Sharp Absence

Empty. That was the first word that came to mind when Max shook the woman’s hand. He silently thanked his years of practice for the self-control it took to keep a straight face. He smiled cordially and released the handshake as fast as he could by gesturing at the seat in front of his desk. The pale, lithe woman sat down and Max walked around to take his own seat. The empty sensation lingered in the back of his mind; it felt cold and dark.

“Thank you for seeing me. I’ll get right to the point, Mr. Potter,” the woman said as he took his seat across the desk from her. He was disappointed she didn’t mention her name and hoped it wouldn’t come up. His secretary, Patty, usually left yellow sticky notes with the names of his appointments on his desk, but she was on vacation. Max asked her not to make any appointments while she was gone but this single one was already on the books. One meeting wouldn’t be the end of the world.

“I have a niche that I can fill with your company,” she said. She opened her mouth to say more but Max took the opportunity to jump in.

“Great!” he smiled. He wondered what a soul-less woman wanted with a nation-wide nursery. ‘Soul-less‘. Max realized that was the perfect descriptor for how she felt to him. “We’d love to help you any way we can. What do you need exactly?”

Max Potter built a national chain of nurseries using his secret super-power. Whenever he met someone he immediately knew what they spent most of their time doing. It wasn’t a particularly exciting superpower, but the more he played with it the more he learned about it. He eventually realized he learned what they would rather be doing along with what they spent most of their time doing. That knowledge was the cornerstone of his business. Once his business grew he assigned people to positions they wanted to be in, even if they didn’t know that’s what they wanted.

‘Your company,’ she said. ‘It saves me the trouble of organizing my own.’ Max chuckled to avoid a more obnoxious outburst then shook his head. He worked almost 30 years to get where he was now and that was with the help of his secret ability. Her casual attitude offended him most of all. The dark-haired woman did not look a day over 25. Max doubted she was ever ‘troubled’ by anything. He assumed she bought her way through life in the same way she wanted to buy his company. Max wasn’t particularly sentimental. As hard as he worked to create it he knew he’d sell the company someday. But he could not imagine selling it to someone who probably did not know a thing about the realities of life. He felt relieved that he would not do business with her. He could have refused at any time but he liked to keep a ‘growth mindset’ when it came to his business. Despite how uneasy she made him; if she had good ideas he wanted to listen. His mind continued to tingle from the emptiness he felt in her. He felt a stiff frigidness in his soul.

‘It’ s not for sale, ‘ Max said. The woman smirked.

‘ You haven’t heard my offer yet,’ she replied. Max stood from his desk with a firm shake of his head. He gestured at the door to let her know the meeting was over.

‘No amount of money will change my mind.’ He was relieved when she stood to leave. The meeting was almost over.

‘Money was just a starting point but we can skip to the more interesting exchanges if you like,’ she said as Max reached for the doorknob. He paused, then shook his head and smiled at her.

‘Sorry. Potter Nursery is not for sale. But if it was we’ d only accept money, ‘ he said. Max did not know what other exchanges she had in mind and did not want to waste time finding out. He pulled the door open and was surprised to find another woman standing in the hallway. She looked like a shorter, rounder version of the woman he escorted out.

‘Next one, Melody,’ the tall woman said. The woman in the hallway looked at Max with wide eyes and burst into laughter with less restraint than he showed earlier.

‘Really?’ she asked while wiggling her fingers at the air. A darker-than-black hole opened in the hallway; it looked like what Max felt when he met the woman.

‘He doesn’ t want to sell,’ the woman he met with said. She walked forward and disappeared into the hole.

‘ Wow. I can’t believe you turned down your own Earth,’ the second woman said then walked into the black hole.

Take-out Method

“Mornin’, Goldy,” Shawn smiled at the orb-weaver as he took his seat on the sidewalk. It had been at Shawn’s favorite spot, with its web between a light post and the wall, every morning for a week now. Unlike most people, he didn’t mind spiders. He always felt a sort of connection with them; like them, he had to make his home where he could find it.

