Hell, oh, Neighbor.

Is that peppermint?” Greg wondered as soon as the odor hit his nose. He was on his knees staring down into an open manhole, but the only thing he saw was inky darkness. Out of all the odors he expected from a sewer, fresh peppermint was the last. The mid-30s man fished his cellphone from his pocket and shined a light down the hole; it was still darker than a moonless night. Then, his phone slipped out of his grip.

“Aw, hell!” he cursed to himself. His phone hit the ground as soon as he got the second word out. Where ever the hole led, Greg realized it was only a short drop to the floor below. It helped him make up his mind. “I’m not going to explore anything,” he began to remind himself as he stood from the ground. “I’m just going to get my phone back. Nothing else,” he said as he wandered into his garage. He grabbed his heavy-duty flashlight, some rope, and some fishing line.

After tying the rope to a support beam in the basement, Greg stood over the hole again. He switched on the flashlight and aimed it down; the hole’s darkness was impenetrable.

“I’m just getting my phone back,” he said. He hoped saying it aloud would make it more true. “Here goes nothing.” Greg took a deep breath, crouched to his knees, grabbed hold of the rope and climbed down. At one point, he stopped climbing and held on to the rope with one arm. He knew the flashlight was on but saw no light. He held the bulb directly in front of his face; he might as well have had his eyes closed. “Just getting my phone. It should be right under the rope,” his voice was something familiar in the darkness. “I don’t even have to let go of it,” he reasoned and shimmied down some more. After descending another few inches, he noticed the flashlight’s glow. The smell of peppermint grew stronger.

He grew excited at the sign of light and traveled faster down the rope; bright sunlight struck his eyes as his feet hit the ground. He was outside.

“What the hell?” he asked himself as he took in his new surroundings. He appeared to be in a tunnel of some sort. Two curved sides and the arched ceiling he climbed down from were made of thick wooden logs. Wide openings ahead and behind him led to lush, green fields of peppermint. A gentle breeze flowed through the tunnel carrying the strong scent. he looked up at the hole. The rope was still there dangling from the darkness.

Greg’s eyes focused on the ground to search for his phone; it wasn’t there. He looked directly under the rope as well as a wide circle around it from wall to wall. There was no sign of his phone, but he noticed footprints in the dirt. They were much smaller than his and looked like they belonged to sneakers.

“And now, someone ran off with my phone,” he sighed to himself. As he debated returning to his home or exploring the green fields he heard a girl’s voice; it made him jump.

“Hello!?” she said; it sounded like the voice came from the hole he came through. He looked up and saw a white-haired girl climbing down the rope. She wore a blood-red hoodie and black jeans; Greg had no idea who she was or what she was doing in his house. She reached the ground, smiled at Greg and pulled a phone from the front pocket of her hoodie. “Is this yours?” she asked.

“Uh.. yeah,” Greg accepted the phone, but he felt very confused. He had too many questions trying to get out of his mind at once; he picked one randomly. “Whats’ going on?” he asked. The girl shrugged.

“I was walking by, noticed the phone on the ground. I wanted to give it back to its owner,” she nodded at him. “Mission accomplished.”

“But..,” he realized one question wasn’t enough. “Who are you? What were you doing in my house? Where is this?” he asked the last question by gesturing at the peppermint field. The girl smiled and a tall black hole, like the one Greg climbed down through, appeared vertically in the air behind her.

“I’m Cherry,” she said, then stepped back into the hole. It disappeared taking her with it. “I was trying to return your phone,” she shouted above him and fell out of the hole as if she’d jumped from his house. “And, this is Hell,” she grinned.

Royal Decree

“You guys are werewolves?” Lucas asked once the old woman left with their orders. She was far too ancient to be a waitress, Lucas wondered if she owned the restaurant. She also seemed sure about the twins sitting across from him being werewolves. Duchess nodded and scooted closer to her brother, Haste; the action seemed more for solidarity than insecurity on her part.

“Regal already knows,” she said. “He expected it; he explained that Coronas are often supernatural. Like vampires, werewolves, unicorns and even mermaids,” she said.

“Wait, unicorns are real?” Lucas sat up straighter when he asked.

“Apparently,” Duchess nodded. “Just not on our Earth.”

“Wow,” Lucas stared at the twins. Duchess had creamy alabaster skin; her bright red hair was pulled into a tight bun atop her head. Haste’s skin was the same shade of white, but his looked greasier, dirtier somehow. A large galaxy of freckles covered his nose and plump cheeks. His hair was a bright red mohawk running down the center of his bald head. “Real, live werewolves, huh?” he asked. “So full moon and silver bullets? That kind of werewolf?” The twins shook their heads.

“We can change any time we want,” Haste said with a chuckle. “She…,” Haste nudged his sister’s side. Duchess’ face flushed slightly, but she seemed content to let him tell the story. “…changed for the first time when we were five. We were playing in the garage one night and heard a noise coming from a dark corner under some junk. She got close and shined the light on the biggest rat ever; then she screamed and flailed and suddenly she was a wolf. It scared me so much I turned into one too,” they both shared a laugh. “That was a hell of a night,” Haste said with a heavy sigh.

“What’d your parents say? Are they werewolves?” Lucas asked. He regretted the question when Haste’s face lost its smile.

“Our parents came out to see what all the screaming and barking was about,” Duchess said quietly. “They saw me change back to my normal self, and they were happy about it. They already thought I was extra special because I’m a Corona; now to them I was extra-extra special.”

“Then, Haste changed back to normal…,” she continued with a flatter, sadder voice. “…they flipped out, called him a freak and started attacking him to keep me safe. I told them to leave him alone and they did. That was when they started ignoring him,” Duchess said. “Because I told them to.”

