Fangirl : A Novel

Table Of Contents

Chapter One

Jessica woke up mid-afternoon to a beam of sunlight burning her pale cheek through a gap in the blinds of the basement window above the futon. She rubbed her eyes, reluctant to open them and face what was left of the day. Expected at the security desk of a high-rise Washington DC apartment building at 11:00 pm, Jess had several hours of no purpose in life. When she stretched her arms above her head, her knuckles hit the wall. The futon barely fit into the walk-in closet bedroom, but she was always welcome in Grandma’s basement? Not bothering to make the bed, Jess threw the comforter off of her and swung her bare feet a few inches down onto the cold linoleum floor. She stood and stretched, her rarely-exercised muscles and joints creaking far too much for her 25 years.

A student loan-bought iMac was in sleep-mode on the roll top desk next to the futon, awaiting her attention. Jess pulled the wooden captain’s chair out from the desk and the legs hit the frame of the futon with a soft, metallic “thock”. The feet of the chair scraped the linoleum as she scooched the chair up to the desk, feeling the natural chemical rush of sinking into her fantasy world. Jess cracked her knuckles, stretched her fingers several times like a classical pianist about to perform Beethoven’s 9th. Clicking the mouse thrice, she awakened the sleeping machine to do her bidding.

The top drawer of the desk contained a multitude of junk, a small cardboard box stuffed with dryer sheets and the minuscule amount of pot she could afford. Cramming a smidge of schwag into the end of her cigarette-shaped one-hitter, Jess lit the end of it with a small pink Bic and inhaled. Eyes closed, cheeks flushed, her other hand searched for the dryer sheet-stuffed toilet paper tube to cover the smell. Smoke billowed from the end of the tube, her green eyes went red. The smell of cheap pot and dryer sheets filled the tiny room.

The browser opened with a double click. Jess pulled her unwashed, dyed-black hair back into a ponytail, an inch of brassy roots showing around her hairline. She scratched at the blemishes on her forehead, absent-minded as she checked social media, getting a nice dopamine hit before immersing herself into her favorite fanfiction forum. People were so much easier to read on a screen. So easy to block when things didn’t go her way.

Her eyes darted over the recent comments on the latest updates to her story, a smile growing on her pretty, yet un-cared-for face. Nobody needed to see her face. The veil of online anonymity shielded her self-neglect and allowed her the freedom to compose using the intellectual property of others as fodder. Shame prevented her from typing “Jessica Bundy” in the “author” field of the forum, instead she used the alias “Fangirl25”.

Opening a tab behind the forum, Jess clicked a bookmarked European streaming site containing every episode of her favorite animated sitcom, “American Family”. Audio played in the background as words flowed from her fingertips. Every episode etched on her heart, Jess streamed the entire series in a loop every night since high school. She loved the blue humor and wacky musical numbers which incited the show’s wild popularity, but Henry O’Connor’s voice was her true obsession. Creator and star of “American Family”, Henry voiced a myriad of characters who had become real people to Jess. The warm, lulling familiarity of his voice soothed the deepest parts of her subconscious.

***

Henry O’Connor leaned against the clam-shaped sink in the opulent Las Vegas casino bathroom, which out-scaled his first LA studio apartment by a long shot. His arms were crossed in a defiant sulk, rounding his broad shoulders forward, his expensive physique slumped inside the royal blue suit which looked so dashing when it was filled with confidence.

“No way in hell, buddy.” Henry said, tapping the toe of his shiny handmade Italian leather shoe on each gray tile in the pattern on the floor around him, counting. Ben, his red-bearded best friend and co-star, was combing his ginger curls so they would lie flat. They didn’t.

“Come on, Henry! Don’t do this to me tonight! Ya gotta come with, they won’t let me past the door without you!” Ben pleaded. Henry cracked his knuckles nervously. He wanted to go straight from the Michael Bublé show back to his hotel so he could bask in cavernous isolation and tickle the ivories until he fell asleep on the keys. Vast ambivalence settled over him when he watched such a talented performer at work. Awed, tingly with glee, he appreciated the skill and artistry. Profound loathing jealousy pooled in his guts as he watched the enamored faces of the all the women (and more of the men than any of them want to admit) sighing at the heart throb pianist’s serenade.

Henry’s skill was comparable to Michael’s, but he had to go and make a wildly popular animated sitcom before he could hit it big as a musician. That kind of thing lingers longer than the smell of the shrimp cocktail buffet next to the bathroom. After ten seasons, he felt like he was almost done. He could retire from producing “American Family” and put out more albums, get some more work out in the world that isn’t so heavily associated with fart jokes.

“Seriously, dude?! This is gonna be some Illuminati shit! Coke and strippers as far as the eye can see! Beautiful women, begging to suck your salty Irish banger! We can’t miss a party like this!” Ben said, jostling Henry’s shoulder.

“Which is exactly why I’m calling it a night. The last thing I need is a big fat reminder why I got sober!” Henry said, shrugging him off. Ben feigned betrayal and he did it well. Best friends since they were playing piano bars and hustling pool in college, Ben had always been a good actor and exceptional at talking Henry into doing stupid things.

“Still? Ah, horseshit! This is Vegas, baby! It’s illegal to go to bed before 2 am!”

“Just tell ‘em you’re me! Half the people who know my name don’t have a clue what I look like anyway.” Henry thought this would get him out of going. He ran his fingers through his dark, woolly hair, anxiously eyeing his hairline in the gold-framed baroque mirror.

“But they always want the voices, man! I can’t do the voices! Ya have ta go!” Ben pleaded.

“You mean to tell me you’ve been sitting next to me in a recording studio all these years and you still can’t do Jack’s laugh?” Henry laughed like Jack the Dog on his show, which sounded like his grandfather’s raspy chuckle. Everything else about Jack’s voice was the same as his natural speaking voice. Ben attempted an impersonation, sounding more like if Santa ate Scooby Doo.

“Sounds great. Goodnight.” Henry said as he headed for the gold-plated door.

“Patrice will be there!” Ben shouted as a last-ditch effort. Henry stopped in his tracks.

***

The elevator ascended to the 22nd floor. Ben bounced on the balls of his feet, grinning as Henry stared angrily at his reflection in the mirrored walls of the elevator.

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” Henry grumbled through a tense jaw.

“Coke and strippers as far as the eye can see… Coke and strippers as far as the eye can see!” Ben sang to himself in excitement. Henry felt like punching him.

“She just got married last week. Eric will definitely be there, all perfect and handsome…”

“Which one of them did you have a crush on again?” Ben cajoled.

“That guy’s gonna crush me if he finds out what I texted Patrice the night before the wedding.”

“Henry, you know why she turned you down.” Ben was momentarily serious as he met Henry’s glare in the reflection. He was the only one who knew. “Now stop being a sad sack of shit and bring that charming motherfucker A game! We got some fancy Vegas strippers to bang!” Ben resumed bouncing. Henry rolled his eyes. The elevator stopped and the doors opened directly to an extravagant suite the size of a cathedral.

Everything was gold and white marble, the mile-high windows displayed a view of the entire twinkling Vegas strip and the darkness of the desert beyond. Tuxedos and evening gowns swirled around servants carrying silver trays of delicate hors d’oeuvres and tinkling champagne glasses. A white grand piano was surrounded by tipsy onlookers watching Michael Bublé entertain for bonus adoration. Henry’s night was getting worse. Ben was disappointed that it was a little too gaudy for the “coke and strippers orgy” he had been trained to expect by movies.

Barely repressing a pout, Ben headed straight for the bar and ordered King Louis XIII cognac, which w/as around $500 an ounce. Henry prayed to the flying spaghetti monster that it was an open bar and he wouldn’t have to pick up the tab like he always did. Ben knocked back a shot of Louie like it was iced tea. Henry ordered a Jameson and sipped it twice before Ben was done with another half-a-grand of cognac. He could almost hear every woman in the room ovulating as Michael finished a silky rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Except for one. Animator’s eyes trained to focus on any out-of-place detail, Henry noticed the one face turned away from the crowd, staring directly at him. A gorgeous blonde in a kelly green vintage off-the-shoulder cocktail dress cut to hug her curves… only had eyes for him. Henry looked around, confused as to why no one else seemed to be looking at this radiant creature, wondering if she was staring at someone behind him. Ben didn’t seem to notice as his eyes went glassy from drinking too much expensive booze too fast. Henry met gaze of the mysterious knockout across the room, the noise of the room around him seemed to fade.

He was caught in the force of her gravity. Bright green irises shot laser beams into his dark, lonesome eyes. Platinum blonde locks fell in soft waves around her porcelain-doll face. Lust radiated from the perky apples of her cheeks. The dress accentuated her hourglass figure, cinching tight around her waist, he could tell she was wearing something steel-boned underneath to lift her luscious breasts so they threatened to spill over an unapologetic neckline. Henry’s mouth began to water.

“Hi Henry!” said a familiar voice. Patrice Azkallam stood next to him, gym-toned arms crossed, quietly fuming over the lack of attention being paid to her. Henry gave her a glance, unable to look away from the green-clad blonde bombshell staring love daggers at him from across the room. Patrice was a knock-out, a petite, curvy, multi-ethnic, doe-eyed, real-life Disney princess. Her creamy cocoa skin was complemented by her dark, lustrous hair swooped over in a shiny solid wave. A black sleeveless satin evening gown accentuated the roundness of her ass and was most likely taped to the enticing shelf of her voluminous artificial tits. Henry had spent so many years pining over those infamous fake knockers, her warm honey-colored almond eyes and enviable elitist fashion sense, he was almost shocked at his lack of interest at the moment.

“Hey Patty, how’s the new hubby?” Henry called her the name she went by many years before she was an Oscar nominee. Patty was an ambitious sitcom day player, plucked from obscurity to voice Hannah, the vituperative teenage lesbian daughter of “American Family”. Henry always hoped Patty would share his romantic interest, but he would have helped her regardless. She was an essential part of the show, Hannah had a rabid fan base and talks of a spin-off had been in the works for years. The show launched her movie career, which was moving towards award-baiting period dramas. Her wedding was announced the day before the ceremony. Ben was invited.

“He’s good…” Patty said like there was more she wanted to say.

“Fascinating.” Henry still wasn’t looking at her. The blonde from across the room was now dancing with a tuxedo-ed party guest, voracious as she stared over his shoulder at Henry, undulating to the music. The mysterious woman never broke eye contact even as the party guest swooped her into a low dip.

“Henry! How’s it hanging, bro?” Said Eric Barron, from above Henry’s head. The unreasonably tall billionaire bent down to wrap his arm around Patty’s petite shoulders. Eric’s sandy blonde hair was a disheveled reminiscence of a 90’s teenage heartthrob, somehow accenting the unnatural symmetry of his 55-year-old face. His icy blue eyes were dazed and bloodshot,  gleefully enjoying Henry’s discomfort.

“Never better, Eric! Ya taking care of our girl here?” Henry plastered on his best charming motherfucker smile. He watched the blonde politely accept a hand-kiss from her dance partner when the song ended and start to make her way across the room towards him.

“Oh yeah, buddy. You better believe it!” Eric overcompensated. Patty gave a reluctant nod.

“Well, hello Patrice! And Eric! My man!” Ben chimed in, offering a fist-bump to Eric, who awkwardly stared at him like he’d never made a friend before. Ben “blew up” his own fist and acted like he saw someone he knew across the room as an excuse to leave.

“That was weird.” Patty said, watching Henry not watching her.

“Yeah, I uh…” Henry stammered, he had lost the blonde in the crowd.

“Sweetie, I’m gonna go find more of those shrimp puffs, would you get me another Grey Goose and redbull, thanks babe!” Eric wandered away without an answer.

“Where the hell is that guy from? I can’t place the accent.” Henry said, confused as he watched Eric bump into several people as he pursued a waiter carrying a tray of shrimp.

“He’s from Chicago. He just talks like that.” Patty said, shaking her head at her new husband.

“Now that’s weird.” Henry half-smiled at Patty, who seemed relieved he was looking at her.

“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t…” Patty started. A throat cleared behind Henry, he turned to get a face full of the radiant blonde, standing uncomfortably close. His eyes plummeted like dark stones to her cleavage, tantalizingly close to his face. Patty scoffed. Michael started playing “Witchcraft”.

“Henry O’Connor…” The stranger said, not raising her voice yet commanding the attention of everyone within earshot. Several onlookers turned hoping to see an altercation. Henry held his breath. Recognition didn’t always pan out well for him. “You have a beautiful voice…” the stranger purred. Henry paused, laughed in relief.

“Why, thank you! You have a beautiful… Everything.” He said, looking her up and down, sitting on a barstool so he didn’t pass out.

“Does that phrase just make your dick hard or what?” the stranger quipped, the onlookers giggled at Henry’s expense. The stranger smiled. Patty cleared her throat. Henry didn’t look at her as he took the stranger’s hand.

“I’ll see ya later, Patty.” Henry said as he led the blonde to the dance floor. Patrice rolled her eyes and stomped off to find her husband. The stranger radiated abject adoration from her whole being. Henry took her left hand and placed his right hand at the small of her back, drawing her in close. Her green eyes sparkled, brimming with excitement. They swayed to the music, Henry was a very precise dancer and a good lead. She followed his cadence in perfect synch.

“What’s your name?” Henry asked, leaning close to her ear so she could hear him over the music and the chatter of the crowd.

“Lucy.” She whispered in his ear, giving him tingles through his whole body. She leaned in closer so her voluptuous tits were pressed against his chest. “I want to fuck your goddamn brains out.” She breathed softly, brushing her pillowy lips against his ear. Henry leaned back, confusion knitting his thick black eyebrows, sure she must be joking. Lucy’s face held nothing but sweet, sultry lust.

“Really?” Henry said. His fame and status never brought such offers without strings attached. He looked around the room full of wealthy, beautiful party goers. “Why? You could have anyone here. The men and the women!” Lucy’s smile deepened as she shook her head at Henry.

“I only want you, Henry. I’m your number one fan.” She cooed at him, her hypnotic gaze convincing him this wasn’t a ruse. Henry was speechless. The song ended and what felt like a bunch of under-ripe bananas landed on Henry’s shoulder, roughly turning him away from the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“Hey Henry!” Eric said, sputtering through a mouthful of shrimp puffs, holding a hijacked tray in his banana-hand. “I just wanted to tell you I read the text you sent Patrice the night before the wedding and there’s no hard feelings, brother. I send filthy messages to women all the time!” Eric laughed at his own non-joke, wafting the smell of shrimp in Henry’s face. Henry turned and Lucy was gone. Smiling through gritted teeth, Henry turned back to Eric.

“Yeah, we all do dumb things sometimes.” Henry grumbled. Ben showed up by Henry’s side, red-faced and sweating.

“Dude, we gotta go. I’m sick.” Ben made a gagging noise that said he was about to puke expensive liquor all over Henry’s favorite suit. Henry glanced around for Lucy again, disappointed. He sighed and shuffled his friend away from the billionaire still snacking on shrimp.

***

On the 11th floor, Henry dragged Ben back to his room and tucked him in with a glass of water on the nightstand and a trashcan next to the bed.

“If I die, please for the love of gahd, clear my search history before my mom sees it!” Ben muttered, face-planted in the pillow.

“Don’t be so dramatic. You’re not gonna die.” Henry rolled Ben over on his side and wrestled off his shoes.

“Fuck King Louie and his horse.”

“Not tonight, buddy. Get some sleep.” Henry made sure Ben was peacefully snoring before he left to take the elevator up to the 19th floor.

Chapter Two

The doors were about to close when a perfectly manicured hand Karate-chopped between them, forcing them open. Lucy stood before him, arms outstretched between the doors, grinning. Henry’s dark eyes traced the serpentine curve of her figure, finally resting bewildered on her glorious face. She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Going my way?” Lucy asked, stepping on the elevator next to him. He couldn’t believe his luck.

“Uh… floor?” He asked, using every ounce of his self control to remain calm. His hands were clasped in front of his pants.

“Nineteen.” She said, a mysterious smile lingering on her plump red lips.

“Me too!” Henry blurted out, an awkward expression knitting his brow, endearing his handsome, perpetual baby face.

“Imagine that!” She winked at him, almost causing him to pass out. There was no blood left in his head. “Hey, do you want to…” Her question was interrupted by a disturbing mechanical groan from outside the walls of the elevator, which stopped at the 16th floor.

“FUCK!” They simultaneously shouted. Henry hit the emergency button several times, which buzzed and did nothing to restart the elevator. She stood next to him, perfectly still, smiling at her serendipitous advantage and his increasing panic.

“Maybe you should blow on it.” She suggested, wiggling her eyebrows at him. He didn’t think that was funny.

“I have to get out of here!” Henry pressed the emergency button repeatedly, growing more frantic by the second. “Help! We’re stuck in here!” He shouted at the door, his erudite voice echoing up the empty elevator shaft. He pounded on the mirrored door, imprinting what looked like several toe-less baby footprints. Lucy’s delicate hand covered his fist, lowered it from the mirrored surface. His anxious eyes turned to hers, engulfed by her inexplicable serenity.

“Don’t break it, Henry. The last thing we need are shards of broken glass to sit on in here.” She turned him by the fist towards her and lowered them both to a seated position on the floor of the elevator with ethereal grace. Henry felt mesmerized by her placid demeanor. “Elevators in Vegas hotels don’t stay broken for long. Just chill.” She sat with her legs twisted in an impossible yoga pose that maintained her ladylike posture. He sat cross-legged across from her, head in his hands, shaking. She touched his wrist. “Hey, do you want to hear a joke?”

“What?” He looked up from his hands, brow furrowed.

“How is a raven like a writing desk?” She smiled expectant of a positive response. Henry paused, confused.

“I don’t know, how?”

“No idea, I was hoping you would know.” She shrugged, amused by her own attempted antics.

“That’s not a joke.”

“Yes it is. I asked if you wanted to hear a joke, not a punchline.” Her wry grin broke his anxiety. “Hey, I see that smile…” Lucy cajoled, her green eyes glittering. His hands fell in his lap, shaking. She tucked the side of her index finger under his chin and raised his gaze to meet hers. “I know what you need…” Her black velvet clutch contained a small silver case with a tiny glass cylinder of high-quality cannabis, rolling papers and three “strike anywhere” matches. Henry’s nostrils inhaled the sweet scent of sativa as an aura of calm settled over both of them. She began breaking up the buds using meticulous fingertips, carefully removing stems until there was a fluffy pile of green herb ready to be rolled on top of the silver case.

“You’re not supposed to smoke in elevators.” Henry said, wishing he could have thought of something cooler.

“What are they gonna do, kick us out?” Lucy said, licking the paper closed like a cat lapping up milk. A match erupted in flame when she struck it on the braille emergency exit sign. The flame flickered in the dark depths of her pupils. She sucked smoke through the herb-stuffed paper tube. Henry studied the mysterious woman as she waved the match cold and handed him the joint. Their fingers touched for brief moment, sending shock-waves through his entire nervous system. He took a hit and narrowed his eyes at her.

“Who are you?” Henry looked into her eyes, as if he could read her mind. He handed the joint back to her, she took it slowly, deliberately brushing her fingertips against his as it transferred between their hands.

“I already told you, Henry. I’m your number one fan.” The sweet simper on her face belied the enigma behind her eyes. He could tell he wasn’t getting any more information out of her at this moment.

“Well, Ms. Fan. If you don’t mind me saying, I guess I’m lucky to be stuck in an elevator with such a beautiful woman…” He took the joint back from her and inhaled a puff. “And such powerful weed!” He exhaled.

“Why would I mind you saying that?” Lucy smiled, took the joint from his fingers and stretched her legs out in front of her, crossing her ankles so he could get a better look at her shapely, stocking-clad calves, accentuated by her kitten-heeled pumps. Henry’s eyes moved up and down her legs, surveying her sumptuous curves as she rolled her ankles and puffed the joint.

“These days… you never know how someone’s going to take a compliment.” Henry tried to look away from her, but the entire elevator was mirrored except for the floor. She was everywhere, grinning at his discomfort.

“I take it very well.” She shot a sizzling glance into his eyes, indicating a double meaning. Henry was beginning to enjoy himself through all the claustrophobic anxiety. He took another puff of the joint.

“Good to know.” He said, handing her the last of the smoldering roach with a half-smile rounding his cheeks. The elevator made a startling groan. “What the hell was that?!” Henry exclaimed. Metallic banging noises made him jump up in a panic. Lucy stood up in her heels with baffling grace.

“Whoa, there cowboy. Get a grip.” She crushed the ember at the end of the joint on the bottom of her shoe and stashed the roach in her silver case. Raw panic filled Henry’s entire being. Lucy placed her palms on the sides of his face and looked deep into his dark eyes. “We are going to be okay. Breathe.” Henry inhaled deeply at her command, let out a shuddering sigh. “That’s better. Now gimme a boost.” She kicked off her shoes and he tried not to appear amused by her short stature. Lacing his fingers to elevate her stocking-clad foot, she climbed up onto his shoulders to reach the hatch in the ceiling of the elevator.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” He asked, struggling to hold her and contain his arousal over the close proximity of her ass to his face.

“Nope, but that’s nothing new.” Lucy said, situating herself atop his shoulders, her legs wrapped around his ears. She grappled with the latch on the mirrored hatch, unable to flip the switch. The disturbing banging noise continued outside the elevator car.

“This is a hell of a way to die.” Henry said, hoping she wouldn’t look down and see the tent forming in his pants.

“Pssht. We’re not gonna die. Hand me my clutch, I think I can pry this sucker open with a nail file.” Lucy commanded. Henry tried not to stare at the red-painted toenails inside her silky nylons as he reached down onto the floor to retrieve the clutch. Using a pointed emery board, she finagled the stubborn latch open and the door swung down. “I got it!” She exclaimed, climbing up onto the top of the elevator car.

“Be careful!” He yelled as if she was listening. Legs dangling from the hatch in the ceiling, she felt around for the banging culprit as he stole a few glances up her dress. Lucy let out a vibrant laugh of discovery which reverberated throughout the elevator shaft. Open-mouthed in astonishment over the beauteous power of her laugh, it echoed down Henry’s throat. The banging stopped.

“I found it! Help me down!” He grasped her legs as she descended back into the elevator car, a crowbar in her hand. Henry brushed a speck of soot away from her flushed cheek with his thumb. “We can use this to open the door!” Lucy said. Her delight was infectious. Henry mustered all of his masculinity and attempted to open the door. She stood patient and smiling in her stocking feet, watching him. After a few grunting efforts, Henry managed to get the door open a crack, then pushed it open the rest of the way to reveal the solid concrete wall of the elevator shaft.

“Welp, I suppose it was worth a shot.” Henry said, tossing the crowbar on the floor, staring worried at the concrete wall.

“Most worthwhile things are, Henry.” Lucy said, standing hands-on-hips as he sat on the floor. Henry studied this mysterious woman from her bare stocking feet to her amphora-vase body to her Botticelli Venus face, absolutely confounded. This could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to him or the best. There was no way of knowing yet.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know if we’re ever getting out of here.” Henry said, putting his head in his hands again. She sat behind him and started to rub his shoulders. Henry was instantly soothed by her tiny fingers kneading the tense muscles in his neck and shoulders.

“Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault… and we are getting out of here. Don’t worry, Henry. They’ll come for us soon.” She sat on her knees, pressing her luscious breasts against his back as she massaged away his anxiety. His eyes closed as he sank into abject relaxation. The constantly tense part of his brain wanted to live in this moment forever.

“You have got some magic fingers, m’lady.” He uttered in a husky tone, hoping that was a charming thing to say.

“Why thank you, my good sir! I’ve always loved these gorgeous hands of yours.” Lucy took his right hand in hers and started massaging his palm, working her thumbs outward to his fingertips. “Your pianist skills are a big reason why I adore your work. It’s a shame more folks don’t recognize your talents other than my favorite TV show.” Henry considered her reflection in the mirrored wall of the elevator, detecting no sarcasm, a genuine grin alighting her earnest face. He couldn’t believe this was happening.

“Well, if you’re interested, I could give you a private performance sometime.” Henry baited his breath, unsure of the response he expected.

“That sounds lovely!” She said as she worked the tension out of his other hand. The elevator shuddered to life, the door creaked shut and the lights went out. Pitched in total darkness, Henry wrapped Lucy in a protective embrace. She folded into his chest and inhaled his natural smell like couldn’t get enough of him. Steadfast confidence subsiding in the dark, she began to shake in his arms.

“It’s okay, remember to breathe.” He soothed while rubbing her back. She took a few shaky breaths.

“I don’t like the dark.” Lucy confessed in a child-like whisper.

“Me neither. But you were right, they’ll come for us soon. This will be over before we know it. Then we can go to my suite and I’ll play for you… uh, the piano! I mean… I’ll play the piano for you. Sound good?” He pet the back of her head, enjoying the soft texture of her blonde tresses a little too much for the stressful situation. The smell of her hair was intoxicating.

“Yes, please.” She murmured, muffled by the fabric of his shirt. The lights switched back on and they both let out an audible sigh of relief. The elevator continued to ascend to the 19th floor. They both stood up, Lucy held onto Henry’s hand. He looked into her mystifying eyes full of wonder.

“You really are quite a fan, huh?” Henry found her adoration delightful.

“I told you I am your number one fan. You need to play piano to sleep, I need your shows… your voice… Every night to go to sleep.” She insinuated.

“Wait… You watch my show when you’re going to sleep?”

“Uh huh.” She nodded.

“That means you’re listening to me when you…”

“Yep.”

“Awesome… When are we gonna get there? Wow, this elevator is taking forever, huh?”

Chapter Three

Henry’s suite was nowhere near as ostentatious as the 22nd floor. An upright piano stood against a wall in the central living room area of the suite, which had a high-arcing ceiling and retained the decor of the early 1960’s. The couch was beige, low-to-the-ground geometric modern with matching chairs. Plastic ferns on pedestals hid behind octagonal mahogany end tables. A rotary phone stood on the solid oak desk next to a decadent plate of meat, cheese and fruit sent by the hotel. Henry hoped Lucy wouldn’t be disappointed.

Lucy’s expression of consummate infatuation melted all of Henry’s prickly pretense. He was the brightest light in her eyes. He drew the heavy tapestry drapes back with a gold cord to reveal a view of the Vegas strip, a galaxy of electric lights reflected in her wondrous eyes. Her nostrils flared breathing in the scent of polished mahogany, leather, and vintage furniture. Henry traced his index finger from the nape of her neck to between her shoulder blades where the zipper of her dress started at the crux of a V-shaped neckline. Lucy looked up at him spellbound.

“Is everything about you impressive?” She asked, stealing a knowing glance at the sizable tent in his pants.

“Yeah, I can’t contain my boner when there’s a pretty girl in my room.” Bruce Foster, the dad on “American Family” answered for Henry. He made a face like he was pretty sure he just ruined everything. On the contrary, Lucy was delighted by this momentary lapse into character and burst out laughing, filling him with relieved enchantment. Henry couldn’t count the many times his inability to contain the voices had ruined romantic encounters. Lucy seemed way into it.

