Sharp Barrel

“It’s empty,” Karen said. She tilted the white cookie jar forward to show Janice the empty, dark interior. As she tilted it forward, she noticed #09 written on the bottom in red numbers.

The pair of new friend’s sat in Janice’s small kitchen for the first of what was planned to be a weekly brunch. Janice moved into the neighborhood two weeks ago and she hit it off immediately with Karen. They had a surprising amount in common despite Karen being the mother of three and Janice living single and child free. That was the main reason they chose to meet at Janice’s; Karen jumped at the chance for a scheduled weekly break.

“It’s only empty until you put your hand in,” Janice said with a smirk. Karen thought for a moment, then giggled as she put the lid back on the jar. A pair of red scissors decorated the top of the ceramic lid.

“You’re more of a smart-ass than I thought,” she said.

“What?” Janice didn’t quite get what Karen meant and took a moment to think. “Oh! That’s not what I meant,” Janice reached for the cookie jar and removed the lid. She reached her hand in to pull out some of the chocolate chip cookies for Karen. She offered her three, then asked if she wanted more.

“How’d you do that? That was just empty.”

“Have you heard of a company named Sharp Development?” Janice asked. She put the lid back on the jar after Karen declined any more.

“No,” Karen replied. “Why?”

“Just curious,” Janice said. “They were all over back in my old city, I was wondering if they had any presence here. Sorry, the thought kind of popped up at the same time. But, the cookie jar; that’s just plain old magic,” she said.

“Magic?” Karen asked. She tilted her head at Janice in curiosity. “You know magic?” Janice shook her head.

“I bought it off someone. Look,” Janice pulled the lid off and showed Karen the black inside. “Go ahead,” she encouraged.

Karen was half-sure it was some sort of trick, but she assumed the fastest way to find that out was to go along with it. She reached her hand into the jar, then immediately yanked it out. Two things happened at the exact moment. Karen’s hand disappeared completely into the darkness. At the same moment, her fingertips brushed up against something when she expected nothing.

Janice giggled, but did not say anything nor move the jar away. Karen realized she touched some cookies, then reached her hand back into the darkness. This time she was ready for her fingertips bumping into the dry, dusty texture of a cookie. She felt it out and grabbed it. Then, she withdrew her hand, cookie and all.

“Nice,” Karen said. “So, what makes it magic? Just that fancy optical illusion that it’s empty?”

“Oh, no. It never runs out.”

“Ever?” Karen asked. Janice shrugged.

“It hasn’t in about five years, I’m guessing it won’t ever.”

“Whoa…,” Karen replied. If she hadn’t seen evidence with her own eyes she’d be more skeptical. “… can you get another one? For me? I’d save a ton of money on treats for the kids if it’s not too expensive.”

“You’ve been so nice to me since I moved here,” Janice said. “Go ahead and take the one home with you today. I can replace it pretty easily.”

“Really? You’re just giving this to me?”

“Sure,” Janice nodded. “Congratulations. Now you own a magic cookie jar. No matter how many cookies you eat, it’s never empty.”

Inconvenient Currency

“That’s it?” the 12-year-old’s eyes lit up when he realized he could afford the candy. “Really really?” he asked.

“Really,” Murray replied from behind the counter.

“Thanks, mister!” the chubby kid grabbed the candy bar off the counter and dashed out the door. Murray watched him walk out into the parking lot, and immediately trip over one of the cement stops. He tumbled down but managed to stop himself before he ate a face full of blacktop. Murray chuckled to himself as he watched the boy slowly get to his feet.

“They never listen,” he mumbled to himself. The boy limped forward for one step, then he turned and looked at Murray through the door. The boy looked down at the candy bar, then to the cement stop. He shrugged, then turned around and limped back across the street. “They never learn.” Murray only watched long enough to see that the boy crossed safely, then he sat down to wait for his next customer; there wasn’t anything else to do.

Murray’s small store wasn’t very well known in the community, despite being there for over a century. People tended to ignore it until they needed something. But, that was part and parcel of running a shop for Hell. Luckily, Hell was very organized; he had nothing to do but sit behind the counter. A demon came by to stock and clean up the store for him. Murray sat on his stool and after a few minutes decided to kill some time. He pulled out his notepad and a freshly sharpened pencil. Doodling was one of the few hobbies he enjoyed over the last century. He’d cultivated a pretty impressive talent despite the countless, constant interruptions.

A tinny jingle sounded from the door at the same time his pencil led snapped; he’d only managed to draw about four lines. He sighed and looked up to meet his new client. She was a young woman, maybe in her mid-30s, with short blond hair and a concerned look on her face. She walked up to the counter and placed a $5 bill in front of him.

“Thank you for letting my son take the candy…,” she said. She tilted her head toward the exit and Murray saw the kid sitting in a car and waiting while enjoying the last of the treat. “But, I don’t want him to fall into the habit of taking things for free just because he can,” she added.

“Well, Ma’am, I appreciate you wanting to raise your son as you see fit; however, it wasn’t free,” Murray replied. He stood from his stool just so he wouldn’t seem rude. A look of confusion clouded the woman’s green eyes. She glanced back out the door.

“Did he steal it?” she asked. “I know he did not have any money when he left the house.” Murray shook his head and smiled.

“No, he didn’t steal anything. That transaction was completed all on the level. Things here don’t cost money.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The price of everything I sell is paid with something a bit more intangible than money,” Murray said. “Your boy paid the price.” The woman tilted her head at him and narrowed her eyes.

