Part 19 – very capable hands

Van relaxes in the resort commons area contemplating recent occurrences while watching another spectacular sunset.

He and Skyler had shared many things during their brief but intense relationship, but never sunsets. Her work schedule, whether it was at the police station, the warehouse, or …her previous occupation, typically required her to work evenings. She was rarely home when the sun set. When she wasn’t working nights, she would almost always be catching up on lost sleep. Van idly watches as the orange sky and blazing clouds soften to lavender tones then darken to the colors of plum and indigo until the night sky appears. It evokes the many fond memories of sitting with Benita observing the same awe-inspiring passage. Many of his most cherished memories with Benita occurred during the moments between day and night. Sadly it seems those memories are all that remains between them.

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Van does not often dwell on uncontrollable circumstances nor does he make a habit of burying the pain of difficult emotions. But he does find the current state of affairs better locked away than overly analyzed. The first days following Skyler’s death were difficult. Benita and her family provided the kind of love and support that only a family can provide. After a few days, Benita sensed the immediate crisis had passed and was quick to resume the absentee friendship; preferring to communicate with him by phone rather than in person. Her job at City Hall requires her presence at fundraisers, campaign rallies, and town hall meetings. She would have very much enjoyed spending more time with Van, but her schedule was just too full.

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After several days of avoiding him, Benita urged Van to stop sitting around waiting for her. She suggested keeping an open mind about dating other women. Her words had the same effect as a punch in the mouth. Van told her as much, then vented his frustrations about her aloofness; which often came across as indifference, if not outright contempt. What had he had done to deserve such cold animosity? She returned from SimCity a different person. The Benita he remembers would never have said something so inappropriate and heartless. They ended the conversation angry at each other and haven’t spoken again, since. This ongoing rift, compounded by Skyler’s death and the tabloid frenzy surrounding it and the Linda du Pont mystery, has given birth to wild rumors about a lurid love triangle. Some of these rumors have already run amok. Van steers clear of the fray and finds hospitality from an unlikely source.

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Enzo du Pont and his unusual daughter, Moira had already overstayed their original itinerary on Isla Paradiso by several weeks. After Skyler’s death, they elected to remain until both felt certain Van had moved past the worst part of his grieving. If not for Enzo and Moira, Van would have languished indefinitely. Moira is both oddly eccentric and uncommonly wise, though most of what she says makes absolutely no sense to him. At times, it is easy to forget that he is talking to a fifteen-year-old girl. Still, after three weeks of almost daily contact with Enzo and Moira, Van experiences a sense of serenity and calm unlike any he is able to recall.

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Van’s train of thought is interrupted by an incoming call from Corinth. Enzo had purchased a large beachfront mansion to better accommodate their extended sabbatical. With young Moira’s newfound love for the island paradise, its future use as a family vacation home is guaranteed. Enzo had asked Corinth to assume the role of resident majordomo and coordinate the property’s day-to-day maintenance and operational staff. Although Enzo had not extended the same legal arrangement given to Van, the mansion has essentially become Corinth’s new home. Since Enzo and Moira’s return to France a few days ago, Corinth has worked to grasp the responsibility of maintaining such a huge property while still working at the science lab.

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Van answers his phone, asking how Corinth is holding up. After a drastic pause, Corinth asks flatly if they can meet somewhere to talk business. Van understands that Corinth is serious and contemplative, but he’s not exactly the stoic type. Corinth’s chilled response is cause for concern and Van immediately worries that he has unknowingly done something to upset his good standing. Van agrees to meet Corinth at the marine institute without probing for any more information.

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Constable Dias and a rather brainy looking military type are waiting with Corinth outside the Oceanographic Institute when Van finally arrives. Corinth extends his thanks to Van, sparing details about the nature of the unusual meeting. The Constable sees Van’s alarm and immediately moves to assure him he’s done nothing wrong. Corinth, who seems confused by her gesture at first, joins her in reassuring Van after realizing he had neglected to give his young friend necessary details regarding the nature of his summons. The brainy-looking young woman wearing military fatigues steps forward and breaks the tension, introducing herself as Captain Jamie Paraski.

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They enter the facility together while Jamie provides a short synopsis of her background. She has been stationed at “Area 15” in Strangetown since her completion of boot camp six years ago. Her strong background in life sciences has proven very helpful to a number of ongoing projects at the base; none of which she is actually able to discuss. She and a team of fellow scientists were assigned to Isla Paradiso as part of an investigation which, again, she is unable to discuss. Van smirks mischievously, then asks whether they can skip to the part she is able to discuss. Jamie’s eyebrows shoot upwards, convicting Van with an amused but scolding glance. His response is a weak but genuine laugh; the first Van has enjoyed in many weeks.

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Salt water tanks and pools of all sizes have been arranged in a roughly grid-like pattern inside the central, research area of the facility. Computer terminals and work benches have been set up at many of the stations. Jamie is forced to speak louder, over the sound of bubbling tanks and water filters humming from nearly every point within the workspace. She explains her choice of utilizing this area to speak given its seclusion, security, and ambient acoustical characteristics. Despite a forced break-in a few weeks ago, and the resulting uncertainty regarding any potential listening devices, the white noise generated by this area will render any potential surveillance of their conversation completely useless. Van looks to Corinth with a confused expression, but his friend seems oblivious. He is fixated, instead, upon the young and attractive scientist.

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Jamie continues explaining that she has been working on artifacts and photos collected from the Linda DuPont site. She breaks mid-sentence to compliment Van on his flawless work under extreme and dangerous conditions, then suggests he consider a career in military undersea operations. She continues her story, disclosing how an intruder had expertly disabled all security and surveillance, then was uncommonly thorough about accessing encrypted data and research. Drawers and lockers were rummaged through, books were moved around on bookshelves, but what Jamie finds most curious is that nothing was actually taken. The problem, she believes, is that the perpetrator was unable to find what they were looking for. She has exhausted all investigative leads and has nothing to show for the effort. Corinth suggested that she turn to Van for help.

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Van interjects just as Jamie begins to recommend a second excursion to the dive site to search for anything possibly overlooked. He is not opposed to a second dive, but there is something he had forgotten to mention after the first excursion. He had found Linda’s underwater notebook among the other artifacts and secured it inside a pocket on his equipment harness. It’s with the rest of his gear in his bedroom back at the house. With everything that has happened, he neglected to even think about it until just now. Jamie stares at Van with an expression of dismay. Van shrugs apologetically, offering up the excuse that he is easily distracted. Brenda laughs under her breath, then attempts to disguise the guffaw as a sudden cough.

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Jamie shakes her head in deflated disbelief. She shrugs her shoulders and sends a glance in Corinth’s direction while informing him, half-jokingly, that they’ve just made new dinner plans for Van’s house tonight.

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Jamie Paraski is a talker. She’s not the kind of incessant, rambling talker that inhabits the place of nightmares. Rather, she is exceptionally intelligent, well-spoken, and most notably, a take-charge conversationalist. There is also a different side to her personality that becomes evident when the conversation drifts away from business and onto more casual topics. That is when Van first sees the spark of attraction between she and Corinth. Van smirks when it happens. Jamie immediately recognizes his discovery and jumps into military mode; puffing out her chest and defensively demanding to know what he’s smirking about.

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Corinth is also uniquely intelligent and seems to always be caught up in his own thoughts. More times than not, he’s slow to pick up on subtleties, which sometimes lends him the appearance of seeming perpetually confused or intellectually challenged. Van is certain Corinth plays this to his advantage at times. There is no mistaking that Corinth is fully aware of what had just transpired and that he had somewhat humorously chosen to play coy. Van’s better judgment is unable to resist his more mischievous nature, so he responds by wondering out loud whether Corinth had ever told her how extraordinarily beautiful she is when she’s angry.

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On cue, Corinth’s eyes light up with both shock and amusement and he laughs spontaneously out loud. Jamie fumes, but Corinth rests a friendly hand on her shoulder and says something calming to her in French. Jamie’s mood lightens somewhat as she shoots Corinth a half-scolding/half-encouraging glance. Corinth chuckles playfully telling Van that speaking to her in French soothes the savage beast, within. Before the trio enjoys a rousing bout of laughter, Van is half-certain he had heard Jamie mumbling under her breath, letting slip a measure of her southern dialect she had otherwise perfectly subdued, “you ain’t seen nothing yet, sugar…”

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Jamie reads Linda’s journal entries out loud after dinner. She sits close to Corinth, comforting him occasionally; especially when Linda mentions him in her writings. She hesitates before reading one entry in particular but continues with a sad and empathetic inflection. Linda had written about how much she loves Corinth, and how perfectly they balance each other. Jamie stops at the point where Linda wrote how she could not imagine life without him. Corinth is in tears at this point, so Van quietly removes himself upstairs to give Corinth time to regain his composure.

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Hearing the journal entry has brought back the nauseating feeling he had experienced watching and listening to Skyler die. He has started playing a radio at night just so he does not have to hear her labored and mutilated, dying breaths in the silence of his empty bedroom. He does not remember much about what happened after receiving her video message; only that he was ecstatic at first, believing he and Skyler were going to be reunited. And then… death. He had somehow found his way to the beach behind his house. Benita learned about the murder and broke her silence to check on him. There is no telling what he might have done in that semi-lucid state.

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Van’s thoughts are interrupted by Jamie walking halfway up the steps. She thanks him for the meal and asks if she can have the journal to send back to the military base for analysis. She believes it is what the intruders were looking for. Something Linda wrote in her journal contained a very specific meaning for Corinth. Van signals his agreement with a nod then regards Jamie with an austere and mindful expression. He shares his belief that Corinth is “one of the good guys”. There has been a lot of tragedy in their little circle, and a hunch tells him that it may not be completely over. He asks Jamie to look after Corinth. Jamie finishes climbing up the steps then regards the photo Van had been holding; a photo of Skyler. She whispers quietly, observing that Skyler had been beautiful. She then soberly expresses her condolences.

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She smiles and tells Van that Corinth thinks the world of him. She touches Van gently on the shoulder, affirming that it is easy for her to see why. He’s a good friend to Corinth and she thanks him for that. She smiles and winks, then turns to walk down the steps. Carrying a musical tone that sounds both playful and protective, she assures Van he has nothing to worry about. Corinth will be in very capable hands.

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Benita’s life seems to always to revolve around work. When she and Van were younger, Benita remembers insisting upon finishing every bit of homework, extra credit and chores before hanging out with Van. His own grades were likely much improved, seeing as how they always did their homework together. He would inevitably also help her with chores to finish them quicker. She may have used the situation to her advantage a time or two, but he never complained. Even back then, her parents adored him. Benita interrupts her own inner dialogue to remind herself that she adores Van as well.

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Van’s childhood and family life were both a mess. The homosexual couple that adopted Van despised the traditional values Benita’s family espoused, and went as far to label them “dangerous” and “subversive”. When Luisa became pregnant with Natalia, Van had asked the men about his own mother. At one point, he even demanded they tell him. They felt “unappreciated” and “insulted” that he would even bring up the topic since they were each both mother and father to him. In Benita’s estimation, the men were simply too self-absorbed and disinterested to answer Van’s question or care that he was troubled by it. She tried to imagine growing up without Luiza and found the concept nearly paralyzing.

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Van became even more restless as a teen. The mutual romantic attraction between he and Benita was becoming very difficult for them both to navigate. Benita thought inviting Van to attend church with her Sundays might help him. Van did not understand how going to church could help with anything. He started attending anyway if only to spend more time with her. Mitch and Wade were both furious. They attempted to stop Van from seeing Benita with very little success. Van had already grown into a physical powerhouse, and he simply pushed his way past them. Van had never been a rude or misbehaved child, but he made sure the men knew he did not recognize their authority on the matter. His relationship with them changed permanently after that confrontation.

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As the years unfolded, Benita began to feel the unquenchable tug of ambition. The thought of continuing to live at the cusp of poverty terrified her. It overshadowed everything, even the unique love shared between her and Van. She often used work as a means of keeping Van at arm’s length and pushed him even farther away after he started talking about marriage. Even now, she continues chipping away at the loving bond they share; working hard to demolish it, as though it were a prison. In terms of her ambition, Van is nothing more than cumbersome refuse to be discarded on the path toward fulfilling its lofty goals. Since taking a job at City Hall, she has once again placed work firmly between her and Van.

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Lately, the recurring nightmare involving Van has begun to affect more than just how Benita interacts with him. It has disguised itself as a loving recreation of her night with Marcus in every perfect detail. At the moment of release, however, Ann has somehow taken Marcus’ place inside the dream. Before Skyler’s murder, the nightmare would end with Benita scattering seagulls away from Van. After Skyler’s murder, the dream became much darker and more frightening. Now the gulls are no longer able to take flight. Benita always wakes up at the same point; she is wearing a custom suit, the color of dark crimson, and she walks away in lockstep with Ann. Van is left standing on the beach alone. She often wakes, feeling physically nauseated. The disturbing imagery sometimes occupies her waking thoughts throughout the day.

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Benita had been walking en route to the grocery store when this distressing thought process took root. It has agitated her to such an extent that she finds herself clenching her teeth and holding her breath. Her doctor calls these episodes “panic attacks”. Whatever they are, they seem to be occurring more often. Benita pauses to sit on a street bench to sort out the discord. Her gut churns with dread over the mess she has made of her beautiful, lifelong friendship with Van. Skyler had not been dead a week before Benita told Van she was keeping her options open and that he should consider dating other women. Dear God, what was she thinking!? The words “self-absorbed” and “disinterested” echo in her mind. Those words had become regular criticisms of hers, describing Mitch and Wade; especially after they abandoned Van. Benita’s gut sinks further as she finds herself resting her head in her hands and coming to terms with the fact that the critical assessment describes her just as well.

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Dusk has fallen before Benita finally resumes her walk to the grocery store. Luiza had texted asking where she was. Benita responds with the words, “sitting. thinking.” Her mother texts a kiss in reply. Benita smiles. Van has always done the little things that make her smile, too. Benita breathes a deep sigh then fires off a text to Van. After a moment, he responds. He’s at the gym, working out. A sad smile crosses her lips. If anything, he’s always been very easy to look at. A small flutter in her belly accompanies the next message she sends, “bistro? 9pm?” The little flutter in her belly expands when she giggles out loud in reaction to his response. It is something she had not seen from him since high school; three consecutive hearts. Even back then, he thought he was being clever. But she knew his game. Benita smiles wistfully and speaks gently to the picture displayed on her phone,

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“… I love you too, meu lindo.”

Part 18 – officer down

“Gravely disturbing and unforgivable”, were the words used by Governor Alfonzo Taxmoore to describe the shooting death of Ronald Maxwell, Jr. inside Pleasantview Police Headquarters shortly before sunrise Tuesday morning.

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Pleasantview Chief of Police, Warren Gilscarbo, allegedly fired the shot that would eventually kill Mr. Maxwell, but not before sustaining injuries himself. In addition to Mr. Maxwell, nine Pleasentivew police officers were killed during the incident. Mr. Gilscarbo, who is likely to face first-degree murder charges, was the only survivor. He was flown directly to a high-security military medical installation in Strangetown despite Governor Taxmoore’s fiery and vocal opposition. The nature and severity of Gilscarbo’s injuries are unknown at this time; as is the reasoning behind his military evacuation.

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According to a team of investigators working under Governor Taxmoore’s direct supervision, Detective Skyler Gilscarbo, the police chief’s daughter, used racial slurs and drew her weapon in a threatening manner against Mr. Maxwell, who was unarmed. The Governor’s office reports that initial analysis of security footage suggests Maxwell gained control of the inexperienced officer’s weapon and used it to defend himself against her and numerous subsequent attackers. Ms. Gilscarbo was among those killed during the ensuing firefight. During an emergency press conference held earlier today, Mr. Taxmoore lauded Mr. Maxwell’s heroic effort, adding “…he died in a desperate bid to protect himself against numerous, armed terrorists wearing police uniforms”. The governor went on to call minorities across the nation to fearlessly defend themselves against racist aggression.

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The governor has condemned law enforcement officials, vowing to hold them accountable for Mr. Maxwell’s murder. Determined to end a long and tragic streak of minority deaths at the hands of police, Mr. Taxmoore has vowed to fight for the complete disarmament of all local law enforcement agencies. Governor Taxmoore visited with the grieving Maxwell family after the press conference, where he dismissed a statement made by the military on behalf of Mr. Gilscarbo.

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The statement, which describes an outlandish scenario, alleges that several heavily armed and armored persons entered and attacked the precinct shortly before dawn; and that Ronald Maxwell was killed in a “crossfire incident”. The Governor immediately labeled the wild conspiracy theory as “ridiculous, unhelpful, and diversionary”. He later described the account as “an intentional ruse to mislead the public…”, and “…a sad work of fiction fabricated to protect white privilege by distracting attention away from the real issue of racial bigotry and police brutality.” The Governor’s office has secured surveillance video of the incident and has promised to use all pertinent details to prosecute Mr. Gliscarbo to the fullest extent of the law.

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“Progressive Truth News” will continue covering this story around the clock with updates every… *click*

please God, no…. not Warren…

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…no…this can’t be happening… oh, god… Van…

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Benita had no idea what to expect, nor had she planned what to say when she finally saw Van.

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She witnessed the embrace he and Skyler shared before her departure to Pleasantview. It was the same night Benita arrived home after sequestering herself in SimCity for nearly a year. Van and Skyler had been in love or, at least, Skyler had fallen in love with Van. That much was clear. Since that night, Constable Dias has repeatedly chided Benita about her continued game of avoidance with Van. The constable is right about one thing. The game hasn’t been much fun for either of them.

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She had hoped that consuming herself with work would bury the traumatic nightmare about Ann, Skyler, and the seagulls, which continues to plague her sleep. Documents discovered by Van inside the resort VIP museum has given her a new focus and purpose. Alfonzo had expertly stoked the fires of her indignation, and now she has somewhere, besides Van, to direct it. The native peoples of Isla Paradiso have born the worst part of its rapid “modernization” and she would gladly reduce every resort down to rubble if it meant restoring dignity and prosperity to her family and friends. A sensation at the pit of her gut suggests the contents of this private museum may allow her to do just that.

