July 26

Intertwined

In some cultures, it’s common to refer to the paths ours lives take as “threads.”  It’s such an interesting comparison to make, because threads have so many different qualities that make them unique.  Threads can be many different colors and sizes, and combine fabrics to make something that’s so much larger the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately though, like threads, lives can be cut short, and sometimes, threads can be stretched taut until they snap.

I met Carrie in my third year of college.  She was in one of my general education classes.  Despite our majors being substantively different, our threads still intermingled.  It’s weird how that works, and kind of beautiful in the grand scheme of things.

We didn’t sit next to each other, nor would we probably have ever talked, but we got paired up for a group project by our teacher and ended up hitting it off remarkably fast.  The reason our teacher paired us?  Both our last names started with “L.”

Carrie’s family owned a small textile company somewhere in the eastern U.S. that produced some kind of old-fashioned, high quality fabrics.  She was expected to go into the family business, but was majoring in a STEM field because, as she said, she simply lacked the interest.  I found it fascinating that she wanted to turn down the inheritance of a successful company business to go off and do her own thing, but that quality was what initially drew me to her.  Carrie knew what she wanted and was willing to work through every obstacle in her way to achieve it.  Simply calling her “driven” almost didn’t seem like enough.

Me?  I was going for a career in journalism.  The art of writing, I guess.  Quite different from Carrie’s biology major, and yet, we found so many similarities between ourselves.  The way she could describe cellular functions was poetic, which was remarkable in that she understood her passion well enough to explain it beautifully in layman’s terms to someone like me, a person whose scientific knowledge started in my 7th grade life science class and ended in my 8th grade earth science class.  It’s funny, really, remembering her expression when I stared stupidly back at her during bar trivia the first time she realized how truly lacking my knowledge of science was.  She guessed – correctly, I might add – the answer to a question, “mitochondria,” and spent the next ten minutes explaining to me things I probably should’ve remembered from 10th grade, but totally either forgot or blocked out.

The weird thing though, was the joy that radiated from her eyes, her tone, the way she sparkled when she spoke about what she loved.  I couldn’t care too much less about eukaryotic cells, but I could’ve listened to her speak vividly about them all night.  She lit up so brightly when she got to talk about that stuff.

Carrie and I were friends for only a few weeks before we started dating.  I say “only” a few weeks because I never moved quickly into relationships.  The beginning of my first year in college, I spent so much time writing and submitting articles and columns to various sites, magazines, and papers that I literally ruined a budding relationship that I’d put a couple of months of work into by that point.  The same thing happened again at the end of my first year, so I just sort of swore it off unless it seemed like it could be a casual thing.  I was really focused on breaking into the career I’d always dreamed about, and for some reason, finally seeing that focus in someone else made me appreciate Carrie all that much more.

We both knew immediately that our time together would be limited as we approached mid-terms that semester, but that was fine.  I really didn’t consider anything about our relationship “casual,” and yet, I was supposed to have sworn that off.  I guess I found it really hard to have found something so special in someone, and yet have to not let fate take its course.  Our threads had met and intertwined, and I didn’t want them to drift apart.  That I was sure of.

Mid-terms came and went, and our time together was stretched thin, but even just meeting for lunch or walking her across campus to her dorm in the evening was enough.  I was in it for the long-haul, and if seeing Carrie infrequently now was what it took to see her more frequently at some undisclosed point in the future, then I was up for it.  Seeing her smiling face, hearing her laugh and gentle whispers of “I love you” when we parted for the day, I knew the feeling was mutual.  There was no need to confirm, no need to bring up pointless things.  Carrie’s thread and mine might as well have been one.

Every once in a while, Carrie visited her parents and fell off the face of the earth for a day or two.  She always told me ahead of time and blamed her lack of communication on spotty cell coverage in her home town, compounded upon her parents’ requests of family time.  I didn’t mind, of course, it was just another thing that kept us apart.

My senior year was spent searching for an internship, and subsequently pouring my time into the one I found.  It was exhaustively time-consuming.  Every time I opened up my word processing software, I thought about how much more I wished I could be texting Carrie.  It was a daily struggle to be responsible, and every once in a while, I could tell it was for her too.  I think we both did pretty well in hiding just how much we wanted to spend more time together, but there were times I really got depressed about it.  I don’t think Carrie ever noticed, because as soon as I saw her, those negative feelings evaporated.

I don’t think it ever affected my studies.  In fact, it might’ve even helped.  I knew that failure in my classes meant repeating them, which meant more time spent with books and Microsoft Word instead of Carrie.  That was something that really kept me going sometimes.

A month before we were set to graduate, Carrie started acting weird.  Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I started noticing that Carrie was acting weird.  Not in a suspicious way, but it was still very concerning.  I must’ve asked her twenty times what was bothering her, but over and over, she assured me that nothing was wrong.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying to me, and I knew that’s exactly what her assurances were.  Carrie had never lied to me in such an obvious way, and I wasn’t sure how to confront her about it.  It was such a blatant shift in her character, yet I didn’t for a second suspect her of any wrongdoing.  I figured maybe the exhaustion from finishing up finals and college coming to a close had finally begun to take its toll, as she certainly had begun looking a little more fatigued than usual.

The day before graduation, Carrie stopped responding to my texts and calls.  The next day, her name was called and she wasn’t there to walk across the stage.  I was there, and I heard my name being called, but I distinctly remember feeling like I was somewhere else.  I shook the dean’s hand and accepted my diploma, but my mind was with Carrie.  I’d asked her friends, I’d left messages on her Facebook and Twitter; I literally didn’t know where else to turn.  She’d just up and disappeared.

Two days later, Carrie finally responded to my texts.  By then, I was a wreck.  I’d called the police, but they apparently don’t take 21-year olds looking for their missing girlfriends very seriously.  The night before she finally responded, I’d cried myself to sleep and ended up waking up with a fever.  I had literally worried myself sick.

Carrie’s reply was simple in its devastation.  “We need to talk.”  I expected what I thought was the worst, which in retrospect, didn’t make much sense.  In fact, looking back, the conclusion that I jumped to almost seems narcissistic.  I thought she wanted to break up with me.  I thought it was so awkward and embarrassing for her that she’d skipped her own college graduation.

In actuality, when I showed up to Carrie’s apartment that day, her family was there.  I didn’t understand why she’d ask to meet me with them present.  After all, it was the first time I’d met her parents and her younger sister.

And it’s when I learned Carrie was dying.

Carrie smiled at me when she broke the news.  She’d known for a long time, and she’d kept it from me, and from all of her friends.  I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to react, so I just blankly stared at her as she explained.  Carrie had been sick for a long time, but she was fine most of the time up until now.  Those times she’d disappeared on “visits to her parents’ house,” she was actually in doctors’ offices and hospitals getting various tests and studies done.  But nothing had ever helped, and her diagnosis was a fatal one.

She didn’t want me to worry, so she’d never told me.  I didn’t – and to this day still don’t – fully understand why she would’ve thought keeping that from me was a good idea.  It was maybe even a little cruel, despite her circumstances, but as the pieces began to fall into place, I finally understood why she was so driven.  She knew that she didn’t have a future, so the family business was out of the question.  Instead, she hoped to be able to find answers to her own body’s malfunction by majoring in something entirely different.

As I broke down, Carrie smiled sweetly and apologized for keeping her condition from me, but my head was too far into a down-spiral of melancholy thoughts.  What was wrong with her was very unpredictable, and though she’d originally been given another couple of years, the diagnosis had recently changed when the condition became more aggressive, and she took a turn for the worse.  Doctors were only giving her a few months at that point, maybe half a year if she was lucky.

It wasn’t fair that Carrie’s thread was so short.  We’d formed such an amazing bond, I just couldn’t imagine life without her.  Yet, four months later, I didn’t have a choice.  I watched her silently slip away, and personally bore witness to her thread coming to an end; to the parting of hers from mine.  To say that I was broken up about it would be an understatement, but I suppose you could expect as much.  The girl I thought I’d spend my life with was taken from me, after all.  I couldn’t write for a long time, but when I finally picked it back up many months later, stories started coming to me more easily than worldly observations.

I carry her memory with me even now, 6 years later.  The beginning of my first novel, just before the first chapter, contains a very simple memorial to her, and I couldn’t have been prouder that so many thousands of people had read those words: “For Carrie, whose thread was cut so short, despite all of the promise she brought to the world and to me.”

December 26

The World as it Was – Part 1

Back in college, I held down two jobs.  One was as a computer help desk guy for the university, and the other was as a freelance writer for a local weekly newspaper.  Well, okay, the latter wasn’t really that big of a deal.  I just wrote a 500 word article every week and pretended that I could never make the weekly meetings.  My jobs, starting with both of those, molded who I was and what I’d become.  When I graduated, I switched departments, but stayed working in IT for the university.  And it was no longer for pay, but I kept writing.  It was sporadic, but it was a part of me that I didn’t want to let go, so I posted it freely online and was okay that it had no following whatsoever.  I wrote it for me, and I enjoyed it, so that’s all that mattered.

I published a novel a couple years later, but an ill-timed server reboot at my day job brought about more fanfare than my grand début into the eBook world.  But again, that wasn’t really important to me.  I wrote for me, I wrote because I enjoyed it.  Slapping computers around used to provide that fulfillment for me, but it ended up just being a way to pay the bills.

When the war started, I was safe from being drafted because I held a professional-level job.  No one wanted to fight, it seemed, but the unskilled workforce seemed to be slowly getting snapped up into the armed forces.  My feelings were conflicted on the draft, because as happy as I was to have little chance at being drafted, I could only wonder how those draftees felt.  Did they think it was fair?  Did they wonder if their lives were worth less than mine?

A year after the war started, a private company contracted by the military completed and built a design for a combat enhancement exoskeleton for soldiers to wear.  It wasn’t armor; it just made humans faster, stronger, and more precise.  The media nicknamed them “battle suits,” which I didn’t find very fitting, but I didn’t have a say in the matter.

I wrote up my thoughts on the battle suits online, and in doing so, ended up with some fortunate side effects, the first of which was that my website traffic spiked and analytics showed that post was clearly the reason.  The other side effect was that in researching data for my post, I learned a bit about the battle suits.  They had originally begun development years before the war as a medical device – an aid to the disabled.  Slap one of those exoskeletons on a person that was paralyzed from the waist down and they could walk again.  The project in its medical form had taken years to get off of the ground and find funding, but once a use that involved slaughtering other humans became viable for the technology, funding become abundant.

