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I Do Not Want This
By Serge Timmers
Cover photo: Gootslaper
(c) 2019 – All rights reserved
First e-book edition – April 2019
“He kept shouting at me, yelling that we had no other choice. Maybe I thought that there was a way of stopping him, even though it had always been impossible to reason with Daniel. It was a horrible drive, in the pouring rain, through the vast darkness of the countryside. I thought he was going to kill all of us. He drove fast, most of the time way over the speed limits. Daniel was used to that. After all, he was a race car driver, but I wasn't. It made me sick to my stomach but he didn't want to stop, not even to let me out of the car to empty my stomach. You know what he did? He gave me a brown bag, one of those things to cover your bottle of liquor with. As we drove over the highway, my stomach emptied in the bag and all the way through he was talking, yelling, saying that there was no other choice, that this was the only option. We were drunk. Over the years it had become a habit to grab the bottle every time Angelique had one of her attacks, as we called them. Tequila, vodka, whiskey, ... It didn't matter. Alcohol seemed our only escape from this dreadful curse. The girl was sleeping, as she did after every attack. It completely wore her out. Sometimes she slept for twenty hours in a row, time for us to get wasted and forget our troubles for a short while. But troubles had always followed us and now they were here to claim their price.
I first started to panic after he drove past the hospital. That's where my eyes truly opened. He wasn't going to take us to the emergency room. He clearly had different plans. I asked him: “Who are you texting?” He just told me to be silent. Once we passed the hospital, he locked the doors and hit the gas. I was so scared. I watched the lights of the highway and the rapidly changing environment. There, in those houses near the hill, people had normal lives, with normal children. I couldn't see them but I could image their movements and habits. It all looked so surreal, as if my life was flashing in front of my eyes. I wondered if this was what dying feels like. I saw the lights of those houses, flickering like a stroboscope as we headed towards the woods. I wanted him to stop but I couldn't even talk properly. Each word I wanted to say ended up in the bag of vomit between my legs. I closed my eyes and tried to meditate myself to sobriety. It didn't work and the awful smell started filling the car. It made things even worse. The stench surely infuriated Daniel. It wasn't the first time he became violent but it was the first time his fist met my eye. It all happened so quickly. There was blood on my face, mixing with tears and sweat. His punch hurt my eye so much that I couldn't keep it open. I must have been in shock. Daniel ordered me to be quiet. He slightly opened the window to clear out the foul smell, and yelled. “This was bound to happen, you know that! Now stop whining. It's best for all of us.” I was scared.
Angelique was still in a deep sleep in the back seat, even through all the noise and the rain pouring on the roof. She was completely out. All I could and can hope is that she never noticed anything of the violence, the fear and the despair I felt. My whole body was engulfed in a frenzy of emotions. Of course I was frightened. I didn't want to lose my little girl. I'm a mother, you know, and a mother feels things differently, stronger than anyone else. But on the other hand, this child was impossible to raise properly. Deep inside of me, a voice said that Daniel was right. This probably would be for the better. Perhaps now a normal life was awaiting us. Somewhere, maybe, another family knew how to handle a child like this. Perhaps now we could start over and live without the stress of raising this devil's child. I never liked that thought, and judging from the past several years, that so-called normal life was definitely not meant to be. Not for me. Someone once tried to comfort me with the words “God has a plan for you” but for me it felt like God was too busy with other people's plans. That night, God was nowhere to be found.
After Daniel finally stopped the car, I got out to bask in the rain. I thought this would be my last chance to change his mind and to shut up that little voice inside. I tripped on the brim of the car and fell into a puddle. The water was muddy and cold but I didn't mind. Somehow the water felt refreshing, almost like a cold shower after a hot day. Daniel was still in the car, reminiscing, I guessed. I closed my eyes and let the water cool me down before I tried to talk to him one final time. We were at the old fort. I could hear the sound of jackdaws, answering the cold wind. My mouth tasted like blood and vomit. Then I heard him again. He got out of the car. He didn't even look at me. He opened the back door and picked up our little girl. Two and a half years old, she was. Still asleep, so deeply that it looked more like a coma. From underneath the car, I could see his feet and legs. He put her down near the old oak tree. I was almost pleasantly surprised when he wrapped her in his jacket. It was as if he was not just trying to leave her behind to die. Not here, not in this fort where people walk their dogs. Someone would find her. Still, that thought was not comforting in any way. She was holding onto her doll, Alice. He stood there for a few seconds before he turned around and walked back to the car. I prepared to get up from my freezing puddle and rush towards my baby girl. My head felt as if my brain was turning around inside.
The next thing I felt was the cold, hard metal of the car door slamming in my face. I fell down into the puddle again. I gasped for air as I heard the engine start. He simply drove off, or so I thought. I tried to get back on my feet. I was covered in mud. I was bleeding but I had to reach Angelique. I crawled over the old asphalt road when I suddenly heard the engine again, somewhere further up the road. One roar, two roars. Then, the lights, a bright flash into my eyes. The roaring of the engine went into overdrive. The lights became bigger and the noise became louder. I froze in the middle of the asphalt as the car raged towards me. I was dead, I just knew it. There, on the ground, in fetal position, I was about to be ran over by my own husband. I screamed. The engine bellowed. Then, the sound of breaking glass, followed by a thud. Then nothing. Silence again, interrupted by the sound of Angelique sitting down on the leaves. I looked up. The car was right in front of me, a metre, maybe two. The front window was smashed to pieces but there was no dent, nothing. I remember looking at my hands, they were shaking and cramped. Then, I heard a blackbird singing its song. It calmed me down, enough to finally get up, away from the car and towards Angelique.
There was only one possible explanation to the whole event and she was sitting near the old oak tree. She was crying and shivering. I walked towards the girl when I saw Daniel, laying down further down the road. He was not moving. I was not sure if he was dead or not but I had to get out of there. He had tried to kill me. Just like that. I figured that if he was still alive, another murder attempt would follow soon. I had to get out of there. It was cold. The rain was pouring and my daughter was falling asleep again. She saved my life and now it was my turn to save hers. I grabbed a blanket from the car and wrapped her up. With her in my arms I started walking towards the gate. Along the way she must have dropped Alice. I was in some sort of trance. Like a mantra I kept repeating: “I will love you. I will cherish you. I will protect you.”
The controllers floated over the coffee table. Hovering freely, they almost looked like zeppelins above a field of grass. On the screen the red team was on the attack. The score was one-zero for the blacks in the last few seconds of the game. A goal would lead to extra time, giving the reds a chance to win the world championship. Four eyes were glued to the screen. The sound of the cheering audience filled the living room. They screamed louder and louder as the red players assaulted the blacks' goal. Then, the left controller suddenly swept sideways in an attempt to block Dylan's view. He moved his head. The controller followed, as if it was attached to his face. “Come on, man. Fucking cheater.” Dylan moved his hand, almost invisibly, and the right controller unplugged. “Shit!” Louis yelled. With the red team now the only one moving, player number six kicked the ball and hit the pole, immediately followed by the annoying sound of the buzzer. Game over. Louis won. “That's low, you know. No peekays next time, or I'll catapult a bottle to your crotch.” Dylan stood up. Louis shrugged. “Calm down, man, you never stood a chance. You missed that last shot so I won fair and square. I'm still the psycho-gaming world champion.” Dylan opened the fridge and grabbed two cans of beer. He threw one to Louis and grinned, “Well, next time I get to choose the game so you'll be getting your ass handed to you in a good old fashioned Streetfighter battle.” Louis opened the can and took a big sip. “Streetfighter, you say, without peekays. That's going to be awesome.”
The men had been friends their entire lives. They were born on the same day of the same month, Louis exactly two years after Dylan. The courses of their lives had never been easy. From the very beginning there had been family issues and forced relocations, rather often caused by the boys' strange behavior. Their bond was immense, formed by their similar levels of intelligence but mostly by their unnatural ability to move things with their minds. Now, well in their thirties, Dylan and Louis seemed to have calmed down. Dylan had settled in the city, in search of anonymity and concealment. With the money earned from both legal and sub-legal activities with a combination of handy work and psychokinesis, he had entered the real estate market. He had bought some property, a few old buildings in the city, which he put up for rent. One of those became a pet store where Dylan accepted a part-time job to kill time and to exploit some loopholes in tax regulations. Louis had moved to a small town at the coast to pursue a career in computer technology and to find tranquility. Somehow, for the first time in their lives, the men were at ease. For the first time, they could honestly answer the question “How are you?” with “Fine.” Until now, “Fine” had just been a synonym for “I don't think I belong here.”
Sam knocked on the door and entered the living room. He looked tired. His clothes were covered with splashes of white paint. So were his hair and nails. “You're a better guitarist than a painter.” Dylan laughed. Sam looked at his hands and his feet. He shrugged. “I guess I better leave my shoes in the hallway. I must have stepped in some paint.” “Stepped? You look like the bucket exploded in your face. Grab yourself a beer since you're near the fridge and cover my sofa before you get paint all over it. I guess the room isn't ready yet?” Sam threw some old newspapers on the couch and sat down. He sighed. Louis laughed at the hilarious situation. “So, what's up, buddy, ready for the big day?” Sam took a big sip from the beer and grinned. “Oh, I will be ready, her mom will make me be ready, even if it drives me insane. I don't get it. Charlotte is such a sweet, nice and loving creature but her mom is the reincarnation of Stalin himself. They're up there now, discussing the table lay-out with a wedding day planner. It's madness. We're inviting twenty-six people. Her folks, my folks, some family, her best friends and the boys from the band. Twenty-six. That shouldn't be a reason for discussion, right?” Dylan smiled. “You'll be fine. You're going to Burma, how awesome is that?” “Yeah, all thanks to you, Dyl. I actually just dropped by to thank you for everything. I can only hope that Charlotte doesn't ever find out that it wasn't me who stopped that bottle from hitting her in the back of the head.” Dylan looked at his friend. His face became dead-serious. “Look, kiddo, you promised you wouldn't tell anyone and I expect you to keep that promise. I saw the bottle flying through the air and reacted, almost automatically. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. Maybe I shouldn't have risked blowing my cover there but we made a good deal. You got Charlotte and I got you to stop playing that awful riff. So nothing bad came out of it. Now shut up and get married to that goth chick of yours. And don't ever tell anyone what really happened that day or I'll detune your strings on stage for the rest of your rock 'n' roll career.” On those words, the three men toasted and cheered.
