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Control In Control
1.

“Oh Max, aren't you glad we came here?” 99 sighed contentedly, stepping out on the deck of their vacation cabin in the Catskill Mountains. Max threw the last of the suitcases in the bedroom and joined his wife outside.

“Yeah, I sure am…” he said slowly, taking a deep breath and savoring the amazing view from the front deck. “And it's all ours for two whole weeks! No kids, no work, no phone, no disturbances! Just you and me.”

99 smiled and wrapped her arms around her husband. “I almost have to keep reminding myself of that.”

They stood looking out over the tree-covered rolling hills and listened to the birds chirp peacefully. The log cabin was in the middle of nowhere but solitude was what Max and 99 wanted most for their yearly vacation. The friend who had lent it to them was away on business so they had the whole 6 acre getaway to themselves.

Beautiful gardens and tall trees of every variety surrounded the cabin. It was springtime in the Catskills and everything was in full bloom. The air had that decidedly crisp, fresh smell it always does in the springtime. The little pond in the back of the property was already warm and the tiger lilies were in their first bloom of the year. Max and 99 stood, taking this all in. A monarch butterfly landed on the railing in front of them.

“Look Max, a butterfly!” 99 exclaimed, leaning in for a closer look. “You never see butterflies in Washington!”

“You hardly ever see a bird let alone a butterfly,” Max commented somewhat cynically. “Sometimes I think we've gotten so far away from nature.”

“We have. Look at the fuss we make over one little butterfly.” 99 sighed. “I don't know Max, maybe we should have brought the kids. They never get to see the outdoors like this.”

“The kids? Are you crazy? All we'd hear for two weeks would be, `I'm bored' `There's no TV' `It's too quiet here' `When are we going home?'”

99 tried to keep from laughing, knowing Max was right. “Seems like we never spend time together like a family should.” She shifted her weight. “But I think the kids needed a vacation from us as bad as we needed one from them.”

“But this is the first time we've had a chance to be alone for a long time. Seems like something's always standing in the way. Work, kids, obligations…”

“Let's not think about that right now, hmm?” she said, hugging Max tightly. “Do you want some dinner?”

“Yeah, let's grill out!” Max said excitedly, never having the chance to grill in the city. 99 looked at him skeptically.

“Max, are you sure you know how to grill?”

“Sure!” Max lied. “I've done it a hundred times!”

99 nodded slowly. “Ok…if you're sure you know what you're doing…” Before she could finish her sentence, Max had dashed off to the back deck. He found a red, round top grill waiting for him.

Ok, he thought, This can't be too hard. I've seen people do it before. What's first? Ah yes. I have to light the grill. Uh…here's the matches and there's the coals. Hey, they're not lighting! Oh wait, I have to put some lighter fluid on them. Max grabbed the lighter fluid and, not knowing how much he should use, proceeded to dump the entire contents of the bottle onto the coals.

99 came out of the kitchen with a plate full of steaks to be cooked. “How's it coming, dear?”

“Fine, I'm just about to light it,” he answered, striking a match. From years of experience, 99 knew that when max played with fire it usually wasn't a good thing. She stepped back instinctively.

As soon as the fire from the match hit the coals floating in lighter fluid a giant fireball shot up in the air, making a loud roar and singeing some of Max's hair. He patted it out, then smiled. “I, uh, guess I used to much…”

Although the steaks were burnt to a crisp, the Cosmopolitans 99 fixed took the edge off. By now it was sunset and the bugs had begun to sing. Max stretched in his chair and happened to catch a glimpse of a man walking toward the house. Max jumped up and 99 looked to where he was staring. She, too, saw the man and swiftly went inside for her gun.

“Geez, they won't even let a guy have a vacation anymore…” Max muttered, thinking the man must have something to do with Kaos. The man waved in a friendly way and jogged the rest of the way up to the deck. Max whipped out his gun and aimed it at him. “Stop right there,” he ordered. The man smiled broadly but did as he was told.    

“Max, is that you?”

“Yeah? Who are you?” Max demanded.

“Don't worry, Max. I'm not armed. I'm not here to hurt you. Where's you wife?”

“How did you know we were here? Who sent you?”

The man put his hands down and smiled again. “All in due time, Max. Calm down. I want to wait for your wife to get out here before I tell you why I'm here.”

Just then 99 emerged from the cabin with her gun bared and her eyes focused on the stranger. “What'd you find out, Max?”

“Nothing. He won't talk.”

“Guys, will you let me explain to you why I'm here?”

“Please do,” 99 said coldly. The stranger strolled over to the table and poured himself a Cosmopolitan.

“Do you mind?” he asked. Max and 99 shook their heads. “Good. I always like an after dinner drink.” He took a sip and continued. “I'm from Control, so you can put your guns down.”

“Look, this better be good. I'm on vacation, you know.”

“Oh, it's good.”

“Is it about Kaos?”

“Well…not entirely.”

“Then get out.”

“Hear me out,” the man said, taking another sip of his drink. “Your kids' future depends on it.”

Max and 99 looked at each other. “What do you mean, our kids' future?” 99 asked in a panicked tone.

“Who are you, anyway?” Max said, getting fed up with this game.

“Boo.”

Max sighed. “Look, you don't scare us. Now what is your name?”

“Boo is my name.”

“Boo who?”

“Don't cry, Max. I'm here to help you. I'm from the year 2004.”

Both Max and 99's mouths fell open. “2004? That's not for another twenty years. How did you get here?”

Boo brought himself up to his full height. “I'm a time hopper,” he said proudly. “The only one! I work for Control as a time traveler. I'm the only one on earth who has such an honor. It's a big responsibility, you know. You have to be careful that you don't mess things up.”

“How can you be talking to us if you're from the future? How did you know where we were?”

“Because, Max, in my time this conversation took place twenty years ago.”

“What?”

“Don't worry about the logistics now. They're not important.”

A chill ran down 99's spine. “I don't feel comfortable talking to you, Boo.”

Boo looked hurt. “Really? I've heard so much about you two. I've even met you a couple of times, in the future. I'm your Chief's grandson.”

Max gasped. “You're Benjamin's grandson?”

