Thrills

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You wont want to miss a word of these thrillers! Make sure not to get left behind on any of the twists and turns. You never know what happens next.

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The Artist

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“Finally! Did you get lost on your way here? I’ve been waiting for ages!” The man, who in reality had been waiting for about twenty minutes, rolled his eyes as he folded himself into the back seat of her car. 

“I’m so sorry, sir, there was an acci-“

“Whatever, I don’t care about your excuses. More driving and less talking. I’m assuming you know how to read the little map on that phone of yours? Or will I need to give you directions in order to get there before I die of old age?” The man raised his long, spindly fingers in a circular motion, indicating she should get on with it. She saw the gesture in her rearview mirror, and fought not to roll her own eyes, swallowing a heavy sigh. He was one of those people. People who think the whole world not only revolves around them, but also think every person in it owes them something. Kyanne mentally kissed any hope of a decent tip goodbye and said to the man, “I sure do, if you can please buckle your seatbelt, we’ll be on our way.” The man, whose name was Robert according to the information on his ride request, but who looked more like a Dick to her with his pink bald head and beady little eyes, huffed dramatically and threw up his hands in mock surrender.

“Yes, yes of course, not like I have anywhere to be today.” He snatched the seatbelt across his slim frame and slammed the buckle into its slot with far more force than necessary. He looked up at Kyanne in the mirror once more and said, “There, happy? Can we go now?” 

She gritted her teeth, but experience in every form of customer service had taught her just what to say to get under the skin of people like Robert. Kill them with kindness her old boss used to say, and as it turned out, this was definitely the most effective way to combat behavior like Robert’s. She smiled and said simply, “Thank you,” as she proceeded into traffic. The man growled audibly under his breath and mumbled something that Kyanne was sure would not have been flattering had she been able to make it out. She felt a petty delight at his irritation, and made sure to do no more than the speed limit as she drove. She didn’t need the navigational system on the phone to get where they were going, she had been to the courthouse before. More times than she cared to admit, actually. She could have even taken a shortcut which would have shaved a good amount of time off of their trip and saved Kyanne gas as well, but she was just petty enough to be willing to sacrifice the extra quarter gallon or so it took in order to avoid getting Robert to his destination any faster than absolutely necessary. As she drove, she could hear his repeated and pointed groans and heavy sighs, the occasional “Jesus,” or “Oh, come on,” slipping between his thin, pink lips in a disgusted stage whisper which was clearly meant to agitate Kyanne but which actually made her giggle inside. This guy was too easy, right out of the narcissistic, entitled asshole textbook. He would definitely leave her a poor rating and no tip, but that would have been the case even if she had kowtowed to him and groveled the way he was clearly used to. At least this way, Kyanne was getting something out of it and keeping her dignity. Of course, dignity didn’t pay the rent, which was coming up due in a few days and for which Kyanne was several hundred dollars short. 

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She really needed to start painting again. That was the whole reason she had left the call center job she had been in for years. Driving for rideshare companies allowed her to make her own schedule and free up time for when she was feeling inspired, rather than hoping the spark would last until she got off work and that she wouldn’t be too exhausted to bring the inspiration to life. Robert got a call on his cell phone and answered it sharply, “I am on the way! It’s not like they can start without me, I am the prosecutor. I know, people are incompetent what can I say,” he said loudly, clearly indicating that she was part of the incompetent people he was referencing. They weren’t far now. A prosecutor, of course he was. The smell of expensive cologne, crisp lines on his suit collar, the man reeked of money, privilege and entitlement. Kyanne had spent her late teens and early twenties barely getting by. She had gotten into college by the skin of her teeth and had scraped by with average grades for the most part. It was her art that saved her, a scholarship based on talent and promise, and she had graduated with a BA, then promptly realized that after school ends, the appreciation for art and the opportunities for artists to make ends meet doing what they love narrowed vastly. She had taken the call center job to supplement her income and had sold some pieces on her website here and there, but nothing close to enough to call a full time career. 

Kyanne marketed herself under the name Kai. She felt like a gender neutral name gave her at least marginally more access to commissioned opportunities and this had been proven when she had briefly attempted to market her work under her full name. Instead of minimal inquiries, there had been none. After she dropped this douchebag off, she was going to go home and update her social media advertising. She hadn’t done so in weeks and getting the word out there was essential if she was going to have any hope of making this her full time job. She sighed quietly as she pulled up outside the familiar courthouse and Robert got out without a word to her, still yammering on his phone with someone, slamming her car door behind him for effect. She flipped him the bird as he walked away and logged out of her rideshare app. It was time to put some work into her passion. 

Just days later, Kyanne was elated to get an inquiry for a commissioned piece. She had made rent, barely, but she was already behind on her other bills. This would be just what she needed to catch up. The request was for a large canvas painting of the local skyline. Something generic but pleasing to the eye and not too aggressive of a color palette. Something to hang on an office wall, probably. This wasn’t unusual, though Kyanne really wanted to paint something inspired and creative, many of the commissioned works she received requests for were boring and passionless. But it was painting at least, and it would put food on the table and keep her lights on for the month. It might even allow her to have a little cushion for the following month if she was frugal. She had given an estimate for the painting which had been accepted quickly and had wondered if she should have asked for more.The company that was commissioning the work could clearly afford it. But done was done. The agreement was that the company would send a representative to come pick up the painting in one week. More time that Kyanne would really need for such a simple piece, even as massive as it was. She sighed and got to work, feeling depressed but trying to find hope in that she was at least moving toward doing what she loved.

The administrative assistant for the company emailed Kyanne a week later, asking her if the painting was ready. It had been for three days. She received a response thanking her for her time and letting her know their representative would be by that evening. She had the canvas wrapped and ready to go when there was a knock at her door. She opened the door with her best customer service smile plastered on and froze as she laid eyes on the man at her door. Middle aged, bald, so white that he was pink, tall and skinny with beady little eyes that gawked at her. Robert. Fucking Robert.

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“Where is Kai, the artist? I want to make sure his work is up to par before I pay for it. This is highly unprofessional.” 

Kyanne fought to keep her tone pleasant as she answered, “I am Kai, the artist. The canvas is wrapped and ready to go but I can certainly open it for you to take a look at as well, though I did send photos of the completed work to the office which were approved.” 

“Of course I want to see it, do I look stupid to you?”

Kyanne did not answer, just gestured for him to follow her. She unwrapped the painting for him and he mumbled under his breath, then looked at her.

“Look, lady, if I had been the one to see the pictures you sent, I would have absolutely declined. But,” he held up his hand as she took a breath in to speak, “ fortunately for you I wasn’t. I will not, however, be able to justify paying you the original agreed upon amount for this quality of work. It’s worth half that, and I am being generous”

Kyanne’s blood boiled. She had used that much in supplies alone to get the painting done. “No, Robert, that is not how contracts work. You should know that, as an attorney, right? Or do they not teach that part in prosecutor school?” She scorned

“They teach that and much more, young lady,” he said snobbishly, then looked around her apartment. “I can see that you are desperate so I will give you a choice. I will write you a check for half the amount we originally discussed and take the painting today, or I will refuse the painting and go back tomorrow to let them know we will be disputing your quality of work as not having met the terms of the agreement and you can have nothing. You could try to sue, I guess. But that would require being able to afford legal counsel. So, what do you say?”

Kyanne said nothing, only stared at him in disbelief. All at once, the weight of the world came crashing down on her shoulders. He was staring down his nose at her, smiling slightly, a self satisfied expression on his face. She was tired. So tired of being treated like scum of the earth, getting scraps from the table and being told to be grateful. For years, people like Robert had spoken down to her, mistreated her, underpaid her, overworked her and generally abused her in any and every way they could get away with. He nodded and said, “That’s what I thought. Relax, honey. It’s just art.” He reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a checkbook. Kyanne saw him open it and brush off her counter as if it were dirty before he set it down and began filling it out. It was that moment, the moment his pen touched the paper, that Kyanne was absolutely rocked by inspiration so intense and clear that she struggled to breathe for a moment.

“You know, Robert. I really should thank you,” Kyanne said as he scrawled the pitiful numbers one the check he was writing. He grunted, not even looking up at her. She continued, “I haven’t felt this inspired for a new idea in a long, long time.” She drew out the phrase sexily, purring out the words. Her whole body was vibrating with need, and yes, there was something sexy about it, though the need was not sexual. She needed to paint, her fingertips thrummed with it. And she was going to try a new medium for this one. Smiling, Kyanne picked up her paintbrush, twirled it expertly in her fingers and laughed. The laugh was dark and throaty, and at the sound of it, Robert paused mid signature. He looked up at Kyanne, a wolfish grin beginning to spread on his face. She saw lust ignite in his small, ugly eyes as he looked her up and down. She smiled wider, an inviting smile, and Robert moved closer to her. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. Kyanne looked up at him and thought, kill him with kindness. She pounded the handle of her paintbrush squarely into his left eye, feeling it give with a luscious popping sensation. Robert screamed, a high keening noise that made Kyanne laugh again, this time with something near elation. He fell to his knees, jerking away from her and his spidery hands fluttered about his face and newly mangled eye as he wailed wordlessly. Kyanne knew that this much noise wouldn’t escape notice for long, even in this neighborhood, and she had to be allowed to paint. She couldn’t afford to be interrupted. Still smiling, she kicked Robert in his narrow chest and he went over backward, knocking the air out of him and silencing him for a moment. Kyanne grabbed the large butcher knife from the block on her counter, her muse not just singing now, but screaming at her to paint, paint, paint! Robert took in a breath to scream, but as Kyanne dragged the blade across his throat, all he managed was a strangling gurgle. His one remaining eye was wide with agony and what looked like disbelief. He was untouchable, this wasn’t supposed to happen to people like him, people who run the world. 

