Life…So Far…

Hey, y’all. Been a while since I updated you, dear readers, about life and what’s going on with your Square Peg.

Image credit: Giphy

Autumn 2020. Lest we refer back to the year that shall remain nameless, we’ll start there. After months of quarantine living and having way too many conversations with myself, I decided after some prayer and planning to head back to the Somewheres, VA and spend time with the fam while working from there. Fortunately, my job allowed for that, since remote work can happen from anywhere and we weren’t headed back to the office anytime soon. So, from mid-November 2020 to just this past March, I was home. Back to my people, eating regularly and my Mama’s amazing cooking, not feeling hopelessly alone. It was awesome. It was also a trip back to 1995, because my mother all the way treated me like I was 16 years old all over again. That was interesting. There were many times where I wondered if I’d end up grounded like back in the day.

Snovid-21. That’s one of the many apropos nicknames that was assigned to the Bizarre Winter Storm of 2021, which occurred in early February of this year. And if you remember, Texas got hid pretty hard. Large losses of power, beyond chilly temperatures that even surpassed Alaska on some days, flooding. And it’s that final one, that flooding, that affected my apartment.

  • Since I was still in Virginia at the time, the flooding that occurred in my apartment happened without me there:
    • My leasing office responded to my request for someone to check on my place with a reply that they didn’t have any available maintenance workers to check on my place for me. (Which would take like, two seconds.)
    • When I returned home in early March, I was greeted with mildew, black mold, and other areas of damage in my downstairs kitchen, foyer, and living/dining area.
    • After a lot of back and forth, someone finally responded to my requests for assistance. (Which means it was a bear reaching anyone for help. Which means I was beyond frustrated.)
    • Long, long, long story short: all repairs they made were in vain; I was eventually relocated to another apartment because my place became uninhabitable.

So I’m in the new place now and it’s nice to finally be in a place where I can breathe. I couldn’t sit in the living room in the old place because of the mildew and mold; who would have thought the ability to sit on one’s couch and simply relax could feel amazing, even more than before? Grateful. But in case you’re wondering, no, I’ll be finding a new place to live after time on the lease here is up. Those bullets above hardly scratch the surface of the utter frustration that occurred during March-April. Like I cannot even. I utterly underestimated the power of a home being a haven, and when that haven was gone, it was intense and difficult, to say the absolute least. Imagine all of those in the state that got hit worse than me. Goodness.

So, that’s the tea on life for now. Creatively, I’m still writing and coming up with some Frowriter branding, too. Exciting. See the IG for more info.

Bon weekend, dear readers. Onwards and upwards on this life ting…

Cassiopeia, The End.

Despite Jupiter’s promise, none of us had any intention of staying in the area. A few days after the confrontation, Laura vacated her La Jolla condominium. She settled on a ranch in Billings, Montana, which provided plenty of space for my dog, Jack Russell, who would stay with his new friend until it was time to collect him. I was sure he didn’t mind. Spall also found a place near Laura but spent most of his evenings enjoying her dinners and keeping his customary watchful eye over her.  

As for Cassiopeia and me, we joined Laura in Billings but only for our wedding in the local courthouse and a few weeks afterward. We planned on embracing the nomadic lifestyle with my severance pay from The Jupiter Alliance before deciding on where we would settle down, likely close to Laura.

Speaking of The Jupiter Alliance: Hannah Jupiter, along with the Board of Directors, forced Zachary Jupiter out of the company as the CEO and removed anyone on the senior staff with loyalties to him. His whereabouts were known: in their home, eternally watched and monitored. I also learned, unsurprisingly, that most of the 28th floor had been removed from the company. The last piece of information I learned, one that would stay with me for a long time, was that Hannah Jupiter had created a victims’ fund for everyone adversely impacted by the anti-fraternization policy. Its name: the Ballard and Marnie Keene Trust. 

