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A Word of Encouragement

I want to reach out to others that may not know this. Writing doesn’t always come naturally, it’s not something that only a few people can do. Anyone can write a story, and honestly, I encourage many people to try.

That’s not to say that anyone can be a novelist. That takes dedication, time and effort. To the people that doubt that they can do it, remember that everyone that wrote a novel struggled with exactly what you are struggling with now.

Some people write for a hobby, while others want to make a living from it. Neither approach is wrong, and it doesn’t make you any less of a writer than the person that wants to do it for a living.

The point is, write how you enjoy writing. So many people get stressed out by not being good enough, or if it’s a hobby not to share. It’s not any less valid than someone that writes all the time. It’s something you’ve chosen to do, for enjoyment.

To all my writers that work hard, and write all the time, stop agonizing over your work and publish it. Whether that be self-published, or through a publisher.  I have read amazing work from people that weren’t published, and from people that claimed they never wanted to send their work out. Whatever your reason for writing, remember why you do it. Because you enjoy it, and it’s yours!

So relax, take care of yourself and keep up what makes you enjoy it.

My own personal goals have always been to someday get published and be a writer, full time. I would never look down on someone that wants to just do it for fun because it’s for them. I encourage all of you to do the same.

❤ Grey

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My Family is Falling Apart – Conclusion

Part I

Part II

Part III

I stare across the house from the living room and then turn back to the patio door. So this is it. This is what being insane is like. It’s Monday morning and I’ve scheduled an emergency appointment with a psychologist first thing. I have to run by the office first but it shouldn’t take long. Kyle is giving the presentation instead of me. It’s the first personal day I’ve taken in nearly five years. Suffice it to say everyone has already asked if I’m dying.

 

I roll into the parking lot, jet up the three flights of stairs and then slip into my office. I don’t intend to stay long, just look over the presentation and make sure it doesn’t have any obvious mistakes. Kyle is usually great with this sort of thing when I need to sit one out, so I’m not worried. I skim through most of it and grin. Good man, I think, looks great. I sigh in relief and send out an email that it’s approved. If this doesn’t seal the deal I don’t know what will. It was four months of hard work with a more than capable team. Minus Carroll.  

 

I stare across at the empty office. What on earth was she afraid of? Why did she call Jenna instead of me? Jen doesn’t work here. It just doesn’t make sense and the more I think about it, the angrier and more hurt I get. Did they talk about me behind my back? Had they always been this close? At this point I know it’s useless to dwell on it, but it’s the one thing that just doesn’t fit into the equation. Shaking my head I scoop up my keys and pull my door shut. I’m turning the lock when the smell hits me.

 

Jesus, it’s bad.

 

I glance up as people start to funnel through toward me. “Hey Tom, I thought you were taking a personal day?” I grin and wave at Kyle. “Hey man, you know I trust you to do an amazing job, but I’m still going to check.” Kyle gives a hearty laugh, shaking his head. “I would expect no less from our top guy, and honestly I welcome the second set of eyes. You never know, and with Carroll gone─” he sniffs and turns toward her office. “Holy shit. Did something die in there?”

 

I stiffen and turn toward the office. “You smell it too? Carroll mentioned it the other day. I thought I was going crazy.” Kyle turns toward me, his eyebrows raised. “Wait, Carroll called you? What did she say? Is she OK?” I study his face. His breathing has picked up and his nostrils are flared. His eyes are wide, scared-looking with a hint of anger. Then it dawns on me. They were seeing each other. I chuckle uneasily, “well, she was here a few days ago before she quit. Said she needed to take a few personal days.”

 

Kyle’s face turns pale and his fists ball at his side. “This is so typical. She hasn’t responded to me in over a week. She just disappears from the office, randomly shows up and then asks for more days off.” He wipes at his eyes muttering something about needing a minute and then he’s gone.

#

“Tell me more about the women in your life, past, and present.” Dr. Tanner says. I expected to talk a little bit in this first session, but these questions are leading to something I don’t like. What does this have to do with anything I’ve just said to him.

 

“Look, no disrespect but I’ve just told you that my house was torn apart by a non-existent tornado and that my soon-to-be ex-wife was a monster and some weird wind-beast is following me around. Why are you even asking me about this?” I say.

 

He smiles across at me with that infuriating calm all physicians seem to possess, “Yes, you mentioned these things, but one of them was before a head injury, the other was around bedtime, and the third you said you were looking out of your back window.”

 

OK, I think, and? I stare over at him and cross my arms.

 

When I don’t answer, he sighs and continues, “Tom, all of these things have a pattern. Do you not see it?” I frown, “That I’m going insane?” I offer. He shakes his head, “Far from it. When was the last time you had more than a few hours of sleep?” I pause awkwardly and think. Holy shit, he’s right. When was the last time I had enough rest?

 

I let out a long sigh. The weight of the world rushes from my shoulders to my fingertips and then finally the floor. The known side effects of sleep deprivation, all of them added up. I place my face into my hands and cry. Finally, things were making sense. I feel his warm hand on my shoulder and then he places a box of tissues in front of me.

 

“I tell you what, I’m going to go ahead and prescribe you something to help you both relax and sleep. It’s just a mild sedative and it is non-habit forming.” I nod automatically and sniff as I wipe the soft tissue against my face.

 

He reaches into his drawer and scribbles on a piece of paper. “In the meantime, let’s schedule another session and we can get more into the heart of the issue. I think this may be all stemming from much more than sleep-deprived hallucinations.” What could possibly be worse than this? I wonder.

The drive home has never felt so long. It’s as if my body has caught up to what Dr. Tanner said. I ache, from head to toe and my eyes are so raw I can feel every vein pulsing beneath the surface. I really want to talk with Karis, but I think it’s better that I just close my eyes for the next twelve hours.

 

I can’t believe how dumb I’ve been. Monsters? Conspiracies? Damn, man. Get your shit straight. I’m really glad that the pharmacy was around the corner from the doctor’s office. I don’t think I would have made it another mile past what I have. My knees wobble as I turn the lock and stumble inside. I don’t think any amount of caffeine could keep my eyes apart. I want to collapse in bed, but remember I won’t get actual sleep unless I take my meds. He warned me that I may be able to fall asleep while anxious, but I won’t be able to stay asleep.

 

I down the pills, kick off my shoes and collapse into pillowy bliss.

 

#

The sound I hear next is not the one I expect. I expected the familiar soft jingle that wakes me every single morning. This one is different. Like a low drone, a humming. I roll and pull the sheets over my head. Not alarm, I think, go back to sleep. Then it happens again, and then a third time before I realize that my phone is ringing. Angry, I roll over and look outside. It’s still light out, I must have only been out for a few hours. Damn it. I scoop up the phone and look at the caller I.D.

