“You can get out of my way or you can die. The choice is yours. You’ve got to the count of ten,” I crow into the mic of my headset. I love this game. Destroying egotistical douche canoes in Rule Them All is one of my all-time favorite things. And I’m good at it. I was born to dominate this computer world with an iron fist.
“That time of the month, Trix?” the snotty, barely post-pubescent voice of S3Xk!ng69 rings in my ear. He must be new.
Wrong choice, dipshit. A wicked smile twists my red-stained lips.
“One. Two. Ten. Time’s up.” With a few keystrokes my digital army squashes my enemies with brutal efficiency.
“Holy shit.” The woeful cry is music to my ears. “I was just playing around.”
“Awww. Poor baby. Next time you feel like playing I suggest you stay the fuck away from Woman’sWorld.”
Yes, I named my make-believe country Woman’sWorld. And yes, I have zero remorse in exterminating pests like this one. He can’t say I didn’t warn him. Rule Them All is not for the timid or insecure. It’s a dog-eat-dog world with player-controlled countries clawing at each other to get to the top. To be the best. My gamer handle is DominaTrix for a reason.
“Wow Jackie, that was harsh,” my best friend chastises me in our private video chat. Elizabeth is a bleeding heart. I love her to death, but she wants to think the best of everyone. Truth is, some people are just assholes. A little bit of humbling goes a long way.
“He had it coming,” her boyfriend, Austin, chimes in. I’d nearly cut his balls off last year when he broke Elizabeth’s heart. Believe me, he had it coming too. I think he’s still trying to get on my good side. I promise I have one. It’s just reserved for a very select group of truly amazing people. The rest of the world can fuck right off.
“Thanks, Man Meat. But I don’t need your approval.” I flip off the camera with a simper. He chuckles, and Elizabeth groans.
“Don’t you have to work in like three hours?” she asks.
I glance across my small studio apartment to the clock on the milkcrate that serves as my nightstand. The bright, abrasive, orange 3:00 silently scolds me.
“Shit. Guess tomorrow’s going to be a bitch.” I shrug, hugging one knee up to my chest, resting my chin on it, and grinning at my best friend through the camera.
She rolls her eyes at me. “Did you at least finish your submission for the contest?”
My gaze darts up to the dozens of half-finished designs taped up on nearly every square inch of wall space.
“Almost,” I lie.
“Almost?” She calls me out with the same disappointed tone my mom uses. The sound is like a tiny needle poking me in the eye.
“Yeah, almost. As in just about. Nearly.”
“As in no.”
“I’ll finish it tomorrow.” It’s a bold-faced lie, and we both know it.
Every year E.B. Jericho, one of my all-time favorite sci-fi writers, holds a contest to design the cover art for her latest release. And every year I promise myself I’ll enter. I have a million and one ideas, but I always let the deadline for submission pass me by. I’ve been torturing myself for months trying to come up with a unique design, but nothing seems right. The fact that this is the last book in the series makes it that much more important.
“You better. You’ve got this thing on lockdown.” Elizabeth’s faith in me is unwavering, despite the fact that I’ve never actually had any paid graphic artist work.
I glance over to my long-forgotten drafting table, now housing junk mail and yet-to-be-folded laundry. I haven’t used it or any of my hundreds of dollars’ worth of design software since I gave up on starting my own graphic design business a couple years ago. In the six short months after I dropped out of college, I realized selling my art meant selling a piece of my soul with it. I was a used car salesman every time I tried for a commission. I’m really talented, I swear. Trust me. Rejection after rejection poured in until I just stopped trying. After a long morning of slinging coffee, doodling cover design ideas is all I have the energy for.
“You’ve read every one of his books, what? Like a dozen times?” Elizabeth asks.
“Her books and at least a dozen,” I correct her.
No one really knows who E.B. Jericho is. She’s a notorious recluse, but Elizabeth and I have a standing bet on the author’s gender. She goes with odds, seeing as how seventy-five percent of sci-fi writers are men. I am convinced E.B. is a woman. She’s too clever and witty not to be. If we ever met, we’d be hetero-lifemates. Instant besties for sure.
“All right, kiddos. I better get my beauty sleep.” I blow a kiss at the screen.
“Night, Jackie,” Austin’s deep voice announces.
“Night. Love you, babe,” Elizabeth chirps with a sweet smile.
“Love you too.”
I click off the camera, toss my glasses onto my desk and shut down my computer. Stretching my arms up and taking a long, deep breath, I sweep my eyes over the design ideas splattering my walls again. Not one of them is good enough. It’s so late it’s early, but my mind is still racing. The idea of submitting a design to be judged by someone I truly admire makes me nauseous.
I grab my sketchbook and sprawl out in my tangled mess of an unmade bed. Closing my eyes, I picture Persei Rivera, the main character from E.B. Jericho’s Sins of Tomorrow series. She’s a space smuggler and the most kickass character of all time. She’s standing tall in front of her ship, Phobos, a Hellhound-class light space cruiser. Her grease-stained cargo pants are tucked into lunar-dust speckled boots. Her father’s old leather bomber jacket is zipped up to keep out the chill on the darkside of the deserted space rock where she’s currently stowing cargo. The wind blows her raven-black hair in thick waves behind her, and her pale skin appears nearly translucent. The low light from a distant sun glints off the laser pistol strapped to her hip. Her arms are crossed, and the edge of her mouth is quirked up in a devious challenge. She’s the Dirty Harry of space. She wants you to try something. Punk.
In my mind, the sight is clear as day. I spring my eyes open and stare down at the blank page. Two strokes of my pen and it’s already gone wrong. I rip the page out of my sketchbook, crumple it into a tiny ball and toss it across the room with a huff. I try again, but I can’t get the angle right for Phobos. She’s an impressive ship, and I made her look like a bathtub toy! Another page ripped out. Another discarded failure.
