Forgotten Truth

“I found mail!” Denise giggled. The blonde 6-year-old pulled an old, yellowing letter out of the oversized army jacket she wore. Dennis, her grandfather and namesake, sat up in his recliner with interest. He’d given her permission to go through some of his old things. He thought he checked everything carefully but the letter surprised him.

“Hold on there, soldier,” he said using his stern, military voice. “I need to make sure there’s no classified information on it,” Dennis said. He held his palm out to wait for her to give him the letter. He was more concerned about her accidentally reading something too adult for her young eyes, than any classified secrets. He didn’t immediately recognize the letter and considered it might have been from an old flame.

Denise gave a messy salute, then placed the letter in his hand. Dennis loved babysitting her because of how easy she was. He didn’t know if she was his favorite grandchild because of her temperament; or, if he had an easier time because she was his favorite. In the end, it didn’t matter. Out of his seven grandkids, Denise was the only one that visited with any regularity.

Dennis looked at the letter and found it addressed to him, from him. A vague memory sparked to life in the back of his mind and he chuckled.

“I know what this is,” he said with a smile. He leaned back on the recliner and patted his lap. Denise climbed on while Dennis pulled out the letter. “A long long time ago I wrote a letter to my future self; and, here I am in the future,” he said with a broad smile. “Wanna see what little me had to say?” he asked.

“Yes!” Denise nodded eagerly. Dennis took his time unfolding the letter, then putting on his reading glasses.

“Dear future me… you’re old! HA HA HA,” he read dryly with a shake of his head. Denise couldn’t help but giggle. “But, seriously…,” he continued. “Everything changes tomorrow. I’m actually a little bit nervous.”

“Oh no…,” Denise grabbed her grandpa’s free hand and squeezed it for comfort. “You’re okay,” she said.

“I am,” he replied with a smile, then he focused on the letter again. “Jake and the guys think I’m worrying over nothing, but I don’t know.”

“Who’s Jake?” Denise interrupted.

“Ohhhh, he’s an old old friend. I almost don’t remember him anymore. We lost touch during the war…,” Dennis replied. The truth was he couldn’t remember anyone by that name. But, it wasn’t an important detail and Denise wouldn’t know the difference. He didn’t feel like venturing too far into past. Mostly because he couldn’t remember much of it. He resumed reading.

“I don’t know. It’s only natural to be scared of the unknown. Even if other people do it all the time, it’s new to me. I hope by the time I’m you, I can say I had a good time.” Dennis put his arm around Denise and pulled her closer; he was confident that he did indeed have a good time. At least, after the war.

“But, speaking of good times. The real reason for this letter is very important. They say it’s impossible to forget…,” Dennis couldn’t help but nod. Some of the things he saw, and did, during the war would never be forgotten. “…but nothing is foolproof. And I’m sure you know what a fool we are.” Denise burst into giggles.

“FOOOL!” she shouted. Dennis chuckled and kept reading.

“So, I’m writing this to remind you in case we forget. It’s not…,” Dennis stopped reading aloud. He continued to scan the letter.

“It’s not what, grandpa?” Denise asked. The polite girl even waited for a few seconds of silence before she interrupted. Dennis shook his head and gave her a big smile.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Dennis said. “Someday you’ll have a beautiful, wonderful grandchild that you love more than all the others. The end,” he said aloud without taking his eyes off hers.

“Little you was boring, grandpa,” Denise giggled. “Is it lunchtime yet?” Dennis nodded.

“Yeah. But, go change. We’re going out for pizza,” he said. Denise jumped off his lap in a flash and dashed out of the room while screaming.

“PIIIIIIIZZZZZAAAAAAaaa!” Dennis watched her leave the room and waited for a few moments. Then, he stood up from his chair, leaving the letter behind. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. After a long exhale, he spoke.

“Slate,” he said. It was a word he’d said probably dozens if not hundreds of times in his 75 years; but, this time there was a different intention behind it. A transparent glass pane appeared and hovered in the air in front of him. It displayed a wide variety of info about him but the thing that stood out the most was a round, red-glowing button on the bottom corner. It said [Logout]. Dennis began to weep as he realized what the letter said was true.

“It’s not real…”

Vampire by Starlight

“Fourth!?” Victoria asked with wide eyes. “That’s super high,” she added with a shake of her head. Her violet bangs wobbled with the motion. She met her date at the coffee shop and they easily settled into a conversation. It didn’t take too many questions from her to land on the topic of vampires. Wendell surprised her when he mentioned they were the fourth leading cause of death.

“Well, vampires are apex predators. I’m surprised ‘death by a vampire’ isn’t number one,” Wendell said. He was slightly annoyed when Victoria pulled out her phone and began texting while he was talking. He guessed she was arranging an emergency to leave the date; she wouldn’t be the first one to skip out early. Her phone appeared more advanced than any he’d seen, but his feelings were too bruised to give it much attention.

“Everything okay?” he asked. She nodded but continued typing for half a minute before she looked up again.

“Sorry, work stuff. This place is great,” Victoria said. She slipped her phone back into her purse then gave Wendell her attention again.

