Chapter 29:

Book 2, Ch. 4: Coming Home to Nothing

ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~


***MERRY CHRISTMAS!***

Okay, it's 1 day after Christmas, sorry :P

And wow, this is my first upload in 5 months! I'm a tad bit embarrassed for the hiatus, but I wanted to make sure this story was good and everything was as it should be. I couldn't simply write it chapter-by-chapter.

If you like the story, then punch that "Like" button in the nose. Comments are epic too, and I love hearing from my readers, so I'll try my best to respond.

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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 4: COMING HOME TO NOTHING

The Stadium of Rad-Tastic Literature, located in the Douglas community area in the South Side of Chicago, was a prominent center for book enthusiasts. As Chicago’s leading pioneer of reviving written media and entertainment, its edgy image and growth-hacking marketing endeavors had attracted a large following of teenage and young adult readers.

“Books up the wazoo!” their motto boisterously declared.

It combined the traditional features of libraries with bookstores, while featuring a casual bar selling next-level wine, non-traditional craft beer, and exquisite spirits, as well as an all-ages food counter serving handmade snacks and shareable appetizers. According to widespread testimonies, the place was adored by hipsters, socialites, nerds, and schizophrenics (perhaps not an official claim).

Despite suspicions surrounding the center’s rapid upstart and seemingly large budget (which naysayers claimed were fueled by racketeering and such, since “no brick-and-mortar store for books could possibly evolve so rapidly in this current era”), The Stadium of Rad-Tastic Literature actually owed its success to its groundbreaking vision, business model, and marketing.

And it was that particular vision, business model, and marketing that had prompted Lakedra Lewis, CEO of the center, to take interest in the employee application and resume on her clipboard.

Lakedra, an outgoing black woman in her late thirties, entered the back area behind the reception desk near the main customer entrance, where the prospective new hire awaited the job interview.

“Hi there!” the lively Lakedra greeted. The young interviewee had blue eyes and voluminous black hair with elegant flows. Lakedra glanced at the resume on her clipboard. “You must be Alessandra Starling?”

“Yes,” the twenty-two-year-old woman replied with a smile, “just call me Sandra.” She was wearing a burgundy, collared two-button jacket with a matching pencil skirt, black, slip-on boots with pointed toes and subtle heels, and carrying a Neapolitan-designed briefcase purse, being the colors of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla; this was her favorite attire for upholding her image as a business professional—Sandra’s signature look, or so she hoped to establish.

“Sandra you shall be called.” Lakedra shook the young woman’s hand. “I’m Lakedra Lewis, the CEO of The Stadium of Rad-Tastic Literature. Thank you for stopping in!”

“Oh no, I should be thanking you for having me.” Sandra chuckled. “It was quite the road trip to get here.”

“All the way from Alliance, Ohio, huh?” Lakedra nodded as she considered the distance.

“About six hours nonstop and almost four hundred miles,” Sandra told her, pretending to wipe imaginary sweat from her forehead. “Whew, but the trip was enjoyable. It got me out and about, and I really miss the action of the city.”

“Well, I hope you have the strength for me to show you around, young lady,” Lakedra said eagerly. “It’s a big place.”

“Yeah, I’d love to see it,” Sandra replied with a smile, her blue eyes baring her excitement despite her attempts to appear modest and formal. “I moved away just before your grand opening, so I never got to check it out.”

Lakedra smiled. She was already picking up good vibes and energy from Sandra. Goal-oriented and playful, Lakedra was quick to form bonds with other likeminded people.

“All right, Sandra! Come with me.”

Sandra followed Lakedra through the main floor of the center, which was essentially a large library, and she took in the splendor of the appealing design and layout, which was an ideal balance of “modern and proactive” with “homey and inviting.” Open and spacious, easily navigable, and slightly rustic, warm, and earthy. She listened to Lakedra’s explanation, taking a lot of interest in how the main floor’s design aligned with the business’ vision.

“Over here is the bar,” Lakedra said as they walked to the back of the main floor, “We have locally-sourced wine, beer, and spirits on a rotating selection. There are also incredible snacks and things that are available in small portions and shareable portions, all handmade in our own little kitchen.” She playfully elbowed Sandra on the arm. “The Muzzleloader Bacon Bombs are dynamite, pun intended.”

