Red Flags 2023

In this gripping psychological thriller, a tormented software engineer, Darren Holt, seeks consolation from his therapist to escape a past riddled with lies, betrayal, and bloodshed. As he delves deeper, long-forgotten warning signs resurface, making him question whether he could have changed his fate had he noticed them before. While an evil force stirs in the city’s shadows, it becomes clear that Darren’s past horrors are nothing compared to the impending nightmare. Dare to unravel the hidden mysteries in this heart-pounding tale that will leave you breathless and craving more.

Returning in 2023.

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Chapter 1: Relevance

“Follow your brain. Your heart is stupid as shit.”

Something is different—something like before but more unsettling.
Dr. Ellis sits across the glass coffee table, waiting to hear the difference. I say nothing with a blank stare at the bouquet of fake flowers centered on the clear surface. While listening to the whirring sound of her oscillating fan, I pick at my fingernail. My legs are numb from sitting on this sofa for so long, and I’m sure that chair isn’t doing any wonders for her, either.
Between the police interrogations and the therapy sessions, I’ve told this story enough times. Saying the words over and over again makes me sick to my stomach.
If I pretend it never happened, it didn’t, at least not in my mind.
Ignore it.
Put it aside.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Lives were lost, and others changed forever.
It’s not something I can toss away easily, no matter how much time has passed.
It’s something so wrong; it’s become a part of me, a part of my history.
When facing the facts of something like this, I convince myself—what’s done is done. There’s no sense in stirring it up. Once the blood, tears, and sweat dry, I can move on. I can bury the events where they belong—in the past.
Why not?
Dr. Ellis drops her head, watching me and waiting for a response.
“Darren, everyone knows you’re not at fault. Why can’t you believe it too?”
I sit quietly and focus on her black dress shoes.
The phrase, ‘What others think of you is none of your business,’ is bullshit. It’s hard living your life when people have already formed their opinions of you based on what they’ve learned from the media. ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ is always their assumption when your face is labeled as a potential suspect on television.
I couldn’t set foot in a grocery store without everyone in the checkout line glaring at me.
Trying to shop while being watched suspiciously from around the corners of the aisles was unnerving.
It wasn’t so much what they were thinking that bothered me, but more of not knowing what any one of them would do at any time.
Occasionally, someone would approach me and say, “You’re that Darren guy from TV.”
They didn’t mean anything by it. They wanted to find out more about what happened. Yet, there was always the fear of being attacked when they would rush up and invade my personal space. My attorney advised me not to discuss the details of an ongoing investigation. Fine with me. I was sick of talking about it anyway.
The door to Dr. Ellis’ home office opens.
A teenage girl with pretty blue eyes peeks inside with her shiny blonde hair hanging past her shoulder.
“Mom, I need your help with my math homework.”
“I’m with a patient right now, honey.”
The daughter smiles at me. It’s a familiar expression from someone I once knew close to the same age. I smile back, careful not to let a tear break free.
“Put it aside for now,” says Dr. Ellis. “I can help you when I’m finished.”
Watching her daughter leave the room, I think Dr. Ellis is right—None of this is my fault.
Not long ago, when I read the headline of the Kansas City Star, ’36 Year-Old Software Engineer Cleared of All Charges,’ I was relieved. Not because I was innocent. I already knew that. But, my salvation came from the public finally knowing the truth: I was just another victim.
Even then, therapy was going nowhere.
It didn’t take long for me to discover the contradiction between ‘getting things off your chest’ and ‘not digging up the past.’
All I want to do is move on with my life.
Anytime someone brings it up, I want to shut down and pretend I can’t hear them.
I want to forget, but who am I kidding?
The past is like reopening the gash on my left arm. The wound has closed, but a scar remains whether I choose to ignore it. Unlike a healed wound, the battle between memory and sanity is not improving.
To make matters worse, I’m tormented by something else these days.
“What is it?” asks Dr. Ellis. “You said something is different. I can’t help you with what you don’t tell me.”
Wiping my eyes, I go back to picking at my fingernail. The salty taste of a tear numbs the tip of my tongue.
Here goes nothing.
She’s sure to think I’m crazy.
“Do you remember in school when they taught us we only have five senses?” (Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch.) “I was never superstitious. There’s no evidence to suggest a higher power exists, and I firmly believe everything happens as a result and not for a reason. But the universe is a tricky place, and I wonder now if it was trying to tell me before things went terribly wrong.”
Dr. Ellis scribbles a few words on her notepad.
Is that it? Does she think I’m crazy?
Even if I lean closer, I can’t read her handwriting.
“Are you referring to precognition?” she asks. “A sixth sense?”
Shaking my head, I nibble my fingernail.
“I told you; I don’t believe in that shit. Besides, I don’t see the future; I see things in the past. New things.”
Dr. Ellis hasn’t noticed the rash on the back of my neck until I start rubbing at it.
I tell her it’s from the shower.
I tell her my water heater needs repaired.
But she’s not buying it.
I won’t bother adjusting the temperature if the water is too hot for my skin. Somehow, I think I deserve the pain it inflicts. The warm droplets trickling from my chin remind me of the blood that once sprayed my face.
Dr. Ellis sighs and jots some more notes down on paper.
“Darren, self-harm is never an answer to your—”
“It’s not intentional.” I shake my head. “I don’t do it on purpose; it happens. Whether or not it’s supposed to happen is why I allow it.”
“You don’t let it burn you.” Perplexed, she scoffs. “Wait, what do you mean you allow it to happen?”
The collar of my shirt is thick enough to cover the rash.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Dr. Ellis scribbles some more, and still, I can’t read any of it.
“Unlike before,” I say, “More details seem to stand out.”
Her hand stops writing, and she listens.
My cuticle peels back, tearing the skin and revealing some blood.
“When I replay the scenes in my head, I see physical objects out of place or even hear spoken words. They somehow seem relevant but never caught my attention before. Subtle innuendos or references to a particular situation will pop into mind.”
Dr. Ellis, my therapist, pushes a strand of loose blonde hair behind her ear.
“It’s not uncommon. The brain can only process so much information at once. Any time there’s trauma, details can get lost. Sometimes they resurface when enough time has gone by.”
Not these things.
Not like this.
I disagree by shaking my head while sucking on my sore fingertip.
“They were there the whole time, waving to me when shit was about to hit the fan, but I didn’t see them.”
Omens, if you will.
“Had you picked up on them,” asks Dr. Ellis, “do you think they would have made a difference in the outcome? Would they have made any difference at all? You don’t believe in that sort of thing anyway, so what does it matter?”
My eyes glare at the carpet like Superman trying to burn a hole in the ground, and it takes every bit of strength I have not to break down and cry.
This frustrates me, not knowing.
“Whether I would have believed them or not, I was never given the option. The reality is, I will never know for sure if they meant anything at all, but curiosity is what’s driving me nuts. I want to move on, but I can’t without laying these thoughts to rest. Most of all, there’s an even bigger question that bothers me: Why are these things just now coming to light?”
Dr. Ellis rises from her seat and sets her notepad on her table.
Peeking into the hallway, she listens to the distant sounds of a news anchor broadcasting from the television in the living room.
Something about the children.
Something about ‘keeping an eye on things.’
Something about the city and a nightmare.
After closing her office door, she sits beside me on the sofa, and I move aside with a slight push.
It’s hard for me to remember specifics when I’m put on the spot. If she asks me to name something, I’ll have to think about it.
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s try this. I want you to pretend I’ve never heard about what happened. I want you to return to where it started and tell me your story from the beginning.”
My stomach tightens in a knot.
My palms glaze with sweat.
My throat burns when I swallow.
It takes a moment for me to settle into the idea, but I understand what she’s asking of me.
Hopefully, she will get where I’m coming from.
Hopefully, she can comprehend the details I’m referring to.
Hopefully, she’ll understand and won’t think I’m crazy.
Both of my elbows rest on my knees.
Both of my hands press against my forehead.
Both of my eyes close and I take a deep breath.
When blood is shed and lives are destroyed, there’s no one to trust, not even yourself.
People told me to look at the bright side.
‘At least you’re still alive,’ they would say.
Sometimes I wish I could trade places with those not so fortunate, those who couldn’t walk away.
In retrospect, I think the dead may have gotten the better end of the deal.
The grass is always greener, I suppose.
Some things are worse than death.
Living with an injury, an illness, a loss. Having to wake up every day in pain and torture from things you can’t control. It seems wrong for me to complain because my suffering isn’t physical.
One of the worst things you can do to someone is break their heart and destroy their soul so they can never love again. Nevertheless, we were all victims somehow, regardless of the difference between survival and demise.
If Dr. Ellis thinks it will help explain things better, I’m compelled to tell this story again with these resurfaced memories despite how much I hate doing so. I’ll have to relive it once more to make sense of it all.
That’s what Dr. Ellis wants me to do.
She wants me to tell her my horrifying experience but this time, with all the red flags’ in their place.

