Eye-Opening Promotion

“Anything else, ‘hon?” Shirley asked as she finished writing up the ticket. Dave stared at the waitress with awe; his eyes flitted between his laptop and her coffee-brown eyes. She looked real. Her light pink uniform highlighted her curves. Her crisp white apron sported a coffee stain accidentally inflicted by Dave himself. It came as an absolute shock to him when he noticed a slight blush on her cheeks from his stare. She seemed happy to maintain their eye contact. After several moments Dave shook his head.

“No, thanks Shirley,” he said. Shirley smiled and placed the green ticket in front of him. Then, she spoke again after she pulled her hand away.

“If you stick around a bit…,” she winked. “…I’ll sneak you a slice of pie.” Then, she walked away toward the only other diners in the restaurant. Dave chose to visit the restaurant at lunchtime under the assumption that it would be the most lively place in the small town. At first, he was surprised to find it empty. But after deciding to test his software on the waitress and cook, he was glad he had somewhere quiet to think.

The program connected him to a database that supposedly knew everything about everyone. By searching the name of the town he was in, David could find out all about its residents. After getting the cook’s name from Shirley, he looked them up. He checked on the cook first because a small part of him was attracted to Shirley. Even if he was doing it to learn how to use the program, he felt a bit awkward looking her up first.

He clicked on the cook’s name and was greeted with everything he could ever want to know. Height, weight, birthday, all his schools, family and relationships. Everything was presented in an easy to read list with links to other townsfolk; but, one tag off to the side caught his attention.

[NPC] Dave was an avid gamer in his younger days and chuckled to himself. He hovered over the tag to learn what it actually meant; he was sure it didn’t mean Non-Player Character.

Dave was wrong and hurriedly checked on Shirley’s information. She had the same [NPC] tag as the cook. He clicked on her 8-year-old son’s name and found the same. He clicked through several relationships before she brought his ticket; and, they were all Non-Player Characters. He sat in silence for several minutes wondering what it all meant. Then, he had a realization.  

Wait, does the agency know?” he wondered. Then, he had a more pertinent question. “Is the agency real?” He navigated to the head of the agency and found the same tag. [NPC]

Shirley suddenly guffawed out loud and Dave looked up to see her playfully pat the shoulder of one of the men at the other table. There were only two men, a tall one and a short one, and Shirley seemed to think the tall one was the funniest man alive. She carried on an animated conversation with him. Both men wore black suits that resembled Dave’s own uniform and he assumed they were bankers or something. He was glad for Shirley’s laughter though; it gave him a new train of thought.

“It’s a joke,” he mumbled to himself with a chuckle. “New guy initiation; that’s gotta be it.” This was Dave’s first solo assignment. Thinking back on it, his briefing did seem kind of strange. His boss didn’t have much in the way of answers for him. Usually assignment briefings were packed with information he needed to keep track of. For this assignment his boss handed him a laptop and told him to come to this small town. Any attempts to get more information were stonewalled with answers like, ‘It’s from higher up.’ It all made sense now; they sent him on a snipe hunt. Dave exhaled a sigh of relief and relaxed. He was almost curious to check his own name, but now he knew it would definitely have the [NPC] tag. As he relaxed he noticed Shirley walking over to him with a slice of pie and a broad smile. As she got closer, Dave noticed she seemed to be laughing at something.

“Something funny about my pie?” Dave asked with a smile. Shirley shook her head, then tilted it toward the two men at the other table.

“That tall drink of water is the most hilarious man, I swear,” she said.   “Easy on the eyes too,” she said. “Here’s your pie, ‘hon; you got the lucky last slice. You just let me know if you need anything else, okay?” she smiled, placed his plate, then walked to the other table.

Dave enjoyed his pie and wondered how long he should drag out his initiation. He decided it would be a good opportunity to have a mini vacation at the agency’s expense. They sent him on a fool’s errand and it would serve them right if he played the part. He finished his pie and left cash on the table. He also added a generous tip that he hoped made up for spilling coffee on Shirley. He glanced around the restaurant to try and wave goodbye but she must have been in the back. Dave decided to leave instead of waiting awkwardly to give her a personal goodbye.

“Dave!” He heard his name as he walked toward his truck and spun around to see the two men from inside. They were surprisingly close behind him.

“How did you know my name?” Dave asked.

“We’re why you’re here,” the short one replied. Dave recognized his voice as the same one that called him.

Oh man…,” Dave whined internally. If they were already giving up the game, his fun was over. But, he decided to be professional about it.

“So you’re the guys that set up this prank, huh?” Dave asked with a bit of smugness. He hoped to at least show them he wasn’t fooled at all. The two men looked at each other, then shrugged.

“No prank,” the short one said. “We’re recruiting you to our agency; so told your boss to give you that laptop and send you out here. Find out anything interesting about the people here?” he asked. Dave narrowed his eyes.

“You’re saying it’s… real? They’re really NPCs?” Dave asked. Both men nodded. Dave burst out laughing.

“Yeah right! C’mon, I believed it for a minute, but it can’t be true.”

“Look, come inside and we’ll prove it,” the short one said. Dave shrugged, nodded, then followed them back into the restaurant.

“Table for three?” Shirley asked as soon as they walked in. Dave didn’t register the question right away, he was happy to see her again.

“Hey again, Shirley, I’m back for a bit I guess,” he said with a chuckle. Shirley tilted her head at him.

“I’m sorry ‘hon, you’ll have to forgive me. We get so many people coming through here, I can’t always remember them all. But I am glad you’re here just the same,” she said with a broad smile. Dave was confused and glanced down at her crisp white apron; there was no coffee stain.

