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Hunters by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

Hunters
by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

Karen burned Reginald Go’s cash Mondays through Fridays, but with no
fixed hours of employ. Today’s budget: five hundred fifty-five pesos (the fifty-
five in coins; Reggie’s change dish at the office was close to brimming over).
A pretty puny sum compared to what she’d had to squander before, but the
hell she cared. What mattered was making Reggie believe that her work
benefited his company, or that what she even did was work, or that there
was a company. Very little else, and the occasional free lunch, kept her loyal
to Steel Phoenix Films.
Today’s venue: the basement level of Super Saver Shopper’s Central,
the metro’s latest and largest piracy paradise, where Karen was tasked to
get whatever DVDs would, in Reggie’s words “kindle or enrich the creative
process.” Her position as Steel Phoenix’s in-house screenwriter had withered
to a technicality in the past months. Perversely understaffed (she and Reggie
were the company; Reggie had warned her at the job interview of Steel
Phoenix’s fledgling status, but that had turned out to be an atrocious
understatement), Karen had been asked not to write a script just yet and to
help out first with “administrative” duties. It was hard not to comply,
atrociously fresh Mass Comm grad that she was. Thus, she had become more
of a yaya to this 30-something Fil-Chinese entrepreneur who, having earned
money-spinning monopoly in the realm of waffle dog kiosks at last, was
ready to pursue his dream of making movies.
She wanted to busy herself, in any case. She and Jeff were lasting
longer than she had expected (four months and a week), and as much as she
wanted to bask in the general glory of having that steady boyfriend at last,
that moment of awe a newly coupled person felt had yet to wane in her, a
not unpleasant but relentless sting that she had to sidetrack somehow.
Karen and Jeff had met at a bowling alley. She and her friends had
taken to the lanes last summer in some attempt to stick together after
college. He bowled alone in the adjacent lane that first time, and Karen, the
unabashed, highly proficient harlot of the bunch, came on strong to the
strange boy out of habit. Two weeks’ worth of post-game sleepovers at his
condo later and they were committed. Her friends, because they were
friends, looked the other way.
Karen had yet to alight the escalator, but she had already been sensed,
her heady materialist musk—towards which DVD merchants seemed to have
a particularly heightened sensitivity—wafting far ahead of her. So began the
battle for her attention: asses perching off of plastic stools, hands beckoning
(as if to draw said musk closer, jonesing for a whiff), the quick-tongued
chorus of sweet-talk rising in volume. It did lend some glee to Karen’s day,
this facing an entire floor of spirited Porky Pigs.
Dibididibididibididibididibididibididibididibididibididibi. What are you looking
for? What do you need? This one’s new. That season’s complete. That’s a

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DVD copy. This is a clear copy. What do you want? What are you looking for?
Come here! Stay here.
She hit the basement. Ambling towards the stalls, Karen submitted to
her own, sudden significance.

+++

Jeff must wear a collared, long-sleeved shirt, a tie, and closed leather
shoes. This was one of the few instructions he could clearly comprehend
from the cellphone call with Glenn. Glenn was a friend of a friend, and this
fact, apparently, was enough to warrant the call at 10:45 the previous night
(not that Karen should mind all that much; Jeff was only just about to lick her
thighs). The tight, unmistakable clench of the tie around his neck provided
just enough authenticity to the afternoon, helping to center him as he took
one last smoke outside the office building.
Apart from the attire, the address and the 2 P.M. schedule, much
remained unclear about why he was there. Glenn said it was a racket. He
was told that Jeff was a freelance writer for magazines, which meant Jeff was
creative and had plenty of spare time, which meant Jeff could be an asset to
the project, which meant Jeff could get maybe an extra 25-30,000 pesos if
his heart was really, really in it. Any other details, however, were not exactly
expounded upon, although Jeff had tried to pry. Glenn said it would be best
they first meet face-to-face. Jeff judged by the too tenacious treble in Glenn’s
voice that he would face some sprightly imp of a man.
Still, Jeff was not all that averse to the proposal. Living purely off of the
blindfolded, high-flying trapeze act that is the freelance career, he wasn’t
one to snub whatever job offer came his way. Time was the cool, copious
sweep of space that would always be there as he dangled for dear life.
He entered the building, the guard by the front desk just waving him
on as he tried to hand over his old college ID. The elevator hauled him up to
the 14th floor with the same sense of indifference—a tired creak or clunk
every second or so, the clouded, scratched steel walls just barely baring
Jeff’s reflection. He had never looked so archetypically neat, so presentable,
so starkly smart-casual. Such decorum! Such call center agent-ness! It was a
sad, bad image that glanced back at him right then, and one he never
could’ve stomached if it weren’t for the extra-exceptional ennui that had
sprawled itself over the recent days. That, and the rest of that damn phone
call.
He was just about to end their conversation, having already acquiesced
to Glenn’s fractional come-ons, when Glenn suddenly barked Jeff’s name.
“Yes, Glenn.” Jeff stared at Karen’s eyelids, which had begun to droop
ominously.
“Now, Jeff, you’re not one of those people who back out at the last
minute, right?” Jeff imagined Glenn’s taut, pesky finger waving in his face.
“No! No. No way.”

