Fresh Recruits

“You don’t have to apologize every time,” Rose giggled. “That’s why we’re practicing; try it again.” The pair of new friends sat in a diner for a Saturday brunch. They met on a crowded subway when Rose read his mind and gave him her number. When he finally called, Rose suggested the diner; she explained the mid-morning rush would help Ruben hone his control. Ruben never heard of Mundo’s, but he had to admit the food was great. Ruben closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping his thoughts to himself. The meal was still fresh in his mind.

That was the best steak and eggs I”ve ever had,” Ruben thought.

“YOU can come back any time, Melón!” A bald man with a forest green beard called out from the kitchen. Rose giggled again and shook her head.

“You’re trying too hard,” she said. Ruben leaned closer to the center of the table and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“Did he call me a melon?” Ruben asked. Rose laughed again, but this time she nodded; her pink bangs bobbed with the motion.

“One thing at a time. Get your thoughts under control, then we’ll explain the rest to you.”

“Or you can just get a tattoo,” Mundo said. The stocky bald man appeared next to their table and gave Ruben a slice of pie. “On the house for my new favorite customer,” he grinned.

“Oooh yeah, I didn’t think about that,” Rose said.

“Tattoo?” Ruben asked. He was trying to follow the conversation as best he could. He knew Rose and apparently, a notable portion of the population could hear his thoughts as if he were broadcasting them.  She seemed to know how and why it was happening, and it looked like Mundo did too. Though, he had no idea what a tattoo had to do with anything. While thinking about it; he noticed that Mundo had an Earth tattooed on his right hand with the number 37 above it. He also knew Rose had a rose tattooed on the back of her neck with the number 41 on its petals.

“You want me to take care of the kitchen so you can do the honors?” Rose asked Mundo with a friendly smile. Ruben got the impression the two were old friends.

“Rosita, I would love that,” Mundo sighed. “But, it would be selfish. I have standards to maintain. Not just anyone can cook the world’s best steak and eggs,” he patted Ruben on the shoulder and chuckled.

“You go ahead, but stick around until things calm down. We’ll get a tattoo on him.” Mundo waved and returned to the kitchen.

“Tattoo?” Ruben asked again.

“You are what’s known as a Unique Soul; Mundo and I are too. Right now, your soul is in what’s called, ‘Slumbering’ mode,” Rose added air quotes around slumbering. “Your abilities are kind of leaking out. But if we Awaken your soul, you’ll have control over them. To Awaken your soul you need to get your number on your skin; you’re number 11. El melón. I’m number 41, La Rosa, and Mundo is number 37. El Mundo.”

“Is that why I can’t read your thoughts? Because I’m not Awakened yet?” Rose shook her head.

“El melón can broadcast and read the minds of other melons, but it’s not full telepathy. You’ll also be able to thicken your skin somewhat; kind of like I can do this,” Rose said. She held up her arm and Ruben watched thick, spiky thorns sprout out of her skin.

“Whoa…,” Ruben was impressed and excited that he was special like her. The thorns receded and Rose lowered her arm.

“So… I need to get a melon tattooed on me?” Ruben said with slight concern. Rose giggled.

“You only need the number 11, but I like roses, so I added a rose to mine.”

“So there are other melons and roses and mundos out there?”

“It depends on what you mean by, ‘out there’,” Rose said. “On this Earth, no. That’s why we’re called Unique Souls, only one of us per Earth, not that every Earth gets every Unique.”

“Hold on. Other Earths?” The thing that surprised Ruben most was that he immediately accepted it as true. The moment she mentioned it, deep inside it felt like something he’d always known. “That sounds amazing! Why didn’t you mention that sooner?” Rose shrugged.

“It doesn’t mean much for you and me; we can’t leave this Earth.”

“So we know there are other Earths out there, but there’s no way to get to them?” Ruben asked. Rose shook her head.

“Getting to them is easy for Uniques that aren’t rooted to their Earth. We literally can’t leave this one, even with a portal right in front of us.” Ruben suddenly became aware of a tall old man that approached their table. He wore a forest green suit with a gold vest. His right eye drew Ruben’s attention immediately. It seemed to be a glass eye painted to look like a globe; and it rotated slowly in its socket. The number 37 was tattooed directly under it.

“That’s not strictly true,” the man interrupted their conversation with a smile. “A standard rule of life is: it all depends on who you know.”

Fresh Teammate

A plume of yellow, sour-smelling smoke erupted under the bridge. Allen scooted back in fear along the dirty ground until he hit the wall behind him. A short, plump, red-skinned demon in a navy blue suit walked out of the smoke. He glanced down at Allen and smiled.

