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Life of A: Writer — Knock Knock

The rain comes down in droves, thick sheets, running icy claws down my back. It holds me in my place as if my feet have been frozen to the ground, melded, and it’s all I can do to breathe.

“Look, I know you were—are—a little skeptical about the place, but trust me when I tell you it’s all gonna’ work out.”

“I know,” I say. There’s nobody in a ten foot radius, but I can see him… Kam… He’s just dropped both his suitcases and taken my hands in his. I can feel him and I’m back to the day we arrived in Midnight.

“Chas, I mean it. It’s just different and different can be really good.” He pecks me on the cheek and picks up the suitcases again and I follow him as he leads me along the path, up the stairs of the porch and through the front door.

Following him is effortless, like holding a pen or breathing. I’ve followed Kam all my life, at least any time worth remembering. And he makes it so easy to find tranquility. Even with his hands full, he holds the door open for me.

“What do you think about going to the Midnight Haunt festival?” he asks, dropping the luggage and closing the door. “It’s an annual town outing to bring everybody closer.”

About to answer, I glimpse the photograph on the coffee table. I could have sworn we’d already gone to the festival. I remember there being a photo we as a family took. And I had placed it in that very spot. But with a closer look I see that I am mistaken. That photo’s been replaced with one from the Spring festival. Two children look back at me. Ren off a boarding school. Kam and…

“Rose…” I breathe and I can hear Kam question me from behind, but the moment I turn and repeat myself, it’s as if he’s been made of smoke and disappears from my very eyes.

My heart is in a race my brain struggles to battle and I pick up the photo from the table and get a better look. Rose. And I am brought back to reality.

Ears pricked, I catch the sound of water running upstairs.

Following the sound, I’ve made it to the master bath, dropping off the photo in my hands absently before I enter and as I push open the door I see Rose. Her body hidden by a mound of bubbles, eyes closed. She’s leaned back in a tub I can only assumed costed a fortune with buds in her ears and a glass of red wine by her side. She must feel the vibration from my footfall–I’ll be completely honest in that I haven’t been light on my feet since I entered–because she opens her eyes but a peek. In an instant her back’s rigid as a piece of steel and her fingers grip the sides of the tub.

“You!” she gasps, knuckles turning white as she tries to hold the tub down. It’s as if she thinks the tubs going to bolt off out the window. Or more likely, she’s shaking like mad and holding onto something, anything, to keep her grounded to some level. Too bad it didn’t help much. Her wine glass hits the hard floor and shatters.

I entrap her in a menacing stare and it seems to spook her. Frantically, she’s splashing around in the tub, hands outstretched, trying–and failing mind you–to grab the towel on the wall. Listening to her gasping and whimpering, I take a seat on the toilet and wait for her. She’s finally got a hold of the towel, wraps it around herself and tries to jump out of the tub. The moment her feet hit the floor, she almost flips backward into the tub again. Somehow balance is on her side and she’s upright, hands out in front of her and searching me, tracing me with bulging eyes, looking, waiting for my next move.

“You’re looking a little pale there, Ruby.” I’m waiting for her to correct me, tell me her name is Rose, but she does no such thing.

“Y-You stay where you are!” she orders me. “I mean it, I’ll call the cops!”

I raise my eyebrows. “Well, you are very good at that, aren’t you, Ruby?” I snap my tongue and look down at my nails. “To think I showed you mercy some time ago.”

“I mean it, I’ll call the cops!” she threatens me again, backing towards the door. “I will!”

“So you’ve said and I said you’re very good at that.” I watch as her hand goes behind her back and for the door knob. “But you know what I’m really good at? I’m good at dealing with fear, with anxiety. You know, figuring out how my brain works and how to cope with the hell people like you have sent my way. Like you right now, unable to comprehend why Chasity is cool and relaxed, controlled. But for the life of you, all you want is out of this very room and you can’t understand why the door knob won’t turn.”

Rose’s face drains of any colour she had left. I get to my feet again.

“It’s because it’s locked, because I locked it as you were getting that silly towel of yours.” I move in toward her. “And even though I’ve told you I locked it, you’re still trying to turn the knob, thinking for some miracle that it’s going to just prop open just because you want it to.”

Tears pour down Rose’s cheeks and I can hear the sound of her still trying to knob.

“But that’s always who you’ve been, now isn’t it, Ruby?”

I hear the faint click of the door finally unlocking and she pulls it open. I can see relief on her face before she whips around. The sound of the sigh that escapes her lips. I grab her by the shoulders and haul her back into the bathroom. She screams at the top of her lungs, kicking her feet and flailing her arms. My strength overcomes her and she begins babbling, sobbing, telling me how sorry she is and that she’ll never do it again.

“Well,” I say through a grunt, “let me just get on with what I want to do and I’ll take it into consideration.”

“No, no, Chasity! Chasity, please!”

I’ve dragged her back to the tub and slammed her front side against the rim. She cries out. I hold in some of my own as I step on broken glass. But I’m not giving up. I grab both her shoulders and push her face down toward the water inside the tub. She’s fighting back with all her strength, a lot of it coming from her neck.

“Chasity!”

With all my might, I put one hand against the back of her neck and the other against the base of her skull and force her into the water. Head under, her arms begin a spastic swirling motion, fingers trying to find purchase on something, anything that will bring her head above the surface. Under me, I feel as she kicks back, her back side like that of an angry bull.

In what feels like hours, there is no fight left in Rose’s body. She’s dead weight, literally and I loosen my grip of the back of her head. As I pull away, a ball of hair in both my palms, Rose drops to the floor hard.

I’m back in the bedroom and my focus is back on the photograph from the Spring festival. I pop open the back and slide the photo out from its glass protector. There’s a Sharpie next to a calendar on the wall and with it I scribble out Rose.

“Chas?”

I glance over my shoulder and see Kam. “Ah, honey,” I say, looking back at the photo as I put it back in place. “Looks so much better, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Where’s Rose?”

“On the floor,” I tell him matter-of-factly. “I can’t say I approve of the rearrangements she inflicted on the place. I guess it can always be changed back–” I stop as I see Kam through the mirror in front of me. He runs into the bathroom in a panic, mumbling and babbling on.

“What the hell did you do?” he asks me and I finally get a good look at his face. He’s horror-struck, eyes wide and rolling with barely-controlled panic.

I walk up to him–he’s in the door frame of the bathroom. “What did I do?” I ask, now a foot from him. I run a finger up and down his silk vest, along his cotton shirt. “This all started with you. All that time in that horrid place you stuck me…” I glance at Rose and back again. “Where you both put me. I had lots of time to think. ‘Why’d he do this to me, why’d he cheat?'”

“What?” A glimmer of confusion washes over his face and then he shakes it away. “No, we need to call the authorities. Maybe she can be helped–“

I stop him by pushing him against the frame. “And I realized, that’s just who we are. You’ve spent all this time helping me control my own demons, that to balance it out, you sought refuge by being uncontrollable yourself. And that made me so happy, that you would fight for me so much, no matter what it did to your image. It’s beautiful. So when you ask what I did, I only have one answer: I fought for you.”

“You’re insane,” he says, pulling back. He shrugs out of my grip and begins backing away. “You’re insane!”

“No, I love you, Kam. And you love me.”

“I don’t. I don’t even know who you are anymore and I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you’re not Chasity.”

“Of course I am, silly. Who else would I be?”

Kam’s face twists. “I’m calling the police.”

“Honey,” I say softly. Why is he getting so upset?”

“No, don’t ‘honey’ me!” He’s dropped down to Rose’s side and tries to shake her awake, her head bobbing. I can’t hear what he’s saying, he’s cooing into her ear, begging her to wake up.

Pressing my lips together, I can tell they’re forming a straight line so white with tension they’re barely visible. What is he doing? I’m right here! Rose is gone and he still chooses her? As Kam pulls out his cell phone, tears running down his face, my hands clutch so hard my nails make my palms bleed. See the numbers her dials–three of them.

“No,” I whisper.

“I’d like to report a murder.”

“No,” I say, this time a little louder. How can he choose her? She was just some whore.

Kam’s straightened up and passes me, heading to the hall, still speaking to the person on the other end of the line. “51 Breach Bend.”

“No,” I say even louder, now following him, hoping he will give me at least some attention. He won’t even look my way. And he walks out of the bedroom. “NO!” I finally scream at the top of my lungs, grabbing the axe he still has hanging on the wall.

When I was young, my mother once told me when I broke her favourite vase–handed down from her great grandmother, to her grandmother, to her mother then her–that she was blinded by rage. Being six years old, I could barely fathom the saying used, let alone the emotions she was feeling. But now I can. It’s like somebody has doused my entire innards in gasoline and lit a match. Deep from the pits of my stomach and clawing at every part of my body. Through my veins, between my toes and across my eyes. All my senses are null and void except for feeling and that pain is indescribable. So hot is could be considered blistering cold. So hard it could be sharp. And then there’s a moment where I feel nothing at all. Numb from head to toe. Geared into auto pilot.

He doesn’t see the first swipe coming. It catches him in the arm and he yelps, spinning around, losing his phone. I spot it as it falls over the railing to the floor below. Kam, eyes round and bulging, clutches his arm. I may see his pain and confusion on his face. His fear growing at a rapid speed. But my arms are already up, his axe tight between my white-knuckled fingers and his mouth drops open, ready to scream for his life. But it’s too late. I yank down with all my might.

Kam crumbles to the floor, his momentum propelling him down the flight of stairs. I try to keep a hold my the axe, but it’s too much. It’s too wedged to come out easily. Kam’s tumbling, around and around, and he finally hits the bottom, still rolling, until his back hits the front door, stopping him.

Making it to the bottom myself, I can see Kam’s just holding on. Eyes just slits, his brain unable to comprehend what’s going on. I close the distance between us and kneel down, putting my hands around his neck. His breathing is heavy, hard, fighting for every intake.

“I did everything for you,” I tell him softly. “I moved to this hell of a place for you. I supported you every step of the way. I dealt with your ex-wife because you were never around. I even showed that I could have mercy for both you and that whore you sob over.” I tilt his head so that if he can still see and hasn’t been blinded by rage or pain, he can see my face. “I could have loved you. I’m just sorry you couldn’t see that.”

Standing, I grab the handle of the axe and pull hard to unwedge it.

Sirens can be heard in the distance, flashing lights between the houses as I glance outside. Axe in my one hand, I grab Kam’s phone with the other. I make it to the dining table and notice the photo of all of us that is still used as his wallpaper. It was taken that Snowflake day we all spent together. The day Rose entered our lives. Remembering she’s upstairs, I force myself to focus on something else. Like my happy family. How they’re going to learn about all that happened here today. How they’re going to react. How I’m probably never going to see any of them again. The photo begins to blur as tears pool in my eyes and I can’t do anything other than let them fall.

The moment the first tear falls, it’s all over and I can’t stop. I worked so hard the moment I came to this place to change my life, to pull a mask over all the fear and vulnerabilities I had encountered in my past. I came so far, until that hell grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me back in. If it weren’t for my children, I’d have thought I won. But now, looking at them, I realize maybe I didn’t win. Maybe I never got further than I thought. Maybe I just transformed into the very thing I was trying to run away from.

Hatred.

The police have arrived and there is pounding at the front door. I don’t move because all I can think about is the last thing I heard Mother say before I tore away from the party…

“You can’t run away from who you are truly meant to become.”

I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then the door is broken open and I slip into darkness.

The nurse watches from the hall, a clipboard in her arms, jotting down notes as her heart felt as if it were squeezed by unseen hands. The young man hovers over his wife, unaware of being watched, hands on the grey cotton of the hospital gown, occasionally running gently through the strawberry locks of Chasity Lennox.

“Did you hear me?” the nurse’s leader says, bringing her attention back to the present.

The nurse shakes her head. “Sorry, my head’s somewhere else.”

“Clearly,” her boss says. “That’s not a good thing. If you want to be a nurse, you’d better get into the game. No patient wants to hear that your head’s somewhere else.”

The nurse nods and then glances back at the man and woman. “Does he really come in every day and just sit next to her?”

“He loves her so much,” the nurse’s boss says, putting her stethoscope around her neck. “She’s been in the coma for almost a year now.”

“A year?”

The nurse’s boss smiles joylessly. “Just moved to Midnight, went to the Fall Festival and”–she makes a gesture with her hand–“out. Panic attack that went beyond bad. Poor thing, though I can’t help but envy her. My hubby won’t bother his backside like this man. Mine probably think it a get-outta-jail-free card.”

The nurse gave a small knowing laugh for the air went still between them and took in the same picture.

Finally, the nurse’s boss sighs, breaking the silence and hands the nurse a list of her next jobs. “At least she’s got him. Come on, Nurse Thorn, we still have things to do.”

“Right behind you.”

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Life of A: Writer — Tick

March 13 – Daylight

I’ve just arrived at the institution. Two men with the strongest of arms hold me as if I am some criminal and then pass me over to a pair of doctors in purple shrubs. I have just come from the police station where I’ve been in holding for I couldn’t say how long. I lost track after passing out from exhaustion. When I awoke, I was told by the authorities that I was being moved to a psychiatric facility. Since then I have been trying to convince them that they are wrong, that they needed to keep a lookout for that horrid group of monsters Mother led, but everybody shrugs it off as hogwash and I look like I deserve where I am headed. Before I was shipped off, I was finally, after having asked countless times, told who committed me. It was Kam. He said I have been losing grip with reality for many years now. Kam…

March 25 – Sunset

I’ve decided to take a step out of my room for the first time since I arrived. The floor is open for all patients to move around as we please. Dinner is at six in the cafeteria, though most of us grab our food and find a quiet corner because the cafeteria smells like rotting eggs and sour milk. Usually, I just wait in my room for one of the doctors to bring me a tray, knock on my door and leave my food on the floor. But the man who usually does it, told me earlier that he wouldn’t anymore because he refuses to encourage my distance from people. Hmph! I shouldn’t be surprised. It sounds like another Kam tagline if I’ve ever known of any. He didn’t drop off my breakfast, refused lunch, and now I am starving. I guess I should at least try.

April 9 – Early Afternoon

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

This facility is my prison. The shelves are bare, the air is cold. The sound of an old grandfather clock at the end of the hall echoes through the building as if the walls are made of steel. At one in the afternoon, management plays dated folk music from what I can only assume is Russia from a record player with the large horn-like speaker on it. This lasts for maybe thirty minutes if we are lucky and we are expected to get up and moving whether it be dancing or exercise. A young man–he can’t be older than twenty-five–asks me to dance. His unique footwear captures my attention more than anything and before I can answer, he’s pulled me to my feet and we dance. He tries to start small talk while we dance either nod or shake my head here and there. He also asks me if I have anybody at home waiting for me. I tear up thinking of my children. How I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my sons or my daughter. My parents. And as much as I hate to say it, to Kam. He asks me again and I tell him about Kam and as I do, I watch his face become grotesque.

“I thought you liked me!” he screams at me.

Confusion takes me aback. “What?”

“You said you’d dance with me! You like me!” My arms closed inside his palms, I can feel his anger erupting. Then he pushes me to the floor. “Me!”

My eyes wide, I watch as the young man is grabbed by a couple of doctors. He’s still screaming at me at the top of his lungs, spit arching out of his mouth with such ferocity that I have to lean back more in case I may get hit. The doctors drag him into his room and lock him inside and the music is turned off and all I can hear now is the ticking of the grandfather clock and the thumping of the young man’s head against the wall.

April 15 – Late Morning

Tick, tick, tick.

We have a new patient. She says her name is Taylor. Actually, to be more precise, she goes by Taylor Swift. She’s not Taylor Swift and anybody with a pair of eyes can see it, but she believes she is and probably the reason why she’s been dropped off like some litter of pups. I push myself to say hello to her. Being so into myself since I arrived has put distance between me and the others here and the little outbreak between me and the young man–I still don’t know his name–has left me feeling rather lonely. Unfortunately, either Taylor here has already heard the news about me or is as distant herself. She tells me she knew I was trouble when she walked in and she actually tried to sing it.

“Excuse me?” I say.

“You need to calm down, you’re being too loud.”

What? I didn’t yell or anything. What is she talking about? “I haven’t–“

“Now we’ve got bad blood!”

I get so flustered, I throw my hands in the air and go to my room for the rest of the day.

After dinner, it’s our responsibility to clean our own dishes. The process should take each of us five minutes max. However, like every other night, there is a long line from the sink because one of the patients–I think his name is Rafael Striker–can’t stop oogling at himself in the mirror. Everybody waits patiently behind him, tapping their toes until he finally brings his show to an end. A few weeks ago one of the new patients told him to hurry up. The patient was then taken to medical after one of Rafael’s violent personalities came to the forefront. I had hoped that I could have gotten to the front of the line right as dinner was over like I usually do, but I didn’t want to be caught in another sing-off with Miss Swift.

Once we have finally finished the dishes, everybody is brought to a straight line where management counts all the utensils to make sure nobody has run off with a knife or fork. Hell, even a spoon can be used to scoop out one’s eyeballs.

“Twenty, twenty-one,” the one doctor at the front of the room says and then looks up at the line. “We’re missing one knife.” We all know what that means: whoever has it should step forward because nobody’s going anywhere until that one knife is found. “Look, we can do this the easy way and move on. Or we can do this the hard way.”

There’s a groan that starts from the one end of the line and manages to make way all the way down to the other. We all know what the hard way entails: a complete and meticulous search of our pockets and clothes and anywhere on our bodies where we can hide a thing or two.

“The hard way,” the doctor continues, “is unpleasant for everyone.” There’s a giggle from the other end of the line. “Well, mostly everyone. So whoever has it, hand it over.”

Nobody moves and the doctor then warns us again before counting down from three. Right as he hits zero somebody steps forward from the line with their hand outstretched revealing the knife. As I focus on them, I realize that it’s Taylor.

The doctor grabs the knife from her hand and says, “Your reason for taking it?”

“Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane.”

The doctor rolls his eyes. “Of course they will.” Even he looks like he’s had enough of her. Before he can dismiss us, Taylor glances down the line at me, cocks an eyebrow and says, “It’ll leave you breathless
or with a nasty scar.”

April 16 – Morning

There’s a knock at my door and I am expecting it to be my “wake up” and that breakfast is in half an hour, but usually there is one knock along with one of the doctors yelling in the hall. But this time there are multiple knocks and I have to get out of bed and open the door for it to stop. When I do, I see Taylor on the other side of it, a horrible grimace on her face and what looks like a monster behind those bright blue eyes of hers.

“Get lost, Taylor,” I tell her and try to push the door closed on her. She catches it, though, and jams the bottom with her foot in case she loses grip.

“This ain’t for the best, my reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me.”

“Whatever.”

“Just think of the fun things we could do, ’cause I like you.”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” a woman says as she steps into view. She’s an older woman, could pass as one of the orderlies. However, her lack of scrubs makes me think differently and the two men behind her–two other patients mind you–confirm my hunch. She taps Taylor on the shoulder and directs her to leave the room. Taylor obeys her like a dog and then it’s just us inside my room.

The woman introduces herself as Jackie Collins. No, she is not an orderly. Yes, she is a patient, and she has been inside for many years. She also tells me she’s can be quite the asset. It’s a lot to process, especially first thing in the morning and when I question her, she’s already heading back through the door.

“We’ll talk soon,” she says from the hallway and then all I hear are her footsteps going down the hall.

April 20 – Lunchtime

I hunch over my plate of beans and toast by myself at a table at the back of the cafeteria. After Taylor’s little stunt with the knife, nobody’s allowed to eat anywhere else. I poke the beans with my fork. I’m not hungry, though I think it has to do with the fact it’s almost been a week since I met Jackie more so than the quality of the meal, which is a bit too grey for my liking. To this day I haven’t even seen Jackie let alone spoken with her.

Taking a deep breath, I push my plate away and lean back in my chair. Taylor’s at the front of the room, a guitar in her arms, playing some song I’ve never heard before and attempting to sing it. I’m assuming it’s another Taylor song and from the reaction of the men and women around her, she’s butchering it.

Maybe this Jackie woman really was an orderly. It would explain why I haven’t seen her in days and why Taylor did as she asked with a snap of the fingers. Maybe this Jackie is the head of the facility. Just the thought makes my insides burn and I fist my hands. Comes into my room and gives me some false sense that she can be an asset? What even did that mean? An asset? What–to get my dishes cleaned first so I don’t have to wait for whatshisface to stop playing around with the sink? Just thinking about it annoys me so I get up and head back to my room.

As I am leaving I hear a loud crash. Behind me, Taylor is looking horror-struck at her guitar in shambles on the floor. Another patient–it’s the man I danced with weeks ago–holds what’s left of the handle.

“Look what you made me do!” he says to her mockingly.

April 21 – Afternoon

Opening one eye while I attempt to meditate, I spot Taylor rummaging through the garbage, a glue stick in one hand and whatever pieces of her guitar she can find with another. Each time she finds a piece, she tries gluing it back together again. The glue won’t hold, though, which leaves Taylor going from a breakout of sobs to a determined will to make it work within seconds.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” I jump as the voice comes out of nowhere. Behind me, Jackie hovers, her hands against the back of the bench where I sit, looking at Taylor. “That glue can barely hold two pieces of paper together and she’s putting all her faith in it to bring a couple dozen pieces of wood back to its former glory. Just goes to show what this place is capable of.”

I turn my attention back to Taylor who’s gotten so frustrated she’s glued everything she’s found into one ball of trash. Jackie takes a seat next to me.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I told you the other day, I’m Jackie Collins.”

“No, who are you exactly? Are you an orderly, are you the head honcho of this place? You come to my room out of nowhere and hussle Miss singer-songwriter over there out of my face–“

“I’m just a patient like you,” she tells me.

“Then why haven’t I seen you before? Why haven’t I seen you since last week? You’re not at meals or anything!”

“Because I was out.”

I squint at her. “Out where?”

“Just out,” she says simply. “It happens occasionally. I can slip past the doctors and enjoy my time in town.”

Her confident smile makes me wary. “What?”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m usually found by the time the sun rises and I am hauled back inside, slapped on the wrist and told not to do it again. Then I play their games for a week or two and then when everybody thinks I’m in a good place, I find a way to the outside again.” She looks me up and down. “Told you I could be an asset.”

May 5 – Dinner

It’s been a couple of weeks since I first spoke with Jackie. I’ve learned a bit about her, but not much. She’s pretty locked up, although what I have learned is that she’s a very capable woman. She’s been locked up here for a very long time and looks to someday be free completely. It sounds like a complete cliche story if you ask me and one that is hiding the real one, but that’s the story she is trying to sell so I don’t question her on it. To be honest, we’ve spoken more about me in our time together. Where I’ve come from, how much I’ve learned. I talk a lot about my family and how much I miss my children and want to have them back in my arms. I also miss Kam. Each time I bring Kam up, she tells me that I am a fool for wasting my time with such a man.

“He’s the one who locked you up in this place!”

But I don’t believe it. I try to convince her that he’s under that Rose girl’s spell, that he’s never been good at looking to the future and foreseeing the consequences of his actions. At this point, Jackie shakes her head in agitation and silences me by changing the subject. This time I stop her.

“If he knew this is where I’d end up, he wouldn’t have committed me. If you could have seen him the night the police came… He was put on the spot and panicked. He’s not a bad man–“

“Do you hear yourself? Your husband put you in here so you weren’t a problem to him anymore–“

“No, no, I don’t believe that!”

“–he was your rock, he fixed many of your problems and then he got tired of it and when the new model came into play, he went for it.”

“That’s not how it happened!”

“You think so?” Jackie smirked so harshly she looked more like an enemy than a friend. “If I got you out tonight, could you prove it?”

A long conversation follows and we end up deciding that I am leaving tonight. Jackie tells me how she wants to do it and then we wait for our opportunity.

Once dinner comes to a close, everybody gets up and heads to the sink where Rafael has made it there first. He’s being extra exuberant tonight and Jackie, who’s in front of me in the line, whispers something in the man’s ear in front of her. With a closer look, it’s the man I danced with. The man’s face lights up with excitement and he pushes past everybody in line to the front where he begins talking to Rafael. Rafael gets upset and a fight breaks out between the two men and patients gather around the brawl. Men and women holler at the top of their lungs, some scared, others enthralled with the excitement. After a few minutes, two orderlies barge through the door and push through the crowd and try to break the two up. I’ll hand it to Rafael, while he seems like a friendly guy at first glance, he’s a beast with his fists. It takes both orderlies to pull him off the other man. But the other man isn’t finished. Like the time we danced, something sparks inside him and he’s off the rails, spewing profanity at the top of his lungs and he lunges back at Rafael and all four of them are on the floor, the orderlies calling for help.

Amidst the chaos, Jackie’s managed to snag one of their key cards from their belt and in a swift motion has it in my hands where I know I need to move fast. I’m at the door to the room in three long strides and right as I go for the handle, two more orderlies have barged inside. They don’t spare me even a look as they rush by and I slip into the hall.

I am able to bypass all locked doors in my path and before I know it, I am out the front door.

And I am running, running as fast as I can in the only direction I can see lights coming from. I don’t know where I am going, but I do have the strange sense that I did the night I ran from Mother’s followers and just like then I refuse to stop. I have to keep moving because if I don’t, it won’t be long before I am caught. I can’t be caught. I won’t let that happen. Not until I prove to Jackie that she is wrong about Kam.

It starts to pour as the sun rises. If there is any time I could be caught it’s now. This is when Jackie said she always was. The sweater I’ve been wearing for so long is drenched and torn so I pull it off and leave it on the ground.

And somehow I make it. I am back at my house.

I’m ready.

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Life of A: Writer — Sob

My body refuses to react while my mind has already taken fifteen laps around the property. Blood in wineglasses are raised for the one they call Mother. A dead body inches from my face. A sheet that has been covering my very eyes from the moment my family and I stepped foot into this town being pulled away and I am slipped into the place of nightmares. I have to admit, I never saw this coming. Thinking now, I would have imagined a whole bunch of other things. Gang violence, men and women in the drug trade, serial killings the police were keeping covered for their own benefit. Hell, even aliens would make more sense right about now and I could at least digest that. But never that I would be sitting around a table with people readying themselves to stick a fork into the man that was found at City Hall months ago.

Finally, my body reacts and I am up on my feet, knocking my chair backward and Mother–glass still raised–stops midsentence, shocked and appalled. I don’t wait for her response. I can already tell from the men and women on both sides of the table that my interruption should never be considered again and that Mother is about to give me a good lashing about respect and that this cult does not allow for outsiders to step in like they own the joint. Yes, I said it! A cult–that’s exactly what this is!

I am running out the door in seconds, the dining room turning to chaos as Mother hollers for the others to catch me quickly. As I am down the stairs of the front porch, I can hear the thunder of footsteps pummelling the floor behind me. Somebody shrieks–an attempt at a war cry–and he lands on the ground feet to my right. I twirl of him immediately, grabbing a branch from the ground. It’s Morgan, hands at the ready, waiting for me to lower my guard so that he can grab me.

“There’s no point in running.”

I glance back up at the porch. Mother is standing with her arms over her front side, leaning up against the nearest banister, her cronies gathering left and right. I don’t reply. I take a step back, checking where Morgan is in relation to me and seeing that he hasn’t moved. No, he’s readying himself to pounce the moment I let my guard down.

“You can’t run away from who you are truly meant to become.”

I notice Morgan try to step toward me and with all my might, I slug him in the side of the head with the branch. Then I flee.

I don’t know how far I’ve traveled or how long I’ve been running. Moisture from the damp ground wets my toes of my sandals and the temperature has dropped considerably. Even breathing has become too much of an effort and it’s like needles are in every breath I take. I don’t stop, though. Where am I going? Where am I going? I can’t go home. I left my car back at the party and there is no way I am going back to get it. Not now, especially when finally, after what’s felt like hours, the men and women once calling my name has since disappeared. I decide to rest for a moment, finding the biggest tree and dropping to the ground behind it. I am drenched in sweat, shivering, on my hands and knees. What little moonlight comes through the intertwining branches above aids the sight of my surroundings and any pursuers, yet it does very little to aid my rising hysteria. I want to scream at the top of my lungs, though I know it will reveal my location in case anybody is hot on my tail. Instead, I curl up into a ball on the ground, cover my face and sob. I want to do this for as long as I need to, hours if I can, but I know I don’t have that kind of time. I can only imagine what Mother’s people are cooking up, where they are.

And suddenly, I wonder if this is what happened to John Doe that horrible night before he was found at City Hall. Was he too invited to a gathering where instead of agreeing to Mother’s way, tried to get as far away as possible and got caught before he ended up getting help?

Just the thought alone has me back on my feet and I am moving again.

I make it out of the other side of the woods to the street and hail a cab. I just tell the driver to drive with no decision where to go. I could speak with the cops, but after my last talk with them and calling them repeatedly about my belief that Kam was missing, I doubt they are going to be too willing to help me so soon. I know that’s their job, but when one cries wolf…

Then a thought hits me. Kam! I give the driver directions to the area of Rose’s apartment. I can’t remember where it is exactly, but if I can just get to the general area… It’s not a far drive there, though a few minutes out, the driver gets a mysterious phone call and I don’t get a good feeling. Just the way he glances in the rearview mirror at me gets my heart pounding. Mother and her people wouldn’t have power over him, would they? I’m in no position to ask. I tell the driver that this is close enough, open the door, throw what little money I have at him and beeline down the sidewalk and through alleys to distance myself from him.

I make it to Rose’s apartment not long after. I have a stitch in my side, and getting up the stairs is more of a hobble. Being so close to safety has brought my hysteria down a bit. Not a lot but a bit. I check over my shoulder as I close in on her door. Nobody nearby. The area is silent and in the distance I struggle to see life. It must be late.

At Rose’s door, I knock. And knock. And knock. And knock and knock and knock!

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I say and thunder erupts above me and it starts to rain harder. I try the handle like the last time I came here. I’m not so lucky. Locked. I bang on the door more and with no answer, I decide to make my way down the walkway. Rose’s apartment is the last in the line and a railing stops me from going any farther. There is a small path on the other side though, probably for maintenance workers. I climb over the railing and follow it. I manage to get to a window. I look in. It’s dark, but with the moonlight helping me I can almost make out a figure or two. I scream at the top of my lungs and bang hard on the glass.

“Hey!” I scream again, and finally, the lights turn on.

Kam is propped up on one elbow, his other arm having just turned on the lamp next to him. He squints at me, his eyes adjusting and like a whack a mole, Rose pops up from behind him. I can’t hear him, but I know Kam’s just said something along the lines of “What the hell?” and surely Rose is prattling beside him with something like, “Are you serious?”

I bang on the window again. “Help me, please!”

Kam motions to the front door and I run as fast as I can to it.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asks me. The doors open, but he’s got his arm against the frame, keeping me from coming inside. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Kam, Kam, listen to me! You need to listen to me! They wanted me to come to their party and then there was John Doe and they’re after me, they’re chasing me and you need to let me inside–“

“What are you going on about? Have you been drinking? It’s two in the morning.”

How could he think I was drinking? And of all things, why does that matter? Can’t he see how much I need him right now? How I need help? In my head it sounds so clear, but when I speak, I can’t get it out.

I can sense he is about to tell me to go home and close the door, so I grab his arm. “I need you, Kam–“

He turns away. “You sound like Gretchen,” he mumbles. “I’m calling you a taxi.”

“No, no, please, Kam, no, please!” I’m balling now. It won’t come out!

Behind him I can see that while Rose is not thrilled of being woken up at two in the morning, she has a shade of uncertainty on her face.

“Kam,” she says softly. She’s grabbed the phone before his hands can reach it. “Get her settled. I’ll deal with this.” Between them they share a look of understanding and then Kam’s back at my side. He leads me to the back of the room and says that he is going to make me some tea. I got to the washroom and splash water on my face. Kam gives me a towel to put over me when I exit–he’s gotten into a pair of pants and thrown a shirt on–and then hands me a cup of tea and I am so exhausted I slide to the floor and lean against the side of the bed.

“What happened?” he asks me after a few minutes and sits next to me. And I tell him. I tell him everything. From being invited to the party and seeing John Doe and how I think it may have all been connected. Rose is in the other part of the room where the sofa and television is.

I put my free hand over Kam’s. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” he says and for a few moments we look into each other’s eyes and then there’s a knock at the door.

My anxiety spikes and I drop the empty cup on the floor. Kam assures me everything is fine and, with Rose at his side, answers the door.

“Kameron Lennox?” The voice is of a man and not one I recognize. I peek around the corner of the wall and see a man in uniform at the door. He shows them his badge. “You called about an incident?”

Rose takes a step forward. “I did. She’s just in the other room.”

My eyes narrow as everything becomes a blur. Like how the officer steps inside and Kam leads him to me.

“This isn’t the first incident with her tonight. The department’s gotten two other complaints regarding her reckless behaviour,” the officer says. Even if he’s stopped feet from me, he speaks as if I’m not even there. “First was a party on the other side of town where she trespassed and vandalized their property. Even left her car there.”

“Chasity told me they were the wrongdoers,” says Kam. “Something about the John Doe case…”

“I have a dozen witnesses that say otherwise,” the officer tells him. “And the John Doe case was closed a while ago. His body is safe.”

“There’s somebody working behind the scenes!” I state. “Somebody is working double time for Mother and the police!”

The officer presses his lips into a straight line. “The second instance tonight was when she refused to pay the fare for her cab. Have you noticed any difference in her behaviour over the past few months?”

Though reluctant, Kam looks at the floor and nods his head.

“I’m going to take her down to the station and we’ll progress from there,” the officer says and I am brought to my feet, with men holding me on both sides, and I am marched out of the room like I am some criminal. As I look back, I catch a glimpse of Kam. I expect that he is going to help me, be at my side or even have some form of empathy on his face. Instead, his hand is linked with Rose’s and they kiss.

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Life of A: Writer — Grumble

I see wrinkles I never imagined I would experience in my teen years. I see bags that I never thought wouldn’t be in my hands. Yet, I don’t see something that I always imagined I would have and that is Kam at my side. His infidelity flashes each time I blink or close my eyes to sleep. His arms wrapping around her like some long lost lover. I know what it felt like, his hands around her. The way he’d run his fingers up and down my own spine as our fronts were pressed together, a thin sheet protecting us from the cool breeze that would sweep through the window and across the floor. And the way his slow breathing would lift me ever so slightly up and down rhythmically. I know it all. And while those memories should bring me some comfort during these horrible weeks without him, they bring me nothing of the sort. They bring me nothing but a surging hatred for the man I once believed would be at my sides at all times.

Peter and Ren arguing downstairs snaps me out of it and I turn back to my daughter who sits on the floor next to me, playing with her toys. A big smile on her face. Giggling like the home around her hasn’t started to crack. I envy her in more ways than one. She has no idea what’s gone on. She doesn’t care what’s to come from all this. She doesn’t understand and because of that, she struggles to feel betrayal or hatred or anything that burns me on the inside. What a life that would be.

When I was young, I don’t remember my parents ever fighting. To me, they were the perfect couple. They were far from, I’m not blind, but they never struggled with drinking or addictions, or cheating or the law. They were pretty simple during my early years. Yet now, watching my daughter play, more preoccupied with how her stuffed animal can’t bend its legs to side on the floor without tipping over, I start to wonder if I was just like her and how maybe there was a lot going on that I couldn’t understand and shrugged off.

I pick her up and pull her in close, kissing her dearly on the side of the head.

It’s an hour later that I get her in the stroller and holler to the boys to hurry up. I’m already down the steps of the porch and making my way to the sidewalk that I finally hear one of them slam the front door closed. They are still going at one another. Something about one breaking the other’s controller for the video game system my parents bought them for Snowflake Day. Who’s mad at whom–couldn’t say. But they fight all the way from inside down the whole street side.

The house turned to hell the moment I kicked Kam to the curb. I’d really hate to sound like the poor defenseless victim of this whole debacle, but Kam really got the easy side of things. He didn’t have to explain to the children what happened and why daddy wouldn’t be living with us anymore. He didn’t have to console them or say things kindly regardless of how he treated me for the sake of his offspring. All he had to do is arrive and pick his things up at the side of the street where I had left it. Do this while I’m not at home and he’s off the hook. I reminded him about my promise the last time we spoke: running him over with my car if he decided to come in my proximity. He seemed to have got the message. I left with the kids one day for groceries and when I got back his stuff was gone.

I see my parents once we make it to the train station a few minutes later. They give me a wave and I smile and wave back even if seconds later I whip around to the boys and tell them, quite aggressively too, to get over themselves and to deal with it.

“But Ren–” Peter tries to say and my glare seems to quiet him instantly.

“I don’t care what Ren did. Accidents happen so move on.”

“But–“

“No buts!” I may be speaking quietly so as not to create a scene, but I am as straight forward as I would be at full volume. “Now, put a smile on, say hi to Grandma and Grandpa and be good for them for the weekend, please. Do you understand me?”

Both boys, while reluctant, bow their heads and nod. As I gesture for them to go to the grandparents, who stand a few yards away, I can see Ren is happy he is off the hook, though Peter doesn’t share it. He’s been the most hurt by all of this. Probably because he’s been exposed to the most and understands. Our eyes lock. Ren has already dashed for my parents and Peter stands there disapprovingly staring me down. Finally, he walks past me and I hear him say, “Dad’s thing was an accident and I don’t see you moving on.”

I get the kids into my parents’ hands, bid them good luck and thank them. My mother, who’s always been a little distant with me, asks how I am doing and I just shrug it off. I know what she wants: to know what’s all gone on. I just called her and asked if she would mind babysitting the kids so that I can have a breather. I haven’t told her anything about Kam, but she knows. I know she knows. She’s always been able to read my facial expressions and body language. And the only reason I know is because I have that same trait. I got it from her, however.

Once it is me and only me, I travel to the park. Yesterday was Love Day and now the spring festival is cleaning up the place. Seeing the remaining lovebirds venture around the park, hands in each other’s pockets and lips touching one another’s cheeks, I am brought back to the fall festival on Halloween and how much simpler everything was then. I had started to break away from my anxiety revolving my media presence and the people around town had shown they’d had my back.

“Why do I feel like I am such a failure now?” I mumble to myself.

My phone rings almost immediately afterwards and I answer it.

“Hey, it’s Olive.”

“Hi, Olive, how are you?”

“You sound terrible,” she says.

“Well, I lost my husband–“

“You have got to stop this self-pitying, Chasity.”

“I just lost my husband, I think I have reason to pity myself,” I counter.

“Hey, I get it. Of all people, I get it, but Chasity, you need to step out of it. You two separated months ago and it’s time for you to move on.”

I have a sudden urge to tell her being with somebody for a few weeks like she and her late husband is very different than Kam and me. I don’t say anything, though. That would hurt her and she’s only trying to help out.

“I really hurt,” I say instead. “I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m lost. Every time I try to do something like write, all I can see is the two of them.”

Olive sighs on the other end. “I guess it doesn’t help to hear that they’ve moved in together, huh?”

I grunt, though I shouldn’t be surprised. Kam moved into Rose’s apartment when I kicked him out.

“I think you need to get out. A few friends of mine are having a small get together tonight. I think you should come.”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re coming. I’ll text you the address.”

I arrive a few hours later. As I pull up, I see Olive’s car and the long winding stairs that lead up to the house. I make my way up and as I make it tot he landing, I realize that this small get together is far bigger than I imagined. I expected a couple of people, four or five max, but as I count the bodies that I have to wiggle through to make it to the front door, there are at least ten outside. How many are inside?

“Excuse me,” somebody says behind me as I reach for the door handle. I turn back to see a young man with pale skin. He looks like a cross between Freddie Highmore and Anthony Perkins, and he puts a hand between me and the door to stop me from entering.

“Mother’s asked that we not enter until she is ready.”

“I’m sorry,” I say as I pull back. “I was told the party started at 5pm.” I check my watch. It’s ten after.

“The party doesn’t begin until Mother says.” He looks me up and down slowly. It’s as if I can actually feel him scrutinizing my every flaw. He tilts his head to the side to motion me towards the horde of other guests. “Soon… We’ll be ready soon.”

“Chasity Lennox!”

I spin around and see a woman with fire-engine red hair. “Nadia?” I say. I haven’t seen her since the first time we met back at the park when she attacked the paparazzi that was harassing me with her guitar. “What are you doing here?”

“I was summoned, like you were,” she says matter-of-factly.

“I was invited,” I correct her. “Olive told me to come.”

A look of epiphany blooms on her face. “Oh, you’re the one!”

“I am?”

“Oh you are! I can’t wait for you to meet her!”

My mind is swimming and for the life of me, it can’t reach the shore. “Meet who?”

“Chasity!” It’s Olive this time. She’s just made it to my side. “I’m so glad you made it. I didn’t know if you’d show.”

“No, I said I’d come.” I glance around. “A few friends, huh?”

“I know, I wasn’t expecting so many people either. Ah wells, the more the merrier I suppose.”

The doors to the house open feet from us and the young man from earlier has returned.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the doors have opened and Mother has joined us. Shall we?” He then motions to the door for everybody to enter.

Olive starts toward the door and I follow suit, close to her side.

“So, how do you know these people?” I ask. We’ve made it into the house to the foyer. It’s dark for the most part with soft purple lighting, candles, thick rugs and decor made of taxidermy.

“Friends of friends. Small town.” Olive speaks softly, almost dreamlike. “Eventually, you learn everybody’s name.”

“How’s the young man?”

“Morgan Yates. He’s her son.”

“Whose son?” Before Olive can answer, she’s turned into a side room, a living room of sorts. Men and women make out on old, expensive loungers, others’ exploring hands touching exposed legs, arms and necklines.

In the back, I notice a woman. I don’t understand how somebody can look both kind and wicked at the same time. Skin the colour of snow, lips the colour of blood and eyes that looked almost as if they could be glowing. In one hand she holds a glass of red wine.

“Mother,” Olive says as she puts an arm across her chest and bows her head.

Mother? I swallow hard. Something is up. I know for a fact this is not Olive’s mother.

“This is the one I told you about,” Olive continues.

The woman looks me up and down, much as Morgan did earlier. “I guess we shall see. Come, shall we?” She gets up to her feet and makes her way past me into the hall. In that moment, I catch a whiff of her. I’ve smelled it before. Back when I searched Olive’s property. Its potent metallic scent holds onto me until it’s followed the woman into the room across the hall.

“Come, everybody,” Morgan says a few feet from where I stand. “Mother is ready.”

Olive and I are one of the last to step inside. We’ve ended up in the dining room. Countless chairs sit around a dining table that runs the length of the room. The table seats twenty, each spot set for the designated guest via a name card over a perfectly white cloth. Olive spots mine right away. I’m at the head of the table. I don’t believe it until I actually pick up the card and read it under my breath, “Chasity Lennox.” Olive pulls the seat out for me and I sit down.

Everybody has taken their seats and are quiet for a long time. Men and women in decked out clothing pop in early and drop both a wine glass for each guest and another comes and fills it with red wine. Stinky red wine. I mean, I’ve always found red wine to hold a peculiar scent, but this isn’t that. And soon the whole room smells like Olive’s trash can at home. The woman, Mother as everybody calls her, is at the other end of the table now and looks down the line at me.

“You’ve all been asked to come this evening for a special purpose. Very rarely do we find the individuals who are mentally fit and free enough to accept what we have to offer. Today is different. Today we welcome a new member to our family.”

I press my lips together and they form a straight line.

“Olive Spencer has brought it to my attention many months ago that we could use somebody like her friend.”

I glance over at Olive, but she’s staring straight at Mother. Something doesn’t feel right.

“She told me,” Mother goes on, “how similar she feels outside our community. She told me how easily she is prey for outsiders. How she doesn’t fit inside a certain mould. That we could trust her.” She raises her glass. “So, this is to you, Chasity Lennox. This ceremony is to you.”

The men and women around the table all say “agree” together is one voice as they raise their own glass and then drink from it. Mother has gestured to my glass and I pick it up uncertainly.

“You have been chosen for this community’s voice. For the rebirth of us all!” With one swoop of her hands, she pulls the cloth and in the table’s inlay, I am looking at a man’s body. He’s naked except for a loincloth and his body is covered in fruits and vegetables. My heart lurches for a moment until something inside my brain tries to stabilize my fear. I’ve seen this before. It’s nantaimori. It’s a Japanese practice from the samurai period in Japan when warriors would celebrate a victorious battle. This isn’t out of this world…

But it is not until I look into the face of the man who is being used as a serving platter that my fear heightens.

John Doe.

The man that was put into my room those many months ago. While I thought it was because of the purple lighting, I can now see the blue of his lips and the frost on his eyelashes and hair.

The waiters from earlier have returned with plates, setting each spot with knives and forks. Some carry in dishes of sauces and other condiments, and one has a tray of jars with what looks like white gumballs inside. Looking closer I realize they aren’t gumballs at all. They’re human eyes.

Bile splashes the back of my throat and it takes all I have to swallow it back down. And in that instant, it hits me hard. That stench I smelled back at Olive’s house, the one that reminded me of all those times playing with friends at school on the monkey bars… That metallic smell… What I caught a whiff of when Mother walked by me and now what the whole room smells like… It’s not red wine in their glasses.

It’s blood!

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Life of A: Writer — Gasp

It’s as if their voices are mumbles, droning in a consecutive line of white noise. When I was still living with my parents, before I had moved to Milan to hit some modelling gigs, I struggled with sleeping many hours at a time. Whether it was something like my father’s motorcycle-like snoring or just the gurgle from the water cooler, any little noise woke me up–a light sleeper at its finest. After many sleepless nights, I finally invested in a white noise machine and instantly drew comfort from its consistent noise.

Now, sitting in my living room, the coffee table beneath me, I have been taken back to that time, except it’s not my white noise machine mumbling, it’s the police officers and one detective trying to get as many answers from me as possible.

“I’ve told you how many times, I DON”T KNOW HOW IT GOT THERE!” My voice has hit higher peaks of hysteria than I ever thought possible.

“Mrs. Lennox, I understand how scared you must feel right now…”

My fingers through my hair, I look up at the woman in front of me. She holds a notepad in one hand and a pen in the other and while her eyes hold me in their determined gaze, I can’t help but feel like she’s my only source of sanity right now.

“Now, do you have any idea who would have done this?” she asks me. “Anybody you think would want to harm you or send a message?”

I actually snort under my breath. The list of people. I could go down a list of the people from my past, though very few of them would go to this extreme. Putting a dead body in my bedroom? No, the people who hated me in my past are cowards, always hiding behind a camera or a keyboard. They’d never actually get their hands dirty.

Another officer comes up behind the woman and pulls her aside.

“Is that a yes?” the female officer asks him. They don’t speak in hushed tones, but they aren’t blurting out information either. The other officer’s face holds a grave expression and between the two of them they share a look of understanding.

“Yes,” he says quietly. “That’s our John Doe.”

John Doe?

My guts plummet to the bottom of my stomach and it feels like they could sink even lower. John Doe was the man who had been found weeks before Snowflake Day in the front of City Hall. I drop my face into my hands and bring my head between my knees in an attempt to control my breathing. What the hell was he doing in my bedroom? Who could have done this and why? Why? Why? Why?

“Mrs. Lennox,” the female officer returns, this time with the detective next to her. She introduces us and then all the questions start like where I was yesterday, do I have an alibi, why do I think John Doe ended up on my property when he was last seen being transferred to the morgue? While, yes, I do have an alibi and Olive can back me up, I don’t much have answers to many of the other questions.

By the time everybody decides to leave, I head up to bed. I am completely exhausted and don’t have a clue what else I should do. But when I climb the stairs and see that chair, though empty this time of John Doe’s body, I immediately decide to sleep on the couch.

Kam doesn’t come home. He’s not there when I get up. He doesn’t answer his phone when I call him. Even after I get the kids ready for school and send them off, he’s still a no-show. I call his work and see if he’s shown up. He hasn’t. I call the police and tell them I think I may need to report a missing person. They tell me to sit on my hands. Nothing should be reported until after the twenty-four-hour mark. Even after I tell them what happened last night, how he was just dashing to work and then coming home to go to dinner with me, how I found John Doe in my house, how Kam could be in trouble, I am suggested to wait for a full day to pass before I go any further.

Are you freaking kidding me?” I scream into the phone. I could swear I am talking to a robot on the other end of the line even if I know sure well that they are completely human.

“Twenty-four hours.”

I hang up, after using some of my choicest swear words of course.

After trying to clean up the house and getting impatient, I decide to call a babysitter and drive over to the school. Kam’s not there. I can tell when his car’s not in the parking lot and when I head into the school and check his classroom, his desk has an older woman I have never seen before sitting behind it. Must be his substitute. The principal catches me spying around and assures me once they’ve heard something they will let me know and then urges me to get off the property.

I end up driving around town aimlessly, checking local shop parking lots for his car and even drive by all restaurants on the off chance that maybe he thought we were going to meet up last night (even though he specifically said he was going to pick me up!) and has strangely decided to wait for me all night until I arrived. No way in hell would he do that, but even so, I check anyway.

I end up going to the park just for something to do. The winter festival is meeting its last days, though people are still coming to support. Every time a car stops and people arrive, my head jets from side to side to see if any of them are Kam. None are.

I call him again. No answer. This time it goes straight to voicemail which means his phone is off. Or dead! I think with a sense of panic. If the battery of his phone has met its end, what does that mean for Kam? That he couldn’t get to a power source fast enough or that something’s happened to him and a dead phone is the least of his worries? If he’s hurt, or worse, he can’t get a hold of anybody now.

I am on the brink of crying when I see Olive come into view.

“Olive!” I say almost sobbing as I hop to my feet and go to hug her.

“Chasity,” she says at first joyfully, but then my fear and panic must burn through me and become contagious. “Is everything all right? What’s wrong?”

I tell her everything. From Kam and I working things out, to him offering to take me to dinner, how excited I was and then the whole John Doe thing and then now not being able to get a hold of him. She listens to me go on and past me of the shoulder, holding me tight and telling me that everything is going to be all right. I am so invested in our conversation when I spot a photographer taking my photo, it doesn’t bother me. The most I can do now is roll my eyes and ignore them. What the media has to say about me is the least of my worries right now.

“And the police won’t do anything to help,” I say through tears, “not until it’s been after twenty-four hours. How is that any good? I mean, he’s not answering his phone now! What if we could do something now and not when I am allowed to report it?”

Olive presses her lips together. “There is a way to find him, you know.”

“There is?” I speak tentatively for fear that Olive isn’t about to give me a concrete answer.

“Let me see your phone,” she says and I pass her it. “Does he have the same make?”

I nod. “Yeah, we’ve got a family plan and a discount on the two of them and I–” Olive cuts me off with a wave of the hand. I’m prattling.

“There’s an app for finding another phone.” She clicks around, downloading the app and asking for my password and such.

While she is putting it all together, I say, “But his phone’s dead… or turned off.” “It will at least tell us where the phone was before it powered down. It’s a start, right?”

“Okay, I have to go,” she says and then passes me the phone. “It’s searching for Kam’s last location now. It could take a few minutes, but when the bar is finished filling, you’ll have it. Sorry I can’t stay longer. Call me if you need anything, okay, Chasity?” She hugs me again tight and then waves goodbye.

And so I sit. Waiting. These two minutes waiting for the bar to fill on my phone is the longest wait I have ever encountered, seems to last for hours. But when it says search complete it’s like silence after an hour of constant noise. I am given a set of coordinates and a message that asks me if I would like to link to the phone’s GPS app. I click yes as I am running to my car.

As I start my car and clip my phone to the dash attachment so that I can see the GPS map, I notice the estimated time it will take to get to my destination. Two hours! I was expecting something more along the lines of two minutes. Maybe twenty. Actually, I was more expecting it to lead me to the police station where Kam would be giving his statement of where he was last night and how he wasn’t attached to this John Doe thing.

But I am wrong.

Two hours later I am a lot farther than I expect to be from my house. On my way, I call the babysitter and ask if she would mind staying a little longer than expected. She doesn’t sound too happy but she says yes nonetheless. I thank her up and down and tell her I should be back not too late.

The sun is setting as I reach my destination. I check three times to make sure I am in the right place. I am–Gleewood Apartments. I get out of my car and make my way inside. There’s a woman behind the desk at the front. I pull out my phone and choose the first clear photo of Kam I can get. It’s one of the family at the Autumn festival. I show it to her and ask if she’s seen him come in here. She glances at the photo for a moment and from the look on her face I doubt she is going to give me the answer I want. Then, as if a bolt of electricity shoots through her, she’s perky and almost excited.

“Yes! Yes, I have!” she then tells me the room and how to get there. There’s a sense of a reprieve, nursing my fear as I follow her instructions on how to get to him. From her excitement alone, I feel that Kam is and always has been in danger. For this woman to be so anxious to help, there is obviously some great need for me to get to his side.

I am on the third floor in no time and head to the second door on my right. I don’t knock. If Kam’s in trouble I’d hate to let his attackers know I’m there. Thankfully the door is unlocked. I turn the knob and make my way inside.

I can’t tell exactly what I am looking at at first. When I first walked in and heard gasping, I imagined in my mind Kam hogtied, gasping for air as his body struggles to keep his back arched. The noose around his neck tightening and cutting off all his air supply until he strangles himself. A goon keeping a watch on him while the real bad guy is out looking for his next victim. Maybe the next woman’s bedroom to toss Kam’s dead body inside.

But that’s not what I am looking at. I am looking at Kam’s naked back, his strong shoulders pinched together and shining with sweat while a woman’s nails, painted ruby red, dig into them.

I don’t say anything yet. I haven’t a clue what to say. I don’t know what to do as my brain tries to understand the two people in front of me and what I am doing here. My gaze darts to the woman’s face. Her eyes are closed, her cheeks red from perspiration and powdered blush. She’s the one gasping, not Kam and she seems to be in bliss.

Finally, with an energy I can’t explain, I clear my throat. As all motion stops in my sight, I say, “What the fuck?”

In front of me chaos explodes with legs flying around, trying to find ground and hands letting go of one thing and grabbing another. Kam is the first one in my sights, tripping over his own feet in many attempts to get to a standing position. He falls to the ground not once but twice, grabbing his underwear and pulling them on as if that will erase what I’ve just seen from my memory. Rose has pulled the sheets out from under her and wrapped herself in it.

“Chas, what are you doing here?”

I look at Kam unable to stop myself from smiling. “What am I doing here?” I say. It seems a little contradictory for him to ask me such a thing. I look from him to Rose and back again. “So this is it? This is where you’ve been all yesterday and today?”

“Chas, I can explain?”

“Explain?” I chuckle. “No, I think this can explain itself. How long has this been going on?”

“Chas…”

“I SAID, HOW LONG?!!”

Kam drops his gaze to the floor unable to look me in the eye any longer.

Rose, arms wrapped around herself in a tight embrace, whimpers and shakes. “Kameron, I’m scared–“

“SHUT UP, RUBY!” I bellow at her with a dismissive wave of my hand.

“My name’s Rose!” she counters bravely.

“Do you think I give a shit right now? Go sit in the corner–the adults are talking!”

“Chas, don’t yell at her–” Kam says and tries to put a hand on my shoulder. I whip it away with all my strength.

“No, you don’t get to say anything you slimy piece of trash. I have been doing everything for you for the last how long–years! I came to this godforsaken place, I’ve ignored my true feeling in an attempt to pretend that everything is okay, I have done whatever the hell you’ve wanted to do so that I don’t become what Gretchen is, and look where it got me!”

“Chas–“

“Stop saying my name!” I scream at him, wanting more than anything to grab the nearest object in the room and throttle him with it. “I have been worried sick all today and what I’ve had to deal with last night! You were supposed to come back and you didn’t!”

“What happened last night?”

I ignore him. “I have been running around like an idiot because I have been scared for your safety, but you’re fine… just fine. You’ve been hanging with the town’s bike. High five, Kam. High five.” Kam tries to say something, but I push him out of my way and head for the door just to shut him up. He’s running after me though. “I don’t want to see you ever again.”

“I’m sorry!”

“Don’t care. If I see you again, I’m going to punch your living lights out. If I see you on the street, I’m going to run you over with my car and when you think it’s over, I am going to put the car in reverse and run over you again. The world’s gonna’ be a lot better without you in it. I know I certainly am.” I glance back at Rose who is still cowering behind Kam. “Enjoy him, he’s all yours!” And I walk out of the apartment slamming the door and hoping I’ve put in enough strength to shatter the windows.

Featured

Life of A: Writer — Shriek

Twelve hours later I stand on the sidewalk looking up at Olive Specter’s home. I won’t say I’m shocked. There was a little piece of doubt inside of me that told me coming here wouldn’t be some big hole in the middle of the town that everybody skimmed over each time they passed by. But hearing Olive’s son talk about my family being some outsider as they put it forced me to come and see what’s up. And no, nothing out of the ordinary, at least from street view anyway. No portals leading to the underworld. No flashing beams looking to take me into outer space. Nope, just a lovely house covered in icicles and beautiful wooden carvings.

It doesn’t stop me, though. I open the gates at the front and walk through them.

I make my way up the steps of the wrap-around deck. Snow is still falling, has been falling since late last night, though light, from the looks of it, nobody has come or left this property since maybe before the gathering last night for Snowflake Day. I allow my thoughts to swarm as I peek inside the nearest window. Lights are out and everything is closed up. I shrug the possibility off somewhat, doing my very best to be somewhat pessimistic that my brain isn’t trying to play tricks on me. I know something was off last night, but there are plenty of possibilities as to why Olive may not have come home last night. They did have the nanny, that overly sweet Rose Thorne… Olive probably drove her home… Maybe Rose lived out of town–

I stop dead in my tracks as my eyes turn to pinpricks, zoning in on the stone feet from me. A gravestone in the backyard? I take cautionary steps down the stairs of the deck and make my way over.

“Here lies Ichabod Specter,” I mutter, kneeling down and putting my hand on the cold surface of the stone to support me. I knew Olive’s husband had passed recently, but she never mentioned anything about having his stone in the backyard. Last time he was brought up in conversation, she said how she and NS would be taking a drive out of town to go see his grave. I actually have to pat the ground beneath me to see if the soil is soft. It’s hard. Of course it’s hard. It’s winter and the last few weeks have been absolutely freezing.

My mind is spinning with countless ideas of where this gravestone came from and why Olive would lie to me about it. I stand quickly, stepping away from the stone as one though keeps prodding my brain like a jackhammer: Did Olive dig up her husband’s grave that day and have it transferred here? It may be unimaginable to me, but maybe…

Kam would say I am completely overreacting, and sure he’d be right. In what world would somebody as kind of Olive steal her husband’s grave or gravestone and bring it all the way home.

Okay, I tell myself, clapping my hands together and turning around in a pace-like manner, now you’re overreacting, that’s completely out of this world.

I’ve decided I need to leave. When Kam is in my head without being around me, my conscience is telling me something and this time it’s telling me my imagination is getting the better of me. He was right last night to not believe me. Last night being blitzed out of my mind, anything and everything sounded plausible. Now, pushing aside my determination, I can see how insane I actually sound.

I’m about to head back up to the deck and back to the roadside when I spot a garbage can. “Last thing,” I tell myself and head for it.

I expect it to stink when I lift the lid so I don’t know why I am surprised when the odour hits me like a brick wall. There’s the smell of old greens, like celery or lettuce that’s spent much too long in the pantry. Old chicken makes an appearance as I dig around. But there is something else. It’s potent, much more so than anything else in the garbage to the point where it almost makes me gag. It reminds me of my childhood for some reason. Metallic almost. The image of my early years in public school come to mind, of me and my friends on the playground, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, my hands getting sweaty as I would spin around and flip off, the scent on my hands… For the life of me I can’t place it exactly and why would I be smelling it now?

Before I can figure it out, I hear a car pull up in the driveway. A quick look around the corner, I realize it’s Olive.

Heart hammering like an 808 drum, I plant the lid of the garbage back on as fast as I can and use the snow to clean off my gloves. Too little time! I pull them off, bundle them inside out and stuff them in the bottom of my pocket.

“Chasity?”

I’ve made it all the way back to the front door as Olive is making it through the gates. “Hi, Olive!” I say with a wave.

“What are you doing here?” She may be asking me, but her eyes are following my trail in the snow to the backyard.

“I just wanted to come over to apologize for last night.” Before Olive can say anything, I add, “for my drinking. I’m sorry if I made you or your son or Rose feel uncomfortable. Control got a little away from me.” I, too, glance down at the path in the snow. “So I just wanted to come and say that to you. I knocked on the front door and nobody answered and I didn’t know if you used the front door or the side door. From where I come from people are more inclined to use a side door, so I tried that too, and now I’m babbling. Sorry, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry and that I understand if I made you so uncomfortable last night that you don’t want to have me around anymore or–“

“You are babbling,” Olive says as she walks past me and unlocks her door. “Are you coming in for a coffee?”

As she is setting up, she shows me to the living room and tells me to make myself comfortable. There is a photo album on the coffee table. I pick it up and flip through it. There are countless pictures, most of them of NS as a baby and Olive being the glowing mother in every opportunity to be by his side.

“How time flies by,” Olive says as she makes it next to me with a steaming cup of coffee.

“I was just noticing how many photos you are in with NS. You guys are very close.”

“Always have been. He is very special.”

“Of course.”

Olive smiles and nods, taking a sip of her coffee, though it would seem her mind is somewhere else. “Ichabod wasn’t around very much and when he passed NS wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on. I mean, it may only have been a year, but Ichabod lack of being there as NS grew kind of made little difference.”

I don’t know what to say, so I just sit there, listening.

“I’m sure you saw his gravestone out back.”

It feels as if a crater has dropped to the pit of my stomach.

“I lied to you. I know I told you I travelled out of town to see him, but not many people take me having my husband buried in my backyard well. Thankfully, those kinds of people aren’t around here long, but you… you’re different.”

“I’m different?” I say, draining what’s left of my coffee.

“I knew it when I first met you. There’s an aura about you that fits in so perfect here in Midnight. You’re not squeaky clean and from the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew you weren’t one to hide it. Most people have the immediate intuition to defend themselves and pretend to be something they very much can’t. They hide their true selves for fear of being judged, for fear of an inability to embrace what we really are and what we are meant to become.”

I don’t completely understand what she is talking about. There are parts that describe me trying to deal with the anxiety that has come from the hell I went through in regards to my modelling life. But the part where she brings up what I am meant to become…? I pretend to know what she is talking about. I don’t know what else to do. So when I catch a glance at the time, I realize how late it is and how I need to get home.

By the time I get home, my brain has spent how many minutes going over and over the conversation with Olive. Finally, as I park the car, seeing Kam walking up the steps pushes the thoughts away. I’m surprised to see him. We haven’t spoken a word since last night when he barged out of the house and slept in an igloo the kids build during Snowflake Day.

“Kam,” I say, pushing my door closed. He turns around with a look on his face that doesn’t look hateful.

“Where did you go?” he asks me, but I don’t answer him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for last night for making a fool of myself and you and everybody. My brain has been fried for a while now and I guess letting loose last night was the only thing I felt I could do.”

“Chas–“

“No, I get it. I shouldn’t have said I felt uncomfortable in this town. It’s crazy, I know, but while I can’t say I understand everything about the place, nobody seems to be on top of me or questioning me about every little thing I do. It’s not bad…”

“Really?” This time when he says it, he doesn’t seem to be unimpressed, not like last night. No, he seems somewhat surprised. “That’s fantastic. I couldn’t be happier.” He doesn’t seem ecstatic, but that’s probably just me overplaying it.

I’m about to walk with him into the house when a thought hits me.

“Hey, you know Peter can babysit the other two tonight. Did you want to grab a bite to eat in the village tonight? It’ll just be the two of us. We haven’t done anything for us in a long time.”

He’s thinking about it for a moment–probably to figure out his schedule for the rest of the day–and finally says, “Uh, yeah, okay, yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, that would be lovely. I just have to run a few errands and drop off a paper at work and be back in an hour?”

“Okay, great!” I start walking to the front door. “I’m just going to get out of these clothes, have a shower and I’ll be eagerly waiting, okay?”