“So,.. you’re not leaving?” He asked. Victoria shook her head again.

“No. Why, do you need to leave?” she asked.

“No no,” Wendell said. He realized he needed an excuse to keep from sounding too insecure. A quick glance through the window at the night sky gave him an idea. “It’s just that, in the past, any time I mention that fact at night my dates suddenly realize how dangerous vampires are and hurry to get home.”

“Oh,” Victoria giggled. “Vampires aren’t dangerous; they’re just hungry. Though, maybe it’s just me that isn’t threatened by them,” she added with a confident smirk.

“Oh?” Wendell asked. He smiled at her and his voice took on an amused quality. “You’re not scared of vampires?” Victoria giggled again.

“If I was, I would’ve left already,” she said. Wendell’s smile grew broader. He laughed to himself when he realized she was talking about the night waiting outside. It wasn’t particularly late, but the sun was gone so the streets were empty.

“Yeah, I guess you are brave being out after dark,”  he added. He once had a date tell him the danger of meeting after dark made it more exciting.

“Oh, I don’t care about that,” she said. “I meant because you’re a vampire.”

“Huh?” Wendell was too surprised to offer a more cohesive thought. She was the first one to identify him before he revealed himself. Not that it was soon enough to save her. The coffee shop itself was run by vampires and most everyone in there at the moment was one. A few brought dates for dinner like Wendell had. He felt lucky that her voice wasn’t loud enough to alarm any others; and, he hoped to play it off. “What do you mean?” he asked. Victoria smiled and golden stars began to glow in her eyes.

“I can see you,” she said. Though, she leaned over the table and deliberately kept her voice low. “I can see all of you,” she said as she scanned the coffee shop around them. Wendell’s stomach dropped. She obviously wasn’t normal. She said she wasn’t afraid of vampires, and knowingly stayed in their company. He leaned back in his chair with his face whiter than it normally was.

“What are you?” he asked. Victoria smiled.

“Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” she said. “You don’t know what that means yet, but you will soon,” she added.

“I know Spanish,” Wendell replied curtly. He was usually the one surprising his dates and he was eager to defend his honor. “Estrella means star,” he said. The golden stars faded from her eyes, but Wendell was still trying to make sense of what she said. “You have the soul of a star?” He asked while still trying to sound confident in his conclusion.

“Not exactly,” Victoria shook her head. “It’s more like my soul is tied to a star.” She held her hand out with the palm facing up and it immediately began to glow with a soft blue light. “Gimme your hand,” she said. Though, he didn’t have a chance to pull away because she grabbed his hand at the same time she asked. She placed his hand hovering over her blue palm.

“It’s hot!” he yanked his hand away as if from a flame. Victoria nodded.

“That’s my star. I can use its energy any time I need to; and even better, I don’t die until it does. Or someone kills me, but that’s pretty hard,” she smiled. Her confidence rubbed Wendell the wrong way; he was supposed to be the one scaring her. He was the apex predator. He fumed silently while she continued the conversation.

“Anyway, things are about to change big time… probably in the next week or so,” Victoria said.

“Why?’ Wendell asked dryly.

“I texted my boss about this Earth. Once Sharp Medical Services sets up here you won’t have to hunt humans anymore. You’ll be able to get blood from one of our blood banks. And society can move forward without everyone trying to kill each other.” Wendell snapped and leaped into action. In the blink of an eye, he appeared next to Victoria and lifted her out of the booth by her neck. His eyes glowed red while he bared his fangs at her.

“What if we like killing?” he asked with a sinister smile and began to squeeze her neck. He was used to women fighting him off, but he did not expect a blue glowing palm to strike his cheek. He was surprised for a moment because it felt more like she was offended than fighting for her life. Then, the slap began to burn as intense as sunlight. He dropped her to rub his cheek, but his hand also began to burn. He looked at it in panic and saw what looked like brilliant blue napalm burning through his hand.

“If you like killing, then you have problems,” Victoria said. She grabbed her purse while ignoring his panic and turned to leave. But she left Wendell with some reassurance. “Don’t worry, Sharp Medical Services also offers therapy.”

Fishy Environment

“Ow!” Nick immediately began rubbing his shoulder to ease the pain. “What was that for?”

“Your stupid prank,” Fran replied. The mid-40s researcher threw a USB drive at Nick’s face before turning around to head above deck. Nick recognized the bright red USB, but he didn’t bother picking it up. Instead, he stopped Fran from leaving with a hand on her shoulder.

“What prank?” he asked. “Was it really morse code?” He was glad to see she stayed.

“Nu uh,” she said. She whirled around with an angry tone in her voice; but, Nick recognized the fear in her soft brown eyes. He’d only seen her genuinely scared a few times in her life. She was usually the calm and collected one of the pair. The few times she was notably scared turned out to be for good reason. “Stop it. You know being out here alone is almost too much for me; you’re sleeping on the floor tonight,” she replied.

“What are you talking about?” he asked. Nick hoped to see her calm down a bit. Instead, her eyes grew wider and more fearful. Even her bottom lip trembled slightly.

