This is another Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig. Feel free to tell me what I did wrong, where it falls flat, where it rings false. And maybe even where I got it right?

Crow looked down the bar to see Melly and her beautiful brown eyes staring at him with a smile that promised a night full of wonderful, scandalous things. It was a promise she had kept many times. But a night like that might fill him with wild and futile hopes. And tonight he couldn’t afford such a thing. He smiled back at Melly with promises of his own. Tonight he’d learn what it felt like to break his word.

Two worn leather boots stepped onto the bar, blocking his view of Melly. Crow smiled as his eyes traveled up from the boots, over mud-spattered trousers, a faded t-shirt with flecks of paint, a two-days unshaven smirk, and finally the mischievous wink of his oldest friend.

“All the luck in the world this one!” Gordy exclaimed to the bar. The little bar’s rafters seemed to shake with the cheers that erupted around them.

Gordy’s grin was wide, but there was sadness in his eyes. Crow hadn’t all the luck. Not really. Just a box full.

“How many times I told ya to get off my bar, Gordy!” Clark shouted, snatching up a broom to knock Gordy off the well-polished bar top. He had managed to keep the bar looking flawless despite Gordy’s taking every chance to dance upon it.

Gordy allowed himself to be pushed over with the broom, landing on his feet beside Crow. He picked up Crow’s ignored beer from the bar and took a swig before shoving the drink into Crow’s hand. Beside them, Clark set a beer down in front of Garret, Gordy’s older and much larger brother, and Gordy snatched it for himself. Garret raised a fist, but glanced at Crow, and took a deep, anger-settling breath. The luck hadn’t left Crow yet. That wouldn’t happen till the morning.

Clark, who seemed somehow to keep an eye on everything, had already poured Garret another drink and all was forgiven. Crow always wondered how such a decent guy ended up the barkeep to a town full of thieves.

“Lucky Crow!” Gordy shouted, throwing his arm around Crow’s shoulders and raising his drink.

The one-room bar resounded with shouts of “Lucky Crow!” and bird calls. His friends and neighbors filled the room, making it hot and stuffy and hard to move, but no one complained. Tonight they would party like it was their last.

His name wasn’t Lucky. It wasn’t Crow, either. One he was given, and the other he took, but both suited him well enough that he kept them.

One corner of the room burst into song, followed shortly by a group near the center bursting into a song they thought was better. The bar’s little tables had all been pushed up against the walls to create more standing room. This was definitely the most crowded and boisterous seeing off that Crow had attended, and he’d been to a few. They were there to say goodbye to him, while it was really his luck that was leaving.

Gordy jostled him in his one-armed hug and kissed his cheek. “At least you never owed a debt,” Gordy said into his ear to be heard above the ruckus. Crow had to smile at that. It was true, little thing that it was now. He had never payed the heavy price to the debtor. And he never would.

Tonight was eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow he would die. His luck was bound to run out some day. Especially the way he’d come by it.

His luck streak came after a bad start. Ten years was how long you got to become a productive member of society; either through family or function. Orphans who didn’t find their place in World Two were drowned. But Crow had always had a fear of the water; only ever took showers or shallow baths. No. Giver Lake was not for him. Three days before that fateful tenth birthday, he jumped onto a supply train. It was a better end. Fugitives were shot.

But this was where Crow had found his luck. Once on the train, he climbed into a large wooden chest that seemed as though it had been made to hide someone just his size. Scared stiff, he stayed still for what must have been hours- even after his muscles began to ache from being scrunched so tight- expecting every moment to be caught. When he finally found a modicum of courage, he jumped off the train and landed in Nine-World. It was years later that he learned he’d climbed into a luck box, inadvertently stealing away the luck inside from whoever had shipped it on that train. All considered, he didn’t mind that he would be dying now. Everyone died sooner or later. And he was already seventeen years overdue. Still lucky, in a way.

Crow had seen friends off on their last nights, and it always ended the same. Reminiscing, then regrets, and one last drink and one last drink till the mood was somber and bitter and hard. At the end he would see them safely home; bringing the luck that would chase off harm for their last walk through their darkest night. The way those men sobbed as they parted ways, Crow promised to secret away to his grave. A surety now. But in this moment, spirits were high, and that’s how Lucky Crow would be remembered. So he walked out of the cheer and into the cold alone. If he sobbed in the end, no one would be witness to it.

He looked once more at the little bar, every window showing a VIGNETTE of joy and humor and life. The longer he stood there, the farther away he felt. He saw a shadow leaning against the door frame. Probably a reveler who wanted to catch a bit of air after being in amongst the cloistering celebration. Somehow, though the party was meant to celebrate his life, it only reminded Crow of how close he was to being dead. He was lucky to have only been caught rather than killed on the spot like his COHORTS. Had he been anyone other than “Lucky” Crow, his loving friends might have turned on him, suspecting sabotage rather than the unlikeliest of luck.

Crow turned away from the merriment and started up the hill to the little house he’d been lucky enough to buy several times below market value from an estate sale. All descendants of the house’s last inhabitant had died, and so it had been up to the state to sell the house. Crow had happened upon the broker handling the sale before he could even put out the for-sale sign. And of course, it was conveniently located near the bar and the grocer, the fletcher where he worked, and all his closest friends, including Gordy.

He bent his head down low against the wind trying to push him back to the warmth and laughter and kind words. But none of that could save him, so he pushed on. Even now, in the unlit night, his boots avoided the deeper puddles and found purchase on rain-slick stone. As he pulled his coat in tighter around himself, he remembered the snowy night he had lost his jacket. He and Gordy had searched the entire coffee house, disbelieving till the very end that it was gone. He had been close to tears, feeling lost at having so suddenly been abandoned by his luck. But as he had stepped shivering and dejected from the coffee house, a woman carrying a box took one look at him and stopped. She set down her box of donations for the thrift shop a few doors down and fished out a fur-lined coat- much warmer and finer than the thin windbreaker he’d been looking for. Her husband had died and she had an entire box of clothes that were just his size. Who would the coat go to when he was dead?

“Hey!” he heard someone hail behind him. He didn’t stop. Well-meaning though they may be, Crow just wanted to be alone. His last moments would be very public, and he wanted to take the little time he had left for himself.

Executions were gruesome displays, warning others against attempting the same. Those protecting their land had the right to defend it. The man who had shot his friends down would see no justice for it. But Crow, who had killed no one, had twisted his ankle as he ran and stumbled out of range of the gunfire. He was found moments later, since they had been running through open space and he had the luck of having fallen behind the only stray delivery bin in the area. The man could have shot him then and there, and almost did, but changed his mind at the last second and lowered his gun.

Again his luck would have it that Garret had been called out of his usual jurisdiction to answer the call. Garret couldn’t let him go, not without forfeiting his own life, but he could put him in a holding cell separate from the more depraved criminals and give him a decent meal. The next morning, a mix-up had him in the court room being sentenced ahead of at least a hundred others, skipping what looked to be a three-day wait. There was only one punishment for stealing. Especially with the amount of goods Crow had been caught with. His generosity was one of the reasons his neighbors appreciated him. He was only thankful Gordy had fallen ill and hadn’t been with him; wasn’t dead now.

Crow finally relented as he heard hurried steps gaining on him. Closing the distance uphill against this wind took some determination. And Crow had never been mean or ill-spirited. He couldn’t turn his back on someone so eager to catch up to him. He waited until the neighbor was almost upon him.

He turned, surprised to see a stranger’s face. And not a kind one. Crow smiled at the cruel humor of it. He was just Crow now.

“They really call you Lucky?” the stranger asked, panting slightly from the effort of catching up. A threat was weaved into the words. There would be a reckoning if he didn’t like the answer. Crow suspected this man didn’t enjoy the answers to most of his questions.

