Afflictions: Part Six

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Vanessa and Anastasia sat in the living room, obtaining the prerequisite buzz for what they were about to have to do. The beer that Arte had bought for Vanessa’s birthday was actually really good, so she saved it for special occasions. The conversation with her dad the day before had been pretty draining, and she knew she wasn’t going to be able to handle talking to Paul in the same day, so they called it a day.

Paul had developed something of a pattern over the last few months. He would lock himself in his room for a while, then he would come out and do something strange. After whatever he did was done, he would go back into his room for a day, then he would come out and be an asshole. It was pretty much like clockwork. Granted the time lengths for each step were varying, but the sequence never faltered unless he went out for something Deven wanted. Currently he was in the first ‘lock himself in his room’ phase of the cycle. It wasn’t like there was ever really a good time to talk to Paul these days, so they figured they’d just go for it. Arte had tried to ask him for a favor a couple of days ago about Zoey’s missing friend, but he shut her down immediately. While there was no reason to believe this would go differently, she had to try anyways. After all, Paul was the one who suggested she go talk to her dad in the first place.

She reached the bottom of the bottle, and looked over to Anastasia.

“I think it’s time.” Anastasia sighed and stood to her feet.

They made their way over to Paul’s room, and paused outside of the door. Vanessa took a moment to collect herself, and then knocked.

There was a moment of silence, and then Paul replied, “What?”

“Can we come in?” Anastasia asked. Even after the last few months, she was still way more patient with him than anyone else.

“Who is we?”

“Vanessa and me.”

Paul groaned and there was a bit of clattering of something plastic, and then a click as the door unlocked. They waited a moment then Anastasia opened the door.

Inside, his room was a mess. Miscellaneous things he had taken were in varying places across the room, and the floor was completely coated with plastic water bottles and empty boxes of saltine crackers. Paul sat on his bed, wearing track pants and a t-shirt. He had scraggly whiskers, and presumably hadn’t shaved in the time since Jude had left.

“I assume you need something? I’m quite busy.”

Vanessa held back a retort about what he was busy with. “I went to talk to my dad.”

“Ah, good. Tell me everything he told you.”

Vanessa took a deep breath. She could tolerate his ordering her around if it just meant he’d help. “Well, he said he was working with two other people, Felix and Vonderham-”

“Vondrasek?” He interrupted.

“Yeah? How do you-”

“Doesn’t matter, continue.” Paul cut her off again.

She took another deep breath and sighed. “Felix was researching ‘artifacts’, which are items that grant superpowers, and Vondrasek was researching how to replicate powers. My dad was studying Jude evidently.”

“Did he tell you what Jude’s power is?”

“No, he just said Jude was really powerful.”

“Alright… Interesting.” Paul nodded. “Anything else?”

“The concentration camp was both a prison and also a holding place for test subjects. He said they probably didn’t make another one, but he wasn’t sure. He also said he’d been conspiring with them since the green light, but quit after he found out they abducted me.” She looked over to Anastasia. “Did I miss anything?”

She thought for a moment. “The DSR was started to monitor Jude, but Daniels broke off from them, and it’s doing its own thing now. Oh, and Jean retired. I think that’s it.”

“How did he look?”

“My dad? He looked old and tired.”

“I see…” Paul thought for a moment. “Was he coughing?”

“Yeah, a bit. Why?” Vanessa was a little worried that Paul had asked that. Did that mean her dad was sick?

“I see…” Paul nodded thoughtfully. “Alright, if that’s it then leave me be.”

“Wait! We wanted to ask what you knew about the people my dad was working with.” Like hell did they come her and jump through his hoops to not get anything.

“Not my problem.” Paul shrugged. “Anything else?”

“This is everyone’s problem! What is with you?” Vanessa raised her voice. She was done taking this.

“The force?” Paul replied.

“You never do anything around here anymore! You wouldn’t even help Arte with a missing kid! What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I am burdened with cosmic power, and surrounded by shortsighted dimwits.” Paul paused for a moment before adding, “Oh, also I’m blind. Don’t forget about that.”

Something in Vanessa boiled over in that moment. Everything about this situation was infuriating. Her dad betrayed her, and might be sick. Paul had the power to end all of this, but instead chose to lay around in his room and be an asshole. She was sick of everyone thinking they knew better than her. She slowly stepped forwards and raised her hand. She was winding up to hit him, when she felt Anastasia’s hand on her wrist.

