Bonus Story: Happy Holidays, Welcome to Hell

If examined from the proper angle, “Happy Holidays” and “Welcome to Hell,” might be the most synonymous terms in language. Take the two for what they are; the loathsomely required parroting of meaningless verbs as nouns– Hell and Holidays being the most glaring of these modern, bastardizations.

Hell: noun, a theoretical place of evil and damnation. Verb; a state of being in which one considers suicide the preferable alternative. Holiday; verb, a segment of time synonymous with vacation used mostly in colloquial, European English. Noun; a period of time in which one considers murder of one’s relatives and/or self the preferable alternative to suffering yet another, drawn-out, unbearably awkward brush with so much feigned, festive joy one’s eyes begin to bleed.

Take the case of Katherine Marigold (aka Kate) as food for thought. Former high-school sweet-heart turned divorcee and single-mother when The Asshole went nuts and finally fell of the rails. Apart from the two kids she loved but was stuck with anyway, she’d also inherited The Asshole’s family– or rather, the Asshole family, if seeking formality. Though Kate’s children were blood to the Assholes, she was not. It required a constant, delicate, political finesse to maintain one’s bird from rising pointedly every other weekend as she dropped the children with Grandmother and Grandfather Asshole.

But the Holiday Hellride Extravaganza? That was a different story altogether. It always began with kindly, sage old Grandmother Asshole calling on Thanksgiving. After five minutes of unwarranted gossip that usually allowed Kate time to cook, eat, and discard a single TV dinner, Grandmother Asshole would politely inform her that the children would be home within the hour. After ten years, Kate knew the drill. She didn’t even bother to unlock the front door for another two hours.

Admittedly, those first few years were hectic, chaotic, miserable even. She hadn’t quite worked out the Assholes’ patterns yet. As a result, three years of Thanksgiving nights passed with her at edge of the couch, eyes locked on the door. With her heart in her throat, and a habitual check of her cell-phone every thirty seconds, she wallowed in terror in case, this time, there was an accident, or rollover, or fatal spin-out.

Those first years that she spent on edge, poised to launch herself out the front door should the worst have happened, were always met with the same ending: As soon as her coat was zipped, her keys in-hand and at the ready to go searching, “her babies” arrived safe and sound. Their cute button noses were always tainted just the cutest shade of red, while they emitted the smells of turkey, gravy, and an Asshole’s fourth whiskey sour plastered on their cheeks from a kiss.

During those first years, Kate praised various deities for the safe return of her “munchkins” while she watched Uncle Asshole’s tail-lights drunkenly fish-tail away through the snow. But such was the nature of every Thanksgiving, there was no helping it.

But Christmas? She wasn’t sure she knew that word anymore, not really. She knew the slow beep of the cash register as she slipped longer and larger amounts of groceries over it, shuffled the line forward with the gathering waterfall of receipts. Or, if nothing else, she knew it from the slow beep that ticked away her own funds as she piled-on more books, clothing, and toys atop another wage-slave’s conveyor belt.

Christmases were “Big Days” as her manager called them; it was always the “Big Day” now. The world had gotten too politically correct, and she couldn’t risk ruffling feathers. Never mind that in parlance, the “Big Day,” was actually Christmas Eve somehow it now applied elsewhere. Christmas became the “Big Day”, and Easter was “the Start of Spring,” but Halloween curiously stayed the same. As did Thanksgiving. They were more, bastardized visions of former English. Thanksgiving might as well have been “slave over an oven day,” that she brazenly learned to avoid. Meanwhile everything between it and the Big Day was “Thanks for your money. Next!” month.

All in between the snow would always grow more frequent, hardier. The old Chevy that sputtered to a start on the best of days would groan and wheeze from the cold. Sometimes even, she’d be forced to toss boiling hot water on the beast’s engine. Why it worked, she wasn’t sure, but it did. Some days she even preempted it with whispers of sweet nothings; “c’mon baby,” “atta’ girl,” and “Just start you piece of shit!”

And as if in time with the gathering torrents of snow, so too came the brilliance and palettes of a million twinkle lights that never quite twinkled. With them of course, came the momentary joy that erupts in the human brain from such colorful arrangements. That momentary joy would burst forth through Kate’s chest with a half-smile, before it was once more suppressed by years of cynicism and the dilution of music that rotted the brains of the living. The newly-zombified would then shuffle about the stores chanting “Spend! Speeend!” from their wallets. Although their word-holes were silent, the empty looks in their eyes predicted their wallets’ future. Inevitably these “consumers,” would either end up in Kate’s way at a check-out, or even more horrific, on the far-side of her own cash register.

But Kate never complained. She couldn’t. Didn’t have time to anyhow. Between working eighty hours on her feet, being a full-time mother, and somewhere hoping to retain her sanity, she was forced to accept things as they were to trudge onward.

When the morning of the Big Day eventually came, it went more quickly than any other moment in time– and in a haze of hued paper shredded by tiny, fleshy claws as if in a tornado of knives. The neutral melange of clothing sprinkled with neon toys was all that ever remained to tell the tale. But Kate knew the tale already, was too consumed with the breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and pancakes, for the “babies” before they were sent off to see the Asshole clan for the noon-time rendezvous.

Each year there was roughly enough time between their departure and return for a shower, a cup of coffee and an hour of “alone time.” Anyone in Kate’s shoes would admit that even Santa needed some time to herself. But alas, it was short-lived and the fun never ended there. Oh Satan’s great tits did it never end there!

For you see, that’s the second, biggest comparison between the two– Holidays and Hell that is; they are seemingly eternal, even if they’re only a few hours out of thousands. After the “Munchkins’” return from the Assholes, it was the Marigold’s time. Being as they were blood, Kate was given no choice but to slough off her few moments of personal peace, layer up her sunday-best, equip her thousands of pounds of arctic gear, then tramp through the snow-laden hellscape of others’ “Big Day.”

But such was the way of life, at least in her part of the world. And even if for only a moment, there was always a time where her smile wasn’t forced, her candor wasn’t canned, and that viral-contagion of Joy infected her, melted her brain, and made her forget all of the mindless abrasion of ancient music, oil-slicked, driven snow, and slaving over registers. Somehow, in some minute, moment, or any of the other colloquial chronologies, something made it all feel worth it. Usually, it was the smiles on “her babies’” faces or the helpless, hopeless laughter of a moment where life piled on just enough to knock her on her ass, tell her not to take things so seriously. And for that minute, moment, breath, she didn’t, and it was all worth it.

