Nerd World #1 (Paul)

My name is Paul Liston. Seventeen years old. Senior at Northwestern High, an insignificant school in a town that’s just big enough to make the atlases. There are tens of thousands of people just like me. I sit across from a few hundred of them, in fact.

Of course, most of those people aren’t presently speeding towards school hours before they actually have to be there, all to participate in a ritual they despise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

High school is strange in many ways. No matter how much society mutates, no matter how the trends change, high school remains more or less the same. It hasn’t changed all that much since my parents were my age, and I imagine it’ll be the same when I’m well into senility. There’s a certain hierarchy in high school that resists all attempts at change or reform. No one acknowledges it, but everyone who grew up in this country recognizes it. It’s like a cross between feudal Europe and some sort of sci-fi dystopian novel – we all have our place, and we are powerless to resist.

There’s a myth about people not fitting in during adolescence. We all fit in somewhere, it’s just that most of us don’t like where we fit in. The people at the top – the popular kids, the rich kids, the trendsetters – are perfectly happy, of course. So are the entertainers – the athletes, musicians, and pranksters – all of whom have their own special roles to fill. Far beneath them are the misfits, the poor bastards who look different or act different, who come from the wrong families, have the wrong friends or just have rotten luck. They have a place too, it’s just not a happy one.

But I’m not the cool kid, or the funny kid, or the bad kid. I’m the smart kid. I’ve always been the smart kid, as long as I can remember. That’s what they used to call me – There goes that smart Liston kid, I’d hear in the hallways. Sometimes, it wasn’t so nice. There goes that Liston nerd. Yeah, I heard that one a few times, too. It’s cool, though. As the smart kid, I fill a somewhat privileged position in the high school pecking order. You see, I’m very useful. Someone needs to pass a test to keep peace with his parents? He comes to me. Some official wants the school to look good to his superiors? No better way than finding a pack of smart kids and putting them to work doing smart kid stuff.

So it’s a role that comes with some perks, but there is one big downside. Most of the time, I’m effectively invisible. The high school nerd is not a pariah, but he’s not a champion, either. He’s just there, inscrutable and solitary.

There is one exception, though.

Northwest, like most other high schools, participates in the national Scholar’s Bowl. You’ve heard about that, I’m sure – find a couple smart kids with nothing better to do over the weekend, then send them to other schools to compete in trivia contests with other teams of smart kids. Now, most schools just pick their teams out of the gifted program. The administration of Northwest High has a bit more flair than that. A few weeks before the start of trivia season, they have a special school-wide event. It’s called “Trivia Master” and it’s basically a scaled-down version of the Scholar’s Bowl that’s open to all students of Northwest High. The matches are held in front of the assembled student body, and the winning team goes on to represent Northwest.

God, do I love Trivia Master.

Most people look at Trivia Master and see just another sawed-off game show, not even worth consideration. However, if you’re one of those invisible smart kids, this is the one chance you get to shine. You see, I’m not the only person who loves Trivia Master. This event is a big deal. I’m not sure I can even begin to describe how big a deal. Attendance at the matches is up there with homecoming pep rallies, and the behavior of the audience is equally raucous. It sounds bizarre, but it’s the absolute truth.

For the two weeks of Trivia Master, everything changes. For those two weeks, I am an important man. When I walk through the halls, people greet me with open arms. They discuss me over lunch – hell, they fight to sit next to me, just so they can get an inside track on the matches before everything goes public. For two weeks, I am not only visible, I am a damn beacon for the whole school. It’s an awesome time, for me and everyone like me. Of course, there are always a few people who take things too far.

That’s the dark side of Trivia Master, the part that no one ever discusses. Everyone likes to imagine that this event is a scholarly competition between mild-mannered dorks. People who believe this have never spent any time amongst the greater North American nerd. Yes, we go to great lengths to get along, but push one of us even a little bit too far and the claws come out. And with dozens of smart kids vying for attention, there’s always someone pushing.

That’s the real reason I’m hauling ass towards Northwest. It’s not because I really care about the rules of the competition, the changes since last year. It’s because I’m worried about the people whe are eyeballing those rules for weaknesses.

Yes, friends, people cheat. They try and sabotage each other in ways that might shock you. I could tell you stories – the rumor mill at Northwest is as robust as it is in any other high school. But here’s all you really need to know: For the two weeks of Trivia Master, those smart kids who are being treated like the popular kids start to act like the popular kids – and then they get worse.