“I was wondering when ‘the fam’ was gonna come out to play…” Her smirk read she was getting what she wanted.

“If I had known such a beautiful woman could have the hots for a fat guy like Bruce, I wouldn’t have spent so much time in the gym!” Said Tony, Bruce’s wacky horn-dog neighbor. Lucy was visibly elated by the sudden change in character, then struggled to contain herself. She caressed his cheek with a tender hand and shook her head.

“I’m attracted to you, not the characters, silly. It doesn’t matter what size you are, I find your talent… astonishing. So many people existing within one person… Fascinating.” Lucy sat in one of the beige chairs, put her feet up on an ottoman and kicked off her shoes again.

“I could exist inside of you…” The gruff voice of the lascivious Dr. Hamilton rumbled from the deepest part of Henry’s chest. Lucy laughed as Henry sat on the ottoman, taking her feet in his skilled hands, massaging the arches with extremely strong thumbs. Her smile was indulgent.

“You know you’re not on the clock, right Henry? You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to.” Lucy said, tapping her right toes to her left shin, indicating he should massage there. Henry obeyed.

“Oh, I want to. I see this turning out to be quite entertaining. Just imagine the cast of characters that could run a train on you.” Charlie, “American Family’s” baby genius responded, cocking Henry’s head to a severe angle. Imagination overload twitched Lucy’s right lower eyelid, spreading a cavalier smile across Henry’s baby face. His hands worked up her calves and caressed behind her knees. She placed the ball of her right foot in the center of his chest.

“I believe I was promised a song…” Lucy reminded, raising an eyebrow and a half-smile, standing up to fix herself a drink from the minibar she somehow knew to find hidden behind the false desk drawer. She had him where she wanted him and he respected that.

“Okay, I see how it is… Coming right up, sweet cheeks!” Henry said, swatting her on the ass as he carefully moved to the piano bench and started playing a jazzy, aimless tune. Lucy bumped his shoulder with her hip and sat cross-legged on the desk next to the piano. Taking out her silver cigarette case, Lucy sniffed the air, finding the source in a wooden box on the desk.

“You smoke cigars?” She asked.

“Not really.” Henry said, salivating over her delectable curves.

“So what are we gonna do with these?”

“I can think of a few things…” A former president answered.

“Well, Mr. President, I think I know what you mean by that…” Lucy leaned over so close to Henry’s face, their lips almost touched. She pulled back so suddenly, he fell over. Using a sharp thumbnail, Lucy split the cigar down the middle and emptied the tobacco into the waste paper basket. She replaced it with weed and rolled the blunt up lightning fast. He didn’t know if he was more impressed or frustrated, but it was easy to relax after she struck another match on the side of the piano and sucked the flame in the end.

Unable to allow him to stop playing, Lucy stood behind Henry with her tits pressed against his neck. She put the end of the blunt to his lips so he could take a hit. He kissed her fingers as he sucked the smoke in tiny sips. Her arm around his neck and her cheek pressed to his, she took a long, slow hit while caressing his arms, his back, his toned ass and legs… he played the instrument with his whole body. Through sheer force of will, he managed to keep playing when she reached between his legs and started massaging his hard cock. Henry let out a deep, satisfied groan and a cloud of weed smoke as she stroked, lightly kissing his neck, nibbling on his earlobe. The blunt was halfway done when she got up to stub it out in the ashtray on the desk. Henry unconsciously started to play “Dream a Little Dream” by the Mamas and the Papas. Lucy sang along…

“Stars shining bright above you,

Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’,

Birds singin’ in the sycamore trees,

Dream a little dream of me…”

“Fuck me, your voice is as gorgeous as the rest of ya…” Henry said, turning to caress her legs as she sat on the desk again. Lucy picked up a strawberry from the fruit plate and nibbled the end.

“Well I’m not gonna sing if you’re not gonna play, silly!” Lucy admonished. Henry made a canine whine in the back of his throat as he continued to caress her thighs, working his fingers up her dress and feeling the lace garters of her stockings. She picked up a slice of salami from the plate and dangled it like a treat. “Here boy!” Henry grinned and devoured the slice, caressed her hips, her waist, cupped her breasts, pulled the straps of her dress down further. He swallowed the salty meat and went in for the kiss.

Their lips met and the world seemed to melt away around them. Two lovers embraced, adrift in the eternal inertia of a vast, star-swept galaxy. Henry pressed his body against hers, spreading her legs so he could press his hard-on against her wet panties. Lucy gripped the back of his head with her fingernails running through his coarse black hair. Her legs wrapped around his hips, locked her feet behind his ass to draw him in closer. He started to probe her beautiful mouth with his unusually dexterous tongue. She started sucking and flicking it with the end of hers. His hands devoured her body, he kissed her neck and sucked her earlobe.

“Growl for me…” Lucy purred. Henry made a low, soft growl in her ear, which increased intensity when she moaned. Her whole body started to convulse. He growled like a dog with a bone, his hot breath tickling her ear, his hard dick grinding against her swollen clit until she was about to come. Henry managed to pull himself back before she got hers.

“You are something else, my dear.” Henry said, or maybe it was Jack the dog, who could tell? He took a strawberry from the plate and traced the tip of it around Lucy’s plump red lips, she smiled and bit into it, red juice dripping down her cleavage and onto her dress, leaving a stain. She gasped, pushed him back as he tried to lick it off her breasts.

“Oh no! I have to take this off! Quick, un-zip me!” Lucy leapt up and turned around with her hands on the desk and bent over slightly, smiling at him over her shoulder.

“You’re the boss!” He said while slowly pulling the zipper down.

“Fuck yes I am.” Lucy said, slipping out of the dress to reveal an extremely sexy nude lace bodice with matching panties and garter belt attached to her stockings. Henry was awestruck, stood bent over in pain as she bent over to grab a club soda from the minibar and flitted to the bathroom with her dress. He fell to his knees as the sight of her ass walking away from him, firm as a crisp apple begging to be bitten. She looked back at him and winked before closing the door behind her.

Henry thought he heard her muttering “Out damn spot” as she scrubbed the dress in the bathroom. He took off all his clothes except his boxers and looked around, momentarily unsure of what to do with himself. Looking in the gilded mirror over the desk, he flexed and noticed the progress made by paying a dude to punch him several days a week at a boxing gym. Learning to punch back translated into more success in other areas of his life.

He lounged on the bed like Burt Reynolds. No, that was stupid. He sat on the couch with an arm out and his leg crossed over his knee. Nah, not cool enough for that. He took out one of the cigars and thought about lighting it, wishing he had a cigarette. He didn’t like to smoke in front of people. He put the cigar on the top of the piano and sat down on the bench, started playing again to relieve his anxiety until he heard the water stop running.

Lucy opened the bathroom door with one hand high up on the frame, her foxy figure back-lit by the bright light. Henry stared, astounded by her stunning form, his hands poised above the keys, paralyzed by arousal.

“Don’t stop…” Lucy said, approaching him, springing up onto the top of the piano like an acrobatic cat. Henry continued to move his hands over the keys, oblivious to what he was playing. Sitting cross-legged, she picked up the cigar, produced a match out of nowhere and lit it by flicking the head with her thumb. She puffed the cigar aflame and waved the match cold.

“You’re not even inhaling!” Henry smiled and shook his head at her.

“What are you, the cigar police?” She asked, holding it between her index finger and thumb the way no one holds a cigar.

“Yes ma’am! And you’re under arrest for smoking while being too beautiful on a piano!” He took the cigar from her, puffed it and stubbed it out in the ashtray. He pushed her knees open as her face lit up with excitement. His dark eyes looked up at her.

“Is this okay?” Henry asked. Lucy nodded in eager anticipation. “Yes! I’ve always wanted to do this!” He shouted out of enthusiasm.

“Me too!” Lucy said as Henry dove face-first into her pussy, using his strong tongue to move her lace thong aside. Her heels played a tuneless melody on the keys. She let out some deep, sexy moans as he licked her hairless lips and pulled the small tuft of bush on her mound. His mouth was so well trained to produce any sound, they didn’t even have to be coming out of him. He licked her erect clit upwards while his hands reached up to pinch her nipples through the bodice. Lucy pushed his head into her hips, grinding her pussy against his mouth, his nose and his big shovel-shaped chin. She used Henry’s face as her new favorite sex toy.

When Henry felt her getting close, he inserted two strong fingers, palm-up. He sucked on her clit like a miniature dick while he finger fucked her deep and hard. Henry licked and sucked the dark red folds of her snatch, luxuriously circling the head of her clit with the tip of his agile tongue. Her wetness started to drip down his wrist so his tongue replaced his fingers, fucking her with it and drinking her juices. His well-muscled arms wrapped around her thighs, pushed his face into her like he wanted to climb inside. She cried out in ecstasy as her kegels clenched, a burst of wetness washed down his throat, covered his face, his chin, his neck and dripped down onto his glistening, wispy black chest hair. His dark eyes rolled back in his head as he tasted the most delicious flavor of his life.

“Thank you…” Lucy sighed, panting.

“My pleasure, baby doll.” Said Tony, grinning through Henry’s pussy-glazed face. Lucy’s intense arousal was instantly restored, she grabbed Henry’s face and kissed him hard, sucking her own flavor off of his face.

“Fuck me.” She commanded as he kissed her heaving breasts.

“As you wish…” Henry said in a perfect English accent. She squealed as he swept her off of the piano and carried her into the bedroom, placing her gently on the down comforter of the California King. He stood back and observed her stunning form, waves of blonde hair spread out on the soft white linen, ravishing body still shaking from her first profoundly powerful orgasm. One arm behind her head, she smiled and wiggled her eyebrows at him. Henry traced his fingertips from her elbow, down the underside of her arm, tickling her armpit slightly so she giggled through her nose. Her laugh seemed to have a direct connection to his dick, which twitched, begged to be inside her.

Lucy sensed his need, pulled him down on top of her, wrapped her shapely legs around him. They kissed, soft at first, increasing to full-on mutual tongue throat fucking. Henry’s deft fingers made quick work of the seven hooks holding her bodice together, which she threw to the side, revealing her supple alabaster flesh, voluptuous breasts and pink flower petal nipples. His skilled lips and tongue made them hard while he unhooked her garter belt, pulling back to peel her stockings down. He wanted to see her totally naked.

Henry stood by the edge of the bed with an expression like a kid on Christmas morning. He marveled over her beauty, took her hand and kissed her palm, took her foot and kissed the inside of the arch as she giggled again. One pretty foot massaged his cock through his silky boxers while he sucked the toes of her other foot. He picked up both of her feet, licked them up and down as she laughed with delight. Henry made a guttural grunt of desire and rubbed both of her feet on his cock. Lucy lifted one finger and beckoned, a sensual smile curling on her lips.

Lucy flipped Henry over on the bed, surprising him with her strength. She positioned him upright against the pillows, kneeling between his legs, prostrate before him. Not a trace of submission in her expression or tone, she asked:

“May I suck your dick, please?” Grinning, intent like a tigress about to pounce.

“Well, sure since ya asked so nice…” said Saul Levy, “American Family’s” Jewish cousin as Henry grinned back. Lucy slowly worked her fingertips under his elastic waistband, delicious anticipation tingling through them both. She ripped the shorts off of him with a magician’s flourish and gasped. Henry paused, anxiously awaiting her reaction to the biggest erection he’d ever had.

Lucy was awestruck. Her eyes wide, open mouthed, she traced her fingertips up his thighs toward his dick, giving him goosebumps. Warm breath caressed the head of his dick as she teased the tip, almost touching it to her plush pink lips. Discomfort mixed with euphoria made Henry twitch, but he restrained the urge to shove it in her mouth. She smiled, noticed his self-control, gave him a wink and stuck her tongue out, wagged it like a snake before giving a long, slow, wet lick from the base to the shiny purple head. A deep moan of eminent satisfaction escaped Henry as her pretty mouth engulfed his throbbing cock.

Looking up at Henry in utter adoration, Lucy gave him a long, slow blowjob, pressing her pillowy tits against his balls, her nipples getting harder as the hair tickled them. Her perky lips drew consuming waves of pleasure up the shaft of his cock, her serpentine tongue tickling the tip, never breaking eye contact as she swooped down to happily lap at his taint. His fingers entwined her blonde tresses as she fucked him with her face, working his cock so far down her throat, she managed to lick his balls. She sensed the increasing fervor of his moans and pulled back with a long strand of pre-come trailing from her lips, connected to the tip of his dick. Henry laughed out loud as she slurped the fluid into her pursed lips like a strand of spaghetti, kissing the tip and mocking bashful.

“Haha, such a lady!” Henry pulled her up by the face and kissed her lips, tasting both of their flavors mixed together.

“I’m a tramp for these meatballs!” Lucy said, ducking down to eagerly lick them while making little whimpers of pleasure, until they both collapsed in laughter. Henry used his own unexpected strength to flip her around so she was sitting on his face, ass towards him. He locked his strapping arms behind her back and sucked her pussy lips while her head bobbed up and down on his dick. She came up for air with an audible POP.

“Do Fred Flintstone!” Lucy shouted with Henry’s face buried inside her.

“What? That’s not even my show!” Henry said, sticking his head out from behind her, amused and confused.

“Do the voice, damnit!” She said, churning his cock with her slippery hands.

“Yabba dabba…” and he buried his face in her ass, motorboating her pussy lips, licking and sticking his tongue in her asshole. She came for the second time, drenching his face in her juices, which he happily lapped up, growling like a dog.

“Sit on my cock, baby girl.” Tony commanded for Henry. Lucy hopped up and stood above him with quim-soaked thighs and a ravenous smile alighting her glittering green eyes.

“Yes sir, Mr. O’Connor!” She said, lowering herself onto his dick and gripping it with her toned pussy muscles.

“Uhhh… You can call me Henry.” He groaned. Lucy started to bounce on his cock, running her fingers through his chest hair as Henry bucked his hips into her pelvis, getting as deep inside her as he possibly could.

“Yes sir, Henry…” Lucy winked. He pulled her body down on top of him so he could kiss her and wrap his arms around her back so her tits were pressed against his bear-ish barrel chest. She wrapped her arms around the back of his neck and pulled him upright, still locked in a kiss. He flipped her on her back and she let out a surprised yelp followed by a laugh. He lifted her hips until she was in a back-bend and pounded her using all of his pent-up sexual energy. Henry fucked her with a vigor he hadn’t felt in years, electrified by her exuberance, with a fervent passion he usually reserved for creating art and playing music. Fucking her WAS creating art.

Feeling the toned muscles of her snatch clench around his cock almost made Henry come before he flipped her around. He licked her from behind again while she looked back at him, smiling and moaning in ecstasy. His chin was dripping when he came up for air and started fucking her doggy style.

“Bark like a dog!” Lucy shouted as she started to come. Henry barked loudly while she collapsed in orgasmic laughter. The glorious joy flowing from her was too much for him. Henry came so hard inside of her that he felt like he was going to turn inside out. She squeezed out every last drop. They collapsed on the bed together, he wrapped his arms around her, she rubbed her ass on his still-hard cock and smiled.

“That was awesome…” Bruce said for Henry. Lucy giggled and turned toward Henry, brushing his face with her fingertips.

“Yes Daddy…” She said with a wink. He raised an eyebrow at her, amused… not really sure how to feel about that.

Chapter Four

Henry woke up a little past midnight to the smell of cigarette smoke and the sound of a small stringed instrument. Lucy was in the living room lounging in the desk chair with her bare feet up on the desk. A cigarette trailed smoke in a moonlit haze above her. She was playing a ukulele and tapping her foot as she gazed out into the field of twinkling lights beyond the window pane. Henry watched her from the doorway. She strummed “Sappy” by Nirvana.

And if you save yourself

You will make him happy

He’ll keep you in a jar

And you’ll think you’re happy

He’ll give you breathing holes

And you’ll think you’re happy

He’ll cover you with grass

And you’ll think you’re happy now

You’re in a laundry room

You’re in a laundry room

The clues that came to you, oh”

“Good job.” Henry whispered in her ear. Lucy jumped in surprise and dropped the ukulele with a loud twanging clatter.

“Fuck! You scared me!” Lucy admonished. She jumped up from the chair and picked up the ukulele. His white shirt was buttoned only over her navel. Henry cupped her ass as she bent over, sat in the desk chair and stole her cigarette from the ashtray.

“Sorry… I thought you didn’t smoke?” He said, taking a drag of her cigarette.

“Not in front of people.” Lucy said as she sat on the desk. She tuned the uke and stole her cigarette back.

“Me too.” Admitted Henry. “Wait… am I even allowed to say that anymore?” He asked, hoping she wasn’t offended.

“You’re allowed to say whatever you want, you just have to be willing to deal with the consequences.” Lucy crushed the cigarette in the ashtray. “I’m gonna go for a swim in your tub…” She hopped up, handed him the ukulele and headed for the bathroom. She took off his shirt and tossed it behind her. Henry looked at the instrument in his hands, perplexed.

“Stay out of the deep end!” He said.

“Haha, movie references…” She giggled from the bathroom. He heard the rush of the faucet.

“Where did you even get a ukulele this time of night?” Henry asked.

“It was in my bag!” Lucy shouted over the running water. Henry looked at the envelope-sized black clutch on the desk, back at the instrument which would never have fit inside it…

“Are you coming?” Lucy called from the bathroom. The ukulele clattered to the ground again.

***

Henry’s dreams were filled with snakes, water, and ominous gray clouds of foreboding. Ripped back to reality by the electronic screech of the alarm clock, his left hand fumbled to find the unfamiliar “off” button. The screech continued, his eyes opened an excruciating crack to see a bright red 11:6 staring him down. The son of a bitch is upside down! He thought, while emitting an annoyed groan. By the time he found the button, a migraine was already attempting to halve his brain with an axe made of broken glass and molten hot metal. He tried to rub his eyes and discovered his right wrist handcuffed to the bed frame.

“Not funny…” Henry grumbled, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. “Okay, come out now! I don’t like this game!” Silence responded. In the heavily-draped darkness of the hotel room, Henry felt around for his phone. It was missing from the spot on the nightstand where he left it. Still unwilling to turn on the bedside lamp and face his shame, Henry felt around for the nightstand hotel phone… which was also missing.

“Oh, fuck me.” Henry said to no one.

“These kind of things wouldn’t happen if you didn’t stick your dick in crazy chicks…” Charlie said, using Henry as a speaker.

“Who asked you, kid?” Henry responded. Controlling the voices had been a challenge, but they always came out when he was stressed and alone.

“Turn on the light, idiot.” Bruce told him.

“My head is gonna crack right open.”

“Yeah, let’s all just stay handcuffed to a bed in Vegas forever because we’re too afraid to turn on the goddamn light, shall we?” Jack said, sounding exactly like Henry. He closed his eyes as tight as possible and reached for the bedside light switch. Gingerly opening his eyes again, Henry blinked twice to make sure what he saw was really there. He thought it was blood.

“YOUR WELCOME!” Was written in bright red lipstick on the ceiling above the bed in huge, scrawling letters.

“That’s the wrong ‘your’…” Henry muttered, rubbing his eyes again. The TV turned on to local news even though the remote was nowhere to be found. Must be automatic, he thought.

“Breaking news, we are going live to the scene of a plane crash several miles outside of the Las Vegas airport.” A reporter jostled a memory from Henry’s hangover-clouded brain at the word “airport”.

“FUCK I MISSED MY FLIGHT!” Henry shouted, immediately feeling like a dick.

“Flight 17 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles has crashed in the desert due to undetermined mechanical failure, fire crews are racing to the scene…” Something was starting to settle in Henry’s consciousness. His free hand rummaged through the drawer in the nightstand. He almost didn’t want to look at the flight number on the ticket. He held the piece of paper in his hand with his thumb over the number… 17.

“No.” Henry put the ticket against his forehead in a fist. “No. No. No.” He threw the ticket aside and looked around for something to get himself out of the handcuffs or call for help. Surely Ben would… “Om! Ben!” His best friend was on that flight. Decades of memories rushed over him like an open fire hydrant. Devastation and guilt dropped next, crushing him into shocked paralysis. The white noise of the news became a distant, high-pitched whine. On the floor across the room, his cell phone lit up, ringing with “PRIVATE” filling the screen.

Henry jumped for the phone out of instinct, forgot he was handcuffed to the bed, almost dislocated his shoulder. The phone continued to buzz “PRIVATE”. Panic settled over Henry as he looked around for something to lasso the phone. He made a few knots in the bedsheet and threw the heavy end toward the phone. The makeshift lasso inched the phone closer to him as it continued to buzz. It was almost within arms reach when the buzzing stopped. Henry’s middle finger was a millimeter away from touching the phone when the door opened. Ben stood in the doorway with a half-eaten waffle in his bare hands, grinning at Henry’s predicament.

“Well, looks like one of us is bringing home some juicy Vegas stories!” Ben said, munching on his waffle.

“Jesus Christ monkey balls, Ben! I thought you were dead!” Henry shouted, putting his free hand over his heart.

“Nah, I booted all that Louie in the trash like twice. I’ll live.” Ben said through a mouthful of waffle.

“Haven’t you seen the news? And help me for fuck’s sake!” Henry said, tugging on the handcuffs.

“Right, I’ll get a saw…” Ben pretended to run out the door. Henry was not amused. They turned towards the news…

“Flight 17 has been located 15 miles outside of the Las Vegas Airport, miraculously… all passengers on board have been rescued. Not a single fatality has been reported. Some minor injuries were sustained…” Cut to the scene of the plane crash, another reporter talking to a firefighter.

“As you can see, there was an engine malfunction right next to the exit row, if anyone had been sitting there, they would have been blown to smithereens! I can tell ya, in my 35 years of puttin’ out fires, I have never seen something like this happen.” Said the bewildered fire chief.

Ben looked at Henry handcuffed to the bed for a few long seconds. Henry was notorious for insisting on an exit row seat.

“So… how was your night?” He said through another mouthful of waffle.

***

“Good morning…” whispered a low, smooth voice. Jess was startled awake by a smiling, sweaty, sexy black man on the other side of the reception desk. She had fallen asleep on the job. Nobody was ever around to notice at this time of the morning. Instinct compelled her click out of the browser on the computer she wasn’t supposed to be using for writing fanfiction.

“Can I help you?” She said, rubbing her eyes underneath her thick black framed glasses.

“You’re beautiful when you’re sleeping.” The sexy black man said. He was dressed in a loose blue tank top and red basketball shorts, a damp towel slung over his sweaty shoulder. His smile stood out brilliant white against the dark brown of his skin. Rivulets of sweat ran from the crown of his shaved head down to his exquisite cheekbones, amusement sparkled in his dark brown eyes. He held a set of BMW keys with a fob for the building, so she wasn’t sure what he wanted from her. The only thing Jess had to do was give people mail and open the door. She wasn’t used to any long conversations on this job.

“Uh… thank you?” Jess shuffled the few items around on the desk, fiddled with a paperclip, tucked her hair behind her ear. Anything to not have to deal with such an attractive man catching her failing at something. She didn’t feel good at anything but staying up all night and she was afraid he would tell the boss. She needed this job if she was ever gonna get out of Grandma’s basement. He leaned over the desk to read her name tag.

“What does the J stand for, Miss Bundy?”

“Jessica.” She squeaked, cleared her throat and tried to sound professional. “Ahem. Jessica Bundy.” A familiar look of salacious recognition settled on his face and Jess knew what was coming next.

“Jessica Bundy? Like Jessie Bundy from that 90’s show… what was it?”

“‘Love and Marriage’” Jess reluctantly reminded because it was less excruciating to just move this conversation along.

“Oh my lord, that girl was fine! All the dudes at my prep school wanted to get with Jessie!” He looked like that was supposed to impress her.

“Yep. Mine too.” Nobody wanted to “get with” Jess at her high school despite the association of her name to the sexy teenage daughter on a 90’s sitcom. She wasn’t really interested in them either.

“Well, you are so much sexier than her. I love a thick woman…” He said, assured of his seductive technique. Jess felt like he was calling her fat.

“I appreciate the compliment. Is there anything else I can do for you?” She said with a prim smile.

“Would you like to come up to my place for a bit?”

“Um… no thank you?”

“Why not?”

“I’m on the clock.”

“You’ll get off soon…”

“I don’t even know your name, sir.”

“It’s Tony Richmond!”

“Like on ‘American Family’?”

“I don’t watch that show.”

“Have a nice day, sir.”

***

“What do you mean you don’t google yourself!” The real Ben Fisher shoved the real Henry O’Connor out of the way and typed his name into the address bar. Up popped several dozen links to “American Family”. The very last result on the first page was titled “What I Would Do Sexually to Henry O’Connor” on fanfiction.net. Henry was absentmindedly doodling on a sketchpad, a little annoyed to have his desk hijacked in the middle of a work day for some nonsense. His office was full of cartoon memorabilia, so it was tough to keep it serious.

“You realize we have a meeting in fifteen minutes, right?” Henry held up his watch in front of Ben’s face so he couldn’t see the screen. Ben slapped his hand away and they got into a brief sissy slap fight.

“There may be no point, man! The word is out…” Ben turned the screen towards him with a paragraph highlighted.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Henry said. His face contorted into an anxious melange of fury. “What. The. Fuck…How did she know?” It was top secret that he was planning on leaving “American Family” after ten seasons. They were on their way to a meeting with the PR people about releasing the information to the public.

“How is this even legal? She’s using your real name! And mine! But you’re the only one who gets a sex scene? What kind of shit is this?” Ben said while reading over Henry’s shoulder. He was grinning and bouncing in excitement.

“It’s just… Wow. Accurate… and funny!” Henry said, his dark eyes softening as he scanned the words, devouring every character.

“I know, right? Almost too funny! Do you think it could be Trey and Matt messing with us?”

“Nah, they do that on their show.”

The intercom buzzed.

“Mr. O’Connor, you should be getting to the meeting now.” Said the speakerphone.

“Thank you, Linda… Wait. Reschedule.” Henry said, pressing the button while reading.

“Yes sir.” Said Linda.

“How could she know all this? Who is she?” Ben said, watching Henry’s reactions as he read the story.

“I think I know…” Henry didn’t tell people he used to catfish his fans on Myspace for fun and inspiration. He recognized “Fangirl25” by her writing.

“Damn, Henry! When you break her heart by cancelling your own show, maybe she’ll write a sex scene about me next!” Ben cajoled, jostling his shoulder. Henry’s entire reality flipped upside-down as he read the story. She was right about so much.

“I can’t do it.” Henry said.

“I could… if she’s as hot as she is in this story!”

“No, I mean I can’t quit. Not now…”

“What about the Tesla musical you’re working on?” Ben’s voice raised to a high pitch at the end of the sentence.

“It’ll wait…”

“Wait till you get to the part about the plane crash…”

To be continued 9/23/2018

Chapter Five

May 2005

“Hold on, I gotta see why this ad isn’t posting.” Jade said, her blue eyes darting back and forth behind the laptop screen. Her soft brown hair was tucked behind one ear, she wore the northface pull-over/ripped jeans uniform which pervaded the campus. Jess stood by the dorm door dressed in a DIY giant chicken costume as a reference to a brief gag on the pilot episode of “American Family”. After two years of syndication and record-high DVD sales, AF was coming back from the dead. An impromptu party was planned at the student center for the premiere. Jess knew it wasn’t a costume party.