“Did…,” she took a step back. “Did you hurt my son then give him candy for it?!” she asked. Her tone was cold, but she tried very hard not to raise her voice; Murray appreciated that effort. Murray shook his head.

“No,” he said plainly. “I saw him fall on the way out,” Murray pointed to the security monitor next to the register to hint that they could watch it if she needed proof. “Did he get hurt?” She relaxed slightly, then nodded.

“I think his wrist is sprained. It’s not a big deal, but it’s his writing hand. Anyway, sorry for accusing you. But, explain this no money thing to me.”

“Simple. You take anything you want then, pay for it later. The universe decides how and when you pay for it.”

“You some kind of hippy?” the woman asked. “Or.. cultist? What the hell kind of thing is, ‘the universe decides’?” Murray shrugged.

“That’s how it works. It doesn’t matter if you believe me; your son has the candy and I’m not going to accept this,” he slid the bill back towards her.

“So, I can just walk out of here with.. anything. Everything?” she asked.

“You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The price grows kind of exponentially; any more than 10 items at once and you’re in for a really bad time.” She stared at him for a moment, then turned around without a word. Instead of exiting, she ventured into the narrow aisles.

She returned to the counter with two 20-packs of beer. After setting them down, she returned to the aisles. She made the trip back and forth a total of six times; each time stacking them wherever she could.

“11 of your most expensive item; ring me up or however it works,” she said. Murray glanced out the window at the boy waiting patiently in the car. His candy was long gone and he was having trouble playing a game on his phone with one hand.

“I’m sorry, I have the right to refuse service to anyone, and I refuse this transaction,” he said. The woman laughed at him.

“Fine, if you’re sticking to that, then nothing I can do. But, thank you for your kindness,” she said as she picked up the bill from the counter. “And I’m leaving these here for you,” she tapped one of the cases of beer and smiled playfully before leaving the store.

Murray waited until their car left the parking lot, then he pressed the ‘service’ button under the counter. A cloud of yellow sulfur plumed into existence in front of the counter. It dissipated quickly but left behind a lean, red-skinned demon wearing a pair of blue jean overalls.

“What the Hell is this?” the demon asked upon seeing the stacks of beer cases.

“Eh, some lady wanted to make a point but I refused the transaction.”

“You’re too soft for Hell,” the demon grumbled as he hefted a pair of cases. Murray chuckled.

“You’re the one that trapped me behind the counter,” he said as he sat back down on his stool. The demon walked toward the back with the beer.

“You’re the one that wanted your own convenience store and to never worry about money again,…,” the demon grumbled as he ventured down the aisle. Murray grabbed his sketch pad and another, freshly sharpened pencil. This time, he managed to draw five lines before the lead snapped. He automatically dropped it and reached for a new one to continue.

Stellar Judgement

“A computer simulation?” Murphy asked. “So it’s like the AlterNet?” On the TV, Harry Anderson stared at a red pill and a blue pill. The choice was offered by a lean pale man in a black leather robe.

“Yeah, kind of,” Phoebe nodded. “Except the AlterNet is real,” she took a handful of popcorn and began munching. On-screen, Harry Anderson swallowed the red pill.

“Duh,” Murphy said. “I know this is a movie.” Phoebe pulled the popcorn in her hand away from her mouth. She turned to look at Murphy and shook her head while trying to finish chewing the last few kernels. Then, she took a sip of soda to wash it down.

“That’s not what I mean. In the universe of this movie, ‘The Matrix’ isn’t real. It’s all a computer simulation fed into people’s brains. Whereas out here in the real world, the AlterNet is real too. You can log in from a mudroom to send your consciousness to another universe or you can visit it to play as your character in person.”

“Oh, okay,” Murphy nodded. He turned his focus back to the movie; Harry Anderson woke up in a small bed in a small room. The door opened to admit a red-headed young man dressed in little more than rags.

“Really? They’re going with ‘Ronnity?” Murphy chuckled as the character introduced himself to Harry. Phoebe giggled too, but she nodded.

“Different universes, different names. Once you get out into the multiverse more you’ll hear some pretty strange names. Eventually, it stops phasing you.” Murphy nodded.

They watched quietly for a bit longer. Harry had the matrix explained to him by taking him to various locations. Then, they ventured to a bustling city street. Severus led a bewildered Harry through an oncoming crowd of black suits. Seeing all the pedestrians triggered a thought in Murphy’s mind.

“So, as far as the movie is concerned none of those people are ‘real’ right?” he asked. Phoebe nodded but kept her focus on the screen.

“Yep,” she said. 

“And in the AlterNet, those are real Earths, right?”

“Yep,” Phoebe nodded again. Murphy used his node to pause the movie. On the screen, Harry just had a brush with a woman in a red dress. Murphy paused it right as Harry turned to face a wizard with his wand pointed directly at Harry’s face.

“Are the NPCs real people?” he asked.

“Wh-HAT?” Phoebe laughed like it was the most hilarious joke she’d ever heard. She leaned forward, practically doubling herself over as her body shook from the loud, obnoxious laugh. Murphy waited the nearly half-minute it took for her to calm down, but finally, she shook her head.

“Sorry,” she said. “I get that it’s a valid question; but, think about it. We’ve already been on a few quests just to get your feet wet. Remember when we were farming for your skills? We killed the same NPC at least 30 times in the span of about three hours. If the NPCs were real people, they wouldn’t be able to respawn that fast.”