In a way, Kate knew she wasn’t alone. Like her, Humans in her part of the world had adapted to the flash and pizzazz, the fire and brimstone, the terror and torture. They’d learned to slave and suffer through the month of “Thank you for your money, Next!” and had even begun to use their drooling calls of “Spend. Speeend!” as a rallying cry.

But why? That’s the thing about Hell and the Holidays: they’ve both got their Twilight Zone-esque properties, their moments of surreality, their eventual points where a person’s eyes finally glosses over for a moment, and their brain melts for an instant, and gives way to the pure, joyous-insanity that causes laughter, familiarity. And each year it seems, another set of lights twinkles appears over another door. With a hypnotic pulse of morse-code at mushy brains, and a known, automatic cipher, the message is clear, “Happy Holidays, Welcome to Hell.”

Short Story: Twelve Hours

Twelve Hours

Twelve fucking hours.

Those were the words in Connie Sutter’s mind. That was the time-frame the Indian in the maintenance call-center had relayed after she pressed the “Emergency” button on the elevator’s touch-screen panel. Stuck between floors, or at one, it didn’t matter, stuck was stuck. To make things worse that homophobe, Sheila, was beside her.

In many, physical respects the two were similar, though mentality dictated otherwise. They were both young, long, lean, and ample-chested with rigid postures and punctual professional lives. They also both lived in two of the eighty-floor apartments in the new, “Jackson” building of Chicago; the first, high-tech dwelling for the “new-aged middle-class”– or at least, that’s what all the papers touted.

Connie was a high-volume data-entrant across town, and a lucky one at that. She’d dated the building’s architect in high-school until discovering her sexuality. When she came-out, he was understandably upset, but the two remained long-distance friends through the end of high-school and college. When Connie learned she would be forced to move to Chicago for Graduate school, Emery was the first person she called. He pulled some strings, got her an extremely reduced rate on her apartment, and wished her luck.

Conversely, Sheila was an architect, or at least one in training. She hadn’t helped to build this particular building, but it was common knowledge among Emery’s friends that she was shrewd, outspoken, and aggressive; or as Connie put it, “She’s a heinous bitch.”

To be stuck beside Sheila without prior-knowledge of her might have put Connie at-ease, but unfortunately, that same set of Emery’s strings had imparted her own nature to Sheila. As Connie remembered it, they’d met outside their apartments in the brushed-steel hallway. Unbeknownst to either of them, the juxtapositions of a dozen LED-screens and lights had lit each of their faces to accent features the other found most distasteful. Even now it permeated their memories, tinted their features as they stood apart from one another.

Connie had been inputting the code-lock on her door’s panel when Sheila had arrived. A momentary glimpse at the woman’s high-fashion heels and “come-fuck-me” business skirt made her scowl internally. Likewise, Sheila was disgusted by Connie’s hastily applied eye-liner, lip-gloss, and unprofessionally causal denim. They’d caught one another’s eye at the apex of their own bemusement, forced by social norms to entertain pleasantries, introduce themselves.

“You’re the new tenant?” Sheila had asked as she attempted to swallow her own tongue.

Connie put on her best smile– given the circumstances, more of a grimace– and extended her hand. Sheila had eyed it with superiority, they’d already heard of one another. It was, after-all, a semi-historic floor in a semi-historic building. In other words, a coveted residence. The other inhabitants had fought tooth-and-nail to procure their top-floor dwellings, Sheila among them.

“Connie Sutter,” she’d replied as her hand fidgeted in mid-air.

The hand withdrew as Sheila crossed her arms, put on her best, faux-cordiality, “I’ve heard of you. Friend of Emery’s– the lesbian, right?”

Connie’s blanked features sank further to disillusionment, “Yeah. That’s me. I guess.”

Sheila’s disgust was clear in her huffed scowl, “Just keep your weird sex quiet, and we’ll pretend neither of us exists.”

Her fingers flew over her touch-panel door-lock as she disappeared into her apartment, left Connie to fume in a slump. That night, Connie made sure to masturbate as loud as possible, her back arched against the door to vibrate through it and echo through the empty hallway. Luckily, no-one lived beside her, but there was no doubt Sheila had heard. That fact was clarified over the few weeks that followed as Sheila’s disgust avoided her in the hallways and elevator. Connie no longer paid it any thought, she’d defended herself, won. It was over.

Until now.

They were stuck together now. They fidgeted awkwardly, angrily. The touch-panel Indian had been loud enough for both the whole elevator to hear, and they were the only two in it.

Twelve fucking hours.

The maintenance crews had all gone for the night, the building left in the hands of the automated floor-scrubbers and sweepers– glorified, over-sized Roombas meant to replace the “human
element.” Unless there was a life-threatening incident, the maintenance crews wouldn’t be called in until morning. It had been one of the few things Emery had warned her about; the building’s owners, the Jackson foundation, were miserly in their way. They wished to help humanity by integrating technology into every facet of life. Apparently, humans didn’t help humanity; janitors least of all. It was stunted viewpoint spawned of corporate-greed, but it didn’t change Connie’s situation. She was stuck, heinous bitch homophobe with her.

But they weren’t just stuck, they were also incommunicado. It was uncommon knowledge that the EM fields that propelled new-age elevators interfered with cell-phone signals. The only way to make calls was through the touchscreen panel, hardwired directly to the call-center’s network, but the “techs” there weren’t in the business of carrying on conversations to stave off boredom.

Connie and Sheila fidgeted back and forth in the elevator, shuddered respectively when their motions randomly synced-up. To say there was palpable tension was would be an understatement, Connie downright felt it smother her– as though she stuffed a whole burger into her mouth at once, clogged her face-hole with greasy meat.

She swallowed hard, slowly eased out of her pull-over sweatshirt. Sheila rolled her eyes, leaned against a wall to stare at her chrome-reflection.

Connie sighed, “Twelve hours…”

“This’d go a lot faster if you didn’t talk.”

Connie rolled her eyes, sat on the freshly waxed floor, propped herself against the back-wall with her sweater as a pillow. Her eyes fixed ahead at her own reflection, occasionally caught the twitches of Sheila’s legs before they darted back from the “strip-me” stockings beneath her knee-length skirt. Sheila subtly watched her in the chrome, suppressed shudders with each look until she could barely contain herself. Her fingers clawed at her arms. Her eyes bored out Connie’s brains from a corner of her caricatured reflection. She caught a dart, swallowed hard, and chewed the inside of her lip. A dart at her, then back. Sheila trembled against fury. Her chest fluttered with held breath. Another dart.

“Jesus Christ! Keep it in check!” Connie’s face drew a scrutiny of Sheila’s sanity. “Don’t look at me like that you dyke!”

Her words echoed into silence. Connie swallowed terror from the froth of Sheila’s rageful face.