Chapter 2: Food for Thought

Ronald was an aspiring entrepreneur who I met years ago after finishing college. I graduated as one of the top students in my software engineering class, and once we became friends, he offered me the opportunity to go into business with him.
Unfortunately, over time, the business made its path far from what we intended. Soon enough, he became more of a boss to me than a partner.
Standing in the doorway to his office, nibbling on my bottom lip with a laptop and a stack of papers under my arm, I waited as he finished talking to someone else on the phone. Once my presence was known, he held up his finger, gesturing for me to wait a minute before saying anything. Then, he ended his call, smirking like he was pretty proud of himself. For what, I don’t know. I gathered the sense he was waiting for me to ask him, but I never did.
Pulling open my laptop, I set it on his desk so he could see the hundreds of lines of code I had been working on.
“This won’t end well.”
As the owner of a software company, Ronald knew very little about programming. I never saw him do anything on a computer besides browsing the web or checking his email. He didn’t bother to look through any of it. It was apparent he didn’t care.
“Do you remember all the other times you’ve come to me stressed out like this?” he asked.
I dropped the stack of papers on his desk—a printed version of the same code on my computer—thirty-five pages stapled together. Red marks next to all of the errors covered each sheet. The scribbled mess was a hard copy of my countless hours getting nowhere.
“This needs to be written in a newer language,” I said. “One that I don’t have the time to learn.”
“Relax. You’ll get through it.”
My frustration vented with a short sigh.
“What you’re promising these clients can’t be done this way.”
“Not once have I doubted you, even with your tendency to overthink things.”
To explain the issue to Ronald was pointless. I’m not sure why I even thought to bother with him. I wasn’t coming to him to help me troubleshoot.
Regardless, I didn’t bother asking because I already knew his answer. If a solution involved spending money, he would try to find a subtle excuse to use as a way around it. No matter how much I would make a rebuttal, eventually, he would end the debate with a sturdy ‘no.’
Ronald closed my laptop.
“I don’t care how you get from point A to point B, as long as it works.”
“You want me to rig it?”
“If that’s what you have to do.”
“Quality standards,” I replied, scoffing.
He shrugged.
Disappointed, I hung my head and gathered my things.
Ronald was once a handsome guy, but over the last few years, he had become as careless about his appearance as he was with the issue at hand. His hair was frizzy and untrimmed. His dress shirt was un-tucked because his stomach had grown too large for its size.
“I’m leaving for the day,” he said. “My wife is cooking dinner, or at least that’s what she calls it.”
My cell phone buzzed from my khaki pants pocket, but I ignored it.
Whomever was on the line couldn’t fix my problem, so answering their call was not my priority.
Ronald stuffed his briefcase under his arm and jingled his keys.
“Darren, how long have you been working on this?”
“In hours or days?”
He chuckled.
“You’ll be fine. See you tomorrow.”
Ronald’s clients were paying a hefty amount of money for a functioning application. This project would have been done a long time ago had there been someone else, another programmer, to share the work. It was too much for me to handle alone, but if I wanted to keep my job, I would have to bear my frustration and find a solution on my own.
Ronald wouldn’t have risked his reputation or his company’s good name if he weren’t confident I could finish it before the deadline. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself, but I would later learn of his different reasons for keeping me occupied.
After a second buzzing of my cell phone, I thought: To hell with it.
To hell with this day.
My best friend Jeremy was that afternoon, my savior. Answering his call led me to leave my troubles at the office and go straight to the closest tavern.
It wasn’t far, and I knew I’d beat him there, so I picked a secluded area of the bar and ordered a pitcher of beer with two frosty cold mugs.
Two old pool sharks were knocking a cue ball around, a couple next to the jukebox was selecting songs to spend their dollar on, and four people were finishing their dinner and drinks at one of the tables.
One of these four people was Miranda Neal, dressed in a dark skirt and black ankle-high boots. A classy young woman who wore little makeup, though she didn’t have to wear any at all. Her bright blue eyes complimented her smooth, dark-chocolate brown hair that fell past her shoulders.
One wouldn’t expect to see a gorgeous woman hanging out in a rundown place. She belonged in a fancy restaurant with expensive wines and exotic foods, not a hole-in-the-wall tavern with beer specials and menus of deep-fried whatever. Still, no matter the location, there was never a time someone didn’t turn heads when she walked in. She was sexy and definitely caught my eye.
Another woman at the table was Faith, a close friend of Miranda’s and only a few years older. Faith was attractive, busty, and also a brunette. She wore her top intentionally too small, so it emphasized her figure. Faith had no relation to Miranda, but the two could have easily been mistaken for sisters.
The ladies were in the company of two high-class gentlemen in their early forties-fraternity boys all grown up and turned into stockbrokers. Faith was on an evening date with Wayne, her pick of the week. Miranda sat next to Thomas, Wayne’s friend and wingman for the evening.
“I never knew you owned a motorcycle,” said Faith, “You don’t seem the type.”
“There’s a type?” Wayne asked.
“When I think of motorcycles, I picture a bald head, tattoos, and leather jacket.”
Wayne laughed and turned to Miranda.
“Does she stereotype all guys like this?”
Miranda took the last sip of her cranberry vodka. She didn’t seem to be engaging much with the rest of the group. Perhaps it was because, when it came to being out with Faith, she had become used to being in the same scenario, only with the men being different.
“I never know what’s going on in her head,” she replied.
“Hush it, little girl,” said Faith. “You can be as bad as I am.”
Intrigued, Thomas smirked and pushed his arm along the back of Miranda’s chair, leaning over to her side.
“Oh really?”
Miranda smiled to be polite but sat forward in her seat.
“She might be exaggerating,” she replied, squinting her eyes at Faith.
Finally, my friend Jeremy arrived to interrupt my almost nauseating observations of the flirtatious games within the small group. He entered through the door when a man sitting at the opposite end of the bar caught my attention.
The gray streaks in his hair and well-groomed beard made him look slightly older than he was. What stood out to me was the pierced diamond stud in his left ear. It was the first time I’d seen a grown man with an earring since the nineties.
As Jeremy walked past him, the man raised his hand to signal the bartender for a refill of his fishbowl of beer and the glass of whiskey he was nursing. My certainty that he wasn’t there a moment ago puzzled me. Maybe he had moved from somewhere else in the tavern, but I was sure I would have noticed in such a small place. Obviously, he had been there long enough for his first round of drinks, but in some mysterious way, it seemed he had shown up out of thin air.
Jeremy whizzed past him, extending his arm to mine. Our handshake transitioned into a brief hug and a pat on the back. He and I had known each other since grade school. We knew each other so well that sometimes we would finish each other’s sentences. We could tell each other anything. We could crack jokes between us that could be offensive to others. We knew more about each other than we knew about ourselves. So I could tell something was wrong when he called me to meet him for drinks before sunset.
“I bought us a pitcher, but you look like you might need something a little stronger.”
“Beer is fine.”
Filling his mug, I was careful not to create too much foamy head on the top.
“You told me before you quit drinking, or at least you would cut back.”
“When your girlfriend uses you being drunk as an opportunity to pick a fight over stupid shit, it becomes an expendable habit.”
Jeremy dropped his weight on the bar stool and sighed as if setting down a heavy load. He took a huge gulp from his beer like he’d thirsted all day.
“How are things with Victoria?” I asked.
Jeremy wiped his chin, shook his head, and sat his glass down before answering.
“You would have to ask her, but she’s not much of a talker these days. Then again, it might only be me she’s not speaking to. Something is wrong, but I don’t know what. Sometimes I feel like there’s some obstacle blocking the road, and she and I are headed right for it.”