“Oh, okay,” Murphy said. He unpaused the movie; but, the moment it started he paused it again.

“Then, where do the people go? And where do the NPCs come from?” he asked. Phoebe shrugged.

“Where they come from is easy. They’re nanoswarms; like the mannequins that receive your consciousness when you use a mudroom. I don’t know where the real people go, but I’m sure Sharp Development takes care of them. Ms. Sharp has tons of Earths, I’m sure she just sends people to whatever one they want to go.”

“Do you know that for sure, or are you just assuming?” Murphy asked. Phoebe giggled.

“I’m assuming the same way I assume there’s a fire if I see smoke,” she said. “Dana Sharp is the most powerful woman in the multiverse, and all she ever does is help people. Any product you get with the name Sharp Development on it is always super high quality and super inexpensive. She already has more money than exists on any single Earth, and she owns a giant corporation that I’m sure keeps her very busy. If AlterNet players were out there killing entire Earths, I really doubt she’d be as successful as she is. She would literally have nothing to gain if the AlterNet used real people.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Murphy agreed. He unpaused the movie and they continued watching and munching popcorn.

“Oh, wow, that was great. Waaaaaay better than Predator vs. Jason,.. but, not as good as Freddy vs. Jason Vs. Predator vs. Aliens vs. 3 Stooges vs. Dracula. Is there a sequel to this one?”  Murphy asked.

“No, but they did do a TV show; it’s totally different though. Harry stopped the machines in this one, so the series takes place in a more normal world. He can’t use magic anymore since that was only in the matrix, but he still does like stage-magic.”

“Oh,” Murphy said. It didn’t sound all that exciting to him, especially considering the action-fest he just finished. “So, what? It’s just about him living off that?” Phoebe shook her head.

“Not exactly. He becomes a judge that happens to enjoy performing stage-magic.  He uses tricks to entertain the court or de-escalate situations. It leans more to comedy.”

“Oh, that sounds fun. Let’s do a few episodes of that.”

Super & Unique

“We should leave,” Joshua said. The nurse had only been out of the room for a moment before he suggested it.

“Nonsense,” his wife replied without looking at him. Her focus rested entirely on the wiggling bundle in her lap. A fair-skinned, dark-haired baby boy giggled at her various faces. “We need to get our boy taken care of.”

“Something isn’t right, Mary,” Joshua said. “The nurse looked surprised when she gave him his first shot,” he said. “You saw how fast she excused herself.”

“It’s a doctor’s office, dear. Things come up,” Mary replied while still making the boy giggle.

She was supposed to give him more than one,” Joshua added. “What if he’s not… normal,” Joshua asked. That did get Mary’s attention. She looked at her husband with stern eyes.

“Our boy is perfect,” she said. “The nurse said she’d be back in a moment; maybe she went to get the rest of the vaccines.” The baby’s giggles died down without Mary’s attention, but they began again as soon she was locked onto his sparkling blue eyes. Joshua sighed and leaned closer to Mary’s ear.

“Honey…,” he said. “I know we’re going to love him no matter what, but you have to consider the fact that we found him in a crater in a field. Maybe something happened when she gave him the shot.”

“If something out of the ordinary happened, don’t you think she would have shown it a bit more?” Mary asked. “She didn’t even blink, she injected him, then set the needle down and excused herself.” Mary paused for a moment after that and tilted her head slightly; she looked up from the baby again.

“She didn’t dispose of it properly…,” Mary realized. Joshua stood and walked to the small cart the nurse left behind. He picked up the plunger and examined it; the needle only extended a fraction of what he expected, he held it out to his wife.

“It’s broken,” she said plainly. Then she looked down at the baby’s leg and realized the nurse left without applying a bandaid. “Maybe we should,-” Mary’s suggestion was interrupted by a knock on the door. It swung open to let in a tall, lean, aqua-haired woman in a white coat.

“Mr. and Mrs. Clark, my name is Dr. Mundo,” the woman smiled at them, then she looked down at the baby in Mary’s lap.

“Oh my, it looks like you’re going to have your hands full with this one,” she said. Mundo tilted her head slightly, as if she noticed something, then he gave Mary and Joshua a more thorough appraisal.

“Where did you find him?” she asked.

“He’s my son!” Mary said. Her voice only carried slight traces of annoyance and anger; but, they were enough to interrupt the baby’s giggles. Dr. Mundo shook her head.

“Not biologically,” she said. The Clarks stood to leave, but Dr. Mundo continued. “I’m not trying to take him away from you, but if you’re going to raise him, there’s a lot you need to know. To give you the right information, I need the right information from you,” she said.

“Why?” Joshua asked. He realized that seemed vague and clarified. “Why aren’t you trying to take him away from us?”

“The simple answer is, he’s not from this Earth,” she said. “I’m not sure how he got here. If his real parents ever come looking for him, that’s for you and them to work out. Until then, I know you’ll give him a good home.”

“What do you mean he’s not from Earth?” Mary asked. Both parents sat down again; they seemed to trust the doctor a bit more.

“Oh, he’s from Earth. Just not this one. Alternate universes exist and this little cutie seems to be from one of those.”

“How do you know… any of this? You just walked in,” Joshua asked. A broad smile took over Dr. Mundo’s face.

“I’m so glad you asked,” she said.

“I’ll get to that answer eventually. First, let’s talk about your baby, have you named him yet?”