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She finds Van sitting on the beach behind his house, holding his phone as though willing it to begin ringing. Benita approaches him nervously, her heart beating wildly in her chest. Old, familiar instincts replace a programmed directive compelling her to leave him alone to his misery and allow him to suffer the way his ilk have caused people of color to suffer…

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NO!! he needs me…
…I need him…

Coming to a quiet stop next to Van, Benita can hear a video playing, “…have something important to share with you after I get off work today. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about us, and what I told you before leaving that night. Anyway, mom and dad have provided a lot of insight, and more importantly, some new things to think about. Honestly, seeing them together has made me realize how much I miss you. I know it’s only been a few months but it feels like so much longer than that. I want to see you again, Van… I’d like to talk to you about maybe…”

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Benita quietly crouches beside Van, close enough for him to know she’s there but far enough away to respect whatever boundaries she has erected between them. Benita hears Skyler’s voice being interrupted by the chaotic sound of angry, cursing voices followed by gunshots – then Skyler speaking into the phone again, “Oh my *expletive* *expletive*, Drop your *expletive* weapons! Don’t *expletive* do this!” As the video shifts and blurs, there are more very loud gunshots, most likely coming from Skyler discharging her weapon. It is followed by screams of agony and Warren shouting, “Officer Down!!”.

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Penetrating fear grips Benita’s throat upon hearing Joan Mosley’s unmistakable, masculine voice barking orders from Van’s phone, “*inaudible* …exactly forty-five seconds …no survivors.” Skyler’s mortal screams are followed by wildly blurred images, then an unmoving, closeup of a wood floor. Horrific sounds of steady gunfire and bullets shredding furniture very close to the recording device erupt from Van’s phone for exactly forty-five seconds. After a moment of quiet, the image finally moves again with an unsteady jerking motion. It is accompanied by a sickening, moribund retching noise. Skyler’s bloodied hand is visible only for an instant before the video goes dark.

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Van moves his thumb to play the video again, but Benita leans closer and prevents him from doing so by placing her hand over his. She wonders how long he has been sitting here watching it. Fresh tears fall from his eyes and roll down his cheeks as he announces helplessly that Skyler isn’t answering her phone. Benita quietly cradles his head on her shoulder while he weeps in long, mournful sobs. If she had not already wept herself dry of tears for Marcus, she would have joined him. As such, she is able to remain strong for Van. So much death… so much deceit …so much hatred; this from people who use the words “love” and “tolerance” as thinly veiled ambiguations of tyranny.

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Holding Van in her arms has awoken something she assumed dead …or rather, killed. Benita moves in closer to him, resting her head on his while he grapples with the pain of his intense grief. Alfonzo may have failed in murdering her outright, but he had succeeded in taking away something more valuable than her life. He had taken away her loving nature and replaced it with spite. She does not understand why so much suffering had to occur before she felt empowered to finally reclaim it from him. Van’s presence alone is enough to fill her her empty heart with the love and adoration she has always felt for him. She holds him tighter and closer with each pang of guilt churning through her stomach. This was her own doing… and undoing …all of it.

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After Van’s initial grief has been drained, they sit together for a time, silent and still, until the tears Benita had thought dry bite painfully at the corners of her eyes again. Having finally built enough courage, she whispers hoarsely into Van’s ear, her voice unsteady and morose, “I am so sorry, meu lindo… for everything …please forgive me.” They sit together undisturbed on the beach behind Van’s house and share in each other’s grief until it is almost dark.

Part 17 – threads of possibility

It is late in the day, with the orange orb of Isla Paradiso’s setting sun hanging low in the sky when Louis and Phillipe relax with Van on the front porch of the Gonçalves home following Natalia’s teen birthday party.

A lively flamenco number buzzes over the radio while the men enjoy local brews and listen to Louis reminisce about Isla Paradiso during his youth. Van’s mind wanders, thinking about his own childhood, and by association, Benita. Benita’s overly conspicuous campaign to avoid Van has caused quite a bit of friction inside the close-knit family. Van has respectfully kept his distance until today; and only then after Natalia insisted he come to her party.

Van had only just arrived on Isla Paradiso and was still a child himself when Natalia was born. She was the baby of the Gonçalves family. Benita, being the oldest, shared a maternal bond with her youngest sibling. As they grew older, Natalia looked up to Benita with an unrealistic level of esteem. After Benita became an adult and left Isla Paradiso, that pristine image started to tarnish. It is no secret that Natalia cherishes Van, and Benita’s recent, unexplained animosity toward him has worked to further enhance Natalia’s growing feeling of reproach toward her sister. Now that she has become a teen, the cold realization that Benita possesses completely human flaws seems to weigh heavily upon her quiet and restless spirit.

Benita’s frightening episode in SimCity inexplicably failed to temper her political ambitions. If anything, her ambitions have intensified and started resembling something closer to obsession. Her new job at City Hall has provided unlimited opportunity for urgent, unannounced business trips. She has wielded these opportunities with great finesse and has managed to completely avoid communicating with Van. The truth of the matter is that Van has neither seen nor spoken to Benita since her return from SimCity. Van did not expect that Natalia’s birthday would change the trend. As predicted, Benita was already gone before Van and the other guests arrived for the celebration. Benita had spent morning shopping with Natalia before catching a flight out of town for an important, albeit impromptu, work-related commitment. Natalia was understandably furious, but Van managed to calm her down enough to enjoy the party.

Natalia has become a bit of a loner and sometimes appears aloof and brooding. Gabriella, the next youngest Gonçalves, occupies the diametrically opposite end of the personality spectrum and enjoys a large social network. On the surface, it might seem natural that Natalia would fit right in. Upon watching her interact with Gabriella’s friends during the party, however, Van worries the situation might not be quite so simple. Natalia made a valiant effort to mingle during the party, but after a few socially awkward misfires, she wandered off with her mother toward the beach. They had only just returned a short while ago with clear evidence suggesting that they both had been crying.

Van is not alone in noticing the tears. Louis clucks his tongue and shakes his head in disapproval, vowing to give Benita a thorough tongue-lashing when she returns from her business trip. He cannot understand why she has come to be so full of spite and anger. She had always possessed a strong drive to succeed, but never at the expense of family. Louis says this while looking directly at Van, silently conveying his unconditional acceptance of Van as a Gonçalves and lamenting that her treatment of Van has been both heartbreaking and irrationally cruel. He continues sharing his observation that Benita now seems possessed more by irrational political motivations than a desire to excel. Louis expresses a deep regret over speaking with her about the documents in the private museum Van had mentioned. Doing so has only further provoked Benita’s restless angst.

Van thanks Louis for the encouragement then shrugs and reassures his would-be father-in-law there was no way of knowing Benita would react so drastically. Phillip draws a deep swig from the bottom of his bottle of pilsner then belches loudly. He states flatly that both men are forgetting how she was practically evacuated from SimCity witness-protection-style. She’s spoken about two deaths, at a minimum, since returning. Odds are she would have been a third. Thanks to Skyler and Van, Natalia was spared the fate of becoming a possible fourth. Who’s to say those same people aren’t still looking to finish Benita off?

Louis curses quietly after a short pause. Van had never thought to look at the situation from Philippe’s perspective. Van drains the contents of his own pilsner then exhales sharply, asking whether Philippe thinks she is still in danger. Both Louis and Van look toward Benita’s next eldest sibling, whose only response is a concerned but unknowing shrug. Luisa, Natalia, and Gabriella eventually join the three men relaxing on the small porch. They laugh together at stories from Natalia’s childhood and marvel at the prospect that Gabriella will soon become an adult. She has already chosen a university and hopes to become a veterinarian. Her first love is taking care of animals, but she hasn’t ruled out medical school and becoming a doctor.

It is nearly dark when Luisa and Louis retire back into the house. Phillipe had gone back home to prepare dinner for his girlfriend, who was unable to take time off work for the party. Gabriella had also run off to the beach for a bonfire with friends. Having said goodbye to the family, Van is about to make his way back home, when several bright flashes over the ocean illuminate nearby clouds, creating a dramatic, meteorological work of art. He pauses for a moment to cast his gaze upward and quietly admire the awesome phenomenon. Diffuse light from the display washes the island in a soft radiance, not unlike moonlight; only richer, and with a golden rather than bluish hue. It seems to linger for a time afterward, like some manner of flare illuminating the clouds from their interior. Moments later, a warm and steady wind from a nearby atmospheric heat burst whips across the island. Light from nature’s grand exhibition had illuminated the entire yard, revealing Natalia sitting alone. Van would have missed seeing her entirely, otherwise. He detours toward the stoic and aloof, young woman; whose hair has begun flailing wildly in the exhilarating, headed wind gusts.

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Earlier in the evening, Gabriella had invited Natalia to join her at the bonfire, but she awkwardly declined. Van witnessed the exchange and was left feeling bad for the hopelessly introverted girl. Now cognizant that he is approaching, she smiles weakly then stands to thank him for taking the time to attend her party. Van again wishes her a happy birthday with a hug. Then, using a tone far more parental than he had intended, he encourages Natalia to join Gabriella on the beach with her friends.

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Natalia shakes her head and regards Van with a confused and frustrated expression, “I can’t.” She shrugs her shoulders and presses the palm of her left hand to her temple. Unwilling to leave her alone given her present state of mind, and assuming her dark mood is centered around Benita, Van expresses his concern and a willingness to listen. When she does eventually speak again, the topic leaves Van wishing he had just gone home, as planned.

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She has been wanting to talk to him about something but was unsure where to begin. Or maybe she’s just been too afraid. Either way, something really weird has happened and she doesn’t understand what or why. Van opens his mouth to speak but no words emerge. He just simply shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head, oblivious. Natalia regards him again, her worried face betraying a deep and paralyzing incomprehension. Her voice cuts with a sharp edge. He and Benita were supposed to be married already. They were going to have a baby together …and Skyler…

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Controlling his urge to become angry at having two incredibly painful wounds poked with a stick, Van interrupts Natalia. The hot, gusting wind does nothing to cool his rising temper. After a long, controlled breath, Van agrees with her. He wishes things were different too. He wishes he understood what was happening with Benita. He reminds her how easy (and healthy, at times) it can be to visit elaborate, imaginary scenarios. He has a number of those places himself, and he finds that contemplating those can sometimes be very calming. No matter how beautiful and perfect they seem, however, it is important never to confuse them with reality. That will only lead to disappointment or disaster.

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Natalia smiles cynically and nods, commending his front porch psychoanalysis. Holding her hair away from her face, Natalia looks out toward the ocean and into the baking, convective gusts. Her words are unsteady and timid, but Van is able to hear them clearly, regardless. This wasn’t how things were supposed to happen. She lay awake in bed many nights worrying that Van will leave Isla Paradiso to be with Skyler. She doesn’t want him to leave …she doesn’t want to be alone. Before Van is able to respond to her uncomfortably untoward confession, she shoots a scolding glare in his direction; warning him not to take her words out of context. Natalia’s expression softens after a moment, then she turns to look back over the ocean.

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The strange, warm wind has rustled her long hair into an unmanageable mess, forcing her to finally contend with it. She works earnestly to push it from her face, then eventually regards Van with serious, humorless eyes. She asks flatly what he saw that night at the church; the night he rescued her. The question stuns Van. He had actively blocked the event from his conscious thoughts. He looks away quickly, frowning. He shakes his head sharply and admits he cannot explain what he saw. There was a woman. She was… different. She had the most unusual eyes; empty …and dead. She was there one instant, then she just …evaporated into a glowing, yellow mist. Van regards Natalia again. That woman, whoever she was, was responsible for the rescue that night; not him.

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She shakes her head slowly with frustration. Her memories from before that night tell a completely different story. Benita had become pregnant. She was too embarrassed to have a church wedding, so she and Van got married on the beach. At the time, Natalia didn’t understand. Now she suspects that Van probably wasn’t the father. He knew it and married her anyways. And Skyler… Natalia looks at the ground, frowning and shaking her head more emphatically. She regards Van with intense, angry, and indignant eyes; shouting. She is NOT imagining things! She was THERE! Those things really happened. Or at least it did until that night when everything changed…

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Natalia’s hand presses against her temple again as she complains about some sort of noise which Van is unable to hear. She exhales a sharp, exasperated sigh. It sounds almost like …singing. As though acknowledging Natalia’s observation, a sweet, melodic voice reaches Van’s ears and dances softly around him. Colored with an unmistakable Irish inflection, its quiet after-whispers remain for a time, defying the turbulent air. The quiet, barely discernible echoes multiply a youthful, feminine voice a thousandfold; as though they had assembled for some manner of sad, Celtic chorus.

Van turns abruptly away from Natalia to see Moira du Pont walking casually toward them. The space around her seems to shimmer with a dim golden aura, very much like that which illuminated the sky a few moments ago. He moves slowly toward Moira; her shining, aurous hair tangibly glowing with golden radiance, each strand possessing the quality of having been spun from the purest gold. Powerful, glowing wings, or the last vestiges of them, fade from her back like dying embers, leaving Van wondering if he saw them at all. Some manner of optical illusion, perhaps? The strong, heated wind, which had crept up so suddenly, dies down to nothing again. Moira smiles sweetly toward Van, but seems more focused on Natalia, “I believe you.”

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Natalia struggles with her hair and regards Van with confusion. Van introduces Moira as the young woman who discovered the documents at the museum. She is Linda du Pont’s niece by adoption. It is the same du Pont family that had financed the purchase of Van’s property. Natalia’s tired, untrusting eyes narrow as she challenges Moira’s statement about believing her contradictive memories. She asks flatly, “why?”

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Moira’s voice trembles with an edge of anxiety as she affirms Natalia’s suspicion that something unusual is happening, adding soberly that it is only just beginning. It reminds her of a terrible event that had transpired a very long time ago (assuming it happened at all). The complexity of it all is rather staggering; which is quite alarming, considering (humbly) that she is no simple, silly little girl. Still, she has seen enough to know that both Natalia and Van by association have become the epicenter of something proportionally comparable in size and scope.

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Moira’s unusual entrance puzzles Van as much as the curious dissertation which followed. Everything about Moira has been bound in mystery from the moment she arrived, beginning with the bizarre conversation between Corinth and Enzo at the resort, and persisting throughout her stay in Isla Paradiso. Moira is unlike any other woman, adolescent or not, Van has ever met. She is either a deranged lunatic or a transcendental savant. Either way, the stuff she’s talking about is far out of his ability to understand. That she would just simply appear during a conversation, which alone was more enigma than Van ever cared to ponder, pushes him over the edge. Van interrupts her abruptly, too confused to let her continue,

“Who are you?!”

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Moira seems genuinely surprised to hear the question and she looks down out of reflex, blushing. She has been attempting to discover the answer to that unassuming question for a very long time. She moves beside Natalia and offers her a simple hug. All that can be said at this time, is that she is different. She has no desire to deceive or mislead. To the contrary, it has been a long time since she has been able to share that which is most intimate to her. It is neither the appropriate time nor place to reveal true nature, however.

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After a moment of reflection, Moira admits that it is difficult for her to explain how she knows that Natalia’s memories are not fiction. She just simply knows. She also knows that Van witnessed something inexplicable the night he saved Natalia. She interrupts Van before he is able to speak. She has no more answers than he does. Even if she did have the answers, she suspects there would be no way to coherently convey them given the intrinsic constraints limiting spoken language. One thing is certain, however. He must not allow his mind to encapsulate the experience or limit explanations to only those possibilities with which it is familiar. Because there will always be truths which lie beyond the scope of human knowledge. And there will always be knowledge which lies beyond the scope of human comprehension. For what it is worth, Benita did conceive a child with another man and come to be married to Van on the beach shortly afterward. And at the same time, she did not.

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Moira presses her lips together and weighs a heavy and measured gaze both to Natalia and Van. Her angelic voice confesses it was the enigma that forced her to travel here from France. Moira’s innocent expression melts away, revealing the poise and maturity of a woman many years her elder. Her eyes reveal a candor that is difficult to ignore; and her voice, steady and firm, is colored with the fire of an irritated Irish woman. The threads of possibility are being manipulated by someone or something else. She does not know by whom or for what purpose. She levels a sober glance toward Van. There was an incident, in a different time and place, when she made a terrible mistake as a result of being similarly manipulated. One brave, young man literally saved the universe from her silly self-indulgence. Van is very much like him in many ways.
Author’s Note: See Barimen Legacy Chapter 8.17 – Choire

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The elusive, whispering after-echoes of her voice swirl around them again like leaves in a whirlwind; as quietly and humbly, Moira asks Van and Natalia for help.

Part 16 – completely coincidental

Two months spent apart, separated by more than a thousand miles distance, seems to pose only a slight hindrance to the deepening friendship and blossoming romance growing between Van and Skyler. She calls him before bedtime most nights. They talked before her first day working as a Pleasantview police detective.

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The photo she sent of herself dressed in a midnight-blue police uniform instantly reignited restless urges Van had been working to extinguish. Although he and Skyler had remained mostly platonic during her stay at Isla Paradiso, they shared the better part of a year together inside a small living space, oftentimes sleeping in the same bed. The experience changed him, and now he is unable to ignore how empty the house now feels without her. Admittedly, there is a part of him that feels empty as well.

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Despite the various challenges and discomforts caused by the ongoing, long-distance affair, staying in close contact with Skyler has helped Van to mentally concede that any relationship he had once shared with Benita is now gone. He doesn’t understand it, but he accepts it. Van returned to Benita’s house the morning following her return from SimCity. After some angry shouting from inside the house, Luiza finally came to the door and reluctantly sent him away with an apologetic hug. Benita was not in the mood to talk.

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Resuming work as a lifeguard has also helped him pass the time he would have otherwise spent brooding. A resort on the far side of the island recently came under new ownership and hired Van upon the recommendation of a former colleague who had recently retired. Van’s new employer offers its patrons an escape from the jarring discord caused by a fast-paced, modern society. The resort is quiet and tranquil and exudes an ambiance of antiquity. This is evident in all aspects of the resort’s operation, including its architecture, which captures Isla Paradiso’s rich, historic past. Alcohol is prohibited outside the restaurant and gambling venues. This strictly enforced policy translates to fewer altercations and more families enjoying wholesome fun on the beach. Aside from rescuing the occasional child who wanders too far into the surf and calming panicking parents, Van’s new job is free from anxiety. If not for the discouraging circumstances surrounding both Benita and Skyler, his life has become essentially stress-free.

