Sabotage, Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t!” Zartex jumped in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No you don’t,” Garith debated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” He perked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zartex yelled, “Yeah, a bear!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sabotage, Chapter 14

“Did you find anything?” Garith inquired. He sat on a cot in a room full of them. A few people were scattered around the room, but Zartex, Garith, and Carmen had this corner to themselves. Carmen perused through a box of donated clothes while Zartex played Cat’s Cradle on some colorful string.

Carmen replied, “When I get back on my feet, I’m going to donate more clothes to homeless shelters. Haven’t these people suffered enough?” She held up a particularly hideous tee shirt and made a sour face.

Zartex did a somewhat tricky move and reacted with, “Oooh!” Garith chuckled and flipped through a newspaper.

From across the room, Bette entered and shook hands with the volunteer in charge of the homeless shelter. She saw Carmen and greeted happily, “Oh, hi Joan!” Carmen didn’t respond, so she repeated, “Hi Joan! Joan? Joan!”

Garith looked up and saw Bette, so he nudged Carmen. “Psst! Joan!”

“Huh?” Carmen glanced up, and when she saw Bette, she remembered, “Oh right, that’s me!”

Bette strolled over to them and conversed, “What a coincidence! What brought you to Winnemucca?”

Zartex, while continuing his Cat’s Cradle game, told her, “Our legs did.”

Even though Zartex was being quite literal, Bette took it as a joke. She laughed, “Well, I was just on my way to a church event in Oregon, but along the way, it was starting to get late, so I decided to stay in a hotel. They gave me some free slot play, and I won! But, I felt guilty for gambling, so I figured if I donated the winnings to charity, I absolved my sin. Anyway, where are you all heading?”

“California,” Carmen said truthfully. She trusted Bette, so she felt safe in divulging a little, but in the dire situation Carmen got caught up, she couldn’t give anyone any specific details. She really hoped Bette didn’t ask where in California or worse, why.

“California?” Bette recalled. “Oh, there was a man looking for a group of travelers heading to California.”

Carmen and Garith dropped the things in their hands, and Zartex got surprised enough that he lost track of what he was doing and got tangled up in the Cat’s Cradle string. Carmen tried to remain casual. “Lots of people travel to California. That’s kind of vague details to give to people about who you’re looking for! What kind of man do you mean?”

“I’m not sure,” Bette thought back. “He was dark skinned, had a think accent, and a nice suit. He didn’t have a badge though, and I asked repeatedly for him to identify himself. He wouldn’t tell me who he was, he just said he was looking for escapees that had classified information.” Zartex, Garith, and Carmen all had pounding hearts. Carmen and Garith gave each other a confused gesture, but their eyes shared signs of worry. They all were afraid of what Bette may have told Elden about their whereabouts. Bette went on, “I just couldn’t trust someone who wouldn’t say who they were! He wouldn’t even say where these people escaped from! I didn’t trust him, so I decided not to tell him anything. Well, nothing truthful anyways. He could be a kidnapper for all I know, so I wouldn’t help him! I fed him a red herring and said that I saw them going to a club in my hotel. He was probably a fed, but he ticked me off! Screw him!”

Garith, Carmen, and Zartex all breathed a sigh of relief. Garith remarked, “Wow, you never struck me as someone who rebelled against authority!”

Bette grinned. “Ever since I took that bus to the BYU game, I can’t get the hippie era mentality of my head. To be honest, I kind of thought he might be talking about you three, but you guys are too nice to get captured by ‘the man!’ If it’s you, I would leave town right now while he’s distracted!” Bette winked at them.

“These travelers owe you one!” Carmen thanked her.

“Hey man, cool!” She gave them a peace sign and left.

“She’s right,” Garith said to Carmen. “We should head out before Elden realizes she tricked him.”

Carmen thought about it, and logically, it made a lot of sense. Something inside of her urged her to stay, but she wasn’t sure what reason it may have had. She thought about Bette, and it clicked for her. “No. If we leave, Elden will know Bette lied and will go after her. I think we need to go the club.”