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Kyanne’s smile grew impossibly wider as she looked down at him, ignoring the light going out in his eyes as she watched the red flow from him. “Relax, honey. It’s just art,” she said, and jerked her paintbrush from his eye. She had painting to do, and a whole new medium to try. 

Three months later, Kyanne lounged languidly in the sun, sipping an ice cold margarita on the rocks. She marveled at how her life had changed. Robert would have been turning over in his grave, if he had one, she thought, smiling. The series of pieces she painted following his death were all a rusty monochromatic theme, but the passion in them was something that thundered in the hearts of the art community and ultimately made her an overnight sensation, not to mention heartily wealthy. She had spent a solid two weeks painting with what remained of Robert, refrigerating the liquid to keep it from coagulating, then sealing the fragile medium under a durable lacquer to keep its integrity, and hide the tinny smell. His husk had been drained as dry as she could get it before she dumped him, tossing him off a bridge and into the river, knowing he’d be carried out to sea. So far, he had not been found and no one had come knocking on her door to ask about him either. Kyanne had time to paint, and inspiration still flowing freely, though she thought she would stick to acrylic and oil paints as mediums for her future work. At least for now, 


Safe Zone, Episode 1

      Their dad was never a good guy. He wasn’t the worst either, but he definitely had what one might call “areas of opportunity.” Hell, when it came down to it, the guy was just a run of the mill, narcissistic asshole, right out of some psych textbook. Still, Jessie supposed he didn’t deserve to be left to whatever fate found him. Even if he had left her and her sister to fend for themselves when everything went to absolute shit. Winter had been very forthcoming on her thoughts about the matter. “Dude, fuck that guy. He literally left us to die and didn’t think twice. We’re better off without him.” She spat after saying this last, adding emphasis to her point. 

     “Winter, I get that. He’s a dick and he deserted us. But we are not like him and that’s exactly why we have to go find him. It’s not like there’s anywhere safe to go anyways. And we’ve been ok so far, we just need to go back to the house and check! We have to try.” Jessie said this with no compromise in her voice. She wouldn’t leave Winter, but she would drag her kicking and screaming if she had to. She was not going to allow either of them to live with the guilt that could come from not finding their cowardly father and at least trying to survive. They were all that was left of their little family unit.

     Their mom had left when Jessie was nine and Winter wasn’t even a year old yet. She hadn’t been interested in taking the girls with her, only in escaping the tyranny that was living with their dad, Tom. They had come home from school one day to find him raging, destroying what was left of the furniture, dishes, and anything he could get his hands on in fury, screaming about how she would pay and calling her every name in the book. Of course, she was long gone with the majority of the furnishings and didn’t hear any of his empty threats. Nor did she have to clean up the mess he made. No, that was up to their nine year old child to do once he passed out drunk and exhausted from his hours long tantrum. They never heard from her again and that was 17 years ago, so the way Jessie saw it their mother had died that day. Winter didn’t remember her, just from photos that Jessie was able to squirrel away and keep from Tom so that she would at least know what she looked like. Throughout the years, they had tried searching for her by name on social media and online, even tried reaching out to her family, but no one knew where she was. And what was harder is that none of them wanted anything to do with the mess she left behind. 

     That all seemed so irrelevant now, like a life lived by someone else. The last twenty four hours had been a transmutation of their existence. It felt like a whole other lifetime had passed, and a miserable one. And it wasn’t just for Jessie and Winter. It was, well, everyone.

     It had started with a bang. Literally. The White House had exploded. It was all over the news. But it wasn’t just the White House. It was every government building, across the US. At least at first that’s what they thought. The local post offices everywhere from large metropolitan areas to tiny towns that were barely a blip on the map. Economic security buildings, law offices, court houses, congress, even national monuments. Mount Rushmore, which in Jessie’s opinion was no great loss, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and so many countless others, gone. And along with them, no one knew how many lives lost.  

     Then reports started coming in from Europe, the UK, Japan, China, North and South Korea, all over the Middle East, Mexico, Canada. Any place where there was a government at all, there were mass explosions. Except, of all places, Australia. Word was that it was somehow a safe zone, and that those who were left alive and able were fleeing there. It might have been okay if it had stopped there, devastating, but not End of Days devastating. However, the explosions were just the beginning.  

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  Within hours, as Jessie and Winter sat glued to the TV in the house, Tom wailing in the background about how he was going to be out of a job, how were they going to keep the lights on, everything bad always happened to him and other such lamentations, the real horror began playing out on the screen in front of them. Footage started rolling while the anchor advised that the following video was highly disturbing and to use discretion if there were children in the room. At first,it was too smoky to see much of anything but rubble and shadows. The text on the screen proclaimed this to be in Minneapolis, but it looked about the same as everywhere else they had seen. Destroyed. The only reason their own area didn’t look this way was that, though Tom bitched about the commute daily, their mother had insisted on living as far out of the city as they could get. Tom talked about it constantly, saying how if he had never met Leslie, he would have been free of the burden of children he was raising alone, and living life in the fast lane, the city life. He talked about it so often, it became white noise to both Jessie and Winter. Like a smoke alarm you can’t reach that needs a new battery but has been beeping for so long, you don’t even notice it anymore. As the video continued, the smoke began to clear and the scene before them unfolded, one piece at a time. There were bodies, and pieces of bodies, everywhere. There were piles and piles of rubble and rebar and glass, speckled with bright red spattering here and there. There were pools of red, and people literally crawling reaching out to anyone nearby. You could hear the cries, the screams, and a woman shouting particularly loud, “We deserve this! Oh, God, it’s our punishment, we deserve this!”  Jessie found that to be the most unsettling part, or so she had thought. Rain started to fall on the scene and the camera zoomed in on first responders tending to the hordes of wounded laid out on cots in the street, some so burned they couldn’t even be covered with a sheet Jessie guessed, or maybe they had just run out. 

The rain began to fall in earnest, sheets of it pouring down on the wounded, the dying and the dead, as well as those trying to save whomever they could. Within seconds, everyone was drenched. And seconds after that, the air was shattered by a thundering chorus of wails that sounded near inhuman. Everyone with the ability to do so was screaming in piercing agony, barely stopping to breathe it seemed. The camera crashed to the ground but kept rolling and the viewers, inclusive of Jessie, Winter and even Tom who had finally shut his pie hole, watched as every person within view began writhing on the ground, some begging for help but most issuing wordless and repeated cries of pain and fear. They began to vomit, screaming between retches, and blood began to pour from their eyes, nose, ears and mouth as they did. The detail seemed to be sharpened by the terror of it all. The bright red flowing from every possible orifice of everyone, even the first responders who were basically unscathed only moments ago. Even the torrential rain couldn’t wash away the blood as fast as it was spewing from them. “Dear God,” Jessie had whispered and at the same time Winter had said “Fuck. We are so fucked.” Neither of them had any idea just how bad things were going to get. And just how fast. 

It was everywhere, according to the news. They were calling it “The Hemorrhaging,” which had seemed appropriate. Each and every place that had been demolished by the explosions had the same outbreak of screeching, convulsive, bloody, mass death. What was worse, if possible, was that it wasn’t just limited to the blast sites. It was the surrounding areas as well. Homes, filled with women, children, whole families, schools, churches, it didn’t matter. This made it clear that the effect was caused by some sort of airborne chemical agent. Reports were saying to stay in your homes, not to open any doors or windows, that it may not be safe outside anywhere. Not for the first time since this had started, Jessie thanked her mother mentally for at least giving them this one thing before she left. Making them move out in the boonies and away from everyone. 

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“We have to go!” Tom shouted suddenly. “We have to catch the next flight to Australia!” Tom, the fearless CIA agent, wanted to run for the hills. He threw them their bug out bags, something he made them keep prepared at all times and said, “It’s time!” Winter rolled her eyes at Jessie and Jessie said, “No dad, that is not a good idea. It’s airborne. We have to stay put. At least until we come up with a plan.” “Jessie, this is not a debate. I have taught both of you girls everything you need to be useful through this, please don’t be a pain in my ass, I have enough to deal with.” Jessie stood up, and with that, Winter stood next to her. “I am not being a pain in the ass, Tom, I am trying to keep us from getting dead like the people on TV. We have these bags full of basic survival needs, extra clothes, shoes and supplies, but we don’t know what something like this is going to require. Our home hasn’t been compromised and we are away from damn near everyone. Think logically for once!”

