Exposition After Life

“Ezey?” Harry called out for his caseworker as soon as he recognized the room. He woke up in a small office on a brown leather chaise. He’d been in the room several times before; it reminded him of a therapist’s office. He knew he’d been there but had no idea how many times. Several seconds after he woke up he heard a knock on the door; then, it opened. A lean, clean-shaved man in a dark suit walked in.

“Congratulations, Harry. You reached the first tier,” the man said when he entered. He stopped by the chaise to shake Harry’s hand on the way to the desk. After the handshake, he sat on the edge of his desk to chat with Harry.

“Thanks, Ezey,” Harry nodded. “Uh, can you go over that part again?” Ezey chuckled.

“Of course. I’m supposed to anyway,” he shrugged. “Not everyone’s memory makes it this far. First, tell me what you know.”

“I’m dead,” the first fact came easy enough. Ezey nodded. “You’re my caseworker… I think you said you’re called a Middleman.” Ezey nodded again. Harry continued. “You said I reached the first tier…,” the portly man scratched his beard while he thought. “That means I can be a Unique Soul now… I think?”  Ezey nodded again.

“What else?” he asked.

“There’s more of me… what about the rest?” Ezey shrugged.

“That’s up to you, you got here first. If you decide to reincarnate into a Unique you’ll have to wait until your alternates die too so we can get you all together. Or you can keep going,” Ezey smiled at Harry. “Go back to your Earth or pick a different one. Keep trying to learn and earn more points to go up to the next tier. If you pick a Unique you get to choose which alternate Earth you want; but, you can’t pick the same one you just came from.”

“How many of me are there?”

“Right now there’s about 500 of you out there.”

“Right now?” Harry asked.

“Yeah. It’s how the process works. When a new soul is born it’s divided out into tens of thousands of dimensions. As they learn about life and pass through here they start getting consolidated until you can become a Unique,” Ezey explained. Harry was sure he’d heard the explanation before and was glad Ezey did not seem to mind repeating himself. He assumed patience was a job requirement. “By the time you reach the Celestial tier for Uniques, there’s usually only a handful of alternates. But you…,” Ezey pointed at Harry. “…have the most points so you get to decide for all of you. Even if you go around again, you’re still in charge when you come back.”

“Is Celestial the highest tier? What tier am I on?” Ezey nodded.

“You’re in the first tier now: plants. Then it’s Animals, Humans, Conquerors, and Celestials on the top. You’re looking at about 20-30 lifetimes per tier; in case you’re wondering.”

“Is it worth it?” Harry asked. “I mean, in your opinion, is it worth waiting?” Ezey shrugged.

“Well, I’ll tell you. It’s up to you and how you want to live your last life. I can say there’s a Sol, a Celestial Unique, out there that we’re afraid of up here. So,” he shrugged. “There’s a lot to be said for the opportunity to get that powerful I guess.”

“Is this an option?” Harry asked. He quickly decided that he did not want to be somewhere that he chanced running into someone even Middlemen feared.

“What?”

“This,” Harry spread his arms wide to gesture at the office around them. “Up here. Can I be a Middleman?”

“I’ll ask. Go around again while we figure it out,” Ezey said.

“Yeah, okay. Let’s go again,” Harry said. Ezey and the room disappeared leaving Harry in darkness. Then he was born.

Star Brigade in the Lead

The sudden vibrations startled Parker into dropping the shiny oblong object. It fell into the soft grass and began emanating a golden light from its chrome-like exterior.

What the hell?” In the back of his mind, Parker feared it might explode in his face; he leaned closer anyway.

“Comin’ through!” someone shouted. Parker looked up and saw a short, pink-haired girl barreling toward him on skates unlike any he’d ever seen before. They left behind a two-foot-long visible trail of golden light. “MOOOOOOOVE!” She shouted; Parker did not. She brought her hands up to soften the impact but she still slammed into his chest. Parker was a tall, sturdy man. The unknown skater sent him staggering backward. He tried to keep his legs under him but he ended up on his behind in the soft grass. The girl, for her part, managed to stay on her feet. She crouched to grab the egg-like item but Parker noticed something behind her.

A second girl, shorter with raven curls falling down her shoulders, exited a tall, black portal and skated toward the girl that knocked him down. The second girl slowed down once the pink-haired one held the device in her hand. Another black hole opened in front of her and she skated through it and disappeared again.

“You okay?” The pink-haired girl turned her attention to Parker, but she did not make any attempt to help him up. Instead, she wiggled her fingers at the air and opened another black hole.

