Tuesday, June 30, 2015

He Left Me! A Jurassic Park Memory

Tom and I saw Jurassic World this past weekend and it brought up a fun memory of what happened twenty-two years ago when we saw the first Jurassic Park in theaters.  It also made us feel old.  I was nine and Tom was seven at the time.  These days, the internet would probably crucify our parents for letting us see such a movie in theaters at that age, but back then it wasn't a big deal.  We also used to walk over a mile to and from school, walk to the woods to play capture the flag, the pool to swim and go down the water slides, the park and Dairy Queen.  Nowadays, if what I read on news sites is true, just playing in the yard by ourselves at that age could lead to a child-neglect arrest it seems.  Oh, and we also used to draw pictures of guns at school without being expelled.  Anyhow . . . that summer, shortly after its release into theaters, my parents took us to see Jurassic Park, and, in true kid fashion, Tom and I wanted to go sit in the front row (my neck just hurts thinking about all the movies we saw from that row).  Our parents, being the wiser beings, went into the middle somewhere.

And then the movie started . . .

The beginning was intense and a bit scary, but we did okay with it given how short the scene was.  Afterward, things calmed down and we were introduced to the characters and the park and DINOSAURS!  Never before had we seen real dinosaurs on screen.  Our eyes were wide, our jaws hanging to the floor, the popcorn and soda going untouched.  It was amazing!  And, honestly, what kid wouldn't be awed by the sight of lovable Veggi-saurs?  I mean, we were looking at Littlefoot, a childhood hero, all grown up and happily eating leaves.  

"We have a t-rex!"

Uh-oh . . .

We didn't have to be dinosaur experts to understand what a t-rex was.  Between the Land Before Time and Dino Riders, we both were very familiar with the horrific creature. 

And . . . the power is now out. 

Not good.  Even worse, the cars stopped by the goat, which, we all knew, had been there to lure the t-rex to the fence.  Crap! Crap! Crap! -- big time swear for a nine year old and my mind said it three times!   

I don't think I need to do a play by play of the t-rex scene since I'm pretty sure we have all seen it, and if there are those of you who haven't, well, stop reading this and go watch the movie.  While you watch it, imagine being nine years old, in the front row, in a theater that has just installed surround sound.  And then, imagine being abandoned while watching it.  That's right, like the kids in the car, I was totally abandoned during that scene, and while my brother was two years younger than me and couldn't protect me from the dinosaurs, having him there was better than being alone.  Making it worse, I didn't even know he was gone until I turned to look at him for a sense of comfort and saw an empty seat.

So, alone, and in the front row, I had to finish the t-rex scene, and, eventually the raptor scenes, which were even scarier.  With the t-rex, at least you could hold still or hide somewhere low given the disadvantage its height would bring; with the raptors, they could get you anywhere, even under the bed.  Following the movie, I would actually keep an eye out for good raptor-proof spots.  The attic was one, which is why I always kept a folding chair in the closet so that I could quickly go up through the ceiling cutout, the vents at school another -- as long as the Blob wasn't in there (always had to take that into consideration).  

Jurassic World, while entertaining, did not produce any terror like the first movie did.  In fact, none of the ones that followed have, nor has any other movie that I have seen in theaters since.  At home, yeah, I've been scared hundreds of times, but Jurassic Park was the only theater experience that scared me to a point of nearly wetting myself because I didn't dare get up to use the bathroom.  Some might think this is horrible and grow angry with my parents, but they shouldn't, because I look upon that experience with fondness.  Seeing Jurassic Park in the theater was the greatest movie going experience I have ever had, one that I wish I could relive over and over again.  Oh, and for those of you who are wondering where my brother went, after searching the dark theater in a panic, he eventually found my parents and sat with them, his terrified voice constantly asking if Lex and Tim were going to get eaten.    

Monday, June 29, 2015

Finished the First Draft of SANTA TOOK THEM, Now I Begin a LINGER Episode

It's funny how things work out.  Earlier this year, back around mid March, I was bogged down within a new novel I had started a month earlier, one that was tentatively titled The Missing Key, which I was envisioning to be a fairly long, multi-character murder mystery / suspense tale.  For some reason, despite knowing who the killer was and how they committed the horrific crime, nothing was working within the novel, and I kept finding myself re-reading the first 250 pages.  I don't know what was wrong, but after about two weeks of this, I decided to set the book aside and distract myself with novelizing a screenplay I had written back in 2002.  It was titled "Santa Took Them", and pretty much was a generic teen slasher flick, one that some in Hollywood had shown interest in, but never ended up buying.  For years, I'd been thinking about that screenplay, and how it would work really well as a short novel.  One day . . . I kept telling myself.  Then in mid March, needing a distraction from The Missing Key, I finally decided to do it, my goal being to have a first draft completed by June so that I could have it re-read and to my editors in September, cover designed and completed by October, interior layout and proofed by early November, and the hardback in stores and the ebook online by mid November.  An ambitious goal, but one that I was certain I could achieve given that it was going to be a short novel.  Plus, the story was already laid out.

After fifteen years of writing, I should know better than to assume such things.

The only similarity between the novel version of Santa Took Them and the original screenplay is the title.  In fact, even though I pulled out the old screenplay from a box in my parents garage, I never actually opened it while writing.  This happened because I felt the novel version would need to be expanded upon a bit and thus, began with a prologue that took place ten years before the events of the  rest of the book.  Thirty pages later, all in one day, I realized I had a whole new story on my hands, one that would be much better than the original screenplay ever was.  I also had no idea who the killer was.  This was okay though because the story was moving forward.  I wrote the first fifty pages in three days, and then fell into a daily routing that made it seem as if I would have the novel finished a month earlier than anticipated.

And then an unexpected email arrived on April first . . . and it wasn't an April Fools thing.

Braun Haus Media, a new publisher that I'm familiar with and respect, was releasing a new series of horror titles, ones that would feature recurring characters within episode-like stand alone novels.  Each novel would be written by a different author and published under the pen name of Edward Fallon, The series itself was titled Linger.  The first five novels had already been written by various bestselling authors, all of which would be released that summer, and more would follow in January of 2016 (roughly).  Would I be interested in writing one of those second batch titles?

Interested?  Hell yeah!  How could I not be?  Here was a publisher asking me if I wanted to write a novel within a series that was being penned by other bestselling authors (two of whom I've been reading for years), a series that had already earned pre-publication praise from Tess Gerritsen. It was moments like this that I had been dreaming about ever since I had started writing back in high school.

There was one little catch.  My novel episode for the Linger series needed to be written and ready to go by October.  Oh . . !  Here I was, having just started another novel that was going strong, agreeing to write a novel within a storyline of a series that I was unfamiliar with using characters that I hadn't created.  Still . . . hell yeah!  I'm in!

A month later, I was about halfway finished with Santa Took Them, my initial thoughts on it being a short 50,000 word novel no longer accurate.  I also was starting to realize I had a fairly complicated setup going, one that still had an unknown killer operating for an unknown reason.  Crap!  Still, I plugged along, writing every morning, doing 1500 words a day before going to the job thingy that I was working so my brother and I could buy the house that we liked, the initial paperwork having been signed the first week of April (talk about having quite a few things going on!).  And then Santa Took Them hit a slight snag in mid May.

Unsure what the problem was, but knowing I was not going to set the book aside, not when it had been going so well and would then plague me as I wrote the Linger episode (an idea had been forming on that, one based on novel I had written earlier in my career but never quite finished), I took a break for three days and then re-read everything I had written.

Tada!  I figured it out.  I knew exactly who the killer was, everything had been pointing toward that person without me knowing it, and knew the motivation, again, something I had unknowingly hinted at throughout the first half (funny how the mind does that).  So, writing, writing, writing, I continued toward an unknown conclusion, my fingers punching away at the keys, mind knowing everything was going to wrap itself up, somehow, and watched as the pages continued to pile up, the ending not quite arriving until yesterday.  Everything just came together this weekend.  And that's what I love about writing.  There is a moment where everything begins to click into place and without warning you have an conclusion that you never would have even have considered when first starting out, one that works perfectly.

