Excerpt for Burning at Both Ends by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Burning at Both Ends


By Thomas Biehl


Copyright 2016 Thomas Biehl


Smashwords Edition


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Table of Contents


Getting to the Lift

Waking Up

Under the Influence

Lunch on the Contrary

Desolace

The Trial of Michael

My Tattoo

A Midlife Night's Dream

The Czech Girl Story

Reality

Tales from the Air

Getting to the Lift

Colorado was my getaway. The sun hid behind the mountains leaving us waiting to board the ski lift in the eerie near light of before dawn. Ski lift operators were the first ones on the mountain in the morning, before the guests and even the ski patrol. A heavy yawn escaped my mouth; I shivered against the cold. My eyes not yet completely open had remnants of the sleep I missed. The thought how did I get there crossed my mind; my getaway, from the only existence I had known for the first eighteen years of my life. After the first year of college, I had felt the urgent need to escape like some bandit on his way to Mexico.

I had no desire to go to Mexico, so I went to the only other place I did know. I had been to Colorado to visit my grandparents every summer since I could remember, so while it was an escape it still had some small measure of the familiar. I had so much to get away from, but mainly I ran from life not making sense anymore. Leaving it all behind seemed like the obvious choice. I ended up in Vail, Colorado working as a ski lift operator, which meant I had to get up at five in the morning to can catch the bus. Now, I waited in line to board the main lift and get on with the work day.

I set my snowboard down on the snow and moved it back and forth with my foot to cool it off. The snowboard had been inside and was warm; if it just sat in the cold snow, some of the snow would melt onto the bottom of the board. When the board did eventually get cold, the moisture would freeze again. Then when I tried to snowboard with it, the frozen moisture would catch and I would fall. So, moving it back and forth made sense in my half-awake state, because then it would cool off without getting the moisture stuck to it. It got a chance to adjust to the cold instead of being thrown into it.

I strapped my right foot into the board and used my free foot to ‘skate’, sliding up to the lift. The chair hit gently as I sat in it and got a little comfortable. As the lift chair left the ground, the cold air bit at my exposed face. Company issue snow pants, heavy vest, and heavy coat protected my body from the night’s lingering single digit temperatures. I had taken myself out my life long before I had decided to escape to Colorado. Going to school, work, sleeping, and watching TV were not what I would have called living a life, more sitting on the side lines and watching life go by. Wrapped in self-pity and even depression, I had been tired of things being so confusing. Like the cold air which found its way through my clothing to chill my bones, life was something I could have only avoided for so long.

The lift rose to about forty feet off the ground, high enough that the sun broke over the mountain peaks off to the east, and sunlight began to warm me. It seemed everything there was temporary, an escape from one thing or another. People came to Vail for the weekend from Denver to retreat from busy lives. The expensive houses that lined the bottom of the mountain were vacation homes, used only weeks out of the year. Friends made there were temporary; that was a bittersweet realization. It was a different kind of friendship when both people knew that in a couple of months they would more than likely never see that person again. In a way it gave people the freedom to break free, because there were no preconceived notions. They didn’t know my older brother; they had never been to my home town. All they had to go on was me. I could have been anybody I wanted to be, and they wouldn’t know the difference.

But then that was the problem I had hoped to solve in coming to this snowy playground, who was I without those preconceived notions. What was my life when all that I had known was on the other side of the country? The freezing wind was harsh as I reached the top of the mountain, so cold it stung my eyes. They watered, and moisture ran down my already cold cheeks. Frost bite was a big concern there; exposure to cold killed the nerves in the tissue. The nerves had to be able to regrow, that was the pain after I had been out in the cold a while. If I had been out too long, over exposure would have killed the nerves and then the tissue; and they wouldn’t be able to regrow. Red skin was okay; it meant alive, but once it turned white it was gone.

The chair reached the top of the lift, and as my turn came, I stood on my board and slid away from the lift. I found my group of lifties, the guys that worked the lifts around mine. We had to snowboard to our lifts together. We were the only ones on the mountain, so if one of us went off on our own and got hurt, it could have been hours before they were found. There wasn’t much talk as we were still mostly asleep. The drag foot was left unbound because the first thing we had to do was cross a steady grade from that peak to the next, and it required a push here and there. I tried not to fall in front of my coworkers as I was still relatively new to snowboarding. I didn’t want to be known as a gaper.

