Bones & Blood

“Wait till you guys see this,” Thomas smiled at the other three. The sides of his mouth pulled upward. Plastic fangs protruded from his mouth and the poor lighting in the bathroom made Thomas’ white make-up look yellow. Every movement he made was accompanied by the silky swish of his black cape.

“Why couldn’t we see it downstairs?” Megan asked. Thomas smiled at his date, happy for the question. He closed the restroom door and turned out the light making it completely dark.

“Every other room has windows,” He flipped the light on again. “I didn’t want to risk anything going wrong.” Thomas lowered his voice and leaned closer to the group. “If anyone from work finds out I have it,” he shook his head grimly, “Serious trouble.”

“So? Where is this amazing sight that will change our lives?” Keith, his best friend, asked.

“Obviously.” Thomas stood up straight and extended an arm at the closed shower-curtain decorated by a black castle. Keith chuckled.

“I bought you that,” he said.

“We’ve all seen it already, can we go back to the party?” Tina, Keith’s date, asked. She idly pulled each bright-red ponytail of her wig causing it to tilt to one side on her head, then the other. Thomas sighed.

“C’mon guys, it’s Halloween! Trust me, this is awesome. Alright, who’s brave enough to open the curtain?” He grinned. “I promise you’ll scream.”

“Fine,” Tina stepped forward and pushed the curtain aside. She peeked inside as she started to open the curtain, then froze for a moment. Thomas nodded to himself with an eager grin and waited for her to register it.

As if all her emotions responded at once, Tina screamed at the top of her lungs and pushed the shower curtain open. She turned, still screaming, and Thomas saw a grin around her open mouth. Her scream transitioned to light chuckles, but the smile remained. She stepped into the tub and placed her arm around the tall, glass display case. A black skeleton, as tall as Tina, stood in the case, shackled in place by metal at his ankles, wrists, and neck.

“This is a beautiful decoration, but not scary at all.” Tina pushed her face against the glass and looked inside. “Looks super realistic though!” She leaned forward and left deep red lip prints against the glass. “Why don’t you have it downstairs with the actual party?”

“Don’t!” Thomas rushed forward and grabbed Tina’s hand to get her out of the tub. He immediately started trying to clear away the lipstick, but it turned into a giant pink smudge. he sighed.

“I’ll clean that later. I already told you, it’s not downstairs because windows. I can’t risk sunlight touching these,…” His smile grew broader as he looked at them. “…VAMPIRE BONES!” He threw his arms up into the air and waved them around to make the announcement extra exciting. It did not work. His three friends stared at him with a familiar look of, “that’s nice dear.”

“Vampires don’t have bones,” Megan said.

“Yes they do!” Thomas responded with a harsh tone and a heavy stomp in the tub, then realized who he was responding to. “Sorry. But yeah, of course they do.” Megan winked at him to let him off the hook.

“Of course they do,” she said. “I meant when they die they don’t leave bones. Don’t they always turn to dust?”

“Yes!” Thomas pointed at Megan. “Exactly, that’s why I can’t let the sunlight touch these. Oh yeah, it’s not dead.” Despite their levity, the three outside the tub took a step back.

“You’re dying to explain it to us,” Megan said. She nodded her head encouragingly. “Just tell us instead of waiting for the right questions.”

“Please!” Tina said. She moved closer to the door. Thomas leaned on the glass box and smiled.

“I’m breaking a lot of rules telling you this, but it’s not like having this in my bathtub is on the up and up.  Okay, you guys know my job, right?” All three nodded.

“Yeah, but I don’t see how monitoring alarms earned you vampire bones.” Keith chuckled.

“Oh right, sorry. That was something I couldn’t tell you. I got a new job last year working at Sharp Labs.” Thomas waved a hand dismissively. “Long story. They upgraded their security, I gave them some pointers, end result is I’m working for them now.” A sudden clicking noise came form the area by the door. Tina turned the knob to try and get out of the bathroom.

“You okay, hon?” Keith asked. She shook her head.

“If Tommy says those are vampire bones, and he got them from Sharp Labs…” she tried the door again. “Why can’t I get out?”

“You haven’t even seen the coolest part yet! I planned this out perfectly, it’s a great night for it.”

“What do you mean?” Keith ignored Thomas and asked Tina while he tried the door.

“I’ve visited Sharp Labs a few times,” Tina said. “I’ve had to sign crazy NDA’s, probably like Tommy. I’ve seen enough of what they do there to be scared of that.” Tina used her thumb to point at the black skeleton without turning around.

“What’s the best part?” Megan asked a sad-faced Thomas. He leaned against the glass case with a ghost of a pout on his lips. Upon hearing her question his dark eyes sparkled again and his grin grew.

“Feeding time!” He pulled a small glass vial from his pocket. As he tilted it back and forth, a sparkling gold liquid moved inside. “I did say he wasn’t dead, remember?”

