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Departure

It was so much easier to kill people when you had permission. During his time in SF, Toby had never worried about consequences and he had never felt guilt over what he had done. Sure he might end up dead, or worse, his actions might cause the death of another team member, but those were hazards of the job rather than consequences. What he never worried about was shame or imprisonment, because somebody higher ranking than him was always making the decisions. All he had to do was train, do his job well and collect his pay. That was then...

As Toby sat in a dingy hotel room, listening to yet another news report about a grisly murder that had been committed at a nearby mosque, he stared again at the picture of his wife and wondered if she would approve. He then wondered if he would ever see her again? He wasn’t sure, but he hoped so. He wanted to see his son too, but after the steps he’d taken tonight, even a phone call was out of the question which upset him all the more. Could this really be his new life? Could he really do what he had planned on doing?

Already he was struggling with his guilt and second guessing his actions and not even the whiskey was helping. He opened the journal that he had bought for the purpose of documentation and began to write some of the specifics to his mission. Name of the deceased, time of death, planning and execution. He had hoped to get some newspaper clippings in the morning and then it was off to his next target, which meant that after weeks of reconnaissance, and one grisly murder, he would now spend the rest of the night wondering if the cops would bust through the door.

1

Grisly? For some reason that word amused Toby and he actually smiled. All he had done was shoot a guy and that’s what the news deems grisly? Toby had seen a lot more grisly than a dead towel-head on the stoop of his mosque, but he supposed that for a slow news day, grisly was a good word to use. He finished his drink then turned off the light to think in the dark. Had he done the right thing? Was there a right thing in this situation? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he was angry, he was ashamed, and he couldn’t imagine doing this twenty-six more times...

Michi knew that she shouldn’t be driving, yet here she was, late at night, taking her friend home while struggling to stay awake. She squeezed the leather steering wheel of Ms. Diamond and strained her eyes to follow the blurry road ahead. With leather in her hands as well as leather beneath her legs, all she could think about was how mad her father would be if she totaled another car.

Ms. Diamond was the second Mercedes S65 that she had been given in a year. The first, Ms. Ruby, was so named for the cars’ color, Ruby Black Metallic, and had been the unfortunate victim of a one-in-a-million accident involving a high heel, a gas pedal, and a brick wall, or so she had told her father. In reality, she had been singing with her friends and hadn’t noticed the sharp bend in the road. Yes the alcohol may have had something to do with it, but she hadn’t been that drunk. Not as drunk as she was now, which made her think that maybe she should slow down on the drinking. Worry about that tomorrow, she thought. Tonight, let’s just stay awake and get home safe.

2

Whatever you do, DO NOT crash this car, or you may never drive again. That would be terrible because Michi loved this car, especially the way she felt getting in and out. The only thing she liked more than the feeling of getting in and out of this car, was other people watching her getting in and out of this car. She liked to tell her friends that one, to which they would occasionally indulge her with hoots and cat-calls. It was all good fun, especially for a college girl with no job. Michi’s only job now was to stay awake. She had definitely been the least drunk of her friends, but that wasn’t saying much, and yes she could have used the concierge service to call for a ride, but she hadn’t thought of that at the time. At the time, when they had played rock-paper-scissors to see who would drive, it was literally just fun and games.

Michi forced her eyes wide open. As if eyes could be stretched she stared intently at the road ahead, doing her best to keep Ms. Diamond between the solid white line and the dashed yellow. She exhaled with motivational purpose, shaking her head quickly before turning up the air conditioner. Cold air blasted through the vents, blowing her dark hair away from her face as she again squeezed the steering wheel. With every minute that she drove her eyelids became heavier, seemingly pulling her head forward to comply with a body yearning for sleep.

What happened to the music? She thought. It had become a soft ballad and she hated that. One of the few drawbacks to playing a digital library on shuffle was the obvious lack of control. One minute a song is fast and exhilarating, the next it’s dull and tranquil. She needed fast and exhilarating, but didn’t have the focus to search through a list. She began hitting buttons, hoping the next song would do the trick. It didn’t. Next? No. Next? No. Next? The myriad of quickly sampled music caused her friend to stir.

3

“What are you doing, Meech?” Tori asked, slurring in a groggy voice that suggests, I’m not really awake, but I could be soon.

Tori was the last of her friends to be dropped off and as Michi began to answer, she looked over to see Tori sleeping soundly in the passenger seat. One more stop, Michi told herself, and then she too could get home and get some sleep. Cozy bed, warm blankets, soft pillows, maybe a glass of water to fight tomorrow’s hangover... one more stop.

Michi quickly tried to think of something other than sleep, as the mere thought of sleep caused her to feel more sleepy. Again she stretched her eyes and focused. She leaned forward and stretched her neck. One more stop, just one more stop and then pillows. She gave a brief moment to the thought of pillows and allowed her shoulders to sag, just a bit. She felt her body lean back, or was this her imagination? Ms. Diamond began to drift, but this held an almost pleasant rocking motion and she sighed with relief...

A loud, earth-shattering sound startled Michi to sudden, upright attention. Adrenaline-fueled panic raced through her body as the car interior was ablaze with white light. She clutched wildly at the steering wheel but it was too late, the headlights of the oncoming car were directly in front of her own. Had she been sober she may have been able to swerve out of the way, but she wasn’t sober and all she could do was scream. Screaming as she never had before, Michi was aware of two things, a blaring car horn and the sound of Tori screaming next to her... Darkness.

4

Jesse was a bit surprised at how easy it was to enjoy the decadence around him. White dinnerware with textured silver banding, white linens, white tablecloths, silver chandeliers, crystal goblets, he could go on and on with the fine amenities in this restaurant. He sipped his wine and sat contentedly while his fiancée, Amanda, spoke with her parents about possible options for their upcoming wedding. He had known that he was marrying into money, and if he were brutally honest it was one of the reasons that he didn’t mind getting married, but tonight was the first time that he really experienced that money. Everything about Amanda’s parents oozed wealth, from the clothes they wore, the shoes they wore, their jewelry and even their demeanor. Jesse liked it, he liked it a lot.

Jesse was feeling good tonight. He was dressed well, groomed well, smelled great and on numerous occasions had said just the right thing to make those at the table laugh approvingly. Not that he usually cared about the approval of others, but tonight was different. Tonight was the first time that his future in-laws were spending time with their soon to be black son in-law. They had known that he was black, so there was no surprised drama of a negro on the doorstep, but he did wonder if their reactions would have been different had they not known that he was black. Perhaps it was his own insecurities, but he hadn’t known what to expect from old, rich, white people and so he assumed that they would not know what to expect from him. Regardless of the reason, be it cash or culture, Jesse didn’t want to cross any lines or say the wrong things. He wanted to be himself, only just a bit better.

It was for these reasons, and a few others, that Jesse reminded himself that tonight should be handled as if it were a meeting with a potential client. He was to drink leisurely, eat at a comfortable pace, and avoid large movements or loud outbursts. This was of course a very special meeting, but when emotions were stripped away it was just another merger or acquisition. Actually, it was probably the most important merger or acquisition of his life. From a social perspective, this match was about as good as any that he could hope for, but from a business perspective, this was a match made in Heaven.

5

When Jesse first saw the pretty white girl in International Finance, he had no idea who her father was. When he learned that her father owned one of the largest property development firms in the world, he knew that the pretty white girl was the one for him. It was as if Amanda had fallen from the sky and into his lap. She was both a goal and a reward for the years of business degrees, language and cultural studies, and then his efforts up the corporate ladder. He did all of this while simultaneously befriending and then dating Amanda, and it had all culminated to this meeting. In Jesse’s mind, this was the most important meeting of his life. He was convinced that with his ambition and her father’s connections, the sky was the limit, and he couldn’t wait to get there.

“So, Jesse, Amanda tells us the two of you met in an International Finance Class. That didn’t scare you, attractive woman with a head for numbers?”

Jesse laughed politely at the obviously corny joking that Amanda’s father, and all old people for that matter, seemed to enjoy. “Not at all,” Jesse answered. “It was actually one of the things that attracted me to her. Well, not right away to be honest. At first I think we simply enjoyed each other’s company as friends. We both shared an interest in other countries, travel, cultures. She speaks German and I speak Chinese so we would often teach and tease each other in other languages.”