“Swear to me right now. Swear on our marriage that this isn’t a prank,” she said.

“How would I even-,” His protests were interrupted.

“SWEAR!” she shouted. Her own outburst seemed to surprise her and she closed her eyes for a moment to breathe. They’d had plenty of arguments over their 20-year marriage. They knew how to get through them quicker by now. She seemed calmer when she opened her eyes again. “You knew we were coming out here. You could have gotten one of your students to edit some stock cuttlefish footage,” Fran shrugged.

“I don’t know how you could have done it. I need you to swear. Because there’s no coming back from this one if you keep pushing it. Now’s your chance to come clean; if I find out later it was a prank we’re done.”

Nick had no idea what the message could have been to frighten her more than he’d ever seen. The lesson he learned early on in their marriage was that he’d rather be married than right. Some things just weren’t worth arguing over. He considered the blinking cuttlefish as just a ‘neat thing’ he wanted to share with his wife. The patterned blinking made him think of her and when he handed her the footage he thought it’d be funny to mention, “I think it might be morse code.”

Whatever it was, it wasn’t more important to him than she was. And even if it frightened her, they were heading back to civilization in the morning and could avoid the ocean for a while. Nick forced out a deep sigh, then hung his head for added effect.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You figured it out exactly, one of my students put it together.” Nick was glad to see that all her fear evaporated immediately; but, the anger still remained.

“You’re still sleeping on the floor,” she said. Nick nodded.

“I deserve it,” he lied. It was worth the playful smirk on her face. But, Nick didn’t want to let it go at that if he could.

“But, I didn’t lie about not knowing what it said,” he added. “I just told him, ‘make it something spooky’. What was it?” he asked.

“You better fail that little ass for scaring the hell out of me,” she said. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small notepad. She shoved it against Nick’s chest hard enough to push him a few steps, then turned around to leave.

The notepad was already open to the latest page covered with dots, dashes, and her handwriting.

“If you’re reading this I can help you escape the simulation.”

Recording. Ruined.

“To second chances,” Dr. Clark raised her glass of champagne.

“To second chances,” the gathered scientists raised their own glasses to the toast.

“I hope we get one,” Dr. Clark added quietly to herself before she emptied the glass in one chug. Then, she put on a smile and nodded at the group. The brightest minds on Earth gathered in a cave seven miles below the surface. The most powerful weapons they could create, two solar cannons, were pointed at the center of the cave.

Their target was a bald, broad-shouldered pale man that sat on a stone throne. His eyes were open but he hadn’t moved or even breathed in the past month. A message carved into the side of the throne informed them of the exact time the figure would wake up, 12:00p.m. It also included some helpful advice. Most notably: “Don’t be on Earth when he wakes up.” The message also told the scientists that the hairless figure was a powerful creature of the night. With nothing else to work with, Dr. Clark decided he was a vampire based solely on the tattoo atop its head. It was a large bat skull with fangs and a blood-red number 42.

His discovery raised impossible questions. Where did he get such a professional tattoo a million years ago? How did they count to 42? Who sealed him for a million years? How did they know what calendar would be in use, to predict the exact date and time? But, Dr. Clark needed to prioritize survival above all else. She only had a month and called in every favor and contact she had.

Once the group was formed they tried everything from priests to garlic to end the threat. Nothing affected the figure. They couldn’t penetrate his skin with silver bullets, much less wood. Desperation forced the scientists to conceive a way to store and fire concentrated sunlight. Unfortunately, they only managed to complete them on the day of awakening. The cannons were untested and Dr. Clark decided not risk them misfiring and destroying themselves. She hoped she could somehow reason with the figure, using the cannons for intimidation.

“Lights on,” Dr. Clark said. Immediately the dozen industrial UV lights surrounding the cave flickered on. She hoped they weakened the figure, even if they couldn’t tell. She was also banking on him being weak after a million-year hibernation. “Close the doors,” she said.

“Why are you staying?,” her assistant, Mike, said. He tilted his head towards the exit where the rest of the scientists were filing out. “Why not try talking to him from the control room?” Dr. Clark shook her head with a faint, sad smile.

“I’m in charge, I get to be selfish,” she said. “I’m not convinced those doors will slow him down, much less stop him from getting to the control room. If I can’t reason with him…,” she shrugged. “…I won’t have to deal with even a second of guilt for failing you.” Dr. Clark gave Mike a gentle shove towards the half-closed doors. “Hurry up, they’re waiting for you,” she said. Mike gave her a hug, then dashed out the door.

Dr. Clark sighed to herself and sat on a chair between the solar cannons. 10 feet in front of the seated figure. She stared at her watch for two minutes while counting down. With ten seconds left she focused on him.

Despite feeling ready for anything, Dr. Clark jumped in her seat when the cave filled with the sudden sound of the figure inhaling deeply. He exhaled with force, then loudly filled his lungs again, then, he laughed.