“With glitter?” Tina scoffed. “You ass!” she smiled and playfully shoved Keith backward. “You set me up. I told YOU I was scared of that place. You just used Tommy’s love of vampires to build up this story!” Though she smiled, Tina felt a genuine sting of annoyance. She did not hold back too much of her strength while beating on Keith.

“GUYS WATCH!” Thomas yelled from the tub. He held a dropper filled with golden liquid over a small hole in the top of the glass. He squeezed the bulb to release a single drop of liquid. All at once a brilliant golden glow emanated from the trapped bones. The skeleton tried to move, but its shackles kept it in place. It kept trying to break free, but Thomas stood next to it unconcerned. “Don’t worry it can’t get out.” He held up the vial. “He eats once a month. A drop is enough to keep him alive without restoring his powers.” His grin remained glued on. “You don’t know how long I’ve been planning this to show you guys.”

“So it’s real? Really real?” Keith stayed close to Tina, but he looked at the skeleton with renewed interest.”

“It is,” Thomas nodded. “And it only gets better,” he lifted the vial again and pulled the dropper out. Then, he poured all the golden liquid into the tiny hole. Even before the vial emptied, the animated bones broke free of one restraint.

“What are you doing!?” Keith asked. He stepped in front of Tina and Megan. Thomas chuckled.

“I can’t become a vampire without you guys. I’ll be lonely.”

Sniff Test

“As you can imagine this arrangement is best kept between us,” Professor Woodman said. Lupe Villalobos stood in an empty class room in front of the seated, round man in a tweed suit. He pushed up his green horn-rimmed glasses, and smiled awkwardly at Lupe. “It would benefit my lessons if I’m able to use you as a sort of,…” his hands waved in the air while he struggled with the right word. “…visual-aid. I understand you may not want to reveal that side of you to your classmates,” he gave a weak, obligatory nod. “But, I could use your help illustrating differences between Unique and Zero werewolves.” Lupe’s eyes widened. The extra fluorescent light made them sparkle like emeralds.

“There’s another werewolf here?” She felt a tickling at the back of her neck; the tiny red hairs bristled up from her tan skin. The man nodded causing his neatly combed dark bangs to dip to his forehead. He used his hand to push it back up as a reflex.

“Ms. Knight teaches Balance, but I doubt they put you in her class,” he shrugged with a high-pitched chuckle. “I don’t have to tell you about werewolves, right?” Lupe breathed a sigh of relief and nodded.

“Once you show your feral side, that can be the extent of it. I have various demonstrations in mind,” Mr. Woodman paused. He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a palm-sized, jingling, black leather sack. The sharp sound of the silver clinking together was enough to ring in Lupe’s ears. She took a step back.

“Oh, sorry,” he apologized in a hurry. He carefully put the sack down and closed the drawer again. “I didn’t know you were that sensitive to silver.” Lupe forced a smile and shrugged.

“I didn’t either, there wasn’t much silver on my Earth.”

“Well, that’s what I was going to explain anyway. Once you demonstrate to the class how you turn, that’s already your earned ‘A’. There are other demos that I’d like to pair with lessons about different Unique aspects, but the choice is yours for each one.” He knocked on the dark-wood desk. “We obviously won’t do the silver one. If you agree, you’ll have to change next week at the latest. And if you like, I’ll let you use the classroom privately to show your friends before you show the class.” Mr. Woodman smiled at Lupe and pushed his glasses up again. Lupe giggled to herself when she saw them start to move down again the moment his finger stopped helping.

“Wow thanks, Mr. Woodman. I’m definitely interested in the grade, but my friends already know,” Lupe shrugged.

“Jerome what’s the-oh.” A female voice came from the open doorway. Lupe turned to see a short athletic woman with pink hair standing at the door. A sharp, heavy scent brushed Lupe’s nose. She grimaced at the woman and stepped back while trying to contain a growl in her throat. The woman smirked and stood up straighter.

“Something bothering you, pup?” Though she was not any taller than Lupe’s 5’5″, she somehow managed to look down on the tall girl. Lupe clenched her fists and fought back rushing adrenaline. Professor Woodman jumped out of his seat and rushed to close the door the second he saw the woman. However, she planted her foot to keep the door open. The rotund man’s weight was no match for the strength in a werewolf’s leg. Lupe bared her teeth at the woman with a forced smile.

“Not at all, Zero,” Lupe spoke through gritted teeth. She turned to Mr. Woodman, still leaning against the door. “I’m in, we’ll sort the details later.” Lupe gripped the straps of her grey canvas backpack and walked toward the door. Her knuckles grew whiter as she approached the woman.

“I already forgot why I was here,” Ms. Knight shrugged then cleared the door before Lupe reached it. Lupe visibly relaxed when the woman disappeared down the hall. Color filled her knuckles again.

“She likes you,” Mr. Woodman chuckled and patted Lupe on the back.

Mundo Motives

“Almost!” Scott smiled and leaned all his weight back as gravity pulled him back down from the top. He watched the ground zoom backward under him and shrink while he pulled his weight upward against the chain swing. The ground looked farther than any time before. “This time for sure!” He leaned forward and dropped his weight.