“Hello,” the demon said. He sounded surprisingly pleasant, like a call center employee on their first call of the day. “Let’s bargain. What do you want for your soul?” he asked. Somehow, the demon’s smile eased Allen’s mind. He found the strength, with the support of the wall, to push himself up to his feet.

“Food, friends, a nice house and a healthy, lucid, long life. Give me a few decades like that and you can take my soul to Hell when I die.”  The demon nodded and snapped his fingers, an obsidian clipboard appeared in his hands.

“Happy to help,” he said. “Let’s get to it. Name?” he asked. Allen narrowed his eyes.

“You’re Satan… don’t you know it?” he asked. The demon sighed.

“Of course I know your name, Mr. Allen Lopez. I need you to tell me your name for the paperwork. Surely you can understand the need for bureaucratic procedures in my line of work. And for the record, I am not Satan; he only handles important deals,” the demon said. Allen gave a slight nod of understanding and waited for the next question.

NAME?” the demon repeated.

“Oh, sorry. My name is Allen Lopez,” he replied.

“Thank you. Favorite number?” the demon asked.

“47. That’s a weird que-,” Allen was interrupted by a heavy sigh from the demon.

“Damnit, I thought I finally got one,” he mumbled, then looked at Allen. “Wait here,” he said. Before Allen could ask why the demon disappeared. Allen waited for half an hour before another plume of yellow smoke filled the underpass. This time a much larger demon stepped out of the smoke, still in a navy blue suit and carrying a wicker basket. This demon was more than twice Allen’s height, his thick black horns scraped the bottom of the bridge.

“Allen!” the demon said excitedly. “Good to meet you,” he dropped the basket at Allen’s feet. “This is yours. No tricks, bargains or anything, just a straight gift. I heard you were hungry.” Allen knelt to peek inside the basket. He saw fresh clothes, an envelope full of cash and a bucket of fried chicken. He shook his head and forced himself to close the basket and step away from it.

“I haven’t sold my soul yet, I can’t take that,” he said.

“Here’s the thing, Allen. Hell can’t buy your soul, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work out a deal.”

“Wait. What do you mean you can’t buy my soul? Why not?” As he asked his eyes widened. “Is it protected by God?” The demon burst into booming laughter that echoed in the short tunnel around them.

“Protected is a strong word. Let’s just say the universe runs on certain rules. One of those rules is I can’t buy souls like yours.”

“Oh,” Allen said. “So.. how can we make a deal?”

“Well, I can’t buy your soul, but you can join my team. And the people on my team are very well taken care of.”

“What do I have to do on your team?” Allen asked, then he realized something. “Your team? Are you Satan?”

“I am,” Satan smiled. “And you don’t have to do anything. Just agree to be on my team, then live your life the way you see fit. Wait, actually, there is one thing you have to do,” Satan corrected himself. “Get a tattoo with the number 47 on it.”

“And then what?” Satan shrugged.

Then you live your life however you like. You’ll be able to contact us if you find yourself in need of anything.”

“And I don’t have to.. hurt anyone? Or like get followers or anything?”  Satan chuckled; it rumbled the air around Allen.

“We’re not a pyramid scheme, you don’t need a downline.”

“But what happens to my soul when I do die? How do I know I’m not going to Hell?”

“Because if you could, we would have bought your soul. I have to cut this short, I interrupted another meeting to talk to you. However, I don’t want you to feel pressured to make a decision now. That basket is for you, no strings attached. Get back to me if you decide you want to be on my team,” Satan said.

“Wait!” the demon’s kindness made Allen’s decision for him. “I’ll do it! I’m on your team!” he shouted. Satan nodded.

“Wonderful. I still have to go, but I’ll send someone with a welcome package. Enjoy your meal until then, by the time you’re done you’ll have a home waiting for you.” Satan disappeared in a puff of foul-smelling smoke. Allen ignored it and grabbed a chicken leg to start eating.

After finishing a couple of pieces he noticed a minty scent fill the air. He looked up to see a tall man with a white beard in a green suit.

“So, tell me about your dream home,” the man said.

Hellish Bouquet

“I’m in Hell,” Grover said when his eyes opened again. His voice was weak and frail, but that was okay; there was no one in the hospital room to hear him. Despite using his ability to respawn all his life, he hoped there would be a final rest if he died naturally. He was surprised the first time it happened and concerned the second.

He debated calling a nurse in so that he wouldn’t die alone, but there was no point. Each time he breathed his last, he woke up again three hours earlier; it was 1 a.m. again. Grover sighed and watched the second hand move on the clock. There was nothing else to do. He’d already watched all the shows on every channel at least twice. He was too weak to support his phone and try and surf the web. This was the longest three hours of his life, and if this kept up these three hours would last longer than his life so far.

