#AtoZChallenge: Nemesis

It was another quiet afternoon in the neighborhood and Neville Bartson was looking forward to a warm cup of tea while sitting out on his lawn. He was growing accustomed to retirement, to hours spent without worrying about tasks that needed to be completed, and naps that weren’t interrupted by crisis. It had been two years since he moved into the neighborhood looking for a change of pace, and he’d certainly found it. He had no family to speak of, though he had come to know his neighbors quite well. Neville was truly enjoying his golden years.

He went out to the little garden that he had started tending. A few buds were starting to sprout; it wouldn’t be long before the flower bed would be a bloom of colors. Satisfied, Neville was about to walk back inside when he saw someone standing on the sidewalk, watching him.

The figure was covered from head to toe in copper-colored armor, with little touches of black and steel gray to break up the color. A dark cloak was slung around one shoulder and he wore a helm on his head with two curving bull-like horns and a slot through which baleful eyes glared. A scabbard hung from his left hip with a sword that might have been half the length of his body.

“Hello there,” Neville said, with a small wave. “Are you looking for someone?”

The mysterious figure raised one gloved hand, each finger covered by several overlapping armored segments. He pointed right at Neville.

“It is you I seek, Neville Bartson!” His voice was like thunder booming in an auditorium. “I have traveled many leagues on a journey of many days to find you. Long have I awaited our meeting. ”

Neville’s forehead wrinkled. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I know you.”

The figure thrust its armored chest out and loomed over him. “I am Glomdar the Misfortuner, Terror of the Saltlands and Scourge of Fenhall!”

“Glomdar…” Neville thought for a moment. “Hold on, are you the Gillings’ boy from across the street? I always thought your name was Kevin. You work in insurance, don’t you?”

“I know not of this Kevin! I am Glomdar of the Ravenspit! Despair is my helm and Devastation my cloak!”

“And that pays well, does it? Sounds more exciting than insurance.”

Glomdar gawked at him in disbelief. “Enough of this!” he roared, waving one hand in a loud, clanking gesture. “I have not come here to speak of insurance! I have come for you, Neville Bartson! I am your nemesis!”

“You are?” Neville scratched his nose. “Odd…I don’t remember hiring one. Very well then, you may be a nemesis if you like. I’m not reimbursing you for meals, though.”

Glomdar stiffened. “What?”

“Look, I don’t fully understand the terms of our contract, but if you’re going to be my nemesis you’ll have to cover your own expenses.”

Glomdar was trying to assess the situation, his dark eyes darting around furiously behind his helmet. “I had not expected this. I was told that you were a formidable foe, Neville Bartson. But you are just…just…”

“Old?” Neville smiled. “You may mock me now, young man, but one day, you’ll have aching joints to worry about too. Rather soon, I expect, with all that heavy armor jangling about.”

The both of them stood where they were in silence. A car passed by, slowing momentarily as the driver did a double take. A bird chirped somewhere above them.

“Would you like some tea?” Neville said.

Glomdar was dumbstruck. He clenched and unclenched one fist, considering this unexpected proposal. He nodded.

“Come on in then.”

Neville got out his most elegant tea cups, white porcelain with a floral design along one side. They had always been reserved for guests, but Neville didn’t have too many people coming around of late. He filled them with boiling water, put tea leaves in two strainers (Neville never used tea bags) and let them steep for a few moments. Glomdar was sitting at the small round table in the kitchen, shifting and adjusting his armor.

Neville placed the cups on a tray and brought them to the table.

“I’m sorry, I should have asked if you wanted any sugar.”

Glomdar shook his head. “Sweetness does not suit me, Neville Bartson.”

“You can just call me Neville, you know. No need for such formality.”

“Very well. Neville.”

The little china teacup looked even more dainty in Glomdar’s giant hands, as if he were cradling a newly hatched bird. He took a sip, taking care not to scratch the cup against the sharp edges of his helmet.

“How do you like it?”

‘It pales in comparison to the nectar of the Dire Gods, but it is quite nice.”

“It’s chamomile.”

“Ah.”

Glomdar placed the cup gently back on its saucer with a soft clink.

“I am grateful that you invited me into your home, Neville. But I must fulfill my purpose. As your nemesis, I have come to challenge you to a duel from which only one of us can emerge victorious. Prepare yourself for battle. I will give you fifteen mi – ”

Glomdar paused then, and his eyes widened as he looked at Neville. Both hands clutched at his throat.

“You cheated!” he croaked, before toppling to the floor in a clanking heap.