Vanessa looked back and saw Anastasia, with tears streaming down her face, and sighed. She gave Anastasia a hug, before exiting the room.

Anastasia lingered for a moment behind him, and said something to Paul, but Vanessa couldn’t make out what it was.

She didn’t need his help. She didn’t need her dad’s help. She’d look into this herself. Between her and Anastasia, they had more than enough everything. Not to mention Arte and Ashley if they needed anything. Vanessa was done with relying on assholes.

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Hey everyone! Hopefully by the time this post has come out I will have come up with some kind of celebration for 100 newsletter/wordpress follower. Regardless, a special thank you to the people that have stuck with me while I worked out the kinks in the whole blogging thing. I’m about to begin the outlining process for Season 4, and hiatus content, with hopes of having it done before the end of this season. Hope you have a good weekend!

Also of note, maybe celebrate May Day. It was the original worker’s rights holiday that the establishment painted over to suppress organization. You owe 2 day weekends and 40 hour workweeks to the victories of workers in the past, so maybe look into that.

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Afflictions: Part Five

You are joining part of an ongoing series: Earth 2

Check out the reading guide first if you’re new here!

Vanessa stood outside the dining room doors, mentally preparing herself for a difficult conversation with her dad, just like she did a year ago. She remembered something, and turned around. On the wall was the same painting of her Great Grandfather in his military uniform. The touchup job was better than she remembered. If she looked closely, she could still see the lines running through it, but it was probably about as good as anyone could’ve managed. She stared into his eyes for a moment, but they still didn’t pierce her the same way the did two years ago.

“Is everything alright?” Anastasia came up beside her and looked at the painting.

“Yeah, I was just looking at the painting is all. Let’s go.” Vanessa pivoted, and walked forwards into the dining room. Her heart was pounding, but that was fine. Now was not the time for fear or cowardice, she was in control.

Inside, her dad sat on one side of the table. As she crossed around to the other, she studied his appearance. His hair had gotten noticeably more grey, and it was freshly cut. His face was completely clean shaven, and he had a mark where he must have cut himself with the razor. He smiled, but he looked tired. He had definitely gotten a little thin. She found herself feeling a little guilty, but she stopped herself. He did this to himself.

“Vanessa. I’m so happy to see you.” He smiled, then turned. “You as well, Anastasia. How are you both doing?”

“We’re doing fine, thank you.” Vanessa and Anastasia sat down across from him. “How have you been?”

“Getting by.” He laughed weakly. He looked down for a moment, then back up with a somber smile. “Now, when you called, you said you had some questions for me. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ll answer any question you have truthfully, if I know the answer.”

“Yeah.” Vanessa took a deep breath. It was time to find out the truth. “What involvement did you have with the concentration camp in California?”

“Straight to the big one, huh?” He laughed a little, then sighed. “I helped fund it, I was involved in the planning stages, and I sent the names of some people that I came across with powers. We planned to use it as a holding place for dangerous supers who couldn’t be left in society, and also as somewhere we could draw test subjects from.”

Vanessa was speechless for a moment, and turned to Anastasia.

“Who is ‘we’?” Anastasia asked.

“I was in a group of three people, who were concerned about the state of the world with the arrival of supers.” He sighed. “When I joined, we were planning to do good, and it didn’t really matter what means we used. Sure, it wasn’t the people’s fault for getting superpowers, but they were a threat nonetheless. The end justified the means.”

“How long were you involved in this?” Vanessa couldn’t believe what he was saying. There was no ‘end’  that could justify the ‘means’ of using concentration camps.

“We started this group shortly after the green light, and I was involved with it up until I found out they had you.”

“Why did you let me, Jude and Paul stay here, if you thought we were a threat?” Anastasia asked.

“Well, at first I was doing it for the data, but then when we discovered some of the magnitude of Jude’s powers, we decided he had to be carefully monitored and his mental state maintained.”

Vanessa stared forwards in silence. Everything he had done was with an ulterior motive.

“So is that what the DSR is for? To monitor us?” Anastasia pressed on.

“Well, originally yes. However, from what I understand, the new director cut ties with the others. Now they operate independently.”