Harvesting Information

“What’s that look about?” Darcy asked. Her coworker, Mason, stared oddly at her as she joined him at the small table. It was one of four in the small break room. He had a confused, surprised look on his face as he stared at something on her head. He gave his head a shake and smiled.

“Nothing. I was just thinking of something else,” he said. Darcy unpacked her sandwich and chips from her colorful metal lunch box. “So what’d you do with your surprise day off yesterday?” he asked as he reached across the table and stole one of her potato chips. Though the pair were good friends, they’d only been friends for a short time. Mason did not feel comfortable sharing his secret yet; it helped that he himself did not know what exactly it was.

Mason could see a loading bar floating above people’s heads. The bar was about a foot long and about three inches thick. Mason managed to measure it on a sleeping friend one time during a sleepover in jr. high. The bar was filled to different points on different people; but, in 23 years he’d only seen two different colors: red and green. The most puzzling thing was that not everyone had one, including him. That made it more difficult to solve what exactly the bar measured. He noticed a few instances of people gaining a bar when they didn’t have one.

Unfortunately, the few times he saw it; it happened to strangers or people he did not know well enough to question. Until now. A mostly empty bar floated over Darcy’s head with just a sliver of green showing. The last time he saw her, the day before yesterday, she did not have one.

“You’ve heard of the Fresh Start Clinic, right?” Darcy asked with a smile.

“Yeah?” Mason sat up straighter. As soon as she said the clinic’s name he realized his coworkers that gained bars had also mentioned it.

“Since they didn’t let us come in yesterday, I had time to visit the clinic. I went through their ‘Character Rebuilding’ procedure.”

“No way!” Mason was genuinely enthused. He had considered the procedure multiple times but he never found the time to follow through. He was even more excited at the possibility that it would help him decode his ability. “What’s it like?” Darcy shook her head.

“I can’t tell you that,” she said. “But, I can tell you that it’s totally worth it. You should go get it done.”

“Can’t tell me? Since when?” Mason asked. It was the first time in their two-year friendship that she’d intentionally kept a secret from him.

“Since I signed a dozen NDAs,” Darcy replied; she had yet to touch her food.

“Pffft, it’s just you and me,” Mason said. He leaned over the table and tilted his ear toward her. She rapidly shook her head and leaned back.

“No,” she said flatly. “Just go see for yourself; they’ll answer your questions.”

“Fine,” Mason whined playfully and grabbed another one of her chips. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asked. Darcy shrugged.

“Not hungry I guess. You want-” Darcy stopped asking because Mason was already biting into the sandwich before she finished the question.

“Shanks!” he said with his mouth full.

After work, Mason made his way to the clinic. A handful of patients waited in the lobby; none of them had bars above their heads. He almost chalked it up to coincidence until a patient came out of the back with a brand new bar above his head. He’d never seen one so empty before; there was no sign of red or green. Mason decided he was in the right place and approached the desk. A plump, greying woman with a full red bar above her head smiled at Mason.

“Hi, uh I wanted some information about ‘Character Rebuilding’?” he asked. The woman nodded politely and handed him a clipboard with a form on it and a pen. He picked out one of the plastic chairs and sat down to fill it out. The questions were mostly what he expected. The only thing that stood out was the blank that asked for his favorite number. He filled in ’52’ and wondered what its purpose was. When he was done, he returned the clipboard to the woman at the desk. She flipped through the sheets to make sure he answered all the questions, then stopped. She looked up at him.

“What’s your favorite number?” she asked.

“52,” Mason chuckled. He meant to say, “Same as what I wrote”, but by the time he had that thought his mouth had already answered the woman’s question. Her eyes widened for a moment, but she recovered quickly. She managed to disguise the look of surprise with a cough into her hand.

“Someone will be right with you,” she said through a clenched smile. Mason nodded then returned to his seat. He waited for almost two hours, but he was glad for it. In that time he watched four or five people walk into the back without bars above their heads. Each of them came back out with a brand new bar; he felt like he was finally on the right track.

“Mr. Rodriguez?” a woman called out. Mason jumped to his feet and approached the woman at the door. All the staff he’d seen come out of the door wore white labcoats; but, this woman did not. She was a short, plump, pale woman with raven dark hair and no bar above her head. She wore a sharp black business suit and looked more like a mob boss’ bodyguard than a clinic worker. “Follow me, please,” she said. The short woman led Mason down a long, narrow, white hall. They passed several closed and open doors; as far as Mason could tell they were all offices.

“You guys sure like trees around here,” Mason joked as he followed the woman. Every open door he peeked into had a red pine tree growing behind a glass wall. She did not reply at all until she stopped walking several paces after his joke. She stopped in front of a red door that Mason did not even notice from the other end of the hall. Looking back the way he came, he could not see the entrance of the hall.

“In here, please,” she said and opened the door. This office was different from the other ones Mason saw. The walls, floor, and ceiling were the same stark white as the other offices, but that was the only similarity. There was no red tree behind a glass wall; just another white wall. The small desk in the center of the room did not have a computer monitor like the rest. Mason walked in and sat in front of the desk while the dark-suited woman walked around and sat behind it.

“Well, Mr. Rodriguez,” the woman said, then she pointed at the air above her head. “Why don’t you tell me about what you see, or maybe don’t see?”

Sharp Lie

Darcy stared at the white leaflet in her hand. “Fresh Start Clinic,” it said in bright green letters. A small red logo that looked like a pair of open scissors came after the word “clinic”. The rest of the flyer went on to talk about their services including “Selective Memory Erasing” and “Character Rebuilding”. Darcy had been considering visiting the clinic for a few months.

