Sabotage, Chapter 12

“What did they do to you?” Seth peered at the scruffy recovery agent, who had googly eyes and, even though he sat in a chair, he swayed to music that no one could hear.

Lilith observed, “Here’s trying to speak!”

Seth, Lilith, Arius, and Elden all leaned in and listened carefully. The recovery agent indeed whispered something unintelligible. The more they listened, the more pins and needles of anticipation grew. Suddenly, he bolted up and sang, “Zephyr in the sky, at night I wonder/do my tears of morning sink beneath sun?”

The other four all deflated. Seth kicked a small table and exclaimed, “Damn it! They broke him!”

She did,” Lilith corrected him. “We taught her how too. Now she’s using it against us!”

Seth concluded, “It’s not safe for us to keep sending out recovery agents after her. They’re good for the entry level who escape. Their minds are weak, and they can get silenced easily. There’ll be no point in trying to get to get to her mind, she’s proven she’s too strong for that…”

“And obviously she’s proven she can outsmart the recovery agents too,” Elden added bitterly.

“Like a ray of light, she’s flying!” the recovery agent crooned enthusiastically.

Lilith sat him down and commented, “Too bad she had a change of heart; she could have been a great asset to Mirage!”

Seth responded, “That’s exactly why she’s so dangerous now! We only have one option-”

Arius stepped in and finished, “We’ll need to go after her ourselves! Since she’s in my region, I volunteer to get her! It’s my region, I have to protect it!”

Seth nodded in approval. Elden looked to his notes and informed him, “The Recovery Agent found her heading towards Provo. The rail heads to Salt Lake City, so, more than likely, she’s heading there.”

“More than likely!” Lilith reacted sourly. “How is it that we can’t get any video of her? They must pass by cameras sometimes!”

Seth and Elden shrugged at each other. Arius disregarded this, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll find her! I’ll go to Salt Lake City and turn every corner!” Everyone but the recovery agent laughed.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex walked down a bustling street in downtown Salt Lake City, Garith argued, “Oh come on! We could’ve gotten those tickets for free! It’s not like we have gotten a lot of chances to have fun!”

“Fun?” Carmen questioned. “How is Nightmare on Thirteenth fun? Haven’t we had enough scary people popping out of the corner brandishing weapons?”

“It’s almost Halloween!” Garith pleaded. “Let’s go back and find that guy before someone else grabs those tickets!”

“You really wanna make it easy for them to corner us?” Carmen said wryly.

“Why would they look for us there?” Garith retorted

Zartex opinionated, “I’ve yet to learn why humans enjoy getting scared. How does fear release endorphin?”

“See, we need to go there and find out the answer to his question!” Garith implored.

Carmen shook her head and smiled. She decided to change the subject, “Do you know anyone in San Francisco that’s hiring? You know, in case we make it back…”

“We will make it back!” Garith asserted. “I have no idea what’s happening in San Francisco right now. How can I? I had to ditch my cell phone in Colorado. It has been strange for me, as a reporter, to be so uninformed about what’s happening in the world.”

Zartex pointed out, “Except your involvement in a story that will get broadcast from coast to coast!”

“Thank Captain Obvious,” Garith responded. “I didn’t realize how glued I was to my cell phone until now. I used it all the time for work and communicate with people.”

Carmen inquired, “Is there someone waiting for you back home?”

“Oh no!” Garith replied. “I communicated with my family and friends via text. I hardly had time for them let alone a personal life. I spent so much time in the field interviewing people, but I spent more time doing research in the office. That’s how I ended up with my ex wife. And that’s also why we divorced. Well, one of the reasons.”

“What was the other reason?” Carmen felt compelled to learn more about him. After all this time they spent together, she didn’t know much about him. They had devoted their energy to surviving the journey and writing the article, and now she felt a twinge a guilt for not getting to know him.

Garith blushed a little. “I normally don’t talk about this in front of a lady.”

Whatever response Carmen was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Well…tell Zartex then!”

“Okay, Zartex!” Garith recalled, “She didn’t like having sex. Like, we hardly ever did it, and when we did, she would just lie there like a cold fish. When I love someone, I like to really get into it, like really make her moan and squirm, you know?”

“Do I?” Zartex looked to Carmen, who nodded. “Okay, yes, I know what you mean.”

“I wanted to please her,” Garith explained. “But, get this, she didn’t even like to orgasm!”

“What?” Carmen reacted vehemently. “If Teddy ever gave me a real one, maybe I wouldn’t have ran out on him!”

Garith had no idea she would be so comfortable about the subject, but since now he knew that she was, he abandoned all pretense. “A real one? You mean, you faked it?”

“It’s like we both did,” Carmen divulged. “We were both so convinced we were in love that we believed our lovemaking was passionate and pleasurable. I realize now that I brainwashed myself to loving him as much as I tricked myself into liking that job. I moaned deeply because I thought I was supposed to feel orgasmic. Teddy did too. But really, I felt nothing. I mean, how could I? We were lying perfectly still!” At this point, Garith burst into mirthful laughter. “It’s not funny!”

“Are you kidding me?” Garith howled. “You were both lying still like statues but still shouted in passion? Teddy must’ve looked like a beached whale!” Garith stood perfectly still and let out a huge moan.

“Stop that!” Carmen playfully hit him. Now that she heard, and saw, it out loud, she did realize how comical her relationship was. Everything about it was fake, just like Mirage. They made everything look flashy and prestigious, but it was just theatre. She got so lost in the act that she never realized that she was just playing a role. She had adopted a whole other identity! “We should probably stop talking about sex so loud. Isn’t this the Mormon capitol?”

Garith pointed to a sign in front of them. “There’s a bar! Look around, do these people look like religious fundamentalists? Plus, it’s not like Mormons don’t have sex. How do you think they make so many kids?”

