#AtoZChallenge: Multitasking

Melissa woke up to the sound of her daughter crying. It was more powerful than any alarm clock. She checked the time: 5 AM. Her head thudded back against the pillow. Next to her, Mark was stirring. She forced herself out of bed and shuffled over to check on Lily. Her oldest daughter, Madison, bounded out of her room with more energy than anyone should have at that hour. The day had officially begun.

The morning was a flurry of breakfast preparation and lunch packing. Melissa zipped around the kitchen like a lightning bolt, organizing everything she needed and laying out three lunch bags with well-practiced efficiency. She kissed Mark goodbye and gave Madison a hug (though she was getting to the age where overt shows of affection made her squirm) and saw them out the door. Finally, she had a few moments to breathe.

Lily gurgled and tossed a spoonful of pureed carrots across the kitchen table. Breathing would have to wait.

Once the kitchen had been cleaned (again), Melissa consulted her list for the day. There were groceries to buy, she had to pick up some supplies for Madison’s science project, followed by a quick stop at the bank and then Madison needed to be picked up from soccer practice. It sounded simple enough. But first, she had to tidy up the place.

Melissa zoomed from room to room, dusting, vacuuming and mopping. In almost no time at all, the house was spotless. It was time for grocery shopping.

After hopping for a quick shower, she got dressed and packed Lily’s bottle and diapers in her Emergency Baby Kit. With Lily nestled in one arm, Melissa walked out the door. And promptly walked back in to pick up her car keys from the coffee table.

She found a good spot open in the grocery store parking lot, but part of it was blocked by a bad parking job. Melissa sighed and got out of the car. She looked around to make sure the lot was empty, then nudged the offending car with her foot and slowly slid it out of her spot.

Grocery shopping was always a quick affair. She was done in just a few minutes, gliding around the store and around the other shoppers with ease. As Melissa raced over to the checkout lane, she came to a screeching stop. Self-checkout. An old woman with a befuddled expression and a cartful of groceries. A hapless store clerk. She was going nowhere fast. Unless…

Melissa zipped to and from the counter at lightning speed, checking out all of the items to the old woman’s delight and the cashier’s befuddlement. As the woman walked away, still excited about her speedy checkout, Melissa paid for her groceries and headed out to the parking lot. It was time to go to the hardware store. Lily laughed and spit up all over her shirt. The hardware store would have to wait.

With Lily all cleaned up, Melissa was back on track. She strode into the hardware store and consulted her list. A few basic supplies that were no trouble at all. Then came the plyboard. The exact boards she needed were stacked on the highest shelf and she couldn’t see any attendants around. Melissa jumped, grabbing onto the top of the shelf with one hand, and gathered the boards she needed with her free arm. She leapt down and deposited the boards in her cart. All supplies were bought, a clear checkout counter was found, and she was off to the bank.

Melissa found herself facing another long line. There was only one teller available, and it seemed half the city had business to conduct that day. She waited. And waited. And waited. The line shuffled along. Melissa almost pounced on the teller when it was her turn. Her transaction was interrupted by a loud bang.

“Everybody on the ground! Now!”

Banks robbers. Melissa rubbed her temples in frustration. The lead robber was striding around the lobby brandishing a shotgun while his cronies intimidated the tellers and other customers. A chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling. Melissa grabbed the pen at the counter, snapping off the chain that tethered it. She waited until the leader was standing just under the chandelier. Timing was everything. Then, trying not to be noticed, she tossed the pen like a dart.

The pen hit one of the candelabras mounted on the chandelier, causing it to fall right on the leader’s head. He staggered around for a moment, then went down. The bank’s security guards took advantage of the ensuing confusion to overpower most of the thugs. One of them made a break for it. In the blink of an eye, Melissa overtook the gunman, tripped him, and was promptly back at the counter. Everyone applauded the security guards. Melissa turned back to the teller.

It was a quick transaction after that. She glanced at her watch as she walked way. There was still plenty of time for soccer practice. She was in no rush.

As she got to the car, a loud rumble shook the earth. The sound of screaming soon followed, and then a crowd of people went running past her. Up ahead she saw a giant robot, all metallic arms and legs with a glass bubble in the center. It stomped around, crushing cars under its clawed feet and firing lasers into the air. Lily clapped her hands and cooed at it. Melissa sighed and opened the trunk to fish out her work outfit.

Soccer practice would have to wait.

#AtoZChallenge: Faceless

Falden limped back to the shed. He was sure he hadn’t been followed, but he looked around just to be sure. He hobbled his way to the rusted metal sheet lying by the door and moved it aside to reveal a biometric ID panel.  It chirruped to life and asked him to hold still while a full facial scan was performed. A grid of yellow light was projected onto his face and the scanner seemed satisfied. Falden walked over to the door of the shed, which appeared to be a mass of cracked wood hanging off a hinge but was in fact a hologram. The real door slid open and Falden walked through.

The lab reeked of formaldehyde. Most people would find it off-putting, but to Falden, it smelled like home. He limped over to his chair and sat down, happy to finally rest his legs. Things hadn’t gone to plan that night. He had run into some old acquaintances. People that recognized his face, though they had no idea there was a different man behind it. It was Falden’s fault. He shouldn’t have picked a man so deep in debt.