“What’s going on?!” Parker asked her. Once he realized she wasn’t going to help him up he got off the ground and dusted off his butt. The girl smiled.

“We’re winning!” she said with a wink. She skated into the black hole then she and it disappeared.

Fated Meeting

The skittish mugger looked at his gun, then back at the lean, wispy man. It looked like his skin was pulled tight over his bones; his apparent malnutrition is what gave Linus the courage to victimize the man. He did not plan on firing a single shot, much less six. Now that he was approaching 50, Linus had learned that plans are made to be broken.

“Fate, huh? So can you change mine?” Linus asked. Fate cocked his head to the side and gave him a questioning look.

“You don’t need me for that,” he replied with a calming, even tone. Linus gave a half nod and hid his gun under his coat.

“Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t seein’ I just tried mugging you,” he shook his head. “Sorry, and thanks for not killing me.”

“Why would I?” Fate asked. He seemed perpetually confused as far as Linus could tell from the short five-minute interaction they’ve had so far. Linus only meant to fire a warning shot to scare the man; he did not seem to understand he was being robbed.

“‘Cause I tried to take your money and kill you. It’s only fair you’d want revenge. Anyone that can take six shots in the chest without blinking can probably make short work of me.”

“Do you wish ill upon the breeze that caresses your face?” Fate asked. Linus shook his head in equal parts astonishment and offense.

“That’s all those bullets were to you? A stiff breeze?” Linus asked. Fate smiled at him.

“A gentle breeze. Do you want money?” Fate asked suddenly. Linus laughed. He had grown used to Fate’s quirks already. He was not surprised Fate did not know what a mugging was. Fate reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a small, glassy rectangle about the size of a playing card. “I’ve been told this works as a credit card if you swipe it.” He tossed it at Linus. “She said it has no limit,” Fate shrugged. “I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure you do.”

“And you’re just giving this to me??”

“I don’t need it. You don’t either, but it seems like you need to learn that lesson for yourself.” Linus stared wide-eyed at the device. When he touched it, it lit up like a display and showed the current time with an infinity symbol next to it.

“Wait a minute. Who’s ‘she’ that you mentioned? Is this hers? Is she gonna come back for it?” Linus began to push the glass card back to Fate; but, the frail man shook his head.

“My queen, Bijou, gifted it to me to keep me entertained while I wait for her. She’ll be here soon. My wait is almost over.”

“Your Queen? Fate has a queen? How does that work?”

“How does what work?” Fate asked.

“I mean, you’re fate. You control and guide people’s lives. You decide people’s circumstances. I never thought you’d report to anyone.”

“Oh,” Fate chuckled. “You’re confused. I’m not…,” he used air quotes. “FATE. My name is Fate but I decide my own. Just like you.”

“But then what are you? I know I shot you point blank.”

“I’m a Unique Soul. #42, La Calavera.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Linus shook his head.

“It means I can make short work of you if I wanted to.”

“Fair enough,” Linus nodded. “But what ab-” he stopped talking. His mouth dropped open and he stared at something behind Fate. A pitch black portal, somehow darker than the dark alley, opened in the air. A short dark-haired woman walked out. Though she stood in shadows, Linus clearly saw bright pink crystalline eyes staring at him. Once she walked up to Fate Linus got the impression that she stared at him just to ignore him. She looked at Fate.

“Ready?”

“Yes my Queen,” Fate said with a deliberate nod of his head. Then he turned around and walked through the portal. Bijou followed and the portal closed behind them.

Zeno-Phobic

Zeno looked stared at his father with wide eyes; his mouth hung open. After a moment he burst into laughter shaking his head. The orange-haired boy looked at his mother. She sat on the couch with her husband’s arm around her while retelling the story.

“Is that really how it happened?” She smiled and winked a crystal-pink eye at him.

“Your father embellished a bit to make himself look better,” she playfully dug her elbow into the man’s gut. “But all the important parts are there.”

Better?!” Zeno laughed again. “Geez dad,” he rolled his eyes. “I’m lucky I was born at all.”

“Yeah, well,” the man felt obligated to defend his honor. “You try thinking straight when you’ve got a woman…,” he pulled his wife closer to him with a squeeze. “…this beautiful interested in you.” The young teenager rolled his eyes again.

“Anyway,” the father continued. “We told you that to make sure you’re careful about every little thing. Be careful who you show your abilities to.”

“I know dad,” Zeno sighed. “That’s why I don’t have any friends.” Zeno’s mother stood from the couch while his father sat up straighter on the edge. He met his son’s eyes.

