Sabotage, Chapter 5

“I can’t breathe!” Carmen croaked. She always knew this day was coming, but it felt like a fantasy this whole time. Carmen had a comfortable rut for the last three years that she realized that she never really liked but had become accustomed to this lifestyle. Even on bad days or weeks, she could foresee the consequences of her actions. On the flip side, once the wedding finished, she knew her path. After her honeymoon, she would move in with Teddy and work on becoming manager. Today was a different story though. Today felt as though it would never come. Yesterday, she was in the field as normal. She didn’t felt any pressure during the week to make sales because she couldn’t earn any interviews while she was out of town. That level of indifference should’ve garnered her some promising sales, but it didn’t. When she got back, she would have to work really hard to get sales so that she wouldn’t have to scrimp so much. That was a normal thought on a normal day for her, but today was far from normal. The change she spent so much time working toward was upon her, and she wasn’t ready!

She gazed at her stricken expression in the full length, antique mirror. She had a v-neck bodice with a lacy flower pattern that went down to her waist with a tiered tulle skirt that flowed down to the floor. Normally, stilettos hurt her feet, but she couldn’t feel anything right now. She had her make up professionally done, and they had added heavy eye shadow and lots of blush, a level of cosmetics she had not dealt with since her theatre days. She didn’t have her hair in an up-do but only because the veil,which her maid of honor would bring soon,had such an intricate template. She reminded herself of a Barbie doll that she had in the nineties! The gown itself was worth more than she made from a whole month of sales. Every detail down to the most minute facet wreaked of luxury. This was the moment every woman dreamed of, and so now she wondered why she didn’t feel more excited.

The gossamer curtains of her preparation tent ruffled. The area was now empty except for the mirror and various things left behind from her bridesmaids. From one of the flaps at the entrance, Lilith entered. She commanded the attention of any room she went into. Her ivory skin was so smooth that people often forgot that she was in her forties. She had chestnut colored hair with a natural bounce, and her piercing brown eyes could terrify even the meanest person around. She wore a lavender chiffon gown with an empire bodice and a sweetheart sweep train, which made her look like a fierce princess. She could hardly believe that the vice president of Mirage agreed to be her maid of honor! Then again, Lilith was the one that set them up in the first place. She brought in Carmen’s elaborate rose bouquet and ornate flowery veil. Lilith leered, “Uh oh! Someone is getting cold feet!”

“This is different!” Carmen wailed. “I’ve gotten butterflies in my stomach before, plenty of times! Before running my first meeting, before my first play I was in…this is bigger! I’m scared! I’m petrified! I…I can’t breathe!”

Lilith straightened Carmen up and started to put on her veil. “It’s just nerves! You and Teddy are perfect for each other! That’s why I set you two up. I’ll never forget the day he first laid eyes on you. While I was in the western Colorado main office, he happened to see a picture of you on my phone. I just got off the phone with you after a one-on-one, which, by the way, I normally never do for anybody who isn’t a manager, so Teddy saw your picture ID. Teddy said he never saw anyone so beautiful! Just wait ’til he sees you today!” She heard music starting to play. “That’s my cue. I’m so proud to be your maid of honor! See you soon!” She winked and left the tent.

Carmen knew that she needed to walk to the other pier, but she was having a hard time moving. Zartex pulled up the back of the tent and checked in, “Oh good! I thought you were dying! Your emotional reading is off the charts!”

“I can’t do this!” Carmen shrieked.

Zartex slipped into the tent and encouraged her by saying, “You’re scared, but you get scared a lot. In the past week, I’ve seen you constantly brave your fears and knock on all of those doors. Do you know how many people fear all of that? Talking to people, going to strange houses, failure…Yet, you always persevere! I’m quite convinced you can overcome anything! Are you telling me that you don’t have the nerve to participate in this ritual?”

“Yes!” Carmen cried out. “I got good at ignoring my feelings for work, but I can’t ignore this Even on the days I got a serious injury I didn’t have anxiety like this! I feel like I’m walking into my own funeral!”

Zartex pointed out, “Well, you have to do something! You can’t stay in this tent forever!”

“You’re right!” Carmen bitterly admitted. “As we said in theatre, the show must go on!” She took a deep breath, opened the tent flaps, and marched outside.

