashlynn. She seemed to have come across something, and it didn’t make sense to her. “Wait, wait, wait! Earlier, you talked about selling your soul for a high paying career, but you told me when you met you were a waitress. You guys told me that Dad was in college studying for his finals for his engineering classes. He got hungry and couldn’t concentrate on an empty stomach. So, he brought his study material to the diner. You took his order, and, instead of a tip, he left his phone number. Where’s the personal ad?” Something dawned on her. “You lied Why would you lie? Could the way you met really be so bad that you kept a secret?”

Patty and Jon looked at each other, and Jon spoke, “Honey, I think it’s time we told her the truth.”

Patty consented, “You’re right.” She went under the entertainment stand and brought out and an old scrapbook. “I’m not ashamed of my past, but we made up that story because we didn’t wanna get judged.” She opened up the book to a certain page and laid it on her lap. “See that ad in the corner?”

Ashlynn looked at the page from an old Penny Saver. The page had a bunch of call girls that were all pretty but wore trashy styles of the early 1980’s. Patty pointed to a woman with huge, curly hair and black lace lingerie. Ashlynn laughed, “That hooker looks like you, Mom!” Patty and Jon had a somewhat guilty face. “Oh…my…god! You were a…? Ugh!”

Patty confessed, “I was never a waitress. I had a waitress costume though!”

Ashlynn decided to ignore that because she did not want that image in her head. She read outloud, “Hi! My name is Fantasy because you can live out all your dreams with with me. Big dicks only, please!” She glanced back up. “Wow! Mom, you were definitely a…So, it’s 1983, Mom is…Fantasy. Dad was, what, lonely? I don’t need to know why you were looking for a…” She cleared her throat. He seemed as thought hat he was about to explain, and Ashlynn interjected, “Don’t tell me! God, I don’t need to know that! So, why did you pick her? Was it love at first sight? Like, she was too pretty to be a…”

Jon slowly admitted, “Well, I wanted to live out this fantasy of-”

“La, la, la!” Ashlynn interrupted. “But Dad, why would you reply to an ad that said big dicks only? I mean, it’s not like you have a…”

Jon started, “Well, actually, I do have a-”

“Ew! Just stop!” Ashlynn  threw the scrapbook off her lap. She could not look at them. It was a lot to process. She could not believe her parents had a past like this. “So, what was the point of this story? You want me to start hooking?”

“No!” Patty explained, “I devoted my life to my career.” Ashlynn made a face when she called prostituting a career. “Meeting your father made me realize that I wasn’t happy. Change is tough, but having someone by your side as you make the transition could really make a huge difference. I quit that job, and we used my call girl money to put ourselves through college. It was scary at first, but we are both still working ,and we have a family and plenty of money and friends. You need to find a way to create that balance for yourself so you can be happy and start enjoying your life.”

Ashlynn knew that they were right, but she could not begin to fathom finding her prince charming when she was in a situation like this. She had no job and lived with her parents, a former prostitute and her customer who had a big…She could not finish that thought. “I’m gonna be sick!” She got up and grabbed her shoes and a jacket.

Jon asked her, “Where are you going?”

“I got your point, but right now I gotta drink ’til those images are out of my mind!” She looked back at them and shuddered. She grabbed her keys out of a bowl by the door and ran out. Patty and Jon heard her say, “Ew!”

 

 

Turning 30, Chapter 2

Ashlynn walked down the street absentmindedly sipping a soft drink that she got from a gas station. She felt amazed how she did not have to think about the route she took. It had been a very long time since she had been home, and yet everything was still muscle memory for her. A couple of shops had closed down, bu really, nothing had changed. Ashlynn didn’t really want the soda that much, but she had been feeling a little overwhelmed. She had to start completely over. She had no job, a shared home, and would have to establish a new social scene. So many things had gone wrong lately that she wondered when things would finally start to fall into place.

She passed by an apartment complex. It was two stories with doors close by each other. They looked cheap but well kept. The walls were light orange with a burnt orange tiled rooftop. Ashlynn used to walk by this route frequently because it was her first home. Her parents moved in as newlyweds and she remembered her early childhood was spent here. The walls were gray and the roof was blue back then. She used to play in the carport with her friends since there wasn’t a playground. It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, but she liked to pass by and think of fond memoriesof where it all began.

She noticed a woman smoking on the balcony of the second story railing. She had large, curly hair, thick-rimmed glasses, a pudgy body, and office attire. She looked exactly the same now as she did twenty years ago. She was her neighbor, Carla. She would often run into her while she lived there, and since she was such a chatty cathy, she would always stop her as she passed by to start a conversation. Sometimes it got annoying because she was so anxious to play with her friends. Carla eventually noticed that Ashlynn was in the vicinity, and Ashlynn did not realize she was staring and got embarrassed. Carla looked surprised at first, but then she smiled warmly. “Don’t I know you?”