Sam's respect for Dylan was tremendous. The two first met at a concert, several months before Dylan had decided to move to the city. That night, the duo spent hours talking about broken relationships, depression, the power of music and the meaning of life. Plans were made, mostly to play some music but also for both men to turn their lives around. Only a few weeks after Dylan had settled in his newly acquired property, Sam moved into one of the other flats above the pet shop. In no time the men were jamming and recording self-written songs together. The project became a band and they played a few shows at small bars in and around the city. It was at one of those shows, the last one, that Dylan's powers had taken the upper hand. One of the local drunks had become aggressive and started throwing things into the audience. One beer bottle was in a direct collision course with the head of a young lady, dressed in black. She had no idea what was about to happen as she was thoroughly enjoying the music. In a flash, Sam's guitar flew out of his hands. The scene almost looked like botched showboating of an egocentric guitarist but somehow the head of the instrument aligned perfectly with the bottle. The glass shattered and fell to the floor as three people threw themselves at the troublemaker in an effort to stop him. Sam had no idea what was happening but in an excellent move of romantic opportunism he jumped off the stage and took care of the frightened girl. During the entire event, Dylan was playing his drums as if he had absolutely nothing to do with it. Later that night, during a confused conversation about the happenings, Sam claimed he had noticed the movements in the drummer's eyes, from the girl to the bottle to the guitar and back again, at a massive speed. Dylan, rather tipsy and still filled with adrenaline, admitted and talked about his paranormal abilities, but only after he made Sam swear to keep silent about it. Now, Sam was about to get married to Charlotte, a dark haired, dark eyed girl with a bright smile on her face. With her fragile and vulnerable appearance, she was the wet dream of many boys but thanks to his heroism on that stage, Sam was about to travel to Burma with her. For Sam, getting acquainted with Dylan was the start of a complete turnaround. He found a steady job in an orphanage. He moved out of a downward spiraling, drugs loaded co-housing project and he found the love of his life while doing what he loved the most: playing music. For Sam, Dylan was some sort of guardian angel, sent from heaven to watch over him. But Dylan refused to be adored. He refused to be anything else than a friend and perhaps a strict but honest landlord.
A few minutes after Sam had left the flat, Louis decided to leave as well. He had an important meeting with a client the next day, something which sounded extremely boring to Dylan. Still, he wished his friend the best of luck and they picked a next date for their gaming duel. As soon as the door closed, Dylan opened the window to overlook the street and the little square. It was late in the evening. The only people on the streets were party goers and one homeless man. All of them were intoxicated and all of them were singing. The students were chanting something they had learned at their most recent cantus. The homeless man was mumbling a sad love song from the sixties. For Dylan, living here was far from perfect, but at least almost nobody really knew him. In this city, Dylan could walk around and be exactly like the next mortal. Nobody expected anything from him, nobody needed him to do stupid chores. Here, in the hustle and bustle of the city, his raging soul was finding tranquility. He walked up to the cupboard and grabbed a glass and a bottle of whiskey. He opened the balcony door and walked outside. There was music, a party in one of the venues down the street. There were the sounds of an ambulance, a police helicopter and a car horn in the distance. Dylan looked around, peered at the windows of the apartment buildings across the street. Most were dark. Here and there the flashing lights of televisions pierced the darkness of the warm autumn night. Several people were watching the same movie, Dylan concluded. He put his hands in his pockets and poured some whiskey into the glass.
From up on his balcony, he could see Louis returning to the building. He was mumbling something and checking his pockets. Before he could ring the bell, Louis heard Dylan's voice through the intercom. “Phone?” Louis sighed. “Yeah, phone.” “Come on up.” The door unlocked and moments later Louis entered the living room again. Dylan pointed to the device on the coffee table but while doing that, he noticed a worried look on Louis' face. “What's wrong?” Louis looked up at his friend. “Why didn't you just lie to Sam back then? Why did you admit it was a peekay?” Dylan shrugged. “I just thought he needed to know. He'll never tell anyone. Sam is too kindhearted to ever abuse these talents. Besides, you know how hard is it for us to lie.” The answer seemed far from sufficient to Louis. He picked up his phone and looked if there had been any messages, but nothing. Then he looked at his friend again, who was gazing at the stars. “Dyl, we need to be careful with this, you know that.” Dylan nodded towards the couch, hinting his friend to sit down. “Look, man, I'll be honest. I miss you. I know you like solitude and isolation but I can't stand it. The sounds of the sea make me think, ponder, regret all the bizarre stuff we used to do back in the days. My brain goes in overdrive. It screams at me: “You're weird, you're odd, you're not normal.” I need the noise of the city. Only that noise can overpower my thoughts. I need the mind numbing normality of vacuuming the floor below the hamster cages. I love the city. But I miss you. This is a fucking lonely life, Louis. There are sixteen of us, as far as we know of. One in Singapore, one in Croatia, one in Brazil. We're shattered all over this rotten planet but you and I, we're probably the only ones living close together. We still have no idea why we are gifted, but we're both well aware of the consequences.”
A short silence occurred. Dylan walked back to the balcony, shortly followed by Louis after the latter grabbed another glass out of the cupboard. Dylan nodded towards the bottle and Louis helped himself to some liquor. “You almost got me with that gay stuff.” He laughed. Yet, only when Louis noticed that Dylan wasn't laughing along, he realized that his best friend was close to terrified. “Dyl, you've always been the wise one. What are you rambling about? We're brothers, companions. Wasn't it you who compared us to gods? Wasn't it you who said that God couldn't save a family from an avalanche, but we can?”
“Yeah, but it was you who saved me from drowning after I jumped off that bridge.”
Dylan's eyes were wet with tears. His hands were trembling. Louis had no idea what to say. It was true. From up that bridge, Louis had saved Dylan's life, but at this point it wasn't clear if Dylan meant this as a show of gratitude or as a reprimand. He tried to find the right words but the sight of the most intelligent and empathic man he knew, weeping like a child, completely silenced him. Suddenly, Louis wondered how many of these emotional episodes Dylan had already had since he moved into the city. Eventually, after a brief moment of silence, Dylan turned his head towards Louis. “You know, I always thought that the slippery spiral towards self-harm was the most dangerous aspect of our... mutation. But it's not. The most horrible thing are the two choices you are left with. Either you leave everybody else behind or everybody else leaves you behind.”
Agnes looked across the waiting room, to the withering begonia in the corner. Behind it, on the green and red wall, was a painting, some expensive smears on cheap canvas. Below her feet, the gray carpet combined one tasteless office with the next. The building was almost empty. At the end of the hallway, one office was still lit. Night shift at the IT department. Down on the ground floor, security guards were using the front desk as a card table. Then there was the main office, where the man she was about to interview was still browsing through queries and documents. She checked her equipment once more, the batteries in the dictaphone, the ink in her pen, the questions in her notebook. She took a peppermint out of her purse. The door opened.
“Miss Forsberg? Please come in.”
She stood up, shook Richard's hand and entered the office. It was huge, with a wide window overlooking the city. One wall was a massive book shelf with an antique desk in front of it. On the other side, near the window, was a lounge with black sofas and an oak coffee table. Richard invited Agnes to sit down and offered her something to drink. “Do you like wine, miss Forsberg?” Agnes sat down on the sofa and looked up to the man. “Yes. No. Well. Sometimes I drink red wine at a restaurant, but I'm not a specialist.” Richard walked to the bar and poured two glasses of red wine. “Name a wine you know.” The woman had no idea. She had never even looked at the label of a wine bottle. The only name she could think of was “Bordeaux?” Richard laughed and handed Agnes a glass. “Bordeaux, the beverage of the average.” He grinned. “Most Bordeaux wines are sold to old ladies with ugly dogs, only to be chugged down while watching their favorite soap series. You're not a connoisseur, miss Forsberg. That is fine. Not everyone is a sommelier. This wine is a Bourgogne, hailing from the region known for its pinot noir and its chardonnay. I could talk about its aroma, finesse or bouquet for hours but I doubt whether you are interested. That, too, is fine. You are not here to be lectured about wine but I do insist you taste it, if you don't mind.” Agnes accepted the glass and nodded friendly. From down on the comfortable sofa, she saw Richard as an imposing man, surprisingly fit and spry for his age. Only his gray hairs and the few wrinkles on his face gave it away. He was tall and he had a confident walk. His eyes were those of a motivated and driven man. He was in his sixties but he was not afraid to take on a twenty-five year old if he had to.
“So, Agnes, tell me, how are we going to do this?” Before she could come up with a decent answer, Richard walked to the desk to grab his cell phone. “It's already after midnight. I do not understand people who complain about working overtime. I have been here since seven o'clock this morning.” She smiled and nodded. “Well, sir, mostly people just tell me stories. I record them. I take notes and then I go home and write them down.” Richard raised his eyebrows and hummed affirmatively. “And how much do people pay you for that?” Agnes had a fixed price, but she realized that this job was different from the others. Her former clients were families of retired people who wanted the life story of their loved ones written down. Most of those stories were dull, not even meant to be read, just a unique gift for grandpa or grandma. Yet, Richard Volnay was one of the wealthiest men in the city, who wanted to publish an elaborate manifest, not just a shelf filler. She knew she could ask for more money this time. “Well, that depends on the...” “I will give you 75.000 plus ten percent of the profit.”
Agnes gasped. That was over ten times more than her usual fee. Besides, nobody had ever given her a percentage on the profits. Usually her books were not for sale, only for the family. “Sir, I'm afraid I'm not a commercial writer. I do private memoirs and family biographies.” Richard sat down on the couch in front of Agnes and looked her dead in the eyes. “So?” By now, Agnes was certain that all of this was merely a misunderstanding, but still, 75.000 was a lot of money. She didn't know what to say. Richard sat back, still staring at the young woman. “Miss Forsberg. I have read your short stories on Facebook. The one about the crusader who falls in love with that Arab girl, for example. They're absolute rubbish, if I may be so crude. They are unrealistic, they are over-romantic and they are loaded with clichés. They are atrocious, Agnes, god-awful.” Agnes tried to look away in an effort to hide her shame and anger. Was this why this business-tycoon had invited her? To yammer about her writing abilities? Was this one of those strange power-fetishes rich people were rumored to enjoy? She wanted to answer, but Richard didn't give her that chance. Driven by the growing nervousness of the woman, he continued. “I also browsed through your website. I know what you ask. I know your fee. Agnes, look at me. You are a lousy writer because nobody is willing to pay you sufficiently and for some reason you are fine with that. Six thousand is laughable, a rubbish fee for a rubbish description of a rubbish life. I offer you seventy-five, not because I think you are an exceptional talent but because I do not lead a rubbish life.”
Then, silence, interrupted only by the vague sounds of the city below. She was baffled by the sheer brutality of Richard's blatant criticism. She wanted to get up and leave. On the other hand, the financial outlook was appealing. For a moment, she hated herself for having to choose between cash and ego. “Agnes, I can almost hear your brain buzzing. Is this such a difficult decision to make? How about I give you 100.000? Will that alleviate the pressure up there?” She closed her eyes in an effort to moderate the mental discussion. She looked at her notebook and her dictaphone. She sighed. Then she looked back at Richard, stood up and reached out her hand. “I guess we have a deal, mister Volnay.” Richard shook Agnes' hand and nodded. “Excellent. I will have my assistant send you an email with the necessary details and all the paperwork.”
Agnes felt a sense of relief. To her, this felt like an outstanding deal, even though she knew well enough that 100.000 was a pittance to Richard. She looked out of the window and over the city. Now, she could image herself living in one of those apartments near the park, or even an old worker's house in the suburbs. “All I have to do is listen and write,” she thought. Richard walked up next to her and handed her her glass of wine. His hands were wrinkled and covered in brown dots. He was sixty-three, according to his company profile, but even though he was becoming an old man, he still was still full of zeal and diligence. For as far as Agnes' research had been able to conclude, Richard Volnay was a self-made business tycoon, husband and father of three. A descendant of successful wine makers, Richard had built an investment company, named Volnay Impec. In a bit over forty years, Volnay Impec had become a world-wide corporation with a wide variety of industries and businesses in its wallet.
