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Zina unSeen – Chapter 26

“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.”

“You’re dismissed.”

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.

Zina unSeen – Chapter 22

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?”

“What?”

“I left your father.”

“What?!”

“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.”

“Yup. Bye.”

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.

Zina unSeen – Chapter 21

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.”

“It’s fine!”

“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.

“Good night.”

 

Zina unSeen – Chapter 20

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 unSeen – Chapter 19

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.

D.,

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,

Zina

Zina unSeen – Chapter 18

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.

 

Zina unSeen – Chapter 15

Dean finished his dinner before retiring to his old bedroom for the night. It was just as he remembered it. His mother had made sure that nothing was out of place and that Dean’s old baseball card collection was dusted every other day. He really loved his mother, and he could tell that she really loved him too. Before he went up to bed, she had handed him a clean, crisply folded pair of pajamas and kissed his cheek. He never wanted to leave her.

She had worked really hard to make sure that her boys were taken care of, even though her husband was unhappy that she was working out of home. He said it made him look bad, and every once in a while his parents would have ugly fights that kept him up half the night. It was mostly his father’s voice carrying through the house that dominated the conversation, sometimes spliced with the sounds of his mother’s weeping. He had gone to comfort her before, but after a swift smack in the head by his father, Dean had since chosen to listen from a distance.

As he lay in bed, his thoughts returned to Zina, who was constantly on his mind. He felt less angry and bitter toward her now, and wished only for the chance to check her FaceSpace page. There was an endless compulsion in him to discover what was going on in her life. He knew nobody could ever understand her the way that he did. He must truly be in love with her.

He closed his eyes, imagining her face, and what he wished he would have said instead of running away. He had just been so embarrassed and overwhelmed that he hadn’t known what else to do. An acute feeling of dread had siezed him. What if she thought he was ugly? What if she thought he was boring? What if she didn’t feel the same way about him? And then the truth struck him hard. Of course she wouldn’t feel the same way about him. She had never even spoken to him. And so he had fled.

He longed to take it back – that embarrassing act of cowardice. He clenched his fist and pounded it against his fluffy white pillow with a dull thud. What could he do about it now? What would his life be like without Zina in it? She was so beautiful. So smart and funny. She was the perfect human being. He would be surprised if she had any flaws at all. But now he couldn’t monitor her for FaceSpace. What was he supposed to do now?

Suddenly, a lightning bolt of clarity struck and he sat upright in bed, staring with wide eyes out his window. He knew what he had to do. He wasn’t in the city. There were no FaceSpace agents breathing down his neck. He rolled around, feigning discomfort, and then grabbed his phone off the end table and headed for the bathroom. Dean left the lights off (the FaceSpace agents could access the recordings from the camera on his phone) and sat the device carefully on the edge of the sink before pushing the toilet seat up.

He reached toward the sink, as if to retrieve the phone, and let it slip from the sink and smash against the toilet. Dean could hear the screen shatter into thousands of pieces before it plopped into the toilet with a little splash. He cursed loudly, in case they could hear him, before pursing his lips and proceeding to urinate on the phone. He watched as the glow of the screen went from illuminating the toilet bowl to slowly darkening, and grinned to himself. Bye, bye FaceSpace.

Now he was a free agent. He thought carefully about his next move. He had to contact Zina. But he couldn’t do it from his parent’s house. That was too dangerous. No, he would have to find a computer elsewhere. And not just to check her updates. No, he was going to talk to her. He would do it right this time. He strutted back to his bedroom and laid back down, feeling better than he had in years. Everything was going to work out.

Zina unSeen – Chapter 14

Lain smacked the cymbal hard, still fuming. Zina was really going to put her over the edge one of these days. She felt like an idiot for trying to be her friend for so long. There was no way that could last anymore. It was time to get herself out of this relationship, or at the very least, out of the apartment. She had been hoping she could get over her feelings and still have Zina in her life, but there was no way. It felt toxic. The girl had no clue what on earth she wanted, and whenever she got an idea, she would poke at it and then withdraw like it was on fire. She was like a cat. Sometimes she would seize the string and gnaw the shit out of it, but most of the time she would bat at it and then run away. She was most comfortable with her independence.