She stammered with shame that turned to exasperation, “I-I… what?”

“I said don’t fucking look at me! I’m not a piece of meat. And I’m not like you. If I’d wanted to be an object I’d’ve chosen it like the rest of you!”

Connie’s disbelief doubled, “What the hell’re you talking about?”

“I see that look!” She snapped.

Connie failed to suppress a laugh, “You think I wanna’ fuck you?”

“All you fags are alike. Sex crazed. That’s why you choose to flock together. You know you stand a better chance of fucking.”

A throaty snort slipped out, “You’re nuts.”

Sheila’s eyes were lethal. She huffed, turned away. Her body trembled in rage for a full-hour– one that Connie made sure to fill with long, nude gazes. The truth was, she wouldn’t have been attracted to Sheila even if they were alike. Sheila was too much like herself, bland, self-conscious, trying too hard to be taken seriously. Connie liked athletic girls– gymnasts, runners, and the like. They made for more acrobatic sex, could do mind blowing things with their petite flexibility that she could never manage. More to the point, Sheila was an idiot, and Connie like smart girls.

Connie somewhat remarked to this latter point, “No-one chooses to be gay, you dolt.” Sheila whipped toward her, opened her mouth, but Connie spoke before she could, “Don’t you understand science? Christ, the whole reason I’m stuck with you right now’s ’cause science’s screwed us.”

“Then explain it,” Sheila said, matter-of-factly. “If you’re so god-damned smart.”

“Aren’t you an architect? Didn’t you have to go through school?” Connie shook her head, “It’s simple biology; pheromones, hormones, genetics”

“Then we should wipe it out,” Sheila countered.

“Yeah, sure thing Mein Fuehrer, we’ll get right on that.”

“You’d dare–”

“The only reason you exist’s ’cause your parents’ pheromones attracted them together. Then their bodies secreted hormones that– unfortunately– led them to fuck and create you.”

Sheila’s eye twitched, “Oh and I suppose that’s different from you.”

“It is, actually,” Connie dead-panned. “My family’s all girls–”

“So you’re one of those freaks too, huh​?

“What?” Connie asked, dumbfounded. “No you idiot, pheromones influence physiology.”

“What’s that even mean?” She asked snidely.

“It means my four sisters– who are all straight– had too many raging hormones when my mom was pregnant. It forced certain changes to me in my mom’s wound from too much estrogen. Evolution happened.

“So you think you’re better than me, huh?”

“Really? Is that what you took from that?” Sheila was silent, her eyes lethally narrow. Connie rolled her eyes, laid her head back against the wall, “Idiot.”

Sheila huffed, turned away again.

Eleven more hours of this bullshit…

She stared up at her top-down reflection in the chrome ceiling, drifted into memories of her first girlfriend, Emily. She saw a mocha-skinned ear flush red as she nipped at the lobe, and felt her giggle and shudder beneath her. She and Emily had been gentle, loving people who’d hidden their relationship from their high-school peers to save themselves the same grief Sheila enjoyed imparting. Connie’d never dealt with her own, familial grief caused by her coming out. Instead, she took off for college to gain her BS in Mathematics, moved to Chicago for her graduate program.

Though she was “out” it was never her intention to be. Emery’d let it slip just before she started dating Emily, was the cause of their meeting, and word of mouth made it spread like wildfire in a drought. His accidental mistake became unending altruism toward her. Regardless, whatever Emily was doing couldn’t have been half as bad as this; she knew how to keep her mouth shut, had a monk’s patience. Connie didn’t.

She drifted in and out of a sleepy-daze for a full two-hours as Sheila fumed in the corner, her mind swept up in Connie’s disrespect and her own prejudices.

Why wouldn’t she want to fuck me anyhow? What, am I not good enough for the dyke-club? Do I not arouse her? I’d rock her fucking world. That’s what I do. How I get where I need to go. I’m good at it– even Emery knows it.

Connie shook awake as she dazed too near to sleep. Her eyes snapped open in time to catch Sheila steal a glance at her reflection. She ignored it, checked her digital wristwatch.

Nine more? Really, it’s only been three hours?

She lowered her watch, caught another stolen glance, saw Sheila’s legs tremble– either from exhaustion or fury, though Connie suspected the former.

“You can sit down, you know,” she said innocuously.

“I’m fine!”

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Connie said. “If it helps I’ll stand– or would that be too submissive for you?”

“Go to hell.”

Connie eyes rolled audibly, “Just shut up and sit down. Last thing I need’s for you to faint and hit your head.”

“I won’t.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever. But you know if you do, I might have to give you CPR.”

Sheila swallowed hard, shuddered. She blew a burst of air from her nose, turned and sank against the chrome corner she’d been staring at, her legs cross-wise. She studied herself in the wall across from her, avoided Connie’s eyes as she ensured nothing beneath her skirt showed.

Connie snarked, “Feel better?” Sheila glared. “That’s what I thought.”

Sheila’s head rested against the wall, her eyes shut at the LEDs in the ceiling. She tried to calm herself, drift off. Connie slumped, contented by the silence, and dozed again. She woke abruptly to a tone on the elevator’s touch-panel. Sheila snapped from sleep, groggy. She sighed, rose to approach the panel, pressed “enter.”

The Indian came through, tinny from the panel’s small speaker, “I am calling to inform you. We have run our diagnostic program and discovered a fault in your elevator’s EM-rail system.”

“Okay. And what’s that mean to me?” Connie asked.

“Normally, in case’s such as this we might call the building manager back to work should there be an emergency. I am calling to see that no-one is injured inside, correct?”

“Yeah, but if you can report it why–”

“That is excellent. The next shift starts in six hours. The building manager will–”

“Wait, why can’t you just–”

“Arrive at six AM, local time. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“This is ridiculous! Put me through to the manager and I’ll–”

The screen dimmed, the remote call ended. Connie heaved a sigh, rolled her eyes.

“Unbelievable,” Sheila spat.

“I’m taking the stairs from now on,” Connie muttered facetiously.

Sheila scoffed, “You live on the top-floor of an 80-story. You’re not walking all that way.”

I wish I had.

Connie returned to her spot against the wall, “Yeah, whatever.”

Sheila closed her eyes again. How melodramatic. Jesus, no wonder all of them take drama.

Another hour, more thoughts, and more restless sleep. Neither of them seemed to regard the other’s presence as much now. They drifted in and out of their mutual, inconsiderate thoughts, their only similarities the underlying wish to no longer be trapped. Water and food would’ve been nice, but Connie’d gone longer, and Sheila seemed fine.

