Happy New Year~ (chapter 1 here: https://cagreyson.com/2018/12/08/we-are-the-last-chapter-1-a-sci-fi-novel/ )
Enjoy chapter two on me. 😀
I walk back to my computer and sit down. I first need to see how many hours I have left in this semester. I know it isn’t much, considering I graduate in a month. I always thought people that graduated in the winter were weird, but really they were just ahead of the curve. I had busted my ass to get to this point, doing dual credits in high school and then taking five classes a semester. I look over at the empty space in the room. There isn’t much here, just a handmade platform bed, my computer, my state issued VR system and the exercise equipment on days I need to work out. Most people would probably find this place entirely depressing. I have zero art on the walls, with a single shelf for my cups, bowls, and plates.
My clothes can fit in a single drawer and consist mostly of two pairs of jeans, socks, and seven pair of underwear, two pairs of shoes and five shirts. Of the five shirts, two are short sleeved, two are tank tops, and one long-sleeved to go with the single pair of slacks I bought for graduation. To me, it felt a bit ridiculous to even own that many. It annoys me that even in these times you had to dress differently to impress a bunch of strangers. Unfortunately, they still require me to show up to graduation physically. Had I have graduated just a few years later, we would all just be online and I could sit at home and wear whatever the hell I want.
I know changing the timeline will have several repercussions, but I have little choice. My future vessel is completely destroyed right now, on a direct path into the sun for all I know. I knew that I needed to get someone’s attention, but who the hell would listen to a twenty-year-old loser with no money? How did I even begin to get anyone’s attention, let alone the world leaders? The answer is simple, but complicated at the same time. I am going to have to learn how to communicate with myself directly before the first global war. I glance over to the VR. Technology is good right now, but it has no way of being able to do what I need it to. I need time to think, which to be honest was something I had in abundance right now. I cringe thinking about all the wasted time I had spent watching shows and playing video games. I was a devoted student, but not devoted to re-channeling my knowledge to something useful before the age of thirty. I crack up at this revelation. Most people would probably kill to be in my position. I’m a fifty-year-old living in a twenty-year-old’s body, doesn’t get much better than this.
In the future, most of us had started the treatments but to get the permanent one─ the one that kept you twenty-five forever, that was something only the well-off possessed. We lowly peons had to save up several months’ salary to knock off a few years. Most people saved up as much as they could throughout the year and at the beginning of the next, shaved off as many years as they could afford. When I had left the future, I appeared to be the age of thirty which let me tell you, took several years to save up for.
The holidays went back to spending time with your family online because everyone understood that no one wanted to die. And no one especially wanted to age.
It is rare that children are born, and the few that are were normally raised by a colony. Our society was built around adults and it wasn’t socially acceptable to bring children anywhere. Especially to restaurants or movies. You would be told to promptly leave and that you were bothering the other patrons. If you wanted to raise your own offspring, you were what was known as a Breeder. You stayed in the colony until your children were of adult age and then you were allowed to come back out. Living in the colonies, from what I was told isn’t bad. They have their own sub communities with everything they need. The only time any of them venture out is usually when they want to get fresh food. Given that we all were under some sort of strict government salary, however, they didn’t come out often. It used to be an incentive to be a breeder. I remember my mother once talking about a time when people were paid to have children. Now, with the establishment of the world population being a chief concern, you were penalized for having one.
My mind shot back to Harris’s words. That was wrong of him on so many levels. Ash had appeared several years older than us for a damn good reason. She had made the sacrifice for her people to become a Breeder. While most of us had appeared to be in our late twenties to mid-thirties, Ash looked to be in her late forties, which wasn’t too far off from her actual age. Breeders are paid far less than everyone else and you have to have several permits on behalf of your government that your people are dying out. Of course, the majority didn’t use the term Breeders. That was exceptionally derogatory. Especially from my time, when the death rate towered over births. We called them Traditionalists. Ash had to have gone through hell to be able to have just the one child, let alone two. It was a miracle that the state allowed her to keep both at the time she had given birth to them. I still smile thinking about the way she spoke of the twins.
My smile fades as I look over to the outdated equipment and sparse surroundings. That was all before humanity nearly wiped itself out. I don’t like thinking about this, because frankly, it isn’t my favorite subject. I’m hoping that by some miracle the others have found themselves back and are looking for ways to contact me. I can’t count on this, however, and know that I must figure out how the fuck to get started. I need to find out a way to grab people’s attention. As far as I was concerned, the fastest way to grab people’s attention was usually one of two: you had a lot of money, or you made a lot of money. I needed to get to my accounts before the war hit and wiped the entire system effectively getting rid of bitcoins.
Currency, as well as credit cards phased completely out when I had been a baby. I used to laugh at my mother’s stories about how you had to go to a place called a grocery store and sit in line to buy food. She really got me rolling talking about several stories of gas crises and how people would get out of bed early to sit at the pumps until the attendant turned them on. People actually left their homes for things other than social events. It was mind-boggling to me. Of course, eventually, we stopped leaving our homes even for that. Some markets usually existed up north, but they were under strict supervision after what happened back when mom died. Eventually, there was no need to ever leave your home and if you did, it was understood you were either in trouble or causing trouble. I walk over to my VR unit and choose to get into a sitting position. I was too restless to lie down today.
With all the cloud-based systems, technology had changed a fair bit over the years. The year I had gotten my VR, it was at its peak. I, unlike many others, managed to own a server farm. My mother had been smart enough to make several investments in her twenties which meant that I had access to just about limitless space for anything I could ever want. The best part was the privacy act, which allowed me to be able to store whatever the hell I wanted to as long as no one but myself had to access to it. Within certain limitations of course. I mean, I couldn’t go and kill people and then upload the footage. Breaking was still as huge a threat now as it was fifty years ago. It was called something else back then. What had my mother said it was called again? I rubbed my chin. I snapped my fingers at the empty space around me. Hacking, that’s it. It was more of a high-risk factor now. If you managed to get caught, it was instant death─ no questions asked.
I had sold a small portion of it a few years ago to pay off my school tuition, but that had been entirely worth it. Many people had theorized that school would be free, and they were right, but to get a real education, you had to have money. That much hasn’t changed. Because knowledge was free and all you needed was the drive. That meant that degrees were suddenly highly specialized. My mother once told me that a passing grade in most colleges could go as low as sixty-nine percent if a professor felt that you gathered as much as you needed for your degree. Honestly, it was no surprise that that generation fucked us all over. The millennials were a shit ton of self-entitled douchebags that apparently handed out these things called ‘participation ribbons’ at all of their events.
She also told me that anything you wrote online could effectively ruin your life. Unless you were famous or had money, then you would just formally apologize to everyone and be done with it. Mom definitely had some colorful things to say about her generation, but I’m honestly glad that I’m away from all of that nonsense. In this era, if you didn’t like what someone had to say, you just blocked them. If you agreed with them, you followed them. Opinions were accepted as opinions and nothing else was made of it.
Our government was currently run by a three-party system. The two-party system had long been phased out after the 2020 election disaster. I’m pretty rusty on my U.S. president history, but my government history class had glossed over it, explaining that it was a dark time period in our politics. The years before that hadn’t been much better, but that very president had taken it upon himself to outlaw the voting system and turn our country into a dictatorship. Effectively shitting on what our forefathers had taken the time out to build. After that, humans weren’t entirely trusted to run a balanced system and candidates were chosen at random by a computer system. A billion times more logical than the radicalism of their time. I could sit and think about how much our politics had changed for the better all day, but what I needed to focus on was something far more important. The survival of the human race. Besides, if our way is so much better, I suppose we wouldn’t have died off.
I had the whole shebang and had invested in a fully immersive VR kit, complete with sound dampening headgear. These machines could do just about damn near anything except read your thoughts. And honestly, with as many well-placed ads as I saw in a day, I’m fairly certain they were beginning to do that. I say that, but I’m pretty sure it was just recording what my eyes chose to read more of, or if something caught my attention for longer than ten seconds. I looked over to my mother’s account, linked on my home screen and it opened instantly. A familiar jingle sounded as it recognized my microchip. My mother’s voice sounded in my earphones and my eyes closed listening to the soft lilt. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed hearing it. For the first time in over thirty years, I got to hear what my mother sounded like again.
“Morning, tough stuff. What can I do for you?” My eyes teared up and my voice came out a little shakier than I’d like. “Morning, mom. Just checking into the accounts, see where I’m at.” There is a brief pause and then I listen as she drones on for a bit. “Last week’s spending habits went above usual, putting a fairly large dent in your monthly stipend. However, if you return back to your normal spending habits, you can recover this debt in sixty days.” I nod. “I will need to pull all of my available funds by the end of this year. Is there a penalty for this?” Several seconds pass before she answers. “Yes. Though you are legally entitled to all funds from your guardian, the United States government is entitled to treat this as a breach of contract and a forty percent tax will be removed from your funds immediately.” I thought as much. I thank her and close my account screen.
It will be a large chunk of funds that go missing, but at this point, it is better than the alternative. In less than a year’s time, there won’t be a government. I won’t be able to take my funds physically, but I can upload them to my cloud storage and then on my wristwatch I’ll purchase in December. That way, I’ll be able to carry it on me at all times. Since it will be uploaded from a private server, no one will know it exists until after I’ve managed to pull all of it off. I log into the university’s website and glance over my class schedule, then pull up the syllabus for this semester.
Most people’s degrees past bachelors didn’t really mean much unless you were getting a S.T.E.M. degree or going to med school. All universities made four-year degrees free unless you were going for one of these other types of degrees in which longer school was needed. You were taxed based off of what type of practice you would be going into and it was calculated before you graduated how much you would be able to make. A medical degree usually took five years to seven years to pay off, whereas a degree in the science, technology, engineering, math or S.T.E.M took up to ten years to pay off. Especially since it was switched over to everything becoming privatized in that field. It meant that a company could choose how much it felt you were worth. Most scientists and engineers pulled in the realm of several million dollars their first year in the field. But there was a handful that everyone wanted to be. The ones in bioengineering. That was where the money was now.
If you could solve the problem of aging, or world hunger─ you would be set for life. You would be more powerful than any man could imagine. After the great science movement in the twenty-first century, people changed forever how things were taught. Most religions of the world were found to be detrimental to progression and thereby outlawed by most countries. Religion remained, but only the ones found to be peaceful and progressive. Most religion now moved toward coinciding with science. At least, it did after what happens in the coming year. It’s so hard to know what is going to happen, but not being able to tell others. If I do, they would lock me away as a terrorist. I would be seen as someone that disturbs the peace, therefore a threat to any functioning society.
I’m thinking about this when my screen lights up. I recognize the avatar instantly and break into a huge smile. That mop of platinum blonde hair, blue eyes, and all ego is none other than my buddy Eric. At least, that was his name online.
His avatar reminded me of the old school paladins in MMORPG’s. Which back then, was pretty much like playing Dungeons and Dragons online, only not nearly as in-depth or sophisticated. There was a huge movement nearly sixty years ago that would have made the entire system lame as hell, but that shit got turned right around after the fifth through the seventh edition which made them like 3rd edition without all of the obvious loopholes that made players OP (or, overpowered) as fuck.
We often had arguments over which editions were the best, but we both could agree on 3.5. And when I say 3.5, I mean the superior version called Pathfinder, which was the edition that fixed many of the oversights in the 3rd edition. Eric was always either lawful good, or good. Which bored me to tears, but the guy went absolutely ape-shit on being Mr. goody two shoes. Me on the other hand? I loved sitting in the grey. He was one of those sorts that always felt like good and bad were black and white.
I was in favor of chaotic neutral, chaotic good, or neutral. Which meant that I’m not bound by all of those dumb, boring rules that make my character always do good things or get penalized for it. We would often bust out the Dungeon and Dragons digital world builder and try and to out-DM each other. Since we both enjoyed being the Dungeon Master, we took turns each week telling our stories. Being a Dungeon Master was like being a god. But it took skills to do it. You couldn’t just make something so hard that all of your characters died online, but you couldn’t make battles in which your creatures just fell over in less than two rounds. It was one part story building, and almost always faking it until you made it.
When I first started being the Dungeon Master, my creatures just about always fell prey to the players, because I hadn’t taken the time to actually read through the guides and get to know each player’s abilities first hand. Because it’s so time intensive, D&D came up with cheat sheets for DM’s that allowed us to know our player’s base attacks, abilities, health points, and many other things. Then there was also weapons, and armor that added to that number. Once all that was worked out, you had to figure out what to give as loot and the appropriate time allotted for your characters to level. It is one of those things you have to plan months in advance for. Especially if you are new to it. Needless to say, the world builder took all of that into account and made hours of headaches into a streamlined experience for the DM and the players.
It was our virtual playground, and far more customization than many games out there. It was a sandbox adventure on steroids and the only limit to it was our imagination. We didn’t just play a silly game, this was our haven. Eric was bigger into character development than myself. I was the sort to place all the focus on the players experiencing the world. He liked to gear the story toward focusing on a few key individuals, and I loved for people to become lost and have their own unique experience with not too much focus on the main story arc. Also known as battle porn.
I loved creating bigger and badder assholes to take down the group or create crazy in-depth puzzles that could set back the team by an entire day if they didn’t get it. It drove Eric crazy, but he always went along for the ride. It was refreshing to play each other’s minds and we had made just about any kind of world that you could imagine. The major difference between the two of us was that Eric preferred more classic settings, or Fantasy, whereas I liked to try something new each time. It was extremely rare that he created one with modern day setting. But one thing he did enjoy was adding in modern weaponry and gadgets.
I often worry that he won’t enjoy mine since I prefer changing it up all the time, but he says it is the experience in mine that makes it worthwhile and that he is just set in his ways. Since he knows those high fantasy world’s best, he likes to live in them. Any DM will tell you that the most rewarding, and yet challenging aspect of the craft is your player’s interaction with your story-line. Always be prepared to adjust to situations that your players will throw your way. I once created an adventure that would take my adventurers on a fully thought out mini-game side quest, complete with a wizard’s tower, a bodacious babe, and dueling amongst themselves. It had taken me the better part of two weeks to plot out worst-case scenarios just in case my players found some sort of loophole.
I knew better than to railroad them because that was a DM no-no. Railroading was a trick that DM’s used to force players to go toward their story-line, but it limited the player’s experience. Sometimes it was necessary, but I always enjoyed going with the flow. Until that day. In a matter of two hours, my players had managed to warp all the way to the main bad guy without going through any of my puzzles, or my carefully planned battles, and beat him on a weird technicality that I had to honor on a perfectly rolled D-20. The player actually managed to change themselves into a super virus that the dragon snorted, and then died. I say ‘roll the dice’ but no one actually uses real dice anymore. The dice system usually determined what a player does base off of his stats and his abilities. The dice were rolled to determine how much damage they would inflict, or if they were able to get out of traps, or persuade the non-player characters (or the characters that I created or placed in an area) to not fight, get out of a bad situation, you name it─ there was a dice roll for it. Ultimately, the DM decided what was or wasn’t going to go down in the story, but it was important to take your players into account. That is kind of glossing over the whole thing, but you get the idea.
Since we never saw any of our classmates until we went up to school on lab days, neither of us actually knew what we looked like. On those days, we were sent to assigned sections for testing and no one chanced looking at the other classmates. Not when your degree was riding on these few hours to complete everything you read every six weeks or so. I had no more of an idea of who he was than he did of me. But with all the hours we spent shooting the shit online, I was pretty sure he knew more about me than anyone else. Possibly even my mother.
“What’s up, mi amigo?” I answered smoothly. “Not much, superstar. You get this weekend’s assignment?” I panic. Uh oh. I still haven’t had a chance to research everything I needed to get done today. I relax a degree as Eric erupts in laughter on the other end. “Yeah, me either.” We both laugh. “I don’t know how you manage to score higher than everyone in this entire unit. You must be one of those hyper intellectuals or something. Not fair to the rest of us, who you know, actually have to study for our grades.” He mutters the last part and I know he’s only half joking when he says it. “Hey,” I say, “I study. Once a week or so.” He chuckles on the other end. “Modest as ever I see. You going to share some of those secrets with your buddy anytime soon?” This was something we did. It was a way for us to ease the tension between us. We had been friendly rivals for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t number one in the school system. That honor had been given to the first and only valedictorian for the last decade.
R.A. Cromwell or Robert Cromwell had set the bar on how many extra points were given to students. There wasn’t even a grade that had come close to his and he was a special case. He was the first one to earn several Nobel prizes in his adult life and be imprisoned for treason. There was my clue if there ever was one. If I was going to get anywhere with this, I would need to try and find a way to get into contact with a dead man. No pressure there.
“You wish, shithead.” I countered. He clucked his tongue on the other end and let out a low whistle. “I am appalled at your choice in language today, fuckwad.” I haven’t had this much fun since being aboard the Leviathan. Most people you meet in life take themselves entirely too seriously. Eric was the right amount of both worlds. “At least I have a decent vocabulary, redneck.” Eric has muted his mic which means he’s either cussing me out or laughing his head off. My vote’s on the latter. His somewhat breathy response supports my theory, “Oh yeah? Least I can actually score worth a shit on Phantom.” I bristle slightly but manage to laugh it off. “You mean when I kick your ass tonight and knock you off as top dog?” He snorts on the other end. “Yeah. Fat chance of that. Good luck toppling my score. Have you even logged on today at all?” The color drains from my face. He was already several thousand points ahead of me the last time I checked. “You didn’t,” I say. “See for yourself, friend. You may always get higher scores than me, but you’ll never beat Night Queen.” My jaw drops. “You have got to be kidding me. I just got to her lair last night. How in the hell did you manage to beat her without me? Unless…” I trail off.