For my part, I try to avoid that sort of cloak-and-dagger madness. It’s not always easy, however, and with my particular friends it’s often impossible. That’s why I’ve decided to chronicle this, my final Trivia Master competition. I think the world deserves to know just how our kind behaves when the social structures that keep us in check are broken down. I’m not trying to tear anyone down, I just want to dispel some of the creaky old myths that people still hold.

Okay, maybe I do want to tear a few people down. Sue me, I’m not immune. And maybe this wasn’t the best day to start this. I’m a little cranky. After all, Ken Greevey – my perennial teammate – called me at an absurd hour this morning to remind me that trivia season was upon us.

Actually, that’s a good place to start, because Ken falls squarely inside the “takes it too seriously” camp. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy and we’ve been friends for years. We teamed up in three consecutive competitions, after all. Thing is, we fell short each year. Every time we lost, Ken responded by redoubling his efforts the following year. I’m honestly a little afraid of what he might be planning this time.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, though. Ken doesn’t play dirty or anything like that. He’s just a touch obsessive. This isn’t the first time I’ve received a wake-up call because he wanted to discuss some insignificant change in the rules on team registry or read me a long list of stats on the other teams. That’s Ken’s nature. He puts 200% of himself into everything he does. Lord knows he could be worse. A lot worse.

Yes, I’m thinking of someone in particular, but I’m not prepared to start slinging mud just yet. Besides, I know that Ken is waiting for me, and he’ll have a conniption if I don’t talk to him soon. You think I’m exaggerating? You have no idea.

To summarize: Trivia Master is a fantastic competition that displays the best in us but brings out the worst in us. It’s my favorite time of the year, but I also dread it every time it comes around. It’s a simple game, but it’s also deadly serious.

Well, I’m sure Ken is losing his shit waiting for me, so I guess I’d better get moving. Just remember that whatever happens, it wasn’t my idea. I swear.

My name is Paul Liston. Welcome to my world.

The Fabulist #11

Storyteller was being dragged – literally – to his next destination.

Render and his crew were traveling southeast, their human cargo close in tow. Render marched in the lead, firmly gripping a rope that led to Storyteller’s bound body. His two guards walked at Storyteller’s flank, weapons out, ready to stop anyone from approaching or their guest from leaving. The pace was merciless, but Storyteller had little choice but to match it – any time he fell behind, he was pulled to the ground and hauled through the dirt by Render until he chose to continue walking. Storyteller was amazed at the vigor of these raiders – presumably they were in a hurry to reach a civilized area, lest their prize be stolen by another gang.

After a few days, the group reached the first settlement. The sun was on the horizon as they passed through the gates, and most of the people were relaxing after the end of a day’s work. This changed the instant Render passed into view. A cry went out, and every man and woman grabbed whatever tool he or she could use as a weapon and prepared for the inevitable fight.

Render held up his hands in an accommodating gesture. “Now, friends. I’m not here to steal or kill. If that were the case, we’d have been on you already. Actually, I’m here to make you a very special offer.”

One of the villagers edged closer to the group, brandishing a hoe. “Get out of here! We don’t need any more trouble.”

“I understand. You must think that I’m here to shake you down. But I’m not, I swear. Wanna see why I’m here?” Render gathered the rope in his hands and pulled hard, yanking Storyteller to his side and throwing his arm around Storyteller’s neck. “This man is the reason I’m here. Doesn’t look like too much, I know. But I’ll guarantee that you’ve never met anyone quite like this.”

A tense murmur went through the crowd as everyone tried to make sense of the unusual circumstances. The man was obviously not one of Render’s gang, but that didn’t preclude some manner of trick. Finally, another villager stepped forward. “Fine, we’ll hear you out, but make it quick. We’re not killers, but we can still make you bleed if you try anything.”

Render pulled Storyteller close to him. “Play along, or I’ll cut something off,” he whispered in Storyteller’s ear. Turning back to the crowd, he put on a false smile and began his pitch. “I can see that this town has everything it needs. You got food, you got shelter, you got water when it’s dry…maybe even some little comforts now and then. But the one thing you don’t got is entertainment. Friend, introduce yourself to the people.”