Ugh, humanity.  I swear.

My day job didn’t slow down, as I supported the university’s systems that allowed students to register for classes, check their grades, and a slew of other boring things I won’t go into detail about for now.  The point here is that when the war took off, the draft was reinstated for the first time since 1973, which meant that some kids that didn’t plan on going to college suddenly changed their minds and quickly began applying for student loans in hopes they could avoid being shipped off to war.  Our university had seen its highest enrollment rates in all of its history in the past year.  So yeah, my day job was busy.

After my post on battle suits took off, I decided to use the momentum and the traffic to turn my website into a media hub about technology related to the war.  I was conflicted on doing it at first, but even if I was against the war, there was no denying its existence or the existence of this amazing new technology that would hopefully help bring it to a close as quickly as possible.

I kept writing articles on the battle suits and kept gaining readership until I was seeing a steady 1,000 unique hits a day.  Even if you’re not into website analytics, you can probably tell that’s an exciting number to hit.  One thousand different IP addresses around the globe (and one IP from the International Space Station!) had found my content interesting enough to click on, and advertising analytics showed that most of them stayed on the site for at least 10 minutes.  Holding attention like that wasn’t an easy task, and I was ecstatic at having managed to do so.

I didn’t actually know too much about the political motivations for the war, but neither did anyone else.  One of our allies had some misguided attempt at policing a country in southeast Asia and ended up dragging us into their fight.  Kind of ironic, actually, considering our own messy history with that kind of thing.  But it was like a chain reaction at that point, involving more and more allies joining in on both sides, until we ended up where we were, no longer able to rely on an all-volunteer military.  At the end of the day, I was sure that most people involved in the war were only fighting because they were being told to.  They just wanted to go home.  People were probably out there killing other people without even knowing why.

Like most, I wanted to believe that the government was keeping tight-lipped about the war for a good reason, but I was never much for believing in government, so I had my suspicions that this war was more than just an unfortunate mess that we begrudgingly got involved in.  Something about the whole thing bothered me, and I sometimes hinted at that on my website, but I never directly came out and said it.

It’s weird to think of how a chain of events happening exactly as they happen can completely change your life.  If one thing in that chain had been changed, I never would’ve been contacted that day.  If I hadn’t gotten into writing, if I didn’t understand the technology enough to write about it, if my site hadn’t gotten that traffic spike, if I hadn’t taken it in the direction I did, if I hadn’t hinted at my distrust in the government’s motivations, I never would’ve gotten the email that changed everything.

If you want to understand this war for what it really is, you need only let me know.  I can tear down the wall that’s been erected to prevent you from seeing the truth. ~VC

Imagine getting an email like that, being in the mindset that I was already in.  Thanks to ROPA – the Restoration of Privacy Act – I was fairly certain that the government was no longer snooping on us, but even that I wasn’t 100% sure of.  I guessed if they were still doing domestic spying, I’d find out soon enough.  If some men in dark suits showed up with “questions” to ask me and directed me to their black, limo-tinted SUV, I’d kindly decline and run in the other direction.  Until they tased me, or whatever it was they did to nonviolent people that posted unflattering things about them on the Internet.

I had very little idea what I was getting into, but I was compelled at that point to respond to the email.  It was almost beyond my control.  The curiosity would kill me if those men in black suits didn’t.

Almost as quickly as I could hit “send” to let them know I wanted in on their knowledge, whoever was on the other side of that email responded.

Your IP is authorized for one download of this file.  It will be deleted afterward.  Take care. ~VC

I clicked the link to download the file, which appeared to be a video of some kind.  Probably harmless to download and watch.  Well, harmless to my computer, at least.  I watched the video in total silence, and then I watched it again.

Do you remember your first crush?  Of course you do.  Who could forget the first person they ever had feelings for?  You might not remember why you liked them, you might not remember any conversations you had with them, but you remember their name.

Amanda, 5th grade.  That’s all I remember.

But I will never forget a single second of the video I watched that night.  Humans in battle suits, humans not in battle suits, weapons raised, weapons blasting, not at each other, but at something else.  Monsters, creatures I’d never seen.  Big hulking things that stood on legs that terminated at clawed toes, heads that resembled a mish-mash of dinosaur-like things from Earth’s history, skin that looked slimy but apparently tough enough to feel bullets as nothing but pinpricks.

I knew immediately that the video was real.  If the poor quality and shakiness of a carefully hidden camera didn’t give it away, the screams of agony and anger certainly did – both the human ones, and the inhuman ones.

There was no war between countries in southeast Asia; it was a war between species.  It was humanity versus…whatever those things were.  Aliens?  Some mutated life forms from Earth?  Somehow, the world had been kept in the dark for over a year, and suddenly, my suspicions made sense.  The government was keeping us in the dark so as to not cause widespread panic.  And somehow, it had worked for this long.  If the war was only raging in that one area of Asia, none of the troops were coming home, and no footage was allowed out, how would anyone know what was actually going on out there?

I didn’t sleep much that night thinking about it.  It was the biggest coverup in the history of humanity, and it had worked except for seemingly this one video.  Somehow, this video had escaped the war zone, and even more unbelievable, it had found its way to me, thanks to whoever “VC” was.

Why had they shared this with me?  Were they expecting me to use my website to spread the truth?  It didn’t seem like it would’ve been hard to publicize something like this without my still relatively small website.  So what was VC’s angle, then?  Were they just sharing information?

I had to take off of work the next day.  It was too much to ask of me to try to process what I’d seen in the video and fix whatever systems broke on what amounted to forty minutes total of sleep.  I kept watching the video, examining the creatures, trying to figure out what they were.  I emailed VC multiple times asking for more information, but my inbox remained empty until that night.

I’ve shown you the truth.  What you do with it is your own choice.  You are one of less than 10 civilians that can claim this knowledge.  Use it wisely.  Do not expect further contact. ~VC

Not the answers I’d been looking for, but I had a strange feeling that VC was telling me all they knew, just in this very roundabout way.  I wanted to know so much more, but it appeared as though I’d reached the end of that thread.

But the problem remained of what to do with the information I’d been given.  Not wanting to make a rash decision, I kept it to myself for a while and weighed my options.  The biggest problem I had with sharing this revelation with the world was that I had no way to prove it was true.  I could share the video, but VC had made sure to share it with me and only me by giving access to my IP address just once.  I had to theorize since VC had barely told me anything, but it felt as though he or she was scared of being tracked down.

And even if I shared the video, it wasn’t really undeniable proof of anything.  My belief was that it was real, but my judgment wasn’t fact.  I had to find out for sure, I had to gather 100% undeniable evidence.  It was too important to ignore.  I didn’t know how I’d do it, or how long it would take, but I’d find proof, and I’d share it with the world.

November 10

Intrusion

I was writing a scary story to post for Halloween, and I completely dropped the ball on finishing it up in time.  I’m still working on it, but in the meantime, here’s another of my very rare poems.

It’s quiet in this room

As the world lies asleep

And I sit here awake

But suddenly, a creak.

I wander from the sofa,

Pass into the kitchen

Stop at the hallway

Dare to take a listen.

“Certainly,” I think

“It’s just the house settling”

But then I realize

Someone must be meddling.

“Impossible,” I mumble

“I know I closed the door”

But the evidence is clear

As it swings ajar.

I push the slab closed

Quickly twist the lock

Turn around to walk back in

And encounter quite a shock.

Frightful, you may call it

You’d suspect that was the case

As I certainly did not expect

To be staring a man in the face.

July 5

Original: Prologue – Narrator: ????? – Add ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down

This is the original version of the prologue to my first novel, “We Put the ‘Dual’ in ‘Individual.'”  I am posting this to showcase how bad my writing was, as compared to how it had progressed as of  April 2012, when I rewrote this prologue.


 

“Hey!  Be quiet back there!”

I was scared to make the man mad, but at the same time, I knew that there really wasn’t much he could do to shut me up from the front seat of his crappy old van.  Though I was bound and gagged, I was still doing my best to try to get it through the guy’s head that he was kidnapping the wrong person.

I tried many times to communicate with the man, but in the end, all that got me was a gag in my mouth and revoked my shotgun privileges.  I probably should have accepted just being bound and sitting quietly in the front, but I wasn’t exactly known for keeping my mouth shut.

Don’t get me wrong, though – I was terrified, even as I tried my best to talk through the gag.

“Don’t worry, girl.  You’ll be fine as long as your parents pay the ransom,” he said.  My abductor didn’t even sound like a stereotypical criminal.  He didn’t have a deep voice, and he wasn’t big, burly, or unkempt.  He just looked and sounded like a normal guy.

“Mmhfmm afama raaah pahpu!”  Try as I might, the gag made my words completely incoherent.  My frustration was off the chart, but that was nothing compared to my fear.

He’d demanded two million dollars in exchange for my life, but if I had to guess, my parents had maybe forty thousand dollars of savings in their bank account.  We were just a normal, middle-class family.  If this guy was really planning to kill me if he didn’t get two million dollars, then I was going to die.

I rolled across the floor of the van every time my captor took a turn.  I didn’t think I was bleeding, but I was definitely bruised from smashing into the crap that lined the walls.  It hurt so much that I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.  Every time I felt the tears coming, they immediately froze in place because I had much, much worse things to worry about, and that somehow dampened the pain.

“Well, here we are.  Home sweet home!” the man said.  He climbed out of the van and slammed the driver’s side door closed.  A few second later, he opened the back doors and climbed inside, hovering over me and grinning like an animal that was about to feast on its prey.

He grabbed my arm and lifted me up on his right side.  I couldn’t walk because my feet were bound, so he just dragged me like that out of the back of the van.  When we were out, he closed the van doors, and, much to my surprise, picked me up, and tossed me over his shoulder.  It was so quick and so casual that I didn’t even get a chance to protest it.

I realized that I should probably get a good look around so that if I escaped, I would be able to give the police a good description of my captor’s house.  However, there wasn’t much to see.  We were inside of a garage.  It was dark and hot and it smelled like paint.

“When we get inside, if you promise not to annoy the shit out of me, I’ll take your gag off,” he said.  His shoulder was jabbing into the side of my stomach, and I wanted to yell at him about it, but having the gag off would be nice.

He carried me through the kitchen and down a flight of stairs into a basement room.  The bannister at the bottom of the staircase was broken and splintered, and though there was an old, red couch against the back wall, he dropped me in the middle of the room onto the nasty-looking shag carpet.