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“Great, great,” Glenn replied, extending his vowels, cramming them


with supremacy. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Good night.”
Karen had fallen asleep or, quite possibly, had feigned doing so. Jeff
switched his cellphone off, deliberating how he may have done wrong. But it
was just as well; he had a meeting the next day. She twitched in an accurate
portrayal of slumber.

+++

Karen picked a stall manned by a pubescent Muslim girl. While she


would appreciate the attention that’d be lavished upon her had she chosen
other stalls, the ones manned by older folk and their more practiced, showy
style of servitude, she would rather warm up first with this silent little waif.
Warm up—like some athlete, like some person who, by scuttling his
meticulously toned body around some plot of grass, treating some ball like
the source of all sentience, becomes of utter import.
She needed to acquaint herself first with that week’s latest titles. By
doing so, she would get a better idea of what she wanted, thereby ensuring a
more expedient interface with the pushier DVD pushers. This, in turn, would
result in a more thorough sieving of Shopper Central’s stalls and, ultimately,
a stack of films impressive enough to ascertain another month’s 12,000-peso
salary. Delicious daylight robbery. It all boiled down to strategy.
Picking at lunch purchased from the string of halal canteens, the girl
gave the briefest glance of acknowledgement as Karen approached the
leftmost row of films. Too young, Karen gathered, to feel the urgency her job
required.
The plastic packs Karen began to flip through bore one blown-up, well-
lit star’s mug after another. When she flipped fast enough, they were the
briefest reel of film in themselves, some single scene where an
androgynously attractive head suffers subtle facial tics—lips twitching, brows
rippling, eyelids fluttering. The titles in that row were mainstream love flicks,
mostly, so Karen found the funny face fitting. She would have to pick a
couple out. Reggie wanted his first project to rake in funds for future, loftier
projects; a lesson on lucrative, low-brow love would come in handy.
She stopped at Coffee with Lisa Lee, a title that was currently being
shown at the cinemas, its poster’s token floating head that of Fil-Am ingénue
Carissa Herrera. In the foreground was a steaming, oversized cup of
cappuccino, while in the background was the smaller, more ghostly floating
head of Hollywood heartthrob Trey Thompson, looking on with those standard
starry eyes. If her memory of its trailer served her right, Coffee with Lisa Lee
was another hour and a half of carefully choreographed syrupy serendipities.
Act one: boy meets girl through awkward circumstances; quaint, conflicted
attraction is established. Act two: boy and girl fall neck-deep in love when
one does something completely, earth-shatteringly selfless for the other;
montage of couple-dom plays out; relationship is seamless until past
anxieties get the better of them. Act three: breakup occurs due to half-baked

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decision made by girl or boy or both, usually spurred by a third party; boy
and girl realize what they believe to be their idiocy and, at the very last,
heart-stopping second, get together again (rain and/or airport terminal
and/or highly public event obligatory). And this one had a café and, most
likely, interracial concerns.
She and Jeff had met through curious enough circumstances, though
kismet didn’t have much to do with it, really. The rest of the template
couldn’t seem to apply to them, either. She wondered how upset she should
be about this.
“You should get that,” the girl behind the stall said bluntly, not
particularly persuasive. Karen looked up, surprised that she had been paying
attention.
“Oh, yeah?”
“You’ll cry for sure,” the girl responded to the dregs of her rice meal.
“I’ve seen it. It’s good.”
Suddenly, she looked like she was about to bawl, her gaze on her
Styrofoam container dangerously despondent. Karen grabbed her wallet as
quickly as she could and left her payment on the counter. The girl didn’t
thank her, nor did she take the bills and slap them superstitiously against her
wares as the rest of the merchants were wont to do. She kept staring at the
container, sending out wave after telepathic wave, pleading for a pal who’d
lend an ear to her crisis.
Karen stuffed the DVD in her bag and scurried to the stall at the
farthest end of the floor. A smirk had surfaced to her lips, which was always
the case when she came face to face with such travesties but, unlike before,
as if one could actually be ashamed of such automatic things, she hoped the
poor girl wouldn’t see it.

