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 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” Zartex asked.

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

Zartex glanced at his watch. “Uncertain.”

“You don’t know?”

“No, that’s how you feel.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi ya!” the room chanted back.

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

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

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

“Ohhhh yeahhhh!” they shouted back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” she automatically responded.

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

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

“What’s the difference?” Teddy chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 3

Carmen reminded herself to concentrate as she approached the first house. This was an upper middle class neighborhood, so they would care more about quality than price. She took a deep breath and knocked on the door. A man in a polo shirt and a blue tooth in his ear opened the door clearly expecting someone else. When he saw Carmen, his face soured. Carmen greeted him, “Happy Tuesday! My name is Carmen, and and I’m from Aeon Purl. Are-?”

“I’m busy,” he grumped.

“This will only take a moment,” Carmen countered. “Are you-?”

The man slammed the door in her face. She turned around and marked him off the list on her sales tablet. As they walked away, Zartex noted, “He didn’t seem happy to see you.”

Carmen gritted her teeth. “Not everyone is happy in her life.”

“But he told you that he was busy,” Zartex argued. “Why did you keep talking?”

“If they hear me out, often times they suddenly find the time to talk to me.” Carmen inwardly wondered if he would commentate on every interaction she had. They walked up to the next door, and a snobby-looking woman answered. “Hi! My name is Carmen and-”

She pointed avidly at a sign next to her door. “Can’t you see the sign? No soliciting!”

“I’m not soliciting, I’m canvassing the neighborhood to see if we can get you a better deal on…” Carmen kept talking until the lady shut the door. Before Zartex even asked, Carmen told him, “I’ve signed people up with these signs before. Most people don’t think we count as solicitors since we aren’t actually selling a physical item or taking money, we’re just signing them up for a service.”

“But you are soliciting!” Zartex pulled up a screen that floated above his watch and opened up a dictionary app. “See, the definition of solicit is to seek for something by entreaty, earnest or respectful request. It can also mean to entreat or petition, so canvassing counts there. The third definition is to offer to have sex on exchange for money. Well, you don’t do that last part but the other definitions fit you to a tee!”

Carmen stopped on the sidewalk out of shock. The whole time at this company she firmly believed that her work was a higher pedigree than what society called solicitors, but she could not argue with the cold hard facts in front of her. She decided not to think about it right now. “Well, solicitor or not, I still gotta pay rent.” They kept walking.

At the next house that answered the door, an elderly woman came out and gazed at them curiously. Carmen felt a little better because this was a sign of a potential buyer. The woman asked, “Can I help you?”

“Hi, my name is Carmen…” she began.

The old woman pointed to Zartex. “Who’s this?”

Carmen forgot about him. Actually, she honestly wondered if he was a figment of her imagination. She didn’t know how to explain why a seven foot tall man in a white linen suit was following her around. She lied, “This is my, uh, bodyguard, Zartex.”

“Zartex?” the old woman pondered.

“Zartex is an eastern European name,” Carmen fibbed. She felt surprised by her improv skills. She studied theatre most of her life, so she supposed she she expect that kind of talent from herself. “Anyways, we’re from Aeon Purl. Are you the person in charge of your utility bills?” The old lady nodded. “Perfect! Aeon Purl just installed new gas lines in your area, so an alternative to your gas and heating bill is finally available here. We offer a cleaner, more efficient gas formula, and some of your neighbors have been able to save money too. How often do you use your heater?”

“All the time!” the old lady chuckled. “It’s Colorado-we can get a cold snap any time of the year!”

“I hear that a lot,” Carmen half laughed. “Do you use a gas or electric stove?”

“Gas,” she answered.

“Great,” Carmen said in a falsely cheerful voice. “When was the last time you replaced your water heater?”

The old lady thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know!”

Caremen felt like this could be a sale. Not just any sale either. She got money for upgraded existing customers, but this would be a brand new sign up! It had been a long time since she got a new customer and it was such a huge relief! Actually, it had been a few days since she got a sale at all and she was starting to doubt her skill. “With Aeon Purl, we enhance our natural gas, so you get the benefits of a fast and clean burning fuel with the added perk of lasting longer. It’s never good to risk having your gas run out when you depend on it so much for heating and cooking. In addition to that, we regularly inspect our equipment to prevent leaks or other disasters. Tell me, how much is your current bill?”

