The Counterfeit

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Summary

Andrew Jeffery Stephenson is in critical condition from gunshot wounds. He’s entirely alone. His wife left him for someone more successful, someone better. When he’s honest with himself, he knows he’s just waiting to die… And he does. With the sound of a fading flatline beep and the post-life urging of the woman he still loves, he finds himself in a paradise of his own making. He wakes up on a beautiful beach with her by his side. Oh, paradise indeed! Shortly after, a man simply named D comes onto his property. A self proclaimed “realtor for your post-life needs” D quickly shows Andrew just what this paradise is. It’s not heaven; it’s a miraculous accident. And because of this, his beach is just one small piece to an endless collection of beautiful properties, or “timeshares” as D calls them. D’s game is realty. And the piece of property Andrew brought with him is an excellent bargaining chip. Andrew’s interested in choices; D’s interested in getting him the best deal possible. There’s only one problem. While searching out different timeshares, they come across a man on the side of the road who’s dressed like an angel. He’s holding a cardboard sign that reads: 3 Days… And the countdown continues. They say that the world will end when the countdown hits zero. Are they “crazy” as D claims? Or are they trying to warn Andrew that the end is nearly here?

Genre:
Mystery / Thriller
Author:
nateallen
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
6
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

Paradise

1

The last thing I remember is hearing the sound of gunshots, but the context of it escapes me. I think I was running away from somebody. Yes. I’m starting to remember. I was hiding. I owe a lot of money to—what’s his name? Biggs someth—Oh, I don’t remember his name. I remember he is a round man, easily two hundred and fifty pounds, and much taller than myself.

When I borrowed the money I meant to pay it back. I had a plan to give him back all I owed, plus interest. But I am a stupid man. My plans never work. They backfire every single time.

And now I’m trapped in a body that can barely move, lying in a hospital bed. I don’t turn my head to see if anyone is here—I’m sure I’m alone. My wife left me. She went out and found better. It didn’t take long. I was a pathetic excuse for a husband. Luckily, we never made it long enough to have children…

I’m aware of the machine beeping next to me. It’s muffled, as if I’m hearing it from under water. The only thing I can see are the black dots on the ceiling tiles above. This is my life now. And there seems to be no end of it in sight. The machine’s steady beeps tell me one sad thing: I am in stable condition.

I remember how afraid I was when my final plan started to fall apart. I was terrified at the prospect of death. As it became clear that I wasn’t going to escape, I started to find peace. The idea of just not existing anymore wasn’t scary. And if there is an afterlife, I feel that the good I’ve done outweighs the bad. For how pathetic and small of a man I am, I’ve always tried to do my best.

I was ready to die. What I wasn’t ready for is this. Biggs may send his men to come and finish the job. Or he may realize that this is far more torturous than death.

“Andrew?” The voice isn’t muffled like everything else. It almost sounds like it’s here, in my mind. The clarity of it is calming. It almost sounds like Angie’s voice, before everything fell apart, when we were still in love.

I close my eyes to find her, but it’s just darkness I see. “Where are you?” I ask from in here, the only place where I still can speak.

There’s no answer. It was just a cruel trick of the mind, something to make me think I may be wanted. Of course I’m not wanted. There’s a reason I’m alone. There’s a reason Angie left me to begin with. I couldn’t provide for her. I was, as she said, “dead weight.”

I gambled when I wasn’t working. I broke even most of the time and when I did come home with plenty of winnings, she saw me as a winner…

I wanted to hold onto that feeling more than anything. I wanted her to see me as a winner permanently, so I took a chance. I borrowed twenty thousand dollars from Biggs Handy—yeah, that’s his name. Big, round Biggs Handy. We set terms on how I’d pay him back. I even hinted at a gratuity above his set interest rate. I was confident that his twenty thousand would turn into a hundred: 4 to 1 odds on Speedy, lane number 3.

The horse hadn’t done much of anything for some time, but I had insider knowledge. The wet conditions were something he thrived in. And the original jockey was being replaced by someone lighter due to injury. It had all the ingredients for success.

The day came. The race happened. And Speedy fell, snapping his front leg. The rest is history. I couldn’t come up with the money. And here I now lay, wishing they would come and finish the job.

I’m tired. I close my eyes, wishing they would never open again, but it will only be temporary…

2

The room I’m standing in is filled with wispy fog. The dreaming has begun. At least here I can walk. At least here I can feel.

There’s a sudden dull ringing in my ears. Sharp and simple. A steady sound. As I start to walk, it begins to fade. What a strange place this is. I’ve been here for only moments, but it has worn on me as if it’s been hours or even days.

I stop walking to look back from where I came. Everything behind me is pitch black. I hear steady growls in the darkness. The fear I feel is immediate. I don’t know what’s behind me, but I know it won’t stay there long.

“It’s just a dream.” I whisper to myself as I close my eyes, but it doesn’t calm me. The fear is actually growing.

Andrew? My Angie? I’d recognize that voice anywhere. It warms me immediately. At least I can have her in some form, even if it’s just in a dream.

“I wish I could change things, babe.” I say quietly. “You deserved so much better.”

Turn back toward the way you were walking. Your mind is fading fast. If you get lost in the darkness, there is no hope of you getting a second chance. Her voice seems so far away. I’m afraid to open my eyes. Those growls belong to the creature from my childhood nightmares. I don’t know why it’s the first thing following me now. If it swallows up what remains of your consciousness, you will cease to exist.

“This is only a dream, Angie. It will end as soon as I open my eyes.”

Think about the steady ring you walked away from.