“Sure,” Crow answered, looking over the stranger with a suspicious eye. He had a wide jaw and heavy brow, and eyes and mouth that looked like they’d forgotten how to do anything but scowl. His skin was rough- though from weather or drugs, Crow couldn’t tell.

“Heh,” the stranger laughed with a nasty gleam in his eye. “Well, you’ve been pardoned. Lucky.”

One side of the stranger’s mouth was pulled into a wicked smile. Crow imagined that’s all the joy his face could manage. A meaty fist held a scroll out to Crow. It was a hand that was used to cause pain and hull dead weight, and hadn’t the skill for penning fancy letters. An odd choice for a messenger. Or perhaps all death pardons came straight from the assigned executioner. A brush with death making the pardon more poignant.

Crow reached out hesitantly, half-expecting the stranger to lop off his hand. And when he looked down at the scroll, Crow wished that this had been the stranger’s purpose.

Though he had never seen such a thing before, the scroll was unmistakable. It was crisp, white paper kept rolled with silver wax which had been stamped with a roaring lion seal.

So much for not owing any debts.


Not an easy thing in a place so filthy.

The sink was covered in grime and rust-colored stains. Some of which she had just added herself.

She inspected her hands once again. The rims of her fingernails white, her skin slightly reddened from the hot water. She bared her teeth at the small, clean spot of the mirror. Her teeth were not as white as she would like, but neither were they tar-brown. Which was nothing short of a small miracle, really.

She took a step back to capture more of her image in the tiny circle of mirror. She took the brush from her pack and smoothed back her still-wet hair, twisting it into a bun at the back of her head. She rather would have it down, hide her too-large ears, but she didn’t have the hair-taming tools. In a few days. When she was home. For now, clean, brushed hair would suffice.

She once again rummaged through her dusty pack and produced a plastic bag filled with clean clothes. Not “road clean,” with frayed edges, material rough with wear, and permanent little grease spots. But actual clean, with soft cloth, colors bright, the flowery scent of detergent wafted from the plastic bag as she removed them.

She looked down at her naked body. Every inch of it freshly scrubbed. She stood on newspaper to shield herself from the grim and who knkow what els on the bathroom floor. Her feet, always bundled in thick socks and boots, were the only part of her that hadn’t been covered in a cast of gray.

She had shaved everything below her neckline and she was ultra-aware of the soft cloth brushing against her smooth, freshly exposed skin. It was hard for her to imagine that in less than an hour from now she wouldn’t notice it anymore.

She placed her feet gingerly into new shoes, low slingback sandals that showed off her freshly painted purple toes. She squatted down to fasten them, remembering to keep her knees together. All the little ladylike details she had abandoned would be second nature again in a day or two.

She took another step back, off of the newspaper now. Black lines around her eyes, rouge on her cheeks and lips, a blouse, jeans, and a thin sweater.

The image in the clean patch of mirror looked like someone she had known a long time ago, but was a stranger now. She couldn’t imagine that woman giving her a second glance. Yet that woman stared back at her from the mirror. She used the plastic bag that had held her clothes to pick up the filthy pack and toss it into the trash bin. Then she used the bag again to turn the door knob, tossing the bag aside as she stepped out of the rest stop bathroom.

There was nothing outside but a few parked cars, vending machines, and the lingering smell of truck exhaust ever-present at roadside stops. The mother and father who had cast a wary eye and made sure their kids weren’t too near her as she walked into the bathroom barely gave her a second glance as their little girl zoomed across her path.

Perception was a funny thing. It often gave the wrong impression. She was far more dangerous in her current state.

A shiny, black economy car- fuel efficient- pulled up across two parking spaces, and the passenger window slid down.

“Hey, pretty lady! Need a ride?” the driver called out. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, had neatly combed medium-length dark hair, and black sunglasses above an engaging smile.

“Perfect timing,” she said, smiling back as she opened the door. She hated waiting. More so in heels. She breathed in deeply as she settled in her seat, enjoying the new car scent. It was artificial in the car that was a few years old, but it was still nice. She looked at the battered station wagon, covered in colorful stickers and mud, that she had arrived in. She wondered how long it would take for the car to be reported as abandoned.

“I missed you,” Collin said, smiling though his eyes didn’t leave the road.

She laughed. “With no one but Jenna and Frank to talk to, I bet you did.”

She closed her eyes, enjoying the sun streaming through the windows and slowly warming the car.

this is the result of a weekly writing challenge doled out by Chuck Wendig. hopefully, you enjoy.

Being a time traveling homicide detective may seem like a breeze. Even a joke. Just travel to the moments before the crime, arrest the murderer, and be back in time for dinner. As with most things in life, the simple and obvious answer isn’t as easy as it looks.

There is a whole host of logical, ethical, and complexly scientific reasons why a chrono-cide detective can’t prevent a crime from happening. I’ll spare you the self-righteous, text-book litany and explain it in the terms used in the field: it fucks shit up.

As a chrono-cide detective, I spend a lot of time meticulously strategizing how not to fuck shit up since it’s quite easy to do and punishable by some of the more unpleasant forms of death.

A lot of times, we can tell from investigating the scene of the crime which way the perpetrator left the building and apprehend them as they’re leaving the scene of the crime. But sometimes things are a bit more difficult. It’s a terrible thing to say, that you’re eager for a murder, but I look forward to the crimes that involve an investigation. I’m a detective dammit. I like to detect.

Even though everybody knows about time travel and chrono-cide detectives, they still tend to freak out when you disappear or materialize right in front of them, so it’s standard practice to find somewhere private- or at least sparsely populated- to make a jump. Though none of the people in the internet access station looked familiar, I got a few glances of recognition and nobody stopped me as I walked toward the employee bathroom. This is something you get used to when you time travel. People you haven’t met yet knowing you.

Once shut into the little two-stall bathroom, I pulled back my long, over-sized tailored cuff and adjusted the setting on the square touchscreen of my chrono-jogger, a device strapped to my wrist that was, for all the world, an extra-fancy watch.

A moment later I looked around me, and had I not felt the odd edges of time sickness- blunted by my daily equilibrium serum injection- I would have thought nothing happened. I walked out of the bathroom and found myself intruding upon a whispered conversation between two employees of the internet station. I smiled amiably and walked toward the front counter, hearing one of the clerks mumble “What the fuck?” in my wake.

Here’s where my job gets tricky. As I said, for multiple reasons, I can’t just go prevent the crime from happening. By the same token, I can’t say anything that will allow someone else to figure out what’s going to happen, or they will try to prevent the crime from happening. Either way, it’ll be seen as my fault that the crime didn’t take place, so it’ll be my head on the proverbial chopping block. (I say “proverbial” because in reality, it’s more of an apparatus, and more than your head gets chopped.)

“Who do I see about getting security footage?” I flashed my badge at the woman manning the counter.

She looked from the back of the store to me, confused by how I had gotten past her, until she looked at my badge and puzzled out what had happened.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“Who do I see about getting security footage?” I repeated.

I used to hate having to repeat myself. It was a pet peeve. But since then I’ve worked a couple of cases that felt like that awful Groundhog Day movie. Repeating myself is no longer a problem.

“Why did you join chrono-cide?” the man in charge of security asked me once we were settled in his office as he retrieved my request.

I smirked. It’s a common question. Your moral fiber is tested thoroughly and regularly as a precaution, which people take to mean you’re a crime-hating saint with nothing to hide. Mostly it means you have a hero complex and are so narcissistic you share all your pitfalls because you don’t recognize them as flaws. Or you’re shameless enough not to care what people think. When asked about their career choice, most detectives give some spiel about making a difference or some such nonsense, but I always tell the truth. Because people don’t like it.

“I thought it would be easy,” I shrugged. “Little effort, big paycheck, never late for appointments.”