“I don’t remember” she replied. “Let me go get my bill!”

After she went inside, Carmen silently celebrated. When customers got their bills, it was pretty much a done deal. Her bubble burst, however, when Zartex interjected with, “You lied to her!”

“What?” Carmen felt baffled as to the motive of him even thinking that. “No I didn’t! Everything I said about Aeon Purl is true.”

“Actually,” Zartex pointed out, “You said that they just installed new lines in the area, but your company reuses old territory, so nothing here is new. Your pitch makes it sound brand new, but it can’t be accurate.”

Carmen hadn’t thought of that. Before she could respond, the old lady came back out and handed her the bill. “Can you lower this at all?”

Carmen furiously looked over her pricing sheet and made some calculations. “Well, we can get you a much better service for the same price! Not a penny more and you got all those extra benefits!”

The old lady looked crestfallen. “Oh! I was really hoping to lower my bills. I just retired and now I live on a fixed income. I can barely scrape by as it is! Well, thanks anyway.” She took her bill back and went inside.

Carmen felt deflated. This always happened when she lost out on a deal. She was so close! She looked at the clock and sadly said, “Bob will be here soon. It’s almost time for the Winners’ Parade.”

“What’s that?” Zartex queried.

She explained, “After we turn in our numbers, we gather in the semblance room and form a circle. When someone makes a sale, they ring the bell in the corner and everyone walks around getting high fives from the rest of the group. It sounds silly, but it’s nice to get acknowledgement from your peers.”

“It’s not nice for the people who didn’t sell,” Zartex pointed out. “It sounds like the sellers really rub it in your face when you lose. Oh well, I guess it’s not so bad if all you earn for the day is your hourly pay instead of the extra commission. By the way, how much is your hourly rate?”

“I don’t have one,” she answered with reservation. She knew that he would find fault with that.

Sure enough, he did. “Seriously? So, after all that work, you made no money? Like, if you you don’t make a sale all week, you make zero dollars on your paycheck?” He paused for a moment. Carmen always hated it when people freaked out about being on a hundred percent commission. Up until lately, she got by without an hourly pay. She was going defend herself, but before she could, Zartex asked her, “You have to go to mandatory meetings?”

“Morning meeting and the Winners’ Parade,” Carmen affirmed.

“Including your meetings and parades, how many hours do you work?”

“Uh, I guess sixty.”

“And they tell you where to go?”

“Yes.”

“So, let me get this straight. You’re not self employed. You work for this company, not yourself. They tell you where to go and what to say, but if you still can’t sell, you get penalized? But, if you do well, they get some kind of perk, right?” Blushing, Carmen stiffly nodded. “That sounds illegal!”

Carmen felt so flushed. So far his logic was on point, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe the criticism of her company, not from him or anyone else. She had a fierce loyalty that prevailed consistently, and she wouldn’t let him or anyone else believe ill of her life’s work. She dedicated herself to this lifestyle, after all, and she wasn’t about to let anyone sway her. “Sometimes it stinks in pay, but we still have a better future!” She felt herself hearten by remembering this information. “We teach people without experience to become managers. I mean, before I worked for Mirage, I was just an actress. It was hard to find a job that paid enough to live on my own, and now I’m on my way to running a regional sales branch! See, once we prove that we can hit our sales goal of four hundred dollars a week, we get promoted to team leader. The team leader personally interviews people to be on their team and helps them reach their sales goal. Once you get eight people on your team, with at least two members that are building teams too, once the team meets their goals, you get promoted to a manager’s apprentice. The apprentice learns the nitty-gritty details, like back end paperwork, of running an office. Once I get that, I’ll be promoted to manager! I can open up a branch anywhere! I can move back to California, make lots of money, and give back to my family, who has helped me out so much. How could I learn all of those skills without Mirage? Thanks to them, I’ll learn valuable skills that I can carry with me my whole life. I may not make money now, but you can’t put a price on knowledge or a valuable future!”

Zartex nodded in a way where he saw her point but didn’t totally agree. He commented, “But now is important too. You don’t think happiness is important in the present too?”