Carmen laughed, “You have a point. Not that all Mormons have a particular ‘look,’ but these people staggering out of the bar definitely don’t look like Mormons!” She had referred to a group of young people dressed up to clubbing.

“That guy definitely isn’t.” Garith pointed to a rabbi that passed by them. The three of them laughed.

Zartex joined in, “Well, we know that guy isn’t Mormon! Not enough morals!” Zartex pointed to the distance and laughed.

Garith and Carmen stopped dead in their tracks. The man he pointed to was Arius! Garith and Carmen hid behind a building around the corner, and Zartex followed. “What is he doing here?” Carmen groaned. She was not mentally prepared to see him again. She was starting to move on with her life, and seeing a person from her past was like seeing a ghost. She figured she would run into nameless henchmen, but she didn’t think she would have to confront him or any of the Mirage executives unless they were in court. At that point, more time would have passed and they would have the barrier of police and legal teams to prevent them from hurting anyone. Now there would be very litte to stop him, especially since Mirage had the police convinced Carmen was a murderer.

Zartex remarked, “They know you can outfox their recovery agents, so they didn’t have a choice but to send their best and brightest.”

Carmen began to panic, so Garith snapped his fingers. “Don’t you give up on me now! Don’t let your fears cloud your mind! Now think…you’ve known him for several years, and you know these executives better than anyone. You know his strengths and his weaknesses, so tell me, what do we do?”

Carmen’s mind raced. Arius always reminded her of a wolf, and when he’s on the hunt, he chased his prey until the bitter end. He rarely made mistakes. Zartex suggested, “That bar is playing music, maybe we can do another song.”

Garith liked that suggested, and the two guys started to head out, but Carmen physically stopped them. Zartex’s suggestion triggered a memory for her. “A bar…he’s a booze hound! That’s how we’ll get him! Zartex, is there any music that won’t give you an emotional overload?”

“Country,” Zartex replied firmly.

“Let’s find a country bar!” Garith directed.

Arius walked down the streets with a determined look on his face. He scanned every person’s face and even read between the lines. His instincts told him she was close by. Suddenly, from across the street, he heard a small crash. He saw Carmen recovering from tripping. When she saw him, she suddenly grew a deer-in-the-headlights look and bolted into a nearby bar. Arius darted after her.

His heart pumped knowing that he was getting close to catching her. When he entered the bar, there was no sign of her. A couple of people in Western wear sat at the bar. The jukebox played a country song that reminded him of home, which made him feel at ease. At the opposite side of the bar stood a beer pong table. After he noticed that, a very tall man came up to him and jovially invited, “You up for a game? I’m losing terribly. You any good?”

“Are you kidding? I’m the best!” Arius boasted. “But I can’t right now. I’m looking for someone important.”

“You mean that girl?” Zartex said as casually as he could. “She got chased out by police.”

“Really?” Arius seemed pleased. “She’s not a very fast runner, so they probably got her. So, yes, I do have some time to play!”

Zartex and Arius played against a couple of strangers, and Arius had not lied aobut his prodigious skills at this game. He helped Zartex win easily. As the evening went on, the bar got different patrons, and since his adrenaline was up, he challenged more people each time they finished a game. After a few hours, Arius had less control of his body and slurred speech. He craned his head to the front door to welcome a new challenger. He saw Carmen, which prompted him to remember his mission. “Youuuu! Y’er supposed to be in ja-il!” Arius uttered.

Carmen ducked away, and Arius clumsily went after her. At that moment, Garith shouted, “Bartender! That man’s trying to run out on his bill!”

Arius stopped and swiveled around. “What bill?”

The bartender informed him, “You said you would cover the tabe from all these beer pong games!”

Arius got a confused expression on his face. “Wha….? No, I gotta go!” Arius ran out and ignored the anger from the people in the bar.

He went out on the street, but everything felt blurred. “Wherrre did you go?” He meandered down the road, glancing at everyone. People could tell he was drunk and felt uneasy by his appearance. He asked multiple people if they were Carmen, but they shook him off.

He came to a statue and saw her from across a plaza. He stumbled, and the next thing he knew, he was being awakened by a police officer poking him with a baton. “Wake up, buddy!”

Totally disoriented, he woke up to see himself on top of the statue buck naked. “It wasn’t me!” he slurred. “It wasss the wanted killller, Carmen!”

“Sure, you lush!” The police clearly didn’t believe him. “You’re wanted on multiple charges: larceny, drunk and disorderly conduct, public nudity…” Arius protested more, trying to get the police to look for Carmen. They ignored him and put him in their squad car.

Just outside of town, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith hiked along a railroad. Carmed buzzed, “Oh, I wish I could see the look on his face as he got arrested!”

Garith wondered, “We are safe from him for a few days. But, do you think he’ll go after us again once he’s released?”

“No,” Zartex stated. “They’ll try again with someone else to solve their problem faster. You know what’s ironic though? He got arrested for stealing, but technically, I’m the only thief here!” Garith and Carmen stared at him in disbelief. “I technically ran up that bar tab. I also stole that food from the dumpster. Oh, and I stole that boat at the lake on your wedding day!”

“That was you?” Carmen was shocked, but she felt a rush of gratitude for him. If Zartex hadn’t done that, she may not have been able to escape. Garith also played a huge role that day too. If weren’t for the two of them, who knows what would have happened to her? She may have escaped one day, she was certainly capable of it. But she realized that no one could do everything alone all the time. She now had powerful allies. She didn’t know if she would be successful, but, thanks to Garith and Zartex, she at least had a chance. She compulsively gave them both a hug. They were surprised by this gesture, but they accepted it and hugged back.

