Part 13 – survival instinct

Brenda walks past the precinct bullpen and sees Skyler sitting at her desk forty-five minutes past the end of the day shift.

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Everybody else has gone home for the night. With no pressing work to keep her there and a gorgeous man waiting for her at home, Brenda assumes that something is amiss with her new recruit.

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Pulling up a rolling chair, Brenda sits next to the melancholy, young woman but says nothing. After a moment, Skyler’s eyes dart toward Brenda. She breathes a contemplative sigh, then complains that she’d been attempting to refrain from looking so incredibly obvious. Brenda clucks her tongue upon easily recognizing the sound of a broken heart, then interjects with a concerned, “Uh-oh!” Skyler shifts her glance downward, smirking. Brenda rests her aged hand gently on Skyler’s shoulder, acknowledging that Van is a special man. It used to be that men like him were not so difficult to find. But times have changed, some say for the better. Brenda might be inclined to disagree.

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Skyler shakes her head slowly, not so much in disbelief as in awe. Van welcomed her with honest, genuine trust and provided unwavering companionship these past several months. How has she thanked him for this? By dragging him through hell. The “love of his life” had just dumped him and the only support Diamond Rough could think to muster was a campaign of relentless seductions. Still, despite all that has happened, Van never once hinted that he would turn her away. But he never quit loving Benita. Skyler levels a sorrowful gaze at Brenda and expresses her regret and humiliation.

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Brenda wags a scolding finger at Skyler, asserting that she no reason to feel humiliated. Tears that had pooled in Skyler’s eyes fall in large, bright drops onto her uniform. Brenda is brought to tears herself as Skyler speaks while working to stifle her heartbreak. She’d found the one and only man who’d ever truly cherished her; who desired companionship and not just her body. He comforted and protected her without once expecting anything in return… and here she is, bringing Benita back to him.

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“Oh, minha doce menina…”, Brenda consoles Skyler with a motherly hug. Brenda recalls how Van and Benita have been in love from the day they met as children; before they even knew what falling in love meant. She confesses to having been blessed to watch them grow up together over the years. She pauses thoughtfully, then explains her belief that Skyler and Van were placed in each other’s path …and she doesn’t mean by that slippery eel, Omar. There is a purpose in all of this. Another man would have taken advantage of Skyler- or worse. And before Skyler goes on thinking she’s had no impact on Van’s life, she ought to think again. It was her abundant zeal for life and enthusiastic energy that kept him from sinking into the kind of depression that breaks even the strongest men. Brenda has seen it happen firsthand. Rather than mourning, Skyler should be celebrating what they’ve helped each other become.

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Skyler chuckles while wiping tears from her eyes, admitting that it still hurts like hell. Brenda smiles knowingly in agreement, musing that it always will. After a time, the women’s quiet reflection is interrupted by Skyler’s phone. She looks at the number, then at Brenda with an urgent tone of concern – it’s Benita. Skyler answers tentatively, listening for any hint of coercion or duress. Benita’s voice is calm and relaxed, which provokes the same from Skyler. She nods affirmatively to Brenda who breathes a sigh of relief. Skyler’s dad has arrived and Benita wanted to express her gratitude. All things considered, this must be extraordinarily awkward for her. Skyler lifts her chin and smiles toward Brenda, then reassures Benita it’s no trouble at all. She’s a cop – this is what cops do.

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Brenda beams with pride while nodding her enthusiastic and vigorous approval.

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Skyler had sent Benita a picture of her father, Warren when they first talked two nights ago. Benita instantly recognises him and unlocks the door to let him in. His soft-spoken and easy demeanor takes Benita by surprise. She was expecting someone more commanding and harsh. Warren smiles a warm, welcoming greeting then asks with a wonderfully charming, rural dialect how she’s holding up. His disarming nature immediately lowers Benita’s guard.

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The photo does a poor job of capturing Warren’s presence. He’s tall and slightly lanky but extremely fit and stirringly handsome. If Skyler is anything like her father, it’s no wonder Van was so easily smitten. Benita shrugs and tells Warren the truth, but finds herself far more interested in watching how he begins to survey the room and everything in it.

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He walks through the entire house, inspecting every corner and recess, all the while holding a polite conversation about his drive from Pleasantview. She just stands and watches while he visually dissects the entire house. Then his eyes come to rest on her. His gaze bounces across unseen waypoints on her body, as though he were going through some kind of mental checklist.

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Fascinated, Benita asks if he always does that when he meets somebody new. Warren furrows his eyebrows and cocks his head slightly in confusion. After a moment he realizes what he had done and laughs out loud, calling it a survival instinct. Benita smiles bashfully, focusing her eyes his wedding ring. Warren instantly notices and smiles with pride, boasting about thirty years of blissful marriage and four (mostly) successful kids – all grown. Benita gasps from embarrassment, modestly suggesting that having him for a father must have been infuriating. Warren smirks, blessing his poor wife and admitting that he can be annoyingly observant at times.

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Warren arrived late in the day and Benita called Skyler shortly thereafter. It is nearly dark before they’d each finished a shower.