So, with Santa Took Them completed, I now need to write my Linger episode, one that I'm going to begin next week after I move into the new house and my new office, and then, once that is finished (I'm thinking by late August), I'm going to re-read Santa Took Them, make sure everything does fit together as a whole, re-work some earlier scenes, cut out whatever is unnecessary, and send it to my editor.  Following that, I will then do the re-read on my Linger episode, re-work whatever is necessary with that, and then, send that off to the publisher (no need to format or layout anything on that one -- sweet!).  Best of all, I now know exactly what was wrong with The Missing Key.  It was sitting right in front of me the entire time, I just needed to take a step back and focus on other things before realizing it was there.     

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons or The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker?

Had a box waiting for me today as I got ready for that job thingy I've been working so that I can buy a house with my brother (we sign the final papers a week from today!), and inside were these two books -- and a new tea cup that I've been excited about!!  Now the question is, which one do I read during this three day weekend?  Decisions decisions?  In the past, I didn't have to make such choices since every weekend was a seven day weekend, but now that I'm doing that job thingy to supplement my writing income I'm constantly being faced with such moments.  Speaking of which, I better head out the door so I'm not late.  That's another thing I never had to worry about when writing for a living.  Start and stop times.  Seems they actually want you there if they are going to pay you.  Craziness! :)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Blind Eye Now Available in Ebook and Hardcover

The day has finally arrived.  Blind Eye is now available in both print (hardback) and eBook.  With the hardback, it is available wherever physical books are sold (in theory since it all depends on if the individual bookstores decide to stock it), with the eBook, it is currently exclusive with Amazon because, let's face it, the Kindle is the dominant player in the English language eBook market right now and it simply makes good business sense to capitalize on all the marketing perks Amazon provides to authors when it comes to being exclusive with them.  That exclusivity will change once I reach a deal with the foreign publishers that are interested in making this title available in the various foreign language markets (at that point it make more business sense to make the title nonexclusive with Amazon -- my title Jimmy, and its bestseller status in the overseas foreign language markets being a perfect example of this).  Such releases will be a while in coming, however, since it takes about a year for the translation and book formatting to be completed.  I also haven't signed any deals yet.

Enough of that marketing stuff though and back to the fun announcement that Blind Eye is now available!  Yay!!  Hope you all like it.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Preview the First Chapter of BLIND EYE

October, 24, 2013

Alan Miller was sitting on the toilet in the tiny basement bathroom, a hand pressed into his right side, eyes closed, when he heard the familiar musical tune start to echo from his bedroom.
                Oh god, he thought while yawning. Already?
                The music stopped thirty seconds later.
                Alan slowly stood up, checked the toilet for blood, saw nothing unusual, cleaned himself off, flushed, and headed back to his bedroom to disable his alarm before it could start playing again. Once that was done, he went upstairs to the kitchen to get the coffee started and then went back downstairs to shower while it brewed, a debate on whether or not to shave that morning ending without the razor being unsheathed.
                The hot spray felt good on his body, and had it not been for the waiting coffee that he desperately craved, he would have stood under it for twenty minutes, his skin turning bright red as the heated water pounded his tired flesh. Instead, he began the necessary cleansing routine, his hand cutting the spray off at the six-minute mark.
                His mother was sitting at the kitchen table when he returned a few minutes later, a large pink ARMY MOM cup before her.
                “Good morning,” she said, a yawn punctuating her statement.
                “Morning,” he said while pouring a few ounces of half-and-half into his ALAN cup. From there, he headed to the coffee pot.
                “Rough night?” she asked.
                “What makes you think that?” He eased the coffee from the carafe into his cup so he wouldn’t splash the cream everywhere and watched as the two liquids swirled together.
                “Heard the toilet flushing several times.”
                “Oh.” He grabbed a spoon, stirred the mixture, and then took a seat at the table across from her. “Sorry.”      
                “Was it bad?” she asked.
                “What can I say? Same shit, different day.”
                “No, that isn’t right.”
                “What isn’t right?” He sipped the coffee and winced as it scalded his tongue, the creamer having done little to cool it down.
                “Different shit, different day would be more accurate.”
                He smiled. “You’re right.” He blew on the coffee and then added, “It woke me up at three, and then…well, you know how it is.” For two hours he had gone back and forth, the diarrhea seeming to always have one last hurrah every time he thought he was finished and tried to crawl back into bed, the time left for sleeping quickly disappearing as five o’clock loomed closer and closer.
                “Have you talked to the doctor about—” she started.
                “Mom, not now.”
                “It just seems like it’s happening more and—”
                “MOM! PLEASE!” he snapped, and then, more calmly, “I really don’t want to get into this again right now.”
                “Okay. Just promise me you won’t wait too long if it really starts to become a problem.”
                “You know I won’t let that happen,” Alan said. “And remember, the diarrhea is just a result of the surgery and not a sign of coming out of remission, and if I do come out of remission again, I’ll know what’s going on this time around and nip it in the butt before it gets really bad.” Memories of the sudden back pain that had begun a little over a year ago filled his head. At first, he had just thought the pain was a result of the strenuous training he had gone through before heading to Afghanistan, and then continued due to the living conditions they faced once they were finally there. But then the pain had shifted, and the thick brown urine had appeared. He stopped the memories and added, “Please, try not to worry so much, okay?”
                “Try not to worry?” she said. “I’m a mother. That’s like telling a fish not to spend so much time in the water.”
                Alan sighed.
                “So, what do you want for breakfast? I could make you some eggs, or maybe French toast, or we could even go out somewhere since it’s still early, maybe Butterfield’s or Seven Dwarfs or—”
                His stomach clenched. “I really can’t think of food right now.”
                “You sure?”
                “How about some cinnamon toast or just a waffle or two?”
                “Mom, stop!”
                “But you don’t want to go to class hungry, do you?”
                “And you probably should buffer that coffee with something. I talked to some friends that have IBS, and they said drinking coffee—”
                “I don’t have IBS!” he snapped.
                “Just stop, okay,” he said. “It’s bad enough I’ve been up since three running back and forth to the bathroom. I don’t need you pestering me too.” With that he stood up, coffee in hand, and headed down into his bedroom.

I’M SORRY, his mother texted a few minutes later. And then, when he didn’t answer right away, I KNOW IT’S NOT IBS AND SHOULD STOP COMPARING THE TWO.
                Alan shook his head, replied with an IT’S OKAY, and then set the phone down so he could check his email before going to his Memoirs project, where he would attempt to add a few pages before leaving for class at seven thirty.
                Inbox (3)
                He clicked on the (3) and waited for everything to load.
                Remove ten pounds from your colon!
                (Um, just did.)
                MESSAGE MARKED AS SPAM
                Check out my webcam!
                (And all the viruses you can send me.)
                MESSAGE MARKED AS SPAM
                Long time, no talk
                (More like long time, NEVER talk…)
                His finger hesitated on the spam button as his eyes realized there was a name next to the email.
                Stacy Collins.
                Holy shit!
                Could it really be Stacy, or is it just a coincidence?
                The possibility of it being a coincidence was almost nonexistent, given that a name only appeared with the email if he had physically added it to his contacts at some point.
                He clicked the email.
                Hey Alan, thanks for letting me know you were back home, you jerk. Okay, just kidding. Seriously though, when did you get back and why so early? You weren’t shot again, were you? I looked all over your blog to see if you’d written about it, but you never did. What’s the deal? Too traumatic? Talk about cliché. Anyway, I’d love to hear from you, so give me a call or drop me an email. Best, Stacy.
                A phone number followed along with a PS that read: Accept my friend request already so I can start FB stalking you!!!
                Alan stared at the message for a long time, an image of him and Stacy in bed together refusing to leave his head. Nothing bad had happened between them, the understanding that it was going to be a short-lived affair accepted from the start, but that didn’t make his decision on what to do next any easier. In a way, it probably made it harder because there was nothing to base the next step on. If things had ended badly, he could just ignore her. If they had ended really well and he craved more, he could jump all over it. Instead, things had just been, well…two adults seeing each other who had no ability to attach any strings to the situation whatsoever.
                You don’t have to reply right away, he finally told himself. That’s the beauty of email.
                Unfortunately, that meant he would spend the next five hours thinking about it, his mind unable to focus on anything but the time the two had shared together.