 

I clear my throat a few times and then answer, “Hey man. How did the meeting go?”

“Hey. I’m sorry, were you sleeping? I didn’t know you were taking another day off.” I bolt up and look at my phone. It’s 10 a.m.

 

Tuesday at 10 a.m.

 

“Christ, dude. I’m sorry. The doctor gave me some pills yesterday, I haven’t been sleeping. I must have slept straight through my alarm.” “Oh wow,” he says, “hey, no worries man. You must have needed it. I can hold down the fort another day, you get some sleep.” I clear my throat again, slowly starting to clear the fog in my mind, “You sure? I don’t mind coming in if you need me to help. Everything go alright yesterday?” I can hear his smile from the other end, “we crushed it. They signed first thing this morning, that report was freaking phenomenal man. You added some stuff in there I didn’t even think of. I really appreciate that.”

 

I grin, “well, keep at it and you’ll be where I am in a few years.” He chuckles. We both knew he was just as good. I’m hoping to see him promoted by the end of the year. The guy was a genius.

 

He shifts and then sighs, “there is one thing you can do for me.” he says. “What’s up?” I ask. “Can you ask Carroll to please call me when she can? I just want to know if she’s OK.” He sounds really sad, almost broken. Poor guy, I know where his head is at right now. “Of course. I’ll let you know right away if I hear anything.” “Thanks, man, I really appreciate it. Speaking of which, this is a little off-topic but can you have Brett call maintenance and check out her office? That smell really needs to be taken care of. People have been complaining all day.”

 

“Sure, I’ll give him a call right now. And Kyle, thanks again for all your hard work and taking care of yesterday and today.” I say. He thanks me and hangs up. I make another note to promote him asap and then roll out of bed. First thing’s first.

 

“Brett Manning.” he rumbles on the first ring. “Hey, Brett. I need you to email maintenance about Carroll’s old office. There’s a─” “Smell like putrid ass coming from there? Yes, I know. I put in a complaint a few hours ago, hopefully, they get to it today. Honestly, if it isn’t taken care of tonight, I think I may have to quit. Sorry, not sorry.” I laugh and shake my head, good ole Brett. “I don’t blame you. Let me know if they fix the problem today. If not, we may just go ahead and give a staff holiday tomorrow or let people work from home.” “I vote staff holiday,” he quips. “You would. Thanks, man, I appreciate it. See you tomorrow.” “Maybe,” he says and hangs up the phone.

 

The rest of the day goes by pretty uneventful. I pick up my phone for the thousandth time and look through my text messages. Still nothing. If I don’t get a call by 8 tonight, I’ve decided I’m going to call her instead. Normally, I like to let her be the one to call me in case they are in the middle of something. Just relax, I think, they are probably having a good time and forgot to call last night. Besides, would I have even heard it?

 

My stomach complains at me in a high pitched squeal and then a deep rumble. My first instinct is to reach for a box of cookies, but when my stomach turns just thinking about it, I realize I need actual food. A quick glance in my fridge tells me all I need to know. Take out it is.

#

I settle on some pepper beef and rice and then plant myself in front of the computer. It’s been so long since I’ve used this thing for fun that I forget I have at least three new games I’ve purchased recently. I used to be an avid gamer. In college, it was all I did. Hell, my degree was wrapped around becoming a 3d modeler for the game industry. My buds and I had won several competitions for most innovative. That was just before the crash in ‘08. I basically graduated with a useless degree, and here I am now managing teams of people that make websites for other companies. It wasn’t a dream job, but it paid more than enough to keep us comfortable. At the end of the year, I’d be looking at a possible promotion and making over $200k. It wasn’t what Jen made, but it was a decent living.  

 

The game fires up and I’m pumped. I’m a super nerd for sci-fi, especially shooters. Add mechs and I’m all in. This one checked all the boxes. Before I knew it, the doorbell sounds.

I glance at the camera and see the young delivery guy there. I’d have to go AFK for a minute, but I was in free play mode so I wouldn’t be holding anyone back. 

I let out a long sigh and pat my stomach. Man, that was some of the best Chinese food I’d had in a while. Or you were just hungry, I think. I stand and stretch, yawning loudly. I’m beat. I glance at my watch. It was well past Karis’s bedtime. I look at my phone and instantly feel guilty, there’s a missed call. Then, on closer inspection, I notice it wasn’t Jenna. Damn. Part of me is hoping that she got voicemail for once. Then a new feeling sets in. Why haven’t they called? It’s now been two days. While that wouldn’t really be a point of concern for many, it was for me. Jenna is an extremely punctual and respectful person. The silent treatment wasn’t her thing. Even when they fought she would tell him that she was angry and needed a moment to herself.

 

Maybe she sent a text, or she’s in an area without reception, I reason silently. I pull up my messages and then click on her name. I send a quick, ‘hey haven’t heard from you in a couple days, everything alright?’ Message and then wait. Fifteen minutes drag on, and then another thirty. I pace, staring at my phone and willing it to light up with the little rectangle of light. Don’t be crazy, I tell myself, they do live in the country. Unable to stand another minute of this I leave the room. I needed a distraction. A shower. My body responds with a slight shiver. Not the bad kind, but the sort that tingles you all over in anticipation. How long had it actually been since I’d taken a nice, long one? I sigh, pausing just outside of the bathroom. Best to keep it nearby, just in case, I think. I circle back to the living room, scoop up my phone and then pad to the bathroom. The cool tiles are unwelcome to my feet, but I ignore the slight discomfort in lieu of what is waiting for me. The hot liquid instantly bubbles out, splashing my arm as I pull it back. A sneak peek of what is waiting for me once I leave the frozen floor rocks that are my tiles behind.

 

I check the ringer, see that it is on and that no new text messages have arrived. Let it be, I tell myself. If you don’t hear from them by tomorrow, then worry.  This seemed to calm me. I shrug off my clothes and toss them aside. I pull at the glass door until the soft clink happens. My legs fold and I sit on the bench, allowing my head to get completely submerged.

My body melts into the water and despite the warmth, I shiver. I might as well be outside for all the heat I’m retaining. A cold creeps along my spine and seeps into my bones. My eyes close and I feel myself drift from the beating water against my skin.

 

Flashes of Karis’s smile pop into my mind. We’re walking along the beach, the sky an endless blue. I love you, daddy. Her giggles sprinkle across my mind like a summer breeze. I’m all grins, smiling at her sweet face. I love you too, baby girl, I say, reaching out and taking her little hand. The sky fades from the warm, sunrise colors, to an ugly grey and blue. Thick, dark clouds roll in. Not just any clouds─ those clouds. Its clouds. Instinctively, I reach to pull her close to my side and grasp at air. Karis is gone.