As she stood on the old pier, a cold wind hit her face. She heard the attendees gasp in admiration as she stepped out. She jerked her head over to the other pier, and everyone looked like ants. She would have to walk fast to catch up. The sound of her heels hitting the pier seemed so loud. Everyone of note from Mirage and all of the Grand Junction office were there. She could see Seth Dabria, the president of Mirage, take a picture with a digital camera. It was hard to tell one person from another from a distance, but she knew it was him because he always wore the loudest suits. Today was no exception; he wore a purple plaid suit with a periwinkle tie! He always wore his Buddy Holly glasses, and the only ordinary thing about him was his brown, curly hair. The president and the vice president were there to honor her, so she should feel grateful, right?

Teddy stood at the alter waiting for her. As she quickened her step, she thought about how often people congratulated Teddy for finding a bride like her. They were happy for Teddy more than her. She never really thought about it before, but they never really made a big deal about her milestones. Why, in exactly two weeks she would be turning thirty, and no one had mentioned it yet, just like all her other birthdays. Her big days were never a big deal. In fact, she reasoned that Seth, Lilith, and the other executives were way closer to Teddy than her, so most of this ceremony was celebrating Teddy. They were all here because Teddy wanted to marry her, just like they wanted her to be a manager for them. Suddenly, she realized this whole thing was never about her! The field, the promotion, the wedding, they weren’t about her goals or needs. Sure, some of it fit her long term goals, and they knew that! They sold her on the idea to help them, not her! So no, they weren’t there to honor her, and they won’t make a big deal on her milestone birthday either. And they never would! This was the first day of the rest of her life!

Instinct overtook her body. The truth radiated through her body, and she stopped dead her tracks. The wedding party stared at her in bewilderment. She knew what she had to do. She turned around swiftly and ran in the other direction. She could hear chairs scraping and people rushing over. She couldn’t let them catch her. She didn’t know why, exactly, she needed to avoid them, all she knew was her intuition told her to run! Run! And never look back! Before they could get any closer, she jumped off the pier and into the lake!

Carmen sank down but bobbed back up a little. She then swam over to under the dock. She got her head above the water and took a deep breath. She heard almost the whole wedding party calling her name, so she knew eventually they would peek under the dock. Serendipitously, a motor boat jetted in her direction. She quickly pulled off her veil with one hand, and as the motor boat passed by, she threw the veil on it. She heard Arius shout, “She’s on the boat!” Everyone ran off the pier, and Carmen hid behind one of the support poles. She watched them all run along the lake shore, and once they were far enough away, she swam to shore.

Carmen could feel her heart pounding rapidly, and all of the nerves in her body were stirred. She ran for the nearby woods. Soon they would discover that she was never on that motorboat and would come looking for her. She had no time to ponder why her instincts told her to escape them, but she trusted her intuition. She ran, and she kept running as fast as she could. She ran and ran, dodging every bush and gnarled branch in her path. Suddenly, part of her skirt got caught onto some shrubbery. Panic flooded her body as she heard footsteps in the distance. She ripped off the bottom layer of her dress! When she freed herself, she heard footsteps coming from multiple directions. She spun around frantically, trying to figure it out. All of a sudden, Zartex appeared before her and commanded, “Stay hidden!” He threw her up into a tree.

After recovering from the momentary shock of getting flung into the air, she clung onto a large branch well above the ground. She laid on her stomach and watched the scene below her. Zartex must’ve teleported out of there. She didn’t move and even tried to slow down her breathing, although they worried that they could hear her heart pounding inside her ears. From one end, she saw Seth, Lilith, and a few executives searching across the forest floor. In the next moment, Seth held out his arms to stop the others as they glared at someone approaching from the other direction. Seth forcibly pried, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Carmen caught a glimpse of the man from the back. He wore a brown suit, so Carmen’s curiosity was roused; what would someone like that be doing in the middle of the woods? She couldn’t tell if he was young or old, but she guessed that he must be somewhere close to his age since his dirty blond hair had no gray. From the sound of his voice, he projected strength and knowledge. The mysterious man pushed back, “I was gonna ask you the same thing! What business do you have here?”

Lilith seethed, “We’re looking for a fugitive!”

Most men would cower when Lilith gave them a stare down like that, but this man had the bravado walking up to her and staring at her dead in the eye! “Oh, you’re federal agents? I don’t like your type! Just ask your friend in that clearing!”

“A friend in the clearing?” Seth inquired skeptically.

“Yeah, let me help you get reacquainted.” The man reached into his back pocket as if he was pulling out a gun. Seth, Lilith, and the others unwillingly backed away.

Carmen didn’t move. She didn’t want to get mixed up with gangsters at a time like this, but somehow she didn’t think he was dangerous. There was something about his aura that made her trust him. He stood in the same place with a fixed stare in the direction where the Mirage executives came from. After what seemed like an eternity, the man gently instructed, “You can get down now, Carmen.”

