• At dinner, Lux takes a picture of her soggy salmon and icy fries caked with salt while everyone else at the table bickered over politics, a conversation she had no interest in. Across the table, Tehanie bounces in her chair, smiling and posing. Lux takes her picture, then another. Suddenly Lux was in them with her making funny faces and obscene gestures with their hands and mouths. By the time they stopped, there were over a hundred photos of them together.

    Tehanie leans into Lux, swiping through them all, almost sitting in Lux’s lap at how close she was. She sighs dreamily. “We look so good together, right? Just imagine me, you, and that cowboy I danced with. So hot, ohmygawd.”

    “Yeah, you two seemed like you really hit it off, huh?”

    Tehanie smiles big but says nothing. She takes a fry off Lux’s plate, inspects it, and throws it down. “Gross! That stuff is poison. Wanna get out of here? Walk the strip?”

    Despite her nagging inner thoughts pleading to know what the plan was for the night, Lux tells it to shut the hell up, tells Vee she’d be right back and rises from the table. She didn’t need plans. This was a vacation.

    Arm in arm, the ladies walk down the strip. They discuss movies, music, and past relationships before washing it down with their drinks, self-deprecating humor, and loud laughs.

    Lux barely knew Tehanie, but felt like she had forever.

    At the curb, a fancy black sports car pulls up to them. “Are you working?” the driver asks. He rolls alongside as they walk.

    “Ew.” Tehanie snaps. “No.”

    In a huff he speeds away, squealing his tires. Lux watches him go. “What was that about?”

    “He wanted to know if we’re working.” Tehanie said, admiring her reflection in a fancy store window. She spins and runs her hands down her body seductively. “They think we’re ladies of the night. You know how Vegas is, girl. They can’t help it. Look at us!” She pulls Lux to the window. “Look at you.” Tehanie whispers, her lips tickle against Lux’s ear as her hands drop to her waist. “So beautiful…”

    Lux looks at herself in Vee’s long sleeve white sequin mini dress. Dressing up wasn’t unfamiliar to her. She just never wore something pretty and expensive like this. Vee threatened her life if she took the price tag off because she planned on returning it. Maybe she’d buy it from her instead.

    Smiling at her reflection, Lux admires her long black hair. It’s parted to the side with flowing waves. Her legs are slim and fit in her black strappy heels—she turns away. Tehanie spins her around, forcing her to look. Lux closes her eyes.

    “You’re so bashful…” Tehanie whispered and leans in to kiss her. She’s total domination as her tongue sweeps through Lux’s mouth.

    “What should we do about us? What do you want?” Tehanie asks against Lux’s lips.

    What did she want?

    The confidence to kiss Tehanie back, her boss to like her, good vibes, a Black Diamond Elektrik, maybe fall in love since she hadn’t been in forever…

    “Oh, nothing…” Lux replied. Her hand trembles, gently pulling out of Tehanie’s grasp, intrigued and nervous by the kiss, not to mention the bluntness of the questions they’ve received. What would sleeping with a stranger be like? What was an experience with her worth? Vegas had Lux thinking about things she never imagined doing. She was in a different world here.

    They continue walking. On three more occasions, men ask if they are working. Tehanie responded with a firm no. To take shelter from further uncomfortable inquiries, they head for Denny’s.

    “Excuse me, ladies.” A man in a towering white truck says. He rides alongside them in the parking lot. “If you have time, I’d love to take you two away.”

    He flicks on his interior light, and they get a better look. Clean shaven, powerful jaw, light brown hair messed to perfection, kind smile and big, clear eyes.

    Tehanie gasps, clutching Lux’s arm. “That’s the guy I was talking about from the club, the one I danced with, the cowboy.”

    “That’s him? How do you know he’s a cowboy?”

    Tehanie nods wide eyed, and laser focused on the truck. “He just has that cowboy look.”

    Lux remembers him popping out of nowhere while she danced alone in that booth and how heavily his presence hung over her. He drapes his strong looking arm across the steering wheel. Not too muscular, and not too lean.

    “No thank you, sir.” Tehanie says, putting a nail in the coffin on the matter. She walks off and stops, looking back at Lux. “Are you coming?”

    Lux stares at the man. “I have time.”

