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She Withdraws [NSFW]


Sansara was embarrassed with herself. She couldn’t believe her lack of self-control regarding Diego. She hoped to Hell that he couldn’t hear her from the couch. She was trying to be quiet but she definitively failed. She knew he was flirting with her, but she didn’t feel like repeating the Ben experience. He hadn’t been in the living room when she emerged, so she wondered if he’d heard her or not.

She’d given into her animal impulses with Ben. She’d read that man’s face, she saw his adoration therein, and then he treated her like shit for years once he got her into bed. He never told her that she was beautiful, he never made her feel desirable. Well, maybe that wasn’t expressly true, but he never said he wanted to be with her.

At the beginning of their relationship, after spending hours in bed, fucking and talking and fucking again, he’d looked at her like she was the only woman on Earth and said, “You are enough.” She had no idea how much she had wanted to hear those words until they sent her into outer space, elated and ecstatic beyond belief.

She should have learned her lesson in her youth: the higher she got, the harder the crash. He lied to her. Ten days later, he was asking her for a fifth time if he could continue to date others in addition to her. She’d thought his declaration meant he’d chosen her. She thought he’d decided to love her.

Instead, she had a nervous breakdown as she realized so many people implied the very same thing throughout her life. They weren’t even lovers, they were acquaintances and frenemies that thinly veiled their hostility, as if she couldn’t tell they were twats all along. It hurt. In fact, her mind went down a rabbit hole. Her memories flashed before her eyes, daisy chains of painful recollections as, over and over, actions and words alike implied she would never have the approval of anyone.

She had crawled into the shower to ugly cry until it stopped, annoyed beyond belief at the faucet her nose had become while she had her nervous breakdown in Ben’s house. Eventually, it passed. It seemed like it was hours later. He had stayed in bed, waiting out the storm apathetically. She grabbed a shower after all was said and done. The dumb fucker had asked her that bomb of a question after they’d had sex again. She would have said no to the sex if she knew the truth up front, at least she thought so. That was the first time he raped her. April 2015.

Ben was a pretty man, just like Diego. She knew they were all the same, these pretty boys. Using their good looks to bait and hook women into whatever twisted fantasies they felt they needed to experience to be “whole.” She had news for all boys everywhere: you don’t need another person or a fulfilled fantasy to be whole. You needed spirituality. You need to understand how you are part of the greater whole and grow into the responsibility of that knowledge.

They were both just like Tom, she thought. The first pretty man who talked his way into her bed. The one who took her virginity. He started off incredibly serious at first, then turned into an abusive alcoholic that tried to control everything she ever did to satisfy his own insecurities. Any time she flirted too much in a public venue, he’d find a new place to drag her to, cutting her connections abruptly in order to isolate her. He did his best to isolate her so that he was the only thing she could love. His goal was to be the god of her world, the ultimate end all and be all of her life. That is not a healthy goal.

We are all gods and goddesses already. One does not need to be in control of other human beings to have power and influence. One could earn power and influence by merely having a code of honor that one could adhere to. Crystal’s code of honor started with a quote from Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. It’s sketchy as to whether he actually said it, but the quote is as follows: “Say what you mean and mean what you say. Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” This is the foundation of this doppleganger’s code of honor. If you only say what you mean, you never make empty promises. If you mean what you say, people picked up on that just as well. And it was true: those who mind don’t matter. So many people are caught up in worrying about what random strangers think about them that they are giving all their power up to others. By focusing on self and one’s own life, you take power by the reigns. The only person you can control, after all, is yourself.

Tom and Sansara had played MUDs together, for the most part, so it wasn’t that much effort to drag her off to another one. For a long while, they play-tested CoffeeMUD in its younger days. She was avid about it, too. They built their characters to craft together, taking every skill, spell, chant, or prayer that would speed up or increase resource gathering. They spent hours for days collecting a dragon’s hoard of treasure to craft with. They even tested the pregnancy system out of morbid curiosity on her part. She had wanted to know if you bred a certain way if you could return to a pure-bred anything. The code was never that complex, although they thought about implementing it when she asked about it, having been thwarted after an entire week of exploration as a player.

In fact, Sansara had flooded the staff with ideas of clothing and other items that could be added to the base system. Her brain exploded with idea and she loved that they put in a crafting system so that the users could make their own custom items. She still thought it could be improved upon to this day, really, but she didn’t feel like returning to the MUD scene. Tom had burnt her something fierce, but he wasn’t the only reason.

Tom got jealous of the mother-daughter relationship she’d developed with Loki, specifically. She wasn’t actively flirting with anyone on staff, but she did flirt with non-staff members. The reason she didn’t flirt with the staff is because she didn’t want any favoritism or nepotism. She wanted to be treated like all the other players, to be honest. Tom got seriously pissed off when she found a bug and didn’t think to report it to the staff. He didn’t even urge her to report it until after they’d already caught onto it and made notes to fix it, whereupon Tom had called her a cheater. He treated her like a substandard human being after that. Apparently, she’d fallen from grace because she never thought to report the bug… instead, she used it to level up the rest of the MUD a few levels here and there.

Her character, Muse, had been set to builder on an area. Apparently, this permission meant she could never die from loss of limbs… at least, not when she fought the rabbit in the Holy Grail area. She took everyone online with her and fought the level 91 rabbit once or twice, losing all her limbs. Honestly, it made the admins chuckle heartily. She wasn’t even cheating for herself. She just found it hilarious to take a whole party of level thirty somethings to the rabbit. Lacking a holy hand grenade, she’d beat on it until her party members destroyed it, tanking for them the whole time and losing limbs left and right. She was a level 60 oracle. It wasn’t really news to the admins when they saw all six of those shysters level up at once.

The lower level characters didn’t realize (nor did she) that her permissions were the reason she wasn’t dying. She didn’t even think about that until after Loki already figured out she was exploiting the code. She did it three times in total, but Tom used that as a reason to disrespect her, put her down, and neg her until the end of time. For a while, they fought. He never told her why he started behaving like that, he just tore her apart viciously for being imperfect. He made her cry time and again, fighting her over every little thing, never stating what his problem was. The autistic woman backed away from his vicious grasp, digging further and further into herself to get away from him.

He’d hurt her so much, she didn’t even want to talk to him. She made a new character named Kylaria and set her up in the room with the aggressive MUD school monster and let the monster suicide on her endlessly. The aggressive flag meant that the monster would start the fight. She was well-equipped enough to kill it endlessly. This character was to test the wish spell. Boy was that epic, at the end; she wished from one million gold and ended up with negative 100,000 experience. (About negative level 60.) She had to re-earn the experience to level ever again. Tom suggested she delete the character and remake it once she discovered this. In fact, so did Loki.

Stubborn, probably because Tom had a shit fit when he figured out Kylaria was her, she decided to earn the levels back. She went back to MUD school and sat with Mr. Aggressive Monster for ages. When she first made Kylaria, she’d told Tom she was doing nothing but staring at a candle. In reality, she’d made a MUD character as a sign of independence. She wanted to be free. She didn’t want to tell him because she’d gotten tired of everything she’d done being the wrong thing, sparking a fight. Eventually, Tom had made nice with her again, so she brought her secret play tester to role-play with him. They had a massive fight that stretched out over days.

He was lambasting her as if she had cheated on him. That was the furthest from the truth he could get. She kind of daydreamed role-playing intimately once or twice on EM, but she wasn’t connecting with any other player the way she wanted to, so she didn’t bother. Her original MUD character, Crystak, had been a bit promiscuous on Realms of Discordia, but once he asked her to be exclusive, she stopped sexing people up. Too bad he himself didn’t actually abide by that ruling, routinely taking Audrina to bed, especially after he made a big show of leaving the game with Sansara when Rob banned her for catching him cheating for his plaything of the week. She didn’t even accuse sweater boy of cheating, mind you. She stated the facts: X character has more RP points than her level allows for. It was his own stupid fucking rule. He could have just changed the rule, but instead he banned Crystal.

Tom projected onto Crystal for six months, acting like the most jealous git in all creation because her charisma was through the roof, especially online. She was always a beautiful young lady, but she never actually thought so. All she remembered was being bullied for being fat. Being fat was a sin, apparently, in the United States. A woman of the same girth in England would be called beautiful any day of the week. She wanted Tom to call her beautiful, actually. She wanted to be reassured of her value to him like she reassured him. He never did, sadly. Instead, the man with the most resourceful vocabulary she’d ever met called her cute. For three years, that man told her she was cute, knowing she wanted more than that. Knowing she deserved more than that. Instead, he told her that her eyes were beautiful. He only told her that because he never could shake the experiential memory of receiving his first blowjob from her.

“You’re so big!” she had exclaimed and looked up at him. And that was the moment he wanted to marry her, actually. He hadn’t planned to propose before that, but that was the foundation of his desire to be with her for good. She’d given him a weak handjob to start with, but by the time he left, he was convinced she was The One(TM). He should have been convinced before he spent about a grand to see her in person, if you ask me.

In the six weeks he spent in the States with her, he spent $500.00 on booze. She was not a heavy drinker because she’d never had alcohol before he landed on her doorstep. She didn’t like how much alcohol he was consuming; her household had been dry her entire life. She didn’t understand why he would want to drink, let alone how much he drank. He had quit smoking in order to impress her, not knowing she herself had smoked in her teen years. She even reassured him over what a great job he was doing being smoke free. It only lasted until he returned to the U.K. without her. He’d put a ring on her finger, though!