Lucky for me, my current memories are integrating with my past. I’m not honestly sure how this was all going to work, but hopefully, I retain all of my prior knowledge. “You sneaky sonovabitch,” I state. “You didn’t sleep last night, did you?” I can hear him snickering on the other side. “Hey, I have to get ahead where I can with you.” We both are quiet for a few moments as I look up his score. My eyes widen as I stare at all the zeros. “H-o-l-y shit,” I blurt out.
His score the following night was at eight hundred and sixty-nine thousand. Today, he topped the charts at a mind-numbing two million points. Two million. My eyes scanned across his name and then over to his avatar. There was something else different about it. “Haven’t noticed it yet, have you?” He asks, practically reading my mind. I zoom in on his avatar and freeze. “No. Way.” I say staring at the colorful marker on the bottom right. There were a few things that Eric was able to do better than me, but this was one. Considering how much time he spent gaming, I’m honestly wondering if he couldn’t actually beat my ass academically but he’s just chosen to channel his efforts elsewhere. This pretty much promoted him to god tier status on campus. Even I was having a hard time believing it. But there it was, the multicolored double moon badge awarded to gaming legends. The double moon was the insignia of the founders of the VR technology, Lunar Lander.
Each color you earned represented your place on the board. They were based on the representation of the color spectrum the human eye could see. Otherwise known as the rainbow. Eric had every single one of them except for one: red. He earned indigo just last night. That meant if he managed to actually gain that last color he would be awarded something far more valuable than school. I started, realizing something. This was something I’d never realized before. While I busted my ass in classes, he channeled his efforts to something that actually worked for him. I’d entirely misjudged him this whole time. So I had great grades, what would that earn me? Notoriety? Fame? The only way I was going to make a dent was if I actually did get US valedictorian and I was down to the last six weeks to do it. He was going to earn all of that and then some.
Suddenly I felt jealous. Something that was making me increasingly uncomfortable. I’ve never experienced this. Mostly because I was always the kid that everyone else envied. I was the one that other kids tried to cheat off of or copy. It was a weird sense of pride I managed to keep up with all these years, until now. Eric needed one more color and then he was gained automatic entry into the United States Special Forces Gaming Division. No one, including myself, could even dream what that was like. It was relatively new and short-lived with the war to come.
War is considered a thing of the past in this time, but competition is still in full force. With just about every aspect of society taken over by machines, roughly eighty percent, we have little to actually look forward to. But gaming? Gaming is worldwide, and the only competition that buys you instant fame.
The most popular games were, of course, sports games. But the next in line were shooters, known as FPS or first-person shooter. They were the most spectated competition online. Traditional sports games were slowly fading as the shooter had evolved to encompass not only the pro-military crowd but puzzle enthusiasts. You could compete in the base game, but the people that obtained top-level scores played the main quest and all of the side quests. Phantom just came out a week ago and it was famous for how many hours it took to solve the puzzles. Night Queen was notoriously hard. An entire team of forty plus people hadn’t even managed to get through the first half of it. Eric had managed to beat it by himself in just over twenty-four hours. I open the game and take a look at the time stamp. It was dated to just over an hour ago, which meant he had beat it in less than twenty-four hours. “Daaamn. Mad respect, man.” I mutter, looking over it all. Maybe he is on to something. “You know it.” He says on the other end.
Suddenly, I need to do some thinking on my own. “Hey man, I need to jet. But, seriously that is fucking amazing. Color me jealous.” I say. He pauses, before adding, “Yeah dude, thanks. You want to try tonight with me?” I look over to my own score and then switch over to my academic scores. I feel a little better, but not much. “Yeah. I need to get to it. Someone’s inspired me to kick my own ass and actually try.” He laughs, “Hey, don’t make the rest of us look too bad, alright?” The right side of my face twitches up, “Cram it out your ass.” I say before logging out.
I don’t have to worry too much about him taking what I say to heart. It was our code for saying ‘take care’ in the only way we knew how. I’m not much of a touchy-feely person, when things get too heavy or I’ve got emotions I need to work out, I find ways to put myself to work so that I can distract myself. After some hard labor, or working out I’m usually good. There are a few times that I can’t get past it with physical activity. Those are days that I pour myself into as much studying as possible or listen to books.
I rarely watch shows and when I do, I get angry. Most of the people on the show are complete morons that make decisions any rational human being would not. I once watched less than one episode of a show, skipped to the end of the season and knew exactly what had transpired. It usually went something like this: Sexy main star is a hard worker, struggles in relationships, and has some dark, broody past that they are ashamed of. They push everyone away until they need help and except it only after some dire situation arises. Enter something that comes in and murders off or seriously maims sidekick, and end season one. It was getting so ridiculously predictable it did nothing but agitate me. Shows that aren’t like real life annoy the shit out of me. I mean, I get it─ if someone just shot the other person in the head instead of chat with them for five minutes about their clever plan that would make for a really boring show.
Drama makes viewers, I suppose and I’m just an asshole that hates things that aren’t real. Don’t even get me started on fantasy shows. Since I can’t imagine anything that isn’t real, fiction has always made me entirely uncomfortable. It’s not to say that I don’t believe in the possibility. Shit, a few hours ago I was on a one-way trip to death and with me the entire population of Earth. And I somehow managed to cheat it by mind traveling to my past self? Yeah, that’s one for the history books.
I had something no one even knew existed and I had no fucking clue how to explain how it worked. I thought back to the ship, then I thought on the position everyone was in before I came back. I have a strong feeling that line of thought is a dead end. It has nothing to do with the crew, and yet we all share something in common that could get us to travel back in town. Then a horrible thought crosses my mind and I don’t want to think about it. What if, I am the only one that made it back? That means that everyone, including Ash, is floating toward the sun at this very moment in the future. Then I have another terrifying thought, what if I am actually dead and these are memories that my mind has managed to conjure before I myself, bite the big one. This one freaks me out the most because if that were true my mind is currently just running rampant and I would have no way of knowing it.
Suddenly my psychology and sociology classes didn’t sound like nonsense. Perhaps my brain was creating my existence in an attempt to protect me from knowing that I was dead. I begin to feel very tired. If that is true, that would mean that I would never know if anything is actually real. God damn it, science, you fuck everything up with your wonky logic. I chuckle, despite my growing apprehension and find myself relaxing. I might as well enjoy my final moments if that’s all that it is. Starting with something I’ve been dying to try since I got here. If I remember correctly, I can still order food and have it delivered within the hour. It would cost me a bit, but it’s been so long since I’ve had it, I can’t help myself. I search online until I find it and stare at all the different possibilities of flavors. Without meaning to, my mouth waters.
Real chocolate. Not that shit made from dates, or artificially flavored protein powder, but real. Purchasing something of this caliber was usually reserved for something like a birthday or graduation day. I rationalized that surviving the apocalypse more than justified a candy bar─ or two. The combinations are insane, but my favorite is always the sweet and salty combinations. I’m torn between two choices, but finally just choose both. This will probably raise my current debt up to four months instead of two, but it’s not like I don’t have the money, it’s just not readily available. So I was doing the typical college thing of spending what I don’t have, who cares? At least I’ll have chocolate. Maturity bonus +1.
I stare longingly at the soda but decide against it. That would set me back for half a year, and I just wasn’t willing to do that. Even if I planned on taking all of my funds out by the end of this year. I could splurge a little, but I needed to be mostly smart about this. True to their word, Alexa notifies me that my package has arrived and I charge over to the front door.
I’m practically skipping as I scoop it up and walk over to the living area. I pull out my portable table and prop up the side so that I can wheel it over my legs. I can hardly wait to tear open the wrapper but try my best to keep it cool. This needed to be done right. I padded over to the mini fridge and propped it open. Everything was stacked neatly. On the right, several packages of mushroom noodles, flavorless protein bricks in the middle and the filtered water pitcher. My glass was still inside, but I knew that I had a little time before I needed to toss it outside. I stare nervously at it. Maybe I should go ahead and do it now before nightfall.
This was a relatively safe area, but crime still happened and it happened after dark. If you were out past sundown, you were pretty much free game. I grasp it and pause at what I see behind it. It is a small bottle of wine, one that I had been saving for graduation day. It wasn’t top of the line but I knew that it had been bourbon barrel aged. It was something I was sent as a gift from Eric to commemorate our special day. It also is probably an unspoken promise to not drink it without him. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to drink something so special. I’d wait for him. I was becoming a huge softy in this time. It probably had something to do with my mind adjusting to everything. Whether you were actually supposed to keep that in the fridge or not, I had no idea. I stare down at the black label. It looked like a darker wine, and over the years I remember that red wines were something that you kept at room temperature. I pull it out and set it on the counter and then frown, noticing something else lodged in the back of the fridge. Is that… I pull it out and my eyes grow wide. It is. I stare at it for several seconds, not believing my luck. It’s a real sugar soda.
I glance over the red can and flip it to the back, it reads made in Mexico. It may sound completely weird, but after the day I’ve had I start tearing up. I’m not entirely sure if it’s my current consciousness meeting up with my future but the collision floods my mind with emotion. I’m bawling like an idiot clutching a soda can on the floor of my one-room loft. I give the can a longing squeeze and then place it back in the cool air, reassuring it that I’ll be right back. And I mean it.
I snatch the water up and walk toward the front door, then pause. If someone sees me dumping mystery liquid outside, I’ll be reported. I need to check and see if there is some watertight container I can use to take outside, or possibly─ I glance around and then walk over to my shelf. Yes! There it is, I still had the bottle. I pull it from the shelf and unscrew the top. The material is incredibly soft and I run my fingers along the outside. The material was velvety, yet durable with holes for straps on each side. The container itself was shaped to be strapped against your waist and leg while you were running.
There were a few attachments that you could use to get the straw up to your mouth. My mother loved staying in shape and was an avid climber in her days. It was another one of the items I have kept of hers over the years. I’m grateful that not only does it allow tubes, much like a saline pack, but it also had a canteen adapter which could be unscrewed. That meant I wouldn’t have to stand outside for several minutes looking like a jackass as I essentially peed out an ounce of fluid. Then I cocked my head to the side. You know, that might not be a bad idea. It wouldn’t look sanitary, and I would get a lot of weird looks, but it would do the job. I’m laughing at my own private joke as I jog down the first three flights of stairs.
Everyone knows that you don’t want to wait on the elevator from our floor. You would be waiting for at least ten minutes. Since there wasn’t really a need for fast moving elevators with the need for travel minimalized, you had to compete with all of the service men and bots that delivered packages to your place. Most buildings had adapted to this in some way with a tube system that funneled from the top, but our building was quite old. And packages literally arrives every few minutes as people ordered everything from home. The building took priority with maintenance users, so naturally, if you needed to get outside, you either took the stairs or you did the smart thing and walked down to the maintenance man’s main office and pressed the button like I’m doing now.
The elevator is here in less than a minute and I hop on and call out to take me to street level. It opens directly onto Cadiz and I turn left toward the small patch of grass and trees. The streets are eerily quiet and my steps come out far too loud but I press forward. The building was maybe fifty feet across the front before I would have to cross a short alley and then reach my destination. My palms are sweating, but I ignore it, placing one foot in front of the other. You got this, I tell myself, passing the first of the six small trees to the right. The sidewalk feels like its sand as I pass the second tree.
Jesus, how the fuck did I get anywhere like this? Was I having a god damned panic attack? I take in several breaths and focus on gripping the water bottle. Somehow, this gets me past tree three and four. My breath comes out more ragged as I get closer to the edge of the building. I grip the container, my knuckles going white. Breathe in, step, grip the bottle, I order myself. I sigh in relief, this seems to be working. I repeat the mantra in my head and do this odd ritual as I finally pass tree six. Ten feet more and then I would be able to cross the small opening near the alley. I halt at the entrance and steady my breathing as my heart screams in my chest. It’s pumping so hard that I can literally hear it drumming in my ears. Keep it together, I spat inwardly.
Despite no one being on the road, I still shoot a glance down the alley and then back to the street. I’m leaning against the building and every fabric of my being is screaming at me to turn around and walk back to safety. My flight system was in full force and it was damn hard to fight.
I let out a huge sigh as the trees are suddenly just several feet away. There’s a loud buzzing noise and I nearly dive under the canopy, hiding from what seems like it may be a potential threat. I’ve somehow made it, but now there could potentially be something worse than my own anxiety. I peer through the multicolored leaves at the increasing buzzing sound and freeze as the object comes into view. Drone. And not just a normal one, it belongs to the local police force. I curse under my breath as it circles our building.
I haven’t been outside more than possibly a handful of minutes and they were already alerted. I know it won’t be long before they actually spot me. I pull at the latch and get the strap from around my leg as I watch the small camera rotate to face the front of the building. Now’s my chance. I dump the entire contents next to the nearest tree and then hastily strap it back to where it was. My eye catches movement and I just manage to pull the second strap in place when the camera spins around toward me. I walk from under the trees and back toward the sidewalk, careful to keep my pace casual as I cross the small alleyway. It pauses and then the camera twists, zooming on my face. It is no doubt reading my chip to see if I am a resident in the building or homeless.
Homeless individuals are not allowed to wander outside of registered citizen’s domiciles. This means that if you are found near one, and not living there, you would be fined and then given cleanup duty. The good news is, if you are actually homeless that means that you are able to have food for your time, and a proper day’s salary. There aren’t many homeless now since most of the lower income people stick together and live in a halfway house. This way, they have the security they need to survive. There are a few actual homeless people that manage to escape microchipping, but those people are stuck to well outside of the city. I’ve honestly never seen a real-live homeless person. My mom told me that there was a lot of them when she was a girl. The bot jingles and then raises back toward the top of the building. It must have cleared me for a resident. This still makes me uneasy. Even though I didn’t technically do anything wrong, it is going to put notes on my record. That is added attention that I don’t need.
Hopefully, I am just written off as some idiot kid and they go on about their business. I am practically running when I reach the elevator. The door jingles and silently slides open. I step in and the door slides shut behind me. I punch the button and lean against the wall, knowing that this will probably take some time. “Welcome, tenant 10127, please do not lean on company property and stand in the center of the circle.” My eyebrows go up at the disembodied female voice, but I quickly comply and stand in the center.
“Thank you. Please place your arms on the side and then raise them slightly to continue.” I again do as I’m told. I’m met with a blast of cool air mixed with a cloud of something pleasant. I’m about to inhale the curious scent more when the voice comes back on. “Please wait to inhale for ten seconds. Never directly inhale the antibacterial liquid, as doing so may be detrimental to your health. Please be sure to remove your clothing upon your immediate arrival and discard them in our biohazardous waste bin located on your left as you walk through the front door. Have a wonderful day, goodbye.” I count out the ten seconds, immediately alarmed that I had already inhaled a bit. Thanks for letting me know sooner, jackasses.
The elevator finally gets to the first floor and slides open. A glance at the display tells me that I have been gone a total of twenty-five minutes. Which meant, I have been waiting on the elevator for at least fifteen minutes of that. I’m glad I won’t need to come out again for another month, this seemed like a total ordeal. Even though over twenty minutes have passed, I realize that my heart rate has just not returned to normal. This is extremely problematic if I need to change the world. I make a mental note to look into anxiety disorders and how to treat them. But first, I was going to sit down, do some studying and heartily enjoy two full candy bars, and a soda.
I carefully pull the delicate chocolate out of the wrappers and place them next to each other. One is split into two, 2-inch bars and contains peanut butter, pretzel, caramel drizzled in one layer of peanut butter and one layer of chocolate. The other is nearly four inches and it has hazelnut spread, caramel, nougat, peanuts and covered in chocolate. The soda is labeled as cola, which means it is a brown caramel flavored liquid with fizzy little bubbles. The twelve ounce can of soda was deemed a health hazard by the year 2020 and heavily taxed. Once it was placed on a warning list, companies were required to list that it was linked to both cancer and heart disease, effectively placing it on the same table as cigarettes. This guy probably ran a cool hundred bucks online.
My mom once said that when she was a kid they were served at birthday parties to all the kids along with cake. I found that completely ridiculous given that a single can of soda contained thirty-nine grams of sugar and a whole slice of cake typically had fifteen. Given the choice between the two, I’d take the cake. Liquid calories have always been strange to me. If I’m going to have something awful for my body, I want it to feel as if I’ve eaten it. Liquid calories were a tricky sort of thing, you could have several cans of soda and still be hungry, but a cupcake or a candy bar especially, filled you up because you’ve typically had some sort of protein with it.
I look at my haul and giggle to myself. In total, I was about to consume 77 grams of sugar totaling out to 590 calories. Which is nearly half of my daily caloric intake, and 52 grams of sugar more than I should have. That would mean that at my height, age, and weight, I would need to perform approximately forty minutes of low impact cardio or thirty minutes of high impact cardio. I stare at the three glistening objects of my desire and shrug, totally worth it.
The sun has just about set for the day, but I walk over to the large industrial windows staring at the iconic skyline. It’s one of the most famous, next to Seattle’s, and I’ll never forget all of its soft curves that blended seamlessly with the pointed ones. Reunion tower and all of the tops of the skyline pulsates a soft orange and yellow to commemorate the coming holidays. I stare for quite some time. So much in fact, that the sky is pitch black and the roads look as though they are swallowing the buildings. It is a strange thing, eerie in fact to stare across a vast sea of concrete that is lit by nothing. Streetlights had been removed some time ago when I was just a baby. Mom explained that it was due to light pollution and wasting energy. Especially since travel was kept to a minimum and during the day.
The lighted buildings were kept on until a certain hour, much like what people did with tiny lights they placed on their homes for Christmas. I did not know what that strange tradition was about, but according to mother it was something people did as part of the festivities and people would drive around in their cars, or even go to parks to see them. This confused the utter hell out of me. What sane individual would cram into a death trap and stare at the same three or four colors that were patterned differently according to the property lines? Complete bullshit and an extremely unnecessary rise in the cost of electricity, not to mention the amount of energy it must have taken to do this every year.