“Wow, the layout looks nice. I heard it’s hard to run a restaurant or any food service, and you have one inside a bigger brick-and-mortar store…”

“For now,” Lakedra said, “it’s worked out okay. Problem is cost of food is becoming an issue all of a sudden. We’ve had to make deals with our suppliers to get their best ingredients.”

“Can you and your suppliers agree on how much they charge you?”

Lakedra nodded. “We do. Making deals with other businesses is very important.”

“It smells really good,” Sandra said, looking at what some customers had on their table. “As long as the quality is good, the price can be reasoned with.”

“I agree. All ages are welcome to our food service, but you need to be twenty-one to enter the actual bar area, the only place where alcohol is permitted,” Lakedra explained. “We considered letting people roam free with their drinks, but we figured it’d get a little too sloppy, you know? Already had some hooligans be too irresponsible.”

There was a second level above the main floor. Lakedra continued speaking to Sandra as they rode the glass elevator up, providing a nice view of the main floor below.

“We’ve experienced rapid growth in the four years we’ve been opened,” Lakedra said in the glass elevator, “much faster than anticipated. We owe it all to our marketing endeavors, which just so happened to deliver the right punches at the right time.”

“It’s surprising, I have to say,” Sandra replied, looking with admiration down at the main floor through the glass elevator’s walls. “I don’t have much experience with the book industry, so I did a little research before coming to Chicago.” She looked at Lakedra. “Choosing to open a physical store for books in this day and age…it’s a little risky. Especially with the threat of online retail and downloadable e-books.”

“Very true,” Lakedra agreed with a nod. “That’s why we wanted to establish something that’s more than just a store. Something that’s more than just a place where people come to buy or rent or read something. We wanted to take advantage of something that real stores have, but online stores don’t.”

“You’re talking about the experience the customers have?” Sandra asked.

The elevator dinged when it reached the second floor.

“Exactly!” Lakedra told Sandra.

Stepping out of the elevator, Sandra looked around at the lounge-like area with plenty of seating, tables, computer kiosks, pinball machines, and a lighter fare snack bar. Young customers were congregating in troves, vaping and playing obscure board games. Songs by the K-pop EDM group Cat Armed with Squeegee played through the speaker system. Sandra could overhear the conversation topics, which were a variety of buzzing trends and oddball trivia.

“I thought Stars Wars: The Last Jedi was badass, I don’t care what people think. I’m buying two copies on Blu-ray when it comes out, one to watch and one to keep in the package forever. For-eh-ver.”

“Dude, what flavor’s in your vape? It smells like wet leather.”

“Netflix is obsolete to me because of Crunchyroll, and all I watch is anime. They have Bananya, so I’m gonna binge watch it ‘til my eyes bleed, nya!”

“The bar downstairs has this new organic romaine salad with a hemp vinaigrette, but is that even legal? Maybe it isn’t hemp. But get this, the salad is called When in Lettuce, Do as the Romaines Do!”

“If I was a black porn star, my name would be Afro-Disiac. Heh heh hehhh!”

“We bring in a pretty colorful crowd,” Lakedra said to Sandra, gesturing toward the substantial number of customers who all seemed to be having a good time. “We offer memberships with perks and other goodies, like VIP access and invitations to certain events. Most of these people have paid memberships, letting them participate in board game events like this. They also get free unlimited pinball and arcade passes, as well as vouchers and store credit on books, food, drinks, and other sweet deals.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of members.” Sandra was amazed by the size of the energetic group.

“Hey, it’s Lakedra!” A young man called out from one of the tables where a Monopoly Gamer round (featuring Mario characters) was getting heated. A small round of cheering for the center’s CEO ensued, and Lakedra responded with a big smile and a wave.

“It seems to me like there was a lot more that contributed to your success, not just marketing,” Sandra said, watching the customers react to Lakedra’s presence like that of a celebrity.

“Well, that may be true,” Lakedra said. “However, marketing is still important. We realize it’s time to take it to the next step and try expanding our reach. Marketing will play a big role in that, so we’ll need to beef it up.”