“Did you change aprons?” Dave wondered why she wouldn’t have changed sooner if she had a spare. She shook her head.

“No, but my goodness if that isn’t a mighty specific question,” she giggled, then led them to the table he sat at before.

“What can I start you gentlemen out with?” she asked. The same question she asked Dave when he first sat down. He had eaten recently and wasn’t hungry. He just wanted answers.

“Nothing for me,” Dave said.

“You’re invited to join the B.A.A.,” the short one said to Dave; he completely ignored Shirley. “The Bureau of Alternate Agencies. Part of the job is knowing what’s what.”

“I’ll take some pie, Shirley,” The tall agent said.

Riding Revenge

If they don’t respect you, make them pay until they do,” Linus reminisced on his dad’s advice while watching the sunrise. Part of him wished he took that advice sooner. It wasn’t until he reanimated the T-rex that he realized how to go about it. Now he had his chance. He stared up at the idle skeleton; despite its lack of lungs, the bony beast seemed to inhale and exhale while it waited for his command.  The morning sun peeked over the treetops and gave the T-rex’s white skull a flaming orange glow. Linus briefly considered setting it on fire for added effect, but he decided against it. What he really needed was someone to get the ball rolling, so to speak.

“Linus…?” a small voice spoke from the trees. It startled him; he was surprisingly jumpy for a necromancer. He whirled around to find his only friend in the village. A young girl with brown hair stood in the shadow of a large pine tree, her gaze flitted nervously between Linus and the T-rex. “..are you okay?” she spoke barely above a whisper as if she didn’t want to alert the skeleton to her presence.

“Mindy…,” Linus smiled at her and eagerly encouraged her to come closer. She was perfect. Any child would prove he meant business, but most of the town knew Mindy was curious and friendly toward him. The fact that she was always nice to him when no one else was made it easier for Linus to decide to start with her.

Linus moved around a lot but not by choice. Ever since he was a child he would be run out of town along with his father. Once his father passed away, Linus decided to leave the past buried and try to start fresh in a new town. His father was no necromancer; he was a snake-oil salesman and Linus assumed that his days of being run out of town for cheating customers were over. Until he reanimated a skeleton to help him around the house.

He tried to keep to himself in Mindy’s town, but the girl proved too curious. It almost seemed like she sensed magic in him. She visited often bearing flowers and other gifts to try and talk him into showing her some magic. He finally caved and reanimated a squirrel to entertain her. That was yesterday; his last day in the village. Linus liked Mindy. He was glad she would be the first one to help him prove himself to the town. Afterall she was the one that got him unintentionally thrown out.

“Mindy, what’re you doing out here?” Linus asked as she approached; her eyes did not leave the towering bones.

“I came to check on you,” she said. She finally averted her eyes from the dinosaur, but her gaze settled on the ground instead of on Linus. “I’m sorry I got you thrown out…,” she apologized. Linus smiled and patted Mindy on the shoulder.

“That’s okay, I’m used to it. But, for the first time I think I know how to fix it. Will you help me?” he asked. At his question the T-rex lowered his head and opened its jaws. Linus marveled at Mindy, she didn’t seem phased at all. “She trusts me that much?” he wondered in surprise. Mindy nodded.

“YES! Whatever it takes, I’ll help you!”

“Climb in its mouth,” Linus grinned. “I’ll explain the rest on the way.”

“HEEEEELP!!!! HEEEELP!!!” Mindy’s screeches drew the attention of the townsfolk as the T-rex emerged from the forest. Linus sat atop its head while Mindy screamed from inside its mouth. The townsfolk were quick to react; in minutes they surrounded the T-rex with pitchforks and torches.

“LET HER GO!” Mindy’s father yelled. Linus also recognized Mindy’s mother standing behind him, consoling Mindy’s confused younger sister. The rest of the rabble murmured at him while waving their makeshift weapons. Several other children were being herded to the back of the crowd.

Perfect..,” Linus thought to himself. He hoped to have a big crowd; now he could make them all pay. The T-rex lowered his skull to the ground and opened its jaws. Mindy hopped out of it giggling.

“That was fun!” she shouted and waved at Linus enthusiastically. Then, she whirled around to address the crowd. “WHO WANTS TO GO NEXT?!” she asked. In an instant her sister, and several other children ran to stand in front of her.

“ME! ME!” they yelled. Linus hopped off the lowered T-rex head.

“One at a time,” he added. “5 gold for a ride around the town.”

A Mother’s Wish

At the age of 114 Winston reset his life; it was the only escape from the invading horrors. 114 years old was the longest he’d ever lived and for the first time in 999 resets, he had a goal. He woke up and hopped out of his childhood bed with a burning motivation.

“100 years until they attack,” he mumbled to himself as he tried to come up with a plan. He knew he could work himself into any number of high-level government positions; he’d done it plenty of times in past lives.

“WINSTON!!!” he heard his mother’s voice call out.

“I’M AWAKE!” he replied with a yell through the door. He had been so distracted with his thoughts that it took him a moment to realize something was off. The youth of his past lives tended to blur together. His mom often woke him up by yelling but in 998 lives she never yelled to wake him up on the first day of school. It was meant to be a special day and every other time she walked into his room to wake him gently.

“WINSTON!!!!!!” she called again and this time he heard a frightened edge in her voice; then, he heard a crash and the sound of shattering glass. Winston dashed out of his room and flew down the stairs. He heard a commotion in the kitchen and rushed in to find his mother frantically beating a pile of bones with a kitchen mallet.

