Call him on the phone. Invite him him to her apartment — no, to a public place. A coffee shop. A park. It would be better that way, with other people around. Avoid a scene. She gripped her phone tightly. I’m sorry, Oliver, she would say. I can’t do this anymore. No more secrets. It’s better if we go our separate—
The phone began to vibrate. It was Oliver.
She took a deep breath and answered. “Hello?”
“Come over tonight at seven,” he said. “I’ve been unfair to you lately, I know. But tonight, I plan to make it up to you. I’ll explain everything, I promise.”
It’s too late, she thought. “I’ll be there,” she said, and hung up.
Twenty minutes, she decided as she showered and shaved her legs. She would stop by for only twenty minutes. She would tell him that she could no longer trust him. For months, he had lied to her. Told her that he was going out with the guy, for “poker and beers.” But that one night, while filled with suspicion and jealousy, she had traced his location. It was surprisingly easy to do. A small, round disc, which she’d purchased on Amazon and hidden in his car, after she’d connected it to a tracking app on her phone. His “poker night” was not at Patrick Harrison’s house, as he’d said, but in an abandoned warehouse somewhere on the seedy side of town. What he was really doing in there was a mystery. Was it a brothel? A meth lab? A squatting facility for druggies? Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be good.
“So, did you win big?” she asked the next day.
“‘Fraid not,” he’d said with a tired smile. “Chuck Riley was the big winner tonight. Wiped our pockets clean.”
“I see,” she said.
The warehouse wasn’t the only strange thing she’d come across. There was that mile-long receipt from the Home Depot on his kitchen counter, filled with lumber and PVC pipes and a load of other things she couldn’t identify.
“It’s for a project my humanitarian group is working on,” he explained. Ah yes, his humanitarian group. Crusaders for Humankind, they called themselves. A sort of mercy group, whose aim was to help humankind to thrive.
“So what do these crusaders do?” she asked him. “Help the poor and needy?”
“Something like that.” He didn’t offer any other details.
Lately, he’d been edgy. Distracted, too. The last time they’d met, his eyes kept shifting to his phone, to some invisible spot over her shoulder, everywhere but on her. He’d snapped at her, too, when she asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine, okay?” He’d pounded a fist on the table, just hard enough to slosh their drinks. It filled her with unease. Either something was very, very wrong, or she was getting her first glimpse of a side of him she’d never seen. A side she wasn’t sure she liked.
So this was it. She would tell him before dinner. Before he could charm her into staying the night, distracting her from her purpose. She pulled on a dress — the purple one that he liked, and a pair of heels, then applied her lipstick. She may as well look nice for the breakup, right? Then she slipped her phone into her purse and drove across town. There was a lot of traffic, and by the time she arrived, it was already after seven.
Oliver’s house was dark. She let herself in, flicked on the living room lamp.
“Hello?” she called. No answer. Leaving her heels by the front door, she padded into the kitchen. On the counter was an empty crystal vase surrounded by a ring of flickering tealight candles. Next to this was a frosty cold wine goblet filled with rosé, her favorite. Despite her resolve, she picked it up, took a sip.
That’s when she noticed it.
A trail of soft pink rose petals led away from the kitchen, toward the french doors, which were open to the backyard. She followed it. The trail continued across the patio, into the lawn, toward the garden shed, whose door was wide open. She took another sip and smiled, then crossed the lawn, relishing the feel of grass beneath her bare feet.
To her astonishment, the shed was empty inside, except for a flight of stairs leading underground. Oliver had never mentioned that he had a cellar. Was it a wine cellar? More petals were sprinkled on the metal steps. Bright lights shone from down below.
“Oliver?” she called down. Then she descended. When she was halfway down the stairs, there was a loud, metallic bang from. Gasping, she turned around. A panel had slid shut behind her, sealing the opening she’d just passed through. She swallowed the sudden feeling of anxiety that bubbled in her chest.
Just then, Oliver appeared at the base of the stairs. “Hayley,” he said. He was smiling, happy to see her. He held out a hand, and she took it, trembling.
“What is this?” she asked. They were in a large, bright room filled with comfortable seating. A kitchen area took up one corner of the room, including a large dining table, where a number of people were gathered. The walls were covered with a combination of beautiful artwork and large TV screens, each of which was playing a different movie. There were doorways, too, branching off toward hidden areas of the cellar. If you could call it a cellar.