The fighting began once he was back. He’d started smoking again, triggered by his mother smoking indoors next to him. You see, Crystal had the audacity to cry about her childhood rape whilst she was safely cradled in his arms during his visit. Instead of talking to her about it, he became increasingly convinced that it was because she rejected him. The man she called handsome and gave her body to. She couldn’t possibly want him! He projected his own shitty self into the void she left with silence. She didn’t have words to put to her experiences, but she did tell him that he was wrong when he brought it up.

Something that had bothered her was that they couldn’t consummate their relationship in person. She had desperately wanted to, but her P.T.S.D. reared its ugly head, prying the two lovers apart again and again over that six weeks. She likened it to having erectile dysfunction, later in life. The desire was there, but she wasn’t capable of it. She told him that a decade after all of this occurred, shedding new light on her feelings, but he didn’t empathize with her at all. He couldn’t put himself in those shoes. He believed her, but she thought he lied about that.

Finally, after months of vicious attacks that only ended if she accepted total blame for every little thing, she decided to dump his dumb ass. This was directly before a LARPing event, to which she instructed him not to tell her if he found himself a rebound, like she assumed he would. He sure did. Her name was Amethyst. It was April of 2004.

Months later, Crystal realized she was attracted to a guy in the States that reminded her of Tom, but he didn’t have any of the same hobbies her former beau indulged with her. In fact, she didn’t think Michael liked her at all. He was a coworker of hers that she singled out because his voice resonated in her heart from time to time. He was a baritone. She’d sit next to him whenever possible because of that. And, every time she tried to forget him, he’d end up nearby and his voice would hit the right pitch to give her goosebumps.

Michael was into golfing, a hobby she herself didn’t know anything about other than the very seasonal climate they lived in meant he couldn’t do it year-round. He had mistaken her incredulousness as nay-saying, sadly, and skittered away from her. He thought he was incredibly handsome, even when unshaven, but especially after he shaved. Juilie urged her to tell him so because she was all about that kid for ages, but she was too shy to reveal she was crushing on him overtly. Instead, she made up an official party invitation to a party only she and her friends were going to just to be indirectly invitational. A drinking party.

She flirted with Michael for months and months. He was shy, she thought, so she kept trying in her own shy, autistic manner. She invited him over and over to events with her and her BFF, Juilie, and Juilie’s friends. She even lost weight through diligence and plenty of exercise. In fact, some of her outfits pushed the envelope at work, but she realized she was doing it and she stopped altogether, trying to be more appropriate. Her weight loss success made her effervescent, honestly.

When Crystal became effervescent, she sometimes forgot her common sense and her reservations. Still, she was shy. Ultimately, she gave up on Michael, even after she gave him five bucks because someone stole his lunch from the work refrigerator one day. She always felt lucky when their breaks coincided. Eventually, she decided Michael just didn’t really like her that way, so she gave up. She also realized he would never be Mr. Burr. The man who proposed to her under a rainbow a the world’s largest waterfall. The romantic who wooed her for eons before he flipped on a dime and treated her like slime for having a judgmental failure. She was twenty years old at the time. He was twenty seven.

She slipped one day, telling Burr all about Michael. She couldn’t think of anything else that day. Boy, was that the mistake of a lifetime. Even though he was already dick deep in another woman, a local woman, he tore into her viciously. Even though he cheated on Crystal the entire time they’d been together with a local bitch, this one instance of her going cuckoo over a local boy on her side led him to justify the most cruel ending to their relationship yet to come.

Once Michael became a background character, she started to feel remorse over leaving Burr. Aside from his vicious cruel fighting, he was perfect, in her eyes. They wrote poetry together, they’d created art together, and they spent a lot of time making memories together, role-playing the various aspects of themselves that they discovered over time. All the while, Burr was cultivating a local relationship in addition to using the internet to woo Amethyst, who lived hours away at the time.

It’s funny, Crystal always tore into the man for disappearing on her for a day here and there. She thought it was her own insecurity at play. He always bit back, whining about having a migraine. She was supposed to believe he couldn’t get out of bed to turn on his computer for five minutes and tell her he had a migraine. More likely, he fell into another woman’s bed and couldn’t get to his computer without her realizing he was juggling women behind her back. He’d act like he was a saint while holding Crystal down with his cruelty and fucking whomever he pleased, no one the wiser. It didn’t last forever, though.

Crystal and Tom scheduled time for a visit in the United Kingdom later that year, in November, around her 21st birthday. She died that day, the day she arrived. He’d picked her up from the Manchester airport and drove her to Boston, Lincolnshire. It was a long drive, no matter how you dice it. The first thing she saw on the calendar just inside his door was “Amethyst.” She was disgusted. That man told her all about his friends and his mom’s friends, but he’d never mentioned her. Just some lady named Carlotta who supposedly wanted to sleep with him but he pretended not to want anything to do with. Maybe that was his bitch on the side. It’s really no longer here nor there, honestly. The man is dead and has been for more than seven years.

As if that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face, he decided to turn his computer on the minute they’d arrived. He was met with an instant message on MSN messenger: “I missed you!” As he was typing back, he typed “I missed” and then paused. Crystal knew he was lying, whatever came next. He finished with “talking to you, too.” In that moment, her deepest concern was confirmed: he’d found another woman. Later, he threw her request to not know about the LARPing rebound into her face, as if he didn’t know there was a time limit on it. As if she wouldn’t give a shit he was seeing someone else by the time she went to spend her birthday with the shithead.

He let her spend over one thousand dollars to see him in England while he was with another woman. In fact, she’d been there just the week prior to her own visit, which was not on the calendar. Crystal suspected they’d had sex, too. She was still unable to do the deed, thanks to extreme P.T.S.D., which Burr exasperated on that trip by adding not one, not two, but three new rape incidents to her collection of misery.

He attacked her at home twice and once in the middle of a self-guided tour of a castle, to which some people had walked in on them. She was so embarrassed. Being such a private person, she was not okay with being seen in a compromising situation, but that didn’t stop him from putting his claw-like hand down her pants. The monster didn’t even trim or file his fingernails, hurting her by scratching her most sensitive parts. And she couldn’t say anything without witnesses overhearing her.

She barely ate the whole trip, eating three whole meals in ten days. Tom just laughed at her when she wasn’t looking, treating her like utter shit on her actual birthday. They went to his buddy’s house for tabletop role-play… Shadowrun, specifically. She was being clever and bright and he squashed her under his bootheel with two witnesses, Tink and Chris. He put her down so hard when she was trying to be a useful party member that she shut down completely. Even his own friends wanted to sock him by the end of the night for mistreating her, because she’d done nothing to deserve it. They realized by the end of that one night that she had true feelings for him and he was putting her through Hell for it. What could she have possibly done for that kind of mistreatment?

They asked him, after she left the country. The next week, they asked him why he was so cruel to Crystal They told him she was a lovely young lady from everything they’d seen for themselves. They told him it was obvious she was in love with him, too. In fact, they liked her more than Amethyst because she was truly interested in role-playing with them even though she would be leaving the country just days later. Tink told Tom that he tried to tell Crystal that the man was stepping out on her, mentioning Amethyst to her in a way that didn’t actually connect the dots for the autistic young lady. But he did try, and Crystal knew that later on.

They had dealt their own cruelty to her without knowing it. Crystak was terrible at accents and they were trying to teach her the Liverpool accent while she was there. She would have taken months to master that one, even though anyone else could do it in an evening. She has a learning disability, you see, and that is just one way it expresses itself. She tried a Cockney accent instead to their utter disappointment because that was far easier. She shrugged. It wasn’t fair for them to put her on the spot like that. She’d mentioned it to Tom later and he told her it was only fair because she’d put him on the spot like that, even though she hadn’t… He had volunteered a “Yankee” accent, which she thought was most excellent and encouraged him to share. that is not the same at all.

Crystal doesn’t do accents because she’s terribly afraid of people thinking she’s mocking them, actually. She believes that kind of mockery is complete and utter disrespect, and I can’t disagree with her. I’ve been teaching her accents for a while now, and a year later, she is finally confident enough to try by herself randomly. She’s so shy.

Crystal knew he was cheating, even if Tink’s bullshit about Amethyst being his pet project didn’t come across as saying so. He meant for it to do just that, but it didn’t. The monster she’d almost married wasn’t exactly making it a secret that she’d become the jilted lover, spurned a million times over. Unacceptable to Tom in the extreme. Everything he said and did told her she was unwanted, including him telling her that his mother didn’t like them kissing in front of her. He’d forgotten to tell her he was cheating on another woman with her, after all. I suppose his mother thought Crystal knew all about Amy, thinking her son had some thread of honor in his soul, but he did not. She was wrong. Her son was a complete shit stain, because it could have ended there.

It could have ended at the part where he’d invited her to stay with him just to rape her, it seemed. He’d even justified raping his former betrothed. He told his mother the entirety of the situation, he told Crystal later… As if his mother approved of this action. If Crystal had known about Amy before visiting for her 21st birthday, she never would have bothered to talk to that asshole ever again. Crystal thought Amy would be the same way if she learned the truth of things. That asshole justified raping a woman. His friends didn’t know that. Amethyst didn’t know that. If Amethyst had known Crystal had followed her visit just days after she’d first visited that asshole herself, if Amethyst knew he raped her, I think it would have turned out differently for Amy and Burr.

