“Sir! We have new intelligence on Agent 451’s whereabouts.”
Mr. Brown looked up from his desk sharply.
“You know where Dean is?” he asked.
“No, but we’re afraid the conversation with his mother about meeting further west was a ruse. We’ve noticed suspicious new activity on the profile of the woman he was previously assigned to. She’s befriended someone called ‘D.’ Our agents have been looking into the details of the profile’s owner, and it was begun in Agent 451’s home state.”
“Do you have photo evidence?”
“None as of yet, sir. But we know where he’s heading.”
“Great,” Mr. Brown said gruffly. “Out with it.”
“He is heading back to the city. Should we consider him armed and dangerous?”
“Dean? I highly doubt that. Is he on foot?”
“No sir, according to a FaceSpace private messenger conversation with his former user, he is on his way back to the city via bus.”
“Bus?” Mr. Brown said incredulously.
“I know it’s odd sir, but considering the agent’s situation, it’s possible he has suffered some sort of mental break.”
“I’d say it’s likely,” Mr. Brown said with a frown. “When is his bus due to arrive?”
“There’s no way of telling. We don’t even know which bus line he will be on.”
“I want an agent deployed at every bus station in the city. Make sure they all have their target’s face memorized. If you find him, bring him here and we’ll deal with the matter quietly.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Send them into the common room to be briefed.”
“Of course, right away.”
“Agent?” Mr. Brown called as the man hurried toward the door.
“Yes, sir?” he asked, turning around.
“Handle this delicately. There’s a chance that he is still a friend of FaceSpace, and there’s a chance that he is now our enemy. Take no definitive action until you know whether he is friend or foe. Be careful in your manner of speaking. If you can negotiate with him and sway him to come with us willingly, do so. We don’t want him turning against FaceSpace. He knows too much, and if we just get him back here in one piece we may still be able to use him. He is very valuable to the operation, and this may just be a case of puppy love gone too far. FaceSpace is like the parent of a rebellious teenager. Deal with this accordingly.”
“Do you have any suggestions about how to communicate with him, sir?”
“I’d like to speak with him personally,” Mr. Brown said, clearing his throat importantly. “I always felt we had something of a repertoire. But since I can’t be there to stake him out, alert me the moment you discover his whereabouts. And if that doesn’t work, I want to make sure our most diplomatic agents are available. Assign those who have tested with an unusually high emotional intelligence and brief them immediately.”
“Right away, sir.”
Mr. Brown turned his swivel chair to face the large windows in his office. It was a shame that it had come to this. He didn’t want to harm Dean, but he would rather have him working at FaceSpace as a paper pusher or a custodial worker than to release him onto the street in his state of mind. The poor man would end up raving like a lunatic, waving a cardboard sign about how the end was nigh and FaceSpace would one day rule them all.
While the assertion was preposterous, it was still a form of bad press that should be avoided at all costs. Whether people liked it or not, the ravings of the deeply depraved often followed them wherever they went, sometimes burying suspicions and paranoia deep in the heart of even the soundest thinker. FaceSpace couldn’t afford skepticism. Not when it was about to seal the most important deal in history. The situation with Dean would have to be rectified immediately.
Mr. Brown sighed and leaned back in his chair. If only he hadn’t allowed Dean to go on vacation. But who was he fooling? He had been a ticking timebomb from the start.
When Zina knocked on Lain’s door, still feeling unnerved by D’s strange comment, the door swung easily on its hinges and revealed the bedroom to be empty. Zina wandered in, glancing around, hoping against hope that Lain might be hiding or crouched behind her bed for some reason. She called her name, but there was no answer. Zina’s heart sank.
She shuffled from room to room, hoping that Lain would answer her calls. She soon realized with a heavy weight that she was alone in the apartment. Zina glanced up at the wall clock and inhaled sharply, realizing that it was Thursday. Lain would be at band practice and probably wouldn’t return for hours. Maybe even the rest of the night. She would have to handle this on her own.
She dawdled in the kitchen, putting a tea kettle on the stove and grabbing a snack. She puttered around, organizing the shelves of the refrigerator before the tea was ready and she returned to her bedroom. She ate slowly, staring at the screen where Dean’s message sprawled in front of her. Then she noticed something strange. He was visible online. Normally he just wrote and ran. They had never had a conversation in real time.
Zina gulped down a hot sip of tea, and with shaking hands she clicked on D’s picture. A dialogue bubble popped up, and she began to type. Her heart was thudding in her chest, but she ignored it. There was probably some rational explanation.
Zina: I haven’t said that phrase since we began talking. How did you know I say that?
An elipses appeared on the screen as D. dictated a response. It took an unusually long time for the tiny sentence that finally appeared on the screen.
