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Round 2 of the Flash Fiction Challenge came at a seriously busy time for me.  I had about 5 hours of total writing time on this story.  My prompts were:

Genre: Sci-Fi
Location: An all you can eat restaurant

Object: a water gun

Where the Water Flows

 In near-future California, the need to create alternatives for energy and water sources foments extremists on both sides of the divide.

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light…The Eagles, Hotel California

*****

“Hello, Sis.”

My hands began to shake. I nearly dropped my mobile onto the floor. I took several deep breaths before responding.

“Well, Tony. Imagine hearing from you. It’s been, what, four years?”

“Something like that.” The pause, this time, was at the other end of the line. I heard a sharp intake of breath, and a sentence travelled quickly along its exhale. “Sorry I wasn’t there. You know. For Dad.”

I looked down at my feet, counting the tiles that outlined the space I occupied. “Well, I somehow managed to get through. Though probate is turning out to be a bitch, since they want me to prove you’re dead before they’ll settle the estate.”

“What?” Tony’s laughter echoed down the line. “Being an international criminal doesn’t exempt me from inheriting? ‘Wanted – At Large’ isn’t enough to write me off? I want my half of that diner, sis.” We both laughed a bit awkwardly, and then Tony turned serious. “I can’t stay on the line. I need to see you. You still opening the diner every morning?”

“Yes, since Dad died. Every morning at 6. I took leave of absence from the lab.”

“Be there early. All next week”.

*

I turned on the grills and started the fryer heating. The incessant whirring of the air conditioner created a soothing white-noise for my pounding head. Four days had passed. I hadn’t slept much. I looked out the diner windows. The sky lit with purples and pinks, and the shining halos were beginning to glow. My childhood had been illuminated by those halos. Everyone had believed Mom and Dad were crazy, building their diner off the 15 Freeway at the infamous Zzyzx road exit. They’d thought the name would draw crowds. At first it did. The real draw, however, was the halos.

First installed in 2013, the landscape of the Mojave Desert was now filled with thousands of reflective mirrors and towers that created those shining orbs. They had fascinated me. I studied their effects, and began to experiment with other ways to help our drying environment. Creating potable water in the desert, without wasting energy? That became my obsession. I’d achieved it.  My Hydrologic towers, filled with hygroscopic brine and photovoltaic cells, dotted the desert landscape.

I prepped the first batch of biscuits for opening, and tried not to remember the halos were also what led Tony into eco-activism.

*

I heard a thud coming from the back hallway, and tensed up. Seconds later, Tony came around the corner.  The pulse in my neck thrummed; that rakish smile was the same, but weariness had etched itself into Tony’s face. My only sibling hesitated, staring at me. “The window in the Men’s is still broken. No one thought to get that fixed?”

I practically sprinted into Tony’s arms. I felt a bit of my weariness ease into the embrace. I felt like home.

*

I poured us both a cup of fresh coffee, and we slid into the booth beneath the chalkboard sign. Still in Dad’s handwriting, it read “All you can eat breakfast, $10.99”. I hadn’t brought myself to erase it yet, and I caught Tony’s eyes lingering on the old-fashioned script.

“How was he, at the end?”

“Surprisingly, better than I was.” I took a sip of my coffee, setting it down with a gentle clink on the Formica table top. “I think he was just ready to be with Mom.”

“Yeah.” Tony stared out the window at the halos lighting the sky, and turned a critical eye on a tower beneath one. “I wish I could have…” he trailed off.

“So did he.”

We stared down at our cups for a few minutes. Finally Tony cleared his throat.

“I need your help.”

*

“It’s a gun?”

“Not in the sense that you’re thinking of.  It uses your technology, Sis. It pulls moisture from the air, in any environment. The water collects here”, Tony pointed to a small square within the structure of the gun. “Once there is enough water, this cartridge containing compressed carbon dioxide solidifies the water.”

“Into an …ice bullet?”

“Exactly!” Tony beamed proudly. “This secondary compartment compresses the gases released, and …projectile. Activated by three sensors on this side, of course, so no accidental firings happen. But I can only get it to fire once. I  need more.”

I reached out to touch the box. Its width fit in the palm of my hand well, with the length easily four times that. The whirring of the air conditioner grew louder in my ears. I looked up at Tony when I realized it was not the air conditioner, but the sound of drones. Two or three, perhaps.

Tony’s face heated with anger. “You didn’t. You wouldn’t!”