“Come on! It’s gonna be packed in there and if I have to sit on the floor, I don’t know if I can get back up in this thing!” Jess fluffed the yellow feathers on her bustle and straightened her visor-beak. Jade’s typing intensified.

“Gimme a sec, then we’ll shake a tail feather!” Jade winked at Jess, who shook her tail in response. “Oh, here it is! It was in my spam folder. Duh!” Jess looked over her shoulder.

“What’s Drake’s List?”

“It’s like classifieds in the paper. I need to find a home for that cat we found. HA is not going to be happy about the scratch marks all over the bedposts.”

“Yeah, well some of those are from when your French boyfriend came to visit.” Jess shooed Jade’s hand away from the mouse and made a few clicks. “There! Posted. Let’s go already!” She closed the laptop for Jade, who indulged her wacky friend and followed her to the party.

***

Thoo-wick. The sound of a condom being removed after sex was becoming a familiar relief, almost as satisfying as the orgasm. Jess stumbled to the bathroom and felt around for the light switch. Geometric bursts of purple light bloomed before her eyes as she sat down to pee, breathing heavy. The blunt they smoked before sex had plunged her head into that fuzzy state which made it so much easier to disconnect her mind from her body and relieve stress with a casual stranger. Alcohol was never really Jess’s jam, so rather than suffer through a bar scenario, she had taken to Drake’s List for some anonymous sex. It made dating as easy as ordering a pizza. She knew it was dangerous.

Jess pulled on her clothes in the dark bedroom and went in the living room as her date was lighting up the other half of the blunt with a small pink bic. He was a fit, black, 40-something retired Army vet with tattoos covering his muscular arms only to the half-sleeve. Jess thought they looked nice with his chestnut brown skin. She sat next to him on the couch and took a hit off the blunt. Her date lived alone in a house in northeast DC, had picked her up in a shiny red Mustang, and maintained a sedate demeanor which put her at ease.

“Wanna watch something?” He asked as he flipped through the guide on the plasma screen tv, which took up most of the room.

“What time is it? Is ‘American Family’ on?” Jess asked while blowing smoke rings.

“Usually.” He clicked on the TvFlix icon on the remote. “American Family” was the first show under “Continue Watching”.

“You like that show?” Jess asked as she inched closer to him on the couch.

“I watch it all the time.” He puffed the blunt, scrolled through the episodes, which all had a full red bar on the gray timeline. Jess leaned her head on his shoulder, he didn’t seem to notice.

“Can you do the voices?” Jess’s face was beginning to brighten. She brushed her fingertips over his as she took the blunt.

“Nah, it’s mostly background noise.” He had a far-off look in his caramel-colored half-lidded eyes. Jess studied his distant expression and saw the walls he built up around some long-repressed trauma.

“I get it.” She leaned her head against his chest, her ear to his heart. He picked one of her favorite episodes. “Did you know the network still won’t air this one on TV? There was an uproar over the abortion joke.”

“Abortion isn’t funny.” He responded. Jess moved the small gold cross out from under her ear so she could get closer to the center of his chest.

“No, it’s not. But it was a good joke.” She handed the end of the blunt back to him. “Here it is…”

 

INT. – COMEDY CLUB – HANNAH’S FIRST OPEN MIC – NIGHT

Hannah Foster, a short, chubby teenage girl with pink hair stands in front of a brick wall, holding a mic. She clears her throat.

HANNAH

My parents, they didn’t want a girl… They wanted an abortion.

 

Jess studied her date’s reaction to the joke. Nothing seemed to elicit any kind of emotional response from him.

“Pretty good joke.” He admitted, stubbing the end of the blunt out in the black marble ashtray on the glass coffee table.

“Yeah but then…”

 

TONY

(from the back of the room)

Take it off!

 

Her date emitted an amused “hmmph”. Jess felt satisfied with that reaction and cuddled closer to him. He put an awkward arm around her shoulder.

“So that’s the dude you like, huh?” He said, indicating Tony, who was a caricature of several Friar’s club members.

“Not really.” Jess closed her eyes, started to drift off.

“What do you like?” He asked.

“Henry O’Connor…”

“Who?”

She was already asleep.

***

Henry avoided eye contact with anyone who crossed his path as he walked towards his office in Coyote Studios. Monday mornings were never his “jam”, but in the three weeks since he missed that plane crash in Las Vegas, things had taken an ominous turn for the worse. Assistants used to light up with glee at his approach, then scurry away in self-conscious abdication. The fresh faces of the interns who looked up to him made coming to work a joyous effort. Almost a month of being greeted by hollow, pitying expressions began to dampen Henry’s enthusiasm. Haunted by what could have happened, he felt dead already, rotting from the inside out and everyone could smell him. Extra-long showers were starting to dry out his skin.

Unable to reach an itch between his shoulder blades, Henry stopped in the doorway of his office to use the frame as a scratching post. He rubbed his back on the frame, emitting soft, rumbling growls of pleasure.

“Come on in! My nails just love to scratch!” Said a bright voice that made his heart leap into his throat. Henry gasped, turned to see a woman sitting at his desk, typing at a furious pace. It was Lucy. Or was it? Her blonde hair was now jet black, straight and pulled back in a tight bun. Black framed glasses perched on the tip of her nose, she sat in his chair, ankles crossed. She was wearing an elegant black business suit with a white collared shirt, pencil skirt and patent leather oxford pumps. Her cheekbones appeared sharper, her chin had a new edge, her jawline had a more severe definition. She appeared to either have gotten plastic surgery or she was in some kind of latex plaster cast makeup. Henry couldn’t fathom why she would want to change anything about her face. Those bright green eyes were the same as he remembered. They darted over the screen, devouring the words.

“Lucy! Wow, I never thought I’d see you again!” Henry was too excited to see her for all of the strangeness of the situation to register. He hadn’t seen or heard from her since before the plane crash.

“My name is Lillian, Mr. O’Connor. I’m your new assistant.” Lillian didn’t look up from the screen as Henry approached the desk, arms slightly outstretched as if he expected a hug.

“What happened to Lydia?” Henry asked, his arms falling to his sides.

“Lydia’s dead.”

“What?!”

“Well, she was 95.”

“Aw… She was like a grandmother to me!”

“Grandmothers are lovely, but you need an assistant who knows what an email is. The studio sent me down to sort out your file horde. You have squirreled away some excellent content here…” A hungry smile grew on her pretty pink lips. Henry was starting to get annoyed.

“Wait just a second here, I’m supposed to get a say in who works for me!” He took out his phone and looked for his agent’s number in the contacts. Slick as a viper and twice as quick, she slinked across the room and leaned within range of his coffee breath. Their lips almost touched just before she snatched the phone out of his hand.

“You can have a say or you can have a job, Mr. O’Connor. The Studio has some concerns about your recent productivity. We understand there was an incident in Las Vegas?” Lillian raised an admonishing eyebrow.

“You would know.” Henry wasn’t falling for this ruse. He knew this girl was too good to be true and now she was out to make his life a living hell.

“I know everything…” Her bright green eyes consumed his gaze. Henry twitched, but stood his ground.

“I’m not gonna stand here and be blackmailed by some fame-hungry fan girl. Now, if you want a job, you have to apply to the internship program like the rest of…” He was cut off by her piercing peel of laughter.

“Don’t be silly, Mr. O’Connor! I’m here to help…” Every word was swathed in a thinly veiled threat. Lillian sat down at his computer and continued to type. Henry could see she was deep into his password protected files. “You have been sitting on some excellent scripts, I think season 12 is going to break all previous ratings…”

“Thank you… Wait, no! They know I’m done after 11. I have to do something else with my life, something that… means something to somebody! Jesus, I haven’t had enough coffee for this conversation. What am I saying? Get your paws offa my keyboard, I don’t like people touching my stuff!” Henry was about to touch the back of her hand when she raised one dark red fingernail.

“I wouldn’t do that before you see this…” Lillian clicked on a photo file titled topsecret.jpg. Soft golden light filled Henry’s face. His expression sank.

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to live up to your potential.” She stood up and started inching closer to his face. “Do you have any idea how valuable your voice is? What you do is essential to the survival of the human race. Comedy helps us evolve. Without the antisepsis of innovation, our collective culture becomes a fetid mud puddle, rotting on an insignificant speck of existence, hurtling through space. Your subversive commentary challenges belief structures, keeps fresh memes flowing through our consciousness, helps us understand our narrow view of the universe and survive!” All flashing eyes and ranting movements, she was beautiful in her fury. He was mesmerized. They were standing so close, he could feel her hot breath on his lips.

“They’re just cartoons…” Henry whimpered.

That is exactly the type of attitude We are here to combat. You’re getting lost up your own asshole, Henry. We are saving you from self-destruction. Anyway, its not like you have a choice. This is happening. You will just have to trust that We have your best interests at heart.” A deranged Cheshire-cat smile curled on her lips. His throat clicked.

“So, uh… If you’re my assistant, can you get me some coffee?” Henry tried to break the tension with an attempt at a joke.

“I can tell by your breath you’ve had plenty. I’ll send one of the interns for a green tea.” Lillian gathered up some files on his miraculously clean desk and headed for the door. “Don’t worry, Henry. We’re gonna get along just fine… If ya don’t fuck up!” She winked and closed the door behind her. Henry sat in his desk chair, leaning back from the huge tent in his pants.

“What a cunt.” Henry muttered. He searched his top desk drawer for a tiny airplane bottle of Maker’s Mark that he kept in case of a zombie apocalypse… or a really bad Tuesday. It burned like a smooth, cleansing fire all the way down to his empty stomach. His heart stopped pounding and his breathing slowed. He put his elbows on the desk and rubbed his eyes.

“Where’s the girl who was handing out shoulder rubs and blowjobs like there was no tomorrow?” Bruce asked, speaking through Henry.

“Lillian ate her.” Charlie responded.

***

“Hey, wake up.” A gentle hand patted Jess’s shoulder. Startled awake, she looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings for a few panicked seconds before she remembered. Her date went to the fridge and got out two Gatorade bottles, one red, one blue. Jess took the blue. “You said you had to be at work at 11, I’ll drop you at the metro.”

“Thanks.” Jess said, drinking down about half the blue liquid. He drove her to the metro stop in the shiny red Mustang, both staring off into different memories. Jess got out of the car. She was about to leave without another word.

“Have a good night.” He said before she closed the door.

“You too… Sorry, what was your name again?”

“Trevor.”

“Right, thanks again, Trevor.” Jess headed for the metro and never saw him again. She didn’t tell him was her 26th birthday.

To be continued 9/25/18

Chapter Six

Jess stood on the front porch of Grandma’s house in rural Maryland, staring at the set of keys in the door, which was ajar. It was 8:55 am on a Tuesday, as most adults were going to work, Jess was just getting home. The energy drinks that gave her “writing fuel” for the long, boring graveyard shift also left her in too zombified a state to process why Grandma had left the front door open all night. She put her own keys back in her bag and took a deep breath before entering the house.

Grandma was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and munching cinnamon toast. She was watching her favorite channel, Coyote News Network, on a tiny white TV that had never moved from the spot on the counter next to the fridge until Jess cleaned, discovering a rectangular imprint burned into the green Formica from decades of window-adjacent sun exposure. Grandma wore her favorite Led Zeppelin t-shirt, jeweled cat-eye glasses and rainbow pajama pants. Her blue beehive wig was so retro, it was stylish again. Jess saw her without a wig once when she was five.

“Does Grandma look ugly?” Grandma asked young Jess as she sat at her bedroom vanity in a white bathrobe, sparse wisps of gray hair covering her bald head. Jess thought hard about her answer. She put her balled-up fists deep in her jean short overall pockets and looked down at her Minnie Mouse Velcro sneakers.

“Your face doesn’t?” Jess offered with a look like she wasn’t sure if she just made a joke or not. Grandma paused, her face lit up and she laughed out loud. Jess thought Grandma was laughing at her for saying something stupid. Since Jess was in high school, family members had been telling her that she sounded exactly like her grandmother when she laughed, so it took a lot for her to laugh out loud. 26-year-old Jess walked in the kitchen with Grandma’s keys in her hand.

“Jessie’s home! Happy birthday my sweet granddaughter!” Grandma jumped up and hugged Jess with a ferocious, bone-crushing strength and kissed her cheeks five times. Jess’s uniform consisted of an ill-fitting black pants suit with a wrinkled white-collar shirt. She was afraid the shoulder pads would knock Grandma’s wig off due to the ferocity of her hugs.

“Simmer down, teapot! I have a birthday literally every year!” Jess borrowed one of Grandma’s catch phrases as she patted her back. Grandma held Jess by the shoulders, big blue eyes searching her weary green ones for any trace of joy. Jess smiled and held up Grandma’s keys. “So, we’re inviting the neighborhood to come in and steal your tiny tv, are we?”

“Oh, god damnit! I hate being old!” Grandma exclaimed. She took her keys from Jess and hung them up on the hook by the backdoor. Jess went to the fridge and took out a diet coke. She scanned the shelves for a decent breakfast. They were stuffed with jars of pickled fish and vegetables in various states of expiration. Among the family photos that covered every exposed inch of the outside of the fridge, Jess saw that Grandma had moved the one of her high school pictures to the front.

17-year-old Jess wore all black plain clothes, had the back half of her head shaved with long, jet black bangs split down the middle, further rounding her perpetual baby face. She was giving the camera the finger and her hand was positioned so it looked like she was picking her nose. Martha, her long-lost sheepdog, looked up from the bottom of the frame, adoring Jess. 26-year-old Jess took a donut-shaped magnet and put it over the picture.

“You’re not old, Grandma. Old people don’t street canvas for abortion rights or go gallivanting off to Kundalini yoga retreats all weekend.” Jess cajoled. She sat at the table with her soda and kicked off her all-black converse sneakers, which weren’t up to the uniform code, but nobody ever saw her feet behind the desk anyway. Grandma sat next to her and lightly pet the back of Jess’s smooth, pale hand with her arthritis gnarled, liver-spotted hand. Her glittering diamond engagement ring was getting looser on her bony finger.

“Are you sad I wasn’t here for your real birthday yesterday?” Genuine devastation settled over Grandma’s wrinkled face, elegant cheekbones and captivating eyes retaining her beauty through her age. Jess took Grandma’s old hand, her skin as delicate as vellum, and put it to her pallid cheek.

“It’s okay, Grandma. I’m 26, nobody cares about my birthday anymore. Besides, I had to work. Did you have fun?” Jess smiled, gave Grandma’s hand a light squeeze and popped open her soda.

“Pssht. That yogi had no idea what he was talking about. I told him that I studied under Mahareshkaresh Basu and the Maha would never stand for such lazy annunciation of the Shanti mantra. It’s gonna take weeks of meditation to get my chakras realigned!” Grandma got up from the table to search for something in the fridge.

“Fascinating.” Jess responded. She stared at the news crawl on the tiny TV, a sour expression growing on her face. She ignored the politician on the screen who was giving an apology speech while standing in front of an angry wife. Jars of pickled herring clinked and sloshed as Grandma searched the fridge. “What are you looking for?”

“Rita and I stopped in the city on the way back from New Paltz, I picked up a birthday treat for ya! Oh! Here it is, I put it in the crisper for safe-keeping.” Grandma pulled out a brown paper bag with a round-ish object in it. Jess unwrapped the present, her nostrils filled with the smell of fish. Two halves of a poppy seed bagel were mushed together with a thick layer of pink salmon cream cheese. Jess could tell by the smell it made the trip from New York to Maryland un-refrigerated. Grandma’s sweet, hopeful expression expected a thrilled response.

“Aw, thanks!” Jess said with a brave smile. She took a small, consoling bite of the smelly bagel. “Mmm. Yum.” She chewed what she knew was bacteria-riddled out of love. Grandma grinned, her hands clasped under her chin as if in prayer.

“Do you remember when I used to pick you up from preschool and we would go to Saul’s deli for a bagel? Everyone would say, ‘Look at that beautiful little redhead! She’s a riot!’ Aw, those were the days…” Grandma stared off into a distant wistful memory. Jess pushed the once-bitten bagel away and washed the spoiled bite down with soda. Grandma looked offended. “What are ya, on a diet?” She admonished.

“Always.” Jess admitted. The white plastic wall phone started ringing. “You should get that.” Grandma jumped up to answer the phone. When he back was turned, Jess tried to feed bites of the bagel to Peppy, Grandma’s ancient, constantly shaking Yorkie. The cataritic-eyed dog sniffed the bagel and growled.

“Hello? Oh, hi Lizzy! I’m so glad you called!” Grandma twirled the curly yellowing phone cord around her twisted index finger. Jess froze at the sound of her mother’s voice on the other end of the phone.

“Tell her I’m not here!” Jess whispered. Grandma waved her off and started searching the junk drawer for something. Well, one of the junk drawers. There were a lot of them.

“Yup! She just got home and now we’re having a little birthday breakfast party!” Grandma glanced at Jess with a shiny-dentured smile was so sweet that Jess took another reluctant bite of the rancid bagel. Her stomach growled in protest. “Do you want to talk to her? Here she is!” Jess waved her arms and shook her head. Grandma gave her a stern look, handed Jess the phone and started rummaging through the drawers again.

“Mom?” Jess had to hold the phone away from her ear while her mother belted an off-key “Happy Birthday”, hitting a high falsetto at the end. “Thank you… Yep, 26… About the same as 25, actually… I worked… Yes, overnight… I can’t quit, I need the money… I’m working on it, there aren’t a lot of jobs out there for a college drop-out with half a costume degree… Yes, Grandma is taking her heart medication… No, I won’t forget… Yes, I’m looking forward to it too… I’ll try… I won’t! Mom, I just worked all night, I really need to get some sleep! Yes, I’ll make sure… I love you too… I’ll talk to you later! Thanks, mom. Bye! Love you!” Jess hung up the phone with a heavy sigh.

“Here they are!” Grandma cheered, holding up a pack of half-burnt pink birthday candles.

“What are those for?” Jess asked, hoping her assumptions wouldn’t come to fruition.

“For your wish! You have to make a birthday wish!” Grandma stuck one of the pink candles in the middle of the glob of cream cheese filling the hole in the twice-bitten bagel. She lit the burnt wick with a match from the box next to the stove.

“For real?” Jess was incredulous and exhausted, but there was no denying Grandma when festivities were afoot.

“Yes, sit your ass down in this chair and make a wish, you snarky little bitch!” Grandma pushed Jess’s shoulders down into the chair. She stared at the lopsided candle dripping pink wax onto the bagel, then looked up at Grandma’s hopeful face. Grandma hugged her.

“I love you my sweet grandbaby… I’m so glad you were born!”

Here goes nothing… Jess thought. She blew out the flame.

***

Henry O’Connor thought about killing himself a lot. His innate need to create art kept him from going through with it. An imagination so vast it could create and destroy entire universes, delve the deepest depths of desire, and refract the most powerful elements of human nature… Could get a little overwhelming. He had been putting ideas on paper since he could scribble a crayon, the constant flow of words and drawings were the pressure-release valve for his mind. The characters that naturally sprung from his personality found something like a real sentient existence within the animated worlds he created. They had their own fan bases, entire histories and lives of their own. Henry was God of them all and kinda sick of it some days.

A table read always recharged Henry’s batteries. The thrill of live performance, working out jokes with his best friends, making each other laugh, and crafting good comedy… slaked the suicidal ideations. He walked into the writer’s room wearing his personal uniform of loose jeans, an un-tucked white button-down shirt and black converse. A green tea tag hung out from his coffee cup and the script in his hand was fresh as a morning daisy, still warm from the printer. Henry pushed his black-framed glasses up his nose and took his regular seat. He needed to be comfortable while he performed, but he also wanted to seem like a boss. Everyone knew who was really in charge when Emmy Goldstien lumbered in after him and slammed a stack of scripts on the table in a furious rush.

“I’VE HAD IT WITH YOU PEOPLE!” Emmy yelled to the room full of interns and writers. She was a six-foot-tall Jewish lesbian with a motherly shape, a short, black bob, and hawkish hazel eyes. Her black cardigan had cat hair on it and her tortoise shell glasses were askew on her nose. She was no one to be trifled with. Henry respected the hell out of her as a stand up comedian back in Chicago, which is why he cast her as Angela, “American Family’s” ball-busting housewife. He kicked back to watch her typical Tuesday morning rant.

“Every time I assign scenes to specific teams, you motherfuckers go off into your little cubby covens and come up with a whole new roster behind my back! I can’t keep up with all the god damned treachery! What do you want from me, my blood, sweat and decades of my life just to squeeze as much slave labor out of me as it takes to drive me FUCKING CRAZY?!” The room stood silent in the wake of Emmy’s rant. Ben ran in the room with a cup of coffee, sunglasses perched on his forehead and keys in his hand.

“Aw, did I miss the rant?” Ben looked dejected. Henry snickered. Emmy dragged Ben by the ear to the front of the room while Ben said “Ow, ow, ow…”

“Attention everyone!” Emmy’s powerful voice carried over the din of the room. She had inherited her opera singer mother’s lung capacity. “What do we have here?” Emmy indicated Ben, who stood in a gray polo and black jeans, a mixture of emotions displayed on his ginger bearded face over this public shaming.

“An actor.” The room responded in rumbling familiarity.

“That’s right! And what happens to actors if they piss off the head writer?” Emmy pulled on Ben’s ear, making him wince and clasp his hands in front of his pants.

“Written into a wood chipper…” The room responded in startling sync. “American Family” had exactly one episode featuring a wood chipper.

“Good, I’m glad we’re clear on that! Sit the fuck down, Ben! Let’s get to work!” Emmy sat in her seat by the whiteboard, peering over her glasses into a white macbook while she flipped through the script. Ben took his place next to Henry, rubbing his ear. Henry gave him a smug “you just got in trouble” look. As executive producer, Henry made the most money by hiring the best people. No one could command a room like Emmy.

“Sheila, did we take attendance? Who are we missing?” Emmy demanded of the mousy assistant to her left.

“Sorry I’m late, Eric’s uncle got arrested for human trafficking, so we’ve been dealing with that all morning.” Patrice Azkallam swathed in the room wearing a bright, white Brandon Maxwell Plunge Neck Fit & Flare Shirtdress and Gucci sunglasses. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, big curls of shiny black hair piled high on her head, with the exception of one out-of-place wisp by her ear. She was flanked by two assistants… or body guards? One of them was a beefy bald body builder in a dark suit and aviators. The other was Lucy… or Lillian? Henry could tell it was the same woman who threatened him in his office and made his trip to Las Vegas… memorable.

Her black hair was blonde again and shaved except for the top of her head, pulled back in a ponytail long enough to be used as a whip. Her face had more lethal features, ever sharpening to intimidate. She was dressed exactly like Patrice but still seemed to be working for her. Patrice took her seat next to Emmy and the agents stood against the wall behind her. Lucy or Lillian tipped her sunglasses down her nose and peered at Henry, giving him a wink and a half smile before resetting to neutral. Henry’s throat clicked.

“It’s fine, Bubbalah! How’s married life? Ya gonna have a baby soon or what?” Emmy gave Patrice a sappy look.

“Ahem, uh… Let’s get moving here, we have some meetings after this…” Henry had enough trouble focusing on his job over the past few weeks to have to deal with any of those feelings. Patrice took off her sunglasses and Henry could see she had been crying. He repressed an evil voice that rumbled “Good…” in the echoes of his consciousness. Her honey-colored eyes brimmed as she avoided Henry’s heavy hooded gaze.

“Yeah, let’s go already!” said Billy Murphy, voice of Hannah’s hopeless nerdy teenage love interest, Shawn MacDonald and sultry-voiced sportscaster Earl Huxley. Billy was a portly black YouTube music video star who won a part on the show in a contest. He was so funny, they ended up keeping him on ever since. He had been studying his lines throughout this whole scene while munching on a donut.

***

INT. – FOSTER FAMILY LIVING ROOM – DAY

The Foster family sits on the couch watching the news. 

CUT TO:

Mustachioed Anchor Bob Bucker (Henry) sits at the news desk with a picture of a busty celebrity as a graphic.

BOB BUCKER

Kristy Kazakstan met with the president today to discuss prison reform… According to this dress, he was not listening.

BRUCE (o.s.)

What?

ANGELA (o.s.)

Shh!

BOB BUCKER

And now here’s Earl Huxley with sports! Ladies…

CUT TO:

Earl Huxley, a cartoon caricature of a young Sidney Poitier holds a basketball in front of a sports news graphic.

EARL HUXLEY

Thoo-wick! That’s the sound a basketball makes when it goes into a net. Balls, balls, balls, we’ve got balls bouncing all over the place! College balls, pro balls, big beefy balls, and great balls of fire! Stay tuned…

CUT TO:

Bob Bucker looking enamored with Earl.

BOB BUCKER

That was a lot of hot nonsense.

CUT TO:

Bruce, Angela, and Charlie sit on the couch in the Foster family living room. Jack sits at their feet. 12-year-old Eddie Foster (Ben) runs in the room.

EDDIE

Dad! I like this girl at school, but I don’t think she even knows my name! She’s so dreamy…

BRUCE

I got a boner during synchronized swimming, you don’t hear me braggin’ about it.

ANGELA

Bruce, you told my mother about that when she called to tell me the results of her biopsy.

EDDIE

What do I do? This girl has such a hold on me and I don’t think she knows I exist!

Eddie swoons across all of their laps on the couch.

CHARLIE

Ew! Can we get rid of this one? God, why do all tween boys smell like chicken soup?

JACK

Who said chicken?

Jack starts sniffing Eddie’s armpits, tickling him until he falls off the couch laughing.

BRUCE

Up! He said the “C” word…

JACK

Chicken, chicken, chicken!

ANGELA

Hey, just like my cousins were chanting at you before our wedding, Bruce!

Hannah enters with Shawn.

HANNAH

I have to tell you guys something!

CHARLIE

You’re gay! Finally…

SHAWN

Shut up, kid! Let her talk…

ANGELA

You’re not pregnant, that’s for damn sure…

HANNAH

No, mom, geez! Why won’t anyone listen to me?

BRUCE

Because your mouth is glued shut with billionaire jizz?

***

Back in “reality” the entire writer’s room stopped and looked at Henry. Bruce spoke for him, but that line wasn’t in the script. Patrice burst into tears and ran out of the room, followed by her bodyguards.

“Damnit… I’m such a dick!” Henry growled at himself and ran after Patrice to try to apologize. An awkward silence hung in the room.

“Okay then, moving on…” commanded Emmy. “Billy, read Henry’s lines for him while he’s gone…”

***

Henry rounded the corner of the hallway at Coyote Studios just as Patrice was disappearing into a stairwell.

“STOP FOLLOWING ME!” Patrice screamed at her bodyguards, her voice echoing throughout the stairwell. The beefy male bodyguard obediently stood outside of the door. Lucy or Lillian held up one finger to make him stay. She followed Patrice. Henry walked up to the bodyguard, who let him by with a shrug. Henry hid out of sight in the landing above Patrice and her assistant.