 

I spin frantically, searching the whole area, but the only thing I can see is the tall, dense grass. Miles and miles of nothing but the tall mess of green that reaches to the sky. There are no trees, no place to hide. Lightning explodes around the sky, and an angry rumble growls from the distance. Then it starts. This time it’s not just close to me, it’s behind me. No matter which way I turn, it is always a step ahead. It’s loud enough to be annoying, but soft enough that I can’t get a handle on just how close it is.

 

The suction sound drones on. It’s now moving all around me. Coming from every which way. I cover my ears and spin on the shore. There must be some way out of here. Some way back to the comfort of my home. I’m struggling to remember what it was I was doing. Something to do with warmth, I was vulnerable. The draining noise stops momentarily, and all that can be heard is the gentle rustle of grass behind me and the waves lapping at my heels. Something about the water dug at me as I stood there. Why am I here? Could it be possible that I fell asleep?

 

Yes, that sounds right.

 

I had stayed up late to play a game and checked my phone. After that, I─

What was it? My head is pounding as the deep rumble sounds again. Shower. The thought jumps into my head and I remember. I had been checking my phone before I turned on the shower. Then I sat down and closed my eyes. This time, it is distinctly closer. I know this because the spider webs of light are blinding, and the earth shifts beneath my feet. This can’t be real, I reason, because I’m dreaming.  I can feel Its vibration as It crawls toward me. I’ve fallen asleep in the shower, and I am safe and alone. The shiver returns as I sense the movement behind me. To my absolute terror, I know that It is standing there.

 

Click

Click

Click

Click

 

It’s swirling is now mixed with a new sound. Insect-like pops and chitters that blend with the draining-suction. Wake up, I yell. The clicking now sounds questioning, prodding even. It’s backed away, but I know full well that the demon is less than twenty feet from me.  I have acted, but not in a way that It expects. It’s not sure how to react, Its clicks and pops almost sound confused. I take a step forward, inching my way toward the water. When nothing happens, I take one more. Suddenly, the pattern starts again, click whirr, click, click, cli
God damn it, wake your ass up now I growl. I howl in agony as a new sensation rips into my left wrist. I spin toward the pain, cradling my left arm with my right. Blood oozes down my arm, then drips to my feet. It’s the only noise that fills the air. The wind has died, the lightening subdued. Not even a blade of grass dares to stir. It’s as if the entire world is holding its breath, terrified of the beast. 

My eyes are glued to my arm. There are two distinct slices trailing from the top of my wrist down to the forearm. Neat, precise cuts. Deep ones. I stare at the blood as it pools from my wounds. It wraps my arm and drips to the ground. I’m mesmerized by the amount that flows from me.

It isn’t real, I tell myself. Over and over again. It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real.

There’s movement behind my arm. A darting movement that is so fast I can’t keep up with it. It’s as if the monster exists in two places jumping between the planes. I can see that it towers me. The gargling, and then clicks continue. Almost as if this is Its way of drawing breath. There’s a waving movement, like thousands of wriggling worms.  I want to look up, but I can’t bring myself to. Somehow I think that if I don’t look at it, it can’t harm me.

If I can’t see it, it can’t see me. 

I smirk, remembering the logic I’d had as a child hiding beneath my covers. I guess we never really grow up.

It sighs, breathing a rancid stench into my face and lungs. I squeeze my eyes shut. It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real. 

The pop-click, then click, click, click is inches from my face. Every muscle in my body tenses up as I ready myself for the inevitable blow. My legs buckle and I drop to the ground.

I’m surprised as my hands shoot out and are met with smooth, wet tile. I’m crouched on the shower floor, my head leaning on the wall. Suddenly, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I curl my legs under my chin and rock back and forth beneath the stream. It’s long since gotten cold, but I don’t care.

I’m free from the evil creature. At least, for the moment.

#

I groan and roll over, willing the annoying sound to stop. The jarring noise sounds again, and then again. I growl and roll towards it. Scooping the phone up, I look at the screen and then hastily hit the green button.

“Hey, I was wondering when I would hear from you guys.” I sit up, excited to hear Karis and Jenna’s voice again. “Daddy?” I clear my voice a few times, trying to get the grogginess out of it. “Yeah, baby. Daddy is here. How is your trip going?” Static fills the speaker. It sounds like she’s trying to say something, but it keeps cutting out. “Sorry baby, Daddy can’t hear you. What was that?” I struggle to make anything out. “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” I smile as she finally comes through. “You’ve had fun? That’s great! I miss you, sweetie.” There’s silence on the other end.

“Sweetheart, are you there?” There’s a burst of static, then “Daddy?” I panic and respond instantly, “Yes, I’m here. I’m glad you’ve had a great time.” There’s a long static filled pause. “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” A knot forms in the pit of my stomach. “Yes, baby. You just said that.” I swallow thickly. “Can you put mommy on the line?” I’m met with more static. “…Daddy?” A lump forms in my throat. “Who is this?” I manage to choke out. There’s a long pause, then, “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” This time her voice sounds different. As if she knows something that I don’t. My hands tremble as I hear the static grow louder from the other side.

Her laughter breaks through the static. Not Karis’s soft, twinkling laughter. It’s something else. Something that sounds like my little girl. My throat goes dry. I’m finding it harder and harder to breathe. How long is it going to toy with me?

“Daddy?” it’s her. It sounds like her. She’s frightened. “Baby? Where are you? Are you OK?” “Daddy, are you OK?” I let out a long sigh, covering my hands with my face. “Yes, sweetheart. I’m alright. How is your trip?” The silence that follows makes me nervous. I’m worried that I am being messed with again when I hear, “Oh. It was good. I told you that a long time ago.” I sit up. “A long time ago?” She sighs really loud, “yes,” she says, “like, a long time ago.” I’m immediately alarmed and confused. I glance at the date on my phone, then bring it back to my ear. “When did you talk to daddy about the trip?” I can hear her fidgeting on the other line. “Daddy?” My stomach twists, “yes, baby?” “When are you going to come to get me?” I frown at how small and scared she sounds. “I can come now if you want.” I tear up as I hear her start crying on the other end.

“Honey? Don’t cry. I’ll come over, right now.” I hear a few more gasps and then the phone goes quiet. Confused, I immediately dial Jenna’s number. It goes straight to voicemail.

I roll out of bed and throw on my clothes.

#

I’m in Jenna’s driveway, tearing across the parking lot when my phone goes off.  I pull it out frantically, then frown at the screen. It’s the same number from last night. I swipe it to go to voicemail and beat on the door. I wait.

Thirty seconds go by, then a minute. I’m not sure if she has heard me. This time, I knock louder.

I take a step back and yell, “Jenna, it’s me.” Thirty more seconds, still there is only silence.