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A surprise phone call from Corinth late one afternoon serves to remedy this respite. While not wanting to cause any undue worry for Van, Corinth communicates a time-sensitive matter they must discuss. The du Pont family has decided to visit Isla Paradiso …today. Corinth had only learned about the unannounced trip himself a few hours ago. The family matriarch, Moira du Pont, was quite clear about her reason for traveling. She wants to meet Van personally. This is extremely unusual, as Madame du Pont is well over a century old and has not traveled for decades. Van is both thrilled and terrified at the prospect of finally meeting members of the du Pont family.

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The unannounced visit is already enough of a distraction on its own. When Van learns that Madame du Pont insisted upon lodging at the “Sparkling Sands” resort, his stomach begins to churn anew with anxiety. Van is certain that Omar will embellish lavishly upon his version of the scandal that had cost both he and Skyler their jobs and banned them from the property. Corinth attempted to make contact with Enzo and urge them to reconsider their lodging. It was no use, however. Madame du Pont had become fascinated with an exhibit containing archeological and cultural artifacts from Isla Paradiso; accessible exclusively by Sparkling Sands resort VIP guests. Van reluctantly agrees to meet Corinth at the resort, but can’t help but feel a large measure of uneasiness.

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After arriving, Van Listens to Corinth recount some of his more memorable encounters with the unusual and eccentric du Pont matriarch. This helps to ease the tension until Omar arrives, presumably to greet his wealthy and prestigious guests. Omar makes his presence known by hovering just within eavesdropping distance. His only communication with the men comes in the form of a threat to run Van off the property accompanied by a police escort, in spite of Madame du Pont’s specific request that he be present at her arrival. Van flatly disregards the statement, evoking his close relationship with Constable Dias; further observing Omar’s sad deficiency of testicular fortitude renders him incapable of removing Van himself. The trite response is extremely out of character for Van and it causes Corinth to swallow a fit of spontaneous laughter. Omar turns on his heal and resumes a smug vigil for his guests’ arrival.

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Omar is quick to descend upon the limousine as it arrives. He quickly comes to regret his overzealousness when the passenger door swings violently open, striking Omar with a painful sounding “whump!”, while expelling an excessively excitable young woman. She races from the limousine out onto the observation area to absorb the spectacular ocean view. Omar is left stuttering and speechless when Enzo shoves a large-denomination simoleon bill into his hand, directing him to take good care of the luggage. Van’s gaze shifts from the curious young woman to Enzo and Corinth.

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The two men have exchanged mutually urgent and puzzled expressions of bewilderment. The limousine drives off a few moments later with a dented door, emptied of passengers, and bereft of the venerable Moira du Pont. Corinth excuses himself for a moment and walks toward Enzo, then to a slightly recessed alcove near the reception area. The men speak quietly and anxiously in French, both gesturing wildly toward the young woman several times. They leave the conversation appearing no less confused than they were beforehand. Van expresses his concern, asking if there is a problem.

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Before Enzo is able to introduce himself, the young woman glides up to stand beside Van. Her unique voice dances on the air like a sweet, Irish hymn. She scolds Enzo for completely ignoring Van while he palavers with old friends. She, on the other hand, will not be so rude. Before Enzo is able to intervene, Moira du Pont introduces herself with a full and proper formal greeting. Enzo rests his face in his hand while Corinth stands speechless and dumbstruck.

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Enzo finds himself in the rather uncomfortable position of explaining how Madame Moira du Pont was unable to make the journey given her frail health. Enzo’s newly adopted daughter, Moira du Pont, asked to come in her place. Rest assured; any physical resemblance or similarity in speech, behavior, and name, of course, are all completely coincidental.

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The quartet shares brunch on a scenic patio overlooking the beach. Van apologizes several times as drunken acts of lewdness transpire nearby.

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Moira assures Van that such displays are not uncommon in France. Behaviors such as these are now commonplace, but he must not allow himself to become discouraged or saddened because of it. Similar to living in a run-down house, one must see humankind’s potential rather than its flaws. If the foundation is sound, there is no need to condemn the entire structure just because it has fallen into disrepair. With the right skills, patience, and effort; and some measure of love; it can be restored into a beautiful home once again. One must take care, however, about whom or what is allowed entry across the threshold as to avoid any further deterioration. A long and awkward silence follows Moira’s odd soliloquy, which Enzo finally dispells by paying the check and cheerfully suggesting they visit the museum Madame Moira had wanted to see so badly.

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Van had been an employee at the resort for years but never once visited the exhibit for himself. Omar kept a very strict VIP guest admittance policy on the museum. It had actually become something of a running joke among employees, who conjectured that the word “museum” was simply a euphemism for some manner of brothel. Upon finally entering, Van is truly awestruck by the impressive collection of artifacts dating back to the island’s aboriginal history. All wide assortment of items sits on display, from clay pots to ancient tools, old documents, colonial religious artifacts, and artwork spanning hundreds of years. Moira’s newfound infatuation with Van has become evident in that she has not left his side since arriving.

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She is an odd young woman, and talkative; but not in the typical sense of the word. Her voice possesses certain a musical quality that Van finds uncommonly attractive. She often speaks in riddles and metaphors, as though trying to simplify her own impossibly complex thoughts. Van contemplates this curiosity while supplementing the tour guide’s monotone script with his own historical anecdotes and legends as they were told to him by the many locals he has befriended. Van expresses his anger at the idea of keeping such a collection away from the people it would benefit most.

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As they exit the museum, Moira thanks Van for the fascinating tour and makes a point of agreeing with him. She did not want to make mention inside the exhibit about her observation of an odd inconsistency. A number of mismatched documents had been included with the aboriginal literature and poetry. They were all similar, perhaps a dozen or so, with names and colonial-aged legal jargon written on them. Her guess is that the documents are some manner of late-imperial licensure or affidavits and clearly did not belong with the aboriginal poems; some of which, incidentally, were quite beautiful. She’s already memorized the stanzas that were on display and she would love to recite the translations if Van would care to hear them.

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Van responds with an uncertain chuckle, asking how it is possible that she would know how to read aboriginal Isla Paradiso literature. Moira clucks her tongue playfully, explaining what a brilliant history teacher Enzo has been. Still, she finds it curious how musty, old legal documents would have found their way hidden among a private collection of ancient verse.

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What she finds most interesting, however, is that the name Gonçalves appeared prominently on one of those documents; and unless she’s mistaken, Gonçalves is the surname name of Van’s best friend, Benita.

Part 15 – the light of truth and love

Warm currents of heavy, humid air gusting from a nearby tropical thunderstorm swirl throughout Isla Paradiso’s old, colonial cathedral.

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Benita inhales deep breaths of sweet, rain-scented air. Obscure details, such as the smell of balsam permeating through the old church and the sound of towering palms swaying in the wind, had escaped her conscious thoughts. Now those details seem much more conspicuous having been absent from them for the better part of a year.

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She has come here to pray. With the exception of Padre Nuno, who had emerged from his office shortly after she arrived, she is completely alone inside the cavernous sanctuary. The aged minister had mumbled a quiet blessing in her direction while passing, then knelt in a nearby pew to recite a rosary. The sound of his hushed devotional becomes another of those small things she had mentally pushed aside for the sake of her ambition. Prayer has always been the place Benita goes when her own solutions fail to resolve the full scope of her troubles. Sometimes she prays to offer praise and glory. Her deliverance from a dangerous situation, while clearly the result of human skill and decisiveness, had been precipitated by something far greater; and for that she is thankful.

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Alfonzo Taxmoore’s political path is littered with the corpses of sims who have obstructed his concept of progress. Benita could very easily have become one of them. She’d been inconsolable for days after learning Marcus, the man with whom she had chosen to finally surrender herself, was killed during a home burglary. They killed him – looking for her. Nothing was produced as a result of their lovemaking that night, though she would have gladly welcomed it. Marcus would have been a wonderful father and loving husband. She would likely be sharing his bed at this very moment …if only she had chosen to retreat from her staunch, moral high ground. She cried for Ann, who would have lived to see morning had Benita gone back to the hotel with her. These conflicts, among others, have clouded the joy of returning home. And though they weigh heavily on her soul, they are not the reason she came to pray.

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Today’s prayers are for discernment; a voice of reason to slice through her inner conflict and turmoil. She had spent the last year of her life truly believing in a vast conspiracy by fair-skinned sims to subjugate and undermine dark-skinned sims. She had become convinced that her most cherished and dearest friend from childhood was her enemy. She had been programmed to believe that he must be punished for being born with light-colored skin. Today …she prays about Van. Even now, she struggles to look at him with the same adoration she once had. She blames him for the cumulative troubles of the peoples of Isla Paradiso…

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THEY MUST ATONE FOR THEIR TRANSGRESSIONS! THEY MUST RELINQUISH OUR MONEY, OUR PROPERTY, OUR PROSPERITY! WE WILL STEP ON, WE WILL STEP OVER, WE WILL STEP THROUGH UNTIL WE HAVE TAKEN OUR RIGHTFUL PLACE AT THE TOP!

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Padre Nuno hesitates momentarily when Benita cries out inside the silence of the empty church for deliverance from Alfonzo’s poisonous thrall. The aged priest quietly moves from his place and approaches Benita, then sits next to her on the pew. He begins a prayer of contrition appealing for the grace of forgiveness. Benita joins him, confessing her sins, and asking to be shown the way through the dark thicket of mendacity and hatred and into the light of truth and love.

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France…

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Enzo du Pont rolls his eyes impatiently while his great-great… grandmother, Moira, totters slowly through the sitting room straightening table coverings and adjusting the perfectly arranged row of photographs depicting her many descendants. She stops for a moment and regards the oldest photo; that of Gerard du Pont, the first du Pont to settle in this region hundreds of years ago. Enzo warns her that their flight to Isla Paradiso will leave without them. Moira chortles in disagreement. The airplane won’t be going anywhere until they arrive. Enzo shakes his head in defeat. It is no use arguing wither her. Regardless of how crazy her wild, senile statements may sound, she has never once been wrong about these kinds of observations.

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Moira completes her tidying of the sitting room then assess the state of her own appearance. Shaking her head and clucking her tongue, Moira shuffles to a nearby mirror and begins to mumble. She’s been wearing this far too long and she needs to change before they leave. Enzo exclaims a long, exasperated bellow. What she’s wearing now is fine. She can purchase an entirely new wardrobe once they get to the Island. Enzo regards his wristwatch indignantly as his face turns a dark shade of red. And that may never happen unless they leave right now!

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Enzo stiffens as a chill grips his entire body in reaction to the assertive, maternal glare Moira sends in his direction. Despite her remarkably advanced years, she has not lost any intensity in her icy, blue eyes. She continues slowly toward the stairs insisting it will only take a moment. She calls for him to be ready to leave as soon as she has changed. Enzo breathes an impatient sigh and moves into the buffet to sit. Forbid the thought of actually sitting in the sitting room. They’d be here another two hours whilst she straightens the whole place out again.

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Moira is an extraordinarily old woman. She has resided in this house for more than a century and has inexplicably outlived two entire generations; most likely just to spite Enzo…

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The sound of rapid thumps advancing down the steps causes Enzo to start. Nothing good can have come from such a sound, so he leaps from his chair and runs through the foyer and into the great room where antique stairs lead up to the living quarters. Shock and dismay cause Enzo to stop in his tracks.

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Standing before him is a much smaller …and younger …Moira. She smiles sweetly and curtsies. Dumbfounded, Enzo can do nothing but stare at the beautiful, young woman. Her mane of golden hair shines and shimmers like burnished gold in the filtered sunlight. It captures and holds his attention for a long, awkward time before he manages to stutter, “Gram… maa… maa… ma… Moria?”

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The mysterious, young Moira whisks past Enzo. She calls behind to him, speaking with a thick, Irish brogue which is much more pronounced now, then it was a few moments ago. Addressing him as “Papa”, she scolds him about standing around gawking while their airplane threatens to leave without them. He’d better drive quickly unless he wants them to miss their flight to Isla Paradiso…

see Chapter 9.19 – Sunset

Part 14 – worth more than flesh

 

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Warren and Benita travel from the suburbs of SimCity toward a sleepy desert community named Strangetown.

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Having served a storied military career and worked tirelessly on the Pleasantview police force, Warren has managed to put together an impressive collection of influential friends and associates. Lists such as these are best leveraged sparingly. The current situation certainly seems weighty enough to solicit a measure of undocumented assistance, however. Warren’s acquaintance is a high-ranking officer working inside “Area 15”, a semi-secret military base located outside of Strangetown. The officer seems agreeable, if not enthusiastic, about helping to knock Taxmoore from on top of the hill.

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Coincidently, Isla Paradiso’s military had asked “Area 15” for help with an investigation they are conducting. Benita and Warren are given quiet passage onboard a C-130 cargo plane along with a group of specialists bound for the remote, tropical island. Booking a flight would have been much more simple, of course. With any luck, however, Benita will be back home before either Alfonzo or Joan Mosley are able to piece together what happened.

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The blooming friendship between Warren’s daughter Skyler and her roommate, Van, relies heavily on trust. She had orchestrated the entire operation from its inception.

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Skyler finds herself resenting the demand for secrecy regarding Benita’s whereabouts. Van had learned from Benita’s family that she had vanished. The family has been nearly hysterical with apprehension. And though Van hides it well, his own anxiety does not escape her attention. Skyler makes a point of explaining the entire situation to him as soon her father and Benita have safely boarded the plane. Van is not overly emotional and has always been great about sharing his thoughts with her. She is understandably worried when he withdraws into himself upon hearing the news. Comforting Van is obviously her first concern, but doing so would most certainly disquiet her restless libido. Skyler eventually decides it’s best to give him whatever personal space he requires. Though she does insist that he come with her to the Gonçalves home to meet her father when they arrive.

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Van eventually relents and agrees. He’s there with Skyler and the Gonçalves tribe when a military vehicle carrying Benita and Warren arrives. Skyler notes the equivocally brief eye contact between Van and Benita before she unceremoniously disappears into the house.

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Van remains outside with Warren, suffering the typical father/boyfriend debrief. Warren eventually smiles, shakes Van’s hand, then claps him enthusiastically on the shoulder. Skyler looks away wistfully. She had hoped, for some reason, that her dad wouldn’t like him. She leaves the two men to bond, wandering away to collect her thoughts and build up her courage. What comes next isn’t going to be easy.

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She receives a text message from her father an hour later, stating that he’s heading to a resort to make tonight’s reservations. Skyler finds Van outside the Gonçalves home, in the yard talking with Benita’s kid sister Natalia. As she approaches, she can hear the little girl attempting to convince Van that mermaids are real. According to her research, they walk around Isla Paradiso during the day then secretly swim back to the ocean at night. Van listens attentively, promising to look harder for them the next time he goes diving. Van notices Skyler’s approaching but barely registers a smile. Natalia squeals with excitement, begging Van to let her go with him. Van smirks and then points toward Skyler. She has to be “that big” before she can go with him. Natalia eyes Skyler suspiciously then whispers loudly enough for Skyler to hear. She does not like “that lady”. Van nods, simultaneously winking at Skyler. He doesn’t like her either, but he still needs to talk with her. Natalia smiles mischievously, then runs toward the house. She wrinkles her nose and sticks out her tongue at Skyler as she passes, tattling, “He doesn’t like you.”

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Skyler laughs while casually approaching Van and watching Natalia skip into the house. He had remained outside the whole evening, while Benita has remained inside. Skyler had hoped to make this a clean break. She does her best to smile, asking him about the situation. Van shrugs, explaining that Natalia’s got quite a little crush going. Skyler laughs spontaneously. Natalia’s crush is obvious. What she was asking about, rather, was the reason why Van is outside and not with Benita. Van exhales loudly, his body language betraying a simmering turmoil. Van’s voice is measured and tense. What’s the point? It wasn’t Benita’s choice to be here.

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She was extracted from the situation for her own safety. If things hadn’t gone awry, where would she be now? Van swings angrily at a broad palm leaf in the path of his pacing and connects with a loud “pop!”. Skyler flinches out of reflex, recalling past video shoots where she had been in the position of the palm leaf. She asks flatly whether he has considered asking Benita that question. Van scoffs, sarcastically acting out his side of the conversation, “Oh, hey! Too bad about your boss abducting your kid sister and wanting to murder you, right? By the way, about that whole getting dumped thing – are we good now?”

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Skyler presses her lips together and sets her jaw impatiently. It’s awkward, yes, but no reason to act like a jerk. Van exhales loudly again, then covers his face with his hand and apologizes. Skyler’s heart sinks. She has never seen him so conflicted…it’s tearing him up. She quietly approaches Van then tentatively touches his bicep; dreading what must follow. Van says quietly he has something to tell her. It’s something they’ve never really talked about before. Skyler recoils slightly. She knows where this is leading. Both she and Van had toyed with the idea of becoming serious and committed, but neither has been willing to make the final push. He begins to speak, but Skyler places her index finger on his lips and silences him with a gentle hush. She smiles sadly while gazing into his troubled eyes. He had not spoken the words, but she returns the sentiment regardless,

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“I love you too, Van…”

She continues in a whisper, but not before savoring those precious words. He saved her life that first night. She had contemplated suicide before but had always lacked the resolve. If Van had not found her and taken her in when he did… Skyler’s voice trails off, shuddering. There are so many other reasons to love him, she’d be here all night listing them. He pulled her out of the filth, cleaned her off, and guarded her tirelessly against falling back in. He knew where she’d been and what she’d done. Still, he peered into her soul …and cherished her. He helped her understand she is worth more than flesh.

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The honest truth is that she is not ready for a romantic relationship or any relationship that might lead to intimacy. It was intimacy, or the illusion of it, that nearly consumed her. Skyler turns her gaze to the ocean. The little girl who pressed “play” has been neglected for too long. Skyler wants to get to know her again. One thing she does remember about that little girl, is that she doesn’t like sharing. That doesn’t bode well for a guy who always gives so much of himself. Reflecting upon their many deep conversations, Skyler recounts the time he had mentioned wanting a family. Skyler chuckles. She doesn’t even like kids. Just watching Van interact with Natalia a few minutes ago was irritating. What kind of mother would she be, constantly annoyed with her own children for enjoying a close relationship with their father?

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Her ambivalence toward children may eventually fade as she comes to terms with her own childhood. Unfortunately, starting a family with Van before that happens would be a terrible mistake. It’s too bad, though, because their kids would have been unbelievably gorgeous. She bumps him playfully and earns a sly smirk. What she needs from Van is exactly what he has been giving her. She needs his strength to lean on; a reminder that companionship and love can exist without intimacy. She cannot afford to forget what that looks like.