As he greeted the spider he saw past its web. A strangely dressed figure walked into Shawn’s view staring at his own hand. He wore an outfit that resembled a police uniform; but, it was entirely white. The man turned to face Shawn’s direction but he kept his eyes on his hand. As he walked closer Shawn noticed a red logo on the front of his uniform where the badge would be. The design looked like an open pair of red scissors pointing downward.

The stranger interested Shawn enough to keep watching him until the man stopped in front of him. The uniformed man looked down at Shawn, then at his hand, then back to the homeless man. A sparkle caught the corner of Shawn’s eye from the man’s hand; he seemed to be holding a cell phone.

“Hi,” he said suddenly. Then he smiled. The action felt like an afterthought to Shawn. “I’m on a schedule, so I’ll keep this short. You get one chance to listen. If you interrupt my offer is withdrawn and I leave. Understand?”

“Sure!” Shawn smiled. He assumed he was about to be pranked in some way and welcomed the entertainment.  The man reached into his uniform pocket and pulled out a small notepad. He wrote something on it, then closed it and handed the pad to Shawn.

“Hold this, don’t read what I wrote yet,” he instructed. Shawn nodded. He hoped it would be a magic trick. “I’m going to ask you a question. I’m looking for a specific answer,” the stranger pointed at the notepad. “If you get the right answer I’ll give you 100 thousand dollars. If I get a different answer,” He shrugged. “You get to keep the notepad.” Shawn sat up straighter to be more attentive.

“Ready? Answer as fast as you can. What’s your favorite number?” he asked.

“33,” Shawn replied. He had never given it any thought, he didn’t know he had a favorite number. But when he answered he sounded like it was the most obvious thing in the world.” The uniformed man nodded at the notepad while he reached into his pocket.

Shawn flipped it open and saw a large 33 scribbled in pen. He scrambled to stand up and noticed the man held a pitch black business card.

“I won!? You’re going to give me money?!” he asked. The man nodded and threw the black card at the wall behind Shawn. A tall black portal opened and four burly uniformed men walked out, two of them holding nets.

“Sorry, I explained that wrong,” the man said. A sinister smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “If you get the right answer I get a 100 thousand dollar bounty.”

“Split five ways,” one of the men said behind Shawn. Then, he blacked out.

Faun & Fowl

Terry chuckled to himself as he pushed the trashcan to the curb. A ruckus filled the night; it came from his neighbor’s trashcan. A short pair of legs in brown leather hung outside of the large black container. The top half of the body seemed to be searching for something inside the can. He thought he saw hooves instead of feet, but it was also two in the morning. Terry assumed it was one of the neighbor’s sons. He was about to call out to the boy but the figure pulled his torso out of the trashcan. His hooves clicked against the street when he landed. Standing on the floor, the figure was only a few inches taller than the trashcan itself.

The streetlamps revealed that it wasn’t a neighbor boy; not a boy at all. He looked like a short, burly, bearded, shirtless man with two small ivory horns growing out the top of his head. The faun looked at Terry then bolted at him.

“AAHH!” Terry yelped and took several steps back. Then he realized the beast-man wasn’t interested in him. He opened Terry’s trashcan and began rummaging around in it.

“Aha!” the faun said with a small, squeaky voice. He threw a chicken bone out of the can and onto the street. “Perfect!” he said. He tossed out several more chicken bones into the growing pile.

“What the hell?” Terry whispered. He made his way to the pile while keeping an eye on the trashcan. Every step Terry took resulted in another chicken bone being ejected from within. “We didn’t eat chicken all week.” As he wondered what it meant the faun hopped out of the trashcan and noticed Terry was close to his pile. The faun waved furry hands at Terry in a “shooing” motion.