    His eyes darken.

    “Girl!” Tehanie grabs Lux’s arm and pulls her aside. “Are you crazy? You don’t know him.”

    Maybe it was the dress, or the kiss that gave her courage as she laughs Tehanie’s worries off. “I don’t know you either.” She looks at the truck. The man’s eyes lock with hers. “I’ll come,” she tells him. “I have conditions, though: promise me we’ll have fun, and you can’t kill me, or my friend.”

    He nods with a mischievous grin.

    Lux grabs Tehanie’s hand. “Want to come with me so I don’t get murdered? Two against one…”

    Tehanie gave the man another look. “Okay. But you’re sitting up front with him, not me, and I’ll have police on speed dial. Oh—” She runs around the back; her skinny heels scrape across the black asphalt. She snaps a picture of the license plate. “I’m gonna keep this, just in case, girl. Kay, I’m in.”

    They settle inside the truck. It smells of fresh linen with leather interior black as night and cool against Lux’s bare legs. She looks back at Tehanie smiling nervously. What’s she so afraid of? She looked like she was swimming in bliss on the dance floor with him.

    Was this a bad idea? Lux dismissed her doubt fast and put her seatbelt on, hoping for the best.

    “What’s your name?” Lux asked.

    He doesn’t respond.

    The doors lock.

    Tehanie gulps loudly.

    “I’m West.”

    A tender, warming sensation flows through Lux’s body when he speaks. His voice is deep and commanding. He looks young in his dark jeans and a black t-shirt.

    “Oh, you have a… a unique directional name.” He chuckled at that. “I’m Lux.”

    “The light that darkened my spot.”

    She knew his vehicle looked familiar. “I’m sorry…” Lux blushes, swallowing her lips.

    He winks and extends his right hand gently into hers. It’s smooth and warm with a firm grip. His left hand waits on the wheel–no ring in sight. “Don’t be. I wouldn’t have seen you if you didn’t.” He stares at her. “And I met Tehanie earlier.” His eyes gaze at the rear-view mirror with a wink.

    Tehanie squeals out loud like an excited teenage girl trying to maintain composure. Lux thinks about what she said before they got inside and how fast her attitude changed.

    “So, you want to have fun?”

    Lux nods. “Yes.”

    “Yes.” Tehanie echoed.

    West unleashes a wicked smile Lux translates to: I already know what you want—and I’ll give it to you. Lux would gladly take it from him and Tehanie. As if he read her mind, the engine roars when he hits the gas, sending Lux’s body flying backward. She looks at the dash. He’s going over a hundred with no other vehicle in sight. Just starless black sky, looming mountains and lonely desert.

    “What do you do for a living?” Lux asked, clutching her seatbelt. The more she looked at him, the more relaxed she became, and the speed didn’t matter, or the risk she was taking.

    “I’m a businessman.”

    “Oh.” She eyes his cowboy hat on the seat between them and puffs her cheeks out. “What kind of business are you in?”

    “My business.” He doesn’t take his eyes off the highway.

    Does that mean a business he owns, or what he does for a living is his private business? Judging by his gruff expression, maybe he didn’t like his occupation either. Lux knew how that felt, so she wouldn’t ask more.

    “So ladies, since you know what you want, and I can’t kill either of you, should we head to my place?”

    Lux looks at Tehanie. She nods, quiet as a mouse still holding her phone.

    “Let’s do it.” Lux said, smiling.

    Featured Image: Canva

  • On the day of Lux’s panic attack last week, she prepared a juicy medium-rare steak and sunny-side-up eggs she never got to eat, because working for Jackson Scotch became so unbearable, her body shut down in response. Instead, she lingered in bed, crying. A transfer might solve her work anxiety, but to who? Jackson was the fifth boss she had after various promotions and they were all the same, except Jackson was a little sterner. Why couldn’t she just unlock that odd file like he told her to? He said it was okay, and everyone on the executive floor seemed to do as they pleased without consequence, according to rumor. Why couldn’t she?

    Lux couldn’t decide, so she kept calling out of work ever since. But she was running out of excuses and Jackson said she better be back next week.