He jumped slightly, as much as his frail frame could move, when his door suddenly opened without a knock. The nurses always knocked. Grover was surprised to see a well-dressed man enter his room. He appeared to be an older gentleman, though not as old as Grover, wearing a green suit. He sported with a neatly trimmed white beard and neatly parted white hair.

As he neared the bed, Grover noticed the sudden scent of peppermint fill the room. The man smiled and Grover caught sight of a tattoo his right cheek; the number 37.

“Who… are…,” Grover tried to ask, but the man reached his bed before he could finish his question.

“Shhhh, I’ll tell you who I am and why I’m here. Don’t strain yourself,” he said calmly. Not having much choice, and enjoying the pleasant minty scent in the air, Grover gave the man a weak nod.

“First, some credibility,” the man winked his right eye; Grover realized it wasn’t normal. It appeared to be a glass eye painted to look like the Earth, but somehow it was spinning slowly. “I know you haven’t been able to die. Anytime you do, you wake up again sometime earlier,” he gave a slight shrug. “Maybe minutes, maybe days.” Grover’s eyes opened wide. No one ever knew what made him a great hero, but this stranger explained it perfectly.

“Now that I have your attention,” The man grabbed the chair and sat in it facing Grover. “My name is Peppermint,” he said.

Of course it is,” Grover thought. He nodded at the man to conserve his strength.

“As much as I enjoy giving, ‘the talk‘,” he said with a chuckle. “I do have other appointments. So, I’ll be brief and you can learn the details later. You have the ability to control time itself. Unfortunately, you don’t have control of that ability yet. As a result, you’ve been subconsciously creating ‘save points’ at various intervals. When you die, you revert to your latest one. Makes sense so far?” Peppermint asked.

Grover nodded. Over the years he occasionally wondered how much control he had over his ability to respawn. Peppermint’s explanation answered a lot of those questions.

“I can teach you how to control it; in exchange, I’d like you to come work for me.”

Grover used all his saved strength to chuckle. He laughed with a wheezing, ragged sound that barely reached Peppermint’s ears.

“You’re wondering what kind of job an old man like you can do, right?” Peppermint asked. Grover nodded. “Think about it. You can control time, you don’t have to stay old if you don’t want to. You can make yourself as young as you like.”

Grover’s mind raced. He was ready to take Peppermint’s offer then and there. However, being a hero taught him to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true; it took him several deaths to finally learn that lesson.

“..Where..,” Grover managed to whisper. “…What?”

“Good man,” Peppermint smiled. “Those are important questions. I’ll answer the ‘What’ first, if you don’t mind. I want to create a new, peaceful society. Somewhere we can be ourselves and help each other. A society with a focus on the well-being of the community as a whole. You’ll have all your basic necessities tended to. Shelter, food and water, and I don’t mean a shack with food bowls. You’ll have a proper home in a proper city with grocers and convenience stores and coffee shops. Though, don’t expect the coffee to be free,” Peppermint smiled.

“As for the, ‘Where’…,” He thought for a moment. “I’d like to make a deal with you. You can accept my offer on a trial basis, if you want out, you’re free to go. However, I mentioned that I’d only teach you how to control your abilities if you worked for me. So, if you choose not to work for me your ‘out’ is right back here. On this bed. Living the last day of your life every day.”

Grover didn’t like that he sidestepped the question, but it still seemed he had absolutely nothing to lose. In the worst-case scenario, he’d continue living his life three hours at a time.

“..Why?”  Grover asked. Peppermint smiled and stood from the chair; Grover guessed the meeting was almost over one way or another.

“Let’s just say my base of operations has a certain… stigma to it. I would hate for you to miss out on this opportunity just because of ridiculous social conventions. If you agree, we’ll go and have a look around. You can return to your deathbed any time you like.” Peppermint held out a hand to Grover.

Gover did not debate anymore; he managed to raise his hand and drop it on Peppermint’s open palm. The moment their hands touched, Grover felt a sharp pain on his palm.

He used all his strength to pull away from it. Grover had more strength and moved faster than he had in decades, he whacked himself in the face.

“DAMNIT THAT HURT!” he yelled. Peppermint smiled and Grover realized his throat didn’t hurt. He looked down at his hands and saw young, taught, tan skin; he wiggled his fingers, then threw the covers off. His legs looked like they did in his 20s; he jumped off the bed and raced to the mirror. A young, dark-haired man with bright, coffee-brown eyes stared back at him. His palm still itched slightly, he looked down and saw the number 14 scarred into his hand. Grover was ready to do anything Peppermint asked, he strode out of the bathroom as proud and confident as he was in his hero days.  “I’m ready,” he said.

“Wonderful,” Peppermint said. He nodded at the air next to him, and a shimmering, watery, green portal opened. Grover didn’t waste any time and walked toward it. As he stepped through, Peppermint patted him on the back and followed. “You’re going to love it in Hell.”