“What makes you say that?”
He took another sip of beer.
“Gut instinct.”
Victoria was someone I had known since before she and Jeremy started dating. She was a sweet girl, always a bright spirit, and when I introduced them, she immediately fell in love with him. Not once had I ever expected her to be unfaithful to anyone, but that was my first assumption.
“Do you think she’s cheating on you?”
“You’re not around her like I am. She’s never home, and when she is, she has no interest in me. She’s always on her phone, texting someone, but refuses to tell me who it is. She takes the longest showers and didn’t start locking the bathroom door until recently.”
Speaking of gut instinct, my own informed me that someone was watching me. Glancing back over my shoulder and across the room, I saw Miranda sitting at her table. The others in her company were involved in their own conversation. She smiled when she realized I had caught her spying on me. I returned a smile, and my heart began fluttering in my chest. The palpitations were nothing of a shock; that’s the effect her face had on anyone.
“I’m really hoping I’m wrong, and she’s just bored with me,” said Jeremy, “That, I can fix.”
Every word he said made it to my ears, but I still had my eyes on Miranda.
“So, what’s new with you?” he asked. “You seem tense.”
Snapping back, I twisted around to face forward again and took a hold of my glass.
“It’s not a Monday, but it feels like one, I think. Ronald has me working so much overtime; it’s hard to keep track of what day it is anymore.”
Jeremy swallowed the last of his beer and slid his glass for me to refill.
“The money is good, though, right?”
“What does it matter when you can’t live a life to spend it on? He doesn’t understand that I can’t rig a new application to work with an obsolete programming language. Hell, I feel like I’m becoming somewhat obsolete myself. What’s taking me weeks to piece together, a college grad could whip up in a few hours.”
Jeremy paused for a brief few seconds before suggesting an idea.
In hindsight, this was likely the beginning of the hell I was about to enter.
Knowing what I know now, I wish he had kept his damn mouth shut.
“You should start your own company,” he said.
My lips were open to another drink, but they didn’t touch the glass because I had to laugh. Jeremy didn’t mean it as a joke and was curious why I’d give him such a response. His proposition was entertaining, to say the least.
“Get your own office and put the college kids to work for you,” he added.
“Starting a business takes money, clients, and time. I don’t have any of those.”
Glancing behind me again, I saw Miranda laughing and chatting with her friends. For a second, I entertained Jeremy’s idea, thinking a beautiful girl like her was out of my league and maybe if I had my own business, I could rank in a higher class like the guys at her table.
“C’mon, man,” he said. “No excuses.”
“I’ll think about it.”
The time on Jeremy’s watch was his cue to finish his beer.
“I’m going to head out. Victoria’s not expecting me back for a while, but if I get there early, maybe she and I can sit down and have a sincere conversation.”
He extended his fist out in front of me.
“Starting your own software company…food for thought.”
Curling my fingers into a fist, I lightly bumped it against his and agreed.
“Food for thought.”
Jeremy left as quickly as he had come in. Watching the door close behind him, I once again took notice of the man sitting alone. The bartender had refilled both his drinks, and he appeared content and private.
Sipping my beer, I considered Jeremy’s idea. I wondered if it were an option that would possibly make my life better, even though it seemed so far out of reach. The probable outcomes consumed my thoughts so much that I failed to notice for a second time that my gut and brain were signaling I was being watched. This time, Miranda saw me sitting alone.
“Do we need another round?” asked Wayne.
“I think we do,” replied Faith.
He touched Faith’s back and moved his mouth close to her ear.
“Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“Maybe I am.”
She and Wayne giggled flirtatiously, and she bumped her shoulder against his chest.
“I think I’m good for now,” said Thomas, finishing his dirty martini and looking at Miranda, wishing she would be as kittenish with him as Faith was with his friend.
Miranda set her purse on top of the table and produced her wallet.
“I’ll be right back.”
My focus was on the clear streaks my thumb was making as it ran along the condensation of the mug. I was so deep in thought I didn’t notice the stunning young woman beside me.
The bartender stepped over, wiping his hands with a towel.
“Another round, please,” said Miranda, her voice like an angel.
The bartender nodded and stepped away to make her drinks.
As I picked up my glass to savor another taste of my ale, Miranda turned to me, waiting with a puny grin.
“Beer is disgusting,” she said, retrieving her debit card from her wallet.
When our eyes met, I felt my face flush. The pounding in my chest returned even more intense this time. The strange man at the end of the bar had overheard Miranda’s statement and added his two cents.
“It’s an acquired taste.”
If he wasn’t drunk, I assumed he was well on his way to being so.
Miranda and I exchanged smiles as the bartender returned with two dirty martinis and two cranberry vodkas. I glanced at them as he sat them on a tray.
“Vodka. It tastes like something I could use to disinfect my bathroom.”
Miranda handed her debit card to the bartender.
“Not if you mix it with something sweet.”
I realized I was nibbling on my bottom lip but wondered for how long and stopped the embarrassing fixation.
“Buy me a drink,” I said.
She looked at me as if I were crazy before laughing and swiping a dangling strand of her hair behind her ear.
“Does that usually work when trying to pick up women?”
“Picking up women? No. When I’m trying to get a free drink? Sometimes.”
The bartender finished running her debit card through the register and returned it to her. As she placed it back inside her wallet, her expression was like she was debating whether to ask her next question.
“Do you want to stay the night with me?”
Amid a generous drink of beer, I almost choked.
“I guess cleverness works, after all. You’re rather forward, aren’t you?”
She grinned, rearranging the drinks on her tray in no specific order. The stir-stick she was spinning pierced through a green olive in one of the martinis.
“It seems like forever since I’ve had the D,” she said.
Looking back at her table, I noticed Thomas sitting beside her empty seat like a bored third wheel, ignored by Wayne and Faith, who playfully flirted with each other.
Looking back at Miranda, I sat momentarily in awe of her beauty.
“Someone as gorgeous as you shouldn’t have a problem finding that.”
Checking to ensure no one at her table was watching, she sat one of the martinis in front of me.
Leaning over, she put her hands on my knees and gazed seductively into my eyes.
“I meant D…as in Darren.”
We both smiled again before she moved in closer and planted a soft kiss on my lips.
All of my concerns vanished momentarily as her mouth opened slightly, and the tip of her tongue briefly touched mine. When our lips separated, my eyes opened again, returning my vision to the same world but not as heavy as before.
“Somebody must miss me.”
“You work too much,” she replied.
My head turned again to see Thomas.
“It seems you are occupied tonight.”
“Oh my God,” she said, briskly standing up straight. “Faith has me keeping the friend of her boy toy entertained.”
Miranda’s voice was always so sweet and soft. It complemented the wink she gave me while she picked up her tray.
“Love me?”
“I do.”
“Stay with me?”
“I will.”
“Marry me?”
Snickering, I blew her a kiss, and her face blushed to almost match the shade of her lipstick.
She smiled again, leaving me behind and returning to her table with the tray.
This is how sly of a girl Miranda was. Thomas had told her he reached his drinking limit for the night, so there was only one martini she would need to order for Wayne. She knew before I did that the second drink was for me. She knew before I even thought to ask. Like playing a game of Chess, Miranda was always a few moves ahead.
The martini looked tasty, but I was tired and didn’t feel like sitting there any longer. With a few big gulps, I finished it quickly. After dropping a twenty-dollar bill on the bar top and weighing it down with my empty glass, I headed toward the exit.
Once the doors closed behind me and I was well on my way, only the strange, lonely man at the bar would witness what I couldn’t.
Miranda sat beside Thomas, distributing the drinks to her other friends.
She removed her cell phone from her purse and held it slightly tilted away from the others so no one could see the screen. After lifting her eyes to make sure I was gone, she typed and sent a text message to someone else.

