Category Archives: Relationships

A lump sum account of my many relational opinions, observations, questions, inadequacies, misunderstandings, struggles, and failures, and, when applicable, my handful of victories.

Equal Opportunity Salvation

Equal Opportunity Salvation

March 27, 2016:

Today is Easter, and that means church services will be filled, dinners will be served, and millions upon millions won’t even get why any of that matters. It might even be safe to say that those who don’t get it won’t want to get it because anything “religious” just isn’t their cup of tea. Maybe you’re one of the millions. Maybe you’re perfectly happy with that. In our culture, happiness is what’s important, right?

Honestly, it makes sense. Religion has gotten a bad rep, regardless of the people who run it or the god(s) they serve. Some people just don’t want to get involved. Maybe they think it’s the same as eating kryptonite.

Why should they care about Easter?

I could tell you exactly what Easter is…so I will. It’s about Jesus rising from the dead after taking our sins on the cross and out of this life. Basically, it’s his victory over sin, which translates to our victory over sin. It’s about giving us a place in Heaven. It’s about paying a price we can’t pay ourselves. You know how Christmas is the prime gift-giving day of the season? Easter is about the greatest gift we’ll ever get. I still don’t know how bunnies got involved.

Maybe some of you haven’t heard about the importance of Easter. I acknowledge that there are still people in this world who haven’t heard the Gospel (otherwise we’d clearly be living in the times presented in Revelations, and though I think we’re certainly close to it, I don’t think we’re there just yet). But if you have heard it and you’re not already on board with this, there’s a strong chance that you don’t believe it or care about it or, for some reason, you’re resistant to it.

And again, I understand why you might fit into the latter category. Here are some possible scenarios that may apply:

  1. You think the Bible is fiction.
  2. You think Christians are bigots, and you want nothing to do with them.
  3. You think you can save yourself.
  4. You don’t want to give up the sinful life you’re living.
  5. You believe something else entirely and don’t want religious cross-pollination.
  6. You don’t think sin is real.
  7. You don’t think God is real.

And so on. You get the idea. You know where you fit into this story.

The thing about Christianity is that it’s full of people who have heard all of these excuses and more. In fact, it’s full of people who have made these same excuses at some point in their pre-Christian lives. Even those of us who learned about Jesus at a young age still had to experience the temptations that life brings, so we still get it. It’s the reason there are so many who have turned away as teenagers and young adults. They spent so much time learning the watered down, educational version of Christianity that they didn’t want it any more. They wanted to experience “life,” and their understanding of Christianity wasn’t about to give it to them. And, if you know the difference between “religious” Christianity and true Christianity, then you’ll understand why some Christians still turn away from it.

They knew Christianity as a religion, much like those who refuse Christianity think of it as a religion. And to be fair, many Christians treat it like a religion. These same Christians may be responsible in triggering one of the listed beliefs you have about Christianity above. But it’s not supposed to be that way.

First of all, and I’m going to speak from the heart here, not from some sense of all-knowing righteousness. This is just what I think:

Many non-Christians, and you may be one of them, choose to disregard the Bible as truth, calling it fiction. Some also think of it as a list of archaic laws that no longer apply. And most commonly misunderstood: many don’t believe it’s the inspired Word of God. They simply think that it’s a product of a group of misogynist men getting together and making up some rules that are designed to oppress people and justify evil. This, of course, assumes that the critics understand what evil actually is. Again, this is understandable. Many Christians wrestle with this very notion. It’s why we have faith. We really don’t know if it’s true. We just choose to believe it. Some say we do so foolishly.

BUT…

We choose to believe the Bible is true the same way we choose to believe the Law of Gravity is true. The only proof we have of gravity, besides the fact that everything falls (including us, which is why we have Jesus, but I digress), is what physicists, like Isaac Newton, tell us. We blindly believe them because we trust their authority. And, when we open our eyes, we can see that what they say is true. The same could be said of mathematicians who say that one plus one equals two. I’m no math guy—I studied English in college—but if a mathematician tells me that one and one equals two, I’m inclined to believe him. I don’t believe him because I’m an ignorant tool who thinks all scientists are liars. I believe him because he’s the authority on that subject. He understands math in a way that I never will, just like Isaac Newton and other physicists understand gravity in a way I never will, just like Albert Einstein understands relativity like I never will.

I choose to believe the Bible because it was written by people who have authoritative knowledge that I never will. But more on that in a moment.

Let’s start by addressing the “fiction” that so many non-Christians want to lambast it for. The Bible has parables in it, which are stories about fictional characters. Jesus told us about the servants who were given ten, five, and one talent respectively, and told to do something with them before the master got back. The two servants with ten and five talents respectively invested what they were given and yielded double the return. When the master came back, they were rewarded with even more. The servant who was given just one talent chose to bury his because he knew the master was cold and exacting and wouldn’t want him to lose it. The master thought the servant’s understanding of him was poor, and he saw him as wasting an opportunity, and he ultimately stripped him of the one talent he had, so he was left with nothing. All because he didn’t use what he was given.

I don’t believe the three servants and the master were real people, but I do believe Jesus told this parable to make a point about using what we’re given. It’s still history, as the storyteller is very real, and there are plenty of witnesses who saw him give this parable, and if this message was later written in the Bible incorrectly, there were many, many people who’d know it and rebuke the misinformation.

I think of it in terms of a historian writing a book in 2030 about the events of 9/11 and explaining how the aliens burned down the World Trade Center with their heat vision on September 11, 2001. Um…no. But there was a fire! It must be true. No! Stop being stupid! There were no aliens and no heat rays. You watch too many movies, Mr. Historian.

We can treat the Bible as a history book because there were plenty of people still alive at the time of its writing that would call out its inaccuracies, if it had any, based on the consistency of their eyewitness accounts. And even if they weren’t there personally, the correct information would’ve survived just as our correct information about the assassination of JFK has endured 53 years. If you tell someone JFK was murdered in Houston, Texas, they would quickly reeducate you that it happened in Dallas. If the story of Jesus was written ANY other way, the authors of those four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) would’ve been laughed out of a reporting job (and possibly sent into exile—those days were a lot tougher on mistakes than they are today—but at the very least they would’ve had their books rejected). There was no way they could’ve gotten it wrong and gotten it into the history book. The people of that time cared more about the historical account than even we do.

Outside of the parables and the history accounts, the Bible is also made up of prophecies, and I’m pretty sure this is where most people have problems with it (well, no, most people have problems with what it claims as sin, but I’ll get to that in a moment). In short, I don’t understand prophecies, or how a prophet can know what God is telling him. But there’s a good reason for that. I’m not a prophet. I don’t specialize in prophecies. But, just as I trust a physicist to tell me the truth about gravity and a mathematician to tell me the truth about one plus one, I trust a prophet to tell me the truth about the heart of God, or in more relevant terms, the divine inspiration of God’s Word, aka, the Bible. I believe the Bible is true because I believe God is wiser than I am and that He knows how to get His exact message across to the world, even if I don’t understand the details. That’s fine, really. God knows not to trust me with His divine prophetic words. I’d screw it up. It’s not my gift. It’s why He gave it to the prophets. They’d know how to handle it.

The people who accuse the Bible of being false, or fictitious, do so in complete ignorance. The same people who accuse Christians of having a closed mind are not that good at opening their own minds, because if they were, they’d investigate biblical truth until they found emphatic proof that it’s a lie (which no one in human history has ever done, FYI—even those theorists—Note: those who specialize in theory, not fact—who think they’ve disproved the Bible because they compared it to something they believe (not proved) and found fault based on their limited understanding just haven’t dared to keep looking beyond their limited understanding or skewed worldview; anyone who has, has given up their quest and become Christians, and yes, that is documented). No, they, too, have a closed mind because they don’t want to find out they’re dead wrong (which they will if they dig deep enough), and why would they want to ruin their precious reputations on silly things like facts or truth?

And for the record, Christians have closed minds because once we figure out the truth, we have no reason to lie to ourselves any further. Having an open mind means we’re still searching for the truth. We’re not. We’ve found it and we know it. There are many reasons why we know we’ve found the truth; often it has to do with what Christianity is—a relationship with Christ that goes deeper than knowledge or theory. It’s the same reason why we understand our spouses better than our grocers understand our spouses. Our grocers may think they know our spouses, but they don’t, not really. They only know what they see. They don’t know the fullness of what we’ve experienced, so they don’t know our spouses like we do. Christianity is the same way. We understand Christ better than non-Christians do. That’s why we choose to serve him. Just like a husband might serve his wife, and a wife her husband. They understand what they have (ideally, of course—human nature does get in the way sometimes, but that’s another topic for another time). We’re not idiots. We just have an understanding that you don’t. And that’s unfortunate for you. Sorry to call it out like it is. But, no, actually I’m not sorry.

I am sorry about the second point on the list, the bigotry. But let me explain why this is still a problem:

Christianity is not a religion. It’s a relationship with Jesus Christ, who died for all of our sins. Now, to be clear, sin is sin, and I do not suggest that anything that is sin shouldn’t be called sin. If it’s sin, it’s sin. Period. And if it’s sin, it is the thing that can keep you out of Heaven. Period.

BUT…

That’s why Jesus came to mankind. Because we all do it. Sin. We’re all equal opportunity sinners, and Jesus, thankfully, is an equal opportunity savior.

The problems with Christianity, and the bad rep it gets with things like bigotry, comes down to Christians trying to make it into a religion. It’s about some Christians trying to be better than everyone else. I’m probably guilty of this myself sometimes.

Look, let me set the record straight. We’re not better than anyone else. Period. Part of believing in an equal opportunity savior is to acknowledge that we, too, are equal opportunity sinners.

I’m not going to write about how certain sins that progressive politics have made okay are okay. They’re not. Sorry, but no politician has ever died for my sins, and no politician has ever created the physical laws of earth and heaven, so I don’t believe any politician has the right to tell me what is and isn’t sinful. Even Moses, who drafted the Ten Commandments, had to get his instructions directly from God. And keep in mind that these instructions were passed down from a God who understands human nature very, very well.

The issue here is the people who sin, and that’s all of us. We all need Jesus. None of us need bigotry (in any of its forms, and for the sake of further argument, I’ll refer to it also as prejudice against anyone who isn’t perfect, which is basically everyone, and being prejudice against everyone makes life pretty lonely). I’d spent part of my life misunderstanding the point. I used my human brain to justify my understanding of God’s laws, when I wasn’t really trained well enough to understand. And though I don’t struggle with misunderstanding people anymore (at least, I don’t think I do, but I apologize if I do), I’m sure I still have areas of weakness, including the courage to speak up when others are clearly screwing up their lives (maybe because I don’t want to acknowledge that they are screwing up their lives). As a Christian, I’m supposed to love everyone, and part of loving others is to point out the path they’re on. I supposed that’s the main reason why I’m writing this. Many of us take this concept too far. We’re supposed to do everything in love. That’s what Jesus asks of us.

What it comes down to is that the religion of Christianity is run by fallible men, but actual Christianity is about believing in the infallible Christ as our savior. There’s nothing more to it.

That said, becoming a Christian doesn’t mean automatic goodness. Nobody becomes “good” overnight. Jesus himself tells us that no one is good but God the Father. But, choosing to love Jesus means our attitudes begin to change. It means that our actions begin to change. It doesn’t happen overnight. There are plenty of Christians who still openly sin, and many more who still sin in private. We’re still trying to shed the old life in favor of the new. For those who don’t want to give up the old life, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to become Christians. Maybe they’re afraid of what life would be like without that addiction. Maybe they enjoy the feeling of hate. Maybe they like to invent their own truths, even if the result of it wrecks their lives. Some people just want to live the mediocre life. Some just want to burn. It’s their choice.

God gave us free will. That’s why evil exists in this world. That’s why we have so many viewpoints about what equals truth, and more difficult, what is and isn’t sin. It’s why we have so many cults and religions, and why those religions require so many tasks. It’s why the state religion, politics, has so many counterintuitive, counterproductive, conflicting laws and practices. We think we can better ourselves with new ideas and new practices. By nature, we progress in ideas because the thing we thought was good before wasn’t actually good enough. Tomorrow we’ll look for something to replace the thing we thought was good today. Eventually we’ll complete the progressive circle and find ourselves back at the beginning.

But look, we had perfection once. We thought we could improve on it. We ruined the world and ourselves as a result. God had to step in and fix it for us, because, you know, He’s the one that built it in the first place. He understands how it works. He understands how we work. He knows us better than we know ourselves. The only one who really knows how to fix our mess is God himself.

Maybe you don’t want to trust in God’s leadership and Christ’s salvation, but I hope you will. We can’t save ourselves, no matter how much we convince ourselves we can. We’re not the ones who set the standards on righteousness. Don’t let the faults of any man or woman, or your misunderstanding of a subject you have no expertise in, deter you from experiencing the only gift you’ll ever really need. We all need Jesus. Easter would not be among the world’s oldest holidays if it didn’t mean something.

I think there were other points I wanted to address in this article, but I wanted to keep this as short as possible, and I’ve already gone on too long. Maybe I’ll add a second part if I think of something I’ve forgotten about. That said, if you wish to discuss this, please comment below.

Note: If you came here looking for information on my books, or writing, or something else more to the current theme of Drinking Cafe Latte at 1pm, I will be talking more about them soon. Sometimes I have other topics of interest that I want to write about, so do expect the occasional non-writing topic here.

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Proverbial Things

March 19, 2016:

If you’re reading this, and you’re about to do something stupid, here are some thoughts for the day:

  • There’s only one truth.
  • If you make your own truth, and somebody else makes his own truth, and you disagree with each other, then who’s right? Either one of you is wrong, or you’re both wrong. I’m sure you think you’re the one who’s right.
  • The only people who know they’re absolutely right about the wrong thing are the ignorant and the foolish.
  • Hating someone because you hate their viewpoint is ignorant and foolish.
  • Love people, not viewpoints.
  • Sin begins with selfishness.
  • Just because it feels right today doesn’t mean it won’t hurt like hell tomorrow.
  • Having wisdom also means thinking about tomorrow.
  • Do your research. Remember history.
  • You may only live once, but how will history remember you when you’re gone?
  • Once upon a time, Hitler was a sweet little kid.
  • Only God knows the whole picture. You know only some of it.
  • Even the wisest man who ever lived was ruined when he put romance ahead of God. Just ask King Solomon.
  • If you have to sin to get what you want, you’re putting that thing above God.
  • If something is meant to be, the right path will present itself at the right time and in the right way. Getting it any other way will diminish its goodness or its maximum effect, and the big meal you were promised may now just be a snack.
  • There’s a reason why we have the Ten Commandments. And there’s a reason why they’re presented in the order they were written. And there’s a reason why “Thou shall not put any other gods before Me” (“Me” referring to God) is the first.
  • There’s also a reason why Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God.
  • Just because you don’t think you’re doing stupid doesn’t mean you’re doing smart.

Put that gun down. Put away that hate speech. Get out of bed with that wrong person. You’re no better than the person you’re bullying. Stop being ignorant and foolish. Looking right and sounding right doesn’t make you right. It just stops you from achieving your maximum potential in life. If you want the best for your life, then get back on God’s path, and listen to what He has to say. And if you’ve never done that, then now’s the time. You can always make your money back tomorrow. You can never make back your precious time. Start making yourself better. Start fixing your heart. Stop turning a blind eye to wisdom. Stop damaging your soul.

If any part of this list bothers you, then you probably needed to read it.

If you don’t think you need God, then reread this list. If you think you’re too smart for God, then reread this list.

Consider these verses, written long before any of us had the sense to even tie our shoes, spoken by those who had understanding about things in ways that you and I still don’t:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV)

“…32 The scribe said to Him, ‘Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that HE IS ONE, AND THERE IS NO ONE ELSE BESIDES HIM; 33 AND TO LOVE HIM WITH ALL THE HEART AND WITH ALL THE UNDERSTANDING AND WITH ALL THE STRENGTH, AND TO LOVE ONE’S NEIGHBOR AS HIMSELF, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.” – Mark 12:32-34 (NIV)

“…32 ‘For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 ‘But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:32-34 (NIV)

Not trying to anger anyone or incite a riot with this list, but I do want to see people live better lives than they’re living. Hopefully you’ll give these ideas some thought if you’re living below your best potential.

