Recording. Ruined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who froze you in time? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OH MY GOD!” she shouted. “DON’T TELL ME YOU DIDN’T RECORD THAT!?

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

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

Name Recognition

Johnathon picked up the bright red bucket hat out of curiosity. The color drew his attention as he watched a surprisingly spry old man dash into the alley. Red stood out from the blacks and browns of most of the other pedestrians wandering around downtown. Johnathon’s curiosity led him to follow the old man into the alley; but, he was surprised to find it empty except for the red hat.

Johnathon checked the inside of the hat and was surprised to see his own name written inside the brim with a black marker. He turned it around to look over the outside and noted the number 13 embroidered in small gold numbers on the top of it. He spun around in the alley again to double-check for a sign of anyone, but he was alone. The hat looked like it would fit him comfortably and he tried it on. The moment it sat on his head something felt different; but, he wasn’t sure what. A tingling sensation ran down from his head to envelope his whole body. It surprised him and he pulled the hat off, the sensation instantly disappeared. He looked down at his hands but did not see anything that might have caused the tingling sensation. He shrugged and donned the hat again.

The tingling sensation returned but he was expecting it this time. He checked his hands but they were missing. He wiggled his fingers frantically, still feeling the sensations but he could not see his hands. or arms. He looked down further and realized his body invisible, clothes and all. Johnathon kept his focus on his torso and reached up to lift the hat off his head. His body reappeared as soon as the tingling sensation ended.

“Nice…,” Johnathon grinned to himself. He put the hat on and walked out of the alley. He worked extra hard to dodge pedestrians that couldn’t see him, but the strangers ignored him even more than usual. Johnathon made his way home as he planned the best way to make use of his new ability.

At 21, he was just starting his life and he knew he could use the hat to make a great life for himself. But, he wanted to avoid drawing too much attention. He used it for occasional minor thievery to help him stay current with his bills, but more often than that he used it to spy on others. Over the years his business grew successful because he somehow always knew exactly what others would accept to make any deal work.

40 years later a very wealthy Johnathon happened to be passing the very same alley where he discovered the hat. He’d been hit by a wave of nostalgia and flew back to his hometown. He smiled when he recognized the alley and turned into it. He was surprised to see an old man looking around and grumbling to himself.

“Where the hell is it?” Johnathon heard the old man ask. An old memory crossed Johnathon’s mind as he wondered what the old man was looking for. It was the same man that wore the red hat when he ran into the alley, then vanished. 40 years ago Johnathon’s curiosity led him into the alley and now his curiosity again pushed him to approach the old man.

“Everything okay, sir?” Johnathon asked. The old man looked up and nodded.

“Fine, but have you any chance seen a red hat anywhere around here? I’m pretty sure this is where I lost it.” Johnathon had the hat in his coat pocket; but, he wasn’t ready to return it just yet. There were still several unanswered questions. As his memory clarified, Johnathon realized the old man looked the same age he did when he first saw him. He didn’t look like he had another 40 years in him then and now. He wanted to see if he could get any more information out of the man and decided to try and be helpful.

“When did you lose it?” Johnathon asked while giving a cursory look around the alley for effect. The old man answered with a laugh.

“If I knew that, it’d be easier to find,” he said. “Instead I’ve got to retrace my steps through all the years I’ve been here.” Johnathon didn’t quite understand what the man meant, but he chalked it up to the stranger just being old. But, the fact that he mentioned a timeframe gave Johnathon an idea. He snapped his fingers, which drew the man’s attention.

“I knew you looked familiar,” Johnathon said with wide eyes as if he’d just had an epiphany. “Is it a red bucket hat?” he asked. The old man stepped forward and nodded. “Yeah…,” Johnathon nodded as well as if he were jogging his own memory. “.. well I don’t it’s going to help you any. But I think I remember seeing you around here wearing a red bucket hat 40 years ago.” 

“40?” the old man asked. Johnathon nodded. The old man smiled, and seemed relieved. “Thank you,” he said. Then, Johnathon blinked.

40 years earlier, a 21-year-old Johnathon stood in an alleyway holding a red hat. He checked the inside of the hat and was surprised to see his own name written inside the brim with a black marker. He turned it around to look over the outside and noted the number 13 embroidered in small gold numbers on the top of it. He spun around in the alley again to double-check for a sign of anyone,  and was surprised to see the old man there; seemingly appeared out of thin air. He stared at Johnathon and narrowed his eyes.