“Noo…,” he whispered as he spotted several animated skeletons through the window; they were headed toward his house. “Mom! We gotta go!” he stopped her hand mid-swing and pulled her out of the kitchen. The pile of bones she was attacking began pulling itself back together the moment she stopped hitting it.

“Wintson, what’s happening!?” his mother asked as he led her out of the house. Dozens of walking skeletons wandered through the neighborhood crashing into houses.

“I don’t know,…” he admitted. He had no idea how the skeletons were there now; they weren’t supposed to attack for a hundred years yet. He glanced up at the sky as they ran. A black hole rained skeletons over the city and Winston realized they were definitely the same force he tried to escape from in the future.

“Winston!” his mom jerked back on his hand hard to get him to stop. He was so distracted by the hole in the sky that he didn’t notice the tall white-horned woman that appeared in front of them. She was deathly pale and wore a long black dress. A pair of bone-white horns protruded out of her black hair.

“Hola, Muerte,” the woman smiled at Winston. As he looked her up and down he noticed they were surrounded by skeletons; but, they weren’t being attacked. He assumed she was the one responsible for them and a faint hope fluttered in his gut; maybe he could talk her out of it.

“Hello,” he replied as he stepped between the woman and his mother. “Are they yours?” he gestured to the skeletons now standing at attention around them.

“They are,” she nodded.

“Why are you doing this?” Winston asked. “We haven’t done anything to you; I don’t even know who you are.” The horned woman sighed.

“Obviously,” she mumbled to herself. Then, she spoke up. “My name is Ballisea, and, I don’t need a reason.”

“How did you follow me?” Winston asked. His only plan at the moment was to keep her talking; he hoped a better plan formed soon.

“Follow you?” she asked. Winston nodded.

“From the future. You attacked 100 years in the future, so I came back to this time. How are you here?” She replied with soft, amused laughter. Winston’s mother whispered a question in his ear, but he couldn’t take the time to explain what he meant. He squeezed her hand to reassure her, then Ballisea spoke.

“I didn’t follow you, silly. Time flows around me. Even if you rewound time to the age of dinosaurs, I’d still be here.”

“I can do that?!” Winston asked in surprise. Ballisea nodded.

“Not slumbering as you are now, but an awakened Muerte can manipulate time quite easily. Lucky for you, I’m in a pleasant mood today,” Ballisea said. A black portal opened next to Winston.

“This Earth is mine now, but you may go,” she said. Winston knew better than to question his good fortune. He quickly stepped toward  the portal, but his mom’s hand stopped him.

“Winston!” She shrieked again; he turned to see her being held back by skeletons.

“The Zero stays,” Ballisea said.

“I’m not leaving my mom!” Winston replied.

“Oh wow…,” Ballisea said with a slightly awed tone. “You really love her, don’t you?” Winston’s hopeful flutters grew in intensity as he nodded at Ballisea.

“More than anyone in the world,” he replied.

“You know, I have a son too,” she said. “I wish he loved me half as much as you love your mom. She must be a wonderful woman,” Ballisea smiled warmly at Winston. His hopes evaporated when the black portal disappeared and the skeletons advanced on him. As he felt bony hands grasp him, the last thing he heard was Ballisea muttering.

“If only I could get my son to roll over and die for me too.”

Gaming Dates

“Excuse us for a second,” Russel smiled at the well-dressed woman as he pulled Justin away from her. 

“Sure, okay,” the brunette returned his smile. Russel dragged Justin far enough so that she couldn’t hear them talk about her. They did not have to travel far, the bustling town made plenty of noise; but Russel turned a corner around the side of the inn. 

“Explain,” Russel said. 

“Our date was going so well that I didn’t want to cut it short and miss out on the bonus affection multiplier. The longer our date lasts, the better,” Justin replied with a shrug. “We can move gear between games so I thought, ‘why not NPCs?’.”

“Oh,” Russel chuckled. “She’s an NPC?” Russel peeked around the corner of the inn at the brunette. She stood patiently scrolling through her node. He had to admit she was very attractive. Her dark curls fell a bit lower than her shoulders. Her tan skin and athletic figure hinted at a lot of active time outdoors; she was definitely Justin’s type. Though her black cocktail dress seemed out of place against the drab peasant-wear of the rest of the townsfolk. However, in true NPC fashion, no one blinked an eye at the oddly dressed woman. She didn’t seem concerned with them either; not caring that she was no longer in a fine restaurant. 

“Well, I don’t have a problem with it, but we’ll see what the rest of the group says,” Russel shrugged, then headed back to Justin’s date. 

“Ready?” she asked eagerly once they two men were close enough. She stepped forward and hooked her arm into Justin’s. Russel wondered how she’d react once they reached the dragon’s lair. The thought of her fleeing the cave in heels made him smile. 

“Not just yet, we’re still waiting on a couple of the guys,” Justin replied. “Andie, this is Russel. Russel; Andie,” he introduced them and they exchanged a quick handshake. 

“How many more?” Andie asked. “Any chance there’s room on the team for me? I can go and -,” Justin and Russel interrupted her with laughter at the suggestion. Justin squeezed her hand and kissed her dark curls. 

“Don’t worry about it, babe. I wanna keep you warmed up in date mode as long as possible,” he said. 

“Oh,” Andie replied with a bit of disappointment in her voice. “Okay, I guess. As long as we’re together. I just like spending time with you.”

“Should we get her some cheap gear or something so she’s not helpless?” Russel offered. Andie burst into laughter.

“I’m not exactly helpless,” she said. 

“You tell ‘im, babe,” Justin laughed too, but directed his laughter at Andie instead of with her. 

“Well that sounds a little bit patr-,” her comment was interrupted by a mage that exited a black portal next to them.