Carmen’s heart fluttered at the mention of her name. She wondered how he could possibly know who she is! She hesitated as she silently debated if coming down would throw her from one danger to another, but since he already knew she was there, she didn’t have much of a choice. She couldn’t just stay in the tree! Besides, her nerves had calmed down, so she took that as a cue to follow him. She gingerly climbed down and saw him holding his arms out to catch her. She wanted to get a little closer so her fall didn’t have too much of an impact on the mysterious man, especially if he could turn into her ally! At that moment, a branch snapped, and she lost her footing. She fell threw a few more branches and…smack!

She landed on top of the man on her back causing the man to fall onto his back with a huge grunt. Carmen anguished, “I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”

He breathed, “Get off! You’re too heavy!”

“Excuse me?” Carmen replied, slightly offended.

Zartex appeared and grabbed her by the hand. “I think he’s having trouble breathing ’cause you’re on his throat.”

Carmen took Zartex’s hand, and the man got up, gasping. Carmen apologized, “Are you okay? I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly!”

“It’s okay; I’m real strong!” the man responded breathily.

Carmen finally got to take a glimpse at his face. He had kind, blue eyes and facial features that conveyed a mix of fortitude and softness. He did seem to be in good shape as he claimed. It took her a while to realize that she had been staring at him too much, so she looked away shyly. She couldn’t believe that, for a moment, she forgot about what danger she was in or that she had a lot of hurt from the past that made her miserable. She remarked, “Thank you for helping me! You seem to know who I am, so can I know who you are?”

“Garith Kendric,” he told her.

“The reporter from San Francisco?” Carmen got surprised by discovering this, but then it occurred to her that she recognized him from all of his social media friend requests. “What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Garith explained hastily, “I came to spy on a big corporate wedding, but now I’m here to rescue you!” Now that he had recovered from the fall, his senses were reawakened. He finally registered that Zartex was there and made a strange face. “Who is this?”

“Zartex the alien!” Zartex held out his hand.

“What?” Garith didn’t believe him, but he didn’t have time to object. He absentmindedly shook his hand and notified Carmen, “Whatever. Look, they’ll be back soon, and we gotta get you out of here! You’re in terrible danger!”

Zartex grabbed Carmen’s hand and ran in the direction he came from. Zartex followed them as Garith led Carmen through the woods. Carmen felt compelled to ask, “I know I’m in danger, but could you explain to me exactly why I suddenly felt like I was at death’s door?”

Determinedly focused ahead, Garith told her, “Because you’re escaping from the world’s most dangerous cult!”

Sabotage, Chapter 1

Crunch, crunch, crunch! Carmen watched her faux-fur lined boots tread carefully along the snowy riverbank. She always felt like a penguin in this weather because of the way she walked. Plus, she had to keep her arms out for balance. Even if she wanted to put her arms down she couldn’t considering she had to wear five layers. She always hated wool growing up in California, but Colorado’s frigid weather changed her tune on that! She couldn’t tell if her jacket felt so still because of the temperature or the cheap material that Aeon Purl used to make them. The wind beat against her, and she cringed as it brushed through the small holes in her gloves. She looked behind her just to see if she made any progress. The trees from the neighborhood she just came from looked a little smaller. She used that to motivate herself. She still had time to make her sales goal. She kept putting one foot in front of the other, not letting herself get distracted by her abnormally pale skin. She made herself ignore her chapped lips and numb body. She could only imagine how evil she must look with redness surrounding her golden-brown irises. She got some of her hair in her face, which momentarily swayed her from her trance. She found it hard to pull her arm up and bend her elbow because it was so stiff. As she brushed off her hair, she saw the color-it looked blonder than usual. She figured it must be from the snow, shrugged it off, and kept going.

Carmen kept telling herself that her managers would be so proud that she braved these odds to make it happen. She felt her phone vibrate but didn’t feel like digging in her coat pocket right now. Someone in her group must’ve made a sale. She wasn’t going to let that discourage her. Even if she wasn’t the only successful person today she would keep her title of Miss Consistency. This would be her year! She worked longer than anyone else to get promoted, and each day gave her a chance to inch her way to the top. She could see the other side of the neighborhood vaguely ahead. The white sheet of the storm couldn’t totally hide the barren gambel oak trees. She felt motivated like crazy and quickened her gait. The hard part was almost over. She felt so heartened that she knew she would close the first person who answered the door. She could see the small hill leading to the houses she wanted to hit. Part of the reason she was so good at her job was that she was willing to work in the faraway streets. They were so out of the way that no one would talk to them. They were all fresh leads, and their gas bills were always high. They didn’t even know there was another option! She always loved the look on people’s faces when she presented them the options to save them money each month. She got herself so excited-she was almost there Then suddenly…crack!