My phone jingles and I look at the message that’s popped up:

Voicemail 00:31

Maybe it was work. I am supposed to be in this morning. I look at the time and frown. Not this early, it’s barely 7:30 in the morning. The office won’t be open for another thirty minutes. Probably a telemarketer or scam. No one calls me. Except Jenna.

I try the door again and gasp as it pops open. I stare as it slowly comes back toward me and snaps shut. I try the knob, and it easily swings open.

“Hello?” I call inside. I hesitate at the entrance, unsure of what I should do. I didn’t want to intrude. Maybe I’m just overreacting. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed. What if Karis is just having a moment and I read too much into it?

“Jen? You here?” I glance around the living room and then over to the stairs. A thin streak of red lines the stairs all the way to the top. Now I’m really worried. I’m very aware that the only thing I have is the clothes on my back, and my phone. What if someone else is here? What if they have a gun?

I ease the door closed and quickly run over to the kitchen. Without thinking, I reach above the refrigerator in the cabinet. Strapped right where it was in our house is Jen’s gun. I rip it out and check the clip, exactly fifteen bullets are still there. She hasn’t had a chance to use it. I pull back, getting one bullet in the chamber and turn toward the stairs.

I jump as the phone vibrates in my pocket. Jesus, I swear silently, Good thing I didn’t have my finger on the trigger. I edge up against the wall and look at my caller I.D. The same number is calling me. Maybe I should go outside and answer it. Maybe it’s Jenna.

I sneak back outside and manage to answer on the last ring. “Hello?” I say quietly, not wanting to alert anyone that may be inside. “Jesus, dude. You’re hard to get ahold of. Did you get my message?” I relax at Kyle’s voice. “No, sorry man. I had to run and pick up kiddo early this morning. I may be bringing her into work today.” There’s a slight pause on the other end. “You getting to see her again?” I frown, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” “I don’t know man, there was a lot of…you know. With you and Jenna.” I sigh. Oh right, he wouldn’t have known about the agreement between me and her recently. “Oh, yeah that all got worked out. So, what’s going on?” He cleared his throat, “well, turns out they found something in Carroll’s office. They are shutting down the whole office for the day. I just wanted to let you know to not come in.”

“They found something?” I ask. “Yeah, they think an animal might have crawled up between the floorboards and died. They hired a crew to come in and clean it up.” “Oh, OK.” I say. “I appreciate you letting me know. We all coming back in tomorrow?” I look over at the door. It’s still propped open, no Jenna in sight.

“Yeah, it shouldn’t take too long. The crew actually got here about twenty minutes ago. I just wanted to catch you before you left.” “Alright,” I answer, “thanks again, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He mutters something and then we both hang up.

Good. That means I can see what the hell is going on. Hopefully, Jen is just upstairs and can’t hear me. My mind goes back to the first time I saw her in this place─ the way her skin moved beneath my touch. Her long, unnatural stride.

I glanced up as a dark cloud rolled over the sun, bathing the area in an eerie green light. Again, I pause by the door. What if this is a trap? What if…It is in there, waiting for me to walk right into Its trap. Is Jenna a part of it? I started thinking about how different she had been acting lately. This huge, expensive looking home. How young she looked the last time I saw her.

Tom, I just want you to know─ I’m sorry. 

I stare into the house as I push open the door. What are you sorry for? I wonder for the thousandth time. Sorry that you tore us all apart?

I climb the stairs, the gun weighing heavy in my right hand. I peek into Karis’s room, then double check the hallway. It’s quiet as ever. The sun shines for a moment, bathing the room in a warm glow. It’s a peaceful feeling, almost safe. I know why she loves this space. It’s completely open. You can see the entire house from up here and most of the kitchen. Jenna always hated walls.

The sun slips back behind the clouds and the putrid green is back. I take a deep breath and push on Karis’s door. It makes contact with something and stops. Something solid. I grunt and push harder. A loud whimper comes from behind the door. I pause, crouch down and call softly, “here boy, come here.” Another whimper. I look down the hall again and then back to Karis’s door. It’s wide enough for me to squeeze through. I have to make a decision. I look into her room.

Her bed has been made and everything is neat. It looks as if she hasn’t even been here. I reach in and grasp at the door handle. The whimper gets louder and I feel something jump on the door. There’s a soft woof and then another whine. I feel around until I grip something tangled around the door. It feels like─ I pull it off the handle and then bring it around the door. The lump on the end hobbles toward me and then the dog is suddenly in front of the door. He’s been completely tangled in the leash, no doubt trying to get out of the room and then shutting himself in. He nips at me as I untie it from around his neck, and then shoulders. It doesn’t hurt, I can tell he’s just scared. I coo down at him, running my hands behind his ears and neck.

He whines but allows it, desperate for human contact. I pick him up and take him downstairs. I’m reluctant to tie him up, but I need him to stay out of the way while I search for Jen and Karis. I fill a bowl of water and another with a little bit of food. He doesn’t seem to take notice as I hook the leash around the table and tie it off. He’s happily chowing down on the food as I climb the stairs.

Now I’m really worried. Jen never mistreats animals or leaves them alone for longer than a few minutes. The dog would have been with her, or in the back room where he could go outside and then back into his crate. I glance down at my arms and gasp. They’re covered in blood. A quick glance tells me it’s not my own. It must be from the dog. I want to run and check his injuries, but I need to find them first.

I’m at full speed. If someone is still in the house, they would have attacked me by now. Or got out. I’m being incredibly stupid, but I need to know.

Fuck it. 

“Jenna?” I burst into Karis’s room. I drop to look under her bed and then search her closet. They all turn up empty. “Karis? Honey, are you OK?”

I scream through the hallway, busting down every door on the way to Jenna’s room. Empty, empty, fucking empty. 

My phone goes off just as I round the corner. Jenna’s room is a few feet away. I halt at the entrance. It’s then that I notice all the water. It’s pooling into the room. My phone hums several times as I trace the source back to the right. The door is closed.

My lip trembles as my knees wobble, threatening to buckle beneath me.

I can’t breathe. Can’t move. I’m vaguely aware that my phone is going off again. I stare at the silver door handle. My own reflection is small, weak. Jesus, I look so small.

My hand trembles as I reach for the phone. It’s buzzing again, this time with a voicemail. I know what is waiting for me behind that door. I bring the phone up to my head and play back the message.

“You sick son-of-a-bitch. I know it was you. I KNOW IT WAS YOU─ Do you know how they found her?” The phone drops from my hands. There’s more screaming and yelling, but I can’t make it out.

I don’t want to do what my legs are doing, but they won’t stop. I’m in another person’s body opening the door.

All I wanted was to be a husband, a father.