Once again, Zartex stunned her with his logic, but this really hit her heart. She couldn’t deny that she was unhappy right now. Lately, this job has been quite a struggle, which was unusual. She had a lot of obstacles to overcome at the moment. But she had to keep moving forward. Before Mirage, she struggled so much to get work, and finally, now that she was close to thirty years old, she had a place of her own. She couldn’t go back to struggling for work and living with her parents. It was out of the question! “I spent all of my adult life moving from place to place looking for work. I would get hired and began to build up funds for my own place, vacations, things I wanted..Then, I would lose the job through no fault of my own. I have been here for over three years. It’s the longest I’ve ever held a job. I’m not a gypsy anymore-I finally have some stability! They even introduced me to my fiance’, Teddy! They’ve been real good to me, and I can’t turn my back on them!”

Zartex shrugged. “Well, at least you got one thing you wanted-your own place. Oh, speaking of which, I’ll need your address. I can meet you at your house while you’re at the so called Winners’ Parade. Type it in here.” He pointed his watch at her.

Carmen typed in her address promptly, and then suddenly, a thought occurred to her. “Wait, you can’t just roll into Pikes’ Oasis on your space ship! It’s a gated community-they check IDs and license plates…do you even have one on yours?”

“On my what? Space ship?” Zartex laughed heartily. “That’s science-fiction mumbo-jumbo! I teleport.”

“Wow!” Carmen reacted. “So, can you make sure you teleport into my room? I work with my roommates, but you never know if someone went home early.”

“You all live together?” Zartex probed.

“Well, yeah,” Carmen stated. “We surround ourselves with like-minded people. You know, you absorb the habits from the five people you spend the most time with, so we spend time with people who are where we wanna be. We learn from each other and give each other support. Plus, Mirage runs a housing assistance program, so they rent out rooms for a huge discount. I save at least three hundred dollars by going through them.”

“I see…” Zartex typed something privately onto his watch. “Ah…Often unorthodox, a group of like-minded people bound togther by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.”

“Yes!” Carmen exclaimed. “Now you understand the Mirage family!”

Zartex made some notes on his clipboard. “This is a fascinating discovery! You probably had no idea that you belong to a cult!”

As Bob approached in his ratty, decade-old car, Carmen felt her heart explode. “What?” She turned around and Zartex was already gone. Carmen felt more shock now than when he showed up in his alien face. Did he just read the definition of a cult? Bob veered close to her and beamed a toothy grin. “Mornin’!” he joked. Carmen didn’t respond. She couldn’t think. She got into his car, and they drove off.

Sabotage, Chapter 2

“What are you?” Carmen uttered without even meaning to. The thing in front of her stood seven foot tall and had rubbery, red skin. The head was bulbous, the eyes resembled a fly, and she had never seen a mouth so round. The creature, however, stood up straight, wore a white linen suit, and held a clipboard and pen. The watch it wore was the most high tech thing she had ever seen. Whatever stood before her certainly didn’t seem to be primitive or have any desire to attack her, but because she had no clue what it was capable of, her nerves were on fire. There was no doubt about it, this was a very strange situation! Despite the oddity of it all, she reminded herself that every surreal thing that had ever happened to her, like getting seriously injured, gave her the knee-jerk reaction of total incomprehension at first, but it was always followed by an autopilot-like mode where she knew the phenomenon must be dealt with. First, she had to know what she was dealing with!

Carmen had no idea how it would respond to her question. It didn’t have an expressive face, so she didn’t have any indication as to what it was thinking or feeling. She worried momentarily that she had offended it. Finally, it spoke, “Rude! Most people say hello when meeting someone new!”

So, it sounded male, and although he sounded mildly offended by what she said, his voice also conveyed a sense of amusing energy like that of a game show host. She apologized, “Sorry! Uh, my name is Carmen.” Out of habit, she held out her hand for him to shake. She instantly regretted it. She still didn’t know what he was and certainly didn’t want to touch his abnormally textured skin!

He shook her hand, and it felt like shaking hands with a basketball! He pleasantly greeted her, “Hello! I’m Zartex, behavioral analyst from the Universal Coalition.” He picked up his badge and showed it to her. It had his picture and name displayed as it would on a badge for someone working in a CIA office. Before Carmen could ask more questions, Zartex prompted her, “Please take me to your leader.”