Minting Society

“Pardon me,” the tall stranger apologized to Clover over his shoulder without slowing. His forest-green suit stood out from the crowd of blue and grey suits waiting for the bus as he plowed through them. Clover’s gaze drifted upward. She gasped audibly when she saw a golden infinity sign floating above his head.

The rest of the commuters around her all had a timeframe of years above their heads, but not the stranger. He didn’t stop to wait with the rest of them and kept striding down the block, seemingly in a hurry. Clover pretended to weigh her options, but her decision was already made. The mystery of the immortal man was far more pressing than anything she needed to do in the office. After a few moments, she stepped away from the other commuters and followed the man in green.

Clover followed and studied him from behind for two blocks until he reached the park. She could not see much other than the green suit and a perfectly parted white head of hair. He walked into the park at a much slower pace. As he turned, Clover also noticed he had a full white beard; she thought he looked like a lean, tall Santa Claus. Clover followed him into the heart of the park until he sat down at one of the concrete picnic tables.

After she watched him from a distance for a few minutes, she realized he was waiting for something. Even with his back to her, she noticed him glancing around the park with the same kind of nervousness that comes with expectation.

Clover never told anyone about her abilities. She hinted and joked about it with some of her closest friends in her younger years; just enough to find out she was unique. She didn’t know how to, or even if she wanted to explain her gift to this stranger; but, she had to talk to him. If he was immortal she wanted to know why and hopefully how to be immortal too. Clover took a few deep breaths to build her courage, then walked over to his table.

His face lit up into a bright smile when she reached the table and looked at him; it surprised her. Clover spotted a white vest under his green suit, but it was his eye that surprised her.  His right eye looked like the Earth, and it spun slowly in its socket like an Earth. Under that eye, the number 37 was tattooed on his right cheek. He spoke before Clover could say anything.

“You came!” he said and gestured at the seat across from him.

“Do I know you?” Clover asked. It was a silly question; she would definitely have remembered him if she did, but he seemed to expect her. He smiled but shook his head.

“You don’t yet, but I did want to introduce myself. My name is Peppermint,” he said. Clover smiled.

“My name’s Clover, and I’m glad I’m not the only one with a flowery name. So, Peppermint, why did you want to introduce yourself to me?” When he said he wanted to introduce himself, Clover assumed the bump at the bus stop was intentional. She started to grow annoyed until she remembered the very real mystery floating above his head. As if he read her mind, Peppermint pointed to the air above him.

“Because you can see this,” he said. Clover’s eyes went wide.

“YES!” she almost shouted. “How did you know?” Peppermint shrugged.

“I don’t know what you see exactly, but I know you see something. Like you, I can see things too. To me, you look different than anyone else at that bus stop.”

“You’re immortal,” Clover said. “I see when people are going to die, you have an infinity sign. Can I be immortal too?” Peppermint shook his head and chuckled.

“I’m not immortal as such. I can be killed, but if I’m left alone I won’t die naturally. You can’t be immortal in the same way, but there are workarounds that I’m familiar with if you wanted to join me.”

“Join you?” Clover asked. Peppermint nodded. “Doing what?”

“That’s up to you. I’m building a new society of sorts where special people like you can live in peace. So, if you joined, it’s up to you to find your niche.”

“My niche? That doesn’t sound like it’s gonna earn me much money,” Clover said. “Can I keep my current job?” Peppermint shook his head.

“You won’t need money to survive; that’s the whole point. We take care of our own. You’ll have comfortable lodgings and plenty of good, healthy foods. Most of the extra luxuries are covered with bartering.”

“When can I start?” ‘Clover asked. It was mostly a joking way to accept the offer. She was planning to turn in her two weeks notice and use that time to pack. Peppermint smiled and reached into the interior pocket of his coat.

“Whenever you want,” he said. He pulled a fresh sprig of peppermint from his coat along with a small glassy rectangle. “When you’re ready, pin this to your top. Ensure the pin is touching your skin,” he handed her the sprig; it had a green needle affixed to it.

“Once you have that pinned,” he handed her the node. “Use the TraverseTaxi app to call a ride.” Clover tilted her head.

“Does it have to be the app? Where do I tell them to take me?” Peppermint nodded as he stood from the picnic table. He waved his hand at the air; a green, watery portal opened up next to him.

“The only way you can get there is by using the app, but you won’t be able to go if you don’t have that pinned. As you can guess…,” he gestured at the portal. “…it’s not on this Earth.” Peppermint stepped into the green hole as he waved at Clover.

“Ask your ride to drop you off in Hell. Goodbye,” he smiled. The portal closed and disappeared.