The ground beneath her sank in without warning! She didn’t think the river came out that far! She army-crawled out of the hole, but she could still hear the ice cracking. The leg that fell in got stiff enough where she could get up. She pulled herself toward the hill and climbed about halfway up. She finally found a place where she could sit up without sliding, and so she flipped herself over and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Her breath came out like dense fog. She started to feel intense pain in her leg. She collected herself the best she could and dug into her coat pocket. Then, she used a small hole in her glove to open her cellphone screen, which was cracked like spider webs. She navigated to her contact lists and called Bob. As soon as she heard him pick up, she cried out, “I need help!”

“Are you okay?” Bob’s voice clearly showed that he recognized Carmen’s tone, which didn’t bode well.

“No!” Carmen shouted in agony from pain and embarrassment. “I fell into the river and now I can’t move my leg!”

Bob immediately probed, “Where are you?”

“On the hill by the river behind Swan Song Terrace,” she informed him, wincing.

“I’ll be right there!” Bob hung up without saying goodbye. Carmen understood why though. He helped her through the last two injuries she got. She felt so foolish for letting herself get hurt again. The office already teased her for being the lightning rod for these kinds of things. She still had the scars from the dog bite on her hand. She got four stitches that day, and the pain medicine only worked on two of them. That happened a few months ago. About six months before that she broke her elbow. Sometimes she could feel a twinge of pain there. She reasoned that it could be psychosomatic, but who wouldn’t have strong memories from being robbed? The thief had pushed her down and stole her purse. Both times the injuries happened during work, and that didn’t include the occasional minor wounds she received. She silently admonished herself for landing herself in this situation…again!

The pain got worse, and tears formed in her eyes. She wondered where Bob could be. She felt so helpless since she could do nothing but sit there waiting for help. She picked up her phone and called Colt. Colt Duncan was the manager of the Grand Junction office, so he needed to know that she would be going to the emergency room. He didn’t pick up, so she left a message, “Hi Colt! This is Carmen. I fell into a river and I think I have frostbite.  Bob’s gonna take me to the hospital. I’ll keep you posted!” She hung up and called Teddy. Teddy didn’t answer either. “Hi Sweetie! I’m going to the hospital. Call me soon!” She hung up, half expecting Bob to be there. Bob was the best friend that she had at the company, so she trusted that he was doing all he could to get there quickly. She felt a jolt of pain in her leg and moaned. All the waiting she did felt like an eternity!

A couple days later, Carmen sat on her lavender-sheeted bed in a room with faint lilac walls. The room was small but very well kept. She had a few motivational posters on the wall but not many decorations. She had her pillows propped up against the headboard and sat on it like a coach. She felt very comfortable without all of the layers she wore in the field. She blamed California for spoiling her on the weather, but she hated wearing so many clothes. It was fine and dandy for skinny girls, but a curvy girl like her couldn’t enjoy that. She was by no means fat, but wearing all of that winter gear made her feel like a huge marshmallow! Besides the challenge of looking cute, it was so hard to move around! She felt way more comfortable in her shorts and tee shirt. She never did much on her day off, but she loved it because her work was so rigorous that she earned this rest.

Carmen pulled out her phone and initiated a Skype call with someone she labeled Papi. Her father, Hank, answered with a big grin. Most people couldn’t guess by looking at her that she was birracial, but her father was actually the son of two immigrants from Spain. He had fairly light skin for a Hispanic man, and a lot of people thought he could be Italian. She secretly inherited his hair color, but since she fell heir to her Swedish mother’s skin tone, the blonde actually looked totally natural. Hank had more hair than most men in their early sixties, and his salt and pepper hair color mad him look very distinguished. Hank greeted her, “Hola Mija!”

“Hi Papi!” she chirped.

“How’s the leg?” Hank inquired.

Carmen pointed her camera at a giant blister just above her left knee. Hank cringed, so she piped in, “It’s okay! It looks worse than it feels. It hasn’t stopped me from working.”

“What?” Hank raised an eyebrow. “They made you go back to work?”

“They didn’t make me!” Carmen refuted. “They gave me the option to go on workman’s comp, but I can make more money in the field.”

“So, sales are good?” Hank asked, looking skeptical.

