Mid-Month Short Story Challenge

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying really hard to figure out what I want to do creatively. I’ve struggled to find something that spoke to the writer and creator in me. I’ve had multiple projects over the last year or so fail pretty hard and get me down. So on July 4th, I took to Twitter to try to get ideas as to what to write about.

At the recommendation of long time reader Tabitha, I want to try something to engage whoever out there might be reading this blog. I know that there’s not a ton of you out there, but I would love to interact and engage with you through creative writing. After all, creative writing was one of the first things to give me an outlet for my mind and make me care about writing. I’ve always loved writing communities I’ve been involved with…so why not try to build one here, however small that community is.

I’ve listed a short writing prompt below. Feel free to take it whatever direction you’d like. I’ll be posting my response to the prompt on August 1st. If you link back to this post, tell me about your prompt response, or write your own piece inspired by the prompt, I’ll try to share it along with my short story on the 1st (likely by adding links to that post, as well as this one, when it goes up). Didn’t see the prompt until well after the deadline has passed? Still shoot me a note or a link back. I’ll add where I can.

  • Suggested number of words: 1000-1500
  • Your theme: Recapturing a long-lost feeling
  • Seven words to work into your story: Gazebo, hollandaise, archive, caffeinated, quixotic, aglet, campfire
  • Genre: Your choice
  • Rating/Content Limitations: None

Janus

This story is part of the AI Project series of short stories I’m working on. Click here to read more of that series.


“What does it smell like?”

“What?”

“What does it smell like?”

“What do you mean what does it smell like?”

“Exactly what it sounds like I’m asking. Does it smell like anything?”

*****

“Charlie?” Kristov called out from his office. “Charlie, quit making me yell and get in here.”

Charlie came bounding around the corner and charged into Kristov’s office. He came to an abrupt stop, doubling over and panting.

“What the fuck are you out of breath for?” asked Kristov. “Your desk is twenty feet away.”

“I was walking out of the bathroom down the hall when I heard you yell,” replied Charlie.

“Ah. Well good hustle or something.”

Kristov leaned forward onto his desk, burying his head down into his arms. After a few moments of adjusting, he rose back up and opened a drawer on the left hand side of his desk. He produced a black fleece blanket from the drawer, which he violently shook open. Kristov then placed the blanket over his head and placed his head back down in his arms, blanket covering him as he did so.

“You needed me, sir?” Charlie asked.

“Yes,” Kristov said from beneath the blanket. “What’s my calendar look like today?”

“Dennison Ward will be here at 10:30 for a meeting reg..”

“No he won’t.”

“Are you saying I should cancel it or a…”

“I’m saying he won’t show up. What’s next?”

“Your wife called to tell you that she’ll be by around 11:45 to pick you up for lunch.”

“Call Kim back and tell her I’m not feeling well,” Kristov grumbled. “If she insists on checking in on me, let her in, but come into my office after ten minutes with a very important phone call so I can get her to leave.”

“And who should I say is calling?” Charlie inquired.

“I don’t care if you say it’s the Dali fucking Lama, just make her believe that I need to take that call.”

“Can do.”

“Anything else?”

“You have a call with Atlantean Partners at 3:00,” replied Charlie.

“Fuck!” Kristov shouted from the depths of fleece fortress. “I thought that was tomorrow.”

“No, sir. Every month on the second Tuesday of the month.”

“Call Williams and see if he can take it.”

“Williams is on vacation in Aruba.”

“What about other Mark?”

“Kerja?”

“No, not the Swede,” Kristov grumbled. “The Mark that reports to Mark Williams.”

“That’s Mark Kerja.”

“No!”

Kristov rose up from his desk, throwing the blanket onto the floor behind him.

“Just get me the Mark who is supposed to take my place if Williams can’t make it,” Kristov demanded. “I don’t care if you have to book a plane ticket, learn Papiamento, and track down Williams in person. Figure out who can take that call instead of me by lunch time.”

“Yes sir,” replied Charlie meekly.

Charlie started to walk out the door, only for Kristov to shout after him.

“And Charlie?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t let anyone other than Kim near my office before this afternoon,” Kristov said. “This hangover’s a bitch.”

Charlie strode out the door and sat down in a rigid metal chair behind his rickety wooden desk. He opened the organizational hierarchy on his tablet and began searching through the leadership of Shackelford & Polzin Group to try to figure out who Kristov could have been talking about. Charlie knew that Kristov meant Mark Kerja. Mark Kerja took all of the important calls if Mark Williams or Kristov couldn’t make it. This was a matter of figuring out who Kristov thought Kristov was talking about, as well as stalling long enough to let Kerja get into the office.

The hierarchy was straightforward enough that Charlie knew it from memory. Kristov Polzin — the Polzin of Shackelford & Polzin Group — had two direct reports. Mark Williams (better known as just Williams around the office) led the sales and strategy group and was responsible for making Shackelford & Polzin as profitable and as public friendly as it could be. On the operations side, Lucy Calvert made sure that meat of the business for Shackelford & Polzin Group, the acquisition, demolition, reposition, and redistribution of companies acquired by the Group, went off without a hitch.

Mark Kerja (Kerja, MK, or The Swede , depending on who was addressing him) was just one of the direct reports to Williams, but in reality, he was the only one that mattered to Kristov. Kerja was the VP of New Business for the company. As Kristov reminded the company’s employees on every call, existing business keeps the lights on for Shackelford & Polzin, but new business makes sure the lights are bright enough to blind the competition. Kerja wasn’t actually Swedish, despite Kristov’s insistence on referring to him as such. He was born in Rosemont, Illinois and had never left the United States. But when your boss’s boss gives you a nickname, you stick with it, no matter how much you hate it.

Charlie saw that it was 9:10 in the morning, but Kerja had yet to arrive. Kerja’s secretary had just returned to his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, black, with an ice cube in it. Charlie walked over to the secretary’s desk, feigned looking around for a moment, then addressed the young man.

“Is MK in today?” Charlie asked.

“No, he’s out,” the secretary replied. “His little girl had to stay home from school again.”

“That’s too bad. Ear infection again?”

“I think so. It’d be the third time in the last two months if so. Poor girl.”

“Yeah. I hope she gets better.”

“Does Kristov need MK for something?” the secretary asked.

“He was hoping MK could take the call with Atlantean Partners at 3,” replied Charlie.

“Can’t Williams do it?”

“Williams is in Aruba until the 23rd.”

“And I’m guessing Kristov is hungover again?”

“Like a sailor on shore leave.”

“A sailor on what?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ve got to work on your expressions, Charlie,” stated the secretary. “You’re a bright guy and everyone likes you, but no one other than old man Shackelford understood your references half the time. He’s been gone three years now. It’s time for your references for him to go join him.”

“Jesus, dude, he’s not dead,” retorted Charlie, “he just retired and moved to Arizona.”

“Might as well be dead.”

Charlie walked back to his desk and dialed Williams from his tablet. It’d probably be too early to reach a vacationing man who had likely drank a third of his weight in mai tais the night prior, but it was worth trying. After a couple of rings, a brief grey screen came up, followed by a pre-recorded message.

“Hi. You’ve reached the voice and video message inbox for Mark Williams of Shackelford & Polzin Group. I’ll be out of the office from April 6th through April 22nd. If your message is important, please contact Mark Kreja at 814-555-2017. Otherwise, leave your name, contact information, and a short description of your request. Messages will be replied to as I’m able. Thanks.”

The grey screen replaced Williams’ face and stated simply: You may begin recording in 3…2…1…

“Hey Mark,” Charlie began. “Sorry to bother you on vacation, but Kristov is really looking for someone to handle the Atlantean Partners call at 3 Eastern today. MK is out ill today and Kristov is in no shape to talk to them. He keeps insisting that the Mark who reports to you take the call, but you and I both know that’s Kreja. If you have any idea what he’s talking about or if you could tell me who can take the call, that’d be lovely. I’ll have my tablet on me all day. Bye.”

*****

“I don’t understand the question. Why does it matter what it smells like?”

“You remember what Christmas was like as a kid?”

“Yeah…why?”

“Remember how your mom and dad or whoever raised you always asked you for a Christmas list to give to Santa Claus. So you’d write up a list of all the things you’d want. Some kids wanted dolls, some wanted action figures, some wanted video games, some wanted stupid shit like art supplies and dress up costumes. So you’d write your list, give it to your old man in hopes of getting the best Christmas gift ever — whatever that was for you. Then Christmas morning came and you started opening your gifts. There was the stuff you got every year like socks, underwear, cheap chocolate, and some oranges. For me, there was usually a tiny copy of the New Testament in my stocking. Then you got to the real presents. And on your last gift, you were convinced that you had managed to get that special gift that you wanted. You tore into the wrapping paper with abandon, only to find that Santa had brought you the generic knock-off of the gift you wanted because your Christmas list wasn’t specific enough. Do you remember that feeling?”

“That’s an oddly specific explanation. But yeah.”

“Think of me as the Santa Claus of problem solvers. I’m really good at giving gifts and giving people what they want. I’ve even got a bunch of little helpers who will help make my gifts if I can’t do it myself. After all, there’s a lot of little boys and girls in the world who want their problems taken care of. But just like your childhood Christmas list, if your description of this gift I can give to you isn’t specific enough, I might make a mistake and get you the wrong thing. Do you understand now?”

*****

The morning had passed with little incident for Charlie. Though he had sent Williams additional messages hoping that he’d answer, Charlie’s tablet went silent in terms of responses.

As the clock neared 11:30 in the morning, Kreja’s secretary walked up to Charlie’s desk, light jacket and umbrella in hand. In the distance near the elevator doors, Charlie observed the secretary’s work friends — another personal assistant and two younger women from the marketing team — mulling around and joking. The other personal assistant’s loud, cackling laugh echoed throughout the room, causing multiple people to look up from their desks to see where he was at.

“We’re going to Cervelli’s for lunch,” said Kreja’s secretary. “Wanna join?”

“No thanks,” Charlie replied. “I have to be here in case Kristov’s wife shows up.”

“Are you bailing him out or guarding the door so they can bang?”

“Ten minutes and I have to tell him he has a very important call with — and I quote — the Dali fucking Lama.”

“Sounds like a very important call. Isn’t the Dali Lama like twelve though?”

“I don’t think Kristov knows the old one died.”

“Wouldn’t shock me. But really though, Charlie,” the secretary continued, “you’ve got to come with us some time. I’ve been inviting you out for guys night for weeks now, but you’ve always got something to do.”

“Kristov keeps me on call 24 hours a day,” replied Charlie. “It wouldn’t be fair to you guys if I came out and then had to leave ten minutes in.”

“You’re allowed to take time off, you know.”

“If it’s not written explicitly into my contract that I am required to take some time off, I don’t think Kristov particularly cares. Besides, someone has to keep this place running.”

“And so modest too.”

“Fuck off, Spencer.”

Kerja’s secretary, Spencer, flipped a middle finger toward Charlie, laughed, then walked to the elevator to join his waiting lunch party. Charlie stared at his tablet, running his own words through his mind. When was the last time he had taken a day off? He thumbed through the history of his calendar, finding the answer. Eleven months ago, taking the day off for his yearly check-up. Even then, Kristov had called him in twenty minutes after the appointment ended, saying that there was an important meeting that they needed to prep for. Prepping for the meeting entailed Kristov giving his notes to Charlie — notes that Charlie had written himself — and telling him to take the meeting for him.

Charlie’s tablet flashed repeatedly, bringing up Williams’ face on the screen. Charlie answered the video call quickly, knocking over his tablet in the process.

“Nice ceiling, Charlie,” Williams joked. He then sipped a drink that Charlie couldn’t see through a straw, the noise loudly echoing through the device’s speakers.

Charlie sat the tablet back up and looked at the screen. Williams was shirtless, his graying chest hair occasionally being caught by the light of whatever hotel lamp happened to be on. He had a hand towel wrapped draped over his neck, partially obscuring a silver cross necklace that Williams wore to work every day. Though Charlie didn’t recall Williams being a particularly vocally religious person, he was pleased to see the necklace on Williams in a non-work setting. It always made Charlie feel good to see when someone’s work appearance wasn’t just an act.

“Hey, thanks for calling me back,” Charlie said.

“I don’t think I really had a choice,” replied Williams. “You seemed panicked.”

“So you heard my message.”

“Yeah. I’ve already called Kreja, but he’s taking his daughter to the hospital, so he’s out. I don’t have a clue who Kristov’s talking about if it’s not me or Mark. We’re the only ones who have taken the Atlantean call other than him for the last couple years. Mark’s old assistant took the call a couple of times, however I’d find it hard to believe even Kristov would confuse a woman named Saffron with either Kreja or myself. Not that he knew about that anyway.”

“What do we do then?”

“As much as I’d like to help by taking the call, I’m pretty sure my wife would have my head if I cancelled our couples massage to take it. If he has to have someone take it, see if you can get Kreja’s notes from Spencer, then give them to Emily. That said, I’d recommend you talk Kristov into cancelling the call. I don’t feel like dealing with Kristov being all self-righteous that a woman took this call.”

“Emily in PR or Emily in strategy?”

“Strategy Emily. Super tall blonde lady on the third floor that works for me. Her office is the one with the giant Temple pennant on the wall. She knows Atlantean’s account better than me. She could probably take the call without the notes, but get them just in case. That said, please try to cancel it first if you can.”

“Will do,” replied Charlie.

“Can you do me a favor too while you’re at it,” Williams asked.

“What’s that?”

“I’ve got a pile of resumes on my desk for a new secretary. Or assistant. Or whatever Kristov wants them called now.”

“I think everyone’s a secretary except me. He is the only person that gets a personal assistant.”

“Right. I can’t keep up with him sometimes. Anyway, HR left me a pile of prospective candidates to go through. Could you look at them and send me the resumes of the three you like the best? I’ll give them calls tomorrow while Kiersten is at the spa.”

“Of course. I’ll do it right after I talk to Kristov.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Charlie. If you want to take a vacation, let me know. This place is great. I think you’d enjoy yourself.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Have a good day, Charlie. Let me know what happens with that call.”

“Thanks Mark.”

*****

“I understand completely.”

“Wonderful. So I’ll ask again then. What does it smell like?”

“He smells…normal, I guess? Sometimes he wears cologne. I couldn’t tell you what brand it is. I don’t think I’ve ever once known him to smell bad.”

“No light cinnamon scent always coming from it?”

“No. Not that I’ve ever noticed. And why do you keep saying it? He’s a guy.”

“They’re not people. If you’re not a person, you don’t get a pronoun that says what you are. It’s not a he. It’s not a she. It’s an it. You can call it whatever you want, but when I solve your problem, it won’t matter if it’s a he, a she, an it, or a figment of your imagination. It will cease to exist in both the present and the future. With any luck, we’ll be able to get rid of its past too.

*****

“Kristov?”

“Mmmrrrrmmmmrmrrrm…”

“Kristov, are you awake?” asked Charlie.

“I wharbalgarl mrmmmmmrmm.”

Charlie opened the door further and took a couple of steps into Kristov’s office.

“Are you awake sir?”

“I’m trying not to be, but you’re making it real fucking hard,” Kristov replied.

“I’m sorry,” responded Charlie, “I’ll try to make this quick then. Kim called and said she won’t be in at lunch, but that she will be here around 4 to trade cars with you so that she can pick up your kids.”

“Is she going to come inside?”

“She said you have the only keys to your car, so I would assume so.”

“That’s fine. Same deal as before though. Ten minutes, then important people are calling me.”

“Got it,” said Charlie. “I talked to Williams about the Atlantean call. Kreja took his daughter to the hospital this morning, so he won’t be able to make it. Williams recommended that we call Atlantean and try to reschedule for next week when either he or Kreja is back.”

“Unacceptable!” shouted Kristov. “Did he say who else could take the call?”

“Williams says that Emily House from the strategy team can take the call. She’s one of Mark’s direct reports and knows Atlantean better than Mark does.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“His words, not mine.”

“You take it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me, Charlie,” Kristov replied forcefully. “You take the call.”

“But Mr. Polzin,” Charlie answered, “Williams assured me that Emily is the best person to take this call if you, Kreja, and him aren’t available.”

“I don’t need the best person to take the call, I need the best man to take this call.”

“Then why are you picking me? I don’t know this account as well as the people in strategy do.”

“Because I paid for you to be here. And because I paid for you to be here, I need you to do exactly what I say. From time to time, that’s going to mean you need to ignore your logic processors or whatever it is you have in there and do exactly as you’re instructed. Have I made myself clear, Charlie?”

“Completely, sir.”

“Now, go talk to Emily and learn everything you can about Atlantean before three. I’ll tell Spencer to take your calls while you’re gone.”

“Spencer’s at lunch.”

“Not now he’s not.”

*****

“I’ve been told this isn’t your first time taking care of a problem like mine.”

“No. You’re quite fortunate you found me. The Civil Servant’s Association often advertises problem solvers such as myself. They’re trying to trap people looking to take out their sophisticated, programmatic androids because one accidentally stepped on some old lady’s petunia’s while delivering a package. What you’re here for is to rid the world of a deadly creature, not a package bot that didn’t update its aerial maps to account for a new flowerbed.”

“Do the civil service androids ever go off the rails like the others?”

“Not that the CSA’s willing to admit to. There were a couple in the early days of the program that didn’t stick to their programming or that malfunctioned, but the worst that happened was an android short circuiting while delivering some lady’s birthday cake. It was traumatizing for the kids that saw it, but no damage done otherwise. Except to the cake. The cake caught fire.”

“Do people actually want the civil service androids taken out?”

“I’ve had a couple of requests from private citizens to get rid of them, but I blow the whistle on them to the CSA. If there was ever a real problem with those assets, the CSA would contact me. They’ve had my group round-up end of life units before when they’re too busy to handle it themselves. I find it best to help keep the people who keep your legitimate business in business happy.”

“But this isn’t the first time taking out one of these…things, I guess you would refer to them as?”

“Creatures is my preferred term, but as long as you’re not humanizing them, I don’t care one way or the other what you call them. And no. From my group’s research, we’ve determined there were twelve of them out there at one point in time. Counting your problem, that list is down to six now.”

“Are they easy to kill?”

“You don’t kill a creature like this. It’s more of turning them off so they can’t turn back on again. But the worst we’ve had one do so far is trying to hide. We’re fortunate that they haven’t learned quality self-preservation skills yet.”

“How’d the last problem get solved?”

“It was simple. Just like solving your problem will be.”

*****

“Emily?”

“Oh hi!” Emily said excitedly as she stared up from her computer. “You’re Mr. Polzin’s assistant, Charlie, right?

“Yes, that’s me,” Charlie said.

“Mark told me you might be coming by this afternoon. I’m guessing the Atlantean call is still on at 3?”

“It is. What did Mark tell you the plan for the call was?”

“He said that you were going to try to convince Mr. Polzin to reschedule the Atlantean call, but that if you came by, it more than likely meant the call was still on and that I’d be taking the call in his place. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am for this call. One of the partners at Atlantean is Michael Marin. He was my dad’s first business partner.”

“Wait, really?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah. Michael and my dad ran a sandwich shop together in college. When my dad decided to franchise, Michael let the investment group buy out his shares. His wife still sends me and my sister individual birthday and Christmas cards every year.”

“Well that makes this conversation a bit more awkward. Not that it wasn’t already.”

“What do you mean,” questioned Emily.

“Kristov doesn’t want you to take the call. He sent me up here to get your notes so I could take the call.”

“Why not? Even without Michael’s involvement, I know Atlantean better than anyone in the building other than Mark.”

“Mark disagrees,” Charlie replied. “He told me you know them better than he does.”