“We call it The Retreat,” he said, leading her to a couch, where she sat and took another sip of wine. “Those people,” he said, motioning toward the dozen or so men and women gathered around the dining table, “are my fellow Crusaders for Humanity. We are preparing to launch the world’s largest effort to save humankind. And I’ve decided to include you in our effort.”
“Me? But…” she gaped, unsure how to tell him that she really just wanted to call it quits. It was over. They were finished.
He sat beside her and took her free hand in his. “I know that I haven’t been open with you. But I’d like to change that, beginning right now. You see, the Crusaders and I have been working very hard to do the right thing for all of humanity. And we decided together that the thing that humankind needs most is less humankind.”
She frowned. What on earth was he talking about? “Oliver, I need to talk to you in private.”
Just then, one of the men jumped up from his seat at the table. “Oliver, sir. It’s beginning.”
Oliver rubbed his hands together and turned toward one of the TV screens. Hayley turned, too. This was not a movie, she realized, but a camera trained on a plaza filled with real people.
“Ten thousand capsules,” said Oliver. “Planted in strategic locations by fellow Crusaders, all around the world. Each containing a deadly toxin. Once released into the air, the toxin will attack the vital systems of every unprotected human. Not pets. Not animals. Only humans.”
Hayley stared at him in horror. “What will it do to them?” Her voice cracked, throat dry.
“Kill them, of course. Except for us. And other Crusaders. We are all safe in our various retreats. We have enough food, water, and supplies to sustain a small community of people for the next five years. By then, the toxin will have become inactive. And we—” Again, he motioned toward the group of Crusaders, all of whom were smiling and nodding. “We will repopulate the planet. But this time, we will get things right. Humanity will thrive, and the world will become a much better place to live.”
Hayley felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She set her glass on the small table beside her, then bent forward, resting her head on her knees.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Oliver’s hand stroked the back of her neck.
Hayley sat up and looked at him, eyes wide. “So then, you’re not a drug user? You don’t run a meth lab?”
He gave her a quizzical look. “No, of course not.”
“You don’t engage in human trafficking?”
“God, no. You know how I feel about such vile practices.”
She stood, waving her arms toward the TV screens, which flash to scenes in India, China, Australia. The invisible toxin is beginning to fill the air. People are choking, clawing at their chests, dropping to their knees. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time when you said you were going out to poker night with the guys?”
He hung his head, expression sheepish. “Yeah. I’m sorry I lied about it. That was pretty crummy of me.”
The cameras show London, New York City, Rio de Janeiro. Panic fills the streets. People are screaming, trying to outrun an enemy they can’t see. More bodies drop to the ground.
“It’s just, you know, a relationship can’t thrive when two people can’t be honest with each other.”
“She has a point, Oliver,” a woman piped up from the dining table.
Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm.
“From now on, you have to open up to me. Share your hobbies with me instead of hiding everything. If you don’t talk to me, then I’m left to wonder what you’re up to, and I might jump to the worst conclusions.”
Oliver stood and wrapped his arms around her. “I promise, from now on, I’ll do better. I’ll be your dream boyfriend, okay?”
Hayley cocked her head to one side, considering. Then, over the terrified screams and gagging sounds of most of the world’s population dying at once, she said, “Okay. I’ll give you a second chance. Don’t blow it.”
“I won’t.” He kissed her then, and for that one brief moment, life was perfect.
It’s a concept many of us writerly types are familiar with. After all, few of us have the luxury to just sit at home and write all day. We have careers. Kids to raise. Errands to run, meals to prepare, volunteering to do. You’d be amazed by how many of your favorite authors actually have a life beyond cranking out novels. So how do they get it done?
They write between the lines.
Each one of us gets exactly 24 hours to do it all. Eat. Sleep. Manage the glut of daily routines and responsibilities that eat up the hours of our day. But good writers, successful writers, the ones who manage to do it all and get their work published, too, understand the secret. They write while riding the train to work. They write while their kids are in gymnastics class or at soccer practice. They write during those 30 minutes while waiting for the casserole to finish baking in the oven. If there is a crack in the sidewalk of time, we writers will find it and fill it in with words.
Busy is my other middle name.
On a normal day, I wake up before the sun rises to go for a run, or head to the gym to exercise. Then I check in with my teens and commute to work. After work, I usually cook a nutritious meal for the family, then return to the gym for another workout. I spend the rest of the evening reading, writing, catching a TV show, and spending time with the teens before I take a moment to prepare lunch and clothes for the next day. Somehow, it all gets done. Even the laundry and dishes. (Okay, not always). And I nearly always manage a good 8 hours of sleep every night.