“Going back to the ‘group of three people’. Who else is involved? What else did you guys do? Were there more prisons?”

“There was me, a man named Mason Vondrasek, and a man named Felix Weston. We were both trying to keep supers in check, and find ways to combat them. Vondrasek worked on replicating powers, and Felix focused on finding what he called ‘artifacts’.” He coughed, and paused to take a sip of water. “There are objects that can grant their wearer powers, they were displaced throughout time and space, and Felix focused on finding them. I don’t think he ever fully worked out what any of them did, but he mostly found things that went missing from museums, and were found in the archives of other museums, much older than they were before.” He took another sip of water. “As far as other camps, I really don’t know. Takeo’s was more or less the ‘prototype’, and he hadn’t hit capacity, so we never made another while I was involved. Seeing as the project was a failure, I imagine they won’t try another.”

“So if ‘Felix’ focused on artifacts, and Vondrasek focused on powers, what did you do?”

“I watched Jude, and when the time came, I worked with the DSR. Jude was…” He paused for a moment, and started coughing. His coughing fit lasted for a moment, and Gregory began to walk over to check on him.

Vanessa stared blankly forwards. Her father had been conspiring with people who thought that she and her friends were threats. He had no compunctions with sending innocent people into a concentration camp, and he was probably the one that sent Ashley and Johan and who knows who else.

“I’m done listening to this.” She stood up from her seat and went towards the door. Anastasia jumped up and followed behind her. She’d had enough of this for one day. She’d look into this herself.

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Hello everyone! I have finally received an offer of employment, so that’s nice! Things that have been moving in the background may soon begin moving into the foreground at this rate. As always, superzeroes will keep moving though, so don’t worry! I always hated when I started a serial and it died. I may have to take another break one day, but barring me dying, I will finish this.

Be keeping an eye out for a couple of tidying up things on the blog, specifically regarding season 3 in varying descriptions and such.

Also of note, I just hit 100 email/WordPress subscribers! Keep an eye out for some kind of milestone celebration. I’m a little busy with work, but I’m about to hit a light patch, so I should have time to work something out. Thank you so much for following, and here’s to another milestone!

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Afflictions: Part Four

You are joining part of an ongoing series: Earth 2

Check out the reading guide first if you’re new here!

Arte and Ashley stood in the middle of the loft. All of the furniture had been moved to create a large workspace with a clear path to their bedroom. Strewn around the workspace were various sized pieces of laminated particleboard, tools, and hardware. Ashley had wanted to have her own desk, and Arte was going to provide. She’d already worked up a decent sweat just bringing it upstairs and laying out the pieces, but was still ready to get going. After all, she had one sizable advantage over normal people in assembling manufactured furniture.

She pulled out the instructions and began to flip through them. Once she felt that she had a good grasp of the structure, she set about making the outline. She carefully drew out a series of lasers in the shape of the desk, using the measurements in the book. After a few minutes, she had a wireframe desk outline, and was ready to put it together. She followed the instructions from there, but using the outline to hold the pieces in place made cut out most of the awkward rotations and positioning. Once she was done, she held her breath, and dissipated the wire frame. Much to her relief, the desk did not crumble to pieces, and it all looked right.

“Okay, I think I’m ready to move it. Do you mind giving me a hand?”

Arte and Ashley both took opposite sides of the desk, and went towards their bedroom. About halfway there, her phone began to ring, but she ignored it until the desk was in place.

“Alright, hold on, I’m getting a call.” Arte pulled out her phone, saw who it was from. “It’s from Josh, hold on.” She said, as she stepped out of the room.

They were definitely on better terms with the DSR than they were last year. Daniels stepped down, and they picked some interim director, who became the official director a few months ago. He was a little weird, but he was nice enough. It was agreed that they’d still be able to live in the house, but that they were no longer on house arrest. Zoey was allowed to come on missions as a part time, as Jude and her dad agreed. Vanessa, Paul, and Anastasia were rolled into the deal and moved in. It was a little cramped, but they managed. With Jude on vacation, nobody was even sleeping in a makeshift bedroom. While Arte wasn’t wild about Zoey coming on missions, she supposed it wasn’t really her decision. All she could really do was make sure she was safe when she did.

“Hey, it’s Arte.”

