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!”

Turning 30, Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

“Guess not,” Will responded, disappointed.

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

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

“What?” Felize snapped out of his trance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it, girls!” Feliz directed.

“Yeah!” Ashlynn and Lavena agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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