Richard looked at the clock in the corner of the room. “It is getting late. I apologize. What do you think? Wednesdays at ten, two hours? Starting tomorrow. Is that possible for you?” Agnes picked up her phone from the coffee table and opened the agenda. “Yeah, I can do that. How many weeks do you think we will be needing?” Richard chuckled. “A decade, perhaps? We shall see how it goes. Let us take our time with this project. We will start next week and see how things go from there.” Agnes gathered her belongings, satisfied with the outcome of this conversation. Richard opened the door but before she left the office, the biographer turned around to ask one more question. “Why exactly did you choose me, mister Volnay?” Richard closed the door and smiled. He walked back into the room and slowly circled around Agnes. “As I said earlier, miss Forsberg, I have been scrolling through your social media profiles, all of them. I have been doing that with all of the other candidates. Do you know what I saw on their social media, Agnes? Do you know what all those profiles told me? I saw people with opinions, beliefs and prejudices. I saw people who firmly believe in conspiracy theories, stories about corporate greed, fraudulent bankers and corrupt politicians. Some of them even think we are being ruled by aliens. But none of that with you. You are what I call a corporate agnostic. You do not seem to believe in anything, miss Forsberg. You seem to have absolutely no opinion about anything, which means your mind is open enough to pen my stories. You do not have an agenda. You simply do not seem to care because you are a writer, not a so-called influencer.”
Louis put a cup of chamomile tea on the side table and sat down in the white chair, overlooking the loft. Then he looked at Dylan, who was smoking a cigarette on the balcony. “Is it safe to leave you out here on your own, Dyl?” Dylan turned around and smiled. “Dude, trying to commit suicide is fucking scary, believe me. I'm not going to go through that shit again. I sure am tired of these manic-depressive gushes though. Fuck, I must have scared the shit out of you again. I'm sorry.” Louis walked up to the balcony to join his friend and put his hand on Dylan's shoulder. “It's alright, Dyl, we all have our moments, all sixteen of us. It's like you said, it's all about finding your balance.” Leaning on the edge of the balcony, the men looked onto the city streets and into some of the many windows. Television screens were still flickering. Dylan sniggered. “You know what's funny, Lou? Those people are watching the X-Men save the city from the evil Magneto. They're in awe of all the supernatural powers and all the rampaging action. But if we did something like that, they'd assimilate us immediately. They'd burn us on the cross.” Louis laughed, almost choking on his newly lit cigarette. “True. That's exactly why I moved to the beach, to avoid people and to peekay in absolute solitude.”
Down in the street, just around the corner, the men suddenly heard a noise. It sounded like people screaming and running. Mere moments later, they saw a man run. He was holding something that looked like a purse. Two police officers were chasing him but the man was fast, a lot faster than the officers. Dylan overlooked the scene and grinned. “Peekays in absolute solitude, right? Watch this.” The man, now obviously a purse cutter, was rapidly gaining metres as the officers were getting tired. Dylan moved his eyes to the right. The pickpocket rushed around the corner and along the stores in the street below. Right in front of his feet, a garbage container tipped over, stumbling the thief. Surprised and hastily, he attempted to get up but somehow the container bounced off the ground, spilling its contents all over the sidewalk and underneath the stumbling criminal. The thief slipped over rotting food remains and fell to the concrete once more. By now, the policemen had caught up on the criminal and took him into custody. Dylan and Louis laughed when the officers handcuffed the bandit and walked him off the scene. Angsty and confused about what had just happened, the boy looked over his shoulder at the garbage bin in the middle of the sidewalk. It just laid there, lifeless.
“See, small steps, Lou. We're not here to save to world, even though Yuko seems to think so.” Louis sipped from the tea and threw the cigarette in the ashtray. “Do you think Yuko really believes that? They tried to assassinate him three times. Why would he still want to save the world after that?” Dylan laughed and pointed his finger towards his head, moving it around towards the temple. “He's insane. Yuko has lost touch with reality, probably from all that opium he has been smoking. Last night he was rambling something about combining our forces against incoming asteroids. His spelling was awful so he must have been high on something. I think everybody left the chatroom. I know I did.” Louis got up from the chair and grabbed his coat, “Well, he is getting old and the site isn't very active anymore. Anyway, I really got to go now. Will you be alright?” Dylan smiled and raised his right thumb. “I'm going to get some sleep. Helping out cops is tiring.”
In the early hours of the night, the bright shining stars disappeared behind a thick layer of clouds. Louis had only just left the building when it started to rain. Inside the bar down the street, the party was still going strong but everything else quickly got quiet as the few people on the streets fled to take shelter. Dylan looked up from the couch. The windows and curtains started closing. He grabbed one more cigarette out of the package, picked up his tablet and switched off the lights before he walked into the bedroom. It was silent in there. Not even the sound of the rain entered the room. Dylan took his clothes off and crawled into the bed. He opened an app on the tablet, took his headphones and experienced with some electronic drum patterns. Making music calmed his nerves, something for which Louis needed to study programming languages. Dylan had been fascinated by drums and percussion since he was a child. In his youth, he used to bang on everything, pots and pans, wood and brick. Yet, until recently, he had never played in a band or recorded anything. His exceptional talents and intelligence had always kept him away from group activities. Perhaps that was one of his next plans, record and release and album with Sam.
After a few minutes, Dylan put the tablet down. It wouldn't take long before he was in a deep sleep. Outside, it was raining heavily. In no time, the streets were flooding. Bars closed and people ran outside in an attempt to quickly find their car. Inside the bedroom, Dylan was dreaming of a room filled with smoke. The only thing he could see was his drum kit, everything else was covered in flashing lights. He heard the music, a song he wrote with Sam. He lifted his arms to drum along but his arms fell off. Then he tried to manipulate the drum sticks using his brain but the drums started switching places. All the time the band continued to play. He tried to pick up his arms using his powers but they were nowhere to be found. He felt a nosebleed. In a state of panic, he looked up to make contact with the members of the band but everything became quiet. The smoke was gone. The music had stopped. The band and the audience had disappeared. Then he heard a voice, seemingly coming from somewhere in the back. “Encore une fois.” He looked around. Nobody, just the sound of rain pouring on the empty festival tent.
In her room on the fifth floor of an apartment block, Agnes rapidly read the words on her laptop. There was a lot of research to be done about Richard Volnay and his companies. There were short biographies, articles and also conspiracy theories. There were rumors about human trafficking but also figures about charity events. For the most part the success of Volnay Impec was said to be to be caused by strong leadership, firm networking and a positive public image, but there were those in doubt of that. Then she remembered Richard's words. He seemed to respect the fact that Agnes was completely ignorant and perhaps somewhat naive. It was that sense of objectivity he had been looking for when he decided to search for a biographer. Now, that objective nature was in peril, as she browsed the web for articles and information. Eventually, she decided to leave it at that and remain uninformed, at least for the time being. She looked up from the computer and into the night sky. The rain was still pouring down. Down on the street, she saw a man running into a night shop. He was soaking wet. Mere moments later he came out and ran back towards one of the apartment buildings, but suddenly he made a halt. He lifted his face towards the pouring rain and closed his eyes. He took off the hood of his jacket and raised his arms. He smiled, clearly enjoying the downpour and the fresh air. Agnes watched him until the man decided to continue his walk home. In a way, she felt jealous. The rain man seemed utterly happy, a sentiment that felt vague and almost unreachable for Agnes. She sighed and looked back at her laptop. A title. Had mister Volnay already given her a title? She couldn't remember and she certainly had not written one down during their conversation. She decided to ask him tomorrow and to move on with the biography's framework when her social media displayed a message.
“U pretty, sent pics pls”
“Here we go again,” she thought. She closed the message and went back to her document. Another bleep, another message. “Pls, pics, U cute.” She closed the message again but almost immediately, the chat opened up again. “Pls, I very sick. Maybe I die. Pretty photos all I having now. I rich.” She wanted to close the message again and block the sender, but before she clicked the mouse button, an idea came up. She clicked on the message and composed an answer: “Sorry. I can not send free photos, but I can turn on my webcam if you're willing to donate a little something.” It didn't take long before the creepy chatter replied. “No pls. I poor.” Agnes opened the webcam and aimed it at her chest. “You want to see these or not, boy?” She slowly unzipped her sweater. The boy replied: “Nice. Pls touch boob.” Agnes obeyed and rubbed her breasts for a few moments. Then she typed: “Do you like?”, quickly followed by a positive reply. She took off her sweater, showing a tight white shirt and seductively stroked her chest again. The boy replied with a few incoherent letters. Agnes looked at the conversation and smiled. She lifted her shirt, showing her belly button to the camera. “Pls take off.” She slowly lifted her shirt further upwards and felt a warm glow on her cheeks.
She was enjoying this. She felt aroused, in a strange and mildly disturbing way. She hesitated for a moment before she decided to take her shirt off. Her breath became a little heavier as she stroked her breast a bit harder, slightly pinching her nipple. “Yes, beautiful”, the boy typed. She looked at the messenger window and let her hand slide down between her legs. With the other hand she typed: “more?” “Yes pls”. She moved forward, her breasts closer to the camera. She typed: “pls donate.” The boy answered: “pls, I poor.” She moved back again and picked up her shirt. She put it over her head and replied. “Too bad, need money too.” “No pls, How much?” She continued to put on her shirt and answered: “Sorry kid, you don't have enough.” The boy started getting angry, using foul language but Agnes insisted on a payment. “I promise you, boy, I'll show you all of this for fifteen.” No answer. Agnes looked at the screen, her eyes firmly locked on the messenger window. She lifted the shirt once more and took it off completely. With her eyes glued to the conversation, she continued to make her suggestive gestures until the boy finally gave in. “Ok, what address.” Agnes quickly searched for the Paypal address of the local animal shelter and pasted it into the message window. “Send me a screenshot,” she added. To her surprise, the boy actually sent a screenshot of the payment mere seconds later. Her naughty plan had worked. She reached for the camera to shut it off, thank the boy for his donation and block him but then she saw the letters “pls”. It confused her. A mixture of pride, guilt and cheap, dirty arousal overcame her. She looked at the camera. She could almost feel the piercing look from the other side of the electronic highway, staring right through her bra. She reached to her back to unhook it and hesitated for a moment. “Mmmm”, came from the other side. She unhooked the bra and kept it in front of her with one hand. With the other she typed: “ready?” The answer came swiftly and with a huge amount of spelling errors. She dropped the brassiere and with a hot glow all over her body she flashed her bare breasts in front of the camera. Her breath became faster. She started panting. She jumped up from the desk and unplugged the camera. Hastily, she dressed herself and ran outside.
The cold rain on her head felt refreshing. She had forgotten her umbrella but she didn't mind. The natural shower seemed to clear her mind, erode the confusing thoughts and sensations. For a few seconds, she stood outside, basking in the pouring rain with her eyes closed and her face turned towards the heavens. Then she decided to go for a walk and have a few drinks in one of the city's many bars. She strolled by shopping windows and into the nightlife district. Here, too, most streets were empty because of the weather. Several bars had already closed but The Link was still open. She found a place in a dark corner at the bar, near the radiator. Two people were playing a game of pool, four others were engaged in an amusing conversation. None of them paid any attention to the woman. A few seconds after Agnes had come in, the bartender appeared. “Sorry, I had to poo.” He smiled and looked at Agnes. “Do you want a towel? I got some clean bar towels in the back.” Agnes nodded. “Good idea. Thanks. And can I have a hot cocoa with a shot of Kahlua, please?”