D: I think you wrote it on a comment that Roy liked.
Zina considered this thoughtfully. She did use the phrase a lot. It would be no big deal if he had read it and it stuck out in his mind. The elipses appeared again, and her thudding heart began to slow. She watched in anticipation as he wrote, until finally she could read it.
D: It’s one of the things I first noticed about you. It was like someone was finally speaking a language I understood.
Zina sighed. That made sense. It would stick out in his head if it was what drew his attention to her in the first place. She laughed at herself for the strange acceleration of paranoia she had experienced. Her breathing returned to normal and she shook her head. She hadn’t noticed it had become so constricted.
Zina: Oh, I see. This is strange. I don’t usually use the messenger on FaceSpace. I’ve heard rumors that they track what you write if you use it and can sell you out to the FBI.
There was a long pause before the elipses appeared. It disappeared briefly and then appeared again. Zina pursed her lips impatiently.
D: I’ve heard that before. Do you have something to hide?
The irony of him asking her if she had anything to hide nearly made her laugh out loud. She began to feel annoyed toward Lain for filling her with ridiculous doubts. Her annoyance fully eased her doubts about D. and she relaxed. They had been talking this long, why not just enjoy it while she could? You learned a lot more about a person during a real time conversation, so that’s what she was going to do.
Zina: Not exactly, but I don’t want to be vulnerable to the wrong people either.
D: That’s understandable.
Speaking to him in real time was much slower than she had thought it would be. Almost boring, really. He didn’t carry the same spark that the emails seemed to have, and she found herself losing interest quickly. Maybe he was tired or something. Still, tired or not, D. continued talking.
D: Guess where I am.
Zina: If you say “outside my window” I’m going to kill you.
D: ha-ha. No. I’m taking the easy way out and riding the bus back to the city. I’m passing a herd of cows right now.
Zina: You must be getting close to home.
The elipses appeared briefly, then disappeared again. She waited for a few beats before finally, his message appeared on the screen.
Dean reclined uncomfortably in the stiff bus seat. He was taking the Mustang bus services the rest of the way back to the city. He was close enough now that he didn’t think the agents would catch him, and had purposely called his mother with misinformation about where he would be heading. The woman had wisely played along, even giving him an address for some cousins who were in the neighborhood who could help him with a place to stay and nice southern hospitality. He had bought a large pair of glasses and a scarf, hoping to conceal his identity. He had covered the outside of his suitcase with newspaper and traded coats with a homeless man so that nobody would recognize him if they saw him. He wasn’t sure how long it would be until FaceSpace knew where he was, but he had to act fast. Hopefully the false lead would give him the time he needed to reach Zina.
He stared in anticipation at the message he had sent to her, and soon received a notification that she had read the message. Sometimes it took her an hour to dictate a long and detailed response, and these letters were the highlight of his life. He cherished every word, reading them slowly again and again, memorizing every tidbit about herself that she had revealed only to him. Because she felt he could understand her. Because he did, of course. He knew everything about her. The proof of that was in his suitcase.
It was taking her a long time to reply to his message, so he glanced slowly around the bus at the people around him. Normally, they were the types he wouldn’t give a second glance to, but now they fascinated him. The man in front of him was disheveled and smelled terrible, but D. wouldn’t risk moving his seat. Besides, he wanted to fit in with the riff-raff. It would make it harder to spot him. FaceSpace was used to him being crisp and tidy, punctual and even a little bit germophobic. They would have him profiled, just as they had most of their users profiled, and a seedy man sitting near a drifter would not be Dean’s profile.
Dean began to fidget. He could clearly see that she was online, but the little pencil indicating that she was typing to him wasn’t wiggling. What in the world was she doing that was so important that she couldn’t take two seconds out of her day to respond to him? He was getting anxious. Of course, he also admired her for having such creativity. Maybe she was in the middle of a project, working with Gwen was it? And simply couldn’t wait to hear from him and had chosen to read his message for her daily fix. That would be fine. But still, he hated waiting more than anything. And here he was, on a disgusting, germ-filled bus, ready to throw his entire life down the toilet. And all for her. The least she could do was write him back promptly. It was all he had to keep him going.
With a heavy sigh, he leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes. It wasn’t until he did so that he realized just how tired he was. He let the quiet hum of the bus lull him into a light sleep, and dreamt of the day that he and Zina would be together at last. He couldn’t wait to tell her the truth about himself. All the things that he had been through for her. And in his dreams, she was there, ready to share his every trial and tribulation. There was never a more perfect woman.