I ached with sudden sadness. “I didn’t, but I would have. If I’d known. If I’d known this” I pointed to the gun, “was what you needed me for. It’s intended to get through security, anywhere? This proves no matter how much we loved you, Mom and Dad and me, that the stories about you were true. The embassy. The train. The hospital. You did them all, didn’t you? To save what? A few hundred birds?”

Tony sighed, and stood up. “I wasn’t involved directly in the hospital, no, but the organization was, yes. It’s unfortunate. I didn’t want children to die.

“Well, they did. And now here we are.” I picked up the box and stood, walking to the window. I could see the drones approaching from the west, flying away from the halos which could damage them.

Tony approached, and then stood beside me. I felt the warmth of an arm around my shoulders, and smelled the soap, clean and simple, that Tony used.

“You know they won’t hold back because you’re with me, right?”

“I know.”

Tony sighed. “You know I would never have hurt you, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I know that too.”

I slid my arm across, grasping Tony’s hand. We entwined our fingers. We waited.

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I made it into the final round of NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge.  I was very happy to do so, as many very worthy writers and stories did not make it this far.  I may have panicked a bit, to be honest, as it is my first time in this competition and I definitely did not feel practiced or good enough to make it this far.  However, I determined to give it my best go.

The final round is a 24 hour deadline, based on three random prompts.  The prompts for this round were:

Genre: Open
Character: A fisherman
subject: Jealousy

From that, this is the story I came up with.  I hope you like it.

***

The Loaves and the Fish

During a time of grief, loneliness, and regret, Camille gives up a life of abundance to join a Community that cares for her.

*

 

 

The interview room was warm and inviting.  Soft, deep cushions adorned the two large sofas.  A round wooden table with four chairs stood in one corner.  The walls, soothing greys and blues, held landscapes signed by a serene, if inscrutable, hand. Camille sat at the table, waiting for her questioning to begin.

 

“Tell me about yourself, Camille.” Martin tucked himself into the chair opposite Camille at the table, folding his hands properly in front of him.  His navy suit was tailored and subtle.   Gold cuff links in the shapes of crosses held the French cuffs of his crisp white shirt snug, and he wore a simple gold band on his left ring finger.  Camille gazed at these trappings briefly, then blinked and looked away.

 

“I grew up here, but moved to the city for college.” She paused, but Martin cleared his throat impatiently.  “I only moved back to Albany eight months ago. I…came back for a funeral.”

*

The casket was halfway lowered to its final resting place when Camille stepped to the edge.  Onto the casket, she dropped not flowers, but brightly colored, shining bass-fishing lures.  A little blue fish with a triple hook at its head, a rubbery frog with two legs that flopped and made a faint thud as it hit the highly polished wood, an imitation water plant that looked like a wig for a miniature Cousin It.  That one was the one that made her cry.  One of the few times she went out fishing with Dad and Adam, her brother had put the rubbery weed on top of the blue fish’s head, creating a pantomime for her.  She smiled at the rare memory of laughing Adam, who was too old to play with and too different to befriend. Only minutes later, bored with the slow sequence of cast and reel, Camille had snuck off to lie under a tree, gazing at cloud-shapes and losing herself in one of her countless books.

*

“You were close with your brother, then? And your parents?” Martin shuffled some of the papers in front of him, and then looked at her with a stern expression.  Camille lowered her eyes to the table, and pinched the flowers on her simple calico skirt between her fingers.

“I – wasn’t like them.  They loved me, but didn’t understand me. I felt the futility; I could be successful at everything the rest of the world deemed important, but I could never be Adam.”

*

The gulf between Adam and Camille seemed to grow with the years.  Camille was interested in academics, in the study of ancient worlds, in travel and in exploration.  Adam and her parents were content with their rural lifestyle, running their small bait and tackle store at the edge of Rensselaer Lake.  Returning from University on weekends, Camille watched her father and her brother sort their tackle boxes. They would peek inside the picnic lunches that Mom packed for them. They were easy in the way they talked and laughed together. Worst of all were Mom’s bright eyes whenever she gazed at Adam. The favoritism was apparent, and Camille’s resentment grew.  Mom passed away during Camille’s senior year, and Camille was left with Dad and Adam’s gruff, short phrases and held-back tears.

 

They looked confused, if cluelessly proud, when Camille landed her dream job at an internationally acclaimed museum in the City.  After that, weekend visits became fewer and the silences longer.  The last visit was after Dad had followed Mom to Albany Rural Cemetery.  Adam and Camille spent two silent days, Adam in his comfortable bedroom and Camille in the ‘guest room’, entirely cleared of her childhood toys and books. They ate together, meals brought to them by Adam’s neighbors. Adam attempted to break the ice by showing Camille his new Loomis fishing rod.  Camille realized that the rod cost the same as a pair of her Christian Louboutin shoes. Ridiculously, that made the divide between them seem endless.  When she left that day, it was the last time she ever hugged her stranger-brother, 10 years older and centuries removed.