More than a couple of her coworkers went through the “Character Rebuilding” process and raved about it as vaguely as they could. Their secrecy was a required part of the service and they were unwilling to talk about it in depth. All they could say was, “You should try it.” That morning an errant flyer landed in her lap. The train stopped to load and unload; when the door opened a gust of wind blew the leaflet into the train and it fluttered down to her. In the back of her mind, she took it as an omen and half-decided to visit the clinic.

“Ms. West?” a woman called out. Darcy looked toward the voice and saw a young woman in a white lab coat standing by an open door. Darcy stood up tentatively and glanced around at the other patients apologetically. She didn’t know how she got to the front of the line. She walked up to the woman and they exchanged smiles. “This way,” she said. The woman led Darcy into a long, narrow, white hallway. “In here,” she said. The woman stopped in front of an open door to Darcy’s right. Darcy walked into a small office that looked like a wider version of the hall. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all matte white and the office was longer than it was wide.

A glass wall divided the length of the room. On the other side of the glass pane, the walls remained white. A juvenile pine tree with red needles grew out of the white floor. On Darcy’s side of the glass, a red wooden desk sat with a chair in front of it and one behind it. Darcy took the chair in front and expected to wait some more. She was surprised when the woman that called her walked around and sat behind the desk. Darcy had to remind herself she was not in a doctor’s office.

“Hello, Ms. West. My name is Beatrize,” she smiled and offered Darcy her hand. “But, you may call me Bea. May I call you Darcy?” she asked. Darcy nodded and shook Bea’s hand simultaneously. “Wonderful,” Bea said. “So, what brings you here today, Darcy?”

“Character Rebuilding. I mean, I wanted to find out more information about what it is,” Darcy said. Bea nodded with a large smile.

“It’s more or less what it says,” Bea gestured at Darcy with her hand. “Imagine yourself, as you are now, as an RPG character. We let you choose your options and rebuild yourself any way you like.”

“Oh,” Darcy said. Her voice came out soft and disappointed. Even before she could wonder about how those things were even possible she came to one conclusion. It sounded expensive. “That’s probably out of my reach,” Darcy said apologetically. “Thank you for your time.”

“You can’t afford free?” Bea asked as Darcy stood; the woman sat down again upon hearing the word.

“How.. how is something like that free?” she asked.

“Our clinic is a non-profit organization,” Bea said. “That aside, we have a corporate sponsor that covers all our running costs. Sharp Development isn’t after a profit, they want to change the world,” Bea sat up straighter in her seat. And, we don’t advertise our prices, anyone that gets the procedure done has to sign several NDAs. If we don’t tell anyone it’s free, we only get people genuinely interested in the service.” Darcy dared to get her hopes up. “Free” was well within her price range.

“How long does it take?” she asked. If it was free and it didn’t take too long she hoped she could get it done then and there. Bea shrugged.

“10, maybe 15 minutes.”

“Really?!” Darcy’s eyes widened and she sat up straighter on the edge of her seat. “Do I need to make an appointment?” Bea shook her head with a smile.

“You’re here already.”

“YES!” Darcy’s voice was almost a shout; Bea jumped slightly in her seat, then smiled. She reached into a drawer in her desk and pulled out a manila folder. She set it on the desk with a pen next to it.

“I’ll need you to sign some forms. This might seem odd, but I assure you there’s a reason for everything.” Darcy gave Bea a puzzled look as she picked up the pen. She wondered what exactly would seem odd about filling out permissions for a procedure; then, she saw it. At the very top of the first sheet was a surprising sentence.

[I hereby grant Sharp Development ownership of my soul.] followed by a line for her signature. Darcy dropped the pen and sat back.

“Selling my soul isn’t ‘free’,” she said with crossed arms. Bea shook her head slightly, smiled, then stood from her seat. She encouraged Darcy to stand next to her; then she turned and looked through the glass divider.

“As I said, everything is there for a reason.” Bea tapped the glass with her finger and the floor around the red pine tree began to recede. “We don’t have a use for your soul; we’re not trying to buy it from you. However, we do need you to sign it over to us so we can move it. We cannot touch your soul without your permission.”

“Move it?” Darcy asked. She kept her eyes on watching the floor reveal the lower part of the young tree. Its trunk sank into a clear glass case shaped like a coffin. A brunette woman that looked like a younger Bea rested in the coffin with her eyes closed. She was probably dead; the dark tree trunk growing out of her chest was a strong hint. “What’s going on? Who’s that?” Darcy asked.

“That’s my body,” Bea said. She turned and poked Darcy’s soft stomach. “Your body is only good for about 100 years, but that tree has a much, much longer lifespan. So the tree takes my soul and keeps it safe. As long as that tree is standing…,” Bea curtsied. “…so am I.”

“So.. if I don’t sign my soul over..?”

“No procedure. We don’t have anything we can do for you if we don’t have permission.”

“But… I wanted to build a new life,” Darcy shook her head. “I don’t want to have to be myself for another century or two.” Bea’s brunette hair shimmered and grew longer; her face sparkled. After a moment Darcy was staring at herself. Bea shook her head and the long chestnut strands seemed to fall out, but they disappeared before landing. A tall Asian man stood in Bea’s place.

“You don’t have to,” Bea said with a masculine voice. Without another word, Darcy walked back to the desk and began filling in the form. She started by signing her soul over to Sharp Development.

Regal Visitor

“Oh…,” The lean, well-dressed man looked startled when Candace flipped the kitchen light on. “You’re awake,” he said apologetically. He stood in front of the open fridge with a red can of soda in one hand and a container with leftover meatloaf in the other. He wore a black suit with a crisp white shirt visible underneath. A rich purple vest between the shirt and his coat matched his purple bowtie. He was almost as tall as the refrigerator including a thick, lustrous mane of golden hair atop his head. His gold sideburns connected to a full golden beard. Along with large sunken eyes and a slightly upturned nose he reminded Candace of a lion. He stood still, but it seemed more out of politeness than any worry about the shotgun pointed at him.