Neville finished his tea, put the cups away and walked up to his attic. Soft cooing sounds greeted him. He smiled at the white pigeon that sat in a small coop by the window, its feathers tinged with silver. There was a desk near the coop with a sheaf of parchments. Neville took a parchment and scrawled a message on it, then went to the coop and tied it around one of the pigeon’s legs.

“Godspeed, Cloudpiercer.”

The pigeon fluttered out of his hands, circled around the neighborhood twice, then disappeared into the clear spring sky. Neville went back down and set about removing Glomdar’s armor. He had given up the old ways so long ago. He didn’t think anyone still remembered his name anymore. It was flattering to think that some young upstart should consider him worth of a challenge, but he was well past the age of dueling.

Neville preferred to kill his enemies with kindness. A little cobra venom didn’t hurt either.

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The Way It Was, Pt. 3

“How did you get here?” I ask, trying to change the subject and to draw out a less dickish side to my future self.

“Time Machine. Rift in the universe. Or maybe I just closed my eyes and said, ‘There’s no place like Donaghan’s’. Does it really matter?”

Ok, so there is no less dickish side.

“The important thing,” he says, pausing to take another sip of his drink, “is how will you get here?” He points to himself. “Or maybe, will you get here at all? Maybe you’ll go a different way. Drink all that untapped potential up and then flush it down a stained urinal.”

“Or, you know, I could just find a job that doesn’t turn me into a jerk. I mean, seriously, what happened to you – me…us?”

He grimaces and gives me a tight nod. “You’re right. I did come off a bit too harsh – ”

“A bit?”

“Fair enough. But you need a slap in the face if you’re going to get out of this funk, man. That’s pretty much what happened to me. I had a troubling realization about where my life was headed and changed course.”

“What exactly did happen?”

“Hey, no spoilers.”

I laugh, in spite of myself. At least he has some of my humor in him.

“Sorry,” he says, the cheap leather of the both seat squeaking in protest against him. “I can’t go into specifics of the future. Tossing pebbles into the timestream and that kinda thing. But I can tell you this. You need to shake things up. Change your whole lifestyle. And in no time at all, you’ll be headed for big things, my friend.” He adjusts the lapels of his very expensive-looking coat. “Big things.”

He sits up suddenly and I spring back. It’s unnerving when your own face comes swooping towards you.

“I can give you one tiny spoiler,” he says, a conspiratorial grin on his face. “Dani Hawkins.”

“Dani Hawkins? Wait, wasn’t she – ”

“The one that got away? She got hooked in again.”

“Wow, that’s amazing, Dani and you…Dani and me…” My own loneliness hits me like a slap in the face. Dani and I had dated for a few months, but it didn’t last. She didn’t like the direction my life was heading in. I guess she was wrong. Or will be wrong. I could potentially get back together with her, live in a big house and have a great job. It all sounds so perfect.

He motions to the bar, where his two companions are deep in conversation.

“Didn’t recognize her, did you? I’m not even sure if she’ll recognize you. She never got to see that beard, lucky her.”

Whoa. That’s her. She’s dyed her hair since the last time we’d seen each other but now I’m surprised I didn’t see it sooner.

“That’s…insane. You’ve really got it all together, huh?”

He shrugs. “Hey, nothing’s perfect, right? But I can’t complain, man. Life’s been pretty good to me. And it’ll be pretty good to you, if you let it.” He downs the rest of his drink in one gulp, the remnants of ice cube clinking against the glass. “Look, it’s been good catching up, but I better get going. If I hang around here too long, that won’t be good for the timestream. Plus, don’t wanna keep Dani waiting, y’know?”

We nod at each other and he slides out of the booth. I watch him walk back to the bar and join the conversation there, wrapping an arm around Dani. It’s as if I’ve become invisible again, retreated into the past that he didn’t want to completely relive.

I’ve just been wasting my time here, wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, thinking that I’m being denied some magical life I deserve by an uncaring world. But, I realize, that life is mine to take. All I have to do is reach out for it and pull it towards me. Big things. That’s what he said. There are big things in store for me if I just walk out of here and try to make something of my life.

The again, it’s Saturday night at Donaghan’s and I’ve still got a tall glass of beer with my name on it. I reach for the glass, take a long sip and let the bitterness coat my tongue.

I look to the bar. My future self is still there with Dani, but he’s looking back at me now. Even from a distance, I can see the panic building in his eyes. I smile, raise my glass, and chug the rest of my beer. He’s nowhere to be found among the usual drunks that frequent this place.