“Uh, guys, a little help!” Zartex’s hands were bound together by his snarled string.

As Garith untangled him, he questioned Carmen, “How are we going to stop him from murdering us?”

Zartex suggested, “It’s a public place, right? He’ll get caught trying to kill you or kidnap someone. Just let him get caught up in his own game!” Garith freed Zartex, but there was still a knot in the string. “Aw!”

“Ah!” Carmen found a pastel pink, off-the-shoulder shirt in the box. “So, when was the last time you went clubbing?”

The three of them waited in line on a casino floor as the music from the club pounded away. Garith turned to Zartex and directed, “You’re not coming.”

“What?” Zartex objected. “Why not?”

“The music,” Garith explained. “We need to catch this guy, and we can’t afford an emotional overload right now!”

Zartex reasoned, “I can behave! I will! I will do it because I’m still at work and I’m supposed to be watching Carmen. I can do this!”

Carmen kidded, “Are you trying to convince us or yourself.”

“Both,” Zartex confessed. “I’ve never been to a club! Please!”

Carmen and Garith silently consulted each other, and Carmen relented, “Okay, but if you feel like you’re on the verge of an emotional overload, go outside!”

“Deal!” Zartex agreed.

As they got closer to the entrance, they saw a bouncer checking people’s ID’s. When it was their turn, they patted their clothes as if they were searching for their wallets, but the bouncer dismissed them, “Please!” He opened the rope and waved them inside.

The song “Worth It” by Fifth Harmony played as they came onto the dance floor, which was packed. The room itself had an old-fashioned disco floor, and the walls had a rustic, wooden appearance. It had a bar on the opposite side of the floor and a DJ jamming in front of the dancers. Carmen complained, “He didn’t ID us! Do I look old?”

“Well, you haven’t gotten a lot of sleep and your make up has worn off…” When Garith saw her glare at him, he changed his tune, “So, to answer your question, no! Definitely not!”

More people began to arrive, and the incoming crowd pushed them to the actual dance floor. Zartex stood at the edge, refusing to dance. Garith and Carmen got swept into the center. Not wanting to stand out, Carmen began to dance. Clearly, it had been a while since Garith did anything like this and moved stiffly. “Do you know how to dance?”

“What?” Garith put his hand to the side of his ear.

Carmen shouted into his ear, “Do you know how to dance?”

Garith yelled towards her, “Not really!”

“Oh, Cielo, you need to move your hips!” She put her hands on his hips and shook them. He seemed to enjoy that as he moved his hips more, and Carmen felt of jolt of pleasure from this moment too. Suddenly, she felt awkward and snapped her hands out of the way. What was that? she wondered. She shrugged and kept dancing.

Meanwhile, Zartex found it harder and harder to contain himself. He saw himself moving his leg a little, and he panicked a little. When he realized that no consequences came, he pushed the boundaries further by moving his leg more. Still, nothing happened. He now stared to bend his leg to an almost lunge and nothing happened. He felt giddy at this discovery and kept doing it. As Garith and Carmen moved on the dance floor, he continued this move while sliding to another end of the dance floor. People gave him a strange look, but he was having too much fun to notice.

At the end of the song, the DJ announced, “Alright, alright! It’s that time again-women’s hour!” The women in the club cheered. “You know what that means-the ladies want the eighties!” The women in the club cheered again, but so did some of the guys. “Let’s get funky with some old school jams!”

As he played Love Shack by the B-52’s, Zartex spotted Elden. He got close to Carmen, brandishing a knife. “Hey!” Zartex yelled as loud as he could, but no one could here them. Elden was about to stab her. No one could see him doing this, and Zartex couldn’t push through the herd of people to get to them. In order to save her life, he had to act fast. He let this song into his heart, and the world morphed into an eighties’ discotheque. All of the clubbers dressed in vintage, gaudy clothing with neon and other bright colors. Zartex commanded everyone’s attention as he got on top of the DJ’s booth and sang:

Zartex:     If you see a faded sign at the end
               of the road that says “Fifteen miles
to the-”
(Zartex pointed to Carmen & Garith,
who take over singing)

Garith & Carmen:     Love shack!