*

“And how did you become acquainted with our little community, Camille?”  At that question, Camille perked up, smiling broadly.  “Oh! It was at Adam’s funeral.  Everyone had left, besides me.  And then Jenny just walked right up to me and wrapped me up in the most loving hug.  I knew her, back in grade school, you know.”

*

Jenny and Camille were friends when they were very young.  Theirs was the kind of friendship that was close for a brief time, and then dissipated as they matured.  Jenny was slight and droop-shouldered. She liked picking flowers and talking.  Camille was too caught up in the worlds of her books for much conversation, and eased away from Jenny’s loquacious overtures.  Camille was therefore surprised and grateful at the show of compassion Jenny gave at Adam’s funeral.  Over the course of the next several weeks, Jenny became Camille’s backbone; she began by helping run the bait and tackle store. She stayed a few nights a week at the small house Camille’s parents, and subsequently Adam, had left to her. She did most of the cooking and all of the cleaning.

Jenny was very religious, and spent a great deal of time reading her Bible and books of poetry, which she left lying around the house.  As Adam had not read much and neither had Camille’s parents, they were the only books present. Camille, wandering aimlessly through the house, first fingered the gilt covers of the bibles as she walked by them.  She began to pick up the books, reading snippets here and there. One day, Camille found a slip of paper tucked into a bible. On it was written a poem by Cristina Rossetti, which brought her to tears;

 

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

Yea, beds for all who come.

After that, Jenny and Camille spoke every evening about Jenny’s church.  Within weeks, Jenny had shown Camille how to pray, and eventually they did so together.  Jenny introduced Camille to the Community, and showed her the growing farm where they all lived and worked together.  Camille found herself letting go of old resentments.  She felt at peace for the first time in her life.

*

“The six month waiting period is standard for all new members of our Community.  I know that Jenny has spoken to you of the conditions for Community membership.  I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.” Martin’s pen tapped, slowly but forcefully, against his notepad.

“Yes, I understand.” Camille replied carefully. “I believe in our Lord and Savior with all my heart.  I believe he sent me to the Community to save my life, to bring me home.  I realize how superficial life in New York is.  Even the hipsters are materialistic, though they feign disdain. I want to be here now.  I want to make a home, have chance again…a family.”

 

Martin looked Camille in the eyes for several long breaths.  Nodding, he pushed a paper toward her.  “Very well.  This document gives the Community all rights to the bait and tackle store.” He placed another next to the first.  “This one to Adam’s house. And this one,” he moved a third paper toward her, “to your apartment in the city and all assets within it.  Including any artwork, jewelry, and …your shoe collection.”

Camille smiled again.  “All shoes and fishing rods, yes.” Camille signed all of the forms in front of her. She stood to leave and Martin came to embrace her warmly.  “Welcome home, Camille.  Let us pray…”

*

Jenny waited until Camille left the interview room, and then approached Martin with a broad smile on her face. Martin had returned to his chair, and leaned back when he saw Jenny enter.  Jenny’s face shone as he praised her.

“Well done, Jenny.  Camille is lovely, and makes a great addition to the Community.  She has faith, because you brought her to a new home when she was hurting and vulnerable.  She will always associate you, and the Community, with the Savior’s peace and redemption.’

“Thank you, Martin! I am happy that my old friend has found the path with us.”

“As you should be.  Friendship is nearly as important as family. Family, second only to the Lord.” Martin stood, and then placed his hands on Jenny’s shoulders. “And now that you have a friend here with us, perhaps you’ll have a care about trying to leave us again?” His fingers tightened against her thin collarbones. The ring on his left hand – matched to Jenny’s own – dug into her skin.

Jenny held her breath, lowered her eyes and nodded her head.

“‘And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Martin laughed softly.  “And you didn’t even need a net.”

 

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Weekly Writing Challenge: Fifty – Write a short story in only fifty words.  Condense it.  Tell as much as possible with as little as you can spare. Here goes:
——————————————-

 

I’d never looked in her handbag before, and now it felt like sacrilege.  Gum wrappers, old receipts, enough loose coins for a coffee. Lipstick.  Empty tampon wrappers. Three letters, stuffed into one envelope.  A keycard from a hotel.

Her suicide note hadn’t said it, but I knew.  I’d always known.