“Okay,” he says, walking to the car and getting into it.

“Okay!” I clap my hands and hurry into the house.

I let Peter know that he’s on for babysitting tonight. He complains, which I expected, and I boogie up the stairs to the bedroom, pulling the clip from my hair as letting the golden locks fall to my shoulders. There is an excitement inside of me that I haven’t felt in a long time. A longing, a love for Kameron and a want to spend time with him. I felt this first when we started dating, again when he proposed and again when we got married. Modelling got in the way a bit and everything cooled off especially when kids were added into the equation. But this! This alone time is what we need. What we have always needed and finally my anxiety is be shaped so that I no longer have to fear what people are going to think of me or how I need to pretend. Maybe this is exactly what Olive was talking about. Maybe this town really is absolutely perfect for my mind and soul because I can finally be who I am meant to become!

Pulling off my coat, I open the door to my bedroom and all excitement has vanished from my body and dread, horror and all anxiety I thought I could fend off comes crashing in.

I scream at the top of my lungs as I look at the dead body in the middle of my bedroom.

Featured

Life of A: Writer — Jingle

Snowflake day is upon us many weeks later. The day where families come together, friends drink and be merry and children scream with excitement because the big man somehow managed to break into our house without anybody noticing. I’ll admit, even when I was young, it baffled me that nobody, not even my parents, was able to catch Santa redhanded. Yet here I am so many years later with children of my own and they don’t suspect a thing. They just barged into Kam’s and my room at seven o’clock in the morning telling us that he was here and he left presents. Oh, what it was like to be young and none the wiser.

The doorbell ringing snaps me out of my thoughts. I am standing at the counter, half my arm shoved inside a turkey while the other one is holding the other end. I call for somebody to answer the door but between the boys playing their new video game system and Kam upstairs hooking up the karaoke machine his parents sent from Sunset Valley, nobody seems to hear me and I end up having the pull away from tonight’s meal, rinse my hands clean and answer the door myself.

Olive Spenser is on the other side, a plate of egg rolls in her hand and a big smile on her face.

In the few months since my family moved here, I haven’t gotten to know many people. Mainly I’ve spent my time unpacking and trying to be a good mother by juggling three children, four if I count Kam. I met Olive one day when I drove Renaldo to school after he’d missed the bus. She says she recognized me from the Halloween festival back a while ago, though for the life of me I couldn’t and still can’t remember if I met her or not. It didn’t matter all that much. She asked me if I wanted to get a cup of coffee that day and since then we’ve become good friends.

“Happy Snowflake day!” she says and pulls me into a hug.

“Same to you!” I say, and I’m looking around. She’s the only one at my doorstep. She has a young boy, the same age as Renaldo, whom I told her to bring along. Actually, I told her to bring her whole family foolishly before I learned that it was only her and her son N.S. Her husband Ichabod passed not yet a year ago in an electrical accident.

“Where’s your son?” I finally ask.

“Oh, he’s just in the car. He’s going to help our nanny bring some of the presents. You don’t mind that I invited her, do you?”

“No, of course not. The more the merrier. Renaldo is so excited that N.S. is coming. It’s nice that they’ve gotten so close at school. I–“

“Happy Snowflake day,” says a sultry voice and I actually am paralyzed at what I see…

When Olive brought up her nanny, I was expecting an older lady with nobody other than herself to be around on this very day. Empty and lonely on the inside and a strong urge to full it by being around other families. Call me old fashioned, but this woman, this doll…! Long hair pours over this child’s shoulders the colour of rubies, big doe eyes and a body that would make any woman jealous. In what world is she not busy on Snowflake day?

“Chasity,” says Olive and I actually have to shake myself to snap out of it, “this is Rose Thorne.”

“Rose Thorne?” I repeat. Her parents must have had a sense of humour.

“What a pleasure it is to finally meet you,” she says to me, grabbing my hand and shaking it. “Olive has told me so much about you.”

“All good I hope.”

Rose giggles girlishly and passes me a bottle of red wine. “Thank you so much for having me.”

I don’t know what it is about her that I don’t like. It could be that every sentence ends with what sounds like a question. It could be that weird way she keeps giggling like a schoolgirl. But I think it is more of the fact that she reminds me of those girls back home that all joined me on the road to fame through modelling and that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I almost immediately open the bottle of wine once we all gather inside and try to wash it away.

Both families join in the afternoon while the turkey is cooking for some fun activities. We have a snowball fight, make snowmen and angels and take pictures that we all know we will never print.

We also skate on the rink Kam has been working on for weeks. I am surprised how solid the ice is for how mild the weather has been leading up to today. It’s only been the last few weeks that things have gotten deeply cold. I’m not the greatest in a pair of skates. Thankfully, neither is Olive or Kam. The three of us get laughed at by the children as they literally skate circles around us. Kam is probably the worst of the three of us and while I have tried to help him to his feet countless times, he drags me to the ground not once, not twice, but several times. I end up abandoning him and working with Olive to keep upright on the opposite side of the rink.

“Looks like he just needed a little help,” Olive says as we spin together. I follow her gaze and notice Rose and Kam mirroring us, though neither of them are looking our way.

“I’ve got to continue dinner,” I say with haste, letting go of Olive’s hands and hoping not to fall down again. “The turkey must be almost ready and the vegetables still need doing.”

After undoing my skates, getting my shoes back on and trudging back inside, it’s not long before I am back in front of the oven. Olive has followed me inside and she’s helping me with what’s left to do.

“I’m sorry,” she finally says after a few minutes of silence between us. “That was a really stupid thing for me to say.”

“No, it’s fine,” I assure her. I scoop chopped carrots into a pot and place it on the stove.

“I shouldn’t have brought her, I know.” She turns and looks out the window and the others playing around. “I’m sorry, it wasn’t appropriate. I should have known after what you said a few weeks ago.”

I press my lips together. She’s talking about my encounter with Gretchen. I spoke to her about it a few days after left this very house and told Olive how much it affected me.

“When I mentioned Rose helping Kam on the rink, I didn’t mean how it sounded.”

I also mentioned to her how Gretchen said how Kam looking for somebody else was a pattern of his and that karma will come around to me too. I told her all of it and obviously Olive sees the parallels.

Olive’s prattling now.

“Olive, I get it. It’s fine! Okay? It’s fine.”

Olive nods and continues mashing potatoes. “Has she come by since?”

“No, thankfully. Kam signed the papers and mailed them out the next day and not even a call from her. I really hate how easily she can get into my head, though.”

“Don’t let her get into your head. There are people out there with the ability to destroy us and letting them get into our heads is like opening the door for them.”

“I let that door open a lot over the years. I don’t expect you to understand.”

Olive snorts. “You know people think I killed my first fiance after he left me at the altar, right?” She doesn’t let me answer. “Is Kam coming home on time?”

“Yes.”

“Is he making excuses, making late calls, staying overtime as Gretchen suggested?”

“No.”

“Then maybe Gretchen was wrong.”

“Maybe,” I say, draining what’s left of my wine glass and filling it up again for the fourth time. “Maybe.”

I call everybody in for dinner after the table is set and we eat. I notice N.S. walk into the kitchen in the middle of dessert.
“N, where are you going?” Olive asks, leaning back in her chair in an attempt to get a better look at where he’s going. He mumbles something back at her, something nobody, myself included can understand. He’s completely out of my line of sight, but from where Olive sits, she can see him. “N!” Olive doesn’t get a response. Her frustration burns through her cheeks, though I watch as she forces a smile on her face, slapping her napkin on the table and getting to her feet. “Be right back,” she says in a reassuring tone.

“Hey, Hun, do we have whip cream for the pie?” Kam asks me from across the table.

“Oh, yeah, of course,” I say, though a bit slurrish, and I am back on my feet. I forgot to bring it out. As I make my way back into the kitchen I spot Olive and N at the garbage by the window.

“You’re not going to find something like that here, Subject!” Olive says sharply even if very quietly. “They are not like us. They’re outsiders.”

“But I need something!” N whines. “I’m getting shaky.”

“Not now! Go back and eat your pie and we will talk when we get home.”

I have just made it to the fridge and pull the door open. “If you guys are looking for the whip cream, I’m getting it right now.”

Olive spins around to face me, the colour draining from her face. “Uh, no,” she recovers as fast as she can. “N was just looking for more meat. He’s a typical child carnivore.”

“There’s more turkey if you want more,” I tell them. I motion to the platter on the counter.

“Not that,” N mutters as he storms back into the dining room.

Olive laughs it off or at least tries to. “Children.”

After opening presents, Olive and the others go home. I have to tell the boys to go to bed even though they are transfixed on their video games and after feeding the newborn, go to bed myself. Kam is already in bed, reading on his tablet.

“Fun day,” I say as I take off my clothes and put on my sleepwear.

“Yeah, it was nice. Nice to meet some of the people you’ve spoken about. Olive and her son seem nice. Rose too.”

As I take a seat on the edge of the bed, I pump a glob of hand moisturizer in my palm and begin working it in. “Well, I never met Rose before today. I didn’t even know she was coming to be completely honest.”

“It turned out to be a pleasant surprise nonetheless.”

I chuckle under my breath. “I’m sure she did.” As I lean back, I notice Kam cock his head toward me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I open my mouth to speak. Heck, there are so many things I want to say to him, accuse him of. But I shut my mouth almost immediately.

“What is it, Chas?”

“Nothing.”

“Chas, you’ve been acting weird all night.”

I try and think about what all I want to say to him. It’s all rather hurtful and even though it is hard to detect, I know it would be the alcohol talking and not my clear mind. I decide on something else.

“I’m having second thoughts about this place–“

“Again with this,” he says albeit a little exaggeratedly. “We go through this almost every night. I know you have a high anxiety with everything especially after all that happened back home, I get it, but are we really going to have a problem with every place we go?”

“But you haven’t heard what I’ve got.”

If Kam could roll his eyes any harder than a schoolgirl… But he motions for me to go on and I tell him. I tell him what I overheard in the kitchen.

“Really?” I wish Kam spoke with excitement, but it is obvious he thinks my findings are lackluster at best.

“She called us outsiders!” I counter.

“She was speaking to a child–her child, who was having a tantrum. She probably wanted to get to the cause before making a scene.”

“I can’t believe you right now,” I say, pulling at the sheets and kicking them apart with my feet so that I can slip in between them.

“And I can’t believe all you did was drink all night.”

“I had a few drinks,” I snap at him. “Pardon me for letting a little loose after having to carry our daughter around for nine months. Life knows I needed it.”

“You were an embarrassment during dinner–“

“What? Because I forgot the whip cream?”

“You could barely hold your head from hitting the plate. Slurring your words and talking over others.”

“Well, is it possible that maybe you googling the nanny may have had something to do with it?”

“What are you going on about now?”

“Rose! Rose!” Ugh, just the sound of her name makes me want to throttle everybody within a ten-mile radius. “All day, next to her you were!”

“She was a guest who was with people she’d never met before.”

“Ha! Isn’t that how it always goes? I had to make her feel special, make her comfortable? Blah, blah, blah!”

Kam shakes his head and puts his tablet on the table next to him and gets up.

“Where are you going?” I demand.

“I’m going to give you a moment or maybe a few since it is so clear you need one.”

And then he leaves the room. I listen to him walk down the stairs and slam the front door.

Featured

Life of A: Writer — Pop

It’s been a quiet week since the investigation opened up about the murder. John Doe. His name was John Doe. That’s it. No witnesses, no evidence. Nothing. Everything was cleaned up without a single speck to be admired. It seems surreal. Death in the little quiet town I have moved into. I should be scared. I mean, I man died blocks from where my family and I live. Yet, there is this part of me that leaves me feeling like I can handle it. Crazy, I know, and that is what scares me more: that the fact that it does little to bother me is what scares me most.

I am pondering the events like I have for the last how many days, considering the hot liquid in my coffee cup when the doorbell rings. I get up and greet the person on the other side of the door.

I haven’t gotten the door open much more than a hand when the voice arrives.

“Chasity, I didn’t expect you to be home.” Opening the door all the way reveals a woman with sharp features, shaggy hair and eyes that could drive knives into my heart thousands of times if she struggled to keep her hatred for me hidden behind a facade.

“Gretchen,” I say, keeping the door handle in my hand. She’s Kameron’s first wife and the one I could be seen as taking Kameron away from. It’s not completely untrue. In a time when I felt lonely and he was the only person who made me feel like something of worth…

I shake my head from the thought. “What are you doing here?”

“Ah, right to the point I see,” she says. As she brings up the portfolio in her hand, she adds, “Glad things haven’t changed.”

It’s a dig at me, obviously, but what is also obvious is her desperate want for me to react. It takes a lot, but I don’t.

“I was just bringing over Kameron’s papers for the divorce to be final. Is he around?”

“You know he’s at work, Gretchen,” I say. “Besides, doesn’t that usually go through the lawyers?”

She smiles, albeit a little too dramatically and then notices my belly. “Of course, I forgot you were pregnant. You look like you’re about ready to pop.”

I nod.

Gretchen takes a deep breath and says, “Look, I know there was a lot of tension between you and me, I mean, you did steal my husband, but I have done a lot of soul searching over the past year and I’ve finally come to the realization that you are hardly to blame. Kameron and I were rocky far before you showing up and I guess when he went looking for something I couldn’t give him, I blamed you for giving it to him.” Tears begin to pool in her eyes and as much as I want to push her out the door, close it on her face and tell her I can see through the game she’s playing, I can’t help myself.

“Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”

She agrees and I lead her inside and close the door behind her. Even as I grab a tray with coffee cups, I wonder what I am doing. It could be my guilt coming through. Heck, it could be a whole number of things, my emotions have been rather high as my pregnancy moves forward day after day.

I return to the dining room where Gretchen is sitting, waiting for me.

“I’m sorry for springing this on you. I really was expecting Kameron to be home.”

I nod again and then take a sip of my coffee.

We sit in silence, drinking our coffees, listening only to the ever-present sounds traffic and the low buzz of the refrigerator.

“I used to be just like you, you know. A baby inside me kicking, me waiting for Kameron to get home to ask him how his day was while I had dinner ready.”

I squint my eyes, but I don’t dare make contact with hers. “We’re nothing alike.”

“He used to be on time every night, like clockwork. You’ve got to admit, being a firefighter and being home like that”–she snaps her fingers–“was pretty impressive. And now that he’s a teacher…”

“He’s still on time,” I tell her and take another sip from my cup.

“But I knew when he started seeing you. Every night, every night, call, call, call. He’s got to work overtime, he’s going to be late again, something came up, went for drinks with the boys. But I stuck by him.” She makes a humoured expression and then shakes her head. “And when I met you, introduced that you were some secretary, I knew it was all downhill from there.”

I stay quiet, looking at the liquid again in my cup.

“I feel like a complete idiot, to keep being at his side, pretending that everything is going to be all right when I know it never is going to be. I’m just waiting for the pin to finally drop and I have the excuse to leave. Maybe I took death do us part a little too firmly.”

“Maybe,” I mutter more under my breath than anything.

“But you shattered that the night I come home from a work trip two days early, didn’t you? I’ll never forgive that jerk for allowing your disgusting body into our bed–“

I finally look Gretchen in the face. “You’re a bitch.”

“And you’re a whore,” she says as she gets up from her seat. She drains what’s left of her cup and taps the surface of the folder still on the table. “Make sure he signs it and mails it back in the next week. I’d hate to come by again.”

“Would you?” I say out of spite as she slips her purse over her shoulder and starts for the door.

She turns and looks back at me. “You know, Chasity, it doesn’t matter how many babies you pop out, that’s not going to concrete anything between you and him. Trust me, I know. One piece of advice, though: careful who you screw around with–karma has a funny way of getting back to you.”

She leaves, closing the door behind her and it’s almost as if on cue, the sharp pain erupts and it’s as if a large blowfish has puffed out, piercing the inside lining of my stomach. I cry out and through the window I see Gretchen glance back. I know she’s heard me and even debates coming back in. Probably thinks I am angry about what she’s said and I am lashing out. After a few moments, she doesn’t hesitate any more and walks down the steps of the porch, her cell phone to her ear.

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Life of A: Writer — Thwack

Bubbles form around me in thick globs, the scent of pomegranate encasing the bathroom like a lover’s embrace, warm, romantic even with the few candles I’ve lit on the surface of the tub. I can’t tell if it is because for once maybe my anxiety medication may be kicking in (doubtful seeing as I’ve been on it for years and it’s always seemed like it hasn’t done a damned thing so why start now?) or if maybe, just maybe, I’ve been able to lower some walls in the past few weeks since we’ve moved to Midnight Hollow. My fears regarding the media have controlled me for so long, yet after making contact with the people here (one of them shoving the paparazzi where it hurts!) for once I actually feel like somebody other than close friends and family may have my back.

I allow my body to slip deeper into the cloud of bubbles even as my gaze drifts up to the vanity. Kameron’s there, getting ready for work. Well, maybe not exactly. He’s gotten ready for work, been ready for the last ten minutes and has spent the time since then more occupied on his actual looks. As I’ve said before, he’s not the vain type, neither of us are, but there’s no dismissing the fact that we’re both aging. It may be a girl thing, but I’ve always tried to check myself out in private when I know Kameron’s at work or with the kids. I’d hate for him to see me worrying about my looks, it could give him reason to do the same. But Kameron has been on a roll lately, checking his wrinkles, searching his hair for greys. I guess having my primary fear take a backseat for a bit has irritated some of my smaller ones, and it’s not like Kameron is some saint life just plopped in front of me for the taking. He was still very much in a relationship with his wife when I butted in and made him fall for me.

As if we are both thinking of the same time in our lives, our eyes connect in the mirror for a split moment and then there are constant knocks at the door. Children, excited children scream at the top of their lungs, wanting Kameron to hurry up because Uncle Kyle has finally arrived and they are that next step closer to World of Wonder. It’s Renando’s birthday today and Kameron’s bother flew in from Riverview to take them out for a very special day. Kyle and I have never been super close—probably because of the affair thing—but taking the kids out for a party day is a nice gesture for sure. While I was invited to go, he knows I’m not really ready for that and understands. The only catch is that I have to babysit his newborn son. It’s not my first time taking care of a baby and I can always use some extra practice before I pop myself.

Once they are all gone, it’s just Connor and me. I give him a bath, play with his toes, sing to him when he begins to cry. It’s strange how everything comes back so naturally even if I haven’t done it in a few years. And the smell—NOT THAT SMELL!!! No, the new baby smell. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being a mom, a baby’s mom until right now. With the older of my two heading into his teenage years in a few weeks and Renaldo’s birthday being today… There’s the anxiety again. Truly, they were irritated by my primary fear stepping down.

I set Connor down for a nap and head to my computer. Being one of the few times having the kids out of the house, I can finally get some writing done. I’ve made a hot tea, put on some background music (actually it’s classified as white noise—I like falling rain the most), turn on the baby monitor and take a seat. This is what I’ve been planning for since we moved all the way out here. Every night since move-in day I’ve been jotting down notes, ideas for chapters and every piece of horrible memory I allow myself to come face-to-face with. It’s a whole notebook. Speaking of which, I get up and grab that too! And I sit down, do some arm stretches and one for my back, a few breathing exercises—in and out, in and out—and close my eyes, ready to open my mind and spill everything I’ve got onto this blank, white canvas. And it doesn’t come. I can’t for the life of me figure out what to write. For an hour and thirty-three minutes I stare at the screen in hopes that something will form. But it doesn’t. And it’s infuriating. I never would have thought this would be the part of writing that would be the most frustrating. I thought it would be the continuous rejection from print houses or editors hitting the tender parts of my heart, my pride. Hell, that would be welcomed here when I’ve finished before I’ve even begun. Then Connor starts crying and it all goes south from there.

I decide I must need some fresh air so I put Connor in the stroller and head out the door. It’s not the nicest day outside, but at least it’s not raining. Thanksgiving is slowly approaching and the town begins to reflect it. The park where the boys and I attended now offers casual hay rides and the Halloween decorations have been taken down for the most part. Scarecrows and pumpkins still huddle close in empty spaces while jack-o-lanterns, cut-outs of ghosts and goblins, and the haunted house have been replaced with pens filled with turkeys and corn mazes manually designed for children and adults alike.

I don’t know if it is because being out in public is still fresh to me or if it is something else, but I can’t shake this feeling something is off. I can’t exactly explain it. I felt it the night we all left these same grounds during the festival and headed home. Like something is lurking so close yet for the life of me I can’t put my finger on it, nor can I actually see it—

My phone rings, cutting my thoughts off and I reach into my pocket and bring it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Hun, it’s me,” Kameron says through some very harsh static.

“Where are you? I can barely hear you.” When I can hear, I catch a lot of chatter, people in the background.

“—stuck on the subway. Problems.”

I press my lips together. They should have made it to the park an hour ago.

“How long until it’s back up and running?”

“Lookin’ like an hour, maybe two, which is why I’m calling: I won’t be able to pick up Ren’s gift and the cake. I’m close enough to the bakery that I can pick it up on our way home, but could you drop by the gift shop in town?”

It’s as if a chunk of ice hits the bottom of my stomach. I don’t let it to affect the tone of my voice, though.

“Of course. I’ll head there straight away.”

“Great, thanks. This way Kyle can stay to watch Ren open his presents and not have to hit the road immediately.”

We say goodbye and I turn the stroller.

“It looks like we’re going on a different adventure today,” I say to Connor and head in the opposite direction.

The Golden Ticket Toy Shop must be a local store only because in somewhere like Twinbrook it would stick out like a sore thumb. It does help tremendously being wedged between stores selling furniture and doodads, their exteriors like something straight out of a children’s book. Still, the place, like the park, leaves me a little unsettled. Even if the toys inside are full of bright fun colours, and children are screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs, zooming in and out from behind counters, grabbing whatever their little hands can carry, I swear the creepy dolls are following me with their eyes and why are they so pale and haunted? I head inside, speak to the man behind the counter, grab what I need, pay and get out of there as fast as I can.

Getting home isn’t too difficult. It’s started to darken on me, possible storm clouds closing it, and I make sure to keep glancing over my shoulder to make sure nobody’s following me. I keep hearing footsteps and every time I look, it’s just me on the sidewalk and nobody else. By the time I get home, prepare and cook dinner and set the table, the boys have returned with arms full of toys they won at the park, beach towels they no doubt paid way too much for and hats that still have the tags sticking out the sides. Dinner is an ongoing dialogue about what they encountered at World of Wonder. There’s a lot of laughing and interrupting, “I’ve gotta’ tell you this story so that I can tell you that one.” Ren opens his presents: a video game console from his father and me, my parents mailed him mistletoe (I swear they can be so disconnected sometimes. It’s like they open up the buy catalogue and choose the first thing they see) and Kyle has gifted Ren an air hockey table.

For us it is a great night, the hardest part saying goodbye to Kyle and Connor and watching them pull out of the driveway and disappear into the distance. What I didn’t know and wouldn’t learn until much later was how a man was found dead at City Hall. Actually, it would end up being a mysterious man who went by the name John Doe who was found motionless on his front side late that night.

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Life of A: Writer — Pilot

Cold. Unsettling. There’s not much else I can say when the name Midnight Hollow comes to mind. Just speaking of it seems as repulsive as the place itself. Like somebody saying their first four-letter swear or the name Voldemort. The structures are easily sixteenth century—gothic. Beautiful, surely. But it’s like an illusion. The houses may look like they are hundreds of years old when in reality they can’t be more than a decade, their exteriors reproduced to look older than they really are. I should know. My name is Chasity Lennox and I’ve travelled around the world modeling in front of dozens of structures almost as old as time and these homes have nothing on them. Still, it keeps my mind busy as the town passes me by.

Cars. Houses. Pedestrians dressed in the strangest of clothing. It may be a couple of days until Spooky Day, but to begin dressing up so early…

Before I can ponder too much, the car comes to a halt and I am standing in front of my house. To call it home is far too early in whatever is between us… House and owner, shelter from horrible weather, money pit that is constantly draining my wallet? I have countless more and home isn’t among them. My home is very much still where my heart lies back miles away in Twinbrook, where I grew up, where my family is and where everything I have ever known has been left behind. Well, I can’t say that’s completely true. My children are here with me as is my husband.

“I just love the architecture.”

Speaking of which…

My eyes run down from the turrets high on the roof—reminiscent of Scooby-Doo, mind you—across the stone balconies, to the front door.

His name is Kameron. Dark hair, blue eyes and a stocky build. It’s never been anything to do with vanity. Some women like that kind of thing. The strapping young man with muscles that concave into his body, making him look like a piece of art held tight inside the Louvre. For Kameron it’s always been something of a necessity, however. Strength, power and the athletic skill to get the job done. He was a working firefighter when I first met him many years ago which until recently had him on a tight schedule. He was one of the best and I’m not just saying that because I am his wife and I have to. Awards and whathaveyous fill most of the moving truck and that’s without the boxes I asked my parents to keep hold of. Now, however, he’s changed professions and became a teacher. It sounds strange, I’m sure, what with the good he was doing and how in demand he was back home. But when a worrying wife is at his side, scared shitless every night, he did the worry wart inside of me a favour. Unfortunately for me, moving to Midnight Hollow was in his best interest for a great paying position at the University with benefits and whatnot.

Kameron turns and returns to my side, both hands dropping a suitcase on the ground and replacing them with each of my own.

“Look, I know you were—are—a little skeptical about the place, but trust me when I tell you it’s all gonna’ work out.”

“I know,” I say a little too enthusiastically. “Just, you know—change! You know how much I hate it.” I try to joke it off even if the knot in my stomach says otherwise while I look the house up and down again. It’s not like the place was cheap. Spent most of our savings on it. Spend money to make money, I guess.

Chas, I mean it. It’s just different and different can be really good.”

I nod my head as he steals a peck on my cheek.

“And you’re gonna’ write that book, expose the modeling world for the hell it is and we’re gonna’ be happy. It’s our fresh start where we don’t have to keep looking over our shoulder all the time, you know?”

And I do know. Getting out of the modeling world wasn’t hard, but it did leave me with a few scars emotionally.

I was shunned from the modeling world a few years ago after I took a stand against somebody much higher than me. Because of this, I was branded imbalanced and every media outlet out there was on me like a pack of wolves. Picking at my every flaw, twisting stories to make other stories, scandals upon scandals. The man I went up against told me he’d smear my image like paint on a canvas and he did just that. The whole story is a chaotic mess and one I’ve done my very best to keep hidden, buried deep down so as not to have to relive it again.

After some much-needed support from family, friends and my psychologist, I was urged to fight back. I had strengthened enough emotionally, and while I would never step foot in front of a camera again, I decided one way to get the modeling world back: a book about the dark side of modeling, a piece every young woman should read before even thinking about stepping foot in the realm that I regard as a living nightmare.

Watching Kameron grab the suitcases and head into the house, our two boys screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs, I hope he’s right. He glances over his shoulder as he walks up the porch stairs.

“And what better place is there to write than this?”

A few hours later, Kameron mentions the local Midnight Haunt festival. A flyer had been stuck in with our mail along with coupons for a nearby coffee shop and another flyer for the grand opening of a new toy shop on the other side of town. Of course Kameron had to bring up the festival in front of the kids and when they learned about costumes being more than welcome they wouldn’t let it go. Kameron tries to soften the blow by telling me how it’s an annual town outing to bring everybody closer.

“See? Says so on the flyer.”

Of course it does. Before I can say yes or no, the boys are already in their costumes and ready to go at the door. Peter, the older of the two is dressed as a hotdog. Why a bloody hotdog? And Renaldo… well… he’s the other one. I wish I could say his mismatched attire is part of his dressup, but sadly I can’t. His mask is the only part of his gear today. The model inside me seeing this train wreck of an outfit hurts me in more ways than one.

We make it to the grounds in ten minutes. It’s raining although it doesn’t seem to bother anybody there. Makeup and face paints are running, costumes darken from getting wet yet that doesn’t stop anybody from laughing and having a great time. It’s a modest turnout. Haunted houses flash with strobe lights, troughs are filled with water and apples, pumpkins huddle on soft soil while men, women and children search for the most perfect ones to take home. I catch sight of a man in a hotdog outfit almost identical to Peter’s. Obviously, Mommy’s opinion when it comes to trendy costume wear should be kept silent. Peter seems to be much more in the loop than me.

I immediately feel a little self-conscious. Maybe I should have put on a costume. It seems rather silly, a grown woman nervous about her inability to fit in at a bloody town outing, but I can’t deny how much happier I would be if I chose to put one on instead. That is, of course, if I had been able to find one that fits. I am pregnant you know, and quite ready to pop.

“You all right, honey?” Kameron’s next to me, his arm around my shoulder like a protective swan over her babies.

“Yeah, just a little chilly. A little nervous too. Maybe I should go back home.”

“No, you just need to loosen off a little. When’s the last time we’ve been out?”

I know how it sounds—do I live under a rock? And I guess I should say I kinda have. Since the modeling incident, I’ve felt like a prisoner in my own home.

“Here,” Kameron hands me a cup of cyder. “This place isn’t Starlight Shores or Bridgeport. Look around you, Chas. These are Average Joes just wanting to spend time with family and friends. They don’t care about us—probably dunno who we even are. They’re your typical Bobs and Bettys.”

I take a sip of the cyder.

“You’re right.” I take another sip. “You’re right.”

For a bit, I think Kameron’s actually telling the truth, that we’ve actually distanced ourselves so far from the past that we can actually be normal. It takes some time, but between being with the kids, going into haunted houses and watching pie-eating contests—I can’t believe it!—I actually feel like I can let my guard down. The kids are having a great time, so is Kameron. He’s more interested in the log sawing contest where one team of two races another team at sawing a tree trunk.

After we finish another glass of cider, and we head over for a fun game of bobbing for apples, a photographer gets me in their sights.

“Chasity freakin’ Lennox!”

A continuous string of clicks and flashes erupts next to us and I am blinded for a few moments, like a spark plug has gone off on the insides of my eyes. I fling my hands up to the sides of my face, pulling back as Kameron stands in front of me, cursing the paparazzi, threatening to punch his face in. The back of my throat swells up and as much as I try to soothe it, it aches and I struggle not to cry. This can’t be happening. This has got to be some bad dream. Wake up, Chasity, WAKE UP!

CRASH!

For a moment, I think Kameron has actually done it: plowed the man between the eyes and throttled his a few more times for good measure. But as I look up, hands still shielding me from the men and women who have now surrounded us, I see Kameron, hands up defensively, yet it’s his face that catches my attention. He isn’t angry. He’s shocked. And I follow his gaze to the downed man on the ground. Next to him a guitar lay in shambles.

“Get up, you lazy biggot!”

Standing over the man is a young woman—fire engine red hair and dressed in what looks like some military costume. She kicks him in the leg in an attempt to urge the man to start moving. Grumbling, he stumbles to his feet.

“And get the heck outta here, you ‘ere me?” she continues. The man mutters something under his breath and she adds, “‘ey, I can get’nother guitar if you wanna’ keep mumblin’.” The man runs off and the woman turns to Kameron and me. “You ‘kay, hun?”

She introduces herself as Nadia Cho. Supposedly, she’s been dealing with the paparazzi for years and has decided to take a stan against them. Nice girl and while I am clearly shaken, I can’t say how thankful I am to have her here. We exchange formalities and she introduces me to her bandmates and a few of her friends. I don’t know of them, but they seem to know me because of the scandals. Thankfully, they don’t hold it against me.

As we get ready to go, Nadia tells me if either of us has any trouble with the paparazzi to let her know and she’ll get rid of them for me. As she says, “We don’t need their BS ruining what we got here.”

Driving home with my boys and staring out the window, I realize maybe it won’t be so bad here. I may actually be able to repair everything that’s been damaged all those years ago. Still, as I rest my head against the headrest, I can’t help but feel there is still something very off about the town, like something is lingering in the darkness, following me, just waiting to attack.

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Divine Deception — Mercy — Series Finale

For those who believe that life ends when one’s death is met, resurrection is more of a fairytale than a reality. Death is consequential, a tally of all the good things and how much bad was delivered while on the earth’s ground. But for the few who believe otherwise, death is not an ending, but rather a new beginning. I never believed in anything after life. I thought it would just end in an emptiness of repetitive motions, cycling through until the end of time. But it wasn’t until today that I realized I had been dead for a very long time and those motions had been cycling for years now in what I once believed was me living life. I spent many days in the fiery depths of hell and would never have thought that to stop fighting would bring me to the light. Today the dead shall live. Today, I am alive. Today I rose from the dead.

The moist ground cools the bottom of my legs while the sun, high above, feels like it could burn my skin in seconds. It is easily one of the hottest days Riverview has seen in years. I disregard it and place my hand on the surface of the gravestone in front of me, my fingers tracing the name engraved in its front. Sadie Lawrence.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” I whisper.

Footprints have flattened the ground nearby. Flowers rest on both the top of the stone as well as the surface in front of it. A dozen tulips are from me, wrapped in white lace. But there are more than a couple roses here and there as if somebody has come by daily to drop them off. I can think of nobody other than Vic. I hope I am right.

I look back up at the stone again. “I always did have trouble facing what stands in front of me—come to terms with the truth some could say… For more than a year I thought I had found my way, that I had clear goals and everything made sense, but no. The truth is, I think I was more lost than ever.

“I thought if I could just keep pushing, everything would balance out. Instead I pushed everybody away. I couldn’t blame them—nobody understood what I was feeling. But you did. And I hope more than anything that I did you proud.”

The shuffling of grass behind me perks my ears and I spot a long, stretchy shadow slither into view. I look behind me and see Connie. She puts her hand on my shoulder, gives it a reassuring squeeze and then says, “It’s time to go.” She says it so softly, like if she speaks too loudly that she may wake the dead.

I pat her hand back and nod. Kissing my fingers, I then press them against the stone. “I love you,” I say. I press harder for a few seconds and then release. Connie doesn’t push. She just waits for me to be ready and then I am on my feet and following her back to the car.

The rest of the morning flies by in a flash. I am wanted here, there and everywhere. Makeup, hair, here get into your dress! I have great people around me, friends, true friends, men and women I can count on. When we are ready, we leave the house and head to our destination.

Before I can even think about opening my door, Whitman is right there, hands gloved in white, opening it for me. He’s wearing a frilly suit I expect to be stuffed in an antique mall.

I meet his gaze. The day I went out for Paragon, I had left him with Jackie. Poor guy had been gagged and tied up the moment I drove off. For a split moment during my confrontation with Jackie, I thought maybe Whitman had been working with them. But when I returned to the house and found him completely bundled together with ropes and handcuffs, I knew better than to assume certain things, especially when he had fought to get across the room and use only his tongue and nose to log in to Paragon’s servers and delete everything. Everything Jackie had threatened me with was gone in a snap of the fingers.

I get out of the car and he leads me to the cruise ship. Through the portholes, I can see countless guests. Something snaps to my side. I quickly look down and see William.

“Mommy, you look beautiful!”

I crouch down to his level. “And don’t you look handsome.” His collar is sticking up and I fold it down for him.

“I’m the ring baron! See?” He lifts the poofy, silk pillow in his hands up to my face.

“The ring baron, huh?” I ask and he just laughs.

“We’re just about ready,” Connie says. She is directly in front of us now and waves at the pianist and everything begins. I give William a kiss on the cheek and he wipes it like I have just slobbered all over him.

Mom!

I can’t suppress a giggle. Connie whispers where he needs to go into Willaim’s ear and then gives him a nice nudge through the doors. Through the porthole I watch my son strut down the aisle like he’s done this a million times before. When he makes it to the end, Connie already has her bouquet and starts down it as well.

My gaze wanders up the aisle, across the decorations. They are simple yet elegant. Compared to the overabundance of the decor at my wedding with Matt, this is perfect. There are no flashy lights or streamers going every which way.

Matthew…

With everything that has gone on, I hope most of all he can move on from this. I can only assume he’s at home, trying my other phone, trying to get Samantha Millens to pick up. He’s probably worried sick, thinking the worst. That is after wondering what happened to his father. Who knows if he managed to make it out of the Grind before all hell broke loose. If there is one thing I can rely on, it’s that Eadie will be there to tarnish Samantha Millen’s name and make her son feel better by forgetting that girl next door. I never would have imagined I would feel comfort from that woman, yet here I am.

Whitman squeezes my hand and pulls me back out of my thoughts.

“Are you ready to do this?” he asks, his other hand on the door, ready to lead me out.

I have to smile. Am I ready for this? I’ve never been ready for anything more in my whole life. I’ve been waiting ages to be in this very spot.

Whitman pushes open the doors to lead me through and I see Nathan for the first time today. I think my heart skips a beat, it even flutters and as cheesy as it sounds, I can’t describe it any other way. Excitement, happiness, safety. I don’t know what it is, I just know that I like it. Honestly, I never thought I would ever see him again after that horrible night when we last spoke.

For how short the aisle way is, it feels like the lengths of multiple dump trucks and I don’t want to walk anymore, I actually want to run. But as I do, Whitman’s grip on my hand holds me back, squeezing to slow me down. It feels like forever when I am finally standing in front of Nathan.

“Hi,” he says to me, beaming. There are tears in his eyes.

“Hi,” I say back with a giggle. There are tears in my eyes too.

The service begins and I am going through the motions. For once it doesn’t feel difficult. As destroyers we are taught to go with the flow when things begin to fall off the rails. But nothing is falling now and nothing is hinting at the possibility that imminent doom is just beyond the horizon. And for once it feels good. I remember what my mother wrote down in her file on Paragon’s server. What she said about her wedding day with my father. That it was a commitment to each other, but one that wouldn’t lead to an ending full of happily ever afters. That instead it would lead to a battlefield. How was it she put it?

“One that I must fully commit to my enemies on until death do us part.”

JI don’t feel that at all. And when I am asked, “Do you take Nathan to be your lawfully wedded husband?” I don’t hesitate for a moment. My mother was uncertain about her marriage to my father like I was with Matt. But here, with Nathan just an arm’s length away, there is nothing in me that wants to say anything other than, “I do!”

“Then I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride.”

I almost jump into his arms, grabbing his head, kissing him. I peek through my closed eyes. The men and women around us begin to clap. Some hoot and holler. Some toss confetti and others ball their eyes out. Yet, in the back, through the many people, somebody else grabs my attention. I can’t tell if it is who I think it is or if my eyes are playing tricks on me because in an instant, in the time it takes me to blink, the visitors are all up on their feet and that woman is lost in the crowd.

Nathan pulls my attention back on him as he turns and looks at the crowd. Bubbles are blown into the air, the pianist begins his melody again and we are ushered down the aisle. This time while I am allowed to move at a faster pace, I don’t want to. I try to slow a bit, try to get a better look at where the woman had been previously, but I am just pulled more forward, pressed to go, go, go! Nathan and I are out the doors at the end, led up a set of stairs and to the deck above.

The day continues at an alarming rate. We need to cut the cake, it’s the first dance as husband and wife, speech, speech, speech! Oh and of course, tink, tink, tink on the wine glasses to get us to kiss, kiss, kiss! I can’t remember the night I was married to Matt very well, but for some reason I don’t think it was as pushy as it is here. Maybe I was worried too much about getting from point A to point B to really take anything in. Whereas here I am taking in everything because I have nothing to keep my mind off of it. And even if I wanted to get from point A to point B here, I can’t. The ship has left the dock and unless I want to take a long swim back to shore…

When it is time to throw the bouquet, it is suggested that we do it downstairs. Nobody wants to have it accidentally get chucked over the edge of the boat and we all know many of the women here will actually take a leap for the precious bundle of flowers.

As everybody makes their way back to where the ceremony was held, I catch sight of a woman at a table in the far corner of the deck. Connie tries to lead me back to stairs, but I tell her to go on ahead without me.

“I just need some fresh air,” I say and when she asks if I am sure, I add, “Yes, I’ll be there in a minute, promise.”

“Okay, but don’t wait too long. That bouquet is mine!”

I laugh and watch her take the stairs and it is only me and the other woman. I walk over to her.

“I thought I saw you earlier,” I say and take a seat next to her.

My mother stares out into the open waters, eyes sparkling with tears. “Delilah…” she says and I can hear the struggle in her voice as if her throat is closing up on her. “I’m so sorry.”

My eyes narrow. “For what?”

“Your father… I took him away from you.”

“Mom…”

“You have to believe me when I say I never wanted to go through with it. When Peters… after you were born… I didn’t think there was any other way.”

I lean forward—she’s still looking out into the distance at the horizon or maybe, probably something even more far away—and clasp her hands in mine. “I don’t doubt it for a second. I never knew who he was and maybe I never wanted to know him. I guess the hardest part was coming to terms with that.”

“That?” she asks me and finally she is looking at me in the eyes.

“Years ago I thought maybe he was hiding out, trying to keep away from me, that maybe he would show up somewhere so that I could understand him, maybe even understand myself.” I shrug my shoulders. “But now I know that was never the case.”

My mother recoils a bit. “Can you ever forgive me for not being a good mother?” Even as she asks it, she tries to pull her hands away. I don’t let her.

“There is nothing to forgive, Mom. I know how much I put you through. I blamed you for so much and as much as I used to want to keep blaming you for not being there for me, you’ve always been there for me. You saved me more times than I can count. From the day you chose me over Paragon when I was a baby to the other night when you tried to choose me over Paragon again—you saved my life and I owe you everything. I’m just sorry you had to carry everything all by yourself for all these years.”

My mother breaks down sobbing and I hurry to her side, my arms around her. I am crying too.

It takes almost ten minutes to regain both of ourselves. We wipe each other’s tears and hug.

“You have no idea how proud I am of you,” my mother says, getting to her feet. She kisses me and tells me she loves me. Every time I think I have recomposed myself, I break down again, which then leads her to break down too.

“Honey?” somebody says behind me. I turn around, wiping my face even if it is no use. Makeup running, face red. Just coming up the stairs is Nathan alone. I don’t know if he—or anybody for that matter—can see my mother, but I am about to say thank you to her and as I turn, she’s no longer there. I stand still as anything, my eyes scanning the deck back and forth until I realize that it’s over.

“Connie’s getting impatient down there,” Nathan says as he closes the space between us. “Who knows what that girl’s gonna’ do for a bouquet—is something wrong?”

I’m standing at the railing, looking at that same spot my mother was just minutes ago, out past the horizon, past the clouds, back at the past. I feel Nathan slip his arms around me.

“Deli?”

I was told when I opened a book for the first time, I would be given three sections of importance: a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning was to do its part to transform my imagination to reality. It would introduce the people I would be tethered to throughout the journey, paved out to an ending of happily ever after. For a long time I didn’t believe that this story could be like that. That a happily ever after could never work. Lust, heartache and destruction were but simple stepping stones to get me to an end goal.

I should consider myself lucky. Life rarely gives second chances to people like myself. Deeply etched wounds come with the path of a destroyer and while I expected to die with Jackie alone and unloved, somebody saved me from myself. Somehow I managed to win life back, convinced it to spare me as well as the people I forcefully pushed away.

I lean back into Nathan’s arms and nuzzle against his neck. Did he really ask me if something was wrong?

“Absolutely nothing.”

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Divine Deception — Hellfire

Some say that our lives are defined by what we desire to do, when we do it and how. But maybe it is not our wants that define us per se, but how far we are willing to go to make them reality. In their purest forms, our desires have the ability to render our lives into pits of hell with the power of retaliation furthering the cycle of violence. Demons are able to claw into our lives with the ability to destroy everything and the wreckage left in our wake like an inferno with the power to devour everything in its path. It is a race of danger and finality. Even so, the risk must be met when a greater offence is up for the taking: To allow the guilty to go unpunished. And when facing them, no amount of training can trump nature and that desire we held onto for so long is but a simple test that separates the strong from the weak.

CRASH!

The sound of the glass shattering below me makes my lips twitch with satisfaction. I’m up on the upper level of the Grind, the VIP section, my arm still above my head. Just seconds ago there had been a hastily made molotov cocktail in my hand and now there is nothing but the memory of the heat of the flame and the smell of the burning rag in the air. What is left of the bottle lay at the front door, its remains taunting the flames to grow bigger and wider, successfully cutting Jackie off from her attempt at escaping the building and me altogether.

Jackie skids to a stop. She’d been running full tilt since she set off that trap in her office—I know she has just by the way she pants and sweats like some stuffed pig. She must have stopped off at a nearby office or the washroom in the meantime, however. I would have expected her to be miles away by the time I came to. Perhaps she went downstairs to try and get Arthur. Whichever way I look at it, I can’t be more happy that luck is on my side today. Not only have I managed to catch up to her, but I have also stopped her from fleeing.

From down below, Jackie’s cry of disbelief forms, raising like the smoke to the upper levels. She stomps her feet, her fists clenched, and then she spins around, her eyes wide, rolling with barely controlled panic. She’s at first watching the fire spread until she spots me. I cock an eyebrow and even in the maniac tinge of the room, I catch her face reddening.

Sword in one hand, I hop over the railing and drop to her level, landing in an agile crouch. Jackie doesn’t hesitate. Her gun is in her hand and it’s aimed, high, high at my head. I am in no mood to be careful. It’s do or die. Within two seconds, I’ve pulled my arm back and thrown the sword. It catches Jackie’s gun, pinging it out of her hand and out of sight. Just by the way Jackie jumps and gasps, I know she didn’t expect that. In that instant, I think I can see fear, real fear in her face and a desire to burst into tears.

“This is it, Jackie,” I say, straightening up.

She whips out her smart phone from her pocket and raises it so that I can see. “Before you attempt to kill me, you should know that if my heart stops, everything I have on you will be uploaded onto our servers which will be available for the world to see. Once it is seen by the authorities, you will be nothing. A reminder of who your mother was, your disappearance after Vita Alto died, the alias Samantha Millens, video proof of how it was you who broke into the museum months ago, everything I have on you is out there!”

I raise my eyebrows at how pathetic she sounds. “I have come all this way, to stop and consider whatever words are coming out of your mouth… Do you think I am going to fail this?”

“Do I think you are going to fail?” she scoffs. “This coming from the little girl who has been failing since she was brought into this world. You didn’t see this all happening tonight, did you? And our little episode in my office is but more proof you are in way over your head.” She pauses for a moment as if to let the words sink in. “I would say the chances of you failing again in your loathsome life is rather high, wouldn’t you say?”

I take a deep breath and just look Jackie in the eyes. I don’t speak.

“You either let me go,” she says, “or you go away for good.”

“Do you think I really care anymore?”

“I think you are unstable, Delilah. You’re caught up in some world where one little girl is capable of crushing a whole organization.”

“Ah,” I say, “for once I think you’re right about something. Unlike your theory, however, I am not looking to take down the whole organization one person at a time. Instead, I am going to take out the ringleader and let the rest of the company shake on unsupported legs.”

“As much as I envy your mindset, we both know you are incapable of taking that next big step.”

“You know, we’re taught in the art of destruction that the best way to ruin somebody is to keep them as far away from death as possible, force them to live in their agony for their wrongdoing. But you… you are the one exception.”

Jackie shakes the phone in her hands. “This will destroy you!”

“Then destroy me.”

Jackie screams in fury and runs as fast as she can at me. Her hands, stretched out in front of her, claws ready to rip into my eyes, come at me at miraculous speeds. I grab them fast, kicking her back and, while still holding onto her one arm, give her two kicks to her side. She winces, bends over at the midriff and groans. My follwing punch to her jaw forces her to tumble backwards and twirl to the ground.

Pins and needles stab at my knuckles and I shake my fist to get rid of them. Jackie has gotten back to her feet now. I’m a little surprised. I expected for the woman to have been floored after the first counter.

“You’re a worthless piece of shit!” she growls. Any remaining confidence or serenity her former tone held has long since disintegrated into something much more menacing. We both follow an imaginary circle line, always directly across from one another. I can’t speak for Jackie, but I wait for her next move, mentally preparing myself for what I can do next.

Jackie doesn’t disappoint. Like a boss battle in a video game, Jackie screams out in a piglike battle cry before her attack. When she launches at me again, I grab the closest hand and use her momentum—as well as my shoulder—to hoist her into the air and flip her over my back. She lands with a thud, a gasp escaping her throat in a nasty, horrible croak. I have easy access to kick her in the guts, pummel her while she is on the ground, but I don’t. Surprisingly, Jackie rolls over and over until she is back on her knees.

“Stay down, Jackie,” I warn her. “You’re not going to win this.”

She spits a glob in my direction. “Your arrogance will be your demise!”

“How are you expecting to get out of this?” I ask her as she huffs in front of me. “You have overtaxed your abilities—”

Jackie’s throws all of her weight into grabbing a hold on my stomach in what I can only assume is her attempt at tackling me down. We stubble. There is a moment where her weight actually is used to her advantage and she gets me on my back. My world, the room, it all spins as I land hard and she is on top of me. She punches me hard in the face. It is like a spark plug has gone off at the back of my eyes, followed by another one. Numbing pain blossoms like a dark cloud and before she can hit me again, I grab her fist, jab her in the throat and push kick her over my head. She doesn’t get to her feet as quickly as she did before.

“I’ve jumped through hoops, Jackie,” I gasp, getting to my feet. The back of my head hurts and I think a gash has opened up on the side of my nose. “I’ve fallen victim to your manipulations and believed your lies. I’ve battled all of your strengths for the past year.”

Jackie has gotten onto her hands and knees and she is shaking.

“But now,” I continue, watching her stumble to her feet, “it comes down to the physical part of things.” She takes a step forward, arms swinging. I duck, kicking at her shins and it makes her topple forward. “You chase down my family”—I whip my bleeding nose as she tries to get up again. I kick her down—”manipulated everything so that I would follow you to the ends of the earth, abandon the people that I love. And now, I get to test out my own strengths.”

My hands clamp onto Jackie’s shoulders like vices and yank her up to her feet with no mercy. She wears an ugly looking daze on her face—I don’t think she knows which way is up—and I grab the back of her head. With brute force, I pull her face into my knee, cracking her skull off of it. I hear her yelp—it is muffled, but there is no mistaking her pain—and she is propelled backwards in a foul swoop. Blood arches in the air—much coming from her nose and mouth. She falls back and a following thunk as her head hits the floor.

Jackie tries to roll again. I can’t imagine how far she thinks she is going to get or where she could think she’d be able to get to. She’s back on her hands and knees, crawling. I wipe the sweat from my forehead, force the loose strands of hair from my face and use the ball of my foot to force her onto her back again. She tries to fight it. She knows what is about to happen—she has too. She slaps away my foot and tries again to escape. The flames roar around us and I do not understand where she thinks she’s heading for. We’re surrounded by fire, encircled. We are in the eye of the storm now.

I stop her again and force her to stop and spin her again on her back. This time I am fast enough and lower myself onto her. She’s slapping at me, whimpering, trying to get away from an end that was inevitable. Tears slide down the sides of her face as I sit on her stomach.

“No,” she mumbles through bared teeth. “No!”

I form my hands around her neck, my eyes meeting hers. I want her to look at me. I want to watch the life drain out of her. Her fight has no end, though. With what little strength she must have, her hands climb up my arms towards my throat. With a nasty grimace, she tries to fight me off. Large gashes look like they tear Jackie’s face apart and long inky stripes roll down her features in strings. I tighten my own grip. She looks like a mess. I remember when I first met this woman I thought she looked like some tropical creature from another world. But now that virtuous face of some exotic bird is now hideously transformed into a blood-coated demon.

“You’re as weak as your mother,” she struggles to say, but I hear it. Instinctively, my grip tightens. “She called me that day. Went over Reginald Peter’s head. Begged me to let her off the hook.”

“What?” I say and my grip loosens. It doesn’t go away. It loosens.

“She was so pathetic,” Jackie wheezes. “Said she saw a light when you were born. Said she couldn’t kill your father.”

“No, you’re lying!”

“She was a pathetic woman. To think I actually believed she had the capability to be something great.”

“Shut up!” I tighten my grip again, more so than ever. I need to stop her words from coming.

“I pitied her, Delilah. Your father was nothing but a criminal, hellbent on turning Sunset into his own fortress. Vita Alto but a pawn in his game.”

“Shut up!”

“I like to think that Paragon getting rid of all three of them was for a greater good. Getting rid of them from this world…” Even if Jackie is choking, she is forcing herself to laugh. I know she is doing this just to have the last laugh—literally. And I know I shouldn’t be losing my cool for her. But I can’t help it. I hate her so much.

“She failed you, Delilah,” she continues. Even as my hands tighten around her neck, she is spitting everything she’s got at me. “It’s a good thing Paragon got rid of her for you. She would never have been able to be that person, that mother, you so badly wanted. You would have fought tooth and nail for all those years when she abandoned you and she would never have been able to fix that. She was a destroyed woman. You should be thanking me. I relieved her of her pain!”

“You fucking c—”

Jackie manages enough strength to slash me across the face with her claws. Nothing fazes her right now. She is in bliss. Laughing. Cackling. She’s going to die and she knows it.

“Look at me!” I yell at her. Her eyes are closed and I pull her head up and smack it off the ground. “I SAID LOOK AT ME! I want to be the last thing you see when you die!”

Anger is ripping me up from the insides. She’s not supposed to be laughing at this time. She’s supposed to be crying, begging me for mercy. I close my fists as hard as I can this time. I’ll give her something to laugh about—


I see a flash of my mother. She’s there, back in that world of paradise, my dream world, where I left her. My eyes gaze over the lace gown that hangs from her shoulders. And as fast as she’s there, she’s gone. The fiery hell that was created ten minutes ago has engulfed me again and I am back in the Grind. Jackie is still laughing—forced but still laughing. The smoke has thickened around us and the heat strengthens in heavy doses.

Jackie’s hand trembles as she tries to grab whatever she can with the little life she has left. The nearest thing she has is my ponytail. She grabs it and my hair comes loose.


“Whether you love the person or not, you still kill that innocence inside of you.”

Tears sting my sinuses and I am shaking. But I can’t let go. I can’t let go now. I squeeze my fingers tighter. Tears have begun flowing down my cheeks and Jackie is staring right into my eyes.

“There’s a difference between doing something in shock, out of loss. And it’s another thing to do it deliberately.”

The flames roaring around us intensifies and I am struggling to breathe. Jackie chokes under me and she is fighting less. There is less tension in her arms and while her fingers are locked on my shoulders, there is no fight. The most Jackie can do is cough, choke, try to breathe.

“This isn’t what I wanted for you, Delilah.”

Something horrible between a groan and a whimper spills from my mouth and I let go of Jackie. I give her a shove and get up off of her.

Jackie wails for air in a long, howling gasp, followed by an abundance of coughing and sputtering. She rolls onto her front side, sitting up and fighting to bring the life back into her. I struggle to react. I am standing away from Jackie now, my back to her. Tears will not stop flowing down my cheeks and nothing feels real.

“I thought you were going to kill me,” Jackie says, still trying to catch her breath.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see she’s holding her chest, fighting. She was almost dead and I didn’t follow through with it. I can say what I think about this yet. Part of me feels as if I have failed while another feels like I have honoured my mother.

Still struggling, Jackie adds, “To save your family and whatnot.”

“I will not become you, Jackie,” I say over my shoulder. “You make it look so easy—there is a reason why somebody as disgusting as you would follow such a path. But to follow in your footsteps was never my intention. Just like you said earlier, I wanted to follow in my mother’s and I am not going to kill somebody because of their outrageous behaviour, no matter how tempting. I will not be a pawn of Paragon.”

“You’ve done terrible things, dear,” she tells me. “I think it was you who killed Daniel Lee.”

“And I have to live with that. Unlike you, Jackie, I am willing to come to terms with it and not destroy every person who steps across my path. I thought for the longest time that destroying this organization for what they did to my mother was the only way to get some closure and be free. But actually, the best thing to do was look you straight in the eyes and see the monster I was becoming. My mother tried to convince of it two years ago when I started this and as much as I blamed her for so long, you’re right…”

“I’m right?” Jackie asks.

“You said my mother tried to stop everything before it could get started and you pitied her. I did for a moment too until I realized I was falling for the same woman’s manipulations.”

“So, you’re going to just let me walk out of here and we are going to go on with life?”

I raise my eyebrows and look around what had once been a dance floor. “Jackie, if you can get out of here, life has a different road for you. I guess we’ll see then, won’t we?”

Jackie tries to get up and then stumbles back to the floor. No doubt she’s dizzy.

“Goodbye, Jackie Collins.”

Right as I say it, the roof crashes in and separates us with a wall of flames. The impact rattles the floor and I am blown backwards hard. As I try to get back on my feet, countless other pieces of debris rain from above, crumbling onto the floor and try to capture me in the blazing balls of hell as well. I roll out of the way as the upper level collapses and tables and chairs fall down in sparks and flares. I am back on my feet as fast as I can. Ashes covering me in a thick layer, small flames, like fireflies in the darkest of nights, specking my clothing and burning through to my flesh. I ignore the pain as best as I can. Now things are starting to hit home like the numb feeling in my face now blooming into actual pain and how much my body hurts. I feel like one pulsating bruise.

As I hightail it past the bar on my right, I notice the shutters to outside are either down or completely engulfed in flames. Going that way will be deadly. I spot a window next to one and run for it.

Something blows up behind me, the heat from it burning against my back and my ears pop. The window is broken thankfully. I climb out of it, my bare feet stepping on broken glass. I wince but I don’t hesitate. To do so will be the difference between life and death.

I am outside now. I can hear the authorities in the distance. In my efforts to get farther away, I hop over the railing to the parking lot. My foot catches and I tumble to the pavement. The ground doesn’t hurt as much as I expected it to. I still have enough strength to move, to crawl. I am going. Something else blows up and I am halfway across the parking lot now. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. And then everything goes silent. I’ve crawled to the edge of the parking lot, slipped into the bush and out of sight of anybody who will be there in the minutes to come. Sure that I am hidden, I lie on my back and look up at the night sky. Even with all the chaos, it is completely still up there. More so now, with the sparks shooting into the night, they really do look like fireflies. I find one and follow it all the way up as far as it can go before something blows up again and the chaos reigns on.

Featured

Divine Deception — Afterlife

They say that the afterlife is paved out for you with either a staircase or a highway, like two halves of an identity: Who we are when we are born and who we are when we die. The consequences differentiate whether you take the left path or the right. But for many the paths begin to blur, leaving us with a duality governed between the balance of good and evil. Everybody has the option to do good as they are capable of doing evil, yet it is those who have the capability to combine the two into one and force them to work together that hold the most powerful control.

The elevator comes to a halt and I regulate my breathing. In and out. In and out. There is a staleness to the air and my fist closes on the sword I found downstairs. As the doors in front of me open, my heart feels as if it is about to spring from my chest, on a mile long sprint that my mind and body struggle to keep up with. I’ve felt like this many times before over the past few days. That this is my moment, that it all ends here. But this time it is different. This time I am not questioning myself. Nothing feels out of the ordinary and I know for a fact whether I die here or Jackie and this organization does, it will all be over in an hour at most.

I swallow hard as I take a step out of the elevator. Finally, I can say that I am ready and actually believe it.

The halls are silent as my bare feet step casually along the cold marble floor. There are countless glass partitions separating office from office, each one holding a long desk and a half a dozen chairs. Everything is so immaculate, put together like not a soul has touched it for years and like it’s on display for tourists at some local museum. But I can imagine the traffic that bulls down these halls and through these rooms on any other day. Men in sharp suits and creases in their pants. Women with phones attached to their ears while they jot down the latest information on a new target. For a moment, I could even imagine my mother in one of those chairs in the office, sitting across from Reginald Peters, going over files about how best to move to Sunset and begin their mission together. Ugh, it just makes me feel sick to my stomach. I bite my cheek to pull my focus onto something else.

The hall stops at a pair of double doors. This is it. From the blueprints I scanned over downstairs, I know this is Jackie’s office and glimpsing through the narrow windows in the doors, I spot her. At her desk, hunched over a document like it’s just another night doing overtime at work. Just the sight of her makes my whole body feel like fire.

I take a deep breath, my one hand on the door handle while the other keeps a firm grip on my blade. The strong hold makes my hands shake and I decide to spin the weapon in my grasp. First the blade straight ahead then so it is along my forearm. Back, forth. Back, forth. Another deep breath and I open the door.

I can’t say if Jackie expects me or not. I would have thought she’d jump, gasp or at least look up at me as I step inside. Instead, it’s as if she is so fixated on the document in front of her that she can hardly strip her gaze away from it to see the immediate doom that is now feet from her position. There’s a part of me that wants to chuck the blade in my hands at her head—quick, seamless. No, I want her to see it. I want her to tremble and flinch, unable to comprehend anything that is going on around her. Because of this, I wait for her to look up at me.

And she finally does. Her eyes flash. She’s not angry. It could be shock that I am standing there, but it could also be amusement of some kind. Maybe I’m being careless. There’s always the possibility that I’ve walked straight into one of her traps.

She takes a deep breath and looks past me, out the door as if unfazed by my ability to bypass the man. Maybe I should take that as a compliment.

“Where’s Arthur?” she says finally, cupping her chin with the back of her hand.

“Grovelling downstairs,” I say. “That is, of course, if he wasn’t stupid enough to try to follow me up. Just one weak guard after the other.”

“You have broken into my company, you have made countless attempts at ruining it from the insides… Have you killed Arthur?”

I shake my head. “No, but I will have simplified your payroll by the time this is all done and over with.”

Jackie chuckles. “Your arrogance is amusing. I think it would be worth understanding that I’m the one with the gun.” She motions to the firearm next to her on the surface of the desk.

I raise the small sword in my hand. “Should we bet on who has the quicker reflexes?”

Jackie’s face darkens and I relish it. I may not have been able to read her when I first stepped in, but I know this expression. Jackie has never shown me her true fear. Now thinking about it, all the times she feigned worry for me during our missions over the year, it all seems as phony as broadway theatre when compared to this.

“You killed my parents, you targetted my family and now it is your time to face the consequences.” I step towards Jackie, my hand ready to let the sword fly if she even looks over at her gun. “You know what the funniest part of it all is? As destroyers we’re taught that the best way to get our point across is to rip imaginary holes inside of our targets, to make them feel an emptiness that no matter how hard they try, they can’t fill, destined to live a long, agonizing life…” I shrug my shoulders. “Or whatever you want to call this hell you live in.”

“We can still work together,” Jackie says, an urgency to her voice.

I smirk. “There never was any ‘we’ was there? It was only you—Paragon—looking to screw anybody who you thought you could take advantage of.” Jackie doesn’t say a word as I make it in front of her, only the desk separating us. “But you… I’m willing to take a step out of the box.”

“Paradise has its price.”

“Paradise?” I repeat with a chuckle. “Do you think this is what it is all about? Ruining people’s lives, hunting them down and tarnishing their reputations so that one can finish off their days looking back at the illusion that we pretend was life?”

“We were bringing those who hurt others to justice!”

“Tell me, Jackie, were you bringing my mother to justice when you threw her into the Alto household knowing full well what you had planned for her? Were you bringing her to justice when you let Reginald Peters come after me just to regain some control over my mother? Were you bringing her to justice when you had Daniel Lee keep an eye on me and stalk me just to figure out where my mother was?” I don’t let her answer. “No, you were trying to suffocate a fire that had broken out a long time ago.”

“That’s not—”

“Don’t lie to me, Jackie. I’ve had enough of it from you for a while. It seems lately, the people who should be brought to justice are those playing the puppeteers. And for me, I’m cutting those strings right now.” I motion for her to stand up and meet me on the other side of the desk.

Jackie’s body language has changed drastically in the little time we’ve been together. For a woman who had been much more focused on her document when I first stepped in, she is now actually shaking. Hands pressed to her front, arms close. Even as she walks, she struggles to have that confidence in her stride. Legs adjacent, back straight? Nope. Jackie has turned into an old woman right before my very eyes. Good. That’s exactly how I want her.