“Everyone hates me, Lori. They all think I married Eric for the money, but I MAKE MY OWN DAMN MONEY! They all think he’s stupid because he’s weird, but I love his weirdness! He’s the only one who doesn’t judge me, he doesn’t hold me up to this impossible standard that makes it so hard to be a fucking human being! All I ever wanted was for someone to see me as a person rather than a god damned commodity! I’m not a part of his collection, he didn’t try to possess me, I had to pursue HIM! Out of love! I love that big, stupid weirdo!” Patrice broke into sobs and “Lori” hugged her, patting the back of her head.

“There there, sweetie. They’re all haters. Don’t listen.” Lori consoled. She saw Henry out of the corner of her eye and winked at him while Patrice cried on her shoulder. Henry crouched in the shadows like a spider.

“Will I ever get to be normal again?” Patrice sniffed, her makeup staining Lori’s white shirt. Lori pushed Patrice’s shoulders back so she could look in her tear-soaked eyes.

“Oh, Patty… There’s no such thing as ‘normal’…” Lori gripped Patty’s shoulders lightly for emphasis. “Look at me. Remember who you are. You are Patrice FUCKING Azkallam! You are a force to be reckoned with! You sparkle with the electric energy of creativity! Some people want to steal your electricity and leave you powerless. Others want to wrap you in copper and make it STRONGER! Your voice is so powerful, Eric’s money doesn’t even begin to compare!” Patty kissed Lori on the lips, hard. Henry let out a soft, involuntary growl. Patty seemed surprised by her own actions.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” She ran down the stairwell with her expensive wedges clocking down the concrete stairs. Lori looked up at Henry, pure animalistic lust glittering in her green eyes. She pulled the elastic out of her ponytail and her long blonde hair fell in waves around her face. Her wedges clocked up the stairs until she was standing right in front of him, grinning and breathing heavy.

“May I kiss you?” Lori asked, so close he could feel the heat radiating from her entire being.

“Yes.” Henry barely got the whole syllable out before Lori kissed him. She pressed her body against his, gripped the back of his head and flicked his lips with her tongue. Henry kissed her cleveage in the deep V neckline of her dress, rubbed her voluptuous tits and pinched her nipples. Lori pulled down the collar of his white undershirt with two fingers so she could play with his chest hair while she kissed him.

“Oh my god, I missed you…” He said as she got on her knees and unzipped his pants. His boner popped out, long and white with delicate blue veins and a shiny red head. Lori grinned as her tongue circled the head a few times before she started sucking it, looking up at him with those enticing eyes full of love. Soft fingertips massaged his balls as her plush pink lips stroked the shaft of his cock. The stimulation was almost too much.

“Wait…” Henry groaned. He lifted her up to standing then crouched in front of her, lifted her leg over his shoulder so he could lick her snatch. His long, dexterous tongue moved her white thong aside and entered the dewy, pulsating depths of her pussy. He lovingly licked every delicate dark red fold of skin. She leaned against the concrete wall and swiveled her hips against his face, moaning, looked down at him, and ran her fingers through his dark pomade-slick hair. She took off his black framed glasses so she could gaze into his sweet puppy dog eyes. He pulled on the small strip of hair that remained of the patch on her mound while he suckled her clit. Her juices started running down his big chin.

Henry stood up and kissed Lori again, she sucked her sex juices off of his face. His strong hands massaged her ass.

“Can I fuck you?” Henry asked in a husky whisper against her neck.

“Nah. You should be getting to that meeting now… It is a workday after all, Mr. O’Connor.” Lori told him. She pinched his cheek and flitted down the stairs singing “Somebody To Love” by Queen, starting on the high note.

“Can anybody find me somebody to love…” Echoed up the stairwell after her. Henry stood there in a daze of an emotional melange. He wedged his hard dick back in his jeans and zipped up carefully. Ben burst through the stairwell door.

“Henry! There you are! Man, we’ve been looking all over for you! Dude… You smell like pussy!”

“I know…” Henry growled.

To be continued 9/28/18

Chapter Seven

October 2005

“Well, I’m glad you’re not in blackface.” Jade said. She was wearing Minnie Mouse ears with regular clothes.

“Do you think people will know who I am?” Jess shuffled along in pink terrycloth slides as they made their way to the costume party.

“I’m not sure if anyone’s seen that movie.”

“But it’s a classic!”

“People may think you’re like a… cool, retro waitress?”

“It took me three hours to style this wig! If at least one person recognizes the character, I’ll be happy.”

“Hey, is that Mia?” Jade indicated the scruffy punk girl shuffling slowly past the student center towards the security office.

“Yeah! I haven’t seen her in forever! Hey, Mia!” Jess made a brisk shuffle up to Mia, who seemed startled by her approach.

“I’ll meet ya in there, Tom’s waiting for me by the punch bowl.” Jade said, checking her phone.

“Later! So, how ya been? I haven’t seen you since our last puppet show!” Jess’s exuberance was met with a trepidation that immediately dampened her spirits. Mia’s wide brown eyes were full of fear and shock. Her blonde dreadlocks were starting to grow together and her thrift store ensemble appeared to be several days old. The over-sized gray sweatshirt she wore had stains all over the front and her ripped jeans were falling off of her bony hips. Her decaying green converse were untied. Jess had a flashback to Martha cornering a chipmunk underneath the slide attached to the swing set in the backyard.

“I stopped going to class a while ago…” Mia’s whisper was hollow and ominous. Jess didn’t need to ask if something bad happened.

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

“Do you want to talk ab…”

“I was date raped.”

“Oh my god… I’m so sorry, Mia.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Can I hug you?”

“Yes.” Mia said, bursting into tears. Jess gave her a hug and didn’t let go until Mia did.

“Are you going to report it?”

“Yeah, I’m headed there now.”

“Okay, do you want me to go with you?”

“No, I have to go alone.”

“Okay… You’re doing the right thing.”

“I know… Have fun at the party.”

“Thanks, kid… Hang in there.”

“Thanks… Great Aretha Franklin costume, by the way…”

***

The words to “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane were ingrained on Jess’s soul, but starting to blur on the karaoke screen in front of her. The basement bar in Alexandria, Virginia was packed with Thursday night drunks in various states of inebriation. They ignored her timid, off-tempo start, so Jess closed her eyes and thought of the first time she heard the song. Searching Grandma’s dusty LP’s, she was intrigued by the album title “Surrealistic Pillow”, which seemed purloined from a Salvador Dali wet dream. The invigorating crescendo of the rhythm made her heart beat in sync with Grace Slick’s powerful voice. Jess felt the change in the song coming and belted the last few lines.

“When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,

And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low…

Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know…

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead,

And the white knight is talking backwards,

And the red queen’s off with her head,

Remember what the dormouse said:

Feed your head, feed your head!”

Jess opened her eyes to the entire bar staring at her. For a split second, she thought she had done a terrible job. They all burst into applause. Jess was overwhelmed as she stumbled back to the bar where her friend Linsey was waiting, holding two shots of whiskey up in celebration. Linsey had long light brown hair, big bright blue eyes and wide cupid’s bow lips that were always painted dark red and never far from the rim of a glass. She wore a black and white polka dot swing dress that hugged her buxom curves and hid her alcohol-related belly bloat. Her low-heeled sandals were hooked on the lowest rung of the bar stool.

“BITCH! THAT WAS AMAZING!” Linsey yelled at Jess over the crowd, who sat on the stool next to her and could have heard her at a normal speaking volume. Linsey knocked back both shots at the same time. Jess took the coaster off of her rum and coke, stirring what was left of the ice with a tiny red straw.

“Thanks, I haven’t done karaoke in forever.” Jess took a sip of her drink and tried not to make a face. Thursday was her night off. She was wearing a loose black skirt and a black t-shirt. She would pair any outfit with her beloved black converse, especially if she felt obligated to drink alcohol. Black and white striped knee socks covered up her weeks-unshaven calves. Her red hair was pulled into two tight braids that merged into one braid at the nape of her neck.

“Well, it was about time! God damn, you are so fuckin’ talented, I could shit and puke at the same time!” Linsey slurred while trying to catch the eye of the bartender, who appeared to be avoiding her.

“That’s… a complement?” Jess said, temporarily forgetting to use an adjective. Her alcohol tolerance was below zero and half a rum and coke was starting to make her feel queasy.

“I tell ya, ya have to send that story to Henry O’Connor. It’s so good I’ve been coming to it all week!” Linsey picked up Jess’s drink, mistaking it for hers. Jess let it go.

“Shhh! I told you that’s top secret!” Jess admitted while Linsey chugged her drink.

“Shmop Smecret, my ass! Then why are you posting it online?” Linsey tipped her drink with a knowing eyebrow and spilled some of it on Jess’s knee.

“I… I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t creep him out.”

“Pssht! If by ‘creeped out’ you mean he’ll pop a big boner! Bwahaha!” Linsey’s laugh at her own attempt at a joke was cut short by a scathing look of drunken recognition shot across the room. She let out a long, dramatic gasp. “There’s Vlad… Ugh. If that Bulgarian fuckhead thinks he can ghost me, he’s got another thing comin’!” Linsey adjusted her bra as she stood up from the bar stool, almost falling over like a newborn baby deer. Jess caught her hand, made sure she was steady before she clicked her tiny heels across the concrete floor in what she probably thought was a sexy saunter. Linsey started speaking broken Dutch to an angry looking European man with thick black eyebrows.

“Hey, Kid. How’s it hanging?” The bartender said to Jess.

“Hey Nick, it’s fine.” Jess said, accepting the club soda and lime he put in front of her.

“How’s your mom? Still touring?”

“Yep, twelve more cities, then the festival in Nashville. They should be coming through before the end of the summer.”

“Sounds great, let her know she’s got the Tuesday spot if she wants to do an acoustic set.” Nick left Jess sitting alone to satiate the drunks giving him the stink eye at the other end of the bar. Jess looked around at the basement full of sloshed bar dwellers, glad she felt invisible to them. She started feeling around her bra for the joint she planned on smoking in the alley behind the dumpster as soon as Linsey said they could leave.

“That god damned gorilla doesn’t know what a good thing he’s missing!” Linsey said, walking up to the bar and stealing Jess’s club soda. “Ew, what is this?!”

“Vodka tonic.” Jess lied.

“Oh.” Linsey said, drinking the whole thing down and letting out a loud belch. “I hate men.”

“Me too… Well, I like one of them…”

“I like you…” Linsey said, her glassy blue eyes sinking into a seductive expression. She leaned in and started kissing Jess. Starved for physical affection, Jess kissed back.

“Wait, this isn’t right…” Jess pulled back from Linsey’s voracious red lips. The taste of alcohol on her breath was ruining it for her.

“You knew this was gonna happen eventually…” Linsey said.  She reached up Jess’s skirt and slipped her fingers underneath her panties, tickling the folds of her labia. Jess grabbed Linsey’s wrist and pulled her hand away from her lap.

“Not in front of people. You’re wasted, we need to get you home, Linds.” Jess touched Linsey’s cheek affectionately.

“Fine! Let’s go then! I’m sick of this fuckin’ place! Who goes to a bar named after a fish anyway?” Linsey stormed out of the bar, Jess followed. Linsey lived in an apartment a few blocks away from the bar. Jess wasn’t sure why Linsey bothered having a trash can since it was always overflowing with bottles and cans. It was an alcoholic wreck, a borderline hoarder’s nest, but at least Linsey had her own place and didn’t live in her grandma’s basement. Jess made sure Linsey got in bed with a glass of water on the nightstand. She stayed with her all night, cuddling and making sure Linsey felt loved.

In the morning, Jess woke up first and searched for her glasses. They were nowhere to be found. Linsey eventually woke up and gave Jess a pair of novelty sunglasses with a plastic mustache attached to it as a joke. Jess wore them to Starbucks, where they had lattes and cake pops for breakfast. On the way out, Linsey saw a sandwich board advertising bottomless mimosas in an adjacent bar.

“Oh, that’s just what we need! A little hair of the dog… Wanna come with?” Linsey gave Jess the same seductive gaze as the night before.

“Nah, I have to get home. I’ll check in with you later, okay?”

“Sure.”

“But first, I must-ache you a question… Can I keep these sunglasses?”

“Haha, yeah… Go nuts.”

***

“Henry, what’s this about? Does this have to do with your mom dying last year?” Ben sat next to Henry in the stairwell. Henry had his palms pressed into his eyes.

“No… Yeah, I don’t know, man. I’ve been trying to work all that out in therapy, but then the thing in Vegas kinda threw me through a loop. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I feel…” Henry took his hands off his eyes and stared off into the distance. “I feel like everything I do is wrong. I feel like I don’t deserve to be alive…”

“Oh, shut the fuck up, you idiot!” Ben shouted at Henry, his voice echoing throughout the stairwell. Henry looked up at him, startled by the outburst. “Do you have any fucking CLUE how lucky you are? Some people come back from Vegas with a jackpot, some come back with crabs. You got a golden ticket from the goddamned universe and you’re depressed about it?! You are here. You’re alive. You’re breathing. Being sad about that is like keeping a winning lottery ticket in your back pocket like a moron! Take that shit out and spend it for fucks sake!” Ben jostled Henry’s shoulder while smiling. Henry gave him a half-smile for being right.

“Yeah… I do miss my mom though.” Henry admitted. He tried to block out the grief so that he could function on a daily basis, but the hailstorm of emotion was always on the horizon. His first and most basic need was the comfort of his mother. He could still smell her. The image of her face was so alive in his mind. Her features were so similar to his, her eyes the exact same rich shade of dark brown, it was like looking in a fun house mirror warped by age and gender, still so startlingly real. He didn’t want to remember her withered by chemotherapy.

“Me too, man. Hey, remember the time I borrowed all her underwear for that “granny panties” sketch in college?” Ben playfully elbowed Henry in the ribs. Henry made an amused grunt at the memory.

“Yup, then she chased you around the house with a can of Pledge.”

“I was lucky she was out of Raid!” They both laughed out loud. “Okay, Henry. Get your ass up, we need to get you to that meeting!”

“Fine! Ugh. I’ll get up and be an adult.” Henry sighed.

“Atta boy…”

To be continued 9/30/18

Chapter Eight

“Jade?” Jess tapped the bathroom door with her fingernails. Her wig was sweaty and askew from dancing all night. Jade opened the door, revealing a tear-streaked face with a black bruise underneath her right eye.

“No, I’m not okay! I’m getting arrested!” Jade roared, throwing lipstick in her canvas purse with unmitigated fury.

“What?! Why?!”

“I was drunk and I told Tom to punch me to see if I could feel it and he did! So I pepper sprayed him! Now campus security says they’re taking us both to the cops for assault! I FUCKING HATE MEN!” Jade’s blue eyes were dilated, tiny pinhole pupils darting around the room as she searched for her wallet.

“Wow…” Jess took off her wig and ran her fingers through her matted red hair.

“WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WALLET?! They said I needed my ID!” Her voice raised to a high pitch at the end of the sentence. Jade collapsed to the floor, sobbing. Jess glanced around the room, saw Jade’s “Little Mermaid” wallet sitting on top of her copy of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” on the bookshelf next to the bunk beds. She sat cross-legged on the floor next to Jade and handed her the wallet. Jade took the wallet and continued to sob. Jess patted her shoulder. She took off the Minnie Mouse ears.

***

The conference room at Coyote Studios was a rectangular box with a projection screen at one end and a glass wall at the other. The long, gray conference table was flanked by executives in dark, expensive suits. Emmy and Ben sat at one end near the glass wall, Henry stood behind a podium next to the screen. He buttoned a black suit jacket over his white shirt, which was tucked into his jeans. Henry clicked a tiny black remote to bring up a slide with “American Family’s” logo and the caption “Season 12… And Beyond!”. He cleared his throat.

“Ladies and Gentlemen” Henry started, clicking through slides of stills and charts. “For over a decade, ‘American Family’ has been breaking the rules of television with acerbic comedy that challenges the status quo. Our rabid fan base demanded return from cancellation twice and we revved up the innovative commentary in response. As networks are losing viewership to streaming services, ‘American Family’ is finding new audiences among binge-watching demographics. The 18-35 age group loops all eleven seasons on a 24 hour basis in addition to feeding nightly syndication ratings. The Coyote Network has gained over a billion dollars in revenue due to taking a chance on a big-dreaming kid from Connecticut. This guy right here…”

Henry got to a slide of himself sitting in a director’s chair at 26-years-old, when “American Family” debuted. His hair was slicked down in a 90’s boy-band Caesar cut, he wore a white button-down shirt with short sleeves and round wire-framed glasses. A hopeful goatee did not make his baby face look older, as he thought. His expression was that of a dog being told he’s a good boy, a grateful smile rounding his cheeks and earnest adoration lighting up his big brown happy puppy eyes.

“Ugh. Look at that haircut! No wonder you just wanted me to do the voices, huh?” A soft chuckle rippled across the conference room. Emmy clasped her hands under her chin and smiled at the warm memory. Ben gave Henry an encouraging thumbs up. On the other side of the glass wall, You Know Who walked by. She was wearing a light blue mini dress with three-quarter sleeves and a black collar around a plunging sweetheart neckline. Black gogo boots and a dark pixie cut completed this not-too-subtle cosplay. She stopped in the middle and gave Henry a Vulcan salute. He shook his head and smiled.

“So, the question remains, where to we go from here? On the cusp of our 200th episode, we have a multitude of paths on which to take the brand. In order to keep this revolutionary momentum going, we are going to have to go outside the realm of generic animated sitcoms and explore new territory within the genre. The ‘American Family’ team has proven that a rebellious attitude coupled with creative freedom can generate countless hours of superb content. Our head writer, Emmy Goldsmith has been steering this ship towards success with a brutally honest predilection for guidance and a keen eye for talent.” Emmy’s cheeks flushed as she smiled, embarrassed by the complement. The sexy Vulcan on the other side of the glass blew Henry a kiss.

“And her wife makes a kick ass rugelach if you’re interested.” Henry loved reminding the conservative network that signed his checks of the queer influence on his show. “My partner in crime, Ben Foster has collaborated on some of our most highly rated story lines and used his genius improvisation technique to develop characters who have made a significant impact on pop culture.” Ben leaned back in his chair with a pleased look on his face. The sexy Vulcan breathed on the glass and drew a Saturn shape in the fog.

“Which is why… I’m quitting the show.” Henry smiled, satisfied in the beat before the uproar throughout the conference room. Emmy and Ben looked at each other, confused. This was news to them.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Shouted one executive.

“You’re under contract!” Yelled another.

“We’ll sue!”

“You’ll never work in this town again, O’Connor!”

“OUTRAGE!” Bellowed one particularly red-faced, balding executive in a black pin-striped three-piece suit.

“Simmer down, teapots.” Henry held up his hands to quell the chatter. “Here’s the thing… The name ‘Henry O’Connor’ is just a logo. I created the show, my name stays above it. You have a team capable of some astounding creative feats, you don’t need me! ‘American Family’ will continue to break ground as the normalcy-defying, pop-culture eviscerating, politically provoking, genre-challenging, wondrously wacky cartoon it’s always been. In fact, we have a chance to make it better by allowing these new creative minds to take the reigns.”

“Look, Henry…” Condescended an executive with thick, steely salt-and-pepper hair and a gray pin-striped three-piece suit. “I hate to break it to you, but in this industry, you’re middle-aged as fuck. People don’t just up and change careers at the height of the show’s popularity. What else could you possibly do besides this?”

“I have an idea for that, actually…” Henry grinned and looked around the room, everyone leaned towards him in anticipation. The sexy Vulcan pressed her tits against the glass and left a red kiss mark. “We’re bringing back ‘The Universe’…” His low, rumbling voice carried over the room, which was taken aback at the suggestion.

“That show from the 70’s?”

“Isn’t it a documentary?”

“It’s a space opera!”

“Like the Jetsons?”

“Kinda…” Henry continued. “I had lunch with astrophysicist Carl Sinclair-Tyler a few weeks ago and he expressed interest in hosting a revival of the classic space-themed docu-series, which will be updated with state-of-the-art animation and the latest data derived from NASA satellites. Market research shows an up-tick in search engine results for deep space exploration. We will delve into the possibilities of the future based on cutting edge research into theories of the past…”

Henry clicked through several slides of gorgeous deep space concept art, animated historical dramatizations and the popular internet scientist exploring distant galaxies on a stylistically beautiful spaceship. The entire room was impressed. The sexy Vulcan pretended to drop something, bent over so Henry got a face full of her cheeks, which she pressed against the glass. He was glad for the podium.

“Ahem… What we’re creating here is like walking on the fuckin’ moon. It’s never been done before. We have a chance to create a series that educates as well as entertains with top of the line technology and the most talented artists working together to create something… that means something. Something…” The sexy Vulcan gazed at Henry from the other side of the glass, her green eyes full of lusty pride…

“Beautiful…” Henry concluded. The executives let out a smattering of applause and dispersed. The sexy Vulcan was gone…

***

Jess drove Grandma’s 1994 Toyota Camry north along I-95 with Grandma in the passenger seat, Peppy shaking like a fuzzy little leaf on her lap. Grandma peered over her glasses at the screen on Jess’s phone.

“Just press the button on the side, type in 1-9-9-4 and press the little chat icon that looks like a cartoon speech bubble.” Jess tried to watch the road while instructing Grandma on how to read a text aloud to her. It was pouring rain.

“Okay, here we go…” Grandma started deciphering the phone like a cryptex. “One… Nine… Nine… Four. There we are! And now the little cartoon bubble thingy… Okay, I got it! Leena says ‘K’… Just the letter ‘K’? Since when did we forget how to talk to each other?”

“Oh…” Jess was disappointed.

“Were you expecting someone else?” Grandma asked, intrigued.

“Yeah, just my friend Linsey. I haven’t heard from her in a while.” Jess turned up the defroster.

“Just a friend?” Grandma pressed.

“Yes, Grandma.”

“You know I love you no matter what, right?” Grandma’s arthritic hand patted Jess’s shoulder.

“I know, it’s not like that. I’m just worried about her. Besides, I like someone else…”

“Why haven’t I met this person?” Grandma pushed Jess’s shoulder playfully.

“He… uh… Works a lot. But he’s doing some really amazing things…” Jess smiled to herself. Grandma allowed this annoying vagueness for now.

“Well, any man or woman would be lucky to have you, my beautiful grandbaby…”

“Thanks, Grandma.”

***

Jess’s cousin Leena was sitting outside of the hospital smoking a menthol cigarette. Leena was Korean, adopted by Grandma’s only sister Rita. Her straight black hair was pulled back in a disheveled bun, her sharp, pretty Asian eyes were the epitome of weariness and her fingernails were chewed down to nubs. Her arms and legs were covered in ornate tattoos that drew sneers from older Koreans, which she relished in defiant glee. That rebellious spirit was nowhere to be found today. Leena was about ten years older than Jess, but being a spoiled only child made her kind of a nightmare in a crisis.

“Jess! Thank GAWD you’re here! Can you talk to these people for me? For fucks sake, I can’t get them to give me a straight answer, it’s all just nonsense, I can’t take this anymore!” Leena screamed as Jess approached, slowly guiding Grandma by the hand while Peppy shuffled along on a pink leash. Jess corralled Leena into a one-armed hug.

“Good to see you too. How is she?”

“She’s dead!” Leena sobbed.

“What!?” Jess shouted. Then she heard a sound that made her think someone stepped on Peppy. It was Grandma. Her sobs were like someone kicking a puppy over and over again. Jess heard her make that sound the night she moved into Grandma’s house over a decade ago, the night Pop died. There was no worse sound in existence.

Peppy chose that moment to pinch a tiny poop on the sidewalk.

***

Irish funerals were known for being incredibly cathartic. The soaring folk music, heartfelt eulogies and vast legions of cousins awash in a sea of whiskey were designed for expelling grief. Since they were half Jewish, Jess’s family funerals lasted for eight days. Leena and Jess were in the third day of sitting Shiva for Aunt Rita in a bar called “The Tempest” in midtown Manhattan. Jess’s pale cheeks were bright red, cowlicks stuck out of her carefully pomaded braids and her new wire-rimmed frames were askew. Her black t-shirt and black leggings had mac and cheese stains and hung loose from two-day wear. Her black converse were hooked on the lowest rung of the bar stool to keep her from falling off the Earth. She pushed a shot of whiskey back towards Leena.

“No! No more shots for Jessica…” Jess put her head in her arms and tried to will the room to stop spinning.

“Pussy.” Leena said, knocking the shot back for herself. Leena was dressed in a flowy, off-the-shoulder black dress that showed off her tattoos. Her face was as red as Jess’s, but she had more practice maintaining her composure while wasted. Her shiny jet black hair was twisted up in a bun with wisps escaping around her temples. She had a large gold watch on her right wrist.

“I told ya I don’t drink, damnit!” Jess slurred. This policy had changed in the past few days, which were one long nauseous blur.

“You’ll drink to celebrate my mother’s life, ya silly cooze! Here!” Leena put another shot in front of Jess and lifted up a toast. Leena turned toward the crowd in the bar and cleared her throat. “Attention everyone! Let’s all have a drink for Mama, the greatest woman who ever lived! She adopted me from Korea and gave me this beautiful life in this city I love! She could be the sweetest, most loving, caring mama you ever met or she could be a royal cunt! She embodied the dichotomous nature of a powerful Gemini in Venus rising, an Irish Jew Warrior Priestess for the ages! The world will never be the same without her! To Mama! Cheers!” She knocked back the shot and took a bow. The handful of bar patrons applauded politely. Jess wondered how long she could keep her head buried in her arms on the bar without people thinking she was passed out. It felt so good to close her eyes.

“Gurl, you gotta wake up!” Leena pushed Jess’s shoulder, jostling her awake. “That story you sent me was pretty good. You should turn it into something I can send to my boss. Publishing isn’t as scary as you think…”

“Shhh! I told you it’s embarrassing. I don’t want people to know about it.”

“Oh, bullshit! I don’t buy that for one second, missy! Why the hell are you writing it if you don’t want anyone to read it?” Leena’s charm school posture held her in a rigid, cross-legged position on the bar stool that juxtaposed Jess’s drunken slump.

“I don’t know…”

“Yes you do.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Yuh huh!”

“Nuh-uh!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake! How old are we? Spit it out, Jess! Why are you writing this story?!”

“Because I want to make him better!” Jess locked a desperate stare on Leena’s whiskey-ruddy face, shocked by her own admission. The floodgates were open. Tears started flowing down her red cheeks. “No one seems to appreciate how awesome Henry is. I want him to remake ‘The Universe’, I want him to feel like an artist, I want him to feel LOVED! Why does that make me feel like such a creep?!”

“Jessie… Is it possible that you want those things for yourself?” Leena’s acute stare seemed to peer into Jess’s soul.

“Yes…” Jess felt slightly more sober, still just as nauseated.

“And he is remaking ‘The Universe’, haven’t you heard?” Leena pulled up an article on her smartphone, showing the real Henry O’Connor sitting with astrophysicist Carl Sinclair-Tyler, discussing the revival of the series.