I’m not splashing into the room and reaching for the handles to turn off the water. I watched numbly as the stranger in my body screams, cradling the two small forms. I want to yell at him, tell him not to fall for Its trick. But it’s too late. The drain sounds, swirling and whirling around him. The room darkens as rain begins to beat against the glass.

The thing rises beside him, taking on Jenna’s form. It smiles, wrapping Its hand around his and then pulls the object into his mouth. There are a series of clicks, and then a final boom fills the house.

 

 

 

 

      

 

 

 

 

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day – How can virtual assistants help with mental health?

Hey guys~

I thought I would give a quick update for the next month to follow. I’ll be continuing the show Grey Space as well as my next audiobook. They both will be released on the same channel so you won’t miss them! This next episode of Grey Space will be released on Sunday, March 24th. This episode covers: Alexa and Google. Can virtual assistants help save lives? Let’s take a closer look at the future of mental health!

What do you think? Are you welcoming the AI and human interaction or vaguely skeptical?

For my next audiobook (you can find them all here or on my GooglePlay channel through Google Podcasts.) I’d like to have it completely done by April and released. If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi or fantasy (and dark fantasy) you will love these! All of my content, for the time being, is free.

I’ve been working toward my next book, which will be sent to potential publishers this year! I’ve grown a little tired of writing tons of horror, so I’m actually really getting into the sci-fi scene lately. Horror will always have a special place for me, and I’ll never completely get rid of it, or stop writing it, but for now, it will take a backseat. 😉 Take care, happy Sunday. 😀

 

 

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My Family is Falling Apart – Part III

 
#
 
I burst into the room, ready to swing at the first thing I see. My arms drop as something small and fluffy jets toward my legs. There’s soft whimpers, whining, and then drool─ lots of drool.
“Daddy! Daddy it’s a puppy.” Karis wraps her arms around the little wriggling being, her face getting covered in slobbery kisses. I laugh and bend down to scratch the little guy’s head.
I’ve seen some cute pooches in my life but this guy takes the cake. I’m a little sad to see that his tail has been cropped, but he’s still as beautiful as he is cute. He nips playfully at my hands and I flick him on the nose.
I turn toward Jen, “You’re going to have to train him not to nip. This breed is known for that.” Jen breaks into a smile and nods her head, “I know. But you know me and herding breeds.” I do know. A lump rises in my throat, this was the dog we’d always talked about getting. That’s why I had gotten a home nearly 30 miles from the city with 4 acres of land. Which is ironic with her living near the middle of the city.
“I got him for us.” she says, almost hearing my inner thoughts. I stand next to her as Karis occupies herself with the dog. “For us?” I ask. She nods, “I had completely forgotten that I got him as a surprise for us and had got him from a breeder.” She smiles as she looks down at Karis, “I know I should have told them no, but I’d already paid and I knew Karis would love him.” I frown at her, “But─ you won’t be home enough to take care of him. You know aussie’s will tear everything up if people aren’t home. They need a lot of room to run.”
She still smiles at me, her eyes taking on a strange twinkle. “Karis, honey, stay in here with the puppy, I’m going to show daddy something and we’ll be right back.” “OK!” Karis practically sings as she’s only half paying attention. She’s already toting the little guy around wrapped up in a blanket. Well, that’s that. It’s Karis’s dog. I shake my head and follow Jenna out into the hall.
She grabs my hand and guides me down the hall. The long hall. I look around, confused at how much space this place has. We pass three bedrooms before it hits me. I stare out across the place and get a good look at the whole thing. This isn’t a loft─ it’s a mansion.
 
#
 
“I’m sorry, what?” She giggles at my confusion and shakes her head. “I’m not kidding, Tom.” I shake my head and turn my head out to the grassy field. The whole thing is enclosed but it’s natural. It must be a solid four acres of land and it’s completely private with a garden, a pond, and a hedge maze. A god damn hedge maze in the middle of downtown. What on god’s-green-earth possessed her to live like this? This was nothing like her, and now she’s lying.
“There is absolutely no way you are going to stand here and tell me that this place is two grand a month.” I cross my arms and look sternly at her, “don’t you lie to me, Jenna. How much are you paying for all of this?” She shakes her head, “You don’t believe me, that’s fair.” She crosses over to the door, “Come here, I want to show you something.”
I’m getting tired of this, why won’t she just tell me? “Jen, look, I understand that you probably paid more than you would have liked and you’re going through something. I am too, but we’ve never lied to each other, let’s not start doing it─ OK?” She keeps walking and I have to jog to catch up to her. She’s barely heard a word I’ve said and now she’s giving me the silent treatment.
I’m getting more irritated by the second as I try and keep up. She’s fast, really fast. For every step she’s taking, I’m taking five.
I’m practically panting as I catch up to her in the hall. I jump as the door closes behind me. Jenna stands there smiling at me. I spin around to where she just was surprised to find nothing there. I turn back, “Jen─ what the hell?” She looks up at me innocently, “What’s up?” I frown, looking from the door to the spot she was before and then back to her. Her features are smooth, her eyes still twinkling. “How did you do that?” Her eyebrows furrow and she purses her lip, “Do what?” she asks. I shake my head, “Nevermind. What did you want to show me?”
 
