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I am the King of Automotive Digital Marketing.

I’m sure you’ve never heard of Todd Scott. But you’re just not in my market. If you were in the Ontario Automotive industry, I’d be the closest thing to a God you knew of. I’m a genius. The Da Vinci of my time! Let me make that abundantly fucking clear! I own the premium automotive digital marketing solution for any dealership! When I roll up to their store in my Orange Wrapped 2020 Audi R8 Coupe Quattro with its V10 Performance S Tronic, I make a statement! Terry, my camera guy records my walk in, and while I usually can’t bring him into the meetings with me; I use my laptops webcam to record myself as I talk. I say things, man. I say real shit that most people just don’t get! So I have to record myself at all times, just to get those nuggets of wisdom! Then I can put them up on my Instagram and LinkedIn for my fans to enjoy!

Terry’s an interesting cat. He respects me, and he does a decent job filming and editing on the fly. He’s not as good as Neil, my other video guy. But he gets the job done, because being the uptight fuck that he is, Neil refuses to wear the branded shirts and follow me around filming me. I should fire that uptight fuck… But he’s good for the videos we make for our clients, even if he is a little demanding. Like, seriously? We have Windows Moviemaker, where does he get off asking for all this Adobe Shit? Does he have any idea how expensive that is? Plus, he owns all this expensive camera equipment that he uses for his side hustle of filming weddings, and other shit. But he won’t let me use it without me paying an extra fee. What an asshole.

The day that everything went down, I was on my way to a meeting with a Hyundai dealer up near Tevam Sound. I’d just finished up with a really shitty meeting with an auto group in Ajax where they were talking about discontinuing their relationship with my company! Those narrow minded idiots! They had absolutely no respect for my genius! They were upset because I’d told them I’d run their Google Ad campaigns, but my fucking graphic design team hasn’t been doing that right! God, I should really just clean house again. Fire them all and put out another call…

Hey - Real quick interlude here. If you’re a graphic designer based in Toronto with 3-4 years of experience. Knowledge of Photoshop, MS Paint, Google Analytics, Google Adwords, Facebook Ads and Social Media marketing, shoot me a message! Pay starts at $16/hr. No negotiations.

At least I got some decent nuggets out of that meeting, so I told Terry to edit around the parts where I got fired and make it look like I was selling them something else. He was in the passenger seat of my Audi, working on that as I drove through traffic. I was already pissed off because of the lost client, but now I had to deal with the slow traffic on the 407. Some jackass in a BMW was holding up the fast lane, going 130. There was a little bit of room in front of the Semi beside me, so I was able to squeeze in. The stupid fucker honked at me, but I cut back in front of the BMW before I was even a problem so I don’t really know what he was so pissed about.

Anyways, I took off down the highway, keeping a reasonable speed and getting past the dumbasses who got in my way as I headed up towards Tevam Sound. As I moved onto Highway 400, I figured it was time to shoot another video. Part of my ‘The Road’ series, where I film myself while I drive and dispense my wisdom. Terry helped me set up the Go-Pro cameras. I had a hell of a rig going. With three cameras stuck to the windshield in different places to catch all sorts of interesting angles.
“Hey there, it’s Todd Scott here, and you’re joining me on The Road!”
I broke into a segue on how to turn your losses into a victory by using your marketing skills and making it look like you were actually winning, which would drive more business to your platform through clever misdirection and skillful deployment of honest alternative facts! I had Terry check my emails as I did it. He kept signaling that he had to tell me something, but I really didn’t have time for emails. If it was really important. It could wait.

The drive was starting to grate on me a bit, and I was starting to think that after my meeting, I should try and find a place for dinner. I asked Terry to look up any nearby steakhouses. Someplace nice. Nothing shitty. We were off the highway now, and I was taking it at a cool 130 down one of those narrow roads with heavy forest around it. I’d finished my video and was having Terry edit it as I drove. I’d look over when I could, to see what he was doing on his laptop.

“No, I hate that angle…” I said as he ran through a few clips, “Cut that clip out of camera 3, and see how it looks from there.”
Terry did it, and I looked over to watch as he rolled through the footage again.

“Is that better, Mr. Scott?” He asked eagerly. I watched as the minute long clip played. God, I really did blow my own mind with some of the stuff I said!

“The key to driving leads is really knowing how to drive your marketing towards your leads. And let your leads, lead your marketing!”

