Kierk

                It was well after first moonset when Kierk hauled himself onto the craggy plateau and looked down at the sleeping city. Borysi III was small. The smallest place in the multiverse, Kierk thought, and the more he’d grown, the smaller it had gotten. Now, from above, it looked like a metal pock on the face of the landscape.

                A few hours earlier, he had woken in a cold sweat after dreaming that the constricting walls had closed in and sealed him up like a can of Garvian Mash. Most nights he would’ve sighed mournfully into the dark, rolled over, and gone back to sleep. But not tonight.

                Kierk got up and snuck out, past the mineral grinders and prism bays, to the base of the Borysinnian walls. He shuffled his heels back against the cold metal, looked down at his feet, took a step, and started counting. Other Borysinnians were milling around. The night shift. Kierk ignored them. He had as much distaste for the people as the place. Every year their brains seemed to shrink until he wasn’t sure anything filled their curly-horned heads.

                Borysi III was known for its prism shaping. Each of the bays Kierk passed, counting softly as he went, were mounted with several carefully sculpted prisms, mined from beneath the city. When powered by lunar light, they sent whatever was inside the bay hurtling through the cosmos to the destination indicated by their alignment.

                (This might sound like magic. It’s not. It’s highly scientific and explained in great detail in Regival’s Prismatic Potency in Relation to Cosmic Disruption and Traversion. Magic is just science that isn’t understood yet, and any Borysinnian who heard mention of the arcane would think the speaker had been snorting too much prism dust.)

                Cans of mash and metal crates packed with raw crystals were stacked up and dropped through the infinity of space to the strange locales across the multiverse that needed such things. Borysi III was a hub of comings and goings. But they hadn’t yet solved the problem of space being very cold. Whatever was sent arrived frozen solid, and if handled improperly, crumbled into dust.

                If Kierk’s dream did come true, at least he would be zapped off to an unknown destination, pried open there, and have one last, grand adventure sliding down some foreign gullet. But it was just a dream. Flesh and fluids couldn’t travel the way of the Garvian Mash.

                When Kierk reached the opposite wall, he sighed and sagged. Every planetary cycle he paced the diameter of the city to measure it, and as he suspected, every year it had shrunk.

                If his brain was as remarkable as he fancied, he would’ve realized this was because every year his legs and feet had grown. However, it could be argued that the place did get relatively smaller since he took up more of it. Either way, the number he had totaled left him discontent.

                An idea was forming in his pubescent brain, and on that night, under the light of the first moon, he found the angst to execute it.

                He left Borysi III with a filtration mask anchored to his horns and climbed the surrounding rugged cliffs. When he reached the top, the second moon had risen and the third glowed on the horizon. The prisms in the pack on his back clanked as he adjusted the straps. He intended to open a portal to the Forbidden Zone, and then… well, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. But forbidden with a capital F was a tempting thing indeed.

                Kierk crossed the plateau and crept into a small, dark cave. He drew a circle in the dust on the stone floor and set prisms at each focal point. Without the stability of a prism bay, he could only hope for a shaky and temporary portal, but it would be enough to peek through.

                The light of the third moon crept across the floor, licking at the edges of the farthest prism. Kierk rearranged, realigned, reconfigured until a web of light stretched between the prisms and they shook and danced in their places around the circle.

                The lunar light glowed, refracted a thousand times onto and into and through itself. Then it flashed and disappeared.

                Kierk peered into the circle. It was dark. The third moon had moved on, and only by squinting could he see that the circle was slightly darker than the darkness around it.

                In actuality, it couldn’t be dark because it was nothing. Not the nothingness people refer to when they mean the absence of something, but true nothingness. The absence of everything.

                The night was still and silent, and so was the puddle of nothing. Then a shift and a slight change in color. The nothingness had become something. Something big trying to crawl through. A mammoth foot appeared first, anchoring claws in the rock. Then the tips of two tufted ears. When the head squeezed through, Kierk thought there was no way the rest of it could follow, but it kept wriggling and writhing and twisting until another foot and a long furry body and two more feet and finally a long tail slid through.

                The prisms scattered, and the portal snapped shut.