#
 
We’ve come to the part of the story where, I’m not sure if I have gone completely insane or I haven’t slept in a week. Much like a scene out of a classic Henson film, Jenna is staring down at me─ from the ceiling. I’m half expecting a rock ballad to sound and Karis to always appear just out of my reach in a maze of stairs and doors.
I close my eyes, breathe in a few times and then open them. Jenna is still there, at least fifty feet up, maybe more. She’s laughing so hard her face is turning red as she covers it with her hand. She skips across the ceiling, running from one side to the other. I scowl like a child on the ground, crossing and then uncrossing my arms. I’m unsure what to do with myself, feeling small and insignificant beneath her.
Even hanging upside down, the blood rushing to her face, Jenna manages to make all other women look like trolls. Her hair is spilled out and her teeth glimmer in the dim space. “You aren’t crazy,” she says between giggles. Who is this woman posing to be her? Jenna has always been a bit carefree in some ways, but not like this. It’s as if my very discomfort brought her pleasure.
“Stop it,” I snap. “Stop this right now.
She quiets and shifts above me. A few pebbles drop to the floor. I look up at her and search for some way that she could be suspended. Some way that it can possibly be happening. I look at her shoes. They’re just normal tennis shoes, not thicker than normal. There’s no way that they can support her. They barely go to below her ankles. There goes my magnet theory.
I look for some trick in the light, maybe she’s hooked up to something and suspending from it. I start believing this to be true when she steps away from the ceiling.
Like an angel, she flips herself around in mid-air and floats gently to the floor. She’s inches from me now, her eyes still carrying a jovial sparkle, her lips turned up into a sly smile.
Her breath comes out and she leans into my ears. I shiver as her breath brushes against my neck, “You aren’t crazy, Tom.”
She leans back, her eyes finally calming to the Jenna I know. Shy, sweet Jen.
“What is this? Some sort of trick?” I blurt out suddenly. I’m feeling embarrassed, quick, yet again, to fall under this beautiful creature’s spell. How does she always manage to make me fall for her, over and over?
She frowns, shaking her head. “I’m sorry.” Jen stares at the floor, unable to meet my eyes.
I can feel my anger mounting. I don’t want your stupid apologies, I think, I just want some answers. “Why did you bring me in here? To laugh at my reaction?” I ask. She shakes her head, her hair falling down her shoulders and hiding her face.
I swallow thickly, my eyes lingering on her soft curves. I want to wrap her up and bring her close to me. There’s something about her delicate frame that makes me want to protect her. Before I realize what is happening, my arms wrap around her.
Don’t,” she yells.
Too late, I feel it. It’s disgusting. Thousands of tiny movements push beneath her skin. Something skitters across my arms, then there’s a sharp pain.
I scream and rip myself from her, falling to the ground. I scramble to my feet, my eyes never leaving her face. It’s darkening under the long blonde mane. The smell hits me next. It’s a confusing mix of dirt, the air before a storm, and rotten death and decay.
A low groan escapes from behind the curtain of hair.
The room fills with the sound of wind. My hair whips around and dust blasts into my eyes and nose. I sputter, covering my face from the barrage. It’s so strong, I can barely manage to stay on my feet.
There’s a loud suction noise and then as quickly as it began, it subsides.
The room goes quiet, and I feel it instantly─ I’m alone. My eyes roll to the back of my head. The last thing I can remember feeling is my body slamming to the ground.
 
#
 
“Daddy!”
I jerk awake, pushing myself up.
“Tom?” Her voice comes out quiet, concerned.
I sit up and look around. I’m at the bottom of the stairs. “Daddy, are you OK?” Karis bends down and tilts my face up toward hers. Her little eyes are swollen and red, she’s been crying. I groan and shift my legs underneath me. Jenna is next to me in an instant, her arms under me and helping me to my feet. “You shouldn’t move before I’ve had a chance to check you over.”
I start at her touch, expecting to feel something jump out at me or the smell. I relax when I feel nothing but the warmth of her touch and the brief scent of her perfume. I inhale the fresh, clean smell and sigh in relief. “I’m fine,” I mutter.
She frowns, shaking her head, “You are not fine. You took a big tumble.” She points up to the top of the stairs. I gaped up at how far I fell. No wonder she’s being insistent. How the hell am I even alive after that?
I poke experimentally at my ribs and move my limbs carefully. Satisfied that nothing is broken I smile over at her, “I’m fine,” I repeat, more to myself than her and Karis. I can tell by the look on her face she won’t believe me until she checks it out for herself.
Karis plows into me and squeezes tight. “Are you really OK? Like, for real?” I burst into a laugh bobbing my head up and down. “Yes, baby. I’m OK,” I say. She giggles and squeezes me tighter. I let out a fake wheeze and cough. She giggles more, trying her hardest to squish the life out of me. Jenna crosses her arms, “Alright, alright little miss. Let me take a look at your dad before we go putting pressure on him.” Karis lets go and backs away sheepishly.
I know that look. “Hey, honey, it’s OK. Mommy isn’t mad at you, she just wants to make sure that my insides are OK.” Karis nods but continues to stare at the floor. The tension is real.
I clear my throat and point upstairs. “I bet your puppy would like some of those squeezes.” That does it, she’s bouncing up the stairs and giggling the whole way. I envy kids ability to just forget everything and be stupidly happy in a matter of seconds.
Jen doesn’t waste a second, she’s stripping me in the hall. “Whoa, whoa,” I say, feeling very naked. “At least buy me a drink first.” She ignores my lame joke and starts feeling along my ribs.
She moves methodically down both arms, then neck and back then finally along my legs.
Satisfied, she stands and hands my clothes back to me. “You’re damn lucky all you have is some bruising, but you could have some internal─”
“Jen, I’m fine. You know all the symptoms of internal bleeding, and so do both of us. You made sure of that, remember?” I say.
She nods, hugging herself with her arms.
My mind flashes back to the room upstairs and to everything I saw. I stare across at her, unable to hide my fear. Her eyebrows furrow as she looks at my face, “What is it? Do you feel any pain?” I shake my head. “No─ nothing like that.” I’m struggling to trust myself right now.
“Jen,” I start, “I─” the words die on my lips as she wraps me up in a hug. I’m genuinely confused by her behavior. Was everything that happened before just in my head? Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be standing here half naked embraced by Jen in the middle of this…house?
I look up the stairs and then follow it along the hallway. It’s all still there, the rooms and the wide opening. So I didn’t hallucinate that. This is a house, we are embracing and Karis is upstairs.
I repeat these facts in my head a few times. I need to feel like all of this makes sense, that I am not completely and totally insane.
 
#
 
I pull the covers up to her chin the way she likes it. She grins and squirms beneath the blanket. “Night Daddy,” she coos, rubbing her nose against mine. It’s been a while since she has done that. I lean down and snuggle her a bit, not wanting to let go.
I know what’s waiting for me.
She giggles and hugs on my face, “I love you,” she whispers. “Love you too, sweet girl,” I say. I sit back and run my finger through her hair. She smiles and closes her eyes. In just a few minutes her breathing becomes heavy and I know she’s out. I don’t want to move. I’ll have an entire week to myself with nothing to do but throw myself into work and binge watch movies.
It was a rare occasion that Jenna asked for time off of work, but apparently, she was taking some time to herself this week. She dropped this latest bomb on me as I had walked up the stairs to tuck in Jenna. They were supposed to be going on a mommy-daughter trip to Jenna’s hometown. So the long 3 days Karis would be gone had just turned into 7 days.
I’ll admit, I’m more than a little jealous that kiddo will see it before I did. Jenna had always been strange about telling me things. Especially her childhood. In all the years we had been together I never met her parents. She is an only child, so I’d always known she had a small family. Stranger still, her grandparents had passed away when she was only a child.
So no family, and I never met her parents. It was equally strange for me since I came from a large family with two younger brothers, and an older sister. My parents were freaking saints, so our home was always a home for foreign exchange students. Needless to say, I never had a moment to myself. It came with tons of downfalls until I moved out. We never missed a holiday and we always had each other’s backs.
My parents had always been a bit of a mystery to most people. They managed to stay in love for all of these years. The topic of divorce was never something mentioned in our home.
Yeah, I grew up pretty sheltered.
I might be simple, basic some may even say, but I knew what I wanted in life. Jenna and Karis were all that I needed.
I pause at the top of the stairs, looking out over the house in its entirety. Was what Jenna said before true? It couldn’t be. There’s a shift in the air and she’s here, at the bottom of the stairs.
I sniff and blink. When had she gotten there? Had she been there the whole time while I tucked Karis in? At least an hour had passed. I had taken my time reading her favorite stories and watching her sleep.
Her face is radiant, almost inhuman in its beauty. I slowly walk down the length of the stairs, my eyes never leaving hers.
“Jen, can we talk?” She smiles slowly and nods. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea,” she says. It’s barely above a whisper, seductive. My heart leaps in my chest and my hopes soar. Maybe this is it, maybe she will finally come to her senses. We belong together, she feels it.
 