The bartender gave Agnes the towel and her drink before he went to the DJ booth to queue some more songs. Agnes began to take off her coat but noticed that she was wearing her sweater inside out, without anything underneath. She quickly walked to the bathroom to make herself more presentable. It took her a few minutes to fix her hair and rearrange her attire. Her sweater was wet and felt cold. She shivered. She decided to haste back to the warm glow of the radiator. Back in the bar, on a coat-hanger, she noticed a t-shirt with the logo of the bar. She attracted the attention of the barman and asked if he had any more of those for sale. She could really use a layer of dry clothes right now. The barman rushed to the back and came back with a shirt. Agnes paid and disappeared into the bathroom again. It was not her usual style but she was quite satisfied and comfortable with the warm, black shirt.
She went back to her place at the bar and gave the bartender a thumbs-up. He nodded and started cleaning the bar. The pool players had left and the four friends prepared to go home as well. Agnes took a sip from her drink and looked at the coasters on the bar. There were questions printed on one side and answers on the other. She picked some up and read them. “Can you lose weight on a crisps diet?” “No.” “Can a trained opera voice break a wine glass?” “Yes.” “Can you create diamonds in a laboratory?” “Watch out for Richard Volnay. He is a dangerous man.”
This late at night, the roads were empty, certainly with these heavy rains. Louis gazed into the straight tunnel ahead of him. Calm, soothing ambient soundscapes flowed through the speakers and gently filled the car. Dylan's words still haunted Louis' thoughts. In the past Louis had spent countless of hours wondering whether Dylan was feeling fine, which quite often was not the case. At least things seemed to have improved in the last few months but Louis, as much as anyone who knew Dylan, knew that Dylan would never be the party type. Louis entered the long tunnel underneath the river. The flashing of the passing lights was almost hypnotizing. To Louis it felt like driving through a science fiction movie from the seventies or eighties. The gloomy mindset quickly made place for a slow but catchy synthesizer melody and for a few moments Louis imagined being a superhero, driving to his next big adventure. He raced through the tunnel, pretending he was driving Kit, the Knight Rider. The soothing ambient sounds on the radio were replaced by intense drum & bass music. Louis twisted the volume knob and yelled along with the sparse lyrics. After a minute or so, his car dashed out of the tunnel, only just under the speed limit. The rain was gone and the clouds slowly seemed to disappear. Then, the blue flash of a police car, followed by the glow of a red stick being swung up and down.
Louis slowed down and followed the direction of what he thought looked like a nuclear carrot. He drove off the highway and onto a parking lot, guided by two heavily armed officers in yellow vests. After he stopped, one of the officers signed him to step out of the car. With his hands firmly grasping his baton, the officer ordered Louis to take a few steps back. Meanwhile, several other policemen and -women arrived on the scene. They all seemed to form a circle around Louis' car. “Keys, papers.” Louis put his keys into the policeman's hand and raised his hands in an effort to show he had no harm of criminal activity in mind. “Papers are in the gloves compartment. What is going on, officer?” The policeman looked into Louis' eyes and at his hands: “Nothing special if you have nothing to hide, sir. We are doing a full force campaign in which we pick out random cars for a search. You were driving pretty fast there, you know? That's not safe in this weather.”
Louis shrugged and apologized. “It was stupid. Those lights, that music. I got in some sort of zone.” While the other officers almost stripped the vehicle in their search, the officer ordered the man to take an alcohol test. Negative. “Have you taken any drugs?” Louis shook his head. “I don't do drugs, sir.” Louis picked a cigarette from his vest, grinned towards the people searching his car and lit it. “I do other dumb things. What are you looking for, officer, if I may ask?” Now the cop shrugged and smiled: “Pretty much anything. Drugs, fugitives, expired insurance papers, weapons. If it's illegal, we're looking for it.” Louis smiled nervously. He knew he had absolutely nothing to hide but he had no time for this complete search. He still had an hour-long drive ahead of him. “Is this really necessary, officer?” The cop looked down on Louis. He was a lot taller and certainly more imposing. “I'm just doing my job, mister Ballet.” Louis sighed, realizing it would be useless to resist. “Is it alright if I get some coffee in the shop?” The officer pointed towards a tent with a few tables and coffee machines. “It's on the house. You can wait there while we do our job.”
Louis walked to the machines and grabbed a cup of hot coffee. He sat down at one of the tables, overlooking the lot where the police searched his car. He saw them go through literally everything, from the deepest corners of the gloves compartment to the space beneath the spare wheel. The whole operation took over fifteen minutes, three free but horrible coffees in Louis' estimation. One by one, the officers left the parking lot and eventually the one in charge waved at Louis. The latter quickly got up to continue his way home, frustrated and tired. “Good to go, officer?” The officer blew air through his nose, indicating some discontent. “Yeah, everything seems to be in order, mister Ballet. Have a good night.” Louis peered at the policeman. “You're unhappy, you're disappointed because you didn't find anything, am I right?” The officer didn't answer. He threw the keys at Louis and turned around. Louis, realizing he might have pissed off the policeman quickly got into his car and drove off the parking lot. In his rear view mirror, he could see the next victim of this campaign arrive. For a second, Louis thought about having a little peekay fun but he quickly decided that it would be best to drive home and get some sleep. He thought about Dylan's words about balance and knowing when to use the powers and when not to, and this was certainly not the time to entertain himself with the unnatural.
He switched the music back on and continued the drive home. Without further interruption he reached the coast and his bungalow near the sea. His bedroom windows overlooked the waves, which flowed calmly over the vast body of water. He walked to the kitchen to heat up some milk. In a reflex he switched on the television. There was a special item on the police campaign. The news anchor talked about a truck with illegal immigrants, thirty, maybe more. Some had fled into the nearby bushes, others had damaged property and equipment while being arrested. Some had even attacked the officers, resulting in a brawl on the parking lot. The whole event was filmed by security cameras. More patrol cars and even helicopters had arrived on the scene, followed by special armed troops. The security footage almost looked like an action movie. In the end, the item showed a photo of the grimacing officer, proudly posing with two handcuffed migrants. Louis looked at his face and felt a deep hate towards the cop, mostly because of his acquired mistrust towards other human beings.
“I'm just doing my job.” Louis ridiculed the policeman. He took the hot milk out of the microwave and walked to the terrace. He had never been a fan of authority, neither had Dylan. Both men had experienced their share of police interventions because of their youthful foolishness. Louis remembered one of the first times they had gotten themselves into trouble. The young rascals went from door to door to sell non-existent pies on behalf on a non-existent local sports team. They made some good cash but got caught when one of the neighbors, the president of the existing local sports team, began asking too many questions. They got off the hook with a personally written apology and a few boxes of croissants for the neighborhood but it had been an exquisite lesson for the young boys. Louis smiled at the memory and finished his milk before he disappeared into the bedroom.
For Dylan, it was still early in the morning when he received a text message: “Hey buddy, could you open the store today? I have to take my mom to the hospital.” The light of the cell phone hurt his eyes. He looked at the clock; 7.20. He looked up and saw the first rays of sunshine appear through the gap between his curtains. “Two hours,” he thought. Slowly, he became aware of the sounds of the waking city. Honking cars, yelling children, the occasional ambulance, it was loud and abrasive. “I might as well get up now,” he sighed. He texted: “Sure, no prob. Take care.” and got out of bed. He opened the curtains and for a short while witnessed the racket of morning traffic. Those were the noises of people with a severe lack of sleep, yelling, honking, ringing their bicycle-bells. He chuckled, satisfied that he almost never had to partake in the chaos of morning traffic. “I'd shove their horns so deep up their asses...” He mumbled, while he walked into the kitchen to make coffee.
He was not specifically upset about being woken up so early in the morning but things didn't seem to go his way. He dropped the can with coffee-beans, spilling the contents all over the kitchen floor. While trying to stop the accident from happening, Dylan slammed his head against the open cupboard, causing a metal colander to fall to the floor with a loud clatter. Dylan cursed and growled. For a moment he looked around for something to break, simply out of frustration. He grabbed a towel and squeezed it, twisted it around, a trick he had learned to deal with aggressive spurs. Then he closed his eyes, sighed deeply and slowly loosened his grip on the towel. He opened his eyes again and looked at the mess on the floor. The anger had made way for a mild feeling of self-mockery. While looking at the hundreds of coffee beans he grabbed a cigarette and lighter from the counter. He lit it and gazed at the roasted seeds with a piercing look. “Ok, you little fuckers, time to meet your coffee maker” He whispered and grinned. One by one the beans jumped up and fell into the colander, faster and faster until all of them were off the ground. “That's better,” Dylan whispered, “and now into the grinder with you.”
He was amused by his little piece of magic performance, but he was mostly satisfied by his growing ability to control his anger. In earlier days, unfortunate events like this one would have exploded into a frenzy of flying cutlery and damaged household goods. Now, the beans had been obedient and Dylan was wide awake. He decided it was best to enjoy these hours of the day, take a long shower, have breakfast at eight instead of coffee until noon, enjoy the early shift at the store. For Dylan, it was as if the hot beverage tasted a little better and the temperature of the shower was a little closer to perfect. His mood quickly improved as he walked out the door. In the hallway, he almost bumped into Sam, who was on his way to his job in the orphanage.
“Morning, landlord.” “Morning, peasant.”
It was a little inside joke the men had developed during their growing friendship. For them, it was now just as hilarious as the first time they had improvised it. They walked down the stairs together and chatted for a short while. Once arrived in the main hall, right before both men went their respective ways, Sam stopped and turned around. “Oh, before I forget. About the rent this month. I'll be in Burma when pay comes in. I'm not sure whether I can transfer when I'm there.” Dylan waved the idea away, “I'll get it when you come back, no worries.” They walked outside. Dylan started looking for the keys to the pet store. “See you, Dyl.” 'Later.” Dylan opened the door and turned around. He saw Sam open the lock of his old bike. It was a rusty thing with the front light hanging out of its socket. The lock was probably worth more than the bicycle itself. Right before Sam took off, Dylan called him back. “You know what? Forget about this month's rent. It's on me. Saves me the trouble of finding you a wedding gift.” Sam looked at Dylan with a look of disbelief. “Are you sure? Landlords don't usually do this.” Dylan shrugged and smiled. “Guess I'm not your usual landlord then.” Sam's questioning expression turned into a bright smile. “Thanks man, I really appreciate that.” Sam shook Dylan's hand, a handshake that quickly changed into a sincere hug. “I know why you're getting married, buddy,” Dylan whispered. The words startled Sam because he had been keeping it a secret. Yet, he was very sure his friend was not lying. “How did you find out?” Dylan grinned. “For starters, I can hear you getting it on when I'm in the back of the store. Second, I've seen Charlotte. She is prettier than ever. She is full of life, which is rare for a goth-chick. She glows brighter than the earrings she wears. It's pretty obvious, Sammy-boy. Congratulations.” Sam shrugged and whispered, “Just don't tell anyone. We want to make it look like it happened in Burma.”
