Short Story: Forsaken Nightmare

Sunlight fired like pulse-beams through patches of a missing roof. It ricocheted off shattered remnants of a former med-cabinet and splayed itself across the grime and dirt of an old bathroom. A once-white-now-black cast-iron tub edged the room, half-covered by glass doors inexplicably better-weathered than the room.

Grime was smeared like liquid feces across fixtures and walls; the floor a half-inch taller than intended from piled dirt, piled wherever possible. The bits of ceiling still remaining appeared dangerously contaminated, while something piled and rag-like in the tub appeared permanently oil-drenched.

Yet, this was a kind of civilization. A so-called natural one at that– certain as the sun shifting exposed rafter-shadows before altogether tripling its rays across the tattered and oily rag-pile.

It gave a tired groan, stirring enough to resolve itself into the small form of a female Human. She yawned deep, instantly regretting it, then hacked and spit a wad of something. A moment later, she was scrambling for a more-suitable place to vomit.

Or, one that wouldn’t worsen her vomiting, anyhow.

She tripped from a bathroom into a bedroom over a warped threshold. Cool air blasted her face over blinding light as she fell toward a dilapidated corner and wet-heaved. The former bedside table’s remains became the receptacle for her expulsion– to what would’ve been its one-time owner’s dismay.

A cross-wind blew from the home’s open front-face, doing its best to soothe her. She heaved graciously, if that were anywhere near possible. The rubble she’d seen coming in confirmed a few explosives had detonated nearby– probably IEDs from the war, she’d guessed before.

She wasn’t guessing much now; retching with bilious acid, tongue ablaze despite leaking pools of saliva. Gut-punch heaves left her on trembling arms, knees bent beneath her and whole being shivering from flash cold-sweats. Even through layered rags, it cut through her like knives.

She wiped her mouth with a quaking hand, still propped feebly on the other, and clawed her way up rotted lumber. It stank and felt slimy, making her stomach lurch again, but with nothing left inside it, she stilled herself. For now the slime anchored her mind to reality. Mixed blessing that was, it focused her.

Get up, Mal.

“No,” she said aloud.

GET UP, MALAYA!

She was on her feet. Somehow. Her legs were rubber and the rest of her numb, like the moment of death before the mind goes, but she was moving again. Slowly. Deliberately. Had it not been so dark when she’d reached the ‘burb, she might’ve searched the nearby homes for better accommodations. What that might’ve been, she couldn’t imagine, but in daylight, the place was worse than she’d thought.

Of all the former homes, only one other remained in any recognizable condition. The environment made the rest of the rubble obvious as homes, but the most that remained of the least-damaged was a lone, I-beam half sunken into a former basement.

It was as if the whole area’d sustained a direct hit with some sort of planet-sized hammer.

Really, Malaya knew, it was just conventional weaponry. The whole planet might’ve looked the same but she couldn’t be sure. What little she’d seen of it was never so bad physically, but neither was it anywhere near the concept of “good.”

Mostly, it was just “different.”

Malaya rummaged through the last two homes for anything of value but left the ‘burb empty-handed. Her belly roared beneath her soiled layers, wishing to know food as the ruins once had. Nevertheless, she started off on her rubber legs, half-limping from premature aches and an old wound.

She’d left the place she’d called home days ago, never to return. She’d hold herself to that no matter what anyone said. No-one wanted  to be there  anyhow; Bleaker didn’t earn its namesake lightly. It was an internment camp turned refugee shelter– and kept that way four decades too long.

What passed and was built in those intervening years, from a former concrete-walled tent-city, was nothing short of a hell-hole. Unfortunately for Malaya, that hell-hole had been her home– however equally it was also a prison.

She fished an unlabeled can from beneath brick-rubble. It’d probably expired a half-century ago, but she tore at it with the ferocity of a starved, wild-animal– had any but Humans still existed. Nobody knew what started the war anymore, but everyone knew which side lost.

Which? Obviously the one fighting to keep people from living like Malaya.

She wolfed down something stale, rubbery, and equally as frightening as the scent that’d made her vomit. It wasn’t the scent really, but that was beside the point.

She ate, trying to piece together the fifteen or so years of memory she’d collected, and search it for anything of value. A veritable lifetime already; hers. It returned in flashes. Here and there, bits emerging from the fog Bleaker’d kept them in.

