Sabotage, Chapter 20

She never thought she would ever see him again. That was always the goal, but until now, it didn’t feel real. She bellowed, “Papi!”

Hank, still in in his pajamas and robe, clearly had been stressed for a long time, but when he saw his daughter, his tension melted. He grinned broadly as he ran to her. “Carmen!” As soon as she got close enough, he scooped her up and hugged her tight. “Mija, thank god!”

Carmen, overwhelmed with emotion, hugged him tight and started to cry. All of the fear she felt vanished from inside her and came flooding out. when she was a little girl, her dad was a source of strength and comfort whenever she had a nightmare or got hurt, physically or emotionally. At thirty years old, she found that nothing had changed. Now that it was over and he was here, she had a chance to really process all of her emotions. She didn’t realize how scared she was before, but she felt safe now. “I’m so sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Sorry for what?” Hank asked, slightly surprised.

“I’m sorry for leaving you!” she wailed. “I’m sorry for making you worry about me! I’m sorry that-!”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Hank interrupted her. “None of that matters. All that matters is that you’re safe!”

In the midst of their hugging, Carmen heard a familiar female’s voice call out, “Carmen!”

Her heart fluttered. It just couldn’t be! Carmen lifted her head to see a blonde woman in her fifties who closely resembled her own facial features and wore army fatigues. “Mom?”

Greta smiled and ran to her. She got on her knees and grasped Carmen tight. “As soon as I found out you were in danger, they sent me back. Oh baby, you had me so worried!” Greta sobbed uncontrollably as she clutched onto her daughter.

After a moment, she glanced over to Zartex and Garith. Zartex bawled unabashedly, and even Garith seemed a little overwhelmed with emotion. As a couple of reporters greeted Garith, Greta and Hank reunited with each other. Carmen told them, “I gotta say goodbye to them.” Her parents were too busy hugging and kissing each other to say anything, but they nodded to acknowledge that they heard her.

When she approached Zartex, she wanted to ask how long he had left, but before she could, he informed her, “It’s almost time.”

Carmen felt a surge of sadness sweep over her. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything!”

“I know how you feel,” Zartex replied. “Literally, I have been watching your emotions this whole time!”

Carmen softly snickered and turned Garith. She was sure he would want to say goodbye to Zartex too. He chatted with his reporter colleagues, so she waited a moment. She didn’t want to appear as though she were eavesdropping, so she watched the crime scene investigators clean up the scene and listened to the rock music the park had turned on. She couldn’t help but hear what Garith had been saying, “Thanks again, Marge! Oh, did you guys hire my production assistant?”

As Marge revealed that she hadn’t, Carmen’s heart stopped. She felt hurt and utterly betrayed. Abandoning all pretense, she grabbed Garith’s shoulder, spun him around, and barked, “You lied to me!”

Completely confused, Garith responded, “What?”

“Remember in Utah, I asked you if you knew anyone that was hiring in the Bay Area?” Carmen vented. “You said you didn’t! That wasn’t true, obviously! You must’ve known that, with my theatre degree, that I could qualify to be a production assistant! You didn’t even consider me for the job! You must not think much of me! And to think I was starting to feel-!” She cut herself off right there. He didn’t deserve to hear anything positive about himself right now.

Garith, with a hopeful gleam in his eyes, stepped up to her. “Yes?”

“Nevermind!” She snarled. “I hope that article was worth it!”

Fuming, Carmen turned her back to him. She saw Garith struggle with a decision, but she didn’t care. As she walked away, something stopped her dead in her tracks. It was Garith, who cried out, “It’s because I love you, okay?”

Garith sighed and confessed, “Things at the studio grew tense as my marriage went sour, and after a bitter divorce, they made a rule about inter-office romances. I know you would be perfect for the job, but…well…The more time I spend with you, the more these feelings grow. I could pretend that there was nothing there, but every day I would see you, and they’d come right back. I would remember what an amazing woman you are, and I couldn’t resist your smile, your curves, your eyes…oh, those eyes!”

Carmen often wondered why certain people couldn’t accept a compliment, but now she got it. Garith was the kindest, bravest, and most handsome man she had ever met. She didn’t feel worthy to inspire these kinds of feelings in him. “But…I…I’m just…I don’t have much to offer. I’m a penniless, jobless thirty year old who still lives with her parents! How could I…How could you…?”

Garith stepped close to her again, putting his hands around her hips. “Hey, you’re enough! Okay, so you got some baggage. I can carry it! I’m real strong, remember?”

Remembering the day they met, Carmen laughed. Garith gazed intensely at her, and her heart fluttered. She couldn’t believe this was real! She didn’t want to admit to herself before, but those feelings that she couldn’t figure out before were romance. Her nerves were all lit up, and she relished in the fact that she would now get to experience the exciting type of love that she so ardently craved. Garith leaned in for a kiss, and her heart beat wildly….!

Suddenly, Garith and Carmen found themselves kissing Zartex’s cheeks! “Sorry guys! I really hate to interrupt, but it’s almost time for me to go, so could I…? One more time? Please!”

Carmen laughed, “Go ahead!”

“Yes!” Zartex exclaimed as the song Nothin’ But a Good Time by Poison played. They soon felt their world morph to a nineteen-eighties concert venue…

(Zartex, totally decked out like an eighties rocker,
sang into a microphone. Garith played the
guitar, Carmen played the tamborine,
Hank played the drums, and Greta
played the bass guitar. Garith and Carmen
stood together to sing back up. All of them
dressed like eighties rock stars.)
Zartex:     Now listen,
Not a dime, I can’t pay my rent,
I can barely make it through the week!
Saturday night, I’d like to treat my girl,
but right now, I can’t make ends meet.