“Don’t call me Tom, you know that pisses me off. And I am thinking logically. The whole damn WORLD has been compromised! Except Australia. It’s a Safe Zone. We are going. Either that or both of you can stay here and take your chances without the SUV. See how far you get without me.” 

“Oh for fucks sake, Tom,” Winter said. “Do you think it is just that easy to jump on a plane to the only supposed ‘safe zone’ in the fucking WORLD? Are you really that dumb?”

Tom flinched at her last word. It was something Leslie used to say to him all the time when they argued, though Winter had no way of knowing that. Maybe it was that very fact that made it all the worse. If multiple people said it to you, did that make it feel more true? Jessie didn’t know but as she watched Tom’s face go from red to purple, she stepped in between her little sister and their father. “Get it together, dad,” Jessie said in a calm, reasonable voice. He had never hit either of them, except for in sparring practice when he was training them in all the martial arts skills he had in his repertoire. His thing was verbal abuse, not physical. But Jessie wasn’t taking the chance. 

“Don’t talk to me like that, I am in perfect control,” Tom said through gritted teeth. Still the color began to drain from his face and his fists, previously clenched at his sides, relaxed. Jessie had found a long time ago that reminding Tom that he had a reputation to protect was the fastest way to get him to chill out. It wasn’t any love he had for the girls that did it. It was that he wanted everyone to believe the persona he presented as a perfect father. 

“Okay, so then you can see that it is not reasonable to leave, dad.” Jessie said this in the same calm tone, stern but even. “We don’t want to react in emotion.”

“Jessie, I work for the government. They are going to start searching homes next. Whatever organization was responsible for this, they are not going to stop at the buildings where we work. We are at our weakest now, as a country. They are going to come looking. We can’t stay here. You and your sister get your shit, we are going. Bus leaves in thirty minutes, with or without you. That’s final.” 

Jessie sighed in frustration. They couldn’t be left out here without any method of transportation. They needed to be able to be mobile if necessary. She tugged Winter by the sleeve and said, “Let’s go, kid. We gotta pack some extras.” Each of the bags had a 9mm Sig Sauer and a good supply of rounds, as well as a folding utility knife, razor sharp and a larger bowie knife for if things got really messy. Neither Jessie nor Winter ever believed these bags would be necessary, but their dad had insisted they be kept up to standard. They included MRE’s as well, where they had come from Jessie did not know. There was about a month’s supply of them though, and they were lightweight enough not to be hobbling. Aside from the weapons and rations, there were extra clothes, blankets, lighters, oil lamps and flashlights as well as walkie talkies with fresh batteries. This was a great start, but Jessie needed some other things. Winter looked at her as they went up the stairs and asked “What are we doing sis?” Jessie was pretty sure that they would never see this home again, nor anything in it. She grabbed the box hidden in the back of her closet, simply labeled, “School Stuff,”and shoved it in her bag. Jessie hadn’t been in school for years, but it seemed the most likely label to keep Tom from being a snoopy fuck, and had so far been effective. Inside the box were all she had remaining of their mom. A few photos, a lock of hair from when their mom had trimmed her hair for the first time,  and Leslie’s ID and birth certificate. She had hidden these carefully through the years, hoping one day to reconnect with Leslie, or at least be able to get some kind of closure. They looked so like her, both the girls. Yet she left them. And with Tom of all people.  And now, there was this craziness. Jessie reached under her bed and fished out the other item she was looking for. It was another, smaller bag, small enough to fit in the first. Jessie opened it quickly to check it, and also so Winter could see inside. It was her .45, extra rounds and two asps as well as two taser flashlights. “Damn, sis, were you planning on going to war anytime soon?” Winter asked, shocked and smiling just a little. Jessie said, “Better to be safe, one for each of us, except the .45. She’s all mine.” She shoved the smaller bag in the large duffle and said, “Let’s go load up the water we have, you know this douche will forget.” Winter rolled her eyes again, a gesture she was a professional at, scoffed and then followed Jessie down the stairs. 

The water was all loaded in the back, as well as a shotgun they had in the garage. They threw the bags in the back as well and then Jessie went to go check the latest news reports. That turned out to be futile as the news no longer existed. Every channel was just some version of experiencing technical difficulties, sorry. She checked her cell phone to see if there was digital news to read, and there was no signal, the wifi was not working and neither, apparently, were the cell towers. “Oh this is bad, bad.” Jessie said it to herself but Winter responded anyway, “Yeah, no shit.” 

“Why do you always have to cuss so much, kid?” Jessie asked her. It didn’t really bother her, she just liked to tease her sister about it.

“Learned from the best herself!” Winter said and bowed down in a mock curtsy. They both laughed a little, and Jessie thought about how lucky she was to at least still be here with her sister. She had long since been ready and able to move out, working full time as a teacher at the closest High School and saving every penny. Her dad owned the house they lived in, so there was no rent or mortgage on the house. Tom just asked that she pay her portion of the utilities and take care of her little sister, which she would have done anyway. Winter was why she had stayed. She had saved up more than enough money these last years, though she supposed that was all irrelevant now. But she had promised Winter she wouldn’t leave until she could take her sister with her, and Tom would not have let that happen while Winter was under legal adult age, because he dearly loved control. Just as he loved giving them the ultimatum to go with him or be left stranded. He loved feeling powerful. Jessie was sure that was why he had gotten into his line of work. Worked his way all the way up to CIA operative lording power over people, yet now here he was running with his tail tucked between his legs. 

“Let’s go, move!” He shouted unnecessarily as they were in the same room. Jessie and Winter headed to the garage and Jessie told him calmly, “Water is all packed and the bags are in the back. No cell service, no internet, and no TV. My guess is the radio will be down as well.” Tom grunted at this, saying nothing of consequence and they got in the SUV, headed towards an airport Jessie knew would be a futile venture. It wasn’t as if she could take all her weapons on a plane, even if by some miracle there was a flight available, but she had a notion it would never get that far. Things had gone to absolute shit, there was no “Safe Zone” for them, and everyone in the vehicle knew it, even if Tom was in denial. “We are stopping at the shopping center,” he said. “There’s not gonna be many people there so it should be easy pickings. We need to make sure we have enough supplies, just in case. Better to be safe.” Jessie hated hearing her own words echoed by the man, but he wasn’t wrong. This was a long haul sort of deal. “You girls go in and get everything we might need, I will stay with the car and make sure no one gets any funny ideas” This sent a pang of unease through her gut, but Jessie also wouldn’t trust him to remember everything useful and in fact was certain he’d forget something crucial and come back with odds and ends. She said simply, “Right.”

Winter and Jessie went into the superstore they had in town, and it was eerily empty. It was unlocked, and there was no looting happening, but people were just filling their carts with what they needed and leaving. Like they were shopping, and they were just putting it on the tab. There were no employees to be seen and actually very few people indeed, so they were able to make quick work of it. After filling up their cart as well with the necessities, they looked everywhere for someone to pay, but found no one. They left with the goods and Jessie felt like she had stepped right into a science fiction film. The SUV was there, running. The driver’s side door was open, and Jessie cursed Tom for being an idiot as she thought he probably went to go pee or something. Asshole. She quickly grabbed the keys from the ignition, then grabbed the 9mm from her bag, telling Winter to do the same. “Where the fuck is he?” she asked. “I don’t know sis, but his bag is still here. Thank God all our stuff is still here. Dumb ass was doing a hell of a job protecting the car.” They unloaded the supplies then climbed inside, closing the doors and locking them while they waited. And waited. And waited. 

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After two hours had passed, Winter looked at Jessie and broke the silence. “He’s not coming back, sis. He left us, just like mom. We can’t stay here, and I think he’s right about them coming to the house. Either them or the government, or what’s left of it. Either way, this is not going to be good. We have to go.” Just then, they heard a sharp tap tap on the window. They both looked over and saw a man they had never seen before in a black suit and sunglasses. His long, suited arm was extended in front of him, and at the end of it was what he had used to tap on the window. An absurdly large pistol, pointing directly at Jessie. “Out of the car.” He said.    


Safe Zone, Episode 2

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     Jessie didn’t move and neither did Winter.  Instead they both looked at the man outside the vehicle and assessed the situation. The man either didn’t know that the vehicle had bulletproof windows or he didn’t think they knew. Maybe he just figured the sight of his absurdly giant gun would intimidate them. If that was the case he had another thing coming, and fast. The problem, though, was that the tires were not bulletproof.  Their dad had said that most people couldn’t hit a tire with a shot at a moving vehicle,  and that if anyone was going to be shooting at the car it was gonna be moving. Wrong again, Tom, Jessie thought. 

“Don’t get any cute ideas,” the try-hard moron said to them. 

“Geez, this fucking guy,” whispered Winter. Jessie had to fight not to smile at that. Then she had an idea.

Jessie did smile, big, and widened her eyes in what she hoped appeared to be shock. She put a lilt  in her voice and raised it about two octaves, trying for it to sound frightened instead of calculating. “H-hey man, we don’t want any trouble okay? W-we will do exactly what you say. Just p-put the g-g-gun down, please? What do you say?” Jessie’s  stomach turned a little at having to ask the man to stop pointing a gun at her as if she was going to give him an option. It felt a little too close to begging, and that was something Jessie did not do.  She hated playing the damsel in distress  because she was anything but. 