“Your mother and I have been talking a lot about that. You’ve been doing great in school and you’re a good kid,” he reached out and ruffled his son’s bright orange hair. “We’re proud of you. We got you a gift that might help you make more friends.” Zeno’s eyes widened again; this time in excitement.

He’d been hinting hard about wanting the latest online game. Most of the kids at school played it and it seemed to be the main social platform for them. Any time Zeno mentioned it to them he always mentioned how everyone he knows at school plays. His mother walked back into the room carrying a small white box with a red scissor logo on it. He recognized it instantly.

“No way!” He jumped off his seat on the coffee table and ran to hug his mom. “THANK YOU!” The moment he held the light, empty-feeling box in his hands his heart sank. He had been so focused on telling his parents about the game that he forgot to tell them how it needed to be set up. The AlterNet requires a pit of soil big enough for him to lay down in. Whenever he told his parents about thee things he could do in the game he always neglected to mention that extra detail. In his imagination, he hoped it would be set up in their only spare bedroom. Both his parents noticed the change.

“Hey, what’s wrong? We thought you’d be more excited,” his father asked. The tall man stood from the couch and walked over to them. Zeno nodded.

“It’s great dad. I just can’t play yet,” he said.

“What? What do you mean you can’t play? You haven’t even opened the box.” Zeno nodded.

“It’s my own fault,” he sighed. “I forgot to tell you about the setup needed. It’s not a computer game it’s something else.”

“What, like a phone game?” Zeno’s mom asked. He noticed a playful smirk on her face. “You’ve got a phone.”

“No, it’s not a phone game.” Zeno unceremoniously opened one end of the box and pulled out the white cardboard frame inside. A small, transparent, glassy rectangle rested on the cardboard. Zeno pulled it out and showed his parents. “To play this I need a big pit of dirt to lay down in.” The node began glowing with a muted green color as he held it. Zeno had never seen any of the nodes at school do that, but he assumed it was part of the setup process. His father burst into laughter; his mother smiled at the similarities between the two.

“A pit of dirt? Are you serious?” he asked his son and placed a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Zeno said with downcast eyes.

“Boy, talk about coincidences. I dug up a pit of dirt in the spare room while you were at school today,” he said playfully. Zeno looked up.

“REALLY??” His father playfully slapped his cheek.

“Yeah. What kind of parents do you think we are that we don’t check out what our kid’s into when he wants something?” Before Zeno could give a smartmouth reply the doorbell rang. All three heads swiveled to the door. They were not expecting any company that evening. “Go show Mr. Nofaithinhisparents here the excellent job we did, I’ll get the door.” Mother and son walked toward the guest bedroom while chatting excitedly. Zeno’s father answered the door.

Two men in black suits, a tall one and a short one, stood on his doorstep; both wore sunglasses.

“Listen. Don’t panic.” The short one said quickly. “We know your wife is an alien, we know your son is half alien. The only thing we want is to make sure your son does not log into the AlterNet. Stop him then we can talk.”

Dreaded Gift

“That’s it??” Jorge looked at the single five dollar bill in his hand then back to the blue half-genie tethered to the lamp. The genie shrugged.

“You got me,” he said with a genuinely confused look. “I don’t control the magic, I just channel it. The universe says you only need five dollars for the rest of your life? You get five dollars.”

“Can I trade it in for a different wish?” Jorge asked. The genie burst into deep, booming laughter while shaking his head.

“I’m not working retail here,” he said. “You got your one wish.” the genie shooed Jorge away with a gesture. “Move along.” The genie dissipated into light blue smoke that flowed back into the lamp. Jorge grumbled to himself. He thought about kicking the lamp but decided against it. Instead, he shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away from the hidden area.

Jorge jogged around the park in the mornings and that particular morning he noticed some hedges missing. He attributed it to the groundskeepers that were working throughout the park that day. Sounds of chainsaws and hedge trimmers filled the air. Curiosity led him through the opening where he found a small alcove that seemed to be about the size of his modest bathroom. The spot was hidden and closed off from the rest of the area by buildings on one side and the missing hedges and foliage on the other.

The area seemed interesting, but he feared he might be trespassing on someone’s property and turned to leave. Then he noticed a brilliant gleam coming from under a large over-grown blue orchid.

Now he walked out of the niche five dollars richer but in a worse mood than he started the day.

“What can I even do with five dollars?” he grumbled to himself as he cut through the park to his car; he decided to skip the rest of his walk. “Screw it,” he decided. “I’m blowing it the first chance I get.” As he made his decision a jingling bell caught his attention.