“My hat, please,” he said.

“Oh, sorry,” Johnathon returned the hat with a smile. “It has my name in it; I was a bit surprised,” he added as the old man accepted it. “I thought maybe it was meant for me or something.” The old man laughed and shook his head.

“Thanks for helping me find it,” he said. He extended his hand in greeting and Johnathon noticed the number 14 tattooed on his hand. “Name’s Johnathon,” he said as they shook hands. “I’d say it was a funny coincidence, but we both know how common our name is.”

Timeless Love

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what is?”

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

“What’s it about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he said from behind her.

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

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

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

“Not the flowers,” he said.

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

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

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

Sharp Reset

“Your performance in your first few games was…,” Dana Sharp paused mid-pace to look at the group of five girls. Bailey, Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Britt were seated in Dana Sharp’s office. Each one looked sullen from Dana’s lecture so far. She circled them while informing them about her decision to cancel the Pineapple Cup, and start from the beginning again. Dana searched her mind for the most gentle word she could. “…lacking. It wasn’t the only reason for my decision to scrap the first tournament; but, it was on the list of reasons. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not even a negative.” Dana Sharp walked to her desk and sat behind it.

“Between us in this room, I know you could have improved enough as a team during the tournament to win. However, from a business perspective, there was an opportunity here to exploit. The representatives of Earth: Pineapple respect the fact that my company is willing to take a loss to accommodate a family emergency.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to nod at Bailey. She sat in the center of the group. Her chestnut ponytail was currently covered by her green hoodie; she pulled it up early into the lecture.

“How’s your dad doing, Bailey?” Ms. Sharp asked.

“Better,” Bailey gave the woman a firm nod. “Thank you, Ms. Sharp.”

“I get to buy you girls more time to practice, and it leaves a positive impression on my clients. This was my decision, girls.” The girls all seemed to relax when they realized Ms. Sharp wasn’t angry at them.

“Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. Jenny…,” Dana nodded at a girl with black spiky hair to Bailey’s right. “…you’re still the captain. Bailey’s father is still recovering, and I want her to be able to miss a day of practice if she needs to. Along those lines, we still need a sixth team member. The trouble is, you’ve become a team already. The window to assign you a sixth member myself has already closed.”

“Again, this is a great opportunity to learn something. Sharp Development acquired a dungeon finder app on one of our Earths called ‘Delver’. We’ve scaled it up to the AlterNet and rebranded it as ‘DRBY’. Dana Sharp waved a casual, dismissive hand at the girls.

“It’s on your nodes now, try it out and find a sixth member you all agree on. And you’re able to share the app with other players to make it easier to find practice games. Get as much training in as you can before the tournament restarts,” Dana Sharp said.

“When is it?” Bailey asked.

“You’ll know with plenty of time. When I decide,” Ms. Sharp replied.

Cookie Time

10-29-19

Jerry sped up his pace when he spotted the conspicuously inconspicuous white van parked outside his grandma’s house. He stopped by her house after school each day to pick up a new batch of treats to sell. Once the teenager Jerry learned her confections could reverse aging he wasted no time in finding rich buyers. He offered her the lion’s share of profits, but she never really seemed concerned about money.

It wasn’t until recently that Jerry realized he should have been more secretive. He started getting questions from random strangers in black suits with different accents. He did his best to throw them off his grandma’s trail, but as he ran into her house he wondered if a 15-year-old’s “best” was good enough. He entered the foyer in a hurry and relaxed. He heard laughter and conversation from the kitchen and guessed she wasn’t in too much danger.

“Jerry!” his grandma exclaimed the moment he poked his head around the corner. The short, elderly woman rushed to give him a big hug. After the embrace, she turned to face the table and pushed Jerry forward with her arm around his shoulder. “This is my grandson, Jerry. I guess you could say he’s my dealer,” she giggled.

His grandma introduced him to two men in black suits, both wearing sunglasses. A tall one and a short one, with almost no other way to tell them apart. Their hair color was nearly the same dark shade of brown and styled the same way on both. The glasses hid their eyes and neither stranger had any telltale blemish on their tan skin. Each man had a glass half full of speckled milk in front of him and a nearly empty plate of cookies rested between them.

“Uh, hi,” Jerry gave a half-wave. Both men nodded at him.

