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The Contest - Part 4

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Want some cool music that vibes with these parts of the story? Who knows, you may find some clues in the lyrics ; )

Chapter 6 - The 5th Dimension - Let the Sunshine in

Chapter 7 - Kings of Leon - Red Morning Light

Chapter 6

James and Michael stood outside of Joseph’s apartment. As Michael raised his hand to knock the door swung open abruptly.

“Hey guys! Oh it’s cool that you came, I’ve got so much to tell you! I hope you weren’t waiting long by the door!” he exclaimed, a gleam in his eye that contrasted heavily to his weathered face which, James and Michael thought, seemed even pastier than usual.

“No, we just got here. We’ve been trying to reach you for a while, where have you been? Didn’t you get our messages?”

“Huh? No, I didn’t, that’s so weird! I’ve been really busy lately too so I just haven’t checked a while either—“

“Dude it’s been weeks.”

“—yeah I know, the time just flew by! Anyway come in, come in, why are we talking here by the door? Let’s go to the table,” he finished, realizing after some short awkward moments that the reason James and Michael couldn’t enter the apartment was that he was standing right in the doorway. He uttered a quick “Oh sorry, come in” as he moved aside to grant them free access.

James and Michael had only come to talk about the Scotland trip which, at this point, was just around the corner. Since it had been so difficult to reach Joseph lately they’d gotten concerned and therefore decided to drop in on him. While they were relieved to find Joseph so enthusiastic they were also quite shocked upon entering the apartment. To say it was in a state of disrepair would have been a gross understatement.

Just about everything in the usually decently organized room had been shifted in one way or another: the normally tidy couch in the living room had cushions hanging off the sides of it (mismatched horribly), the kitchen counter had spent food wrappers strewn about and the house was littered from corner to corner and floor to ceiling with tiny feathers, mostly like the kind used in bedding. Furthermore the windows, which had always been the traditional source of light during the day, had been shuttered with thick garbage bags, opaque and black in color, that had been crudely stapled into the wall. After taking two steps into the apartment the two friends stopped dead in their tracks.

“Jesus, Joseph, what the hell happened here?” exclaimed Michael.

“Huh? What do you mean? Oh the drapes? I’ve just been going out more lately at night and I can’t sleep during the day ‘cause the light is so bright. These work really great, I’ve slept like a baby since I put them up.”

James and Michael, who now slowly moved to sit (which prompted Joseph, too, to sit) at the living room table looked at one another perplexed.

“It’s not just the drapes, Joseph, I mean all the other stuff too… what happened?” began Michael after an awkward pause.

“What do you mean?”

“Dude come on, this place is a mess – I’ve never seen it so messy here, and what’s with all these feathers?”

“Oh man, I gotta tell you guys the story ‘cause it’s really great and I’ve wanted to tell you since you’re gonna love it and you won’t believe it,” he began, leaning in toward the other two and lowering his voice to almost a whisper, “I think I’m making some serious progress with Analia!”

James now interjected.

“That’s good Joseph but we don’t want to talk about Analia right now, we want to talk about what’s going on with your apartment because we’re pretty worr—”

“No no no, that’s my point, just listen to my story and it’ll explain all the stuff, alright?”

James and Michael, shooting quick glances toward each other, nodded complacently and uttered out a frustrated “OK,” prompting Joseph to begin.

“Yeah so I can’t remember the time at all but anyway I was sitting here at home, right, and I get this text from Analia, wait I can show you,” he said as he went for his phone, prompting the other two to assure him that he didn’t need to show them the actual text and to just continue. Joseph agreed to abandon finding the text and instead lit a cigarette before continuing.”

“So I—”

“What are you smoking, man?” an interrogative Michael interrupted.


“The smokes, what are they? I’ve never seen those.”

“Oh yeah I know, Analia smokes these and I tried one and it’s really great and I like it a lot, I don’t think I’m gonna go back to my old brand ‘cause these are so good, but anyway back to my story... Where was I?”

“The text,” they both prompted Joseph.