I’m always working, slaving every day!
Gotta get away from the same old, same old!
I need a chance to get away!
If you could hear me think, this is what I’d say:

Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time,
and it don’t get better than this!

(Everyone abandoned  their instruments
and took turns singing into the camera.)
Garith:     They say I spend my money on women
and wine,
Carmen:     But I couldn’t tell you where I
spent last night!
Garith & Carmen:     I’m really sorry for the
shape I’m in,
I Just like my fun every now and then!

Hank:     I’m always working, slaving every day!
Greta:     Gotta get away from the same old, same old!
Hank & Greta:     I need a chance to get away!
If you could hear me think, this is what I’d say:

Garith:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
Carmen:      How can I resist?
Greta:     Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
Hank:     And it don’t get better than this!

(Zartex, now raised on a platform high above
the rest of the stage, sang as the other
four watched below).
Zartex:     You see, I raise a toast to all of us,
who are breaking our backs every day!
If wanting a good life is such a crime,
Lord, then put me away!
Here’s to ya!

(During the musical break, the other four
dance. During the guitar solo, Garith
grabbed Carmen’s waist, dipped her,
and kissed her passionately. The others
silently said rock on.)

(Greta and Hank dance together as does
Carmen and and Garith. Zartex sang.)
Zartex:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
And it don’t get better than this!

(Zartex’s stage leveled down to theirs and
he partied with them.)
Zartex:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
and it don’t get better than this!

(The audience, which consisted of the police and
the park workers, all sang with the five on
stage for the last verse.)
Everyone:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
And it don’t get better than this!

(As the song faded, the crowd cheered. Confetti
rained down on the stage. Greta, Hank,
Garith, Carmen, and Zartex took a bow.)

The world morphed back into the amusement park crime scene, but Zartex didn’t come back. A thick, azure blue light hovered over Garith and Carmen, who waved goodbye fervently with one arm while their other arm was around each other. Before the light disappeared completely, Hank saluted it with two fingers. Garith and Carmen watched it disappear. Though they were sad to see him go, they were proud of Zartex and really appreciated his role in their journey.

Detective Dinsung shook his head, pulling himself out of a reverie he didn’t remember having. He went over to where Zartex had stood, searching around the area in confusion. “Where did your friend go? We still have questions for him!”

“You wouldn’t believe it if we told you!” Garith replied truthfully.

“Is he coming back?” Detective Dinsung asked.

Hank answered, “He wishes!”

Totally confused, Detective Dinsung shook his head and moved onto another part of the investigation. Carmen grabbed Garith’s other hip, and they both snickered delightfully. Hank pushed himself between them, faced Garith, cleared his throat, and said brusquely, “Excuse me, who are you? I’m the daddy!”

“Papi” Carmen groaned. “I’m thirty years old!”

“What’s your point?” Hank surveyed Garith with high skepticism.

“Mister Alvaro, I’m Garith Kendric.” Garith offered him a firm handshake.

As Garith introduced himself, Carmen stood by his side. Greta joined Hank’s side and surveyed Garith in a very different way than her husband did. She met Carmen’s gaze and silently mouthed, “He’s cute!”

Carmen silently giggled as Hank and Garith got to know each other. After all the wondering about what laid on the other side of her journey, it laid out before her now. She may not have instantly found a job or ran into her own place, but she had something she hadn’t thought of-lots of love and support. In all of Mirage’s secrets to success, they hadn’t counted on how magical having these kind of people in one’s life could be. Money and status would come and go, but friends and family were a constant value that should never get discarded again! In a way, she felt sorry for the higher ups of this cult because they would never know this kind of happiness. They never had a chance because they were always chasing the next big thing. They focused so much on the future that they forgot about the now. The present was important too, and some moments and opportunities will leave if they aren’t captured immediately. She decided to stop worrying about the future and enjoy the bits of joy that would come her way in the present. The biggest lesson she learned was that she had no way of knowing any good or bad in her future, but if something good was here and now, she must savor it!

The End

Epilogue: On a clear television set, a judge asked, “How do you plea?”

The camera panned to Jorden, who stated, “I plea guilty.”

The camera panned to Arius, who stated, “Guilty.”

The camera panned to Elden, who stated, “Guilty.”

The camera panned to Lilith, who stated, “Your Honor, I plea guilty.”

The camera panned to Seth, who very begrudgingly stated, “Guilty.”

On the other side of the court room, Carmen, who now looked relieved, sat by her lawyer, Jayesh Chakrabarti. Garith, who sat in the audience behind her, put his hand on her shoulder. She put her hand on his hand, which showed a simple but very elegant engagement ring!

Munching on some popcorn and lounging on a white couch in a room with mostly white furniture, Zartex, back in alien face, commented delightedly, “Yes Oh, I love Earthlings-my favorite aliens!”

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Turning 30, Chapter 25

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

They all replied, “Nah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy birthday, Tadd!” Ashlynn exclaimed.

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

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

 

The End

Turning 30, Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie questioned, “Tadd? Tadd who?”

“Oi!” Lavena exclaimed.

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

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

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

Without thinking, Tadd answered, “No.”

“Lies!”

“Untrue!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Tadd, baby?” Brie cooed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

“But…but I…I…!” Cera stammered.

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

Feliz explained, “Cera is drunk.”

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

Feliz told Davida, “She is VERY sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t ready!” he lamented.

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

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

“No,” Feliz answered.

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

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

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

“Cera will be here all night probably.”

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

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

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

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

Turning 30, Chapter 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 18

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

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

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

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

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

Lavena gasped, “He died in the war?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hopeless!” Tadd moaned.

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

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