Yes, maybe it’s because I’m from Jupiter. Or maybe it’s possible because I have no friends or relationships to eat into more of my precious time. But maybe, just maybe, it all boils down to one essential thing. Time management.
It takes a lot of discipline to do it all every day. It also takes effective tools, and consistency to make those tools work for you. Calendars are useful, as are reminder apps. Imagine — making your phone remember everything so that you can focus on what’s more important!
Sometimes, I listen to other people complain that they just don’t have enough time in the day to get to the gym. To cook nutritious meals with whole foods. To read books. I just smile and try to empathize. But if they were to ask me for advice, I would offer this one thing: look for the cracks.
Want to read more books? How about listening to audiobooks during your daily commute, or together with your family in the evenings? What if you plan to spend exactly 15 minutes before bed each night engrossed in a book you really want to read? It’s slow progress, maybe, but it’s still progress.
Want to exercise more? How about bringing your sneakers to work and going for daily walks during the last half of your lunch hour? How about purposely climbing the stairs at your work building? Or a habit of walking your dog each evening. Or you can brave the early morning and go to the gym when it’s not at all crowded.
It is easy to find excuses. It’s easy to come up with reasons why you can’t make those small changes that you know will improve your mind, your health, your life. It’s easy to collapse on the couch and watch TV and eat processed foods. But very little good ever came from following the path of least resistance.
You don’t have to be a writer to write between the lines. Each one of us has at least one big thing we’d like to accomplish. You’re probably thinking of it right now while reading this post. The question is, what small changes are you willing to make to reach your goal? What cracks in your daily path are you ready to fill?
“Roland, what the hell is
this?” Ethan is glowering. “I’ve got that SamCorp account meeting in fifteen
minutes, and this is what you give me to work with?” He shakes the blue folder
like it’s covered in bugs.
I snatch the folder from
him. Inside is the report I’d printed out and slipped into Ethan’s inbox early
this morning. My eyes blur as I looked over the numbers, lids as heavy as wood.
“Give me a minute. I can fix it,” I say, turning to my computer.
“You’d better not screw this up.” He storms off. I take a huge gulp of double-caff coffee, my second one this morning, and get to work.
At lunchtime, I doze off
mid-conversation and wake up to find that my coworkers have returned to their
cubicles, and my girlfriend, Haley, has sent half a dozen angry texts, the last
one canceling tonight’s dinner plans. Great. I toss my half-eaten meal into the
trash and hurry back to my desk before Ethan notices I’m tardy.
Greg, my neighbor from
two cubicles down, stops to say hi and catches me mid-yawn. “You’re not coming
down with something, are you?” He frowns as I rub my bloodshot eyes.
I shake my head. “Just a
little insomnia lately.” Understatement. Lately, I was lucky if I could get
four straight hours of sleep in one night. Unisom stopped helping. Herbal
remedies were useless. Meditation, white noise, no electronics before
sleeping…I’d tried it all. And still, I lay awake in bed, my mind a carousel of
Greg holds up a finger.
“Say no more. Let me send you a link for this new sleep aid, called Doz-Z. My
brother-in-law tried it, and now he sleeps like the dead.”
I snort. Sounds like a
gimmick. A few minutes later, the link shows up in my inbox. I ignore it.
By the time I drag myself
home that evening, I feel half dead. I heat up a carton of leftover Thai
takeout, then wash it down with a glass of cheap pinot. Haley calls, and I’m
all apologies and promises, so she agrees to go out with me this Friday night.
At least, I think we said Friday. My brain feels so sluggish right now, I can’t
really hold anything. We hang up, then I head off to bed.
My room is completely
dark except for the dim blue glow of my alarm clock. 10:15. The minutes stretch
on as I close my eyes, twisting one way, then another. Somewhere across my
room, Alexa pumps out the soft, soothing sounds of rain and wind.
11:15. 12:15. 1:15.
Just after two o’clock,
I’m sitting up in bed, laptop powered on. I open my work email and find the
link Greg sent me. Click. Posted on
the website is a photo of a guy snoozing in his bed, unlike me.
TRY DOZ-Z AND GET THE BEST SLEEP OF YOUR LIFE
Underneath this, there’s
a bunch of stuff about the science behind the product, and potential side
effects. I skim over this and look for the price.
30-DAY FREE TRIAL. GUARANTEED 8+ HOURS OF SLEEP EACH NIGHT.
It sounds way too good to
be true. But I’m sleep-deprived and desperate. Before I can change my mind, I
fill out the form and send it.