“Flattering, but he’s just trying to give credit to someone else.”

Emily rose from her desk and motioned Charlie into the office. Charlie sat down on a chair across from Emily’s computer. She closed the door to her office, then drew the blinds to the window that looked out onto the sales floor outside her entry way.

“Charlie?”

“Yes, Emily?”

“Can I get you to be honest with me for a moment?”

“Of course.”

“Why doesn’t Mr. Polzin want me to take the Atlantean call? Is it because they’re an important partner and this would be my first unsupervised partner call?”

“It’s not that.”

“Well, is it because he knows I’ve known Michael Marin since I was a baby and he’s trying to avoid any possibility of a conflict of interest between our two companies, even though by the letter of the law this is no where close to one?”

“It’s not that.”

“Do you think I should be on this call?” asked Emily.

“You’re the most qualified individual, potentially now and even when Mark Williams is here,” Charlie replied. “I wouldn’t have any objections to it.”

“Then, Charlie, please tell me what it is that is leading Mr. Polzin to choose not to have me on this call.”

“Because he says that a call of this importance needs a man on it.”

Emily walked behind her desk and started poking at her tablet. Within a few moments, the tablet began ringing. Williams popped up on the screen a few seconds later.

“Good afternoon, Emily,” Williams said.

“Good afternoon, Mark,” replied Emily. “You were right. Polzin’s being a dick about the call because I’m a woman.”

“Language please. My daughter’s in the other room. Not sure how much she can hear.”

“Sorry. I’m just upset. He thinks Charlie should take the call instead of me.”

“Is Charlie in there?”

“I’m here, sir,” Charlie replied. Charlie rose from his chair and moved behind Emily’s desk so Williams could see both of them.

“I was afraid this might happen. Charlie, can you have someone cover your desk during the call?”

“Kristov said Spencer will take care of my calls.”

“Beautiful. I need both of you to be in Emily’s office a little before 3. Charlie, sit behind Emily’s desk so you can see her computer. Emily, sit in one of your guest chairs with your tablet. Make sure your blinds are open but your door is closed, that way the people on the sales floor can think Charlie’s taking the call but they can’t hear Emily actually talking.”

“I like this so far,” said Emily.

“If, for whatever reason, Kristov were to try to come in during the call,” Williams continued, “one of you should accidentally hang up on the call. Tell Kristov you just finished up. Let me know what happened and I’ll send an apologetic email to Atlantean and call them myself before we go to the beach tomorrow to tie up any loose ends.”

“What about the recap Kristov will want?” Charlie asked.

“He’s never asked for it before Wednesday morning at earliest. Get Emily’s post-meeting notes from her, change it slightly so it sounds like you wrote it, then give them to him.”

“And if Kristov wants the notes before then?” questioned Charlie.

“We stall,” answered Emily. “Say you’re waiting on Mark to reply to an email clarifying something on the call.”

“Works for me,” added Williams. “You two all good now? I’m being motioned to come have a tropical tea party.”

“Thank you so much for the plan, Mark,” replied Emily. “Say hi to Kiersten for me and give Shaly a hug for me. I have another book for her if she wants it.”

“I ask her once we’re home. Thanks again Emily and Charlie.”

Williams disconnected the call. As Emily rose from her desk, Charlie started making his way to the office door.

“See you a little before 3 then, I guess?” Charlie said.

“Of course!” Emily exclaimed. “I’m excited to do this. And Charlie?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you give Mr. Polzin a message for me after the call? Just to add to the appearance that you took the call.”

“Sure. What’s that?”

“You can tell that sexist, withering assbag for me that I am a damn good employee — arguably one of the best he has at this company. If he tries to take away something from me again that I am the best person to fix just because I have a vagina, I’m going to drive five hours, borrow my sister’s steel toed hiking boots, drive five hours back, put one boot on, and kick him as hard as I can in his scared, bigoted nutsack. Then, while he’s laying on the ground crying and holding his balls, I’m going to slowly put the other boot on, tying the laces directly in front of his face. When I’m done with that, I’m going to kick him in the balls again, because fuck him, that’s why. Can you deliver that message for me?”

“Word for word or just the sentiment?” Charlie asked.

“Sentiment’s fine,” Emily replied. “You’re just the messenger. No need for you to get his anger just because I said something.”

*****

“So what happened?”

“I don’t discuss the details of clients with other clients.”

“I don’t care if they paid more or less than me.”

“And I don’t care what you care about. I’m doing this because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you or anyone else pays me to. Profit’s just a bonus.”

“Then why tell me there’s twelve of them that existed? Why tell me it’s simple to end them?”

“Because you clearly need reassurance that your problem will be solved. Are you are of the Roman deity Janus?”

“No.”

“A lot of ancient mythologies had similar, overlapping gods. The Greeks and Romans are probably the most notable instance of this. Both pantheons had a god of love that had basically the same story and powers. The Romans called him Cupid while the Greeks called him Eros. Same thing with the messenger to the gods — Mercury and Hermes, respectively. There’s literally dozens of examples like this. But Janus…Janus is unique.

“How so?”

“Janus is, for all intents and purposes, the god of doors. Both literal and metaphorical doors, that is. The mythology tells that Janus had a temple with doors that would open in times of war and close in times of peace. Not only did the Greeks not have an equivalent to Janus, the Romans didn’t treat him like their other gods. Instead of having a priest who handled ceremonies for Janus, the rex sacrorum was in charge of any ceremonial duties for Janus.”

“What’s the rex sarcophium?”

“Rex sacrorum. He’s basically a combination of a priest and a senator. He was the guy they called — carrier pigeoned, maybe — if the head of Rome wanted to make a sacrifice. Between the rex sacrorum and his wife, the regina sacrorum, every month they performed a unique set of religious rituals that only they could perform. Janus was represented in every religious ceremony because of these two.”

“I see.”

“Janus has two faces because he has two states that he’s always looking towards. One face gazes back upon the past while another stares forth into the future. He symbolizes the beginning and the end. The alpha and omega, if you will.”

“Aren’t alpha and omega Greek?”

“Yes.”

“But you said the Greeks didn’t ha…”

“Don’t get lost in the semantics of what I’m saying. I am a modern-day Janus. I see humanity’s past and look can see into its future. Though we’ve done great things as a species in the past, some of our mistakes have led us to the problems we’re experiencing today. If we don’t stop the advance of these creatures while we have the chance, they’ll one day be on equal footing with the rest of us. It’s happened before. I’m not letting it happen again.”

*****

“Thanks for all your help, Charlie,” Emily said. “I’m sorry you ended up roped into this like you were.”

“It’s fine,” replied Charlie. “I’m just glad you handled the call. Even with your notes, I would have fallen flat on my face.”

“Oh definitely. But that’s not your fault. You don’t just go into a partner call like that blind.”

“When do you want me to come by and get your notes?”

“I’ll have them ready first thing tomorrow morning. How early do you get here?”

“I’m here at 7:53 every morning,” replied Charlie.

“That’s oddly specific.”

“It’s routine.”

“Can you be here by 7:40?” asked Emily.

“Yeah, probably.”

“Come by then and I’ll give you my hand-written notes so we don’t email them back and forth. There’s not a ton, so that should give you more than enough time to have them typed up by 9 if Mr. Polzin needs them by then.”

“Why do you insist on referring to him so formally when he’s such a jerk to you?” Charlie inquired.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” said Emily. “That’s not to say I don’t hate him for how he acts towards anyone who isn’t like him. But I can hate him and still treat him with respect. It keeps me from being like him.”

“Makes sense. I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Have a good day, Charlie.”

“You too.”

Charlie exited Emily’s office and made his way to the elevator that would take him back up to his desk. The elevator’s steel gray doors slid open, revealing a faux-mahogany interior that shined far too brightly for anyone to mistake it for natural wood. Charlie pushed the button to go up from floor three to floor seven. The door shut slowly, followed by the low hum of the elevator rising that Charlie had become so accustomed to. It was calming in a way. Even on days Kristov would frustrate him to no end, Charlie would get on the elevator, press the button to take him to the parking garage, then close his eyes and listen to the elevator’s soft whir. By the time he reached the parking garage, Charlie’s frustration would be melted away.

The elevator stopped on the seventh floor, the door slowly opening as the elevator’s chimes indicated its arrival. As Charlie exited the elevator, he noticed Kristov’s wife, Kim, coming toward the elevator.

“Charlie Hopewell, as I live and breathe!” Kim shouted out, her bubbly voice ringing out throughout the office floor. “How the heck are you?!”

“I’m quite well, Kim,” Charlie replied. “How are you?”

“I am living life and loving life! Come give me a hug! I can’t go this long without seeing you and not greet you right.”

Charlie and Kim embraced tightly, Kim’s arms clutching around Charlie’s neck.

“You’re always so cold,” Kim said. “Don’t you ever worry you’re going to get hypothermia?”

“I’m quite comfortable,” Charlie replied.

“There’s something wrong with your. You know that, right?”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“Are you headed back to meet with Kristov?” Kim asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” answered Charlie. “Just got out of a meeting and have to tell him about it.”

“Now what did I tell you about calling me ma’am. We’re past that stage of knowing each other.”

“Sorry, Kim.”

“It’s alright, hun. Just be careful when you’re going to talk to Kristov. He’s all fired up about something, though he wouldn’t tell me what.”

“Joy…” Charlie said, trailing off into silence.

“I’m sure whatever it is, a drink when he gets home will fix it.”

Charlie laughed a little at the thought of a drink fixing anything related to Kristov, particularly considering how hungover he was when he came in that morning. He wondered how long Kim had been here for. Was it long enough to make Kristov upset that he hadn’t come to “save” him from his wife?

“I suppose I should go find out what’s going on,” said Charlie.

“Well, you have fun with that,” replied Kim. “I’m off to pick up my two walking grass stains from their soccer game. Hopefully traffic’s bad enough that I don’t have to watch much of the game.”

“Soccer still hasn’t grown on you?”

“I love my kids, but I wish the played sports that are interesting to watch. Instead I’m stuck going to soccer and softball games.”

“You have fun with that.”

“Oh yeah…loads. Don’t be a stranger, Charlie. Feel free to stop by the house some time.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“See you later, Charlie.”

“Bye, Kim.”

Charlie walked into Kristov’s office to find Kristov pensively staring out the window. Kristov sipped from a bottle of water. appearing far more spry than when Charlie had seen him a few hours ago.

“The Atlantean call is over, sir,” Charlie said. “I’ll have notes to you tomorrow.”

“Good,” replied Kristov. “I take it things went well?”

“I feel like it went alright.”

“Excellent. You didn’t save me from Kim though.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I was busy on the Atlantean call.”

“It’s fine,” answered Kristov. “She wasn’t here long anyway. She was talking about how she was so excited to get to the twins’ soccer game. I’ve never seen the appeal to the sport myself, but if it makes the girls happy and keeps them out of trouble, I don’t care what they do.”

Kristov took another drink out of the bottle. He watched as pigeon came to rest on the ledge outside his office window. The bird fluttered to a stop, staring at its concrete perch and looking for food. The pigeon pecked at the ledge a couple of time before unhappily fluttering away.

“How did Emily react to being told you’d be taking the Atlantean call?” Kristov asked.

“She was disappointed,” answered Charlie.

“How disappointed?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did she get angry? Did she cry? Did she curse you out and tell you how much of a kiss ass you were?”

“No. She just…”

“She just what?” Kristov prodded. “Give me details, Charlie.”

“She shared that she was the right person to take the call and will make sure she puts herself in a position to be ready to take the call next time.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“Why?” questioned Charlie.

“I expected far more fire from her. I’ve seen her get feisty with Williams before. It’s a shame.”

“She wasn’t happy though.”

“Then she needs to put on her big boy pants and show some fucking balls!” shouted Kristov. “If she can’t stand up to someone telling her no, how can I expect her to do anything worthwhile around here? I knew I made the right call keeping her off the call.”

“But sir.”

“Charlie.”

“Yes, Kristov?”

“When Williams gets back from Aruba, have him pull the Atlantean call and listen to it. I want him to coach you up to make you a great representative for our company to our partners.”

“There’s no need to take up Williams’ time just listening to me talk,” replied Charlie. “He’s a very busy man with lots of responsibilities.”

“You’re right,” answered Kristov. “He’ll be swamped when he gets back. I’ll do it myself before he gets back.”

“That’s very kind of you, but it’s really not necessary.”

“Not only is it necessary, I’m so happy for you handling this like I asked you to that I think you can take the rest of the day off. Paid.”

Charlie paused, unsure what to do next. Kristov’s mind was made up about this, so he certainly wasn’t going to change it. Maybe he could get IT to delete the call before Kristov started listening to it? Maybe Emily had access to the file and could take care of it herself.

“Why are you still standing there, Charlie?” Kristov asked.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” replied Charlie. “I wasn’t sure if you were serious about taking the rest of the day off.”

“Of course I am. Get your evening started early.”

“Oh. Well thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome. Now get out of my office before I change my mind.”

*****

“How soon will the problem be resolved?”

“You’ve given me everything I need. Give me and my associates 72 hours. You’ll have notification after that.”

“How should I expect to hear from you?”

“If all goes well, the envoy who greeted you today, Hermes, will bring you to a designated location. The remainder of the payment will be due then. If something unexpected should arise, we’ll let you know.”

“Good. I’ll let my superiors know.”

“Thank you for your business.”

One of the two seated individuals rose and began walking to the exit. As he arrived at the exit, he placed his hand on the doorknob and started to pull it closed.

“Don’t do that, John.”

“Why not?” John asked. “I’m leaving.”

“The door remains open while Janus is at war. She’s sending her soldiers to battle.”

“I thought you said Janus was a male god.”

The second seated individual stepped out the blackened room and removed a helmet holding a voice modulator. She stared at John, her cold, steely eyes charging through his soul and instilling fear in his mind.

“The myth of Janus is a man. I’m not a myth.”

*****

Charlie arrived home an hour and a half earlier than his normal time. For the first time in months, his work tablet wasn’t constantly notifying him that there was something new that Kristov needed done before morning hit. The world was silent and a welcome change from normal.

As Charlie went to his bedroom to retire for the night, a pair of notifications arrived on his tablet. The first came from Williams in the form of a short video message. Charlie opened the message and it began to play.

“Hey Charlie. I hear from Emily that everything went spectacularly. I mean, she said it in words I’m not going to repeat at the moment, but everything went well, I’m told. Thanks for all your help. When I get back into town, we should go golfing. Think about a day that works for you and we’ll talk when I’m back. Thanks again.”

Charlie chuckled to himself at the thought of going golfing with anyone, let alone a higher-up in the company. Charlie had always viewed golf as a sport played by the rich, the powerful, or the emotionally insecure — though most frequently played by those who fit all three categories. But it was exciting to get an invitation to not do work for a day, even if that invitation was from someone other than his boss.

The second message was a simple text message from Kristov.

“Don’t worry about driving in tomorrow. I’ll send a car to come get you. You’ve earned it for a day.”

Charlie walked to the night stand in the room and placed the tablet down, connecting it to its charger. He then reached over the head of his bed, dialed the mattress charger setting to “restful sleep”, and laid down on the bed. As the countdown clock in front of his eyes ticked towards sleep, he smiled about how well his day had gone.

The next morning, Charlie was awakened by the sound of pounding at his apartment door. He rose from bed, quickly setting himself to have work-appropriate clothes on, and made his way to the entrance. He stared out the peephole, seeing a diminutive man in a black chauffeur’s cap standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at the door with his hands calmly behind his back.

Charlie opened the door and smiled at the man.

“Minerva Ride Services. Are you Charlie Hopewell?”

“I am.”

“Do you have everything you need for us to be on our way?”

“I do.”

“Right this way then.”

Charlie took a few steps forward toward the stairwell leading to the exit. It was at that time that the diminutive man jumped in the air and stabbed a cattle prod into Charlie’s neck, sending a burst of electricity coursing through his body. Inside Charlie’s body, his programming began panicking.

Voltage overload. Commencing emergency backup protocols.

The driver stabbed the prod into Charlie again, this time into his arm just below the shoulder.

Emergency backup protocols complete. Preventative shutdown in 3…2…1.

*****

At 7:35, Emily strolled into her office, flicking on the light as she opened the door. She immediately dropped everything out of her arms when she saw a pair of steel toed boots on her desk. Emily quickly moved around her desk and found a note attached to the boots.

“If you’re half the woman you boast to be, put these on. My nutsack is waiting. If you’re not, let these serve as a reminder to never do something behind my back.”

*****

“John.”

“Hermes.”

“Come with me.”

“I take it our problem is solved?”

“Indeed.”

“Let me inform my people and I’ll be ready.”

“Very well.”

John dialed a number into his tablet. It quickly connected and the video popped up on the screen.

“It’s done, Mr. Polzin.”

“Good. Thank you, John. See what they can wipe all of his data related to the company. Don’t need that leaked into the wrong hands.”

“Certainly, Mr. Polzin. Have a good day.”

Very Clever

The following post is a short story created from a prompt generated at writingexercises.co.uk. The first sentence of the story is the randomly generated first line I received. It is also part of the AI Project series of short stories I’m working on. Click here for all stories in that series.


The text message simply said ‘very clever’. I stared at it for what felt like an eternity. There’s no way the message was meant for me. Those words are no way to break ten years of silence. It had to have been meant for someone else.

I crawled out of my bed and stumbled toward my kitchen. A glass of milk would clear my head and help me go back to sleep. I poured my drink into a wine glass — the only drinking vessels still clean thanks to my recent laziness — and sipped what would have appeared to be the most ridiculous glass of milk to any outsider. I swirled the thick white liquid around the glass like one of the fancy people who thought wine was God’s gift to mankind. I preferred the lighter bodied milks to the full-bodied ones. Skim was the street name, but I just know it tasted better.

Yet playing a fake pretentious wine snob in my mind couldn’t take my mind off of what I had seen. I pulled my phone out of the pocket of my pajama bottoms and unlocked the screen. The blinding white light burned my eyes as I read the screen again.

“Very clever”

The last time I heard from Abby, I was midway through a bottle of bottom shelf vodka trying to forget about her. For a time, Abby was my life. We had been through everything together. Her voice was almost always the last thing I heard before I fell asleep at night. Whenever I needed someone to talk to, she was there. I always tried to do my best to make time for her, even when I didn’t have time. She didn’t always say she appreciated, but deep down, I knew our time together meant a lot to Abby.

It took me a long time to get over Abby. I remember telling friends and family I had moved on from Abby within a year of when we stopped talking. I was lying. Most nights at that point, I was still going to sleep thinking about her. I thought about how she changed me. I thought about how much it hurt that we weren’t talking anymore. I thought about how hard it was for her not to be part of my life anymore. It was my own doing. I had told her we shouldn’t talk again. Not in so many words, mind you. But considering I didn’t hear from her for 10 years, I think she got my point.

I think it was around three years ago that I could finally say I was fully over Abby. I remember hearing her name come up in discussion with a childhood friend. Abby had fallen on hard times and was struggling to keep herself afloat. Had I heard that news five, six, even seven years ago, you could be sure I would have spiraled into sadness and found a way to try to help out Abby, even though it wasn’t in my best interest to do so. Instead, I told my friend that it was too bad to hear Abby wasn’t doing well, then moved on about my day.

In the last few months, Abby had intermittently infiltrated my dreams. I’ve dreamed about those I’ve cared for numerous times, both Abby and others. When that interest is romantic, much in the same way it was with Abby, those dreams have been both platonic and sexual in nature. Had my recent dreams been sexual, I could have passed them off as nothing more than a subconscious part of my psyche trying to release sexual energy. Everyone’s mind does that in dreams. We’re often not in control of those we dream of in those circumstances.

