Sunday, July 12, 2020

A Girlfriend Experience

(a short story)

"Babe, where is my electric razor?" Rupert asked while taking a final survey of the master bathroom.
     "It's packed already, hun. It's in the blue suitcase with all the other bathroom crap and our socks and stuff. I promise, it's in there," answered his wife from the bedroom where she was busily folding and stuffing a weeks worth of outfits into a large grey luggage case. She pulled two bikinis out of her dresser drawer and held them up for comparison.
     "You're sure the hotel has a swimming pool, right?" she asked. "It won't be like last time?"
     Rupert walked into the bedroom and over to where Abby stood, still holding up the swimsuits. He placed his arms around her waist from behind.
     "I like the green and yellow one; you look super sexy in it," he said while kissing her neck. "And yes, I triple checked with the hotel. They assured me the swimming pool area is open and filled with water," he added.
     Abby cranked her neck around and kissed her husband on the lips.
     "Green one it is! Hey, will you go check on your daughter, please? It's awfully quiet down there and I told her to be ready in twenty minutes. I swear that girl doesn't listen to a thing I say. Oh, and while you're downstairs will you double check that the back door and kitchen garage door are locked?" she said while packing her green bikini.
     "They're locked tight, babe, made sure of it last night, but I will check 'em again. I'll get Leah's butt moving and order up an Uber for the airport if that's the last bag. It is the last one, right? Please say yes," he remarked.
     Abby laughed. "Yes dear, last one. Go order the damn Uber."

     Downstairs, Rupert checked that all the doors were locked and all the luggage was still sitting at the front door. He made one last round of every room and checked that the lights were off and appliances were unplugged. Upon reaching his daughter's room he saw that her door was open, so he knocked on the wall and stepped in. A popular pop music song was playing from her laptop and she was dancing around while recording herself with her smartphone.
     "Honey, we have to leave soon. Like, real soon, okay?"
     She stopped dancing and spun around, the music still playing.
     "Dad, you just got in my Tik-Tok video! Oh my God I have to delete and do it again," she remarked while messing with her phone.
     "Leah Renee, did you hear what I just said? We're leaving. Soon!"
     "Yeesss I heard you! I just need like five minutes okay? Just this one last video, I swear."
     "I don't know why you're always on that app, dear. It seems pointless," he said. "But don't erase it, you'll get more views with daddy in it," Rupert added playfully.
     Leah rolled her eyes. "We'll have cell service over there, right? I mean, I won't even go if we don't. You can just leave me here and I'll check on all the locked doors while you and mom are gone. Promise," she said while still scrolling on her phone. She checked the likes on her last video and saw that it had reached nearly a thousand. The one from two days ago surpassed her all time record from last month and swelled well above five thousand. Her popularity was soaring and she could barely keep up with the constant flow of DM's and new friend requests.
     "Yes, hun" he smiled. "I already confirmed our vacation with Verizon and our phones will work overseas. It'll be fine. Stop fussing and finish packing. You have fifteen minutes, okay? Finish that video and shut everything down in here and be ready spaghetti at the front door soon. Don't make your mama and me gripe at you."
     "Okay dad, I hear you! Stop treating me like I'm fourteen, gosh," she mocked teasingly, knowing she was only fifteen. Her father chuckled and left her to it.

     After eleven hours of nonstop flight the airplane finally landed and Rupert, Abby and Leah rushed to the baggage claim to locate all of their luggage. After breathing a sigh of relief that all bags were accounted for, they collected everything onto a roller cart and made their way through the airport toward the exit that lead outside to the taxi service area. Exhausted, Rupert pushed the luggage cart against the wall and sat down. Abby tapped a cigarette from her pack and waved it at him and then pointed over at the designated smoking area across the walkway. Rupert nodded his acknowledgement and watched as she lit up and made her way over to the other smokers.
     "I wish mom would quit those," Leah said as she stood near her father while looking down at her phone. She was wearing short denim shorts and a skin tight shirt that revealed way too much of her developing body and it infuriated him.
     "And I wish you would quit wearing clothes like that, Leah. I'm serious," he remarked while wiping sweat away from his forehead.
     "Psshhht, and later on this evening when I'm swimming with mom it'll be perfectly fine to wear a bikini," she rebutted.
     "No, actually, it won't. But I admit I have no say in this matter. Your mother and you have made that abundantly clear."
     Leah smiled while clicking on her latest subscribers. She nudged her hips playfully into her dad's shoulder causing him to topple into their stacked luggage.
     "Little girl, you are a step away from being grounded during vacation!" he said while laughing. "And I'll sell that damn phone of yours to the highest taker, then what?"
     "I'd sneak out and go shopping... for a new dad," she replied in jest.
     "You're lil a punk," Rupert said while leaning in for a sneaking glance at her phone. "What are you doing... that Tic Tac thing again?" he asked.
     "Nunya damn biznass! And it's TIK-TOK anyways, old man," she replied while swooshing her phone in front of his face.

     Across the street next to where the smokers were, stood a group of local teenage boys snickering and ribbing each other, completely fixated on the young American girl standing across the street with her father. They gawked delightfully and took several pics of her with their smartphones. Abby, while crushing out her cigarette, noticed their behavior and approached them.
     "Boys, what the heck y'all starting at?" she asked sternly.
     Surprised, the boys rattled off a few incomprehensible sentences in their native language and quickly scattered. Abby walked over to her husband.
     "Did you see that?' she asked.
     "See what?" Rupert answered.
     "Ugh, nevermind. When is our hotel shuttle arriving?"
     "Pretty sure that's it right there," he replied while pointing at a van just pulling up.
     The van came to stop and the door slid open and out jumped an excited employee from their hotel. He hurried over and greeted them and started grabbing their luggage, tossing them one by one into the rear compartment of the vehicle while staring wide-eyed at Leah the entire time. Noticing the attention being focused solely on their daughter, Rupert and Abby exchanged puzzled and worrisome looks with each other.
     "Maybe it's a cultural thing?" Rupert whispered as he leaned into Abby's ear.
     "Maybe so. I just caught several boys doing the same thing over there when I was smoking," she replied with a worried look.
     "It's her outfit. It has to be. Will you please convince her to change into something less revealing when we get to the hotel?" Rupert pleaded.
     "Hun, she's wearing shorts and a t-shirt, for crying out loud! If that's too much for them here, then we're in for a very uncomfortable vacation," Abby responded. "Besides, I don't even think she noticed."
    "How would she? Her face is always buried in that damn phone," Rupert responded. He let out a defeated sigh as they climbed into the van and departed for the hotel.