I watch her fingers as they slide across the surface of the desk. My hand clutches the handle of the sword as they near the gun. If she even thinks about trying to go for that gun… But she doesn’t. She covers her face with her other hand, crying in her palm. Her fingers on the desk slide out of sight…

Then there is a buzzing noise. The lights go out and there is an odour in the air. I can’t place it. It’s strong, toxic and makes my head pound. It comes fast and hard and finally I can’t stand it. In the darkness, I drop to the ground and the world around me slips away.

Waves, water, the sounds of seagulls nearby. I lay face down, listening to the ambience. I can smell the salt in the air, I can almost taste it too. Where am I? I expect to feel hard wood under me but I don’t. It’s hard all right, but not solid. Sharp. Grating. It isn’t until I take a deep breath that I inhale it and feel it in between my teeth.

Sand.

And I’m not cold. I’m actually really warm. Even though my eyes are closed, I can feel sunlight on me, like a spotlight. I finally open my eyes and the realization hits me with enough force that I actually stop breathing: I am not in Jackie’s office anymore. I’m on a beach and the more I look, the more there is to see. Palm trees shoot into the sky next to me. A great, white and blue canopy softly ripples in the breeze high above in the sunlight. Perhaps Jackie transported by unconscious body out of the facility and off to some island. It is an abysmal possibility, but I dare not cast it aside.

I turn my head slowly, my surroundings slowly coming into focus the longer I stare. The beach is empty of people. I am the only person there—

About a yard away I spot somebody. It’s a blurry figure, but it’s somebody.

“Excuse me?” I say, but they don’t answer. I brush off the sand from my shoulders and stop dead when I realize I am not wearing what I wore back at Jackie’s. I’m in a purple tank top and skinny jeans. There’s something painfully familiar about it. I run my hands along the fabrics, a chill crossing my spine. I know this from somewhere…

I stand and get closer to the person. The closer I get the more I see. It’s a woman. Her back is to me, but even so I can see she’s a wee bit over dressed. A heavy silk gown hangs from her shoulders with a train that’s been covered in sand.

“Excuse me,” I say again and grab the woman’s shoulder.

I recoil as the woman turns to face me. Hair the colour of the beach itself and as real as the sand beneath my feet. But it is the similarities in our jaw structure and our lips that pull me up short. I take a step back in an instant. It’s my mother and as much as I miss her and want to touch her, I am afraid of her too. What if this is another one of Jackie’s tricks?

“Delilah,” she says, arms spread out ready to embrace me. I take another step back, ready to jump back if need be. I feel like a horrible daughter if this really is my mother. I want to hug her, but I can’t. I won’t lower my guard.

“What are you?”

“Darling, I’m your mother.”

It sounds like her. It looks like her. Hell, she even dresses like her. I trace the gown she’s wearing, remembering the wedding dresses we looked over time and time again before she died. She was always such a fan for lace.

Still, I say, “No.”

“Delilah…”

“No, my mother is dead,” I say, taking another step back. “I watched her die—” I come up short and it is as if it all comes at me in great force. That’s where I am. I look down at my clothing. It’s the same thing I wore that very night.

“Delilah, what are you doing?”

I meet my mother’s eyes again and I can see the pain she holds and it is as if I can read her mind.

“What am I doing?” I repeat. “I’m finishing everything. For me, for you, for everybody.”

“Why?”

I feel my face redden and my eyes narrow. “Why? Because I have to stop them.” From fear of this woman to anger and frustration like that. How can she not understand this? Of all people, she should not be the person questioning me about this! “How dare you ask me something like that. No one is safe and I have to be the one to stop Paragon. It’s me.”

“It’s you, what?” My mother is not angry, though the more I look at her, the more I can see something else: pity. “This isn’t what I wanted for you, Delilah.”

I chuckle. “What did you want for me? What? Follow in your footsteps and try running from them?” I want to add that we all saw how that worked out, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

“What are you planning on doing exactly?” she asks me, but I don’t look at her when she speaks. Then she adds, “Going to kill Jackie, is that it? Destroy her like she destroyed us?” She shakes her head in disapproval. “Look at yourself, Delilah. You’re losing it all, losing everything I ever wanted for you. And just think about how much you are going to lose if you go forward with this. I lost everything when I killed your father—”

“It’s not the same.”

She puts her hands on my arms. “It’s exactly the same. Whether you love the person or not, you still kill that innocence inside of you.”

“I’ve killed before,” I mumble, still not looking at her.

“There’s a difference between doing something in shock, out of loss. And it’s another thing to do it deliberately.”

I yank my arm back. “I did this all for you and I can’t walk away from it now.”

I turn around and start walking away from my mother. She doesn’t stand still, though. She is right at my side, tugging at me, telling me it is not the way.

“What is the way?” I yell, spinning around to face her again. “Run away and hope for the best? Wait for them to follow me and my family and hope that it all works out again? I’m going to need more than some hope to get this out of my life because your way showed no proof of working!” My head is shaking, my whole body is and I want to throttle her so badly. Why can’t she see that she is not right here? “I am going to find Jackie and I’m going to show her how powerful a destroyer can be.”

“You’re going too far.”

“You have no clue how far I’ve come.” I turn around and walk away, my mother not following me this time. I can hear her. She’s telling me how she never wanted this for me, that I need to allow life to be its own scales and not to force balance like The Nest brainwashed me into believing.

And before I know it, the world is turning black and I am slipping into darkness.

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Divine Deception — Ambush

They say that love is the lightness and obsession is its antagonistic brother, hard set into finding a way to hurt and destroy while still remaining loyal. But it is only when they come together can they blur the line that separates them. Once the hand that aided, nourished and showed mercy, now nothing but an all-consuming blaze, stretching high into the sky and forced to devour anything in its path.

He comes at me in constant, rhythmical steps. Six feet tall, dark hair and a body shape that seems all too familiar. But it doesn’t matter how long I stare at his face as he comes nearer, I can’t seem to get a grasp of where I’ve seen him before. Then he stops dead, a few feet from me and it comes to me. Arthur. For something as simple as glasses, I hardly recognize him without them. Or without his ear glued to the side of his phone. Seeing him is hardly a surprise, though I didn’t expect to see him so early on in the mission. Offices and labs that contain only the topmost personnel fill the halls above me. I expected no other place for him with his soft hands and pressed suit. At least this way we can have our privacy.

I pull my gun up and aim for where I expect a heart to be. In front of it, a pocket holds an official office pen, its clip emblazoned with the company’s logo. Ugh, Paragon. Gun at the ready, I release its safety. Arthur doesn’t move. He doesn’t speak. Not even a flinch. Nothing, and for a moment, only the pulsating bass from the club floors above us find a way to filter through the walls and coexist between us. As I tighten my grip, I wonder what Arthur’s thinking. What am I doing here, perhaps? Or maybe why I have a gun pointed at him? Where would Matt’s wife get anything like that? Easy answer: a woman gave it to me—my partner gave it to me before I left my house to aid in my wish to take you all down. And it’s a good thing she did. Taking out Arthur and getting to the offices upstairs will be so much easier this way.

“I expected no different from somebody like you,” he says right as my finger slides over the trigger. “Any woman interested in my son and isn’t fangirling all over him has something else up her sleeve.”

“Hmm…” I smirk, tilting my head. “Arthur, I never thought you noticed. Don’t tell me I got it wrong with you. You actually do see more than you let on. And to think I questioned that night of the engagement party.”

“I wouldn’t say the alcohol hadn’t overtaken my judgement, but I meant every word. It was hard not to see you coming a mile away. Just like I said that night, there’s nothing you could do to convince me differently.”

I nod. Not to agree but more of something to do. If Arthur was as on top of things as he so very much believed, why am I here with a gun to his chest and there is nothing on him but a belt and a pen? I make a gesture to the board next to me. “And this? This is all you too?”

“No, actually,” somebody says from up the stairs. I spot their white shoes with little red bows first. Then with another step, they are completely in my line of sight. “It’s been a joined effort.”

Jackie comes into focus and the blood in my veins become tingly. She’s here! She’s here and she’s calm. She walks down the stairs casually, one step then the other. Each heel of her pointy shoes clicking off the shiny stairs like she’s the last lady to arrive at a ball. She looks the part too. Eyes sparkling, hair done up without a strand out of place, like some movie star. But I hadn’t been expecting to see her now and just that makes feelings of confusion and anticipation begin to churn in my stomach. Had Paragon been able to get her after I left? No, she’d be frightened, not calmly walking down the stairs like she owns the place. No, with confidence came things working in an orderly fashion. Jackie has to be here because things are panning out. She’s here to help me take out Arthur.

Then she halts next to Arthur and I know right then that I’m wrong.

“That board is your timeline,” she says to me. “Everything from the moment your mother stepped foot into our organization is on that board and it all leads us to this very moment.”

“You?”

I don’t want to believe it. That Jackie, the woman I have put all my trust and faith into, could betray me. But just the way she leers at me, lifts an eyebrow. It confirms everything.

“No,” I mumble under my breath and my aim becomes unstable. It’s as if my limbs have turned to blocks of ice and I have been impaled my countless Mack trucks. Just by the way Jackie said “our organization” too I know there is nothing between her and me. Our organization means Paragon and everybody knows what I think of Paragon. My breath catches and I actually think my heart is going to break my ribs and somehow manage to fight its way out of my chest.

“You’re with them.” I barely muster enough courage to speak the words out loud.

There’s a cold and sharp look to her otherwise pudgy face. “I am them.”

I shake my head, not wanting to believe, not wanting to hear it. This can’t be true. It can’t be!

“But you took out Outlook!”

“No, no. We took out Outlook. I lured them to the meeting, you distracted them. Paragon did the dirty work and you proved yourself to be the destroyer you always were.” She snickers as she breaks off her eye contact and looks at her nails. “Just like your mother.”

“You betrayed her too.” I spit it out like it’s made of venom.

Jackie stops smiling. “I backed your mother all the way—she was my top destroyer. But she became blind to her surroundings and lost track of her path, and it destroyed her.”

You destroyed her!” I counter, the gun trembling in my hands the more I feel my rage bubbling inside of me.

“I was helping her. Do you not understand how many chances I had to hurt that woman?” She looks me deep in the eyes. “But you can’t let any of that go, can you? Still blaming everybody, as well as yourself, for the mess your mother put herself in. It’s because of her own rebelling behaviour that got her killed, that stuck her in that cell all those years ago.”

“Had Reginald Peters all up in arms,” Arthur tags on as more of a reminder to Jackie than to inform me directly.

“You hired him,” I say. “Tell me, Jackie, why all the running around? To museums, to Matthew? Why didn’t you just kill me when you had the chance?”

“To see how capable you were. Finding qualified men and women takes more than a filled resumé. It takes initiative, hard work and an understanding of one’s own mind. But you… You have that something special.”

“You’re insane,” I tell her.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. You’ve proven yourself worthy of the same chair your mother claimed when we first met. I see the same fire in your eyes, the same strength in your heart.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Come now,” Arthur says with an air of arrogance. “There is no need for language.”

How much I hate him… But I hate her more and focus on those mutton chops of hers. “I know how you work. I’ve been watching it for years now.”

Jackie raises her eyebrows, pulling back. “You’re declining my offer then?”

“No shit.”

“Well… it seems you’re still as naïve as the first day we met… just a stupid girl with an ego and mommy issues she can’t let go of. I would have hoped you’d have a clearer head on your shoulders now. But now you’re struggling to see the forest for the trees. Paragon could have saved you.”

The beginnings of a deranged smirk enchant my mouth. “I’m not the one who needs saving,” I say. Jackie’s belittling tone and words have begun to crawl under my skin and finally, after hearing her out, I can pull the trigger. My aim is on her and I pull down.

Click.

It doesn’t register and I pull the trigger again and again and again.

Click. Click. Click.

I know it’s loaded with a full magazine! I checked it before I left!

Jackie throws her head back in laughter. “Did you honestly think I would have sent you off with a loaded gun? All that’s in there is a weighted empty magazine.”

Now Jackie has a gun in her hands and I know for a fact that she’s not been so careless. The gun is full of bullets that she wouldn’t hesitate to use on me if I dared step out of line. In the next few moments, she gestures for Arthur to cuff me up—he has a pair of handcuffs in his back pocket—and he comes at me. I drop my own gun and listen to it clatter to the floor.

“Take her to the cells downstairs,” Jackie tells him now that my hands are tied behind my back. Then she turns her attention back on me. “Delilah, I hope you reconsider my offer. We can still work together.”

I am pushed forward, Arthur digging his knuckles into the small of my back. He leads me to the elevator he used earlier and forces me inside. I try to writhe free, but he straightens me out and closes the elevator doors. The last thing I see is Jackie’s eyes staring me down until we are separated completely.

I am left looking at my blurry reflection in the elevator doors, Jackie’s last words buzzing in my head. She wants me to join her? Take my mother’s seat in Paragon? Is she nuts? Before I can answer any of them, an overbearing voice steamrolls over everything. It reminds me of what an idiot I have been to trust in somebody so willingly. What was it that she said? That my mother became blinded from her path? I don’t think I have fallen victim to it but much the opposite. I’ve been blinded by my path and that’s it.

The elevator doors open moments later and I am pushed forward again. It’s a dark aisle made of concrete walls and a dirt floor. Two cells are on my left and for the life of me I can’t understand how they are standing under many floors of offices and a dance club. I expect to see this in some old castle off the shores of England. Not here.

Arthur turns me, takes off my cuffs, gives me an all too familiar push and I stumble into the nearest cell. He grabs the door, closes it and locks me inside. As I turn around, we share a brief look of something. Disbelief maybe? For him maybe it’s because he’s gotten me in here without much of a fight. Yeah, I can’t believe it either, but it’s as if my entire body has turned into nothing.

I grab onto the bars that separate the two of us, forcing myself to keep my eyes on his, pleading inwardly that maybe betrayal is in the air and that there is the smallest of possibilities that he could decide to betray Jackie and that he’s actually on my side, has been this whole time and will let me out.

But when he shakes his head, grinning, I know that’s a possibility for some other story, some other life where convenience is only an arm’s length away. I bang on the bars, cursing Arthur, calling him some very choice names, and slide to the floor.

It feels like an hour has gone by after I’ve considered what all has happened. Jackie has not shown up like I expected she would. Arthur hasn’t said a word. There is an open space at the end of the aisle that I can barely see, but I catch the flicker of candlelight on the far wall and Arthur’s shadow from time to time. I can also hear ruffling. Arthur must be rifling through papers of some sort. He mumbles under his breath from time to time, but I can’t understand him. And at the same time, I don’t care enough to want to.

I’m in my own mind, thinking about what Jackie said earlier, thinking about it was her behind my mother’s recruitment, that she was the one to send my mother to prison after forcing the murder of my father. I always thought it had been a man who had pulled the strings of my mother’s marionette limbs. Yet, it turned out to be another woman and just the thought of it makes me sick. Not just a woman. The woman I trusted. The woman that held my son. The woman who tossed a wrench into everything I planned one year ago.

I need to stop that woman.

I pull a bobby pin from my hair and watch Arthur’s shadow to see where he is and where he is looking. Once I am in the clear, I head for the cell door. It’s an old-fashioned thing that I could have unlocked with something the size of a fork. The bobby pin works just as well. I feel for the tumblers, play around a bit and the mechanism releases.

Pushing the door open just a pinch, wide enough to stick my head through, I sneak a peek into the open area at the end of the aisle. Arthur’s back is to me. He’s hunched over a desk with multiple papers on it. I push the door open a little bit farther and it creaks. Just from how Arthur’s shoulders stiffen, I know he’s caught onto me. He’s not fast enough, though. The bridge of my foot catches him across the face as he turns to face me and he twirls in a daze, his arms outstretched. He pushes off the wall in an attempt to regain his balance as well as launch at me. Fist aimed for my face, I grab it before it can make contact. I twist it almost instantly, hear Arthur cries in my arms as he hunches over. My knee to his abdomen stops him and he gasps for air. Using his momentum to my advantage and swift hand manoeuvres, I flip Arthur to the ground. I hear a snapping noise before I let go of his wrist.

“You bitch!” Arthur gasps, holding his wrist as I dust my hands off for effect. His eyes are burning, I can tell just by how red they are and I can only imagine the pain he’s feeling from his wrist. From the looks of it, I may have broken it.

“Oh, come now. There’s no need for language.” I smile wolfishly. “Besides, it’s nothing compared to having to live with that horrid crowd you call a family. You’re getting off easy.”

“My wrist! My wrist!”

I make it to the table behind me where he’d been hunched over previously. “Minor wound, Arthur,” I scoff. “Just payback for the jabs to my back.”

But Arthur doesn’t seem to take lightly to my offhanded comments. His breathing has gotten rapid and he’s trying to get up but can’t. I don’t feel nervous about turning my back on him as he howls and mumbled about what a terrible person I am. The papers he was rifling through earlier, however, are the Grind’s blueprints and how they are looking to create new additions. Great. Just what we need: Paragon to get as big as their egos. On the bright side, at least I now know where Jackie’s office is. I’d hate to waste time.

Arthur is still going on as I turn around, explaining how I won’t be able to get past Jackie. I know he’s trying, as pathetic as his attempts are, to get inside my head. I give him a good kick to his gut to shut him up. I am in no mood now to play nice. He may be onto something very minor, though. Going after Jackie might be a bit more difficult if I’m not prepared. The last I saw of her, she was wielding and the only gun I know of is full of blanks. No, I’ll need something else.

In the corner of the area are countless crates that hold many of the Grind’s decorations. I step over Arthur’s moaning and bitching body and pull off the tops of some. There are Halloween decorations with light up pumpkins, black and orange streamers and fake cobwebs. There are Christmas tree bobs and beads galore. But deep at the bottom of one crate is full of decorations unfit for any holiday. These things are worth money. Tapestries and displays are protected by bubble wrap and with a bit of digging, I find something I may be able to use to my advantage. It’s a family crest. Vita had one that she’d hung on the mantle above the fireplace in our home in Sunset. And like that one, this one has a pair of real mini swords crisscrossed at the back of it. I pull them out.

As I begin to head back to the elevator, Arthur speaks out.

“I should have killed you in Riverview.”

I stop in my tracks and turn back toward him. “We didn’t meet in Riverview, Arthur.”

“That doesn’t mean I didn’t know of you.” He wheezes as he breathes, trying to get to a standing position. “Who do you think was in charge of Reginald Peter’s termination?”

For the first time, I see humour tickle the corners of his lips.

“He’d lost his mind because of your mother and was going to kill you to make her pay. I was the one that stopped that from happening. I ordered his death.”

I turn still as stone, gazing down at the man. I always wondered what exactly happened that horrible winter night. Nathan in my arms, Peters going off like a mental man. It’s not hard to lose oneself in the moment and when I asked about it later, my mother said it wasn’t her. That it was Paragon who shot Peters. But I never knew who exactly… until today.

“You’re lying,” I finally say. I never want to be indebted to this man, or anybody from the hellhole for that matter.

He disregards me. “I should have continued the duty and had the rest of you offed as well. Would have saved a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you say?” He raises his hand to me. “Wouldn’t have had to deal with all this or even that bloody ring on your finger.”

“This ring?” I raise my own hand. I don’t wait for his response as I pull the ring off of its finger and toss it on the floor next to him. “It’s all yours, Arthur,” I tell him and turn back to head for the elevator. I press the button and listen to the doors open. “I would keep out of my way if I were you. If you think your wrist is something to bat an eye at, you won’t enjoy seeing me again.”

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Divine Deception — Little Red Lines

To believe that fate is already etched in stone from the moment of birth, one must come to terms with the fact that life itself is but a gathering of predetermined events, strung together by little red lines. In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one could believe there was nothing Caesar could have done to avoid his death even if his arrogance blinded him to the possibility of it. But can a belief in this path we call life be as unyielding as it is eternal? Or can one’s true fate only be revealed once they come to the end of their journey and meet their end?

“We’ll be there will bells on, Mother,” Matt says on the other side of the bed, phone to his ear. Like he’s been there for the last twenty minutes. I can guess what Eadie is saying on the other end of the line. That she’s been worried sick since we went on our honeymoon and that she hasn’t seen him since the wedding a few weeks ago. Eadie must have just invited us for dinner, I can tell. Just by how Matt’s eyes dance around as his mother babbles on and on about how she misses him. Me? She couldn’t care less. Just another day.

“She’s excited to see you,” Matt tells me enthusiastically after he’s ended the call. A little too enthusiastically if you ask me and from the look in his eyes, I can tell Eadie didn’t say one word about me. I listen to him though, let him go on as he gets up from the bed and begins getting dressed. The funny part is if Eadie and I do end up seeing each other tonight, it’s going to be one hell of a time.

Even if I nod my head and make it seem like I am excited for this gathering of theirs, I don’t plan on being there for any of it. Tonight is the night I have been waiting for an extremely long time. Tonight is when I break into Paragon.

I’ll admit, I didn’t see this day ever coming. Breaking into Paragon? Sure, I’ve fantasized about it back a year ago when I first stepped onto the tarmac of that horrible Grind bar scene. But to actually know deep down that in less than a day, less than half a day, I will be walking in and ruining everything like the destroyer they created themselves.

I kiss Matt goodbye and watch him leave the house.

I make it to the other side of the city in a little less than six hours. It’s not all travelling, though. I’ve stopped at my house, went over everything with Jackie and Whitman. I gathered my weapons, my intel, my everything. I checked over all our files just to make sure we haven’t missed anything. Nope. This is it. Jackie and Whitman both offer their suggestions, hand me a map and get me into my car.

“Remember that construction site,” Jackie had mentioned to me through my car’s open window and now I stand right there. From everything I was able to gather from Matt’s laptop, I learned that Paragon’s headquarters are floors beneath the Grind. Same land, same building, just many feet beneath the water’s surface. It’s funny. When I walked into the club many months ago, the last thing I would have suspected was that I was actually standing on top of the very place I looked to destroy. Yet here I am again, all set.

And about the construction site: it’s my main entry to those bottom floors. Going through the front doors of the Grind and fighting past hordes of guards, security or whatever Paragon has in line for me just isn’t ideal, not now anyway. Whitman mentioned going through the tunnels only accessible through the depths of the lake. Time seems to be working for us rather than against us lately. Back many years ago, the water tunnels had been blocked by rocks and the lake’s natural seal. But because of a new power plant being put in on the other side of the lake, workers have gone under water and begun clearing everything for safety measures. And as it seems today, for my convenience!

I make it across the construction site in no time at all, climb over crates and past barricades. On the other side, I check my surroundings. I can see the Grind far on the other side of the lake, flashing neon spotlights swimming into the night sky. But other than that, the area is pretty much lifeless. No boats on the water, nobody on the road. There’s not even a working light in the construction zone that I need to keep away from.

I slip my fist-sized rebreather into my mouth and dive into the water. The temperature of the water makes my body flinch. I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold for the beginning of April, especially with my wetsuit. But as I swim more, deeper into the depths of the lake darkened by what seemed like the jaws of hell itself, water surrounds my body and heats up and the warmer I get. Twenty minutes into my work and it’s like I’ve been gifted heated waters.

The farther I go, I am tempted to turn on my dive light. I can’t see anything in front of me and where I have come from could be anywhere. The only thing I can make out is the moon way above my head. Because of this, I decide against it. A dive light will be much too bright for the dead of night. I don’t need anybody catching sight of a random beam, not now. Instead, I bring my arm forward. Velcroed to it is a waterproof GPS. Its interface is dim but enough to light some of my way.

I finally make contact with one of the tunnels Whitman referenced earlier. By now I have somewhat gotten accustomed to travelling by my GPS only and almost collide with the wall with a thud. Thankfully, I keep my hands out in front of me and they save me from such injury. I make my way inside.

The tunnels tighten around me like the coils of a python. Even with a rebreather, I struggle to catch my breath. I’ve been in tight spaces before, but this… It’s different somehow… Like my lungs are being squeezed by unseen hands. Before long, the passage is expanding again and I make it to the surface.

But even as I get out, I feel that something is off. The air smells like algae mixed with chlorine. That’s not so surprising. I am in a water treatment room it looks like. Big machines making sloshing noises is something to be expected. Yet it’s not that that feels wrong.

“It’s nothing,” I tell myself, pulling the rebreather from my mouth and straightening up. It’s probably my excitement. This has been what I’ve been going after for so long and what I’ve lost so much going after. I’d be off myself if I wasn’t beginning to feel slightly overwhelmed.

There’s a door on the other side of the room—only one. I don’t bother trying to open the door. It will be locked and the only reason I know is because of the weird mechanism beside it. Next to it is a square plaque with a hole in its middle. This is the old-style lock Jackie had told me about and the reason why I ran around the museum back in the winter. In my back pocket, I pull out the blue gem I stole. It clicks into place and I hear the lock actually click open. Putting the gem back, I walk through the door.

The hallways are bare for the most part as I keep silent, moving forward. Even for how tight they are, there’s an airy quality about them to the point where they seem cold and distant. I check a few doors as I pass them. They are all locked. I’ve come prepared, though. I’ve brought a screwdriver with me as well as a hand-sized crowbar. Down near the floor, I crouch to the nearest vent and begin taking it apart. It doesn’t take long and I’m inside it without any complications, sliding past sheet metal to the other end. Getting the vent on the other end off takes a bit more work, but I make do. With a few well-placed shots from my foot, the vent comes away easily and I pull myself out.

I can’t say the lighting is much better here. I can barely see a set of elevator doors on my right and the stairs straight across from me. A blossom of light catches my attention, however. In the gloom of the room, it’s like a fiery beacon, summoning me toward it. A board is on the other end, spotlights igniting it in a cone of blue. I stand without question, my steps towards the light long and steady. And I stop in front of it.

The first thing I see is my mother. It’s a photograph of her, it looks like a mugshot but much more delicate. A piece of tape keeps the photo to the board. A photo of my father is next to her, a red piece of string connecting the two of them. But it’s not only the two of them. The board is filled with other photos too! Vita, Nathan, even Grady is there. And then there are countless photos of me. I’m in the centre, strings connecting to and from me to everybody I’ve ever known.

“What is this?” I say, my hands shaking and for the life of me I can’t put any of it together. My eyes just follow string to string, from person to person and photo to photo. Me as a baby, my mother going to jail, me going to Master Lee’s.

I have to put a hand on the board. I have to make sure that it is real because there is no way I can actually be witnessing something so bizarre. My mind has to have created this on its own. The chlorine from the water treatment, something has to be the reason I am seeing this.

Yet my hand touches the surface of the board, my nails smoothly sinking into the cork. It’s as real as the air I’m breathing. It’s not in my head at all.

And then a ding comes out of nowhere and the elevator doors open.

Featured

Divine Deception — Memory Lane

They say that people are only capable of seeing what they are prepared to confront. Monsters, horrors and deception are all but figments of the imagination, covered up as fluffy white creations only seen in movies or books. But it is when the truth hits you straight in the face that those terrors become reality. The truth is like a battlefield, a terrible and violent path filled with the people who were your friends, hindered by your enemies and your hatred and sometimes even yourself. When you can finally open your eyes and see that the truth is out, sometimes the monsters have a way of getting in.

I stare out the open window as I listen to Matt’s breathing, waiting for a steady pattern that informs me that he’s left this world for the land of sleep. By the time it’s two in the morning, I decide that time is now. Just for safe measures, I speak to him, ask him if he’s awake and get a snore in response. Good. I get out of bed, grabbing his shirt in the process and head out to the living room.

The nights are rather chilly here in Dragon Valley. For how warm to the point of being humid it can be during the day, this has a way of surprising me. It doesn’t help that both Matt and I decided that leaving every window open overnight was a good idea. I don’t bother closing any. Instead I start a fire and stare into the flames, trying to urge myself to take the next step forward.

Since coming here, I can’t say I haven’t been reluctant about my mission process. There’s just something not right and like a jackhammer it’s nettles at the back of my brain, constantly jabbing at something I’ve overseen. I’ve run over it countless times, but for the life of me, I can’t find this hole I know is opening minute by minute.

“It’s just cold feet,” I mumble to myself, giving my hands a good shake. I force myself to get a hold of Matt’s computer and bring it over to the sofa and start it up. There’s an app on the desktop with a halo icon. When I press it, a login page appears. I know Matt doesn’t use this for Paragon purposes. I’d be surprised if he knew what this app did when he pressed it. From what I could gather from what Jackie said weeks ago, Arthur put this app on all of his devices at home in case he needed to check into the company urgently.

Hacking into it is as easy as inserting a thumb drive Whitman sent with me into the side of the laptop. This gets past Matt’s security and into Paragon in three easy steps.

I bite my lip as Paragon’s main system opens up to me. Everything is at my fingertips. Everything they’ve done. I get so excited my hands begin to shake. I curl them around the edge of the sofa to stop myself. Then I begin copying the files to the thumb drive. It’s not until I am watching file by file get copied that I notice a name that catches my attention.

SADIE LAWRENCE
PROFILE AND MISSION REPORT
OBJECTIVE: KILL NICK ALTO | DESTROY VITA ALTO

I open it.

Water, waves and the thumping of his feet as he walks across the hardwood flooring upstairs. It’s all I can focus on as I dig my nails into the cushion I sit on. I keep a smile on my face, not because of happiness or content, but for the reason if I don’t, I may very well scream at the top of my lungs for the bumbling fool upstairs to hurry it up.

His name is Gobias Koffi. My report says that he is a single sim who just hasn’t met the right woman, probably one of the reasons why “The Powers That Be” aka, my contacts, decided that he would be beneficial to our task, a task that I still haven’t been completely informed about. I was just shipped out like some mail-order bride to his doorstep to ask him if he wanted a roommate. It’s a good thing he isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree or else my hasty arrival would have seemed a little suspicious. Maybe he will be beneficial after all.

My eyebrows knit together. This was my mother? I just can’t hear her saying this. I flip through more pages and come across a photo of my father.

After a bit, I’ve lost track of where Nick is. I’ve experienced my meltdown and I know what I need to do for the rest of the day. Every time something goes off the rails as a Destroyer, I need to take some time to go with the flow and clear my head or else I know how much it is going to consume me. I find him standing over a pile of snow. With a closer look, I realize it was Nick’s attempt at a snowman.

I put a hand on his shoulder. “Build one with me.”

It doesn’t take long. I learn that Nick is great at decorating so I allow him to make the snowman look all pretty. When it’s done, I can’t help but laugh.

“What?” Nick asks so innocently.

“It looks like you.”

We both laugh and make our way to the car.

When I open my eyes, I am in the back of a police car. My hands are cuffed behind me and an older woman sits in the front, driving. She doesn’t seem to be one to talk and to be completely honest, I don’t even know what I would say. I’m not innocent. It wasn’t Vita who killed Nick and gradually I am forced to accept who I am. I am a Destroyer, sent on a mission to ruin the Alto family. I befriended a woman who would later despise me. I seduced a man from his wife. I stole a child from her family and married into it just to hurt Vita. I set everything up all the way to the point of conceiving a child with a man who was targeted for death. I scorned and swindled everybody within a ten-mile radius and it led to blood on my hands.

That’s all I can take. Tears pool in my eyes, blurring my vision so much that I feel as if I am looking at the bed of an underwater cavern. I turn off the computer and drop it on the sofa in one quick swoop before hurrying to the washroom.

I splash my face with water, wiping away the streaks that continue down my cheeks.

I spoke about all of this with my mother long ago. But to hear it again, read Sadie’s actual words took me to a completely different place. It’s reignited my hatred for Paragon, sure. They screwed my mother royally, hiring her to do their dirty work and when she needed them most, they tossed her to the wolves. How typical. But I’m not just angry. I don’t know what I am. Seeing that photograph of my mother and father together… They really did love each other. My mother loved him and then was forced to end his life.

I splash my face with water again and pat it dry. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I look like a little girl again, back with Vita in Sunset…

“I have played this game for a long time, Delilah, and I have hurt a lot of people, but what I’ve learned is that the only people who get hurt are the players.” She takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to play anymore, and you want to know why? Because everything has changed. You came into my life when your mother went to prison and you changed everything. I hated your mother for a long time, but after seeing you and Alicia sitting at the table today it made me realize differently. My end with your father was inevitable and I just wanted somebody to blame, to point a finger at. Sadie’s choices weren’t right, but I have to forgive her because if it wasn’t for her, you and I would never have been joined. I would never have been happy. I would have just continued to hurt myself and others.”

The memories keep coming.

“Do you have a problem with me staying here?”

“Of course not.” Nathan takes a seat in the chair next to mine. “I’d just like to know who is staying is all. You come here with barely any belongs, telling some stupid story about how you missed your bus and are trying to make it to Twinbrook. You haven’t said much about where you’re from and when I ask a simple question about your last name, your full name, you don’t dare answer it.”

I shake my head in irritation and look away. “I am just trying to get to Twinbrook–“

“And you’re getting twisted up in your own story. I thought you were going to Bridgeport.” He smirks. “See, you may be fooling the two in there but not me. I know I know you from somewhere and everything you’ve said since you stepped foot in this house I know has been a lie.”

“You seem to know a lot,” I retort.

“While I may not know who you are right now, I can guarantee you that I will figure it out. I will know who you are!”

“Delilah, listen to me. We need to go. I know you have a lot of questions, but it’s not safe here.”

I pull back. This woman knows what I want? She knows what I think? More questions begin to stir inside of me like why she has a gun and how did she know that I would be here? Was she connected to this man? Surely. They spoke as if they’d known one another for some time. The man that shot Nathan and almost shot me as well. “You don’t know the first thing about me.”

Sadie’s eyebrows come together. “But I do. I know your first breath, your first sound. Delilah, I’m your mother.”

I don’t know if this was supposed to bring us closer, if it was what Sadie hoped or believed, but I don’t fall into the trap. I still don’t know what I think of this woman, whether she’s my mother or not, and with all that’s gone on, I can’t make any rational decisions.

I feel a sudden need to appear on top of things, disregard her words and continue on with my questioning. “You led him here, didn’t you?” Looking up, I examine Sadie’s face. It’s bright red from the cold. Her eyes are watery, I’m sure from the cold as well, yet there’s a familiarity in her eyes. Something the two of us share. While we both have the same eyes, we also have the same concerned look in them as if we both know she did exactly that. Sadie Lawrence brought that man here whether she wanted to or not.

Sadie doesn’t answer so I decide to continue. “I’m not leaving Nathan.” I’ve gotten back to his side and pulled him to a sitting position. He’s still breathing and he has a pulse, although for how long, I can’t say for sure.

“You two were really close, weren’t you?”

My mother nods. “It’s funny, I think about that whole moment all the time… How I met Vita, how she welcomed me into her home, asked me to her parties…” She chuckles and pulls her arms close to herself. “Told me I could live with her when Gobias kicked me out. She was always there and even if she did bad things, deep down she really was a good person. She was a good friend…” Sadie brings her eyes up to meet mine. “And I destroyed it.”

I see in my mother’s eyes how much this affects her. Everything that happened the moment she’d been asked to travel to Sunset Valley, dropped off at Gobias’s house and asked to destroy Vita and Nick…

“How do you get past it?” I ask her. I watch her consider the question and she turns her body towards me, like she’d ready to open up and that’s when I hear the loud alarm go off. Across the path from us a hotdog eating contest is about to begin. They’re just waiting for somebody to fill the final spot.

“That brings back memories,” she says to me as she gets to her feet. She’s already started walking towards the table before I grab her arm.

“No, wait, how did you get past it?” I repeat, but she’s not listening. She’d actually dragging me with her to the table, going on and on about some person named Marlie and how they had met each other during one of these contests.

“So, Delilah, you want to embark in the path of the destroyer?”

I want to smile, it sounds so silly, but I remind myself of what my mother mentioned earlier. That we only have one chance at this. I straighten my face. “Yes. I want those who have hurt me to pay.”

Master Lee leers at me. “Somebody take those stilettos you really wanted from Holt Renfrew before you could get your hands on them?” He tosses his head back with a chuckle. “You’re Delilah Alto, one of the wealthiest girls in Sunset Valley and you want payback? If my students had a fraction of your life…”

His tone begins to catch me off guard. It’s not like a slap across my face. It’s slow, it lingers, and I don’t know what to say or do as it moves past me.

“My daughter has been through hell and back, Master Lee,” Sadie steps in.

“Your daughter is a selfish girl who always gets what she wants.” He raises his hand to stop both me and my mother from defending ourselves. “I have students who are train wrecks when they arrive at my doorstep, people who have been screwed by a higher hierarchy and have been broken into tiny fractures. Look at her. Delilah Alto looks to be doing quite well if you ask me.”

“Now, before I get you out of there, I want to know everything. Tell me who these people are and why.”

“You have to–” Daniel gasps, still trying to breathe as the waves he’s made himself slap him and threaten to choke him. While my hand is keeping him from dropping to the bottom, it’s still up to him to keep above the water’s surface. “You have to get me out of here!”

“I said I would once you start talking.”

“I promised them that I would do as they asked–“

“Who, Daniel? Who did you promise?”

He says who, but he’s coughing and sputtering that I can’t comprehend what he’s said. So I ask him again and he tells me.

“Paragon?” This time it is I who is sputtering. I had almost completely forgotten about the organization that my mother had been hired by to destroy the Altos. For I had believed that they’d been so quiet for so long because they were slowly withering away into nothingness, when in reality they were nothing but puppeteers dragging us all along for there little ride. The thought sickens me and it takes a lot for me not to rage on. No, I need to be smart. I need to think smart.

“I promised them that I would bring you in, convince you to work with them. Deli, we were going to work together, we were going to do great things.”

“No,” I say with a shake of the head. “Paragon doesn’t do great things. They are terrible people.”

“But I couldn’t do it,” he steamrolls on. “I couldn’t bring you back with me. They’d separate us and your life would turn into mine. A lie.”

“And what are we supposed to do now?” I ask him.

“Run, keep off the grid, whatever we can, Deli. They’ll look for us, but it won’t be hard to stay out of sight. We can do it.”

But the thing is, I know we can’t do it. My mother had been running from them since the moment she’d been betrayed by Paragon. She tried to distract them, keep out of their view so to speak and look where it got her. No, as easy as it sounds to keep off of Paragon’s radar, somehow, one way or another, the slimy organization finds a way, a hole, back to our feet. You can’t truly run away from Paragon. All one can do is delay them.

I pull Daniel in a bit closer to me. I let go of his hand and cup the jaw of his that goes on for days. I lean in closer again to him, put my mouth up to his ear and whisper, “Go to hell.”

I let him go completely as he splashes upon the surface of the water, the weight of the ball now heavier than ever, dragging his sorry body to the bottom of the pool. With Nathan by my side, I watch as Daniel fights for life, but he’s struggling more so than ever now. Our eyes connect, Daniel’s and mine. Where once was a shade of arrogance has been replaced with the look of bewilderment, betrayal and fear. Especially fear. Real fear because now there is no out.

“Yo-You promised you’d save me!” He coughs as he’s being pulled down, down, down.

I shrug. “I lied. Goodbye, Daniel.”

“You forced it?”

I look over my shoulder. Connie has stopped midstride on her way to the kitchen and glares at me. I try to ask her what she means, but she’s beaten me to the punch.

“You destroyed a child’s relationship with her parents, her family? Why?”

I give her a look of uncertainty. “Because we needed to get Matt out of the spotlight. By dragging him out and forcing her in, Matt’s become yesterday’s news.”

“And you couldn’t have found a different way? Deli, you tore a hole in a family’s tapestry, you hurt a young girl!”

I can see from where I sit that Connie’s emotions are stirring closer to the surface. I know she’s been dealing with a lot lately. She’s been uncertain about a lot that’s happened especially after Sean’s death, and yet her ability to question me rubs me the wrong way. I get up from my seat as she continues.

“Deli, I thought we were trying to gain access to into Paragon, not this… this… cruelty.”

“We are, but this way I have nailed two birds with one stone. I’m closer than ever to the Hammings—chasing their daughter to the ends of the earth to make sure she’s okay means something—and they have less reason to question my love for their son.”

“And the other bird?”

I sigh. “She deserved to know.”

I watch as Connie’s eyes round in both confusion and sadness.

“What?”

“Chloe deserved to know the truth. There should never have been a secret to break free in the first place. Something like that would hurt a girl if it came out at a time her parents believed was right. The sooner the better.”

“You don’t think she’s hurt now?”

“Oh she’s devastated,” I say matter-of-factly, “on the edge of her breaking point. But she’s not nearly as hurt as she would be when Edie and Arthur finally gathered the courage to break it to her. If anything, I did them all a favour.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you,” Connie mutters as she looks me up and down. I spot rage, real rage in her eyes and I think I spot maybe even pity. “SHE’S NOT YOU AND EDIE’S NOT VITA!”

The floor has started to swoop back and forth below me as I step out of the washroom and back into the living room. I grab onto the back of the sofa to stabilize myself in case I go down. I didn’t realize it until now how much had happened since this all began. To think earlier today I was hesitant about going forward with my mission. But now… It is exactly what I said to Daniel a year ago. We can never truly run away from Paragon. All we can do is delay them. I just wish all of them could be at my side when I do it. Nathan, Connie… My mother.

This is the beginning of the end and it all starts now.

Featured

Divine Deception — The Cabin in the Woods

To be the best destroyer, one must know their own strengths and weaknesses. Control has always been my hardest factor to overcome, and control is one of the toughest things for anybody to keep intact. It builds like the pressure of performance, the anxiety to be perfect and then it blows. But for others, the only way to regain control is to relinquish it. We believe we can save the ones we love by doing such a thing. But in reality, control is as simple as “1, 2, 3.” Let it go and go with the flow. Unfortunately, sometimes when we believe we have the control of the world, life reminds us that we are but a pawn in a powerful game of chess.

It’s been a day since our wedding and we’ve been driving for hours. Miles are behind us, towns we’ve driven through. We even had the opportunity to grab breakfast in one of the busiest venues in Roaring Heights without a reservation. But still, Matt refuses to tell me where we are going. “You’re going to love it,” he says, and “You mentioned it when we first met. Just wait, you’ll see!”

Well, I’ve waited and I am beginning to get impatient. I can’t say we haven’t seen some magnificent things. From the stunning waterfalls in Aurora Skies and the mountains in Lucky Palms, everything’s been beyond breathtaking. But nothing can overcome my butt as it falls asleep.

What I am happy with is that we both agreed to turn off our phones during our time away. While this doesn’t include my burner phone I still use to call home to Whitman and Jackie—and Nathan if he ever wants to talk to me again—it does include everything else. Meaning Samantha Hamming’s phone is off and so is Matt’s. Probably for the best anyway. Both of our phones had been going off like mad since we left yesterday, messages and voicemails congratulating us on our special day. I can only imagine how many have stacked up from Eadie.

I am about to bring it up when the car stops off the beaten path.

***

<“Okay, close your eyes,” Matt tells me eight hours later. “We’re getting close.”

I do as I am told and I feel as the car begins to slow down. The smell of salt water hits me and I know we are so close to the lake that I can almost taste it. That and I can hear the waves crashing into what I can only assume is a bed of rocks. Seagulls chatter above.

Matt brings the car to a complete stop. “Open your eyes.”

I’d be lying if I didn’t expect to see water, though, for some reason, I thought it would be a beach. Crusty old vacationers piling on the limited space on the sand while children screamed and caused scenes. I am thrilled I am wrong there. We are secluded from civilization, or at least it seems so. Thick trees surround the property, hiding it from street view and I feel as if I have stepped into solitude.

“A cabin in the woods,” Matt says as if reciting it. “Isn’t that what you said?”

I smirk. Actually, it is. During one of our first dates, I mentioned how I never liked all the big and powerful that the everyman desired. And being around Matt all day every day, the man who enforces attention whether it is from his overpowering family or the paparazzi every day he steps out of the house, Matt’s line of work hardly lets him off the hook. Going to some big fancy resort just seemed too much for a honeymoon. I always wanted something small and quaint. I glance around the lot again, my gaze slowly studying the house. This is exactly what I wanted.

The day goes by pretty slow and not in a bad way. The morning is spent doing what newlyweds do, but by the time lunch rolls around, we head out to the town to admire its simple life. I’ll hand it to Matt, he’s really outdone himself. It’s one thing to experience a little home I can imagine Snow White and her seven dwarfs living in, but a whole town? And every piece of land feels as if there is a fairy tale hidden inside of it. Like the bakeries with apple pies cooling in the windows or the wishing wells that play music when the water ripples. The roads that are made up of bricks and stone. I haven’t seen one that’s pavement.

By the time we return home, we’re exhausted. We change into our swimsuits and take two mattresses out to the water. Matt has the idea to bring a piece of rope with us and we tie our floaties together so that we are always at an arm’s length away. We sit and look up at the sky and drift side to side softly in the water’s smooth current. Watching the clouds, we spot the different shapes we think we see. One looks like a camel with four humps, two look like dogs and I swear the third one looks like Matt’s mother. He doesn’t agree. He says clouds can’t look angry all the time.

We do this for a few hours. Well, that and snooze here and there. I haven’t taken much time to think about it, but I’m actually quite tired.

I stay on my mattress while Matt grabs a fishing rod and attempts doing that. He’s not very good (Sorry Matt) though I can’t blame him. He’s never done it before and still he is much more patient that I think I could ever be. I find fishing is like Volvos. You either love it or hate it.

“It’s because of you,” he says, chuckling. “You gotta keep your floaty more still. You’re scaring all the fish away.”

“I’m sure that’s exactly it, hun.”

As we laugh, my phone rumbles in the cup holder of my mattress. I peek over my shoulder at Matt just to make sure he’s not looking. He’s not. I check the name of the caller. Jackie Collins. I bring the mattress back to land.

“What are you doing?” Matt asks me as I am throwing on my overdress. As I make eye contact with him, I can see the devilish grin on his lips. He sees the phone in my hand.

“I have to take it.”

“But we agreed to turn off both our phones for this trip.”

“I know—”

“Do you know how many times my mother’s called? Neither do I because I haven’t checked and here we are.”

“You have checked, you liar,” I joke with him and from the way he looks away it’s as if he knows that I’m right. Lucky guesses. “Anyway, it’s one of my charities that I’ve been waiting forever from.”

Matt shakes his head. “Fine, go.”

I am just about to go into the house when I realize what a bad idea it is. If Matt ends up coming in… So I head for the back of the cabin with the thickest of trees. From where I stand, I can still see Matt, but I doubt very much that he can hear me. I look down at the phone again at Jackie’s name, my thumb hovering over the accept button. I know what this phone call is about. Still, I am hesitant. Finally, after hearing it buzz for another five seconds, I answer it.

“Hello?” I say as if I don’t know who it is on the other end. I don’t know why I do it. There is just a hope in me that it’s not the person I know it is.

“Delilah, it’s Jackie Collins.”

Of course it is, I think, taking a deep breath as my insides burn. “Yes, how are you?”

“I’m quite well, thank you, but I am more interested in you. How are you?

“I’ve been better.” The tone in my voice isn’t uplifting, I know. There’s a part of me that wants Jackie to know that I am having second thoughts, that being away from everything and just relaxing has given me time to think. But I know how much is riding on this, how much I have sacrificed to get here.

“I can only imagine.”

My lips form a straight line. I wonder if she knows about what’s all gone on. I haven’t told her, or anybody for that matter about how Nathan left or where he’s gone. I expect they all know, but I can’t be exactly sure. Everytime anybody speaks, it’s all business these days. But they have to notice that Nathan’s not around. They’re in his house. Sure, they might believe he’s at the flat… I take a deep breath on the inside. At least Jackie agreed to take care of everything on that end. She told me before I left that during this stressful time, being so close to the end result, that I shouldn’t worry about anything. At least I can rely on that, because if I couldn’t, I don’t know what I would do. There is so much on my plate lately that stuff is falling off.

“I know how difficult this must be for you, but you need to know how great you are doing,” Jackie says. “Your mother would be so proud.”

I roll my eyes. The “Sadie would be so proud speech.”

“She wouldn’t,” I say with a shake of my head. “This is the furthest thing she would be proud of.”

“I don’t believe that. Sadie would be one of the few people to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. From avenging her death to slipping that wedding band on your finger. She’d understand it all.”

Glancing down at my wedding ring, I spin it around using my thumb. The motion is comparable to the knot that continues to tighten in my gut.

“I know what happened between you and Nathan, dear, and I know how hard this is to take those final steps. But just think of it this way: if you don’t, Nathan will always be gone. He’ll never come back and you won’t be able to move on from this. End it so that you can be with your family again.”

The phone goes dead and I look back at the cabin where Matt’s just gone inside. I know what she means by “end it.” All that’s left for me to do is get entry into Paragon using Matt’s laptop and then they are free to take on the company as a whole.

I lower my phone and turn it off. “I’m almost there,” I whisper to myself and head back inside.

“What should we do for dinner?” Matt asks me right as I close the door behind me. I don’t bother even thinking about an answer to his question. Instead I kiss him—hard—passionately. His hands around my arms, my fingers in his hair. And for a fleeting moment, I open my eyes and spy the laptop in the corner.

Featured

Divine Deception — The Blackest Day

Carry me home, got my blue nail polish on
It’s my favorite color and my favorite tone of song
I don’t really wanna break up, we got it going on
It’s what you gathered from my talk, but you were wrong
It’s not easy for me to talk about
A half-life in lost dreams
And not simple, it’s trigonometry
It’s hard to express
I can’t explain

*

“You look beautiful,” Chloe says to me, pulling me from my thoughts and my reflection. I turn to look at her and she almost looks unrecognizable herself. Hair straightened, pulled over her shoulder into some modern beauty queen of Instagram kind of style. “They’re almost ready for you.”

I can hear the rumble of guests entering and taking a seat on either side of the aisle. Men in tuxedos usher women to their seats while children hand out bubbles for everybody to blow once the groom has kissed his bride. My stomach tightens as I realize that that would be me.

Chloe giggles and takes me by my shoulders. “I can’t believe it, in only a few minutes, we are going to be sisters!”

Chloe’s excitement forces me to return her smile, though I struggle to know if this happiness would even exist if she got the slightest hint of what I had to do to make us sisters. If she knew all the hell I had put her and her family through to get to this point.

She tells me she will be right back, she just wants to make sure everything is running on schedule, and as she leaves I catch a peek of the crowd outside. Hetty Lionheart catches my attention first, dressed in what I can only describe as a green nightgown with pawprints all over it. She holds a basket in her arms and with a closer look, all of her feline friends are inside as if anxiously awaiting the show to begin.

But nothing can compare to what I see front and centre. Alannah steps into view. Just the sight of her makes me want to bust through the door and pummel her. It’s not enough that she somehow managed to slip inside for the wedding, she’s wearing the brightest, shiniest dress I have ever seen and sparkly all over. I have to actually turn my head so that I stop looking at her. I’m shaking.

Ever since my baby went away
It’s been the blackest day, it’s been the blackest day
All I hear is Billie Holiday
It’s all that I play
It’s all that I play

*

I notice Eadie at the front. She hasn’t acknowledged Alannah. I can’t tell if she hadn’t seen her—she’s been blubbering since the day began so who knows—or if she’s trying to respect her son’s wishes and keep her at arm’s length. It must have come to light that today was happening. Maybe she finally has accepted it. I am sure the sobs aren’t coming from the very fact that her son has found the woman of his dreams.

I close the door and look up at the ceiling, no, past the ceiling, to the sky, to the heavens.

“But that’s not how it works, is it?” I ask my mother in hopes that she’s listening. “I’m not the woman of his dreams and he’s not the man I love. But that’s not what we do or who we are, is it, Mother?”

Before I can get an answer, Chloe’s at the door again and telling me that everybody’s ready for me.

Because I’m going deeper and deeper (deeper)
Harder and harder (harder)
Getting darker and darker
Looking for love
In all the wrong places
Oh my god
In all the wrong places
Oh my god

*

I take a deep breath and collect my bouquet and start down the aisle. Men and women on both sides stand up as if in one motion and I can see each of their faces. Man, woman, young, old. Most of them I have no idea who they are, but they are there, watching me, they are here for Matt and me.

At the end, Matt stands waiting for me. Our eyes lock and he is who I am strutting for now. And the rest of the ceremony flies by me and goes off without a hitch. I expect Alannah is going to stand up and tell everybody how wrong I am for Matt, that maybe Eadie will back her up, but neither of them do anything.

The rest of the day follows as one would expect. We are rushed down the aisle, bubbles and confetti fluttering around us to the point where we have to block them with our hands to see where we are going. At dinner, there is a lot of clinking of glasses, lots of kissing because of course, everybody wants to see more of it. There’s a point where it feels like they all want me to prove to them that I love him and that kissing is the only way. Maybe that’s why most of the time it’s Eadie doing the clinking.

It’s not long after dinner that we are cued for the first dance. Matt and I speak while we dance, quiet enough so that only the two of us can hear. He says nice things. Things like how beautiful I am, how much he loves me and how happy he is going to make me while we spend the rest of our lives together. I get teary eyed at this. I shouldn’t be hearing this from Matt. I should be hearing it from Nathan. And as I look into Matt’s eyes, I struggle, I can’t even lie and tell him that he means the same to me.

“Is something wrong?” he asks me.

I shake my head, taking a deep breath. “It’s all so overwhelming, everything.”

He twirls me and then he dips me.

Carry me home, got my new car and my gun
Wind in my hair, holding your hand, listen to a song
Carry me home, don’t wanna talk about the things to come
Just put your hands up in the air, the radio on

‘Cause there’s nothing for us to talk about
Like the future and those things
‘Cause there’s nothing for me to think about
Now that he’s gone, I can’t feel nothing

*

The lights completely go out and it’s as if it’s completely made up of magic that Matt transforms into Nathan. His whole being, eyes, face, nose, structure, even the way he holds me in his arms as he pulls me up from the dip and cradles me, still moving in rhythm to the music. I should be able to comprehend it—this is impossible—but I don’t try. I just let him hold me like the real man that I love would. I smell the woodsy scent of his cologne, the mint from his mouthwash as I nuzzle into his neck. It feels so different this way, this dance with him. It feels right. I want to tell him how I shouldn’t have lost it on him the last time we spoke, that I love him so much. But before I can, I am dipped again.

And I am brought back to the present, to Earth, with the lights back on and swimming around the crowd around us. The music has stopped and the room erupts in whistles, cheers and lots and lots of clapping. The DJ tells everybody to come and join the bride and groom on the dance floor. Taking this as my chance, I pull away from Matt and tell him I need a moment to clean myself up. He pecks me on the cheek and I head to the washroom.

I’m at the sink, drying my eyes with a damp piece of paper towel when I hear the door bang off the wall next to me and Alannah walks in.

“Oh, sorry, am I interrupting?” she says. While the words may be sincere, the emotion behind them can’t make it to the front burners. She saunters over to the sink next to me and dabs at invisible lines on her face as if to make a point of being here. She catches my eye. “Poor little bride having trouble on her wedding day?”

“Why are you here?” I say, disregarding her.

“Well, it’s not for your lack of trying to push me away now is it?”

“Just answer the question,” I tell her. “Why are you still fighting for it?”

“I could simply ask you the same thing.” She pauses, holds me in her considerably long frank stare and then adds, “You just don’t get it. I know you don’t love him and it pains me to know that he’s going to get hurt because of it.”

“You—!”

“You need to calm down. This is your day after all and I’d hate for life to get in the way. I mean, here you are, the biggest night of your life and you’re hiding out in a powder room while your true love is in a different room. I just wish you could see it.” Alannah turns and heads out the door.

You should’ve known better
Than to have, to let her
Get you under her spell of the weather
I got you where I want you
You did it, I never
I’m falling for forever
I’m playing head games with you
Got you where I want you
I got you, I got you
I got you where I want you now

*

I follow her out, ready to give her a piece of my mind, but I’m too late. With the door handle in my left hand, I watch as two security guards ask Alannah to leave the party. In the archway that leads back to the reception, I see Matt with his arms crossed over his chest watching the scene with an air of pride. Alannah starts off calm and flippant, unable to take the guards seriously. But as they step into her space and begin to physically move her, she loses it. Hands up in the air, Alannah goes off, screaming at the top of her lungs about how I don’t love Matt and how this isn’t fair. I hear one of the guards tell her she had a chance to intervene during the ceremony and then they are out of the building, out of sight.

I look away and turn my focus on the cake. I don’t know what else to do. I’m shaking again, more violently than before I walked down the aisle. Some stupid girl, some mad-in-love bimbo could see straight through me and what does that mean?

“Every family’s got one,” Matt says in front of the crowd and there’s a round of applause and laughter. “I would like to thank everybody who came out to celebrate this amazing day with us. Samantha and I are scheduled to leave for our honeymoon out of town. But, please, don’t let us stop this party. The bar is still open and Mr. DJ here is paid for many other hours.”

It’s not one of those phases I’m going through
Or just a song, it’s not one of them
I’m on my own
On my own
On my own again
I’m on my own again
I’m on my own again
I’m on my own again
I’m on my own again

*

Matt takes my hand and leads me outside, between the countless tables as the guests clap and cheer and whistle. The doors are opened by two guards and we head on through them. We are down the stairs before I can even tell what’s going on and I see a car waiting for us.

“Are you ready to spend the rest of our lives together?”

I stare at him, into those puppy dog eyes I first witnessed back the morning he proposed to me and unlike then, I tell him yes now. We kiss and I get into the car.

***

((Lyrics by Lana Del Rey’s The Blackest Day))

Featured

Divine Deception — Free Fall

By definition, gravity is the force that attracts a body towards the centre of the earth or towards another physical body having mass. It’s a pull, a force stronger than any will or ambition known to man and has the ability to bring anybody who’s lost in space back down to a levelheadedness. But to be brought down is sometimes not enough for reality to sink in. Sometimes, the downward movement of a spiral hits harder than anything imaginable. And when you hit the ground, all you’re left with is the feeling of the wind knocked from your lungs.

The ground comes hard and fast, its impact like I’ve been hit by a million Mack trucks all at once. My ears are ringing, my body’s become paralysed and for a brief moment I am lost, in an empty void while my body tries to refuel itself and come to terms with what’s just happened. Every fibre of my being is activated in a race against time, rewiring my senses. Up above, the German Shepherds bark and snarl from the broken window proudly, their chests puffed out, waiting for either me to fight back or for their masters to praise them up and down.

Movement comes back to my body and I can wiggle my toes and move my fingers. After a few moments, I gather the strength to sit up. In that little time, my head begins to ache and I fear that I may not be able to make it more than three feet from my current position.

I listen to the blaring alarms coming from inside as I grip the stone steps at my side and use them to straighten myself. Dawn is breaking through the clouds and I know if I waste any more time here that even if the guards from inside don’t find me, somebody else will. I’ve come to the realization that the men inside who had shot at me and let loose those dogs were not policemen. They were probably Paragon’s own hired hands and I don’t want to be around if they brave coming out into the open.

As I take a step forward and swing my arms, a glaring pain burns in my right upper arm. Another pain, this one much more throbbing than sharp, blossoms somewhere below my shoulder. I do my best to ignore them. I can catalogue my injuries once I am somewhere safe.

I force myself to move faster and as I do, I phone Jackie. She answers with a sternness I know too well. She wants to know about the mission, if I’ve gathered the gem. I tell her I have but that I need the location of a nearby safe house. Her voice immediately becomes filled with worry. She must also hear me grunting as I move because she demands I tell her what happened and I tell her.

I tell her everything. From how everything was going according to schedule. That I’d been able to gather the gem and how the alarms went off. She seems as confused as I am when I tell her this. We both agree that nothing should have gone off the rails.

As I make my way down the back of town, I follow a wrought iron fence down a hill and the movement brings more energy to my body and I actually feel a willingness to move faster. While to do, Jackie mutters more under her breath than anything how she shouldn’t have allowed me to partake in this mission, that it’s all her fault that this happened to me. A twinge of guilt flickers between the two of us. For she allowed this to happen to me and that I’ve allowed this to happen to her.

When I arrive, I light the fireplace first thing. It’s a dreary shack of a home with boarded-up windows that whistle in the wicked winds and floorboards that creak with every step. There is one lamp in the whole room and I turn it on. It doesn’t light much, but it’s enough.

I pull off my sweater and go into the washroom to look at myself in the mirror. It’s cracked for the most part with grime and age taking up a lot of the edges. Still, I get a good look at my stinging bicep. Sticking out from it, I notice a shard of glass. Under the sink, I spot a bottle of a disinfectant, as well as many other bottled liquids like cleaning chemicals and acids, as well as bandages. I grab them and place them on the sink. I bite my lip and get a hold of the piece. It feels like fire has doused my whole arm as I yank the piece of glass out, yet it’s nothing compared to the pain as I splash the disinfectant on the wound. It takes everything I have not to cry out. Once the pain subsides, I take a painkiller and return to the fireplace to bandage myself up.

I sit for most of the day. Jackie told me to hold still while she contacted one of her men to drive me back home. I had tried to tell her that I could head back on my own, but she told me no. It’s probably for the best anyway. I’ve gone through so much, who’s to say I won’t walk straight into a trap if I’m left on my own? Surely Paragon’s on the lookout for me. Well, maybe not me precisely, but anybody suspicious. And it’s not like news hasn’t broken out about the excitement at the museum. I’ve checked over how many radio stations and each one is talking about the same thing.

By late afternoon, there is a knock at my door. It isn’t just a simple knock that I expect would come from some random roadside straggler. No, this is a special one. The special knock everybody a part of our team knows which was created specifically for situations like this.

I get up from my seat and open the door.

On the other side is a strong, bulky man with arms the size of tree trunks and a body that looks like it will struggle to get through the doorframe. I’ve seen him before, the night I infiltrated Paragon’s middle tier meeting. The night I met Jackie.

“Miss Lawrence,” he says, his voice rough and deep. He pulls out his identification and flashes it at me. “I’m Ronald Bewter. Ms. Collins sent me to pick you up.” Putting everything away, he hands me a sack with clean clothes inside. I don’t change. Instead, I grab the jacket that’s on top and slip it on.

The drive back to my apartment is a silent one. Ron doesn’t speak and neither do I. I just watch the city blur by me through the dirt on his tinted windows. I’m not unhappy about it. I don’t want to talk. For one, I feel like crap. My body may not feel as wracked as it did earlier, but the painkillers have left me slightly drowsy.

And two, what is there really to talk about? Sure, the mission wasn’t a fail. I mean, I did end up getting the gem and I still have it on me. But I wanted to come out of that building like I had gone in. I wanted it to be silent. But because I didn’t, I don’t really know where I stand. Did the guards inside the museum get a good look at me? Did they recognize me if they did? And what are they thinking now? It’s all very left up in the air and I am struggling to figure out what I should be preparing for.

We arrive at my apartment building and Ron offers to lead me up to my flat. He opens the door for me and I walk inside.

Right as I do, I hear the canny sound of an audience clapping. As I make the turn, I notice that the television is on. And in front of it sits Nathan. He hears the door close behind Ron and I and he spins around, turning off the television.

“You’re back!” he says, engulfed in worry. I don’t respond. Drowsiness won’t let me and Ron leads me to a spot on the sofa. I take a seat. Ron and Nathan speak behind me. Ron’s telling Nathan everything that happened.

As he does, I realize that there’s still an uncomfortable pain under my one shoulder. I didn’t look into it back at the safe house earlier. Actually, I had completely forgotten about it. In comparison to the piece of glass in my arm, this was nothing. But now it’s bugging me. I run my hand under my shirt and to my back. My back is bruised, most definitely, yet there is something else. Actually, there are two things nested in my kevlar. I fiddle with the first one until it loosens and falls into the palm of my hand. When I bring my hand out to check, I see a slug of a bullet. It doesn’t faze me—probably the effects of the painkillers—and I drop it on the coffee table with a loud [i]clank![/i]

In the mirror on the wall, I see Nathan shoot a look over his shoulder. There’s anger in his eyes, bewilderment even maybe. And then there’s something else. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. Pity possibly. Or fear. I look away from his reflection somberly and begin fiddling with what I can only assume is a second bullet in my kevlar.

Ron leaves and Nathan makes his way in front of me.