“What are you?” Terry asked while obliging the stranger with a backward step. The faun cocked his head at Terry then looked around himself. He looked up and down the dark, lamp-lit street then back to Terry. Their eyes met, then the faun shrugged and bent down to collect his bones.

“I know you understand me,” Terry said. He didn’t know for sure but the creature seemed intelligent enough to converse; to itself at least. The faun shook his head and reached into a leather pack tied to his waist. He pulled out a black card and tossed it on the floor. A pitch black hole, the size of a manhole cover, appeared.

“Don’t question odd happenings,” the faun said. “Don’t forget to take your trash out again.” The faun took a step toward the hole and Terry realized it was about to leave. He needed an answer. Any answer so he could go back to sleep in peace. He shouted out the first thing that came to mind.

“WE DIDN’T EAT ANY CHICKEN!” The faun paused mid-step and smiled.

“The quest says you did,” he said then jumped into the hole.

Open Palm

Pam sighed when she caught her own eye. She sat an outside cafe on a sunny day watching strangers walk by. An errant sun glare forced her to turn her head toward the cafe’s windows. She shook her head in disappointment and let her eyes roam upward. The large golden “1” that floated above her head changed shape and darkened. It became a black 0.

Crap,” she thought while staring at herself. She felt the need to hold her reflection as long as she could. Pam wiggled her seat around without losing sight of herself until she found a comfortable position. She watched the stream of pedestrians pass while keeping herself in her peripheral vision. They all had black “0”s floating above their head too. Pam found it interesting that theirs turned black too. Normally their numbers glowed with a bright purple color; she assumed her number was gold because she was special. She always kept an eye out for other golden numbers but she never saw any.

Until a flash of gold caught her eye from the crowd. It floated low enough that she imagined it belonged to a child. She almost stood up and turned around, but her reflection stopped her. She sighed and relaxed back in her seat. Pam focused on the crowd behind her reflection. As she tried to see any sign of gold something else caught her eye. The crowd was not moving. They looked like they should have been moving; many of their mouths hung open as if in the middle of speaking. They seemed to be frozen in time.

What’s going on?” Pam wondered. She sat still watching herself and the frozen world around her. Gold twinkled in the corner of her eye again. This time it hopped out of the crowd and land on the chair next to her. “WHAT’S GOING ON!?” she shouted when she saw what it was. She was fairly confident she’d lost her mind already.

A sleek black cat sat in the chair next to her. It watched the window meeting Pam’s eyes. She saw a red patch of fur atop its head that looked like a skull. Most important of all, a golden number 14 hovered above its head. Pam was not surprised when the cat replied in English.

“Okay, I’ll keep it short.” the cat said with a soft, feminine voice. She sounded offended. “I’m here to make you a job offer.”

“WhaAAT?” Pam laughed in surprise. Pam was starting to think that she might have died already. Somehow while she was looking at herself. In the last couple of minutes, she saw herself for the last time, kept moving while time was stopped, met a talking cat and will see the cat 14 more times. She shrugged. “Alright, why not? I’m dead or will be soon anyway. What’s the job?”

“Live the life of your dreams,” the cat said.

“You’re going to pay me to live my ideal life?” Pam shook her head. “I’m not quite that gullible, sorry.”

“Of course we wouldn’t pay you, don’t be greedy. The arrangement works like this: You get to live the life of your dreams. We get to study you while you do it.”

“So… what? I have to come in for check-ups and things?” The cat shook her head.

“You seem interested so I’ll give you the full details. First, I didn’t say your ideal life. I said your dream life. That body,” the cat nodded at Pam’s reflection. “is safely stored in our lab while your consciousness gets put in any body you want. Human, elf, gnome, anything you want.”

“Wait a second,” Pam’s eyes narrowed. “You’re recruiting me for a virtual reality MMO?” Even as she asked the question she realized she would be okay with that. She followed it up with another question. “How realistic is it?”

“As real as you feel the world right now.”  Pam’s eyes widened.

“I accept!” she said. Pam smiled at her reflection. She knew it would be the last time she saw that body.