Connie’s thoughts eventually drifted back to their first interaction in the hallway. She knew she had been ambushed even then, but why? Why even make the introduction? Neither of them seem to care much for social conventions, Connie’s loud orgasm had been evidence to that– as had Sheila’s obvious snap in the elevator. Why force themselves to pleasantries at all? Was it merely their mutual desire to dominate the other’s psyche, assert themselves?

Connie found herself amused at the thought of a towering intellect that forced Sheila to her knees with a cowering, introspective terror. She chuckled aloud without realizing it.

“What!” Sheila snapped.

“Huh? Oh nothing, just thinking about something.”

“Oh, yeah, like what, vagina?” She derided.

Connie’s mental filters were too fatigued to work properly, “Oh yeah, a big ‘ol hairy muff right in my face. That’s what I’m laughing at.”

“What the hell’s so funny about a vagina?” Sheila spat.

Connie shook her head, “I’m not laughing at that, you idiot. Although, now that you mention it, it would be pretty funny if you put some googly eyes over it– you know the kind you buy in a pack of hundreds?” Sheila’s face blanked. She visibly struggled with a dilemma. Connie continued with rising laughter, “Maybe if you glued ’em on above the muff, and– well one time I saw this vid of a naked-chick skydiving, the air was pushing her lips all around. Add the eyes with some screaming sound-effects as everything’s going wild, maybe make it look like its diving toward some enemy for battle–”

Connie couldn’t contain her laughter. Sheila’s eyes were wide, she dared not picture a vagina in the presence of one of them lest some sort of sapphic voodoo consume her.

“What is wrong with you?” Sheila asked at Connie’s apexing laughter.

“Oh c’mon, haven’t you ever looked at your own pussy in the mirror, or are you just a brood-mare for the state? Hell everyone thinks their junk’s weird looking. Even most’a the guys I know.”

“I like male genitalia,” Sheila chided.

“Yeah, I bet you do. But even they think it looks like some kind of wrinkly hot dog– or an elephant’s trunk. Haven’t you ever seen one do a helicopter impression?”

Connie’s tongue thwop’d against her lips. Her finger bounced side to side in the air with her head as she bellowed the noise with glee. Sheila’s face wrote a thesis on the difficulty of containing her momentary amusement. Thankfully, Connie was too consumed to notice.

“How would you even know what that looks like?” Sheila asked, genuinely confused.

Connie stifled her laughter, “Oh like I’ve never seen a rod before. You must not know much about lesbians.”

“I know all I want to, thank you.”

“Then you know we actually use a lot of penis-shaped toys.”

“I don’t want to know that.”

“Oh like you don’t have a vibrator.” She quickly corrected herself, “Well you probably don’t. No woman could be so uptight and still pleasure herself.”

Sheila huffed disgust, “That’s none of your business.”

Connie rolled her eyes, snorted, “Yeah, whatever.”

“You never told me how you knew.”

Connie gave a snort, re-focused, “Right. I knew a guy in college. He was very effeminate, too gay to function, but he also thought women’s bodies were much more geared toward sex with men.”
“I agree. It’s why your kind are wrong.”

Connie scowled, “C’mon, don’t ruin it. We’ve been through this.”

Sheila sighed, threw a hand up, “Fine. Tell your story.”

Connie returned to her recollection, “Anyway, we were drunk ‘n he had this idea that we should… well, compare. Since neither of us would be interested in the other, we figured what the hell, right?”

“See? Sex crazed,” Sheila interrupted with superiority.

Connie tilted her head in disbelief, “Oh please, like you didn’t do stupid shit in college.” Sheila visibly bit the inside of her lip, refused to admit agreement. “That’s what I thought. Anyway if you’ll let me finish; basically I agreed with him, said it looked like some kind of weird, alien-face all drawn up and cold, or maybe an elephant with the balls as ears.”

Sheila stifled a laugh with a burst of air, but Connie rose to her feet. “He was so drunk he goes–” she thrust her hips, gyrated them, trumpeted like an elephant. “BRROOWWW! I am the motherfucking king of Africa! I lost it. Fell over laughing.” Sheila visibly struggled as Connie shifted her thrusts, thwop’d with her tongue, “Now I’m a fucking Cobra-attack chopper.” She darted forward, gyrating, banked around in the tight elevator. “Roger, echo Charlie-One, we see the target.” Connie’s hips gyrated faster, her mouth spit machine-gun noises. “There I am, on the floor crying my eyes out, totally naked, and he’s–” She riffed a classic rock song in time her movements, headbanging with it.

Sheila’s mouth quivered in odd shapes. Her cheeks bloated, red. Her eyes watered against sharp breaths that suppressed laughter. Her composure cracked. She burst into a raucous fit as Connie’s head and hips banged in time to a long-past chart-topper.

She stopped to catch her breath, leaned back against a wall in a pant. Sheila was in tears.

Connie laughed between deep breaths, “When we’d settled down, he said something about gay guys loving Jethro Tull ’cause they could always imitate playing the flute.”

Sheila’s laughter pitched higher. Her chest bucked for air, “What the hell’s that even mean?”

Connie shook her head, “I still have no idea.”

Sheila sniffled, the imagery vivid in her mind. She swallowed hard to regain her composure. She huffed, upturned her nose, “They are funny looking.”

Connie snorted, “To say the least.” She considered something a moment, heaved a breath, “So, now that you’re not entirely angry– why do you hate me so much?”

Sheila looked to her, dead-panning, “’cause you’re a lesbian and it’s a filthy thing.”

Connie was taken aback by the sudden, autonomous reversal, “So… you can laugh at my jokes and still hate me? What, did your husband cheat on you with a man or something?”
“I’ve never been married,” She said matter-of-factly. “And no, that’s never happened. And it wouldn’t either, because I’m an excellent lover.”

Connie choked on a snort, “So? We’ve established this; if someone’s gay, they’re gay. You can’t change that. So what is it really? Were you raised to believe it was wrong or something?”

“Of course I was. My parents were good people. They took care of us. They’d’ve never let one of you corrupt us.”

Connie slapped her forehead with a palm, massaged her face and eyes as it slid downward, “Christ, you can’t really be this dense.”

“Do not insult my intelligence,” Sheila spat. “I’ll have you know I graduated top of my class.”

Connie looked away in thought, then sank back against the wall, “Look, just shut up about it. You really don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t choose anything. None of us. We don’t choose our names, or eye or hair color, or who our parents are– and trust me, even with as much as I love women, we don’t choose to be gay. Life’s beyond our control. All of it, but especially these things. If you really believe the bullshit us-verse-them stuff, I can’t change your mind. And I’m not even going to try.”