Pronounced ‘gay-per’, it was a snowboarder slang term for someone who shouldn’t even be on the mountain, had no idea what they’re doing, or was a grown adult male wearing a hot pink snow suit. Snowboarding was my one pure enjoyment in that escape of mine. Sure the mountains were beautiful, but I eventually got used to them like everything else. My first approach to snowboarding had been similar to everybody’s; that it looked like an intense and fast sport which at first glance appeared easy. Not true, trying to do everything fast was how most people learning to snowboard fell continuously on their butt onto rock solid ice. My first day taking lessons, half the class had quit by lunchtime. Snowboarding had been surprisingly all about subtle movements and realizing if I tried to over control the board, I would fall every single time. Sometimes it was about letting the snow take me in a certain direction. Reading the snow and/or ice was part of it, but something as little as moving my toes could set me into a turn. I couldn’t help but find it ironic that controlling something that seemed out of control was all about subtlety and letting go of some of that control. Also, it forced me to live in the moment because if my mind wandered while snowboarding, the ground came up at me, hard.

We reached the second peak and strapped in our drag foot. As we were about to shred steeper slopes, I realized that my moments of clarity in this escape came when I was snowboarding, because I had the thrill of not being completely in control. I thought perhaps I would adapt that philosophy to my life, living in the moment, not trying to control everything so much, and only pushing the ride that was my life in subtle ways. I smiled as I pick up speed because I thought for the first time in a long time that everything was going to be okay.

Waking Up

Shane tried to open his eyes, but they refused. The dull ache of his head and the foul taste in his mouth confirmed it; he was hung over. He willed himself to pass back out, so he could sleep it off. No such relief came to him, though. He laid there drifting on the edge of consciousness. Images faded in and out teasing him with dreams that he could not sleep to see. He struggled to make coherent thoughts in his painful head. Was he still drunk? Perhaps, but either way Shane felt like shit. As if to confirm this, a queasy feeling rose in his stomach. He rolled over to quiet his midsection. Then, his hand hit something, something soft, supple… skin!

This time Shane’s eyes shot open. His hand touched a naked leg protruding from under the sheets. His eyes followed the lightly tan, shaven, female leg from the small foot up to the thigh where it disappeared under the covers. The white sheets outlined the form beneath them, subtle curved hips narrowing a bit, then giving way to a smaller midsection. Then, her chest made two little mountains of snowy cotton. Finally the sheets gave way to a shoulder, then a neck, and then an attractive woman’s face that was surrounded by long soft black hair. A low whimper escaped her crimson lips as she rolled onto her side, away from Shane.

Now completely awake, thoughts flooded Shane’s already aching head. Who was this woman? Did they… Shane realized for the first time that he himself was naked, it seemed they had. What did he do last night? Images of a house with lots of people drinking and loud music blaring came to him. Yesterday had been like any other Friday; he had gone to a party on campus. He looked at the sheeted body in front of him, again following the curves that showed through the sheets. How had he ended up with this black haired beauty? In his head he saw himself handing her, jean and deep purple t-shirt clothed, a drink and trying to yell at her over the loud music. Then, he saw them sitting outside the party talking and eventually walking. Finally, his head filled with flashes of naked bodies moving against one another.

Shane shook his head and looked around the bedroom taking in the scene. Sun showed through the window onto the messy desk off to one corner, dirty clothes piled in front of the closet. It was definitely his bedroom in his apartment. One look to the floor next to the bed confirmed that those jeans and t-shirt along with a black bra and panties were muddled with his own clothes. At the edge of the tattered pile was a teal blue wrapper. At least they’d used protection. He could hardly believe it. He had slept with a woman he just met, albeit a quite attractive one. Was this a one night stand? No, this is his place he could not just slip out the window. He was not sure he would if he could. He sat up too quickly and the pain in his head doubled.

Slipping out of bed as quietly as he could, Shane put on his boxers and then his jeans. Focusing his scattered vision, he looked in the door mirror. Messy wheat brown hair sat atop a muscular but lanky body. Pale blue eyes examined his rugged good looks. Decidedly satisfied with his half naked reflection, he walked to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. The cold liquid felt good trickling down his throat and flowing through his body shocking his insides awake. He downed half the bottle hoping it would make him feel a little better. He stood there for a moment trying to decide what to do. Should he wake the girl up? No, he thought he should let her sleep. His stomach took that moment to remind him it was queasy. Breakfast, that’s what Shane needed. Then, he would figure out what to do about the naked girl in his bed.