Scott flew past the ground and into the sky, gripping the chains tight. A sudden rush of fear shut his eyes, but his stomach tumbled when he flew upside down and kept going forward. He opened his eyes as he straightened out and saw the ground rushing up towards him. “I did it!” he shouted loudly and kicked his legs to slow down. He jumped off the swing, tumbled once and stood with his arms in the air. “I DID IT!” He hoped to get a bit of his mother’s attention from his new sister in the sandbox, but they were gone when he looked up.

“Mom?” The park looked different. New, purple wood enclosed the sandbox. The sandbox his sister chose was built with ratty pink wood that needed to be replaced. The placement of some of the trees and sidewalks did not look like the park he’d visited since he was his sister’s age. He looked at the sky dropped his jaw in surprise. A light lavender color flooded the sky instead of the deep blue he expected. The sudden realization that he was alone squeezed his chest. He felt fear well up in his gut and made tight fists to get control.

Don’tpanicdon’tpanicdon’tpanic,” his father’s advice repeated in his mind. “Panic doesn’t help.” He found the nearest bench and sat down to think. He saw a police officer at the edge of the park talking to some kids. “Okay, there’s help if I need it. But what do I say?”  he mumbled to himself. Vocalizing helped organize his thoughts. “I’ can’t wait to tell him about this,” he shook his head and grinned. “I stayed calm, dad.” He clapped his hands to center his focus and looked around the park.

“Purple sky aside, this is a different park.” Scott nodded to himself and smiled. “This has to be another universe. Awesome. Forget the cop, I doubt 12-year-olds have more credibility here.” He looked around the park for someone else that might help.

If you wind up in an alternate universe, look for someone that doesn’t belong there either,” another piece of dad’s advice. Scott realized his father had been preparing him for something like this. He saw a large man in a dark suit sitting on a bench enjoying a cup of coffee. A golden mane sat atop his head and flowed down to his shoulders. His blond sideburns connected with a thick beard; Scott thought the man looked like a lion.

“No one else looks like a cat,” Scott shrugged. He stood and walked toward the man while trying to guess how much he could say. He also kept the cop in his peripheral vision in case he needed to run for some reason. The man looked up from his cardboard cup when he heard light footsteps approaching. Scott locked eyes with the man’s deep golden eyes and he noticed a smile tug at the man’s lips. He stared at Scott in silence for a second, then the boy realized the man wanted him to say something.

“Uh, hi.” He half raised a hand for a weak wave. The man sat up straight, he was taller sitting than Scott standing.

“Hello, young man. Is there something I can help you with?” Scott nodded.

“Maybe? Uh. I’m kind of lost,” Scott tried to keep it vague. The man nodded to the patrol car in the parking lot.

“There’s an officer right over there,” he said. Scott’s stomach sank, but he did not want to give up yet.

Might as well go all the way,” Scott thought. “Is the sky purple in your universe?” he asked. The man chuckled.

“No, mine was blue,” he said. Scott nodded.

“Mine too. I don’t know how I got here,” he shrugged.

“Ah, you’re not lost. You’re misplaced,” he gave a sharp grin that enhanced his feline features. “You don’t know how?” Scott shook his head.

“No. It happened when I was on the swing, but I closed my eyes.”

“You’re handling it remarkably well,” the man said. “My name is Regal, by the way.” He extended a large hand in greeting and Scott shook it.

“I’m Scott,” he smiled. “My dad always thought something like this might happen to me. I thought it was a fun joke until it happened.”

“Really?” Regal reached up to stroke the front of his beard. “What’s your favorite number, Scott?”

“35,” he giggled. “My dad always asks that too.”

“Really?” Regal repeated. His eyes roamed up and down Scott. “Does your dad have a favorite number?”

“37,” he answered with a grin. Regal nodded and gave a half shrug.

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” he said to himself more than to Scott, then he looked at the boy with a smile.

“Well, it was nice to meet you, Scott. You should get home before your parents start to worry.” Regal held a hand out, palm up.

“Touch my hand and think of your Earth.” Scott gripped Regal’s hand and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Ready to go,” he heard Regal’s deep voice and looked up. A circular, black portal hovered in the air next to Scott. He looked at Regal and noticed him pulling something out of the inside of his coat. He handed a small black business card to the boy. “If you ever get misplaced again, or need help use this to call me.” Scott accepted the card and looked at it. It felt like a smooth piece of black obsidian with the name “Regal” engraved in it in gold letters.

“Thanks, Mr. Regal!” Scott smiled and pocketed the card. He jumped into the black portal. He arrived on the other side and looked up to a blue sky.

“Scott!” He smiled when he heard his mom calling his name.

Custom Future

“Daily log number 18,” Clark spoke to a small translucent rectangle. He sat on the deck of his boat for the day and watched the orange sun setting under the purple sky. “Oh yeah, this is my first recorded log. I’ll go back and transcribe the first ones later.” The wiry man leaned back in his chaise and gave a full body stretch. He looked at the device and held it up to the sun with a smile.