Soul Upgrades

“What do you mean, ‘again’?” Stuart asked Ezey, his caseworker. Stuart sat on the edge of a brown leather sofa seat with a clipboard in his hands.

“This is the fifth time I give you the list,” Ezey shrugged. “It takes a few lifetimes to start remembering.” Stuart glanced at the sheets attached to the clipboard. It was a several-pages-long text list with point values and descriptions assigned to each entry. He flipped the first sheet up and skimmed it, then he flipped it up to glance at the third page. None of it looked familiar to him.

“How many points do I have?” Stuart asked. The highest amount was listed on the first page. It was written out as: “Mundo: 1 trillion”. He was glad he didn’t have to count a string of zeroes.

“Do you want a real answer or just an approximation?”

“Both,” Stuart said. Ezey reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small black notepad. He flipped it open, looked at it, then looked at Stuart.

“Real answer: 239. Approximation: not enough to spend. You can’t afford the first perk yet.”

“239!?’ Stuart asked. He flipped through the sheets until he saw the last entry. It said: “Longevity: 2 thousand.”  “That’s it!? I’ve died five times and I only have 239 points?” Ezey shook his head and smiled.

“This life must’ve been rough on you. This is the fifth time I showed you the list,” he sighed. “But you’re not counting all the times you died before you got to see it the first time. Your tally’s been running since your first life.” The moment Ezey said that Stuart remembered being in that office hundreds of times before. His eyes widened and he looked at Ezey.

“I’ve died more times than I have points?” Ezey nodded.

“Sometimes you lose points. Sometimes you just don’t earn any.”

“How the hell can anyone even get to 1 trillion? What’s the Mundo perk anyway? Is it worth it?”

“Every time we send you back you forget everything. If you’re born a Mundo you have the chance to pick some memories you want to keep. From any of your lives. You’ll have to decide if that’s worth it to you. As for the ‘how’, ” Ezey grabbed the clipboard from Stuart and flipped to the back page. He underlined several entries then handed it back. Stuart looked down at the chosen entries.

There were only two: Longevity and Divine Blessing, but they were listed multiple times on the sheet. Stuart realized they were different ranks of the same perk.

“Think of it as a game. The longer you live the more chances you have for points, right?” Stuart nodded. “Divine Blessing is like a multiplier. Whatever earns you points will earn you even more.”

“Whatever gives me points? Like what?” Stuart smiled at Ezey hoping for a hint but the man shook his head.

“No idea, that’s a different department. So, do you know what you’re saving your points for yet?” Ezey asked. Stuart shook his head.

“Well give it some thought in your next life.” Ezey waved good-bye at Stuart then faded away along with the room. Stuart was surrounded by darkness. Then he was born.

Unique Answer

Billy woke in an instant; his eyes flew open the moment a question popped in his mind. He sat up in his sleeping bag and looked around for Vanilla hoping she had the answer. Vanilla was sitting at the edge of the lake looking through a telescope. It was pointed upward at the purple sky above the orange band of the rising sun. As he stood up to walk to her Billy wondered why time was stopped. He could feel the slight resistance around him as he moved. It felt almost like he was moving in water but not as severe. Despite moving through frozen time often this was the first time he noticed the sensation. Now he had two questions for Vanilla.

His footsteps crushed dozens of twigs and leaves as he walked. Vanilla turned from the telescope to face him. Over the past few months, Billy noticed Vanilla getting sadder. She still made the effort to wear a smile for him, but he could tell it was a mask. That morning the mask was gone entirely. She looked like she’d been crying, but she gave him a friendly, sincere smile when she saw him. She stood up and gestured for him to sit at the telescope.

“You have questions,” she said in a tone that would have made him feel embarrassed if he didn’t. He nodded. Before he could ask Vanilla held her finger up to keep him quiet. “Look through there,” she pointed at the telescope. “Tell me what you see.” Billy leaned into the eyepiece. He saw exactly what he expected to see.