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Skyler takes a deep breath and plunges head-first into the part of the conversation she has been dreading. She and her father are staying at a resort tonight. They’re taking a flight to Pleasantview in the morning. She needs to recharge and reconnect with family. When Van fails to respond, she fills his awkward silence by sharing a new ambition. Brenda and her father were both impressed with the work she had done in this case. She wants to keep going. She has experienced the horrors of human trafficking from the inside. She knows how it works, who the targets are, and the methods employed to lure vulnerable young women away. Armed with experience, she should be able to inflict untold damage both before and after trafficking occurs. Just as she was saved, she wants to devote herself to rescuing young women from those same horrors. Van nods approvingly and offers sober encouragement. She is going to be formidable.

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A taxi pulls up to the front of the house, prompting Skyler to release a small sigh. This is her ride. She leans into Van and hugs him tightly around his waist. He reciprocates and extends his arms around her back and shoulders. After standing a long time like this, Skyler releases her grip, affirming they are both going to be okay – it’s all going to be good. Van smiles and commends her for turning her life around these past several months. For what it’s worth – he’s proud of her. She rests her forehead on his chest then turns and walks silently toward the cab.

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She climbs into the car then disappears along with the taxi’s tail lights around the first turn toward Pleasantview.

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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.

Part 12 – just the messenger

Benita wakes to blue and red strobes illuminating her bedroom. While not a nightly occurrence, police activity in this part of town is not entirely unusual.

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Occasionally there will be activity on her street and she’ll wake to the sound of sirens and sims arguing with police. Something about tonight feels different, however. She had been unable to sleep after making love with Marcus, so she borrowed a comfortable pair of boxers and worn dress shirt, then readied herself for the drive home. When he expressed  concern, she delicately explained that she had a personal hygiene matter that needed attending. Thankfully, he understood without needing further clarification.

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He did ask about her emotional state, however, and offered to stay with her if she thought it would help. She gently reassured him, then asked if he would pick her up for church Sunday morning. His smile spoke a million words. She smiles, recalling the kiss and embrace she received before departing. It came from a man who was falling in love.

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Benita was mentally and physically drained after finally arriving home. She was ready to collapse into bed; this time with the intent of finally getting some sleep. She wishes, now, that she had not remembered to turn on her phone. Alfonzo had called and left a message while she was with Marcus. He expressed his profound disappointment over her failure to embrace Ann’s loving overtures. He had made the situation unquestionably clear to her, hadn’t he? A staunch political ally had asked for Benita by name to accompany her on a date and then presumably back to her hotel afterward. In that capacity, Benita failed miserably. It was a costly but forgivable misunderstanding.

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The revelation that Benita had withheld information regarding her association with Van Stacpoole, however, was a much more grievous and unfortunate matter. He lamented how Joan had tried to warn him that she might be lying about the lifeguard. But neither of them had expected Benita would be romantically involved with him. Just the thought of such a beautiful, dark-skinned woman capitulating to somebody like Van was …unthinkable.

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Benita knows Alfonzo. She also knows that he doesn’t get angry – he retaliates. He explained calmly that she would very likely come to regret lying to him. But there was still an opportunity for him to be convinced that it was motivated by humiliation and shame over being exploited by the lifeguard’s privilege. That would, of course, require proof that she has cut all emotional ties by submitting herself to mandatory victim counseling until she comes to fully understand and appreciate the nature of her oppression. He instructed her to make use of the weekend to contemplate her mistakes. He would talk more with her Monday morning at the office about disloyalty – and some new incentives to discourage any potential recidivism.

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Benita stirs restlessly, then quietly emerges from her bed – cautiously peeking outside through narrows slits formed between window blinds. A loud rap at the front door startles her badly enough to expel a sharp squeal. Benita peeks through the peephole and sees a plain clothes police officer holding his badge to the door. She hesitates, then jumps and squeals again when the officer raps on her door with his nightstick. Benita hesitantly opens the door. The officer neither smiles nor frowns when he states her name with a questioning inflection. Benita nods, asking why he’s here in the earliest morning hours. The officer assures her she has done nothing wrong but needs her to identify a body. He asks her to get dressed and prepare to come with him.

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Benita had never heard of police waking anyone up in the dead of night to identify remains. Still, her stomach sinks. Unless this is some kind of deception, somebody she knows has died. A picture of Marcus forms in her mind. During one of their more intimate conversations, Marcus had warned Benita about Joan Mosley. She was beginning to develop an unhealthy obsession with Benita. According to Marcus, the people she singles out like this typically end up in a morgue.

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Benita rides with the officer in the front seat of his squad car. She possesses an unusually empathetic nature and has become quite good at reading body language. She recognizes an uncomfortable level of nervous agitation collecting in the detective’s shoulders, neck, and at the corners of his mouth. It is enough so that she asks him about it. He frowns, then introduces himself as “Sam”. He apologizes for having to get her out of bed this early in the morning. He then goes on to explain how he was contacted a few hours ago by Isla Paradiso police. There has been a… he pauses to select a suitable word, then settles for “situation”. It involves Benita’s youngest sister. Benita’s head and gut swirl with apprehension and anxiety, What happened to Natalia? What’s going on?

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Sam switches off the lights and siren while explaining the situation with Natalia. He then discloses that Ann Morris was found dead from an overdose in her hotel room late last night. It happened shortly after Ann contacted a lone-wolf media outlet known for openly criticizing Governor Taxmoore. Brenda Dias, his contact on Isla Paradiso, believes the two events are surely related. She also believes that Benita’s situation requires immediate and discreet imminent peril mitigation. Sam is inclined to agree with her assessment.

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Benita sits stunned and unable to speak. Sam continues by verbally checking off Taxmoore’s other disposable acquaintances; including Linda DuPont. The Governor and his entourage are as corrupt and dangerous as any street gang. The only difference is that Taxmoore commits his crimes under the pretense of “progress” and with the blessing of his big media advocates. Sam presents Benita with two options. He can bring her back to the precinct for questioning, as he was instructed to do by his sergeant. If this were to happen, he will very likely be driving a friend to identify her remains later today. Alternatively, he can give her a new phone and take her to a vehicle she will use to drive outside of town to a safe house established by Constable Dias in Isla Paradiso. If that is her choice, he will report that she was not home when he arrived.

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Benita stares indecisively at Sam as though looking to him for the right answer. His stoic frown provides no insight. Benita has known Brenda Dias her entire life and has sung choir with her at church. She makes her decision known by hesitantly handing Sam her phone. He tosses it out of the window and onto the freeway where it promptly bursts into a hundred shards of glass and plastic. Too shocked to speak, she says nothing. He hands her a newer model smartphone in exchange. Nervously, she asks about the safe house.

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The new phone has been programmed with contact information for an Isla Paradiso police officer. The officer will have details about the safehouse location. Sam tells Benita that he is, quite literally, just the messenger. The less he knows, the better it will be for everybody involved. He is personally taking quite a big risk. But given the nature of her situation, he felt it was the right thing to do. Sam looks around before pulling into a parking lot obscured from the road by trees and a billboard. He stops beside an old, rusty compact vehicle then gives Benita a small stack of cash for gas. Using bank cards is strictly off limits. Sam instructs her to drive to the outskirts of town and maintain a communication blackout. After she is out of range of the city cell towers, about fifty miles, she should call the Isla Paradiso contact, and nobody else.

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Skyler waits patiently beside her squad car for the phone call to come.

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Brenda had approached Skyler for help after learning that Benita was in danger. More specifically, she wanted Skyler to personally to reach out to her father for assistance. He is a well-respected cop in Pleasantview and has experience with just about every imaginable form of criminal activity. If anybody had trusted connections they could use to help Benita, it was him. Skyler was understandably hesitant. She burnt her bridges a couple years ago after getting kicked out. How would her father respond to “Skyler, the porn queen” asking for a favor? Skyler doesn’t know Brenda very well, but she knew enough to realize when the woman had reached her limit of “foolishness”. She didn’t care whether it was “porn queen”, “police officer”, or “circus clown” Skyler, as long as one of them made the phone call.

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Brenda was right, of course. It was the first conversation she’d had with her father in nearly two years. Hearing his happy voice, actually crying with joy, was possibly the most amazing feeling she had ever experienced. He expressed his immeasurable pride in the efforts she’d made to steer her life in a more positive direction. They talked for at least an hour before she finally asked the favor, which he gladly honored. The call was important in more ways than one. Not only had she reconciled with her father and secured the help required to keep Benita safe. It also left Skyler with a sense that Pleasantview was not so far away after all.

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Skyler snaps back to the present and answers her phone immediately when finally does ring. Benita is understandably confused and perplexed. First, Skyler attempts to calm her, mentioning Brenda’s name and apologizing for the clandestine pickup. Skyler introduces herself after Benita’s barrage of unfocused questions …yes THAT Skyler. She thinks back to news reports covering Linda DuPont’s death misidentifying her as Van’s girlfriend. Between those reports and updates from Benita’s family, Skyler had fully expected that Benita would make the connection. She promises they’ll talk candidly later.

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Skyler explains that Natalia had been taken from the home during a late-night break-in. It was a flawless entry carried out by a professional. Still, the resourceful little girl was able to escape. Thankfully, Van knew to look for her at the church. Natalia was able to provide an amazingly detailed description of her abductor. Skyler’s father quickly identified the woman as a former tactical ops specialist, now hired thug – Joan Mosley; currently employed by Alfonzo Taxmoore.

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Benita’s gasp of surprise is audible. She’ll freely admit that she lied to Alfonzo, but she does not understand why he would resort to murder and kidnapping. Skyler asks Benita to think carefully about any information she may have seen or handled that would have spooked Taxmoore into doing something so drastic. Benita tells her that she can’t think of anything, but that she can hardly remember her name at the moment. Skyler reassures her that it will all work out and that her father has agreed to assist. He is driving from Pleasantview to the safe house location. She just needs to stay out of sight and off the internet. No email, text messages, or social media and no phone conversations with anybody except her until this blows over. Skyler sends the safe house address, her father’s contact information and picture, then tells Benita just to watch television and relax by the pool for a couple of days. There is plenty of food in the house. She can help herself to whatever she needs.

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Before disconnecting, Benita anxiously asks about Van.  Skyler had hoped to avoid this topic of conversation. Many different responses buzz through her mind, most of which are vulgar and insulting. There is no point in taking Benita to task at this very moment. Skyler has made her share of mistakes and has come out relatively unscathed thanks in large part to the man this woman once called her boyfriend. The best way to avoid an unnecessary confrontation is to simply speak the truth. The problem is that Skyler had not been expecting the truth to sting so badly,

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He misses you.

Part 11 – a good strategy

Thirty-five years ago, Isla Paradiso was a small community enjoying an existence free from major criminal activity.

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A lifetime served on the island’s small police force has given Brenda Dias a unique perspective into her native home. Until recently, she believed that every offense had a positive and amicable resolution. Adopting this approach for the larger part of her career has shaped her into more of an arbitrator than a disciplinarian. Finding ways to achieve harmony within the community has always been more important to her than filling prison cells. Much has changed, however – and most of it recently. The nature of law enforcement on the island, and her role specifically, has forcefully evolved to accommodate unprecedented shifts in both her culture and her community. As a result, her tenure as Isla Paradiso’s Chief Constable has not provided the same air of requiescence many of her predecessors had enjoyed at this stage in their careers.

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Self-destructive behaviors, often marked by deeply disturbing worldviews, impede her ability to connect with perpetrators and victims alike. Unfortunately, the supply of both has been plentiful. After the big resorts moved in, Isla Paradiso became (among other things) a staging area for human trafficking. Gullible girls and young women are easily lured to this tropical paradise with sensational, online promotions guaranteeing pornographic stardom. Many end up prostitutes. Some fall victim to drug abuse or foul play while others disappear completely.

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Almost two years have passed since Skyler Gilscarbo came to Isla Paradiso under these exact same pretenses. From the moment she arrived, she became hopelessly entangled in a corrupt web of prostitution and pornography. Skyler’s father is a well-respected police officer in Pleasantview. After having completely lost track of his daughter’s whereabouts, he called the precinct pleading for help. He was so desperate to “fix” the situation, that he jeopardized his career, his reputation, and quite possibly his own life, by dropping dangerous names and asserting publically that Skyler was being held against her will. Brenda already knew where to look for Skyler. A palatial compound located on a remote, private island had become a well-known playground for these kinds of activities. Offshore detectives observed the island for months from unmarked fishing boats, waiting to find any small misstep or breach of international law. Positive identification of a missing teen who had been kidnapped from her home provided that opportunity. The raid was executed jointly by the local military base and officers from the precinct. Though the teen had been secured safely, she was found drugged and performing in front of cameras. The raid turned up more missing young women, illicit drugs and weapons, and a myriad of other criminal activities.

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Skyler was among those young women who were found. She struggled for months afterwards, and eventually fell back into the company of adult filmmakers. After landing herself in jail on prostitution charges, Skyler’s father again asked for Brenda’s help. She had been poised to act in that capacity when, from out of nowhere, an unlikely sim turned Skyler’s world upside-down. The resulting transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. Skyler is still very young and is just now beginning to understand that her worth is measured by far more than just her reproductive assets.

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Coincidence, more than anything, brings Brenda to Van’s simple, beachfront home. Skyler had taken a job at the warehouse, seemingly unaware of the reputation it had procured. In her humble quest for work, Skyler was hired on without fully understanding the job she was expected to fulfill. Thankfully, she has inherited much of her father’s moxie. Not only had she recognized the situation for what it was, but she remained cool and casual while providing regular reports back to the precinct. As an inside informant, Skyler has proven invaluable. Brenda knew it would be only a matter of time before organization leaders discovered the source of the leak. Brenda knew immediately when the spigot of information had been turned off. She also knew that it was time to offer Skyler a job.

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Today’s visit has dispelled any prior suspicions Brenda had formed regarding intimacy between Skyler and Van Stacpoole inside their cozy living arrangement. She has known Van since he was a child and has been blessed to watch him and Benita travel through their young lives together. She has also watched how Van interacts with Skyler and is left with the sense that he is still very much in love with Benita – if not painfully so. Van is a breed from a bygone era; a man who not only stands by his ideals but also lives by them. Circumstance had united these two young people at exactly the right time; two hikers briefly sharing a difficult section of the trail together so that neither has to walk it alone. It is a compelling friendship not completely void of attraction, though tempered by clearly defined and respected boundaries. Brenda can’t help but wonder what will happen when the trail splits and their paths take them in different directions again. Will they recognize and be willing to accept it as such?

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With badge, uniform, and service weapon in-hand, Brenda welcomes Skyler to the precinct. Coupled with her newly ignited passion for exposing and dismantling those responsible for preying upon women, Skyler’s toughness will shape her into a formidable asset to any law enforcement agency. Obviously, Brenda would prefer she stay here. With retirement in easy view, Brenda can think of no stronger candidate to replace her. Skyler would be ideal. Instinct, however, suggests the scenario is unlikely to unfold in her favor.

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Skyler and Van celebrate with an evening out together for dinner, music, and stargazing on the beach behind his house. Van has shattered every preconception Skyler had formed about the male species. Spending time with Van and his friends has provided her with the sense that the greater majority of men generally go about their lives not completely fixated on having sex with her. Men she knew at the warehouse, though driven by criminal greed, seemed fully capable of resisting (if not being completely put off by) her overt indiscriminations. As it turns out, there are more decent men, like Van and her father, than not.

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They sit together, much closer than typical, fascinated by the sky and marveling at the appearance of greenish ribbons of light illuminating nearby clouds; bathing the couple in a queer, unnatural luminescence. Their minds, being immersed in other thoughts, do not stop to wonder about the cause of this unusual display. Skyler’s epiphany about Van (and men, generally) is accompanied by a subtle change in the way she interacts with him. While not unwelcome, Van suspects that she may be warming to the idea of entering a committed relationship, rather than simply trolling for her next endorphin fix. The problem for Van is that the latter is simple enough to guard against. Combined with his own feelings of attraction toward Skyler, any reciprocation of the former on her part exponentially raises the likelihood that they will become romantic. The important question then becomes, are either of them ready for it?

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Conversations between young sims are often apt to meander toward plans for the future. It is still early when their conversation eventually does so. As though reading his thoughts under the odd, mint-colored sky, Skyler breathes a content and thoughtful sigh. It is unlike her to hesitate or stumble on any topic. Her current stream of consciousness appears to have given her some pause, however. After a moment, she asks Van what he is going to do now that he owns the property outright. Van is careful to consider the intent of her question before answering. The one benefit of talking with Benita was that he never had to worry about hidden meanings or wonder about implied context. Van has learned that conversations with Skyler often times require careful attention and consideration. Gauging her mood is a crucial indicator for success. More times than not, he responds with a question as a means of digging deeper into her thought process. This seems the prudent approach for the moment, so he gently wonders why she’s asking. It’s a good strategy, as it turns out.

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She voices her recollection about a conversation they’d once had about why he and Benita never married. With nowhere to live and lack of meaningful employment, they were both concerned about stability. Van nods. This was mostly correct, but Benita had been far more pragmatic about the subject than Van. He would have married her and lived in a straw hut for all he cared. Skyler’s next words uncover the intent of her original question, which Van identifies shortly before she speaks. She asks plainly whether he intends to share the news with Benita.

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Police sirens, which had begun wailing in the distance, are joined by the sudden and urgent ringing from both their phones. Van’s carefully constructed response is lost before he can speak it, evoking an exasperated grunt from Skyler. There is a much simpler answer to her question, however. Van pulls her close then kisses her tenderly. Kissing Skyler has become a very enjoyable distraction. Benita never cared much for kissing, and even when they did, he did not feel the same electric surge that accompanies the experience with Skyler. They continue like this for some time until reaching a sensual tipping point, which is signaled by Van’s heart racing and Skyler purring her quiet approval into his ear.

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Both phones, which had stopped, begin ringing again. Police sirens have also continued in the distance, though one sounds a bit closer now. Skyler’s unreadable expression gives no indication whether his unspoken response to her question struck any chord with her, good or bad. She smirks a half-smile then gestures toward their phones. Brenda is calling for Skyler. She answers while maintaining eye contact with Van, apologizing with her facial expression. Van smiles then nods and regards his own phone, which has started ringing a third time.