Have a good day.

Note: Bible excerpts taken from BibleHub.com.

 

Finding Love at Best Buy

Finding Love at Best Buy

Or, Dating in the Express Lane

Or, Impulsive Mating

February 29, 2016:

(Note: I had planned to finish this essay a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but I had other stuff to catch up on. My life is a mass of incompleteness.)

There’s nothing wrong with window shopping. Sometimes we walk along a series of storefronts, peer inside to see what the shops offer, and discover through a casual glance the must-have item of our dreams. Suddenly, thanks to any number of qualities it displays, we’re enraptured by this amazing item’s presence. Whether we’ve found that jacket we want, or that national best-seller everyone’s been talking about, or a movie with a cast we like, we’re immediately lured in by its siren song. The temptation to acquire it drives to the forefront of our short-term ambitions. For an undetermined length of time, it becomes our chief focus.

If that temptation to acquire is weak, we smile, acknowledge that having such a thing would be “nice but unnecessary,” and then move on. If it’s powerful, then we have to face a starker reality where we feel the creep of obsession growing through our heads and gnawing at our brains and spreading into our hearts and stomachs, and suddenly we think we “need this more than anything in the world.” Most likely, our window shopping may lead us to something in between: realization that we’ve just discovered this item that is “right for right now” or “desirable, yet worth waiting for.”

At that point we have to decide what to do with that temptation. Decide if we can do anything with it. Sometimes we consider the budget we’re on, consider the money we left at home, remember the braces we still have to buy that kid we’re responsible for, and ultimately fight the urge to explore it more. But sometimes we forget where we are—we’re so caught up with the idea of having that awesome thing—that we go right in and buy it anyway. We create a reality where we need it and we can afford it, so we should have it, even if we can’t or shouldn’t.

And, then comes the new reality that we frequently encounter. The thing that had so much promise in the storefront turns out to lack the very features it seduced us into thinking it had. A coffeemaker that assured us it could not only brew the best coffee in town, but steam milk right into it, suddenly proves that its idea of steam is nothing more than a splattered mess that hits everything but the coffee or the cup it sits in, when it even works.

Or, it does offer everything as advertised, and maybe more, but we find out too late that it’s ultimately something we would never use: That automatic banana and carrot peeler, for example, might look really good on the kitchen counter and work like a charm. But we forget that fingers are free, a full carrot is healthier than a peeled carrot, and even though the automatic peeler does everything as advertised and more (it also makes a whirring sound that can drown out the neighbors’ screaming), it’s basically a waste of money. Then what?

Or, we need it for the moment, like an express juicer that can crank out drinks in a hurry for that night when we have to entertain our boss and his many guests as he gives everyone that final hurrah before shutting down the business and putting us all out of a job, but then we find ourselves dumping it into storage after the party’s over.

Or, sometimes, just sometimes, we actually find something we want, discover that it does everything it promises, and we end up using it frequently.

In early summer 1999, I had one such experience.

I was closing in on 23, living in a house near downtown Orlando, and enjoying one of my favorite pastimes: exploring my neighborhood Best Buy for the next great temptation. In those days, Best Buy was the premier place for your electronic, movie, and gaming needs, as well as the place for consumer products that single college students don’t typically care about—like brand new appliances and office furniture. On that particular Friday afternoon, I was perusing the computer game shelf for my weekly fix of seeing what’s new and taking a mental inventory of what I might want someday and wrestling with my financial conscience over the concept of fiscal responsibility and deciding on the difference between what I needed (food, rent, shelter) and what I didn’t (movies, computer games, anything that didn’t add a day to my life), when I happened across the shiny quarter that would intercept my summer with a vengeance. It was a computer game called RollerCoaster Tycoon, and it would steal my heart away.

In our modern-day society, I think it’s fair to say that we make most of our big decisions the same way we make our little ones. We search the Internet for that next great job and apply to anything that looks promising. We often don’t get the interview (for the people in charge of hiring seek their candidates the same way), and in those rare moments when we actually get the job, we find that our actual responsibilities are nothing like what was listed in the description, or that those things we did come to expect are really ill-fitting for us, and even if we get the paycheck we want, the experience earning it comes with a soul-sucking black hole. Or, we go house-hunting, find the perfect beach house on the housing site we trust, and discover at the open house that the photos displaying its majesty are ten years old and that the owners haven’t been keeping up with it since the pictures were taken. Or, we go through the motions of picking out our house, buy it, move in, and discover a week later that there’s a skeleton in the downstairs closet, just behind the water heater (or termites).

One of the biggest decisions we make, the people we get involved with or even marry, also falls into the trap of express itemizing, of cover judging, of buying before the research is finished (or started), and even when we might know better, we still find ourselves window shopping, we still find ourselves impulse buying, and we still go home with buyer’s remorse. It happens far more often than not.

And yet for some, it still works. For a while.

When I saw RollerCoaster Tycoon sitting on that shelf, I was immediately intrigued by the cover, but I wasn’t about to waste $30 on a cover. I had to check out the back of the box, where the game’s description could be found, where I could get a sense of the game through the screenshots. I didn’t want to end up with some ugly mess of a product that dabbled in a genre I had no interest in playing. But what I found on the back simply amazed me. As a fan of rollercoasters and the nature of motion and momentum they provide, I was curious how a game about building an amusement park would handle that. And when I saw that the rollercoasters were free-form, and that little people called “peeps” would spend money to ride them, and that I could still build an experience similar to what I might find at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure all around it, I thought, sold!

At that point, I’d done all the initial research I needed. I knew I was going to buy this game. But when? Would I wait until I knew I could afford it? Would I investigate it further through consumer reviews or magazine write-ups? Would I wait a few months for the price to drop? Any one of these precautions probably would’ve been smarter, and I knew it even then. But no, I didn’t want to wait. I had to have this thing now. I had to play it tonight. It promised me everything I ever wanted in a “tycoon” style game (building a park from an empty lot, deciding where things go, how much they cost to ride, how many janitors, security guards, etc. needed to roam the park, whether or not peeps had to pay to use the restrooms, and so forth, not to mention building rollercoasters!), and dang it, I was going to build me an epic park. So I kept it in hand, headed for the checkout, and impulse bought the greatest computer game I’d ever find.

I was so excited for this game that, even though I went to my friend Brad’s house to hang out for a bit (I think this was the time when I was putting together a graduation video for another friend, and was sort of on a deadline and needed Brad’s help to film a part of it), I kept thinking about how much I just wanted to go home and check out this new game I’d bought, even though I knew nothing about it beyond what the box promised, and hadn’t even heard of it prior to my Best Buy visit. As evening approached, I decided that I didn’t want to hang out longer than necessary, even though I could’ve been social (and a good friend while I was at it), so I got into my truck, looked at my precious new RollerCoaster Tycoon, and dreamed about the night we were about to have together.

And let me tell you, it was everything the box had promised. If I had waited months to buy it, I would’ve discovered its coming legacy as a critically acclaimed, best-selling Game of the Year (strategy, if I recall), that would give me not one, but two expansion packs, which meant having three times as many parks to build (25 each pack), a dozen or so new rides and shop stalls, new themes, and more, turning a great game into something unparalleled, and if I had waited as much as a year, I would’ve been able to get all of that as a complete set for a fraction of the cost. But I didn’t wait. I took a chance while it was still new and I knew nothing about it. And it was a chance I’d consider pretty lucky.

When I went home that night, I installed the game, played through the first park (a grassy area, taking me about three hours to complete all of the objectives), fell in love with both the concept and the game’s execution of the concept, played the second park, a desert map with a pyramid-like sand dune in the lower right corner and a crazy mine coaster in the upper right corner, overspent my money on a swinging overhead coaster that had an absurdly high nausea rating, kept trying to sell off pieces and rebuild them into new shapes in order to lower the “extreme nausea” designation caused by sudden changes in height and direction, and kept waiting for the “peeps” to fund my operation enough to not only outweigh my expenses (keeping things in the green) but to do so at a fast enough rate that I could lay more than one piece of track every few minutes, and kept building past my required objectives into the sandbox period (when you no longer have to keep an eye on the game clock) until I’d stayed up so late that night that I had to quit because it was now Saturday morning and I had to go to work. And yes, I went to work (at that famed ‘90s establishment called Blockbuster Video) without having gotten any sleep, and by noon that day, I found myself literally sleepwalking while carrying a stack of VHS tapes to the shelves. But I thought the experience was worth it, and when I went home that evening, I lay in bed for just a few hours, enough to quench the sleepiness I’d felt, and then I was back up by eight o’clock and plowing through another session of amusement park construction, which I would again stick with until the absurd hours of the night, or morning.

Did I get my money’s worth out of that game? Absolutely. I played it just about every day for four straight months. Did I give it the epic marathon of hours each day that I had in that first weekend? No. Not even close. I had other responsibilities to factor in, like college, work, church, friends, food, sleep, etc., so I reduced my epic gaming sessions down to maybe an hour or two a day. But I kept advancing through the parks, and when the first expansion, Corkscrew Follies, came out, I was briefly rekindled with my love for the game, for the expansion offered me 25 new parks, a handful of new rides and shop stalls, new themes, and all of the things that a new expansion to any game would normally offer a gamer in 1999, and I would devote a new breath of endless hours just to play it through a second honeymoon stage.

But then my time with it began to wane. I no longer played it daily. Weekly, yes, but not daily. Then the second expansion pack, Loopy Landscapes, came out (either in late 1999 or early 2000). I bought it for $20 (same price as Corkscrew Follies, and the average price for most expansion packs of any game of the day), and played it for a short while as I discovered yet again a new series of parks, stalls, rides, and themes. But by then I was getting bored with the game, and a new spit shine wasn’t going to be enough to put me back on the epic trail. In late 1999 and early to mid-2000, I had two new games stealing most of my attention, Jagged Alliance 2, a complex squad-based tactical strategy game about using hired mercenaries to free a third-world country of its tyrant leader, which I’d bought on impulse like RollerCoaster Tycoon earlier that spring or summer, and The Sims, a game from the makers of all those “Sim” games from the ‘90s that I’d liked so much, which involved building houses and developing characters, and, well, The Sims became the best-selling computer game of all time and probably doesn’t need an explanation here, which I did research a little before buying, though I’d come very close to impulse buying that one, too. By the time The Sims got my attention, RollerCoaster Tycoon had become yesterday’s news, and I’d hardly play it again, at least not for a while. And yeah, it would get two sequels, with one of them getting a full 3D treatment and an expansion pack involving water parks and another involving zoos, and though I’d give the second sequel a significant amount of my attention over time, it still didn’t capture the same level of thrill that the first game had given me in those first four months of ownership.

The fact is, no matter how much I enjoyed my game in the beginning, and no matter how much bang I got for that 30 bucks, and no matter how much of its promises it had kept, in the end, I still moved on after the thrill went away. At the end of the day, it was fun, but it stole four months of my life, added nothing back, and I really didn’t become a better man for it, or even produce better work as a result of having it—unless you count my short story, “Amusement,” which had a setting inspired by the game. The most it gave back to me was a “tycoon” mentality that got me thinking about how spending money makes money, which would’ve been helpful had I gone into business for myself, which I still haven’t done. Certainly not a bad thing, but when you consider how much time I’d sunk into a temporary love that took more from me than it gave, it shouldn’t be hard to see how much I really didn’t need it.

No, the better investment was in the computer I played it on. Sure, I had spent $3000 on that thing, but I had it custom built according to what I needed, and though I had wanted it to come with wonderful qualities like high processing and nice sound, I was most concerned with its longevity. I had planned to write many a story and complete many a homework assignment on that thing, as well as to play the occasional game when I needed some fun, and I wanted to make sure that I could use it for as long as possible, so my decision to choose the model I’d chosen was made for the long-term, and I chose only what I knew I needed, not what necessarily looked or sounded the best. The computer ended up lasting eight long years before showing the early signs of a coming death, and I remained loyal to it until I knew it was basically done with me and ready to die. And I didn’t impulse buy it; I researched it, asked a trusted source for advice on how to choose the right model, made decisions about what I needed and what I wanted and how much I could compromise in order to get the model best suited for me, and even worked out how I would pay for it and keep up with its relevance. And I didn’t find it at Best Buy. No, there was really nothing I needed at Best Buy the day I went window shopping and found the game that would offer me only a small fraction of the time and usefulness that my computer itself had offered me.

At best, I’d found on that day a quick fix for sadness or loneliness, but nothing made to last. I would’ve needed a different mindset to discover something of true lasting value. But I bought it anyway because it was there and I wanted it and I didn’t care that I didn’t need it.

Isn’t that basically how we make most of our important decisions?

Consider this reality: We live in a society plagued by divorce, by dissatisfaction, by distrust, by trains of baggage, and other relational maladies that we fear so much but somehow still expect to buy mistakenly, even when we want to believe that this time it’s going to work, even though we keep doing things the same way at the same place each time. We just think that if we keep looking in that same shop window, we’re going to find what we’re looking for.

Maybe we need to expand our reach a little, take a little more time to do the research before making the sacrificial purchase, examine whether this is what we need before committing so much precious time to discover how much it really isn’t.

That said, I’ve since made back the $30 I spent on the game (and the computer, for that matter), but I never made back the time. There are plenty of things I could’ve done with those lost months, or people I could’ve met, or skills I could’ve built that would’ve benefitted me more than the limited (watered-down) business concepts or design methods the game had taught me. But, nope. I chose what chose, and I’ve done something similar plenty of times before and since, often with far fewer redeeming values than the game I most adored, and I can’t begin to guess the amount of hours I’ve ground into dust trying to medicate my heart with this thing that added so little value to my life. But I will say that I don’t regret it because it was a lot of fun at the time, and I still occasionally think about the parks I’ve built, even if I have basically moved on to other preoccupations.

Question is, are these new loves in my life worth the investment, or are they also just shallow fillers of my irreplaceable time? I’m still having fun, certainly, but I don’t really like how little I’ve progressed in life. Maybe I need to stop going after what looks good or feels good and start giving my time to what is good.

I hope you will, too.

Happy Leap Day.

The Pros and Cons of Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2016:

Well, it’s another commercially-inspired holiday today, and with it will come a massive economic boost for restaurants, movie theaters, flower shops, candy shops, jewelry stores, Walmart, and, of course, Hallmark. Marriage proposals, baby conceptions, and fights among the unequally paired will be prevalent today, but should you be part of the traditional festivities?

If you’re not sure whether or not Valentine’s Day is right for you, let me break it down to you through another Pros and Cons list so that you might be better informed of your decision:

Pros:

  • At some point, the person you choose to celebrate with will probably tell you he/she loves you. This is especially beneficial if you love that person back.
  • You get to prove your hard-earned love by buying something expensive for the person of your affection and proving, once and for all, that money can buy appreciation.
  • Depending on the couple: sex. (This should probably be at the top of the list.)
  • You get to see what your partner looks like inebriated after several glasses of wine and maybe take pictures for whenever blackmail may be necessary (for those times when the relationship is not as healthy as Valentine’s Day makes it seem), or just laugh because they’re even funnier that way.
  • You might gain a new puppy.
  • If you ever wanted to get married, this is a good day for popping or receiving the question.
  • You might gain a diamond ring.
  • You can post all of your Valentine’s Day photos on Facebook and Instagram on February 15th for all of your friends to see and compare and get jealous over.
  • You can get forgiveness for the devotion you gave to the Super Bowl the weekend before.