After a few more words and jokes, Sam thanked his friend once again and eventually cycled to work. Dylan opened the door to the pet store, punched in the security numbers for the burglar alarm and greeted Nelly, a blue macaw that lived in a huge cage near the counter. He switched the lights on. The bunnies and hamsters woke up, knowing that it was feeding time. Dylan fed the animals and changed their water. He felt somewhat comfortable doing these chores almost automatically. For a few moments he watched the feeding frenzy. Then he walked to the back room, the one underneath Sam's bedroom. In a metal box, hidden beneath a stash of old magazines, he took the money for the cash register, along with a note mentioning the exact sum. Dylan counted it and put it into the drawer. He turned on the radio and sat down on the chair behind the counter. The morning hours were the easiest. There was not much to be done and customers were scarce. For a while, he looked around at all the toys, food and care products. He tried to predict which items he would sell: a leash, a squeaky toy and three cans of Delvaux-cat food. Then he walked to the fish-corner to double-check if the automatic feeding system had done its job. Dylan had never really trusted electronics, which was why he never got as interested in software as Louis.
After his chores, Dylan put the front door wide open. He grabbed one of the chairs near the entrance and placed it on the pavement in front of the shop. He was just about to light a cigarette when Suzy, the owner of the coffee shop next door, came out to prepare the terrace for opening. “Morning, Dylan, lovely day, isn't it? You want a coffee with that smoke?” Dylan smiled and nodded affirmatively. As she walked back inside the bar, Dylan looked at the woman. She was well in her fifties but she had the fashion sense of a catwalk model. There was dignity in her well groomed gray hair and even though she had gone through a rough divorce, she showed little signs of bitterness. Mere moments after she had disappeared, she came back out with a cup of hot coffee for Dylan. “Thanks, I can use it. My beans have been misbehaving this morning.” Suzy looked up and smiled. Then she moved her face closer to Dylan. “Me too, Dylan, I fucked my ex-husband's boss last night.” Dylan almost choked in his drink. “What? Why are you telling me this? This is a bit more than I wanted to know.” Suzy, still with a huge smile on her face, stepped back and looked Dylan straight in the eyes. “I'm going to sleep with everyone who that cheating bastard respects. That'll teach his beans to misbehave, I can tell you that.” Dylan sighed, “Suzy, I was talking about my coffee-beans. I spilled -”. Dylan looked over Suzy's shoulder at the people approaching the terrace. He decided not to finish his sentence, nor the conversation. “Never mind, you've got customers. Thanks for the coffee.” He returned the empty cup and walked back into the store. “Nelly, people are strange.” Nelly cackled.
After a long night, with only a few hours of solid sleep, Agnes decided to get up and take a shower. For a few moments, she sat on the side of her bed, contemplating the unusual, almost unbelievable turn of events from the evening before. Did she really strip in front of a webcam? Did she really agree on a lucrative writing deal? Did she really receive a strange message about Richard Volnay on a coaster? The whole turn-out of events made her even more confused than she had been before. She wondered what kind of maelstrom she had gotten herself into. “Perhaps it was all just a dream,” Agnes whispered.
She grabbed her phone and looked at the messages. There were a few more messages and compliments from the lucky Indian boy. She decided to block his profile and forget about the whole thing. Then she opened her agenda. Every Wednesday was marked, for months to come. All appointments with Mister Volnay. It was true, this had not been a strange dream. She looked up and watched the plain white walls of her small bedroom. From where she sat, she could see the living room, which was also tiny. “I'm getting out of here,” she whispered to herself. It almost moved her to tears. For five years she had been living here, in this cheap but petite flat, with only a few books and a laptop to comfort her in the lonely nights in the big city. “I'm getting out of here,” she repeated, out loud. She stood up and walked to the window. She opened the curtains and gazed at the apartment buildings around the park. They were bathing in the early light of the sun. She watched the children on their way to school and the civil servants entering their office building.
She looked at the clock on the bedside cabinet, grabbed her clothes and a towel and stepped into the shower. The warm water felt comforting and for a second she dozed off, which caused her to momentarily lose her balance. More and more she started to become aware of the annoying limitations of her flat as she almost stumbled and fell on the sink. In her head, she started making a list of requirements: a bath-tub, a bigger furnace, an elevator instead of cracking wooden stairs, perhaps a fireplace or even an extra room. She twisted the knob on the faucet, causing the water to cool down a bit. Agnes wanted to wake up, go into the city and see what the housing market had in store for her. Until late that evening, no plans had been made so she figured that she might as well go out and get inspired. She quickly finished her shower before walking into the kitchen for a bowl of breakfast cereal. The thought of the upcoming money often welled up and each time she smiled a little bit brighter.
After breakfast, she grabbed her things and left the flat. She joined the crowd of morning shoppers. Like them, she gazed at shoes and shirts behind the windows but hastily she moved on to find what she was looking for. It didn't take long before she found herself in front of a real estate agency, staring at the property for sale. There they were, affordable apartments. They weren't big, not the big luxury lofts from glossy magazines, but certainly sufficient for a single woman like Agnes. For a few minutes, she stared at the photos, imagining decorating the rooms. Then, when she arrived near the door, she heard a voice. “You can come in if you want to.” Agnes looked at the man and shook her head. “I'm actually just looking,” she said softly. “That's fine,” the man replied. “If you have a question, don't hesitate to step inside.” Agnes looked back at the photos and shrugged. Then she looked at the man again. He was in his late twenties, dressed in a jeans and a blue shirt, clean shave, modest hairdo. For Agnes this was the prototype of a salesman, capable of selling you everything you don't need. She thanked him and promised to be back later, when she was ready to browse through the housing supply. The man nodded and smiled kindly before focusing his eyes on the computer screen again.
Fantasizing about visiting flats, Agnes walked on to the terrace of a coffee shop. She sat down at one of the empty tables and picked the laptop out of her bag. It didn't take long for the waitress to appear and to take Agnes' order, a cappuccino. The woman disappeared back into the shop. Agnes' head was occupied. She checked her savings account and added that to the sum that mister Volnay had promised her. She took a note and started writing down figures. She was so occupied with her calculations that she didn't notice Suzy return with the cappuccino. It startled her just enough to yell. “Calm down, madam, it's only coffee”, Suzy mumbled between her smile. “I'm sorry,” Agnes apologized, “I just have some stuff on my mind.” Suzy looked at the woman and held out her hand. “Two twenty, please.” Agnes put the money in the woman's hand. “Thanks, madam. What's with all the numbers? Are you an accountant?” Agnes looked at the woman and refuted the question. “No, madam, I'm a writer.” A brief silence occurred in which Suzy glared at the laptop and the notes. “Good,” she uttered eventually, “I don't trust accountants. My ex ran off with an accountant. She looked a bit like you, but she was a blonde. They always go for the blondes.” As Suzy turned around and walked back to the shop, Agnes in her turn glared at the woman. She was still mumbling something incomprehensible.
Agnes grabbed the coaster from her purse and looked at it again. The warning about mister Volnay was written over the original answer, in the thick black ink of a permanent marker. She peered at it. She wondered who had put it there, and why. In her mind, there were eight possible suspects, but the pool players had paid no attention to her whatsoever. The bartender had been too busy with the music and with cleaning. He had also claimed that nobody had entered The Link while Agnes was in the bathroom. She tried to remember if one of the four friends had noticed her, looked at her while she walked up and down through the bar. She couldn't find an answer. She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. She was scared. Someone had been following her. Maybe she was still being followed or even shadowed right now. The thought of that made her feel extremely uncomfortable. Still, she decided not to tell Richard, at least not yet. She wanted to figure this out for herself, but more importantly, she did not want this warning to interfere with the beneficial prospect of this assignment.
The hours went by and Dylan's predictions proved to be wrong. Not a single leash or can of food was purchased, but he did manage to sell a goldfish to an old lady. He expected the animal to survive until the end of the week before being flushed down the toilet in the nearby retirement home. He checked his phone and found a message from Bernie, the store owner. He would be back by noon, giving Dylan the rest of the day off. Now that the shop was empty, Dylan walked back outside to enjoy the last ray of sunshine before it would disappear behind the towering building of the TMU-bank. He sat down in the chair and looked at the people in the street. A young boy with dreadlocks and a Mexican styled shirt was playing the violin. Some people threw coins in his bag but most of them simply walked by, ignoring the beautiful music. Dylan closed his eyes and allowed the sounds of the instrument to collide with the sounds of city. It was a unique composition, a mix nobody else was paying any attention to.
It must have been several minutes, perhaps Dylan had even dozed off for a while. It was a familiar voice that took him out of his imaginary performance. “Dyl?” He woke up from his slumber and looked right into the dark eyes of Charlotte. She looked as lively and as glowing as he had told Sam earlier that day, only she was dressed in a white overall instead of the usual black garb. “Shit. Sorry. I was just enjoying the music. What are you doing here?” Charlotte pointed towards the store and asked something about rats. “You want to buy a rat?” The young woman looked inside at the cages and said “No, I want to buy all your rats.” Dylan looked at her in disbelief while both of them entered the store. “You're about to get married. Shouldn't you wait until after you get back from your honeymoon to get a pet?” Charlotte shook her head. “I don't want them as pets. We need them in the lab. We got a series of experiments set up but apparently the live-animal couriers are on a strike, so we don't have any rats.”
Dylan looked at the cages and shrugged. “Oh, that's true. It's Wednesday. I haven't seen the courier either. And the bad news is, we're out of rats too. We sold the last ones to the snake collector on Monday. I can sell you some hamsters or a bunny.” Charlotte laughed. “That wouldn't do, I'm afraid. We only need rats. Plus those balls of fluff are too cute to be injected with benzos.” Dylan gazed into the hamster cage and pondered for a moment. “Why would you inject a rat with benzodiazepines? Aren't those in anti-depressants?” Charlotte answered affirmatively. Dylan frowned and looked at the dark haired girl. “How... How do you get a rat depressed?” Now Charlotte laughed out loud. “We make them watch line-dancing shows all night, alright?”
While looking into the empty cages, Charlotte's laughter faded away and turned into a blissful smile. “Sam called me this morning, about your wedding gift. He also said you knew about the baby. You're a one of a kind man, Dylan, there aren't enough people like you around.” Dylan turned around and sighed. “I'm just trying to be who my mother taught me to be.” Charlotte took a deep breath. She looked Dylan in the eyes and put her hands on his shoulders. “You're afflicted by a special talent you possess. You can do things only a few people can do, but you let the consequences haunt you.” Dylan had no idea what was happening. He was almost bewitched by the serious look in Charlotte's eyes. It was impossible to look away. “What talent are you talking about?” He was afraid that Sam might have spoiled their little secret. Charlotte smiled and tilted her head. “The talent to bring out the best in people, to make them flourish, to guide them to happiness. Sam and I owe you a lot, Dylan. If there is anything we can ever do in return, just ask.” Dylan was relieved and the enchantment seemed to be lifted, although Dylan now realized what the phrase “lost in someone's eyes” meant. He was not falling in love. That feeling was different. For Dylan, love was a emotion from long ago, before reason and logic had taken over. This was not love. This was a magical power, possessed by a dazzling young woman. He closed his eyes in a final attempt to capture the moment. “Fuck, Charlotte, you're... I don't know. Sparkling? Ravishing? Sam is a lucky man, if you ask me.” Now it was the girl's turn to be startled. She had received her share of compliments before, tonnes of them, but this one came from somewhere deep inside. She started to blush and smiled. “Thanks, and I'm a lucky woman.”