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Skyler dashes toward the house just as Van answers to the voice of a panicked woman on the other end of the call. After a few moments, he recognizes Luiza as the source of the hysterical tirade. Van is able to calm her down enough to understand that Natalia has vanished from the home. They’ve looked for an hour and nobody can find her. Van checks his watch and sees it is well after midnight. The fiery passion from moments ago is instantly doused. He thinks back to the night of Filipe’s party. Van casts his gaze upward to regard the bizarre aurora silently spilling across the evening sky, remembering Natalia’s odd remarks about “aliens”. Van offers to help Luiza look for Natalia. He slips on his shirt while racing toward the house, tracing Skyler’s footsteps from moments before.

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He finds Skyler skipping down the stairs as he enters. She has changed into her new police uniform, which perfectly accentuates her already perfect figure. Van’s gawking evokes a mischievous smile from Skyler. She raises an eyebrow then mumbles something about a better use for the uniform, later. She floats toward Van, as if drawn by a magnet, then kisses him firmly on the lips. A squad car arrives outside and she leaves quickly, saying that they still have a lot to talk about.

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The unprecedented aurora has drawn just about every resident of Isla Paradiso out of bed and into the streets. Skyler was called to help restore calm and get everybody back inside their homes. Van had learned about the Aurora Borealis at school, though never had the opportunity to actually experience one. Wondering why it would be visible so far as the equator boggles his mind. For a little girl fixated on aliens, the event may seem like some very special visitation.

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Van is relying heavily on gut instinct formed by the conversation he had with Natalia the night of Filipe’s birthday. The distance between Van’s house and the basilica is comparatively trivial, considering how far away it is from the Gonçalves household. The Basilica itself is hundreds of years old but has been very well maintained. Van walks around the outside of the building looking for an unlocked door. Toward the back of the massive structure, Van finds a section where two walls overlap almost invisibly, with a very narrow gap and a neatly concealed staircase between them.

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The stairs are steep, even for Van. He finds narrow doorway standing slightly ajar at the threshold of the stairs. Van is forced to slide sideways through the tiny door frame into a very cramped apartment. He activates the flashlight on his phone and bathes the space in naked, white light. With the exception of a desk and chair and a hand-crafted shelf filled with books, the place is empty. A small ladder leading to the roof catches his attention just as he hears a very odd electronic, mechanical whirring sound above his head. It is no more than five steps to the ladder and perhaps five steps up to the unlocked hatch above it.

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A figure silhouetted by the green tinted sky gently sets a smaller sim down onto the rooftop just as Van pokes his head through the hatch. He pulls himself up out of the hole using his upper body strength and gains a toehold on the ledge. When he is fully standing, Van announces himself by warning the figure away from the smaller sim, whom he subconsciously refers to as “Natalia…”

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Van is unable to see any detail through the darkness but is able to discern that the figure is attending to the smaller sim. Whether it is Natalia or not, Van feels the immediate urge to act.  The silhouetted figure, which Van can now identify as a slender, adult female, turns to him with alarm and fear.

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Her verbal outburst is unlike anything Van has ever heard before. He cocks his head inquisitively looking for facial features, but his attention is drawn instead to black, opalescent voids where her eyes should be. Before Van is able to react, the “woman” dissolves into a glowing mist of green and yellow sparks.

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Van rushes to the smaller sim, whom he quickly identifies as Natalia. She is groggy and barely awake, but seemingly unharmed. She stirs and opens her eyes and smiles sweetly upon seeing Van. She asks sleepily if he saw them. Van picks her up then carefully considers how to safely get her down the ladder and steps to the ground. He asks if she is able to walk. Natalia rubs her eyes and nods, then stands unsteadily. Van looks into her wandering and dilated eyes. What happened to her? Van calls for an ambulance, then carefully assists Natalia through a potentially dangerous series of obstacles.

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Police and emergency medical responders meet Van on the lawn of the Basilica. Skyler is first among them. She runs toward him wearing an unsettling expression. She tentatively places her hand on his chest and explains that she just finished taking a statement from Natalia’s mother. The home was broken into. When the family awoke both the perpetrator and Natalia were gone. Van casts his eyes to the ground in resentment. After a moment, Skyler touches his chin to regain his attention. She finds Van’s intense and hostile eyes. She has never seen him like this and it causes her to hesitate.

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She swallows hard, then continues. Something equally troubling happened a few hours ago. A wealthy woman with ties to Isla Paradiso was found dead in her hotel room from an apparent overdose. What’s troubling, is that she and Benita had attended a political fundraiser together a few hours beforehand. They dined and sat together during the banquet, but there had been some shouting after the event. Benita remained on site alone for quite some time after the deceased left; though she was not home when investigators arrived to ask questions early the next morning. Skyler’s gut tells her that the two events are almost certainly connected. She feels like something weird is going on, and whatever it is – Benita is caught in the middle of it.

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Van looks upward to see a black sky filled with stars. There is no sign of the aurora or any trace that it had ever happened at all. Skyler’s voice cracks slightly asking him what he saw up in the steeple. Van presses his lips together and shakes his head with frustration,

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I don’t know.

Part 10 – allow rage its victory

A sullen, doleful expression accompanies Benita’s tentative traversal between speaking into her phone then staring at it absently while contemplating a string of events that have congealed to form the absolute worst day of her life.

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A photo of Van stares lovingly back at her. Touching the screen, she whispers so quietly it is barely audible even to her, “Eu te amo, meu namorado lindo.” Whereas lust, greed, envy, and jealousy had all failed to tempt her over the course of her lifetime – pride had finally succeeded. Any guilt or regret she feels has been swallowed by anger. It was wrong for her to ignore Van for so long. It was also wrong for her to misdirect her indignation onto him. She had no right confronting him today as though the world’s problems, as she perceives them, are all somehow his responsibility. The awful truth is that she has only herself to blame for this situation. Now she must take care not to allow rage its victory, too.

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When Benita first met Alfonzo Taxmoore on Isla Paradiso, he revealed the concept that injustices are perpetuated by the privileged over the pigmented. His ideas resonated with her and she became easily drawn into his fold. Even before she left the island, she had become convinced that Van was complicit by virtue of his genetic lack of skin tone and biological predispositions alone. Van represents the enemy; a faceless, soulless, white, patriarchal anathema. He and the million others like him are the reason why people suffer. She stares wistfully at his photo again. How can this be true? She knows him and she loves him. He would remove his own shirt to cover anyone who was in need. The collision of conflicting thoughts and feelings has left her numb inside. Alfonzo claims to be motivated by love and tolerance …but this feels more like blind hatred, instead.

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Since joining Alfonzo, Benita has overachieved on every task and responsibility assigned to her. He once described her goal-oriented ambition as fearless and, at times, carnivorous. To reward her success, the governor had entrusted Benita with an important responsibility. Anne Morris is an influential woman who sits on the board of directors of a large conglomeration of hospitals. She was visiting SimCity to attend a political fund-raising banquet. Although Benita had never met the woman, she specifically asked for Benita to accompany her to the event. Alfonzo emphasized the need for diplomacy and warned Benita to be mindful of the fact that Ann’s expectations would likely involve more than a simple business engagement. He suggested that Benita should prepare for the event as though it were a date with the likelihood of an overnight rendezvous. There was no mistaking what Alfonzo was asking her to do.

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After initially balking at the idea, Alfonzo asked Benita to consider doing it as a personal favor to him. He sent her to lunch early and asked her to carefully reconsider her answer. Her friend, Marcus, was quick to advise her that turning and walking away from this was the best option. Her gut instinct agreed with him. She returned from lunch prepared to gracefully decline Anne’s invitation. But Alfonzo always seems to have a way of getting what he wants. Ann is a political ally and a strategic, progressive bellwether. To sweeten the deal, the Governor offered to personally allocate a generous monetary contribution to the research institute housed in Isla Paradiso’s hospital. Delivering the check to Ann would go a long way to help a lot of sims in need. Though it was tantamount to prostitution, Benita could not allow her own selfishness stand in the way of helping struggling sims on her island. Against her better judgment and contrary to Marcus’ dire warnings, Benita reluctantly agreed. Looking back, she realizes she should have listened to Marcus and his prediction that disaster was the only possible outcome.

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She borrowed Marcus’ car, as not to show up to the classy event driving a rolling junk heap. Ann was waiting for her at the front door. She was an attractive woman who wore her middle-age quite well. Genetics had blessed Benita with a solid metabolism but not the motivation for exercise and fitness. To the contrary, Anne was fit and tone and boasted a surgically augmented figure. Her artificially colored, jet-black hair was complimented with a slinky suit chosen specifically to showcase her unusually pale and heavily tattooed skin. Ann had effectively hidden the aging process everywhere but her tired, gray eyes – which betrayed both her age and unhealthy excesses of emotional exhaustion and strain. It was evident that Ann had already consumed a staggering combination of prescription drugs, wine, and mixed drinks before Benita arrived.

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Benita was on her heels from the moment Ann introduced herself. She was unprepared for the forceful personality and contrived, “bubbly teenager” persona. She remained silent while attempting to process how to react to Ann’s brash flirtation. Impaired sobriety and unfamiliarity with Benita’s native language exasperated Ann’s uncoordinated attempts to woo the younger woman with suggestive terms of endearment local to Isla Paradiso. Benita became so uneasy for a time, that Ann took notice and offered up a few of her prescription pills to help her relax.

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Moving inside the restaurant did not improve the dynamics, as they struggled to find any sort of common ground. Ann immediately voiced a blanket disinterest in any church-related topics after Benita attempted to describe the difference between Marcus’ church and her own on Isla Paradiso. And when Benita began to talk about Marcus and his workout regimen, Ann also voiced her disinterest in talking about men. Benita exercised slightly more decorum and did her best to act politely engaged through Ann’s explanation of the meaning behind each of her numerous tattoos. After a number of other awkward misfires during the meal, the topic of conversation eventually settled on something they both had in common – Alfonzo.

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Ann grew increasingly more impatient and aggressive with her advances after the meal. In the absence of any friendly chemistry, Benita talked business. This, in turn, prompted Ann to drink more or have another pill. It was an ugly situation. When the banquet finally ended, Ann delivered an uncomplimentary critique of Benita’s dull personality and offered her an opportunity to correct the problem with woohoo back at the hotel.

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Benita panicked. She knew this was coming, but she panicked nonetheless. Benita had never been with anyone. It almost happened on a few occasions with Marcus. In her heart, she had always hoped it would eventually be with Van. One thing was certain – there was no chance in Strangetown her first time was going to be with an intoxicated woman she had met only a few hours ago. Benita successfully delayed the response after remembering Alfonzo’s donation. She recited the speech he had asked her to practice and delivered it perfectly. Ann’s demeanor shifted dramatically at the scent of money, which caught Benita somewhat off-guard. She was clearly more impressed with the number on the check than she was with Benita’s pitch.

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Ann had become nearly unconscious from her overconsumption of medication and drink. Yet somehow, she still managed to speak. She winked at Benita, explaining that the blood drawn from both Resnic and the lifeguard had been quietly disposed before toxicology could be run on them – just as Joan had requested. Ann continued by commenting how the lifeguard nearly bled out from a gash on his leg. Ultimately, the universe would have celebrated another hateful, white, male bigot being wiped out of existence. But Isla Paradiso is small. Losing blood samples is common enough to escape scrutiny. Law enforcement on the island still remains problematic, however, and falsifying a DOA would have raised too many questions – even if the doctors could have been monetarily persuaded to keep quiet about it.

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Benita’s anxiety had already spiked, but hearing Ann talk about Van with such casual disregard caused it to finally reach a crescendo. Benita’s vision turned red and Van’s name erupted on its own volition, followed by a litany of prayers in her native language. Ann was shocked and seemed rather cogent for being mostly drunk. She asked how Benita knew the lifeguard’s name, and why she was so upset about it. Despite the known consequences, Benita was unable to prevent herself from spilling out the angry words, “ele é meu namorado! …He is my boyfriend!”

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This triggered the landslide. Despite Benita’s reaction being completely involuntary, or perhaps because if it, whatever frail personal or professional rapport the two women had built, instantly crumbled. Ann turned viciously on Benita, accusing her, and Alfonzo by association, of deception and treachery. She stormed angrily out of the building, threatening to expose Alfonzo’s “nasty little game”. After it was over, Benita did the only thing she could think to do. She called Van …another disaster.

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Moving to SimCity was a culture shock for Benita. Thankfully, she met Marcus early during the transition. He is a strategist at the Governor’s finance office; a numbers genius with a gift for understanding the complicated world of international banking. They’ve worked together on projects that are too sensitive for common aides or assistants. As a result, they’ve developed a very close relationship. Professional and personal loyalty to the Governor has served them both very well.  Driven by Taxmoore’s charismatic presence, she and Marcus have tirelessly researched obscure legal rulings and filed strategic litigations and injunctions preventing the governor’s ideological opponents from obstructing necessary progress. Nothing or nobody opposes Alfonzo Taxmoore on his own turf. But Isla Paradiso is not his turf …and it has therefore become his largest and most taciturn project.

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Benita realizes that her experience and knowledge of the island is a highly guarded and valued commodity. She also realizes there is something more happening below the surface. Her willfully apathetic justification of illegal and immoral activities committed in the name of “progress” should be more troubling than the activities themselves. However, her role in this politically groundbreaking movement provides an intoxicating sense of domination which overpowers any thought of objection. It reminds her of the time she was finally old enough to windsurf with Van. It was an exhilarating thrill – and she didn’t want the feeling of excitement to stop.

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Save for returning Marcus’ car then driving home, Benita has nothing more planned for tonight. And yet, somehow, she finds herself in Marcus’ living room, embracing him a short while later. He listens attentively while she rants about the evening, never once gloating about heeding his warning. He does express his confusion regarding her decision to participate in such an arrangement, knowing what was expected of her. Alfonzo had given her the opportunity to decline and she did not. Benita admits that she doesn’t completely understand why, herself. All she knows is that when the time came, she drew that same line in the sand she has always drawn; regardless of who was on the other side of it. She admits to Marcus that holding onto celibacy while immersed in a cultural climate that does not readily tolerate the spirit of the concept, has left her feeling overdrawn and battle weary. She is exhausted – and his arms feel like a very good place to rest. Truthfully, after tonight’s debacle, she has neither the strength nor the desire to continue holding the line.

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Marcus is a good friend with a gentle and loving demeanor. He’s smart, devoted, and would likely be an excellent father. Having made her decision, she quietly takes his hand and confidently walks with him past the line in the sand and into the crashing ocean waves where she swims with him for hours until they finally emerge together  onto the shore and lounge in the sun’s glowing warmth.

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But there is a sadness that follows, now that the line in the sand is gone. It is an empty, remorseful feeling. Pride and rage had both claimed their victories today. Lust now takes its place celebrating triumphantly alongside them.

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Rental scuba gear and second-hand equipment is all Van has ever been able to afford while working as a lifeguard. When Corinth arrives with new equipment supplied by the DuPont family, Van is rendered speechless. It is the most advanced and highest quality merchandise available anywhere. Amazingly, they are simply giving it to him. Happy to see he had done well, Corinth admits to having contacted fellow scientists at the Oceanographic Institute and gathering input needed to assemble the impressive collection. Van whistles his amazement and approval. The DuPont’s must have spent a fortune.

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The morning sun blazes its path across the sky while Corinth and Van travel toward the dive site. Neither man had returned here since the rescue, though Corinth is clearly more unsettled than Van. Corinth idles the engines then drops anchor and stands quietly for a short time after turning off the motor. While checking his gear, Van comes to the realization that Corinth will likely have to see Linda’s deteriorated remains today. Van offers to call in a friend to assist if Corinth changes his mind about seeing her in that condition. Corinth shakes his head, then states with a shaken voice that he’s been preparing himself for days.

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Van descends to a sea floor littered with the remnants of many lost vessels; some hundreds of years old. Dangerous, hidden crags and numerous interconnecting caves provide scenery unlike anything else Isla Paradiso has to offer. Its beauty is evenly matched by its lethality. Among the other dangers, it is also an abundant feeding ground for sharks. Linda is not the only scuba diver to have lost her life here. Van finds the cave Corinth marked on his map. The spot is still littered with bits of gear from previous attempts to find Linda. Fortunately, Van has navigated these caves before and has a pretty good sense of where Linda was when her tanks ran out of air.

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Van discovers Linda’s remains exactly where he suspected she would be found. Something Benita had mentioned during her call has lingered in the back of his mind. If Benita is right, and she usually is, everything here could be considered evidence. He is careful not to disturb anything. He takes many photos of the scene while cautiously preserving every detail before beginning his gruesome job. If anything, the ocean is very efficient. Little else is left besides bone, hair, clothing, and jewelry. When he finds Linda’s underwater notebook, an odd feeling suggests it may be safer with him for the time being. He hesitates before deciding to stash it away inside his harness. After collecting everything he can find, Van seals the hard case containing Linda’s remains and belongings then begins his slow ascent back to the surface.

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Van finds Corinth inside the church cemetery standing in quiet contemplation beside Linda’s tombstone.

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He does not approach until Corinth turns to greet him. The pervasive frown that Van had come to associate with the man has softened considerably. His overall demeanor seems somewhat less brooding and heavy. He thanks Van for returning her. After reminiscing awhile about how he and Linda met, then describing some of her finer qualities, Corinth laments that he wishes he cold have done things differently. He has replayed the scenario a hundred times in his head. He felt sick and disoriented during the entire dive and he kept gesturing for Linda to return to the surface. Their tanks were nearly empty, but she did not seem at all concerned. Corinth shrugs. Even after all this time has passed, he is still unable to reconcile the facts with the outcome.

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Corinth’s eyebrows rise and his expression brightens slightly upon remembering the package Linda’s relatives had asked him to deliver to Van. He smiles broadly, handing Van a fancy, sealed envelope. Corinth explains the DuPont family had taken the liberty of doing some background research on Van before turning over such a large sum of money. They were very impressed with the manner in which he had worked to pay off his adoptive guardians’ bad debts. Every sim Corinth interviewed spoke of Van with glowing praise. Corinth was specifically impressed with his roommate’s extremely heartfelt testimonial. Van opens the envelope, unsure whether to be honored or creeped-out. He reads the contents of the package and is struck silent.