“What the fuck?” Jess took the phone and scrolled through the article, her drunken eyes softened and she smiled for the first time in a while. “How did he… I wrote that in my story and now he’s really doing it? Do you think he could be reading it?”

“Meh. Anything’s possible.” Leena took her phone back and checked her hair in the selfie camera.

“True dat…” Responded Jess while rubbing her eyes.

To Be Continued 10/1/18

 

Chapter Nine

Henry took off his headphones in the recording booth, breathing heavy, awash in endorphins as if he just ran a marathon. Eight hours of allowing the characters to use him as a puppet was the equivalent of taking a Siberian husky for a run. It had to be done. At the end of his voice over day, Henry felt elated and spent, hungry for red meat and ready for a good night’s sleep. His throat was sore, but he felt… unwound. The intricate circuits that carried neurological impulses in his brain felt untangled, like a string of Christmas lights ready for the tree.

“Good stuff, Henry…” Emmy handed Henry a cold bottle of water as he closed the recording booth door behind him. “That was a little… Intense. Are you doing okay?” Her hazel eyes held a wary look over her tortoise shell glasses. Henry smiled at her and shook his head.

“I’m… doing a lot better, yeah. Feels good to get back in the swing of things.” Henry drank about half the bottle of water and wiped his brow sweat on his arm hair. He followed Emmy down the hallway to the parking garage.

“How’s the new show coming along?” Emmy held the door open for Henry.

“It’s amazing! It’s the most beautiful thing we’ve ever done…” There was a far-off look of happiness behind Henry’s dark eyes. Emmy poked him in the chest with her large, man-ish finger, the pointy red nail sharp against his sternum.

“The most beautiful thing YOU have ever done. You, Henry. You’re doing a good job.” She gave him a stern look full of love. Henry melted back to reality, a warm smile grew on his face. “Now gimme a hug, ya big galoot!” Hugging Emmy was like hugging a bear… it was gonna happen. Henry tried not to pop a boner as Emmy wrapped him in her big, beefy arms, his face pressed against her pendulous pillowy tits. He inhaled her smell, which reminded him of his mother. There wasn’t enough therapy on Earth to figure that one out.

A green Lexus SUV was waiting for Emmy, driven by Allie, her short, round motherly wife with an identical black bob haircut.  Three dark-haired children piled out of the car and made a bee-line for Henry. Marty was the youngest, the brains of the operation, a six-year-old terror in jean short overalls. Rudy was the nervous eight-year-old middle-kid in a Mario t-shirt. Ten-year-old Judy had a short haircut, green plastic framed glasses and personalized sharpie drawings on her jeans. The kids piled on Henry like a pack of wild puppies, pulling him to the ground with overwhelming affection. He laughed as they demanded cartoon voices, getting dirt on his jeans and dark blue polo shirt.

“Okay, what voices!?” Henry shouted as they tickled him.

“Can you try Yoda?” Rudy asked.

“Do or do not, there is no try…” Yoda croaked through Henry. The kids erupted in giggle fits.

“Do the plant from ‘Little Shop of Horrors!'” Judy gleefully shouted.

“Feed me!” Henry set them off into a giggle storm again.

“Optimus Prime! Optimus Prime!” Marty demanded, tugging on Henry’s collar. Henry put his hand over his nose and upper lip to create a muffled robot-effect.

“Autobots, roll out!” Henry laughed at Marty’s shriek of laughter, which was more like a battle cry.

“KIDS! WE DO NOT JUMP ON PEOPLE WITHOUT ASKING!” Allie demanded, standing next to the car with her fists on her round hips. Her light purple track suit made it easy for her to bend down and wrestle the the children away from Henry. She was wearing a tan pageboy cap over her chestnut hair. “Ugh. Sorry Henry, they’re being rambunctious because we had to limit the iPad time this week, didn’t we?”

“I tried to sell my goldfish on eBay.” Marty admitted, unprovoked.

“I told ya that wasn’t gonna work.” Rudy responded, twitchy from technology withdrawals.

“He wouldn’t do any tricks!” Marty said as if that was the obvious reason.

“I still think it was a she!” Judy said with her arms crossed over her Sailor Moon t-shirt.

“You tell em, kid.” Henry smiled and ruffled Judy’s hair. She smiled and tried to mimic Henry’s posture as they sat on the ground.

“Regardless! A break from screens is a good thing.” Emmy said, corralling the kids back in the SUV. “Come on, you animals! Get back in the car, we gotta get to Judy’s piano lessons and Marty’s ballet class.”

“I like wearing tights.” Marty said, giving Henry a defiant smile before hopping back in his booster seat. Allie helped Henry up from the ground and brushed him off.

“Besides being attacked by our unruly progeny… how have you been, Henry? Are you eating enough? Your face looks thin.” Allie grabbed Henry’s chin and turned his face side-to-side.

“I’m okay, I’m gonna go eat something now, thanks…” Henry took Allie’s tiny hand and squeezed it lightly. Emmy was the voice of Angela Foster, but Allie was the inspiration. Angela was drawn as a caricature of her, a voluptuous cartoon version of the plump little woman who looked up at him with big, concerned brown eyes.

“You have to come over for dinner again sometime soon, no excuses! Now that Em’s taking over the cartoon, you can find the time. I’ll make a brisket!” Emmy honked the horn twice. “Take care, Henry!” The kids waved from the backseat as the SUV drove away. Henry got in his light blue 1957 Chevy Bel Air and took a few deep breaths, smiling to himself.

“Hi Henry…” Said a sultry voice in the backseat.

“GAH!” Henry screamed in surprise. He looked back to see Lucy or Lillian or Lori or whoever, lounging in the backseat with a picnic basket. She was wearing a flowy white linen dress and a light blue cardigan that matched the car. Her hair was blonde again, up in a ponytail tied with a red ribbon.  “Oh great, you again…”

“That’s a good way to start talking yourself out of dessert…” She sassed back. She tossed a pair of leather sandals up into the front and hopped into the passenger seat.

“So who are you this time?”

“I’m Laurie, silly!”

“I thought you were already Lori.”

“No, LAUrie. Totally different name.” Laurie stated. She sat cross-legged and barefoot in the seat next to him, her eyes sparkling in anticipation of some random adventure. Henry looked her up and down, decided to just go with it.

“All right then. Whatever you say, Miss Laurie… Where are we going?” Henry put the key in the ignition and revved up the vintage engine. Laurie pulled the picnic basket from the backseat and held it up.

“Well, we’re not going into outer space…” She grinned and put on white framed vintage cat-eye sunglasses.

“Yet…” Henry smiled back.

***

Jess couldn’t stop eating. The hangover trying to crush her skull into oblivion was demanding sacrifices of mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, Monterrey jack cheeseburgers, redskin German potato salad, green bean salad, BBQ Pringles, chocolate chip cookies, baked mac and cheese, ambrosia salad, six mini quiches and half a raspberry pound cake. The cooler underneath the folding table set up in Grandma’s backyard was full of light beer and hard lemonade. Jess was on her third lemonade.

Cousins of varying ages were running up and down the slope to the woods in Grandma’s backyard. Momma had set up a slip n’ slide and she was making joyous belly-slides down the hill with the kids in a one-piece black swimsuit. Momma looked exactly like Jess, just 20 years older with big fake boobs.  Pink and blue streamers were attached to the patio furniture with matching balloons. Grandma sat in the shade with an electric hand fan cooling her off in the July heat.

She was happy Grandma made it to 80-years-old, but Jess’s drinking binge didn’t end after Aunt Rita’s funeral. Her face was puffy and covered in sugar blemishes. She looked swollen with 15 pounds of water weight she didn’t even notice. The same black leggings, black tank top and gray hoodie were her everyday outfit and she was always hungry, even when she was eating. It didn’t matter what she was eating, she couldn’t taste it anyway. Linsey never texted her back. She didn’t want to think about the rambling emotional messages she sent her, desperately asking what she did wrong. Jess didn’t expect to hear from her ever again after that.

“Jess, do you have anymore of these plastic bags?” Jess’s cousin Jill asked from the other side of the screen door, holding an empty box of sandwich bags. Jill was a year older than Jess, she was a few inches taller and had Disney princess features. Her big brown eyes and cute cheeks gave her the appearance of a happy chipmunk. She wore cut-off jean shorts and had a purple abaya wrapped around her long, brown hair. Her three kids were each a different race.

“I think there’s more under the sink.” Jess told her while eating a hot dog.

“You’re not supposed to keep food stuff under the sink.” Jill said, then disappeared back in the kitchen. Jess rolled her eyes.

“What do you need them for?” Jess yelled over her shoulder.

“I’m taking food to Mohammed when he gets off work.” Jill said from the kitchen.

“Oh, okay… Wait, who’s dad is he again?”

“Abu’s!”

“The little one, right?”

“Duh!”

“Jess, are you coming to play with the kids or what?!” Momma yelled from the bottom of the hill.

“I can’t find my bathing suit!”

“You can borrow one of mine!”

“I’m good! I swear! I’m fine… I need to lie down.” Jess threw her paper plate in the trash and her empty lemonade bottle in the recycling. The blessed coolness of the basement put her at ease. She closed the blinds and flopped on the futon. The distant sounds of her family playing in the sunshine made her put a pillow over her head.

***

“At Last” by Ella Fitzgerald played on the vintage radio as they drove along to Laurie’s secret destination. Henry was barely paying attention to where they were going as he listened to her chatter about dreams and explain entire movies he pretended he never saw. He had a hard time watching the road when all he wanted to do was look at her tanned legs stretched out in front of her, bare feet up on the dash.

“And then the guy who was trying to capture her for the whole movie ends up helping them set her free!” Laurie explained, grinning as she stared off into the distance, watching the movie in her imagination.

“Wow, really? Even though he was getting injured the whole time?” Henry feigned ignorance in a charming manner.

“Yeah and he keeps saying ‘What a week I’m having!’ Haha, kinda like a catchphrase.”

“Funny…” Henry smiled at her, full of adoration, twitching with desire.

“I can’t believe you’ve never seen ‘Splash’!” Her green eyes shot a skeptical glance over her sunglasses. Her smile said she understood that he just wanted to hear her explain it. “Take a left up here, on the dirt road.” The dirt road ended in a willow-tree lined pond with koi bubbles popping between the lily pads on the surface. A small waterfall trickled near a huge old weeping willow trailing branches into the pond. “We’re here!” She squealed, hopping out of the car with the picnic basket. Henry stood by the car and watched her pick a perfect spot on the soft green grass next to the water and spread out a white and red checked blanket.

“Wow, you really went all out, huh?” Henry walked up as she kicked off her sandals and arranged her skirt underneath her.

“Wait till you taste the food…” Laurie looked up at him and licked her sexy pink lips. She opened the picnic basket and Henry’s mouth started watering. Roast beef sandwiches on fresh sourdough bread with spicy mustard, dill pickles, white cheddar, romaine lettuce and thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes. Herb roasted red skin potatoes. Cucumber salad. Fresh strawberries and cool whip for dessert… Laurie even pulled out a big bottle of sparkling water and a magnum of champagne. Henry fell to his knees on the blanket in front of Laurie, marveling at all the delicious food in front of him and the beautiful woman serving it. He caressed her cheeks and kissed her softly.

“Thank you. This is amazing…” He said, his dark eyes absorbing all the love her green eyes exuded.

“Well, let’s eat before the ants do!” Laurie handed him a sandwich and watched with her hands clasped under her chin as he took a big bite. The roast beef was fresh and juicy, the romaine gave a satisfying crunch and the tangy sourdough flavor of the bread complemented the other ingredients to a mouthwatering degree. Henry let out a long groan of pleasure.

“Fuck, that’s good.” He growled through a mouthful of sandwich. Laurie picked up a sandwich and started eating. Watching her mouth take a big bite, her jaw working as she chewed and her eyes roll back in her head as she was overwhelmed by the deliciousness of the sandwich… made Henry’s mouth water more. There were plates and utensils in the basket, but no glasses, so they passed the sparkling water and champagne between them, drinking right from the bottle. He loved watching her throat move up and down as she swallowed. Laurie giggled through her nose when she caught him staring at her.

“I don’t know what you like more, eating the food or watching me eat, haha!”

“Can’t it be both?” Henry laughed, his head starting to feel fuzzy from the half a bottle of champagne they just drank.

“I suppose it could…” Laurie said, putting a small red strawberry to her lips. Henry wiped his face on a red and white checkered napkin and kissed her with the strawberry between their lips. Their tongues played with the gritty texture of the berry, intensely sweet and tart, salavacious to the max… Laurie pulled Henry down on top of her as they continued to kiss. He ran his hand down the side of her body, grabbed a handful of her ass as he kissed her neck, leaving a trail of red strawberry juice stains that he licked up with his long tongue. She giggled and picked up the champagne bottle, tried to drink some and ended up spilling it down her chin and in her cleavage. Henry lapped up the bubbly like a thirsty dog. Her white dress was getting stained, so he started to unbutton the front of it. They were in a remote location, no people around…

“I have an idea…” Henry said with a wicked smile. He picked up the champagne bottle and a strawberry. Laurie lounged on the blanket in the grass with Henry’s head underneath her skirt, a dreamy smile spread across her face. His head popped up, his chin stained red from all the strawberries.

“I’m so glad you didn’t bring any glasses…” Henry said before diving back under for seconds. He poured a trickle of the champagne on the head of her clit, put a strawberry inside her damp, pulsating pussy.

“Don’t forget the cool wHip!” Laurie said, handing him a spray can of whipped topping.

“What?” Said Henry, confused.

“I said, don’t forget the cool wHip!” Laurie’s grin was delightful.

“I mean, why are you… Ya know what, fuck it, it’s fine!” Henry sprayed a big dollop of cool wHip on Laurie’s pussy sundae and dove between her legs again.

***

Jess shivered on the couch in Vlad’s living room. It was dark and unfamiliar, the only light was from the full moon filtered through the window blinds. She was so drunk, her head felt full of battery acid, sloshing around inside her skull, melting her brain matter. Linsey had finally agreed to hang out again, but only with her boyfriend sulking in the shadows the whole time. Jess did her best to keep up with Linsey’s drinking, buying shots for her and Vlad, trying to be a good friend while getting annihilated on rail whiskey. An horrific rendition of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen was met with an embarrassed, pitying glance from Linsey before she turned back to Vlad. Jess didn’t understand why that song didn’t come out of her the way it did in the shower. She took another shot.

Vlad lived in an apartment above the bar and he said Jess could sleep it off on the couch after last call, much to Linsey’s chagrin. The couch was really more of a love seat, much too short to sleep on, even at Jess’s medium stature. They forgot to give her a blanket, so she pulled her hoodie around her as tight as possible, drawing the strings around her face. Vlad’s black cat Vato jumped on Jess’s stomach, making her feel like she was going to throw up again. She ran to the bathroom and puked whiskey and bile into the dirty toilet. After rinsing her mouth with sink water, she stumbled out of the bathroom. The soft sound of sobbing was coming from the bedroom. Jess opened the door. Linsey was crying as Vlad spooned her in bed.

“There, there, Linsey. It vill be all right…” Vlad said in a thick Bulgarian accent. The only thing that was registering for Jess was that her friend was upset. Everything else in her universe was just an aching blur.

“Can I sleep in here?” Jess asked.

“Yes…” said Vlad, his curly black hair and pale, statuesque form silhouetted in the moonlight. Linsey continued to cry, her long brown hair was a disheveled mess, her pretty face was streaked with tears and she wore only a lavender bra and panties set. Jess got in bed with them because it was Vlad’s bed and he said yes. Linsey turned away from Jess and buried her face in Vlad’s chest hair. Jess cuddled up to Linsey, pet her shoulder, tried to comfort her.

“It’s gonna be okay, Linds. For real, like everything will work out fine…” Despite puking, Jess still felt too drunk to form coherent thoughts. She just wanted her friend to feel better. “Is it okay if I touch your boob… platonically? Haha…” Jess hated that phrase as soon as it was out of her mouth.

“I guess?” Linsey said as Vlad stroked her hair. Jess touched her, trying to get some kind of positive response. When she reached between her legs, Linsey sat up in bed.

“Okay, I’m NOT having a threesome with you.” Linsey slurred, then she got up, gathered her clothes and left. Jess and Vlad looked at each other in the darkness.

“Should we still… ah?” Vlad asked.

“Meh… May as well.” Jess responded.

Jess checked her phone when Vlad dropped her off at home the next morning. Linsey sent her a message:

“I can’t believe I was STUPID enough to let you back in my life! Stay the fuck away from me you attempted rapist!”

Jess’s whole world turned upside down. The hangover burning white hot through her brain would not let that last word sink in. Is that what happened? I’m such a piece of shit! She thought. Suicidal thoughts immediately sprang up in her mind. She tried to piece together the circumstances in her mind, none of it made any sense, but she felt rotten for hurting her friend. Jess tried to send Linsey a message, ask her what happened, apologize, but Linsey blocked her number. They never spoke again.

***

Henry drove along the dark highway in the Chevy Bel Air, tipsy from the champagne with his hand on Laurie’s knee. She was still wearing her cat-eye sunglasses, a dreamy expression on her face. It was so dark, Henry couldn’t even see where his hand was on her knee. He tried to focus on the blurry white lines on the highway.

“Have you ever been water-skiing?” Laurie asked, scooching closer to him across the soft white leather of the bench seat. The car pre-dated seat belts.

“No, why?” Henry asked. Laurie put her hand on his knee.

“How about archery? Ever tried that?” Laurie’s hand inched up Henry’s thigh towards the tent in his pants.

“Not really…” Henry said, giving her a half-smile and a side-glance that made the car swerve slightly. He used every ounce of his will to focus on the road ahead.

“Baseball? Ever tried Baseball?” Laurie’s hand reached Henry’s crotch and massaged his hard dick through his pants. Henry made a soft grunt of pleasure.

“Yeah… Who hasn’t? Why?” Henry asked, hands gripping the steering wheel.

“These things require an incredible amount of… focus…” Laurie unzipped Henry’s pants and reached inside. “And control…” Laurie took out a small pink remote control with one button on it. “Hey, would you hang on to this for me? Just keep pressing the button over and over.” She handed the remote to Henry.

“Oh… Yeah, sure. What does it do?” He asked as her hand found the hole in his boxers.

“You’ll find out soon…” Laurie said. Her hand was stroking his hard dick, which was outside of his pants. She picked up the half-empty bottle of sparkling water and chugged it, letting out a satisfied “Ahhh…” and a loud belch. Henry laughed. Laurie put her sunglasses on her head before it went into his lap.

“Oh my god… I’m so close to coming…” Henry said, pressing her button over and over. Laurie moaned with his dick in her mouth. She didn’t use her hands at all. “Oh god!” he groaned as he came in her mouth. She sucked all of his juices up. Laurie leaned her head back on the seat and he watched her throat move up and down in the rear view mirror. “That… Was… AWESOME!” Henry said, using one hand to put his dick back in his pants.

“Mmm… Tasted that way…” Laurie said with a wink and a smile.

“Now can you tell me what this thing is for?” Henry asked, amused.

“Oh, I can show you!” Laurie said like it was a magic trick. She reached between her legs and pulled out a small pink vibrator, releasing a small puff of a queef. The vibrator buzzed when Henry pressed the button. Henry threw his head back and laughed as she held up the vibrator, smiling like it was a fish she just caught. Laurie gasped.

“Look out!” She shouted, pointing at a small white rabbit in the middle of the road. Henry gasped, tried to swerve, the car spun-out on the dark highway…

To be continued… 10/1/18

Chapter Ten

“Is this a dream?” Jess asked. It was early morning and the train station lobby was empty. A thick fog obscured the world outside so she couldn’t even see the Masonic temple across the street. They were sitting on a wooden bench underneath black metal letters fused to the wall that spelled out “Colored Entrance”. A black arrow pointed to the left.

“Isn’t everything?” Henry replied. He was wearing the royal blue suit from Las Vegas, much too put-together for the early hour. Jess was wearing the same gray hoodie and black leggings from the basement futon. Her converse were planted on the black and white tile floor, her elbows on her knees as she stared out into the fog. Henry tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. The waves created by her tight braids made it flow down the side of her face like a red waterfall.

“I don’t even know anymore.” Jess whispered. She rubbed her eyes. Henry mimicked her posture.

“Me too.” Henry patted her shoulder. “All I know is I know nothing.”

“Don’t quote Socrates to me.” Jess looked at his sweet, concerned face and her heart melted as always. She gave him a half-smile. “I have no fucking clue where to go from here and I’m terrified. I wish…” Henry froze, hopefully expectant. “You were here… I wish I could talk to the real you and figure all this out.”

“Who says I’m not real?” Henry asked, offering up his empty hands.

“Nobody. I’m nobody too.” Jess drew her feet up on the bench and wrapped her arms around her knees.

“Well, if I’m not real then that makes three of us?” Henry said, hoping for a smile. Jess gave him a look of painful longing.

“Your name is something. Your voice is real. Your art means something… to me. All I have is this story everyone’s pretending not to read.” Jess rested her chin on her knee as she stared into the fog.

“Well, you are giving it away for free.” Henry reminded.

“I don’t know how to get people to pay for it. The system is full of catch 22’s. I have to keep writing regardless of how much it’s killing me. I don’t know if it’s going to make anything better, but I’m trying…” Jess leaned closer to him without noticing.

“There is no try…” Henry said in his own voice. Jess was a little sad he didn’t say it as Yoda.

“I feel like it’s not happening because I don’t deserve it. I work hard for all the wrong things. I’ve done bad things. I’ve hurt people. I didn’t want to…”

“Are you sure about that?” Henry said, raising a skeptical eyebrow. Jess tried not to look at him. The sight of his face, the close proximity, the sound of his voice so near to her ear… was overwhelming. She loves him so much.

“Yeah… I always feel bad when someone else is hurting, even if I don’t like them.” Jess was defensive.

“Even if they hurt you?” Henry’s gaze was soft, coaxing. Jess gave him a guilty look, turned back to the fog.

“Okay, you’re right… I’ve lashed out at people. But I always feel bad after.”

“Do you feel bad because they’re hurt or because lashing out makes you look bad?”

“Ugh… It’s way too early for this conversation. I haven’t even had any coffee!” Jess rubbed her eyes again. Henry gently touched her wrist and moved her hands away from her face.

“Listen, Jess. It’s very human… and very real… to make mistakes. You don’t think I’ve fucked up occasionally? You’re my biggest fan and even you hate me sometimes.” Henry put an arm around her shoulder. Jess leaned her head against his neck and inhaled his smell, willing her brain to make it real.

“I’ve never hated you for one second. I’ve been angry at you, frustrated with you, disagreed with your choices… But, I love you.” Jess put her arms around him and pulled him close.

“Same here.” Henry kissed the top of her head so he could smell her hair. “Wherever you’re going, you’ll get there when you get there. Just enjoy the ride…” Jess’s green eyes met his molten chocolate eyes. Anger, fear, and intense desire emanated from her being.

“Why does it have to be such a fucking roller coaster?” Hopeless tears rolled down her cheeks. Henry held her tighter, dried her tears with a light blue handkerchief from his pocket.

“I don’t know. It’s chaos… Be kind to yourself.” They held each other and stared at the thick wall of fog surrounding the train station. The sun started to burn through…

***

“Justh put a little under your nose and inhale like thish.” Leena explained through plastic vampire teeth. She held up a key with a small pile of cocaine on the end of it under Jess’s nose. Jess put her index finger over her other nostril and inhaled. The powder surged directly to her brain and dripped down the back of her throat. She put her head back against the graffiti-covered wall of the bathroom, the red and gold scarf tied around her head acted like a pillow.

“More, please!” Jess shouted at the bare light bulb in the ceiling. Leena scooped out a bump from the tiny plastic bag and inhaled it with a little shiver.

“Whew! Thish is gonna be a fun night!” Leena was about to take a second hit when Jess grabbed her wrist. An infinitesimal sprinkle fell from the key onto the dirty black and white tile floor. Leena appeared deeply offended.

“Hey! I paid for that stuff, don’t be greedy!” Jess took the bag and the key, scooped out a much larger amount for her other nostril. Leena ran her tongue over her fake vampire teeth and rubbed her nose. Jess breathed in through her nose. “I HATE THIS DRUG, WHY AM I DOING THIS?!” She yelled at the ceiling.

“Because ish Halloween in NYThee, baby! Time to party!” Leena took the bag from Jess and dipped in her finger, took out her vampire teeth and rubbed the cocaine on her gums. Jess rolled up what was left and hid the bag in the bodice of her DIY gypsy costume. They exited the bathroom in the east village lesbian bar and no one noticed their pinhole pupils. Everyone was wasted. Leena’s girlfriend Maxine was sitting at the bar wearing a sparkly witch hat and a flowy black lace dress with a neckline that plunged past her small breasts almost to her navel. She had blue eyes and waist-length black hair which may or may not have been a wig. Leena threw back her plastic cape to reveal a tight black Asian-style dress. Maxine kissed Leena through her plastic fangs.

“Look at you my thexy witchy woman…” Leena said, taking Maxine’s hand and introducing her to Jess. “This is my little cousin Jess, the writer I was telling you about…”

“Oh! You’re the one who wrote that funny story about that guy… What was his name?” Maxine took Leena by the waist and sat her down on her lap. Leena wrapped her arms around Maxine, still maintaining her charm school composure as she stole her girlfriend’s chardonnay from the bar.

“Henry O’Connor…” Jess felt twitchy and awkward, her eyes darted around the room full of costumed lesbians. More than one of them wore orange jumpsuits. There were at least three Björks in swan costumes. It was all a little surreal. Maxine looked around the bar and back at Jess in her thrift store approximation of a fortune teller.

“You’re gay?” Maxine asked, stealing her wine back from Leena.

“Not really.” Jess responded. How do you explain being in love with a celebrity? Leena gave her a condescending simper.

“Give it time, ya silly goose! Maxine, my love… Did you bring my treats?” Leena brushed her hand under Maxine’s chin and gazed into her eyes. Lightning crashed outside. Maxine smiled and pulled a small cellophane package out of her bra. Leena unwrapped the package, which contained three small green gummy frogs. They both popped one in each other’s mouths and chewed while rubbing their noses together.

“Here, do you want one?” Maxine offered the frog in her palm to Jess.

“What’s in it?” Jess asked, already almost too high to care.

“Just a little magic…” Leena said. Jess ate the frog.

***

“…who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull, who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall, who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York, who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls…”

Jess read “Howl” by Alan Ginsberg with barely a pause between her words. They were on the roof of Leena’s apartment building near the bar. Several of Leena’s cool artist friends sat around a charcoal-grill fire, watching her perform the poem for the first time. The drugs made her think she understood the words she roared into the impending storm gathering on the edges of the patch of sky above them. An unpleasantly familiar face appeared at the top of the stairs. Jess paused and bared her teeth in an miserable, drug-addled sneer.