“Perfect,” he smiled a bit to himself when he noticed the ice cream cart setting up shop for the day. Ice cream for breakfast seemed like the perfect indulgence to fritter away his newfound wealth.

He changed course to head to the stand. He noticed a tall, pale girl with spiky white hair and a shorter girl with raven curls spilling off her shoulders, walking toward it as well. They reached the vendor first.

“You guys still use paper money?” Jorge heard the shorter, dark-haired girl ask the vendor with an annoyed tone. She pulled out a clear, glassy rectangle about the size of a playing card.

“Cash only, no card,” the vendor replied. He held two cones, each with a single scoop of vanilla. Both girls sighed.

“Nevermind,” the shorter one said. They spun on their heels and turned to walk away. The vendor shrugged and started to lower the cones back into the cooler. As they walked away Jorge remembered his decision to blow the fiver first chance he had.

“How much for the two cones?” he asked. The two girls heard his question and stopped walking to turn around.

“Five even,” the vendor replied.

Why the hell not?” Jorge said. “I got it,” he traded the five dollar bill for the two cones, then took a step to the two girls to gift them the cones.

‘Thank you!” the shorter girl said then immediately began lapping at the white ball.

“Thanks,” the taller one said as she accepted the cone. “You didn’t have to, you know. I mean, we’re not starving or anything,” she shrugged. “Just didn’t have cash.” Jorge nodded.

“Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a beautiful morning for ice cream,” he chuckled. “I hope you enjoy it.” He gave them a polite wave, then headed back to his car.

“Hey wait, we need to pay you back,” Dread said.

“WATCH OUT!!!!!!!!!” Jorge heard someone yell and turned to see a uniformed worker in a hardhat frantically waving his arms at him and pointing upward. Jorge looked up to see a large tree falling directly on top of him.

Stupid universe,” Jorge had time for a final thought as the tree was about to crush him. He closed his eyes.

“Hey. Are you gonna move or what?” Jorge recognized the taller girl’s voice and popped one eye open. She stood there holding her cone and looking at him with a sly smirk. He looked up at the tree and noticed it wasn’t moving. It remained fixed in the air at a 45-degree angle about to squash him.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked her. Then he stepped out from under the hovering tree. The tall girl pointed at the shorter one behind him.

“Dirge can stop time. I’m Dread,” she extended her free hand and Jorge shook it.

“Jorge,” he said.

“You clear?” Dirge asked from behind him. Jorge looked around himself then took a few more steps out of the way.

“Clear,” he said. The moment he did the tree finished crashing into the ground. “Thanks,” he said.

“Now we’re even, right?” Dirge asked. The short girl walked up beside Dread. Dread shook her head.

“Nah that doesn’t count,” she said as she reached into the pocket of her blue jeans. Then she pulled out a clear, glass card like Dirge had. “You would’ve done that anyway,” she smiled at her friend then turned her attention to Jorge.

“Here. We don’t have any cash but this’ll work if you swipe it at any credit card reader. There’s no limit.”

“What? Are you serious?” Dread nodded and Jorge eagerly accepted the gift. “Why aren’t you using it?” Dirge held hers up and Dread showed him two more.

“We got plenty and we’re just passing through anyway.” As she said that Jorge noticed Dirge making gestures at the air with her free hand. A tall black portal opened next to them.

“What the hell?” Jorge asked. He turned around to see if anyone else noticed the large hole in reality, but everyone in the park was frozen in time again. The workers that were rushing to help him hovered in the air mid-step.

“See ya around,” Dread waved and stepped into the black hole. Dirge followed.

Unique Date

“Cam? You there?” Anna’s soft, familiar voice came through the vent as Cameron made himself comfortable in bed; she must have heard the rustling.

“Yeah. Morning, Anna,” he replied. It was 10 p.m. but she always seemed to be stirring as he was getting into bed, he assumed she worked night shift somewhere. Their conversations over the past two weeks never revealed more than their names, hobbies, and favorite foods. He never felt comfortable enough to ask about her work and she never asked about his. Telling her he was a self-made millionaire unbidden seemed like bragging to him.

“Morning!” she replied with an extra chipper voice. He figured it was easy to be a morning person if your morning started after sunset. “Hey, what are you doing later today?” she asked.

“Today’s over for me, I’m hitting the hay,” Cam said. After he replied he realized she might be trying to ask him out and regretted the almost dismissive answer.