Storyteller cleared his throat. “I am called…Storyteller.”

“Storyteller!” Render waved his arms over the audience. “But not just any storyteller, oh no. This man is an educator, a teller of stories with deeper meaning. Oh, this sort of guy was rare even before the disaster, but today? He is truly one-of-a-kind.” Render grabbed the rope around Storyteller’s waist and pulled him closer to the crowd. “Go on, give them a sample.”

“There once was an eagle and a fox who lived side by side,” said Storyteller with a sigh. “One day, the eagle killed one of the fox pups to feed her young…”

“All right, don’t give ‘em too much,” whispered Render before returning to the crowd. “This man is a resource that you guys don’t have, with a head full of old world stories and an eye for writing new ones.”

“What’s your point?” came a voice from the crowd.

Render laughed. “Eager. So eager. All right, here’s why we’re here. We have the rarest commodity in the world, something that you can’t get in Nexus, the Middle Market, or anywhere else. Very soon, we’ll be taking him back to Renderville, where you’ll never see him again, unless…” He clapped his hands together. “…unless you make a small agreement. A trade deal between your settlement and ours. You send workers to us, and we give you access to the last great artist on earth. And because you’re the first settlement we came to? You get favorite status.” Continue reading

The Fabulist #10

The route leading northeast out of Nexus was always an active one, and for very good reason. It connected a series of settlements and camps heading to a place known as “Scrapland,” the ruins of a decimated metropolis that served as a major source of wealth for those courageous enough to travel there. Several times a day, Storyteller would pass by another scavenger – some of them world-weary explorers trudging to their own daily grind, others eager first-time adventurers hoping for a score that could pull them out of their desolate lives. Conversation with the scavengers was minimal – little more than a nod of the head and a terse greeting before the two went their separate ways.

It was more lively at the salvage camps, special outposts set up by the trading groups deep in the wastes. Nights in the camps were always filled with revelry as the scavengers celebrated another successful claim – or had one last hurrah before another risky expedition. The people in the camps appreciated Storyteller’s presence, and were more than happy to share their supplies in exchange for entertainment. There was a part of Storyteller that didn’t want to leave, but like the scavengers, his soul was not one to rest.

As he traveled farther and farther east, everything began to change. The stream of scavengers slowed and eventually stopped, to the point where Storyteller would wander for days without seeing another soul. The trade roads grew ever more ill-kept, the guidestones harder to spot among the mounds of dust. It was with great relief that Storyteller finally spotted a settlement – “136,” according to the half-visible sign. This settlement was in worse shape than any he’d seen before, but Storyteller knew that he could not afford to be choosy.

There was no alert when Storyteller entered the settlement, no friendly face at the entrance and no call to the others living there. There had once been a salvaged sheet metal gate, but it now lay askew next to the entryway. No guard watched as Storyteller passed through. The inside was desolate – no people, no voices, no sounds of activity. There were only a few shacks that were battered by the elements and ready to collapse. However, there were also clear signs of recent human presence – a fire pit still filled with embers, the remains of recently eaten food, well worn footpaths leading to the shacks.

Storyteller looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who could explain this unusual situation. “Hello?”

Suddenly, Storyteller felt a sharp blow between his shoulder blades. He pitched forward, hitting the ground hard and kicking up a cloud of dust. His head was swimming, but he could hear voices around him:

“Hell yeah! Direct hit!”

“Hey asshole, don’t kill him yet!”

“Knock it off, dick. Look, he’s still moving.” Continue reading

Journeys of the Dreamer: The Merchant of Lives #5

For days, I sat and plotted my vile deed. Of course, I wouldn’t dare do anything while the police were still canvassing. I kept an eye on the news, looking for signs that an arrest had been made. As it turned out, it didn’t take long for the police to track down Randall, the dealer who had been chosen to take my place. The cruisers and news vans slowly thinned until one day, they were gone.

I had planned to contact Alex and set up a meeting, but I didn’t have to. On the day I was planning to spring my trap, I received a phone call.

“Duncan Prince?”

“Yeah. Who is this?”

“It’s Alex. Remember me, from a few weeks ago? I’d been meaning to call.”

“Yeah, so was I.”

“Hey, congrats on beating the police and the reaper. For now, anyway.”

“Yeah, for now.”