“She never told us you speak Chinese.” Amanda’s father looked at her in mock chastisement. “What else have you been keeping from us?”

Another polite laugh from Jesse as Amanda began talking about his recent promotion to Director of International Business Development. While she talked, Jesse placed a tender piece of bacon-wrapped filet mignon into his mouth and was enjoying the warm salty flavor when a searing blast ripped through his head. He yelped as his body jolted stiff, banging the table with both knees and causing dishes to clank and drinks to spill. He heard startled screams around him as his head raged with pain. He began to convulse uncontrollably and his filet mignon fell from his mouth, bouncing off his cheek and rolling down his body. How embarrassing, he thought, just before he too was bounced from chair to floor.

6

Jesse’s body was shifting and jerking and bouncing up and down. He wasn’t sure how many people were trying to help, but there were a lot of faces above him. Oddly enough his focus went beyond these faces to a single candle-flame shaped light bulb hanging from a chandelier high above. Light emanating from this bulb seemed much brighter than it had a few minutes ago. Had it been a few minutes? Had he noticed that bulb a few minutes ago or was he only noticing it now because it hung directly over his head?

Jesse heard the sounds of a panicked restaurant and began to worry. Clattering dishes, shouts for help and the thumping of feet as people ran in various directions. He heard Amanda sobbing and yelling his name. He heard her parents trying to calm her while assisting him.

“HE’S DROOLING!” Amanda shouted.

Although he didn’t feel the drool, Jesse suddenly realized that he didn’t feel a lot of things. He no longer felt the hands of people trying to comfort him, trying to help him, trying to hold him. He no longer felt the hard floor beneath him or the pain in his head for that matter. Even the light above seemed to be dimming, as were the surrounding noises. About the only thing Jesse did feel was the fear beginning to wash over him... Darkness.

7

Was that a bug or a piece of bread in her mayonnaise? Kirsten wasn’t sure, but as she looked into the open jar, squinting her eyes for closer examination, she stuck in her knife to fish it out. Upon further inspection she was relieved to recognize the grainy bread she so often used for her children’s lunches. No bug, just wheat.

Kirsten quickly wiped the knife clean with a nearby napkin, then tossed the knife into the sink and the napkin into the trash. She had just taken a bite of her own sandwich, some type of egg and cheese thing, when her older children yelled to her that she needed to hurry or they would be late. Soccer practice, football practice, baseball, karate, swimming, they all seemed to blur together no matter what sporting season it was supposed to be. She had known this day would come, when her life would no longer be hers, and her children, whether they knew it or not, would be running the show.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” she yelled, attacking her sandwich with another quick bite. “Why don’t you start putting your brother and sister in their car seats!”

Kirsten placed her hands upon the counter to brace herself for a momentary deep breath. It seemed that everything she did lately made her tired, and yelling to be heard was one of those things. As she practiced her breathing techniques Kirsten noticed two things; her pasty white hands, to go with her unkept, mostly blonde hair, as well as the flowers she had received for her birthday. Flowers in a vase meant to cheer and excite, were now wilting and dropping petals in a poetic, symbolic, spit-in-your-eye sort of way. Those flowers were her life in an eight day cycle. What started fresh, vibrant and tended to, was now sad, pathetic and trapped in a confined space. She had just turned forty and it was only in this moment that she felt her life slipping away.

8

Five kids with another any day. Her friends and family thought it great to have a large house full of kids, while she herself was beginning to think she was nuts. She was tired of being fat, uncomfortable, sweaty, and all of the things that went with maternity. She was equally tired of cooking, cleaning and shuttling her kids around town while her husband went to lunches, happy hours, golf outings and out of town trips. Business related, or so he would say, but she had no way of knowing if her husband was working hard or having an affair. She tried not to think about it because it made her feel cheap, used, neglected and pathetic.

“Mom, hurry up!” Came another yell.

Footsteps and banging could be heard from upstairs, followed by footsteps and banging down the stairs, as one of her boys came crashing down on his way to the garage. “Slow down,” she managed, sounding more pleading than commanding. Had she ever really been a commanding mother figure? She didn’t think so, but as she hurried to tidy up, shoving in another bite, she knew that she tried very hard to be a really good mom.

“MOM!” Yelled the kids.

“Just one MINUTE!” She yelled back, feeling a funny little shift of the sandwich she was eating.

It was as if the world stopped spinning and Kirsten stood frozen with fear. Her throat seemed to have opened just enough to allow this bite of food the perfect fit... the perfect fit to plug her airway. It felt as if someone had clamped a hand around her neck. Maybe two hands. She began to gag a bit as that bite of sandwich just sat there, stuck. She didn’t know what to do. Does this sort of thing really happen to people? In this day and age do people really choke on a bite of sandwich? Granted that bite was a bit large and yes she was in a hurry and not really taking the time to chew properly, but she’d been eating this way for years. She’d been forced to eat this way if one wanted to know the truth. With a house full of kids you eat when you can and you don’t complain if it’s quick. If it’s food you’re grateful and if it’s hot, well then you must be on vacation. This day was like any other, she couldn’t be choking...

9

Kirsten knew that she was choking and quickly began hitting her stomach. Not the stomach! She thought. You’re pregnant dummy! What about a chair? She seemed to recall that if you were choking, you could somehow lean over the back of a chair and... holding onto the sides you dropped your weight onto it... she didn’t know.

Kirsten began shifting quickly from foot to foot while her hands shook nervously by her sides. She had to try something. She didn’t want to risk the baby, but maybe she could lean over the chair and push without slamming her weight down. She tried it a few times, but it only made her stomach hurt. Was she doing it right? She tried it again, but it didn’t feel right. Was this the right kind of chair? Did it have to be a certain type of chair? Is this really happening? She realized that her hands were waving about frantically, as if that would help. It didn’t.

The impatient yells of her children woke her to the fact that she couldn’t breathe! It’s one thing to be choking, it’s quite another to be not breathing! She didn’t want to alarm the children, but she didn’t know what else to do. Maybe one of them had learned CPR at school. Why hadn’t she learned CPR and then taught them CPR? Why hadn’t she learned about correctly using a chair to expel food from one’s own blocked airway? Why did she have to be pregnant!

10

Her mind raced as she staggered to the garage, gasping for air that wasn’t getting through. She reached for the door leading to the garage, threw it open and stumbled out, clutching her throat. She must have looked a fright as immediately her three oldest rushed to her with panic stricken faces. They were screaming in those high pitched squeamish voices that oftentimes drove her crazy. They were screaming, but they weren’t doing anything. They weren’t helping!

The kids began to cry and latched onto her as she fell to the ground. Children HELP ME! Her eyes pleaded. Didn’t they teach you anything at that school! Don’t you know CPR? I know you’re twelve, ten and eight, but I’m not getting any air! She started to cry. She didn’t want to cry, she didn’t want to startle the children any more than they probably were, but she was horrified that she could die here on this cold, concrete, garage floor.

Kirsten began to tremble and then the kids began to shake her. They screamed and cried and yelled and shook her some more. She couldn’t understand what they were saying! Their voices were inaudible, muffled together and grating. She closed her eyes to try and think. She had to think of something, anything, she couldn’t just lie here! Think, Kirsten, THINK! Darkness.

11

Shining brightly across the large rolling waves, the rising sun would do nicely to darken his already brown skin. With clear sky and a breeze little more than a whisper, it was just another day in paradise. Palani loved the early morning sets at Banyans, especially when he had been partying all night and had the still warm buzz of alcohol coursing through his veins. He watched as a bird flew overhead and thought that he might like to take up hang gliding.

As he sat atop his board, floating and waiting, he also thought about what he might like for breakfast. Not that he was hungry, but as he let his board drift, he also let his thoughts drift. Pancakes and sausage topped his list, but hash and eggs were up there too... and then he saw it, the first of many waves that would be his this morning. He slid to a lying position and began paddling toward the rising wall. At the base of the wave Palani turned his board parallel and felt the steady ascension of rushing water sucking him in.

With a joyous shout, Palani hopped up effortlessly to a standing position and raced down the front of the wave. The roar, the spray, the thrill of a mountain of water rushing all around him was intoxicating. There was nothing like the few moments of a great wave. A lean here, a bend there, his body connected to his board and his board connected to the water. Surfing was truly Mother Nature at her finest.