“Sorry I’m late,” he apologized to Justin and Russel, then looked at Andie up and down. Golden stars flashed in his eyes for a second.

“Who’s this?” he asked. 

“Hi, I’m Andie,” Andie extended a hand and the mage shook it.

“Benny,” he introduced himself. 

“She’s my date,” Justin said proudly. At the same time he received a Whisper from Russel in his ear.

[She’s an NPC. Go with it. -Russ] Benny shook his head with a broad smile.

“No she’s not,” he said aloud. 

“I brought her here. I think I’d know whether she was my date or not,” Justin replied. Benny continued to chuckle to himself. 

“She might be your date, but she’s not an NPC,” 

“You think I’m an NPC?” Andie turned to look at Justin with obvious hurt in her dark eyes. 

“You’re not?” was the only thing he could say. 

“Oh my god! This whole time you thought you were playing me?” Benny and Russel decided it was a good time to get a drink from the inn and wandered off. 

“But.. we met on a dating server!” Andie scoffed. 

“Women play dating games too.”

“Right! C’mon,” Justin said. “You can’t tell me you didn’t think I was an NPC too.” He felt a bit of relief when he saw her nod.

“I did. For like an hour until I realized you weren’t acting like an NPC. I liked you.”

“See? That’s why I thought you were an NPC,” Justin replied with a softer tone as he hung his head. “Girls don’t like me,” he said. “Not real ones.” Andie wiggled her fingers at the air and created her own black portal. She sighed at him as stepped into the portal. He heard her voice one last time before she and the black hole disappeared. 

“Not with that attitude,” she said. 

Organized Organs

“You’re not going to count it?” Dudley asked Mr. Montes. The well-dressed gentleman shook his head as he slipped the cash-stuffed envelope in a drawer. The two men, one old and refined, the other younger and sloppily dressed, sat in Mr. Montes’ office. Dudley thought it was odd that they were the only two in the office, Mr. Montes usually had a pair of bodyguards in the room.

“Our arrangement is complete, you’re done,” Mr. Montes said with a nervous smile.

“What?” Dudley tilted his head in surprise. “I’ve only made three payments? I’m good for the rest, I promise!” the 18-year old moved forward to the edge of his seat with his hands clasped, begging.

“It’s okay,” Mr. Montes tried to ease Dudley’s mind. “You’re not in trouble,” he sighed. “You’re a good kid, and I don’t feel right taking advantage of you. Your mom’s doing better now, right?” he asked. Dudley nodded.

“Yes! Thank you, Mr. Montes. I couldn’t have paid for the surgery without you.”

“Good, good. That’s all that’s important. Stick close to home and take care of her; don’t worry about this anymore.”

“But, I still owe you so much!” Dudley said. “Is there anything I can do?” Mr. Montes shook his head.

“Stay close to home, out of trouble. That’s all I ask,” he said. He hoped that the more Dudley stayed home, the less chance he had of running into his men.

“I’m really good at fighting,” Dudley mentioned sheepishly. The nervous young man scratched at his neck tattoo; a ’34’ in gold numbers. “Do you need another enforcer?”

The truth was Mr. Montes did need more men; and, he already knew about Dudley’s fighting prowess. Mr. Montes was an intelligent and ruthless businessman. His loans often came with extra trouble that couldn’t be traced back to him. All it took was a well-timed mugging to keep his debtors perpetually on the hook. He didn’t break legs; the real money was in interest.

People were happy to borrow money from him because he was so understanding. Those that couldn’t make a payment one month due to unfortunate luck could make it up the next month with extra. Until he started sending men after Dudley; and, they never returned. He could have used Dudley on his payroll, but he made it a point to avoid risk where he could. The last thing he needed was Dudley learning how he operated. His best bet was to keep Dudley distracted and out of the way.

“No, Dudley. It’s obvious how much your mother means to you, and she should. Stay close to home as much as you can.”

“Please Mr. Montes, I really need a job. If I’m done paying you, that’s great. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but now that my mom’s home, I still can’t afford to take care of her.”

Mr. Montes always made decisions quickly when he knew what he wanted. His goal was to keep Dudley out of the way; the young man could easily destroy everything Mr. Montes built. Though, he hadn’t realized how dangerous he was until going through three separate snipers. Mr. Montes personally witnessed the third shot. A bullet went straight through Dudley’s head, but here he was without a mark.

He knew Dudley was telling the truth about needing the money despite making all his payments on time. The irony was that if Mr. Montes hadn’t sent men to rough him up, Dudley would not have been able to make his payments. Once his informants told him how Dudley earned the money, he decided to cut his losses. Dudley wasn’t his only source of income; and, it was too minor an amount to risk losing his whole empire. In fact, it was worth some insurance money.

“Okay, I have a job for you. Stay home. Take care of your mother. Don’t worry about a thing, you’re on my payroll now.”

“You mean it!?” Dudley’s face lit up with excitement. Mr. Montes nodded.

“What do you think? 5,000 a month seems like enough, right?” Mr. Montes asked. Dudley was initially on the hook for 10k a month. “Now that you don’t have to make my payment, that should be enough for you and your mother to live comfortably.” Dudley nodded enthusiastically.

“Wow! That’s almost as much as I get for three kidneys!”

Mary’s Boy

“Mom?” Greg spoke louder the second time he knocked on the bathroom door. Still no answer. “I’m coming in,” he twisted the knob slowly, then pushed the door open. “Where the hell is she?” he asked his reflection in the empty bathroom. His mom’s car was still in the driveway, so she should have been around. He shrugged to himself, then left her bathroom and room to wait for her in the kitchen.