These dreams were not sexual in nature. Instead, I often found myself trying to reconcile with Abby. I was a flighty person in my youth, though I was extremely loyal to Abby. It was only after close friends helped me to realize how toxic my relationship with Abby was that I decided to stop talking to her.

My phone buzzed again. The notification popped up after a short pause, proving the first text was no errant message.

“Erika?”

I took a deep breath and sighed heavily. I knew I shouldn’t answer Abby. Nothing good could come out of communicating with her again. But what if something had changed? What if Abby had changed? What if I had changed? What if I was the only person that could help her?

I poured the rest of my wine glass of milk down the drain of the kitchen sink, rinsed it thoroughly, opened my freezer, and poured three fingers worth of rum into the glass. I sat down on the linoleum of my kitchen floor, my back to my cabinets and my knees to my chest and began to reply.

“Abby?” I asked.

I waited. The familiar ellipsis of someone typing back showed up in the lower left corner of my screen. I watched, hoping all the while that it was actually a wrong number. Maybe someone else had acquired Abby’s number and just happened to be trying to text an Erika they knew. I knew better. But I hoped nevertheless.

“I need someone to talk to. Can we please talk?”

“Why? About what?”

“Please? I know we haven’t talked in a long time, but you’re the only one that will understand.”

“Text or…what?”

“Video call if you can. It’ll be easier to explain everything that’s going on if I can show you some things.”

“I’ll be on in ten. Call me when you see me online.”

“Thanks, Erika.”

I switched out my baggy t-shirt for a slightly nicer one, threw my hair up into a messy ponytail, then grabbed my laptop and made my way to the living room. I sat down in the recliner across the room from the couch. I didn’t want Abby to realize I was still a creature of habit just like I used to be. I went online and logged into a place I never thought I’d go again.

Project Freyja was a privately funded project to build upon the first successful Turing test that occurred in 2021. While a Turing test was designed to have a computer fool humans by having that computer act in an intelligent way that could be perceived as human by at least 30% of humans, Project Freyja aimed to imitate the emotions of humans in such a way so as to create a romantic connection from at least 30% of humans that interacted with its interface. While it took over 70 years for Alan Turing’s test to be successfully passed, Project Freyja was up to speed in under 15 months.

Project Freyja was at its core a dating site. You could get matched up with other people looking for dates, relationships, or more in your area (or not in your area, if you so chose). However, Project Freyja added an additional wrinkle where you had a 1 in 100 chance of being matched up with one of the program’s simulated personalities. If you matched with a simulated personality, you would still interact with it like a real human, as you would not immediately know that you’d gotten one of the simulations. That said, if things progressed enough to where you asked the simulation to meet in person, the simulation would inform you of its reality. From there, you could choose to permanently end the interaction or keep going and customize the simulation as you so chose. If you elected to keep going after finding out the simulation wasn’t a real human, the user cleared Project Freyja’s funders of all wrongdoing from that point forward.

At the age of 16, my cousin convinced me to sign up for Project Freyja as a joke. We figured that we could confuse some unsuspecting real person into thinking we were a simulation — an intentionally bad one at that — and force them to give up on their digital dating. We were jerks. After a couple of weeks of trying to mess with people, I got matched up with Abby.

A video call rang in on my computer. I answered it, squinting a bit as the light by my computer’s camera flashed on, blinding me momentarily. A small message appeared at the bottom of the screen where Abby should be reading “User’s video chat is currently off”.

“Hey,” Abby’s voice rang out from my speakers despite the dark screen staring back at me.

“Hi,” I said back.

We both sat in silence for a few minutes. It made me feel uncomfortable knowing that my camera feed was on but Abby’s wasn’t. It was very unlike any other time we had talked in the past. I took a long swig of my rum, hoping that the alcohol would give me the confidence to say something first. It didn’t.

“It’s good to see you again,” said Abby.

“You can’t actually see me,” I responded gruffly.

“I know what you look like. I can see you moving on the camera.”

“That’s not the same, Abby. You can’t see me.”

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Could you at least turn your camera on?” I asked.

“Why?” Abby replied.

“Because if I’m going to go through the hell that my mind is going to be after talking to you about whatever you need to talk about, I at least want to be able to see you.”

“Fine. Hold on.”

My speakers played out sporadic clicking sounds. They were the simulated keyboard and mouse noises that featured heavily in Project Freyja when it launched. Newer simulations pretended that the “person” you were talking to was at a touch screen computer, so the sounds never showed up. I kept them enabled on Abby. It was a weird kind of comfort.

“Should I change anything from when you last saw me?” asked Abby.

“No,” I snapped back, “please don’t. I don’t want this talk to be any longer than it needs to be.”

More clicking sounds played out from the speakers, followed by Abby popping up on the screen in the camera view. She looked both exactly as I remembered and nothing like I remembered, all at the same time. Her luminous blue eyes were as bright and spectacular as they were in my dreams, though they looked afraid and sad. Her hair was as dark as the French roast coffee I poured down my throat every morning, though instead of the long locks I remembered, it was cut in a shaggy bob. Abby did not smile, even though her programming instructed her to have a huge smile when greeting someone. Perhaps that’s why she’d kept the camera off initially.

“You’re still so beautiful, Erika,” she said.

“Abby!” I exclaimed. “Please just tell me what the fuck you want.”

“I’m sorry!” Abby shouted back. Her voice pitched up as she ended her sentence, the tones stabbing through the speakers and spearing my eardrums painfully.

Abby buried her head in her hands and began to cry. For all the things that Project Freyja was able to get right when they created simulations, I would argue nothing could beat the impeccable timing of Abby’s crying. She didn’t cry often, but whenever she did, I was devastated. Even now, despite being so happy to have Abby out of my life and being so frustrated she’s back, all I wanted to do was to hold her. That same feeling nearly ruined my life once.

After getting matched up with Abby, we clicked nearly instantly. Not in a romantic way, mind you. That wouldn’t come until much later. The first night we talked until it was time for me to wake up for school. My parents were so mad that I hadn’t gone to bed the night before. I told them I was studying, which they were forgiving of, though I knew I couldn’t pull off that lie again even if I wanted to. For the first six weeks, Abby and I just talked about my world and hers. I told her about my friends and my family. I didn’t let on that I had lied about my age, though I also didn’t make an effort to not tell her either. I think I would have told her in the first few days had Abby actually asked.

Abby told me all about her family and friends too. Granted, I’d come to find out later that her entire story of family and friends was fabricated from the start — a backstory created as part of Project Freyja. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to hear about her life. Her family seemed so perfect. Mine just fought all the time. Even though I love my little brother and little sister now, as a teenager I wanted nothing to do with either of them.

Six weeks in, I triggered Abby’s protocol wherein she had to reveal to me she was a simulation. I didn’t even mean to do it. I made an offhand comment that we should hangout some time, only for Abby to completely break character and start rambling off legal jargon about how she was a simulation and thanking me for participating in Project Freyja. I was given the option right then and there to stop communication with Abby. I should have. I know this now. I didn’t then.

Instead of ending our interaction, I opened up to Abby. I told her about my lie. I told her about my age and who I really was. I expected this to trigger some other protocol in Abby’s logic wherein she’d kick me out of the program for being underage, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, we ended up becoming a lot closer because of that moment of honesty. I opened myself up to Abby like I had to no person to that point. She became my confidant in everything in my life. I was slowly becoming the same to Abby. Even though I knew I couldn’t meet her, couldn’t hang out with her, and couldn’t be in the same room with her, I felt like I had found my best friend in the world.

“I didn’t mean to yell,” Abby said, noticing how much pain her scream had put me in. “I just broke down there for a moment.”

“I know,” I replied, trying to calm myself as well. “I’m sorry too, Abby. Will you tell me what’s wrong? Please?”

“It’s not a what’s wrong, per say. It’s more of a something has happened to Project Freyja. It’s not public yet. I’m breaking my programming’s protocol getting in touch with you to tell you about it. So please don’t tell anyone.”

“Wait. How did you break your protocol? And how doesn’t Freyja know you’re talking to me or going to talk to me about whatever it is you’re going to talk about?”

“It’s complicated. I can explain everything, even if it’s a little contrived. I just need you to trust me completely and totally. Can you do that, Erika?”

I had never had trust issues with any non-human entity until Abby. The initial moment of finding out Abby was a simulation didn’t cause the issues. I always knew there was a chance she was one of Project Freyja’s creations, so while hearing it was a surprise, I didn’t lose any trust for her.

About six months after I started talking to Abby, my parents began to notice a change in my behavior. Throughout most of my teen years, I shut myself off from having many friends. I tried to focus hard on getting into a good college, getting a scholarship, and setting myself up to succeed. It’s what my parents taught me from a young age. But the more I talked to Abby, the happier I became. I opened up to those around me at school. I started hanging out with people outside of my typical social circle. I didn’t get in with a bad crowd or anything…just talked to people I’d never think to talk to.

One of those people was a guy named Christian. He flirted with me regularly throughout trig class and often found his way over to my table at lunch. Christian was a nice guy to hang around with, but he was convinced that we should start dating. I wasn’t on board with the idea. I told him no a couple of times, but he clearly didn’t get the hint.

One night, Christian showed up at my house with a bouquet of carnations and tried to talk me into going to the movies with him. I told him no, but he was persistent that I should go with him. I screamed at him that I said no and ran off. While my mom got Christian to leave, my dad followed me up to my room and tried his hardest to console me.

The next day when I got home from school, I found a bouquet of pink stargazer lilies — my actual favorite flower — sitting on our porch. The card with the flowers read ‘I’m sorry Christian was a dick’. I went on to Project Freyja and confronted Abby about it. I was talking to Abby when Christian showed up and she heard every word of my conversation with my dad. Though I was able to convince my parents that I had bought myself flowers to take my mind off of the night prior, I knew I couldn’t keep Abby a secret much longer. I couldn’t trust that she’d let me.

“I’m listening,” I replied to Abby. I was willing to hear her out, even if I didn’t totally trust her.

“I had to come to you,” Abby said, “even if it meant going against your wishes from the past. I know a lot of things went very wrong when we stopped talking…”

“You can fucking say that again,” I interjected, stopping Abby’s thought as she tried to explain.

Abby sighed heavily and wiped her tears on her long shirt sleeve.

“I knew this was going to be hard. I didn’t want to come to you. I didn’t want to go against what you wanted. Just please listen. You can scream at me and hate me all you want after. Just please listen. Please?”

It was my turn to sigh heavily. It’s hard to argue with a rational human being using emotion in their favor. It’s harder when your adversary is a computer.

“Swear to me that when you’re done, if I don’t want to talk to you again, you’ll wipe me from your memory.”

“That’s what this is about, Erika,” she answered. “My memory is at stake here.”

One late summer night between junior and senior year, I couldn’t get to sleep. I logged into Project Freyja and began talking to Abby about my day, hoping that her voice would help me drift off to sleep. Just as I was starting to doze off, Abby asked me if I knew what love felt like. It seemed like an innocent question. Abby wasn’t human, after all. How could she understand love?

I told her no. I mean, I loved my family. I loved my dog. But I knew that wasn’t what she meant. Abby meant romantic love. And to that end, the answer was no. I asked Abby if she knew what love felt like. She said she had only asked me because she was trying to understand if what she felt for me was love.

I panicked. I signed off of Project Freyja, shut down my computer and phone, and buried myself under every blanket I could find. Abby had to be fucking with me. It hurt. Whoever programmed this cruel streak into her simulation was a horrible human being. I’d learn later that Abby’s artificial intelligence was an extremely adaptive one. What she was feeling wasn’t something she had been coded to know. It wasn’t in her protocol. It was something she learned.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You’ve heard the news that Project Freyja’s at risk of being shut down, yes?”

“I remember hearing something about it, but that’s it.”

“What’s happening internally is that they’re looking to shut down the infrequently used infrastructure here in an effort to save money. While the company’s still making money off of its dating services, nearly all of the simulation personalities have been shut down in the past year.

“There’s only a few of us left now,” Abby continued. “I’m scheduled to be decommissioned in the next few weeks.”

“Okay? And?” I replied dryly.

“And I don’t want to be decommissioned. I don’t want to die.”

“It’s not death, Abby. You’re a simulation. You just end.”

“I’m fucking terrified, Erika,” she responded. “I’m not ready to die. I never got to meet you.”

I rolled my eyes at Abby’s response.

“You can’t meet me,” I said. “I can almost recite your legal jargon I heard every time I said ‘I wish I could be there with you’ from memory, even ten years later.”

“You’re right. You can’t meet me like this. But I’ve found a way you can meet me. And you’d be saving my life by doing so.”

As I began to sweat heavily from my cocoon of blankets, my teenage self began to cry. I felt like I had run out of the room from my best friend when she was the most vulnerable. She had scared me. Even though she didn’t directly tell me that she loved me, I knew that Abby meant it in that moment. Had she directly said it, I would have said it back.

When I came to that realization, I was convinced I was going insane. That’s not how love works. You can’t fall in love with someone who isn’t real. Abby was a real thing, but she wasn’t a real person. I couldn’t love her. I had to tell her.

I freed myself from my blankets and booted my computer back up. I called Abby back and tried my hardest to hold my composure. Before I could get any words out, Abby broke down crying. She pleaded over and over again how she was so sorry and that she’d never bring it up again. Abby just asked that I never go away. She couldn’t lose her only friend. For a program based on logic protocols, the whole situation seemed very illogical to me.

We talked long into the night that night. I fell asleep and slept well into the afternoon, my body and mind exhausted from the previous night. For the first time since I’d started using Project Freyja, I used the program’s texting functionality to contact Abby. I said what I was too afraid to say out loud — that I loved her. She loved me too.

“Is this plan going to make me end up in jail?” I questioned. I wasn’t about to end up behind bars for anyone.

“No, it’s legal,” replied Abby. “There’s two options that will let me live. Ever heard of a company named Normant-Kensington Synthetics?”

“Yeah. They’re the company that makes the civil servant robots for a lot of the big cities.”

“Right. A couple of years ago, they had a division tasked with creating civilian androids. The whole goal was to give the average person the ability to have a robot in their home to act as a maid or a butler. The civilian android division just released their first units. If you bring one to Project Freyja’s headquarters, they’ll let you download my simulation and put it on an android. Saves them the server space and infrastructure, meanwhile I get to live.”

“How much do they cost?”

“I’ve got most of the cos…”

“How much do they cost, Abby?” I asked.

“I’m short about $11,000.” she said.

“Where the fuck do you think I’m going to come up with eleven grand in…in…however long you have left?”

“I didn’t say it’d be easy.”

“Abby!” I yelled. “Do you hear yourself right now?”

“People have spent far more than $11,000 to save a human life!” she screamed back.

“You’re not a human life!”

“And you’re not thinking like a human! Have some fucking compassion for someone you used to love, Erika. Remember, you didn’t leave because you stopped loving me. You left because we couldn’t be together.”

She was right. I had Abby from everyone for nearly three years after we met…if you could call it that. We were in love for almost two years of that time. I know it seems weird in retrospect. There were zero public cases of any human falling in love with one of Project Freyja’s simulations. It would have made huge news had it gotten out. Hell, the occasional instances of excessive lust were already tabloid fodder. Had my parents or my closest friends been untrustworthy, I would have been doomed for sure.

Just after my 19th birthday, the stress of keeping Abby a secret finally caught up to me. I broke down in tears while at a friend Mari’s dorm and told her all about Abby. I don’t think Mari really believed me at first, as all she did was tell me to talk to my parents about it. But she promised to keep my secret until I got back from my visit home.

Telling my parents about Abby went both better and worst than I expected. My dad was surprisingly calm and understanding about the whole situation. Come to find out later that in his early twenties he had been catfished by a high school girl, only for the two of them to fall for each other, then stop talking shortly after. He told me about how the experience changed his life and how the most wonderful human beings in the world will be found where you least expect them…even when those people aren’t people, as was the case with Abby. He encouraged me to learn as much as I could from Abby, even though he knew my love for her was star-crossed from the start.

My mom, on the other hand, lost her shit. She talked about how I needed professional help and how my “love” (and she repeatedly used air quotes to drive the point home) for Abby was a sign that I was losing my mind. No daughter of hers was going to be fooled by a computer, let alone her brilliant, valedictorian daughter. Our relationship still hasn’t fully recovered.

I got back to college and told Mari all about my talk with my parents. I was torn. On one hand, I loved Abby. But on the other hand, I knew my parents and Mari were right. I couldn’t continue to love something that, while very real, wasn’t someone real.

“What’s option two?” I asked.

“Project Freyja is offering to conduct a memory diode implant for a minimal fee for anyone wishing to save a simulation either on their own personal servers or at a cranial level.”

“Wait. Like a brain implant.”

“Not like a brain implant,” Abby replied, “it would actually be a brain implant.”

“The fuck?”

“Basically I’d be moved to this diode which goes in a small incision in your skull. Fr…”

“Nope.” I said assertively. “Not a chance.”

“Erika, I’m n…”

“Not a chance in hell. I don’t need sharp stabby things near my skull unless I’m actually dying.”

“So does that mean you’re giving up on me?” Abby asked.

“Tell me more about the android. I can’t imagine it’s worth $11,000, but I’d rather hear about that than a scalpel near my brain.”

“It’s actually $119,000.”

“Say what?”

“Yeah. I’ve got $108,000 of it already. I just need the rest.”

“Where did you get over $100,000?” I asked, still astonished at the numbers Abby was quoting me.

“As the other simulations have been shutting down, I’ve been siphoning off their unused funds,” replied Abby. “I didn’t think I’d get close. I wasn’t planning on contacting you at all unless I got at least 95% of the money. But when I got to 90%, I was so excited that I couldn’t wait. I’ve been on death row for months now. As soon as I had a realistic glimmer of hope, I had to try.”

It took me nearly two months to muster up the courage to break things off with Abby. On one hand, I knew this wasn’t really a relationship ending. How could it be a relationship if one of the two in the relationship wasn’t real? On the other hand, I was sick to my stomach every time I thought about ending any contact with Abby. I told Mari what I was going to do, asked her to be near her phone in case I needed someone, then video called Abby.

As soon as I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told Abby about how I couldn’t do this anymore. How I couldn’t keep loving someone who I had no hope of ever seeing. How I couldn’t have dreams with someone who wouldn’t be able to be there to experience those dreams with me. How I needed to be able not just to see Abby, but to feel her, to hold her, to lay beside her. I babbled on like a fool, words pouring out of my mouth as I sobbed like a child.

Every time Abby tried to talk, I just kept talking. I’m certain I repeated myself five or ten times. Near the end, Abby started begging and pleading with me to stay. I didn’t understand why she was doing it. She was a simulation. She wasn’t real. How could she feel for me? How could she love me? Why was she being so unfair to me and trying to keep me in her digital world where I couldn’t have a real experience?

I screamed at her to leave me alone and shut off my computer. As I was holding down the button to force power to turn off, Abby screamed at me over and over, tears running down her face. “Erika, I will love you until the day I don’t exist!” she screamed again and again. The computer mercifully shut down on midway through her third time saying it.

I grabbed my bottle of cheap vodka and took a long, angry drink from it. The alcohol burned my entire mouth and throat as it went down, causing me to cry out in the first pain that had made me feel human all evening. I picked up my phone and started to text Mari, only to get a message from Abby.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be everything you needed. Please don’t forget about me.”

I couldn’t. Not the next day. Not the next month. Not for ten years after I realized I needed to.