Out of nowhere came another rider onto his wave—onto HIS wave! Just like a tourist to drop in on his line. The guy didn’t even notice him, just came barreling down. Palani shouted an obscenity before doing the only thing he could do—ditch his board. He dove into the water, but his anger helped him to quickly swim to the top, eager to find the idiot who had cost him his ride.

12

As Palani’s head broke through the surface, he felt something slam into it with crushing force. Pain erupted through his body as another wave rolled over him and he was again taken under. Surprised by the forceful dunking, Palani inadvertently gulped in a large helping of salt water as his body rolled and tumbled from the surging wave above. WHAT WAS THAT! He wondered, grunting through clenched teeth. Was it water? It felt like something had cracked his head open. Was he bleeding? He tried for the surface but quickly realized that his body wasn’t responding. Actually, his body was responding, it just wasn’t responding the way that it should. He felt a bit woozy, but come on legs, move. His right arm responded, but his left arm and legs did not. He began jerking and pulling with his right arm, struggling to get to the top, but it wasn’t enough. One arm, no matter how strong, just wasn’t enough to maneuver through these waters.

Palani felt as if his head were full of cobwebs, as though he had been punched or kicked a little too hard. SWIM! His lone thought screamed. And he was, at least he was trying. His body jerked and his right arm pulled in all directions, but he was going nowhere... whatever you do, don’t panic... but he was panicking. He could no longer see the surface due to the cloud of sand that enveloped him. That was bad. Did he push up to go up, or down?

His lungs were hurting and he felt heavy. Am I sinking? What’s happening? What happened? It must have been my board, but could it do this? Of course, jackass, if a punch could knock a person out, a board shot into your head was bound to do damage. But I’m not knocked out! Maybe you’re paralyzed? Is that why I can’t move? Somebody help! HELP ME, I CAN’T MOVE! I’M DROWNING, I’M ACTUALLY DROWNING!

Palani didn’t realize it, but he had opened his mouth in terror. Perhaps to call out, perhaps as reflex to inhale oxygen, but all he got was more water. Bubbles rose from his mouth and as he watched those bubbles he felt his panic leave. He now knew where the surface was and he felt at peace, tranquil, free, almost as if he were floating. Palani reached up with his right arm, focusing on his outstretched hand while the sparkling light from above slowly faded away... Darkness.

13

The white light fell quickly from Elena’s face. “Sorry.” Her partner said quietly, lowering his flashlight. He was about twenty yards away and together they walked quickly, but carefully, through the brush and sand of the Arizona desert. Elena hated this part of the job. Uneven terrain, heart pounding, one hand holding her gun, the other holding her flashlight as she played cat and mouse with a group of illegals.

As much as she hated the fear, she hated the fact that people were trying to sneak into her country. She hated that these could be drug dealers, terrorists, or people who felt they had no other choice than to risk life and limb crossing a border to get work. Where was their government? What were they doing? Why in all of Mexico, with all of her vast resources, could people not make a decent living? She knew the answers of course, but until governments did their job, she would continue to do hers.

Elena was one of the few women working Border Patrol and for the most part she loved it. And yes, she probably did get hired because she was a woman, and her Hispanic heritage probably didn’t hurt, but she had also earned it, which she always reminded those who gave her a hard time. Besides, she really did enjoy the rugged lifestyle, the tech, the weapons and the attention. Maybe one in ten agents were women, so if you liked working closely with men, this was the job to get. She took pride in her job and enjoyed proving that she could hang with the boys. She had made hundreds of stops and had seen craziness upon craziness. It really was the Wild West out here and tonight was no different.

14

As she watched her partner prowl, she thought that she heard movement to the North-East. Her partner heard it too and as he jogged toward it, the noises she thought she heard became the unmistakable rustling and foot steps of panicked prey. Flashlights danced in the night and keys and gun belts jangled as the chase was on. Elena and her partner were running now as the silhouettes of six or seven people darted frantically in varying directions, each hoping another would be caught so that they could escape deeper into the desert.

Out of the corner of her eye, Elena saw the rushing blur of something jump up from the brush. Before she could affix her light, she felt a thunderous, crashing pain to her face as something slammed into her. A freakish yelp escaped her mouth as her feet continued forward and her body sailed back. Her head and body slammed onto the desert floor in a one-two punch that knocked the wind out of her. In an instant she was lying flat, with a searing headache and a troublesome idea of what had just happened.

As Elena spit blood from her gasping mouth, a belligerent man climbed on top of her and began shouting into her face. Though she could hear the volume of the man, her mind was not yet ready to accept his words. She was in bad shape and hoped that her partner would get to her soon. Did he know that she had been disabled? Was he disabled too? She thought to be calling out to him, but couldn’t hear it if she was. Her head was pounding from a painful din of large bells and outraged yells, and she at last struggled to get her gun, hoping that it might still be at arms reach. Wait, was that her gun in the man’s hand? She didn’t think so, but didn’t know for sure. Was he pointing it at her? Didn’t he know how much trouble he would be in for shooting a Border Patrol agent? Elena wasn’t thinking clearly, but surely he wouldn’t... Darkness.

15

Toby’s favorite ice cream was vanilla swiss almond. Not just any vanilla swiss almond, but the good stuff—Häagen-Dazs! So when he had seen a Häagen-Dazs shop on his way to the airport, he took it as an omen for success. He had made a quick stop, bought a pint, and now as he peered into the cup, looking for those chocolate-covered beauties, he thought about where he might be an hour from now.

As he crunched an almond, he wondered if he really would be going to Hell for killing himself. Was that just something Catholics said to scare people? Was there a Hell? He wasn’t sure. He was a bit nervous to find out, but he was also a bit excited too. He had been in quite a few places that seemed like Hell on earth, so how bad could things really be in the great beyond? Maybe in an hour he would be with Jesus himself, looking over his own Heavenly mansion.

As he sat enjoying his ice cream, he contemplated quite a few things. Would his wife be waiting for him in the afterlife? Would his son? Was there an afterlife or did people just die and never wake? He spent a few minutes on each topic before getting back to the main topic, which was of course killing his final Muslim.

Toby had been at this for about eight months. Visiting mosques, following Muslims, picking one here and there for no other reason than he thought they looked like they should die. He actually began to enjoy killing these people and was a little amused at how easy it was. He had even gone on weekend killing sprees, taking planes or trains to other cities where he would kill a few guys before taking in the sights. He didn’t worry about being caught, because he never left any clues. He didn’t rob these people or torture them, he just confronted them, had a little chat and then killed them. He wasn’t particular in the weapon he used either—knife, gun, club—killing had become whatever his mood called for.

16

Rarely were there similarities in the way he killed. How he killed was quite different. Who he killed was always the same. His victims were always Arab men and they were always Muslim. He did not want to kill Arab women or children and he always made sure these pricks were Muslim. He did not want to kill an Arab man who may have happened to not be a Muslim, which is why he always asked. Only once had he asked a man if he were Muslim, to which the man replied that he was not. He was a Christian and for some reason that had stuck with Toby.

An Arab man becoming a Christian... was that allowed? Definitely not in some countries, but in America he supposed that it was, and as fate would have it, that had saved the man’s life. Good for you, towel-head. Toby had left that man to look for another and had quickly found a replacement. One thing was certain, if you wanted to kill someone, regardless of that someone’s ethnicity, you were practically guaranteed to find a person who fit the bill.

That’s what he was doing today, finding somebody who fit the bill. So here he was, at the airport, with the sun shining bright and eating his favorite ice cream. There was even a pleasant breeze blowing which made Toby smile. He was feeling good and he wanted to have a bit of fun with his last target. He knew today would be the last of his killing spree, and his own life for that matter. Can’t blame a guy for wanting some fun before killing himself.

17

Toby chuckled a bit at that one, just a bit more fun. Maybe spook the guy before shooting him. After that he would write a quick entry in the journal he brought and that plus the news clippings should be all the police would need. He had kept a journal, and the news clippings, because he didn’t want people thinking he was just an angry white guy killing Muslims. Oh no, there was a specific reason that he was killing Muslims and he wanted everybody to know it. His news clippings would outline the plot, his journal would tell the story, and his death would be the conclusion. Gun under chin, BLAM, thanks for nothing world.