Stacy Collins read through the final paragraph of her article on a local family in Wheaton that was trying to keep their tree house, one that the father and two sons had built in their backyard without a city permit and thereby in violation of several building codes, and groaned at how stale the writing was, her mind wishing she could put words on paper (the screen) that would entice the readers into action. She wanted them to throw down the pages (slam shut the laptop or push away from the desk) with a sense of anger, their voices ready to symbolically eviscerate all those who would attempt to pull down the wooden structure. It wouldn’t happen, however. Even if she had been allowed to keep the section that linked the police and city officials with the members of Hitler’s Nazi party, the words “we’re just following orders” providing the necessary connection, she knew most would be indifferent. People just wouldn’t care. Hell, she didn’t care. It wasn’t her yard, or her family, or her tree house, and the readers would feel the same way.
                But it is what they want you to write, the bill-conscious portion of her mind said, what they’re paying you to write.
                Of course she had suggested another direction for the story, one which could have spawned a regular column on how the father-son activities of yesteryear were slowly dying out, but the editor had said no and just wanted the bare bones of what was unfolding. The problem with this, the one that she was conscious of throughout the writing process, was that anyone could have reported and written about it. Her name wouldn’t be important. Even a high school English teacher couldn’t infuse a sense of style or importance into the sentences.
                Which is why people so often turn to the talking head news programs, the frustrated side said. They crave personality over substance.
                And you crave food and a roof over your head, so finish the damn read-through, take out any last bit of fluff you know they will make you take out anyway, and send it along.
                 Stacy nodded, as if the bill-conscious part of her brain needed a visual acknowledgment, and finished it. Once that was complete, she headed into her kitchen to pour another cup of coffee and then went back to her office / dining room to make sure the email didn’t bounce back.
                Inbox (0)
                She refreshed it to see if anything changed, but nothing new had come through. From there she opened a separate project file, one which she had been working freelance on for a while now but still didn’t have enough information to fully write out, and started to read through a few things while trying to come up with another angle to investigate.
                Her phone buzzed.
                Stacy looked down at the number illuminated on the screen, her eyes expecting to see the familiar digits of her editor’s cell phone. No recognition followed. It was local though, so she picked it up.
                “Stacy?” a voice asked.
                “Yes?” she said.
                “Long time, no talk.”
                “What…” she started, and then it clicked. “Alan? Alan Miller?”
                “Yep,” Alan said. “I just got your email.”
                “Wow,” Stacy said. Silently she added, I didn’t think you’d actually get in touch. Out loud, “That was fast.”
                “Yeah…so, what’s up?”
                “Nothing really, just working on an article.”
                “Ah, still writing for the Wheaton Sun?”
                “Yes and no. I’m a stringer now.”
                “A what?”
                Stacy laughed. “A stringer. It’s just another way of saying freelancer, only all the different editors will send me story topics and events they want me to cover, how many words they want it to be, and what they will pay if I complete it.”
                “Oh, you get to pick and choose,” Alan said. “Sweet deal.”
                “Yeah.” If they’d send me enough topics where I could afford to let some go, that is.
                “No more being forced to go interview a boring soldier on leave from Iraq whose only claim to local fame was that he had no idea what he wanted to do with life and joined the army, right?”
                “Boring is hardly the word I’d use…well…for the interview part of our time together at least.” She couldn’t help but let out a chuckle at this.
                “Nice,” Alan said, his own laugh echoing. “Time has obviously eroded away your memory, so I think a refresher is needed.”
                “Oh, is that so? Well then, how does drinks early this evening sound, possibly followed by dinner if I don’t find you too boring?”
                “Sounds good to me,” Alan said.
                Silence settled.
                “Um, did you have a specific place in mind?”
                “How about our old hookup place, say five o’clock?” Stacy suggested.
                “Alfie’s?” Alan said. “My god, is that place still there?”
                “Um, yeah. How long have you been home?” She had a pretty good idea, given the sudden consistency of his blog updates that had begun in July, but couldn’t picture him being in town all this time and not knowing that Alfie’s was still around.
                “Since May.”
                “May! And you mean to tell me you haven’t been to Alfie’s at all—it’s like five minutes from your house.”
                “True, but believe it or not I haven’t really had a need to go over to that part of Roosevelt since I’ve been back, so…”
                Stacy waited, but nothing else followed. Whatever excitement had started to build between the two, excitement that could probably have allowed them to talk for hours if allowed to continue, faded, and with it their call came to an end.
                With the silence came concern that their time together now wouldn’t be the same as it had been before, that “before” being something Stacy had pretty much been missing since the two had gone their separate ways in early 2008.
                But isn’t that always the case? she asked herself. Doesn’t the past always seem better than it really was and make you wish you could keep reliving it rather than moving forward? Hell, next year you may be looking back at this moment with nostalgia and wishing you could relive it and everything that follows for the next few weeks.
                Next year.
                Whenever she contemplated the following year, she always saw herself as having finally broken into the big leagues with her writing, her name in high demand with editors, given its potential to sell papers.
                For eight years she had been doing this, the sought-after and hoped-for breakthrough never occurring.
                This time it will be different, though, she told herself. This time you’ve gotten hold of a real story that needs telling.
                Such thoughts weren’t uncommon whenever she found herself working a story outside of the suggested (demanded) topics that were sent to her, but this time it felt different. This time it felt real.
                And you have no idea how to proceed with it.
                Her phone buzzed.
                She looked at the number, and though it was one she recognized, she didn’t answer the phone. You’ll get your money when I get some money.
                Speaking of which…
                She refreshed her email screen to see if the editor at the paper had replied. If he had, and if he liked what he saw, then a check would be on its way. If not, well…he would like it eventually once all his suggestions were added, following which she would get paid, eventually. She just hoped it was sooner rather than later.
                A new email was waiting, but it was just letting her know that Alan had accepted her friend request on Facebook.

Alan closed the phone and thought about the consequences of his agreement to meet Stacy, his mind unsure how to feel about the situation. Fear was present, though it wasn’t the typical fear one probably felt in the hours leading up to a date-like engagement with a girl. Instead, his was based on the concern that he would hurt her, his lack of interest in any type of romantic entanglements putting a quick end to any hope she might have of going beyond the casual-sex-focused state of the relationship they’d had back in 2008. This wasn’t to say he wouldn’t be interested in revisiting some of the activities the two had done back then, just that he wouldn’t want it to lead to anything serious.
                Which it will, he told himself. Even if she says it won’t.
                This was something he had learned about women yet, thankfully, had never had the displeasure of experiencing firsthand. Instead, all his knowledge came from fellow soldiers who had met girls that wanted nothing more than to be “friends with benefits” while the soldier was stateside, and then wives once the deployment orders arrived.
                But maybe Stacy won’t be like that. Maybe she really does just want to meet for old times’ sake and have a little fun in bed from time to time as a distraction from the seriousness of life.
                Stacy was different from most of the women he had met during his lifetime. She was also really tough and determined, her eyes often set on a goal that she would do anything to achieve. Back then, it had been becoming a world-renowned journalist, one who was known to take on any assignment no matter the risks involved. She also seemed the type that would push others out of the way in order to achieve this recognition, which had once caused him to make a verbal comparison between her and Gale Weathers from the Scream movies. It had been spoken as a joke, one of those lighthearted after-sex comments, but had sparked a pretty serious discussion on how women in her field had to be just like Gale Weathers—bitchy and ruthless—to get the respect they deserved and the success they desired.
                Well, Alan had said in reply, just stay away from reporting on teen slasher situations and you should do okay. Again, the statement had been meant as a joke, something to ease them away from the serious conversation that was brewing, but she managed to weave it into the point she was making and told him she would love to get involved in a situation like that. The story I could write afterward would be priceless, she said. And if I get cut at some point during the bloody climax of events, even better, because I could have photos of me taken while in the hospital recovering, my fingers dancing away on a laptop that is sitting next to my tray of disgusting hospital food.
                The comment had sparked a memory of beating an insurgent to death with the butt of his rifle while going house to house in a suburb of Baghdad. It was a disturbing memory, though not one that he regretted because it had been a necessary moment. He also wasn’t haunted by it, as some would be, though he did occasionally have nightmares about the situation—anyone who had watched an enemy come at them with the barrel of an AK-47 pointed at their chest would have nightmares from time to time.
                Shit, that was seven years ago next month, he realized. Even more amazing was that it had been twelve years since he had made the decision to join the military, the thought process having begun shortly after watching the towers fall on September 11.
                He stared at the mental calendar for nearly ten minutes, his inner eye slowly turning the pages until he reached the present day. Once there, he turned on the TV and went to AMC, his mind reminding him that horror movies would be playing every hour until Halloween—his first Halloween at home since 2001.
                Still have to go get all the necessary supplies for your display.
                Halloween was the following Thursday. On Saturday he planned on setting up a horrifying display at the front door, one that was sure to scare away all but the bravest of the brave when it came to the trick-or-treaters that showed up. It was a moment he had been looking forward to since coming home. Actually the entire holiday season—which in his eyes went from Halloween to New Year’s Day—was something he had been looking forward to and excited about since realizing he would be home for it all.
                Of course his birthday, which had been in September, had been like a prequel to the holiday season. His mother, equally excited that he would be home, had gone all out in celebrating. A month later, he still couldn’t believe how many gifts she had given him, or the amount of work that had gone into decorating the upstairs of the house with streamers and balloons—all while he was at class.
                On screen, the commercials that had been playing ever since he turned the channel to AMC finally ended, and he watched as a girl screamed while being chased by the white-masked Michael Myers. Ten years earlier, he would have known within seconds which of the sequels the scene was a part of, but now he was unsure. Four, Five, or Curse was the best he could do, though he eliminated Curse fairly quickly since that was one he had watched frequently during his high school days, his favorites back then being the original Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. All the others had been lacking, in his opinion, though were still fun to watch as the Halloween season settled in.