An examination of the fridge turned up what little there was in it. The eggs and sausage links had to be his roommate’s, but right now Shane did not care. After gathering other requirements, he scrambled some of the eggs and threw a few sausages in a pan to fry. As he went to pour the eggs in another pan the woman walked into kitchen. He couldn’t help but notice how sexy she looked wearing his dress shirt from night before. Her jade green eyes stared unwaveringly into his. Tension grew in the air, and though she was hung over herself, her embarrassment at the situation showed on her cheeks.

“Morning,” Shane managed to say.

“Good… morning,” She said. A slight smile came to her face when she realized what he was doing.

“Breakfast,” He asked. Of course, he had meant to make her breakfast, or at least that’s how he played it off.

“Yes, thank you,” she said as she sat down at the counter that separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment.

Shane went to the fridge and pulled out another bottle of water. After handing it to the girl, he went back to cooking. He scrambled more eggs, got out more sausages, and even put some bread in the toaster. The black haired woman watched him cook, neither of them knowing what to say further. Shane could feel the woman’s eyes on him. His mind raced at what he should say, but nothing came to him. The silence lasted until he was finished and had set the plate of food in front of her.

“It looks great…” she started but trailed off, searching for his name.

“Shane,” he said sitting down next to her. There was a pause. Shane realized he didn’t know her name either.

“Amy,”

“Nice to meet you,” Shane said.

Under the Influence

There was no answer when Jenny tapped on the bedroom door. She was supposed to have been spending the weekend back home at her parents’ house. When her father had been called away on business, she had decided to return to school. She couldn’t resist the temptation to drive back to campus first thing in the morning, so she could surprise her boyfriend. The whole way there she had thought about how much he must have missed her. She had even imagined the look on his face when she showed up. Upon arrival, she checked her makeup and highlight blond hair in the car mirror. As she walked up to the house, beneath her jeans and hooded sweatshirt she could feel the lacey red lingerie tight against her skin. This was going to be a good surprise, she thought. She made her way through the house to his room. When she did not receive an answer, she knocked on the door again. This time when there was no answer, she pushed the door open.

“Rick, I…” Jenny began. She anticipated that he might still be asleep. She had even anticipated that he might be hung over. What she had not anticipated though, was that he was not there at all. The sheets and cover of the bed were disheveled, but empty. Besides that, the room was as pristine as ever. The desk was neatly arranged. Beneath the flat screen, the DVDs sat organized alphabetically. The door to the bathroom was open. Jenny did not hear the shower going but she checked anyway. Finding it empty, she returned to the bedroom. She pulled her phone out to call Rick. A few moments later she heard rock music and the lyrics “Drink, Drink, Drink you under the table.” That was Rick’s ringtone. Jenny found his phone on the night stand next to his wallet and keys. She hung up her phone. At least he could not have gotten very far, she realized.

There were several of his frat brothers Jenny could call to find out Rick’s whereabouts. As she sat on the bed, another thought occurred to her. She could go through his phone to find clues as to his whereabouts. Was she allowed to do that? After a moment’s pause the thought in her head became, sure she was; she was his girlfriend. Besides, all she would be doing is confirming that she had every reason to trust Rick. Having decided, she picked up the phone. The first logical thing to check was the call history. The last outgoing call was the one he had made to her the previous night. That brought a smile to her lips. In the incoming calls she found a call from Danny Boy that was received at 9:30 this morning. That settled it; she would call Rick’s friend Dan.

Might as well check his texts, the thought hung there for a moment. Why not, was the decisive notion. She sifted through the “hey man” texts that occurred last night, until she came to a series of texts from a Cindy. As she read the texted conversation line by line her brow began to furrow. Her grip on the cell phone tightened. Tears began to well up in her eyes. The pedestal of perfection and trust she had placed Rick on was beginning to crumble. At the end of the conversation were words set off by brackets, Picture Message Sent. She selected the words and waited for the picture to load. The pedestal shattered when the picture was revealed to be of Rick’s penis. She almost threw the phone but decided against it. There was one more thing she could check.

The picture gallery had a section that was marked with yesterday’s date. There were the usual pictures of partying and alcohol. Then, there was the penile photograph. The very next picture was of a pretty brunet with a beer in her hand. It was followed by a series of photographs that ended with the brunet naked in Rick’s bed and not alone. Jenny immediately got off the bed out of revulsion. This time she did throw the phone. It shattered upon impact with the wall. The sound reverberated through the room as remnants of plastic and metal fell to the carpet. The tears rolled down her cheeks in a mix of anger and sadness. How could he do this? He had said he loved her. And she had loved him. Didn’t she? At that moment she was so confused. What should she do? She could confront Rick, slap him across the face, and tell him it was over. Somehow that did not seem like enough.