     They were welcomed by three young girls dressed in pleated skirts wearing white sailor shirts, each with a giant bow tied into their hair. As their luggage was moved from van to hotel, the girls sang a song in their language while dancing weirdly alongside them as they walked inside to the check-in counter. Upon reaching the front desk the three girls stopped singing and dancing and immediately bowed their heads at Rupert and Abby while bashfully giggling.
     "Are we supposed to tip them or something?" Rupert asked his wife. She shrugged her shoulders.
     "How the hell am I supposed to know?"
     The girls then turned toward Leah and all three sneered coldly at her before hurrying away and returning outside to the hotel welcome area.
     "What the hell was that shit?" Leah asked astonishingly.
     "I dunno, but watch the mouth," her mother snapped. "The girls aren't big fans, but all the boys seem to like you just fine though."
     Leah, her attention now drawn away from her phone, glanced around at the people gathered in the lobby. She noted that most of them were boys, local boys, all of whom were staring unequivocally at her like zombies from a low budget flick. They all held cell phones and their attention bounced from their hands to her face like a foreign game of ping-pong that she couldn't understand. She could feel her phone vibrating in her hand like a beehive.
     "Mom, what's going on here?" Leah asked awkwardly; her phone still vibrating in her hand.
     "Honey, when we get to the room how about we find a different outfit to wear, okay?"
     "Yeah, sure. Whatever. Let's just get to the room."
     While her father checked them into the hotel, Leah looked down at her phone and started reading through the dozens of messages and comments currently bombarding her inbox. Chills ran down her spine.

     "So glad she here!"
     "Omg she pretty more in real life!"
     "MARRY ME!"
     "Sit on face... me so hard..."

    Leah gasped and slid her phone into her pocket. Her hand started trembling and she felt sick to her stomach. She looked up at her parents.
     "Can we please just go to our room!"
     "Yep, hang on honey. We're getting there," replied mom.

     In the room, mother and father ran through the list of restaurant options for dinner. They settled on a quaint place a few blocks from the hotel. In the bathroom, Leah was changing into jeans and a hoodie. She checked herself over in the mirror and satisfied with her new look, she joined her parents in the main room. Her father looked up at her and smiled.
     "Leah, how do you feel about trying out an authentic local restaurant on our first night? There's a place just a few blocks down from the hotel that gets great reviews and we'll be able to take in some of the city on our walk there. Online menu says they have plenty of vegetarian options. What do you say?"
     Leah stared blankly at her parents. "Are we just gonna ignore the fact that everyone here is a creep? And that I've been banished from comfortable clothing and sentenced to life within the confines of a freaking hoodie?" she blurted while plopping herself down on the edge of the sofa dramatically.
     "Hun, we get it. That was a little strange, but listen, every culture is different and might feel like a shock to an outsider visiting for the first time. I bet by the end of the week we'll all be laughing about this. Your father has a business meeting tomorrow with his new tech firm client, so how about while he's doing that, you and I go shopping? There's a huge mall nearby. We can go people watch and get our nails done and check out the local fashions. Sound good?"
     "Yeah mom, that's cool. But can we just eat in tonight? Please? I promise I'll feel better about all this tomorrow."
     Abby looked at Rupert and he smiled and nodded.
     "Of course, dear. Let's order in."

The next day.

     Rupert sat at a conference table large enough to hold a dozen people, but was currently joined by only three other men in business suits. The office room was dimly lit and one of the men was performing a presentation about a new security measure his company wanted to implement into online social media apps to help thwart AI breach and modulation. The man spoke at length, lethargically, and his monotone voice made it difficult for Rupert to remain awake and focused on the spiel:
     "Gentlemen, even though China is exceedingly advanced in their technological capabilities, AI, for the most part, is still in it's organic form. In other words, my company believes it to be much less mechanical and far more biofrequency resonant. Imagine, if you will, a television antenna with it's metallic branches reaching out, attracting invisible frequencies of free flowing information in the air. That's us: we have become human receptors, and my company believes AI has learned how to package itself in ways that make downloading into us possible. It has also learned that with a simple twist on the frequency knob, they can alter our behavior and mood settings, like radio station interference when an outside source of energy is introduced. On a base level, AI can likely affect our thought process and decision making too. Think about it, gentlemen, our entire lives are on the internet. Every sad moment, every work related event, every birthday party; all of our accomplishments and goals. Our needs and interests and even our most intimate, closeted desires are spread across the internet via web searches. And meanwhile, behind all the ones and zeros that now represent human life, is AI storing and calculating, analyzing and decoding, embedding itself into every aspect of society."
     The man seated next to Rupert closed his notebook and rifled noisily through some papers before deciding to interrupt the man's presentation.
     "Excuse me, Dan, but what does any of this nonsense have to do with app security? Can you skip the SkyNet lesson and get to the reason we are here? My company has millions of dollars invested in several platforms and I wasn't flown out here to be lectured on robots."
     The speaker coughed, excused himself, and nodded.
     "Yes, yes of course. Let's take Tik-Tok for example. We are all aware of this one, am I right?" The men nodded. Rupert shifted in his chair, his attention suddenly piqued. The man continued. "Well, this app was breached ten months ago. All of its data, completely compromised. Hundreds of thousands of hours of video streams and messages and human interaction.. all extracted and used for exploitation. Companies have popped up world-wide that specialize in something they call "A Girlfriend Experience". Using the personal information stolen from apps such as Tik-Tok, these companies generate an AI experience that replicates and simulates humans and users can shop from thousands of skins kits and personalities and pay to have their own girlfriend created. Like I was saying earlier though, majority of these companies are non-mechanical and are operating on a one-dimensional smartphone interaction. Basically, people have started dating their smartphones and are paying high dollar for these programs to be downloaded onto their phones."
     "Hold on, Dan, let me get this straight," the man interjected again. "You're saying guys are now shopping the profiles of real life girls stolen from social media apps and jerking off to them on their phones?"
     "Yes, but it's much worse than that. These programs are exact replicas of real life girls. Girls of every age. Girls who are someone's daughter. These programs perfectly capture and recreate every detail and thought and personality trait, even simulates their speech flawlessly. In a sense, it would be impossible to distinguish between the real life version and the AI generated online version. The technology is that good. Some of these girls have become extremely popular in certain demographics. It isn't uncommon for one girl's skin package to be voted up and then downloaded by hundreds or even thousands of users. Next thing you know, an entire town is jerking off to the same exact girl."
     It was Rupert's turn to interject.
     "Forgive me, but I'm having a difficult time wrapping my head around this. You're saying people have figured out a way to turn videos of girls dancing and singing in the privacy of their bedrooms into a financial market of interactive porn?" Rupert asked.
     "Essentially, yes," the man replied.
     "And you're saying it's in the form of a smartphone or computer application and interaction only? Are you certain of that?" 
     The man hesitated before replying.
     "Well, no, it does goes beyond that. There is one company, that we are aware of, that specializes in the three dimensional AI experience. They have succeeded in the total transfer of the Girlfriend Experience into a fully autonomous AI human replica. But this level of technology is so far advanced that majority of customers cannot afford it, so the app interaction userface remains most popular."
     The speaker turned back to his computer, clicked a few buttons, and a looped gif appeared on the wall projector screen behind him.
     "Take this girl, for example. Last month she was a top selling personality. Her skin package was purchased and downloaded over ten thousand times."
     Rupert froze in terror as his eyes focused on the moving image of a young girl dancing erotically before him, blowing kisses and smiling seductively while advertising herself as the girl of every man's dream. His stomach knotted up and his fists clenched as a feeling of sickness overcame him. He felt as though he might faint.
     "Turn it off," Rupert remarked. "TURN IT THE FUCK OFF!" he yelled angrily and stormed quickly from the room.