It must have been a nightmare for energy companies. Then I looked outside again at my own glowing orb of fascination and promptly laughed out loud. Ok, maybe there was something to it. But, for hours and to do it more than once? No thank you. I brought both arms over my chest and motioned them together in a prayer-like motion. The curtains drew shut and I padded softly to my meal. The soda now had little beads of condensation but was still cool to the touch.
I stared at the tab on the top. “Alexa, how do I open a can of soda?” “Searching,” came her smooth reply. “I found this. Place your index finger underneath the ring and your thumb on the tab in the center. The ring is the part that is above the opening section. When you lift the ring with your index finger, it will simultaneously apply pressure to the opening section leaving an opening that you will be able to drink through. There is a video, would you like to watch it?” “Yes,” I respond and walk over to the VR headset. I pull it on and look at the video. I watch as the person places their thumb on the tab in the middle and their pointer finger on the ring. Reaching over, I grab the can and mimic the video. Then they get the small part of their finger and push down with their thumb and pull up with their index finger. I do this and nearly leap from the chair at the loud crack and then whoosh that’s let out.
I replay the video and realize there is no sound. I’m completely annoyed by this, but let it slide. The video was put online in 2016. I let out a low whistle, jesus this was ancient. I can’t believe someone hadn’t put up a newer version. Now confident that my can isn’t going to explode in my face, I turn the opening toward my mouth. I hesitate for a few seconds, listening to the small fizzles in the can. Up until this moment, I couldn’t wait to try my first real soda ever. Now, I’m not so sure. I mean, these things were later outlawed for a reason, right? The smell that wafts up is delicious and despite it all, I tip the can into my mouth.
My eyes widen at the liquid sugar as it enters my mouth. I’m not even sure what to make of this. Until I take another sip, and then another. The sheer amount of caffeine and sugar in this one can probably keep me awake for three days. I’m guzzling it down and I’m only down to a quarter of a can before I realize that I still have candy bars. I should probably save this until after I eat them, especially the salty one. I take one of the two-inch squares and bite into heaven. They’ve gotten the golden ratio perfect from every bite and in seconds, the second two-inch bar of chocolate is gone.
I’m greedily eyeing the nougat bar when a notification pops up on my headset. I whine, but open it anyway in case it’s important. It’s a reminder that I need to study for next week’s midterm on Thursday. I frown, looking at the subject. It’s global history and this week’s study guide was covering ancient practices on forgotten religions and how it shaped history or some other such nonsense. I sighed and stared longingly the glass that used to contain my way out. Maybe I should have just gone with my first instinct. I sigh and shake my head, “None of that, Bonham. You’ve got a world to save.” I lift up the second chocolate bar and moan softly. My god, it’s no wonder obesity was an epidemic nearly forty years ago.
“Welcome player 10127” the voice announced. It was one of those cheesy announcer voices that got you pumped, and made you roll your eyes at the same time. It was that over-the-top action flick announcer voice. The kind they used way back in the day when fighting was still a legal sport. God, I remember all the greats and I’d sat through just about every single one of them. Boxing was brutal, kickboxing even more so. Then there was MMA, UFC, and thousands of martial arts and action flicks. Those were my favorite.
If there ever was a way for me to lose days of my life to something that would never benefit me in any way, it was action flicks. We’re talking legendary, bonafide badasses. Bruce Lee, Keanu Reeves, Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Clint Eastwood, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Liam Neeson, Vin Diesel, Harrison Ford, Yun-Fat Chow, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donnie Yen, Sean Connery, Jason Statham, Tony freaking Jaa─ I could go on all day. Fight scenes were something to be revered.
There was some otherworldly element to a person that could take something as quick and dirty as shoving your fists in another dudes face and turn it into fantasy land. Matrix? Classic and revolutionary. I only list the one movie though, the rest were just garbage. Then there was Ong Bak─ each movie as amazing as the last and Tony Jaa was a martial arts genius. There was something to a man that did everything himself with no stuntman. That was virtually unheard of during that era of film. But what was more amazing was the trendsetter for the next action flicks to copy.
I’m talking about John Wick. Not only, had Keanu Reeves done all of his own stunts, he learned how to properly fire a weapon and do action scenes in one take while somehow still possessing all the grace of a panther. His level of cool went from that memorable one-liner cool to walking away from an explosion without looking cool. He wasn’t just a cool guy, he was a fucking to scale model of Mt. Everest─ can I get a hell yeah? To quote Samuel Jackson, he was a badass motherfucker.
I glance down at the time and groan. Man, I should get some sleep but seeing Eric’s score has lit a fire under my ass. I couldn’t believe that he was that far ahead of me after just one day. Then I realize something. Wasn’t he supposed to jump on with me later today? I shake my head at the clock, it was after one in the morning. Guess he forgot, or finally ended up hooking up with that one chick he was obsessing over. Eric, like most healthy college boys, had two interests: games and boobs. He liked them both equally, and talked about it so often that I would hit the mute button when he got particularly…uncomfortable.
It’s not like I don’t have thoughts from time to time of my own but they are extremely rare. I just don’t understand the motivation for getting involved in all of that nonsense. Some of the brightest people I met in college compromised their GPA because of other people. It was just strange to me. Why bother with something temporary if your career is everything? There were far more valuable things in my mind than hookups and relationships. Namely, how to work toward some sort of scholarship or dethrone Cromwell.
Or─ I look over the scoreboard one last time and it reads as follows:
ERA – 2,000,000 points
JMB – 475,000 points
ARJ ─ 263,000 points
It was so new that only the top three scores were displayed on the boards. The developers wanted to create an old-school feeling with the top scores listed like an old arcade game. They even had the multicolored letters that flashed and rotated on a pixelated screen. As a matter of fact, the whole opening title was nothing like the gameplay. Curiously enough, the graphics looked like something out of the late eighties or early nineties and were completely pixelated. But that’s where the similarities end. It is something that has been debated over on all of the online forums. Some people think it’s an homage to when video games became popularized and arcades were still a thing. Others suggested that it is an easter egg and a clue on how to beat the game. Eric must have been using his time to study to barely get by school and then really excel at the game. What does he know that I don’t? I pull up a browser and type in Phantom. In seconds there are several stories that have popped up yesterday and today. I click on the first link and scroll through the highlights.
Shocking announcements today as Phantom, a genre-bending first-person shooter and puzzle game, announced its planned prizes for the end of the holiday season. Lunar Lander, Phantom’s creator best known for their adventure puzzle games and first-person shooters, announced that they will be selecting the top three competitors from the game to compete against one another at their private location at the end of the year. Just for being in one of the top three meant that you were awarded─
My eyes nearly pop out of their skull as I read through. Holy shit.
I re-read them again and then pull up another tab bringing up Lunar Lander’s Wikipedia. There it is, I can’t believe it. I knew there was something bothering me about why I was so enthralled by the game. Granted, I also love shooters and especially puzzle games but this─ this explained so much. Was my past self somehow aware that I needed to not only beat him, but get into contact with him as well? This opens up so many questions, my mind is nearly dizzy thinking on them. The founder of Lunar Lander is none other than Robert Cromwell. The prize is to be employed by Cromwell’s company and compete in government-funded competitions around the world. For just competing, you got to sit and talk with the owner and CEO of Cromwell Industries and win a five year supply of food, clothing, and have your rent paid in full. This was insanity. Nothing like this has come along in the history of well…ever. And here it was, play a few games and have it handed to you on a silver platter. I can’t believe it. Fuck school.
If I devote any more than I have to it only buys me a slim chance of some crazy rich dude noticing that I scored higher than Cromwell. To which, I may get a personalized video, maybe a scholarship, but nothing like what this is offering. But this? This is how I’m going to prove that not only is Cromwell alive, but that he is the one behind all of this. I know that I cannot be wrong because if I am that’s it. I would need to definitely jump on the forums and read over several of the popular theories that suggest he is alive. Yes, but the real question is why he is. What did he have to gain by collecting the top three players of a notoriously difficult video game? I have a lot of work ahead of me, but this proves that even if he isn’t alive, his company is and that makes it worth pursuing. Politics were kept to an online vote in this era which meant the key to my success and notoriety is going to be climbing to the top and getting in the spotlight. Now I know why Eric has spent the entire night playing and ultimately beating the first major boss battle. It would also explain why he has decided not to play online with me. This article I’m reading is time-stamped at four hours ago, which would have been the time Eric had called me to hop on with him.
This was how I contacted him. This was how I was going to start changing the world. A concept that would have been laughable some twenty years ago, now it’s a way of life. I subscribe to the popular game feed and then switch back to the whimsical scoreboard. I was still in second place by quite a bit. If I just kept at this pace, I could possibly reach up to half of his points and be ok. The problem is, not only am I behind on how many hours he devoted to this but by badges as well. A thought occurs to me and I re-open the tab that had the story on it. I scroll past the other things and then notice at the end of the contest rules, there’s an asterisk. I’m not sure, but I roll my mouse over the tiny symbol and smile when I see it is a hyperlink. I click on it and smile as it re-directs me to Lunar Lander’s official Phantom page. It’s the second part of the rules that aren’t listed on the gaming page.
Participating players will not only be judged on scores, but also on their in-game conduct and trophies earned. This means that the top three players listed, may not be the contest winners and are up to the owner’s discretion on who the official winners will be. This will be made public the day before the contest wins to anyone that did not bother to follow the link provided to see all of the contest rules. Congratulations, player 10127, you have taken the first step to getting ahead of the curve. Please enter the contest with this link provided. The game page this was linked with was set with a dummy form that will not officially enter any applicants that did not take the time out to read all of the official rules. Best of luck to you.
I’m nearly shouting in my chair with excitement as I click on the link, feeling proud of myself for doing what probably no one else had bothered to do─ pay attention. I scan the entire page before clicking on the link, making sure that there were no other tricks or possibly any rules I’d missed. Satisfied that there aren’t, I click the link and a dark grey screen pops up. It looks like most forms, asking for real name, address, phone, etc. but there is one difference after skimming over the first part with all of the personal information. There’s a disclaimer and not just any disclaimer, several pages worth. Since I know that the possibility is high that there is something tucked away here as well, I click on the link that will bring up the readable file. The first four pages are the typical participation jargon that saves the company from getting sued in case you weren’t happy about the rules of the contest and if you lost. But it’s when I get to the last half of the pages that things start to get… interesting.
Not only have half of the participants probably missed the asterisk section, I was willing to bet that just about everyone that got to the asterisk section also hadn’t read the fine print and had hit ‘agree.’ This guy is good. He is counting on the fact that no one will pay attention and he is right. That got me wondering how many people actually are in the running. Not only are the people that are participating in going to get a job at Cromwell Industries, they are going to hold a share in it. That is expected of most industries once you became management or higher up in the food chain, but to be a shareholder based off of being a guy that comes from the streets and plays video games well? The next section also states that there are more prizes than listed publicly and that they will be announced to the winner of the big competition. There has to be much more to this than any of us ever could imagine. I skim a few more lines and then freeze on the following one,
‘…by checking agree in this section, you are agreeing to also waive your family or friends right to sue Cromwell Industries should your life end while competing in the Phantom world.’ My jaw drops as I read that section a second time.
This isn’t just a game competition, it goes well beyond that. What are these assholes hiding from the rest of the world? This reeks of politics masked as a friendly competition. The last half goes on to say that all participants must live in the United States and that only the winner will go on to compete globally for ‘prizes beyond your wildest imagination.’ What that meant, was for them to determine what they would do with you once you proved worthy to their cause. I’m not sure how all of this ties together, or how I knew to come back to this exact point in time, but I know that ‘prizes beyond your wildest imagination’ meant something big. The fact that the stakes are our lives says enough. I click ‘agree’ and then scroll back up to the top of the form. I’m shocked to find that it has filled out all of my personal information except for one: username.
The corner of my mouth draws up into a sly smile as I know instantly what it is going to be. I hit enter and the screen goes completely black. Words start surfacing as I continue to watch the screen─ ‘Cromwell Industries extends you a warm invitation to attend the official contest ball online on Saturday, November 26th, 2067 at precisely 7:00 p.m. CST. Participants are expected to wear formal attire for the event and to the interview after the event. Failure to do so will result in immediate termination of your application. Thank you for your application. Welcome to Phantom Official, Hull.’
We are the last.
In three minutes and fifty-nine seconds, we will die and humanity with us. I stare across at the last people on earth and I can’t help but wonder what could have been done differently. How had we reached this point in time to where the entirety of the human race resulted in the two women and three men that existed in this room? None of us can find the courage to look each other in the eye. Maybe it’s that we grow weary of breath.
Each of us has found their respective corner in the room except me. I’m positioned in the center, staring forward at the comforting brown shades pulled shut. A few of them shuffle, growing restless at the last remaining moments. Three minutes. There’s a part of me rising, I expected as much. Human survival instinct is famed for its stubbornness. Or, it used to be. Something is eating at me.
There was something some years ago that a professor had mentioned in my Chemistry class. I hadn’t thought much on it until the following year in Biology. The breaking down of cells, how gravity had a profound effect on humans. Not surprisingly it went all the way down to a molecular level. Aging wasn’t only in our DNA, it was the product of the combined forces of environmental pressures and the strains we placed on our bodies. I’m not sure why I am thinking on this now, but I know I am on to something. All of the others may have lost faith in themselves, but I have never given up.
Three minutes and thirty-nine seconds. The large numbers on our Scyvies glare back at us from our wrists, the once calming blue a countdown to death. I close my eyes and draw a breath savoring the clean, fresh air. This wasn’t like back home, where it was required to walk outside in a mask. I always did, knowing what waited on the other side. That stench would never go away, no matter how many times they cleaned it. It wasn’t the stench that was the hard part. It was what followed from smelling it. Memories. Memories that we would all soon try our hardest to forget.
“Hull, cut it out.” A low rumble cuts the silence.
I ignore him, keeping my eyes pressed shut. I breathe in, then out, my mind grasping at the earlier memories. There’s a faint glimmer suspended in the back of my eyelids. I slow my heart rate, only focusing on my breath and the image.
“I said knock it off,” Harris growls.
There’s a faint scraping noise as Harris jumps to his feet. I again respond with nothing. Let these assholes give up. I’m finding a way out.
“Put a cork in it, Harris.” Ash drawls. I can’t help but smile at the tough son of a bitch. She never takes anyone’s shit and always has my back. She’s never understood me, but she fights like hell by my side. I think it’s secretly because she buys into what I’m selling. I should have gotten into the pyramid scheme business, I would have made a fortune.
“I will not put a fucking cork in it, breeder.” He spits on the floor. Harris has gone too far. That word is inexcusable, especially on this team. The room gasps at the word. I’m waiting for some kind of angry retort, or hear Harris howl in pain. The only thing that sounds is Ash’s snort and then quieted words.
“I’m going to remember that after me and Hull get out of here, shit stain.”
I feel the air stir as someone seats themselves in front of me. Their scent hits me and I know it’s Ash. Her calloused fingers rest over mine and her energy washes over me. It’s warm like summer rain.
“These idiots might not see it, but something’s changed ‘bout you in the last few minutes.” I smile crookedly at her words. Perceptive as ever. I don’t open my eyes.
“You remember last year, by the docks?” She’s quiet for a few beats, mulling it over. “You talking about that time traveling nonsense from your professor again?” The glimmer is turning into a distorted image. It reminds me of looking out from a window in my youth. My breath hitches for a second as sweat beads my brow. It is a window. A small two foot by two-foot window from the old house off of Jupiter Run. The distortion is from the rain, pouring outside. I can’t get over the smell. I’ve never been able to get it right over the years but today it’s there. A strong smell of gardenias, fresh cut grass, and dirt. Ash is here next to me, but still only seated in the room.
“Hull, that’s pseudo-science BS. You know that, right? Time travel ain’t real.” Her voice betrays her inner thoughts. I can tell she is getting excited.
“What the fuck is with you two? Acting like you got some way out of this. It’s bullshit.”
“Harris,” Cutter’s voice is like velvet, but there is a distinct edge to it. “If you don’t shut the fuck up, you’re not going to make the last minute or so with the rest of us.”
Harris quiets and there are footsteps as the others circle around me and Ash. Our Scyvies give us the last minute warning with one small beep. “You two hippies going to enlighten the rest of us?” Dawn has finally decided to join in. Mostly, because Cutter has. They had been travel companions for years before they met up with the group.
“We don’t have enough time for me to explain in full.” I mutter, “You remember what I taught you?”
Harris is on the floor, beside himself in laughter. “Here we fucking go again. Join our consciousness, find your fondest memory, travel back to your youth, our minds are the key. God damn horseshit.” His laughter is the only one in the room as the others quiet. Our breathing begins to sync. I let my mind wander back to that moment. The temperature in the room begins to drop rapidly. I know they are getting it ready for our swift departure. I’d read somewhere that it barely took a handful of seconds before you were gone. Even if this doesn’t work, at least we can die knowing that we tried.
The Scyvies give the thirty-second warning, two small clinks in rapid succession.
In seconds, the room is gone. I can no longer feel myself drawing breath or the goosebumps that have spread across my skin. The dull pain in my back and slowly numbing hindquarters has disappeared as I travel along the length of the glimmer. I find myself wondering what this must look like to the others. Everyone’s ride is different.
What are they seeing at this very moment? Ash is probably remembering the heat, long summers, and popsicles. She could go on for hours talking about the different flavors of popsicles, and each of her favorites and why. It was an odd thing, hearing a teen girl pine over flavored ice, but I knew they meant more than that. Back when her father had been alive, he had run a small Popsicle stand with snacks on the weekends for the local kids. It was an outdated thing for the time, but the kids loved it. They would set alarms on their visors, unplug and venture outside to have one of his homemade masterpieces.