Gold.
“Yeah, yeah. I like that angle better.” I said, and looked back at the road. There was a Jeep Cherokee slowly plodding along at 80, and I only barely avoided rear ending that jackass. I cut to the side, into the oncoming lane, and checked to make sure no one was coming. Then I hit the gas to pass that Cherokee. What I hadn’t seen however, was the sudden bend in the road. I don’t know how I didn’t see any sign for it. But it came suddenly. Before I could cut back in front of the Cherokee, I desperately spun the wheel, trying to make the turn, but it wasn’t enough. I took my foot off the gas to hit the brakes. My Audi veered towards the side of the road, and went off of it, down an incline.

The car rolled, and struck a tree on the way down. The noise was deafening. I heard glass shattering and saw the world outside of my Audi spinning. Instinctively I closed my eyes and took my hands off the wheel to shield my face. The airbag deployed and smothered me as the car finished its violent descent down the hill and finally landed upside down.

Then all was quiet.

I slowly opened my eyes. My Audi had landed upside down, and I was hanging from my seat. The airbag was deflating and I pushed it out of my face, looking around to get my bearings. Through my broken window, I could see the road up the hill and the Cherokee parked on top of it. Oh Good. The asshole who’d gotten me into this mess could get me out! I could see the figure of a woman standing beside it, looking down at me. Groaning, I tried to undo my seat belt, but it was stuck. Then I remembered Terry.

“Hey, kid… You doing alright?” I looked over at him, only to see Terry hanging from his seat. Eyes half open and dead silent. No sign that he was breathing, or even still alive. The passenger airbag had deployed, but it was now covered in blood. Oh God… Oh God, this was going to be such a pain in the ass!
“Kid… Kid, wake up…” I reached out to try and shake Terry awake, but he didn’t move. He didn’t just start breathing again.

“Come on, you bastard… I’m paying you by the hour… Don’t you dare fucking clock out on me!”
One more shake before I accepted that he was dead. I noted the time on the broken dash so that when I did payroll later, I didn’t pay his next of kin for the full day. I struggled with the seatbelt, hoping I could force it to unlock, but I had no luck there. It was tight around me, doing its job a little too well.

I looked back up towards the highway, hoping that whoever was driving that Cherokee would help me out. The woman hadn’t moved. She just stood there, staring.

“Hey!” I called up to her, “Hey! Come on and help me out down here!”
She still didn’t move, and I swore at her.

“HEY! MOVE YOUR ASS! I’M HURT!”I didn’t mention Terry. She obviously couldn’t help him, so it was more important that she help me! But she didn’t move. She continued standing on the top of that hill and looking down at me, and after a while, I realized that she wasn’t going to help. No matter how much I yelled or screamed, she didn’t react.

I saw the headlights of another car pass behind her and her Cherokee, oblivious to the fact that I was down there. My heart started to race. What was she doing? Why was she doing this? She did nothing that would give me an answer. She just stared at me, trapped in my Audi at the bottom of a hill.

I looked around the smashed up cabin of the vehicle, hoping I could find some trace of my cell phone. It had been mounted on the dash, where I could play videos on it during my drive. But the magnet keeping it there hadn’t been enough to hold it in place during the crash. I didn’t know where it had fallen, and a quick search around the cabin confirmed that it wasn’t in there with me. I did see Terry’s laptop lying on the roof, amongst the broken glass and debris. I reached down to grab it, only for it to break apart in my hands.

Swearing under my breath, I glanced over at Terry now. I knew he had a cell phone… It was probably in his pocket somewhere. I reached over to his body, trying to pull myself closer to him so I could search. I couldn’t reach his right side pocket. But I could reach his left. I felt around in it, feeling something in there. Laughing triumphantly, I pulled it out. It was just his wallet. I pocketed the cash, then let it drop onto the roof of my Audi, before checking the pocket again, just to see if there was anything else in there. There were his car keys, and while that wasn’t super promising, it was something.

Terry had always kept a multitool on his key ring. I’d seen him use it before. He was actually pretty handy with it. Of course it was there, and I immediately took one of the knives from it. I sawed at my seatbelt strap, hoping I could free myself. Then I could crawl out of the Audi and give that bitch in the Cherokee a piece of my mind! I’d get her arrested for this! This was sabotage! Glancing back, I saw she hadn’t come any closer, although now that I was looking at the Cherokee… It did seem familiar. Of course it did. The Jeep Cherokee was a very popular model! No need to dwell on it too much. The seatbelt gave a little bit, and my weight helped tear through the strap. At long last it snapped and I was free!