“No, your old Chief's grandson!” Boo laughed, taking off his sunglasses so Max and 99 could see the striking resemblance. They felt as if they were looking into the face of a 25 year old Chief. “Do you feel better now? I told you I wouldn't hurt you. Grandpa wouldn't approve at all. Anyway, let's get to the skinny. Control isn't doing so well. Ever since you two retired it hasn't been able to do anything right. The President has asked your kids to be agents, but they won't!”

“Our children can do whatever they want to do in this life,” 99 said, finally putting her gun down. “If they don't want to be agents, that's fine. We're proud of them whatever they do in life.”

“But that's the thing, they ain't doing so good. They're supposed to become agents, that's the way their destinies work! Believe me, I've looked into this.” Boo put his hands in his pockets. “If they don't want to come to Control, I can't make them. It's their life. But it sure as hell would help us out. We're disorganized and our leadership is bad…I can't think of the last time we foiled Kaos' plans! If this keeps up, who knows what will happen?”

“Boo, we've done a lot for Control, and I have a feeling we deserve our retirement when it comes. You can't put your problems on our kid's shoulders simply because they're our kids!”

“I know, Max, and I don't want to. But if you could just come with me, and see what I'm talking about, maybe you'll share my idea.”

99 and Max exchanged glances. They had sworn to protect Control for the rest of their lives; did this count? Finally, Max sighed.

“All right, all right. We'll try. But we're not going to push anything on them.”

“Good enough!” Boo said, smiling and putting his sunglasses back on. He took a small circular device out of his coat. He punched a few numbers on it then aimed it at Max and 99. “Now, this is going to send you to 2004.”

“Where will we find you, Boo?”

“You won't.” With that, Boo pressed the button on the pad and Max and 99 vanished in thin air. A mass of confusion in the heart of Washington was going on like it always was. No one noticed Max and 99 apparently appear out of thin air. To their relief, it didn't look like much had changed in the twenty years they had been gone.

“Max, I-ahhh!” 99 shrieked when she caught sight of Max. He turned to her.

“What is i-ahhh!”

Max and 99 stared at one another, who each looked twenty years older than they had seconds before. “Oh Max, we're older!” she whined.

“Oh no…did I age gracefully?” Max asked worriedly. A smile of relief washed over 99's face.

“Yes, Max, you're very handsome, just like always. What about me?”

“Beautiful as ever.”

“Hello guys. Welcome to the future,” someone said as he took both of them by the arms and started to lead them down Capitol Street. They recognized the voice instantly as Boo's.

“Boo! I thought you said we wouldn't find you!”

“You didn't. I found you. You'll need to take things a little more literally around me. Come on, I'll take you two to Control.”

“Why are we older?”

“Because that little scene on the deck was twenty years ago,” Boo explained, as if astonished at the question. “Contrary to popular belief, if you travel forward in time you cannot meet yourself. There is only one of you and that is you. Therefore, if you travel forward in time you age appropriately.” Boo grinned. “But not me.”

“How come?”

“A pill developed by our scientists. But it's better for you to look this way…it won't be much of a shock to your children or to Control.” Boo rounded the side and hopped in a gray Jaguar XK8 convertible. Max and 99 joined him.

“I see Control pays well…” Max muttered.

“Max, when you're the only one in the world who can do a certain skill you're in demand. And if you're in demand you're paid well,” Boo explained, taking off towards headquarters. “Now, there are a few things you need to know. One; the new chief is agent 53, Kate Bloom.”

“Good for her!” Max cheered, always having liked Kate for her spunkiness and kindness.

“Your son is a stockbroker in San Francisco. Your daughter is a computer programmer in the Midwest.”

“Geez, did you have any idea we were raising such dull kids?” Max whispered to 99, who elbowed him gently in the ribs.

“Neither one is particularly happy. They both have their reasons,” Boo said, muttering the last part. He pulled up in front of Control Headquarters. “Let's roll.”




2.

Avery Smart was on his way to lunch. Usually he went out but today he felt he had to stick close to the office; he was up for a big promotion and the call from the boss could come any minute. He was pretty confident he would get the partnership but another employee was up for the same spot. It had been a tough competition between he and Colleen Witshaw, but Avery held fast in his belief that the better employee would win.

He tried to push out the rumors he'd heard about Colleen and Mr. Crandler's love affair, but he had to admit the signs were hard to ignore. Crandler was not the type of man to push a lovely lady away and Avery had seen Colleen strutting out of his office with her shirt untucked more than once.

Avery had been working for Global Mart since he got out of college. Even back then it was a huge operation but he had felt certain that he would rise to the high ranks very soon after getting there. Years of missed opportunities, suck-ups getting ahead, and just plain boredom spoke otherwise. He had decided to become a stockbroker for the simple reason of making money. That, and it seemed a steady career. Avery made enough money to live in a one bedroom apartment on the nice side of town and own a car that still had a working tape deck. That was about the extent of it. But the values that he had learned in his childhood-honor, fairness, and kindness-were ultimately keeping him from making a killing in the market.

Avery looked across the crowded lunchroom and spotted his friend Bobby waving to him. Bobby had been there longer than he had but was too much of a follower to really go anywhere with his job. Unlike Avery, Bobby was happy just being a normal guy and living a normal life. Avery strode over to him and sat down.

“Aren't you gonna get anything?” Bobby asked with his mouth full. Avery tapped his hands on the table nervously and shook his head.

“Nah, I'm too nervous,” he admitted. “If I ate anything I'd throw up.”

“Your loss. It's Meatloaf Day,” Bobby told him, munching thoughtfully on the mystery meat before him. Avery restrained himself from making a face and instead caught sight of Colleen.

“There she is, Bobby. Miss `I'd sell my body for a promotion',” Avery commented with some amount of displeasure in his voice. Bobby turned around, looked at her and nodded.

“You're up against her for that promotion, aren't you?”

“Sure am. But I don't think she'll get it,” Avery said confidently. “Mr. Crandler is better than that.” Bobby stared at Avery a moment, then burst out his falsetto laughter. Avery looked confused. “What?”

“Ave, man, you can't be serious! Come on!” he said, continuing to laugh. “He'd do anything for a lay!”