And there was the scowl. I love the scowl. The look that says that I haven’t met up with expectations in their limited world view, and they find me unpleasant. It’s always fleeting, because the person is trying to be polite, and scowling at someone isn’t polite, but it’s there. And I made it happen. And it makes them feel uncomfortable. And it makes me laugh.

“So it really is easy,” he said- they always say- with a smug, I’m-better-than-you-because-I-work-harder-than-you smile on his face.

“No,” I confess. “Chrono-cide is physically and mentally strenuous eighteen-hour days. As you can imagine, I was thoroughly disappointed.”

The smugness is gone, replaced with respect tinged with bitterness- at having been wrong- and shame- at having felt so smug. Results may vary, some people have no respect, but this guy was typical.

Respectful or not, the guy found the footage I was looking for and gave it to me.

“What are you looking for on there?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” I smiled, only half joking. I was looking for the alleged murderers alibi. I don’t understand why criminals even bother taking security tapes anymore, when everyone knows a time jumper can take it and return it before they get a chance to think about it.

“At some point in the future I’ll be back to use your restroom,” I said to the receptionist as I walked out of the building to find a place to make the jump. Jumpers try not to use the same place two jumps in a row. Something about the fabric of the universe and time continuum. I don’t do it because the time sickness is incredible. I was out for two days after the last time, and I fear to think what would have happened if I hadn’t taken my serum.

“Um… alright,” she said, looking confused.

I walked around the building to the parking lot, waited for a lady to finish putting make-up on in her car, changing from sneakers to stilettos and clomping away, before jumping futureward beside my desk. It is generally frowned upon to jump to places you go to often since you might- literally- stumble into yourself and create a wormhole, and my supervisor lambastes me often for this. But i’m incurably lazy, the wormhole thing is just a theory, and even negative attention is attention.

A perfect jump, I materialized with my chair right behind me and plopped down into it.

“You’re lucky Captain didn’t see that,” said Ray, my supposed partner. I had always thought the word “partner” implied some kind of symbiotic relationship until working with Ray, who thinks it means being constantly absent whiled doing things vaguely related to solving the crime and yet somehow knowing everything before me.

“I’m not scared of Captain Captain,” I bragged. I swear to god that’s his name. Captain Marshall, Captain of the Chrono-Cide Force.

“But you should be worried,” I continued. “Since you haven’t done any actual work on this case thus far.”

“And it looks like I won’t have to,” he sat on the edge of my desk, looking unabashedly smug.

As usual, he knew something I didn’t, and he was about to enjoy the hell out of my annoyance as he told me what it was.

“And why is that?” I indulged him.

“The murderer confessed this morning,” he grinned.

“When did this happen?”

“While you were gone. You should put your jumps closer together.”

“If you actually did any work, you’d know that I’m keeping my jumps within regulation,” I snarked, tossing the now pointless data drive from the internet station onto my desk. “So Johnny Coleman just walked in and confessed the whole thing?”

“Not Johnny Coleman.”

“What? That’s impossible.”

“Then I guess we’d better go sort out the anomaly in our holding cell.”

“No, this is the missing data drive that shows Johnny Coleman is a liar,” I said, holding up the drive.

“Or it’s the drive that shows he’s telling the truth.”

“Who the fuck do we have in the holding cell, then?”

“Donald Cartwright the third.”

“The mayor’s son?” I gawked.

“The very one.”

Something didn’t feel right about this. Obviously it seemed unlikely that the mayor’s son would be guilty of chopping off a man’s head before setting him on fire- and even less likely that he’d confess to such a thing- but there was more to this.

“No, something isn’t right.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“So did I,” said Captain Captain.

I spun my chair to face him as he stood behind me.

“Captain, I don’t know what’s going on, but I call bullshit on this.”

“I don’t like it either, but the case is open and shut and that’s all there is to it. Drop it, Amy.”

I winced at the use of my first name. It meant he didn’t want to hear any argument from me. I glared at him as he turned and walked back into his office.

“You’re not going to drop this are you?” Ray smiled.

“I sure as fuck ain’t.”

“I’m coming with you,” he said, hopping off his desk.

We jumped. We did something you’re never supposed to do. We went to the scene of the crime.

Cora stared steadily at her opponent. He was panting, hunched over in an attempt to protect himself from the next blow. Seeing this huge beast of a man cower before her was satisfying. He was winded, almost trembling, and she wasn’t even breathing heavy. She tried in vain to keep the smile off her face. He was hopeless and they both knew it. It was cruel for her to prolong the moment, but she couldn’t restrain herself. It had only taken her a minute to reduce this soldier to a coward on the defense. Invincible elite, indeed.

She moved in closer, unsheathing her sword. Anyone else would keep their distance, not take a chance, finish him with a bullet. But this wasn’t about safety. This was about power. And she wanted everyone to know that she had destroyed this man.

She took the final blow, a slash to the throat. She blinked, shocked as her sword clanged against the soldiers steel arm guard and she felt a pain in her stomach. She met the soldiers eyes, which were steady and calm. She stood there, unmoving, unable to believe what had just happened. He had blocked her death blow and stabbed her with a concealed dagger. His defensive position had been a feint.

She felt the sharp pain as he removed the dagger and pushed forward, knocking her on her back. He followed her to the ground and she felt the blade cut through her throat. She struggled to take a breath, knowing her windpipe was severed and useless, but unable to fight her body’s natural impulse. She could tell by the way that her vision shifted that her body must have been convulsing, struggling to take in breath, but she was too distracted by the spots forming in her vision to feel it.

Her eyes roved over the light and shadows on the cement bricks. She had chosen this secluded underground hallway for the advantage it would give her. She had chosen this space because no one would discover the body of this guard until it was much too late.

She could barely see, everything was going dim and blurry. She didn’t see him. He had probably already left to raise the alarm. Fast and efficient, there was no reason to waste time watching her inevitable death.

And then black.

She couldn’t keep the argument from this morning from echoing in her head. She didn’t understand why she had to be born into a family that was so anti-tech. Was it not bad enough to have the whole world view her choices as freakish and fringe without the judgment of her archaic family? They still used the old world systems without plugs. How could you truly experience anything online without at least connecting to a perception filter?

She had hid her perception filter growing up, and only plugged it in behind her firmly locked bedroom door. She had absolutely reveled in all of the latest tech when she moved out into her own place. She sometimes wondered if she had in fact gone overboard, but when presented with all of the wonderful options with which to enrich an environment, how could you not take advantage of them?

“Wait… turn your head again,” her sister had said. That had been her mistake. If she hadn’t turned her head when she picked up her tea cup, she never would have noticed anything. The suggestion of the mind, as it was commonly known, was a very powerful thing. Scientist had learned decades ago that if you convinced the mind that a pencil being pressed to the skin was actually a hot branding iron, blisters would form on the skin in reaction to the heat. As a reaction to prolonged exposure to the Pharaplex in her elf-like avatar, her ears had begun to take on a more pointed shape. And when she had turned her head this morning, her sister had seen her slightly pointed ears.

“What?” she had said, hoping to feign ignorance and change the topic.

“Turn your head again,” her sister’s face, peering at her through the telescreen, was suspicious and carefully studying her.

“Why? You’re so weird,” Dalia said. She needed to move the conversation on fast. “What were you saying about mom’s new obsession with peanuts? She’s going to add them the farm?”

“Turn your head again, or I’m coming over there,” her sister had taken on the adamant tone that meant there would be no further argument. At least not a successful one. She reluctantly turned her head.

“Oh my god,” her sister’s voice sounded horrified and she didn’t want to turn back to face the telescreen. She didn’t want to see her sister giving her the look she had to deal with from strangers on the rare occasions she left the house.

