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.

the force

so this has been bugging me for a while…

at the end of the Star Wars trilogy, we know that Luke has brought balance to the force. …except he hasn’t.

there are Jedi (the good guys) and there are Sith (the bad guys). the presence of both with about equal power means that there is a balance. but at the end, all of the super-powerful Sith have been defeated and only super-powerful Jedi remain.

while no one’s really complaining cuz the Jedi are all for justice and peace, that isn’t a balance. just sayin’.

also, can you imagine being a retired Jedi? that must suck.

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.

two short stories read, one short story written. no one can call me a literary slacker!
…at least not this week. ;P

Hearts, Keys, and PuppetryHearts, Keys, and Puppetry by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel like I may need a second reading.

Apocalypse Scenario #683: The BoxApocalypse Scenario #683: The Box by Mira Grant

That was really good. Laying out the scenario and having them make an impossible choice.
Personally I imagined they all had southern accents, and I’d highly recommend that you do, too. 😛

View all my reviews

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.”

To read more of my stories, go to ChelseaIRL.com/Writing.html