“Black sky and twinkling stars,” he said. He shrugged and leaned back from the eyepiece to look at Vanilla. He felt the resistance of frozen time around him again as he moved. “Heeeeey. How does that work?” he said. Vanilla winked at him.

“There you go,” she said. “Think about that,” she pointed at the sky. “…for a while. We’ll talk about it after your questions. What do you want to know first?” Billy narrowed his eyes and tilted his head.

“Well, now I want to know why you’re so sure I had questions?” He asked. Vanilla nodded.

“That’s a good one,” she said. Vanilla thought for a moment then held her hands out in front of her as if she were holding an invisible box. “Okay, let’s say you have an organized drawer of whatever. Socks, soup cans, a place for everything and everything in its place, right?”  she asked. Billy nodded. “Great, now. One day you go out and buy a lot more stuff. You come home and throw all the new stuff in the box on top of everything that’s already organized. Your plan is to kind of sort it out it little by little every time you reach in the box.”

“No. That’s a horrible plan I’d organize it then and there,” Billy said. He sounded insulted. Vanilla giggled and dropped the invisible box.

“Maybe. The point is that’s how your mind works. Last night you got a lot of new information dumped on your brain. So much that you don’t even know what you know yet. That’s why you have questions.”

“How much could he have known? He wasn’t even Awakened yet.” Billy asked about last night’s victim.

“You absorbed his soul, not his brain,” Vanilla said. “What else is on your mind?” Billy decided to finally ask the question that woke him up.

“What’s the Void?” he asked.

“Ha!” Vanilla laughed then wiggled her fingers at the space between them and opened a small, apple-sized portal. The small black hole hovered in the air facing Billy.

“On the other side of that portal is a different Earth. But to get there we travel through the Void.”

“Huh,” Billy scratched his head. “I was so curious that I thought it’d be more interesting.”

“It is,” Vanilla said. “but you’ve never heard of her.” Billy swiveled his head around to scan the lakeshore but did not see anyone.

“Her who?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you right now, but this is a fantastic learning opportunity,” Vanilla said. She placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled down at him. She did not look as sad as a few minutes ago. “Last night you learned something you didn’t already know. When you asked about the Void that was the first in a long line of questions that won’t end until you hear her name.” Vanilla tapped his forehead. “And then you’ll have a million more. So I want you to pay attention to how you feel when I say it. Okay?” she asked. Billed looked up at her and nodded, then he closed his eyes to listen.

“Ready,” he said.

“Ballisea.”

Hellish Offer

“Looks like I win,” Satan winked at the young woman in front of h”Very well come with me.”

“Yes!” Julie cheered and gave Satan a high-five. Her other two friends, Eric and Arthur both grumbled at the loss.

“Wait!” Arthur interrupted. “How did you win?” Satan turned around; his tall black horns scratched the low stone ceiling. He smiled at Arthur.

“You set a win condition for your team…,” he gestured at Arthur and Eric. “…and a lose condition for mine,” the red giant patted Julie on the shoulder. “If you didn’t win, you lost. If we didn’t lose, we won.” He looked at Julie, then back to Arthur. “If you don’t want to watch what happens to her I can arrange someone to take you and Eric shopping. You can come back when it’s your turn.”

“No thanks,” Arthur said. He stepped forward and grabbed Julie’s hand. “She’s not leaving my sight.”

Arthur,” Julie whined with a whisper. “Don’t be rude,” she said.

“It’s okay, Julie,” Satan said. He turned again and walked toward the office door. “Arthur just needs time to come around,” he said over his shoulder as he led the three friends out of the office. Satan led them through a narrow maze of similar looking office doors. Each door had a small window next to it and Arthur peered inside each room as they walked by. The rooms appeared to be cramped cubicles; each occupied by a person in a suit sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen.