“Oh yeah the text, so I was sitting here and this text comes from Analia and at that time I was really worried because I didn’t hear from her for a while and I felt like we had really great chemistry before and everything, so when I get this text I saw she wanted to know if she could come over here with some friends, and I was like totally psyched because you know I told you guys that her friend has a house somewhere where they usually hang out at, so it was really flattering that they would want to pick my little apartment over that big house. So they met me at the door and we got alcohol because they didn’t have any—”

“Wait a minute, what do you mean? Why didn’t they just bring it?” asked Michael.

“And where did they come from?” added James.

“Oh I didn’t ask how they came, I mean obviously not driving because they had so much to drink that night, maybe they got picked up or took a taxi or something I don’t know. It was my turn to buy that night so I just offered to get a couple bottles for them.”

“But you said you hadn’t heard from her in weeks,” countered Michael again.

“Oh yeah that’s true, but it’s like a reset so this round of hanging out I was cool with buying. I mean it’s not a problem I was cool with it; if you guys asked me to go and get some liquor for you I’d do it too without even thinking twice so I don’t think it’s really a big deal.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know, I mean I guess…”

“Anyway so we went and got liquor and then back here to the apartment and man,” he began to smile, “they let me drink so much! It was a really wild night. I remember they brought their own cups and so we were here at the table and they poured the alcohol into their cups, but my cup was empty for a long time and I didn’t know if they’re playing a joke or something—“

“Wait, who are these people?” again interrupted Michael.

“Oh just friends, you know, and Analia.”

“Friends? We’ve never heard of them before…”

“Oh well they’re from Analia’s crowd, all kinda tall and thin guys and the one guy, the guy I told you guys about who brought her to the store that first time, he was there too… damn it’s annoying because I know I’ve heard his name so many times but I never remember it… anyway so they were there at the table and my cup was empty, and I thought maybe they’re playing a joke because they filled all their cups up, but then Analia turned to me and you know what? She touched my shoulder and told me that this is what they do for new friends, like a kinda initiation or something, and I had to hold my glass out to each of them who put a little of their alcohol into it, and the last two were the guy whose name I can’t ever remember and Analia and he did it for both his cup and her cup. I was super psyched because Analia seemed like she was really interested in all this and I mean, no offense guys, but nobody ever did something like that for me as a kind of formal ceremony to welcome me into a group, I mean I never really talked about it but I kinda wanted to go to the parties Analia had and I never got invited, so this was really important to me—”

“But wait, you told us all the time that you were tired or had work or whatever and that’s why you didn’t go to the parties, didn’t you?” Michael interrupted again, this time even more pointedly.

“Yeah, I mean I have to be honest and say I was a little embarrassed because I wanted to go and I didn’t know how to bring it up and I was even afraid for a while that they didn’t like me, that’s why this night was so special and why I’m so psyched by all this,” he continued.

“So we all drank down the alcohol, I remember they said some stuff kind of like a toast and we all drank it down, but then we had to do the same thing two more times. It was weird because I really never drank whiskey and it used to make me almost vomit each time, but it really went down smooth and it gave me this neat feeling in my throat like really warm and comforting… So then, and it only gets better from here so listen up because I think I’m making serious headway with Analia, so then she came up to me and said ‘Welcome to us, Joseph!’ and gave me a hug and told me that after this three times drinking thing her and the others had to go to my room for a while, but they said it was a secret thing they were doing so I couldn’t come or watch. I didn’t know if they were playing or what but I was really drunk too but I was also really worried because I didn’t want them to mess up my room if it’s some dumb joke or something, but then Analia came up to me and leaned in close to my ear, so close that I could feel her breath and she told me ‘Don’t worry Joseph, we’re just going to pillow fight a little while,’ which I remember thinking was really funny and silly. She laughed too and told me just to hang out and that I should rest because I drank so much whiskey… So anyway she went into my room and the guys followed her in and I remember hanging out a while outside the room and kind of listening in but it was just the usual pillowfight noises, but it went on really long like at least two or three hours and I was half sleeping and then the door opened and Analia came out and she looked really great, I mean like she’d been through hell with her hair all messed up and her face was flushed but she looked really good, I remember she reminded me of that first day she came in where she just had this energy, and I remember she came up to me and leaned in again and I thought she was gonna say something, but – and you guys will never believe this – she kissed me! She kissed me right on the cheek and said I was the greatest and kind of just smiled at me, then they all left together… So the apartment is a mess because of that night; that’s where all the feathers came from and I keep trying to get rid of them but it seems like I just can’t, it’s like they’re growing out of the carpet or something. Once I opened the bedroom door that day they all just flew in to every corner of the place, except for the ones that were stuck to the bed covers because the bed was all wet that night.”