                Amanda didn’t even think about the words, or how they sounded, as she faked the moment of orgasm, the routine so commonplace that she could probably do it in her sleep if needed—wonder if that kink is out there.
                Beneath her, the man grunted, his sweaty body straining against the bed as a very real orgasm erupted from within, her insides feeling the sudden warmth as semen filled the tip of the condom.
                “YES! GIVE IT TO ME!” she cried.
                “Uh! Uh! Uh!” was his only reply, followed by a quick, “Okay, okay, STOP!” His hands going up to grab her, stopping her steady, well-practiced thrusts. “PLEASE!”
                Amanda giggled while complying, a silent sigh of relief flowing throughout her body as she rolled off and snuggled up against him in the bed, a hand settling upon his chest. She then trailed the hand down to his groin, fingers lightly touching the thumping penis, another giggle echoing. “Looks like someone is all worn out,” she said.
                “Yes,” he sighed, voice strained. “Completely.”
                Good, because I got homework to do, her mind said, dreading the math problems that awaited her on the text next week.  
                “Thought I was going to explode so many times,” he added.
                Amanda smiled. “I think that’s the longest I’ve ever kept you going.” Though indifferent to the man, she felt pride at what she had achieved, her skill with her own body having kept him on the edge for a full forty minutes. “Must’ve felt good to finally release.”
                “Good doesn’t even begin to describe it,” he said. “You completely drained me.”
                “Did I?” she asked, a playful ring in her voice. “Let’s see.” Before he knew it, she had his penis in her hand, fingers squeezing to see if anything else spurted into the condom.
                “Gahhhh!” he cried, the organ still overly sensitive from the orgasm.
                She laughed and then gently pulled the condom free, the weight it now carried a testament to just how much semen had built up and burst free from within him.
                Glad he doesn’t want me to swallow it.
                Some of her clients did, an odd sense of pleasure arriving within them from seeing her squeezing all the fluid from the condom into her mouth, almost as if it were the last remnants from one of those freeze pop things. Swallowing semen itself wasn’t something that got to her, her mouth having become accustomed to the varying tastes many years ago, but taking it from a condom…that was just gross.
                “Was it good for you?” he asked after a few minutes, body still sprawled on the bed.
                “Fantastic,” she lied. “I don’t know what it is, but your penis has this ability to hit the magic button over and over again.”
                He grinned.
                “Wish every man was like you,” she added.
                “Hmm, maybe I should get a discount,” he teased.
                “I would if I could, but you know I’m not in charge of that.” She sighed. “And before you bring it up, you know I’m not allowed to see anyone outside of the service.”
                “I know, I know. We are, but alas, two lovers trapped within a system that we cannot escape from.” He smiled. “So tragic.”
                She smiled back. “So romantic.”
                He kissed her.
                What a tool, she thought. No wonder his wife isn’t giving it to him.

Wary about the possible consequences of having food within his damaged digestive track, Alan forced his body to endure his growing hunger as the afternoon hours ticked by, his mind knowing that such discomfort now was better than the agony and embarrassment that could follow later.
                Especially if she wants to go back to her place afterward…
                A tingle of excitement appeared within his groin at the thought, one that he normally would have appeased with a trip into his bedroom, a special folder on his laptop containing dozens upon dozens of videos that would help bring about the desired conclusion. This time, however, he left the tingle alone, past experience having taught him that while enjoyable, the release he would bring about now would be nothing compared to the one he would experience later, one that would be even more pleasurable if he denied himself until then.
                So now what?
                No answer followed, at least not one that was appealing, so he ended up staying by the TV in the family room, eyes watching, but not really processing, an entry in the Hellraiser series.
                You should be studying, he told himself, the movie breaking for some commercials. That history test is going to kick your butt if you don’t.
                As truthful as the inner words were, they did little to inspire him; therefore he spent most of the afternoon watching horror movies on AMC, the only break in that arriving when he dozed off for forty-five minutes.
                A female scream from the movie pulled him back, the cry momentarily bringing about a visual of a bloodied mother discovering her child among the torn bodies of a crowded market car-bomb blast. It wasn’t a flashback, just a memory, one that he would have preferred to stay buried within his mind.
                A yawn followed, the unexpected nap having alerted him to how exhausted he actually was after this morning’s gastrological disturbances.
                You should go catch another hour, he told himself. Get all rested for tonight.
                Instead, he headed into the kitchen to make some tea, the leaves he decided upon being from his Glenburn Estate tin, which, in his opinion, was one of the finest first-flush Darjeeling teas one could find.
                Once ready, he continued to watch TV, but this time with his laptop on the couch alongside him, a half-assed attempt at adding some pages to his memoir project taking place.