They were kids; she knew that much. Too young by the old-world’s standards to be treated the way they were– used the way they were. Most times too, a few disappeared. Here and there. Faces she knew only vaguely, suddenly never reappeared. Girls. Boys. Didn’t matter which.

Now, she was beginning to understand why.

She finished her pitiful meal and began to walk again. Whatever it was she’d put into herself wouldn’t stick around. She walked harder, pieced a little more of the world together. Desolation wherever she went confirmed what little she’d heard as rumors, or was picked up from the kids or elders.

“Adults” were generations gone and more scarred than even Malaya.

Even then, she’d never have traded her life for anyone else’s. Especially when the next morning came, and with the vomited remnants of that terrible meal came something else. Something lower. In her gut, but neither of bowels nor bladder.

It was the greatest relief when she found herself utterly dripping black blood and uterine discharge.

She fell to the freezing ground outside another would-be razed home, and wept gratitude to Gods she knew did not exist. At the very least, she wouldn’t have to be responsible– guilty, for bringing another Gods-forsaken life into this nightmare world.

She wept joy, vomited blood, and fainted.

Short Story: Kudzu

Sebastian Rower slid to one side of the bed, red from exertion. Beside him lie Drake, looking something the Greeks of old. His muscled form reflected low-light across a fresh sheen of sweat and saliva. The pair were slick and panting. The taste of salt lingered on Sebastian’s tongue. His body coursed fresh ecstasy, post-sex heat.

Sebastian thought he’d known love from lust; Drake taught him differently.

He’d come to Sebastian through a sea of bodies. Its current undulated beneath swirling spirals of neon. The Club, Sebastian was a perpetual wallflower there. Most nights he clung to the walls like kudzu, simply watching, people completely unaware of his existence.

Men or women. Straight or gay. Anyone in, around, between. They all sought The Club. Their reasons were varied but similar enough. Sometimes it was drugs. Sometimes booze. Sex or something similar; always a wiling from between the long-nights and docile daylight.

Sebastian watched, never bothering to do much more than nurse a drink each night. He might’ve been content to live out that obscurity forever, little more than a passing thought in the rarest of minds.

But Drake appeared.

He had an undeniable allure. It rolled in as if on waves from beyond a place of light. Even before adding in sexuality or magnetism, it turned crowds like pre-storm gales; ever-graceful but with auras of power, intimidation, awe.

Sebastian swore he saw them, however briefly. They rolled from him in auric waves, barely visible beneath twirling lights. It seemed too, to automatically repel those Drake felt unworthy; in effect, bestowing even the knowledge of his existence was a gift.

Yet of all the vibrant, colorful people there, Drake chose the dull, earthen vine; Sebastian. Otherwise doomed to creep, alone, merely existing. Drake’s auras decided otherwise. Like an old vid of lovers at first-sight.

Drake approached, auras firing and repelling the crowd so his forceful-grace never faltered. Their eyes locked, attached by a magnetism pulling one to the anchored-other. He saw them then.

For the slightest breath, Sebastian thought himself seeing things. He was center of this God’s attentions, feared to believe it, would’ve cast his eyes away to check could he bear to. Something more said he was both seeing things and their center. He, and only he.

Drake’s approach made time exist only for them. Its eventual return found reality muted, distant and hollow from an inexplicable force between them.

Drake introduced himself with a now-familiar, sonic equivalent of silken marble. He leaned in with only the slightest touch to Sebastian’s wrist. The effect a whisper in the muted sound; a distant sea-surf amidst the hot-spring of his touch.

They danced. For hours. An eternity, it felt.

Something powdered met hot blood. The night became a blur of spinning. Ecstasy, laced with exhilaration. The Club faded to the passing background between it and Drake’s place until the flow of time became impossible to track.

Hot, fast-tempo sex dominated after. Between long, slow moments of unbridled bliss seeming to last forever.

Sebastian could take no more. He gave Drake the last, best part of his remaining strength, then fell beside the God with a growing exhaustion. The Auras, until now empowering him, were finally taking their toll. No mortal’s waves, after all.

He let himself cool down, laid his head on the muscle-bound chest beside him.

Drake curled one arm around Sebastian, used the other to light a cigarette, and smoked. Sebastian watched, Drake seeming never to exhale. Sebastian closed his eyes, hypnotized to nether realms between bouts of fluttering eyelids.