Carmen:      I’m heading down the Atlanta Hwy,
lookin’ for the love getaway,
headed for the love getaway!
(Carmen sang to Elden, who looked uncomfortable.)

Garith:     I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale,
and we’re headin’ down to the love shack.
I got a Chrysler, it seats about twenty,
so hurry up, bring your jukebox money!
(Garith now sang to Elden.)

(Garith and Carmen put their arms around
Elden, who looked confused and mad.)
The Love Shack is a little old place where we
can get together!
Love Shack, baby! A Love Shack baby!
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack!
Come baby, that’s where it’s at!
Ooh, love, baby, that’s where it’s at!

(Elden escaped, but Garith stood in front of him
to stop him.)
Garith:     Sign says “Stay away fools!”
‘Cause love rules at the Love Shack.

(Carmen turned Elden around and set him
back on the dance floor.)
Carmen:     Well, it’s set way back, in the middle
of a field.
Just a funky old shack, and I gotta get back.
Glitter on the mattress!
Glitter on the highway!
Glitter on the front porch!
Glitter on the highway!

(The dancers in the club circled around Elden,
who tried to find a way out and couldn’t.)
Garith & Carmen:     The Love Shack is a little old place
where we can get together!
Love Shack, baby! Love Shack, baby!
Love Shack, that’s where it’s at!
Love Shack, that’s where it’s at.

(As Elden tried to escape, Garith continously brought
him back to the dance floor.)
Garith:     Huggin’ and a-kissin’,
Dancin’ and a-lovin’,
wearing next to nothin’
’cause it’s hot as an oven!
The whole shack shimmies when everybody’s
movin’ around and around
and around and around!

(Carmen joined Garith as Elden began to
rhythmically fist fight with them. Carmen
and Garith rhythmically dodge him.)
Carmen:     Everybody’s movin’, everybody’s
groovin’, baby!
Garith:     Folks linin’ up just to get down!
Carmen:     Everybody’s movin’, everybody’s
groovin’, baby!
Garith:     Funky little shack!
Funky little shack!

(Zartex magically drives a giant, baby blue
convertible into the dance floor. Carmen
grabbed some rope from the back seat
and tied Elden up. Garith forced Elden
into the car.)
Zartex:     Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as
a whale,
and it’s about to set sail!
I got me a car, it seats about twenty,
so, come on and bring your jukebox money!

(The people on the dance floor wave goodbye as
Zartex drove them through the desert. Garith
and Carmen dance as they sit with Elden.)
Garith & Carmen:     The Love Shack is a little
old place where we can get together!
Love shack, baby! A-Love Shack baby!
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack!
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack!
Love Shack, baby, that’s where it’s at!

(They brought Elden to a rustic shanty in the middle
of the desert mountain top. They set him inside
and party around him.)
Carmen:     Bang, bang, on the door baby!
Garith:     Knock a little louder, sugar!
Carmen: Bang, bang, on the door baby!
Garith:     I can’t hear you!
Carmen:      Bang, bang, on the door!
Garith:     Bang, bang, on the door, baby!
Carmen:      Bang, bang!
Garith:     You’re what?
Carmen:     Tin roof, rusted!

(Elden struggled to get out as the three said
goodbye to him. They left the shack and
drove away, heading for the highway.)
Garith & Carmen:     Love Shack, baby, Love Shack!
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack!
Love, baby, yeah, that’s where it’s at!
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack!
Love, yeah, baby, that’s where it’s at!
Love, baby, Love Shack!

Zartex:     Huggin’ and a-kissin’,
Dancin’ and a-lovin’,
at the Love Shack!
(When the music stopped, the car came to a stop.)