“I’ll tell ya, doc,” he said. His eyes focused on Dr. Clark; his chest was heaving with deep breaths. “I didn’t need to breathe… but I missed the hell out of it,” he chuckled. He leaned back on his stone throne and smiled at her while still enjoying heavy use of his lungs.

Dr. Clark was shocked he spoke English, and seemed to know who she was.

“Who are you?” she asked. She practiced a series of questions in several languages; but, English made things easier.

“Name’s Ruin,” he said with a slight forward tilt of his head. “Pleased to meet you, Doc Clark.”

“How’d you know my name?” Dr. Clark was thankful for English; that wasn’t a question she prepared.

“I didn’t need to breathe because my body was time-locked,” Ruin said. “But, my eyes, ears, and mind still worked; she made sure I could reflect on my actions. You finding me was the first light I saw in a million years. And it’s been fun watching you all scurry around trying to kill me,” he chuckled.

“Who froze you in time? Why?”

“Vanilla,” a new voice startled Dr. Clark again. She suddenly realized a young man stood next to her. She glanced at the doors but they were still closed. The new stranger wore a white suit with an orange tie. He stared down at Dr. Clark through rounded spectacles. “Her name was Vanilla,” he said, then faced Ruin.

“Do I know you?” Ruin asked the man. He shook his head.

“I’m here in Vanilla’s place; and, I’m impressed she’s…,” the suited stranger gestured at Dr. Clark. “…still alive. You’ve been free for a whole minute.” Ruin shrugged.

“You’ll have to thank Vanilla for me. I really appreciate getting the time to think.” The stranger nodded.

“That’s enough for probation at least. Though, I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Where to?” he asked. Ruin stood from his throne and walked towards them. Dr. Clark tensed, but she tried to keep her wits about her. It sounded like he had plenty of time to kill her already if he wanted to.

“I want a nice vacation. In the woods, I miss nature,” he said. The stranger raised his hand and a pitch-black portal appeared between Ruin and Dr. Clark.

“Good luck, doc,” Ruin said. He nodded at her, then disappeared into the portal. The darkness swallowed him, then disappeared.

“Who are you?” Dr. Clark asked. “Where’d he go?”

“I’m Billy,” he added a curt bow to his introduction. “He went to another Earth.” Billy smiled, then another black portal opened next to him.

“Wait!” Dr. Clark jumped to her feet. “What’s going on? Who’s Vanilla?” Billy gave her a smile.

“She was the best,” he said. Then, Dr. Clark blinked. When she opened her eyes she was alone in the cave.

“Whoa! Where’d he go? Did we fail?” Mike’s voice over the speakers startled Dr. Clark. Once she got her bearings she started walking towards the exit hoping it would be open soon.

“I don’t know, we’ll have to check the video frame by frame.”

“What video?” Mike asked as she heard movement on the other side of the doors.


“Record what?” Mike asked. “He disappeared at 12 instead of waking up.”

“What?” Dr. Clark glanced at her watch. 12:00:31 p.m.

In the Spotlight

“Why?” A young woman with a light brown ponytail asked.

“Huh?” Kate looked up. She was surprised to see someone, anyone, standing close enough to talk to her. Kate sat on a park bench wondering just how much more of life she could take. It was a cool, sunny Friday morning. It was objectively a beautiful day but Kate was too busy lamenting her problems to notice. She also didn’t notice that she spoke aloud.

“You said you wish you were never born,” the woman said. “Why is that?” Kate sighed. She didn’t want pity; but, at the same time, she felt like she really needed it. Maybe a kind word from a stranger would help her get back on a positive track.

“Because I feel like I don’t matter,” Kate lowered her eyes to stare at the cement path. “Never have, never will…,” she whined. Kate hoped for kindness. Or at the very least, a warm smile before the young woman moved on from the sad sack on the park bench. Instead, she got a hearty laugh in exchange for opening up. Not only that, the stranger decided Kate was entertaining enough to sit down next to her.

“You don’t!” the stranger said with glee after her initial outburst died down. Then, for some reason, she extended a hand at Kate. “I’m Elsa,” she said.

“Kate,” she tentatively shook Elsa’s hand. Sure, Elsa made fun of her; but, she was also the only person that seemed interested in having a conversation with Kate in the past year. And, Kate wasn’t a stranger to abusive relationships; assuming Elsa wanted a friend at all.

“Thanks for the pep talk,” Kate added. “I feel so much better.” Elsa continued to giggle.

“No, really,” Elsa said. Her giggles died down but she maintained a broad grin and amused, sparkling eyes. “You want me to prove it?” she asked. If Kate had not already been contemplating suicide, that question might have raised an eyebrow. Instead, she felt like she had nothing to lose.

“Sure,” she shrugged. “Show me how unimportant I am.”

“You got it,” Elsa snapped her fingers. Then, Kate blinked. She found herself in a hospital room. A younger version of her father held the hand of a younger, screaming, version of Kate’s mother.

“PUSH!” her father yelled, then, everyone froze and the room went quiet.

“This is the moment of your birth,” Elsa said. Kate stared at her unmoving parents, then looked at Elsa.