The internal struggle and debate went on for what seemed like an eternity. It only made Jenny more sad and especially more angry. Then, she realized something. Rick’s wallet was right there on the night stand. His credit cards are in that wallet. She opened the folded black leather. Sure enough, she pulled out his VISA and then his American Express. As Jenny held the plastic money, she considered what she was about to do. Was this stealing? No, this was pay back. He deserved to pay even if it was in the literal sense of the word. But she was committing credit card fraud? He had let her buy things with his cards before. Besides she had her eyes on that pair of shoes from Hendale’s. Yeah, screw him. She was going to take him to the cleaners. With that thought she put the cards in her pocket and replaced the wallet to the night stand. She walked back through the house as quietly as she had come in.

The front door of the Sigma Omega Lambda fraternity opened, and out walked Jenny. She strode to her car with a righteous determination. The foreboding female did not squeal her tires. She simply got in her car, punched up the nearest mall on her GPS, and drove off. From the door of the frat a figure watched her drive away with just the hint of a smirk on his face. His dress was business casual with dark grey wrinkle free khakis and a crisp deep green shirt. Long black hair was slicked back in strait lines. Piercing green eyes followed the car until it rounded a corner and was out of sight. The figure, Kael, took a moment to reflect on his accomplishment.

Though he was noticed by no one, Kael had been at the party last night. He had moved through the crowd of drinkers looking. After a while, he came to Rick sitting at the bar. Rick was drinking and talking but not really having any fun. Kael listened to the words and thoughts of Rick and those around him, looking for something to use. At first, the figure’s involvement was subtle, almost negligible. He found a thought in back of Rick’s mind. Then, he merely suggested that the person he was drinking with confirm it.

“Rick, that girl, Cindy, from Psych 102 is hot as hell,” Nathan said.

“Yeah, she is,” Rick said.

“Where’s Jenny tonight,” Nathan asked. Kael did not even prompt that one.

“She’s at her parents for the weekend.”

“Cool, wanna do a shot?”

Kael had been there when Rick realized he actually had Cindy’s number. The decision to text her had needed little to no assistance from Kael. In fact, he was a relative spectator for most of the texted conversation. His biggest influence had been merely contributing his own opinion into Rick’s thought process during the picture debate. His suggestion was that texting a picture of your genitalia was not only normal but would turn the girl on. When she arrived partially inebriated, they flirted enough on their own. Kael just gave a little push here and a shove there. The alcohol and hormones did most of the work. The figure from the doorway had just put on the finishing touches, really. Kael was delicate, like planting the idea in Cindy’s head to grab Rick’s phone and take a picture during their romp.

In the morning, Cindy having taken a barely awake Rick out for coffee, Kael was about to leave. Then, Jenny had arrived. Kael had followed this unsuspected treat back to the room. He was there when she found the room empty. He was there when she debated whether or not to check Rick’s phone. His first actual contribution to her dilemma had been, sure you are; you are his girlfriend. After a few more influences, minimal poking and prodding really, she left the house ready to steal from the man she had come to ‘surprise’. His work here done, Kael began walking down the sidewalk. Being assigned to an area with a college town made his job so much easier. So much so he might even be up for a promotion.

Lunch on the Contrary

Mark was running late. Mark hated being late. The closest parking spot he could find was three blocks away. His business ready appearance clashed with the lazy college traffic on the midday sidewalk. The pressed dress pants, striped blue shirt, and accompanying tie, not to mention his clean shaven face and recently cut light brown hair, where out of place among the rock band shirts and sandals. Those days of parties followed by 10 AM classes were for Mark a distant memory. Now, he spent most of his time in an office either staring at a computer screen or directing mindless people about as if they were animals. Almost there, Mark comforted himself with the fact that Ben was never anywhere on time. Mark could think of little reason to assume he would not still be the first one there.

Entering the Irish pub filled Mark with more college memories. Now in the light of day, things were different. There were no smokers standing outside puffing away, deep in pseudo-intellectual conversation. There was no large man in the entry way checking identification. The loud music, boisterous drinking, and overall rampant determination to have a good time were missing. Mark scanned the room. An attractive brunet in a tight shirt stood behind the bar stocking a cooler with beer. A few customers sat at the bar drinking, eating lunch, or just watching the TV that hung from the ceiling. Checking the high backed booths required that Mark make a circuit of the establishment.