+++

Jeff chose the very, very frosted glass door. Or, rather, he was
compelled to choose it when a group of twenty-somethings, idling right next
to it in all their smart casual finery, motioned him towards it with jaunty,
knowing nods. The doors on the 14th floor were either unmarked or bore
names of companies for too industrial industries: C.B. Balingit Architects,
Engineers and Planners; Aqua Bless Piping Co.; Uy Screws and Bolts. The
very, very frosted glass door, unmarked, seemed so much more plausible
despite its anonymity and dubious doormen. This didn’t make things any
more heartening for Jeff, and he had this niggling feeling that stepping out of
that door was far more difficult than stepping in. He went in.
It was a large room, stripped save for a mass of Monobloc chairs, a
podium and a whiteboard all huddled by one wall. No reception area, no
company name spelled out in chunky brass letters. There were quite a lot of
people, although they all seemed to come from the same bland herd as the
ones outside, mingling like the oldest of friends. There was also a water
cooler.

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A young man in a snappy, pinstriped polo and shiny, pointy leather


shoes homed in on Jeff with an arm outstretched.
“Jeff?” His gelled hair glistened in excitement.
“Glenn?”
Glenn immediately drew chairs for the both of them in one corner,
making the rudimentary hope-you-had-no-trouble-finding-this-places and
have-you-seen-(common friend)-latelys.
“So what does your company do?” Jeff asked the second they sat
down. He may have acquiesced to everything thus far, but it had to end soon
enough. He was trying to be as aggressive as he was with Karen when he
proposed a relationship, though doing so was difficult. That night at the
bowling alley’s smoker’s lounge, when he practically barked out his feelings
for her amidst the din of rumbling balls and tumbling pins, displayed a
courage he had yet to replicate after. It wasn’t really like him; his daring was
almost accidental, one of those things that just plain happened and he
doubted would happen again. Although they have been lasting longer than
he had expected, he was still afraid that she expected the same gumption
from him in the future, and if afternoons like these were what he had to
practice with to keep her, then take a stab at them he would. This wasn’t to
say he was good at it, this chore of bettering himself.
Glenn, however, had mechanisms of his own.
“I want you to meet someone first,” he said. He waved at a woman in a
stark white dress, who scuttled over as if jolted by a cattle prod. She had that
alarmingly alert, unblinking expression Jeff knew better as Crazy Eyes, and
when she started to speak, her gaze ping-ponged between the two men,
seeming to use Glenn like some psychic source of data.
“This is Anina delos Reyes,” Glenn said with much pride. “She’s one of
the best in our team.”
Anina delos Reyes spoke succinctly.
“So what do you do now? Are you looking for extra income? Are you a
hard worker? Glenn told me you’re a writer. That means you’re very creative.
And smart. That’s good. I envy you. I wish I could write. I wasn’t very
talented when I was young. My parents got me piano lessons but I didn’t take
them seriously. But I assume you’ll take this meeting seriously. This is a great
opportunity. You will not regret this opportunity if you take it seriously.”
Jeff recalled stories about particularly skilled thieves, the ones who
could hypnotize you on the street if you made just enough eye contact with
them. He looked directly at Anina with perfectly polite frequency, paranoid.
As for what the company was, there was one highly possible possibility
that Jeff had been trying not to acknowledge since he entered the room.
Nonetheless, he’d be far more surprised if this wasn’t a pyramid scheme or
an equally shifty variation of such, and the longer he sat there, the more
convinced he was that nobody was going to come right out, in a sudden
burst of civility, and say it.
Before Jeff could even think of something to say in return, a man by the
whiteboard not unlike Glenn announced the beginning of the presentation.

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Instantaneously, Glenn and the rest of the Glenn-like men, as well as their
crisp-bloused female counterparts, rose and dragged all chairs to the front.
Glenn set the three of them in the first row, right by the LCD projector. A
banal Boracay sunset PC desktop background blinked onto the board. The
orb blushed a bright, ubiquitous orange, sinking sheepishly into the sea.