Chapter 3: Tourniquet

Jeremy set his keys on a side table next to a collection of unopened mail. Leaning against the arm of the couch was a throw pillow and a crumpled-up blanket at the other end as if someone had been sleeping there.
Weeks before, the place was spotless. Victoria and Jeremy were adamant about keeping a clean home, one of the many things they had in common, and neither had to worry about picking up after the other.
On a typical day, Jeremy would have come home to find Victoria waiting to greet him, excited for him to kiss and hug her as though he’d been away for years.
This time, however, her absence was of no surprise.
Stumbling over dirty laundry clustered along the bedroom floor, he went to the nightstand to turn on a lamp. Their queen-size bed was unmade and a mess. Clean clothes were neatly folded in separate stacks next to a laundry basket containing a small, uneven number of socks. The closet door was half open, with empty hangers dangling in view.
He slowly scanned the room.
The humid air in the bathroom smelled of scented body wash. The perpetual whirring sound from the ceiling exhaust fan powered on when the lights above the mirror illuminated. A collection of beauty and hygiene supplies covered the counter space. The toilet seat was up, and the shower curtain had been left open.
Jeremy’s blue bath towel hung neatly folded on the rack.
Victoria’s red towel lay in a heap on the floor beside the tub.
He kneeled to pick it up, discovering it was damp and warm.
Curiously, he slid open the drawer of the counter only to find what should have been there: nail clippers, a box of cotton swabs, some hand lotion, and other miscellaneous personal care items.
Pushing the drawer closed, he opened the cabinet underneath the sink.
Everything was as it should be. Cleaning products and a pillar of three extra toilet paper rolls stacked on top of each other. As he began closing the cabinet, something behind the tower of bath tissue caught his eye.
Jeremy pushed the paper rolls to the side, finding a cosmetic mirror hiding in the back. It was clean except for a tiny smudge on the surface made by someone’s fingerprint. On top was a slightly rusted razor blade. Bewildered, he examined it and was startled by the sound of the front door closing from the other room.
Quickly returning the mirror to its place, something unusual grazed his hand—something rubbery, like latex. He removed a single red tourniquet from the back, the same kind used in hospitals. Jeremy was even more puzzled. Neither he nor Victoria had any reason to have such a thing in their home.
“Hello?” a young woman’s voice called.
Jeremy returned the tourniquet to its place and closed the cabinet, leaving everything as though nothing had been touched.
“You’re home!”
Flicking off the lights and the fan, he briskly walked to the living room.
Victoria dropped her purse to the floor next to the sofa and her keys on top then stopped to check the messages on her cell phone. The light from its screen brightened her hazel doe-eyes and reflected from the gloss on her lips. Her straight brown hair cupped around the sides of her smooth face and curved outward at her chin. It appeared clean but dry, not recently washed, which wouldn’t explain the wet towel by the tub.
“Where were you?” he asked.
Shoving her phone into her pocket, Victoria swiftly walked past him and replaced the answer to his question with one of her own.
“Did you just get home?”
“A few minutes ago,” he replied. “Were you with anybody?”
She threw off her shirt and headed toward the bathroom.
“Were you?” he added, acknowledging the lack of response to such a simple question.
Victoria flipped on the bathroom lights, unbuttoned her pants, leaned over, and picked up her bath towel.
Jeremy stood watching from the doorway, waiting for her to answer.
“I need to shower,” she said, closing the door in his face.
“Didn’t you just—?”
She briefly paused.
He shook his head.
The doorknob locked with a click, and Jeremy leaned his ear against the surface.
After a moment, the silence was broken by the gush of water from the bathtub. Through the noise, it was hard to hear the cabinet open. For a second, he listened to a mild thump like a small wooden door being closed, but he wasn’t sure. Either way, it wouldn’t have mattered. Jeremy never got the answers to his questions. Why should he believe Victoria would give him an honest explanation for anything else?


One of my earlier therapists tried using hypnosis to treat my stress caused by the aftermath of unfortunate events. He explained hypnosis was like driving a car. You move from point A to point B, and when you arrive, it’s hard to remember passing through intersections along the way. The mind can only focus on one thing at a time and pushes everything else aside. It leaves you wondering if you saw something before signaling you to stop, but your mind was too focused on something else to give it any thought.
Could I have been killed?
What bad things could have happened?
What threats were there?
Were the traffic lights green, or were they red?
That’s what hypnosis is.
To avoid fearful thoughts of being pulled over with beer and martini breath, I spent my commute thinking about how I would rig this project for Ronald. Regardless, now that the day was ending, I didn’t feel I had the energy or desire to work on it until tomorrow. However, the thoughts alone were about as much as I had left to offer and held my attention away from the ride home, making it seem to go by so fast.
As evening turned to night, my laptop and printout remained untouched on the dining room table. Brenna sat across from me while I explained how people used pagers to communicate when I was in high school before cell phones and text messaging became popular.
“We would send numbers.”
“How could you read a message with numbers?”
I slid my coding printout in front of her, flipped it over to the blank side, and began to write.
“Four, then a space. Five, six, eight, three, and then another space. Nine, six, and eight. Now, when you look at the phone’s dial pad, each number has a set of letters underneath it. To decode a message, you had to write down the corresponding letters to determine the words they would form. Can you tell what that says?”
Brenna took the pen from my hand to interpret the message, but it didn’t take her long.
“In five, six, and three,” she said, “I see L, O, V, and E. Nine, six, eight has Y… Oh! I love you.”
“Aw, that’s sweet,” I replied, pursing my lips. “I love you too.”
Brenna smirked and rolled her eyes, tossing the pen back to me.
“That’s so stupid.”
“It is now, but that’s all we had back then. Eventually, we developed simpler shortcuts. For example, if you needed someone to call back because of something important, you would page them with 9-1-1 after the phone number. They would usually catch their attention and know it was an emergency.”
“What’s a shortcut for, ‘I love you?’“
“1-4-3, the number of letters in each word.”
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to call the person and tell them what you had to say?”
Grinning, I chuckled.
“That’s the same thing I asked when everyone started using text messages.”
Brenna laughed with her gorgeous smile and bright teeth. With her shiny golden hair and petite figure, she was every young man’s idea of a girlfriend. Not once did she let all of that attention affect her personality. She was humble and adorable. Her intelligence was something I always admired. That and how she looked at the world through her bright blue eyes as though she already had everything figured out.
She yawned, and as most yawns are contagious, it also made me yawn.
“You’re showing your age,” she said.
I checked my watch when Miranda burst through the front door and locked it behind her. That’s how I knew it was late.
“Mom’s home,” I said, “It looks like she finally escaped from dinner.”
“And I have to change out of these clothes,” she replied.
She kissed Brenna on her forehead and then me on the cheek and vanished in the hallway toward her bedroom, shouting from the back.
“What are you two doing?”
“Darren was explaining how people with pagers sent messages to each other.”
“You’re showing your age, Darren,” replied Miranda from her room.
“That’s what I said,” laughed Brenna, “It was interesting, in a sad way, but now I’m going to bed.”
Pointing my finger at her and clicking my thumb like the hammer of a pistol, I shot her a wink.
“Sweet dreams, kiddo.”
“I’ll be so glad when my birthday arrives, so you’ll quit calling me that.”
Passing by her daughter, Miranda returned dressed in pajamas: soft sweatpants and a tank top.
Brenna wasn’t my child, nor was she of any relation to me, but I teased her like a younger sister. Once she closed herself in her room, her mother plunged onto the sofa.
Miranda always claimed the entire couch. Whenever we sat together, she stretched out with her feet on the armrest while I sat upright on the floor, knees bent to my chest, leaning back. It never bothered me, except when my feet fell asleep from sitting too long. Sharing my discomfort prompted her to tenderly run her fingernails along my back, soothing me.
Both of us were exhausted, but her fatigue didn’t stop her from opening her arms to me, drawing my head to her chest. Although I had my own apartment, being with Miranda felt like home. Her embrace was warm, soft, and cozy, even though I had one leg between hers and the other supporting my weight from the floor. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but I never laid on top of her with all my weight, fearing it would make it hard for her to breathe. However uncomfortable, if she did the fingernail thing on my back, I was out like a light. Instead, she traced a figure-8 pattern on my head and neck.
“How was your day?” she asked.
Her touch was so relaxing I could only speak a broken sentence.
“Work… Frustrating.”
“What was frustrating about it?”
“Do you want me to explain it technically?”
“Not if you’re speaking in nerd talk.”
Even if my day involved dodging hand grenades, coming to Miranda’s home and finding myself wrapped in her arms made me content and stress-free.
“I went to look at a new house today,” she said. “I’m not waiting on you forever.”
Stress-free, no more.
I raised my head, puzzled by her statement.
“I’m sure there are other guys who would jump at the chance to be with me,” she added.
My mouth fell open.
“I’m working my tail off and barely getting by,” I retorted. “I want to support a wife and stepdaughter, but are you really going to push me into marriage with an ultimatum?”
Miranda pulled my head back to her.
“I’m kidding. I know you’re doing your best.”
She pressed my head to her chest. I didn’t think I’d be comfortable again after that statement, but I was wrong. She resumed the fingernail thing, and she kissed my forehead.
“I like Ronald,” she said, “but I hate what he’s doing to you. It was never this bad.”
Returning to broken sentences.
“Seems… Intentional.”
“You should think about going into business for yourself.”
My eyes opened wide, but I refused to move my head away from her.
“You’re the second person to suggest that to me today.”
“You wouldn’t be as stressed,” she replied, “and we could spend more time together.”
I never thought two people close to me giving the same advice on the same day meant something. Maybe it didn’t. A coincidence, nothing more. Yet, hearing the idea a second time made me take it seriously. I worried about Ronald’s reaction. We had worked together for years. Going solo would feel like betrayal.
“Obviously, he doesn’t value your time or opinion,” said Miranda. “Fuck him.”
“I’d like to.”
“You’d like to fuck him?”
“No,” I replied, playfully smacking her arm.
Miranda and I laughed and then shared a kiss. We kissed again, and I faced a dilemma: breathing or kissing? My blood raced, and her hands pressed firmly against my skin. I tried to stand up from the sofa to lead her back to her bedroom. Otherwise, we might be the first thing Brenna would see if she came out of her room.
Miranda didn’t care about the place for our intimate moments. One time, she tried to fuck me in a park on a sunny day. Folks were nearby, just beyond the bushes and trees. I might have been that reckless in my younger years, but not now. Public indecency is against the law; getting caught could cost us a lot.
She wouldn’t let me take her to the bedroom. She wanted me right there, in the living room, not worried about her daughter close by behind closed doors. I tried to pull her up, but she resisted and sat higher on the couch, her back against a mirror. The reflection made the room seem bigger. Leaning against it, her mouth inviting and damp, she reached for the lamp.
The room went dark, lit only by the windows. The night’s blue glow barely let me see her. I touched her face and ran my fingers through her hair. She hugged my waist. My shirt came off. I forgot my worry about her daughter finding us as she explored my chest with her tongue.
Pajama strings are easy to undo, except when knotted.
Miranda’s forcefulness caused the string to snap as she yanked the waistband. Her pants dropped, and I kissed her neck. Her breath grew heavy while my hand moved between her legs.
Pain and pleasure can look the same.
Moments ago, she was winding down in the lamp’s yellow light. Now, she craved me like a wicked being in the dim blue, set to take my soul. Her eyes resembled those of a person getting a fix. My fingers went in, and her eyes and mouth widened. She tried to stay quiet, mindful of her daughter.
Miranda spun me around and pushed me to sit. She gathered her hair, a sign of serious intent. I reached under her tank top and pulled it off. She threw it aside. She leaned in, her mouth working on my lap. The sensation was intense. She was incredibly skilled, making it hard to think.
Soon, she was riding me, her hips swaying. I grabbed her hair, tilting her head back and gently biting her neck. She quickened her pace, struggling to stay quiet. I covered her mouth with my hand, but her knees pressed against my thighs, and her toes curled. A few more thrusts and she’d be lost in bliss. She put her hands on mine, her voice growing louder. We reached the peak together, and our muscles tensed. As the pleasure faded, we relaxed, sharing kisses as we caught our breath. She hugged my neck, pressing my face to her damp chest. The wickedness in her had vanished. Her heartbeat returned to normal, and she was ready to rest again.