Five minutes later, Greg sat at the kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk. He was about to start eating when his mother walked into the kitchen. She seemingly came from the direction of her bedroom; not through either the garage or front door. She was still in her work clothes, white scrubs with a pattern of red scissors covering it.

“Greg!” she was surprised to see him. “You’re early, I’m about to start on dinner if you want to wait,” she nodded at his unbitten sandwich.

“Mom?” he asked with only minor surprise. “When did you get here?” This was the first time he “caught” his mom with 100% certainty. While growing up, his mother tended to show up when he was sure she wasn’t around. He chalked it up to a mother’s sneakiness and his own lack of attention. But this time, he searched the whole house for her. He knew for a fact she wasn’t anywhere in the house when he arrived.

“Oh, just a few minutes ago. I was in the restroom,” she lied casually while she considered dinner in front of an open fridge.

“No you weren’t,” Greg replied. He had always been a mama’s boy, but it stung that the lie came so effortlessly. In the back of his mind, he wondered how much she lied to his dad about. “I searched the whole house for you because your car was outside. I went into your bathroom.”

Shit..,” Greg heard his mother sigh under her breath and her posture deflated. She closed the refrigerator, then turned around. “I guess we need to have a talk,” she said. “Let’s get Chinese for dinner,”  his mother walked out of the kitchen toward her bedroom.  She paused, then turned to look at him.

“Come on,” she said with a warm smile. Greg’s mind flooded with questions, including wondering why she headed to the bedroom instead of the front door. To avoid being overwhelmed, he defaulted to listening to his mother. He stood from the table, leaving the sandwich there, and followed.

He caught up to her in her room as she was pulling something from her purse. It looked like a cellphone, but it appeared more futuristic than even his top of the line phone.

“What’s that?” Greg asked.

“It’s a node, I’ll tell you about them too.” She tapped on the glassy rectangle several times, then she rotated it into landscape mode. She held it with both hands, then pulled. Greg’s mother held the transparent node with her left hand, and pulled something black out of it with her right hand. It was the darkest black that Greg ever saw, and it boggled his mind that it came from seemingly nowhere. The node was clear enough to see his mother’s fingers through it, but somehow it produced a pitch black card. She whirled around and threw the card against her bedroom wall; a black portal appeared.

“This place has the best Chinese food,” she said, then walked into the hole. On her way through, she waved at Greg to encourage him to follow. He walked through and in a blink Greg stood in a packed red and gold restaurant. Perfectly tailored dark suits and dresses, obviously he was now in a high-class restaurant.

“Mary!” Greg suddenly heard someone call his mom’s name. It was a short, ancient woman wearing a golden dress under a messy apron.

“Hi, Donna, is this a bad time?” she asked.

“For you, never,” Donna replied. She waved a dismissive hand at the diners. “Vampire convention, no big deal. I put you in a back room.” Donna turned around and headed toward the back. Mary followed her, and Greg trailed behind while trying to look over the customers without staring.

“Did she say ‘vampires?’,” Greg whispered into his mom’s ear. Immediately the tables around them burst into laughter.

“I did,” Donna spoke up as she led them through the kitchen doors. “And they have excellent hearing,” she added.  As they walked through the kitchen, Greg was surprised to see only one cook. A giant mountain of a man that toward over his own 6’2″ frame, and twice as wide. Despite his girth, the single chef almost seemed to be dancing between several stoves with all burners going. Greg noted the chef’s tattoos with interest. Dozens of colorful dragons on each arm, with no single color repeated.

“Two more sesame beef, T,” Mary called out as they passed the chef.

“Yes, Ms. Mary,” he replied without missing a beat. They continued through the kitchen and ended up in a small single table room.

“Enjoy,” Donna said, then she turned and left. Greg sat at one of the two chairs, and his mother sat across from him. After they were settled, Greg realized he didn’t need to look at the menu. His mom ordered for him already.

“Mom. What the hell’s going on? Where are we?” he asked.

“Let me give you the short version of everything first, then you can ask questions, okay?” Greg nodded.

“I work for a company called Sharp Medical Services. It’s a company in another universe. Right now, we’re in another universe than the one you were born in,” Mary pulled her node out of her pocket.

“This is from work, it lets me get to and from work, and lets me travel to other universes too.” If Greg had not already followed her from her bedroom to a Chinese restaurant, he knew he wouldn’t believe her. But, as it stood now, he could not deny it. The knowledge added a new light to his upbringing. His parents argued often and, looking back on it, a lot of things made more sense.

“Why didn’t you tell dad and me?” Greg asked.

“Ohh, honey,” Mary reached across the small table for her son’s hand. “Of course I told your father,” she sighed. “Your dad is… a simple man. We tried to make it work. In the end, he didn’t want anything to do with “other universes”, including my job,” she shook her head. “Sharp Medical is the best company I could hope to work for. I couldn’t give it up.”

“And why not me?” Greg asked. He had more questions about his parent’s relationship, but he could definitely see his mom’s point. His father did have a tendency to be closed minded.

“That’s… that’s my fault,” she said. “I was worried you would be too much like your father. I didn’t want to lose you too,” she said.

“Well, you still might,” Greg said. “Unless you answer this: Are those really vampires?” he asked.  Mary nodded.

“It’s a big multi-verse. Vampires, werewolves, fairies. Anything you want is out there, if you want a tour.”

“Dragons!?” Greg blurted out. At that moment Donna walked in again holding two steaming plates of food.

“Dragons too,” Mary smiled.

Violet Adult. Indigo Child.