They walked around the top floor, which overlooked the main floor.

“Has your marketing department started preparations for a new campaign?” Sandra asked while walking. “If the business plans on moving forward as a whole, it’ll have a significant impact on all marketing fronts.”

Lakedra smiled, leaning on the faux granite balcony railing and looking upon the main floor below.

“The thing is, we don’t actually have a marketing department. Not officially, anyway. As you say, our success hinges on other factors, ranging from keen knowledge of the book industry to plain ol’ dumb luck. Nobody here has any marketing background prior to working here, just a few people who are social media savvy. I’m hoping to recruit some young and ambitious people who already have some experience.”

“I’d love to help with that,” Sandra replied confidently. She took a quick look around. “This really seems like the type of place I’d want to be a part of…that I’d want to contribute to.”

“That’s what we aim for,” Lakedra said. After thinking for a brief moment, she shifted the gears in her brain, cracking a wry smirk. “So, our motto here is ‘Books up the wazoo!’. Do you know what a wazoo is, Sandra?”

“Uh, a wazoo?” There was a lot of commotion from the social activities in the entire place, filling the sizable open air within the building. It distracted Sandra as she stumbled through her mental dictionary.

Lakedra laughed.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know. But I’ll tell you…it’ll help you to have a better answer than that. A lotta customers gonna ask, so best be prepared!”

Sandra promptly acknowledged that.

The two walked around some more, exchanging business-related banter with casual chitchat. To Sandra, it felt more like a conversation than an interview, which was unexpected.

However, from Lakedra’s perspective, it was an opportunity to engage Sandra with a more human approach, effectively disarming Sandra’s perception that it was indeed a job interview, and to see into the heart and mind of this young business professional from a more intimate standpoint.

Lakedra Lewis owed much to her business’ success, namely her financial acumen and emotional intelligence.

The interview ended with Lakedra leading Sandra back behind the reception desk near the main entrance. Feeling enlightened and enthusiastic, Sandra listened closely to what Lakedra had to say.

“I have to say, this has been a pleasure speaking with you!” Lakedra’s attitude was still positive and active.

“Thank you, it was for me, too,” Sandra told her happily.

“You have great energy, and you seem to have a solid grasp on yourself. I like that. It’s exactly the kind of workspace we promote. Experience and skills aren’t everything in a worker. Even so, just from speaking with you today, I can tell you have a sense of the position we’re looking to fill.”

Sandra laughed modestly. “Glad I fit the mold.”

“There are still some more interviews for me to do today,” Lakedra said. “I’ll call you tomorrow to let you know if we’ll be scheduling a follow-up session.”

“Okay,” Sandra said, being reminded that this was indeed a job interview, and she was competing with a number of other people for a position…a number not disclosed to her. “Sounds good. I look forward to hearing back from you.”

And with that, the interview was over, and Sandra left through the main entrance, ordained with large, tinted glass panes. Maybe it was just her, but the entire entrance appeared much bigger on her way out than in.

During the walk to her car parked two blocks away, the gray skies cast a monotonous hue over Chicago’s South Side, which seemed to dampen the dim clacking of the subtle heels on her black, slip-on boots.

It was true that Sandra was often upbeat and proactive, but when alone, her current circumstances accentuated her earnestness and melancholy.

Before getting into her car, she looked through the backseat window. With the interview over, a downtrodden pressure quickly mounted itself onto her shoulders as she came to terms with where she had ended up. The four-door sedan, gray like the overcast sky, paid-off by the previous owner, sporting Ohio license plates, and a little rusty under the wheel wells—this was her home. Everything she had vowed to take from her apartment didn’t even fill her trunk.

There were still two weeks left until her apartment’s rent was due, but she wouldn’t be staying there anymore, let alone pay for it again. The insomnia invoked by that despair-filled place was very real, and she had gotten better sleep in her car’s backseat the night before than she had in months in the bed of said despair-filled place.

In summary, Sandra had researched a job position online, contacted Mrs. Lakedra Lewis on the phone, packed a fraction of her possessions, slept in her car, abandoned her apartment without notice, and drove nearly four hundred miles to her job interview in Chicago, all in a little more than twenty-four hours. Notably, she had not eaten a bite during that timeframe.