“Don’t bother screaming.  There’s no one around,” he said, removing the gag from my mouth in the least gentle way possible.  Much to my surprise, he also removed the ropes from around my arms and legs.  I didn’t say a word out of fear that he would bind and gag me again.

“You better hope your parents pay the ransom by tomorrow night,” he said as he reached the top of the staircase.  “You won’t see Saturday morning if they don’t.”  He turned and climbed the stairs out of the basement, closing and locking the door behind him.

I didn’t know the man’s name, and heck, he didn’t even know mine, though he probably thought he did.  He’d just been calling me ‘girl’ the whole time.  I wondered for a second who he thought I was, but it didn’t matter.  He wouldn’t believe me, and I didn’t have my purse, so I didn’t have my driver’s license to prove my identity.

I walked in circles around the room, tried to think up ways to escape, and sat in a corner and cried for a while just to pass the time.  I couldn’t see outside and there were no clocks in the room, so I didn’t even know what time it was.  It could’ve been 6 PM or 10 PM, and neither would’ve surprised me.

Suddenly, I heard the door at the top of the stairs close, though I hadn’t heard it open.  I waited for my captor to appear, but he didn’t.  I cautiously walked over and looked up the stairs, and rather than a person, I saw a plate.

Food?  I hadn’t even thought about food.

I climbed up and stared at the plate.  In it, there was half of a ham sandwich and a few potato chips.  It looked like it might have been the man’s leftovers, but no matter what it was, I had absolutely no appetite despite having not eaten almost all day, so I didn’t care.  I left the plate there and went back downstairs to sit in the corner and cry.

At some point, I ended up crying myself to sleep.  Had I tried to fall asleep, it would’ve been impossible, but somehow, I just dozed right off without even wanting to.  Maybe I was exhausted from sobbing and pacing around the room, but I think there was another reason that I fell asleep so suddenly.  It may sound strange, but I think it was because there was a dream that I needed to see.

I met a boy in the dream.  I was aware that it was a dream, and though I was lucid, I couldn’t control anything about the boy.  I could fly, I could change the color of the sky, and I could shoot rainbows out of the tips of my fingers, but the boy was completely out of my control.

He seemed to already know me and about the situation I was in, but I didn’t know him.  He spent a while talking to me about my life before finally asking me if I had any questions for him.  I started off with the most obvious one that I could think of.

“Why is this happening to me?” I asked.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

“But what’s the reason?”

“It’s unfortunate that fate has chosen you, but it is fate that has brought you here,” he said.

“What do you mean?  I was destined to be kidnapped?”

“You should already know that your situation is much worse than that,” he said.

“So, what, I’m going to die in some lunatic’s basement because he thinks I’m someone else?”

“It’s not that simple.  The girl that you are being mistaken for is very important.  Without her, I wouldn’t exist, and neither would my sisters.”

“And what makes you so important?” I asked.

“Don’t misunderstand,” he said.  “My life is no more valuable than yours.  However, as you can see, I am standing here before you.  That means that I exist, and because I exist, my mother must not die before she conceives me.  Therefore, she’s important to the future.”

“It sounds like you’re saying that I have to die so that you can be born,” I said.

“I am only saying that it is fate that my mother is going to live, and the proof of that is that I exist.”

“This is really confusing and pretty unfair, if you ask me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “Truly, I am sorry.  However, there is something that I’d like you to do for me that I think you will enjoy, and I hope that it will make up for this at least a little.”

“A dream favor?” I asked.

“No, this is a real favor,” he said.  “I’ll tell you about it when we next meet.”

“But when will I see you again if I’m about to die?”  I asked.  The boy looked at me with a wide smirk on his face, then turned and started walking away.

“Soon.”

“Wake up!”

I awoke lying on the floor with my captor’s boot in my face.  I immediately sat up straight, as if he were a drill sergeant or something.

“Guess what?” he said.

“W-What?” I asked, immediately longing to be back in the dream world.

“Your parents didn’t meet the deadline,” he said.

“It’s already that time?” I asked.  It seemed impossible.  How had the hours passed by so quickly?  Was it much later than I thought it was when I fell asleep, or had I just slept for an absurd amount of time?

“Unfortunately for you.”

“Look, my parents aren’t wealthy.  You have the wrong girl. My name is-“

“Shut up!” he yelled.  “That’s not going to work.  I know who you are, and you’re not getting out of this.”  I didn’t think it would work, but what else could I do?  I had to try one last time, right?

Though I was 18, I’d never had a boyfriend.  My dad got a job when I was 14 that forced us to move around a lot.  We’d only been in our current city for 4 months.  As a result, I never really had a whole lot of time to meet people.

That was what was running through my mind as I watched my captor pull out a small handgun.  I’d never found love in my short life, and I suddenly understood what people meant when they said that they didn’t want to regret anything when they were staring death in the face.

“This ought to teach your parents not to ignore me,” he said, pointing his gun right at my forehead.  “Goodbye, Debbie Kirkman.”

The man pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding, and I fell lifelessly to the floor.

Whoever Debbie Kirkman was, she’d live to see another day.

But I wouldn’t.

June 10

Terry Hall

Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there?  Had an experience that you could only reconcile with one other person in the world, and for which everyone else would call you crazy?

 

In college, I was part of a volunteer group that went around the dorms passing out pamphlets about how detrimental prescription drug abuse could be.  There were lots of reports of students abusing Adderall at the time, and it had become enough of a safety concern for the school to organize my little group of unpaid do-gooders.

I honestly wasn’t too committed to the cause, but it counted toward a community service requirement for one of my classes, and it didn’t seem incredibly difficult.

Though there were some co-ed dorms, most were male or female only.  Entry to each building could be gained by waving a student ID card with the proper access in front of a card access proximity scanner mounted by most exterior doors.  Some interior hallways and most elevators and stairwells also had these scanners, but rooms were accessed only by physical keys.

Since we were an official volunteer group with a legitimate need for dorm access, our school IDs were temporarily granted access rights to the dorms.  However, we were still restricted by our sex to which dorms we could access.  Myself and the other girls could only access the female dorms and the female sections of the co-ed dorms, and vice-versa with the guys.

My friend Kelsi and I had been assigned to canvass Terry Hall, the old girls’ dorm on the south side of campus by the unused cafeteria.  The cafeteria had been shut around 5 years prior, at the same time Terry Hall was originally closed down.  There were plans by the school to renovate the dorm and reopen it, but two years later, with renovations never even started, the dorm reopened due to a lack of housing space on campus.  I thought it was an embarrassing reflection of the school’s poor planning capabilities, but it mostly went unmentioned by my peers.

Terry Hall was 40 years old, having most recently been renovated about 21 years before – save for the addition of the card access points right before it reopened.  I had been fortunate enough to be assigned to Richmond Hall during my two semesters living in the dorms, which was not only the newest female dorm on campus, but was also the newest building on campus, period.  Kelsi had never lived in on-campus housing, but one of her friends had lived in Terry Hall, so she was partially familiar with its layout.

We scanned our IDs at the front entrance and were technically supposed to sign a visitor’s log book at the front desk, but we just walked right by it.

“The desk workers don’t care,” Kelsi said.  “They don’t know we don’t live here anyway.”

I nodded and we walked past the desk to the hallway where the first floor residents lived.  There was another card access point there, so we scanned our IDs and continued through.  Neither of us was sure how long it would take to slide the pamphlets under every door, but we decided to take our time with it.  Though we weren’t being supervised, the card access system would have a pretty accurate log of our tour of the building.  If we lied about how much time it took to boost our community service hours and someone was bored enough to check the logs, we’d be obligated to have a chat about academic dishonesty with the Dean of Students.  I’d heard that such visits were also accompanied by a 20-page essay on integrity, due within a week.  Risk-taking wasn’t my game, especially when the alternative was walking around an air conditioned building with one of my best friends for just a bit longer than I otherwise needed to.

“There’s not a lot of people on this floor, huh?” I said as we slid the pamphlets under the last couple of doors in the hall.

“They’re mostly on the upper floors.  This one has a lot of offices and storage space.”

I paused for a second, then said, “Should we take the stairs or the elevator?”

“We could just take the elevator to the top floor, then work our way down with the stairs.  Easier to go down than up.”

“Works for me.”

I scanned my ID and pressed the call button for the elevator.  It took a while to show up, and five or six people poured out of it when the doors finally opened.  Kelsi and I were the only ones waiting to go up, so we entered, and she pressed a button on the panel inside.  The doors closed, and the elevator started ascending.

“Only eight floors?” I said.  “Not too bad.  We can probably get another hour and a half out of this.”

“Easily,” Kelsi said.

The elevator dinged as it hit the 7th floor, and dinged again when it hit 8, but it didn’t stop, and the doors didn’t open.  I shot Kelsi a confused glance, but before I had time to say anything, a “9” lit up on the display above the doors, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened.

“What the…” I trailed off.

I looked down at the button panel and noticed there was a space for a button above the 8, but the button that had been there was removed and the hole was taped over.

Outside, the hallway was lit solely by sunlight that was coming in through the common area windows, and there was a layer of dust that had settled and caked on the floor.

“Whoa, this is so cool!” Kelsi said.  “I didn’t know Terry had an unused floor.”

“Me either, but we should go back down to 8.”

“Come on, we can waste some time and look around first,” Kelsi said.

“Well…” I hesitated.  “Alright, but just a few minutes.”

We exited the elevator and walked toward the common area.  I hear the elevator ding and the doors close behind us, but didn’t really pay it a whole lot of thought.

“I wonder why this floor isn’t being used?” Kelsi asked.

“Beats me.  Maybe they just didn’t need it.”

The main hallway was dark due to going through the center of the building, so we stuck to the outer halls where there were windows.  We tried opening a few doors without any luck, but the fourth one we found, room 911, was already open.  I followed Kelsi in, but she stopped right inside the doorway, as it was too dark.

“Lights don’t work in here,” she said, flipping the switch up and down.

I pulled out my phone and opened the flashlight app.  The tiny LED cut through the darkness, but there wasn’t really a whole lot to see.  There were bed frames with no mattresses, a chest of drawers, and an open, empty closet.  Besides the dust, this probably looked like any other empty room in the building.

“Well, this is cool, but there’s nothing here,” I said, adjusting the strap of the messenger bag on my shoulder.  “We should go back downstairs and finish passing out pamphlets anyway.”

Kelsi nodded.  “Yeah, this is kind of disappointing.”

We made our way back to the elevator, and without really thinking, I pressed the call button.  We waited a few moments, but nothing happened.