“Are you all right?” he asks me, crouching low so that we are at eye level. He wears a sympathetic smile on his lips, though I know how hard he is working to keep it there. I didn’t imagine his fury just minutes ago. I know I didn’t. If he figures out what I really think, he’s going to lose it. Best to pretend that I have everything under control, for both our sakes.

“I’m fine, why do you ask?” I say in the easiest tone I can muster.

“I’m just asking.”

“And I’m telling you that I’m fine.” I pull the second bullet from my kevlar and let it drop onto the coffee table as I get to my feet. I make my way upstairs to the bedroom.

“I don’t think you are,” he says bluntly. “You know, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this whole thing for a while.” He’s right behind me. “Deli, I think you’re in way over your head. Maybe we should think about slowing down.”

“Slowing down? Nathan, we took a huge step today,” I say, heading for the dresser in search of some clean clothes. “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel.”

“But look at what you had to do to get there. You’re acting as if you didn’t just fall from a building and almost die.”

Die? Please, you’re exaggerating.”

Exaggerating?” he repeats. I may have my back to him, but I can feel his eyes piercing the back of my skull. “You have been in a downward spiral for months now!”

“See? Exaggerating,” I say with emphasis. I’m still not looking at him and while I’ve already got my clothing, I pretend to be rifling around in my underwear drawer as if I’m still looking for something.

“I’m not exaggerating when you come home pulling slugs out of your kevlar like it’s a normal thing to do, like it doesn’t hurt.”

“It doesn’t,” I say offhandedly.

The sound of Nathan’s fist coming into contact with the wall makes me whirl around on the bed to face him. This wakes me up from my drowsiness somewhat.

“What is your problem?” I snap at him. “What is it? Fear?”

“Maybe fear isn’t such a bad thing? It forces us to take a step back and look at what’s going on around us, maybe even become situationally aware.”

I roll my eyes. “And you know about situational awareness now? You’re going to lecture me on something you barely know anything about?”

Nathan’s face darkens. “Somebody has to! Ever since that guy dropped to his death from this very rooftop you’ve been on some crazy bender in what I can only assume is your attempt at regaining some type of control!”

“It’s a mission, these things happen, Nathan. Get over it.”

“This isn’t just about today. It’s been day in and day out for the last how many months. The last year! When was the last time you even looked at your son?”

The mention of William lights a hatred inside of me that I can’t put out. I feel as my face turns monstrous. I stay quiet and won’t answer. I can’t. I must be taking too long because Nathan shakes his head in frustration and walks into the washroom.

I follow him in.

I grab his arm to stop him, to force him to look at me. “Don’t you dare bring William into this!” I tell him. “You have no right!”

He yanks his hand away from me. “I have no right? He’s our son, Deli. Ours, not yours.” He chuckles humourlessly to himself. “You’re in your own little world, aren’t you?”

“Oh shut up.”

Nathan doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s almost like you’re jumping from life to life whenever it’s convenient for you. You’re William’s mother and I am his father and he needs both of us. But it’s like you’d rather enjoy your life with the Hammings more.”

“Do I look like I’m enjoying myself?” I urge him to look at me. The bags that grow under my eyes. How I always look tired, worried. Can’t he see this?

Nathan pulls back. “I’m just saying that sometimes it’s like you’d rather be with this Matthew guy. Don’t deny that you have feelings for him.”

I look at Nathan in astonishment. “Feelings for him? That’s absurd!”

“I know what I see.”

“Is this what this is all about?” I ask, but I don’t wait for Nathan’s answer. “Matt is a job, he’s a pawn and there are days I can’t stand being around him. I don’t love him, I love you!”

Nathan looks away and I can see how hurt he is.

“Look, yes, it’s nice to get away from this once in a while. Pretend like nothing matters but me. No Paragon. No destruction—”

“We have a son.”

“And sometimes it’s nice to get away from that too. Not having to look over my shoulder every second for the safety of everybody I love. No, you’re right, Nathan, there are days that I’d rather be Samantha Millens, and I won’t lie and say that I haven’t thought about it. But you keep me here. William keeps me here.”

“I’m finding this harder and harder to believe every day.”

My eyes narrow. “Then leave,” I tell him. “I’ll tell you exactly what I told Connie. If you want to stay, stay. If you want to leave, don’t let me hold you back.”

It’s as if I have actually punched him in the gut. The pain that appears so faintly on his face. But Nathan has always had the ability to cover himself in a thick skin, ever since the day I met him.

He shakes his head, smirking. “I just wish you could see that you’re following the same path your mother went down.”

“Don’t even dare bring her into this. You will never understand.”

“Maybe not, but you’re going to get hurt and I think you’re too stubborn to see it coming.” He walks out of the washroom and downstairs. “It seems you did choose him after all. Enjoy your wedding day.”

I don’t know what to say so I stay silent again. I listen to his every footfall. Step. Step. Step. I am breathing heavily, trying to catch any breath I have left. Why can’t he just understand this? When I hear the sound of the front door slam shut, I scream at the top of my lungs. When that doesn’t make me feel better, I turn and punch the mirror in front of me. Blood and shattered glass rain into the sink and I slide down to the floor, feeling lonelier than I have ever felt before. It’s as if I’ve been falling from that second-floor window all this time and finally I have hit rock bottom.

Featured

Divine Deception — Snowglobe

I clasp a travel mug in my cold, pink fingers, waiting for the heat inside to warm them even if I know the coffee has long since leeched into the winter air. I’m braced against the cold and I look off into the distance. It seems almost contradicting. For how sunny it looks, I shouldn’t be surrounded by snow, in a frigid hell with the darkest of energies brewing in this cold shell I call a body. Like the case of a snowglobe. While it may seem like a short thrill, once those flakes hit the bottom, I’ve always found that the chance of a snowglobe being shaken again is quite high.

“Your work last weekend was rather impressive,” Jackie says as she closes the space between us. I can hear the crunching of snow beneath her feet and then I see her in the corner of my eye. She takes a seat.

I nod.

“It may have seemed like a waste of time, especially with everything you had to endure to get there, but it worked. Thanks to you, we were able to get that little tidbit of info Whitman’s been struggling with back home.”

“And what exactly is this little bit of info exactly?”

“A combination,” Jackie answers proudly. “It’s all connected, Delilah, and getting this combination… The Hammings keep their secrets very close to them”—she makes a face like I should know better than anyone—”and to get something so powerful is a huge feat. Your mother would be very proud.”

I’ve thought about my mother a lot over the past week. How I actually feel I am becoming her every day that passes by. Last weekend at the engagement party, how I ripped Edie a new one all the while keeping my composure… I could see it in front of me: my mother destroying Vita day in and day out. Playing this part of some ambitious girl who fell in love and seemingly just wants to spend the rest of her life in this fairy tale mindset.

It took a few days to set in, but it all came together. Alannah trying to yank Matt away from me, seduce him, manipulate him, whatever you wanted to call it. That must have been how my mother did it. She grabbed on to one of my father’s arms while Vita held onto the other and they tugged until he tore straight down the middle, leaving neither of them with his whole self.

I rub my neck. I can still feel Arthur’s hands there, how he held me against the wall and told me, stinking of booze, that he knew exactly what I was, how he’d seen my type before. Was this how Vita saw my mother? Am I really following the same path she did and will my family, the people that I love be tortured in the process? Just the thought sends a chill down my spine not tethered to the wicked wind coming off the river’s edge. I know in my heart of hearts that Arthur was just a drunken idiot, tumbling through that party until he could find some even footing. But I can’t help but wonder differently.

“You know, we don’t have to go through with this,” Jackie comes back, pulling me from my thoughts.

I turn to look at her and I can see that she’s hesitant. No, I’m hesitant. Her lips are pursed and there’s a look in her eyes, like she’s able to read my thoughts. Am I that obvious today? I’ve worked so hard to keep my emotions in check that I’m struggling now. At least it is in front of her and not somebody else, somebody who could use this instant against me.

“We can call everything off and just go on with life.”

My eyebrows knit together on their own. “No, I—”

“This isn’t something to take lightly, Delilah,” she cuts cleanly across me. “Your mother had the clearest of heads, she was one of our best destroyers and even she struggled. I would hate myself and would never forgive myself if I allowed her daughter to go into this dangerous of a mission—not just tonight but this whole thing—if I knew she couldn’t handle it. If one slip-up—”

“I’ve got it,” I say over her this time. It’s no surprise that Jackie’s worried for me. Everybody is lately. Nathan, Whitman. Hell, as much as Connie lost it how many weeks ago, I know it was coming from a good place. So to see Jackie bringing it up again, I can’t blame her.

“Your mother—”

“My mother was targeted because of Paragon and because of them, I am left with a hole I can never fill.” I give her a stern look. “I’m not backing out, Jackie.”

Jackie may not be one hundred percent on board, but she doesn’t say anything to deter me. She just nods and begins with the mission details.

“The Royal Museum,” she says, leaning back in the bench and looking over the river. “You know of it?” I nod and she continues. “Paragon owns it and there is a gem locked up inside. We need you to get it.”

I cock an eyebrow. “I’m a tomb raider now?”

“These gems were used for security back in the older days. Keycards were too new and there was always the possibility of hacking systems. The gems were always a safe resort. Just click them into the locking mechanism and the door opens. Most gateways have been updated to the twenty-first century. All except for an abandoned one used through a waterway.”

“Not the sewers,” I mumble.

“It’s not as bad as it seems, but let’s not worry that far ahead. We just need the gem right now. It’s the best alternative. Because of your unfortunate encounter with Arthur, it would be careless to do anything else.”

“You’ll need to find an alternative route inside. If you take those front doors—”

I raise my hand to show she need not say any more. To take the doors would be suicidal. Even if I know Whitman will be on top of security—he’ll have cameras looped and all alarms disabled—for me to walk through the front doors was asking for attention. Pedestrians walking down the street to name one of them. No, the best way would be through a window, best if it was in the back of the building.

“Once you are inside,” Jackie continues, “find your way to the front desk and extract a file into the system.” She passes me a USB stick—almost identical to the one she lent me last week for the party.

“I thought we got into enough of Paragon’s systems, though?” I say, taking the stick.

“This isn’t for intel, Delilah,” she assures me. “This is to make sure everything runs smoothly without any hiccoughs.”

“Hiccoughs?”

“This is a program. It will override all mechanisms and unlock all doors that lead to the gem.”

“Okay, and what am I looking for? I’m assuming it’s going to be in a glass case for everybody to see.”

“No, it’s hidden in the Modern Art section. Keep an eye out for a wall piece called New York. Behind it will be a button. Press that and you’ll have your reward.”

Ten minutes into the complex, and I’m making my way across the carpet of the hallway. When I have to step across the hardwood, I make sure to be as quiet as anything. Even if there is nobody inside and the alarms have been disabled, I still get a shiver when I think about what a fortress of hell this place will turn into if I do the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Plugging in the program to unlock all doors was a simple and straightforward procedure. It also took no time at all. While I was at it, I hooked up a program that linked to my phone so that I could still use the cameras for my own needs.

Five minutes later, I end up in the Modern Art section. I’m not much of the artsy type, but seeing all of these works leaves me a little underwhelmed. I am used to seeing Pablo, Van Gogh, you name it. Seeing pieces that are all white with the words NEW YORK seems almost bare and uninspired. I guess that’s why they say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. And who am I to say what art is?

I make my way over to the piece and carefully pull it away from the wall. Timid is too weak of a word for what I am feeling. Even if I know Whitman has gone over security with a fine tooth comb, I can’t help but worry if something is going to go off. Nothing does, though and I find the small red button and push it.

A huge display on the other end of the room rumbles and then moves across the wall. Behind it, I see a wall safe. This is where that combination I got at the party comes into play. I crouch in front of the safe, think over the numbers in my mind to make sure I know the right sequence and then I input them. I can hear the locking mechanism clink and then the door springs open. It’s pretty bare inside except for a blue gem that is the size of my palm.

I grab it.

The alarms go off the moment I pull the gem away. Dread floods through my veins before dropping like a boulder to the pit of my stomach. It’s almost too heavy to move and I stand there in shock.

“That’s the alarms going off,” I mutter, trying to understand them. I know they are going off, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what that means. It takes too long to realize that it’s not good and I need to do something.

I pull my phone from my pocket and look up the camera I linked to earlier. Down in the main lobby, I notice a man in what looks like a uniform of some sort. I can’t tell exactly. The picture is too grainy. My first thought is that he’s police and I roll my head back in frustration. The last thing is for the authorities to be right here right now. But there’s something off about him. He wears a pair of night vision goggles and what looks like a hard-shelled helmet on his head. Two more men join him, letting go of two salivating german shepherds. The dogs go bolting off down a corridor. The three men converse—what they are saying, I don’t know—and then they grab something from their backs.

Before I can tell what they have grabbed, the dogs have run up a set of stairs and are now on my floor. I mutter a swear under my breath and stuff my phone into my pocket and dash into the hallway. The dogs are at the other end of the hall, galloping like wild beasts towards me. In that instant, I look for an escape. There are only two doors worth attempting and one of them is only accessible by running closer to the dogs. I’m not in that risky of a mood. I bolt in the opposite direction.

I shoulder the door as hard as I can, willing with everything I have that it isn’t locked. The door bangs hard off the wall on the other side. I glance over my shoulder. Stupid! I just wasted time looking. I know those mutts are behind me, but I do it anyway, calculating how little space is between us. Closer now! And they are gaining—fast!

Up the stairs on the other side of the door I go, jumping three at a time. It’s the only chance I’ve got. The dogs whip around the corner, through the doorway. Their nails scrape the hardwood, clawing viciously as they try to regain their footing, but they are so focused on me it’s almost as if fate is urging them on. They skid into the wall with a thud—first then second—and then they are after me again, barking and snapping.

I make it to a T-shaped intersection and for a moment, a brief one, I jog on the spot, looking left and right, the best way to go. There is nothing on the left other than a window overlooking the city and two benches. I hightail it the other way. Doors fly by me—left and right—blurring in what seems like a smear of countless colours. My heart hammers in my chest. It’s almost in rhythm with the dogs clambering behind me. Getting air into my lungs becomes a struggle. I glance over my shoulder. More growling. There’s a bang behind me—ear-splitting. Like a bomb’s gone off down the hall. Another one and I am jolted forward. I keep my balance somehow and I’m still running.

I need to take a door but I can’t choose. The dogs are too close now. Any slight movement to pause could mean death. Another bang from down the hall and I actually yelp when something hits me below my shoulder. I am at the end of the hallway before I can understand anything. Dozens of gateways to flee through behind me and all I am looking at is another big window overlooking the city. I spin around, brace myself, readying everything I have. I spot two of the men from earlier down the hall, guns up at the ready. Before I can comprehend it, the dogs lunge at me and I am sent tumbling through the window and nothing but air.

Featured

Divine Deception — Modern and Historic

“The modern and the historic—two pieces of time. While one repeats itself, the other engages forward, pushing the boundaries of what life is today.”

I look up ahead of me. Edie is standing in front of Matthew and me, her champagne glass raised and she speaks in such a harmonious way to the crowd around her that I actually for a moment think she cares. Proud, domineering in the most motherly sense of the word, though even from where I sit, which is in a throne-like chair next to Matthew on a stage of a landing in front of everybody, I can see how hard she is working at keeping her emotions in check.

“When I first sat down to prepare tonight’s events, I couldn’t part with the realization that we would be merging two lives into one. Our pasts, our presents and the love between a man and a woman.”

Yes, I can’t quite get past it either: Edie taking the time out of her busy schedule to organize an engagement party for her son and the woman she’s made it very clear she’s not that thrilled about having around. Men and women, friends of Matthew’s have travelled from all over the world to come here and celebrate our love and our commitment to one another.

“Tonight not only gathers friends from here and far,” Edie goes on. “Tonight also celebrates my son Matthew’s engagement to the charming and captivating Samantha Millens.” She gestures to me with her glass and the room erupts in one big applause. “It’s every mother’s dream that her son finds a girl that makes him happy and this mother isn’t at all disappointed. Samantha has been a part of our lives for only a little while, and while I was concerned at first about the possibility of a lacking relationship with my son, she has proved herself worthy of being in this family.”

I can’t tell anymore. Is she faking sincerity or does she mean every word she breathes? I haven’t spoken much with her since the little episode back on the day of our dress fittings, but maybe after I was able to close in on Chloe, it somehow brought Edie and me closer.

“So welcome to the family, Samantha!” Edie raises her glass even higher and the crowd follows in sync. “As anybody will tell you, proving oneself past this old bird takes something more than talent. It takes determination and love and you’ve surpassed my every expectation. I hope for the two of you the best.”

There is clinking of flutes and wine glasses all around the room and Matt’s hand goes over mine, encasing it and giving it a firm squeeze. I turn to meet his eyes and we kiss.

As I pull away, I spot Arthur emptying his glass in one quick swig. I haven’t seen much of him lately, this being the only occasion since the engagement really, though the moment I saw him, he reeked of alcohol. I never knew of him to be a heavy drinker, but as of late he’s been in one hell of a drinking spirit. Honestly, had it been Edie, I could have understood it: her losing her son to me. His father’s problem, however? I can’t quite say. Jackie hasn’t mentioned anything to me either. She was the first to tell me to be wary of Edie, but that Arthur would be a smooth sail so to speak. Jackie also didn’t say anything last night when she called me over. She did, however, let me know that to further our progress into Paragon that I would need to plant a bug into the Hamming household.

“And from now going forward, Samantha dear, I look forward to getting to know everything about you, day in and day out. Actually, if you wouldn’t mind, I would love to start now. Indulge me in a little chat, would you?”

“Who could say no to that?” I say and take a sip from my own drink. Matt offers to take it from me and I kiss him.

I follow Edie away from the party. She leads me to an elevator that shoots us up a level in what feels like a snap of the fingers and then she heads down the hall to the only door.

“This was our family home when Matthew and Chloe were young,” she says, opening the door and motioning for me to step inside. Once I do, she closes the door behind us.

Red walls surround me, bordered by flame wallpaper and Hot Wheel posters. Little toy cars huddle in a milk crate and bigger models are displayed above in an orderly fashion. It doesn’t take me long to realize this must have been Matthew’s bedroom when he was a child.

“I wanted to show you something,” Edie says as she sits on the end of the bed. She pats the spot next to her. She opens a photo album.

As I get closer, I notice photographs of a little boy with a buzz cut playing in the rain, swimming in an inground pool, digging in the sand.

“Motherhood is not something that can be explained,” she tells me in an almost dreamy voice. “From the moment they are inside of you, your destiny is etched in stone. You are their biggest support system. You are the caregiver.” Edie flips the pages in the photo album and I watch the boy in the pictures slowly grow older. His teen years into adulthood. Then the pictures of his girlfriends begin to appear. “And it becomes your job to keep him from getting hurt. You become the protector and I am Matthew’s.”

My gut starts to tighten and that second-guessing I felt earlier has long since disintegrated.

“It should be no surprise that I’m wary of you, Miss Millens,” Edie continues, still flipping through more and more photos of Matt and his girlfriends. “Don’t take it personally, I just know, better than anyone, how my son thinks and how his choices are never in his best interests.”

“I didn’t coerce him into anything, Edie,” I defend myself in a pleasant manner. I even laugh lightly so as not to seem offended. I’d hate for Edie to think that.

“Oh, I wasn’t born yesterday, dear,” she says. “I know your type. I know how you’ll hurt him.”

“We couldn’t be happier.”

Edie snorts and shakes her head. “Marrying my son is a mistake, Miss Millens. Even if you think you’ve won because of that impressive ring on your finger, you haven’t. You’ve stumbled into an abyss in the hopes of spiriting my son away to you.”

I take a deep breath and look around the room. “I can’t imagine how hard this must all be for you, Edie. Feeling the need to organize everything in your grown son’s life, all the way to his engagement party for the woman he wants to marry, knowing full well that you can’t stand her.”

Edie goes to say something, but I continue without hesitation.

“That I’m going to take him away from you. Hell, I may even have children with him and you know the closest you’re going to get to seeing them is through a video I send to you on Christmas Eve once a year.”

I sigh in a dramatic fashion and get to my feet. I head out of the room and to the elevator. It’s right there when I call it and I enter.

“I know a woman in love and you’re not it!” Edie yells from the doorway of Matt’s room. “You’re nothing but a rocky relationship spurred on by a want for more. I knew it the moment I met you and I still know it now.”

I step out of the elevator again with a smirk on my face I can’t help. “I understand why you are on edge lately, Edie. Scared of losing him and the possibilities of what could happen between you. But tonight of all nights. This must be so difficult being in this house where Matt grew up… Where he learned to walk and talk… Where he used to sleep. The memories that must come storming in every time you think about the past.”

Tears are pooling in Edie’s eyes and I can tell she has the immediate impulse to throttle me.

“You couldn’t be more than right with your speech today. The modern and the historic I think is how you put it. You will continue to repeat yourself, Edie, and I will be moving forward with life. I will marry your son and you’re going to have to deal with that.”

Edie bursts into tears and rushes past me into the elevator. The doors close behind her and she’s gone, out of my sight and I am left with silence. I wait a moment. I half expect Edie to gather herself up and return to my floor with another piece of evidence about how wrong I am. But as the minutes rack up, I come to the realization that the damage is done and she’s not coming back for a second round.

I take those few moments to recompose myself and take a deep breath. I’ve been holding all that in for an extremely long time and I can’t say how good it felt to finally let it out. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I was too hard on the woman.

Finally, I nod to myself and head back to Matt’s room. While I was being lectured, I thought I saw a relatively new laptop on Matt’s desk. When I get close enough, I notice that it’s still powered. I pull the flash drive from my pocket—the one Jackie gave me earlier—and plug it in right away. Jackie told me that the program on the stick would run automatically and that once it completed that they would be able to get some information Whitman needed.

Suddenly, I hear the elevator ding and the doors open. For a moment, I think it’s Edie, ready with a new weapon of information to shoot me down with. Then I hear somebody else’s voice.

“I just want to give you your wedding present early!” It’s female and girly. Definitely not Edie. I book it into the washroom as fast as I can. “Keep your eyes closed though. I mean it—no peeking!”

I sneak a look through the crack of the washroom door. [i]Alannah,[/i] I think with revulsion. I should have known. I observe her as she saunters over to the edge of the bed and takes a seat provocatively. She’s wearing an alluring red silky dress that hardly leaves anything to the imagination with slits that go so high up her legs her lace underwear is showing.

“Okay, now you can open your eyes,” she says, her hands supporting her behind her back and her chest pressed into the air. I don’t know who she’s talking to until they step into view.

Matt is right there in front of her!

A flame lights inside of me, a smoking ember that I struggle to extinguish. It’s both painful and reoccurring, but it also doesn’t make me want to recoil. It makes me mad. Just the sight of Alannah, especially Alannah with Matt, makes it burn hotter and it lashes out and hits my insides.

With anger, however, comes confusion. If I am angry because Alannah is stepping into territory which will affect the outcome of my mission then it would make sense, but it’s not that. It’s just the thought of seeing them together that makes it all the worse.

Alannah doesn’t wait for Matt’s response. She gets up and pulls him close, pulling his lips into hers. They kiss—hard! A kiss only lovers would understand. It takes all of my strength to keep myself from whipping open the washroom door and hurting not only Alannah but Matt as well.

I had a feeling this was what had been going on for weeks—Matt and Alannah. But seeing it right there in front of my face, especially for them not to know that I was there… Alannah had been trying to get between Matt and me for some time. And to think I was wondering if I was too hard on Edie earlier. Hell, this was all probably Edie’s idea!

“No.”

I am so focused on my own thoughts I barely hear it.

“No!” Matt repeats and he is pushing Alannah away. She must think what he’s said isn’t real because she goes to kiss him again and Matt has to physically sit her back down on the edge of the bed to stop her. “What is wrong with you?”

Alannah’s eyes round in what I can only decipher as bewilderment. “What? What are you talking about?”

“You have got to stop doing this. We were over a long time ago and you need to move on.” Just by Matt’s tone, I can tell he’s choosing his wording carefully.

“But—”

“I am marrying Samantha, Alannah—”

“She doesn’t love you, you know!” Alannah protests. “She doesn’t. I know what real love is and it’s not that—”

Matt silences her with a dark look. “You need to find somebody who wants you for who you are.” He gestures toward the bedroom door. “So go find that person because it’s not me.”

Alannah hesitantly gets to her feet and I can tell that she’s trying to concoct something to keep Matt on her side, change his mind, I can see it all.

“You know your mother doesn’t approve,” she finally says, her last attempt at winning Matt over. I have to stifle the groan that makes it up my throat. Matt, on the other hand, changes at that moment. His usually soft features harden and he leans towards Alannah, her body infused with tension.

“This is your whole problem. You’re just like my mother, but even worse. You come here, to my engagement party where my wife-to-be is and try something like this?” His eyes narrow into slits. “And what the hell are you wearing?”

Alannah looks completely in shock. She’s shaking violently and tears are pouring down her face. There’s a moment while Matt rages on her that she tries to say something, but he won’t let her in edgewise.

“I think it would be best if you just leave,” he says, a sharp edge to his voice I have never heard before. Alannah’s at the door already, her hand on the handle and she looks back. She wants to say something. Maybe she wants to tell him that she loves him. But before she can open her mouth, Matt says, “Get out! And for goodness sake, get rid of that tattoo!”

It takes everything I have not to open the door and tell Matt that I saw everything he did. Instead, I monitor him as he puts himself together again. He straightens his tie in a mirror on the other side of the room and tidies his hair. Then he’s gone, down the hall, heading for the elevator that will take him back to the party.

I step out of the washroom a bit of a shake in my own being. Matt had never been cheating on Samantha Millens. Every chance I got I blamed him for doing something he never did. It had all been Alannah and Edie. A plan created by the two of them so that they could deal with what life sent their ways. At least, between both Matt and me, we may have just won the battle of the controlling women. Nothing should be in my way from now on.

I grab the flash drive from the laptop and slip it back into my pocket before I use the door.

And I don’t see it coming. His hand around me before I can comprehend what is going on.

I am tossed backwards into the wall, the back of my head smacking into the drywall. A loud thump cracks the silence of the hall. The overpowering smell of liquor suffocates me with what little air I can take in. Arthur has his hand around my throat and he has a very tight hold on me. I try to yell, but I can’t get anything out and the more I struggle, the harder his hold gets.

“Arthur,” I try to say and he probably can see it, but he doesn’t react. His eyes are dead looking like the alcohol has taken everything from him. His thought process, his mind, even the will to do the simplest of things.

He leans in closer to me. “I can see you for exactly what you really are,” he grumbles in my ear. He’s so close I can feel the wiry strands of his moustache against the side of my face.

“Arthur,” I try to say again, but nothing more than a gurgle comes out of my mouth. My head has begun to pound and I swallow excessively in what I can only assume is my body’s way of loosening his grip.

“I know of your kind,” he slurs, spit specking my cheek. “I know exactly what you’re looking for. I’m onto you and there’s nothing you can do to convince me differently.”

Arthur finally lets go of me and gives me a nudge as he straightens up. I gasp, cough and sputter, my own hands going to my neck. I am paralyzed, like some special force keeps me from going after Arthur as he walks away from me, stumbling and heading for the elevator. I can’t comprehend anything. I don’t understand anything. I can’t piece anything together because none of it makes any sense. Arthur just attacked me and I have no idea where it came from.

Featured

Divine Deception — Pure, White and Limited Lace

I make a turn onto the road that leads me to Edie’s house with caution. I’ve only travelled to Appaloosa Plains a handful of times, namely to meet up with Matt and his family, though now I’ve come to terms with how much the weather differs from home. Winter has been tiptoeing into autumn’s throne, yet while Bridgeport has been trickled with small snowflakes that melt the moment they touch the ground, here it seems they weren’t so lucky. Drifts hedge along the sidewalks and my tires fight me if I hit the gas a little too hard.

It has a way of making me smirk, though. The closer I get to Edie and Arthur’s house, the colder it gets. I imagine that Edie’s summoning this cold weather by her own bitterness. From what I heard a week ago, she wasn’t at all impressed with Matt’s decision to propose to me. I can’t say I’m shocked by this. If anything, I should have expected worse. Edie sitting outside the house, angry, making it snow like she’s some lost sour ice queen from the Himalayan mountains…

I park in the driveway and make my way to the front door. Maybe we can all keep it civil today at least. It’s dress fitting day and this is supposed to be the day the women bond.

Bond, I ponder as I knock on the door. If any of us can hit a bonding moment, I will take it as a win. We haven’t even left the property and there is already some tension. Exclude me from the situation for a moment and there is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Chloe is supposed to come with us to the fitting to get herself measured up and let’s just say that getting her to agree to come took a lot of convincing. Chloe and I have never been one to see eye to eye, though it’s not my presence that bothers her. From what Matt told me, Chloe hasn’t been very friendly to her mother since she learned that she was adopted.

I knock on the door again and wait.

I can’t say I blame the poor girl, a lot has been thrown at her in such little time, but sometimes the best a teen can get is some humble pie.

I get impatient and tired of waiting and head inside on my own. The moment I close the door behind me, I hear a fit of laughter. In that moment, my fists ball up and my knuckles turn white. I know that laugh. I don’t even need to see her face to know that she’s there and when I take a step into the dining room, my assumptions all come together.

Alannah.

Alannah and Edie are having coffees, chatting away like they still haven’t seen me. Edie makes complete eye contact with me and disregards me, prattling on about mundane things. Things like the women at her book club and what they were wearing or something like that.

My jaw sets on its own painfully, but I don’t succumb to it. I just stare at Alannah, trying to understand why she’s there. Oh I know why she’s there. Oh do I ever! Nobody’s said a thing and I can already hear the words coming out of Edie’s mouth. That she has more important things to do today, that maybe we should reschedule the fitting. Alannah’s isn’t supposed to be here, yet here she is, like a tourist, ready to muck the day all up.

“Purple with blue?” Alannah goes on, chuckling through her words like Edie’s said a gut-busting joke. She’s almost as corny as bad theatre.

“Oh, Samantha, you’re here,” Edie says, her lips still to her coffee cup. She brings it down. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” I try to say cheerfully, but I struggle as smouldering the edge of my tone.

“Alannah, you remember Samantha,” Edie says, motioning towards me.

“Ah yes, Matthew’s girlfriend.”

“Actually…” I raise my hand and wiggle the diamond ring in the light. Even as the reflections dance across Alannah’s face, I watch her expression darken. I get giddy. I can’t help it.

Edie pipes up immediately. “Yes, see, Alannah, you’ve been out of town for a while so you wouldn’t know that Matthew proposed a couple of weeks ago.” She turns her attention back to me. “Samantha, I thought we were meeting at the boutique at ten.”

I cock an eyebrow. “No, we agreed that I would pick you up and it’s ten now.”

I hear footsteps upstairs and then Chloe is coming down.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” Edie begins, getting up from her seat. “I’m sure you can understand how it may have gotten lost in translation.” She glances back at Alannah. “You should come too. I’m sure Samatha here wouldn’t mind and we’d love to have your company. Wouldn’t we, dear?”

I smile and nod, but I don’t say anything. I say good morning to Chloe and head outside, straight for my car and wait.

And so it begins.

The drive to the wedding shop is a silent one. I am left alone with my own thoughts—frustration, second guesses and analyzing—since Alannah offered to drive Edie and Chloe in her Range Rover. Since there wouldn’t be enough in my car for all of them, I just got in and drove off. I just hope they have the intuition to make it to our destination. I can’t help but feel that they’ll drive off somewhere else completely and say how they got lost and wanted to make use of a wasted day.

To say the least, I am surprised when they pull up behind me and park. I get out of my car and meet them as they huddle under the overhang at the main entrance.

“Ugh, where the hell are we anyway?” Edie mumbles to Alannah just loud enough for me to overhear. “Is this neighbourhood even safe? I thought we’d be going to New Bride Boutique not this sham of a place. There’s a beautiful store in the village owned by one of the very best designers.”

Alannah’s eyes light up. “Markee? On the corner of Third?” She doesn’t wait for Edie’s answer. “Oh my gosh, his spring line last year was to die for!”

Edie’s nodding continuously as we make our way inside and head for the elevator. “Makes this place look like quite the crapshack if you ask me.”

By the time I make it out of the elevator, I can taste blood. I’ve torn the inside of my cheek from biting too hard.

The thought is removed from my mind as the fitting room opens up in front of us. Dresses and tuxedos are lined up along the one wall, some on display pedestals while others gather in front of a wall to ceiling mirror. Sconces stick out from the slick walls and light the room in what looks like candlelight while flowers in the largest of vases pervade the air in the sweetest of scents.

“Good morning, ladies,” an old woman says, stepping out from the small room in the back. She looks to be in her late sixties with a do from the same era. She lends out a timid hand to Alannah, the first in line. “You must be Samantha, the gushing bride.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I mutter under my breath. It seems ever since I got engaged to Matt that I stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s one thing to be caught in Edie’s malice or Alannah’s desperation, but this? I clear my throat and Alannah takes it as he cue to step away. “Actually, I’m Samantha.”

The old woman’s eye round and her body stiffens so much that I can actually see it. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says half-heartedly, and just by the way she says it, I know she is more embarrassed than anything. She takes my hand to shake. “I’m Glinda.” She then turns me to the line of dresses and begins telling me about the different materials and the types. She seems to want to move on from the awkwardness even more than I do.

“I know when we first spoke that you were more interested in something less poofy. Gone are the days that women want to look like Disney princesses. Today they want to look sophisticated.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Well, I just don’t want to have to rely on five women when needing to use the washroom.”

“Then this might be just up your alley.” Glinda points at a dress on the stand. “This is one of our newest additions, came from New Bride Boutique in the village.”

While Glinda goes on, I get a sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach as I trace the dress with my eyes, noticing the overabundance of lace. “No,” I say, stopping her from her spiel. “Too much lace.”

“Lace is very much in, m’dear.”

I shoot her a look. “I don’t care what’s in, I don’t want it.” I can see from the way Glinda’s face hardens that I’ve offended her. “Lace was my mother’s wish to wear on her wedding day and I won’t take that away from her.” I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror and see that my exterior looks like it is made of stone. My insides feel like hell. If I take something of this quantity, I know all I will be thinking about is Sadie and imagining what she would look like in it. I can’t be that greedy.

“I have the same dress made out of silk instead. Please try it on,” Glinda says.

While she heads to the back room, I run a finger across the lacy ends of the dress and remember when my mother and I were so excited that day after Vic proposed to her. It feels like a lifetime away…

I am pulled from my thoughts as somebody behind me is muttering and whimpering. As I glance over my shoulder, I see Alannah pulling off dresses from the rack and putting them against herself, probably imagining herself decked out in one.

When Glinda returns, she helps me into an assortment of dresses and zips up the backs for each one. Some are poofy, some are slim. Some have multiple layers that I struggle to see where my feet are. Glinda mentions that I shouldn’t cut off my nose to spite my face, that I should at least try each type of dress to make sure what I want is actually what I want.

“This is your special day, you want everything to be perfect.”

So I try on each one and end up conflicted on one of the poofier ones and the one Glinda suggested earlier.

“I’ll make measurements on each one and then you can decide.” Glinda’s gets her needles and gets down to the floor where she inserts them into the dress.

Chloe and Edie sit behind me, Chloe leafing through a bridal magazine absently. I can see from her face alone that just being sedentary in her mother’s presence is more of a chore than anything. Edie’s on her phone, clicking away to her heart’s desire. From how she’s sitting, it’s almost as if she wants me to see that she’s searching over the New Bride Boutique website.

“You know, Samantha, the more I think about it, I’m sure you will agree that this little shop is perfect for somebody like you, but for somebody like myself…” She takes a deep breath, contemplating. “I can’t thank you enough for inviting us along for this grand adventure, but I feel I’ve seen these dresses thousands of times over.”

I smile a fake smile. “Well, you know best, Edie.”

“It’s just that I can also look through their selection of jewellery while I’m there and there would be more staff on hand. We wouldn’t be waiting.”

“Sorry,” Glinda says under her breath and catches my eye in the mirror. I can’t tell if her apology comes from her inability to be at Edie’s beck and call or that this is the family I am marrying into.

“Do you ever stop?”

I may be thinking it, but I am not the one who says it. My eyes wander across the looking glass until I see Chloe glaring at Edie.

“Clearly, you don’t share the enthusiasm Matthew and Samantha do—”

“I do!”

“Will you stop lying?” Chloe cuts cleaning across her mother. “You get like this with everybody Matthew ever gets serious with and here you go again! You are the most selfish person I have ever met and maybe if you thought about somebody, anybody, other than yourself for once, we wouldn’t be where we are now!”

Glinda’s trying to keep her focus, but her hands shake next to me as she’s still putting pins in the dress. She accidentally stabs me in the ankle when Chloe kicks back her chair and runs off. Edie gets to her feet fast, calling for her, but doesn’t go after her. Alannah is at her side to comfort her. Nobody goes after Chloe.

It takes some time, but I finally find her hiding in a back room.

“There you are,” I say, stumbling through the door in an attempt to get closer to Chloe. The dress may not be overly puffy, but the train twists around my ankles with every step. The corset, while tight around my rib cage—I have a hard time bending over—wants to slip down my torso.

“I can’t take them anymore,” Chloe mumbles as I finally make it to her side. She’s sitting on the floor, curled up, knees close together and her arms around herself like a vice. I’m waiting for her to begin rocking back and forth. “You should be so lucky you don’t have to deal with yours anymore.”

I’m standing next to her now, though I struggle to get any closer. What she’s said and the fact that she doesn’t seem to be able to expose one slice of remorse… It’s hard, but I know how much harder it is to be a teenager, to realize the power of the things that come out of their mouths. That what feels like a simple offhanded comment could actually tear somebody apart. I’ve always had a hard time speaking with Chloe from the moment we met and it’s only now that I realize why:

She’s me.

I crouch down to Chloe’s level, as far as my dress will allow me anyway. “You’re exactly like a friend of mine when we were younger.” I speak softly and brush a few of Chloe’s strands off her shoulder. “Her name was Deli and her mother too kept a lot of secrets from her.”

Chloe rolls her eyes. “And let me guess, now they’re the best of friends because of forgiveness.”

I press my lips together. “No,” I say simply. “Deli’s mother told her and everything was blown out of proportion. Deli said some of the nastiest things she wished she could take back to this very day because little did she know that those words would be the last things her mother would hear from her. She’s always carried that regret around with her because in a way she feels her mother died from a broken heart.”

“I just don’t think she will understand,” she mutters, unable to hold my eye contact.

“Of course she will. She’s your mother and I know how hard it is to see sometimes, but she loves you and your brother more than anything in the whole world.”

“But how is she going to act when I tell her? You’ve seen how she scrutinizes everybody’s flaws.”

“Your mother does that because she cares. Besides, I’m sure she understands why you’d be angry—”

“Not that,” Chloe corrects me. “How is she going to understand that I didn’t mean for it to happen when I ran off? I was just scared, wanted somebody to love me.”

My eyebrows knit together. “What do you mean, Chloe?”

Chloe’s eyes finally connect with mine and hold barely-controlled panic, some much it almost seems contagious. “I’m pregnant.”

I feel as if I’ve been teleported back in time. I’m back on that hospital bed, looking up at the doctor on Christmas Eve. He’s just told me that I’m pregnant with William and in that moment I don’t have a clue what I am going to do. My breath steels in my throat and it takes a moment for me to remember to breathe. When I do, I am back inside the bridal shop, looking at Chloe.

“It will come as a shock to her, but she will get past it and she will be there to support you,” I tell her. “And if she isn’t, Chloe, I will be. You won’t have to go through this alone.”

Tears pool in Chloe’s eyes and then stream down her cheeks. Then she leans forward and hugs me. Soon she begins to sob in my arms. For a brief moment, I am back on my real mother’s porch in the coldest of nights. I bang on the door and Sadie opens up. And then I was exactly where Chloe is now.

“Are we ready to continue?” Glinda asks half an hour later as Chloe and I return to the room.

I nod. “I think so.”

Featured

Divine Deception — Engage

When I was young, the word engage meant one thing and one thing only: to marry. As little girls, from the moment the word engage comes into our lives we fixate on every detail that has any relevance to our perfect day—I’d spent hours, days, weeks, years. The biggest flowers my petite hands could carry, Vita’s makeup slathered on my innocent face and mounds and mounds of jewelry I’d snuck from Vita’s music box—cheap, brittle plastic to fine gold. Anything that could prepare me for the day that changes my life for the very best. Yet as I get older, engage now has a different meaning. It means to move forward, and as the days pass me, I find that while the trek can be more than difficult sometimes, the best thing is to keep pressing forward in hopes of finding complete happiness.

Matt stumbles across the wood floor and I wake with a jerk. He’s at the end of the bed, having just done up his pants and is now putting on a pair of socks. His back is to me.

“Where are you going?” I ask him.

“Out.”

A cool breeze comes through the open window and I pull the blanket closer to my body. “We have the engagement photo shoot this afternoon. You didn’t forget, did you?”

“No, I’ll be there.” His voice is tight, tense. His frustration comes in full tilt as he hauls on his socks that struggle to slide up his damp feet. A hole tears in his heel. “Just my luck!”

Watching him yank it off and toss it on the floor, my eyes venture to the tattoo on his back. I’ve been pondering it for some days now, though for the life of me I haven’t been able to put a finger on where I’ve seen it before. Now it hits me.

“Where are you going anyway?”

“Out I said.”

I was hoping he’d have let on where exactly. Matt’s been especially secretive lately and I don’t like it. And now knowing where I saw that tattoo before… Alannah has the same one on her back. I bite the inside of my lip before Matt turns and pecks me on the cheek.

“I won’t be late, I promise,” he tells me and leaves the room. Moments later, I hear the front door open and close again.

***

I make it to the photo shoot with much time to spare. Men and women are at my beck and call. One hands me my dress—it’s not my wedding dress, but it is going to be today!—and tells me to get ready in a nearby tent where a stylist is going to do my hair and makeup. I get changed as fast as I can. It seems that since I’ve arrived people are telling me I’m not moving fast enough. The director—Maggie something—is rather snarky for a woman who is getting a crap ton of money and I am reminded time and time again about how she’s one of the best in the industry. Stars line up for months in advance to book her and that I should be so grateful that Matt managed to get her on such short notice.

“Speaking of which, where is he?” she snaps, looking back and forth from her watch to her phone.

My stylist has just finished with my makeup and tells me that I am ready for action. “Why don’t I give him a call?” I say and leave the tent.

“Make sure he knows that we are on a strict schedule, Samantha. I don’t have time for this nonsense. He should know better! And make sure none of the paparazzi are creepin’ around. This photoshoot is my exclusive!”

I give her a wave—I want to give her something else, honestly—and make it out to the quiet of the forest. I call his number and he doesn’t answer. Actually, upon my second attempt, he declines it. One ring and then cut off? I don’t have an easy feel in my stomach. I felt it when he left this morning and I’ve been feeling it since the moment I met his old girlfriend. Was he at Alannah’s right now? I run my hand along the back of my neck as the thought nags at me.

I notice movement up ahead behind a line of trees. I have to actually force myself from rolling my eyes and sighing heavily. Paparazzi are annoying even if they are just doing what their jobs entail, but here, out here in the middle of nowhere, how far are they going to follow us? I can already hear Snarkypants inside bickering in my ear if one of these rats gets past me.

“This lot is off limits,” I say as the man steps into view. I trace him with my eyes as something doesn’t seem right. He’s decked out in a tuxedo, freshly pressed and he’s lacking a camera of any kind. I don’t let that pull me up short. I of all people know cameras are the size of walnuts now. He could just be hiding one in his pocket or maybe it’s small enough to carry on a ring. I close the space between us.

As I do, the more I can see. He’s rather tall, a few inches taller than me. Actually, he’s the same height as Matt. I feel my eyebrows narrow on their own, shading the hint of confusion in my eyes.

“Matt?” I finally say. I’m feet from him now and I can see his grey eyes and the way they crinkle when he smiles at me. “You got your hair cut.”

He takes my hands in his. “Well, I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.”

This must have been where he went so early this morning. He’d gone to get cleaned up, not headed over to Alannah’s. A nagging voice at the back of my brain reminds me that he could have done both—how long does a haircut really take?—but I refuse to listen to it. I’m just happy he’s here.

“I didn’t think you were coming,” I mumble partly under my breath.

Before Matt can answer, the sound of rushing footsteps through the long grass catches both of our attention.

“Are you two about ready?” Glancing over my shoulder, I spot Snarkypants. “Our time is limited and while you may have all the time in the world, Mr. Hamming, I follow a schedule of precise structure if you catch my drift.”

Matt pulls me to his side, his arm around my shoulders in a protective gesture. “Of course, Margarette. I’m terribly sorry. You know how traffic out of the city can be this time of day.”

Snarkypants doesn’t fall for Matt’s boyish charm. “Let’s get this started then. The two of you, over there.” She points at the open of a line of trees.

“Keep your hands held, I like that,” she continues as we all get closer to the marker. Men and women with cameras, lights and other things I don’t have names for, follow suit right behind her. When she stops, they all come to a halt and when she moves, they are all hightailing it behind her.

“Here?” Matt asks. There’s a little green sticker on the grass that the crew must have placed earlier. “This marker, Margarette?”

“Yes, yes,” she tells him, her patience beginning to wear thin. “If you had been here on time, you would know this. I want the two of you to talk from that marker to the other one a few feet ahead of you.”

I notice another green sticker five feet away.

“Okay, good, now, Samantha, dear, look over your shoulder at the camera and smile—happy, happy, happy—like you’ve just hit the jackpot. Beautiful. Oh, for goodness sake, Matt. You’re a model! Loosen up a bit. Stop being so rigid and let it come naturally!”

We walk the line from marker to marker for what feels like a hundred times and finally we are told that we can move on to the next stage.

The location is filled with an assortment of props brought my Snarkypants and her crew. From swings to loveseats and heart-shaped pillows and rose petals. Snarkypants leads us to a swinging loveseat first.

“C’mon, c’mon, we don’t have all day,” she pesters me as I struggle to walk across the soft grass in my heels. It must have rained last night because each step I take, I sink a bit lower into the ground. “It’s supposed to rain again this evening and we don’t want to be caught in that, do we?”

I try to go quicker and I trip over my dress. I am falling, hands splayed out to protect anything I can once I hit the ground. I can already hear Snarkypants ranting and raving about what a useless mule I am and how my falling is going to disrupt her whole schedule. Matt throws open his arms and I fall into them.

“That was pure gold, Samantha!” Snarkypants shrieks from behind me in excitement. “Ah! Mistakes can be such amazing things and we got every shot of it!”

We’ve made it to the loveseat and take our seats.

“That’s what we want, you two,” she goes on. “Stop pretending to be in love. Be in love. Smiles are just smiles. I want to see the emotion behind them or else what good are they?”

Matt goes to saw something, but Snarkypants stops him by lifting her hand.

“Rhetorical, Mr. Hamming. Now, get close to each other and look at each other in the eyes.”

“I want you to think about that moment when you looked at each other and thought that they were the person you loved. That you knew this was the person you wanted to marry. I want you to think about that. C’mon, do it!”

I turn to look into Matt’s grey eyes. For a moment I see him at the beach, the sunset behind him and the chilly air around us. When he had asked me to marry him and I couldn’t help but think it was all a joke. I am looking at those same eyes again now. This time, however, I am not running away. I am not dashing back to my car and racing off back home.

As if by magic, Nathan’s face morphs onto Matt’s head and I am staring at him instead. I can hear his voice again.

“Marry the S.O.B. and finish this. That way we can be together, all of us, as a family.”

“There it is,” Snarkypants says as the cameras are clicking away like mad. “That’s the emotion we are looking for, the real love that is going to make these pictures something to remember.”

As we are led to the final marker, I ask Matt, “So, is your hair why you are late?”

Matt shrugs. “It’s part of it.”

That nagging gut feeling comes back and I regret bringing Matt’s lateness back up again.

“I also went over to my parents to tell them the good news.”

Snarkypants points repeatedly at the green sticker at the back of a towering tree. “These photos are more physical. We want love–hell, we want lust. We want passion between the two fo you. Not to the point that you’re ripping each other’s clothes off but something that hints to it. I want you two to hold each other and kiss and fall for one another again and again and again.”

“Did it go well?” I ask Matt, ignoring Snarkypants. I put both my hands around his neck and as if on cue, he puts his hands on my hips.

“It could have gone better,” Matt says with a chuckle. It’s not a cheerful chuckle, though and for some reason, I can’t figure out, I am actually surprised. I shouldn’t be. This marriage was as much a shock to me. I can only imagine what his family is thinking back home.

“Could have gone better?” I urge him.

“Closer, you two!” Snarkypants goes off again. “I want to feel this!”

Both Matt and I disregard her. I can sense that she’s getting annoyed again, but the cameras are clicking manically so that’s a good sign.

“It’s nothing.”

I shake my head in disagreement. “It’s not nothing, Matt. We are partners now and we shouldn’t have secrets between us.”

“Well, let’s just say that my mother didn’t take the news well,” he says and I can feel his grip behind tighter on my hips as if urging me, holding me from getting fed up and leaving. I have no inclination of leaving, or that I believed Edie would take the news no other way.

In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bickering and lecturing Matt about what a terrible idea it is to marry somebody he’s just met. That I am all wrong for him and maybe that Alannah is perfect. Hell, they even have matching tattoos! But it’s her expression that seems to burn in the back of my brain. Edie’s expression turning stony as Matt tells her the news. How her crows feet are the only cracks in her otherwise hard exterior. That I am the demon girl trying to steal her precious boy from her loving arms. Jackie told me this family was going to be hard to break into, but I never expected this.

“You’re upset,” Matt says, more as an assumption than a question.

Yes and no, but I shake my head regardless. “All I care about is you, and if your mother can’t see that then that’s how it is.” Between us, we share a grim look of understanding.

It begins to pour rain. Thunder claps behind thick rolling clouds and a flash of lightning gets Snarkypants and her crew antsy.

“That’s it for today!” she says before ordering her crew to clean up their things and load it back into their truck.

Matt still holds me in his concerningly frank gaze. “Then that’s how it is because all I care about is you too.” He lifts me into his arms and kisses me. This isn’t a kiss like for the photoshoot, though. This kiss had love and emotion in it. Like we are unbreakable. Too bad that Snarkypants couldn’t be here now, shooting away. She’d get everything she ever wanted.

Featured

Divine Deception — Blindsided

As in life, destruction can become messy if organization isn’t a top priority. Yet both would be a much simpler feat if our brains could communicate with our hearts and allow a friendly cooperation that didn’t leave us out in left field. Because when we are left out in the open, struggling to find purchase on the path our heart wants to go, we end up getting hit out of nowhere only able to ask ourselves where it all came from.

Matt holds me tight in his arms as we watch the sunrise. We sit in silence just listening to the sound of the water, the singing of the birds, even our own breaths. The cold spell that we were under for the last few weeks has broken and Autumn has returned, sweater weather among us again.

I rest my head on Matt’s chest, listening to his heartbeat and feeling his warm breath tickle my neck and ear. As the sun is just peeking over the horizon, I get a glimpse of Connie in my mind’s eye. She was such a nature lover and sunrises were things she made sure she caught at least once a week. I still haven’t heard from her since that night a few weeks ago. I’ve called her, left voice messages and even sent her a few texts, but I’ve gotten nothing in response, and something tells me that I won’t be hearing from her in a long time.

Matt moves around behind me and moves his hand so that it is right in front of my face. Palm up, I spot the diamond ring glittering in the golden light.

“What is this?” is what I want to say, but nothing comes out from my mouth other than a squeaky sound I have no other description for. Matt’s gotten up from the bench and kneels down in front of me, taking my hand in his. My mind knows what he is doing, I’ve seen this happen in countless romance films, television shows, books, but to experience it right here and now, it makes absolutely no sense.

“Samantha, honey—”

“What are you doing?” I am finally able to say, cutting cleanly across him.

He puts up a hand to silence me. “I know our time together has been a short one and in that time we have done a lot. And in that short amount of time, I have come to the realization of how much I love you.”

“Matt—”

He raises his hand again. “You’re not here for my money. My family, as crazy as they are, hasn’t forced you to run down the road in an attempt to save your sanity. Spending all of that night to help find my sister, who I know isn’t the kindest of girls out there… With everything that’s gone on, you’re still here and that means the world to me. That also made it very clear how much we love each other.”

“But—”

“You are perfect and I’d be honoured, so privileged if you accepted this proposal to be my wife.”

A smile tickles the corners of my lips, though I am able to stifle the chuckle that follows. He has to be joking. We haven’t known each other for very long, how can he know that we are meant to be? A part of me wants to think that he wants to marry me as some dig at his parents, especially his mother just to say that he’s a grown man, that he can make his own decisions without Edie interfering.

But as I look at his face, look into those grey eyes of his, I know deep down he means every word he’s saying. He truly loves me and wants me to be his wife not as some sick joke or a way to break free from his mother’s grasp. But because he wants to spend the rest of his life with me.

Tight, unbreakable knots of unpleasant emotions like fear, anxiety and confusion twist the way from my rib cage all the way down to the pit of my stomach. Dead cold dread plummets down to my toes and it’s as if a block of ice has been slammed into my shoulders. Marry him? My ears are pulsing with blood so loud that I don’t hear him, though I can read his lips when he asks me for my hand.

Suddenly my feet and legs are moving of their own accord. “I can’t do this,” I say and I am on my feet. I listen to Matt who questions me as I walk back to my car. He’s asking me what’s wrong, what’s going on. I can hear in his voice alone how upset he is, yet I don’t answer any of his questions. The knots in my stomach attach to something else, a hatred for myself.

I glance over my shoulder once I stop hearing Matt’s shuffling footsteps behind me. He’s leaning up against a wooden structure, his face buried, but even so, I can see how much I’ve upset him.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper to him even if I know he won’t hear a word. He’s dropped to the sandy ground, looking at the glowing sun like we were supposed to be doing and I make it to my car. I unlock it and get inside like a robot, my legs and arms moving so sharply and infused with tension that I don’t even realize that I have cuts in the palms of my hands from my nails digging in. I start the car up, get back on the main road and then I am driving, driving where? I don’t have a clue because my mind is swimming with questions and emotions and I can’t for the life of me focus on one thing. I may have just ruined everything we have all put together. Connie was the beginning of this crap ball and the simplest of things I have ever had to do—Just say yes!—may have just turned into the finishing blow.

***

“And then right there he asks me out of the blue!” I say to Nathan as I stare out at Bridgeport.

Somehow I managed to get home. I didn’t arrive because this was where I wanted to end up. Somehow, my robotic limbs went into their own control and decided this was the safest place for me. Thankfully, nobody was home when I arrived. Well, other than Nathan. But nobody else. No Jackie, no Whitman, not even William. I don’t want anybody to see me like this, not now. I’m shaking uncontrollably and I have this strong feeling that I need to keep moving because if I don’t something is actually going to hit me.

“I don’t know what I am doing anymore,” I babble. “I mean, I thought I did, but who could have seen marriage coming so early on? I wanted to get close to the family, sure, hell, maybe marriage if it was down the road, I don’t know. How was I supposed to see that coming?”

“Deli—”

I can hear Nathan and know he wants to say something to me, but I need, just need to get this out if my system. “And the worst part is, all I can see, all I have seen since I said no to Matt, is my father asking my mother to marry him and Sadie having no problem with it. She said yes like it was nothing and it didn’t matter what she felt inside, on the outside, she probably looked like this perfect destroyer able to worm her way into the Alto family. I can see it, I can see it! Yet here I am, the same thing happens to me and why does it feel like a tornado has met with a volcano?”

“Deli,” Nathan says again and this time I don’t prattle on over him. I’ve worked myself into a sweat and I am sure my face may slowly be turning blue.

I turn around and see Nathan sitting on one of the patio chairs. He must have gotten tired of listening to me rage because the last time I saw him he was standing and at the edge of the pool. How long have I been going off for?

“Why are you getting so upset? Isn’t this what you wanted?” he asks me and there’s a part of me that wants to take his head off for him. Hasn’t he been listening to me? But I choose not to. I’m sure I sound like a blubbering mental patient and while I may know what I am thinking and saying, probably Nathan can’t understand most of what has come out of my mouth.

I take a deep breath. “I wanted to get close to the family, yes, but marriage… It’s not something that really crossed my mind. And there Matt was and asks me out of nowhere. How is a girl supposed to react to that?”

Nathan smirks as he gets down on his one knee and takes my hand.

“Oh, bloody hell, not you too.” I am meant to say it under my breath, but it comes out in full force. Nathan doesn’t get upset, though. He just laughs it off as he pulls a little black box from his trouser pocket.

“Delilah Lawrence, I know how much we’ve been struggling lately and how this personal mission has been a challenge, but I want you to know how much I love you. We have been through a lot of heavy work, we’ve seen each other in our best and our worst and we have a beautiful son together. And there is nothing I want more than to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”

A different handful of emotions spring through my body. Happiness, ease and love to name a few. The tightly wound knots in my stomach have been soothed away and as Nathan lightly squeezes my hand, I can’t do anything but say, “Yes, yes, Nathan, I will marry you.”

Nathan slips the ring on my finger and pulls me into a loving embrace, one that is miles ahead of anything Matt has ever done for me. Nathan kisses me and I can feel tears streaking down my face. I’m sure I look like a mess, that this isn’t what we should be looking back on in the years and years to come.

“And what should I do about Matt?” I ask, wiping my face with the sleeve of my sweater. Nathan tilts my chin up so that we are looking each other in the eyes.

“Marry the S.O.B. and finish this. That way we can be together, all of us, as a family.”

“You don’t think I’m crazy?”

Nathan grins. “I knew there was always something off about you since the moment we met. And I’ve never loved you more.”

I make it across town to Matt’s house and give the front door a knock. I tried calling him and sending him texts, getting him hasn’t been an easy feat, however. All calls go straight to voicemail and texts never get a reply. It seems Connie isn’t the only one I have offended as of late. Maybe I can mend this broken fence before it’s too late, though.

The door opens and the moment the light hits his face, I know he’s still angry with me. How can’t he be? He put everything he had on the line for me and I ran off. His following words struggle to change my thoughts.

“What do you want?”

“I deserve that,” I say. Matt doesn’t say anything to disagree or make me feel better and I don’t expect him to. “I am sorry for running off this morning. I was caught off guard and scared and…” I stop making the excuse and go straight to putting brand new planks back on the fence posts. “Yes, Matthew Hamming, yes, I will marry you.”

I expect that he is going to slam the door in my face or tell me off again, make a joke, laugh in my face, I don’t know. My judgment has been a little off lately. So when Matt takes me in his arms and kisses me, I am a little taken aback. He’s kissing me hard, his arms around me like a vice and I can taste the alcohol on his lips. I don’t hold back. I kiss him back, pushing him into the house and kicking the door closed behind me. I push him away for a moment, just enough time to pull off my coat and reveal a special piece of lingerie that I bought just for this moment. I observe Matt, his face brightening like a little boy on Christmas morning. The moment my coat hits the floor, he’s next to me, his arms around my body and he’s kissing me. He’s kissing my lips, my neck, my collarbone. My hair is pulled out from my ponytail and red locks shuffle down to my shoulders.

Somehow, I don’t even know how we managed to do it, we end up in Matt’s bedroom, my legs wrapped around him. I have pulled his shirt off, unbuttoning it in one quick yank. It drops to the floor and Matt spins me and we fall until my back hits the soft surface of his mattress. I gasp, the most air I’ve gotten since I stepped foot inside and Matt is crawling on top of me. Even for how warm his chest is as it glides over mine, it still has the ability to send a shiver up my spine. My hands run through his silky brown hair as he focuses on my neck. We both slip off the edge of the bed but neither of us separate. We’re on the floor and he’s again on top of me and I just stare at the ceiling, reminded that the fence I thought was once broken has been fixed and that finally my heart and brain are trying to work together. I close my eyes and think about Nathan.

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Divine Deception — The Second Dose: Part 2

I keep silent as we drive. Matt and I have been searching for his sister all night and to no avail. Matt’s keeping a cool exterior, his mother not so much. She’s been texting and calling like mad since we broke up to find Chloe close to midnight when she failed to come home. I catch a glimpse of Matt in the corner of my eye. He’s calm, collected. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought we were just on some Sunday morning drive. But we aren’t and even if he hides behind his mask, I can see that there’s a hint of worry in his eyes. I don’t comment on it. Partly because I haven’t a clue what I should say. Everything that needed to be said I told him during the late hours of the night before the sun decided to rise and what I may have missed is but matter, particles of empty space.

By ten o’clock, we decide, more out of desperation than anything, that maybe Chloe is hanging out with friends at the local fairgrounds. I park the car and Matt’s already walking down into the festival before I’ve put the car in park. I unbuckle my seatbelt, get out and chase after him, my eye peeled for any familiar blondes that look like Chloe.

“She’s got to be somewhere,” I hear Matt mumble under his breath once I make it to his side.

“Stop blaming yourself,” I say softly, bring up a hand and taking his.

“No, it’s not my fault, it’s theirs,” Matt tells me. “Once again Ma and Pa screw over this family with their lies.”

I go silent after that and we decide to split up and search the grounds alone.

I feel for Matt, though I can’t completely agree with him. His parents may have been keeping a big secret from Chloe, but I was the one who unleashed it.

After the success of getting Matt out of the media spotlight, I tried to turn the shining beam onto Chloe instead. Greedy, sure, but unsuccessful? Not in the slightest. Revealing to the world that Chloe was adopted was my way of putting some distance between the media and Matt.

I stop at the pie-eating contest right as the buzzer goes off and four women slam their faces into blueberry and raspberry pies. The last special day I spent with my mother forms in my mind’s eye and my body succumbs to a feeling of loneliness.

I had other reasons for exposing Chloe, of course. To pull away mother and daughter, to throw a wrench into that relationship, one that I was refused all those years ago. And I won’t deny that it felt good, but that wasn’t my prime goal, and Chloe running off was hardly something I expected to happen.

“She’s home!” Matt calls from behind me. I wipe the tear that’s begun to run down my cheek and turn to him. “Mom just called and Chloe’s finally come home.”

“That’s great news.”

Matt gives me a look. “Are you okay?”

“Just… tired. My emotions are getting the better of me.” I glance back at the pie eating once more. “My mother and I came to things like this when I was younger. She was more into hotdog eating contests,” I tell him with a chuckle. “Just… hit me hard is all.”

Matt grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze. “She sounds like an awesome woman.”

“The best. I just hope she’s looking down on me and understands why I doing what I am.”

“I’m sure she’s extremely proud of you, Samantha.”

I smile cheerlessly as we make it back to the car. Sometimes I wonder if she is happy with my decisions or if she’s disappointed that I’m following in her own footsteps even after witnessing everything she had lost.

As we walk into Matt’s parents’ house back in Appaloosa Plains, I can hear Arthur yelling. From what Matt’s guessed, he’s probably been lecturing Chloe since the moment she stepped foot back into the house.

When I look past him into the family room, I spot Chloe sitting on the sofa, legs crossed, arms over her chest, anger blossoming on her face. She is not happy and I don’t blame her. I think back to the night Vita told me about Sadie.

“ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME?” Arthur bellows out of nowhere that even I start.

“Arthur, calm down!” Edie tells him. She’s gotten to her feet and now stands in front of him, holding his hands in an attempt to bring the house back to some form of orderly fashion. “The neighbours are going to hear you!”

“BUGGER THE NEIGHBOURS!”

“Arthur!” Edie snaps.

“No, don’t tell me to calm down. We’ve been up all night worrying and she’s acting like some ungrateful brat—”

What? Do you regret choosing me?” Chloe hops to her feet, tears streaking down her cheeks. She doesn’t let Arthur—he looks like he’s been struck hard in the head with shock by her tone—answer before plowing on. “Well, I guess that makes two of us!”

“That’s not what he meant!” Edie tries to stop Chloe, but she’s already up the stairs and in her room. The door slams shut behind her with a loud bang. “Oh you’ve done it now, Arthur.”