After the music faded, they were temporarily suspended in mid-air. They fell onto their bottoms on a cold highway with frigid air and stars beginning to appear in the sky. They gazed at Zartex incredulously, wanting an explanation. Zartex defended himself, “Hey, I had an emotional overload for your protection!” Garith and Carmen looked highly skeptical. “He was literally about to stab you!” They seemed surprised by that answer but decided to accept it. Zartex stood up and said indignantly, “Uh, you’re welcome!”

He gestured an offer to help them up, which they accepted. They got up and began to walk towards a sign that told them how far away Reno was located. Carmen wondered, “Are we sure it’s safe? I mean, where exactly did we send Elden?”

Zartex shrugged. “I think we actually did leave him tied up in some shack in the middle of the desert. He’ll be there for a while.” Garith and Carmen laughed as the three of them walked towards Reno.

 

Sabotage, Chapter 9

Seth hovered over Elden’s shoulder as he scrolled through the Dropbox system on a company computer. Elden concluded, “It is no use, sir. Colt erased all of the company’s records on Carmen’s background!”

Seth raged, “Damn you, Colt!” Arius, who stood in the doorway with his arms folded, shook his head in disappointment.

Lilith silkily walked across the dark computer lab and nudged Elden out of his seat with her hip. “Amateurs! Scoot over!”

As she took his spot, she quickly typed in a web address. Seth scoffed, “You won’t find anything in Dropbox. That prick erased everything!”

Lilith leered, “Good thing I’m not looking in Dropbox!”

Seth, with his curiousity peaked, glanced over her shoulder. “Facebook?”

Without losing her concentration, Lilith explained, “People put their whole life on social media. Let’s see, she has a mother stationed in Afghanistan, so she wouldn’t be going there. Her father lives in Santa Cruz, California, which is where she listed as her hometown. Two of her featured photos have her father in it. She’s going to Santa Cruz.”

Seth appeared impressed but did not outwardly admit it. “She was spotted at an Amtrak station. She could have gone to Denver and flew to California. She may also be on the train. We need to figure out which route she went.”

Elden volunteered, “I’ll send recovery agents to Santa Cruz to scope out her father.”

“Thank you!” Seth turned to Arius. “Can you have men check out train stations that could get visited on the way to California?”

“You got it!” Arius winked and left the room.

Elden dialed a number on his cell phone. “Jorden Kasper? This is Elden Gundulf, head of security for Mirage.” He paused while the lady on the other line spoke. “Yes, you are right. This is about Carmen’s disappearance. She has secrets tthat cannot get revealed, and we have reason to believe that she may be heading to, or may already be at, Santa Cruz, California. Please send recovery agents to investigate.” The lady on the other end agreed and sounded like she had a lot of angry opinions on the subject.

Lilith cackled, “That’s right, you little bitch, you can run but you can’t hide!” Seth grinned maliciously.

On a construction site, Hank gave directions to some contractors. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of light. “What the hell?” He scanned the area but could not see a thing. He shook his head and continued his work.

Later that day, Hank played pool in a small bar with one of his buddies. They had a pint of beer and had a good chat as they played pool. His friend said jovially, “I don’t have a team! The Raiders lost my loyalty by moving to Vegas. They betrayed their fans who grew up watching them in Oakland.”

As he put chalk on the end of his cue stick, Hank argued, “They were in LA before they were in Oakland. If you’re a real fan, you’ll support them no matter where-” He stopped mid-sentence as he saw the same flash of light again. He abandoned his conversation and visually searched the side of the bar that the flash came from. He saw a young, stocky man in a suit staring at him in a cocky way. He knew it must have been him, but he could not prove it. He continued playing pool but had considerably less fun since he felt eyes constantly on him.

The next day, he was unloading groceries from his SUV when he saw a dark figure out of the corner of his eye. He gave an exasperated sigh and shouted, “She isn’t here!”