“What the hell are you doing?” Winter said it quietly and between clenched teeth but Jessie couldn’t answer at that moment. She had the full attention of the overgrown, overdressed reject from a bad spy flick, and she had chosen the course of action. Winter was quick, she would catch on.  Jessie had her hands on the steering wheel and she said to the man, “I am just going to reach down and open the door, ok?” She moved her hands down slowly but the man shook his head. “No dice, unlock it and I will open it,” he demanded. Oh goody, this would be even better. Jessie put a compliant look on her face and nodded. She moved one hand slowly down to the lock button and heard Winter mumble, “If you get killed, I am kicking your ass.” Jessie muttered back, “I got this, sis.” She thumbed the unlock button and after that it was like everything moved both lighting quick and yet somehow in slow motion. 

Jessie watched the man raise the gun slightly with his movement to reach for the handle and it was the best opportunity she was going to get. She shoved the door against him as it swung open, knocking the man back and almost sending him to his ass. Almost, but damn it, not quite. He was a big motherfucker and not quite as top heavy as she had hoped. She darted around the open door, running full speed at the man and getting as low as she could. If he regained his balance before she hit him, they were toast. Thankfully, she was faster than his reflexes, and she slammed her body into him full speed, leading with her shoulder and rode him to the ground. He let out a whoop of air as he landed on his back, wind gone out of him. His stupid sunglasses fell off in the scuffle and his eyes were wide and angry. He tried to raise the gun but before he could, Jessie punched him right in the throat. The man started coughing and choking and she moved herself onto his chest, placing her knees on the inner crook of each of his obnoxiously big arms. She pulled the .45 from its holster then, thumbed the safety and cocked it, pointing it at that wheezing goon’s face. 

Winter came around the back of the SUV, pistol in hand, but as she saw that situation, she holstered her own gun. “Nice job, sister. Bet that rocked your socks off, you dopey fuck,” she said to the man. Jessie didn’t risk turning to her sister, even though the man was still fighting to catch his breath, but instead said, “my sister is going to restrain your legs while I kneel right on your elbows, you fucking ogre, and if you so much as flinch, I will decorate the parking lot with your brains.” She let the truth of her words fill her face, let the man see his own death in her eyes. She had never killed anyone before, but Tom had trained both of them to do it, and although Jessie would normally look for any other possible solution, she was not going to gamble with Winter’s life. She would not hesitate to scatter this man’s brain matter like confetti if he even thought too hard about trying to gain the upper hand. No, Mr. Dressed To Kill But Got My Ass Beat Instead was going to be compliant or he was going to be dead. Winter said, “Grabbing the zip ties, sis. Anyone who was out here ‘shopping’ seems to have taken off. Guess they were minding their own business.” Jessie heard Winter’s steps receding, then heard some rustling in the back of the vehicle. The man was catching his breath now, looking at her intently and with real hatred. Jessie didnt give a fuck because she saw sometghing else in his eyes as well, something they could use to their advantage. Behind all that anger and hatred, behind that arrogance he was attempting to mask his face with, she saw fear.

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Winter came back and made quick work of restraining the man at the ankles, crossed and tight. “We have the heavy duty ties, and I tripled you up, so to use your words, ‘Don’t get any cute ideas.’” Winter laughed at this and Jessie was, as per usual, blown away by her sister’s resilience and ability to find humor in literally any situation. Winter came around the side of them, within sight of Jessie, and then said to the man, “Turn your head this way and look at me, Agent Dipshit.” His eyes flinched at the name calling and his nostrils flared, but other than that, he did not move. Up until now, he had been quite cooperative. He apparently needed reminding of who was in control here. Or maybe, Jessie thought, he knows once we get his arms restrained, it’s over for him, mission failed so to speak. Either way, she couldn’t have him thinking there was any way out of this, so she did the only reasonable thing to do in that moment. She squared all of her weight on her knees, putting maximum pressure on his elbows and grinding them into the ground, then, when he closed his eyes grimacing from that pain, she drew the gun back and pistol whipped him as hard as she could, right in the temple. His face went slack immediately and all the tension she had felt in his body melted away. For a moment, she thought she had hit him harder than she meant to and killed him, but then he took a shuddering breath. 

“Out like a light,” Winter said.

“Looks like it,” Jessie responded, getting up quickly from the man. They didn’t have any way of knowing how long he’d be out. The sisters rolled him onto his stomach, pulling his hands behind his back and then arranging him into a hog tied position, attaching his wrists to his ankles. He gave no indication that he was anywhere near the conscious world, so they went about the business of searching his pockets. They found nothing. No badge, no wallet, no money, no extra ammo. There was one other car in the parking lot, so they figured that would be the place to look. Winter picked up the gun, “Whoa, talk about overkill. It’s a 500 Magnum. Geez.” She uncocked the gun, checked the cylinder and told Jessie it was fully loaded. She tucked it in her waistband and laughed, “You know, just in case we run into anyone bigger than this guy,” then mimicked shooting with her fingers. They walked to the car, which was just a few spaces away. He had left it unlocked and the key in the ignition. This man’s arrogance really knew no bounds. Inside the car was just as empty as the man’s pockets. Eerily so. There were no personal effects, no cell phone, not that it would be functional but at least it might give them a clue. No, the car was downright sterile. Winter popped the trunk, and there were a few items inside, none of them helpful in identifying the guy, nor where he came from or who sent him. It was apparent though, from the lack of anything to identify him as well as the items in the trunk, that he had been sent. As if they had any doubts. There were extra rounds for his giant gun, which they took, restraints of his own, which they also took, tarps and twine. There was also some paint thinner and a lighter. They took the lighter as well. Supplies were always nice to have in surplus. 

“The motherfucker was going to kill us, Win. Murder us. And there’s something else,” Jessie said. Winter just looked at her, waiting.

“There are three tarps. He was expecting to murder a trio.”

After some brief discussion, the sisters decided to leave the man. They did discuss taking him with them to the house, where they could interrogate him at length and try for some answers, but decided he was too dangerous to keep around. They had done well, and he had underestimated them, maybe because he saw their dad was not with them. But both Winter and Jessie agreed that he would be unlikely to do that again, and neither of them wanted to test their luck twice against him. He may have been stupid and arrogant, but he was bigger than both of them combined, and what was more, he was trained. They ended up dragging him  to the car, then hoisting him into the trunk he had meant for them. He was still out, snoring actually, like a chainsaw. He had a big knot on the side of his head and the skin around that eye, cheek and brow was starting to mottle, turning shades of brown and blue. 

“That’s gonna sting in the morning,” Winter said, then slammed the trunk. She looked at Jessie. “Do you think his, I don’t know, his people will come looking for him?” She pushed the lock button on the car key fob then walked to the gutter and dropped it down the drain. Jessie shrugged. “No way to know, really, kiddo. But I imagine they will eventually. I’m sure when old tall, dumb and ugly doesnt show up to cinfirm a mission complete, they will want to check the status.”

“Well, I hope they don’t. He was really going to kill us.” Winter lifted her middle finger and flipped off the car as they walked away. “Fuck you, dickhead,” she said.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself, kid.” Jessie said and put her arm around her sister for a quick hug and then said, “You know we have to find Dad.”

 Winter looked at her, aghast. “Dude, fuck that guy. He literally left us to die and didn’t think twice. We’re better off without him.”

 “Winter, I get that. He’s a dick and he deserted us. But we are not like him and that’s exactly why we have to go find him. It’s not like there’s anywhere safe to go anyways. And we’ve been okay so far, we just need to go back to the house and check! We have to try.” 

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After a bit of back and forth where Winter pointed out that barely escaping the secret agent douche was not her definition of okay, they got in the SUV and headed for home. Winter was stubborn, but when Jessie was set on something, she was immovable and Winter knew it. Besides, Jessie thought that in her heart of hearts, Winter would never have been able to just let their dad go like that. Not without a fight. He might be a narcissistic asshole, but all they had left in this world was one another. It was all so surreal. Had they really just been nearly kidnapped and murdered by some movie extra looking motherfucker, fought him, restrained him  and left him in his trunk to roast or suffocate or neither, depending on how much his organization cared about him or his mission? She had hit him hard enough that he may just have a brain aneurysm and save anyone the trouble of dealing with him ever again, but either way. This could not have happened even just yesterday. There would have been not just witnesses, but people who intervened. People wouldn’t just stand by and watch that sort of thing. Would they? Well, to that end, maybe they would have. But at bare minimum someone would have called the police. Instead, the parking lot had cleared of any and all bystanders. Jessie had been so focused on the task at hand that she couldn’t be sure, but she thought she remembered at least a couple of vehicles driving past. Maybe even speeding up as they passed. She took a breath to ask Winter about it as they drove back to their house, but the question stuck in her throat as they drove up their private entrance road. Winter, never at a loss for words, said “Are you fucking kiddxing me? Please tell me you are not seeing what I’m seeing.” Jessie didn’t respond, just pulled the vehicle into a spot on the side of the road under as much tree cover as she could manage. “Get the binocs,” she said after a beat. “We’re going up.”