“Are they keeping score? You talked about that earlier. And you said something about rules too,” Arthur asked. The devil stopped in his tracks and turned around to face the trio. They were huddled together in the narrow hall with Julie between Eric and Arthur. Satan smiled at all three of them.

“Only Hell’s employees get that information,” he said. Eric cleared his throat and pointed upward. “And some of the MiddleMen too,” Satan grumbled.

“Who’re the MiddleMen?” Julie asked. She did not have as much concern as Arthur, but the name piqued her interest.

“Okay, one thing at a time,” Satan held his hands up in front of him in a “whoa” gesture. He pointed at Julie.

“Our team won the coin-toss so you get the first pick. That was just to pick out your Unique Soul, but I have a better offer.” He stepped forward and wrapped his arm around Eric.

“My boy’s gonna take over and he needs reliable support. How would you two like to be demons?” he asked with a large grin. “You still get to choose first,” he said to Julie.

“No way!” Arthur responded first and took a step back. He tried pulling Julie back with him, but she did not move.

“Can we still be Uniques?” Julie asked. Satan nodded.

“Not only that, but you’ll get all the answers,” Satan said.

“You’re not gonna like them,” Eric added with a somber tone.

Offering Hand

Robert did not waste time debating. Once he heard the human voice he decided to open the door. The pizza seemed like a bonus. He turned the handle and pulled open the heavy metal door. A teenage girl with long silver hair stood outside his door. A teenage boy with short dark hair stood next to her; he held a pizza box with one hand and a large soda with the other.

“5k,” The girl smiled and held her palm out. Robert caught the meaty scent of the pizza and erupted into nervous laughter. He became very aware that he might have gone crazy. He shook his head while grinning and giggling. If he was insane he reasoned he could at least enjoy the absurdity of the situation.

“I didn’t order a pizza,” he said. Her smiling face soured and she turned to the boy.

“I told you it was the wrong place,” she said. He shrugged in return but his face softened. He gave her a sincere look.

“Fine, you’re right. It’s harder than I thought. Alright, let’s go back and find the right place. You open it this time,” he said.

“‘Kay. Gimme the card,” she held her hand out at the boy. Robert began to feel ignored. He wondered if it was normal for his own delusions to ignore him and began to consider they were real. He was about to interject but he saw a look of panic flash over the boy’s face. He looked behind himself then back to her.

“You always reclaim it…,” he said.

“I always reclaim it because I’m the one that always opens it,” she said sternly. “You open it, you close it,” she sighed. “I’ll get us a ride back.” The girl reached into her pocket and pulled out a small, transparent rectangle. It was as thin as a playing card; its surface became a display as she tapped away at it.

“Are you… real?” Robert asked during the lull in their conversation. The girl brought the glass card to her ear like a phone but pointed at Robert.

“Talk to him. He can have the pizza if he’s hungry,” she turned away and started talking to someone else. The boy shrugged and walked up to Robert.

“Hey, I’m Kirk. How’s it going?”

“Hi, Kirk. I’m Robert. I’m the last living thing on Earth and I’m probably going to die in a couple of weeks. At the most.” Kirk nodded casually.

“Bummer. Uh… want some pizza?” he offered the box up. Robert looked at the box, then at Kirk.

“Who are you kids? Where did you come from?” Kirk lifted the box slightly to draw attention to it.

“We’re here to deliver.” He pointed at the “M” logo made from three pizza slices, two upside-down with a third in the middle, on the box. “We came from Mundo’s Pizza.” Robert clenched his fists to keep his growing annoyance in check; he got the impression that the boy could not help how obtuse he was. Luckily the silver-haired girl joined them.

“Torque’s coming,” she said.

“From where!?” Robert asked her; he hoped she would be more helpful. She shrugged.

“Don’t know. I didn’t talk to her but the message will get passed along.” Robert took a deep breath to calm himself down.

“There is no one else alive on this Earth,” he said while looking directly into her eyes. “Where did you come from?” She smiled.