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I made it through the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge with my entry titled “VirtuaLife“.   The following is my entry for the second round.  My prompts were:

Genre: Historical Fiction

Subject: Saving a Life

Character: A farmer

This story is based on an event in the life of Winema, a rather remarkable Modoc woman.  Although I took a lot of liberties with her story (this is, after all, historical fiction), there are many facets that are true. If she interests you, I suggest reading more about her and her remarkable life. 

 

 

Winema

 

I lie on the ground inside a tent.  Blood flows from a deep wound winding down my right wrist.  It feels as if the obsidian knife still sits inside the cut, although I know the cut was clean.  My left hand holds the scalp of an army officer; the bristly hairs already feel coarse and false with no life to feed them.  I feel blood seeping from the private, sacred place where all women bleed. It is not my moon time.  This is what I have lost, along with my people.  Ten years since my last child, and now there will be no others.

 

****

When the world was new, only the underground spirit world and the lands where the sun touched existed.  There were no animals, no hunting grounds.  The birds did not fly in blue or grey colored skies. Winter fell but no bears slept, no hares foraged.  There were no farms, like the one I tend, nor farmers to sow them. The world was quiet, but also peaceful.  It was a world I cannot imagine.

In that new world, Ancient Kumush carried his basket of bones from the underworld and seeded the earth with a crop of people for all the lands. He plowed the Klamath, and cursed them with cowardice.  He sowed the Shasta near the snow giant, and graced them with bravery.  But he blessed the Modoc people most of all.  The strongest tribe, who would defeat all of our many enemies.  When he seeded the earth with bones, Kumush gifted our people, and he doomed us. He must have planted the white man’s bones deepest.

            The Modoc have always been at war.  Our greatest enemies, the Klamath, would raid our villages under a dark moon, and we would raid theirs under the full.  At the beginning of spring, we would seek peace by bringing our flowering girls and our young warriors together to trade them in marriage.  It was short-lived. I used to wonder how those young wives managed, knowing at the next moon their handsome husband would be off to seek the scalps of their fathers and brothers.  It was not long before I found out exactly how it felt.

 

****

 

There was always a restless spirit in me, from the time I was laid in my mother’s arms. She named me “strange child”.   I spent my early life sneaking away; from my mother’s side while gathering camas plants and wild onions, or when she cleaned the ducks father hunted on Tule Lake. Alone and awestruck, I huddled in the grasses to watch a doe and her fawn as they foraged.  The gathering of tribes was a time when I flourished, asking questions of other children my age about the lands they lived in, whether the geese flew in the same patterns over their heads in the fall, or if they had a river with rapids like we did.  I became the guide for the young ones, as our hardened feet jumped over the river-smoothed rocks and pushed our canoes into the froth.  I think it was that restlessness that made me chase them through the rapids. I pulled the children to safety when their canoe flipped. They were nearly dashed against the rocks.  The Lagi elders called me Winema after that, “woman chief” and rescuer.  They allowed me more freedom to run, hunt, fish and play than they allowed the other girls.  

            When it came time to be given in marriage, to perform the rites of Shuyuhalsh, they wanted to take that freedom away. It was restlessness and freedom that made me refuse my cousin, Kintpuash.  I was saved an arrangement with a Klamath warrior, but I did not want my cousin that way. We had grown together in our childhoods, and although I knew he was just, he was also sometimes cruel.  He did not approve of my unusual ways.  

****

 

I was defiant, and I ran. I found this rough but fertile land.   I met a white man, and loved him.   It took years for my people to accept him, though he gifted my father with horses and cows and observed the customs.  Frank Riddle taught me English words. He put our child in my belly.  Our crops grew, and so did our child. I happily cleaned the ducks my husband brought me from Tule Lake.  I was calmed by this strong man who knew what it was to be an outsider, to not live the role assigned to him, to leave his family and his home to find a new life.  Our firstborn son, Charka, was 10 when the war began. My belly swelled with our second.  

 

****

 

Kintpuash held his mother in his arms when next I saw him.  Shot with a white man’s rifle, blood had stopped seeping from her wounds. He would not set her down.  Takoda, one of the young ones I’d saved from the river, lay wide-eyed on the other side of the fire, her stomach gaping and rank.  My hands trembled.  My strained voice slipped back into Luatami when I spoke to Kintpuash, whose keening had not ceased.

“Kintpuash, come.  Auntie must be attended to. And these others.  You must let her go.”

His eyes, glistening with tears shed without shame, met mine filled with fury and hatred.