“Constance,” both parents replied simultaneously; to their surprise. Things happened so fast, they hadn’t had any time to discuss names. They had a library of names to choose from; they often discussed children in the past. Before they gave up. However, Constance was not on any of their lists.

“It’s a beautiful name,” Dr. Mundo said. “So, let’s get started. Your son is what’s known as a ‘Unique Soul’. I mentioned alternate universes earlier; you should know that a ‘Unique Soul’ does not have a counterpart in any other universe. In all of infinity, there is only one child like your son.” Both parents smiled at that extra bit of information.

Dr. Mundo was about to say more when a sudden knock struck the door. The same nurse that tried to give Constance a vaccine peeked in but now her white uniform was covered with a growing green sludge.

“Dr., I’m sorry. Fae emergency,” she said. Dr. Mundo nodded, then turned her attention back to the Clarks.

“I’m sorry, something’s come up. But, we really should continue this. Please make an appointment on your way out,” Dr. Mundo turned to leave the room, but paused in the doorway.

“You should know that Unique Souls often attract each other. Now that he’s part of your life, you should be prepared for lots of unexpected things. If anything out of the ordinary happens before our next meeting; here’s the important stuff. Your son is Unique Soul #42, La Calavera. Even at his age right now, he’s the strongest person on this Earth. On top of that, he’s also a Super with the ability to fly.” She turned away again, leaving them semi-confused. But, to their surprise, she paused again after a step.”And, one final piece of advice until our next meeting. If you ever meet anyone named Dana Sharp; or someone claiming to be from Sharp Development. Do not trust them under any circumstances.”

Wedding. Arrangement.

“Your daughter?” Arc-Wielder asked. The serpentine vines that held him upside down turned him right side up and placed him gently on the ground in front of Gaia. The hero corp. warned Arc-Wielder that Gaia was out of everyone’s league. Her reputation diminished a bit over the past four years; but, as powerful as she was, she usually kept to her own town. The heroes learned if they didn’t try to mess with her, she wouldn’t bother with them too much. Arc-Wielder, however, wanted to make a name for himself.

He was in her clutches two minutes after his first heroic act. Arc-Wielder tried to defend himself, but his electricity had no effect on her. Green vines shot out of the ground to grab his ankles then pulled him down into the earth. He was dragged fast with no idea in which direction he was being pulled. After what felt like several minutes, he saw light again.

He found himself dangling in the air staring at an upside-down woman with a bodice formed from brown and green vines. Her hair resembled a bundle of roots tied back atop her head; he recognized her instantly.

“PLEASE DON’T KILL ME, GAIA!” he pleaded. His blue mask, and cape, were lost somewhere in the Earth. His face was flush with the worry of his impending demise and the strain of all the blood rushing down. Gaia sighed and rolled her eyes. Four thick earthen spikes shot upward faster than Arc-Wielder could react. In an instant, he felt his head supported by four thick columns as the points missed his head by centimeters.

“I wouldn’t have brought you to my forest if I was going to kill you,” she said. “I brought you here to talk…,” Gaia added. “…to my daughter.”

“Why me?” Arc-Wielder asked once he was on his feet again.

“Because she needs your help, Greg,” Gaia said. Arc-Wielder’s eyes shot wide.

“How’d you know my name?” he asked. It took all his heroism to stay in place and not start taking steps backward. Not only was she out of his league entirely, she apparently knew his secret identity. Trying to run wouldn’t get him very far, but he hoped he could at least earn a sliver of respect by pretending to keep his cool.

“Mr. Gregory Quaid, you’re 28 years old, single, and own a moderately successful business. I wasn’t the entire reason for your move here, you’re expecting to grow your business even more here,” she said. Gaia’s smile grew wider as Greg’s face lost color. “The hero corp. hasn’t quite figured it out yet; but, I’m the actual, literal spirit of the Earth. I know everything.”

The brown roots atop Gaia’s head suddenly fell off her head and the vines that were wrapped around her torso loosened. Greg watched a  mid-40s soccer mom appear from underneath the roots and vines. He never would have guessed she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt under all the greens and browns.

“Keep my secret and stay alive,” Gaia said. She smiled and offered Greg her hand. “My name is Gale Stone, and my daughter’s name is Cadence.” Greg accepted her hand; but, instead of a handshake, he could only tremble slightly at the contact before pulling away.

“How.. uh..,” Greg swallowed his nerves. “How can I help your daughter?”  Gale sighed again, but with less annoyance this time.

“My little girl’s all grown up. She’s gotten men in her head and she’s decided she wants to get married.” Gale locked her jade eyes with his dark brown set. “That’s where you come in.”

If Greg had not been terrified out of his wits, he might have had a different, more helpful reaction. But, this all-powerful woman forced her trust on him and now she seemed intent on bringing him into the family.

“You’re kidding!” Greg laughed as soon as the words came out. It was a nervous, high-pitched laugh as he broke eye contact. He quickly looked around the forest clearing to find an escape path. That was the first time he noticed there wasn’t one; they were surrounded by a thick wall of trees. “I can’t marry your daughter!” he said. With no way out, he locked eyes with her again; they were colder this time.

“What do you mean, exactly?” she asked. Her voice was flat and her smile was gone.

“I’m honored! I really am!” Greg said while shaking his head. “I can’t marry a supervillain’s daughter! What if the hero corp. finds out?” Greg’s question was answered by a sharp lash across his cheek; one of Gale’s vines swayed like a snake in front of Greg as if expecting the need to give him another one.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Gale asked. This time she had an edge of frustration in her voice.