As I do, it all makes sense. I’m dead, surviving only in a pocket of my subconscious, no longer a body but just a thought.

“What am I supposed to do?”

Create while you still can. Give us a place where we can be together. Otherwise, soon you will slip away into nothingness.

“Will you help me? If I imagine you holding my han—

I feel her grab hold of my left hand before I even finish the thought. My eyes are still closed and I can feel a cold wind starting to blow.

“You don’t have much time, Andrew.” her voice is much closer now.

I open my eyes to see that the blackness has eaten up nearly everything but me and her. I can even feel myself starting to slip away. It’s hard to focus on anything specific.

I can only think about the ocean: the warmth of it, the churn of the tide under my feet, how the waves crashing down sound like thunder in a cave. It all makes me think of our honeymoon. If perfect ever existed in my life, it was that week…

It feels like I’m in the water. My eyes are open and I see nothing but the blackness growing closer and closer toward us. And yet, the sensation of being wet is undeniable.

“Remember our honeymoon?” I say as I look over at Angie.

She nods with a smile as her eyes meet mine.

“Is it too late to take us there?”

“No.” she sighs. “I could live there with you forever.”

I close my eyes and imagine the water rolling over us as we lay on the shore. The wet sand cold under our warm bodies. The sun high in the blue sky above us.

“Open your eyes, Angie.” I whisper, even though I haven’t opened mine yet. “Tell me we’re there. I can feel the water. I can feel the sand. I can feel the warmth of the sun.”

“It’s perfect, sweetheart,” she says quietly.

3

Perfect? I don’t think she has ever used that word with me in the same sentence. I was a perfect screw up, consistently able to disappoint. I was never able to exceed her expectations. Even when things were perfect (or as close as it comes) I was still underwhelming.

To hear her say that word makes me miss nothing of the real her. I created a better version of her than she actually is. I created someone kinder, someone worth sharing my paradise with. I don’t feel like a stupid man with this Angie. I’m not walking on eggshells, trying to please with every waking breath. Even though this Angie isn’t the one I married, she’s the one I would have preferred. And if I truly have the power to create what I want, this really is paradise.

I don’t fully understand how this works or where I am. I’ve always believed that when the brain shuts off, so does everything else. I suppose if existence itself comes from a series of random chemical reactions, this isn’t that farfetched at all. If thought is a reaction to the chemicals that create us, is it too farfetched to believe it can continue in some aspect after death? Even if it’s just in a series of memories, like looking through old photographs? It wouldn’t make sense for my paradise to be anything more than revisiting the past. And still, if I get to choose what the outcome is, perfection is possible.

Before Angie left me, I had a fleeting thought: she was the reason I gambled so much to begin with. I never told her this. She wouldn’t have listened, but, had she loved me for who I was instead of always expecting more and more out of me—had she found me worth much of anything, I wouldn’t have taken such stupid risks trying to earn her admiration.

I like this feeling. The prison of self pity has had the bars cut away, and I’m able to see from the outside in. What a stupid man I was, under the thumb of a stupid woman. No more. This Angie will be everything I want. She will be sweet, kind, and submissive. She will not want to argue, because my view is her view. She will not have differing opinions. She will not have opinions at all. Opinion is where trouble really begins. And old Angie was full of them. What a stupid woman. She was lucky to have me.

Honestly, I wish her a terrible life, and I hope her new husband gets tired of how she is and leaves her. I revel in the very idea. To have her feel small and defeated—oh, how wonderful that would be…

I haven’t opened my eyes yet. I’m letting the reality of the world I’ve created wash over me. It’s more real than reality was. All of my sensations are sharper. I don’t just hear the roar of the ocean. I hear the crabs shuffling along the shore behind me, the rustling of the palm trees inland, the various bird songs populating the island, and most clearly, I hear the wind as never before. Clear and crisp. It even feels different.

“Have I told you how handsome you are, Andrew?” Angie is just another wonderful sound next to me. “Rugged and sexy. What a man I have. What a gift I’ve been given.” I feel her lay her head on my shoulder as she lightly rubs her long-nailed fingers around in figure 8s on my bare chest.

Finally I open my eyes to find her looking at me.

“How lucky I am.” she sighs with a smile.

I look down at what she’s wearing. Her bikini is blue and barely there, much more revealing than what Angie actually wore on our honeymoon. Ah, paradise indeed.

4

There are many things I want to do with Angie on this beach. I start to untie the slim string on her top, as she kisses me deeply, moving her hand downwar—

“Welcome, friends!” a strange voice interrupts us as if nothing were about to happen. Angie immediately stops kissing me, and uses her forearm to hold her top on as she gets up from lying on top of me. I get up too. A black man with dreads and a graying goatee is running toward us from inland. He’s wearing black swim trunks and a plain red T-shirt.

“Who are you?” I ask as I walk toward him. I am beyond confused. What’s anybody else doing here?

“Just call me D. I am here to welcome you. It’s always interesting to see the expansion. This place is always getting bigger, always adding new territories, new places to lease. You brought with you a stunning piece of land. I love the beach. Great attention to detail, by the way.”

“What are you talking about, D?” I ask as I look out toward the ocean.

“This world is always expanding. Just as life was a wonderful accident, post-life is an even better accident. Everyone who makes it here brings with them their own paradise, their own little piece. By itself, it would be an adequate final destination, sure. But, as a piece to a much bigger puzzle, we are in the process of something amazing. You brought with you this beach. Someone else brings a mountain view, or even the mountain itself. We have a colorful variety. Cabins on the lake. Mansions as far as the eye can see. We have the most beautiful skies, both night and day. An astronomer has a very simple paradise. He had a small house, far away from everyone else, so that the night sky would come to life. His paradise is studying the stars with his trusty telescope.