Chapter 4: TGIF

The rush for me to get to work was overwhelming. Not because I was running late, but like the morning sun, I felt the day would be bright. I felt confident I could make some progress by looking over the ever-so-dreadful software project with fresh eyes. Deep down, I was more excited to scrape the whole thing from my plate to free up my thoughts to find solutions for starting my own company.
First, there were some things I needed to get from home, including a birthday card for Brenna.
Also, my face was getting prickly.
I showered before leaving Miranda’s, but I didn’t have my razor with me, so I also wanted to stop by my apartment to grab a quick shave. 
Pulling into the lot, the front bumper of my car stopped a few feet away from the back of Jeremy’s parked car. He never mentioned coming by, especially that early in the morning. I found him asleep inside with a black trash bag full of clothing stuffed on the passenger seat.
My knock on the glass startled him.
He rolled down his window, rubbing his eyes. 
“I needed to get away from my place,” he grumbled.
“Have you been out here all night? You could have called. I would have come by to let you in.”
“I figured you were staying at Miranda’s. I didn’t want to bother you.”
Taking a step back, I gave him room to get out.
“It’s not a problem; you know that.”
My small apartment was nothing to gloat about, furnished with only the essentials. It was easy to keep clean and well cared for, only because I rarely stayed long enough to make a mess of it since I spent most of my time at work and with Miranda.
Rushing inside, I hustled to my bathroom. Behind the mirror, in a medicine cabinet, was my razor next to an empty bottle of shaving cream.
I had a computer desk in the dining area instead of a table where I could work from home if needed. Rummaging through some papers on top, I hurried to find the birthday card.
Jeremy stood by in the open area of the living room.
“Your new couch looks good.”
The last time he visited, he was helping me carry that new couch inside. We had such a hard time getting it through the doorway, and at one point, he accidentally let the weight drop from his end, and my shoulder twisted the wrong way. A sharp pain shot down my back.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay. I’m sure it will hurt worse tomorrow.”
I was proud of that sofa. I had spent weeks saving up for it with the shit pay I was getting from Ronald.
Let me rephrase. It wasn’t shit pay. The problem with my job was that clients didn’t know what they wanted and depended on me to create the best software for them.
Almost every time I presented someone with an application I had poured my blood, sweat, and tears into, they wanted me to go back and add their competitor’s features.
No matter how far I had to backtrack and re-write the code, Ronald wouldn’t pay me until the customer was satisfied and the project was complete.
It wasn’t the best way to run things, but he occasionally threw me a bone to get by.
What else was I supposed to do? Quit and start my own business? 
Jeremy sat on the couch with his bag on the floor.
“It needs to be broken in.”
I chuckled, unsure if I had even sat on it yet, and resumed my fast-paced efforts to find the birthday card.
“I don’t want to impose,” he said. “I needed to get away for a little while to clear my head. I don’t know where else to go.”
“No need to explain. You can stay here as long as you like. What’s mine is yours. Mi casa es su casa.”
The search for Brenna’s card cost me minutes I should have spent leaving for work.
Just then, I found the yellow envelope with the card inside. 
Jeremy sighed.
“Last night, before she came home, I was in the bathroom looking under the sink and found a—”
“I have to go,” I interrupted.
I didn’t intend to cut him off mid-sentence, but the clock was ticking.
“I’m sorry. Ronald is going to kill me if I’m late. I’m not letting you sleep in your car. Stay as long as you like. You can crash on the couch, but don’t sleep in my bed.”
When my hand touched the doorknob, I turned to Jeremy, who seemed worried and uncomfortable.
I felt like an ass for rushing away from my best friend in his time of need, so I took a moment.
“My landlord, the old lady living downstairs, will be very confused when she sees two guys staying together in a one-bedroom apartment.”
At first, Jeremy thought I was serious, but he laughed when he saw my failing attempt to keep a straight face.
I told him how I would later spend my evening was up to him. Either I could stay the night at Miranda’s to give him some space or come back after work, and he and I could get drunk.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I need to clear my head.”