“You’re a morpher,” her sisters voice came out hushed and breathless, like she was afraid to even say it. Like it meant something wrong and dirty and perverse. She finally gathered the courage to look back at the telescreen. Her sister’s face was pale and solemn and scared. Dalia’s apprehension was instantly replaced with anger.

“I’m your sister,” she snapped, her words clipped, shortened by her anger. “I am the same person. Don’t look at me like I’m some monster.”

Her sister struggled and stumbled over silent words before she finally stuttered, “How long have you been a morpher?”

“How long have I, your sister, a normal human being, been a citizen of the Pharaplex?” she noticed her sister wince at her words. It had been the desired effect, but it hurt her as well. Already her sister had distanced herself, classified her as something other. She was so disappointed that this was the reaction she was getting from her sister. Although isn’t this just what she had expected? Why else would she have hidden herself from her family if she wasn’t expecting precisely this reaction.

“A citizen of the Pharaplex,” her sister echoed, tears starting to stream from her eyes. “I have to go.”

“You have to go?” she was enraged. “Where do you have to go, dear sister? You bugged me for weeks to schedule a telescreen chat with you and now you have to go? ‘We’re sisters’ you said. ‘We should talk far more often.'” She quoted her sister’s words back at her.

“You are not my sister,” she screamed back. “You’ve changed yourself into one of those filthy freaks.”

“How dare you-” but her sister had disconnected. She was staring at the logo for the telescreen company.

She replayed this exchange now, over and over again. And it hurt anew every time. The ever-refreshing pain of it somehow dulled the harshness of her surroundings. She was walking, ankle deep, through the stinking muck of a manmade swamp. Technically everything in the Pharaplex was manmade, being that it was a digital world, but there was a difference between lands that were set to develop organically and places like this one, which had been built to be dank and miserable.

Every step was difficult and tiresome and loud, as she had to pull her boot out of the suctioning muck with a thwack each time. Her boots, lovely, ornamental things that were meant for firm ground and gentle grasses, had been ruined after only a few steps into this sludge. She had been expecting unpleasant surroundings, but nothing this treacherous. She had to tread carefully to not trip over rocks and tree roots, gingerly finding her footing again and again in another pile of muck. She moved as quickly as she dared, wanting to be back in one of the safe worlds as soon as possible.

She focused again, toward the bottom of her vision, looking at her username. It was a standard system issue, cold numbers. She usually kept it out of her view. People use it to keep track of which avatar they were wearing, and since she only had one avatar, she didn’t need the reminder. But she kept the ugly, empty numbers in view now as a motivation to keep going.

A number would never be able to represent who she was in the Pharaplex. The ability to make a custom name could be bought at a premium from the system. A premium that she couldn’t afford.

Finally she stopped, coming to the spot where the transaction was to take place. She had followed the instructions precisely and traveled, on foot, exactly two miles. She wasn’t accustomed to walking this far anywhere, not outside or in the Pharaplex, and she could feel the fatigue setting in to her limbs. She would need to get a refresh boost as soon as she transported off of this stinking planet. She hadn’t seen the rest of the planet, but she had the impression that it’s entire surface was covered in this awful muck.

She studied the trees settled into the steadily rotting muck that lay before her. She was in a clearing. A clearing that was covered in muck, but was absent of tree roots to avoid. She saw no sign that anyone was near or that anyone had been here. She turned up her ears to see if she could hear someone standing in the trees beyond her vision. Perhaps she had misjudged her pacing trudging through this mess.

She heard footsteps behind her, coming fast. She turned to see a hoarder, his black armor gleaming, quickly closing the distance between them. Her eyes came across a dense, flat dagger in his hand, and could suddenly focus on nothing else.

This was an ambush. She had been lured here by this hoarder; this psychopath. There were people who would set up things like this to kill you. Avatars, like people, were one of a kind, and if you harmed them, they could die. Someone could kill you. She was to be the latest addition to his hoard of bodies.

She cursed herself then, the gravity of her situation dropping onto her heavily. It would be worse than losing her avatar. She hadn’t disabled her perception filter. The filter that made it so that her body truly experienced everything she felt here, the one slowly reshaping her ears, was still solidly connected to her body in reality. She had been so busy counting her paces and trying to keep her bearings that she had forgotten to disable it; a basic safety precaution when traveling to foreign unsafe worlds. There was no time to navigate to the menu and take it offline now.

She watched the dagger as it moved, positioning to stab her upward, under her ribs. She reached out, numbly feeling her body in the real world mirror her action. She fumbled, quickly, desperately.

The dagger bit into her and she gasped and flinched away from the pain as in the same moment she grasped the plug and yanked.

She was on her back on the cold, hardwood floor, panting. The momentum of her body flinching along with her desperate yank on the plug had knocked her out of her chair. She could feel the burn of pain in the center of her abdomen with each heaving breath. She touched the place where the dagger had begun to cut in and immediately pulled her hand away from the sting of pain. Her fingers came away bloody.

DISCLAIMER: i know this story sucks. there are problems with its integrity, i know. and usually i would fix them. but this story features the characters from Theta as i originally imagined them, before they even had names. their original versions are cool and all, but now they’re both much stronger, faster, smarter, and way more believable. all growed up in a way. not to mention their past, present, and especially their future is far more interesting (and complex). it was hard to write these characters as they are here because, well, the Vena and Rander from Theta would totally bitch slap the two from this story. for so many reasons! seriously, there would be slapping for nearly every sentence. so, with that in mind, try to enjoy this for what it is.

Vena forced herself not to look at anyone in particular as she waited for the elevator doors to close, hoping no one would get on with her. Even when they did close, she couldn’t allow herself to let out the sigh of relief she had been waiting to release. She knew that there was probably someone watching her on a monitor somewhere. She couldn’t afford to look anything but calm, confident, and most of all, like she belonged there. Rousing even the slightest suspicion could lead to her death. If she was lucky, it would be a quick death and they wouldn’t try to torture information about Theta out of her first.

It took a moment for Vena to identify the emotion she was feeling but finally she pegged it: fear. This was the first time she had ever felt frightened during a mission. Of course she had felt apprehension and nervousness before. That was only natural. There was always a chance that a choice she had made had been wrong, or that something unpredictable would happen, and that she would end up dead because of it. But this was different. For the first time, she was alone.

She had done plenty of missions by herself. Most of her missions she’d done by herself, in fact. But there was a big difference between doing a mission solo and being alone. There was no Method nearby that could provide backup, there was no one to call if she found herself in a corner, no one even knew where she was. If she didn’t survive this mission, there would be no one to come save her. And even if Theta did somehow figure out where she was, they wouldn’t send anyone to save her anyway.

She had gone rogue. In an Agency hub. To save a Method that was considered a double agent that had gone back to the Agency. If Theta sent someone to get her, it would be to kill her for defecting and turning traitor. It would be assumed that she had been corrupted by Rander and joined the ranks of the Agency.

Also, for the first time, if she failed the mission, she was dead. If she didn’t acquire the target, there would be no coming out of this. If she couldn’t manage to get Rander out alive, she wouldn’t make it out alive. Besides the fact that it was unlikely she’d make it out of the building without Rander, if she did make it back out without Rander, again, she would be assumed a traitor and killed by her own people. She had to succeed at this mission or prepare to die.

And, if she was honest, she was scared for another reason: she was scared for Rander. She was scared that she would be too late and that there was no one left to save. She wasn’t sure what would be worse, finding out that he was an Agency double agent, or that he was dead. She didn’t think she would be able to handle either scenario. She told herself that he was alive and not a traitor. It was the only possibility that would leave her alive and sane.

The bell on the elevator finally rang to announce she’d arrived at her floor. The unfamiliar fear made her hesitate for just a moment. She hoped that hesitation wouldn’t end up being lethal. She had to get her fear in check, and fast. She would probably run into Agents in the hallway, and if they got the slightest impression of fear from her, she was dead. Fear to Agents was like blood to sharks; a swarm of them would descend on her in a frenzy if she didn’t keep herself under control.