“Well, I’ve still gotta put in my eight hours anyway, I was thinking after that we should give meeting a try. I’m gonna go see a roller-derby match, wanna come with?” she asked. Cameron quickly decided that he could take the next day off to have breakfast with her. He’d never heard of a morning roller-derby match, but he did not know much about the sport, to begin with.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” he said. “What time does it start?”

“Great! Starts at nine. Meet in the lobby at 8?”

“Perfect. Have a great shift,” Cameron wished her well for the day.

“Thanks! Sweet dreams,” she said. Then, Cameron heard her leave the bed. He set an alarm, rolled over and went to sleep.

At 7:55a.m. Cameron stood in the lobby holding a small houseplant in a pink pot. Through their conversations, he learned that she loved houseplants. She often named them and sometimes she would talk to Cameron like each one had its own personality. At 8:10a.m. He sat down on the single uncomfortable, metal bench and wondered if he should have asked for her number. At 9:15a.m. Cameron returned to his apartment feeling a bit dejected. He set the potted plant down on the kitchen counter then decided to lay down for a while.

He did not realize how much he was looking forward to meeting her until he didn’t. Cameron did not get depressed often; but, when he did he liked to sleep it off. Since he took the day off anyway he saw no harm in climbing back into bed for a while. As the bed jostled under him he heard a soft sniffle coming through the vent.

“Anna?” He asked. Several silent seconds passed, then she replied.

“What do you want?” she asked in a hurt tone.

“Why weren’t you in the lobby?” Cameron asked.

“I WAS!” she yelled through the vent. “Sorry,” she replied quickly. “But I was. I waited an hour for you.”

“I was there too! I didn’t see anyone else though.” Cameron explained. “I thought you stood me up.”

“Me too,” she replied. Her voice seemed to be a bit more cheerful and interested.

“Forget the lobby. What apartment are you in? I’ll just go knock there.”

“Okay!” she said. “I’m in 36D.”

“What?” Cameron asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve lived here for like eight years.”

“Anna, are you lying? This complex only has 20 floors. And it’s only been here for three years.” Anna let out a growl of displeasure and frustration.

“Are you kidding me right now? What time is it there?” She asked.

“Uh, bout 9:22.”

“A.m. or p.m.?” she asked. Cameron chuckled.

“Well look out the window.”

“A.M. or P.M?!” she asked again with a sharp edge in her voice.

“A.m. why?” Cameron heard another gravelly, guttural sound of annoyance and several dull thuds. He imagined her punching the bed in anger. “You okay?”

“Yeah, sorry,” she replied after a bit. “It’s just so annoying.”

“What is?”

“I finally find a nice guy I want to meet and he lives in another freaking universe!”

Gift of Death

“So why don’t you have an AlterNet character?” WaterJet asked Billy.  The pair wandered through a crowded bazaar. Humans, goblins, trolls, mermaids, centaurs and more manned various stalls to sell their goods. The white-faced clown with bright blue tears painted under her eyes was there to help him make sense of the hustle and bustle.

“Not interested,” he said with a shrug. She stepped in front of him with wide eyes.

“Not interested?? Do you know how strong you’d be?” She bit her bottom, baby-blue lip as if debating something; but, she decided quickly. “I heard about what you did to LaughTrack…,” she paused to wait for a reaction. None came. “You’re already the most powerful Muerte I’ve ever seen; the AlterNet can ramp that up even more!” Again, Billy shrugged.

“If I ever need to be stronger, I’ll consider it,” he smiled at her; the first time she’d ever seen him smile at all. “Like you said, I’m already the most powerful Muerte.”  WaterJet rolled her eyes.

“That I’ve ever seen, I said.” WaterJet turned around and continued to guide Billy through the crowd.

“Besides,” Billy continued. “I don’t know a thing about it, that’s why you’re here. Thank you again, by the way.” She nodded.

“No sweat, I’m glad to get out of the diner for a bit. The way they all worship LaughTrack is annoying. I just wanted to join a fun guild but lately, they’re more like a cult. Anyway, here we are,” she stopped and pointed at a colorful wooden sign that stood next to a pink tent. It read: “Lasting Laughs”.  “This is the best crafter I know.”

“I’m the best crafter on this server!” a small, high-pitched squeak replied; he sounded offended. A tiny person, no taller than a foot, hovered in front of them to protect his honor. He wore overalls and a small leather apron. His insect wings fluttered like a rainbow blur and rainbow specs of pixie dust rained under him.

“Billy this is Beau.”  Billy nodded.

“Have any #22’s available? Speed variant,” he asked the pixie.

“Whoa!” WaterJet grabbed Billy’s arm. “Excuse us a second, Beau.” She pulled Billy several steps away from under the pink awning. “Do you know how expensive speed boots are?!” she asked. Billy shrugged. He was about to say something but she interrupted him.