“Some people are touchy about visitors though. I hope you won’t be like that, friend. This beach is plenty big enough to share, don’t you think?”

“Share?” I ask. “For how long?”

“Well, indefinitely, friend. You share your land, others share theirs. For example, if you let the couple next door, who have a stunning view of the Himalayas, come to your property, they lend you time in theirs. I’m sure they would love a beach getaway.” he smiles. “Think about it as a timeshare. Post-life is a vacation that never ends. And everyone likes to change the destination from time to time.” he chuckles, seeming to expect me to do the same.

“D? Me and my wife just got here. This is all still very new—

“Say no more,” he interrupts. “I just want to know that you’ll be open to a timeshare deal in the near future. I know quite a few interested clients who would love to rent out a place as nice as this.”

“We’ll see.” I say, hoping he takes the hint to leave.

“Good.” he smiles strangely. “What was your name? I forgot to ask.”

“Andrew.”

“Good to hear, Andrew. Just know one thing. No matter how wonderful your little piece of paradise is, there’s always the opportunity for more. With the right planning, I could get you into two or three more pieces of paradise. One is kind of boring, wouldn’t you say? There are quite a few vacancies at this time.”

“How are there vacancies? People willingly give up what they own?”

“Not exactly,” he says slowly as he begins to walk away.

5

Whatever mood there was is gone. I watch as the strange man named D makes his way back from where he came. I feel Angie grab my hand and try to lead me back to where we left off. But, I can only think about what D said. He was right when he said that this would be adequate as a final destination, but he has effectively whet my appetite. I am interested in a trade if the price is right. Or a timeshare deal would be even better. I could lease what I have and get something else on the side. Then again, D said he could get me two to three more. He said there were vacancies.

D is an oddly shaped silhouette the farther away he walks. I can’t let him get away. I can’t wait for him to show back up some time in the near future. I need to know what deals he can get me now. After all, it’s just a stupid beach. I’m sure there are nicer spots all over the place. Maybe he could find me one with a mansion overlooking the ocean. I would love to have a mansion. I have always dreamed of having one.

“D!” I yell as loud as I can as I run after him. “D! Wait!”

My feet carry me quickly toward him. His silhouette quickly fills in the detail. He is standing on the side of a road, only feet away from a shiny black convertible with red trim.

“You nearly missed your opportunity, Andrew.” he says with a much more serious tone.

“I’m glad I didn’t. Let’s talk. I’m extremely interested in seeing what else you can find for me.”

“Get in. We’ll go for a drive.”

“Sounds good.” I consider running back to check with Angie first—what am I thinking? She has no opinion, no feeling other than what I want her to feel. It doesn’t matter. She might as well not even be waiting for me at the beach. She is a decoration, a detail, just like the palm trees or the very beach itself. She’ll wait patiently for me to return. And best of all, I won’t have to deal with her nagging about where I was.

“I have an extra T-shirt in the backseat. It might get a little chilly being bare skinned. Some of the places are high altitude.” D says as he opens the driver side door.

“Yeah. That would be great, D.”

He throws me a red T-shirt as he gets in the driver seat. I put it on as I take my spot. D and I match: red shirt, black shorts. It’s kind of strange.

“Where to first?” he asks as he puts the car into drive.

“You said there are vacancies?”

“Yeah. Quite a few right now. We’ve had an interesting time lately. These two brothers, identical twins actually, died in an attempted bank robbery and brought this shoddy piece of land with them. Brown grass, paint peeling on an already ugly one story house. Awful.”

“How did they even get here? Bank robbers don’t seem to be the kind of people who deserve paradise.”

“Andrew, you’re talking as if this was Heaven.” he laughs. “Good. Bad. It’s all opinion. Your deeds are not what get you here, it’s your ability to create before the lights go out. If you can find a place to exist before the brain shuts down, your creation becomes part of this land. As I said before, this whole place is a miraculous accident. Just as life itself was created from random occurrence. The brothers didn’t need to be, what you call ‘good’ to get here. They just had to have imagination. And they did, no matter how small and pathetic it was.” he clears his throat. “They shouldn’t have been here because, by bringing a garbage piece of land, they lowered all surrounding property value. They knew it was garbage too. They went out to find better. They killed for it.”

“Killed? That happens here?”

“This place is not much different than the world itself. The same laws that existed in life exist here. Survival of the fittest and whatnot. We usually have a certain quality of people here though. People of great wealth. Great imagination. They don’t need to steal or kill because they know how to make deals.”

“How many people did they kill?”

“How many vacancies?”

“I guess.”

“Seven. There were eight, but I was able to get a lovely couple into one of them a few days ago.” he smiles a salesman smile.

“What happened to the brothers?”

D doesn’t answer, his smile gone as soon as it came. He pulls the car to the side of the road, his eyes continuing past me as he slightly nods his head.

I look to my right. A small plot of burnt land comes into view under a small plot of gray sky, sandwiched between a starry night up ahead of us, and a still early dawn directly behind us. The plot of land is something you’d find in a trailer park. And even with the house now nothing but charred remains, it’s clear that it was always a dump. Where the grass isn’t burnt away completely, the dying lawn is littered with random items. An old bike frame is near a bald tire. Shredded paper spreads out across the lawn like a very specific kind of confetti. Cardboard boxes are thrown here and there. What a terrible eyesore—I see what D’s saying. If I had either of the properties neighboring it, my timeshare value would plummet. My beach is far from the biggest piece of property, but at least it’s not next to this.