“Good,” Sheila said, despite a hint of dissatisfaction.

Three more hours crawled by, Connie dejected by the momentary glimpse of possible camaraderie. In truth, she was mostly friendless in Chicago. Emery was always gone on business, or else never had time to hang when he in town. Beyond that, grad-school courses involved too much socialize without an excuse. She’d even considered online dating, but ended up surfing forums, shirking projects, or lurking in place of interacting. She certainly didn’t want to be friends with people like Sheila, but the lack of human interaction plagued her.

Sheila finally broke the silence, compelled by whatever path her thoughts had taken, “I don’t really hate anyone.” Connie’s head rose, angled toward her. “I don’t have time for it. Hate requires a lotta’ extra thought.”
Connie’s brow furrowed, “Could’ve fooled me.”

She rolled her eyes with a huff, “Like you’d know anything about me.”
“Or you me, or any of… us. How many gay people do you even know?

“I don’t need to know anymore. I know the one gay woman that had a screaming orgasm after I asked her to keep it to herself.”

Connie snorted a laugh, “I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t been so hostile.”

“Well it was rude.”

“And well-deserved.”

“Still rude.”

Connie shook her head, “Look, I’ll admit it didn’t help things, but… well, you’re a bitch. So am I. I also tend to antagonize people.”

“I’m only a bitch when people make me one.”

“So the very act of my existence, despite never speaking to you, made you into a bitch?”

Sheila’s eyes narrowed, “I saw that look. That “she thinks she’s better than me” look.”

“Didn’t you?”

“I am.”


“Because I am.”

Connie shook her head, “No. Ugh-uh. That’s not how that works. Saying a thing doesn’t make it a thing. Maybe, in the interests of keeping the peace, maybe I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did, but that doesn’t change what you did before.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. Don’t you get that?” Connie said, flustered. “All I did was exist, and you hated me for it. That’s what that bullshit us-versus-them thing is. It’s people turned into assholes at the very thought of others unlike them– like the Hitler thing.”

“Fuck you for that by the way,” Sheila spit. “I’m not a monster.”

“I’ll paraphrase what you said; “let’s exterminate a group people based on their genetics, cause they’re not like me.” Who’s that sound like?” Sheila’s mouth made funny shapes to retort, but her brain came up empty. She looked away, conceded defeat, but Connie pressed her. “Look, I get it. Whatever your reasons, you dislike certain people, but don’t try to act superior to them. There’s a difference between disliking someone because you do, and because you believe you’re supposed to.”

Sheila remained silent, clearly thinking on was being said. Unbeknownst to Connie, Sheila had always considered herself a good person– aggressive perhaps, but never such a monster as Connie suggested. In fact, the comparison stung deeper than she let on; her great grandfather had been one of the Germans that had helped the Jews escape the holocaust. It had always been a point of pride; he’d proven his obvious tolerance so she wouldn’t to.

But gays, really? Is that really an apt comparison? I don’t thrown them in camps, but…

Her train of thought ended there, and she realized, had carried on much longer than she could recall. She caught Connie checking her watch, sucked up her pride.

“Do you have the time?”

Connie eyed her, bit her bottom-lip, “Two more hours.”

Sheila sighed, “Thank you.”

Connie’s head laid backward. She shouted at the air, “Fuck, I just wanna’ get outta’ here!”

“Am I really bothering you that much?”

Connie was flabbergasted, “Not everything has to do with you.”

“Maybe not, but you seem rather impatient at my presence.”

“Trust me, I’m just naturally impatient. Always have been,” Connie replied spitefully.

Another hour of silence passed. One more to go. Sheila had been mulling over something she was afraid to admit. Mostly, it was a buried, natural inclination toward know-it-allism that fueled curiosity. She wouldn’t have admitted nosiness, but most certainly curiosity. It was a good thing in all respects, helped her learn, regardless of how others felt about her. Without such knowledge however, the question that escaped her lips seemed ill-timed, ill-advised, and shattered a fragile calm in Connie that had become shaky from hunger, boredom, and cabin-fever.

“How did you know you were a lesbian?”

“What?” Connie asked, stunned by the question.

“I said, how’d you know you liked women?”

Connie’s mind was plagued by her state. She looked Sheila dead in the eyes, as an alien studying a new species might. The answer was literally contained within her second sentence, but she was too ignorant to realize it.

Connie’s stomach rumbled, forced a tremor to her hands shook, “Think about the two sentences you just said, then report back.”

Sheila’s eyes darted over the floor, “So… you knew you were a lesbian because you like women?”

“Sounds difficult, doesn’t it?” Connie rebuked sarcastically.


“How’d you know you liked men?

Sheila thought, replied simply, “When I hit puberty I found them attractive.”

“So why would it be so different for me?” Connie pressed.

Sheila looked around, shrugged, “Because you’re not supposed to.”

“Says who?”

She shrugged again, “I dunno, it’s just not part of the world.”

Connie’s arms were locked in a cross, “Are you serious? Do you realize what you just said? Let me rephrase it so you can hear. How’d you know you were gay? Oh, puberty? Aren’t you not supposed to be gay? Says who? I don’t know, being gay’s just not a thing.”

“Yeah, and?”

“And?” She said, irate. “Do you not realize how retarded that was? You’re gay? Oh there’s nothing gay in the world.”

“That’s not what I–”

“You’re a fucking moron.”

“Hey that’s–”
Connie wasn’t listening. She’d been forced along an angry tangent that spiraled onward with a flailing hands and arms, “Fucking hell. I swear! It’s people like you that make life awful. People like me, who’ve been persecuted their whole lives, attacked in the most malicious ways, all because you’re too ignorant to stop and think about the damage you’re causing.”

“I never did anything to you!” Sheila countered.

Connie rose to her feet, furious, “Except you’ve treated me like shit for the last eleven hours cause I like tacos instead’a sausage. Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is, or how much that shit hurts a person? Do you really think you’re better than me because you prefer to cum a certain way? Jesus Christ, d’you know how many kids kill themselves each year– young children, teenagers, even adults– because of the kind of shit you’ve been spewing?”

“That’s not my fault!”

Connie shook her head, possessed by her anger, “God damn it, yes it is! Morality may be a gray area, but this isn’t. You’re either spreading or enabling hate, or you’re against it. And the kind of hate you’ve been spitting out tells me enough to know this isn’t the only place you do it– it’s also the same shit that makes people kill themselves!

“You’re being dramatic,” she said, weakly defensive.