James and Michael were speechless. They looked at Joseph for more than a long moment and Joseph, completely unaware of their perplexity, lit another cigarette and seemed to be poised to receive some kind of congratulatory remark on getting a kiss and being “that much closer,” as he would often say, to achieving a romantic relationship with Analia. James and Michael, however, at this point thoroughly creeped out and ready to just get down to business, abruptly changed topic to the intended subject of the travel funds.

“The reason we came by, Joseph, is because our Scotland trip is going to be coming up real soon and we have to start organizing buying the tickets and all that,” began Michael.

“Oh that,” responded Joseph, seemingly let down that they had no comment for his story.

“What do you mean ‘oh that’? We’re at the point now where we have to start buying the stuff, or at least knowing what stuff to buy.”

“Yeah I know guys, I know, but it’s really tough for me because I’m just broke, and I really can’t afford it because you know at Warcoitalia I mean I get like no money from working there—”

“Hold on, Joseph, we had this fund when you were working at Warcoitalia, and if you’re really that hard up we can spot you some rent money or whatever, we’re not saying you have to pay or anything, we’re just saying we have to figure this out and we thought it may be a good idea to take our vacation reserves and put them into an account on their own so that we have all the money in one place,” interrupted James.

“Yeah but that’s the thing guys, it’s been tough lately and I know we’ve got the travel fund going on but I’ve been broke and I had to dip into it a little bit just to stay afloat.”

“WHAT!?” the other two shouted simultaneously.

“I mean I’m just broke and if there were any other way I wouldn’t have had to dip into it, you know,” he countered.

“How much?” a frantic and wild-eyed James shot back, clearly caught off guard by the news.

“Not much, I mean, part of it, I don’t want to go into details, I’m going to get it back up to where it was but right now I just had more important things to do you kno—”

“Like buying alcohol for your weird druggy friends!?” shouted Michael, infuriated, “What’s fucking gotten into you!?”

“Swear Jar!” James blurted out, more out of force of habit than anything else, making for quite an awkward moment that only escalated when Michael, taking a quick glance toward the jar, noticed that almost all of that money had been removed too.

“What did you do with the fucking swear jar money, Joseph!?” Michael now exploded, prompting James to turn his head and utter an audible “Holy shit” before dropping his face into his hands.

“Oh that, I know it sucks, it wasn’t me though I swear, it was when they were leaving the big guy with the broad shoulders, he stopped by the jar and looked at me a while and I didn’t know what was going on, but then he just put his hand down the top of the jar and grabbed a fistful of money which was really like most of it, shoved it in his pants pocket and left; crazy guy was probably super drunk but I’m sure if I ask him for it back he’ll just give it back to me so don’t worry.”

At this point Michael’s head looked like it was in danger of spontaneously combusting. Being always a rather levelheaded fellow, however, he just got up and, without saying a word to Joseph, told James that he’d be waiting by the car and left.

Joseph, visibly alarmed and confused, blurted out that he couldn’t understand what’d gotten into Michael. He told James that he didn’t understand why they weren’t happy for him— not only for having such a good friendship with Analia but also for getting to “the next level” by getting a kiss from her.

James, too, was at his wit’s end and, patting Joseph on the shoulder, told him in polite terms that their relationship was getting strained and that he hoped Joseph could get it together.

“I don’t understand why you guys keep saying I should get it together or that I need to be more realistic or whatever, I just feel like you guys can’t be happy for me or that you guys are just telling me not to try at all and I don’t understand what’s the harm in trying?”

James stood up, brushed off the feathers that had become stuck to him during the discussion and went to leave. Just as he was almost out of the door he turned to Joseph.

“That’s the problem, Joseph. Sometimes there’s harm in trying.”

Chapter 7

“Tom, could you show me how to sign off on these shipping orders?”

Tom, clearly irritated, acted as if he hadn’t heard Joseph’s request for some moments and continued stocking shelves.