“Yes ma’am,” Ashlynn replied. “We used to be neighbors. Well, I guess technically we are neighbors again. I’m moving back in..in the townhomes down the street.”

Carla conversed, “Oh right, you’re Jon and Patty’s kid! Didn’t you move to Manhattan?”

“I did,” Ashlynn responded. “I was the receptionist for a large real estate agency. But the business went under, and I ran out of money, so…”

Carla finished her sentence, “So you moved back in with your parents. That stinks!” Ashlynn made a face of agreement and nodded. “Ah, Jon and Patty are good people. You’ll be fine!”

“Thanks!” Ashlynn didn’t totally believe that but liked the sentiment.

Carla laughed. “At least you’re handling bad news well. A new chapter opened up for you too.” Ashlynn wondered if Carla was referring to herself or another person. Did she have some emotional baggage to unload on her? She suddenly felt like her childhood self and wanted to run away. Carla, however, caught her off guard by not referring back to that. “Listen, are you busy right now? Wait, you’re unemployed, so of course you’re not busy.”

Ashlynn was slightly offended by that comment. “I could be busy. I’m not, but I could be.” As soon the words left her lips, she knew the notion of her being busy anytime soon would probably turn out to be a lie. She really did not have a life anymore, and that thought made her feel kind of bad.

Carla seemed to sense what she was feeling but didn’t acknowledge it verbally. “Do me a favor, ‘kay? Watch my nephew while I run out real quick. I won’t be gone long.”

Ashlynn shrugged. “I guess I can do that.”

She walked across the parking lot and up the stairs. Carla put out her cigarette and thanked her, “You’re a life saver! He needs constant supervision, and I don’t mind doing it at all. I can even work from home on my laptop. I just need to run to my office and pick up some invoices.”

“Oh, I can handle a little babysitting. It’s gonna be…” Before Ashlynn could finish her sentence, Carla very hesitantly opened the apartment door. Ashlynn’s eyes opened widely in shock at what she saw…

The Blood Warrior Rebellion, Chapter 1

Mac stared out of the window at a small, medieval cottage, but all he can see is the flurry of white sheet that makes up a big snow storm. He could see his reflection and sees signs of stress-his normally neat black hair had gotten frayed and hinted of gray, his pale skin looked sallow, and his gray eyes were clouded with red. He turned around and saw the maiden, Amberline, combing her glossy blonde hair and admiring her red lips, strong cheekbones, and winking green eyes. He turned to the other side of the room to see her cousin, Sir Anthony, doing similar poses with his hand mirror. He rolled his eyes and turned away to a small sitting area where his wife, Holly, was nursing their young baby, Preston. In his opinion, his wife was the most beautiful woman in the world. He loved the way her red hair always seemed to bounce, and her freckled cheeks had a dimple when she smiled. However, taking care of Preston was a full time job, and now he felt sad that no one was really contributing to the cause. He sighed.

Mac knelt by the window and prayed, ” Oh Lord, is the Rebellion against the Blood Warriors going to work? It seemed like a brilliant cause, but now our hopes are as bleak as the weather! Should we keep on with the resistance? Send me a sign!”

At that moment, as if on cue, the door flew open, letting in the cold wind as well as a mysterious figure. Everyone in the cottage stopped what they were doing and either prepared to fight or run for their lives. They found that it was a young, peasant woman whose brunette hair was laced in snow, golden brown eyes covered in frozen tears, and thin clothes apparently failed to keep her warm. She would’ve been beautiful if she wasn’t so obviously miserable. Holly put her baby down in its crib and instinctively wrapped a warm blanket around the visitor. Anthony shut the door while Amberline poured her some freshly made tea. Mac stood up and greeted her, “Welcome, weary traveler!”

She replied, “My name is Kasmira. I believe in your cause, but I’ve hesitated coming here. I didn’t want you to share my family’s curse.”

“Family curse?” Holly responded, “What do you mean?”

Kasmira explained, “My grandmother, Rosalynn, grew up in a wealthy merchant’s home. She was mostly raised by her nurse since her parents were too involved with their own affairs to pay attention to her. It wasn’t an ideal family, but she was content. When she was around sixteen, her parents had told her they had been coerced into giving her away in marriage to the foreboding wizard, Garlord. Rosalynn argued against the idea, but her parents wouldn’t be swayed. When Garlord doesn’t get his way, those who caused his rage would feel a terrible wrath. They were perfectly willing to sacrifice their daughter’s happiness to keep Garlord appeased. My grandmother was stunned; she knew they were too busy to really care for her, but to condemn her life like this was too much for her to bear. In the middle of the night, while her parents slept, Rosalynn ran away from that place and hid so they couldn’t find her. That morning, Garlord came to collect his bride, and my great grandparents fearfully informed him that their daughter was nowhere to be found. Garlord was enraged because he needed a male heir so he could finally enter the Spirit World. He then put a curse of misfortune on all females in my family in punishment for what my grandmother did.”