“What’s taking it so long?” I said.

Kelsi pressed it again, and five minutes later, we were still standing there.

“Maybe it’s broken?” I suggested.

“I don’t-” Kelsi stopped mid-sentence.  “Oh shit, there’s no card reader.”

I immediately felt dumb.  Of course the elevator wouldn’t come without a proper card scan.

“Well that’s stupid,” I said.  “I guess they didn’t install them on this floor when Terry reopened.”

“How are we supposed to get down?” Kelsi asked.

“We don’t have much of a choice but to try the stairwell.”

Kelsi shrugged and checked her phone.  “We can always call Matt if we need to.”

“Matt will have to call the housing department or something to let us out of here.  We might get in trouble for being up here.”

“Well if that’s the only way out of here, it’s what we’ll have to do.”

I sighed; she was right.

We walked down the outer hallway again and passed by the room we’d gone into earlier.  There was a sign with a picture of the stairwell and an arrow pointing to our left.

“There it is,” I said.

Kelsi approached the door and pushed it with what was obviously more force than should’ve been required.

“Crap,” she said.  We weren’t really surprised that it was locked.  I mean, of course it would’ve been, otherwise students could climb the stairwell and get up here.  The lack of a card reader also wasn’t too surprising.

“I guess I’ll call Matt,” I sighed, pulling my phone out of my back pocket.  I found Matt in my contacts list and pressed his name.  After a few rings, he finally picked up.

“Hello?”

“Hey Matt, it’s Emma.”

“Oh, hey Em.  What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s a long story, but Kelsi and I have a huge favor to ask.”

“What is it?”

“We sort of accidentally got ourselves locked on the ninth floor of Terry Hall.  It’s like…abandoned.  There’s nothing here.  No card readers for us to scan ourselves out.”

Matt laughed on the other end of the line.  “Seriously?  Holy shit, that’s hilarious.”

“Hilarious?  I thought you’d be mad.”

“Did the elevator go there on its own?”

“Well, yeah,” I said.  “I mean, the button for the ninth floor was removed.”

“That’s what I figured.  Believe it or not, this happened a few times when I was working as a front desk assistant there.”

“And they haven’t fixed it yet?”

“Apparently not,” he said.

“Great.  So can you get us out of here?”

“Yeah, let me make a quick call to the administrative coordinator of that dorm.  I still have her number in my phone, so it shouldn’t take long.”

“Thanks Matt, we owe you one.”

“No problem.”

I hung up, sighed a breath of relief, and quickly recapped the phone conversation for Kelsi.  She rolled her eyes and pushed at the stairwell door one final time.

“Lame,” she said.  “What a waste of time.”

We walked back to the outer halls and stopped in the common area lobby near the elevators.  It would be dark in an hour or so, and I hated to think about being stuck there at night.  The sun’s light streaming through the windows was somewhat comforting in that regard, but knowing that it was fading, not so much.

My phone buzzed and I looked down at it.  “Dorm lady is looking for facilities dude.  They should be there soon.”

“Thanks, you’re the best, ” I texted back.

“Well?” Kelsi asked.

“Soon.”

There was nowhere to sit that wasn’t covered in dust, so we leaned against the wall by the windows and waited.  Kelsi was doing something on her phone, and in the meantime, without really thinking about it, I began staring off into space and pondering the situation.

Our school had a few urban legends, and some well-known abandoned buildings that students like to break in to explore.  I knew for sure that there was a huge classroom in one of the lecture halls that had been boarded up and closed for a decade, and students loved coming up with and spreading theories on why the school wasn’t using such a valuable space.  There was also the old geology lab, and the astronomy lab – both closed down and abandoned since the semester the new sciences building opened six or seven years ago.

I’d heard many stories of people sneaking in to the labs, the classrooms, and the maintenance tunnels that ran under the campus, but never had I heard a story about the ninth floor of Terry Hall.  It seemed odd that such a prime space for exploring would be left out of campus lore.

I decided to break the silence. “Hey, you ever heard any stories about people exploring up here?”

“No, but it sounds like Matt might know more about that than me, if other people have gotten ‘stuck’ up here before.”

She was right. I pulled my phone back out of my pocket and typed another text to Matt.

“Did many people get caught trying to explore up here on purpose? Seems like a prime location for it.”

I lowered my phone while waiting for a reply. Any minute, the elevator should ding, signaling our rescue, but with each minute that passed, I began to wonder exactly what was required for the facilities people to get up here, and why it was taking so long.

My phone buzzed in my hand. I glanced at the screen, saw that it was a text from Matt, and unlocked it.

“No, not really. I think people were a little too creeped out.”

I arched an eyebrow and typed out a response. “Creeped out by what?”

The screen displayed a notification indicating that Matt was typing a response. A few seconds later, his message popped up. “Wait, you don’t know about 9-9-99?”

I instantly grew very anxious, typing out, “What is that?”

I looked up at Kelsi. “Do you know the significance of 9-9-99?”

“Like nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine?” she said.

“No, like the date.”

“Oh,” she paused and looked up for a second. “No, I can’t think of anything.”

My phone buzzed with Matt’s reply.

“On September 9, 1999, 9 girls, each 19-years old, committed suicide on the 9th floor of Terry Hall in room 909 at 9:09 PM.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“What?” Kelsi asked. I handed her my phone so she could read the message herself. “Whoa, what the fuck!” Her eyes scanned the screen again. “That’s crazy!”

“How have neither of us ever heard of that? That’s a freaking statewide tragedy.”

She handed my phone back and said, “I dunno, but I really don’t want to…” Kelsi trailed off. “Wait a minute. Room 909?”

“Yeah?”

“What room did we go into earlier?”

“911.  I think 909 was one of the locked ones.”

My phone once again vibrated, but I was no longer anxious to read what Matt had to say. I looked at the text and read it in disbelief three times before Kelsi spoke up.

“What? What’d he say?”

“There’s more,” I said, a bit hesitant to read the text out loud, as if somehow that would make it more real than it already was. “He said ‘Then on October 10, 2000, 10 girls, each identified by their driver’s licenses as weighing 110 pounds, attempted suicide in room 910 at 10:10 PM, but one survived. After she woke up in the hospital a couple days later, she claimed to have no recollection of the event, and completely flipped when they told her she was the sole survivor of some suicide group. People that followed the case closely noted that she’d actually gained a little weight since getting her driver’s license, and her recorded hospital weight was 118 pounds.'”

“Is that it?” Kelsi asked.

“He’s still typing,” I said, glued to the screen despite my horror.

“Fuck, Em, this is some messed up shit…”

Another text came in. This time, I read it out loud immediately. “They doubted that she didn’t remember trying to kill herself, but then she admitted herself to a mental institution out of fear for her own life. From what I heard, she was terrified of having a suicidal split personality.”

Without another thought, I typed out, “Is that why they closed off the 9th floor?”

A few seconds passed, then my phone rang. I wasted no time answering it.

“Hey Em, this is easier than typing all of that crap.”

“Yeah, no problem, Matt. I’m gonna put you on speaker so Kelsi can hear you.”

“Yeah, no prob. So, after the 9-9-99 incident, they closed off room 909, but not the whole floor. Then after the 10-10-2000 incident, they closed off the floor and locked it down. I heard rumors that on November 11, 2001, they had guards posted all around the dorm, but nothing else ever happened. The 9th floor of Terry Hall has been closed ever since, except for the occasional elevator malfunction that lands a few girls up there.”

“How do you know all of this?” Kelsi asked.

“I’ve worked a lot of front desks in my day, including Terry’s. You hear a lot of shit, and have a lot of free time. We found out about this stuff from one of the facilities people and spent days talking about it and looking it up on the Internet. I found some weird occult sites that had a lot of this stuff on it, too. One of them said the girl that survived was ‘doomed to the Earth because of 8 pounds.’ Another said ‘it should’ve been done in 2010.'”

“Did you ever figure out what was up with the fascination on the 9’s and 10’s?” I asked.

“No, we didn’t,” Matt said. “I mean, we talked about it for a few days and then moved on. It wasn’t that big of a deal. That stuff was 11 years ago, didn’t really affect us more than it being fascinating, you know?”

Suddenly, the elevator dinged.

“Finally,” Kelsi said. “I was getting the heebie-jeebies up here.”

“Thanks for the info Matt, looks like our rescue party is here,” I said.

“Alright, later,” he said. “Be safe.”

I looked up and over at the elevator. The doors had opened, and there stood a group of confused-looking girls.

“Uh, what’s going on?” one of them said.

Kelsi sighed. “I take it you guys weren’t coming here to rescue us?”

“Whoa, is this the 9th floor?” another of the girls asked. One of them said something else, but it was around that time when I stopped listening.

I counted, then I double counted. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Nine girls. There were nine girls in the elevator.

But wait, I was just being paranoid, right? After all, it was November, not September. These couldn’t be the spirits of the girls from 9-9-99.

I closed my eyes and told myself to calm down.

My phone buzzed.

It was Matt. “Oh, weird. Today’s 11-11-2011.”

The hairs on the back of my neck raised, and my skin grew warm and tingly.

“Don’t step out of the elevator!” I shouted. “Hold it!”

Kelsi and I ran over and crammed ourselves in. One of the girls pressed the button for the first floor, and then some other floors, but the doors wouldn’t close. We could either stand in a crowded elevator, or we could step out and try to catch it if it went to close. It was like the thing was trapping us up there.

“Why isn’t the elevator moving?” someone mumbled.

It’s okay, I thought.  They obviously didn’t come here on purpose, so that means they didn’t come here to kill themselves.

But didn’t that one girl that survived not remember anything?  If she was telling the truth, then maybe she didn’t go there on purpose either.  It was no doubt some strange occult ritual, especially with the strange fascination with the numbers.  Something weird going on.

“Are there stairs?” a girl in the back asked.

“They’re locked,” Kelsi said.

Nine girls randomly showed up on the 9th floor.  Nine girls on November 11, 2011.  11-11-11.

Wait, there are 11 girls here, I forgot to include Kelsi and myself!

It was the 11’s.  11 girls, 11-11-11, and room 911 was the only one that was unlocked.

Holy shit.

“Kelsi, we have to get out of here, now,” I said.  “Before, 11 PM.  Way before 11 PM.”

I pulled out my phone and hammered out a few messages to Matt as fast as I could.  “Completely freaked out.  Still stuck here, now with more people.”  “Counting us, there’s 11 girls.  On 11-11-11.  Room 911 is the only unlocked door on the floor.”  “Matt, this isn’t a joke.  Please break into this building, knock down the door, do whatever you need to do to get us out.  I’m terrified.”