Up, in this case, was referring to the tree they were parked under. Winter found the binoculars quickly and they both got out and climbed. Thankfully, the tree was thick and sturdy and they were able to climb high enough to see over the hill they had been approaching. It was exactly what they had hoped they wouldn’t see. Before they had pulled over, Jessie and Winter had noticed a large, black plume of smoke on the horizon, directly above where their house was. They didn’t need the binoculars to see what was happening. Their home was in a full fledged inferno, flames hot and glowing, licking at the sky. They watched in silence for a few moments as the structure that had been their shelter started to crumble beneath the weight of itself, sending sparks flying through the air. It was far too late to salvage anything from the blaze, and far too hot to get close. The real concern was that there was only one access road, in and out. Winter scoured the surrounding area with the binoculars then, looking to see if there were any vehicles. She saw none around the house, and none in front of them on the pathway to the house either. A horrible thought occurred to Jessie. 

What if they had driven past a vehicle on the way? Or, worse, vehicles, plural. They would be outflanked and helpless. Winter must have had the same thought because she turned around and searched the pathway behind them as well. “Shit. Shiiiit,” she said with real feeling. Jessie held her hand out for the binoculars and Winter handed them over and pointed. Way down at the entrance to the access road was a billowing cloud of dust. Kicking up that dust was a vehicle roaring towards them. It was too far to see how many were in the vehicle, but Jessie thought she saw at least someone in the passenger’s seat. 

“Fuck! Alright Win, there’s at least two heads. I don’t see another vehicle coming so hopefully that’s all there is. Get down there, and start driving. Don’t get too close to the house, but just enough they think we are running. I’m taking their driver out and we will go from there.” Winter, bless her, did not argue. She just climbed quickly down the tree and started driving. The vehicle was getting close. Her .45 was not ideal for a long distance shot at a moving target, but she would make it work. Besides, with the hollow point rounds she had in the cartridge, she didn’t need to be surgical. Just close. She had to get them out of the car. If the glass was  bullet proof, she’d go for tires. If that didn’t work, gas tank. That would be a last resort because the explosion might injure or even kill her and Winter too. Jessie cleared her mind and took a deep breath as the car approached. She could see it was a black sedan, four doors. She could make out two silhouettes in the front seat. It was now or never. Jessie stilled her whole body and sighted down the barrel. She breathed out and as she did, squeezed her trigger finger. The boom from her hand cannon was deafening, like a firework gone off in her hands. She held firm against the kick of it and fired again. Two shots, one right after the other. She watched in morbid satisfaction as the glass went cloudy with countless, weblike fissures surrounding a sizable hole made by the explosive rounds. The car didn’t even brake, but instead lurched to one side and slammed into a tree just a few yards away. There was blood spatter on the windshield. 

Jessie held her breath and waited, watching for any movement. If anyone was alive in there, they were probably waiting too. It was silent, so if someone was hurt, they were keeping their trap shut about it. Jessie heard the SUV approaching and was satisfied to see Winter stopped a safe distance away, but close enough to gauge the situation. Jessie started to climb down and that was when she heard the squeal of a car door opening, mangled in the collision but still functioning. Her gun was in her hand, but the angle was all wrong. She was out of cover. Damn it, how could she have been so stupid? She climbed faster, trying to get down and get her feet before whoever it was shot her. Come to think of it, why hadn’t they shot her already? She pushed herself to move faster, looked down and saw she was almost close enough to jump the rest of the way. She had to keep Winter safe, if nothing else. Her sister would not die on this damn access road because Jessie had been too quick to move from cover. 

“Jessie?” A woman’s voice said it from below. Close. Too damn close. “Jessie, my baby girl.” Jessie’s heart stopped for a moment. All the wind went out of her. It couldn’t be. No way in hell. “Jessie, it’s me, don’t you remember me?” Jessie heard this last and knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the woman speaking was Leslie. Their mother. The one they thought dead and gone from the world. Jessie got to the ground and turned to face her, gun in hand, but pointed skyward. Leslie had not changed, not really. She was still slim, but strong. Her face had aged some, but not as much as Jessie would have thought, and there was gray clearly visible throughout her hair. Other than that, it was like looking at some of the old pictures Jessie had saved, like looking at a memory made real. 

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“You’re alive,” Jessie asked in wonder. Then realization followed. Alive? She had been alive this whole time and just left them. And what was she doing here? Their house was on fire and a vehicle damn near identical to the one that Secret Agent Dipshit had been driving had descended upon them after allowing them to drive into a trap. That’s what this was, no two ways about it. A trap. “You’re alive.” This time it was an accusation, not a question. Jessie went to lower her gun towards her mother, but her mother was faster. She drew from her hip and leveled a revolver at Jessie’s chest. “Drop it, Jess. I don’t want to hurt you, but you need to hear me out. I came here for you and Winter, but not in the way you think.” Jessie considered holding on to her gun, but figured a woman that could leave them without so much as a goodbye hug and forget they ever existed wouldn’t be too opposed to shooting her own daughter dead in the road. She placed the gun on the floor in front of her, saying, “I’d hate for it to discharge accidently if I dropped it, you know, shooting you in between the eyes or something. If I do that, I want it to be on purpose.”

Leslie laughed, actually laughed. “I bet. Listen, Jess, I know you probably hate me, but I had to go. The Organization demanded my full attention, and if I hadn’t given it they’d have killed you girls. And your father, for that matter, which wouldn’t have bothered me to be honest. But you? You and your sister? No, I couldn’t allow that.”

Jessie scoffed, “Rather have it done when we are nice and grown, is that it?”

“No Jessie, we were not here to kill you. We were here to take you in. Your father did a proper job teaching you, I see. Hell of a shot, girl and with a handgun at that. You blew Anthony’s head clean off,” Leslie gestured towards the driver’s side of the vehicle. “He wasn’t a bad guy, but I will confess he wasn’t my favorite.”

“Why burn the house down? What if we were inside?” Jessie was stalling, she wasn’t close enough to get hold of her mother’s gun and she wasn’t sure where this was going. Best to keep her talking. At least if she was talking she wasn’t shooting.

“Oh sweetie,” Leslie tsked, “We didn’t set the house on fire. That was your idiot father. Came here to try to make it seem as though there was no trace of you three. We got here too late to stop him doing that, but don’t worry. He will get what he deserves. Him and all the other smug, greedy, selfish mongrels that call themselves ‘elite.’” Jessie had no idea what her mother was on about, but her silence seemed to encourage Leslie. Maybe she thought she was getting through. “Jessie, The Organization is the only way forward. This world has been too long plagued by self absorbed power mongers, lording their wealth and influence over the majority of the population. They gorge themselves on indulgence and frivolities and toy with people’s lives. Well, they did. You see, we took them out at the knees. We removed the power structure. We let the rumours spread about Australia and then we terminated communication. This has been lifetimes in the making, and we are lucky enough to be the generation in which the changes happen. Me, you, Winter, we are going to make New History.”

“Sounds more like New World Order if you ask me. What kind of entitled bullshit is this? Your Organization has killed who knows how many?! And you’re  proud! Disgusting!” Jessie was genuinely enraged. It wasn’t enough that their mother had abandoned them to a father who never knew how to love them. She had to be some entitled extremist who thought the answer to the world’s problems was mass murder? No doubt, there was some truth behind what she was saying. But Jessie didn’t think that killing half the population of the world was exactly the right course. And besides, having edges of truth woven into radicalism is what made it so dangerous. 

“Don’t say that Jessie. We aren’t Nazis. We don’t choose one race or another as the chosen survivors. We do not discriminate based on ethinic background, sexuality, age or gender identity or anything like that. We don’t care about religion, spiritual beliefs or any of that either.”

“Yeah, mighty progressive of you,” Jessie said sarcastically.

“Don’t be such a child, you are acting like your father’s daughter. High and mighty. Yes, many have died, but it is for the good of all. We will collect the rest of the pompous, heartless people who have towered at the top of the sociopolitical structure for so long they have no concept of what reality is like for most people. We will let them all into Australia, let them luxuriate in a false sense of safety and security. We will serve them tea and make their beds and make them feel right at home, as though they have once again beaten all the odds.It will take some time for the facade to be complete, for them to feel like things are back to normal for them. Maybe a month, maybe six. Maybe longer. But The Organization has infiltrated the whole continent. We are the very backbone there. We will know when the time has come. And then, sweet vengeance. They will wake one day and find all the staff gone. Everyone from the servers to the clerks to the cashiers. Every person they paid money to do this or that. It will only be them, the so-called elite. They will be eliminated in one final, glorious explosion, killed with the very weapons many of them helped to finance. Boom!” Leslie said this with a fervent rhythm, practiced yet passionate, like some sort of doomsday preacher.

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“You can’t just kill everyone! Jesus, mom, what happened to you?” Jessie asked this and stepped closer as she did.