“Home sweet home,” she murmured, getting in the driver’s seat. She turned on the stereo and played her favorite CD by Budge from Here, a punkstep, beach-hop, and dream jazz band ensemble from Toledo, Ohio.

She checked her phone, seeing a text message from the only friend she had informed of her sudden move across two state borders, which read:

["I hope you made it to the city ok. Let me know when your interview is over and we’ll meet up."]

Sandra responded right away:

["I made it ok. My interview is over so I’m free."]

With her head resting against the car seat, she waited in silence before receiving a response. She wasted no time to enter the agreed meetup location in her phone’s GPS, and headed straight there.

*******

The area was vaguely familiar to Sandra as she circled the block to find the bar she was looking for; the online reviews made it out to be rather classy, much to the disparagement of her finances.

Sandra found the place named Flounder’s Dorsal, but had to hunt for a parking spot three blocks away. She believed to be in a safe neighborhood judging by the well-kept properties, surplus of newer vehicles, and numerous people wearing clean, collared shirts. Not the best way to discern the safety of an area, but her unusually downturned mood and lack of sleep granted access to a type of courage rooted in carelessness.

According to the plan, she was to meet outside in front of Flounder’s Dorsal, and she had arrived first. A nearby, unoccupied bench beckoned to her, perhaps one lonely soul reaching out to another. Without much thought, Sandra took a seat on the bench, looked around at the small stores selling everything she didn’t need or want, and let her mind drift as her open eyes saw nothing.

“Why do you look so blue, young lady?”

The dry, tired voice contained gentleness, although it did not belong to the person she was waiting for. An old man approached Sandra, and he wore a dusty, moldy cloth the size of a child’s blanket, parts of a tattered tuxedo peeking out from underneath. Even with his filthy attire and decrepit appearance, his toothless smile conveyed a noble sincerity that Sandra needed at that moment.

It took Sandra a few seconds, but she recognized the man.

“You…you’re Biscuits N’ Gravy.”

Nodding like a toy with a stripped gear in its neck, the homeless man replied, “That seems to be what I’m known as lately.”

“I remember you from years ago,” Sandra told him. The nostalgia warmed a cold part of herself. “You helped me look for my money clip in the park. That was…how long ago?” When the homeless man didn’t respond, she quickly added, “Oh, I’m sure you don’t remember. You probably see a lot of people all the time, and it was years ago.”

“I remember,” he said.

“You do?”

“Yes. It was near the Lincoln Park Zoo. Your money clip slipped from your pocket after you kicked a boy in the crotch.”

“You really do remember!” Sandra laughed at the memory. “I promise I wasn’t trying to be mean to that boy…we’re still friends, actually, and I’m meeting him now. He was being a pain that day, and I was somewhat tomboyish, even though I could be a girly-girl a lot. I’m still kinda like that…”

“It was hard to walk for the rest of that field trip,” said another, more familiar voice. “That hurt, you know.”

When Sandra looked up at the man she was meeting, it suddenly occurred to her that she wasn’t as prepared for the occasion as she had believed. Perhaps the man’s height and size caught her off guard, and upon standing up from the bench, she still felt tiny in comparison.

“Hi, Regal! Geez, I forgot how big you are…”

Regal Landers was a large, muscular black man standing at six feet seven inches. Despite his size, he always displayed a gentle, caring personality.

“How could you forget?” Regal chuckled. He was rather soft-spoken, but his booming voice carried a strength that people could feel in their chests. “It’s only been four years since graduation.”

“Yeah, only.” Sandra hiked her Neapolitan-colored briefcase purse up her shoulder. “Shall we head in?”

“Absolutely.”

Turning to the bum, Sandra said, “It was good seeing you again, Mr. Gravy.”

Biscuits N’ Gravy gave a courteous nod before Sandra and Regal entered the bar.

The interior of Flounder’s Dorsal was clean, slick, and minimalist with low lighting and a quiet atmosphere playing soft piano jazz. Regal pointed out a small table by the wall, which they claimed. A young man in a black and white uniform took their orders as soon as they sat down.