                The creature that had crawled out of nothingness shook itself, raining Kierk with ice crystals. It stretched its back and yawned, razor claws arching out of its paws. Then it sat up and curled its tail around its feet. But the cave was shorter than it was, so it had to hunch under the stone ceiling and its head slid down between its massive shoulders.

                Unblinking yellow eyes stared at Kierk, who was standing welded to the floor.

                The creature’s appearance had startled him. Until that moment, a living thing passing through a prism portal had seemed an impossibility. He probably should’ve run away screaming. He didn’t. Anything might happen when dabbling with the Forbidden, and the cocktail of hormones in his brain granted him a certain crazed immunity to common sense.

                “Salutations,” he said nervously, quieter than he intended.

                The creature stared, one ear twitching as it brushed the rock ceiling. Its pupils dilated until the yellow eyes turned jet black.

                “What are you, if you don’t mind?” Kierk asked, unsure the thing could talk and wondering if he was making a fool of himself.

                “I am existence,” the creature said promptly. “The universe. The cosmos. The whole of life embodied, contained, turned in upon itself. Where it is made whole and nothing. Complete and separate. Possible and impossible. Yes and no.”

                “Oh,” Kierk said.

                “I suppose I’m here now,” the creature said. “So, if there’s something you want, hurry up and say it. Infinity passes one moment at a time.”

                “I’d like to leave this place,” Kierk said cheerfully. “I’d like to go somewhere else.”

                “Where?”

                “Somewhere… else.” Kierk faltered.

                “I suggest specificity,” the creature said. “I believe you organic organisms require certain conditions to survive.”

                Kierk considered this. His knowledge of other places was limited. They were there, somewhere, and he wasn’t. “Well, where did you come from?”

                “The void,” the creature said, casually flexing a paw.

                “Oh. Is it nice there?”

                The yellow eyes pinned him. “It’s a void. It’s nothing.”

                “Oh.”

                The creature sighed. Apparently, existence was impatient. “What if I showed you the universe and you selected a place? Can you do that?” It looked as if it wasn’t sure he could, but Kierk nodded eagerly.

                The creature lay so that Kierk stood between its massive front paws and opened its mouth. There were no teeth or tongues or throat, just a warm breeze from a dark, empty cave. Something flickered deep within. A light. A flare. The expansion of nothingness into everything. Nova imploding and exploding. Stars flaming and dying. The crash of cosmic waves against strange, ethereal shores. Planets of every shape and size wheeling through the endless dance. Some clamoring with life; others wastelands of dust and raging storms. Life surging to its peak and falling into decay.

                A tear ran down Kierk’s cheek. His eyes stung, but he couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away from the horror and beauty. The creature’s mouth stretched into a cavernous yawn, then shut.

                “See anything you like?”

                But Kierk was already scribbling scrambling down the rocky mountainside. He only stopped when he’d pounded back inside the metal walls and leaned his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

                He had seen only glimpses of other worlds through the holes the prisms made. In his mind, the whole of the multiverse couldn’t be that much bigger than Borysi III. Maybe a little, but not by much. He bent over and panted and thought about throwing up. It was a rude shock to go from being a relatively large person in a relatively small space to a tiny, insignificant speck.

                He straightened up and patted the stiff metal wall next to him. At third moonrise, Kierk would’ve said those unforgiving boundaries kept him in. As the third moon set and he crawled back into bed, he knew they were keeping the rest of the world out.

                Borysi III eventually solved the cold problem. But when given the chance to leave his metal cocoon, Kierk stubbornly shook his head and said he was fine where he was. The bigger his world became, the smaller it made him. So, he kept his world small. He never saw the magenta shores of Rysian IV shining with the spume of green waves or the endless torfa fields of Yyrian II. He never knew the thrill and terror of stepping from one world to another and glimpsing infinity in between. He lived hemmed in by walls, walls he wouldn’t look past for fear of seeing two black eyes of nothingness staring back at him.

                He did become the finest prism shaper in Borysi III, so that’s something… I guess.

Gille, The Bard of Falutia

Between the treacherous forest where only foul spirits dared to tread and the wide waters of the Alamanthanine Sea, there stood the small kingdom of Falutia. And in Falutia, there lived a bard of such renown that his name was spoken in hushed whispers from the sandy shores to the peaks of the snowy mountains. The mere mention of his arts upon the lute strings sent a shiver through even the most brutal mercenary, for he was, without a doubt, the worst singer ever heard in those fair lands.