He turned around. At first, no one seemed to be there. Eventually, once he realized his cover was blown, the same man he saw in the bar emerged. Totally devoid of emotion, the man told Hank, “If you’ve truly done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.” Hank rolled his eyes and angrily shut his trunk. As he stormed into the house, the man across the street snickered.

Carmen, Zartex, and Garith sat on some rocks that rested next to a small, Old West building remake. In the distance, they could hear an actor portraying an old miner while giving a tour of the historic district. Zartex handed Garith his clipboard and clicked his pen open for him. Garith turned to Carmen and instructed, “Okay, let’s start from the beginning.”

“The beginning…” Carmen felt a flurry of mixed emotions. Before she started working for Mirage, she went through a lot of stress. Now that a little time had passed, she started to feel the emotions that she had buried. That line of work required a lot of focus on numbers and not feelings, and now she realized they went too far with that idea. She had to internally search for when her time with Mirage truly began, which was painful. If she had to go back in time, she wished she never came across them. Perhaps she could be leading a normal life right now! That thought gave her a proper starting point though. “Well, I guess it began before I even knew Mirage existed. I graduated college right after the stock market crashed, so it was hard to find steady work. Instead of going back to Santa Cruz, I stayed in Las Vegas to find work in my field. It was the entertainment capital of the world, so where better to find a theatre job, right? The best I could do was retail, and since the recession hit the city’s economy hard, lots of stores closed down. I gave up after a few years and tried my luck in Florida. I got a job at a community center teaching theatre. Things were okay for a while, but then the hurricane destroyed my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle didn’t want me to live in the shelter with them because rebuilding their house would take a while. I couldn’t live on my own out there, not with the lousy hours I got at work. I had no choice, I had to go back to Santa Cruz. I was tired of moving around and changing jobs, so I vowed to find something I could stick with. That’s when I saw this ad on Craigslist…”

“You weren’t at all skeptical of a job advertising on Craigslist?” Garith questioned.

“That’s not fair!” Carmen defended herself. “You have the foresight and know how the story ends. I found jobs and roommates on that site before, so I had no reason to doubt it. I saw a place saying that they were looking to train a high amount of managers and didn’t require a lot of experience. Everything they promised seemed so appetizing to me.”

“They offered food to bribe you to work?” Zartex asked.

Garith answered him, “She didn’t mean a literal hunger.” He paused because he had just thought of something. “How come you never eat?”

“I only need to eat once a month,” he replied. “I ate enough to survive while I’m here.”

Garith seemed skeptical of this information but shrugged and went back to his notes. “So, they advertised management and promotions. What else?”

Carmen had to practically rewind her brain to remember the ad. “Training from a peer mentor. They said there was the ability to make a six figure income. Coworkers offered a family-like environment…”

Garith surmised, “In a weak economy, they took advantage of the people who were victims of all the financial setbacks. I can see why a lot of people may be attracted to that. It’s not often people with no experience can make a lot of money.”

That sparked a connection in Carmen’s mind. “Voracity. They applied THE VOBS to recruit! That’s the key to this all! It’s what they’re trying to prevent me from leaking!”

Garith and Zartex stared at her in confusion, but before Carmen could explain, they heard the sound of spurs clinking onto the desert floor. Garith whispered, “Part of the tourist attraction?”

“A miner is giving the tour, and they’re heading in the opposite direction,” Carmen said quietly.

They heard the footsteps getting closer. Zartex quickly transported the paper in Garith’s hand through a program on his phone. Garith stood up and blocked him to protect the view of what he was doing. Zartex made the paper disappear just in time because before they knew it, an unfriendly-looking man stood before them in a black cowboy outfit. He leered, “What are y’all doing away from the tour group? Hmm? It’s like you don’t wanna be seen…”

Zartex sprung up at that moment. “We were doing drugs! You know, illegal stuff…” Carmen and Garith nodded vigorously in agreement.

The man seemed suspicious of this response. “You mind if I take a look?”