*

On our wedding day, she wore a crown of wildflowers. The train of her flowing white gown (“Grecian style,” my new mother-in-law had informed me with a smile) was also covered in flowers as Spall walked her down the aisle. As our eyes met, as she advanced toward me, my heart was seconds from bursting. Moments after Spall handed her to me and before the court official began the vows, Cassiopeia leaned over. “I love you,” she whispered in my ear. I repeated the words back to her, stopping myself from saying them more than once. We had a lifetime for me to utter those words and I intended on taking that long to utter them.

Our vows finished, the bride kissed, I reached out to caress her cheek, slightly in awe that we were now husband and wife. Unlike my recurring dream, however, my fingers met no stars on her skin. And yet, when Cassiopeia pulled me toward her in a long, beautiful embrace, I maintain, I profess, that I saw galaxies.  

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thanks for hanging in with Cassiopeia and Elliott and the rest for this story. I enjoyed writing it, as I mentioned in the beginning, if only for the chance to throw in some Greek myth-inspired allegory and a bit of suspense along the way. Did you catch the references?

It was a pleasure to share with you. Onwards…to the next tale I choose to share.

Bon Thursday.

Cassiopeia, Part 11.

Cassiopeia quickly approached our group, her eyes clouded in confusion and alarm as she observed her mother pointing at her father. “What is this?” she asked when she reached me. “Elliott, why didn’t you tell me you were coming here? The house was empty. I thought he had taken all of you. I—” Her voice trailed off. I had an idea what she had come to Jupiter’s office to do but refused to give it any further thought. We were all desperate right now, all willing to do anything to save the people we loved.

I drew her toward me, softly kissing her on the forehead. “I had to do something. I had to.”

“He will kill you,” she whispered.

“The jury is still out on that,” I replied softly, smiling at her.

“I hate to interrupt you lovebirds but everyone in this room now has a target on their back,” Jupiter boomed.

We both looked up. I saw something flash in Jupiter’s eyes, something imperceptible, as he rested his attention on his daughter. It quickly disappeared and was replaced by his usual cold glower. “Glad you could stop by, my dear,” he said to Cassiopeia. “Your mother is presently blackmailing me. She claims I’ll never see you again if I don’t remove my policies and let you all go. Ineffectual. I knew where you were when you removed your microphone and disappeared. I knew where all of you were. But I waited because you always come to your senses. You always do the right thing. It’s sad that I’ll have to lose you, that all these other people will lose their lives, too.”

“My God, Zachary, you’re a monster,” Laura said.

Cassiopeia approached the platform toward her father, her features now covered in rage. I gently pulled her back. If anything was going to happen to any of us, she would be my side, next to me. “This has gone on too long,” I said. “Spall, please.”

Nodding, Spall pushed open the door to the private entrance.

She seemed to glide into the room.

Tall, stately, brimming with authority. This time, I saw an emotion on his face that was undeniable and likely the first time any of us had witnessed said emotion when it came to Zachary Jupiter: fear.  

Hannah Jupiter held up her hand when Jupiter opened his mouth to speak. “First, call off Waylon.” She had a commanding voice of her own, not a roar, but no less powerful with its deep, husky tone.

We watched her husband acquiesce without hesitation, pressing the button the phone again and dismissing the enforcer. Had he ever done anything without hesitation, I wondered, other than destroying the lives of the people that worked for him?

“You’ve been having innocent people hurt for engaging in less damaging behavior than you,” Hannah Jupiter said. “I suspected as much for some time, but when Timothy reached out to me, I confirmed things for myself. I have people that work for me, too.”

I watched Jupiter squirm. The man squirmed.

“Rebuking you for bringing other women into our lives affected only you and I,” Hannah continued. “Learning that you were punishing other people for your sins was revolting. The anti-fraternization policy is over.”  

Her words rang in my ears, throughout the office, and seemed to echo within every corner. I looked at Cassiopeia, whose eyes were trained on Hannah.  

“You will right these wrongs, Zachary. Start now. Say what needs to be said.”

“Hannah—”

“Zachary, if I have to ask again, I will release all of this information to the press to your lasting ruination. Say what needs to be said.”

Jupiter glared at me, Spall, Laura, and lastly, Cassiopeia. “None of you will be harmed.” He seemed to be speaking directly, and only, to his daughter. “You’re all free to go.”