It had been like that from the start, and Lain had done her best to be there for her through thick and thin. The two were inseparable, and had done everything together. Not long after they met, Zina had shown up at school with her wrists and shoulder covered in dark purple bruises. Lain had whisked her to the bathroom, demanding to know what happened. Finally, after she had sworn on her life to keep a terrible secret, she discovered that Zina’s mother had a boyfriend who got his hands on her any chance he got.

Whenever Zina told her that her mom’s boyfriend would be around, Lain would demand Karl to pick up her friend. The three of them would drive around until the asshole left, or take her back to Lain’s house if her parents weren’t home. Most of the time they weren’t, and they would hide out in Lain’s bedroom. Whenever Lain was busy but Zina needed a way out, Karl was there. The girl had grown on him over the years, and he treated her with the tenderness and firm authority of a father, the same way he treated Lain.

What Lain hadn’t understood for a long time was just how troubled Zina was. Hell, fucked up was more like it. She lived on her own planet, and sometimes it was like she wasn’t even in the room with you. When they were kids, she had told Lain that she felt like a ghost, as if her body wasn’t even really there. It surprised her when she was reminded of its presence, and she would often overreact when she was startled by something as harmless as a splash of water. It had been a constant source of frustration for Lain, who was impulsive and mischievous.

For a long time it was hard for her to wrap her head around their differences. She didn’t fully understand what it might have meant to live in poverty until one day Zina had come to school surly and distant. Finally, Lain got her to admit that the gas was off in her apartment, so she had to take a cold shower that morning and she hadn’t eaten since two days before. But what had really blown Lain’s mind was when they were sixteen and she had picked Zina up for a joyride. They parked on an unused overpass and stared out at the trees and river below. It had been silent until Zina spoke.

“If I asked you to kill somebody, you would.”

Lain frowned and tilted her head, and Zina had punched the stone railing. She started to cry, and Lain rushed to her side as the words started pouring out. Zina told her how her mother’s boyfriend had preferred her over her mother. How her mother blamed her for it and favored her little brother, spoiling him to the point that he was a repulsive, self-obsessed human being. How the woman had no motivation to stop it from happening, and if Zina ever tried to tell her mother about all the ways the man would use her, she’d get screamed at and called a liar. How her mother and her boyfriend would take pills with their alcohol and laugh when her tiny brother put cigarettes in his mouth.

As the years passed, Lain learned more and more about Zina’s life, and the pieces started coming together. Her heart would break as she saw her go through severe downs, and ups that only lasted a short while because they were brought on by some crazy, self-destructive impulse. She watched again and again as the girl fell on her face, tried to pick herself up again, then ended up deeper down than she was before. She would try to warn her and offer her hand, but Zina wouldn’t listen. She would do whatever the hell she wanted to do, running further and further away from the things she really wanted. Worse, she would avoid what she really needed, and stay stuck in the lifestyle she was used to – living without.

It had been Lain’s idea to get the apartment together. She loved Zina blindly and loyally, and put her first before everyone else in the world. Her love had developed before the pity, and now she was stuck with far too much knowledge about a girl who would never take the first step toward her own happiness. Not when she could get away with lying in a ditch and watching the rest of the world go on around her. Lain had finally convinced her father to invest in a studio where Zina could express herself. Lain and her parents had done their best to point their friends and associates in Zina’s direction whenever they needed something artistic done, and she had been slowly gaining a sense of self worth through her work. It was a start, and Lain had never seen her so happy.

Still, the bullshit with Damien and Kylie was too much. Living with the girl she cared most about in the world, who was still half blind to her own worth, was too much. They were just going to have to go their separate ways, or she would never be able to move on and live her life, maybe never have a real, uninhibited relationship with someone. Zina would never admit that she needed help, and to the rest of the world, she simply looked proud, beautiful, and strong. Talented and unique. Gorgeous. But Lain saw beyond all of that. She knew all there was to know, and did her best to help hug Zina’s pieces back in place. But she couldn’t do it anymore. It was time for her to move on.

Zina unSeen – Chapter 13

Zina stared at the ceiling as she listened to Lain banging away on the miniature drum set in her bedroom. She knew why she was angry – the two had known each other for years and the history between them was deep but messy. They met in sixth grade, during try outs for the advanced choir. Zina was only there because she hated going home and looked for any excuse to linger at school. Not Lain. She was there because her voice was incredible.