“So,” Sandra said, placing her briefcase purse on the table and against the colorless wall, “how’s the future wife?”

“Good,” Regal said. “She just got a new job as a nursing assistant, so she’s happy about that.” He showed her the engagement ring on his finger; solid white gold with glistening diamonds. “The wedding’s not until next summer, the Fourth of July. We’re taking off all week to go to my father’s lake house up north in Wisconsin.”

Seeing the ring and hearing about the wedding made Sandra’s eyes dazzle.

“That’s so nice,” she said with a sweet smile. “I’m so happy for you. A week at a lake house sounds like fun!”

“It certainly will be.”

The drinks arrived, and Sandra was temporarily entranced by the green and orange swirls in her mango-lime margarita. Taking a sip from the straw, the sugary, fruity flavor quickly perked her up.

“What about your job?” Sandra asked. “Still working for your dad’s company?”

“Still am. I can’t see myself being anything other than an accountant, and I’m honored to work for the family business.” He took a drink from his bottle of Two-Hearted Pale Ale from Bell’s Brewery. “What about you? Did you really just up and leave like you said in your text messages?”

Sandra was quiet for a moment.

“I did.” She took another sip of her drink, and Regal watched the contents in her glass drop quite a bit. With a smile, she said, “I’m kinda stressed out right now, really. I can find a hotel or something for a while with my savings, but I’m basically homeless aside from my car.”

“What about your parents?” Regal remembered the sleazy human Sandra’s father was, and quickly changed his question. “Isn’t your mother still around Chicago?”

“I can’t go back to my mother,” she said quietly, using her finger to toy with the straw in her mango-lime margarita.

Regal noted the sullen reaction to the subject matter, so he just nodded and took a drink from his bottle of Two-Hearted and replied, “This is an adventure for you.” He smiled. “Must be hard.”

Staring into nowhere in particular, presumably through her margarita, Sandra finally said, optimistically, “Yeah. But whatever.”

“You’ve always struck me as the adventurous type,” Regal said.

“Yeah,” Sandra chuckled, “you can say that.”

Another round of drinks acted to liven up the conversation. The two chatted about their days in high school at Lyonbole, reminiscing topics such as the retirement of Jan Cox, the previous vice principal, after they had graduated. They also heartily recalled their senior class prank involving over five hundred gallons of spicy mayonnaise, which led to the school banning the substance, treating it on equal terms with tobacco and alcohol.

Eventually, the conversation meandered back to serious life discussions. The bar steadily filled up with people as Sandra’s and Regal’s drinks slowly emptied.

“I’m riding on getting this job,” Sandra said flatly, pushing her hair out of her face. “If I can’t find an income, I’ll probably be forced to go back to Alliance. No doubt my boss for my job there will try to call me before then, and I’m pretty sure I know what he’ll have to say about me dipping out like that, so I blocked his phone number to avoid that conversation. And if I wait too long, my apartment’s rent will be up.” She groaned an audible sigh. “I really made a plunge here.”

Regal understood Sandra’s stress.

“I won’t coach you,” he said, “at least not yet. I trust you’ll find a way. If not this job at the Stadium of Rad-Tastic Literature, then somewhere. You have a good resume, and you have good energy.”

“Thanks,” she replied softly with a flicker of a smile.

“Have you applied for any other jobs?”

“…No.”

“It’s a good idea to do so,” Regal told her.

“I know.”

Feeling the conversation was heading toward a dead end, Regal said, “If you need any support, just say the word. I’ll be glad to help you out, but only if you do your part to stand on your own feet.” He grinned. “No freeloading!”

With a small smile, Sandra replied, “You know I hate freeloading, or asking for favors in general. It’s not my thing…for better or worse…”

“Just keep it in mind.”

“Thanks, Regal.”

Regal looked around the bar for a moment before quietly asking, “Have you been able to eat, at least?”

“I haven’t actually eaten since I came here. I know I should…but I’m just not feeling it.”

After some silence, Regal said, “The food prices around here are going up. Probably not just the metropolitan area, but throughout the Midwest. It’s likely to be affecting Ohio too, but Chicago is bound to take the biggest hit, at least at first.”