“That's not true! Mr. Crandler hired me and has promised me a promotion for a long time.”

“Ha! Been promising you a promotion for what, 10? 12 years? It's never gotten you nowhere.”

“But this is different, Bobby.”

“Christ Ave, how can you stand to be so naïve, man? Unless you're a brown nosed son of a bitch you're going nowhere in this company. I don't know why you haven't realized that yet.”

“Hey, that's just not true. You don't have to step on anybody to get to the top.” This sent Bobby into another fit of hysterical laughter.

“Stoppit, man, you're killin' me!” Avery waited until he calmed down to say anything else, lest his friend die of conniptions.

“Look, I'm not the type of man who mistreats people to get my way. I'm a nice guy.”

“That's right, you are. And you know what they say. Nice guys finish last. It's the truth, baby. It's all around us.” Bobby wiped his mouth and became serious. “Avery, you're the type of guy who would rather go through life livin' in a hole than insulting someone. Face it, kid. Being ambitious and aggressive all boils down to the same thing; kissing the boss's ass. That's just the way it works. Therefore, you're never gonna get anywhere.” He spread his arms out to emphasize the room. “This…this is your life, Ave.”

Avery felt like the walls would closing in on him and he cringed slightly. “No, this is not my life. At least, not for long.”

“Avery, I'm telling you this as your friend. Don't go in to that meeting today thinking you're going to get that promotion. Chances are you're not. And you know why? Because you're the only decent guy in this whole freakin' institution.”

Avery took a piece of gum out of his coat pocket and started to chew it ferociously. “Look, you're not like me. You can live your life like this but I can't. I've waited 12 years for this day. I've worked hard, I've paid my dues, I deserve this. How many weekends have I spent here? How many holidays have I worked? How many things in my life have I given up for this place? There's no way in hell I'm not going to get this promotion. I deserve it.”

Bobby shook his head sadly. “It ain't about deservin', kid. It's about who's screwin' who.”

Suddenly Avery's beeper went off. He checked it and paled. “It's him.”

“Crandler?”

“Yeah. I guess he's made his decision.” Avery got up numbly. “Uh…guess I'll see you later, huh?”

“Yeah. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

The hallway to the boss's office is always extremely long, but today it seemed even longer. Avery's palms were sweating and his mouth was dry as he walked up to the secretary's desk. Without looking up from her work she waved him in. Crandler was seated behind his desk and Colleen was seated on top of it, playing with his hair (what was left of it). Avery cleared his throat and they both jumped.

“Smart! Good to see you,” Crandler said gruffly, shoving Colleen away.

“Thank you sir.”

“Well, let's get right down to business, shall we?” He ruffled some papers on his desk and cleared his throat a few times. Colleen stood by, playing with her hair and shooting Avery challenging glances. He ignored them and instead imagined the stupefied look she'd have on her face when Crandler told them that he was the new partner. He smiled slightly.

“Well, decisions like this are never easy to make. We have so many fine employees at Global Mart that it's hard to chose just one to advance. For this position, you were each being considered for your fine contributions to the organization and for your tireless effort. After careful deliberation, I have decided the new partner in Global Mart will be-" Avery leaned in; Colleen continued to stare at the wall. “-Colleen Witshaw!”

Avery's mouth dropped open and Colleen squealed. She leant over his desk and gave Crandler a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks, baby!” she cooed. Crandler pushed her away.

“Not now!” he whispered sharply. He smiled sweetly at Avery, whose mouth was still hanging open in utter disbelief.

“Bu-Bu-Bu-"

“Better luck next time, Mr. Smart. I'm sure I can count on your continuous hard work!” Crandler said, flashing Avery a winning smile.

“Bu-But Mr. Crandler, I've-I've worked weekends, and holidays, and-"

“And I thank you for it, Smart.”

“But I've been here for 12 years!”

“And hopefully will be for another 12 years! Well, thank you for coming, Mr. Smart. You can get back to work now.” Colleen jumped over the desk and the two continued their playful activities. Avery stood there for a moment, thinking about all his hard work and sacrifice, and thinking that none of it really mattered. In a daze, Avery turned around and left the office with his eyes still hazy from the whole ordeal.

He walked slowly down the cubicle infested rooms, listening to the sounds of humming computers and employees trying to talk their customers into buying a stock they probably didn't want. All of it seemed so fake and pointless now. He sat down at his desk and looked hard at the picture of he and his parents at their retirement party a few years back. How come they always seemed so satisfied with their careers? What was he doing wrong that he couldn't feel the same enthusiasm for his job?

3.

Stupefying security were the only words to describe Carry Smart's existence. Living in Akron, Ohio and making just above minimum wage for a job she despised was the story of her life since college. When she had gone to college, she had originally studied to be a marine biologist. Getting to help stranded sea animals and being outside all the time appealed greatly to her. She was doing fine until her junior year, when she realized the amount of math and science classes she had to take were too much for her. Math and science were not her best subjects, and she had always failed miserably in both of them. Since the college was so focused on marine biology, it left little else to major in. The only other majors were English, computer programming, and elementary education. Carry would have gone with English since she loved to read and write, but she knew the only jobs she'd be able to get would be teaching jobs, and she didn't like the idea of her standing in a classroom. It just seemed too ironic. Though not a skilled computer operator, she decided it was the lesser of three evils and majored in that. In 1990, when she was a junior, a home computer wasn't uncommon, but it didn't have half the capability that it did in 2004. Therefore, by the time she graduated in '92, her education was almost out of date. They all knew the internet was coming but they didn't know how to train for it. For the first couple of years Carry's job had been all right, maybe even enjoyable. It was exciting work. Doing something, creating something no one had ever tried before was exhilarating.

As the years passed by the old pros that had helped Carry's generation of computer programmers along were gone. And as more years passed, members of her original graduating class either switched jobs or moved on to something better. Now, 12 years after graduation, her diploma was so outdated that the only thing really that she could do was check for bugs and viruses in the new websites. She wasn't too good at it, though, and consulted her troubleshooting manual at least four times a day. Her office space was reduced to one half of a cubicle; the man she shared it with had sinus troubles and spent the whole day sniffing. It drove her crazy-why couldn't he blow his nose, for crying out loud?