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Sabotage, Chapter 11

With a dour face, Hank typed an email on his laptop. He had to pause, take a sip of his hot apple cider, and sigh. Right after that moment, a heavy knock sounded at the door. He set down his computer and prepared to face an ongoing nuisance. He seriously doubted that they came to deliver bad news. sure, it was a possibility, but he had a strong hunch that if Carmen got hurt in any way, they would not have the decency to tell him first. He saw the way they kept trying to discredit her in the media, so they would only revel in her destruction. He knew why they were here, and he was willing to put up with it to help bring justice to Carmen.

He answered the door and came to face a young but short woman with dark blonde hair tied back tightly. She had remarkably plain features except for her dark blues, which had a glare that could scare anyone into attention. Hank couldn’t guess her role in Mirage based on her appearance. Her clothes looked as though they could be expensive, however, she did not fit into them very snuggly as the tightness exposed her muffin top. Regardless of her position, he knew she represented those vile snakes from that evil so-called company, so he took pleasure in telling her, “Sorry, no soliciting!”

He relished in the brief emotion she showed at that insult, but as he tried to slam the front door, she stopped it with her foot and sharply informed him, “Actually, Mister Alvaro, I’m Jorden Kasper, head of the Northern California division of Mirage.”

Hank figured that her titled must usually command respect and obedience, but it did not work on him. After all, he dealt with wealthy and glamorous clients all the time. He saw a flicker of annoyance on her face as her ploy didn’t work. Instead of cowering at her presence, he kept cool. Knowing full well why she was there, he decided to tell her, “If you’re interested in real estate development, you’ll have to come back during business hours.”

Once again, she tried to hide her vexed mood. Jorden motioned behind her, and two police officers approached the front porch. “These guys have a warrant. We believe that you have illegal information that I’m here to recover on behalf of our company.”

Hank, in mock politeness, gestured for them to enter. “The passcode for the safe is five one two two.” Jorden came in, scowling fiercely at his impertinence. “Yes?” Hank grinned.

She leered, “You’re hiding confidential information only privy to our people. You have no right to possess it! We’re far more clever than you think! We’ll find what you’re hiding!”

“By all means, Pintamonas, feel free to look for yourself!” Hank invited.

Jorden took him up on his offer. She searched every end of the living room while one officer searched upstairs and the other searched the kitchen and backyard. Jorden checked each nook and cranny-the entertainment center, the couch cushions, even the rug. When she checked under the couch, she gasped. The cat hissed and ran out of the room. Hank chuckled, and she shook her head and maintained a nonchalant attitude. She pat him down, which prompted him to joke, “Hey, Cabrona, I’m a married man!”

She gave him an evil eye and kept searching. She saw a bowl next to the front door where Hank stored a pile of mail. “Of course!” she deduced. “While we were so busy sifting through your electronic communications to find hidden messages, she slipped under the radar and conveyed her status the old fashioned way!”

“Don’t look through that,” Hank said pleasantly. “It’ll  totally waste your time!”

“Ohhhh, you don’t want me to look here!” Jorden practically cackled. She scanned each letter and examined each detail scrupulously. Hank sat down on a chair that faced the front door, kicking back and not bothering to disguise his amusement at her fury. She turned back to see the cat sitting next to him on the arm of his chair wearing a pumpkin sweater. He pet the cat’s unadorned fur and grinned toothily at her. She gritted her teeth and kept foraging for suspicious letters. finally, something caught her eye. “Since when are you friends with Hermione Granger?”

“Don’t read that.” He pretended to be worried. “You won’t be happy.”

Jorden smiled maliciously as she opened the envelope and took a look at the letter. She read out loud, “Nine, apostrophe, thirteen, space, fifteen, fourteen, space, twenty, eight, five space, eight, nine, seven, eight, twenty-three, one, twenty-five, space, twenty fifteen, space, eight, five, twelve, twelve, period. The bottom of the page says seven, fifteen, space, six, twenty-one, three, eleven, space, twenty-five, fifteen, twenty-one, eighteen, nineteen, five, twelve, six. This is an easy encryption to decipher. She thinks she’s so clever! The numbers clearly correspond to their position in the alphabet.” She took a pen off the table and began to translate. “Nine would be I, and thirteen is M. Yup, that’s what she did. The first word is I’m. Let’s see…I’m…on…the…highway…to…” She eagerly anticipated the answer, fully believing it would reveal important information. “I’m on the highway to…hell? Very funny! I bet the bottom of the page is more serious.” She translated the bottom and stood up in anger. “Go fuck yourself!?!”

Hank roared in laughter. “I told you not to look at that! Didn’t I say it would waste your time?”

“Why you-!” She stepped towards him as if she was going to attack him.

Just then, the police officers returned from the kitchen and upstairs. The cat ran into the kitchen, almost tripping the cop. The other officer reported, “We searched every inch of the house. It’s clear.”

Jorden didn’t like hearing this. she ogled Hank, who simply smiled and shrugged. She reluctantly relented, “We’ll come back again another day. He’s hiding something, I know it!” Giving him an angry face, Jorden stormed out. The police indifferently followed.

The cat returned to the living, staring up at Hank, who praised him, “Good boy, Orlando! They have no respect for your prowess, so they underestimated your worth.” He peeked under the sweater and saw the three pieces of Zartex’s papers rolled up into a fine tube. He put the sweater back into place. “Good boy!” He pat Orlando on the head, and the cat seemed pleased.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex gingerly scaled down a sandy, pebble-filled hill, Garith discussed, “Okay, let’s go over it one more time. THE VOBS were the company’s sale system?”

“Yes,” Carmen concurred. “But after we got promoted and began to build our teams, they said it would help us with managing a company too. It wasn’t a sale system-they called it the system.”

“Right. So the T stood for turn every corner,” Garith recited. “In sales, it referred to thoroughly working your territory.”

“And in management, it referred to recruiting people from high and low,” Carmen explained. “Sales are a numbers game, but so is recruitment, especially for a job people generally aren’t willing to do.”

Zartex added, “On a corporate level, they turn every corner to find people who escape, as we’ve seen.”