Sure enough, Ben was nowhere to be found. Relieved, Mark sat at a table by the window. Within minutes the brunet from behind the bar appeared. She gave him a much used smile and menu. She said, “welcome to Maggie’s, can I start you off with something to drink?”

“I’m waiting for someone,” Mark replied, “but I’ll have a diet coke,”

“Sure thing,” she said and was gone. Looking over the menu, Mark realized he had never actually eaten there. Within seconds he had decided what he wanted. The walls were decorated with pictures of old pubs, images of Ireland’s beautiful landscapes, and tin signs that indicated life was better after the consumption of alcohol. The scene outside the window also failed to distract Mark for long. His drink came, and his thoughts began to wander. He had everything he once thought he wanted. The managerial position, the four bedroom house, and even playing golf on the weekends had all been part of the plan. That was the life he had gone to college for. So he could live more comfortably than his parents had. It had all made perfect sense. Somewhere along the line Mark had realized, he didn’t actually like golf.

“Marky Mark,” said a man walking up to the table. Though in his late twenties, Ben had the look of someone barely out of his teens. He was unmistakable in his faded jeans and drunken stick figure T-shirt. The mop of dark hair and baggy eyes gave him that just out of bed appearance. The nick name was one Ben had bestowed himself. Mark could not rap, nor did he think he looked anything like the celebrity.

“Benjamin,” was Mark’s greeting to his old roommate. Ben shuddered at the use of his full name.

“I’m sorry, I must have the wrong table,” Ben replied, remaining standing.

“Yes, I’m afraid the play dough and crayons are at one of the back tables.”

“Well, if this table requires a suit and tie, I’d rather sit there,” said Ben before taking the chair opposite his old friend. The pair gave one another an acknowledging smirk. The bartender returned. Before she could greet her new customer, he said, “Hey Katie, how has your beautiful self been?”

“Hey,” Katie hesitated, and then said, “I’m good.” After a moment of awkward silence she followed up with, “would you like something to drink?”

“Sure, I’ll have a Bud Light,” Ben replied. The flustered bartender seemed thankful to walk away from table.

“Did you…” Mark asked in a hushed voice.

“Yes, yes I did,” was Ben’s reply as he watched Katie’s figure move with her walk.

“You didn’t let me finish. Did you welcome that poor girl into the wide world of STDs?”

“Hey, I got checked out.”

“And…”

“I was clean.”

“How many women have you slept with since then?”

Ben attempted a mental calculation, but giving up replied, “Touché.”

Mark rolled his eyes, and then pretended to be looking over the menu. Ben glanced at his own menu. He started to say something but was interrupted by the arrival of his drink. Katie asked, “Are you guys ready to order?”

Both of them nodded. She turned towards Mark first. He ordered with, “I’ll have the turkey club.”

“The bacon double cheese burger,” Ben replied when it was his turn. After he had ordered and Katie had written it down she glanced up again. She maintained eye contact for an uncomfortable minute or two. Then, she simply walked away from the table. Ben said, “So, how’s the wife?”

“She’s good.”

“What’s new with insurance these days?”

“People pay us when they don’t die; they pay us when they don’t wreck their car, and when nothing is wrong with their house,” Mark replied, “Then when tragedy strikes we pay them. We’re like money angels who only come if you pay your premiums.”

“O, so that’s how it works,” said Ben sarcastically. “What is it you actually do again?”

“I’m a Technology Systems Consultant,” Mark said. The blank stare he usually received registered on Ben’s face, so he continued, “basically, I and the people that work for me translate the data that the tech people give us into things that the business people can understand.”

“Sounds exciting, how do you keep from killing yourself?”

“I have a wall where I hang copies of my paychecks. Speaking of, what is the going rate for a college drop out?”

“Enough to pay my rent and still have a good time.”

“How is the alcohol business?”

“I still serve drinks.”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“How so.”

“Would you consider bartending somewhere besides Hank’s?”