Hannah rested her eyes on Cassiopeia. “I heard everything outside the private entrance. He’s your father.” It wasn’t a question. It didn’t need to be.

Cassiopeia nodded.

“I was told the business needed to grow,” Hannah said, looking back at Jupiter. “That having children wasn’t in the cards for us. And there you are.”

“There are more of us,” Cassiopeia replied. “Many right here on this floor.”

Hannah’s head turned sharply toward Jupiter.

He didn’t look at her.

We left them like this.

Cassiopeia, Part 10.

I had envisioned more muted tones, perhaps an endless stream of mahogany, to characterize the lair of one of the most powerful and now officially menacing men in the business world. In effect, whatever Lex Luthor’s office looked like. (Certainly, a dark and intimidating wood finish.)  As I studied the colossal office, however, the abundance of white furniture stood out, including the enormous white oak desk at the front of the room where Jupiter sat. He watched me from afar; the distance from the door to his desk was lengthy, but I was undoubtedly aware of his attention.  

The young woman left us alone, but not without another hard glare in my direction. With a deep breath, I began the journey toward Jupiter’s desk, marveling at the dichotomy of so much white with the almost jarringly colorful artwork that crowded the wall space.  

“What do you want?” Jupiter growled when I reached the platform that led to his desk. As employees, one thing we had repeatedly discussed about the man, having only seen him in video, was the perpetual bark that coated his voice; everything he said, whether it was praising quarterly profits or reminding us to give our all to the company, sounded like a roar. Even seated in his chair, it was obvious that he was a solid, robust man. His upper half, clad in a gray suit that likely cost more than my annual salary, was all muscle.  

“You already know who I am and how I feel about Cassiopeia,” I said, my voice clearer and firmer than how I felt, which could be best described as gelatinous. “I want to marry her and live our lives without the fear of reprisal.” State your case, Spall had instructed during our planning. Don’t sugarcoat it

Zachary Jupiter threw his head back and laughed. It sounded like a cannon.

“You have five seconds to get out of my sight,” he barked. “On the sixth second, the men that will enter this office won’t have a problem removing you by throwing you off my balcony.”

That image temporarily replaced Cassiopeia’s. Nevertheless, I remained resolute despite the bile quickly rising in my system. “I know she’s your daughter,” I said.

Jupiter leaned back in his chair, one eyebrow ascendant. “Do you now?”

“Yes.”

“And I suppose she told you that piece of information.”

“She did.”

Jupiter nodded. “Did she also inform you that, daughter or not, everyone in this little scenario will be severely punished? Including you and most certainly her?” he questioned, leaning forward in his desk.

“I don’t think you’ll punish everyone, Mr. Jupiter.”

With that, the door to the right of his desk opened. We both watched Timothy Spall enter the office with Laura Benson by his side.

*

Jupiter shot up from his chair, peering at me and then Spall. “How did you two get in here?” he roared.

“I worked for you for ten years,” Spall replied, “so your private entrance isn’t new information.”

Jupiter’s eyes then rested on Laura. “You’re risking your life by coming here,” he said coldly.

“Oh, please, Zachary,” Laura replied, waving her hand in dismissal. “You’ve got all these people in this building living in fear. I don’t work for you.”

Jupiter pressed a button on his desk phone. “Waylon, I need you in my office.”

Spall glanced at me. Clearly, Waylon was an enforcer. We didn’t have much time. I caught Laura’s eye and nodded.

“Have it your way,” Laura said. “If my daughter and Elliott can’t live freely—if you don’t abolish this ridiculous anti-fraternization policy that came from your mistakes—you’ll never see her again.”

“What are you talking about?” Jupiter hissed.

“Your daughter. You’ll never see her again. Simple as that.”

He laughed again. “And how do you plan on arranging that?”

It was Laura’s turn to laugh. “She was out of sight for several weeks from your minions, my dear. No one knew where she was. You couldn’t find her. You don’t think she can disappear? Give her more credit than that.”

I felt the rush of air on my back. Someone had entered the office. If it was Waylon, we were all goners. Turning around slightly, however, I saw that it was most certainly not Waylon.