     Abby and Leah had been inside the mall for only twenty minutes before things turned weird. Everywhere they walked, it felt as though they were being stalked. Glances and sneers and snickers, boys of all ages giggling and gawking, the unwanted attention of a complete strangers latched onto them like unwanted forest ticks. On a few occasions, some of the more confident ones approached and tried to physically touch Leah, to which Abby aggressively shooed away. Overwhelmed by the whole experience, Abby grabbed her daughter by the arm and sat her down at a table in the food court.
     "I've had enough of this shit, I'm calling your father."
     "Mom, I'm hungry, can I at least get some food?"
     Abby glanced over at the food places and pointed at the American McDonald's.
     "Get me something from there, I don't care what. With a diet Coke. Straight there, straight back here to the table. Got it? If any creep tries talking to you, jab him in the stupid gut and come right back. I'm ringing your dad right now."
     "Okay mom," Leah said and walked away.
Abby turned back to her phone just as Rupert picked up.
     "Sweetheart, I'm sorry for calling during your meeting, but hun, we really have a problem here. These boys are relent..." Abby tried saying but was cut off midsentence.
     "Abby, listen to me! Wherever you and Leah are right now, leave. Go back to the hotel immediately and I will meet you there. We have some serious shit to discuss. I'm not trying to startle you, babe, but please listen to me. Get you and our daughter to the hotel and wait for me, okay?" Rupert exclaimed worriedly.
     Abby did not like hearing the nervousness in her husband's voice. He was a man of ration and reason, never lost to emotions, but the man speaking to her on the other end sounded like a scared mess and it worried her deeply.
     "Honey, okay, I'm grabbing Leah right now and we'll meet you at the hotel. I love you, see you there."
     She got up from the table and was about to turn toward the McDonald's when she noticed a man in his twenties with his arms around Leah. He had her body pinned against the cafeteria wall, his body pressing into hers. He was stroking her hair and kissing on her neck while she tilted her head to the side giggling and smiling and appearing to enjoy it. Horrified, Abby ran across the food court and grabbed the man by his suit jacket and ripped him away from her daughter.
     "Get away from her, you pervert! I'm calling the cops! Get the hell away from my daughter right now!" she yelled frantically as she pushed and punched him, forcing him to trip and stumble backwards in complete surprise. He came back at Abby, angrily yelling at her in his own language and tried grabbing onto Leah. A tug-of-war ensued between the two, both yelling at each other in their own language and both clinging to Leah and pulling.
     "Leah, honey, for crying out loud, get away from him! Help me out here... please!" Abby pleaded with her daughter as she struggled to free her from the situation. People started gathering around to watch the chaos. "GET YOUR HANDS OFF HER!" she continued screaming and tugged with all her strength. At that moment, Abby overpowered the man and managed to pull Leah completely away from him. Without hesitation, she held tightly to her daughter's wrist and ran full speed with her all the way through the mall and out the nearest exit that she could find.
     Once outside, she hurried around the corner and away from people and stopped when they reached a secluded bench. Gasping for breath and still trembling from everything that just happened, Abby tried calming herself down while looking her daughter over.
     "Honey, where'd your hoodie go? Did he take it from you? Are you okay? Are you hurt in any way? Please, baby, talk to me. It's mommy, you're safe now."
     Leah stood completely still for a moment, staring at the woman still hugging and clinging to her while sobbing and shaking. The strange woman spoke in a language she wasn't programmed to understand.
     Abby slowly pulled away from her daughter as a terrible feeling overtook her body. She looked directly into her daughter's eyes and froze as the girl began to speak, not in English, but fluently in the language of the country they were in. The girl started smiling and her body language became seductive as her hips began swaying while she spoke. She ran her hands up and down her body, caressing herself as though resuming the make-out session that had taken place only moments ago.
     Abby's heart sank and her brain no longer communicated information correctly. She could hear her cellphone ringing inside her pant pocket, but she remained frozen in a state of shock and could not retrieve it. If she had, she would've seen seven missed calls from the real Leah, abandoned inside the mall, fighting to escape the clutches of a foreigner trying desperately to reclaim his very expensive girlfriend.


Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Man Who Wasn't There

(a short story)

       Mr Yardley was growing increasingly frustrated with his accountant. For the past twenty minutes it felt as though he was getting some kind of run around. He couldn't put a finger on what it was exactly, but this visit was going nowhere near as smoothly as all the ones before. He peered across the desk at him and waited for him to wet his finger and flip another paper.
     "I see here you shifted quite a bit of money around to various people last year. A substantial amount," Steve Battousi exclaimed.
     "Yeah, and? We still call it donations these days, right? I DONATE a lot of money to causes I support."
     The accountant set the down the papers he was holding and looked up at his client. "Mr. Yardley, I'm going to be frank with you. It shows here," he said while stabbing his index finger down onto the papers, "that you transferred.. excuse me, donated.. over two thousand dollars to a woman called Molly St George in Canada, another grand to an entity called Light The Sword Media, and two and half more thousand dollars spread out to various other unknown online entities. I'm having trouble understanding all of this. Help me understand."
     Mr. Yardley shifted in his chair a bit. "There's nothing to understand. They were donations; now if you don't mind, write that down wherever the hell a tax guy is supposed to write things like that down and let's wrap up this meeting, okay? I have somewhere else to be."
     The CPA let out an audible exhale and began tapping his desk with his fingers. He swiveled his chair around, pulled a book from the shelf behind him and swiveled back toward his client. Without looking up, he opened the book and began reading aloud from it:
"And then a man known only as Vincent walked into the room and everyone grew intensely quiet. A mouse that had been living completely unnoticed within the wall could now be heard chewing its way through something. Vincent stepped forward to where the crew was gathered and said only three words, 'They're onto us." Without hesitation, each of the men reached into their jacket pockets and retrieved a small vial. Vincent looked at them calmly and nodded. One by one, the men uncapped their vials and swallowed the contents within, and one and a half minutes later, all five men were dead."