                His name was Gille.

                His singing brought to mind the scratch of dead branches against gravestones, and his lute playing stirred even the most war-hardened soldier to tears of despair. Wherever he went, always in cheerful song, the road cleared before him. Thief, trader, brave wanderer, or stalwart servant of the king, it made no difference. All fled at the first echo of his strains through the trees, and the birds migrated south no matter the season.

                In the spring of that year, the king’s daughter and only child was to have her twenty-third birthday, and as tradition dictated, it would be the year she chose a suitor to take up residence with her in the stately castle of Falutia. Lords, ladies, dukes, duchesses, knights and squires, minstrels and dancers, and most importantly, eligible princes came from all reaches of the land. Tents and pavilions sprang up. Sweet strains of music and the mouth-watering scent of delicious treats filled the air. Jesters jested, knights jousted, and wild celebration ensued, all to culminate in the day when the princess would choose her prince.

                Gille had been staying in a small fishing village, gracing them with his song, but the place seemed to be getting smaller and quieter each day. Men who spent their days on ships came to the inn at night and told stories of the exciting travelers and exotic wonders gathered at the palace. That was the place for a bard to be, Gille decided and left the next day. The villagers gathered to see him off with grateful and teary cheers.

                When he arrived at the palace and saw the wonderful scene before him, swirling dancers, leaping acrobats, nobles in elegant dress, and troupes of singers and players, Gille was awed and filled with inspiration. Upon seeing the beauty of the princess, he leapt onto a nearby crate and broke out in jubilant song.

                The palace fell silent. Every eye turned to stare at the singing bard. One of the knight’s horses, a noble and war-hardened steed, spooked and trampled a squire in a wild dash to get away from Gille’s voice. The princess clamped her hands over her ears and begged him to stop.

                “Enough!” cried the king, and Gille fell silent. “What is that ungodly caterwauling?!”

                “I only wish to take part in this wonderful occasion,” Gille said.

                “Then do it far away and where none of us can hear you!”            

                Gille stared at the angry and horrified faces around him. “Do you truly all wish me to leave?”

                A cry of assent rose around him, and one ill-mannered jester threw an apple at him. Gille slid off the crate and left, dragging his lute behind him. As he walked, turning his feet toward the north and the towering mountains, he strummed half-heartedly on the strings. “Maybe I was not meant to be a bard,” he said sadly. “But I love it! And this heartbreak only makes me want to sing more.”

                He lifted his voice and did just that. As he walked through the forest at the base of the mountains, the woodland creatures, stag and hare, lifted their heads, swiveled their velvet ears, turned, and darted away with flicks of their snowy tails. For weeks after he had passed, the hunters returned to their homes empty-handed, and their children went to bed with rumbling stomachs.

                But Gille passed on into the mountains, his voice growing louder and more triumphant with every step. As he sang, the stone walls caught his song and threw it back and forth until it had magnified a hundred times a hundred.

                “This is a place I can be!” he said happily. “The world sings along with me.”

Deep in the heart of the mountains, there lay a beast, a wyrm of fyre that had slumbered there long ere the cornerstone of the palace of Falutia had been laid. When Gille’s strained strains shuddered through the mountains, a golden eye opened. Lifting its great and terrible head, and opening its terrible mouth, the wyrm spoke:

                Ňŧůšţэ пфзж гбЮ Ẅǽ ƒƒƒƒƒƒ ŧŹłώ

                (As everyone knows, dragons only speak dragon-speak, which is too old and terrible for mortal ears to understand – or perhaps dragons don’t have the patience to translate – but roughly translated what the wyrm said was this: “GREAT DRAGON LORDS OF VARKNETH, WHAT IS THAT AWFUL *%#^ING NOISE?”)

                With a shriek of rage, the dragon rose from the mountains and plummeted like a red arrow toward the celebrating kingdom of Falutia. The cries of revelry turned to screams of horror, and the tents blazed with the wyrm’s fire. The nobles fled into the palace, locking themselves away, while the citizens of Falutia scattered in every direction.