“How….who or what are you?” Kate asked. She was willing to accept that she may have gone crazy at the park. Or that maybe, she accomplished what she planned to do that day and this was just some version of her life flashing before her eyes. But, Elsa was there to talk to, so she asked her.

“That’s kind of an involved answer,” Elsa said. “For now, the easy explanation is, I’m Death.”

“Death, huh?” Kate couldn’t not believe her; she was standing in the past at the moment of her birth. “It’s about time. I’ve been hoping you’d show up,” Kate said, she almost smiled at her own joke.

“And, I did!” Elsa laughed.

“But, I wanted to never be born,” Kate said. “Killing me at birth just feels mean to my parents,” she said.

“I’m not killing you. I’m showing you why you don’t matter,” Elsa replied. She reached forward and grasped at nothing in the air. Kate didn’t see how it happened but the moment Elsa closed her hand she held a long pitch-black scythe. Then, she walked closer to Kate’s mother and placed the flat side of it on her mother’s stomach.

After a moment, Elsa flipped the scythe over and rested the other flat end on Kate’s mom. When she was satisfied, Elsa lifted the scythe and returned to Kate’s side. The room roared to life again as Kate’s mother continued her labor.

“And there you go, you’re never born. Let’s see how this turns out,” Elsa said. A dozen questions flooded Kate’s mind but she was distracted by a sudden blink. When she opened her eyes she was in her childhood room. It looked different, but she recognized the peeling wallpaper and stained brown carpet. She was surprised to see her 8-year-old self walk into the room. The little girl dropped a pile of clothes on the floor, then dashed out of the room again.

“You said I was never born…,” Kate said.

“And you weren’t,” Elsa replied. “She was, whoever she is.”

“That’s me!” Kate said.

“Oh, damn. I might’ve done something wrong. Are you sure that’s you? Were you this messy as a child?” Elsa asked. The clothes on the floor fit in well the decor of everything else being on the floor too.

“God no, I always kept things tidy,” Kate replied. Which was true. It was why she chose to go to the park that day; she did not want to leave a mess behind in her apartment.

“Then, it’s not you,” Elsa replied.

“But she looks just like me!”

“Really?” Elsa asked. She tried to sound surprised, but Kate got the impression she was putting on a show. “Let’s check again a bit later.” Kate blinked again. This time she opened her eyes to her own wedding.

“Yeah…I guess she does kind of look like you,” Elsa said while appraising the bride in all black.

“Black wedding dress? What’s wrong with her?” Kate asked. “I can’t believe Jeff married someone that would wear a black wedding dress.”

“You mean he’s not marrying you?” Elsa asked. Her voice carried a hint of smugness, but, Kate was okay with that. She started to feel like she was understanding Elsa’s lesson.

“So…, my parents had a baby. And that baby is going to marry Jeff no matter what? Whether or not my soul is in that baby?” Kate offered her guess. Elsa smiled, then Kate blinked. They were back at the park and Elsa’s scythe was gone.

“I wouldn’t say ‘no matter what’,” Elsa said once Kate got her bearings. “But for the most part, yeah. It’s not something I go around talking about, but I think it’ll help you. Time is kind of like TV show. Before you see it, the route to the end is already planned out. If someone doesn’t show up, they get replaced.”

“So, nothing I do matters?” Kate asked.

“Not really, no. Life goes on.”

“Then, what’s the point?”

“There isn’t one,” Elsa said with a large grin. “That’s why you get to make up your own.”

“But what if-,” Kate’s question was interrupted.

“What if what?” she asked. “I just proved that nothing matters. Actually, that’s wrong too, there is one thing that matters.”

“What?” Kate asked.

“YOU are here. You’re ON THE SHOW!” Elsa said. “It’s your chance to do whatever you want to do. Whether you do it or not, it doesn’t make a difference. So, you’ve got to decide if you’re going to try to enjoy being on stage or resent not knowing the routine, that no one cares about, until you’re out of time.”

Unique Morning

Leah woke with a sudden clarity. The moment she opened her eyes she was wide awake; she had none of the expected brain fog that came after a night of drinking. She sat up in her bed and looked around. Something about her small bedroom seemed different. The mint-green color of her walls popped in a way she never noticed before. Her collection of movie posters were so vivid it felt like she was looking at them for the first time. Her cotton sheets rubbed her like fine sandpaper as she got out of bed.

“What the hell?” Leah noticed a splash of color on her wrist as she walked into the restroom. She looked from the mirror to her own wrist and saw a completely healed tattoo that wasn’t there the day before. It was a two-tone jester’s hat sitting atop the number zero. The hat was a light and dark shaded of green; something Leah would have picked out for herself.

Leah was surprised; but, she knew she wasn’t going to find answers wracking her brain in front of her bathroom mirror. She continued on to the shower to start her day. Once out of the shower, she turned on the news while she dressed. By the time she stepped out of her house, she knew everyone had a tattoo now.

It was Leah’s day off but she had things she wanted to get done. Her first stop was a coffee shop to fuel up for the day ahead. It was less crowded than it usually was on a Tuesday morning. The few customers there were all talking about their tattoos to each other and the employees.