Good. That guy was a dick anyway.

 

Check out Part 1 here and Part 2 here. For more unusual tales, head to The Reading Room.

The Way It Was, Pt. 2

That’s impossible. Well, not quite.

I mean, there are people who have a striking resemblance to each other in real life. Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel, for example. Or Robert Downey Jr. and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But a man with the exact same face as mine, standing in the same bar that I’m in? That’s just way too big a coincidence.

I realize that I’m staring at the guy, so I try to look away but it’s too late. He sees me. He smiles and raises his glass in my direction. What the hell? He doesn’t seem the least bit surprised. To my growing discomfort, he excuses himself from his companions and heads over to my booth. This could get awkward.

“Well hello!”

The man looks like me and he sure sounds like me but he can’t be me because I’m me. Aren’t I?

“Umm, hi…”

My doppelgänger slides into the seat opposite mine, grinning like a maniac.

“I knew I’d find you here!”

He did?

“You did?”

The man takes a sip of his drink. Whisky on the rocks. One of the top shelf brands, no doubt.

“Course I did, bud. Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

I chug my beer until it’s almost gone. There was this crazy suspicion I had right after I noticed the resemblance between us. As I look closer, that suspicion starts to grow stronger. The man isn’t an exact duplicate. His face is a bit thinner, his hair has a lot more gray threading through it. I can hear now that his voice is a bit lower than mine, a bit rougher.

“You’re…from the future.”

He sits back with a satisfied smile.

“Yes. I mean, sort of.” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “Think of me as your unfulfilled potential. I’m the man you could be in ten years.”

“The man I could be.”

“That’s right. Look at your life right now. Really look at it. What are you doing? Where are you going? You’ve had a few setbacks. Lost your job. Had no luck in love. So now you’re stuck in the same routine, day in and day out. You’ve given up. Hell, your life has given up.”

“And if I try real hard, I can become a dick like you?”

He gives me a look, the kind of look you might give a small dog that’s trying to jump onto the couch but not quite getting there. I don’t like that look.

“Well hey, this dick’s got a pretty solid bank account and a living room the size of your apartment. So you tell me.”

He makes a good point. Not that it gives him any right to be a dick about it.

“And you’re here to get me to turn my life around, to become the man I was meant to be. To become you. That it?”

He smiles. It’s really beginning to annoy me, even though it’s the same smile I’ve seen in the mirror and in countless pictures of myself. I used to love that smile.

“No, that’s not why I’m here. I just came to look back at my life. To see the way it was before I changed. Before you changed, I should say. I lived such a sad, meaningless life back then, didn’t I? I’d forgotten just how much time I spent in this damn place, stinking of stale beer and piss. No goals in sight. No hope in mind. Just drinking the time away until a new day arrives.”

Unbelievable.

“So you came back to…mock me?”

He shrugs. “It’s good to look back on your past now and again. See the dead end paths you’ve walked to avoid walking them again.”

I’m tempted to smack him upside his pretentious head.

The Way It Was, Pt. 1

Three empty glasses sit on the table in front of me. They were filled with beer earlier. The dark wooden table hides the stains of spilled booze well, but the stickiness gives it away. Sticky tables, sticky floors. I really hope it’s just dried booze. Then again, I don’t care much right now. It’s Saturday night at Donaghan’s and I have at least three more beers to get through before closing time.

The place is pretty full. Lots of people standing around near the bar, waiting for someone to leave or just pass out. It’s a good thing I got here early. Not like I have many other place to go. I haven’t been working for the past two months and it’s been about a year since my last semi-serious relationship. My apartment is a cage, tiny and rectangular. There’s just enough space for me to breathe, but my thoughts get stifled there. Donaghan’s is a much better place to think. And nobody judges you for drinking by yourself in a bar. That’s kinda why it exists in the first place.

I suppose I could approach some of the people here, attempt to make new friends. Who knows, we might even hit it off and have a fun night. But then they would leave, going back to their lives and their jobs. And it would just be me again. As it always is. There are a few regulars around here, but I’m the goddamn customer of the month. And I probably will be for a while.

Another beer lands up on my table. It won’t last long.

As I take a swig, savoring the smooth bitterness of it running down my throat, I see two women head to the bar. Tall brunette and her redhead friend, both dressed to kill. And I’m a dead man. Under better circumstances, ones that didn’t involve being unshaven and walking around in a greasy hoodie, I would put on my most charming face, strut over to those two beauties and chat them up. Oh who am I kidding? I’d probably still be nursing an empty beer glass.