Most of us had plugged in some time ago and never came back. It started around the year 2025 with the VR technology at its peak. Everyone that was anyone owned one. With prices dropping by the months, it was possible for just about everyone to get their hands on one. Eventually, they became state issued if you were of school age and was mandatory to own one for the public school system. Because of the decline in need for office space, and with the new technology, most people contracted from home. If you needed something, you ordered it online. It was then directly dropped through the wall in a chute so that it wasn’t left outside.
Theft was a way of life in most units and was expected. If something was left outside of your door, or you hadn’t had a proper chute installed, that was your own problem. There were a few people that didn’t either have the means, or the mental capacity to actually own VR gear. These were known as the Outsiders and them like many others existed before the drastic decline in the population around 2039.
It wasn’t that the people stopped having children, it’s that there was no longer a desire or need to. Fast forward to 2051 and just about everyone had opted out of childbirth or test tube children. Once we had located the specific chain of DNA that caused aging, along with decreasing the effects of outer stimuli, such as gravity damage as well as pollution, people were living to be hundreds of years old. We had some inkling of aging according to the history books some time ago.
Around the year 2006 scientists had begun to realize that eating too much, in combination with too much direct sunlight also contributed to the rapid deterioration of cells on the molecular level. Once we unlocked the secret of aging in our DNA, most aging could be entirely reversed or frozen. It went from monthly treatments to every six months, and then finally years. Before the global war, the United States had boasted that their scientists were working on a formula that you would need only take once in your lifetime at the exact moment you wanted to freeze your aging.
For the elders, this also meant that in just ten small treatments, they could go back to their peak years in their life. We had finally discovered the fountain of youth, and it came not from the box jellyfish-like people had suspected it would, but by accident from a single man that had spent his entire life isolated from the world.
Robert Cromwell, of the 200 block on Beacon St. in Somerville Massachusetts had been recorded as owning the property since the early 1930s. According to the bank records, the house was family owned and had been passed down for generations. That was only partially true. It was true that it had run in the family and had been since the 1930s, but the owner wasn’t Robert Cromwell Jr. As a matter of fact, Cromwell had no children whatsoever. He had simply changed his name over the years.
When they had discovered his secret in 2033, he had lived to be a hundred and thirty-three years old. This wouldn’t have been odd, except for the fact that he appeared to be a twenty-five-year-old male, with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. The man had more money than several generations of families combined, and yet curiously he stayed in the quaint two-story home with blue paint and white trim. It was sad, really when they confiscated his home and he was imprisoned for tax evasion. He later died in his jail cell three months into his sentence and the public was told that he had a rare genetic disorder that didn’t age him on the outside, but that his organs had failed him.
None of us bought that.
It became a long-running joke on the internet. Sites dedicated to finding the man that could cheat death. Like many conspiracy nuts, people would post photos of Cromwell in a cabin in the woods, or in other countries boarding a plane. But there was a difference now, people could immediately tell if the photos were fake or not using simple software you could download from any mobile device, and it was free. More often than not he was spotted in a type of military garb or a lab coat, which lead everyone to believe that he had in fact, not died but had been forced to join a team of scientists so that old wealthy people in California and New York could buy their way into eternity.
Many people believed that we would eventually just upload our consciousness onto a hard drive and into bodies that never aged. But the issue with this was how to do it. It was never taken directly from the source, it was collected from various social Media, texts, emails, recorded Skype conversations, facial recognition software and personality traits related to them, and then used to create a ‘perfect being with no need of organs.’ The issue with this is that even with advanced programming, we still had not mastered the ability to make them entirely─ human.
They could mimic humans and could come damn close to actually being human but they still couldn’t pass the Turing test. Even now, in the year 2067, we still have not mastered it. Though, to be fair we stopped pursuing that quickly after finding the secrets to our own aging process. A.I. was now used as a means of cheap labor, sexual pleasure, and companions. Since humans no longer had a need for procreation, the poverty line grew exponentially.
The middle class completely dissipated, leaving behind two types of societies: the wealthy and those that survived. The ones that were left behind were stacked up on each other in slum-like buildings all over the world. Each space was sized perfectly for the decline in a normal household size. By 2015, the average of 2.54 dropped down to 1.5 by 2055 in the U.S. By the time we had reached the year 2060, most maternity hospital wings had been replaced and children based businesses had been shut down.
I know later generations if in fact there is any left, will probably wonder what all of this has to do with my current situation. I’ll get around to that if I make it through this next part in one piece. I’ve ridden the glimmer many times before but never for this long. Not to mention, I don’t have a current body to go back to so hopefully this all works out. If it doesn’t, well hell─ I guess all of humanity is fucked and this will just be one for the history books when an alien civilization finds it. I’m still pissed off that after all these years, there’s still no sign of intelligent life out there.
Then again, they might have taken one hard look at our society and decided to nope the fuck out. In any case, about five feet in front of me is the answer to all of my questions. Hopefully the solution I’m looking for. I want to walk through the second I see it, but I pause by the entrance of the rift. I’ve never traveled with anyone else, so I’m not sure if I actually am going to see the others or if I just walk through. From down the hall, I hear the ten-second warning from the Scyvies.
If I had to describe what I’m looking at, I’d compare it to a long tunnel made entirely out of fractured light that bent every twenty feet or so in different directions. My footsteps make no sound and you can see directly through the floor. As a matter of fact, I’m not entirely sure there is a floor. I’m fairly certain my brain has decided that the way my head is facing is up and wherever my feet land is down. There is a distinct odor traveling along the length of the glimmer and I know my time is gone. Not a single person has appeared next to me, so I know they either have to meet me on the other side, or they are lost like everyone else. This was it, it was now, or never. I dive through the tear in time and tumble onto the hard floor.
“Winner, winner, sky friend! Come now to collect your prize at 3112 West Main Street. Fame, wealth, and fortune are just around the corner─” I wave my hand silencing the bot. If where I initially thought of is actually where I am, then I know I’m back to my old loft off of Cadiz near Downtown. My head is killing me, but I manage to pull myself up to a sitting position. It’s muggy in the small space from all the rain, so I know it has to be spring or fall. A quick glance out the window tells me what I need to know─ it’s definitely Fall.
I’ve never done this before, so the next part hits me as a bit of a shock. Bile shoots up the back of my throat and spills all over the concrete floor and wall. I’m silently cursing my ignorance because I must have eaten a fucking turkey dinner before I got here. I dry heave for several seconds when the bot starts back up again, “Feeling ill? Try these home remedies from Natural Market supply house. Choose from these all natural flavors─” I growl and wave my hand again. “Alexa, purchase one month of bot-free access,” I yell. “Understood, would you like to enable single voice command purchase now?” I grind my jaw, “yes, fine whatever just shut that thing up.” “You have purchased a one-month premium bot-free access to─” “yes, thank you, Alexa, that will be all.” “Understood. Goodbye.” I sigh and look down at the mess I’ve created on both myself and my loft.
I stiffen as I remember what day this is. Normally, people like to travel back to happier times. Not me. I wore my depression like some badge of pride at this age. It was the first, and last time, that I would be twenty-three years old.
I was born at the tail-end of the depression in the year 2025. They, of course, didn’t call it that, but the recession was just a nicer way of saying, ‘we’re all fucked financially.’ My mother, one of the few traditionalists, conceived me the natural way. She never wanted a partner, so she chose to be artificially inseminated with her best friend, Laura. It wasn’t that uncommon by then for women to blend DNA with other women, it was a simple process using bone marrow. And thus, Jamie May Bonham was born on a windy day in October in a sad, one bedroom apartment with a midwife older than dirt. My mom had been pushing forty at that point, and the doctors had warned her that it could destroy her body if she didn’t get treatments. My mother, with all of her southern charm, told them to promptly go to hell and take their damn technology with them.
Lily May Bonham was nowhere near as delicate as her name would suggest. Mom took pride in being the only female engineer in her department. She was every bit a scientifically minded individual as she was religious and I always found that side of her peculiar. We would have discussions at length on how I believed science was the only answer, and she would talk about how they could go hand in hand. She never told me how to think, and that’s what I loved about her. She never told me I was wrong unless of course, it was on a math problem. She was ruthless with those. The point I’m making is that she never made me feel inferior to her, not for one second. This made me realize later that she was wise much beyond her years. Some people went entire lifetimes and never grasped that concept.
My mother loved to exercise. It was understood that the first part of the morning was set aside for her. It was a quiet time in which I was encouraged to go online and read my books assigned for the semester. I never actually enjoyed reading, but I loved being read to. I had loads and loads of audiobooks at my disposal and I listened to them every morning as I downed my protein shakes. Some time ago, the food crises due to over cropping all of the farmland made actual food extremely expensive. Food vouchers covered the necessities, which were up-to-and-including: nutrient shakes, or bars, water, and salt. If you wanted grown fruit, veggies, or real meat─ it was the equivalent of three month’s salary for one meal. It was a way for the government to claim that it was to help bring down obesity levels and for our own benefit.
A few times before mama died, we actually got to try real fruit. I still salivate thinking about that nearly fifty years later. Ironically, her rigorous exercise routine was her undoing. We lived pretty well for the time, which meant that the neighborhood hadn’t turned into the shit stain it is now. My mother ran for six miles once a day five days a week. I’m not sure why she chose this arbitrary number, but she was very cross with herself if she didn’t make her goal. The day had been much like it is now, rainy and the air clung to your skin. She had given me a kiss on the way out, telling me to be sure to run on the treadmill for a minimum of thirty minutes with a five-minute cooldown. I nodded, eager to get to the next chapter in my latest action adventure and murmured a quick, ‘I love you too’ as I plugged in. The mechanical lock was the last thing I heard before the worst day of my life happened.
I didn’t start to get worried until lunchtime rolled around. At first, I thought that maybe she had decided to stop by the market and surprise me with a candy bar, or piece of fruit. I made the first call to her phone at two pm, then four, and finally five-thirty. I was just about to phone Laura when the apartment’s auxiliary system informed me that an officer was at our front door. It was the backup system since the police did not yet have a direct line to my headset. More than likely, my mother had placed a passcode on her phone which was an incredibly outdated tech for the time and the officers hadn’t known what to make of it.
I don’t remember a lot from that day, but I do remember the knot in my stomach that twisted as I placed one foot in front of the other. I knew if they were there, it meant that they had to have checked her implant since she wasn’t conscious enough to give them the direct line. As I approached, I remember the officer had called out his badge number and informed me that he was there to give me news on my mother. I swallowed thickly and opened the door. At the time, I had barely made out what they said, but I got the gist of it. She had stopped by a local market on the way home. A man that was fed up and desperate had picked that moment to set off a bomb that had taken out half the city. There were no survivors, including the bomber. I had numbly thanked the police officer, took what little was left of my mother from him and closed the door.
The second worst day of my life was the current day that I chose to go back to. That sounds confusing as hell when I think about it. I haven’t fully grasped how I’ve managed to get here, but I have a few good ideas. That’s the key, making sure that I know how so that I can share all of this with the others. I’m nearly thirty years in the past, right before the global revolution took hold. I stare down at the clear liquid in the syringe laying on the floor in front of my feet. I thought that I had put this day behind me, but my subconscious must have chosen this moment because it was a huge turning point in my life. I rolled the needle around the ground with my foot, staring at the temptation for the second time.
Had I have actually done it right back then, maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this. When I had pushed the fluid into my arm the first time, I had passed out before I emptied the entire thing. It left me in excruciating pain for hours before my neighbors called it in after getting home from work. I crush the liquid tube beneath my foot into the other mess I made on the floor, digging my heel in defiantly. I would not revisit that place again. I lost countless hours locked away in that place when I could have done so much more for people. Our people. There’s a mechanical whirr as the iBo fires up and starts vacuuming the liquid mess.
It was standard issue for the stacked units, in an attempt to keep out pests. There was one stationed between two units on each level. Each floor in our particular unit was fairly spacious in our building. Compared to most units that preferred to cram in anywhere from 18 to 22 units, our building only allowed 12 units per floor. The only reason that I’ve gathered from this is that my mother left a substantial amount of money when she passed on and she owned this unit in full. Many places in the city started allowing you to pay off a unit if you were born in a certain year. I was lucky enough to actually be grandfathered in and the place was mine. I change shirts and then walk up to the sweeping bot, staring as it removes the contents and then pauses.
The blood drains from my face as I realize what it’s doing. Shit. I leap across the room, knowing that it is going to dock and report its findings. I can’t allow that. I hastily rip at the panel on top, push down and then lift the covering. It’s still charging toward the wall, I’m shocked how much pull this small device has. If it manages to actually make it before I can figure out what to disconnect, the authorities will be here in seven minutes. I have twenty feet at most and it’s moving one foot a second.
Shit, shit, shit.
I’m following along like a dog sniffing at their owner’s hand for food. I could jam the wheels that would buy me time. I find the nearest piece of cloth and rip it off the window. The floor is concrete so it isn’t used to going over the carpet. Most places didn’t have carpet anymore because it was found to be incredibly unsanitary. There’s a groan and then a strong odor as the moving parts get caught around all the fibers. I nearly shout in excitement as it stops eight feet from its destination. It would buy me at least three minutes before the front desk was notified that the bot had malfunctioned. Then a few more before maintenance would be knocking at the door. I locate the belly of the beast and push down the release switch. A warning buzzer sounds and I curse loudly at the empty space. Why the fuck did they make these things so fucking difficult?
Those three minutes would turn into seconds because it would notify the office that someone was tampering with the device. What’s done is done. I still have time before they would come up the elevator. I finally get the container free and open the latch. All of the glass and metal is there. I cross over to the cabinets and pull out a bag, then pick out all the pieces of glass and metal and dump them into it. I have to leave most of the dirt, or it will look suspicious. I’m about to put it back into the vacuum when I realize something. The liquid isn’t there. Fucking idiot.
I hear the ding at the end of the hallway and leap over to the front door. Most units didn’t have a top lock, but ours did. I turned it and then bolted back over to the vacuum. I could hear the men talking as their keys jingled down the hallway. I have ten seconds, twelve at most before they are at my door. I’m frantically searching where I pulled the dry vacuumed contents out, but there is no other container. I angrily flip the vacuum over and finally find it. I want to scream in anger, but I manage to jump to my feet and pull at the island drawer where I kept all of my small tools.
I rip at the small drill and hope that it all charged. Bit, bit, I yell at myself. I locate the smallest sized one and run over just as I hear the guys walk up to my front door. “Alexa, industrial music” I call frantically. Loud mechanical sounds with base start filling the area as I flip the switch on my drill. The noise is softer than the music playing and I sigh in relief. The bolt removes easily, but I have less than a handful of seconds before the men will be beating down my door, or call the authorities. I’m less than happy when I finally tear it free. There are a bunch of clear liquids and then brownish liquids in the front. It’s a series of small rows with several of them.
I press my hands into my forehead as I hear the first knock at the front door. There has to be a code for each unit. It’s evenly distributed into eight cylinders, the two nearest the front being darker─ which meant that they must be older. That left the middle units and the ones near the back. Here was my problem. I couldn’t just remove all of the liquid, that would land me in for questioning by the local PD and if tampering was actually evident it would turn into a federal case. I had to put something into the container or they would know that I had removed it. But which one?
The intercom sounded as a gruff middle-aged man cut over the industrial music. “Please silence your music and answer the door within thirty seconds, or we will contact local authorities.” Alexa paused the music. “The maintenance crew seems to be outside of your unit and is unable to get inside. Penal code 1174-2 paragraph 4─” “I understand, thank you, Alexa. I am complying. Please turn on my shower.” “Understood.” Alexa flipped on my shower. I ran to the bathroom and pushed the telecom button. “I’m here,” I shout, “sorry, I’m in the shower. Give me a minute and I’ll be right there.” The guy lets out a long sigh and grunts. “You got thirty seconds.” I let go of the switch and douse my hair in water, careful to not get it on my shirt. I’m still grasping the liquids as I run over and get a glass from the shelf. It was now or never, I bring the liquid eye level and decide on the back right. It’s clear but has a slight bluish tinge. This has to be it, the other looks like water. A really loud knock comes from the front again.
It sounds extremely impatient. “Yeah, yeah” I mutter. I dump most of the liquid into my glass and stick it in the refrigerator. Then I fill the rest of the tube up with water from the sink. I can’t keep the poison there all day, it will do a scan before I go to bed tonight. But it’s safe for now. I race over to the vacuum, shove the tubes in the way they were facing before and quickly hand screw the bolt in.
“Resident 10127, you are hereby warned that I am going to call local authorities─”
“Sorry” I yell, opening the door. “I slipped on the tub when I got out. It’s going to leave a nasty bruise.”
The man waiting at the door for me is every bit as gruff as I expect. His beady brown eyes are cross as he points a meaty finger my way. “What the hell is going on here?” He hasn’t listened to a word I said. Thankfully, I look about as flustered as I feel and I take a few breaths, steadying my voice. “Like I said, I was rushing to get out of the tub and I slipped and fell.” He stares at me for a few seconds. “Well?” I blink and look from him to the artificial unit next to him.
At first glance, the A.I. units look human, but when you look closely at them, you can tell they aren’t breathing. This unit is a simple older model with red hair and freckled skin. He is tall, close to six foot three and his skin is paler than mine. “You going to let me do my job so I can get to the other few hundred units that need servicing today?” I blush a deep scarlet and step back from the entrance. The A.I. unit looks to me as his partner enters. “You may enter,” I say quietly. The unit nods and steps into my loft. This always makes me uncomfortable, how the older units are programmed. We had to give verbal permission for them to enter. I really don’t like talking with anyone, unless I have to. I hear the older man let out a curse. “God damn son-of-a-bitch ate the curtains. Management ain’t gonna be happy ‘bout this.” He had the lingo that most blue collars did around here, with a heavy accent. He was definitely from the North East.