When I get home from work
two nights later, someone rings the doorbell. “Roland Zabinski?” the guy asks.
I nod, and he hands me a small package. I close the door and tear open the
package. I’m not really sure what I’m expecting – pills, maybe? A powder you
mix into a smoothie? Instead, I dig out a pair of button-like wireless earbuds
and instructions on how to download and sync them with the Doz-z app. You’ve
gotta be kidding me.
I get it all set up,
press the earbuds into my ears, and sink into bed. “Activate sleep mode,” I say
“Welcome to Doz-Z,” a
soothing female AI voice says. “Would you like to dream tonight?”
I blink into the dark. “Uh…yeah,
sure,” I say.
“Okay,” she says. “Dream will begin in three, two, one…”
I’m searching everywhere.
Around the car. Next to the house. Behind the big round bush at the edge of the
lawn. Nothing. I’m heading back when she suddenly scrambles out from under the
front porch. Before I can do anything, she pelts right in the face with a
“Hey!” I sputter, wiping
away cold, wet snow. “Not fair!”
In a moment, her arms are
around me. “What’s not fair? The part where I won?” She kisses me, her full
lips warm against my frozen mouth. “Poor sport.” Her round eyes twinkle like dark
ponds reflecting the moonlight.
I take the snowball I’ve
been holding and stuff it down the back of her shirt. She yelps and leaps away.
“Oh, that was dirty!” Her eyes are narrowed, but she’s still smiling. “You’re
in trouble now, buster.”
“Oh, am I?” She’s
giggling as I chase her across the lawn. When I catch her, my arms encircle her
waist, and I pull us both to the ground. She’s dusted with snow, like powdered
sugar, her face electric with joy. My heart does a backflip.
“Marry me, Marley.” I
smooth back her hair with a gloved hand.
She stares at me intensely, trying to see if I mean it. “Yes,” she whispers. Then the world around me fades to gray and dissolves.
I bolt upright in bed,
gasping. “What the hell was that?” I
“Your dream has ended,” says
the soothing AI voice. “You have slept for nine hours, thirty-two minutes.”
Nine hours? “Shit.” I dig
the earbuds out and drop them on my nightstand. I’m late for work.
“You missed the meeting
with marketing.” Ethan’s pissed.
“I know. God, I…had some
car trouble.” Still a lame excuse, but sounds better than sleeping in. I work
extra hard for the rest of the day to make up for it. I feel more focused than
I have for a long time, except for brief moments when Marley’s face would swim
across my thoughts. She was just a dream,
I remind myself, shaking the thoughts away.
“Would you like to dream
tonight?” asks the AI when I’ve settled into bed that night.
“Yeah.” I countdown with the voice. Three, two, one…
“I feel like a cow.”
Marley pouts and rubs her swollen belly. “A big, fat cow.”
“You’re not fat.” I place
my hands on her belly, too.
“I’ve got a name idea.”
“What now?” I cock an
eyebrow, waiting. Marley’s ideas to name our first baby have ranged from
terrible to atrocious so far.
“If it’s a girl, Leia.”
I groan. “Vetoed.”
“If it’s a boy, Han.”
“Why not Luke? At least
Luke sounds normal.”
“Who wants a normal name?
This baby is special, and deserves a special name.”
“I still like the name
Catherine, after my grandmother.”
Marley gasps, her eyes
wide. “Did you feel that?” We both stand very still. Then I feel it. A thump from somewhere inside her belly. The
baby – our baby, is kicking.
“See?” I say. “She likes the name, too.”
I’m late for work again.
This time, Ethan doesn’t notice, but I know I need to figure out how to wake up
on time. Maybe the app has an alarm feature.
“Your free trial has
ended,” says the AI when I lie in bed two nights later. “If you commit now to
the one-year plan, your credit card will be charged. Shall I proceed?”
I think of Marley and our
daughter, Catherine, waiting for me at home. Our dream home. My dream family.
“Yes,” I say.
Each night, I hurry home
from work, eager to fall into dream mode. And each morning, I reluctantly
remove the Doz-Z earbuds and head to work.
“You seem more chipper
lately,” Greg remarks one day. “Things going better with your girlfriend?”
Girlfriend? Oh, her. “Haley
and I broke up.” I left out the part where she had accused me of cheating and
said she never wanted to see me again. I mean, I technically was cheating, since
I kind of have a wife and family, so I didn’t bother to correct her. “It’s that
Doz-Z app,” I say. “It’s really helping me get some good sleep.”
“Glad to hear it. My
brother liked it, too, but he had to quit. Too expensive.”