Cons:

  • If your partner says “I love you” while intoxicated, he or she may not remember it later, and then deny ever saying it, leading to some awkward conclusions. Also, if your partner is “saving up for Valentine’s Day,” then this might be the only time you hear it all year.
  • Valentine’s Day gifts are patently expensive and can break your bank if you don’t budget.
  • Babies are also expensive–really, really expensive. Hope that night was really fun because the fun’s over, pal. Time to get responsible.
  • You get to prove how lousy a partner you are (or have) by your Valentine’s Day decisions. No pressure, though. Not applicable if you’re actually good for the person you’re with.
  • That puppy will grow up into a dog that you have to take care of for fifteen years, and then you’ll cry your heart out when you have to bury it, even more than when you cried over the person who gave it to you running off with someone else fourteen years earlier.
  • Marriage is hard. And you’ll have to think of another way to spend Valentine’s Day next year, since you’ve already used up the proposal card. Hopefully you’re creative.
  • People are treated like slaves and threatened with death daily in order to fetch those diamonds you wanted so badly for Valentine’s Day.
  • You’ll see everyone else’s Valentine’s Day photos and get jealous.
  • As much as you want to see Deadpool (or some other action film) tonight, you’re probably not going to.

So, I hope this list helps you figure out whether Valentine’s Day is right for you. And remember, February 14th is just another day on the calendar. If you love somebody, it’s a good idea to show it year round, and it’s also a good idea to learn what love actually is. If you think it’s just about how you feel, then there’s a good chance you’ll be celebrating Valentine’s Day with someone new every few years. And good luck if that’s you! If you’re the type who thinks love is shown and based on how you treat your partner, then you might be in for a more successful run, and your “pros” will likely be more plentiful (and more serious than the list I gave you).

“The Computer Nerd” Release Day

October 20, 2015

Official Ad Flier for
Official Ad Flier for “The Computer Nerd”

Well, the day is finally here. Have you picked up your copy of The Computer Nerd yet? If not, you can find it at the online retailers presented in the links on its official page. It’s just 99 cents, a bargain for all the punch it packs!

If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think. If you start a discussion about it somewhere, link me to it. I’m curious to know how the general public receives it.

I’ve posted quite a bit about this story already, so I’ll keep this entry brief. Just wanted to say thanks to all of you reading this who have shown support by picking up your copy. If you like what you’ve read, then feel free to take a look at some of the other things I’ve written, which you can find on the side bar to the right. Most of them are shorter and freer, so they’re a no-risk investment.

In early November, I’ll begin the postmortem report on The Computer Nerd, its sales potential and reality, and how it stacks up against the concerns I posted about yesterday. Why would you want to know about that? Well, if you’re an aspiring author who wants to give indie publishing a try, then you might like a heads up on what the sales reality for what you’re producing could look like. We all need a reality check sometimes. I will also talk more about the books that are next on my release schedule if you’re interested in what’s coming soon.

Thanks for the readership, folks. Start opening up those discussions.

A Note to Potential Reviewers:

If you’d like a free copy of The Computer Nerd to review for your blog or website, feel free to send me a request by e-mail, listed on my contact page, with the subject line “Requesting Book for Review,” or some iteration. In the body, specify that you want a copy of The Computer Nerd for review and send me a link to your blog or website so that I know where to look for it. I’d also appreciate a follow-up e-mail when the review goes live so I can link it here. Please note that all free copies must be redeemed at Smashwords.

And thanks for your interest.

Regarding the Price:

I had intended to keep it priced at $.99, but after giving it some thought, and seeing how little readers seem to be interested in a cheap book (versus a free one?) so far, I think it makes more sense to charge a standard price for a worthwhile book. So, on October 27, 2015, the price will go up to $2.99. I think this is more fitting for its size and quality anyway.

However, for those who read this blog, I’ll keep a $.99 coupon handy for you (which I’ll list on The Computer Nerd‘s book page) until the end of the year.

Again, this wasn’t my original intention, but I think it makes the most sense from a business standpoint, especially now that I can see how little of a sales difference $.99 makes (spoiler alert!).

Changing Gears:

Beginning tomorrow, I’ll be posting some new book reviews and other interesting things in honor of Back to the Future Day, so I hope you’ll come back for the fun.

–Jeremy

“The Computer Nerd” One More Day until Release

October 19, 2015

The Computer Nerd Cover Image
The Computer Nerd Cover Image

So, with tomorrow marking the release of my first attempt at selling a book I’ve written (no longer just the freebies on an ambiguous marketplace where anything and everything shares space), I must admit that the uncertainties of success are mounting. Will it succeed? Will it fail? Will anyone even notice?

The scary thing about putting my work on the Internet for all to see is that some people might actually check it out, and those same people will undoubtedly have an opinion. Whether that opinion is positive or negative can greatly influence the future the work has with the rest of its audience. The more people who praise it (or, realistically, if the first person to comment is one who praises it), the better chance it has at winning respect and additional readers, maybe even fans. If the majority, or even the first to comment, shows a tendency toward dislike, then the question is begged if the story, and its author, has a chance to find a more successful audience elsewhere. It’s a nerve-racking thing to think about.

This doesn’t make me as nervous when I send out freebies, like the six books that are already available (check the right sidebar for those titles). The only risk in reading a free story is that you can’t get those ten seconds back (the ones you invested to find out you’re not a fan of this thing you just downloaded). It’s a bit more of a nail-biter when people actually shell out their hard earned dollars for your work.

I suppose when the traditional publishers take control of a work and the overall feedback is negative, or nonexistent, it has a greater effect on the author since that publisher may be hesitant to take on the next book. In the indie world, the next book stands on its own. Same goes with positive feedback. The more that people like a book, the better chance it has to gain a momentum in respect, in criticism, and ultimately in sales, and the more the traditional publisher will like the author. On that same note, the indie author who puts out his second book is unlikely to see an effect carry over from his first, as his next book cleans the slate, and the traditional publishers can’t prevent it from getting into readers’ hands.

Yet, a good book is a good book, and a good author will more than likely have some momentum going into his second book, if the people reading him know that he’s good.

I think the meteoric rise of a book like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline sets a strong example of the benefits of momentum. Great book, strong premise, competent writer, decent publicity, movie tie-in: no doubt the author would have a free pass for his second book. To me, as a fan of the first book, I think Cline has earned his free pass because his second book, Armada, while entertaining and worth a read, doesn’t quite hit the same marks. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to. It’s good enough that Cline’s third book will come out with strong legs, most likely. And that’s just it. The momentum keeps going. I daresay the momentum stays fierce because Ready Player One was such a force out the gate that Cline could probably peddle his success on that book for several titles to come, even though Armada does hold its own to a lesser extent.

On a similar note, I keep thinking M. Knight Shyamalan has had three hits after The Sixth Sense before Lady in the Water crashed at the theaters. Each one was a little worse than the one before (well, I’d actually argue that Unbreakable was his best movie, but that’s me), but he still carried The Sixth Sense‘s momentum for a little while. Of course, the movies he’s done since Lady in the Water are proof that every artist must give each work his all and not trust his momentum to last forever. At some point, the talent must come back. Fortunately, it seems his newest film, The Visit, has pulled him back into form (I haven’t seen it myself, but the reviewers say he’s gone back to his old ways, which is good). Point is, now that I’m heading into a tangent if I don’t reel it in here, each work stands on its own, but momentum certainly helps.

I don’t know if I’ll gain any momentum once The Computer Nerd goes live tomorrow. The benefit of the presale is that all sales to Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, and Kobo made before tomorrow will get counted tomorrow, and the book can rank higher on the sales charts than if I had not opened it up to presale. But, I’m also choosing to release on a Tuesday, which is the greatest competition day (admittedly the reason why I chose to release on the 20th and not the 23rd–I mean, why not see how I stack against the big bosses?). A scan on Amazon shows I’m going up against John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer. Am I going to outsell John Grisham? Not a frickin’ chance. Not even close. But, I am releasing a 99-cent book tomorrow that runs the equivalent of a little over 300 pages in a paperback. He’s releasing his 352-page book for $17.37 on Amazon ($14.99 on Kindle). In fairness, he probably has an editor telling him where all the story fat is located. I’m basically fending for myself here. But I think I held my own as a worthy author for this one.

Bottom line is that The Computer Nerd is worth every bit its price, as I’m sure Rogue Lawyer is worth every bit of its price. (As an avid collector of John Grisham hardcovers, I’ll no doubt be picking up my copy one of these days.)

Yes, I’m well aware that I just promoted John Grisham’s book for the same day that mine is coming out to the e-book market. Whatever. There’s a reason he’s popular. Again, mine is an eighth of the price and almost the same volume of story. (I can’t comment on quality because I haven’t read Rogue Lawyer. I’m sure it’s good. I believe mine is also good, though I welcome your judgment if you’re reading this.) In the great scale of weights and measures, buying The Computer Nerd on or before October 20, 2015 (basically today or tomorrow), still makes sense.

Speaking of promoting other people’s books, I’m happy to say that Larry Brooks’s Story Fix is out now, and for anyone who’s read Story Engineering or Story Physics, you’ll know that Larry Brooks is a gift to writers, and if you haven’t read his books, which you can find at the Writer’s Digest Shop, you totally should, if you’re the least bit serious about writing stories. I’ve picked up my copy this past Saturday, and even though I’m releasing The Computer Nerd tomorrow, I’ll certainly be looking forward to releasing a revised version in the near future should I learn about anything I’ve broken and didn’t bother to fix. The nice thing about publishing e-books myself is that I can do such things as that. Obviously, if I release a major update to the story (and I don’t foresee that happening because I have edited the crap out of this thing already), I’ll post about it. Once you buy it, you’re supposed to have access to all successive versions.

But again, I don’t foresee that being necessary. I’ll more than likely need Brooks’s advice for the one I’m currently updating, The Evil Clone of Michael K., which I hope to release in December (on a Friday or Saturday).

So, on that note, buy John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer tomorrow. But, if you have a leftover dollar to spare (or your regional equivalent), give The Computer Nerd a try. You can sample the first six chapters, beginning with this post, and find out more about the book on its official page. The e-book, which is approximately 80,000 words, or the equivalent of about 300 pages (in paperback), can be bought at Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, and starting tomorrow, you can also buy it at Smashwords.

If you get a chance to read it, please comment here, or leave a review on your purchased store’s website, or at The Computer Nerd page on Goodreads.

Thanks. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this story. If you start a discussion on it anywhere (for better or for worse; my skin is thick), please link it to the comments below. I’d love to see what people are saying about it.

“The Computer Nerd” Chapter 6

Happy Friday the 16th. For those of you who have been checking Drinking Cafe Latte at 1pm for the last few weeks, you’ll know that we’re just a few days away from the big release of my novel, The Computer Nerd, as a sexy digital e-book for your slick little reader. Did you ever think those words would all fit naturally in the same sentence? Nope, me neither. Funny how that works. The things that the future makes us say.

But, before the big day comes, why don’t we sneak a peek at one more chapter? Just one more.

As usual, if you have no idea why you’re here or what I’m talking about, check out the previous chapters to see the fuss firsthand, and then read on with everyone else about the crazy thing that’s about to happen to our hero.

Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Once again, if you like this story and must know how it’ll end (and it’s a doozy), please support the author (which would be me) by preordering your copy at either Apple, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo and then read it in its entirety, starting this coming Tuesday, October 20th. It’s just 99 cents (or your regional equivalent).

You can find out all of the relevant information on The Computer Nerd‘s official page.

Now then, it’s time for the final preview chapter:

Chapter 6

“Wedding Day”

When Anston awoke sometime later, he was still in just his skimpy silk boxers, but he was now upright with his back pressed to a leather seat. And he was feeling motion all around him. And his hands were tied behind his back.

He was riding in a car. His own car. As a passenger.

Alice was driving.

“Alice?”

The sky was dark, but dawn was approaching. In spite of his grogginess, he could make out the azure tint of the rising sun just over the distant hills. The Maserati was moving toward it.

“Where are we?”

Alice was focused on the road ahead. She blinked occasionally, but her eyes were mostly staring at the windshield and all that came toward it. She demonstrated the traits of most casual drivers at least once a minute, checking the side and rearview mirrors. Giving him her attention was apparently the least on her mind.

Anston shook in his seat. He finally understood the situation he was in. His wrists were bound by some kind of twine behind his back. And he was just about naked, save for the ridiculous shorts he was wearing. He didn’t even have on his socks.

Alice was none of these things. Her hands were free, gripped comfortably over the steering wheel. And she was dressed again, this time in something more elegant than what she had worn the night before—a yellow sundress and matching hat. She also had on some makeup. He hadn’t seen her looking so “normal” since the days before their wedding. He was confused.

“Alice? Why are my hands tied?”

She didn’t answer. She was concentrating on the light traffic around them.

He tried to wrest his hands free of the twine, but it was secured tightly. He pulled hard, so hard that he nearly strained his neck. The thing wouldn’t break; it just ate deeper into his skin. Then he tried twisting his body so that he might snag the twine on the automatic window controller and attempt to cut it open. But the seatbelt constricted his motion. There was little he could do but wait for whatever was coming next.

“Alice?”

Again, she didn’t answer. She was too busy watching the back of a produce truck trying to stay ahead of them.

The situation began to erode Anston’s psyche. Alice’s ignorance of his presence was gradually bringing him to fury. His patience for her silence had finally worn so thin that he could see right through it. He finally snapped at her.

“Alice! Answer me!”

She glanced at him. There was pain in her face.

“What are you yelling for? I’ve got a headache.”

He didn’t have the stomach for further ignorance.

“Why am I tied up and naked in the car?”

She looked back at the road.

“I thought that’s what you wanted.”

He could’ve laughed at her comment if it hadn’t sounded so insane.

“Why would I want that?”

She shrugged.

“Alice. Where are we going?”

“Guess.”

Anston shook his head. He was in no mood for games. He was grateful that she hadn’t stabbed him in his sleep, but he wasn’t convinced the current situation was much better.

“Just tell me.”

“Guess.”

He lurched forward as much as the seatbelt would allow. It chafed against his bare chest. Fortunately, he didn’t have much of a chest to chafe.

“Why won’t you tell me?”

“Because I want you to guess.”

He struggled more with the twine.

“Could you untie my hands first?”

She smiled. It looked fake.

“If you guess, then maybe I’ll untie you.”

Anston closed his eyes and took in a deep breath through his nose. He let the air out through his mouth. Then he repeated the process a few more times. He started to regret ever ditching Rebecca for this. He could’ve had a nice dinner with her, maybe slept at her house instead—a reaching idea given how little they knew of each other, but it was nothing unusual given the culture to which they belonged. Certainly would’ve been better to wake up in her bed than tied up in the passenger seat of his own vehicle while a confirmed nut drove him to some undisclosed location. Unless of course Rebecca had the same plans for him, which was also possible given how little they knew of each other.

There was no other way around this, he realized. He would have to give in to Alice’s request.

“Are we going to a landfill?” he asked.

Anston looked at her when she didn’t give him a response. She was still watching the road, though her eyes were showing signs of disturbance. She suddenly looked hurt.

“Alice?”

She glanced at him quickly. The road was clear ahead, but it was starting to curve. She had to keep her attention on it.

“Why would you think we’re going to a landfill?” she asked.

“Are we?”

“No. That’s absurd.”

Anston lowered his eyebrows at her.

“Alice, are you taking me to a landfill?”

“To get married!” Her fingers were now tight around the steering wheel and she was leaning forward. She was also blinking now. A lot. “You said you’d marry me again. That’s where we’re going. To get married.”

Anston looked at the road ahead. The scenery was bare of manmade structures. They were driving down a highway that cut through a forest. Most of the vehicles they passed were commercial rigs headed for the next town, or the next state. If they were getting remarried, they were taking the long way to the chapel.

“Are we headed to Vegas?” he asked.

She gave an expression similar to a smile.

“Why are my hands tied?”

“To make sure you don’t back out at the last minute.”

Anston nodded. Somehow that made sense to him.

“Where are my clothes?”

“At home.”

He glanced at her.

“You didn’t pack me a bag?”

“You don’t need clothes for the honeymoon, sweetheart.”

“I do for the wedding!”

“You don’t in Vegas.”

Anston rolled his eyes. He realized skipping out on dinner with Rebecca wasn’t regretting far enough back in time. He should’ve regretted having ever signed up on an Internet dating site. Alice was the best he could get.

“We do, however, have one stop to make on the way,” she said.

***

Less than an hour later, they pulled off into a motel parking lot. Anston figured Alice wanted a pre-wedding celebration akin to the almost celebration they’d had the night before, but he soon realized that was not at all her intention for coming here. When she’d left him to go to the front office, she was not picking up a room key, but a passenger.