Stellar Father

“Rigel! Rolls are ready!” Mundo yelled at the kitchen’s exit. She set a sheet of glazed cinnamon rolls on the table in front of Esther and Allen. Rigel, a blonde 8-year-old walked into the kitchen with eager eyes focused on the melted white icing. “Near and far, please,” Mundo said to her son, and handed him a small plate. Rigel nodded, then casually waved at the wall; two round portals appeared on it.

One portal was so clear that it looked like a hole in the wall, except that it looked outside on a dark night. The actual windows in the kitchen showed a bright, blue, beautiful day outside. The second portal appeared to be an actual black hole. It was pitch dark and seemed to be completely flat; no light reflected off of it. Mundo walked to the clear portal first.

“Think of the multiverse like a spectrum. Each Earth you visit is like a radio station; it has a certain frequency on that spectrum. You guys have radio, right?” She asked. Esther and Allen nodded, but neither of them spoke. They were mouth-deep in pastry. She pointed at the clear one.

This portal leads to an Earth that’s closer to where we are now than the other portal,” Mundo pointed at the black one. “Earths that are close to each other tend to be similar. It can be difficult to find any differences between them,” she turned to the exit. “Thank you, honey!” Mundo yelled, then the portals disappeared. The young mother removed her apron, then hung it over the back of a chair.

“I know I told you Mundos and plants couldn’t leave their Earth, but that was just to give you the general info,” Mundo said. She pointed at a sprig of mint pinned to her light-green blouse. “Now that you’ve learned the basics, you need to learn how to take care of yourselves out there.” Mundo turned to point at the wall again. This time, a green-tinted portal appeared; its surface rippled like emerald water.

“If you ever meet a Mundo or plant soul wearing a sprig of peppermint, you should assume they can traverse. Keep your guard up,” she said. “This sprig helps me, and any Mundo, create our own portals or ride through yours. But unfortunately, I can only traverse to certain Earths. They have to have been visited by Peppermint.” Esther tilted her head in curiosity.

“Visited by… is Peppermint a name?” Mundo nodded with a broad smile. She waved a hand at the wall to dismiss the green portal.

“Do you remember what I told you about Ballisea?” Mundo asked. Both guests nodded quickly.

“Run,” they said simultaneously. Mundo giggled.

‘That too, but the point is she’s really strong, right? Well, Peppermint is the Mundo version of her. He’s easier to run from, but he’s just as dangerous as Ballisea.”

“Wait. Did you get that from Peppermint? You met him?” Esther asked. Mundo nodded.

“Well of course,” Mundo said. “He’s a wonderful father; he likes checking in on Rigel.”

Birds of a Feather

Wren rolled her eyes. The woman shooed the colorful bird off her left shoulder and resumed eating. She made a habit of enjoying her lunch in the park. It was a beautiful day to do so, the sun rested high in the azure sky. Wren sat under the shade of a huge oak tree; its trunk was thicker than three of her. She had enough time to take another bite of her burger before a second bird landed on her right shoulder. It was somewhat bigger than the first bird; like a softball compared to a baseball. Its feathers were bright red instead of the rainbow of the first one.

“You’ve always been good to me, Julie. Whatever you do, don’t go to the market square tomorrow,” the bird whispered in her ear. Wren stopped chewing and turned to face the bird. It stayed relatively still on her shoulder instead of hopping around excitedly, as she was used to. Birds weren’t particularly smart; they had trouble with more than one name and they had no sense of time. But, they were situationally clever. Random birds approached her each time she ate outside; they gave her random stories or advice in the hopes of being rewarded with food. She thought she’d heard it all, but this was the first time two different birds used the same story. She swallowed the bite in her mouth.

“Why not?” she asked. The red bird stared at her for a moment, then flew away. Wren shrugged. Not going to the square for a few days was easy enough; the “tomorrow” part of the warning could mean any time over the next week. And, she was used to mysteries enough that she ignored them for the most part.

Wren was in her 30s now, but she discovered she could speak to birds when she was about nine years old. She never learned what made her so special, but she accepted it. If the birds did not have the brains to give her an answer, she didn’t need one. The moment she made her decision to hold off her grocery run for a few days, a third bird landed on her shoulder.

“You’re a good man, Sarah. He’s coming to the square tomorrow. Don’t go,” it said.

“Okay, I won’t go,” Wren replied with a shrug. The bird flew off. It was only a second or two before a fourth one landed.

“You’ve always been good to me, Raymond. You must leave. He’s here tomorrow.”

Stupid birds,” Wren shook her head. “Fine, I’ll leave tomorrow,” she said. The bird flew off, and another landed right away. She started to feel uneasy. In over 20 years, the birds were never this determined to get her attention. It started to feel like a warning.

“Here’s here tomorrow. Run, Peter!” It flew off, and Wren waited for the next one.