She confronted Tom before Christmas that year. She’d realized that asshole was cheating on both women and the other woman had the right to know about it. It was the only moral and just course of action, if you asked her.

So she told Tom so. She said to him, “You ought to do the right thing.” He replied to Crystal, “What, dump Amy for you?” She was hurt he’d even say that to her. “No! That you’re cheating on her, asshole.” He withdrew and told Crystal to do it instead. Being shy, Crystal took the one and only conversation she had saved with Burr that would prove he was at least emotionally invested in someone else and posted it to a diary, which she then led Amethyst to in order to read. That way, it was up to her if she wanted to learn the truth. Crystal was trying to tell Amethyst who she was getting tangled up with, especially after she grew tired of being the other woman to this turdmeister supreme.

She wanted Tom to treat Amy with more respect than she herself had received. She wanted him to come clean with his LARPing woman so she could make an informed decision. Crystal messed up the delivery, though… what she shared with Amethyst failed to tell her that Crystal had been in to visit him in person just one week after she herself slept with him for the first time. If that had been clear to her, she probably would have dumped the fool for good instead of moving in with him to be raped herself for years after that.

I could say once a rapist, always a rapist, but it’s not true. We can learn to do better. Once our boundaries are violated against our will, violently or sexually, we come to understand the pain of rape. It is up to every individual who is raped to understand that they cause the same pain without obtaining consent. This is true, even when simply fantasizing about people in the back of your mind, might I add.

And ultimately, that leads me, the telepath, to the next point on my agenda: Crystal and Diego are raping each other. They have failed to obtain each other’s explicit verbal consent. Neither one of them knows it, however, because neither is a telepath in truth. Sansara is an empath and can feel Diego trying to connect with her, which turns her on. However, she thinks it’s all in her head, so she’s on the right track. She’s moving slowly to the idea that she shouldn’t daydream about Diego at all. She should abstain from sexual activity altogether until she has verbal or physical indicators of consent.

And one final note, before we return to our riveting story that can be likened to a Borgia plot: physical indication of consent can be obtained without emotional or psychological consent. Therefore, verbalizing the request for permission and obtaining a verbal sign is for the best at all times. And one good rule to follow is: if you have never seen that person naked, you do not have consent to think about them naked.

Crystal did not rape Amy, not ever, but Tom did. He superimposed one over the other while physically with one of them, daydreaming about the other woman constantly, and trying to force one to do exactly what the other had done for him. It’s despicable. Every relationship and every person is different. To try to force someone else to fill their exact shoes is rape. They aren’t consenting to you controlling their growth to become a carbon copy of another individual. You should never control someone, let alone their growth as a human being. Their boundaries ought to be observed, no matter how little you like them. That is, until they violate your boundaries. Then you should hurt them in the exact same manner, if at all possible, to make sure they understand the pain they’re causing. It’s the only way to stop a rapist from continuing to rape.

Crystal was an administrator on The MUD That Shall Not Be Named (TMTSNBT) or as she’d like to call it, The Turd(TM). She was there for seven years before it went to pot. She wanted to flush it and never think about it again. It’s a breeding ground for rapists, she thought yet again.

Tom found her there, years and years after they’d broken up by Christmas of 2004. The woman had moved on to her now ex-husband, Antoine di Scordia by May of 2005, whom she married the following year and proceeded to be partner to for six more years after that. During the end of that phase of her romantic life, Tom came to The Turd(TM), dragging along a female character named Yvette. Yvette was the name of one of her fairies that had been in love with one of Tom’s characters, since they paired off constantly on Realms of Discordia. Crystal was torn up over this, thinking he’d brought Amethyst to her new stomping ground to spite her, especially since she’d manipulated the ass hat and told him never to teach her how to MUD, which she knew would mean he’d turn around and do just that. Or, at least, she really hoped so. She figured if Amethyst was mudding, she’d end up getting the same treatment she got, which should have driven her away from him very quickly if she had any self-esteem. She was sad for the woman, following Tom around from MUD to MUD, and landing on hers.

He kept coming back to The Turd(TM), claiming it was one of the only active MUDs out there. While that might be true, Sansara knew the truth: he was drawn to her. He made the most preposterous B.D.S.M. characters to engage in public sex all over the place, behaving like he had no soul left. That was not the way she left him, sadly, but she accepted he was broken some time ago. She just had no idea why he was broken, figuring it had to do with his psychotic brother. Ultimately, Sansara took the high road and ignored them both to the best of her ability unless something happened that required fixing.

She’d spent all weekend on one of the imports from Realms of Discordia, learning a trick from Jenny where she could do her work in private in an unseen room before repopulating the entire area with pops of color. RoD was a low-color MUD and The Turd(TM) was high-color, so she was trying to tastefully update each area, taking care to set the races if they imported incorrectly, and so on. Basically, although the areas imported, it wasn’t perfect and still needed a few hours of work a piece to be masterpieces on the new game. Yvette and Burr logged in and bitched about the area, Caer Morr, not being colorful yet, as promised. Keep in mind that all the time Crystal spent on this endeavor was for free. So not only was this bitch Tom paraded around using her character’s name, they had the audacity to log in and complain about her ‘failing’ to do her ‘job,’ despite being renowned as the hardest working individual in the history of The Turd(TM).

She was the only administrator that cared about course correcting the game to make it more than just a sexual playground in text. The rest of the staff were off porking each other constantly and would ignore the rest of the people who wanted to be part of the world. She did her best to placate all parties and get bugs fixed, since there was an active programmer. She just didn’t play test her own work. So, Sansara stepped up to try to make sure there were no major bugs in the new code and eventually demanded old bugs be fixed in order to go live. She focused on whatever she got the most complaints about first, which seemed to alleviate a ton of noble-player tensions.

In this particular case, she lost her shit, thinking Tom was parading around his new lover at her. She’d been drinking that day, something she did too much of at that time, since she’d newly divorced her husband of six years, partner for seven. They took the cake that day and she went off on them both. Tom damn well knew what the problem was, but instead of owning his misbehavior in the past, or the raping he’d given the woman, he told Yvette’s player, She’s drunk! As if that was the only reason she could be unpleasant to that complete asshole. The same guy who drunk himself to oblivion every night, getting surly and mean at her for months before she kicked his ass to the curb the first time. Victim shamer. Every victim shamer will go to Hell, I promise you that now, my friend.

Noble. That’s what the hybrid RP/admin accounts were called on The Turd(TM). They were anything but what that word actually means. Degenerates that would rather be on their backs than proud of the game they ‘cultivated.’ It was run by a narcissist, anyway, so she wasn’t all that surprised. He pretended to give privileges and then usurped any power he gave them, making them feel (and act) like petulant children. In addition to these seven jackasses, add in Burr and Yvette, who logged off at the first sign of Spike handing them their asses that day. Anyone who had seen it and had no context would be puzzled forevermore, so let me satisfy your curiousity, dear mudder.

Tom had raped Crystal again. He brought a lover with him to her game of choice, which she’d been on for five years already before he gravitated to it. Then he made promises to his lover, Yvette, about his creation being updated with color by the end of the weekend, bringing her to the game without taking a look at it himself to see if the job had been done. Crystal was about two hours away from done, having slaved over it for her own therapeutic reasons for the entire weekend, and these two jackholes log in and cause a public stink. She should have banned them both in that moment. What complete disrespect! I wish that asshole was alive so I could kill him a second time, he adds. She blew up at the pair of them and told them to go fuck themselves, essentially, and quit working on it, moving on to something else to punish Tom for his audacity.

To anyone who didn’t know their history, to anyone who knew Spike, they saw her act completely out of character and without reprieve. She was fighting back against her rapist. Some of them objected to her badgering them in return for their bullshit and Yvette logged off in a huff. How dare the only person who gave a fuck about that shit hole yell at him for being a jackass? (Yvette was played by a guy, but Crystal didn’t know that until much later.) In fact, she bonded with that player over Burr’s death, telling him what the man had done to her. Except she never told him explicitly in no uncertain terms that the deceased jackhole had raped her.

Bobby: TOM IS A RAPIST. HE RAPED YOU BY FAILING TO OBSERVE YOUR BOUNDARIES FOR WORK. You might have liked his attention, but he was not being kind to you. He was not being a good friend to you. He was definitely not being a good lover to you. If you noticed your relationship with him changed after joining The Turd(TM), it’s because his conscience was eating him alive. Trust me that he absolutely knew he raped her. He had premeditated it. He told his mother he was going to do it. She tried to talk him out of it and he did it anyway. That’s the reason she didn’t like the two of them kissing, which Crystal didn’t know until she typed the sentence out with her own fingertips just now. Or maybe she’s just guessing and being vindictive. It’s a choose your own adventure life, don’t you know? She would have never even come to the U.K. if she knew he had a girlfriend, by the by. She would have been sad and wished them luck and left him alone for the rest of eternity. P.S., just because you like rape doesn’t mean it’s not rape, people. Crystal does not like rape.