“50 years?” Wilbur shook his head with a gentle chuckle as he organized his paperwork. “That’s kind of incredible,” he added. Violet sat quietly in front of his desk as the middle-aged man mostly mumbled to himself. She knew he wasn’t talking about her specifically as much as the whole group. The others were either sitting in the waiting room or being interviewed by other caseworkers. One thing Violet learned in the bunker was to remain quiet while adults were talking. That included when they were talking to themselves.

Violet’s gaze wandered around the small office while Wilbur seemed preoccupied with putting his forms in the right order. The office was extremely plain with solid white, empty walls. The two seats in the room, Violet’s and Wilbur’s, were both black leather rolling chairs; though, the back of Wilbur’s was taller. Small wire baskets covered the wooden desk between them. Wilbur pulled a sheet from each of the different baskets, read it over, then either returned it to the basket or added it to the pile he collected.

Violet focused on him since the office was so plain. He stopped reaching into the baskets and read the ones he chose more carefully, occasionally re-shuffling their order.

“Alright, Sorry,” Wilbur finally said after stapling his packet together. “Your group is kind of a new situation, we don’t have a standardized packet yet. So, welcome to the real world! ” he added with a broad, warm grin. It was the first time he gave her his full attention, and his smile put Violet at ease. 

“Let’s start with the easy ones,” he said. “What’s your full name?”

“Violet Victoria,” she replied quietly.

“That’s a beautiful name. How old are you, Violet?”


“Okay. What kind of education did you get down there?” Violet tilted her head at the question.

“What kind of what?” she asked.

“Uh..,” Wilbur didn’t expect the question. “Can you read?”

“Yes, Mr. Johnson,” she said and nodded at his nametag.

“How about numbers? Addition, subtraction, multiplication, .. any of that sound familiar?” Violet giggled.

“I know what math is,” she said.

“Great, where did you learn that?”

“My mom taught me,” she replied.

“Did she teach others?” Violet shook her head.

“No, their parents taught them.”

“You’re a bit older than I thought. Let’s see if we can’t get you straight into a high school,” Wilbur reached into one of the baskets. He pulled out a form, then added it to the back of his stack with a second staple.

“What’s high school?” she asked.

“It’s a place to learn about all kinds of things with other kids there your own age. A lot of other kids,” Wilbur explained. Violet nodded eagerly as she listened..

“Yes please! That sounds fun!”

“It’ll mostly depend on what you’ve already learned, but you seem like a bright girl.  You’re in here alone..,” Wilbur said with a softer tone. “…does that mean your parents passed away?”

“No,” Violet giggled. “They’re in a different interview right now. At 15, I’m an adult,” she said. “At least, that’s how it worked down there,” she added when she noticed his surprise.

“Well, unfortunately, that’s not how things work up here. Before you sign any of these, we’ll need your parent’s permission,” he replied. Wilbur dropped the packet on the desk then leaned back in his chair to reach into his pocket. He pulled out something Violet had never seen before.

It was glass, but only the size of a playing card. As she wondered what it was, Wilbur tapped and swiped at it with his fingers. Violet thought she saw lights flashing on it, but couldn’t make out anything.

“I sent a message to let your parents know to come in here after they’re done,” he explained.

“What’s that?” Violet asked. Wilbur grinned.

“It’s called a node, it’s like a cellphone, but better,” he said. He noticed a slight glimmer in her eyes. “You don’t know what a cellphone is either, do you?” he asked. Violet shook her head.

“Well, it’s not important, because this is better,” he leaned forward on the desk and encouraged her to come closer too.

“You used it to talk to someone in another room?” she asked.

“Nodes can be used to talk to people in other universes,” he said.

“There are other universes!?” she looked up from the node in surprise. Wilbur nodded.

“Actually, that reminds me. It’s in there some where,” he gestured at the dropped packet of papers. ” But, what’s your favorite number?”

“33.” Violet said. “Why?”

“Because you’re special, and that answer alone got you into high school,” Wilbur said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Violet said. “Is everything so weird up here?”

“It’ll make sense eventually, I’m not the one to explain it to you,” he said. But, how do you feel about spiders?”

“Is that food?” she asked.

“No,” Wilbur said. He focused on the node in his hand and tapped it several times, then he turned it around to show her a picture of a black widow spider.

“That’s so beautiful!” Violet said. “Wow… I can’t wait to see one in real life!”

“Awww hell,” Wilbur grumbled himself in the same tone he’d use if he left the oven on at home. Not urgent, but concerning none-the-less. Violet didn’t notice because she felt a tickling sensation. She looked down and noticed three small black widow spiders sitting on the back of her hand.

“Wow! Did they come from the node!? They’re so cute! How many more can it make!???”

“No! Wait!” Wilbur tried to interrupt her questions several times, but she kept speaking over him in her excitement.

After a few minutes, Violet’s parents opened the door to Wilbur’s office. Wilbur sat as far back against the wall as he could with his head in his hands. Between him and Violet’s parents sat a swarm of black and red spiders crawling all over their daughter while she giggled.

“Hi mom! Hi dad!” Violet said when she saw them. “Did you guys know about spiders?” she asked. Her mother answered by fainting.

Hellish Retention

“Mandy Salinas?” Mandy heard her name called a split second before she opened her eyes. She didn’t know where she was nor how she got there. She found herself in what she could only guess was Hell’s waiting room. Obsidian, uncomfortable-looking chairs lined three of the four brimstone walls. They surrounded a small ebony coffee table loaded with Hell-related literature.

The woman that called her name stood by an open door; she wore dark red scrubs that complimented her dry, red skin. Two tiny dark horns poked out of her blonde head.

“Yes?” Mandy responded; she was still trying to get her bearings. She had no idea how long she’d been there, but when she opened her eyes she was standing up.