“Your daughter? You brought me here to talk to me about her…,” he said. “I’m successful and single. She wants to get married…,” Greg made several gestures with his hands as he explained his thought process. Gale immediately burst into a fit of giggles. Greg thought he was safe for a moment until he was suddenly upside down again. He felt vines roaming all over him; constricting and exploring his clothing as if trying to find a way in.

“As if a Zero like you is good enough for my daughter,” Gale continued to laugh. Greg knew he was going to die. He closed his eyes to wait for the inevitable. It started with another slap against his cheek.

“Hey, open your eyes idiot,” Gale said. He did.

“OOOOoooooooh. Shit.” Greg sighed as he felt his cheeks growing flush again; from the blood rush and embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” he said. The vines placed him on the ground again. He reached out and grabbed his business card from one of the vines; it was the site he saw the moment he opened his eyes and felt like a moron. Then, he knelt to grab his open wallet from the ground. “Your reputation, you know…,” he said.

“Are you going to help, or not?” Gale asked. Greg eagerly nodded, with a mock tip of the hat. 

“Quaid’s Wedding Plan and Design at your service.”

Hellish Escalation

A cloud of dark red smoke bloomed to fill the area within the pentagram. The scent of spicy, candy cinnamon surprised Valerie slightly more than the red smoke.

“That worked?” she wondered aloud.

“You have the gift!” one of the brothers said. He hopped to his feet and stared intently into the red smoke; the rest of the cult members remained prostrated to concentrate on the pentagram. His voice sounded vaguely familiar to Valerie, but she couldn’t see any of their faces under the blue hood. It didn’t matter; they were all either Brothers or Sisters. Valerie had only been a member for about a week so far. She made it a point to think her own name every time someone called her, ‘Sister’ so she wouldn’t forget it.

Valerie did not imagine the alien invasion ending any time soon; it only began a month before she joined the cult. The aliens were powerful but didn’t seem concerned with hunting down every single human. It felt more like they were just going to start living on Earth until they supplanted humans completely. The one attempted nuke was as useless as all the coordinated attacks before it. The aliens almost acted like they didn’t even notice the explosion or radiation. The only thing she had left when she joined the cult was her name, and she was determined to hold on to it. 

The smoke began to dissipate from the pentagram but it left behind a short, squat pink-skinned figure with blood-red horns. He wore a crisp white suit with a red tie.

“Which one summoned me?” The demon asked with a nasally voice that took Valerie by surprise. It wasn’t what she expected from the rotund creature. Valerie looked at the Brother for guidance. He nodded and gestured for her to take responsibility.

“I did,” Valerie said. The demon was keeping an eye on both of them, then turned to give her his full attention.

“The summoning usually comes with an intent, but there must have been a glitch or something. I didn’t get one so, what do you want?” he asked. “We specialize in buying souls if you’re selling, but I’m open to negotiating pretty much anything.”

Valerie hadn’t expected the ritual to work. She briefly guessed that was why there was no intent. Now that he mentioned souls, she became a little worried about her own. The cult leader explained they were hoping to use the forces of hell to combat the aliens, but Valerie suddenly considered the cost.

“Aliens invaded,” she said. “What can Hell do to help us fight back?”

“Aliens?” the demon asked. His eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered quickly. He lifted his hand and made a ‘swipe down’ gesture with his hand. A large, grey slate of glass appeared and hovered in front of the demon. He focused on it and began typing, tapping, and swiping. After several seconds he seemed to find some sort of confirmation. “Oh shit, aliens,” he mumbled. His fingers fluttered across the slate one more time, extra quickly. Then, he dismissed the slate with a wave of his hand.

“Nothing. Thank you for calling, Good-bye,” The demon said. Red cinnamon smoke plumed around him and he disappeared into it.

“WAIT!” the Brother yelled out; Valerie was too surprised by how fast it all happened. She stared into the red smoke waiting for him to reappear. It had to be some sort of demon practical joke. She was relieved when she noticed movement in the smoke again.

“What’s your name?” a woman asked. The red smoke cleared to reveal a pale woman with dark hair. She wore a black suit, and she stared at Valerie with glowing golden stars in her eyes. Behind her, a pitch-black portal seemed to be swallowing the smoke. Again, the Brother acted quicker than her.

“Our Sisters do not need names,” he said quickly. “Who are you?” The woman turned to face him, and the stars vanished from her eyes.

“Maybe you didn’t notice, and that’s okay. It’s kind of dark in here,” she said. Her voice carried a cold, hurried edge. “I wasn’t talking to you.” Then she turned back to Valerie.

“I am talking to you, what’s your name?”

“Valerie,” she answered.

“Valerie, I’ve just been informed this Earth is infested with aliens. Would you like to go to a different one that isn’t?”

“YES!” Valerie readily agreed. She did not waste time wondering what the woman meant by a different Earth. All Valerie knew was that she was offered a safe haven. The woman stepped out of the black portal completely to introduce herself to Valerie.

“I’m Melody,” she said. Valerie meant to shake Melody’s hand, but she was distracted. She raised her hand and pointed at the Brother already sneaking into the portal. Melody smiled without turning around. The black hole disappeared then reappeared next to them; Brother walked out of it. He was immediately confused that he ended up in the same basement.

“Invitation only,” Melody. She gestured at the hole to encourage Valerie to enter. She did without hesitation.