Kinda.

My body dropped a few inches, but with that drop came a pain that made me scream. The adrenaline had numbed the sensation, so I hadn’t really noticed yet, but my legs were pinned beneath the steering wheel. I realized that the cabin must have compacted somewhat. My legs were stuck! I hung there for a few moments, feeling the panic start up again, before looking over towards the figure by the Cherokee.

To my shock, they’d come closer. Much closer. I couldn’t see most of their body anymore. Just a pair of jean clad legs and converse sneakers.

“H-hey…” I stammered, “You gonna finally help me?”
No response, no movement. Behind them, I could see the Cherokee… But it looked different now. The front end was crumpled, as if from an accident. One of the tires had fallen off. The sight was so familiar… and I knew exactly where I’d seen it before. I looked at the legs just outside of my window, and I could see the blood on them. My heart started to pound faster and faster. No… No this had to be a mistake.

“Help me…” I rasped, “Please…”
No response. Always no response. Always silence. Another car drove down the road, headlights passing us by in the rapidly fading daylight. But our tableau never lifted.

I’d been on my way to a meeting with a Toyota store in Mississauga. They were a very big potential client. They didn’t sign. As big as they were, they obviously wanted things that were way too simple. They had no ambition! But I’d done everything to land them!

I’d gotten a little cocky, and had been celebrating the meeting with lunch before I went to it. I’d just discovered how much better Scotch was than beer a few weeks prior, and the steakhouse I was in had a few different varieties. I thought it might be fun to try them out. I had maybe three or four double shots on the rocks, not much! As well as a tomahawk steak, before realizing I might be cutting it a bit close. I figured I’d make up the time on the highway and put the bill on my credit card, before heading out to my Audi.

The traffic wasn’t terrible, so I made some pretty good time. I was doing about 160-170, when I saw this brown Jeep Cherokee up ahead. They were in the fast lane, doing about 120, and just dragging their feet. I had to go around them, so I cut into the next lane, passed them, and cut back in front of them.

I remembered the screech of tires, and the look on the drivers face in my rearview mirror. A look of pure terror. That dumb bitch almost clipped the back of my Audi, before she swerved into the dividing line of the highway. I know that legally, I was supposed to stop. But I had a meeting to get to! That was the most important thing! So I kept going. I just drove on and tried not to think too much about it.

I was only about 30 minutes late getting to the dealership for my presentation! Not that big of a deal, but the owner got all frustrated. I apologized and told them my previous meeting had run a little late before giving them my sales pitch. From the boardroom, I could see the TV in the Service Waiting area. I could see that crashed Cherokee on the highway, and covered gurney being wheeled into an ambulance. The tarp didn’t cover the body properly. Even from the boardroom, I could see a jean clad leg and a converse shoe. It was her own fault! She was the one driving too slow, and she should’ve known to get out of my way! Staring at the TV threw me off… and it bungled the entire pitch. That’s why they never signed. Otherwise, I did it all perfectly! It was her fault. Not mine.

She stood quietly outside of my Audi as night fell. The pain in my legs outweighed my hunger and I tried not to look at her. Instead, I reached towards Terry’s corpse. I tried to feel my way towards his right side pocket. But even without the seatbelt, I could barely reach. I took the multitool, and I started to saw along his seatbelt.

Outside of the Audi, I could hear raindrops starting to fall, and it made me pause for a moment. The rain quickly picked up and turned into a downpour. It soaked into the earth, and made me work all the faster. It shouldn’t have been a problem, right?

I fought to saw through the seatbelt, tearing at it as I worked. The pain in my legs was distracting, as was the sight of the Girl outside the Audi. She stood in the rain. Silent and judging.

“Go away…” I murmured, “Get the fuck out of here, this is YOUR fault…”
No response. Never a response. Terry’s body shifted a little as the seatbelt gave way a little more. My hand was cramping but I did what I had to do. Then I dropped the multi-tool.