“Seriously?” Prior to that comment, she had no clue what he wanted from her, but whatever she was expecting him to say, it wasn’t that! “You want to see my leader?” she thought out loud. Gosh, I don’t even know where to begin! I suppose we would have to travel to Washington DC. But you can’t just walk into the White House all willy-nilly! I guess I can call our congressman…”

“No, no, no!’ Zartex interrupted. “I’ve met the president, and trust me, once was enough! I meant take me to your leader. I’m here to learn more about humanity, and you were randomly selected for observation. I will be following you as you interact with various authority figures to learn more about human social hierarchies. ‘Take me to your leader’ is my little way of breaking the ice.”

“It’s kinda cliche’.” Carmen spoke without thinking again. Did she just make a joke? She was still trying to absorb what he just told her. It sounded like an intergalactic government wanted to watch her live her life like the way scientists observe animals at the zoo. That just couldn’t be true though, she thought. She refused to let it sink in.

“Hey! This is kind of a weird situation, how would you approach the first encounter?” Zartex countered.

Carmen was surprised to hear him call this situation weird. She decided to learn more about what was happening so she could mentally move on. “So, what is the Universal Company?”

“Coalition,” he corrected her. “The Universal Coalition, or the UC, is an organization designed to promote cooperation and order between the planets in this universe, kind of like Earth’s United Nations except that we can execute disciplinary actions towards anyone who breaks interplanetary laws.”

Carmen didn’t like hearing this information. “So, you’re going to follow me around because there’s an interplanetary order for it?”

“Yes,” Zartex divulged, “We found that humans are the least cooperative and tolerant aliens in the universe, so, in order to promote peace in this galaxy and all of the neighboring galaxies, we need to understand why humans are the way they are.”

“Kind of like how I learn about customers in order to turn a no into a yes,” Carmen related. “My god, it’s all starting to make sense!” She paused for a moment, feeling surprised at her comprehension of the mater. “Do I have a choice?”

“Of course not!” Zartex chuckled.

Carmen got herself out of the denial phase and began to start planning out this new obstacle. “Um, aren’t you going to draw a lot of attention to yourself following me around? Oh, a giant red being following me around will be great for sales!”

“Oh, hang on!” Zartex pushed a couple of buttons on his watch. A screen popped up and scanned his face. It made some whirring noises and poof! A cloud covered Zartex’s face and body, and when the smoke cleared, Zartex re-emerged looking more human. He was still seven foot tall, but now his skin was a creamy flesh tone. His head wasn’t bulbous, he had a nose, his head had neatly parted black hair, his mouth was normal shaped, his fly-like eyes were a normal dark brown, and he even wore round-rimmed glasses. “Like it? I designed it myself!”

“You could design any body you wanted and you picked this one?” Carmen reacted.

“I was going for non-threatening!” Zartex explained. “It isn’t easy when you’re seven foot tall not to scare people, but I found that people respond well to a tall dork, like a stretched out Harry Potter.”

“That makes sense,” Carmen responded. “The really tall guys at work have to make themselves less intimidating.” She then realized something. “How are you going to follow me at work? My job relays a lot of confidential information. It’s not like they would let a random tall dork join in unexpectedly!”

“Not a problem!” Zartex chirped. Carmen figured he had an answer for that but really hoped he didn’t. Zartex pulled out a set of silver stud earrings. “They’re spy cameras! And don’t worry, the technology is way too sophisticated for your boss or coworkers to detect.”

“I don’t have pierced ears,” Carmen pointed out with the gut feeling that he had a remedy for that.

Sure enough, Zartex pulled out a small piercing gun. “Hold still!” He pierced both of her ears, which didn’t hurt much but still made her wince. “I’ll follow you to ask questions when you’re out and about though.”

Carmen still couldn’t fully comprehend the reality of the situation. She woke up this morning expecting a normal day, and now she wondered if she would ever get back to her usual routine. He would watch her get ready for work and observe her during morning meetings. Then he would follow her around in the field too. She wondered if he would interfere with her sales! After all that happened at the moment, she forgot where she was. She looked at her watch and exclaimed, “Holy smokes! I need to get going!”