“Did the brothers get away?” though not directly next to my property, this one is only five away from mine. What if they try to take mine? What if they try to kill me—

“No.” D looks ahead as he puts the car back into drive. “We found it fitting to burn them with their horrible property.”

6

Did they deserve to die in such a way? It’s not for me to say. Killing them put an end to the hurting of others. If they had been left to a less harsh system, they’d probably still be killing now. Sometimes problems only have one answer. I should feel unease about D’s cavalier nature but the only thing I feel is a very real sense of relief. It wasn’t long ago that I thought this world was only made up of my memories. A safe, familiar place that I could settle with a better copy of Angie and rearrange the details until it was perfect. It was a comforting idea.

The beach is gone now and this world continues to unfold. We haven’t been driving long but I’ve already seen a haunting truth. Self-preservation is what has always fueled us—it’s always been the difference between a successful man and a failure. Only the strongest survive. I was weak in my life; here I can reinvent myself. Here I can be strong. It’s a second chance. Angie was never worth keeping but if I had been a man of success, I could have tossed her away like garbage. I could have made her feel the way she did me.

I haven’t said a word since D revealed that last little detail about the brothers. Nothing about it seems to make him uncomfortable. In fact, he is whistling quietly, his eyes focused on the road ahead. Despite his homely appearance, and his very dressed down style, he comes across as a man of great knowledge. Never judge a book by its cover. I never put much stock in that saying, but I suppose it’s true. D is not just a Realtor, he has his hands in making paradise the best it can be. He does what has to be done for the betterment of everyone else. And he’s at peace with that role.

“What kind of place are you interested in, Andrew?” D asks with his foot to the floor, his eyes glancing over at me.

“Something seaside, like my beach, but with a mansion up on a high hill, and a staircase leading down to the beach. I wish I had created something like that to go with my beach. Hindsight’s 20/20, right, D?”

He nods as he glances at me. “You won’t believe it, Andrew! I have something very close to that available.” A small pause. “You should also know about the special commodities I offer.” he says while looking over at me with an eyebrow raised to go along with his upturned lip.

“What kind of commodities?”

“This is for the type of man who likes to have something on the side. A dessert, if you will.”

“Like what?”

“Women. Many or just one. You can have them on a Rolodex, if you want!”

“I have my wife.” the thought makes me uncomfortable.

“You have a commodity. Those who truly have wives here usually need something on the side,” he laughs. “All the nagging and opinionated inputs! You don’t have a wife, Andrew. You have a figment. You have something that belongs to the paradise you brought. She couldn’t leave it if she tried. She belongs to it just as the sand does.”

“So if I were to lease it she couldn’t come with to my new place?”

“We share. She is a commodity to be enjoyed. If you traded it to someone else, she would be a part of it. I sense that’s a problem for you.”

“She was the main part of paradise for me.” I say quietly. “Was” being the only thing that matters. “But… she isn’t really who I was married to at all. She’s like my puppet. She’s actually much sexier than the real Angie.”

“And that pushes the price on your property up a great deal. And that barely-there-bikini! You made a paradise that many can enjoy!”

“I’ll think about it, D.”

“You have plenty of time, Andrew. All the time you’ll ever need! We’re still a bit of a drive away from the place you want to see, so enjoy the scenery. You won’t see skies like this anywhere else.”

I look up. We are driving under a color palette: a sunset splattered with pink, orange, purple, light blue, and many shades of red. Now, the sky is black and covered in thousands of stars. We must be going over a hundred miles per hour, with how quickly we are changing from sky to sky. Now, it’s day again, a perfect blue, with just enough clouds to keep the sun from blinding us.

“What’s the sky look like where I’m interested in leasing?” I ask.

“The sunset before a storm. It’s probably my favorite as far as skies go. It has the perfect setting for a man of power, a man who is willing to do what needs to be done to get what he wants. Mr. Ericson, the man who lived there, was a man of definite power. Such a shame what those brothers did to him. He was the original creator of the place. Only a man who knows what power is could have created such a sky.” He looks at me with a look that says, ‘Are you a powerful man, Andrew?’

Of course there’s flecks of hesitation floating around me now. The weak man I was in life is trying to follow me here. To be a successor to a man who had it all, a man of power—everything D says makes me more excited to see this place. Even though I was always considered a small man in my life, I always had the imagination for greater. I haven’t seen it yet but from what I’ve heard this place sounds like the perfect piece to express who I’ve always wanted to be. I can now be a man of power. That stupid woman removed from my life, I can finally reach my potential. Maybe I was like a fish in too small a bowl, my growth stunted by my circumstances. And ultimately, I died because I was trying to impress her. I won’t waste this second chance. Even the commodities, as D called them, seem like things I might have to take advantage of. As D says, ‘there’s always the opportunity for more.’ When I really think about it, I wouldn’t miss Angie at all. She’s nothing but a commodity.

The original creator of the place I’m about to see probably had higher tastes anyways. And if I can partake, if I can have a Rolodex, like D suggested, why shouldn’t I? It’s really no different than having a line up in my head. These women don’t have feelings. They are part of the property, no different than a picture, really.

I was never someone women found very attractive. Short and awkward, is how I was mostly described. Women liked the men who towered over them, not the ones who looked up at them…

Yeah, if it’s offered, why shouldn’t I have all the fun I couldn’t when I was alive? If Angie, my commodity, helps make this an even trade, what harm is there in it? I’m a man, after all. And I haven’t been with a truly gorgeous woman. Now, they can’t say no. They are there to please.

