“HER!??” Kim growled at the name written in elegant script in gold letters.
“Who is it, dear?” Layla, Kim’s mother, asked. The mid-40s woman stood at the counter kneading dough when Kim ran in the house waving around a black envelope. The 16-year-old girl tore it open, read the name, and complained.
“Some loser girl from school,” Kim said sourly. She crumpled the black paper and envelope and tossed them into the trash.
“You know I don’t like you talking about your friends like that,” her mother admonished. Kim shrugged and whined some more.
“She’s not my friend. She’s not anybody’s friend. She never talks to anyone at school and never raises her hand in class,” Kim sighed dramatically. “At least she’ll be easy to keep an eye on.”
“It won’t kill you to be nice to someone that’s not in your friend group,” Layla said. “Maybe it’s a good thing you got paired up with her.”
“Doubt it,” Kim grumbled as she walked out of the kitchen. The rest of the night passed uneventfully. The next morning Kim arrived at school 20 minutes earlier than usual. She headed to the cafeteria for the morning meet and greet.
Every day several to dozens of students were paired up. New pairs met at the cafeteria to introduce themselves. She walked in and was immediately inundated with chatter. Kim scanned the crowd. Dozens of students talked and laughed with each other, but in the dimmest corner of the room, a chubby dark-haired girl sat by herself. Her long black hair flowed down in strands and onto the table as her attention was focused downward on a phone between her hands. She wore a black t-shirt with a grim reaper on it and black jeans with several torn holes. Kim gritted her teeth and walked across the lunchroom toward the girl in black.
Kim kept her eyes on the girl as she approached. When she was only a few feet away the girl looked up and met Kim’s eyes; Kim caught a faint acknowledgment in her eyes. Due to the pairing process, she already knew Kim was her partner. After a moment the girl looked back down to her phone.
“Hey, Steph,” Kim said once she reached for the table.
“Hey, Kim,” Steph said without looking up. Kim shrugged and sat down across from her.
“So, we’re partners now,” Kim said.
“Uhuh.” Kim’s frustrations started to grow at Steph’s lack of interest.
“So what do you do all the time, Steph. Do you have any dangerous hobbies? I need to know if I’m going to keep you safe,” Kim said. She noted Steph’s shoulders rose in a faint shrug.
“I play video games,” she said.
“That’s not dangerous,” Kim said sarcastically. For the first time in two years, Kim saw a slight smile flash across Steph’s face before it was replaced by her resting bored face.
“The AlterNet is,” Steph said.
“Alternate what?” Kim asked. She wasn’t a gamer, but she had several friends that were. She managed to keep up to date with the newest and hottest games, but hadn’t heard of this one. Again, Steph smiled.
“It’s actually ‘AlterNet’ as in ‘alternate network’.
“What, like the dark web?” Kim asked. Steph shook her head.
“Not like anything,” Steph said. She glanced around the cafeteria but all the pairs were deep in conversation too with no one paying attention to them. “A network is two computers hooked up together, right?” She asked. Kim nodded.
“Imagine that, but, instead of computers it’s Earths,” Steph said.
“So it’s a network connected to different planets?” Kim asked. Steph shook her head again.
“Not different planets. Different Earths,” she stressed. “Alternate universes exist. The AlterNet is a collection of Alternate Earths linked together. I can travel to them any time I want; it’s pretty amazing out there,” Steph said.
“Figures I’d get a crazy partner,” Kim said to herself. She decided to put the girl on the spot then and there.
“Let’s go, partner!” she said. “I want to see too. Or, let me guess, you can’t because we have school?” Kim said with heavy sarcasm. She was mad at herself more than anything. She believed every word Steph said right up until the moment she mentioned alternate universes. However, she was still mad and still chose to take it out on Steph. Steph shrugged and stood up.
“Nah, we can go,” she said while wiggling her hand at the air. “I’ll just stop time until we get back, partner,” she said with the same level of sarcasm. Two things happened at the same time and Kim wondered if they were related.
A tall black hole opened in the cafeteria next to Steph in more or less the same spot she wiggled her fingers at. The cafeteria also suddenly became quiet; Kim wondered if the black hole somehow drained the sound. She glanced around and noticed students frozen in time. Many mid-word or gesture. Mouths hung open in silence, arms were bent at seemingly unnatural angles and everything was perfectly still.
“YOU CAN STOP TIME!!???” Kim blurted out in surprise. “Since when!?”
“Uh, if I understand it correctly. Since I was born,” Steph said with a chuckle, then she walked through the black hole. Kim hurried to follow her. She emerged on the other side of the portal staring down on a futuristic, neon cityscape. She and Steph stood at the top of a skyscraper.
“This is my favorite place to come think,” Steph said.
“It’s beautiful,” Kim admired the view of the sun setting over the city.
“Yeah, from up here. But you don’t want to go down the tower,” Steph said as she sat down on the rooftop. She asked Kim a question before Kim could ask why they didn’t want to go down the tower.
“What’s your favorite number?” she asked
“34. Why? What’s yours?” Kim asked. Steph smiled.
“14. And, no big reason; I’ve got a friend I want you to meet.”
“You have friends!?” Kim was genuinely surprised, then she half-cringed when she realized how bad it sounded. Luckily, Steph laughed.
“Not on your Earth, but yeah I do on other Earths. Now that we’re partnered up, you’ll get to visit all kinds of places if you want.”
“I do!” Kim eagerly nodded. In the back of her mind, her mother’s voice echoed the words she said yesterday and Kim repeated them sincerely. “I guess it’s a good thing I got paired up with you.”