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Corinth continues, explaining that the DuPont family had managed to call in a few favors. All financial obligations and liens on the property, which had recently been submitted to foreclosure for nonpayment, have been paid in full. The property’s title (which was unusually difficult to secure) has been transferred to the DuPont estate. The family has established a legal trust through which they will remain beneficial owners in perpetuity. Van, or a designated descendant in his absence, shall remain legal trustees of the property. Simply put, the property now belongs solely to Van. Additionally, the family has founded a local construction business that will employ no fewer than twenty locals. Their first project will be a complete remodel of Van’s home. Van attempts to smile but fails through his shock and dismay. Quite honestly, he’s almost breathless; though he does somehow manage to give Corinth his thanks. Corinth claps Van on the back, telling him that he’s a good man and that no thanks are necessary.

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As for the DuPont family, his continuing to live a virtuous life is thanks enough for them.

Part 9 – built on Trust

Author’s Note: Approximately six months has passed since the night Benita left Isla Paradiso. Van has been unable to keep pace with the bills, so the bad debts amassed by Mitch and Wade continue to go unpaid. He has noticed the collection letters have been replaced by legal documents from the courthouse threatening foreclosure. If he loses the house, Van has considered proposing that he and Skyler move to Pleasantview together.

Van deposits himself clumsily onto the beach behind his house with a heavy “thud!”. Phone conversations should not be exhausting. This one was an emotionally draining, hour-long marathon of awkwardness. The timing of Benita’s decision to call him today was so precisely imperfect, Van cannot help but wonder whether it had been scripted by some merciless, omniscient observer peering into and manipulating his life.

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Irony has done its work today with impressive efficiency. After months with no communication or response from Benita, Van had grown frustrated with her aloofness and simply stopped calling. Today’s exchange was both unexpected and unwelcomed. He had finally begun the painful process of accepting the most likely outcome to this ridiculous ordeal was going to be living his life without Benita. Conversely, his relationship with Skyler has moved well past simple infatuation and physical attraction. Van’s trust is not easily won, but Skyler has shown time and again that she is not the type to fly away at the first sign of trouble. Van likes her. If that sentiment has any chance of evolving, then he owes it to Skyler to completely free himself of any lingering emotions tied to Benita. Just this morning, he finally deleted the break-up message Benita left on his phone. It was the first step in a symbolic purging that he felt was necessary.

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Whatever prompted the phone call has likely been brewing for quite some time. He did not need to see Benita in order to perceive the intense inner conflict she was struggling against. Confidence and boundless optimism had always been her strongest traits. Today’s dark pessimism and anesthetized word choice produced a poor facsimile of his coração. The cold formality of “Van” had replaced the intimate and endearing pet names she had used since the time they were children. Van smirks sentimentally recalling the oyster shell they had found on the beach years ago. It was a reminder of their mutual, unspoken belief that they were made to be together.

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Van searches for a reason why she would have chosen to reach out to him now after so much time has passed. Nothing about it makes sense. There is that matter of an odd and obscure warning she issued. It was the only memorable part of their conversation, mostly  due to the fact that it sounded borderline paranoid. Van was describing the reward money being offered for retrieving Linda DuPont’s remains. Benita seemed alarmed by this and interrupted to warn him against becoming too involved. A senior advisor to the Governor has already started asking questions about him after Corinth was rescued.

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Meaningless small talk otherwise dominated the unexpected phone call. Benita side-stepped all attempts to answer the obvious, unanswered questions regarding the status of their relationship. She filled the time, instead with talk about her job, Taxmoore’s  “important work”, and Skyler. Benita’s line of questioning regarding Skyler was aggressive and confrontational. Van ended it with a reminder of what fidelity and trust look like, and a warning that he’s started reevaluating where his belong.

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Van’s leg and shoulder have mostly healed. He tests them by sprinting from the beach to this back porch. There’s still a tiny bit of soreness, especially around the gash in his leg. The doctors did what they could to stitch him up, but he’ll still have a nasty scar. In another day or two, he will be back in peak condition. It’s been a few weeks since professional dive teams abandoned the search for Linda DuPont’s remains. Corinth has promised to provide any equipment Van needs for the dive. Van is excited to get back into the water, though it will likely to be a gruesome job. He is familiar with the area where she went missing. The entire Isla Paradiso archipelago is littered with interconnected cave systems. It is considered to be quite dangerous by most experienced divers.

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Van enters through the back patio to find most of the lights in the house have been turned on. Skyler must still be home. Turning off light switches as he navigates the ground floor, Van ascends the steps to the bedroom and sees her reclining on the bed. She’s fully clothed for once. This brings a much-needed smile to his face.

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She looks up from the book she was fake-reading and returns the gesture. There is an edge of concern in her voice. From what she was able to discern through the bedroom window, the conversation looked brutal. She pauses, then admits to checking in on him.  He agrees that “brutal” is an accurate description. She offers a sympathetic smile, guessing that Benita finally called. Van confirms with a nod. She asks if he wants to talk about it. Van shrugs, then adds in a more chipper tone that Benita did ask about her. Skyler’s eyes sparkle with mischevious interest, but he volunteers nothing.

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Skyler hops out of bed. He’s probably already deduced that she is not working tonight. She wants to do something exciting. Skyler catches herself, then hesitates for an instant. The last time she asked to do something exciting with him, he delivered with spectacular results. Though it did nearly get him killed and turn Isla Paradiso upside down with gossip for a couple weeks. She’ll settle for “fun” tonight, instead. There’s a new jazz lounge in town she has been wanting to check out. She asks if he’s up for dinner at the bistro, then some dancing and drinks afterward. It will be her treat. Van accepts, probably more enthusiastically than he had intended.

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Skyler shifts into a rakish stance and measures Van from head to toe with her eyes. She announces that she is going to take a shower. He’s welcome to join her if he wants. He can wash her back. She’ll wash his back as well; and his front. Van rolls his eyes and smirks, then tells her to get lost.

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Dinner out is exactly what Van needed to chase away his melancholy. A recent change in ownership at the bistro has brought a much-needed upgrade. The ambiance is slick and modern; infused throughout with Asian themes, both on the menu and in the decor. The food and drinks are superb. Still, it all seems bland compared to Skyler’s stunning physical beauty. They begin the night alone in the dining room with a lively and meandering conversation.

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As the evening progresses, they move to the bar where they mingle with former co-workers from the resort and locals curious about the rescue. By the time they leave the bistro, it is late and they’d both consumed a rousing combination of mixed drinks. Skyler opts for a more secluded and romantic walk on the beach behind the house, in lieu of the jazz lounge.

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It’s a perfectly clear summer night with a warm, seaward wind blowing off the island. Having no major cities around to drown the atmosphere with light, Isla Paradiso’s night sky is a spectacular explosion of stars.  Van hugs Skyler close and thanks her for the night. She leans into him and presses her lips against his. They walk along the shore together afterward, gazing at the stars for a time before Skyler finally speaks. There is something that has been bothering her quite a bit. And she needs to get it out into the open.

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She’s been staying with Van for several months. Before the casino, she had only known him by name. Despite this, she has unloaded more of her baggage onto him than all the sims she has ever known, combined. Their date tonight was amazing, but it emphasized one very important shortfall. She knows absolutely nothing about him. She’d like to know who he is and where he comes from. She wants to crawl into his mind and try to figure him out. She turns to him with a fascinated and curious expression. Why does he continue to deny himself the pleasure of being with her? Tonight has the potential to become explosively enjoyable for both of them. She has no concept of why he won’t share himself with her. She knows him well enough to sense his urges. She glances downward, smiling wickedly – it can be rather obvious at times. She doesn’t understand what is stopping him.

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Van’s friendship with Skyler has been built on trust. Lately, he trusts her more than Benita. He starts with the basics, explaining that he knows very little about where he came from. He was adopted by a homosexual couple who were still very young themselves and completely ill-equipped for the commitment of raising a child. All he remembers from his earliest years is moving constantly from place to place. It continued likewise throughout his youth, with Mitch and Wade growing more restless with every passing year.

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Things began falling apart soon after they moved to Isla Paradiso. Van was ten years old. He met Benita his first day on the island. Mitch and Wade had invested a lot of money into a beach-front resort. It ultimately failed. Crushing debt and back-taxes kept them both anchored to the island. With nowhere to run, their despondency spilled over about the time Van became a teen. After the resort closed, they started to travel overseas in search of fast money from ancient treasures. Van defied them and stayed on Isla Paradiso with Benita. They were gone only a few days at a time, at first. Eventually, they’d be gone weeks at a time. Then, by the time Van reached adulthood they had disappeared completely. One fact is certain, however. They left behind a crushing mountain of debt. Technically he’s free to walk away from it with no legal or financial obligations. But he refuses to give it up. He promised himself that he would not be like them. He wants a place to call home; a place where his children and children’s children may always return to say, with conviction, this is where I am from.

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The affectionate smile on Skyler’s face tells him that he has done well. But it shifts subtly, then becomes more shrewd and mischevious. She reminds him that he’s still on the hook for the second part of her question. She reacts to his over-played pantomime of defeat with pure and spontaneous laughter. Van is still smiling when he delicately places his open hand over Skyler’s heart, being overly cautious to keep his touch chaste. He points to himself and then to her, illustrating the bonding moment they are sharing. This is what he craves more than anything else. He is fulfilled by the overwhelming feeling of joy derived simply from loving her. Bodily urges are easily addressed, but they can never be wholly satisfied without the accompanying bond that forges a man and a woman together into one complete whole. Skyler remains quietly awestruck and pensive while contemplating the futility he would encounter attempting to fuse together with broken and empty scrap.

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It is a long time before either of them talk again. Van’s powerful gesture has affected her profoundly. It was entirely innocent, and yet, possibly the most meaningful touch she has ever experienced. There is one last thing to bring out into the open. It’s something she’s been obsessing about for weeks. Bringing it up now will throw a bucket of cold water on what has become the perfect date. If she fails to tell him now, she risks losing everything they have built. After a moment, Skyler says his name quietly, then admits that she has a confession to make. She can feel her heart pounding in her throat and hear the blood rushing in her ears. Before continuing, she again asks for his trust. What she has to tell him can never be acted upon. It stays right here, buried in the sand forever. Van’s reluctance is understandable. It’s a rather open-ended promise she’s asking him to make. He could be agreeing to just about anything. She asks again for his trust.

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He does trust her, and he makes a point of telling her so. Whatever she wants to share will remain here. Skyler gathers her thoughts. She has not been completely truthful about the reason why she came to Isla Paradiso. Van sees her struggling to find the right words. He reassures her, telling her to let the words speak themselves. Skyler nods impassively. Following his advice, she makes her emotionless admission and Van immediately grasps why she was so hesitant. She was brought to Isla Paradiso to appear in pornography videos. She was eighteen and stupid and thought she had come full-circle. Van searches her eyes for any evidence of emotion. But it is clear she has separated herself from feelings in this matter. She continues with an almost robotic expression; lacking any hint of a frown, smile, or wetness in her eyes. It is nothing like she imagined it would be. It’s been almost two years, and she’s desperate to find a way to escape. But it just keeps drawing her back in.

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Skyler apologizes. There’s just no good way to segue into a topic like this. She’s been making herself crazy figuring out a way to tell him; and wondering whether or not he knows about them, or worse, has seen any of them.  Van shakes his head, still somewhat dumbstruck. He asks about her work at the warehouse and she quickly confirms it’s the truth. She has been working nights doing clerical work in shipping and receiving; simple grunt work for grunt pay. But every scene she films is more than a month’s pay at the warehouse. She had a scene lined up for tonight but she ditched it to be with him. Despite the gravity of her confession, Skyler remains unusually calm as she asks quietly for Van’s forgiveness. She captures and holds his gaze then speaks clearly and firmly. No more videos. It’s more a promise to herself than to him. She quickly changes the subject, reminding Van about his oath. She asks him to vow that he’ll resist giving in to curiosity. Van soberly agrees.

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Skyler takes his hand and guides him down to sit with her on the ground. She draws in a deep breath then exhales slowly and steadily. She sits in front of him with her back against his chest and nestles into him as he encloses his arms around her. She places a soft kiss on his bicep then closes her eyes. She trusts him …completely.

Part 8 – Corinth Resnick

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Gazeta da Ilha has confirmed reports that Linda DuPont, daughter of simoleonaire businessman Jacques DuPont, has died. She was thirty-five. Isla Paradiso officials are describing the incident as a scuba diving accident. The official cause of death has been listed as “drowning”. The DuPont family has not yet released an official statement, but undisclosed sources close to the family report that Deborah Dupont, Linda’s sister and heiress to the DuPont estate, required medical attention after learning about Linda’s passing. These same sources share that Ms. DuPont is in good health but understandably “devastated”.

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Linda DuPont was a certified and experienced scuba diver and had logged more than forty excursions over the past several years. Corinth Resnick of Sim City was with DuPont at the time of her death. Resnick remains in the hospital following the accident and has not been available for comment. Van Stacpoole, a local lifeguard, and resident of Isla Paradiso was sailing recreational wildcraft with his girlfriend, Skyler Gilscarbo of Pleasantview,  at the time of the incident. Stacpoole reportedly pulled Resnick to safety after identifying him as a distressed swimmer. Gilscarbo credits the rescue to Stacpoole’s “selfless act of bravery”. Gilscarbo also told Gazeta da Ilha that only Resnick had surfaced. In her account of the tragic event, Gilscarbo states neither she or Stacpoole knew about DuPont until after Resnick had regained consciousness while en route to the hospital. Stacpoole suffered unknown injuries during the incident, for which he was treated and later released. Underwater recovery teams continue working to locate Ms. DuPont’s remains.

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Benita sets the tablet down and stares out the window of her high-rise office. She should feel completely blessed. Her life’s ambitions are easily within reach and the career path ahead of her is clear. There is literally nothing obstructing her way toward earning the status and security she deserves. What’s more impressive, Alfonzo believes she possesses the right chemistry needed to become a powerful and influential woman in politics. But all she can feel right now is numbness. Her eyes scan over the news article again and find the words she had read a hundred times this morning, “…Stacpoole …with his girlfriend”. Benita frowns. This job was supposed to be the opportunity she had prayed for. But all she is able to feel now is numbness.

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Joan Mosely, Governor Taxmoore’s top advisor, has made a very bad habit of entering Benita’s office without being invited. Other members of the Governor’s staff have explained that she does it to everyone. It’s Mosely’s way of asserting her dominance. She’s Taxmoore’s most trusted ally and a relentless guard dog. Mosely is a tall and handsome woman with strong features and a ruthless, commanding tone. In truth, Benita finds her to be unnerving and intimidating if not outright frightening. The woman simply never smiles. Benita clears her throat and begins to remind her to knock before entering. Joan interrupts with a dismissive, brutish tone, stating that she will go wherever she wants; whenever she wants.

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Eyeing the tablet on Benita’s desk, Joan walks over and looks at the news article she had been reading. She nods, stating it is fortunate she has seen the news. Governor Taxmoore has an interest in this story. He wants to know more about the lifeguard. He is a resident on the island where Benita was born. Joan grimaces before speaking again. To insinuate that an amateur masseuse could provide information that she, herself could not – is insulting.

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Joan moves uncomfortably close to Benita, whispering a very provocative warning. She cautions Benita to remember where she came from. She is Alfonzo’s favorite new toy. If she steps out of line, the new toy may turn up broken. Mosely produces a digital recorder and places it on the desk. She then instructs Benita to provide every detail she knows about Mr. Stacpoole.

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Benita’s eyes reveal her apprehension. Joan catches on immediately and drills into her with a penetrating, medusan gaze. Benita stutters slightly but cannot find any words. Unable to look into Joan’s formidable eyes, she gracefully turns away to look out over the sprawling cityscape. Right now, she wishes it were the ocean.

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The thought invokes a memory of when she and Van were children. He had found a perfectly intact oyster shell inlaid with beautiful mother-of-pearl. He took the top part and gave her the bottom. Sometimes, when things got tough, he would bring his half of the shell to her and they would fit them together. Even after she had lost hers, he would still bring his half of the shell. It was symbolic of their mutual, unspoken belief that they were made to be together. A sick and empty feeling of privation seizes her, “…dear God, what have I done? “

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She does not trust Joan. For that matter, she does not trust Governor Taxmoore. Something about her being here simply does not feel right. Who is she kidding? Everything about this whole situation is wrong. She has already sacrificed that which was closest and dearest to her heart. How much more must she forsake to earn her thirty pieces of silver? Benita stands a bit straighter then lifts her chin to meet Joan’s menacing stare. She will not endanger what few scraps of friendship remain between her and Van.

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Benita confirms what Mosely already knows, He is a lifeguard. It is spoken with an inflection of finality indicating she has nothing more to say.

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It has been a good week. Van’s shoulder and leg injuries have both continued healing very well and he is finally able to resume light exercise. Skyler’s income has provided enough money to pay off the most threatening debts. For the first time weeks, Van’s mind is not occupied with thoughts of homelessness. Although he is relieved that the immediate future is secure, there is no cause to celebrate. The mountain of debt is still growing and Skyler has better things to do with her money than pay his bills. It doesn’t seem to be a point of contention at present, but Van is very motivated to make sure it does not turn into one.

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For now, the commotion being generated in the aftermath of the rescue/death is providing ample distraction. Curiously, the tragedy has had far-reaching repercussions. The woman who died had evidently belonged to a prominent and wealthy European family. Everybody seems to be talking about it. The story has generated enough viewership interest to draw out the paparazzi. As a result, he and Skyler have been very busy fielding interviews. The media frenzy was thrilling at first but grew tiresome quickly. Thankfully, it has slowed down significantly over the past couple of days as social media trends/advertizing simoleons show waning interest.

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Van and Skyler’s friendship had not degenerated into pandemonium, as one might expect. To the contrary, the ordeal has galvanized their relationship. Van has witnessed a subtle but unmistakable sense of quiet calm about her. The rescue, which helped bring her anger to light, also formed a mutual and unconditional trust. It seems to have become the prime mover for something bigger. The constant edge of anger and angst she carries around is not nearly as sharp. The confidence and candor that makes her such a unique and compelling sim has remained very much intact.

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Van suspects this newfound kindness and genuine disposition have always been present; and that they have always shone brightly, albeit obscured beneath layers of pornographic sludge. Those traits may have never become exposed in the absence of complete trust. He and Skyler both contributed equally to it. Van invited Skyler into his home despite her admitted flaws. Any wavering on his part and she would have likely left Isla Paradiso altogether and ended up, who knows where? Hers was a more difficult sacrifice, however. She completely lowered her guard and shared her most intimate secrets with him. She may be the same Skyler Gilscarbo as before, but Van now sees a different woman.