Still, they’re a welcome sight in this dingy rathole. And of course, they’re not by themselves. A man joins them soon enough. Dark tailored suit, looking so sharp it almost slices through the smoky air. Hair cut short and gelled. Clean-shaven, the scent of his aftershave filling the room. I’ll bet his teeth sparkle too. Typical Mr. Perfect, probably an investment banker or financial advisor or something that keeps your pockets full.

I can’t stop looking at him, though. There’s something familiar about him. In fact, as I push back the bleariness clouding my vision and really pay attention to his face for the first time, I realize he looks a bit too familiar. Is he an old high school friend? Or a former co-worker? No, that’s not it.

I sit up, eyes wide.

I know why his face looks so familiar. If he had a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes, I would have recognized it right away.

It’s my face.

Grounded

The stars winked in the night sky, taunting William. They knew he was bound to the earth. He was no pilot or astronaut. He couldn’t soar to great heights or touch the sky. All he could do was stand on the balcony of his apartment and gaze at the celestial panorama above him.

They said the city was most alive at night, yet to William it felt so lifeless. The neon glow that lit up the streets paled in William’s eyes compared to the natural splendor of the stars. William wondered what it would be like to unshackle himself from gravity, to float off into the clouds and see the stars face to shining face. It was a childish fantasy, but it gave him solace on long, lonely nights.

He had no friends in the city, and what little family he kept contact with were also miles away. It was funny, William thought, that he couldn’t see the people that lived in the same country but the furthest stars were always in his sight. He chatted with people on the bus, laughed at his co-workers’ jokes and even had lunch with a few of them, but at night, the stars were his only companion.

As lovers walked the streets hand in hand and friends laughed at each other’s raucous jokes on the way to some late night hangout, William floated through violet clouds tinged with the silvery glow of the moon. That was where he belonged, where he would truly feel at peace. He just knew it. Ever since he was a boy.

William’s father was an amateur inventor and would often spend his evenings in the garage, working on his fanciful machines. On those evenings, William’s mother took him out for a walk under the stars. He remembered the cool night air, the warm comfort of his mother’s hand, and the majestic sky that twinkled with delight at the sight of him. It was a ritual William continued into adulthood, though after moving to the city, he preferred to watch the sky from his balcony. He felt closer to the stars that way.

As the years passed, William grew more and more isolated from the world around him. He was seen but rarely heard at work, and his neighbors often wondered if his apartment was empty. His hair had grown thinner and grayer. His shoulders stooped and his knees ached. But William still shuffled his way on to the balcony as the sun set, his neck craned upwards. For as long as the light still shone in his eyes, he would not miss an opportunity to gaze upon the stars. They were his friends and his family now. Soon enough, he thought, his body would fail him and would fall to the ground in a useless heap. But that didn’t bother William. He knew then that he would finally be free of the earthly realm. He would at last be able to join the stars, as he had dreamed for so long.

As pin pricks of light formed against the night sky, William took in one long shuddering breath. It was almost time.

Story A Day Challenge – Day 11: Bitter Pill

Vanderbilt Industries was a corporate octopus, with tentacles dipped into every facet of the city. Vanderbilt Construction had built half of the major downtown offices, Vanderbilt Pharmaceuticals kept everyone in good health, and Vanderbilt Bottling provided the entire city with clean, twice-filtered water. Anyone that wanted to have a career worth having turned in an application to one of Vanderbilt’s many divisions and kept their fingers crossed tightly.

Josh Fenton still found it hard to believe that he’d be joining Vanderbilt’s corporate headquarters as an advertising executive. It was a citadel of shiny blue glass, looming over the center of the city as its de facto master. In many ways, it was. And soon, he would be part of it. Josh combed his chestnut brown hair and tried to keep a serious face, though he couldn’t stop smiling. Today was a big day. Perhaps the biggest day of his life. Was that a bit much? He didn’t think so.

The lobby of Vanderbilt Tower felt almost like a town square. It was bustling with activity, people rushing to and from elevators and stairwells while other lounged on the smooth white leather couches in the center, waiting for a meeting or an interview. It was only a few weeks ago that Josh himself had been on one of those couches, afraid of staining it with sweat. Now, he was headed for one of twelve glass elevators, going up to the 26th floor. It was the start of a long climb for him.