For her part, Candace held the barrel trained on him. She was dressed in a closed flannel robe and bunny slippers. It was her first night in a new apartment and she’d had some trouble sleeping. She decided on a snack when she heard movement in the kitchen. The gun was loaded and not in its cabinet because it was her first night in a new apartment.

“Who are you? Why are you in my kitchen?” Candace asked. The stranger shook his head and smiled.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said. “You’re not in any danger,” he added. Candace nodded lightly but did not lower the weapon.

“That’s for me to decide,” she said. “How’d you get in?” He pointed at the wall on the far side of the kitchen. It was not a very big apartment and the kitchen was small enough that Candace could see the wall without taking her eyes off the stranger completely. She saw a black hole on the wall. “What the hell?” As she asked her rhetorical question her focus shifted to the hole entirely. To her surprise, the stranger walked out of the hole still holding the soda and tupperware. Candace looked back to the fridge. It was still open and a tall black hole hovered in the air in front of it.

“Like this,” the stranger called Candace’s attention from the wall. She looked back to him in time to see him walking back into the hole. She turned back to the fridge and began to feel like she was watching a tennis match. The stranger walked out of the black hole and stood in front of the fridge again.

“How’d you do that?” Candace asked reflexively. It was 2 a.m. and she’d had a long day of organizing her new place before she failed at sleeping. Her mind was cloudy and the best she could do was blurt out questions until something made sense. She did not feel threatened at all by the stranger; he seemed warm and genuine.

“Uh.. may I?” he asked and lifted the container of leftovers to get her attention. Candace rolled her eyes and lowered the gun. Despite the situation, her own stomach grumbled its complaints the moment she spotted him holding the container. The stranger had the ability to teleport somehow; she assumed he wasn’t a normal human. Chances are if he wanted her dead, she would not have woken to find him in the kitchen. He was probably hungry and that was something Candace felt she could make sense of.

“Save some for me,” she said as she grabbed a loaf from the breadbox on the counter. She joined him at her small round table with the bread and a knife. After a few quiet minutes they each took a bite from their own meatloaf sandwiches. The stranger’s eyes widened then closed slowly with a satisfying ‘mmmm’.

“Sho,” Candace said. Then, she grew self-conscious about her manners and paused to swallow the bite. “So, how’d you do that?” She tilted her head at the wall.

“It’s called, ‘traversing’,” he said with a half-shrug. “I don’t think there is a how exactly. Either you can, or you can’t. I think about where I want to go, then go through the portal and hope for the best.”

“It’s that easy?” Candace asked. She was about to take another bite but saw her chance to ask something else first. She held the sandwich by her mouth and took a bite immediately after her question. The stranger nodded while swallowing his own mouthful.

“It’s that simple, but it’s not easy. Imagine you got into a cab and told the driver where you wanted to go. But the trick is the driver gets to decide where he drops you off. Most of the time you’ll get where you want to go but sometimes you end up where the driver thinks you should be.”

“Is that how you ended up here?” she asked. “I don’t feel like you’re the type to break into someone’s house just to raid their fridge. With that trick of yours, you can probably go anywhere in the world.” She asked between bites. The sandwich was half gone already. The man shook his head.

“That’s another thing, I don’t get to tell it where I want to go; it’s more like a gut feeling. I have to have a clear goal in mind when I open the portal. And…,” he nodded at the wall. “…I can’t pinpoint anything I can’t see.”

“When you said I wouldn’t believe you,…” Candace asked with a hint of humor in her voice. “… it’s accidental? You were trying to traverse somewhere else? I kind of believe you.” The man smiled and swallowed the last bite of his sandwich.

“No,” he said with a shake of his head and rose from his seat. “I landed where I meant to.”

“What do you mean?” Candace dropped that last quarter of her snack and her eyes darted to the shotgun she left on the counter. She could not imagine any other innocent reason for him to be there than a mistake. If his presence was intentional… He smiled and disrupted her train of thought. The stranger pointed at the remaining sandwich on Candace’s plate.

“I’m working on something and got hungry. Specifically, I had a craving for the best meatloaf I could find. Thank you for your hospitality,” he said with a slight bow of his head and a black portal opened behind him.

“I.. I make the best meatloaf in the world?” Candace asked; she hoped she understood how his ability worked. She was disappointed when he shook his head.

“Apparently,” he sighed pleasantly and patted his stomach. “You make the best meatloaf across hundreds of universes,” he smiled and stepped backward into the hole. It disappeared taking him with it.

Sun & Fun

Floyd huffed and wheezed as he tried to keep up with the fleeing crowd. The mid-40s football coach held a hand against his side to ease the growing pain; but, his outstretched elbow slowed him down even more. He needed to stop and felt glad his wife and daughter were out of town when the monster attacked. The terrified crowd rushed on without him. They continued running down the gridlocked street. New members rushed out of their parked cars and joined the group as they ran past. Floyd’s lungs heaved as he turned around to see how far he’d gotten. 

About 20 blocks away, on the same street, an enormous green reptile stood on its hind legs. The sun had already begun its descent; the perspective made it look like the monster could bite the sun right out of the darkening sky. The green beast lumbered toward the nearest tall building and swatted it down like an angry child. Floyd panicked when he noticed a heavy plume of smoke, dust, and ash rolled up the street toward him. He looked left intending to look right if there was nothing there. Instead, he saw an opening into a dim alleyway and bolted into it. Floyd’s attention was so distracted that he did not notice a woman walking out of the alley.