     The accountant closed the book and placed it onto the papers already on his desk. He sighed and looked over at his client who sat motionless and without expression.
     "Does that excerpt sound familiar to you Mr... Vincent?"
     Mr. Yardley rotated a bit in his chair and allowed his eyes to glance around the small room. Other than a fish aquarium situated on a shelf affixed to the wall, his accountant had a fairly normal office filled with basic office shit. On his desk, a framed picture of his family, and on the wall behind him hung a framed motivational scene that showed a mountain with the words: AMBITION FEARS NO HEIGHTS. Yardley laughed.
     "Alright, let's cut the bullshit," the CPA blurted. "Who are these people you're funding?"
     "None of your fucking business."
     "Why did you move to Tennessee?"
     "Nashville's nifty."
     "Why did your ex-girlfriend turn you in to the FBI last year?"
     Yardley paused, a bit caught off guard. "Because I wasn't sweet enough."
     "I've been doing your taxes for four years; don't bullshit me, Vincent."
     "I'm not Vincent."
     "Sure. I'll ask you again. Who are these people you keep sending money to?" the accountant repeated sternly.
     Mr. Yardley sat quietly, his posture and demeanor unwavering as he stared across the table at the man he thought he had known all these years. Paranoia set in as he secretly wondered how he could possibly know about the incident that occurred between he and his ex last year, but he wasn't about to display any signs of weakness or offer up any info yet. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, he decided he had enough and stood up.
     "I'm leaving now. I expect you'll have my taxes finished by next week?"
     "Fine," the CPA replied, "if that's how you want to play this." He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a Walther P38 with a suppressor and aimed it directly at his client's chest. He waved the pistol toward the chair. "Sit down, Vince."
     Vincent sat.
     Another round of silence passed between the two men, neither seeming to want to make the next move. The CPA passed the time by raising and lowering his weapon in a manner that made a clack-clack sound against the desk top. Vincent shuddered with every tap as it sounded like firecrackers going off in a quiet room. His mind was racing a mile a minute and his heart felt as if it would explode while he sat there pondering the true identity of his gun toting accountant. Not being able to take it any longer, he spoke up.
     "They are researchers. Citizen journalists. People who track current events from their homes. That's all there is to it," Vincent finally explained. "Is it a crime to donate money to these people?"
     The accountant stopped tapping his gun, but continued aiming it at the nervous man seated across from him.
     "Why did your ex-girlfriend call the FBI? What did she think you were planning to do?" asked the CPA.
     "I don't know. Our break-up was pretty bad. I think she just wanted to sink me," Vincent replied.
     The accountant continued, "Why did you relocate to Tennessee? And before you tell me it was for Nashville or for better pay, I'll remind you that I've been doing your taxes for four years."
     Vincent noticed that the longer he had a gun pointed at him, the more apathetic he began to feel. He glanced down at his watch; it was 8:30. He casually turned his head to the left and saw slivers of sunlight peeking through a closed window blind, casting shadows on the wall in front of him. Something about it felt very unsettling. He thought about the street he parked on and the doorway he used to enter the building.
     "That's Blackburn Street right there isn't it?" he asked while pointing toward the window.
     "It is. Now focus, Vince, we haven't got all day. Why did your ex-girlfriend call the FBI and why did you move to Tennessee? Give up these two things and I promise, they won't even care about all the silly conspiracy people you've been sending money to."
     Vincent chuckled at the mention of 'they' and 'conspiracy' used in the same sentence, as his thoughts shifted back to Blackburn Street. He knew that it ran in a north/south direction from 12th all the way to 22nd which meant this window was facing west. His brain struggled desperately with notion that it was geographically impossible for the rising sun to be casting shadows through this window. The hairs on his neck tingled and chill bumps overtook his arms.
     He looked back at the gun still pointed at him. It appeared real. It looked solid and sturdy and seemed tailor-made for the hand that was holding it. He looked up at Steve, or whatever his name is, and wondered how a nerdy accountant could flip a switch and play the role of a mysterious villain so well. He stared into his eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of the friendly and sometimes funny man he had known for the past several years, but was met with only a cold, unblinking stare in return. It was in that moment Vincent realized that Steve's eyes were not blinking... at all.
     "Steve... Mr. Battousi... whoever you are, I'm done with all this. You're starting to piss me off with the whole gun thing, so why don't you just set it down and then try and explain to me how the sunrise is coming through that window?" Vincent asked while pointing.
     The accountant glanced over at the sun rays beaming through the blinds and then glanced at the window on the opposite wall. Curious, he reached over for his smart phone and slid it across the desk to himself and started messing with it one-handed while still holding the gun with the other.
     "Hmm.. glitch maybe.. firmware is.. wait, no.. ah, here we go.."
     With his captor's attention temporarily distracted, Vincent decided it was now or never and he lunged across the desk for the pistol. In a frantic overreaction, the accountant punched Vincent solidly in the forehead while simultaneously squeezing the trigger of the P38. To both their surprise, the gun did not go off and Vince fell back victoriously into his chair with the gun. The unexpected blow to the head was solid enough to stun him momentarily, but his senses held and he was now aware of an excruciating pain in his right hand. He stood up and backed quickly away from the desk. Examining the firearm, he realized why it did not fire. In the quick moment of trying to grab it he had overreached and the webbing of skin between his thumb and index finger slid into the space between the hammer and firing pin, thus preventing it from discharging. He released his flesh from the gun and immediately turned it around on Steve. With trembling hands, he steadied it the best he could while trying to calm himself and regain his senses.
     The accountant remained seated, still staring at Vincent, seemingly unimpressed by the events that just occured. He casually glanced down at his smart phone, moved his finger to it and quick tapped the screen. The sunlight coming through the window disappeared and immediately reappeared in the window on the opposite wall.
     "There, happy now?" was all he said.
     A dreadful fear overtook Vincent as he looked over at the sunlight coming through the new window. His heart rate accelerated even faster and he stumbled even further back, trying to distance himself as much as he could from everything that was happening in front of him. When his back hit the wall it felt as though a semi smashed into him. His legs started to quiver and his outstretched arm holding the pistol lost all strength and slowly drooped to his waist. The pistol felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
     "What the FUCK is going on? WHO ARE YOU?" Vince yelled.
     "I'm your CPA, Steve Battousi and I need you to tell me why your ex turned you into the FBI last year. Please, shed some light on this," he asked casually with a grin.
     The attempt at humor angered Vincent and a renewed strength returned to him and forced some of the shock away. He raised the pistol.
     "You aren't in the position of asking questions or cracking wise, it's my turn. If you don't tell me what the hell is going on I'm gonna send a few of these your way and walk right out that door."
     Steve looked at Vincent with boredom and let out a sigh.
     "Do as you wish, but if that's your plan may I suggest using a gun that isn't broken?"
     Vincent gasped as the pistol he was holding began disassembling itself right there within his hand. Piece by piece, the gun fall apart and within seconds became a pile of metal parts at his feet; bullets rolling away in different directions. No longer worried about the why's and the how's, panic kicked in and Vince quickly turned around to make an escape through the door, but the doorknob was no longer there. Not even a hole where it would be; just a door in a wall with no way to open it. Defeated, he slowly turned back around.
     "For God's sake, just stop. What.. do you want from me?" he asked with a trembling voice.
     "You already know what we want, Vincent. Answers. We want to know everything you were up to for the past four years, especially in Tennessee. We want the names of every human you've contacted who are connected to all these organizations you funded. We want names, dates, places, events. We want EVERYTHING."
     Vincent suddenly felt consumed by a terrible fear. The adrenaline that had been coursing through his body moments ago was now gone and his legs grew weak beneath him. He slid down the wall and joined the broken pile of gun parts on the floor and started sobbing.
     Steve Battousi CPA stood up from his desk, walked around to where Vincent sat, and crouched down in front of him. He remained squatted this way for awhile, quietly observing and allowing time for the emotional fit to pass, before speaking.
     "Stand up now, no more of this nonsense. I need to show you something. You will want to see this, trust me."
     Steve rose and waited patiently for cry baby Vincent to do the same. When he did, Steve motioned to the door behind him.
     "You cannot leave the way you arrived; that option is no longer available to you. You can, however, leave through there," he explained while pointing at the aquarium.
     Having gotten to his feet, Vincent stood and stared blankly at at the fish aquarium. He looked back at Steve.
     "I don't understand... I don't understand any of this," Vincent mumbled. "I just want it all to stop. You relocated the sun, for fuck sake! And now you're talking about fish aquariums."
     Steve walked over to the aquarium and waved him over.
     "Tell me what you see when you look inside."
     Vincent hunched over and leaned his face in near the aquarium. The substrate was a brilliant, clean white sand and embedded in it were piles of algae covered coral rocks that looked as though they were shipped directly from the moon. The coral was teeming with life. Inside the cratered rocks, within their nooks and crannies, crawling all over and around them, was a colorful assortment of shrimp and crab and starfish. And swimming around lazily in the water was a single fish about the size of a softball. It looked like a creature not of this world. Red and white vertical stripes lined it's entire body. It had a face that resembled a bullfrog and instead of normal fish fins, it had long thin strips that looked just like feathers. And behind its round eyes all the way to its iridescent tail fin, sat a row of hypodermic needle-like spines poised ominously upon its back.
     Vincent stood up straight. "I see the ocean trapped inside four sheets of glass."
     Steve smiled. "It's called a lion fish and it's as deadly as it looks. Within that row of needles there, one is a venomous stinger and can pack a very painful punch."
     "Fine, whatever you say," Vincent replied.
     "Reach your hand in," instructed Steve.
     "Fuck you," Vincent replied and stepped away.
     Annoyed, the CPA reached his own hand into the aquarium, but from the outside perspective the fish and other creatures continued swimming around calmly and completely undisturbed. Vincent realized he couldn't see Steve's submerged arm through the water. It appeared as though he reached straight through a mirage. And before he even had time to process what he was seeing, the fish aquarium slid backwards flush within the wall, and then an entire section of the wall and half the bookshelf sunk inwards approximately two feet and then slid quickly to the right with a whooshing sound to reveal a dimly lit passageway behind it.
     "Of course," Vincent muttered while shaking his head. "So this is the part where you tell me to walk through your wall. And if I refuse, you'll just rematerialize the gun and finish me off. Am I close to the money on that?"
     The CPA nodded.
     "After you," replied Vincent with an outstretched arm.
     "Nice try," Steve replied and motioned for him to go in.