Curious, Sandra looked at Regal.

“Really?” she asked. “But…isn’t your father’s company…?”

“Yes,” Regal said solemnly, almost appearing embarrassed, “we’re well aware of this occurrence.”

“Is the company doing something about it?” Sandra hesitated, adding, “Or…is it responsible?”

With a deep breath and slight smile, Regal told her, “It’s complicated.”

“Ah.”

As Sandra liberally attempted to suck the remainder of her drink through the straw, Regal abruptly swiveled in his seat to turn around. His eyes opened wide, directed toward the front entrance, and he quickly glanced around.

Concerned, Sandra asked, “What’s wrong?” She glanced at the door, but saw nothing peculiar.

Without a word, Regal stood up and turned to Sandra, leaning in closely.

“You need to get out of here,” he whispered sternly.

Sandra gave him a confused look. She was about to say something, but was cut off by the sound of a beer pitcher spilling at a table across the bar.

“Oops, was that me?” one of the young men at the table asked, sopping up the spilled beer with beverage napkins.

“No, it looks like it fell by itself. Weird, man!”

“Dude, for real? What the hell? The beer’s running off the table.”

A nearby waitress grabbed a roll of paper towels from the server station, then hurried over to clean the mess. On the way, she suddenly stopped, rubbed her forehead for a moment, shook her head, and continued her job. Sandra hadn’t noticed this, but Regal had…and was afraid.

“Get outside and away from here,” Regal told Sandra darkly, taking his wallet out of his pocket. “It’s not safe here.”

“Regal, tell me what you mean.” Sandra was shaken up by Regal’s behavior, but didn’t want to leave immediately.

“We’ll have to do this another time,” he said, flashing a warm smile after dropping cash on the table with a considerable tip. “Sorry, but this is very urgent.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Sandra watched Regal hurry out the back exit at a light jog, leaving her behind to ponder the act. The lights in the entire building flickered and went out. One second later, they came back on, but the TVs had lost their signal and computers were reset. People’s reactions were a mix of frustration and laughs at the instability of old infrastructures in buildings such as this one.

Sandra grabbed her phone off the table, which had its battery suddenly die, and quickly left out the front door, not slowing her pace until she was half a block away.

*******

Behind the Flounder’s Dorsal, in the alleyway parking lot, Regal warily approached his car, keeping an eye out around him. He slowed down…took a deep breath…and waited…

Where’d it go? he wondered, looking around anxiously. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. I saw it come this way. Looking down the alley to the street, he thought about Sandra. I hope she’s okay. She probably thinks I’m crazy.

Something black moved past his peripheral vision, and he caught a quick glimpse of what he had seen in the bar. Biting his lip, he ran down the alleyway in hopes of catching another sight of it. However, as soon as he reached the street congested with traffic, the trail had gone cold, and he pounded the nearby building in anger.

“If you’re looking for the nightly one,” said a voice eerily familiar to Regal, “it got away.”

Regal had no comfort in the presence of the person speaking to him, but at least he was now with somebody who understood what had happened.

Even so, he kept his guard up as he stared at the person wearing an expensive brown cloak, long black pants, ski mask, dust mask, and dark sunglasses. In broad daylight, it was difficult to assume the person was attempting to hide themselves completely, perhaps more concerned with keeping their identity a secret than sticking out.

“Why are you here?” Regal muttered.

The cloaked individual kept their expression obscured behind a disguise, making it impossible to distinguish their thoughts or mood with facial features alone. No part of the individual’s body was visible…they were completely hidden.

“You aren’t worthy of asking me that.” Even the cloaked person’s voice was not true, being heavily altered with high-level magic specially designed for human vocal purposes.

“Then tell me where that thing went.” Regal was demanding, turning his entire body to face the disguised person. “It went this way.”

“Watch your tone.” In the absence of facial expressions, the cloaked individual’s aggravated body language signified irritation. They pointed a gloved finger at Regal. “I told you it got away. There’s no chasing it now, and there isn’t a reason for you to; its kind isn’t concerned with you, nor should you worry about them.”

“Tsk.” Regal bit his lip. “Is there something you need from me?”

“There is always something I need from you. But nothing immediate. I was just watching.”