Last bite. Boy this stuff is good. He always savored the last bite, and he always loved it when that last bite of mostly melted cream contained one last chocolate-covered almond. Today’s pint was just such a pint. He licked his lips, enjoying the remnants of sweet cream and then with a bit of sadness tossed the cup into a nearby trash can. Alright, time to go to work. Toby grinned with expectation, a bit surprised by the excitement he felt. Was it his hatred for these people, the fact that he was about to complete his mission, or a combination of both? He concluded that it didn’t matter and took his first step toward blasting somebody in his ugly, Islam-loving face.

What better place than an airport to finish this business, he thought. Muslims had hijacked planes to attack America on 9-11, and Muslims were almost always behind the wheel of an airport cab, or so it seemed. Would some people find it amusing that a towel-head got it while on the job? Poetic justice? Maybe, but he didn’t care, it didn’t matter, it was what it is—revenge. Toby walked casually, just as anyone would who might be looking for a cab, or a bus, or that certain someone who was running late to pick them up. Occasionally, he’d peer into a cab and do a quick assessment. Was this the guy? Was he ugly enough? How about that guy? He finally spotted a nice looking ugly guy asleep at the wheel. He was about seven or eight back from the front of the line so he probably wouldn’t be expecting a fare. Perfect. Toby walked toward the cab and tapped on the passenger window.

18

Sleepy Head was a bit startled, and as he focused on who might be tapping on his window, Toby quickly got into the back seat. Back seat? If you could call it that. Toby hated these small little taxis that cut fuel costs by cutting leg room. It’s not like he played in the NBA, but at his six-foot-two height he felt cramped. He wasn’t fat either, so how difficult could it be to make a car that saved gas without cutting space?

Muslim jackass was telling Toby about airport rules, or getting the first cab, or some such crap, but Toby wasn’t paying attention. He uttered a reply, but mostly he was busy looking at the front seat. Fast food bags, a coffee cup in a holder, an ID plate with mug shot and Arabic name, a magazine, and there on the passenger seat, like any good Muslim should have, a copy of the Koran.

“Are you a Muslim, Farook?” He asked. He could tell this spooked Farook, at least a little bit, and Toby couldn’t blame him. He knew that he wasn’t acting like a normal fare would act and that was part of the fun. Toby thought about shooting Farook in his face right then and there, but it didn’t feel right. Murder, like comedy, had become about timing and the timing just wasn’t right.

He tried to calm Farook by telling him that he was a journalist working a story and that he was hoping to introduce Farook to a friend. What he didn’t tell Farook was that this friend had been purchased for just this occasion. Muslim 27, meet Smith and Wesson 357. Toby almost chuckled with the thought that one could argue Farook’s actually meeting two of Toby’s friends that day. Hello Mr. Smith, Hello Mr. Wesson.

19

“Sure,” Farook said nervously. “Go get your friend.”

Toby smiled and leaned back. “That’s great, Farook.”

Before Farook could scream, could move, could think, Toby lifted his friends and squeezed the trigger. There was an outrageously loud blast, accompanied by a brilliant flash of white light. Toby let out a scream at the deafening noise and he almost dropped his gun. He had forgotten to account for the acoustics in a closed cab and boy were they loud. His ears were ringing and he thought that he may have caused some permanent damage. He laughed as he knew that it didn’t matter, permanent for him would only be a few minutes more. He looked out the side window and saw people running from the cab. He could barely make out their screams which suggested at least temporary ear damage. Farook definitely didn’t hear anything, or if he did, he was hearing it from the hole in the back of his head.

Farook lay against the steering wheel in a weird, twisted sort of way. There was blood and bits all over the front window and dashboard and that was that. Toby exhaled a long sigh of relief. It was done. Well, it was almost done. He only hoped he would have enough time to enter Farook into his journal. He wasn’t worried about police, because they would try to talk to him first, prior to actually shooting him, and only then if he gave them cause. No, he worried more about one of Farook’s friends who might have a weapon stashed in the glove box.

20

Toby slid down in the back seat, hoping to at least offer a less inviting target, and propped his head against the rear passenger door. Once situated he placed his gun on his lap, opened the envelope, took out his journal and for the next few minutes wrote about the recently departed Mr. Farook. Once completed, he placed the journal back into the envelope, licked it, pressed it shut, then placed it beneath his body. Surprisingly, he began to hear a bit more clearly as people shuffled about and yelled. Thankfully, Farook hadn’t had any gun-wielding friends brave enough, or vengeful enough, to peer into his cab.

Ultimately, it was time to go and Toby placed the gun under his chin. He exhaled one last time and suddenly realized there was no going back. Squeeze this trigger and you’re dead. He looked out the window to see blue sky beyond. He looked at the bloody mess above the driver’s seat. He thought about his wife and son. He wondered again if they would have wanted him to have done all this. He didn’t know. He didn’t know if he had wanted to do all this. Sure he was capable of murder—who wasn’t capable in the technical sense—but actually doing it and planning it? Twenty-seven times? What would happen to him if he were to go to prison? He hadn’t really thought about that because he just figured he would shoot himself after it was over. If he were really being honest, he thought he would get killed himself while trying to kill one of his targets.

Toby began to question everything he had done and everything that might happen to him should he walk out of this cab. He didn’t know what to do, what to think, or what to think about what to do. All he could do was lay here, with a gun under his chin while looking out a cab window to the blue sky beyond. He sure wished he had some more of that ice cream... There was an outrageously loud blast accompanied by a brilliant flash of white light, and while Toby hadn’t thought to squeeze the trigger, there was no denying it, he had been introduced to his two friends... Darkness.

SUNESIS

(sue • knee • sis)

Sunesis sat in his large high-backed leather chair, staring out at the magnificent view. He wanted to be out there, not stuck in here sifting through messages left for him by his lackey, Denaar. It always made Sunesis smile to think of Denaar as a lackey. Something about that word just seemed to fit a person who performed his menial tasks with exuberance and flair. Of course Denaar preferred the term “Aide”, but that was like calling a pig a swine and really, what’s the difference? Ah, but it was all so common these days, sifting through messages, pulling strings, doing favors, and only on occasion was he able to slip away and have some real fun.

Such was the existence of a professional at the peak of his power, everybody wanted a piece of his time. He exhaled thoughtfully, doing his best to remember when he had first seen this building and desired its penthouse. Not so much for the status, although that was a nice commodity, but more so for the isolation. At that time, he had been scheming and scratching for so long that he scarcely remembered a time when he was not scheming and scratching.

All he had wanted then was space and a bit of peace, if ever there were such things, and even now he doubted their existence. He now had the penthouse, the status and the isolation, but it wasn’t enough. It’s not that he wanted more, but he did want different and maybe that was his problem for wasn’t different just more of something else? From scheming and scratching to parties and favors, surely there had to be a middle ground.

22

As he stared at the blue sky and green forest canopy, from fifty stories up and through the outwardly angled floor-to-ceiling windows which accounted for three of the four walls in this room, he couldn’t help but miss the struggle. He had enjoyed the struggle. He had enjoyed the study and deception of those struggles, and although he had lost quite a few battles, he had won more than any other before him, or since, and that had placed him in elite company.

He was a Regional Instructor now and that was something. A great achievement to be sure, but difficult to hold on to. One wrong move and he could be out. Probably not back to square one, unless he did something incredibly stupid, but demoted for sure. Thankfully, he hadn’t made that mistake, nor did he plan on making it, but it was a possibility. So when he wasn’t teaching he was here, planning, studying and doing his best to stay sharp for whatever joker might wish to take his spot at the top.

Sunesis was located in the center of Region 1600c, which greatly resembled unblemished Hawaiian islands, complete with lush green foliage, blue sky and clear water. It was the view that reminded him, others would be more than happy to take what he had. Maybe even Denaar was hatching a plan, the bastard. Sunesis smiled while picking up a stack of papers, going through them as quickly as his boredom would allow, crumpling and then tossing the rejects where they would await Denaar’s pickup and transfer to the trash. Receptacle, he corrected himself, as it was always better to seem highly educated even if one was not.