                A few of them ran into the safety of the mountains, and there they found Gille (who was oblivious to the terror he’d unleashed). When he learned that the kingdom was under attack, he was dismayed. Picking up his lute, he resolved to return, hoping that he could offer some small help.

He found the charred remains of the beautiful tents and saw that the palace had become an island in a sea of fire. The wyrm was tearing at the walls, scratching at the stones with razor claws and scorching them with plumes of fire. A few survivors, who had been unable to flee, huddled in the ashy remains of what had once been a great and beautiful city.

                Gille, horrified by what he saw, could only do what he always did. He picked up his lute and began to sing, a heartbroken and mournful song. The dragon, who had been trying to extract a particularly plump soldier from a tower, turned its terrible head toward him.

                БЎ ωϊψбёљ Ъσςξ λκκ θЖ, it roared.

                (Which translates to: “UGH! NOT THIS GUY AGAIN.”)

                With a furious screech that shook the mountains, the dragon rose into the sky and fled across the seas.

                When the king emerged from the palace and saw that Gille stood untouched amid the destruction and heard the tale of how his voice had chased away the vile wyrm, he immediately went to his daughter, the princess, and begged her to marry him. “Who else but this humble bard could have ended the threat of the wyrm? His action deserves some reward, and what else is left?”

                The princess considered this in silence before she spoke. “Fine. But only if he puts that damn lute away. And we tell him that kings aren’t allowed to sing.”

The king eagerly agreed, and Gille was bathed in the warmest waters and dressed in the finest silks before he was brought before them in what remained of what had once been the great hall. When he learned of the princess’s offer and what all it entailed, he knelt and took her hand.

                “Good lady. Fine lady. Lady of unmatched beauty. It’s a very fine offer, but are you sure about the singing part?”

                “Very sure,” she said, extracting her hand from his.

                Gille considered before he rose. “Then I must decline. For the music of my heart will not, cannot be silenced. I pray you find it in your gracious heart to forgive me and that I have not caused you too much pain. I would never forgive myself if a single tear fell from your beautiful eye. Just the thought makes me want to sin—”

                “Whatever. It’s fine,” the princess said. “None of this was my idea anyway.”

                In gratitude for what he had done, the princess gifted Gille a lute of ebony and ivory and a ship manned with the most hard-of-hearing sailors she could find (after all, she wasn’t cruel). And Gille left Falutia behind for the open seas, singing the songs of his heart to the waves. Legend says he sails still and that even the sirens flee when they see his ship on the horizon.

X Marks the Spot

                There’s nothing left of our village but a big charred spot and a few blackened logs still valiantly standing upright. It was razed to the ground, and seeing that we were a small coastal community located next to pirate-infested seas, you’d think it was them that did it.

                In a way, it was the pirates that set the whole thing off. They were always coming in and pillaging and being a general all-around nuisance until some clever person years back decided the best way to fend them off was to beat them at their own game. If we buried all our valuables and made out to be nothing but a poor sea village, they’d have no warrant to come and bother us. It wasn’t long before the citizens rivaled the squirrels for nesting away their goods in the forest, and you could hardly stick a spade in the ground without hitting someone’s forgotten chest or sack of gold.

                Eventually the pillagers, being a naturally lazy lot, showed up less often until they stopped coming together. Unfortunately by the time it was safe to retrieve our valuables, everyone had forgotten where they’d buried what. It wasn’t for lack of looking, but inevitably you found something that belonged to somebody else.

                At first, the finders generously took a finder’s fee, pocketing a portion of the re-discovered goods in return for the hassle of finding the owner, which was all well and good until it came to paying for your own valuables when the whole deal suddenly seemed a lot less fair. Fed up with that, we decided to forget the whole system and the finders could just keep whatever they found. The forest soon turned into a field of pits and exposed roots surrounded by a ring of growing dirt mounds you had to clamber over as everyone frantically tried to dig up whatever they could. This system certainly motivated, but it crumbled when the blacksmith, a seven-foot man with arms the size of barrels dug up a chest full of silk dresses and decided he neither wanted nor needed them. And the previous owner of the dresses, who had unearthed his broadsword beneath a copse of oaks, decided she’d much rather keep the weapon.