Carmen made an uncomfortable face. “Well, not this week. They have been pairing me up with people since it’s kinda hard to balance. My partners kept getting the first sale and we couldn’t get me one. Well, Bob helped me get a small sale, but most people aren’t as selfless as he is. He’s always been a good coach to me. I’ll bounce back; I always do. Sales are always up and down.”

Hank appeared like he wanted to argue but decided to change the subject, “Is it still snowy?”

“Just icy,” she replied. “It sure doesn’t feel like October! We skipped right over fall into winter!”

Hank panned his camera to the backyard, which had lush plants and plenty of sunshine. “Miss California yet?”

Carmen rolled her eyes but smiled. “When I get promoted, I’ll open up a branch in California.”

“How close to that are you?” Hank took a sip of ice tea.

Again, Carmen looked a little uncomfortable. “Well, since I got injured, I haven’t earned any interviews. It’s hard to build a team when I got an injury to nurse and a wedding to plan.”

Hank almost forgot about that. “How is that going?”

Carmen half smiled at the thought of her upcoming wedding. “Well, Teddy’s hired a great wedding planner, who has taken care of most of the arrangements. I got my dress back from the tailor and it fits great now. I can’t believe I’ll be married in a couple of weeks!”

“So, this is the first ceremony?” Hank clarified. “Next year, you’re having a bigger one in California, and that’s the one you want us to go to?”

“Yes,” Carmen affirmed. “By then, mom will be back from deployment.”

Hank became more serious on that subject. “You know, it really hurts your mom when you miss her calls.”

A twinge of guilt surged through her heart. “I know, but I don’t have a choice. I have meetings I gotta go to. Training to be a manager is so time consuming!”

Hank sighed, “I know. Well, I’m glad you took the time to say hi. I miss you, Mija!”

“I miss you too!” Carmen truly meant this. She didn’t have any family near her. She had a few friends and a fiance, but nothing could replace replace her actual family. She had to keep assuring herself that she did all this to help them. She sacrificed time with them now to do so much good for them in the future. Plus, managers could set their own schedules, so she assured herself that this wouldn’t be a permanent setback. Carmen and Hank said goodbye to each other and hung up. Carmen felt a little despondent, but she decided to shake it off with a leadership book.

A couple of days later, the snow melted and the streets looked like fall again. She loved all the Halloween decorations people put up. Since it was a little warmer, she wore a little less layers and held her sales tablet in her arms. She limped slightly but felt relieved to finally hit doors on her own. It was still fairly early, so not many decision makers were home yet. She glanced at her watch and saw that it was just after four. This was when she usually took a quick lunch break. She walked to a set of parted trees to a hidden pathway, which led to a park. It may not have been big, but it was charming with the beautiful scenery. There wasn’t a playground but it had a couple of benches and beautiful trees with colorful autumn leaves that covered the ground. Carmen sat on a bench and pulled a semi-crushed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She munched happily as she gazed at her surroundings. After a couple of minutes, she heard some of the trees rustling behind her. She immediately got up and peered into them closely. She had yet to run into a bear, but she didn’t want to take any chances. If she got another injury, Colt would kill her! She laughed slightly at that thought but stayed focused on the bushes.

Carmen tenderly brushed a couple branches to see what laid behind the brushes. The perpetrator of the noise then emerged from the bushes, and Carmen’s jaw dropped! She had such a shock that she stood frozen solid. Her mind couldn’t even comprehend what she was even looking at. She wondered if she was dreaming. She wanted to scream but couldn’t muster a sound or a thought as the figure crept closer…

Turning 30, Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie questioned, “Tadd? Tadd who?”

“Oi!” Lavena exclaimed.

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

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

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

Without thinking, Tadd answered, “No.”

“Lies!”

“Untrue!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Tadd, baby?” Brie cooed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

“But…but I…I…!” Cera stammered.

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

Feliz explained, “Cera is drunk.”

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

Feliz told Davida, “She is VERY sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t ready!” he lamented.

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

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

“No,” Feliz answered.

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

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

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

“Cera will be here all night probably.”

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 19

Ashlynn, Cera, Lavena, Will, Tadd, Feliz, and Davida went to a club. It was fairly crowded, and the dance floor was clear except for contestants in a dance competition. Lots of people were gathered on the sidelines to cheer people on, which is where Ashlynn and her friends hung out. Will complained, “The drinks are too shoddy to be this expensive, and it’s too crowded to dance!”

Lavena added, “We’re the oldest people here, and we sound like it too!”

Ashlynn chided them, “Guys, it was Tadd’s idea.”

They felt bad for complaining. Will apologized, “I’m sorry, Tadd, buddy. Are you finally showing some personality?”