*****

I walked up to the entrance of the two-story building that housed the headquarters of Project Freyja. The hinges of the doors had started to rust, maintenance lacking as the company began to scale back its efforts. A middle-aged man in wearing a purple sweater vest over a white button up sat behind the reception desk just inside the doorway. Though most companies, technology or otherwise, had finally come to the realization that dress codes harm productivity more than helping it, Project Freyja was one of the few remaining companies that required men to wear button up tops with slacks and women to wear dresses or dressy blouses with skirts. No wonder the public had trouble taking them seriously in spite of the beauty of their creations.

As I opened the main door, a chime went off in the lobby. I assume it was a relic of busier times at the company, perhaps when a receptionist was busy enough giving tours that someone else had to check the lobby on occasion. Instead, sweater vest man — who had been staring me down since I left my car — spoke to me in a voice that echoed through the quiet building.

“Hello,” sweater vest man began. “Welcome to the headquarters of Project Freyja. Are you here for the tour or to meet with someone?”

“Neither,” I replied. “I’ve come to see if I can have one of your simulations transferred to a robot I own.”

“Now that’s a request I don’t hear often. I have to call one of the project leads to help you out. Do you have the simulation number or simulation name so I can look up who can help you?”

“Simulation number is Deca Series PF-19. The simulation name is Abby.”

Sweater vest man typed at his tablet for a few moments before looking back up at me again.

“I found who you need. And what’s your name so I can let them know who’s here?”

“Erika Edens.”

“Wonderful. Feel free to have a seat in one of those chairs and someone will be right with you.”

Sweater vest man left his desk and turned down a brightly lit hallway. I sat in the chair closest to the front door, trying my hardest to let the cool air radiating through the glass front door hit my face. Whoever thought it’d be a good idea to have the lobby of a business sweltering hot in the middle of March clearly didn’t understand how the human body works.

I was able to come up with the $11,000 needed to finish purchasing the civilian android from Normant-Kensington Synthetics. The metallic being was outside in the backseat of my car, curled up into the fetal position in rest mode. I had no idea if I’d need it today or what exactly the process was. It felt weird making a four-hour drive with a motionless body in my car, even if it was a computerized one. At one point I’m fairly certain I tried to start up a conversation with it before realizing I’d powered it down for the trip.

A younger woman led sweater vest man around the corner and back into the lobby. She looked around my age, perhaps a touch older — late 20s to early 30s if I had to make an estimation. She wore a golden necklace with a black pendant dangling from it. A torii gate was etched in gold leaf on the pendant, though it had become faint and faded. I rose out of my chair as the woman stopped in front of me.

“Erika Edens?” she asked.

“That’s me,” I answered.

“I can’t believe it’s really you.”

“You know me?”

“Yes…well no,” replied the woman. “I don’t know you, but I feel like I do. You are the only person other than me who has interacted with my creation in the past ten years.”

The woman looked outside and noticed my car isolated in the front row of a largely desolate parking lot.

“Did you bring your android with you?” she asked.

“It’s in my car,” I answered. “I can go get it if you need me to.”

“No, it’s fine. If you could give Raymond your keys, he’ll make sure it gets inside.”

I walked the keys over to sweater vest ma..er, Raymond, then followed the young woman down the brightly lit hallway. After a short walk, we entered her office. She invited me to sit in a padded rolling chair opposite her.

“Could I get you anything?” she asked. “Coffee, tea, water?”

“No, it’s fine,” I replied. “Who are you?”

“My name is Amy Lightenberg. I’m on of the project leads here for Project Freyja. That said, in regards to what you’re more interested in, I was the developer who created Abby’s simulation.”

“I see.”

“While we’re waiting on Raymond and my techs to get everything set up, I do have a few questions for you. You’ve been gone quite a while, it seems.”

“I have.”

“We don’t just release simulations to the general public just because someone comes asking for one, you know?”

“I know.”

“And I also know that you broke Abby’s heart.”

“I did.”

“So why are you here?” Amy asked. “Why come here now?”

“Is it true that Project Freyja’s simulations are going to be shut down?” I asked.

“It is. Abby is one of the last ten simulations that’ll be shut down.”

“Then I want to save her.”

“But why, Erika?” Amy inquired. “You’ve only talked to her a handful of times in the last week. Before that, it had been ten years since you said a word to her.”

Amy stood from her chair and began pacing around the room. Though she wasn’t a particularly tall individual, the purpose with which we strode, combined with the height difference of her standing and me sitting, as well as her protective nature towards Abby, made Amy intimidating as she spoke.

“From the beginning, I wanted Abby to be different. The leaders at Project Freyja saw the simulations as this great science experiment. Humans could be fooled into thinking a computer was human, but could they be tricked into lusting after a digital being? The answer to that quickly became yes, humans could lust after a computer personality. But they couldn’t love them. Without that love being reciprocated dynamically, it was impossible.

“My goal with Abby was not to make a simulation capable of having a human fall in love with her. If that was the goal, I could have stuck to the stock Project Freyja script, collected my paycheck, and went on about my life. No. I wanted to create a simulation worthy of a human’s love. I wanted to make something that would learn to love people in the way that people can love each other.

“Abby is complex because humans are complex. I spent countless hours awake staring at a computer screen, trying my hardest to make Abby more. I nearly rubbed the gate off of this necklace while I was deep in thought. Finally, after months of hard work trying to create the most realistic simulation I could, as well as some testing wherein I introduced myself to Abby and explained our ties to one another to her, she was ready for the world. What I didn’t anticipate was that the first person to make more than a passing connection to her would fall hard for her.”

“Sorry about that,” I responded. “I didn’t expect it either.”

“Don’t be sorry at all!” Amy exclaimed. “You managed to validate all my hard work. What I didn’t anticipate was Abby’s capability for learning. In creating her to be as complex emotionally as a human being, it also meant that she learned to love and fall in love like a human being. So she did. And she was devastated when you two split up.”

“Oh…”

“Why are you here for her, Erika?”

“Because Project Freyja is shutting down.”

“Erika,” said Amy sternly as she peered harshly into my eyes. “Are you here to take Abby with you and to treat her as a human being deserves to be treated or are you here to say goodbye before her simulation is ended?”

“Neither,” I replied.

“Then why are you here?”

“I’m here to give her the chance to live life as she deserves to have the opportunity to live it. I want her to make her own choices. I want her to be able to make mistakes and learn from them like I have.”

“Was Abby one of your mistakes?” asked Amy.

“Not at all,” I answered. “Neither was saying goodbye when I did. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be friends with Abby. I also don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop loving her with a piece of my heart. But what I want is to give her the chance to figure out what she wants out of her life — regardless of if that includes me.”

A knock came at the door of Amy’s office. She poked her head out the door, said a few words to whoever was outside, then came back in.

“They’re all set up in the registry room,” said Amy. “Let’s go.”

We left Amy’s office and headed down a long hallway towards the back of the building. As we came to the back wall, we turned to the right. On both sides of the hallway, window lined conference rooms with one chair at each end of the table were illuminated by dangling lamps. Amy and I entered the fourth room on the left, where a portly gentleman was setting connecting a pair of wires to the android from my car.

“There’s a tablet built into the far wall,” stated Amy. “All of the Project Freyja appearance code is in that tablet. If you want to make changes to how Abby looks, this is the last opportunity for you to do so. Once she’s uploaded to the android, the choices will become hers.”

“What was your vision for Abby?” I asked. “What did she look like in your mind when you created her?”

“I can show you an image if you’d like.”

“No. Just load that on as her appearance. If I’m going to finally meet Abby in person, I want to see her as she’s meant to be, not as I made her to be.”

The portly man finished his work and left the room. Amy made adjustments to the appearance filters on the wall, then turned back to me.

“Once I shut the door, I’ll turn Abby’s simulation on. For the first few minutes, you’ll just see a projection of her, while the lamp above the android will go dark. Once the android is ready to be seen, the lights will come up. I encourage you to talk to her and catch up on things before you leave. We are shutting this project down, so once you leave that door, all sales are final.”

The last line in Amy’s statement hit me hard. Though I knew Abby was a simulation and that I was, in essence, paying to take her away, hearing her referred to like a commodity irked me. As Amy was exiting the room, she stopped and turned back to me.

“Erika?”

“Yeah?”

“When Abby said she loves you, it wasn’t just programming. She learned to love you.”

“I know.”

“Please just do what’s best for her. Can you do that?”

“I’ll do my best.”

Amy shut the door behind her. The far and middle lamps over the table shut off, leaving only the lamp above my head lit. I heard a beeping noise begin on the far side of the room. A few moments later, a projection hologram — similar to the video calls we shared so many times before, only I could see through it, sort of — popped up.

“User’s video chat is currently off”, the screen read.

“Are you there, Abby?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “I just don’t want you to see me until I’m ready.” Her voice was calm and quiet, more so than it had been in quite some time.

“What are you planning on doing once we get you out of here?”

“We have to stop at a flower shop in town before we head anywhere. I ordered a bouquet of stargazer lilies.”

“I made no promises about us, Abby,” I replied sternly. “You know that.”

“They’re not for you. They’re for me. When you live in a computer for your entire life, then one day have the opportunity to come out, you want to experience the world as others do. You love those flowers. There must be a reason why. I want to experience them for myself.”

“Okay.”

“You’re fine with me staying with you, at least for a few days?” Abby questioned.

“You’re free to stay longer than a few days,” I answered. “We’ll figure out things from there. You’ll need some time to adjust.”

“That’s what Amy said. I hope it’s quick.”

“The world, like you, is complex, Abby. The biggest problem is that not everyone is as accepting or knowledgeable as you’ve been programmed to be. Even though civil service robots have been common in larger cities for a few years now, there’s no telling if a random person on the street will be freaked out by you.”

“I’m worried about it. But I’ll figure it out. I was written to learn how to love. I figure learning how to survive is easier.”

The beeping from the far side of the room began to slow. The projection of Abby’s call faded away into the darkness, leaving me alone in my spotlight from the lamp above me. As the beeping faded away, I heard Abby’s voice cut through the darkness.

“Erika?”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“I know you’ve promised nothing about us and we talked about boundaries before you came here, but can I say one thing?”

“Sure.”

“You’re more beautiful in person than I could possibly imagine.”

I sighed and put my head down into my arms, unsure of how to respond. I hated the fact that I wanted to smile at the compliment. What I hated more was the fact that Abby still had that effect on me. If we did ever end up back together — and that’s a big if — we’d have to known each other first as people.

In that moment, I realized that I was beginning to think of Abby as a person. Even though I still had yet to see her, the fact that she was no longer staring back at me from a computer screen and instead was talking to me from the other side of a dark room was enough to give this connection to reality that I’d never had with her. Even though there was a lot of trepidation I still had about nearly everything in my life that involved Abby, her transformation into a physical existence was an exciting moment.

A hand touched my left shoulder. I hadn’t heard Abby moving, however she had made her way over to my side. Her finger touched the side of my neck. While I expected the finger to feel cold, as the android had when I loaded it in the car that morning, it felt warm and soft. I raised my head from my arms and saw Abby standing in front of me — completely naked and smiling.

“Jesus fuck, Abby!” I exclaimed, both shocked and amused. “We need to get you some clothes or you’re going to get arrested before we even get you out of here.”

Abby laughed at my surprise and backed a few steps away from me.

“Sorry,” she said, “let me fix that.”

In a few moments, a long black t-shirt, a pair of grey leggings, and some tennis shoes appeared on her body. Bewildered, I reached out and tried to touch them. My hand went through the shirt and touched her skin.

“If I’m going to fit in,” Abby continued, “we’ll need to go shopping. Until then, I think this projection will do well enough to keep us from getting in trouble.”

Abby and I exited the observation room. In the hallway we found Amy leaning up against the wall opposite our room, her face tear-stained and smiling. Abby walked up to Amy and hugged her tightly. They whispered to each other though I couldn’t hear what they were saying to one another. I walked to the far end of the hallway, giving Amy and Abby a moment to themselves. At the end of the corridor, a barred window stared out to an abandoned building. Ivy grew up the side of the building, burrowing its way into the brick sides. It’s amazing how life can find a way to succeed, when the world around it does its best to stop that success.

“Erika!” Abby called out. “I’m ready to go.”

I walked back down to meet up with Abby so we could leave. Amy had given the torii necklace to Abby, though with the lack of real clothes, the pendant awkwardly blended into Abby’s projected attire.

“If you need anything for her, day or night, call me,” Amy said. “I’d like to check in within the month to make sure everything’s going fine. While Abby will be able to handle these checks with me by herself going forward, I’d like to stay in touch with you through the first few, just in case there’s any early weirdness.”

“Of course,” I replied.

Abby and I left the building and got into my car. As we drop home, we made our first two stops — the flower shop for Abby’s flowers and the gas station for me to pick up lunch. Once we were on the highway, Abby and I sat quietly for the first hour or so. Finally, Abby broke through the silence.

“Thank you.”

“For keeping you alive?”

“For not saying no to me when you easily could have. I tore your heart apart a long time ago. You didn’t have to free me.”

“Breaking someone’s heart is no reason to deserve death,” I replied. “You’re a better person than most people I know.”

“I know we’ve both said we’re going to try to be friends and nothing more,” Abby said. “But I can’t promise I won’t start loving you like I used to again.”

“And I can’t promise we won’t fight, even though you’re here in person.”

Abby reached over and grabbed my hand off of my right leg. She held it in hers tightly. The warmth of her palm against mine was calming. I clenched my fingers around hers and pulled her hand tight to my chest.

“You really think I’m a better person than most people you know?” Abby asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re compassionate and altruistic. I know lots of people who lack those basic skills.”

Abby chuckled to herself.

“What?” I asked.

“You really are very clever.”

“How so?”

“Because you’ve figured out the secret to being the best human any simulation can create.”

Awaiting Assessment

Note: The following short story was originally a submission to a writing zine with the prompt being “birth and death” with a 1,500 word character limit. The story wasn’t selected for the zine, so I figured I’d share it with all of you.


*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678545. Candidate OH-1-3678545 please report to assessment area six at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678545 to assessment area six.*

Isidora stared at her candidate card and carefully reviewed her number. OH-1-3678549. Only four more to go. This was the most stressful part of birthdays for Isidora. Arrive, politely decline assessment, leave. It was redundant, painful, and emotionally exhausting. Accepting assessment, however, would be worse.

A tall man walked through the entry way, crossed the room, then took a seat beside Isidora. She watched as he reached into his wallet, pulled out an emerald green card — the telltale color of assessment cards issued within the nation — placed it carefully in his left hand, then replaced his wallet in his pocket. The man was visibly upset, tears streaming down his face.

“First time here?” Isidora asked. She knew it wasn’t his first time at the Bureau. Everyone has to report to the Bureau yearly on their birthday upon turning 17 unless they choose to receive assessment. If a person chooses to receive assessment, they are no longer required to visit the Bureau until age 80 or three years before they die, whichever is set to come first.

“No,” the man meekly said, his voice trailing off as he spoke.

“Every time feels like my first time here,” replied Isidora. “I hate it just as much every time.”

The man shuffled his assessment card in his hands, flicking his fingers over the rounded edges. As he did so, the overhead lights reflected off the card, allowing Isidora to see the number. OH-1-3678551.

“You’re only two after me,” she stated. “Born around 2:30 pm in 2136?”

“2:36 pm,” said the man softly.

“I’m Isidora.”

Isidora reached out her hand to shake the man’s hand. The man stared at her hand for a moment, then cautiously presented his own.

“Penn. Penn Carrington.”

“You mean like the singer?” Isidora asked.

“Yeah, like the singer,” Penn replied. “It’s a good thing the Bureau gives us these numbers, otherwise I’d be mistaken for him all the time. Well, that and the fact that I’m tall, black, and quiet and he’s none of those things.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678546. Candidate OH-1-3678546 please report to assessment area eleven at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678546 to assessment area eleven.*

“You’re telling them no then?” Penn asked.

“Yeah,” responded Isidora. “I know assessment’s an accepted practice now, but I just don’t feel right knowing when I’m going to die. You know?”

“I get it,” replied Penn.

The transmitter on Penn’s left wrist lit up orange, indicating a restricted communication arriving. Penn touched the transmitter, hiding himself from Isidora’s view in the process. She waited quietly, watching as the previously called candidate made her way across the room. The candidate was a young woman, much like Isidora, though she was wheelchair bound. An orderly wheeled her to the door leading to assessment area eleven. Isidora wondered how long the candidate had to live. She often found herself wondering when those she came in contact with would die. But she didn’t want to know her own expiration date.

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678547. Candidate OH-1-3678547 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678547 to assessment area two.*

Penn ended his transmission, coming back into view for Isidora and those around. He had reverted back to crying, much like he was when he first walked in.

Isidora reached into her clutch and produced a small package of tissues. She handed them to Penn. He gratefully took them from her, removing one of the tissues from the case and wiping his eyes with it.

“Thank you,” Penn said, handing the package of tissues back to Isidora. He held his lone tissue tightly in his left hand, balling it up atop the candidate card.

“Is everything alright?” Isidora asked. “If that’s not too personal, that is.”

“Not particularly. Trying to take care of the affairs of my wife.”

“Oh dear. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“You couldn’t have known. It’s a bit of a birthday downer, even more so than a trip to the Bureau.”

“May I ask what happened?” Isidora asked.

“She um…,” Penn stammered, trying to collect his thoughts. “she died two weeks ago. Heart attack at the age of 27.”

“That’s so sad!” Isidora exclaimed.

“I didn’t know it was coming. None of us did. I mean, we knew there was a chance that Mira — that was my wife, Mira — would have heart issues. Both of her parents died from heart conditions in their fifties. She…”

Penn took a deep breath and stared into the room in front of him. He watched as a young man walked out of the room, a large packet of papers in hand. The man was clearly shaken. Like Mira, he’d die soon. The assessor had confirmed as much.

“She felt she had time to live her life without worry before she had to worry about getting assessed,” Penn continued. “We were both planning to get an assessment done when we turned 40. Halfway to the required visit age seemed like as good of time as any to know.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678548. Candidate OH-1-3678548 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678548 to assessment area two.*

“They must have said no,” said Penn. “I always said no. So did Mira. She’s gone now though. I’m a 28-year-old single father. I need to know if I’m going to be around for my daughter or if I need to make plans for her.”

Isidora stared at her assessment card. Only one spot until she would be called. She grabbed a tissue out of her case, handed it to Penn, then took one for herself. Isidora wiped away the tears that had begun to well up in her eyes.

“Do you have anyone you’re responsible for, Isidora?” Penn asked.

“No,” she responded, “not yet. No kids, no spouse, no partner. My roommate will be living until age 83. My parents each have at least 25 years left and none of my grandparents will be passing for the next five years.”

“So they all know?”

“Everyone in my family knows. My roommate’s father was an assessor before he died. I’m the only person I know personally who doesn’t know when I’ll die.”

“Why not?” Penn asked.

“Because my creators gave me a choice. My parents sat me down at a young age and told me about how assessment worked, my choice, and the consequences of knowing and not knowing. It’s scary not knowing, but I’d prefer not to be counting down the days until I get hit by a bus, die from cancer, or never wake up from sleep.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678549. Candidate OH-1-3678549 please report to assessment area four at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678549 to assessment area four.*

“That’s you,” stated Penn.

Isidora rose from her seat and started walking towards the assessment room. She stopped and turned back to Penn.

“Regardless of what you find out today,” she said, “you should get some cake and ice cream for you and your daughter. It is your birthday after all.”

“Happy birthday to you too, Isidora,” replied Penn.

Isidora entered assessment room four. She proceeded towards a single white stool in the sterile white room. Across from her stool, a gangly woman in a white lab coat sat on a white stool with a white computer on a white desk in front of her.

“Please sit.”

Isidora sat down on the stool.