“No, you don’t, because you don’t play in the AlterNet. I brought some of the guild’s funds since you’re getting equipment for LaughTrack, but I don’t have enough for those.”

“I appreciate the concern,” Billy replied with a hand on her shoulder. “And, thanks for the help; but, I’ve got the nanos to cove it. Don’t worry.”

“Where’d you get nanos from?”

“I do taxi jobs on the side.”

“Oh. Okay. Then nevermind.” They returned to the stall; the pixie had a single brown leather boot waiting on the counter for them.

“Still interested?” Beau asked. Billy nodded. “Anything else?”

“What about you?” Billy nudged WaterJet with his elbow.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“It’s on me,” Billy added. “If you need any gear upgrades now’s the time.”

“No, I couldn’t. Thanks though.” She shook her head.

“She comes here a lot, right?” Billy asked Beau. The pixie nodded. “Is there anything she has her eye on?”

“No there isn’t,” WaterJet shook her head. Beau answered by falling down below the counter. After several seconds he floated back up carrying an ornate blue ceramic pitcher.

“#44 will make her water attacks hit a lot harder. She always spends a few minutes pining over it whenever she visits. Now, I just keep it under the counter for her.”

“I’ll take both of them.”

“50 million,” Beau replied.

“I know you don’t have 50 million just from running taxi,” WaterJet turned to Billy ready to pitch in her guild funds. She watched him produce a golden, apple-sized cube on his palm and place it on the counter.

“I never said it was just from that,” Billy said, then winked at her.

Star Shy

“It’s completely safe!” Grant reassured the 14-year-old girl, his granddaughter. The scrawny bundle of bags shook her head; everything else shook. She wore a bulging green canvas backpack on her back with several colorful pouches clipped to its various zippers for more storage. A forest green messenger bag hung from her right shoulder and she carried a lime-green satchel with her left hand. She nodded at the sign.

“Transportation to another dimension? Really, grandpa?” She tried to inject teenage annoyance in her voice but her grandfather raised her. He could hear the fear in her words and smiled in return.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of these across the world, it’s only happened once,” he shrugged and put a hand on the straps on her shoulder. “And they came back fine, it was just an inconvenience.” He tugged at the straps. “Looks like you’re all set for any inconveniences that come our way. I’ve been through dozens of times, we’ll be fine. Besides,” Grant pointed at the bright red number painted on the wall behind the teleportation pad: 35. “I even picked your lucky number.” The girl rolled her eyes but nodded.

“Okay, so how does it work?”

“Just step on it and press the button. Everything goes black for a second and then when the lights come on your parents will be waiting for us.” The girl took a deep breath then hopped onto the black metal platform. She turned to face her grandfather but her eyes were closed.

“Ready!” she said.

“Alright,” Grant stepped on the pad next to her. The circular pad wasn’t much bigger than a small car, its limit was four at a time. White walls surrounded the back of the platform and came around to the front. Grant fed his tickets into a mechanical slot in the wall closest to him.

“Teleportation in five seconds,” a female voice said. “Four,” she continued the countdown second by second. At one Grant felt his granddaughter’s hand slip into his and he squeezed it. “Teleporting,”  the voice said. The lights in the room went out leaving everything pitch black. Suddenly light returned and Grant realized something was wrong. He held the girl’s hand tightly and tried to pull her closer to him without alerting her.

“Are we there yet?” she asked. She kept her eyes closed but Grant guessed she noticed there was light again.

“Not yet, keep your eyes closed, Cassie,” Grant said while he tried to figure out his next step. They stood in the middle of a large, white-marble hall. Marble pillars lined the sides, but the width of the hall reminded Grant of an eight-lane highway. He expected to see his daughter and son-in-law but saw no one. He did not hear the busy sounds of the teleportation station.

“What do you mean not yet? It’s supposed to be instant!” the girl opened her eyes. “Whoooooaaa,” she looked around at the gleaming stone floors and walls. “Are we in another dimension?”

“Not necessarily,” Grant said.

“Well, we haven’t been atomized and I still feel like I exist,” the girl replied with genuine sarcasm. Despite himself, Grant chuckled. “So how do we get back?” she asked. Grant shrugged. He was about to elaborate but he heard voices coming down the hall. He looked toward the sound and saw a group of kids, about his granddaughter’s age, turn a nearby corner and into the hall. They stopped as soon as they saw the pair. After a moment of processing the situation, a girl with pink hair broke off from the group and dashed toward Grant. The rest of the group trailed behind her at a slower pace.