“Everything okay, grandma?” Jerry asked. She smiled and squeezed him closer.

“Never better! These gentlemen came to help,” she said. Jerry immediately grew worried. The one thing television taught him was that government agents could not be trusted.

“Grandma,” he leaned closer to her and whispered. “You can’t trust the government.” She slapped his shoulder playfully then crossed the kitchen to the stove; she grabbed half-empty plate from the table on her way. A sheet of fresh cookies sat cooling on the stove and she began refilling the plate.

“They’re not from the government,” she said. “They’re from the B.A.A.”

“Sounds like they are,” Jerry replied with a shrug. “F.B.I., N.S.A., B.A.A., it’s all the same.” He decided to sit in on the rest of their meeting; the fresh plate of cookies helped sway him. His grandma set the plate between the agents, then she sat down next to Jerry. “How are they going to ‘help‘?” he asked with sarcastic emphasis.

“They already did!” his grandma said with a big smile. The agents couldn’t answer; their mouths were full of chocolate-chip goodness. “They arranged it so the governments here won’t bother you or me anymore, and you can keep selling. Jerry hadn’t realized that other agents were already bothering his grandma.

“I suppose all they want is the secret of your treats?” Jerry asked as he stared at the agents.

“We already know it,” the short one said as he dipped another cookie into his milk.

“What!?” Jerry felt a pang of anger flare in his gut. He did not know his grandma’s secret. He always hoped and assumed she’d teach it to him one day. But she flat out gave these strangers the secret before him. The short agent turned to look at Jerry’s grandma. Jerry sensed something passed between them, but his grandma had a great poker face and he couldn’t see the agent’s expression at all. Then, he heard his grandmother sigh.

“They didn’t come to learn my secret,” his grandmother reached for his hand and squeezed it. “They came because they already knew, and they wanted to make sure I was safe.”

“Huh?” Jerry did not understand what she meant at all.

“When I bake,” she squeezed his hand again. “I add a secret ingredient that you can never learn to use. It’s way more complicated, but we can get away with calling it magic,” she said. “I can’t teach you, it’s something I was born with.”

Jerry almost scoffed at the notion of magic until he looked at the bigger picture. He felt like an idiot. He believed the right combination of flour, baking soda, and chocolate chips could reverse someone’s aging. Right until she said the word “magic”.

“These nice gentlemen know what I can do. They wanted to make sure I was doing it intentionally and of my own free will.

“And we have,” the short one said as both men rose from their chairs. The tall one stuffed handfuls of cookies into the pockets of his black coat. “Let us know if you have any other issues,” he said. Jerry stood out of his seat expecting to walk them out, but a large black hole appeared in his grandma’s kitchen. With a nod, both men walked into the hole then it disappeared.

“I’m sure you have questions,” his grandma said. “It’s time you knew everything. From the beginning.” Jerry turned to give her his undivided attention. He knew she had secrets, but he never imagined magic or black holes. The greying, wrinkled woman took in a slow, deep breath. The inward airflow added warm color to her pasty skin and plumped her wrinkles. Dark black flowed from her scalp to recolor her silver hair. When she exhaled again, Jerry’s grandmother looked more like a young aunt. Her dark hair had a vibrant lustre to it and her skin seemed to glow with youthful energy.

“The first thing you need to know…,” she said with a strong, young voice. “…is that 14 is my favorite number.”

Dreadful Aura

Erin froze in his tracks the moment he focused his Sight on the teenager. He was thankful he didn’t call out to her as he approached to congratulate her on her win. She was too busy basking in the cheers of the crowd around her to notice him standing on the field staring at her.

Erin shook his head to dismiss his Sight and recollect his thoughts. He decided not to approach her right away; she was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. She was tall and athletic with spiked, white hair. And, she was now officially the strongest person on Earth.

One day, a year ago, humans spontaneously developed superhuman abilities. Luckily, the leaders of the world were able to come together quickly to develop a super-powered version of the Olympics. They set a date for a year in the future and opened training camps.

Unlike the training involved for professional athletes, anyone could be superhuman. The winner, Dread, wasn’t the only teenager in the competition, but they were all treated as equals. Her frightening strength wasn’t what gave Erin pause. Her aura was entirely different from every other human he saw; super-powered or not.