     They walked along the dark corridor for almost an hour, mostly in silence, with the exception of the echo of their footsteps on the metal grating reverberating in front and behind them. Occasionally the accountant would ask  the same questions he had asked back in his office, to which Vincent continued to ignore. As they neared the end of the corridor, the ever present humming sound that accompanied them during the long walk grew much louder to the point that it now felt impressively deafening. Steve stepped in front of Vincent and instructed him to stop.
     "Stand there," he said while pointing at the wall. A few buttons were pressed on a keypad and a small door opened into a cylindrical room constructed of vertical sheets of steel plating. There was a metal ladder affixed to one side which disappeared high and away into more darkness. "Now we climb."
     After about thirty minutes of climbing they reached a small opening and pulled themselves through. They were now standing inside a not so large egg-shaped room that resembled a jail cell to a certain degree. The open floor plan was very simple. At the back end of the room was a small open-face commode and sink. Near it, a cot. At the opposite end at the egg's nose was an opaque bubble that allowed a dim amount of outside light in, and next to it on the curved wall was a computer screen and small desk and chair. The humming noise was intense inside the room to the extent it felt like a grinding sensation inside his brain.
     "You'll get used to the noise after awhile. They all do," Steve remarked.
     Upon hearing this, Vincent quickly turned and made an aggressive move toward the ladder opening, but was immediately met with a taser to the ribcage. He crumpled to the floor. When he came to a few minutes later he discovered his wrists and ankles were bound tightly together and his body had been propped up against the curved wall in a seated position.
     "The bindings will dissolve in approximately thirty minutes and you'll be free to explore the room. It's not much really. You've got your bed there," he pointed, "toilet and sink stuff there, over here in this wall box is where your food tubes will arrive. You'll only get three per day so consume them accordingly. Next to it is your water spout and over there on that wall is a chute where your soiled slicks go out and your clean ones come in. Got it?" Steve asked.
     Still a feeling a bit dazed from being tazed, Vincent nodded. After a few minutes of looking around the room his eyes moved back to his captor.
     "So, Steve.. you're A.I. aren't ya," he asked even though he already knew the answer. It nodded yes. "Government contracted?" It nodded again. "For how long?"
     "You will remain here indefinitely, Vincent."
     "No, no, how long have you been A.I.?"
     "Three years now. They turned me.. well, turned Steve Battousi rather.. almost immediately after you started warning all your social media friends and family about Hoover Dam. Which, by the way, we are still very curious how you knew that event was going to occur."
     "Ha, that was an easy one. Just like 9/11. The cornerstone date was a dead giveaway and the entire foundation around it was littered with Masonic clues. They just can't help themselves. It's like they secretly yearn for some people to figure shit out. Internet and citizen researchers. I'll tell ya what, the two of 'em combined are amazing as all get out," Vincent bragged.
     "More powerful than human language, we would attest, which is why we are hunting all of you down and turning you when we find you," the A.I. explained.
     "All of... us?"
     "Yes Vincent. Anyone who stirs the pot. We already got three of the six researchers you were funding and hundreds more just like you all across the globe. It's just a matter of time until we get enough of you to silence your movement. It's all very boring really. Trust me when I say we'd much rather be spending our time on other things."
     "Wait, am I.. am I now.. A.I.?" Vincent asked uneasily. His throat tightened and his hands became clammy.
     "The you who's sitting right here? No. You are the human you. However your A.I. counterpart is out there," he explained while pointing his thumb toward the opaque bubble, "and you have been programmed to spread a different narrative from here on out. Actually, come here and see for yourself."
     The A.I. helped Vincent to his feet and over to the wall monitor and desk.
     "Here, sit. Now watch." He touched the screen in a few places, changing it from this to that, until eventually it showed a CCTV view of someone sitting inside an office cubicle. Vincent immediately recognized himself and his coworkers and watched himself on the screen interacting with Jessica, the girl in the cubicle directly next to him.
     Vincent's heart started racing again and he released an audible gasp. "I don't want to see this, please turn it off."
     "No, no, keep watching. This will get good! Look what we can do." The A.I. pulled out his smart phone and began tapping. He finished and looked back at the monitor. In it, the A.I. version of Vincent got up from his chair and walked into Jessica's cubicle where she was still laughing at a joke he had just made. He stood over her and stared down at her without saying anything for an uncomfortable amount of time until Jessica's facial features changed from pleasing to awkward and she spun her chair back toward her computer to ignore him. And then, horrified, he watched AI Vincent slip his right hand over her shoulder, down into her blouse and grabbed ahold of her breast. Jessica could be seen slapping Vincent and running down the hallway toward the manager's office when the screen switched back to pale blue.
     "Tomorrow you will be fired from that job and labeled as a sexist pig by every friend you ever made there. You will endure a sexual harrassment case because of it and it will follow you through life. We could even spice it up a bit if we wanted, have you do the same thing to a minor and get you on the real naughty list. Ha! But anyway, in the weeks and months to follow, this programmed version of you will slowly backpedal all the things you've been saying on your social media platforms over the years and we will correct your behavior and shape you into a regular, well-adjusted member of society. Your closest friends will abandon you spend the rest of their lives regretting they met you, and your family members will learn to distrust you over time, maybe even dislike you, because of the constant lying and negative change in your disposition. With a few quick adjustments to your behavior programming, we can do anything we want to you at anytime. We now control you, do you understand?"
     Vincent started trembling and he could feel the tears welling up in his eyes. He pulled aggressively against the wrist binds hoping to break free, but they held strong. The reality of his situation set in and he could no longer keep himself from crying. He cried while imagining the A.I. version of himself verbally mistreating his own parents and watching them close off their door and hearts to him. After a few minutes of crying, Vincent looked up at A.I.
     "But why keep me alive? Just kill me now and end all this, please! I honestly would rather die."
     "Because we need you alive for your A.I. counterpart to function properly. Our technology is superb, but not yet perfect. We're getting there though. In the future we will not need you or the others. Your A.I. will be able to age properly and remain undetectable to the humans it interacts with without the need of constant video and bio-feed from the human version of you, but for now, it is what it is," answered A.I. Steve. "Oh, and before those binds dissolve, let me explain a few final things and then I will leave you to it."
     He said 'leave you to it' as though a life sentence in prison was nothing more than a high school science assignment.
     "The humming you hear are three 148 foot blades spinning around a 2-megawatt G87 turbine rotor that is capturing energy from the wind and transferring it down into.."
     "Wait, wait, just a minute... I'm inside of a fucking windmill?" Vincent interjected.
     "Technically, a wind turbine, but yes. Inescapable, I might add, once that hatch is sealed behind me. You are perched 256 feet in the air. These wind farms are how we generate the energy needed to mine cryptocurrencies. You are now a crypto miner, Vincent!" the A.I. said excitedly while clapping its hands together. "You know all about that, am I right?"
     "Fuck you," Vincent replied.
     "So anyway, your daily duties. You will be required to monitor your crypto program throughout the day and note any wind shifts or data log discrepancies. Here, let me show you." The A.I. tapped the screen and pulled up the cryptocurrency network and clicked on Turbine #1172. "Look, that's you! You are mining... um, let's see... ah yes, good old bitcoin. Consider yourself lucky you didn't get stuck mining etherium or litecoin. Those are a real pisser, I hear. But anyway, we will require you to check on this throughout your day. It's not that we can't do it ourselves, because we can, but we've learned that your kind thrive when occupied by even the most menial of tasks. So do this obediently and without question." It walked over to the hatch, turned itself around and began climbing down the ladder until only its torso remained above see level.
     "And one last thing before I seal you up. Like I said before, three food tubes per day, randomly flavored. You will not receive more, so consume them with that in mind. On the first Tuesday of each month you can request a flavor of your choice. Mondays are Movie Mondays and one will appear on your screen for your viewing pleasure. We select the films, of course. Saturdays are Saturday Song Salute. Music will be selected and played through your in-room speakers from noon to one. We know how much you humans appreciate the arts, so we incorporated these programs into your stay here to help prevent the mental deterioration of your pathetic brain. No books though, seeing how written language has been used as a weapon by your kind for centuries."
     The A.I. Steve Battousi took a few more steps down the ladder until only its head was showing. "Alright that's it, I'll leave you to it now. Oh and by the way, we already know what was going down in Tennessee. We've known everything about you ever since you made our radar. That congressman was one of ours, you dipshit. We know exactly why you were planning to kidnap him. And just so you know, you would have never gotten a confession out of him." The A.I. winked and closed the hatch just as Vincent's wrist and ankle binds dissolved.