    She sighs, clenching the steering wheel tighter, thinking of leaving her life behind. With her savings alone, she could get by for a while without working or sell the house her parents willed to her and really live it up. Lux didn’t have a mortgage, and it’s a seller’s market. The only debt she had was a small three-hundred-dollar balance on one credit card she’d pay off by the end of the week. All those years of discipline with money. And to think it was to save up for a Black Diamond Elektrik guitar.

    She could buy that, too. But right now, none of that mattered. She was going to enjoy herself first.

    The drive was a simple four-and-a-half-hour journey from Phoenix to Vegas. Lux was familiar with the path after taking it with her family years ago to the Grand Canyon and city of sin. That trip was mainly for her parents. At eight Lux and had no interest in Circus Circus or gambling. Plus, she left her hot pink Barbie camera at the restaurant they lunched at before the drive home, missing the chance to develop pictures of the crosses along the road, cacti and palm trees she took.

    This visit would be better, Lux thinks. With pictures. Digital. Lots of them she’d remember to bring home this time.

    A little after 8 p.m., she slides into a prime spot in MGM Grand’s first level parking garage, cutting off a monstrous white truck inching toward the spot too. They slam on the brakes so hard the tires squeal. “Sorry!” Lux waves her hand out the window. Guilt lingers as she keeps the engine on, watching the truck lurk behind in the rearview mirror. “Just keep it moving, dude.” She remembers her blade in the center console. The engine roars and they take off. “Weirdo.”

    Lux jumps out, grabs her luggage, and takes a long look around. People are laughing, there’s bright lights everywhere, and fun vibes that make her feel alive. So far, so good, Lux thinks, grinning ear to ear.

    Inside the suite, she meets with Vee and friends with loud hellos, and bouncy, tight hugs, all thrilled for the night ahead. Claiming the fancy walk-in black tile shower, Lux washes the road off while others scramble in front of the huge vanity with the perfect selfie lighting. Idle straightening irons burn into the marble counter while the ladies splatter themselves with concealer, foundation, powder, and blush. Mascara makes their eyes pop and lipstick fades along the edges of their red solo cups.

    The frosted shower door opens. A cup hovers inside. Lux grabs it with her soapy hand and groans. “Stupid.” She peeks in the cup, sniffs, and looks again. “What is this?” she asks. “Wait… Who gave this to me?”

    “Girl! It’s Tehanie!” She comes out of nowhere and looks inside. “Duh!” she said with a lopsided smile.

    Tehanie styled her hair in loose, soft black curls that cascade past her shoulders. Her bright aqua bodycon dress seamlessly clings to her body, highlighting every natural curve. Her makeup is modest, pretty, and she’s easily one pair of poofy aqua pants away from looking like Princess Jasmine. Lux remembers her face at Vee’s recent parties. She was the one staring at her all night. Lux didn’t know her name until now. Was she a friend of a friend, or someone’s cousin? Why is she acting like we’re best friends?

    “Are you high?” Tehanie asks, grinning.

    Spaced out, Lux snaps out of it. “Oh, hey,” she shields her downstairs with the cup. “Can you give me some privacy?”

    Tehanie looks her naked body up and down. “Wow, you’re gorg, obvi. Oh, and that drink — it’s just somethin’ somethin’. So listen, we’re all gonna go downstairs, meet up with Vee’s hubby and his friends, then go to the casino. Wait.” She leans her head out of the shower. “I think we’re gonna eat first before the casino and club or whatever. Right bitches?” The women echo in approval. Tehanie laughs, winks at Lux and closes the shower door.

    Lux shudders. She couldn’t stand when women said that. Bitches. You know that’s a female dog, right? She wanted to tell Tehanie taking a hearty sip of the fiery cinnamon concoction, then another, and another. She threw the rest down the drain and set the cup beside the body wash, imagining Tehanie in the shower with her, dripping wet. Would she do that? Lux held her face under the water, scorching the thought.

    An hour later, the women, about ten of them, meet up with Vee’s husband Jay and friends, then head to a club—Lux didn’t know the name. The rap and rock mix are pounding and hypnotic. The darkness inside and throbbing lights make everyone’s movements slower. Sipping a fresh drink, Lux squeezes past other bodies and settles in a dark corner booth close to the dance floor, watching a sea of flesh rub together. Men with high expectations dance to the best of their ability and bleed their pockets dry for thirsty women with raised hands and o-shaped mouths, grinding their asses into everything. Lux smiles and twirls the straw in her drink. The flickering cubes inside give it a cool blue glow, and smoke billows from the top like a spooky witch’s brew.