Deciding what to wear became quite the ordeal as the time of the get-together with Alan neared, the question of what exactly would unfold and what direction she wanted the evening to take getting the better of Stacy.
                Do you want sex?
                The question was important because if she wanted it, she would get it. Of this she was certain. Equally certain, she wanted sex, but did she really want it with him tonight?
                Yes, but…
                Nothing followed, and it was because of this that she was having such difficulty, the idea that she might simply want sex for the sake of sex hard for her to accept.
                You do want to spend time with Alan too… a part of her mind countered. After all, if she simply wanted sex and had no qualms about going out to get it, she could have been doing that daily. With Alan, however, it was something more. At least it had been back in 2008.
                Five years.
                Not only had a lot of time passed since they last saw each other, but a lot had happened during that time, especially with him. And if her theory on his having been discharged from the military was correct, something that she hadn’t been able to confirm through his blog posts or Facebook statuses, then something really big and monumental had happened, because he had planned on being a career soldier. The question was, what had it been? And had it changed him to the point where she wouldn’t like spending time with the person he had become?
                You won’t know until you see him, so why worry about it?
                The thought did little to ease her concern.
                And she still didn’t know what to wear.
Amanda arrived home just as her roommate Emily was descending the stairs, a look of aggravation plastered across her face.
                “You’re late!” Emily snapped.
                “So? I had to stop by the store to get more coffee creamer.”
                “And Dick Blick?” She glared. “I didn’t know more art supplies were on the list too.”
                “I just needed a new sketch pad and some pencils. It took five minutes, tops.” Well, more like fifteen, but who gives a fuck?
                Emily sighed while shaking her head and then sat down to pull her boots on, skirt rising to reveal garters attached to her stockings, something Amanda hadn’t noticed she was wearing until that moment.
                “Do you have a scene tonight?” Amanda asked.
                “No, a study date, and now I’m probably going to be late since you had the car.”
                “A study date?” Amanda questioned.
                “Yes, a study date!” She stood up and held out her hand. “Keys, please!”
                Amanda handed them over, tongue held despite her desire to call bullshit on the study date. Emily had a scene. It was obvious. Equally obvious was the reason she wouldn’t admit it. She was moonlighting, getting cash on the side, which was totally forbidden.
                And she thinks I don’t know.
                This irked Amanda, though she wasn’t sure why. Maybe because it felt as if Emily wasn’t giving her enough credit, thinking that a simple “study date” statement was enough to pull the wool over her eyes.
                But she knows me better than to think that.
                So maybe it really is a study date.
                But why the short skirt, stockings, and garters?
                And why a study date?
                At no point during the semester had Amanda ever seen Emily studying. She also had never seen her doing homework nor heard her talk about what was going on in her classes or how she was doing in them. All this had led Amanda to believe Emily didn’t really care.
                But maybe she does…
                If so, it would totally paint the girl in a new light, her original opinion that Emily was a lost cause proven incorrect. That said, becoming motivated was easy, maintaining it over a long period of time…not so much.
                “So when will you be back?” Amanda asked.
                “Fucked if I know,” Emily replied.
                Fucked being the key word? she silently asked. Out loud, “Okay, well, have fun.”
                “Yep, thanks.” Emily reached for the door but then stopped and said, “Oh, by the way. Got a new girl moving in tomorrow. Nikki…Vicky…something like that.” She waved a hand. “Anyway, figured you’d want to know. Not sure when exactly they’re bringing her over, but it will probably be in the afternoon. You have class in the morning?”
                “No, just the schoolgirl guy.”
                “Oh, nice. He’s fun.”
                “Okay, well see you later.”
                Amanda nodded and then, once Emily was beyond the door, made sure the main lock and deadbolt were secure. From there, she went to the kitchen screen door, which, naturally, wasn’t locked, and threw that latch as well.
                One day… Amanda started, an image of someone in dark clothing and a ski mask opening the door filling her mind’s eye. The big letters of a newspaper headline followed, ones that spelled out: TWO COLLEGE STUDENTS RAPED AND MURDERED, TIES TO PROSTITUTION SUSPECTED.
                Wait, make it three students.
                The thought shifted her focus, questions about what the new girl would be like echoing from every corner of her brain. Speculation was all that followed, speculation that pretty much created a clone of Emily.
                They’ll probably be best friends and always gang up on me when I have a different opinion or thought on something.
                Such was life.
                No matter what situation she found herself in, she always was the odd one out. It never failed. Even in her classes, despite appearing to be a standard student, she could tell everyone knew she was different. Something about her just projected it. She didn’t know why.
                A heavy sigh left her lips, one that was meant to clear her mind. It worked, and five minutes later she found herself sitting on the couch in the family room, math book open, a study guide before her, TV clicker put out of reach so she didn’t give in to temptation.

Alan was a bit early to Alfie’s, his mind and body unable to take waiting at home any longer. Of course, arriving early didn’t speed things up at all, but mentally it seemed to pass the time faster, mostly because he spent a good chunk of it observing the place, his eyes trying to figure out if anything beyond the waitstaff had changed.
                “Is it just like you remember?” a familiar female voice asked.
                Alan shifted himself in the seat and stood up. “It is, except the red highlights,” he said with a smile, a bit of hesitation hitting before he opened his arms for a hug. “It’s so good to see you,” he added as their bodies connected.
                “It’s good to see you too,” she said, arms squeezing him closer even though they were already touching, his chest actually feeling a tingle where her boobs pressed into him. “I can’t believe it’s been five years.”
                “Me either,” he said.
                The hug broke.
                Silence settled.
                Then, after nearly thirty seconds, “Do I really look the same to you?”
                “Aside from the hair, which has totally changed, you really do.”
                She blushed. “If you saw me standing next to myself from five years ago, you’d probably not even realize we were the same person and be like, ‘Who is this hag?’ or something.”
                He shook his head. “If one of us was not to recognize the other, it would have been you not recognizing me, but you did, so all is well.” His mother hadn’t, not when he came out of the terminal at O’Hare last May, the hundred-plus pounds he had lost since the last time she had seen him causing her to gasp. Thankfully, he had managed to regain about twenty pounds since then, his face looking full once more as opposed to bony, which was probably why Stacy didn’t say anything. Sweaters had a way of hiding how skinny one actually was.
                The waitress, who was running the entire bar area, came up to them and asked if she could get Stacy anything.
                “Um…” She looked at Alan and his drink. “…what’s that?”
                “Just a Coke,” he said. “I actually don’t drink anymore—ever.”
                “Well, I hope you don’t mind if I do.”
                “Not at all,” Alan said. “Order anything you like, my treat.”
                She did just that and, once the beer was in front of her, asked, “Should we go get a table?”
                “We can do that,” Alan said. “You want one of the ones in here or an actual table in the main area?”
                “Um…whichever you want,” she said.
                “Okay.” Less than two minutes later, they were at a table in the far room, her beer already half gone and his Coke needing a refill.
                “So,” he said while looking around a bit, eyes noting that nothing had changed within the room at all, “how are you?”
                “I’m good,” she said. “How are you?”
                “I’m good, too.”
                “That’s good.” She took a sip.
                Silence settled once more, both of them looking at each other, then away from each other when their eyes met, and then back at each other.
                “So…” Stacy said. “Five years.”
                “Yeah. Hard to believe, right? That’s longer than the time one spends in high school.”
                “Wow, you’re right.” She shook her head. “Shit, that makes it seem even longer now.” She sighed. “Honestly, though, it doesn’t feel that long, at least it didn’t when I sent you that message.”
                He sipped his Coke and then looked around for the waitress.
                “It probably felt longer to you,” she noted. “You know, being overseas and all.”
                “It’s weird. Being overseas, it didn’t feel like a long stretch of time, but rather several moments of time clumped together, some of which were filled with longing and despair, only not like during my very first deployment way back in 2003.” He thought for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain things. “During that first tour, and the second, there would be weeks when all I could do was think about home, and I wanted nothing more than to will myself there. Other times, days would come and go without much thought, and I’d suddenly realize that I hadn’t thought about home for two or three weeks.”
                “And it wasn’t like that in Afghanistan?” she asked.
                “Afghanistan was different. I also wasn’t there very long, at least, not like I was in Iraq.”
                “How come?”
                “Well, for starters, after passing selection I spent nearly two years doing nothing but training.”
                “Two years?” She lifted her glass to signal the waitress. “Fuck, I thought the twelve weeks of basic was tough, so two years…shit.”
                “Well, it wasn’t all running and push-ups and being broken down. A lot of it was classroom instruction, learning languages and getting educated on the social and economic structures of the region for deployment. Actually, that was the toughest for me. I’ve never been good at learning languages. Totally failed Spanish in high school. But after a while, things clicked.”
                The waitress finally arrived at their table. “Sorry about that. No one told me I had another table. What can I get for you?”
                They both got new drinks but decided to wait a bit before placing an order for food.
                “So after two years you finally made it into…what was it you always talked about wanting to get into?” Stacy asked.
                “Delta Force,” he said.
                “And you did it,” she said.
                “No, didn’t make it that high.”
                “But you passed everything?”
                “Oh, I made it into Special Forces and was part of a team, but getting into Delta Force, well, that’s even more advanced and selective.” I could have though, he silently added. If I hadn’t gotten sick…
                Obviously, even if he hadn’t been struck down by his own immune system, there was no guarantee of achieving that goal, but even so, a part of him just knew he could have done it if given the chance.
                “And…” she pressed.
                “And what?” he asked, even though he knew exactly where this was going.
                “Why didn’t you make it? What happened? You were supposed to be a career soldier, yet now here you are, living with your mother, writing a blog and posting on Facebook, which tells me you’re no longer in the military, especially Special Forces, because I’m pretty sure they would not like you doing such a thing.”
                “You’re right, they wouldn’t,” he said and then looked up as the waitress slowly approached, hesitation evident, as she didn’t want to disrupt them.
                “Are you two ready to order?”
                Alan looked at Stacy, who nodded.
                They both ordered cheeseburgers, cooked medium, hers with everything, his with nothing but the cheese.
                “So what happened?” Stacy asked.
                “Crohn’s disease,” Alan said.
                “Crohn’s disease,” he repeated.
                “Is that the one that makes you shit all the time?” she asked. “I think I’ve seen commercials for it.”
                “Yeah, that’s the one, only shitting all the time is a poor way to describe it because it sounds like an annoyance rather than a legitimate disease that can kill you, which is what it almost did to me.”
                “Yeah. Put a hole in my small bowel, one that opened up into my bladder, causing massive infections and quite a bit of pain.”
                “Holy fuck, I didn’t know that. When did that happen?”
                “About a year and a half ago. Started as simple back pain that just got worse and worse until I was nearly bedridden, and then it became groin pain, and then, well, one day I felt a pop between my legs during a briefing and suddenly had to piss like a racehorse, only it wasn’t…” He thought about the brown gritty sludge-like fluid that had come out. “…probably not something you want to hear about before eating, actually.”
                “I can handle it. What happened?”
                “Well, let’s just say that the stuff that was supposed to go out the back door began to go out the front door.”
                “Yep. It’s called a fistula. I developed one between my small bowel and bladder. Basically, it was the result of my immune system suddenly attacking a small area of my intestine. Eventually that caused a hole that opened up into the bladder.”
                “No one knows. Apparently, it’s a disease you’re born with. Doctors don’t know why the disease will become active all of a sudden. For most with it, it happens in their early twenties. Mine waited a bit longer.” He shrugged. “After that, I had surgery that removed the damaged bowel and part of the bladder, and even though the disease seems to be in remission once again, I can’t be an active-duty soldier, especially not Special Forces, so, well, I took a medical discharge.”
                “Wow. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
                Alan nodded.