He tried to stop himself when he did notice her; but, it was too late. He managed to get a good look at her face as his inertia carried him into her; his nose was not even an inch from hers. The strange woman’s skin was pale, creamy and perfect; as if she was cast from liquid marble. Her eyes looked like black jewels, the pupils had an almost crystalline quality to them. She looked almost amused that Floyd was about to butt heads with her. Floyd shut his eyes; then, he hit the ground.

He opened his eyes to see dirty alley blacktop beneath him and he rolled over. The woman was behind him as if he went through her. She continued walking out of the alley and Floyd got a better look. The pale woman wore a long black dress with a slit cut up the right side, and a pair of short, twisting white horns protruded out of her dark, flowing hair. Fashion choices aside; she was human.

“Wait!” Floyd said. The woman stopped in her tracks and turned around to look at him. The moment she did, the rolling cloud of debris washed past her; she remained untouched. The dust rushed at her right side but it stopped before it touched her. A brown cloud flowed out of her left side; it looked like the dirty air passed through her instead of going around.

“Yes?” she asked with a playfully raised eyebrow.

“Monster!” Floyd said from the ground. He pointed the way he came from and hoped the monster was still visible. He meant to warn her about the debris but it proved to be a non-issue. The strange woman’s head turned to her right with a graceful swivel. Her eyes widened almost as much as her smile.

“Fun!” she said with a bright chirp. She shifted her weight to one leg and brought her hand up to tap at her delicate chin. She sighed, then turned to face Floyd; he was standing and dusting the ground off his jeans.

“How do you want to kill it?” she asked him.

“What? You’re crazy, lady,” he said and looked down the rest of the alley. It wasn’t very long with another street at the end, but he couldn’t see much of the street due to all the dust. He looked back at the woman in time to see her nod.

“Crazy bored,” she said. “After I kill it…,” she smiled. “Everyone on this world is next.” When she said, “next”, two sudden impacts startled Floyd into the air. When he landed again he was almost halfway down the alley. Two white skeletons, one on each side of her, pulled themselves together from bone piles. “If you help me get some enjoyment out of the process…,” she paused and raised a single eyebrow at him. “…I’ll let you leave before that happens.”

Floyd began to consider the possibility that the horns on her head were real. Her confidence about defeating the monster seemed more matter-of-fact than hopeful or misplaced. It was the same kind of confidence a high-school athlete would feel when asked if he could walk across a room. He had no doubts she could do what she claimed. Somehow he stumbled onto her good side and he needed to stay there.

“How many of those can you make?” he asked and pointed to the skeletons. She smiled and beckoned Floyd with a finger.  Floyd shrugged and walked to her; she stepped back to let him out of the alley.

“Is that what you had in mind?” she asked and nodded at the monster in the distance. It was flailing around angrily hitting itself with its fists. Above it, an enormous black hole hovered in the violet sky; it was as big as five or six football fields clumped together. Bone-white skeletons rained out of the hole and landed on the beast. They crawled all over it like a swarm of spiders.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Floyd nodded.

“Mildly entertaining,” the woman said dismissively. “Off you go.”

“Wait! My family!” Floyd said with a flash of panic.

“They’ll hardly have time to miss you,” she said. Before Floyd could argue the alley gave way under him and he dropped like a stone into a black hole.

Majestic Life

“Awww, nuts,” Linus opened his eyes and sighed when he recognized the office. He was seated in a comfortable rolling chair in front of a small particle-board desk. A beige monitor took up more than half of the desk. A transparent phone with glowing pink and blue neon lights rested on the other end of the desk. The high-back leather chair behind the desk was empty. He settled in his seat, focused his attention on the phone, then waited.

A door opened behind him and he whirled around to see who it was. A fat man in a red t-shirt and blue jeans walked in with a smile; he wore a navy blue business coat on his shoulders like a cape. His golden hair was as stringy as a bird’s nest and almost as organized.

“Linus!” he grinned and patted Linus on the back heartily as he walked past. “Great to meet you man, congratulations!”

“Chase?” Linus asked. Despite visiting the office several hundreds of times he’d never met his caseworker. Chase always conducted phone interviews. The fat man nodded; his pale, chubby cheeks wobbled with the motion.

“No more phone interviews,” Chase said. He glanced at the neon phone with a bit of sadness. “Some bull crap about…,” he changed his tone to a mocking authoritative voice. “professional appearance and professional standards.” Chase shook his head. “Anyway, you did it! You’re the last you in,” Chase opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a manila folder. He opened it on the desk and began looking over the forms within.

“How many?” Linus asked.

“We got you down to five,” Chase flipped a sheet over and continued reading. “It looks like you’re the tie-breaker.” Linus nodded.

“Can I go again?” Linus asked. “I mean, to get more points?” He felt disappointed when Chase shook his head.

“Theoretically, yes,” Chase said. “But, you’re already outvoted on that. The other ‘yous’ want to cash out. Luckily they agree on pretty much everything; there’re only a few decisions you have to make.”

“Oh,” Linus sighed. “Fine, what’s my last life like?” he asked. Chase tapped the skull tattoo on his forehead.

“You earned enough to become a Calavera with an extra perk.” Linus sat up with a smile.

“Extra perk?” he asked. “Like what?” Chase flipped another form over and looked at the next sheet.

“Your latest couple of lives…,” Chase made a gesture at Linus. “…this last one in particular, you got pretty environmental.” Linus nodded.

“Yeah, I thought I could extend the path and go all the way to Mundo.” Chase returned the nod.

“You could’ve if you weren’t outvoted. But,” Chase smiled. “You managed to get enough points in ‘Environmentalist’ to get you an elemental power. You get to choose which.” Linus smiled to himself.