+++

The guy wasn’t half bad. He stared intently at Karen’s fingers as they
trotted through his DVDs, and it made Karen appraise the sad state of her
fingernails. He was probably just a bit older than she was. Handsome in an
illicit, blue collar way, skin browned and toughened from previous outdoor
work. Naughty, deep-set eyes. He looked physically clean. He would
technically do, if Karen was still single and feeling extra-gregarious. She
flashed him a small smile for trips, for old time’s sake.
She always wondered if her facility to reel men in dwindled if dormant,
like flaccid, unexercised muscle, or if it came back potent enough when
called for, like bike-riding skills or knowing the rules of Monopoly. Admittedly,
she dropped other men cold turkey not entirely because of Jeff. The willpower
game that arose from it drew her in more at first, but it had been a few
months already. Sometimes, she missed being a floozy.
“Here are the older movies,” he offered, patting the row right in front
of him. It contained classics, art films, foreign films, the types people who
thought themselves cultured would pounce on with pomp.
Nodding at him in thanks, Karen then felt a familiar twinge, suddenly
compelled to act out.
“What makes you think I want the older movies?” she asked in her
practiced, pleasant, altogether inviting tone.
The guy shrugged, smiling a little. It was a gesture that filled Karen
with a much-pined for sense of competence.
“You look smart,” he added.
Karen knew there was a good chance that he’d say this. She knew she
was smart, and she also knew that she looked the part. It wasn’t so much
what she wore as the way she stared at things before her, nonchalant and
intent at the exact same time, like a bored hypnotist. People did seem to
appreciate this. She knew Reggie liked it because it made him feel safer; he
had a lone employee, but somehow, through her giftedness, his film empire
would rise all glorious and cost-effective, like magic.
Other guys liked it, too. It told them she was self-sufficient, a trait
highly preferred, of course, for one-time trysts. She was sure her DVD boy
grasped at least some part of this. Yet, this was also another reason why she
still felt on tenterhooks with Jeff. She had always appeared to be someone
who could renounce his affections at any given moment, but this hadn’t
seemed to faze him thus far. This was, in a way, unnatural. Then again, there
hadn’t been any concrete complications she knew of to make either one of
them want to bail from their relationship. And even if this was, in a way,

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miraculous, maybe all it took was for her to get used to it, to get used to
being in love.
Karen found her DVD boy smiling still. Just then, as if warned to quit
such coquetry, she heard a gun go off.

+++

The company was called Globex Pharmacon, and it catered to the old
and dying. Jeff understood, through the lengthy PowerPoint show choked with
stock photos of smiling Caucasian grandparents, that baby boomers, now
profitably dim in their twilight years, liked to blow their cash on crap. Globex
was just one of many outfits exploiting this fact which Jeff had been perfectly
ignorant of. Their product line consisted of multivitamins with root and seed
extracts certain ancient African tribes’ strength and smarts relied on, heart
rate-calculating “fashionable” wristbands, and strange, plug-in nightlights
whose soft blue glow was said to keep the phantoms of aging at bay.
Having covered the valiant, compassionate thrust of the company, the
Glenn-like man who read out the prior slides with near-epileptic gusto moved
on to the next segment.
“Now,” he continued, clasping his previously spirited hands with some
grimness. “SOME of you may THINK to yourselves, ‘Is THIS really
LEGITIMATE?’ SOME of you may think, ‘WHAT if this is just a SCAM?’”
Jeff looked up from his lap.
“NO need to worry!” He gestured to the next slide, which brandished
several large, familiar logos of pharmaceutical corporations. “The
FOLLOWING INSTITUTIONS have attested to the EFFICACY and SUPERIOR
QUALITY of our products. These institutions are comprised of the TOP
EXPERTS in the FIELD. YOU know these institutions. YOU place YOUR HEALTH
in their CARE. You think we should TRUST their OPINION?”
“YES!”
Jeff glanced behind him in surprise. The response came from several
members of the audience, most likely the rest of the Glenn-like men and
women.
“OF COURSE!” the man up front cooed. “And BESIDES that, BESIDES
being a company who wants to HELP OTHERS, Globex Pharmacon ALSO
wants to help YOU.”
“AMEN, AMEN!” cried the Glenn-like men.
Jeff was beginning to feel like the most sensible person in the room,
which he did not imagine happening. There had to be other newcomers there
who were smarter than he, who could tell just as well that they were being
gypped. He wondered if there had ever been anyone in the history of
exploitative networking who’d dared to stand up in the middle of such
ludicrous lectures and called it all bullshit. He wondered if he could.
“Now, for the SECOND part of this presentation, I would LIKE to call on
a woman I PERSONALLY—” the man up front slapped his palm on his chest
and knotted his brow with utmost affectation. “—FEEL is one of the