“Please!” the Brother fell prostrate. He was now the only one; the rest of the cult sat up looking around. They were confused by her presence. “Goddess Melody! You must be a goddess to be so powerful!” he begged. “Is there nothing you can do about the aliens?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Melody said. The palms of her hands began to glow with brilliant blue light. “I’m going to.”

Day by Day

“Well, technically it is yesterday,” Nick chuckled. Victoria, the beautiful woman sitting across from him, pulled off a violet hair color very well. He enjoyed every second of the date so far; she seemed smart and funny to go with her good looks. But, suddenly, he had doubts when a slight look of confusion appeared on her face.

“How so?” she asked. She commented on the weather and mentioned it was as beautiful a day as the previous one.

“The loop?” he said.

“What loop?” Victoria asked. This time, a slight look of confusion washed over Nick’s face.

“Oh wow,” he said; mostly to himself. “I never met anyone that didn’t know.”

“Time loop?” Victoria asked, but shook her head. “How long does it run? I’ve only been in town for a couple of days.”

“It resets every day…,” Nick said. He had been leaning forward over the table to talk more intimately. He sat up straighter, confused by her confusion. “… across the whole world.”

“Really?” she asked. “But, yesterday was March 10th, and today is March 11th.” Nick nodded at her question.

“Well, the day is looping, but we still have free will. The loop started years ago. Since everyone knew about it humanity went ahead and started a new calendar. It’s technically March 11th, 0003, T.L. Where are you from that you don’t know that?” he asked. Victoria giggled.

“I’m from an alternate Earth, just passing through.” Nick stared at her for a moment, then nodded.

“If my world wasn’t stuck in a time loop, I’d probably have more trouble believing you,” he said.

“Do you want me to fix it?” Victoria asked.

“You can do that?” Nick asked; he leaned forward over the table again. Victoria shrugged.

“Technically not me, but I can arrange it if you want,” she said.

“Ye- no!” Nick began to answer, then changed his mind rapidly. “Please no!” he added for emphasis.

“Why not?” she asked. Nick shrugged.

“Honestly, it’s kind of nice. Resources are essentially unlimited, so people are nicer about sharing. The death of a loved one is temporary. Everything physical resets every day, but people still keep growing their knowledge. It was a rough first year, but people are settling in nicely now.”

“Hey, neat,” Victoria said with a smile. “Then, I won’t mess with it.”

“So, what’s a nice girl from an alternate universe doing in a time-looped place like this?” Nick asked with a smile.

“Well, I was working until you said you didn’t want the loop fixed,” she said.

“Working? Doing what exactly? Are you a scientist?” Victoria shook her head.

“I’m a Scout for Sharp Development. I visit alternate Earths and determine whether they have any value to the company. Yours doesn’t, by the way,” she added.

“What do you mean? To set up branch offices or something?” he asked. Victoria shook her head again; Nick loved the sight of her purple ponytail swishing back and forth behind her head.

“To buy,” she said.

“To buy… an Earth? Is that possible?”

“At the moment, Sharp Development owns over 1000 Earths,” Victoria smirked playfully. “Not including Earths where we have a branch office or something,” 

“1000 Earths??” Nick’s eyes widened for a moment, then he smiled. “What’s yours like?” Victoria shrugged.

“No idea, I haven’t been back in forever. I’m not even sure if it’s still there,” she said.

“How long ago could it have been?” he asked. “You look … 22? 23?” he asked. Victoria nodded.

“I wish! I’m almost 2900 though.”

“29.. hundred?” Nick asked in awe. “Wow.  That’s…   wow,” he took a few moments to process it in silence. Victoria sipped her coffee and let him take all the time he needed. Finally, he looked up at her and smiled.

“So, do you like younger guys?” he asked. Victoria leaned forward with a smile.

“I kind of have to.”

Escape. Faster.

“…and the last rule is: you have to escape within an hour,” the red-skinned demon explained. Despite this being his eternal damnation, Edgar was only half-listening to the rules laid out by the demon. He was too preoccupied with inspecting the spacious room and figuring out loopholes.

When Edgar first arrived in Hell, he was surprised to see it operating so professionally. When he arrived he had a selection of cold drinks waiting for him while he sat in the white lobby and listened to pleasant music. He was surprised that only a few other souls were in line waiting to be damned with him. Then, a clerk came and checked him in.

The clerk explained that this Hell was run by Sharp Development. Their standards differed from the Hell Edgar expected when he signed his soul over. Once he was in the system, he was allowed to finish his last drink, then he was taken to a large room that looked like someone’s home.

A giant living room was partnered with a small galley kitchen. A large screen TV with several video game consoles sat at the center of the room. A comfortable-looking sofa sat in front of the TV. The demon explained it was an escape room, but Edgar planned to put off escaping as long as he could; until the demon told him about the hour limit. That finally got his full attention.

“Why?” Edgar asked. “What happens if I don’t?” The demon smiled.

“You’ll feel a strong burning sensation until you do,” he said. Edgar was disappointed, but he took comfort knowing that elaborate escape rooms were one of his biggest pleasures. He loved searching for clues and trying to piece together abstract puzzles. It gave his mind a workout and he felt satisfied after solving the complicated escape. Inside, he grinned to himself like a fool. Hell couldn’t have made a bigger mistake; he absolutely loved escape rooms and would happily spend eternity solving them. But, as good as he was, he knew this was Hell, and he realized something.

“I have to escape every hour?” he asked. “What about sleep?” The demon shrugged.