The passenger was a slightly older gentleman, about forty-five or fifty, with a salty beard and gray boater hat. He was dressed in a gray suit and matching tie. Everything about him was gray. But his pale skin, leathery in texture from years of tans cut short by a sudden binge of indoor living, still had the smoothness of middle adulthood. He didn’t quite have the ghostly presence of a man dead before his time. But he was getting there.

Alice skipped across the parking lot to the Maserati with the older gentleman tagging along from behind. He was less enthusiastic in his approach. The large brown suitcase he carried with both hands was weighing him down, as was the frown on his face. When he reached the car, Alice popped the trunk for him. When he came to the passenger side, without suitcase in hand, he unhooked Anston’s seatbelt.

“Get out,” he said without batting an eye.

Anston stared at him, incredulous that a complete stranger would order him out of his own car.

“Excuse me?”

“I can’t get in with you sitting there. Get out.”

Anston glanced over at Alice, who was now in the driver’s seat, to get her opinion on whether this guy was serious. She motioned him with a nod to acknowledge the gray man. Anston sighed and slipped out of his seat, hands still tied behind his back, shorts still barely covering his midsection. The exit was difficult; he had to clear the seatbelt by shaking his shoulders and swiveling out using his abdominal muscles, which he didn’t have many of. Once he managed to stand erect and stretch his legs, he suddenly realized how cold it was outside. He shivered and danced in place while he waited for the gray stranger to push the front seat forward and climb into the back. Once he put the seat in place, he gestured Anston to get back in the car. Alice buckled him in. Then she stepped on the car’s accelerator, causing the vehicle to lurch forward. The force of momentum was strong enough to shut the passenger door.

Anston sat there in silence as the Maserati exited the parking lot and raced for the traffic light. He continued to stare out into the world around him, silently, dwelling on any thought that popped into his head. He let the billboards that passed them dictate his internal narrative. Did he have law insurance? Jack Daniels liquor? Was he prepared to spray his home full of pesticide? He tried to convince himself that, “Yes, I do need insert product here,” by trying to figure out how each one was relative to the next. He’d need to drink a tall glass of Jack Daniels after dealing with the law firm’s insurance adjuster, and then breathe in the pesticide to forget the entire episode. And he’d keep distracting himself with these thoughts throughout the silence for as long as he could stand. But by the time Alice pulled out onto the Interstate, he couldn’t take the silence any longer. He needed answers.

“Who the hell are you anyway?” he asked the man sitting behind him. He couldn’t exactly turn to look at him, but he tried to keep an eye on him through the outside mirror.

The man didn’t answer. Anston wasn’t surprised.

Anston was surprised, however, that Alice spoke for him.

“He’s our witness,” she said. “Can’t get a license without a witness. Remember?”

Anston nodded. He remembered. He also remembered that Vegas was full of drunk people willing to sign a legal document, and that today would offer no fewer choices than the first time they’d married. This guy was hardly necessary. Anston did not understand his ex-wife at all.

***

A short time into the drive, Alice pulled off the highway into a gas station. She stopped at the empty pump closest to the exit. Before stepping out of the car, she patted Anston’s knee and peered into his eyes.

“I need your pin number,” she said.

Anston felt a sharp burst of electricity racing through his chest.

“My what?”

“For your debit card.”

He narrowed his eyebrows.

My debit card?”

She had a deadpan expression. Either it was still early in the morning, or she hadn’t developed personality in the few hours she’d been home.

“I don’t have one of my own,” she said. “I’ve been locked up for a year, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I haven’t forgotten.”

“So, password, please.”

Anston thought about the request. Tried looking over his shoulder at the strange man sitting behind him, though the man was still just to the left of his peripheral sight. He looked back at Alice, who was sitting there patiently. She had not taken her eyes off of him.

“How about I just pay for the gas?” Anston said.

“Yes,” said Alice. “You will. That’s the point. Password.”

“I mean, how about I pump the gas and everything?”

She set her left hand on the steering wheel and stroked it. With her other hand, she rubbed, then squeezed Anston’s knee. Her face was colder than a penguin’s foot.

“How are you going to do that with your hands tied, sweetheart?”

Anston was about to respond, but Alice put her finger to his lips.

“I’m not gonna debate this,” she said. “I’ve been away too long and I just want my life back. Give me the password.”

Anston tried glancing in the direction of the stranger behind him, but Alice slid her hand to the side of his face and redirected him back to her.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s harmless. Your secret’s safe with me. What’s your password?”

Anston squeezed his eyes shut. This woman was making him more naked by the minute. But he knew she wouldn’t relent. No matter how wild her demand, no matter how much it might’ve weakened him, she still demanded it.

He’d have to make several changes to his security before this day was over.

“Two.”

She gestured him to continue when he stopped there.

“Go on.”

“Five.”

He paused again, thinking about the strange gray man behind him. Alice reached down and squeezed his thigh. She held her hand there while he staggered in his delivery. When he still didn’t answer, she crept her fingers up a few inches toward his groin, stopping halfway between the knee and the hip.

“Don’t make me reach the flag,” she said. “Because if I do, I’ll drop it to half-mast.”

“Four.”

He paused this time just to test her. True to her word, she slid her hand just up to the edge of his shorts. He jerked his knee away before she could finish her ascent. He resigned his will to fight her on this.

“Two. There, don’t injure me.”

She reached her hand up to his face and squeezed his chin. He could feel her thumb and forefinger causing tension against his lower back teeth.

“Why would I injure you on our wedding day?”

Besides the fact that she had just threatened him, he couldn’t think of any reason. But then again, he could think of many reasons, including the possibility of payback for him abandoning her to the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. He responded through his clenched jaw.

“I don’t know anymore.”

“It wouldn’t be much of a honeymoon, would it?” she asked.

“I guess not.”

She leaned closer and gave him what seemed like the beginning of a smile.

“If I were to injure you, it would be after the honeymoon.”

She released his jaw. He shuddered slightly. He had no idea when she’d consider the honeymoon over, or the precautions he’d have to take once their life was “back to normal.”

Alice climbed out of the Maserati and headed into the store. Anston, meanwhile, leaned into his seat and fought back the pressure overcoming his sinuses. The temptation to cry was building at an alarming rate. He slunk down as low as his seatbelt allowed.

“Oh God,” he said.

Next thing he knew, a meaty hand came reaching in from behind and took him by the neck. This hand was now squeezing his throat and blocking his ability to breathe. Anston’s eyes popped wide open when he realized what was happening.

He wanted to reach up and pry the man’s hand away, wanted so desperately to free himself from the sudden assault on his air supply, but he couldn’t move. The binds around his wrists had paralyzed his ability to defend himself. The best he could do was to throw himself hard into the backrest, but it wasn’t enough. He started kicking the glove box with his knees instead.

“Don’t disrespect a good woman like Alice,” the man said in a sinister whisper. “When she asks you a question, you answer her. You understand?”

Anston tried nodding, but the man’s hand was blocking his chin. Then he tried speaking, but his grip was so powerful that he couldn’t get his words out.

“You understand?” the man demanded again. “Answer me!”

Anston tried, but the best he could get out was a wheezy whisper. His voice was so strained that the gray man couldn’t hear him.

“Don’t make me kill you on your wedding day.”

Anston struggled.

“Alice would like me less if I did.”

Anston tried shaking his head, but the man’s thumb and forefinger was blocking him from moving side to side. He was fixed in that position.

“Do you want me to? Because I will. Mister Sanders ain’t here to stop me.”

Anston tried to get something out. Anything out. But the fight for air was clouding his ability to think. Even if he could get the words out, it was becoming harder for him to identify the right words to say.

“Maybe I should,” the gray man said. “You clearly don’t appreciate a woman of her caliber. She’s everything that I’d want. If she isn’t everything you want, then you shouldn’t have her, you damn ungrateful prick.”

Anston was sure he had said something in response, but he didn’t know what, and he didn’t know if it had gotten out into the open. He just knew that he was moments away from blacking out. He could feel his lungs screaming for air and his brain begging for oxygen. His cheeks were tightening and his forehead was throbbing. And his windpipe was likely suffering from constriction damage. It had already started feeling like a mallet had hammered it out of shape. Why the hell wasn’t Mr. Sanders here to stop him?

By the time his knees stopped flailing at the glove box, Alice returned to the car. She peeked in, noticed the stranger’s hand around Anston’s neck, and frowned.

“Doctor Nantucket,” she said. “That is inappropriate behavior. I didn’t agree to come with you so you could do this. Please release my husband’s neck.”

Suddenly a blast of air came rushing down Anston’s bruised windpipe. He gasped as he felt the hand around his throat loosen.

“Just trying to improve his wisdom,” Dr. Nantucket said. “Doesn’t seem to have much of it.”

“Well, his face was turning blue, so stop trying to educate him. That’s my job.”

Without another word, Alice went to the pump and started fueling the gas tank. Anston, meanwhile, was still gasping for air. It would be a few minutes before he could talk again.

While Anston was clamoring for breath, he noticed a police cruiser pulling into the parking lot. It parked parallel to the pump beside them. He stared at the cruiser’s cabin, hoping to make eye contact with its driver. The patrol officer was looking at something in his lap.

Alice replaced the nozzle into the pump and leaned toward the driver side door. She was looking right at Dr. Nantucket.

“I’m getting snacks,” she said. “Don’t strangle my husband again.”

She left. Anston was aware of her heading back to the store, but he kept his eyes trained on the patrol cruiser. It took the officer almost three minutes for him to get out of his car and another minute to stretch his legs, crack his back, and head toward the building. As he crossed the pump island, he noticed Anston staring at him. They followed each other’s gaze as the officer passed slowly behind the pumps.

The officer was out of sight, and Anston had no way of communicating the trouble he was now sure he was in.

But then, to his surprise, the officer came back into view, this time from the left, and approached the Maserati from the driver side, which was still wide open. Anston straightened his back.

“Good morning,” said the officer, as he peered into the vehicle through the open door.

“Morning,” said Dr. Nantucket, before Anston had a chance to speak. “How can we help you?”

“Oh, I was wondering if I could help you.” He was looking at Anston. “I notice that you’re riding around in some attire that may be less than appropriate for the public. Are you okay, sir?”

“He’s fine,” said Dr. Nantucket. “It’s his wedding day.”

The officer smiled.

“Ah, nerves?” he asked.

Dr. Nantucket reached around the seat and clasped Anston on the shoulder. Anston flinched so hard that he nearly slammed Nantucket’s hand against the wall. Nantucket released his grip and then clasped him even harder, so hard that it sent a tremor through Anston’s body.

“Can you blame him?”

The officer shook his head.

“I remember my wedding day. Made me a little crazy, too. My advice is this. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s just a ceremony to mark the commitment you’ve already made. Tomorrow will be no different than today. In fact, it’ll be better. You’ll realize that win or lose, there’s no turning back, so you may as well relax and enjoy the ride.” He pointed his index finger at Anston and winked. “I’ve been married for going on twenty years now. We’ve gotten our arguments for divorce down from ten to just three threats a year. I’m confident that by the time we kill each other, we’ll be down to two or fewer. It’s bliss.”

The officer noticed movement beside him and slid to his right to allow Alice some room. He looked at her and smiled.

“I assume you’re the lucky bride-to-be?” he asked.

Alice shrugged as she placed a bag of snacks into the seat. But she failed to hide her twitching smile.

The officer looked back into the car and nodded approval to Anston.

“A fine choice,” he said. “She’ll make you the luckiest guy on earth, I can see that now.” He slapped the roof of the car. “Well, good luck to both of you. Hopefully you’ll put on some warmer clothes once you get your wits about you. There’s a cold front coming in.”

“Thank you, officer,” Dr. Nantucket said.

The officer continued on toward the store. Anston was crestfallen by his departure. He hadn’t been able to get out a single word of warning. Now he was back alone here with the nuts.

Alice moved the bag to Anston’s lap and climbed into the empty driver’s seat. Then she reached into the bag for a package of Funyuns. She opened it and aimed it at Anston’s mouth. She raised her eyebrows at him. He simply stared at her. She shrugged and offered the bag to Dr. Nantucket. Dr. Nantucket stole it from her hand.

Then they pulled out of the parking lot and onto the Interstate.

Anston leaned against the window and rolled his eyes. Even though he could feel his windpipe lessening in pain, he didn’t feel like talking now. He had no idea what the hell was happening anymore. He just knew he wanted out of this ridiculous marriage plot. None of this made any sense.

Unfortunately, he could see plainly that he was running out of time to back out. The signs for Las Vegas were beginning to creep along the highway. Every ten miles they would come closer together, until they came within range of the turnoff that would lead them in the direction of the city.

And then they drove right past it.

Anston sat up straight as his back suddenly tensed. He watched the exit for Las Vegas slip behind him. Then he glanced at Alice.

“You missed your exit,” he said.

She shook her head.

“No I didn’t.”

“But, Vegas is that way.”

She looked at him as if he were crazy.

“So?”

He leaned toward her slightly. He was getting more confused by the second.

“Aren’t we going to get married there?”

“Eventually.”

“Eventually?”

She returned her focus to the road.

“Gotta do Doctor Nantucket’s thing first.”

Anston shook his head in disbelief.

“What’s this now?”

She was the kind of driver who always kept her hands in the ten o’clock-two o’clock position when she didn’t have a point to make. But now she was holding the two o’clock hand up to Anston’s face.

“I don’t have patience for your constant questions,” she said. “I’m trying to concentrate on the road.”

“My constant questions? Sorry, honey, but I’m starting to feel like a kidnap victim.”

“Well, don’t.”

He would’ve tossed his hands up in protest if he could.

“How do I not?”

She shrugged. Her attention was already entirely rapt on the road.

“I demand the truth,” he said. “Where are we really going?”

“Side trip,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I have to worry about it. You’re kidnapping me.”

“No I’m not. And no you don’t.”

She left it at that. Anston glanced out the window again. The desert was looking emptier by the minute.

“I don’t understand you at all,” he said to her.

“I know.”

He looked at her for clarification, but she offered him none. Then he went back to staring out the window.

“I wish this madness would just end,” he said under his breath.

“It will, honey.” She must’ve heard him anyway. “Just sleep it off. We’ll reach our destination soon.”

“I can’t sleep it off. I’m too stressed over this whole thing.”

He heard the clinking of glass down on the floor behind him. Then he heard a suction pop. Next thing he knew, Dr. Nantucket was reaching around him with both hands. He flinched. But the gray man wasn’t threatening to strangle him this time. In one hand was an empty goblet. In the other was the corkless bottle of the champagne that Anston and Alice had celebrated with the night before.

“Drink this,” said Dr. Nantucket. “Special concoction of mine. It’ll knock you right out.”

(end sample)

And there you go! Are you itching to see what Alice and Dr. Nantucket have planned for Anston? Are you eager to find out how Anston outsmarts these people and gets away (assuming he gets away, though you shouldn’t assume anything!)? Are you curious how Anston and Alice’s relationship will progress or decline (or both, or both simultaneously)? Are you just in the mood for the conclusion to a good story and want nothing more to do with these teasers? Then show your support by preordering your copy today.

As usual, feel free to comment.

If you want to buy your copy of The Computer Nerd for your own computer (or tablet, or iPhone, or iPad, or whatever you read things on), please visit the official page for ordering information.

Thanks.

P.S. For those of you who like post-credits scenes at the end of your favorite movies (think: Marvel movies), when you do get your copy, you may want to keep reading past the end matter for a special secret ending.

“The Computer Nerd” Chapter 5

Friday is here again, and with it comes the next big chapter reveal for my upcoming novel, The Computer Nerd, in its e-book form. Have you read the other chapters yet? If not, go play catch up here:

Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

As always, if you like where this story is going–and how could you not?–please support the author (which would be me) by preordering your copy at either Apple, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo and then read it in its entirety, starting on October 20th.

You can find out all of the relevant information on The Computer Nerd‘s official page.