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If He and Skyler both somehow managed to find steady work, who knows where this could lead? Honestly, he has started to feel that spending more time with her wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Most everybody on the island already believes they are a couple after a news report misrepresented her as his girlfriend. He’s reassured Benita’s family that Skyler is only his roommate. It’s understandably a tough sell, considering there is only one bed in his house. Despite this, they’ve continued to afford him the same love and encouragement they reserve for their own son. Benita has been incommunicado for weeks and they have come to accept that she has moved on to the next chapter of her life. They want Van to move on as well.

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With this in mind, finding work has obviously become his highest priority. The warehouse has potential, but he must proceed with caution. A number of companies doing business in the warehouse have earned dubious reputations. Even so, he’s asked Skyler to put a good word in for him. Isla Paradiso produces very few of its own resources. As a result, goods are moved into and out of the port at a frantic pace. Van has applied for work at the warehouse in the past. But he always gets the same response; he’s underqualified for the kind of work they need doing. Considering the volume of merchandise and resources that move through that building, Van can’t help but wonder what qualifications he is lacking.

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Van wakes up early with Skyler sleeping soundly next to him. As usual, she’s not wearing clothes. He’s made slow progress toward explaining why the situation is inappropriate. All the same, he’s grown more-or-less accustomed to the odd trait and has developed sleeping strategies to avoid awkward physical contact. He showers after breakfast and puts together a decent set of interview clothes. The corporate tower has a mail room position open. He will likely be one of a hundred bodies trying for it.

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A soft knocking sound interrupts Van brushing his teeth. He checks on Skyler first, but she’s still deep in her comatose sleep. After hearing it a second time, he makes the connection that there is somebody at his front door. It’s extremely unusual for anybody to come across mountainous terrain to this end of the island so early in the morning. Then a terrifying thought crosses his mind. What if it’s Benita and she discovers Skyler sleeping in his bed …naked? Van limps down the stairs, racing to think of some viable explanation, but finally reaches the conclusion that there actually isn’t one. He holds his breath while opening the door, unaware of the frown drawn across his face.

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Van recognizes the middle-aged man standing at his doorstep almost immediately. His name is Corinth Resnick, the man he saved a couple weeks back. Van exhales loudly and smiles, relaxing the tension his shoulders and arms. Corinth is understandably confused by Van’s unusual greeting. Van apologizes then offers a more appropriate welcome. He nods soberly and tells the Cornith he’s glad to see him back on his feet. Corinth shrugs in acknowledgment, likely too embarrassed to smile or respond.

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Van invites Corinth inside, quietly explaining his roommate is asleep upstairs after working the night shift. Corinth nods his understanding. He wanders around inside the small but open “great room”. Van has collected all manner of trinkets and junk from his own diving excursions. Something has piqued Conrnth’s interest. He turns to Van explaining that he really just came to thank him personally for saving his life. The turns back toward a particular item placed haphazardly on an old, beat-up shelf, then asks where he had acquired the piece; describing it as “amazing”.

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Van shrugs. He doesn’t remember. He collects so much junk during his dive expeditions it’s tough to keep track. Tourists are really only interested in fancy shells and shark’s teeth. He’d found a few old coins once, and sold them for a very nice profit. Corinth rubs the back of his neck, then turns to Van. He apologizes beforehand for being so forward but asks nonetheless whether Van considers himself to be a skilled scuba diver. Some of these pieces clearly come from sites that are inaccessible or too dangerous for intermediate divers. Advanced divers are too cautious to try.

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Van had never really considered whether he was skilled or not. He simply takes the proper precautions and does his best to prepare for the worst. Sure, he’s dived dangerous sites and has had a few close calls. But he never really thought too much about it. Corinth continues, stating that workers have not yet located Linda’s remains. He has tried to describe where she was likely to be found, but they are either unable or unwilling to reach it. Corinth waits for Van to respond, adding that the family has offered to pay anybody who can bring her back.

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Van’s eyes narrow reflexively as he measures Corinth’s demeanor. Van explains that he may be willing to consider it in a few days after he has healed completely. Corinth offers a sympathetic expression, then apologizes profusely. Van chuckles and waves it off. The scuba gear did most of the damage. It beat him up pretty good. Judging by the look in Corinth’s eyes, Van can see there is something else bothering him. He invites Corinth to sit and offers a cup of coffee, which Corinth accepts with thanks. It had taken a moment, but Van finally makes the connection. Van speaks before thinking what effect it might have on his visitor, asking whether Corinth and Linda had been close.

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Corinth stares down into the depths of his coffee and confirms the observation, adding they were engaged to be married. Van apologizes for being boorish. Corinth nods his appreciation then continues. He explains that Linda was a very driven woman. She was a thrill-seeker who loved both art and science. He and Linda are archeologists by profession. His field of expertise is language, history, and religion. Hers was anthropology and geography. Together, they were quite a team. Her death is not only a loss for him, personally. It is also a loss to the entire scientific community. Linda had worked for years locating an ancient wreck. She finally found it during the dive. She had become obsessed with one particular artifact she believed had been moved into a nearby cave system. He told her it was impossible, but she went in regardless. The only reason he is alive today is cowardice. Their tanks were running out of air and she refused to leave. He panicked and left her and found his way out in time. She did not.

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Van sits back in his chair, reaching both arms above his head to flex his shoulder. It feels pretty good. His expression is serious and resolute. He instructs Corinth to draw out as much of the cave system as he can remember, and where the thinks Linda might be found. After a moment, Van cautiously asks how much money the family is offering. Corinth pauses to cast a careful glance toward Van, asking if he’s still a lifeguard. The short answer is yes.

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One corner of Corinth’s mouth lifts into a quirky half-smile as he informs Van it is likely more money than he has earned over his entire career.

Part 7 – choosing to press “Play”

An odd quiet befalls the house following Van’s amazing rescue at the diving buoy.

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Two distinct and disparate attitudes surrounding the event have emerged. They are as different as the sims who claim them. At one end of the emotional spectrum, Van has become morose and contemplative. He has been unable to stop thinking about the sim who died underwater, very likely in the same moments her colleague was being saved. As a lifeguard, there had never been a single drowning on his watch. Granted, this situation is different. But the idea continues to haunt him, despite having saved one sim’s life.

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The opposing perspective belongs to Van’s roommate, Skyler Gilscarbo. While it’s not surprising that the two have processed the same event very differently, there is something more peculiar about the way this confrontation with mortality has affected her. The concept of death is not at issue here. Though still very young, she had already lost friends to drugs and violent crime. The incident responsible for provoking this inner-conflict is the manner in which her roommate had so readily and selflessly flung himself toward death in a bid to save a complete stranger from it.

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Witnessing this act has caused a sort of  meditative self-assessment – something akin to a cognitive inventory of her mental stock room. In the first hours after the rescue, Skyler enjoyed an aspect of herself that she had no idea existed. It was a sense of peace unlike any she could remember. It had likely been there all along, just obscured by something more dominant. Now, as the days begin to pass, that peace is becoming clouded again. She is desperate not to lose it. Van is somehow responsible for uncovering it, but she doesn’t understand how or why.

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Van had suffered a badly torn tendon in his shoulder during the rescue. He’d been bruised all over from being flailed with scuba gear. He also received a long and deep gash on the back of his leg, running from the crook of his knee up to nearly his rump. It was likely caused by something on the scuba gear gouging into his leg as is sank to the sea floor. The hospital stitched him up without incident. Now, slightly more than a week later, the bruises have healed but his shoulder injury still prevents him from changing his own leg bandages.

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Skyler’s evening schedule at the warehouse usually finds her coming home in the earliest morning hours. She generally sleeps until mid-day. It is about that time when she wakes to she sound of Van yelping in the bathroom from a jolt of pain. She had warned him not to try changing the bandages by himself. He may be brave, but he is also stubborn to a fault. She leaps from bed and marches, still undressed, toward the bathroom. A sly smile plays across her lips as she catches him unaware, still not dressed after his shower. Van howls again, both in surprise and in pain from turning himself away from her too quickly.

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Seeing Van like this arouses two closely linked desires. The first, and most familiar to her, is the desire to forcefully satisfy an appetite that has been building since Van took her into his home. The other emotion is unfamiliar but not unknown. It is an unwelcome and violent urge to beat the living *expletive* out of him until he submits. It strikes her the same way a hammer strikes one’s thumb while carelessly driving a nail. A deep, churning repugnance overtakes both urges, causing her stomach to do acrobatics of the sort that usually ends in vomiting. The smile she was wearing vanishes and is replaced by a deep and disturbed frown.

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She will not self-destruct. Not again. This is as close as she will ever come to making herself right; of mending what is broken. Skyler takes a few, rapid, deep breaths then moves forward to help Van. For the first time in recent memory, she is uncomfortable with her own nakedness. She knows she is completely safe. Still, she has never felt more exposed and vulnerable. Skyler somehow manages to remain calm and appear serene despite her discomfort. She scolds him quietly for not listening but immediately regrets speaking at all. Her words become stuck in her throat and  are barely comprehensible. She works quickly to apply fresh bandages while doing her best to avoid any incidental physical contact. It is a deep and ugly gash, but it is healing well. She ignores his every protest and complaint during the procedure. Then, she says nothing more to him before retreating hastily back to the bedroom. She pulls on a night-shirt then hides under covers in bed, burying her face in the pillow to explosively release her stifled turmoil.

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Every guy and most girls she’d ever known wanted her body but not her baggage. Typical for Van to be the total opposite. She knew he’d come, but she still isn’t ready for him when he does. Skyler feels him resting tentatively on the bed next to her. She’s not the crying type, so she works hard to collect herself. The attempt is partially successful by the time he pulls the cover from over her head. His words are gentle and reassuring. Nothing fancy. He simply asks if she wants to talk about it. The only sound that escapes from her throat before a wave of grief assumes control is a barely audible, I’m sorry.

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He sits with her and says nothing. He just strokes her hair while she cries. It’s a good, cleansing cry. And it lasts for a long time before it finally stops. When it does, she sits up to face him, helping him to adjust and ease the discomfort from his injuries. She tells him flatly that she has never known anybody like him. She assumed she could force her way past his insecurity about …sex. Skyler prevents herself using a favorite vulgarity to describe something that should be beautiful. Before now, she thought he was being ultra-uptight about it. She figured he just needed more… exposure to loosen up and let it happen. She was wrong. She just now finally comprehends why.

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She remains quiet for a long time, dreading what might happen if she sheds light on the darkest recess of her psyche. It fights her to the point of near hyperventilation. Again, his words are strong, confident, and simple – tell me. It fights with her for a moment longer, but Van takes her hand and squeezes it gently, urging her to let it go.

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She’d been an extremely happy kid for the most part. Her parents were great sims with a lot of friends. Their only flaw was that they were very lenient about most things. They were the kind of parents who never said “no”. Skyler had begged them for a smart phone for her birthday because all the other kids had one. It was an easy win. She got “the talk” about what she could and couldn’t do on the phone. But she was just a kid and really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

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She’d had the phone for about a year when she was invited to spend the night at a friend’s house for a sleepover. Her friend’s older sister had a couple screws loose. She was either insane,  just plain evil, or maybe a little of both. She remembers how the sister made a point of trying to ruin the sleepover from the moment it began. She was annoying but mostly harmless. At some point during the night, however, she’d grabbed Skyler’s phone and loaded a “bad” video onto it. Maybe it was just to get Skyler in trouble. Maybe it wasn’t.

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Syler’s eyes fill with tears and her face contorts to match emotions from the painful memory. She clearly remembers the decision to press “Play” rather than “Close”. Skyler is almost unable to speak between sobs but continues anyway. Within the span of ten minutes, the contents of that video had ripped away both her childhood and her innocence. Before that moment, her idea of love had been defined in terms of the prince saving the princess from a fire-breathing dragon. There are no words to describe her mental state after the video ended. She thinks she remembers throwing up. It was crushing. It was horrifying. It rewired her brain and changed the way she looked at and thought about sims.

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She kept this a secret but also kept going back for more “bad” videos. Only, they didn’t seem so bad after awhile. She hated them but did not want to stop. It affected every aspect of her personality. She eventually grew into an angry teen without any real understanding of why she was so angry. Her body and her libido had finally developed to a point where she wanted to try the things she saw. She doesn’t even remember the first time. What she does remember is wondering why the anger didn’t go away. She went into full freak mode after becoming an adult; sleeping with dozens of men and women. Never once had any of them told her “no”, the way Van had.

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The night Omar forced their meeting, she had seen Van as little more than another potential way to feed her demon. He was no different than anybody else. Later, she’d come to  associate his hesitance with weakness and a pitiful lack of self-confidence. Everything changed after witnessing Van risk his own life. Without so much as a breath of  hesitation, he ignored his own safety to rescue another sim from drowning. The words “weak” and “pitiful” are not used to describe a man capable of doing what he did. His selfless display was the catalyst for bringing her anger forward and into the light.

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She describes her first thought upon seeing him this morning. She was determined to break down that wall, no matter what the cost. He is, without dispute, the most attractive man she has ever known. She was going to MAKE him into one of those guys from the videos. It was the expression on his face as she burst into the bathroom that sparked the memory. Pain and betrayal – the same things she felt that night as a child. With the flip of a switch, Skyler no longer saw weakness. He had demonstrated incredible strength; enough to endure the trials she has put him through.

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Her anger finally makes sense. She is angry at herself for wrecking her own childhood; which was stolen from her by an unseen, pixelated thief. She screams out in defiance for her stolen innocence by robbing it, in small portions, from others. She lies because her childhood was a lie; because love was a lie; because her whole *expletive* life has become one, big  *expletive* lie. Why? Because it’s all she can do to conceal the shame she feels for choosing to press “play”. Skyler smiles a teary smile of admiration toward Van. Now that she understands it, she can finally begin to make peace with it.

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She moves in close to hug him, resting her head on his chest. After awhile, she breathes a heavy sigh, asking if he still loves Benita. Van stiffens but continues to embrace Skyler.

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Benita has her own issues to confront. Before the big resorts moved in, The Gonçalves family worked a small coffee plantation that had been passed down through the generations. Legal documents proving ownership were non-existent. This was neither unique nor unusual. In fact, may of the island’s native residents owned their own generational plots of land, but few possessed or needed proof. It was simply understood. When real estate developers discovered and exploited this legal opportunity, it turned into a feeding frenzy. The locals received nothing. That was about thirty years ago, a few years before he was born… Van hesitates, hanging on the last word as a stray thought enters his mind. He was born from a woman he does not know. It was always just Mitch and Wade. He ponders to himself, silently – how well would motherhood suit Skyler? The interruption causes Van to lose his train of thought.

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In response to her question about Benita – “love” is a very malleable thing. Romantic love is only one facet. He and Benita had approached it but never crossed into it. Love shared between friends who care deeply about each other is entirely different but equally important. At the moment, it is the only facet of love he cares about. Skyler breathes a very deep and controlled breath, then smiles a sad half-smile. She playfully informs Van that the next time she sees this Benita, she’s giving the woman exactly fifteen minutes to kiss and make nice with him. Anything past that, all her prior claims are forfeit. Van laughs, feigning defiance, then asks whether he has any voice in the matter. She leans back and casts her gaze upward toward Van. Her eyes, though tired and weary, still manage to convey a deep and smoldering intensity, None whatsoever.

Part 6 – finished with heroics

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Governor Alfonzo Taxmoore, Esquire considers himself to be a patient man. Redirecting his newly hired assistant has provided plenty opportunity for him to explore whether or not this assertation holds true.

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He had met the young woman while visiting Isla Paradiso on a fundraising engagement. She was his masseuse at the spa and he became immediately and completely enthralled with the young and beautiful island girl; to the point where he required her services on his personal staff. He was unprepared for her sharp wit and strong will, however. It became evident rather quickly that her skills could be leveraged for more than just physical therapy. She may require some polish and grooming before hitting the campaign trail. But if she’s willing to cooperate and play the game by his rules, she’ll go very far under his political tutelage.

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The situation on Isla Paradiso has become ripe for a massive progressive push. A number of his contemporaries have already scored great successes mobilizing the island’s youth toward social reformation. Political reform will require a more delicate touch, however. Many of the locals are resentful. This is where his skill set is best put to use. Resentment can be a very powerful weapon if wielded properly and directed toward strategically vulnerable targets. Right now, the Isla Paradiso church is what stands between him and his political goals. Its teachings are incompatible with his modernist vision of a perfect Sim Nation and its influence must, therefore, be dismantled.

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He needs a new church on the island. One that does not marginalize its residents by worshiping ancient, white men or perpetuating the privilege enjoyed by their modern counterparts. Instead, they must focus on celebrating the power of self-determination. They must be taught to take what is owed to them. It is his responsibility to secure the emancipation of the people from their shackles of doctrine. The new church’s message must be clear, progressive, empowering, and overwhelmingly positive; actual faith notwithstanding. If all goes well (and it will), his new assistant will become key in making his vision a reality.

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For once, Van is thankful for the cheap plumbing installed in his bathroom. Taking cold showers is never enjoyable, but he finds it to be a much-needed distraction away from Skyler. She had crawled into his bed very early this morning. He woke up to find her in a freakishly deep sleep, completely undressed, and cuddling closely. He thought for sure that removing himself from her vice-grip would have awoken her, but she didn’t miss a snore.

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There are times, like this morning when Van feels the arrangement with Skyler just isn’t working out. He’s asked her repeatedly to wear clothes if she wants to sleep in his bed. It’s typically a roll of the dice with that issue. Some mornings she’s wearing night clothes, other mornings she’s wearing nothing at all.  His biggest complaint is that she’s somehow unable to speak more than two sentences without resorting to some kind of crude vulgarity. He’s as warm-blooded as any young guy, and she’s as gorgeous as any woman he’d ever seen. But Skyler’s filthy language and raunchy demeanor is a complete turn off for him. In a sense, she’s the antipodal Benita.