“What kind of commodities does this place have?”

“Mr. Ericson was a man of power, Andrew. What kind of commodities do you think he had?”

“I can only imagine.” I say as I smile.

7

D nearly hit a man who wandered into the road. He came out from a ditch somewhere. Strange that he’s dressed like an angel from a bad play. Gold lacing a white robe; his face is mostly an unkempt brown beard. He’s holding a cardboard sign, looking at me:

3 Days…

”Get out of the road before I run you down!” D’s tone is sharp as he moves to the side of the road. Would he really kill him? I doubt it, but his threat seems legitimate, with how he’s revving his engine and stabbing into the man with his eyes. I would never underestimate D. He did have a hand in burning the brothers, after all.

The man holding the sign continues to look at me as he moves to the side of the road. As soon as he’s out of the way, D steps on it.

“Three days?” I think out loud. “What does that mean?”

“Even here, you find crazy people. They are preparing for the apocalypse. I’m telling you, sometimes you really wish there was a test to get in here, because those who slip through the cracks threaten to ruin the whole experience.”

“They believe this will all end in three days?”

“Don’t pay any mind to them. There are people with signs like that all over. I sometimes wish I could run them down. Of course, I never would.” a smile meant to pave over the bumpy road, it seems.

Although I don’t know how to respond to his intentions, I decide to help him pave over the road just the same. This is a different situation than the brothers, I reassure myself. And his transparency tells me all I need to know: thinking about it is different than acting.

“Why aren’t they enjoying the little piece of paradise they brought with them?” I ask, glancing back toward the man. He’s now out of sight.

“That’s a good question. Many of them brought nice properties too. I am convinced that people don’t change. Instead of accepting that this place disproves any silly notion of a god, they continue to fabricate the idea of a god’s existence. It’s pathetic. They have the most beautiful sites at their fingertips—wealth, power, everything you’d ever want, and they still convince themselves something is missing.” he shakes his head with an exaggerated scoff. “Think about the people you avoided in life. Odds are most of them were Bible thumpers. They would hold a book of rules over your head, citing some god, when in all actuality, the very rule book was created by people like them. It’s all a power grab. Even their book of rules was made by crafty types who wanted to control the people. They only had to create something to follow, to put the mind into a prison dictated by right and wrong, threatening damnation. If this is Hell, Andrew, lock me in and throw away the key!”

I laugh with him. “That’s a good way to look at it, D.” Many of his points are exactly how I’ve felt toward those people. They never could keep their thoughts to themselves, always pointing back to some god, some offered salvation. How arrogant to claim they had found the truth. And how obtrusive to shove it in everyone’s face.

“I’m just looking out for you. Far too many logical people have been swayed by these fairy-tale following fools. Don’t be one of them.”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“That’s what I like to hear. It’s always refreshing to take a man who wants the whole experience on a showing. This is when I love my job most.

“Realty?”

”Yes.” he pauses. “I forgot to give you a card.” he hands me a small business card from a thick stack in his cup holder. The card is black; the letters are a sharp red.

D Here: The Only Realtor You’ll Ever Want for Your Post-Life Needs!

8

We’ve driven under nearly twenty different skies since leaving the beach. Even the idea of a commute is pleasant. D was right: “You won’t find skies like this anywhere else.” What a package deal so far! I am genuinely excited about every aspect of my new existence.

The car has slowed down considerably now that we’re climbing a steep hill. We must be getting close. Even the sky seems to hold a looming storm in the distance. It’s even more awe inspiring than I imagined.

“Are you really going to be able to get me into this place, D? It seems much bigger than my beach is.”

“It is much bigger, Andrew. And usually I would laugh at the suggestion of trading yours for this, but considering the unfortunate circumstances that transpired there, many people don’t want to step anywhere near the property, let alone buy it. Their silly superstitions.”

“Because of what happened to Mr. Ericson?”

“Yes. There are plenty of people who worry the place is now haunted. The price tag has dropped nearly seventy percent on the property.” he pauses for a moment as if he wishes he could take back the information. “Honestly, I’m up front with you about this now because you seem to be the perfect successor to Mr. Ericson. The sky doesn’t scare you, like it does many people. It empowers you. I can already see it on your face and you haven’t even seen the view from the balcony: dark black clouds outlined with light, I can’t do it justice with description. The ocean is at its most intimidating, with waves fifteen feet high, smacking against the cliffside. The stunning five bedroom three bath, with the pool overlooking the ocean… and the garage has some of the oldest, and rarest cars known to man, not to mention the long list of women that you can choose from—stop me before I take it myself!”

He’s speaking my language and he knows it. D truly is an excellent salesman. This isn’t a pitch. This is true excitement. He wants me to have it, because he knows it fits who I am to a T. Then again, D did give away a lot of information. Maybe too much.

“I want this place, D. I haven’t seen it yet but it fits me perfectly.”

“Good to hear, Andrew.” he smiles as he cuts the wheel sharply to the left to follow the curve of the road.

“There are just a few concerns I have,” he looks over at me slyly. “You said the property is nearly seventy percent off, which would value mine at only thirty percent of whatever this is worth. Mine definitely isn’t as big as this, but the ocean is actually usable. Am I going to go swim in storm waters? Absolutely not. This is, as you said before, something on the side. Also, don’t think I don’t remember the rules. He has a garage full of cars but like any commodity, I wouldn’t be able to drive them off the property.”