John had a mop of unruly light brown hair and icy blue eyes. He was slightly younger than Jess, rail-thin, wearing a white t-shirt and ripped jeans. When she first moved up to NYC to sleep on Leena’s couch while trying to wrestle a writing career down from nothing, John was sleeping on the other couch. Leena had a habit of taking in young artists and John claimed to be a stand up comedian. At the end of one drunken night, he had talked Jess into giving him a blowjob and did not reciprocate. He stood with his arms crossed by the door, staring at her with a smug look on his face. The drugs made Jess feel powerful. She continued the poem using the full force of her voice.

“a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon, yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars…”

Lightning and thunder rocked the sky above them.

***

Jess’s gypsy costume became tangled in the several tattered Afghan blankets that made up the couch-nest on which she slept. Her drug crazed dreams merged with hallucinations of the apocalypse, beat poets offering deadly treats, cartoon swans canoodling on rooftops in black lakes of fire and the blood-drenched teeth of people who loved her. A hurricane raged outside. The power was out. A single white candle illuminated the tiny two-room Manhattan apartment. The walls were covered in avant garde art, thrown into startling, grotesque relief by the candlelight and occasional lightning.

A snake hissed in her dream, swimming down a river of blood on which the couch floated. The snake’s jaws clamped on her wrist, Jess tried to shake it off. She twisted her hand around and managed to grab the snake by the neck, tried to strangle it. The jaws held on to her wrist and jerked her hand back and forth. Still asleep and hallucinating, Jess opened her eyes, saw John standing over, a taunting grin on his face. Relieved that her dream-snake wasn’t real, she laughed, then looked down and gasped. His hand was around her wrist, making her hand stroke his hard dick through his jeans. Jess snatched her hand away, rolled over on the couch, and wrapped herself up tight in the blankets.

***

“And then he just went away…” Jess looked down at her pumpkin pancakes in the diner across from Leena and Maxine. Their Halloween makeup was raccoon-ed around their eyes, which were shocked at Jess’s recount of the night before. Maxine’s wig was gone, revealing her short brown pixie cut. She had on a black and white checked flannel shirt. Leena had her hair back in a ponytail and she wore a black Pat Benatar t-shirt and jeans. Jess was wearing her gray depression hoodie, sipping a mimosa with tears streaming down her cheeks. Rage contorted Leena’s face into a mask of fury.

“That little BITCH!” She growled. “How DARE he!? In MY house!? With MY FAMILY!? I’LL KILL THAT LITTLE MOTHERFUCKER!” Leena slammed her fists on the table, making a fork flip off onto the floor. Maxine tried to quell the righteous vehemence which was sure to land her girlfriend in jail.

“Calm down, Leena. Jess, you need to go to the cops.” Maxine said, handing Jess her fork so she could continue eating her pancakes.

“Yes, and then we’ll bribe THEM to kill John…” Leena plotted in a haze of rage.

“No, Jesus Leena! I don’t want him dead, I just want him gone. Out of the apartment and away from me.” Jess said, sipping water from a bendy straw.

“Your damn right he’s out of the apartment! I’m gonna go throw his shit out on the street right the fuck now… ‘SCUSE ME!” Leena screamed at a diner with his chair pulled out too far in her way out the door. Maxine and Jess looked at each other.

“You should still report it.” Maxine told Jess. Her western omelette sat untouched in front of her.

“Come on, Maxine. You know as well as I do, they won’t believe me. There’s no evidence, no witnesses, just this horrible experience that I have to live with the rest of my life. I don’t want to go through all that just to teach that little shit a lesson. Hopefully getting kicked out of a free place to stay in Manhattan will make him realize his behavior is inappropriate.” Jess poked at her pancakes with Maxine’s fork.

“Sweetie, it’s your right to deal with this however you feel you need to… but some motherfuckers never learn. The least we can do is make some noise in the criminal justice system so they know we’re not letting them get away with this shit anymore.” Maxine clasped her large hands in front of her on the table.

“I’m just not strong enough to handle all that, Max. I want it to be over…” Jess put down her fork and drank more water. She wasn’t hungry anymore.

“That’s understandable… but, Jess… What if he does it to someone else?” Maxine’s brown eyebrows knit together in concern. Jess pushed her pancakes away.

“Fuck.” Jess put her head in her arms.

***

Outside of Leena’s apartment, piles of jeans and t-shirts were strewn around under the fire escape. Leena was screaming obscenities as she tossed clothes out of the window. John was gathering up his clothes and shoving them into a green canvas duffel bag. Maxine walked between Jess and John, imposing and protective as they walked inside.

“AND IF YOU EVER SHOW YOUR FACE AROUND HERE AGAIN, WE’RE CALLING ALL OF OUR UNCLES AND TELLIN’ EM TO BRING ALL THE BASEBALL BATS, YOU MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF LYING MONKEY SHIT! GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE AND STAY OUT!” Leena screamed from above. Jess never loved her more than she did at that moment. Maxine glared at John as if her dark eyes could murder him on the spot. John’s blue eyes met Jess’s green eyes with a fleeting look of anger. Jess stared him down. He looked away.

To be continued 10/3/18

Chapter Eleven

Henry stood on the low stage of the school cafe-torium, trying to look casual as he hugged his aching ribs. Waking up in the wrecked Chevy several weeks ago, he lucked out again with minimal injuries. Laurie was nowhere to be found. Except for the red ribbon from her hair tied to the rear-view mirror, there wasn’t a trace of her. He kept the ribbon in his pocket. Fucking rabbits. Henry thought, repressing a wince from a twinge in his right side.

He agreed to speak to an eighth grade class at the school where his mom was a music teacher, thinking it would lighten his mood. Now he was suffering through Mr. Reid, the young Paul-Simon-look-alike music teacher, strum his way though “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles. The kids looked painfully bored.

“P. C. Thirty-one said, “We caught a dirty one”
Maxwell stands alone
Painting testimonial pictures
Oh, oh, oh, oh

Rose and Valerie, screaming from the gallery
Say he must go free
(Maxwell must go free)
The judge does not agree and he tells them
So, o, o, o
But as the words are leaving his lips
A noise comes from behind
Bang! Bang! Maxwell’s silver hammer
Came down upon his head
Bang! Bang! Maxwell’s silver hammer
Made sure that he was dead
Whoa, oh, oh, oh
Silver hammer man…”
“Thanks, class!” Mr. Reid bowed to the smattering of polite applause. “I know how y’all love my Beatles covers. Now, for the main event, we have a guest… speaker…” He chuckled as if that were a joke. “Creator of ‘American Family’ Henry O’Connor!” The faces of the kids lit up at the mention of one of their favorite cartoons. Henry stepped up to the microphone, eating up the wild applause.
“Thanks, Mr. Reid.” Henry gave a nod to the music teacher, who put his guitar in a stand and waited in the wings, grinning. “Wow, I’ve never enjoyed a song about a serial hammer murderer more.” The kids laughed at Mr. Reid’s expense, he just kept grinning. Henry continued, “It’s an honor to be back here at Woodbury Middle school where my mom taught music for 30 years and I attended 6th-8th grade. I tell ya, it’s nice to be able to leave this cafe-torium and not be afraid of getting shoved in a locker!” The crowd giggled, Henry smiled through the pain in his ribs. Mr. Reid did a rim-shot on a drum kit.
“I didn’t ask him to do that.” Henry said, pointing a thumb at Mr. Reid, who did another rim-shot. “Anyway… Mom would be proud to see me up here today, so proud she would say…” He switched to his mother’s voice, almost indistinguishable from Angela Foster. “Henry, did you remember to practice your scales? What is that you’re drawing? Did you put on clean underwear today?” The kids burst out laughing. No rim-shot from Mr. Reid, who grinned, still waiting for the joke.
Henry shook his head at Mr. Reid before continuing in his own voice. “But, she would be disappointed in me if I didn’t teach you guys something you want to know. So, I’m gonna open it up for some questions…” He sat on the edge of the stage with the mic in his hand, taking time with his bruised ribs. “Tell me what you want to know, what are you guys interested in?”
“Boobs.” said a large, mulleted teenage boy in the back row. The kids all screamed in laughter. The door opposite Henry opened and in walked his dream girl. This time she was dressed in cutoff daisy duke’s, black and white striped knee socks, converse, and a red flannel, open-down the middle to reveal a thin white tank top… no bra. In red sharpie on the shirt, she had drawn a heart with an arrow through H and L. Her hair was crimped up in a 1980’s Blondie fluff. She stood at the back of the crowd, adoration gleaming across the room. Henry was the only one who seemed to notice her again.
“Yeah, I shoulda seen that one coming.” Henry said, getting a few snickers from the crowd. “I can tell you it’s pretty great being an animator because I can draw all the side-boobs I want. Next, green shirt?”
“So, when should I take it out?” Green shirt said in earnest.
“Never. Not unless she asks. Okay, does anyone have a question about one of my shows? How about a question from a girl? Yes, pink hoodie, third row?”
“Yeah, I’m a boy, my name is Taylor, my pronouns are they/them. I heard you were bringing back ‘The Universe’ with astrophysicist Carl Sinclair-Tyler…” The stoic child in the pink hoodie responded.
“Oh, uh… Sorry about that? And yes, ‘The Universe: A Space Journey’ will be premiering this fall. Did you have a question about space travel or the history of astrophysics… Taylor?”
“No, but could you sing a song for us? I love it when you sing on your show! Mr. Reid only sings the Beatles except for that one day he played Rick Astley.” The kid in the pink hoodie riled up a cheer of agreement from the crowd. His dream girl nodded, excited. Henry stood up and grabbed Mr. Reid’s guitar.
“Can I borrow this?” Henry asked after putting the strap around his neck to Mr. Reid’s fumbling grumbles of protest. He turned back to the crowd “So, what kind of song do you want to hear? What do you guys like?”
“Alligators!” yelled one kid.
“Birds!” Yelled another.
“Outer space!”
“Rock n’ Roll!”
“Aliens!”
“The moon!” Yelled Henry’s dream girl from the back of the room. He was still the only one who seemed to notice her.
“I know just the song…” Henry felt the stitch in his ribs kick into high gear, but he took a deep breath and started playing “Moonage Daydream” by David Bowie. Her eyes glowed bright green in admiration from across the room, becoming the focal point of his tunnel vision while he played the song.
“I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you
I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch…”
The kids broke up in screaming laughter at the word “bitch”. A walrus-like principal in a brown suit grumbled in warning. Henry pretended not to notice.
“…for you
Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words
Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah…”
The class was enraptured with the lyrics and Henry’s trained tenor soaring over their heads, through the piercing pain in his sides. His dream girl licked her lips and swayed to the music.
“Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be
Make me baby, make me know you really care
Make me jump into the air
Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah…”
“Okay, that’s enough for today!” The walrus principal said as he wrestled the microphone away from Henry. “Thank you, Woodbury Alumnus Henry O’Connor. Let’s make our way to fifth period, class!” Henry handed the guitar back to Mr. Reid and jumped off the stage, high-fiving kids who held their hands out as he walked down the aisle towards his dream girl. He beckoned with one finger and they ran out of the cafe-torium holding hands.
***
“I’ve always wanted to do this in here!” Henry said in the stall of the bathroom across from the art room. She took a hit off of the vape pen and kissed him while blowing a cloud of cannabis oil into his lungs. “What’s your name this time?” He exhaled through a plume of vapor.
“Let’s go with Lexi…” She whispered in Henry’s ear as she handed him the vape pen. He took a hit and wiggled his eyebrows at her. Lexi giggled and started kissing him again. The vapor trailed out of their nostrils, enveloping them in a hazy bubble of fuzzy warmth. Henry slipped the vape pen in her back pocket, gripped her ass with both hands and pulled her close. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressed her hips into his, and her near-naked tits onto his chest. He could feel her hard nipples rubbing against the ribbed fabric of her tank top.
“Sexy Lexi…” Henry growled in her ear. “Say dirty words to me…”
“I can do better than that!” Lexi said, pushing him away and pulling a red sharpie out of her other pocket. She turned to the door of the bathroom stall while Henry watched her, amused and annoyed that her frizzy 80’s punk hairdo obscured what she was writing. She turned around, presenting the word with one hand as if it were an art project.
“PoppyCOCK.” Lexi said. Henry burst out laughing, then started kissing her again. He reached under her shirt and played with her hard nipples. Lexi let out a long moan of relief and gratification. He sucked on her breasts, out over the low-cut neckline of her tank top, his fingers slipped inside her cut-off jean shorts, his thumb stimulated her engorged clit with the crux of the seam.
“Cockadoodie Brat…” Henry said, kissing her neck. Lexi cried out in ecstasy, grabbed his glistening hand and put it to her throat. Like magic, she unzipped his pants and took out his hard cock and slipped it inside her without taking of her shorts. Henry had one hand gripping the stall, the other pressed down on Lexi’s windpipe, an euphoric grin spread across her face as he fucked her with her ankles linked behind his head. Fighting through the twinging pain in his ribs made him determined to feel her orgasm.
“Your mother sucks cocks in hell…” She growled, red faced and smiling.
“You dirty bitch…” He said, kissing her lips and his grip on her throat matching her Kegel grip on his dick. Three teenage girls entered the bathroom, chatting about whatever it is that kids are into these days. Henry and Lexi froze. She put a finger to her red lips, but refused to stop fucking. He thrust his hard cock up inside her as silently as possible while she held his hand up to her throat. The teenage girls did not seem to notice what was going on in the stall or they were used to kids fucking in there all the time. Lexi’s whole body convulsed without making a sound, Henry felt her pulsing orgasm drip down the shaft of his cock. The girls left the bathroom and they were alone once again. Lexi got on her knees in front of Henry.
“Spray my cunting face with your hot fucking jizz!” She said, pressing his dick between her tits. He moved his hips back and forth, using her come as lube while he fucked her tits. Her tongue flicked the tip of his dick through a wicked grin.
“I fucking love you!” Henry yelled as he came in her mouth. Lexi’s outstretched tongue let it drip down her chin and onto her voluptuous, juicy tits. She stood up with a milky strand hanging from the corner of her smiling mouth.
“I fucking love you too, my dream guy…” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. He removed the string and wiped it on the back of her shorts. Henry pulled back.
“Are you even real?” He asked, his dark eyes searching her evergreen ones for the truth.
“Nope. But, none of this is real. Just go with it!” Lexi pinched his cheek. Henry shrugged and kept kissing her.
***
“What’s the matter?” Jess asked, dragging a blue suitcase down the stairs behind her. Leena was pressing her shoulder into the front door of her building, trying to get it to open. A dead weight was keeping it closed.
“Some… fucking… junkie… passed out… god damnit…” Leena grunted as she pushed on the door. Jess put down her suitcase and helped Leena push. A body rolled heavily out of the way as the door swung onto the front steps. They looked down. It was John. Someone had written “YOUR WELCOME” in red sharpie on his dirty white t-shirt. His lips were blue, his skin had the pale waxy pallor of death and he didn’t appear to be breathing.
“Oh, you little shit! If you make me miss my flight, so help me!” Leena shouted, kicking John in the ribs. Jess gasped.
“Oh my god, is he dead? Is he breathing? What do we do?!” Jess started to panic, Leena started searching the chaotic abyss of her purse.
“Calm the fuck down, Jessie. What kind of compassionate liberal New Yorker would I be without Narcan in my purse at all times? Ah, here it is!” Leena sprayed the Narcan syringe up each of John’s nostrils. He gasped once, then remained motionless. “Fuck. I’m calling the cops. They can deal with this piece of shit before I toss him in the East River.”
“Did it work? Is that how it’s supposed to work? I thought he was supposed to come out of it like in Pulp Fiction!” Jess shouted as Leena called 911.
“Hello? There’s an overdosed junkie blocking my doorway, I gave him a hit of Narcan, but the little bitch is still laying here, not breathing. Uh huh? Oh, right. Hold on, I’ll put you on speaker.”
“Someone needs to give him two mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths and then chest compression for thirty seconds, can someone do that?” Pleaded the 911 operator. Jess and Leena looked at each other, held up their fists for Rock, Paper, Scissors. Jess picked rock. Leena picked Scissors. She bent down, grimacing over John’s motionless face. Leena breathed two lung-fulls of air into his chest, which expanded like a balloon.
“I got the chest compression’s.” Jess said, moving Leena aside while she wiped her mouth.
Press down hard in the middle of his chest at the rate of two beats per second, ready? Go! One and two and three and four…” Jess pressed along to the counting of the 911 operator, her hands clenched over the “YOUR WELCOME” written on his chest. She tried to break at least one of his ribs. John was still motionless after thirty seconds.
“It’s not working!” Jess shouted, standing over his body. John’s face flushed with color, his eyes sprang open and he sat up, ducked under Jess’s legs and stood up in one motion.
“The Aristocrats!” John shouted, before puking all over himself and collapsing on the sidewalk.
“Hack.” Said Jess. The EMT’s arrived and shuffled John’s limp form onto a stretcher.
“Wait!” Leena shouted, taking a red sharpie out of her purse. While John was dazed, strapped to the stretcher, Leena corrected the grammar on his shirt so it said “YOU’RE WELCOME!” Jess shook her head at Leena and smiled in relief. “I’m a publisher, damnit! Take him away, boys! Back to his mom’s house in Westchester.” Leena hit the side of the ambulance as it drove off.
“That was intense.” Jess sighed.
“Meh, that’s any day in New York, baby.” Leena put her phone to her ear. “Daddy? I missed my flight and I need a cocktail, Jess and I just had to deal with this fucking rapist junkie OD’d on my doorstep, can you take us out to lunch?” Leena whined to Jess’s Uncle Adam on the phone. Jess gave her a weary smile because she knew the answer already.
***
Uncle Adam looked like a distinguished Ben Stiller, but he had the energy of Willie Nelson. He sat between Leena and Jess in the circular booth of their favorite Italian restaurant, eating huge bowls of warm pasta for lunch. Leena slurped up her fettuccine Alfredo between sips of a cosmo.
“I can’t wait to get out of this goddamned city for a while.” Leena slurped.
“Don’t worry, baby.” Uncle Adam put down his smartphone and nibbled at his primavera. “Daddy’s got you on the 6pm flight out of LaGuardia. You’ll be on your journey to sobriety soon enough…” He clinked the ice in his empty scotch glass, indicating for the waiter to bring him another.
“Are you doing okay, Uncle Adam? I haven’t see you since…” Jess couldn’t bring herself to say “Aunt Rita’s funeral” because she was stuffing her face with penne ala vodka. She washed it down with a fish-bowl sized glass of red wine. New Yorkers dealt with the stress of overpopulated city life by sedating themselves with delicious food and alcohol. Jess was enjoying the feeling of warm fullness for the first time that day. Uncle Adam swirled the ice around in his glass. His salt-and-pepper hair was longer than usual.
“Oh, you know… I get by. I stay busy at work… and Leena always needs help moving a piece of furniture she finds on the street.” Uncle Adam elbowed Leena in the ribs playfully.
“Hey, that armoire would have fit through the fire escape if we had a crane!” Leena said, giggling through a mouthful of pasta. The waiter brought over fresh drinks.
“How’s the writing going, Jess?” Uncle Adam asked. Jess swirled her pasta around with a fork.
“I couldn’t finish my story, so I’m going back to Grandma’s.” Jess admitted.
“What do you mean you couldn’t finish? You’re a writer, Jess. That’s what you do. Just write it! It’s in your head, put it on paper. Simple as that. Work a day job until you can sell something you wrote.” Uncle Adam had a way of telling Jess what she needed to hear when she didn’t want to hear it.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds.” Jess whispered to her pasta.
“Eh, sometime’s it’s all who you know.” Uncle Adam shrugged.
“There’s one guy I wish I knew…”
“Who? Maybe I know him…”
“Henry O’Connor.”
“Don’t know him…”
“Nobody seems to. I’m starting to wonder if he’s even real.”
“Well, he is hosting Saturday Night Live tonight.”
“He is?!” Jess shouted. Uncle Adam put up his hands to calm her down.
“Yeah, you could try meeting him at the stage door at NBC.” Leena belched after finishing the last of her pasta, full and slightly drunk for her trip to a Florida detox center.
“People do that?” Jess asked, feeling like a rube.
“There’s no law against it.” Uncle Adam shrugged.
Henry sat next to Ben at the bar of the steakhouse, laughing at how quickly Allie and Emmy got rip-roarin’ drunk.
“I can’t believe the uproar, just because you said ‘bitch’ in front of children.” Emmy grumbled after knocking back a shot of tequila. “Our kids hear that word at least 80 times a day.”
“It keeps the magic alive, doesn’t it bitch?” Allie put her head on Emmy’s shoulder and grinned up at her. Emmy looked down at her, rolled her eyes and smiled.
“Eh, I didn’t write it.” Henry shrugged. He felt full and tipsy from dinner, slaking the sting of bewilderment over losing track of his mystery girl yet again.
“I think it’s one of those ‘they can say it, we can’t’ kind of things.” Ben interjected, spilling some of his scotch on Henry’s sleeve.
“That’s right, Bitch!” bellowed Allie before knocking back a shot and singing “Bitch, bitch bitch, bitch, bitch, we got a babysitter, bitch!”
“That’s the mother of my children, folks.” Emmy said, gesturing to Allie, who was standing on the bar stool, bowing to a non-existent Broadway crowd.
“Who’s the best mommy in the world?” Allie cooed, taking Emmy’s face in her hands.
“You are, sweetheart.” Emmy said, then they started making out all sloppy, tongues flailing. Ben watched in mild interest.
“Okay, you guys have fun, I’m gonna hit the head.” Henry patted Ben’s shoulder and walked toward the bathroom. Ben continued to watch and sip his scotch.
“Is this seriously turning you on?” Emmy asked Ben.
“Eh, two women…” Ben shrugged. Emmy and Allie shrugged and went back to making out.
***
The only awkwardness that beats a forced elevator conversation is the dreaded urinal chat. Standing next to Eric Barron in the bathroom of the steakhouse was Henry’s living nightmare.
“How ya been, Henry?” Eric asked, towering over him.
“Okay, where the hell are you from, that accent is not from Chicago!” Henry just couldn’t take it anymore and he was drunk enough to speak his mind.
“My dad is from Australia.”
“Oh, you’re like Mel Gibson?”
“Who?”
“Or are you just autistic?”
“Probably…” Eric nodded.
“You know, I don’t think you’re as evil as you are just opportunistic with no social graces.” Henry admitted.
“Astute.”
“I have no idea what Patrice sees in you.”
“Me neither, but I would do anything for that girl. She’s going to take over the world.” Eric had a dreamy, far-off look in his eyes. Henry was finished, so he tried to take his leave… “She asks about you, ya know… She worries about you.” Eric said, still looking dreamy.
“Yeah?” Henry stopped with his hand on the door handle.
“Come join our private party, Henry. Patrice would like to see you…” Eric’s giant hand landed on Henry’s shoulder.
***
Henry was led to the heavy oak door of the private room in the steakhouse. His face melted to a smile when he saw his dream girl standing outside the door, hand on her hip as if he were late. She had long, thick brown hair tied back in a braid that ended at her ass. A 1920’s style art deco dress accentuated her curves with geometric sequin shapes in blues and greens. The same apple cheeks, Kewpie doll lips and glimmering wintergreen eyes grinned in expectation.
Eric’s baseball mitt of a hand guided Henry’s shoulder through the door. Henry’s dream girl took a seat next to him at the long white-cloth covered table, flanked by a dozen members of Eric’s entourage. Eric took the empty chair next to Patty. She was looking dazed, Xanax-glazed eyes, still put-together in an elegant dove-gray shift dress, graceful as ever.
“Hi Henry, glad to see you out…” Patty said, not meeting his gaze. Her tone implied he was skipping out on something like work. Henry’s dream girl nibbled at a salad with one hand while her other hand massaged his knee under the table.
“Oh, you know… been busy.” Henry tried to contain himself as her hand slid up his thigh.
“Come on, Henry. You know there’s no such thing! It’s about priorities…” Eric blathered, drinking rum and diet coke from a beer stein. “Patty makes your show a priority. She know’s it’s good for her image, lowering herself, playing such a loser when she’s anything but…”
“I don’t think Hannah’s a loser.” Patty defended. “I think she’s a survivor. I think she puts up with a lot of shit that would kill a lot of people. I love playing Hannah because she can be as imperfect as she wants to be!” Patty’s voice carried over the room, which went silent to watch her rant. Henry was smiling for two reasons now.
“Thanks… Patty.” Henry sighed.
“This right here… This is why she’s running for office.” Eric held Patrice’s chin in his hand, she looked at him with a hungry, snake-like smolder. “Patrice Barron will be the next vice president of the United States…”
“Isn’t that a little… ahhh… extreme?” Henry asked, trying to ignore the nimble hand going to town under the table.
“Oh, and I’m buying the Coyote Network. I’m your new boss, Henry!” Eric said, cheerfully enjoying himself.
“What?!” Henry blurted out.
“So, who’s your friend, Henry. Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Patrice asked, gesturing to the woman who’s hand was massaging his member through his pants.
“Leia Corana, I’m Henry’s new girlfriend, nice to meet you!” Leia held out the hand that was just in Henry’s crotch. Eric took her hand and kissed the back of her fingers. Leia looked back over her shoulder at Henry and winked.
“Wait, you can see her?” Henry looked from Eric to Leia, confused.
“Of course I can see her, she’s gorgeous!” Eric evaluated Leia’s figure with his eyes. She sat next to Henry again, squeezing his knee to reassure him.
“Yes, Henry. She’s beautiful…” Patrice’s eyes held a mixture of many emotions as she assessed the protective closeness between Leia and Henry.
“Can you do this?” Henry whispered to Leia.
“Henry, you should know by now. I can do anything I want.” Leia responded, a half-smile and eyebrow wiggle confusing the hell out of him.
“Can we leave?” Henry asked, as if he wasn’t free to do so at any time.
“Absolutely.” Leia grabbed his hand and they left without an explanation.
***
The valet pulled up outside the steakhouse in a sleek black convertible Porsche. Leia vaulted over the driver’s side door and slipped in the driver’s seat like a gymnast. She beckoned to Henry with one finger, the hem of her dress riding up her thigh to reveal nude stockings attached to garters.
“Come on, Henry. I have something to show you…” Leia smiled and bounced, teeming with excitement. Henry got into the passenger seat and immediately fastened his seat belt.
“Is this yours?” Henry indicated the car.
“Nah, I stole it.”
“Really?”
“Meh, who cares?”
“Alright then, let’s go…”
***
Leia drove through the night lit up by a bright full moon, Henry’s hand on her knee. They arrived at a remote private beach. She parked the car and kissed him hard on the mouth.
“Come with me, Henry…” Her eyes glowed in the moonlight, full of adventure. She hopped out of the car and started running towards the crashing waves, shedding her shoes and clothes as she ran. Henry followed, removing his suit. They swam in the tepid tidal pool, surrounded by a swarm of glowing bio-luminescent microorganisms. Henry looked at her, floating surrounded by shimmering green lights with her hair flowing in a cloud around her naked body…
“Wow… You are so beautiful.” Henry whispered, drawing her in close. They kissed while treading water.
“Follow me.” Leia commanded, swimming for the shore. “I don’t want to fuck in the middle of all these shrimp.” Henry swam after her. It started to rain as she ran up the beach, towards a shabby gray tent. “There’s probably towels in here!” She ducked in the tent, followed by Henry, dripping and carrying all of their clothes.
A small gas lamp hung from a hook on the center pole of the tent. Leia turned up the light only enough to show her soaking wet, smiling and holding a soft, fluffy beach towel out for Henry. He dropped their clothes and took the towel, shaking himself like a dog. She giggled and wrapped a towel around her glistening naked body, her hair trailing in long wet curls around the curve of her breast. Henry was so mesmerized by her beauty, it took a while to register that the inside of the tent appeared vastly larger than the outside.
“Where are we?” Henry asked, wrapping the towel around himself and folding her in his arms. She reached up and caressed his face with her soft fingertips.
“I call this ‘The Imagination Tent’. It can be whatever we want it to be…” Leia planted a soft kiss on his lips as she turned up the gas lamp next to them. The circle of light grew to a soft amber glow, illuminating the opulent surroundings.
There was a queen sized bed with a rout-iron headboard and fluffy down linens, draped in a white net canopy. An antique camel-back couch stood next to a bar stocked with anything they could want to eat or drink and a bong. An easel holding a blank sketchpad stood next to a guitar on a stand and a ukulele on a smaller stand, a bookshelf loaded with classics, blank notebooks for writing, a claw-foot bathtub, a pot-bellied wood stove, and a chess set on a low coffee table surrounded by satin cushions. There was even a flat-screen tv with every game console and the ability to play any tv show or movie ever made. A large, fluffy bean-bag chair for two sat in front of it. Henry was astonished.
“Did I miss anything?” Leia asked, grinning at his surprised face. He looked around the tent, which appeared to be a mash up of Jennie’s Bottle and every art nerd’s fantasy.
“A piano?” He shrugged. She smiled up at him indulgently, put her fingertips to her forehead and closed her eyes. The wind blew a panel of fabric near the bed inward. They stuck their heads out of the flap to see the cathedral-sized room next to them. In the center of a black and white checkered floor was a grand piano. The walls were flowing white curtains that billowed in the turbulent storm around them.
“Don’t worry, this one is waterproof!” She said, proudly presenting her work.
“I love it! Looks like the set of an 80’s music video.” Henry said, impressed.
“Which one?” Leia asked, looking up at him.
“I don’t know, but this is awesome…” He scooped her up and laid her down on the bed.
“The storm won’t let up till morning, I think we’re stuck here…” She smiled up at him, her eyes glittering green in the flickering lamp light. Henry unfolded the towel from her body. He stood next to the bed and traced his fingertips down the side of her breast, the dip of her hip and around the curve of her ass. Goosebumps raised in the wake of his touch.
“How is any of this real?” Henry whispered, his lips tickling her stomach as he lowered toward her now hairless mound.
“It can be… But, that’s not up to us. It’s up to… them.” Leia looked up to the ceiling of the tent as if she was breaking a 4th wall he didn’t see. Henry looked up, perplexed.
“So, you’re telling me there’s a version of me somewhere, in some reality…” Henry spread her legs and blew a soft stream of warm air between her pussy lips. “And that guy could have all this?” He breathed in her scent, almost touching her with the tip of his nose and his lips, making her shiver in delight.
“Yup!” She grinned down at him, hands behind her head, propped up on a fluffy pillow. Her perky tits were veiled in the soft, drying tendrils of her hair.
“Well, he should go for it.” Henry kissed her inner thighs.
“Oh, I quite agree!” She nodded eagerly. Henry grinned up at her and dove face-first in her pussy. He sucked on her clitoris like it had a cherry Jolly Rancher stuck to it. Her moans of ecstasy were accompanied by the slurping sound of his lips relishing her wet labia. He drank the come that rushed forth from her moist, pulsating hole. His hands gently brushed her hair back off her shoulders so he could suck on her hard nipples as her orgasm subsided. Henry inserted his swollen cock into Leia’s quivering cunt, releasing a roar of pleasure from her. It was like a battle cry.
Henry fucked her slow and deliberate at first, brushing the hair back from her face, he studied her emerald eyes, so enraptured in love. He lifted her knees up by her shoulders so he could plunge his hard cock as deep within her as it would go.
“I can’t get enough of you!” He groaned while fucking her hard and deep. Her screams of pleasure rose to a crescendo.
“Gimme all you got Captain!” She shouted in a Scottish accent, not a trace of irony to her tone. Henry paused for a second, burst out laughing and continued to fuck her, intensifying his rhythm.
“I’m… Going… To… Make… You… Come!” Henry punctuated his thrusts in a Shatner-esqe voice. Leia’s burst of laughter mingled with her orgasmic exclamations. Her laugh radiated overwhelming pleasure throughout his entire being. He fought against the urge to relinquish the seed her pussy muscles were so fervently squeezing out of his cock. In the wake of her orgasm, Henry pulled out and turned her around, Leia obliged in a daze of satisfaction. He tied a silk scarf from the lampshade around her eyes and fucked her from behind.
“Say my name…” Henry growled into her ear while holding onto the knot in the scarf at the back of her head.
“Henry! Henry! Henry!” Leia cried out through exhilarated moans. Feeling the crescendo of her next orgasm arise, Henry increased his vigorous pace.
“That’s right, who loves ya, baby?!” Henry groaned, joy saturating his authentic voice.
“Henry O’Conner loves me! Ah! I love you too, Henryyyy!” The last syllable of his name was stretched out along her second orgasm. He pulled out to lick her from behind, pulling her ass up to sit on his face so she could lie on top of him and suck her come off of his dick. Her muscles squeezed his tongue inside her moist chasm as he sucked the wetness from her depths. As much as he wanted to release his pent-up load into her supple mouth, Henry maneuvered her around again so she was on top, facing him. Bouncy ringlets of her hair flowed around her shoulders as she rode his cock like a pony. The expression of ecstatic adoration on her face held him entranced.
“Me… too!” Henry roared as it felt like every drop of come within him rocketed up inside her clenching wet pussy. Leia collapsed on top of him, her third and strongest orgasm subsiding, pulsing the remaining drops of semen out of his still-hard cock. He wrapped his arms around her and enjoyed the squeezing sensation and the feeling of her tits pressed against his chest. They snuggled under the down comforter, enjoying the warmth and closeness of their naked bodies while the rain made a pitter-patter sound on the cloth roof of the tent. The net canopy cocooned the bed in a pod of comforting pleasure.
“So! What should we do now?” Leia grinned at Henry, inexplicably full of energy.
“Stay in this position forever?” Henry suggested, tracing his fingertips down the side of her cheek. She let out a cute nose giggle and leaned her cheek against his hand.
“I don’t know about you, but that bathtub is calling my name! I still need to wash all those glow-shrimp out of my hair!” Leia hopped out of the bed and skipped over to the claw-foot bathtub, which was now full of sudsy bubbles next to the glowing potbelly wood stove. Henry sat up in bed and watched her long, graceful legs ease into the bath, an enticing sigh escaping her pretty lips. He got up to help her massage shampoo in her long, luxurious brown hair.
“You look beautiful even with a head full of shrimp!” Henry said, his fingertips making circles in her wet, soapy curls. “But I did like you as a blonde…” He paused after that, afraid he said something stupid. Leia looked up at him and winked, ducking her soap-saturated head under the water. Henry couldn’t resist touching her voluptuous floating breasts, pink nipples sticking straight up. She arose from the water grinning, her long brown curls turned golden blonde, flowing down her back, slick and shimmering.
“Wow! You are astounding…” Henry ran his hand over her wet blonde hair and kissed her smiling lips.

