Can the young want Time? He felt slow and out of sorts, but was it a want for Time? She came and went so effortlessly that he wasn’t sure if it was desire or something else, just a comfort to see her again and know that she was coming and going still. He liked to know that she had a purpose, and through her, he found his. But can the young really want for Time, or just want after her, chasing her as if they never got the chance to get to know each other.

Time was a frivolous creature, her hair made of moonlight and skin the color of the darkest night. Her eyes twinkled and sparkling, always laughing and always careful to be sure you got caught and captured by her passing gaze.

He saw her here and there, reflected in a watch or in the lock screen of his cell phone, but he was never able to meet Time face to face until, on a particularly misty morning, he came across her in the town square with a load of watch parts from the local pawn shop borne behind her by her handmaid and servant, the Motley Man.

“Tell me, O Time, what is my purpose? Why does it seem that I am always chasing you, yet never really knowing you?”

Time’s laugh was as silvery alarm bells. “None know me, not even myself,” said she. “I simply endure, as I have been enduring, keeping the World Clock wound and Time’s Arrow straight.”

He would not be dissuaded. “Show me, O Time, how I can know you better and use you better and spend you better.”

“Very well,” she said, and his heart leapt. “Go into the Jungle of Luud. My servant will accompany you. Do as he commands you and you will find yourself in the Sacred Geometry. There you will find the one you seek. When you have pulled her from the Geometry, you will understand Me.”

He bowed deeply and led by his misshapen guide, he set out for the Jungle of Luud and his beloved Mona.

Ah, Mona. He had met her first in the Pearls. She was sitting under the perpetual moonlight, scribbling away in a small violet book.

“Mona, my dear,” he said. Mona did not look up but merely nodded, still deep in her book. “It has been so long. Whatever have you been doing?”

“I have been writing,” Mona said, appearing to embellish her journal.

“I can see. I was told you have the answer to Time.”

“Do I now?” Mona asked.

“I suppose you must. How do you spend Time these days, then? How might I make better use of my time, as you do?”

“Ah, my friend,” said Mona, “Lately I have been writing, but the rest of the time I have been simply living.”

“That is a rather vague answer,” he grumbled. “I am living now!”

“Not really. You’re existing, certainly, but to enjoy each moment, and invest your whole being into it, now that is truly living. And as I am investing myself in this writing.”

With that, Mona disappeared into her journal. He took up the fallen book, put it in his pocket, and carried Mona out of the Sacred Geometry, going out to live his life.

Warm summer’s sunset sinking low over the graveyard. The man and his Mona, bowed with old age, held each other on the bench while they watched the sunbeams play pink and orange before death’s deep red took them. The Motley Man stood at the cemetery gate, with Time and her handmaiden behind him.

“Now?” the Motley Man asked.

“No, give them a moment yet,” sighed Time with bated breath.

Mona and the man sat in loving embrace, and as the last rays of maroon burst into cold, purple night, they kissed, hearts pressed together, and Time waved her hand forward, and the Motley Man set out in a broad pace toward the two.

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“Why do you look so upset, Adam?”

Adam looked up as Cosette, her face concerned over the seaming tea in her cup. Even though she’d been born abroad, as he had, she never looked more comfortable, confident, or radiant than in France, the land of her ancestors for uncounted generations.

“This just doesn’t seem right,” he said, looking around the airy and expansive cafe with a view of the Seine. “I think I might have made a mistake.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Adam,” Cosette said. “Did you try the tea?”

Adam sipped listlessly at it. “Yeah. It’s good, but…something is missing. The taste isn’t quite right.”

“We can recalibrate that,” said Cosette, her eyes wide an earnest. “I see a few things wrong here or there. The weave is wrong on the tablecloths, the waiter knew what to do with that customer’s tip, that customer left a tip in the first place…but you know that a simulation is more than the sum of its parts.”

“I do know that,” said Adam slowly, deliberately. “But that also means that it’s more than a matter of simple programming.”

“You’re too hard on yourself. You’re always too hard on yourself.” Cosette said. “Just promise me you’ll try and correct what’s wrong with the simulation, okay?”

Adam sighed. “You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Cosette laughed. “You’re one of the best simulation designers I’ve ever loved. You can get this French cafe running so well that the President of France would be fooled. You can get it running so well that even a Gallic gal like me would be fooled.”