Cassiopeia, Part 9.

There were eyes fixed on me the moment I exited the elevator. I wasn’t sure if they were agents or legitimate Jupiter office staff, but they were visibly communicating, mainly through frowns and threatening expressions, that my presence on the floor wasn’t welcomed or warranted. I wanted to laugh. One would think that an employee of a company would be welcomed on any floor of the company. Of course, very, very few, if any, of us had seen Zachary Jupiter in the flesh or even thought to approach this floor. I continued toward my destination, recalling the map Spall had given me to study.

“Can I help you?”

An attractively dressed young woman seemed to appear out of thin air next to me, armed with a clipboard, a painted-on smile, and now moving in tandem with me. “No, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Which office are headed to?” she asked.

“Zachary Jupiter’s office.”

She stopped short, gaping at me. “You can’t—how—he’s—”

As she comically stammered, a definite balm for my nerves, I looked at her carefully. The same almond-shaped brown eyes, the angular face; she bore enough of a resemblance to Cassiopeia to be noticeable. Could it be?

How many children did Jupiter have?

Had he filled the 28th floor with all of them?

“Do you know Cassiopeia Benson?” I asked quietly, interrupting her tirade.

She leveled me with a hard, long gaze. “Why?”

“She’s why I’m here. I think you and Cassiopeia might have something—or someone—in common. Am I wrong?”

She didn’t respond.

“Well, I have enough information to bring the person you and Cassiopeia might have in common to his knees, as well as this company. Maybe you can accompany me to his office, provide an introduction? What do you think?” I wanted her to know that I went to the office, that I didn’t back down.

“Nothing scares him,” she said with evident pride.

“This will.”

She leveled me with another disgusted expression but muttered that I should follow her. As we advanced down hallways and around corners, the attention from passersby didn’t wane. I maintained my composure, thinking only of the woman and I loved and how I was doing this for her. The fact was that Cassiopeia’s father would never let her go, no matter how much she wanted to fix things. I needed to do my part in the fixing.

We approached an imposing, oak door at the end of yet another hallway. The inner sanctum, no doubt. The young woman glanced back at me. “Just remember that you chose to come here,” she said to me.

I felt an unsurprising chill traverse my spine.

She knocked on the door before entering. The seemingly seconds-long conversation she engaged in was obviously unintelligible, but soon she came back out and gestured for me to enter the office of Zachary Jupiter.

Cassiopeia, Part 8.

Returning to my house was out of the question for the time being. We decided that I would stay in Laura’s guest room in the meantime. Cassiopeia was in and out of her mother’s home as the days passed by. I didn’t know where she stayed when she wasn’t with us (returning to her home was out of the question, as well), but I guessed there was a safe house somewhere in the area. Spall was also nearby most of the time, usually joining us for dinner (sometimes breakfast and lunch, too). It was clear that Cassiopeia has placed him on protection detail for both her mother and me.

After my time off ended, I sent an email to my manager and requested to work remotely for the remainder of the new week. A reply came later that morning.

From: Mark Cavanaugh

Sent:  May 10, 2018 8:48 AM

To: Elliott Percy

Subject: Request to Work Remotely

Elliott –

I appreciate the request and normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. Nevertheless, I’ve received some troubling information from upper management. We need to meet. Please report to the office as soon as possible.

Regards,

MC

I read the email repeatedly, my blood turning cold with each letter.

“What’s going on?” I heard. Spall had just walked in. “You don’t look good.” 

Wordlessly, I handed him my mobile phone, which I had used to access my business e-mail account. He read the message. “It’s a set up,” he said grimly. “They’re telling him to send this message. You’re a goner as soon as you step into that building. It’s Jupiter. The agents are gullible. But Jupiter won’t believe Cassi’s claim that she took care of you until he sees your body.”

God.

“I can’t live here forever, Spall. I’m terrified that the woman I love will never walk through those doors. I’m terrified for her mother. We’re just knee-deep in danger. This has to end.”

Spall studied me. “So, you love her, then?” he asked.

“More than I can even say. From the moment we met.”