“This is just the start, Henry…” Leia said, his lips tickling her neck. Still kissing, she pulled him into the bath with her. The storm rumbled through the night as they bathed, made love again, had drinks and snacks from the bar, and giggled while taking hits from the magically refilling bong. He sketched a voluptuous cartoon version of her lounging on the antique couch wearing only his blue necktie. She beat him in a game of chess. They made up a silly guitar/ukulele song about the Imagination Tent. He beat her at Mario Kart. They were curled up on the giant bean bag under the down comforter watching an old episode of The Twilight Zone when Henry sat bolt upright.

“My God! How long have we been here? It’s gotta be close to morning, I have to get to work…” Henry got up and started getting dressed. Leia muted the TV. In black and white silence, Jack Warden played checkers with his robot wife Jean Marsh. “What time is it? There’s no clock in here!” He made a laugh similar to Jack the Dog, a nervous edge slicing through the air.

“There isn’t.” Leia said. He wasn’t sure if she was talking about a clock. The storm had subsided outside the tent, a soft trickle of dawn creeped through the gap in the entrance flap. Henry stopped, wearing pants and one sock, went over to caress her cheek and kiss her pouty red lips.

“This has been one of the most incredible nights of my life. I don’t know if you’re magic or if this has all been some crazy dream…” Henry stroked her silky blonde hair as her big, wistful eyes looked up at him. “I want to see you again. I’d ask for your phone number, but you always just kinda seem to show up at the right time!” He hoped that would get a smile out of her, but she remained enigmatic in silence. The astronauts were telling Jack Warden that he had to leave his robot wife behind.

“Look, I’m sorry, I have to go to work…” Henry started putting the rest of his clothes on, feeling like a heel.

“No, you don’t…” She whispered. He pretended not to hear her as he lifted the flap of the tent, he could see her black convertible parked in the distance.

“Could you give me a ride back into town, my writers are probably…”

“No, I can’t…” Her whispered words couldn’t possibly have been a trigger for the explosion that occurred next. Henry screamed in surprise, Leia sat perfectly still on the bean bag as the Porsche was consumed in a ball of fire.

“HOLY FUCK! MY PHONE WAS IN THERE!” Henry ran across the beach, about halfway towards the burning car before he realized it was futile. Leia’s soft hand on his shoulder startled his deep state of shock. She stood behind him barefoot, wearing only a long white cotton dress with spaghetti straps. Her long blonde hair flowed in the slight morning beach breeze. The apologetic expression on her face was exacerbating his confusion.

“You wouldn’t have been able to get a signal here anyway.” She said, shaking her head.

“Okay! This is officially creeping me out. I’m gonna go…” Henry started walking away from her, a deep ache settling over the confusion and panic in his heart.

“Henry… Haven’t you realized we can’t leave?” She was starting to sound annoyed. Henry stopped and looked back at her.

“Oh yeah? Watch me.” Henry ran down the beach towards a rock outcropping. He ran until his lungs felt full of broken glass, around the bend, stopping and falling to his knees when he saw what was there. Leia wore the same white dress and pitying expression in front of the same shabby gray tent on the same mystifying beach. Henry realized it didn’t matter which way he ran, they were trapped in a loop. His fists pounded the sand in powerless despair. Her gentle fingertips caressed the back of his head as he kneeled on the beach, a shaking ball of rage.

“I’m sorry, Henry…” Leia’s tone was that of a Kindergarten teacher putting a disgruntled kid down for a nap.

“What… ARE YOU!?” Henry shouted, standing up and backing away from her.

“You mean what are WE!?” Leia spat back, offended by his mistrust. The question left Henry dumbfounded, slack-jawed in existential confusion. “Sigh. Follow me, Henry. I’ll make us some tea.” She walked towards the magic tent, followed by Henry, trudging in reluctant automation.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to say ‘sigh’, it’s more of a noise like (sigh).” Henry said, walking into the tent as she held the flap open.

“What are you, the sigh police?” She rolled her eyes and smiled at him. The kettle on the wood stove was already boiling. Leia placed a cup of green tea on the end table next to the armchair where Henry sat in a disheveled heap. She sat cross-legged on the antique couch, sipping tea from a china cup with her pinky out. “So… You want to know if we’re real or not?”

“Is that what I’m asking?” Henry asked, still hopeless in confusion.

“The truth is… it depends on who you ask. I’m not sure why we were put here or who created us, there’s probably a reason, but I don’t have that information either. All I know is we can’t leave. We have to be written out.” She sipped her tea and placed the delicate cup down on the saucer as if that explained everything. Henry leaned forward and gave her an intense stare.

“How?” He searched her face for any signs of deception. She remained impassive.

“I don’t know. I guess we just have to keep doing things until we’re allowed to leave. We have everything we need here, we can’t get hurt or sick and we won’t age. When we return to the ‘real’ world, no time will have passed. In the mean time, you are free to create any work of art your heart desires. I have a theory that the ticket to your freedom is your masterpiece…” Leia’s emerald eyes glittered with the same adoration that drew him in the first night they met.

“Why did you bring me here? You knew we were going to be trapped in this fucked up Groundhog Day alternate reality! Why should I trust you?” His dark eyes narrowed at her as thunder rumbled in the distance, the storm reviving.

“You wanted to come.” Her face was stony silent for a moment. “Now that you’re here, you have a chance to create the most magnificent work of art within you. Think about it Henry. No distractions, no phones, no executives, no TV shows, no social media, no politics, an endless amount of time, anything your heart desires…  and me.” A hopeful tone seeped into her voice. Henry’s anger and confusion broke for the first time since the explosion. He took her hand.

“If I have to be trapped with anyone, I’m glad it’s you… But don’t you think we’ll eventually drive each other crazy, being the only two people here?” Henry asked, hoping he wasn’t hurting her feelings. She smiled and shook her head.

“Who do you want to see, Henry? Who’s the one person you want to see more than anyone right now? Just close your eyes and think of them.” Leia gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. Henry closed his eyes.

“Hi Henry.” Said a voice he hadn’t heard in over a year. When Henry opened his eyes, his heart melted.

“Mom?” Henry’s deep brown eyes filled with tears, meeting their carbon copy. She looked like she did before the cancer, before he moved away to become a Hollywood big shot, before he went off to college even. Mom was young and beautiful, her rich brown hair free of aged grays, the lines around her smile were gone, she wore the purple dress with shoulder pads from his high school graduation. Henry fell into his mother’s arms, sobbing.

“It’s okay baby, Mommy’s here.” Mom pet the back of Henry’s head and held him tight. She even smelled the same. His sobs abated and he stepped back, sniffling.

“You’re not real.” Henry resigned.

“She’s as real as you remember her, Henry.” Leia said from behind him. He turned to see genuine concern on her face. When he turned back to Mom, he had to choke back a scream. She had hollow cheeks, weary eyes, sparse, wispy hair, a tube in her nose and a faded purple bathrobe hung on a skeletal form.

“Henry… Do I look ugly?” Mom asked, deep hurt in her sunken eyes.

“No… No… No…” Henry curled to the floor with his hands over his ears. His hyperventilation was interrupted by Leia’s hand rubbing his back.

“Henry… Breathe. Look at me.” Leia soothed. When he looked up, they were the only two people in the tent again.

“What if I don’t want to do this?” Henry asked.

“I think you’d get pretty bored just sitting here.” Leia shrugged. Henry looked around at their opulent surroundings and the beautiful woman rubbing his back.

“What do I have to do?”

“Whatever you want.”

“What if I can’t think of anything?”

“That’s all you have to do is think… Look…” Leia turned his tear-streaked baby face by the chin towards the TV. The scene that materialized on the screen seemed carefully peeled from his subconscious. It was a wedding on a beach. Henry stood in front of a flower-covered arch next to Ben, who was grinning and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Morgan Freedman was under the arch holding a copy of “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan. All of Henry’s friends and family were observing from white folding chairs, interspersed with some rather envious A-list celebrities. Leia walked up the aisle wearing a gorgeous long-sleeved white lace gown, her blonde hair pinned up in sumptuous curls under a simple veil of a single piece of tulle. Wild daises made up her bouquet and her expression was composed of serene joy. Henry lifted her veil and had to be caught under the armpits by Ben when he almost fainted.

“Are you sure this isn’t what you’re thinking?” Henry asked Leia, watching the TV in the tent, a skeptical eyebrow raised with a half-smile.

“It could be both.” Leia gave him a curious nod. They watched as “In My Life” by the Beatles started to play and a montage flowed before them. Leia was giving birth in a hospital bed while Henry gripped her hand and kissed her sweaty forehead.

In the next scene, they were in bed, a sleeping toddler in footie pajamas between them. A calico cat was curled up on the pillow on top of Henry’s head. A beagle puppy wriggled up next to the toddler and snuggled with them.

Cut to their family on a road trip, a brown-haired little boy and a blonde little girl in the back seat, Henry driving and Leia playing ukulele in the passenger seat. They appeared to be singing the four-part harmony to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

Next, Henry was in heavy makeup and period costume, playing piano as Ludwig Van Beethoven. Leia yelled “Cut!” from behind the camera, the entire set burst into applause. She had to rouse Henry from the character because he didn’t hear her as Beethoven. In a quick cut-away, while accepting the award for best picture, Leia and Henry made out until everyone was uncomfortable.

Three quick shots ended the montage. Henry had steely gray hair, sat next to Leia, a few age lines in no way diminishing her beautiful face as teary-eyed, they watched their son perform the lead in Swan Lake. In another audience, they watched their daughter in a presidential debate, laughing out loud at her retort to a flustered white man. The last shot showed them as an elderly couple sitting on a porch swing, holding hands and watching the rain, Leia’s head on Henry’s shoulder. Their grandson hopped up between them and started reading “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein. The montage ended and the screen went dark.

“Wow…” Henry whispered, sitting next to Leia on the antique couch in the Imagination Tent. They both had happy tears welling up in their eyes.

“It seems your masterpiece is our life together.” Leia said, resting her head on Henry’s shoulder as the future version of herself had done. Henry put his arm around her and held her tight.

“How do we make that happen for real?” Henry asked, kissing her head and smelling her hair.

“I suppose the real versions of us have to meet in real life.” Leia shrugged.

“When is that going to happen?”

“Soon, I hope…”

***

“There are two stage doors at NBC, on opposite sides of the block. I had a 50/50 chance to meet him. He must have gone out the other door.” Jess slurred to the bartender at O’Shea’s, a seedy dive bar in Midtown. He put a shot of some green liquid down in front of her and Jess knocked it back in robotic automation.

“Careful, now. Those mind erasers taste like candy but they literally have a fuckton of booze. I don’t want you falling on that pretty face…” He put a glass of ice water with a bendy straw in front of Jess. She put her chin on her folded arms and stared at the glass.

“I guess I’m just not that lucky.” Jess grumbled. The bartender folded his arms in front of her and looked through the glass, into her tear-swollen eyes.

“You’re lucky to have those gorgeous green eyes, doll face.” He said, smiling and tilting his head around the side of the glass. “Nobody likes brown eyes. These things make ya think of poop, right?” Jess laughed too loud out of her drunken misery stupor. She pinched his cheek.

“Actually, I like brown eyes. Henry has beautiful brown eyes…” Jess ended in a wistful tone.

“I can see why you like the guy, I love that show! Hey, look I can do Bruce!” The bartender stood up, cleared his throat and puffed out his belly under his Ramones t-shirt. “Angela! Where’s my underwear with the ducks riding sausages?” He sounded like Tony Danza doing an impression of Bruce.

“Pretty good.” Jess said after a giggle snort. She looked the bartender up and down from his curly brown hair to his tattered Vans sneakers. In her state of deep inebriation, he almost looked like a New York version of Henry. “What’s your name again?”

“Danny Brillo, nice to meet ya!” Danny held out a friendly hand to Jess and she shook it while smiling. “How about you, beautiful? Gotta name?”

“Jess Bundy.” Jess started to get annoyed at the look of recognition on Danny’s face.

“Oh, like from Love and Marriage?”

“Yeah…”

“You’re way hotter than her.”

***

One year later…

The real Henry O’Connor sat in his office scrolling through Jess’s social media feed with a worried look on his face. Ben came in without knocking, holding a script.

“Henry, I gotta talk to you about this week’s episode.” Ben said, barely getting a reaction from Henry.

“Talk to Emmy, she’s the boss.” Henry waved him away.

“But my character’s just getting gayer and gayer! Like uber-gay. Like ultra-gay. Like Elton John would say ‘What a fag!’ gay. Like I’m never gonna get a woman in bed again gay…” Ben pleaded for Henry’s attention.

“Only a closeted homosexual would care about that.” Henry grumbled, not looking up from the screen.

“Okay, what the hell are you looking at?” Ben turned the screen towards him. “Ugh. Stalker much? Why are you still checking up on this chick?”

“I just can’t believe she’s still with him.” Henry turned the screen back towards himself and kept scrolling.

“They look like they’re having fun…” Ben suggested, based on the pictures of Jess sitting at a bar, watching Danny’s band.

“Because she’s wasted.” Henry noticed the drink in her hand, the dark circles under her eyes and the strained smile drawn across her face. “It’s like she doesn’t know how awesome she is…”

“Henry, what can you do about it?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know… But, I have to do something.” Henry said, lingering on a picture of Jess, rolling her eyes at Danny kissing her cheek.

To Be Continued 11/15/18

13

“You want to know if he raped me?” Jess lounged in the ergonomic computer chair, wearing a comfortable black dress and a red cardigan. Her yoga-toned body was no longer crumpled in a heap of anxiety, held upright by poised confidence. She was wearing headphones over a platinum blonde bob that shaped her bemused face. Jess observed the host, relishing the palpable anticipation. Keith Dewey’s podcast had become more popular than his stand up act, Jess wondered if it had something to do with the fact that he looked like someone stretched out Roger Daltry, left him in the microwave too long and tried to cover up their mistakes with a bushy beard and a beer gut.

“I think we all want to know that…” Replied Keith, clasping his hands together on the desk and leaning forward toward the microphone, mocking sensitive. Jess could see through the fake concern. He just wanted the juicy details like everyone else. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in through her nose.

“No.” Jess said, opening her green eyes and meeting his blue. “Everything that happened was consensual. I was a willing participant in all of it.”

“What? Really?” Keith did little to hide the disappointment in his voice. “But you said on YouTube last year…” Jess put her hand over his as he was about to pull up a video on the computer screen in front of him.

“Listen… It was an awkward sexual experience. Plenty of people have them and move on with their lives. Do you want to know what proved to me that it wasn’t sexual assault? I went into an anonynous chat room for rape victims. I will not diminish the pain they went through by claiming this kinda weird experience was anything like that. I am not a victim… Not anymore.” Jess raised her chin in defiance of Keith’s slack-jawed disbelief.

“Wait a second, you said he was pretending to be someone else when you had sex…” Keith pointed to a highlighted paragraph in the print-out of Jess’s introductory email. Jess rolled her eyes and sighed.

“I should start from the beginning…” Jess took a copy of her novel out of her bag and placed it on the desk in front of her. Her fingertips traced the fancy gold embossed script of the title “Fangirl” inside a red heart on a powder blue background. “Do you read any fan fiction, Keith?”

“Pssht! No! What even is that?” Keith wasn’t fooling anyone, but Jess played along.

“Well, if you don’t know, fan fiction is when nerds like me take the intellectual property of others and make up new story lines, sometimes intersecting universes and often involving pornographic fantasy.” Jess stated, sipping her green tea from a blue mug.

“I’m listening…” Keith said, leaning forward again.

“A few years ago, I wrote some fan fiction. I was going through a lot at the time and it was a way for me to work out my issues. I posted this story under a fake name and tried to forget about it. I never expected anyone to figure out it was me.” Jess said, looking at her tea.

“Ah, bullshit! Why did you put it online if you didn’t want to be found out?” Keith raised an incredulous eyebrow at Jess. His half-smile put her at ease.

“I suppose you’re right about that. I think the lies we tell ourselves are the easiest to believe.” Jess smiled back.

“Fair enough. Continue…”

“Ahem… A few years later, I needed a new creative outlet, so I decided to try stand up comedy. I took a workshop taught by a handsome older comedian named Bill…”

“Ooh, hot for teacher are ya?” Keith’s lascivious grin made Jess roll her eyes again, but she indulged his interest.

“I doubt I’m the only woman who wants to be given a good, hard detention every once in a while.”

“You know, I teach a workshop…”

“Ew, Keith. I think of you more as an uncle… And you’re gonna want to hear the rest of the story.” Jess put her tea down and clasped her hands over her book.

“Okay, okay I’m focused!” Keith struggled to contain his excitement.

“It was bad timing. I was still in a deteriorating relationship and I wish I had had the courage to break it off before expressing interest in anyone else. When I went over Bill’s house, I wasn’t aware that I intended to ruin my relationship.” Jess’s cheeks were glowing red in embarrassment.

“What happened when you went over there? Did you go down on him?” Keith’s glee oozed across the desk at Jess.

“No, he went up on me.” Jess deadpanned.

“What?”

“The details aren’t important. There’s plenty of masturbatory fuel in the book.” Jess cleared her throat at the look of frustrated disappointment on Keith’s face. “Two weeks after that my boyfriend of four years broke up with me… He didn’t find out about Bill, Danny just couldn’t handle the fact that I didn’t believe he was psychic.” Jess delivered, impassive. Keith burst out laughing at what he thought was a joke.

“Wait, you’re serious?” Keith asked.

“As a heart attack. At that point, I was glad to see it end. I thought Bill would be happy I was available…”

“Lemme guess, he wasn’t thrilled that you broke up with your boyfriend for him?” Keith’s skeptical smirk stiffened Jess’s posture.

“Danny broke up with me because I refused to accept his version of reality… The irony of what happened next is not lost on me.” Jess’s jaw was tight. Keith relaxed back in his chair, hands laced behind his head.

“Go on…” Keith languished in the oblique silence before Jess spoke.

“I was painfully alone, living by myself for the first time in my life… I just needed someone to talk to… So I started looking at Drake’s List…” Jess paused, expecting the outburst of excitement.

“Yes! Here’s where we get to the good stuff!” Keith said, bouncing in his chair.

“You’re familiar with Drake’s List?” Jess asked, smiling at Keith’s proclivity for deviance.

“Yeah, I know it’s a website where you can sell a bike… or some pussy.” He bared his tobacco stained teeth at Jess, grinning in expectation of a salacious revelation.

“Hmm. I never thought to charge. Before I met Danny, I used Drake’s List for anonymous sex.” Jess maintained her poise in contrast to the slobbering beast Keith was becoming in front of her.

“So you ditched the boyfriend and started hooking up with random dudes on Drake’s list… I like where this is going.” Keith was barely sitting in his chair, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Not really… I only started looking at Drake’s List again after I saw it in Danny’s search history… A year before we broke up… And six months after my dad died.” The seriousness on Jess’s face seemed to deflate Keith’s excitement. “Dad had problems… I loved him, but we hadn’t spoken in years. Danny didn’t know how to handle my grief and he had some Daddy issues of his own.”

“Oh… That sucks. Why would a guy cheat on a hot little number like you with some skanky chick from Drake’s List?” Keith’s confusion seemed genuine.

“First of all, thank you…” Jess smiled at the complement despite her complete physical aversion to him. “Second, not every woman who likes anonymous sex is a ‘skank’… And third, it was a guy.” Jess giggled through her nose as Keith spit out his coffee.

“Your ex-boyfriend was gay?” Keith said, delighted by this juicy tidbit.