“That’s awful!” Amberline replied.

Anthony inquired, “What happened to your grandmother?”

Kasmira continued, “After Garlord left, they immediately feared my mother’s curse. They coveted most their wealth, so they took all of their assets into their home and kept it all in a trunk under their bed to keep an eye on it. After a year of hiding among peasants, the nurse found Rosalynn and informed her that some thieves had heard about her parent’s hidden fortune, sneaked into house, slit their throats, and made off with their goods. Worst of all, Garlord still sought Rosalynn as his bride. Rosalynn tried to flee the country, but Garlord found her and forced her to marry him!”

“Oh no!” Holly reacted.

Kasmira went on, “It was horrible. He always treated her like a disobedient servant and forced her to fornicate every night until they conceived a child. When they finally had a baby, Rosalynn hoped for a boy so the nightmare could be over, and she was heartbroken to see she had given birth to a girl. Garlord was angry but he promised he would spare the baby’s life if they would continue to try for his heir as long as she lived. Rosalynn was grateful that her daughter, whom she named Bernadette, would get to live, but she now hated the idea of bearing the next generation of evil. So, once again, she ran away, only this time Garlord could never retrieve her. She ran into a lake and never came out!”

“What happened to Bernadette?” Amberline asked.

Kasmira narrated, “My mother was raised by Garlord, who was cruel and abusive to her. She spent day and night doing the wizard’s bidding. She would be beaten if she got it wrong. She only got enough food to barely survive. Bernadette knew that she didn’t have a choice since she was legally his property, but she longed for a better life. One day, when she saw a wedding procession go by, it dawned on her-if she got married, she would belong to another man and Garlord couldn’t do a thing about it. When she ran errands in town, she stole conversations with local men. Finally, a young page named Donovan took interest in her. She dropped everything and eloped with him. When Garlord found out, he was extremely angry and sought revenge. When he found Donovan, they fought hard. Somehow, my father managed to banish Garlord to the Spirit World.”

“So, your father broke the curse, right?” Anthony asked Kasmira.

Kasmira shook her head. “Defeating Garlord was the only noble thing Donovan managed to do. The fight shook up his senses, and he couldn’t handle it anymore. He became addicted to alcohol and would beat my mother whenever he was drunk. I was born in the middle of this chaos. He never beat me, but he certainly didn’t give a damn that I was around. I tried to convince my mother that what he was doing wasn’t right, but she wouldn’t listen. She always thought of him like a tragic little hero and was alright when he was sober. She made feeble attempts to keep him from the mead, but things stayed exactly the same. I grew up making vain attempts to have a normal life, but the curse haunted me. Every time I came close to happiness, some misfortune thwarted me. I knew there must be some way to get a better life, but I grew less and less optimistic. I didn’t think it could get worse, but then the Blood Warriors formed. I watched them hunt down people with traces of magical lineage, and I always wondered if they’d find out about our relation to Garlord. I never wanted us to be like those poor souls who were enslaved, tortured, executed…Then one day, while my father was at a pub, his drunken violence got him into a fight, and he ended up killing a Blood Warrior. King Davidson decreed that since he took one of their own’s life, he now owed them his life. He became a Blood Warrior. My mother and I went into hiding. Recently, while I was out gathering firewood, I saw that they found my mother and turned her in.”

Kasmira began to weep. Holly gave her a comforting pat on the back. Kasmira talked through her tears, “I heard about this small group of rogues that want to end King Davidson’s reign of terror, but I was so afraid of my family’s curse ruining things for you. But as time goes on, the horrors get worse. Tonight, I decided it was worth the risk. At least, if I die here, I would die like a hero. That is, if you’ll let me.”

Everyone looked at Mac. Mac kneeled down so he could look her in the eye. “I formed this group because we believe not only that we could rid the world of a terrible evil but that we deserve to live a happy life. If you want to fight, you have to believe that you are capable of such an existence. Do you think you could?”

Kasmira felt a little bewildered. “Be happy? I read fairy tales where the damsel in distress finds her prince and lives happily ever after. I once faniced that I could lead such a life, but now I doubt a prince would even talk to me!”

“Well, a prince will talk to you, technically, since we have Prince Orlando as a mole,” Mac said to her, “However, I see a brave young lady willing to fight for what she believes in. You may not believe in yourself, but I see a lot of potential.” Kasmira was pleasantly surprised. Mac smiled warmly and stood up. “As leader of this brigade, I bid you welcome! Kasmira smiled.