“Em, what’s gotten into you?”

“11 girls, on 11th day of the 11th month of the 2011th year, room 911 is the only open room.  You heard the stories, Kelsi.  Do you really want to be here at 11 PM?”

Her face started to drain of color.  “But I I love my life, I’m not going to commit suicide in some crazy occult ritual with you and a bunch of girls I don’t know.”

“What if it’s not suicide?  What if it’s more like a sacrifice?”  Kelsi remained silent, so I continued.  “The one girl that survived claimed to not remember anything about trying to kill herself.  Maybe she was hypnotized or something.  All I know is that I don’t want to find out the hard way.”

“Hey, what are you two talking about?” one of the other girls asked.

Kelsi nodded, completely ignoring the other girls.  “Let’s get out of here.”

We got off the elevator and faced the hall.  “We’re going to try to break down the stairwell door.  Come with us if you want to help.”  The girls in the elevator whispered and murmured, but didn’t move.

I walked over to the lobby area and grabbed the back of one of the old, dusty chairs.  It wasn’t particularly heavy, but it wasn’t light.  Perhaps it would make a good battering ram.  Without a word, Kelsi grabbed one too.  I guessed she’d caught on to what I was doing and wanted her own, or a backup.

7:30.  It would be dark soon.

We hurried down the hall with our chairs in town, dragging them behind us and leaving a trail of chair legs next to our footprints in the dust.  The stairwell door was there, waiting for us, practically taunting us.

“What do you want to do, hit it with the chairs?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “Whatever it takes.”

I left the chair behind me and examined the door.  It was metal, I guessed steel, and the hinges were on the other side.  There’s no way we could break the door.  Our only hope was to knock it off the hinges, but was that even possible for us?

I turned the handle and pushed, but it didn’t budge.  Frustrated, I shoved my shoulder into it and put every ounce of my body into pushing.

“Ugh,” I grunted, and without really thinking, lifted my leg and kicked the door right in the center.  My foot bounced off, and I fell back onto the dusty linoleum floor.

“This door isn’t going anywhere, is it?” Kelsi asked.

“I doubt it.”

Kelsi motioned me to the side and lifted her chair up.  I was momentarily shocked with how easily she’d lifted it, and even more amazed when she threw the thing at the door.

But unsurprisingly, the chair fell to the floor with a broken leg, and the door exactly as we’d found it.

“There has to be another way down,” I said.  “Another stairwell, some kind of maintenance passage… something.”

Kelsi’s eyes lit up.  “Wait a minute!”  She reached into her back pocket and pulled out her student ID card.  “This is an old door, so maybe…”  She pushed the card into the slot between the door slab and the frame, right where the handle was.

“What are you doing?”

“This was big a few years before we got here,” she said.  “My sister told me about it.  It’s why there’s metal plates on the doors on the other floors.  You can push the little latch thingy on the inside open with a card.”

“Is it wo-”

Click

“Holy shit,” Kelsi said.  “It worked.”  She pushed the door inward.

I hesitated.  “Should we go back for the other girls?”

“Do you really want to go back and risk something happening with the door?  We’ve got it open, so let’s just go.  We can make maintenance or someone at the front desk hurry the fuck up and send help.”

We ran down the stairs, past other girls, under flickering fluorescent lights, until finally, the first floor.

Freedom.

We’d made it out.  The fear evaporated from my body, and suddenly, anger replaced it.  I stormed up to the front desk.

“Excuse me, we’ve been trapped on the 9th floor for over 45 minutes.  Our friend called for help and said maintenance was supposed to be coming, but no one ever showed up.  What gives?”

The desk worker paused, seemingly analyzing the situation.  “So, were you locked out of your room, or what?” she asked.

“No, like, the elevator brought us to the 9th floor and wouldn’t go back down.  All of the exits were locked.  We had to break out through the stairwell door by pushing the door latch with an ID card.”

The desk worker raised her eyebrow.  “Was the card reader not working?”

“It’s the 9th floor.  You know, unused, unremodeled, top floor of this building?  Sitting up there collecting dust.  No one lives there.”

“Is this a joke?” she asked, a genuine look of confusion on her face.

My anger briefly subsided.  “What do you mean?”

“The 9th floor is remodeled, used, and is full of residents, just like every floor below it.  Are you talking about the 11th floor?”

“Terry Hall only has 9 floors,” Kelsi said.

The desk worker shook her head.  “I promise it has 11.”

“No, it doesn’t, it has 9 floors.  Everyone knows that,” I said.

“Look, I can take you in the elevator and prove it to you if you want.”

“You do that,” Kelsi snapped, obviously annoyed.

The desk worker rolled her eyes, got up, and led us to the elevator.  There, she pressed the button, and we waited for one to appear.  There was a brief ding, followed by a light above the elevator on the left.

“Hey, that’s the one, right?” I said.  “The one that was stuck up there with the girls in it?”

“Yeah,” Kelsi said, “Definitely.”

I instantly felt a little better about leaving them up there.  It looked like somehow, this elevator call had brought their elevator back down.

But the doors opened, and no one was inside.

The desk worker walked in, pointed at the button panel, and motioned us to look for ourselves.

11 floors.

I pulled out my phone to call Matt, just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy.  I unlocked it, and found that my texting app was still open to my conversation with him.  From yesterday.  Everything I’d texted him today was gone.

We never found out what happened to the 9 girls we left on the 9th floor.

March 28

Are you afraid of the dark?

There’s a light on down the hallway,

Piercing through the dark,

Its yellow glow creeps in my doorway,

Causing my thoughts to stop.

You see, a light would be so comforting,

Since I’m home alone,

But only if the power had not been out,

From the frightful passing storm.

February 21

Felicity

Back when my life was a constant repetition of school, sleep, eat, repeat, I knew a girl named Felicity. She was a quiet girl for years, but she came out of her shell in high school, and we became friends around that time. Not very close friends, not merely acquaintances; just friends.

I called her “F City” sometimes as a joke. It was her name minus a few letters, but she’d confided in me on more than one occasion that she liked to “fuck often, fuck many.” I wish those were my words and not hers, as her reputation was of being shy and sweet, certainly not a slut. So “F City” (Short for “Fuck City,” if you haven’t gotten that yet) was kind of a dual-meaning joke between us.

I personally didn’t care if she liked to sleep around. I was more interested in a relationship, and despite being a solid 8/10 in my book, she was not a monogamous type of girl. Not really what I was looking for, despite raging teenage hormones and all of that stupid bullshit.

I never outright told Felicity that, but I think she could tell, and that’s probably why she never came onto me. I’m pretty sure she would’ve, otherwise.

Toward the end of my 12th grade year, I was dating a girl named Emily, who was a much closer friend to Felicity. Emily wasn’t a typical high school gossip, but she did blab a little about Felicity to me on more than one occasion. It was through her that I found out Felicity had dropped ecstasy back in 10th grade, and it completely changed her. It was why she came out of her shell, and maybe also responsible for her other personality changes.

I wasn’t sure of the authenticity of Emily’s claim at the time – that ecstasy could change a person that much. But later I found out that ecstasy does sometimes have that effect on people. Makes me glad I’ve never messed with that stuff. Changing your whole personality? That’s scary shit, in my book.

Anyway, if you knew me, you’d probably be wondering how a person like me would be friends with a person like Felicity, and the answer to that question is actually pretty simple. My last name was Sawyer (which, incidentally, is what almost everyone called me by), and hers was Scott. Same grade, same classes, almost always alphabetical seating. She sat behind me nearly three-quarters of my high school life. And like I said, I wasn’t particularly judgmental about her lifestyle, and she didn’t give a shit that I was way more boring than her.

Being in classes together may have been the basis of our friendship, but at some point, it went beyond that.  I didn’t see her often after school or on weekends, but I hung out with her and some of her friends sometimes, which is more than I can say about other people I had a bunch of classes with.

Emily and I went to different colleges, but Felicity happened to pick the same college I chose. It was about two and a half hours from Emily’s, and the distance was too much for us. We broke it off on amicable terms after a few months, and agreed to stay friends.

Felicity and I didn’t talk as much after college started. When I saw her around campus, we’d stop and chat if we had time. She’d started dying her hair different bright colors, so it seemed as though every time I saw her, she looked a little more like a stranger.

Emily had lost touch with Felicity even more than I had, so when we talked, she’d sometimes ask me how Felicity was doing. I told her about Felicity’s hair, but there was never that much to say. Felicity had always been a strange combination of perky and dark, so it was sometimes hard to tell how she was without outright asking.

At the end of our first semester, I caught up with Felicity one day at the bookstore. I was looking for a book to read for fun, and she was looking for a book for one of her classes that she’d tried really hard not to buy, but ended up needing at the very end of the class. She seemed to have lost some of her perkiness, but she still talked to me like we did in high school.

“College has been hell on my sex life.”

“Seems like the opposite of what would stereotypically happen,” I’d say.

Her workload was heavy, and I suspected from her eyes that maybe she was doing drugs again, but I didn’t say anything. Stupid of me. Fuck, man.

We agreed to have lunch sometime soon, but it never happened. Finals came and went, as did winter break spent at my parents’ house, then the new semester reared it’s costly head.

Emily texted me for the first time in a while about a month after the semester started. She’d found something funny that reminded her of me in a coffee shop we used to hang out in, and of course, she had to send me a picture of it – a sign with an Internet meme on it.

That turned into us catching up, which eventually turned into a discussion on Felicity. Apparently Felicity had texted Emily something by accident – the phrase “behind Mackey’s at 11?” – that had gotten Emily worried. Mackey’s was a seedy bar in the worst part of town.

Emily was understandably worried, but out of some strange, stupid respect for Felicity’s personal life, neither Emily not I wanted to butt in. It was a very misplaced sense of respect, based on immaturity.

I texted Felicity during my conversation with Emily just to make sure she would respond. She did, and both Emily and I were relieved.

My schedule must’ve been very different from Felicity’s that semester, because I never saw her around anymore. I texted her every couple weeks just to check up on her, and she was less conversational with me each time. I had never been a bother to her, yet, I started feeling like one, so I backed off.

Emily and I kept in touch a little better during that time. She told me she was going to be in town and wanted to visit. I gladly accepted and offered Felicity dinner – my treat – to come hang out with Emily and me.

Felicity didn’t respond.