They stood in line together, chattering as each student was called up, one by one, to perform. The two had hit it off immediately, and something about the way Lain looked at her made Zina know, deep in her soul, that they were going to end up being close friends. Finally, it was Lain’s turn to perform. She grinned nervously at Zina before bounding up to the little raised platform where the microphone was standing.

Once the feedback died down, Lain cleared her throat softly before the world melted away. Zina was immersed in the haunting depths of her voice. It wasn’t the traditional sound, and the teacher didn’t look particularly impressed with her husky rendition of “Wicked Games,” but Zina was. Even when the rest of the room giggled at the sexual implications of the song, Zina stared at the beautiful girl, captivated by her composure and flawless delivery. Finally, Lain took her bow, and held Zina’s gaze levelly as she descended from the platform and headed to the side of the auditorium where those who were finished sat together nervously. Zina watched the girl, her heart thudding, before the moment was abruptly shattered.

“Next!” the choir teacher shouted.

Suddenly, Zina realized that she would have to perform after the amazing girl ahead of her. She had planned to do a mock version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” since she knew she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life, but her stomach churned and she sped out of the room as fast as she could. She refused to humiliate herself. The students uttered another chorus of laughter as her footsteps echoed loudly around them. She pushed the heavy doors of the auditorium open and liberated herself into the darkened hallway. She took a deep breath and turned the corner to sit on a bench, free of the mess she had gotten herself into.

She was composing herself and trying to talk herself into heading back home when she heard a click from the heavy doors. A gentle hand fell on her shoulder. There was Lain, looking down at her in concern. Zina’s heart skipped a beat as the girl looked deeply into her eyes.

“Are you all right?” she asked softly.

“Yeah,” Zina whispered.

They were deep in the school after hours, and the lights in the hallway had been turned off. They were left in the glow coming in from the huge windows. It created a somber atmosphere, where both of them felt reserved. While the hallways were normally bustling with activity, the abnormal silence was eerie and they were compelled to keep their voices low.

Lain pursed her lips, clearly skeptical. She smoothed the wrinkles in her cream colored skirt and sat on the bench beside Zina so that they were eye to eye. Zina was overwhelmed by the intensity of Lain’s eyes, and found her own downcast. It almost hurt them to look at her. Like staring right into the sun.

“Did you get scared?” Lain asked.

“I didn’t want to perform anyway,” Zina mumbled.

“Why are you here then?”

“It’s better than going home,” Zina replied, sighing deeply and sitting back against the wall.

“Yeah, home can be pretty boring,” Lain said.

“That’s not why,” Zina said sharply.

Suddenly Lain seemed to understand.

“Hey, would you like to come over to my house?” she asked. Zina looked up cautiously, peering into Lain’s gentle eyes. They had colors in them she had never seen before.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Let’s go then, my ride will be here soon.”

Lain took Zina’s hand, and they ran together toward the door.

A fancy car rolled up outside and Lain grew excited.

“That’s Karl! Let’s go.”

A man got out of the car and opened the door for Lain. He studied Zina with a vaguely disguised look of contempt.

“Who is this?” he asked.

“This is my friend. She’s coming over today.”

“Your parents didn’t tell me anything about that.”

“It doesn’t matter, they won’t mind. Let’s just go, we have homework.”

“Yes, Miss.”

Karl nodded his balding head and closed the door heavily behind Zina. The girls chattered excitedly until the car rolled into the driveway of a gigantic house. Zina’s heart suddenly filled with dread. She looked at Lain, her eyes wide with concern.

“You didn’t tell me you were rich,” she gasped. “Maybe I should go home.”

“You better not, it doesn’t matter. Please just come in. We have cookies! And a pool. You’ll love it, just come on.”

Karl opened the door for Zina, and she had no choice but to exit the vehicle. Lain followed swiftly behind her, holding her hand comfortingly until the girls were inside the dazzling mansion. Zina’s feeling of dread only worsened the further in they got, until Lain finally sighed.

“Let’s just go to my room,” she said. “None of this stuff is mine anyways.”

Zina instantly relaxed once they were in Lain’s room, and the two of them talked and laughed together for hours. They played games and Lain showed her how to play a small beat on the same miniature drumset that she was beating on as Zina laid on the couch. At the end of the night, Lain’s parents still hadn’t come home.

“Can you spend the night?” she asked.