Dean was exhausted, and glad he’d had the foresight before his trip to take out over a thousand dollars in cash. He had never liked the idea of FaceSpace tracking his spending habits, which was disturbingly easy when he was using his ATM card, and touted his archaic determination to keep cash on hand as a way to avoid ATM surcharges. It made it much less suspicious that he would travel with a large amount of money, and it hadn’t been as if he were planning a rebellion all along. At least not consciously.
The past week had been an emotional roller coaster. He was physically and mentally depleted as he hitchhiked and walked on foot as quickly as he could back toward his home city. He had never been quite so vulnerable to fate as he was on the road, and although he had heard that some people preferred a lifestyle devoid of every day luxuries and security, it didn’t suit him well at all. Dean, unlike “D.” was a man of routine, and there were just some things he liked to have every morning, like a pot of coffee and the channel 6 news. Fortunately, he had made it to a small motel, where he was able to set down his heavy suitcase and pull out the tiny laptop he had recently purchased. It had no web cam installed in it, which was intentional. Dean needed to ensure that FaceSpace couldn’t view his face as he checked his page, and although the company may have recognized his voice were he to speak, he was silent.
As one last ditch attempt to prevent FaceSpace from locating him, he went into the hardware of the machine and disabled any of the programs he knew that FaceSpace regularly used to track the whereabouts of their users. And for the finishing touches, he duct taped over every visible piece of plastic and metal. It was common knowledge among FaceSpace agents that most technological devices of the higher brand quality were full of hidden cameras. That left no question as to the lifestyle of the user and their environment. He made sure to nip that sort of security in the bud. It was unlikely that they would be able to find him now, that was for sure.
Dean kicked off his shoes and lowered himself gently into a creaky wooden chair. His entire body was aching from his hectic journey. He had never been so close to homeless in his life, and it certainly wasn’t a comfortable way to live. He had gotten in trouble for sleeping, for crying out loud. A crude security guard had cursed him out for not having a ticket for the bus terminal where he had decided to spend the night a couple of days beforehand. Every day, he missed his childhood bedroom more and more.
He set his laptop down on the small table in the motel room and grinned at the squirrel sticker he had used to decorate the outside of his small machine. The laptop looked pretty terrible covered in all that duct tape, but the squirrel sticker had been an impulse buy at the office store that lent it some charm. Dean had hidden his face inside the store, knowing the machines each had cameras. Inside, it felt like there were a thousand different eyes, ever watching his every move. He had breathed a deep sigh of relief when he made it out with his tiny laptop, happy to know that soon his perilous journey would be over. His destination was Zina, and once he found her, he was sure everything was going to be okay.
He had never been so tired in his entire life. If she didn’t take him in with open arms, she would have to be one heartless bitch. Dean furrowed his eyebrows at the thought of being rejected by her again. He wouldn’t be able to handle it. He hated being mad at Zina. They certainly had a unique relationship. They had yet to have their first fight, but he didn’t look forward to that day. If they were all as explosive as the type his parents had, he hoped they would never fight.
Zina was a completely unique case, and he was certain that she was worth any difficulty they might experience as a couple, but he knew that women could be careless with their words and generally thought with just emotions. A man needed some logic in his life, and a woman wasn’t it. At least, that’s what his father was always saying. Dean didn’t really know what to believe about it. All he knew was that he would prefer to spend the day with his mother, whether her love for him was logical or not. Still, he was sure that the intense pleasure that Zina’s words could give him could easily turn into an equal intensity of pain. How did people make sure their relationships were perfect?
Dean didn’t know, and obviously his parents didn’t either, so he made a mental note to look into relationship advice once his tiny laptop managed a connection to the motel’s wireless internet. When he finally managed to get onto FaceSpace, Zina had written him back.
I had this really strange encounter with a man who is missing now. He worked for FaceSpace. It makes me kind of nervous.
Dean’s heart began thudding in his ears. So they knew he was missing now. That meant his mother was probably worried sick. He should call her. He wasn’t sure if they would have her phones tapped or not, but they probably would. He was sort of beyond caring at this point. He was going to call his mother whenever he damn well felt like it. He pushed the chair back from the table and creakily got to his feet. He grabbed the phone and dialed her number shakily.
“Dean, is that you?” her frantic voice answered.
“Yeah, Ma. Don’t worry. Listen though, things weren’t working out so well at work. I don’t want to go back but I don’t know what to do.”
“There were people here looking for you. Scary people. They gave me a package for you if you come back. But I understand, honey. Just be careful, all right?”
She didn’t ask questions, and Dean was silently overcome with gratitude.
“I love you, Ma.”
“I love you too. Oh, and Dean, guess what?”
“I left your father.”
“I just can’t stand how he treats you, and me. For a long time I thought it’s just the way that men are supposed to act, but it’s not. So I left him.”
“Good for you, Ma!” Dean was sincerely elated.