“The thought has crossed my mind. What’s this about,” Ben said. Before Mark could reply, an electronic jingle caught his attention. Ben pulled a sleek cell phone from his pocket. After checking the caller, his other hand produced a single finger that was meant to tell Mark he needed a minute. When Ben answered the call, his voice noticeably changed. The tone was lowered and everything he said had an added intensity. Despite his obvious faults, Mark thought, this is where Ben excelled. The man could sell anything, most notably himself. From the excited sounds coming out of the phone, the girl had bought it hook, line, and sinker. After some time, Ben hung up the phone and said, “Sorry about that. My mom says hi.”

“Your mother whom you’re meeting out for drinks tonight.”

“What can I say the woman likes to party.”

“Where were we?”

“Insurance.”

“After that.”

“Bartending.”

“Right, I have a business proposition for you.”

“English…”

“I want to start a bar.”

“Really, what kind of bar?”

“One that isn’t a college bar with the music so loud you can’t hear yourself think, and one that isn’t townie bar where you can take bets on whose married to their cousin. I want to start a bar where a family man can have a drink while watching sports or taking his kids to dinner.”

“And you want me to work for you.”

“I want you to be my partner.”

“You know there has always been an attraction between us, but I just don’t feel that way about you.”

“Ben, I’m serious.”

“Me too; the way you used to strut around the apartment in a towel trying to get me to notice.”

“At least I wore a towel.”

“What can I say, I like freedom.”

The verbal sparring was interrupted by the arrival of their lunch. The food was delivered by a middle aged man in an apron. He said nothing, sat the plates on the table, and then, he left. Each man began to eat his sandwich and accompanying fries. Mark enjoyed the taste of fresh turkey and crisp bacon on toasted bread. After a few minutes of biting and chewing, Mark said, “so, what do you think?”

“Don’t they need you to be the Technology Systems thingy and earn all that money?”

“Truthfully, I’d rather own my own business and be my own boss.”

“I don’t have anywhere near enough money to put up half of the startup costs for a bar,” Ben replied.

“I have some money saved up and I talked to a loan officer at my bank about the rest.”

“You’re serious about this.”

“I told you.”

“And Heather is going along with this plan?”

Mark took a moment to consider his next words before saying, “I’m leaving Heather.”

“You’re what? Why?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Mark, there’s something I need to tell you,” Ben said. Mark gave him a questioning look. After a moment, Ben continued, “Back in college, Heather and I slept together.”

Mark studied his lunch companion. Then, he said, “No, you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t. But, if I had you’d be pissed right now. Because… You love your wife.”

“Of course, I love her. That’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“Look, that’s the last thing I’m going to take advice from you on. I have had rental movies longer than you’ve had relationships.”

“True, but you’re the boring moral monogamist, and I’m the alcoholic man whore. I tell girls I’ll call them back, and you get to go antiquing. That is how it’s been since day one.”

“You’re the one who was telling me, at the altar I might add, that getting married was a mistake.”

“So you’re proving me right. You’re saying it was a mistake.”

“No, I…”

“Heather’s smart, funny, hot… I’m beginning to wish I had slept with her. Then again, I suppose she’ll be available soon,” Ben said. Mark slammed his fist on the table. The dull sound reverberated through the bar. This gained the attention of Katie the bartender. Ben waved her off and then proceeded to stare at his friend.

Mark’s shoulders fell as he began, “Every day I used to wake up with a sense of adventure. There were so many different paths the day could take. So many different places I could end up. Without even knowing it those paths started disappearing one by one. Until one day, I woke up and there was only one path to follow. I get up, go to work, come home, we have dinner, and then we just sit there and watch TV or some other monotonous activity because we’re simply trying to stave off repeating the whole cycle over again for as long as possible.”

“Are you having some kind of premature midlife crisis or something?”

“I guess. Heather’s not the problem. It’s just that those moments where we genuinely connect have gotten so few and far between because we’re both just trying to make it through the day.”

“So you’re leaving her, because you don’t genuinely connect anymore.”

“I thought you’d be happy. After all these years, I’m finally coming over to the dark side,” Mark said. Getting no reaction from his lunch companion, Mark paused for a moment. He finally replied, “Heather wants kids.”

“You’ve always talked about having kids.”

“I know, but now I see kids as more responsibility and more monotony.”

“And you want to go the other direction. That’s what this whole bar thing is about.”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“For years you’ve been preaching morality and trying to get me to change my life style. It’s almost like you thought some kind of switch was going to go off and I was going to realize that I don’t actually like drinking and sleeping with all kinds of women. You know, that I was trying to fill some kind of hole inside of myself, blah, blah, blah.”

“Maybe, I was merely trying to validate my own life choices.”