“There’s a lot of big news today. First, as always, no sign of people today either. I did see a disturbing architectural trend,” Clark chuckled to himself. “A few of the houses I went into today had giant trees growing out of their living rooms. Through the roof and everything, it’s nuts. I can’t wait to find out what that’s about.”

“Second is this thing I’m recording on. It looks like a direct descendant of a cell phone.” Clark touched the screen and his bearded face stared back at him. A timer next to a red dot counted up. “It was easy enough to figure out but the bigger news is, it’s connected.” He smiled at himself in the camera, then turned it toward the sunset. “I don’t know what it’s connected to, or how it’s still running; but, I have cell service. I have INTERNET!” he cheered. Then he turned the camera towards himself and made a pouty face. His bushy eyebrows dipped low as his bottom lip grew more prominent.

“But it’s abandoned,” he sighed. “I mean, obviously because there’re no other humans here as far as I can tell. But beyond that, it seems like everyone abandoned the internet a few years after I went under.” He shrugged. “It looks like a new network showed up and people started using that instead. Something called the AlterNet.”

When he said the word the rectangular glass vibrated in his hand and glowed with a red light.

“AlterNet Server Control Panel: Activated” a feminine voice spoke. It startled Clark enough to drop the device and get off the lounge to back away. “Administrator Absent. Register New Administrator?”

“Yes!” Clark leaned down to speak to the gadget, but did not pick it  up. It sounded like it wanted to give him control over something though, and he was willing to take it.

“Name?” The glow grew brighter whenever the voice spoke.

“Clark Feldman,” he replied.

“Template?” the voice asked.

“uhh.” Clark leaned down and lifted the device from the floor. He saw a long list of names on the screen. Something told him reading them out loud might be a bad idea. “Fantasy, Future, Zombie Apocalypse, Night Born.” He did not want to scroll through the list and picked the first one that appealed to him. “Future.”

Hundreds of glowing dots, the same red as the gizmo, filled the air around Clark. He glanced at the screen.

“Build Time – 12 Hours.” He glanced the pier and noticed red specks linking together as if re-constituting into larger structures. He shrugged and laid down.

“Guess it’s bed time.” He fell asleep easily.

“Sir, wake up.” He woke to the sensation of his shoulder being shoved. He opened his eyes and found a short well-dressed man on his deck. “Construction is complete. It’s time to open the server.” Clark’s hands felt noticeably empty. He sat up in a hurry and searched the chaise under him, then he rolled to the deck and looked under it.

“Where is it?” He looked up at the bald man. “Where’d you come from?” The man bowed with a flourish and extended his hand toward Clark. He showed with the glass card in his hand.

“I am it.” He stood and made the card disappear again. “It is called a node, and I am your administrative assistant. Right now I need to assist with launching the server. ” Clark stood and looked toward land. Shining glass skyscrapers reflected the rising morning sun. He watched cars flying in organized lanes and hundreds of people streaming in out of the curio shops along the pier.

“People? Where’d everyone come from?”

“Don’t mind them, they’re just NPCs. You won’t see any players until we open the server, which is why I need your authorization.”

“Hold on,” Clark held a hand up. “I don’t know what you’re saying, but I think I understood that if I didn’t open the server, no one else will show up?” “Show up from where?” he wondered to himself. The man nodded.

“Yes, sir. At the moment Clark Feldman is a private server.”

“You named the server after me? Nice,” Clark grinned.

“You named the server. When I asked for a name I meant the server name. But I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re going to stay private.”

“So, what’s going on? I know some of the words you’re saying, but not in that context. What is a server?” The man spread his arms wide and gestured at everything.

“This Earth is an AlterNet Server. The AlterNet lets people send their consciousness into another body in another universe.” The assistant held his hand up in front of Clark. It disintegrated into red dust and disappeared, then it reappeared while Clark watched. “Nanos create the body in any shape the player wants.”

“So all those NPCs?” The man nodded.

“Nano swarms.”

“How much autonomy do they have?” Clark caught sight of a beautiful red-haired woman walking alone on the pier.

“The default is quite scripted, but you may grant them more.”

“What else can I do?”

“The template you chose is for quick construction, but you may modify anything. Everything from the color of a single flower to the shape of the world. Populate the forest with fantasy creatures, or cause diamonds to rain from the sky.”

“So you’re saying I’m in charge of my own world here, and I don’t have to share?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Hidden Shop

Alex eyed the guns displayed in the window and grinned to himself. The weapons all appeared to be over-designed sci-fi props with tons of buttons and flashing LEDs. He looked deeper into the shop and saw a flaming sword suspended in a display case.

This is perfect!” He entered the store and a small bell over his head informed the shopkeeper of a customer. A short man with a brown mop of hair and a black t-shirt with a golden star on it stepped out of an opening behind the counter.