#
 
“Jen, please.” My hand is covering hers and I can feel the heat rising in my cheeks. “Don’t say that.” Jenna shakes her head, her hair shifting to cover her right eye. I can barely make out a slight quiver in her lip. She doesn’t want to do this, she just is because she’s in a bad place mentally and doesn’t know what she wants. Be patient, I tell myself, don’t push her so hard.
At least, that’s what I thought. What came out was, “I just don’t understand you. You’re so sweet, kind and caring one minute and then the next you push me away. What’s with the mixed signals Jenna?” I say her name so harshly even I cringe a little inside. I’m being childish, but my bitterness just won’t stop from spilling out.
“Do you think this is something that I want?” She shot back, her eyes flaring as she ripped away from my touch. “Could have fooled me if it isn’t” I growl between clenched teeth. We stare across the table, sizing each other up.
Like always, I’m the first to fold. “Look, I’m sorry. But you won’t tell me anything. All I know is that you keep telling me it won’t work, but you refuse to tell me why.”
She closed her eyes and drew in a long, deep breath. “Tom, listen to me. Really listen.”
I stare at her for several seconds, my anger slowly starting to subside. Jen is always the reasonable one. It can be infuriating at times, but even I know when I am being ridiculous.
I’m feeling scared, left out and alone. More importantly, I’m lashing out.
I nod and sit patiently.
She gets up, her shirt brushing against my arm. Her scent rushes up all at once─ fresh and flowery like laundry mixed with a summer breeze. At some point, she had made coffee, when she returns she has two mugs.
The clinician in her has kicked in, she’s going to be in counselor mode.
“Tom,” she starts with that annoying sound in her voice. The one she uses to explain things to our daughter when she doesn’t understand.
I cross my arms and stick out my jaw. I don’t like being treated like a child.
Despite the seriousness in her voice, she can’t help herself and starts laughing. “You look just like her,” she breathes between laughter. My arms drop and I join in her laugh. We’re two fools back in our home, laughing over the dinner table.
She wipes delicately at the corners of her eyes. “Honestly, what do I do with you?” I smile sheepishly at her. “Take me back?” That was hands-down the lamest thing I managed to say at this moment. Pretty much at any moment of my life ever. How stupid can one dude sound?
She sighs, then looks at the ground. “I honestly want to.” I look up at her, shocked but hopeful. “Then let’s try. Whatever it is, you can tell me and we can work through it.” I’m beyond caring about how desperate I sound right now. The fact that she feels even a little bit like me is enough.
I always assumed it was one-sided.
She smiles and her eyes take on a sad, far away look. “I said I wanted to. It doesn’t mean that we can.”
It’s my turn to look at the ground. Since it’s in front of me, and the only thing I know to do I reach out and take the cup of coffee. It’s strong and robust, definitely a blend that came from south of the border. Jenna was an avid coffee drinker, she even roasted her own beans. I don’t know nearly as much as she does but I know good coffee when I taste it. She’s ruined the store-bought brands for me forever.
Finally, I break the silence. “Can you at least tell me why? I think I deserve that much. You keep saying that we can’t. Is it me? Something I did?” she shakes her head and takes a sip from her own mug. “You do deserve something,” she says.
Her eyes look dark. For the first time, I notice how tired she looks. There are dark rings under her eyes and her skin, though soft and supple, looks pale. It looks like she hasn’t slept for days. I reach across the table and return my hand over hers.
“If you want to be with me, why can’t we be together? You and Karis are all that I ever wanted.” Tears form in her eyes. She shifts her hand under mine and we sit together holding hands. She swipes angrily at her face at the tears falling.
“Damn you. I wanted to be firm tonight. You have no idea why all this is happening, and that’s what makes it hard.” The words are gone from me. She sighs heavily, “Tom, I’m sorry.” There it is again. Those damn, infuriating words. Those words that are ruining my life over and over again but mean nothing. Like before the voice sounds in my head.
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m so─
Stop it.” There’s a sharp slap across my face. “Stop this now” she screams.
I hold my face and stare wide-eyed across from her. “Je─” “I said stop.” she interrupts. I’m stunned into silence, unsure of what I have done. Can she hear it too?
“Carroll called me today,” she says softly. The hit still stings, but I manage to lower my hand and look over to her. “She did? How did she─” “She’s quitting, Tom. And if you try and get ahold of her, she’ll press charges.”
I’m so confused my head is spinning from all this new information. Why did Carroll call Jenna? I mean, they had known each other but not intimately. What did she have to do with anything?
Jen shakes her head, “Look at you. You have no idea, do you?” The anger is slowly filling me again. Have no idea about what? The fact that my family is falling apart? That everyone is quitting on me? What the fuck is happening?
That infuriating note is back and I want to slap it right out of her. “I love you, but you need to leave.” My hands dig into the table. I’m fighting the urge to wrap my hands around her delicate throat and squeeze.
Carroll. So Carroll was in on it too. Were all the women in the world this conniving or was it just the ones I chose to bring into my life?
Looks like it is going to just be me and her from here on out. Karis. I glance up at the stairs leading to her room. Then a horrible thought occurs to me─ the trip. I try to keep my voice even, somehow I manage to do it “What day are you coming back?” There’s a brief, awkward pause but she manages to whisper, “Saturday morning.” She’s lying. I know she is.
This is her plan. She’s going to take Karis from me, her and Carroll. Jenna doesn’t have a family, this was all a plot to get me to leave our daughter here so she can take the only thing away from me that I have left in this world. What lies had she told Carroll? Did she feign to be a victim again?
I grind my jaw. Jenna sits across from me ready to bolt at any moment. Her hands are on top of the table, but she’s turned in a way that she can put some distance between me and her. She’s a good, strong runner─ and fast.
My mind flashed to before. How had she gotten so far away from me in such a short time after we left the room? Didn’t you fall down the stairs? I’m not sure which memories to trust. Did I actually fall down and did anything that happened upstairs actually happen? I turn to her, look her dead in the eye and say, “Jenna, did you get to show me the house earlier?” She blinked a few times, her face a mask.
There it is again. The same one she wears when she’s hiding something. “Jenna,” I yell, beating the table with my hands. “Yes.” she stammers. “And the room?” I prod, my voice bordering on hysterical. She raises her eyebrows and stares at me, “room?” I sigh. “The weird room.” I didn’t want to say too much, trying to figure out what was real. “The atrium? Yes, I showed you that one,” she says. Then, “That was the last room we saw before we were walking back to Karis’s room and you tripped.”
“Right,” I said. “I tripped.” She’s staring at me as I finish my words. She looks frightened, like a small girl. Her features are wide, innocent. I feel like the biggest asshole in the world.
Maybe this was all in my head. Maybe I should get myself checked out first thing Monday.
I reach over to her, but she pulls away sniffling. To my horror, her mask is gone and replaced with deep sorrow. Tears stream down her face, staining the pale blue shirt. Now I feel like the king of asses.
“Jen,” I say softly, “please, I don’t mean to scare you. I’m just, I don’t know. Strange things have been happening, Carroll quit on me through you─ I just fell down stairs and I can’t even explain to you what I saw when I was passed out. I honestly don’t know what to believe.”
She’s really crying now, her shoulders wracked with sobs. I do the only thing I know how to do and offer comfort with my arms. Finally, I feel her body soften against mine. She leans into the hug, burying her face into my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Tom.” she breathes again, “I’m so very sorry.”
Then, as quickly as it happened before, it slips away. Our moment is over. Jen stands and then waits for me to join her by the entryway. She’s pacing slightly as I slowly move to the front entrance. She stops, glances up the stairs and then back at me. I feel so defeated like somehow I have let them both down by not winning Jenna over. I wanted a full and happy home for our daughter.
We hug and I leave. Just like that, the whole thing is over.
 