“Tom, I have to sign off on these shipping orders and I need your help!” He said again, this time with a sense of urgency.

“Damnit Joseph, I’m sick of teaching you everything over and over, why don’t you ever learn!?” he snapped angrily.

“I’m sorry Tom, but lately I’ve been trying really hard and I even learned how to use the system and everything, I’ve been getting better lately.”

“Sorry, I know you’ve been trying harder, but it’s just so slow… Let me just finish stocking this stuff and then I’ll show you, alright?”

“Okay, thanks!”

It was true, Joseph had been trying harder lately – and not just at work. His last conversation with James left him with an odd sense of discomfort to the degree that, after that evening, he resolved to start putting money away to build up his Scotland fund again. After that he planned on working on the swear jar. He had also cut down on cigarette consumption to save money, nearly cutting his usual intake in half and even switching brands back to a less expensive option.

Warcoitalia, meanwhile, was horribly overstaffed. Not only was Tom working a full shift that day along with Joseph but Rip had, for some reason, decided to come in unannounced to do his “administrative duties,” as he said. This usually meant that he sat in the back office fact-checking Wikipedia articles on his favorite authors and fantasy novels, occasionally coming out to the front if he needed a book. He was such a formidable warrior when it came to Wikipedia accuracy for fantasy novels that, after a while, his edits on the site were taken at face value by the rest of the community. This was a fact he made clear to his “minions,” as he often called Joseph and Tom (when he wasn’t calling them his “goon-squad”), telling them repeatedly how power was a privilege that, when held responsibly, came with a great deal of discipline.

Evidently bored and preachy that day he had emerged from his little office in the back and had situated himself, as he always did, in front of his army of Warhammer figures before continuing with the speech that had, by now, become stale and hackneyed to the two familiar listeners.

“Do you realize that the mere sight of my screen name on Wikipedia makes lesser fantasy-sommeliers quiver in their pathetic little boots!?” he continued in a loud voice (he always referred to fellow fantasy-buffs as “sommeliers,” a term he felt best described his own level of expertise on the matter).

“Do you realize that with a few deft strokes of my fingers I could switch Tolkien’s—may he rest in peace!—middle names around and nobody, nobody would try to question me!? They’d say to themselves—just as they do each time I correct them—‘TolkSlut69 said it, it must be true!’ That’s called respect, my little minions, and you don’t just get that overnight.”

And like each time he went into this speech he had to deal with the giggles from Tom. Yes it was true, Rip continued, that he was quite renowned in the Wikipedia editing community under the name TolkSlut69 but—and he always stressed the ‘but’ very clearly—he chose that name purposefully not as some self deprecating irony (he was, it seemed, incapable of being ironic), but rather to show his admiration for what he considered to be the second coming, the man whose name he was unable to say out loud without tearing up, whose name always came accompanied by an almost religiously idiosyncratic mutter of “may he rest in peace!”

Furthermore, he went on, his choice in the moniker TolkSlut69 was rooted in his understanding of the term slut and its etymology. Rip, despite having barely passed high school, did manage somehow to teach himself Norwegian in his teen years and, in the process of that pedagogical exercise, fell in love with the word slutr, from which the modern-day slut is derived. In its original form it meant merely an impure or foul or sullied liquid, a term that was often used as an adjective to describe the atmosphere of the sulfuric underworld in Norwegian folklore. It was a term that he felt Tolkien was the only other writer outside of Norway to fully grasp (this based on his reading of a very peculiar passage in a very obscure work that referenced Tolkien’s description of an even more obscure character in an early short story who had been described as being “of decidedly Norwegian stock”).

This etymological explication was, each time, followed by a suspiciously simple statement—always in a rather light tone of voice and often accompanied by a slight flourish of the hands (as if to say “Voila!”)—which he made in an attempt to signify that he had completely cleared himself of any false ideas regarding his dubious screen name. It went merely: “And that 69, of course, is that utmost important year in which yours truly, Rip Dykehorn, was born!”