Lucky for Vena, she had practiced getting her emotions under control within moments her entire life. By the time she was three steps out of the elevator, she had stowed her fear safely away in a deep dark corner where it wouldn’t surface until well after the mission, if it surfaced at all.

She was almost there. The hallways were eerily empty. She could hear nothing but the muted thud of her footsteps, which she forced into being slow and steady. She would only have a precious few minutes once she opened the door. And in fact, the countdown until she was discovered as a spy had been running from the moment she had swiped her ID card at the front turnstile. The building’s system would be matching her identification with all the other data in the system. It would take a few minutes, but eventually it would figure out that the ID of an incapacitated Agent had made an impossible 3 hour jump from Australia to here. At which point she had better be on her way out.

The fact that the Agency was willing to put aside pretenses and put up the out of place turnstiles in the lobby was not a reassuring sign, either. It meant they weren’t expecting an attack and on the odd chance that there was one, they were sure that they would be able to squash it with no trouble. Vena had been to several Theta headquarters, and none of them were that confident. It was completely rational that she had found herself afraid, albeit unsettlingly unfamiliar and inconvenient.

She prayed that she hadn’t been mistaken when she had chosen her ID and that it wouldn’t raise an alarm as she swiped it in the doorway. Rander was a high profile prisoner. He had been in the higher ranks when he’d deserted the Agency, and he had turned traitor and risen quite a few ranks after doing so. From the Agency’s perspective, he was a trove of enemy secrets and a huge liability. Unless Rander had been a double agent, they undoubtedly planned to kill him as soon as they got information.

The click of the bolt in the door sliding open was the only thing that happened after she swiped the ID card. She forced herself to casually open the door and step in instead of rushing in the way she was compelled to do.

As soon as she heard the door click shut behind her she dropped all pretenses and rushed forward.

It took her a moment of Agents not attacking her, alarms not going off, and torture devices not being employed before she realized she was in what looked like a rather spacious hotel room, with a man sitting in a chair and admiring the view displayed through the large, curtainless windows.

Her heart sank immediately. All had been for naught. She had made a mistake and come into the wrong room. Soon the system would discover the discrepancies with her ID and she would be killed, never knowing whether she had even been close to saving Rander or if he was already dead.

She was about to sink to her knees and fall in despair, waiting for her inevitable capture and death when she noticed the man’s reflection in the window.

It was Rander.

She rushed to him, immediately taking his vitals and trying to figure out how badly he was injured. He didn’t even look at her. He must have been drugged.

“Rander,” she said in a hushed tones, although, realistically at this point it didn’t matter. “Rander, can you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna give you some adrenaline to counteract whatever they’ve given you, then we’re gonna get out of here.”

As soon as she took the syringe out of her pocket he grabbed it from her hands and threw it across the room.

“What are you doing?” she asked, horrified, studying his face. “Rander we have to go, we only have a few minutes, seconds maybe before alarms start going off.”

He continued to stare out the window, his eyes focused on a spot somewhere out in the distance. He didn’t seem to be injured, but he wasn’t moving. He was so still she had to glance at the syringe he had thrown to reassure herself that the movement hadn’t been a figment of her imagination.

She knelt in front of his chair and took hold of his face, forcing his distant eyes to look into hers.

He finally focused on her; the lively eyes that sparkled at the chance of danger were now dull.

“Go ahead,” he said, “leave me here. Hurry.” His voice had been drained of it’s vivacity and mischief as well.

She gazed steadily into his eyes as she said, “I’m not leaving without you, Rander.”

And it wasn’t just a sentimental statement either, although it certainly was that. If he didn’t go with her, she wouldn’t make it out. Escape was a two-man job.

“You don’t know what I’ve done. You wouldn’t be here if you did,” he looked down and away from her, tears started streaming down his face. “You still have time to make it out.”

“Just move Rander, come on,” she said, tugging futilely at his shoulders. “We have to go. Please.”

“This is what I deserve,” he said. “This is my penance. Go, before it’s too late.”

She felt the tears welling up in her eyes, but for once she didn’t hold them back.

“I won’t make it out of here if you don’t come with me,” she whispered. “I need you.”

He looked at her again, tears still falling down his cheeks. Tears falling down both of their cheeks now.

“Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter…” she trailed off for a moment, thinking the worst. She let out a sob and said, “You didn’t. You didn’t give away Theta.”

“No,” he said. “That’s not it.”

His face was so full of sadness, it made her heart ache as she looked at him.

“Then it doesn’t matter, but you have to come now. We’re out of time,” she could feel the tears still falling down her cheeks.

And then he started studying her face, and she felt completely bare and raw and exposed. For him to see her, open like this, scared her. She felt herself breathing hard and she had to force herself to not to flinch back and hide herself away.

“I can get out, but you have to leave ahead of me,” he said.

“I’m not leaving this building without you,” she said. “I’m staying until you walk out the door beside me.”

He stood up and checked his guns, and a hunting knife, which had been laid out on the bed. She would question him about this later, but now she stood up, wiping the tears from her eyes and composing herself.

“Ok,” she said, “You find your way back down, and I’ll keep the area clear.”

“Count 15 seconds once you get down to the lobby and I’ll be down there,” he said, holstering his guns.

She slipped out of the room and walked straight to the elevator, her hands rested on her guns, ready to draw. The hallways remained empty, which she didn’t take as a reassurance. She stayed wary for signs of an ambush.

As she stepped off the elevator into the lobby she did draw her guns.

“Everybody down!” she shouted. All but a few Agents immediately lay on the ground when they saw her drawn guns. One of the Agents reached for his gun and she shot him in the chest. She and the two crouching Agents froze until they saw that he didn’t move again. Then the other two Agents laid on the floor along with everyone else.

“Nobody move and everything will be fine,” Vena said, moving carefully to the center of the room where she could get a better view.

“When you find your way back down in one piece, then I’ll just be waiting here. Right here,” she whispered, keeping her back pressed against the concierge desk and constantly sweeping her eyes over the Agents and civilians laying on the ground at her command.

Five more seconds and she would have to start moving forward, trusting that Rander was there behind her.

At the end of the count she began moving forward toward the glass doors. She spun once, making sure everyone was staying down and no Rander. She kept moving forward and spun again to see Rander appear from the stairwell, walking with a wide, deliberate pace, and flinging a blade, slicing open the throat of someone reaching for a panic button on the concierge desk. Gone was the broken man she had left in the hotel room. He was again as she had always seen him; sure stride, fluid motion, and well dressed. She moved faster, putting her back to the doors once she had cleared the people in front of her. As soon as she turned she shot an Agent getting up with her right hand, and an Agent on the floor reaching for his gun with her left.

Rander reached the doors and she turned and they ran. Rander fell back just a pace behind her, not knowing which car to run to and following her lead.

She ran to the passenger side of the the blue convertible, while Rander jumped into the passenger seat.

“Inconspicuous,” he said.

“Fast,” she said, as she sped away from the curb.

It was an uncustomarily cool day for the end of June. I had invited the whole family over for a pre-4th-of-July party, since I planned to be alone on my boat during the holiday.

Family has always been important to me, and I didn’t want to let a holiday go by without having a gathering.

This gathering was a bit tense, since its guests included my two-week-sober (again) brother. We’d had words at the last gathering. Mine were especially cruel, his especially slurred.

He either had been just sober enough to remember the exchange, or had been filled in on the details, because he had been avoiding me all day.

“…so I’m planning to stay with Jared for the next couple weeks,” my brother was saying as I sat beside him and our uncle.

“You need a place to stay?” I asked him, slouched down in my folding chair, hands in the pockets of my shorts.