“That’s true!” Garith agreed. “H stood for haste. The quicker you move, the quicker you reach your goals. People forget about a deal if you don’t nab it quickly. And managers will lose recruits to other jobs if they don’t act fast. And corporate wants to grow quickly, of course. If they can get ahead enough, one failure won’t mean that much of a loss. That’s why they were so fast to kill off one of their managers. Find the problems quick. Like escapees, find them fast!”

“E is for envy,” Carmen continued. “They turn sales people into the cool kids on campus so everyone will get jealous of their life. It gets recruits excited for a chance to share the spotlight. They dress sharply and make it look like we did all these fun things to create that insatiable desire to be trendy and fabulous. That’s how they motivated people to stay.”

Zartex stated, “That goes along with V for voracity. They play on people’s greed to get sales and to trick people into thinking they want to get promoted. They got so focused on making lots of money and doing flashy things that their voracity clouded their judgment, which allowed them to heinous things like murder.”

Carmen bitterly commented, “O is optimism. They claim it was to attract positive things by thinking positive. They didn’t want us to think any negative thoughts. So, any negative impulse we had about the job we had to ignore or destroy. They brainwashed us into thinking we were happy. It made us compliant to their whims.”

“B, big picture, did the same sort of thing,” Garith appended. “They talked about delayed gratification, paying now so you can play later. Forget about how miserable you are now, focus on the goals we made for you stemming from greed and envy! It made you forget your identity.”

Zartex finished with, “S is for seize control. That’s the obvious end goal.”

At the bottom of the hill, they came to an expansive lake with a clear view of the mountains on the opposite side. Carmen breathed, “It’s beautiful!”

“Didn’t I tell you that Utah Lake would be a great place to camp out?” Garith remarked.

“I won’t say you were right,” Carmen bickered.

“You don’t have to,” Garith gloated, “not wehen it’s obvious.”

“Who are you bragging to?” Carmen retorted. “There’s no one here that cares.”

“I’m sorry, I won’t be cheerful then,” Garith said sarcastically.

“I don’t have a problem with your cheerfulness!” Carmen argued. “In the last week, I had to deal with failing in sales and running out a doomed marriage. I have to walk to California with company that I didn’t have a choice on! I gotta live like a homeless person to survive while trying to avoid getting killed by hit men! I’m usually hungry and always tired! I’ve had so much go wrong that I don’t need a smug jerk pointing out another reason why I suck at life! So, I’m sorry if I’m a little cranky, but if you know this, why are you purposely making it worse?”

Carmen was clearly fuming, which immediately made Garith uncomfortable. “I’m gonna…I gotta go to the bathroom. There’s no bathroom here, but you know what I mean. I’ll find a tree to hide behind far enough away so that I don’t disturb you…again!” He ran off.

Zartex observed, “You sure scare him when you’re angry!”

Carmen didn’t respond. She sat down and faced the lake. As she gazed at the lake, she felt a little more peaceful. She shifted a little to make herself more comfortable, which made her remember that she had to sleep there. The prospect made her a little more disappointed. She thought about their discussion on THE VOBS and how they had used that on her to trick her into joining their cult. “Why didn’t I see it sooner?”

“See what?” Zartex asked.

“The red flags!” Carmen answered dramatically. “They exaggerated the earning potential, but I ignored this because of the big picture. For once in my life, I felt like a somebody! I thought I closed the chapter on petty, dead end jobs. No one gave me a shot at leadership because I’m an actress and I’m pretty; no one took me seriously! II never cared about management though, I just wanted to make enough money to pay rent so I didn’t have to be an adult dependent on family to survive. I don’t care about making a ton of money, and I’ve never cared about materialistic things. I wanted a circle of friends and a sense of being part of an important team. I wanted to belong somewhere! And I just wanted to prove myself to the world. When I make a goal, I see through it ’til the end. I’m fine closing that chapter of my life, but I just wish I knew what was coming next! So far, this has been a miserable experience, but when it’s over, what’s next? Will it, just be more of my old life of floating from place to place never truly finding my sense of independence or belonging? They say everyone goes through hard times, but my whole life has been this way! Why can’t I just be happy? This job made me give up on my dream, and I gave up on this job too. I’m just an all around failure, aren’t I?” As she said this, tears welled up in her eyes. Suddenly, all of her hurt seemed to surface. All of the hard times that THE VOBS made her bury came out. The sacrifices she made, the heartbreak, the defeat…she didn’t feel it then, but she felt it now!

Carmen buried her head into her knees and sobbed uncontrollably. Zartex noted, “I don’t need to use my emotional reader to know how you feel!” Carmen heard him but did not acknowledge his assessment. She couldn’t. Zartex observed, “I spent my whole career analyzing humans and their emotions, but not once did I learn how to deal with them. I understand you’ve been through more hardship than most people have ever or ever will deal with. This is overwhelming and caused an out pour of emotion. I know all of this, but I don’t know how to make it better. I’ve never had to know. It’s not a requirement of the job to make our subjects feel better, just understand them. I do understand you, but you’re different than my other clients because I actually want to make you feel better! You’re the first subject I’ve ever cared about! I never had an Earthling as a friend. The problem is my species doesn’t process emotions the same way yours does. So, I don’t know how to help you. But I want to, I really do!” Carmen continued to sob, so he made an awkward attempt at comfort by stiffly patting her back and spouting, “There, there!”

She continued to cry as Garith came back. “Oh good! You can show me what to do!” Zartex requested. “You are human and experience these emotions. Help!”

Garith ineptly sat next to her and gracelessly pat her back much like the way Zartex did. He bumbled, “There, there!”

Carmen wailed, “Forget it guys! I’m hopeless!”

Zartex looked to Garith, who quickly analyzed the situation. “What was she saying before it happened?”