But after clearing up this innocent error (which came from ignorance on the part of the listener for not being aware of 14th century Norwegian dialects, he would make clear), he continued:

“But do you realize what comes with that power? What comes with it, little minions, is the discipline that I don’t change his name around to my liking, even if I think it would be far more aesthetically pleasing to have the ‘Reuel’ come first! The people who look up to TolkSlut69 have trusted me and trust my updates and edits and information; that means I, as an enlightened ruler of this realm of Wikipedia editing, have entered myself into a contract with them to be just and good in my dealings on Wikipedia.

“So even if I want to change the name, and even if I can, I don’t. Rulers who act from selfishness are hostages to their own power and are thus no less subjugated than their subjects,” he finished, glaring expectantly at Joseph and Tom. The praise is taking its time, he thought, before Tom finally spoke:

“But what if you just do all the evil shit, Rip? I mean who’s gonna stop you?”

Rip stood for a few moments before a twitch began in his eye and, like brokenhearted child unwilling to cry in front of friends, he quickly turned away and made a bee line for his office, flailing his arms dismissively toward the two as he did so. Joseph and Tom, meanwhile, looked at each other in a shared perplexity and shrugged their shoulders.

“Okay Joseph, so let me show you how to sign off—” he began before being interrupted by that familiar chime which rang with the opening of the Warcoitalia door. It was Analia, and she looked like shit.

Joseph, looking at Tom look at Analia, turned around just as Tom looked away and, seeing her, stepped back with a gasp at the sight. She was pale and hunched forward, still clinging to the door as if she could barely stand on her own strength, and her eyes were sunk deep into their sockets. The sunlight, hitting her back through the store window, seemed to be an immense added weight, as if it were trying to press her down into the floor, and her face, which normally had a fair amount of youthful color in it, appeared older and revealed an intricate grouping of veins that only barely seemed to be trickling blood. Her head, meanwhile, appeared to bobble up and down giving one the impression that her neck was in danger of folding over onto itself under the weight. She was wearing a cardigan that hung loosely off her emaciated figure; from her arm there swung her handbag, which looked tarnished and which she appeared barely to have the strength to hold.

Joseph rushed to her side, grabbing hold of her body and pulling it up gently.

“Analia, what happened?! You look really sick, are you okay?”

As he held her she grabbed onto his arms, holding herself up; he was surprised at her grip strength, which seemed to be increasing as she got her balance.

“Oh it’s nothing, I’m just getting over a little cold, but don’t worry,” she started mumbling out, “I just was in the neighborhood and I really need some cigarettes, can you get me some?”

“Sorry but I can’t, I’m working and I don’t have a break coming up—”

“Where have you been, Joseph?” she interrupted, “I haven’t heard of you in so long and I’ve been online nearly everyday.”

“I’ve just been busy and I haven’t been able to go out because I’ve been saving money and trying to pay off some of my debts—oh, loosen up, you’re kind of hurting my arms…”

“Sorry, I’ve just got to steady myself… I know you’re working, but I really want to hang out with you,” she said as she leaned in, right by his ear, except this time her breath had a foul stench to it and he turned his head away just as her grip, which had surged in the moments prior to painful levels, gave way and she collapsed to the floor beneath him.

“Analia!” he cried, kneeling down to her side.

Rip, hearing the commotion, rushed out of his office into the main room and, seeing Analia, ran to his familiar place in the store from which he was apt to preach: by the back, with an army of little Warhammer figures behind him. He looked nervous and worked up and his eyes were red, as if he had been crying. Of course none of this stopped him from shouting.

“Damnit Holzer, you’ve been getting on an even keel lately! Why can’t you just cut loose from these druggies once and for all!? They’re nothing but trouble!”

“Hey!” Joseph shouted back, standing abruptly and facing Rip, “Now’s not the time, we have to help her!”

“I’m not helping that little tramp!” Rip shouted, “She should learn to stay away from here and you should be smarter than to deal with little…” he purposefully avoided the word “sluts” so that he didn’t violate his own rule,  “With little harlots like that!”

With this last bit Joseph, who had gone back down to Analia’s side (she seemed to be recovering), stood up very quickly and, with a few paces toward Rip, began shouting in a fierce tone.

“You leave her alone, she’s a friend of mine and she’s not well. We have to help her you old fart!”

“Help her!? I’m not in the business of helping little punks with their dirty laundry and neither should you be!”

“Shut up, she’s my friend and she needs help! Stop calling her names!”