“Whoa… a Calavera with elemental powers? I like the sound of that,” he chuckled. “So I’ll be able to control one of the four ele-“

“Six,” Chase corrected.


“Earth, fire, wind, water…,” Chase said. “…sun, and void.”

“Earth,” Linus said. “I mean, that’s my choice.” Chase nodded and grabbed a pen to scribble something on the form. 

“Any preference about what kind of Earth you’re born on?”

“No…,” Linus said. He started out strong, but the ‘o’ stretched out as he thought. “…but, I don’t want to be the only Unique. Is that possible? I’d like to meet a Unique as soon as possible.” Chase smiled as he continued adding notes to the form.

“Our control of your circumstances isn’t quite that exact, but I’ll add a note and we’ll see what happens.” He chuckled. “The universe works in mysterious ways. Gender?”

“I..  I can choose that too?” Linus asked. Chase shrugged.

“Technically, no. But I know what’s it’s like to have decisions taken out of your hands,” he said with a friendly sigh. “You wanted to keep going but you can’t. It sucks, and I don’t want you to start your last life on a sour note. We…,” Chase tapped the navy blue coat on his shoulders. “…are supposed to choose for you. Mix up your lives a bit, you know? But, what the hell. You made it this far, I’ll let you pick. Linus shrugged.

“Thanks! I appreciate the gesture, but I really don’t care. Surprise me.” Chase nodded.


“Whoa, that too!?”

“Yes, when you become a Unique,” Chase said. Linus shrugged.

“You pick for me, a favor from one Calavera to another.” Linus was not ready for the questions but he trusted Chase enough to let him answer. 

“Cool, I can do that,” Chase said. Looks like we’re all set, you’ll be born in a bit,” he closed the folder. “Any guidelines for the name? Anything you don’t want?” Linus smiled and shook his head.

“Nah, I trust you. Just make sure it’s something…,” Linus’ head wavered as he considered several words he wanted to use. Then, he settled on one. “…something majestic.”

Chasing Nostalgia

Casey heard ringing before she opened her eyes. She was seated in front of a desk but the high-back leather chair behind it was empty. She looked around and took inventory of the office. She had no idea how she got there; but, she hoped that finding out where there was would give her some hints.

The phone that continued ringing in steady intervals was transparent and pink neon lights glowed from inside the clear case. The rotary on its inclined front glowed with a neon blue light highlighting the numbers. The phone sat on a small desk with a large, beige, CRT monitor taking up more than half of its surface.  The walls consisted of wood panels decorated with dozens of posters. They advertised movies and bands that Casey had never heard of. She was somewhat amused by the fact that every person on every person wore sunglasses and a popped up collar. There wasn’t much else to the office except a closed door. As she thought about poking her head out the door opened.

A beautiful woman with aqua-blue curls strode in with an annoyed look on her face. She seemed surprised by Casey but she rolled her eyes and picked up the ringing phone.

“Ezey said no more phone interviews,” she said with a firm tone. “You have a client.” As Casey watched the exchanged she took in the woman’s appearance. She had olive skin with a star tattooed on her left cheek; the number 35 decorated the blue star. She wore a navy blue business coat that gave her a professional appearance from the waist up. A matching navy sarong was wrapped around her waist and showed plenty of leg when she walked. The woman hung up the phone, then smiled politely at Casey.

“Sorry about the wait, your caseworker will be right in,” she said. She turned to leave but Casey managed to find her voice.

“Where am I?” the confused woman asked. The woman continued to walk and smile; she did not slow at all.

“You’re dead,” she said as she walked through the door and closed it.

“I’m… dead?” Casey asked aloud to herself. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brow to think. “I’d been sick…” she remembered feeling hot and achy. She was soaking the sheets with sweat at night and waking up with chills. “I was going to go to the doctor today…,” she realized she had put off the doctor visit too long. The door opened again and a fat man walked in. He looked young. Casey guessed his age was somewhere around her own 28 years. His golden hair looked like a bird’s nest; stringy and disorganized. He had a skull tattooed on his forehead with the number 42 on its forehead in gold numbers.

He wore the same navy blue coat the other woman wore, but with a much more casual attitude. After seeing both of them, Casey assumed the coat was part of a uniform. His coat rested on his shoulders like a cape, his arms were free of its sleeves. Under it, he wore a tight red t-shirt that matched one of the posters on the wall, sunglasses and all. He wore sagging blue jeans and black high-top sneakers to complete the outfit.

“Casey!” he said with a broad smile as he entered and waddled around her to sit behind the desk. “I’m glad we finally get to meet.”

“Finally?” she asked. The rotund man nodded and reached into one of his desk drawers. He pulled out a manila folder, opened it and set it on the desk to look over it.

“Yeah. Normally I do it over the phone,” he said. He kept talking to the file instead of looking up to meet Casey’s eyes.

“Am I dead?” Casey asked. The man chuckled.

“Women are just dying to meet me,” he said playfully, then closed the file and looked up at Casey.

“You’re dead. We’ve talked on the phone a few times,” he shrugged. “Well, every time you die.” He reached a plump hand out across the desk to her. “I’m your caseworker, Chase.” Casey gave him a confused look instead of shaking his hand. He nodded then lowered the hand.  “You’ve only died a handful of times, it’ll take several more until you start remembering me.”

“More? I’m going to die more?” Casey asked.

“Sure, it’s how the thing works. Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually. Bye,” he said with a smile and waved at her.

“Wait. That’s it? Just hi and bye!?” Casey asked with a hard edge in her voice. “I want answers!” she shouted. Chase shrugged.