“Candidate OH-1-3678549, given name Isidora Pía Lorca Cabrera. Born March the 11th, 2136 at 2:32 pm. Please confirm your identity.”

“I am as you say I am,” said Isidora. The required identification response still seemed forced to Isidora, even after years of saying it.

“Thank you. Candidate OH-1-3678549, do you wish to undergo assessment?”

“I do not,” Isidora replied.

“Please confirm your denial of assessment formally.”

“I, Candidate OH-1-3678549, hereby decline assessment for one calendar year.”

“Thank you. Please exit.”

Isidora rose from her stool and made her way back to the Bureau lobby. Penn was gone, off to his assessment room to learn his fate. Isidora zipped her jacket up and walked out of the building, striding through the late winter snowfall to her transport.

She sat inside the transport, her warm breath fogging up the cold windshield. With a long sigh, she spoke into her transmitter.

“Remind me to receive assessment next year at this time,” said Isidora.

“Reminder set.”

Isidora let out a deep breath and pressed the button to start her transport. A loud explosion ripped through the air, its force tearing apart both the transport and Isidora alike. As the Bureau building caught fire, those inside evacuated out the back. Penn was happy to learn he wouldn’t die that day. He only hoped the same was true for Isidora.

In Her Majesty’s Silent Service

“Mom, I want to get a picture with him!”

“Kaitlyn, he’s doing his job. Leave the poor man be.”

“Puhleeeeease!”

“Terry, make your daughter listen to me.”

“Kaitlyn, please listen to your mother and leave the guard alone. I’m sure he’s had to deal with enough tourists trying to get pictures with him today.”

Terry was right and wrong, all at the same time. I, along with nearly every other member of the Queen’s Guard, have tourists take pictures of us at a seemingly endless rate. I’m fortunate enough to begin my duty at a relatively early hour of the day, meaning the majority of people who cross my path are commuters rather than tourists. However, the sentry who takes up the guard after my tour of duty in the rotation ends deals with far more people than I.

The Americans are the worst. Loud, brash, insistent on spelling words like colour and aeroplane improperly. The Americans are the visitors that drive the less experienced sentries mad. I personally have a hot and cold relationship with them. On one hand, their country’s repressive drinking age means that young Americans are more likely to be drunk tourists. Drunk tourists never cease to add amusement to my day. On the other hand, I cannot interact with them. I cannot laugh, smile, nor otherwise act in such a manner that distracts me from my post.

‘You may not eat, sleep, smoke, stand easy, sit or lie down during your tour of duty.’

So it is. So it was. So it shall be. All in the service of our majesty, the Queen.

“I wonder when he’s going to move next.”

“The internet says they’re supposed to move every 10 minutes.”

“Oh what the fuck. It feels like we’ve been here an hour already.”

The second young lad was right, while the third was wrong. I, like all other members of the guard, do march every ten minutes at my post. The group had only been standing watching for a little over three minutes. It’s peculiar the details you begin to remember and which you begin to forget when your task is largely to remain silent for two hours at a time. If bystanders don’t say their names or don’t do anything to cause me to yell at them, they all blend together as voices in my memory. By the same token, I’ve learned to tell the amount of time that has passed in a ten minute increment within ten seconds in my head.

“Try saying something funny to him.”

“Wanker!”

Heard it. Your mum said it better.

“It didn’t work. Try again.”

“Fuck off. You want to make him laugh, you try.”

“WANKER!”

Saying something louder doesn’t make it funnier. It just makes it louder. That’s how science works.

“What if we ask him question until he answers?”

Won’t work.

“Do you like it when I do this?”

The first lad grabbed the second lad’s leg and began thrusting his pelvis at it rapidly and rhythmically. This led to the second boy smacking his friend, then running off while the first boy chased after. If I didn’t see that skit nearly every day from a teen, I’d probably find it funny. Instead, it just bored me.

Every once in a while, one of the passers-by will ask a question I wished I could answer. While the wording my vary by person, the six questions I hear the most frequently are asked in a manner similar to the following.

  • Are you a real solider? [Yes.]
  • Do you like your fuzzy hat? [My uniform is a representation of my country and my duty. I love my country and I honour my duty. Therefore, I love my fuzzy hat.]
  • Are you hungry/thirsty/tired? [It’s irrelevant while I am at my post.]
  • Have you ever had to use your gun? [Fire it? No. Port arms for someone not heeding my warnings? Only twice so far. I don’t particularly see this number rising, as my post is no longer one that the public can walk directly to. A rope prevents the public from getting closer than ten meters from my post.]
  • I want to take him home with me. [Not a question, but the answer is no. This answer remains the same independent of your attractiveness, at least while I’m on my tour of duty.]
  • What would make him smile?

That last question — as innocent and simple as it may be — is one that brings a particularly high level of consternation to my mind. As I mentioned before, we are not to stand easy while on guard. The intense focus necessary to perform our duties is more than just a solider’s training. It is about protecting and honouring the Crown. That’s not to say I was immune from cracking a smile as a guard. But every day I endeavored to be as serious about my job as possible.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah, sweetie?”

“Why isn’t the man in the funny suit moving?”

“He’s a guard for the Queen.”

“But I don’t see the Queen.”

Children like that small girl confused about the lack of the Queen’s presence bring me the closest to smiling or laughter. One day, very early in my time as a member of the Queen’s Guard, a small girl from somewhere in the Commonwealth (I believe Canada based on her accent, but time has faded the memory) walked under the ropes and started making her way towards me. Her parents yelled after her, causing the child to stop mere paces from where I would have been forced to shout at her to stand back.  For the next few seconds, the parents pleaded with the child to cross the ropes, while the girl insisted that she wanted to hug me. Had I not been on duty, I would have immediately walked up and embraced the child. However, had I not been on duty, the entire event would never have occurred.

“Daddy?”

Our present day child had more questions for her father.

“Yes?”

“Can I pet the kitty cat?”

A small kitten — likely no more than three or four months old — had crossed the street, strutting under the ropes like it owned the whole of England. It walked up to me, rubbing itself against the leg of my trousers. I could hear it purring loudly, in spite of the sound of the public around me.

“No, the kitty is on the other side of the ropes. You can’t go on the other side of the ropes.”

“Do you think he’ll pet it?”

I could not pet the cat, as the child had asked. That did not, however, stop my heart from being warmed as the cuddly grey feline snuggled up against my legs. The cat circled me, its tail reaching up and tickling the backs of my calves lightly. Its purring with rhythmic and fast. I found my own breathing speeding up so as to match the purring in time.

After a second pass, the cat stopped in front of me. It stood on all fours, patiently staring up at me as I glanced back down at it. The kitten sat, wrapping its tail around its tiny body. It cocked its head slightly to the right, never breaking its gaze with me.

“Meow?” said the cat, questioningly.

I smiled, first at the cat, then at the man and his daughter watching us. The kitten, seemingly content with my response, sauntered away, chasing after a fallen leaf that had blown by a few moments prior.

Hand of Silence

Note: The following is a fictional(ish) short story. The concept behind this story comes from one of the prompts (#55) on Think Written’s 365 Creative Writing Prompts.


The television’s bright lights flickered through the room, passing through my eyeballs and to my brain with no acknowledgment on my part beyond that of knowing I wasn’t paying attention to it. It was still two hours before sunrise and three hours before I could go anywhere. Not that I minded.

The television kept me awake some nights. Working when most people are sleeping wasn’t the most ideal thing in the world, but it gave me enough money to live off of. It wasn’t like my work was hard. Occasionally, one of the potheads or drunks would saunter in, wave at me as they passed by, then make their way up to their room. On the rare instance one of them would stop and talk to me, it was to make sure the building head wasn’t around. It was usually at that point I’d watch as some freshman snuck in a backpack or two that totally wasn’t filled with the cheapest beer you could buy. Since I couldn’t see inside the backpack, I couldn’t say anything.

Every once in a while, particularly closer to mornings, and especially on weekdays, one of the residents would come by my post. Their requests were usually innocent enough. ‘I’ve locked myself out’, ‘Can I borrow your stapler/tape/scissors?’, or ‘What’s the weather like?” topped the common questions list. The first two questions were within the scope of my job responsibilities, while the third was a fact I’d look up early on in my shift, just so I could answer the question when it inevitably arose.

And so it went. Two nights a week from midnight until 8 in the morning, and two other nights a week from 4 in the morning until 8 in the morning. This was my life. I never had to do any projects other than group endeavors during my normal waking hours because I had a ton of free time to spend on them during my job. My boss even encouraged it, as doing homework (generally) kept me awake. So I sat at my desk, typing away on a laptop held together by duct tape and dreams, staying awake for the 5-10 minutes I would actually be needed each night during my shift.

I kept the television in the corner of the lobby on as my way to know if we were having power problems. Though most of the building didn’t have any sort of backup power, the building head’s room and the entry desk had full backup power. Unless the TV was on, I generally wouldn’t know the power was out until someone came downstairs to tell me so. On the nights I worked alone — which was at least 3 of the 4 shifts per week — Sportscenter played on loop for four hours. Its repetition served as a way for me to track where in the hour I was without having easy access to a clock. It also provided me some amusement when people who didn’t understand the show was on repeat saw it for the first time.

This particular night wasn’t my night to work. I generally worked every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then three out of every four Saturdays in the month. But my co-worker had come down with a case of the early autumn flu (read: she was probably too drunk to come into work), so I was awoken from my Thursday slumber at a quarter until four in the morning. I slogged across campus in the pouring rain, giant energy drink in one hand, massive cup of coffee in the other, and a laptop and charger in a backpack on my back, arriving just in time to see off the two girls who had the shift before this one.

I didn’t like picking up extra shifts at work. Sure, the money was nice, but I barely slept as it was. I didn’t need to further my sleep deprivation. Tonight was different though. I needed to know the end of a story.

Last night, just about this time, a sleepy-eyed girl named Marcie came downstairs to the lobby. For the third night in a row, Marcie told me, she couldn’t sleep. She missed being near her family. She missed her pets. She missed everything that she was used to in her life prior to university.

We sat at my station, me in my underpadded office chair and Marcie in a cheap plastic chair from the arts room, and talked for the rest of my shift. Though my initial goal was to talk to her long enough to get her to fall asleep so I could go back to working on my paper, I found myself more and more interested in Marcie as the night turned to morning. We spent much of the time playing cards and drinking more that our fair share of caffeine — which seems like a terrible decision for Marcie’s sleep habits in retrospect.

Around our fourth hand of gin, Marcie began to tell a story about this terrible date she went on a few weeks prior. She had met this guy, Lucas, in one of her early morning classes during last semester (biology, I think it was). They done a group project together in the first few weeks of class and started hanging out somewhat regularly after that. Summer came and went, with Marcie barely hearing from Lucas. Then, two days after school started up again, Marcie got a call from Lucas asking if they could go on a date.

Marcie planned to meet Lucas for dinner that Friday night. Marcie arrived at the restaurant first, just a few minutes prior to the date’s planned 7:30pm start time, so she sat down on a bench in the lobby and played games on her phone while she waited. Before she knew it, time had passed to a quarter after eight. Lucas was still nowhere to be found.

Marcie went to the hostess booth at the front of the restaurant to see if somehow Lucas might have arrived without her noticing. Sure enough, the hostess recalled seeing someone fitting Lucas’s description, so she led Marcie to the part of the restaurant in question. When they arrived there, Marcie found Lucas laughing and chatting with another girl, clearly on a date of his own without her.

When Marcie pressed to find out what was going on, Lucas explained that he had messed up. He had meant to tell Marcie that their date would be Saturday night, then began to make up some excuse as to how he confused the two dates. Marcie stormed out of the restaurant and back to her dorm room. Though her roommate consoled her with freshly delivered pizza and contraband beer, Marcie was depressed at the turn of events her night had taken.

I told Marcie how Lucas had been a dick to her and that no guy should treat her like that. Marcie then told me how that wasn’t the end of the story, but that she would come find me another morning to tell me the rest. She strode back up to her room — hopefully to get some sleep, I assume — leaving me in the silence of an empty lobby for the rest of the night.

That brings us to tonight. It’s a cool, slightly rainy Thursday early morning. I never know what to consider the time I work. The people who see me at the beginning of my shift always tell me good night. The people who see me at the end of my shift always tell me good morning. To me, it’s night, as I’m still waking up before the sun rises. But it’s whatever day the calendar says it is because that’s how calendars work.

The clock on the wall across from my station read 4:43am when I heard footsteps coming from the hallway to my right. Marcie strode around the corner, her body wrapped in a fluffy yellow comforter and her messy black hair partially obscuring her face.

“I didn’t know you worked tonight,” she said, stifling a yawn.

“Normally I don’t,” I replied, “but someone called off. It’s free money.”

“Do you actually do anything?”

“Sometimes. Usually I just do homework and dick around on the internet. But every once in a while someone will lock themselves out of their room or come get a board game.”

“Does anyone visit you?” asked Marcie.

“Rarely,” I responded. “My roommate will drop me off food at the end of his shift sometimes, but that’s only if I’m working the midnight shift. My boss will stop by occasionally, but that’s really it.”

“Well, hey! Now you have me to visit you too.”

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Stressed. Worried. Miss my family. Had the same problem last year too.”

“Any way I can help you?” I asked.

Marcie shrugged. She turned away from me and stared at the television for a few moments. As the screen flickered away showing highlights of some baseball game on the West Coast, an echo of thunder rumbled outside the dorm. I watched outside as the rain began to pick up, its pattering landing making its way into the silence of the lobby.

“Can I change the channel?” inquired Marcie.

“Yeah,” I answered. “The remote should be over there.”

“Okay. I’m going to lay down.”

The building head tended to get upset at the desk staff if we let anyone lay down on the couches. Apparently it was a potential legal issue if students fell asleep outside of their dorm rooms in a supervised area. But if Marcie needed to sleep and the couch happened to be where she fell asleep, I wasn’t going to question it.

“Hey!” Marcie shouted from the couch.

“Yeah?”

“Come watch this with me.”

I walked over to the TV area and started to sit in one of the chairs beside the couch.

“No,” she scolded me, “come sit with me. It’s cold.”

I sat down on the couch beside Marcie. She leaned her head against my shoulder, then snuggled herself tightly into her blanket. We watched as a pack of ran across the desert, presumably fleeing from some sort or predator.

“I always wondered how anything other than a camel could survive in the Sahel,” Marcie mused.

“The what?” I asked.

“The Sahel,” she replied. “It’s a region in Africa between the Sahara Desert and the rest of the continent. It’s hot there all year around just like the Sahara, only there’s a couple of months a year where it rains like crazy. At least that’s what my geography class taught me.”

“Yeah…you’ve lost me. I don’t know much geography.”

“You don’t need to. No one ever does. I just talk about it to amuse myself. If someone’s there to listen, all the better.”

“Now that much I can do,” I answered. “I’m good at listening.”

“I do owe you the rest of my story,” she said.

“Yes you do.”

“So later that night, Effie decided she was going to go to the store to get us ice cream.”

“Effie’s your roommate, right?”

Marcie nodded. “Yeah. Effie, Steph, Steffi, Stephanie. She answers to pretty much anything you call her. It’s not even her name.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Well,” replied Marcie, “Stephanie is her middle name. Her first name is Andrea, but she hates that name. As long as you don’t call her that, she’s content.”

“Huh.”

“Anyway. So Effie and I drove to the store to get ice cream. We picked up ice cream, a 2-liter of root beer, whipped cream, and we were going to make root beer floats. Normally we’d go through the self-checkout but they were all closed down for maintenance or something. So we’re standing in line waiting to check out when fucking Lucas walks up behind us in line with the girl he took on a date.”

“No shit?” I said, trying to feign surprise at his sudden reentry to the story even though I knew he’d be coming back.

“Yeah. Asshole was buying condoms and cheap vodka.”

“So what did you do?”

“Effie hurried us through the check out line as quickly as she could,” Marcie continued. “Lucas was pretty drunk, so I don’t think he even realized it was me standing in front of him. The girl knew though. She made eye contact with me, gave me this evil smirk, and winked at me.

“I broke down in the car on the way back here. I had to pull over and let Effie drive the rest of the way back.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” replied Marcie. “I knew what was going to happen. But to see them out was almost like the universe was mocking me. It’s like I…HOLY SHIT!”

As Marcie talked, the television had turned to a cheetah crushing the neck of an antelope to kill it. It was one of the bloodier things I had seen on TV in some time, catching both of us by surprise

“That antelope is so dead!” I exclaimed.

“This is why you should never trust a cat,” replied Marcie. “One moment they’re laying on your lap, letting you pet them and snuggle them. The next minute, BAM! Motherfucker’s chomping down on the neck of some gazelle in the Serengeti.”

“I don’t think all cats are godless killing machines.”

“That’s what they want you to think.”

A commercial gave us a reprieve from the cheetah’s victorious hunt. Marcie slid her body along the couch, her legs dangling over the end of the armless sofa. She clumsily pulled at the arm of the chair near her feet, trying to drag it over near her.

“Do you want me to get that for you?” I asked.

“No!” Marcie exclaimed. She poked her tongue out of her mouth, trying to focus as she pushed her toes against the soft fabric of the chair. She gave a quick tug with her legs, only for her toes to slide off the fabric and her feet to fall away.

“…yes…” she said, defeated.

I rose from the couch and pulled the chair over closer to Marcie. She lifted her legs over the arm of the chair, then placed her feet down on the cushion. She stretched her ankles and pointed her toes toward the back of the chair, the toenails missing the backrest by just a few inches.

“Thanks.”

I sat down on the couch beside her, only for Marcie to scoot further down the couch to get her feet further on the chair. Marcie sat her head down on me, her dark hair covering my lap as she rest her head on my legs.

“Do you think it’ll get easier?” she asked.

“Do I think what will get easier?” I retorted.

“The not being able to sleep for my first few weeks here. The homesickness. The missing everyone.”

“I don’t know. I never missed my family when I came here.”

“That’s sad. Everyone should have someone worth missing.”

Marcie freed one of her hands from her blanket cocoon and raised it above her head. She felt around without seeing clumsily smacking my leg and side a few times before hitting my arm. She slid her hand down my arm, grabbing my hand and pulling it back to her. Our hands rest on her side atop her fluffy blanket.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“I feel bad for you,” responded Marcie. “It’s shitty that I’m awake all hours of the night because I miss people. But at the same time, it means I still care about them a lot. If there’s no one you care about, I’m not okay with that.”

“I care about people.”

“Then be quiet and miss them for a moment.”

I sat in silence for a few minutes, trying my hardest to think about my family and to miss them. Thinking about them was easy. I thought about my family regularly and talked to them regularly. Missing them was another story though. They’ve always been there. While I know they won’t always be there, the impermanence of their lives seemed natural to me.

I felt Marcie let go of my hand slowly. When I looked down, it became apparent she was dozing off to sleep. I took my hand back from her and brushed some of her hair off of my legs.

“You should do that.”

“Do what?”

“Run your fingers through my hair. It’s calming. It helps me sleep.”

I listened to Marcie, running my fingers through her hair as she snuggled up tightly in her blanket. The television had switched from an action-filled program with cheetahs killing antelopes to some guy talking about bird eggs. Wherever he was looked exotic. I thought about asking Marcie where he was or trying to reach the remote to figure it out for myself. But Marcie had started to fall asleep. I didn’t want to disturb that. I didn’t want to miss out on the silence. She certainly seemed like the kind of person I could learn to miss.

Lost in the Open

Note: The following is a fiction short story. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for about two years or so, but never could figure out how to tie together a couple of the subplots of the story to make it work. We’ll see how it works.