“Hello! I’m Caesar, what can I help you find tonight?” He smiled at Alex. Alex approached the glass counter. He took note of several mundane items in locked cases inside the glass counter. An umbrella, a pitcher, and a bonnet all heavily secured.

“Hi,” Alex shared a handshake with Caesar. “I’ve got a costume party at work tomorrow, and I don’t have a costume,” Alex looked around the store. “But I think I can put something together from your props.”

“Props?” Caesar asked. His eyes narrowed and he looked at Alex up and down. “You shouldn’t have been able to see the shop,” Caesar said. He walked out from behind the counter and took Alex’s arm to lead him to the door. “Sorry for the misunderstanding. We’re closed now.” Alex planted his feet and stood firm.

“Wait! What do you mean? Why are you rushing me out?” Caesar sighed and released his grip on Alex’s arm.

“This is real. Everything in here is real and powerful. Usually only certain types of people can see us,” Caesar shrugged. “But somehow you got in.” Alex grinned.

“You’re kidding!” He burst into laughter. “Everything here is powerful huh? What about that pink bonnet?” he pointed at the glass counter. A pink bonnet floated inside a locked glass case. Caesar moved behind the counter and unlocked it. Then he reached in and pulled out the smaller case holding the bonnet and unlocked it.

“#13, El Gorrito,” he said. He reached into the case and pulled the bonnet out. A black mannequin’s head appeared in the box when he removed it. “Invisibility variant.” He put the bonnet back on the head in the box and it disappeared again.

“No way…” Alex stared silently at the floating bonnet for several seconds. “That’s amazing…” He stepped back and looked over the whole store. “It’s real!” he yelped like a giddy child. “I have to buy something. Anything. What’s cheap?” He imagined other-worldly weapons would be expensive.

“Well, you’re here. No harm in selling to you, I guess.” Caesar walked to another counter and waved at Alex to join him. He reached inside and pulled out an frilly pink parasol.

“What’s that?” Alex pointed at a small box with a small, rectangular piece of glass in it. Alex thought it looked like a futuristic cell-phone.

“That’s a node. Those aren’t cheap.” Caesar opened the pink umbrella and held it up while spinning the handle. “This is the cheapest I’ve got. Five thousand dollars.”

“That better be some special umbrella,” Alex complained. Caesar nodded at a bowl of candy on the counter.

“Throw one at me,” he said. Alex smiled and was happy to comply. He picked up a fun-sized chocolate bar and tossed it at Caesar’s head. It bounced off an invisible force field and fell to the ground.

“Whoa!” Alex picked up another hand full of candy and tossed them at Caesar to watch them bounce off the shield. “That’s awesome. I’ll take it. Out of curiosity, how much is the node?”

“Ten million.”

“Right. Just the umbrella then.”

Cat Person

Doreen opened her eyes in a familiar room. The leather chaise under her felt comfortable and familiar, as if she’d been in the small office several times. Though she did not know where she was. She heard a door open and turned to see a man in a dark suit walk in; he looked familiar too.

“Ezey?” Doreen did not know where the name came from, but she felt sure that was the man’s name. He smiled and nodded as he crossed the room to shake her hand.

“You remembered! That’s great,” Ezey said. He sat down in a high-backed chair next to her. “On to the next level.” The clean shaven man leaned closer to Doreen. “Now that you’re starting to remember, I can give you the short version. You’re dead.” Ezey leaned back and spread his arms to gesture to the whole room. “This is how we process souls for their next life. This was your 14th death,” he shrugged. “We send you back over and over until you start to remember this place. I’m your case worker, Ezekiel Yzaguirre. But, I prefer ‘Ezey.'”

“You said the next level. What’s that and how many are there?” Doreen moved her legs off the edge of the chaise and sat up straighter. She looked at Ezey with interest, but he shook his head.

“Too advanced, and you’ll forget the next time you’re here anyway. For now let’s look at the new options available to you.” Ezey reached  into his coat and pulled out a small, transparent, glassy rectangle. He touched and swiped at it until it showed a picture on the display, then he handed it to Doreen. She noted the picture of a dog, then looked up at Ezey, confused.

“On this level, you’re not limited to a human body. There’s more if you swipe to the side.” Ezey nodded at the device in Doreen’s hand. She swiped right. The next picture was a  colorful snake, and she kept going through the pictures. A bear, a shark, different birds, finally she stopped at an adorable white and orange housecat. She held the card-sized rectangle up to show Ezey the cat.

“I can be a cat? That’s what I want!” Ezey nodded.

“No problem, but a few things you should know. You won’t be that cat. We have no control over the life you have, so it’s very possible that you’ll end up as an alley cat. But if you’re fine with all that, you’re good to go.” Doreen nodded with a bright smile on her face.


“Okay.” Ezey took back the device from Doreen and put it into his pocket. Then he pulled a small wooden clipboard from in his suit and handed it to Doreen. A single sheet and a pen were attached to the clipboard.  “Sign here.” She scribbled her signature on the line.