Analia, meanwhile, had been recovering faster by the second and now had gotten up to a knee and was catching her breath, all the while glaring menacingly toward Rip.

“Look Holzer, I’ve given you chance after chance after chance,” Rip began, his arms pointing forward as he bellowed out his conditions, “And I started to feel like you deserved those chances lately, but you’re acting like a child and you better stop because I’m fresh out of chances for you now!”

“Just shut up you old fart!”

Joseph, turning to find Analia starting to get up, reached over and held her shoulders and guided her back into a standing position. She reached for his arm and, holding it, said, “I’m better Joseph, thank you. I’m better now.”

Rip, feeling ignored by the exchange between Joseph and Analia and seeing that she did indeed seem okay (which he took to mean that her performance at the store was merely theatrics), shouted out to Joseph with a dismissive wave of the arm, “Just take the tramp and get out of here, Joseph, I don’t want to see you anymore today!”

Joseph, who at this remark seemed particularly perturbed, lunged forward toward Rip and, extending his hands mid flight, pushed on the aging manager’s chest with such a force that he flew back several paces, landing and crushing the hundreds Warhammer figurines behind him.

“I’m not coming back!” he shouted, now shaking from the adrenaline, before turning back to Analia who now appeared quite healthy. She took him by the arm as the two left the store together.

Joseph, still quite worked up, went to the liquor store with Analia. It was again an unusually short drive. She told him how happy she was that he stood up for her and he told her that that’s what friends were for. She asked him to walk into the store to get her a carton of cigarettes.

“A carton? That’s kind of a lot, I mean I smoke much less now and I even started buying less expensive cigarettes.”

“Please, Joseph, the whole episode in the store really scared me and I feel like I really need a cigarette,” she implored.

“Oh but, you know, I’ve been really trying to save money for my trip to Scotland and to pay off debt and everything,” he attempted to counter.

“You’re such a responsible person,” she began, “You deserve more respect from everybody, especially your boss and those friends you told me about, who always tell you you don’t have control of your life. I was just thinking of you, because a carton is so much cheaper so that way you could save money.”

“Oh yeah, that’s true if you look at it that way. I’ve been frustrated lately because I feel like everyone just looks down at me and I’m trying to make them happy, but maybe that’s the problem that I shouldn’t be trying to make everyone happy.”

The last words were uttered in an almost zombie-like state of intoxication as he was already halfway out of the car. In the store he asked for a carton of that familiar brand he had been avoiding and the clerk, the same creepy one, seemed to have it ready and waiting before Joseph even finished his request.

“That’ll be $43.86, my good man.”

As he got back into the car he placed the carton between his legs and fumbled around with his seatbelt. Analia asked for the carton and Joseph handed it to her without a second thought. She said they should hang out a while and smoke and chat and Joseph agreed. He spent most of the time talking and venting about what he felt was the unfair treatment he had to endure from his friends and Rip. He told her about how his friends seemed to always judge the choices he made with his life and how he wished they could be more accepting of him, like Analia. They sat for quite some time and Joseph felt a familiar and nourishing sense of comfort and calm come over him and Analia, who had been steadily improving, listened to Joseph’s lamentations with a familiar smile.

He eventually dropped her off at the house with the bird feeders out front where she had told him that her friends were waiting for her and that they would help her along to a full recovery. As she got out of the car and walked over to the driver’s side she leaned in to the window. She asked Joseph for a few bucks, explaining that she didn’t have any money with her and that she always liked to have a little cash in case of an emergency. He felt her sweet breath on his face and neck and, reaching into his wallet, pulled out a $5 and gave it to her.

“Do you have a little more”, she asked sweetly, prompting him to check his wallet – only a $10 remained.

He took it out and, trying to offer it to her in exchange for the $5, found it swiftly snatched from his hand as well. She smiled, gave him a kiss on the cheek and said goodbye and her purse, which was weighed down by the giant cigarette carton sticking out of the top, swung and sparkled brightly in Joseph’s direction.

As he watched her walk up the driveway into the house he was struck by her beauty. Her cardigan, which he now noticed was quite long, revealed a sensual curvature to her body that he hadn’t noticed of hers for a long while. He regretted not having contacted her more recently.