“They used to give answers. Way back when. But now, there’re more people dying and not enough staff to deal with them.” He sighed. “Any answers I give you, you plain won’t remember. This is just a check in to let you know things are still on track and put you at ease for your next life.” Casey crossed her arms in a huff as if refusing to leave. Chase glanced at his monitor. “Okay, you have time for one question. Make it fast,” he said.

Casey thought about her last memories of being sick. She remembered the spasms she felt while coughing and wheezing, then she looked at her hands. Sitting in the small office, she wiggled her fingers. Wherever she was now, it felt as real as when she was sick. She decided on a question, but she wanted to word it carefully.

“Wherever I was before this office, it feels the same as now. So my question is… how did I get from there to here? I mean, what happened to me that got me from there to here,” she asked. Chase smiled.

“You died,” he said. “See you next time,” he waved again and Casey’s vision went black. Then, she was born again.

Plot Holes

Marcy let out a puzzled sigh as her headlights fell on a bright yellow camping tent. Sean, her portly best friend, scrambled out of the tent. The short round man crawled free of the tent, then stood up in a hurry. He pulled a flannel robe tight around himself and walked towards Marcy’s truck. His face fell slightly when the dark-haired woman stepped out of the truck empty-handed.

“Where’s the shovel?” he asked with a disappointed tone. Marcy rolled her eyes and reached into the bed of her truck. Her hand reappeared holding the shovel handle then she pulled it out. Sean reached for it like a spoiled child but Marcy pulled it out of reach before he grabbed it.

“What’s it for?” she asked. Sean was the smartest person Marcy had ever met; he was also the most eccentric. The main reason their friendship worked was that she was the type of person interested in a forest adventure at two in the morning. Though he was brilliant he tended to miss, or sometimes outright ignore, details. If he planned to bury a body Marcy needed to check his work.

“I’ll show you,” his eyes sparkled with delight and he whirled around to walk back to the tent. Marcy shrugged and followed with the shovel in hand. Upon reaching the tent, Sean sank to his knees and crawled into it part-way. After a few moments of fidgeting, he backed out of the tent and stood up again. He held up a hand and something glinted in the lights of Marcy’s truck. It looked like a small, clear, glass pane about the size of a playing card.

“Portable window?” Marcy shrugged. Sean smiled but shook his head.

“It’s called a node,” he said then handed the device over to Marcy. The moment she took it in her hands, numbers glowed on its surface. [02:48a.m]

“It’s just a fancy phone?” Marcy asked. “Did you make it?” Sean nodded decisively, then shook his head.

“I designed it. The idea came to me in a dream. When I woke up I planned it out. I produced one, non-working, prototype,” he nodded at the node in Marcy’s hand. “That one was in the same spot I left the prototype, and the one I made is nowhere to be found.”

“Neat. So.. you want to hit it with a shovel?” Marcy asked.

“What? No!” Sean swiped the node back protectively and shook his head.

“Then…,” Marcy said. “…why did I bring the stupid shovel?” Sean sighed and rolled his eyes, but he chuckled.

“I’m getting to that.” He held up the node again, tentatively; he was still afraid she’d take a shovel to it. “Weird thing happened, right? Obviously I’m going to investigate. The first round of tests didn’t show me anything interesting, so then-”  Marcy interrupted him with a finger. She tapped the node in his hand to bring up the time again. [02:49a.m.] Then she twisted it in his hand until he could see the time and coughed. Marcy was up for a forest adventure at three in the morning, but not a forest lecture.

“Right. Uh, short version:” He stretched his arm as far as it would go; his hand was only a couple of inches higher than Marcy’s forehead. “It’s from an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE!”  he shouted.”

“Neat!” Marcy said. She was genuinely impressed. She wasn’t the least bit gullible, but a lifetime friendship with Sean had taught her one thing. If he said something, it was almost certainly a fact. “So we’re gonna bring aliens from another dimension here and hit them with a shovel?”

“No!” Sean said, then he sighed. “Fine. Look, I asked you to bring a shovel because I want you to dig a hole,” He wavered his hand, then added, “…and a half. A hole and half. I started digging one for me but I was using a cheap hand spade and didn’t get very far.”

“What am I digging two holes for?” Marcy asked.

“Because…,” Sean grinned. “…If I put this in the hole and lay down, my consciousness will be projected to another universe where I can live like an MMO character.” Marcy blinked.  She believed him, but she didn’t quite understand him.

“Say what now?” she asked. Sean shook his head.

“See what happens when you skip to the end?” he asked with a smile. “You miss all the harrowing details of how I pieced this puzzle together,” he said puffing his chest out. “Just dig. It’ll be easier when you see it for yourself.”

Sharp Apology

“…but…,” Arnold nervously stepped back from the open cell door. “I’m not up for parole until next year.” He shook his head in rapid fashion; for him, it was more of a physical tick than communication. A burly guard glared at the mousey prisoner. “I’m not ready for a hearing today,” Arnold said. He tried to push himself deeper into the corner of the dim cell.

“No hearing, Willis.” The guard softened his eyes for the waifish inmate. Arnold stopped trying to pass through the wall and relaxed slightly. “Your parole is already granted. I’m just here to walk you out.” Arnold braved a step forward, then paused and shook his head again.

“But I don’t have anywhere to go. No one to pick me up.” The guard sighed heavily. He looked up and down the hall but did not see any other guards, then he took a step into Arnold’s cell.

Guards were not supposed to take those kinds of risks. Stepping into an occupied cell was equivalent to following a snake into its burrow. Even though many inmates came across as personable, they’d turn vicious given half a chance. No one believed Arnold had that ferocity in him.