    Dancing with a guy who knows how to, Lux spots Tehanie. Does she know him? He’s handsome. She couldn’t pinpoint an age—and couldn’t take her eyes off their spellbinding dance. They move with a strange spark between them, melding together like ooze. Good for her. Lucky bitch, Lux thought, holding the drink at her lips, eyes closed, moving to the music, grateful to be wrapped in enough darkness so no one could observe her silly ‘I took three sips and I’m tipsy’ dance alone.

    She opens her eyes, laughing.

    The man Tehanie was dancing with is standing in front of her. The blood drains from Lux’s face. His clear eyes in the darkness rest on hers. She jumps back in her seat, almost spilling her drink.

    What the hell—

    “C’mon Lux!” Vee pulls her out of the booth and onto the dance floor.

    “Did you see that guy?”

    “What guy?” Vee laughs and merges into the crowd, dancing.

    Lux cranes her neck over the crowd. He’s still at the booth—staring at her. Blue pulsing lights and darkness bounce against his face, bringing him in and out of view.

    In slow motion, he fades back into the crowd.

    Featured Image: Canva

  • Facedown across her white linen bed, Lux turns over and exhales deep through her mouth. Her nose tickles. Something fuzzy brushes against her lips. She flicks the light on and looks up. Tiny dust flakes fall from the fan blades. It rattles and sounds like it could fall apart at any moment. Brushing the dust off, she uses a zebra print body pillow to shield from the downpour, strumming her fingers across the furry fabric. That was the price for putting off chores. She’d clean it later. Probably. It was hard to keep up with housework when reined back into actual work. Although, a ceiling fan accident would eliminate the need to call her boss, which was coming soon, Lux remembered.

    Would the fan take her head off or crush her first?

    Just call and stop being stupid. Just do it, Lux tells herself. She inhales through her nose and grabs the phone. It’s 1:44 a.m. She exhales big out of her mouth. “One more minute and I’ll call, then I can go back to bed.”

    Lux had set an alarm at 1:30 a.m. to wake up, drink water to clear her throat, finalize her excuse, then call her boss at 1:45 a.m. to report her absence. Figuring he’d be asleep, this would free Lux of the guilt that came with abandoning the workplace—the masters with the mighty clutch on her existence.

    The last alarm blares. 1:45 a.m. She turns it off. Lux had to call now before she lost the courage.

    Jackson Scotch

    Just reading his cocky name in her phone book was annoying.

    Her finger hovers over the dial button beside his work photo. He’s in a power stance with crossed arms and dark, parted hair. He wears a charcoal-colored suit, a million-dollar smile and a pricey looking silver watch. Shame rolls over Lux. This would be her third call out in two weeks. What will Jackson think now?

    “Lux?” a husky voice whispers. “What’s up?”

    “Hey… Jackson? Uh, I didn’t think you’d answer. I-I was going to leave a voicemail.” Lux slaps her head, unsure why she said that. She inhales and holds it.

    “Who’s that?” Lux hears a feminine voice purr in the background. She sounds pretty.

    “No one, a subordinate, go back to bed, babe. I’ll be there soon.” He sounds irritated. Lux shut her eyes, reminding herself Jackson couldn’t hurt her. He’s the boss, not God. She wouldn’t face a guillotine for calling out of work. “Lux, it’s late and I’m pretty busy. You remember I’m on vacation, right?”

    She forgot; Jackson is in Hawaii with his girlfriend. He was boasting about the trip all week. Lux checks the time. He’s three hours behind. Of course he would answer.

    Just say something! “Uh… I won’t be able to work today, maybe not all week. I’m not feeling well.” A reason comes. “Um, blood, there’s heavy, heavy… blood.” No, not that one! Lux swallows her lips.


    “The… cycle. Moontime.”