“This way, please,” the demon woman gestured through the door. Mandy walked through the door and found a narrow brimstone hallway lined with closed doors.

“Straight ahead, 12th door on the left. It should be the only one open, but count just in case,” the woman said with a pleasant smile. “Trust me, you don’t want to end up in the wrong room.”

“Oh, okay,” Mandy nodded, not sure what else to do; then, she walked forward. The hall seemed to go on further than Mandy could see and she was glad she only needed to reach the 12th door. As far as she could tell there were hundreds in the hall. The unbelievable architecture only proved to her that she was in fact in Hell. The first three doors were fairly close together, but the fourth door was further down than Mandy expected. And the fifth even further. It felt like an hour passed by the time she reached the 12th door; it was at least three football fields from the 11th door.

Once she reached the open door, she looked up and down the hall. She still couldn’t tell where it ended. Looking back, she couldn’t see her starting point anymore.

“Mandy! Welcome to Hell!” a woman’s voice called from inside the door. Mandy walked in and greeted another red-skinned woman. This one had brown hair and wore a dark red suit instead of scrubs, with a black bow tie.

“I’m Barbara and I’ll be your supervisor while you’re down here,” the demon-woman said as they shook hands. Barbara gestured at a comfortable looking rolling chair in front of her obsidian desk. “Have a seat and let’s get you sorted.”

“While I’m here?” Mandy asked with faint hope.  “I’m not damned forever?” While she didn’t know how she got there, Mandy wasn’t surprised. She lived a rough life on the streets and did many, many things she wasn’t proud of. She felt an enormous wave of relief when Barbara shook her head with a smile.

“Technically, you’re not damned at all,” she replied. “You’re here solely on luck,” Barbara chuckled. “Though, looking back over your life, it’s obvious you were due some major good luck.”

“GOOD!? I’m in HELL! I don’t even know what luck has to do with anything.”

“That’s what we’re here to talk about,” Barbara replied. “Orientation before you start work tomorrow. Or in a couple of days, if you need more time to get settled,” Barbara gave her head a quick shake to dismiss the thought. Her brown bangs landed in front of her eyes and she brushed them out of the way again.  “We’ll get to that. For now, let’s start at the beginning.” Barbara sat up straighter in her chair and took in a solid breath as if preparing for a spiel.

“You ARE in Hell,” she said. “Though, things are more complicated than you think. Hell’s original purpose is record keeping; point tallying to be specific. But, it only takes a few religious nuts to ruin people’s lives. Hell has had to branch out into things like torture and deal making to meet demand,” Barbara gave a light chuckle. “The customer is always right.”

“No one wants to be tortured forever…,” Mandy interrupted, but Barbara nodded.

“You’d think so; but, we’re a customer service industry. We wouldn’t invest in a torture division if it wasn’t wanted. Anyway, you weren’t particularly religious so you aren’t assigned to a religious Hell. You’re not here to be tortured, you’re here to work.”

“I don’t want to torture anyone either,” Mandy replied. She wasn’t sure she had a choice, but she at least wanted to make her stance known.

“Oh, no no,” Barbara shook her head. “You’re here to tally points.”

“Points? What kind of points?”

“Life points, you’ll be keeping score of people’s lives. You’ll get a breakdown in your welcome packet, and you’ll be in training for the first week, so don’t worry about the details too much yet.”

“You make it sound so… normal. Is it a sweatshop or something? Working myself to the bone overheating in miserable conditions?”

“Oh God, I’m sorry,” Barbara apologized suddenly. She reached below her desk, then placed a frigid bottle of water on it. “I didn’t even offer you a drink. Are you warm?” She asked.  Mandy shook her head, and actually couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

“Are you serious?” she asked Barbara. In thinking about it, Mandy realized she wasn’t uncomfortable at all. She accepted the water bottle anyway and immediately took a drink; it was as cold as she hoped. Barbara sighed and shook her head.

“It’s always a battle breaking through those preconceived notions,” she said. “You are obligated to work for us for at least a year. After that, based on your performance, we can discuss you staying longer if you like. We maintain a positive, professional environment here.”

“What’s the pay like?” Mandy joked. She still wasn’t sure she believed Barbara. She held a bottle of cold water in Hell, but a part of her still considered that it might be a trick.

“No pay, as such. We don’t have much use for money down here. But, you’ve already been assigned a lovely home and a car to get around in. And even though, strictly speaking, you don’t need to eat; we know how enjoyable it is. Your neighborhood has a nearby grocery store, as well as other shops for hobbies, electronics, and so on. You don’t need to pay for a thing. As long as you’re in good standing with us and doing your work, just wander in, grab what you want, and leave again. Most of our employees treat this as a second shot at a better, more enjoyable life and make a career out of it.”

“You’re.. serious?” Mandy asked. Barbara nodded and smiled.

“Like I said, you were due some good luck. Let’s get started on your paperwork and you can tell me when you’re comfortable starting.”

Goblin Paradise

“Good morning, how’d you sleep?” Wendy asked. Edgar had just pulled himself to a seated position on the cot when she threw the door to his cell open. He looked up and smiled at the orange-haired woman.

“Like a baby, I haven’t felt that safe in years,” he chuckled.

“It gets better,” she grinned. “Your bloodwork checked out, quarantine’s over. Tonight you get a real bed in a real room.’

“Oh, God,…” Edgar hung his head and gave a long, peaceful sigh. “That’s amazing, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Wendy stepped into the cell and held her hand out for Edgar. “The council wants to meet you, you can thank them.”

“Right now?” he asked as he accepted the gesture with a quick grasp and stood up.