While she was an admin on The Turd(TM), she fought against that model, where admin and role-players were joined into one name. They were being ripped away from their private role-playing sessions whenever there was a need for someone to fix a faux pas, which made them surly and unhappy and she knew it. She also tried to prevent involving the owner of the game, since he would destroy all PR routinely by posting angry, childish rants on public forums in the game each and every time he logged in. She was surprised there were any players when she first got there, with that kind of behavior. She read all the messages available on her first login and 10 out of 12 were hideous displays of lack of control on his part. And he called himself a dominant. Pshaw.

Since there were seven ‘nobles’ and two players when she joined in 2007, she’d decided that she’d side with the players before the staffers. She’d only gone to that game at all because a friend of hers was part of the noble/admin base. She refused to be an RP entity, though, so that made her the first admin that showed up as an archon besides the owner. She imagined that chafed people who’d been there for years, but then she vied to teach them the art of administration and get them similar promotions. She believed that administration and role-play should be separate, thanks to her first MUD. She was trying to separate the roles and empower the existing staffers, though they probably had no idea that was her goal. She kept it to herself, knowing Jason wouldn’t be pleased with her plan.

It turned out she was right. They did get upset about her appearing at the top of the WHO list. This newcomer they didn’t even know, despite Loey, a programmer who’d been with them for years now, talking her up. To top it off, she annoyed them by being willing to talk out sensitive and touchy situations with everyone, even the surly Welly. He got so flustered one time, he even said to her, “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

She said, “Yes, and if I don’t, I go look it up.” He’d gone silent then. He had no idea what to say. His porcupine imitation hadn’t scared her off or deterred her. She was meant to be there for all of them, she thought. That’s why she started to focus on player relations, so they could be free to role-play amongst themselves and just be players for a while. She sensed they needed a break from constant harassment over a few key bugs.

Gear and skills and spells sometimes disappeared at random. Occasionally, the sex of the characters played would change at random, too. They had no idea what was going on for the longest time. Sansara figured it out and told the coder, but it’s probably a bug in the system to this day. She shook her head and did her best to resolve it when it cropped up instead of demanding a fix. It was likely that the owner himself was causing the issue, unbeknownst to him.

The programmer didn’t much like fixing bugs, not until Sansara started taking it upon herself to play test the game and provide professional-level quality assurance. This reduced the headache on the live game a thousand fold, which started to make the programmer feel more and more empowered. The staff stopped being overwhelmed and started to respect Spike, she thought. Riviera had a safety net, a backup, and hopefully she thought of Sansara as a friend… but she doubted it. Sansara wasn’t trying to be friend or enemy, she was trying to stay 100% neutral so she could be fair to all entities.

Sansara would have been everyone’s friendly acquaintance if they wanted to be hers first, but these seven staffers acted like they had each other and that was all they needed. A lonely cluster of fucking out of boredom, which actually made them lonelier as they fornicated 24/7, shedding their spiritual selves in favor of their angsty bodies. They raped each other to pass their idle time, it seemed to Crystal. She wanted to heal them, but she didn’t know how to yet.

Sansara truly hoped by making it more of a game and attracting new players would help them on the spiritual level. She hoped to revive the actual role-play on the server. She achieved that goal to some degree. It took years of constant diligence on her part to the tune of forty hours a week, but it did finally begin to attract more and more people. Unfortunately, most of them were also rapists, taking advantage of the fact the game came off as a sex playground. In fact, Sansara’s childlike character attracted all the pedophiles quickly, some of them raping the character by failing to ask for consent before engaging in sensual role-play. She quickly retired Xoba Noodle, a cabbit of small stature.

Secretly, Sansara was just turning it into a game worth playing so she herself could play, too. It wasn’t even about power gaming, it was about power role-playing. And when we say power, we mean, role-playing with finesse, not force. Once there were approximately ten people on most of the day every day, she began to make characters to interact with the masses. She had about thirty of them. Each one was assigned to a specific time of day, if not also a specific day of the week, and they had a time limit for face time to boot. By doing this and not speaking out of character to anyone, they could assume she was as many as twelve different people, at least. She’d log in for an hour here and there, speaking in-character to people or leveling up somewhere easy to hunt down monsters to slay, a core mechanic in all MUDs. She was play testing her own building efforts to ensure things were as easy or difficult as she wanted them to be. She was doing it as slyly as possible to keep people from noticing. Only the IP sniffer staff members knew the truth of who was who.

Before that, Loey urged her to try her hand at game mastering, using her archon to run world plot, but that quickly backfired and she decided she didn’t want to do it that way at all. She had created a story line at Fayla’s suggestion to destroy a guild hall. One of the characters, Aronelle, lived inside that guild hall, and insisted she’d been PK’d (player-killed) by the archon due to the siege that laid waste to it. Sansara had been oblivious to these nuances; she would never kill a player character for random global plots. She was offended that Aronelle accused her of being such a douche bag, too. She thought they would role-play putting the fires out and rebuilding the guild hall, like sensible people. Instead, there was a giant stink about it all. She thought that a rebuild role-play would have knit together the player base quite nicely, since many new players were afoot and needed an in to be part of the world story.

Sansara had never told anyone it was Fayla’s idea. She doubted Fayla told anyone, either. Crystal took the fall for the mistake because she chose to execute it. That was the last time she ran global plot as an archon. She made gods and goddesses to emulate her first MUD, Realms of Discordia, and made the players come to her for the role-play.

Of course, they corrupted all that after she left, she noted, after checking out their MUD Connector listing recently. They changed Azusa’s dominion to something far more sinister and evil than she was ever meant to be. Azusa was to be the goddess of pain and pleasure. She had rules, too, this goddess: she had to choose whatever option brought upon her the most pain, which led to a bunch of interesting role-play, such as marriage counseling. (The boredom was killing her, yo.) Additionally, they highlighted Azusa’s body far too much; the goddess was asexual because it would cause the most pain for all parties involved. She was an alabaster colored demoness with short red hair and black pinions, black nails, and black nipples, to boot. She was supposed to appear as a freak of nature, not a sex goddess. There was nothing to say that pleasure is exclusive to sex. They’re raping her now by perverting her character concept, might I add. They’ve made her into a sex goddess when she’s asexual. She has absolutely zero sexual inclination, which is why when she impregnated Fayla with Nihila, their daughter, she snapped her fingers and the mortal became pregnant.

Oh, well. She can’t do anything about that now; she quit a decade ago because one of the players threw Jason at Crystal as if to say she would bend over backwards to kiss that player’s ass or else. Sansara picked else. She quit, making Loey help her change passwords to all the gods and goddesses she had access to. They had an RP presence and were archon accounts she’d been trying to give away to the staffers, new and old, so they could choose to lurk on an admin and play their player characters separately. She destroyed all her own player characters with the relevant delete command which she stopped in the middle of because it started to make the players that were online panic. Then, she deleted her archon while invisible, after removing her archon’s name from every single area she’d been on so no one could make a new character named Spike and wreak havoc. She took her name off at least 100 areas. She’d taken great pains over the course of twelve hours to secure the server from any foul play done by either her or someone trying to impersonate her. She never said goodbye to the player base or explained herself to anyone except Loey. She merely stopped existing, just like that.

The owner, predictably, attacked the whole MUD when he found out he couldn’t fire her from her archon position. Anyone who was on her side quickly found out that it was a crime to like her for any reason, according to Jason. She was the devil! A slippery snake. A serpent full of lies to be distrusted completely. Basically, he was pissed off he couldn’t even ban her because she’d disappeared. It was the right thing to do, she thought. She quit. She told Loey and she made him help her leave as ethically and quietly as she could. She still thinks it was the right thing to do, incidentally, and I agree with her. She left with dignity and grace, leaving the narcissist that owned the game a void to try to destroy her reputation as a hard worker and upstanding citizen of the mudding community.

Loey told her a story later how Jason ordered Loey to revoke Spike’s server access. How Jason nearly ate his shorts when Loey told him she never had server access because she didn’t want it. She instead asked Loey to make a phone app to restart the unstable server. It was extremely unstable due to the lack of play testing on Riviera’s code updates, but that had gotten much better with time as Riviera kept fixing the bugs Sansara had highlighted as important and found during play testing. She had done her utmost to be part of that team without choosing any sides, except for one aspect: players came first in her world. The nobles would help themselves all the time, especially with custom item creation and restrings, which was something Jason had instated years prior, before he’d left the game in their hands and all but abandoned them. She knew why, but it didn’t matter; the players needed a champion and she decided to fill that gap.

She dodged a bullet by quitting instead of answering to Jason. That man gave her the heebie-jeebies since the early 2000s when she first played The Turd(TM). He emanated a presence like a predator, a shark waiting for the prey to swim close enough to take a bite out of. She had a sixth sense about such things, especially online, so she avoided him to the best of her ability. She’d always told Loey she wasn’t interested in staying if Jason returned to the helm. Jason is a rapist. And therefore, Sansara wished to demarcate her boundary in absolute, because she had no interest in being raped in order to continue to take constant abuse as the only admin who did anything.