“HI! Welcome!” The pink-haired girl waved and smiled at Cassie. She seemed unsure and took a step backward while Grant stepped in front of her.

“Hi, I’m Grant,” he said.

“I’m Jessie,” the girl introduced herself as the rest of the kids arrived: two boys and two girls. She pointed them out clockwise to introduce them too. “That’s Rana, Margo, Andy, and Mark.” Grant decided they seemed friendly enough. He nodded at each one as they were introduced, then stepped aside.

“This is my granddaughter Cassie.”  The girl gave the group a weak smile. “She’s kind of shy,” Grant added. “Where are we?” he asked to take the focus off her.

“This is the Star Academy. We get estrellas like…,” She looked at Grant and he caught a golden flash of light in her eyes. Then, she looked at Cassie with the same light. “…her all the time.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of the Star Academy, but it seems like a nice place. Can you help us get home?”

“I’ll do it!” Mark and Andy both volunteered in unison and stepped forward.

“Yeah, I’ll get you home right now,” Jessie said. Then, she cast a glance to the boys on her left with narrow, slitted eyes. “You guys have to train.” They sighed, groaned, and turned to leave without another word. Jessie extended her hand toward Grant.

“Think about your home and give me a handshake,” she said. Grant thought about his daughter waiting for him and shook the girl’s hand; he thought he saw a light purple pulse pass from his hand to hers.

“Got it,” she turned to the two girls. “Wanna visit?” she asked them. Rana and Margo both nodded. Jessie raised her hand slowly while keeping her eyes on Cassie. She waited until she had the girl’s attention then wiggled her fingers in the air. “By the way, you can learn this too,” she said while looking Cassie in the eyes. A tall black portal opened next to them. “You can come back here any time you want.”  Margo and Rana walked into the portal first to show them it was safe.

“Really?” Cassie asked with a loud whisper. Jessie nodded.

“As sure as your favorite number is 35,” Jessie winked.

Unique Attempt

“I’m kind of using them,” Albert chuckled at the wild, wide-eyed, man. The stranger looked over his shoulder at something, then faced Albert again. He grabbed Albert’s shirt and shook him while looking into his eyes.

“THIS ISN’T A JOKE! I need your pants right now,” his head spun around to look behind him again, then back to Albert.

“Hey! Back off, man!” Albert shoved the wiry man away. The action caught the attention of passersby.

“I NEED them!” the stranger shouted and lunged for Albert again. He shoved Albert to the ground and reached for his belt while fighting off Albert’s kicking legs. Two men paused when they noticed the commotion stepped in and pulled the old stranger off of Albert.

“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” he shouted as he wriggled against the two men. “THE WORLD IS GOING TO END!”

“Wait a second,” Albert said as he stood from the sidewalk. “My pants can stop the end of the world?”

“YES!” the man shouted and looked over his shoulder again. This time Albert looked to try and see what the was checking. He counted three people running towards them. “HURRY!” the stranger shouted again. Albert chuckled and shook his head.

“I suppose they want my pants too?” The stranger nodded. His breathing was ragged; he wore himself out struggling against the two good samaritans. He fell limp and lowered his voice.

“If they get here before I have your pants, it’s over.”

“What’s so special about my pants?” Albert asked.

“They’re YOUR pants,” the stranger shook his head. “I can’t tell you any more than that.” Laughter ran through the growing crowd.

“Sure you can. Didn’t you say that this world is gonna end if you don’t have my pants?” He made a point of looking past the stranger. “They’re almost here.” the man sighed.

“Yeah, good point. Short version: I’m in a game show. Other stuff happened, but for now, they picked a random stranger…,” he pointed at Albert. “whose pants we have to get.”

“What does that have to do with the end of the world?” Albert asked.

“I’m from this Earth. If I’m out of the game we’re all out of the game.”

This Earth?” The man on the stranger’s right side asked. The old man nodded his head.

“Hey handsome,” a woman’s voice said. A statuesque woman with bright blue hair approached Albert. “Is there anything I can do to talk you out of your pants?” she asked, then brushed her lips against his. Albert began unbuckling his pants after the brief contact. As much as he was attracted to the woman, Albert specifically didn’t want the man to win whatever he thought he might. He doubted the whole thing and saw no harm in playing along with the woman just to spite the tactless stranger.

“No, I can still win!” the man shouted. Albert shook his head as he handed the wad of denim to the strange woman.