Adam reached across the table and gave Cosette’s hand a squeeze. “All right,” he said, his face a featureless mask. “I’ll try again.”

With a predetermined gesture, he ended the simulation. The cafe, the patrons, the Seine…all gave way to blackness. Cosette, too, vanished into the ether a split-second later.

“I’ll get it right,” Adam said softly. “Sooner or later, I’ll get it right.”

Inspired by the song ‘Intervista’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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“I do not believe you for a minute,” said Ockham the Red. “You are surely one of them.”

He had an impressive countenance as a full-blooded orc, made all the more so by his immaculate sky-blue uniform with crossed white belts and brass polished to a mirror-shine. It was undermined somewhat by the fact that he and the other two Vallia guardsmen, Vakt the Rosy and Pyse the Peach, had been locked in the jail of their own stockade, blindsided by the insane cultists of Jovan and their attendent skeletons.

“Didn’t you see the light show downstairs?” said Tinuviel the halfling. “Our cleric Chanel just channeled enough positive energy to be seen from the Caldera rim and it double-killed four skeletons all at once.”

Ockham harrumphed. “You lie. I wouldn’t believe you if you laid the severed heads of those Jovan-addled brigands downstairs at my feet.”

“Funny you should mention that,” said Tinuviel. “Adenan, let ‘erm rip.”

The two halflings each unfurled the dripping bundles in their hands, revealing the severed heads of the brigands that they had just killed. Adenan rolled the head of the white-kerchiefed brigand who had sicced the skeletons on them into Ockham’s cell. Tinuviel spun the red-kerchiefed head of the villian who had stabbed poor Iffy to within an ich of her squishy life into
Vakt’s prison.

Ockham picked up the dripping countenance and nodded curtly. “I am not afraid to admit when I am wrong,” said he. “This is definitely one of the foul brigands from the hills who turned of late to Jovan-worshipping insanity. Truly you are not one of they.”

“Damn straight,” groused Adenan, handing the cell keys to her halfling compatriot. She was still upset that her threat to hurl Ockham into the river had been laughed off.

Tinuviel unlocked Ockham’s cell, and then Vakt’s. That guard, given the gift of the dripping head of his enemy, looked down at the tiny halfling opening his cell with starry eyes. He fell to his knees as she opened the door.

“T-thank you, my lady,” he whispered through trembling besotted lips. “I have never seen a woman as…short…and as…formidible…as you.”

Tinuviel winked at him and tossed him the weapon the Jovan-crazed villains had deprived him of. Already on his knees, Vakt swooned a bit and awkwardly blew her a kiss.

The halfling mimed catching it, and placed it in her pocket before traipsing off and opening the last cell.

“I hope you realize that you’ve just made that poor guy fall in love with you,” groused Adenan.

“It’s cute,” said Tinuviel, dismissively. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Adenan looked back at Vakt the Rosy, who was busy composing a love poem on the blood-soaked kerchief of the severed head in his cell. “What indeed,” she sighed.

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MELINDA: Welcome to the 2015 Love Versus Hate debate, brought to you live here on NBS. I’m your moderator, Melinda Doe, broadcasting from a darkened room in an undisclosed location for fear of reprisals. Today’s telecast is brought to you by GesteCo Pharmaceuticals, Kyoto Processed Ricepaper Concerns Press, and viewers like you. Let’s meet our panelists!

[Logos for GesteCo, KPRC Press flash as their names are mentioned.]

MELINDA: For hate, we have Ulgathk the Ever-Living, Elder Lich of the Nine Planes. He’s a sitting member of the Council of Undeath, sole ruler and commander-in-chief of the Unholy Army, and Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs in the Obama Administration.

[The lights rise on ULGATHK THE EVER-LIVING, who is seated in a thoughtful pose with skeletal fingers tented on crossed legs. He is dressed richly in the style of a European monarch, and horrible lights of madness and magic dance in his empty eye sockets.]

ULGATHK: Thank you, Melinda. Your location unto the millimeter is known to me and my legions of deathspitters. I trust you will take this into account with your impartial moderation this evening.

MELINDA: And for love, Bullsick Nomis, Adjudicator Supreme of the Sacred Cabal with orders to root out heresy, punish nonconformity, and share the love among all religions on all the Earths.