Walking into the office, he was greeted by the chirpy young receptionist who introduced herself as Amelia, and whose smile won Josh’s heart in an instant. She showed him around the area, escorted him to the advertising director’s office (who was just the nicest and most positive guy Josh had ever met) and finally led him to his desk. The desk across from where Josh sat was occupied by Steve, who was apparently one of the best in the division. Josh knew they would be good friends the moment he met him, and he wasn’t wrong about that.

Targeted advertising campaigns for some of Vanderbilt’s newest products and renewed campaigns for their old ones occupied Josh’s time. He was never short of projects to work on, and found himself surrounded by teams of driven individuals who were hungry for success. His days were spent buried in work and his evenings spent planning the next day. The office wasn’t without its quirks, though. The advertising director was insistent that employees stayed hydrated at all times, and Vanderbilt water bottles were distributed around the office several times a day. Josh didn’t complain. He could use a drink now and again.

His personal life was good too, thought confined mostly to the office. He would joke around with Steve at their desks when not bouncing ideas around with him, and Amelia also became a constant presence in his life. He looked forward to her cheery greetings each morning, and tried to work up the courage to ask her out, but he never quite managed it. Still, he had hopes for the next day. On the whole, life was going quite well for Josh.

Until the day Steve got fired.

One morning, Josh came into work, got his usual perky greeting and sat down at hid desk. Steve wasn’t there, but that wasn’t so unusual; sometimes he had early morning meetings to work through. But none of Steve’s things were there either. The desk was completely empty. Josh asked Amelia about it, and was cheerily informed that Steve was no longer a part of the Vanderbilt family. That didn’t seem to make sense to him. Steve was a dedicated employee and good at what he did. Why would they fire him?

As Josh was trying to make sense of the situation, he saw Steve walking by holding a box. He was being escorted by building security. Josh rushed over to him right away to ask what happened, but was held back by one of the guards. He couldn’t understand it. Steve, who was always full of good humor, was walking with shoulders slumped. He looked like he had been crying. As he got into the elevator, Steve stared right at Josh and said only one thing: “Don’t drink the water.”

Josh was incredulous. “What?”

Steve repeated himself. “Don’t drink the water.”

The elevator doors closed before Josh could ask anything further, and a security guard very politely ask him to go back to his desk.

The rest of the day went as usual, but Steve’s absence gnawed away at Josh. Don’t drink the water. He accepted the water bottles that were passed around throughout the day and his them in his drawer. As the day progressed, Josh had the strangest feeling. It seemed to him like everyone in the office was just a bit older than he remembered. Fresh-faced colleagues looked a bit wrinkled, their flowing hair dotted with gray. Josh shook his head. He must have been working too hard.

There was a great sense of relief as Josh entered his apartment at the end of the day. He washed his face carefully, changed clothes and sat down to watch the finest programming Vanderbilt Entertainment had to offer. His cell phone rang. Josh was surprised. Nobody called him after work. He spoke to his parents on the weekends, thought truthfully, he’d been too busy to talk to them in a while. He made a mental note to call them that Saturday.

Josh looked at the number on the phone. It was Steve.

“Hello?”

“Josh.” Steve sounded different. Tired. Older, it seemed.

“Hi Steve. What happened today? Why’d they let you go?”

“Josh, I need to talk to you. It’s really important. Meet me at the cafe across from your apartment in half an hour.”

“What? Steve, I don’t – ”

“Just meet me there, Josh.”

“Alright, I’ll be there.”

“Good. Oh, one more thing. Don’t drink the water. The bottles. Don’t touch them.”

Josh wanted to ask why, but Steve had already hung up. He turned off the TV, paced around his apartment until it was almost time, drank a glassful of plain tap water, and left to meet Steve.

The cafe was mostly empty. Josh had passed by it when going to and from work, but he’d never paid much attention to it before. He sat by a booth in the corner and waited. He was staring out the window, lost in thought, when an old man entered the cafe and sat down across from him at the booth.

“Uhh, sir. I’m actually waiting for someone. I’m sorry for – ”

“Hello, Josh.”

Josh froze. “How do you know my name?”

The old man smiled, despite looking very depressed. It was a very familiar smile. Josh looked at the face carefully, past the lines and wrinkles that creased it, and came to the horrifying realization that he was looking at Steve. Steve, who was only two years older than him, who still believed that 30 was over the hill, Steve who had been a smiling young man just yesterday. It didn’t make any sense.

“Steve?” he said, finding his voice again. “What the hell happened? What – Is this some sort of prank? What’s going on?”