“Oh really,” she said, taking a knee in front of Sheila. “Then answer this; what would you do if this little spiel of yours ended here, and later you found out I killed myself– slit my wrists or put a bullet through my own head ’cause of it? Would you even care?” Sheila’s face scrunched up. Connie pressed her for an answer at nose-length, “Tell me, would you even give a fuck about a person taking their own life away ’cause of something you said?”

Sheila sniffled. Tears edged into her eyes. She spat with a whimper, “I’m not a bad person!”

Connie froze, “What the hell?”

“I’m not a bad person. I’ve never done anything to deserve that.”

“What’re you–”

Sheila balled up in the corner, wept, “Shut up! Just shut up!”

Connie was confounded. It was as though Sheila had been confronted by some terrible thought or memory. Connie shook her head, returned to her spot, confused. She watched Sheila for a few moments before she regained a shaky composure.

Connie slid sideways to look at her dead-on, the two now at opposite sides of the elevator, “You wanna’ tell me what that was all about?”

Sheila breathed, her face full of grief, “You wouldn’t understand.”

Connie swallowed her pride once more, “Look, I dunno what it was all about, but… I’m sorry if I upset you. I really just–”
She wiped at her runny mascara, examined her hand with stuttered breath, “My father killed himself when I was young.”

“I’m… sorry?” Connie replied, confused. “I was just trying to make a point.”

“You did.”

Connie’s head tilted in agreement, but she countered, “Look, I don’t know what to say about that, but… d’you blame yourself for it or something? You–”
“He always said I was a “bad girl” that I’d never grow up to be good because… I was a bitchy little brat who didn’t ever learn from anything. And then, after he said it one day, I ran out. When I came home there were… cop cars all over and–”

She sank back into tears. Connie was stung. She chewed her lip, checked her watch; half-hour ’til shift-start. She swallowed her pride, slid across the floor to Sheila’s side, and put an arm around her. Sheila tensed up, shied away.

Connie shook her head, pulled her in, “I’m not coming on to you.” She breathed, rocked Sheila to comfort her. “Look, I’m sorry.”

Sheila sniffled again, “Yeah, I know. Y-you… you couldn’t have known.”
“I don’t… I don’t know why it happened, but I know it wasn’t your fault.”

Sheila nestled her head against Connie’s chest, “I know.” They sat in silence for a long moment, as time ticked away. When Sheila finally spoke again, she did so with distance. “I don’t wanna’ be a bitch, but I have to be aggressive. The men I work with… well, I guess it just, transfers over.”
Connie nodded, “I don’t fault you for asserting your place in the world, but treating me like you have, I can’t excuse that.”

The two parted organically as Sheila sat upright beside Connie. She cast a glance at her, noticing for the first time that her bright, round eyes were stunningly beautiful.

She looked to her skirt, preened a corner of it, “What was it like for you?”


“You said it was bad, but… what was it like?”

“Oh, um, well,” Connie stalled, the memories to painful to be dredged up without at least some, mental preparation. She swallowed hard, “Mostly just the same kinda’ shit as this. That’s why I eventually got through it. You can only hear the word dyke or fag so much before you just get tired of it, or loses all meaning. Besides, sexuality’s only one, small part’a human being. Every one of us has different things that make us unique. Sexuality’s not even in that category.”

“Did it make you… suicidal?”


Connie sighed, “Emily made it better.”


“My first girlfriend,” Connie replied as she sank into a bittersweet memory. “She was sweet, beautiful. I think part of it was made more difficult for her ’cause she was mixed– black dad, white mom– so she clung all the harder to me. We were good friends, but everyone knew I was gay. I think it made them suspect it of her for a long time too, but we hid it anyhow. Otherwise, it was all directed at me. A couple people said some things about her but… well, the point is, you get through it ’cause you have to. If you’re lucky, you have a friend, or a girlfriend– someone– to help you along the way. I had Em, and she was… ”

Connie trailed off. Her eyes welled with tears. She cleared her throat to keep her composure.

“Did you love her?”

“More than that, but yes,” Connie admitted.

“What happened?”

Connie shrugged, “High-school ended. We went our separate ways. She wanted to do one thing, I wanted to do another. We loved each other in a way no-one could top or change. Each of us was the others’ first. There’s just… that place, you know?”

Sheila nodded, “I guess it’s just human nature then. It’s romantic though– a good story.”

Connie agreed, “That’s why it upsets me so much when people don’t consider that. Apart from obviously hurting someone’s feelings, people don’t think of all the love they’re denying them. Emily and me… we were just two of millions who’ve been told we shouldn’t be allowed to love because of the way we do it.”

Sheila shook her head, “No wonder you hate me.”

Connie countered, “I don’t hate you. That’s the thing. Generally speaking, people who are oppressed or persecuted don’t hate, they’re just frustrated, scared, or sad. I do hate ignorance. It’s an universally unfair thing, but especially in this case. I mean, we’re both women– professionals. We’re already handicapped in so many ways by our society, have to work that much harder because of it. I hate that too, and ignorance on top of it just makes us separate ourselves even further ’cause of ingrained prejudices.”
Sheila twiddled her thumbs as she fought to find her words. She rose and extended a hand to Connie, “Go ahead.” Connie shrugged, pulled herself up. Sheila hugged her, “I’m sorry I’ve been such a heinous bitch.”

Connie hugged back, “It’s okay, I guess.”

The elevator jolted, parted them. The lights flickered, as a vertical ascent began. The elevator rocketed upward along its E.M. fields, like a rail-gun that fired them at the building’s top-floor. It slowed to a stop, and the doors opened with a ding.

Connie checked her watch, “Right on time.”

They eased themselves into the hall together, followed the chrome to their apartment doors in silence. The LED screens and lights had dimmed in the morning hour, the hall lighting supplemented by the sun that rose beyond a window at the hall’s end. The two stopped across the hall from one another, at their respective front-doors.

Sheila hesitated as Connie keyed in her pass-code. She looked back at Connie as her door slid open, “Look, I’m gonna’ take the day off after all this– I’m pretty tired, but…” Connie faced her from a lean in the jamb that blocked its motion tracker. She gazed across the hall, urged Sheila onward, “You… uh, wanna’ have a drink later or something? You know, as friends?”

Connie considered it, “Maybe, but… why?”

Sheila shrugged, looked to her feet, “I dunno. I just thought, maybe, since we’re both lonely we could … you know, hang out?”

Connie straightened, “Just c’mon. I’ve got a bottle of wine you might like.” Sheila hesitated, Connie met her eye, sighed, “You’re not my type anyway, I like smaller girls.”

Sheila chuckled, “Oh please, you’d do me, don’t lie.”

Connie’s eyebrow rose, “Full of yourself, are you?”