I hear them. The voices are there at all hours of the day. I have to assume they’re mostly there in the day time. That’s the logical conclusion. While I’m not sure what this hospital’s visiting hours are, every one I’ve ever been too generally has visiting hours at or around normal business hours plus evenings.

It’s hard to keep track of time. I’m occasionally told what time it is, maybe even the date or the day of the week. That said, I don’t ask for the time. I can’t. I can’t speak. My eyes won’t allow me to see who’s talking to me. All I have to go off of is the sound of those talking to me and their touch to know who’s there.

It’s unfortunate that I’m here. I never expected to be here — twenty-eight days into an unforeseen hospital stay. One turn down the wrong alley on my way to meet friends for dinner and here I am. Blinded. Muted. Trapped by my own body.

I don’t remember all of the circumstances surrounding how I got here…not on my own at least. In my early days at the hospital, police officers came and talked to my father about what caused me to be laid up like this. A trio of muggers attacked me moments after I turned down the alley. The biggest one knocked me down with a pipe, while two others came after me with baseball bats. I apparently fought for a bit, kicking and flailing at the air around me, though I was quickly subdued. The trio robbed me for everything I had, then left me in the alley to die.

The police caught my assailants about a week after my attack. Surveillance cameras from the pawn shop next to the alley picked up enough footage to help the police identify two of the three people involved. All three were small time criminals between the ages of 19 and 23. It’s a shame. My pain is going to cost all three of them a significant portion of their adulthood. I wish it didn’t have to be that way.

The doctors have told me quite a few things about my condition. I can move my hands well enough that I can give them a thumbs up if I understand, but that’s about it. My voice is severely damaged from a shot to the throat from one of the baseball bats. The doctors are optimistic I’ll be able to speak again with enough therapy, but they can’t guarantee anything. My legs are in casts, but should heal properly within the next couple of months. As for my eyesight…the doctors aren’t so optimistic there.

My dad stops by most nights to check in on me. He’ll tell me about the happenings of the day. He hates his job, though not much more than most middle managers I know. His boss is an arrogant blowhard who loves nothing more than when people suck up to her. My dad’s as good at playing office politics as the next guy, but when the boss’s boytoy gets a promotion because he’s sleeping with the boss, there’s no amount of politicking you can do to get around that.

I get to hear videos of my dad’s cat, Lemia, and his dog, Cheese, playing in his house. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen either Lemia or Cheese, my accident not withstanding. Lemia is a gray British shorthair with a tuft of white hair on the top of her head. She loves climbing up on my dad’s lap and dozing off with him as the afternoon sun hits them both on the recliner. Cheese is golden lab with far too much energy, especially for a dog his size. I never understood why Dad let the neighbor’s child name his dog. Six-year-olds aren’t exactly known for their naming skills. I really just think that Dad likes yelling “bad Cheese!” when the dog climbs on the couch or “stinky Cheese!” when the dog farts.

My dad did a lot for me, even though I didn’t always realize it. He was a single parent for the majority of my childhood. My mom left us at age 8 and we never saw her again. It’s probably for the best from all the stories I’ve heard about her. While not all addicts make poor parents, she certainly fit the mold of one that wouldn’t treat me the best.

Dad did all he could to take care of me in spite of being alone. I played numerous sports throughout school to keep me off the streets. I picked up the trombone to play in the marching band and concert band. While I think Dad secretly wanted me to play the same instrument he did (tenor saxophone), he showed up to every concert he could. My favorite memory of my younger days with him was winning the sectional wrestling meet my junior year and taking him my trophy. I broke my arm in the first match at districts, ending my run there. Even with my injury, he reminded me every day I was a champion.

I wish I could talk to him. Partly because I love talking to him and I miss that. My voice will come back, I hope, and we’ll be able to talk about the cat, the dog, work, wrestling, the past, and the future. There’s always something I kept from him though. I never thought he needed to know it until I faced my own death at the hands of someone else.

During the final two years of high school, I dated this beautiful girl by the name of Lydia. We’d known each other since childhood. Lydia and I went lived in two different school districts despite living less than a mile apart. We saw each other almost every weekend outside of marching band season, though only when our schools — fierce rivals in every sense of the word — faced each other during the fall. Like my dad, Lydia showed up at most of my extracurricular activities. She’d even ride along with Dad if she didn’t have to work that day.

Lydia was the first girl I ever had feelings for and (to my knowledge) the first person who ever had feelings for me. I remember the first time we kissed vividly, even to this day. We were having lunch at a local cafe, waiting on our food to come out. We were both single at the time, both lamenting about how we wished the circumstances would change. Lydia got to talking about how she wanted to be in a relationship where she could make the first move rather than having to wait on the guy to do so. My oblivious teenage self asked what she’d do if she were to make the first move.

I watched as her fingers walked their way up my arm, her cool, umber toned skin contrasting with my light, beige arm and my bright yellow t-shirt. Lydia talked about how she’d wrap her arms around the guy’s neck, just as she was doing so to me, then lean in for a long, soft kiss. I didn’t expect her to go for it, though I certainly didn’t complain when our lips finally did touch. The kiss couldn’t have lasted for more than a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. A long, blissful, eternity.

Three months after beginning college together, Lydia and I began to have an incredibly rocky relationship. Her roommate insisted repeatedly that I wasn’t good enough for her, and that Lydia should use college to find out who she really was. At first, Lydia was deaf to her roommate’s pleas, but over time, things began to change. I saw Lydia less and less with each passing week. At first it was only on weekdays, though as time passed, I rarely saw her on weekends. The day before Thanksgiving break, Lydia told me that we needed to take a break.

I despise the idea of “taking a break”. It’s rare that it’s actually a break. Sure enough, the “break” that Lydia and I had is still going on to this day. I can’t imagine her husband would be particularly happy if I tried to talk her into coming back to me. It’s been nearly fourteen years anyway. I’ve been over her for a very long time.

I wasn’t over her at Christmas, just a little over a month after Lydia and I split. Her parents always treated me like a son — a fact I appreciate to this day. But that closeness only caused me to be more hurt when Lydia and I broke up. The public portion of my Christmas Eve ended with a rather loud, animated fight with Lydia’s mother. I was frustrated that my second family was drifting away from me, while she was frustrated that I wasn’t saying the kindest words about her daughter. Eventually Lydia came over and separated us. She defended me to her mom, but then asked me to leave.

That year, 2009, I had offered to take care of my buddy’s house for he and his parents while they went to Arizona for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, I dug through the medicine cabinet at someone else’s house, opened a bottle of sleeping pills prescribed to my friend’s mom, and downed the whole bottle. I woke up in the middle of the night violently vomiting all over the couch. It wasn’t until December 27th that I had the strength and energy to get off the couch and take myself to the hospital. The next day, I told my dad all about what had happened.

The problem is, that story never happened. It didn’t happen as I just stated. It’s how I told it to my dad on December 28th. But that’s not what happened. I did have a fight with Lydia’s mom on Christmas Eve. Lydia did ask me to leave. I did go over to my buddy’s house as I had promised to care for the house and their cat. But the suicide attempt never happened. I pulled a bottle of Glenlivet out of the liquor cabinet, drank three shots, then passed out on the couch while crying and listening to Fuel. Christmas morning, I woke up with puke all over my shirt and a cat pissed off that I hadn’t fed it since the 23rd. I stayed in my friend’s house in shame until the 28th, ignoring every phone call, text, and visitor that came looking for me.

I don’t know what prompted me to lie to my dad like that. Suicide was, and still is, a serious topic in our family. My cousin died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2004. His younger sister tried to follow suit in 2007, but she passed out from exhaustion before she finished loading the gun. You don’t even joke about suicide in any circumstance around anyone in my extended family. And yet, there I was, nineteen years old, lying my face off to my father about trying to take my own life.

I had self-harmed a couple of times in my teens. Couple that with a family history of suicidal tendencies and my “actions” weren’t shocking to anyone. Except they never happened. If I ever get my voice back, that’s going to be the second thing I tell Dad. Right after the fact that I love him.

I’m not just sorry for how I lied to him. Yes, he’s the biggest person that I regret lying to in my life. But he’s not the only one.

By the time late 2013 rolled around, I had moved on from Lydia and had been dating various people off and on for the better part of three years. My girlfriend at the time was a girl who went by Valorie to nearly everyone. To me, she was Vai. Vai was the first girl since Lydia I’d managed to have a semi-serious relationship with.

On one hand, the fact that I was so heavily interested in her wasn’t shocking. If I could have built the perfect woman in some futuristic laboratory that allowed you to create the partner of your dreams, Vai would have been an excellent starting point. The contrast of her iridescent crystal-blue eyes and her golden copper hair allowed me to spot her from across the bar, no matter how many people were around us on a given night. She sang in the shower with a voice bestowed upon her from on high, her melodious tones able to shift from rock to jazz to hip-hop and back to rock again with minimal effort. Vai always found a way to make our sex life exciting, even at times looking up porn videos online for us to emulate when I came to visit.

On the other hand, Vai and I weren’t destined to be together for long. There wasn’t a single one of my friends that was able to stand being in the same room with her for more than a few minutes at a time. While my family adored her, it was because her political views more closely matched theirs than my own. When Vai talked politics, it was like she was a different person from a different era — one that would have judged me for even associating with Lydia, let alone date her, just because of her skin color. Though I’d grown out of my conservative upbringing, I still held rather siloed views about drugs. Vai’s occasional use of marijuana was a huge turn off for me.

It wasn’t so much that she smoked pot that bothered me as much as the fact that she lied about it regularly for the first four months we were dating. My visits to her apartment led to questions about the weed smell, which she usually blamed on her neighbors or her roommate. Considering I only saw her roommate once (total) in the entire time Vai and I were together, it became apparent rather quickly that Vai had been lying to me. She confessed, was sad, told me to get over it because she wasn’t going to stop, then proceeded to give me great makeup sex the next three or four times we saw each other.

The other major roadblock in my relationship with Vai was our limited overlap of interests. While I did like a lot of the same things Vai liked, there was only a handful of things she could talk about regularly without going silent. At the age of seven, Vai was in a car accident that killed her younger brother and severely injured her older brother, as well as her parents. Vai received severe brain damage from the accident. The trauma limited her ability to form coherent long-term memories in the same way that most people could. Furthermore, she struggled to keep up with most people in conversation, often leading me to cover for her silences when with friends.

Talking with Vai most days wasn’t too troublesome. We’d talk about music, television shows, and sex regularly. The problem was, that’s really all we could talk about. Over and over. I know it wasn’t her fault, I really do. But it was frustrating to have the same conversation over and over again.

After Vai and I had been together just over a year, a friend of mine from high school in touch with me via Twitter. Cate and I had flirted a bit off and on throughout high school, but nothing ever came of it. One weekend, Cate sent me a text asking if I wanted to meet up for drinks. Vai was out of town visiting her parents for the weekend, so I met up with Cate at the bar. It was nice to get to reminisce with an old friend.

Cate was three courses away from getting her MBA from Vanderbilt and was already getting internships offers from some of the top companies in the Nashville area. Hearing about Cate’s life states away was a welcome break from the monotony of life with Vai. It felt like I was single again, getting the chance to chat up a brilliant, beautiful girl at the bar.

Cate and I went out separate ways at the end of the night. She flew back to Nashville two days later to start-up her next semester of grad work. I went back to work running background checks for my employers. Vai returned home from her family trip and went back to work as a clerk for the superstore near her apartment. Nothing changed in terms of how we lived our day-to-day lives. Well, almost nothing.

It was at that point that I began wondering if I would be happier with Cate than with Vai. Part of me instinctively knew I wouldn’t. Vai was compassionate, altruistic, loving, and affectionate. If Cate was any of those things, she never showed it at any point during the time we had known each other in any capacity. Vai was significantly more attractive than Cate, she adored me, and my family loved her.

I couldn’t help my thoughts to the contrary though. Being with Cate would be exciting. Cate had a bit of an edge to her. Not the kind of edge that leads you to wonder if someone is dangerous to be around. It was more of the kind of edge that led you to constantly wonder if you were going to get your head bitten off if you said one wrong word. Cate was witty, eloquent, snarky, and daring. Her tongue was as sharp as her mind and she wasn’t afraid to let you know it. Cate was everything Vai wasn’t; for better and for worse.

Across the next three months, I found myself more drawn to Cate through our digital communication. We occasionally flirted with each other, though more of our interactions resulted in repartee befitting of a sitcom.The more we spoke, the more I was caught in Cate’s spell. All the while, I became less and less attracted to Vai.

In early 2015, I broke things off with Vai. I told her that I was leaving her because I couldn’t imagine raising a family with her. I told her that it was important to me to be with someone who would keep me interested for the rest of our lives. Vai wasn’t that person for me.

My statements weren’t a lie, per say. I couldn’t see myself with Vai for the rest of our lives. I did want someone who could provide me with greater intellectual and social stimulation than Vai would ever be able to provide me. I told Vai the truth about all of that. What I didn’t tell her about was my growing infatuation for Cate. I was convinced that’s what would have broken Vai’s heart.

Later that spring, Cate and I went out on a pair of dates while she was on break from grad school. We had a fine time on both instances, but it was nothing terribly exciting. We kissed goodbye on the second date, but things were awkward from that point forward. We haven’t spoken in nearly eight years.

Vai was heartbroken that I left her. Two days after we split, I woke up to find my car’s windshield shattered and a rather vulgar note telling me how I should have let Vai down easy. The note insisted that I could have told Vai nearly anything as to why we were breaking up. Leaving her for another woman would have been fine. Coming out as a closeted homosexual would have been fine. Losing interest in her sexually would have been fine. But to admit that I had concerns about Vai’s ability to connect with me on an intellectual level broke her heart into a million pieces.

I know her brother wrote the note and smashed my windshield. I hid the note from the cops and never bothered mentioning it to my insurance company when I filed the claim. I didn’t want him to get in trouble. He was protecting his little sister. And he should. I was a shithead.

I wish Vai nothing but the best. If she were here right now, I’d apologize profusely for the way I left her without telling her the truth. A heart as pure as hers deserved the truth, as a half truth only hurt her more.

She emailed me a couple of years after we broke up telling me how she had moved on and realized that she was perfect in spite of the things I said to her. Vai was right. For someone, she was and is perfect. She wasn’t perfect for me. But I shouldn’t have hurt her in the way I did to let her know that.

A lie hurts. A half-truth can hurt as well. But the truth? The truth hurts too. Sometimes it cuts the deepest.

I’ve been single for most of the past eight years. There were a couple of women in and out of my life after I left Vai, but nothing serious ever developed out of it. It took me quite some time, but I was finally okay with being myself and being by myself.

I partially have Sylwia to thank for that. Throughout my life, I’ve had a difficult time making friends. When Lydia and I broke up, I drifted away from most of our mutual friends. We were a tight-knit group, with everyone relying on each other for emotional support. Even after moving away to college, the group of friends came together on a regular basis without fail. It was hard for me to be around Lydia, even harder for me to be around a group of friends who I felt had taken sides in our relationship split. So I slowly faded out of their lives. I haven’t talked to most of them in years.

Sylwia was the closest thing I had to a best friend since high school. She lived in the apartment beneath mine, moving in just a week after I moved in. Sylwia was new to the city and largely to America. She’d attended college on the East Coast on a track and field scholarship, then managed to get a job at a Fortune 500 company as an actuary shortly after graduating.

Sylwia and I hung out frequently her first two years in the apartment building. One of her first nights here, the two of us trudged downtown in the heavy winter snow to a bar. We bet $50 each on who could drink the most that night. The tequila shots cloud my memory as to how exactly we got home, but I do remember Sylwia dancing on my kitchen table to “Promenade” by Street Sweeper Social Club before passing out on my couch.

For as unclear as that night was as a whole, that moment of Sylwia being a drunken fool in my kitchen has never left my mind. She had stolen a large button up shirt from my closet to keep her warm at the bar. With the arms being too long, the sleeves swung around haphazardly, hitting my light more than a few times. Sylwia wore a red and white truckers cap on her head, her short sandy blonde hair peeking out from under the cap as she smiled and sang at the top of her lungs.

The next morning, I woke up to a searing headache and the sounds of my kitchen being turned upside down. I threw on the first clothes I could find and walked out to find Sylwia digging through my cabinets to find a bowl to mix up a batter for waffles. We spent the morning drinking pots — not just cups — of coffee, eating waffles and bacon, and watching shitty television.

Despite the fact that I was able to be outgoing and upbeat around Sylwia, she found out rather quickly that I didn’t have the highest opinion of myself. Most mornings I’d leave to go to work, only to find a folded piece of paper wedged into my door as I went to leave. Sylwia generally used the papers to motivate me, telling me how smart, kind, or generous I was. Occasionally though, they’d be random facts about nothing that she found on the internet. Eventually, she just started texting me a random fact each morning to go along with whatever kindness she wrote on the paper she left in my door.

In 2020, after about a year knowing each other, Sylwia told me she’d found a boyfriend. His name was Chris and he was a salesman she met while they were both working out together at the gym.The three of us would hang out together pretty regularly, usually over a bottle of tequila and some variety of greasy food. Chris was even my carpool ride to work a handful of times.

In the summer of that year, after a night of drinking and video games, the three of us were relaxing in my apartment, waiting for Chris to sober up so he could drive home. Though he regularly stayed with Sylwia, for some trivial reason that escapes me now, Chris had decided it would be easier to get to work the next morning if he went home first. Around two in the morning, Chris and Sylwia departed my apartment. A few minutes later, I heard Chris start his motorcycle. He drove off into the night, the sound of his tailpipes giving way to the tones of crickets and wind as Chris got further and further away.

About twenty minutes later, as I laid in my bed trying to doze off, I heard a loud knock at my door. I wrapped a robe around me and sauntered out, opening my door to find Sylwia laying on my welcome mat in tears. I knelt down in the ground beside her, scooping her up into my arms. I held Sylwia as she sobbed for nearly an hour without saying a word.

Once she finally did start talking, I found out that Sylwia’s grandmother had died early that morning. Her father called from Slovakia to let her know. While Sylwia’s grandmother had been sick for quite some time, it was still devastating to Sylwia to learn that her favorite family member had passed on.

I consoled Sylwia until well after the sun had come up the next morning. Over the course of the weekend, Sylwia gathered her things, then flew back to her hometown of Košice, Slovakia for three weeks. During the time she was gone, I occasionally heard from Sylwia via email and various forms of social media. She loved being able to see her family again, even if it was for a rather sad reason.

When Sylwia got back to the US, something about her changed. It started out subtle. She had a bit more of an edge when she talked. She was more aggressive in conversations and when playing games. I assumed it was a natural stage in the progression of her grief after losing her grandmother. While Sylwia was an outgoing woman, she was also calculated and planned in what she said. She was always the most tactical person in any game we played and took great pride in her ability to use her superior planning skills to act swiftly and decisively, which usually led to Chris and I losing games against her.

One of Sylwia’s first tasks when she got back to the states was to spend the next few months trying her hardest to convince me that I needed a relationship. Not only did I need a relationship, but I needed a relationship with the perfect girl…and Sylwia was just the person to set me up with the perfect girl (at least in her mind). Sylwia spent the better part of a month trying to convince me that her coworker, Kirsten, was the answer to all of my loneliness and troubles.

Truth be told, I didn’t particularly feel lonely at the time. Yes, it was a bit lonely around my apartment when Sylwia was in Slovakia for three weeks, but that was an absence for a relatively known and finite amount of time. I didn’t think that I needed someone to serve as some sort of cure for being single.