He hard only the inhale, the deep chasm between it and the next. Nothing more.

Darkness flared from a cherried-cigarette. Utterly drained, Sebastian was forced to speak. His star-struck despair was the same as any whose euphoric fever-dreams were shattered by a painful reality.

“I guess I should be going now.”

Drake said nothing, merely lit another cigarette. Sebastian moved to sit up. Drake’s arm tightened, stilling him. Sebastian waited, taking the excuse to bask in the God’s glow.

It was no good. There was no pleasure there anymore. No fire. Just two people, alone, naked. At least, one person, however God-like the other. One, utterly drained, as if its parts were decayed from the energy he’d expended.

Drake finished his cigarette, forced a pause to the air. Sebastian took the transition, tried to rise again. Drake’s arm tightened in silence. His strength was immense, firm.

A lump of fear manifested near Sebastian’s brain-stem, forced him to try again, “I should–”

Drake’s arm held firm. Sebastian was caught, held by the threatening vice that was Drake’s mass of muscles, endless strength.

“Really,” Sebastian squirmed.

Drake was silent, smoking. Again, Sebastian attempted to rise. Drake’s arm gave only the slightest twitch. He was still again. The pill exploded along Sebastian’s brain, surged freezing electricity along his spine in icy, electric arcs.

Terror shook his struggling limbs, stilled by a force not his own.He was ready to run. Trying to. It was utterly hopeless. The body that had delighted him was now against him. With only the twitch of a muscle, Sebastian writhed, clawing in cold sweat at the beast beside him.

He begged, pled for release, fearful of the God’s sudden transition. Drake finished his cigarette and finally began to move.

Sebastian held his breath: one, swift motion forced Drake’s lips against his. The creature exhaled. Smoke billowed from it into Sebastian’s lungs. Acrid smoke smothered any hope for air.

His lungs filled. His sinuses.

Still it came.

The weight was too much. His airways bulged, overfilled. They began to tear; a million tiny cuts from a billion points of skin being drawn and quartered by one another. He wished to scream, smothered from the inside out; Drake’s smoke was too powerful, too thorough.

Sebastian’s innards stretched, bled. The smoke infected his blood, filled, swallowed, replaced it. The process repeated endlessly, every inch of him torn by the next and last. Inexorable terror accompanied the stomach-drop of blood and fluid spilling into unrightful places.

Still, Drake exhaled.

Sebastian’s lungs were no more. Utterly annihilated by the force of persistent smoke. Its tearing, shredding, quarter. Until its threads severed at ever level of existence imaginable.

Then, the rest of Sebastian went too. Piece-by-piece. Tear-by-tear.

Sebastian gave a final twitch and dissolved into smoke. It dissipated slowly, taking Sebastian with it forever.

Drake eased himself back and lit another cigarette.

Short Story: Riders

She was seeing it all through his eyes, would be until it was over. That was how it worked. Riders were like ghosts; like the little, niggling thoughts in the back of one’s mind that drove them to do a thing they normally wouldn’t.

That was how the agency liked it. More importantly, that was how Riders needed it. To allow further levity meant revealing more of the Host’s takeover. Two-twenty-three didn’t think she couldn’t handle that anyhow; the final moment of betrayal in their hearts was too much already. It was like hating yourself for so crassly leading to your own demise.

She couldn’t bear to think of feeling that the whole ride, especially knowing it was validated.

No, it was best for Hosts to live in as utter an ignorance as possible. She made sure they did, too, as every other Rider. It was an unspoken agreement that Riders do their level best to whisper thoughts that kept their hosts calm while re-forming them.

It was like the oxygen mask on a plane, deploying as it went down; Riders soothed for the sake of all aboard so the Hosts accepted their fate.

Fact was, Riders were necessary. Even if they didn’t quite understand why. Even if they never saw the full-effect of their Ride– the actions of their host– there was always an explanation, a bigger picture. The Agency assured it, promised it.

Riders couldn’t handle riding pointlessly anyhow. They’d all heard the stories of the first Hosts, their Riders. 223 didn’t need to be reminded, it was part of their training to know it. A body could only play host to more than one consciousness for a few days, a week at most. After, both Rider and Host began to lose the delineation of one and the other. It was an effect, the Agency said, of becoming too exposed to the mental processes of one another.