A family of three walked into the store, interrupting the curious but pleasant conversation. Dylan excused himself and Charlotte went back to her job at the lab. The father, clearly not intending to waste any time, walked up to Dylan. “Can you tell me where the bunnies are?” Dylan looked over the man's shoulders and into the rabbits' cage. “They're right behind you, sir.” The man turned his head and nodded. “And all the stuff you need for bunnies?” His wife and son were already trying to pick their favorites. “It's Maximillian's birthday today. He wants a bunny. So we need a cage and grass or something to eat.” Dylan looked at the wrinkles of the father's forehead. They looked like a second mouth, opening and closing as the man spoke. It was an odd and amusing sight. Dylan smiled. “Of course, sir. If you help Maximillian pick out a bunny, I'll get a cage and the usual things. Just one question. Will the bunny live indoors or outdoors?” The man shrugged. “He'll live in Maximillian's room, we don't have a garden.” Dylan nodded his head. “Alright, Max, pick out any one you like. I'll be right back.” The man sneered to Dylan. “It's Maximillian, not Max!” Dylan was shocked by the tone of the father's voice. He promptly apologized and disappeared into the back to collect the goods. After a few minutes he returned. The father was already waving his credit card at the counter. Maximillian was dancing in front of the cage. “I want the brown one!” Dylan opened the cage, grabbed the rabbit and took it to the counter. “Alright, sir. I got the bunny, cage, food, water bottle and hay. That'll be 125 please. I'll put in a booklet about rabbit care.” The father seemed to pay as little attention as possible to Dylan, who for a moment felt like a random clerk. The man paid the bill and quickly grabbed all the goods. As rapidly as the family had entered the shop, they were gone again, much to the delight of Dylan who was getting annoyed by the father's haughty behavior. He walked outside again and lit a cigarette. When he looked up he saw Bernie approach. He offered him a cigarette too.
“How is your mother?” The store owner shrugged. “Good, I presume. They couldn't find anything again, except hypochondria. She'll be in observation for a night, to relieve the pressure on her bank account, or something like that. Anyway, how have things been here?” Dylan briefed the man about the few sales and the courier strike. He talked about the last customers. Both men pitied the bunny for a while. Eventually, Dylan left the store. He decided to stroll through the city and do some shopping. He could not get the piercing eyes of Charlotte out of his mind. He kept thinking about them, trying to grasp that feeling of wonder and amazement he had felt. “Is this what people feel when I do my weird stuff?” He mumbled softly.
It was early in the afternoon when Agnes occupied one of the few vacant tables at the Milano. She ordered penne arrabiata and a glass of wine, her traditional lunch on Wednesdays. The waiter, an energetic bloke with a fake tan and a glimmering hairdo, rapidly brought the wine, along with an appetizer. After the man vanished into the hustle of the busy restaurant again, Agnes picked out her phone, put it on the table and went through the rest of her equipment. Her laptop, her notebooks, everything was still in place. For a few moments, she scrolled through her social media profiles and email accounts. As promised, Richard's assistant had mailed all the details and paperwork. Agnes felt nervous. She doubted whether she was ready for this assignment, especially after the strange warning she had received. She checked her bag one more time. She was not planning to go home between now and the appointment with mister Volnay. She wanted to enjoy the warm weather a bit more, read a book in the park or stroll past real estate agencies.
“Signorina, il tuo pasto. Buon appetito.” Agnes looked at the steaming plate on the table and thanked the waiter. She nodded politely. “Grazie amigo. Sembra buono.” The waiter smiled and bowed before he rushed back into the kitchen. She took a bite from the penne and scanned the restaurant with her eyes. There were twenty-six people eating. Eight couples, a presumed business meeting, a tourist family and three loners, including Agnes. The waiters were rushing on and off, clearing tables, delivering food, collecting cash. Agnes enjoyed the hustle of this restaurant. The establishment was a well-oiled machine with experienced and motivated staff. The waiters were generous with compliments and after-dinner mints, and everything on the menu was close to perfect. She listened to the sounds of the kitchen, the clatter of cutlery and the repetitive noise of the machines. For a while she tried to overhear the conversations in the kitchen, but her Italian was far from good enough to distinguish three words in a row. She focused back on the food, which was delicious as always.
Suddenly she heard a noise, people shouting rhythmic slogans. She looked out of the window and saw a small group of people rushing towards the city square. All of them were dressed in gray overalls with a bright red fist painted on the back. Some were wearing masks, others had covered their face with a piece of cloth. As they marched on, yelling their slogans, more of them appeared from out of the streets. In the restaurant, people rushed to the windows to oversee the spectacle. In only a few minutes, the square was occupied by people in gray overalls. Agnes estimated a hundred people, probably more. She looked at the banners some of the protesters were carrying. “Pay More, Kill Less,” they said, and “I predict a riot!!!” Some referred to climate issues with banners saying “Growth = Limited” while others had copied famous quotes like “I'm a human being, god-dammit! My life has value!” The clamor attracted more people, including a small group of police officers. There were four of them, somewhat hiding in an alley behind the cathedral. From behind the window of the Milano, Agnes was amongst the only ones who could see the officers. They were youngsters, rookies, not properly prepared to take on a large group of angry citizens. Agnes saw them calling for backup but it was too late. A few of the gray and red latecomers had seen them and alerted the others. The news spread like a wildfire and in no time the protesters moved towards the Milano. Things were heating up. The atmosphere on and around the square became more aggressive. While the angry crowd approached, the officers made a wise decision and disappeared into the streets.
Inside the restaurant, all eyes were glued on the happenings. While many of the gray-red overalls now roamed the streets around the cathedral, there were still plenty of them in the square. One group occupied the intersection and the tram tracks. Cars started honking and people started yelling at the protesters. Others were yelling: “Wake Up, Wake Up!” Then, out of nothing, the sound of firecrackers, dozens of them. In milliseconds the square was filled with noise and smoke. For the protesters, this seemed to be the prearranged signal to run. Even quicker than they had come, the members of the flash mob disappeared into the streets and alleys. The whole group shattered. Some tore off their overalls, others were handed jackets by apparent bystanders, all while running into all possible directions. When the first police cars arrived on the scene, there was not one gray-red overall to be found, except the ones left behind by the running protesters. Now, slowly, more and more officers found their way to the square, some of them heavily armed. In an effort to find at least some information, they started interrogating people and searching the alleys.
Agnes was baffled, and so were the other people in the restaurant. One by one they returned to their table. Inside, things quickly turned to normal. People turned back to their food. Waiters walked on and off again. The only difference was: every single conversation had the same subject. Outside it was still crowded but the effect of the bizarre flash mob quickly faded away. Only a few minutes after the confusing performance, tourists were making pictures of the cathedral again. Others went back to their shopping spree and street performers concentrated on their act. Agnes turned to her penne. She overheard some of the conversations. Customers had a wide variety of theories. “It's against the bankers.” “It's against the politicians.” “They're communists.” “They're nazi-scum” “Fucking vegans.” Agnes ate and listened. She didn't know what to think about the event and in a way, she didn't really care either. Any theory or thought about the whole situation was interrupted by the outlook of moving up, into a better neighborhood. She decided to change her plan for the rest of the afternoon and travel to the calm suburbs. That's where her flat-hunt would really begin. She called the waiter, complimented the staff with a generous tip and grabbed her belongings. The waiter bowed deep. “Grazie, grazie, bella signorina. Alla prossima settimana.”
“Alright, mister Francis, I think we have a decent deal here. If you send me the data, I'll get the website up and running within a few weeks and then we'll have your people test it for bugs.” They shook hands and the man nodded kindly. “Please, call me Henri. Do you want me to drop you off somewhere? I'm driving inland anyway.” Louis shook his head. “No, thanks. I got a few things to do in town. I'm running out of some supplies.” Henri nodded and walked to the door. The tavern was empty, like it was on every afternoon on a windy day outside the tourist season. The barmaid was in the kitchen, other personnel had not arrived yet. Louis watched the man walking out. He was a big, imposing man with a rough voice and tired eyes. He didn't look back or say any other word. It was as if once the meeting was over, Louis, the bar and the town near the sea no longer existed for Henri. For Louis, this behavior was nothing unusual. He had worked with big shots before. He had published websites for all kinds of people and many of them were socially deficient. Louis himself was not the most outgoing person either.
Alerted by the ring of the door, the barmaid returned from the kitchen. “Good one?” she asked. Louis looked at the papers in his hand and nodded. “Yeah, could be a lucrative one if things go as planned. Can I have a beer? And have one on me too, to celebrate.” The maid smiled and poured two beers. “Well, if you insist. And since you mentioned the word lucrative: I'm Iris, the town's hottest gold digger.” Louis looked at Iris with a look of disbelief and disgust. The girl laughed. “I'm just kidding, silly, don't worry.” She put the two glasses on the bar and gave Louis his change back. “But seriously, mister lucrative deal. I've seen you in here a few times now, too many times for you to be a tourist. Why don't you introduce yourself to the locals?” Louis looked around. There was still nobody else in the tavern. “Are you the locals?” “I'm a start.” Louis took a big sip from his beer and grabbed a cigarette from his pocket. “Good idea,” Iris said, “I can use one too.”
“Well?” Louis sat down on one of the chairs on the terrace and lit their cigarettes. “I'm not sure that there is very much to say. My name is Louis, Louis Ballet.” Iris quickly replied. “Oh, like the dance? I used to do that when I was a kid. Where are you from?” Louis took another sip. “I was born in a town called Mette, somewhere in the south. I came here for some peace and quiet and to focus on my work as an IT developer.” The girl listened attentively. “Where do you live now?” she asked. Louis pointed towards the campsite. “Over there, in a bungalow on the beach. It's my home and my office.” “Sweet. Must be a cool view over the sea.” Louis nodded and returned the question. “And you? Where do you live?” Iris pointed into the other direction. “A duplex above a pharmacy in the center, where the fish market is.” Louis sniggered. “That must reek every morning.” The girl mimicked vomiting. “Yeah, they say you get used to it. I don't know. It still stinks, but it's better than where I used to live.” Louis agreed. For him, too, this was a better place, calmer, and not plagued by memories. He looked at Iris. He wondered what secrets were hidden behind those weary eyes but he decided not to ask. Not now. For a few moments, both were reminiscing, gazing into the dunes. Then Iris stood up and excused herself. “I got to go back to the kitchen. We got a bus load of old folks coming over for dinner tonight.” She kissed Louis on the cheek. “It was nice talking to you, Louis. Let's do it again some time.”
As the girl walked back into the tavern, Louis looked at the waving movements of her long, red hair. He sighed and finished the beer. For a few seconds, he stood there with the glass in his hand, not knowing whether to go inside and put it on the bar or leave it on the table outside. He decided on the latter, mostly because Iris' glass was also still on the table, and walked into town. He was glad with the outcome of the meeting and he felt like celebrating, but not alone. He sent a message to Dylan, inviting him for dinner and prosecco. Many kilometres inland, Dylan replied: “Sounds good, I'll be there by seven.” Louis entered the supermarket and filled his basket with roast, wine, vegetables and prosecco. The cashier mumbled something in a dialect that was incomprehensible for Louis. He decided to ignore her and put his card into the machine. The cashier repeated what was apparently a question, this time a bit louder. Louis still didn't understand and shook his head. “No, thank you.” He hoped that that was a sufficient answer to whatever question the teenager was uttering. The cashier shrugged and pressed the buttons on the screen, finishing the purchase.