Zina had agreed immediately, not bothering to check with her mother. She knew she was in for it when she got home, but she didn’t care. That night, she asked where she was going to sleep, and Lain thought for a moment before turning down the corner of her quilt.

“We have a guest room, but I’d like you to stay in here.”

“All right.”

They cuddled into her big, comfortable bed together. Lain fell asleep quickly. Zina hadn’t known it at the time, but she was always up at the crack of dawn, busy with lessons. She, on the other hand, had many sleepless nights, and tossed and turned beside Lain. She found herself gazing at her soft features in the moonlight, her heart in her throat. Lain’s beauty was so profound that it was almost ethereal. Zina found herself unable to resist touching Lain’s cheek as she slept.

A sudden compulsion swept Zina away, and she knelt over her new friend, studying her perfect face and fighting the urge to cry. A little tear drop escaped, sliding swiftly down her nose and dripping onto Lain’s forehead. Before she had a chance to stir, Zina kissed Lain gently on the lips, and was surprised by the gentle tugging of Lain kissing her back.

Zina pulled away, studying Lain closely. Her eyes had opened into little, tired slits, and she yawned. Without another word, she gripped Zina’s hand and rolled over to the other side of the bed, so that they weren’t facing each other anymore, and went back to sleep.

Zina unSeen – Chapter 12

Dean hadn’t been so happy since three years ago at Christmas, when his mother’s warm embrace had engulfed him last. Now, here he was again in her arms, feeling as happy to see her as he had when he was six and she would pick him up from the babysitter’s house. He would be playing by himself in the corner while the other kids in the house purposely avoided him (unless they were teasing him mercilessly). His older brother spent time with his friend across the street from their home, but since Dean had no friends, he had to stay with a random woman in the neighborhood who collected kids like coins.

Her house was always chaos, and Dean felt very out of place. Most of the kids were much older and meaner than he was, and they excluded him and constantly made him feel inferior. Their loud shouts were terrifying to him, and all day long he would entertain himself with crayons and clay, hoping that his mother would come through the door any second. When she did, it was the happiest part of his day, and he would cling to her leg as she got updates from the babysitter and paid her for her service. Neither Dean nor the babysitter told his mother about the issues he had with the other kids, and she didn’t ask.

“I’ve missed you so much, honey!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe you were able to make time to come down and see your little ol’ Ma.”

“It is pretty miraculous,” Dean agreed, wanting to say so much more. He wanted her to know he thought about her every day. That he hovered his finger over the number 1 on his speed dial, desperate to hear her voice. That every night he would check her FaceSpace page and wish to give her high ratings for every post she made about apple butter. He held it back and simply enjoyed the moment. Two weeks would never be enough.

“How was your flight?” she asked, whisking him into the kitchen, where his favorite meal, spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread, was laid out on the table. His father was hiding behind a newspaper, just like he remembered from being a boy. He raised his eyes over it and nodded courteously at his son. Dean felt humbled by the gesture, and was immediately compelled to portray himself to be as mature and successful as possible.

“Oh, you know how it is,” he said vaguely, knowing perfectly well that neither of his parents had ever been on a plane. His mother was dying to know what it was like in the city where her youngest son lived, and his father acted above it. Dean could tell it impressed his father though, and exploited this facet of the old man’s attention any chance he got. He caught a glimpse of his mother’s face, blank and sad, and realized with a sudden pang of guilt that this game would only hurt her.

“It was tiring, that’s all. I didn’t enjoy the woman I had to sit next to.”

“You ever enjoy a woman, Dean?” his dad asked with a low chuckle to himself.

“Of course,” Dean replied, bristling as Zina came to mind. “Just nobody I could bring home to Ma.”

His dad’s only chance at competing with his son was with his bristling masculinity. He had secured himself a wife and was virile enough to produce offspring. What had Dean done? Run away to the city to hide in his work. The boy was miserably shy, but it was good to know he was getting his feet wet. Some of his qualities had to have rubbed off on the kid. Dean couldn’t be totally womanly like his mother; that would reflect poorly on his father.

Dean sensed this odd rivalry and gave his father a challenging grin. The old man seemed to love this, and held Dean’s gaze before smirking back down into his newspaper. The interaction was obviously stressing out his mother, so Dean inhaled deeply and smiled over at her.

“Everything looks and smells amazing, Ma. Thank you for going to all this trouble for me.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” she said, hugging him again. “Now sit down and eat.”