My eyes fluttered open, and bright, but soft fluorescent light filled my vision. The first thing I saw was the fake wood table my head rested on. I straightened my back to sit up, then looked around at the empty food court. Confused, I looked up through the skylights in the ceiling and saw a dark starless sky, then back around the mall. I didn’t remember coming to the mall, but at night it was usually packed. I stood from my chair, my legs pushing it backward as I rose. The sharp sound of the chair legs scrapping against the imperfections of the stone floor sound echoed around the empty, wide open space.
“Whoa, keep it down.” I heard a male voice say, followed by a soft chuckle. I turned toward the sound and saw someone new. Someone that I did not see leaning against the counter of the Great American Cookie Company when I woke up. A pale man wearing a dark suit and a chestnut crew cut left the counter and walked toward me.
“What’s going on? Where is everyone?” I asked. Obviously I was in an unusual situation, so this man probably had answers. Unless, “Am I dreaming?” The man stopped walking. His head tilted to his left and right a couple of times as if he was weighing options.
“No.” He resumed walking toward me until he reached the table I stood by. He quietly pulled out a chair and sat down in it, then gestured for me to retake my seat. I sat, not having any better ideas.
“First of all, congratulations James. On behalf of the entire human race,” he leaned forward in his seat, giving a ghost of a bow. “Thank you for saving us. Again.”
“Whahuh? You’re gonna have to fill me in Mr…. Uh?” I gestured toward him with my hand. His light brown eyes sparkled, but he did not offer up a name. Fine. “Uh, Sir. Two days ago I was kayaking with my buddies, then I wake up here.” He nodded.
“Memory quirks happen occasionally, but it’s probably for the best this time. You don’t want to remember the things you endured, trust me.” He reached down to the floor and placed a large black leather briefcase on the table between us. I saw no sign of the briefcase before he put it on the table, but I was quickly growing numb to surprises.
“Why should I trust you if you won’t even tell me your name?” I asked. He nodded again.
“Two reasons. First, you have no other choice if you want out of here. Second,” He pointed behind me. I turned in my chair and saw two officers, dressed completely in S.W.A.T. gear with guns pointed at me. I turned back around to face the stranger.
“Kill me any time you want, I get it.” I rested my hands on the table and slumped in my seat.
“Now, as I’ve said you’re a hero.” he flipped the latches and turned the front toward me, lifting the lid in the same movement. The interior of the briefcase was lined with red velvet, but otherwise sat empty. Then he closed it. “In this briefcase is your reward.
“So for saving humanity I get nothing,” I gestured at the briefcase with my hand, “and my life threatened?” I used the same hand to point my thumb behind me. He smiled, showing me his perfect white teeth.
“It’s like you haven’t even been paying attention. This is not your reward, just a demonstration.” He opened the case again and inside it sat the most beautiful pizza I’d ever seen. Steam billowed from the top layer of golden-white cheese, and I saw the delicious grease pooling in the concave pepperoni slices. “Go ahead,” he said. I grabbed a slice and eagerly bit into it. Then, I opened my mouth again to let the piece tumble out followed by several strands of drool. I immediately pursed my lips and sucked in air to try and cool my tongue. “Careful, it’s hot,” he said.
“Thanks. Have you always been this helpful, or is it part of the job?” I noticed movement to my left and turned to see the S.W.A.T. member placing a cardboard cup with a long green straw on the table. “Thank you,” I said to unknown man. His face was completely covered by a helmet, and I wondered for a second if the gear was occupied at all. I sucked at the drink and recognized the taste of my favorite soda. “Hey, thanks.” I lifted the cup slightly in his direction. He nodded.
“Now about your reward,” he closed the lid of the briefcase again. I took a bite of the single slice in my hand. “it’s your choice.” I understood.
“Oh, so I can ask for anything that fits in that briefcase?” He nodded.
“But, there are some rules.”
“Rules? I saved the human race.”
“You did. Great job. Do you want to follow the rules to get *something* or just complain and get nothing?” He asked with a straight face. It didn’t matter to him either way.
“Alright, what are the rules?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice as level as possible, but there was no way he missed the traces of annoyance. He held up his hand and extended two fingers.
“Two rules. First, whatever reward you choose, it’s not for you. Second,”
“Wait! How is it my reward, if it’s not for me?” I asked. I dropped the half slice on the table and crossed my arms. I knew I was behaving like a spoiled child, but apparently I have a habit of saving humanity. It’d be nice to get some sort of reward. He ignored my outburst completely.
“Second. You do get choose who it is for, but you can’t choose yourself.” He said. I sat quiet for several minutes until he looked at his watch. Then, he sighed. “Fine. I’m not supposed to do this, but I already know you can wait me out if you wanted. I don’t have time, I’ve got other appointments to get to. Here’s the abridged version. Remember, I’m doing this to speed things along. No questions, I will not elaborate. I’m giving you beyond the maximum information I’m allowed to.” He stopped talking, and stared at me. I realized he was waiting for me to agree to the terms and nodded. It sounded good so I reached for the half eaten pizza slice but it was gone. “Focus,” he said. He took a deep breath.
“You don’t know it, but you’re the Earth’s strongest super hero. When you black out he takes over and saves the world. Aliens invaded while you were kayaking and you got right to work. However they were stronger than you thought and they captured you. They tortured you, non-stop, on live TV around the world. However, despite being invaders, they did seem to have some sort of honor code,” the stranger shrugged. “Or maybe they just didn’t want to deal much longer. The point is you took all that torture, and you outlasted them. Whether they were impressed with your willpower or frightened of what other surprises the Earth had for them, they dropped you out of a ship and left. As much as we would like to reward you, your body had been abused so much you died on impact. After we sort out this reward, you’re moving on to the afterlife.”