“Red, get your ass over here. Now.” The unit increased his pace as he rounded the corner to meet with the old man. I pulled the door shut and took a casual stride into my living space. The old man stands as I walk past and grabs my arm. “You do this?” I feign shock and scrunch my brow in confusion. “Why on earth would I do that? Like I said, I went to take a shower and the next thing I know, the two of you are beating down my door. I didn’t see this until I went to answer the door.” The lines deepen on the man’s face as he sizes me up. “What happened?” I again blink at his question, my eyebrows going up.
“What do you mean? I just─” “The bots don’t just come out unless there is a mess.” He threatens. It was that ‘don’t fuck with me’ tone that elders have an annoying way of doing perfectly. “Look,” I say, “I spilled some of my water earlier and broke a glass. I managed to get most of the glass up before it came out. Then I decided to hop in the shower. There isn’t a crime against that, is there?” I challenge him with my own stern gaze. He shrivels a little but still keeps his chest puffed slightly. “Yeah, we’ll see.” He bends down and scans the area.
I know the bot has done a good job, so I don’t hesitate to walk from both of them. “Let me know if you need anything else,” I offer dryly. The man mutters something sarcastic under his breath, but I am already at my computer, stuffing the bag into the small door to the right. I pull up my schedule, double tapping the screen. I need to get reacquainted with my life. I know this is my last semester at the university, but I had no idea what day it was, or if I had classes today. I relax, seeing that it’s Friday afternoon and have nothing going on. Then I wince. Of course, I don’t, this was the day I was planning on ending my life. I hear a few murmurs over my shoulders and slide my hand to the right to put the calendar away.
I stand and walk over to the refrigerator, then grab a glass. I am one of the few people that still keeps the old water pitchers. I prefer the flavor of the charcoal filter versus the filtration system for our units. I knew it was probably in my head, but I swear I can taste some sort of medicinal residue. It always has a bitter, metallic flavor.
“In accordance with penal code 1174-2, paragraph 4 versus─” “Don’t lecture me on something my grandfather helped write, you hunk of junk. I said beat it.” I took a few sips, chancing a glance over at the two. The A.I. stood and turned walking down my short hallway. I tense as I hear the door slam. Apparently, even the older models are programmed with human reactions. The old man sighs heavily and meets my gaze.
I can see he is working something out in his mind. He nods and motions with his other hand for me to come over. I set down my glass and try to control my breathing. What does he know? Great going, Bonham. Your first day back in the past and you manage to make enemies with a man that can turn your life to shit in minutes. I picture the hospital. When I say hospital, I’m using that term very loosely. It was more like a privately funded prison. Most of the best hospitals were stationed further north or on the lunar colonies. For the rest of us simpletons, it was normally a house visit for federally regulated drug prescriptions, or it was diagnosed with your mobile care unit.
There was a mobile clinic in each building. It was a small, 4×4 foot space that you wore provided booties and face mask in. It then took a swab of your saliva or blood sample and quickly diagnosed the issue. Within two hours, the prescription was sent directly to you and you were ordered to quarantine in your quarters for the remainder of the contagious period. Then your entire unit was decontaminated and you could go back to your life. But attempted self-harm cases were different. You had to go under a physician’s care for a minimum of one year, effectively losing your spot on the lease and freezing your accounts until a doctor cleared you to go back into society. If you wanted to go about it the legal way and file for assisted suicide, that was a whole other mess. Much like the first one, you were required by the state to enroll yourself in a year-long program with a psychiatric care physician, then placed on medication and have been on the medication for a year before you were allowed to make that decision on your own.
Which meant it was a two-year minimum to end your suffering. Total bullshit. That’s why I took it into my own hands and did a shit ton of research on how to slowly collect the chemicals I would need to die peacefully. That was mostly here, in the U.S. but there were some countries that were way worse off.
“Look, kid, I don’t got all day.” I jump at his words, but manage to walk around the corner with a straight look on my face. I don’t bother saying anything as I stand in front of him. I’m not really one for words, most the time people just sort of say what they think and I remark here and there to keep them sated.
This guy, there was something about him. Even though he seems like a dick, his voice has softened a degree. His eyes even appear softer. I’m not sure if it’s all in my head when he speaks. “Had a son about your age a few years ago.” I stay quiet, interested in what he’s trying to say. I’m curious because he’s leading up to something, I can tell. He doesn’t sound angry, he sounds sad. “I know it ain’t easy. All this.” He motions with his hand making a circle. “Things aren’t making much sense anymore with all the old people young again. See, me, I’m a traditionalist. I ain’t wanting any of that weird shit, ya know?” I nod pressing my lips into a forced half-smile. Where is he going with all this? Then I freeze as I see his portable analysis machine.
He’s found the small amounts I’ve tried to hide with the water. I try not to panic, but I can sense it’s creeping into my eyes. I can feel them growing wider. I jump as he places his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, alright. As my grandfather would always say, I ain’t no snitch.” He stops and points his finger across from me. “Mark my words, if you make me regret this decision, I’ll make it hell for you and anyone related to you. You get me?” I tear up, trying to not let it slip from my eyes but my body betrays me. I feel the wetness slide down my face and I turn away. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’m the only one left.” He grunts and takes a step back. “No family, eh?” I shake my head.
He scratches the back of his head uncomfortably. “I…uh. I ain’t much good at this, but I seen that school you attend. It’s the third best school in the country and your, what, Top eight in your class?” “Five” I whisper. “What’sat?” he asks. “I’m in the top five,” I repeat softly. He cracks a smile, clearing his screen. “Seems like an awful waste to me. With scores like that, you can do just about anything you want.” He bends down and clears iBo system records. I don’t know this guy and he’s doing all of this for me. I’m awkward, unsure of how to thank him. If he would have reported me, I would have repeated the past and lost everything. Now it makes sense.
He had ordered the A.I. unit out in the hallway because it would have reported me immediately. It was legally bound to do so with the Human’s Rights Act of 2045. Basically if a human was a danger to themselves or others they would be reported to local authorities and processed within twenty-four hours.
I let out a long, shaky breath. “I don’t really have much to offer, but─” “yeah, look kid. I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ alright? Just, do good in school and make something of yourself. Cut whatever nonsense this is out, alright? Some of us, you know, wish they got what you do.” I nod woodenly. The bot is back on the floor and heading back to the wall to dock. The guy is almost to the door when it dawns on me. “How’s your son?” I ask. He stops and casts a wary glance back at me. “He made it a little further than you did today, kiddo.” I’m so shocked, I’m speechless. The door closes behind him before I’m able to actually react to what he’s said. I’m tempted to go outside after him, but think better of it. I don’t want to raise suspicion more than I probably have with the A.I. unit. Besides, there was work to be done and I had no idea what the hell I am going to do to prevent what was bound to happen.
So I thought I would do one of those update posts. I haven’t done one in a while and wanted to share a little of my life. (warning, long boring text)
I started a new job around 3 months ago that has been really time intensive. I had a few concerned messages about me still doing my videos for you guys and podcasting.
No worries, you guys. I had to have an adjusting period to get my head straight and not come home dead exhausted. I am definitely going to keep doing those. I mentioned that I will be sending my work off to a publisher, I will be doing that in 3 weeks and will hopefully know something within 6 months. (publishers take quite some time to respond, as you can imagine!)
One of the things I struggle with is being able to stick with one thing and going with it. Especially being horribly ADHD and for a while, unmedicated. I also was diagnosed with something I’m not comfortable sharing on social media, but it is genetic, so thanks, mom
I had the last few months to really turn my attention to what it is I wanted to do. I have been focused on doing too much at once, versus focusing on what it is I enjoy. I enjoy storytelling, I enjoy drawing. So, that is what I should do. Everything else should fall to the wayside as a hobby.
In short, I’m here and not going anywhere – Just had to get there mentally.
I heart you all! ~♥
I wave goodbye to Karis after dropping her off at her new class. It’s been two days since she last went. I had taken what happened Monday to be a sign that both of us needed a break. I didn’t press too much, but I had a long chat with her about keeping what happened to herself. Especially for the other children and teachers. I don’t like telling my daughter to lie but in this case, it is best that we lie to everyone─ including ourselves. I left that last bit out, of course, an eight-year-old doesn’t need to learn the depressing truths of adulthood just yet.
I’m not even sure what is going on. The last two days have been quiet, no real incidents or weird indoor rain clouds. Just thinking that should be enough to make me feel stupid. Indoor rain clouds. What’s next, gnomes, faeries or maybe the boogeyman? Karis has been spending the night with me. As a parent, I know I really shouldn’t be feeding her fear─ she needs to see reason and logic. Unfortunately, there is no reason behind what has happened. I even got paranoid about it possibly be carbon monoxide poisoning and changed our detector. No luck, no explanation, so I’m relying on the loss of sleep and added stress theory. We’ve both been playing games, watching shows and movies. It was a nice staycation, but it is time to get back to reality.
Traffic is incredibly light today. I pull into the parking garage with 30 minutes to spare. I can’t remember the last time it’s happened. I sigh, my shoulders falling as I walk to the stairs. For once I can sit, read the news and enjoy a cup of coffee before the work day begins.
I look up as she peeks around my office door. “Hey, Carroll what’s up?” I ask. She inches her way into the space, nervously looking around. Carroll was one of those sorts that always looks guilty, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. With her brown hair and slight frame, I’m always reminded of a mouse or rat. Her voice is soft, sometimes it’s hard to hear. “I was wondering if I could have the rest of the day off?” I blinked a few times up at her and then looked over at the clock. It was barely eleven. “Everything ok?” She looks stunned for a moment, then drops her gaze to the floor.
“You…can’t ask that.” I blink a few more. She’s right, I didn’t think of that. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I was just concerned is all.” Carroll doesn’t react, just shuffles her feet a little and hugs herself. Something is definitely wrong. When she stands in silence, I realize she is waiting for me to approve her time off. My next sentence comes out stilted and awkward, “yes, of course, you may. Take all the time─” she’s out the door before I can finish and the words die in my throat.
In all the years we’ve worked together, I’ve never seen her so upset. I stand and walk across the hallway and then through the small door that leads into her office. An odor immediately hits me, strong and sour. I cover my mouth and nose, searching the room for the source of the smell. Everything is pristine as usual, it’s spotless, so where on earth is that vile smell coming from? I open each of her drawers, scan the desk, and open her cabinets.
“What are you doing?” I jump and spin around. Carroll is blocking the doorway, her eyes rimmed in red. As I get a closer look at her face, I realize she looks terrible. Her features are tired and drawn, her skin a sallow color. Like she hasn’t slept in days. “Do you smell that?” She inhales sharply, her hand coming up and hanging awkwardly as she points in my direction. “You smell it?” I furrow my brows, “Of course, it’s awful. What is that?” She lets out a long sigh, her shoulders sagging. “Oh thank god,” she says, “I thought I was going crazy.”
I walk over to the trash. “Don’t bother,” she whispers. I stop mid-bend and look over my shoulder, “What do you mean?” Carroll shakes her head, “You won’t find the source. I’ve looked everywhere─ even had maintenance go above me to see if a rat had died in the ceiling.” A rat. I look across at her and she suddenly is aware of me. She wraps herself in a hug, looking over at the glowing monitor.
She looks even more mouse-like as her eyes widen in fear. An overwhelming stench fills the space. It’s so strong I feel like I’m going to vomit, it’s putrid─ rotten. Carroll covers her face and steps back into the hallway. Her eyes water, “please, get out.” I look over at her sudden angry outburst. “Wha─” “Get. Out.” she repeats slowly. I walk from the room, “listen, I’ll have someone take a look at that, you take the day off, ok?” She barely hears me, her eyes staring at the dark space. “Carroll─” she jumps, “stay away from me,” she snaps. I’m stunned into silence. I’ve never seen her behave this way. She spins on her heel and bolts away.
“Daddy?” I look up from my meal, wondering how long I’ve been staring at my food. Karis’s plate is empty. “What is it, honey buns?” I ask. Her lips purse and she scrunches her eyebrows together. She looks so much like Jen right now it hurts. It’s the look she gave me when I brought work home. “Does your tummy hurt? You didn’t eat.” I shake my head, “no, baby girl, I’m just worried about your mom.” Her eyebrows go up “why?” she asks, “did you guys fight again?” Then quietly she adds, “is it about me?”
I stare across at this girl that is now definitely on the path to adulthood too soon and wonder if this is what causes it. I’ve never experienced divorce, well, except for my own, but not in life. Kids always called me sheltered. I look at the ground and frown, this is probably what they meant. “No, honey. I haven’t heard from mommy in almost a week. That worries me, doesn’t that worry you?” I’m shocked when she starts laughing. “Daddy, don’t fib to me─ are you playing a trick?” I look up at her face, it’s crinkling near her eyes and her eyes are sparkling. It’s the kind of look a child gets just before you’re about to bring out the tickle monster and they scream, ‘nooo don’t!’ but always stay just within your reach.
She really does think this is just a game. Some secret family joke. I can’t tell if she is in denial or really just believes─ I pause mentally. “Karis, have you heard from mama?” She laughs harder. “Daddy, you’re silly.” “Karis.” I snap in that no-nonsense adult speech we all somehow master. She stops laughing but the glint is still in her eyes. There’s something she’s not telling me. “Why are you asking me? You’re the one that told me mommy is picking me up this weekend.” My jaw drops and I fight the urge to yell, the audacity of this girl lately. “Karis, you know that’s not true. Why are you lying?”
Her lips pressed together and her chin raises, “I am not lying.” she sputters. “Your phone went off last night and you answered. Mama said that she would be here Friday to come and pick me up. And you said─” “Alright if you want to continue with this,” I reach into my pocket and remove my phone. I swipe across the screen and go into my recent calls. It’s the second time tonight my jaw comes unhinged.
She isn’t lying.
I pour through my text messages. There are dozens of new messages between Jenna and me. There’s even one from this morning telling her about Carroll’s strange behavior. Then another message about confirming her picking Karis up at 6 p.m. tomorrow night. “What the fuck,” I say out loud.
Karis gasps, “Oooo. Daddy that’s a no-no word” she whispers. I sigh, “I’m sorry, baby. I guess I forgot about mommy talking with me.” I press my fingers over the bridge of my nose. The pressure feels good, reassuring. What like you aren’t losing your damn mind? I shake my head and try not to fall apart. Karis scoots her floor across the chair and walks over to me.
I feel her little arms wrap around my body and her gentle squeeze. “It’s ok daddy, I get confused sometimes too.” She pauses, “especially with reading─ the words jumble funny. I don’t like them.” She backs away and puts one arm behind her back and then one up to her mouth, nervously biting at the nail. “Does that happen to you?”
I melt at her innocent words. She is trying to make me feel better the only way she knows how. I wish adults were this sincere, it would solve so many of my problems. “Yes, baby it does. It does to everyone that first starts. Speaking of which, go run and do your homework.” She pouts and chews on her nail more, her shoulders slumping. “Now, Karis. I mean it,” I say. She sulks the whole way, but I hear her grab her backpack and go into her room.
I wait until I’m sure she will actually be focused on her work before I slip outside and dial the number. Please pick up, I pray silently. The phone rings a second time, and then a third. By the fourth ring, I’m about to hang up when a sharp click sounds. There’s a brief silence and then shuffling.
She doesn’t answer. Maybe the connection is bad. “Jenna? Can you hear me?” I ask, worried that maybe she’s in the middle of a surgery. But, if that were true she wouldn’t have her phone on her. It isn’t allowed in the room while she’s working. Maybe she pocket answered. I listen to see if I can hear any rustling or a swoosh.
A long breath of air blows across the microphone, it sounds like a sigh. “Jen, are you on mute? I heard a sigh is that you? If you said anything, I didn’t hear it.” Click.
I jump, then sag and let out a huge sigh of relief, “Oh thank god” I whisper. “What’s that? What’s going on?” Her voice sounds extremely tired like I’ve woken her. I pull the phone away and look at the time. Shit. She normally wakes up in an hour for her shift. Now I feel like even more of an asshole.
“I’m so sorry to wake you, Jen. I just needed to hear your voice.” I instantly regret saying that. I know what she’s going to say.
“Tom─” she sighs, “Nevermind. Are you OK? Is this about Carroll?” I shake my head and then feel dumb, she can’t see me, “no, no just listen OK?” I know how crazy it’s going to sound, I know it isn’t true, but I feel like the right thing to do right now is be honest. Jenna is a doctor first, she’ll listen and tell me what I should do.
Am I safe to even be around Karis? My mind starts wondering what else has been going on while I took a mental vacation from life. I don’t like it, but I tell her everything─ Karis’s troubles at school, the otherworldly cloud visiter, and the missing timelines and not remembering that we had texted or called.
She’s silent for a few seconds. “Have you told anyone else about this?” “No, no one. You know how bad that would look?” My shoulders droop as the weight of the last few days leaves my body. “Besides, who the hell would believe me?” I hear a click on the other end and some rustling. She must have turned on her bedside lamp. “Honey, I love you, but you have got to start taking care of yourself. Stop worrying about me and everyone else.”
Even when I just told her something that I’d convinced myself was a mental breakdown, she still has that focus and pragmatic nature I love. She is thinking just like me, knowing that I must be under a lot of pressure. There is nothing about this woman that is horrible, no flaws, she handles herself and others so well. That’s what is making this all so hard, I can’t be angry when she’s so level-headed. How can I yell when she makes perfect sense? It was between her words that she wanted me to read, not what she was actually saying.