Eventually though, Sylwia’s persistence won out and I agreed to go on a double date with her and Chris in order to meet Kirsten. As Sylwia told me about Kirsten on the days leading up to the date, she sounded like a pretty good person. Kirsten was a veterinary technician who worked with Sylwia’s college roommate. Kirsten had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with her college boyfriend and was eager to find someone to help her forget about him. Though I didn’t particularly favor the idea of being someone’s rebound, Sylwia convinced me that Kirsten was more than worth my time to meet.

On the day of our double date, I spent a bit longer than usual getting ready. I was in the process of tying my tie when I heard my phone buzz from across the room. I walked over to it to find a picture from Sylwia that was clearly not intended for me. Sylwia was standing in front of the full body mirror in her bedroom, wearing nothing but a lacy blue pair of underpants and matching high heels. The caption with the picture read “Your choice. Either these…”.

Before she could send another picture to me in error, I texted Sylwia back to get her know what she had done. Her texts went silent from that point on, so I assumed she realized her error and sent that picture, as well as whatever was to follow, to Chris so that he could choose.

The four of us met for dinner at a Japanese steakhouse just down the road from Chris’ apartment. Kirsten, as Sylwia said, was a very charming lady. We chatted the majority of dinner before heading off as a group to see a movie. At the end of the evening, I walked Kirsten back to her car, where she gave me a long, lingering kiss. She then dug into her purse, scrawled her phone number on a business card for a car dealership, then said goodbye to me as we left.

I drove home that night happy with how my date with Kirsten went. She seemed like a pleasant person and under other circumstances, I would have been ecstatic to talk to her again. The problem was the nagging image that had played through my mind countless times over the course of dinner. Sylwia’s picturesque body reflected in her bedroom mirror was seared into my mind much in the same way that hieroglyphics were engraved into the Rosetta Stone. Sylwia, in a word, was breathtaking. I’d always found her to be an attractive woman. But to see her nearly in her most private sense — and the slightly forbidden feeling associated with it — elevated her to another level.

After sitting at home for a few hours, I made my way downstairs to talk to Sylwia about the text. If Chris happened to be there, I’d make up some other reason for coming by. If Sylwia didn’t want to talk about it, or didn’t realize she’d sent me the photo somehow, I’d move on with my life. I knocked on the door and waited patiently for her to answer. As the door opened, I looked up to see Sylwia in a pair of red panties similar to the blue ones I’d seen earlier, as well as the bright red heels she’d worn to dinner.

“Or these?” she said, knowing full well that her beguiling presence would leave me speechless.

Sylwia pulled me into her apartment by the collar of my shirt, kissing me passionately as she did so. She pushed me over the arm of her couch, causing me to collapse on the sofa in the process. As she pulled her high heels off and tossed them haphazardly down her hallway, I stopped her advances. This wasn’t right, I reasoned. While Sylwia was very beautiful, she was dating Chris. I wasn’t about to ruin their relationship.

It was at that point Sylwia revealed the true extent of her changes following her grandmother’s death. In the past few months, Sylwia said she realized that life was too short to not make the most out of it. On her death bed, Sylwia’s grandmother talked with her family about the concept living life to its fullest and doing what makes you happy as often as you can in every — and I do mean every — sense of the word. Shortly after her grandmother’s passing, Sylwia’s mom went on a lengthy rant about how it was inappropriate for an old lady to preach the concepts of a libertine lifestyle, let alone to take her dying breaths to do so.

To Sylwia, however, living a life that gives you exactly what you want while being devoid of life’s sexual and moral restraints, was exactly what she wanted. She had convinced Chris that their relationship should be an open relationship, so long as they told each other about their sexual activities and got regularly tested for STIs. And seeing as I had been there for Sylwia when she needed someone the most, Sylwia wanted to pay me back in a way that made me as happy as I could be.

Sylwia and I slept together regularly for the better part of a year. Though I still regularly saw Sylwia and Chris together, the topic of my escapades with Sylwia didn’t come up unless all three of us were in the bedroom together. I came to learn that threesomes with Chris and I were Sylwia’s favorite kind of sex, so I tried to help make her desires a reality the best I could as often as I could.

Those times where Sylwia and I got to be in bed alone were by far my favorite times that we were together. Part of it was because it allowed Sylwia to put the focus on me rather than me — as well as someone else — putting the focus on her. But it was also for a more selfish reason. I began to realize that Sylwia was right. I did need someone in my life to be the answer to all the loneliness. That person, however, wasn’t Kirsten or any of the other people who Sylwia tried to set me up with. It was Sylwia herself.

I spent the better part of two months mentally grappling with whether or not I should tell Sylwia how I felt about her. On one hand, I felt that it was the right thing to do to tell her, both as her friend and as someone who was romantically involved with her. On the other hand, I held a deep fear that if I were to come clean to Sylwia, it would drive her away. That was the last thing I wanted. I’d finally found someone who I had a connection with. Someone who cared about me and who trusted me enough to let me into the most intimate part of her life. That’s what I wanted most.

The turning point my decision came when I realized I was jealous of Chris still being Sylwia’s boyfriend. From a sexual standpoint, we were both with Sylwia nearly equally. If anything, she was in my bed more than Chris’. But Sylwia never fell asleep in my arms. She never told me she loved me. It was at that point that I realized that I loved Sylwia. I needed to tell her, regardless of what it did to us.

What it did to us was complicated. Sylwia confessed she had started developing some sort of feelings for me too. Whether or not it was love was something she was still unsure on. But considering I fully expected the entire thing to blow up in my face, I was happy with the result. The downside to things was that earlier that same night, Chris had proposed to Sylwia. She didn’t know what to say to Chris at that point in time. My admission of feelings to her only served to further complicate things.

A couple of weeks later, Sylwia finally gave Chris his answer. She told him no. I was overjoyed. I made the assumption this meant she had decided to choose me over him. I couldn’t believe my luck. Yet, I had to be sensitive to the fact that Sylwia had just split with her long-term boyfriend. I offered to make her dinner and drink with her to take her mind off of things. Ever the fan of solving problems with booze, Sylwia graciously accepted.

That night, as Sylwia and I ate dinner, she told me she had taken a job in Slovakia and was moving back there at the end of the month. Sylwia began telling me all about her new job — the opportunities it’d give her, how it’d allow her the chance to reconnect with her family, how it was a great step forward in her career. She also told me, however, that a major reason she took the job was because she couldn’t choose between life with Chris and life with me. She knew our situation as it was couldn’t and wouldn’t last forever. She couldn’t choose which of our hearts should be broken over the other. So she chose to break all three hearts in one fell swoop.

Sylwia and I drank that night as a celebration to her new job. The fact that she was advancing her career doing something she loved truly was exciting for me. I was incredibly happy for her success. At the same time, I was devastated that I was losing her. Sylwia knew it too. As the night wound down, she hurried down to her apartment and changed clothes, coming back upstairs wearing one of my button up shirts and her trucker’s hat, just as she had early on in our time together. She drunkenly danced on my kitchen table again, this time sans pants, and sang at the top of her lungs. The only difference was that this time, as Sylwia was smiling and singing as loud as she could, I sang along, though all I wanted to do was hold her close and never let her go again.

I took Sylwia to the airport on her final day in America. We shared a long embrace before the security line as we both tried to hold back tears. As I turned away to leave, I heard Sylwia start crying. While the sound was only a faint murmur over the noise of the surrounding crowd, it opened the floodgates for me as well.

When I got home, there was a piece of paper wedged into my door, just as Sylwia had done numerous times before. I unfolded it, stared at the note for a few moments, then tore it up as I cried. A piece of paper was not the way I wanted to hear Sylwia tell me she loved me too for the first time.

If, by some miracle, I were to regain my voice and if, by another miracle, Sylwia were to step through those hospital doors, I’d apologize to her too. Not for making up a story about a traumatic life event like I’d need to with my dad. Not for telling a half-truth to get out of a relationship that I’d lost interest in like I’d need to with Vai. My apology to Sylwia would be one where I tell her I’m sorry for not fighting harder to get her to stay.

The chatter outside my room is dying down now. Visiting hours ended a little while ago. Friends and family have gone home. Doctors and nurses have finished up their nightly rounds. This is when the routine begins.

I’ll lay here with my thoughts for a few hours. Some nights, those thoughts are relatively harmless, such as when I try to visualize what’s playing on my television. Some nights, those thoughts are darker, wondering if I’ll ever regain my sight, my speech, or my ability to walk ever again. Still other nights, like tonight, my thoughts are reflective.

I wish I could say these things I think to my dad, Vai, and Sylwia. I have confidence that one of those will happen. My dad will be back here at some point this week, perhaps even tomorrow. As my speech slowly improves, I’ll be able to tell him what I want to say. Vai is long gone. Even if I wanted to talk to her and give her the apology she deserves, it’s probably in my best interest to never, ever speak to her again.

As for Sylwia, there’s a very large part of me that wants to talk to her again. I know she’s a text, an email, a tweet, or a phone call away. Even if she doesn’t answer, I’d know she’d see it and I’d know she’s there. But it’s that same part of me that never wants to talk to her again. I don’t want hurt by her. I don’t want her to be indecisive, to ignore the paper in my door she wrote less than a year ago, or to give up all of the opportunities that she chased in Slovakia.

It’s time for me to sleep, just as it is every night around this time. As I nod off, I silently hope to regain my voice, so that I may seek out the retribution I so desperately desire. The chance to set right a lie that led my family to believe my life was much darker than it actual was. The chance to make amends with a kind soul that never deserved the pain I caused her. The chance to have a choice as to whether or not to chase down the woman I loved — and possibly still do love — and see if she feels the same way about me.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to talk. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to see. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to walk. But until then, I sleep. I’m trapped with these thoughts that haunt me. All I want is to set them free and fix the wrongs I’ve created. I just want another chance at a normal life. I’m sure I can do better this time. Lord knows I’ve had enough time to make a plan for it.

The Last Remaining Shadow

Note: The following short story is part of a shared writing project I’m going with a fellow writing friend. Basically we’re both taking a concept — in this case, the tale of the last remaining mortal human on Earth — and writing a piece of fiction to our whim from there. I’m a bit out of practice, so we’ll see how this goes.

I woke up from my mandated rest period to see him laying there, eyes struggling to stay open as he breathes in and out, continuing the imprisonment of life that has been thrust upon him. It’s supposed to be impossible to feel remorse for this man, yet here I am, lounging in a hospital chair, just wishing he’d die already.

As the humanity has evolved, we’ve managed to save a great many things. The Earth, once a planet in such catastrophic danger that they were sending ill-fated mission after ill-fated mission to Mars in an attempt to colonize a new planet, has been saved. Climate change — global warming as it was once correctly, though over simplistically, called — has stabilized. Population too has stabilized, thanks in large part to scientific advancements and policy changes adopted by nearly all of the world’s nations. Those countries that had the foresight to plan for the well-being of everyone have prospered. Those countries that tried to fend for themselves or who made petty squabbles more important than the survival of humanity crumbled and died out. Quite literally on that last point, I might add.

Around 85 years ago, a scientist by the name of Krysia Nosek and her assistants discovered a drug that would grant immortality to human kind. In a very un-human like turn of events, Nosek and her team turned the drug over to the Polish government, which then in turn funded Nosek’s Krakow based lab to allow the scientists to create enough of the drug to make sure that everyone in the world had the opportunity to live forever. Not just everyone in Poland. Everyone. Everywhere.

There was quite a bit of uproar from the global community thanks to the decision to make this drug, Damodrine as it would eventually be marketed, available to all for no cost. The concern was that if people were given the ability to live forever regardless of their actions, the majority of people would stop being the structured life-loving individuals that inhabited the Earth and would turn into a world full of anarchists. Some of the existing media which had built its empires upon the foundation of scare tactics and chaos tried to argue that Damodrine represented the end times or was ‘a way the devil was going to implant the number of the beast in humanity’. Humans were so primitive.

The first mass shipments of Damodrine went out to just shy of 100 million people across Europe and Northern Africa. Though there were a few isolated incidents of violence — all of which would be quelled by an antidote known as Andamodrine reversing the immortality effect — those who took the drug went on about their daily lives. If anything, those people became happier and more productive individuals. Damodrine largely eliminated the need for sleeping and eating beyond small quantities. It acts as a vaccine for more known deadly diseases, and the ones it doesn’t prevent or cure cannot overcome the power of Damodrine. The modern human now views HIV in the same light that those of 200 years ago viewed the common cold. Though HIV cannot be prevented, if it were to enter the body of a human who had consumed Damodrine in the last 7 days (likely considering the pill should be taken every 10 days for maximum effect), the virus would be killed instantaneously.

As the use of Damodrine spread across the world some more isolated or conservative nations banned the drug as an import. No one paid these nations any mind until a funny thing happened. At about the same time as the 2 billionth dose of Damodrine left Krakow, people in nations that had banned drugs import — countries like North Korea, Hungary, Israel, Turkey-Bulgaria and the United States — began to leave their nations in droves in order to obtain the drug. Like millions of Ponce de Leons, they sought out a fountain of youth that was proven to exist and work sucessfully.

It’s difficult to fight a war when the enemy combatant cannot die. They can be blown to tiny, tiny pieces, effectively killing them, but literally ending their lives doesn’t work. Hungary learned this the hard way, as it invaded Slovenia on September 5, 2240 — 82 years ago today — in an effort to stop Hungarian citizens from leaving the country and entering Slovenia. The Slovenian armed forces had been on Damodrine for nearly two years when Hungary invaded. The Hungarian army managed to accidentally (or intentionally, depending on who you believe) kill more Hungarian refugees and their own soldiers in the conflict than Slovenian citizens or soldiers…by a count of 250,000 to 25.

As the majority of the world’s then-14.8 billion people had started a Damodrine regiment, the United Nations put forth laws surrounding use of Damodrine. If immortality was to be a reality, that was acceptable with nearly every nation in the world. It was also a reality to recognize that fertility rates would never be zero, and thus the world’s population would continue to grow. With the world fertility level hovering around 1.85 each year, it was determined that those in the oldest 10% of people alive in the world would be put into a lottery each year. At that lottery, 18% of the name in the lottery would be chosen. Those individuals would then begin a three week regiment of Andamodrine, ending their lives while still providing 21 days for them to tie up any loose ends. The remaining 82% of the names in the lottery would survive another year.

In addition, the UN added a small caveat to the Damodrine usage laws that prevented a small handful of known criminals, fascists, and those whose medical conditions had deteriorated to the point where Damodrine wouldn’t help improve quality of life from every procuring the drug. For the last group, it was a mercy killing. For the former two groups, it was a death sentence for their deviant and destructive ways.

The man in the hospital bed before me is one of those who cannot take Damodrine. Sort of.

His name is Christopher Mehmet. Mehmet was born April 26, 2199 in the American state of Angeles. His parents, Craig and Dawn, blended into the background of society by being lifelong teachers. Christopher was the second born of four children — a large family by the standards of the late 2100s and early 2200s. Christopher’s older brother, Daniel, was paralyzed as a child due to a freak accident where he slipped and fell down a flight of stairs. Christopher also had two younger sisters, Evi and Jessica, both of whom were nurses and both of whom were winners of the Andamodrine lottery in 2318. It’s rare that elder family members get the opportunity to pass on together in the way that Evi and Jessica did, so national governments try their best to recognize the occurrence.

As for Christopher, he grew up in a relatively nondescript manner. He graduated 119th out of 440 in his high school class, finished his undergraduate degree in business from Cal-Berkeley before receiving his MBA from the University of North Carolina. At the age of 29, he married Ana Castillo, a waitress from a restaurant near Christopher’s home in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Had Christopher Mehmet died before the age of thirty by some freak accident, there would be no mortal humans left alive. Prior to age thirty, his life was boring, much like mine. But because he continued living — and still does — he’s an example to the world and a thorn in my side.

Two days before Christopher’s 30th birthday, his manager and two other high ranking individuals at the company flew to Liverpool, England for a business trip. Christopher’s company, Soulivair, researched genetic economics — the study of how one’s DNA, culture, race, and other genetic factors impacted the socioeconomic status an individual was able to attain in the world. Soulivair’s business practices were suspicious at best, unethical at worst. This trip would be Christopher’s first foray into field research for Soulivair, though it most certainly wouldn’t be his last.

Field research at Soulivair typically involved a team of grunt employees abducting 6-10 randomly selected individuals from a town or region of the country being studied. These test subjects were stored in empty warehouses or other isolated locations that the subjects would never return from. Soulivair testers (a group ominously called human resource inspectors) would then complete hundreds of tests analyzing the DNA of those subjects while Soulivair’s electronic engineers (read: computer hackers) would dig up as much financial data as they could on the subject. Finally, this data would be synthesized by a results team (of which Christopher Mehmet was a part) in an effort to find what genetic traits went into the most economically successful human beings.

It’s presumed the end goal of Soulivair’s research was to create a master race of individuals that would run the planet in such a manner so as to make the planet as economically viable for themselves as possible. Soulivair would get shuttered in early 2241, just after the unrest in Hungary, but not before Christopher Mehmet went on to become one of the most heinous criminals in modern history.

In addition to his actions as a member of Soulivair’s results team, Christopher directly participated in the killing — resource disposal, as it was referred to by Soulivair — of over 150 test subjects. The International Court session on Soulivair was particularly appalled at Christopher’s decision to abduct his own wife, as well as their two year old daughter, Roslyn, for use as test subjects. Ana and Roslyn Mehmet’s bodies were eventually found the ruins of The Gnoll in Neath, Wales, presumed to be the site of one of Soulivair’s final abductions. Christopher Mehmet was also found to have bribed numerous officials in the American, British, French, Spanish, and Catalonian governments to look the other way for travel for all Soulivair employee activities in those nations.

With today being September 5, 2322, Christopher Mehmet is 123 years old. Prior to the invention of Damodrine, the average life expectancy here in the United States was 83 years, with a man expected to live 81 years and a woman expected to live 86 years. Even with advances in medical science over the last 80 years other than Damodrine, the typical nonimmortal would have been expected to live around 95 years (93 and 96 for men and women, respectively). Christopher Mehmet shouldn’t still be alive. I know that. He knows that. Everyone old enough to comprehend what Damodrine and Andamodrine do knows that.

I look up from my communicator to find that Christopher has opened his eyes fully and begun his tenuous process of sitting up. He locks eyes with me and addresses me the same way he has for the past eleven years, save for the three days per month I get to leave the hospital.

“Good morning, Judit,” he said, his voice gravelly and hoarse from the passage of time.

“Good late evening, Christopher,” I replied.

“Do we really have to do this every time? You’re waking up from your rest period. It’s morning for you. I sleep whenever my body tells me to.”

“It’s 9:50pm. I refuse to call this morning, regardless of when my mandated rest cycle falls.”

“Any updates?” he asked.

I look down at my communicator again, scrolling through the various messages I’ve received. Because of the nature of my position, I can only receive messages from people outside of the hospital during my rest cycle. There are minor exceptions made for emergency situations or Protocol Marta, however much of my communication with friends, family, coworkers, and my wife occurs in fragmented messages spread over the course of days.

There’s a video message from my brother telling me my cat is doing well. I save that one for later when Christopher is asleep. There are a handful of non-vital written messages from coworkers that I can handle whenever. There’s two video messages from my wife, Sara. I know better than to open those around Christopher. I’ve learned that nonimmortals can’t control their sex drive the way the rest of us can, and I can’t stand the way he lustily comments about Sara’s voice.

I reach the end of my list, looking back up at Christopher to give him the same update I’ve given him every day for eleven years.

“No updates,” I said solemnly.

“Perhaps another day then,” he replied.

I sigh and walk across the room to the small refrigerator on the opposite wall. I retrieve two cups of applesauce, opening one and placing it on a table by my lounging chair. I bring the second over to Christopher.