“You,” he heaved, “You, who left the hearth of your father and lay with the white man.  You, who turned away from what was offered you, as if it was not good enough.  How can you look on the faces of these women, these CHILDREN, and not fling yourself into the rapids?”

 

His words cut me.  There was a portion of truth in them, and part of me wanted to seek the river, swim with the salmon until they overtook me and guided me to the underworld.  Part of me knew he was wrong, that bad things were done by bad men, no matter the color of their skin or the place they were born.

 

“Kintpuash, these were some white men, but not all white men.  Because I love a white man does not mean that I do not love our people, that I do not love my Auntie!”  I knelt at the side of Takoda and brushed her hair from her face, closed her eyes.  “It does not mean that I regret dragging Takoda from the rapids.  I did not do this deed.  I want to help our people. We cannot win if we fight the white man.  We can only win if we befriend him.”

 

Kintpuash pressed his nose into his mother’s neck and inhaled her scent, choking on a sob, then laid her down. Rising, he spat on my feet.  “This is what white men do, Winema.  They kill women.  They kill babies! The Modoc would never kill women and children.”  His eyes melted me with their heat, and he stomped from the hut.

 

****

            After the massacre of Kumbat village, Kintpuash and his warriors harried the U.S. soldiers.  They killed many men, including the General.  I was one of the few Modoc who could speak English and Luatami fluently.  Talks and treaties pulled me from my farm and my child, on long excursions translating the peace terms they brought to the people. Frank travelled with me, and our fields languished.  Kintpuash never looked at me during the peace talks, as if I were a ghost.  I had become invisible to the last of my people.

 

That did not change when Kintpuash stepped into the tent this morning.  Five of his warriors assembled around him, and stared at the army officers with dead eyes.  My translations were not acknowledged, although they awaited my words and responded to them.  

The peace commission, with the chairman at its center, sat at a table. A soldier in the corner was whispering to his friend, a sound I only half paid attention to.  I heard the words “Kumbat massacre” and they both laughed under their breath.  Faster than I could follow, Kintpuash let out an ululating cry and had the soldier’s head in his hands. Chaos erupted in the tent, with Kintpuash’s warriors attacking the guards surrounding the interior.  An obsidian blade appeared from nowhere, and as quickly as a wind on the lava bed, the soldier’s scalp was in Kintpuash’s hand. Frank was held captive by a warrior, and the chairman had a Modoc blade at his throat.

 

Red spotted the walls and the ground.  A low, grunting noise came from somewhere, and I realized it was my own throat reaching for breath.  A scream emerged, and my eyes finally focused on Kintpuash, holding the soldier’s hair in his hands, heavily breathing. He began to laugh.

 

I hurled myself at him.  “How dare you! It is a peace meeting! You’ve thrown your honor in mud!” Kintpuash pushed me away, his face hardening.  I launched myself at him again, grabbing the scalp from his hand and shaking it at him.  “You claim for honor, but you have none. None!”  Kintpuash hit me then.  He hit my face first.  Frank shouted from his captive position and pulled against the arms of the young warrior holding him.  Kintpuash hit me, again and again, until I no longer felt where his fist fell.  And then his knife, still in his other hand, caught itself against my wrist as I raised my hands to protect myself.

 

As soon as the cut was made, I knew it was dire. The blood was flowing too quickly.  I felt dizzy, and I fell.

 

****

 

I lie on the ground of a tent belonging to the U.S. Army.  I can hear voices raised in anger, in indignation, in horror and in shock.  For some reason there is a puddle beneath me, even though I am protected from the elements, and I can see that the day is sunny.  I open my eyes, and see Kintpuash above me.  He is shouting back at a man, held with his arms behind his back, whose face is red with the vehemence of his shouts.  Frank.  Kintpuash still has killing in his eyes, and I am almost relieved when he turns away from Frank and toward the chairman.

 

I roll over onto my stomach.  It is so difficult to get my legs beneath me, and so I manage only a crawl.  I drag myself toward the chairman.  The scalp falls from my hand and lies in the trail my wrist leaves in my wake.  As I make it to the feet of the chairman, a hush falls.  Every warrior, every soldier, watches my painful trek across the tent.  Panting with exertion, I push myself to standing, balancing against an overturned chair.

 

“Kintpuash, stop!  They will kill you for this.  Try you in a white man’s court, and hang you from the trees!”

 

“They all deserve to die! They are dogs.  They reveled in the killings at our village. You heard them! Laughing!” He lunges at the chairman with his blade, but I lurch between them. The motion causes a fresh gush of blood to roll down my leg. Kintpuash looks in horror at my face, drained pale and remarkably similar to his mother’s. I find my voice. I hear the voices of all the senselessly dead in each word.