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GREATEST SUCCESS stories of this company. THANKS to Globex Pharmacon,


she is now a MILLIONAIRE at 29 YEARS OLD. She didn’t come from a rich
family. She didn’t graduate from one of the big universities. But BECAUSE
she BELIEVED in the company and WORKED VERY HARD for what she has
now, I think it is VERY IMPORTANT that we LISTEN to what she has to SAY. I
ENJOIN you to give a VERY warm welcome to our SENIOR marketing director,
Ms. ANINA DELOS REYES.”
The Glenn-like men and women hooted amidst the polite drizzle of
applause. From his peripheral vision, Jeff could see his seatmate grinning at
him as she got up to take the stage. He assumed that she assumed that he
was feeling some sort of privilege, realizing at long last how he had been
rubbing knees with such a distinguished individual for the past 40 minutes. It
was then, as he made sure to look as bored and unmoved as he could, that
he began to design the speech that would make this damned day worth his
while.

+++

Crouched tightly behind the counter of DVD boy’s stall, Karen


concentrated on the copious, curly hairs matted on DVD boy’s legs. The last
time she had felt such sheer fear was when she was a hair of a fraction of a
split-second away from being run over by a speeding truck on EDSA. Just like
anyone who’d been run over or was close to being run over, the error
stemmed from a false sense of invincibility. She recalled the phantom fist
clenching her chest, the sinister whisper of air as the truck all but skimmed
her as she scampered to safety. But in this case at Shopper’s Central, as
three blade-bearing thieves scurried around the maze of stalls with guards in
hot, purposeful pursuit, it was harder to determine where shelter was.
The guards had been firing rounds of warning shots in the air. Just
before Karen dove behind DVD boy’s counter, she noticed their wild eyes and
knitted brows, their swagger as they wound around the basement floor like
the action stars they could at last be. To have been bored for so long was a
dangerous thing. Drifting around for days on end like they did, she knew it
was inevitable for them to chuck all caution aside, to do something,
anything, lest they ferment forever. Give us a break, begged their bowed
legs and strained necks. The flagrant fact that some civilian like herself could
get shot in the process proved useless at that point.
Karen shared the small square of floor with two female merchants,
squatting by their side of the stall with matching looks of bewilderment. They
gripped their head scarves like safety blankets, thighs trembling as they
balanced on the balls of their feet. Karen noted how they stared up at DVD
boy—who still remained upright behind his wares— as if all hope lay in his
standing there with careless curiosity. She wondered what Jeff would have
done if he were there. Would he have put his fright aside just enough to
shield her body with his, yielding unconsciously to that force called
maleness? She found herself believing he would.

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DVD boy flinched. The female merchants squealed. Karen looked up at


DVD boy’s crotch.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“One of the thieves grabbed Fatima; he’s holding a knife to her neck!”
he cried out.
However scared she was, Karen knew she had to see it for herself.
Slowly, she knelt and peered a few centimeters above the counter, just
above a row of films, and let out a little gasp. Fatima was the girl from the
first stall she had approached, and she really was knotted in the arms of
some gangly crook, his blade pressed against her neck. The guards were
crowded about 15 feet away; two guards had the other thieves already in
their grip, while another guard, whose face finally bared a rueful bit of fear,
cocked his gun at the tangled pair with shaking hands. Poor Fatima looked
more dejected than ever before, as if the gloomy predictions she had made
of her fate had just been confirmed. Karen shrunk back to her spot on the
floor.
She would have loved this four months ago. The scene was classic
cheap action movie, with its distressed damsel and goon versus guard, make
or break hostage to-do. She would have sopped up every glorious second of
it, delighting in her luck, aching to tell Reggie about her serendipitous little
moment of field research. She would have barely considered the actual peril
involved back then. Back then, she was an invincible, invisible spectator,
phantom notebook on lap and popcorn in fist, watching everyone succumb to
their own stupid little stories, including herself.
Things have changed. She felt stripped now, the great breadth of air
around her thin and penetrable. She wondered where Jeff was. He had
muttered something about a job interview before she left that morning, but it
seemed more likely that he was just at his apartment as always, either
asleep again or watching a DVD. Her skin stinging for a second, warm body
to stay close, she thought fondly of his long, awkward arms and curled up
tighter beneath the counter.
Voices began to escalate.