Scowling at the opaque sunglasses, Regal marched past the disguised individual and headed back down the alley.

“Creepy bastard,” Regal muttered.

The cloaked individual silently watched Regal drive his truck away, and left without anybody noticing.

*******

The radio in Sandra’s car was turned down low, acting as background noise and softly playing the eclectic podcast radio station 94.2 The Scum. With the car not started, running her fingernails along the steering wheel, Sandra wondered what had happened at the bar. Why did Regal cut their meeting short? More importantly, what would she do next?

Her stomach reminded her of the significant timespan since her last meal, alerting her with a rowdy rumble from the deepest pits of her gut. Embarrassed and glad nobody else was around to hear it, she clutched her empty stomach. The drinks she had earlier had only teased her appetite.

With her phone plugged into the car charger, she checked her bank account online, the fourth time she had done so that day. For some reason, she felt as if the last of her money was at risk of evaporating from her account. Although she was rather meticulous with her finances, her new situation had her on edge, and it was easy to fear that some forgotten monthly bill would unexpectedly be deducted from her tight funds.

Another stomach growl shook her, this one almost painful.

I need to eat something, she thought. Then I’ll look for a cheap inn.

There was a McKraken’s nearby that she drove to. Inside, she ordered some chicken nuggets and fries, then sat down. Normally, a fast food meal would be her last option, but it didn’t seem to matter now.

Now that Regal mentioned it, this might be a little more expensive than I remember. Maybe the price is the same, but there are fewer fries and the nuggets are smaller…I dunno.

Still feeling a mild buzz from the bar, the nuggets and fries were the perfect salty snack she needed; her drink cup was filled with water rather than soda, and everything tasted addictively delicious, admittedly.

It’s still as good as I remember, though!

Halfway through eating, she absentmindedly looked around the restaurant. Plenty of other customers were there. She didn’t give them much thought as her mind drifted from one irrelevant topic to the next.

She looked back at her food, and somebody was sitting directly next to her.

“Hi!” Leon Kampton said with a big smile.

Sandra jumped out of her chair with cat-like reflexes.

“Whoa! W-where the heck did you come from?”

Leon chuckled. “Didn’t mean to scare you, Miss.”

“You literally came out of nowhere!” Sandra said breathily, clutching her chest over her heart.

“Nah, I was on the other side of the restaurant,” Leon told her, pointing to where he had supposedly been. “I waved at you, but you looked right past me.”

Sandra’s fright faded, but she cautiously watched the handsome blond man sitting at her table. She remembered him from the other night…was it about a week ago? Longer? He had given her the idea to come back to Chicago, and here he was in Chicago, himself. It was quite peculiar and suspicious.

“You were at my apartment not long ago,” Sandra said, not taking her eye off the friendly smile Leon wore. “What are you doing here?”

Leon shrugged. “I live and work around here.”

The chicken nuggets were about to get cold, but Sandra decided they’d be collateral if the current encounter became too sketchy.

“What were you doing at my apartment the other night?” she demanded, keeping calm and trying to avoid drawing attention…yet.

Looking away for a moment, Leon told her, “That’s not important.”

His cheesy grin was unconvincing.

“Not important?” Sandra asked, confused.

Leon nodded. “Nope, not at all.”

The silence was filled with the rambunctious chatter of a group of kids no older than ten, and the shrieking sound of the woman failing to keep them in order.

Sandra stared at the mysterious man, strongly considering walking away. A certain magnetism prevented her from simply leaving, however, and she couldn’t quite explain why. Honestly, she thought the blond man was very handsome, but she doubted that was her only reason for wanting to hear what he had to say.

“Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?” he asked.

“What?” Sandra asked shortly. “Okay.”

“Splendid!” he replied with a smile. He patted the chair Sandra had been sitting in, and she sat down, but on the other side of the table, facing Leon Kampton.

“So…what?” she asked again, picking up a chicken nugget, not eating it. “What’d you say your name was? You told me the other day. I think it was Leo…Lee-something.”

“Just go with Lavi.”

“Oh. Was it Lavi?” Sandra tried to recall, fidgeting with the room-temperature nugget.