“Done!” The room disappeared leaving Doreen alone in total darkness. After several seconds she saw a bright light, and felt herself being pushed toward it.

Well, Dragon.

Charlie stopped lowering himself when he found the marked brick with his flashlight. He sprayed a green ‘X’ at the spot before the crossover, to help him keep his lunch. The early 30s man shined his flashlight down at the darkness. Instead of illuminating the depths of the well, he saw the now familiar black hole. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and dipped into the threshold.

Charlie felt nauseous. His stomach flipped when he crossed over as his body tried to re-orient itself. Charlie lowered himself feet first, however the new world felt different to him. Once his head cleared the portal he needed to climb upward again to get out of the hole. When he first discovered the portal he realized that he could “climb down” indefinitely; if he felt the urge. Each time he crossed the portal it appeared below him.

After taking a moment to get his bearings Charlie pulled himself upward. He looked up during the climb and noticed the sky was darker than usual with a deep red hue.

It’s too early for sunset,” he ran down possible reasons but kept climbing. He rushed to get out of the well and ended up winded. He fell to his knees on the small hill as he panted for his breath and took in the sight. Black smoke hovered in the red skin above his favorite town. He spotted a few small fires, but most of the damage had been done already. Animated skeletons wandered around the smoldering buildings.

“Scales!” A sudden realization struck Charlie. He did not see the dragon’s corpse anywhere, which meant it didn’t know about the trouble. He patted his pockets till he found the dragon whistle and pulled it out. He blew into the neck of the small, golden dragon head and a small spark came out of its mouth. The spark crackled and disappeared.

“How are you still alive?” Charlie heard a feminine voice behind him and jumped. The scare startled him forward, and he rolled down the hill for a couple of feet before he managed to stop himself. He stood up and eyed the source of the voice. “I’ve killed everyone else, where’d you come from?” A tall, pale woman said. Two bone-white, curling ram horns protruded from the top of her head. Long, straight black hair flowed down her back.

“You’d better leave!” Charlie tried to sound brave. He held up the whistle. “Scales is coming and he’s going to be really mad that you hurt his friends. He’s a dragon!” he yelled. A roar resounded through the sky as if to prove Charlie’s point. He smiled to himself and stood on his feet. “See?”

“A dragon?” the woman sighed. “Boring. I’m done here.” She lifted her right hand and waved different gestures at the air. A tall black portal, like the one in the well, opened next to her. Charlie hoped it meant she was leaving.

“Yeah, that’s right! Leave and don’t come back!” he yelled. The woman smirked and shook her head. She did not step into it as he expected. Instead, someone else stepped out. A giant woman, taller than the first woman’s horns, with fiery red hair stood next to the horned woman and stared at Charlie.

“Flutter…,” the first woman turned to the giant one. “…there’s a dragon coming. Deal with it.” Then she stepped through the black hole and disappeared. The portal closed behind her.

“If you’re smart, you won’t be here when it’s over,” Flutter advised Charlie, then she looked up to the sky. Charlie stood his ground and shook his head.

“No way! I’m going to enjoy watching Scales tear you apart for what you did!” Flutter shrugged. Her alabaster skin hardened. It became coarse, jagged, and layered as she covered her body with golden scales.

“Sorry to say it…,” Flutter said as she scanned the sky. She smiled when she saw a large silver dragon flying towards her. “…but, scales is out of his league.” Two sets of translucent dragonfly wings popped out of Flutter’s back. They began flapping as she leaped to the sky.

Bottled Up

Margo gave a final glance up and down the road to make sure no one caught sight of her. She saw no cars in either direction, and ducked into a dry canal that ran parallel to the road. She climbed out on the other bank and disappeared under the overgrown foliage.

Margo reached her ‘secret base’ after a 20 minute walk into the heart of the forest. She discovered the rusted, green 20′ shipping container while exploring the forest. Two years later she made it as homely as a 14-year old could manage on a limited allowance. She unlocked the padlock and pulled the door open, but a meow behind her called her attention. She discovered a black cat sitting on the dirt ground staring at her. Margo noticed a mark of red fur on top of the cat’s head resembled a skull.

“Hi, kitty. Wanna see something cool?” Margo opened the door wider to invite the cat in. It meowed and trotted into the container. Margo followed and pulled portable lights out of her backpack. She placed four of them on an old, round dining table she’d found in another part of the forest. She set her backpack on one side of the table and pulled out a black, narrow case. It was a hand-me-down flute case that she inherited from her older sister, without the flute. She opened it and smiled at the shiny, dark-brown glass bottle tucked inside; then, she reached into her backpack again. Margo pulled out three plastic water bottles, then turned to talk to the cat that hopped on the table.

“You’re not gonna believe it, kitty, but this is a magic bottle,” Margo pulled the bottle out of the case and held it up for the cat to inspect. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but watch!” She set the bottle down on the table then grabbed one of the plastic bottles. She opened it and brought it to her nose. She relaxed when she did not smell anything, then brought it up to her lips. She took a small drink, then nodded. “Yep, this one’s water,” she glanced at the other two bottles. “I should’ve labeled them.”