Ding Dong.

Arthur gives Edie a wave of his hand, a dismissal, and heads out of the room to get the door. Edie stands there, looking as if she’s about to burst into tears.

“She’ll come to her senses, Mrs. Hamming,” I say. It’s all I can do not to allow the tension in the air to consume the whole room. Edie wavers in front of me and I add, “She’s just in a lot of shock, I think we all are, but I’m sure she’ll come around and see how much you really—”

“Look who decided to drop by,” Arthur chimes in, cutting me off as he makes his way back into the foyer. A woman follows him in, and not just a woman, a stunning woman.

She has an hourglass figure, long flowing locks the colour of night and a face only supermodels dream of having. I can feel my lips curling as she strides into the room like she owns the joint, her flawless skin sparkling in the light, no signs of age or even a blemish. I have no clue who this woman is, but there is something about her I don’t like, even with looks aside. How Arthur prides himself on her appearance, to relieve himself of the daggers Edie was staring at him with earlier or maybe it’s the fact that just because this new girl shows up, we are expected to drop whatever we were doing before.

“Alannah!” Edie squeals next to me, pushing me out of the way like I’m some old rag. She dashes for the newcomer and throws her arms around her, embracing her while she sputters in tears and laughter. Tears and laughter? All I’ve gotten from this woman since I started dating Matt has been a simple hello and a frosty smile, and that’s on the best of days.

“Oh Matty-kins!” Alannah says once Edie peels away from her. Alannah’s arms are up, ready to take on her next victim and while Matt may not have moved forward to take up the offer, somehow her arms have wrapped around his torso like a vice and begins softly, almost seductively, exploring. I watch in horror—I am completely in awe by what is going on in front of my very eyes. This can’t be happening. Who the hell is she?

As she pulls away from Matt and looks at the others—turning her back on me might I add—I spot half a tattoo that looks oddly familiar, though I struggle to remember where exactly I’ve seen it before.

“My goodness, we weren’t expecting you,” Edie says, wiping away a tear. “I’ll make a pot of coffee. Still two cream, one sweetener, dear?”

While I can see in the mirror that I’m being successful in keeping my emotions in check, it’s like a rock has plummeted to the bottom of my gut. Edie loves this girl, anybody could see it and I know for a fact that this is not some long-lost daughter the family keeps hidden from the world.

“Well, this is awkward,” Matt says, offering to take my jacket. “Alannah, I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Samantha. Honey, this is my…”

Matt struggles to find the softest word for what they are that I end up becoming impatient and say it for him.

“Another girlfriend of yours?” I say it like a joke that I find too true to be funny.

“Oh, I wish!” Alannah giggles, giving Matt’s cheek a quick caress and taking a seat at the table. “We just wanted different things at different times in our life.”

“So an ex,” I say more to myself. That’s not to say that Alannah hears me. We spend time talkng about their relationship. How they met, how long they stayed together and how they broke up. All of which seems a little too fictional for my liking, or maybe I don’t want to believe that they met in a Paris photoshoot under the Eiffel Tower. Or that they almost got married. Or that they broke up, promising to stay as friends and actually do it.

“My gosh, you remember that time at the Boardwalk on the rollercoaster?” she says excitedly. I can see from the way Matt’s face reddens that he’d rather I not hear it, but she goes on nonetheless. “So it’s one of the coldest days and the park’s pretty much empty—”

“We paid to have it to ourselves!” Edie calls from the kitchen.

“—and of course the rollercoaster craps out when it’s just the two of us on it”—she pinches Matt’s cheek and it rubs me the wrong way—”and we’re way up there and the crew are taking their sweet time getting it fixed. We’re freezing our butts off and it’s snowing and we’re shivering. I think we’re about to die—”

“It wasn’t that cold,” Matt clarifies.

“You didn’t think that then. So I think we’re about to die,” Alannah repeats herself, “and so I suggest that we use each other’s body heat to keep warm. I end up getting pretty much all my clothes off before this one gets his jakcet open. Would have thought it was his first time.” She takes a deep breath and stares into the distance as if reimagining the memory. “Once his shirt is off I end up in his arms, chest against chest and his jacket tight around both of us.”

“And then the crew came!”

Alannah shoots Matt a look. “Not before we were done. Honestly, I think they just waited until we were ready to be saved, if you know what I mean.”

I shudder at the thought but keep a smile plastered on my face. “Like a fairy tale.”

The next two hours are much the same. Special story after story. I want to pull Matt away and ask him if he still has feelings for this woman because it is very obvious by the way she acts that she very much likes him. What with all the special stories and I don’t think Alannah has looked at anything other than Matt’s face since we sat down. I won’t lie. I think I’ve rolled my eyes so far back into my head that I’ve actually watched brain cells die. And the laughing. She’s been pretty much laughing since she arrived.

Alannah gets up from her seat. “Well I should be going,” she says. She gives Edie a hug and is walked to the front door. I grab my coat. I should be leaving as well, though I get a feeling Edie isn’t going to give a damn about that. Alannah says her goodbyes, pecks Matt on the cheek and leaves.

“She is some girl,” he says.

Oh yeah,” and I leave as well.

My drive home is uneventful. The temperature has started dropping and flurries begin to fall from the sky. About halfway home I remember that last night I asked Whitman to contact everybody and ask them over to our place to discuss the mission at hand. My eyes sting and I have this deepening desire to call the whole meeting off. I haven’t slept, I am frustrated and I have this feeling that Alannah’s drop in wasn’t the last I will see of her. I choose to swallow my negativity instead. Everybody changed their schedules for this meeting. Best if I don’t screw it up.

I get home half an hour later. When I open the door, Nathan is right there to welcome me.

“Deli, you’re home—”

I wrap my arms around him and kiss him hard. His soft lips don’t move for a moment and then finally he kisses me back. It feels so good to be in his arms, to hear his voice. To be called Deli and not Samantha. He embraces me, holds me so tight that I don’t ever want to let go. He has no idea how much I have missed him.

We finally part and he leads me to the living room. I take a seat on the table and he sits right in front of me on the sofa. I don’t turn my gaze away from him. I don’t want to stop looking at him.

Are you okay?” he asks me.

“It’s been a day,” I say and he asks me what happened and I tell him.

I tell him everything from Matt’s ex showing up and their whole affair and how yesterday morning I wanted to get the Hammings back together for the sake of the misison, but it seems somehow my aura got more Hammings than I expected.

“And then once I was able to tear that bond between mother and daughter apart, we were sent into this whirlwind. It just came so fast after that.”

You forced it?”

I look over my shoulder. Connie has stopped midstride on her way to the kitchen and glares at me. I try to ask her what she means, but she’s beaten me to the punch.

“You destroyed a child’s relationship with her parents, her family? Why?”

I give her a look of uncertainty. “Because we needed to get Matt out of the spotlight. By dragging him out and forcing her in, Matt’s become yesterday’s news.”

“And you couldn’t have found a different way? Deli, you tore a hole in a family’s tapestry, you hurt a young girl!”

I can see from where I sit that Connie’s emotions are stirring closer to the surface. I know she’s been dealing with a lot lately. She’s been uncertain about a lot that’s happened especially after Sean’s death, and yet her ability to question me rubs me the wrong way. I get up from my seat as she continues.

“Deli, I thought we were trying to gain access to into Paragon, not this… this… cruelty.”

“We are, but this way I have nailed two birds with one stone. I’m closer than ever to the Hammings—chasing their daughter to the ends of the earth to make sure she’s okay means something—and they have less reason to question my love for their son.”

“And the other bird?”

I sigh. “She deserved to know.”

I watch as Connie’s eyes round in both confusion and sadness.

What?

“Chloe deserved to know the truth. There should never have been a secret to break free in the first place. Something like that would hurt a girl if it came out at a time her parents believed was right. The sooner the better.”

“You don’t think she’s hurt now?”

“Oh she’s devastated,” I say matter-of-factly, “on the edge of her breaking point. But she’s not nearly as hurt as she would be when Edie and Arthur finally gathered the courage to break it to her. If anything, I did them all a favour.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you,” Connie mutters as she looks me up and down. I spot rage, real rage in her eyes and I think I spot maybe even pity. “SHE’S NOT YOU AND EDIE’S NOT VITA!”

I never said she was,” I bite back, my own anger coming to my defense. “This is what Master Lee taught us—”

“This isn’t what Master Lee taught us—”

“This is exactly what Master Lee taught us, you were just too blind to see it!” My anger is getting the better of me and I can feel it bubbling like acid at the back of my throat. But I don’t hold back. “This is as simple as destruction gets. Make the wrongdoers pay and set life’s scale even again!”

Jackie arrives with William, probably to figure out what all the ruckus is about, yet neither of us, Connie or myself, pay her any attention or try to tone it down.

Connie pulls back, visibly offended. Tears streak her cheeks in thick streams and the will that I used to have to coddle Connie and tell her everything is going to be okay is long gone.

“If this is how you want to run this then I don’t want to be a part of this thing of yours anymore, Deli.”

My jaw tightens. “Then leave,” I say. “I’m not holding any of you against your will. If you want to go, there’s the door. Don’t let me hold you back.”

Connie, even while crying, laughs coldly, dismissively, and walks out.

Featured

Divine Deception — The Second Dose: part 1

When I was in the fifth grade, I knew a young boy named Kevin Myers. We got picked up after school and somehow always ended up being the last two waiting for our rides. He wasn’t an overly talkative chap. He didn’t have many friends and he got picked on a lot, but if money meant anything, he was on a level all of his own. His nanny ended up arriving fifteen minutes after all buses left most days. Knowing she was strapped for time, she came with a bottle of water and two pills in her hands—one red, one blue. The first one, the smaller of the two, Kevin took with a quick swig from the bottle, but it was the second, huge in comparison, that he fought over. I think about this to this day. We, people of habit, find that the first band-aid pulled is but a quick flick of the wrist, but our brains find ways to force us to keep our guard up. The second tug is always the one that pulls hard on the heartstrings, makes us flinch, unlike the first one that we never saw it coming. Kevin Myers reminds me to this very day that the second dosage has and will always be the hardest one to swallow.

“You look like you need this.”

I open my eyes and see Nathan standing over me, two cups of coffee in his hands. Dawn is just breaking through the window and I am sitting at my desk, my hands still on the keys, filling the search bar with gibberish. I must have dozed off for a few minutes. I’ve been pulling a lot of all-nighters lately and it seems to have started to catch up with me.

“Thanks,” I say as I take one of the cups from Nathan. I may not be a huge coffee drinker—I’ve always been more fond of fruit-flavoured teas—but these days coffee has become my best friend.

Nathan takes a seat in the chair across from me. “This has been an ongoing thing, huh?” He makes a gesture towards the laptop. “Up long nights and whatnot.”

“It’s just part of the job. You know how it is.” I take a careful sip of the steaming liquid and end up just keeping the cup in my hands to warm them. It’s getting to the end of autumn and the mornings are starting to get chilly.

“You know, if you’re finding this difficult, nobody’s going to be disappointed if you back down.”

I grin inwardly. Nobody but myself, I think, though I get where he’s coming from. He’s the one who listened to me complain about how destruction ruined my mother’s life. He just doesn’t want me to end up running on the same treadmill, so to speak.

“I’m fine,” I tell him. “Besides, I’d hate to stop now, of all times. I mean, everything’s coming together. I’ve finally gotten Matt out of the spotlight, something my mother was never able to do with my father, and I’ve also managed to separate my emotions from Matt’s sister.”

When I returned from dinner with the family, I told Nathan about my frustrations with Chloe. Now, however, I know why I had such a hard time with her: Chloe is me back when I was a teenager. And now that I know this, I can use it.

“Well, as long as you’re happy,” Nathan says as he gets up from his chair. I sense a hint of bitterness in his tone, but before I can say anything, he adds, “Remember, Deli, that we have a son. A gun on a desk is hardly a suitable place for it.”

***


“Can you believe these people?” Matt asks two and a half hours later. He’s just gotten out of bed and grabbed the newspaper to accompany his morning coffee. “It’s been three weeks and the media’s still going on about that bloody argument between me and my father. How many articles can they possibly make over something so…”

“Mundane?” I mutter more to myself than Matt, but he takes it anyway.

“My choice of word would have been private, but, sure, let’s go with mundane.”

I give him an apologetic look. “The media has a way of exposing the worst in people and creating plenty of stories with it. It’s just how it goes. Best to ignore it”—I pull the newspaper from Matt’s hands and place it on the counter—”and move on with life.”

“That may be all and well for you, Sam,” he says tentatively as he grabs the newspaper again and looks it over, “but your father didn’t ruin your life.”

I open the door of the oven and pull out our french toast. If only he knew, I think.

“You can’t honestly think that you’re capable of hating them for the rest of your life,” I say and put down the plate in the middle of the table. I grab some cutlery for the two of us as well as two plates and set our places.

“Of course I wouldn’t waste my time and energy hating them for the rest of my life. That’s way too long. I’ll just hate them for the rest of theirs.”

A laugh springs from my lips. “But they were just trying to help. They love you very much.”

Matt takes a seat and while he may be pretending to read the articles, I know, just from his lack of movement in his eyes, that he’s contemplating what I’ve said.

“Why don’t we invite them over tonight, for dinner, all three of them?” I suggest after a moment. “We’ll cook, we’ll entertain, we’ll clear the air.”

“They’re probably not able to make it. You know how busy they’ve been.”

Making sure not to let him see, I roll my eyes. Really? Edie hasn’t seen her son, whom she dotes on every single minute of the day, in over three weeks. She’ll drop everything she’s doing, no matter what it is, to find a spot next to her son’s side again. I can count on it. And even if Matt’s father is still angry, a mother’s love for her child is nothing to go up against.

“Just give it a try,” I say. “Give your mother a call and see if they can make it.”

I am not shocked when they call back to say that they’ll be here with bells on, though I am a little surprised that they end up arriving two hours before expected. Edie’s pretty much thrown open the passenger door and jumped out while the car—driven by Arthur—has barely slowed down. And then she’s running, hightailing it to the front door where she rings the doorbell and knocks at the same time. She isn’t thrilled when I open the door. She barely says a word to me—Hello to you too—and bolts past me to find Matt in the living room. After a half an hour of catching up on Matt’s life—where have you been? What have you been up to? Did you miss me?—Edie actually has enough self-control to pry herself from her son’s side and helps me with dinner.

I know Matt’s being distant tonight. He makes small talk with Chloe, who is usually more focused on her phone, and humours his mother with all of her questions. But he and his father haven’t said much of anything. Like two peas in a pod. Both have their arms crossed over their chest, slouched in their seats, miserable with the world. I think the both of them are going to call it quits before Arthur saunters over to the piano and begins playing a tune.

“You two remember when we used to play at those parties we’d hold at home?” Arthur says, playing as if not needing to pay attention to where his fingers go. He’s a natural. “I’d be on the piano—”

“—and, Matthew,” Edie jumps in excitedly, “you’d come running down through the guests like a boy on Christmas morning with that toy guitar in your hands. You always wanted to be a star!”

While cringing slightly inwardly, I can see Matt on the other side of the room actually warming up to the memory.

“That’s right,” Arthur agrees and then glances over at Chloe. “And then years later you wanted to be a part of it and ended up banging pots and pans that you got from the kitchen.”

As they continue going along Memory Lane, I grab a glass of wine and down it in one glug. It’s not the cheesiness that has me going. It’s the fact of how simple these people’s problems are and who they care about. I know I want them to get back together so that I am another step closer to my own goal, but seeing them now all happy and cheery—Oh look! Matt’s grabbed his guitar and has begun playing—ignites a flame in the pit of my stomach that I find rather difficult to ignore. Here I am trying to fight a continuous battle to save my family from the despicable ways of Paragon and these people don’t have to say sorry or do anything other than bringing up a thing that happened years upon years ago when Matt and Chloe were cute and pinchable.

To say that I am thrilled when dinner is ready is more of an understatement than anything. It gives me time to stuff my face, yet it also gives me time to think about why I wanted these people back in my life so badly. Once again I remind myself that bringing this family back together right now will bring me one step closer to gaining access into Paragon, but still… Having to endure a night of them, forcing a smile on my face, listening to Edie prattle on about how great her son is. Maybe it’s my lack of sleep these days or the tone I can’t get out of my head of when I last spoke to Nathan… Either way, my impatience is getting the better of me.

After dinner, I suggest that Edie and Arthur come and try out the new hot tub Matt’s just had installed. Both of them seem intrigued and hurry to the washroom to get changed.

“How are you doing?” I ask Matt who’s just finished filling the dishwasher. I help him by tossing in a pod and starting it up. “They seem thrilled. The old gang’s back together.”

His eyebrows raise and then lower again. “I guess you could say that,” he says. “You were right, Sam. They were just trying to help.” He embraces me and then kisses me on the cheek.

Ugh! Get a room, would you?” Chloe says, disgustedly as she walks into the kitchen to grab a pop from the fridge.

Matt disregards this. “Chloe, will you be joining us—”

“Uh, ew! I don’t think so.” She closes the door and cracks open her can. “Besides, Gossip TV’s on in, like, ten minutes.”

Gossip TV?” I ask.

“Uh, yeah! It’s a celebrity news show with the latest gossip on anybody worth talking about.”

“Should be called Trash TV,” Matt mutters.

“Tell that to how many millions of viewers. Like, c’mon, Matt, you only don’t like the show because it was their website that leaked Daddy’s video about you weeks ago—”

“You have no idea, Chloe, about how vile that show is. They are still talking about me—”

Chloe makes a dismissive gesture with her hand. “O-M-G, old people problems much?” and she walks out of the room.

I can feel Matt’s arms tense around me and I embrace him back. “Don’t bother with her,” I whisper to him and look him deep in the eyes. “She won’t listen. Let her go.” He goes to say something and I press a finger to his lips. “It’s a girl thing.”

As Matt heads out to the hot tub with his parents, I make my way to the washroom. I close the door behind me, lock it and turn on the loud fan. Pulling out my cell, I make the call and bring the phone to my ear.

“Yeah?” the voice on the other end picks up.

“Hey, Whitman, it’s me.”

“Ah, Deli, good! Checking to make sure everything is set?” He doesn’t let me answer. “Well, worry no more, everything’s been sent and we should be good to go.”

“The—”

“Yup!”

“And the—”

“All done.”

“Perfect,” I say. “Then I guess we just watch and see what happens. Give me a call if anything changes.” I’m about to hang up when—

“Hey, Deli, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, what is it?” There’s silence on the other end of the line, though I can still hear Whitman breathing. “Whitman, I’m kind of on a tight schedule here.”

“I know, it’s just that I’m not usually one to pry into things and get into the backdraft—”

“Just say it,” I tell him.

“Fine, Connie’s acting really strange lately and I don’t know if I should be taking it into account or if it’s normal or…”

“Define strange.”

“She’s worrying a lot. She’s stressed out of her mind—Yesterday, I think I actually heard her crying in the bathroom.”

I sigh and rub the back of my neck. I don’t doubt for a moment that what Whitman’s said is the truth, even the part where Connie’s been crying. We spoke about her opinion of the mission about a month ago, though I thought maybe she’s started pulling herself around to what we had decided to do as a team.

“I can’t say I haven’t noticed,” I say finally. “It’s the reason why I chose you to mail in those files and not her. Connie is struggling to come to terms with what we’re doing. I know and I have talked to her about all of it. But it’s up to her to accept it.”

“What should I do?” I can hear Whitman’s empathy for Connie’s wellbeing in his voice.

“Set up a meeting tomorrow night. Make sure everybody’s there—Nathan, Connie, Jackie. We’ll discuss what our plans are going forward and hopefully, everybody can come to peace with it.”

I finish with Whitman, get changed and head out to the hot tub. While I make my way through the family room, I notice Gossip TV has started, Chloe all ready on the sofa. I leave the door open to the deck, hang my towel on one of the hangers and slip into the hot water with the others. Edie is still, still going on about Matt to the point where I don’t think their conversation has gone anywhere since they showed up. I think of the moment I met her back at Matt’s birthday party and how I was intimidated by her, how I’d hate to get on her bad side. But seeing her here, so desperate for her son’s approval… Maybe I overestimated this woman’s abilities.

“Mom…!” Chloe calls from the other room.

I glance over my shoulder to see the television. The words “BREAKING NEWS!” takes up most of the screen followed by a female anchor and Chloe’s photo next to her.

“It seems the Hamming household struggles again to clean their slate and find purchase on a story-free lifestyle,” the woman’s voice coming from the flatscreen sounds as if through a tin can. “Weeks ago it was leaked that model and up and coming actor Matthew Hamming was paying for the gigs that he got.”

I peek over at Matt whose face reddens with fury.

“But now it’s time for somebody else to shine. It’s been leaked that his little sister, Chloe Hamming, is actually adopted.”

Edie and Arthur’s faces both drain of colour at the same time and get to their feet. Neither of them can get out of the hot tub fast enough, and when their feet make contact with the deck, they slip and almost fall on their faces.

“Chloe Hamming’s personal records were uploaded and shared worldwide this afternoon and after some investigating, Gossip TV can confirm that they’re the real deal.”

The family room turns into an uproar. Chloe’s on her feet, screaming at the top of her lungs at her parents, questioning them between sobs yet not allowing either one of them to answer. Edie trying to calm her down, put a hand on her shoulder, get her to sit down, get her to listen, but Chloe just goes off again.

“First the cloak and dagger stuff with Matt and now this?” Chloe’s like a freight train, ready to barrel over anything in her path, both physically and figuratively. “Who the hell are you people?”

“Chloe, that’s no way to speak to us—”

“Oh shut up!” Chloe runs right on over Arthur, pushing past both him and Edie. “You’re not even my real father! NEITHER OF YOU MEAN ANYTHING TO ME!” And from the hot tub, I watch Chloe run out of the room, followed by the front door slamming behind her.

Featured

Divine Deception — Infamy

Infamy is a power that holds a spellbinding desirability. Some see fortune and glory at the expense of something more. Others see fears, a dark cloak slowly cascading over them on the darkest of nights, a death that can’t come fast enough. But in the darkest of nights, stars seem to burn brighter than anybody ever thought possible. For many, the pathway to fame is like a phoenix rising from its ashes, destined to be born again and they will do anything to capture its flame.

Matt puts the car into park and I look at the restaurant in front of us. Business As Usual is the new and big thing in Bridgeport. As their pamphlet says, it’s the crème del le crème of all dining experiences, and they aren’t lying. Celebrities from all over have come to taste what this place has to offer and walking in off the street? Nope, that’s not going to work here. Better call in and reserve a table even if it’s for lunch. Tables outside don’t need reservations, but when it’s a day like today, miserable and cold, one doesn’t want to waste their money freezing in the pouring rain.

The Paparazzi swarm outside the front doors of the place, trying to get the best shots to sell to a high-paying magazine or blog. It’s people like these that make me a little nervous about being so out in the open. Thankfully it will only be for a limited amount of time. Hopefully.

Matt leads me to a back door and we head inside that way. Waving to two of the chefs, they say hi back and call Matt by his first name. Obviously, Matt must know them and coming through the back door is something of a regularity.

In a few moments, we are out in the dining area and I see Mr. and Mrs. Hamming. It’s not like any time has passed since I saw both of them. Edie’s eyes light up and she springs to her feet like a jack in the box the moment she sees her son, while Arthur is once again looking at his phone.

“Would you put that thing away, Arthur?” Edie scowls. “You know how much I hate phones at the dinner table.” Arthur, begrudgingly, stuffs his phone into his pocket and pulls the Bluetooth from his ear.

“Mom, Dad,” Matt says as he puts his arm around me and pulls me closer. “You remember Samantha.”

“Of course, how are you, dear?” Arthur says.

“Quite well,” I say.

“And this is my sister Chloe.”

I follow Matt’s hand to the young blonde. She looks to be fifteen or sixteen with thick, wavy hair and lots of lipstick much too mature for her age group. I remember when I was that age that I was working with pinks and blues, not dark colours that made me look twice my age.

She pulls back in her seat and browses over my exterior. “So, she’s the next model?” she asks. Her voice is stuffy, nasally and I can’t figure out if it’s forced or not. I mustn’t be on my best game because for a moment I actually think she’s calling me a model. It then hits me that I’m just the next girl off the train.

“Chloe,” Matt says in a warning tone. Chloe doesn’t seem to acknowledge it.

“Let’s see how long this one takes. I give it six months tops.”

Bloody hell, I think as I just stand there. I know I was a sassy thing back in my younger years—I did some nasty things back in the day that I am not proud of—but was I this obnoxious?

Matt tells her off and she sinks into her chair, her arms crossed over her chest. I check my watch. It’s only dinner that I need to get through then everything should be easy sailing. I take a seat between Matt and Edie.

“So, Samantha,” Arthur says, leaning forward, “tell us about yourself. What is it you do?”

“Samantha’s into architecture,” Matt answers for me.

Arthur’s eyes light up. “Really?”

I nod. “Not so much now. I mean, I still own the business and buildings still need to be built, but I just sit back now and watch it happen.”

“But you’re so young.”

“It was my father’s business. I just took it over.”

“You father’s no longer with us?” Arthur asks.

“Arthur, everybody’s worked a long hour week and the last thing anybody wants to talk about is more work,” Edie tells him.

“Oh, I don’t mind, Mrs. Hamming,” I say. “No, my parents died in a car crash many years ago. My mother was an interior designer and my father built everything from the ground up. When I took over the business, I just took some risks and everything fell into place.”

“Fell into place?” Edie seems unimpressed by my choice of words.

“I’m a bit of a risk taker.”

“You have to be in business,” Arthur defends me. “You just have to watch your money around certain people is all. Some will just take you for every penny if they can.”

“Well, luckily I know a good bet when I see one.”

“See? I told you, Edie, to make it big, you’ve gotta’ do a bit of gambling.” As everybody is looking at their menus, Arthur grabs onto Matt’s shoulder and gives him a shake. “It’s why I taught this guy about Blackjack and Poker when he was young, young, young.”

“Well, he’s a fantastic player,” I say, just trying to boost Arthur up a bit. While I can feel it’s a bit much—Edie doesn’t seem too thrilled about where the conversation’s going—I know I need to get close to these people and from how we’ve got along lately, I think Matt’s father is going to be easiest.

When the waiter returns, we all order. Arthur continues talking about gambling and how stocks are great investments, but one mustn’t get too greedy.

“I did play around with stocks when I first started, but now my main focus is on charity. I am so honoured and humble with where I’m at right now that I like to give back to the community and to those who are struggling.”

“It sounds perfect,” Edie says through a smile that looks only too forced. “Humanitarian.”

“No, she’s a good businesswoman, Edie. This is what children need these days. Less on Facebook and Twitter, more smart business sense.”

“That’ll be the day,” Edie says under her breath. “Not everything has to be about gambling and money, Arthur. Matthew and Chloe will venture into other things that we see as mundane and they will strive off it. Matthew is an amazing model and actor. There’s no gambling and throwing money around.”

“But it is a gamble.”

“Keep speaking like that, Arthur, and I’m going to wonder if you’ve got a gambling problem.”

A subtle ring disrupts Arthur and Edie and Chloe pulls her phone out from under the table.

“Chloe, you know how much I don’t like seeing that thing at the dinner table,” Edie tells her. “Put it away, please.”

Our food arrives and everybody goes silent while we take it in. It’s a nice change after listening to Edie and Arthur bicker. From the look on both Matt and Chloe’s face, it happens rather often.

Edie clears her throat and places her napkin across her lap. “Now, how has work been going, dear?”

Matt turns his attention from his lobster over to his mother. “Good. I booked another acting gig for a guest appearance on some comedy. I can’t remember what it’s called.”

“Can’t even remember what it’s called,” Arthur mumbles with a shake of his head.

“The point is, Arthur, that he is doing well.” Edie prattles on about how great Matt is again, how he’s booking things left, right and center. There’s a point where I wonder if she’s trying to convince Arthur or herself about how great their son is. I mean, I knew Edie loved her son, but this seems almost downright desperate. Even Chloe’s lost interest. She’s pulled her phone back from under the table and I can hear that she’s watching some video clip.

“Did Daddy pay for this gig as well?” Chloe finally says, cutting her mother off.

Arthur almost chokes on a piece of pasta. “What? Whatever would give you that idea?”

“It’s all over the internet,” Chloe tells him.

“Hogwash”—Arthur waves his hand in dismissal—”Millennials will believe anything they read online these days.”

“You don’t believe me?” Chloe snaps. In what seems like a flick of the wrist, her phone ends up in the middle of the table, a black and white video from a surveillance camera begins to play.

“Oh, you can and you will, Howard,” I hear Arthur’s voice from the speaker of the phone. On screen, he is standing over a desk in a well put together office. Another man, who I assume is Howard, sits in the high-backed chair on the other side, leaning back. On the walls of the office are film posters, awards protected by shiny glass cases and certificates that boast his career. This must have been the Howard I heard Arthur speaking to Edie about back when I met them at the horse show. The one Arthur tried to make a wager with on Matt’s performance.

“Mr. Hamming, I am sorry, but I refuse to give your son a spot on any of our shows. I’ve done this before—I’ve lost track how many times—and I can’t give him another gig just because he’s your son. His acting is terrible and every time he is on, we waste more time with his emotions off-screen than we are able to get from him on-screen.”

I peek over at Matt. His eyebrows furrow and there’s a look of hurt on his face. I can only imagine how it feels inside. Like a punch to the stomach.

“Maybe you want to rethink my offer,”  Arthur says, indignantly as he throws a stack of papers in between them on the desk. Upon closer inspection, I realize that they are photographs. “I’d hate for your wife to get a copy of these for her birthday. It’s this Thursday, isn’t it? Surely she’ll have a stroke after seeing you screw some Barbie-looking secretary.”

“This is blackmail.”

Arthur shakes his head. “No, this is me asking you as a friend if you would mind getting my son a spot on Arrow or Big Bang or something else.”

The video shrinks and a man dressed casually in a white dress shirt holds a microphone to his mouth. “And there you have it, folks. One of Bridgeport’s very own being blackmailed by the father of up and coming Matthew Hamming. Where and how this goes moving forward, you can count on Gossip Weekly to keep you updated. Like and Share this video, and leave us a comment on what you believe is going on? Still a fan of Matthew Hamming or do you think he’s just another throwaway celebrity who gets by with his looks alone?”

“You paid for my gigs?” Matt asks as the video repeats automatically. “YOU PAID FOR ALL OF MY GIGS?”

Matt’s sudden anger makes me jump and I look down at my hands. I can’t hear for the life of me what Arthur’s reply is because next to me Edie is telling the men to keep their voices down and Chloe is jumping in to defend her brother. I end up getting to my feet and excusing myself to use the washroom.

I close the door behind me and saunter over to the vanity to check my makeup. Even for being down the hall, I can still hear Matt and his father arguing. A smile tickles the corners of my lips.

“Well, that worked well,” I whisper to myself. I hum as I check my hair and face in the nearby mirror.

It had been Whitman’s idea. He told me how Paragon had used a similar tactic back during the assignment my mother was put on to destroy the Altos. Actually, it was the night she gave birth to me. During a big dinner party when Vita was trying to gain donations to secretly run away with the man she was having an affair with, Paragon exploited it. Whitman and I both decided to give Paragon a taste of their own medicine and boy did it work.

I listen as Matt’s voice has got closer. He and his father must have moved from the table. I finish up and walk back out.

I find Matt and his father at the front of the restaurant, car keys in one of Matt’s hands.

“I was trying to help you, boy,” Arthur tells him. The words he speaks may seem comforting, but his tone contradicts it. “You need a portfolio of sorts, you need experience.”

Matt’s laugh is hollow. “But—”

“No, understand this: modeling and acting aren’t about being pretty anymore, Matthew. You need to express emotion, you need to be real!”

Matt flings up his hands in dismissal and heads out. I follow him.

The drive is a silent one on my end. I just listen. Listen to Matt go off about his parents, how angry he is with them and how he doesn’t think they will ever change. I am confident he’s not angry about what all has been said regarding what directors and agency’s want. I think it has to do with what wasn’t. Why his parents did what they did, how they came to the conclusion. Probably the worst part, though, was hearing his father confirm everything the video put out there. That he didn’t deny it at all.

“Want to come back to my place for a drink?” Matt asks me and I agree.

“I always knew they were overbearing… I mean, I knew they were liars too, every parent is. It’s usually Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, the Easter bunny…”

I look down at the wine glass in my hand, considering the red liquid inside of it. It wasn’t long ago that I felt the same way regarding my family. I still get nightmares about how I shouted at Vita in front of a patio full of people and tore off in the very car she bought me for my birthday—she died that night. My mother, Sadie Lawrence, and how everything around her consisted of a lie of some sort. I didn’t believe anything about her until we finally allowed our relationship to grow.

“Families are like that…” I say quietly.

Matt doesn’t respond to what I said, though part of me wonders if he heard what I said at all.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” he goes on. “I’m a fraud, I’ll never work again. How am I supposed to come back from that?”

“Life has a way of turning our confidence into question. I think you should take a step back and see why you’re in this situation.” I pause and then add, “Being in the limelight is stressful. Maybe being out of it for a bit will be a good thing.”

We look at each other and it’s as if everything slows around me. I take in his pale eyes, that for looking so cold, hold so much warmth. The way his brows raise in concern and the freckle he has next to his nose. I take them all in and then—

We kiss. My eyes close automatically as if I’m some children’s doll leaning back. Matt’s lips are soft and warm. I can taste his last drink. I feel his hands make their way to the sides of my face and he kisses me again, more aggressively this time. My hands have gone to the back of his head all on their own, my fingers slipping through his dark locks. Matt’s hands move down to the back of my dress and in that instant, I push him away softly.

“I should go.”

Matt pulls back and seeing his expression literally sink, I know that I’ve offended him. I place my wine glass on the table and get to my feet as he gets off of me, giving me space.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” I say half asking, half telling. I can see that Matt’s emotions, whether he would ever admit it or not, have come very close to the surface. Between all that’s happened today and this… It’s obvious that he’s slowly falling into a lapse of inebriation. I softly pat him on the shoulder as I walk around the sofa. He doesn’t say anything to me. He just stares into the dancing flames in the fireplace. I don’t say anything else. I see my way out because like the limelight, that fire that’s burning so hot inside of him right now, that anger he has for everybody, it will die out, and like his fame, he will be left with nothing, only known for what he used to be.

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Divine Deception — Crack in the Armour

It’s been said that a husband is prone to keep the same amount of secrets from his wife as he does himself. We all have secrets that we believe are best kept hidden from everybody other than ourselves. We pretend to be friends, the relationships we keep in the dark and hope never find the light of day. But because of this the best-laid plans often find a crack in the armour. Whether we prepare for years, no matter how detailed the preparation is, there is always somebody there looking to exploit it. Doom it whether deliberate or not. Every plan has a flaw, much like a secret we want to keep hidden, and sometimes the line between the two is so thin we struggle with keeping our footing. But focusing on where our feet land doesn’t always ensure success. When we build on an unstable foundation, high above the ground, sometimes there’s nowhere left to go but down.

“So, you don’t think any of this is going, you know, a little fast?” Connie says as she makes her way next to me. She’s gasping for breath, sweat trickling down the sides of her face. It may have just turned autumn and early morning, but sweater weather hasn’t come into play yet. Then again, rock climbing has always been able to get both our blood running.

“A little fast?” I repeat. I keep a firm hold with my right palm and allow myself two seconds to wipe the sweat from my left onto my shorts.

“Yeah, I mean, you’ve only known this guy for a couple of weeks.”

“You’re making it out as if Matt is going to be the love of my life.” The corner of my lips curl and then I add, “You know my heart belongs to Nathan. Matt’s just a mission. And, besides, I’ve only gone on a handful of dates with the man, all of them dinner and a movie, might I add.”

“I guess,” Connie says, though from the tone of her voice, I get the impression that she’s not convinced.

“C’mon, Connie, you know I don’t do anything without thinking it all the way through.”

“It’s just that sometimes I don’t know what you’re thinking, what you’re doing.”

“Well, right now I’m ascending.”

I use all of the strength in my calves and leap upwards to the crevice above me on an angle. My fingers find purchase and save me from many bruises. My legs are next.

“I mean, really, it’s all business and you know that. This has nothing to do with love. Sure, Matt may be uninhibited, spontaneous, but he’s definitely not the greatest thing I have ever seen.” I quickly add jokingly, “And even if he was, it’s not like his mother would let me into that family circle without a fight.”

But the joked didn’t seem to have landed.

“I just don’t know if we’re doing the right thing.” Connie lets go of the wall and drops to the ground, her knees bending immediately to absorb the ground’s impact.

I had sensed Connie’s lack of confidence since the party a month ago, though I had originally believed it to be because of her fear of water. But now I wonder if it’s something else.

I hit the buzzer above me and make my way to the ground again. Connie’s already got to her small handbag and grabbed a bottle of water and her personal hand towel, dabbing at her wet forehead. I grab my own water bottle and screw off the cap, taking a few lengthy gulps of water afterward.

“We are doing the right thing,” I finally say once I realize that Connie’s decided to keep quiet. “Everybody’s been a little rattled since Sean’s death, and I get it because it has changed the way we look at things. We’re no longer playing house, this is the real deal.”

Connie takes a deep breath. “I’m just getting a little scared. This, this whole mission, it could go so many ways.”

I smile cheerlessly. “It can, but it can go many ways regardless if we fight against it or not. Remember what Master Lee taught is. We are hired by the truly wronged to balance out life’s scale. We aren’t only doing this because of me or my mother. We are doing this for the people who can’t fight for themselves. We’re doing it for people like Master Lee.”

By early afternoon, I am again heading to Appaloosa Plains. I seem to have been able to steer Connie from her busy mind. I get why she’s so upset and I didn’t lie when I said that everything’s changed since Sean’s death. Everybody has been on edge since then, but only pushing forward will things fall back into place.That’s what Master Lee would have told us, and I know how much Connie respected and admired that man when he was still alive.

I follow my GPS to Matt’s parents’ house because that’s where the horses are. We’ve had to reschedule our trail ride for weeks now because of busy schedules and poor weather. I have a pretty flexible schedule, but between ads that need to be shot, commercials that need to be recaptured and the beginnings of Matt’s acting career, he seems to always be busy these days. It’s not a bad thing really, but I can see why he struggles with finding a significant other—whether it has to do with time and conflicting schedules or always being on the lookout for gold diggers.

I park in the driveway and make my way to the front door of the house. I knock three times and almost immediately the door is opened by Arthur. He glances at me, though he barely takes me in. Not a hello, how are you, get lost, nothing! He’s got a Bluetooth device in his ear and more focused on whoever is on the other end of the line.

“Another override?” he snaps, his ears turning a light shade of pink. “Does IT have any clue what they are doing down there or are they more interested in the gallons of coffee brought to their feet every morning? The system has been hacked far too many times over the last month and what are they doing about it?”

I take what he’s saying in, but before I can get anything else, Arthur catches my gaze and then motions to the barn and walks back into the house, closing the door behind him.

System overrides? And this has been going on for the last month? This must have to do with Whitman and if not, that would mean there is another group looking to hurt Paragon’s system.

Enemy of my enemy, I think with a smirk as I trudge across the lawn to the stable. I will have to let Jackie and the others know that our little pickings are slowly starting to rub Paragon’s community the wrong way.

As I near the stable, I spot Matt’s show horse. There’s only one paddock next to the barn and it’s full of hay and a trough is filled with clean water.

I walk into the barn, expecting to find Matt, when I find it empty. The place is spotless. Bridles and saddles are hung neatly on the walls, rubber mats make an orderly pathway from the far wall out the door and two stalls, clean and well-bedded, stand next to one another. Before I can call out Matt’s name, I am greeted by a high-pitched whiney. Two moments later, a dark grey horse, almost black, sticks its head out the opening of its stall. It calls out again and then smacks its lips together for attention.

“Hello there,” I say and walk over to the horse’s stall. A brass nameplate is on the front of the stall, the horse’s name in a black fancy font. “Your name’s Winnie,” I say and I am nuzzled by the horse’s muzzle before I can do anything else.

“Ah, he likes you,” Matt says as he steps through the front doors. Behind him, his horse follows attached to a nylon lead rope. I spot the name on the other stall. Matt’s palomino is named Chevy.

“He’s pretty sweet himself,” I say, Winnie’s whole head in my arms.

“Well, it’s a good thing because he’s who you’ll be riding.” He looks me up and down. “Hey, riding gear. I was expecting sweatpants and rubber boots.”

“I tried my best. I found some breeches and a pair of paddock boots. Only thing I couldn’t get was a pair of half chaps that fit.”

“I can see that. Man, you’re not going to be able to feel that treacherous pinch on the back of your knee because they’re an inch too short.”

I laugh. So many weeks when I used to ride were complaining about the blisters on the back of my knees from brand new half chaps that took their time breaking in.

By the time we’ve had a small chitchat, got our horses all cleaned up and put the tack on, we walk them out of the barn to a handmade wooden mounting block and get on.

“How long has it been since you’ve last been on a horse?” Matt asks me while I try to get comfortable in the saddle. Thankfully, Matt’s fished me out a dressage saddle. While I can’t say I’m completely uncomfortable, I know if I had to be placed in a jumper one, I’d be more so.

“I don’t know, something like ten years. More maybe.” I give a light-hearted shrug and force some weight into the balls of my feet.”

Matt makes his way to my side with Chevy. “I guess I’ll have to take it easy on you. I’ll stay back. Just walk.”

I shoot him a look of confidence. “What was it you said when we first set this trail ride up? It’s like riding a bike. We never truly forget.” I gesture for him to lead the way.

Thirty minutes into it and it all begins to come back. The softness of my reins, the movement in Winnie’s back and the aids for walk, trot, canter and gallop. I won’t lie, I lose my balance from time to time. While I am the fittest I have ever been in my entire life, knowing where my body is at every moment is still something I work on and being on a horse takes it to a whole other level. Still, being here, riding again, it feels good. It feels right. Especially after being out of the saddle for so many years.

We stop at a creek sometime later. I can’t for the life of me figure out how long we’ve been riding. It feels like ten minutes, but I have no idea. Ten minutes, ten hours. Though, what I do know is that my legs have stretched to what seems like a mile and I know tonight I may have to take a few inflammatories.

Winnie wants a drink so I give my reins some slack.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you hadn’t forgotten everything,” Matt said with a chuckle. Giving Chevy a good pat on the side of the neck, he dismounts and pulls the tack off so that Chevy can graze on his own.

“He won’t run away?” I say innocently.

“Not if he wants to be fed tonight. And Winnie’s a bit of a chicken. Scared of his own shadow on his own.”

I hop off Winnie and take his tack off too. Matt’s right. Winnie always stays a few feet from us and Chevy’s so focused on grass that he hasn’t moved since Matt let him go.

Up ahead I spot a basket sitting on top of a blue and white plaid blanket. Matt leads me over to it and waves for me to sit down with him. A man steps out from behind a tree. He’s dressed in a sharp looking tuxedo, his black hair slicked back and even wears white cotton gloves. In those gloves he holds two wine glasses and a bottle of champagne.

“Champagne?” he says once he’s close enough.

I’m not much of a fan of champagne, but with Matt looking at me and seeing how much work he’s put into this, I struggle to say no.

“Of course!”

We eat and drink. Sandwiches and finger foods are pulled from basket along with plates and real cutlery. Nothing is plastic, everything is glass and shiny and so perfect. There is a moment when neither of us talks. We watch the horses graze, Winnie roll and squeal, take in the beauty of the landscape. Matt and I even just stop to look at each other.

“Marsha!” somebody screams at the top of their lungs. Both Chevy and Winnie poke their heads up in alert, their eyes pricked forward. Matt and I disconnect in search of the source. Down a few paces, a woman with platinum blond hair runs after a white cat, trying to catch it. Matt’s on his feet before I can even say anything. The cat’s just making it up a tree when Matt gets a hold of it.

But none of that really hits me. I’m still with the horses—Winnie’s gotten a little on edge and I’ve made sure to make him my top priority right now. What hits me is the look on the woman’s face.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she says with excitement and then it’s as if she stops right on the spot. “Wait, aren’t you Matthew Hamming? You’re Matthew Hamming!”

Matt doesn’t confirm or deny this. The woman forgets about her cat, pulls out her phone and begins taking selfies with the man. And Matt doesn’t try to stop it.

That’s what hits me. It’s the look in her eyes, the excitement about being around a celebrity and the ease of having that phone in her hand. Matt being an actor and model … Having fans… Having cameras. Like my mother, I’ve been brought into the spotlight. And that always makes things more difficult.

I turn and pat Winnie. “All right, boy, it looks like I’m going to have to step up my game.”

Featured

Divine Deception — Horsemanship

It’s Leisure Day and I have travelled to Appaloosa Plains. It’s not a far drive, but it’s far enough. It’s almost the most perfect weather in this almost perfect place.
Where the plains are long, the people are happy to the point of being sick and every click I go, I spot another sign reminding me to be cautious because there are animals at play. This is what it’s like to live here. This is what it’s like in Appaloosa Plains.

I get to the show grounds by early afternoon. The parking lot isn’t as jam-packed as they used to be back when I used to compete. Back in those days you couldn’t get a parking spot and had to park on the side of the street a mile away. That was when the equestrian world was active and had money coming in full force from the wealthy and the average Joe alike. How things have changed.

By the time I reach the ringside, the smell of hay and horses surrounds me. Men and women with shiny black boots and white breeches sit on top of million-dollar horses and teenagers run back and forth across the show rings, grabbing fallen poles and putting them back on their stands before hightailing it out for the next rider to begin. I feel as my lips curl into a smile–not a malicious one–because it’s as if Vita’s here beside me, clapping like she did all those years ago.

I sigh inwardly, reminded of a better time when I spot Matt in the warm-up ring. I haven’t spoken to him since his birthday a few weeks ago and that’s exactly how I wanted to keep it. If we connected as much as I believe we did, I hope that my distance has made his heart grow fonder. One thing’s for sure: Matt wasn’t lying like his jerk of a friend Jay about his riding abilities. No, Matt is rather impressive. Heels down, hands out in front of him and it’s as if he looks like he and the horse are one. Proof that he’s been doing this for a very long time. His horse is a beauty too. Shiny and smooth, it’s as if this fearless palomino has been dipped in liquid gold.

“And next in the ring is number 401, Matthew Hamming.”

“Go get them, honey!” somebody calls from above me followed by a squeal of excitement. As I look up I spot Matt’s mother, Edie Matthews. She’s clapping, waving like I remember Vita would. It’s no secret Edie loves Matt very much. Jackie told me this when we first spoke. But to see it now, up close, I can see that Edie Matthews’ love for her son is a strong force to go up against.

What I didn’t expect to see, however, is the man linked to her arm. He doesn’t look all that thrilled to be there. He’s slumped like an old man next to the trilling woman next to him and is staring blankly at the cell phone in his hand. He has to be Matt’s father. Jackie didn’t tell me much about him.

I guess now is as best of time as ever. I find the stairs and make my way up to them.

“His kids aren’t doing too poorly out there,” Mr. Hamming says to Edie as I make it to the top of the stairs. They sit at one of the VIP tables on the patio, a huge umbrella saving their skin from the sun. Mr. Hamming may have been speaking to Edie, but his eyes are still glued to the phone in his hands.

“Matthew and those kids still have two rounds to go and a jump off if everything goes well, darling,” says Edie, her eyes following Matthew around the ring while he waits for the bell to ring. “I’d keep from making wagers with that Howard fellow. You know how the pressure gets to both you and Matthew.”

“It’s just a little fun. We all understand that.”

“The only thing you and Howard seem to understand is how to ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Don’t put a wager on your son’s performance, Arthur.”

I stop right next to them, gazing out to the sand ring right as the bell is rung and Matt is given forty-five seconds to get over the first jump. “I may take the bet then.” Both Edie and her husband look up at me. Hello again, Mrs. Hamming.”

“Ah, Miss Millens, what a surprise. Darling, this is the one Matthew’s been talking about.”

“Miss Millens,” Mr. Hamming repeats, pulling his attention from his phone.

“Samantha,” I correct him.

“Arthur Hamming.” He shakes my hand. “What a pleasure it is to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I say. “Your son is a magnificent rider.”

“Should be,” Arthur tells me as he takes a seat and offers me one. “Got some of the best training the world has to offer, that one.” Arthur tells me about how from a young age they saw talent in their son and shipped him off the best pros to get the best training. That he’s ridden multimillion dollar horses and competed in the biggest championships and he goes on and on. It’s not hard to figure out who this Howard man is. Some competitive dad who lives life through his children.

As Arthur goes on I can see Edie becoming more and more impatient, until finally her face changes completely.

Down below Matt’s horse has refused one of the jumps, leaped back into a rear and Matt struggles to keep his seat. Edie gasps, her hands covering her mouth as the colour drains from her face. Arthur swears and they’re all still as stone as the gold palomino down below goes back and forth on its hind legs. Matt’s grip on his horse’s sides weaken and he plummets to the ground. Edie jumps to her feet, a horrible noise coming from deep within her throat, and books it across the patio. Arthur is right behind her and I watch as the horse below bolts off across the ring, out the ingate and out of sight. Men and women run down to the ring to make sure Matt’s all right while another group chase down the horse. I decide to head for the horse.

It takes time and coaxing, but I return twenty minutes later with horse in tow. I found the group running after the poor animal yelling and calling for it as if that would make it turn around and meet them. Horses are flight animals so chasing is counterproductive. I end up finding a bag of carrots next to a stall and using a carrot as bribery. The horse came to me like that.

When I walk through the gates to the ring, I see Edie and Matt still in the same spot I last saw them. At least now Matt’s standing. The medic has approved him and says that nothing seems to be wrong with him. Seems to be wrong with him? That’s an A-class medic if I’ve ever known of one, but Matt’s still on his feet and everybody, his mother included, are talking as if he’s continuing the competition. What do I know? I just caught the horse.

“Samantha?” Matthew says, cutting his mother off from whatever she’s babbling on about. All I’ve heard her says since I came back into the ring is how great he’s doing.

“I think you lost something,” I say, handing him the reins to his horse. The palomino nuzzles his cheek almost as if apologizing. “Are you getting back on?”

“Rule number one in riding,” he says, a slight edge coming from his cynicism. I don’t question it. I just tell him how great he’s going to do. I wink and make my way back to the sidelines.

By the time the show comes to a close, the sun is setting and the parking lot is emptying. I’ve stayed back with Matt so his parents can head out to a dinner party they are expected at. Edie struggles to depart from her son and once she’s gone I hear Matt exhale deeply.

“There’s something about an overbearing mother,” he mutters as he gives his horse a quick brushing.

“She means well,” and I really mean it. I spent pretty much the whole day with this woman and while she can be intimidating and forceful with her opinions, she means well for her son.

With his horse taken care of and eating grain, waiting for the horse trailer to show up to take them back home, Matt offers to buy me a drink. There are few stragglers on the lot still, other riders waiting for their transportation to arrive, and they are all crowding the bar.

“I’m really glad you showed up today,” Matt tells me as he leads me to a table. He pulls out the chair for me and then takes his own.

I take a seat. “Well, I found some time during my busy schedule doing something so I thought I would come on over.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.” I looked at him quizzically. “Sorry for not being a bit more on top of things.”

I don’t know how to respond. I didn’t brush him off the last time he asked me out because I was offended. I just wanted a bit of a chase. And I got it.

“What would you think about going riding on one of our trails, next weekend?” He doesn’t let me respond before adding, “You told me you used to ride and dressage to boot. I mean, it’s like riding a bike. You don’t truly forget, right?”

I smirk as I look at his face. To think this man, this young man is actually somebody who is both a model, a top model in the industry, and an actor. And here he is, begging me to go riding with him.

“Okay, next weekend, riding. You got your something and some time. I like that.”

“I like a girl who goes after what she wants,” he jokes back. “I’ve got to admit, it’s nice to speak with somebody who doesn’t really know me.”

I nod. “I know what you mean.”

We talk for a little longer. I finish off my drink and get up from my seat. I give him my number and head back to my car.

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Divine Deception — The First Step

The day started like it would when I was younger: the bright sun peeking through countless fluffy clouds, casting rays that stretched long beyond the eye could see. Women like me pushed strollers carrying their loved ones, some older, some younger. But it was the night that held my hopes, my dreams and any opportunities I may have been promised. For in the mail I had been sent two invitations to one of the hottest parties of the year. Where young chatter congregates near hot tubs and mini bars, and taking one’s bikini top off gets an abundance of hollers.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Connie tells me as she stares up ahead. In the distance I can see the yacht where the party is about to take off from. Men and women wait in line while a man with hella-tight hair (heard by one of the guests) checks a list on an ultra-expensive tablet.

I turn back to Connie. In her one hand is a cute little hand purse I lent her and in the other her invitation crinkles. “Connie,” I say soothingly as I grab the invitation from her hand to stop her from destroying her only way onto the boat. “It’s going to be fine. I just need you to be my quiet friend, that’s it.”

I want to add in just to be herself, but from how nervous she is, I can tell she’s not going to take it well. I can’t say I blame her. Connie hasn’t been on a mission for a little while—not since we captured Whitman—and after telling her about my night with Sean, she seems to have lost her nerve a bit, as if she’s just come to the realization that death can actually happen, even if we don’t want it to. Even so, I know it’s not that that bothers her the most. It’s the fact that she hates water, can’t swim, and the party will be taken out to sea.

“Take another one,” I say. I pass her a pill that will settle her stomach. Then I take her by the hand, give her a reassuring squeeze and lead her down to the docks.

It’s been a week since I saw Jackie and discussed her suggestions regarding what our plans should be for the coming weeks, months, whatever future we have together. I won’t lie. My body went into a numbing shock the moment she offered her suggestion and it took a long time for me to shake it. Thirty-six hours to be precise, and that’s a long time for a destroyer, especially when we are trained to think, act and ignore all in a matter of seconds. By the time I had left the bar, returned home and stewed over the suggestion to do the same thing my mother did—destroy for a greater good—I finally came to the realization that Jackie fell into my lap and maybe I shouldn’t walk away from her so soon. I thought about all of the death I have been surrounded by since we captured Whitman, and maybe doing it her way might be better for the soul. I am not expected to kill… or destroy for that matter. I just have to get close to Matthew Hamming, aka the birthday boy.

His family’s put on a good show. The moment Connie and I have handed in our invitations and been checked through security, I almost feel like royalty. Waiters in fancy tuxedos spin around the rooms handing out dips and keeshes and little chocolate truffles that melt the moment they touch your tongue. Waitresses offer champagne the moment we step into their line of sight and somebody is always around taking pictures and videos to upload to the party slideshow in the main room. And then there are all of the big names. Emmy Starr, Lola Belle, Reuben Littler, Tom Wordy, and those are just the ones I spot in my first five minutes. The one person I don’t see, however, is Mr. Hamming.

“I’m going to head upstairs,” I whisper to Connie and make for the stairs up.

I spot him almost immediately. He’s at a built-in blackjack table with his buddies. They’re a bunch of drunken debacles—a little harsh, but I can’t stand the inebriated mind—slurring their words while they smack Matthew on the back and chug back another bottle of beer. Matthew doesn’t seem to mind. He looks more focused on the game at mind. Calm, patient, keeps playing with a ring on his finger that he spins around and around. He looks different in person. I’ve only seen him through photographs online and in magazines. His hair is longer now, pulled back to the back of his head with little stragglers that frame the sides of his face.

Two seats open up and I saunter over. “Mind if we join in?”

None of Matthew’s friends seem to mind except for what looks like his wing man. Scratch that. A bold set of Aviator sunglasses and a suit one can only wonder came out of the latest bargain bin at Macy’s… Wing man? He seems more like a slimy used car salesman to me.

He gives me a nasty glare from behind his glasses. “Not much of a ladies’ game, I’m afraid.”

I lift my eyebrow. “Seems more like or less like an empty game if you ask me,” I retort, glancing at the empty seats. Don’t tell me you’re scared that I girl might beat you at such a manly game of cards.”

Matthew chortles. “Back off, Jay. Let’s let them play.”

“Let them play?” Jay’s expression hardens. “C’mon, man, this is your night! Don’t be fallin’ for the legs and pretty faces so early. We got all night!”

“Legs and pretty faces?” The game begins. “I should feel so honoured.”

“Ah, this one’s got a sense of humour,” Matthew says, punching Jay in the arm. He turns back to me. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Matthew.” He lends out his hand for me to shake. His modesty takes me back. For all that he does, through film and modelling, he still introduces himself as if I might not have seen him in anything he’s done.

I take his hand. “Samantha.”

“What are you drinking, Samantha?”

An hour later, I hold a martini glass in one hand and Jay’s arrogance in the other. For how many games we’ve played, he’s lost the majority of them. I hold back from rubbing it in his face, but Matthew isn’t.

“Not a ladies’ game, ha!” Matthew teases Jay with a shake of his own head. “This is what you get for trying to act like a big shot. Think you’d learn by now.” Jay keeps his emotions in check. He laughs it off and jokes back, even tries a few lines on Connie to soften her up. She’s been pretty quiet lately. I hope she’s feeling okay. “Just like the time you thought that friend of yours would amount to any type of rider back in the day. What was his name again?”

My ears perk at the word rider. “Rider as in equestrian?”

But Jay speaks over me.

“Jeremy Biggs! I always thought Biggs was too much a name for him. Never thought he’d be it, but he’s the biggest—”

“—rider in the world,” I finish for him. “You knew Jeremy?”

“I have connections with a lot of big people,” he says and it’s as if a cloud of pride holds him tall in his chair. “I’ve known Jeremy since we were small.”

“Craziness, because I know Jeremy.”

“No!” Matthew says in surprise. “Small world. Well, we’ve always said the horse world is a small one.”

“You ride too?” I’ve stopped acting and my real curiosity has taken its place.

“Jumper,” Matthew tells me. “You?”

“I used to jump, but did mostly dressage. That’s how I met Jeremy. We trained under the same coach.” I lean back in my seat and think of the past: Vita packing my things for the weekend camp she set me up with. Overnight with horses and lessons on how to work around and on horses. It was such a long time ago. I can still remember Jeremy and I working on our jumping, going over small cross rails and going on hacks in the forest. And now he’s some superstar riding horses for a living, and I’m here halfway across the world with a model/actor and their friend talking about their personal friendship with the man. Madness!

“I shouldn’t act so surprised about what he’s amounted to,” Jay slips back into the conversation, his voice much louder now as if to make sure we can all hear him. “He’s always had the best of everything. Money, training, horses. Heck, with that enormous arena we used to ride inside as kids, everybody knew he was going to be something spectacular.”

I’m still enthralled with this finding when Jay’s words slowly bring me to a halt. “Money, training and horses?”

Jay gives me a look. “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s pretty obvious he was born into greatness when his mother’s legs opened,” he scoffs.

I return his look. “When did you say you met him?” I ask Jay.

“I dunno’. When we were kids.” He pauses and thinks about it. “Ten years ago, probably.”

I nod. “So when Facebook started becoming popular?”

“Yeah, I guess. Never got into social media, honestly.”

“Most kids do, though.” I grab my phone and log into the account I haven’t used for ages. “I did, and Jeremy and I took my very first picture together.” I scroll down, click on the photo and observe the dimly lit arena where two children are but two shadowy figures. Still, even with the limited light, anybody can see the torn riding pants the helmet that fits poorly. I turn to show the others. “Tell me, Jay, does that look like a boy that came from a world of riches? Jeremy has worked his butt off to get where he is now, not because of money. His parents struggled to makes ends meet and held this camp to make some extra cash.”

“What are you saying? That I am lying?”

I breathe heavier than I usually do as tension gathers in my arms and my grip of my phone. “I’m just saying the last time I checked, what you’re saying contradicts everything I lived through with Jeremy. And how well do you really know him, Jay, if at all?”

Jay’s eyes flash in repulsion. “Your point?”

“If you knew Jeremy so well, wouldn’t you have known that?” I pause. “For somebody who has a connection with big people and has known Jeremy since you were small, I would have expected you’d actually know what you’re talking about. Either you’re confused or you are extremely bad at keeping your stories straight.”

Jay doesn’t know where to look. He holds me in his unwavering stare for quite some time, but it’s when Matthew turns toward him that he crumbles. After a quick sob into his hands, he clears his throat, gets up from his seat and walks away. A moment later, Matthew follows him out of sight.

“You can be really harsh sometimes,” Connie mumbles from my side.

I don’t turn to look at her. My gaze is still on the very last spot I saw Matthew. “He’ll get over it. Besides, we’re always righting wrongs. That’s what we’ve signed up to do. Just sometimes they’re smaller than others.”

I leave things alone for half an hour and realize Matthew isn’t returning. I go searching for him and find him on a different balcony. He’s sitting next to a fire pit.

I clear my throat and he sees me and gets to his feet. Not to run–it’s the first thing I think when he stands–but to be polite.

“Is Jay out here?”

“No.”

“I’m just looking to apologize to him… and you. I can be a little forward sometimes, more than people like and it can get me into trouble from time to time.”

Matthew doesn’t seem to mind. “Eh, I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape. Jay’s Jay. Everybody knows what he’s all about.” He shrugs and motions for me to sit.

“Still, I shouldn’t have taken it to such a drastic level.” I take a seat. “I just like to put up a wall. Always feel like people want to take advantage of me, pretend to like me because of who I am and what I have… Do you ever feel like that?”

“All the time. You’d think being in Bridgeport with countless other celebrities would make it easier. It doesn’t. There are just more leeches to deal with.” He nods his head and I know who he’s referencing: Jay.

“I’ve got to admit, it’s nice to see somebody take him down a peg.”

We share a moment, looking into each other’s eyes and it’s almost instantly broken when I hear the sound of footsteps closing in on us.

“Happy birthday, darling,” a husky voice comes from behind me. Before I can look up, my nostrils are hit with a strong scent of pomegranate and vanilla.

I turn and look up at the source.

Mrs. Hamming’s photos spin around in my mind. As much as I’ve seen Matthew in the media, Mrs. Matthew has been there just as much, maybe even more. Her hair is a sandy blond, cut in layers, reaching just above her shoulders while wispy ends seemingly float at the sides of her face. Her bone structure looks like that of a model. Surely in her younger years she looked breathtaking with her high cheekbones and perfectly shaped nose. Her dark eyes smolder as she catches sight of me. She doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but from the way she looks at me, I can only wonder what horrible things she is thinking. Who am I, where did I come from and why the heck am I sitting here with her son? Jackie told me how protective she is of him when we spoke last. She also told me how much of a hard old bat she was when seeing her in person. Stern to the fullest and even if she says something kind, there’s always something behind it.

Before Mrs. Matthews can say anything, I take it upon myself to speak.

“Thank you for a beautiful evening, Mrs. Hamming. It was lovely being able to be a part of this.”

Mrs. Hamming looks me up and down as if trying to decipher my every flaw. She smirks and not bothering to look me in the eye, says, “Well, sometimes I struggle to understand how the invitations arrive in certain places.” She raises her eyebrows and gives me a slight shake of the head. “Anyway, we’re docking in five minutes, Matthew. Your father and I are leaving and I expect you shortly.”

As Matthew’s mother walks away, I watch her in the corner of my eye. Jackie wasn’t joking when she said the mother could be a hard old bat.

“Don’t mind her,” Matthew says, pulling my attention back to him. “Intimidation is practically her way of life.”

Something we have in common, I think as I stand. “It’s getting late. I should head home.”

Matthew walks me down to the doors to the docks and says, “Hey, I was just wondering if you wanted to do something sometime.” He’s opened and holds the door open for me. “You know, just the two of us.”

“I’m always doing something and I’m completely booked for sometime.” I give him a pat on the shoulder and walk across the bridge to the docks. “But I’ll let you know if anything opens up.” Knowing that he’s watching my every move, I walk down the dock out of his sight, not bothering to say another word or look back at him. I’ve taken the first step.

