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The lights were out, the candles were lit, the night’s general plot and actors had been chosen, and the party of seven sat across two couches in Peter’s living room, waiting for their stylene pills to kick in to make for a really good whodunnit. Marcy sat at the far end of one couch, flanked by Peter, who had Caspar and Astelia on his other side, whispering as many couples do with inside jokes and predictions before the movie started.

“Here we go,” Peter whispered toward Marcy as the projector’s static turned to the old 3, 2, 1 countdown of old-timey movies. “Hope you like it.”

The countdown finished and the projector’s screen went dark, leaving the party in the uncomfortable candlelight they’d concocted. Like she had before the candles were lit originally, Marcy remembered back to hard times at home when the electricity wasn’t the only bill that went unpaid and she would go days at a time in the dark, choosing to spend her nights meditating on life and the lack of power she held in dictating her own.

She had become comfortable with the darkness.

“It’s easier if you go down when the sun does,” her mother had repeatedly told her in the morning. “You’re wasting the sun,” she would say while waking up her groggy daughter at sunrise, “wasting the day if you’re up all night and sleep all day.”

One particularly difficult morning, she’d let slip an extra, “wasting your life,” too, and she stubbornly stuck to her guns and doubled down against Marcy’s young, pouty face.

“There’s a reason businesses are only open during the day,” her mother said angrily. “Try going to the post office at night. Try buying your family some food before sunup. Perfect time to steal some, perhaps, but this house is better than that, Marcy? Nothing good ever happens in the dark of night.”

The household tyranny had built upon itself over the years as nobody ever broke down to admit they were wrong; differences of opinion became disagreements, disagreements became arguments, arguments became heated, and the house became a place of frequent screams of all kinds until an uncomfortable haze of silence rolled in to stay after Marcy moved to San Francisco and start her own life.

A small window of light appeared where the large projector screen had been, showing black and white footage of a mobster pulling bundles of money from a bag and setting each wad down on a table surrounded by men equally as shady looking.

The boss was the first to speak, tossing a bundle of bills toward the youngest man at the table. “Wanna help me count this, kid? I trust you.”

“Don’t go trusting me too much,” the kid smirked, rifling through the stack.

Around the small black and white video, the frame of a wooden television faded in — itself in rich, red mahogany — on the wall. Past it, the background of a room bled in until it reached the original dimensions of the projector screen, resulting in the illusion of an additional three-dimensional space stretching outward from the living room.

“I sure do miss my bed,” a deep, unfamiliar voice said from behind the couch. Marcy jumped, whipping her head around, then shrieked at the view of a young Clint Eastwood standing there. A younger gentleman with an officer’s cap and coat paced behind him.

“You said that last night,” the younger man said.

“Last night I said I missed my wife,” Clint snarled. “Tonight I just miss my goddamn bed.”

It was weird hearing Clint say a line from one of his own movies, but originally spoken by another character, and Marcy leaned toward Peter to ask, “Did you do this?”

“Indeed,” Clint boomed loudly, turning fully toward Peter. “Answer the woman, Peter. Are you why I’m here tonight?”

Marcy and Astelia gasped in unison, but for different reasons, and Peter stood up. He held his hands out defensively and shot a glance toward Marcy before answering, “No, sir. I don’t know why you’re here tonight.”

A loud crash rang out behind Clint — who continued to hold an unwavering stare at Peter — as two more people entered through the door to the living room. A couple each wearing wedding bands, yet walking disjointed and bickering loudly until they noticed the party of people staring back at them.

“Oh, Ryan,” Trish swooned.

The woman’s eyes shot toward Trish, then back to her husband, and she shrieked, “Is this her?”

“I wish,” Trish mumbled, smiling dreamily at the man mirroring Peter’s defensive stance as he backed away from the angry squawks.

“Excuse me,” Paul said loudly, addressing the intruders as he stood from the couch. “I’m the reason you’re here today,” All eyes went to Paul and he continued, smiling, as he retrieved a folded piece of paper from his pocket, “and I’d very much appreciate it if you’d each take a seat for a moment while I properly welcome you to Peter’s Manor.”

The young officer sat in one of the room’s outlying chairs and crossed his legs, retrieving a small notepad and pen from the inside of his coat. The bickering couple grumbled, but ultimately sat on either side of him, and Clint stood menacingly against the far wall.

“I was instructed to wait until everyone had arrived to say anything,” he explained. “And we’re all here now.”

Paul looked in turn at each of the ten other faces in the room, pausing the longest on the officer that had accompanied Clint. After a brief glance back at the note, he cleared his throat and folded it back up, putting it back in his pocket. Marcy watched in awe as what she thought was a movie unfolded into a live-action play before her.

“First of all, thank you all for coming at such short notice; I hope your travels prove fruitful when you hear why you’ve been invited here today. There are eleven of us here, counting the officer I wasn’t expecting. Each of you — except him — is here today because you want something; no, need something. Something is missing from your life and someone has promised you’ll find it here tonight. While I was told of each — most — of your arrivals about a week ago, I wasn’t told what each of you was missing or would find; only that it was necessary for me to guide you toward your lost treasure tonight.

“You’ll find the full Manor at your disposal tonight, free for your perusal. You’ll also find your fellow guests should be more than accomodating toward your goals, not only because we’re all in the same boat here, but because we’re all good people that want to see fresh fruit bloom in each other’s lives, right? So, please do make yourselves at home, come and go as you please, and feel free to leave once you’ve found what you’re looking for.”

When Paul was done, everyone started talking at once:

“Wonderful,” Astelia said.

“Bullshit,” Clint said.

“Interesting,” Jacob said.

“Yeah, right,” the bickering couple said simultaneously.

“This is exciting,” Caspar said.