“Gotta pull your weight to earn that room,” she winked a coffee-brown eye, then whirled around. Her orange curls bounced as she walked out of the cell expecting Edgar to follow her. He did. “Don’t be nervous, they’re not going to kick you out or anything,” Wendy added. They stepped out of the small-town police station and into the bright sunlight.

Edgar noticed almost two-dozen strangers strolling the town’s narrow main street. The walked in and out of the shops lining the street carrying various bags. He initially thought it was odd until he noticed the bags were all carrying the same items.

Edgar split his attention as he followed Wendy through the fortified town and noticed a flow. The townsfolk all walked into and out of the same stores, carrying the same things. They exited the general store holding a burlap bundle of plain containers, then entered the cleaners. Everyone came out of the cleaners carrying similar-looking clothes. There were other shops he couldn’t identify, but the townsfolk always reappeared carrying the same packages. 

Edgar was about to ask Wendy about how bartering worked, but she suddenly came to a stop. He was surprised to see two armed guards standing outside the town bank.

“They’re just going to ask you a few questions to see where you fit; don’t worry about anything,” Wendy said, and she encouraged him toward the door.

“You’re not coming in?” he asked. Wendy shook her head.

“I’ve got other chores. Oh!” she said suddenly. “One more thing,” she leaned in closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. “They’re not human. Don’t freak out, they’re very nice.” She patted Edgar on the back. “Good luck!” Wendy left with a smile then walked up the sidewalk.

“What do you mean they’re not human?” Edgar mumbled to himself as he pulled the bank door open. He received an answer as soon as the walked into the lobby. There did not appear to be any customers in the bank, but a circle of bar stools stood in the middle of the lobby. Atop each stool sat a short, sickly-green, person wearing a suit. The suits were all different and seemed to indicate personal preference instead of any sort of ranking hierarchy.

Each member of the council took pride in their appearance. Despite their over-sized noses and broad, triangle-shaped ears, each member’s hair was neatly combed.

“Welcome to Goblintown,” one of the council members spoke up when he spotted Edgar. His voice was deeper and smoother than Edgar expected from the short green man that he suddenly realized was probably a goblin. Edgar reached the town the night before; it was dark and he hadn’t seen any signage. He’d never heard of a place called Goblintown, but he assumed it had another name before the zombie apocalypse.

“Thank you,” Edgar replied as he made his way into the center of the circle. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do. He looked around at the six smiling, green faces and realized he still felt at ease.

“You’ll need to pitch in if you want to stay. We have a few questions to go through to find you a compatible position,” the goblin that spoke up first said. Edgar assumed he was the one in charge. He nodded at the head goblin.

“Where were you born?” the goblin asked.

“Uh,” Edgar faltered for a second; it wasn’t a question he expected. He had no idea how is birthplace came into play, but he didn’t want to offend his hosts. “Wisconsin,” he said. The head goblin gave him a curious look with a slight head tilt. As Edgar glanced around at the rest of the group nervously, he noted they all gave him the same puzzled look.

“Which Wisconsin?” the goblin asked. Edgar nodded with a slight chuckle.

“How many are there?” he asked. The goblin remained quiet for a moment, then asked a new question.

“How old are you?” Edgar saw the reasoning behind that question and considered lying to make himself younger. He did not want to get relegated to ‘old man’s’ work. He looked considerably younger than his 47 years and knew he could shave off at least a decade. But something inside told him that wasn’t the right move. These goblins were trying to help him; it didn’t seem right to lie for no reason.

“47,” he said. He expected another question. Instead, he heard six goblins gasp in surprise simultaneously. Immediately the goblin to the right of the one Edgar had been speaking to made a downward swipe gesture with his hand.

Edgar had seen several strange things wandering through the zombie-scape on his way to Goblintown. But, the smokey-grey, glassy slate that appeared and hovered in front of the goblin was new to him. The goblin tapped and swiped on the slate several times, then looked up at the head goblin.

“Paradise server, 46 years old,” the right-hand goblin said. A broad, toothy smile formed on the head goblin’s face and his large muddy-green eyes sparkled.

“What’s your favorite number?” the goblin asked.

“35,” Edgar answered before he could wonder about the relevance of the question. Even after his answer, he was distracted by the fact that he had a favorite number he didn’t know about until then.

The quiet bank lobby was suddenly filled with the cheers of six goblins. Each of them was so excited they hopped off their barstools and began congratulating each other. Edgar felt like he sunk the winning shot at the last minute in a game he didn’t know existed. The celebrating goblins hugged and patted each other on the back and more or less ignored Edgar for almost a full minute. Finally, the head goblin seemed to remember Edgar was there and turned his attention to him.

“Go find Wendy. Tell her you’re an Estrella and let her give you a tattoo,” he said.

“Do I need the tattoo?” Edgar asked. The goblin nodded. “Then what?” he asked again. He had no idea what kind of help he could pitch in that required a tattoo.

“Then, you get to learn how to play the game,” the goblin grinned and shoo’d Edgar toward the door.

“What game?” Edgar asked. The goblin burst into laughter.

“Why do you think there are zombies running around out there?”

Poem of the Day

“Bad poetry day?” he asked.
“Never heard of it.”
“You haven’t? Good thing you asked!
Its when we celebrate:
‘Anyone can write poetry!’ “

“Why give a day to poetry?”
Why not pinot noir,
fajitas, or serendipity?”
“August 18th is their day too, and more!”

“It’s national couple’s day,
ice cream and mail order catalog day.
Anything can be special any day.”

“Anything?” he asked. “Black cat appreciation?”
“Anything,” she said, “agreed on across the nation.

Black cat appreciation day was yesterday.”