“Anyway, I’m so glad you’re all right. Get in touch when you can.”
“I sure will, Ma.”
“Good boy. Talk to you soon.”
Dean hung up the phone and grinned from ear to ear. His mother had stood up to his father and Zina was totally falling for him. Everything was as good as a fairy tale.
Over the next week, Lain noticed a shift in Zina’s behavior. She couldn’t help but keep her distance from her, regardless of the fact that she was desperate to make things right and pretend nothing had happened. However, Zina made no move to do so, and seemed rather distracted by somebody she was constantly talking to on FaceSpace.
When Lain checked Zina’s page, she discovered a mysterious new friend on her list. Upon glancing over Zina’s shoulder as she sat on the couch, laughing at something unseen and unheard by Lain, she found her suspicions confirmed and realized (with intense jealousy), that Zina was talking to the strange man. He didn’t even have a picture up of himself on his profile, which was a huge red flag, and Lain was troubled by it. Over the years, the horror stories of people being lured in by creeps on FaceSpace only grew more and more disturbing.
Lain recognized her friend’s tendency to jump into self-destructive relationships during particularly stressful times, and very nearly could have strangled her for it. She was getting extremely fed up with Zina and her terrible ways of coping with life, and didn’t want to get dragged down with her any longer. Unfortunately, she didn’t know quite how to express what she was feeling.
Whenever she would go to bed at night, she would glance at her end table, at the index card she had scribbled a phone number down. It was for a place where maybe Zina could get some help. They had been together for far too long and there was no way she could just abandon her now. Still, they were at an impasse, and it seemed like nothing she did was going to change Zina’s determination to escape her life by doing something compulsive and stupid, like sharing her entire life story with someone who could be a serial killer.
Finally, one day, Lain plopped herself on the couch next to Zina, who was in the middle of typing something, her hands flying furiously across the keyboard of her small laptop. When she noticed Lain’s presence, she stopped briefly, glanced over at her, and started again. Lain sighed and pushed her head back into the cushion of the couch.
“What are you doing, Z?” she asked, her tone soft but dripping with reprehension.
“Talking to a friend,” she said, purposely avoiding Lain’s eyes.
“I see that,” Lain said, pursing her lips. “Who is it?”
“It’s not really any of your business,” Zina snapped. She was obviously still hurt and angry about Lain’s outburst and wasn’t going to be the first one to apologize.
“Is it that creep who keeps posting those weird pictures of pigeons on your page?” Lain asked. “The one with no picture up?”
“He put a picture up yesterday,” Zina said defensively, turning her screen toward Lain and pointing to a picture of a squirrel in a tuxedo.
“Charming,” Lain said, jealous bile rising in the back of her throat. “Look, just don’t tell him too much. You know there are some serious weirdos lurking on FaceSpace. Ever since the media took off over the first few cases, tons of people have it in their heads that they can get away with murder. Just watch yourself.”
“You know Lain, I really appreciate you watching my back and everything, but this isn’t like that. We’ve been talking for over a week and he’s just a nice guy. He’s friends with Roy, okay? I already asked.”
“You asked Roy?”
Zina hesitated and didn’t answer.
“Oh my god, Z.”
“All right. But don’t come crying to me if you go and get yourself murdered.”
“Don’t worry. If I die, I’m sure bitching to you about it will be the last thing on my mind.”
“Good,” Lain said, pouting. She picked up the remote from the coffee table and turned on the TV.
Both Zina and Lain’s eyes were immediately drawn to the screen as a news reporter’s piercing voice began to speak.
“In other news, a valued FaceSpace employee has been reported missing. If you see this man, please report to your local authorities.”
The television began showing a clip of a man speaking cheerfully into a microphone about FaceSpace’s stock options, and Zina grew rigid.
“What’s wrong, Z?”
“That’s the guy who ran away from me in the park a few weeks ago,” she said, clutching the couch cushion between her body and Lain’s. “Should I report him?”
“I don’t know, he wasn’t missing then,” Lain said with a frown. “I hope they find him.”
“Yeah,” Zina whispered.
They watched the rest of the broadcast before Lain clicked the television set off and stood.
“Good night,” she said softly.
Zina held her eyes for the first time in weeks, suddenly overwhelmed by how much she had missed them.
Dean sat his suitcase down heavily and wiped his brow off. It had been a long walk to the library, but he was glad to finally be in the air conditioned building. He took a glance around, frowning. It didn’t seem like a whole lot of people used the place anymore. At least, not for reading. Most of the people he remembered perusing the shelves when he was a child were now sitting and staring at a computer screen. Many of them had large headphones over their ears, muting away the rest of the outside world. He noticed with annoyance that all of the computers were booked, and he had to sit, fidgeting in a chair in the corner like a dunce, as he waited for internet access.