It worried me, and it worried Emily when I told her. So I pressed Felicity harder for a response by texting her another couple of times.

Six days passed, and still nothing.

I decided to call her the day before Emily was supposed to arrive. The operator message played in my ear, telling me, “The subscriber you’ve called no longer has an active account.” This was strangely relieving, but in those days just a couple years before social media blossomed, it meant I didn’t know how to get in touch with Felicity.

Emily reached out to others that knew Felicity, but none of them could get in touch with her. What else could we do at this point but give up?

Emily’s visit brought us pretty close. We talked about high school and how unfortunate the distance between us was. I still had feelings for her, and she for me, but the situation was so counterproductive to a good, healthy relationship.

She spent the night at my apartment, and we rekindled a little of the fire we once had. I really missed her, and that night made me realize that simple fact.

Emily left town after the weekend was over, and we talked every day after that.

A week passed, then a month, then two. I yearned to see her, and eventually caved and told her so. I hadn’t wanted to seem desperate or anything, I still loved her, and I needed her to know. I asked if I could visit her, and she flat out told me she knew why I wanted to, and that she’d love it if I did.

I visited, we confirmed that we’d try to make it work despite the distance, and started dating again. I was ecstatic.

The semester passed, and Felicity was rarely brought up. I never saw her, had no way to talk to her. What was I to do? If she wanted to talk, hopefully she still had my number.

It was just after winter break of my sophomore year that I saw Felicity again. I had walked off campus after class to go to a little sushi joint just a couple blocks away, and there she was, sitting outside, smoking what was left of a cigarette.

I barely recognized her at first. Her hair was stringy and oily, as if it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Even from the distance that I was standing, I could see the dark circles under her horribly bloodshot eyes. She looked to have put on 20 or 30 pounds, yet was clearly wearing an old shirt that no longer fit her.

When she stood up, I knew for sure it was her. Strangely, it was her frown that gave it away for sure. I’d seen it many times – the thin line of her lips pressed together, then scrunched to the side as she stared at her stub of a cigarette.

“Felicity?” I called out to her.

She looked up, noticed me, then looked back down. “Hey Sawyer.”

In her own way, she was happy to see me, but at the same time I could tell that she wished I hadn’t noticed her there.

I wanted to ask how she was doing, but deep down, I already knew. The moment I saw her, I remembered all of the opportunities I had to intervene, and then all of the times I’d talked myself out of it.

“You changed your phone number?” Such a dumb thing to say. I already guessed what had happened.

“Couldn’t pay my bill. They shut it off.”

Called it.

“That sucks.”

She just nodded.

It hurt to look at her. What kind of awful downward spiral was she in?

“Emily and I have been trying to get in touch with you.” I tried holding my tongue, but I couldn’t anymore. “We’ve heard some things. We were worried about you.”

She exhaled a cloud of smoke and directed her hellishly red eyes at me. “I’m fine.”

No, she wasn’t.

“How are your classes?”

“I dropped out.” She threw the cigarette on the ground and stared at it for a moment before stomping it out.

“Oh. You working here then?”

“Nope.”

Every trace of the person she used to be was gone. I could barely keep the conversation going, and it sounded like she wanted me to go away.

But I couldn’t give up on her. I felt guilty standing there, knowing I could’ve had some positive influence on her life, and yet, I looked the other way.

“What have you been doing with your life then?”

“What do you fucking think?”

Hearing those words, I wanted to cry. She’d never spoken to me like that before. The regret had welled up in me, and it needed to escape.

“Where have you been sleeping?”

“Wherever I can.”

Felicity desperately needed someone that cared, and it seemed like no one had for a long time.

“You can stay at my place for a little while, but if you do, you have to clean yourself up. No more drugs.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“I’m not offering you help. It’s just a temporary place to sleep and shower, with a condition attached. Take it or leave it.”

I was obviously offering her help. I just knew that I needed to make it seem like I wasn’t. I wanted her to feel in control. Maybe even convince her that she was taking advantage of me. Whatever it took to get her clean.

Felicity looked a little annoyed, but she was considering my offer. I knew she wanted it, but was she too proud to take it?

I pulled an index card out of my messenger bag and wrote my address on it.

“This is my address.” I handed the card to her. “I’m home after 6 every day. Come hang out if you want.”

I called Emily on my way home and told her what happened. Emily cried a little and told me I did the right thing. We both hoped Felicity would take me up on the offer.

She didn’t, and we never saw her again.

I was too late. I didn’t try hard enough. I could’ve taken her to a clinic. I should’ve been a better friend.

I thought about it for a long time, trying to figure out all of the things I could’ve done differently just so I could beat myself up with them. Both Emily and I were certain Felicity would turn up in the obituaries, but we never did see her there. We hoped she was alive and would come back to us one day, but that hope was small and ever-dwindling.

Emily and I never forgave ourselves.

December 27

Chapter 1 – Transfer Student

Waking up at 5:45 AM was a slap in the face, and had been every weekday since Ben had started high school.  He thought it would get easier with time, but every single day when his alarm went off, he moaned and tried to think of any reason he could to skip school.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like school; in fact, you could say that he liked it more than most of his peers, it was just the waking up at 5:45 in the morning that was so brutal.  His parents weren’t even awake when he left the house on most days, and they had work at 8.

Ben sauntered to his car, hopped in, and sleepily stared at the dashboard, just like he did every morning.  He was certain that he was fortunate for a 17-year old.  He had loving parents, great friends, and the car he was sitting in, but he would’ve felt so much more grateful for all of these things if he could just sleep until 10 AM.  Was that really so much to ask?

This was somewhat of a morning routine for Ben that some may have found bizarre.  He’d just sit in his car for a least a few minutes assuring himself that his life was great even though he wished he could be asleep for the next three and a half hours – all of this before even putting the key into the ignition.  Sometimes he’d imagine driving to school and being told that today was “nap day,” and that everyone could sleep until lunch time.

Ben’s phone buzzed in his pocket, breaking him away from his morning daydream.

“hey man, can you pick me up?  my car won’t start.”  It was Chuck, his best friend of at least seven years.

This was an odd departure from Ben’s normal morning routine.  He still hadn’t started the car, nor had he gotten to school and daydreamed about going back to sleep all over again while sitting in the parking lot.  But of course, Chuck was his friend, and he could spare the second round of daydreaming this one morning.

“caught me just in time.  headed to your house now.”  Ben put his phone back in his pocket and started the car.  It came to life without a fuss, and Ben mentally added this to his list of things to be grateful for.

Chuck lived a few streets over, and though carpooling every day would’ve been incredibly easy to coordinate, they both wanted to drive to school.  Their parents figured it was part of being a teenager, and if you’d asked either Ben or Chuck why they didn’t carpool, they would’ve hated to admit that it was for appearances, but there is no doubt that this was the real, true reason that two friends with the same schedule that lived just a few minutes apart did not carpool to school.  They were teenagers in high school, and appearances were everything if you cared about that kind of stuff.

In fact, Ben and Chuck went to a school that had a somewhat small student body, and most people that drove to school even knew other people by their cars.  Everyone knew that Heather drove a red sedan with a big dent in the rear passenger door.  Most knew that Jack had the brand new Scion tC, and that Kyle had that weird wagon with the rust on the hood.  This knowledge was accumulated merely by being another student that drove to school.  The already small school had an even smaller parking lot, so you could almost bet on which cars you’d see when you arrived, assuming you arrived at the same time most days.

“Morning dude.  Thanks so much for this,” Chuck said as he climbed into Ben’s car.

Ben shifted to reverse, and, without really thinking too much of this incredibly small favor, replied, “No problem.”

On this particular day, Ben had already deviated from his usual routine, which wasn’t a big deal and certainly wasn’t weird to any normal person, but it was out of the ordinary.  This made it slightly more strange when both Ben and Chuck immediately noticed a different car in the parking lot.

“Whoa, whose car is that?!” Chuck said.

Ben had already seen it before Chuck had said anything, and he was making every effort he could to not crash his own car while also staring at the brand-spanking-new C7 Corvette Stingray sitting in the student parking lot at his high school.

“Who the heck has enough money to buy one of those, much less drive it to school?” Ben said.

Chuck ignored the question.  “Holy crap dude, that car is beautiful.”

Chuck and Ben didn’t know anything about cars, and though they had heard of this car before and seen pictures on the Internet, they didn’t really know what they were looking at other than something that was aesthetically pleasing and certainly very fast.

Ben parked his car and Chuck practically jumped out, making a sprint straight toward the new Corvette.

“Be careful man,” Ben said as Chuck bent over to peer inside the passenger window.  “That thing probably costs more than your both of our families’ cars put together.”  It didn’t, but Ben wasn’t far off.

“Does someone at school have rich parents?”

“I think Jake does,” Ben pondered, “but his car is over there.”  Ben’s finger directed Chuck’s attention to a small, silver sports car with a Nissan logo on the front.

A few others had stopped to stare at the Corvette by this point, and Ben wasted no time asking them if they knew who it was for.  This proved fruitless, though, because this was undoubtedly the first time the car had shown up in the school parking lot, and no one had even seen it in town before.  Eventually, the small group of students had to give up and walk to school, despite their inner protests and curiosity.

“We have to figure out whose car that is,” Chuck stated.

Ben turned back to look at the car one more time.  It was the most interesting morning he’d had in a while, because nothing interesting ever happened at Peak Point High.

“We will.  There’s no way someone would try to keep that a secret.  Hell, I’d be boasting about it.”

Homeroom began at 6:45 AM.  The early start time had something to do with the schools in the district sharing buses to save money, but Ben didn’t particularly care about the reason so much as the consequence – that his alarm was set to 5:45 every weekday.  His favorite subject – biology – was right after homeroom, though, so at least he had that to look forward to.

Students didn’t get to pick their schedules; rather, they picked a few elective classes and were automatically assigned to core classes.  This meant that Ben and Chuck could only try to coordinate their schedules so much.  Last year, they’d been pretty unlucky, only having 2 of their 7 classes together, but this year, they shared every class except for one – 1st period.

The kids all filed into homeroom and took their respective seats, most of them looking equally as tired as Ben.  Mr. Jackson was normally up in front of the class by now writing an inspirational quote on the dry erase board, but as if following in step of everything else that hadn’t been ordinary this morning, both the quote and Mr. Jackson were nowhere to be seen.  Ben rested his head on his hand and read the morning announcements as they scrolled by on the TV above the board in the front of the room.  Bake sale, who cares.  Club activities, not in any clubs.  Football pep rally, didn’t really care about football.