“Um…” Zartex thought back. “She wanted to be successful in Mirage because she didn’t succeed in acting or getting a job that pays rent. She gave up on her dreams and she gave up on Mirage too, so now she wonders if the next part of her life will ever make her feel like less of a failure.”

“Okay, I got this!” Garith put his arm around her and rested his hand on her shoulder. “There’s a big difference between giving up and realizing that you’ve had enough. Like, it’s why I stopped getting houseplants. I got busy at work and went straight to bed when I got home. I forgot about it until Fourth of July. I stayed home ’cause it was a holiday, and as I tidied up, I saw it turning yellow. I felt guilty and vowed to bring it back to life. I kept giving it plant food and watered it like crazy, but it just grew more and more brown. One day, I realized that there’s no point in watering something that will never live. when something in your life is over, it’s better to let go ’cause holding onto the past will break your back. Your life will get better as long as you do something different. Doing the same habits will get you the same results. I can’t guarantee success, but at least you can take pride in the fact that you gave a shot. No matter how often you fall, get back up again! Keep trying different things until you succeed. If you don’t give up, at least you can say you did everything you could. If you try, you might fail, however, if you never try at all, failure is guaranteed. You’re not a failure from walking away from an unhappy situation. I’m proud of you for overcoming all you went through and for having the courage to move on!”

Carmen pondered his words for a moment. Mirage always made anyone who gave up on their goals feel lower than dirt, but sometimes important to let yourself fail so you can move on. It’s true that a person can’t focus on new ideas if they stick to the old ones. She still feared perpetual failure, but she knew she wouldn’t stop trying and took some pride on that. This didn’t make her feel optimistic, but she realized that she had stopped crying. Zartex inquired, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling…”Carmen listened to her innermost feelings and heart before she finished her thought. “I’m feeling like I gotta pee!” She had so much mixed emotions that she couldn’t even process it all right now, and she said that without even thinking about it. She had decided that she didn’t have to understand it all tonight. She gingerly got up and headed for the trees. Garith and Zartex high fived, and Garith sprawled out to go to sleep.

Sabotage, Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but-”

“Are you a skilled fighter?”

“No, but-”

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

“I’m not a paparazzi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?” Garith reacted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m okay with that!” Garith avowed.

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

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

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

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

“You can leave!” Carmen replied coolly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

“But…but I…I…!” Cera stammered.

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

Feliz explained, “Cera is drunk.”

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

Feliz told Davida, “She is VERY sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t ready!” he lamented.

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

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

“No,” Feliz answered.

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

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

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

“Cera will be here all night probably.”

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 22

Ashlynn,wearing glasses, sat in the driver’s seat of a beat up, twenty year old SUV while Will sat in the passenger’s seat. They drove down a two lane freeway. Nothing seemed to be around them except for brush. Ashlynn drove well, but she still had a nervous look on her face. Will pointed out, “See, this is easy!”

Ashlynn only half-heartily agreed, “Easy, yeah. I kinda hate this though. I didn’t know I had to wear glasses for long distances! When did that happen?”

“So, you didn’t drive ‘casue of a vanity thing?” Will kidded.

“It’s all just weird, very foreign feeling!” Ashlynn admitted, “But I also feel like it’s pointless. Even if someone gave me a car, I couldn’t afford to pay for gas or insurance.”

Will suggested, “I bet your parents would help you for a while.”

“Yeah,” she opinionated, “But there’s only so long I can go taking their money before-”

Suddenly, an animal ran out onto the road. Will and Ashlynn shouted, and Ashlynn slammed on the brakes. They heard and felt a loud thump, so Ashlynn turned off the car. “Oh god, I killed an animal!”

Will tried to reassure her, “Maybe it’s still alive.” Ashlynn gave him a disbelieving look. He directed, “Come on! Let’s take a look.”

They got out of the car and nervously approached the front end. There was a long furred, orange cat there. Its body was limp, and it did not move. Ashlynn cried, “Oh, poor kitty!”

Will gazed at its face and realized, “Oh no! That’s Furby! That’s one of Miss Constantine’s cats!”

“Is it dead?” She touched its neck to check its pulse. “Yeah, its dead. Ew! I touched a dead animal!”

Will lamented, “Aw man! Miss Constantine is gonna flip out!”

Ashlynn remarked, “Are you sure? I mean, she’d be sad, but she has sixteen cats, well fifteen, so how could she get that upset about one?”

Later that day, Miss Constantine stood outside stood outside her house wearing all black. She stood by a bare, very dry tree. Her house was old and very dilapidated. The quality of wood and paint made it surprising that anyone lived there. The tree seemed to be the only plant life besides the overgrown grass. The faded, pink paint with the purple shutters made it give the feel of a house once fit for a princess but had since been neglected. Miss Constantine gazed at a tiny grave that read “Furby-beloved friend.” Ashlynn, Will, Cera, Lavena, Feliz, and Tadd also stood looking at the little tombstone. They seemed serious but felt awkward attending a funeral for a cat especially one they didn’t know. Miss Constantine sobbed, “Goodbye, my sweet baby! Mama will always love you!” She paused to cry a little. “Would anyone else like to say something?”

Everyone hesitated. No one knew what to say. Miss Constantine grew more upset when no one would give a eulogy for an animal she cared about. Ashlynn stepped up. She awkwardly talked to the grave, “Hey Furby! Sorry I killed you…” She shifted guiltily as she felt some anger brewing from Miss Constantine. She decided to recover by saying, “May you serve as a reminder to other cats to use caution and look both ways before crossing the highway!”

Will stepped up too. “Goodbye Furby! It’ll be weird only feeding fifteen cats!”

“Thank you for attending Furby’s funeral! Excuse me!” Miss Constantine went inside her house to mourn.

Feliz complained, “I can’t believe I took a day off work for a cat funeral!”