[A light shines on ADJUDICATOR NOMIS, who is seated bolt upright. His costume is equal parts cardinal, pope, and pharaoh.]

NOMIS: Pleased to be here, Melinda. There is much heresy to be hugged to death in this vicinity, I can feel it.

MELINDA: Moving back to hatred, Gothmir the Depraved, Wightfather to the swollen risen across the dead spaces between worlds and fresh from his book tour with the Diewalkians.

[Spotlight on GOTHMIR THE DEPRAVED, a most horrible ghoul. He is dressed in the manner of a presidential candidate, with a small flag of the Plane of Reeking Doom on his lapel.]

GOTHMIR: Spoiler alert: they were fabulous. This is largely because they sold their souls to me to become members of my 666 Wailing Consorts upon their death, but there was some natural fabulousness there as well.

MELINDA: For love now, Grand Mufti Al-Temsah, may serenity be upon him. PR to prophets, manager to messiahs, zookeeper for zealots, and spiritual leader to millions of very volatile worshippers across the celestial sphere, His Unquestionableness is the man you want on your side whether you’re starting or just renovating a faith.

[GRAND MUFTI AL-TEMSAH is illuminated. He appears to be dressed in simple black robes with a neatly kept beard until the sheen makes clear that his outfit is woven black gold and his beard is kept in place with rare and extra holy angel tears.]

AL-TEMSAH: I hope we can have a calm and intelligent debate here, full of peace and wisdom. Though I cannot, of course, be held responsible if anyone disagrees with me or interrupts me and therefore leads my followers to completely independently cause Category Five destruction across known existence.

MELINDA: Our last panelist for hatred is of course Nthaeit, Fallen Lord of the Celestials and Archduke of Wights. He’s been in the news recently thanks to his marriage to Archduchess Cthonia, who our viewers know better as socialite Paris Ritchie.

[Illumination reveals the brown and mummified form of ARCHDUKE NTHAEIT, his milky eyes twinkling with malice. He is dressed as a rapper, though close examination shows that all of his bling consists of actual earned noble medals and decorations either from his unfallen days as Celestial Lord Tieahtn or as Archduke of Wights.]

MELINDA: Give us a sneak peek at what your matrimony has been like so far, Your Infernal Grace.

NTHAEIT: We’re just trying to take things day by day, Melinda. We’re still learning about one another as beings, and that’s not without its little annoyances. I’m annoyed when she leaves the toilet seat up, she was annoyed when I sucked the living essence out of her and reduced her to a dessicated husk to sustain myself. It’s a journey, not a destination.

MELINDA: Wonderful. I’m sure we’ll hear more about it when the special airs this March, exclusively on NBS. And now, our final love representative, Dowager Empress Cnhyn Hallud of the Crimson Empire on Alternate Earth. The 19th and final wife of Crimson Emperor Testarossa, she was plucked from obscurity for her beauty before outliving the Emperor by 40 years and counting. Our viewers, of course, know her as a judge on Princess Search here on NBS.

[DOWAGER EMPRESS HALLUD is busily checking her smartphone, and is dressed in the style of the late Elizabeth Taylor. Her leathery hide is tanned and nipped and tucked, and her head is crowned by the Crimson Gem, heirloom to an empire.]

HALLUD: It is beyond fabulous to see you again, Melinda! I’m sure that we can all commune in harmony through the natural vibration of crystals, animated by love from the Cosmic Egg, our joyous songs kept pure through the avoidance of deadly poisons like calories and vaccines.

[The OTHER PANELISTS exchange knowing sideways glances.]

MELINDA: Our first question tonight is for Dowager Empress Hallud for love and Archduke Nthaeit for hate. Do you think that the current planar economy is, as some claim, unfairly favorable to good? This issue has been raised recently by the Occupy Evil movement, who claim that their rights to welsh on debts, commit human sacrifice, and maintain smug senses of superiority are under threat.

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The mummified and discolored skin around the glowing points of light that were the lich’s eyes softened, the great sloping brow beneath what long and stringly strands of white hair remained to him lifting in surprise. “Lady Syn,” he croaked in a voice that was tomb and sepulchre doors creaking on their hinges.

“Lord Verice.” Dessicated flesh about the other lich’s sunken cheeks and her own ember-bright eyes grew gentle, even compassionate–and expression they had not worn for countless years of sorcery and undeath. Tentatively, she reached out a hand that was alive with dark magicks and ran it over Verice’s face, recoiling not at all when it rustled across parchment-thin spots or the jagged hole where once had been a nose.