It’s a way for her to say that I needed to get sleep, eat, get mental rest from work and life. I haven’t given myself enough time to heal. “I’m sorry,” I mutter, “I know you have a life now─ a new one and I keep screwing it up.” She sighs on the other end, but it’s a candid one and somehow gentler.
“You honestly think I’m doing this because I want to?” She’s awake now, there’s no trace of grogginess. She has my full attention. This is news to me, after all, she was the one that filed for a divorce. “What do you mean?” I ask hopefully. “Tom, I’m not doing this right now.” I pace in the kitchen. I’m edging dangerously close to feeling optimistic. I want to ground myself, but it’s no use─ the words just fly out, “Jen, what is all this? Why are you doing this to us?” I hear her sniff on the other side, it’s a wet sniff, she must be crying.
Now I’m really confused. If she didn’t want all of this, why the insistence, why the new place, why any of this? At first, I thought what any newly divorced man thinks─ another man. But after a while, I realized that wasn’t it at all. There would have been plenty of signs, Karis would have seen him by now or hear her mommy talking with him.
“You know why.” her voice is really wavering, a cross between frustrated and sad. I instantly feel guilty. I have no idea why, I haven’t done anything, but her crying is something I’ve never been invulnerable to. I take a long breath in and then exhale. Ok, she is on one of her manic bouts. She probably thinks that we have talked about this before. I calm myself down before speaking.
“Honey, I really don’t. I’m sorry if we talked about this before, but I really don’t remember.” The tears start coming on the other end. She sputtering and sniffing, she sounds really upset. I wait patiently as she collects herself on the line. This is the first time I’ve really heard her get upset, well to this degree. The last time was the day that she left me.
“Tom, I really can’t do this right now. I have less than an hour to my shift.” I sigh, glancing up at the clock. She’s right, but it’s awful timing. If it weren’t for the hour, I would assume she is purposely avoiding me. Would it really matter? I think bitterly. It’s over, and she won’t even tell you why. That’s not fair, but I need to feel that right now to separate myself emotionally. “Alright, I get it. We’ll see you tomorrow.” She hangs up and I’m the idiot that’s still sitting here and staring at the screen.
Karis giggles as we pull up to the building. I stare for several moments from the parking lot. “Wow daddy, it’s like a castle” Karis squeals as she jumps up and down in the back seat. She isn’t kidding. I can’t believe places like this actually exist. I frown, realizing that while I make well over a hundred thousand, it’s nowhere near what Jen makes. I gape at the brickwork and tall iron gates, being a specialist definitely has its perks.
I open the passenger side door and gather Karis’s bags. A whole week away is going to be torture for me. Being a dad is really all that I know. I swallow thickly as I cross over to Karis’s door. I knew it was coming, I had gotten her a whole extra week during the transition of Jen getting a new place. I frown at the extravagance. This isn’t her, maybe she is going through something too. I’ve never known her to get something over $1200 a month─ which was tough in this city, but she had a way of negotiating.
This isn’t just a normal loft─ town-home? I squint at the windows, there are several bay windows, paired off in two’s and then a ten-foot gap between them. These have to be lofts, a town-home would have an entrance on the ground facing the main road and all I see is one entrance and a main roll-up garage door.
Still, these have to run at least three grand a month, we’re barely five minutes from the main city and that’s with traffic. No way she isn’t spending twice our mortgage on this place, I don’t even need to see what the inside of it looks like.
The weird part is this place is new─ it has to be, and yet the bricks look authentic, like something you would have seen in the early twentieth century. I can almost hear the blend of weird car horns and horse-drawn carriages. I glance around feeling incredibly uneasy. Where are the other people? I haven’t spotted a single car since we’ve pulled up. It’s Friday night and we are barely one street over from the main bars and restaurants. Where is everyone?
Karis’s door swings open and she peeks out her little head, “Did you get lost, daddy?” I crack a smile, “har-har” I say. I reach into the car and tickle under her arms and belly. Her giggles are like music to my ears. “OK, OK, I give!” she yells between gasps of air. Man, I’m going to miss this bundle of fun.
Jenna looks absolutely stunning and she’s not even trying. I swear she is getting younger, just last week she looked like she was in her late twenties─ she doesn’t look a day over 23. I always thought blue looked really great on her, there’s something about the way her hair looks against it, but these clothes seem like they were made just for her. It’s just a shirt over tights but somehow she manages to make it look like an evening gown.
“Hey Jen,” I say, hating how shy I sound. I’m 42 years old for christ’s sake. “Hey” she replies warmly. There’s something in her eyes as they linger on mine. I can’t help but respond, my body growing warm and heart racing. She bends down to Karis balancing on her legs. “Hey honey-bunny, you want to run upstairs and check out your new room?” Karis squeals again and tears up the stairs.
I shake my head. “Man, I wish I had a tenth of that energy. I’d get so much done.” Jen laughs leading me toward the stairs. “Right? I’d kill for that some days.” That gets a real laugh out of me, “Hun have you seen yourself? I have never seen any woman look as good as you at 39.” Her laughing stops and she pauses near the top of the staircase, “Looks can be deceiving.”
I’m confused by her sudden moment of silence. Had I offended her?
A scream sounds from down the hall─ it’s long and loud, really loud.
Conclusion coming soon! xoxo – C.A.
She pauses, her back turned to me. Her shoulders are drooped more than usual, her frame wispy. She’s so light this time it looks as if a large gust of wind would knock her down.
She sighs and then turns around, leaning on the brick outside of the door. Her breathing is labored like she had just run from the house. She had only dropped off our little girl in her bed and used the restroom. She was winded walking from the bathroom to the front door. Now I’m really worried.
“Are you taking your medication?” Her features stay in that mask she wears when she can’t talk about her feelings, smooth, and lifeless. “Yes,” she answers, her tone taking on the same emotionless effect. A few seconds of silence pass before she makes eye contact with me. Her eyebrows raise as if to say, ‘anything else?’
Jenna is every bit as stunning as the day we had promised each other forever. Her smooth, creamy skin hasn’t changed and I’ve never seen her have a bad hair day. Her blonde hair has a slight wave to it and if you catch it in the sun it has bits of red. Strawberry blonde, I think I overheard one of her friends call it once. She’s always had one of those small frames, even after Karis was born. She just bounced back into her pre-maternity clothes no problem. Secretly, I think many ladies envy her for it.
Even now, with her face lacking emotion her beauty can’t be hidden. It’s always been a mystery to me, how she’s stayed looking youthful all these years. She’s pushing 40 and hasn’t aged a day since we met. I don’t mean that in an emotional sort of way that a husband sees a wife as beautiful at every age, I mean I’ve tried to find any sign of it and damned if I haven’t found any. I know that’s a thing men aren’t supposed to notice, or I guess be happy over─ but it’s just always struck me as odd. You know?
Well, I say wife. I’m still not used to this next part. She’s going to leave, head back home to her place near downtown. She got a job working at Baylor. Which was both good and bad. It meant long hours and being on-call at any time of the day. Why she chose to be a trauma surgeon, I’ll never know. The horrors she sees, I can only imagine.
The divorce finalized earlier this year. Ten years gone, I can’t believe it. It’s my worst nightmare.
Karis mostly stays with me. We decided given her mother’s hectic schedule, it would be best that she have a stable environment for home and school. It wasn’t traditional, but it worked. I can’t remember wanting to be anything other than a husband and a father. It is my life goal. I don’t really buy into that ‘ball and chain’ nonsense, never have. I’ve loved every step of the way.
Well, except this part.
Her face draws up into a tired smile, one of those forced ones she gives all of her patients when she has just pulled an eighteen-hour shift. It isn’t that she doesn’t mean them, it’s that her body starts to shut down most of the unnecessary functions. Such as excess of emotions. I’ve seen this woman shut down in mid-cry with razor-sharp focus and attentiveness that would rival any politician. It’s an amazing trait to have, I do envy her that.
Without realizing what I am doing, I place my hand on her shoulder. “Hey, you alright?” I feel her tense slightly, but she doesn’t move from my grip. I’m tempted to hold her, but I do the gentlemanly thing and back away, clearing my throat. Jenna had made it very clear that things were done, no sense in putting myself through all of this a second time. She relaxes and slowly bobs her head up and down. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired,” she pauses and then adds, “you know, with the new place and all. Moving and work has been draining.”
I don’t buy it. Not completely, but I know exhaustion when I see it. “Listen, Jen─ don’t drive. If you need me to get you an uber or drive you, let me. I don’t think you should be driving in that state.” She bristles, her chin raising a degree. A bit of her stubbornness flairs, and I’m reminded of the side of her that really turns me on. I know it’s not an appropriate thought, and I quickly flip the switch in my brain. Whoa, boy, shut it down. This venue is closed up for good, windows boarded.
She must sense my hesitation, or something in the way I look. “Who would watch Karis?” Her words are soft, inviting. It reminds me of simpler times. She’s looking up at me with those big doe eyes. I know she isn’t doing it on purpose, I know when she’s trying to seduce. This is different. Then, as quickly as it comes, she turns away and walks over to her small honda civic. I’ll never understand why she doesn’t buy something better, she’s owned that car forever. She easily makes enough to drive anything she wants. Yet, she sticks with this tiny, white car. My guess is she’s saving for an early retirement. Can’t say I blame her, my parents taught me well. I’d only need to put in another 7 to 10 years at most and I’d have enough to retire on. Even if I live to be 150. After that, well, I guess I’m fucked. But I’ll be old as hell and probably shitting myself, so who cares?
She leans on the door for a moment, her hair picked up by the breeze. “Tom, I just want you to know─” she trails off, her brows press together and she bites her lip. I want to be impatient with her, yell and scream and demand to know what’s going on. Problem is, I can’t anymore. I’m no longer entitled to an answer and it kills me inside. I’ve gone from anger to sorrow in seconds, depressing myself. What I want to say is, Spit it out, god damn it! Instead, I smile and say, “What is it, Hun?” Her eyes dart from the house to my face, no doubt looking back at Karis’s window.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
Then she’s gone, driving down the road and turning onto the main street. I stand there for a long time. Long after the dust has settled and my neighbors have turned out their lights. All I wanted was to be a husband, a father. Why is that so hard?
“When do I get to see mommy’s new place?” Karis asks. Her legs are dangling from the stool as she stuffs the waxy chocolate donuts into her mouth. I don’t know why those things taste so good to kids. It’s basically solidified fat and sugar. The film on your teeth is the worst. I don’t let her have them too often but today was the first day back to school and I wanted her to have something comforting.
Karis, much like myself at her age, is showing all the signs I did. She has bad anxiety. Yay genetics.
I can tell she’s already dreading school, her face falling as I usher her along to finish her breakfast. I can’t believe she starts 3rd grade this year. Seems like yesterday I was chasing a bouncing, squealing kiddo running in her diapers. I frown as I check my watch. Jenna was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago. Normally, Jen would have Karis giggling and forgetting about her first day jitters, excitedly telling her how much fun she’s going to have for the year. She was famously a few minutes late, but never this much. If she didn’t get here soon, I’d have to leave without her. This wasn’t like her at all. She always made time for Karis. Especially on the first day of school. It was a tradition for all of us to walk with Karis hand-in-hand to class and wish her a good day.
10 more minutes go by and I can’t wait much longer. I text her one last time, hoping that maybe she had slept in, or that she would respond with an immediate apology, explaining herself. Then a full 5 minutes go by, and then 7. This time, I really can’t wait anymore. For the first time ever, Jenna will miss Kara’s first day at school. I look over to Karis as she downs the last of her milk and smile, “You ready honey bunny?” She grins ear-to-ear at the nickname and nods her head.
I blow Karis a kiss from the hallway as she sits at her desk. She’s already chatting with a girl across from her and laughing. I recognize the girl from Karis’s 1st-grade class a few years back. Glad to see that Karis has already found a friend. Maybe it’s true what they say, kids are simple and they don’t think about things as much as we do. She seems to be adjusting just fine in her new desk, all smiles, and semi-toothless grins. I stare at her from the hall, she really is a spitting image of her mother. Except for her eyes. Her eyes are green like mine and she’s tall and lanky. Jenna and I would always joke about how Karis would be as tall as her in a few years. It wasn’t an exaggeration. Karis was easily going to reach six feet tall in her teens and she would be strong. Real strong. Every sport we’d put her in, she was number one on the team. I don’t mean to brag, but in this case, she actually is a hardworking kiddo.
Now if she would apply herself more to reading, we would be all set. I’ve never seen a kid that could melt to the floor the way she can when she has to sit at a table and focus on letters. $1500 dollars and a reading tutor took care of it this past summer, but damn if the girl wasn’t stubborn about it. Took that from her daddy too.
I’d almost forgotten about Jenna’s odd behavior as I walk out to my car. Then the rage hits me. How the hell does she promise to be here and never show? How could she do that to Karis? No call, not even a text. At this point, I’m not sure if I should be angry or worried. But in the end, the anger fizzles and worry creeps in. My mind switches back to her face last night and her words. I’m sorry. What was she apologizing about? Was it because she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it this morning? If so, why didn’t she just tell me? I pull my phone from my pocket. It vibrates and I get excited. Maybe this was her. I frown at the text message alerting me that my phone bill has gone through─ and nothing else. What the fuck is going on?
I can’t worry about it too much, so I head into work. I’m hopeful that in the next few hours she’ll call, or text before I really start to freak out.
It’s not too bad of a day and nearly 2:30 when I get the call.
“Mr. Holloway?” the woman croaks. It’s one of those smoker’s voices, the stereotypical kind that you hear in cartoons.
“Yes, speaking,” I respond.
“This is Leslie Smith from Hawthorn Elementary. I’m the school nurse calling about Karis.”
The blood drains from my face. “Is she OK?” I ask. I stride across my office and then shut the door. Best that no one hears something else to give the office gossip. She sighs on the other end, and then is silent for a moment. It’s as if she’s carefully weighing her words. “Karis is fine, no cuts or bruises.” More reluctance and then, “It’s more what happened that really concerns me” she says. “Ma’am?” I’m confused for a moment as to why I’m getting a phone call if Karis isn’t hurt. Then my chest tightens. “Did─ she harm someone else?” I silently hope this isn’t true, it’s the last thing I needed after this day. “Heavens no, that girl is as kind as they come. Never seen her get upset even when she ought to,” the nurse chuckles despite her earlier reservations. “Ms. Smith─” “Mrs. Smith,” she interrupts. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith─ if my daughter isn’t harmed and she hasn’t harmed anyone, then what is the nature of this call?” I’m beginning to lose my patience. She’s silent on the other end again, but I can hear her shifting the phone. “Look, maybe it isn’t my place, lord knows I’ve had my fair share of problems, but, Karis said some very strange things today. Is everything OK at home?” I tense up. So, she had been paying attention to what happened this morning. “Well, normally her mother and I walk her in on her first day and her mom never showed” I finish. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks as I finish the sentence, it’s awkward having to say it out loud. “Well, now, that’s exactly what I mean” she sounds genuinely confused. “I’m not following” I say, trying to get her to the point. “Mr. Holloway,” she clears her throat and shifts on the other line. There’s that odd crackling that comes with a landline, they must still be using one of the ancient ones with a cord that connects to the base. “Karis was sent to me today because she asked the teacher if she and mama could go to the restroom together.” I’m still confused and even more so now. “You mean Jenna came up there? What’s wrong with that?” Relief floods my system. So she had finally got up there and had sat in with Karis. The relief is quickly replaced with anger. Why hadn’t she made an attempt to text me or call me back? I had been worried sick.
The silence on the other end makes me rethink my assumption. Something is wrong. I don’t know how I know it, something in the shifting, in Mrs. Smith’s sighs and heavy breath on the other end. My mind swims with the possibilities, but in the end I just ask, “What is it?” The nurse finally speaks at my question, “Mrs. Holloway never came in to see Karis today. As a matter of fact, Karis has been very cross with the staff and all of the other children are, frankly, afraid to go near her. During recess she sat on a bench and talked to an invisible person next to her. The teacher, bless her soul, tried to give the girl the benefit of the doubt─ first day jitters, you know that sort of thing. But as the day has gone on, she still insists on it.” I sit quietly, soaking in what she has just told me. I know Karis might have been upset, but I didn’t realize she was this upset. I am going to have to have a chat with her, see what’s really going on. Finally, I say, “Mrs. Smith. I know if this divorce is hard on me, it’s got to be harder on an eight year old.” I slowly start warming to the thought.
This isn’t some abnormal thing, it’s probably fairly common with children of divorcees. I hate thinking of that word, I hate that it applies to me and I hate even more that it includes her. Another broken family, nothing new─ welcome to America. Suddenly my lunch turns sour in my stomach and I’m unsure if it will stay put. I put on my best reassuring voice, the kind I use with my own mother, “Let me have a chat with her tonight and see what’s really going on.” I hear Mrs. Smith shift again and then a sigh, “See that you do, Mr. Holloway. Dr. Norris thinks that transferring her to a different class would be helpful as well. Children can be quite judgmental, as I’m sure you know. It may be good for a fresh start.” I bristle but the anger gives way to weariness. She’s right, as much as I hate to admit it. It would probably help ease her into the school year. I nod before answering, “I think that would be for the best. You have my permission.” She’s smiling as she says the next part, I can hear it in her voice. It’s forced, but I know it’s out of sheer politeness, she wants me to feel at ease. “I think that’s wise of you, Mr. Holloway. We’ll need you to fill out a transfer file, but we can send it via email. Just be sure to sign it before tomorrow.” “Thank you,” I say, quick to be done with this conversation. “Of course,” she says, then adds “and it’s a real shame to hear about all of your struggles. I hope it gets better for the two of you.” I awkwardly mumble a thank you and then hang up.