He nodded. “Then we need to talk. First, hold off your boss; tell him to give you a few days to come in. I have an idea about how this can end. It’s a crazy idea, but you love her, so it won’t matter.”

I was ready for the idea. Yet, I had a question that needed to be asked. “Did you have this idea all this time?”

“It’s been brewing in the back of my mind, but I needed to be sure. Cassiopeia is like a sister to me; her mother is like my own mother. I wasn’t about to go any further for a silly crush. For the record, I believe you love her. So, we get to work.”

Even if I had an issue with him holding back until he was sure about my feelings—which I didn’t; if anything, I respected him for waiting until he was sure—it didn’t matter. I wanted to get to work.

*

That evening after dinner, Cassiopeia and I stood again on the balcony, taking in the cool evening.

“You fit perfectly,” I said. “Right here, under the crook of my arm. It’s a perfect fit.”

She peered up at me, smiling. “When nothing is perfect in life, at least we have that, don’t we?”

“At least we have that.” I wanted to tell her everything: what Spall and I had planned to do, the risks we were taking, but those words wouldn’t come. Not yet. I only wanted to breathe her in. If anything happened to me from here on out, I had this moment and her place under the crook of my arm.

“What will you do about work, Elliott?” she then asked. “Did you speak to Mark?”

“I’ll figure things out,” I said, remembering that she had an uncanny ability to decipher my unspoken thoughts.

“It won’t be like this forever. I will fix everything.”

I didn’t reply. Instead, I tightened my embrace around her.

*

On a bright Monday morning the following week, I entered the marble-lined floors of The Jupiter Alliance building. I was moments from vomiting and running back into my car, frankly. Nevertheless, the image of Cassiopeia, constant in my mind, stopped any of that from happening. Waving back at the security guard who greeted me, I walked into an unoccupied elevator and pressed the button for the 28th floor. Naturally, the number wouldn’t light up; admission to the 28th floor was held for a very limited amount of personnel. I pulled out my badge—now programmed by Spall with the necessary access rights—and placed it against the reader. Button number 28 flashed green.

Cassiopeia, Part 7.

I stood abruptly, certain that one of Crew Cut’s biceps alone could kill all of us and not caring in the least.

“It’s ok, El. He’s on our side,” Cassiopeia said.

“How? He warned me about you. He told me not to trust you.” I quickly relayed what happened at the dog park.

“I told him to tell you all those things,” Cassiopeia said after I was finished.

I gaped at her. “What? Why?”

“After that day in the restaurant I had to protect you somehow. If you were told to stay away from me and you did, perhaps they would think you didn’t have feelings for me, after all. Maybe they would leave you alone.”

“For the record, he did everything I told him to do. He stayed away,” Crew Cut pointed out to Cassiopeia as he approached the dining area. “But you still came after him.”  

“I panicked when I didn’t see him at the morning meeting. I thought they had taken him,” she said.

“Hate to interrupt, but who are you?” I asked Crew Cut. “How do you know that I ‘did everything’ you told me to do?” 

Crew Cut offered his hand to me. Reluctantly, I shook it.  “Timothy Spall. I was once an enforcer on Jupiter’s team. I went rogue, as it were. Harming people for dating each other just wasn’t my thing.” He then walked over to Laura and pecked her on the cheek. “Hi, Miss Laura.”

“Hi, sweetheart. Have you eaten?” she asked him.

“Yes, but I can always eat again.”

“There’s lasagna in the oven.”

I looked from one person to the other, jarred by the seemingly normal turn in conversation when far more pressing topics hung in the air. “You were saying, Spall?” I asked impatiently.

He turned from the oven and glanced at me. “Oh, right. I knew you did everything I told you to do because you’re not stupid. I could tell. But I also tapped into the security mainframe in the building the next day. I could see you in your office, not answering the door when she knocked. You were determined. You took days off. You listened to me. Simple as that.” He then resumed with making his plate.

Nothing about this entire situation was simple, but I sat back down, resigned. 

“When he was on the team, Timothy could tell that the work I was doing for Jupiter was ruining me,” Cassiopeia said, sliding her hand into mine.