D looks over at me, his eyebrow raised in what looks like surprise. “Even if I were trying, I couldn’t pull the wool over your eyes, could I?” a small smile crawls onto his face.

“I consider myself a businessman too. You are looking for the best deal you can find, but you revealed a little too much of your hand. I know that many people don’t want the property, in fear of ghosts, or something ridiculous like that. And I know if I passed on the deal, it would drop even further in price. If I were to wait even a month or so it would probably be closer to eighty.” I pause to test his temperament. He is solid, as if he wanted me to catch all the subtleties of the deal to begin with. A test maybe? “But, you have been honest with me and I appreciate it. I want to make a deal today. I have an offer for you. I think it’s fair. I get this property and in exchange I timeshare my beach for six months out of every year. You can lease it with Angie, and whatever they want to do with her they can do.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Andrew.” he says with his face held in thought.

“I’m not done, D. I want a car. A nice one. One that I can actually drive off of the property.”

“Anything else?”

“I don’t know. Is there anything else you’re willing to throw in?”

He looks over at me, nodding his head with approval. I think he’s impressed.

9

Of all the skies I have seen, this truly is the most beautiful. The mansion is still a slight blur from where we’re at, but the sky is all consuming. It’s all I can look at. It’s an angry setting, a masterpiece for the powerful. The ocean is gray and ferocious, waves upon waves. A great battle is taking place.

I can see why this scares many people. The feeling of imminent danger is in every inch, and that’s what makes it so thrilling. It looks as if it could explode at any moment, reminiscent of the image of a mushroom cloud after a nuclear bomb. The colors are pale and disturbing. Pea soup green with sickly orange stirred into a palette of grays and blacks. And everything is outlined in sharp, piercing light. Just looking at it fills me with desire.

“Do I get this view from the master bedroom?” I ask, thinking about what I will do with my commodities as soon as D leaves me to it.

“The view is stunning from the master bedroom. You have a huge bay window that faces the water, so the sky is like one big picture.” he says as he begins to slow the car down to park it in the driveway.

“Perfect.”

The property is incredible. The mansion is older than I expected it to be. I was picturing something more modern, something that the newest movie star would have: a sleek, almost futuristic look. Even so, this fits the whole piece of land better. It’s a tall house with tall windows in the front. It’s dark blue or an off gray with dark red shutters. Old columns stand at the entrance of a large black double door. A little to the right of the entrance a staircase leads up to a large swimming pool that overlooks the water. The driveway leads to a huge garage. There are two doors, but it clearly holds more.

“In love, Andrew?” D asks as he gets out of the car.

“It’s better than I imagined. Different but better.” I get out too. The air is warm, but the wind from the water is chilled. A clap of thunder rumbles over the water and a flash of lightning follows. Every one of my senses spring into action. This property feels so unstable, so sure to be destroyed one day. And strangely, that’s part of the charm. Men of power live on the edge. They make enemies and have few friends. They are pioneers, alone in their quest and usually are as unstable as the waves themselves. I would rather be here than some place warm and always inviting. “If you can get me a car, we have a deal.”

“I should be able to work something out.” he says as he stretches his arms out to feel the wind. “This place does something to you, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does, D.” I smile as I look out at what I’m about to call mine. “When can we get this deal done?”

“I’ll call my secretary right now.” he pulls out an old flip phone. “What color? What kind?”

“For a car?”

He nods as he dials a certain set of numbers.

“Convertible. Reddish-orange, if you have it.”

He nods again, now with his phone pressed to his ear.

I walk away from him as he starts talking to his secretary. There is more exploring to do. My steps bring me down the driveway. It forks off halfway down. The right side leads to the garage, the left leads down to the yard, which continues until the drop off. I can only imagine how high up this is. The sky is looming both above and far beyond me. I can feel the violent, cold winds ripping off the water. My speed increases as the decline pulls me into the grass. And I continue forward, the sound of crashing waves a loud swell even with the cliffside several feet away. Another set of steps and I’m looking out at nothing but dark ocean waves. The drop from here would be fatal. There is no stairway leading down. There is no beach. There is nothing but dark waves pounding the jagged rocks.

D really would have taken me for a ride had I not been paying attention. This water is setting, nothing more. Luckily, I’m holding onto my beach getaway as well. Otherwise, I’d be feeling very taken advantage of. I guess there really is no such thing as an honest salesman…

10

I don’t know why I am starting to feel hesitant about this deal. I don’t know why fear more than power is starting to attach itself to me. Is it because I can’t fully trust D? What will he benefit by deceiving me? What motive does he have?

I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing, but I don’t know what it could be. Soon I’ll have a nice new car. I can visit my beach property six months out of every year. I have a full Rolodex of women just waiting inside. I should be thrilled with everything I have, but—

“The car is on its way!” D says from somewhere behind me. “My secretary is bringing it as quickly as she can. Reddish-orange, a beautiful color.”

“Okay.” I say quietly as I look down at the water.

“Is something wrong, Andrew?”

“No.” I look back towards him and then at the house. I can see the big bay window. It’s on the second floor, directly above the deck. “Nothing’s wrong. It’s as you said, ‘This place does something to you.’”

D smiles as he touches my shoulder. “Why don’t we take a look inside?”

I nod as I follow him back toward the house.