“We went here on our first date,” Tadd said wistfully.

“Guess not,” Will responded, disappointed.

Cera observed, “Lots of cute guys here though, mmm!”

Feliz got into a sort of turpor looking at the dancers. Davida noticed this and grinned. “I saw that.”

“What?” Felize snapped out of his trance.

Davida did not seem upset but slightly amused. “You were checking out her ass!”

Feliz did not deny this. “Yes, well her costume is all wrong. It’s not at all flattering to her figure, and the color is horrible for her skin tone!”

Davida affectionately bopped his nose. “I’m so lucky to have a husband with a strong sense of fashion!” Will, Cera, Lavena, and Ashlynn exchanged uncomfortable looks.

For a moment, they all watched the dancers currently entering the contest. Tadd unexpectedly remarked, “These dancers suck! You guys should enter!” He pointed to Ashlynn, Feliz, and Lavena. They felt a jolt of surprise at the suggestion.

“Us?” Ashlynn reacted, “We’re not at all prepared. We don’t even have a routine.”

Lavena said, “Unless you mean that routine we did for dance class? The one that got us third place in the talent show?”

“That routine?” Feliz conversed. “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that routine in years!”

“I did,” Lavena admitted. “Sometimes I do it for exercise.”

Ashlynn spoke, “I may still know most of it…”

Feliz told them, “I think about it sometimes, you know, fond memories.” They paused, and Feliz excitedly confessed, “I do it all the time!”

“Me too!” Ashlynn and Lavena said in unison.

“Let’s do it, girls!” Feliz directed.

“Yeah!” Ashlynn and Lavena agreed.

As they went down to the judge’s table to sign up, Will reminisced, “Oh yeah! I remember that dance now! It was corny but awesome! This is gonna be good!”

The judges had them go on next. When the previous group finished and got their applause, they left the dance floor and Feliz, Lavena, and Ashlynn went on and stood in a triangle, posing dramatically. The DJ announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our next contenders for the cash prize swees-Ken Doll and his Barbies!” The DJ played the song “It’s Gotta be You” by the Backstreet Boys. Their routine was very obviously a high school dance routine, but it fit so well with the music and was such an awesome throwback that the crowd went crazy.

Will, Cera, and Davida swayed to the music as they watched. Davida sighed happily, “Look at my husband go! Isn’t he manly?”

Will looked at her like she was insane. “No!”

At the end of the routine, they posed dramatically again. The crowd cheered wildly. Ashlynn glanced over to her friends, and she saw Tadd smiling. He was genuinely smiling! That made her heart flutter more than the awesome performance. For the first time since his ex left, he found a reason to smile! Ashlynn felt thrilled.

Later on, Patty and Jon sat in their living room anxiously. They wore pajamas under their robes, and they kept looking at the clock. They hear some noise outside, and they perked up. Clearly, someone had trouble with some keys. Jon opened the door, and Ashlynn stumbled in. Her purse fell down, but she managed to stay up. She had a trophy wrapped in her arm. “Oh, hello!” Ashlynn slurred. Jon helped her stand straight and handed her the purse.

Patty stood up with her arms folded. “Oh great, you’re drunk again!”

Ashlynn felt a little offended. “Hey! Most of the time I’m not drunk. Okay, so today I’m a little tipsy. But we got free drinks to celebrate!”

Jon lectured, “You’re not acting very responsible. How are you planning to do well on job interviews if you’re constantly hung over? I thought you missed earning money!”

Ashlynn refuted that, “I did earn money! We won the dance contest! Me, Feliz, and Lavena split a thousand bucks!”

Patty replied  sarcastically, “Oh, that’ll look great on a resume!”

Ashlynn rolled her eyes. She could not believe all the joy from earlier was getting taken away right now. Jon, who was somewhat vexed, said to her, “We were worried about you! Do you have any idea what time it is?”

Ashlynn looked at her wrist blankly. “I can’t read my watch.”

Patty scolded her, “You’re too old to be out all night drinking like this!”

Ashlynn countered that with, “Well, you complain when I drink here, so I went somewhere else.” Patty and Jon exchange a look. “What? Do you want me to stop drinking?”

Jon answered, “You’re an adult; we can’t force you to do anything…”

Ashlynn enspeeched, “Then stop trying! I went through something stressful, so can I be human and react a little? So, I have a couple drinks at night! So what? Considering everything, I could be reacting a lot worse. I could drink in the daytime. Or I could become completely depressed and not function in the real world! I am trying to start over, but it’s not easy. I didn’t come back here to get judged! What do you want from me? You want me to get married and have two point five kids, and a little house with a white picket fence in the next few months so I can maintain the image of what you think I should be like before I turn thirty? I’ll get my life together in my own time! You want me to act my age, but you keep treating me like a child! You keep asking me to change! When can I just be myself? Is that ever gonna be socially acceptable?”