Lavena glanced at the time on her cell phone. “Well, I have the sitter for a couple more hours. Who’s up for a drink?” Everyone but Tadd reacted enthusiastically about that idea.

Lavena, Ashlynn, Tadd, Will, Feliz, and Cera all walked into a dive bar. The lighting was dim, but a ray of sunlight peaked through, exposing the dust in the air. Everything was made of old wood like a person would find on a pirate ship. A few grubby patrons were scattered throughout the place. The bartender looked old but hearty. He had a salt and pepper beard and wore a name tag that read “Leon.” Leon came up to them as they took their seats at a table, and Will ordered, “Six beers, please.”

Leon studied their outfits particularly. “Who died?”

“My soul!” Tadd commented pathetically.

Lavena remarked, “Oh, shut up! We went to a cat lady’s pet’s funeral.”

“Y’all need a drink!” He went back to the bar and brought six bottles of beer. “First round is on me!”

Cera, Will, Feliz, Ashlynn, and Lavena all thanked him. Will asked Leon, “Hey, would you ever take the day off of work for something like this?”

Leon answered, “Not me. I love my job! I’ve worked here forty years, and the only day off I took were for two weddings and a divorce-all of them mine!”

Leon and everyone but Tadd laughed. Leon went back to the bar. As they took a moment to guzzle their beer to decompress from their unusual day, Lavena noticed a perverted-looking man eyeing them at the other end of the room. He wore an outdated, cheap suit and definitely needed a haircut. Lavena mumbled, “Oh god!”

“What?” Ashlynn turned to look, but Lavena stopped her.

“Don’t make eye contact!” Lavena warned. Ashlynn understood and looked in the opposite direction as did Lavena. Cera seemed confused and searched the bar to see what they were talking about. Lavena hissed, “Cera! Don’t look at him! You’ll encourage him to…”

It was too late. The man came up to their table and put his hands on Lavena and Ashlynn’s chairs. He talked to Lavena first, “Hey-!”

“No!” Lavena cut him off.

He reacted silkily, “You don’t even know what I was gonna say!”

Lavena rolled her eyes. “You strolled over with more confidence than you deserve and you spoke in a smooth but forceful tone, like a used car salesman. We know what you were gonna say, it doesn’t take a genius!”

The man blinked. “How did you know I’m a used car salesman?”

Ashlynn voiced, “Hey, in case you didn’t catch the drift, you’re selling something we’re not buying!”

Cera raised her hand. “I’ll buy!”

Ashlynn advised, “Cera, don’t!”

The man half shrugged. “Just like my job, I’ll take what I can get! Let’s go!”

Cera looked in disbelief. “Wow, this is really happening!”

“Cera, you don’t have to do it this way!” Feliz told her.

“This may be my only shot!” she argued.

“No it won’t!” Will said wisely, “You have plenty of time! Don’t you want your first time to be special?”

The strange man reacted, “You’re a virgin? Sweet!”

Cera told her friends, “I’m not gonna bear the shame of being a thirty year old virgin! I’m gonna get it over with, and then I can start dating like a normal person. This huge burden of keeping that a secret will be gone. I’ll have my real first time with someone who matters. This will take away the awkwardness, and I don’t have to feel embarrassed anymore! I’m doing this!” She turned to the man. “Let’s go!”

Lavena, Ashlynn, Will, and Feliz all begged her not to go. Tadd looked more sad than usual but said nothing. They all felt helpless as they watched her leave the bar with that man’s arm around her waist.

Turning 30, Chapter 21

Cera lead Tadd, Ashlynn, and Lavena into a trendy cafe that had a room cleared out for the event. Nine men stood on one side of the room and seven women stood on the other side. The host was setting up ten tables with numbers and score cards as they arrived. Cera told them, “Thanks for coming, guys! They were gonna cancel it if they didn’t get more people.”

Ashlynn looked uncomfortably at Tadd. She did not trust that his emotional state would hold up in this situation. Tadd noticed her non-verbal observation. “I’ll be good.” Ashlynn still looked uneasy as he walked over to the men’s side.

As the three women joined their side, Cera felt really excited. Lavena surveyed the men. “Hmm…still not sure if this will be worth paying Mrs. Hollingsworth for the afternoon.”

Cera asked, “Mrs. Hollingsworth? Do you mean our old history teacher?”

“Yeah,” Lavena replied. “She retired a few years ago, and she needed some odd jobs mostly to fill up time more than anything else. I found her ad in the Penny Saver. I love the Penny Saver!”

“Please stop talking about the Penny Saver!”Ashlynn cringed. She didn’t need to be reminded of her mom’s seedy past while she was feeling so nervous and agitated.

Lavena commented, “Don’t be nervous. It’s just a five minute date; it’s not like anyone is obligated to sleep with anyone.”

Cera said, half joking, “Aw, don’t tell me that!” Lavena and Cera laughed. Ashlynn still seemed antsy. None of the men looked interesting to her except for Tadd, who was almost too interesting. The girls that were attending the event had vapid smiles and inane conversations. They reminded Ashlynn of Tadd’s ex, which made her more on guard. She felt very protective of him and silently prayed that no one would say or do anything to upset him.

The host finished setting up the tables and addressed everyone, “Thank you everyone for participating! I’m Stefan, and I’ll be your host today. The rules are simple: you have five minutes to get to know each other, and once the bell rings, gentlemen, you must go to the next table going clockwise. At the end of the session, you will take your score card and rate your dates. A one means yikes and a ten means yowza. If your scores are above a six and are within a point of each other, we’ll contact you to set you up on a longer date. If we get two people give each other a perfect ten, you will get a free meal here for your long date! Ladies, take a seat.” All the ladies sat down. “Gentlemen, I gave you your starting numbers a minute ago. Find your ladies now, and you may…” He paused dramatically as the men scurried to their tables. “…begin!” He rang a service bell.

Ding!