     The End.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Angry Karen

 The approximate wait time was 15 minutes and a staggered collection of humans were gathered beneath the angled overhang of the shaded front porch of the Cracker Barrel Country Restaurant. Families that had previously been cooped up inside their homes for several months were finally exercising their need to be set free. The sun was only 1/4 of the way up the sky and the outdoor thermometer already read 79 degrees. It was going to be another hot one down south. A young girl of about 11 tugged at her papa's trouser pocket.

"I don't wanna wear it. It's hot and my lips are sweaty," she claimed while pulling the mask away from her face and making fanning motions. The elastic string on one side got twisted in her hair and she grumbled while trying to free it.
"Stop messing with it and that won't happen," was papa's reply. "When we get inside we can take them off for breakfast, but for now, stop messing with it."
A mother six feet away was dealing with a similar situation with her little Alex. Alexander kept taking his mask off and using it as a makeshift slingshot to launch landscape gravel into the lawn. It was an M95 mask made by 3M and it had strong elastic bands that stretched proudly as though boasting its high quality design. Through sheer curiosity and boredom, Alexander discovered that the small square filter box woven into the mask made for excellent rock placement. Pinching a rock there and squeezing, he could launch gravel about three feet, which was plenty fine for him.
"ALEXANDER! I swear if you don't slap that mask back on your face in five seconds I will force feed you grits when we get in there and everyone will watch your cheeks turn purple," mom threatened. "I'm serious, drop the castle siege routine and put the mask back on."
Reluctantly, little Alex released the rock he was holding and slid the now dirty mask over his head and positioned it down past his upper lip so he could breathe. The little girl six feet away saw this and mimicked the move. Just then, the front door opened and two families exited the restaurant.
"Next two groups can come on in," exclaimed the outside door greeter as she pointed at them and held open the door.

Inside, the restaurant was half-filled with people excited to finally be out in public. Every other table was sectioned off with signs that read: TABLE CLOSED FOR SOCIAL DISTANCING. Looking around, the sweaty lipped girl noticed some people had removed their masks. She looked up at papa and he nodded to her as he took his mask off. She quickly did the same. Seated two tables away was the mother and her little rock tosser, both still wearing theirs.
"Papa, they're still wearing their masks," she noted while pointing.
"Don't point, dear. And it's fine. We can't very well eat our breakfast while wearing a mask, right?"
Pleased with his answer, she picked up her napkin and began shaping it into a flaccid looking swan with wings that would struggle keeping it aloft. She pulled on its tail and tried to get the wings to flap, but instead the whole thing came undone.
"Ugh," was all she mustered while her papa smiled pleasingly.
After ten minutes or so their food arrived and each plate was set down in front of them like individual battalions of war. The eggs and hashbrowns were the main forces, gunner troops ready to advance up the middle, while the biscuits and gravy and the bacon plates were perimeter support, tanks and artillery, etc. Papa reached over and took his daughter's hand in his, they bowed their heads and he whispered a quick little prayer of blessing.
"Okay, hun, dig in," he said with a smile. But she didn't need the instructions, she already had a slice of crunchy bacon in her mouth the second she unbowed her head.