I looked over at the ceiling of my car, to pick it up again, but as I reached down, I noticed the shimmering muddy water that trickled over it. The Audi was starting to flood. I reached into the water to pull the Multi-Tool out. The rain hadn’t let up yet, and I felt the Audi shift. Mud seeped through the broken windows and coated the roof. I felt my head touch the cold mud, and a shiver went down my spine. But I’d be free long before it became a problem, if it ever did! I returned to sawing away at Terry’s seatbelt, trying to ignore the Girl outside the window. She wasn’t helping me, and she sure as hell wasn’t hurting me either! So she wasn’t my problem!

Finally, the seatbelt gave way. Terry’s body flopped uselessly into the mud, and I struggled to move him to get access to his left pocket. I pulled him over, begging under my breath for his phone to be there. It was! I dug my hand into his pocket and took out his phone, laughing under my breath as I did. I could call for help! I could get out of this! I could…

I could do nothing.

The screen was shattered, and though I clicked the button to turn it on, it wouldn’t turn on. His phone was useless to me. I dropped it into the mud that now filled my Audi, and looked back at the legs outside the window. They stood there, indifferent to me. Indifferent to my suffering. The Audi sank deeper into the mud, and the top of my head was dunked into it. Was she doing this? Was she burying me?

Oh God… She was, wasn’t she?

My heart still racing, I tried desperately to crawl out of the window again. The agony in my legs was unbearable. I screamed in both terror and pain. I struggled in some desperate hope of not being stuck down there! I cried. The Audi sank deeper into the mud. It soaked my head, barely obscuring my nostrils. I was going to die like this. In a fucking car wreck, drowned in mud! That wasn’t fair! It wasn’t how the Marketing Da Vinci of his time deserved to die! I was supposed to die rich and famous! Not like this! Not like this!

I struggled one last time, trying to pull myself out of the Audi. Trying to ignore the protesting pain in my crushed legs. I struggled until my strength failed me, and the last thing I saw before I lost consciousness, were those jean clad legs as they turned and walked away.

I woke up in a hospital several days later. Apparently, a motorist had found me before I could drown. The firefighters they called tore my Audi apart to get to me. If I find out who they are, I’ll sue them for that. That damage was fixable until they got involved.

The Doctor who looked after me was a real hack. He said they couldn’t save my legs. He said they had to amputate below the knee. What a load of bullshit… I’ll never walk again because of that. I’ve been trying to keep things at work on track. I asked Neil to go to my meetings for me, but he complained that he ‘Isn’t in sales’ and that he ‘Doesn’t have the data to go to those meetings’ since most of the files I had on my laptop where destroyed, along with it during the crash. I told him to just bullshit his way through them, and that since I was the boss, I made the rules and told him what his job was! He quit on me.

I’ve been trying to fix the damage his laziness has caused ever since I got home, but it hasn’t been going well. I’ve lost three of my clients, leaving me with just 2. I don’t know if they’re going to stay or not. I’m not sure what to do anymore. People keep acting like I did something terrible! How? Because Terry died? Why is that such a big deal! I lost my legs! That’s what’s important!

But I’ll be fine… I’ll find a way out of this. There’s always a way out! I haven’t been sleeping much, so I’ve got the time. Every time I try, I see Her at the edge of my bed. I feel the mud around me again, smothering me. Drowning me. I can’t let it bother me though… I can’t let her get to me! She caused this, not me. I'm the victim here! But I’m not going to let her win.
submitted by HeadOfSpectre to nosleep