“Aht, aht! Stay right where you are, little girl. I can see that you are indeed too much your father’s daughter. He is en route to Australia as we speak, but I won’t leave you to that fate. I love you, whether you believe it or not. But you’re too far gone. Winter will understand, she will see.” Leslie said this almost pleadingly and cocked her gun. Jessie thought about all that had happened. How much things had changed. She thought about her dad, and felt sorry for him. Even though he was who he was, no one deserved to die like that. Lulled into a false sense of security and then incinerated. But most of all, she thought about Winter. She hoped she had run, maybe out the back window and into the woods. She silently prayed Winter would get away and find safety somewhere, anywhere. Except Australia. Jessie closed her eyes and heard the shot, bang! She felt nothing. She opened her eyes looking down at herself, knowing she would see her life’s blood leaking from her chest. Nothing. There was nothing. She touched her face and chest in shock, as if to confirm she was still whole. She looked up then and saw Leslie laying on the ground. She was utterly still. There was a hole in the side of her head the size of a grapefruit. Leslie really was dead, no coming back this time. She looked at Winter standing with a gun in her hand, pointed at the ground now. She had climbed out the back window of the SUV as Jessie had hoped, but instead of running, she had snuck around the side of it to get a shot. “No, Leslie,” Winter said. “I don’t understand.” Winter holstered her gun as Jessie walked up to her. Jessie hugged her tight and that tiny physical contact was all it took. The floodgates opened for both of them and they began sobbing, wracking their bodies with heaving breaths between wails. They cried until both of them were exhausted and had no more tears to give. Silently, they got into the SUV and drove off. After a few minutes Winter looked at Jessie. “We gotta go get dad,” she said. “He can’t be far, and I bet they took him to that private air strip off the highway. No way they’d chance taking him to the airport. He’d figure out how to get away in a crowd.”

Jessie agreed. She turned the SUV in that direction and floored it.


Always

In. And out. In. And out. The precious cycle so many take for granted. Sometimes quieter, sometimes loud. Sometimes slow and relaxed, sometimes frantic. But always in. And out. The woman lay quietly listening to the sound of her own breathing. In. And out. Her fingers were laced together laying on her stomach as it rose and fell. Up. Then down. In. Then out. How absurdly simple., she thought. If there is nothing else in this world I can do, God knows I can do this. I have enough power, she thinks, to do this.  I may be powerless to bring her back, but I can do this. Why couldn’t her strong, beautiful wife done the same? Just keep breathing. Just a little bit longer. Dammit why couldn’t she have just kept fucking breathing?

    The woman, known to her friends and family as Jas, and to others as Jasmyna, felt a kind of numb awe. Her partner of 11 years, her best friend, her confidant, her world….was gone. In a flash, some meth head made a decision that their house was the one he thought looked promising. Leanne was home, just getting ready to head to the doctors office. They had an appointment that morning, and Leanne had forgotten the insurance cards at the house. The damn insurance cards. So instead of heading straight to the clinic to meet Jas, she told her she’d be just few minutes behind. She would just swing by the house and grab the cards, then meet Jas in the office. It would save them time and hassle, and the last thing Leanne wanted was any stress for Jas. It wasn’t good for the baby. The baby….they were supposed to find out the sex of the baby. Such a joyous occasion. 

    So Leanne had stopped at the house, looked through their files, and found the cards. She grabbed her keys, headed to the front door and opened it to the sight of a bald, unwashed, middle aged white man, bent over slightly as he was fumbling to try and pick the lock. The man claimed at the time he was high out of his mind and thought she was going to attack him. Imagine, attacking a man you discover trying to break into your house. Now why on earth would she do that? It didn’t matter that she had every reason to react in a hostile way. It didn’t matter what she thought in that moment, or what he thought either. What mattered…what would always matter was what happened next. He shoved Leanne with all of his might. She was not a small woman, but neither was she prepared for a full force attack as she opened her own damn front door. He lunged in the door after her as she fell backward, slammed the door behind him and without compunction, he stabbed her. See, he had been carrying a knife. For protection, he said. All the dealers in the area wanted to hurt him, he said. Everyone was after him. He was afraid, he said. Well he wasn’t afraid to attack a defenseless woman in her own home. 

    Defenseless…hmm. That word didn’t seem to belong in the same sentence, or even the same universe, as Leanne. She feared no one, and this man was no exception. Even with two stab wounds to her abdomen, and a third in her right lung, she fought. She raked her nails down this man’s face, gouged out his left eye, and even viciously bit chunks out of his shoulder and neck as they fought. She fought. Jas’ wife, her light, she had fought to live. But this man…this demon…had done his damage. He tried to grab the ring off her finger. And even dying, Leanne would not give. He said her grasp was too tight…said he tried to wrench her hand open and it was like stone. So instead he turned, opened the front door and ran, slamming it shut again behind him. Leanne kept her phone always in her bra, something her and Jas always bickered about. God even now, Jas hated how many precious minutes had been wasted bickering. But that day, Leanne took the phone out of her bra, gasping for air and managed to dial 911.

    Not that it had mattered. In. And out. In. And out. Had her breath been ragged? Rattling with the blood running into her lungs? Or had it been quiet with the patience and determination that Leanne was known for? Had she thought she would make it? Or had she known, in those last moments, that she would never again in this life feel Jas in her arms. Never feel their baby kick, see her emerge from the womb. Jas was pretty sure that she had known it was the end. See, Leanne had managed one more message before leaving Jas and their baby behind in this life. Jas had been pulling up to the clinic, feeling the baby kick wildly out of nowhere, when her phone went off. In that moment, her heart dropped. Before she even looked at the phone, Jas had known something was off. She picked up her phone, hands suddenly shaking, and looked at the message. The message from Leanne was simple, 6 letters, two syllables. Nothing jarringly profound at a glance. The message simply said : Always. 

    Always. That was it. But the word seared through Jas’ eyes and straight through to her soul. She had shouted, she couldn’t remember if it was internally, or out loud, but she remembered it being crashingly loud in her heart. “Leanne!!” She reversed out of the parking space and raced to her home, praying feverishly and barely glancing at the traffic around her. She blew through every light and stop sign, the blaring horns a mere whisper compared to her thundering heart. The baby flailed in her wildly as if in protest. As if knowing something was terribly wrong. Jas heard the sirens and saw the lights and her blood ran cold. She pulled up to their house as several EMTs made their way out surrounding a gurney. Jas remembered the white of the sheet. And the red of the blood. So much blood. And the sandy brown curls atop the head of the person laying there. The cocoa colored skin she would know anywhere. “Leanne, baby!” She ran, she screamed, and Leanne turned to her, and just for a second, Jas saw her smile. The smile said so much in that instant. It said I love you. It said I’m sorry. It said you are my world. But most importantly, that smile said goodbye. “NO!!!” But it was too late. Jas saw the light there, in Leanne’s eyes. And she saw it leave. Out. And there was no more in.

    Jas clenched her hands together atop her swollen belly as the baby moved around. The baby. How was she going to raise this baby alone?  She had not been to see the doctor since Leanne. It had been some weeks. But she just couldn’t do it. Leanne was supposed to be there, at her side, when the ultrasound technician let them know if they were to have a boy or a girl. Leanne was supposed to be there to balance out Jas’ wild side. Jas was a free spirit, Leanne had been the structure. Jas was lightning, intense and bright, hot enough to burn you if you got too close, but Leanne was thunder. Steady, deep and undeniable. They had been a storm together that no trouble could withstand. And this baby was the rain. The life born of the storm. Jas could not see how to do this on her own. And there was more.

    Leanne and Jas had never gotten married legally. They had spent 11 years together, but their state did not honor domestic partnership as a common law marriage. In other words, in order to have spousal rights, they would have had to been legally married in the court house. As such, Leanne’s conservative, right wing, bible thumping mother was the next of kin and was already at the hospital where Leanne had been transported. The staff fought for some time to bring her back from the brink, from what Jas understood. But when Jas got to the hospital, Leanne’s mother had already been notified. She was a nurse at the hospital, in Labor and Delivery of all things. And so when Jas arrived, she was denied access, denied information, and finally Leanne’s mother told her Leanne was gone. For good. The words she used were “Take that demon growing in you back wherever you came from and let me mourn my daughter in peace.”

    Jas had fought, physically pushing the woman out of her way, and fighting several orderlies before being escorted out in handcuffs. She was driven by police to the station for questioning about what happened with Leanne, where she was told by the officer that she was lucky they had not pressed charges on her at the hospital. Lucky. Jas was lucky? It was that word that broke her. She spent the next several hours sobbing uncontrollably, inconsolable and absolutely unintelligible in her responses to any questions. She remembered thinking she would die, then feeling a little flutter inside where their baby was growing. It was a horrific cycle, spiraling down into despair, then picking herself up again when she remembered there was a tiny life inside her that had only her in this world. In. And out. Down. And up. So she picked herself up off the floor, literally and figuratively, answered their questions about the stabbing, and listened to them talk about the fact that they caught the bastard that did it. Assault, they kept calling it. Home invasion and assault in the commission of a felony. Such scientific, cold terminology for something that brought her whole world crashing down. 

