In a Pinch

“He’s awake, Ma’am,” a blue-suited guard said. The young man stood at the door to the director’s office holding a small brown paper bag. He raised it to show her as the short, red-haired woman left her desk. She gave the guard a smile.

“You brought it, great!” She was genuinely excited about talking to their visitor. The guard followed his boss through the bright, tight maze of corridors and offices. Eventually, the director walked into a large gym-like room; the guard waited outside. A clear cube sat in the center of the room with a ragged man standing within.

“My name is Director Hastings,” she said as soon as she reached the glass wall. “I hope you have some answers for us.” She pressed the first page of the message that arrived tied to his wrist against the glass. “Why are you a problem?” she asked. She hoped he did not know that the rest of the message detailed his issues; she wanted to see if he would try to lie.

The man stumbled closer to the glass on bare feet. He wore a comfortable flannel robe and matching sweatpants provided by the researchers. He arrived in their universe buck naked and somehow standing while unconscious. Several blood-soaked bandages dotted his chest, arms and legs. The lab workers cleaned him up, carefully, before tossing him in the cube.

His eyes traveled over the document as if he were reading it for the first time, and he chuckled under his breath.

“441-B-2?” he smiled. “Man, I’m so glad to be out of that universe.” He raised his right arm and pointed at a fresh bandage. “Thanks for this, by the way. Pain’s gone too,” he smiled. “My name’s Julius.”

“What happened, Julius?” she asked.

“Tattoo removal, sandpaper style.” The Director’s face blanched slightly; her alabaster skin somehow looked whiter for a moment.

“So, they tortured you?” She asked. When he mentioned the tattoo, she remembered his note discussing tattoos. The prisoner shook his head and shrugged.

“Hurt like hell, but they weren’t doing it to torture me. It was just the fastest way to strip my tattoos before they sent me here.”

“Why?” Director Hastings asked. “Why did they remove your tattoos and why are you a problem?”

“You guys know about Unique Souls on this Earth yet?” he asked. The Director shook her head. The note gave a brief summary, but she wanted to hear his explanation.

“I am what’s known as a Unique Soul. There’s a lot of other stuff to it, but the important thing is if I get the number 40 marked on my skin,…” Julius lifted his left leg, tugged the pajama leg up, and pointed at a bandage on his calf. “…like I had here, I get special powers. The numbers and powers are different for other Uniques but in my case, I can control scorpions.” The Director looked him up and down.

“Did all your tattoos have the number 40?” she asked. Julius shook his head.

“Nah. They were scorpions. Another thing I can do is give life to pretty much anything that represents a scorpion, like…” he gestured at his numerous bandages. “…scorpion tattoos.”

“Are you a danger to this Earth? Are you evil?” Julius laughed obnoxiously hard.

“Evil? Hell, I don’t know. It’s all a matter of perspective, and that changes from Earth to Earth. Evil on Earth A does not necessarily mean evil on Earth uh… 440-B-12.”

“441-B-2!” She was quick to correct him.

“It matters less than you think,” Julius shrugged. “I can’t tell you if I’m evil or not, but I can tell you I’m honest and not an intentional asshole.”

“So why did they kick you off that other Earth?”

“They’re not fond of Uniques. They think we attract attention,” Julius grinned and shook his head. “Any that are caught are stripped of their tattoos and shipped off to another Earth. I was passing through and got picked up in a coffee shop.”

“Carl!” Director Hastings called the door; the guard walked in carrying the paper bag. Director Hastings reached in as soon as he reached the glass cell.

“I’d like to see a demonstration,” she said. She pulled a small blue and green plastic scorpion from the bag and held it on the palm of her hand. Julius shook his head, then he pointed at his calf again.

“Sorry. No number, no power.”

“Ah, right,” she nodded then reached into the bag again. “I’m sure this’ll be enough to help you overcome that obstacle.”  She withdrew something small in her hand and pushed it through one of the air holes in the cell. It landed on the ground with a high-pitched metallic sound and bounced several times. Julius crouched to pick it up.