Carmen dashed out of the park and opened up her map on her sales tablet. She saw the street she needed to visit and headed back to it. She walked fast to make up for lost time. She could sense Zartex behind her. Zartex pulled out a pen to take notes and asked Carmen, “It says here that you do door to door sales, is that correct?”

“No!” Carmen grimmaced. She hated it when people used that term for what she did. “It’s business to consumer sales. We’re different that traditional residential sales companies, who hit random doors in random areas. We have leads.”

“Ah,” Zartex reacted, “So these are people have signed up for something and know you’re coming?”

“Well…no…” Carmen admitted.

“So where do these leads come from?” Zartex inquired.

“From Mirage,” Carmen educated. “Mirage is our mother company who manages the hundreds of branches we have across the United States and Canada. They take care of all of the back end business for us, like legal aid and accounting. They find our clients, who are the best services or utilities in the region. In our case, we represent Aeon Purl, the most advanced natural gas in Western Colorado. They give us the list of potential customers on this sales tablet. Our territory is determined by whose neighborhood hasn’t been hit in a while.”

“I see…” Zartex trailed off. “Actually, no I don’t. It still sounds like they pick out random neighborhoods, especially since the people only know you come because you have visited their neighborhood before. It sounds like Mirage gives you random neighborhoods and random customers.”

Carmen recoiled at those remarks. She knew that his words held a little truth, but her work was more meaningful than he was making it out to be. “We’re trying to help out as many people as possible. Most people have inferior gas and pay too much for it. We found people prefer the face to face approach to get information, so we do door to another door. Plus, we’re different than other residential sales because we don’t have to hoof it forever. We have fast promotions and become business owners.”

“So, it’s a franchise of Mirage?” queried Zartex.

“Sort of,” Carmen said. She got to the street she was working on, so she couldn’t explain more. She told Zartex, “I will explain more after work. This is my street.”

“I’m ready!” Zartex remarked.

“I wish I was!” Carmen thought out loud. Zartex raised an eyebrow, so she explained, ” I meant ’cause you were here! I’ve done this a million times!” Zartex looked skeptical but said nothing. Carmen already felt annoyed, and it was only the beginning!

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 25

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

They all replied, “Nah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy birthday, Tadd!” Ashlynn exclaimed.

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

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

 

The End

Turning 30, Chapter 13

Ashlynn walked into a posh hotel lobby. The walls were lined with gold, and the walls’ support came from marble pillars. The employees dressed in freshly-pressed suits, and even though they had a lounge, everything was so spotless that no one used the furniture. Ashlynn dressed in a nice blouse and a pencil skirt, which looked nice but did not seem to fit in with the company’s ambiance. Tadd followed her inside, looking sullen but not like his usual sobbing mess. Ashlynn told Tadd, “Thanks for coming with me to my interview! I’m a little nervous.”

“Whatever,” Tadd replied listlessly. “I had to get out of that apartment. Everything reminds me of her.”

“You need new furniture,” Ashlynn observed.

Tadd’s eyes went wide. “No! It’s all I have left of her!”

“Whatever,” Ashlynn muttered. She walked up to the front desk and waited for the attendant, whose name tag said he was Jaime, to finish typing an email.

Without looking at her, Jaime asked, “Checking in?”

Ashlynn replied, “No, I’m here for the interview for part time gift shop clerk.”

Jaime took his eyes off the email. He looked Ashlynn up and down, and he made a disdainful face. “Alright. You must be Ashley.”

“It’s Ashlynn,” she corrected him.

Jaime seemed to not be listening as he looked for her name tag. “Right. Here’s your name tag. Go stand with the others down there, and someone will be by to get you soon.” Ashlynn saw a group of people in formal suits standing by a conference room. Jaime went back to his email without another word or glance her way, so she put on her name tag and went to where he directed.

Ashlynn stood close to the suited people but not close enough to be in their cluster. Tadd found a marble pillar close to Ashlynn and slumped against it. Ashlynn quietly thought out loud, “This is for the part time gift shop position?”

Tadd shrugged. He then noticed her name tag. “Why does your name tag say Ashley?”

Ashlynn told him, “My name defies convention. I’m used to it. I’ll know who they’re talking about. It happens at Starbucks all the time.”