                As chaotic as this sounds, it would have settled itself in the end. The real problems began when we unearthed the journal. The original owner declined to reveal themselves (which was a wise choice as it turns out), and the finder delved into the brittle pages to see if they could puzzle out who it was. What they found was a collection of gossip so vile, so despicable, that they promptly shared it with everyone in the immediate vicinity.

               Once we started reading it, we obviously couldn’t stop. Whoever wasn’t mentioned within the pages must be the author, so it had to be carefully read from cover to cover and the vicious gossip identified. But nobody trusted anybody else to do the reading, in case they were the one who had penned it, and it became a public event which any and all could attend (and they did). And as there were quite a few names to be checked off before we got to the end, wild suspicions and accusations were flying before we’d even gotten ten pages in.

                On page three, the tavern keeper, a large and balding man, was described as “a lump of rancid lard” who smelled about as bad, and his ale was only slightly preferable to drinking the seawater that dripped from dead fish as they hung in the sun to dry. The outraged tavern keeper was convinced that the fisherman had done it, having always harbored a deep dislike for the man despite their feigned friendship, and sliced all his nets in the night. Again, it might have blown over except he just couldn’t hold back from telling the fisherman that maybe he should worry about his own smell. The fisherman, who had genuinely believed they were friends up until that moment and just now realizing the truth of the matter, poked holes in all the barrels of ale, flooding the tavern, and left behind a very generous and very fishy gift. (The tavern keeper opened his door the next morning to find a collection of very drunk eels.)

                After that, the entire village dissolved into chaos. Every secretly remembered insult and offense came barreling back into the light of day until people barricaded themselves in their homes at night and refused to speak to each other in the streets.

                The last straw (or the first spark) was the lengthy section describing the ineptitude, inability, and complete lack of imagination the town builder displayed in whatever project she touched. This was crowned by an assertion that the inhabitants would probably prefer to live in piles of cow dung over the buildings she created which so closely resembled them. She, the victim of a failed romance with the farrier, focused all her rage on him, and that night set fire to the stable she had so lovingly built, rather stupidly forgetting that all the houses were made of wood and built rather close together, and it wasn’t long before the whole thing went up like a great big hunk of dried dung.

                So now the village is nothing but a smoking black spot on the coast. The citizens cleared out shortly afterward, preferring to take their chances sailing with the pirates than staying one more moment with their loving neighbors. The journal disappeared in the fire, and the author, whoever it was, was never revealed. I have to imagine they were just expressing well-deserved and rather artfully described grievances. But it was rather disconcerting to watch a group of seemingly civil people descend into a pitchfork-wielding mob over a few innocent observations.

                In my defense, when I buried the thing, I didn’t think anyone would find it.


Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charred_Log,Park_Point_Beach,_Duluth(33615120923).jpg

Kismet

                I was greeted at breakfast by a shriek. My mom’s coffee mug shattered on the kitchen tile.

                “Who are you?” she screamed, brandishing a cream-cheese covered butter knife.

                “Your son?” I was still half-asleep, trying to rub the drowsiness out of my head.

                “Get out of my house, you lunatic! Get out!”

                A bagel bounced off my forehead, and I made a hasty retreat as she rushed me, wildly waving the knife.

                I was chased out of the house, pelted with bagels and threats of the police hauling me away if I came within ten feet of her again. The front door slammed behind me. I stood on the sidewalk in my plaid flannel pajamas, rubbing my cold bare feet against my ankles. My mom was peering out of the blinds.

                They say you can never go home again, but this was ridiculous. If she was trying to make a point that I didn’t visit enough, she could at least have let me get a coat first.

                “Hello, Mrs. Jones,” I said, waving halfheartedly at the elderly woman walking by with her Pomeranian.

                She put her head down and sped past me, glancing anxiously back as she reached her front porch and fumbled with her keys. The door slammed behind her.

                She’d known me my whole life. Either she was in on this too or something odd was going on. I walked gingerly down the street, wincing at the icy pavement beneath my feet. Four blocks down, the small street met a larger road, and a dingy diner huddled on the corner. I stopped in front of it, rubbing one foot over the other to wipe off the pebbles that had stuck to me. At least it would be warm inside.