Whatever hesitation I had is gone. Whatever fear there was has faded. My cold feet have warmed. For a moment I was slipping back into the stupid, weak skin of who I was with Angie. This place is intimidating. It’s the opposite of comforting. It doesn’t feel safe or secure. Of course the old me would want to run. Of course the old me wants the warm beach with nothing but sunlight, where the waves softly slide onto the shore, but…

The pieces people bring with them are not just properties, they are reflections of who they are. I can’t continue to be the stupid man I was. He was pathetic. He was spit on, stepped on, laughed at, and finally left entirely because Angie didn’t want someone like me. She wanted someone successful. She wanted someone that she had reason to respect. When she looked at me, she saw a failure.

… I am going to pass on the commodities offered, not because I don’t want to have sex with gorgeous women, but because those women belonged to Mr. Ericson. I don’t want a powerful man’s leftovers. That’s more pathetic than having no one. Instead, I am going to find a gorgeous woman for myself, one who respects me, one who I can’t control. She won’t be a figment of someone else’s mind. I will earn her admiration. When she looks at me she’ll see a man of great power. And she’ll want me for me.

“If you decide not to add commodities to your property, does the price go down?” I ask as we’re about to walk inside.

“You don’t want the women?” D seems taken aback. “Who wouldn’t want the women? Especially these women? They are some of the most beautiful in existence.”

“I don’t doubt it. I just want something that’s mine.”

“What are you talking about, Andrew? You sign the papers and they are yours. And they don’t disappo—”

“Just answer the question, D. Does the price go down?”

“Yeah, quite a bit. They are worth the extra credit, Andrew, I assure you.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about. I want to make a name for myself, in a way that I was never able to do before.”

“How do you plan on doing that?”

“With the credit I save, I’m going to timeshare a third piece of land. I’m going to be a titan of industry. Like I said, I’m a businessman too. I’m not going to need the leftovers from someone else’s fantasies. I’m going to earn everything I get. I’m going to earn respect. And this place is where it begins.”

“That’s really something,” D says as he clicks his tongue in surprise. “I admire you, Andrew. I can’t honestly say you won’t be missing out. I also can’t say I would do the same thing. You’re definitely a stronger man than I am.”

“No. I just don’t want to settle for a dead man’s fantasies. Something on the side doesn’t apply if you don’t truly have anything to begin with. You said it yourself. Angie is a commodity. She’s not waiting for me to come back to the beach. I have no one right now, D. It won’t be that way for long though.”

“I believe you, Andrew.” he sighs as he scratches his head. “There are a few pieces of land I can show you tomorrow that would be covered by what you have left over. Anything particular in mind?”

“Someplace populated.”

11

We entered the house through the deck door, immediately finding a large bar area in the basement. It’s carpeted and well lit. A huge pull down screen is on the wall to my left. The shelves are full of DVDs, both adult and miscellaneous. D suggested it would be a good place for parties, with a sly wink. He’s already trying to help with my image.

The second floor opens up after eight steps, a sharp turn, and eight more. The kitchen leads into the living room. The dining room is kitty corner to the living room. All small details. The tour is more a series of glances. I don’t care about the rooms as much as the view. Luckily, big windows overlook the sky from many different places in the house. They are definitely a big selling point.

The master bedroom is next. D makes sure to focus on this aspect. We walk past the front double door, and by the living room into a wide hallway. A small room is on the left. The master is on the right. Before I even get to the doorway, I can already see the sky from the bay window. The bed is king sized, but bare.

“No bedding?” I ask in passing.

“We had to throw the bedding out. Don’t worry we cleaned this room very thoroughly. There should be no stains anywhere.”

“What exactly happened to Mr. Ericson?”

“If I tell you is it going to change your mind about living here?”

“No.” It’s a reply I want to believe.

“The brothers broke in. One held Mr. Ericson down. One cut his throat.”

I can feel that my eyes are wide. “And he was… sleeping?”

“He was in bed, watching the sky, as he liked to do quite often.” he pauses. “I’ll throw in an expensive bedding set, no charge.” D seems to be testing my waters. “You won’t find a view like this anywhere else, Andrew. And we aren’t superstitious men…”

“That’s true,” I give D a knowing looking, the faint chill traveling up my back fading. “Is there more upstairs?”

D smiles with relief. “Yeah. There are three more bedrooms. If you ever want kids someday, this house is old but has strong bones.”

“Kids? I never thought that was a possibility here.” A second chance to build something real? Angie and I had plans before it all fell apart.

“Of course it is. Procreation isn’t common, but it does happen, especially with people who didn’t get to have children when they were alive.” it’s as if he knows. “Just something to keep in mind.”

“Yeah.” I follow him out of the hallway and toward the kitchen.

“The stairs to the other bedrooms are just right of the kitchen, behind a secret door.”

“What’s the point of a secret door?”

“Mr. Ericson was a careful man, which makes his death a bit ironic.” he snickers slightly before noticing the inappropriate nature of his comment. “That was in bad taste. I apologize.”

“It’s okay, D. It’s definitely not funny what happened to the guy but I understand your light heart about terrible situations. I found myself laughing at my dad’s funeral. Everyone else was crying, I was laughing—not because I didn’t love him. It’s just how I responded to the situation.”

“What’s your father’s name?”

“Andrew Jeffery Stephenson, the first. I’m Junior.”

“That name sounds familiar. The one I’m thinking of brought with him a frozen lake with a small but cozy fishing house on it.”

My heart responds immediately, the fast beating only getting faster. I pause, looking at D and then past him. That was Dad’s favorite thing to do. He loved living in Minnesota, mostly for the extended winters. He said it had the best ice fishing around. He took me every year. It’s still one of my favorite memories with him. I remember catching nothing but eating cold packaged sandwich meat while we waited for the propped fishing pole to twitch. It never did, if I’m remembering it right.