In essence, because both consciousnesses were encountering new methods of processing thought, they began emulating them in bits and pieces. That was perfectly fine for the short term, enlightening even, but the longer it lasted, the more permanent it became.

The block was simple human thought; certain thoughts took longer to unravel or understand as a result of mental intermediary between them and action. Generally, those intermediaries were often evaluatory, acting as filters of morality, experience to dictate decision making.

But a ridden Host had shortcuts, even longer paths. Their Rider did too, if only temporarily. The longer that connection was maintained, the longer those basic requirements were over-written, over-stayed or altogether avoided.

As a result, traits of both Rider and Host bled between them, freely exchanged. Before long, the lines blurred to non-existence. Then Rider and Host became part of one another in a sort of quasi mental-merge.

But since the Human psyche wasn’t meant for such uses or abuses, it wasn’t long before both Host and Rider were utterly insane. They became unwitting schizophrenics, completely unaware that the voices they were hearing were one another’s. The only way to really handle them then was to eliminate them.

Reasons there were two-fold; if for some reason knowledge of Riders were discovered, the consequences could be disastrous for every universe involved. More than that, it meant mistakes had been made, needed to be corrected as cleanly and painlessly as possible.

223 wasn’t a pup by any standards. She’d been a Rider nearly forty-years. Course, that was by a measure of time that didn’t exist where she hailed from. Though ostensibly human, her people had long outgrown the need for singular universal inhabitance.

In fact, if the Agency were true, the Riders efforts were to raise remaining universes’ to their level. 223 believed the Agency’s aims at least. But as much as she believed in it, as a goal-oriented entity, she had a hard time believing in its people.

After all, they were human– or near enough– and especially susceptible to error and manipulation. Riders were a pure manifestation of that.

Still, she saw his world through his eyes and would until she backed out, was pulled out, or the Host was killed. The harsh reality of being a Rider was ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Host ended up dead, in trouble with authorities, or worse. The rarer good ending did exist, and a Rider was guaranteed to have a few over time, but they were far enough between to easily forget them otherwise.

It was all for the greater good, the Riders knew, and it was never a comfort.

223’s current ride was no different from any of the other forty-years of Hosts. She rode three to four new Hosts a week these days, but had long ago abandoned hope the odds of good-to-bad would be altered in any way.

To do so was pointless. All hoping could lead to was damaging her back home. Either through some misguided attempt to help, rebel, or more emotional scarring than was necessary.

Still, she admitted that familiar pang of pity for the guy as he straightened his poorly knotted tie in a mirror. He was a well-meaning dud, but a dud nonetheless. The Multiverse was swarmed by them. It was sad in its way, so much wasted potential.

He grabbed his suit-jacket, completely unaware of the phantom taking possession of him. Before long, she had him waltzing about his kitchen to kiss his wife and kids good-bye, grab his briefcase and coffee, and slip out the door.

223 slotted herself into the correct mental state. Good riders could do it instantly, but the best took their time, got to know their Host first to develop the right empathy, the right control. 223 was nothing if not one of the best.

Thing about it was, the Ride was really just that; a ride. Good Riders knew how to nudge their Host onto track with a few, specific thoughts, nudges that turned out to be all anyone ever needed.

They weren’t really thoughts though. That was important to remember. More like feelings, shadows of feelings, shifts or sparks sometimes so deep in the psyche a person didn’t know they existed. They were phantom’s phantoms, ghostly shadows of desires, dreams, hopes. They were the little darknesses Jung built his career off.

At least, most of the time. Sometimes they were lights, but those lights were rare.

In forty years, 223’d learned to tell when big events were near. She’d been through a few; armed revolutions, bloody coups, massive, sexual awakenings– her personal favorite– and everything in and around. They were all experienced through various Hosts, eachusually only for a short period.

Usually too, the closer the event was to its climax, the darker the rides were.For some, it was assassinations, suicides, public or private but with massive repercussions. Sometimes, it was a cheating or cheated-on spouse meant to become the next Gloria Steinem or Jane Roe.

This time, it was looking bigger, darker. She wasn’t sure what, but the rides had gotten darker. Moreso than she’d ever seen. Whatever was set to happen, even this waltzing family-man had his dark part to play.