“I have what I need right here”, Trish said, pulling Jacob close.

The officer kept quiet.

“Quiet please,” Paul begged, excavating the note from his pocket again and holding it out. “We all have our part tonight and mine is just to welcome you to the Manor with that note.”

“You didn’t even read it,” Marcy said out loud from the couch. “How do we know you’re telling the truth? How could you even know anything about me, what I’ve lost?”

“Here,” Paul said, handing the note to someone close. They skimmed it, nodded, and admitted that it matched the speech Paul gave.

“So where do we start?”

The party split up into several small groups and disbursed throughout the Manor setting that had been constructed in Peter’s apartment for the evening, carrying candles to light the way. Although they’d seen the entirety of the apartment before the lights went out, something about the close quarters and dark walls made every room feel like it stretched out forever.

“I’ve always wanted a big mansion like this,” Marcy found herself saying to Peter as they crept down a quiet hallway a half hour later. “A proper family home with space for everyone and everything.”

“Space to congregate in,” Peter nodded knowingly, “and space to be alone in.”

“Space to meditate in,” Marcy agreed, letting herself smile just a little. “Quiet, dark, and — ack!”

A bloodcurdling scream rang out through the house and Peter instinctively reached out to grab Marcy’s arm, pulling her behind him as he stepped toward the direction of the scream. For a moment, they both stood there frozen in silence, listening intently for any other sounds of accompanyment that might carry some contextual clues for what had happened.

The only other sounds in the apartment Manor were the footsteps of the rest of the group congregating in the library, where Clint was bent over a body on the floor. He carefully rolled the man onto his side, revealing a kitchen knife sticking out of the middle of Paul’s chest.

Marcy screamed, instinctively pulling Peter closer as she hoarsely whispered after, “What happened?”

“Stabbed,” Clint said flatly. “Obviously.”

“It’s okay,” Peter whispered back. “Stage trick.”

“Why him?” Astelia asked, wiping away a tear as she turned away from the body. “Who would do this?”

“Check for clues,” Jacob called out, looking hurriedly around the library. Shelves upon shelves had formed in front of the their eyes when Peter had set up the apartment layout before starting the movie, but somehow rows of books had materialized on each shelf, a fire was lit in the fireplace, and a geometric Persian — now soaked with a dark red pool of blood seeping out from under Paul — adorned nine-tenths of the floor.

“Anything out of place? Anything strange about this room?”

“Check everything,” Caspar called out.

With senses returning, Marcy broke away from Peter’s grasp to start pouring through the room for clues. She started with the shelves, which housed the biggest collection of books she’d ever seen in one place at one time, surpassing even the small library that’d accompanied the elementary school she briefly got to attend before transitioning into homeschool full-time.

The school was a far cry from this futuristic apartment, struggling financially for many years with cut after cut that repeatedly chipped away at the area’s future until it was finally forced to close, unable to keep even a single teacher on staff. The books were auctioned off and students got first dibs to bid; it took days to convince her mother to bid on the school’s last copy of The Legend of Lestaria, but it was one of the only possessions she’d deemed important enough to make the journey with her to San Francisco.

And here, on a mostly-stranger’s made-up bookshelf, an identical copy of The Legend of Lestaria caught Marcy’s eye. She beelined for it, thinking it must certainly be some kind of clue regarding Paul’s original speech about lost treasures. She knew hers was safe and sound next to her bed, but she clutched toward it anyway as if it had been stolen from her and she had mere seconds to retrieve it.

And she hit her hand on the back of the bookshelf.

“Huh?” she stammered, raising her candle higher to see the bookshelf more clearly. She retracted her hand quickly and stared at it, stumbling back a few feet before returning her gaze to the bookshelf. Seconds later, her hand was inside the books again; tentatively, at first, and then brazenly waving back and forth through the entire shelf length.

“Holograms,” Peter whispered from behind her. “It’s a movie, remember?”

Besides the marvelous technology that went into creating a physical setting and populating it full of both static and living holograms to act out an entire movie that had been created on the fly based on crowd preferences and actor inputs, the movie wasn’t actually that good.

The treasure that each audience member had lost and would eventually find turned out to be their dear friend Paul, who revealed himself to not actually be dead in the end; rather, the mastermind behind the party intending to communicate a message of love and friendship.

“Hold your friends close,” he had said back in the original projector room as virtual curtains fell around him, “but hold your acquantances closer, as they might just be friends too, someday.”

Marcy, Peter, Caspar, Jacob, and Clint all groaned in unison, and then Clint, the feuding couple, Clint, and his accompanying officer all faded into thin air as the apartment lights brightened up.

“Thank you, thank you,” Paul said, bowing, “and special thanks to Peter for giving me a platform tonight. Next time will be even better, I promise it!” He turned to Marcy and added with a wink, “He’s working on something special for you, so you’d better be there!”

“Not true,” Peter said, laughing. “But you should definitely come again next time. Great to have you!”

The group mingled for a while and Peter invited Marcy to stay a bit longer, but it was late and she wasn’t yet comfortable enough in the Big City to stay too late at a stranger’s place, even with seemingly reasonable company around. After Marcy took her coat and headed home, the others that were still hanging out faded into thin air like the other actors had done, leaving Peter alone in his apartment to reminisce on his first real date with the flawless woman he knew deep down he’d spend the rest of his life with.

He’d tell her someday that the evening was lovingly constructed from what he could find about her online, to push her boundaries and get her to taste the kind of life he knew she would love here in San Francisco — with him.

In a city of well over a million people, what are the chances that two people would repeatedly bump into each other seven times in almost as many different places, especially if one of those people hadn’t planned such a serendipitous encounter each time?

Clearly, they were meant to be.