23

It was the eighth or ninth message that caught his attention. “Engano”, it read in the “From” section. Sunesis hadn’t heard that name in quite some time, but he knew that name and it made him both wary and intrigued. “Engano...” He said softly to the air. If ever there was somebody eager to sit in this seat and read these messages, it was Engano. Field Marshal Engano had been almost as good as he in the field and although they had never competed against each other, Sunesis had often thought about the challenge. Unfortunately, as so often happens, Engano had done something or said something to warrant a demotion. Still a Field Marshal, if Sunesis remembered correctly, but no doubt hacking it out in a lowly region somewhere.

“Request your help with special project,” the note read. Followed by, “You know how to find me.” And indeed he did, but did he want to? “Engano...” He said again, letting that last vowel stir his imagination. Why are you writing me? What special project could you need my help with? Ah, the juices were flowing now and he liked it. This was what he enjoyed... the scheming! Teaching was one thing, for who didn’t like to hear themselves speak, but to cross mental acumen with another skilled opponent was oftentimes euphoric.

Sunesis kicked up his feet onto the desk before him, holding that message in his hand, reading it again and again while surveying his palace. And that’s what it was after all, make no mistake, it was a palace and it was his and whether it was true or not, he took inventory of what Engano meant to steal. Over 7,300 square feet of penthouse divided between two floors, including the 1,848 square foot office he was sitting in now. Four bedrooms, five baths, and yes he could have had more rooms and more baths, but really, how many places did one need to fornicate, or to shower afterward? There was also a kitchen, dining room, billiards room and home theater. About the only room he did not have was a laundry room, but Denaar handled laundry by way of the building’s Chinaman, or whoever manned the steam hole dungeon that he’d never visited. There was also his cars, his boat, motorcycles and 5,300 square foot rooftop balcony complete with swimming pool, outdoor lounge and palapa bar and grill. Oh no, he was not losing all of this. Whatever nostalgia he might have had for his days in the field were nothing compared to the luxury he enjoyed now.

24

There was an upbeat knocking on the door which meant Denaar had just interrupted his thoughts. Sunesis sighed and removed his feet from the table. He then moved closer to the table, setting aside Engano’s message to sift through the others. He skimmed one, then another and another, before crumpling them and tossing them to the floor. He was distracted by the message which beckoned him, but knew that he could not devote his full attention to that message for Denaar’s soon-to-repeat...

Knocking was now replaced by a two-handed sort of vertical door-drumming which always made Sunesis question Denaar’s worth. He supposed it was more about his own reluctance to find a suitable replacement, but as of yet the door-drumming wasn’t annoyance enough to expend the effort necessary to find another lackey. Sunesis smiled again at the word lackey before calling out, “Enter!” without bothering to turn his chair. He heard the door open and Denaar’s shoes along the recently oiled wooden floor.

“Looks like an important letter, Mr. Sunesis,” Denaar said, as cheery as a car salesman about to close a deal.

Sunesis held out his right hand. “Looks like, or is?

Denaar sniff-laughed in a way that also always irritated Sunesis. “Is, sir,” he replied, placing the large envelope into his hand. “Would you like me to pick up those paper balls?”

“Later. Is there anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“Close the door on your way out.”

“Yes, sir.” Denaar walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

25

Why would I ever want to watch subordinates enter and leave my office? He thought, remembering a colleague who had once asked why his desk faced away from the door. “With such a fine view”, he had replied, “why would I stare at anything else?” Of course if Sunesis was expecting an important visitor, he would stand and greet that visitor, but he dealt mostly with servants while in this building and felt it beneath him to interact with them, and that included looking at them. They were here to do a job, so he let them do it, and without interruption. If there’s something to be delivered, well then deliver it and be done with it. He would stare at the view, his servants could stare at the back of his oversized leather chair.

Sunesis shook his head, disgusted by such distracting thoughts as having to explain himself or defend his actions to another. Given the choice between majestic view and double doors, one would have to be a fool not to choose the view. Enough already, the envelope was thick and unexpected which meant it had to be better than hand-written messages on thin slips of paper. Upon closer inspection, it was better. It was not the sort of envelope to open from the top, but was instead cut in such a way so that each side came together in triangular shaped points, all of which were kept closed by a thin, leathery strap and a rusty-red, wax seal. It was field correspondence and the seal bore the inscription, Conglomerate Region 12, Engano.

“My, aren’t we persistent?”

Against his better judgement, Sunesis allowed his caution to take a step back. He wasn’t completely trusting of a request for help, nor would he ever be, but he smelled opportunity, and for the next hour he poured over the enclosed brief, smiling and nodding at various points of interest. Yes, there was definitely opportunity here. He again placed his feet upon the desk, now holding a map of Conglomerate Region 12. He then called out to the voice-activated communications system that ran throughout the house, “Denaar, bring me the Conveyors’ report for the last six months.”

ARRIVAL

Toby felt his body being placed onto a table. It must have been a small table, because he next felt his dangling arms being placed upon his stomach. A crack of light came through his right eye lid, but quickly went away. Light soon came through both lids, but those lids were just too heavy to keep up. He heard voices around him, but whatever was being said was muted and tinny in it’s sound. His ears vibrated and hummed in ways that they probably shouldn’t and his head ached something fierce. Finally, with an effort that seemed ridiculous in it’s difficulty, he slowly opened his eyes, pushing through the pain in his head with hopes of seeing something recognizable. He had a hard time believing what he saw...

Medication was the first thought that entered his obviously scrambled brain. Around and above him were people in white clothes, maybe hospital or prison garb. People everywhere were lying flat and hovering in mid air as if stacked on invisible tables or shelves. Rows and rows of vertically stacked people stretching up and out as far as he could see. Thousands of bodies in ordered columns like a science-fiction storage facility. Twinkling within the irrational panorama were bodies that faded out and in as one person was replaced by another. Nothing made sense as Toby’s wavering lids struggled to stay open.

What was that? His mind was about to succumb to fatigue when it registered something out of place. As if thousands of floating bodies were normal? Scattered among the white, twinkling bodies, were red people floating vertically. Smooth in appearance, so as to be almost reflective against the all white backdrop, these people were like a giant red fishing lure... that can’t be right, his mind whispered. Each of the red, fishing-lure people was floating at the head of a white person and the red person had a hand resting on Whitey’s forehead. Whitey... his mind giggled. Fishing lure and Whitey... Clearly, Toby was on painkillers or drugs of some kind with further evidence being introduced every so often in the form of thin wisps of light blue flames emanating from Whitey’s head. What? Floating people, twinkling people, red people, and thin blue flames... Drugs or no drugs, Toby’s mind was done, too tired to interpret what it was seeing. A dream it concluded, must be a dream...

27

Elena felt as though a black fog were lifting from her head. Her eyelids fluttered and then rose slowly as she attempted to focus on her surroundings. She was groggy and dazed, and her head hurt as she tried to make out the cloudy sights around her. She had a deep throbbing pain in her head, pain so bad as to make her eyes squint. She couldn’t quite remember what had happened, but she did remember a man shouting at her. When was that? Where was that and where was she now?

Elena closed her eyes and lowered her head, hoping the pain would subside as she tried to remember past details. She didn’t know how long she had been here, or even how long she sat with her eyes closed, but surprisingly the pain in her head did start to diminish and she again opened her eyes to scan the area. She was sitting alone in the center of a vast white room. There were no windows, but there were two doors at either side. There was no lighting above her or furniture around her. Was she in a warehouse? A hospital? The walls, the floors and even the doors held a very polished, contemporary white finish. Almost elegant, yet simultaneously almost sterile, as if the designer were trying to put something together but couldn’t quite get it.

No, she decided, this was not a hospital, at least not one like she had ever been to, and even with its bare qualities she recognized that it was too nice to be a warehouse. She glanced down at the chair she was sitting in and was a bit surprised to see a small flat table. She was in a chair similar to the desks she had sat in during grammar school, the type of desk that was attached to the chair and the flat table was actually a lid. Was there a lid? She tried to open the top of the desk, but it didn’t budge. She slid her hands along the surface of the desk and felt the cool, smooth finish. Definitely more refined than the old steel and wood things she might have compared it to. Was it marble?