Every other person congratulating Dread had a soft purple glow around them. It was the same glow that informed Erin of his new ability. After some practice with it, he found out that seeing someone’s aura was the least useful trait of his ability. With his enhanced vision he could see sharper, clearer,  and farther than anyone. It was useful enough to use often, but not all the time. While approaching Dread, his Sight activated unintentionally. It was only the second time that had ever happened; the first was when humans first got their powers.

The moment he saw Dread’s aura, he knew why his ability turned on. It was scared of her. Her body was surrounded by a ghostly, brilliant, golden skull. It resembled a sugar skull with elegant purple, gold, and black patterns decorating it. The number 42 glowed on the skull’s forehead. When he shook his Sight away, the skull aura disappeared while Dread continued smiling and chatting with her new admirers. Something about the situation didn’t seem right, she seemed friendly enough despite her aura. Erin noticed the crowd around her thinning and decided to get closer before his approach became awkward.

He took three steps, then froze again. Erin’s Sight spontaneously activated again, now there were two horrifying auras. A flowing black cloak and obsidian scythe now stood next to Dread’s golden skull. Erin shook his Sight away again and spotted the difference. There was one more girl in the crowd that wasn’t there when Erin tried to approach a second time. She wasn’t as tall as Dread, but almost as pale, and she had long ribbon-like black curls flowing down over her shoulders.

Erin wasn’t surprised; teleportation was a known ability. The new girl with the death-like aura smiled and seemed as cheerful as Dread. Erin decided he was more curious than scared and decided to try approaching a third time. The celebratory crowd around Dread had died down to less than 20 by the time Erin was close enough to hear the conversation. It seemed to be perfect timing, because he was in earshot when Dread spoke up.

“You guys have been so awesome, but my ride’s here now,” Dread said. She gestured at the curly-haired girl next to her with her thumb. “But I have a question for all of you; what’s your favorite number?”

“35!” Erin shouted. He wanted to be heard over everyone else. Unfortunately, no one else answered. Over a dozen strangers turned to look at Erin with curious and amused expressions. He felt instant embarrassment, as well as surprise. He never gave it much thought and didn’t know he had a favorite number.

“Then, you’re who we’re here to see,” Dread said.

Death & Experience

.

“What if I say, ‘no’?” Kyle asked. Elsa shrugged under her black cloak.

“You stay here until you change your mind,” Elsa replied. She gestured at the elegant bathroom around them. Kyle had a bad night. An overflowing toilet and a slippery floor guaranteed he’d never have a chance to propose to his girlfriend. It was the only reason they were in the upscale restaurant. He went to the restroom to find his nerve and never returned.

He managed to see his girlfriend for a moment during the initial commotion of someone finding his body. But, Death showed up shortly after and kept him from going after her. Now, paramedics were carrying his body out and he was left alone in the restroom with Elsa.

“As a ghost?” Kyle asked. Elsa half-shrugged and half-nodded.

“I guess, technically. Sure,” she said.

“I’m going to stay,” Kyle said decisively. Elsa nodded at him.

“‘Kay,” she said. “How long?”

“Uh..,” Kyle hadn’t expected Death to be so accommodating. But, he also didn’t expect her to be a young woman in her early 20s with a chestnut brown ponytail. She looked like a fresh-faced intern on her way to becoming a permanent employee. “…Forever?” he said. Elsa grinned at him and shook her head.

“Let’s start with a shorter timeframe first,” she said. “I’ll come to check on you in a year, sounds good?” she asked.

“And I can still say no then too, right?” Kyle asked. Elsa nodded.

“Sure, if you want.”

“Great! I’ll take the year!” Kyle blurted out. He immediately began wondering how to best haunt his girlfriend to let her know he was there.

“You got it,” Elsa replied. Then, Kyle blinked. The second he opened his eyes Death spoke up.

“Ready?” Elsa asked.

“But, you just gave me a year,” Kyle whined. Elsa nodded.

“Yeah, I did. Do you want another one?”

“It hasn’t even been 30 seconds!”

“No, it’s been a year,” Elsa nodded. “But, you blinked and missed it,” she grinned. “I can prove it,” she walked out of the restroom and encouraged Kyle to follow her. He hesitated for a moment, but his curiosity got the better of him.

He exited the bathroom expecting to find the staff cleaning up and the patrons gone after his accident. Instead, he found an empty, dusty dining room full of cobwebs.