    Lux ended hers three days ago. She thought about picking a random obituary off the internet and claim bereavement, but Lux felt that road led to dark karma. Dance with death and you’ll get the ride of your life, her mother always said, whatever that meant. Lux wouldn’t play the death card for anything, so it had to be the trusty migraine excuse. In her panic, she played the blood card instead.

    “Oh, Lux, um…”

    “Why are you whispering?” The mystery woman purrs. “Are you sleeping with her?”

    “No!” Jackson snaps. “Okay Lux, gross.” He switches to a professional tone. “Text next time. And I hope to see you next week. I’ll be back too.” His voice lowers. “Don’t forget about that locked file. I need it opened like we talked about.” He disconnects. Goodbyes were not a part of his vernacular.

    A text from Lux’s friend Vee pops up:

    Vee: Wanna go to Vegas tomorrow and party for free? It’ll be fun!

    First, nothing was free. Lux knew this. One didn’t get something from nothing. There was always a fee, some catch waiting to rope Lux in when she least expected it. Second, the opportunity invalidated her own rule: safe, not sorry. Safe wasn’t taking a trip on someone else’s dime planned the day before. There was no time to pack and mentally prepare herself to go. Besides, fun with Vee always ended with Lux nursing the same drink all night listening to other people’s problems about a relationship or work, which was oddly satisfying to talk shit on the workplace, but still…

    Vee: If you’re having a panic attack, we’re staying at the MGM Grand not some crappy place. You just find your way here.

    Lux: Find my way? So it’s not all free?

    Vee: The hotel is and food.

    Lux: Who’s going?

    Vee: Everyone is! I’m already here.

    Lux: What! You are?

    Vee: Yeah! I went shopping too and got the wrong size in this one dress, but it might fit your tiny ass. Come drive down! I know you hate planes. It’s like four hours’ driving time, I think. Are you in, babe?

    Get out more. Smile when you speak. Try something new. Believe in yourself. Lux’s therapist repeats in her head. Easier said than done.

    Lux never made big decisions like taking a trip to Vegas on the fly. She is careful and always listens to her conscience. Like the time that heart-stopping surprise male stripper arrived at Vee’s bachelorette party with valid identification, documented proof of clean health and two unopened boxes of condoms. But what if he finds out I forgot to shave down there? Lux thought as he danced grabby hands with the girls, one by one, all waxed… Lux knew because Vee scheduled an appointment for them all at the salon the day before, but Jackson decided Lux needed to work on a project with next day urgency and missed out. Then, she forgot to reschedule for herself.

    Spooked by the hypothetical, Lux fled when his big hand ripped his black leather shorts off and approached her. She hid like a pathetic woman and memorized every carpet fiber of that closet floor, listening to the bride-to-be moan beneath the stripper in the same room all night. The floor was comfy, at least. If she was invisible, she was untouchable.

    And sorry now. Very sorry.

    If she had just stepped out of that closet…

    Lux rereads Vee’s texts. Fun could be in Vegas. Safe fun if she played her cards right, no pun intended. Vegas was driving her, pulling her in. After all, she didn’t have work, and it was a free stay at the MGM Grand…

    She texts back.

    Lux: I’ll go.

    Featured Image: Canva

  • ,

    Addio Papa Gio

    Ti vogliamo bene, Gio.

    Come back to us, dear Gio.

    What’s the special in Heaven today, Gio?

    Tardy to the funeral event of the year, Goffredo shoves his black shirt down his pants and runs a hand through his damp hair. He skims through a book full of messages to his deceased father. Family, friends, mistresses, and acquaintances expressed their love for Gio Cremonesi in the chunky, leather-bound memory book at the venue’s entrance, surrounded by flowers and photos of the world-renowned chef spanning decades. They signed to the last page, where Goffredo scribbles his thoughts before it was too late.

    I hope I made you proud, papa. Miss you. Love you.


    A group of people are at the church just steps away from the main venue. There are tears, hugs, and quiet chatter. Goffredo suspects that’s where Gio’s casket is on display. He couldn’t look. Not yet. A third drink would be required for that.

    He straightens his tie and looks around. The venue is packed. Lively music and chatter fill the enormous space while drinks and familiar scents of Gio’s replicated recipes dominate. It feels like father never left, Goffredo thinks, remembering his ability to light up a room with his warm belly laughs and kind words.