28

Elena’s focus shifted from the chair-desk she was sitting in to the mammoth table just a few feet in front of her. More than a table, it looked like a museum piece, as if cut from a block of stone. Similar to the desk she was sitting in, this table was smooth and white. It was almost artistic in its curvature, with a bottom that resembled a simple arch, yet a flat top which sloped inward at the sides to meet the base of the arch, creating a sort of exquisite one-piece alter. It was like something from ancient Rome or Greece. It’s a desk, her slow-motion mind offered. Behind the desk was an equally exquisite, one-piece, sloping and arching chair, more like a throne actually, complete with a thick, beautiful, silk pillow to be used as padding. Again she thought Rome or some other ancient, yet grand civilization.

More important than the elegance of these pieces was the sudden realization that these pieces weren’t there a moment ago. Were they? She hadn’t thought so, but how could she miss them? Her puzzled mind struggled with her surroundings and became startled by the man next to her. They both jumped a bit with the realization that each was not there a moment ago. He was just a couple of feet from her! How could she not notice him? She was very close to screaming hysterically but her brain would not allow her throat the vocalization.

She managed an awkward smile before his gaze shifted to her forehead and his expression changed from confused to squeamish. He even twitched noticeably before returning to eye level. He too managed an awkward smile before turning away and Elena wondered two things, what had that man been looking at, and who might be sitting to her other side? She turned to her left and sure enough, just a couple of feet away was an elderly black lady, sitting in a similar one-piece chair-desk. She too smiled awkwardly after changing eye-levels and facial expressions.

29

Although Elena’s first reaction was to seek out a mirror, she quickly suppressed that thought with a desire to see who else may have appeared in a room she once thought to being vacant. She turned around to see another person just behind her and another behind that person, and so on and so on. Somehow, this room was now filled with dozens and dozens of people! All sitting in the same type of chair-desk, organized in neat, tidy rows. Maybe one hundred people were in this room and all were seemingly as confused as she. All of these people, who were not here a moment ago, carried a bewildered look on their face. WHAT WAS GOING ON?

Some of these people looked drunk or drugged, others appeared to be asleep, yet sat perfectly upright, and still others were deformed in ways almost too grotesque to be real. Serious, ghastly wounds including missing limbs and gaping chunks seemingly torn from their bodies. She didn’t want to stare, but she couldn’t look away. It was during this state of fixation that she noticed the nudity. The entire room was naked!

Elena felt as if she had been shaken from a deep sleep. She was alone just a minute ago, she was sure of it! There was no desk, or chair, and there certainly weren’t a hundred naked people in this room! She looked down at herself and she too was naked! Instinctively her arms slapped across her chest, while her legs clamped together tightly. She began looking around frantically, trying to notice who might be noticing her. She hunched over her desk to minimize the view and as she did, caught the reflection of her face in the top of her desk. It was bruised and swollen and in her forehead, just above her left eye, sat a hole about three eights of an inch in diameter, the rim of which was a raised and charred eruption of flesh. What the...

30

“Due to circumstances beyond your control,” announced a soothing female voice, “you will be held in this room until further notice.”

Due to circumstances beyond my control? I’ll be held here until further notice? Elena felt a sudden mouse-in-a-maze trepidation. She tried to think of a positive scenario for the announcement she just heard but was coming up blank. At best this was a practical joke of some kind, but that didn’t seem likely. A practical joke with a room full of naked people was a pretty elaborate joke, and she didn’t know anybody clever enough to pull it off, let alone somebody with the kind of money necessary to pull it off. Could this be a TV show? Had she somehow been knocked out and placed here? Was that legal? Wouldn’t she have to give her permission for something like that? She was growing more nervous by the minute and she wasn’t the only one. Quite a few people were asking others if what they had heard was in fact, what they had heard. And then she heard the footsteps...

Elena turned to her left to see a man walking about, apparently having sat long enough and feeling the need to take a stroll. He covered his groin in a way that was half-hearted at best and strode to the door on the left side of the room. He jiggled the knob and pulled a bit, but the door remained closed. He went to the door on the right and performed the same actions, receiving the same results. He then moved to the large alter desk at the front of the room and began looking underneath and at the sides. He stretched along the floor and bent over repeatedly, stretching and bending in ways that were far from attractive.

Although not a pretty show, with flabby man-boobs and hairy back, Elena watched with hopes that he would find something to make sense of this place. A few minutes passed and the man moved his search to the walls. He looked up and down and felt along their surface, even placing an ear close to a wall while tapping lightly with a closed fist. Nothing.

31

“Does anybody see any sort of switch or knob on the desk you’re sitting at?” He asked.

There was a bustle of activity as people leaned and peered and felt and knelt all along their respective desks, searching for something that might be something of use. Elena too looked around her desk, covering herself as she did, but found what others were finding, a whole lot of nothing. After a few minutes of searching and head-shaking, the people in the room returned to their sitting and waiting.

“If anybody has any ideas about how to get out of here, go ahead and shout ’em out.” The man tried to sound humorous, an obviously feigned humor, but when nobody responded he simply nodded his head and walked back to his desk. He did a quick search before sitting, apparently finding nothing, and looking as confused and defeated as Elena felt.

Elena didn’t know how long she had been sitting here, but she was quickly growing tired of sitting hunched over. Truth be told, she had never been a big fan of sitting. One of the reasons she enjoyed the Border Patrol was it allowed her time away from a desk. She hated sitting for long periods of time. Even a three hour movie was often too much for her. Had it been three hours? She didn’t think so, but with no clock, no purpose and no agenda, it may as well have been thirty. She was growing impatient and her body was beginning to ache. She wanted to get up and walk around, but she didn’t want to be the first woman to get up and walk around. The reality of her situation was body aches and impatience were competing with nudity, and she was growing less concerned about her nudity.

32

She stretched her legs, her back, her neck, and then watched as a very overweight woman struggled to free herself from her chair. Not bothering to cover herself, as if shame had been forgotten years ago, the obese woman shuffled between desks toward the left side of the room, huffing and puffing and ready to collapse. By now the entire room was watching as the large woman posted her right hand against the wall, collecting herself as best she could before posting her right shoulder against the wall. With an effort that was both pitiful and comical to behold, the woman slid slowly down the wall until she came to a sitting position on the floor. Upon reaching the floor she simply laid on her back, stretched out, closed her eyes and let out a lengthy and relieved sigh. As bad as things are, Elena thought, at least I’m not her.

“Does anybody have any ideas about where we might be, or how we got here?”

Elena turned to her right to see an elderly black man looking around the room. He was looking for answers, as were they all.

“I don’t remember how I got here,” he said. “Does anybody know how we got here?”

There were a few negative grunts, some collective “No’s”, a few short sniffle-laughs, but nobody answered the question directly.

“How about the last thing you remember?” Elena asked loudly, scanning the room before turning back to the old man.

With a face twisting and struggling through memories and questions, the old man had nothing and shrugged with frustration.

“I was driving!” Exclaimed a voice from the middle of the class.

33

Elena turned to see a young Asian girl, a few rows behind her and to the right. She looked as if she was remembering quite a bit, as her face twitched and trembled in various stages of despair.

“Oh my...” she began, her terrorized face on the verge of tears, “...I was driving my friend home and we got into an accident!”

The Asian girl began looking around the room. “Is she here? Tori?” She stood up, not caring to cover herself. “TORI!” She called, walking quickly up and down the aisles. When she could not find her friend she fell to her knees and began sobbing.

“I remember her screaming...” the girl said, now holding her head as if to squeeze out the memories...

“I was watching the game,” recalled the old black man.

“I was in my garden,” came another voice.

“I was at a restaurant,” came another.

Soon the room was vibrant with recollections... a heart attack, another car accident, a woman’s house blown in by tornado...

“I was in a dark field,” Elena said softly. Without thinking about it she touched the hole in her head, investigating it with her finger. It felt like...

34

“I WAS SHOT!” A man screamed suddenly. “SOMEBODY SHOT ME!”

Elena turned to her left to see an Arab man behind her. He looked terrified, as if reliving whatever had happened to him. He had a small hole in his forehead that he began to pat and rub. He then reached behind his head and screamed again, no doubt feeling an even larger hole from the exit wound.

Elena quickly reached behind her head and gasp—exit wound.

“I was choking!” Came a woman’s voice.

“I was having trouble breathing,” said a man.

“I was drowning...” another man.

“Are we in a hospital?” A woman asked.

“Are we dead?” Another woman asked.