+++

“Yes, morals are overrated. I mean, yes, how can you make a shitload
of money if you’re not selfish and willing to screw people over? But this is a
really shitty way to do it, Anina. I mean, you’re not in this company to help
others. That’s not true. You’ve gotten really great at lying, that’s all. To us, to
yourself, and you know that. And it just pisses me off that all of you, all you
Globex fucks trapping us here and trying to keep us in the dark until you’ve
bled enough cash from us, it pisses me off that, that, I don’t know, that you
think we’re stupid. Anina, remember what you said earlier about how Globex
wants to help people who didn’t graduate from big schools? Remember that?
About how unfair it is that all the—and I’m using your word here— all the
‘coños’ get the good stuff and how you want to change all that? Well, I’m

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from a ‘big’ school, Anina. Cum fucking laude. And I fucking freelance. That
means I’m broke, Anina, and I’m sure other people you’ve pulled into this
shady shit of yours, regardless of what school they came from, know this is
bull, too. It’s fucking obvious what you’re trying to do with your stupid,
secretive phone calls and your stupid speeches and your amens and all that
stupid shit. You tell us this isn’t a pyramid scheme, this isn’t networking, this
is all legitimate, there’s nothing to worry about. Why do you have to tell us
that? Why do you have to mention over and over how rich we’re going to be?
I feel like an ass for coming here. I mean, I had a feeling that this might be
what it is, but I still thought that maybe it might be different, you know? That
maybe this was some legit job interview, that I might be missing out on
something good. So yes, I guess you’re right. I’m stupid, then. Fine. But I’m
still really pissed off, and I don’t care if I’m making sense anymore, and god I
just want to go home, but before I do, I just had to say my piece, and I’m
sure I’m doing a few other people here a favor, because I know they’re just
dying to give you shit but they can’t, because that’s how sad things are, so
there. Go fuck yourself.”
The look on Anina’s face was the best thing Jeff had seen that day. The
smile had yet to falter; he doubted it ever would. Still, the Crazy in her eyes
had dwindled significantly, leaving the faintest, most delectable glow of pure
panic. Everyone else was keeping mum for her next words, but she was very
evidently incapable of a reply. It was glorious. That silent but serious short
circuiting of her system was glorious. And that shrill, histrionic, at times
hackneyed, but altogether truthful speech was just goddamn glorious. The
best speech ever. The most potent, most sensible, most glorious slew of
sounds to have ever been spewed from a single mouth.
A pity it wasn’t his.
Anina’s twinkling, grieving eyes were set on a man standing a few rows
behind. There was nothing particularly arresting about the way this man
looked—a bit on the thin side at most, just like Jeff. Shirt and slacks just like
Jeff’s, dulled and limp from a year or three clumped at the back of a closet, a
slouch just like Jeff’s, shaped from sitting on edges of beds while waiting for
each day to mosey on in. He was just like Jeff, and he glared back at Anina
exactly the way Jeff had imagined himself glaring at her, flinging great, hot
hunks of fury generously peppered with defeat. He may very well be Jeff.
But that man was not Jeff. Jeff had his ass molded to Monobloc. Jeff had
not budged his body in any form of defiance since Anina had taken the floor,
unless the time he scratched his elbow for two seconds with such unbridled,
unapologetic rage counted, which it didn’t. That man, that man whose sole
worth in the world seemed to be his ambiguous and adaptable person and
nothing more, was the lord and savior.
In keeping with his freshly-anointed stint as Messiah, the man then
strode his way out of the room soundlessly, leaving the rest to sense the
cloying, guilt-inducing mist of his absence. Little by little, a smattering of
other potential recruits followed suit. Neither Anina nor any other Globex
drone acted in protest. Jeff had expected alarms, jail bars shooting down by

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doorways and windowsills, poison gas hissing out from ceiling sprinklers, but
nothing was thwarting anyone’s escape. Even the company’s propensity for
evil was annoyingly anemic.
He couldn’t will himself to walk out just yet, to freeload on the other
man’s bravery, stomping away without ever letting on that he was supposed
to ignite his own little mutiny. Anina, in turn, had resorted to giggling and
shaking her head once the last batch of rebels had trickled out of the room.
He loathed to admit to himself that she and him had formed a disgusting
little bond. Cowards both, trounced by a man whose face they had already
forgotten. Maybe she was trying to console herself, too, maybe telling herself
something over and over to ease the disquiet, too. He looked away from her
and focused, thinking again and again and again, at least Karen wasn’t here
to see it.