“What number did you get?” The cashier asked once Leah reached the counter. The young man held up his wrist to show her his tattoo – four golden coins. Then, he remembered she was a customer and dropped his wrist. “Sorry, what can I get you?” he asked.

“Iced-vanilla giga-latte,” Leah smiled. Then, she held up her wrist to show him her tattoo.

“WHOA! You got major arcana!” he said. Several of the other patrons looked at her with interest.

“Is that good?” she asked. The cashier shrugged.

“No idea. But, you’re the first major arcana I’ve seen so far.” He stood quiet for a moment. “Oh! $6.74,” he said. Leah touched her card to the pad with an amused smirk. She normally drank her coffee in the shop but she did not feel like being the center of attention. She caught several strangers staring at her while she waited. Once her order was ready she decided to sit outside at the nearby park.

Leah sat at a picnic table to enjoy her coffee and plan out a route for her errands. While her mind worked, she let her eyes settle on a jogger heading her way that she thought was quite handsome. His gaze was focused on the track ahead and he didn’t notice Leah’s attention. She stared for a moment, then noticed several thin, almost invisible lines radiating out of him.

She counted six short lines as he jogged past and wondered what they meant. It occurred to her that they looked like short, taut strings; she couldn’t help but imagine plucking one of them like a harp. Leah saw the string by his knees, the one she plucked in her mind, move down at a sharp angle.

Steps after the string moved, the jogger toppled forward as if tripped. Leah immediately turned away so that he wouldn’t know she saw him fall. She stared at the other end of the park and took a sip of coffee. She wondered if she made him trip. It sounded silly at first. He didn’t trip right away when she plucked the string, and that kind of thing just wasn’t possible in real life. But, she had to consider that everyone got a tattoo overnight. That also used to be the kind of thing that wasn’t possible.

“HI!” a boy with bright green hair waved as he walked towards her table. He looked about the same age as Leah’s nephew in 8th grade.

“Hi,” Leah replied once he reached her table. He sat down across from her without hesitation. “What can I do for you?” she asked. The kid smiled.

“Actually, I have quite a bit to tell you,” he said.

“Oh really?” Leah asked. Her morning had been interesting so far, and by now she was just enjoying it. “Like what?” she asked. Leah was sitting with her hand in her lap, out of sight. His response managed to surprise her again. There was no way he could have seen her tattoo

“Like what it means to be the Fool,” he said.

“How’d you know?” Leah asked. Then curiosity followed. “What tattoo did you get?” The young teen held up his wrist. His tattoo resembled Earth with a golden number 21 in the center.

“I’m the World,” he said. Then, he extended his hand in greeting. “My name’s Ryan. But you can call me Atlas.”

Evil gets in Line

“It wasn’t a mistake,” I cried.

“It’s initiative.” I amended my defense.

“If we could get their kid on our side,

we could adjust their moral sense.”

“What did you think would happen?

Their child at a school they didn’t attend.

Did you think that would be fine?”

“Sorry,” I hung my head in resignation.

And now, here I stand at the end

of the unemployment line.

History of Lies

“bbbzzzzz bbbzzz..I’M A FREAKING WIZARD!”

Julio tried not to stop all at once so his reaction wouldn’t be obvious. The detective slowed his pace, then turned to face the young man he just locked up. He was a 22-year-old known troublemaker. He never participated in any violent crimes. But, Aaron came through the station regularly for trespassing, misconduct, and other annoying crimes. It was the first time Julio arrested him.

“So, if you’re a wizard you can escape any time, right?” Julio asked with a curious tone. He didn’t want Aaron to know he believed him just yet. Julio expected the static buzz of made-up excuses. Instead, he heard Aaron’s reason. The young man shrugged.

“It’s a contemporary server. I can only use magic in designated areas,” Aaron said. “This isn’t one.” Julio laughed, though his mind was racing. He didn’t understand everything Aaron said, but he heard it; it had to be true. The word ‘server’ made Julio think of his son’s online games.

“And Mrs. Whittaker’s pool house is one of those places?” Julio asked. He tried to inject some snark into the sincere question. Aaron shook his head.

“I was looking for a quest item. I usually am whenever you guys pick me up,” Aaron smiled, almost proud. “I get better rewards if I can do it without magic.”

It bothered Julio that he could hear this explanation at all. His almost 20 years on the force helped Julio keep his panic and confusion under wraps. He made a decision.

“Where’s the closest place you can use magic?” Julio asked.

“The Sharp Arena,” Aaron replied with a hopeful smile.

“The one across the street?” Julio asked. Aaron nodded. “It’s right across the street, why can’t you do magic?”

“Very strict boundaries,” Aaron replied.

“Let’s take a walk,” Julio said. “If you can’t prove it, I’ll make sure you spend a lot more time with us,” he added. It was an empty threat. He knew Aaron would be out by morning; he always was.