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Divine Deception — 2.0

Most of my memories from my childhood are happy ones—late nights at the gymnasium practicing my handspring, staying up late watching my favourite movies with friends while Vita heckled us, saying that we needed to get to bed. The angriest of storms could darken our days, but they did nothing to hinder our nights. It was the certainty of that that kept my life on the rails. Yet now, with those happy memories seemingly only figments of my imagination, doubt has been given the ability to prey on my weaknesses. Am I doing this for the right reasons? Can I finish this personal mission before it takes everything that I have, something my mother never could?

“You get more beautiful with every day that goes by.” Nathan puts his arms around my from behind, almost making me smear my lip gloss. I pull the small stick from my lips before I do and let myself melt into him. Last night, being in Outlook’s presence when they were all taken out… I didn’t think I would ever see Nathan again, let alone be in his arms. The warmth of his freshly-cleaned body, the rain forest mist soap he uses. I find it so easy to want to ignore the rest of the day and just spend it here, with him, with him and William.

Nathan kisses me on the side of my neck, then on the back of it. A chill lifts hairs where his lips touch before shooting down my spine. I giggle. I giggle like that little school girl I used to be back during those late nights with friends when we talked about boys.

“Hun, I’ve got to go,” I tell him, looking at his reflection in the mirror. He doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even catch my gaze as he runs his hands along my shoulders and down my arms. I turn around to face him. “I mean it. I don’t want to be late.”

Glancing at the face of his watch he took off before his shower, he says, “You don’t have to be in the city for another two hours.” He doesn’t miss a beat, still kissing me.

I smirk at my reflection. He’s right. I do have quite a bit of time. Getting there should only take me forty-five minutes, if that. He kisses my ear. I love it when he does that. Before I know it, I am on our bed, kissing him back, counting down the minutes until I have to go. For good measure, I set an alarm on my phone just in case.

Fifteen minutes late. Between traffic and some parade blocking off how many roads on the east end of Bridgeport, I end up being late. Sometimes it’s no use setting up a time to meet. I’m inevitably going to be late anyway. It’s already half past noon when I make it to the doors of a very tall skyscraper. At least I’ve had some time to think about what I am about to get into.

Since I spoke with Jackie Collins last, I haven’t gotten much information on her. I asked Whitman the moment I got home about her profile. He pulled it up. She’s exactly what she said she was: a woman who went up against Paragon. From what Whitman found, she was added to Paragon’s termination list the moment she went AWOL.

[i]”The top tier want her very dead,”[/i] Whitman told me last night. I asked him afterward about if he knew anything about her personally and he couldn’t recall much of anything. He did say he remembered her working with my mother from time to time, though, which, to me, at least confirms her story a bit more. Gives me something to settle my mind even if only a little.

I follow Jackie’s instructions. I take the elevator to the top floor after swiping a card she gave me last night. A bouncer waits for me the moment the doors open and leads me down a hallway. I can hear the bass of music, dance music to be precise, but the farther we go down the hall, the more it fades. When we get to a set of stairs, he tells me to take them up and that somebody will be waiting for me.

And there he is. Another bouncer, strikingly similar to the man I’ve just stepped away from, stands in front of a glass door that’s sectioned off by velvet ropes. The bass from earlier has returned and I can see through the aquarium next to him inside. There’s a private bar in the next room. It’s nothing like the Grind. This is sophisticated, upper crust, and I’m sure only those with special power get inside this room. I spot Jackie taking a seat at the bar as a small tinge of giddiness bubbles inside of me. Today that is me.

I speak with the bouncer. He unclips the velvet ropes and walks me in.

“Ms. Collins?” the bouncer says, stopping next to Jackie. She looks over her shoulder, sees me and instantly a warm smiles forms on her brim lips.

“Delilah!” she says and gets to her feet. She raises a hand for me to take and shakes it. “You have no idea how happy I am you decided to see me today. What can I get you to drink?” She checks her watch. “Wine? Martini? Rebecca here makes a marvellous Sex on the Beach if you care for that sorta thing.”

I hold up my hand. “I’m good, thanks.”

“Well, suit yourself.” Jackie gives Rebecca a nod and the woman behind the counter begins making Jackie a drink. I didn’t get much of a chance to take in Jackie last night. Forgive me, but there was a bit much going on that looking over her appearance seemed to have been baking on the back burner then. But now, looking at her without guns glazing or Outlook members dropping like flies, I can see her. Her skin is like porcelain—pale to the point of being cold, and smooth. Crows feet crowd around the corners of her eyes as if she’s squinted at far too many suns, and her nose, hooked like a beak, reminds me of that of a puffin or some other bird, especially as she nods to Rebecca again and thanks her for her drink.

Jackie leads me to one of the seating away from the bar so we can speak privately. As she does, I walk past an opening that looks down into the floor below. I now understand where I hear the music from. Downstairs in the dance club for the general public.

“I know you don’t have much reason to trust me,” she says once she’s taken a seat. “It must be so hard, especially since I was once linked to the very organization that went after your mother.”

“Partly,” I tell her. I try to say it offhandedly, but it ends up coming off as a bit brutal. “But I’ve learned I shouldn’t judge people for what they did but what they’re doing.”

“You sound like your mother.” Jackie takes a sip of her drink. “Unfortunately, your mindset is much the opposite compared to Paragon. They were never as bad as they are now. At least, I never saw it that way. Perhaps I was blind to the nonsense, yet I always thought Paragon built the destroyer for the greater good, that they were important for the world and its existence.” Jackie grunts, cursing the organization under her breath before she takes another swig. “That thought’s been shot.”

I smile at her cheerlessly, though I can’t say I disagree with her previous thought. I was told the same thing by Master Lee, that we as destroyers were to aid in life’s scale. Just the thought of Paragon’s tale leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

“So what do we do about it?”

Considering the liquid in her glass, Jackie says, “We burn the place down.”

My eyebrows raise. “You think that’s possible?” I think about the time I ordered my mother a year ago to get me a spot inside the Nest, how I was going to destroy Paragon myself for what they did to Nathan. Now, after seeing what they can do, my optimism has dropped considerably. “Destroy them, just the two of us?”

“Anything is possible if you know how to play the game. All we have to do is gain access into the heart of the company. Once that’s been accomplished, our main priority is tearing it up from the inside.”

“All we have to do,” I repeat under my breath with a hint of pity both for myself and this woman. Yes, in a perfect world breaking into the main stronghold would be so easy. “Yeah, when you figure that out, let me know.” I am beginning to get to my feet when Jackie’s hand stops me.

“Who’s to say I haven’t gotten there already?” She applies more pressure to her hand and I sit involuntarily. “There are only two things stopping me from ripping that place a new one. First is a man who goes by the name of 4-Gig. He’s a computer whiz—used to work for Paragon, but he’s been off the radar for a couple of days now. I can’t seem to find him anywhere.”

“That’s because I have his whereabouts jammed.”

“You have him?” Jackie asks. “Well, then that leaves only one thing in our way.”

I lean forward, intrigued. “And what’s that?”

“Have you heard of the model Matthew Hamming? He’s the new up and coming. Been on television ads, magazine covers, you name it. Actually, it’s rather sickening.”

“I try to keep away from the media,” I say quietly.

“You may want to start reading up on him then. He’s just started acting recently and progressing rather fast if you ask me—”

My impatience gets the better of me. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“His family funds Paragon, his father mainly. He works as the organization’s handler. He keeps tabs on what’s going in and going out of the company, who’s employed and who’s been dismissed. I’m still not sure if the mother knows about it or not. She’s too preoccupied on making this acting thing a big deal.” Jackie waves her hand to push away the thoughts. “The point is that if we want to gain access into Paragon, getting close to them is vital. But we’ll need you on board for that.”

Jackie stares at me, and the pieces of the puzzle don’t come together until they finally hit me like a snow plow. “You want me to do what my mother did?” The moment I see Jackie nod, I say, “No.”

“It’s the only way, Delilah–“

My guts twist as if being braided by tiny fingers. “I don’t care, it’s madness. Manipulate a whole family into believing there’s something there that isn’t, toying with everybody to hurt them, ultimately destroy them.”

“We’re not going in as destroyers, Delilah,” Jackie says sternly, but I don’t care. I’ve already gotten to my feet. “We just need to gain access to the heart, that’s it. We are not doing what Paragon had your mother do to a family, do to your family. We are not destroying the mother, we are not killing the father. We are just gaining a gateway inside.”

I stop at the opening that looks down into the club below. My body’s broken out into a cold sweat and my arms are shaking. I grab a hold of the half wall to steady myself. Jackie makes her way to my side.

“I understand how difficult this must be for you, but it’s the only way. If you want to avenge your mother, stop the men and woman inside Paragon from doing what they do, then we need to be what Paragon originally was. We need to do this for a greater good.”

I bite my lip and don’t say anything.

“This is a hard choice, I know, but think of it this way: You can either be one of them down there…” She points at the men and women dancing. “You can be oblivious to what’s going on up here or you can be in control of everything that’s happening in your proximity.”

Her words aren’t coming together exactly as they should yet still they make me nervous because Jackie’s actually making sense. I take a deep breath. “I need to think about this.”

“Take all the time you need.”

I don’t say another word and head for the door.

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Divine Deception — Collateral Damage

Sometimes when the guilty get hurt, the price for shame removal exceeds anything one may have in their pockets. But there is one thing that has and always will be cheap. It’s the fact that the guilty will always pay. One by one, like a long line of dominoes and I’m the one to give the first block a little push, starting a line of destruction that’s been paved out by fate. Yet there is always a drawback. Nothing ever really goes according to plan, especially when dealing with the outcome of many people’s lives. And when things don’t go as expected, collateral damage is a must.

I still hear his sobs. I still see his face when I close my eyes. Sean Barread. It’s been less than ten hours since I picked him up, even less now since I watched him fall from my grasp and plummet down how many floors into the pavement with a thud. He didn’t even scream. What was it that he said? That he was done for anyway? I listen to his voice repeat the same words over and over and over again. I didn’t think the moment I met him face to face that his droning voice would repeat in my mind like a bad habit that refuses to die off.

I push open the door to my house and spot Whitman typing to his heart’s content on the computer in the far corner. I bolt straight for him. My footfall is a silent one and the reason why I’m not surprised he jumps when I finally speak right next to him.

“These names,” I say, dropping a piece of paper next to him on the desk. “Find them.”

Whitman turns and looks down at the paper. “You got them from Sean? It was that easy?”

“It wasn’t easy,” I snap. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Just find me those names, please.”

Whitman doesn’t question me about them, he just gives me a look and goes about typing them into his database, scanning what he can while I stand right beside him in silence. I know he’s wondering what happened to Sean. “Has he joined us?” or “Is he playing on the fence?” Or something to that level. I don’t know. But his every movement, his every possible thought ignites a spark at the pit of my stomach that I struggle to extinguish.

“Is everything okay?”

I tense just at the sound of Nathan’s voice, his calm and soft voice. I don’t know what to tell him. How do I say that our latest target fell to his death? This after Nathan warned me how we’d get burned if we continued to poke fate.

“It didn’t go as smooth as I’d hoped,” I mumble, and know, deep down, that it’s understatement of the year. When Nathan asks me how it did go, I walk over to the fireplace and motion to the chair next to me. I take a seat. He allows me to take a deep breath, try to figure out the right words, and then asks me again what happened and I tell him.

I tell him everything from the moment I met Sean all the way to how he took me back to my place and how we fought until he tried to escape. I tell him how everything became a blur after that. Sean falling over the railing, his hand slipping from mine, even the amount of time it took to hit the ground. Everything smears together like a child finger painting. Even my escape. I don’t even know how I got where I am now other than grappling down the side of the building and hightailing it across the city. Little things have come back to me as the day’s progressed: moisture from the sodden ground wetting my shoes, the sharp wind that whipped between the buildings, the thought of not being able to stop running because of the possibility that somebody was looking for me. It took until five o’clock this morning to realize where I needed to go and that was here, right here, with those names. They were the only things that left an imprint in my mind.

Nathan raises his eyebrows, and deep behind his dark eyes I can see the beginning of fear, or maybe it’s astonishment. He clears his throat before I can come to my own defense and then says, “Did anybody see you leave? Surveillance?”

I shake my head. “I had Whitman disable everything before I left here yesterday. Everybody who was around was looking at Sean’s body.” Just hearing it makes my stomach twist. I don’t know what else to say so I look gloomily into the fire.

Nathan takes a deep breath finally breaking the silence, and then he places a hand on mine. “I’m just glad that you’re all right.”

“Okay, guys,” Whitman calls from behind us. Both Nathan and I turn in our seats to face him. “I have profiles for these names, but what’s more is that they’ve all been contacted for a meeting to discuss Paragon’s financials. Tonight at eight.”

“How do you know?” I ask.

“They’ve all been sent emails. Sean as well.”

I bite my lip. “I guess that’s where I’m going.”

In the corner of my eye I can see Nathan glare at me. “What?” he gasps. “Deli, that’s madness. Why don’t we just let the dust settle for a bit? You’ve been through a lot and surely they’ll hold another meeting.”

“But what are they going to think when Sean doesn’t show up?” I counter. “That’s of course if they haven’t learned of his fate already, and discussing financials? It’s obviously a cover for something more.” I swallow hard. “No, this is my only chance to get in and hit with a surprise attack and get out with whoever is on that top tier.”

I’m already stepping into the bedroom before Nathan can call my name. William is playing with a set of building blocks until he sees me. Then he reaches out his hands.

“Up!”

I scoop him into my arms and tickle his belly before kissing him on the forehead. Right after, Nathan rushes in.

“There you are,” he says. My back is to him while I hold William tight. My child blows raspberries while he plays with my hair. “Are you really sure you want to do this?”

I make a face that I know he can’t see. Do I want to do this? My heart feels like it is bouncing higher and higher with every beat to the point where it might get lodged in my throat. Do I want to feel this way? Do I enjoy it? Hell no! But it’s not like I have much of a choice. Sean gave me those names I so desperately wanted and to not take this next step, it would have all been for nothing.

“Honey?”

I take a deep breath and turn to look at Nathan finally. “I need to do this, Nathan, and I need you to understand that.”

I put William into his arms and walk over to the dresser, pulling out the clothing that I will need: my mission attire. Just the sight of them twists my stomach into a mixed bag of emotions including anxiety, guilt and fear. I rarely wear these clothes. Lately I’ve been wearing dresses and sunglasses that distract people from the person behind them. These clothes in front of me are that of a destroyer.

“You would give up everything we have and done for this man?” Nathan asks me through almost a whisper, unable to hold my gaze. Like he doesn’t really want to know the answer.

I tie my hair up and smile cheerlessly at him. “Yes,” I breathe. “But I’m also doing it for us. All of us.” Nathan doesn’t seem convinced. I kiss him on the cheek. “Everything is going to be fine. You’ll see.”

***

I make it to the meeting by nightfall. Whitman texts me the coordinates and getting into the building is almost as easy as inputting the coordinates into my phone. Outlook took it upon themselves to rent a room from one of the big hotels in the middle of the city so entering didn’t cause much of a problem. I was able to take the stairs to the floor just below the top and had to use the ventilation system to finish off my route. I literally drop into the foyer outside of the room where the meeting is taking place.

An aquarium is built into the wall and I can hear the half a dozen people on the other side chatting away. The whips of cigarette smoke gather at the ceiling while the bitter scent threatens to make me cough. I do accidentally, forcing myself to smother it inside my sweater. I tense at the possibility of the others hearing me. They don’t, though. They keep talking, their voices flowing through the doorway a few strides away from my position with ease.

I’m able to sneak a peek inside. There are six members inside. Three are men, three are women. The first person I spot is a man. He’s sucking back a cigarette, gazing over the fish. He’s a young man, can’t be any older than I am. A woman behind him with sandy blond hair is speaking with him, though from the look on his face, he cares very little. I struggle to see the rest of the room without moving any more than I already have and without risking being seen.

“I’m getting impatient,” somebody says out of sight.

When the man smoking turns to the voices source, I risk craning my neck and getting a glimpse of the woman. She sits on a lounge in the back. Maybe sits is too much of a relaxed term. From what I can see she’s the most uncomfortable person in the whole room, perched as if she’s on a bed of nails.

“Relax, Ana, would you?” the smoking man says, sauntering over to the table putting his cigarette out. “He’ll be here.”

“Sean’s rarely late,” Ana reminds him, pulling her arms closer to her chest.

A man in the back chuckles and turns around from the wet bar holding a drink. “I’ve known Sean for a long time. It’s Thursday evening. He’s probably still rinsing last night’s hooker spit outta’ his mouth.”

I see both Ana and the Sandy blonde cringe. I mirror the expression, my hand lowering to my side where I feel my gun. I check that it’s loaded. I’ve heard enough. I get up from my position and walk inside.

There’s a brief moment where confusion clouds everybody’s faces and then the panic begins once the small glass in one men’s hands slips and crashes into tiny pieces. The smoking man jolts and hops back, his hands shooting for the roof once he realizes I aim my gun at him. The chair the sandy blonde was sitting in hits the floor with a loud thwack! as she spins so that she can face me. Two people, a man and a woman and the oldest of the group, stand at the back of the room , holding each other’s hands. The woman’s fallen to the floor and the man has crouched to her side.

In the corner of my eye I spot Ana lunging for the nearest telephone.

“Shh,” I coo her calmly, my gun still aimed at the smoking man. She comes to a halt almost immediately, her hand still stretched out to grab the phone before she walks backwards slowly back to her place. “Smart girl,” I tell her before glancing at the others. “Sean just wanted me to inform you that he’s not going to be able to make it.”

“What?” the man in the back sputters. He’d been the one to drop his glass. “Where is he?”

I shrug. “He did tell me that you six could lead me to Paragon’s top tier, though.”

“Bloody hell!” Ana sobs, collapsing onto the lounge and dropping her head into her hands. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

“Ana, stop panicking!” the sandy blonde demands, even though I hear a quaver in her voice. “She just wants some type of path to the top tier personnel. If we do that, she’ll leave us alone. Isn’t that right?”

My eyebrow lifts on its own. “I want names, not just a path.”

The sandy blonde’s jaw drops as if what I’ve asked is complete lunacy. She pulls herself together, swallows hard. “O-Okay—”

“You can’t do that, Susan,” the old man in the back tells her. “If you tell her, we’re as good as dead!”

Susan looks over her shoulder at him, a grimace of fear and disgust on her face. “You think I want to? I don’t have much of a fucking choice, Thom! She has a fucking gun!”

“You can’t!” he insists.

“Just shut your face!” She turns back to face me in one rapid movement. “You want names? The two you’re looking for are—”

The window at the back implodes and I hear a woman gasp. The woman Thom had been holding watches as he drops to the floor. We’ve all gone tense and look at the man, a bullet hole in the side of his head. The woman glares up at me, but I haven’t pulled the trigger of my gun. The old woman goes to say something and she’s tossed to the ground too.

My heart lurches, taunting me to pull away and find cover. But I can’t. Before I know it, Ana is shot, followed by Susan and the man with the drink. It’s only me and the smoking man left. It feels like hours have passed since the last shot, and for a second I think it’s all over. That’s when the smoking man’s forehead explodes and his blood slaps me in the face. It hits my lips. I taste his blood.

I stand there in terror. My legs refuse to move, my knees knocking and my body just waits, like I have an X on my forehead, ready for the next shot. This is Paragon. This is the top tier. They knew I was here. They were waiting for me and to make sure everything stays on the down low, they’ve taken us all out. I swallow hard, the taste of iron irritating my gag reflexes. Still waiting. Paragon must have me in their sights now. My breathing quickens—faster, faster, faster! I picture Nathan and William in my mind. I love them both. I tell them through my thoughts. I’m never going to see them again. I love you, I love you, I love you.

The elevator to the floor dings and the sound of footsteps charge towards me. Footsteps? They’re coming in for a close kill. And I’m not going down without a fight.

I spin around, gun aimed. I can see them. There are five of them. Four of them are armed with assault rifles. One pull of a trigger and I am filled with lead. I won’t get many shots of my own in before then, but I have to at least try. My hand’s shaking, but I fight it, trying to straighten my aim.

My finger is about to pull the trigger when somebody yells out, “Hold your fire!”

The fifth member steps into the light. She’s a middle aged woman with sparkling blue eyes and hair the colour of snow. She holds a hand out, back towards the armed guards to keep them from firing. I don’t understand what’s going on so I back up, my aim still on them.

The newcomer glances away from me and takes in the six dead Outlook members. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” she mumbles as she counts them. “She’s not one of them.” She gives me a friendly smile that I struggle to return. Actually, I can’t bring myself to move any muscle from my defensive position other than to release the safety of my gun.

The newcomer throws her hands into the air. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait!” she says backing up. “I’m not your enemy.”

You’re in a suite that’s filled with Paragon members, Deli, I remind myself. “That still remains to be proven.”

“If I wanted you dead, you would be,” the woman insists. I spot fear, real fear in her eyes as she stares down the barrel of my gun. “My name is Jackie Collins. I am no threat to you, I promise.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Because there are six people dead here and you’re not one of them. Those six people were a part of a horrible and powerful organization. You have no idea.”

“Why did you kill them?”

“They rarely step out into the open. This was the only time I could get to them, when they weren’t in hiding. These six people are the top of the organization. Without them, their workplace with shatter—”

“No,” I cut across her, “They’re middle tier. Paragon still has another level above them.”

“Paragon?” Jackie says with a look of surprise in her eyes. “You know of the organization that they worked for?” She doesn’t let me answer before she adds, “Who are you?”

I take a deep breath. “Delilah Lawrence.”

“Delilah Lawrence. Lawrence…” Jackie’s eyebrows knit together as if the cogs of her mind have begun to put things together. “Not Sadie Lawrence.” My expression doesn’t change. “My goodness… You’re Sadie Lawrence’s daughter. You’re Delilah Alto.”

Jackie beams at me, like she’s just found the Dynamited Treasure of Victorio Peak. I can’t hold her eye contact anymore and lower my gaze. My gun instinctively goes with it.

“This is magnificent,” Jackie gasps with excitement. “I worked with your mother. She was a good woman. I’m so sorry to hear about her death.”

I disregard the woman’s sympathy. I don’t completely trust her, but at least I am no longer seen as a threat. “You were a part of Paragon too?”

Jackie nods slowly. “When I heard that they were searching you and your mother out, I decided that I would try and stall them. I decided that I would go against them, have been for a couple years now.” When I ask what she means, she says, “Paragon cleans up their messes, but if you know what to look for, they’re easy to spot. It’s like a game. You just need to be smart enough to get a few steps ahead of them.”

“Look, if you wouldn’t mind, I would absolutely love to talk to you more about this. Now is not the time, however.” She motions for me to leave with her, between the four mercenaries and towards the elevator. I don’t know what to think. Do I trust this woman or do I still keep her at arms length? She worked with my mother just like Whitman. I’ll have to talk with him about and to see what he knows. As for now, I guess splitting ways is for the best. I holster my gun and walked cautiously towards Jackie, following where she leads me.

I thought coming here was going to be the end of everything. The end of this mission, this battle. Heck, I thought it would be the end of me too, both mentally and physically. Yet here I am, being led into an elevator with a woman my mother worked with. A woman who took out Outlook and the woman who wants to aid in my mission to destroy the destroyer. Paragon will come to and end and while Sean’s death may have made me question things, if Jackie is everything I hope she is, maybe there is still a small spark of optimism left in me.

Featured

Divine Deception — Guilty Conscience

The mindset of a destroyer is a simple one: we are there to balance life’s scale. For every action an equal and opposite action is sparked. But in the end, always the guilty will fall. Like dominoes, one chain reaction that hits another until all that’s left is one powerful affliction. To turn your back on it gives guilt the ability to sneak up on you while running away from it forces it into a game of cat and mouse. So sometimes one needs to embrace their guilt, feeding off it until all that’s left is the ability to let go.

“Are you sure we should trust Whitman?” Nathan asks from beside me. His soft voice pulls me from my thoughts and I turn to look at him. “I mean, he’s got connections with Paragon, sure, but what’s to stop him from finding a way to burn us when we’re not looking?”

I look down at my hands. He’s got a right to be concerned. It wasn’t like Whitman had immediately said yes last night when I pitched my idea of taking down Paragon for my mother’s sake. And it’s not just that. I know that it’s the fact that these captures haven’t gone completely to plan since we started them how many months ago. We have captured many worthwhile people and been given their stamp of approval to say the least. However, we have hit snags from time to time too. We’ve just been lucky with those ones. He must be waiting for the penny to drop as my mother would say. When things go a bit haywire. Luck can’t live forever.

“You said that you’d be here for me through the thick and thin, Nathan,” I say to him. “Has something changed?”

“No, of course not. You know I’d follow you to the ends of the earth. I’m just worried that one of these captures is going to lead us down a road we don’t want to go down.”

“I understand. I just don’t see this happening right now. As timid as Whitman might have been last night, he didn’t sneak out and hightail it back to Paragon. That’s got to say something.”

“Hmm, I guess you’re right.”

I hear Whitman’s footsteps up above in the bedroom, to the bathroom and back. I hope my optimism in Whitman doesn’t backfire. While I didn’t get a direct yes or no when I asked him to join us, he didn’t leave either when I offered it. In fact, he stayed and asked about my mother. How she’d been over the last few months before her death and if she’d ever found happiness. Whitman told me what I had already gathered, that being a destroyer was a sure way to ruin oneself to a point where a life of happiness could never be achieved. But to be honest, I think my mother had been able to conjure a small piece before she met her end. She’d reunited with Vic, got engaged, returned to a life of normality. If only the small tidbits gathered into something bigger before Paragon stepped in again.

Whitman makes his way down the stairs and I stand, walking around the table to the living room where I motion for him to take a seat. Nathan follows and takes a seat next to me on the sofa.

“How are you feeling? Did you sleep well?” I ask him.

He nods slightly. “I guess so. That cocktail did absolutely nothing for me, though.”

Knowing that he would have a difficult time sleeping and dealing with everything, I created the same concoction that my mother gave me when I ended up on her doorstep so long ago. It was a serum that she’d learned from Master Lee to take away stress and anxiety. It doesn’t take long to make and after seeing how quickly my captures stress out, I always make sure I have the ingredients in the house.

“Well, as long as you were able to sleep.”

He waves away my words. “Why don’t we just cut to the chase, shall we? You don’t care about my well being—”

“I do, actually.”

“But you care about my answer more.” He’s got me there, but I neither deny nor confirm this. “Sleep was out of the question last night and when insomnia hits me hard I find it best to read.” He gives me a look. “Your books are terrible. You don’t live here, do you?”

I squint at him. “Why would you think that?”

“Coffee books, that’s all you have here. Books that are strictly for decoration, placed in convenient places like on coffee tables, picture books on bookcases, some even in the loo. There’s nothing real here. Not a picture of you two together or your family. You two have a son, right?”

The fact that he knows so much about my family makes my insides twist in horrible directions. That’s not all. What also bothers me is that he’s right, I don’t live here. This is just a flat that I use to bring my targets to so that I can get them on my side.

Whitman takes in my expression that I find difficult to fake. I can’t say he hasn’t caught me off guard. “But there’s one thing I found last night that I don’t think I was supposed to. Hidden behind the bed, behind the headboard to be precise. A photo album with everybody you’ve ever loved.”

I bite my cheek. What I said about my mother last night is true. Whitman was the only person that kept her feeling when she destroyed the families on her target list. Losing feeling and emotions is one of the most difficult things my mother once said. When destruction turns into a series of motions one just goes through. I don’t want to turn into that and the photo album is one of the things that keeps my grounded. When I have to stay the night in this flat, when Nathan can’t be here with me, it’s nice to be reminded of why I am doing all this. It’s nice to still feel something.

“It reminded me of why your mother and I decided to join this organization in the first place. When we thought we were doing more than destroying. When we thought we were balancing out the scales of life.” Whitman pauses and contemplates his words. “I loved your mother. She was a good woman caught in a terrible position, led down a path nobody should ever have to travel… That’s why I have decided to help you.”

I don’t let my joy show on my face right away. I’m waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me or be told that this whole conversation’s turned out to be some sick joke of his that is far from funny. But it never comes. He just sits there, straight faced, waiting for my reply. Finally, I say, “You will?”

“Your mother told me years and years ago, when I was still in my early days, that she never believed she was a good person doing what she was asked to do. All she believed was that she was the middle person who righted wrongs. And now I see that I am meant to be the same person.”

We speak for hours afterwards, discussing what we think we should do and how we should do it. Whitman hacks into Paragon’s servers and lets me browse. Everything is on them from personal emails sent from person to person to all employee profiles. Whitman motions to one for a man named Sean Barread.

“If this is what you guys really want to do then I suggest going for him. I warn you that Sean is a bit of a pig, like the arrogant jocks in high school, treats women like objects. You know, that kind of thing. But, he knows Paragon like the back of his own hand. There are four tiers in Paragon. You’ve got the slave rats at the bottom who do the paper work, the scheduling, everything the higher ups don’t want to do. Above them are the managers and technical engineers, like myself, who make sure everything runs and works. Above us are those a part of Outlook—”

“They work for Microsoft?” Nathan butts in.

“No, they are the group that looks over the organization as a whole and makes the big decisions. I’ve only met them a small handful of times, but I know Sean is the middle man between them and those below. Get Sean on your side and you’ll be flying.”

“I thought you said there were four tiers,” I remind Whitman.

“There are, above them are the big guys. The head honchos. The big cheese.”

“There are a lot of them?”

Whitman shrugs. “I have no clue. I’ve never spoken to the top. There could be one. There could be one million.”

“Let’s hope for the former,” I say. “Heck, maybe there’s nobody above this Outlook and once they are taken care of there is nothing else to do other than go down.”

“Wishful thinking,” Nathan says with a smirk.

Don’t I know it.

“Sean frequents Eugi’s during the week,” Whitman informs me.

“On 27th Street?” I see Whitman nod to me and I nod back. “I better get ready then.”

I’ve been to Eugi’s a handful of times. It’s always been a busy joint, though tonight has proved to be much busier than usual. They have a live band, and from the sound of it, they’re actually pretty good. With a mix of folk and pop, they seem to have almost everybody on their feet. I take a seat at the bar and order a drink while I wait for Sean to arrive.

It’s almost as if he’s heard my thoughts. He walks through the door not three minutes later. Greasy hair frames his face and the strong scent of cheap dollar cologne meets my nostrils. Whitman told me before I left that Sean lathered up in the stuff if he missed a day or two of showering. Today must be my lucky day.

I watch as Sean orders a drink and heads over to a table in front of the stage. I follow suit a few minutes later.

The first thing that comes out of my mouth is how the band stinks. From what Whitman said, Sean is as Type-A as it gets. Heavy metal, drinking hard liquor, drowning in his own misogyny perhaps? I honestly couldn’t say, though from my comment, he seems to have taken it with a liking.

He lifts his glass. “Drink to that.”

We fall into small talk. From if he comes here often to how I don’t see a ring on his finger. He plays it just like I think he will: Marriage isn’t for him, it’s for the weak, blah, blah, blah. But one thing does catch me off guard and it’s that he mentions how he likes to keep his options open. It may sound pretty vague—and I really think it is—but there’s something behind that wall that he won’t let me see.

We talk for a little longer, grab another drink for the both of us and he starts questioning me, trying his moves. He calls me pretty. Supposedly, according to him, I have a rocking bod. He comes off as if he’s not even trying, but I just go with it.

So when he asks me to dance, I don’t hesitate for a second. He leads me to the dance floor with a strong hand holding mine. He whips me around into position. If I didn’t work with the unexpected everyday and think quickly on my feet, it is very possible I may have hit the floor. I stay with him, though, as he pulls me around like some marionette, showcasing how desperate he is to lead, to stay the dominant one between the two of us.

As we’re dancing, he’s in my ear. His dirty jokes slowly morph into dirty talk.

“Are you always so forthright?” I ask as we sway side to side. I don’t really know what else to say, and the moment I speak, I immediately hope he doesn’t get offended and leave.

“I like what I like.”

“And what else do you like? Is it always the domineering lead?”

He gives me a look and then grins. “No,” he whispers again, his voice husky and his breath tickling the inside of my ear. “I don’t mind letting others take control from time to time.”

We dance for a little longer and I finally ask him back to my place. “I don’t know if I believe somebody as big and strong as you can let somebody like little me take control. I would like to see this.”

I allow him to drive us back. Nathan dropped me off so I don’t have a car. Sean is a bit of a aggressive driver—Surprise!—yet we get to my flat safe and sound. I kiss him as we wait for the elevator. He tastes like alcohol. He grabs my sides as we stumble into the box and make our way up. Thankfully there is nobody in the lobby or in the elevator. At the top, we break away from one another and I open up the door, waving him on in. Nathan isn’t waiting for us like he was with Whitman. I made sure of that before I left earlier today. With everything we knew about Sean, I knew coming in hard and aggressive wasn’t going to get us anywhere. I need to work with his personality, his traits.

I walk him up to the bedroom and push him onto the bed. “Make yourself comfortable,” I say and grab a small bag from the top of my dresser.

“That’s a tiny, little bag,” Sean comments.

“Tiny, little outfit.” I wink at him and slip into the bathroom to get changed.

I return completely transformed. My dress has been changed into a fitted suit one would only find at a top-of-the-line lingerie store or possibly a costume shop. I look over at Sean. His eyes widen. Not in fear but surprise. It mellows out in a matter of seconds while he looks me up and down. He must be happy because he gestures for me to come closer. I pull out my braid and shake my hair out. I saw this once in the movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith when she plays a Domme. I’ve never been in a position like this and that’s why I try to recreate the scene here. Hopefully Sean isn’t into shoot ’em up action films and won’t catch on.

“You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you?” I say, putting a hand up to stop Sean from advancing. “Haven’t you?” I insist.

He gives me a look and then decides to play along. “I think I have.”

I lower myself to the floor and grab a whip from under my bed. As I straighten up, I point it at him. “You know what happens to bad boys?” I smack the end of the whip off the dresser side, sending a crack into the air. “They’re punished.” I watch as Sean licks his lips. “Undress.”

He doesn’t wait for any other order and goes about taking his clothes off. They pile on the floor and as he’s going for his boxers, I stop him.

“No, leave them. Lie down.”

Sean was right, he doesn’t always have to be the one in charge. It shocks me how he goes with the flow so easily, taking my every order. He must be really into it it too because I know I sound like an idiot and nothing is natural by any means.

“You’re a bad boy who needs to be punished, yes?” I say, running the end of my whip over his bare chest.

He breathes with effort, like he’s anticipating the hit. “Yes,” he answers me.

“Uhuh.” I hit one of his pecs and listen to him groan. It’s not of agony. More like an, “Ooooo.”

“Punish me.”

I hit him again.

“Ooooh.”

From my angle I can see the enjoyment Sean is getting from this. He doesn’t look at me. To do so would be provoking and showing aggression. So he looks at the ceiling, takes the next hit that he gets off on. I lower myself to my knees so that I am next to his ear. I place the whip so that it rests over his throat. I run my hand over his chest. I can feel the beat of his racing heart. I breathe into his ear and then I say, “You’ve been working with bad people, haven’t you?”

Sean’s face becomes screwy. It’s clear that what I’ve said has come out of left field, yet he doesn’t really know how to respond.

“Where are they, Sean?”

“How do you know my name?”

Dammit! I think, smacking myself inwardly for misstepping. “I…”

“Who the hell are you?” he demands, trying to straighten himself. I press down on the whip against his neck to keep him down. This only makes him more angry. He pushes back against me, the whip digging into his Adam’s apple, but it doesn’t matter. He’s fighting the pain just so that I’ll let go.

Throwing his hands around, he catches me. His force too strong, I fall to the floor. Sean is free and the whip in my hand has been snapped in two. I toss it away and run after Sean, who’s stormed down the stairs, through the living room and out the back door to the patio. He spins around at once—he knows I am right on his tail—and shuts the door behind him. He tries to hold it there so that he’s blocked my path to him. I give it a good kick and it doesn’t budge. Sean must know that his strength has and will always overpower me. However, when I grab my nearest fire extinguisher and am about to throw it through the glass, he backs off and hightails it across the balcony in search of an escape route.

I open the door and make my way out, spotting Sean running back and forth. I am taking aback to last night with Whitman doing the same thing while Nathan and I watched. Nathan was right, they do always head for the balcony. With the front door our captures know that they will waste time trying to unlock the door and wait for the elevator. Time, precious time being wasted. At least with the balcony there is some hope. I pity them for thinking this way. I also wish Nathan was here with me. I’ve always worked better with him at my side.

Taking a deep breath, I walk closer to Sean. He’s bouncing off railing and railing, looking over for what I guess is the nearest escape pad. Everybody does the same thing. I try to follow the same procedure I have with my previous captures. “Sean, we can work together. My name is Delilah Lawrence. I need your help. Where are Paragon’s top tiers?”

He’s not listening. Running around in his underwear, he zooms from one end to the other, though, from close observation, he always keeps a good distance from me.

“What are the names of your leaders?” I persist. I take a few steps towards him and contract the space between us a good chunk. “Give me a name or where they are.” I walk closer again. “Give me something—”

He spins around on me so quickly I think I may see insanity in his eyes. And he moves. Fast. I barely can comprehend it. He’s coming straight for me, shoulder angled so that it can be used as a battering ram. I’ve backed up so that my back is up against the opposite railing. I can see a furry in his expression. This isn’t some bluff. He’s actually going to try and strike me into the air like some wild bull in Spain.

With adrenaline on my side, I spot my opening when he’s mere two feet away from me and I dodge his attack, spinning him and giving him a good push with my own hands.

He twirls in an unbalanced motion, whimpering as he flips over the railing, hands out in front of him, trying to grasp anything. Railing, the lip of the balcony, anything!

I gasp, throwing my hands out to catch him. He’s managed to catch the lip of the balcony and I am there to grab his hand. He looks up at me, fear—real fear—on his face, tears in his eyes. I can only wonder what I look like in return. Even if I am staring into Sean’s face, all I can see is Daniel that night in the pool and how I let him drown. I don’t intent on letting myself do the same thing to this man.

“Give me your other hand,” I tell him, panic in my tone, hysteria on the rise. His hand is sweating like mad. Mine is too and I don’t know how long I will be able to hold onto his one hand.

“Anna Lane, Danny Ferris,” I hear him mumbling as he looks down at the ground so many floors below him.

“Don’t look down, Sean. Give me your other hand.”

“George Lappel,” he continues, “Trisha Udenaff, Samantha Malonee, Jonathan Smith.”

“What? What are you going on about?”

It looks like it takes all of his effort, but he looks up at me again. “Those are the names you wanted.”

“No, forget about that. Give me your other hand!” His weight it overtaking mine and I don’t know how much longer I can hold him.

“I’m done for anyway.”

“No, give me your other hand!” I am yelling now and his hand is continuously slipping from my grasp.

And then it’s gone.

Sean’s hand slips from my grasp completely and I watch him fall through nothing but air. He doesn’t scream. He doesn’t cry out. He’s just gone. I barely hear the thud as he hits the pavement below. But I still sit there, my hand stretched out, staring at the air in front of me because I don’t know what else to do. Sean is gone. My capture is dead. The realization dulls every fiber in my body and everything turns into slow motion. I pull myself right side up and listen as men and women scream in terror and the once empty street down below begins to fill with horrified pedestrians.

Featured

Divine Deception — The Grind

I stare down at my bare feet, a knife in my one hand and my other holds the door handle. I can feel the cold marble floor beneath me, my reflection looking back up into my eyes. Grime is smeared across my neck and there is a smell in the air. I spin the knife. First the blade straight ahead then so it is along my forearm. Back, forth. Back, forth. Denouement. This is where it all ends. But, sometimes, to understand the present, one must go back to the past. One year, three hundred and sixty five days, when it all began. To the path that led me to this very spot. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and open the door…

The door closes behind me with a light thunk and I look up. Through the limited working floodlights in the parking lot, I gaze over the neon lights up ahead. Pinks, blues, greens. Each of them flash in rhythm to the pounding beats inside. The Grind they call it, a warehouse that has seen better days, though that’s not to say it hasn’t seen worse. Clouds of cigarette smoke puff into the air near the entrance while drunken college kids spew profanity at one another in hardly comprehensible slurs. Months ago this would have intimidated me—a girl embarking on this path for the first time. But now it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. My name is Delilah Lawrence and I have encountered worst things than a wall of boozy imbeciles. I walk through them without giving anybody a second glance and step inside.

My story began some time ago when a horrible organization hired my mother to destroy a family. They call themselves Paragon. They targeted my family, they followed me to the ends of the earth and killed my mother. To say that I am upset with this organization is more than an understatement. I despise them, I don’t think I’ve ever hated anything more and it’s the only emotion that continues to propel me forward. My energy drops, my head will throb, but I can always depend on my anger rekindling, burning hotter than anything I could ever imagine.

My main goal is rather a simple one. Find my way into Paragon and ruin everything from the inside out. It sounds easy, and to be completely honest, I am sure once I can gather some stable footing on this assignment, it won’t be much harder than shooting fish in a barrel. However, gaining reliable Intel, the right people on my team and creating the right plan, that’s what is going to cost me everything I have. It’s the reason why I am doing most of the work myself. That’s not why I am here, though.

He is. I spot him almost immediately the moment I walk inside. Patched jeans, torn shoes and a shirt he must have found at the local thrift shop. My sources told me he’d be trying to blend in with a crowd, though it seems to me that his attempt is bordering desperation. His name is James Whitman, but he goes by 4-Gig on campus. Cringy, I know. You’d think being a tech-savvy, computer whiz he would have been able to come up with something a bit more original, yet here we are. That’s not all. He worked for Paragon years ago and excelled the corporate ladder with ease. True, he does look younger than I would think an employee for a destruction organization would be, and for sure he is, yet his acute intellect and high IQ propelled him through systems galore. By the time he turn thirteen he’d already graduated high school with top of the line marks, been invested in his college years and been offered a very generous position at the one and only Paragon.

I walk over to the bar and grab a drink while I keep my eye on him. He’s spotted a girl across the way. She’s alone, she’s cute, she’s very much my ticket into Whitman’s back pocket. Her name’s Connie. She and I met back during our destroyer days, which hasn’t been that long ago, and when I called her and explained what I needed to do for my family’s name, she said that she had all the equipment that we’d need and felt a special urge to help. That’s not saying much. She’d been close to our master, an extraordinary man with a short temper. He’d been like a father to her over the many years they’d worked together. Unfortunately, he’d met his death by the very people I am searching to destroy.

Connie curls her hair behind her ear, giggling as Whitman says some stupidly off-putting one liners. I know what it looks like and, no, I am not here to ruin this man. While just looking at him makes my insides burn with many different emotions like distaste, apathy and even a bit of envy for doing everything he has in the little time he’s been on this earth. Yet, if there’s anything I learned from my upbringing it’s that I can’t hold my dislike for an organization over everybody’s head that they came in contact with. And I shouldn’t. This man could be the person I’ve been looking for for some time. The man to hold the back door open a crack so that I can slip in.

Connie looks up from her shoes and our eyes connect. There’s a moment, a brief one where we are able to read one another. I told her what we needed to do last night. Make Whitman feel special, amazing. I’ve been observing Whitman for weeks now. His schedule, his habits, the way he brushes his teeth at night, flosses and then brushes them again. While much I’ve found excruciatingly useless, when Whitman is at the club, women keep their distance. For Connie to even consider making a move on him should send him spinning in disbelief to some degree, allowing for her departure to knock him right off his feet.

I nod at her and she knows what to do. They laugh for a few minutes longer. He tries to get her to dance and when she tells him that his one liners are becoming too much and leaves, I witness his embarrassment and discomfort come to his features. That’s my cue. I toss back what’s left of my drink and climb the counter next to the bar. In the corner of my eye I can already see Whitman approaching, readying himself to drown his shame with a strong drink of his own. I dance. He orders. It’s not long until I’ve caught his eye. I’ve never been the best of dancers I’ll admit, though when I was younger, Vita had pushed me into gymnastics. I ended up doing really well with the floor routines and the balance beam, hiding all of my insecurities inside a skin-tight leotard. I zone in on those times as I spin around, the counter slick with tipped drinks. I give Whitman a wink right as the song is coming to an end and I jump to the floor.

“Looking at something?” I say over my shoulder. From the awkward look on his face, I’ve humiliated him even more. He takes another swig from his drink and that’s when I grab his hand. “I said, dance with me.” Whitman’s expression clouds with confusion and surprise. He doesn’t say anything, yet he allows me to pull him back to the dance floor and put my arms around him.

The lights shoot around us while we move back and forth. Step here, another there. It takes a few quick glances down at our feet to make sure my toes aren’t crushed from time to time. Whitman makes small talk, or tries to as I nuzzle into his neck. I inhale his aftershave, a strong, spicy scent, and a little bit of sweat.

“I’m 4-Gig—” Whitman says, and I place a finger on his lips as he’s about to shoot off another one of his brilliant one liners.

“Why don’t we get to know one another somewhere a little more private, hmm?” I whisper in his ear. He’s stiffened in my arms, he’s stopped moving, so I take his hand and lead him outside. He doesn’t object. Not when I walk him through the group of college kids out the front. Not when I lure him to the car. Not even when I hold the door open for him on the passenger side and close it once he’s settled. Ugh, I can be such the gentleman at times. I start the car up and we’re off.

It’s an uneventful ride from the club to my place. Once I park and tell him that we’re here, it’s as if a shock has brought him back to life and he’s opening the door for himself and following me inside. Though still stiff, at least he’s moving. In the elevator he stands on one side while I stand on the other. I lean back against the wall, playing with my hair and stare. Whitman struggles to hold my gaze, constantly checking to see what floor we’re on. I can’t figure out if it’s because he’s on to me and expects the worst or if he doesn’t do this kind of thing often with another person. It could be my straight optimism, but I can’t help but think—and hope—the latter.

We make it to my flat and I open the door for him.

The moment he steps in he must get a whiff that something’s off. It could be how quick I close the door and latch it. I’ll admit my quick reflexes were poorly hidden. But I can’t help but feel that it’s my other half sitting at the table that catches Whitman off guard.

“Him?” he says from across the room, looking Whitman up and down. I’ve seen Nathan do many things in the time I’ve known him, and scrutinizing a newcomer is nothing new. Heck, he did it with me when we first met.

I shoot him a dark look. “Be nice.”

“What’s going on?” Whitman panics. To think he looked stiff and tense before. It was nothing in comparison to what I am looking at now. “Who’s he?”

“You don’t worry about him,” I say calmly. “I just sleep with him. This is about you.”

Whitman throws his hands in the air. “I’m not into this. I should go—”

Before he can back all the way to the door, I’m in front of it blocking the way. I think he contemplates trying to take me on, eyes me up and down, maybe try and see where my weak points are, before he spins around and runs out the nearest door to the balcony. Nathan and I exchange glances and follow Whitman out at a walk. Now he’s really cornered himself. Unless he’s going to try and jump thirty floors to the ground, there is absolutely no way out.

I walk out first followed by Nathan.

Whitman runs from one end of the balcony to the other, looking for an emergency escape, a ladder, stairs, anything probably that can get him as far away from us as possible. I can’t say I blame him. It’s not like we’ve given him much reason to trust us. I sigh inwardly. If it’s not one thing it’s another.

“They always run for the balcony,” Nathan mentions to me.

I take a seat on one of the lounge chairs and look over my shoulder at him. “They do not always run for the balcony, Nathan. Remember Agatha?” Agatha had been one of the first people we had grabbed for info. A short, mature Russian lady hidden behind coke-bottle glasses. She’d worked for Paragon during their earliest years and was able to give us small tidbits of the organization’s past. “She ran for the bedroom.”

Whitman’s still running from end to end, whimpering. Nathan disregards him.

“Agatha ran for the bedroom before whipping down the stair banister and hightailing it out here.”

I look at Nathan skeptically. While I don’t remember her being able to make it to the balcony, I wouldn’t put it past her. Even with age working against her she could still boot it around. “I could have sworn we got her to listen to us before she made it out here.”

Nathan shakes his head. “No, she got out here too. They always do—”

“Who the hell are you people?!!”

Both Nathan and I turn to look at Whitman at once who raises his hands and takes a step back as if scared he’s kicked a nest of some sort.

“Do you want money? I can give you money,” Whitman says with a rise of hysteria. He flips open his wallet and tosses bills in our direction and then throws the wallet itself at our feet. “Here, take it all!”

“We don’t want your money,” I tell him.

“What? Why? Why not? You must want something!”

“We do, but you wanted something first. You wanted to know who we are. I’m Delilah Lawrence.” I register a flicker of recognition in Whitman’s eyes. “Daughter of Sadie Lawrence.”

“Son of a…” He waves his hands and backs away from me towards the railing of the balcony. “No, no, no, no. I am not getting involved in this. This can’t be happening. I knew you looked familiar. Dammit, Whitman, why did you fall for it again? Why, why, why?”

“Again?” I repeat.

“I know who you are, what you’ve been up to. It’s all everybody at Paragon is talking about. The child of Nick Alto and Sadie Lawrence. Ha!” I’m about to say something when he starts up again. “But you’re supposed to be off the radar so to speak. Paragon hasn’t been able to find you in so long, since the Daniel situation. At least that’s what I hear. I’m not really kept in the loop since I’ve been more freelance lately.”

“You still work for Paragon, though, right?” I ask.

“I go in when I am asked, if that’s what you’re wondering. It looks like I’ll have something to tell them next time I’m called.”

“You won’t,” I say, calling his bluff.

“You’re awfully confident. What makes you so sure I won’t blab this to the higher ups? Unless, of course, you’re thinking about killing me.” It’s as if the thought sets off a spark all at once and he’s panicking again, pacing back and forth, mumbling about how he’s much too young to die.

I ignore this and answer his question. “Because my mother spoke rather fondly of you when she was still alive. You helped her bug Alto Manor. You were the hands behind everything during that part in her life. You were one of the few people who kept her feeling during her destructions. Somebody so close to her…”

“Sadie was a good woman.” He turns away and looks out across the city. “This is madness. Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. I won’t.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to do it for me. I have just kidnapped you and locked you up on the top floor of an apartment structure. But this isn’t about me. This is about taking out a bad situation. What was it that my mother said? ‘For the truly wronged, there is no other option—”

“—to clean up such a mess,'” Whitman recites.

“Paragon is a bad mess,” I insist, “so if you’re not going to do it for me, do it for my mother. She lost so much during that mission Paragon partnered you on. Because of the organization you worked for, she is dead. She is dead because she tried to protect me and stand up against them.” I pause for a moment to let my words sink in. “I am going to do this with or without your help. I am going to destroy Paragon. How it gets done and if… It all comes down to your help.”

Whitman wipes at his running nose and takes a seat on the end of a lounge. “I don’t know…”

“I can’t force you. I won’t force you. But, please, don’t let my mother have died in vain.”

Whitman slumps down and lets his head drop into his hands. While I know there is a possibility that my story may have been convincing, it’s not why I watch his body slowly deflate like a balloon. It’s because I’ve stuck him in between a rock and a hard place. If he goes back to Paragon and tells them what he’s encountered, there will always be that concern from the leaders above him questioning if he is working with me secretly or not. Whether he chooses to or not, he’ll always be looked at as if he had. And who knows what they’ll do to him after realizing this?

As I observe him from behind, I bite my lip. It was never my intention to destroy this man. He was never a target to ruin, yet here he is, dragged into this war between me and Paragon. It doesn’t matter what he chooses to do, one way or another, his connection with Paragon has been tainted by my destructive hands.

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Divine Deception — Season 4 Trailer

Divine Deception — Season 4 Trailer https://photopeach.com/embed/12n3ss7

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Eighteen years ago my mother travelled to Sunset Valley with a plan and an objective.
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She destroyed a marriage, left an empire in ruins and a family broken beyond repair.

She taught me the best way to protect those that mean the world to me is to wear a mask.

But the thing with masks is their ability to do more than protect…


Masks are used for secrecy, insincerity and deception. We hide behind them to comfort ourselves from pain, and have the ability to repel the truth when the stakes are high enough.


I find myself torn between two masks: the one that shows me mercy at the cost of lies and the other that destroys everything I once was with the truth.

Yet the part that hits the hardest is the fact that when I have the courage to strip myself of the mask, I come to realize…

I never stood a chance.

I am Delilah Lawrence and this is the end of my story.

***

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Divine Deception — Awake

As my mother tumbles to the ground, I feel like I’m in the middle of a dream, a nightmare. The way she’s falling, it’s like she’s in slow motion. And I’m on my feet. I don’t care about Daniel anymore. I can hear him groaning behind me in pain. I glance over my shoulder for a split second. He’s on the ground, groping at the wound in his thigh. His gun is inches from his grasp, but before he can go to get it, Nathan has made it to his side and kicks the gun out of his reach. I turn my attention back to my mother and bolt straight for her. The ball and chain locked to my ankle drops me to the ground almost immediately, and I crawl, dragging this heavy piece of metal behind me until I get to my mother’s side.

“Mom,” I say as I pull her up to a sitting position. I wrap an arm around her and squeeze her tight. “Mom, it’s going to be all right.”

She grunts cynically. “Delilah,” she whispers in my ear. “No…” She has her hand clutched to her stomach and the moment she moves it I can see why. Blood is pooling through her orange top and growing rapidly.

“No… no…” I don’t know what else to say. I can see her breathing is slowly fading and the life in her eyes has begun to slither away. It’s like I am back in the park with Nathan in my arms, back a year ago, and something tells me I’m not going to be so lucky this time.

My mother brings her hand up to caress my cheek. “Delilah, I love you so much–“

I want to tell her how sorry I am for pushing her away all those times she wanted to get close. That if I had been a lot less stubborn, we could have had a better relationship, that our relationship could have grown more than it did. I want to tell her all of it, but all I can make out is, “I’m sorry.”

“No,” she gasps. “No, I’m sorry. You’re my… daughter… And… I love you… I wish I could have been… like you… I’m so… proud…”

Her hand goes limp immediately after and I catch it before it falls to the floor. “And I want to be like you,” I whisper back into her ear even though I know she can’t hear me anymore.

I sit there with her for a long time, holding her, talking to her. Sometimes I say nothing and just look at my mother without making any noise at all. I think about me ending up at her doorstep, how she took me in, and the time at the festival, and how we discussed my want to change my name to Lawrence. It’s about half an hour later when Nathan urges me back to the present. I dry my eyes and lower my mother to the floor as softly as I can before getting to my feet.

I clear my throat. “Give me the keys.”

Nathan doesn’t have to ask twice. He sees them hanging from one of the loops for Daniel’s belt. As he goes for it, Daniel tries to swipe at him, but Nathan is quick enough to push him away. He grabs the keys and tosses them over to me. Catching them, I instantly go to unlocking my leg. The shackle opens with ease and I am free again. Yet as I stand there, looking at the ball and shackle, something pops into my mind.

I look up at the peaceful night sky once Nathan and I have dragged Daniel outside by the pool. I can’t help but smirk. For how peaceful it is up there, there is no question that down below has been much the opposite. Peaceful? Seems strangely contradictory to me.

Once we’ve made it to the side of the pool, both Nathan and I drop Daniel onto the hard patio without another thought. Daniel cries out. I think I hear the back of his head thump against the hard concrete as he lands, though I hardly give it much more of my attention. I’ve already dropped down next to him and locked the shackle around the leg of which he’s been shot. Right as I am clipping the lock, I can feel Daniel try to sit up and stop me. My elbow shoots straight up and connects with the space between Daniel’s eyes. He flies backwards, head first into the patio again. I am in no mood to be nice.

“Fucking bitch!” he cries as he grabs for his face, and rocks from side to side as if it will alleviate the pain.

“Oh, please, Daniel,” I mutter as I grab his tee shirt and yank it off of him. “Trust me when I say that I can assure you that I’ve been called much worse.”

“W-What are you…?” he asks the moment I undo his trousers and pull them off. “What are you doing?”

“It’s called being cautious.” I grab his shoes and socks and toss them over my shoulder where they land in the shrubs of the garden. “Weren’t you the one who said that the Nest was ahead of its time?” I shrug and grab his belt. “Belts with a tracking system?” I stomp the buckle with the heel of my boot to destroy any signal it may be sending out. “I am stripping you of anything you can use to your advantage because this is the end of the road, Daniel.”

I immediately give him a good push with my foot and he tumbles into the water. Before his feet drop in, however, I’ve grabbed the metal ball from yanking him down to the pool floor.

“You know, you almost had me fooled,” I tell him, considering the metal ball in my hands. “I actually almost felt sorry for you. The way you did this all for me, how you tried reasoning the fact that you were doing it for a greater good so to speak–“

“I’m sorry for what’s happened, Deli. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I didn’t mean to shoot Sadie. I didn’t mean to, and I definitely didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Oh shut up, would you?” I snap at him. “You’ve targeted me since the moment we met. The way you comforted me before my mission all the way to this very night, saying that you did this for us because you thought we had a connection?”

“We did have a connection!” Daniel insists.

“A connection with the man who shot and killed my mother?” I don’t let him speak. “No, you’re that little boy I saw back when we first spoke, that same child. I knew something was off.”

“They made me do it, Deli. You have to believe me!”

“Who are they, Daniel?” I demand, my nails rasping against the metal ball.

“I can’t say.”

“You will give up the name or I will have no problem dropping this in with you and watching you drown.”

“You can’t do it,” Daniel says with a smirk.

“Watch me,” I tell him. Just the sight of his arrogance makes my hand twitch. “Give up the name or this ball goes in with you.” I watch Daniel shrug off my threat so I do as I promised. The ball goes in with him.

Daniel is instantly pulled down to the bottom of the pool the moment the ball is out of my hands. He flails his arms above the water, doing everything he can to keep above the surface. Even in the night, the pool’s underwater lighting system highlights his struggle. He’s kicking his feet like mad, his wounded leg trying to keep up as much an effort as his other and I can see blood fogging the water down below.

“If you give up the name, Daniel, I promise I will bring you back up to the surface and save you.”

He doesn’t acknowledge me and continues to fight. I know he’s a fit guy, he’s probably one of the fittest people I have ever met. But to see him struggling here assures me that one way or another, this will all be over soon.

“You won’t be able to keep up this fight forever. You’re going to lose all your energy fighting for a freedom that will never come. I mean, how are you planning on pulling yourself out if you ever do find a way out?”

For all the fighting that he’s put up, the farthest Daniel’s been able to get is turned around so that his back faces Nathan and I. And I get a good look at the very tattoo I first saw during my first month inside the Nest. Now, instead of walking away from me like that night we first spoke, he’s slowly dying because his pride and ego have fallen into the same trap he accused Kyra was in. He’s right. Your enemy can become such easy prey if you let them.

“Okay!” Daniel sputters, his arms splashing about. The pull to the bottom of the pool must be stronger now. “Okay, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you whatever you want, just help me!”

I take a moment and consider him until I decide to grab one of the poles used for cleaning the pool and lending it out to him. Daniel grabs the end and with Nathan’s help, we haul him back over to the edge. I lend out my hand and Daniel grabs it, letting go of the pole.

“Now, before I get you out of there, I want to know everything. Tell me who these people are and why.”

“You have to–” Daniel gasps, still trying to breathe as the waves he’s made himself slap him and threaten to choke him. While my hand is keeping him from dropping to the bottom, it’s still up to him to keep above the water’s surface. “You have to get me out of here!”

“I said I would once you start talking.”

“I promised them that I would do as they asked–“

“Who, Daniel? Who did you promise?”

He says who, but he’s coughing and sputtering that I can’t comprehend what he’s said. So I ask him again and he tells me.

“Paragon?” This time it is I who is sputtering. I had almost completely forgotten about the organization that my mother had been hired by to destroy the Altos. For I had believed that they’d been so quiet for so long because they were slowly withering away into nothingness, when in reality they were nothing but puppeteers dragging us all along for there little ride. The thought sickens me and it takes a lot for me not to rage on. No, I need to be smart. I need to think smart.

“I promised them that I would bring you in, convince you to work with them. Deli, we were going to work together, we were going to do great things.”

“No,” I say with a shake of the head. “Paragon doesn’t do great things. They are terrible people.”

“But I couldn’t do it,” he steamrolls on. “I couldn’t bring you back with me. They’d separate us and your life would turn into mine. A lie.”

“And what are we supposed to do now?” I ask him.

“Run, keep off the grid, whatever we can, Deli. They’ll look for us, but it won’t be hard to stay out of sight. We can do it.”

But the thing is, I know we can’t do it. My mother had been running from them since the moment she’d been betrayed by Paragon. She tried to distract them, keep out of their view so to speak and look where it got her. No, as easy as it sounds to keep off of Paragon’s radar, somehow, one way or another, the slimy organization finds a way, a hole, back to our feet. You can’t truly run away from Paragon. All one can do is delay them.

I pull Daniel in a bit closer to me. I let go of his hand and cup the jaw of his that goes on for days. I lean in closer again to him, put my mouth up to his ear and whisper, “Go to hell.”

I let him go completely as he splashes upon the surface of the water, the weight of the ball now heavier than ever, dragging his sorry body to the bottom of the pool. With Nathan by my side, I watch as Daniel fights for life, but he’s struggling more so than ever now. Our eyes connect, Daniel’s and mine. Where once was a shade of arrogance has been replaced with the look of bewilderment, betrayal and fear. Especially fear. Real fear because now there is no out.

“Yo-You promised you’d save me!” He coughs as he’s being pulled down, down, down.

I shrug. “I lied. Goodbye, Daniel.”

There’s more fighting and one big splash and then he’s gone.


I have no clue what to do or where to go. Nathan’s behind me and has asked me a good half a dozen times what our next steps need to be and I continue to tell him just to follow and not worry, that everything is going to be fine. The moment I say it I get a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know the saying is all Daniel used to say and things definitely didn’t turn out fine. Still, I just like Nathan ponder my words as I continue forwards on foot. The brief sense of certainty I had when I decided Daniel needed to be removed from this world, has long since vanished. I wander this way and that, letting my feet make the decisions as if they have the capability to find a good route. It doesn’t scare me, though, not knowing what needs to be done. And while it may have felt like a good thing at the beginning of our trek, now I am starting to wonder if my flippant ways are going to have me blindly step into a trap.

By sunrise, we’ve made it across to the opposite side of town. I have my mother’s gun in my hand while Nathan has Daniel’s in his. I wait for somebody from Paragon to make an appearance, ready to blow their head off. There’s not an ounce of tension in my body, not even a hint of emotion on my face. My hatred for this company, for Paragon, was nothing before, was nothing in comparison to what I am feeling now. And only they can be made to pay for my mother’s death.

“I’m going to scout the area,” Nathan says.

I can see that he’s worried, he has no idea what we’ve just done, what kind of world we’ve just stepped into, but I know what he’s thinking. Any other sane person would hightail it as far away from me as they could get. Yet here he is, standing by my side just like I did for him.

“Make sure to keep on your guard,” I say.

“You too.”

But nobody materializes. I destroyed everything on Daniel that could alert Paragon of his status. Before we left the house, Nathan helped me deactivate every alarm, cut every security camera, and do everything in our power to make it seem like we were never there. Now thinking about it, I don’t know why we bothered. Daniel had done everything he could so that Paragon stayed off his trail. That was what he said he was doing, right? Keeping off the grid.

I walk over to the river and splash my face clean. I look at my reflection and consider drowning myself so that this horrible nightmare can end. What else is there? Nathan and William. They are probably better off without me. Other than that, who do I have? Everything’s gone and if I keep going, what is there to look forward to?

As I put my feet into the water, readying myself to take the plunge, I hear Master Lee’s voice.

“I have students who are train wrecks when they arrive at my doorstep, people who have been screwed by a higher hierarchy and have been broken into tiny fractures. Look at her. Delilah Alto looks to be doing quite well if you ask me.”

I bite my lip and look at my reflection again. I got what I wanted. I’m a train wreck, screwed over by a higher hierarchy and I am breaking down, second by second, into tiny fractures. I’ve been wanting this for so long so that I could make them pay, and here I am.