She was in a rut to say the least and had been for years. Every day, get up at 7:15, take a shower, eat a Pop Tart, go to work, suffer through eight hours of monotony, go home, watch TV, order a pizza and go to bed. On the weekends it was always the same; Saturdays were spent doing laundry and going grocery shopping, and Sundays were spent with a group of friends who hadn't changed their minds about anything in over a decade. Needless to say they were not the most interesting people to be around.

She often thought to herself how lucky she really was. Her house wasn't so bad, in fact it was kind of cute. She didn't have any serious health problems and she wasn't broke. Her car wasn't new but it wasn't old, and she had friends who cared about her. For a lot of people, that sounded like heaven, so she shouldn't complain, right?

It was just that she seeked some excitement now and then. The most exciting thing she did was to go bowling on Friday nights with her whiny roommate. She went to Italy once on business but even then all she saw was the inside of conference centers and hotel rooms. All in all, she was ready for a change, but to what? What could you do with an outdated diploma in computer programming and only one serious job to your name? The situation seemed hopeless.

Carry had fallen asleep again. She had been trying to review a website about honey bees but after twenty pages about the mating dance she found herself nodding off. A loud snort from her cubicle partner brought her back to her senses. When she opened her eyes they fell on a picture of she and her brother Avery. She smiled; she hadn't seen Avery in years. She hadn't even spoken to him since Christmas. Their schedules never meshed enough for them ever to get together, and it was probably for the best. Avery was a busy man nowadays and didn't have time for his twin sister. Carry sighed fondly; sometimes she missed her brother terribly. Although he drove her crazy while growing up, once they reached adulthood they grew apart and she was surprised how much she missed his smiling face and wisecracks. Looking to the left of that picture, she found herself staring at a photo of she and her father, who she hadn't seen in months. Sometimes she wished they could have been closer but it seemed never to be. He always seemed so happy about his job, and her mother had always loved hers too. Why couldn't Carry find the same kind of happiness in her job?

“Well, Carry and Larry!” boomed the familiar voice of Carry's least favorite manager, of which she had many. He always thought it was so witty that her name and her cubicle partner's name rhymed that he always said them together. “How're we doing?”

“Good sir! Great!” Larry answered enthusiastically, wiping his nose on the back of his sleeve.

“Fine, sir,” Carry muttered, trying not to stare at Larry's now damp sleeve.

“Well, Carry! Just needed to talk to ya real quick,” Todd, the manager, said in his best `I'm a winner' voice. “You know that site you debugged a few weeks back? Excretions.com?” Carry nodded, trying not to see that site in her mind again. “Well, we've been getting some complaints from people who've tried to access it.”

“No offense sir, but do we really care what the variety of people that visit a site called Excretions.com have to say?”

“Of course! They are customers, you know!”

“Um, what kind of…merchandise does that site carry?”

“You probably don't want to know. Anyway, the big kahuna wanted me to tell you to get to work…says you haven't been working up to par lately.”

Carry rolled her eyes at this statement; her work hadn't been up to par in eight years. “I'll get right on it, sir,” she said, almost sarcastically. Todd flashed her a smile and left.


4.

Avery arrived home tired, angry, and basically feeling like someone who has just been hit by a speeding train. He stumbled in and threw his jacket in the corner and plopped down on the couch. His head was killing him.

It had been two days since he learned he hadn't gotten that promotion he was after, and he hadn't gone back to work since. He hadn't even changed his clothes or shaved. He'd just been wandering around, wondering what life was really about and what his next move would be. Tomorrow he had to go back to work. He'd used up his sick days to take his girlfriend to Florida last month so she could attend a breast augmentation seminar. Avery laughed softly at the memory of that; nothing was ever good enough for Mary. She always had to look better and be better than everyone else in the world. He had to admit she was gorgeous but didn't have much of a brain in her head. He suddenly remembered he had a dinner date with her that night at seven. He glanced up at the clock and found it was nine thirty pm. Oh well. Worse things could happen.

He sighed heavily and realized that headache wasn't going anywhere unless he did something about it. He dragged himself from the couch and into the small kitchen off to the left, where he popped the last two aspirin into his mouth. Seemed like he'd been going through a lot of these lately. “My whole life is one big headache…” he muttered to himself, making a mental note to pick more Tylenol up soon. He made his way in the dark back to his couch and laid down. Within minutes he was fast asleep.

He woke up to the sound of someone knocking gently on his door. He sat up with a start and saw that it was seven thirty in the morning. Groaning, he picked himself up and stumbled to the door. He threw it open to find the last person on earth he was expecting to see.

“Mom!” he said in surprise at 99 standing before him. “What're you doing here?”

“Does a mother need a reason to visit her son?” she said sweetly, giving him a well-needed hug. She pulled away, getting a good look at her now 34 year old son. Despite the haggard look he seemed to have, he was moderately handsome and had a nice physique. She tried not to gawk at her baby boy, who was now all grown up. 99 frowned, looking at his clothes. “Avery, you look like you've worn these clothes for three days. And it doesn't look like you've shaved in at least that long.”

“I haven't,” he admitted. This was the last thing he needed-his mother showing up on his doorstep on possibly the worst day of his life. Oddly enough, he wasn't particularly annoyed. In a strange way he was relieved to see her. “How are ya, Mom?”

“Oh…good,” she said. Staring a 34 year old Avery in the face when she had seen a 14 year old Avery just 24 hours before was a little strange. She ignored the condition he looked to be in and glanced around his apartment. It was small but painted white so it looked bigger. An overstuffed black couch faced a giant TV and the room led to what looked like a very small kitchen. Two doors off to the side must have been for a bedroom and a bathroom. She looked back at Avery, who seemed to be spaced out. “Are you ok, Avery?”

“Huh? Oh yeah!” he said cheerfully. “You know me, Mom! Everything's great!”

99 nodded skeptically, always have been able to tell if everything was great with her son or not. Right now it was not. “Then why do you look like you do?”

“Um…well…uh…well, I've been outside for three days, Mom.”

“Outside? What for?”