“Listen, I think I have a plan that will solve both our problems. Could you come by my place this afternoon? I think you’ll find this interesting.”

Alex had inadvertently set the trap for himself. I took the bag with the gun and set off for his apartment. Really, I had no idea if I could go through with it, but my morals really didn’t matter now – it was his game, and I was just following the rules. That seems like a cop-out now, but it made perfect sense then.

The door was already open when I arrived. I nudged it open and looked around. Alex was in the kitchen, monitoring a coffee pot. It looked like he’d cleaned up a bit, maybe even ditched some small pieces of furniture.

“Afternoon, Duncan,” he said as I entered, closing the door behind me. “This might take a while, so I put on a pot. You ever had real Kona? Good stuff.” He emerged with a tray containing two mugs and a tin of cream, setting it down on the coffee table. “Go ahead, take a seat.” We sat down opposite each other. I stared at Alex, who was distracted with his gourmet coffee. It was the perfect opportunity. I pulled the gun and trained it on my target.

It was at that moment that Alex looked up. “Oh, so that’s how it is?”

“Sorry, friend.”

Alex smiled. “You really think you can shoot me?” In one motion, he leaped to his feel and flung his mug at me. The hot liquid splashed me across the face, blinding me with pain. Alex was on me an instant, disarming me and throwing me to the ground. I found myself staring down the barrel of my own gun.

“I did some research,” he said. “Did you know we were born on the same day? We’re about the same height, too. You know what that means.” I watched in horror as he squeezed the trigger, but nothing happened. He pulled it again and again, to no avail. Suddenly, I realized what was happening. In my haste, I forgot to take the magazine. I had left my house to shoot someone, and brought only an empty gun.

The only reason I was still alive was that Alex hadn’t realized it yet. I kicked him hard in the knee, dropping him to the ground. I lunged forward, grabbing him around the neck and knocking him back. Alex threw several punches, one catching me square in the jaw, but I didn’t let go. I reached out for the empty gun, grabbing it by the barrel and swinging at Alex’s head as hard as I could. There was a crunch as it connected with his skull. Again I swung, and again, until he finally stopped moving.

It was quiet after that – disturbingly quiet, like everything had stopped just to give me a chance to reflect. Once again, I was in a room with a corpse, a man dead by my hand.

I searched his apartment – not sure why, maybe trying to find some hint of his plan. What I found was a recently opened bottle of rat poison within easy reach of the coffee maker. Alex wasn’t kidding when he said he was going to solve both our problems. He was going to solve all my problems, and buy himself more time by sending another “Alex” to the land of the dead.

But it backfired. He wound up dead – and he had the same birth date and vital stats as another known dead man. My guess is that he was trying to explain to some cosmic bureaucrat that, no, he’s not really Duncan Prince, that the real Duncan Prince is still walking around. They’d figure it out eventually, but in the meantime I had a reprieve.

And that’s my story, at least for now. Of course, it’s far from over. I’m still a corpse walking around like I’m alive, and I’m still a target myself. It looks like I’m off the hook with the Borderliner, but I don’t think he’s the type to let me go so easily. And then there’s still the matter of those two people I killed. I don’t know who will get me first – the police, the Borderliner’s slaves, or one of the Bureaucrats – but someone will get me, and soon. But you know what? I can live with that. That’s the one thing I’ve learned, how to live with this thing hanging over my head. The first time I tried to beat it, it just made things worse, so I’ll just accept what happens.

So if you should ever find yourself face to face with a strange man with an ominous glint in his eyes, just walk away. There are things worse than death, after all.

The Dragon’s Heir #9

Today’s sample is the last I’ll be offering. If you’d like to read more, you can download the whole thing for just two dollars. Thanks for your continuing support.

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 -1993-

The first thing I can distinctly remember was spending the day at the zoo with my parents. It’s such a clear memory, but maybe that’s because I’ve meditated on it so many times over the years. Every time I think about it, I realize something new, something that I wasn’t prepared to consider before.

It was a sunny day, warm but not too hot. I was riding around the zoo on dad’s shoulder. It was my first real experience with animals, with nature. Being a child, I couldn’t help but show off what I knew. Dad would walk past one of the habitats, and I would stop and point and yell out the name.

He took me to the lion’s den first. “What’s that one?”

I pointed into the den. “Shizi!”