Just before the final homeroom bell was about to ring, Mr. Jackson walked in with a girl in tow behind him.  Ben had never seen her before, but he was instantly drawn to her fiery red hair and soft facial features.  He took note that she appeared to have no freckles, which he found odd for a person with red hair, but he was sure she was just wearing enough makeup to cover them.

The teacher stood in front of the class moving his mouth and gesturing around the room, but the murmur of the students settling into their desks and getting one last round of chitchat in before homeroom drowned out whatever he was saying.

BBBRRRRRRRRRRRRNNNNNNNNNNGGGG

Ben hated the sound of the bell.  It was a digital audio recording of an actual school bell from yesteryear, and it bothered him that they didn’t make up a new, less annoying sound to signal the change of class since they weren’t confined by technology anymore.

“Alright class, let’s settle down and get to business,” Mr. Jackson said.  The red-haired girl was still standing to his side, and as focus shifted to her, she started glancing nervously around the room, as if desperately trying to find something to focus on that wasn’t focused back on her.

“First, I’d like to introduce you all to Aubrey.  Her family just moved here from up north, and she’ll be joining us from now on.”  He turned and smiled at her.

“Hi everyone.  Nice to meet you all,” she stated.

Ben was surprised when she spoke.  He was expecting nervousness in her voice, a stammer, a stutter, something.  Instead, she spoke with clarity and even a hint of confidence.  But why did she convey such a different tone through her eyes?

“Aubrey, would you like to tell us a little about yourself before sitting down?”

“Sure,” she said.  “My name is Aubrey Renee Wyatt.  I’m 17 years old, and I’m from Massachusetts.  My family moved here to South Carolina because my mom has a health issue that makes it hard for her to bear the frigid northern winters.”

Ben was listening intently, trying to figure out why he was so impressed with the way she talked.  She spoke well for a teenager, no doubt, but it wasn’t just that.  There was a calming nature to her voice, and Ben felt immediately as if she was probably an excellent singer.

“Alright Aubrey, thank you for sharing that with us,” Mr. Jackson said, turning to the class.  “I hope you all will make her feel welcome.”  He turned back to Aubrey and gestured over in my direction, saying, “You can have a seat right over in one of the empty desks near the window.”

There were only two empty desks in the class.  One was behind Ben, and one was on the side of him.  No matter which she picked, she’d be sitting by him.  This had the effect of making Ben feel as if it were his personal duty to extend a warm welcome to her, or perhaps that was what he convinced himself of since he really just wanted to talk to the beautiful, red-haired new girl.

Aubrey walked over and eyed both empty desks for a moment, then chose the one behind Ben.  It was a good choice, also the one he would’ve chosen.

Ben turned around and smiled.  “Hi Aubrey, I’m Ben.  If you need help finding anything or have any questions about anything, let me know.”  Aubrey had been casually smiling ever since she’d introduced herself, but as the words escaped Ben’s mouth, her smile morphed into a bigger one, lighting up her whole face.  Ben would’ve stared – captivated by this simple emotional display – but he didn’t want to freak the girl out or anything.

“Thank you, Ben!” she gleamed.  “I actually would really appreciate if you could show me where my second class is after this, if it’s not too far out of your way.”

Ben hadn’t expected her to actually ask anything of him.  He was really only thinking he’d get a “hello” and a nod.  Not that this upset him.

“Sure, what  do you have next period?” he asked.

“Algebra II.”  Her voice was soft up close, yet it still felt confident somehow.

“Cool, me too,” Ben whispered back.

Mr. Jackson had started writing on the board by this point, so Ben smiled and turned back around so as to not get himself or Aubrey in trouble.

Class was interesting, as Ben usually thought it was. He found the biological sciences to be fascinating, as well as earth science. Physics, not so much, but he wouldn’t have to deal with that as much until next year. This class period though, Ben was kind of absentmindedly daydreaming about the car he’d seen outside, and wondering what Aubrey was like.

When the bell rang, Ben quickly collected his things and turned to face Aubrey. She smiled at him and continued putting her things into her bag.

“Sorry, I’m unusually disorganized today,” she said.

“No problem,” Ben replied. “Take your time. It’s not a far walk.”

Externally, Ben was cool and collected. He had to look confident in front of the new girl, after all, but internally, he was struggling for the right thing to say. Here was a girl he knew nothing about other than her age and her name, what could he say? What could he talk about?

“So Ben, what kinds of things do you do in your spare time? Have any hobbies?” Aubrey asked.

Such an obvious talking point. How had Ben overlooked it?

“Yeah, I guess. Video games for sure. I like trying to to build things, too.”

“What kind of things?”

Ben mentally raced through the list of things he’d both successfully and unsuccessfully created as Aubrey packed the last of her things.

“I built a house for my dog a few years ago,” Ben said. “I also helped my dad rebuild an outboard motor once, but I was mostly just handing him tools and watching. I had no idea what he was doing most of the time. It was fun, though.”

“Oh, is your dad into engines?”

Ben was surprised she’d commented on the engine and not the fact that he had a dog.

“Yeah, he used to rebuild them for work.”

“Cool, my dad is into cars. I guess that means he’s into engines too? I’m not exactly sure.” Aubrey laughed as she slung her bag over her shoulder.

“He’d probably really like that new Corvette out in the parking lot.”

“The Stingray?”

“Yeah.”

“That…um…” Aubrey paused. There was an obvious uncertainty in her voice. “That’s actually my dad’s.”

At this point, they were in the hallway walking toward Algebra class, but that did not stop Ben from halting in his tracks.

“Holy crap, really?”

Aubrey looked a little embarrassed. “It’s his, but I promise I’m not bragging or anything.”

Ben smiled reassuringly. “Of course, I’m just surprised. What’s it doing here at school?” It was the best he could do to contain his excitement over finding out who the car belonged to, and on top of that finding out that it belonged to Aubrey’s dad.

“We sold my car before moving because it was old, and my dad didn’t trust it for the drive. Everything has been so hectic with the move since we just got here a couple days ago; I haven’t had a chance to find out how the buses work, much less get my dad to help me find another car.”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying that your dad let you drive his brand new Corvette to school?” Ben was having trouble hiding the incredulous undertone in his voice. “Oh my God, no way. That’s so cool. I know you’re not bragging and all, but I can’t help but be a little jealous.”

“I can let you look inside of it after school if you want,” Aubrey said. “No rides, though. Dad’s rules.”

“That would be awesome!” Ben replied. He’d never been inside of a sports car, and though the mechanics of it were lost on him, he was still excited to check it out.

“What’s your-” Aubrey began, but the sound of her voice was suddenly swallowed by a very uncomfortable, high-pitched noise over the intercom. Everyone in the hallway immediately covered their ears, and after a few moments, some even ran for the doors. Aubrey shot Ben a look, as if to say, “what the heck is going on?”, and all Ben could do was shrug and continue to cover his ears, just as clueless as the next person.

The noise abruptly stopped, and cautiously, the students and faculty in the hallway began uncovering their ears.

“What the heck was that?” Ben said. Both his and Aubrey’s ears were still ringing as the noise enveloped them again. This time, though, it seemed louder. More people began rushing for the exits. Some fell to their knees. No doubt, it was painfully loud.

“I…can’t…” Aubrey winced.

“What?” Ben said. He heard what she said, but he didn’t understand what she was talking about, or why she was trying to talk over the noise.

And that’s when Ben noticed that Aubrey’s bag was levitating. She was trying to hold it down as nonchalantly as she could, and while others may not have noticed, Ben was right there, and he did notice. He might’ve said something right then, even with the noise still assaulting their ears, but all of a sudden, every classroom door, every locker, every object with a hinge slammed shut.

Aubrey grabbed Ben by the wrist, and for a brief moment, she stared into his eyes. He’d seen her eyes earlier very closely, and they were warm, clear. Now, they were bloodshot and intense.

“Come on!” she yelled. “Take me outside!”

Ben didn’t know what was going on between the noise and the levitating bag and the slamming doors, but for some reason, it seemed like Aubrey did. He reversed the grip she had on him, and ran for the emergency exit instead of the normal doors that everyone else was using. Ben wasn’t particularly concerned about the emergency alarm going off at that point.

The emergency exit doors creaked and, despite some initial resistance, opened, finally allowing Ben and Aubrey to emerge into the back schoolyard. They weren’t free of the sound, but outside, it was much, much lower.

Aubrey, however, was breathing heavily, her eyes still bloodshot, seemingly freaking out even more than she was inside.

“Aubrey, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

She looked up, absolute terror in her eyes. “You…should run…” she panted.

“What?”

“Just get out of here!” she screamed.

“I can’t just leave you here when something is obviously wrong!”

“You don’t understand,” she said, her eyes still bugging out. “I might hurt you if you don’t!”

Ben was slightly taken aback. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s not on purpose!” Aubrey was growing frustrated, but what could Ben do? Just run away.

“I must outweigh you by 30 or 40 pounds, you probably couldn’t hurt me if you tried.”

“You don’t know what I’m capable…” Aubrey began, but as she looked up, the words froze in her mouth and transformed into, “BEN! MOVE!”

Behind Ben, the flagpole had slowly begun falling, and if Ben didn’t relocate himself within about 5 seconds, it would be falling on his head.

But 5 seconds wasn’t enough time to react. Ben turned around, 4 seconds left. Ben took notice of what was happening and began processing it, 2 seconds left. Ben started the muscle movements required to move his body out of harm’s way, no time left. He shut his eyes, braced for impact, prepared for what was surely death. 17 years old wasn’t long enough, what about his mom, his dad, his sister, his friends? His entire life should’ve been ahead of him, not behind him. It wasn’t fair, it couldn’t be happening.

And, in fact, it wasn’t happening. Ben realized it had been too long. The pole should’ve fallen by now, and if it had missed him, he should’ve at least heard it slam into the ground. He slowly opened his eyes, but he might as well have kept them closed, as he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“What…what is happening?” he said, bewilderment practically written across his face. The pole was less than a foot from his head, defying gravity at an angle to the ground that shouldn’t have been physically possible. He turned around to find Aubrey crouched down, one hand on the ground with the other in front of her, glaring fiercely at the pole.

Ben stammered, “W…what’s…going on?”

Aubrey moved her hand slowly to the side, then brought it down. The pole fell to the ground beside Ben with a thud.

“I’m back in control, that’s what.”