While driving to work, a random thought reminded me of the sticker on the back of my computer monitor that read ‘T.G.I.F.’
It was a redundant phrase for me, ‘Thank goodness it’s Friday,’ because it didn’t apply to someone whose days seem to bleed over into the next.
On most weekends, while others were at home working in their yards or taking their boats out to Clinton Lake, I worked on APIs, loading variables, if-then statements, let-statements, arrays, and other technical software jargon.
It wasn’t the life I wanted but the one I had.
That day, however, was different.
Thank goodness it was Friday because the day after was Brenna’s birthday, and Miranda was having a party at their house with friends and family attending.
I felt peppy, waiting at my desk for the progress bar to load on my screen as it rendered a chunk of code I had been working on all afternoon.
Just as I heard Ronald’s footsteps outside my office, the progress bar stopped at 99%, followed by an error message.
Despite our office differences, Ronald was still considered a long-time friend. We no longer associated outside of work, not like we used to. In the past, we’d meet up somewhere for a beer and kick back and talk about other things besides work. Since his marriage, we no longer did anything of the sort. He acted so much like my boss I could barely remember old Ronald, which is why I tried to bring his friendly side back by inviting him to Brenna’s party.
He must have forgotten because he hadn’t mentioned it and was about to leave the office for the day.
“There’s a birthday party tomorrow!” I said.
He stopped and peeked his head inside.
“How much stuff needs to be done here?”
Right away, I knew the fun in Ronald was forever gone. He didn’t forget about the party; he was hoping I would be too swamped with the project to go, which is why he didn’t bring it up. My stomach sank. I worried he would mandate that I come back the next day. Maybe I shouldn’t have felt so guilty about quitting after all. 
“The food starts cooking at eleven.”
He stepped in. 
“Am I still invited?”
I’d be right back at my desk the next day if I said no. I nodded and suggested he bring his wife. 
“She has plans for brunch with her friends. I’d rather her not go, anyway. She’s been smacking my hand for weeks when I reach for anything other than rabbit food.”
“Burgers, potato salad, and cake,” I said, leaning back and rocking in my chair.
Ronald’s face brightened as if someone had just told a child he could watch his favorite cartoon.
“I’ll see you there.”

Chapter 5: Opposition

For something to exist, it needs opposition.
An upside needs a down.
Light needs dark.
Good needs evil.
If you think about it, everything you do results from an infinite number of decisions.
Much like a computer, countless choices are being made.
Zero or one?
Yes or no?
A system answers these tiny questions to move on to bigger ones.
Take colors, for example.
The next time you’re watching your favorite television show, take a moment to appreciate what’s happening underneath the surface. Each of the billions of pixels on the screen has to ask itself, ‘on or off,’ to determine what color needs to be displayed. Collectively, they form an image. If the image has motion, those pixels are constantly making choices. Most of the time, you’re not even thinking about it. Your attention goes to the results, the bigger picture.
It’s a strange example, but this is how the world works on the tiniest of scales. Bits and bytes, cells and molecules, everything is conflicting and competing for the right way to go. It’s a concept that scares the hell out of some people.
What if you make the wrong decision?
How will it affect the world around you?
How will it change your life?
You choose to leave your house or stay inside, and you choose to leave.
You choose to walk or drive, and you choose to walk.
You choose to cross the street, and you do, but it’s a shame you weren’t paying attention to the warning signs ahead because you missed the bus speeding in your direction.
Now you’re nothing more than a smudge on the city street.
No more life to live.
No more dreams to catch.
You’re done.
The only benefit of being killed so quickly is you won’t have a chance to kick yourself for making the wrong choice or wonder what you could have lived for had you taken a different route.

Miranda knew I had wanted a day to sleep in for a long time, the kind of rest where your body has to catch up.
No alarm clock.
No frantic rush to get ready.
Sleep until you can’t sleep anymore.
My eyes opened to the bright sunlight flooding her bedroom. The refreshing warm air breezed through an open window and tickled my skin. After a quick shower and dressing in comfortable shorts and a t-shirt, I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and headed to the back patio.
I couldn’t blame Ronald for his desire to vacate his wife’s forced diet. The delicious smell of grilled hamburgers filled the backyard. The water in the above-ground swimming pool had finally soaked in enough of the sun’s heat over the last week so the younger kids could swim. The sound of them laughing and screaming excitedly to get in made me smile.
One of those children was Brenna’s younger half-sister, Stella. She was around nine or ten years old and as adorable as she was sweet.
Brenna was the daughter of Martin Evans. He and Miranda had been dating when she was pregnant in high school and married shortly after graduation. When they divorced several years later, Martin remarried to Sandra, and the two brought their beautiful daughter, Stella, into the world.
Martin remained very much in Brenna’s life as any good man should. He, Miranda, and the new wife, Sandra, kept their differences aside for Brenna’s sake and were on a friendship basis. Martin was even the one operating the grill that day and held up the spatula to wave when I came outside.
Sandra and Cindy, Miranda’s mother, sat in lawn chairs conversing with some of the neighbors who had joined. A few of Brenna’s friends were lying around on the patio, soaking in the sunshine and doing whatever they were doing on their cell phones. Brenna was inside, changing into her swimsuit, but Miranda was nowhere to be found.
Searching along the yard and around the side of the house, I noticed Jeremy parking his car in the street. I knew he wanted some time to himself, but I couldn’t let him sit alone without inviting him over. Whether or not he would show up didn’t matter; at least he had the option, and I was pleased to see he had accepted the offer. He had never met Brenna before, but he bought her a card. I waited to greet him as he approached the fenced gate, still looking around for Miranda.
“There’s money enclosed,” he said, handing me the envelope. “My mom used to give me a dollar for each year I had a birthday, so I put eighteen in there.”
“I’m sure Brenna will appreciate it.”
The introductions I made for Jeremy served a different purpose. Escorting him around to meet some other guests, I asked if they knew where Miranda had run off to. A few of these people I had never met before, like Paxton, a massage therapist and a friend of Miranda’s. The tall, burly blonde man sat beside Sandra, watching the kids play in the pool. Hanging from the flap of his back pocket was a worn red bandana. It was clear from his expression that Martin didn’t seem too impressed with Paxton being there.
Miranda had to be around somewhere. She would turn up eventually, so I decided to relax and keep Jeremy company seeing how he was a little unsettled from being around so many strangers. Tossing him a beer, I pulled a couple of empty lawn chairs together, and we sat a short distance away from everyone else. People-watching was always something the two of us liked to do. If we were ever in public, at a shopping mall or some special event, Jeremy would often make a crack about someone’s appearance or demeanor. Sometimes he would make up his voice and mumble his hilarious commentary. I’d laugh, but what I enjoyed most about watching total strangers from the sidelines was wondering what was happening inside their heads. What experiences have they witnessed? What are they planning? What are their dreams? Who do they love? Do they feel the same things I do, the same emotions? What intrigued me the most was seeing each individual going about their day, not even noticing I was noticing them.
The radio changed tunes, and Paxton moved to sit in a vacant chair next to the swimming pool. Watching little Stella jumping into the water, he grinned. Martin glanced over his shoulder, squinting at him with suspicion.
Jeremy cracked open his beer.
“Have you given any more thought about running a business?”
“I’m still tossing the idea around.”
“I’m sure you could enjoy more days like this with all the money you would make. Maybe you could buy a boat.”
He was being sarcastic. He knew boating made me nauseous, but he was right; I would have more freedom. Days like that were a blue moon apart for me.
“It makes me wonder,” he said, “Do people who have everything they want in life still enjoy it every day, or does it eventually bore them to death?”
Slightly puzzled, I tilted my head.
“You hardly get to experience a day like this,” he added, “which is normal life to them. What’s a blue moon for them?”
Before I could ponder an answer, our short, philosophical conversation was interrupted by Martin, a new song blasted from the radio, and Martin turned down the volume, shouting for Brenna.
“Come here, please!”
Jeremy and I looked toward the patio at Brenna walking down the steps into the grass wearing her new bikini. Thin bright yellow fabric barely covered her busty chest. The swimsuit squeezed tight to enhance her cleavage, which was shiny from the tanning oil smeared on her skin like the rest of her body. Her matching bottoms hugged her hips, and the edges curved between her thighs. She smirked and shook her head.
“Jesus Christ,” Jeremy whispered.
Martin said nothing, but his eyes quickly rolled to Jeremy briefly. I tried not to laugh.
“Do you have to be so revealing?” Martin asked Brenna.
“I love you, Dad.”
She kissed him on the cheek and returned to the patio to be with her friends. Martin looked at Sandra.
“She’s an adult now,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
Martin closed the lid to the grill, hung the spatula on the hook, and stepped over to argue with his wife. Jeremy leaned over, not far from my ear.
“Is that Brenna’s dad?”
I nodded.
“They look nothing alike,” he said.
As I sat there, stunned by the revelation, I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before. Martin was absolutely right. As he returned to the grill, I studied his features closely. His dark, almost black hair and brown eyes contrasted sharply with his pointy nose. The shape of his mouth and his facial expressions were entirely different from Brenna’s.
I glanced at Brenna as she removed her sunglasses to wipe the smudges from one of the lenses with her beach towel. None of her features matched any of Martin’s. Her nose was rounded, not pointy like his. Her lips were full, not thin. Although they didn’t share facial expressions or gestures, I could still see subtle similarities resembling her mother.
As Stella jumped and splashed in the swimming pool, it was obvious she resembled Martin. There was no denying that he was her father. Meanwhile, Jeremy couldn’t take his eyes off Brenna, clearly captivated by her beauty.
“Girls didn’t look that hot when we were eighteen,” Jeremy remarked.
Martin was about to retort, but I intervened before he could speak. “It’s the hormones in the meat, which I’m starving for,” I said, trying to diffuse the situation.
The burgers were finally done, and I grabbed a paper plate from the picnic table. Next to the condiments were potato chips and a blue cooler filled with ice and soft drinks. Martin announced to everyone that the food was ready, and I scanned the backyard for Miranda. She still wasn’t there. Worried, I called her number from my cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail.
As I glanced over the fence, I noticed Ronald approaching with a small wrapped gift tied with a bright red ribbon. I hurried to open the gate for him, welcoming him to the party.
“You’re just in time,” I told him.
“Excellent. Was Miranda out in front of the house? I thought I saw her when I pulled up. She’s standing next to a car talking to some guy,” Ronald said, clearly concerned.
I patted Ronald on the shoulder and guided him to join the party. Curious, I walked around to the front yard and stopped at the corner of the house when I spotted Miranda. She was leaning against the side of a shiny silver car, talking flirtatiously to Thomas. Suspicion began to gnaw at me. I knew I needed to confront her about her relationship with Thomas, but I also didn’t want to ruin Brenna’s birthday party with my insecurities.
The second I took my first step in her direction, Miranda noticed me. She pushed herself off the car, and Thomas turned to face me. Before I could say anything, he bid farewell and hopped into his car, starting the engine. Miranda met me halfway across the lawn.
“Hey, you. You’re awake,” she said, trying to act casual.
“I have been awake for a while now. Long enough to make it down for the party. What the hell are you doing?” I demanded, unable to mask my concern.
“I was just talking to my friend, Thomas. He couldn’t stay. He came by to wish Brenna a happy birthday,” she explained, attempting to ease my suspicions.
“She’s in the backyard,” I said, still skeptical.
“She was out here a minute ago showing us her swimsuit,” Miranda replied, hoping to convince me that nothing was amiss.
I decided not to press the issue further. There was no reason to darken Brenna’s day with my insecurities. Miranda and I rarely fought, and I didn’t want this to become an issue between us. Although her conversation with Thomas seemed reasonable at the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was going on.