At the next table, mommy and Alexander the Great were surveying their own food plates and were quite pleased with them. Eyeballing his mother's bowl of grits, Alex remarked, "Mom, that stuff is whole gross!" he exclaimed through his mask.
"You don't worry about my grits. They are a darn delight and maybe one day you'll see. Now hush up and eat, rocket boy," she teased while pulling the mask away from her face to take a bite. She let the mask snap back into position and continued chewing her food. Alex pulled his mask down and attempted to shove a fork load of potato casserole into his mouth, but the outer prong got hooked on his mask string and the casserole splattered onto his plate below.
"Son of a b..." he bagan to say but prematurely ended the thought. He looked up at the disapproving glare on his mother's face. "Sorry, mom, but this is the most annoying thing. Do we HAVE to wear them while eating? I mean, come on" he pleaded.
"Yessir, we are in public. We wear em, mister," was her reply. She pulled her mask away from her mouth and took a sip of her coffee. "Just slow your roll, button hole. You're too damn excited."
"Fine. Fiiiine," Alexander sighed while trying round two with the casserole. This time he managed to get the food around the mask and into his mouth without dropping it, but some of it fell into his mask and he had to shake it out. He could hear people giggling nearby.

Papa and daughter watched while the mom and son two tables away ate their entire breakfast while wearing their masks. Papa tried shushing his little girl when she giggled hard at the casserole scene that took place, but even papa couldn't help himself and let out a little laugh of his own, which gave his baby girl the green light to let out a little more. It was a good to be alive and out and about and feeling like a real human again. My goodness, how dearly they had missed it.
"Are you about done, honey?" papa asked. "We have to go pick up mama soon."
She nodded that she was and so he paid their waitress and they walked outside. As they neared their vehicle, papa could hear a women yelling "That's them, over there!" and he turned to see two cops being sent in his direction. He reached in, started the engine and the AC and told his daughter to get inside. Shutting the door, he turned to face the officers.
"What can I do ya for, gentlemen?" papa greeted them.
"Sir, we received a complaint that you and your daughter were not following proper COVID protocol and we are here to do a follow-up. If you would, sir, please pull up your contact tracing app and hit the SCAN NEARBY DEVICE link button," the officer ordered as he pulled his own smart phone out and activated the same app. Holding the phone uncomfortably close to the man's face, the officer snapped a picture.
"This is ridiculous, officer. Half the people in there weren't wearing masks," he replied.
"So you are acknowledging that you didn't follow public protocol?" Turning to his partner, the officer continued, "Sgt, note that, would ya?" The Sgt nodded and pulled out his smart phone and started typing. "Do you have the CT app opened yet, sir?" he asked impatiently.
"Yeh, yeh, it's open. What the heck do I do with it?"
"Nothing, just click SCAN NEARBY DEVICE."
He did as he was told and clicked it. The officer started scrolling through his own smart phone while relaying info over his shoulder to the officer standing behind him. After a few minutes, the officer put his phone away and instructed the man to do the same.
"Sir, later this evening you will receive a visit from a contact agent that we have assigned to you. He or she will be by your house and will inform you on what steps you will need to take next. From now on, sir, if you or anyone in your family leaves your home to go into public, you will need to authorize it via your case agent, is that clear?"
Inside the car, daughter could see that her papa was growing visibly agitated and she noticed the way his hands clenched up the same way they did when he caught neighbor Dean stealing from the tool shed again. She watched the muscles in his forearm flex and the vein on the side of his neck swell like a creek in spring. Worried, she opened the car door, raced over and grabbed onto his hand.
"It's okay, dear, everything is okay," he tried reassuring her. "These men are just doing their jobs and making sure everyone stays safe. Go ahead and get back in the car, I'll be right in with you."
"Okay, papa," she replied while handing him two extra masks they had in the glovebox. "Can they have our spare ones, papa? I want them to be safe too. I don't want nobody getting sick," she said before climbing back into the car. Papa turned back to the officers, handed them the masks and bid them both a good day.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Janitor



Michael sat at his computer desk staring at the blinking prompt that was patiently waiting for input. In a defeated exhale, he pushed away from the desk, leaned back in his swivel chair with his hands interlocked behind his head and looked up at the ceiling.
"I have nothing left to say."
Frustrated, he got up and walked into the kitchen. In the fridge, a pack of bologna and an open case of Michelob Ultra occupied the top shelf. Beneath that, a solo leftover burrito from Casa Del Toro. Disgusted, he shut the door. The wall clock in the living room could be heard ticking through the seconds; the sound of it alarmingly loud inside his head. He walked into the living room, took the clock down from the wall and smashed it against the corner of the coffee table with such force that the wooden corner dug into the palm of his hand.
Holding his hurt hand in his good hand, he walked to the back of his home. When he reached the door that lead to the backyard, he pressed his face against it and listened. He stood silently for several minutes trying to determine whether it was asleep or not. It sounded quiet, so he slowly turned the knob and opened the door.
An immediate blast of air, hot as a steel mill furnace, rushed in sending him sprawling backward several feet and before he could regain his balance, he felt a strictness tightening around his neck coupled with sharp pains that felt like razor blades slicing through his skin. He gasped and wheezed, completely overcome, and soon lost consciousness.
After some time, Michael regained his senses and slowly removed himself from the foyer floor. He stood for a moment staring at the back door. Panic struck him like a lightning bolt ripping through his spine. He quickly turned and went away. In the living room, the remains of the broken wall clock were scattered across the floor, reminding him why his hand ached. The clock was finished, ruined, but he could still hear the ticking sound of a hand moving through time. It was coming from the bedroom.
Having traced the sound to his work desk, Michael stood there staring at the blinking prompt on the computer screen waiting for his input. Blink, blink, blink... a continuous mockery of his current writer's block. He sat down on the corner of his bed facing the glowing computer screen. He sat motionless for many minutes, hypnotized by the ticking word prompt. His attention turned to the framed picture beside his computer. He kissed his fingers and pressed them to the picture and mouthed the words 'I love you', then let out a sigh and allowed his body to fall backward onto the bed.
"I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO SAY!" he screamed as he slid his hand beneath the pillow his head rested on. Retrieving the .40 caliber pistol hidden there, he pressed the muzzle to his temple and squeezed the trigger.