Karis is all smiles as she rushes up to the car. The crossing guard calls out for her to slow down, but she’s already at the passenger door. I wave and mouth sorry to the portly, scowling woman. She nods curtly, red-faced and then turns back to her duties, guiding the others across. “Daddy!” she gushes as she hops in the front seat. Her bag gets tossed and she reaches for her seat belt. “Let’s go home, I want to play VR!” I laugh at her eagerness. I’m ready to celebrate too, another end to a long work day.
Less than ten minutes later, we’re home dropping our things by the front door. That’s future us’s problem. I adjust the visor and goggles to her small head and then step back, knowing that she’s about to tear up the room on Beat Saber. I shake my head as she starts her latest pop obsession, really getting into the dance. Girl’s got some moves, just like her mama. Then I think about that and frown. I silently send out a warning to any and all potential suitors with a death threat so vile Fidel Castro would cringe at its savagery. I used to feel that way about anyone that looked at Jenna when she rocked Dance Dance Revolution at the mall arcade.
After dinner, I tell Karis to go brush her teeth and change into her jammies. I’ve avoided it all day, but it’s time for the chat. I know it’s probably normal so I make a mental note to not be overly serious, but enough that I get my point across. No one ever tells you about this part of divorce─ the ugly parts where you have to accept and understand how your child processes the inevitable change.
“I’m ready for my story, daddy!” she calls from her room down the hall.
“Karis, stop it.” I snap. Her green eyes are brimming with tears as she shakes her head at me. “No. Mommy was there, in class with me. No one else saw her, but she was there.” I let out a long sigh and squeeze the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. I thought for sure this would play out way easier in real life─ how naive of me. I really want to be an adult about it, but in the end, my tiredness wins. I try a different approach, a more human one, “honey, I know today was tough and we’re going to have a lot of those, but I need you to be honest with me right now. Was mommy really there today, or did you just pretend like she was there?” Her chin raises and she squares up to me, “I am not a liar-liar pants on fire, daddy.” She crosses her arms in a huff and turns toward the wall, her little jaw trembling but held firm. I have to stifle a laugh by moving my hand over my mouth. The only time she ever gets this worked up is when she believes in what she is saying.
This is her truth, and while I don’t believe that her mom was actually there, I know that Karis believes it. After a few moments, I speak carefully, “Sometimes, when we get upset we see things. Things that aren’t really there.” Her shoulders stiffen and she still won’t look at me, but I sense a hesitance. “Daddy, Mama was there.” Her words are so soft, they almost come out a whisper. “Why won’t you believe me? I saw her.” Little droplets spill down her face as she presses her eyes together. I wince as she starts ugly crying, the kind that sends her whole body into shakes, and snot dripping down her mouth and chin. “Shh, shh,” I say, running my fingers across her back. I stand briefly, grab the box of tissues from her desk and then offer them to her. She grabs a handful and blows noisily into them. “I swear,” she says between sniffles, “I’m not making it up. I don’t know why, but no one could see her but me.” The last sentence seems to calm her and she relaxes, finally able to get it all out.
Poor girl. I continue to massage her back as she lays down under the covers. I draw them up to her chin and then tuck in the sides cocooning her the way she likes it. I massage her back until her breathing comes out heavy. I stroke her hair, then bend down and kiss her forehead, “I love you, bunny.” I whisper. She still smells like she did as a baby, that faint hint of baby powder and lotions and some unknown floral scent that has stuck with her for years. It’s that scent of youth, indescribable yet everyone knows what you mean.
I’m in bed when I hear the sound. The t.v. is up loud, so I tap the mute button and listen. The only sound is the wind outside rustling the grass next to my window. There’s a few creaks and pops, the house bending in the unforgiving September winds. I exhale and press the button. I jump as the movie blares into my room and I quickly turn it down. Apparently, I’ve been listening to it much louder than I thought. The main character is jumping into oncoming traffic, guns and car horns blaring. Finally some action. I’m tensing and balling my hands into fists as the bad guys squeal next to Detective Peterson. You got this, I scream mentally. He makes a quick decision and then he’s down a dark alleyway, the bad guys zoom past, losing him. Yes, I think, pounding my hands on the comforter. The detective gets out of his car and makes a call to the local PD. He’s one of those traditional grizzled types weathered from a career of seeing too much of humanity’s bad side. He lights up, and exhales a large puff of smoke when I hear something again. It’s almost perfectly timed to the scraping noise the detective hears in the dark alley. This is no movie sound, it’s here─ in my home.
It sounds closer this time and I can make out new details. Before it sounded like tapping, or a crinkling bag. Sometimes Karis sneaks out of bed for a cookie or some chips. My room is located right across from the kitchen and living room. So I’ve almost always caught her. The back door is attached to the breakfast area, it’s a design for parents to be able and keep an eye on their children in the backyard while they cook. We haven’t gotten a puppy yet, but there is a dog door installed. Recently Karis has been asking for a dog and admittedly, I would welcome anything to keep me company. Especially tonight. I frown as I hear it again. It’s a wet noise, like dripping onto my tile floors. Annoyed, I pause the movie. The sound stops. I’m probably just tired, I reason. It’s the wind or maybe it’s starting to rain outside. A couple of beats pass and I’m starting to doubt myself again when there is suddenly a few more droplets, and then it’s pouring rain.
It’s nearly three in the morning when my phone goes off. I jump at the invasive jingle. Light spills into the room, bathing everything in a dull, green hue. I know it’s a text, I’ve disabled all of my email alerts and all the other crap alerts that come with apps these days. It was a text, or a voicemail. And since the ringtone never went off, I know it has to be the former. There’s only one person that would be texting me this late. A lump forms in my throat as I reach for the phone. It jingles a few more times and vibrates in my hand. What on earth? I wonder. I stare at the name on my phone, shaking as I swipe at the lock screen. It’s her. I stare up at the repeated message as it continues to fill the message screen, over and over:
“Daddy?” I let out a howl and the phone drops from my hands and onto the floor. It makes a loud clack and then slides to the wall under my window. Karis jumps and screams, scared and confused at my outburst. She pauses as I quiet and then bawls. I sigh in relief. “Karis, honey I’m sorry, you scared Daddy.” She continues to cry but walks toward my bed. “I’m scared,” she moans, “there was a monster in my room.” I pat the bad and wave her over. ” Now, baby, there’s no such thing as monsters.” She cries harder and wails, “There is so, and it was in my room.” she’s almost as hysterical as she was when I yelled. I look at the bright red lights on my alarm clock, 2:45 a.m. Best to just let her sleep in here or neither of us will get a wink. “Alright, alright” I say gruffly, “Come on up then.” She pulls herself onto the bed and dives beneath the covers. Karis’s tears dry up instantly in that annoying ability that all kids tend to have when they get their way. I shake my head as I get out of bed and scoop my phone up from the floor. The jingling has stopped, but the message has not changed─ just a few more of the same thing, I’m sorry.
I’m not sure how to respond. Is she sending this out of guilt? It was the same thing she had said last night before she left. Is she apologizing for missing Karis’s first day? That has to be it. Jenna probably just got off her shift and sent a message in a dead zone. Sometimes it takes a while for a message to send so it stores it until you hit an area with signal. It probably just sent a bunch after an attempt to send it the first time it didn’t go through. My gut reaction is to attack her, ask her what she was thinking, not even bothering to send me a text, or at least call. Even if she had to work overtime, she could have let me know─ something.
I take a few breaths, steadying myself. No, maybe something happened. Jenna isn’t the sort to make up excuses, that is one thing I know for sure. Finally, I send: is everything OK? I expect the response to come later, but one comes immediately: come find me. I stare at the message for a while. Is she standing outside of the house? I sneak out of bed and look down at Karis. She’s fast asleep, her head tilted back and mouth hanging open. I’m not sure what is going on, but I know it has to be serious since Jen is at my house at three in the morning. Not that her being awake at that hour is odd, just that she is here. She normally waits until at least six to call or message. I slip out of my room and turn toward the front door. I grip my sides as I walk across the cool tiles. The rain really dropped the temperature outside.
My teeth are chattering as I pull on the front door. My feet hit the cold porch and I’m tempted to go back inside. It’s absolutely freezing. When did it get this cold? I walk down the covered path and turn to the driveway. Her car isn’t here. I look up and down the street to see if maybe she parked further down. The only thing visible on the street is the streetlight three houses down. The wind picks up and I shiver, running my hands up and down my arms. My body is shaking uncontrollably. I’m not sure if it’s from the cold, or the sudden urge to run back inside and lock the door. My phone goes off again in my pocket, it sounds small and thin in the approaching storm.
Confused, I pull it from my pocket.
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
A scream fills the house. The blood drains from my face as I spin on my heels and charge through the front door. It’s Karis, I know that scream anywhere. It’s the same one she does when she falls or hurts herself. I’m nearly to my room when the shadows bend toward the back window in the living room. They jerk, twist upward and tower over me. I stare at the dark swirl in awe. Not shadows, I realize. It’s more of an ooze. A moment of insanity takes hold of me and I reach out, extending my fingers. I should run, I should scream─ but what good would that do? If I am going to die to it, I want to know if it’s tangible. Perhaps this is a dream, I convince myself, some vision my brain has concocted from the film earlier. I frown. No, that can’t be right because there was nothing like it. Only people. This isn’t a person.
I take one step. Then, another. It’s staring at me. I say stare not because it has eyes, but because I can feel it. I know it’s looking at me. It’s crazy, I realize, but it’s the only way I can describe what I’m sensing. I’m five feet from it, maybe less and it’s taller than I realized. It’s nearly to my ceiling. I stop as a streak of white light screams across it and branches in several directions. It almost reminds me of…“Lightning” I murmur out loud. It lurches away from me, diving toward the back door. My voice must have startled it. I hear the dog door crash open and the thing pushes its way through. It makes the same sound that a bathtub does when the last of the water drains out. Almost a suction noise.
I want to move, but I can’t. I’m shaking all over. I want to say that I am completely in control and I have convinced myself that I’m simply tired. That the noises are the rain outside and what I just saw is the result of stress and sleep deprivation. Deep down, I know this is a lie. A smaller scream comes from my room, more of a scared whimper. Karis. My feet finally cooperate and I’m in my room. Karis is pressed against the headboard, the covers drawn all the way up to her chin. Her eyes are bulging, stuck wide open. I flick on the light and scan the room. Whatever that…thing was has left but it’s not going to stop me from searching the entire room. Now gaining some courage, I drop to my belly and scan under the bed.
If there was something here before, it is gone now. I know it to be true. Whatever it was left earlier through the back door. I stand and look down at Karis, my voice comes out heavy, tired, “was that the one?” She blinks at me a few times, her eyebrows pressed together in confusion. “What do you mean, daddy?” she whispers. “Was that the monster in your room?” A heavy silence fills the room and Karis’s lips quiver. Her teeth start to chatter. Suddenly, I don’t want to know the answer. I just want to lie in bed and close my eyes. I want to dream of simpler times when it was Jenna, Karis, and me against the world. I want to forget that any of this has happened. I glance at my phone and check my messages again. I frown at the phone, close my messages and then re-open them. I try it once again, and then a third time before finally closing them for good.
The messages from when I was outside are gone. All of them are except for a single: I’m sorry.
Maybe it’s best if we just call it a night. We were both upset, the storm caused the sounds, I reason. Tricks from the lightning outside had created a shadow. Yes, that must have been it. I reach over and switch on the lamp. Then I walk to the other side of the room and turn off the overhead light. Karis hasn’t answered, but she is watching my every move. I curl up next to her and pull her into my arms. She rests her head between my chest and shoulder. I can tell the exact moment that she falls asleep. Karis’s breathing deepens and her body goes limp.
I stare up at the ceiling hoping, praying that all of this is a nightmare. I’m frightened to sleep, but it finds me anyway. The last of my thoughts drift to Jenna’s warm eyes and kind smile.
Part II coming soon. xoxo
Part three is coming next week!
I stand inches from the yellow line, my arms to the side with my eyes pressed shut. The blending of music, voices, and people around me slowly filter out as I concentrate. The cool air gently tosses my hair to the side and the wind caresses my neck. It is the only thing I keep exposed for the air to reach. The familiar rumble echoes and the wind drives itself forward. I breathe in as the rush of wind slaps my face. A fraction of a second passes and I feel the large body of the train scream past. I thrust open my eyes as the blurs of images flood my vision─ little flashes of the people sitting inside on the train. I can catch people throwing glances here and there on the platform, hesitant to get near me─ but I stare forward and keep to myself. The screech erupts and the train comes to a halt. Two years. It had been an entire two years since I left the burning remains of my life behind. The crumpled paper stays in my wallet with the neatly typed address. I have not forgotten what I need to do─ I rode to our home a while ago just to make sure it had been real. Every bit of it was, only now there was a new family living in our home. The scar, one of the few reminders of our growing child, has almost completely disappeared. All that’s left of it is a thread-sized mark across my gut. The doors open to the train, and I step on and sit in the seat closest to the doors.
A man coughs a few seats down and I glance over. I have seen him a handful of times over the last few months─ always on the J, always at the Broadway junction. It seems like it has been getting more frequent lately. He is an odd sort─ keeps to himself. I follow him from time to time to make sure he is no one to be concerned over. He is two blocks east of me and lives above a local coffee shop off Bedford. He’s tall, attractive, around his early thirties with dark hair. I never trust anyone and I don’t keep friends. It was my one rule. But over the past several months, I feel as if we share a life. It is sick way to think, but I find myself drawn to him. Each day, he goes through the routine of running before 6 a.m. I follow, but carefully so he does not notice me. I guess I use him as a testament to my own shadowing skills. That isn’t true, and I know it, but it’s what I’m comfortable admitting to myself. On Wednesday nights he volunteers with kids to teach them hockey, and on Thursdays, he plays with a small team himself. He is a simple man, I like that. Always walks to the local bars on Friday or Saturday, and the movies on Sunday. Somehow I feel comfortable watching someone else live normally. A guilty pleasure I really shouldn’t take time out of my training to do.
My apartment isn’t much. It’s a small loft on the west side of Brooklyn, but I keep it clean. Workouts are every single day. I do cardio and core daily, no excuses, and weight training four times a week alternating legs and arms. Three of those days are dedicated to Krav Maga and Jiu-jitsu. It is not cheap. However, money is of no concern. I am taken care of by the Demon’s contract. But appearances are important, so I work at the corner store a few times a week. The owner hired me based off of looks─ that much I knew. It’s simple. I tell him I moved here after my family died. I didn’t tell him how, or why. But Don doesn’t care, as long as I get the work done and I don’t complain about the pay─ it’s a perfect employee and employer understanding.
At first, I wasn’t sure how it all worked. How was I going to get my revenge if I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to defend myself? How would I survive? Sure, there was life insurance from Tristan but I couldn’t take that. The second I did, they would all know where I am. I’m not an idiot, and quite sure they kept tabs on me when I was in the hospital. Now that I went missing, I’m sure Ty ramped up his security. Of course, that had happened almost two years ago. My hope is that Ty has assumed I fled for my life. I’m hoping that his arrogance will blind him to my arrival. I slip my hand beneath my coat and finger the gun. I have to go through a great deal to keep them hidden, my frame is lithe.
“Marcy Avenue,” the conductor says briefly. Startled I look up, not realizing I have already gone through eight stops. I stand as the train jerked hard to a full stop, noticing a few people stumble that isn’t holding on well. I crack a smile, remembering that’s how it was the first few times for me before I got a feel for them. It disappears when I notice that the guy has drawn his attention to me. He isn’t hiding the fact that he’s staring. The doors open on our stop and he stands. I quickly step out onto the platform.
“Hey.” I pretend I don’t hear him as I hurry through the door that leads out onto the street. I get all the way to the light when I feel a hand on my shoulder. Shit. I spin around and look up at him. He’s a tall fucker. I guess I never realized it staying at more of a distance. He’s at least 6’3” probably closer to 6’4”. I bristle, waiting for the inevitable questions and glancing around to see my escape options. I should have bolted.
“Hey, hold up. You in some kind of a rush?” Ok. Well, didn’t expect that one. Not, ‘why are you following me? Or─ ‘why are you being a weirdo?’ His voice is nice, pleasant. He is obviously native to New York, but it isn’t a thick accent.
I feign surprise and raise my voice an octave. “I’m sorry?” I say. He releases his grip from my shoulder immediately and brings it up to behind his head. He almost looks embarrassed. I relax a little, seeing that his demeanor has changed. “Sorry,” he mutters, looking at the ground. “Didn’t mean to grab you like that. You dropped your wallet.” I look down at the thin black leather in his hand and reach my hand out. “Oh, thanks. It must have fallen out of my pocket.” He hands it to me and I turn to leave. “Near the corner store, right?” I turn toward him. “What?” I ask. “You live about three blocks west of the Jewish community.” I level my gaze and keep my voice pleasant. “Yeah, you nearby?” He seems really awkward but sure of himself at the same time. My initial assessment wasn’t far off. “Yeah, seen you around. You work at the corner store, yeah? I walk over there a few times a week with the guys.” I know, I think to myself, I’ve seen you and thought I hid well. He must have caught me on a night off walking home.