That’s about the time Crystal came to realize she could both empathize and sympathize with God, if there is one. He must be really tired of being a model citizen, hoping people would strive in His footsteps as they bitched and whined about how unfair it was that situations they created had consequences they didn’t like. After being an administrator for seven years, she had little interest in continuing to do it… at least, without help. She needed a real team, not just a bunch of disparate lonely losers with nothing better to do, sitting around bitching about players on the administrative channel. Boy, did that get her goat! They were forcing player/noble division doing this, by using secret channels for communication to air their rants and grievances over everyone who logged in that weren’t them.

Jason could have empowered his nobles the entire time. Predictably, he had no intention to do so. Instead of sharing the responsibility of running the game with the people she’d built up and prepared to be administrators — the ‘nobles’ who were hybrid players and admins — Jason installed an old-time friend of his, Vellium, as the one and only archon beside him and Riviera. The man who said he didn’t play favorites did it again: he instated someone to babysit the fucking game without empowering his existing staffers. Crystal could choke a bitch for that; they probably reverted to utter childish individuals who think they have no power when they were really the ones running the game and keeping it afloat. She wondered if Jason understood the ramifications of his actions, or even if the nobles consciously understood the subtext: you are children and will never be in charge. You will never be able to grow enough to wield power here. You will never be more than my pawn. Checkmate.

She wondered if they felt like pawns. It was obvious to her that Jason didn’t understand the true power of leadership. She wondered why they stayed there at all, actually. He treated them like they weren’t smart enough to handle things and eventually they’d believed in that assessment. It took years just to help them see things in another light. Even after years of diligence, she didn’t believe that all of them had come around to seeing it her way yet. They undoubtedly spoke to Jason all the time outside the game, where he kept belittling them and denigrating them, either subtly or overtly, to keep them exactly where he wanted them: blindly adoring the man who owned the MUD or at least obediently subservient even when he was raping them.

She smirked, thinking about how Jason thought it was so special he had a running MUD. As if it was a feat to spin up a MUD these days, what with CoffeeMUD and Evennia existing. Out of box solutions as well as code-your-own in a modern tongue, a modern language. The only reason she’d joined EM and put money into it to make sure it ran smoothly was because she’d read a persuasive argument online about how MUDs were a dying commodity and it would be better for hard workers to band together on existing games to continue to contribute to the ones that were already popular. This is what led Spike to Jason’s playground and predatory platform.

Maybe she should spin up a MUD, she thought. She needed a dedicated programmer. Someone who loved programming for the sake of it who liked the idea of working on a MUD engine to migrate her fantasy to reality. She could program, but she’d prefer to focus on being an administrator, builder, and player. Adding coding in was just too much for her to handle alone, she felt. Plus, she wanted a partner. She wouldn’t mind if anyone from any game she ever played before joined in, as long as they can stand the rules!

  1. DO NO HARM.

She idly wondered if Diego had ever played on a MUD before. If he’d ever touched programming before. If he ever would. It seemed like a tall order, but then again… Burr had been that sort of man. He wasn’t a programmer, but he was intent on role-play, that’s for sure. He wasn’t as pretty as Diego, but still. He’d spent a good deal of her free time with her on such a gaming platform, but she saw that was a tactic for control, in retrospect. She hated being controlled. She would have to be careful, that was for sure.

She was more like a cat. You had to make her think it was her own idea first. In fact, she treated other people that way, too. She gave them things to think about rather than telling them what to think about things. She’d collect their opinions, like a poll, and collate the data provided into a list of choices and then choose what seemed to be the best solution for the greatest number of people.

Someone told her once — well, multiple people had — that they didn’t know why she solicited their opinions if she never acted on them. She did, more often than they knew. She just didn’t tell them how they’d influenced her final decisions. You see, by collecting the opinions of fifteen to twenty people, she would see the trends of their needs and then address what they needed. She wasn’t too concerned with what they wanted because most people were greedy, you see. The game needed balance more than anything.

She was keeping to her study and her bedroom whenever she wasn’t eating in order to avoid Diego these days. In fact, she quickly figured out that Diego slept until three in the afternoon, so she’d started waking up at four in the morning to do her work. As a long-distance reiki healer, she didn’t have to leave the house to deliver her goods and it could be done any time of the day, honestly. She didn’t really sell her services as a psychic, she just enjoyed annoying people with her uncanny insights. Diego reminded her very much of both Ben and Burr, so she stayed away from him, especially since her therapy had led her to remembering all about both of them and how they mistreated her. She didn’t even give him a proper tour, leaving it unspoken that he needed to show himself around.

Every day, she waited to hear him leave for work before she went to clean the first and second floors. Diego, consequently, thought a maid was coming in while he was gone. He was already paranoid, but his room remained untouched as he waited for furniture delivery. In fact, the door was shut and it didn’t seem to get opened at all without him. He thought about putting a piece of tape somewhere to make it obvious if it’d been opened or not. He ultimately decided to on the second day of Sansara being sparse and was mildly surprised that the tape was never disturbed. Her eyesight was either very keen or she was not intruding on his near empty room. He’d found space in the laundry area to store his clean clothes and a hamper set up that had a little note next to it, saying, “Yours.” There was a lacquered wooden shoji screen in the basement to get changed behind and a shoe rack, too. He wondered how his dream had been so accurate. He started to believe the door had been hooked open when she took him down to procure wine that first night, for he found there was a chain and hook for just that.

He didn’t know if he could trust her or not. The doorknob to his room had a lock. He would have to ask her for the key, he thought. However, when he himself opened the door to look inside at his unpacked things, he noticed there was a key on the floor near where the doorknob was when it was shut. It was obvious she slid it underneath the crack of the door. She thought of everything, it seemed. She also programmed the coffee pot to brew at two in the afternoon, which ended up waking him every day. He loved the smell of it rousing him rather than a harsh alarm tone. When he first moved in, he had a late shift at B & B that catered to the night lifers in the area. He wondered if that was sufficient for her request for protection.

Diego realized that Ben was a professional. A career man with a nine to fiver. He thought about switching his shift to the daytime and by the end of the week, he’d put in a request for just that. It took two months for the request to become reality. Since Diego was the security man now, Sansara had also left an iPad on the side table in the living room that was connected to the Ring system installed.

He thought again about putting in more cameras on the inside. There was one camera on her back door, one on her patio door to the yard, and one on the front door. He thought there could be two more — one in the kitchen and one in living room. His mind wandered to what was on the third floor, which happened at least once a day. She’d never given him the grand tour and he didn’t feel invited to her space, so he was left with an enigma. Couple that with her never sharing a meal with him again, not in the two months he spent on second shift, anyway, and he thought for sure she’d decided she didn’t like him.

He wondered what he could do to reverse that, if anything could be done at all. He wanted to embrace her, comfort her, and of course do the animal thing with her. He wanted her to be the one to initiate that, he decided. She’d told him that she was violated hundreds of times. He wasn’t going to add to that, if he could help it! Knowing that detail and keeping it in mind helped him stay professional.

He was grateful for the daily pot of coffee. He found it blissful waking up to the smell of fresh grounds percolating. Sometimes, if he was lucky, he’d catch her walking by to return to her private floor. She was always dressed modestly. He never saw her in an outfit like the one she was wearing for yoga again. He was a little disappointed in that… but not because he wanted to see her body. Because he wanted her to feel comfortable and safe in her own space.

He’d delayed purchasing a bed, feeling like he was of more use on the couch in the living room for a while. He didn’t have the funds immediately, anyway. Carol had taken him for all he was worth… or she tried to. He actually gave it to her in order to support the kids, Benjamin and Annie. They were nine and seven, the kids. He’d been with Carol for ten years and ultimately she decided to cheat on him and leave their marriage. He didn’t have to pay monthly for the children because he gave her the house and the SUV they had shared, both of which were paid off.

He still couldn’t believe her bout of jealousy over his landlady the night before he’d moved out. She’d initiated the divorce! What the Hell was her problem? She is the one who took the ring off his finger! What the fuck was her game? He was still mad at her for sleeping with him bareback while fucking dudes on the side. He didn’t think he’d ever forgive her for exposing him to diseases so casually and without second thought. She raped him. She’d been raping him for years, he thought. It was a little different than Sansara’s situation, but he did the math and that meant he, too, was raped hundreds of times. Maybe if he told Crystal that, she’d be softer on him, he thought.

He thought about the advice dream Sansara had given him. The cheater doesn’t love their self. He wondered if that was true or not. He’d never heard that before, so he wondered how he gleaned it in a dream. It felt so real he thought it really happened. He wondered if she had her own private investigator or not. He decided to ask if it came up in casual conversation. Provided they ever spoke again. She was really skilled at being a recluse in her own house.

After two months of quiet — no incidents whatsoever — his bed arrived and he started to sleep upstairs in his own room. The coffee started to brew at six am, he found out, when he couldn’t sleep. He’d just switched to day shifts. He hadn’t told Sansara anything because they hadn’t been in the same room for more than thirty seconds the whole time.

He woke up as she padded downstairs unsteadily. He started to daydream about her coming into his room, but she continued down to the first floor. He shook his head. That was a boundary most people wouldn’t cross so it was pointless to daydream about it. He’d appreciated the couch time with Max while it lasted. The public location had kept him from fantasizing about his hostess. Now that he was in bed behind a closed door, there was little to keep him honest and focused on safety instead of his loins.