Silence took over the room as the thought of being dead battled reluctant minds. Elena told herself that she wasn’t dead, couldn’t be dead. A nightmare was more likely, but hospital wasn’t ruled out either. Then again, if this was a hospital it was the strangest therapy she had ever heard of. What sort of hospital locks up a room full of naked people? Think, Elena, what could explain this...

35

She had been in a dark field, she was chasing somebody and she got shot. She got shot! Was she dead? Easy, Elena... she was freaking out. She couldn’t remember all of the details. Don’t panic... but the details she did have were more than enough to warrant a freak out. She had been chasing somebody, she had been shot and she was taken to this hospital of naked therapy. It sounded right, mainly because it’s what she wanted to hear, but it didn’t feel right and she was on the verge of screaming.

She wasn’t dead, couldn’t be dead. Naked therapy or nightmare, or naked therapy... she stood up and walked around, GET A GOOD LOOK, PEOPLE! She no longer cared about covering herself because it was all a dream. Maybe it was the type of dream where she hopped on some guy’s lap and sexed him up real good, screaming and moaning and flipping her dark, curly hair from side to side... that’s not it... She walked to the door and tried the knob for herself—nothing. She went to the other door and tried it—nothing!

Other people were now walking around which was surprisingly liberating. Being surrounded by mostly overweight people gave Elena something to feel good about and as selfish as it might have seemed, she chose to focus on her own good looks rather than her current situation. I might be dead, but at least I look good, she joked. She even stretched as she walked, no doubt revealing parts of her body that she normally kept hidden. Drink it in, losers! She walked by the Asian girl, still kneeling on the floor, and felt a surprising urge to kick her.

“We can’t be dead,” the girl said. “Can’t be...”

Elena wanted out.

36

Palani opened his eyes in a near panic, drifting from, as well as clinging to, the awareness of a crazed struggle. He was in a dream or had just woke from a dream and he did his best to remain still. He also did his best to see what was around him. He was lying face down on a white surface of some kind which led him to believe that he had been knocked out during a fight. The surface was cool and smooth however, which suggested something other than the rough canvas he was used to training on. Beyond the white surface was an elderly woman sitting upright in a chair next to him. In front of her was a man in his own chair and beyond these two were more people in more chairs.

Palani slowly lifted his head to take in his surroundings. He was in a large, white room of some kind with a lot of people sitting in white, bulky chairs. It was like some kind of futuristic jury duty waiting room and it was a bit freaky. There were two doors on either side of the room and a big, rock-like desk and chair at the front. He turned to look behind him and saw more people and more chairs. Palani stretched his eyes then squeezed them shut, then rubbed them with the palms of his hands. He was definitely dreaming.

“Due to circumstances beyond your control, you will be held in this room until further notice.”

Dream or not, Palani didn’t like the sound of that announcement and looked around for anybody that might have answers. Instead of answers, he listened to question after question regarding that voice and who it could be, where it could have come from and what it could mean. While he was looking and listening, he noticed that everybody in the room was naked. Naked? He also noticed that some of these people had serious cuts, gashes, bruises and busted limbs. He looked down at himself to see that he too was naked, then did a quick physical inventory of functioning parts. He checked his fingers and palms, then arms, chest and stomach. He moved his shoulders, twisted his back and flexed his legs and feet. Everything seemed to be working and so, for the time being, he did what everybody else was doing... he waited.

37

The problem with waiting, Palani thought, as he drummed his fingers on the desk, was that it sucked. This had to be a dream because he was naked and there were naked women in the room and nobody was gettin’ it on. Maybe he could get an orgy going. He laughed to himself then graded the ladies. Not much to look at. There were some keepers in the crowd, although most of the attractive ones did their best to cover up.

Most of the men were covering up too. Interesting, he thought. He didn’t care about being naked, because he was in great shape. He worked out every day and spent most of his time half-naked in the sun. He looked at the mostly hideous bodies around him and supposed that if he were a fat slob he would cover up too. He cracked himself up. A lack of clothing on himself didn’t bother him, a lack of clothing on some of the people in this room, did.

Palani watched as a guy got up and walked around checking doors, tapping walls and looking around the room. He even asked people to check their desk for a switch or something, which Palani did, as he had nothing better going on, and at least this guy was trying something productive. Not surprisingly, there were no switches or buttons that opened magic windows and soon enough people returned to their chairs and waited.

Palani didn’t know how long he waited, but it seemed like hours. A few quick conversations were struck up here and there, but on the whole, few people felt like talking. To make matters worse, he couldn’t help but watch as a huge woman wobbled over to a wall and flopped herself along the floor for a nap. As he shook his head in disgust, a man asked if anybody knew how they had gotten here. Palani didn’t know how he had gotten here.

38

“How about the last thing you remember?” A woman called out.

For a brief moment there was silence as the room itself seemed to be pushing people to think, to remember, to suffer. What were you doing, Palani? A voice in his head whispered...

“Tori?”

Palani was startled by a young Asian girl who had stood up to call for somebody. “TORI!” She called again, moving up and down the rows in obvious panic. Panicked or not, the girl was hot and Palani enjoyed the distraction, which sadly didn’t last long as she fell to her knees crying. Bummer.

Others quickly chimed in with choppy bits of information as tiny light bulbs flashed in mind after mind. Palani too could feel his mental wheels turning as he remembered the sun and water, the waves and bubbles... he had been surfing and then—

“I was drowning...” he said suddenly, trying to piece together the full picture of his fragmented memories.

“Are we in a hospital?” A woman asked.

“Are we dead?” Another woman asked.

Wait, what? A hospital or dead? Those are my choices? Palani struggled for other alternatives. What about dream? What about nightmare? Keep it together... He was starting to lose it, but he hadn’t lost it yet. Where am I? He sat up straight, alert, trying to think pragmatically, trying to remember how he got here and where here was. Most important, he was trying to stay calm. Things were a bit sketchy, but they weren’t “prison-riot” just yet. People were nervous and confused, himself included, but they weren’t angry and mean. That could change soon enough and that meant things could get nuts real quick. If that happened he wanted to have a game plan for defending himself. He studied the men around him and figured to be one of the alpha males. Beyond that, he would have to wait and see. More waiting? Is that the best you’ve got? Palani sighed at the thought of doing nothing, but could think of nothing to do. How much longer do I have to wait, and for what? WHAT’S GOING ON!

39

Toby didn’t know how long he had been in this room, or why everybody was naked, but when he heard the old man ask, “does anybody know how we got here”, he was tempted to reply, “by shooting myself in the head”. He didn’t of course, but as he listened to all of the other recollections, he became less interested in how he had gotten here and more interested in where here was. Was he in a hospital or was he dead? If he was dead, was he in Heaven? If he was in Heaven, why did it look like a waiting room instead of the pearly white gates he might have hoped for. There were no clouds or harps either, but there was no fire, horned guy with a pitchfork or torture so he thought it best not to complain. He also remembered that prior to shooting himself, he had shot somebody else, so wherever here was, he wanted to stay as low-key as possible.

Regardless of who he had shot, or if Heaven’s waiting room was in fact a small white warehouse filled with naked people, Toby was getting thirsty. He was getting hungry too and he was getting tired. He tried to close his eyes and rest, but he couldn’t sleep. Finally, after who knew how long, he got up to walk around. He walked, stretched a bit and even tried the doors that others had tried—they didn’t open for him either. Eventually, he did the only thing he could do, return to his desk and wait.

As he sat, Toby watched for what must have been hours as others walked, stretched, pulled on the doors, kicked at the doors, even worked as a team to throw desks at the doors. Not a bad idea, he had thought. Unfortunately for all, the desks simply crashed against the door and then crashed along the floor. Crashing desks were immediately followed by one, or both, of the desk-throwers’ screams of frustration. After the second door withstood the second desk, one of the throwers began shouting and kicking at the door.

40

“OPEN THIS DOOR!” The man had yelled, pulling on the handle.

An elderly lady then made the mistake of asking him to stop the shouting, which only irritated the man further. “SHUT IT BAG!” He had yelled, staring at her, eyes wide with rage... Things were getting tense.

“Attention,” said the female voice. “You will now return to your seats.”