“I can fix it.” Tadd brought out a pen from his pocket and went to Ashlynn’s name tag to fix it.

Just then, a suited man named Peter came out of the convention room. The suited people stood alert and ready to go. From Peter’s angle, it looked like Ashlynn was getting felt up by Tadd. Ashlynn looked up in surprise, and when Tadd noticed this, he quickly jumped away. Ashlynn joined the others, feeling really awkward and also out of place. Peter cleared his throat but made no acknowledgement of this strange interaction. Peter greeted them, “Good morning!”

Everyone but Ashlynn said in unison, “Good morning!”

Peter went on, “I’m Peter, and I’ll be conducting your first round interview.” Ashlynn made a face at that. She didn’t realize there would be multiple interviews for a low level job. “Will you please get into alphabetic order by first name please?” The suits scrambled to get in order. Ashlynn ended up being first, and she was followed by David, Harriet, Mandy, and Zachary. “Very good. Follow me.” In a single file line, they followed him into the conference room.

As soon as they entered the conference room, Ashlynn went past the desks sitting in a semi-circle and past the giant oak desk sitting in the front. Her eyes fell to a table in the center of the room full of goofy hats, and she had a sinking feeling about how this interview would go. Everyone sat down in the order they came in, and once they found their seat, they folded their hands and focused on the front of the room. Peter sat down at the oak desk and pulled out a notebook. Ashlynn already wanted to run away.

Peter began, “Working with the general public means dealing with all kinds of personalities…all kinds!” He obviously meant for that to be a joke, so the others laughed in unison like a sitcom soundtrack. Ashlynn didn’t get the joke and didn’t react. Peter went on, “Let’s get to know you guys. Tell me three interesting facts about yourself, starting with Ashley.”

Ashlynn had been so focused on the already odd circumstances of this interview that she had forgotten that they misspelled her name, so when everyone looked to her, it threw off guard at first. “Oh! Uh, well, my name is Ashlynn-”

Peter checked his notes. “It says Ashley.”

“I can show you my ID.” Ashley felt a little irritated, but then she noticed that Peter and the others gazed at her in shock, so she tried to recover a pleasant demeanor. “Okay, interesting facts…In high school, I-”

Peter interrupted, “Stand up, please.”

Ashlynn stood up awkwardly. “In high school, I won state finalist for a beauty pageant. For the last ten years, I-”

Peter interrupted again, “Project more, please. And, my dear, a little interviewing tip-smiling is important.”

Ashlynn twisted her mouth in what she hoped looked like a genuine smile. “For the last ten years, I worked for the Real Estate King. And-”

Peter commented, “The criminal?”

“He’s not a criminal! He’s mentally ill!” Ashlynn realized after she said it how that really did not help her case. “And I just reunited with my best friends from high school.” She quickly sat down before anyone commented on that.

David stood up and, in an overly cheerful voice, stated, “Hi! I’m David! I got a four point o in college, I got promoted to manager of a McDonald’s during my undergrad years, and my last boss described me as super cheerful.”

After he finished, Harriet immediately stood up and talked in the same tone, “I’m Harriet! I worked in retail for twenty years. I got employee of the week nine times. And, I like challenging myself.”

Immediately, Mandy mimicked them, “I’m Mandy! I graduated with honors. I am enrolled at an online business school for business. And, my worst feature is that I work too darn hard.”

Zachary finished in the same manner, “I’m Zachary! I retired from my role as youth counselor at a small church. My grandson owns a car dealership in Memphis, so he taught me all about the world of sales. Most importantly, I stayed at this hotel before and loved it!”

Peter seemed pleased with their responses. Ashlynn stared in disbelief. Since when was it custom to fight hard for a minimum wage, part time job? Ashlynn wondered if this company actually wanted to hire people were obviously trying to be transparent sycophants. People were putting an extraordinary amount of effort in a position that anyone could do! Peter moved on, “Very good! Such a diverse group of talent! I guess that’s why they say variety is the spice of life!” Again, everyone but Ashlynn laughed in unison. “Now, part of your job is to entertain our guests. So, I want you to tell me your favorite entertainer  and why you picked him or her. We’ll start with you, Zachary.”

Zachary stood up and said proudly, “I like Gary Sinise because he’s such a hard worker!”