Finally, after a two hour wait, he was allowed a precious fifteen minutes as a guest on one of their dirty machines. Dean grimaced and braced himself to touch the sticky keys. They were supposedly protected by a grubby rubber key protector that looked like it held more viruses in it than the computer of FaceSpace Headquarters’ infamous porn addict. Eventually he took a deep breath and steamed forward, laughing inwardly at himself. Apparently he had become spoiled by his state of the art machines at work. Everybody knew that he wouldn’t abuse his powers for pornography. The best use of his High-Definition technology was looking at Zina’s face. His heart began to thud rapidly as he clicked the agreement on the screen and his timer began. He had fifteen minutes to see if Zina had written him back.
The corners of his mouth drew into an anxious frown as he typed “FaceSpace.com” into the browser. The bright white screen flashed in front of him, prompting him to log in and see all his latest updates. He typed his user handle carefully and input his password – Zina123.
He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it definitely hadn’t been to find a notification saying that Zina had accepted his Friend Ship. The sail waved victoriously with her grimly smiling face wiggling on it as tiny cannons erupted virtual confetti. It gave him a strange sinking feeling that was soon followed by elation. When he clicked over to his profile, he was shocked to discover that he had a glaring red notification on the sidebar. It was from Zina.
No words in any human language could ever accurately convey the depth of his joy as he read and re-read Zina’s message. He read it so many times, in fact, that he had very little time to respond. The first message he had written to her had been easily articulated. This had mostly been because nobody else had been at the library that late on a gloomy Sunday evening, and so his fifteen minute time limit had been lifted. Now though, he was confined to a few minutes with a very long wait, and he had to think fast. Her words were beautiful, and he was enraptured by them. Everything she had written, she had written just for him. And it was the most profound feeling of joy he had ever experienced.
Finally, he took a deep breath and began writing back to her. He could never properly articulate everything he felt, and had an intuitive grasp on the fact that he shouldn’t overstate his joy at her response. He decided to play it cool, even though tiny beads of sweat were beginning to form against his slowly receding hairline.
Thank you for your swift response. I couldn’t be better.
He paused as flashes of his turbulent morning tried to invade his thoughts. He was lying to her already. It made him feel guilty, but his burdens should never be hers.
I don’t get out much, so I never had much of a chance to spawn.
He felt particularly proud of the line, remembering back to one of her old status updates about who should spawn and who should never be around children. He wasn’t sure whether or not she wanted children, but the overwhelming majority of her posts implied that she had a low tolerance of them.
Maybe someday, if they miraculously become less needy or I become more patient.
He was down to five minutes.
I’m out of town or I would love to meet up with you guys as soon as possible. I can let you know as soon as I’m available. I saw you through Roy. I don’t know him well, to be honest with you. He seems to collect FaceSpace friends like they were trophies for his popularity.
He recognized Roy from her list, and it was true. The man had over 3,000 FaceSpace friends. There was no way he would ever have met them all. He seemed to accept people to his page as if the number stroked his ego.
I don’t watch the news, I find it far too bleak and you never quite get the whole story…
Another quote stolen from a post she had made last December.
The way people are using FaceSpace is awful! I may never spawn but it’s inexcusable to harm children.
Dean was sincerely horrified. He had never considered this aspect of FaceSpace’s reach. He had been sheltered from it as he puttered around in the FaceSpace dormitories and was brainwashed into believing that FaceSpace was the greatest thing since clean socks. If he hadn’t felt so strongly toward Zina, he might never have made it out of there.
Sorry to make this brief, but I have to go soon. I make it a point not to spend too much time on social media.
Another lie. He had literally spent the past three years of his life hooked up to FaceSpace like it was his life support.
I hope you understand if I don’t particularly feel close enough to Roy to hang out with the both of you, but I understand why you would be reluctant to meet on your own, considering the creeps that use the site nowadays. I’d love to talk more to you when I get the chance. Tell me more about how we potentially share a brain. It sounds like a sci fi flick.
Dean was doing his best to sound young and edgy, but he knew he should do his best to be honest with her. In reality, he was pushing 40, and had every intention of telling her so. But when his fingers headed toward the number pad, they hesitated.
I don’t think my age in numbers will ever fully embody the age of my soul. I’ve been around long enough to know you might be the best thing the universe has to offer though. That or I really need to get out more. Later.
Dean smiled, hoping the last part would make Zina laugh. He hit send, just as the timer went off and he was ushered away from the computer by an impatient man with a deep scowl. Dean picked up his heavy suitcase and walked toward the door. He was going to head east. Back toward Zina.