As far as Julio’s ability could tell, Aaron was telling the truth. Julio hoped it was true. If magic was real, maybe he would have a way to reconnect with his son. The reason the word, ‘server’ only sounded kind of familiar was because he didn’t listen as much as he should have. Julio’s ability was hard on his relationships. Especially when it came to kids that lied for no reason. He was so used to ignoring his son, he started doing it even when he could hear his son’s words. If magic was real; and, it sounded like it was, maybe he could rid himself of his curse.

No one blinked as Julio walked Aaron out of the station in cuffs. Julio was well-respected and Aaron was almost a mascot of sorts. Julio was glad for Aaron’s silence as they crossed the street. He started wondering if it wasn’t too late to reconnect with his ex-wife as well as his son. They never told his son but she knew about his abilities. If he explained he could no longer hear lies, maybe they could start again. Not that she wanted to be lying all the time; but the stress of keeping nothing to herself wore on her over time.

The pair reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and Julio stopped.

“Okay, magic time,” Julio said. Aaron chuckled.

“I said in the arena,” Aaron said. He gestured at the nearest door.

“Well, we’ve come this far,” Julio said. He was trying to play it cool until he could ask Aaron to teach him magic. Julio escorted Aaron into the building. The second they were in the door, Aaron’s cuffs fell off.

“This is good enough,” Aaron grinned. He held his palm out and produced a small fireball. Then he closed his hand around it and water flowed out of his fist. “See? Magic,” Aaron grinned. Julio’s eyes were wide as saucers while he nodded in awe.

“Magic…,” Julio said. “You’re telling the truth!” Despite his abilities, a faint doubt tugged at Julio’s mind. Magic was real. Julio’s hopes soared. He would be able to retire in a couple of years, and if he spent those two years learning magic, maybe he could have his family back.

“Can I learn?” Julio asked. “I mean, can you teach me, or point me to someone that will?” Aaron put a gentle hand on Julio’s shoulder and shook his head; he wore a somber expression.

“Sorry, man. You’re awesome and I really appreciate you being the first one to listen to me. But, I’m afraid you can’t learn it,” he said.

“What? Why? I’ve got money if that’s the problem,” Julio’s professional demeanor slipped for a moment as he pleaded. He did not have much money, but he would do anything to get his family back.

“It’s not money,” Aaron replied. “You literally cannot learn it,” he said.

“What? Why?” Julio asked.

“bbzzztttt  bbbbzzzzz bzzz,” Aaron replied.

“That’s bull and you know it,” Julio said. Aaron was genuinely surprised he was called out. “C’mon man, I’ve been a cop for 18 years.” Aaron nodded and sighed.

“The reason you can’t learn magic…,” Aaron began. Julio heard him crystal clear in the empty hallway. “…is because you’re just an NPC.”

Summoning Answers

“Sorry, pal,” the demon said. “Not interested.” The red-skinned demon in a navy blue suit waved his hand dismissively at William.

“What?! Why?” William shouted. “You buy souls and I’m ready to sell.” He’d known about the summoning ritual for years. He’d had a fairly rough life, but he swore he’d only sell his soul as a last resort. And now, it seemed it wasn’t even an option. The demon rolled his eyes, but sighed. He wasn’t in a hurry to get back to work and he could kill some extra time if he took time to explain. Plus, William looked like he needed a win.

“We do buy souls,” the demon replied. “The problem is, yours isn’t for sale.” William shot the demon a confused look.

“I’m telling you I’m ready to sell,” he said. The demon shook his head.

“Yeah, that’s not up to you,” he said. “It’s up to your soul.”

“Bull,” William said. “A good buddy of mine sold his soul a decade ago; he didn’t have any problems.” The demon nodded.

“He probably wasn’t a Unique Soul, like you.”

“What’s so special about my soul?” William asked.

“Well,.. uh..,” the demon hesitated for a moment as he looked for the right words. “Alright, I don’t want to deal with a whole lot of questions,” he said. “I’ll explain it to you, but just take everything I say as fact for now. If I have to go into every aspect, … well I don’t want to,” he said with a chuckle.

“Okay, sure,” William said. He already didn’t have anything left to lose when he summoned the demon.

“Alternate universes exist,” the demon said. William’s eyes shot wide, but he managed to hold his tongue. “Your buddy that sold his soul; he probably has a Zero-,” the demon noted a new look of confusion on William’s face.

“Zeros are his alternate universe doppelgangers,” he said. William seemed to accept that and he continued. “He probably has Zeros in other universes. Those Zeros exist because his soul is still fragmented. So, what your friend sold was only a small portion of his soul. Fragmentation is part of the whole process; your soul gets divided up and sent out into the universe to learn different lessons. Over time, as the Zeros die off, they get reconstituted into a single, Unique Soul; like you.  There’s more nuance, but that’s the gist,” the demon said.

“So… why can’t you buy my soul? It seems like it would be a good thing for Hell to get a whole soul.”

“A few different reasons. The first is, as I mentioned, you don’t have the power to make that decision. Zero souls are only fragments so their body gets to call the shots. In your case, you’re a complete soul, so it’d be kind of silly to let your body decide things when you’re not even awake.”

“What do you mean?” William asked, then immediately clapped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he squeaked out.” The demon nodded in understanding.