“We’re a bit nicer here, but this is still technically a version of Hell,” he said. “I will give you a small hint, though. Each room you escape into will be pretty similar to the one before it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll probably be able to squeeze in some winks here and there before your room ignites.”

“Oh,” Edgar was relieved and disappointed at the same time. He was glad he’d get the chance to catnap his way through eternity instead of being tortured; but, he wasn’t happy to hear the rooms wouldn’t change much. As much as he was looking forward to solving infinite puzzles, it wouldn’t be any fun if they weren’t hard.

“Alright,” the demon raised his hand and showed Edgar a stopwatch. “For the first one, you get some extra time. 3 hours. Go!” he clicked the button and it immediately switched to 02:59:59 and began counting down.

“Are you going to stay here?” Edgar asked. The demon shrugged.

“I planned to for the first one, but if you don’t want me to watch you work that’s fine. Just say, “Hey, Jim!” whenever you need me.

“Your name’s Jim?’ Edgar asked.

“The human mouth can’t say my name, but Jim works,” he said. At his words, a cloud of red, cinnamon-scented smoke appeared and enveloped Jim. After a moment it began to dissipate and he was gone with it. Edgar immediately felt at ease and eager to test his skills. He spun around the room to try and spot anything that stood out. He saw a standard, if well-off, living room. Nothing jumped out at first, but then a stray thought tickled his brain.

“I’m in Hell,” he said aloud. “Why would they give me a TV?” he asked himself as he strode toward the low obsidian coffee table and grabbed the remote. He looked it over carefully, and even pulled open the battery cover; but, it all looked normal. Then, he pointed it at the TV and pressed the ‘ON’ button. A white screen with red text appeared.

[CONGRATULATIONS!] [You have escaped.] [Move on to the next room.]

“What the Hell?” Edgar said. “No way.”  He looked around the room and saw an open door along the far wall. Looking through it, the interior looked exactly like the room he was in. His annoyance and curiosity carried him into the second room that looked identical to the first. The door shut behind him, and he heard a timer start. He looked up and saw a stopwatch counting down from one hour above the door.

“Damnit! I blew my three hours,” he grumbled, then shrugged. “Alright, I’m in it now; time to do this.” He looked around the room again, and immediately felt dumb. It was the same room he left. This time, he decided to get a snack at least before searching for the solution. He walked to the fridge and pulled it open.

It was empty inside except for a sheet of white paper hanging from the top. It had red text on it.

[CONGRATULATIONS!] [You have escaped.] [Move on to the next room.]

“You’re kidding me!” Edgar shoved the door shut, then yanked open the freezer door to check for any frozen foods. All he found was another sheet of paper congratulating him.

“Hey slow down! You’re too good at this!” Jim said, he was suddenly next to Edgar as cinnamon smoke dissipated.

GOOD?” Edgar asked with more than a bit of annoyance. “These aren’t hard at all!”

“They’re not?” Jim asked.

“NO! They’re so easy I can apparently solve them in less than a minute!”

“Oh,” Jim said. “Well, that changes things a bit. They were meant to be challenging.”

“They’re not,” Edgar added.

“Well, we can’t have it too easy for you,” Jim continued. Edgar, fully focused on solving hard puzzles readily agreed.

“Can you make it harder? Do it!”

“Sure, that’s no problem. If an hour is too easy, let’s make that limit five minutes.”

“What?” Edgar asked. “Nononono. The hour’s good, I just want you to make it harder.”

“I did,” Jim replied with a smile.

“You made the puzzle harder but you’re still only going to give me five minutes??” Edgar asked.

“Puzzle?” Jim chuckled. “Edgar, pal, I think you missed the point here. The puzzle is always going to be that easy. I made your eternity here harder,” He grinned with glowing red eyes. “It is still Hell, afterall.”

Timeless Love

“OH MY GOD, SARAH,” Sarah flinched slighty at Agnes’ high-pitched squeal just outside her cubicle.

“I know! Aren’t they amazing!?” Sarah spun around in her chair to enjoy Agnes’ praise of the beautiful dozen roses sprouting up over the top of her cubicle.

“What?” Agnes looked surprised for a moment, her eyes flitted to the roses, then back to Sarah. “Screw the roses! Why aren’t you checking your phone?? Come on!!” The mid-50s woman scrambled into Sarah’s cubicle with surprising speed and grabbed her hand to lead her out again.

“My phone?” Sarah had a moment to glance at her phone as Agnes led her off. She had over 100 notifications from text messages and other social media apps; she tended to keep her phone silent before lunch. Agnes pulled Sarah into the break room, and found most of her coworkers gathered around the TV. They did turn when Sarah walked in and began applauding and laughing; Sarah felt like she triggered a surprise party. She almost wondered if her husband had anything to do with it; but, he already sent the roses for their anniversary. And there was a special date planned that night; a surprise party at work wouldn’t make sense.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“You’re famous!” Agnes said, she reached up a long, spindly arm to raise the volume on the TV. A news reporter was speaking with a picture of an old ragged book floating next to him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m told that several major studios are already bidding for the rights to William Shakespeare’s long lost play. Mrs. Sarah Kline, if you’re watching this, please get in touch with us. We’ve been trying to reach you all morning.”

“SHE’S RIGHT HERE!’ Lou yelled from the back and the crowd of coworkers burst into laughter.

“Me? Why me?” Sarah asked over the ruckus, and it died down.

“Alright, back to work,” Agnes shooed the still chuckling employees out of the breakroom, but she gestured at Sarah to wait.