“Congratulations,” Elsa said with a giggle. “Your accident ruined their reputation. They closed three months after you died and haven’t been able to sell the location.”

“But you said I could stay,” Kyle complained again.

“And you can; I have to make sure you don’t affect anything. The easiest way to do that is to time-lock you.”

“But, I don’t get to experience anything like that,” Kyle said. Elsa nodded.

“Well, that would be cheating. You’ve had your turn at experiencing life and now you have to get in line again if you want another turn. Just like everyone else. Other people want to enjoy life too, you know.”

“Wait… again? I get another life?” Elsa shook her head but smiled.

“Where do you think I’m supposed to take you?”

Sharp Challenge

“I never heard of it, but it’s listed,” Death nodded. Her words made Luke cheer internally. She’s going to play a game she’s never heard of? It couldn’t be going better for him.

“There’s some fine print you should know about though,” Death said. Luke shook his head.

“Nah, I’m a three-time Dungeon Master Champion,” he said. It was a flat lie; he didn’t even know if that was an award someone could win. But Death was already unfamiliar with the game. And she was not what Luke expected at all. She wore the cloak and bore the scythe; but, other than that she looked like someone’s college-aged sister. Her light brown hair was put up in a comfortable ponytail. Luke hoped he could unnerve her enough to get away with making up his own rules.

“Okay,” she shrugged at him. “The first hurdle we have is you need a team. We can’t start anything without a full group.”

“Oh, yeah. Of course!” Luke said with mock authority. “That’s always the way it is in the tournaments. I guess I’ll just keep living while you find someone else to join.”

“Oh no, wait,” Death said. She tapped on her glass node. “Here’s a solo version. I need to tell you again; there are probably some differences compared to the game you’re used to. Are you sure you’re skipping the fine print?” Luke almost felt the need to check, but he wanted to maintain his knowledgeable appearance.

“Okay,” Death nodded. She pressed a button on her node and the scene of Luke’s accident disappeared. His smoking, flipped car was replaced by a medium-sized round table with various weapons laid out. A dark, dank, stone cell replaced the empty twilight highway.

“Choose your class,” Death said. Luke approached the table and saw magical staves, glowing shields, and shining swords. Bows, knives, horns, bells, every thing Luke could think of to use as a weapon was available to choose from. He found a sword and shield that were obviously a set. He slipped the shield onto his left arm and hoisted the sword with his right to get used to their weight.

“Bunker Knight” a mysterious male voice filled the room while the rest of the weapons from the table disappeared.

“Good choice,” Death said. She handed Luke a node. “This will teach you how to use your starter skills. Good luck,” she said with a polite wave.

“Wait. Good luck? What about me?” Luke asked. Death spread her arms to gesture at the stone cell.

“Dungeon,” she said. Then, the cell started to shake from the force of a distant roar. “Dragon,” Death said. “Good luck winning your life back.”

Sharp Reaper

“I’m sorry, how do you know me?” Elsa asked the rotund stranger. It was her first day on this Earth and she hadn’t met anyone yet. She stopped into the cafe to sit down and find some leads on a place to stay. She sat down with her coffee two minutes before a blonde man with a white blazer hanging off his shoulders approached.  He called her name with a smile as if he knew her. The skull tattooed on his forehead seemed to be grinning at her too. She spotted the number 42 on the skull and realized he was a Unique Soul too. But as far as she knew; he wasn’t one of the ones that could see she was one too. Her number was covered up.

“Mundo told me about you,” he sat down without an invitation.

Which Mundo?” She asked. She’d only ever met one Mundo but that was a long time ago. The round man smiled and shook his head.

“It kind of defeats the point of them all changing their name to Mundo if you’re going to start keeping track,” he said. You’ve met a Mundo at some point. A Mundo told me about you,” he shrugged. “Might be the same one, might not be; it doesn’t matter. I’m not even looking for you specifically. I need a Muerte,” he said. “My name’s Chase.”

“What do you need a Muerte for?” Elsa asked. She was interested already. She came to a new Earth hoping to find something to distract her and help her heal from heartache; even if it was her own decision to leave.

“I need a soul reaper position filled. And Muertes are the only ones that are qualified. Interested?”

“I don’t want to kill anyone…,” Elsa said. She realized she had an opportunity to get a closer look at how the universe works. She did not doubt what he was offering for a second. She didn’t want to kill anyone; and, she hoped Chase noticed that was her only objection. Chase smiled and shook his head.