Zina had thought all day about the mysterious “D.” She couldn’t concentrate on Gwen’s prattle, which was actually something of a blessing when it came right down to it. She was as snobby as they came. The only time she would perk up was when Gwen would reminisce about her childhood and tell her all kinds of stories from her own point of view about Lain. Lain was one of those kids who never seemed quite “suited” to having money, and whenever they would play together, for some reason she would always be a drama queen and have some sort of crazy meltdown. Gwen speculated that it was because Lain was an only child and had never been accustomed to wealth or other children.
Zina would just quietly listen as she spoke, never expecting any real feedback. However, it was obvious that for some reason, this artistic, penniless freak’s opinion actually meant something to her. She obviously viewed Zina as edgy and interesting, and sought her approval at every turn. Usually, her desperate attempts to brag about her own edgy streak fell flat and left Zina feeling markedly embarrassed for her.
It was so much easier for both of them if Zina tuned her out. That way, Gwen wouldn’t be put off by Zina’s tolerant but condescending smiles, and Zina wouldn’t go insane from the incredible lack of depth in Gwen’s mundane, but privileged, life. Instead of listening, she busied herself articulating a response, and the second she got the chance to sneak away for a lunch break, she held her phone tightly and typed her message with shaking hands.
I don’t know where you came from but your words spoke to me on so many levels. It’s as if you have nearly the same brain as I do, it’s uncanny. I’m so happy that you contacted me, it’s been a long time since someone has renewed my faith in humanity. Thank you for that.
Most people would think that I’m crazy for answering a letter from a stranger, especially someone on FaceSpace, but there is just something about your message that really spoke to me. Which friend are you a friend of on my list? I would love if maybe all of us could go out sometime and hang out. Maybe that way I can find out whether or not you really are too good to be true.
I noticed that you don’t have a whole lot of pictures or posts up. In fact, your profile looks brand new. I understand what it can be like to have FaceSpace hacked. Most people won’t accept you twice though, not after all the reports of fake accounts and the horrible people connected to them. Did you see the statistics about how many children have gone missing after accepting strange friends on FaceSpace? It’s a terrifying world out there.
Do you have children? How old are you? Don’t be afraid to be honest with me. The fastest way to make me reject you is to lie to me, because I always find out. Even if you think you’re too ugly for a FaceSpace picture, I can tell you have a good heart. I’m curious to find out more about you. Thanks for taking the time to write that beautiful message. I hope that this one finds you well.
Until we speak again,
Lain hid out in her bedroom until Zina left for work the next morning. Once the apartment was clear, she emerged with a deep sigh and headed out to shower. She had just finished dressing for the day and was starting to make breakfast when she heard a knock at the door. She briefly worried that Zina had forgotten her keys and debated whether or not to answer. Ultimately, charitability won over contempt, and she slowly made her way to the door and asked who was there.
“It’s me,” a deep voice answered.
Lain instantly felt her anxiety melt away and she exhaled in relief.
“Karl!” she exclaimed, throwing the door open.
“Hello, Miss,” Karl said formally with a small nod. He had greeted her with the same formality since he had chauffeured her as a child. However, the smile on his face was soft and loving, just as it had always been, and she threw her arms around him in excitement.
“I’ve been wondering when you were going to stop by. You just missed Zina, she’s been working in the studio with Gwen. Remember her?”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Karl said, wrinkling his nose. Lain laughed. Neither of them had been big fans of Gwen. She was a year older than Lain and their parents had insisted on putting them on many play-dates, most of which resulted with Lain in tears. Karl had to talk her through many childhood dramas, particularly when he would drive her home from Gwen’s family estate, where the girl felt particularly comfortable antagonizing Lain. She had mixed feelings about letting Zina work with her, but thought love and Zina’s business should outrank the past.
“How is Zina doing?”
“She’s okay. Come on in, Karl. I was just making breakfast. Would you like to have some tea with me?”
“Of course. It will be nice to have you serve me for a change,” he teased.
Lain laughed and they headed into the kitchen together.
“And how are you doing?” he asked her, sitting down on a stool at the small island counter.
She opened her mouth to reply, “Fine,” but her voice caught in her throat. She could never lie to Karl. He saw right through her.
Karl noticed her hesitation and perked up.
“What’s the matter?”
She suddenly felt self-conscious. She didn’t know what Karl would think of her feelings for Zina. She was sure that he had viewed the two like sisters, and himself as a father figure to both of them. She was reluctant to disillusion him about the dynamic of their funny little family. He accepted her, as gay as she was, but still, it was hard to talk about her personal feelings to anybody.
“Did something happen?” he guessed. “Are you pregnant?”
This caused her to burst out laughing, and Karl’s worried expression relaxed into a small smile.