Though Amanda had just gone shopping that afternoon, nothing within the refrigerator appealed to her, which was why she found herself contemplating a quick walk down to Chipotle for a pork burrito. While thinking about this, she headed into the bathroom to check the scale, concern about her weight getting the better of her.
                Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
                Chipotle was off the table. In fact, eating anything that evening would be a mistake, given what the scale had just displayed.
                Unfortunately, such resolve didn’t nullify the hunger she felt, hunger that seemed to be intensifying with each passing second. It wasn’t fair.
                Equally puzzling was the steady increase in weight these last few weeks. Sex was supposed to burn calories, and she had it almost every day, sometimes twice a day if the client desired and had booked a large chunk of time, yet here she was, looking at a scale that showed her weighing more than she had ever weighed before.
                You’re eating a lot more now.
                It was the only answer.
                And you aren’t really having that much sex. At least not when one compared it to the amount she had been having last year at this time, or really at any point during her late teens and early twenties. In those days, the number of men that fucked her in a day was greater than what she saw in a week while working here, which probably played a huge part in keeping her weight down.
                Plus there was never anything good to eat.
                Here, there were too many good things to eat, the options making it difficult to decide. Case in point, last year at this time, she would never have stood staring into the fridge for so long, the simple fact of being able to go to the fridge and take something making her grab the first edible thing she came across.
                So, what, you want to go back to that?
                The answer was a solid NO, yet at the same time she did think that maybe having a few more clients might be a good idea. Unfortunately, she didn’t know if the boss would allow such a thing, which was weird. With other pimps, the standard mode of operation seemed to be to see just how many dicks could get off inside her in a day. Here, that wasn’t the case.
                But what will happen if they start to realize that clients don’t want to have sex with me because I’m getting fat?
                What will—
                THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
                The heavy knocks echoed through the house, nearly causing her to jump. Never before had anyone come to the door like this.
                What do I do?
                Another THUNK echoed, followed by the doorbell ringing.
                She waited.
                The bell rang again.
                They know you’re inside and…
                Nothing followed.
                She had no idea what to think and also didn’t know what to do. People weren’t supposed to come to the door, at least not people who knew anything about what they did. That was why they always met clients at the other houses.
                No more knocks followed.
                Heart racing, she moved to the window to peek outside. At first, no one was there, but after a second, she watched a man and a boy descend the driveway and step onto the sidewalk. After that, they stepped onto the neighbor’s driveway and headed toward that door.
                Selling something?
                Is that allowed out here?
                For some reason she’d been under the impression that cities like Wheaton, Naperville, and Glen Ellyn forbid such things, the rich homeowners not liking the bother of people pretty much begging for money, the typical plastic cup replaced with overpriced magazines, cleaning supplies, and other items that could be picked up for cheap at the local Walgreens.
                At least it wasn’t someone bad…
                The relief of this was short-lived, her hunger pains reminding her of the growing weight issue. She also didn’t feel very confident about the upcoming math test. Actually, the entire college thing seemed like a fruitless endeavor, given how much difficulty she was already having.

“So, how’s your mom doing?” Stacy asked, nothing but crumbs remaining of what had once been a heaping basket of food.
                Alan shrugged, debating his own last two bites of burger and the remaining fries. “She’s good.” He decided against the fries but reached for the burger. “Still working the travel agent job, putting groups together and going out to exotic locations with all these middle-aged women every couple of months.”
                Stacy grinned. “That still cracks me up, all those suburban housewives going out to see the world, taking the road less traveled. Your mom should totally have her own TV show with this group.”
                Alan finished chewing. “She really should. You know, she took a group to the Amazon and thought it would be cool to stay in this eco hotel thing that researchers often use. I guess the selling point for the group was that they would hear monkeys in the trees from their rooms. Nothing was said about the fact that the rooms only had three walls, and everyone had to sleep in hammocks with mosquito netting over them. The group was horrified when they finally arrived and took it out on my mom, who spent her entire first night crying.”
                “Oh, that’s horrible.” Then, after stealing one of Alan’s fries, “Why did the rooms only have three walls?”
                “So you could experience the jungle. Remember, it was typically a place for scientists and researchers to stay. Oh, and no AC…obviously.”
                “Ahhh, that makes sense.” She took another fry. “I guess that’s the one downside of trying to find the most untouristy ways of visiting a country.”
                “Yeah, but for the most part the groups always enjoy themselves. One of the best times they ever had was in India, of all places. Oh, and Egypt—before all the turmoil. Got tons of pictures of her seeing all the sights from the back of a camel.”
                “Shit, I totally need to sign up for one of these trips, as soon as I have enough money to throw at something like that. Where’s her next one?”
                “What?” She gave him a “are you bullshitting me?” look. “For real?”
                “I swear. Actually, that isn’t her next trip. I think the next one is to Cuba right after Thanksgiving, but the Antarctica one is coming up as well, toward the end of the summer months down there.”
                “Wow. Cuba and Antarctica. Your mom’s awesome.”
                “She is.”
                The two went quiet, thoughts of his mother and how special she was dominating Alan’s mind for a moment.
                “So,” Stacy said after nearly a minute, “now what?”
                “All depends,” Alan said. “I’m up for anything.”
                “Anything? Well, if that’s the case, I heard about this game show where men have three holes to choose from. Behind one is nothing, behind another is a girl’s mouth, and behind the next a Taser…”
                “Yeah…so…I’m up for almost anything.”
                “Okay, well then, might I suggest we head back to my place and hang out there?”
                “Sounds good to me. You still over in Lakeside?”
                “Ha, I wish. Nope. Sadly I had to downgrade a bit and am now over a store in downtown Wheaton, one with no AC, very little hot water, and a fuse system that allows me to run one appliance at a time in the kitchen.”
                “Hey, better than having to live with your mother.”
                “I’d agree, if I thought you didn’t have a choice in that.”
                “What do you mean?”
                “Oh come on. Knowing you, I’m fairly certain you saved most of the money you earned while in the military and that you really had no expenses whatsoever beyond things that took your fancy.” She paused to finish off the rest of her beer. “I also know that you were wounded twice and now, given what you said tonight, that you were medically discharged, which means you get something every month from the VA.”
                “Okay, you got me there. Still, it’s really not as much as you think. Sure, I could move out, but without a job, my savings would disappear fairly quickly, especially while going to school, and I’d be back in my mother’s basement before I knew it, this time without any savings.” Plus, much of what he had saved was tied up in stocks, CDs, and mutual funds, some of which were earning quite a bit with interest and dividends, so he didn’t want to put an end to that by pulling out the funds.
                “I suppose that makes sense,” she said. “So, what field of employment are you thinking of going into?”
                “I have no idea.” It was the truth. Nothing appealed to him. “I was all set to be a career soldier and now…” He shrugged. “…everything has changed.”
                “Well, I’m sure something”—it was her turn to shrug—“actually, I have no idea either.”
                “Ha, that makes two of us.” He liked her honesty and the fact that she hadn’t said, “Everything happens for a reason.” Nothing happened for a reason; people just applied what they thought the reason was in order to feel better about the events that unfolded.