Brenna’s guests began to head home after the gifts had been unwrapped and the birthday cake consumed. In Jeremy’s case, he was heading back to my place. Before he left, I could sense he was having an internal debate, trying to decide on something.
Before he could reach the highway, the stale green traffic light turned yellow and then red. He stopped, gritting his teeth, and smacked the steering wheel.
“Goddamn it!”
It was dark outside, but the red light illuminated the front seat as he waited impatiently for it to change. The clicking noise from the dash matched the flash of the right turn signal. His fingers tapped against the steering wheel. It was the exact moment, the split second; the traffic light turned green when Jeremy changed his mind. He pressed hard on the gas pedal. The tires squealed as they raced across the highway, turning left instead of right toward Victoria’s apartment.
He stopped in the parking lot and got out of the car, still debating whether or not to go in. With each step closer to her home, Jeremy silently argued with himself with reasons to turn back and leave. As he came closer, the porch light went dark. He froze. Only a few steps away, he could hear a commotion coming from inside. The words were mumbled and faint, and though unclear what phrases they formed, they were undoubtedly spoken in a deep voice.
After a short moment came silence, then nothing but the sound of crickets chirping. Light glowed from the window curtains. Jeremy hesitated but pushed himself onward. He gripped the doorknob, slowly turning it and careful not to make a sound.
Inside, it was quiet. Creeping into the living room, he froze again, this time at the sight of a man seated on the couch with his head back and his eyes closed. Victoria was knelt between the man’s knees, with her head planted face down in his lap. The man’s pants were unbuttoned, and her head bobbed up and down to the slurping sounds she made. The man’s thick fingers gripped the back of her scalp, assisting her with the motions. Jeremy interrupted.
“I’m just here to get my things.”
The couple was startled. Victoria’s head whipped around, and she wiped the sides of her mouth with her wrist.
“What the hell?”
The man covered up by stretching his wife-beater tank top down over his baggy jeans.
“Good question,” said Jeremy, turning away and disappearing to the back room. “I’ll only be a minute.”
Victoria caught up to him in the bedroom, where he packed his things.
“I didn’t know who it was with, but I knew something had to be going on. I need my shirts. My shorts…”
“You need to wait,” said Victoria.
“Shampoo, shaving…”
“Shoes. Amazing…”
“All of my stuff begins with an ‘S’,” he said.
Storming toward the front door, Jeremy carried as many of his things as possible. Victoria grabbed the back of his shirt and catapulted herself to stand in his way.
“Don’t leave like this. We can talk about it.”
Jeremy stopped, trying to focus on anything in the room except for her or the speechless younger guy on the couch.
“Get out of my way.”
She put her hands on his chest, refusing to let him by.
“Stop it. Please, stop.”
His blood boiled to the point when he finally snapped.
Silence fell thick.
Victoria’s eyes glistened.
Her mouth opened, but no words came from it.
A single tear fell from her eye, over her chin, and dropped to the floor.
“Fine,” she said, trembling her lips. “Get out of here.”
With his hands full, Jeremy used his foot to gently push the door aside and calmly walked out. The other guy slowly stood from the couch and held his unbuttoned pants so they wouldn’t fall. He wasn’t sure of what to say or whether or not he should say anything. Victoria watched from the porch as Jeremy threw his belongings into his car and drove away.


Back at the house, my eyes burned from staring at my laptop on Miranda’s dining room table. Brenna was lying on the couch and flipping through photos on social media. Her bare feet rested on Miranda’s lap, who was also scrolling through her phone. The last few hours of the day left the three of us bored. Initially, I had vowed to make it through an entire day without doing anything work-related, but I knew the issues with the project were still waiting for me. I thought I would try and mess with it while I had some free time. Outside, a rumble of thunder preceded the patter of raindrops on the windows.
There went the progress bar again: Four percent… Fifty-six percent… Eighty-three percent… Ninety-six…
Beep. Error.
“Son of a bitch!”
My elbows rested on the table, and both my hands covered my face. Brenna stopped and nudged Miranda, who was paying no attention to my frustration.
Miranda’s fingers stopped dabbing on her phone’s screen. Brenna nodded, signaling to her mother there was something wrong with me. Miranda got up and put her hands on my shoulders, gently massaging them.
“What’s the matter?”
“Solving one problem creates ten more,” I said, feeling the weight of my work-related issues bearing down on me.


The lightning from the same thunderstorm flashed through Victoria’s window, casting eerie shadows across her tear-streaked face. Curled up on her sofa next to her friend, she twisted a wet tissue and sniffled, wiping her nose.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen like this. I wanted to tell Jeremy, but I didn’t know how.”
Nicholas, the man Jeremy caught taking advantage of his girlfriend’s mouth, sat watching her wipe her face. Sex was now out of the question. Being caught face-fucking someone’s girlfriend is a pretty big way of killing the mood, especially when the girl is upset about it.
“Maybe it’s better this way,” he said, “the Band-Aid has been ripped off. He knows it’s over.”
“I’m sure the sight of us together is killing him.”
“He will be fine. You’ve got me now. I can take care of you.”
If you asked me to sum up Nicholas in a single word, that word would be ‘downgrade.’ Someone forgot to tell him he should stop dressing like a teenage hoodrat when you’re an adult. Jeremy was good for Victoria. It would have had to take something very persuasive to make her ditch him for that piece of shit. Nicholas must have had something that Jeremy didn’t.
“I know what will make you feel better…” said Nicholas, digging deep into his pocket. He produced a small plastic baggy of brown powder about the size of a dime. “…Just like it always does.”
Victoria gazed intensely at the bag. Her fingers were just out of its reach when Nicholas jerked the bag away, holding it next to his head. She smiled, wiped her face, leaned over, and touched his chin. They kissed soft and long, and Nicholas folded the tiny bag in the palm of her hand.