 

 “You will have to kill me first!  Do Modoc kill women and children, Kintpuash? Do they kill babies?”  His eyes slowly lower down to my skirts, where the lifeblood of my second son stains me. The knife falls from his hand, and lands at my feet. I hold his gaze as more soldiers rush into the tent and bind him.

           

 

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I am participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.  It is my first time, and this is my first story.

The idea is that you write a story, based on specific prompts, in a specific word count, in a specific time frame.  I am enamored of the word specific today.

I’m not pleased with my story entirely.  This is what was submitted to the judges by deadline, but I have been working on it and it may re-appear, revised and enhanced, at a later date.

———-

Prompts:

Genre – Suspense
Subject – Online Dating

Character – A Taxi Driver
Word count limit – 2500
———-

VirtuaLife

Most people look for love online, but sometimes love comes hunting for you.

*

I pull against the bindings around my wrists. At least my hands are bound in front of me, rather than behind.  I need to have a plan, but the only thing I can think of is Jaz. She’ll be worried, but if it were not for her, I wouldn’t be bound in the basement of a psychopath.

*

I met Jaz the first week of my job at VirtuaLife (originally VirtuaLove), the company that had taken online dating from its original form into a completely immersive social environment. Jaz rescued me from the dusty Archives division, where I was sorting ancient documents. She showed me where the canteen was, and where I could find freshly filtered air.

Three months later, my position was made permanent, and Jaz took me under her tiny wing. Although Jaz came up to my shoulder and weighed less than my shoes, her spark had brought me out of my shell.  We sat in my apartment, an empty bottle of wine between us.

“Come on, Sarah! You already have a dermachip. It’s really easy to link you up”.

“My chip is only for banking and identity verification.”

“No.  Well, it could be, if you want to be BORING. Here, I’ll show you mine.”

Jaz sat in front of the Household Terminal and directed it to engage with her chip. Jaz’s holofigure appeared in front of us.  I laughed.

“Not exactly true to life, is it?”

Jaz giggled and shook her hips. Her voluptuous holofigure mimicked her every move.  Not a bit of subtlety was wasted on this avatar.  Long, fuchsia hair curled down her back. Large breasts, a microscopic waist, and the longest legs I had ever seen graced my living room.

“Do you secretly want to be tall?” I asked Jaz.

“Shut it, you.  That’s the luxury of VirtuaLife. You can be whatever you want to be. You should see some of the others!”

“I’m not sure I want to!”

“It’s freeing, like wearing a mask.”

I brought my hands to my face, running fingers over the broken bones of my nose, and exploring my jutting cheekbones.  “I don’t want to wear anymore masks.”

Jaz raised her eyebrow at me. “Well, you’re a ‘Tural, then.  I should have guessed.”

Jaz spoke command prompts into the display.  Within 15 minutes, a near replica stood before me.  I walked slowly up to it, until my face was only inches away from…my face.  Brown, mid-length hair framed pale skin.  A slightly more crooked nose sat above lips just a touch thinner and less lush. Almond-shaped brown eyes with arresting flecks of yellow stared back at me.

“Your dermachip and its peripherals direct her.  It picks up every change in your biometric – knows what you want to do before you do.  You’ll feel cold through her skin.  When she eats something, you’ll taste it. When someone touches you,” Jaz grinned broadly, “You will definitely feel that. Any avatar you create attached to your chip will learn what you like and how you respond all on its own. Come on, I’ll show you a mingle center.”

Jaz spoke more commands into the system, and soon we stood in a room full of outrageous people.  I stared in awe at a man covered entirely in tiger fur.  Jaz yanked me away.

“You’re older than me, and you’re like a kid on their first trip to the zoo.”

“Zoo seems the correct term for this.  Maybe circus!”

“We need to set your preferences.  I already input your vitals. You’re entirely ‘Tural, you could easily run off to some commune in the woods.  So, what are you interested in?”

“Interested in?” I asked.

“What are you looking for in a relationship? Men, women, multiples, experimentals?”

“Oh.” I paused.  “Men. Only men.  Serious, monogamous relationships only.”

Jaz stopped in her tracks.  “Monogamy? NO ONE does monogamy any more.  Are you serious?”  Jaz sat on a couch nearby, stunned.  “I know you’re a ‘Tural, Sarah.  But are you also Trad?”

I sat next to Jaz, covered my face in my hands, and nodded.

“I was married.” I dropped my hands from my face and looked at Jaz.  “I moved here and started working at VirtuaLife when I left Sam.”