“No,” she gasped. “I’m just having a rough time in my personal life.”
“Ah,” Karl nodded. “Tell me more.”
She looked into his steady brown eyes and sighed. Before she knew it, the whole story was spilling out and Karl listened quietly. When she was done, she was in tears again, and worried that Karl might never see the two in the same paternal way.
“I know you’ve gone above and beyond,” Karl said softly.
Lain sniffled and nodded, bracing herself for the possibility of his disapproval.
“I’m not sure you could ever understand how life has affected her,” he said quietly. “You know, my father would beat me up a lot, and I still can’t form relationships with people very easily. Deep down, I’m a very lonely man who is very scared of showing my heart to people. I think Zina might be the same way.”
“Yeah, but do you think she loves me?”
Karl inhaled deeply.
“I think you’re the most important person in the world to her.”
“Yeah, but, like a girlfriend?”
“You’re more than that, Lain. Don’t be selfish.”
Lain prickled and furrowed her eyebrows. Selfish was the last thing she had always been with Zina.
“Why can’t she just say it then?”
“Do you know what I see in Zina, versus what I see in you?” Karl asked. Lain shook her head, clearly still miffed.
“You’re not afraid of anything. It’s admirable. But in Zina, I see a terrified little girl who doesn’t trust so much as the ground she walks on. Who feels like every choice she makes is the wrong one and every step she takes will cause the earth to open up at her feet and swallow her whole. She doesn’t want to take you down with her. And I think you should respect that. Understand that. And don’t give up on her.”
“But I can’t do this anymore, Karl. It’s not fair. It’s not my burden.”
“No, that is absolutely true. But there’s one last thing you can do, and as the closest person to her, I think you should try. Do you know what helped me?”
Lain shook her head.
“I started getting counseling. My father died and my mother insisted it would be good for us both. So I went to humor her. But you know what? I’ve learned more about myself in six months than I had figured out in sixty-eight years. I’m actually happy.” He looked at her slyly. “I even have a girlfriend.”
“You do not!” Lain gasped, slapping his shoulder with a dish towel. “What is she like?”
“Amazing,” he said. “And you know what? For the first time in my life, I feel like I deserve that.”
“So Zina needs therapy?” Lain asked, frowning.
“She needs more than you could ever give her is what I’m saying. The only chance she has is to help herself.”
They sat in silence as Karl’s words sunk into Lain. They chatted a while longer, and Karl gave her updates about her parents and their whereabouts. Apparently they were in Greece for some reason. Neither of them cared enough to ask why. Eventually, he glanced down at his watch.
“Well, I’d best be going. I’ve got some errands to run. When will Zina be done with her project with Gwen?”
He said Gwen’s name with a wrinkled nose and Lain giggled.
“In another week or two.”
“I’m going to swing by to see her, I’ve missed you both so much,” he informed her. “Thank you for the tea.”
They stood, and she embraced him. He hugged her, tightening his grip when he felt her sniffle sadly against him. She peered up at him with a bright smile.
“Thank you for listening to me,” she said.
“Thank you for trusting me,” he replied. “The longer you keep things buried, the more toxic they become. You should always let out your feelings, Lain. It’s the only way to get anywhere.”
She nodded and walked Karl to the door, her mind reeling with thoughts of Zina and her abuse. The two said good bye and Lain headed back toward the kitchen to clean up. She paused thoughtfully in front of a clunky yellow phonebook. Zina had brought it home months ago for a collage. She began flipping through, hoping against hope that there was a chance for the one she loved to truly be happy. She would do whatever it took.
Dean ran back toward his parent’s house from the library, his heart racing. His hands still shook from the lengthy message he had written to Zina. It was as if everything he knew about her had culminated into the perfect prose, and he couldn’t wait to see if he would hear back from her. He was nervous about being rejected, but he knew this would be a much safer opening than trying to talk to her in person. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but he couldn’t risk blurting anything out. This way, he could carefully select his words and appear to her to be as articulate and caring as he actually was. It was perfect.
He knew he couldn’t keep this up for long, though. The FaceSpace agents would be after him soon, probably within the next couple of days, to issue him a new phone. They would be wondering why they hadn’t heard from him, and would probably come right to his parent’s door once they realized he had dropped off the radar. There was some sort of protocol. He knew he would have to leave the comfort and security of his parent’s home sooner than he felt he was ready for, and it would break his mother’s heart. The thought almost made him lose his composure right in the middle of the sidewalk.