“Probably, but behind all the verbal shots there has always been a quiet envy between us.”

“Really, you envied me.”

“Not so much as in the idea that I wanted to be you, but that I recognized in you that which I could never be.”

“You could be a decent human being.”

“Not by your definition, I can’t.”

“So, because you can’t be a decent human being, I can’t be a douchebag.”

“You don’t want to be me, anymore than I want to be you.”

“No, I suppose I don’t.”

“Besides, I can’t start a bar with you.”

“Why not?”

“I’m joining the peace corps.”

“You’re what.”

“I’m going to Africa to help those less privileged.”

“Is there no one left for you to have sex with on this continent.”

“Depends, are you getting divorced?”

“I…I don’t know. What should I do?”

“The opposite of what I would do, talk to her. And if you hate your job, quit.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It never is. You used to have adventure and options and all that bull, because you used to create them.”

Mark took a moment to consider Ben’s last comment. His entire sandwich and half of his fries were gone. Ben’s plate was empty. Mark checked his watch. He said, “I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Go ahead; I got this,” Ben said, “So, what’s the verdict.”

“I’ll let you know. If you really are going to Africa, be careful. Penicillin doesn’t cure AIDS.”

“And starting a bar doesn’t cure a premature midlife crisis.”

Mark stood to leave, “See you later.”

“Later,” Ben said and nodded to his friend. Mark made his way through the still sparsely populated pub. It wasn’t until he got outside that he pulled out his cell phone. He hit a number on his speed dial and waited for the voice on the other end.

Mark said, “Hey babe…”

Back in the pub, Ben sat at the table. He stared off and let his mind wander. After a few minutes, Katie came to the table. She silently gathered the dishes. As she placed the bill on the table, they made eye contact. A genuine smile crept across her lips. Her face lit up like one of the beer signs over the bar. Ben couldn’t help but return the expression with a smirk of his own. When she walked away, he looked at the bill. Below the drinks, meals, and prices was something handwritten. It was a phone number and a simple message that said, call me this time.

Desolace

The students having just disappeared at the sound of the bell, Kallen Roddeck stared at his empty classroom. The room in front of him was thoroughly unremarkable with its lack of windows, white walls, and outdated computer inlaid desks. Kallen couldn’t decide whom he felt more remorse for, his students who had been labeled genetically imperfect or himself, a teacher of such students marooned with them on a colony dug into an out of the way planet. He let the odd mix of exhaustion and euphoria that the end of the day brought wash over him, and he continued to debate this topic. Though genetically primed, arguably his students were more pitiable with their vagrant lack of maturity, not to mention that stubborn sense of immorality, which always seemed to take him by surprise. Some of them were rather intelligent when they wanted to be; others were painstakingly dim-witted. The majority it seemed had simply lost the ability, and infinitely worse the desire, to think for themselves. To the most disturbing few he was a symbol of authority, and that sense of being controlled was what they had been fighting against for as long as they could remember.

On the other hand, Kallen’s students had infinitely more freedom than he did. The discipline problems, the apathetic sleepers, and even the worst of the lost causes had not yet become the people they were going to be. This alone gave them a chance to prove they could be something better. The problems that had cluttered their past were the mistakes of a child, and could be excused as such; more so if they would learn from them and take that pivotal step down the proverbial right path. Otherwise, one day they would be haunted by their mistakes. The past would loom over their every possible happiness, seeking to destroy its flicker before it ignited into a despicable bonfire of joy. All of their waking moments would be a search in every corner and crevice of life for forgiveness, as his were.

“Mr. Roddeck,” the voice that broke him from his thoughts belonged to one of these students. Claret Jettern was a shining example of what genetic priming had done for, or rather to, these adolescents. The long flowing blond hair, delicately innocent face, and slender yet shapely form had always reminded Kallen more of a doll than a person. She was a testament to the vanity of her parents’ perceived beauty. It was a beauty they had paid to ensure would not only live on in their daughter but even be amplified if possible. Despite being still tinged with a hint of creepiness, he had to admit her smile lit up the room as she walked towards the teacher’s desk. Not a book to be judged by its cover, Claret’s altered genetic code had come into question when she had nearly beaten another girl to death.

“Yes, Claret, what can I do for you,” Kallen said while remaining seated behind the desk.

“Can I see my grade,” Claret replied. With monotonous boredom, Kallen cleared off the touch screen built into his desk and began to tap at it. Seconds later the wall behind him came to life displaying a picture of Claret along with all the assignments she had completed. The overall grade was barely passing. The sight brought a pout of resignation to the young girl’s face.