[Sweet Nola] - Chapter 9

Chapter 1
The second semester courses have all but finished and the dreaded time of exams have finally arrived. For Nola, she couldn't wait to get it over. There was the after exam party, Eleanor's and Allie's concert in the city theatre and last but not least, a corporate paid vacation to the USA coming up. There was a whole slew of summer events waiting for her.
In her free time when she wasn't out drinking in the pub with her college colleagues, she read through her neatly written notes and researched beyond what the courses covered. Her notes were written in beautiful neat female handwriting.
After the humiliation she considered in the research project module, she upped her game tenfold regarding her thesis. She rang up her company writing with the urgency of a cry to war. With her supervisor and team, she worked them aggressively to the bone. There was such fury and fire from Nola's mania that two team members transferred themselves to a different team wanting out. The end result was a thesis plan so fully formed and well written that it had in its own right become a perfectly submittable thesis.
Her roommate that possessed incredible mass, Lauren, walked into the kitchen. Her flabs wobbled like jelly as she waddled to the sink. Her stubby short arms reached for the cupboards for a glass and she filled it with tap water. Despite her looks, she was a neat person on the outside. She'd clean her glass after using it instead of dropping it into the sink as Nola would have done in her old home. She'd wash the dishes the rare time she didn't order takeaway and she hardly came out of her room so she didn't make a mess outside. She worked at home in her room all day. She had a motherly and considerate personality. She leaves her room door open for Allie when Nola was out and she was approachable in case he needed anything. Nola and Lauren were good friends and she would invite her out to the college parties when Eleanor was over to look after Allie.
Lauren caught Nola looking at her with an empty bliss.
"How's studying going?"
Nola threw her head down on the table and breathed out a hefty sigh.
"I need to study with a drink in one hand and notes on the other."
"Sure, there's beer in the fridge."
Lauren did not catch her sense of humour at all.
"If I start now, I'll be knocked out before Allie even gets home from school. What a bad example I'll set," she paused, seeing if Lauren at least knew how to smile. She didn't. "What about your work?"
"Oh, it's going so-so." She bobbled her head as she spoke and her flabs jiggled like a wave. "It's tough, organising the team's Jira and Confluence and picking up the messes they leave. I'm currently learning how to use JAVAX on the side."
Nola gave a look of feigned understanding.
"I've also been planning my wedding."
Nola's life revitalised at this point. That, she understood.
"Sit down, tell me if you have time."
And so Lauren described her dream wedding that she was seeing through, a mediaeval fantasy themed wedding. Nola's knowledge of fantasy only went as far as the Lord of the Rings movie. She imagined the groom and bride in chain armour while saying their vows at the altar in a fashion of being knighted by the priest.
Nola sat and listened with wide eyes and her heavier than usual eye bags. Lauren was such a land whale and managed to bag somebody considering her uptight personality. She would dawdle on and on with women chatter but on tech. She was stern, righteous and commanding. Nola guessed that her boyfriend was held on a leash like a dog. She felt envious.
"We have a house by the lake eyed."
"Things are moving fast," Nola commented. "Are you thinking of having children?"
"No. Well, maybe. Twenty-nine is still young. There's tons more time to mull over. I'm in no rush at all."
Tons more was right, Nola thought. Twenty-nine though; it seems most marriages with people she knew were married by then. Beauty had an expiration date. Nola's sister was three years older and she learnt she was engaged a few months ago.
Lauren excused herself to go stare off at her computer again. Allie came home not so long later and now the two of them sat at the kitchen table doing school work. She looked at him quietly doing homework. He looked back at her. They traded looks every few seconds like a game to see who how long they could look before the other spotted the staring.
"What~?" He giggled.
"Just thinking."
"Thinking 'bout what?"
"Thinking about-" and she jumped over to him and lifted him up, took him to their bedroom and had a sibling wrestling match where Nola always lost due to exhaustion. This was all she needed. She flicked on the TV in their room and watched an afternoon cartoon mindlessly with Allie before falling asleep.
The five exams took place over a period of two weeks around the college. Most of them were sat in the large event halls of the college gym. For one of the exams, she came in ten minutes late. Everybody in the class breathed a collective sigh when they saw her grab her seat.
The electronic bell rang to signal the end of the exam. While the examiners collected the papers. Mark, who was sitting in front of her, turned around to give the predictable banter at Nola on her usual tardiness.
Ben was two seats behind her and had always left thirty minutes before the exam was over so he wasn't trapped to stay to the very end. Not many decided to leave before the exam was over. She had not spoken to him since the study period started. He said he was busy studying.
She headed home to study more and the days repeated like a drunken stupor to her. Study, eat, study eat, study, eat study, study eat more sleep study eat study eat sleep...