Just like old times, Stacy said to herself as she got into her car, a fantastic feeling of comfort having descended upon her as the two talked. But maybe this time it will last a bit longer…
                She didn’t know why, but being with Alan felt right. The two of them clicked together perfectly, something she had noticed the very first time they met. It was weird too because she typically didn’t click with anyone, her determination to succeed in her field and reluctance to pad the truth with anyone, even friends, always driving others away.
                But not Alan.
                Why this was, she didn’t exactly know, but she thought it might have to do with the lack of bullshit between them. Five years ago, they had known what their relationship was all about and thus hadn’t had to pretend with each other.
                And the same will be true now.
                No drama. We get along while together and, if it’s like before, will enjoy having sex together, each of us always feeling satisfied afterward.
                A lack of awkwardness about things helped. Back then, if something interesting had caught her attention, she’d had no qualms about calling him up to tell him about it, no thoughts of Am I bugging him? or Is he getting annoyed with me? entering her mind. And it seemed the same on his end. A day or two might pass where they each had their own things going on, and then suddenly he would call and be like, “Hey, you want to hang out tonight?” and they would. No “Why didn’t you call me yesterday?” or anything. It was great.
                And just think, you thought the interview was going to be a serious waste of time and talent.
                Thinking about this brought a smile to her face, especially since she was now able to look back at that moment, and what followed, without a sense of loss. He was back, and they were once again going to enjoy each other’s company, this time without another deployment looming.
                Does he know how hard that was for me?
                Was it hard for him?
                A part of her wondered if she should bring it up, but then she decided against it, given that it could add an element of drama into what they had. Neither was at fault for what had happened. It was just life, thus best to simply enjoy the fact that the separation was over and they were together again.
                And soon I will find out if he still has that ability to bring about pleasure within me that I once dared not dream of for fear of never getting to achieve such bliss. She turned down Main Street while thinking this, an eye to the rearview mirror making sure he was still back there, a warm tingle developing within her nether regions.
                Hopefully, I can still work my magic as well.
                It had been quite some time since she had been with anyone with whom the sex was more than a simple masturbation fuck. With Alan, and a few others, sex had been an experience; with everyone else it had been just…well…meh. And the meh wasn’t because the men sucked or anything; they just hadn’t clicked. The pleasure was still there, but it wasn’t the PLEASURE! she craved, both in receiving and delivering.
                Thoughts on how they would get started entered her mind as she bounced across the train tracks dividing the downtown area, along with a moment of concern for her muffler and other items of rusting machinery that were barely clinging to the underside of her car.
                I should probably do it, she decided a few seconds later, hand signaling a right turn that most drivers probably didn’t understand. After all, this was my idea.
                Looking back, she realized she had been the one to make the first move all those years ago, thoughts of the soldier she had interviewed dominating her mind to the point where she called him up and fibbed about needing to get together once again because the photographs she had taken to go with the article hadn’t turned out. “I also have some additional questions I want to ask,” she’d lied.
                Of course, having sex with him hadn’t been the actual focus of getting together—she had just wanted to see him once more because he was interesting—but while together a moment had come when she made a move, and sex had followed. Really GOOD sex.
                And it was fun!
                Before that month, she had never really put much thought into experimenting with different things, but once they had gotten together, her mind seemed to go nuts with different ideas and activities she wanted to try. And she wasn’t alone. Once she got the ball rolling, Alan had started thinking things up as well and often brought ideas to the table—bedroom (well, actually sometimes the table)—that he wanted to try. It was great. No boredom whatsoever with their sex life, or their time together when not having sex, their conversations always lasting a long time and naturally shifting from one topic to the next.
                Is he thinking about all this? she wondered while reaching out to signal a left turn.
                No answer followed as she guided them down the alleyway and pulled into her parking spot behind the storefront, an old wooden stairway with a sagging porch leading the way up to her place.
                Alan pulled in next to her and, before he shut the car off, called out through his window, “This spot okay?”
                “Yep,” she called back. “No one else lives in any of these apartments right now, so it’s all ours.”
                “Nice,” he said and rolled his window back up, engine noises fading away as he twisted the key. Then, as he got out, “This place is pretty cool. I always love old storefronts with apartments above. Makes you think of the thirties and forties.”
                “Well, just remember there’s a difference between vintage and dump, and my place leans more toward the latter, sadly.”
                “Still, it’s unique, which I love. I’d never want to live in an apartment building where every unit is the same. That’s boring. Places like this, and old houses that have been converted into apartments by floor, that’s more my style.”
                “Really, well, once you decide to get your own place, there are quite a few like that around here, ones that are actually nice, which, as I’ve warned, isn’t the case here.”
                “You know, with all this buildup about how awful your place is, I may be disappointed at how unawful it actually is.”
                “Yeah, that’s the goal,” she said with a laugh.
                “Well, don’t worry. Some of the places I’ve lived in weren’t even suitable for roaches, and they can survive anywhere. So as long as it has four walls, a roof, and isn’t mortared daily, it works for me.”
                “Well then, I think we’ll be okay.”
                With that, the two started up the steps, the wooden structure actually shifting a bit as they climbed.
                “You think that was freaky? You should have seen it when a friend helped carry up my futon.” She pulled out her key. “He actually gasped as if it was going to crumble beneath him.”
                He? Alan wondered to himself and then said, “I probably would have done the same.”
                She smiled and opened the door.
                Alan stepped in and stood to the side as Stacy followed, her hand reaching up in the darkness to grab a cord.
                “Son of a—” she started and shook her head. “You know, I just changed this one a week ago too.”
                “Where are your bulbs? I can go grab one,” Alan offered.
                “No, I don’t have any fresh ones, but I can take one from over the mirror in the bathroom. Hang on a second.” She started down the hallway and turned toward the bathroom, hand reaching for the light switch.
                Someone’s here!
                She sensed the presence seconds before the figure moved toward her from within the bathroom, his body slamming into her just as her hand caught the light switch.
                A cry left her lips, followed by a grunt as her body slammed into the wall, the attacker crashing into it with her.
                And then a fist slammed into her gut, toppling her as her stomach seemed to cave in on itself.
                “Stay away from—” a heavy voice began, followed by a strange cry.
                Something crashed.
                Glass shattered.
                A table flipped.
                Several shouts echoed, none of them sounding like Alan, though she couldn’t be absolutely sure.
                She tried to stand.
                Bad idea.
                And then Alan was helping her to her feet.
                “You okay?” he asked.
                “Y-y-yeah,” she said, voice strained. Then, “Uh-oh.”
                She almost made it to the toilet.