That was it. No further announcements, no instructions, nothing. People stood where they were for a moment, looking at each other as if contemplating alternatives. Of course there were no alternatives and so back to their chairs people went. Even the fat lady made it back to her chair and those that had thrown chairs earlier, now worked as a team to return them to their previous owners. There was grumbling and a bit of swearing, but soon enough everybody was seated and everybody was quiet.

Minutes became hours, hours became boredom, and boredom became stress. Or so it seemed. There was no clock in the room which meant that Toby had no idea how long they had been sitting. Definitely more than he enjoyed, long enough that some appeared stressed, and too long for the man seated in front of Toby who tilted his head back to let out a loud, growling sigh. The sudden noise startled some and annoyed others, but the man didn’t care and got up to walk around. He had the look of a caged animal or a quick-tempered drunk ready to rage...

“Return to your seat,” said the female voice.

“I WILL NOT!” The man yelled, fists clenched and staring at the ceiling.

A loud, piercing siren burst into the room, repeating over and over again, causing ears to be covered and mouths to cry out. Standing in defiant protest, the man screamed and screamed while others screamed at him to sit down. Reluctantly, the man returned to his seat, and when he did the siren ceased. And the waiting resumed.

41

An internment camp! Toby thought, eyes wide and body stiff. He had seen plenty of documentaries and these were the tools of the trade... sirens, nudity and holding cells. This was a gas chamber and he was about to die! Unaware that he was clenching the table in petrified anticipation, he looked up at the ceiling for holes or ductwork, or anything that might allow a cloud of poisonous gas... Any minute now and he would hear the hissing sounds of imminent death... Except there was no hiss... there was no cloud. Minute upon excruciating minute tick-tocked within Toby’s mind... tick, tock, tick, tock... TICK! TOCK! But no gas...

“WHERE ARE WE!” A lady screamed, hands clamped to the edge of her desk while rocking back and forth. “We’re dead, I know it!” She moaned. “Purgatory...” She put her head down and whimpered into her folded arms.

Purgatory? Toby hadn’t thought about that, because he didn’t know much about it. As a Jew, Toby didn’t know much about Purgatory except that it was supposed to be some sort of waiting room for the dead. Even that he wasn’t sure about, but it gave him some comfort to think that even if he were dead, he still had a chance. A waiting room’s chance at something better. If he wasn’t dead, then he was in some kind of psychotic experiment and perhaps he would soon wish he were dead. Death, or wish for death, not very good options. There was a click from the door on the right side of the room, and then that door began to swing open...

Twin barrels of a shotgun entered the room, followed by the tall, lanky white man who wielded it. As he walked in, the man leveled his pistol-grip weapon at the group and smiled. He was bald, but looked to be about thirty. He had a neatly trimmed, fire red, Van Dyke style beard and wore a white suit, white vest, white tie, and white shoes. He was a whole lot of white, but he looked good.

42

“Nobody leaves their seat until told to do so,” he said in thick Irish accent.

When that door had opened, quite a few people had gotten up from their seats, ready to make a dash. Irish Van Dyke and his rib spreader made sure they returned.

“It always amuses me to hear people moaning about Purgatory,” he said. “As if a temporary dwelling, like a New York apartment to be dealt with until moving on to better and bigger.” He chuckled, then swaggered along the left side of the room. “Now I’ll be hovering at the room’s end, and I’ll put a large hole in anybody that tries for that door. And for you lawyers and sarcastic types, I’ll shoot anybody that tries for the other door too.”

Heads turned slowly to watch the man pass by. A capable man who looked as though he had quite a bit of experience shooting people in the back.

“Greetings, class,” came a soothing, cheery voice.

A handsome, well-dressed man walked confidently into the room, his expensive dress shoes clicking purposefully as he strode across the floor. Against the all white backdrop the man looked like a runway model, wearing a steel-gray suit and white open-collared shirt. He was casual, but confident, and upon reaching the desk he hopped up nimbly, landing rear-first onto it’s surface where his legs dangled and his smile spread. He sat for a moment, allowing his legs to slowly sway as he surveyed the room.

43

Class? Elena struggling to comprehend the simple words of a man who apparently needed an armed escort. She shook her head a bit, dropping it slightly in disbelief and fear. That’s when she again noticed her reflection in the top of the desk... there was no hole! Her eyes widened as she leaned closer to the desktop reflection. Her hand rose instinctively to feel her forehead. Her head hole was gone and her hair was done! She looked beautiful, radiant. She almost didn’t recognize herself she looked so good. She then noticed the sleeves on her arms—she was dressed!

Elena quickly looked away from the desk to her torso, arms and legs. She was wearing a white collar-less shirt and matching white pants. These clothes were light, loose fitting and comfortable, like something she had seen on one of those travel shows that she liked to watch. Something from India perhaps. She felt the shirt and the pants, kneading the material through curious fingers. Although the clothes felt very nice, she was not touching them for thread count, she was touching them for realness.

She pinched her arm and felt pain, suddenly becoming very frightened. Hold it together, she told herself. Sometimes a dream can feel very, very real. She didn’t know why, but she looked at her feet. Hiking boots? Why would she be wearing hiking boots? Actually, they were more like a cross-training sneaker, but that didn’t help. Lightweight, white, sneaker-boots, with no logos or distinguishing marks. Were she in a hospital, she would be wearing some sort of slipper, wouldn’t she? Not sneakers. Am I dead? She thought, on the verge of panic...

“I’m sure you all have a million questions,” said the well-dressed man sitting on the alter-desk, “and I’ll be happy to address them all, once I’ve given a brief little announcement.”

44

Elena exhaled slowly. Crazy as it seemed, she was grateful for the distraction. Keep talking handsome man, keep talking. Handsome man pulled out what appeared to be a small note card from the breast pocket of his fine-fitting, and obviously silk, suit jacket. Panic aside, Elena couldn’t escape the thought that this man was gorgeous, and the more she looked, the more remarkable he became.

His skin was a flawless, slightly lighter shade of champagne or butterscotch. His wavy hair was only slightly darker than his skin and his eyes were a soft grayish blue, appearing more like spheres of crystal than actual eyes. He had a distinguished look about him and his smile was intoxicating. Even his hands, which appeared smooth and hair free, seemed strong and masculine, with fingers neither too long or too short. If he wasn’t the perfect looking man, he was close to it.

He sat on the edge of the table yet appeared perfectly balanced, perfectly comfortable. He was the center of attention in every way that a person could be, perfectly displayed against a non-challenging backdrop. With crossed ankles and upright back, he sat as casual as a longtime friend.

“In the interest of saving time,” he began, “my time, I’m going to read six names. I’ll read first names only, and as nobody here shares the same first name, should you not hear your name you will get up and exit through the door to my right.”

Handsome man smiled and motioned to his right. That door was open now and looked eager to accept customers. Handsome man spoke and gestured in ways that made Elena think he was either well educated, wealthy, or very capable of physical violence. He was a tall man, though not too tall, and appeared to be athletic, though not steroid athletic. In short, he didn’t seem intimidating, but when he spoke, he spoke as one very much in control. He was authoritative and confident, but not necessarily in a bad way.

45

“Elena, Jesse, Kirsten, Michi, Palani, Toby.”

With names read, Handsome man placed his card back into his breast pocket, then stacked his hands upon his lap. He smiled and waited, legs swaying and eyes scanning. After a brief pause, first one, and then another, and finally, groups of people were standing and shuffling along, moving slowly toward the door on the left. Elena was a bit nervous to have heard her name and wanted to ask a question, but couldn’t let go of the words. She was hopeful that one of the others would ask a question, but nobody did. Each person seemed to accept that answers would be coming—had to be coming. As such, each person accepted their role, you were either a chair person or a shuffling person. Those leaving their chairs seemed content to be leaving the room, while those sitting in chairs seemed content to be watching them leave.

As she watched, Elena noticed that those leaving were well groomed and without deformity. All had been healed or else none had been injured. Had she imagined those deformities? Did it matter? If she were crazy enough to imagine injuries and deformities, did it matter now that it wasn’t real? Was it better to accept crazy things, or the normal things that you once thought were crazy?

“Very good,” Handsome Man said, acknowledging those on the move. “Rest assured you will be taken care of in the next room.” He watched the herd then looked briefly at Elena, winking at her before looking back to see the last person exit the room.

With as little fanfare as a quietly closing door, the people were gone. With a slight chill running down her spine, Elena wondered what was next...