“Uh…I went out for lunch and a pack of roaming wolverines mistook me for lunch,” Avery started. 99 crossed her arms and listened, trying not to smirk. “They chased me to the state line where I met a cross eyed truck driver with a limp. He liked hominy beans and Europop. He took me to Death Valley where I met an ill-tempered drag queen who watched `All in the Family' reruns between his shows. I rode a stray camel into Las Vegas where I won millions of dollars but lost it all when I bet in a cockroach race in the men's bathroom. Then I figured maybe work missed me so I hitched a ride with an Elvis impersonator and I just got back last night.”

99 raised an eyebrow. “That's quite a story.”

He laughed nervously. “Sure is!” He never was much good at lying. “So…um…why are you here, Mom?”

99 shrugged. “I just had a feeling my only son needed me.”

Avery scratched his head. “Actually Mom, I-" He was interrupted by an impatient tapping on his door. He moaned in frustration. “Whoever that is, I don't want to talk to them!”

“Looks like a lady, Avery,” 99 said, glancing out the window. “A really pretty one at that. Are you sure?”

Avery peeked out the opposite window to see Mary standing there staring at the door, looking rather annoyed. Reluctantly, Avery turned to his mother. “It's Mary, Mom. You've met her before.”

“Mary? Um, of course!” 99 said, pretending to know who that was.

“Hold on, ok? She looks pissed.” Avery opened the door about a foot wide and slipped through. He closed it shut behind him. “Hi Mary. Listen, sorry about last night. I got home late, and-"

“Shoosh!” she cried, placing her index finger over Avery's mouth. Her stare deepened into one of pure rage. She flicked a strand of platinum blond hair away from her flawless face. “That was the second date you've broken in a month! Are you seeing another girl?”

“What? Don't be silly!”

Don't play stupid with me, Smart! I know when I'm being played.”

“Mary, I'm not cheating on you! The last couple of days have just been kind of rough! If you'd let me explain, I-"

“I don't want to hear it! Whatever excuse it is, it's probably lame and you've probably used it before!”

“But I-"

“I've had it! We're through!”

Avery gaped at her. “What?!”

“You heard me. I've had enough of this shit! I can do sooooo much better!”

“Mary, just let me explain!”

“There's nothing to explain! We're finished! Adios, asshole!” Mary screamed as she raced down the steps to her car. Avery was about to shout some apologies or at least go after her, but something inside wasn't upset enough to do that. He sighed in defeat and found his mother standing in the doorway. He frowned.

“How much did you hear?” he asked suspiciously.

“Everything. You left this window open,” she said, pointing to the window on the porch where he was standing. He let out a breath and sat down on the metal railing.

“You probably think I'm an idiot, don't you? You come here, and I'm dirty and unshaven and my girlfriend dumps me right in front of you.” He rubbed his face with his hands and tried to remain calm. “Mom, my whole life is falling apart!”

“I figured as much,” 99 said, hugging her grown son lovingly. “Would you like to talk about it?”

Avery thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said very truthfully. “I would love to talk about it.” They went inside and sat down at the kitchen table. Avery poured a cup of coffee for both of them and took a sip.

“When did you start to drink coffee?” 99 questioned critically, forgetting about her son's age momentarily. He looked at her strangely.

“Um, in college?”

“That's right. How silly of me,” 99 giggled nervously. “Sometimes it's just so hard to believe my little boy is all grown up!”

“It's hard for me to believe too…” Avery muttered to himself, savoring the warmth of the coffee. “Mom…I know this is probably a lot to ask, but…”

99 leaned closely. “Yes, son?” she asked in anticipation, hoping his response would be something like, Would you train me to be a spy?

“Could you bake me some of those chocolate chip cookies you used to make for me and Carry when we were kids?” he asked hopefully. 99 was stunned for a moment, then touched that he actually remembered. She smiled.

“Of course, dear. Now why don't you start at the beginning,” she said, getting up and opening the fridge.

“Well…it's kind of embarrassing. I mean, when I got out of college I thought I was going to conquer the world. I was so ambitious, I didn't want help from anybody. Now I can't even bear to go into work. This is the third day in a row I've missed!”

“I'm sure they understand, honey,” came 99's voice deep within the back of the fridge. “Avery, you have butter in here from 1999!”

“I know. I thought if I ever needed a weapon I could use it. Anyway, I work hard, Mom! I really do! I give my job everything I've got! I work all the time, seems like I'm never home enough to enjoy anything. I'm always stuck inside some florescent lighted hell working with numbers. It's not that I hate it but for God's sake, I'd like to see a tree once in while, you know? So I was up for this big promotion. Crandler, my boss, wanted to me partner of the company! That's a huge step up from a lousy cut rate stockbroker like I am. I was up against this woman named Colleen Witshaw. There were rumors that she was sleeping with Crandler but being the good boy I am I ignored them! And I actually thought I could succeed without blackmail or brown nosing. Well, I was wrong. Colleen got the promotion. Dumb ol' Colleen who's been there for six months and can't even turn a damn computer on.”

“Language, dear.”

“Sorry. So Bobby was right. Nice guys finish last.”

“Oh, that's not true, Avery. It depends on what job they have,” 99 explained, dropping two eggs into a ceramic bowl. “Never stop being who you are, Avery. You'll regret it.”

“But maybe then I can at least have a nice car.”

“You do have a nice car, Avery. It's that blue one parked next to the dumpy one out there, right?”

“My car is the dumpy one.”

“Oh.”

“And now this…Mary dumping me.”

“I'm really sorry about that, honey. That must be rough.”

“That's the thing. I don't care.”

“Now, Avery, I'm sure-"

“In fact, I think I feel better without her,” Avery admitted. 99 put the cookies into the oven and set it. “She complained all the time that I wasn't giving her enough.”

“How long had you two been together?”

Avery shrugged. “'Bout a year, I guess. But I wasn't too attached to her. She was just a pretty girl I hung around, for the most part. I knew it wasn't going anywhere so it's probably better if we didn't keep seeing each other. But to dump me for a stupid reason like missing a date…”

“Well, sometimes that's a big deal to a girl,” 99 sat, sitting down at the table. They were silent a moment. 99 cleared her throat. “Um, Avery…have you ever considered coming to work for Control?”