“Because it was ruining me too,” Spall added, sitting down at the table with a heaping plate of lasagna. “I could see her falling apart because I was falling apart. We struck up a friendship. Keep in mind that agents aren’t friends. But we were. Anyway, when she received this new assignment and then told me about you, I knew she couldn’t do it. She liked you immediately.”

“Were either of you concerned about trust when you became friends, that one person could rat the other out?” I asked, curious.

Spall shook his head. “She is the most genuine person I know. I knew I could trust her, especially when I went off the grid a year ago and the team was hunting me down.”

“That day at the dog park: was I being watched?”

“One operative was watching you. When you called your dog over, he left. He wouldn’t gain anything from watching you and your pet.”

I mulled over another question. “But weren’t you concerned that they would see you?”

“Taking care of myself has never been a problem,” Spall replied before digging into his food.

I left the matter alone.

*

Later, while Laura and Spall quietly conversed in the dining area, Cassiopeia and I stood outside on the balcony. A mild breeze wandered around us; the evening was luminous, courtesy of the stars above our heads and the bright lights within the complex.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked me.

“If they’ve been watching me outside the office, they’ve been following us all day. From Palm Springs to here at your mother’s house. I’m just—aren’t you worried that they’ll burst in here, guns blazing?” I asked.

Cassiopeia shook her head. “No. I called them off before I arrived at your house. I made up something about taking care of you myself. Don’t worry.”

“I can’t help it,” I said. I was riddled with worry. “And I have to ask: how can your mother live right in town when your father can just get to her?”

“Spall wasn’t wrong earlier. He would never harm her.”

But imminent disaster still loomed around us. What was the end game to all of this? Cassiopeia had chosen me over everything: her job, her father, the punishments that would surely come. Where were we going now? What would happen next?

“You’re still worried,” Cassiopeia said, reading me as she was prone to do. She looked up at me, the moonlight around us radiating in her eyes.

Rather than elaborate, I placed my arm around her and told her I was fine. We stood like this for a while, my thoughts mounting despite being the comfort of being right where I wanted to be.

Cassiopeia, Part 6.

I canceled my reservation with the resort, and we returned to the road. Driving back to my house was out of the question; the agents monitoring her microphone would have traced the area as her last location and would likely have the place swarmed. Instead, she asked me to drive to La Jolla. During the drive, Cassiopeia talked about everything: the high-tech surveillance inside the office, how most of the agents had never seen Zachary Jupiter face-to-face and only dealt with his cavalcade of right-hand men and women. Except her, of course. She had more access to him than anyone.

“Do the other agents know he’s your father?” I asked.

“No, but a few of them know that I’ve been inside the inner sanctum on the 28th floor. His private office. Which means the popular rumor among the ranks is that I’m one of Jupiter’s girlfriends.” I listened to her softly laugh at the silly rumor and eventually joined her.

Around 3 that afternoon, we pulled up to the gate of the La Jolla Sun Condominiums. I keyed in in the code that Cassiopeia gave me, after which she directed me toward the fourth building from the entrance. Before entering the building, we took Jack Russell for a walk around the complex.

“Who lives here?” I asked her.

She smiled at me. “My mother.”

*

“Mom, this is Elliot Percy,” Cassiopeia explained when her mother opened the front door. “Elliot, meet Laura Benson, my mother.”

“Please, come in,” Laura replied after shaking my hand. She was tall and graceful like her daughter; not one wrinkle marked her dark brown skin. She looked more like her older sister than Cassiopeia’s mother.

We entered a spacious, bright living room. I immediately noticed the photos on the walls. They were photos of Cassiopeia throughout various stages of her life; from the curly-haired girl in elementary school with the shy smile, to the grinning young woman standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe, her arms wide open, to the confident, strong woman standing before me today. My heart swelled. I couldn’t really comprehend how seeing like her this, normal and happy throughout her life, infused me. Laura caught my eye and regarded me knowingly, her eyes gleaming. The women in this family certainly knew how to read me. She then guided us toward the dining area, where we sat.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Elliott. It’s nice to finally meet you in person,” Laura said.

She’d heard a lot about me?