“A different Earth, duh,” she chirped.

“That’s what I told him,” Kirk added. A tall black hole opened behind Kirk.

“Move it!” A stern female voice shouted from the hole.

“Here, keep it,” Kirk started to push the pizza box at Robert while the girl started toward the black portal.

“Wait!” Robert said. “Are you guys just gonna leave me here?” The pair looked at each other and shrugged.

“Do you not want to be?” the girl asked. Kirk kept walking and disappeared into the portal. Robert shook his head.

“No, of course not. Who would?”

“People,” she shrugged. “Well if you don’t want to stay come on. We’ll put you somewhere else,” she said then turned to walk into the portal. Robert followed her carrying his pizza.

Stellar Assassin

“You didn’t pay for the kid too,” Graham informed the voice on the phone. The contact on his phone said “Work” but it was always a different “Boss” that called. He sat in his car in a grocery store parking lot looking over the file but stopped at the mention of a son on the first page.

“Clerical error,” his boss this time said. “Her kid died last week, this one should be easy, she’s probably ready to off herself.” That gave Graham a moment of pause; he knew he was being paranoid but it came with the job.

“If it’s so easy why aren’t you using one of your cheaper thugs?”

“Easy does not mean unimportant. It’s imperative that she disappears by tomorrow night. The peace of mind I get is worth your fee.”

“24 hours is pretty short notice too…,” Graham said. He hadn’t planned on renegotiating but he learned to recognize opportunities. This boss was in a hurry and Graham’s reputation was already worth a high price. Luckily the man wasn’t new.

“The sooner the better. Get it done today and you’ll get triple. Otherwise, you already agreed to the price.”

“Today it is,” Graham replied then hung up. He glanced at the time as he dropped his phone in the cup holder. 5:38 p.m.  “Crap I didn’t know it was that late already,” he whined to himself as he started the car. He knew where to find her, but he had other details to sort out first.

Four hours later Graham was grateful his target was a waitress at an all-night diner. He hoped to get a meal and finish his job at the same time. He was surprised at how empty the diner was. He picked a booth and sat down to wait. After several moments a short, dark-haired, tired woman with dark bags under her eyes walked up to his table. She gave him a polite, forced, business smile.

“Evening.” she pointed to her name tag. “I’m Justine and I’ll be your waitress tonight. What can I can get you?”

“Oh,” Graham realized he hadn’t even looked at the menu yet. He had been trying to guess how many other people were in the restaurant that he couldn’t see. If it stayed as empty as it was he would have no problems. He decided to work first and eat later. “Actually, Justine, can I talk to you for a bit?” he asked. “I’ve got something on my mind and I think you can help.” He glanced around the mostly empty dining room. “If you’re not too busy,” he added with a smile.

“Sure, what’s going on?” she asked. Graham hoped she would slide into the seat across from him but she remained standing by the table.

“This is gonna sound weird, but I’m not asking you for anything,” Graham said. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wallet. He thumbed through it to show her several hundred dollar bills. “I’m not crazy or poor or anything, I’m just in a unique situation. If you can’t, or don’t want to help me that’s entirely fine,” Graham shrugged. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you, really. I just feel like I have to.” Justine nodded obligatorily as she listened.

“So you gonna keep telling me about it or tell me what the deal is?” she asked.

“I have a special power,” Graham said. Justine’s eyes narrowed and she smirked but he kept talking. “I can travel to alternate universes.” Justine’s eyes lit up and she smiled broadly at him.

“And you came to this diner? Why thank you so much!” she said. It took Graham longer than he wanted to admit to realize she was mocking him. He expected it, but her tone sounded so sincere he almost fell for it.