“Heya, Arte! Josh here. Wanted to check if you’re free for a mission right now.” He sounded calm enough so it wasn’t anything world ending. He seemed to default to Jude usually, but if he wasn’t available then he’d go for her.

“When exactly do you mean by ‘right now’?”

“I’d say tomorrow if you can. It’s a little late to get started today.”

Arte thought for a moment. She wasn’t really doing anything at the moment. She was looking after Paul and Deven a little bit, but they could be left alone. Deven had been fine lately, and the worst Paul would do was move things around. There was whatever Vanessa had going on, but she seemed to have that under control. Josh was framing this like a question, but Arte had a feeling she could only get away with so much. It was a job, after all, and it was probably smart to save your vetoes for when you need them.

“Sure. What’s the job?”

“Well, this is a little bit different than usual…” He hesitated.

Arte had a bad feeling about the way he said this. Usually there was someone that needed to be arrested, or someone that needed to be investigated. She was thinking it was the latter since he seemed to be asking for just her, and not a team.

“We’ve got something going on at a school, and we want someone to go undercover. There’s a long-term substitute position available for math, and we thought you’d be the best one for the job, since you have a college degree.”

She hung her head. Of course it had to be teaching. She’d wanted to have her degree in case this whole superhero thing didn’t work out, but she didn’t think she’d ever be asked to use it. Ashley and her were the only ones on the team who went to college, since the rest were younger when they got their powers, so they were the only choices really. At least if he wanted it to be under cover.

“I guess that’s fine? I used to tutor a few years ago, so I guess that counts as teaching experience. What’s the situation?” She figured it had to be a missing kid, since it was at the school, but she wanted to be sure.

“Kid went missing a few days ago. Left home to go meet a friend one night, and never came back.” Josh paused for a moment. “We think it’s something related to supers, since it’s where Zoey goes to school, and there have been police reports of strange phenomena.”

“Alright, I think I’m gonna want Ashley to back me up on this one.” That was technically a lie, but she vastly preferred for Ashley to be in the field with her then to be with someone else.

“Great! I love to see our partners collaborating!” Josh replied with way too chipper of a tone. “I’ll make a few phone calls. I need you two to brush up your resumes, and send them on my way.”

“Can do…” Once Arte had made sure that Ash could come with her, she started to think about what he had said happened. She had a terrible feeling about the answer to her next question.

“Hey Josh? The kid that went missing, what was their name?”

“Gimmee just a sec…” Keys clicked in the background for a moment. “Jessica Maguire.”


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Hello everyone! I’m in the midst of an eventful few weeks, so please don’t be surprised if things run a little behind. I should be able to still get posts out on time, but links and pages may be updated slower than usual, and comments may not be approved for a while. I’m 100% certain I set the upload time right on this one, so if you’re seeing this before noon, Friday, April 16th, it’s wordpress’s fault.

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Afflictions: Part Three

Welcome to Season 3 of Earth 2! Check out the reading guide first if you’re new here!

Arte was trying to fight off sleep after a long day. Saturday was date night, but given the occasion, Arte had opted for a full date day. It was their anniversary, after all. First they went out for lunch at a bakery, then they’d stopped by the botanical gardens. After that, they had a nice dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse, and then they made it to the theater for a production of Les Miserables. She loved spending time with Ashley, of course, but after a long day she was exhausted.

“Hey Arte?” Ashley rubbed her shoulder. “I’m super happy we decided to stick with Vanessa and everyone. I think being here with you, and doing stuff that really helps people makes me the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Yeah, I was worried about you at the start, but so far it’s been okay. I’m glad I get to work with you.” Arte sat up, and leaned up against Ashley.

She was quiet for a moment. “I think I’m really just glad I get to be with you at all… It feels like not that long ago I was wondering if I’d ever see you again.”

Arte hugged her tight, and whispered into her ear, “I’ll never let anything like that happen to you again.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

They sat in silence for a moment, enjoying each other’s company. Arte really did mean what she said. Now that they worked together, there was no reason she couldn’t be ready to protect Ashley if something happened. She would be ready the next time something happened. She had powers and backup now.

A moment later, Arte felt a mental alarm. The tripwire laser she’d set had just gone off, and it only did that for humans. Someone was sneaking around outside their window. She jumped out of bed and pulled on some sweatpants.