“And it’s true that my reason for meeting you the first time isn’t what’s important,” he said in a laidback manner.

“I have a hard time believing that,” Sandra said bluntly with a curt look.

“So be it,” Lavi said dismissively. He leaned forward. “I’ll show you what is important, though.”

Sandra looked at Lavi, waiting for him to explain himself. Chewing on her chicken nugget, she watched the two angel wings fan out behind him, nearly spreading out to the nearby tables. Lost for words and hoping for a quick wakeup from a delusional stupor, Sandra gawked at the angelic sight before her, held in place by the saturated holiness flooding the environment.

She clamped her hands over her mouth, trapping a scream before it could escape. Lavi was right across the table, beaming at her with a big grin, shrouded in a light that had no definite source.

“Wh-wh-wh-wha—?” Babbling was all she could muster before her speech took hold to form full words. “You! You’re…you!”

“Yes, that is a true statement.”

She leaned in close, bug-eyed, and whispered, “You’re an…angel…”

“Also true!”

Her mouth still uttering nonsensical stutters, Sandra glanced nervously around the restaurant.

“W-why isn’t anybody e-else freaking out?” A look of dread swept over her face, turning her pale in seconds. “Oh shit…I’ve lost my mind. Ha…ha ha ha.”

“Not to burst your bubble, Miss,” Lavi said nonchalantly, “but you’re still sane. Your reaction is normal for humans who see inhuman beings like me for the first time, or more precisely, see us for what we really are.”

“But…” Sandra glanced around again, “nobody else seems to care.”

“Oh, they care,” Lavi told her, “they just aren’t aware. Just between us, they can’t see me like this. I look just like a normal person to them.”

“That’s ludicrous!” Sandra spat. “How the hell do they not see,” she gestured sporadically at Lavi’s glowing display, “…see this?”

Lavi considered his reply.

“Think of it as a ‘mind over matter’ kinda thing, ‘kay?”

“P-p-poppycock!” Sandra sputtered, her voluminous hair becoming frazzled by her frantic movements.

“You’ve been chosen, Miss,” Lavi said, prodding one of the cold chicken nuggets on the tray. “Uh, would it help you to envision it as winning the lottery? Honestly, there ain’t a good metaphor for this.”

“Drivel and windbaggery!” Sandra cackled, standing up stiffly and jerkily.

“Nice vocabulary,” Lavi said modestly, “but where are you going?”

“Goodbye.” She gave Lavi a mocking, robotic salute before marching toward the exit. There was nothing else she had to say, and had decided to pull the plug on the conversation. Leave. Retreat.

“Alessandra Starling.”

Hearing her name made Sandra lock up. She turned back to Lavi, her mouth agape, but eyes sharp and fierce.

“I won’t ask you how you know my name,” she said through pursed lips, taking a deep breath before continuing to speak. “You stay away from me. I mean it.”

Sandra walked briskly out the door to her car. When she drove away, chirping her tires out of the parking lot, Lavi looked at the ceiling and smirked. Gathering the remaining chicken nuggets in the box they were served in, he stood up and approached one of the many kids in the restaurant.

“Hey, you want some chicken nuggets?” Lavi asked the big-nosed boy wearing a Transformers T-shirt.

“Don’t take food from strangers,” the little boy said warily, clearly not seeing the large angel wings and glowing halo.

Lavi chuckled.

“Too bad these have to go to waste,” he said to nobody in particular, somewhat remorsefully. “She was hungry, and I just can’t eat these cold.”


*** AUTHOR'S NOTE & UPDATES ***

Seeing that it's been nearly half a year since my last upload, I'd like to share what I've been up to...

First, I am in the final stages of writing Book 2 for ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~!!! After the rough draft is complete, I'll move to the professional editing phase. In the meantime, there will be many more chapter updates just around the corner. :)

Also, there is official art for the story! Kudos to Rusembell for the awesome pictures. You can find them on Deviant Art in my favorites:

https://www.deviantart.com/gerryberryhines/favourites/

With the holidays over, I'll have more free time off work. December was a very busy month, but the upcoming winter will keep me inside, nice and toasty, with my laptop...and the stories I beat into its hard drive...

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