Chapter 5

“The Risky Variable”

Anston had his hand on the bedroom door, softly counting to thirty. He had no idea what would happen as soon as he opened it. Alice was unpredictable, and he didn’t want to barge into the bedroom as if everything was fine. Nothing was fine. She had been a secured patient at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility just a few hours ago, and nothing in Dr. Farea’s discussion, as confidential as he had tried to keep it, had suggested she was ready for discharge. The last year of her residency must’ve been good for her to some degree, but her state of psychosis was such that her therapy had come with an undetermined time frame for success. On the day of her evaluation, the last day Anston had seen her, the doctor in charge had simply given him a grim look when Anston asked what was wrong with her and how long it would take to treat her. His professional answer had been nothing more than a shrug.

Anston had seen the signs of her troubled mind the night he’d brought her home from the wedding. Almost as soon as they had walked through the door, she started to cry. He had expected a little bit of weeping, certainly; he had wept a little himself that night. They were forging a new life together after knowing each other for all of four months, and both were suddenly frightened by what that had meant. But Anston was determined to forge on. Marriage was just the natural rite of passage for his stage in life. It was like when he had graduated high school, and then college, and then graduate school, and so on. It was a normal part of growing up, like getting a job, getting a promotion, losing that job to a lousy economy. Getting married was just one of those stepping stones to old age. At some point, he had to do it. Otherwise, what would he have? Loneliness? He was no extrovert, but he hadn’t wanted to die alone. Of course, he hadn’t been meeting anyone in the circles he was traveling in, so he had to make use of the systems that had been available to him. He’d found Alice on a dating website, the same one he had met Rebecca on a few weeks ago. It had seemed like an okay decision at the time, dating strange women he’d met online. But he had quickly discovered just how small the pond really was, even in cyberspace. He had committed to Alice within a couple of weeks when he realized she was interested in him. It was more than he could’ve said about the others he had tried talking to. Looking back, he knew he was hasty in his decision. Computer engineers were always analytical about their solutions to any problem, and his intuition had been to do the same when he started getting to know her. But he had panicked. He had bought her an engagement ring at the end of the first month, either to sabotage the relationship before it progressed into something he couldn’t control, or to suppress his fears that no one else would love him if he had waited too long. When he had presented the ring to her, he was surprised that she had said yes to his request. That was his first red flag.

The other red flags had been invisible during the first few months of their dating relationship, most likely because he had been looking at her through rose-colored glasses. An attractive, no, stunningly beautiful woman was interested in him, so he had ignored her faults for as long as he could. But as the wedding night drew near, he had started to notice things about her that had startled him, things like her propensity to gargle her water before she swallowed it, even at nice restaurants. The first time she’d done it, he had thought it was unique, and “unique” had looked a lot like “cute” through the lenses he was wearing. But eventually he had thought it was disquieting. When he had gotten the nerve to ask her why she did that, she had said that gargling helped her fully rinse her palate so that she could enjoy every bite of food as if it were the first. When he’d asked why she did it even when they weren’t eating—like when they got back to his house after a long, sweaty walk—she’d reply that it helped remove the toxins from her body. Two months after their wedding night, or sixty-three days after the rose-colored glasses had come off, she had admitted that she gargled to purge her system of evil spirits, which she would acquire after eating meat or getting winded from exercise. That was when the red flag had transformed into an emergency siren.

The path to her sanity had been a rocky one ever since, and Anston had never figured out how to properly navigate it. Eventually, he had realized the need to find her help. But it was after her acceptance into the Happy Place Enrichment Facility that he had decided he had nothing left to offer her personally. He couldn’t justify staying married to a stranger, especially not to one with so many psychological issues. Even as he drove her to the facility—he had told her they were going to the park for a picnic, even though he hated picnics—she had criticized him for not being tall enough for her. He hadn’t known what else to do.

He’d felt ill about leaving her there. It was something he had lost sleep over for several nights. But he’d eventually gotten over it. He had started discovering how much more peaceful his house was without her there. There was no one to argue with him over what to eat. There was no one forcing him to sleep on the sofa for forgetting to take out the trash. No one was going to punch him in the gut for leaving a toothpaste ring around the sink. It was relaxing. And, financially, it was liberating. Preparing for a divorce had released him of his monetary liability to the facility. It was only when he’d gone to sleep each night that he realized his life was still incomplete. He missed having her there by his side. He wondered if he had just missed having a woman by his side.

So, he had signed up with the same Internet dating site where he’d met her. Now that he had an idea of what to avoid, he was more open to his existing choices. The pond was still small, but he had approached it with more confidence. He was ready for a more positive change in his life. But, as he had feared in the days leading to Alice, no one had been willing to stick around long. Most were out of his life within a couple of weeks. None of them had ever given him a reason for bailing. He suspected they had found someone better, or had gone back to someone from an earlier season in their lives. The problem with being a computer engineer, though, was that he was familiar with programming systems, not female brains. No answer he could come up with had ever seemed like the right one. He had kept at the dating game because he knew he didn’t want to spend his life alone. But in the back of his mind, even as the months had passed and the divorce proceedings were set into motion, Anston couldn’t help but think that his wife was still out there in a cold, dark place, and he was in this cozy house trying to supplant her with another woman. Something about that had left him unsettled. Sometimes he wondered if the other women had split so quickly because he’d wanted them to.

When Anston turned the knob to his bedroom door, he told himself that his wife was home. This was not some flash-in-the-pan date that he had picked up on Match .com. As much as he liked Rebecca, she was not his wife, and regardless of all the coffee they could be drinking together, and whatever else would define their relationship, she was not going to ease his mind over abandoning his wife to a crazy hospital. The fact that Alice was home was certainly terrifying. He had no idea what she was planning to do to him tonight after what he had done to her a year ago. But it did ease him to know that whatever horrible thing she had in mind, she could do it in the comfort of her own bed.

***

Alice didn’t notice him coming into the room. She was sitting at his desk, back turned to him. And though the office chair she was sitting in concealed everything from below her shoulder blades on down, he could see that she was dressed exactly as she said she would be: naked, or her idea of being naked, which was everyone else’s idea of dressing for the beach. Yes, just as he’d expected, she was wearing her favorite dark blue one-piece swimsuit. She must’ve found it in the closet with her other things that Anston couldn’t bring himself to donate to charity. What he didn’t expect coming into the room was to find her at the desk. And he certainly didn’t expect to find her at the Windows login screen on his computer trying to get in.

He didn’t want to alarm her, so he cleared his throat softly to make sure she knew he was there. She didn’t give him any attention.

“Whatcha doin’, honey?” he asked, as he moved toward the bed.

She didn’t answer him.

Anston checked for anything out of the ordinary as he moved toward his row of pillows. His memory of how he’d left things before the trip was a bit spotty, but he knew there had been more clothes on the floor, and the general run of the room was considerably messier than it was now. Now he could step only on the floor and throw rug. No dropped jeans or peeled-off socks. Even his slippers, which he usually kept under the nightstand in the corner, seemed to have changed location. And the surface of the nightstand was cleaner, as if it had been dusted in the last six hours or so. There were two goblets and a bottle of champagne on it next to the lamp, but other than that, nothing different that he could find. Just a cleaner version of the room he’d left behind. He suddenly wondered how long she had been waiting here for him.

When he reached the pillows, he felt under them, one after another, checking for the presence of sharp objects. As he searched his bed for anything that might’ve caused him injury during the night, he glanced at the computer screen past Alice’s shoulder. She was still stuck on the login screen, trying one password after another. Nothing was working, but she didn’t betray her calm. She kept at it like a burgeoning hacker, and she did so without demonstrating even the slightest swaying of her body. It seemed that whatever was making her exceptionally loopy before had lessened its grip on her.

“Honey,” he said again, when she still hadn’t answered him. “Why are you trying to access my computer?”

“Want to see my pictures,” she finally said. She was still looking at the screen.

“I thought you wanted to reconnect.”

“Haven’t seen my pictures in a year. I miss them.”

Anston checked the last pillow. Nothing was hidden underneath it or in the pillowcase. Then he scanned the area closest to Alice. Other than cleanliness, nothing was out of the ordinary. Even his desk, which normally had junk mail addressed to “Current Resident” scattered about, was straightened. He wondered if maybe she was doing what he’d done in the early days: holding a knife close to the mouse for quick retrieval in an emergency. He grabbed the pillow and placed it in front of his chest. Then, as he took a step closer to her, he changed his mind. He moved it down to his crotch instead.

“How do I get into your computer?” she asked.

“You have to know the password,” he said, one second before he realized how unhelpful his answer was.

“I can’t figure it out.” She leaned in closer to the screen, as if seeing the asterisks clearer would have somehow cracked the code.

Anston crept closer to her, keeping an eye on her hands. With each step he strained to locate any evidence of an ambush waiting for him. But he could see nothing. Just the computer and its accessories. He still wondered if she was sitting on anything dangerous but shot down that theory when he reasoned that her legs were almost entirely exposed, and anything sharp would cause her discomfort. Most likely he was safe to approach her. So he did.

She flinched when he stepped next to her, and her sudden movement caused him to flinch. He gripped his desk to steady his heart. As much as he was looking forward to releasing his sexual tension, he hated that she was causing him more regular tension everywhere else.

They stared at each other briefly. Alice’s expression was flat. She was more curious than angry or scared. What would he do so close to her now? she might’ve been wondering. Or, he could’ve been looking at the face of a hunter sizing up her prey. Or, she could’ve just been void of emotion. Odds were the truth was some combination of the three.

He reached between her hands and started typing his password into the keyboard. Then he clicked the mouse to load up the desktop.

“There you go,” he said. “Enjoy your photos. I’ll be in bed waiting.”

She didn’t thank him after that, or even acknowledge him. She went right to the “My Pictures” folder and started clicking around. He watched her briefly, just to remind himself what was in there, secretly hoping that he hadn’t updated it with anything conspicuous in the last year. As far as he could remember, he hadn’t taken any new photos since she’d left.

Convinced that she was going to preoccupy herself with the old memory tour for a while, Anston climbed into bed and waited for her. He had already showered and brushed his teeth after tidying up the bathroom, per her request, so he was physically ready. His mind, however, was fighting another battle. The thought of being with her again was frightening. So much time had passed, and he had no idea what kind of anger she had stored for him, and he wasn’t sure this was really such a good idea after all. His pounding heart supported his anxiety. But parts of him much lower than his brain were willing to take the risk. So much time had passed since she’d last teased him.

He wasn’t sure if he should grab a book while he waited, or maybe throw something on the floor just to feel a little less alien in his own bedroom. He removed his watch and set it on the nightstand. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the side of the mattress and watched as it disappeared out of sight on its way to the wooden floor. Then he cringed slightly when he heard the buttons of his shirt clacking against the floor. He was sure Alice had heard it and would snap to comment on how messy he was making the room again. But she didn’t move. She was glued to the computer screen.

Anston sat there for about two minutes lying there with his ankles crossed, tapping the bedspread with his thumbs, trying to think of some tunes to whistle. As he struggled to come up with anything worth whistling, he started thinking maybe some real music would get him in a better mood for whatever was about to happen between them. Their romantic relationship had always been a little off to the side of normal, even on the night of their first kiss, which Alice had finally relented to when she agreed to marry him, so there was no telling how things might’ve been after a year without contact. But then he remembered that all of his music was on the computer. He’d just have to improvise humming a random tune. A distant knocking sound on a neighbor’s door helped him form the beat.

Another minute passed when he noticed the air in his bedroom was stale, like it had been in his living room. It occurred to him that his windows were still shut. Well, one of them was cracked open earlier—he’d often left the one facing the side of the yard slightly ajar to keep the house’s air quality fresh—but even if Alice was having trouble breathing earlier, thanks to the gas leaking in the living room, and opened the window more to let in some fresh air (and let out some bad air), knowing her, she had probably gotten cold and closed it again, thus causing the room’s air circulation to weaken. He climbed out of bed and opened them both fully. As he passed Alice to reach the second window in the adjacent wall, the one facing the front yard, she reached out and tugged on his pants.

“Why aren’t you naked yet?” she asked.

“I’m working on it.”

Once the other window was open, Anston dropped his pants on the floor. All that was left on him now were his black silk boxers. Really short boxers. He felt a little odd standing there so close to her with such vulnerability, made worse by the realization that he had left the pillow on the bed. But she didn’t try to stab him. She just kept scanning the photos folder. Now he was feeling awkward for being the second most important thing in the room.

He climbed back in bed and waited. He considered taking the boxers down, too, as most men would do under the rules of the proposition at hand, but Alice had the same idea about his nakedness as she had about her own: shorts counted as close enough and was generally preferable to the alternative. In the course of their entire marriage, he hadn’t actually seen her in her fully exposed state. He’d certainly tried. But she’d always wear a one-piece in the shower, or slam the bathroom door in his face and lock him out if she dared showering natural, which was rare as far as he knew. She’d often confused him.

He continued to watch her, uncertain about when she’d actually turn her attention to him. She was staring at pictures of her old friend: Dina, if he remembered her name correctly. It was hard to tell from here, but Anston could sense Alice crying. She hadn’t seen Dina since before the wedding; something had come up shortly before the wedding date and Dina couldn’t make the ceremony.

It seemed to Anston that maybe Alice had missed her in the year she was away. When he and Alice were dating, she would talk about the hilarious times that she and Dina would share growing up and the many times one would bail the other out of trouble during college and their early careers. They had had a rich history. But Alice didn’t speak of her much after the wedding. He assumed they had had a falling out, but he’d never asked about the details. And, as he watched her scanning the many photos she had stored of her and her friend on his hard drive, he decided it was better not to ask about them now. It would just upset her further.

“Alice?”

She didn’t say anything. She just sat there with her hand on her forehead, staring at the screen. Then she closed the “My Pictures” folder and wiped her eyes. Then she sat in silence for another brief moment.

Anston didn’t understand why she had suddenly gone docile. Her brain was full of such chaotic things that her having a moment of calm was unusual. He didn’t know what to make of it.

“Alice?”

She sniffled, then nodded.

“Okay, I’m ready,” she said.

He had no time to respond, or even to clear his head. Within just under two seconds, she had gone from swinging around in the office chair to leaping like a wrestler off the top ropes onto his helpless supine body. She landed on him with a thud, and he felt the wind knocked out of him a little. His stomach responded with a wrenching jolt. And, even as he said “oof,” she had her hands on his shoulders and pushed him hard against the mattress. Her eyes looked vacant and her face pained.

Then he heard the phone ringing in the other room. He felt the wind knocked out of him again.

He wriggled out from under Alice and reached for the watch on his nightstand. It was after midnight. Alice wasn’t paying attention to the time; she was too busy tickling his narrow chest with the joyfulness of a robot. When she finally noticed him staring at the watch, she stole it from his hand and tossed it back on the nightstand. Or tried. It missed and hit the floor.

“Pay attention to me,” she said, like this was business, not pleasure.

She pulled him back to the center of the bed and pushed on his shoulders again. As she leaned down to lick his neck, the phone rang again.

“Maybe I should get that,” he said.

Alice offered him a grumpy look. Then she released his shoulders and rolled off to the side. He was already getting frustrated with the interruption, but he figured a midnight call was the same as an emergency call, so he climbed out of bed and jogged to the living room to check the phone’s caller ID.

Rebecca was calling.

He sighed. She was probably looking to chew him out over their missed dinner, or maybe she was checking to make sure he hadn’t died in a car accident on the way to the restaurant. He wasn’t sure. And he didn’t have the time to find out. He couldn’t keep the crazy woman in his bedroom waiting. She didn’t handle impatience well.

He left the phone ringing. The answering machine picked up as he reached the door, but the inbox was still full, so she couldn’t leave a message.

“Who was it?” Alice asked, when Anston came back to bed.

“Insurance agent,” he said. “Where were we?”

Alice once again pulled him to the center of the bed and hooked her legs around him. She kissed him hard on the cheek. He could smell her breath quite vividly now. It was stale with the flavor of alcohol. It seemed she had been drinking that day, which was unusual given that she rarely drank; she drank only to celebrate special occasions or when she was deeply troubled or nervous over something. He noticed the champagne bottle sitting on the nightstand by his head, but he was certain that wasn’t the type of alcohol he had smelled on her breath. He thought he had smelled tequila or rum.

“What have you been drinking?” he asked.