Max perked up and sat next to his closed bedroom door, looking at him hopefully. His tail thumped the ground as he sat there, giving him the eyes. He gave up and decided to see if she’d take company that morning, opening the door to let Max out of his room. He trotted downstairs and he heard Sansara greet the pupper as he brushed his teeth in his bathroom. He looked at his disheveled hair and decided Fuck it and just went downstairs in his pajamas. She kept the house cool enough that he could wear full pajamas. He was grateful, really. He wanted to follow her example and stay fully clothed.

When he came downstairs, he did a double take. She was the one cleaning up. He’d thought there was a maid. She was adding her breakfast plate to the dishwasher when he entered the kitchen. His eyes gravitated to her rear end instantly and he forced himself to look at her head instead. Diego, stop being a fucking animal already, he admonished himself. Except that didn’t quite sound like himself. Still, he sat down at the table, listening to the percolator as he stared out the bay window. She had the blinds open to let in the morning sunshine.

She set about washing the pan she’d used to fry her breakfast by hand, as well as the spatula. And, not so surprisingly, he watched her dry them both and put them away. She never left a mess behind, it seemed. Did she have OCD?

Is it any of your business? he thought to himself. He frowned. He was attacking himself more than usual this morning. He attributed it to the lack of sleep — he’d only gotten four hours that night. He raised his hand in a silent greeting when she finally turned around. She knew he was there, he realized, when he saw she was carrying two coffee mugs to the table.

“Good morning, sleepy head,” she said, neither pleasant or unpleasant. She sounded like a zombie, actually; it was clear she wasn’t awake yet. She set both mugs down and went to the refrigerator, obtaining her dairy-free creamer and setting it down on the table as well. As if that wasn’t enough, she poured the coffee into a carafe, which ended up on the table. “I guess you’ve caught me. What do you want?” Boy, was she direct, he thought. She also just admitted she was absolutely avoiding him. That she did it all on purpose. He couldn’t help but smile over that.

He cleared his throat and looked at his empty mug. She started to pour coffee into it, to his surprise. She poured her own cup and sat down, taking the creamer and splashing some into her mug. She stared at the liquid swirling in her cup as if mesmerized. After a few seconds, she declared, “A spiderweb.” He was taken aback. A spiderweb? He saw she was still staring in her mug. Was this like tea leaf reading or what?

“A scythe!” He could see the likeness himself and started attributing words associated to the other patterns he saw out loud, once his imagination got into gear, being careful not to overdo it and give her space for her own game. After a good two solid minutes of them going back and forth on shapes swirling about in the convection current of her coffee, she announced, “Coffee!” and picked her mug up to take a drink. He chuckled softly. She was a character. A character he thought he’d like to know, day in and day out, for eternity. He wondered what her ring size was, looking at her delicate hands. The number seven popped into his head. He stroked his chin, thinking about it. Yeah, that could be a seven. Maybe a six and a half.

He had to admit her little game was one way to wait for one’s coffee to become cool enough to drink. He thought back to her question: What do you want? Definitely not a mind reader, he thought… he wanted to take her to bed, to make her heart sing, to make her day, to keep her safe, to hug her, to kiss her, to make love to her. He said none of those and instead said, “Your company. To answer your rather hostile question.”

She looked at him as if she was seeing him for the first time, he thought. She stared, unblinking, for several long moments. “Why on Earth would anyone want my company? I’m a sour puss. A gloom lord! Morticia Addams,” she suggested. As if she had no idea Morticia Addams was both stunning and fascinating to more than a Goth girl such as herself. Maybe she didn’t, he mused. “And you’re more of a surfer dude, if you ask me.” He was taken aback at that. He never thought of himself as any such thing. It was almost an insult! But, he reminded himself, she didn’t know him that well and she had Manny’s acquaintance to consider. At least she hadn’t called him a Spic. If she knew what he’d thought in that moment, she’d slap him for insinuating she was a racist, he thought. Even if she was one.

But there it was. Was she highlighting a class difference between the two of them? Was she being elitist?! He knew there was a difference between their chosen professions, but he loved creating nourishment for others. He loved cooking and that’s what he did for the supermarket. Was she just pointing out that she was like the night and he was like the day? She nodded once just as he was thinking that, but maybe she was just having her own internal monologue, too, he thought.

“Are you saying Gomez Addams couldn’t have been a surfer dude before he found his wife? I mean, doesn’t he have plenty in common, with his cavalier attitude and sense of thrill-seeking? Sense of adventure?! I could see him riding a tsunami for shits and giggles,” Diego replied.

“Are you saying he was?” she counter-questioned. “I see him as a refined gentleman that happens to be a swashbuckler, cultured and versed in at least two languages, and absolutely head over heels in love with his wife. Which, incidentally, is exactly what I’m waiting for and I’m not going to compromise on my requirement for swashbuckling,” she said to him. He started smiling before she got to the end of that, at the word love, actually. She pondered that as she waited for his repartee.

“I’d like to think he cultivated himself to please his wife over the years they were together,” Diego told her, revealing his own opinion. She said nothing at first, merely sipping at her beverage. He remembered he could do the same and joined her in silence. It was his first day on the earlier shift at the B & B, but he had not told her that. He wondered if she somehow knew already or if he should even tell her so. He had assumed she came down early because his bed was delivered the day before. He had finally moved into his room and she was free to walk through the front room without any ogling on his part.

“I wish there were men like that,” she stated wistfully, staring into her coffee cup for several seconds before she poured herself another cuppa. This was not decaf, he had noted as he perked up. He wondered how much caffeine she imbibed on a daily basis. She played her name-the-swirls game again, speaking softly to herself as she recognized objects and figures therein. She didn’t seem to mind when he interjected one here or there, so he kept adding to her narration of recognizable shapes.

“Butterfly,” she breathed just then. There was something different about this one, so he looked up at her. She was looking out the window. Presumably, a butterfly had just flitted by. He looked out the window and saw a monarch flutter by and wondered if it was the same one she’d seen a moment prior.

She lifted her mug to drink, now done with the Rorschach game and looking out the window. He hoped she’d see another butterfly and announce it again. Her voice had been so soft and full of wonder. He wanted to hear it again to be sure he hadn’t daydreamed it. More than that… he wanted her to say his name that way. He’d be a puddle of goo in no time if his name fell out of her mouth like that. He’d sweep her into his arms and never let her go.

“I’m sorry. I must have woken you when I came downstairs,” she said. She got up automatically when Max woofed at the patio door to the yard and let him inside. Diego was a little confused. She’d gone from hostile to amicable at the speed of one cup of coffee. He noted there was writing on her cup as she let Max in. It declared: “I love you more than coffee but not always before coffee.” He wondered if that was an artifact of a fizzled romance or just a quirky coffee cup. When he thought the latter one, it seemed different. Like it rang with truth.

She had some things that betrayed she had a romantic streak in her somewhere and that mug was one of them. There was a heart-shaped bowl on the small table next to the front door. In fact, there were heart-shaped bowls in every single room, in an inconspicuous spot. Even though they were colorful in their own right, other knickknacks were artfully placed nearby to distract the eye away from them. For instance, next to the door was a Buddha incense burner and a small vase with faux sakura blooms.

She wasn’t quite a minimalist but something in the way she decorated made it seem like she treated her whole home like a zen garden. He had grown to adore it, actually, in the two months he’d been there. He never lost his phone, no matter where he set it down, because it was all clean lines and orderliness. All the surfaces were kept clear aside from the artful objects she displayed. He had taken to dropping his keys in that little bowl next to the door while he was sleeping in the front room. He never lost anything in her house. That was the total opposite of living with Carol, he had to say. Some of that mess was the kids, for certain. Carol finally figured out she was twice the slob he was, he was happy to note. She’d admitted it to him when he took the kids out for a play date last week. It wasn’t the same as apologizing, but it was a nice step in the right direction.

He had inspected Sansara’s cupboards by now, looking at the neat rows of essentials. It was like everything had a place to be and all like items were grouped together. He wondered if there was anywhere she just threw things, but he highly doubted it. The idea of him shooting Ben and ruining some of her things crossed his mind just then, making him frown at the thought. Then, he realized, it’d probably be a crime scene for days, to boot, even though it was a stand-your-ground state. They’d want to be sure of it being a case of self-defense.

She did tell him she had a restraining order against Ben, so that should be enough to prove the unwanted man was invading her home and it was for self-protection. He just had to shoot Ben in the front instead of the back for it to be ruled as self-defense, after he informed Ben he should leave, that is. Shooting him in the back would suggest he was fleeing and that would be outright murder on Diego’s part.

Diego had shot his own father in the face for raping him in his youth. His mother had turned him in for it, whereupon he was tried as an adult despite being fourteen years old at the time. That foul bitch protected her rapist to the grave. She had died just a few short years ago, still angry at him for taking her husband away from her decades ago. He was angry at her, too, because when she took his father’s side, she invalidated him. She was telling him that his experiences had not happened at all, that he was wrong to face reality even if it was an incredibly ugly truth, and that his emotional state was worth less than her husband’s.

He thought about how Sansara had been in a similar position to his own mother with Ben. The difference was, the lady of this house was a completely unwilling participant. He almost wished she had been his mother back when the circumstance that gave him a felony record unfolded, but it was all water under the bridge these days. The only time it became relevant was for employment and housing. He’d gotten the B & B job with Manny’s glowing recommendation and he was utterly grateful for it. As far as he knew, Crystal didn’t have a clue. He should tell her, he thought.