Avery laughed, more in frustration than amusement. “Mom, we've been over this a hundred times! This is the worst possible time you could bring that up!”

“Avery, it just seems you're ready for a change. I mean, if you hate your job-"

“Work's work, Mom. You can't enjoy it all the time.”

“You can if you work at the right place, dear. Avery, you've got all the makings of a wonderful agent! You're smart, you're fast, and you're incorruptible. Not many people can say that. Plus, you were practically born to be a spy! Both your father and I love our jobs. Uh, loved, I mean. Honey, you weren't made out to be a stockbroker. You've never liked numbers for all I can remember.”

“It's a steady paycheck.”

“There's more to life than a steady paycheck.” 99 sighed and cupped her face in her hands. “How do you feel about your job, Avery? If you could change what thing, what would it be?”

Avery stared at the table a moment and contemplated the question. “I guess…I guess I'd like it to be a little more satisfying than it is. I come home from a really long day and I don't feel I've accomplished anything. In fact I feel like the last 12 years of my life have been spent boondoggling.”

“Boondoggling?”

“Yeah. It means you spend all your time doing things that don't need to be done and ignore the important things.

99 put her hand on Avery's arm. “Please Avery. You don't have to work anywhere that you don't want to. But promise  me that you won't spend your life doing something you don't think is important.”

He met her gaze and looked at her for a minute. “I won't, Mom,” he said, although he didn't know if he could keep that promise or not. She patted his arm affectionately and smiled.

“Whatever you do with your life, we're proud of you. Just remember that.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he said gratefully, needing to be reminded of that every now and then.

The buzzer on the oven went off making them both jump. “Your cookies are done…” 99 said, stating the obvious. She got up and took the sheet out of the oven then slid the cookies on a plate. “Well dear, I'll be leaving you now.”

“What? You just got here!” Avery protested, biting into one of his mother's infamous chocolate chip cookies. She smiled at him.

“I just stopped by.”

“You flew out to San Francisco just to stop by?”

“Um…your father and I…um…are going to Disneyworld,” 99 fibbed. Avery smiled.

“Dad never changes, does he?”

“No,” she said quickly, grabbing her purse and heading for the door. “Bye, Avery. Good luck.”

“Thanks for the cookies, Mom!” 99 waved goodbye and shut the door behind her. Avery sighed softly then looked at his watch. A look of panic crossed his face. “Oh shit, I'm late for work!” he exclaimed. He raced around the room trying to find his wallet but then realized he didn't want to go to work too bad anyway. Another day of thankless work in a cramped cell with people with no backbones didn't sound too appealing, so Avery decided to go for a walk on the beach.

Work for Control? Avery thought to himself while strolling slowly down the stretch of deserted beach. He kicked a tiny piece of driftwood. Impossible. I'm no spy. I'm a stockbroker. He stopped in mid stride and bellowed, “Why am I even thinking about this? It's absurd! A spy, for Chrissakes! All that danger and fearing for my life and detective work…it sounds…it sounds…” He sighed. “It sounds wonderful,” he muttered. He tried to shake the thoughts from his head. “No! Be reasonable, Avery! You want to have a family someday, right? How're you gonna do that if you're fending off enemy agents? But Mom and Dad did it! So? They were both spies, they knew what they were doing! So? You're their son, maybe you could be the same way! No! Stop this! It's insane! God, I'm talking to myself! So? Dad always said it's ok to talk to yourself as long as you're getting the right answers. Arrrgh!” Avery let himself fall backwards so he could stare up at the sky. “I've snapped it's finally happened I've had some sort of breakdown from all this stupid worrying about work although it's not half as stupid as thinking of becoming a spy it's impossible it's insane I won't do it I'm a stockbroker for God's sake…” he rambled to himself. He sighed. “God, what am I doing?” Avery stood up and looked out over the vast ocean in front of him. “I'm not a freakin' stockbroker! Never was! Never will be!” he screamed out. The waves beat steadily on the shore with some purpose. The little birds that played in it's surf played with purpose. Even the driftwood on the beach seemed to be there for some reason. “So what's my reason?” he asked the water gently. He shook his head. “I gotta stop thinking like this. I gotta go back and put my life in order like a normal person!” In the back of his mind, he knew he wasn't normal. He was Smart. Avery marched resolutely to his car and drove through the swarming traffic of Frisco back to his meager little apartment.

On the way, he kept getting pushed aside by huge fire engines with their alarms screaming. Although annoyed, he didn't give it a second thought until he realized he was headed right where they were going. A sudden dread filled him, as if he knew what was going to be there to greet him. Sure enough, when he turned the corner into his complex, gigantic flames were shooting forth from his and everyone else's apartment. He braked sharply and stared at the sight before him. His home and everything he owned was ablaze, right there in front of him. He had just been inside the place twenty minutes ago and now it was gone, it was gone forever! Avery jumped out of his car and ran to the nearest firefighter.

“What happened!?” he screamed to the firefighter over the noise of the water hose.

“Faulty wiring! Nobody was hurt!” the firefighter yelled back.

Once again, life had slapped Avery in the face. He stumbled on over to the park bench and watched the fire for about an hour, wondering if those cookies his mom had baked tasted better if they had been around fire. He laughed to himself; what had made him think of that? He must not be too upset if while his home was burning all he could think about was his mother's cookies. There weren't too many heirlooms in the house yet and he didn't have any pets stuck inside. All in all he counted himself pretty lucky that he hadn't been inside when the spark fired. In it's own way the fire was beautiful, leaping from the heights of the building in a graceful motion, taking anything and everything with it. Avery watched in amusement as his porch, on the fourth floor, fell to the ground after being scorched off. A few windows blew out, causing everyone to duck, but Avery didn't even flinch. All of a sudden he felt invincible. He was free from everything now. Even if he did go back to work he'd probably be fired for missing so many days, his house had burned down and his girlfriend left him. He was a free man and he could do whatever he wanted. He didn't often make decisions in haste, but when a sudden conclusion hit him about a certain situation, he knew these decisions were saner than any other choice he could make. All at once he decided to go home. Back to DC, where his parents lived and where he grew up. He'd blow Control's minds with what a good spy he'd be. Stealthily and with much more ease than he thought possible, Avery walked up to a nearby policeman and tapped him on the shoulder. The officer turned.