“Unique Souls have two phases. Slumbering, or Awakened. You’ll be Slumbering until you get your number, 52, etched on your skin. Tattoos are the most common. Though other things, like branding work too. Once you’re Awakened you get to unlock the full abilities of your soul.”

“Abilities?  Like superpowers?” William asked. The demon shrugged.

“Some are like superpowers, like super strength or regeneration. Some are just handy abilities like talking to fish, or, in your case, talking to plants.”  William burst into laughter.

“So, you’re telling me if I get a tattoo with the number 52 on it, I can talk to plants? How’d you know my favorite number?” The demon raised an eyebrow at William’s questions, but decided to answer.

“Yes, you’ll be able to talk to plants. And, your favorite number is your favorite number because that’s what your soul chose during the process. The easiest way to identify a Unique Soul is to ask them their favorite number. If they instantly answer a number between 1 and 54, without hesitation, they’re probably a Unique.”

“So I go get a tattoo and you can buy my soul?” William asked. Although, he was a bit less interested in selling it and instead started to wonder what he could do with the ability to talk to plants. The demon shook his head.

“Simply put, it’s against the rules for Hell to buy Unique Souls.”

“Oh c’mon. Hell’s following rules now? Whose?” The demon chuckled and simply pointed upward.

“I thought Hell’s whole thing was breaking rules.” The demon shrugged.

“Religious propaganda. Hell exists to serve a purpose, and we do it well, while following the rules.” William grew comfortable with the demon answering his questions.

“So what’s the purpose?” he asked.

“That’s going to be your last question,” the demon said. A sulfury, yellow plume enveloped the demon. It began to clear immediately and the demon was gone. But, William heard his voice one more time.  “Have you ever tried playing chess by yourself?” 

Stellar Normalcy

“Not at all,” Roger smiled. The violet-haired woman returned the warm smile and sat down next to him.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m not used to a coffee shop being so crowded.” Roger chuckled. She seemed to be open to conversation; and, now that he finished writing he felt comfortable talking.

“Not from around here?” he asked. “This place is always full.” She shook her head. Her long violet strands shimmered in the sunlight pouring in through the windows.

“I do a lot of traveling for my job,” she brought her hand up between them. “My name’s Victoria.”

“Roger,” he replied as she shook her hand. “Travel, huh? That’s interesting. I bet you’ve seen some amazing places.”

“Yeh,” Victoria replied and shrugged her shoulders at the same time. “The novelty wears off after a while. This place has more customers than I’m used to;  but, sometimes it feels like all I do is visit coffee shops,” she said. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” Roger said. Victoria’s eyes flitted to the open laptop, then back to him.

‘Oh no, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Victoria began to apologize but Roger shook his head. He made a point to close the laptop lid to make the point.

“You didn’t, I just finished.” Her eyes lit up.

“You finished a story? That’s so cool! What’s it about?” she leaned closer with a curious smile on her face.

“It’s about a girl that leads a normal life-,” Roger made it that far before Victoria interrupted.

“Oh, I can totally relate to that,” she said. Roger smiled and continued.

” …until she meets a strange man in a bar.”

“And then?” Victoria asked.

“And then her life gets interesting,” Roger smiled. “I don’t need to give it away.”

“Boooo…,” Victoria rolled her eyes,  but giggled to let him know she was kidding.

“I wish my life would get interesting,” she said.

“What do you do?” Roger asked. “You said you travel, but what for?”

“Unfortunately, traveling is my job,” she sighed. “The company I work for, Sharp Development, is always on the lookout for new resources, opportunities, or information. So my job is basically to travel around and report back whatever seems helpful.”

“Are you kidding?” Roger asked. “That sounds amazing!”

“Yeh,” Victoria shrugged again. “The company is amazing, but the work is starting to get old.” She smiled. “It seems like the coffee is getting worse in every shop I go to at least.”

“You visit that many coffee shops?” Roger asked. Victoria nodded.

“It’s the quickest way to meet someone and get information.”

“So you’re always chatting up strangers?” Roger asked. Victoria shook her head.

“No. Usually, I set something up with a dating app-“

“Dating app?” Roger interrupted with curiosity. Victoria giggled.

“Yeah, you don’t have any here yet. So I’m moving on tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Roger said. He debated for a moment and decided to go for it. “Well, if you’re looking for a date, my evening’s free. I’d be happy to take you out.” Victoria smiled at him.

“Technically…,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for a date anymore. I was ready to move on. But,” Roger was feeling deflated until she added the ‘but’. “It wouldn’t hurt to see more than just the coffee shop,” she said. “My evening was reserved for a date anyway, so yeah. That sounds good.”

“Besides,” she added with a wink. “Maybe you’ll make my life more interesting like the girl in your story.”  Roger chuckled.

“I doubt that,” he said. “They go off on adventures to a parallel universe,” he decided he could spoil the story for her a little bit. He regretted it when her smile dimmed just a tiny bit.

“Oh man,” she said. She playfully shoved him away. “You said it was something interesting.”