“What do you mean no?” Alan asked. “Someone didn’t just break in; they waited around until you got home so they could attack you. That’s not something you just brush aside.”
                Stacy sighed. “I know, and I agree, but I simply can’t go to the police with this.”
                “Why not?”
                She took a sip of the water Alan had gotten her. “I’m working a story right now. One that will make headlines all across the country once it breaks.”
                “And…” he asked, fairly certain where she was going with this, yet still wanting to hear it from her own lips.
                “And I don’t want anyone else to catch wind of it and beat me to the punch.”
                “Do you really think that will happen?”
                “In this area, the news of a break-in followed by an attack on a young woman will spread really fast and attract a lot of attention.” She took another sip. “Especially with Wheaton College right down the road.”
                “Okay, I’ll admit, you’re right about that.” For the most part, Wheaton was a very upscale conservative area, one that actually had more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. It also didn’t have very much crime, at least that was the perception many of its residents held. Thus if anything were to happen, it usually surprised the hell out of them. “Even so, do you really think that reporting upon it will cause this story you’re working on to be picked up by someone else?”
                “I don’t know, but I don’t want to risk it. No telling what a reporter will dig up should they decide to look a bit deeper into what occurred.”
                Alan thought about that and wondered if maybe she was projecting too much of her own style of reporting into the reporters that would report upon the attack. Then again, having seen how reporters were while overseas, maybe she had a point and was right to fear them catching a whiff of the story and scooping it right out from under her. Speaking of which, “So what exactly is this story you’re working on?”
                Stacy met his eyes for a moment and then looked away, a debate over whether or not to tell him obviously being waged within her.
                He waited.
                “I’m not going to scoop you,” he said after a while, the frustration he felt toward her successfully masked.
                “I know. It’s not that.”
                Again, silence.
                He continued to wait, debating whether or not he should push her toward telling him, or simply see if she did on her own.
                Then, without any further pressing, she said, “I haven’t told anyone anything about this story, so I guess I’m a bit apprehensive about saying anything, especially to someone whose opinion matters to me.”
                “Oh,” he said, her statement unexpected. “What, are you worried I’m going to say it’s ridiculous or something?”
                “Yeah,” she admitted and took another sip of water.
                “Well, I won’t. You know your field better than I do, so if you think it’s a big story, who am I to claim differently?”
                She considered this for a moment and said, “Okay, so, a little over a month ago I was asked to do a story on the local real estate market and assess whether or not it had actually improved or was still faltering. The editor at that particular paper is not a fan of President Obama at all, so I knew that if I discovered things had actually improved during the last couple of years, I’d better have a lot of sources and data to back it up, or else she wouldn’t even consider running the story.”
                Fair and balanced, Alan said to himself with a mental shake of the head. No such thing as news these days, not when everything had a political slant to it.
                “So, naturally, I went around and contacted every real estate company in the area while also looking up records online of home sales. Almost all of them were eager to talk with me, especially when I mentioned that having their name in the paper might help generate interest in their company. And if the story got picked up by other papers, specifically all those that would have web editions that would put a link up, their name would really get spread around.”
                “I bet they ate that up,” Alan said. “Free advertising, especially in this market, is not something any company would want to pass up.”
                “Right? That’s exactly what I thought. And it worked, except with one small company, which kind of surprised me, especially since the lady that ran it didn’t just say no. She seemed downright hostile. It was like she was angry that a writer was calling her asking about her business. Very weird.”
                Alan smiled.
                “What?” Stacy asked, seeing the smile.
                “Oh nothing, I’m just picturing you hanging up the phone or leaving the office or whatever, the wheels of suspicion starting to turn.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he wished he could take them back, because they sounded silly. At the same time, he knew they were accurate. Most people would have probably brushed off the moment, but not Stacy.
                “Well, wouldn’t you be suspicious too? I mean, here is a place that should be welcoming inquiries into their business, one that interacts well with people, yet this one doesn’t do either?”
                “I would be,” Alan said, though he wasn’t really sure about this. Then again, he wasn’t a reporter, and thus wasn’t constantly trying to sniff out stories.
                “Anyway, thinking something was off and wanting to know what, I started looking up stuff about this company and found out that it pretty much was a one-woman show up until this summer. After that, she suddenly had several agents working for her and several properties on display, only no one seemed interested in showing them to me when I called.”
                “Maybe because they knew you were just trying to write a story?” Alan suggested.
                “Please, give me some credit. I used a different name and told them my family was moving in from out of state and that we were looking for a place in the Wheaton or Glen Ellyn area because of the good schools and all that bullshit.”
                “And they said no?”
                “Yep. And every time I called them after that, with different names and people making the calls.”
                “Okay, that is bizarre.”
                “Tell me about it. You want to know what else is odd? Every one of their employees is female, and not just any female, but young and pretty, with a photo that has a very seductive feel to it. Here, let me show you.”
                Alan smiled again, this time at the enthusiasm she was displaying. Had he not been here for the attack, he would have been hard-pressed to believe such a thing had actually occurred. It was a good sign, unless she crashed later. He had seen that happen one time with a reporter just like her. The guy had always been eager for a story and didn’t seem to care about the risks involved in getting it. An IED followed by a fierce firefight had changed that, though not until a few days had passed. He had seemed fine until it came time to go out on another convoy and he had a complete breakdown as they started to roll toward the gate. The following week, he was out of the country.
                There’s always a breaking point.
                Wonder what mine would have been.
                Stacy returned to the front room with her laptop and sat down next to him, her leg touching his and sending a pleasant tingle throughout his body.
                In turn, he put his arm around her, both so it wouldn’t become awkwardly crushed between them as she leaned in with the laptop and because he simply liked the comfort it provided. She seemed to enjoy it as well and snuggled in closer, an unexpected, “Thanks for grabbing the guy off me,” leaving her lips while the laptop booted up.
                “Aw, you’re welcome,” he said, his words seeming off somehow, given what it was she had thanked him for. Had it been thanks for a “Do you have twenty bucks I could borrow for gas?” moment, his reply would have seemed more appropriate. “Glad I was here,” he added.
                “Me too.” She snuggled in closer. “I’m also kind of glad this happened, but only because it makes me think I’m really onto something, not because I get a thrill out of being assaulted or anything.”
                That one he didn’t know how to reply to.
                “And that probably sounded really weird,” she admitted after a few seconds.
                “Don’t worry; I totally get what you’re saying. Now let’s just hope you don’t have to experience such acts of reassurance again in the near future.”
                “I don’t think that’ll be a problem, especially not if you’re around. That guy, whoever he was, isn’t going to want to mess with you again.”
                “I hope you’re right,” Alan said, his own mind somewhat uncertain about this, which was why he still thought a call to the police would be wise. He wouldn’t go against her wishes on that, however.
                “Ah, here we go,” she said. “Sorry it’s so slow. I really need a new one, but I have to wait for some payments to come through.”
                “That’s okay,” Alan replied and then bit his tongue before an offer of giving her one of his old laptops slipped out. He didn’t know why, but he had a tendency toward being really generous with things like that, and while he didn’t think this was a bad thing at all, he did recognize the discomfort it sometimes caused with those on the receiving end. Thus he would wait a while before making such an offer. “Wow, nice site,” he added while looking at the screen. “Meet our girls,” he read. It stood above a scrolling display of young smiling female faces.
                Stacy clicked one.
                On screen, a profile page appeared, one that displayed the girl in what could only be described as a seductive business type of situation. She wore a skirt with stockings and heels, a white blouse, and a jacket while carrying a folder, the blouse opened in a way that showed considerable cleavage, which was further exposed by the camera as it looked down upon her.
                “This is one of the more conservative pages.” She clicked something. “Now check her out. Have you ever seen a site like this that actually allowed the garters to show? And that pen at her lips and the glasses having slipped down her nose a bit…seems somewhat provocative, doesn’t it?”
                “Um…yeah,” Alan agreed, though he thought it was a stretch. Considering what the site was supposed to be used for, however, he could see how one could say it was too sexual and looked more like a dating ad than an attempt at selling houses. “Have you tried emailing any of the girls?”
                “I did. No reply.”
                “Hmm, kind of weird to show their ages. Not sure what the point of that would be, especially in a field where one would think youth might mean inexperience.”
                “I thought that too,” she said. “And look at this one,” she added while clicking another picture.
                “Okay, yeah, that is…well, I don’t know, but I’d never expect to see such a photo on a real estate site.”
                “I know, right?”
                In the photo, the girl was pressed up against a For Sale sign outside a house, her conservative business attire looking completely unconservative, given her pose.
                “I wouldn’t be surprised if the sign needed a cigarette after this shot was taken,” Stacy said.
                “Tell me about it. I’ve never been to a strip club, but if I had, I’m sure I’d have seen moves like this on the pole.”
                “You’ve never been to a strip club?”
                “Seriously. I view strip clubs like zoos. If you can’t pet them, might as well just look at a picture.”
                “Huh, I never thought of it like that.” And then, after a few seconds, “Remember that picture I sent you?”
                “How could I forget?” he said with a huge grin, the memory of the picture adding to the tingle her body was creating as it continued to press up against him.
                “Do you still have it?”
                “The original, yes.”
                “What do you mean the original?”
                “That picture was a gold mine. Copies of it went for twenty-five bucks each. Had I not gotten sick, I would have made a fortune and been able to retire once my tour was done.”
                The look on Stacy’s face was priceless. “You didn’t!”
                He tried to keep a straight face but couldn’t maintain it, not with the growing horror he was witnessing. “Okay, I didn’t,” he said. “But if you ever need some extra cash, I’m sure you could make a fortune in the sexy photo business.”
                “Actually, what I think I should do is make sure I get some photos of you in a compromising situation, so I can take you down with me should you ever decide to release said photo.”
                “Ah, the threat of mutual destruction to keep each other in check—how very Cold War of you.”
                “Better believe it.”

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