He walked back home and enjoyed the fresh sea breeze in the dunes. On a wooden tourist platform, he stopped for a moment to breathe in the air. It smelled clean, not mixed with the stench of thousands of diesel cars. This smell reminded him of pleasant childhood times. Vacations at the beach with his best friend and with their parents. For Louis, this was the only possible place to spend the rest of his life, his so-called happy place. After a short pause, he took off his shoes and jumped barefoot into the sand. This was the nicest way to his bungalow, over the beach and along the rippling waves of the sea. This was the part of the beach where tourists rarely roamed. The town was popular only amongst the elderly. There was the camping, a few restaurants and bars. Apart from miniature golf and a boules terrain, there was little to do. Young travelers preferred the other towns and cities along the coast, where hotels, discotheques and beach clubs were crowded all year long. Louis felt good amongst the deaf, demented and blind senior citizens. At least they wouldn't annoy him.
Louis opened the door and walked straight to the kitchen to unpack the goods. From behind the kitchen window he saw the clouds appear. The weather was about to turn. Chances to witness a beautiful sunset or have an evening on the balcony had become slim as the clouds were bringing heavy rains to the coast. The wind became stronger, much to the apparent delight of the seagulls which floated over the waves. Louis watched them for a while, surfing on the powerful wind. The birds seemed to enjoy themselves. Louis put on some music and focused on the roast.
“Miss Forsberg, please make yourself at home. Do you want some wine?” Agnes picked out a comfortable chair and grabbed her belongings. “Yes, thank you.” Richard poured two glasses, gave one to Agnes and walked to the window. He sighed. “There are vile people out there, Agnes, people who would do anything to tear apart the happiness of others. They scream, they vandalize, they put others in danger, and for what? For something they don't understand, something they can't grasp. Have you seen them? The gray-overalls?” Agnes hummed and tasted the wine. Richard continued. “I saw them. They covered their face. They are angry, angry at people like me. Do you know why they are angry, Agnes?” Agnes shook her head. She tried to decide whether she should write this down or not. But Richard didn't seem to mind. He didn't look at her. He didn't even wait for an answer. He merely continued talking. “Some people have worked hard to contribute to society as we know it, to make it work the way it does. At one point in life, that hard work is rewarded. Those people gain respect, money, power. They reach a higher level of humanity. My son, who is a gamer, would compare it to a boss-level, I presume. Then there are those who yell and protest. They are narrow minded, lazy and stubborn. They do not believe in that level. They strongly believe that what they are is the best they could ever be and they blame others for that. They are afraid of our level, afraid of what they do not understand. So they try to take us down to theirs.”
Agnes grabbed her notebook and wrote down “boss-level” as a possible book title. Perhaps alerted by the scratching of the pen on the paper, Richard turned around and sat down in the chair opposite Agnes. He looked her right in the eyes. “Do you hate me, Miss Forsberg?” Agnes looked up from her notes and into Richard's eyes. “I..., I barely know you, sir” she replied softly. Richard slammed his hand on the table and swiftly stood up. “See, that's exactly what I'm talking about.” In a loud voice he continued: “People have no idea and they still decide to choose hate. They read some nonsense their equally ignorant friends post on social media and go into a rant about conspiracies.” He was agitated and nervously walked around in the office. After a few minutes of pacing up and down he firmly grabbed the back of the chair with both hands. “But we are going to change that, miss Forsberg. This book is going to open people's eyes.”
Agnes leaned back into the chair, ready to start taking notes. She wondered where Richard wanted to begin, and it felt like Richard was thinking something similar. Richard looked at his wine, Agnes looked at Richard. It was silent in the office. The rains from the coast had not reached inland yet and the sounds of the city bounced off the windows. The building was empty again, but this time policemen guarded the entrances. Eventually, after a brief silence, Richard sat down, leaned back and signed Agnes to start taking notes.
“1978. I was twenty-two when I arrived in this city. I didn't have a job. I only had a bit of money and the clothes I was wearing. I got off the train. I walked out of the station and into the streets. It was a mesmerizing sight. I was hypnotized by the gargantuan buildings. I was a boy from a small village. I had never seen such big buildings or so many cars. I must have stood there for minutes, with my mouth wide open, just gazing at all the splendor of Aralburg. But then I started walking. I walked for days, slept under bridges and in abandoned buildings. I learned the entire city by heart. Every corner, every alley, every square, I have been there. Even after I found my first job, as a sommelier in The Mentor, I just walked and absorbed the city. I wanted to make it mine.”
Agnes wrote as fast as she could. All the nervousness, the worries about this project and the thought about the new flat were gone. She was focused. She underlined words like “station” and “the Mentor”. She planned to visit those places, if they still existed, and see what Richard could have seen all those years ago. Meanwhile, Richard was waiting patiently. He took another sip from his glass of wine and looked as his watch. When he noticed that Agnes was ready, he continued.
“I had fun for a while but The Mentor quickly became too monotonous for me. So when one of our retailers offered me a job, I took my chance. I went into sales. He gave me a car and a few dozen bottles of wine. I searched for establishments. I returned at the end of every day with an empty car and a full wallet, plus orders for more bottles. I was the most successful wine salesman in the city and we made a small fortune, simply because of the price of a bottle.” Richard spoke with a huge sense of pride. His eyes were looking into the darkness of the evening but his voice was strong and loud. “We made a fortune by being expensive. The elite bought it all, thinking it was rare, high quality wine. We signed exclusive contracts with some of Aralburg's poshest establishments. The city's jet-set ordered by the crates. Fifty, sixty, eighty per bottle.” His eyes became those of a young rascal and he grinned from ear to ear. He bended forward again and whispered: “We bought them for three.”
Agnes wasn't even born in 1978. She had no idea what to imagine when he spoke about the jet-set and the posh establishments of the seventies. She took notes and marked keywords, things she wanted to look up on her computer later that night. For now, the most important thing was to copy Richard's stories as correctly as possible. There was always time for questions and clarifications later. She looked up at Richard, who was still smiling in his chair. He enjoyed that little moment, the thought of outwitting so many people at such a young age. He seemed to be pleased with himself, to admire his own naughtiness. Then his expression changed, as he remembered what happened after the success. “I was good, but I was also naive. One day, merely a week after I had finally become an associate, my boss just disappeared, along with the cash and most of our stock. All he left behind were unpaid bills and notices. I ended up on the streets again. Everything was taken from me. They evicted me from the flat above our warehouse. I became homeless, literally. For seventeen long weeks the stars were my only blanket.”
While the rain poured down and big waves crashed into the beach, Dylan and Louis sat by the fireplace with a glass of cognac in their hands. The television played video clips from the eighties and nineties, much to the delight of both friends. The roast had been delicious, even though Louis had merely followed an online tutorial. The digital world had been his tutor and mentor for years. If a recipe was on there, he would cook it perfectly. There was a lot to say about Louis' interest in software and electronics. Many people had called him a nerd and a geek. Even Dylan had once jokingly said that Louis spoke Java. Louis was one of professor internet's top students. For him, the world wide web had no secrets.
He was also the one who had discovered the forum and chatroom for people with psycho-kinetic abilities, hidden in the bizarre corners of the dark web. The complex login procedure with strange symbols appearing on the screen proved to be a piece of cake for him. Even Yuko had been impressed by the speed and success rate of Louis' log-in attempts. In fact, Dylan and Louis had been the only gifted people Yuko had ever visited, seven years prior to their final relocations. Fascinated by the fact that there were two of them in the same town, and by the combined strength of their powers, Yuko wanted to study the men. The visit turned out to be an absolute disaster. It had sparked rumors amongst the villagers who became increasingly agitated and even aggressive. Some superstitious villagers saw Yuko's arrival as the start of the apocalypse, as predicted in the Mayan calendar. They thought the world was coming to an end, starting in an insignificant farming town. Strange things did indeed happen at their houses, from flashing lights to floating garden ornaments, even though Yuko and the boys attempted to experiment in absolute secrecy. After a few days of inexplicable tension in the town, Yuko left by the crack of dawn, still not possessing the knowledge he wanted to have. Dylan and Louis left a few days later, never to return.
While laughing with the fashion sense of the eighties, shown in the videos on the television, Louis wondered about the bus load of senior citizens in Iris' tavern. He pictured them, all in their eighties or even older, soaking wet, snorting from a cold and complaining about the terrible weather. He also imagined Iris frolicking between the old folks with plates with food and drinks, elegant and jolly like he had seen her a few times before. “When the rain is over, we could go to the tavern nearby,” he said to his friend. Dylan felt comfortable in the chair and hummed something. He was not planning on moving about too much anymore. But Louis insisted and repeated the words. Dylan laughed and pointed towards the window and the pitch black sky above the sea. “It's not going to stop raining. It's going to go on forever. Besides, it's cold and windy outside, why on earth would you even want to -”. Dylan stopped in the middle of the sentence and looked Louis straight in the eyes. “Ooh.” He smiled. “I see. What's her name?”. Louis sighed. “Iris, but it's not what you think.” Dylan picked another cigarette out of the package, still looking at his friend. “It's not what I think?” He muttered. “I have never been wrong about you and the ladies, have I?”
Now it was Louis' turn to return the smirk. He bended over to Dylan and swiftly stole his cigarette. “Nothing happened. We just had a chat and that was it. She does make some amazing Irish coffee, I can tell you that.” He took a puff from the cigarette and gave it back to Dylan. “Lou, you have a history of injured crushes, literally. I don't know what it is with you but somehow making out with you gets girls concussions, broken arms and fractured ankles.” “Not all of them,” Louis quickly replied, “and not always. Yes, sometimes things went wrong, but...” He hesitated for a moment. His face got serious. He leaned back again. “Besides, I'm older now, wiser too. Plus, I'm not in love with Iris or anything. It's just nice to have someone younger than me to talk to in this open air retirement home. The tavern is the only place I go to, except from the supermarket and the bank.”
The sound of the rain made place for the pummeling noise of hail stones. The sky was rumbling and every few seconds flashes of lightning appeared. The weather had certainly made a turn for the worse. Visibility outside the window was now close to zero and clumps of ice thick as golf balls crashed down on the sand. The bungalow was surrounded by water, flowing down from the upper part of the town and into the sea. The sky roared with thunder and the heavy wind slammed against the wooden walls. On the balcony overlooking the sea, wave after wave crashed down. “This doesn't look to good,” Dylan mumbled with a serious concern in his voice. He was visibly worried as he kept staring at the windows and the high waves. Louis tried to reassure his friend but with the next severe gush of wind, the lights went out. Suddenly it was pitch black in the bungalow, apart from the smoldering fire in the hearth. Dylan moved his chair back. “Louis.” He stuttered. His breath became heavier. Another gush of wind slammed against the walls. Dylan's hands cramped to fists. The coffee table started shivering, tipping over the empty cups on top. Dylan was still gazing at the window. Louis put his hand on Dylan's knee and tried to talk to him. “Dyl, it's going to be fine. You're not in the water. Listen to me. You're on dry land.” A framed picture fell down from the wall, followed by the tumbling of a chair. “Dyl, this is not necessary. You're on dry land. Stop whatever it is you're doing before the walls give in.” With the next wave crashing on the balcony and up to the window, all the curtains in the living room instantly closed. Dylan was breathing heavily, close to hyperventilating. With a loud clatter, the tin ashtray fell off the table and onto the floor. Louis heard the cracking of the bungalow. “Dyl, for fuck's sake. These walls can withstand a storm but they can't withstand fear. Dry land, Dyl, dry land!” The whole bungalow began to shake. The television fell off the cabinet and landed on the carpet. Louis jumped up and with a flat hand he hit Dylan in the face. “Stop it.” Dylan broke out of his trance and with a quick and painful rush he turned his head towards Louis. “What!” He screamed. By an invisible but powerful force, Louis was pushed back into the chair, slamming the back of his head against the wall.