“You’re kidding me?” He held up a silver dollar.

“Sorry,” The Director smiled mimicking his earlier sentiment. “When I said I wanted to see a demonstration, I didn’t mean your abilities. I meant your determination.”

Death’s Welcome

“What movie did you pick?” Anna asked Maxwell. She had changed out of her pajamas and filled a backpack with some snacks by the time they were ready to enter the portal. The pair of teens stared at the black hole floating in Anna’s bedroom.

“I was thinking of a Christmas movie, not any specific one,” he replied. “Ready?” Anna nodded. Maxwell stepped forward into the black; he felt Anna grab his hand as he walked through.

The hole exited in a bright, busy, loud airport. It took Maxwell a few moments to get his bearings as he searched his new surroundings. He caught sight of snow, and a parked airplane through the windows. Hundreds of travelers occupied every seat, and still more were left standing. Bright multi-color light-strings decorated the pillars and walls. A young woman in an elf costume wandered from passenger to passenger handing out candy canes.

“It’s… Christmas,” Anna said; her voice carried a fair amount of surprise and disbelief. She stood next to Maxwell and squeezed his hand. “It’s April, but it’s Christmas.”

“It may have been April where you came from,” a woman said. Anna and Maxwell turned toward the new voice. “But it’s December here,” An elf with a basket of candy canes smiled at them. Maxwell glanced back at the other one to confirm it was a different elf; it was. The elf presented two candy canes, then pointed at the nametag on her pointy cap.

“My name’s Mundo. You guys are joining me for Christmas dinner!”  the young woman grinned.

“We are?” Maxwell asked. Mundo nodded.

“Of course! It takes some time to explain everything. You’re going to need the info if you want to keep hopping between universes like you are. And both of you need tattoos.”

Changing Times

“You…you…rewound time?” Anna asked. The 18-year-old sat under the covers in her bedroom while a mysterious student sat on her computer desk. Maxwell chuckled at her question.

“Hah, yeah. Actually that’s exactly the way I think of it. I picture a VCR in my mind and imagine pressing the Rewind button. But,” he looked at Anna. “I’ve never met anyone that remembers like you.”

Maxwell hopped off the desk and knelt next to Anna’s bed; he begged with clasped hands.

“Now you have to be in my movie! Please! With me rewinding time, you can have as many takes as you want! It’ll be so much easier with you knowing what’s going on.”

“What else can you do?” Anna asked. The thought of being an actress was something she often daydreamed about. She was ready to agree but did not want to appear too eager.

“You mean with time?” Maxwell asked. Anna nodded.

“If you think about it like a VCR, you’ve tried all the buttons right? You can pause and fast forward too?”

“Yeah,” he grinned. “And I can record.” Anna’s eyes widened.

“Record!?? What does that do?!” 

“It makes a time loop. This morning is the starting point for my new project, that’s why you wake up here again when I reset it.”

“Whoooaa,” Anna stared at him in awe. “So what does eject do?”

“Eject?” Maxwell asked, and gave a half shrug. “I never thought of it.”

“But it’s on there, right? Every time you picture the VCR in your head, there’s an eject button on it, isn’t there?” Maxwell took a moment to close his eyes, then nodded.

“Yeah, it’s there,” he said without opening his eyes.

“Push it,” Anna whispered. “Pretend you’re going to change the movie.” Maxwell nodded, then took a deep breath.

“Here goes,” he said. “I’m hitting eject… now.”

“Oh. My. God.” Anna whispered.

“What?!” Maxwell opened his eyes; Anna was staring and pointing at something behind him, so he turned around. A black hole hovered in the air in Anna’s bedroom. It reminded Maxwell of the “portable holes” he’d seen in cartoons; but, it was tall enough for him to walk through. He stood from Anna’s bedside and took a step toward it.

“Wait!” Anna yelped, then she scrambled off the bed. “I’m going with you.”