“Hola, Pajarito.” a man said from behind her. She jumped in her seat and turned around. A tall, lean, bearded man smiled at her. He was almost as pale as his bone-white beard; both beard and white hair were impeccably groomed. He wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. The number ’37’ was tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. The eyeball itself consisted of a rotating glass eye that looked like a spinning globe. “I know how unhelpful our feathered friends can be,” he said. “They tried to warn you, but they just couldn’t.”

“Who are you?” Wren stood from the park bench and took a step back. “What do you wa-” As soon as her foot landed, green vines shot out from the ground beneath her. They snaked up both her legs and tightened around her body; the vines gagged her then lifted Wren, struggling, into the air. She was sure he was the one responsible, but he did not so much as twitch a finger to control the vines. The well-dressed gentleman smiled at her.

“Don’t be afraid, Pajarito. I know exactly where I’m going to put you, you’ll love it,” he said. “You may call me, Peppermint.”

Peppermint’s Forest

A streak of red flashed in corner of Oscar’s eye. The wrinkled, withered man’s focus was on the TV until something caught his eye. He was so used to different shades of whites, greens, and pinks passing his doorway that the bright crimson color demanded his attention. He turned in time to see an elegant, lithe woman in a red dress with gold polka dots walking by. Oscar gasped in surprise. As much as a nearly hundred-year-old man could; he weakly inhaled with a ragged breath.

“Follow the woman in the red dress with the gold polka dots,” the mysterious voice echoed in his memory again. The first and only time he heard it was when he was eight years old. No matter how often he tried to talk himself out of it, something in him was convinced the voice was real. Almost every day for 90 years he considered the words but never found the woman. Now he was bedridden in the hospital expecting to die any day; he couldn’t walk. And, she just walked by.

“Hey!” He tried shouting, but his lungs couldn’t push out enough air to get a decent volume. Thinking quickly, he frantically pressed the call nurse button. Oscar felt lucky when a nurse showed up at his door suddenly, as if she was just passing by.

“Everything okay?” She asked as she stepped into his room. Oscar pointed out the door.

“I need to talk to the woman in the red dress!” he said as loud and clear as he could manage. She gave him a confused look, but Oscar continued pointing out the door. “Please!” She nodded then stepped out in the hall and turned the direction Oscar pointed.

He was surprised when the nurse returned with the woman in the red dress. He half expected her to have disappeared by the time he got the nurse’s attention.

“Here she is, Mr. Woods,” the nurse said with a smile. “Was that all you needed?” The old man nodded.

“Thank you, Nurse,” Oscar turned his attention to the woman as the nurse left. She did not seem put-off. She smiled at Oscar with warm, friendly eyes but she did not say anything.

“90 years ago… a voice told me to follow you,” Oscar said. At 98 he knew any of his words could be his last; he wanted to get right to the point.

“OH SHIT!” the woman cursed as if she’d left the oven on. She immediately rushed to Oscar’s bedside and sat down. “I’m sorry!” She reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. “Its too easy to lose track of time,” she said with an apologetic tone. “I didn’t mean to make you wait this long.” Oscar felt strength returning to his body; it seemed to be coming from her.

“Wait this long for what?” Oscar asked. “What’s going on? Who was that voice that told me to follow you?” The dim hospital room seemed to grow brighter; everything looked sharper. Oscar could now see individual strands of her short black hair. He spotted a small green leaf tucked in her hair. “How did you lose track of 90 years?” he asked.

“By not getting caught up in the details,” she replied. “90 years is nothing, don’t worry about it.”

“Nothing?” Oscar asked. “Look at me! I’m old and wrinkled and I’ve completely missed out on whatever I was destined for after I followed you.” He did not expect to be so angry. Having her show up on his death bed was worse than her not showing up at all and it was a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that she was real somehow highlighted how much he wasted his life hoping she was.

“I don’t appreciate being yelled at,” the woman said. She pushed at Oscar with sudden, unexpected strength and he spilled out of his hospital bed onto the floor.

“WHAT THE HELL!” Oscar yelled as he stood up from the floor. He angrily marched around the bed to yell in her face; but, he stopped before any more of his anger spilled out. He stood in place and shifted his weight from leg to leg, almost dancing. He looked at his hands and fidgeted his fingers; then he turned them over to look at the back. All the wrinkles were gone; his hands had the same taut, supple skin of his early 20s. “What the hell?” he asked her, but instead of waiting for an answer he rushed into the bathroom. “OH MY GOD!” Oscar screamed from inside the bathroom then dashed out again. “What are you?” young Oscar asked. His wrinkles were gone, the steel-grey horseshoe around his bald his was filled in completely with thick dark hair.