“Yeah, I kinda didn’t keep up on the rent too well at my place,” he said, running a hand through his hair nervously. His hair was clean and at an odd length that spoke of how disgusting it must have been two weeks prior.

“Well, you can stay at my place,” I said, “I need a house sitter.”

“Yeah?” said my brother, surprised and delighted.

“Of course!” I said, “Here’s my keys.”

I took my keys out of my pocket and handed them to him.

“All I’ll be needing is this one!” I smiled as I dangled the key to my boat up in front of me.

“Great,” he said smiling at me.

“Well,” I said, looking around at my family members. They had all been surreptitiously observing the exchange between my brother and I. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

I got up and headed for the door.

“You’re insane,” my mother said.

“That’s why I’m staying on a boat,” I said over my shoulder, “I’ll be sane when I come back.”

I walked to the docks instead of driving. I had intentionally left my car key on the ring with my house keys. I wanted to be completely disconnected from the place for the next three weeks.

I boarded my boat and drove away from the docks to the place I had marked out the day before. The place that was a mile out from my house on the shore.

I checked over my equipment. If I was going to have to go back for something, I wanted it to be today. I needed to be gone for the full three weeks starting tonight.

Everything was in order. I had never been one to skimp on details.

Over the past few weeks I had bought tons of books and brought them all onto my boat. I now had a small library to last me the next three weeks. I set the timer to rouse me from my literary bliss tomorrow and dove into my first book; a who-dunnit mystery. I did nothing but doze and read until I heard my alarm go off. I ate a quick meal of beans and ready-made toast and started my trip closer to shore.

I left the key to my boat in the ignition and, in t-shirt and shorts, jumped into the water and began my brisk swim to shore. No matter how much I tried to prepare myself for the plunge, the icy water was always a shock. In my anticipation, the cold faded quickly and the few minutes I knew had passed seemed only moments long. I was playing the fast approaching moment again and again in my mind; feeling the weight in my pocket.

As I walked out of the water and into the warm summer air, a preemptive shiver ran through me, knowing I would be returning to the water all too soon. But the excitement kept me from dwelling on the coming swim. When the time came for my next dip, I would probably have enough adrenaline coursing through me to warm me through the winter.

I stopped at a bush a few feet away from the gravel walk where I’d hidden a six pack of beer and a bag of weed yesterday. The beer was warm, but it wouldn’t matter.

It felt strange as I knocked on my own door. My brother opened it after about a minute, swaying from whatever influence he was under, and used it to balance. I smiled at him.

“Hey,” he said, straightening in an attempt at looking sober as he recognized me.

“Is there anyone else here?” I asked him.

“Of course not,” he lied, “Just me all by myself.”

“That’s a shame,” I said, “‘Cause I’m here to party.” I held up the six pack of beer in one hand and the baggy of weed in the other.

He looked surprised, then smiled and said, “You’re turning over a new leaf.”

I shrugged, “Leaves have been turned. I just haven’t had the opportunity to hang out with you lately.”

I walked into the house. My house. The smell of whatever fast food he’d ordered earlier still lingered in the air.

“Jenny!” he called, face turned upward toward the stairs, “Come meet my sister!”

And so it would be the blue-capped bottle for Jenny. I handed her the beer as she walked into the room. She, too, had a sway to her gait.

“Hi,” she said quietly, eyes darting between me and my brother. He clearly had told her that I wouldn’t appreciate her presence and was waiting for a negative reaction. I smiled sweetly.

The beginning sounds of the evening’s many fireworks shows, both professional and otherwise, could be heard through the open sliding glass door that lead to the back yard.

My brother had a joint rolled and lit in record time, and was already passing it to me as he held a smoke filled breath in his lungs. I took the smallest puff and passed it on to… Lucy? Janey? Jamie? She took a large puff. She would be passed out in a few minutes.

“So, how are things going?” I asked, sitting with them on a separate section of my couch.

“All is well,” my brother said with a salute to me. I just smiled and nodded approval in return.

“You got plans to go look at the fireworks?” I asked him, watching out of the corner of my eye as- Jessy? Jill? Jody?- took large gulps from her beer bottle, blue cap in hand.

“No,” said my brother, leaning back on the couch, “we were just gonna bum around here.”

Bum around indeed.

“Cool,” I said, “You order any food?”

“We were gonna order some Chinese,” said my brother, “but I think we’re gonna fire up the grill instead. Throw some hot dogs on there.”

“Very festive,” I said, the bottle growing warm under my fingers. I watched Suzy-Lizzy-Dani already looking drowsy and descending into sleep. An empty stomach. No surprise.

“Yeah, I thought so,” said my brother, smiling a huge, relaxed smile.

The sound of fireworks started to come more regularly now.

“Hey,” I said, “let’s see if we can see any of that firework show from the back yard.”

“Sure,” said my brother, true to his character, not even glancing at- what’s-her-face.

We walked out into the back yard. The ambient light from the moon, the street and the fireworks was just enough to make out our shapes in the dark.

There were several bangs in the distance, and one closer one from my gun. My brother dropped. And he bled. And I left, heading back to the lake shore. Heading back to my boat.

The funeral would cost a bit, but his continued mistakes would cost more. This was the wiser choice.

At some point in your childhood, you are threatened that something may be placed on your permanent record. You don’t know exactly what this means, but you catch the implication that this will be bad.

This doesn’t so much encourage good behavior. Just prevents you from doing anything bad enough to be added to your permanent record.

I wondered who was keeping track of my permanent record. Was it something that my teachers kept track of, or were all entries added by the principal. Did good deeds get put on there too? Could it keep me from getting a job for the rest of my life? Would potential employers turn me away when they saw the mark on my permanent record?

Where was it kept? How often was it updated? Maybe, if I could just find out where they kept it, I could steal mine and make sure they could never put anything bad in it.

Unlike a lot of the things you’re told at a young age to keep you from misbehaving, the permanent record is real. But like many things that adults hold over kids’ heads, the so many things you won’t understand till you’re older, your permanent record is more complex and exaggerated than it needs to be.

There’s another record, too. One that magically disappears when you turn 18 and you never have to worry about again. You can mark all over that one, just as long as nothing lands on your permanent one.

The thing they don’t tell you, the thing some of them don’t even know, is that everything, everything goes on your permanent record, and everyone gets a copy.

That time you peed your pants during the school play. It’s on your permanent record. That time you were caught masturbating in the locker room. That’s on your permanent record. When you ate Sally’s cake out of spite, then forgot your security pass next to the empty cake box. That’s on there, too.

It would be comforting if there was a person keeping track of everything, tracking it all in a file drawer somewhere. Then you could just burn the place down and not worry anymore. But that’s not how it works.

But I pretend it does. I dream that one day I will march into that monolithic building, a gas can in hand. The workers, as pale as the papers they file, will run out, too frightened to speak, as I spray everything around me with gasoline.

“This is OVER!” I will shout as, in slow motion, the match falls. And I will watch proudly outside, the workers quivering in both shock and relief around me, gazing in awe of the blazing, smoky freedom.

This is the dream that has kept me from killing myself so far.

I am the best paid receptionist Brown & Stone has ever had. My official title is Reception Manager. I got the title when one of the accountants questioned my pay rate.

One time, one of the sales assistants asked me how I had managed to acquire my handsome pay rate. I said I was good at negotiations.

I didn’t mention those negotiations took place after hours on Mr. Stone’s couch in his office. And whenever he needs me to format a letter. Or help him schedule his phone appointments with the large volume kept by my desk. The mammoth of a message book is seldom opened and mostly empty.

I was paid well for my negotiation skills. And a favor.

One night, I ran into one of the mailroom clerks on my way out. Lord knows what they were doing there so late. My blouse was still part way unbuttoned. Her eyes quickly swept over me, and as I watched the comprehension fill her face, I realized that this was going on my permanent record.