“You live here sir?” he asked.

“Not anymore!” Avery hooted, laughing at his own joke. The officer didn't find it quite as amusing.

“Sir, these were people's homes. I'm sorry I don't think that's quite as humorous as you do.”

“Aw, have a sense of humor! Anyway, could you do me a favor?”

“The ambulances are over there,” the officer said, pointing to his left. “If you need a head examination that's the place to go.”

“No, thanks, not today. I'm feelin' fine for the first time in a long time. Just give everyone a message, ok? My name is Avery Ryan Smart, and I'm gonna be a spy.” That said, Avery turned on his heal and headed to his car, feeling free and happy, both welcome emotions. He revved up his car and cranked the radio up. “Time to blow this popsicle stand!” he yelled out the car window, having always wanted to say that. He waved goodbye and sped off. Avery Ryan Smart was on his way home.


5.

Carry rapped her fingers impatiently against her desk while staring up at the clock. She still had fifteen minutes until she could go home. Even then she didn't have anything planned but anything was better than this! Larry sniffed loudly beside her and she could hear him swallow. She cringed at the thought and looked up again to see if any time had passed. It hadn't and she sighed.

She and Mark were going to go out for dinner. At least, that's what he had told her. Seemed like that guy never kept his promises. Carry sometimes wondered why she was so in love with a man who couldn't keep his word. They had met two years ago at the bowling alley when she and Laurie, her roommate, had been there. He'd been trying to haggle a free soda out of Louie, the concession stand man. Carry felt sorry for him and bought him a small soda. He took it gratefully, drank half of it, and threw the rest away. She'd refrained from comment because he was so darned cute. They talked for a while, mostly about him, but Carry didn't mind. She didn't have anything interesting to say about herself anyway. He had grown up in Akron and worked at Al's Supermarket. He told her proudly that he'd been there five years and was now assistant manager. She listened intently to how everyone overestimated him in the workplace and underestimated him everywhere else in his life. At the time she had found him to be a grade A loser but no attractive man had ever seemed interested in her before.

Their romance, or lack there of, started shortly after that. At first he was sweet-bringing her flowers every day and taking her out to dinner every night. As time passed he seemed less and less interested in her, and more and more interested in her wallet. She tried to ignore this and focused on what good there was left of their relationship. He treated her well; he never insulted her or made fun of her, and for that she was glad. He was just a mooch-often times he'd come over for one night and wouldn't leave for a month. That didn't bother Carry too much but she did wish he'd pay for the enormous amounts of food he could eat. Often times she'd counted the pros and cons in their relationship; he was a mooch but he was cute. He broke promises but he always apologized. As long as one canceled out the other, who cared, right?

Laurie had been her roommate since right out of college. They found each other through an ad Carry had placed in the newspaper. They were complete opposites, which led to friction sometimes. Laurie had enough money to have her own apartment, but Carry always begged her to stay with her at the house. Reluctantly she always agreed but it was easy to set her off.

Carry looked up at the clock again and was pleased to see it was quitting time. She grabbed her purse, shut off her computer, and swiftly made her way to her little car. She raced home, hoping Mark would be there to greet her with a bed of roses like he used to. His car was parked in front of her house which made her smile. She bounded up the front steps and snuck through the front door. It was a game she and Mark played. They each tried to be as quiet as possible when sneaking up on one another. She didn't find him in the kitchen or in the living room. Some thumping upstairs told her he might be in the den.

She leapt up the stairs, two at a time, and not making a sound. It was something her father had taught her; how to do noisy things noiselessly. She'd used it many times when sneaking back into the house well after curfew. Carry followed the noises to Laurie's bedroom. In the back of her mind she wondered why Mark was in Laurie's bedroom, but she passed it off and threw open the bedroom door.

“Are ya surprised?!” she yelled. That's when she saw Mark and Laurie in bed together, apparently in the middle of something. She gasped and they both leapt off the bed, holding the blankets against themselves. “Mark?” she said in weak confusion.

“Baby, I can explain!” he stuttered.

“What…why are you in bed with Laurie?” she asked innocently. Laurie looked equally as shocked.

“To answer your question Carry, yes, we were surprised,” she quipped in her usual sarcastic way. “We…I mean, uh…we were…”

“Um…see, Carry, we were-"

“Give me a little bit of credit!” Carry screamed at both of them. “I'm not stupid, I know what you were doing and it makes me sick!” She turned around and left the scene, knowing the tears weren't far away. Mark followed her down the steps, tripping over the last few, and trying several lame excuses. She answered him by shutting the door right in his face. “Bastard…” she muttered to herself as she got in the car. The tears started to fall as she sped out of her driveway and to the nearest hotel. She got herself the nicest room she could and sat in the bathtub for an hour.

She heard someone tapping on the door and she knew who it was. “Go away, you sleazy jerk! I don't want to talk to you!” she screamed through floods of new tears.

“Don't call me a sleazy jerk! I'm your father!” came the familiar droll from behind the door. Carry, realizing at once it was not the sleazy jerk she had been expecting, jumped out of the tub and grabbed a bath towel.

“Daddy, hold on, ok? I'm in the tub!” She dried off as quickly as she could and wrapped bathrobe around her. She sprinted across the room and opened the door to find the last person on earth she expected to see that night. “Dad…what are you doing here?”

“Does a father need a reason to see his only daughter?” he said simply. Although Carry thought the answer should be `yes' she realized her father was not of a normal mind and let him in. “Nice room, Carry. You must be livin' the high life, huh?”

“Not exactly,” Carry answered, rolling her eyes.

Max crossed his arms. “I came to ask if you wanted dinner.”

“You came all the way to Akron to ask me that?” Carry asked in her confused tone. Max shrugged helplessly and Carry decided to drop it. It wasn't the weirdest thing her father had ever done by far. She sighed and plopped down on the plush couch. “No thanks Daddy. I don't have much of an appetite.”