The woman smiled and walked toward him; she reached up to her hair and pulled the small green leaf out of her hair. Once she was in front of him, Oscar caught a whiff of fresh peppermint from the green sprig.

“I’m a recruiter,” she said while she affixed the peppermint to his hospital gown. “I’m a bit late, but you’ve been recruited,”

“For what?” Oscar asked. The woman finished pinning the peppermint to him and stepped away. Oscar immediately felt a warm, friendly sensation in his mind. His mind began to fill with thoughts, though none of them seemed to be his own. He felt as if he were sitting alone in a library his whole life, but now his friends finally showed up. Bits of conversation murmured in his mind while he tried to get a grip on the sensation. Then, the voice from his childhood spoke again.

“Ah, there you are,” the voice said. All the other conversations in Oscar’s mind died down. “Welcome to Peppermint’s Forest,” the voice sounded in Oscar’s mind; louder and clearer than his own mental voice. “You must be happy to join us,” Oscar felt warmth and pride swell in his chest. He wasn’t entirely sure if it was the voice or his own thought, but it didn’t matter. Oscar felt happy to join them.

Freshly Minted

“Well? What’s wrong?” Corina asked her husband. She rocked her swaddled, new daughter in her arms. She kissed the baby’s wispy strands of purple hair. Her husband gawked at the child with wide, nervous eyes. “You weren’t expecting anything other than ‘1’, were you?” she asked.

“One thousand and three,” he said. His normally smooth voice sounded dry and raspy.

“One thousand and three what?” she asked. She knew the answer; it would explain the cracks in his voice. Justin’s mouth always went dry when he was nervous. She held out hope that he was not freaking out about their daughter’s power level.

When Justin first explained his power he told Corina ‘6’ was the highest number he’d seen. It was the world heavyweight boxing champion in his prime. Corina did not believe him at first but he convinced her over time. It wasn’t something that he got to use often, but it had come in handy on a few occasions.

“Majesty,” he said their daughter’s name. Somehow that small, deliberate action helped Corina relax slightly. “Her level is 1003.” A sudden knock at the door interrupted their thoughts. They turned to see a greying nurse walk in without waiting for a response. She wore dark green scrubs with a white apron; a sprig of mint leaves was pinned to the apron. The woman smiled at them with sparkling eyes.

“Hello! I’m Nurse Mundo. I came to see if there was anything you needed or maybe answer any questions you might have?”

“No!” Corina and Justin both answered her at the same time. “I mean, we’re fine,” Justin added. Nurse Mundo raised her left eyebrow.

“Is that so?” she asked. Both parents nodded vigorously. “So you know why your daughter is strong enough to break the Earth and all that? Good, good,” she said.

“You can the number?!” Justin asked. “What does it mean?”

“Is it a 42?” the nurse asked and offered her hand to the father. He was unsure but accepted the hand and shook it; a faint green glow passed between their hands. It happened so fast Justin was not sure it happened at all.

“It’s 1003,” he said. She nodded.

“This means you don’t know what you are either, right?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You and your daughter…,” she paused and looked at Corina, then she turned back to Justin. “…not your wife, are what’s known as Unique Souls. You’re #51, La Palma, and your daughter is #42, La Calavera. You can see some aspect of a person represented as a statistic and your daughter will be strong enough to crack the Earth in two.” Corina and Justin looked at their sleeping child, then at each other. Nurse Mundo had watched that silent conversation happen dozens of times between parents, not all of them Unique children. They were ready to welcome a child to their home, not a walking atom bomb. Neither of them wanted to admit that neither of them felt comfortable. The nurse let the parents stay silent until she felt one of them was close to saying something.

“I do know someone,” she said quickly. The statement was vague enough that Corina and Justin each thought she was answering their unasked question. “As parents, you have to make hard decisions. Do you raise the child as best you can knowing it’s not good enough, or do have someone that knows what they’re doing give her a safer life than you ever could? Your daughter can literally, accidentally destroy the Earth. A Calavera’s terrible-twos are quite apocalyptic.” 

“What? Are we just supposed to give her over to you?” Corina asked; her decision already made. Nurse Mundo shook her head then pointed at the far corner of the hospital room.  A tall, lean man with neatly parted white hair and a full, groomed white beard smiled at Corina and Justin. He held a black briefcase in one hand and a bundle of blankets was cradled in the other. The new stranger wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. A ’37’ was tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. Instead of an eyeball, he had a glass eye painted like the Earth. It spun slowly in its socket. Neither of the parents had an idea where he came from. There were no doors near that corner.

“Of course not,” the stranger said and stepped forward. “It’s a trade. Majesty for a more manageable baby girl and a briefcase full of cash. Deal?”

Vanilla Secret

“You think that’s all?” Billy asked Cherry as he lowered his arms. He raised them to protect his head from an onslaught of stones that came flying out of small black holes; they seemed to stop coming.