“Very good.” We’d move to the next habitat – the elephants. “What’s that one?”

“Daxiang!”

“Right again.”

“Daddy, where are the dragons?”

“Dragons?” He laughed – father laughed a lot more back then. “There are no dragons, honey.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” We moved on to the next part of the zoo, and that was the end of the discussion.

What I didn’t realize – what I only concluded recently – was that this visit was more than a family expedition. It was training. It was always training.

* * * * * * *

Bzzzzzz.

Lidia groped around in the half-light, eventually seizing something that she sincerely hoped was the phone. “Lidia. Who is this?”

“Miss Zhang? This is Alice.”

“Alice?” Lidia rubbed her eyes. “This is my day off. Why are you calling?”

“You were asleep? I am sorry.”

“It’s all right. I’m up now.” Lidia sat on the edge of the bed. “Just tell me why you’re calling.”

“There is a problem at the office. Martin is…” There was yelling in the background – nothing Lidia could make out, but the sound was unmistakable. “…Please come here very fast.”

“All right. I can be there in…” Lidia squinted at the clock. “…Twenty minutes. Okay.”

“Okay. Please hurry.”

Lidia quickly dressed, ignoring breakfast and teeth-brushing to shave off a few minutes. Her curiosity had overwhelmed her exhaustion. In a matter of minutes, she was out the door, down the stairs, and onto the street. The elevator was unusually slow – too many people, too many stops.

When the door finally opened at the twelfth floor, it opened onto screaming.

“WHAT DID I DO WRONG? TELL ME WHAT I DID WRONG!”

Martin was at the reception desk, looking like a animal half-crazed with pain. Huang Yan was trying to keep the situation under control, but she was also on the verge of tears herself.

Lidia sprinted to the desk. “What’s going on here?”

“What’s going on?” Martin’s face was turning red. “Why did you fire me?”

“What are you talking about?” said Lidia. “I didn’t fire anyone.”

“Don’t lie to me! This was on my door when I woke up!” Martin slapped a document on the counter – a notice of termination. The notice was unfamiliar to Lidia – she hadn’t yet felt the need to use one, and had never seen one in person.

“I’ve never seen this,” said Lidia, examining the notice. “My signature’s not on it anywhere.”

“What did I do?” Martin was tearing up. “I did everything right. What did I do?”

Lidia turned to Huang Yan. “Where did this come from?”

“Uh…” Huang Yan was barely keeping it together. “I get a call from the company. The staff filed this.”

“That doesn’t make any…” Lidia looked back at Martin. “I’m looking into this. Sit down and wait for me.”

Lidia took the notice and headed back to her office. There were a few other teachers milling around, but she didn’t take the time to acknowledge any of them – there was too much to do. Shutting and locking the door, she took a seat and dug through the drawers on her desk until she found her contact form and hastily dialed up the head office.

“Qingxi Yanli Jiaoyu. Zao an.”

“Give me Caris Healey.”

“Who is calling?”

“Lidia Zhang, director of the Suzhou branch. It’s urgent.”

“One moment please.”

While she waited, Lidia took a closer look at the notice. Since the teachers were under contract, it was actually a dissolution agreement, to be signed by both the teacher and someone from the company. This particular document, however, claimed some breach of contract by the teacher – the signatures were strictly for the files. Lidia couldn’t find anything on the document that suggested a reason for termination, and she couldn’t think of anything Martin had done that would be in breach. More than that, she couldn’t figure out how they could have filed this document without her permission.

Click. “Caris Healey.”

“This is Lidia Zhang in Suzhou.”

“Good morning, Lidia! How’s the position going? I keep meaning to call…”

“One of my employees just received a notice of termination, and it wasn’t from me. I’d like an explanation.”

There was a pause at the other end. “I don’t understand. Could you give me the details?”

“What details?” Lidia stood up and began to pace, a vain effort to work off some nervous energy. “Martin Prosser had this notice sent to him this morning. I come in, he’s screaming about being fired. But I don’t see how that’s possible, because I didn’t file this, nor did I request it be filed. So please tell me how this could have happened.”

“Well…”

“I am in charge of personnel, am I not?”