Richard sat in his chair, gazing at the glass of wine while Agnes wrote down the last lines. She had recorded the entire conversation on her dictaphone but she liked to take notes in case the batteries died or anything else would happen to the device. “Are you alright, mister Volnay?” Richard looked up and smiled. “Yes, I am fine. I was just thinking, I have not told anybody about those seventeen weeks. Not even my wife.” Agnes grabbed the dictaphone and looked for the stop button. “No,” Richard quickly interrupted, “don't stop recording.” Agnes put the device down again. “I can leave it out if you want to.” Richard stood up from his chair and walked to the bar. “Should I?” His question seemed genuine. “I invited you to write down my story, Agnes. I am going to tell you things very little people know about me. I am even going to tell you things nobody else knows. I want you to throw all that information into one big manifest. Now you tell me, should I leave out those seventeen weeks or not?” He walked back to the chair with a glass of water in his hand. “Tell me, Agnes, is homelessness interesting?” Agnes looked around nervously. “I... I don't know,” she mumbled. Richard walked over to the divan next to Agnes and sat down. “Next week, I want you to know. Do not doubt. Do not hesitate. Know. If I ask this question again. If I ask you anything again, I want to hear a yes or a no. Nothing else.”
He stood up from the divan and began pacing around again. Agnes blushed. She felt her fingers tremble. She closed her eyes for a moment, looking for a decent answer but just as she wanted to open her mouth, Richard continued his story. “The Mentor would not hire me back and when the only clothes I still had, the ones I was wearing, became ripped and filthy, all the doors closed. By day I still walked but my shoes wore down and I eventually lost the will to continue. I slept in metro stations, supermarket car parks and abandoned buildings. I barely ate, although I would sometimes walk to the suburbs and harvest blackberries or raspberries. They tasted so sweet. I closed my eyes when I ate them, each and every time. And each and every time I hoped that when I would open them again, I was in my loft above the warehouse. I smelled my fingers after eating the berries and I imagined lecturing clients about the symphonies of taste. But always, when I opened my eyes, there was the harsh reality of being homeless.”
Committed to not making another mistake, Agnes kept her mouth shut and her fingers writing. She tried to empathize with this side of Richard, imagine what his life must have been like. She read the notes so far, trying to see if there was a question she wanted to ask, something relevant and important. Meanwhile, Richard sat down after refilling his wine glass. Agnes broke the silence. “But you got back on your feet eventually.” Richard took a big sip from his wine and stared into the glass. “There were three of them. A girl and two men. She was younger, but the others were about my age. I had found shelter for the night under the stands of the old race track. I had a beer and a piece of cardboard to sleep underneath. I was sick. The flu or something. They came up to me. She looked at me and smiled. She knelt down. I saw her smile turn into an evil grin when she grabbed my can. I wanted to take it back but she threw it at me. It hit me right on my head. Before I could reach out, the girl kicked me in the stomach. I was on the ground, coughing. She kicked me again, and again and then one of the boys joined in. They stomped and kicked me everywhere. I was bleeding. I thought I was going to die. Then they stopped. I opened my eyes, or at least the one I could still open. She was making out with him and stroking his penis. I was passing out when I noticed the other boy standing above me. He...” Richard hesitated. Agnes stopped writing. “He was urinating on me.”
It seemed like the entire city had joined in a moment of absolute silence. Agnes was speechless. Richard still focused on the glass. He sighed. Agnes felt extremely uncomfortable. “I woke up hours or days later. I was in the hospital. My eye was swollen. I had internal bleedings. Four of my fingers were broken. That night, after all the doctors and nurses had left, I vowed that this would never happen to me again. I vowed that I would get up from the bottom of society and would head straight to the top, no matter at what cost. Finally, I vowed to retaliate.” Now Richard looked up from his glass. He stood up and slowly walked to the door. “That is all the time we have for today, miss Forsberg. I hope now you realize that this is not going to be a boring business book.” Startled by the sudden finish of the interview, Agnes quickly grabbed her belongings. “I... I'm sorry,” she stuttered as she rushed to the door. Richard opened it and said: “Don't be sorry. Learn.”
With the storm slowly fading away, Dylan recovered from his state of trance. He looked at the mess on the floor and the trembling of his hands when he heard Louis moan. The youngest of the two friends was still in the chair, holding his head with his two hands. He looked at Dylan who had just become aware of the stinging feeling in his jaw. Dylan looked back. “What's the damage?” His voice was soft and tiresome. He could barely keep his eyes open. Louis glanced through the room. Nothing seemed broken, at least not something irreplaceable. “Carpet saved the TV. Just some rubble and dust, nothing to worry about.” The noise of the storm moved inland, away from the camping and the bungalow. The men brushed themselves off and cleaned the mess. Dylan avoided eye-contact with Louis. He was ashamed. He knew the strength of the walls. The building had withstood storm after storm in the past years, before and after Louis had bought it. Still, Dylan was disappointed in himself. He aspired balance. He had worked hard to recognize and avoid the panic attacks. They wore him out. Exhausted, he leaned back into the chair while Louis went to the kitchen to throw away the trash. When he returned to the living room, Dylan was already nodding off. “Why don't you go to bed, Dyl. It's been a rough evening.” Louis threw Dylan's arm over his shoulder, picked him up and helped him to the guest room. “Dyl, one more thing. What did we agree on throwing people around?” Dylan sat down on the bed and sighed. “It's only fun in bouncy castles.” He crawled under the sheets. He was too tired to even undress. Louis closed the curtains. The last thing Louis wanted right now, was Dylan waking up in the middle of the night and see nothing but waves of water.
Louis closed the door and walked back into the living room. His friend was already asleep, drained by his ability and his irrational aquaphobia. Louis touched the back of his head. It had been a nasty blow. He felt a painful bump but no blood or other damage. He sat down in the chair and lit a cigarette before opening his laptop. In private browsing modus, he surfed to the dark web and the strange but comforting group of gifted people. He moved his hands over the keyboard to type the complex password. Next to the device, the mouse moved around and clicked on the rodents in the random pictures appearing on the screen. It only took Louis a few seconds to login successfully. The chatroom was quiet. There were a few names but nobody was active. Only Yuko, alerted by the entry of Louis, welcomed him. He asked him how things were going, a question Louis answered with “Had an episode with Dylan.” In the box on the laptop screen, Louis wrote about what had happened. Shortly after, Yuko replied. “Is aquaphobia not curable?” Louis laughed and typed, “I don't think anything is curable with him. He's just cursed like the rest of us.” A few emoticons appeared on the screen but the conversation quickly died out. Yuko excused himself. For a few seconds, Louis looked at the motionless chat box.
Then he got up, took a piece of paper and wrote “I'm off to the night shop”. He got up, shoved the piece of paper under the door to the guest room and grabbed his coat. He knew Dylan would be asleep for at least seven hours, possibly more, but he didn't want to take any risks. Another panic attack could cause serious damage, not only to the bungalow but also to Dylan's already fragile mental health. Louis was no stranger to these irrational fears either. He had once been diagnosed with enochlophobia, fear of crowds. He, too, had been subject to severe mood swings, depression and anxiety but he had learned to hide it behind the screen of a computer. In the world of soft- and hardware, Louis' powers were basically non-existing because they were not required. He put on his coat, checked for the keys and looked at the door behind which his best friend was in a deep sleep. Then he got outside. The rain had stopped but there was still a cold wind blowing over the camping grounds. Louis put the hood of his sweater over his head. He started walking uphill, to the city center. Most of the other bungalows and caravans were empty. Their owners and renters had gone back to their day jobs inland, only planning to come back next Spring. The only person still on the camping ground was the concierge, a man Louis had talked to only once. As Louis walked past the concierge's bungalow, he recognized the bright green screen and flashing advertisements of a gambling website.
Louis followed the wooden pathway into and over the dunes. It was slippery but Louis was already used to that. He followed the path to the highway, a large street connecting the coastal towns. It was empty. No cars, no trams, no pedestrians. For a loner like Louis, this felt close to perfect. The fresh air and the chilly wind relaxed him and the raging thoughts in his head. He crossed the road and walked past the park when he heard harsh sounds in the distance. His peace of mind was abruptly interrupted by the wailing sounds of ambulances and police sirens. He looked around, nothing to see. He increased his pace as an unexplainable premonition befell him. He walked past the town hall and into the shopping street. The sounds stopped but the flickering of the revolving lights reflected on the buildings in the small streets. The square and the surrounding streets almost looked like a silent discotheque. Louis turned around the corner and saw them. One ambulance, two police cars. Heavily armed officers occupied the street while two paramedics rushed into a building. Louis looked at the incident from a safe distance. Several windows were open with people peering out, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on. In the streets more and more people appeared to see what was going on. It made Louis nervous. He looked around, trying to find a place to escape the gawkers or at least to find a calmer detour to the night shop. He rushed into another street, away from the incident. In his haste, he bumped into a street sign. It hurt his arm but he kept walking, away from the people and the lights. He turned around a corner again, now passing the other side of the happenings. He figured running would not be a good idea. It would attract the policemen's attention, which was the last thing Louis needed right now. He ignored the incident and walked to the store on the other side of the square. It was empty, even the owner was outside to witness the events. Louis rushed in. “What is going on?” he asked. The owner shrugged. “I not see anything, only cops.”
Louis bought a pack of cigarettes and a few beers. Outside it looked like the entire town had woken up by the sirens. Louis looked over the square, again only to find the quickest and easiest way out, but then he noticed the sign on the building. Without further hesitation he ran towards the building and the crowd. The window was shattered. Millions of pieces of glass were scattered all over the sidewalk. The pharmacy was empty. Plundered. The paramedics left the building again, carrying a stretcher. Even in the dim light of the shop window, Louis recognized the long, wavy, red hair. He tried to get closer but an officer pushed him away. “Sir, we got everything under control. Please leave this scene. All of you. Please return to your homes.” Louis put his foot down. He wasn't planning on going anywhere, even though the officer insisted. “Who is on the stretcher?” The cop did not answer, so Louis yelled. “Iris! Iris!” The policeman looked at Louis, but was interrupted by the approaching paramedic. “Are you family, sir?” Louis shook his head. “No, I'm her friend. What happened? Why can't I see her?” The paramedic gestured Louis to calm down. “We don't know what happened, sir, but it does not look good. I can't tell you much. But please, let us do our jobs and take her to the hospital if you want her to pull through.” Louis took a few steps back. He watched Iris being loaded into the ambulance and sighed.