“Is something wrong?” Ashley started to get up.

Arte motioned for her to be quiet, and made her way to the window. It was dark outside. She carefully lifted the blinds, and conjured a small translucent green rectangle. She lifted it up to the window, and looked through the rectangle. A thin young person was tiptoeing around their house. It wasn’t Zoey, since she was on a trip right now, and nobody that lived with her or next door was that size. She slipped on some shoes, and made her way downstairs. Ashley followed closely behind her, holding a pistol that Arte had bought for her. As they reached the back door, Arte motioned for Ashley to stay where she was. She conjured a green triangle and handed it to her. It would change colors if she needed backup.

Arte quietly slid open the back door, and stepped outside. Whoever it was hadn’t come around to this side of the house yet. She set to work making a series of four connected rectangles, about as tall as she figured whoever it was could reach. Once she’d done that, she pulled out her phone and got the flashlight ready. She took a deep breath, before jumping around the corner and shining the flashlight.

There stood, now blinded by the sudden light, a thin teenage girl with long red hair, wearing a purple sweatshirt with a white heart on it. Arte sighed with relief, as the teenager began to scramble away. She’d seen this girl a few times when she picked up Zoey from things. Her best friend, and, as Arte had put five dollars on, future love interest.

“Jessica it’s fine, it’s just me.” Arte was pretty sure it was fine, but didn’t dissipate the cage, just in case.

The teenager hesitantly turned back to face her. “Aren’t you Zoey’s sister or cousin or something?”

“Close enough.” She shrugged. “So what are you doing here?”

“Isn’t this Zoey’s house? She hasn’t been answering my texts, so I wanted to check in on her.”

“Not quite. She lives over there” She pointed in the direction of her house. “She’s out of the state right now. Why don’t you come in?”

“Oh…” She looked down and thought for a moment. “Sorry to bother you, but do you know when she’ll be back?”

“Oh, about three weeks or so.”

“Gotcha…” She sighed. “Oh well. Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll just go now.”

“Do you need a ride or anything?” Arte called after her, as she turned to walk away. She felt a little bad that she came all this way, especially if she walked. She knew Zoey didn’t have a car, but wasn’t quite sure about this girl.

“No thanks! I parked a little down the road.” Jessica smiled and waved. “Sorry again about bothering you.”

“No problem…” Arte shrugged and went back inside.

“So, who was that?” Ashley asked, as she closed the door.

“Oh just one of Zoey’s friends. Evidently she didn’t know that Zoey was on a road trip right now.” Arte shrugged and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. That scare had definitely woken her up.

“Was that the one that I gave a ride to the mall one time?”

“Yeah, we’ve both met her once or twice. I think she already knew I’m a super, so I figure Zoey must’ve told her.

“Gotcha.” Ash followed her into the kitchen and leaned on the counter. “I hope this trip does her some good. She’s seemed a little down lately.”

“I hope so too…” Arte nodded. “It’s a little weird Zoey didn’t tell Jessica about the trip. I think she’s pretty much her best friend. At least she’s the only one she talks about.”

“Does Zoey have many friends at school? She doesn’t seem to talk about them or spend much time with them if she does.”

“Yeah, I’m not really sure.” Arte had definitely been a little worried about Zoey overall. “She only really talks about Jessica, and I think her relationship with her is at least a little complicated… I don’t wanna make her talk about it though.

“I think she’s probably fine.” Ashley moved in close. ”She does have you, after all.”

“That is true. I must be pretty great if you stick with me.” She went in for a kiss.

“C’mon, let’s go to bed.” Ashley winked, before leading her by the hand.

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Hello everyone! I’m coming up on an eventful few weeks, so please don’t be surprised if things run a little behind. I should be able to still get posts out on time, but links and pages may be updated slower than usual, and comments may not be approved for a while.

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Afflictions: Part Two

Welcome to Season 3 of Earth 2! Check out the reading guide first if you’re new here!

Vanessa sat in the back seat of Arte’s car with Anastasia, and watched as the familiar wrought iron gate slowly swung open. It had been a year since she’d been here, and it was definitely bringing back memories. She looked out at the lawn, and saw patches of grass were dead. The fountain wasn’t running, despite the fact that it was summer. There weren’t as many people around as there used to be.