               As I appeared in the doorway, the waitress behind the counter loudly cleared her throat. She was looking pointedly downward, and I followed her gaze to my bare feet. With a sigh, I trudged back outside. I had no keys, no wallet, no shoes, and no idea what was going on. I only knew it was cold.

               A stack of typo-ridden local newspapers sat in a sad damp heap in the metal rack outside the door. I folded two of them around my feet, scrunching the paper together to make paper slippers.

                When I walked back through the door, I was given a disapproving look but was allowed to enter.

                The scuffed metal tables were mostly empty, but a young woman sat near the window, gazing forlornly out. She was wearing fuchsia pajama pants and paper bags on her feet. She straightened up when she noticed me.

                “No shoes, no service,” she said sadly when I sat down across from her.

                “Where’d you get the bags?” I asked.

                “Recycle bin.”

                “Good thinking.”

                “Coffee’s free.”

                “Thank god.”

                I flagged down the waitress and watched eagerly as she filled a slightly dirty mug with steaming coffee. She looked at our thin pajamas and paper-wrapped feet, clucked sympathetically, and brought us six packs of crumbling crackers.

                “What are you doing?” the woman across from me asked as I peered at myself in the metal napkin dispenser.

                “Making sure I’m still me,” I said.

                “Did everybody forget you too?”

               I took a sip of the scalding coffee-flavored water and grimaced. “I think so. My mom tried to kill me with a bagel.”

               “I came downstairs for pancakes and nearly got arrested.” She sighed. “It’s been a weird morning.”

                We sat in silence as I sipped my coffee and she stared out the window, a blank expression on her face.

               “What’s your name?” I asked.

                She considered a moment. “Better not take the chance. If we don’t know each other, we can’t forget each other.”

                “There’s got to be a reason this is happening. Something we did,” I said, cupping my mug to catch the last hints of warmth. “That or our families… and my neighbor… all went crazy at the same time.”

                “Seems unlikely.” She absently tapped her spoon against the handle of her mug. “But why us? I don’t know you. At least, I don’t think I do.”

                I drank three more cups of the vile coffee as we tried to figure why. She was in town to visit her parents. I was in town to visit my mom, but she had arrived three days ago, and I arrived yesterday. Her birthday was in the spring, mine in the fall. Nothing added up.

                “Maybe it’s something that happened yesterday,” I said, brushing cracker crumbs off my lap.

                “I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything!” she said. “And now I’m going to spend the rest of my life in a cardboard box wearing Barbie pajamas. I forgot to bring pajamas. These were all I could find, and they don’t fit anymore.” Her face crumpled, and she let out a hiccuping sob.

                I grabbed her hand. “At least we have each other.”

                “Yeah, great,” she mumbled, wiping her nose on a paper napkin. “We can die cold and miserable, together.”

                “Just try to remember. Yesterday. Walk me through it.”

               She sighed and buried her fingers in her tangled hair, leaning her elbows on the table. “I got up… watched a documentary with my dad and fell asleep on the couch… played Scrabble with my mom. Oh, I ran to the store for milk, and on the way home, I bought some flowers.”

                I leaned forward. “Flowers? Where?”

                “Some man on the corner over there.” She pointed out the window.

                I was bouncing in my seat. “What kind of flowers? Purple roses?”

                Her eyes widened. “How did you know?”

                I jumped to my feet, instinctively grabbing for my wallet that wasn’t there. “I bought the same ones for my mom. Let’s go.”

                My left shoe blew away and her bags rustled as she waddled like a snowshoer toward the flower stand.

                The flower vendor, a big man with a thick mustache, stood next to the stand laden with brightly colored bouquets, all cheerfully blossoming despite the frigid weather. He examined us curiously as we shuffled up. A woman picking through bunches of daisies looked up, started, took her child’s hand, and walked around to the other side of the stand away from us.

                “We both bought your purple roses yesterday,” I said to the vendor. “And now nobody knows who we are.”

                “Ah, yes.” He nodded knowingly. “I did notice two bunches were missing this morning.” He was watching us keenly now, tugging at the end of his mustache. “I didn’t think they’d work so quickly, but they are special flowers.”

                The woman in pink pajamas glared at him. “How’d you like some special flowers up your—”

                “Special how?” I cut in.