Finally, he reached the familiar door of his childhood home and let himself in quietly. His mother always made sure he had an updated version of the key, and he didn’t want either of them to know he had gone anywhere. If he got caught by the FaceSpace agents, any suspicious activity could be his downfall. Fortunately, his parents had gone to bed shortly after dinner. They were the types of people who believed in early to bed, early to rise. His father’s family had been farmers, and the old man strictly adhered to the rules of his youth and forced his family to do the same. It was only 7:30 when the elderly couple began their bedtime routine, and Dean had gone upstairs too. He had nothing better to do than sleep.
Dean quietly made it up to his bedroom. He undressed quickly before hopping back into bed in his mother’s crisp pajamas. He felt both crushed and elated. All the familiar smells and sounds of home made him happier than anything in the world. But soon he would have to hit the road and take on a dangerous journey to find his soulmate. If he wasn’t so sure Zina was worth it, he would simply stay put within the comfort of home.
When morning arrived, Dean felt his heart lurch as the previous night’s events slowly began to take form in his mind. A feeling of dread consumed him, and he kept expecting an agent to pop out of nowhere to tell him what a bad thing he had done. However, no such thing happened, and he gradually allowed himself the tendrils of excitement his body experienced whenever he thought about his message to Zina. He had a good feeling about it, but between his anxiety and his reluctance to leave home after finally just getting there, he spent the morning in a grim mood.
His father, who was especially adept at sensing when his son was down, immediately swooped in like a vulture once they were all settled at the table.
“How was your night?” He asked. “You like sleeping in your kiddie room? Didn’t wet the bed again, did ya?”
Dean glowered and his father sneered.
“Of course not,” he said, holding his father’s gaze. There was something much more assertive and steely in his demeanor, and it seemed to cause his father to shirk away from the conversation. Dean’s mother bustled into the kitchen, carrying a grocery bag bursting with milk and eggs. She took a look at the men at the table and quickly looked away.
“I’m making French toast, Dean,” she said cheerfully.
His father scoffed.
“Oh hush, Jasper. You know it’s my favorite, and I almost never make it because you don’t like it. I know how important it is to you for the whole family to have a unified meal, and frankly it’s not worth the fuss. Just today I’d like to have french toast with my son if you don’t mind.”
“Well hell, Mary, you don’t have to go on some sort of crusade about it. Just make the damned toast. I’ll have eggs.”
“Great,” Dean’s mother said edgily, turning to the counter to prepare the food.
Dean’s father buried his nose into the newspaper until breakfast was served. Dean’s mother sat across from him at the table. As they ate, he studied her closely. She was aging rapidly. Compared to the last time he had seen her, she looked almost a hundred years older. Her eyes were still kind though, and he felt desperate to turn back the clocks to long before he ever heard of FaceSpace. Back to a time when he was a boy and she seemed immortal and strong. Her deterioration alarmed him, and a huge lump in his throat formed as he attempted to swallow the last bite of his french toast.
His father, ever alert to all things weak, turned a keen eye to him.
The subtle gesture caused Dean to go rigid, and suddenly he had had enough. He found himself overwhelmed by a thousand different things. The unfairness of his father’s resentment. The endless bounds of his mother’s love. The inevitability of his mother’s death. The harsh fact that soon he would be leaving her once again, and may never be able to return. The intensity of his longing for Zina, and the pain and humiliation he felt from their confrontation. His boss, whose smugness reminded him of his father, and the psychological torture of being an agent for FaceSpace. It seemed the odds were stacked against him. Right at the kitchen table, Dean started to cry.
His mother looked at him in alarm, and his dad began to laugh uncontrollably.
“What the hell’s the matter with you, boy?” he exclaimed. Dean’s mother glared at him.
“Why don’t you hush, Jasper?”
Jasper snorted and Dean stood abruptly and ran away from the table. His father cackled, calling Dean names in between loud bursts of laughter, and Dean’s mother rose from her chair.
“You don’t have a nice bone in your body, do you?” she asked, pulling her apron off and throwing it on the table between them.
Jasper quieted, eyeing her curiously, and she ran from the kitchen after her youngest son.
She found him on the porch, gripping his unpacked suitcase tightly.
“Oh no, you’re going?”
“Just for a while, Ma. I can’t stay in the same house with him.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know,” Dean whispered.
His mother didn’t ask him to stay. She understood as much as she could, and hugged him closely to her. He sniffled quietly against her comforting body, and she kissed his forehead.
“You take care, now,” she said to him softly. “Give me a call when you get home.”
“Sure, Ma. I love you.”
“I love you too, honey.”
They exchanged pained smiles and Dean walked down the street with his suitcase. He felt suddenly lost, before he remembered the light at the end of the tunnel. Zina. He was overcome with a powerful determination to talk to her. He had to make sure that she would be the best thing to ever happen to him. She had to be. Dean headed toward the library, where he would be able to check his FaceSpace page in peace.