    Still, Jasmyna had no intention of giving up. She did not know how she would do this herself, but she could not let her baby down. And she could not let Leanne down either. Jas and Leanne had gone back and forth on spirituality. It was one of the sticking points that made them wait so long to try for their baby. Jas was a firm believer in God, and in Jesus, but did not want their child to be raised inside the constraints of a religion that would tell her that her parents were living in sin. Leanne wanted to have their baby raised in church, around Christianity and know the Bible. Jas was afraid their child would experience the hypocrisy that Jas herself had known as a kid, and even as an adult in the church. Finally though, Jas had agreed that if they could find a church home they were accepted in, then their baby would also likely be safe and welcomed there as well. 

    In. And out. Up. And down. Jas was going to have to get up and go soon. She had a meeting with a doula to see if they meshed well. The baby was due in just a few more weeks and Jas had made the decision that she never wanted to see the inside of a hospital again if she could avoid it. No, she was going to have their baby at home. The same home in which Leanne’s life had been taken and Jas’ changed forever, would be the home that welcomed in new life. Jas couldn’t leave it. It was the home they had bought together, built together, and loved together. The baby had a room, there was another guest room, and then their room. All filled with love and a beautiful melding of their styles. No. This was home. And it would stay that way. In. And out. Up. And down. A kick, as if reminding her she had things to do. “I know baby, I know.” Jas got up with a groan and a heavy sigh. She slipped her shoes on with more effort than she was used to and grabbed her purse, heading for the door. As she reached for the knob, there was a knock. Swift and quiet. Jas stopped cold, because as odd as it sounded, that knock…it was just like Leanne. Jas shook herself and opened the door almost angrily, frustrated with whomever it was for giving her such a painful jaunt down memory lane. 

    Jas’ breath caught in her throat. She let her eyes roam along brown skin the color of cocoa with a splash of cinnamon, strong arms, thinner than before, but still well muscled, slim fingers, long and dexterous. Her eyes wandered up, unbelieving, to sandy brown curls, longer than she remembered, and a smile that could brighten the darkest night. Still she could not believe what she was seeing, until she met those eyes. Hazel with just a hint more green than brown, a brown fleck in the left making it seem just a bit darker than the right. Jas‘ mind went blank, her eyes welled up with tears of pain, fear and disbelief. How could she be seeing what she was seeing? Had she lost her mind? Had she died of a broken heart and gone to heaven? If so, where was their baby? Leanne blinked and tears fell from her eyes. “Jasmyna…Baby…” Jas stuttered a moment “Y-you’re real? How? You’re really here?” Leanne closed the distance between them and wrapped her impossible warm arms around Jas. “Always.” She whispered. Jas’ world was slipping away into darkness. But this time it was okay. Leanne was there, and there was nothing in the world that mattered more. If she was dead, or dying, at least she was happy. 

    Pain. So. Much. Pain. Ripping through her center, back to front, Jas came awake screaming. She was wet, she knew that much, she felt it between her legs, soaking her nether regions. “Baby…” She said, then screamed as another spasm caught her. “Oh, God, baby,” she gasped. Instinctively, she tried to reach down to her womb, and realized her hands were being held. “What? Let GO!” She pulled her hands away, achieving nothing. She looked around and realized they were strapped down at her sides. “Leanne!” She screamed. Which was absurd, of course. Leanne was gone. Forever gone. “I’m here baby, shh, I’m here.” “What…what the…” Jas looked to her other side and saw her wife, sitting there, looking composed but worried. And thinner than before. But still so beautiful. Jas was certain there had never been any person more beautiful in that moment. “Its just so you don’t hurt yourself baby, you were fighting hard , but not coherent, and they couldn’t sedate you. Your water broke baby. I’m sorry I should have called first, but when I remembered everything, I just could not wait to feel you.” Remembered everything? “Ah!!” Another contraction ripped through her. Damn, these were painful. Was it supposed to hurt like this. “Breathe, baby. In and out. In. and out” Leanne echoed the very words that Jas had been saying to herself a just earlier that day. Even in this moment, Jas was moved by their connection, how on every level, even when they did not know it, their minds were in sync. And she knew in that moment, she would pull through. Leanne was back. She didn’t know how and she didn’t care, but she was going to bring their baby into this world and make sure to soak up every moment of the second chance she had been given. 

    “They’re coming. Now!” Who? Who was coming? Jas was about to ask when another contraction rocked her from the inside out. The EMT looked at her and said, it’s time to start pushing Jasmyna. Now. Push!” And Jas did. She pushed with all her might. She reached out and Leanne’s hand was there and as the motion of the vehicle swayed side to side, she pushed. She screamed. She pushed and she prayed. She was not sure if it was out loud or in her mind, but she shouted to the Lord. “Please keep us safe, God! Please keep us safe, and pull us through this! PLEASE, GOD!” 

    Then there were flashes. Pain. Leanne’s voice telling her to keep going, keep pushing. Pushing with her whole body. Then the cry of the baby. Their baby. So loud. So clear. And then….another cry joined the first. Another? That…that can’t be right, Jas thought. We are still in the ambulance…aren’t we? Then quiet. 

    A warm familiar kiss on the cheek woke Jas. She opened her eyes and everything rushed back in all at once. The baby! Leanne! My God, Leanne! She turned toward the direction of the kiss, and laid her eyes on her partner. She was still shaken with the thought this would all be a dream and so she asked Leanne, “Is this real?” “Yes, baby. This is as real as it gets.” She stood and kissed her, this time on the lips, gently, but insistent. Jas melted into the kiss, and reveled in it until a quiet “Ahem,’ shook her from her trance.

    She looked up and there was a nurse pushing two…not one…two hospital bassinets. “Sorry. Your babies are hungry. And want to meet their other mama.” The nurse smiled kindly as she came forward.” “Babies? Two? What…” The nurse just shrugged and smiled, as she lifted one baby with a pink beanie on her head, and another with a blue one on …his? “A boy, and a girl,” the nurse said, sensing Jas was overwhelmed. “What a lucky couple you are. “ She smiled once more as she laid the babies in Jas’ open arms and walked out. Jas looked down and fell deeper in love than she ever knew possible. Her son, and her daughter looked up at her with a mystifying adoration and love, and in that moment Jas said to Leanne “We are the luckiest couple alive. Speaking of alive….”  

    Leanne went on to explain that she had survived the stabbing, but had retrograde amnesia when she woke. As such, she could not remember who she was, or where she was or how she had gotten there. Her mother had filled her in on who she was, leaving out the whole lesbian with  a life partner and a baby on the way thing. I guess she had taken it as God’s way of cleansing her daughter of sin. One day, Leanne had been at the physical therapists office, strengthening her body after such an ordeal, and she heard the therapist say something to a patient. The patient responded with one word. 6 Letters. Two syllables. “Always.”  And with that word, the wall between Leanne and her memory came thundering down. Leanne got up without a word, left the physical therapist’s office, and her gaping mother sputtering after her, got into the car and drove straight home to Jas. 

    They named their babies Rain and River, forces of life born of love and strength. They married soon after the babies were a year old. Eventually, Leanne’s mother asked to meet the twins, and they did what no one else in all the years of that woman’s life had been able to do. They showed her that love was unconditional, and more valuable than anything else. Jas watched her children grow, wild yet steady, perfectly imperfect in their balance of humanity and divinity. They knew God, they knew love, and Jasmyna knew true gratitude every day they lived and breathed. In. And out. And in. And out.  

Photo by Mariu00e1n u0160icko on Pexels.com

Annette

Annette’s mother had always told her, “Nettie, you have to be specific when you  tell God what you want. After all, you ask and you shall receive. And if you aren’t specific, you may end up getting more than you bargained for. Or, heaven forbid, less.” As a child, Annette never questioned her mother. Quite the opposite actually. Annette absorbed every word with fervent enthusiasm and tried in every way she could to emulate Gwyndolyn Parsons, mother extraordinaire. 

Annette remembered looking at her mother, Gwyn, and thinking to herself if she grew up to be just like her, she’d be the happiest girl alive. Gwyndolyn was tall, statuesque, slender but curvaceous in all the ways a woman was supposed to be according to the fashion magazines Annette would sometimes peruse at the beauty parlor. Whenever Gwendolyn entered a room, all the men stood, and if Gwendolyn’s husband Roger was not there, those same men stared. No, not stared exactly, no one wanted to offend the lovely Mrs. Parsons, but certainly they took more than their share of long, lingering glances.  Yes, Mrs. Gwyndolyn Adrianne Parsons was a force to be reckoned with in those days. Powerful, yet sweet, beautiful and sensual, yet never crude, wealthy but never pompous, charitable, kind, and a loving wife and mother. She was always smiling, always put together, prim and proper without being uptight. Her husband, Roger, was a well renowned and respected lawyer who rarely lost a case, and did a good amount of pro-bono work to boot. The Parsons’ had one daughter, Annette Evelynn Parsons, and everyone knew she would grow up to be something great. With two exceptional parents such as hers, how could she not? 