+++

Karen hadn’t seen it. She waddled out of Shopper Central’s main exit,
legs and thighs recently roused, and listened to others recount what the
papers would soon dub the rescue of the year. She hadn’t seen it, having
opted to tuck herself away beneath the stall all throughout the tumult. But it
sure sounded good—to the entire floor’s surprise, one of the younger DVD
boys had sneaked up behind Fatima and the final crook, deftly yanking the
blade away and holding it close against the crook’s own neck. She had heard
that it was so swift and startling and thrilling and involved such a staggering
amount of luck, a rare, moronic risk that just so happened to pay off for
reasons splendidly, cinematically unknown. What made it even more
sensational was all the tittle-tattle that Fatima and this valiant vendor boy
had broken up with each other about a month back.
Karen stepped out to the sidewalk and into the stark, smug 3 o’clock
sun as if she had just left a movie theater, blinking quickly, as if thrust from
pitch dark to unanticipated light. She wasn’t worried that she had just one
DVD to bring back to the office; all she had to do was tell Reggie about what
had happened—leaving out the fact that she hadn’t actually seen the crucial
bits—and he would praise her for a prolific day. She never felt much guilt
working for an idiot. She knew Steel Phoenix could go down in flames
sometime in the future—in two days, in two years—but it was there, and as
long as Reggie kept paying her for letting him think his dreams weren’t for
naught, she would be fine.
She shuffled to the curb. As she scoped the street for a cab to the
office, she saw a familiar face by the building across from Shopper’s Central.
It was Jeff, smoking alone, staring at closed leather shoes she had never
seen him wear before. Her body jerked forward for a second, prompting her
to run over, or to at least wave her arms and call out his name, but she
suddenly decided not to. She would be seeing him later that evening. They
would be all over each other later on, anyway, and she had always been the
type to forego those quick, chance hellos, to savor the city’s smallness this

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way and let each other live out their own, respective days. She believed that
she loved him. That didn’t mean that she had to grant him her presence at
such brief, dispensable opportunities. Nothing would be lost, she reasoned.
Nothing so momentous would be gained.
An empty cab approached, and she flagged it down.

+++

Jeff watched his girlfriend flick her thin, pretty wrist at an oncoming
cab. The Globex gathering had just ended; Anina had sputtered out the rest
of her speech as best as she could and let her cohorts move on to the one-
on-one closing covenants. Being one of the few remaining newcomers, Jeff
had found himself flocked to by Glenn, three more Glenn-like men, and Anina
herself, all five googly-eyed and expending the little energy they had left to
forging his friendship. He had declined. In a soft, steady and cravenly kind
voice, explaining in neat, polite phrases that sorry, so sorry, no, he was not
really interested, his magazine articles were plenty work enough, sorry,
thank you and good luck, he had declined, and they had let him go. They did
tell him he could be interested, he just didn’t know it yet, did tell him he
could juggle Globex and whatever else blah blah blah, but they had let him
go. Now, he was out smoking on the sidewalk, discontented and free,
watching the girl he loved remain dumb to his fall.
Of course, his heart had leapt the second her saw her. He wanted to
run over to her and bask in their luck, wanted to jump into her cab just
before she closed the door, see her flustered face melt into a smile, and ride
out his aggravations with her hand on his thigh. But he didn’t, because Karen
was a curious girl, and she would ask him what he had been up to and why
the hell he was clothed like a douche, and he felt too shitty to lie on the fly.
He should, he reasoned, sit somewhere first and clear his head. She would
come over to his apartment later that night. Somehow, he would still find a
way to deserve her.
He kept his eyes on Karen’s figure as the cab pulled her away.

+++

“Turn back,” Karen said, gaze set straight ahead.

+++

Jeff ran. ●

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