“Oh, my daughter talks about you all the time,” Laura continued, as if she’d heard my silent question. “Would your friend over there like a treat? I dog-sit for some of my neighbors here and there, so I have plenty.”

My dog’s ears perked at the sound of “treat.” Minutes later, after I gave him plenty of treats to fill his belly, Jack Russell padded away towards the corner and occupied himself with chewing on a dog bone.

“So, what happened? What did your father do?” Laura asked matter-of-factly when I returned to the dining area.

“Nothing yet. I destroyed my microphone, so I’m sure the alarm has been sounded,” Cassiopeia said.

“He won’t harm her,” Laura said, looking at me. “But he will do everything to make her miserable. He refuses to let her go. As if he doesn’t have a roomful of children with other women.” Disgust crossed her youthful face. “I’ll never understand that Zachary Jupiter. Why he chooses to control my child is beyond me.”

“Because he loves you the most, Miss Laura. Pretty obvious to me.”

I turned around at the sound of this new voice. (Jack Russell was too busy with his bone to notice.)

Crew Cut leaned against the front door.

Cassiopeia, Part 5.

After exiting the car, we began walking the trail adjacent to the resort. Jack Russell took the lead.

“I was the product of one of his many affairs,” Cassiopeia said, shoving her hands into her pockets. “We rarely discussed him, Mom and me. I knew I had a father but that was all I knew. For years, Jupiter would just randomly show up at our house. There was never an explanation as to who he was; my mother would fix him a plate and we would just all eat dinner together. It was so strange. He would ask me a million questions about school, my teachers, what I liked to do for fun. I was eight years old when I asked my mother who he was. That’s when she told me everything. He was her biggest mistake, but I was the gift in that mistake, according to her.”

I remembered the Google search from a few days and not being able to find an Alfred Benson on the web. “Was there ever an Alfred Benson?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It was easier for me to invent a kind, benevolent man as my father. Not the man I currently know.”

“And yet,” I said, remembering that day in the break room and the reverence in her voice, “you admire him, don’t you?”

Cassiopeia nodded after a moment. “He’s a self-made man. He started from nothing. And now, he—not just his companies—he is a conglomerate. A part of me finds that incredible.”

“That story, about your name and—”
“All true. He chose my name for all the reasons I shared with you.”

A fierce and unapologetic love for his child, I recalled her saying.

“I wanted to please him in every way. I attended the same colleges he graduated from. I studied what he studied. He was everything to me. When he asked me to join the corps, I did.”

“The corps?”

“It’s what we call the agents that my father employs. It’s all true, that there are agents who exist to enforce his rules. But some of us operate a bit differently. Some of us are absorbed into the company as employees. We become your friends, your confidants, maybe even your crush. When we learn about relationships or even admissions of feelings, that’s when the other part of our team takes over.”

I recalled Crew Cut’s words. When you make admissions, they come after you. An image of Ballard Keene crossed my mind. The memories of that afternoon came flashing back to me: Ballard declaring his intentions to marry Marnie and quit the company, Ballard detailing his lofty goals to speak to Jupiter himself. I had long recognized the bit of hope in our conjecture and theories after the two had vanished, a hope that we would be proven wrong and learn that the two had simply chosen to disappear. Now, however, I needed to know. Inhaling deeply, I steeled myself for the question that needed to be asked. “What happened to Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson?”

She was silent for some time. I watched as she visibly struggled with my question and my heart sank with each passing minute. Hadn’t Crew Cut also mentioned that if I wanted to live, I would stay away from Cassiopeia? There was only one alternative to living. And Ballard and Marnie had refused to stay away from each other.

“Cassi. Please.”

“Just know that I wasn’t part of—I didn’t hurt them.” She turned to me. “My father ordered me to, and I said no. They were so young and in love and didn’t deserve what he wanted to do to them. So, I took my punishment.” She paused, then, noticeably reliving the memories of whatever pain that punishment had involved. “But I didn’t touch them, Elliott. Please believe me. Believe me.”

Someone had hurt them, however; someone had done what she had refused to do, what she knew would happen to them. The reality of all those things felt like successive punches in the gut.  