“Anyway, there’s nothing in the bottle, right?” She grabbed the glass bottle with one hand and presented to the cat as if she were a stage magician. Margo flipped the open bottle upside down but nothing came out. She held both bottles in front of her and tilted the plastic bottle to pour a small spurt of gasoline into the glass one. She pulled them apart and smiled at the cat. “Now there’s something in the bottle.” Margo tilted the glass bottle over the plastic one until a solid stream of water flowed between them. It poured out of the glass bottle and filled the plastic one to overflowing. Then, she brought the glass bottle up to her lips and took a giant swig.

“Clean drinking water!” Margo held the bottle upside down in front of her and let the water continue to pour it. “Unlimited drinking water, but it’s cooler than that!” The girl brought the bottle to her lips again, but this time she blew sharply into the bottle instead of taking a drink. She flipped it upside down again but nothing came out. Margo set the glass bottle down then picked up the other two plastic ones. She shook them both then picked the one that fizzed.  She poured a small amount of the clear, carbonated liquid into the brown bottle, took a sip, then smiled at the cat. “Unlimited soda.” She took another drink. “You don’t know how long it took me to figure out how to reset it.” She blew into the bottle again.

“How long?” a soft, feminine voice came out of the cat’s mouth. Margo stared at the cat but she took a step toward the door. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you,” the cat said. “I want to buy the bottle from you.”  Margo pulled the bottle to her chest but stopped moving to the exit.

“You can talk?” The cat’s head dipped slightly as if it nodded. “What if I don’t want to sell it? How much money can you even have? You’re a cat.”

“No money, I grant wishes. If you don’t sell, you don’t get a wish. They mean the same to me.” Margo’s eyes narrowed and she stood up straighter.

“How are you going to grant a wish?” she asked the black cat.

“I’m a talking cat and you’re holding a magic bottle. Is me granting you a wish that much harder to believe?” Margo visibly relaxed.

“No, I guessed not.” She stepped forward and put the bottle into the flute case. “So I can wish for anything?”

“Not quite. You can ask for anything, but some things are out of my power. If you ask for something I can’t do we’ll negotiate it down until it’s something I can deliver. If you don’t decide on a wish, then no deal.”

“Travel!” the word burst out of Margo’s mouth. “I want to see things, explore everything.”

“That’s easy. You give me the bottle and I’ll help you travel, deal?” Margo nodded. She pushed the case towards the cat and smiled.

“Deal!” Margo offered a handshake out of habit, and the cat touched her hand with a paw. The cat swished its tail and a small black portal opened on the table under the case. It swallowed the flute case, then disappeared.

“Have fun,” the cat said. It swished its tail again to open a portal under Margo.

“Wait!” she tried to protest, but the hole swallowed her.

Father Figure

“Ow!” Jeff hissed from the sudden sting. He brought his hand up to make sure his finger was still attached and felt better when he saw it. He tried bending it, but the small cut proved too painful to move it very far. He glanced at the faded, yellow sheet and realized it looked like a brand new sheet. Blood-red letters, words, and sentences filled the sheet while he watched. “What the hell?” He recognized his father’s name, Michael Auburn, on the bottom while looking over the sheet; then, he eyed the rest of the document.

“Contract…” he picked out words that seemed important. “Soul…” the sight of the sheet filling itself in was enough to convince him the situation was real. He let himself fall into his dad’s high-back leather chair while he stared at the paper trying to make sense of it.

“Michael! I thought you’d never -” Jeff jumped when a gravelly, cracking voice spoke up behind him. He spun around in the chair and came face to face with a small red, winged imp sitting on his father’s bar. “Oh. You’re not Michael,” the imp’s eyes narrowed.

Jeff stared at the imp through wide eyes. He stayed silent while his mind raced to understand the situation. The imp disappeared with a hollow-sounding pop, then Jeff heard the voice behind him again.

“You signed Michael’s contract, but you’re not him,” the imp shook his head and frowned with disappointment. “That’s bad. Real bad.”

“It was an accident!” Jeff felt the need to explain his side. “I got a paper cut from the sheet while going through my dad’s things.” The imp raised his right eyebrow.

“Going through your father’s things? That’s horrible! And I’ve been to hell,” it said. He chuckled at his own joke, but Jeff interrupted.

“I’m not being nosy… he died last month.” The imp’s eyes grew to the size of saucers and a faint smile appeared on his chubby baby face.

“Really? Really really??” The imp sat down on the edge of the desk with an eager look on his face and stared at Jeff. “That changes everything.” The imp grabbed the sheet from the desk and looked it up and down, then he nodded at Jeff. “Yep, we can deal.”

“What do you mean?” Jeff asked. He scooted forward on his seat.