                A customer asked for carnations, and the vendor turned to dig around through the bunches. “I’ve never sold two bunches in one day. It’s, uh, what’s the word?” He waved his hand like he could snatch the elusive word out of thin air. “Kismet.”

                “It’s our fate to die alone in our pajamas?” the woman in pink snarled.

                “No, no, no. You misunderstand.” He handed off the carnations and shoved the cash in his pocket. “These flowers brought you together, changed the rules of the universe to help you find each other, to help you find your true love.”

                The woman in pink pajamas and I exchanged a wide-eyed glance before edging away from each other.

                “Her?”

                “Him?” she asked, eyebrows raised higher than I felt was necessary.

                “You don’t have to look so disgusted,” I grumbled.

                “Oh, I’m sorry,” she snapped. “I didn’t realize this was a serious conversation. Next time a crazy flower vendor erases me from existence and tells me my true love is a man with newspapers on his feet, I’ll try to be more cheerful about it.”

                “They blew away, so there!” I said, turning on her. “You’re not the picture of hygiene either.”

                She threw her hands up. “How is this what you’re worried about?”

                “Shut up!” the vendor yelled, and we turned to stare at him, mouths still open. “You’re scaring my customers. Don’t you realize how lucky you are? Some people spend their whole lives looking.”

                “I want to go home!” she yelled.

                “Clearly, we’re miserable,” I said. “Whatever the flowers intended, it didn’t work. So, fix it.”

                He shrugged, leaning back against the stand. “I can’t. The spell stays until the blossoms fade.”

                “And how long does that take?”

               “Eh, five or six days, give or take. But look on the bright side, now you’ve got almost a week together. There’s nobody else in the world for you but your true love.”

               “You’re crazy, man,” I said and turned to the woman in pink pajamas beside me. “Let’s go.”

               “Don’t buy the flowers!” she shrieked at the gawking customers as I pulled her away from the stand. “The flowers are a lie!”

                She yanked her arm away and stomped down the street. Her jaw stuck out and her eyes blazed.

                “Where are we going?” I asked, hurrying after her.

                “To send those flowers to an early grave,” she growled, nearly falling as she tripped over the bags on her feet.

               “But how are we going to get inside? My mom is going to stab me if I come anywhere near her.”

               She slowed, her forehead wrinkling in thought. “There’s two of us, and she doesn’t know who I am. I can lure her outside while you destroy the flowers.”

               It was better than my plan to huddle up in the diner, living off weak coffee and cracker crumbs until they dragged me away. A bitter wind whistled down the street.

               “I’m so cold,” she groaned, hugging herself.

               I held out an arm to her, and she huddled against me, clutching my shirt with icy fingers, as we shuffled down the street toward my house.

               “I’m holding you purely for survival purposes,” she said through chattering teeth.

               “Understood.”

               My mom’s house was quiet. No accusing eyes glared out of the blinds. I hid behind a tall shrub, out of view but ready to dart through the door.

               The woman in pink pajamas tossed the damp paper bags aside and rang the doorbell, gasping as the door opened. “Oh, thank god! I can’t find Frito. I’ve been out here for hours.” Her face morphed into the picture of wide-eyed innocence, and her lip trembled a little. “Please. He’s just a little dog.”

               Her performance was impressive; I’d have believed it myself if I hadn’t known better.

               “Oh, you poor thing,” my mom said. “Let me get my coat.”

               They were halfway down the walk when I ran inside and slammed the door behind me, bolting it. My mom beat on it, screaming and cursing with a fervor I had no idea she had.

               The roses were sitting passively in a glass vase on the table. I grabbed them and frantically looked around the kitchen before throwing them in the microwave and setting it on high.

               “Come on, come on, come on,” I muttered as the petals slowly wilted, shriveling, folding in on themselves until they were dark purple clumps.

               The banging had stopped. I threw the front door open.

               “Evan.” My mom stood on the porch, surprise on her face. “I didn’t think you were ever going to get out of bed.”

               “Oh, uh,”—I pulled on my winter boots and a coat—“man, I was just really exhausted.”

               I handed the woman in the pink pajamas my slippers and a sweater.

               “Who’s your friend?” my mom asked.