Directing Death

“LAST CALL!” Anna’s mother yelled through the door and gave it three solid knocks. “Birthday or not, you’d better not miss your first day!” She pounded the door once more, then her footsteps traveled down the hall away from Anna’s door.

Normally, the now 18-year-old woman would have been out of the bed by the third knock. However, this morning she remained buried under the covers and stared up at the ceiling. Her mind seemed stuck on something, but she was not sure what yet. After several silent minutes, she took in a deep breath, then relaxed on the exhale.

“It must’ve been a dream,” she said to herself, then sat up. “All… five…. or six times.” She gave her head a shake to refocus, then got out of bed to start her day. Several hours later, she sat in her highschool’s courtyard with her friends.

“Who’s that?” Charlie asked; he pointed at a male student dressed in black aiming a video camera at them. Two of Anna’s friends shrugged, but the birthday girl blurted out a name.

“Maxwell,” she said.

“Is there a reason your good friend Maxwell is filming us?” Susan asked. Anna shook her head.

“We’re not friends. I don’t even how I knew his name,” she said. Her friends laughed, but fortunately, the bell rang before they could give her too much of a hard time over it.

During Anna’s walk home after school, the black-clad student approached her. He held the camera up, a bright red light on the front of it informed her he was already filming.

“Hi, I’m Maxwell,” he said from behind the camera. Anna ignored the camera and kept her attention facing forward.

“Why are you filming me, Maxwell,” Anna asked. She felt like she should introduce herself too; but, for some reason, she actively decided against it this time. “This time?” her decision sparked a stray thought; Maxwell’s introduction felt as familiar as her mother’s wakeup call from that morning.

“I’m making a movie about a beautiful woman. It could be you,” he replied. The corners of his mouth stretched out from behind the camera as he grinned. “What’s your name?” he asked.

I knew his name already. He has to know mine,” Anna’s realization made her uneasy. “So you’re saying I could be beautiful?” Anna asked with a cold tone. “Thanks so much for the generous compliment.”

“No no no!” Maxwell was quick to correct her. “You are beautiful! I just meant it might be you in my movie. What’s your name?” he asked again. Anna sped up her pace slightly.

“It seems like I already am in your movie,” She turned and glared at the camera. “Without my permission,” she said, then looked forward again.

“What? This?” Maxwell gestured at the camera with his free hand but continued to record. “This is just b-roll to practice editing. The movie’s a tragic highschool romance. Hot girl, you, and awkward loner, me, have a flash love affair over 5 days. Then it ends with a fatal car accident,” he said. Anna’s steps faltered, and she almost tripped. She stumbled for a couple of paces before she found her balance again, then she stopped walking and looked at Maxwell.

“What did you say?’ she asked. “How does it end?” His grin grew wider.

“I have this awesome car crash planned with a semi and everything. It’ll be hard to pull off, but we’ll just keep trying until we get it right. It’s gonna be super cinematic. What’s your name?”

“Elma,” she lied.

“Did you say Anna?” he asked and tilted his ear toward her as if he hadn’t heard her right. She stopped walking and turned to face him.

“I KNEW it!!” she said. “You already know my name because I already knew yours!  What the hell is going on? I died in a car accident last night, and today it’s five days ago!” the words flowed out with her confusion and anger. The more she screamed at him, the more Maxwell lowered the camera; by the end of her rant, the camera was by his side pointing at the sidewalk.

“You… you remembered?”

“YES!” she shouted “WHAT THE FU-” Anna blinked.

“LAST CALL!” Anna’s mother yelled through the door and gave it three solid knocks. “Birthday or not, you’d better not miss your first day!” She pounded the door once more, then her footsteps traveled down the hall away from Anna’s door. 

Anna stared at the ceiling; her mind was foggy. She felt off, but did not know what was wrong.

“You remembered…,” A male voice said from beside her. Anna yelped and whirled her head around. She saw a strangely familiar stranger sitting on her computer chair. He wore all black clothes and had a video camera resting on his lap.

“M..Maxwell?” she asked.

“…we need to talk.”