Tadd sat down at a young but pretty girl’s table. She introduced herself, “Hi! I’m Cynthia!” She held out her hand for him to shake, but instead Tadd collapsed onto the table. “Are you okay?”

Tadd did not pick up his head as he replied, “No! The she-devil took my heart!”

“Ohh…” Cynthia looked at her watch because of her discomfort.

Ding!

A man that looked like an overgrown frat boy sat at Ashlynn’s table. “Hey!” he said while nodding his head at her.

“Hey.” Ashlynn did not look amused.

The man blatantly stared at her chest and pointed, “So, are those real?” Ashlynn found this to be extremely offensive and threw her water at him. This did not deter him. “So, can I have your number?”

Ding!

A somewhat disheveled man sat across from Lavena. He conversed, “So, I think I wanna start a family someday.”

“That’s great!” Lavena smiled. “I have two kids, so a prestarted family!”

“Kids?” He remarked, “I don’t want any kids.”

Lavena looked confused. “But you just said you wanted to start a family!”

He gazed at her mysteriously, “A religious family! I inherited a ranch. I will turn it into a compound for souls who seek enlightenment!” Lavena got totally creeped out.

Ding!

Tadd sat a table where a bubbly, brunette girl sat. She complimented him, “You have pretty eyes!”

Tadd eyed her suspiciously. “You remind me of my ex!”

“I do?” She seemed taken aback by his harsh tone.

Tadd badgered her, “Are you addicted to drugs? You gonna bang every guy that wants you? Are you? Huh?” She pushed her chair away from the table, obviously unnerved.

Ding!

A man dressed in a cheap, tacky suit went to Cera’s table. She thought he was okay looking, and even though she was super nervous, she was blunt, “I just want a fling, nothing serious.”

He shrugged. “Okay.”

Cera did not mentally prepare for that. “Are you serious?” Her pulse raced rapidly.

He told her nonchalantly, “Why not? You’re not really my type, but I’d be willing to do it with you.”

Cera hyperventilated and fainted. The man peered over the table to make sure she was okay.

Ding!

A man whose hairstyle can only be described as Sonic the Hedgehog sat across from Ashlynn. He asked her, “So, what are you looking for in a man?”

Ashlynn found that to be an excellent question because she had not really thought about it before. “Well, I really ant someone I can talk to, like a real conversation. I want someone who can have fun staying in and can be a total blast traveling the world. I guess I want a man who’s my best friend, someone who-”

He interrupted her, “How many inches?”

“Inches?” she repeated.

“Yeah, down there, ya know?”

“I don’t know! What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m small. Really small. They thought I was a girl for a long time.”

Ashlynn did not try to hide her disgust.

Ding!

An overly enthusiastic young man sat across from Lavena. Lavena told him, “I’d like to get married before I turn thirty.”

He responded, “Okay, let’s go.”

“What?”

“Right now! Come on!”

“Wait, you wanna get married right now?”

“Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! Oh Lavena, you’ve made me the happiest man in the world!” He tried to kiss her, but she blocked him.

Ding!

The man who wanted to start a cult sat at Cera’s table. Cera was still passed out on the floor, so he sat there twiddling his thumbs.

Ding!

A very skinny, nerdy young man sat at Ashlynn’s table. He gave off a terrified vibe, and Ashlynn felt sorry for him. She talked to him gently, “How are you?” He opened up his mouth like he wanted to say something, but all he could do was gulp. She assured him, “There’s no reason to be nervous!” She pat his arm reassuringly. This was too much for him to handle. He got so scared that he fainted. “I wonder if it’s normal to have this many people faint at an event!” Ashlynn thought out loud.

Ding!

Tadd pushed the fainted guy away. He smiled at Ashlynn awkwardly. She smiled warmly back. “How’s it going, Tadd?”

Tadd answered sheepishly, “Lousy! I think I creeped out every girl in the place.”

Ashlynn chuckled, “Trust me, you weren’t the only guy to have that effect. None of these girls are going home with that they want, unless they like cults or small penises.” Tadd laughed, and Ashlynn grinned. “Well, I’m gonna give you a perfect ten!”

Tadd got surprised by that. “Why? I’m a terrible date.”

“I want the free meal,” Ashlynn joked.

“Oh.” He looked slightly disappointed.

“Just kidding!” she laughed. “I want you to feel better. That’s all I ever wanted.”

Tadd chuckled, “Oh! Well, what makes you think I’ll give you a perfect ten?”

“Hey!” She playfully hit him.

They took out their score cards and each wrote down a ten. Tadd noticed, “There’s a place to put comments. Hmm, what can I say about this perfect ten…” He pretended to write, “Great rack..!”

Ashlynn exclaimed, “Don’t write that! Every guy has said that! To my face! Well, not Raj over there!” She indicated the fainted man. Tadd and Ashlynn laughed. “You’re showing again!” Tadd looked down at his pant zipper. “No, your personality! I love this!” They continued to laugh and joke about what they would write on their comments and scores for the other dates.

 

 

Turning 30, Chapter 20

Ashlynn hung out in Lavena’s living room. The mismatched furniture, though in good condition, looked as though she got them free from various online sites. Lavena has random decor, and although the house is blanketed in toys, it appears very clean and well maintained. Lavena also had several framed pictures of her two kids,and they could be heard playing in the back rooms. Both Ashlynn and Lavena were on their laptops. Ashlynn commented, “I can’t believe how many people post ads for jobs and have huge descriptions but never say the name of company! Who applies for these jobs?”

Lavena laughed but kept scrolling on her laptop. “I love these dating sites! It’s like shopping for men!” Michael ran up and stared at her. “Oh, I got a message. It’s from Ramrod sixty-nine. Oh yeah, that sounds like my future husband!”

“Mom!” Michael said.

Lavena ignored him to finish her thought. “My profile clearly says that I want someone who would make a good father…”

“Mom!” Michael repeated.