#
 
I’m staring out across the field behind our back yard. The wind begins to pick up and there’s a slight earthy scent traveling through. It feels charged in the air, mirroring my own feelings. The calm before the storm. Last night was extremely hard to get through, I had called Karis first thing in the morning just to see her off before the trip.
She had been incredibly cheerful, gushing about her trip to see her grandma and grandpa. I wanted to tell Jenna to have a safe trip but the phone was hung up before I could. I guess it really was over. I’m the loser that’s just not getting it.
I’m not sure what this week holds, but I know a few things for sure─ Jenna is up to something, Carroll is helping her and Karis is going to be caught in the crossfire.
Or, you’re completely insane, I mope silently.
The second explanation sounds far better than the first. A co-conspiracy? Jenna? I stare out for a few minutes more and then step back inside. There’s no way she would do that to me.
The house is as unbearable as ever. All I can hear is the sound of the furnace kicking on and the air rushing from the vents. I sit on the couch and flip on the t.v. After scrolling through tons of movies I decide on a drama and then pull up my delivery app. Screw making dinner, I’m going to go all out. I glance at the clock and sigh. It’s barely 10 a.m.
By the time I’m done ordering, I’ve charged a small fortune in food and candy. Enough to pretty much last me the entire week. The best distraction for being sad is flooding your brain with endorphins and a shit-ton of food. I did hear something about happiness and chocolate once.
Four hours later I’m in m&m and snickerdoodle heaven. My first movie and most of my second one was over when the rumble starts outside.
It starts low and slow, lazily brushing streaks of white across the sky. Just as the first wave ends, the second comes crashing through. I jump as the sky explodes in a series of loud crashes. My eyes don’t leave the sky, dazzled by the brilliant flashes from the belly of the clouds. The sky turns an eerie shade of green and then quiets. The wind outside dies, almost as if it has been snuffed out. I can see that something is lighting the sky, but the sound is so distant it seems as if it’s now miles away.
There’s movement and one of the clouds separate from the others, stretching down toward the earth. I stare in disbelief at the slow-forming upside down cone. In a few moments, it will be long enough to reach the field less than a quarter mile from my house.
I feel the blood drain from my face and my palms grow cold and sweaty. The tower, now quickly gaining momentum is on a straight path to my back patio. I can’t move. Can’t breathe.
A horrible sound rips through the air. Like a train blowing its horn─ only a thousand times louder. My home shudders, pieces of fence getting ripped apart and sucked into the swirling dirt and air.
MOVE. My mind screams.
My legs won’t budge. Instead, there’s a rush of warmth down my left pant leg. I’m glued to the floor covered in my own piss. So this is how I die─ covered in pee and belly full of candy. I guess it could be worse.
Move, idiot it screams again. This time, I listen. I dive toward the hallway and into the small entryway closet. I’ve barely closed the door when I hear more of my house being ripped away. My teeth chatter and my body shakes.
I scream as something crashes into the closet door. I almost expect it to break, but through some miracle, it stays in place. I’m rocking back and forth, holding my knees to my chest with all that I’ve got. I sob uncontrollably into my legs. What would Jenna think if she saw me like this?
Thank god Karis isn’t here.
Silence hits all at once like a sledgehammer against a brick wall. It’s so quiet, it’s deafening. Terrified I snap a finger near my head. I relax as I hear the soft clink. Is it over? I wonder. I dare to lift my head a few inches and look at the space under the door.
I frown, staring at the movement by the door. Long, dark shadows spill into the small space like two skinny legs. They are still for several seconds and then move. They get longer and then abruptly shorter as the lines form into two circles.
Something is standing outside of my door.
I’m unable to move again, frozen in complete terror. There is something wrong on the other side. I don’t know how to describe what I’m feeling. The only thing I can say is that the air has turned sour. There’s a staleness to it that I can’t quite place. It’s old and ancient.
Then my brain catches up to my senses. Yes you have, I tell myself, during the last storm.
A blast of the putrid smell floods under the door and I nearly retched. There’s a foulness to it that only a demon could know. It’s a mix of burnt hair, rotting flesh, sulfur, and cloyingly sweet wet earth. And yet, there was so much more to it.
I feel it. Just like I did before.
The suction noise comes from the other side, slow and lazy. It’s toying with me. It knows I’m here, caged like an animal. Maybe because it fled the last time we met. Maybe because I saw something I wasn’t supposed to. Or maybe, just maybe─
I jump to my feet and yank open the door. I blink a few times at the wall. There is nothing there. I glance up and down the hall wearily searching every small space my eyes find. It’s gone.
 
Part IV coming soon.
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We Are The Last – Chapter 2 – A Sci-Fi Novel

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. 😀

Chapter 2

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.’

Gallery

We Are The Last – Chapter 1 – A Sci-Fi Novel

Chapter 1

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.

Obligatory Update Post

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! ~♥


Grey ❤