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To confuse the issue, there is a contrasting aspect of her personality he really enjoys having around. She is prone to random and unexpected fits of generosity and kindness. They always happen at the right times, forcing him to look past her flaws. Inexplicably, he discovers one such instance while looking into breakfast. When Van went to bed last night, there was nothing in the house to eat except some dry, overcooked fish. Not looking forward to it, but needing to eat nonetheless, he enters the kitchen to find that Skyler had brought home groceries. She had also taken the time to prepare pancakes for him. She set aside a plate, flowers, and a note thanking him again for trusting her. Van smiles, shaking his head in bewilderment, then breathes an exasperated sigh. He’s always loved pancakes.

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More than two weeks has passed since the night Benita broke off their relationship without so much as a text message to communicate how she’s been doing. She had called her family to let them know she was safe and working hard as an administrative assistant for some big-shot politician on the mainland. These past two weeks, plus the time she was working two jobs here on the island, add up to more than a month since the last time he actually spent time with her. Van sits on the beach a few steps away from the back of the house, enjoying the warmth of the mid-morning sun while eating Skyler’s pancakes.

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He sits alone for an hour or so before he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. It’s Skyler walking through the back door. He turns his head, shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun. Thankfully, she had put pajamas on before coming outside. One of her more admirable qualities is the confident manner in which she always carries herself. She is very deliberate in everything she does and says. It’s a fine quality to possess, providing one is content with sims only seeing what one chooses to project.

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Over these past weeks, it has become very obvious to Van that he does not fit many of the assumptions she had formed governing guys his age. He can see it makes her a little bit crazy. And  he’s okay with that. She sits next to Van smiling her “up to no good” smile. Van has learned a strategy for navigating through conversations to avoid them ending in frustration. Most important is to avoid asking her personal questions, especially difficult and probing questions. That, and let her lead the discussion. After a moment, he smiles and thanks her for the pancakes. They were perfect. Skyler stares at him for a long time, wearing the expression of a woman who has locked her keys in the car.

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She utters a short, exasperated grunt. Speaking to herself, she comments that after two weeks of trying every way she can think to *expletive* him silly, he finally decides to compliment her perfect *expletive* pancakes.

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Van’s smile disappears instantly, and his good mood shifts. She presses her lips together in frustration then casts her gaze to the ground, but stops short of apologizing. Her recovery is as smooth as silk. She concedes that she finds him to be a puzzle she just can’t seem to figure out. There are a few exceptions, however. Discovering his favorite food was really pretty simple.

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Skyler stands up and offers her hand to Van. She tells him she has a surprise that doesn’t involve reproductive organs. Van smirks in appreciation of her effort. He follows her to the kitchen, then to the end table by the front door. There is an envelope sitting on it. She wanted to wait for him to discover it, but she knows how serious the money situation is. Before he is able to move forward to collect the envelope, she steps in front of him, informing him that it will cost him a kiss.

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Van smiles and rolls his eyes, thinking she is playing another game with him. The determined look in her eyes says differently. She is serious. Van silently searches her eyes while wearing an unreadable expression. She whispers that she hasn’t decided whether his hanging on to Benita is sad and desperate, or whether she’d given him reason enough to stay this strong and faithful to her. Either way, it’s just a kiss and she wants to give him something else to think about. Van reaches his hand to touch the side of Skyler’s face. He begins to explain why he won’t kiss her but chooses to say nothing. He weighs the two scenarios she presented. The problem is that he doesn’t know which to believe, either. While distracted in thought and before he has a chance to react,  Skyler leans into him and takes the initiative.

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Van loses track of time as he becomes drawn into what can only be described as a truly amazing kiss. There is no one thing he can point to that would qualify it as such. The softness of her lips, the way their breathing synchronizes to maximize contact, the smell of her hair… too many other factors to mention, but every one of them perfect. When they do finally step away from each other after two or maybe three minutes, there is a long delay as they both recover enough to speak. Skyler does so first, purring softly that she would have been happy with just a kiss but she’ll gladly take another of whatever that was.

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Clearly flustered and extremely worked up, Skyler shoves the envelope at him, explaining that she has been working nights at the warehouse. The money she’s earned should be enough for him to cover her rent for the next few weeks. In the same breath, she slinks closer to him then caresses his bare chest, telling him that they had better get out of the house and do something exciting before she  beats him down and *expletives* him into next week… and then some.

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The old, beat-up, windsurfers hadn’t seen action since Van was a teen. Diving had become more his thing. They were both in surprisingly good working condition for having been stored under the house’s crawlspace for a few years. This is a good thing. Because without the distraction, there would have been no stopping Skyler, who has been on the prowl again. The situation is already dicey enough as it is, he doesn’t need another complication.

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A strong headwind generated from a nearby storm provides plenty of speed, not to mention a good coastal chop. The conditions provide exactly the kind of excitement needed to dispell their lunchtime kiss. After a couple hours, they meet about a half-mile out near a diving buoy where a small boat is anchored, but missing it’s diver down flag. Maneuvering themselves near the boat, they come together straddling their boards and using each other for balance to ride out the larger swells. She eyes him suspiciously after one wave launches her nearly into his lap. If this is is his idea of some kind of joke, it isn’t very *expletive* funny. Van apologizes quickly, then points out the diving boat missing its flag and radio.

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Skyler shakes her head and rolls her eyes, reminding him that NOBODY follows every, single, *expletive* rule, adding that he’s just about the most *expletive* uptight sim she knows. Ignoring the jab, he counters that some rules exist to keep sims alive. The sim who owns this boat is either ignorant or suicidal. Skyler scoffs defiantly with a flash of anger in her eyes. She asks if he’s just going to sit here and wait so he can lecture the poor *expletive* about the proper rules for diving.

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Using Van for leverage, she stands on her board and takes the sail. If that’s the plan, then he can do it alone. She ignores his appeal to wait which forces him to follow.  Van takes up his board and catches up with her quickly. When a mood like this strikes, there’s little point in rationalizing with her. The best thing to do is just ride it out. They were having such a good time, too.

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His head snaps almost completely around when he hears a gasp for air followed by a muffled scream. A submerged scuba diver has surfaced but is in trouble. The sim’s head resurfaces again, followed by frantically waving arms. Van shouts toward Skyler, “They’re drowning!”  He then dives gracefully off of the rear of his board, which is still traveling in the opposite direction.

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Skyler navigates her windsurfer into an 180-degree arc, completely in awe of the man she had been nearly ready to discard only a few seconds ago. She has never seen anybody swim with such skill. He moves like a bullet shot underwater.  Van intercepts the struggling sim then attempts to achieve a rescue hold while swimming toward the boat.  But the other sim is far too panicked. Between the weight of the scuba gear and the wild flailing of death throes, they both go under together before Skyler has finished turning her windsurfer around.

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She whimpers, “oh, god, no…” in helpless protest.

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They have been under water no less than thirty seconds when she finally succeeds in her fight against the wind, arriving where Van had gone under. The sound of her own breathing has never been so deafening. She cannot see anything through the choppy waves. Skyler is nearly  hysterical, looking around for anybody who can help. She huddles close to her board, trying to keep it steady against the battling winds. Her mind wanders back to the last words she had said to him. Blinded by some childish notion of indignation, she found it necessary to curse at him, “you can do it alone!”  What the *expletive* was she thinking? What is so *expletive* unbearable about Van being the most decent human being she has ever known? About him being so completely *expletive*  faithful to his ex? About actually daring to possess …integrity?

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It all happened so quickly. If she had only listened …and waited. Skyler closes her eyes then moans in quiet despair. Van was the only thing she had left

it’s just a simple leap from her board, and…

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He emerges on the port side of the small boat anchored nearby, gasping violently for air and grabbing onto the landing with is right arm. His left arm is still fully submerged. Van had somehow removed the diver’s gear and managed to slip the flippers onto his own feet.  Groaning loud and fiercely, Van exerts monumental effort hefting the unconscious diver out of the water using only his left arm.

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After what feels like an eternity, Skyler and Van move the unconscious man to the bottom of the boat . Although completely exhausted, Van continues tending to the stranger. The man has started shivering despite wearing a wetsuit. Van feels weird as well. He had pushed himself far past his physical limits. Regardless, he ignores his own discomfort asks the man where he hurts. Through gritted teeth, the stranger manages to say the word,  everywhere. This guy came up too fast and gave himself the bends. Van is sure of it. As he turns to talk to Skyler, the man groans again, then says the name Linda, followed by,  still down. Van’s eyes widen when he makes the connection that there is another scuba diver down.

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Before Van can move toward the edge of the boat, Skyler shrieks loudly. A thick stream of blood is flowing unabated down the back of Van’s leg. Holding him steady, Skyler suggests that he’s finished with heroics for today.  It is more a command than a suggestion and Van is in no position to argue. He has already started to feel light-headed. And worse, he cannot feel his left leg. Skyler cautiously inspects the damage. Working to control her gag reflex, she quietly retches before looking away.Skyler informs Van that it’s bad. They cannot wait for the other scuba diver. He’ll bleed out unless they get to a hospital. Now.

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Van tries to clear his head. This guy had been flailing around in a panic and gave Van a real beating. He tries to think what could have caused this kind of wound. But everything is a blur. There is one thing he does remember clearly. Before dumping this guy’s gear, he had had seen that both the main and reserve tanks were completely depleted.

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One thing is certain. If this man and his colleague had gone down together, then she is already dead.

Part 5 – no such thing

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Van exhales with a long, exaggerated breath then rubs his tired eyes. Frustration had set almost immediately after attempting to learn how to write computer code at the library.

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Skyler passed along a bit of information she’d heard regarding tech companies from the mainland outsourcing much of their computer coding offshore. Van figured he had as good a chance as anybody landing a job. His outlook changed shortly after seeing what the work actually looked like. It wasn’t even simlish – just a bunch of weird symbols and squiggly lines. With the exception of the occasional actual word, like “if” or “new”, he couldn’t understand any of it.

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Van switches off the computer and stands to leave. He had prematurely built up his hopes of landing a cozy computer job. Unfortunately, he is completely out of his element when it comes to tech stuff at this level. Maybe if he had studied harder during math class instead of staring at Benita the whole time, he may have had some concept of where to begin. The truth of the matter is even if he could figure out all of that gibberish, he’s not sure he could actually pull if off. Just the thought of sitting at a desk all day long was enough to make him crazy.

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He had given it his best effort. Van recognizes the facts and resigns to yet another defeat. It was a great lead, nonetheless. And if weren’t for Skyler, he would have never known about it. Accepting her as his roommate has been both a boon and a debacle. If anything, Skyler has provided a much-needed distraction away from Benita. Without her, past couple of days would have been unbearable. He’d been spared the sloppy and sappy post-breakup blues, and he’s moved on to simply being numb.

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On the downside, he had become very accustomed to living alone. Quickly unlearning a few habits, such as showering with the bathroom door open, has become a priority. Otherwise, the arrangement has worked out fairly well. They had both slept most of the day after being fired. When Van woke up to an empty house, he figured she was gone for good. He was surprised when she returned early the following morning with breakfast, coffee, and her heartfelt gratitude for being allowed to stay. As part of the living arrangements, she gave her word to Van that she would not steal any more simoleons. All the same, Van did not ask where she had come across the money to buy breakfast. Nor did he inquire where she had spent the night. She was asleep in his bed when he left for the library.

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Skyler isn’t exactly rude. To the contrary, she’s actually quite pleasant. The problem is that she sometimes lacks basic, common courtesy and refinement. Sleeping completely naked in his bed is one example. Considering it is the only piece of furniture in the house where either of them is able to sleep, confronting her about it is pointless. Unless something changes over the next week or two, the entire conversation will be moot anyhow,  because they’ll both be looking for another place to sleep.

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Van makes his way his way to the first floor of the library. While turning leave through the large, open courtyard, he hears a little voice urgently calling his name. Natalia Gonçalves is Benita’s youngest sister. While it is true the entire family has already grown to love Van as a son, Natalia has been the most vocal about a wedding date. She’s a very bright girl, if not a little bit odd. He’d rarely encountered Natalia without her winning smile… Benita’s smile. But this is one of those times.

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One of the joys of being a kid is the luxury of not quite understanding all the subtleties surrounding a bad breakup. With the directness excusable only for a child, she asks Van if he is ever coming to see them again. Her parents told her that he’d be too upset about Benita to come. Van smirks, walking to the table where she is seated. He pulls out a chair and sits at the table across from her. Before he can think of how to respond, Van notices the books Natalia has checked out.

Our Extraterrestrial Neighborhood
UFO Secrets Revealed!
Probed! How to Survive an Alien Abduction

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Concerned and somewhat confused about her choice of reading, Van searches for something to say. Before he is able to speak, however, Natalia’s mother rounds the corner from another section of the library shouting Natalia’s full, given name. She sees Van and blushes instantly, rushing over to collect the inquisitive child. There had never once been any awkwardness between him and the Gonçalves family. But now, Van can see that Benita’s mother, Luiza, is terribly uncomfortable. Van stands to calmly reassure her. Luiza frowns sympathetically, apologizing after a very long and restless pause.

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Van smiles and reassures them both that he’s not angry with anybody, especially Benita. Luiza reaches out and holds Van’s hands in hers, complementing his strong exterior. Her sympathetic frown and nurturing eyes see right past it, however. She reminds him of the many times he has confided that she is like a mother to him. And a mother always knows when her children are hurting. Van meets her gaze and nods, fighting back the emotion he had previously been spared.

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Nearly overcome with emotion herself, she confesses how badly it pains her and Benita’s father to see this happen. Both Luiza and her husband saw a different side of Benita when the news came; she was hungry, ambitious, and indomitable. It was not the same Benita they spoke to earlier that same morning at church. And the decision… it came so suddenly, with no indication that she had given the matter any thought or consideration past the opportunity itself.

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Van makes a grunt/snort sound and comments that he learned about it over voice mail. Luiza’s reaction is one of shock and dismay. Benita had given her assurance that she had spoken with Van and settled the matter personally. She apologizes again, complimenting the poise and maturity with which he has handled this crisis. It speaks volumes about the kind of man he has become.

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Luiza’s eyebrows shoot up suddenly, as though she has just thought of an amazing idea. Then her eyes widen in alarm, recognizing that same thought is completely inappropriate. Van knows Luiza well enough to laugh with her about it. It’s like he can read exactly what she’s thinking. He jokingly scolds against plotting to keep him single until Gabriele, her next oldest daughter, comes of age. Luiza’s eyes narrow thoughtfully as she teases that he would only have to wait two more years. They both enjoy a good laugh when Natalia groans in disgust, vowing to tell Gabriele all about their evil plot.

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Van laughs off the good-natured exchange. Knowing the local culture and customs as well as he does, he also knows that Luiza had, if only for a moment, seriously considered the possibility. Van softens his tone and smiles, telling her that he hopes Benita will have found whatever she is looking for by then and that he’s not writing her off so easily. Luiza smiles proudly. It was exactly the right thing to say.

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As he turns to leave, Luiza reminds him that Filipe will be celebrating a birthday in a couple of days, adding absently that it seems impossible two of her children will have become adults already. It did not seem very long ago that both she and her husband were Van’s age. Van nods and smiles, reassuring her that he will be there. Whatever is happening with Benita, Van refuses to allow his relationship with the only sims he has ever called “family” to suffer.

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Van cheers on as Filipe transitions into a strong and handsome, young sim. His hard work in school has paid off, earning him a full scholarship for oceanographic sciences at Sim State University. Van had expected Benita to come home for the celebration. He learns from conversations in the overly crowded, tiny home that nobody has heard from her since she departed several days ago. Still, no matter how concerned they are about Benita, the family has seemingly made a point of not allowing it to disrupt Filipe’s important day.

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Some of the extended family and locals are clearly surprised to see Van. News travels quickly in the small, close-knit community. And it seems all bets were against Van making an appearance at all, let alone acting as though nothing had changed. Regardless, it is a good day filled with loud music, laughing, games, and food – and many, many sims. Van somehow manages to speak with just about everyone. At one point, Gabriele and her friends corner Van and give him a lighthearted but thorough drubbing in response to Natalia’s warning about his “evil plot”.

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It is fairly late at night before all the guests have left to go home. Van had stayed to help clean up afterward, during which time he’d had a long talk with Benita’s father, Louis, and Filipe. After the last lights in the tiny house go out, Van finds himself unwilling to leave.

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He sits on an old chair in the yard, completely alone. Maybe she’s just running late? He stares at the dark window leading to the bedroom Benita once shared with her four other siblings. It still doesn’t make any sense at all. The tears come without warning and all at once. Under the crushing weight of bad debt, no income, and the situation with Benita – his armor finally buckles.

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After a time, he is startled back to composure when he hears a familiar, but quiet voice. Natalia, still wearing her pajamas, had snuck up next to him. She points out flatly that he is crying. Van clears his throat and manages an unconvincing laugh. He wasn’t crying, it was just all his extra “awesome” leaking out. Natalia rolls her eyes drolly, then apologizes for giving away his evil plot. She didn’t think it would make him cry. Van laughs spontaneously, telling Natalia that there was no plot. It was only a joke between him and her mother, and that she’s too young to understand it. Natalia just shrugs her shoulders in response.

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After a moment, Van’s eyebrows furrow then he asks Natalia what she’s doing out of bed so late at night. She doesn’t answer for a long time. Finally, she looks up at the stars, then out over the ocean, gesturing toward one of the islands on the ocean’s horizon. She tells him, very quietly, that they come out mostly at night. She usually sneaks to the church to watch, since they’re really easy to see from the tall steeples. Remembering the nature of her books from the library, Van presses his lips together in concern. Gently, he tells her that there are no aliens. There’s just no such thing. Weather balloons, meteors, top-secret military aircraft, maybe. But no aliens.

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Van lifts Natalia onto his shoulders and carries her over to the house, then puts her down by the doorstep. He instructs her to stay inside and go to sleep. Without warning, Natalia hugs Van tightly around the neck then rests her head on his shoulders, demanding a promise that he will come back to see her even if Benita is being a selfish brat. Van’s tears hold. He sticks out his pinky finger and asks for her promise stop sneaking out of the house at night. She smiles while hooking her tiny pinkie finger onto his. After waiting for her to lock the front door, Van finally turns to leave. He was a fool believing Benita would be here tonight. But he is glad he stayed if only to keep Natalia safe.

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As he takes a step into the yard, a cold shiver runs up the length of Van’s spine and his eyes dart instinctively upward. What were those …lights he just saw? Feeling somewhat unnerved, Van makes his way quickly to the road where the cab is waiting to take him home.