“It has been so long,” Lady Syn said with uncommon gentleness.

“So long.” What might have been a tear, watery and impregnated with vile preservatives, slid an oily path down Lord Verice’s cheek.

“I have…done things,” Syn said softly. “As you can see. Things that not all would be proud of.”

“You have done what you must,” said Verice, sadly but firmly. “As have I.”

“Do you think…that perhaps…we could…?”

Verice shook his head. “It has been too long hasn’t it? Do we even remember how to feel the way we once felt?”

“The memory will have to be enough,” Syn croaked sadly. “Or the memory of the memory.”

Inspired by this image.

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The shades–perhaps they should be capitalized Shades, given their ubiquity–relayed a dizzying amount of data to his eyes. Compass directions, friend codes of passersby, a GPS line leading to the last destination he’d forgotten to clear. Billboards and paper with a special reactive coating appeared animated through the shades, piping their accompanying musical jingles into his earphones. There were blips on the compass that corresponded to sponsors–fast food places, mostly–and the occasional augmented reality pop-up that was projected in the shades as if it were a living person (albeit one that could disobey the laws of gravity and space).

It was too much, right now. He hated the shades at the best of times, but they were necessary tools of modern life and they corrected his astigmatism for free–a real pair of ground-glass lenses, ad and augmented reality free, would have cost thousands of credits that he simply didn’t have. He pulled his shades off, wincing at how blurry and bright the world was without them. But he wasn’t trying to find fast food or the nearest organic food store.

He was trying to find the girl who had floated into the city from the hilltop park.

Acting like a piece of augmented reality, and yet being visible without the shades…it was intriguing, maddening, enticing. But he’d lost sight of her in the warren of shops and eateries that surrounded the green space. No one else had noticed, no one else was looking so desperately skyward. If they’d seen her, she’d been dismissed as just another ad.

Misty rain began to fall, blurring his vision still further as he wandered among the steel and glow of a city alight with information and yet desperately empty. People walked by singly, eyes focused to infinity behind their shades or looking down at a more sophisticated digital device. It was liberating, he thought, to look up for once outside of the bubble presented by the park. But he feared that he’d lost–or worse, hallucinated from the very start–the girl in white.

But there was a flash of pure prismatic colorlessness in an alley he passed, and there she was. Serene against the sky, pinched between two buildings, twenty feet off the ground. The neon light of the city and its hurrying people below cast itself on the girl’s dress, while a stiff breeze kept the fabric billowing behind her.

She seemed to notice him as he shyly approached, but also seemed to be looking through him, as if distracted by shades that she was not wearing.

“H…how are you doing that?” he whispered.

Her voice was soft, melodious, sad. “I don’t know.”

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It seemed the more bright and neon and wireless the world got, the greater the distance was between ordinary people.

There was a park bench that offered a good view of downtown, from the skyscrapers to the bright channels of red and amber flowing about them like titanic jugulars. He’d sometimes come there on warm summer nights to linger and look, a speck among specks, with everything that had an off switch silent and cold.

He liked the park because it was safe, regularly patrolled by the expensive kind of Department of Public Safety drones, the ones that had a real person behind them instead of a computer program. There weren’t many augmented reality pop-ups either–the programs that appeared to walk in the real world but existed only in his shades. If he hadn’t needed them for GPS and vision correction, he’d have done away with them altogether–being accosted by the insubstantial and the unreal was a stiff price to pay in order to cut down the monthly fee.

At this distance from the city, though, there was nothing but silence, light, and motion. It was profoundly lonely, profoundly disconnecting, but profoundly beautiful. The speck among specks preferred that kind of solitude to being alone in a crowd downtown. Ordinarily he was alone in doing so, with only a few dog-walking drones and DPS UAVs for company.

This time, though, someone else wandered into view below him on the gentle incline of the park slope a few hundred yards away. Without the shades she’d have been a blob of colors in motion, but with them she was clear as a bell: tall and slim, hair so light as to be practically pearlescent in the moonlight, wearing what might have been a slip or a formal dress. Even though a pair of heels was clasped in one of her hands, she was still walking on tiptoes.