“I need to bring my grades up if I’m going to get a position in the company,” Claret said.

“That is entirely up to you,” Kallen said sardonically.

“What can I do?”

“The final research project we began talking about today, you could choose to do the extra credit option of focusing on an ancient Earth culture such as the Romans or one of the early Chinese dynasties.”

“What grade will that bring me up to,” she asked, a little displeasure in her voice. Kallen paused for a second to consider his dislike of performing students’ mathematical calculations for them, but in the end resolved to make an exception. He tapped the touch screen a few more times.

“That will give you almost eight percentage points.”

“But that’s not even a higher letter grade.”

“I’m afraid that’s the position you’ve put yourself in. Perhaps if you had been more concerned with your grades all semester, a higher letter grade would still be in reach,” Kallen said. That was because before she thought her status guaranteed her a higher profile job. Now that she knew better, she was trying to do some damage control. Mr. Roddeck’s class was her worst grade. Claret took a moment to consider what she was about to do. Mr. Roddeck was attractive for a teacher, and when on a rare occasion his guarded expression broke he had those sad puppy dog eyes. Besides he was only ten, maybe twelve years older than her. Having decided, she leaned forward placing her elbows on his desk and giving him an ample view down the front of her low cut shirt.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything we can do,” she said with eager eyes and a softer tone. Before he could stop himself, Kallen glanced down at the girl’s cleavage. After a split second that he thought was pardonable but left Claret wondering if she was going to have to make good on her bluff, Kallen’s eyes fell to the computer screen. The thoughts that swam in Kallen’s head ranged between how to best handle this situation without being fired to wondering whether the girl’s breast size was natural or a product of her genetic priming. When his eyes met Claret’s gaze, he had regained his composure.

“If you want a better grade, you will have to retake this class next semester,” Kallen replied. Standing up straight once again, Claret was noticeably relieved. Then, her thoughts went to a darker place. Failure she did not deal well with. Rejection, even that of her ill conceived sexual advances, was unfathomably infuriating. In the past year she had learned to hide, if not control, some of her stronger emotions. What would have caused her to lash out physically or simply brought tears of anger to her eyes, now only registered on her face as a look of disappointment tinged with a hint of contempt. Kallen’s rough and indifferent teacher persona had been developed over the years to keep him from becoming too emotionally involved in the successes and failures of his students; he decided to let it crack a little. Clichéd as it was, he said in a fatherly tone, “and when you show me the effort that I know you are capable of, you will reach your true potential.”

“I guess…,” Claret said. She had been debating on going over Mr. Roddeck’s head and even possibly accusing him of sexual harassment. The words had caught her off guard. She now felt some entirely different sensations. Unsure how to process the mixed emotions welling up inside her, she decided it was time to leave. She ended the conversation with, “I guess I’ll see you next semester then.”

As she walked out of the classroom, Kallen wondered how close he had come to either being fired or having one of his students attempt to beat him to death. Either way, he concluded he was better off than he would have been if that conversation had taken a different turn. The screen on his computer returned to the default black background with the rotating grey and white NG logo. Staring at the NewGen company symbol, he couldn’t help but think it was somehow responsible for his current situation.


Kallen first remembered staring at the symbol when he and Rane, his wife, were in the lobby at the NewGen offices. The furniture was stylish; in fact everything there was clean and polished. There was the stinging smell of sanitizer in the air. The light green summer dress that his wife had on made her look even more beautiful. Her brown hair had been cut to just above her shoulders and was streaked with a desert tan color. Those pale blue eyes of hers looked almost turquoise in the florescent light and were barely concealing an almost childlike eager anticipation. A clean-cut man in a black suit approached them, introduced himself as Jacen Werstern Senior Sales Rep., and asked them to follow him.

“So, you are interested in our Prime Genetics program,” Mr. Werstern said when they entered his office. The small space was rather plain with chairs similar to the ones in the lobby, a shiny unremarkable desk, and a window that looked onto the building across the street. The man himself had slick black hair and impeccably groomed features. The salesman and the entire environment had been created no doubt to assure the customers that the company ran like they appeared; clean, efficient, and unintentionally a bit unsettling.

“Yes we are,” Rane responded as they took their seats opposite the man.

“As a NewGen employee, Mrs. Roddeck, I’m sure you are familiar with the program.”


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