“Did he say, William Shakespeare?” Sarah asked once they were alone. Agnes sat down and encouraged Sarah to do the same; she did.

“To sum it up…,” Agnes nodded at Sarah’s question. “…someone found a lost Shakespeare play. It’s already been verified and all that stuff that they check,” she said. “It’s real and, it mentions you a lot.”

“So it has a character named Sarah? It’s a pretty common na-,” Before Sarah finished her dismissal, Agnes shook her head.

“Not a character named Sarah. A character named Sarah Kline, the most beautiful woman in the world.”

“Okay…,” Sarah tilted her head in confusion.

“But, that’s not even the weird part,” Agnes said.

“Then what is?”

“He doesn’t just talk about you, he talks about the world today. There are cellphones and TVs in his play! I’ve been following the story all morning; a lot of people online agree that this new play feels like a modern-day romantic comedy. There’s an airport scene!” Agnes giggled.

“What’s it about?”

“Sarah Kline, the most beautiful woman in the world,” Agnes replied with a shrug. “And I guess your dating adventures? It ends with you getting married.”

“We now have an artist’s interpretation of Mrs. Sarah Kline from Shakespeare’s lost play.” Sarah ignored the news anchor while she talked to Agnes, but that caught her attention. She looked up to see a beautiful portrait of herself floating next to the news anchor. Not that her dark hair ever looked that good, nor her eyes quite that blue. “Meet William Shakespeare’s most beautiful woman in the world.”

“Told you it was you,” Agnes said. She patted Sarah on the shoulder. “Alright rich girl. If you’re gonna stay, get back to work,” she said in her friendly, no talkback tone. Sarah returned to her cubicle with a dozen questions in her mind. She avoided calls for the rest of the day, finished her work, then headed home. Despite the surprising day, she was still looking forward to celebrating her anniversary more than anything. She planned to deal with her sudden fame tomorrow, but did not plan on seeing a large crowd outside her house.  Instead of slowing down, she kept driving right past.

She drove out of the neighborhood and into a convenience store parking lot, then pulled her phone out.

“Hey babe,” Sarah replied as soon as her husband answered. “Can you do something about the crowd outfront? It’s too much for me to deal with today; I just want to get home to you and cuddle and have some pizza. Yeah, I’m at the corner store.” Sarah hung up the phone and released a guilty, pleasant sigh. She tried not to abuse her husband’s abilities too often, but she felt like today was excused after her day. She blinked.

When Sarah opened her eyes she was sitting on her couch in her robe. She was reclined with a warm pizza box on her lap and her husband standing behind her rubbing her shoulders.

“OOooohhh thank you…,” she sighed and melted into his touch. “Happy anniversary love,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” he said from behind her.

“For what?” she asked. She reached up to grab his hand; she pulled him off her shoulders and over the couch; he cuddled up next to her.

“I wanted to give you a special gift for today, but I didn’t exactly think it through,” he said sheepishly.

“Honey, the flowers were gorgeous. I loved them.”

“Not the flowers,” he said.

“Then wha-,” Sarah interrupted her own question. She sat up and looked into her husband’s eyes, then smacked her own forehead.

“I didn’t even know that was you!” she said. “That was super sweet, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of fame,” she said. He nodded.

“I fixed it,” he said. “No more lost play; it never happened. But, you’re still the most beautiful woman in my world.”

Hellish Hustle

“Sorry, boss,” Sen’Xul hung his head low to apologize to Claire. He was supposed to stay out of sight; and, he managed that for the first couple of weeks after the new roommate moved in. Unfortunately, Sen’Xul was new, and quickly grew careless. That’s when Dottie spotted the short, stocky demon. Her screams of terror quickly pulled Claire into the kitchen who managed to calm them down. For a moment.

BOSS!?” Dottie said in surprise, she took a step back. “Who or what are you!?”  Claire shook her head and sighed at the squat demon. She was only 5’7″, but he was noticeably shorter than her, even taking his dark twisting horns into account.

“It’s alright, Sen. Can we reschedule?” she asked. Sen’Xul nodded. Then, he was shrouded by a sudden plume of yellow sulfur. It began to dissipate as quickly as it appeared, and he was gone with the silent smoke. Claire turned her attention to a, thankfully, still present Dottie. “I can explain…,” she said.

“What is there to explain?!? I just found out my roommate summons demons to do her chores around the house!” Claire nodded, smiled, and sat down at their small round table. She encouraged Dottie to sit down also. The young woman seemed to relax slightly, but she did not move any closer.

“First off, pretty much everything you said there is wrong,” she said. “I mean, it’s technically correct, but you’re looking at it all wrong.”

“Uhuh,” Dottie replied.

Summon?” Claire asked. “More like, I called an agent. DemonSSS?” Claire dragged out the ‘s’ to clarify she meant a plural, then added a half-shrug. “Sen’Xul is just who they sent.”

“You called a demon-summoning hotline?” Dottie asked. “For what?” Claire giggled but shook her head.

“Well you got the ‘for what’ part right,” she said, still chuckling. “It wasn’t a demon-summoning hotline. It’s a maid-service that happens to have demons working there too.”

“A cleaning service?” Dottie asked. “A real, red-skinned, horned, demon is working at a cleaning service? Why?” she asked. Dottie seemed to accept Claire’s answer and moved to the table.

“Well, think about it. If the economy is as bad as it is up here, how bad do you think it is down there?”