Annette’s childhood memories were full of loving glances between her parents, smiles, hugs, kisses, laughter, chatter, and most of all music. Such sweet music. As if being lovely, affluent, kind, and well liked in the community were not enough, Gwyndolyn was also what everyone referred to as a gifted pianist. She would play at every gathering, large or small, for friends, family, her husband’s colleagues and neighbors. Sometimes a lucky stranger would be walking by and hear the sound of her skillful playing wafting through the air out an open window or a cracked door. Often these strangers would disregard what ever errand had them out and about, and come to the door asking who was playing and if they might listen just a bit longer. It was the 1950’s and people were not nearly as wary of strangers as they would become in the coming decades. Not nearly as wary of anyone, really. And so, of course, the ever congenial Mrs. Parsons would invite the strangers in, offer them a glass of lemonade and play just long enough to be polite, but never long enough to elicit rumors of impropriety amongst the community. If the stranger was someone who had “fallen on hard times” as her mother used to call it, Gwyn would make them a sack lunch, sending them away with music in their ears and enough food to fill their belly at least once on their journey to wherever they were headed. 

“Oh Mom…I wish you were here,” Annette sighed as she folded another pair of her husband’s jeans. 

“What’s that Annie?” Annette cringed at the nickname her husband shouted across the house. She had told Charles more times than she could count that she hated being called Annie. She had corrected him every single time he used it for the first year of what passed for their courtship. Still he had kept using it, telling her it would grow on her, and he liked the way it sounded. Annette thought he didn’t really care whether it grew on her or not. In fact, she was pretty sure he hoped it never did. He liked that sort of thing, “getting her goat” he called it. He enjoyed irritating her, sometimes to the point of tears. He found it amusing. Or maybe it made him feel powerful. As Annette sat folding laundry she shrugged internally. It really didn’t matter why he did what he did. He just did, and Annette had stopped questioning it after about their third year of marriage. Now they were approaching their seven year anniversary. Seven years? My God, had it really been seven years? “Nothing, Charlie, just talking to myself,” Annette shouted back, realizing she had not responded to her husband’s half-interested inquiry. She knew half interest would become full interest if she were quiet for too long. Then he would get up and come in to see what she was up to. And she was too tired to pretend right now. After all, that’s what it was at this point. A giant game of pretend.

She pretended to smile, to laugh at his jokes, to enjoy his incessant gyrating when he wanted to copulate, which was less and less often, Thank God. She pretended to enjoy taking care of him, washing his clothes, picking up after him, cleaning the house, dressing up to go with him to this work event or that conference or this dinner party. She pretended to be a happy housewife with no cares in the world more profound than maintaining a clean house, a good home cooked menu for her husband, and oh, making sure she always looked good for him while doing it. Put on a show, Annette, she told herself. A good show. Fake it until you make it. God knew she had been faking it in more than just the bedroom for quite some time now. 

Still, he provided a roof over her head and all the comforts of home. Something he never failed to remind her of when she expressed  any malcontent whatsoever. And she was grateful. She knew there were women that were much worse off. Women who had to lie about bruises on a daily, call in to work when their husbands got too rough, explain how they ran into a door and then fell down some stairs later that same week. Yes, things could be worse, Annette reminded herself.  But, oh, how she wished they were better. If only she had been more like Gwyndolyn. 

Annette folded the last pair of jeans and stood up to put them away. “Son of a BITCH!” She yelled without thinking as her pinky toe stubbed the leg of the chair she had been sitting in. God, but the little things always hurt the worst! Annette set the jeans down on the desk at which she had been folding and leaned over examining her injured toe. It was an angry red color already and would probably bruise, but wasn’t seriously damaged. Still, it stung like crazy. “Sonofabitch.” She repeated it, this time softly. It felt good, albeit out of character. She never cursed, at least not out loud. It wasn’t lady like. But all of a sudden, it felt like exactly what she should be doing. “Son. Of. A. Bitch.” Quiet again, but with more feeling. Oh yes, she was enjoying this. Immensely. That sting in her toe was fading with every word.   She laughed, “Son of a bitch! HA!! Son of a bitch!” She tried a sing song version of it, “Sooonnn of aaaaa biiiitch!” She giggled like a schoolgirl. 

“Annie? What’s the deal?” Charles stood in the doorway behind her. She could picture the look on his face before she even turned around. Mock concern, barely concealing his irritation and judgmental thoughts flickering behind his eyes. Wondering why did he marry such an inconvenience. All at once, it was more than Annette could bear. She looked at his neatly folded jeans laying next to his neatly folded socks sitting atop his neatly folded undershirts and his neatly folded tighty-damn-whities and she lost it. She reached out and knocked all the freshly folded laundry to the floor with a swipe of one hand as she whirled around to face her pretend husband. She kicked one of the pairs of socks in his direction with  a careless flick of her foot, noticing the pain there was completely gone now. She laughed again, loud this time, and then in a voice so hysterical she barely recognized it as her own she shouted, “My name is ANNETTE! A-N-N-E-T-T-E, you SONOFABITCH!!!!!” She pushed past him, his jaw slack with awe as he sputtered in disbelief. She wasn’t sure what he was saying, if he was really saying anything at all. She grabbed her purse, her keys, put on her shoes, left her phone and was gone before he had a chance to relearn how to use words. 

Annette was giddy. Absolutely giddy. That was the only word she could think of that could describe the  giggles, the ecstatic shaking, the antsy feeling that kept her switching positions as she drove, and fidgeting about in the car, adjusting the mirrors that didn’t need to be adjusted, changing the temperature on the car thermostat, changing lanes just to be in a different one. She had never, in all of her years, been so brash, so heedless of consequences. She knew, logically, that what she was doing would have a reverberating effect on her life. But she couldn’t bring herself to regret it. In fact, she was happy. Downright gleeful, truth be told. She didn’t know where she was headed, but she knew one thing. She wasn’t headed back home. Home? No, that was wrong. Charles always said he provided her a home, calling her a homemaker. But the truth is, that house had never felt like home.  No matter how she had tried, decorating, cooking, inviting friends over. She had even convinced Charles to let her get a piano. She was nowhere near as talented as her mother had been, but she had hoped that the sounds of a piano being played would at least make her feel at home. Still, she never did. Even when she and Charles decided it was time to start trying for a baby. When they picked out nursery colors and a crib, and baby toys, when they went to fertility doctors to move the process along, even when they were expecting…at no point did any of this make her feel at home. And when she lost the first pregnancy, then the second, then refused to try a third time, things only got worse. Charles still wanted to keep up appearances, and of course divorce was not part of the appearance he was looking for, so he relented. He stopped pressuring her to keep trying, and let her have her birth control pills in peace. But really, it was all over before it even began if she was being honest. Theirs was a marriage of convenience, she the lovely trophy wife, and he the handsome entrepreneur with a need for arm candy that was more than just good looks, but the good looks had to come first. So she looked good. Great actually. She grew up with a figure like her mother’s, and hair long and flowing, the color of dark chocolate. Her eyes were a piercing green with flecks of blue throughout. Her skin was pale in the winter, darkened just a bit with the summer sun, but never really tanned. 

Soon after they married, Charles started taking her to the salon, telling them to lighten her hair to a pale blonde. It was less harsh, he said. Then he started telling her to visit the tanning salon. He tried to get her to get spray tanned, but on this she was firm. They always came out looking orange, and while Annette was far from vain, she had no desire to look like an oompa loompa. Annette looked in the mirror at her hair as she drove. Suddenly she hated the bleach blonde locks she saw before her. So commonplace, dyed to look just like everyone else. And Annette decided at that moment, she was damn well NOT going to spend her life living like everyone else. Maybe things had worked like that for Gwyn, but Annette was not her mother. She pulled off at the first drug store she saw, nearly ran inside, bought a box dye as close to her natural color as she could find and ducked into their restroom. She spent the next hour in there, ignoring the judgmental looks from other patrons as they came and went.   She rinsed for what seemed like ages, then took her shirt and toweled her hair as dry as possible. 

Annette flipped her hair back and met the gaze in the mirror of a woman she didn’t even recognize. It wasn’t just the hair color, it was the eyes, the skin, the smile on her face. Her eyes were glowing in a way she had never seen. They sparkled like twin flames of blueish green fire. Her skin was luminous, as if something inside her had been electrified. And her smile was that of a woman who was secure in herself, happy to be alive, and looking for her next adventure. She looked at herself a moment longer, taking it all in. Feeling the joy of falling in love with herself. Feeling free. She was unsure of what exactly lay ahead, but in that moment she knew she would never again compromise her own happiness, her own joy, or her inner light. She would be specific in what she wanted, and settle for nothing less. She looked in the mirror, watching herself as she stood up straight and smiled brighter, enjoying the twinkle in her eye. “Son of a bitch!” she laughed. She left that drug store bathroom, and as she walked out the door, she left behind the mask she wore for so long, the burden of everyone else’s expectations, and the shame she had felt for ages in not living up to the woman her mother had been. She got into her car and shut the door, still smiling, feeling like she could fly. She glanced in the mirror once more and gasped. For just a moment, as she glimpsed her reflection, she swore she saw the smiling, shimmering eyes of her mother staring back at her. Love, Annette thought to herself. Pure, unadulterated love. That’s what I saw in her eyes for me. And here it is…staring back at me. “Wow,” Annette said out loud. “Let’s go,” She said to no one in particular, and began the next chapter in a journey all her own.