“I don’t think he ever was. I think some folks try out gay sex and decide they like straight sex better…” Jess’s matter-of-fact tone seemed to placate Keith’s giddiness. “I said I forgave him and we just kinda moved on without talking about it anymore. I should have broken it off… But then I met Bill…”

“That’s when you decided to get a little revenge, huh?” Keith’s knowing expression made Jess uncomfortable, but her face remained firm.

“I told myself it wasn’t about that… I didn’t want to hurt Danny… I was just walking around with all of these open emotional wounds and I was desperate for someone to save me…” The reality of these words settled over Jess as they came out of her mouth.

“…And you went to Drake’s List for help?” Keith stated, incredulous. Jess didn’t blame him.

“It wasn’t on purpose. I got a little obsessed with looking through the ads, trying to catch Danny cheating again… Which can be a rather addictive thrill by itself…” Jess’s cheeks were pink again.

“Hey, who doesn’t love a good cheater catch, am I right?” Keith was leaning back in his chair again, enjoying himself.

“I don’t think I really wanted to catch him. It didn’t matter anyway. Danny watched one too many YouTube videos, suddenly discovered he was psychic and that he couldn’t be with someone who didn’t believe he was talking to his dead grandmother. I’m an atheist. You can’t make a cucumber out of a pickle.”

“Your ex is an idiot.” Keith said, full of disdain.

“Danny is intelligent, he just has a lot of growing up to do. It was over before it was over. Unfortunately, I was left with this pathetic habit of checking the personals, wondering who was behind the screen.”

“I think ya dodged a bullet there, kid.” Keith gave her an avuncular nod. Jess returned it with a prim smile.

“Yeah, it would have been smart to take a break from relationships and figure some stuff out… If not for those pesky lingering feelings for Bill. On the surface, he started to push me away… I can’t really blame him, I was acting codependent as hell.”

“Love is a drug best served cold…” Keith delivered in a gravelly, philosophical tone.

“I could have handled outright rejection, but it was more complicated than that.” Jess sipped her tea and took another deep breath. “I started to notice some strange correlations between the ads I was seeing in the ‘Missed Connections’ section of Drake’s List and Bill’s social media posts. It was starting to look like he was posting ads to get my attention. I hadn’t told anyone that I even looked at the personals… it was my dirty little secret… I guess I was in denial that I had been found out.”

“So this guy was posting anonymous ads to mess with your head? How did you know it was him?” A slight skeptical gleam appeared in Keith’s eyes. Jess’s eyes narrowed at him.

“Come on, Keith. I know you’ve been to plenty of open mics where all the male comic’s bits are thinly veiled references to how they want to fuck the one chick comic.” Jess responded.

“Hey, I don’t veil shit, I’ll come right out and tell ya I wanna fuck ya!” Keith guffawed at his own joke. Jess rolled her eyes and smiled.

“Let’s see if I can change that opinion with the rest of this story… It was a lot like an open mic where I feel eyes all over me when all I want are ears for my words… Just online. The ads had references to his posts and vice versa. I would see Bill at open mics in real life and he would make references to the ads in his jokes, right in front of me. It was getting a little weird. When the ads started to have references to where I had been that day, I started to get creeped out. It was becoming clear that my phone was being tracked.”

“Whoa, that is seriously creepy! This dude was stalking you?” Genuine concern seeped into Keith’s eyebrows. Jess appreciated that.

“It appeared that way. I decided to confront Bill about what was going on, but I didn’t have the guts to do it in person, so I sent him an email.”

“Oh, yeah? How did that go?” Keith’s expression was back to cynical stasis.

“Not well. He denied everything and blocked me. It was still happening and I still had feelings for him… I just didn’t have anyone to talk to.” Jess said.

“Why didn’t you talk to the cops?” Keith said, as if that was the obvious answer.

“And tell them what? This dude I hooked up with once may be stalking me based on these thinly veiled references in anonymous ads I’ve been obsessing over?” Jess snapped. Her flash of anger took Keith aback. He held his hands up in defense.

“Good point… Continue.” Keith said, folding his hands in front of him.

“There was an ad in the ‘Strictly Platonic’ section that I knew was posted by Bill…”

“How did you know it was him?” Keith interjected in the gentlest tone he could muster.

“It was written in the same voice. A writer’s voice is difficult to disguise from a discerning eye…” Jess smiled at the irony.

“Did you save screenshots?” Keith probed.

“Yes.”

“Can we see them?”

“No. You can believe me or not. I don’t need to prove anything. I’m just here to tell my story.” Jess held her ground.

“Okay…” Keith held an air of skepticism with a whiff of openness that emboldened Jess’s stance.

“The ad simply offered someone to talk to, which is what I needed more than anything. So, knowing it was Bill, I started talking…”

“Oh yeah? About what?” The lascivious tone was back in Keith’s expression.

“Well, my mom had cancer at the time, so it was mostly about that at first…” Jess said, intending to pop his bubble of arousal.

“Oh… I’m sorry.” Keith said. Jess could tell there was more truth in those words than any he had spoken so far.

“You didn’t give her cancer. And don’t worry, she’s better now.” Jess said, in a warmer tone.

“Good. You know I took care of my mom when she was dying of liver cancer, right?” Keith said, vying for solidarity.

“Yes, I read your book. That’s why I wanted to talk to you about this, I figured you would understand the desperate mindset that develops when your parent is sick.” The tenderness in Jess’s voice shifted something in the air between them. They were survivors together.

“Absolutely…” Keith said, his eyes drifting off into some dark memory.

“Once the floodgates were open, there was no stopping me. I poured everything into those emails. I talked about my dad, my ex, my mom, my life, Bill… Everything that was bottled up inside me came rushing out like someone popped a champagne cork.” Jess took a deep, shuddering breath at the memory. “I needed the release so badly, it didn’t even matter he was pretending to be a sixty-nine-year-old biker.” Jess giggled at Keith’s double take.

“Um… Wait, what?” Keith asked, flabbergasted.

“Are you familiar with the term ‘catfish’?” Jess asked in response.

“Yeah, isn’t that when pathetic nerds create fake online profiles with pictures of hot people and hit on women, right?”

“I used to catfish… ostensibly for political protection. You can’t breathe in the wrong direction of the NRA without getting death threats from gun nuts.”

“Pssht. You never used a fake name to get laid?” Keith made a skeptical smirk.

“What am I, a superhero?” Jess shrugged, prompting a low chuckle from Keith. “I suppose we can smell our own… But even an idiot could have figured out this guy’s a character.”

“You’re the character, little lady!” Keith guffawed as if that were a joke.

“No, like literally, he was pretending to be someone else online.” Jess rolled her eyes, crossed her arms in exasperation. “Ugh, this is hard to explain. Have you ever heard of Tony Clifton?”

“Tony Clifton? Yeah, I did a gig with Tony in the 70’s at the Phoenix Improv.” Keith kicked back and grinned at his presumed credibility.

“Well, everyone knows Tony Clifton is a character created by Andy Kaufman and Bob Zamuda, right?” Jess searched Keith’s expression for recognition in vain.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Keith said, suddenly suspicious.

“Are you serious? I thought everyone knew that! There was a movie about it starring Jim Carrey, it won a bunch of awards!” Jess couldn’t believe she found the one podcast host on Earth who wasn’t in on that joke. Keith remained bewildered by the revelation.

“Are you telling me… I shared a stage with Andy Kaufman?” A touch of wonder tinged Keith’s expression and made Jess smile.

“Well, yeah… Or Bob Zamuda. They shared the character to fool people. They didn’t invent catfishing, but they sure did make good use of the idea… If you consider filtering all of their worst impulses as performers and human beings into an awful character with an over-inflated ego a good idea… Which I do! But I’m not the only one…” Jess peered across the desk at Keith, who was lost in the glee of a 40-year-old prank. She snapped her fingers to bring him back.

“Oh, so uh, what you’re saying is this guy was pulling a Tony Clifton on ya?” Keith asked, the joy lingering in his smile.

“Sort of… He was pretending to be a biker who went by the name of ‘Grizzly’… We exchanged emails and texts, talked on the phone… He never broke character, but I recognized his voice.” Jess stated, quite sure of herself.

“This is weird, why didn’t this guy just talk to you as himself? Why all the theatrics?” Keith said, sounding on her side.

“I… Well, I used to have this problem with confidence. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to Bill in real life. It was already awkward because of the sexual encounter and it was starting to feel weird having extremely intimate conversations with someone playing a character, then seeing that person in real life… I didn’t know how to act.” Jess said, pitying her former self.

“Intimate, huh? How intimate?” Keith said, wiggling his eyebrows at Jess.

“Very.” Jess set her lips in a line of firm resolution. Her fingers traced the heart on the book, unconsciously indicating the sultry content within.

“Come on, Jess! We’re gonna lose listeners if ya don’t give up some details…” Keith pleaded in a taunting tone.

“Well…” Jess looked around conspiratorially, as if there were anyone else in the studio. “I liked calling him Daddy.”

“Shit, I have to pay girls to call me Daddy! Haha… Or bang their mom twenty years ago.” Keith chuckled.

“He got me to embrace a lot of things I liked. There was a kind of freedom in the anonymity.” Jess said, savoring a deep inhale.

“Did you send him pictures?” Keith said, leaning forward, suppressing a grin.

“Yes… It had been a while since I felt… Beautiful. Sexy. Desirable. Talking to Daddy Grizz felt good for my self esteem.” Jess said, corralling his full attention.

“It’s crazy to think a girl like you could ever have self esteem problems.” Keith said, unsubtly looking her up and down.

“Thanks Keith, but I think everyone is a little ‘crazy’, no matter what they look like. I got into stand up comedy to confront a lot of those issues and I fell in deep and fast.” Jess intended a sinister tone, came off as seductive again.

“You fell in love…” Keith said, revealing a tenderness that softened Jess’s smile.

“Yes… But it took me a long time to realize it wasn’t with Bill… And it wasn’t necessarily with the Mic… Although I was starting to see the therapeutic benefits of both.” Jess replied.

“A lot of comics end up working out mental issues on the mic. It can be horrifying or brilliant! I always say, if either Stand Up Comedy or Psychiatry went out of business, the other would close their doors too!” Keith said.

“I did have an excuse to go back to the open mic every week. I was terrible as any newbie, but at least I was trying, even though it was out of spite.” Jess said, feeling the tendons between her shoulder blades relax. She was starting to feel like an equal.

“Ah, everybody’s terrible at first. Why did you let this guy intimidate you? Couldn’t you have told the club owner?” Keith asked, the protective, uncle-like tone back in his demeanor.

“I was afraid to tell ANYONE. It made me sound crazy or like I was being tricked or something. Besides, Bill totally ignored me in public. None of his jokes used my name. I couldn’t prove a god damn thing! I didn’t want to sound like some crazy jilted lover, concocting a wild conspiracy theory to ruin the reputation of the man who cast me aside!” Jess raised her voice just shy of shouting for emphasis. Keith leaned back as if bracing for a physical attack.

“Some things sound the worst in our own heads?” Keith offered. Jess paused, then burst out laughing.

“Haha, I’m glad I decided to talk to you, Keith. These incredibly profound statements just tumble out of your face sometimes.” Jess said, wiping a tear away from the corner of her eye.

“Thank you! So, go on, the dude is fucking with your head and you’re sending nudes to a grizzly bear…” Keith urged. Jess giggled through her nose again.

“I was falling in love and I didn’t know what to do. A few days before Halloween that year, I worked up the courage to at least talk to Bill…” Jess said, cringing at the memory.

“What’d ya say?” Keith coaxed.

“I just said ‘Hi Bill!’…” Jess’s voice cracked on the last syllable. She cleared her throat.

“And?”

“He said ‘Stop acting weird.’ and walked away.” Jess said.

“Oof. That’s cold.” Keith responded, in a mixture of pity, anger, and protectiveness.

“I fuckin’ snapped when I got back to the car. I started speed texting ‘Daddy Grizz’ that I was gonna post all of our emails online and tell everyone he was stalking me unless he dropped the act.” Jess looked at her nails as she spoke. Her cheeks were bright red.

“Hmm. How’d that go?”

“Welp, he didn’t cave. Even though it was mortifying as fuck, I told on myself. I posted all of the emails in a manic, self-destructive social media post. I told everyone I was being stalked and I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t use Bill’s name, but there were plenty of local comics who figured it out.” Jess said.

“Probably national comics too…” Keith said.

“What?”

“Oh, uh… Nothing. So, keep going, what happened next?” Keith said, eyes darting around. Jess pursed her lips and shook her head. She had a sense she was telling this story to someone who already knew the ending.

“Anyway… My mom was going through radiation at the time, so I went back to Virginia to stay with her for a while. I needed to get away.”

“That’s understandable, considering how unsafe you were.” Keith said.

“That’s the thing… I didn’t feel unsafe… Just watched. He never made any threats of violence and I never told him to stop talking to me or leave me alone. I just wanted him to stop pretending to be someone he wasn’t.” Jess pleaded for understanding.

“You and half the women on Earth!” Keith joked. Jess smiled and nodded.

“I suppose there’s a learning curve in every relationship, but this was ridiculous! Gaslighing distorts your reality…” Jess said in a grim tone.

“Now, what the fuck is Gaslighting? I’ve heard the femminazis use that term, but I never really understood it.” Keith baited with a smug half-grin.

“It’s when someone does something that drives you crazy and then tells you you’re crazy. It’s based on a play from the 1940’s where a husband keeps turning down the gaslights and telling the wife it’s not really happening, she’s just crazy.” Jess responded.

“That’s a hell of a gag.” Keith said, dripping with morbid curiosity.

“Except he was doing it so badly, it was easy to see through all the nonsense, he just wouldn’t admit it. I know bullshitters, my dad was an alcoholic. I grew up believing beer was legitimate pain relief medicine.”

“That is Bullshit! Whiskey is medicinal though… I have a prescription!” Keith said, pointing to a frame on the wall containing a piece of paper printed in comic sans. The text said “I can do whatever I want.”

“Indeed. I was so angry he was acting like my dad that I couldn’t see what was really going on… He had created a fake character for me to work out all my issues without burning all my bridges. He made it easy to see through the bullshit because the world is FULL of bullshitters who will NEVER admit their lies. I have to be secure in my own reality and not fall to pieces when I can’t make someone tell the truth.” Jess took several heavy breaths.

“I don’t think you should make anyone do anything.” Keith said, arms crossed.

“Certainly not without admissible evidence. He was very careful about that. So, I decided to fight Gaslighting with fire. When I was staying with my mom, I would drive her to radiation treatments by day and go to comedy open mics in DC by night. I used several fake names, made jokes about my mom’s cancer, having a stalker, et cetera. I felt like I was actually getting better at it, hearing more laughs than awkward silences, just because I was angry and I didn’t give a fuck.” Jess smiled at the memory.

“Hmm. I’d kinda like to hear one of those jokes.” Keith said, already amused.

“Okay… I used to start every set like this…” Jess cleared her throat and held up an invisible microphone. “I have to make a confession… It’s not a popular one, but I’m tired of the stigma! So here goes… I have one of those, ya know (looking down) stalkers!” Jess paused for Keith’s polite chuckle. “The tag is: ‘Did ya think I was gonna say ‘penis’? Nah, but he is a dick.'”

“Ha! Good one, kid. Bold too.” Keith nodded in approval.

“You’re too kind… The downside is, false confidence fueled by anger tends to dissipate. I was still lonely and depressed, so I started talking to ‘Daddy Grizz’ again.” Jess said, looking down.

“Hey, we’ve all had that one who keeps coming back.” Keith consoled.

“He was always there when I needed someone to talk to. After mom’s treatment, I decided to go back to New York and see a therapist.”

“Sounds like it was about time.” Keith said, giving her an encouraging nod.

“I’ll say! It was really helpful to have a professional to talk to. I would just tell her my feelings, she would explain why I was feeling that way and how I could handle it better. If I had known it was that simple, I wouldn’t have resisted so long.” Jess said, feeling her shoulders lower in relaxation.

“Everyone needs a little help sometimes. Sounds like it wasn’t exactly shock treatment?”

“It was a huge relief. I worked through a lot. One day I heard the song ‘Sunday Morning’ by The Velvet Underground come on the radio and I just started sobbing… I realized all of the pain and anger I experienced was because I missed my dad. He loved that song. He was a complicated mess, but I loved him.” Jess refused to let the tears burning behind her eyes flow.

“Wow…” Keith said, stunned.

“Yeah… That night, I was determined to apologize to Bill for everything I said about him. He had a show and I tried to talk to him before…”

“Why would you talk to a comic before a show?” Keith asked.

“It was either that or sit there staring at him the whole time. He yelled an ran away as soon as he saw me, so I left.” Jess said.

“Yeesh.” Keith winced at the awkwardness.

“I cried the whole way home. I spent the next day in bed… And the next night, something happened that changed my life.” Jess said, elation seeping into her smile.

“Oh yeah? What was that?” Keith asked, seeming glad to see her smile.

“Do you watch the show ‘American Family’?” Jess asked.

“The cartoon? Yeah, I love it! Bruce is just like my dad!” Keith said, slightly confused.

“Me too. Have you seen the episode where Bruce is in therapy?” She coaxed.

“The one where Elton John is the shrink? Yeah, funny stuff!” Keith agreed, still befuddled.

“When I saw that episode, I realized Henry O’Connor was the one stalking me the whole time.” Jess said, a huge grin growing on her face. Several seconds of silence filled the space.

“What?!” Keith almost shouted.

“Yep.”

“For real?”

“Totes.”

“Henry O’Connor, the celebrity?”

“I’d like to think of him as an artist, but yeah.” Jess smiled.

“Jesus, if people found out a celebrity was stalking a fan, it would be big news! Why didn’t you go to the press?” Keith asked. Jess was intensely relieved he wasn’t doubting her.

“That’s what I’m doing now. It took me a while to figure out how to tell this story. I was afraid of sounding crazy.” Jess said, a twinge of anxiety still knitting her eyebrows.

“You don’t sound crazy. You’re a young chick with some emotional issues, but you’re not some babbling psychopath.” Keith urged.

“Thank you, Keith. That means a lot.” Jess said, giving him an affectionate pat on his hand.

“So, Henry O’Connor, huh? That guy was stalking you? I gotta ask, how did you know?” Keith asked.

“I’m not sure why it took so long to hit me. Remember that fan fiction I mentioned? The title was ‘What I Would Do Sexually to Henry O’Connor’.” Jess grinned at Keith’s outburst of laughter.

“No! Haha! That’s fuckin’ hilarious!” Keith wasn’t laughing at Jess and she could tell.

“I don’t know why I thought he wouldn’t read it… I guess I caught his interest.” Jess said, smiling at herself.

“Jess, you’re lucky you didn’t write a story titled ‘How I Wanna Bang Keith Dewey’, you’d be chained up in my basement right now!” Keith laughed at his own joke.

“If I wanted to be chained up in your basement, I’m sure all I would have to do is ask.” Jess admonished, still smiling.

“You let me know.”

“Sure.”

“So that Grizzly guy wasn’t really Bill?” Keith asked, back on track.

“Nope. Neither was Bill.”

“Wait, what?” Keith cocked his head to the side, confused again.

“Bill and Grizz were both Henry.” Jess said.

“Whoa…” Keith sighed.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’?” Jess asked.

“The one where the divorced guy dresses in drag and tricks his whole family into thinking he’s a granny? Classic!” Keith said, still amused and confused as things started to click into place.

“Bill and Grizz were both Henry’s version of Mrs. Doubtfire.” Jess explained.

“You mean he dressed like an old lady?” Keith said, grinning.

“Haha, not that I know of, but there was some movie-quality latex makeup involved. Bill and Henry looked nothing alike, but neither do Ron Pearlman and Hellboy.”

“Who?”

“Comic books.”

“Ah… This sounds…” Keith hesitated.

“Crazy?” Jess finished. “Yeah, I know. It gets crazier. Not long after that, I met another comedian named Lewis Richards.”

“Do you mean Richard Lewis?”

“Pssht, he’s not that neurotic.” Jess said, rolling her eyes and smiling. “I fell in love with Lew’s voice while listening to his comedy albums around the time I started going to open mics. His stories were hilarious, intellectual, utilized gorgeous language and stirred some deep emotions. When I met Lew, I knew he was really Henry in disguise.”

“How…? Ya know what? Okay.” Keith said, throwing his hands up in mock defeat. “What happened next?”

“Lew said he was working on his movie in LA over the summer, so I asked him if I could come and help out. I’ve always loved movies and I wanted to see how far Henry would take this gag.” Jess said, half-smiling.

“So, you were okay with all this?” Keith asked.

“More than that. It was the best thing that ever happened to me…” Jess said, drifting off for a blissful beat. “I quit my job in New York and I told ‘Daddy Grizz’ I was running away to Hollywood. That’s when he said he wanted to meet me.”

“You never actually met the biker dude?” Keith said, incredulous.

“Nope, we communicated over the phone, through text and email, bit I’d never met him IRL. Since I was leaving anyway, I decided to see where this would go…” Jess paused for emphasis.

“And? Did Henry show up?” Keith said, on the edge of his seat. Jess was enjoying herself.

“Yup. As Daddy Grizz, in character, wearing a fat suit, and riding a Harley.” Jess said, giggling.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up. Fat suit?!” Keith said, delighted by this information.

“Daddy Grizz was a 69-year-old biker. Henry went all out with the costume. I could see the color contacts in his eyes, I could feel the muscles of his shoulders under the rubber suit, and red marks didn’t appear on his back, no matter how hard I scratched…” Jess said, struggling to contain her exhilaration.

“You’re into fat old bikers?” Keith said, immersed in confusion again.

“I’m into Henry O’Connor. I knew he was in there.” Jess said, never more sure of herself.

Did he get in there?”Keith pressed, his eyes darting to Jess’s lap, then back to her face.

“I’ll tell ya one thing, Keith. Voice actors have some talented tongues.” Jess said, raising a salacious eyebrow.

“Damn, I gotta get cast in some cartoons!” Keith laughed.

“I had a lot of fun with Daddy Grizz.” Jess continued. “He took me shopping, helped with my laundry, I sat on his lap and ate an ice cream cone at a motorcycle rally in Lake George… That’s when I realized the fat suit was good camouflage. Henry is too famous to do all that stuff without it ending up on the news. We got to be un-famous together for a bit. It was nice. I was kinda sad to go, but LA was calling and we had a movie to make! So, I headed west.”

“What was the movie about?” Keith asked.

“What’s any indie movie about? A young artist trying to find her place in the world.” Jess chuckled. “But this one was brilliant. I’d always felt like Henry’ writing skills were severely under-appreciated. Start out in comedy and that’s all some folks think you’re good for.”

“Are ya saying I should play Hamlet?” Keith joked.

“Do you want to play Hamlet?” Jess asked.

“No.”

“Then don’t. Your comedy is tragic enough!” Jess laughed.

“Touche, kid!” Keith said, smiling despite himself. Jess smiled back.

“I think all good comedy has an element of tragedy. Lew’s movie was hilarious, but it effected me in such a profound emotional way. The main character was a young woman, also named ‘Lew’, who would create these Banksy-style art projects that were more like practical jokes, then get upset when the art world turned its snooty nose up at them. Movie-Lew was me, she was IRL-Lew, she was every artist struggling to earn that elusive big break. The male lead was just a guy trying to help her out. That’s what Henry was doing for me. During one scene where two characters are arguing in a bathroom, I had to crouch in the corner with the slate. I started shaking because I was getting flashbacks to my childhood. Then Lew said ‘Cut!’ and it was over. It dawned on me… I could do that with my own thoughts. Do you realize how fucking grateful I am for this information?!” Jess said, an evangelical zeal wafting from her being.

“Sounds therapeutic…” Keith responded, fascinated and a little intimidated.

“It was… But I was neglecting my actual cognitive behavioral therapy while I was in LA and I ended up getting overwhelmed. Towards the end of the summer, my mental health declined to the point where I was borderline suicidal, so Lew offered me a plane ticket or a bus ticket back to Virginia. I took the bus ticket because I needed a few cathartic travelling days. When I got back to Grandma’s basement, I started therapy again and began writing my novel.” Jess breathed a sigh of relief. She felt like she just ran a marathon.

“Hmm… So, did ya bang Lew?” Keith said, a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Our relationship was strictly platonic.” Jess responded, her lips set in a firm line.

“Really? Come on…” Keith grinned, skeptical.

“Why would you want me to say any different? Who are you helping?” Jess snapped. Keith put his hands up again.

“Okay, okay… So what’s the novel about?” Keith asked.

“It’s an adaptation of the fan fiction I wrote several years ago, mingled with some fictionalized reflections of my life at the time I was writing it, leading up to when I met Danny.” Jess said, bright-eyed in self-pride.

“Interesting. Why wouldn’t you include the story you just told me in the novel?” Keith asked.

“I’m doing that right now. We are in the novel.” Jess looked around at invisible observers.

“No shit?”

“No shit. You, Keith, are also a fictional character. While Bill and Grizz were amalgams of all the men who ever let me down and Lew was a compilation of every man who ever gave me what I needed, you are a mixture of several podcast hosts, comedians and writers who I knew would challenge my reality… in order to make it stronger. You’re like a vaccine for my soul.” Jess explained.

“Get out!” Keith said, laughing in existential amusement. Jess looked at her phone.

“Unfortunately, I have to. Big things coming up…” Jess put her novel back in her bag.

“One last thing… Did you ever think you were wrong?” Keith asked as softly as he could muster.

“Every damn day… But I don’t let that stop me.” Jess said, grinning.

“Haha! You’re alright, Jess. Okay, I know ya gotta go. This has been ‘Kickin’ it with Keith Dewey’ folks. Catch ya next time!” Keith said, clicking off air. They both took off their headphones.

“Thanks, Keith! This was fun!” Jess said, shaking his hand.

“I’ll say! Even though you’re batshit crazy!” Keith cajoled.

“Oh, I know… but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

***

Jess got into the passenger side of the Tesla outside the studio as Jade shouted into her Blu-tooth.

“Yes, the dressing room needs to be wheelchair accessible! Are you fuckin’ high? Listen, you smarmy fuck! No, shut the fuck up and put my words in your brain right the fuck now. If Mandy has to deal with even an ounce of stress before the show, we will take this comedy special to a network who knows who the fuck they’re dealing with! Ya got me?! Good. We will be there in thirty minutes… wait, no. Twenty minutes! Make it happen, Jack.” Jade clicked the button on her earpiece and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Hello, sunshine!” Jess cheered, clicking her seat belt.

“How’d it go?” Jade asked. The vehicle whirred to life.

“Great, better than expected!” Jess said, sinking into the leather seat.

“What’d you expect?” Said a voice from the backseat. Jess made a happy gasp.

“Baby!” Jess shouted before diving into the backseat to kiss Henry in a frenzy. Jade laughed and started driving.

“Guys, calm down. If the EP’s show up smelling of sex funk, we’re gonna lose some credibility.” Jade said, rolling her eyes and smiling at the swirling tangle of limbs and lips in the backseat. Jess popped her head between the seats.

“Jade, you should know by now… We can do whatever the fuck we want!” Jess said, diving back in to make out with Henry more.

“Yes we can!”