The last day of exams took place and plans of drinking had been on the table since the beginning. Tonight will be the last big one since the hDips will be graduating and they made up two thirds of the classes. She felt a bit depressed but that may be because today's was the hardest exam. The exam was the social marketing module taught by the cowboy strapped American. She had created a very social class with multiple group projects that Nola greatly enjoyed. Some projects actually involved real start-ups looking for strategies. Hard working college students, who paid expensive tuition fees, were giving them ideas for free! Nola felt she took a bite of the infamous non-paid internship of the great states of America. Annoyed as she was, she felt at home with real business scenarios compared to the theoretical nonsensical Marxist theory that the Texan taught in class.
There was only one question for the exam and that was: 'Describe Social Media through Marx's Gobble Gook'. This was not how it was phrased but it was indeed an accurate interpretation of the one question of the exam. Easy, she thought. She put her pen to paper.
“Well, the knowledgeable labour aristocracy derives...and the rate of exploitation depends on the varying...finally, by Marx (1867), it is given through proven mathematical theory that... profit rate is equal to the surplus value divided by the fixed costs plus variable cap...” As she wrote, she wondered if Marx and Engels were appalled to see their precious philosophy applied to social media and causing suffering for the poor marketing students.
The Texan lecturer's class involved the study of a textbook that sought to apply the theory of communism to social media. It was an apt model, she thought. However, the text was the most pretentious and coercive, academically abstractly dense as one could write, jumping from far-fetched hyperlinking of dense references and written in the most peremptory and obtuse mangling of words as possible. It was without doubt, the worst book she had ever laid her eyes upon.
After her intense study on the communist manifesto of social media, she felt ready to compose her thesis for next year in flowery abstract language that academics flaunt in.
Not once did the pen waver and when the final bell tolled, the ink cartridge was drained to the tip. Two whole exam books were filled up in its entirety with fast, sloppy cursive. Her normally neat handwriting was sacrificed for speed.
She came out of the hall and shielded her eyes when the summer sunshine struck. She saw her close group of friends in her marketing course and her usual beta orbiters chatting to each other in a circle.
Nola slinked into the group and saluted Asim beside her with a casual wave. The Korean was speaking rather hotly about the exam.
"The whole theory of Marx's is so stupid. I have never read something so stupid in my entire life," Jeong said.
"Yeah, I agree," Nola nodded.
"What I'm saying though, is you have to force yourself to write what the examiners looking for," Keith said.
"Yeah, that's common sense," Jeong agreed.
Nola knew why Jeong was probably so annoyed. It was because he was South Korean and he hated the commies in the north. Jeong didn't like communism because it opposed his religion. Jeong had told Nola in one of the many drinking parties that he was a devout Christian. It surprised her. He proudly told her that he was part of the Shinsheonji Church of Jesus. He believed that the founder of the church, Man-hee Lee, was the second coming of Jesus Christ, our lord and saviour.
"Did you see her?" Jeong was talking about the cowboy strutting lecturer. He did not let his grudge go away easily, "We call that cosplay where I'm from."
"I think it looks exotic. She's Texan and that's how all Texas dress up, I'm sure."
"Yeah, of course. They all strut outside wearing a wide brim hat, long brown cowboy coats and those boots with those spinning stars at the back. Yeah, I'm sure they all look like they jumped out of a Wild West serial." They laughed.
Nola asked them all for a picture. There were some in this little group, like Keith, that weren't part of the marketing master's. For them, this was their last exam. Nola was going to make sure she'd get pictures of everybody. She had taken Ben's advice. She would post it in their class' group chat. But mostly, it was for herself to look back on.
They headed in their group of four down to town for some grub that would line their stomach for the alcohol tonight. It was going to be the biggest party of the class.
They went to a pizza joint that Keith recommended after searching for the best pizza parlors in town online. It was nice, a bit rundown. It was ran by actual Italians that made pizza that wasn't anything like actual Italian pizza.
Nola fiddled with her phone, scrolling through the messages in the group chat and put out a message if anybody would like to join them. She had seen Ben in the corner of her eye as they exited the student building. Even he had stayed to the very end of that exam. She was about to message him privately and saw his profile; he had not been online for over a month.
Last time, he didn't go to the party after the Christmas exams as well. Everybody did. Except him. So be it. She went up to the counter to grab two more slices of pizza and shoved it aggressively into her mouth.
"No drinks?" Jeong asked.
"Oh, we're be drinking soon Jeong-ny boy. The bar's just a short walk from here,” Keith said. "We won't be parched by the time we get there."
"Some of them are already there," Asim checked his phone.