“You were married?  Whoa. I’ve never met someone who was Trad, and I definitely never met anyone who was married.  But Trads don’t get divorced, do they?”

I looked back at the array of characters mingling near the bar.  “Sam was never mentally stable.  And then my Dad…died.  Sam was over the edge. Awful, abusive, controlling. I had to get away or I would have died there, too.”

Jaz’s green eyes filled with tears.  She looked away, studying the carpet. “You know if I put that you’re interested in men only, for a serious, monogamous relationship, you will get absolutely no hits. Ever.  Right?”

“Hah.  That’s the idea.”
*

We woke in my living room, surrounded by empty wine bottles.  I pulled a wet strand of hair out of my mouth, and stumbled to the kitchen.  Coffee and fried eggs revived us enough to have a quiet conversation.

“I don’t think I like VirtuaLife.”

Jaz snorted. “Well, it’s not suited to you.  At least THAT part of it.  Still, you can use it for all sorts of things.  It’s not just dating, like in the Old Days.  Back then most people were traditionals, and everyone wanted to get married.”

I tossed a cushion at Jaz’s head.  “Seriously, what else can I do there?”

“Well, you can take courses.  You can learn another language, or how to fly an airplane.  Or you can do all of your fitness courses – cycling, Tai Chi, Pilates, karate, basketball…”

My eyes perked a bit, then squinted again as the light of day hit wine-sensitive nerves.  “Really? I can learn those things?”

“Sure! I’ll show you.”

*

Two days later, I saw Sam.  Or thought I saw Sam.  Wiry, lean shoulders brushed with longish hair only a car-length ahead of me on the train into work.  I rushed off at the next stop. I ducked into a quiet doorway to calm myself and fumbled with my anxiety pills.  I could hear my pulse thrumming in my throat.   I noticed a City Cab parked across the road and rather than returning to the station, I placed my wrist under its scanner. The voice said “Welcome, Sarah.  You are a new user.  Please set your driver preferences and speak your destination.”

Creating my Cabatar™ took almost no time at all. I described my driver unconsciously, and gave the address for all my regular destinations. When the preferences were loaded and the Cabatar™ appeared in the driving seat, I sat back against my own seat, breathless; as if a great weight pressed me.

“Hello, Sarah.”

“Hi. It’s good to see you, Da…Charles.”

“Please state your preferred destination.”

*

I shake myself out of the reverie, focusing instead on sounds in the house above.  No footsteps, all quiet. I hadn’t seen anything before, and attributed my pounding headache to the lump originating from the back of my skull.  I know who gave me that.

I worry my hands on the bracelet of mirrors around my wrist. I count them, from the first one to the left of the clasp to the fifth.  Grasping one rounded edge of the mirror’s circle, I press the other edge, hard, into the floor.  The mirror snaps satisfyingly into two pieces, leaving a semi-circle with a sharp cutting edge.  Levering the edge between two strands of the twine is simple enough. I cut my hands free.  My eyes have already adjusted to the dim light shining through the thin basement windows near the ceiling, so I creep toward the stairs and climb to the landing.  The door is locked.  I run my hands over the frame, looking for a weak point.  Of course not.  Sam is not stupid, but…

Sam thinks that I am.

*

The night I knew Sam found me, I called Jaz.  She came straight away to my apartment, and looked at the words on my message terminal.

– Hello, my love.  You always knew I’d find you.

– Do you have a new lover already?

– Did you tell your lover how much you like the taste of me on your tongue?

– Where are you? Why aren’t you answering your messages?

– This is never going to end.

“Holy shinola, Sarah.  This is bad.   We need to take these files to the police.”

“It won’t help.  Trust me.”

Jaz pressed her lips together and bit them.  “Well, I’m not leaving you alone tonight.  I’ll stay here. In the morning, go straight to the office.  Talk to Natalie in HR – she’ll know some resources for handling this. I’m at the Jersey campus in the morning, but should be back in time to have lunch with you and discuss what she says.”

“I’ve been with VirtuaLife for 3 years now.  Do you think the system is vulnerable? Sam’s always been good at hacking into systems.”

Jaz shrugged.  “VirtuaLife is one of the largest online communities in the world.  The security is really strong.”

“Strong like those documents in Archives? VirtuaLife and this damned dermachip – that’s how Sam found me.”

*

I think that was last night.  I’m not sure how long I’ve been here.  I’m not sure where here is. What I am sure of is when I hugged Jaz goodbye this morning and slipped into my City Cab, nothing went as planned.

“Good morning, Charles!” I said, as my Cabatar™ formed in the driver’s seat.  “Destination 1, please.”