Sheila shrugged, stepped up to her, “I have to be. It’s a man’s world.”

Connie shook her head, motioned Sheila after her as she stepped in, “Yeah, fine, whatever.”

The door slid shut as Sheila spoke, “Twelve fucking hours, can you believe that?”

Short Story: Red 5, Standing By

Red Five, Standing By

Red 5 comics sat on the corner of Asimov Avenue and Lily Drive in the southern part of Bacatta’s “downtown” area that stretched more than five miles. Nestled beside “Oddities knick-knacks,” and the sprawl of the rest of downtown Bacatta, it was one the main attractions for the nerd and geek community. Its only, minor competition was that of Gamer’s Galaxy a block southeast. Luckily Red 5’s proprietor, Winifred “Red” Asner, had no real competition. G-G sold only the few, odd comics that would fit in the last half of a game-book shelf, hardly comparable to the plethora of colorful covers that spanned the walls, shelves, and egg-crate aisles of Red’s store.

Like the others on downtown’s south-side, Red 5’s size had been fixed when the city’s reconstruction was planned over a decade ago– long before its owner had ever laid down her wares. At times, between six and nine shops shared these city blocks, and only a fortunate few had procured the coveted corner spot. Red had been quick enough to snatch up corner store before someone else got it. Others were less-fortunate, buried in the center of roads so that even pedestrians paid them less attention. Knowing that, Red kept the shop as quaint, stocked, and inviting as was humanly possible.

Presently she stood before the register on the small counter at the shop’s rear, centered between the four aisles of tables with egg-crates mouth-up on them. Every comic book from the heroic Avengers to the cunning and mischievous Zorro was stocked and alphabetized through-out the crates, while thick, hard and soft-bound compendiums filled the right walls, separated by category and shelved in common book-cases.

The compendiums stretched all the way to the store’s back wall, where the most precious first and signed editions hung in a locked, glass display case behind the counter. Though a few sold, to Red, they were more show pieces than sale items, and their prices reflected that. Conversely, the left wall was covered by hanging racks in slotted peg-boards, “New Issues” emboldened above them in large, black letters. The melange of hues below was speckled neutral around the random of hot and cold colors.

The din of the after-school rush rose and fell as bodies weaved through the store, or thumbed the merchandise. Every few moments, the bell rang as someone came or went, more than a few without purchases. Those lined up to pay were greeted by Red’s bushy, curly, red-hair and thin-rimmed glasses. She wore the standard dress of a lifetime nerd; a screen-printed T-shirt with slacks and flats a decade out of style. She shifted back and forth rhythmically, conducted a symphony on the register with one hand, and bagged merchandise to keep time with the other.

The typically nerdy kids with bad skin, braces, or oily hair– or any combination therein– were interspersed with their more hygienic, elder counterparts in a line that made its way down the middle aisle. At its rear, a smug kid in a blazer stood beside his gum-popping brunette as she wore a perpetual disgust above her crossed arms. They couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, but the kid had “spoiled brat” etched permanently into his forehead, as though tattooed their at birth.

The line shuffled forward to Red’s left-handed symphony, and the punctual whole-rests after dings as the drawer slid open. A cascade of change clamored over the audible flit of bills counted out. Plastic rustled, gave way to light tamps on carpet that preceded yet chime of the door’s bell.

Even before the smug kid and his disgust compatriot made it to the register, Red smelled trouble. It clung to the air like B-O at a Comic-con, thickened the air she drew through her nose and mouth with a pungent putrescence. She’d been attuned to it for years, once its long time victim and its occasional visitor. Its attraction to her was more than part of the reason she’d continued to live alone at thirty, and otherwise interacted very little with the world outside work. While it was lonely, it was better than the humiliation and drama of being rejected past her twenties. She was single, plain-looking, and her bushy, auburn hair was mostly usually wild, unflattering.

In short, she wasn’t in the mood to be harassed, but the spoiled brat didn’t seem to notice nor care. He merely stepped to the front of the line, sans merchandise, and slapped a business card onto the counter. Red eyed it from afar. The minute text inclined something about investment banking with Bacatta First National bank. It was BS, and Red knew it– probably Daddy’s card he used to get what he wanted.

She furrowed her brow, “Can I help you?”

The brat glanced sideways through the place like he owned it, “Yeah, I’m with BFN. Noticed your contract’s up at the end’a the month, wanted to by the place out.”

She slid the card across the counter, looked past him to the next customer, “Sorry, not for sale.”

He filled her vision by leaning forward with two, greasy hands on the counter. His blue sports blazer hung open over his t-shirt and above his blue jeans with a wannabe-Hollywood style.

He leaned forward, whispered, “Look, we can talk civilly about this, or I can get my attorneys involved. Believe me when I say, you don’t want that.”

She lift the card with a finger nail, slipped it in between her fingers, and leaned forward to slip it into his front blazer pocket, “Not. For. Sale.”

He straightened with a twitch to the corners of his mouth and eye, puffed out his chest. He gave a hearty laugh, “What, you think these dweebs’ll keep you in business forever?” His projected speech drew the collective ire of the “dweebs” around the store. “Hell, I’m offerin’ you a good deal. I buy out your contract right now for my girl’s new pad, you get a little extra, and we don’t have to take this any further.”

Red grit her teeth, crossed her arms with a sneer. Her spine went rigid, “These dweebs are my customers and friends. You think you can just walk in here with your Daddy’s clout and harass me? I think the BPD’d have something to say about that.”

He snorted, glanced around at the oiled faces of the kids in the store. He threw out his arms to beckon a fight. A few of the adults shook their heads in disgrace.

“You think a guy like me’s gotta’ worry ’bout cops?”

A deep, heavy man’s voice intoned from the left, “No, but I think a guy like you’s about to get thrown out on your ass.”

Red’s face went blank, her jacked slacked slightly. The brat turned, readied a smug grin. It sank as his eyes met the hulking figure of Cameron Burr, owner of Gamer’s Galaxy, world-wide internet celebrity, and local brick-shithouse. He took two, wide steps toward the brat, dwarfed he and his girlfriend in width, and nearly a foot in height.

At one time, Cam had been a heavy-set guy with a failing business. Then, some of his friends got together to create an internet-video network– like a television station– that revolved around Gamer’s and their interests. One of the shows, called “Tank Training,” had been Cam’s attempt at a reality fitness show. Among other things, Cameron had lost the majority of his fat, compressed the rest into thick bulges of muscles. The show’s format then changed as he began training others, but it had left him looking like a pro-boxer with more confidence.

Red’s dull expression tracked him toward the brat, but it disintegrated as Cam met her eyes.