His day wasn’t rough. She’d seen worse, but she nudged him at every necessary turn. It was a testament to her skill that mere hours allowed her to turn the wife-loving, tax-paying smartly-dressed family-man into one of the most depraved monsters to have ever walked his Earth.

It started with a near accident in his brand new Lexus. The car was fine, but left him covered in coffee, neck to navel. The second nudge came minutes later at a store, when stopping to buy a new shirt. Only few pennies off the exact change, he was forced to use a credit card.

Such little things could be important; tiny sparks that fed big fires, stirring massive resentment via the way people viewed the world at-large. 223 was almost proud of how easy it had been to turn him from upstanding citizen to monster brewing.

The next nudge came an hour later. He’d changed from the ruined shirt but the suit-jacket and tie were still drying. He was forced to shake hands with his company’s CEO for the first time, neither looking nor feeling his best.

In the back of his mind, a pill of rage had formed.

223 hated herself for being so damned good, but a Rider directed their Host as per the Agency’s objective. It could take minutes, it could take days, but sooner or later the Host wound up where the Agency wanted them.

If it weren’t 223, she knew, it would’ve been someone else. Someone that might’ve made their Host suffer unduly, whether through malice or ineptitude.

223’s skill allowed her to ride The Host’s humiliation all day, nudging and prodding him into the rabid, froth of bilious fury she needed. He arrived home an hour before his wife and children a miserable wreck, then soused himself to the gills until they appeared.

The show began.

223 half-suspected the wife was a Host too. It seemed too-well played, too-well matched, for she alone to have done it all. Whether the wife was a Host too she’d never know. It didn’t matter anyway.

It took all of ten minutes before two, upstanding people became absolute, raving animals.

The wife hurled insults better than 223 expected. The husband hurled them back. Then, some plates and glasses. The children cowered, bawling in a corner further scarred with each moment.

223 couldn’t focus on them, they’d be provided for. Hell, for all she knew, they were the point of this.

Then it happened; the Wife lunged, struckhim. Humiliatied, terrified, and cooked to a boiling rage by the heated nudge of a phantom Rider, he struck back. The wife reeled back, slipped on broken glass, and slammed the back of her skull on the edge of a counter. She was dead before the crack finished resonating.

The children erupted in screams.

The last nudge. 223 watched the Host drop to his knees, lift broken glass. He jabbed, pulled. Arterial bloodspurted and sprayed the air like a demented fountain.

Then, his body hit the floor. She felt it then; that last feeling of betrayal oozing through her, but not at her. Never at her. Always at the host. Child-screams faded into the light of the Rider’s chair, and she felt it automate and sit her upright.

She fell from it into a desk chair, body shaking with grief. She slugged back something vaguely liquor-like to settle her nerves and poured. She lifted a pen, slid an ancient-looking notebook from a drawer of the glass and metal desk, and began to write:

20,073. Male. Caucasian.

Short Story: Six-Leggers

She was running. Faster than she thought possible. She might’ve been small, agile-looking, but at heart, she wasn’t. At heart she was a lazy-ass couch-potato, something vaguely organic growing from one side after months of stagnation. Often enough, beneath her festered a lukewarm indentation from her time there. Now, it was aching, pain, exertion. Blitz was running like hell, and faster than any human had a right to.

She’d pissed off exactly the right people at exactly the right time in exactly the right way, so she started running. Problem was, something had gone wrong. They were running too. Faster than she’d anticipated. So fast, in fact, it was obvious they were no longer human. They’d never been human, she knew now, but whatever they were, she wasn’t about to stop to find out.

She threw herself down an alley, took it as fast as her gait allowed, power-slid across a puddle to face its open side. A fence half-way through inexplicably barred her way to the far-end of the alley, its freedom. She swore under her breath, hoping her boots fit the chain-link without a struggle. Even now the galloping six-legs charged her like the low rumble of a Maiden bass-line.

If hell was real, she decided, its minions were vacationing Earth-side.

She leapt at the fence, scrambled up it, caught her first bit of luck in the perfect fit of chain-link.

Blitz could smell them now, didn’t dare look back. They reeked of rotted sewage hinted with days-old corpse. She guessed the human suits they’d shed had hidden the smell too. Otherwise, she’d have stayed the hell away from them to begin with.