“You accidentally found a nice little loophole to this,” the imp held up the contract. “Normally these are non-transferable. This one was prepared for your father. He never signed it, I guess your blood is close enough. Now, no matter what you may think about Hell, we take our paperwork very seriously. Your signature was an accident, and we have no claim on your soul, but…” the imp’s smile grew broader. “We also have a chance to do something very, very cool. How’d you like to see your dad again?”

“Yes! How? Yes!” Jeff sat up straighter.

“Pay attention,” the imp said. “Here’s the deal. We offered your dad one wish for his soul. Technically you’ve earned one wish for his soul. You could wish for anything you like, and as part of the deal his soul will be sent to Hell.” Jeff shook his head.

“No! No way!”

“BUT!” the imp interrupted loudly. “If you wished for your dad to be alive, his soul can’t go to hell.” A smile grew on Jeff’s face, but the imp was quick to in raise a hand. “Hold on, you gotta hear the whole thing. We don’t really like loopholes in Hell. If you make that wish the penalty is your soul gets sent to hell instead. Immediately.” The imp shrugged and made a “so-so” gesture with his hand. “More or less immediately, I did promise you could see him. What d’ya think?”

“Hold on, let me make sure I got this right. I can wish for my dad to be alive, but it’ll cost my soul?” Jeff asked. The imp nodded. “And nothing will happen to him when he dies?”

“Not a thing, this is your contract now.”

“Okay. Do it. I wish my dad was alive,” Jeff said.

“Coming up.” The imp stood on the desk and snapped his fingers. A puff of smelly, yellow smoke filled the room. Jeff’s hands flew upward to protect his mouth and nose from the stench. He saw a tall silhouette appear in the smoke and moved toward it.

“Dad?” Jeff’s voice sounded muffled behind his hands. He stood in front of the figure and looked up. After a moment the putrid smoke began to clear and settle. Jeff recognized the bearded face of his father. He dropped his arms and stepped forward for a hug, but the imp interrupted.

“Oh good, you saw him.” The imp snapped his fingers again. Jeff and the billowing smoke disappeared from the room. The tall man turned to the imp and smiled.

“Well?” he asked. The imp chuckled and nodded his head.

“It’s scary how well your plan worked.”

Expository Dinner

“What did you think of your first day open?” Mrs. Sharp asked Jane. They sat in Mrs. Sharp’s office with a feast of Chinese food on the desk between them.

“It was more fun than the first month,” Jane replied with a smile. “I’m glad to finally get some human interaction.” Jane worked the job for a month before that day and almost quit out of boredom.

“You did great today,” Mrs. Sharp smiled. “Tomorrow we’ll arrange your paperwork to get you on board full-time. Any questions?”

“Tons,” Jane replied while she picked up a red and white container to serve herself some more fried rice. “I have to know,” Jane leaned over the desk and lowered her voice. “Do you really buy souls?” Hearing herself ask the question made Jane flush red with embarrassment. Mrs. Sharp nodded.

“Yes.” She replied with a flat tone that did not sound like she was kidding.

“Wow…” Jane leaned back in her chair as she tried to process Mrs. Sharp’s admission. “How? What do you do with it?” Jane’s brown eyes sparkled while the gears turned in her head, then she added another pair of questions. “How much do you pay? Will you buy mine?” Mrs. Sharp smiled, but shook her head.

“The price varies per soul, I only buy specific ones,” she said.

“Specific how? What makes one soul different from another?” Mrs. Sharp reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a small black gizmo with a rectangular screen on it. She pointed the device at Jane and pressed a red button on top. The display came to life and displayed a dim purple light. She held it up for Jane to get a clear look at the light.

“Purple means your soul is normal, I don’t buy those.” Mrs. Sharp pointed the device at herself and pressed the red button. The purple light transitioned into a bright golden light. “These are the souls I buy. As for what I use them for, that’s a trade secret for now, but if you work here long enough you’ll find out. Any other questions?” Mrs. Sharp finished her food and started to separate trash from leftovers.

“What’s that trick you do with the black holes?” Jane asked. Mrs. Sharp smiled and waved a hand in the air over the desk. A small dinner-plate sized black hole appeared and she threw the trash into it before making it disappear again. “Yeah, that!” Jane laughed.

“These…,” Mrs. Sharp’s hand traced an arc in the air and five small black portals opened between the two women. “… are portals to alternate universes. Each one is a different universe.” She gave a dismissive wave and all five portals disappeared. She waved her hand at one corner of the room and opened a single portal large enough for a person to walk through. Jane stared at Mrs. Sharp with wide eyes.

“Ar… are you from a different universe?” she asked. Her boss nodded then closed the human sized portal.

“This job’s gonna be awesome!” Jane smiled and clapped to herself.  Jane stood from her seat. “Thanks for the meal and the job! Oh, uh,” Jane bowed part way. “I mean Mrs. Sharp.” the woman had not introduced herself all day, but all the clients called her Mrs. Sharp.

“Please,” the woman stood from the table and offered Jane a handshake. “Call me Melody,” she said.