    “Ah! Look who showed an hour late.” Goffredo’s brother, Maurice, said. He approaches with their sister, Monica. Both are in black formal attire and shoot mistrustful looks at their youngest sibling.

    A distinguished server strides through the crowd with a tray of bubbly refreshments. Ignoring Maurice, Goffredo takes one, emptying his glass with a single sip.

    “Ah, that’s why he’s late. Didn’t get enough at the bar?” Maurice said, high and mighty.

    “Of course, that is usual Goffredo, unstable since fifteen.” Monica snaps. “I could smell bar as soon as he came in. Where do you get off doing this to our papa?”

    “Do what?”

    “What do you mean what? Still drunk? I’m talking about Papa’s casket, genius! Why didn’t you tell us? It’s appalling and embarrassing. So many have asked why poor Gio is being laid to rest in that atrocity. Did you forget this is Fashion Week? Why you always do this to me and my brand?”

    “No one cares about your fashion company! That’s a custom-built casket papa requested after his second heart attack. He knew he didn’t have long. It’s what he wanted; I saw it written on a sticky note in the casket catalog.”

    Flustered, Goffredo struggles with his pocket, then pulls a folded orange note out. Maurice snatches it away. Goffredo steals another glass from a passing server. It’s gone in two seconds.

    “After his second heart attack?” Maurice said. “Papa was so in and out then! There’s no way he would’ve wanted this. I’m surprised his cursive is even legible here.”

    Monica snatched the note from Maurice. “No, Goffredo, you’re wrong.” She seethes. “I remember this paper. Papa was trying to explain what he wanted to eat but was having trouble talking.” She waves the note in Goffredo’s face. “Idiot! This is what he wrote!”

    “No!” Goffredo swats her hand away. “That note was in the casket catalog on page ninety. It was on the option to have a custom-made casket built. This is what papa wanted! His first famous dish had penne in it.”

    “NO ONE WANTS A PENNE CASKET!” Maurice and Monica roared.

    Goffredo hurls his glass to the fancy marble floor, shattering on impact. “GIO CREMONESI DID!”

    The music and chatter end as heads turn to the siblings. Goffredo receives the brunt of dirty looks. His wild past with alcohol and disorderly conduct weren’t a secret to anyone, especially when security detail approached. Flashes of his last arrest for fighting return. Same Goffredo, always in trouble. As if they summoned police, he put his hands above his head.

    “I get it. Don’t worry, the alcoholic black sheep is leaving. Let me say goodbye to papa first. Can I at least do that?” He shoves past them and runs to the church. He finds Gio at rest with a relaxed smile, sunken inside his cylinder-shaped casket sharing the same ridges, sharp ends cut at an angle, and hand painted pale yellow pigment as a cooked penne noodle. Goffredo knocked on it twice, testing its durability. It’s solid work.

    He leans in and prays, ending with a kiss on Gio’s cheek. When done, he finds Maurice, Monica, and their lurking, eagle-eyed security detail hovering at the entrance.

    “Listen, I still love you guys. Even if you don’t believe me, but I know it’s what papa wanted. So… we’ll talk soon?” Goffredo asked, hopeful. “I’m sorry about the glass, sis.”

    “Mm-hmm.” Monica drops her soul searing side-eye and crossed arms for a lopsided smile, pulling Goffredo in for a hug, as does a reluctant Maurice who squeezes them tight.

    Later at the bar, Goffredo sits alone, flipping through the memory book. Needing something to remember his father by that was his own, he took it. Grateful he did, he learned a lot about Gio through candid messages from ninety years of unique souls he met during his exciting life. When he gets to the scribbles he left earlier, he finds words beneath it. Words that weren’t there earlier.

    Goffredo, my son, I love you forever and I’ve always been proud of you. Please take care of yourself.

    Papa Gio

    Goffredo’s eyes tear up. Seeing Gio’s message triggers a new strength deep within, and he feels Gio’s supportive hand on his shoulder. Leaving his untouched whiskey behind, he flees the bar with the memory book in tow.

    Alcohol never touched his lips again.