“One second please.” There was a muffled conversation at the other end. Lidia couldn’t make out much – just a lot of frantic whispering. “Okay, sorry. Yes, you are in charge of personnel at your branch, but the central office can issue its own orders if we feel that it is necessary. In this case, we felt that it was inappropriate to keep this teacher on in light of the information we’ve received.”

“What information? There haven’t been any complaints from the schools.”

“This is based on what your branch sends to us. The information he’s filed is very incomplete, which is a red flag. Additionally, we have received comments that suggest that his demeanor is inappropriate for a teacher.”

“Demeanor? What does that even mean?”

“I can pull up the exact statement if you’d like, but it’ll take a few minutes.”

“Don’t bother.” Lidia paused, tapping her fist against her forehead. “Is there anything I can do to appeal this?”

“I’m sorry, no. Directives from the central branch are final. Look, it’s not like he was going to stay around very long. He told everyone that he was only going to be here for a year, so you’ve only lost one semester. Believe me, you can manage.”

Lidia sighed. “Thanks.” She slammed the receiver down. For a while, she just stared at the termination notice. She always knew that this would be one of her duties, but she’d never even fathomed how hard it would be, and this particular situation had certainly never come to mind. Taking a moment to compose herself and put on a neutral face, she walked out to the front office to carry out her grim duty.

* * * * * * *

Lidia took the stairs back to the main floor – a few brief moments of peace before she emerged into the crowded streets. At that time of the morning, the lobby was reasonably crowded, both with people headed to their jobs and customers flocking to the coffee shop that sat just off the main thoroughfare. She could pick up the odd fragment of conversation, but it all seemed like so much nonsense. Suddenly, she heard something odd – a snippet of a discussion in English. She could only assume it was her teachers, perhaps lounging in the coffee shop before their classes. Lidia wasn’t the most social person, but at that moment she decided that she could use the company.

As she entered the shop, the conversation became clear. “She fired him? Any idea why?”

“Dude, I have no idea.”

Lidia hesitated, standing just inside the entrance. R.R. and Doug were seated at a table, Doug with a paper coffee cup, R.R. with a small teapot and a small round cup.

“What could that kid have possibly done?” said R.R. “There was that stuff about flaws in the lesson plan, but I can’t imagine that she would fire someone over bullshit that small.”

“Well, we’ve gotta have standards,” said Doug, punctuating his statement with an eye roll.

“How long had he even been here?”

“I don’t know, two months? Couldn’t have been much more than that.”

R.R. blew the steam off his tea. “So who do you think will get stuck with his classes for the rest of the semester?”

“All I know is that if that bitch thinks she’s sticking me with that poor kid’s classes, she’s got another thing…” Doug turned his head, spotting Lidia by the entrance. “What do you want?”

Lidia approached the two of them. “For the record, I had nothing to do with Martin Prosser’s termination. The order came from the main office. By the time I heard about it, there wasn’t anything I could do.”

“Right.” Doug pushed back from the table, grabbing his cup and storming out the door. “I got classes.”

“I’ll see you at the Bottle when you’re done,” yelled R.R. as Doug left. He finished his tea and stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better get going, too.”

“It looks like you just got here,” said Lidia.

“I came here to talk to my friend. He’s gone, so I’m not sticking around.” R.R. adjusted his jacket. “You can have the rest of my tea. It’s a Yunnan blend, very good.”

“Damn it, I’m telling you I didn’t fire him.”

“Oh, I believe you,” said R.R., slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder.

“Then why are you treating me like this?” said Lidia. “You were friendly to me before.”

“Yes, I was,” said R.R. “I don’t have many friends here, and I thought it would be nice to have someone else to talk to. In response, you’ve insulted me to my face numerous times, you barged uninvited into my apartment and refused to leave when I asked you to. So if you think I’m going to be your friend now that you need a defender, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“That’s not how it is,” said Lidia.

“Goodbye, Miss Zhang.” R.R. walked out of the coffee shop.

Now alone, Lidia sat in R.R.’s seat and lifted the teapot, slowly pouring the tea into the cup. She stared into the red-tinged liquid, watching the steam dance and vanish into the air. All around her, groups of people chatted idly, laughing and swapping stories. Suddenly, she realized that she’d never done this. Back in Paradise Gardens, she arrived early and left late just so she wouldn’t run into anyone who knew her. Now, all she wanted was that personal contact.

I wasn’t always like this, she thought. What the hell happened?