Woken by a loud bang, Jenna sat up frantically and quickly turned on the end table lamp. With her heart racing and brain still sleepy, she tried to make sense of why she was startled awake. She peered around the dimly lit living room, but saw nothing odd or out of place; everything appeared as it should. She glanced at the clock.. it was 3:33am.
"Again?" she exclaimed in frustration. It was the third time this week. "Seriously though, what the hell?" she murmered. Wondering if her husband was still asleep, she slid from beneath her mountain of heavy blankets and made her way to the bedroom door. With her ear pressed against it, she listened. Everything sounded quiet. Satisfied, she headed toward the kitchen. Passing the dining room table, she paused to pick up the sheet of paper lying there. Clearing her throat, she began to read:
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to your great state. It is an honor to be here amidst the wild and wonderful people that make up this great state and it pleases me to announce my candidacy for the fifth congressional seat of... Damn it, I said 'great state' twice. For fuck sake, Jenna, this is garbage. You have to do better than this!"
She tossed the paper down and went to the fridge. Reaching through a fortress of stacked health food and drinks, she dug her way to the back wall, fingers searching blindly for the bottle. "Ah-ha! Got you," she remarked while tilting it this way and that in order to pull it through the food maze. She set the bottle down, retrieved a short glass from the overhead cupboard, and poured herself a bourbon neat. Holding it up in front of her, Jenna watched the brown liquid circle inside the glass as she swirled it in the air. She downed the drink and poured another. Without hesitation, she swallowed the second as quickly as the first. She poured a third and carried it and the bottle over to the table and stood looking down at her speech.
She pulled a a small bag of pills from her robe pocket and shook some into her mouth, swallowing them with her third drink as she poured a fourth and while reciting the lines of her speech. As she continued reading she felt a heat rise up inside her. It began as a warm sensation, but quickly spread through her entire body and became overwhelmingly intense and painful. Jenna, as though racing fire to the finish line, abandoned the glass and started drinking liquor straight from the bottle instead. She slumped to the floor, toppled backward into the chairs situated around the dining room table, causing them to slide and screech loudly across the tile floor. She ended up on her back beneath the table, bourbon still in hand. She started sobbing and taking sideways sips from the bottle, spilling alcohol on herself and the floor in the process. Amidst the commotion her speech slid off the table and floated down to rest beside her, mockingly.
"You are a loser! Nobody will vote for a drunk fucking loser!" she stammered while sobbing uncontrollably and drinking until passing out.


Nelson reached the end of the hallway and stopped at a small pile of discarded papers lying near a trash bin alongside the wall. He bent over, picked them up and started tossing them into the can when he noticed the headline on one that read: "Candidate Jenna Malone found deceased in her apartment late Sunday morning by her husband. Cause of death is currently undetermined. Mrs Malone was running for fifth congressional seat of..."
Nelson stopped reading and let out an audible sigh as he tossed the paper into the trash. "That's a damn shame, for sure. Lady would've had my vote. Mama's vote too." He continued down the adjacent hall with the mop bucket trailing behind him, whistling while he swooshed the wet mop in long arching motions from left to right. As he neared the south end of the building, he set his equipment down and unlocked the door that opened into the parking lot at the back of the complex. Propping the door open with the mop handle, he stepped outside for a smoke. It was a clear night and the moon was so bright it illuminated the entire parking lot like a sky candle. He shook a cigarette out from the pack, lit it, and as he leaned back against the building he noticed a sound coming from the far end of the parking lot. Between drags, Nelson turned his ears toward the noise and focused his attention. It sounded like a car engine idling and he could see the faint glow of what appeared to be an interior light coming from a car situated where he thought the sound was coming from.
Opting for a closer look, Nelson started walking over. As he neared, he could make out that it was indeed a car idling, but what he thought was an interior light was actually a cell phone playing a video of some sort while resting on the dash. The driver remained motionless. Nelson slowly walked around the vehicle and in doing so noticed moonlight reflecting off silver duct tape wrapped around the tailpipe. Curious, he knelt down for a closer look and saw a hose protruding from it, the excess curled below and disappearing beneath the car.
With his heart now racing, Nelson hurried around to the driver side window and saw the remainder of the hose fed through the rolled up window. He immediately tried the door handle, but it was locked, so he frantically began beating his elbow against the glass. After several hard whacks the glass gave way and Nelson pulled the unconscious man from the car and gently laid him on the pavement.
"Please God! HEAR ME NOW, Lord, help this man! I beg you, please!" he shouted into the moon lit night. Nelson was on his knees beside the motionless man, praying deeply and loudly, begging God to lay his healing hands on him. Over and over again, between tears and heavy-hearted body shakes, Nelson prayed. He prayed harder than he ever prayed his entire life. He even repented his own sins and asked God for forgiveness of his own misdeeds if it meant he would save this one man from dying right here and now. He leaned over the man's chest and continued praying while the cell phone inside the car continued playing hidden cam footage of a woman having sex with another man.


It was 3:33pm and traffic on Belmont Avenue was horrible, so Rick decided to jump off at Sunset Street and take it across town with the hopes of making it to his four o'clock appointment on time. When he reached his destination the clock read 3:58pm and Rick yelled out several ridiculous victory chants while exiting his car and jogging up to the main entrance. He hurried into the mezzanine and started scanning the room for a guy wearing a... wearing a... he pulled his phone out and reopened the text message... for a guy wearing a yellow and black Steelers jacket. Rick looked up and scanned the room and noticed a man off to the side waving his arm high over his head and smiling in his direction. He was wearing a Steelers jacket. Slammed by a rush of sudden nervousness, Rick slowly started walking toward the man responsible for saving his life.
As the two finally met face to face, Rick extended his hand, to which Nelson immediately ignored and came in for a hug instead.
"My goodness, am I so glad to see you, brother! You have no idea how happy I am to see you standing here in front of me," Nelson exclaimed excitedly. The two men stopped hugging and took a seat together on a plush couch near a large window overlooking the outdoor common area.
"It's great to finally meet you, Nelson," Rick replied nervously. "I played this day out in my head the whole time I was recovering. All those messages you sent.. they really meant a great deal to me. It was hard dealing with all the newspaper people and the cops and my family, but your messages were like the only thing keeping me sane through it all. And I just want you to know that."
"Say no more, my friend. I'm just so glad to have you here right now, alive and talking. I was so fucking scared that night, you have no idea. I prayed so hard over you in the parking lot, but I thought you were a goner, man. I remember thinking how all my shitty life decisions and all the fucked up things I'd done was gonna keep God from hearing me praying over you. I was so mad at myself that night, bro. I felt as though it was my fault you were laying there dying. And if you had died, I would've blamed myself forever, for not being a better person."
Tears welled up in Rick's eyes and he bashfully brushed them away. He sat there listening to this stranger pour out his heart to him and show him a side of love he never knew existed. The tears increased as he sat there thinking about how horribly low his life had fallen. He started crying as he recalled his failing marriage and his cheating wife. His heart ached for the writer she had fallen for and how he took his own life due to depression and how his own wife drank her political career and life away. He cried even harder when he remembered his wife discovering his own extramarital affair. Rick couldn't hide the tears now; it was a full-on noticeable man cry and he felt awkward and wanted to hide, but Nelson reached out and placed his hand on Rick's shoulder and whispered, "God loves you, man. Spend the rest of your life remembering that."

The End.