It was a comforting sight, a little bit of humanity peeking through the mess of concrete, steel, and lightwaves. He noted with some pleasure that the girl seemed to be looking out on the city much as he was. She was still a million miles away–the city papers were full of people being maced and arrested for saying “hello” in the wrong way–but the mere sight, the mere thought, was a comfort.

Then, as he watched, the girl slipped free of the pull of gravity and began to float heavenward, dress billowing and arms spread. He pulled off the shades in amazement, but the blur of ascending light remained–she wasn’t augmented reality, at least not of any type he’d ever encountered before.

That shouldn’t be possible
he thought, shaken. Even in this age of UAVs and drones, things needed wings or fans or something to fly. He felt a sense of eerie beauty and maddening confusion wash over him, perhaps the strongest feeling he’d felt in many long, lonely, and dour months.

An even stronger feeling came next: he had to follow her.

Inspired by this song and image.

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“I’m here to see The Sacred Cenote,” but I seem to have misplaced my date.”

“Misplaced?” Marcus laughed. “is that a recurring problem with you?” He meant it as a good-natured jab but it keened a bit.

“Yeah, I think this is the third time I’ve been ditched at the movies,” I said. “I’ll learn my lesson one of these days.”

Marcus shifted his weight uncomfortably, feeling he’d touched a nerve. “So, The Sacred Cenote, huh? I heard the movie took five years to make and that you can only see it as the original dead director intended in New York, LA, and here at the Mackinac. NY, LA, Hopewell…one of those things is not like the other, eh?”

“I think it’s because the new director graduated from the SMU film school,” I said. “I’m certainly not complaining; I’ve never seen the Mackinac this full and I had to buy the tickets online through a lottery. Of course the whole date situation and missing the first quarter of the film already isn’t helping.”

I meant that as a hint that I’d like to slink into the specially modified Marguiles Theatre at the Mackinac and finally take my seat, but Marcus was clearly in the conversation for the long haul, oblivious: “Yeah, I thought about seeing it, but there aren’t any reviews online and I’m more in a mood to laugh today. So I’m going to see Two Brides and a Groom with some friends.”

Enough was enough: I liked Marcus but I was intent on escaping he afternoon with a shred of my dignity intact. “Well, I’m going to the theater to see if my date abandoned me or just went into the movie without me.” My tone (and my past experiences with girls, if Marcus had any inkling of that) made it clear that I strongly predicted the former.

I bid him a curt goodbye and entered the theater, my armful of popcorn and soft drinks (meant for two) shifting and leaking uncomfortably along the way. The theater was very avant-garde, with leather benches almost like pews instead of seats; to my surprise it was lit up and the screen was dark, despite the fact that the movie must have started ages ago. People were milling about, most of them dressed for the occasion like a night at the opera, making me feel very conspicuous in my business casual slacks and polo.

I went to the front of the theater to try and see if my date was in any of the seats, but I couldn’t get a very good look at half of the seats due to a bizarre divider that (I thought) ought to be in the way of the mover projector and cast a giant shadow on the screen (then again, perhaps it was the projector). Disappointed if not surprised that I couldn’t see Aimee, I made my way back into the middle of the theater…only to hear Aimee’s distinctive liting voice call for me from above.

To my shock and extremely pleasant surprise, she had been saving me a spot on one of the upper benches by laying bodily across it, something made possible only by the pew-like layout (I saw a lot of sorority girls in other nearby “pews” doing the same once I knew to look for it). Aimee sat up as I approached; I took in that pretty red dress, the same dress she was wearing when we reconnected. I feel awful for assuming the worst about her.

Turns out that I came in during an intermission. I put the soda and popcorn where Aimee can reach them just as the lights dim. The “pews” all move forward on silent hydraulics as they do so; I realize that everything is designed to move about as the movie plays.

The posters promised a revolutionary degree of immersion at the Marguiles, and they certainly weren’t wrong.

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The human being is a complex machine, the human mind even more so. It’s no wonder that, with all that complexity, thing sometimes don’t line up quite right. And with love as the most complex emotion, it’s no surprise to find that as the very thing that becomes stunted or twisted in a person, leaving them incapable of loving or of being loved in return.

I’m not sure whether to loathe these wretches, or to pity them. Perhaps a measure of both is called for.