               She didn’t seem to remember anything. We exchanged a glance, and the woman in pink pajamas sighed resignedly. “Elle.”

               My mom eyed Elle’s pajamas before looking between us with an increasingly suspicious look on her face.

               “So, we’re going to go,” I said unnecessarily loudly. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

               “Alright,” my mom said, absently, looking down at her coat then back at the door. “I forgot why I came out here.”

               “Don’t use the microwave,” I called as she disappeared inside.

               Elle snorted out a laugh. “She thinks we were—”

               “Yeah, I know.”

               She had my sweater pulled up over her nose like a little turtle in its shell. “You could’ve put some clothes on.”

               “Nah. Let’s get you home.”

               Her eyes crinkled, her smile hidden behind my sweater.

               “What’s the plan?” I asked as we trudged down the street toward her parent’s house.

               “There’s a window in the back that doesn’t lock, but I need a boost to reach it. Then you distract them.”

               We sneaked along the side of the house, keeping out of view of the curtained windows, and through the back gate. She put her slippered foot in my hands, and I hoisted her up to the narrow window, struggling not to drop her as she yanked at it.

               “A little further,” she grunted, and I shoved her upward.

               “Oh sh—” She vanished through the window.

               There was a loud thud.

               “Are you okay?” I called anxiously, trying to pull myself up to see inside.

               “They moved the couch,” she moaned, then a moment later, “ow.”

               “They might have heard that. I’m going around front.”

               I sprinted to the front and mashed the doorbell.

               “Hello!” I extended my hand to the woman who opened the door. “I’m Evan. I woke up this morning and decided to introduce myself to the entire neighborhood. It’s the neighborly thing to do, and after twenty-six years of living here, it’s about darn time, don’t you think? You sir!” I waved over the man walking down the stairs. “Hi! Hello! I live a few houses down, on the corner, next to the old lady that talks to her plants.”

               I proceeded to ramble through my life story. It didn’t matter what I said as long as I kept them occupied.

               “I’m still terrified of zoos. Then in the sixth grade, I sat on my friend’s hamster, accidentally of course. He still thinks it was the cat, but—“

                “Evan,” a soft voice interrupted me.

               Elle was standing behind them. Her parents shook the glazed expressions off their faces.

               “There she is!” Her dad mussed her hair. “Sleeping ‘til noon, like usual. Your pancakes are regular pans by now.”

               He wandered off, chuckling at his awful joke.

                “You two know each other?” her mom asked. “Evan was just telling us that he, uh…” She blinked several times “Oh, is that a new sweater, honey?”

               Her mom bustled off to the kitchen to reheat the pancakes, and Elle joined me on the porch, pulling the door shut behind her.

               “All fixed then?” I asked.

                “Seems to be,” she said. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”

                We stood on the curb and waited for a van to lumber by, leaving clouds of exhaust in the wintry air.

                “How much of that did you hear?” I asked, trying to sound indifferent.

                “I didn’t hear anything,” she said, unsuccessfully hiding her smile.

                Five houses. That was all that stood between her house and mine. I counted them as we walked past.

                “Kismet,” I snorted, kicking a pebble.

                “True love.” She rolled her eyes. “I’d be happy if I never saw you again.”

                “The feeling’s mutual.”

                But when we reached my mom’s front porch, we stood and looked out at the bare trees and quiet houses. I shoved my hands in my coat pockets, rocking on the balls of my feet. “You, uh, always live down the street?”

                “Only since high school. Still, it’s kind of crazy we’ve never met.”

                She shifted her weight, rubbing her arms against the cruel wind. She had to be freezing.

                “So…” I loudly cleared my throat. “How about dinner?”

                She tugged my sweater up to hide her smile. “Ya, sure. Might as well since the universe went to all this trouble. And I have to give your slippers back anyway.”

                She shuffled off down the street, tugging at her too-tight Barbie pajamas.

                “I’ll bring you flowers,” I yelled.

                She flipped me off. I grinned after her. True love flowers, what a joke.

               Now I just needed to figure out how to explain a microwave full of wilted roses.


Photo Credit: ladyloneranger / Marcia Thompson, from Colorado Springs, USA
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavender_rose.jpg#mw-jump-to-license