December 4

A Brief History of Henry

I had grand daydreams of traveling with Roxanne.  Vision of mountains and oceans and skies waltzed through my head as I sat at work each day, confined by cubicle walls inside of even more brick and mortar walls that blocked out more than just daylight and fresh air.  We’d been to the beach, we’d been to the big city, but we’d never been overseas.  We’d never left our little pile of dirt for a brief visit to another one.

“Hey Roxy, let’s go to Europe this summer,” I’d say.

She’d laugh and nod along with my idea, but we both knew finances were too tight and time off of work was hard to come by.  Besides, we were young and had plenty of time to go to Asia and South America and everywhere else that there was to go.  I was happy with her, and that was enough.

We had a vacation fund stowed away in an envelope in the closet that had “London” hastily scribbled across the front.  It had several hundred dollars in it, mostly from tax refunds and returned birthday gifts.  As it got fuller, I got more excited about our trip.  I’d been saving up my vacation days, telling everyone at work that I was planning on the trip for years and it would soon be happening.

But Roxanne approached me one day with something to talk about.  She was pregnant, which should’ve been joyous news and cause for celebration.  Except we always used protection.  Always.

“Henry,” she broke down.  “I know you know what I’m about to say, but I don’t know the words to say it.”

My mind went blank as I stared at the floor while she admitted everything.  My dreams were dashed, my hopes tossed aside.  She felt guilty, she was sorry, and I believed her.  She wanted forgiveness, and I loved her, so I wanted to give it.  But I knew better.  I could never trust her again, and without trust, love is but a word with little meaning.

I’d expected more from her, but I’d probably never expect anything from anyone ever again.

What Roxanne did destroyed me, but I was a stronger person than to let her poor choices send me into a prolonged depression.  I knew what I had to do as the best thing for me, as I’d sometimes dreamed of doing when work got really rough.  I went online, typed the word “state,” and then smashed my fingers into the keyboard, creating a 6 letter string of gibberish.  It was a quickly improvised, 21st century version of throwing a dart at a map.  The first result contained “Georgia,” so I called a real-estate agent, packed my bags, and traveled halfway across the country to my new home.

I chose to stay in a small suburb right outside Atlanta, mostly so I wouldn’t be too far from a major international airport.  For some reason, my dream of traveling hadn’t died along with any other future plans I’d had with Roxanne, but that didn’t mean it was any easier to save toward the trip, especially after moving expenses.  I made slightly less money at my new job after moving, but the cost of living was lower, so even though I ended up ahead at the end of the day, it wasn’t by enough to get excited over.

I made a friend at work named Jackie.  Her real name was Vietnamese and started with a P, but I won’t pretend like I remember how to spell it.  Her gentle eyes and long, black hair reminded me of a friend I had in high school that I’d long since lost touch with.

Jackie brought a considerable amount of joy into my life at a time when I really needed it.  We went out together often for lunch, and sometimes she invited me to hang out or for get-togethers with her other friends.  I could’ve and would’ve fallen for her if she hadn’t been a lesbian.  She’d make some woman really happy some day.

Saying goodbye to Jackie was really the only hard part of moving from Georgia to North Carolina the next year.  She said she’d come visit, but I knew how that went.  A couple of my friends had told me that when I’d moved to Georgia and I’d seen neither head nor tail of them since my going away dinner.

Since I hadn’t been in a rush to move this time, I drove to North Carolina over a long holiday weekend and scoped it out ahead of time, as well as a few places in South Carolina that happened to be along the way.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like Georgia, or that moving there hadn’t served its purpose.  Rather, I was ready to move again because it had served its purpose.  Thinking about Roxanne hadn’t made me feel sad or angry or anything other pity for her in a long time.  This time, moving was an adventure rather than an escape.

I rented a cabin in the mountains about 45 minutes from my job.  It cost a little more, but once again, planning ahead of this move had paid off, and I was able to secure a better job in a place with a similar cost of living.  There weren’t a lot of employees were I worked; maybe 12 total in the local office and 40 or 50 among all three offices.  Most of them had been there a lot longer than me, so I was relatively surprised when my manager offered a newly created managerial position to me that would oversee a new branch of the company.

I was torn, not because I didn’t want the job, but because the job was in Tennessee.  I could still live in the mountains, but I’d grown accustomed to my little rental cabin, and even developed a fondness for its quaint charm, despite its lack of modernity and the occasional bear treading through my backyard.  I took the job, not without quite a little mental battle, but in the end, the $15,000/year raise would’ve been too hard to turn down.

Moving reminded me of Jackie, but in the 8 months I’d been in North Carolina, I hadn’t really made any friends, so there were no difficult farewells this time around.  A sad smile spread across my face when I realized that I’d been right about Jackie never visiting.

Tennessee was pretty, but I didn’t like it.  Two months in, and I regretted the move immensely.  The scenery was almost the same, the job was almost the same, but I think something inside me snapped after so many moves.  I wanted to have a place to call home.  I knew there was logically no reason for me to dislike my new location, especially in comparison to my extremely similar previous location, but I hated it.  I didn’t want to stay there, but I would have to stay somewhere if I wanted a place to call home.

I still had the envelope Roxanne and I used for our vacation fund.  The ink in which “London” was written had smudged a little during one of my many moves, but I’d kept it all this time and continued adding to it.  It was maybe enough for a short trip in an economy hotel, if those even existed in London, but the allure had been fading for over a year now.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to London anymore.  I felt like I’d been traveling for years now, moving from place to place and never truly settling down.  I didn’t want to get away.  I didn’t want an adventure.  I just wanted a home.

I thought about moving back to Georgia briefly after some nostalgic thoughts about Jackie, but we barely even texted anymore.  It was a nice thought, but really the closest thing that felt like home was North Carolina, despite having only lived there for less than a year.  I finally decided to ask my boss if I could transfer back to my old job.  I’d accept the pay cut, the demotion, and any ridicule from my old coworkers.

“Sorry Henry, we need you at the Tennessee branch,” he said.  It made sense, and he had to say that, but I’m sure he knew very well that he’d probably lose me anyway if I was that interested in moving back to North Carolina.

My old cabin had been rented, but I found a similar one in the area and moved back as soon as I’d secured a new job.  The money was okay, but that’s not really what mattered.  It felt slightly like home, or at least it did more so than Tennessee, and that was acceptable, even though I was alone.

One weekend I went to the corner store and bought some rum from a local distillery.  I tasted it by itself out of curiosity, and then added some Coke to it after I was satisfied in confirming that straight rum was not for me.  It wasn’t often that I was drunk, mostly out of fear that I would like it, but I got drunk that night and texted Jackie.

“You should come visit,” I said.

“Okay.  How about next month?” she replied.

I was shocked.  Even through my lack of sobriety I remember the feeling as I read her text multiple times to make sure my state hadn’t altered my understanding of the words on my phone’s screen.  Despite our declining communication, she’d agreed to visit, and I was excited to rekindle a friendship that was frankly cut too short by my move.

The distance was driveable, but Jackie flew since it wasn’t that expensive and would be much faster.  I was kind of nervous picking her up from the airport.  We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, but I recognized her instantly when she exited the terminal.   She smiled and hustled over to my car.  Hugs were exchanged, as were happy pleasantries.

“I’m surprised you recognized me,” she said.

“Because you cut your hair a little?  It doesn’t make you look that much different.”

“I didn’t even realize my hair was shorter since you’ve last seen me,” she said.  “I meant because I’ve put on a little weight.  My most recent ex-girlfriend was a really good cook.”  We both laughed at that, and it was as if I’d never left.

She’d planned on spending a week with me, but it only took a day of being with her to realize that something was a little different about the way she was acting.  She was desperately trying not to be obvious about it, but I too perceptive to not notice that she was flirting with me.  I’d always thought she was gorgeous, so if there was a chance – even a small one – of something happening between us, at this point, I was willing to put myself out there to find out.

“What’s up, Jackie?  You’re acting a little weird.”

Her expression didn’t change.  “You’re more observant than I remember.”

“So what’s going on?”

She shifted in the armchair, though not uncomfortably.  Jackie looked at me straight with a confidence in her eyes.  “I knew what you were going through back then when you first moved to Georgia.  I didn’t want to say anything, so I didn’t.”  Her eyes bore through me.

“About what?” I asked.

“I haven’t been with a guy in over 8 years.  Never wanted to until I met you.”

“Until you met me?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said.  “I don’t want this to mean anything, and it won’t.  I just want to fuck you.  Not because you’re a guy, not any guy, just you.  I want to fuck you, just because you’re you. Then I want to go back to being friends, and back to looking for a woman to share my life with.”

I stared at her for a second before I busted out laughing.

“Well geez, if you didn’t want to…”

“No, no,” I interrupted.  “I’m just laughing at how serious you are.”

She looked a little relieved.

“…well?”

“You’re hot as hell, what do you think I’m going to answer?”

My week with Jackie ended up being a very interesting one because of that, but it is still the only time in my life I’ve ever been in that kind of situation.  I look back on those years of my life with a smile, because even though I never went to London, I did find myself and enjoy my life because of everything I already had.

I haven’t seen Jackie in decades, and I have no idea what she’s up to, but every day is still a beautiful day here in North Carolina.

February 25

Chance

I usually expect letdowns. It’s my life; I’ve long become accustomed to it, but again and again, I allow my hopes to rise and expectations to form.

Normally I’d call it a rookie mistake. Quite sad for someone who is hardly a rookie.

I am of course talking about a girl I met. Well, I didn’t technically meet her. I’d only seen her. Didn’t know her name or anything else about her, but she had an infectious smile with little dimples that perfectly framed her dainty nose. It was impossible to mistake her for anyone else, and yet, I’d seen her in at least three different places.

First, she was at a clothing store in the mall. A few days later, I saw her pumping gas, and then the day after, she was ahead of me in line at the book store.

Coincidences aside, I had a strange feeling about her. It was like we were drawn to each other. How many times had I passed her before with noticing?

But that smile – how could my eyes not be drawn to it?

I was never one to believe in fate. It’s a silly notion, really. Things cannot be destined. To suggest that my choices are already made before I am even presented with them removes any notion of choice, and to live in a world where choice and chance are illusions just seems depressing. So I chose to believe otherwise.

This girl, though… In a city of 80,000, what are the odds that I’d see her on three occasions in such a short period of time, much less the odds that I’d recognize a complete stranger. Could that really be chance?

But here I stand, thinking of this all in an instant, staring her in the face in my first class in the new semester.

I don’t know if this is fate or luck, but there’s no way I am missing this opportunity to make my own destiny.