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Warren and his wife had raised three girls. Benita did not have the heart to tell him the change of clothes he’d brought were the “ugly clothes” his daughters left behind after moving out. Still, she is happy to be wearing something clean after two days. Warren starts preparing dinner while simultaneously strategizing their exit plan. He wants to get Benita out of Taxmoore’s sphere of influence. He has a friend in Strangetown who is willing to help them out. It is not an easy drive from here and he needs full night’s sleep to recover after the long jaunt from Pleasantview. They’ll likely need to take turns driving and sleeping in the car.

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Benita vents her frustration, somewhat unfairly directing it at Warren. Why all the secrecy? Why the need for a safe house? She wants to call her family and find out what happened to Natalia. She wants to tell Marcus she is okay – he is probably worried sick by now. She wants to talk to Alfonzo…

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He interrupts her rant with a pointed and brutal deconstruction of the situation. Has it occurred to her to consider how many of “Alfonzo’s” former allies have fallen victim to unexplained “accidents”? Linda DuPont was not the first Taxmoore apostate to die a tragic and sudden death. Ann Morris died of an overdose just hours after publicly threatening to expose him to non-allied media. He points angrily toward Benita, telling her to call “Alfonzo” if she must. If she does, however, then Linda and Ann will certainly not be the last to hold the distinction.

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He continues, softening his tone slightly. Taxmoore is supremely skilled at manipulating anger and its allied emotions. He masterfully channels the anger as a weapon, directing it toward his chosen quarry. He is a brilliant and motivating orator and knows exactly how to gain loyalty. He decries discrimination and inequity as though these behaviors are unique among his ideological rivals. He believes those who govern are obligated to impose égalité onto the governed and strip away prosperity; by force where necessary. The governor’s hallmark, “Equality over Enterprise”, has also become his cultural, hegemonic battle cry. Politicians like Alfonzo Taxmoore are elected on a cult of personality and become immune to any criticism, let alone prosecution. Media zealots find ways to protect their darling lover and spin blame onto some poor schmuck white guy. Or guns. No sim should enjoy such sycophancy and be permitted to commit crimes without fear of justice.

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A few days ago, Benita would have immediately dismissed Warren’s crazy talk as bigoted hate-speech. It was marred by so many “-ist’s”, “-ism’s” and “-phobias”; she would have a difficult to enumerating them all. The problem she seems unable to resolve, at the moment, is why she agreed to come to the safe house in the first place. Why hasn’t she called Alfonzo? Or her family? She wants to see Marcus so badly that she could scream. And yet, she hasn’t called him. Unfortunately, the answer seems quite clear; she is afraid of Alfonzo. And that means Warren is at least partially correct. Love… hate… bigotry… tolerance… Alfonzo wields them like weapons. It occurs to her that maybe she’s been looking for crazy in the wrong places.

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As they sit together eating, Benita recounts events at the banquet and comes to the dizzying conclusion that if she had acquiesced to Ann’s proposition, she would still be alive today. Warren dismisses her guilt, explaining that during a feeding frenzy, sometimes the big sharks eat the little sharks. His callous disregard leaves Benita somewhat speechless. Before bedtime, they review plans to leave in the morning. Warren asks if Benita would be opposed to the idea of sleeping on the sofa while he sleeps on the second sofa, nearby. He does not want to have to move across the house to get to her in the event of trouble. Benita honestly doesn’t see the point. She’s slept here two nights already with no problems. It seems a little bit paranoid. She imagines Warren sleeping in the hallway outside the bedroom door, however, so she reluctantly agrees.

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A short time later, Benita attempts to make herself comfortable enough to sleep. Warren has fallen fast asleep at the opposite end of the room. It is late at night before Benita eventually convinces herself that morning will arrive much sooner if she sleeps…

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After a time, in that place somewhere between wakefulness and dreams, Benita’s mind wanders to an imaginary scene where she is laying next to Van in a bed. Van had asked her to marry him again, but she refused. Clinging to the last few strands of awareness before drifting off to sleep, her mind’s eye changes the mental image. Benita has risen in a tempest of bed sheets. She steps through the doorway wearing a custom suit and carrying a lovely designer handbag. After greeting Ann with a kiss, she slams the door shut behind her. Van is still there, ruffling the linens looking for her. A wretched seagull has flown through the window and landed on the bed. But it is not a gull. It is Skyler; looking for scraps. She lovingly embraces Van and gives him the intimacy Benita would not. 

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The scene shifts yet again, and she sees Skyler, heavily pregnant and wearing a wedding dress fashioned from nasty, white gull feathers. She is marrying Van. Members of Benita’s family have gathered around, cheering them on. The couple materializes on a beach after the wedding, kissing each other near an old, run down shack. Skyler is still pregnant – but this time, they are surrounded by happily screeching children running circles around their legs. The last, barely conscious image Benita remembers before waking in the morning, is a scene where she is on the same beach wearing a custom suit and carrying a lovely designer handbag; shooing away the seagulls. Afterwards, she walks away with Ann, leaving Van standing on the beach – alone.

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