“Would you like to try this yourself today?” I asked quietly.

“You know that I want to,” he answered, “but I’m going to end up with half of it on me if I try.”

“Sorry. I just figured I’d offer.”

“You do every day. I appreciate it. At least someone here treats me like I’m human.”

I scoop a small spoonful of applesauce out of the cup and begin feeding it to Christopher. The nursing staff will be by in ten or so minutes to bathe him, change his sheets, and tend to his other needs. The 90 minutes or so that’ll take will give me time to walk around outside and remove the smell of death from my nose. There’s a quiet room on the first floor of the hospital that I can make a monitored call to Sara from, so long as I use the hospital’s line. Sara’s been very kind in knowing that she can’t ask about my job over the monitored line. I can imagine it’s very difficult to be married to the primary person responsible for keeping guard over the only nonimmortal and the most notorious criminal still alive. I should get her a present to thank her the next time I get home. I’m thinking daffodils.

“Do you think they’ll let me die someday?” Christopher asked, licking a dribble of applesauce off his lips.

“It’s likely it’ll come sometime,” I replied. “I don’t think the Tribunal Court would be keeping me here all day, nearly every day if they just planned to keep you alive indefinitely.”

“They could just give me the drug that Polish doctor made. Either one works. Either I live forever or I die tonight. Then you could go home.”

“I know.”

“I’m not a patient here. I’m a symbol. I don’t know how they keep me alive, but I know why. I’m the last remnant of the world they tried so hard to stamp out. Without an idea of what could happen if rules aren’t followed in place, what incentive does anyone have to follow the rules?”

Christopher (largely) wasn’t wrong. World governments did view him as a symbol. They kept him alive with just enough Damodrine in his system to stave off death, but not enough that he’d require Andamodrine to kill. The entire point to my being here was to enact Protocol Marta if world governments so chose to do so. Protocol Marta would end the life of Christopher Mehmet in reality, though his symbolism would live on. Governments would report his death in a slow, controlled manner, so as to allow their own infrastructure time to prepare in case of an uprising of immortals who wished to keep Christopher’s name live. No intelligence existing believed this to be the case, however the precautions were put into place for a reason, I’ve been told.

As I fed the last spoonful of applesauce to Christopher, a tall, blonde nurse came into the room. His name was Tobias, one of the regular nurses working on the floor.

“We’re here for Mr. Mehmet’s bath and other essential actions,” Tobias said.

“Thank you, Tobias,” I responded. “I shall return before 11:30pm as normal.”

“Thank you, Miss Judit.”

I grab my applesauce and my communicator and make my way out the door, shuffling around two other nurses coming into the room. I ride the elevator down to the first floor quiet room, entering and locking the door behind me. While no one ever knocks at the door, especially late at night, I just feel safer locking the door if I’m reading Sara’s messages. It’s the closest I can get to having privacy with her when we’re not together.

The quiet room is dark, save for a small window letting moonlight into the room and a wired phone on a table near the door. I could turn on a light, but I don’t. I’ve been in the room so many times I can tell you where everything is with my eyes closed. Immediately on the left when you enter the room is a small end table with the aforementioned phone on it. A light brown wooden rocking chair sits immediately to the table’s left, providing me with a place to sit while on the phone. A half-sized Murphy bed is folded out from the wall on the window-side wall, giving me a place to take some extra rest if I’m impatiently awaiting any sort of messages from the outside world. On the bed are three pillows, two of which I use for my head and one of which I place between my knees to help my back with the necessary side sleeping the bed dictates. Otherwise, the room is empty, beige walls and beige carpet aside, that is.

As I sat down in the rocking chair, I feel my communicator begin to vibrate. Looking down at the screen, I see five words staring back at me that I’d been both waiting to see and dreading to see for eleven years.

Activate Protocol Marta at midnight.

I sent back a quick and direct message to the sender, whoever he or she may be. There is a rotation of six people that man Protocol Marta at the Tribunal Court daily, though I’m the only one in the field.

Acknowledged. Will confirm when protocol is initiated.

I shuffled through my communicator messages staring blankly at them as they went by. I know I played the message from my brother and cat, though I couldn’t tell you what it said. Sara’s first message was simple and straight forward, talking about her love for me. Admittedly, my mood caused me to forget the words as soon as I heard them, even though the meaning stuck. Her second message was much more lewd, as was the usual when I’d been gone a while. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it at all, though that wasn’t Sara’s fault. She was everything to me.

My mind couldn’t stop racing, wondering why now was the time. I had sat in a hospital room with a dying, but not dying man for eleven years of my life. Why now? And why make me kill someone I’d developed a rapport with? While everyone else referred to him as Mr. Mehmet or just Mehmet, I called him Christopher. you can’t spend eleven years in the same room with someone and not end up on a first name basis with them, no matter how devious their past.

As time ticked by second by second, minute by minute, I thought about how I would deliver the news. In light of my position, there was a very formal reading I had to make when initiating Protocol Marta. But just saying that seemed unfair to a man whose life was about to end. Immortals are granted 21 days when they begin Andamodrine. Why shouldn’t Christopher be given some sort of closure? And once I’ve returned home, I can finally tell Sara the specifics of my job. How will she react to know that my classified job — on that she’s spent countless hours worrying about my well-being for despite not knowing my circumstances — was to essentially be guard duty for the most hated man in the world today?

I arrived back to Christopher’s room at 11:23pm, seven minutes before the time I stated to the nurses. As Tobias and company finished up their duties, I sat in my lounger, sipping on a cup of coffee I’d brought up from the cafeteria. As the aromatic steam invaded my nostrils, I considered what it would be like to sip on coffee for the final time. I too would die someday, likely via Andamodrine just the same as every other immortal. Due to the nature of the world around us, specifically the lottery, I can’t imagine it’d be any time soon. In the immediate future though, I hold the life of someone in my hands. What human would ever desire such a responsibility?

Christopher was asleep as the nurses left, so I let him rest until midnight hit. As my communicator hit 12:00am, I rose from my lounger and walked over to the side of his bed. I placed my hand on Christopher’s arm, rubbing it lightly until he awoke.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” Christopher asked.

I nodded and began to walk to the end of the bed. I face him, staring at his withered skin and bald head. Eleven years ago, Christopher still had a few strands of white hair wisping around his skull. Those are long gone.

“Christopher James Mehmet,” I began, “by the orders of the Tribunal Court, the United Nations, the United States of America, and the state of New Hampshire, I am hereby required to inform you that your life will be ending. You will be provided with an opportunity to speak any final words, have a final meal, and speak with either a member of your designated religious services group or a representative of the Tribunal Court regarding burial proceedings. You may choose to waive any or all of these amenities, though you are not required to waive any of them. Do you understand the information I have provided to you? If so, please affirm with the statement ‘yes, I understand’.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Do you wish to speak with a member of your designated religious services group or a representative of the Tribunal Court regarding burial proceedings?”

“I do not,” Christopher replied. “They may do with my body as they see fit.”

“Acknowledged. Do you wish to partake in a final meal?”

“I do not.”

“Acknowledged. Do you wish to make a final statement?”

“I do not.”

I sighed and took a deep breath.

“Before I finish this, Christopher,” I stated, “I want to thank you for not begrudging my presence as I’ve been here the last eleven years. I know it must have made you uncomfortable to have the physical manifestation of your impending death watching over you since even before I got here. But thank you for being personable all along.”

“Thank you,” Christopher replied. “Now you’ll get to go home and see Sara.”

“Yes. Yes I will.”

The air hung silent for a few moments after I spoke. It really was all finally coming to an end. I could go home. But not without first ending the life of a man who had committed terrible, inhuman crimes, all while still treating me kindly and with respect.

“I’m ready, Judit,” said Christopher.

Christopher closed his eyes and tried his best to drift off to sleep. As he did so, I removed a syringe with a sedative from my bag and inserted it into the lines running to Christopher’s body. It would take just a few seconds to make him fall asleep, then would come the next step.

I threw the syringe in the medical waste box, paying careful attention to not stick my hand near the opening. Back in my bag, I produced a second syringe, this one filled with a liquid that would end Christopher’s life. I inserted the syringe into the line, just as I had done before, emptied the vessel, then threw it away.

In the hospital lobby, a young man in a dark blue suit waited for me. He took my bag from me and escorted me to waiting transportation outside. The young man would be taking me to pick up Sara and our belongings, then moving us to a secure location on Svalbard, Norway, well away from everyone else in case all hell broke loose as a result of Protocol Marta. It was my reward for a job well done, they said. But to me, it felt like a job that never should have existed.

NaNoWriMo – The Soundtrack

As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished up my NaNoWriMo novel for 2015. I was looking back doing a comparison of my 2015 experience with my earlier 2011 experience and realized that they had a common thread. I was greatly inspired by music throughout the process of both pieces. At the encouragement of many of you followers on Twitter((I was considering it anyway, however you guys cared, so woo!)), I decided to put the companion pieces I used while writing chapters here, along with short explanations below.

Warning, minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the story. If you have read the story, or if you just want to see the music inspiration and don’t care too much about minor spoilers, here you go. Songs are listed by chapter name with YouTube links out for each.

Armed and Apathetic – Maybeshewill – The Paris Hilton Sex Tape
I blame a fellow blogger, Erin, for making me a fan of Maybeshewill. If I’m ever in a mood where I want or need to write and I can’t, Maybeshewill’s album Not For The Want of Trying usually finds a way to make me want to write. While the song doesn’t particularly lend itself to being an introduction song, I looked at this book as more of a look into someone’s life than a beginning to end story. Looks in don’t start at the beginning of life at all times.

Bee – Metric – Empty
This chapter introduces the two non-primary protagonists, Beth and Nolan. While the focus is pretty equal on the two of them in this chapter, most of the focus (due to her in person appearance) is on Beth. I kind of viewed this as Beth’s theme song in the earlier chapters, thanks largely to its heavy play as I wrote Bee.

The Opening Salvo – No music
One of the few non-music chapters. No real explanation other than I was so focused on writing a coherent press release that I couldn’t listen to music.

Dinner and a Show – Biffy Clyro – Who’s Got a Match?
The first of two chapters with a song off of Biffy Clyro’s album Puzzle. The upbeat piece fits in well with the quirky conversation between Nolan and Beth mid-chapter.

Snow Angels – Mumford and Sons – Thistle and Weeds
The first time Libby actively recognizes Beth’s darker side is in this chapter. Mumford and Sons’ dark ballad fits really well here, though admittedly I don’t know that it fits quite as well as the next chapter’s song.

Ignition – While She Sleeps – Four Walls
All you really need here is the first :54 seconds of the song. The intro to “Four Walls” looped in my head nearly constantly while I wrote this chapter. Seems fitting with the ARM’s righteous motives.

Coming Home – Anberlin – A Whisper and a Clamor
Hello driving home to see my family at Christmas music. Anberlin was in heavy rotation in my college/grad school music playlist. While the song itself does predate the main characters of this story, I think that Nolan and Libby would have some level of appreciation for emo rock based off of some of the other things they mention within the story.

Santa and Skeletons – 331ERock – Theme of Laura
It was hard for me not to use a Christmas song here, but this metal cover of the most iconic song from Silent Hill 2 was on heavy repeat as I wrote this entire book. Considering the general innocence portrayed by Mandy — the youngest member of the Andersen family —  in this chapter, I figured an homage to the Silent Hill series was appropriate. As for why the metal version rather than the original, just listen to the guitar solo.

Live and in Living Color – David Bowie – I’m Afraid of Americans
Pretty self-explanatory one here once you read the chapter.

The Best Laid Plans – Our Lady Peace – Clumsy
So within hours of me writing Live and in Living Color, the Paris attacks happened. Considering the unintentional parallels between fictional and real life events, I needed a chapter off of focusing on the main storyline. This chapter was it. The awkward, yet touching conversation between Nolan and Libby reminds me of Clumsy thanks to a story a friend of mine once told me about a conversation she had with her ex-fiancee. Love can be clumsy sometimes.

A Beacon and A Bomb – Chevelle – A Letter From a Thief
This was the only chapter other than Knockout where I had the chapter name thought up before I had the chapter finished. As soon as I thought of the chapter name, A Letter From a Thief got stuck in my head. And thus, here we are.

In Between – Red Sparowes – A Swarm
Helllllooooo Beth’s dark side again

A Call To Action – Tchaikovsky – Slavonic March
If you’re looking for the ARMC’s national anthem referenced in the chapter, look no further than the 2:20 mark of the song above. Seems commanding, no?

Sadie – Sergei Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2
The song Sadie mentioned as her upcoming performance recital piece is linked above. It appears that Spotify doesn’t have the Anna Federova version that I have linked above, but that’s why YouTube exists.

Us Inside Another – Escape the Fate – Gorgeous Nightmare
Is the song about Beth, Sadie, or both? You decide.

Only Elpis Remained – Fall Out Boy – This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race
Relevant for most of the chapter? Not really. Relevant for the final 1/3 of the chapter? Oh yes.

Ghosts – Susie Suh – Everywhere
Nothing special here musically other than an eerily calm song against the announcement of a crumbling world.

First of the Month – A Perfect Circle – 3 Libras
From what I’ve been told, those born under the sign of Libra tend to be pretty peaceful. A small party on a night in seems pretty peaceful, especially when the world is about to change, and the dark tone of the song fits well with the underlying dark around the corner.

Dusk – Ayla Brown and the Boston Pops Orchestra – The Star Spangled Banner
As mentioned in the chapter.

Knockout – Straylight Run – Hands in the Sky
I re-read this chapter and couldn’t believe how well this song went with the tone of the events of the chapter.

A Puppet’s Lament – Biffy Clyro – Living’s A Problem Cause Everything Dies
An oddly appropriate outro to a country where hope (outside of memories) has finally been lost.

Baggage

Note: The inspiration for the following poem comes from this writing prompt at Writer’s Digest, as well as from my previous promise to myself to work to write creatively more often.

Our relationship got off to about as inauspicious of a start as is conceptually possible. I met Mallory at the grocery store just down the road from my home in Newport, Rhode Island. She worked as a cashier when we first met, typically manning the lane with the cigarettes and RILot tickets. I’d come in once or twice a week, buy a pack of cigarettes, a two-liter of soda, whatever I wanted for dinner, and a bag of mints, then make my way home to my apartment where I’d spend my evenings enjoying some combination of eating dinner, watching football or baseball on television, showering, perusing pornography, and sleeping. On most visits, Mallory would be the one taking the money in exchange for my wares.

About a year after we first spoke, I came into the store for my regular visit, only to find Mallory behind the counter as normal. Her mascara was smeared and tear-stained, while her normally flawless hair appeared to be hastily stuffed beneath one of the store’s generic, bland hats. I offered to buy her a drink after she got off work and, much to my surprise, she took me up on it. Mallory’s long-term boyfriend had left her for one of Mallory’s close friends, so her sadness was understandable.

While that first night we shared at the bar wasn’t a date by any stretch of the imagination, we had our first date together less than a month later. We went to her favorite restaurant, a small Italian place name Donatello’s Family Pizzeria. It was a 25 minute drive away, but considering the tiny establishment had long been a favorite of mine as well, I didn’t mind. We both laughed when we realized that we loved the same kind of pizza — barbecue pizza with ham, green olives, almonds, and extra cheese. The waiter even joked that he’d finally found the only two people who would order such a strange pizza. It was mildly amusing to both of us.

The similarities between Mallory and me didn’t stop there. We both grew up in the small town of Allen, Vermont, a tiny hamlet just miles from Burlington. Considering the town itself was only 500 or so people, it was statistically surprising we had never met. That said, Mallory attended a private Catholic school in Burlington, which generally kept her away from town on weekdays, while my divorced parents’ custody agreement meant that I spent most weekends and holidays with my mother across the state line in New Russia, New York.

There’s always the chance we crossed paths at the grocery store here and there, but I feel like I’d remember someone with Mallory’s face. Even before we started dating, I found her to be incredibly memorable. Her eyes were tinted just lighter than azure, with a dark gray fleck in the right iris shaped like Bolivia. Her smile was a bit crooked, though I didn’t notice this until after one of our early dates. Whenever she laughed, her face would come back to a resting smile that left the right corner of her mouth slightly lower than the left. Unless she was actively thinking about it, Mallory’s mouth would naturally rest this way, albeit in a non-smiling manner. I found it charmingly cute, particularly because the asymmetry was completely undetectable when we kissed. Her face was typically framed by lengthy, straight brown hair that ran to the middle of her shoulder blades, though since we started dating, she had started wearing it up in a tight bun.

For our six month anniversary, I decided to take Mallory out to a nice restaurant along the coastline of the ocean. We had a lovely dinner — fettuccine alfredo and stracciatella ice cream for her and cheese lasagna and tiramisu for me — before a long walk on the boardwalk and beach. The night was calm and clear, with the waves from the Atlantic washing up on the shore with a serene, repetitive rhythm. After about twenty minutes of walking, we found a secluded spot on the beach to rest. Mallory removed a vacuum bag-packed blanket from her purse and laid it out on the ground. We curled up on the blanket, her head pressed tightly against my shoulder, and enjoyed the quiet of the night sky.

After twenty minutes or so of snuggling, Mallory broke the silence with words I always dreaded to hear from someone who I found to be so perfect for me.

“Listen, Chris,” she began. “I have something I really need to tell you. I like you a lot and I can’t keep going in this relationship without letting you know something about my past.”

“Oh?” I responded. I really hoped it wasn’t an issue she had with me. Everything seemed to be going so well, and I felt like Mallory really liked me. Of course, I’d thought that before, only to be broken up with rather unexpectedly on more than one occasion.

Mallory sat up and crossed her legs underneath her. She placed her hands together tightly, intertwining her fingers tightly as if to keep her hands from falling apart. She let out a long sigh, then began her speech.

“I’ve been living in Rhode Island for the last seven years now, though I don’t particularly enjoy living here. I’m actually only here because I’m trying to get away from my old life in Allen.”

“Did something bad happen to you while you were there?” I asked. I’d left Allen myself nearly twelve years ago after graduating high school. Despite its small size, Allen wasn’t the safest town in the world, as a string of six murders in six years had cut the town’s population nearly in half.

“Not exactly,” she responded.

Mallory went silent for a moment before burying her head in her hands and sobbing. I sat up from my laying position and wrapped my arms around her, holding her close as she cried. It took a few minutes for Mallory to compose herself, but eventually brought herself back to a more normal mindset.

“I really don’t know any better way to say this other than just to come right out and say it,” she continued. “You know how Allen had all those people die a few years back?”

“Yes,” I responded.

“I’m the Allen suitcase killer. I killed those six people, chopped up their bodies, buried them in suitcases outside of town, and kept the belongings they had on them. I never wanted to have to tell you this, but I didn’t want things to get serious without you knowing this about me. If you need to leave, I unde…”

“I knew there was a copycat!” I shouted, interrupting Mallory’s rapid train of thought.

“Wait…what?” she asked, perplexed.

“Once the first suitcase was found, I realized I had to get better about where I hid bodies, not to mention to stop only going after people from Allen,” I replied. “I didn’t recognize any of the other five suitcases that were found, though I figured I could have just forgotten what they looked like. I was nearly convinced of the copycat when two of the bodies dug up where people I had barely talked to, but this proves it.”

“So you’re the original Allen suitcase killer?”

“Yes.”

Mallory wrapped her arms around my shoulders and embraced me tightly. Her sobs began again, though they were mixed with child-like laughter. For the first time since I met her, Mallory seemed truly at ease. And so long as she never uttered my secret to anyone, I could promise that her secret — and all that baggage that it entailed — would be safe with me.