“Do you happen to know Ben’s schedule and habits?” he asked her, although he already had a pretty good idea of them himself. Ben had worked for Thomson Reuters and had for over a decade, his P.I. had discovered. He wondered what her reaction to his record would be? Would she be disdainful? Disgusted? Grateful she chose a man who could follow through? That she didn’t know him? His ex-wife never knew about his record. She was not the understanding sort. His eyes were on one of his prison tattoos as they conversed. He saw one briefly the day he witnessed yoga, but he didn’t gawk at it. It was green, that’s all he could remember. His own were blue-black and rather childish where hers seemed sophisticated and beautiful. He’d love to see it again, he thought. It was on her bicep while his were on his inner arm.

“Well, it’s been two years since I’ve seen him, so this information may be outdated… but he used to go to work at ten in the morning and leave at six in the evening. He ate dinner directly after work most of the time and he slept in on the weekends for a while. He went to a yoga class at the community center weekly for a time in the beginning of our relationship. He was often up until about one in the morning. That was until I’d been there a while and he ended up on my schedule. That was six am wake up, jump in the shower no matter how much I didn’t want to get out of bed, get dressed, make coffee, then go to work by eight am. If I had time for breakfast, I made breakfast. Before that, at the start of our relationship, he did sometimes get up early and saw a woman named Ellie before work.” Her expression had become stony the more she spoke about her ex-husband. He still hadn’t asked if they were actually married or not, but it was clear to him she had wanted it to work out long term, that she had been as committed as if it were marriage.

There were no marriage ceremonies that the P.I. could dig up. He had decided to get the man to study Psycho Boy Ben a little closer shortly after he moved in and found that he’d had a lot of first dates that came to nothing lately. He couldn’t understand what Carol saw in that man. His ex-wife’s infidelity was truly beyond him. Why’d she pick that guy? Why’d he pick her? Maybe opposites did attract.

Carol and Crystal were vastly different. Carol was obsessed with her looks, her vanity. She was extremely vain. Crystal wasn’t vain at all… She never put on makeup once since he’d known her; she never even wore clothes that screamed, “Look at my tatas and badonk-a-donk!” Outside of the one time he and Manny walked in on her doing yoga, he never saw enough skin to make his heart race. Even now, she was in dark blue fuzzy pajamas that had white stars on them. They were not fitted to show off her figure or anything of the sort. She wasn’t advertising, as he liked to call it, whereas Carol was constantly advertising herself, making men drool over her to the best of her ability wherever she went. He should have seen that as a red flag, he thought. He’d take Crystal over his ex-wife any day of the week, he just had to figure out the way in. Into her heart, that was. Maybe Ben liked vain girls, but if he did… why’d he date this wonderful woman? He still thought that even though she’d avoided him for two months and was openly hostile at him. He had an impression she was a Morticia Addams. A refined woman, if dark and morbid. Perhaps even a real lady.

He mused that Sansara might be somebody else underneath what he saw. He wondered what it was like to go out on a date with her. If she ever could go out, he mused. She had a very particular diet and she almost never left the house. In fact, she’d put her car key in that heart-shaped dish and loaned him her vehicle since he didn’t have one and she didn’t go places. He’d been delighted and spooked to see it exactly as he dreamed: a black Chevrolet Cruze. He hated himself for it, but as soon as he saw it, he also had the impulse to take her on top of the hood of the car. He chased the image out of his head and used it to go to IKEA and get a bedside table and an entertainment center. Since she had donated him space in the laundry room, and hangers to boot, he didn’t really need the wardrobe he’d dreamed of. With the back seats folded down, everything fit nicely into the car.

He had invited Manny to join him that day to help him carry the heavy boxes up to his room and put the furniture together. Between the two of them, they assembled everything in under an hour. He loved IKEA for being so simple, durable, and useful.

He’d only been out with Manny one time before the trip to the furniture store, keeping to Sansara’s house in order to provide as much protection as he could in his time off. Manny was still obsessed with the idea that Sansara was all about Diego, even though she’d been scarce when he visited the second time. Manny had told him while they were walking through the store that Sansara stood in the doorway, eavesdropping the night he moved in. “Man, you gotta listen to me. That mamacita has eyes for you,” he said. He nodded.

He couldn’t object, but he confessed to Manny, “I think I made a bad step, bro. I think even if you’re spot on — and I bet you are — she’s mad at me or something. I don’t know how to fix it, she won’t stay in the same room as me at all.” Manny suggested he get her some flowers and something nice to eat, maybe make her dinner, light some candles, and put on some music she likes. “Manny, I’ve heard like one song of hers and she has a Rob Zombie t-shirt. I don’t think candle lit dinner to Dragula is up her alley, although…” He paused and considered that much more seriously. “It might not matter as long as I actually try, but she was listening to Barenaked Ladies that day and they’re a completely different genre… what if her t-shirt is, like, a hand-me-down?”

Manny punched him playfully in the arm. “Dude, she owns an enormous house, you really think she owns hand-me-downs?” He had a point there. Still… he’d seen her wardrobe since then. In fact, he wasted a whole hour looking at each thing hung up in the basement, and sniffing for mold. To try to avoid being labeled a creeper, he went for the sleeves for that test. Nothing smelled moldy, he was happy to say. She owned a dozen t-shirts, ranging from Ledger’s Joker to Rob Zombie. She owned some black blouses, from the looks of them. Even her pants were hung up on hangers, all black and either denim or thin cotton, ranging from jeans to leggings. All in all, he thought he saw about 200 pieces of clothing, but they didn’t really tell him who she was. She owned a TMBG sweatshirt, a P!nk sweatshirt, a garbage sweatshirt, and a TOAD t-shirt. Her musical tastes were all over the place if she actually liked them all. He supposed he could make a playlist of all of it, but she might be creeped out by his snooping, too.

Crystal interrupted his thoughts to add, “We used to go to the Ham ‘N’ Egg every weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, depending on how I was feeling. I was already sick and didn’t really know it yet. Well, to be fair to myself, I’ve been minorly sick all my life and taught to ignore the symptoms altogether by my deadbeat family. We also used to eat out once a month outside of the weekend diner habit, often at 54th Street Grille. We stopped going to the Ham ‘N’ Egg when Melissa was fired. She was my favorite person. I’ve actually thought about opening my own diner so she and her husband could be my partners and run it for me.”

That was the first time Sansara offered more information about herself without prompting, he realized. Maybe if he just stayed quiet and made sure she knew he was listening, she’d open up a bit more. She was beyond mysterious; she never talked about herself. Hell, they hadn’t been in the same room for more than thirty seconds for months aside from the occasional overlap in the kitchen.

“I hope Melissa and Danny are doing well. I haven’t been out to eat since my friends who helped me move out abandoned me. I miss them both; she was a light in a sea of darkness. She busted her ass for that diner and the new owner did her so dirty. I hope that fucking place burns to the ground,” she said, turning vehement suddenly. Whoa, he thought. What’s going on here? He tried to put his free hand on hers. He was faster than he intended to be, realizing she always moved like he might be a hurt and lost animal, but she didn’t withdraw her hand. She just looked at his hand on hers quizzically, unmoving.

“I want to open a diner and split the profits 50/50 with those two. One caveat, though… I want to provide health insurance for everyone and make sure they’re paid properly. This whole relying on tips bull shit is for the shady people in the world who want to work under the table and not pay their taxes, and it makes them poor in spirit if not de facto,” she declared. He could see she was very tense. He wondered if there was something else going on with her that had nothing to do with their conversation in that moment.

A tear rolled down her cheek. “And now I’m stuck in my own house, hiding from the very asshole who is the reason I came to know either of them. She told me the Ham ‘N’ Egg was in the black to the tune of ten thousand a month when it was sold without the owner even telling her the sale was coming! I would have bought it, if I knew! Then, the new owner extorted all the recipes and methods for maintaining the diner from my friends and fired them to save a buck, except I suspect now they’re really hurting. I tried giving the Ham ‘N’ Egg a second chance after that. I went on a holiday weekend with Ben and they hadn’t staffed properly. We sat in the back booth for 45 minutes without even receiving water or coffee. I was beyond hangry and pissed when I walked out that door. They tried to stop me, offering me a drink finally just as I walked away. I rejected them absolutely. I could have been a little more dignified, I think, by simply ignoring them altogether to leave. I don’t know how that piece of shit operation is still up and running. Maybe it’s not. I haven’t looked. But seriously, if Melissa had been there, I’d have had coffee and water waiting at a table for me. She made me feel like a queen. I love that woman.”

Diego was touched. Crystal had obviously developed some sort of bond with Melissa. On the surface, it sounded like she enjoyed Melissa waiting on her attentively, but he thought about how many times they had to go to the diner for a server to pick up on the usual order and have a table ready to go for her every time she walked into the seat-yourself restaurant. He thought about what it would be like to walk into a diner, seeing a table set with coffee and water just because he’d been seen by the server inside as he approached. Then he wondered how she came to have that sort of respect from someone like that. He thought back to that $20.00 she left for the server at Bar Louie and extrapolated.