*

I now walked ahead of them on the trail, weighed down by my thoughts. Cassiopeia deliberately lagged, accompanied by Jack Russell, undoubtedly aware that I needed space.

How could I consolidate my feelings for this woman with the knowledge that she had actively hurt people? The question remained there, growing as I walked, each word mounting with each step I took. I couldn’t find the answer. I just couldn’t find it.

Arms encircled around me.  I squeezed her hands and then turned around, placing my hands on both sides of her face. “I don’t know what to think right now,” I told her, searching her brown eyes.

“I worshiped him in the beginning, Elliott. But it wasn’t enough. I was also troubled and disturbed by what we were doing. When I said no to the Ballard and Marnie plan, I experienced a rage from him that I still can’t describe. He declared war on me. So, I bizarrely thought switching to the other team, not being an enforcer, would help somehow, at least to ease my conscience and to stop his punishments.” An abundance of emotions flashed across her face: anger, sadness. But I also saw resolve. “That day in the Thai restaurant, I could have easily led you to say the words, to admit that you wanted me. That was my assignment. I had been threatened with seeing it through. He was listening to us that day. He was likely watching. But looking at you that day, looking at you as me, not the woman I was pretending to be—I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t.”

Nothing to say?

I—         

It’s ok. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.

She had purposely kept me from speaking further.

“Nothing happens to you under my watch, not by me or anyone else, Elliott.” 

Gently, I kissed her. I had found my answer.

Cassiopeia, Part 4.

I stopped short. My dog barked at her. Cassiopeia simply patted the side of her leg twice and Jack Russell ran over, licking her hands while she enthusiastically petted him. What a guard dog.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, remaining where I stood.

She studied me before glancing at the duffel bag in my hand. “Are you going somewhere?”

Instead of replying, I whistled for Jack Russell, noting how reluctantly he left her side to come back to me.

“Why haven’t I heard from you?” Cassiopeia asked.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“Shouldn’t you?” she countered.

I headed toward my car, which was parked against the curb a few feet away from her. “Look,” I said, opening the passenger door and urging my dog inside, “I need to get going. I’ll talk to you later.” Which, of course, I had no intention of doing.

Before I realized it, Cassiopeia was standing before me, peering into my eyes, her breath on my face, so, so close. I gazed at her and felt every ounce of my bravado falling to pieces.  I muttered something unintelligible, probably “God” or “help.” I wasn’t sure. She then pointed toward her collar. I looked at the collar and shook my head, confused as to what I was looking for.

“Closer,” she mouthed.

Leaning even closer—the movement caused the side of my head to brush against her earlobe and yes, my heartbeat was now fully out of commission—I examined her collar once again. A tiny, nearly microscopic gold pin. It was affixed to the fabric on her collar. I looked back at her.

“Pull,” she mouthed and then pointed at herself.

I obeyed and placed the pin in the palm of her hand. She carefully set it on the ground and then crushed it with her foot, rendering the pin into a shimmering pile of gold pieces.

“It was a microphone,” Cassiopeia said. With that, she got into in the passenger side of my car. My dog situated himself on her lap and lovingly gazed up at her. Traitor.

*

The two-hour trip to Palm Springs was silent as far as she and I were concerned. Cassiopeia was far more interested in entertaining Jack Russell than saying anything to me. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the Pebble Brook Hotel and Golf Resort. Moments later, the car’s engine now off, we sat in silence.

“Let’s get a few things out of the way first,” she finally said. “I liked you from the moment I met you. You’re funny, smart, a great listener, and I like your face.”

A smile tugged at my lips. I remained stoic, however, looking straight ahead of me and not at her. That would change, however.

“Can you please look at me, Elliott?”

The question and the sincere way in which she asked me: I knew that staying away from her would never work. (Adding to the fact that she was already sitting in my car.) I belonged to her. I had belonged to Cassiopeia Benson from the moment we met, even if that wasn’t her real name. I turned to face her. “Always,” I said. “I will always look at you.”

Cassiopeia gazed at me for a long while, not speaking. She then moved closer toward me. “Thank you, ” she said. “Zachary Jupiter is my father.”