Recall, for instance, Alberto Luis Exposito, president and dictator of the República de San Martín from 1960 to 1989. The only son of a cold military man and the formerly vivacious daughter of a major politician, Exposito lived in a household where love was a weapon. His parents, unable to divorce, engaged in and flaunted numerous affairs simply out of spite. At the military academy, his classmates taunted him for his shyness and lack of experience with women, but his superiors respected his drive and lack of distraction.

By the time of the Sanmartíno Coup of 1955, he was a colonel and a member of the junta that seized power from the democratically elected government. By methodically playing his adversaries against one another he became president at the astonishingly young age of 35; Exposito became known as “El Caudillo” after his idol, Spanish strongman Francisco Franco. The República de San Martín ran like a Swiss watch under his regime, with torture and imprisonment alongside urban and rural development (much of it implemented by forced labor).

The inhabitants of Pueblo Navarro, a small city outside the capital, felt Exposito’s wrath more than most. Seemingly at will, he rearranged the city and its people: approving new construction one day and demolishing those same buildings the next, sacking or reinstating or handpicking everyone from the mayor to street vendors. Those who lived along the Plaza de la Revolucíon in particular felt the sting of El Caudillo’s micromanagement, and wondered how a man with 15 million people under his thumb had time to review candidates for milkman.

After Exposito was overthrown in 1989, the American ambassador to the República de San Martín from 1977-1981 confided to reporters what he had been forbidden to discuss: President Exposito, El Caudillo of the República de San Martín, had been madly in love with Maria Ramirez, a stenographer he had met during an official tour of Pueblo Navarro in 1966. Unable to bring himself to approach her, and unwilling to apply the full force of his dictatorial power to force her to his side, Exposito had instead made informants of Maria’s friends and coworkers and used his titanic influences to remove what he saw as annoyances and distractions. It was his vain and twisted hope that Maria would notice the great hand of state at work in her life and reward the president with her love.

There is no reason to suspect that Maria even noticed Exposito’s interest before her 1988 death in an automobile accident.

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“I’ve had my share of difficult breakups,” Karen sniffed. “I don’t think I have to tell you how outrageously sexist that notion is.”

“All right then, let’s compare notes,” I said. “Tell me about your worst, most devastating breakup, and I’ll do the same. One example doesn’t make a trend, but it’ll be ‘strong qualitative evidence’ as my professor used to put it.”

Karen set her jaw. “Fine. That would have to be Aaron. He was a musician, and a poet, but it just wasn’t working out and I was leaving to come to SMU. So I talked to him on the stairs in the old house he shared, and…it was devastating. The sadness in his eyes, the way he crumpled as he sat down on the stairs…I felt like a monster.”

“You had to see the look of sadness in his eyes,” I deadpanned. “That’s it? O tragic tale that hath such sadness in it. How did you ever survive a sad and reproachful glance from a person you were breaking up with?”

“I just told you how badly it affected me,” Karen shot back, her eyes burning.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, first of all: it can’t be a bad breakup if you’re the one doing the breaking. Have you ever even been the dumpee and not the dumper?”

“Well, sometimes it was a mut-”

I nodded smugly. “I didn’t think so. I, on the other hand, have never been the dumper, and I think my best breakup was worse than your worst. Want to hear some real angst?”

Karen, continuing to glare, didn’t say anything. She beckoned for me to continue with a sarcastic hand gesture.

“First: Camilla. She decided that the best way to break up would be to agree to every date I proposed and then just not show up, with the coup de grace being when she finally showed up…with someone else.”

“Maybe she-”

“Second,” I said, counting the instances off on my fingers. “Beck. She sent me a Dear John. In the form of a MySpace message. From her new boyfriend’s account, or rather his shitty emo band’s account. The best part is that I’m the one who took her to one of their shows in the first place hoping to impress her.”

“Well, if your music tast-”

“Third.” I was pressing a bit too hard, maybe, but there was no stopping in the heat of a passionate argument. “Steph. Turns out she was still carrying a torch for her ex. She ditched me for him. At the mall. They ran into each other randomly, I have it on good authority that they made out in the food court’s family bathroom, and then left together. I combed the mall for two hours before she deigned to text me. From his cell phone.”

Karen was silent, one eyebrow cocked. “You about finished there, Mr. Lonelyhearts? Maybe, if you like, we could have an actual discussion without all the emotional hand grenades you’re throwing. Or are we done here?”

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