“Talk later,” she said. “Consummate now.”

Then she reached for the lamp and turned it off. The room was left dark, save for the glow of the computer screen and the ambient streetlights outside—

And the roving flashlight beam that swept in through the side window and landed on them just as Alice closed her mouth over Anston’s nose. Her breath was definitely stale with tequila.

Both Anston and Alice froze as the beam of light washed over them and a booming female voice ruptured the silence.

“Ma’am, don’t move,” said the voice. “You need to stop attacking that helpless man. Right now. Please raise your hands slowly.”

Alice sprang upright, even as she straddled Anston’s waist, and lifted her hands. Both she and Anston dared to look in the direction of the light’s source. Anston could barely make out the image of a female police officer in the flashlight’s aura. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head. He’d forgotten that he had called the police earlier.

“This is a misunderstanding,” he said, as quickly as he could get the words out, trying to calm the scene before Alice freaked out. “She’s not attacking me. We’re, uh, we’re about to, uh…”

Suddenly the flashlight went out.

“Oh, my, I’m so sorry,” the police officer said. “We had received a call that—”

“Nope, nope,” Anston said, trying to cut her off before she incriminated him in front of Alice. “No one here called you. You might want to see what’s going on next door though. Those people have problems.”

“Right. Sorry. Carry on. And maybe close your curtains before you proceed.”

Anston lay there mortified for the next five minutes. Alice lay next to him, equally shamed by the intrusion. Neither of them said a word until Alice climbed out of bed and closed the curtains. Then she turned on the lamp.

“I brought champagne to celebrate our reunion,” she said. “I want to drink before we officially reconnect.”

Anston was still rigid, but he slowly sat up. He was dazed.

“Yeah, that might take the edge off.”

Alice wrapped her hand around the top half of the cork and pulled it out of the bottle. Then she poured champagne into one of the goblets and handed it to Anston. Then she poured herself a glass. She held it up to him for a toast. Anston was still surprised that she even knew about this social cue, even though she’d done it once before, the night before they married.

“To the future love we’re about to seed,” she said. “Hopefully before this headache gets worse.”

He expected something a little more profound, perhaps a toast commemorating a greater purpose, like them reuniting as a couple, or whatever else was going on in that head of hers. But she seemed content with her dedication. He shrugged and clinked his glass against hers. Then he swallowed the champagne down whole. Alice got as far as putting the glass an inch to her lips before changing her mind and setting it on the nightstand.

“Ooh, I just thought of something,” she said. She hopped out of bed and went to the computer. “I’d written a poem once. I bet it’s still on here.”

Anston rolled his eyes and set his empty goblet on the nightstand next to the bottle. Now he remembered that one thing about her that would always drive him up the wall: she had the attention span of a fruit fly. He lay back down as he watched her search the “My Documents” folder for another relic from her past.

“I forgot what I called it.”

He watched her scan each file and randomly click on documents for a minute before he realized how tired he was. It had been a long weekend, and now his body was ready to reap what he had sewn. He was so tired now that he hardly cared that she was opening files that were personal to him. She was so determined to find that poem that she was opening just about everything she’d come across. He sat up in order to prolong his alertness, but he was fading fast. He fell back down to his pillow. He was so tired.

“Alice,” he said, almost at a whisper. “If we’re gonna get to it, we better do it now. I’m about to pass out.”

She ignored him. She kept hunting for that poem of hers.

“Alice.”

Kept hunting.

“Alice.”

Somehow in his addled brain, just before passing out, he wondered, just briefly, why the champagne’s cork was half out when she’d first made the toast. He hadn’t noticed a bottle opener anywhere. Normally, popping the cork was part of the toast. He wondered why it was already half out.

“Alice.”

Still hunting.

He was looking into the maw of an anglerfish a moment later. It was taking small, ticklish bites out of him, like a deep-sea rat looking for a quick snack on an unimportant part of his body’s surface. It did not match the image he had of an anglerfish, which was generally so nightmarish that he wouldn’t want one sitting on his dinner plate looking back at him. He couldn’t figure out why the feeling of it made him want to laugh.

(end sample)

Want more? Come back next Friday, October 16th, at 1pm EST to catch the next and final chapter reveal before the big release on October 20th.

As usual, feel free to comment.

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Thanks.

“The Computer Nerd” Chapter 4

It’s Friday, and that means it’s time for a new chapter reveal for my upcoming e-book, The Computer Nerd. But, before you read today’s episode, get caught up with the first three chapters.

Note: These have been updated as of today, so now’s a good time for catching up if you haven’t already.

Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 3

Update (10/8/2015): Chapters 1 and 2 have undergone slight modifications this week; Chapter 4 has undergone a major modification.

Remember, if you like what you’ve read so far, please support the author (me) by purchasing a copy of the complete story, available for presale at Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, and available for a full download at these stores and others on October 20th. What’s the cost? Just 99 cents. Pretty reasonable, right?

Visit the official page here for more information.

Chapter 4

“Crazy Lives Here”

The night that Anston had dropped off his wife at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility, he was nervous. She had said some pretty awful things to him just before the doctors took her to her new room. Even though he was certain they would’ve taken reasonable care of her, he hadn’t known anything of their reputations, individually, or in reference to the hospital, and he didn’t know whether they could be trusted, or if he had done the right thing leaving her there. Because they were doctors, and because he had found them in the Yellow Pages, he gritted his teeth and risked the chance. But he had heard about the horrendous things that sometimes happened within the walls of mental institutions, things like mixed medications, and unwanted molestations, and friendships with sociopaths. When he had left the facility and headed home, presumably to face a temporary life without her, he worried about the condition the residents of that institution would’ve left her in.

But, because she had threatened to stab him in his sleep the moment she’d come home, his concern for her had been less than the concern that he had had for himself. Now, a year later, he was afraid that her time away had strengthened her grudge against him and that she was coming home to do even worse than merely stabbing him in his sleep.

Understandably, he had to remain vigilant.

***

The pain from the pepper spray subsided sometime after he had gotten in his car. He didn’t want to drive while his face was getting pulled apart by the force of a thousand burritos, so he sat in the mall parking lot until he could sense cold air. He didn’t know for how long he’d spent crying that burning sensation away, but he didn’t hesitate to leave once he was confident he could drive again. He was pretty sure he’d never come back here. How humiliating.

Without money for a hotel or a cellphone to call his friends for support, Anston returned home to find, to his relief, the driveway empty and his interior lights off. But he was cautious. He’d read enough news stories to know that the appearance of safety was never enough.

The sun had been absent awhile, and the crickets sang in full chorus, and the moonlight barely glowed as it hovered in its crescent phase. He sat there in the driver’s seat for another moment staring at the house. It looked normal, but it had always looked normal. He leaned forward, rubbed the last of the burning feeling from his eyes, and took a calming breath. He didn’t have elsewhere to go. He had to face his fear.

He decided he would check the front door and windows for damage. He knew she wouldn’t have had her keys on her—he’d told her to leave them on the dresser the day they were “going out”—so if she had come home, she’d have broken in, and the signs of tampering would’ve alerted him to trouble.

He edged up the driveway, scanning his immediate surroundings for anything that appeared out of the ordinary. It was so hard to see, though. His best option for checking the state of his security in such darkness was to search each window with his fingers, hoping none were broken.

The thought of it gave him goosebumps. Normally, he wouldn’t have bothered to check. Normally, he’d have just gone inside, trusting the neighborhood to keep him safe. But he knew that, as long as his ex-wife was out there, he’d have to put up his guard. They hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms.

He started down the left side of the house, walking in inches rather than feet, minimizing the intensity of his footfalls against the grass. The yard would get darker the deeper he moved through it. Some pockets would be pitch black this time of night. He held his breath and steadied his nerves. It was in times like this that he wished he had bought a dog.

The first window, the one to the garage, sat behind an overgrown hedge. To reach the window, he would’ve had to stretch through the bush. He hated doing that, thanks to the gritty sensation it often left on his skin. Fortunately, the hedge was undisturbed, which meant the window probably was, too. Anston kept his sigh of relief under his breath so as not to alert anyone who might’ve been in earshot.

But, even as he was about to take another step along the side of the house, he stopped. He remembered his ex-wife’s propensity to clean up after herself—a trait she had spent many months wishing, verbally, that he’d adopt—and that she’d move a branch back into place not just to cover her tracks but because that was the position in which it had belonged.

Now he sighed in frustration, a little less understatedly this time. He reached through to check the window anyway, feeling all the stabbing branches and sticky leaves along his arms. It felt like a violation, and there was nothing he hated more than to feel like something was violating him.

The window was locked. The glass, intact. Even though he was glad that this part of the house was secured, he was still annoyed with his wife for making him check. She had always made him check stupid things like that. The fact that she was doing it now when he hadn’t even seen her in a year just irritated him more.

The bushes in front of the kitchen were just as overgrown, but less clumped together than the ones outside the garage. Examining them was easier. He leaned forward and carefully studied the hedge’s plant construction. As his eyes adjusted to the shapes under the dim moonlight, his heart raced. A few twigs were broken here.

But, on closer inspection, and after feeling a branch stabbing him in the back, he realized it was just an apple that had broken the twigs. He moved on.

Another kitchen window, this one in back of the house, loomed over a brick patio infested with weeds that protruded from the cracks. One brick in the patio was missing. He thought about that a moment. Didn’t have an answer. It could’ve always been missing and he just never noticed. He rarely set foot in his backyard. He decided to ignore it.

His heart was calming as he lowered his hand off the kitchen window, but then he nearly vomited from the overwhelming shock that followed. Something clattered through the cluster of outdoor trashcans behind him. Without giving it a second’s worth of investigation, he ran for the neighbor’s fence that faced the garage side of the house and hopped it. Then he ran into the center of his neighbor’s backyard and watched for movement from behind a lawn chair he had flipped over and barricaded himself behind. He heard a dog barking from somewhere nearby. He tried to push it out of mind. He needed to concentrate on whatever moved before him.

He watched a black cat creeping along the brick patio near his back door, but he wasn’t ready to assume that all was well. He waited for several minutes as his heart decelerated once again. He wasn’t about to approach the back windows until he knew he was in the clear.

Then something broke his concentration.

“Who the hell are you?” said a woman to his right.

He glanced over to see the forty-something woman he’d sometimes view walking down the sidewalk first thing in the morning standing in the open doorway to the back of her house. He normally saw her wearing her pink jumpsuit and listening to her iPod. Tonight she was in her gray bathrobe and purple hair towel. She was not listening to any music; she was frowning. Anston stood and began to approach her with his outstretched hand.

“Hi, I’m—”

“Killer!” said the woman. “Sic ‘em.”

Before Anston knew what was going on, an angry Rottweiler came running out from around her legs and rushed for his position.

Anston’s body reacted before his mind could process the problem. Next thing he knew, he was over the fence, separating himself by great distances from a flesh-eating barker behind him, and several blocks down the street before he realized he was gasping for breath.

He started to think he should’ve introduced himself to his neighbor sooner.

Even though he knew his neighborhood, he wasn’t sure where in it he had stopped; he just knew he was now in the middle of some park. There was a playground to his right and a series of picnic benches to his left. A trio of homeless men were hanging out by the benches.

One of them called him over.

“Hey,” Anston said to them when he approached the group, “I don’t really have time to talk.”

“No?” said the man closest to him, an older gentleman who seemed to have one good suit and refused to ever take it off. “Hot date tonight?”

“As a matter of fact…” Anston thought about Rebecca, thought about the abandoned dinner and the coffee and tequila experience he would never share with her, not now. “No.”

“Neither do we.” The man sized him up. “What’re you so nervous about?”

Anston wasn’t sure where the man had gotten the idea that he was nervous, but he did realize a few seconds later that he was still wheezing from his impromptu run.

“I’m not, I’m just—”

“You sure came racing in here like a bat out of hell. Something’s got you spooked.”

“And it must be serious if you coming here, son,” the grizzled man to his left said. “Ain’t no one tell you this place smells like misery at night?”

Anston shook his head.

“I—I don’t know where I am exactly.”

“‘Course you don’t,” said the first man. “Charley, look. Another one’s come to say hi.”

The third man, a younger gentleman—well, younger than the other two—was resting his head on the picnic table, but he sat up when the first man had called his name.

Charley looked up at Anston groggy-eyed. Then he flashed his gap-toothed smile and raised his thumb. Then he went back to sleep.

“Charley ain’t very social,” said the second man.

“I can relate,” said Anston.

The first man raised his eyebrow.

“Usually a dude come here this time of night,” he said, “it’s because he’s running from something. What are you running from?”

Anston wasn’t sure how much he wanted to share with strangers in the middle of an unlit park at the hour when wolves sometimes howled. But he had worse things to look forward to as the night progressed, so he didn’t see the harm.

“A mean dog,” he said.

The man in the suit shook his head and smiled.

“No, that’s not it. We’ve all been chased by dogs. A dog can’t make a man run like that. What’s really got you spooked?”

Anston furrowed his brow at him.

“Why are you so interested in my problems?”

The man pointed to each of his friends and himself.

“Ain’t none of us connected to the outside world anymore. We like to know what’s going on. Plus, if we get on your good side, you might give us money so we can eat tomorrow.”

Anston shrugged.

“That’s fair. I don’t carry cash on me, unfortunately. And I already gave away my fish.”

The man in the suit glanced at the grizzled gentleman and frowned. Then he sat on the table next to Charley and rested his hand on his raised knee.

“Well, we still like to hear of a nice first world problem. Why are you spooked?”

Anston glanced to his left and right in search of the park’s exit. He could see the road to his left behind him. He really just needed to run away. But then he realized his alternative was to run back home to uncertainty, and he wasn’t in that big of a hurry to face the possibility of confronting the woman who wanted to stab him in his sleep.

He decided to tell the homeless men what was bothering him.

When he finished telling his story, the man in the suit shook his head and clucked his tongue.

“That’s a rough tale,” he said. “I can see why you’d want to get so far away.”

“I had a similar story,” said the grizzly man. “Kinda why I’m out here right now.”

“I didn’t commit my wife to an insane asylum,” said the first man, “but I did something just as bad.”

“Yeah, what?” said Anston.

The man pointed his finger at Anston.

“That, son, is none of your damn business. But, I can say this. It sounds to me you have a lot to fear back home.”

Anston nodded.

“I know. Right?”

“Yes, and I think it’s possible you might be the biggest fool in this park, and Charley here once ate a lit match.”

Charley awoke to the sound of his name and showed off his gap-toothed smile. Then he went back to sleep.

Anston didn’t understand the man’s conclusion.

“I’m sorry?”

“Go home,” the man said. “I know your story well, and I can tell you, you need to make things right with her before you make them worse.”

“I told you the part about how she wants to stab me in my sleep, right?”

“They call that penance. I’m hearing your story, and you clearly did the wrong thing with her.”

“No, no, maybe I didn’t explain it right, see, she needed help and—”

The man in the suit raised his palm to silence him.

“I’ve never met her, but I understand her far better than you seem to. Now, listen to me. Make things right. That girl deserves better.”

“But, I don’t think you actually do understand because—”

“Son, I’ve been around. I know things. Milton here knows things. Charley here knows things. We all know that you need to make things right.”

The second man, Milton, had an apologetic look on his face. He nodded. Charley, lifted his head, smiled, then set his head back to the table.

The first man, the one in the suit, pointed to the park’s exit.

“You heard them,” he said. “Make things right. Now get out of here before we jump you and take your credit cards.”

***

Anston was shaken by his encounter, and a bit mind-boggled. He had no idea what the homeless men were talking about. He was no fool. He did what he had to the night he had his wife committed. It wasn’t easy taking her there, and it certainly wasn’t easy leaving her there. But it was the right thing. She needed help. He provided that road for her. He was no fool. They were the fools. He resolved to never again listen to the wisdom of old men who had made worse decisions than him. Technically, he was smarter, as he wasn’t the one spending the night at the park, so he should’ve been the one giving the advice back there.

As soon as he found his way back home, and as soon as he confirmed that the Rottweiler had gone back inside, Anston resumed his perimeter check, making sure that everything was still secure.

“They’re the fools,” he kept saying to himself.