Arte followed the driveway up to the front door of the house, and turned around to look at them. “Alright, give me a call when you’re done. We won’t go too far.”

“Good luck!” Ashley smiled.

“Thanks for the ride.” Vanessa nodded and got out of the car. Her dad had offered to send a car to get them, but the last time she rode in one of her dad’s cars she spent the next two months in a concentration camp, so she passed on the offer.

As they stepped up to the door, it swung open. There stood Gregory, wearing a navy blue suit.

“Thank you for coming.” He bowed his head, then gestured inside. “Please, right this way.”

“Is Jean here?” Vanessa asked. It was a little strange for Gregory to be the one greeting them.

“Jean decided to retire after his medical leave last year. Mr. Smith appointed me as the new head of staff. I hope that my services will not disappoint.”

“Oh, okay…” She was hoping to run into Jean, since it had been a while since she’d seen him. She couldn’t believe that Jean had retired. He was getting older, but he seemed to be in good health when she last saw him. Then again, Gregory did mention medical leave, so that could’ve played a hand in it. She resolved to ask her dad when she saw him.

“Please, right this way.” Gregory gestured inside again.

“Gregory, would you mind if we took a walk around the house first? I don’t know how this talk with my dad is gonna go, so I’d like to get the reminiscing out of the way first.”

“Certainly.” He turned to a man inside and nodded. The man ran off around the corner.

“Thanks.” Vanessa smiled, and led Anastasia inside.

Gregory fell in behind them, as they walked into the foyer. It looked about the same as it had before she left. The rug was clean, and the paintings on the walls were dusted.

“I kinda thought your dad would be the one at the door…” Anastasia whispered to Vanessa.

“Well, I planned ahead for this, and asked him to just wait in the dining room. I wanted a little time beforehand to see the place again, in case I don’t come back.”

Her heart was racing. She took a few deep breaths. She still had time before she would talk to him. There was no need to freak out. She could leave if she wanted to, so it was fine. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Anastasia smiling reassuringly.

“Alright.” Vanessa nodded. “Let’s go.”

Vanessa led Anastasia through the halls of the first floor. As she’d suspected based on the appearance of the lawn, the pristine cleanliness ended in the foyer. The staff had cleaned a direct path from the foyer to the sitting room as well as possible, but gave the rest of the house more of a light cleaning. The floors had been vacuumed, but there were still cobwebs in corners, and some of the paintings were covered in dust.

She followed the halls to the back of the house, and stepped out onto the patio. Moss had crept up onto the patio itself, and all of the patio furniture was filthy. She went forwards to see the swimming pool, and saw it was drained. Judging by the appearance, it had a thriving ecosystem in it yesterday, but they hastily scooped it out and moved on. She looked back at Gregory, who was visibly uncomfortable, and decided to move on.

She stopped in at Paul and Jude’s old room, and saw that it had been restored to its default state. She thought about looking in closer, but decided against it. She glanced over to Anastasia before she moved on, and saw her staring into the room with a nostalgic yet sad smile.

“Don’t waste any more of your thoughts on him.” Vanessa took her hand.

Anastasia nodded quietly, then smiled. “You’re right… Let’s move on.”

Vanessa decided to limit their tour to only one more room, to save Gregory any more shame at the state of things. Realistically if her dad had cut back on staff, there wasn’t too much even Jean could’ve done to keep the estate as pristine as it used to be. She made her way upstairs, and towards her old bedroom.

Inside, everything was exactly as she had left it when she moved out. The bed was stripped, the closet and dresser were empty, and everything felt desolate. It was a weird feeling looking at where she lived for so long. It was something like what she used to feel when she’d walk into her mom’s office. A feeling of mourning for the person she used to be, and the life she used to have.

“Well… I think I’ve seen enough.” She nodded, and looked over to Anastasia. “Is there anything else you want to see?”

“I think I’m good. Whenever you’re ready.”

Vanessa took a deep breath and sighed. She’d put this off long enough. It was time to go see her dad.

She turned to Gregory, who was standing in the doorway. “Alright, let’s go.”

“Of course.” He pulled out his phone, and typed something out, before turning back to Vanessa. “Right this way.”

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Hoo boy! I may have planned my time irresponsibly this week, so here’s an underwhelming blurb!

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