I didn’t care though. Everyone already knew. It had just been fact with no evidence. This wouldn’t change anything. Least of all my paycheck, so it didn’t matter.

Nothing these people knew mattered half as much as what I was keeping off the record.

I sometimes wish I were better at deception; better at faking emotions. Then maybe Stone would have thought I was enamored and wouldn’t have noticed my price tag. But I, an exquisitely poor judge of character, saw no harm in revealing my own nature, and he bought me, for what only hindsight can reveal as a bargain price, and there was no backing out of the deal now. Had I really any skill at negotiations, I would have been able to raise my price. But I am not in short supply, so I continue to fulfill his demands.

It was already twilight on a long summer afternoon by the time I arrived at the apartment building. The entry way was small, bright and empty. I always felt like it should be cold, but it never was.

“Hey fawn,” said a man, as he came around the corner with an impressive jaw, a heavy winter coat, jeans and work boots. He had a friend with him who had the same sense of style. They both looked out of place, lurking out at me from a conspicuous lack of shadows. The contradictory setting only made the shady characters seem more ominous.

I decided to pretend I thought they were talking to someone else and kept walking at a steady pace.

The man grabbed my arm and said, “You here to visit Stone?”

The fear flooded into my face before I could stop it.

“I don’t know who that is,” I let my real fear quaver my voice, hoping the thugs would take me as an unsuspecting visitor of some other tenant. I didn’t know who these guys were, and I didn’t want to know either.

The man stared at me a moment before letting me go.

“Sorry, miss,” he muttered. He and his friend held up the wall, glaringly out of place in the prim lobby.

I took the stairs up to the fourth floor. I always did. The elevator ride didn’t allow enough time for me to prepare myself for the visit.

You can desensitize yourself to even some of the worst sights; the familiarity serving to dull the harshest details. But I could never become familiar with this scene, because every time I visited, it was worse.

The building was clean, tastefully decorated, and inviting yet empty, the way hotels feel. The polished brass numbers on the doors gleamed in the adequate and purposefully unobtrusive light. The cleaner used on the carpet was the only indication that anyone had ever walked through these halls.

I felt the key in my pocket as I walked toward the door. It always felt like a blunted sharp thing, cold from disuse and meant to stay that way. I opened the door quickly and returned the key to my pocket, not wanting to touch the thing any longer than I had to.

The empty hotel feeling persisted into the apartment. An equally thorough cleaning service, or maybe the same one, had visited here as well. Ambient light from the window was the only thing lighting the room and I had to let my eyes adjust.

Despite the deeds someone may have done, it’s still hard to view the slow decay of another living being. It’s harder still when you know what they looked like before the decline. The echo of who they used to be rings through; the comparison intensifying the current view.

I was there to report on his status. And to give him enough to stay hooked. I was there to ensure the progress of the descent.

I remembered the first time I’d used the key in my pocket. It hung from a red ribbon then, like a gift. I had been sent with the drugs and a lie.

‘I hadn’t expected him to be there. His father- sorry, stepfather- said that he was away. I worked in his father’s office. My apartment was flooded. I needed somewhere to stay.’

He took advantage of a woman showing up at his door. Though, in hindsight, he hadn’t done anything but accept my advances. But I didn’t pay attention to hindsight; it grated on my conscience.

He’d looked like an underwear model. He was tall and blond and not a fiber was out of place. And I brought lots of drugs I didn’t take, but he did. And then I brought less. And then I brought less. And soon, every time I visited, there was less of him, too.

He sat on the couch in his prop set living room. His eyes were squeezed tight shut, he gripped his knees to his chest and he rocked slightly. Whether emotional or physical, he was in pain; probably both.

I walked over to him, put a smile on, and said the usual line, “I got some. Let’s do it now.”

It didn’t matter that I didn’t do any or that we didn’t even have sex anymore. It didn’t matter that I was dressed in my work clothes while he was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt that he’d probably put on two weeks ago. He didn’t seem to notice. And I was glad, because I don’t think I could have had sex with what he had become.

I looked down at him and, not for the first time, wondered what was on his permanent record. Was it rife with the beatings of losers who dared annoy him with their presence? Was it smeared with the guilt others felt after he’d paid them for lascivious acts? Was it a phonebook of women he’d forced to have abortions? Or was he just a guy with a silver spoon and rotten luck? For my humanity’s sake, I came to my familiar conclusion: that he couldn’t have been anything but a shadow of Stone. Having been raised by the man, it would have been impossible to emerge as anything else. I carefully ignored the fact that, being his stepson, he might not have been raised by Stone at all.

Regardless of how I preserved my conscience, it didn’t much matter now. His fate had been sealed. His last moments would be wretched. If he garnered any mercy, he would die sooner than later.

I didn’t bother saying goodbye. He wouldn’t notice anyway. I just left, closing the door behind me. I didn’t lock it, I didn’t want to touch that key ever again.

With every step I detached and shut down my heart; filled myself with cold and apathy. It was the only way I would be able to do this without crying. Because I was doing this for myself.

“The bastard stole my money. You can find him in 402,” I said to the thugs in the lobby. I surprised myself with the amount of steady control and heavy anger in my voice. I saw them start moving toward the stairs out of the corner of my eye. I walked faster than I should’ve been able to in my heels. I wanted to be out of the building, I wanted to be blocks away, when the killing started.

God, I won’t lie. I won’t cheat. I won’t steal. Just please let this not be added to my permanent record.

Me and God both know I won’t be keeping my promise. But he’s better than me, so he fulfills his part of the bargain anyway.