Steve nodded slowly. “It’s crazy, isn’t it, Josh? I thought so too when I first found out. It’s a crazy world we’re living in, my friend.”

“Steve, I don’t understand…”

“How long have you been working at Vanderbilt, Josh?”

Josh was confused. “I – it’s been about 8 months. Why?”

Steve smiled sadly. “39 years, buddy. You’ve been here 39 years.”

It took a moment for Josh to process what he’d just heard.

“What?! Seriously, Steve, this isn’t a very good prank.”

“It’s no prank, Josh. Vanderbilt controls everything.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Vanderbilt isn’t just a company, Josh. It’s basically running this entire city. This is some sort of, self-sustaining facility. People are paired together, have children, those children are educated and trained to work at Vanderbilt, and that’s where they work until they die.”

“Steve, come on – ”

“The water, Josh. That’s how they control us. Vanderbilt water is contaminated with some sort of powerful hallucinogen. It alters your perception, molds it to what Vanderbilt wants you to see. A happy, thriving city populated by the young and the hopeful.”

Josh rubbed his temples. “That’s insane.”

“Tell me, Josh, when was the last time you saw anyone over about 30? Are there any old people in our office? Any retirees?”

“No, but – ”

“When was the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“It’s been a couple of weeks…just a couple of weeks.”

Steve wasn’t smiling any longer. “None of this is real, Josh. Look around you. I mean, really look. We’ve all been living a lie. The lie Vanderbilt wants us to live. I discovered the truth, so they let me go.”

He laughed, bitterly. “Of course, that’s not true. I wasn’t ‘fired’. They were going to kill me. I managed to escape. But I’m not a young man anymore, Josh. I haven’t been for a long time, it seems. They’ll catch up to me. You need to find a way out of here, Josh.”

“No, no, no. This doesn’t make any sense. There’s something wrong with you, Steve. You’re sick or something. You need help.”

“I needed help a long time ago, Josh. I should have got it then. But it’s too late now. Nobody is what they seem, Josh. Not me, not you, not Amelia.”

“Amelia?”

“Yes. Your wife.”

“What?!”

“You and Amelia were married 25 years ago. Vanderbilt put you together so you could help create a new generation. Once she gave birth, they separated you and wiped your memory. To keep the illusion alive. I imagine your kids are being groomed to join the company as we speak.”

“No, this can’t be real. This can’t be real!” Josh was panicking, the veneer being stripped off his life.

“Go home, Josh. Don’t drink the water. And look. Really look.”

Steve got up slowly and hobbled away. Josh was left alone with his thoughts. He looked at the waitresses of the cafe, serving other tables. They had been bubbly young blondes when he walked in. They were considerably older now. His head in a fog, Josh went back to his apartment.

It looked different. The sleek, minimalist furniture was gone, replaced by old, weathered couches. The bare walls were decorated with pictures. Pictures of his life. His and Amelia’s wedding. The birth of their son. There were pictures of her as an older woman, gray haired but still with the twinkle in her eyes. But it was fading. Josh reached out to touch the picture and noticed the wrinkles on his hands.

Panicked, he ran to look in the mirror. He couldn’t believe the face that stared back at him. Josh’s face was lined with deep wrinkles, his cheeks sagging. His hair was a pale gray, and clung in thin wisps to the side of his head. He was stooping, staring at himself with tired old eyes. Josh backed away. It was impossible. It was true. Vanderbilt had built a lie. A beautiful lie.

Josh sank to the floor, crying into his hands. This wasn’t the life he wanted. He was a young graduate with stars in his eyes, hoping to start a dream job and live a charmed life. Not this.

A charmed life.

Josh stood up and looked into the mirror again. The old man staring back was not who he was. He went into the kitchen and took a bottle of water out. He held it with shaking hands. Josh took a deep breath, then emptied the bottle in one long gulp.

***

Josh woke up to the rays of the morning sun creeping through his window. It was time to go to work. He got ready and had breakfast, brimming with excitement. Before leaving, he stopped to look in the mirror. Josh smiled, running a hand through his thick chestnut hair.

He went to the office and too the elevator to the 26th floor. He was greeted by Amelia, as cheerful and chirpy as ever, and he greeted her back with a big grin. Josh went and sat down at his desk. Shortly afterward, Amelia introduced him to his new neighbor, Mark. Josh knew he and Mark would be friends right away.

He smiled at Amelia as she walked away, and she smiled back. One day, he would ask her out. But he had his whole life ahead of him to worry about that. For now, there was work to be done. Josh couldn’t wait to begin.