“Well, that’s not the main issue anyway. It’s just to give you context. The trouble is I found an orphaned kid,” Graham said. He reached into his coat pocket for his cell phone. “Normally, I keep my nose out of the happenings on other Earths, but something about this kid made me want to help him.” Graham shrugged and took a moment to notice Justine. She was hanging on every word; she bought it. “Kind of the same feeling that’s got me telling you, I guess. I don’t question it much,” he rubbed the back of his neck for show. Graham saw the spark of hope in her eyes, he’d seen that hope dozens of times before. He glanced at the time: 10:03 p.m, then unlocked the phone. He navigated to the gallery then a young boy with dirty blond hair appeared on the screen. It was a video; he tapped the button to start it.

“My name is Jeremy Stevens. I’m nine years old and Mr. Graham…,” the boy pointed at the screen. Graham turned the phone around to wave at the camera then focused it back on the boy. “… said he could help me find a new mommy. He said he’s going to show this video around. Will you be my new mommy?” the boy asked. Justine fell to her knees and began sobbing on the floor. Graham rushed up to help her; he had to pretend he didn’t expect it.

“What’s wrong? You okay? He asked as he helped the trembling woman up and into the nearby booth. He glanced around the restaurant but no one noticed the commotion.

“I’ll do it. I want to be his new mom,” she said. Graham was thankful she did not start talking about what happened to her Jeremy.

“No, don’t worry about it,” Graham said as he sat across from her. She started wiping her tears as they came. “I know a place that can take him in.”

“Please,” she said. “You showed me. You said so yourself you don’t know why. You were supposed to. I can be his mom.” Graham shrugged.

“Well, that makes my job easy. Great. I guess you need, what… turn in your two weeks and pack and say your good-byes?” He said. Graham deliberately gave her a long time-line. She violently shook her head.

“Tonight. Can you bring him tonight?” Graham did not have to laugh. He was waiting for that question to move things along; but, he still wanted to get her back for her mockery earlier. He laughed obnoxiously hard in her face.

“He’s nine. He can’t travel between universes,” he lied. “You have to go to his Earth,” he waved at her. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just random kid from a parallel Earth. You’ve got a lot going on here, I’m sure. He’ll be fine.”

“I need to see him tonight. I don’t have anyone to say goodbye to. I don’t care about this job. Can we go tonight? Please?” Graham made a show of looking at the clock on his phone. then he turned to her.

“We’d have to go right now. I’ve got other plans later. If not tonight Then tomorrow, or whenever,” he said.

“Tonight. Right now,” Justine stood up.

“Right now it is,” Graham said. he stood from the booth and wiggled his fingers at the air. A tall black portal opened in the air and Graham gestured at Justine. “Ladies first.”

Question of Importance

“You liked to me for seven years…,” Jay said. After his wife revealed her secret he needed some air and walked out to their balcony. She followed him to try and clear the air; she did not think it was that big a deal. Jay stared out at the swimming pool under the balcony while he tried to make sense of the latest complication in his life.

“I didn’t lie,” Cammie shrugged and pushed against Jay playfully. “I just didn’t mention it. I keep telling you it’s not important.”

“It’s called lying by omission,” he said sternly. “and not important?  You’re from an alternate universe!” he shrugged. “Were you ever gonna tell me?” A kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttered between them as locked eyes. The flapping reds and golds suddenly made Jay curious about her Earth. Did they have butterflies there? Did they call them butterflies? He hoped their relationship survived this reveal; he wanted to know all about her Earth.

“If we’re counting lies of omission I guess it’s a good thing you started talking to me about work, right?” Cammie asked with a raised eyebrow.

“That’s different, it’s work.” Cammie shook her head. “Orders are orders.”

“So it’s okay if the United States government gives you permission to lie to me?”

“What?” Her logic made Jay shake his head. “No, it’s just an entirely different situation. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel about you.”

“Right, so we agree? As long as we love each other the details don’t matter.”  Cammie said. Jay didn’t know exactly what happened but he felt like the discussion was over and he lost somehow.

“You’re from another universe!” he repeated his only valid point. Cammie nodded.

“And?” she asked.

“Do you have butterflies there?” he asked.