I wasn’t wrong with what I thought back with Daniel. My mother, like him, tried to prevent the attack from Paragon, she tried to delay them. But there is no delaying Paragon. My mother couldn’t do it and Daniel wouldn’t have lasted very long at all. Reginald Peters still ended up at the park last year. There were two bullets fired that day. One was for Peters and the other was for my mother. Somehow she dodged it. But that bullet still got her. When Paragon wants you taken out, they will do everything to do it.

I look down at the gun in my hands, ready to say the only thing that enters my mind. “Let’s see who can pull the trigger first.”

***
END OF SEASON THREE

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Divine Deception — Torpid Bird

Thomas Dekker once said that sleep is the golden chain that binds health and our bodies together. Charlotte Bronte believes a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow. But I’ve always been a bit questionable when regarding Bansky. He said, “I never really understood why people sleep, wasting a third of your life and becoming vulnerable for almost eight hours every night doesn’t seem appealing to me…” But I’ve always believed that we aren’t completely vulnerable during our unconscious hours, that we are in control of where our mind takes us during our slumbers. It is in our control to pass certain dreams if we follow the right procedure. To be able to continue a dream once we have awakened or stop a terrifying occurrence from happening. It is I who has the power whether I am sleeping or awake, and when the setting of my dreams holds me in its stellar glare, to free myself all I have to do is open my eyes.

I’m lying on leather. Soft leather, expensive leather, embellished with shiny gold buttons and bobs. I run my fingers along the grain as I truly awaken. My head is pounding like some jack hammer is going off near my pole. My neck is killing, my spine feels out of whack and my right hand tingles intensely while I wait for feeling to return to it. I push up to a sitting position and let the room focus.

I am alone in a bedroom. Where am I? I try to recount what I was doing before this. I see my mother telling me to make sure I have my phone on me, that she’s worried, has been since I told her about the Kyra situation. Glancing out one of the bedroom windows, I see that the sun has almost completely set. I told her that I was heading home and how long was that? Two hours? Three hours? Maybe even a full day?

I spot my clothes piled up beside the bed and grab them from the floor. My phone isn’t anywhere. I might have dropped it when Kyra took me.

“Nathan…” I whisper as I get dressed. For so long I had wanted to get him back in my world, have his memory come back so that we could continue where we left off. And I finally got it before it was pulled away from me again. I need to get back to him and plan on it too. If I don’t, it would have all been for nothing and I can’t imagine leaving both Nathan and William alone. I need to be there with them.

Before I leave the bedroom, I search through the dresser drawers and cabinets looking for anything I can use as a weapon. My head might still be extremely groggy, but I remember what Kyra said a year ago clear as day. She hit Master Lee up first and now it’s my turn. The question I can’t answer, though, is why I’m still alive now? She had a perfect opportunity to kill me off back at the hospital, so why here? Why wait?

The best that I can find is a package of pens unopened in the bottom drawer of a desk in the back of the room. That will do just fine. All I need is a clear shot at one of her eyes and that should give me just enough time to beeline it out of here. As I grab the package and rip it open, a familiar scent hits me. It’s faint, woodsy almost, but I can’t for the life of me put my finger on it. I dismiss it and grab a pen before making my way out. I creep down a narrow hallway and down a set of stairs. It’s the moment I step foot on the bottom step that I hear a gurgling sound. I walk towards it.

The moment I glimpse the kitchen, I know why some things feel so achingly familiar. I sat with Connie at that counter while she sobbed about Master Lee’s death. I walked out that back door to speak with Daniel during a time when he needed somebody the most. And there, standing in front of the stove, I see his back. The woodsy scent I caught a whiff of earlier is much more pronounced now, barely hidden behind whatever is cooking, and I can remember why I know it so well. The way Daniel held me in his arms when we danced during my first mission… How he led me up to his bedroom that night. I knew I had seen this place before. And now, standing with his back facing me, I can see him. Daniel.

Just the confusion of him being where Kyra should be standing makes my hand spasm and I drop the pen. I watch it hit the floor with a slight tink and roll under the refrigerator.

“Ah, you’ve awakened.” Just the sound of his voice makes me start. I look up and see he’s now facing me. “I didn’t think that you’d be down this early. Are you hungry?”

I shake my head. I don’t know what else to do. He steps towards me, his hand lent out to touch me and I pull away, and quite stupidly I might add. I should have moved out into the foyer. Instead I am now stuck in a corner.

“Hey, I’m not going to hurt you.” He pauses and looks me over. “You must be so scared. I’ll explain everything, I promise.”

“You… You took me?”

Daniel nods slowly, very slowly. “I know it looks bad, Deli, but it’s fine. Everything is going to be fine.” Just the way he says the word fine makes me tense. Every time somebody says it’s going to be fine, it never is. Besides, I don’t need his reassurance. I need answers to my questions, like why am I here? What does he have anything to do with this? And what is this anyway? These questions reproduce, more and more, until my head feels like it’s become bloated.

Daniel takes a step closer to me, making my personal space even smaller again.

I throw my hands out in front of me as I back away from him. “You stay away from me!” I say, a quiver in my voice and I feel my back hit the counter. I don’t know what to think about this man or who he is. Who kidnaps somebody and tells them everything is going to be fine? Daniel is still invading so I climb up and over the counter. I grab for the back door.

“Deli, there’s nowhere to go.”

I try to open the door, but it’s locked and no matter how many times I unlock it, the door won’t budge.

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

That’s reassuring, I think with an air of cynicism as I give up on the door and immediately go for the closest drawer. Plastic utensils are still in their packaging and the sharpest thing I can find is an old, torn up, plastic spatula. To think my luck would be any better. Still, it’s the best that I have. I turn back towards Daniel. He’s made his way back to the stove, his hands up to show that he’s not a threat.

“What the hell is going on?” I ask him, the spatula gripped tightly in my one hand. My hands have begun to sweat immensely so I don’t dare loosen my hold in case I accidentally let go of this thing too. “Why am I here?”

“I chose you over them.”

The way he says them leaves me with a sickening feeling inside and I don’t like it one bit. I raise the spatula towards him threateningly as my body shakes. “Who’s them?”

Daniel leers at the spatula. “Deli, put that down. I will tell you everything, but first you need to trust me.”

“Trust you?” I scoff. “You kidnapped me and drugged me. Why should I trust you?” My fear and anger have combined into one, created an actual flame that burns hot in the pit of my stomach.

“It was the only way I could think of to get you here, out of their eye. As I say, I’ll tell you everything, no more secrets between us, but first,” he eyes the spatula again as he advances, “just trust me and put that down.”

“No!” I yell, throwing the spatula at him and clamber up and over the counter again. I target the foyer where I know the front door is. Maybe it can be unlocked or maybe I can break a window. One way or another, I need to get out.

Daniel catches me by grabbing my arm and spinning me around. I can hear him, he’s telling me to stop, but I don’t acknowledge him. I whip around, turning my whole body into a force he shouldn’t disturb. My first kick lands right in his abs. I can remember my training. The best way to block an attack to one’s stomach when we have no other way, is to tighten our abdomen so as to absorb the hit. It doesn’t matter how well Daniel flexes, I know my foot feels like it’s just gone straight through his guts and connected with his spine. My backhand catches the side of his head and he drops to the ground, grunting.

I’ve already made it to the door and it’s the same as the door at the back. It won’t open. “No,” I whimper. I hate myself right now more than ever before. I should have found a way out earlier instead of going to find Daniel in the kitchen.

I can see that Daniel’s already back on his feet. He’s chuckling to himself and I’ve seen it before. When my mother laughs at William when he tries to blow raspberries or when we went to festival together and I struggled to keep balance while roller skating.

“You think this is funny,” I say to him as more of an assumption than a question.

“I knew you were always a bit feisty, but…” He shrugs and then stretches his arm to stretch out the kinks and ready himself again. “I can’t say we didn’t train you well at least.”

I would never have thought I would ever see Daniel move faster after being kicked so hard. I was wrong. And here he is, more powerful than ever. He dashes towards me and I go to kick him again, this time much higher, closer to his head. He dodges with miraculous speed, throwing his hands out to capture my leg and twisting against my momentum. I lose my balance and plummet to the hard floor below. I hit it with a loud thud, a gasp escaping my tight lips while I try to right my position.

“Gah, I’m sorry,” Daniel says horrified, his cool attitude changing to that of remorse. He holds his head and spins around. “I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done that. Here, let me help you up.”

I’ve already spun around onto my backside when he approaches me and I continue crawling backwards trying to get away from him. I kick out twice and Daniel lets them hit him in the arms. They aren’t particularly strong blows and he knows it. By the third kick, my back has hit the cabinet behind me and he’s caught my leg and holds it in the crook of his elbow. His kneecap is my next target. He immediately lets go of my leg and stumbles backwards. I’m on my feet in no time. Somehow I’ve managed to put some space between us and made my way up the stairs. I don’t know where I am going or what to do. Daniel is behind me the moment I make it to the hallway just outside the bedroom again, suggesting that I stop and listen to him. He’s not angry, he’s almost playful, sickly playful that it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end.

In the bedroom, I check all the windows for a way out and, of course, everything is locked. I search for anything that can break them. I decide on one of the bedside lamps. I throw it at the window nearest me and the whole lamp bursts into a cloud of glass. The window, however, barely cracks. There really is no way out.

“I’m sorry for everything that’s happened, Deli,” Daniel says as he leans against the frame of the door coolly. “I’m sorry that it’s worked out like this, but everything is going to be okay. I’m still me.”

I glare at him. He’s still him? I don’t even know this person and he’s speaking as if we’ve been friends for years and years. I check the closet, the dresser. I don’t know! Whatever I can. There has to be a way out!

“I know this must be very hard for you,” he continues, “but we’ve both had to make a great deal of sacrifices. It’s going to be great. It’s all going to work out, you’ll see.”

I chuck pillows at him even though I know they won’t do anything. I am just so frustrated with him and his stupid sayings, his apologies, his whole being. The way he leans against that damn frame as if he knows I am powerless. I spot the matching lamp on the opposite end of table and throw it at him so that I can run out of the room. He doesn’t even flinch as it soars towards him, spiraling in the air. My nerves must have got the better of my judgement because it hits the wall beside him. Glass shards burst out in all directions and the best Daniel gives me is a close of his eyes for the split second as if to protect them from getting glass in them. I know I have no other opportunity to leave so I try to run past him and he spins me around, turning me into the wall and holds me there.

“I didn’t want it to be like this,” Daniel tells me. His cologne is so overpowering I can taste it, but I can’t get away.

“What are you talking about?” I sputter.

“It should have been like the night of your mission. Everything was so perfect. You coming back here, sombre, happy. Remember how thrilled with everything that you’d achieved? How excited we both we about your first take down as a destroyer?”

My eyes narrow on their own. “What? I was never happy about that–“

“But you were. We kissed, we would have spent the night together if you could have. And I get it, I get that you fell victim to your weakness, your prior engagement to that other guy. But he didn’t remember you, he’s never accepted you for who you are. I do, and you can’t tell me that you didn’t feel a spark between us, a connection.”

I bite my lip for two reasons. One: I might say something that earns me a good slap up my head. Two: I think I actually may feel pity for this monster. “A connection?” I ask, refusing to fight Daniel’s hold anymore. “Anything we might have had inevitably came to an end the moment you kidnapped me. Daniel, you were an escape.” The fire I had seen burning in his eyes earlier begins to smolder. “It was nothing more–“

“There was something more!” he insists. “The day of my father’s funeral.”

“Daniel, I was there for you as a friend.”

“No, no! It didn’t work because we didn’t have enough time, and now we’ve both got all the time in the world. Just what we need. They wanted me to bring you in, to get rid of everyone around you, but it’s over now.”

“They? Who are they, Daniel?!”

“It’s over now,” he says, dismissing my words. “I’m done working for them. I am their puppet no longer because they chose the life of a destroyer and I choose life with you.”

“No, you are the destroyer here, Daniel. You’ve ruined everything for me right now, especially if you keep me here. You’ve ruined yourself–“

“But you get to have me. You’re the only thing that makes sense to me and you get to have me!”

“I don’t want you!”

From the moment the words leave my mouth, I know it’s a mistake. Seeing the hurt in his eyes, the way the one corner of his mouth twitches. I know something is coming and I don’t try to fight it. His flying backhand knocks me out completely.

I awaken to the sound of what I’d classify as 40s pop music. Stuff my grandmother would listen to or her grandmother. As I open my eyes, I catch Daniel’s staring right at me.

“Ah, you’re awake,” he says, almost exactly like he did the first time we spoke earlier.

He sits on the other side of the dining table, a plateful of spaghetti separating the two of us. Next to the bowl I see two plastic forks. I can only guess one is for me and the other is for him. He smirks at me and traces my body with his vision only. I hate him. To think I felt sorry for this man for so long, that I actually worried myself on how he’d speak to me the moment I ventured to see him at his father’s funeral. I have a crazy urge to kick him from under the table. Surly I have a great chance at catching him in the groin, and I go to do it too until I feel something holding my foot in its place.

I look down at my leg. It’s shackled and chained to a heavy ball, something I thought I would only ever see in fantasy movies.

“And if you decide you still want to play…” Daniel lifts a handgun from under the table and places it on the surface close to him. I don’t know how long I’ve been out, but from the looks of it, Daniel has taken the time to do some good thinking about our future together. He’s even gone the distance of protecting himself so to speak. “Are you hungry?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry for hitting you, Deli. It’s never been my intention to hurt you. Some things just happen. I’ve never wanted to hurt you and what I did do, I did for us. The people I hurt, destroyed, I did it for us.”

I bring my arms in close to me. “You destroyed me for us?”

“No, I destroyed them for us.” Daniel stares off, focusing on something I can’t see, though there is something there most definitely. Something in the past.

“What did you do?” I ask him. He gives me a look, one I know all too well. It’s the same one my mother gave me when I asked her about how she got over things regarding her past and her destruction mission. It means he’s not willing to say. Yet I’m in no mood to figure things out for myself right now. I clear my throat and say softly, “I thought you said there were no more secrets between us? Remember?”

Daniel smiles, a real smile. Not a smirk or something hiding another emotion. “They told me my mission had been activated the moment you and your mother stepped foot into the Nest. They ordered me to gain your trust and manipulate everything that surrounded you… even that boyfriend of yours.”

“What do you mean?” My anger is returning, but I do everything in my power to keep it bottled up. To keep him talking means two things: that his attention is on something other than me and I can also figure out what is going on.

“Don’t worry, it was nothing lethal. Just had to keep his memory shady to keep you on your path and in my sight. I didn’t know if motherhood would make you weak, so by keeping your lover memory-less, I guaranteed seeing you and knowing where you’d be. You wouldn’t skip town or anything of the sort. If he was alive but not one hundred percent, you’d do everything you could for him.”

I cock my eyebrow. “Except when I did give up.”

“That’s when I had to step in and here we are. I didn’t want to hurt those people, Deli. Those targets, the people I had to manipulate to keep you here, they were all in the way. Every single one of them.”

“Kyra was one of them, wasn’t she?” I ask.

Daniel snorts. “She was probably the easiest one. She was pretty blind when things came her way. She was so angry and hated the cards she’d been dealt, that all she saw was the end goal: to destroy those–“

“–who hurt her,” I say, reciting what we had learned inside the Nest.

“Exactly. She was so focused on getting to her goal that she couldn’t for the life of her see what was happening right under her nose. How I was inflating her ego, pushed her through the grinder, telling her that she was my father’s best student. Hell, she didn’t even think twice when I let it slip that she was chosen for the next mission, which went to you. She couldn’t see any of it because she was blinded by her desire to destroy those who hurt her and wronged her.”

Up until the moment I saw him earlier, I had my sight set on Kyra. But now, after all this…

“Unfortunately, girls like that can be such easy prey. I mean, ambitious, cocky, thinks she is everything and everybody better bow down. A little dramatic, sure, but when the whole package is right there, and all you have to do is fluff up the sides, it’s hard not to take all the credit. Kyra plays the part well… or should I said played?”

My eyes widen, holding him in my horribly disgusted stare. “You killed her?”

“Look, that was a part of the mission. If one of these people stepped back into your life, if they had some alibi, everything would have fallen through. The whole objective would have been a bust and we couldn’t have that.”

My anger begins to burn hotter again, more intense than ever before. “You used her! Every time I thought I was done I always had her in the back of my head telling me that she was coming after me and that was what kept me going. You did that? My son, everything, I was scared for them. And when your father died–” The realization hits me and the moment it does, I feel sick. I cover my mouth and look Daniel in the eyes. “Your father…”

Daniel pulls his eye contact away and runs a hand through his hair. After taking a deep breath, he opens his arms and encompasses the room. “It happened in this very room. Over there to be precise.” He looked over his shoulder at the living space. “I called him over for dinner, we usually do it every couple of months. “I mean, sure, we work under the same roof day in and day out, but that doesn’t mean I see him all the time.”

All my anger fuses my eyebrows together.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Deli. You of all people should know how parents and their children have great difficulties sometimes.” He shrugs. “I made a lovely duck for dinner. I mean, I’m not one for dark meat, but I think I outdid myself. I served it and told him right then and there that they wanted him dead, that he was a part of the plan. Poor man didn’t know what hit him. And when my bullet made contact with him, he was but a memory.”

Shaking my head in denial, I say, “T-That doesn’t match up. The police found him in his apartment, not here. You were on your way to his place for dinner!” I know how it sounds once I hear it with my own ears. Though, to think of the alternative…

“Cleaners, Deli. We hire cleaners to clean a scene and move it somewhere else.” He pauses and looks at me with great passion. “That’s a part of what we do. Destruction doesn’t always end in heartbreak or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes it does go the distance.”

I’m still shaking my head, not wanting to believe any ounce of what he’s saying. “No, no, that could have never have happened. Cleaners? No, those resources are other worldly!”

He shoots me a look of scrutiny. “Really? You’ve seen the Nest, Deli? You’ve been inside the main lobby with all our gadgets. Hell, your mother even commented on how we are well ahead of our time.” He flips the buckle of his belt. “We have trackers in our belts, shirts with fibers that repel DNA.”

“So, you just killed him and let the cleaners do the dirty work while you packed up and went home?”

“Of course not, Deli. I waited for them to finish, and a ate my duck while I did so.”

The line between enraged and insane must be so fine because I am right on the edge. I don’t know what the difference between them is anymore.

He must be able to see it because he adds, “Deli, I know how bad this sounds, but as I said earlier I chose you not them. I’m done working for them–“

“Who are they, Daniel?” I demand.

The moment I ask the question, there’s a loud crack, like the sound of gunfire. I’ve heard it before. It’s just as loud, if not louder than when Nathan and I were attacked in the park. I try to turn in my seat to get a better look, the ball and shackle limiting my movement. The front door bangs off the wall behind me and I see my mother, gun in hand. She has it aimed and I feel the reprieve in my chest. This nightmare is over. It’s guaranteed the moment I see her finger pull the trigger and the bullet soar behind me. I hear Daniel’s grunt as it hits him. But that’s not all I hear. I hear two more shots scream out and as I open my mouth to tell my mother to be careful, I see the surprise in her eyes, the confusion on her face and the hurt as the falls to the ground.

Featured

Divine Deception — Renaissance

When somebody hears the word renaissance, they are usually guided unintentionally to the cultural reawakening that occurred in Europe between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Where Elizabethan times were upon us and the art and architecture we look up to today were but simple thoughts, like new paint hitting a canvas for the first time. I see it differently, however. I see it as a rebirth, a regeneration of old paint, tidied to make look new again.

As I watch my mother in front of me, my son learning to walk in her care, I realize we’ve all been reborn. Our canvases were once tainted by the graffiti of our past, and now have been wiped clean. We are not Rome. We are not the Mona Lisa. But we were messy, dusted off to try again on this path that we call life.

My mother is happier than she’s ever been. I’d like to say it has to do with me and me only after I buried my hatchet so to speak. I know it helps, yet it is but a piece that has lifted everybody’s spirits. Vic asked her to marry him last night. He took her to dinner where they ate like royalty before heading out for a walk. I can’t lie. I knew he was going to ask her. He even showed me the ring the night before he proposed. From what my mother has told me about Vic, I knew he was a classy guy, but when he asked if he had my permission to ask for my mother’s hand, a new layer of respect for him had been laid down. It’s been a long time coming, the two of them being together and I couldn’t be happier for them.

I watch William stumble to get into my mother’s arms. This is why she’s doing this, why she’s trying to get him to walk. She’s asked if he could be the ring bearer. She already has a pillow for the rings in mind, and the colours chosen for the theme, and the menu, and where she wants to have the wedding, and–Oh, she’s just so excited and how could I say no? The moment we grow into little girls and meet a boy for the first time, or see a princess get married in a movie, this is what we dream about until it actually happens. Being asked to get married is the ticket to the path of happily ever after and the best day of our lives. I know my mother hides behind her thick skin, but deep down I know she wants to be beautiful, wants to have that perfect day. Is it because she is just like me or because the last time she was proposed to it was a complete lie? Either way, I am going to do everything I can to make sure this time the moment is a happy one.

Right then my phone goes off. I bring it to my ear. “Hello?”

“Delilah, it’s Dr. Jesceps from Riverview hospital…” Just hearing about the hospital turns my heart to ice and plummets it down through to the bottom of my stomach where it melts in what feels like a pit of flames. “How are you this morning?”

“Fine, thank you,” I say, controlling every fiber in my being that wants to disconnect. Every time they’ve called from that hospital the day has ended poorly. I don’t know if I want to experience it all again.

“That’s good to hear. Delilah, Nathan has asked for you to come in so that he can speak with you.”

I get up from my seat and wander away from my mother and William. “Speak with him?” I scoff. “Is he calling for the detective?”

I know Jesceps has no idea what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t toss him off key. “No, he says that his memory is coming back.”

I don’t believe him. Nathan’s memory was coming back the last time I was there and the best he could remember was a haze memory of somebody he liked very much. Even so, he couldn’t remember me or what I looked like or the sound of my voice. Nothing. He remembered absolutely nothing and I am not going to let Jesceps get my hopes up again. I don’t want to do this.

“Dr. Jesceps, thank you, but I’m not willing to make the drive right now. I’m very busy–“

“Delilah, I know this has been a rough patch for you, that you’re a little gun shy…”

“Gun shy?” I make a grunt to showcase my amusement. “Oh, if it were only that simple. How about the fact that I have been humiliated so many times over the last year by that same man and I’m not willing to do it again? This isn’t about being a little gun shy, Dr. Jesceps. This is about coming to terms with what has happened.”

“But–“

“Thank you and good bye, Dr. Jesceps.”

“He says he remembers the night at the bar, the night somebody named Yuri attacked you.”

I become stiff, cold as stone as I repeat the doctor’s words in my mind. It’s the first real connection I’ve heard or even felt with Nathan since this all happened. A little smile creeps up the corners of my lips, but I force myself to stay cool.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say and immediately disconnect.

It feels as if time has completely stopped all around me. While I can hear my mother talking with William, calling me over, asking me what’s wrong, it’s as if her voice has been manipulated and slowed down. I begin to walk to where I was sitting earlier, grabbing my purse and looking for the keys to my mother’s car.

“I have to go,” I say. There’s no emotion in my voice, I don’t know why I can’t force myself to smile or be angry. I’m just solemn. Am I in shock?

“Delilah, what is going on? What’s wrong?”

“I’ve got to go,” I say again. “Where are the keys?”

“Delilah!” My mother grabs onto my arm and brings my attention straight to her. “What is going on?”

My eyes meet with hers. “He remembers.” From the look on her face, she knows who I’m talking about. “He says he remembers and remembers me.”

My mother pauses and pulls back, considering what I’ve just said. “We’ll go together–“

“No,” I say with a wave of my hands. “It just needs to be us. I’m not getting everybody revved up for a misfire again. I’m just going to go and see.” I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t think it’s going to be anything special anyway, but I have to go and check. I’ll be back tonight, before dinner.”

My mother doesn’t look thrilled. “Do you have your phone on you?” I show it to her. “You call me if you’re going to be any later. You call me if anything seems off.” I nod. I know what she means. Ever since Master Lee’s death and what I’ve told her about Kyra, she’s been very cautious about everything.

I make it to the hospital in record time. Well, at least I think I do. When I run up the steps and barge into the main lobby, the first thing I notice is that it says it’s seven o’clock. Maybe I didn’t make it there as fast as I thought I did, especially when I know I left home before noon. I pull out my phone just to make sure. Yup, the clock on the wall is wrong. It’s not even quarter past. The complex must be too busy to replace the battery. It’s not surprising. It’s the busy hours of the day, the ones I usually try to avoid. But today is different. I even chose to park across and up the street a bit because there was no parking available.

There is a couple at the front desk speaking with Dr. Jesceps. I slip between them and the doctor and ask where Nathan is. Rude, I know, but Jesceps seems to understand. He lets me know that Nathan isn’t up in his room. He’s been allowed to take a walk and that he’s waiting for her outside in the back garden. I thank him and apologize to the couple and return to the front of the complex so that I can make my way to the back.

I spot him right away and the moment I do, everything slows down again. The beat of my heart, the blood that it pumps through me ears is so loud I can barely hear my own thoughts. My stomach has turned hallow and for a moment I wonder if I am going to be sick. Every time I’ve come here to see him it has always ended terribly. Every time I think we’ve made it, come through the other side, I have been slapped across the back of the head and proven wrong. Proven wrong again and again. The time he’d awoken and didn’t know who I was. The day I brought William and nothing came to him. No, I won’t say that I did everything correctly. Throwing an infant in his arms and expecting Nathan to know it was his was complete lunacy, especially since neither Nathan or I knew I was pregnant before this whole thing happened. Still, to think that I am putting myself in faith’s hands, backing myself up with nothing but pure hope leaves me feeling a little uneasy.

As I take a few steps closer, I trace him with my eyes. He stares off into the distance, his fingers twiddling in his lap. He could be anyone. Either the Nathan who remembers or the Nathan who doesn’t. I see a softness in his features, though, not the cocky airhead I experienced the last time. That doesn’t say much. He’s had plenty of time to cool off since our last encounter. We both have.

I stop in front of him. He tilts his head so that our gazes meet and we stare at each other for a moment.

“Deli,” he finally says.

“Yuri, really?” I say to him, crossing my arms across my chest. “Out of the things to remember, all the things that we shared and you choose Yuri–?”

He’s up on his feet before I can understand what’s going on. Before anything else, I’m in his arms and he kisses me. I stiffen for barely a moment. The feel of his hands on me, the way his arms have always acted like a barrier to protect me from danger. They’re there again, making sure I’m okay and allowing me to kiss his lips back. His soft lips, his chapped lips, but his lips nonetheless. This is the Nathan I remember, the man I love. I can only hope this isn’t some cruel joke being played on me, that the moment I turn to look up at him and lower my wall of protection, that he is going to humiliate me for being so stupid.

When he pulls away from my lips and holds me tight, I gasp and that’s when all the tears come pouring out.

Still holding me, Nathan leads me back over to where he was sitting and we both take a seat. I don’t let go of him, I don’t dare for fear I might lose him again. I just keep a tight hold on him like a child scared to let go of their favourite stuffed toy.

Nathan begins telling me how he started getting his memory back the moment I walked out on him last. He says, like he said last time we spoke, that I was there in his head, but he couldn’t for the life of him see who it was exactly.

“But when you walked out so upset, that was when everything began coming together.”

I narrow my eyebrows. “Why?”

“Do you remember that gold bracelet you owned? You told me you were given it on your sixteenth birthday.”

I know what he’s talking about. Vita bought it for me. It was a rare piece of jewelry, five Gs was the minimum I could get for it if I wanted to pawn it off. I know I could get way more if I took it in. But I don’t know why this has anything to do with Nathan getting his memory back.

“I remember,” I say.

“One of the first nights you spent at my house, you were wearing it and I asked you about it and you stormed off–“

I snicker. “You were a jerk that night. You wouldn’t get off my back because you knew I was lying about everything.”

“Well,” he chuckles softly, “you did keep messing up where you wanted to go. One moment you’d say you were going to Twinbrook, the next–“

“–Bridgeport,” I finish for him.

“And you ran off to the apartment above the barn, angry as anything… Just like when you left here last.” He pauses for a moment. “You usually run when things get too difficult and that simple similarity was the thing that hit home. It was the pathway between what was going on in the present and what my past was all about. Once I defined that, everything slowly began falling into place.”

Usually something like being told that I run when things get tough would offend me. It’s an act of weakness and something I shouldn’t embrace. But it doesn’t bother me. Not now anyway. It saved my relationship with Nathan and that’s all I care about.

We spend the rest of the day out there in the garden together. He tells me what he remembers of the night at the park with Peters and I fill him in on the things he was unconscious for. I tell him about William and the Nest. For some time we don’t speak at all and just enjoy being in each other’s presence. I do, however, tell him the lengthy story about my mother, my real mother, and how we’ve reconciled our relationship. From the moment I ended up at her doorstep in December all the way to the day out at the summer festival, and some after.

The day goes by quickly. For how slow everything felt it was moving earlier, time seems to be moving faster than ever now.

As we sit in silence, my head rested against Nathan’s arm, I watch the sun slowly dipping behind the line of trees. I should head home soon, get back to my mother so that she stops her worrying. I know she is. The tune of my phone going off is evidence of it. I answer, let my mother know I am heading home now and that everything is fine. Actually everything is great! I hang up.

“All right, I have to go,” I tell Nathan as I reluctantly pull away from him. It’s not that I really want to go. I’d much rather stay here and rekindle my relationship with him, especially since we both know it’s been tracked through some mud over the last year.

“Thanks for not giving up on me,” Nathan says. “I love you.”

I smile. “You have no idea.” I lower myself and kiss him. “I’m coming back tomorrow… early. Very early and with family in tow. I think it’s about time you really met your son.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He smiles and it’s that smile I have been wanting to see since I visited him in the hospital all those times when he was out like a light. It really is Nathan there, right in front of me and there still is an us. I give him another kiss and a wave and head back to my car.

The parking lot has emptied almost completely save for a car or two, probably owned by one of the doctors or a nurse. Then I remember that I had to park down the street a bit. I head there now. I have my keys in my hands ready to unlock the doors when I feel it…

Somebody grabs me from behind. At first I think it’s Nathan, playing a joke or something, but by the way whoever is behind me holds me, I know it isn’t him. They’ve twisted my arm behind my back, rendering me useless and as I try to kick back at them, they whip me around so that I lose my balance and trip. I gasp, the cold earth knocking the wind out of me and when I open my mouth to scream, cry for help, I smell something sickly sweet. Next thing I know a white piece of fabric is stuffed against my face and everything goes dark around me.

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Divine Deception — Inside Sadie Lawrence

Five months. William’s five months already and he’s growing up so fast. I get it, I’m a mother and I’m supposed to say it, but when they say that in a blink of an eye your children will be leaving the house, I have come to the conclusion that they might be right. He’s grown a thick head of hair, he’s already outgrown most of his sleepers. William’s begun crawling and grabbing onto things. It’s strange to think it was only Love Day that he came into this world. Being at that spa with my mother, being in Sunset Valley… It was so long ago. My heart drops a bit every time I think about it, how Nathan’s already missed so much of his son’s life. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that I know if Nathan was himself, he wouldn’t want to be left in the dark. He’d want to be here, by my side, being a father. I guess things change, though, and others won’t. After coming home from Master Lee’s funeral, I decided that William is my top priority. Seeing Daniel proved to me that a child can’t be ripped from a parent’s grasp, and if Kyra even thinks about doing something so preposterous, I will be ready for her.

William, my mother and I are at Tiny Prodigies and my mother is prattling on about this, that and the other while we sit a little ways away form the play pen William is in, waiting for the session to end with the teachers. I’m not listening to much she says. She’s been talking since the moment we returned after grabbing a cup of coffee.

I turn to look at her eyes and say, “I’m thinking of changing my name…” I glance down to the pen William is in, “our name.”

Sadie comes up short, tilting her head as if she’s hearing something completely off the walls. “Your last name?” she clarifies. “Where is this coming from?”

“From everything that’s happened,” I say. “If you think about Peters and the whole mess regarding Paragon, it was all tied to the Alto name. Just because we are a part of the Alto heritage, we’re linked to that all the time. It’s not enough that the simple folk see the name as a disgrace, everything bad that has happened to us has been because of the name as well.” I pause as I look back at William again. “And now with this whole thing with Master Lee and Kyra… I’m scared and… I don’t want to be on the run all the time. I shouldn’t have to run because my father and Vita were bad, bad people.”

Sadie takes a deep breath across from me and ponders what I’ve just said. She turns and looks out the window, out to the blue sky, the sunny day. It’s absolutely perfect out and there’s something in her eyes that she sees that I can’t. Something far off in the distance, maybe even back in time.

“I can’t say Vita, or even Nick for that matter, were ever completely bad,” she says, looking back at me. “Nobody is, Delilah. We make bad choices for some of the stupidest of reasons, but even the cruelest of people can have a warm heart.”

I sense that she’s talking about herself. We’ve spoken on and off about what she did to the Altos, how she slithered her way into the family and tore them apart from the inside.

“Vita could be seen as a terrible person. She made bad decisions, she swindled a government and did a lot of illegal things. It was one of the main reasons why I was activated to destroy her.” Sadie pauses, reliving a memory I still can’t see. “But when I was singed by my own flame, so to speak, it was Vita who took you in, took you in and loved you like you were her own. Vita Alto was a better mother than I could have been for you. I was a broken woman. I could barely be there for myself.”

Sadie clears her throat and blinks incessantly. “What I’m trying to say, Delilah, is not to let your past frame your future. You’re a smart girl, and as much as I hate to say it, it’s not because of me. The Alto name isn’t all bad and if you’re thinking of changing because of that, I would suggest holding onto it. Don’t live in the bad of the Alto name, do something good with it instead.”

Looking down at my hands, I don’t know how I should feel after that. Why am I changing my name? Sure, my first impulse to change it is because I fear my child, my family getting into danger because of my silly link to my previous life. But I’ve been hiding behind my alias Deli Solomon since I arrived at Vic and Sadie’s house last Christmas.

“I’ve just heard so many stories about them, seen so much on the news… Sometimes I just don’t know who they really were. The media, everybody has made them look like monsters and I don’t want William to grow up with a tainted history.”

I watch my mother give me a look and then glances outside again. After a moment, she pulls out her phone, steps away to make a phone call and then returns. She tells me that Vic is on his way to pick up William and that she is going to take me out.

My mother tells me to close my eyes the moment we get into the car and while I may be reluctant to do so, the last time she said she was taking me somewhere we ended up in Sunset Valley, I close them anyway. The drive is a short one, maybe five minutes, and when she tells me I can open them, I am looking at the large banner above the complex in the parking lot.

The Summer Festival.

“Over that year with your father and Vita, I used to come to these things all the time,” Sadie tells me as she closes the door to the car and begins walking up the strip. “Summer, fall, winter. I think I only ever missed the spring one in Sunset because I was pregnant with you and you were sending little hints you were on the way.”

I only went to a few during my years in Sunset, yet I remember how the central park in town was always bustling with the town folk and even with people from miles away. It was a big deal back then. And it seems to be no different here. Men and women gather round to the local festival, paying for tickets and shoving their way inside to get started with the day of fun.

My mother hauls me to the skating ring. As she is taking off her shoes and replacing them with a pair of roller skates, she says, “It feels so right putting these on again.” She ties the pink laces at tight as they are willing to go.

I know my mother is a good skater. I saw her on the ice this past winter and I’ve heard how she’d go with my father to the festival and either ice skate or roller skate. She once told me that she enjoyed it much more when my father was around. Supposedly, once or twice she’d been grouped up with a man named Gobias and she absolutely dreaded going anywhere with him. Skating wasn’t fun with him around. Actually the only reason she agreed to go with him to the festivals was so she could get away from him if that makes sense.

Unfortunately, I learn early on that I am not naturally gifted like my mother in the skating sense. I remember as a kid how I could skate like nobody’s business, though now that I think about it, it might have been because I used inline skates.

After I take out an elderly couple and almost take a child down to the ground with me, my mother is at my side, helping me with my balance and bringing me to the centre of the ring to help me out.

“Just like your father,” Sadie comments with a smirk.

I huff a bit, doing everything in my power to keep upright. Any slight movement left or right and the both of us are going down with a loud thud. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you have terrible balance, just like him.” Sadie begins to laugh and I do too. “Ah, don’t fret. He could make a killer snowman. I’m sure you can as well.”

We both get a bit hot and decide to head outside to cool off. There’s a balloon fight fortress on the far side of the complex and the sound of laughter and balloons breaking in a gush gravitates us towards it.

Sadie grabs a balloon from the basket on the ground. “This was how I first met Vita. Gobias dragged me to my first festival in Sunset. He’s probably the one person I don’t regret walking out on.”

I know what she means. Sadie throws her balloon across the way and hits an older woman in the face. She falls backwards and upon closer inspection I realize it’s Flo Broke. I smile inside and out. As much as my mother disliked this Gobias person, I don’t much like Flo.

“But,” my mother continues, “because of him I was able to meet Vita. That night we pummeled Gobias with water balloons just like these. Ah, to see those ugly face paintings smear and drip off his face.”

Tossing the balloon in her hand in the air and catching it, Sadie readies herself to throw it at the newcomer across the way. Yet as she leans back, as she stretches her arm back to gather some good power, my mother stalls, stops and hesitates to lob it over to the other side. It takes me a moment to realize why…

The woman almost looks like a younger version of Vita Alto. From the hair, all the way to the burgundy jacket I know Vita used to wear all the time in photos. I can only wonder what is going on through my mother’s head before the balloon comes and hits her.

My mother is a good sport. She laughs it off, but I was able to see the surprise in her eyes. I was able to witness how she really believed Vita was across from her again, playing a round of water balloons like it was twenty years ago. How couldn’t she? Even I thought for a split second that Vita had come back.

Once our balloons are gone, I bring my mother over to a picnic table next to the band in the corner. I tell her that I will be back and that I am going to grab each of us a drink. When I return, a bottle of water in each hand, there Sadie is with the band. She’d taken one of their guitars, borrowed more likely, and has led them in to play some song I don’t know.

“You play the guitar too?” I ask, baffled. Is there anything this woman can’t physically do?

“I’m a woman with many talents,” she says to me and keeps strumming. She finishes the song and hands the guitar back off to its rightful owner. “Vita taught me how to play when I first moved in to Alto Manor,” she says softly as she grabs her water bottle from my hands and takes a seat at the picnic table again.”

“You two were really close, weren’t you?”

My mother nods. “It’s funny, I think about that whole moment all the time… How I met Vita, how she welcomed me into her home, asked me to her parties…” She chuckles and pulls her arms close to herself. “Told me I could live with her when Gobias kicked me out. She was always there and even if she did bad things, deep down she really was a good person. She was a good friend…” Sadie brings her eyes up to meet mine. “And I destroyed it.”

I see in my mother’s eyes how much this affects her. Everything that happened the moment she’d been asked to travel to Sunset Valley, dropped off at Gobias’s house and asked to destroy Vita and Nick…

“How do you get past it?” I ask her. I watch her consider the question and she turns her body towards me, like she’d ready to open up and that’s when I hear the loud alarm go off. Across the path from us a hotdog eating contest is about to begin. They’re just waiting for somebody to fill the final spot.

“That brings back memories,” she says to me as she gets to her feet. She’s already started walking towards the table before I grab her arm.

“No, wait, how did you get past it?” I repeat, but she’s not listening. She’d actually dragging me with her to the table, going on and on about some person named Marlie and how they had met each other during one of these contests.

And then it hits me.

The alarm goes off again, readying everybody, my mother included, behind the table. Another goes off and all four of them begin stuffing their faces with hotdogs as the time counts down.

“She’s never gotten over it,” I whisper to myself. The moment we arrived, my mother’s been bombarded with memories. From my father to Vita, to the havoc that erupted between everybody to the little things one would think she’d forget. Roller skating and balloon fights. Guitar playing and hotdog eating contests. Everything was thrown at her from the moment we stepped out of that car and each time Sadie relives it, she rushes on to the next thing in hopes that she’ll forget. Sadie Lawrence has never gotten over the hell Paragon put her through. All she does is bury it in hopes that she’ll never have to experience it again.

It takes a while for it all to set in. I separate from my mother for a few hours while she plays the guitar again. I grab a snow cone and think about what I’ve come to realize.

When I first came to her doorstep back in the winter, I looked up at my mother because I thought she was some strong woman. Watching her fight off against Peters and work her magic to make sure I was safe after he was out of the picture. Everything she did was so on point that I looked up at her like she was some super human, a woman with an impenetrable finish.

But as I pull back that stiff layer, I see that fragile person that hides inside. Sadie Alto was built to destroy. From the time she got hooked up with the Altos all the way until she was destroyed by her own fire, everything, everyone in her path was expendable. Sadie Lawrence wasn’t, however. She’s a normal person with feelings, who experiences pain and heartache. Who feels remorse and has regrets. She’s a human being just like me. Who put herself in so much danger after I was born to keep me safe…

I spot her walking up the stairs, looking for me. She sees me and makes her way over.

“There you are!” She takes and seat and twists off the cap of her water bottle. “I’ve been looking for you for ages.”

“Sorry, I just needed a break.”

“What have you been doing?” She gets a glimpse of something on my face and grabs a napkin to wipe it from my cheek. “Other than eating snow cones?”

I swat her away like a child. “I’ve been thinking.”

“About?”

“Changing my name,” I answer.

“Again?”

“I want to change it to Lawrence.” I can see a flash in her eyes, confusion, disagreement maybe, so I don’t let her speak, not yet. “I know it’s been rocky between us since the beginning, but over this past year… I see things differently now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and a lot has gone on, yet you’re always there for me. You speak about how you’ve made a lot of your own mistakes, but you are my mistake… I… I…” I stop and take a deep breath. “I’ve judged you from the very beginning… I judge everything because I am judgemental… But I can kind of see everything clearly now. I’ve blamed people I shouldn’t have, I’ve blamed you for things that didn’t even have to do with you.”

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, Delilah. Don’t pretend like they never happened.”

“I know, but I can’t keep dwelling on it either. Over this past year with you and Vic, I feel right being with you. It feels right.”

“Delilah…”

“I respect you and I forgive you. I want you to be a part of my life, and that’s why I want to take the Lawrence name back.”

A smile slowly forms on my mother’s face. “You know nothing would make me happier. I love you, Delilah. I have since the moment I brought you home and it has never stopped. Not eighteen years ago, not now.”

In the moment, we head down and take a photo of ourselves. When we’re done, we are just in time for the fireworks to go off. I stand there, my mother next to me and as the sky bursts in beautiful colours high above us, all I can do is stare at the side of my mother’s face. For how long I have hated this woman. I have blamed her for a life I thought once was full of misery. I forced myself to keep distant even when I was welcomed into her home. And right now I hate myself for putting not only myself through it, but her as well.

As the final firework goes off, I lean into my mother like I did the day I ended up on her doorstep. I wrap my arms around her and hug her. My mother hugs me back, tightly, as if never wanting to let go.

Arms still holding each other, I look up at her. “I had a really great time today.”

“I did too. You know I love you.”

I nod. “I love you too… Mom.”

I haven’t called anybody Mom since the night of Vita’s death. It sounds strange saying it again at first, but the more I think about putting the label with Sadie in my mind, the smoother it becomes. It’s taken me this long to embrace her as my mother and now I can call her it too. Mom… Mom… I didn’t lie when I said to her that being with her felt right. I am no longer looking at Sadie Alto, the destroyer. I don’t see a hardened shell fighting off the Reginald Peters of the world. I see my mother, Sadie Lawrence. The woman I trust, the one I love. It feels so easy now that it all slips past my lips and thoughts. I guess it just took getting inside Sadie Lawrence’s head to come to the realization.

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Divine Deception — Execution, Grief and Apologies

Execution can be the action of putting a plan into effect or condemning a man to his death. One will lift you up, lead you down a path of what could be complete success, while the other will tear you down, pull you to the darkest and coldest of depths where light at the end of a tunnel is but a simple flickering bulb with no escape. Where one needs answers, they are given little, forced to recount and sometimes even relive the hell that brought them to this forsaken place. The only way to escape are through five stages. First there is denial followed by anger, bargaining and depression. But it’s acceptance that holds the tight grip around its victims and when you look it straight in the eye, you realize mercy isn’t in its vocabulary.

As I look up at the front of Daniel’s house, I can’t help but wonder if acceptance will give me a chance to reconcile my past relationships that have been executed over the past year. Just stepping foot on the property sends a chill down my spine as I am reminded of how I left things with Daniel all those months ago. When I threw myself at him like some brainless school girl and believed for that split second that things would be okay afterwards. Thankfully I was able to pull myself together before anything serious happened. So many months later and I am still kicking myself for how poorly I acted, how I almost threw everything I have worked to keep in order out the window.

I come to a halt at the front door and brace myself. I don’t know what Daniel is going to do when he sees me next. I can only hope it isn’t brutal. He’s tried calling me, texting me, he even sent me a letter in the mail, but I haven’t once made an attempt to get back to him. Not because I forgot or something came up. I simply didn’t want to. Now, here I am, standing at his door, hoping he doesn’t see this as a battle ground. I know it seems silly, but who knows what is going on through his head now that his father is gone. Grief can do a lot to a person and that tunnel is a dark and cynical one.

My mother puts her hand on my shoulder. She came to pay her respects to Master Lee as well. With a little push, she encourages me to go inside.

Daniel’s home is full of people I have never met before. Some are crying, others and telling stories about how Master Lee had changed their lives and the good that he did. My stomach twists as I am teleported back to Vita’s funeral where I felt like nothing, when it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fill the whole that left me the moment she had. It has just become apparent to me now that I was wandering in that cold tunnel of grief then, that I had hardly touched the surface of the first step. I can only imagine how empty Daniel feels.

I decide that I should go find him. I ask a few people, although no one is able to give me an answer. Daniel hasn’t been seen much.

I end up in the kitchen and spot Connie sitting at the counter. I walk up and pat her lightly on the back. “Connie,” I say.

She turns to face me, eyes swollen with tears. She wipes them once she realizes that it’s me next to her and not some stranger. “Oh, Deli, hi.”

Taking a seat in the chair next to her, I spot the damp tissue crumpled up in her fist. “How are you doing?”

She shrugs. I can’t say I blame her. How is she doing? How does it look like she’s doing, Delilah? My own cynicism lends an edge to my thoughts. It seems that my heart and my brain are one two very different paths as of late. My brain knows she feels like crap, that she feels alone and how hard this all must be for her. Yet my hearts there, trying to be supportive and saying things that really aren’t making anybody feel better even if its what it wants to do most. It happens now just like it did back a few days ago when I saw Nathan.

I had wanted him to remember so badly that my heart was the only piece of me leading the way towards my goal. I threw everything at him, got into his personal space and told him a child was his without easing into it like a normal person would. Nathan might not have seen me in his memories, but he saw the shadow of me. And instead of acting smart, using my brain to remind him with an ounce of intelligence, my heart tossed itself at him with baby in tow, hoping upon all else that something magical would happen and bring everyone closer together.

I snort inwardly at myself because nothing of the sort happened. The exact opposite did.

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Connie says after a few moments, wiping her nose.

“I’m sorry, Connie. I know how much he meant to you.”

Connie shakes her head. “Four years of doing this. Four years of seeing him everyday, learning from him and having a goal of how I wanted to go through life–” Her voice catches and she stops to recollect herself. “You know, destroying people, that’s not why I’m here. After my parents abandoned me, I just wanted some place to call home. And Master Lee gave me that and now he’s gone too!” Connie bursts into tears and I hug her.

“Connie, it’s going to be okay.”

She cries for a little while longer. We don’t speak. I just hold her and listen to her. She asks me about William and I tell her about the pregnancy and how it all went. She pulls herself away and takes a deep breath, grabs a bottle of water from the counter and takes a few lengthy gulps.

Connie chuckles to herself and then drops the corners of her lips again. “I feel so pathetic, you know? It’s not even my father and here I am, a blubbering idiot. But, Deli, if you had heard what happened to him…”

My eyebrows knit together. “What did happen to him?”

“It was murder,” Connie whispers to me. “The police say gun play was involved and when Daniel went over to Master Lee’s for dinner, the police were already there. Gah, just to think of Daniel walking in on that. I can’t even imagine.”

My guts are twisting more than I ever thought possible as the image in my mind plays out. “Do they know who did it?”

Connie shakes her head, looking back down at the tissue in her hands. “Not really… I don’t think so. I don’t know much more than that. It’s just so terrible.”

“I’m coming for you…. And you–“

Kyra’s voice echoes in the back of my mind and a bead of sweat has made its way across my spine. Master Lee is dead and Kyra, after feeling betrayed long ago, made the threat. I can remember the rage that went on between them, how hurt she was that I had taken on the next mission not her. How Master Lee chose to make me a top priority. The feeling didn’t abate over night back then, and I can’t help but feel a little queasy about the possibility now. Could Kyra be the one behind all of this?

“I just feel so bad for Daniel. He’s all alone through this,” Connie mumbles as she turns and looks out the window. “Says he doesn’t want to speak with anybody.”

I follow her gaze and spot him out the back. I push out my chair and get to my feet. “I’ll be right back.”

Daniel’s out in the pouring rain, his suit drenched. He just stands there, though. Seemingly unaffected, and he stares off into the fog that has begun to surround the town below. I see flashes of the night we almost spent together. The smell of his woodsy cologne has reentered my nostrils. I’m still too far away from Daniel for it to be actually coming off of him. It’s the memory causing me to return back to that night. I can taste the cola on his lips and feel the way he cups my jaw and takes me into his arms. The flats of my shoes sink down into the soggy earth the moment I step off of the brick pathway that borders the house and get closer to him. As I approach, I can see that the cold rain has run its course over Daniel’s skin, its icy claws no longer able to make his fists clench or his knuckles turn red. Daniel is numbing to everything and I hope he doesn’t do the same to me.

I have almost made it to his side before I bring myself to a complete stop. To stand next to him, to me, gives him no way out. Like I am boxing him in, forcing him to speak or even look at me. Staying back here, he won’t feel the need to reply if he doesn’t want to. It also gives him the reassurance that, even though I know he’s crying, there is a slight possibility that I won’t notice it. It’s probably better that way anyway, him not feeling belittled and me pretending I don’t notice.

“Hi, Daniel,” I say finally.

He looks over his shoulder and I can see his red eyes and tear-streaked face. Sure, I could blame it on the rain, but there is something about the way he burrows his brow and instantly wipes away any evidence of his previous sob that speaks a different story. “Hi,” he says back and turns towards me.

“Daniel, I’m so sorry.” I see him nod and shrug, and then I add, “How are you doing?”

Daniel does the same thing, nods and shrugs, but replies after a few moments. “I don’t know anymore. I just… can’t believe… he’s actually gone.”

“I know how hard this must be for you.” Right as I say it, Daniel covers his face, turns away and begins to cry again. I finish off my strides, close the gap between us and place a hand on his shoulder. He mumbles something under his breath, something I can’t comprehend, but I’m there, still there, comforting him. For how much I have learned about Daniel since I moved to the Nest and realized how much we’d both grown up, seeing him here in front of me, I still see that child. Not in a bad way, just somebody I want to take away all the pain from and makes everything okay again.

“It’s all my fault,” he says, still mumbling, yet I can make it out this time.

“It’s not your fault,” I tell him. “How could it possibly be any of your fault?”

“I was late. My dad and I were supposed to have dinner together and I was late. He said seven o’clock sharp and I got held back with one of the students…”

I shake my head. “That doesn’t make it your fault.”

He doesn’t agree. He lifts his hand as if to dismiss my words as nonsense. “If I had been at his place when he said maybe I could have done something. Maybe I could have helped him or called the police or done something and maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have bled out.” The last words make me jolt on the inside. When Connie had made mention about what she knew about Master Lee’s death, about how it was murder, I don’t know why, but I didn’t think it was like this. “It was messy, Delilah.” Daniel runs his hand over his face. “It was so messy. It was everywhere.”

Kyra’s threat makes a reappearance. It had to have been her. She had motive. She had the connections. Heck, she had everything she needed and even told Master Lee that she was coming for him. Kyra was the murderer here. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Actually, just her absence today leaves me feeling off. I think about telling Daniel this, get his input. I don’t say a word to him about it, however. He needs time to mourn his father and tossing my own thoughts and opinions into the pot hardly seems like a smart thing to do. Not now, not when Daniel is like this.

“Everything is going to be all right–”

I can barely get the words out of my mouth before I notice him move on me. Daniel takes me close and tries to kiss me. I’m more on my game than I have been as of late and am able to turn and pull away. His cologne is there again, yet not in my head. It’s actually coming off of him this time. I inhale it as I wait for Daniel to pull away as well.

“I…” he says, connecting with my eyes for a split second and then dropping off. He’s got that boy-ish look about him again. His eyes pool with more tears and from the way his cords in his neck are working, I know he is doing everything in his power not to break down. I know. I was in the exact same position when I was at Vita’s funeral.

“I’m sorry, I just thought…” Daniel lets me go and takes a step away. “Nothing makes sense. I don’t get what’s going on. I don’t understand. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He’s crumbling again, slipping away from me.

“Daniel,” I say as I grab the sides of his face in both of my hands and stop him. “Daniel, look at me. I know how hard this is for you and I’m not just saying that. I really do know. I want you to know that. And what you need to understand and know is that I am always here if you need me. I am here, just like you were there for me. Just like you were there for me during my assignment.” I let him digest what I’ve just said for a moment, though I don’t dare take my hands away from the sides of his face. “We’re not alone, right? Just like you said to me. Sometimes it just becomes too much, but we can get past this. You can get past this. We’ll figure this out.”

Daniel looks down at the ground, his head still held, and nods.

“Come here,” I say and pull him into a hug. We stand here for I don’t know how long, hugging in the pouring rain. My wool coat has long since soaked through and I ignore the rain’s cold finger tips. I am here for a friend and if I need to suffer a bit, then so be it.

Right as I am about to pull away, my cell phone goes off. I’m received a message and it’s from my mother. It’s time to go.

“Okay, I have to go now.” I cup Daniel’s jaw with my hand and give him a reassuring smile.

“Thanks, Delilah. Thanks for coming. It means a lot.”

“I’m sorry it couldn’t have been on better circumstances.” We both nod in agreement. “I really am sorry, Daniel. Call me if you need anything.”

As I walk away, just the thought of Kyra makes my blood shoot through my veins at miraculous speeds. She said she was coming for Master Lee that very night she was asked to leave. She said she was going to come after me too. But that isn’t what frustrates me most. It’s the fact that instead of balancing the scale of life like the Nest had taught her, she ripped a father from his son’s arms in a violent game of jealousy, egotism and hatred. Acceptance truly holds little mercy. But it’s the realization that is the hardest part for me to get past. The realization that the moment I think I have stepped away from this world of destruction, when I think that I’ve freed myself, cleared out the monster of hatred, in reality I was sucked back into this hell because I never stood a chance.

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Divine Deception — Lullaby

Hush now my little one
Please don’t you cry
Lay your head down
On my shoulder and sigh
Sun gone away
Momma will pray
Silence will keep all the while you are asleep

My mother sang me this same lullaby when I was a child. For how little, if anything, we remember about our first year on this planet, this is one thing I remember to all ends. It came back to me the night I showed up on Sadie’s doorstep so many months ago. Sadie had taken me in. I was a wreck, crying. I couldn’t gather my bearings and just sobbed in her arms. And she sang it to me, cooing me to sleep like I was young again. It had a sense of nostalgia about it, returning me to the safest place I had ever felt. In my mother’s arms, I felt the one thing that was missing in my whole life and that was the love only a real mother could give.

I look down at the baby boy in my arms. He’s so still, he looks like plastic, a doll. But there’s a softness to him. His eyelids pink and shiny, and there’s the lightest whistle coming from his nose as he breathes in and out. William. This is my child.

It’s been a few weeks since his birth. Since I was released from the hospital after a smooth delivery, I have been nesting at home. Vic went all out and had transformed the foyer outside my apartment into a nursery. It took him a month and a bit, insulating and putting down new flooring while making new touch ups and coats of paint. He did it all by himself while I was off at the Nest. It was such a nice gesture. He went out of his way to make everything so perfect. We’re not even family and for him to do this, for me… The stories my mother tells me about him, about how they met, how he is the only person who can put out the raging fire inside of her… I get it now. I get why he means so much to her and how she felt he was something special all those years ago.

And that’s one of the main reasons why I am back here. Nathan and I have that exact same thing between us that my mother and Vic have, and I hope that some way or another I can make him remember what exactly we are to one another. That I am not some detective that had stumbled upon his freezing body after he’d been shot. That I am the person that stayed with him until the ambulance came to pick us both up. That I am the girl who saw him for what he really is, who he opened up to. That he’s the man I gave myself to. It’s been a while since I last saw him. I can only hope that some of his memory’s returned and maybe, just maybe, more of it will come back the moment he sees his son.

I make it to the hospital by late afternoon. I walk inside, spot Dr. Jesceps and he leads me to the room where Nathan is being taken care of in. He’s been moved. Taken to the top floor in a shared compartment. I see him through the door. He’s speaking with one of the nurses and Jesceps asks me to wait a minute outside. I nod and take a seat. I’ve waited how long for this moment, what’s a little longer?

It begins to feel like deja vu. Memories from the last time I was here flash in my mind’s eye and I can’t help but remember how it all ended. Realizing that Nathan didn’t remember me. How I had run out of his room and cried in the bathroom. I feel torn. Part of me wants to get up and leave. I don’t want to feel like that again, yet the other part tells me to stay. It’s been some time since we last spoke and he’s had time to come to terms with what happened. And William’s here with me. Instead of tightening my fists and walking away, I pull my baby closer to me and soften around him.

When the nurse leaves, I ask if I may go in and she tells me yes. I walk inside.

The shared room isn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it would be. The first thing that comes to my mind are those terrible post apocalyptic movies where men and women with deadly diseases huddle in dirt filled tents where they wait to die. There’s no light, no hope for a new beginning. It’s just hell where the stench fills the room and there’s nowhere else to go but down. My mind gets the better of me and I am pleasantly surprised about the room Nathan’s been held in. There are only three beds, each one enclosed by its own curtain and portable partitions. The room doesn’t smell bad, thankfully. Well, I guess that depends on what one might classify as stinky. It smells like a hospital. Bleach and whatever antiseptic that have coming in for cheap. Everything is locked up in the floor-to-ceiling cabinets in each of the sections.

I stop when I spot Nathan. He’s washing his hands in the sink and when he looks up into the mirror, our eyes catch. My body is filled with that warm fuzzy feeling I used to get every time I took a walk with him. When I kissed him and hugged him. When I touched him. His dark eyes consider me through our reflection. Then he looks away and dries his hands.

“You again?” he says.

I pull back. It wasn’t exactly what I was prepared to hear. There’s an edge to his tone that I can only assume comes from the fact that he’s been holed up in this place for so long. Unfortunate, for sure, but at least he hasn’t addressed me as detective.

I clear my throat and decide not to address his tone. He’s been through hell and to step into him with guns blazing, I know it will only hinder my desire to get him back on my side. “yes, me again.”

“More questions, detective?” Well, that didn’t last long. The sound of my jaw clicking gets muffled by Nathan’s exaggerated footsteps as he makes his way across the room to his bed. He slumps down and grabs a magazine from the pile next to him. “I’ve told you everything I know.”

“Nothing’s come back? Nothing since I was last here?”

There’s a mixture of emotions on his face. From humour to irritation to bewilderment, interest and rage. He shakes it away before I can get a better look. “Little pieces here and there, but nothing concrete, no.” He begins flicking through the magazine, though I can see from the way his does it that he isn’t looking or reading anything. He is simply doing it just to do something.

“What do you remember?” I ask.

“My sister and her funeral. And my mother too. How she won’t let go of what happened to Ashley.” Ashley? Nathan never told me his sister’s name before. I He only told me how his mother couldn’t let her go after she’d died. “There’s somebody else there too. I can’t exactly see them, but I know they mean a lot to me. I didn’t like them much at the beginning and they didn’t like me. Later, we learned to get along. She kissed me. I think she loved me even if it felt really rushed.”

I nod at Nathan encouragingly, hardly able to keep my excitement confined. He does remember. He remembers me, he really does. He just can’t see my face yet and connect me to those memories. “What have the doctors said?”

“They told me that the best way to remember is to interact with my past. I tried to tell that how hard it is to do when I don’t remember it, and they don’t listen. They never listen.”

A perfect opportunity if I do say so myself. If he can’t remember his past, maybe touching his future could link the two. I step towards him. “Nathan, this is your son.” I know how cheesy, how strange it must sound the moment the words leave my mouth. I can see how he regards what I’ve said as crazy. He’s dropped the magazine back int he pile and is back on his feet, raising his hands as if he wants no part of it. So I quickly stabilize the conversation with a demand of my own. “Nathan, this is William. Hold him.”

“Detective, this is very inappropriate–“

“Just hold him,” I say again. “Just hold him and look at him and tell me if it triggers anything.”

While he may have been reluctant to do so, Nathan takes William into his arms. He doesn’t hesitate to look into his eyes. I am sure I know what he’s doing. He’s going straight to the point, looking William deep in the eyes so that he can pass him back off to me and say I’m a lunatic… that he’s done with my little games. But he doesn’t give William back. He looks at him, stares at him for a few long minutes. William makes baby noises and I notice the corners of Nathan’s mouth curve upwards. He feels something. I know he does. I just need him to believe it himself.

He placed William back in my arms. “He’s cute…” He looks me deep in my eyes, the way he would before he’d cup my jaw and tilt my head to kiss me. I’m waiting for him to do it, just one slight movement and I will kiss him back. “I’m sorry, but he’s not mine.”

My jaw drops and I can’t find the words, any words to describe how I’m feeling. I don’t know what to say or do. I’ve never been speechless before, yet here I am, dumbstruck when I need to keep him on my side. What am I supposed to say to that? William’s not his? He is, he is! And Nathan’s not agreeing not because he doesn’t want to be a part of our lives, but because he really can’t remember. I can’t comprehend this as Nathan turns away. The only thing I can say is, “No,” as I grab for the crook of his arm. “No, Nathan–”

“You need to back off, detective. Stop with these games, these mind games. You need to stop!”

My anger’s returning and for the first time since this whole mess began, I’ve realized I don’t care for him. I don’t care about his recovery. I’ve spent so long fighting for us, wanting more than anything for us to be a family and this is where it has taken me. The last time I was here I could understand to some slight degree the reason why he couldn’t connect with me. But now was different. This time I don’t think there ever will be a “we.”

“You’ll never remember,” I say to him. Nathan laughs coldly at me as he makes his way back to his bed. He takes a seat again and gives me a wave to dismiss me. “You’re some piece of work.”

Nathan shrugs, kicking up his feet. “I wouldn’t know.”

I groan in frustration as I leave the room, whipping the door closed behind me. Nathan doesn’t protest. Actually as I glance over my shoulder I can actually see him giving me a wave that only exaggerates his mockery. I storm out of the hospital and put William into his stroller. There is fire in my veins and everything I do, every movement feels like it burns my insides. It takes a long time for me to get to the bottom of why I am so upset. Sure, yes, I am frustrated that he doesn’t remember me. I’m more than annoyed that Nathan’s turned back into that jerk I met when I first arrived in Riverview. That he doesn’t want to acknowledge William as his own. But what makes me more than angry is that through everything I’ve done, everything I’ve worked for, and everything I thought would work, I’m still leaving this building feeling the exact same as last time. Nothing has changed and I’m still trying to find the man who can’t see me.

My phone goes off right as I begin pushing the stroller. I’m tempted not to answer it. Who knows what terrible things I’m about to say to people who don’t deserve it? But I answer it anyway, and it’s Connie on the other end. She tells me that Master Lee is dead.

***

Lullaby is not mine. It was on Season 5 of Xena Warrior Princess where she sang to her daughter.