“This asshole botherin’ you, Winny?” He asked, with a nickname she hadn’t heard since Junior-High.

Red wet her dry mouth. To see Cam in her store was like a celebrity sighting and rival confrontation rolled into one. More than that though, he seemed more than ready to defend her, risk a possible fight. Even if he pummeled the dumb bastard into the ground– which he most certainly could– Daddy’s lawyers would have a field day. Then again, Cam had always been the gentle giant, and now had piles of money from his internet network to stand on. Perhaps there wasn’t as much risk as she thought.

She stammered a reply, “Cc-am? Y-yeah. Little brat just walked in here–”
“That’s slander,” the kid spat.

Cameron crossed his massive arms, “Why don’t you turn your little ass around, and get outta’ the store before this dweeb shows you the door.”
The kid glanced around with a smug sneer. The kids and adults alike had begun to whisper to one another. Clearly they knew something he didn’t. Even his “girl” seemed afraid.

She leaned into whisper with her high, valley-girl nasal-ness, “Mark, that’s Cam Burr, the guy from the web.”

A slow, terrified realization crept across his face as his confidence fell away and his chest deflated. A shit-eating grin spread across Cam’s mouth. His head titled with a lift of his brow as he spoke, “You recognize me now, don’t you?.”

Red saw her chance, took it. She flanked the bratty punk with a harsh tongue, “You think everyone in here’s just a loser ’cause they’re not rich pricks like you. Then you see someone you know isn’t, and you’re instantly terrified they’ll rat you out for the asshole you are. You’re pathetic kid. Now get the hell outta’ my store before I have Cam toss you through it.”

The kid’s mouth hung open like a stoned catfish. He met Cam’s eyes beneath brows that jumped with an eager smile. A voice sounded behind him, caused him to whip backward. One of the “dweebs” had shouted “Would you kindly fuck off!” Others began to spout curses and swears to decry the kid’s continued presence. He swiveled to see eyes and faces directed at him as a chant rose through the store. Up-thrust fists kept the beat.

“Prick. Go home. Prick. Go home. Prick. Go Home.”

The kid was thrown for a loop; a spoiled brat to put a moldy apple to shame. His “girl” began to drag him away as he rubbernecked his way out, completely dumbfounded. The terror in her face feared the of oily nerds getting too near, her humiliation tenfold the red on her cheeks.

Red called the door’s bell rang, “Let it hit your ass on the way out!”

Cam gave a roaring chuckle as the brat passed from the store. His dumb expression was still plastered over his punk-face when it disappeared around the left-corner windows. The people roared with a cheer that brought a timid smile to Red’s face. Cam braced a hand against the counter to lean as the crowd settled, returned to their former moseys.

“Thanks,” Red said through her shy smile.

Cam tossed a dismissive hand sideways, “Eh, fuck ‘im. No one messes with Winni Asner.”

She chuckled, “It’s Red now.”

Cam’s smile was charmed by hers, “I know, but you’ll always be Winni to me.”

Her face reddened slightly, “That’s fine.”

Cam caught it, his face glowed, “Don’t worry ’bout guys like that. Long as you pay your rent, you got nothin’ to worry ’bout. And if you ever need anything… you know… business-wise, don’t hesitate to stop by the shop.”

Red saw a curious gleam in his face, thrilled by the rush of adrenaline from the confrontation. “S-sure,” she stammered. “I… uh– I could use some, actually.”

Cam straightened with a wily eye, expertly contained a tickle of glee beneath his aloof exterior, “Why don’t you stop by the shop tonight then? Say… 8:15? Max and Riley’ll cuttin’ out ’bout then. And we can… you know, talk.”

Red’s cheeks and ears suddenly matched her hair, “Uh.. s-sure. Talk. About business.”

“Right,” Cam said with a single nod.

She half-laughed, half-inhaled a breath, “S-so I’ll s-see you then.”

He smiled, readied to turn away, “I’m lookin’ forward to it.”

Her heart jumped as he turned away with a smile, stepped outside to where he thought he was out of view, then thrust a fist in victory. She giggled with a exhilarated breath as the next customer took their place in front of the counter, ranted and raved about her expert dispatch of the brat. Through-out the next hour, each of the people in the store that had seen the confrontation gradually stepped up to say their piece or thank her. As the last of them trickled out, her day returned to normality.

Night gradually overtook the store outside as Red’s adrenaline waned, gave way to anxiety at the meeting ahead. What neither Red nor Cam could have anticipated was its eventual outcome. That cryptic “meeting” clearly became a date as she thought more on it.

Red’s anxiety peaked as she pushed open the door to Gamer’s Galaxy. Despite it being just around the corner from her shop, the place was mythical to her. Its hardwood floors, aisles of board games, and stocked walls of rule-books, card games, and video-games had been immortalized in countless internet vids. The terror of a celebrity meeting skyrocted as she met her other, fellow Bacatta alumni Riley and Max; two, beautiful, female lovers she’d known nearly as long as Cam. Like him, they were world-famous for their vids, doubly so even for their extreme popularity. Even so, they greeted her as old friends as they pointed her to the backroom and readied to leave.

Red’s notion of a date was asserted as she stepped into the small, back-room where the large, gaming table sat with its leaf in. Atop its deep, glossed mahogany finish were a pair of place settings and a handful of bags from Emma’s Diner next door. A plethora of scents wafted from them to fill the back-room with mouth watering

Cam stood up from the laptop on a card table in an alcove at the room’s left, “Winni! S-sorry, I was just finishing up some last-minute stuff.” He shut the laptop, stepped toward the table, “I know it’s not much, but Emma’s place is our mainstay. I-I wasn’t sure what you’d want, so I bought the place out. I-I figured we’d both be hungry after a full day of work.”

Red’s anxiety dissolved at Cam’s own, stammering terror. A wide smile crossed her face, plumped her cheeks.

What took place in that small stock-room, was the furthest Red had ever known from a business meeting. They drank, smoked, talked well into the night; until dawn drew their respective open-hours frightfully near. Even so, neither cared. They split for work only to return the next night, then again, and again before the dates blossomed into more.

Before either of them knew it, they were celebrating an anniversary, Red’s patronage nearly doubled from the consequences of that fateful day she’d slain the snot-nosed brat’s ego. The confrontation became a legendary tale that spread through the “dweebs” of Bacatta, tripled her earnings, and created a safe place for the nerds and geeks. They finally had a place of peace, where they didn’t have to fear those rich pricks she’d spoken of. As Red 5 continued to grow, it appeared more and more apparent that– for the dweebs at least– Red 5 would always be there to welcome them, shield them. Forever more, they knew, Red 5 was standing by.