Mandy followed suit, “I like Tom Hanks because he is so nice!”

Harriet followed suit, “I like Steven Spielberg because he’s a good leader!”

David followed suit, “I like Shakespeare because of the impact he made on history.”

Ashlynn hesitated. The room stared at her stoically. Ashlynn stood up and stated, “I like Seth MacFarlane.”

“Why?” Peter probed.

“Because he’s entertaining!” Ashlynn had not meant to sound so cranky but stopped feeling guilty, even with the unapproving reactions from the room.

Peter looked a little taken aback. Ashlynn could not believe that this was a real interview. She also wondered if the company cared about honesty because there was no way that these absurd answers actually depicted their honest personalities. She hoped to see some sign of humanity or shame from Peter, but he cleared his throat and went on, “Now, for the final question…”

Ashlynn could not believe they only planned to ask them three questions. She also gave up trying to disguise her bad mood. Peter cheerily talked to the group, “Now, did everyone happen to see the table of hats?” Everyone but Ashlynn laughed in unison again. Peter laughed at his own joke. “Seriously though, I want each of you to pick up a hat, wear it, and explain why you chose it. Harriet, why don’t you go first?”

Harriet went over to the table of hats and immediately chose the hard hat. “I picked the hard hat because I’m a hard worker who’s ready to build her future.” She took it off and sat back down.

Peter gestured to Zachary. “Zachary, you next.”

Zachary went over and gingerly picked up and put on the graduation cap. “I picked this one because I’m goal oriented and ready for my new chapter in life.” He took it off and sat back down.

Peter gestured to Mandy. “Mandy.”

Mandy practically skipped to the table. She put on the princess cap. “I picked this one because I’m a natural leader but also very nice and sweet.” She set it down and basically glided back to her desk.

Peter gestured to David. “David.”

David hopped over to the table and overly-enthusiastically put on a baseball cap. “This one has the hotel’s logo on it. I wear this cap now as I envision my future with this company.” He took it off and sat down.

With much hesitation, everyone turned to Ashlynn, who looked like she was in a trance. She could not fake her interest in their replies. The air became frigid. They could sense her displeasure, and based on her previous responses and current attitude, they seemed nervous as to what she may say. Ashlynn’s filter was off. She decided to be honest.

Ashlynn walked over to the table and put on the witch’s hat. “This one is truly my favorite hat. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and growing up, I was a witch every other year. There’s a lot of fun memories attached to this hat.” Everyone looked uncomfortable at her answer. “What? Is it so strange to hear a real answer? Sorry for being honest!”

Peter defended them, “The others were honest!”

Ashlynn rolled her eyes. “Oh please! They regurgitated what Google told them was the best things to say at an interview! Is this what you want? Corporate shills who’ll lie and suck up to you just for the ‘honor’ of working here? Yes, I know, you want the right personality for the job, and that’s why you’re formally interviewing people for the very important position of part time gift shop cashier! Really? You’re not going to ask any of us about retail experience? Seriously? Ask me about my customer service skills! Ask me about my cash handling skills! How about computer skills? Job loyalty? I’m sorry I don’t want to pretend that I’m going to make a carer out of a job that offers fifteen hours a week and no benefits! I can do the job well, so if you’re looking for a person capable of that, call me! Otherwise, enjoy your company zombie that knows jack about working in a store!”

Ashlynn stormed out. The room stayed quiet, as if a bomb had just exploded. Before they could fully process the moment, Ashlynn burst back into the room, quickly put the witch’s hat back on the table, and ran out without making eye contact at anyone.

Tadd stared at the door to the conference room. Ashlynn stormed up to him but did not make eye contact. She was still fuming about the audacity of that situation. Tadd coolly told her, “I decided to wait to do my crying. I didn’t wanna make a scene here for you.”

Ashlynn checked back into her surroundings. “Oh, right! So, no crying here, huh? Well, that’s a start.” They started to walk out. As they exited, Ashlynn inquired, “Aren’t you gonna ask me how it went?”

“No. You stormed out in a witch’s hat. It didn’t go well.” Tadd’s mouth twitched a little. Ashlynn looked at him incredulously. All of her anger melted away. She was positive that Tadd had tried to smile for the first time in ages!