Arnold Willis had been an inmate for five years. He suffered dozens of brutal attacks for the first six months but never complained. He was quiet, did what he was told, and did his best to keep his head down. After his third stab wound, the guards sympathized as much as they could. They were extra vigilant about his protection. The major inmate gang didn’t want that kind of attention and started ignoring the loner. The fact that he never named his attackers helped. They saw him as a non-threat that wasn’t worth fussing about. The guards considered him harmless. The guard lowered his voice and spoke to Arnold with a loud whisper.

“Don’t worry about it. Look, I’m not supposed to say anything, but somehow you picked up some major support. There’s a sexy woman and a nice car waiting outside for you.” Arnold narrowed his eyes.

“Why? Who?” he asked. The guard shrugged.

“All I know is someone from Sharp Development was asking questions about you a couple of days ago.”

“From where?” Arnold asked.

“Sharp Development?” The guard asked with a tone that meant Arnold should have recognized the name. The small man shrugged in response. “The company that owns the prison,” the guard added. “C’mon, I don’t want to keep them waiting.”  The guard cuffed Arnold loosely then turned around to lead him out. 

He led the passive inmate through a maze of narrow corridors and security doors. No one seemed to care that Arnold was leaving. There were no cheers or jeers or any sort of acknowledgment as he shuffled past. They paused at a window to get Arnold’s belongings.

“I didn’t have anything when I came in,” Arnold said. The guard and the clerk exchanged shrugs. The clerk handed Arnold a clipboard to get a signature, then the guard led him out to the main exit.

Arnold felt glad the sun was setting when they stepped outside. The setting sun meant cooler temperatures. He spotted a short, plump, beautiful woman in a black suit standing next to a long black limousine. She was pale with short dark hair and acknowledged Arnold with a wave.

“Good luck, man.” The burly guard patted Arnold on the back and pushed him through the open gate. The former inmate approached the woman.

“Mr. Arnold Willis?” she asked. He nodded, then she opened a door at the rear of the limo. “Please step in,” she said. Arnold did not have to crouch very much to climb into the limo. Once he was comfortable in his seat he was surprised to see another woman in the car. She resembled the woman that invited him into the car but she was leaner with sharper features. She wore a suit that matched the other woman’s but this one was entirely white. She smiled at Arnold.

“Hello, Mr. Willis. My name is Dana Sharp,” she said.

“Arnold Willis,” he nodded and introduced himself nervously. Then, he felt like an idiot because obviously she already knew that. “What can I… uh…,” Arnold stammered for a moment, then he found the question he was looking for. “What do you want with me?” he asked. Dana Sharp exhaled a light sigh.

“To apologize, Mr. Willis.”

“Apologize?.. to me? What? Why me?” he asked with a shake of his head.

“Do you remember the day you arrived?” she asked and tilted her head at the prison. Arnold shook his head intentionally.

“Not really. I was pretty depressed at the time so I fell asleep in the transport on the way. The guards had fun waking me up.” Dana nodded.

“You did not fall asleep out of depression; your nap was scheduled.”

“Oh. Well, thanks I guess? It was a pleasant nap.”

“It’s not over,” Dana said.

“How so?” Arnold shook his head, then he looked down at his hands. They looked real to him. “I don’t get it.”

“Unknown to you, and to me at the time,” she said. “You were chosen to participate in a project my company has been working on.”

“What kind of-” Arnold started to ask but Ms. Sharp kept talking over him. He quickly shut up.

“During transport, you were put to sleep and you were taken to one of my R & D labs. We were testing the use of Alternate Reality prisons and you were our first inmate.” Arnold instinctively glanced at the prison through the window, then shook his head. Dana kept talking. “You were our only inmate,” she said. She tapped the window and it disintegrated into a fine white powder. Once the window disappeared the rest of the car continued to fall apart around them. Arnold whipped his head around to look out the other window at the prison.

The image of the stern building disappeared with the window as if it was displayed on the car’s glass. The windows, the car, the prison, the deep purple sky, and the cool breeze were all gone within moments. Dana sharp stood from the car’s seat and it disintegrated under her too. Arnold remained on his side and the leather seat stayed under him; he looked around.

They were inside a wide-open, dark warehouse. The only things in the empty building were Arnold, Dana Sharp, her driver, and a young pine tree. The tree was unlike any Arnold had seen before. It wasn’t very tall yet but its needle leaves were a rich, dark, blood-red color. It was beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

“It wasn’t real?” he asked. “I got stabbed three times.. and it wasn’t real?”

“You were our Beta tester. You helped us fine-tune the guard’s A.I.,” Dana said. It wasn’t an apology.

“You don’t seem too broken up over it. What are you apologizing for?”

“We both know why you were sentenced to begin with,” she said. “So no, I’m not broken up about that in the least. However, I do run a business. And when things go wrong with that business I take responsibility.” She began walking toward the red tree and Arnold followed her.

“I am apologizing because, despite your guilt, you were sentenced for 15 years.” They reached the tree and she stopped walking. “You were not sentenced to death,” she said. Arnold shook his head almost violently.

“What do you mean? I’m standing here breathing, same as you,”  he said. Her stern, flat lips curled into a smile and her dark eyes sparkled.

“Same as me?” she asked. “Maybe,” she cast her eyes down at the base of the tree. “Maybe not.” Arnold looked down. The narrow trunk was growing out of a long glass box. It was vaguely shaped like a casket and on the other side of the glass, he could see why. A small, emaciated corpse rested in the glass casket; the tree was growing out of its chest.

“I’m sorry,” Dana Sharp said. “Your body is dead, Mr. Willis. But as long as this tree stands, your soul is safe. You may continue to exist as a digital ghost of sorts.”

“Digital gho-” Arnold started to ask but he felt his hands tingle. He looked down at them. His hands disintegrated into white powder for a second, then solidified again.