"They headed straight there after the exam."
"I'm full. Let's get this party started," Nola growled with hunger for the drinks. "They'll be on round three by the time we get there."
"You'll catch up in no time."
Nola leaned back and rubbed her tummy like a big momma bear. Her eyes swirling in craze for alcohol. Her college friends thought she was a beer meister due to her fridge-like build that suggested a large calorie intake. She was actually a cocktail person. She liked the colourful taste and looks of those little dainty drinks.
When they arrived at the bar, they found one of their classmates buying a pint. He was tall, handsome and blond and a fine Aryan specimen. 
"There's five of them out at the back."
Nola gave a sly pat on the buttocks of the tall, stoic man which made him twirl and spill some foam from his pint.
"Nola, you big perv," said Asim. They all laughed except the prude Korean who shook his head and muttered, "Westerners" beneath his breath.
Soon the beer garden crowed with students from the marketing discipline and some others but it remained predominantly a turf for the marketing students. Nola went around taking pictures of the final day. She knew when she would look back further along the years that time seemed to have flung by. The year had passed slowly in the beginning, life in a new city, meeting new people, a new home and a refreshing restart from the stagnant office life of withered old men.
Next year would be lonelier, there would be no classes, and the whole year was focused solely for writing their thesis. She couldn't believe people paid for the course. A year of nothing with an expensive college fee. She was lucky that the company paid for all of her expenses.
A tall, bald man went over to Nola's table. He had deep sunken eyes and heavy eye bags, no doubt from studying, she assumed. His ears was pointed and the top of his head was pointed. He had a Van Dyke beard and wore a long, thick, black overcoat. His whole menacing appearance resembled some mook from a mafia or a vampire movie. He stood a head and a half taller than Nola. Nola had learnt that he was from Latvia from past conversations with him. That made sense, she thought, a former Soviet country just like myself.
The bald thug of a man had let them know of a music competition in the club beside this bar. There was a DJ contest held tonight and one of the marketing students had entered. With enough people, they could rig it. Nola and her crew went in with full intent to help them. The music was awful and she left with a splitting headache. She left alone and went back to the original bar. She had hoped to see Ben there. Ben was the first person she met in college, the only one that seemingly eluded her. There was no surprise when she saw the same familiar faces at the bar. She decided to go back home. At least Allie was always there.
The exams were over, college life has halted. There was the paid vacation to look forward to.
She had received an email with all the details regarding the work convention in San Francisco. This was the third time she would go on a corporate trip and she had learnt from a friend on how the reimbursements were handled. The friend was one of the employees who handled the accounting for corporate trips. She told Nola that as long as it didn't surpass one thousand euro, they didn't inquire deeply into the expenses. Added in with a little photoshop to doctor two airplane tickets into one expense, she could travel with a companion. Every year, hundreds of millions disappeared mysteriously for the poor global behemoth of a company.
She planned to take a friend with her, all airline expenses paid for the lucky one.
But before that, Eleanor and Allie were preforming at the City Hall Theatre next week. Eleanor, a world renowned pianists, was drawing huge news for the music festival in the modestly sized city. Nola had invited her beta orbiters but not Ben. There has never been a person that annoyed her so much as him from doing nothing.
....
Eleanor looked across to Allie who had the honours of finishing off Mozart's Sonata for 2 Pianos in D. A roar of applause erupted from all five hundred in the audience of the concert hall.
There was an after party in the small bar in the upstairs lobby. Allie was surrounded with journalists interviewing the little prodigy. Some jested lightly about him being in a wheelchair. I'll give up my legs to play as well and so on. Eleanor fended them off, becoming disgruntled in her quick tempered manner after that joke. Nola stood across from them and watched with a colourful cocktail in hand. Nola didn't mind the jokes. Pity was the thing she hated the most.
There were professional music producers who attended the event for Eleanor and they were arguing over each other with Nola in the middle about signing recordings and collaborations. She appeared meek to their offers and thought to herself that she might ask Eleanor later. She wasn't planning to give up Allie to anyone.
She looked at Allie, now chatting joyously to a group of girls his age, playing some game whereby he placed his hand on top of theirs, moving their little fingers in unison to play an invisible keyboard.
"What's the matter?" Eleanor popped over to her standing table after relishing in front of the press and soaking in appraisal and then kicking them all away. "You look a bit melancholic. Are you sad because Allie's coming over with me for a month."
"It's more than that Ellie. Take care of him for me and send pictures regularly to me." Nola listed her lengthy requirements to Eleanor. Eleanor's eyes rolled up for the whole duration. She decided to change the subject.