Featured

Divine Deception — Before and After

Cup of Beans is a small coffee shop I discovered during one of me breaks while training inside the Nest. It’s located right in the middle of Riverview, a hotspot for locals to gather and catch up. It was where I would go to grab a tea when I wanted a nice ol’ pick me up when studying began wearing me down or when my mother and I picked a time when neither of us were busy to spend some time together. Or, more so this than anything else, when I wanted to escape the List and destruction and just find some solitude. Where I could put my feet up in a matter of speaking and take a deep breath. The most noise I get here is the local elders–and there are a lot of them might I tell you– gossiping about who’s dating who or what slime ball is stealing away their beloved niece. I’ve even heard a rumour that my great pal (not really) Flo Broke has been snooping through somebody else’s drawers if you catch my drift. If there’s any place you’re going to find good info, it’s right here, on the edge of the river at Cup of Beans.

But I’m not here for relaxation or to hear the latest and greatest gossip. I’ve actually invited the master for a moment of his time. I’ve decided that with my time inside the Nest, learning the ins and outs of destruction has come to a close. Being five and a half months into the pregnancy, I’ve found it getting more and more difficult to keep up to the other destroyers. Whether it’s the physical training to keep myself fit and alert or just the simple task of keeping my attention, I just can’t do it. Exhaustion has become my middle name and from what my doctor has to say, it’s all just so freaking normal. A good thing, sure, but I just can’t help but feel as if I’m letting Master Lee down. After all, he did switch everything around just so that I could take part in the course, so that I could be a part of the Nest.

Master Lee, however, doesn’t seem at all affected by my resignation. He just nods to me and tells me he understands. I lift my eyebrow at him. I mean, I know we discussed this when I first arrived at his doorstep, that this wouldn’t be a full-time thing considering my situation. Heck, it’s the main reason why I was shoved into that bloody mission to destroy Don Lothario a few weeks back. Still, seeing the master all calm and considerate almost makes it seem like I’ve stepped into some other alternate universe.

“Would you like me to hold your spot?” He’s considering the contents of his mug when he asks me and it’s almost as if he feels he needs to ask, not that he wants to. “Until after you’ve settled down and whatnot, I mean.”

I caress the side of my own mug with my thumbs, letting the warmth of the hot liquid inside filter through my hands. “You know, I’ve been thinking and… you were right.”

Master Lee shoots me a look of mild bewilderment.

“When I first met you, you told me that I hadn’t lost enough to be able to follow down this road. That I was some silly girl having a temper tantrum pretty much. And while I don’t think anything I’ve done over the last few months is worthy of being called a tantrum,” I give him one of my own looks, “I can now see what you meant. I’ve had some bad things happen to me. One of my worst times was in that park with Nathan, fearing that he was going to be taken away from me. And we came close to death, there’s no denying that. But he’s still alive, and I’m still alive. We dodged a bullet and I should have been grateful for it. Instead I became bitter because I wanted more than what I already had. I guess in a way, I did have a temper tantrum.”

I think of the night at the casino and how I targetted Don Lothario.

“Don was enough for me. To destroy him was enough and I didn’t even destroy him completely. I just nicked him. It was just the tip of the iceberg and I don’t ever want to do anything more.”

Master Lee nods as he listens to me.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, you were right. I haven’t lost enough to become one of your destroyers.”

“Miss Alto, you were never qualified to be a destroyer. You’re not like my other students. You’re not like your mother. You haven’t hit rock bottom and, as unfortunate as it is to say, only them can you be something great on this ugly path. To be a good participant, you must have nothing to lose and the ability to ruin every ounce of integrity you have for yourself.”

I look down at my mug again. I haven’t felt like this since the moment I walked into Master Lee’s office so many months ago, begging him to take me on because I needed payback for what happened to Nathan. When he pretty much laughed in my face and suggested that I cry into my pillow like every other silly girl my age. I curl into myself, not wanting to look back into Master Lee’s eyes.

Then I feel him place a hand on my shoulder.

“And, hey, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. You have a mother who absolutely loves you, a child on the way and a man who deep down just needs some good, constant support.” He pauses for a moment and I can feel him scanning over my emotions. “I teach my students a way to bring balance back to the uneven scale of life. I rarely talk about karma and how life works itself, it distracts them. But I’m going to tell you. Sometimes life surprises us and can balance itself all on its own. You just have to be patient.”

***


I dream about this conversation while I nap in the car. It’s been months since I spoke with Master Lee or anybody from the Nest for that matter. It’s Love Day and my mother has decided that she is going to surprise me with a special outing. When we hit a pothole in the road, I come to and straighten up in the passenger’s seat.

“We’re almost there,” Sadie tells me.

I look around. We’re heading down the main street to the ocean. It’s a marvelous day out. The sun’s shining, few clouds in the blue sky. But as much as I would love to look at the area’s beauty and enjoy it, a sickening sense of remorse has bloomed inside of my gut. The more I look around, the more it amplifies. My heart begins to quicken and it almost feels like somebody has taken a hold of it and it actually squeezing it with their bare hands. It isn’t until I spot the town sign and the name written across it that I realize why I feel so crappy.

“Sunset Valley,” I say, trying to sound optimistic even though deep down I can’t stop seeing the life I’d come to hate.

Sadie pats my knee encouragingly. “I know it’s hard for both of us here… but there’s still plenty to be admired.”

I don’t know if I agree or not so I sit back and let her take us wherever it is she wants to go.

She drives into the parking lot of a spa and parks. It’s called Serenity Retreat, a cozy little spa place right on the ocean where men and women wait on your every need. Facials, massages, hair removal of backs, legs and eyebrows. And from the looks of it, there doesn’t seem to be any children! I am going to be such a terrible parent. It hasn’t even popped out of me yet and I am already excited when I see the absence of constant drooling infants.

Sadie makes sure that I am settled on one of the sofas in the lobby before she stands in line to gather our keys to our room and the package deals that she supposedly already paid for many weeks in advance. By the time she returns to my side, I’ve already gotten one of the staff to grab us a trolley and piled all of our luggage on top of it.

Once we have unpacked, my mother and I split ways. She is desperate for a massage. Says something about her muscles not being as flexible as they used to be and needing somebody to wring them out. Supposedly a man named Antonio is just the person for the job.

I decide to take a walk on the beach to clear my head.

Everywhere I look, I see something that resembles what I once was before I left for Riverview, before Nathan and that whole mess. In the distance I can see Alto Manor. I don’t remember much about the place, although small fragments come to me here and there. What means more to me is the actual house I grew up in when I see it. It’s just down the road a bit so I venture off to it. It still looks like the last night I stayed in it. The curtains closed and the red door I slammed shut, promising myself to never look back. It seems over the year that I have been gone that a family with children have moved in. I glance over the tricycle and sidewalk chalk as I walk by. I catch a glimpse of my argument with Vita at the Bistro in the back of my mind.

I haven’t thought of Vita as much as I think I should have since I left Sunset. It’s been so chaotic with me reuniting with Sadie and Nathan’s recovery that Vita took a backseat. That’s not to say I don’t think about her, but she is the reason why I don’t have this fuzzy feeling now that I have returned to my hometown. The lies, the hatred. It all started here, and I don’t know if I want anything to do with them anymore.

I look down at my stomach.

I know how bad it sounds. I can’t give the woman that raised me the light of day because of a secret she held from me. It’s not that exactly. I could get over something that simple because it would affect me and me only. But that part of my life, everything about it… The Alto name. My father and the terrible business he led and how crooked Vita was at leading this town. And then everything in between… It’s too much, and I don’t want my child to be a part of a place with so much darkness.

“I’m sorry,” I say, looking back at Alto Manor. Disbanding my past isn’t something I really want to do now. Actually, confronting it now with a set of open eyes could be rather beneficial. But I closed that door a year ago. I’m no longer on the news or being looked for. I’m just here, pregnant, living my life like the average person. It’s better this way, being a nobody and forgetting that Delilah Alto was ever a part of me.

To clear my head, I got for a swim. Sadie joins me afterwards and we head out for dinner.

We return to our room three hours later and I am completely wiped. It may only be eight at night, yet here I am, brushing my teeth, slipping into my pajamas and sliding under the covers of my bed. My lower back is aching and when my mother steps out of the bathroom, a toothbrush in her mouth, she sees it.

“What did I tell you?” she asks, foam spurting out the corners of her mouth. “On your side.” I’ll give her it. She’s told me plenty of times and for some reason I always forget how forgiving the position can be. I turn and the pressure in my lower back gradually subsides. “I don’t know why you struggle so much. When I was pregnant with you, I was in heels most of the time, showing my face at parties…”

I rarely see Sadie with the mother attitude. I’m not talking about being sympathetic towards me or having my back when I need it most. I’m talking about the “back in my day” conversations. Hearing her now makes me chuckle as I watch her spin around and head back to the bathroom.

I close my eyes and fall asleep.

By three in the morning, resting on my side isn’t going to do the trick. Actually, probably nothing is going to do the trick except for yanking this child out of me.

“Sadie!” I gasp as I rock back and forth, trying to get to a sitting position. My insides feels like they’re being torn apart by unseen claws, my innards twisted and squeezed all the while the worst menstrual cramp I have ever experienced seems to be stabbing my guts. I try to fight it as I call for my mother again and the pain, somehow, is intensified by the thousands.

Sadie finally rouses from her slumber. She in the bed on the other side of the dresser. She flicks on the light. “What, is it time?” Her face has the stupidest expression as if I’m supposed to know. Wasn’t she the one who’s gone through all of this before? Didn’t she say just hours ago that she did it all in heels? Why is she asking me?!! She seems to have gotten the message without me having to say a word. She helps me to my feet, puts shoes on my feet and helps me to the car. When I am all buckled in, she doesn’t hesitate. She slams the car into drive and floors it.

Featured

Divine Deception — Lady Luck

Doubt is a dangerous thing. It affects the mind and forces one to build a connection with people vivid with misconceptions and confusion. Doubt has the power to break a winning streak. It can lose you money, wreck havoc on your family and wallet and leave you in tatters while you leave the chair that was once winning by the thousands. It has the power to break anything set in its sights. With the ability to call into question everything you ever knew, doubt has the power to destroy you before you can target somebody else, reinforcing the darkest realizations of your inner circles.

My doubt began inside me the moment I stepped out of the limo that dropped me off at the Lucky Simoleon Casino. I had seen photographs of the venue a few days ago during the briefing held by Master Lee back at the Nest, but to be standing right here, right in front of the massive structure, they held no equal. The roof jets straight up to the heavens, colourful lights saturating the stone with pinks, greens and blues. Palm trees and enormous water fountains make me feel like I’ve been transported to some tropical paradise miles and miles from here when really I am only three hours from the outskirts of Riverview.

My legs don’t want to move at first. I can hear the chaos waiting for me inside. Screaming men and women, loud toy-like machines, spitting out money by the second. But it’s the losers who make me not want to go in there. The people whose lives are going to be forever changed because of a problem in their thought process or because luck decided to take a five minute break. The part that really bugs me is the fact that Luck is going to be my name for the night and what nobody knows is that the little red devil inside is a simple wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is the way of the Destroyer. This is the path I must follow.

I do my best to leave any insecurities at the door. I walk through a main lobby with velvet ropes and neon signs indicating that fun is just around the corner. There’s classical music on, though drowned out by the constant pinging and dinging of the slot machines. I spot a man and what I guess is his girlfriend sitting in one of the innumerable stuffed sofas surrounding a fireplace. They’re both in tears, panicking about what they’re going to do now that their life savings is down in the red.

“I thought I could win it back,” I hear the man say before somebody grabs onto my shoulder.

Daniel stands before me, dressed up more than I thought he could. For the last month and a bit all I have seen him in are sweatshirts, baggy jeans and running shoes. I’ve always thought he’s been easy on the eyes, but there was always a boy-ish quality about it. Now, seeing him right here, right now, I can’t get over how incredibly handsome he looks. And grown up.

“Nervous?” he asks me. “It’s okay to be nervous. The first task is always the hardest.”

I remember what he said the other night back at the Nest and how destroying somebody’s life is the hardest thing I will ever have to do. I glance over at the couple in front of the fireplace again. “It doesn’t look like anybody needs my help with what the mission asks for. Chaos has been stirring since before I arrived.”

Daniel gives me a halfhearted smile. “Not for your target.” He pauses for a moment. “Dance with me?”

Before I can respond, I’ve been taken over to the dance floor.

I’ve never danced before in my life, not a slow dance anyway. I think back to the night I was supposed to go to prom with Keith. How everything changed that night. How things had changed. I shake my head from the thought and look up into Daniel’s dark eyes. He pulls me into his arms and begin moving in a small circle, barely the size of a dinner plate. At first, I’m a little nervous about stepping on his toes. I’ll admit that I keep looking down to make sure that I don’t. Though, soon enough, I come to the realization that this slow dance barely has any steps at all. We’re just moving side to side.

We’re quiet for a bit and then I can’t stand the silence anymore.

“I am nervous. I don’t know what I’m doing. I shouldn’t even be here.”

Daniel pulls me in a bit closer. “Self doubt is the first thing that enters our head. It’s normal.”

“Is this normal?” I counter.

I watch as he goes to say something and then stops himself. “It is normal, you’re just not.” I go to pull away, but he keeps me in my place. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way. You’re not like the rest of us here. I know you think you’ve had a lot taken away from you, but you haven’t. When you do, when you hit that point where you’re left with a hole inside of you, then you will know that this is normal.”

“How dare you–” I say before he cuts me off.

“I’m not your enemy, Delilah. I would hope one day you will see that I am just trying to help you.”

I bite my cheek and look away from him, swallowing the defenses I continue to put up every single time somebody says something that I don’t like. “I know. I know.” I sigh. “It’s just sometimes…”

“Sometimes it becomes too much. I get it.” He pauses for a moment again. “Delilah, I am here if you need anything. I’m not just saying it because I have to. I mean it, and not just for this mission. Anything. I believe in you and you should too.”

Daniel holds me in his continuously genuine gaze and I can’t help but feel like I am in Nathan’s arms. The way my shoulders lose their rigid tension, how my body melds into him as we barely move. How he makes it seem like everything is going to be all right. I allow myself to relax if only for a moment while we stare at each other, not bothering to say a word. It doesn’t last very long. Something catches Daniel’s attention. Someone to be more precise.

“There he is.”

I turn and look over my shoulder.

Don Lothario. I spot him immediately. Master Lee, or nobody for that matter actually, has told me exactly why I am punishing this man or why the Nest has decided he must be destroyed. After being humiliated by Kyra last week, and threatened might I add, I decided questioning everything the Nest brings up will only work against me. As Master Lee and Daniel have told me numerous times, destruction rarely makes sense on paper. All we are doing is simply putting balance back into a flawed system. Lothario seems to be no different. I was told, however, that he’d been faced with a hard choice regarding marriage back a few months ago and finally caved into it due to the pressure from the friends and family surrounding him. Unfortunately, from what I’ve gathered, he hasn’t been coping well with his decision.

One night while Connie and I were up late studying, I brought Lothario up into the conversation. She told me she knew of him. Supposedly he was a real womanizer back in the day. She suggested his stress was coming from the little boy inside of him that still wanted to live that kind of life and being chained to this new relationship set him off. Connie had been joking that night, though I still wonder to this day if she may have been onto something.

“You ready?” Daniel asks me.

I nod to him and begin to let go of his hands.

“Hey,” he whispers in my right ear. “You’re going to do great. Remember, I believe in you.”

The corners of my lips tingle and curve upwards right as he lets me go and walks out of sight casually.

I stand there, idle, waiting for him to return. It’s not that I expect him to follow me through this task step by step. Yet there was something there that I haven’t felt in a long time. A feeling I can’t quite put my finger on. Instead of trying to focus on it, I push it to the back of my head. I take a deep breath and turn around. I have an objective to complete and I only have this chance to do it.

Lothario has wandered to the Craps table. Men and women are making a commotion, howling and hollering like some wild group of football players just let out from a winning game. It’s hard not to want to join in with their excitement and it’s one of the reasons why I so effortlessly slide through the crowd and make it to the side of the table.

I watch him like a hawk, his every move, his every breath. He’s a good player. I don’t know much about Craps, nothing really. All I know is this guys keeps winning and the crowd cheers every time he beats the casino at its own game. I watch him as seconds turn to minutes and even an hour. Women dressed is breathtaking gowns covered in sparkles and sequins talk to him as if they know him personally. I know they don’t. They just wish they did. He offers for the prettiest to blow on his dice while jealous husbands, fiancés and lovers cross their arms over their chest, mentally holding themselves back from pummeling this winning man. There’s a look in their eyes, but it’s nothing compared to Lothario’s. He almost looks insane. Roll after roll. Screaming and cheers. It isn’t until one of the women step aside that I get a chance to be his next supporter.

“Ah, my next lucky star?” Lothario asks me as he shakes the dice in his palm.

I lift my eyebrow. “It doesn’t look like you need any luck. You continue to win no matter what.”

“Luck,” he makes a face, “you can never have too much of it.” He gives the dice a good blow and then tosses the dice down the table.

This goes on for another half an hour. At some point, close to twenty five minutes of my great support if I do say so myself, he asks me to blow on his dice for him. I feel like a complete idiot, but I do it anyway. People keep placing bets, more for him than against him.

At one point he turns and looks me up and down. “You really are lucky.”

“I told you, you don’t need luck.” I grip my ammunition in the palm of my hand as my heart begins to skip, no race and my hands become sweaty. “Shoot again,” I say to him with a wink and he does, with more confidence than I’ve seen all night. And he wins. Wins and wins. Everyone is ecstatic and I’ve thrown my arms around him and pecked him on the cheek and told him how amazing he is. All the while slipping a pair of weighted dice in his blazer pocket.

As I turn to leave, he grabs me in the crook of the arm.

“Hey, where you goin’? I need my lucky star.”

I smirk. He doesn’t have a clue how wrong he really is and the sad thing is that he never will. “Lady Luck needs a five minute break.” I try not to let my loathing form through my words and I smile, I smile a lot. And I walk away. I know what will happen next. Daniel has already notified security of the possibility that Lothario is cheating and he’ll be investigated. Then the weighted dice will be found. And whatever else Master Lee has up his sleeve will play out, but that doesn’t involve me. I make for the doors and head out.

Right as I do, I see security bustling through the main lobby to the casino. The funny thing is that I am shocked they hadn’t become suspicious sooner. Winning so much… Who’s to say he wasn’t cheating before I stepped in? I think to myself. I continue to tell myself this until I am sure that doing this, doing what I just did, was beneficial in some way. Maybe Daniel was right when he said that this all would mean something if I actually was emotionally wounded, more wounded than they all think I am.

My head begins to pound.

My limo arrives within seconds and as I step inside I see Daniel waiting for me.

“Congrats,” he says, leaning back, both arms up on the seats. He eyes the champagne flutes and bottle chilling in the bar area. “I think it’s in order, wouldn’t you say?”

“I don’t know what to say,” I mumble honestly. “I just hurt somebody I don’t even know, I don’t even know what will happen to him, and for what?”

“I understand your remorse–“

My head feels like a jack hammer is going off in it. “Daniel, stop with the understandings. I know you mean well, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Headache?”

“A big one.”

Daniel lowers the window that separates us from the driver and they’re talking for a bit before the window goes back up. He turns back to me and says, “It’s going to take three hours until we get back to the Nest. My place is halfway. We’re going to stop there and get you something for that head of yours.”

“I can deal with a headache,” I say.

“I’m sure you can. Maybe I just want to show you my place.”

I roll my eyes, although I can’t help but grin. He’s turned into that little boy again even if he’s still decked out in his tuxedo.

***


Daniel’s studio is absolutely stunning and right as he takes me up to the patio to show me the view, I’ve forgotten that I had a headache at all. Sometimes the littlest of distractions help me cope. Daniel still offers me a glass of water that I don’t turn down. He’s gone for a few minutes, leaving me in peace to think about what all happened today.

I destroyed somebody today and I don’t know how I feel about it. This was what I wanted. Ever since Nathan and I were attacked, all I’ve ever wanted since then was to learn how to ruin anybody linked to that day. And here I am doing exactly that, learning how to destroy and I can’t tell if what I am feeling is good or bad. I can’t even describe it. It’s almost like a numbness. It doesn’t help that the person I am doing this for doesn’t even know who I am and that’s what hurts the most. So why am I bothering with all of this? Destruction and Nathan and trying to gain some balance in this life that has begun dealing me some crappy cards, what’s the point?

Daniel returns and passes me the glass of water in his hands. I take a few lengthy sips and cross my arms over my chest, looking over the town below. “I wasn’t always like this, you know.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, questioning everything I do and how I do it. To think I used to be the kind of girl that did whatever she pleased. Blame me for no longer being spontaneous and free or…” I let my voice trail because I don’t really know what I want to say. I just want to say it.

“You didn’t always jump to conclusions?”

I glance back at Daniel for a moment and see from the way his one side of his lips form a smirk that he’s playing with me again. I turn back to the view again. “You’re never going to let that go, are you?” I don’t wait for an answer. “But, no, I never used to. I never felt I had to. Everything used to be so simple and I liked it that way. It didn’t matter if I was alone, I never felt like it. Now, the room can be crowded and I feel as alone as ever.”

“You’re not alone.”

I turn to look at him. I want to ask him what he means or what he thinks tell me this will do. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t bring myself to do it. Not because I don’t have the will or the courage. It’s just that now, after putting the glass of water on a nearby table, my lips have made contact with his and I can’t stop myself. Daniel doesn’t pull away like I am expecting him to. Actually, he embraces me, cupping my head while he gets as close as he can, kissing me hard, harder than I ever thought possible. His lips are warm, soft and warm. A quick glimpse into the past reminds me of the day in the park with Nathan after he’d been shot and how his lips were like ice.

I push the thought away with every fiber of my being and lean into Daniel more. We’re stumbling through the door inside, down the hallway. I don’t know where we’re going. Even if I’d been shown the house mere minutes ago, I couldn’t say where we are or where we are going and I don’t care. Instead I focus on him. I take in the taste of the last cola he drank and the smell of his cologne.

I help him in taking off his jacket without daring to let our lips separate. We are both breathing heavy through out noses and fiddling with the darn buttons on Daniel’s shirt. He seems to get annoyed so much with them that he tugs at both sides and literally rips the shirt off. IN that moment, I get a quick glimpse of where we are. We’ve made it to his bedroom. I grab onto his neck, swing him around and pull him down with me onto the bed. He’s on top of me, kissing me and I’m there with him. But I can’t stop myself from seeing Nathan in the cold snow. His cold lips as he’s freezing to death beside me. I try to push away the thoughts, but they’re there, right there, as clear as ever. I’m telling Nathan that I love him, that I won’t ever leave his side and here I am.

“No,” I mumble first and it gets caught in the back of my throat.

The doctor’s there in my mind, telling me about what the future nine months holds for me and how my life is forever changed. I’m gasping for air now. I can’t breathe and Daniel is trying to undo the zipper at the back of my dress. I push him away this time.

“What?” Daniel asks me, pulling away, though he doesn’t get off of me. “Is something wrong?”

“I can’t.”

“You can’t what?” His bewilderment is all across his face that I have trouble looking at him.

“I can’t do this.” I get out from under him and stand up, running a hand through my hair. I turn to face him. He’s in his underwear, lounging on the top of the bed, confused as anything and I don’t know what else to say as I stand in the doorway other than, “I can’t do this, I’m sorry.” I don’t wait for anything. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to hear his concern, or even his voice for that matter. I don’t want to look at this man because he’s a walking reminder of my weakness. I threw myself at him, just like I threw myself at Nathan. What is wrong with me? I can’t do this anymore. I apologize to Daniel and leave the room, making my way outside where the limo is still waiting for me.

Featured

Divine Deception — The Nest

The Nest is exactly as I had imagined and then some. I am thrown into a schedule the moment I step foot inside. Workouts, drills, lectures on how weapons are to be held and used to my best advantage. You name it, I’m doing it. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life. I am good at gun assembly. I can assemble one in no time flat with my eyes covered and after being spun around in a chair fifteen times. I struggle with tactics and how to emotionally destroy a family. At first I would have thought it would have been my strong point. When I think about all the girls’ self esteem I shattered in high school, and no I am not proud of it, I would have thought this would have been my strongest point. Turns out, the more I think about hurting somebody I don’t even know, the harder it is for me to follow out an action. We’re talking about fantasy families here, not somebody we targeted off the street. Yet, I still find it hard to hurt somebody who hasn’t hurt me first. Master tells me this is what destroyed my mother, that I will follow in her footsteps if I can’t overcome this simple procedure.

Only a handful of us have been moved into the actual house where the best of the best go to graduate. I honestly don’t know how I made it here. Master Lee has made it very clear that it’s not because I am graduate material but because of something else. What that something else is, he never tells me. So I train hard, harder than before to the point where all I can see and hear is the way of the Destroyer. I think back to what I classified as training before I was brought into the Nest. Back before I went to see Nathan… What a joke. Both of them: the training and my relationship with Nathan. Even though it is because of Nathan that pushes me further into this world I want to take part it, I don’t know if I can. It bugs me more than anything that my body wants to give up, that after all the fuss I made, that I may not be qualified to be a Destroyer, whether like my mother or not. What I’ve put her through to get here…

I look at the people here and I can’t help but feel over-faced. It’s like I’ve been herded into this group of experts that know anything and everything about this way, that they’ve been eating and breathing destruction like it’s the new drug on the streets. And I’m here, standing in the corner, twiddling my thumbs because I know that they are in far better condition than I am. I can’t help but believe that the reason I’ve been brought into the house instead of somebody with a better grasp is not because I am graduate material, as previously stated, but because in some way my mother has made a deal, bargained with Master Lee in a way to make up for our lost time together, or patch up our relationship again.

The other students here aren’t all bad. I’ve been here for a little bit, a month and a bit to be precise, and I have made relationships to say the least. Connie has become my closest friend. She’s an outsider, like me in my own little way. She has the prettiest, blackest hair, the tips dyed purple, and it looks so natural, like the feathers of a raven in the highest of suns. Her style is… special to put it bluntly. If I think about my high school days, I’d be the first one to call her out on it and turn the whole school against her. It’s not nice–I wasn’t–yet that was how it was back then. I don’t think like that anymore. Maybe it’s because I have grown up. Maybe it’s because of Nathan or what happened with him. Or maybe it has something to do how I ended my previous life when Vita died or when I started to rekindle my relationship with Sadie. I don’t know, but it feels nice to forget about labels and cliques and think about what is on the inside for once, as cheesy as it may sound.

I’ve also kept my distance from Master Lee’s son as my mother suggested. He seems like the school playboy. Always there, smiling with high fives and giving the sweetest of winks to the girls of the Nest. Kyra, a redheaded vixen that I’ve learned is Master Lee’s top student, always catches his eye. And there’s no denying why. She’s tall, gorgeous and can do everything a Destroyer is asked for with her hands behind her back. She even comes into whatever class dressed to the nines. Skinny jeans all the way, revealing tank tops and heels. Always heels. Lectures=heels. Weapon assembly=heels. Hand-to-hand combat? Got that right, HEELS! Heck, I even look at her in envy.

By seven at night, a bell rings and we head to the dining room where we are served some special broth Master Lee says with boost our system and replenish a lot of our used energy. Ha! It’s going to take more than a bowl to fix that. I say nothing of the sort, though. Instead I thank the older man dressed in a recently-pressed tuxedo and unfold my napkin in my lap. Master Lee takes to the head of the table when everybody is served.

“When the scale of life becomes unbalanced, it is our job to even it out again,” he recites. I know it now off by heart. It’s one of the rules on the list he always goes on about. Ever since I learned that my mother struggled with the list and memorizing every point, I’ve gone out of my way to make sure the same doesn’t happen to me.

“Tonight is a big night,” he continues. “The scale has become unbalanced again and one of you will be the muscle to level life out.”

Across the table I can see Kyra batting her lashings, getting close with Daniel, leaning into him as if to say that this is her moment. All students must pass a personal assignment to graduate. I can see it in her eyes, the way they have lit up, like kindling in the darkest of nights. This is her moment to shine. It’s not the mission before graduation that is the real exciting part. But it is mandatory and once completed, it means you’re one step closer to the destruction of the people who hurt you. I can only imagine what Kyra must be feeling. Her excitement ready to bubble through her pores, ready to avenge the people who hurt her in the past. This is her first step in Destruction.

Master Lee gazes across the table, looking into each of our eyes. “Time is very limited for one of you…”

He keeps going, though I’ve kind of stopped listening. Kyra’s leg is bouncing up in down, winding her ecstasy into the air. Her mouth has curled into a deranged grin to the point where I think she may be borderline insane.

“That’s the reason why I have activated Delilah Alto for the graduate task.”

“What?!!”

I am completely blindsided. My mind is thrown this way and that, unable to comprehend what Master Lee has said. It makes no sense. I must have heard him incorrectly. But no matter how many times I go over it mentally, he says the same thing. He has activated me. Me! Why me? My mind is racing a mile a minute, so fast my heart is struggling to keep up.

Still, I’m not the one who spoke up. I look across the table at Kyra. Her nails dig into the surface of the table and I think I hear her teeth actually squeak. She holds Master Lee in her conspicuously furious glare. I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody look like that. Her chest heaves up and down, and that crazy grin has turned murderous. I think she may actually start foaming at the mouth.

“How can you choose her?” Kyra asks, evidently holding her frustration deep inside and chewing each syllable as they make their way out of her mouth. “Her? What has she lost?”

Master Lee cocks an eyebrow. “We’re all in the same boast here, Kyra,” he says evenly.

“Oh, of course, poor little Delilah Alto! Poor miss I-grew-up-in-a-mansion-and-had-life’s-best-cards!” Master Lee tries to defend his choice, but Kyra’s gone off half-cocked. “She’s been here for what? A month? Two tops, and she gets activated? I have been doing this for months and months and months and what have I got to show for it?”

“Delilah is pressed for time so I am pushing her a bit.”

Pressed for time? I don’t understand until it smacks me in the face. It’s because I am pregnant.

“Pressed for time?” Kyra scoffs. “Maybe if she kept her legs together she wouldn’t be in this mess!”

Daniel begins choking that very moment and I can’t say I blame him. While I can understand her frustration, Kyra’s frankness has hit me out of left field. Between her candor and what Master Lee expects from me, it’s a good thing I took a moment away from my own soup or else I might be choking too. Daniel pulls himself together soon after even if Kyra still going off.

“I am the best thing you have, Lee!” she shoots at him. She’s jumped up to her feet in one quick motion. “I have done everything you’ve wanted with everything I have and you know that. You know that I am your prime Destroyer. I am premium. I am first-class. I would expect some recognition, my mission so that I can finish off those bastards who destroyed my life. Instead you push me off for someone like her? Is she screwing your brains out or something? WHAT IS IT?!!!”

“KYRA!” Master Lee shouts. His voice fills the whole room with one big boom, silencing everybody. “Get out! Get out and don’t ever come back!”

Kyra doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even move. She stares at Master Lee and I can see everything I had seen prior, her happiness, excitement, her fire and rage. It all crumbles before everybody’s eyes.

“Get out now.” Master Lee repeats himself impatiently.

“You’re making a big mistake–“

“Now.”

Kyra’s face flashes, holding Master Lee in her sight. “I’m coming for you.” She looks over at me. “And you–“

Master Lee kicks back at his chair and it slams into the wall behind him. “Now!”

Kyra drops all eye contact and leaves silently. The room feels as if it has dropped fifty degrees and we all just sit there. I don’t know where to look so I drop my gaze to my lap, picking at my nails. After a few minutes, Master Lee says, “Everyone is dismissed,” and he leaves the room.

***


Two hours later I am on the treadmill looking out across the back courtyard. There’s still tension in the house, though I’ve found that this is the best place to relax. Working my body in hopes that I can build while I try to decipher. I have to because it looks like I really have just been activated. I still don’t know how I feel about this. I don’t know what I think about any of this actually. Between being chosen and Kyra’s outbreak, the carpet has been pulled out from under my feet so many times, I find that the treadmill is some silly way of balancing it out.

“Hey.”

I look over my shoulder and Daniel is there. He tosses a hand towel and a bottle of water on the floor and starts the machine up.

“Hi,” I say.

“You okay?”

I give a half-hearted shrug and continue running. “Yeah, fine really. She was just a little intense, that’s all.”

He begins running next to me. “Some of the students are very invested in this program, it means everything to them. And sometimes they get a little upset when certain things happen.”

I smirk sadistically. “If you’re talking about Kyra, she seemed more than upset.”

“We all vent and show emotion in different ways.”

“She threatened me by saying that she’s coming after me,” I tell him. “If you’re here to smooth that over, just go away.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” he says. “I just wanted you to know that if you want me to tell my father to find somebody else for this task that I will. I know how much pressure it is to complete and–“

My brows knit together. “And what? You’ll run after Kyra and pull her back?” I chuckle at just the thought.

“You do jump to conclusions, don’t you?”

“Sometimes you have to when people don’t say what they mean.”

“I did mean what I said. I know how much pressure that comes with the first assignment and I’d hate for something to happen to you because you were pushed too hard.”

“I can handle it–“

“I’m not saying you can’t. But destroying somebody for the first time… It’s one of the hardest things you will ever have to do. You’re not just ruining a career or a relationship. You’re destroying a life.”

It’s not that I haven’t thought about it, but hearing somebody else say it hits me differently. Somebody like Daniel, who sees so many different problematic students comes through those double doors, who has had insight to this world of hatred. I can’t say he’s smoothed things over like I originally though. He has opened my eyes, however.

I clear my throat. “I can handle it.”

Daniel nods slowly as he presses a few buttons on the treadmill. “I’m sure you can. You’re strong. You’re like you mother.” He raises his eyebrows. “Y’know, as much as my dad hates to admit it, he knows she was one in a million. Kyra thinks she was the next big thing, but nobody can hold a flame to Sadie Lawrence. The one that got away.”

“Sugarcoating much?” I say with a grin.

“Jump to conclusions much?” he plays back. “No, from what I can remember, she was pretty amazing.” He gets off of the treadmill and grabs his things. “Hey, who knows,” he looks me up and down, “maybe there’s two in a million.” And I watch him walk out of the hall and into the courtyard, holding his wolf tattoo in my sight.

Featured

Divine Deception — Bleeding Fragments

Sweat begins to pour in heavy streams down the sides of my face. My legs wobble under me and it feels like liquid lead has begun to seep into my veins. Yet the instructor on screen continues to shout encouraging words and phrases at me like “There, you have it!”, “You got this!” and “Only a little farther!” I try to follow with my best efforts. I always thought I was naturally fit. As it turns out, I’m only naturally skinny and that’s about to go by the wayside the closer I get to the second and third trimester. It’s better if I start now. It will help strip off the useless weight I am carrying around now and once the baby comes–I don’t even want to think about it–maybe it will be even easier to work that excess fat then. Who am I kidding? At least if I think positive thoughts something may come my way.

I call it quits and head for the kitchen to grab a drink.

I’ve tossed myself into training with a vengeance. I eat the workouts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, living through them like they are my life. After my mother went back to the Nest as she calls it to apologize and do everything Master Lee asked, I dare not even try and slip my way through this course that will avenge what happened to both Nathan and me. He only takes handfuls of students at a time and his ability to look past what happened between Sadie and him gives me hope that I may be a contender for this actual path of destruction.

When we returned home that day, Sadie may not have apologized to Master Lee, but she did apologize to me. She told me how sorry she was that she lied to me about how she graduated. It was one of the last things on my mind to be completely honest. I’ve held onto so much anger over the years that something like that seemed more like a slip of the tongue than anything. Yet Sadie felt the need to explain herself.

“I failed you as a mother. I didn’t want you to think less of me for failing as a student too.”

How was I supposed to react to that? Master Lee has allowed me into the Nest. Forgiven seems like too strong of a word for what he did for Sadie. How she put it, he showed mercy for a student he saw something in many years ago. I can’t thank her enough for all that she’s done. And she thinks she’s failed? I know it couldn’t have been easy going back after being humiliated like that. Sure, Master Lee spoke about me like I was some material girl living a life of complete simplicity, and yes, it was a little insulting to say the least. But what I witnessed weeks ago was my first visual of destruction. No, he didn’t try to destroy Sadie, but he did make her pay for the things she had done in the past and isn’t that exactly what we are there to do?

My cell phone going off pulls me from my thoughts. I answer it and bring it to my ear. “Hello?”

“Hello, I am looking to reach Delilah Solomon. Is this her?”

Technically not. I still go by the name Alto, but to keep my whereabouts hidden, I have borrowed Vic’s last name for the time being when dealing with the hospital. He doesn’t mind. It was actually his idea. When I had suggested using Lawrence, Sadie told me it could arouse suspicion.

“This is she, yes,” I say.

“Miss Solomon, I am happy to inform you that patient Nathan–“

“Is he all right?” I say instinctively. My heart stops for a moment and the air becomes eerily silent around me.

“No! No, I’ve called to let you know that he has awakened.”

It doesn’t click right away until I ask, “He’s awake?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not lying?”

“Of course not. He’s up and eating. The doctors have done some tests with him and Dr. Jesceps insisted that I let you know.”

I don’t know what to say. My mouth has gone dry and I am having difficulty breathing. I’m on the verge of tears when I ask if I can come and see him. She tells me I can and I don’t bother saying goodbye, thank you, anything. I just hang up the phone and run back into the house. I yell at Vic or Sadie, whoever’s in the house. I don’t know where they are exactly. They may not even be on the property, but their car is and I take it.


It doesn’t take me too long to get there. I won’t lie. I sped the whole way there. Rolled my stops at the stop signs and gunned it through amber lights before they had the chance to turn red on me. When I get to the hospital, majority of the spots are taken. It’s the busiest hour of the day. The time I rarely come when I visited Nathan in the past. But today I don’t care. I park in the first spot available and hightail it across the road, through the lot of cars and up the stairs to the front door. I speed past the men and women in the waiting room. I spot Dr. Jesceps heading up the stairs that lead to the floor above.

“Dr. Jesceps?” I yell, running as fast as I can to his side. He stops and looks down at me, waiting.

“Ah, Delilah, I didn’t expect you so soon. It’s the busiest hour.”

I give him a look. “Did you think I’d waste time for this? I parked halfway across town.”

“I should have expected as much. Down the hall. One of the nurses is with him.”

I thank him and hurry as fast as I can to the door I know Nathan is waiting for me behind.

I reach the door and try to open it. It’s completely glass and that’s not all. It’s locked. Inside I can see the back of a nurse and the feet of somebody on the bed. I guess, and hope, it’s Nathan. A pang of jealousy hits me. Not for Nathan but the nurse. That he’s in there with Nathan and not me. That it doesn’t matter how hard I try to get to him, I feel like there is a speed bump I have to hit every so often to get that much closer. Like a signal in the mountains, I’m am constantly trying to reach him and I am pushed back. He’s right there!

The nurse moves to the side and I finally get a look, a good look at Nathan. He is awake, sitting up, his back up against a fluffy pillow. He seems content. Alive and well. Well, maybe not well, but he’s alive and he’s awake and I can’t ask for much else. In a moment I will be able to touch his skin, hold his hands and kiss those lips. I am so giddy with excitement that I don’t know what exactly I want to say to him. What should I say? How is he feeling? Ugh, I don’t care! Nathan will be as excited to see me as I want to see him and I don’t want to say anything. I want to just listen to him. Hear his voice. Hear him talk. Maybe even listen to him laugh. Gosh, I miss his laugh.

After what feels like hours, the nurse inside finally unlocks the door and lets me in. As I take a seat in the chair next to the bed like I usually do, I hear the nurse behind me instructing Nathan to see what all comes back to him and to let anybody know if he needs something. I’m not paying a lot of attention. I’m just patiently waiting for the nurse to shut up and get out. He’s had how long to speak with Nathan. Now is my time.

When the nurse finally leaves, I sit quietly for a moment. When I can’t hold it in any longer, I finally say, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he says back and hearing his voice feels amazing, like a sun on the horizon after having lived through months of the darkest of nights. His features flash disbelief and something more. Happy? Desire maybe? I can’t quite tell what I am seeing. I won’t lie. My eyes are blurring with tears even if I refuse to let them spill. I am not going to allow this moment to become weak. Not if I can help it.

I clear my throat. “How are you feeling?”

“Pretty good,” he says with a nod of his head. “Doctor says I have been through a lot, but…”

“Do you remember what happened?”

“Bits and parts. It’s foggy… fuzzy.”

“Tell me.” As I said, I just want to hear his voice. “Tell me what you see.”

“Umm… I remember snow. I’m at the park. My parents used to always bring me here when I was young. Me and my brother. We’d spent so much time together there. The sharp edges of the slides and the way the swings pinched the back of our legs. But this wasn’t one of those times. I’m here with somebody else. I remember this powerful feeling. This excitement I had. As cold as it was that day, she made me warm and I always wanted to be with her.”

I lean forward. “Love…”

“It was one of the happiest times of my life.” He looks straight into my eyes and I finally get to stare into those pools of brown that I fell in love with so little time ago. Just doing that ignites a spark inside of me I thought had been burnt out long ago. I am reminded how perfect that day at the park was, when Nathan offered to drop everything and follow me to the ends of the earth because I felt that was all I had left.

“Does that about answer all of your questions? If you need more, I’ll do my best to help.”

I look at him with uncertainty and snicker a bit. How he says it… Something’s off. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there was a man. Dark hair… Black with grey roots. I think his name was Peters.”

“Yes, his name was Reginald Peters.”

“You were there?”

I pull back, a darkness inside of me growing. “Yes… I was there.”

“Then why do you need my help? That’s pretty much the gist of what I remember anyway.”

“Nathan, who do you think I am?”

“You’re a detective, no?”

It feels as if my heart has been ripped from my chest and torn into a hundred million fragments. I can’t be hearing this. There must be some mistake. I haven’t waited this long, through the long, whispering nights and frigid mornings for him to wake up and he doesn’t remember who I am? No, there is no way.

“Nathan, what is my name?”

“You never offered it.”

“I didn’t think I had to!” My happiness is diminishing at a faster rate than I can understand. “I am your girlfriend!”

Nathan’s eyes widen and he pushes back against the pillow, trying to put more space between us. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.” And I am finally able to read what I had seen earlier. It isn’t happiness or desire on his face. It’s confusion because he has no idea who the heck I am. “Please leave.”

Suddenly, I have the urge to start screaming at him, about what, I couldn’t say. Just the simple realization that I’ve waited so long for this and while Nathan’s here, he’s not all there. It’s probably best if I do get out of here. I don’t want to say anything else to him–what else can I say?–so I just go. I head through the door and down the stairs, past patients, doctors and nurses. I spot Dr. Jesceps down the hallway and decide to take a detour into the washroom. I don’t want to face him. Not now. After everything that went on, I just want to go home and pretend it never happened.

I splash some water on my face and look at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t just being shot at that Peters did to us out in that park how long ago. He tried his own plot for destruction. He set my destruction in motion the moment he appeared because every moment I get a bit closer to Nathan, like that signal in the mountains, the harder he is to reach and I am left with no signal at all, no end, no rescue. The destruction phase just begins again.

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Divine Deception — Returning to the Nest

I once read that an adult child returning to the household was one of the most difficult things anybody could endure. Whether it was coming home after four years in university, travelling the world with friends or even because of a regression in the economy, sometimes low blows can happen. Unfortunately, the blending of households mostly never go according to plan and ships the relationship between parents and child back in time. By the time we meet adulthood, we are supposed to be on a same level status as our parents, be able to correspond with them, communicate as if we are one of the same. Instead, we are infantilized, robbed of our freedom and treated like we are five, six or seven.

I can’t help but go over the article in my mind as I follow my mother to the front steps of the complex. This was where it all began for her. The station where she learned every piece of material on how to bring a person to their knees. No mercy. No emotion. Such things would only make a destroyer become a victim and lose at their own game. This was home for her for many years. She told me how much time she spent training. The hours she stayed up some nights to make sure everything was perfect. Whether she worked on a fighting style, assembling weapons with her eyes covered or memorizing the List: a document of a hundred different ways one could destroy another. Years upon years this went on for until her master believed she was worthy of graduation, which was a simple coin with a dagger engraved into it.

On our way here today, she told me that she was happy her master held her back from graduating too soon, that it made her a better student, that she learned more because of it. It’s so strange to hear her speak this way, like we’re talking about high school or college. But this isn’t high school. The master can graduate a student as early as a week after being brought in. It all depends on how quickly they learn. As my mother said earlier, this isn’t a program that can be cheated through, nor should it be.

We climb to the top of the stairs at the front and make our way through the glass doors at the top. The place plays off as some sort of low financed law firm, one that you’d see in a plaza in the old part of town between a coffee shop and nail salon. Yet, somehow, the inside looks up to date with some of the pieces you’d find in Gadget Daily or even Technology Now. A small camera at the front doors takes our picture and sends it straight to the computer behind the desk, automatically calling upon the master that his one o’clock client has arrived. I wouldn’t have known if my mother hadn’t told me. She motions me to take a seat in one of the squishy suede chairs until the master arrives.

The lamp next to me projects what looks like an episode of Two Broke Girls onto the ceiling, the chair begins to recline back on its own and I can’t help but feel as if I’ve stepped foot onto the Normandy and into the future a couple hundred years. My mother presses a button on the side of the chair and straightens it up again.

“We’re not going to be that long, trust me,” she says with a grin.

“Has it always been like this?” I ask her, referring to everything being state-of-the-art.

“Technology is our friend. Master Lee has always been ahead of the times. Though I can’t say he hasn’t upgraded.” She focuses back onto me. “You need to make a good impression, Delilah. If this doesn’t work,” she makes a gesture with her hand, “we call it quits.”

I understand what she means. If I don’t get accepted by this Master Lee, I can kiss my revenge agenda goodbye.

I give her a look and then admire the rest of the room. The hologram of a clock sticks out from the wall. The tablet on the coffee table with hundreds of articles to read from. There’s even what looks like a toy soldier, made of metal and glass, that walks across the ledge of the main desk, stating how there is only one red BMW out in the parking lot. The soldier must be some sort of security system keeping a watchful eye out for pedestrians that might decide to take a peek inside.

It isn’t until then that I notice the boy behind the counter. Natural blond hair, dark eyes, a face that looks like a combination of Josh Hutcherson and Evan Peters. He’s actually quite stunning in a cute boy next door kind of way. He stares at the monitor in deep concentration. The only time he looks away is when the soldier reports the sighting of a Black Chevy before saying, “Out of sight. Never mind,” to which the boy rolls his eyes.

“Don’t even think about it.”

I turn back to my mother. “Don’t even think about what?”

“He’s Master Lee’s son,” she says with a cock of her eyebrow. “Probably best not to get involved.”

I roll my own eyes. “Oh please. Nathan’s still in the hospital and you think I’m already looking around?”

“I’m just saying. I know that look in your eyes and I know him. Have since he was young, young, young.”

“How young are we talking here? I mean, if you were still in training, he’s still be–“

My mother smirks again. “In diapers. Yes, it was a long time ago. He was a brat back then, making a mess just to get his father’s attention. His mother left them a few months after he was born.” She sighs irritably. “Never liked the woman. She was a master manipulator, feigning always being the victim just to get what she wanted. And then one day she was gone.”

Before she can tell me anymore, a man walks through one of the far doors on the other side of the room. Dark skin, a recently-shaved head and eyes that holds pools of determination, knowledge and something I can’t quite put my finger on. He walks towards us, his hand out to shake, his focus primarily on Sadie.

“Sadie Lawrence.”

My mother bows her head slightly and takes his hand. “Master Lee, it’s been many years.” She doesn’t make eye contact with the man and I don’t know why. It kind of makes me nervous. Is it impolite to do such a thing?

“It has. And this must be your daughter.”

I don’t bother question myself anymore. I look straight into his eyes, which with further inspection seem to be lined after having squinted at one too many suns, and shake his hand. “Delilah Alto. Nice to meet you.”

“Master Lee. Please, come. We’ll converse in my office.”

He leads us through an assortment of hallways, turning this way and that. We head through one section that looks into the facility’s gymnasium. Men and woman practice their abilities with various weapons and obstacle courses. There are no trainers in the middle of the room as I would expect. It’s just a dozen people my age doing their thing. It almost seems wannabe if you ask me. Still, there are plenty of stations for one to practice their skills. Some offer instructions on how to use weapons while others offer punching bags, dummies and targets. On the one far wall of the gym, there are normal machines one could find in any gym such as treadmills, jump ropes and weights.

“Do you still cover all the training?” Sadie asks. She is in front of me with Master Lee.

“I do most of it. Daniel will help every once in a while, likes to take on a student that he feels is falling behind from time to time to make sure they don’t. He’s a busy boy, though. He has his own things to contend with that we’ve both agreed he should keep his focus on. But, yes, the place still functions like it did many years ago. I’m just a little older now and can’t always keep up to these young things.”

Five more minutes and we end up at Master Lee’s office. He gestures for the two of us to take a seat in the grey chairs on the one side of his desk as he makes his way to the other. “So, Delilah, you want to embark in the path of the destroyer?”

I want to smile, it sounds so silly, but I remind myself of what my mother mentioned earlier. That we only have one chance at this. I straighten my face. “Yes. I want those who have hurt me to pay.”

Master Lee leers at me. “Somebody take those stilettos you really wanted from Holt Renfrew before you could get your hands on them?” He tosses his head back with a chuckle. “You’re Delilah Alto, one of the wealthiest girls in Sunset Valley and you want payback? If my students had a fraction of your life…” He lets the thought trail off. “Actually, speaking of which, aren’t the authorities looking for you? The heir of Alto estate has been missing since, what was it, summer?”

His tone begins to catch me off guard. It’s not like a slap across my face. It’s slow, it lingers, and I don’t know what to say or do as it moves past me.

“My daughter has been through hell and back, Master Lee,” Sadie steps in.

“Just like a mother to protect her child. If memory serves me right, I thought you never wanted children.” My mother shoots him a deadly stare. “I might be old, but,” he taps the side of his head, “it’s all still there.”

“I didn’t come here to be lectured by you.”

“Oh, but, Sadie, you didn’t leave on good terms. What did you think would happen next? Water under the bridge?” he scoffs, encompassing the room with his hands. “A little on the contrary, wouldn’t you agree?”

I glance at my mother’s profile, noticing the shade of red her face has taken on. I can see the cords in her neck tighten, the way her throat moves as she swallows hard.

“Your daughter is a selfish girl who always gets what she wants.” He raises his hand to stop both me and my mother from defending ourselves. “I have students who are train wrecks when they arrive at my doorstep, people who have been screwed by a higher hierarchy and have been broken into tiny fractures. Look at her. Delilah Alto looks to be doing quite well if you ask me–“

“Your point, please,” Sadie snaps. “That is, of course, if you have one because it seems the only reason you agreed to this meeting was to scold me for something I did twenty years ago.”

“My point is that I don’t want your weakness to bloat this facility.”

“My weakness? I became pregnant because that is what I needed to do to complete my mission–“

“Lies! Your mission was to kill Nick Alto so that you could destroy the wife. Instead you conceived his child because you grew to love your target. You became emotionally involved, which made you easy prey. Instead of destroying them, Vita got off and destroyed you. You are a failure. You couldn’t follow the most basic of rules, which only got you into trouble like it always did.” Master Lee pauses for a moment. “That’s why I never allowed you to graduate and why you stormed out so many years ago. We’re back where we started, Sadie.”

I can see my mother’s whole body infuse with tension, yet when she speaks, it’s controlled. “This isn’t about me, and if you have a bone to pick, aim it at the right person. Isn’t that one of your rules?” She doesn’t wait for his reply before continuing. “Delilah needs your help and not because of her own selfish desire. Destruction is your strong point and not mine, as you’ve made it abundantly clear. So, I’m asking, for her, a space. Whatever the cost, I will pay it.”

Master Lee’s eyes zone in on her. “I don’t want your money.”

“Then what do you want?”

“An apology, one week from today and I want you to recite every single rule on the List. Make it very clear that you haven’t failed me completely. I’d hate for your offspring to follow in your footsteps.”

My mother doesn’t say anything. She stares Master Lee down, her fists clenching until her knuckles turn white and she gets up from her seat. For a moment, I think that she’s going to take him out, throw herself at him and show him what a failure can really do. But she doesn’t. She grabs her coat, spins around and heads for the door. I run my hand through my hair, unsure what exactly I should do until I decide it would be best if I just follow her.

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Divine Deception — Perfect Illusion

Years ago, a friend of mine had a father who practiced in the art of magic: wild card tricks, sawing people in half, pulling bunnies out of hats. But it was the illusions that intrigued me most. Taking a paper bill and having it float in what seemed like thin air. He’d always tell his audience, always looked at me specifically, that if one could see things as they really were, there would be no need for magic. But as human beings, we thrive to find an escape of reality. That deep down we want to believe there is something much mightier than logic with the ability to answer to our burning questions that keep us as prisoners in our own life.

Experiences and expectations have wormed their way into what I once classified as my logical scope, the pieces I know are true and aren’t altered because of my tainted beliefs. I was so sure when I left Sunset Valley that it was the right thing to do. Yet, here I am, dreaming of Nathan, imagining that he’s right here with me because I can’t bear to think of the alternative. If I had confronted my monsters back then, none of what happened would have. My judgement has clouded and I am blinded by this illusion that magic will take care of everything, allowing my escape.

The house emptied the moment Hunter and the other singed man left in an uproar. I can’t say that I blame them. They’d both been involved in near death experience and that was after the my big mouth opened up about who Sadie really is. Whether Vic wants it or not, to say that this party isn’t going to be the talk of the town would be a complete lie. Everybody who’s anybody will be talking about it for the weeks to come and as bad as it is, something tells me the talk isn’t going to be about how great dinner was or the lovely decorations.

“Have a good night, George. Yes, I’ll see you Monday morning at work.”

I can hear Vic and Sadie saying goodbye as the rest of the guests leave the house. They’re on the front porch, waving, smiles nailed on their faces, bolted down as if to make it seem like everything is okay. It isn’t until the final guest gets into their car that I know for a fact that Vic and Sadie have been faking happiness.

“Well, that could have gone better,” Vic mumbles, still looking out at the street, waving at the guests as they venture down the road and out of sight. “What in the world happened?”

Sadie rubs her head as if to ward off a headache. “Delilah had some questions and it just got out of hand.”

“Out of hand?” he scoffs. “Sadie, that was disastrous.”

“I know. I said I would handle it, did I not?”

Vic nods. “I have to make some phone calls. You know how quick word travels in this small town.”

I can hear Sadie walking around the house. Her footsteps hit the surface of the wood deck in rhythmical strides, interrupted by the occasional creak. I’m still in the snow, looking up at the clear sky when I hear her speak out.

“Delilah, would you come inside, please?” Her tone is so motherly that all I can see in my mind is her dressed in an old, ragged dress with stains that had missed the discoloured apron around her waist. My mother is no Mother of the Year, but seeing her on the prairie, calling out to her children is so vivid in my mind now. When I look up to meet her and catch sight of the Louis Vuitton blue dress that cost a fortune, I am reminded of how wrong my mind can be sometimes. I get up without any fuss and follow my mother into the living room.

Sadie takes a seat on the sofa first, patting the cushion next to her for me to join her. I do without hesitation. And then we sit, staring into the flames of the fire in silence. I know what I want to say to her, I had it all worked out in my mind when I left the hospital. Now, I can’t for the life of me, figure out where to start. Jumping out and saying that I want to destroy the people who hurt me and Nathan is hardly something I want to spit out without any build up. I want to tell Sadie how I can sit patiently and hope that everything will get better because it never does. I need to act, but I can’t see Sadie giving me any notion to go as I please. Whether I believe it or not, Sadie still thinks she has better judgment than I do, that she can foresee the problems that I will inevitably face. Isn’t that what a mother does?

“Okay,” Sadie says as she exhales deeply. “Go.”

I shoot her a look of confusion. “Go where?”

“Start.” She pauses for a moment and then continues, “You couldn’t wait to tell me whatever was on your mind, so start now.”

“I…” The words aren’t coming to me. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I can’t remember what I came up with earlier. All I can think about is destruction. Destruction, destruction, destruction. The word keeps repeating in my head like a broken record. So I just say it. “I want to destroy them.”

Sadie’s eyebrows raise. “Destroy who?”

“Whoever did this to Nathan and me.”

Sadie’s lips press against each other until they form a thin, straight line. “You have no idea how many holes are in what you just said.”

“Like what?” I said snappishly. “Because I seem to be the only person who wants to do something.”

“To begin with, you want to take down an organization. That is, if I am hearing you correctly.”

“That’s exactly what I want!”

“I envy your determination, Delilah, I do. And I understand it more than anybody. But how do you plan on taking down a company when you barely know anything yourself?”

I barely know anything myself? The way she says it is like a slap across my face. It makes my cheeks burn with anger, flashing a red glow down my neck. “I know–“

“Delilah, you’re a child. You don’t know what your asking for. I know you think you can take on the world right now but you can’t.”

“I could if I had your help–“

“You couldn’t keep to the simple task of keeping my alias. You blew my cover if front of a few dozen people we are to classify as friends. These people you want to go up against are strong, stronger than the people here tonight most definitely, and we haven’t even discussed torture and manipulation.” Sadie holds me in her disconcertingly frank gaze. “I don’t think you know what exactly you’re trying to get into, honey.”

“But you did?” I bite my lip immediately afterwards to stop myself from lashing out any farther. I’ve got Sadie hooked, but I know if I push any more that I could lose her once and for all. I don’t want Sadie to toss her hands in the air and walk away from this. I need her help. She’s been through this. She knows more than I do and if I have any chance of doing what I want to set out to do, I need her by my side.

Sadie takes a deep breath and leans into the back of the sofa to gather her bearings. “I have done a lot in the past that I am not proud of, Delilah. I destroyed a lot of people which slowly destroyed me. And the more I did it, the more obsessed I became of it. The want to make everything perfectly correct and right that there is no evil in the world. That’s why I did it, however. But the thing is, for there to be good, there needs to be bad. And yes, I did remove a lot of bad apples from the world, but the more you deal with rotting personalities, the more you become the very thing you set out to destroy. I don’t want that for you.”

“I get that, Sadie–“

“Do you?” The way she looks at me makes me think that she’s not convinced.

“I do, and forgive me for speaking so freely, but the way I see it is that it seems a little contradictory coming from you.”

Sadie cocks an eyebrow. “Contradictory? How so?”

“Why did you agree to work with Peters again after everything you knew about him and his group? After everything they did to you, to us. They ruined this whole family, had you slip into the centre of it and pull it apart from the insides and then after it all, had you locked up and threw away the key for so many years. Why would you, the woman who got stung by them time and time again, agree to help them once again when they asked for it?”

“Because of you!” Sadie says aggressively, almost to the point of yelling. “I was trying to save you!”

“Exactly,” I say. “How is what I am doing any different?”

Sadie goes to open her mouth to defend herself and then closes it again.

“I get that I need to know more than I do, I get that. But, as crazy as it sounds, and I am sorry if I am being forthcoming, I am doing this with or without your help. I am not going to stick my head in the sand and hope that things get better because they’re not. We’re targeted and only used when somebody higher up in the hierarchy decides we could be of some use. I don’t like that and it’s only because of who we are. Just because I am an Alto I am pulled into this sick game, and if I’m going to play, I want to play by my own rules.”

“Delilah, these people are bad.”

“As I said, I’m going to do this with or without your help. Unfortunately, we both know without, it’s going to take longer.”

We stare at one another for what feels like hours. I know what’s going through my mother’s head. She’s trying to find some hole in my way of thinking that will deter me from this outlandish plan that I have concocted. I don’t blame her. Since I left the hospital earlier, actually since I left the hospital myself a week ago, I’ve been trying to find an alternative. I haven’t come up with anything. Either I engage or evade. There’s nothing in between.

“There’s a lot wrong with how you’re thinking,” Sadie begins. She’s not looking at me. She’s crossed her right leg over her left and is running the nail of her thumb along the stitching of the arm of the sofa. For a moment, I don’t think I’ve made my point and that she’s going to continue to disregard everything I say. As a matter of fact, from her inability to look at me I have to wonder if she’s about to throw me out. “You’re being ignorant and not listening to what I am saying. You’re being arrogant in thinking that you can accomplish such an absurd goal without any training behind you. You’ve been rude, foolish, and deep down frustrating.”

She finally meets my eyes. “You’re just like me and the reason why I know you’re never going to let this go. You are my daughter, after all.”

“Do you think I am out of my mind for wanting to do this?” I ask her.

“Yup, but so was I.” She looks down at her nails again. “I’m not lying when I say there are a lot of holes in your plan, and I know that you’re not going to let this go. Hopefully your a fast learner.”

A smile tickles the corners of my lips, yet I force myself to keep a straight face. “Sadie, I just want to take back what’s mine.”

“Don’t we all.” She smirks at me. “Buckle up… it’s about to get rough.”

Illusions are battles of what one wants to believe is truth. It’s what we’re prepared to confront. As of late, I’ve found myself hungry for such an escape. To run free in a time when nothing else matters, where I am unable to feel pain, to feel loss. To stop the acidic bile from splashing up against the back of my throat, worrying about what my next steps need to be. A perfect illusion is Utopia and if there’s anything I’ve learned from running for it, away from my past, it’s that I am never able to find it. I’m just somewhere different. It’s wearing a different face, but I know it’s the same. Parallel lines blur and I am once again staring at the very thing I’ve been running from. Just this time, I’m ready to take it down.

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Divine Deception — Flicker

When I was young, Christmas Eve was a night full of love, friends and of course excitement. Waiting for Santa Claus to drop down our chimney and unload piles of presents for under the Christmas tree. Tables lined through our cozy kitchen with plates of expensive crackers and cheeses and even just-out-of-the-oven cookies while guests mingled in the living room with holiday anthems like Jingle Bell Rock playing through that old vintage record player Vita refused to get rid of. Vita would usher me to bed once the night grew old, telling me if I didn’t get to sleep that Santa wouldn’t show up. He always did, though, even on the nights when my insomnia kept me wide awake. When my eyes refused to close and it felt as if the time was running backwards. Does this ever change? The want for something to come to our doorstep, yet it feels like an eternity away?

The apartment above the garage is my new living space. Last week when I arrived so unexpectedly, Vic was already piling out boxes from the apartment as if they knew I was coming. He shoved them where they could fit. The basement, the garage itself, even in the shed in the backyard. Sadie and Vic’s property isn’t a big one. I always believed my childhood home, the one I lived in before coming to here to Riverview, was small, but there are times I feel like I am living in London here. I travelled there when I was twelve once. There is little space for everything that the people use what they have to get by. Washers and dryers are stacked on top of one another. Houses feel like flats and unless you want to live in Surrey, out in the rural part of town so to speak, compactness is something one must get accustomed to. Sadie and Vic’s place is no different. Still, they took me in and I should ever be so grateful for it.

I head to my apartment to shower and change. When I return, I take a seat on the sofa in the living room and wait. Wait for Sadie to appear to tell her about Nathan. I can’t tell if she really wants to know about Nathan’s health or if she just wants to make up for lost time. I know I should care, but I don’t. I really don’t. Sadie’s effort in wanting to hear about my boyfriend’s status has surpassed anything I had expected from her. She doesn’t know this boy I have grown close with. Heck, she barely knows me. Yet, there she is, always asking about Nathan’s recovery. I’ve come to wonder if it is because she feels guilty, that it was her history with Peters that led to Nathan’s injury. I haven’t had the guts to ask her.

Guests begin to arrive. Most are friends he met in Riverview and some have travelled through the thick snow from Sunset Valley. Vic is a very popular person from what I can gather. I haven’t spoken to him much, however from the amount of people he pulls to a party, he knows a thing or two about staying connected. Sadie told me that they met back when she was first activated to destroy the Altos, mainly my father. I usually tell her to stop when she begins storytelling about our fam