“WE HAVE A WINNER!” A deep male voice shouted. The gathered crowd turned toward the voice and saw a smiling bald man in a suit standing next to a tall, black portal.  “Claudia goes on to the next round!” The woman tossed Albert’s jeans back to him then walked into the portal. “Everyone else…,” the bald man shrugged. “Goodnight!” He retreated back into the portal then a chubby teenager stepped out. He wore a light blue faded, tight-fitting vintage t-shirt stretched over his stomach and loose, sagging blue jeans. His hair consisted of a rainbow crew cut. He gave the crowd a half-hearted wave and a polite smile.

“Hi. Uh, sorry about this. But on the plus side…,” an ivory horn drilled out of the top of his forehead. His crew cut grew into a mane of long, wild, rainbow hair.  His hands began to glow with intense white light. “You all get to see a unicorn before you die.”

Vanilla Treats

“Better hurry,” Leo checked his watch. “10 seconds. She’s really punctual.” He stood with his friend in a small, dim back room. Leo’s friend, Steven, was hunched over a counter scrambling a pen across an official-looking form.

“Not helping,” Steven grumbled while he tried to initial every checkbox on the form. Finally, he dropped the pen and pushed the form to the young woman behind the safety glass.

“Four,” Leo began the countdown.

“Hand, please,” she said. Steven placed his hand on the counter palm up; then, pushed it through the small arched opening he sent the paper through.

“Three.”

“This is going to hurt,” the woman said. She grabbed something that looked like a single-handed stapler and pressed it against Steven’s wrist.

“Two,” Leo’s grin grew larger with every count.

“Yeah! I’m READY!” Steven used his other hand to slap the counter from the excitement.

“One.” She pulled the trigger. Leo heard the familiar crunch as the device shoved a metal rod through Steven’s wrist. He screamed and yanked his hand out of the window to rub it. He saw no blood, just a small orange dot, like the one on Leo’s wrist. The pain dissipated quickly as he rubbed the dot.

“Did it work?”  Leo smiled and pointed at the clerk on the other side of the counter. She remained still; and, still held the mechanical device inches off the counter as if Leo’s wrist were present.

“The clerks don’t get the treatment. It’s a precaution against having people join after the 8th day starts.” Steven stared at the woman through the glass hoping to catch her breathing, or see her blink, or some other proof it wasn’t real. She was perfectly frozen.

“Man, how long have you known about this?” Steven asked his friend. The tall, lean man shrugged.

“‘Bout two months I guess.” Steven was surprised and almost took it personally.

“What? And you waited this long to tell me?” he whined only half-joking. Leo stepped forward and put his arm around Steven him to guide him out of the dim room. The room was at the back of an ice cream shop. As they stepped out Leo gestured at the room full of time-stopped patrons and employees.  Only one person, the manager, was capable of movement. He sat in the corner flipping through a magazine.

“It’s a 24-hour period that most people in the world don’t know about; they don’t even realize it happens,” Leo explained. He tapped  Steven’s forehead with a finger. “Don’t you think there’d be rules to something like that?”

“Oh,” Leo had not considered that. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. So, what are the rules?” he asked as they left the 24-hour ice cream shop, ‘Vanilla Treats’, and strolled along the empty strip mall.

“Rule number one:  Vanilla doesn’t like trouble-makers. No stealing, killing, looting, and so on.”

“How’s she gonna know?” Steven asked. He did not plan on being a trouble-maker, but he was curious. Leo stopped walking and turned to face Steven. He raised his arm and pointed at the orange dot.

“These track us,” he said, then grinned. “and she can stop time across the world. I don’t think you want to get on the wrong side of that.” Steven nodded.

“Good point. What else?”

“What else what?” Leo asked; he resumed walking.

“You said, ‘rule number one’ like there were more.”

“No, that’s it. She doesn’t like trouble-makers.”

“Where did Vanilla come from? Why’s she doing this,” Leo shook his head. “for free?”

“Rumors say she’s from an Alternate Universe. She wanted to do something nice for this Earth and I guess she doesn’t need money. Or maybe just not our money,” Leo shrugged. “I don’t think anyone knows for sure.”

“I do,” a woman said behind them. The two men whirled around, surprised, and saw a tall white-haired woman wearing a flowing orange dress.

“Vanilla!?” Leo asked, astonished. He recognized her from pictures, but Steven had never seen her.

“Hello, Steven. I’m glad you signed up,” she ignored Leo completely.

“What do you me-,” Steven began to ask but he never finished his question. Leo blinked.

When he opened his eyes Steven and Vanilla were gone, then he heard cars drive by. Time started again for everyone.