The truth is, I haven’t
even looked to see how much the service is costing me. When I get home, I call
the credit card company for recent transactions, and learn that my payment in
the amount of $10,000 was declined.
$10,000! My head is spinning. I was expecting maybe a couple hundred. There’s no way I can afford to continue using the app. But Marley, and Catherine…
That night, Marley and I
take Catherine to the beach. It’s her first time seeing the ocean, and she
squeals in delight as the waves wash against her pudgy toes.
“Build a castle, Daddy!” Catherine
holds out her pink pail and shovel. I kneel in the damp sand and begin to dig as
Catherine dances around me. The sun is warm on my bare shoulders, and the air
is fresh and salty. I glance back at Marley, who waves from her beach chair,
her free hand resting on her belly. She is pregnant again.
“There!” Catherine places
a sand dollar on top of the mushy castle I’ve built. “That’s the princess who
“Princess Catherine,” I say.
It’s becoming harder to
wake up from the dreams. “Ten more minutes,” I murmur to the AI. Ten minutes
becomes thirty, then grows to an extra hour of sleep. I creep into work later
and later each morning, often unshaven, wearing wrinkled clothes from the day
before. It was just a matter of time before Ethan calls me into his office, expression
“I need employees who take
their jobs seriously,” he says. Security walks me out of the building. I head
home, clutching a cardboard box filled with my belongings.
“Would you like to dream?”
asks the AI.
Catherine is growing. She
curls in my lap as I read her stories and stroke her soft curls until she falls
asleep. Then I join Marley as she places baby Luke in his crib.
“Our almost perfect
family,” she says as we gaze down on our son.
She sighs. “We’re missing
one important piece.”
I kiss her forehead. Catherine
and Luke. The perfect house. The perfect wife. What could possibly be missing?
The next day, Marley
shows up with a squirming bundle in her arms.
“A puppy!” Catherine is ecstatic.
She reaches up to pet its silky brown fur.
“I have a few name ideas,”
Marley says with a mischievous grin.
I groan. “Oh great.”
The Doz-Z bill arrives in
the mail. We were unable to charge your
credit card. Payment is due immediately.
I toss the bill on the growing pile of unopened mail, wolf down a piece of burnt toast, then return to bed.
Catherine plays her first
soccer game. She runs up and down the field in her adorable blue uniform, ponytails
“Go, Blue Lightning!”
Luke and I cheer, though he says it more like B-you Yighting. Aladdin, who is now a fully grown lab, barks and
tugs at his leash, eager to join the game.
Marley laughs and pats his head. “Not this time, you scamp.”
“I’m sorry, Roland. I am
unable to activate sleep mode until your balance has been paid in full.” The AI’s
soothing voice only irritates me further. “Would you like to hear your options?”
“Come on,” I beg. “I’m
going to miss Luke’s birthday party. We’re taking him to Bounceworld, and
Marley baked his favorite cake.”
The AI doesn’t answer.
“Activate sleep mode,” I
say again through gritted teeth.
“I’m sorry, Roland,” the
AI starts again. I let out a frustrated grunt and pound the bed with my fist. “Would
you like to hear your options?”
“You may pay your balance
in full right now.” Out of the question. My credit card is maxed, and I haven’t
made a payment in over a month.
“If you are unable to
pay, but would like to continue using Doz-Z, then you can commit to six months
of service as a Doz-Z staff member.”
“Staff member? Is this a job
“Yes. I can send Doz-Z
agents to collect you tonight, and you can begin your service immediately.”
I think of the stack of
unpaid bills covering my dining table. I think of the 72-hour warning from the
electric company. I think of Catherine, who just lost her front tooth, and
Luke, who started Kindergarten last week. I think of holding Marley in my arms,
the sweet fragrance of her scented shower gel, her round, chocolate-brown eyes
looking back at me with so much love. I can’t abandon them. They are my life.
The Doz-Z agents arrive
two hours later. They take me to the corporate building and show me to my desk.
“Look over these numbers and have a report ready for me by 10AM sharp,” says
the new Ethan, a stern-faced woman with graying hair pulled into a severe bun.
I turn to my computer and get to work.
Hours later, they release
me, and I take the elevator down to the dormitory, where I share a room with
half a dozen other staff members. No one speaks as we change into matching
pajamas and climb into our cots. One by one, we all insert a pair of Doz-Z
earbuds into our ears and say, “Activate sleep mode.”
“Would you like to dream
tonight?” asks the soothing voice of the AI.