“Sure, we have the drugs right…” Carmen bent down to the ground. “…here!” She threw a fistful of sand in his eyes. The three of them ran away, which incidentally took them towards the tourists. The man, now visible to the crowd, fired a gun at them. The crowd gasped and awed as if they were watching a play. Garith shouted, “Not part of the show, people!”

They pushed past the crowd, and the man chased them. They came across a fake gold mine with a cart on a real track. Garith and Zartex hid around the corner while Carmen hid closer to the cave. When the man came into their vicinity, Zartex quickly stretched out his leg, tripping the man. Garith pushed him into the cart, and Carmen pushed the cart, sending him flying into the makeshift cave. As they ran away, they heard a crash come from the cave. They knew this bought them some time, so they ran away to get a head start.

When they came back to the fake Old West town, the tourists clapped politely. “Good show!” one woman cheered.

A man complained, “That was an unsatisfying chase scene! You hardly ran far, and it was over way too quick. You could’ve done more to make it more exciting!”

Garith seethed, “Sorry that our desire to live got in the way of your entertainment!”

As they continued to retreat, a young boy asked, “Why is she wearing a tutu? They didn’t have that in the Old West!” The three ignored the tourists as they continued to escape.

They retreated to a Catholic cathedral and shut the door behind them. They breathed heavily but felt relieved to get a break. A couple of old nuns gazed at them curiously. The three of them waved hello as cheerily as they could portray themselves to be. The nuns raised an eyebrow but decided not to ask questions. As they got back to their busywork, Garith asked Carmen, “Who was that?”

“Probably a recovery agent,” Carmen replied breathily. “They get called when someone goes missing in each region.”

Garith probed, “Seriously, that didn’t raise any red flags for you?”

Carmen hissed “I thought they were helping! I got duped, okay? I get it. Can stop rubbing it in? Don’t you think I’ve feel bad enough?”

Zartex butt in, “It’s scary how the things about Mirage that you thought were designed to help you were actually hurting you!”

Carmen couldn’t help but agree, but she didn’t say it outwardly. She went to a pew and braced herself. She felt so much rage burning inside her. She couldn’t believe that she allowed herself to get fooled. She hated that they used her for their own ill gain. She loathed the fact they made her homeless and an outlaw. She had to walk across two states in a ridiculous outfit with people that got on her nerves. Nothing about this journey would be easy, and she had a hard time believing that their struggles would lessen anytime soon. The fact that made her the most angry was that while she had escaped, there were thousands of people still out there still going through all of that. They were all brainwashed into thinking their misery meant something and that they had no choice but to go forward with the cult’s program. People signed up for this not knowing what they were getting into. That really incensed her and motivated her to proceed with the article. She turned to Zartex and asked seriously, “Did you send it to him?”

“Yes,” Zartex answered. “Are you sure that he can hide it from them?”

“Yes!” Carmen asserted with absolute certainty. “They will go after him, but he’s clever enough to keep it hidden. He will have tons of questions later though!”

“I should hope so!” Garith remarked. “A paper appears out of nowhere with bits of random information, any rational person would have questions! Speaking of questions, if your paper isn’t carbon based, what is it made of?”

Zartex laughed, “Material from a plant on my planet, both of which you’ve never heard of!”

All of a sudden, they heard a gun cock behind them. Fear flooded their bodies as they turned to see the recover agent, thoroughly roughed up and holding a gun. They didn’t see a way out of this situation and started to panic as if they were done for. At that moment, the two nuns appeared behind him, and one of them hit him on the head with a candelabra! He dropped his gun out of surprise but could not recover it as the two old nuns beat him with candelabras. They scolded him, “How dare you soil our sacred grounds! This is the Lord’s house! You don’t sin in our holy place! Especially against those who seek sanctuary!” They continued to beat him as they chased him out the door. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith watched in both impressed and humorous views.

Zartex was the first to break their silence, “So, now what?” Carmen and Garith simply shurgged.

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!”