Ashlynn stormed off to her room. Jon and Patty ran to the door. They felt bad for causing her to feel so upset. Patty apologized, “Look, Ashlynn, we’re sorry we hurt your feelings. We love you, and we want you to be happy. It just seems like you’re going down the wrong path-a path that won’t take you to your goals. But you’re right. You’re an adult, and you need to do things your own way. Even if you make mistakes, you need to go through the motions. Mistakes are how people learn, I always tell my students this.”

Through the door, Ashlynn yelled, “I’m not making any mistakes! I don’t know why this is important, but I’m going with my gut. This is what I need to do to get a happy life. You need trust me.”

Jon compromised, “We do, sweetheart. Just do us a favor…Can we see a tiny bit of effort to better your future? More job interviews, driving lessons, anything! Please!” He sounded a little scared.

“Fine!” Ashlynn shouted through the door once more. Patty and Jon looked at each other, worried, and they walked away. On the other side of the door, Ashlynn sat against the door, crying. She felt really overwhelmed. She knew they had a right to be worried. She never told them that when she does think about the future, she feels frightened and kind of hopeless. She never told them that she often cried herself to sleep each night. She had no idea where her path was leading her. She applied to at least one job each day, but nothing seemed to be working out. The handful of interviews she got were a joke. She almost felt like the entire town was under a spell to not give her a job. This position she was in was almost alien. She worked in her last job for over a decade. She even conducted some second round interviews on behalf of the company. To be on the hunt again was bad enough, but she was so used to being an independent woman, and now she completely depended on her parents. This was a hard experience, and she was scared where she would end up.

She questioned her actions recently. She spent a lot of time trying to help Tadd get out of his dismal mental state, but she wondered if she should spend more time working on herself. She couldn’t do it though. For whatever reason, her instincts gave her an intense feeling that helping Tadd would lead to something bigger. She couldn’t stop, she knew she had to see this through to the end. Overall, she did not consider herself going down the wrong path. She was doing all she could to get her life together, and she was taking things one day at a time. What more could she do? She looked up and out her window at the full moon. The future seemed so vast. All a person could do is their best, which she had been doing all along. She didn’t know where she was going, but even if she did end up failing completely, she wouldn’t go down without a fight. She didn’t know what to do but wait for an opportunity to come across her path. If she kept going, she was bound to think of something, right? She let out a sigh, got into her bed, and let herself decompress.

 

Turning 30, Chapter 18

Ashlynn and Lavena escorted Tadd into a group therapy session. They were clearly in a community center art classroom. The walls were lined with different types of artwork, and various supplies were overstuffed in a closet in the corner. A whiteboard with children’s handwriting rested on the wall by the door. A lot of the desks were pushed against the window-lined walls. The rest were in a circle in the center of the classroom, and all of the seats were occupied except for the three closest to the door. The room was fairly quiet, and so it felt somewhat awkward stepping in.

The man leading the group looked like he normally would be somewhat intimidating. He had the stocky build of a former football player, and he had a military crew cut. But he did not come across as menacing because of his pink polo, reading glasses, and soft voice. He began the session, “Welcome! You’ve taken an important first step to recovery. We are a safe environment, and we will not judge your past or your feelings. We only have one rule here-positive vibes only!”

The group chanted back, “Positive vibes!” They pushed out some would-be vibes from their hearts. Lavena and Ashlynn, even though Tadd was sitting between them, exchanged worrisome looks.

“Let’s introduce ourselves to our newcomers. I’m Frank, and I run group therapy sessions here two nights a week. I also teach psychology at the community college, and I coach my son’s little league team. Let’s go in order.” Frank gestured to the woman next to him.

“I’m Zoe, and I’m a marketing manager for a local bank. I’m here because I lost my my husband in Vietnam.” She blinked back some tears.

Lavena gasped, “He died in the war?”

Zoe reacted, “What? No! Gosh, we were in elementary school during Nam. My husband and I took a vacation last summer, and we were sightseeing around the city. I was taking a selfie by this statue, and I heard him mumble something about cigarettes. When I looked up, he was gone. No idea what happened.”

No one spoke, but Ashlynn found that story to be anti-climatic. A chipper young girl next to her went next. “My name is Hilary. I’m a junior in high school. I’m here to brave through a broken heart.”