"Have you found somebody to travel to your work convention?"
"No. Sarah's working and all my closer classmates are gone on their own paths and holidays." She sighed.
"Did you ask Ben? I thought I saw him earlier. He has good taste in music to say the least," she said to Nola but she wasn't listening. She was looking lethargically around the room.
Her Korean friend Jeong was by the bar counter flirting with a lady in a red dress, abandoning Nola. Lauren was here with her hubby and Matt was here as well. He had developed quite an infatuation with Eleanor since they met when he drove them over to their new home. Eleanor saw him as a handy butler. Behind Eleanor, she saw a phantom. She was sure of it. A phantom that appears whenever she averts her eyes.
It jumped and darted down the stairs. Nola brushed passed Eleanor, nearly toppling her drink, pushed herself across the crowd only to find the man walk back up the stairs. The man wore the black and white formal attire and a masquerade mask.
"Ben!"
He slowly took of his mask. His handsome, young face, tanned skin, flaxen hair, lean physique and unmistakable eyebrows had caught Nola. What drew her in the most out of his attributes was his strangeness. An eccentricity that Eleanor had noticed.
He paused, looking unsure of what to say, “What are the chances? I'm here as a photographer for the event.” He raised up his professional looking camera with a large flash attachment and a lens that protruded seven inches of air in front of him. “I saw the event on the papers. Thought I'd come, ha-ha. How's it going?”
"You should have told me. I could have gotten you tickets for you for free." She wanted to scold him, the fact that he didn't show up for the final party as well. She furrowed her eyebrows. Why didn't he just say so if he wanted to come?
She dragged him away downstairs and outside. They walked down the cool, empty night street.
"Don't you have to stay by your brother?" he asked. "What's wrong?” he asked again when she didn't reply.
"My brother's fine," she let out a sigh and then continued, "he's going over to Eleanor’s for a few weeks."
"Oh."
"Let me see your photos."
Ben sweated in the cool, night air, keeping up with her as she walked with a vigorous pace and purpose.
Ben turned on the camera and passed it over to her hands while it still hung around his neck. He had swapped the memory card when he dropped down the stairs and was perfectly content with her swiping through the photos.
"These are amazing!" There was a photo that showed Allie up close angled from the bottom. "How did you even get this angle?"
"I was hiding beneath the floorboards for that one."
She laughed not believing him. "Send me all of them. You have some serious talent." She looked at him, he was much closer now; he had thick eyebrows that balanced the masculinity of his youthful, delicate face. He wore an expression of sly innocence that Allie did often, like when he's hiding something.
"Things like art are wholly subjective,” he answered.
They discussed the music performance, music they like, surprisingly they both liked to listen to movie soundtracks, talked a good length about the art they like, of her friends and his photography adventure. A man had broken into his home once and he vowed to find the culprits. He went through extreme lengths, studied criminal profiling and broke into nearby surveillance cameras. Once he deduced as much as he could, he waited patiently for the culprit using the hacked CCTV cameras. He even snuck into a neighbour's house suspecting them. In the end he failed to find the culprits, he said this all with icy coldness. His final year project came from this experience and his obsession with photography stemmed from this event as well.
He kept her second guessing at every turn as he told her. What he lost in the burglary, he had gained something else. It was the same with Allie, she thought. He had the night of his life tonight because he couldn't walk. She decided to tell Ben about his brother's disability.
There were complications during their mother's pregnancy that the doctor could not explain. He was taken out by an emergency C-section. He suffered an unexplainable neurological disorder. Anything below his waist, he couldn't move except his toes.
"Isn't that weird? How does it happen that the toes can wiggle but not the upper parts! I just don't know," the frustration crept into her voice. Ben could only look at her.
"World's fucked," he casually lets out. She laughed. A laugh that she used to veil her sadness.
They arrived onto the cobblestone street of the main shopping district. It was bustling with happy couples, groups of trashy, dolled up girls in tight, short dresses and two happy drunks staggering and shouting obscenities at a copper statue.
"I have a proposal to make."
Ben listened and could not believe what he heard. Nola had invited her to a trip abroad to San Francisco, airline tickets paid.
"Are you sure you want me?" he asked, eyes wide in disbelief. Eleanor seemed to be the natural choice but she was staying with Allie. He roughly estimated how much it would cause for the other expenses. He came to the conclusion it was a once in a lifetime out of the deal.
"I think you'll make for a good travel companion." she looked at his clear cut features trying to guess his thought process. "I think I'm pretty dependable and hassle free if you're worried," she reassured him. "Come, and bring your camera."
He accepted. He was starting to like her as a person.
Chapter 10
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