She looked around the little room around her. Apart from it being windowless and rather small, it was a pleasant room.
The full-size bed she sat on was covered in a quilt with a pretty flower pattern on black. At the head of the bed there was a small wooden dresser, only a bit taller than the bed, that one could imagine a guest might put their clothes for the weekend. A closet with sliding doors took up the entire back wall; a mirror was revealed when the doors were closed. On top of the dresser was a mini rock garden; fine sand, smooth pebbles and a tiny rake in a stone dish. A little desk with a little lamp sat across from the bed. A large picture of greenery with a babbling brook running through it hung over the desk.
She was staring at the door again and she forced herself to concentrate on her breathing and stare at the mini rock garden instead. She wanted to look relaxed when he came in, casually looking over her shoulder at the rock garden. Not staring intently at the door.
She heard the door open but she forced herself not to look over. She thought she felt the atmosphere in the room shift, felt the cool air from the next room rush into the stifled little room, but she knew that this was her imagination. Every room was meticulously temperature controlled.
“Dana,” he said, his voice flat, neutral.
She turned to him as if he’d startled her from being deep in thought, then she forced the corners of her mouth upward into a smile. She had practiced this in the mirror earlier, making it look genuine. It was harder to pull off than she’d thought it would be, but she managed.
He scowled back at her, suspicious. He tensed, prepared for her to attack. He left the door open behind him as he walked slowly and carefully toward her. He made leaving the door open look absent minded, but she knew it had been deliberate. He kept his eyes steady, glaring into hers. Watching for the slightest waver. She wanted to glance at the door, but she did not.
He froze as she reached up toward him. She waited for him to continue toward her, then got up to reach him instead when he stayed still. She leaned up to kiss him gently, until she felt him relax, then she pulled him closer. She kissed him more urgently as she pulled him down onto the bed with her.
She sat up suddenly and straddled him. The quick motion made him tense up, but as she began unbuttoning her top, he relaxed again.
As she felt his erection against her leg, her skin crawled with disgust. But she forced herself to smile as she bent down to kiss him again.
She jumped up and quickly moved to the center of the room, halfway to the door, then spun around and began to do a little dance. He had already sat up and started to come after her, but relaxed again when she started dancing. She moved forward again, dancing, reaching toward him. Then moved past him toward the dresser.
She bent over and shook her ass at him as she took a handful of sand from the rock garden. She raised both hands above her in fists, and spun around until she was in front of him again. Then she threw the sand into his eyes as hard as she could and ran for the door. She heard him scream out in pain and anger as the sand hit his eyes. She felt his hand clutch the bottom of her shirt, but she let her arms slide out of it as she ran.
The keys. Where would he keep the keys? Her mind raced for the answer, and her eyes searched around wildly, looking for a likely place.
She hesitated for only a moment before she remembered that he used a code to enter his car. He pushed a button for the ignition. There was no key. She would have to run.
She threw open the door and stumbled and nearly fell from the shock of the cold air against her half-naked body. It hurt, but she ran.
It didn’t take long before the movement of her running, and the adrenaline from her fear, kept her warm enough to keep going. It was a very large estate and a very long driveway lined with stone walls. Trees were planted thickly to one side to create the illusion of a forest. It was half a mile to the end. He would be able to rinse his eyes and get in the car in less time than it would take for her to get to the road.
She felt her body starting to resist keeping up her pace and she slowed to a jog.
She was a little more than halfway there when she heard the engine. She could tell he was driving fast. She pressed her back, her arms and legs, as hard as she could into the side of the tree; willed herself to be small and invisible.
He stopped nearly 100 yards away. She could hear him roughly pushing aside branches and shrubs in his search for her. But he didn’t call out to her. That would be too normal.
She was well out of reach of his headlights, but this fact did nothing to slow her heart. She forced herself not to pant, afraid the sound would carry through the silence. She forced air through her nose as fast as she could to her burning lungs. Her body was hungry for oxygen, but she couldn’t risk making a sound. Her lungs finally stopped hurting, and she told herself she had to start walking away. The grass was soft and he wouldn’t hear her bare feet walking through it. It was too dark to see her from this distance. She couldn’t get herself to move. Her panic ignoring her logical thoughts, telling her she should breathe slowly so he wouldn’t see the rise and fall of her chest.
He’s only human, he can’t see you. He’s only human, he can’t see you.
She chanted this in her mind three more times before she could force herself away from the tree.
She turned away from him and walked carefully, not able to hear her own footsteps. She finally saw the shape of the stone wall, the place where a gate would normally be.
“Only people with things to hide need gates,” she watched him smiling at her in her memory. She remembered being surprised and impressed by this. Someone so honest and transparent was amazing to find.
There was no way to know, she reassured herself. No indication of what he was.
Now she knew that only sane people hide behind gates. Hide and lock their gates, safe from people like him.
She made herself keep walking, waiting for her strength to return enough to run again. She forced herself not to turn back, knowing if she did her panic would get the best of her and she would freeze up again. But she listened. Listened for the sound of the car door closing, knowing she would have to hide again when she heard it.
She kept hearing nothing and felt her panic rising again. She felt her heart beating harder, knew her adrenaline was rising and that it could propel her the rest of the way to the road.
The road was not safety. The road was lined with the gates of other estates, and although they were not as large as this one, the houses were still set far back at the end of driveways like the one she ran down now; out of earshot of the road. But it was out. And it was closer to safe.
She pictured herself running to the right when she reached the road. This road went in a giant circle; a circle with a barrier at the end that would prevent cars from making a complete circuit, but not person on foot. And the right was the shorter way round to reaching a street that would have shops and cars and people.
But she realized that’s the way he would assume she would go. She should go to the left.
But once he’d turned right, and gotten to the main road, and not found her, wouldn’t he turn back around? Wouldn’t he double back and go to the left? And he was in a car. She might only be halfway there by the time he figured out she’d gone the other way. He would catch up to her.
But maybe not. If he chose to go the wrong way, and if she managed to run most of the way, maybe she could make it.
She finally made it to the end, to the road. It filled her with hope that gave her the strength to run faster. She ran as fast as she could, wanting to be well out of sight before he got to the end of his driveway.
She listened hard. Listened for the car. Heard her steps as she ran, heard her heavy breathing.
She finally heard the car, in the distance. It was silent enough that she could still hear it from this far away. She kept running but her panic rose again. She waited for the sound to get fainter, to tell her that her plan had worked, that he was driving in the opposite direction. She was already halfway there. She was making better time than she thought.
And finally she couldn’t hear the car anymore. Finally the sound faded off. She pushed herself to continue running. She varied her pace, faster and slower as her body started to complain. But the adrenaline kept her going.
As she reached the barrier, she saw the headlights creeping along the road. He was going slowly, craning his neck to look around trees and bushes. She ducked down behind the barrier and listened to the engine. She worked to get her breath back in control as fast as she could.
Just stay down. Just stay still. Wait until the engine fades away again. You’ll be ok, she told herself, forcing her breathing to remain slow and steady.
It seemed to take forever. It seemed like a lifetime when she heard him make a u-turn. So close to the barrier, in her mind’s eye she could see him crane his neck and see her over the barrier. But then the engine faded away again. As soon as she could hear it no longer, she jumped up and ran down the main road as fast as she could.
She finally saw the shops along either side of the road. She ran toward the closest one; an antique shop.
It was only now she remembered time. What time was it? Were the shops open? Lights in the windows were no indication. They all kept their lights on to deter thieves; to make sure that their cameras would get clear, well-lit footage if there was a theft.
She remembered it feeling like she’d waited longer than usual for him to come to her tonight. And it was winter, which meant it was dark early. It could be five, which meant many of the shops would still be open, or it could be ten and they were long closed. Then she noticed the number of cars parked out front and felt a rush of relief. Whatever time it was, it was still early enough for the shops to still have customers.
She ran into the antique shop, moodily lit as most such places were.
The clerks just stood there, matching deer-in-headlights looks upon their faces.
“Help me!” she said to them, “Call the police!”
They just stood still and continued to stare. She remembered then that she was naked from the waist up. She covered herself with one arm and pointed toward the register and presumably a phone with the other and repeated, “Call the police!”
The clerks seemed to come back from their daze then, the one closest to the register rushing over to the phone.
“Are you alright?” the other one asked, moving cautiously toward her.
She glanced over her shoulder toward the window, then moved to a chair that couldn’t be seen from the street.
“Yeah,” she said, sitting down. “Yeah, I will be.”

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This morning I made two soft boiled eggs with grated cheese, a cup of tea. Not rye toast with blueberry jelly. Not Kona coffee with cinnamon flavored creamer.
I am tired. The smell of coffee, the music only heard because the rest of the world is quiet, wasn’t there to lull me back to sleep.
Before heading to the gym, I grab my keys from the key rack. Its pegs, all woefully full, call attention to the empty spaces in the shoe rack.
I stop for lunch, and then for coffee, procrastinating my return to the kitchen that won’t have a blender half full of berry power shake, the coffee table that won’t be covered in sketches, the television that won’t be playing Cowboy Bebop endlessly. I have avoided the living room for the past week so that I don’t have to notice all the things that aren’t in it.
Dinner time has become an adventure. Finding strange exotic foods and the places that serve them. Wednesday’s trip to find haggis, though successful, ended in a stop for Burger King on the way home and the lesson learned to Google foods before driving 20 miles to get them. This was still a better option than going to the spot and purposely not noticing #23 on the menu. Better than looking across an empty dining room table.
I sit at my desk, my stomach full but my mind empty. I had never known how loud silence could be until it filled every space in the house. I can only hear myself think. My thoughts blare at me. I long for video game gunfire to drown them out.
I look at the bed. One half, a mess full of tosses and turns, trips to the bathroom or the kitchen for water. The other side untouched, a pair of earbud headphones on the bedside table. I know you found them missing as you waited for your flight and bought another pair in the airport.
I smile as I know I’ll sleep well tonight. I head downstairs to put on my shoes, then drive to the airport.