Damn it, I’m slipping. “Oh, yeah, yeah” I chuckle nervously to sound relieved, “yeah, I moved here not that long ago. Still getting used to everything.” His eyes are soft, a nice brown. His shoulders are finally relaxing. I must have set him on edge earlier when I spun around. My eyes quickly flick to his pants and shirt, nothing hidden─ doesn’t seem to be a threat. “Hey, you─ you take care of yourself out here. It’s no place for a lady to walk alone at night.” My mouth involuntarily twitches upward into a half smile. If only you knew how backward that is. I’m who other people have to worry about. But, some time ago he would have been dead-on. “I’m alright,” I offer, “it’s a quiet place, nicer than some places I’ve lived.” His head cocks a little and he smiles, “yeah, it’s a step up for me too. You got someone to walk you home?” I knew what he was asking. It was a way to ask if I was seeing anyone. Don’t do it, moron. You can’t get involved. “No, just me.” Shit. What the hell was that? Why did I just say that? And then I felt it. Don’t you fucking─ “You?” and I say it. I just asked it. He laughs. “Walk me home? Ha. Not since I was a kid. I can take care of myself.” No, you can’t, I think, no one can. Especially from people like Ty or Daemon.
I suddenly feel incredibly guilty. What is this? Your family dies two years ago and you’re already looking at some guy? I explore my feelings. And realize something. I can’t feel it. I can’t even hardly remember my boy’s face. I’m starting to panic. Blonde, his hair was blonde. Tristan, my husband, his eyes were─ brown. Yes. Brown like this man. Soft and hardened at the same time. Hardened from years of war in Afghanistan. He’d only been out for a few years. Our child was hung after beaten to death from our porch. The porch that our families built. And my belly holds the faint scars of my unborn son. I feel the switch instantly. Harden the fuck up ─ this isn’t why you’re here. He senses the shift and inclines his head, “hey, you good?” I glance up at him and nod, “yeah, I’m good. You take care of yourself.” I don’t give him a chance to respond before heading down the south alley that will take me directly to my place.
I kick myself mentally. That was fucking stupid. Why did I talk to him? I don’t know shit about that asshole. He could be part of it for all I know. I relent as I take a right down toward the west side. I needed to make a stop. You’ve been watching him for months, there’s no way he’s with them. Or maybe that’s what he was put here for. Who the fuck notices me? I always keep to myself, was damn good at it. It was amazing how much I’d changed in just two years. I would have never thought this way or spoke half as crude, but funny thing─ death changes people. I wasn’t even sure that I was completely alive, it’s not like I needed air to breathe. It got me curious, I often wonder if I even bleed anymore. I should check that out at some point. I make a note to myself to stop being a moron and steer clear of whoever this new guy is. Time doesn’t matter. Your life ended at gunpoint two years ago, and those same pieces of shit practically ran half of the country. Where was their payment for their crimes─ where was my justice? I don’t give a shit how pointless it is or what it mattered, but somehow I would win. After all, I’m the one with unlimited time on my side.
Shit. 20 feet. I dodge him and duck into the corner as I watch him look around the train. I was going to be late for my shift, but I can’t chance another interaction with him. He has some sort of weird effect on me and I can’t have that. I sigh as I watch the train pull away and casually walk over to a bench. I’ll just park my ass here until the 7:10 shows. I’ll need to stay near, but not too close. I aimed to find out more about my gentleman caller before making a real choice. Whoa. Choice? A choice about what, exactly? I jumped on the eastbound train toward Brooklyn, trying to shake the thoughts. Forget about the John, Viv. He’s just some rando. Yeah, but a damn good looking one. When was the last time you let a man touch you? Damn it brain whose side are you on, anyway? Jesus, I fight and gain traction, maybe hobo Frank could tell me more about Lily. I’d just visited this morning to check in on Lily, see how she was doing. All was good, thank god. F was one of the few people I felt I could trust. I’d followed him for weeks, several days a week. His routine was always the same, wake up from the alley, work some labor jobs and then head ‘home’. He was old, maybe in his late sixties with a limp. I never saw any track marks, but I did see him drink a little too much for his own good. His liver was probably shot. Then again, he didn’t have much else going on. I don’t blame him. My moving here isn’t entirely a retreat. I have my motives. I was told that I could never talk to anyone that knew me, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t check in from time to time and see how she is doing. Lily had moved here after my ‘death’ and her final graduation. A doctorate. God, I am so proud of her. She never stops moving. Needless to say Frank was more than happy to offer his help when I offered him a working man’s salary to keep tabs on her. Maybe both our luck would change for once, poor bastard. I switch over to the other train, keeping my head down. No sense in drawing any more attention from people, it was best this way.
The subway was busier than usual today─ normally it died down after 9:30. I hear mumbling and catch a more interesting bit from two guys, “you hear about the company this morning?” His voice was higher pitched and slightly grating in a nasally way. His friend looks over at him, his voice is rich and low with a thick northeastern accent, “What, the new CEO?” the other one chimes in, overlapping “yeah, yeah that but about how he got it?” I keep a casual pace behind them, listening in. “What about it? So, Ty took over, and China has cheap goods, what else is new?” Nasally guy sighs, “yeah, that part but they just released it online less than a few minutes ago.” Rumbles sounds indignant, “well, you going to keep me on pins and needles or what?” Nasally chuckles and leans in, “word is that Daemon was offed.” I struggle to steady my breathing and try and keep my casual pace. The two stop in front of me and I slow my steps as I walk past to sit on the bench. Rumbles lowers his voice, I have to strain but make it out, “yeah? Means there’ll be a spot open” he says. His meaty head is working. I can hear the greed from ten feet away. Nasally sounds guarded, “Well, yeah I guess. But, it will go to whoever’s next in line. You know that.” Rumbles doesn’t bother to hide his next sentence and I get up as I see my train arriving, “Seems things might be changing. Who knows?” I grab my phone─ pose, and pretend to take a few selfies. Then quickly run to the train before it takes off.
Hopefully, I managed at least one face shot before leaving. I couldn’t believe my luck. Ty’s guys, right here. Then my heart drops. If they are here, does Ty know? Shit, shit, shit. Ok, calm down. Maybe it was just a coincidence. He couldn’t possibly know where I am. I wasn’t on social media at all. I didn’t even allow Don to snap pics of me at work. Could they possibly know where I am? Then my mind shoots to Lily. Could Ty finally be making good on his promise? The first six months had been hell, constantly watching her or paying hobo Frank to snap photos and send them to me. I chuckle to myself. I really should call him something else, he’s since gotten himself a decent apartment and a cat. Guy had really turned himself around and started painting─ real beautiful stuff, mostly portraits or cityscapes. Still drank too much, but hell at least he had a roof over his head. After a year I started thinking Ty just mentioned Lily to mess with me. Even now, two years later I still call or have F go by her place a few times a month to check on her. I need to find Ty, this was my chance. I go through my phone’s gallery, my hands are shaking and so cold the touch screen is delayed in reacting─ but I finally get it to open. The first picture is nothing but blurry and a disappointment, I panic as I flip to the next and it’s just a picture of me and the ceiling. Great shot of your nose hairs, dip shit. I hope to hell that I was able to at least get one, just one even if it was blurry. The next one is me smiling and a person walking behind me, shielding the two. I’m flipping through furiously, hoping that the quick snap function had taken more than I anticipated. Thank god for shortcuts. I’m about to give up and then freeze. There. There they are. I tap the screen and zoom in on their faces. They were exactly like their voices sounded. Rumbles is broad and heavy set. His eyes are hard to make out, but even from the photo, I can see that they are a smidge too close together. His nose was broad and crooked─ it had definitely been broken before. I close my eyes, trying to recall everything in the limited time that I had. What was that smell? Her grandfather had worn the same scent, my eyes flash open. Drakkar. I’d know it anywhere. That was rare─ is it still being sold these days? It wasn’t just Drakkar─ it was something else. Something very familiar. And then it came to me. I didn’t want it to, because along with it came hurt. Gunpowder. Not just gunpowder, but the stench of flesh and gunpowder. Rumbles had killed someone that morning. I was up close and personal with that scent, twice. How had the nasally guy not smelled it? Maybe this was another one of my abilities, I reason. It could be possible, after all, it’s not like I’m completely aware of everything that I can do. Focus, girl. What else? My eyes flick over to nasally. He’s taller than rumbles, by at least a foot. He’s thin but solid. He’d be handsome if it weren’t for his odd weak chin and slightly too large nose. Still, he had an odd sense of charm about him. I have a feeling nasally doesn’t struggle with the ladies. I squint as the picture starts to blur at my zooming in. It’s hard to tell what color his eyes are, but they look dark. Possibly brown. Both were fair skinned, but rumbles was a little more on the ruddy skin tone and flushed. Nasally looked more olive and smooth. I save the picture and delete the rest. I smile as the train grinds to a halt─ a lead, a real, solid lead. This was more than I hoped for, it was proof that not only was Ty still around, he was close.
– – –
“You’re late,” Don complains. I wince and look up at him. “I know, Don, I’m sorry. Missed the train this morning and had to catch the 7:10.” He grunts and points to the back, “yeah, whatever just go get your apron.” I sigh and hurry to the back. I was shocked that he didn’t ask why I was even on the train. I lived less than a few blocks away. “You’re a good girl, never late. Just, don’t let it happen again, eh?” he calls back to me. “Why are you still here?” I yell, “go home to Bev, she’ll be worried.” I can hear his smile as I pull the apron over my head. “Ha. You’re right about that. Got hell to pay when I get home, haven’t gotten a single call or text in hours. Not like her,” he pauses, “unless she’s angry.” My smile drops and I walk out to join him behind the register. “Hey, you should call her,” I say. He shakes his head and laughs, “nothing to worry about. That’s just Bev, ya know? Best I just come home and explain what happened.” I smile and chuckle nervously. “Alright,” I say. He grabs his keys and heads for the door. Something doesn’t feel right. “Don.” He pauses and looks over at me, “Yeah?” “It’s probably nothing, but, just let me know you made it and everything’s alright with Bev.” He shakes his head, “You women, you all worry too much.” He sighs and waves his hands when I scowl at him. “Alright, alright. Che-zus, between you and the old lady I feel like I’m on prison watch.” I smile as he mutters to himself and walks outside. I look up when the doorbell goes off again. “Oh, and Cheryl?” I winced inwardly at the fake name. I really hated deceiving the old man but had to do what was needed. Vivian wasn’t as common as it used to be, was kind of old school. “Yeah?” I ask. “Feel free to eat whatever you want. You’re looking a little thin.” He walks out and then leans back in again, the door held open by his food. “Oh and uh, if no one comes in after ten, just shut down.” I grin and shoo him out, “Yes, yes. Now go! I’ve kept you long enough.” He grunts and walks out. I’m really getting fond of that old coot. I look at my reflection from the mirror behind the register. It’s pretty skewed, but even from this angle, I can tell I’ve lost weight. When was the last time I had eaten? I guess even the dead need food.
I frown as I turn the key, and then jiggle the door to make sure it is secure. I pull out my phone and stare at the empty screen. Not a word from Don all day. Maybe I should run by his place, make sure he’s alright. The trains wouldn’t be running this late, I’d have to Uber or get a taxi. I start to open my app when a police cruiser pulls up to the sidewalk. I look up as he rolls down his window. “You Cheryl?” I nod my head, “Yes sir. What’s going on?” The cop kills the engine and opens his door. He’s tall, it takes him a second to get out. I take the opportunity and glance up and down the street. Not a soul in sight. Could this be one of Ty’s men? I tense, preparing for the worst. He leans on his car and looks at me. “Kind of late to be closing up shop, isn’t it?” I smile and walk toward the car, “Actually, it’s early. Don likes to keep the place open for a few─” I freeze mid-sentence. It’s him. Of all the stupid─ why had I not followed him to work? You goddamn moron. I’m hung on that last sentence, staring across at this familiar stranger. He smiles and scratches the back of his head. It is the same awkward motion I saw the other morning. “Hey,” he says shyly, “sorry to catch you at a weird time. I, uh, I was actually patrolling the area when dispatch called to come talk with you.” I didn’t buy it, not completely. Was this a trick? Somehow a way for Ty to make me think this guy is my friend? Maybe they have found me out. Shit. I try not to show my panic as I hedge closer to the building. “Oh, yeah, yeah. Hey,” I say and laugh, “sorry, hard to see in this light.” He smiles and looks up and down the street. “Hey, uh, sorry to come at you with this but we got a call today from Don’s wife, Beverly. You know her?” “Yeah, Bev? I’ve known her for almost two years now. What’s this about?” I ask. He can’t seem to meet my eyes, and I know. The worst is coming. “Don didn’t make it home today.” The keys drop from my hand. My hands shoot up to my face and over my mouth. I’m thankful for the dark. He would think it odd that I am unable to shed a tear. A side effect of being dead, I have gathered. He hesitates and then continues, “Listen, Bev’s in a bad state. The only reason I’m here is she can’t tell you herself.” My head shakes back and forth. It’s odd pretending to be so upset. After my death, I’m not able to feel as strongly as I used to. It isn’t entirely faked, Don was a real stand-up guy and Bev was one of the sweetest women that I knew. I cringe, realizing that I’m already thinking of them in the past tense.
Despite their ten year age difference, the two of them seemed exactly the same age─ and always so giving─ never asking too many questions. I’m going to miss them both. I know the truth, neither one of them will make it.
It’s a sobering moment. There was more than likely only one reason why they were attacked. Ty’s men were very thorough. Question is who told them? The guys from the train─ hell, maybe even this guy. Not like I knew everything about him. Stupid girl, letting your emotions blind you. I stare at him openly as I pretend to take deep breaths. Finally, I ask, “Where’s Bev? Anyone there for her right now?” He stares back, his eyes trailing down to my lips. He’s not portraying the typical movements of someone like Ty, he almost looks─ oh shit. He finds me attractive right now. Especially since I’m vulnerable, I know that look anywhere. It was the same look Tristan gave me on our third date. I’d fallen down in the ice rink and managed to bust open my lip. He had helped me through the whole thing, even asked the guys for the first aid kit. The soft browns that looked at me as they patched me up, were the exact same as the ones looking at me now. Honest─ concerned. This man is not one of his lackey’s. I could sense it, almost like a human lie detector. It was something that I picked up after I died. He isn’t sweating or twitching, and there are no overly-controlled movements. He clears his throat, “uh, Bev is at Saint Luke’s.” “Saint Luke’s? But Bev and Don live in─” “Brooklyn, yeah I know,” he says, “Bev was out shopping in Manhattan this morning.” That doesn’t seem like her at all, especially on Don’s salary. Bev was always extremely cautious with their money, especially since they were a few years away from retiring. Now I know something’s wrong.
He notices I’m thinking. “You know, I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something different about you.” I look up at him, his statement catching me off-guard. I don’t answer for a while, instead turning my gaze to the sidewalk behind him. The street is still oddly quiet, even for a weekday. Maybe the world knew something that I didn’t, some unknown force keeping people locked up in their homes─ safe and warm. I look back at him and smile, “you think you can give me a ride to Saint Luke’s?” He mirrors my smile and walks over to open the door, “Yeah sure, my shift ended an hour ago. I’ll call it in.”
– – –
“You want some coffee?” he asks as we sit waiting. The drive hadn’t been too bad, we’d mostly talked about how funny Don was, or how doting Bev could be. I knew that a lot of regulars came into the store, but I never realized how many people knew them. I didn’t call out the cop on his discrepancy earlier. He mentioned his shift was up, but that dispatch had called him in. So, he’d done it on his time off. There was definitely more to this. “No, I’m good. Thanks, Logan.” I say as he gets up. I’d only just learned his name─ it was a bit awkward saying it. I hated to admit this but it felt good talking to someone about anything. Intensive care─ I knew that it would be bad. I’m honestly surprised that Bev is still alive. Not Ty’s usual MO.
In other news, NC Global said goodbye to a long-time partner today. Founder and CEO Robert Daemon, who was tragically murdered last week in his summer home in Malibu, was finally laid to rest this morning next to his father in Sacred Heart. There are no confirmations on who will be taking his place, as this is an emotional time for everyone that knew Robert and worked alongside him.
The screen switches to people talking about how giving Daemon was, and a few statements from the police. I’m about to look away when he appears on the screen. I stand, walking over to the screen. That same goddamned sneer is stuck on his face. Most people looking at him would have seen someone that sounded sincere and professional, profusely vomiting up lies like it was the truth. I feel my body shudder and burn hot with rage. I’m instantly back at the construction site and he’s hovering over me─ placing my hair in his mouth and swirling it like a fine wine, the gun pressed to my skull, my entire life over in seconds─ and the piece of shit had the nerve to just go on living. How many men have you murdered? How many lives have you destroyed? I grab the screen, my fingers digging in and bending the metal on the sides. I hear a few gasps and freeze as a pair of hands wrap my body from behind.
“Whoa, whoa. Cheryl, what the hell is going on?” I relax at the voice, it’s Logan. The metal crunches as I let it go and turn toward the waiting area. The entire room is silent as it stares at me. Even the children have quieted. I have to get out and before I know what’s happening, my feet have found the pavement outside and I’m running at full speed.
What did I do? What did I fucking do? My mind is racing faster than my legs as I jet east toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Why did I go to visit her? If it is Ty, they would have planted someone there─ after all this time, all of my hard work and training gone in seconds. Think, I scream at myself, was there any familiar face? My mind goes back to the flash of people’s faces staring wide-eyed at me. Look for something─ anything. I cross the bridge and turn slightly more South and then East on Fulton. I focus all my energy trying to remember any one person looking different in the emergency room. On the right, there was a family─ a young girl with her brother next to the toy station, their mother and grandparents all surprised. The middle, there is a teenage girl, her face busted up, her phone dropping to the ground, in the back I remember an elderly woman, a napkin wrapped over her mouth that’s been stained with a dark liquid, probably coffee. No, I yell internally, not it. Then my mind dredges up what I’ve feared the most. There he is─ Nasally. He’s staring at me, not with surprise but curiosity. He is wearing a jacket, his dark hair matted on one side with blood, his fingers clasped around a phone that he’s holding up. I halt as I finally turn down Bedford and reach the corner store. He was filming me. It is over, Ty knows.