Tadd perked up at the idea that he may have an ally. “Did someone stomp on your heart too?”

“Yeah.” Hilary recalled, “It was my dad who did it. For my sixteenth birthday, I wanted a silver Mustang convertible LT, and he got me…” she sniffled, “a red one!” She sobbed. Tadd looked deflated.

A guy that looked very weedy with his skinny arms, thin, curly hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, went next. “My name is Mick, and I collect buys. The bugs took over my house one day, so I’m learning to let go of them.”

A very dignified-looking man went next, “My name is Malcolm. I’m a curator at the Museum of Natural History. I’m trying to get rid of my fear of clouds.”

“Clouds? Seriously?” Ashlynn thought outloud. Frank gave her a stern glare, so Ashlynn fibbed, “I mean, clouds! I totally get that!”

An eccentric man next to Malcolm went next. “I’m Don. I start fires.” Tadd and Ashlynn almost jump from the nasty surprise, and Lavena, who sat next to him, shifts away from him.

Everyone stared at Lavena, who blushed. “Oh, it’s my turn. I’m Lavena, and I’m a mom of two. I’m here to support my friend Tadd here. I don’t really have any big issues. Don’t get me wrong, my life isn’t glamorous or anything. Sometimes I get sad ’cause I support my kids by myself. It’d be nice to have a husband, but-”

Don interrupted, “I’ll be your husband!”

“No! Like seriously, no!” She held up her hand to him. She moved on, “But most of the time I’m fine.”

Don leered, “Yes you are!” Lavena had a disgusted look on her face but avoided eye contact with him.

Tadd trembled a little. “My name is Tadd. I run a catering business. Why am I here? Well, I fell in love with a beautiful woman, and she broke my heart. I’ve been told I’m not taking the break up well. It’s true, I haven’t really made any progress!”

Ashlynn defend Tadd against his own put down, “That’s not true! You stopped throwing tantrums in public. That’s something!”

Tadd disagreed, “Last night I was howling on the roof!”

Lavena tried, “You weren’t howling. You just cried, and no one was around. I mean, I heard you, but…”

Frank tried to tie the group together again, “At least you’re here. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step towards healing!”

Tadd’s eyes welled up. “I will never be okay! I have a hole in my heart, and I will never be the same person!” Tears started to flow down his cheeks. “No! I will not make a spectacle of myself!” He started to sob. “Oh god, here they come!” He wailed, “I will never be happy again!”

Tadd’s crying made other people in the room upset. Hilary cried, “Daddy! Daddy, why?”

Mick twiddled his hands anxiously. “The snake owner took them. My bugs! He’s using them to feed the snake! My poor bugs!”

Zoe looked horrified. “The shopkeeper’s husband wasn’t Asian! He kind of reminded me of…oh no! Julius! How could you?”

Malcolm absent-mindedly gazed out of the window. “Oh god, the clouds!” He hid under his desk.

Don threw up his hands in frustration. “That’s it! I’m starting a fire!”

“That’s enough!” Frank’s voiced boomed. Everyone stopped in their tracks. “No fires! Get back to your seats! Please stop crying!” He told Tadd, “I’m sorry, you have too many negative vibes. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Tadd kept crying but non-verbally agreed to leave. Ashlynn and Lavena get up to help him. “Wait, you guys don’t have to leave. Ashlynn, it’s your turn!”

“Hi. I’m Ashlynn, and I’m leaving!” She grabbed Tadd’s arm, Lavena grabbed the other, and they headed to the door.

As they left, Don shouted to Lavena, “Wait, Lavena, my beautiful treasure! You wanna fuel my fire?”

Lavena turned around and had a disgusted face. “‘Kay, I don’t know what that means, and I don’t care!” The three walked out.

In the hallway, Lavena muttered, “I can’t believe Yelp gave this place five stars!”

“I’m hopeless!” Tadd moaned.

They stopped in their tracks. Ashlynn went in front of him and looked him dead in the eye. “You are not hopeless! You won’t fail ’cause I won’t let you! I don’t care how slow your progress is, you are moving forward! It’s okay to feel hurt, anger, depression…you’re human! You’re allowed to have those feelings! Fine, so maybe it’s taking longer than usual to move on, but I will not let you give up! Do you hear me? We’ll stick by your side no matter what! Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior! You will win this! Do you understand me? You will win! I promise!” Tadd nodded, but he had tears flowing again. Ashlynn gave him a hug, and Lavena did too.

Their tender moment got interrupted when Don’s voice echoed in the hall, “I just need some matches…” The three quickly scurried out of the building.