She clambered over, snagged her pants on rattling chain-link and leapt for the ground below. She landed with cool air on the small of her back. The fence had taken more than its share of her pants. She couldn’t care less about it, wouldn’t have missed a beat if suddenly ass-naked.

This was Dover’s fault. Stupid bitch. She should’ve never cooked up the scheme, never involved Blitz. Then again, Dover wasn’t busting ass down four-thirty-third street with the creds and six-legger demons. Blitz wondered if she’d ever go back to that shit hole now, but knew that was just anger talking. If she survived, she’d be back, and with Dover’s cut– less now, but her’s all the same.

It was really Yuki and Kris’ fault. Anger aside. They’d done the scam, bragged about it over beers. How the hell was Dover not supposed to try running her cousin’s scam? It wasn’t even really a scam, just a misdirection. It was only the fault of the stupid six leggers who’d put their money where their mouths supposedly were. How could they have expected not to get burned in a place they hardly knew?

Fact was if it hadn’t been Blitz– and Dover covertly– that burned them, it would’ve been someone else. They were wearing suits for fuck’s sake. No-one wore a suit this side of town unless looking to get taken for a ride or packing enough heat to fund a small army. Blitz decided, if she ever got to stop running from them, and wasn’t being eaten by them, she’d have to explain their obvious mistakes.

Then again, that also required facing them without screaming. Enlightenment wasn’t looking good for them.

She raced out into roaring traffic, completely unfazed by it. Headlights swerved and weaved on both sides of the street. Horns blared protests. She passed onto sidewalk, sprinting away from screeching tires. Something heavy thumped metal. Glass was crunched and crushed. One set of galloping legs clambered into a wrench of metal. Screams and horns said one was dead, the other still chasing her.

Even beneath the street noise she heard it, felt it; a rider from hell galloping in charge across a battlefield of blood and fire.

This couldn’t have just been about their money. There was no way. Between Blitz and Dover, they’d made a little over a G hustling through-out the night. Only a couple hundred of it was the hell-riders’ though. If only she could get away, get back to the bar, reach the range of Dover’s double barrel. She’d wanted to keep Dover out of it though, wanted to handle it herself. Do the job like a pro.Not possible now.

Dover ran the bets, upped the numbers, made the stakes look good against Blitz’s skills, and for a few hours, the dough and odds piled up. Then, when the time came, Blitz’s skills took over.

Kris and Yuki had run the scam at the Arcade in Jackstaff. Why couldn’t she and Dover run it at the Circuit Board in Seattle? Each of them do their part, form a whole, and make bank. Like pros. Not possible. Not now.

There was no way around it. Blitz was on E when she’d started. Short of giving back the couple hundred, she saw no way around making the wide bank back toward the C-B. Hoping she’d catch the last six-legger up in the panic of traffic, she sprinted back through it traffic; back toward the C-B and the way she’d come.

Galloping and screeching said the drivers and six-legger were prepared his time. She missed her chance to end things that way. No matter, she had a plan now. One she knew even Dover’d be prepped for, so long’s she knew ahead of time.

Panting for her life, pumping her legs, Blitz dialed her HUD-comm. Dover answered. She panted out a few words with spittle-laden exhaustion. “Comin’ back hot. Be ready!”

The comm cut. She angled back, around the block. The C-B was close, mid-way down. She’d have to play it right, else the six-legger’d grab her at the door, do fuck knows what. In fewer than rightful steps, she was there, half-fumbling the door grab.

Panic took over. Her center of gravity shifted. She was on her back, on the ground, eyes clenched shut in defense as something ranciddripped drool and breathed steam. She felt it reel back, ready to lunge. The air pulsed.

The legger exploded backward from a roaringblast. Screeches shredded the air. Blitz scrambled back. Buckshot tore through legs, severed them from the carapace.Dover’s double-barrel cracked open, ejected the pair of spent shells. Two more slipped in. The gun snapped shut. She let the beast have it again. First, with one barrel. Then, with the other.

It stilled into silence as she cracked open the barrel and reloaded again.

Blitz swallowed hard. “Th-Thanks.”

Dover offered her a hand. “Just protecting my investment.”

They stood, staring at the creature, wondering what the hell’d just happened. Dover decided she didn’t care to know, about-faced back for the bar. Blitz took a moment longer to watch the beast, shuddered at its reality, then hurried in after Dover, glad she was no longer on anything’s menu.