“For now, probably,” Cherry said. “But, I think you can count on Ballisea terrorizing you for a while.”

“It was Vanilla’s decision,…” Billy grumbled. He relaxed and appraised Cherry again. She arrived only moments before the stoning began. The girl’s white hair matched Vanilla’s; she wore a blood-red hoodie and held a small potted plant.

“She knows,” Cherry smiled and knelt to the ground. They were atop a small hill surrounded by white and orange flowers. It was where Billy buried Vanilla. “That’s why you’re not dead.” She dug a hole in the ground with her hands. When she was satisfied she turned her attention to the potted plant and began to pull it out for transplant. Initially, Billy thought Cherry brought a flower for Vanilla. As she placed it in its new home he realized it looked more like an herb. Billy recognized it somehow. He did not know how but assumed it was due to the knowledge he gained from Vanilla’s soul.

“Is that Peppermint?” Billy asked. Cherry nodded and rose to her feet. “Can you give him a boost?” she asked while clapping the grass and dirt off the knees of her black jeans. “It needs to take root.” Billy nodded and knelt by the peppermint plant.

“Is he mad at me too?” Billy asked. He touched one of the rounded leaves and accelerated time for the plant to speed its growth.

“Nah,” Cherry dismissed his concerns with a hand-wave. “Holding grudges is how Ballisea has fun,” she said. Billy felt like he’d done enough for the plant and stood back to see what would happen next. He bumped into someone behind him.

“I did my part,” Cherry said. She sank into a black hole that appeared at her feet. “See ya’ around, Billy.”

“Peppermint?” Billy asked and turned around to see who he bumped in to. A tall, lean man with a neatly parted white hair and a full, groomed white beard bowed as an introduction to Billy.  He wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. After the bow he stood up straighter; he had a ’37’ tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. Instead of an eyeball, he had what looked like a glass eye painted like the Earth; the ball was turning slowly in its socket. His left eye was a normal green eye.

“Ah, you’re the new one. Hello, Billy. I don’t actually walk out of the plant, you know,” a green portal appeared behind him. Instead of the flat black portals Billy was used to, this one shimmered like the surface of a pool. The black portals looked empty to Billy, like they led to nowhere. This portal looked more like a proper wormhole to a distant destination. Green light washed across its surface in pulsing waves. He could almost see another Earth on the other side.

“Thanks for coming,” Billy said. He offered Peppermint a handshake. “I know Vanilla wanted me to meet all of you, thanks for making it easy.” Peppermint nodded and shook Billy’s hand. “So how about the Luna?” Peppermint shrugged.

“No one’s seen him or her. We’re not sure there’s one out there.” Billy shook his head. He knew something. In the back of his mind, Billy felt certainty. Vanilla’s certainty.

“Vanilla was sure. I think she met…,” Billy paused and listened to his mind. “…him. I feel like Vanilla met him already,” he said.

“Wonderful,” Peppermint said dryly. “I’m sure she has her reasons for not telling the rest of us; but, if she didn’t tell them to you either that might be a problem.”

“We’ve got some time,” Billy said. “We’ll figure it out by then,”

“I hope so,” Peppermint said. “This experiment of hers is starting to get old.”

Vanilla Burial

Billy placed Vanilla’s body in the shallow hole gently. He lowered her legs first, being extra careful not to dirty her bright orange dress more than he needed to. Then, he guided her head to rest on a green, leathery pillow that Billy made himself. The leather belonged to a T-rex that Vanilla kept time-locked for most of their time together. Somehow it made him feel better knowing she would always be resting on it. He sat back on the earthen edge of the grave and looked around at his chosen spot.

Billy was on a short hill surrounded by a lush, colorful garden. White flowers circled the hill with a band of orange flowers beyond that one. Vanilla introduced him to the spot as one of her favorite places. He knew it meant a lot to her considering she could go anywhere.

“She picked you?” A girl’s voice said from behind him. Billy wasn’t startled; he was expecting a visit from someone. He turned to face the voice and saw a young girl with long white hair that mirrored Vanilla’s; except, the girl’s was tied in a ponytail. She wore a blood-red hoodie and held a small potted plant.

“You must be Cherry,” Billy said. The girl nodded. “Yes,” he said. “She picked me.” A baseball-sized black hole appeared in front of Billy’s face; a stone flew out of the hole and hit his forehead. “Ow, hey.” Cherry giggled. “Fine…,” Billy rubbed the sore spot on his forehead.  “Did you get it out of your system?” he asked. Cherry shook her head and immediately five black holes appeared in the air around Billy’s head. Rocks came flying out of them. Billy raised his arms to shield himself. “Can you stop?” he asked. Cherry grinned.

“It’s not me.”