“Can you take me to him, D?” my voice sounds different than before, soft and disarmed. I feel like a child again. When I think of my holes, they all began here. To see my dad again after all these years—

Why does D suddenly look full of regret? He shakes his head. “It’s not a good idea, Andrew. He’s a strange man. He doesn’t like visitors. He’s one of those types who doesn’t like to share.”

“My dad died when I was a kid. I haven’t seen him in nearly twenty years. And you’re telling me he is here, but you won’t bring me to him?!” For a moment, I imagine strangling D. I’m not as tall as him but I weigh more.

D’s face is like stone. The Realtor’s smile is gone. He’s never looked more serious. “You want to be a titan of industry. You have high aspirations. He is a recluse. Don’t expose yourself to that kind of influence. He will only pull you down.”

“I appreciate your concern, D, but getting to see my dad again is a paradise I never thought possible. Take me to him or the deal is off. I don’t need the car, this house, or even the beach.”

D’s dark skin is covered in bulging veins. What is he trying to stop from happening? This man is no friend of mine. What does it matter to him what I do with my afterlife?

“New deal, D. With the credit I have leftover from passing on the commodities, I’m not buying another piece of land. I’m buying information. This is non-negotiable. If this isn’t included in the deal, this whole thing’s off.”

D looks beyond frustrated. He runs his thin fingers through his thick dreads with a heavy sigh. “I don’t need this deal, Andrew. I am more than comfortable.”

“I don’t understand what you’re doing!” I want to kill him. “This is what I need!

“What a confused little man you are!” he says mockingly. “You don’t know what you want! Is your daddy going to fill that hole?”

Before I even decide it, my hands jump up to his throat and begin to squeeze. He is struggling, pulling at my thick forearms with his thin hands.

“I-I’m so-sorry, An-Andrew.” He sees who has the power. “Pl-please.” He may have helped kill the two brothers but his life is now in my hands. He pleads. It would only take a little more pressure to shut his lights out for good.

Lucky for him, I’m one for second chances—after all, I was given one.

“Should we try this again, D?”

He nods weakly, his eyes closed with his dark skin a troubled shade of red.

I start to loosen my grip. D’s thin hands pry under mine until he is just rubbing his own throat.

“This is what I need, D.” I have calmed down. “As my Realtor, don’t you want me to be satisfied in paradise?” I pull out the business card he gave me earlier, it pinched between my middle and pointer finger. “Don’t you want to live up to your claim?” I set it on the table, letting the sharp red letters challenge him to see it through.

“I’m never anything less than satisfactory with all my clients, Andrew.” his voice is raspy as he continues to rub his throat. “Well played.”

12

Tempers have cooled. Both of us are sitting at the dining room table. D’s nursing his sore throat with a cold glass of water.

“You aren’t going to have a hard time earning respect.” D says with a strained laugh. “I’m even more convinced now that you are the perfect successor to Mr. Ericson. I was always kind of weary of him. He was an unstable man, sometimes incredibly kind and other times one step away from homicidal. Were you going to kill me, Andrew?” his eyes are kinder now, like a dog after being beat into submission.

“I was just frustrated, D.” I say with a deep sigh. “I never thought I would get to see my dad again. And then out of nowhere…and you were in my way. You were withholding it from me. I still don’t understand why.”

“Don’t you want to be better than you were in life? Stronger? More self assured?” his voice still has a ways to go until it returns to the confident instrument it usually is. “To do that, you move forward. You leave behind the old to embrace the new.”

I nod my head with understanding. “I’m sorry for choking you, D. I couldn’t control myself. But, we’ve come to an understanding?”

“I’ll show you where he lives, Andrew. Of course I want you to be happy. I also understand now that you need to see him for yourself. He’s nothing like you. You may share the same name but you are a much more powerful man. Just be prepared to be disappointed.”

“As I said before, D, I appreciate your concern. A true friend wants what’s best for me. And you are a true friend.”

D smiles as he finishes the water in his glass. “I wonder where the girl is with your car.” he looks at his watch, as he clears his throat. “The office isn’t even that far away from here.” He pulls his flip phone back out, dialing the number as he rolls his eyes. “It shouldn’t be hard to find good help.”

Suddenly, the door bell rings.

D looks at the front door and then at his phone, “I must be psychic.”

I acknowledge his comment with a small laugh and walk toward the front door.

“Tell her to come in and see me while you go out and look at your brand new car.”

“Will do.”

I open the door. A woman in a little black dress and bright red heels is standing before me. Her hair is black, her eyes are copper, her lips are red. Her skin is the color of cream. I immediately imagine what I want to do with her in my bedroom, with the sky as my backdrop.

“Hi,” she says as she brushes her wind blown hair with her finger tips. “I’m Delilah.” she flashes a smile at me.

“I’m Andrew.” I think a big goofy grin is on my face.

“Your car is beautiful. Maybe we can go for a ride sometime?”

“Definitely.”

She smiles again, “Here’s the keys.” she drops them in my hands. “Enjoy.”

“Thank you,” I remember what D said. “Oh. D wants to see you.”

She nods her head as I walk past. Her eyes follow me out the door. What a gorgeous woman she is.

My feet carry me quickly to my new car. It’s beautiful. Fireball orange. And it’s all mine. I look at the passenger seat and imagine Delilah owning it. And sometime down the line, the children I never got to have will be sitting in the back of it. When I’m a family man I may move us somewhere sunnier…

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