Charles’ eyes met mine, and he gave me a pained smile.  The car moved away from the curb. Charles’ usual banter was missing, but I was preoccupied anyway.  After 15 minutes, I noticed we were on a completely unfamiliar road heading out of the city.

“Charles! Destination 1!”

Charles met my eyes in the mirror.  “Destination and user preferences have been changed.”

“What do you mean? Why aren’t you going to the office?”

“I’m sorry, Sarah.  Your dermachip has been over-ridden.  I cannot disclose the new destination.”

“Charles! Stop the car! Let me out!”

“I am not authorized to stop the vehicle or change course until I have reached the programmed destination.”

Panicking, I attempted to open the door.  It was locked.  I flung my shoulder against the door again and again, but it would not budge.

“Please remain seated, Sarah.  The doors will not open until the vehicle has come to a full and complete stop.”

Charles’ words sounded forced even to my ears.  My wide eyes met his anxiously, and I could see the fear in my own eyes reflected in his.

*

The car pulled up to a house at the end of a tree-lined drive with a fountain in the middle of a curving circle.  The house was large but unassuming, old but not ramshackle.  I heard the lock in the door click, and stepped out.  A footstep sounded on the gravel behind me, and everything went black.

*

I sit down in the place Sam left me, my back against the wall.  I’ve wrapped the twine back around my wrists and pinched the loose ends between my thumb and forefinger to make them look tight.  I hear heavy footsteps from the thick-soled work boots Sam likes to wear.  I hear the door click and open. I keep my head down, eyes to the floor.  All I see are rubber soles and double-knots in the laces.

Sam whispers softly.  “Welcome back, Ruth.  Or is it Sarah now? No, it will never be Sarah.  You’ll always be my Ruth.”

Kneeling down, Sam grasps my chin firmly and lifts my face up.  I try to keep my eyes closed, but give in to temptation. I open them and am staring into Sam’s eyes.  Sam’s eyes – wide and clear and the brightest blue I’ve ever seen.  Short, dark lashes frame them.  Four freckles high on the left cheekbone, just brushed by lower lashes. Sam’s clear, focused gaze.

“Your eyes give you away. You changed your face.  But you forgot to change how you live.  There aren’t many Trad ‘Turals in the cities.” Sam’s low, hypnotic voice brushes feathers against my ear.

“You killed my Dad.”

“You can’t prove that.”

“No.  But you did.”

“But I did.”

Sam’s arms are on either side of my head, hands caging me to the wall. We stare into each other’s eyes for a few breathless seconds.  I am fighting – panic and passion and fear and love. I have been naïve all my life, but I have never been stupid.  I can learn new things.  I did learn new things. I am a new thing.

Not breaking eye contact, I bring my arms between Sam’s wrists, knocking them aside.  As Sam tries to correct for balance, I cup both palms and bring my hands in, hard, against Sam’s ears.  A cry of pain echoes in my own ears. I watch in slow motion as arms move defensively to cover pained eardrums.  Just like the sim.  Just like the class.  I pull my arm back, aim for the soft indentation on the left temple, and put every bit of power in my hips and torso behind the punch.  Sam falls to the floor.
I can hear nothing but my own breathing.  I bend down and check Sam’s pulse.  Removing the remnants of twine from my own wrists, I tie Sam’s wrists around the back.

Then I pause.  I trace Sam’s soot-black eyebrow with my fingertips, and I feel that ache of longing – not in my heart, where the storybooks say it should be.  Behind my belly-button, where everything that feeds me goes.  I trail my fingers down Sam’s soft cheek, over Sam’s shoulder, barely brushing the outline of her breast.  Sam, my Sam.

This is why people do not love any more.  Not because it’s better to have more than one lover, but because we want what we love, even if it harms us.  Because being without it makes us want to die.

*

Surprisingly, a City Cab waits out front.  Opening the door, I don’t get in.  Scanning my dermachip, I wait for Charles to appear.

“Sarah! It is good to see you! Hurry, I’ll take you home.”

I glance back at the house, knowing what is in the basement.

“Charles, can she make you tell her where we’ve gone?”

Charles’ eyes soften. He nods.

“Do you have to tell her whether I was in the car?”

Charles hesitates. A small smile illuminates his face.  “No, I don’t have to tell her that.”

“Good.  Drive to the airport, please.  And Charles?”

“Yes?”

“I’ll miss you.”

I close the door.  Charles starts the engine.  Looking back at me one last time, he moves off.  I wait until he has turned onto the main road, and then jog toward the woods.

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