As if she knew he needed an explanation — because, let’s face it, it’s baffling behavior — Crystal spoke again. “I’m of the opinion if you’re going to eat out, you better make enough money to tip the wait staff well. They are paid peanuts on purpose to be extorted by ruthless employers who want to constantly short their employees of proper pay and benefits. So, I chose to go to a diner as my dining out experience. The food is hot and fresh and Danny is an excellent cook. Ben and I took turns picking up the bill instead of going halfsies to irritate the staff and I always tipped at least 25%. Near the holidays, though, I decided to tip her 100% once and I tipped her 50% a few times, too. She was already putting coffee on the table before I walked through the door, so it wasn’t like I bribed her to do that… I know they have a kiddo and Christmas time is tough, that’s why I did it. My parents always used their tax return in spring to have a second round of Christmas on Easter Sunday morning, hiding toys and things in the baskets they gave us every year. They told me they felt ashamed they couldn’t buy as many toys as they wanted to for Christmas morning. I’ve never forgotten that, or the server I dated once upon a time who always bitched about people never leaving a tip because he was being extorted by the system we’ve created, an infrastructure of monetary abuse we all feed into… anyway. You should tip, and if you need more argument to be convinced, just watch the first ten minutes of Reservoir Dogs.”

He blinked a few times, his hand still on hers. So she liked Reservoir Dogs. He wondered if she liked any other Tarantino films. She’d gotten into Tarantino when she flirted with that Michael fellow, which was an absolute lifetime ago. Diego gently withdrew his hand to pour himself more coffee from the metal insulated carafe, appreciating the steam rising from his mug. She looked at his hand, studying it, he thought. She smiled a little. He had no idea why, but at least she wasn’t crying or frowning. He thought about covering her hand with his again, but he refrained since she hadn’t moved to reciprocate. She had just told him more about herself in that few minutes than ever before and he didn’t want her to stop.

So… she didn’t go out unless she was prepared to afford a 25% tip. He asked her about that. To his surprise, she replied, “I don’t think anyone ought to make less than $15.00 an hour. I spent twice as long in that booth as most other bodies that came and went, so I made damn sure I tipped her what she’d get if two parties had cycled through. Sometimes, they ran out of tables and I had to wait, and I happen to know we overstayed at least once on one of those jam packed days. So I tipped more, so she wouldn’t have to lose out. She loved me in the way she could, and I loved her in the way I could.”

“She never ushered us out the door quickly, not ever, not even when we came in near closing time. She just locked the door so nobody else came in and they cleaned around us like it was no big deal. Maybe they did that for everyone, but either way. I wasn’t trying to inconvenience them at all, either, but I was grateful to be given a little extra time without any questions asked or insistence to get going. My one regret was not getting to know her on the personal level, you know?”

Diego found himself nodding as soon as she asked him the question, his eyes had teared up. Crystal really had no idea precisely how special she had to be for all those perks she’d just mentioned. He started to think about the idea of taking her out to a diner himself. He’d do it in the middle of the week, he thought, since his own days off were not on the weekend. He’d tried to work magic there, but there was too much demand. He worried about the idea that the man he was meant to protect her from coming around while he was at work. He’d figured out how to put the Ring application on his own phone and synchronize the account with hers, at least, so he could monitor the homestead from work. Nobody ever approached her doorstep but the mail carrier and Diego himself. Once in a while, she left, but he’d only caught it twice so far.

He hoped it’d stay that way. Quiet. He told his boss that if there was an emergency at home, he might have to duck out. His boss just looked at him as if to say obviously. He was grateful to have use of the Cruze, too, knowing he could get back to the house in five minutes, give or take.

“I switched to the day shift,” he offered after the silence drew out long enough to convince him she was done talking, his brain being irresponsible and an image of her sprawled across the kitchen table. He pushed it away as quickly as it came, determined to behave himself. “I want to be here more of the hours that Ben doesn’t work,” he added when she looked at him in surprise. Her hand had gone to her lap, he noted, leaving the table and his sight. She nodded, accepting what he said but saying nothing in response. “I’m a little worried about him doing something on the weekend,” he told her.

“I’d be more worried about Sunday than Saturday, if I were you. He goes to a gaming group on Monday nights downtown called Polygamery. If he is a psycho murderer, like I think, he’ll use them as an alibi.” Diego smiled a little at her over her odd vernacular. She pretended not to notice as she continued, “He goes almost every week, or he did, for over two years. I suppose he could have stopped. I found it weird he never befriended anyone there until I left him, then suddenly he was buddy buddy with this guy named Eric. I’d only been two or three times… one time my car had a flat while I worked at KnowInk, LLC and he took me there with him. He said it felt weird, so I went twice more to fuck with him after that happened. I got like three flats on that parking lot, it was ridiculous… not to mention, they paid me peanuts. I went once was Memorial Day, I think, and I can’t remember the other time. I just remember being stoned and playing some game revolving around railroad lines. It’s basically Settlers of Catan without the resource wars.” She became silent again.

Now that was something he could work with. He might be able to get Sundays off. He’d double-check with his P.I. to confirm these habits still stood. Simultaneously, his mind buzzed with the new personal information about her. So, she got high, did she? He wondered if she really meant cannabis or something else. Usually, stoned meant the green leaf, though. He wondered what she was like while stoned. People tended to loosen up and enjoy themselves more. Not that he’d call her uptight, by any means. He didn’t really have enough face time with her to even scratch the surface of who she was. He was amused she admitted she fucked with her ex by going to his hobby meetup, too. He wondered what kind of games they played, too. Video games, maybe? Was she hiding a console somewhere in this house?! He’d love to play anything with her, honestly. He put his money on her being a riot to hang out with.

“Do you have a panic room?” he asked her suddenly. He wanted to know she could hide herself, if necessary. He hadn’t gone up to her area, the third floor, so he had no idea what was on it. He had seen on his floor, the second floor, she had an art studio, his room, and a den that he wasn’t sure if he was permitted to use or not. And, of course, a full bathroom. He stuck to the bathroom and his room, though it had crossed his mind to put some paint onto a canvas. He thought he should at least buy his own canvas and maybe ask if any brushes were special. She had boxes full of brushes and an entire paint display, arranged by color. She also had plenty of blank canvases, he noted, but he didn’t want to piss her off by doing something without her permission.

“All the rooms have locks but the doors are all wood,” she replied. A lock was enough to delay Ben, he thought, so he could get home to save his wife-to-be. He hoped, anyway. The first night he spent there, they had done something highly inappropriate for two roommates but entirely appropriate for a future couple, he thought. He’d appreciated her distance, too. It kept him from daydreaming about her too much. His dreams, however, were another story. They were filled with tension and passion. They were filled with things he shouldn’t be thinking about at all without her permission. He thought about asking her right then and there, actually, to get it over with… but something held him back. Common sense, he supposed.

He didn’t have any raunchy dreams last night, he thought. He kind of wished he did. He mused that he must have been dreaming around two in the afternoon consistently for the past two months. If he had been telepathic, he’d have known that’s exactly when Sansara finished her healer work and wandered into her bedroom to take care of her bodily needs. He wasn’t a mind reader, though. She was grateful for that, because from time to time, she was capable of gleaning thoughts from those around her, or at least guessing what others had on their minds. That had much to do with reading microexpressions and guessing motives with uncanny accuracy.

It wasn’t a consistent thing in her world, hearing things she shouldn’t be able to. It wasn’t a power she could command to do her bidding. She would hear echoes of thoughts from others inside her mind, which confused her if she wasn’t prepared. She loved living on the third floor because it was far enough away to feel safe, no matter what she happened to hear.

She could feel the feelings that Diego had, but she refused to act on them because of Ben and how he treated her. Because of how every man who felt the same way had treated her. They were all cruel to her. Intentionally, she’d wager. They all had core flaws they refused to work on to become better people. They had grown in mischievous or outright criminal ways and refused to reform. And that is precisely why she stayed away from this man. She didn’t know he had a record, nor would she care if he were to treat her properly. She believed that you could reinvent yourself whenever you wanted to simply by deciding to stop misbehaving. If you judged a person based on the day to day reality they presented you, rather than hearsay or a collection of ancient historic events, then you couldn’t really go wrong. What really messed her up was a different old adage: Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. This was known as Hanlon’s razor. She’d decided to discard this ‘truism’ she’d picked up somewhere along the way. Almost everyone she’d ever met was either or both incompetent or malicious, especially when faced in the yawning void of her seemingly endless passion, patience, and politeness.

She thought she would never trust another human being again. Especially not a man. And yet, here she was, putting her life in the hands of a handsome devil that obviously had designs on her. She opted to say nothing and avoided actively acknowledging it until he decided to man up. She didn’t really know what she expected, but she was waiting for her own Gomez while she practiced being Morticia in the meanwhile.

On the other hand, she didn’t completely ignore him, either. She started writing a novel all about a romance between someone like herself and someone like himself. She knew she didn’t know much about him. She thought about prying into his life, but she refrained. He would tell her what he wanted her to know when he wanted her to know it. Asking for information was most likely going to solicit lies if he was anything like anyone else she’d known. She hated lies and liars. Hated. She’d rather hear the truth without a candy coating, honestly, so she knew what contingencies she needed to plan for.

Beauty Beats by Beats Antique on Spotify

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