Lavena, again, ignored him. “So he says ‘You can call me daddy!'”

“Mom!” Michael repeated.

Lavena kept talking even though Michael continued to repeat himself. “Isn’t that lovely? What kind of mom do they think I am? As much as I want a man, I am a mom first! These guys are my angels-I love them so much!” Michael’s repetition finally got under her skin, so she screamed, “WHAT? What is so important that you feel you need to keep interrupting me when I’m talking?”

“Can I go to the bathroom?” Michael requested.

That question flabbergasted Lavena. “Since when do you need my permission to go potty?”

Michael answered with another question, “Did you fix it?”

“Fix it? What hap…?” She put down her laptop and decided to investigate for herself. She made a beeline for the bathroom, and a moment later, she yelled, “Are you kidding me?” Lavena stormed into the living room. “Hannah, get your butt in here!” Hannah sheepishly walked into the living room. Both kids hung their heads guiltily. “Who flushed Spiderman down the toilet?”

Hannah inquired, “How did you know it was Spiderman?”

Lavena put her hands on her hips and gave Hannah a stern look. “You can see part of his arm still. Hannah! Why did you do that?”

Hannah abandoned all pretense of innocence. “He broke my Tiana doll!”

“I tripped on her by accident!” Michael defended himself.

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“SHUT UP!” Lavena interjected. They recognized that tone and came to attention. “You’re both in trouble! And you’re going to get punished as soon as I’m not angry enough to land an episode on us on Snapped!”

Michael and Hannah gave a remorseful expression, and Lavena paced to try to calm down. Ashlynn joked, “I can see what you mean about them being angels!”

“Of course they have a dark side-they get half their genes from their father!” Lavena stopped pacing and thought for a moment. “It’s Sunday, so I can’t call the super. Michael, Hannah, you’re on time out! Ashlynn, can you keep an eye on them while I try to unclog the toilet?”

“No problem,” Ashlynn consented. Lavena looked irritated but somewhat mollified as she went to the bathroom to fix the toilet. Michael and Hannah stood in separate corners of the living room, and Ashlynn kept an eye on them as she scrolled through Facebook. Michael tried to peek, and all Ashlynn had to do was point at him to get him to behave. Suddenly, she saw something troubling on her screen. “Uh oh!”

From the bathroom, Lavena shouted, “What did they do now?”

“Nothing,” Ashlynn explained, “But I noticed that Tadd used to post things on Facebook several times a day, but he hasn’t posted anything in a couple of days. And the last thing he posted was a Sylvia Plath poem…”

Lavena came into the living room with the plunger in her hand, and she looked kind of scared. “But we just saw him! I guess that was a couple days ago…”

Ashlynn started, “He hasn’t returned my texts either. You don’t think he would…”

Lavena and Ashlynn looked at each other with fear. They rushed out of the apartment. Out of curiosity, Hannah and Michael followed them.

Ashlynn and Lavena burst into Tadd’s living room, fearing the worst. Their hearts were pumping, but they felt a rush of relief to see Tadd laying on his couch watching the music video for “Gangsta’s Paradise” in a trance-like manner. He reacted to their entrance by gazing at them in confusion. Ashlynn, relieved, said breathily, “Tadd! You’re okay!”

“Physically or emotionally?” Tadd asked, half joking. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

Lavena explained, “You haven’t texted us in a while, and we saw this depressing poem on Facebook…”

“Oh that,” Tadd told them, “I reposted that ’cause it’s supposed to raise suicide awareness. But they cut off my internet three days ago, and I’m running low on texts and data. I’m having trouble paying my bills since I’ve been too depressed to take any catering jobs.”

Ashlynn sat by him on the couch. “You’re scaring me! You love to cook, I remember that from when we were kids. Wouldn’t you rather be doing that right now? Why are you here watching old school music videos?”

Tadd told them sadly, “I watch this one all the time. It was…our song!”

Lavena reacted, “Your song? Wha…?”

Hannah went up to Tadd and told him a story, “When I was in kinny-garten, everyday, we would walk in, put our backpacks away, and listen to Miss Rastmusen talk, and then we go do worksheets, and then we went to room two to play, and then we did learning games. Then it was recess. Then we would do more work…” Tadd tried to hid his confusion and listened politely. Ashlynn looked amused while Lavena felt like she should say something but let her keep going to see if she was going anywhere with this. Hannah continued, “and we lined up. If we did good, Miss Rastmusen would give us a sticker. Then we did free time. The mommy would come get me. Miss Rastmusen gave me a hug goodbye. It was my favorite thing.”

“Uh huh…” Tadd tried to follow the logic of her telling him this story.

“But then it was summer, and I didn’t go to school. I was so sad ’cause my friends were gone, and I missed my teacher. Then it was first grade. It wasn’t the same as kinny-garten. There was no room two, and also, the worksheets were harder. My teacher didn’t hug me. But it was okay ’cause I saw my friends again. I finded new things I liked about first grade, like Mrs. Underhill taught us about animals! It was weird, but I liked different things.” Hannah concluded, “Sometimes good things go away, but it’s just a for a little while. It’s not the same, but you find your new favorite things and feel better. You were happy before, but you can be happy again. You just need to find your new kind of happy!”

Everyone was surprised by the depth of her story. It ended up having a very touching, heartwarming effect. Tadd’s eyes well up, but they do not look like sad tears. Michael and Hannah give him a hug, which he found surprisingly comforting. Ashlynn and Lavena both cooed, “Awwww!”

Lavena was close to tears herself. “My angels!”

Ashlynn felt very touched by the emotions of the moment, but her thoughts on the subject got interrupted by a text message. She looked at her phone and frowned. “Uh, guys…!” They all gave her full attention because of her tone. “Cera signed us up for a speed dating event…”

Lavena growned, “I’ll go call the babysitter!”