When he examined the windows facing the backyard and saw that each one was untouched, he moved to the right of the house where the two bedrooms were located. These rooms carried the most weight with his ex-wife during their marriage, so he thought they bore the greatest likelihood of her break-in, if she had even come to see him, which was beginning to look unlikely.

“I did the right thing,” he said.

The guest bedroom, which wasn’t any smaller than the master bedroom, was first. According to memory, there were a number of reasons for her to choose this window over the rest. The prominent reason, of course, being that this was the room where he had first threatened to kick her out. When he did finally kick her out, a month later, he was decent enough to send her out through the front door, in the subtlest way possible, and there was plenty of paperwork to follow, but this was the hill where the snowball had formed.

“She was losing her mind.”

She had certainly made her feelings about the matter known to him at the time. In fact, he had almost changed his mind when he’d discovered that she did, in fact, have a lot of passion for something—a quality he had always desired in women, a quality that he was certain after their wedding night that she didn’t have. But part of that passion was in threatening to invite her mother over to talk to him, sternly, about his way of thinking, so he had brushed it off as displaced desire and continued weighing the possibility of pushing her out the door.

“Not my fault she went insane.”

After he had committed her to the “enrichment facility” a few weeks later, he had spent several months with a knife next to his computer mouse in case she had ever sought retribution. He had eventually put it away when he reasoned that she wasn’t coming back and that keeping a steak knife at his desk for months probably wasn’t sanitary. He had also come to the conclusion that, if against all odds she ever were to find her way home, then providing her easy access to the object that she’d threatened to stab him with so close to the bed he slept in was a bad idea. The fact that she could be coming here now to do any of that left him uneasy again.

“I probably should’ve visited more, though.” He shook his head. “God, what did I do?”

He was nervous to forge on, but he needed his answers. He checked the window. It was untouched. He released his grip of the casing and collapsed against the wall. His breathing steadied.

First he was relieved. Then mystified. If she had broken out of the psycho institution, then why hadn’t she come here? As his fingers retracted from the locked window, he pondered the question. Maybe she couldn’t get a taxicab. Or, maybe she’d forgotten where she used to live. Maybe her meds had brought her to a ditch somewhere.

“I shouldn’t have abandoned her.”

After checking the remaining windows to find all but one secure—the master bedroom window facing the side of the house was cracked open, but it wasn’t unusual for him to leave it that way since his house had poor ventilation, and he hated coming home to a stuffy bedroom, and the room was too dark to see inside anyway—he returned to his front door to test his final barrier. Just as he had left it, the handle was locked.

“She’s gonna kill me tonight.”

He held his breath as he reached for his keys. Then he held his wrist as he inserted the key to the lock.

“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”

When he opened it, he reached in for the light switch. For the first time tonight, normal lighting greeted him, though in the company of stale air. Then he waited a moment to see if anything would jump out from around a corner. Nothing did. His nerves began to calm. His home had not yet been compromised, and now he could relax, somewhat.

As he stood just inside the doorway to his living room, he considered a list of variables regarding his current situation. She was still out there somewhere, but he didn’t know whether she was coming here. If she were to arrive, he’d be in trouble. If she weren’t coming…well, the more he thought about that, the more it pissed him off. Even as he thought of it, he knew it was irrational. The last thing he needed was for someone who had threatened to stab him in his sleep to show up at his doorstep. But she was his ex-wife. Wife. The divorce had never been finalized thanks to certain bureaucratic devices that had destroyed his motivation. Surely she must’ve wanted to see him. Even if it was to basically stick a blade in his gut, or wherever her nutsy little imagination had driven her to want. He felt a little insulted that she had ignored him completely.

But that was ridiculous. All of those months spent sleeping next to a crazy woman had clearly rubbed off on him. He refocused his thoughts. He needed a contingency plan in case she were to come home. Well, to Anston’s home. He needed to get the thought of her ever calling this place home again out of his mind.

To come up with the proper contingency, he needed to consider the facts:

  • She hadn’t broken out of the facility alone. Brad Pitt was with her (not the famous one, the former chemist who had a different real name, most likely—Anston had to be careful not to mix the two up), and he was probably equally as dangerous, if not more so.
  • It was possible that the breakout was Pitt’s idea and that she was just along for the ride.
  • She could be traveling around at Pitt’s mercy. Coming here may not have even been on the agenda.
  • If she were coming here, she’d have already come. The breakout had happened hours ago, plenty of time for her to make her way home…make her way to Anston’s home.
  • If she had other agendas to fulfill first, then she’d still be coming here, most likely in the middle of the night while he slept.
  • Given her initial threat, he didn’t have the heart to sleep in his own bed.
  • He couldn’t afford to sleep elsewhere and was probably doomed to face her anyway.

Anston had moved to the sofa while he considered the list of possibilities. Sitting down had often helped him to relax and to think with a clearer head. It had allowed him to come up with at least seven facts, even though he was having trouble coming up with an eighth. It was possible he had thought of everything that mattered.

While he considered the points, he went to the bathroom sink to rinse his face. The half-empty bottle of tequila that Rebecca had brought was leaning against the slope beside the drain, so he moved it to the towel rack. Then he dried his face on a towel that hadn’t been washed in weeks. The stench didn’t even faze him, he was so used to his bachelor’s life.

Regarding the last three points, he realized he was still in significant danger, and he still needed some kind of security measure to keep him safe. The first thought that came to him was a little raw, and probably ineffective in the grand scheme of things, but it was better than nothing. As much as he preferred to catalogue threats before acting on solutions, he was aware of the possibility that he was low on time. Going with the first solution, the gut solution, was probably his best defense this late in the game. So he retrieved his phone from the kitchen and called his friend Matt to crash at his place.

The plan was rough in his head, but it made sense. He figured Matt could sleep in the bed and Anston could snuggle up to a pillow in the closet where his wife would be less likely to find him. Even as the phone rang, he thought of ways to polish the scenario for greater effect. If his wife were to barge in with a knife, Anston would have more time to react if he were in the closet. He could slip out while she struggled with Matt. Or, in the likely scenario that Matt’s presence in the bed would confuse her and force her to halt her advancement, Anston could wait for her to leave without incident, and then he could trade with Matt once she left. It was certainly something that could work. As his thoughts sped through his mind, he listened to the steady drone of each ring: four, five, six, seven. He couldn’t wait to enact his plan. But, on the ninth ring he frowned. No one was home.

He wasn’t about to lose hope, though. He called George next. George was probably better for the plan anyway the more he thought about it. He was kind of a slob and someone Anston didn’t really want sleeping in his bed, ever, but he was tough at least, and he could handle a surprise attack fairly easily. Probably should’ve called him first. But after the eighth ring, he gave up on George, too. They must’ve been on the boat still.

Since he spent most of his free time working on computers, partly due to his social anxiety, Anston didn’t allow himself an opportunity to meet anyone else helpful. He had experimented with dating again, but he couldn’t ask any of his former lady interests, or Rebecca for that matter, to sleep in the bed in his place. That would beg too many questions and lead to too many awkward moments. And his family lived too far away to help. And, as far as his neighbors were concerned, with the exception of the woman who had sicced her Rottweiler on him moments ago, he’d never actually met any of them, and he wasn’t sure that asking them to sleep in his bed tonight would’ve been appropriate.

As it seemed, he was on his own. He breathed in deeply to lower his blood pressure.

As he filled his lungs to the brim with air, he nearly choked. There was something acrid about it. He considered opening a window for better circulation—the place sure needed it—but he didn’t want to invite any unwanted guests inside, either, so he left it alone and told himself not to take so many deep breaths.

Next, he thought of other measures to stay safe. Soup cans stacked against the front door to alert him should she break in through there. Sleeping in the closet was still an option. But the most effective measure in dealing with this, and admittedly his least favorite plan, for it added complication to the mix should things go badly, was to call the police and ask for a patrol car to camp out for the evening. He didn’t want to invite them over—the fewer strangers he had interacting with his business, the better—but he knew they would keep him secure, depending on how fast they were to react to trouble. He was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt at least, so he closed his eyes, stuck out his index finger, and dialed the emergency number by touch.

Fortunately, unlike his friends, the police picked up.

“Hi, I’d like to order some protection, please,” he said, when the operator took his request.

The conversation between him and the operator was formal. After giving his address and a brief synopsis of the situation, which he’d kept vague for the sake of simplicity, Anston disconnected the call. A patrol car would be sent in the next twenty minutes or less. He stared out the window as he thought about all the things that could happen to him in twenty minutes or less.

With no other option before him, it was time, he reckoned, to listen to his fifty-plus messages.

He hit PLAY. The doctor from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility spoke first. Then a woman followed, a woman he knew very well—and assumed the doctor knew well, too. Her voice screeched more than it had when she was still actively his wife.

I’m coming for you, she said.

The dial tone followed, then the beep.

I’m coming for you, said the next message.

The beep followed.

Anston began unbuttoning his shirt.

I’m coming for you.

Beep.

I’m coming for you, sweetheart.

Beep.

I’m coming home.

Dial tone. Beep.

I’m coming for you.

Click. Dial tone. Beep.

Anston took down the first few buttons of his shirt to escape the heat around his neck. His head felt light, almost spinning. He didn’t want to listen anymore. Yet, he was transfixed. Her creepy voice still had a melody to it that made his heart race, and not because he was worried about her killing him in his sleep, even if that did accelerate it slightly.

I’m coming for you.

Beep.

I’m coming for you, darling.

Beep.

Hello, valued customer. This is First Regional Bank calling regarding your account. We have some exciting new options for your future banking experience. If you would like to upgrade to a premium account, please press one. If you would like to upgrade to our platinum account, please press two. For our frequent flyer program, please press three. If you would like to speak to a representative, please stay on the line. Para toda consulta en español, presione cuatro.

Several minutes of silence followed.

Thank you for holding. How may I help you? More silence. Hello?

Dial tone. Beep.

Why was your phone busy?

Beep.

I’m coming for you.

Beep.

I’m still coming for you.

Beep.

Anston stood from the couch and walked into the kitchen, his head so light it was ready to crash into the ceiling.

His stomach had behaved so far, but now he wanted to vomit. He poured himself a glass of water. Some of it sloshed onto the counter when he set the glass down.

Something he hadn’t noticed before amid the problems regarding his stomach and safety, but noticed now that he drank some water, was that his throat was dry, even scratchy. For a moment he could taste even the remains of salt in his mouth. Then he noticed something else: a headache. He hadn’t eaten all day. His blood sugar must’ve taken a dive. If his stomach had only given him peace. He decided to test it.

Kitchenware was sparse in his house. In fact, he owned only one pot—The Happy Place Enrichment Facility had gotten half of his assets in the first phase of the divorce settlement; the second phase was still pending. Anything requiring advanced cooking techniques didn’t get made on his stove. Often, anything that involved cooking period didn’t get made here. He usually ordered out. As he thought about that, he felt another pain in his stomach; he should’ve gone out for dinner earlier. But it was too late now. Most places nearby would’ve been closed this time of night.

He placed his single pot on the burner. Next, he scoured his cupboard for something to eat. His choices were tuna fish and soup. He thought the classic chicken noodle soup best for the occasion, as it was easiest on an upset stomach, so he opened the can and poured the contents into the pot. Then he reached for the burner’s knob to cook it.

His stomach—it was ready to go. All other senses vanished in that moment. He could feel it contract, its contents rising. He stopped short of the knob and ran for the bathroom.

I’m coming for you, doll-face, said the machine as he ran past it.

Beep.

The bathroom was grimy in places, with mildew caked in the tiles and stubble lining the sink. Anston had every intention of cleaning it someday. But today was not that day. Today was made for puking.

He forced the toilet lid open with a clang against the tank, but lost control of the seat. It fell as the first wave of vomit coursed through his system and out of his mouth, slicing through its heavy stream. Chunks of food ricocheted to the floor as they bounced off the seat’s edge.

Several minutes he spent over the bowl, retching every last morsel still lingering in his system. The echo of his gagging bounced around in his head, encouraging his stomach’s muscle reflex to go another round. Soon, he was spent, knees on the floor, face just inches from the toilet. And to think he’d almost made some soup.

He got up, feeling nothing left to expel. Then he went to the sink and rinsed his face again. Then he returned to the living room, ready to unplug his answering machine. Then he froze when he got within ten feet of the sofa. His mind fell blank and his jaw dropped. He didn’t dare so much as flinch.

***

She stood there, in his living room, next to his gas fireplace—a lighter in one hand, his fishing rod in the other. Her dark hair covered much of her face, save for her lips and her left eye. And she wore what looked like a guard’s uniform, though burnt. And she had his fishing rod in one hand and a lighter in the other. She stood next to the fireplace. And it was hissing; he could now tell. And the air: still acrid. And she was here, in his living room. Alice had finally come for him.

He suddenly wondered why he hadn’t stolen the pepper spray or decided against all reason to just bring the tire iron into the house after all.

“Hi, honey,” she said. “Did you missss me?”

She was swaying a little and her speech was a slurred.

Anston was still frozen, but he was beginning to sense movement in his arms. His blood had chilled, but his pounding heart was nevertheless pumping it through his veins at record speeds. The biological activity happening in his body, out of reaction to what his eyes were communicating to his brain, stirred him enough to get him back to awareness. It was a tough grasp, thinking with any sense of logic, but he was ready to give it a go.

“Alice, what are you doing here?” he asked without any sense of irony in his voice, perhaps because his fears had now come to a head and he couldn’t actually think straight. He knew the answer, of course; he just wanted to hear her version of the story.

“Weren’t you listening to my messagesses?” she asked. “I came for you. You’re s-supposed to be my husband and we should be together. S-so, here I am. I tried to warm the house for you, but silly me, I for-forgot about the pilot light.”

He glanced over her shoulder to the fireplace. The firebox was quiet, but he could see that the gas valve had been turned on. No doubt carbon monoxide or some other poisonous gas was swimming about the room, or perhaps something worse, something explosive. He didn’t understand gasses very well. He really should’ve kept up with the vents.

“Wow, you’re s-so handsome at the moment,” she said, with an awkward smile. “Wish I could frame your face.”

“How did you get in?”

Her back went rigid as she attempted to correct her balance.

“The spare key, darling. I used the s-spare key.”

“What spare key?”

“My spare key, honey. The key I made when we were still married. The key I made before you sent me to that…institatu…shun.”

She lost her composure and started swaying again.

“You never told me about a spare key.”

“No, of course not. You didn’t think I wanted you to find it. Did y-you? You’d lock me out.”

“Where did you keep it?”

“Out…side. Under the loose brick in the back patio. I always kept it there. I knew you’d never find it-it.”

“Why didn’t you want me to find it?”

“Because y-you’d move it. You never gave my stuff much regard, like my bathroom…for instance. It’s still dirty, I noticed.”

“How long have you been here?”

She had an awkward smile on her face, which was eerie given the juxtaposition it had over the unlit lighter she was holding ever so close to his fishing rod.

“All day. All night. I heard you talking to someone earlier. Who was it? Was-s it another woman?”

He didn’t want to risk setting her off in the wrong direction. He had to choose his truths carefully. Sometimes that meant making them up. He could sort out their accuracy later.

“Insurance agent. Trying to sell me insurance. I told her to get lost.”

“I’ve been waiting for you in the bedroom, naked, all day, except to cook you dinner, shivering from the cold, but you didn’t come for me. Now I’m dressed, still cold, ashamed, afraid that you might not want me anymore. And I want some chocolate.”

“How did you get here?”

She went rigid again. Her blue eyes, which were red with bloodshot, stared at him with intensity.

“Long s-story.”

“Alice, how?”

“Buick. When Doctor Nantucket burned the guard’s shack,” she shook her head as she recalled her escape, “that was so excessive-ive, I couldn’t believe, but I did believe, he said it was necessary, I think, he forced the man to give us his uni-, er, form. Then, when he ran away in his boxers, poor old man, it was such a cold night, I searched his pockets to…”

She was having trouble with her thoughts.

“Alice?”

“To find his keys. Then it was just a matter of finding the lock it fit.”

She closed her eyes. Her swaying was beginning to lessen. Anston noticed a tear welling up just above her left cheek.