Max looked sideways at her. “Carry, stand up. Let me get a good look at you.” She did so and Max gawked. Gone was the stout, sour faced teenager he once knew. In her place stood a dark haired beauty with an athletic physique. She wasn't tall but she defiantly wasn't stout anymore. Her hair, cut short, looked stunning with her bright green eyes. “Carry, you're a good looking gal!” he said with some amount of disbelief.

“Dad, I've looked this way for years. You just now notice?”

“No, it's just that I've never looked very hard before,” he explained. Something suddenly occurred to him. “Why are you in a hotel? Don't you have an apartment or something?”

Carry figured she had no one else to talk to about the Mark thing, no one who wouldn't criticize her, anyway. She stroked her hair and tried not to cry. “I walked in on my roommate and my boyfriend in bed together today.”

Max's jaw dropped to the ground. “I oughta go kill that guy!”

“Just stay out of it, Dad. He's no good anyway. Don't know why I didn't see that before,” she sighed. Max sat down in a chair next to her.

“Well, are you ok?”

Carry bit her lip. “No, not really. I liked him a lot, Daddy, even though he was kind of a jerk. He was just the first cute guy who ever…who ever seemed interested in me.”

“I'm sure you can do better than that,” Max assured her. “Remember, cute guys are usually trouble. With the rare exception of me, of course,” he said pompously. Carry held back a smile. “But really, anyone who treats you like that out to be thrown to the curb.”

“I know,” she said softly. “I'll just have to get used to it.”

Max was at a loss for words and decided to change the subject. “So! How's work?”

“Horrible, as usual. It's so boring I want to puke.”

“What do you do again? Something with computers?”

“I'm a computer programmer. You were the one who got the recommendation that hired me, don't you remember?”

“Oh yeah, how stupid of me!” Max laughed nervously. Carry smiled back depsite herself; it felt good to be with her father again.

“I've missed you, Dad.”

“Really?” Max said, somewhat surprised. He could never get away fast enough from the 14 year old Carry, so it was strange to be missed by her. “May I ask why?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. Seems lately I've been thinking a lot about you…and Avery…and Mom…and you know, my home.”

“Did you ever consider coming back?” he asked hopefully. Carry took a pillow and held it to her protectivly.

“And do what Dad? It's just as hard getting a job in Washington than it is in Akron.”

“Well…you could always come to work for Control.”

Carry threw the pillow across the room and stood up. “How many times do we have to talk about this? Is that why you're here? Dad, I've told you before and I'll tell you again! I'm not going to be a spy!”

“Why not?!”

“Nobody grows up to be a spy, Dad!”

“I did! Your mother did!”

“It's not normal!”

“When has normal ever been a good thing, huh? Come on. You hate your job and you're going to dump your boyfriend. What have you got to lose?”

“Who says I'm dumping Mark?” She regretted the words as soon as they popped out of her mouth. Max scowled at her.

“You're not actually going back to that scum, are you? After what he did to you?”

“We might be able to work it out…” she said feebly. Max tsked.

“Carry, be realistic. You don't really want a man like that around, do you? Look, you're still upset. Just sleep on it. Things might look brighter in the morning.”

“Things might look brighter in the morning, but things won't look like I'm going to become a spy, either.” Carry paced the room. “My job's not so bad…once you get past the eight managers and sniffing cubicle partner and mind-numbing work. It's a paycheck Daddy. You have to understand that.”

“No, I don't. I stopped listening at the sniffing cubicle partner part. You can't tell me a life of intrigue and danger doesn't appeal to you. You just don't have the genes to have a boring job.”

“Dad, lay off,” she said tiredly, not because she was fed up with the conversation, but the idea of becoming an agent was starting to sound good, which scared her. Max stood up.

“Ok, kid, I'm going to be leaving you now. You think about what I said, ok?”

“You're leaving already?” she said in confusion. “You just got here ten minutes ago!”

“Yes…well…I forgot my wallet in Cincinnati and I have to go get it before dark. Inner city buses, you know.” Before she could stop herself, Carry hugged Max tightly.

“Thanks for coming anyway, Daddy. It was good to see you, even if all you wanted to do was badger me.”

“Look, kid…” he began, pulling away. “You know your mom and I will be proud of whatever you do. But Carry, you'd make a good spy. And you'd make more money. And it'd be cooler to brag to your friends. And you get to play with weapons. See? There's endless amounts of reasons. Just promise me you'll think about it, ok?” Carry smiled.

“Ok Dad. Will do.”

Max smiled back and turned to leave out the door. Unfortunately he hadn't opened it yet and ran smack dab into it, making a decisive thud sound. He rubbed his nose. “Dumb place to put a door…” he muttered. Carry bit her lip to keep from laughing and said goodbye again as he walked down to the lobby.


The next morning Carry awoke to a quick knock on her door then silence. She staggered over to the door, secretly hoping it was Mark, but when she opened it a box of her belongings were lying at her feet. A note stuck to the box caught her eye. She opened it and read it.

Dear Carry,

Sorry about what you saw yesterday but what's done is done. Mark is moving in with me so here's your stuff. The rest of it is in storage at the address below. Sorry to do this to you but shit happens.

Laurie

Carry crumpled up the letter angrily in her right fist and threw it into the wastebasket. She had no home and no boyfriend and the thought of another day at work sickened her. She didn't know why, but for some reason the idea of going home stopped her in mid-stride. She thought about it again, hoping that some reason of doubt would reveal itself, but it didn't. Actually, going home to DC sounded like a wonderful idea. No worries, no cares, just the open road to home. Although most of her decisions she made in haste ended up coming back to haunt her, her soul was telling her to go home. Suddenly she missed hot, sticky DC. She missed seeing her parents everyday and she missed the days of not knowing what the internet was. Quickly, before she could change her mind, Carry dressed and grabbed the box in the hallway.

She shoved the box in her trunk and slammed it. A soft breeze floated through her hair and instantly made her feel better. When she got in the car, Carry rolled down all the windows so she could enjoy the mild spring day. She started the car, popped in her favorite CD, and zipped out of the ugly hotel parking lot. Now Carry Marie Smart was on her way home.

THE END...(or is it the beginning...?)