Chapter 6: Boom!

The annoying thing about programming is that most software used for writing code is no good at pinpointing mistakes. It only highlights a line or block of code where it believes errors may lurk. You must scrutinize each character, comma, and digit, reviewing every detail to determine what went wrong.
When I pressed a key on the keyboard, it showed all the sections of code where errors might be hiding. Miranda leaned over my shoulder to examine the small, red triangle marks beside each block.
“What are those flag things?” she asked.
“Warnings,” I replied.
“About what?”
“That this whole thing could fall apart.”
“Just relax,” she said, sliding her arms under mine and wrapping them around my chest. Her chin rested on my shoulder. “Everything is fine.”
“Ronald will have to extend the deadline. That’s all there is to it.”
Miranda sighed, pulling away.
“Great. Then it’ll take longer for more important things.”
She went back to her phone, finishing her message. I could have been upset about her comment, but she was right; my work was holding me back from more important things.
“You should quit,” said Brenna, giggling. “If you start a business, you can be rich. Then you can buy me a car and take me shopping, so I don’t have to get a job.”
“Yeah, Darren,” added Miranda, “I’ve always wanted to marry a rich guy.”
The two of them teasing me made it hard to stay angry. I couldn’t help but laugh along when they started laughing. More thunder rumbled, shaking the windows. The harder the raindrops hit the glass, the larger they appeared to be. Brenna got up from the couch, walking toward her bedroom.
“My phone is dead, and so am I. Goodnight.”
“Happy birthday, kiddo.”
As she walked past me, she smacked the back of my head.
“I’m not a kiddo anymore, remember?”
Miranda offered me a strong drink, and I told her I thought she’d never ask. She noticed me leaning back in my chair, looking down the hallway toward Brenna’s room, deep in thought.
“What’s the matter?”
“Something Jeremy said to me at the party today.”


Far away, the rain fell as hard outside my apartment as it did at Miranda’s house. Jeremy’s front bumper scraped across a parking block as he parked crookedly, with the back wheel a foot over the white line. Stumbling out of the driver’s seat, he slammed the door loudly enough to wake the neighbors. The elderly lady living below my apartment, the landlord, stood at her kitchen window, watching a drunk Jeremy crawl up the steps.
Inside, he tossed his keys toward the couch but missed. They landed on a table, knocking the TV remote to the floor. He made his way into the kitchen, where he found an unopened bottle of whiskey in a cabinet. It was last year’s birthday gift to me from Ronald. Funnily enough, for the rest of the days in the year, the man also gave me enough reasons to get wasted had I drank the stuff. The bottle had sat on a hidden shelf long enough to gather dust.
With the bottle in hand, Jeremy grabbed a clean glass from the sink, stumbled to the next room, and plopped himself on the sofa. He placed the empty glass on the coffee table and picked up the remote, chuckling as the screen brightened to an infomercial. The voices soon became background noise to him.
“Order in the next ten minutes,” said a man’s voice over a music track, “and we’ll include the ‘Top Twenty of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits’ at no additional charge. This special edition includes all of Hank’s classics like ‘Your Cheating Heart’ and many more.”
Jeremy twisted the cap off the whiskey, breaking the seal, and filled the glass to the brim. Setting his drink on the table, he raised the bottle to his lips and sipped from it instead. He sunk into the cushions, staring upward at a spinning, blurry ceiling as empty as the expression on his face. A bolt of lightning flashed through the window, and he counted aloud.
“One, one-thousand. Two, one-thousand. Three, one-thousand.”
Jeremy grinned.
“Boom,” he added as the thunderous clap shook the walls.


Miranda handed me a strong rum-based drink and sat beside me at the table.
“Boom,” she said. “That was a loud one.”
Nodding, I took a sip, hesitant to bring up my curiosity about Brenna. It wasn’t my business. Miranda had told me long ago that Martin was her father, and I feared questioning her word would spark a heated argument, but I had to find out. I lowered my voice, hoping Brenna wouldn’t hear me from her room, and asked.
“Is Martin her biological father?”
Apparently, my voice wasn’t quiet enough. Brenna kept her bedroom door slightly open and leaned her ear to the gap to eavesdrop on our conversation.
“Stella is the spitting image of her dad, but Brenna looks nothing like him,” I said.
Miranda’s eyes drifted to her folded hands in front of her.
“Some kids don’t begin to look like their parents until they’re older.”
“She just turned eighteen.”
“There’s an easy explanation for that,” she chuckled. “She got the good genes from her mother.”
Brenna never had a reason to doubt her relation to Martin until now. She slowly closed her door the rest of the way, careful not to make a sound. She turned on a lamp on her dresser. The light from the yellow lampshade blended with the bright pink walls. Sliding open her closet, she reached for an old shoebox on the top shelf. Inside were photographs of her and her family dating back to when she was a baby. Flipping through each one, her fingers didn’t stop until she found a more recent picture of her posing with both Stella and her father. Gravity weighed heavily on Brenna’s entire body. Her face was overwritten with sadness. Stella was undoubtedly Martin’s daughter, but Brenna, not so much.
The storm had passed, leaving behind the chirping of crickets in the warm night air. Lying next to Miranda, I tossed and turned for hours. The blue tint from the night sky glowed through the curtains. My mind wouldn’t turn off. I kept looping over thoughts of work, clients, business, marriage, and maybe buying a house. There was no way to resolve such things in the middle of the night, but my brain wouldn’t be quiet.
Miranda slept soundly, facing away from me. I tried again to close my eyes and rest, but something else distracted me. Her cell phone buzzed from under the covers. After the third or fourth time, it became annoying. Miranda was a heavy sleeper, so it didn’t bother her. The bright red LED light flashed vibrantly as I lifted it from under the blanket. It wouldn’t stop vibrating until I pressed the button on the side to silence it. That same button displayed a text message on the screen.
“Unknown Caller: I can’t stop thinking about you. Let me know when we can get together again. I miss you. I want you.
Throwing off the covers, I turned on the light. Miranda sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes and trying to adjust to the brightness. Tossing her phone to the bed, I felt my jaw clench tight and heat wave throughout my skin.
“What the hell is this?” I demanded.
She read the message and sighed.
“It’s nothing.”
“Nothing? Must be my imagination?”
“Darren, calm down. It’s probably my ex. Maybe he’s drunk.”
“And he’s telling you he loves you?”
“Where did it say that?”
“You’re kidding, right? 1-4-3?”
It was clear she wanted to get back to sleep. I briefly entertained the idea that I may have been overreacting, but at the same time, I wanted to be sure before letting my guard back down.
“I can’t control who sends me stuff in the middle of the night,” she replied. “I was asleep. It’s not like I was carrying on the conversation. I’ll block the number, okay?”
She held her hand toward me and laid back down on her pillow. Maybe I was being paranoid because of what Jeremy was going through. Maybe I was stressed and not thinking rationally. Why would Miranda do things that would ruin our chances of being together? Cuddling up next to her, I slowly released a breath.
“I don’t want to give you any reason not to trust me,” she said, hugging my arms around her. “If you ever feel uncomfortable, you can always go through my messages.”
Despite the relief it would give me, I never felt right about doing that. Once you’ve reached the point of snooping around, the relationship is pretty much doomed. I had to believe her.
“I love you so much,” she said, closing her eyes and resting her hand on my arm. “You and only you. Trust me; I don’t want any ripples in the wa—”
She gasped, inhaling with a tight wheeze. I sat up quickly.
She reached out to me, her hands pleading for me to grab hold of her.
“Miranda! What’s happening?”
I flipped on the lights. She took hold of her chest and tried taking a deep breath, but the air wasn’t going in. Snatching her cell phone, I dialed 9-1-1, but she held up a finger, gesturing for me to wait a minute before calling.
After what seemed like an eternity, she finally relaxed. The air passed in and out of her lungs once again.
“I’m… fine,” she said, catching her breath.
It amazes me how trivial everyday problems become when the threat of death arises. Your anger toward someone, your worries, they all disappear in a matter of seconds. I had never heard a worse sound than someone struggling to breathe, nor had I felt as helpless watching someone try to do so.

More to come…