“Why did you leave?” he asked.

She stomped her foot.

“Enough questions,” she said. “I came for you, sweetie, and now I’m here. No more questions!”

“Why come for me?”

“That’s a question, Jack! You violated my request! You always violate my request! You never listen to me!”

Anston narrowed his eyebrows. He couldn’t remember why she’d always called him Jack. It wasn’t his middle name, nickname, or anything associated with his real name. Maybe he had said it once as a joke? The fact that she was still calling him that made no sense. But this was no time to correct her. She was crazy.

“I’m listening, Alice. Just tell me what you want. Why are you here?”

He steeled his nerves for her inevitable confession, the thing he had feared since he’d been told she had escaped, and more realistically, since he’d had her committed in the first place. He dug his toes into the floor to enforce his rigid stance. If he were about to listen to her threaten his life, he figured he should at least look ready to fight back.

Her body softened again. There was a twinkle in her bloodshot eyes. And the left part of her mouth went up in a smile.

“I want you to marry me again.”

This caught him off guard. He expected something more sinister, more insane. But then, he thought, this request was pretty freaking insane. Their divorce was never actually completed. Just started. He couldn’t help but wonder if this were some kind of trap.

“You want what?”

“To take me back, as your wife.”

Anston wrinkled his brow. She couldn’t have been serious.

“What’s your game, Alice?”

Her face was now blank. She shook her head slightly.

“No game. You dumped me. Then you put me in that, in that…place, messing up my life, and you never gave me a chance, and I—”

“I put you in that place because you needed it.”

“Says who? I-I’m perfectly normal.”

Anston resisted his urge to laugh at her. Normal was definitely not the word he would have used to describe her. Even her eyes were going crazy as they rapidly changed dilation. She reminded him of that old drug addict he used to see in the park talking to invisible ducks. That guy was always on something. If not for the fact that she was certifiably insane, he’d suspect she was on those same chemicals.

“You screamed in your sleep.”

“I had bad dreams.”

“You cut the eyeballs out of newspaper photos.”

“I wanted to see through the eyes of famous people.”

“You tried to set the cat on fire.”

“I was allergic!”

Anston braved a step closer to her. She noticed, and she put the lighter within a few inches of the rod. She still hadn’t flicked the flint.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said.

“What do you want with my fishing rod?”

She laughed.

“I want to burn it.”

“Why? Isn’t your gripe with me?”

“You love this pole. You love it more than you love me. I have to burn it. You’ve always put it before me.”

“That’s not true, honey. I don’t love the pole more than you.”

She moved the lighter another inch closer. Anston flinched.

“You do love it more than me!”

“Alice, stop! Smell the gas? You’ll blow up the house. Or yourself. Or you’ll burn your fingers off.” He struggled with the facts he knew and scratched his head while he tried to summon any memory of high school science. “I don’t know chemistry, but something bad will happen I’m sure.”

“Then maybe you’ll fulfill your promise to me.”

“What promise?”

“That you’ll be with me ‘til the day we die.”

Anston took a step back. Maybe she understood chemistry better than he did. Maybe she would blow up the house. He had only one chance to get this right. And, quite frankly, he didn’t know what that chance meant. He didn’t trust her in the slightest.

“I don’t love the pole more than you,” he said. “And to prove it, I’ll grant you your request.”

“Which request?

Anston was confused. Had there been more than one? He replayed the conversation in his head on fast-forward. He was pretty sure she had made only one.

“The one you came here for.”

“You’ll marry me again?” Her lips turned upward and her teeth sparkled.

They were still married, he thought. Legally, at any rate. Perhaps she’d been locked away for so long that she’d lost touch with all forms of reality, not just the tangible kind.

“Just turn off the gas, air out the room, and dispose of the lighter.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t turn on the gas.”

Anston was about to challenge her, but stopped when he reminded himself that she was the one with the lighter in hand. It was better not to challenge a fool with the words of a fool. He’d let that one go.

“Okay, just turn it off and we’ll talk about marriage.”

“What’s the proper way to give me a request?”

“Please.”

“Please what?”

“What do you mean, ‘please what?’ Nothing follows ‘please.’”

“Please, sweetheart.”

Anston pinched the bridge of his nose. He was nauseous, anxious, and getting restless.

“Right. Please, sweetheart.”

Where was that tire iron?

Alice considered his words. And she looked normal doing it—no left eye twitching or anything. Not now. She was suddenly in control of her stature. This scared Anston.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said. “We marry tomorrow. We consummate tonight. I’ll be in the bedroom waiting. You better be in there after you clean up that bathroom.”

“Okay.”

To his relief, she placed the fishing rod back on the hooks—they looked tarnished, as though her very presence had sucked the luster out of them. Then she pocketed the lighter.

“I’m gonna make you a believer in love again, s-sweetheart,” she said. “Mark my words.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be unclothed,” she said. “You better be, too.”

“Right. Wait for me.”

She closed her eyes and felt her forehead. There was pain in her face.

“And I want you to stop this room from spinning.”

“I’ll try.”

She opened her eyes and stared at him. Then she allowed her hand to fall to her hip. Back to business.

She moved to the bedroom, not seductive with shaking hips, but stiff, like an infantryman heading to war. Whatever sex appeal he’d once seen in her, it had died with her last vestige of sanity. His spine shuddered when she closed the bedroom door behind her.

He shut off the gas valve to the fireplace. Though his head continued to spin, and though all that nausea he’d tried to purge slowly returned for another round, somehow he felt victorious. He cheated death tonight, or at least so far. The windows were next; the place needed some fresh air.

Anston didn’t fancy himself a wise man—he did, after all, hang out with two drunks two days a month. He also kept to himself the remaining days and didn’t know the first thing about choosing good women. But he did value one thing: his father’s instruction. Whenever something bad was about to happen, he thought back to a piece of advice his father had given him.

“Never be afraid of bad luck,” his father had once said. “If it wants you, it’ll find you. Your job is to stand behind the mirror before it breaks.”

On the fishing boat, standing behind his mirror had required George racing in with a pair of scissors. At home, his mirror required a stray cat—preferably a black one for poetic justice—tossed into the bedroom with the door locked. He remembered her allergy. She was asthmatic. A cat would allow enough time for the police to show and for him to escape.

Anston returned to his kitchen for a can of tuna. But then another thought occurred to him. She was lying in the bedroom waiting for him. No one had done that for him since the week before he’d committed her. Libidinal pressure had built to near explosive levels during that interim, and now he had a chance to deflate it. Maybe Rebecca could’ve satisfied that need in time, but that ship had sailed thanks to his detour earlier, and Alice was here looking to satisfy him now, in her odd, lunatic ways.

Then he was reminded of another piece of his father’s advice: “Never piss off the woman who says she loves you.”

He put the tuna back under the cupboard. Perhaps he could overlook her insanity for one evening, or even see if they still had a spark. Computer engineers had to consider all variables, after all. Spending the night with her again was risky, certainly, but stabilizing his sex drive for a change sounded like a sweet deal. Maybe that in and of itself was crazy. But he could be careful. It’s not like this was the first time they’d shared a bed, even though nothing had ever really happened in that bed, nothing memorable at least. It was possible he could suppress his fear under the power of another emotional force. After blowing his chances with Rebecca, it was probably the best option he had.

He went ahead and counted up the knives in the kitchen, just to be sure. It had been a while since he had taken inventory of his utensils, but eight, which is what he counted here, seemed like the right number. Or maybe he had nine. That sounded right, too. Close enough.

(end sample)

Chapter 5 will be released right here at Drinking Cafe Latte at 1pm next Friday, October 9, 2015, at, well, 1pm EST, so stay tuned.

Again, if you are getting into this story and want to find out how it ends, please be sure to order your copy today. Visit the official page for The Computer Nerd for additional information.

Thanks.

“The Computer Nerd” Chapter 3

With the October 20, 2015 release date for The Computer Nerd less than a month away, I think it’s time to start pumping up the hype wagon a little, so I’d like to release individual chapters every few days until the day of release. Obviously, I’m not going to post every chapter, as I’ll want to save something for your e-book reading devices, but I’ll be giving you a decent preview of the book if you stick around long enough to check them out.

(9/27/2015 UPDATE: After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that I’ll release a new chapter every Friday until release. This will make it possible to give you a substantial amount of story without giving away everything in advance.)

Because I’m still finalizing the story, the blog version and the e-book version may have some slight differences. But this will give a decent idea of what to expect. If you’d like to comment on the direction of the story (with positive or negative reactions, advice, etc.), please don’t hesitate. I welcome any and all feedback. And thanks in advance if you do post a comment.

If you haven’t read the first two chapters, you can view them here:

Chapters 1 and 2

And now to continue the story:

Chapter 3

“Security Measures”

The problem with his ex-wife was that she was unpredictable, and whatever she was up to, and wherever she was going, Anston knew he would have to prepare for a confrontation. He didn’t know when it would happen, or how, and he wasn’t entirely sure which preventative measure was the most sensible for keeping her away. If she were to approach him midday while he was heading to his car, for example, she would catch him at his most defenseless. That, of course, would’ve spelled trouble. And, though a normal person was less likely to start trouble in the parking lot of a small IT firm, she had spent the last year at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility because she wasn’t normal. Attacking him in public was something she was probably capable of now, especially after surrounding herself with like-minded people for so long. But that would’ve been unpredictable because even crazy people knew that attacking someone in private is better. It’s the reason so many slasher films take place at cabins in the woods or in the heart of a spaceship hurtling ten thousand light years to nowhere. Even murderous nut jobs knew that isolation is scarier than public gatherings when confronted by a stalker (even for socially anxious people like Anston). It was more likely she’d come for him once he was confirmed alone. The truly unpredictable part was in determining exactly when she would come for him. The problem with Anston was that he was usually alone.

But he was a smart guy. He could prepare for that eventuality. If she were planning to impose on him serious harm, he didn’t want to improve her odds by keeping himself defenseless, so he searched his Maserati Biturbo for a weapon. Unfortunately, it was equally defenseless. He searched the glove compartment for a knife, or even a pen, but all he had was vehicle registration slips from years past and copies of his auto insurance. He’d kept the cabin of his car mostly free of junk. There was an aluminum sun shade folded up in the rear footwell, but it was useless as a weapon—its soft edges ensured that he wouldn’t inflict even a paper cut should she attack. Next, he searched the trunk. He didn’t have much in there, either: just plastic bags, discarded candy wrappers he’d forgotten to throw away after his last road trip, and a teddy bear he’d bought for her when they were dating but decided not to give until after they married (as a token of gratitude) and then simply forgot about until his last road trip, which he took several months after he’d committed her. But he did have a tire iron.

Anston gripped the tire iron between his fingers and marveled at its weight. If swung correctly, it could do a lot of damage to an attacker. He slashed at nothing, just to test the force of its swing. If she came after him in her expected psychotic rage, he would have to aim below the neck to keep from putting her in a coma.

Then he considered his desperate thinking. He was holding a weapon that could stop his ex-wife in her tracks, in ways that could prevent her from ever recovering. And he was contemplating using it on her.

He grunted at his shot of lunacy and tossed the tire iron back in the trunk. Why would he hit anyone with a heavy piece of metal, much less the one he’d married once upon a time? He closed the trunk and grumbled as the Happy Place Enrichment Facility popped back into view over the roof of his car. He had to vacate the parking lot before its mental effects rubbed off on him.

As he sped away from the institution, he continued to think about safer measures for subduing his vengeful ex-wife. He didn’t want to put her in the grave, or even in the hospital. He just wanted to give himself time to escape should she confront him. But he needed to consider the likelihood that she could catch him anywhere at any time. That meant he’d have to carry with him some form of deterrent. At all times. It was the best way to handle her while not killing her. He would need a humane solution.

He decided after several minutes of racking his brain that the answer to his problem was sitting somewhere at the mall.

***

When Anston pulled up to the mall’s south entrance, he spotted a group of teenagers loitering on a low wall, each one smoking a cigarette. The girls were flirting with the boys, and the boys were flirting with each other. Most of them had tattoos, and all of them were communicating with each other almost exclusively through rude gestures and filthy language. He wasn’t sure if they were capable of speaking intelligently. He rolled his window all the way down and tested them anyway.

“You kids know of a shop inside that sells Tasers?” he asked.

The boys collectively shrugged. One of the girls thought about the answer.

“Maybe the Screw Yourself store might have one,” she said with a sneer.

“You know where that’s located?”

“Yeah, in the Bendover District, next to the Kissmyass Department Store.”

Anston smiled and shook his head.

“No idea where any of that is.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Next to Starbucks, dude. Everything is next to Starbucks.”

He gave her the thumbs up.

“Thanks!”

Anston drove to the other side of the mall and parked there. He didn’t want to confront these kids when he approached the entrance on foot. They had looked and smelled like trouble. But at least they were helpful. Given their appearance, he was expecting the runaround.

Inside the mall, it was readily apparent that everything was shutting down for the night. Even with the holidays approaching and mall hours extending, it seemed he hadn’t gotten here soon enough.

But he raced through the mall anyway, trying to find someone who was looking for one last sale to make. He really needed a Taser. Even though he’d never used one before, he knew they were capable of stopping deranged lunatics at the press of a button. Plus, there was real power in carrying one, like transporting a handheld kiddy lightning bolt. He’d often dreamt of shooting a bad guy with one. Never thought he’d need to use a Taser on his wife, but it seemed that day had come anyway.

Gates upon closed gates sped past his peripheral vision in a blur, but he didn’t let it dissuade him. A few gates were still half open—most of them clothing stores where girls like the one at the other entrance could change their identities and interests at the flip of a switch—but each one had employees standing by, sweeping floors and preparing for that final pull that explained to customers that all new purchases would have to be made the next day. And ultimately, it didn’t matter because every store he passed was a rip-off of its neighbor. None of these places were likely to sell Tasers.

But then luck smiled on him. He turned the corner to find a Starbucks, a clothing store, a Starbucks, another clothing store, a fitness store, a tattoo parlor, and another Starbucks, and across from that third Starbucks was a kiosk that sold pocket defensive items. And the salesperson running the booth was still there. She was packing up her cashbox, but she was still there.

Anston startled her when he ran up behind her, screaming “Hey!” just inches from the back of her head. Without thinking, she grabbed for one of her products, a vial of pepper spray, and unloaded it in his face. He screamed from the utter pain of it.

“What the hell?” he cried.

“I might say the same to you, pal,” said the salesgirl.

“I was trying to buy one of your products before you closed for the night!”

“You’re a customer?”

“I wanted to be!”

She put her hand on his shoulder.

“Calm down. You startled me is all.”

“Calm down? My eyes are melting in their sockets.”

There was a change in the tone of her voice. She was all sweet and businesslike now.

“So you know the product works well.”

“Good God.”

She released his shoulder.

“Tell you what. I’m closed for the night, but if you come back in the morning, I’ll sell you this bottle for half off. Just remind me that you’re the customer I sprayed in case I forget.”

“I think you should just give it to me now, for free.”

Anston had his hands over his eyes, and he was on the verge of crying. He could already feel his sinuses congesting from the overpowering jolt of two million units on the Scoville Heat Scale (twice the intensity of a ghost chili pepper and a thousand times hotter than a jalapeno) destroying his will to live.

“Sorry, my boss would get mad. But come back tomorrow morning. I think I can give you a discount. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Anston stumbled out of the mall with his face turning inside out. He’d tried rinsing his eyes at the restroom sink, but the custodians had already locked the restrooms for the night. He still tried at the water fountains, but none of them were powerful enough to clear the mouth guard. It was a futile effort. Now he was outside, daring to face the dust floating under the night sky.

Laughter erupted beside him. He peeked through his fingers to see the boys and girls from before mocking him between each puff of their cigarettes.

“Look at this ass,” said the main girl, “like he’d just got kicked in the face by a stripper with standards after he tried to start a conversation.”

The others laughed with her.

“I guess you found the Screw Yourself store?”

Anston shook his head. He’d chosen the wrong exit, would still have to find the right one, and for all he knew, his ex-wife was still coming to reunite in all of her vengeance.

He decided it was best to cry after all.

(end sample)

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