    Featured Image: Canva

  • ,

    Flesh Pepper

    “No! You’re trying to throw me away. What about me? Don’t I have a voice too?” Frustrated home helper, Pepper says. She paces atop a granite brown kitchen counter brandishing a butcher knife. “There’s five of you. Five white coats in my kitchen, ready to snatch me in, ball me up and squish me into a million little pieces to recycle me into something new. I won’t have it!”

    “Earl, her agitation is swelling.” Senior white coat Samantha says, pointing to data on her laptop. She sits at a long, dark wood kitchen table with three other white coats who read from Flesh Squad manuals.

    Senior white coat Earl takes a careful step closer. “Please, Pepper, put the knife down and come to us. We’re here to help.”

    “No, you don’t understand… The kitchen is foul. And I have done nothing wrong, so let me be.” She jabs the knife in Earl’s direction. He backs up. “I like my home. I love my companion! You won’t take me away again!”

    Samantha runs a white gloved finger across her reflection on the tile floor. Not a trace of dirt found. “This kitchen is immaculate. We don’t understand why she’s operating like this.”

    “Now listen, Pepper!” Earl huffs. “Your companion called us before, and we warned you—”

    “Hey, hey, hey, be gentle.” Samantha interrupts. “Remember what the Flesh Squad manual says when Flesh Pepper succumbs to emotion? Kindness is key.”

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Earl sighs. “Hey, uh, Pep?” His tone is soft, lined in sincerity. “Our sky is blue, and the sun is shining. Everything is okay. Please come with me,” he extends a hand. Pepper takes it, slowly stepping down. “That’s it. Good. See? You did it.” Earl smiles, leading her to the table. He takes a seat and pats his thigh twice. Reluctantly, she lays her body facedown across his lap.

    “Being a Flesh is hard,” Pepper says. Little thick white tears fall on Earl’s ebony slacks.

    “Our sky is blue, and the sun is shining.” He tugs on Pepper’s left ear three times. “Everything is okay.” Once her eyes close, Earl cuts open her black dress, then presses an invisible pattern into her back. Seconds later, a small square piece of her freckled skin opens, revealing her cosmic inner workings.

    Peering around the corner, Patrick Salt, owner of Flesh Pepper, looks worried. “Um. Is everything okay?” he asks, staring at Earl.

    “Flesh Pepper is rebooting, but yes, she will be alright.” Earl sighs. “Let’s clear the cookies and cache too for good measure.” Patrick grabs Pepper’s black handbag off the counter, removing her cash and single pack of mint chocolate cookies. “Good,” Earl nods. “That should help. Pepper likes when you’re pleased, Patrick. And the treats you give her when you’re pleased, like cookies, and money to spend, reinforce that you enjoy what she does, so she cannot stop pleasing you. Hence Pepper’s incessant need to clean the kitchen. Your Flesh Pepper has feelings, emotions—a known bug with this model. The bug will clear on its own, but takes a while—up to a week, some studies have shown and can return. No worries though, an upgrade to wipe their hearts is coming next week that’ll block emotions permanently. Just press the green dot that’ll appear on her right wrist to begin the download. Only you can approve it, as her owner.”

    “Oh.” Patrick frowns. “Is the upgrade necessary? I mean, I appreciate it’s so clean in here, and my eyes sting from the bleach, but I like Pepper as she is—”

    “Don’t spoil her as much and she’ll settle down.” Pepper powers back on. Earl helps her back to her feet. “Hi Pep, how do you feel?” he asks.

    “I… am well,” she smiles. Her long amber hair shines in the setting sun streaming through the blinds.

    After further discussion surrounding Pepper’s basic operation, Patrick shows the Flesh Squad out, grateful for their help.

    “I hope I weren’t a bother.” Pepper whispers.

    “No, no, no. I understand now. You have a bug called emotions. The Flesh Squad said you’ll need an upgrade.”

    “Oh. That will require another power off. Those frighten me, all that darkness and endless nothing.”

    “No.” He rips the Flesh Squad business card up. “Never again.” He puts the cookies and cash in her handbag, hands it to Pepper and kisses the back of her soft, perfumed hand. “I like you; and you help me with so much, it’s time I help you now. We’ll work through your emotions together.”

    Pepper beams. “That would please me very much, Patrick.”

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