“You don’t have to. The universe is pretty automatic in most aspects. Reapers aren’t sinister forces plotting out intricate deaths. You’re janitors. People die when they’re going to die. Your job is to pick up their soul and drop it off at their caseworker. In your case: me.”

“If people die when they’re going to die… what does the universe need us for? Don’t get me wrong, I am very interested in the job. But I’m trying to learn more about it first,” Elsa said. She didn’t want to risk putting off Chase with too many questions.

“That’s good! Ask me all the questions you like. As I said, you’re the cleanup crew. A person consists of two parts, body and soul, working together. When the body dies, a reaper escorts the soul to its caseworker so that it can move on to another life in a new body,” Chase said. He took in a deeper breath in preparation for a long explanation.

“The soul is an amazing energy source. When a person is alive they have a living brain and can access that energy intelligently. If that energy is left behind in a corpse, it can still animate the body. But without any intelligence, it runs wild. That’s why you’ll find the idea of zombies on pretty much any Earth you go to.”

“Whoa. But.. people die every day.. all over the world. How am I supposed to get to them all?” Elsa asked.

“And this brings us to why only Muertes are fit for the job. You’re going to need to manipulate time, obviously. And actually, the sooner you’re ready for this job, the better. Even with your help adjusting time, we’re already behind schedule.”

“Uh… no offense, but how does that happen? Did someone quit suddenly? I’d like to think the universe is run by a competent being,” Elsa said.

“You’re right,” Chase smiled. “I think the same way; which is actually why we’re behind schedule.”

“You think the universe should be competently run.,, so you let deaths mount up?” Elsa asked. Chase shook his head.

“No. I think the universe should be competently run, so I joined someone who can do the job. I should tell you you’re going to be busy at first; but, I think it’s worth it. We’re starting a brand new afterlife. I’m the first case worker, you’re the first Reaper. We even have our own Lucifer!” Elsa stared at chase with wide eyes.

“We didn’t look for a Muerte sooner because Ms. Sharp needed to make sure the souls she claimed were hers. No one else is claiming them, so now we need you to clean up about a month’s worth of zombies.”

“I’ll do it!” Elsa jumped at the opportunity. Chase smiled.

“Great. Can you start right away?” he asked. At his question, an obsidian scythe fell out of the air and landed next to Elsa. “This’ll boost your control over time; you’ll need it.”

Impossible Question

Kadee stared at her time-locked boyfriend. He was as handsome as he was kind; she once thought she could stare at him for an eternity. After a day, she started to get bored and wandered away from him to give herself a chance to ponder his question.

She wandered through the mall, and out into the still city over the course of a week. It both helped and hindered that she didn’t feel hungry or thirsty while in a time-freeze. The further she got from the mall, the more Kadee realized she didn’t have an answer for him. On the surface, it seemed like such a simple question; but, no matter how she looked at it the answer wasn’t in her.

There were too many variables; and her answer affected both of them. She’d only been dating David for a year and she was still scared of the wrong choice causing a rift. Finally, a glance at her stopwatch told her it had almost been a week already; 153 hours passed since he asked the question.

“This is taking too long,” she decided aloud. With a heavy sigh, Kadee decided to decide. She did not have answer for him yet, but she began her walk back to the mall. “I’m going to say the first thing that comes out when I get there,” she said. Kadee felt more comfortable talking to herself instead of thinking during the still moments. The lack of any other sound was slightly unnerving and she wanted to fill the silence.

Kadee didn’t know how her ability worked exactly; it was still relatively new to her. It first started happening after she got a tattoo and it seemed to know when she was ready to make a decision. She had yet to try and explain it to David. She was waiting for the right time; when it wasn’t too early or too late in their relationship. She always planned to tell him about it if he wanted to make their relationship to the next stage.

She returned to him and fell in love all over again the moment she saw him. She walked up to him and she felt ready to answer his question, even though deliberating didn’t get her anywhere. Time started again at the exact moment she decided. The roar of noise filled the mall around and David smiled at her with his soft brown eyes.

“Well?” he asked. Kadee stuck to her plan and blurted out the first answer that popped into her mind.

“Chinese!” she said over the noise.

“Awesome,” he said. “Lucky Dragon or Golden Wok?” He asked; then, the mall went silent again.