Over and over again, I doodle the same intergalactic scene until my eyelids get heavy and I pass out in a heap of crumpled paper.
* * * *
The obnoxious beeping of my alarm startles me awake. With a loud groan and a quick kick, I send the institutionalized torture device flying across the room. The beeping gets softer, sadder, before finally stopping. I’m the wrong way round in my bed on top of the covers. I pick my head up and the crinkling of paper echoes in my ear. I stare down at my latest creation, the sleek starship smudged and ruined with my drool. Great. I swipe the whole mess into a pile on the floor. I’m back asleep before I can regret the half-conscious decision.
Untold hours later, I’m stirred awake again by the less-than-gentle but very familiar poke of a wooden cane in my side. I push it away and roll over, but the poking persists.
“What?” I whine.
“Oh, so you are alive.” The bed dips beside me, and I crack my eyes open to stare up at Pops’ sly smile. “I was beginning to think it was just the wistful delusion of an old man that I had a brilliant and punctual granddaughter.”
I flop onto my back and stretch out my arms and legs, curling my toes with a satisfied moan.
“Brilliant, sure. Punctual, not so much.”
Pops hums. “A man can dream. But now it’s time for you to face the day. Life goes on whether you’re living it or not, my love,” he quips, with a final poke in the ribs for good measure.
“Yes, sir.” I give him a two-finger salute and a huge smile. With an achy groan, he stands and strides to the door. “Did you take your pills?” I call to his retreating back.
“Get to work, young lady,” he snips playfully.
“Take your pills, old man,” I yell back.
Pops and I each have an apartment above his coffee shop, so luckily my commute is easy. Fifteen minutes later I’m downstairs, unlocking the door and waiting for the morning to be over.
I pick up the copy of Honourbound I have stashed in a special secret cubby hole under the register. I thumb gently through the well-worn pages, picturing my favorite scenes as the pages fly by in a blur. It is the fifth and most recent book in the Sins of Tomorrow series. It came out six months ago, and I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve read it. I don’t bother with a bookmark, letting fate decide what adventure Persei will take me on today. I stop at a random page, lean against the counter and get to reading.
It’s barely after eight o’clock when my phone buzzes with an incoming call in the front pocket of my apron. There’s only one person who actually calls me, and I’m not in the headspace to deal with her and her passive-aggressive guilt-trip right now. Without looking, I send my mom to voicemail, knowing there’s not a chance in hell I’ll actually listen to her message. Two minutes later my phone buzzes with an incoming text. I make the mistake of reading it, despite knowing it’ll be more nagging.
Robert is looking for someone to design a logo for his new brokerage. Just something simple, so I’m sure you could manage it. Call him. This is a great opportunity.
Below the text is a picture of a guy’s business card. It’s basic and boring. Boxy black lettering and bold font makes it look like a standard template. There’s zero personality. Zero wow factor. Real Estate brokers aren’t the most exciting bunch, but I almost feel sorry for this guy. I slip Honourbound back into its special place, making sure to cover it with a plastic menu in case of accidental coffee spillage.
I grab a napkin and sketch out a few possible logos for Robert the Real Estate Broker. They are simple and elegant—given he’s a friend of my mom’s I doubt he’ll want anything flashy. I’m lost in my work with a small smile on my face when a snide voice interrupts me.
“Excuse me,” the voice says in that condescending tone rich people reserve for lowly service industry types.
I look up from my sketch to find a woman about my age, late twenties, glaring at me with contempt and clearly annoyed I’ve wasted a precious minute of her time.
“If you’re done doodling, I’m ready to order.”
I crumple up the doodled-on napkin in my fist and throw it on the ground. It was trash anyway.
“What do you want?” My tone is flat. She’s not our usual customer. We cater more to the eccentric free spirits of the world.
She scoffs, her displeasure at having to be here instead of in a Starbucks evident in her sour pout and not-so-subtle head shake. “Venti cappuccino.”
“Large cappuccino is five-seventy-five,” I rattle off, clicking a few buttons on our ancient register.
She hands me a twenty. I hand her back her change, which she takes the time to count with a watchful eye before she sashays away. I suppress a gag. I take my aggression out on the coffee grounds, putting my body weight into tamping them down with a wide smile. The espresso shot comes out thick as mud and smelling like a burnt tire.
“Cappuccino,” I yell.
She takes a sip and I laugh at the sight of her nearly doing a spit-take. She shakes her head, looking me up and down, her judgmental gaze lingering on my nose ring and tattoos. My bright red hair is thrown up in a messy bun because I was too lazy to deal with bed head. My black T-shirt is wrinkled but clean. I think. There are coffee stains on my jeans and ink stains on my fingers. Compared to her fresh blowout, sharp pants suit and French manicure, I’m a hot mess. The look of disgust on her face makes me wish I’d added a little special sauce. I mean spit.
“You really should get your act together if you want to be taken seriously.”
I bite my tongue, shoving down the urge to tell her to go fuck herself. This is Pops’ place after all.
With a hair toss, she’s nearly out the door when I shout, “Want my mom’s number? You’d get along great!”
I mutter angrily to myself for letting some stranger get under my skin. I’m a damn good graphic designer. An artist. She can shove that cappuccino up her bleached asshole for all I care.
My new indignant rage fuels my motivation. I pull out my phone and scroll through E.B. Jericho’s Instagram page. She has a new post every day with a countdown for the contest. There are exactly forty-seven days left until my cover design has to be submitted for a chance to win. I suppress the familiar panic churning in my stomach.
This is my year. I’m going to win this thing if it kills me.