He got back on his feet, wincing as a spear of pain jabbed his calf. Leaning against every surface he could lay his hands on, Falden slowly made his way to the large door at the back of the room. There was another biometric scanner, more elaborate than the one outside. He went through the requisite scans and the door slid open, releasing a gust of chilled air into the lab. Falden grabbed a heavy jacket hanging from a rack by the door and put it on.

He limped into the cryo room, lined with rows of man-sized tubes. Each tube was occupied by one of the many ‘donors’ Falden had collected over the years. They were all cryogenically frozen, their organs and tissues perfectly preserved, to be used when needed. They were mostly drifters and runaways, people who wouldn’t be missed or easily found. But once in a while, they were found. Like tonight, when he ran into his latest donor’s old friends. It was time for a change.

Walden passed by a series of tubes until he found one that looked promising. A young man, a hitchhiker, if he wasn’t mistaken. He would do. Falden entered the combination that unlocked the tube and pulled the corpse out. It was time to begin the procedure. In only a few hours, Falden would be a new man.

#AtoZChallenge: Ant Farm

“Goodmorningneighbor!”

Mr. Davis greets me in a rush. Doesn’t even look at me. He knots his tie on the way to the elevator. Mrs. Davis follows soon after. She stutters over her greeting twice. Faulty wiring. Vocal controls need to be fixed. But she looks me in the eye at least. I respond with a nod. No time for words. I’m running late. The elevator’s already headed to the ground floor.

I press the button and wait. More neighbors emerge into the hallway. Moving fast. A ding, and the doors open. A dozen of us wedge ourselves inside. And we’re headed down. Silence. Small talk not part of their programming. Then the sound of tapping. Fingers against plastic screens. Someone snorts. A funny text. Another ding. We ooze out like toothpaste. Some head to the parking garage. Others to the bus stop. I fall in step with the latter.

The bus pulls in as I reach the stop. We file in as another group files out. Night shift. Or they work here. Maybe they’re just bored. Doesn’t matter. I’m on the bus. Scan-cam flits around, checking bus passes. All clear. The bus rumbles along. Twenty minutes trickle past like water from a dripping faucet. So many stops. Is it always this many? I glance at my watch. Almost there. One more stop. I get in line. Single file out the door. A moving cloud of people floating into the train station.

Inside, the cloud disperses into droplets. Garbled announcements ring out. More audio issues. Need to be fixed. Trains pull in. Crowds descend upon them. Like piranhas feasting on big fish. But the big fish win. Swallow them up. Trains pull out. Another announcement. The jumbled words are familiar. My train’s coming. So are the piranhas.

I get caught in the current. Flow into the train. Manage to find my footing again. No empty seats. There never are. Doors close, cutting off the crowd outside. The train exits the station. The city passes by on either side of the tracks. Trees waving in the breeze. Cars zooming back and forth. A few stations later, the city changes. Less green, more silver. Buildings get taller. Cars lined up on the highway. Like they’re stuck in time. Air is thicker too. Smoggier. Just a few more stops. Half hour trip. Always feels longer when you’re standing. Doors whoosh open. The tide flows out. I exit the station. Walk another five minutes. Gleaming office tower in front of me. Reflective blue glass.

I walk through the lobby. Greet Bill the security guard. He nods. He raises his hand. Movement too mechanical. A ping from the ID scanner. I’m through. Into the elevator pit. Eight elevators, all taken. Watching numbers rise and fall. Like a stockbroker with nowhere to go. Ding. Finally. Wedge myself in. More texting. No conversation. Up to the 35th floor. Several dings along the way. Doors open.

People running back and forth. Meetings. Phone calls. Deadlines to be met. I walk to my desk. Check some emails. Type in a few commands. Everything stops. Complete silence. People sitting. Standing. Mid-stride.

A few glitches, but everything looks good. It could be a real city. With a few tweaks, it will be. I make some notes. Resume the session. People rush about again. Time to get to work. It’s been a slow morning.

The Way It Was, Pt. 3

“How did you get here?” I ask, trying to change the subject and to draw out a less dickish side to my future self.

“Time Machine. Rift in the universe. Or maybe I just closed my eyes and said, ‘There’s no place like Donaghan’s’. Does it really matter?”

Ok, so there is no less dickish side.

“The important thing,” he says, pausing to take another sip of his drink, “is how will you get here?” He points to himself. “Or maybe, will you get here at all? Maybe you’ll go a different way. Drink all that untapped potential up and then flush it down a stained urinal.”

“Or, you know, I could just find a job that doesn’t turn me into a jerk. I mean, seriously, what happened to you – me…us?”

He grimaces and gives me a tight nod. “You’re right. I did come off a bit too harsh – ”

“A bit?”

“Fair enough. But you need a slap in the face if you’re going to get out of this funk, man. That’s pretty much what happened to me. I had a troubling realization about where my life was headed and changed course.”

“What exactly did happen?”

“Hey, no spoilers.”

I laugh, in spite of myself. At least he has some of my humor in him.

“Sorry,” he says, the cheap leather of the both seat squeaking in protest against him. “I can’t go into specifics of the future. Tossing pebbles into the timestream and that kinda thing. But I can tell you this. You need to shake things up. Change your whole lifestyle. And in no time at all, you’ll be headed for big things, my friend.” He adjusts the lapels of his very expensive-looking coat. “Big things.”

He sits up suddenly and I spring back. It’s unnerving when your own face comes swooping towards you.

“I can give you one tiny spoiler,” he says, a conspiratorial grin on his face. “Dani Hawkins.”

“Dani Hawkins? Wait, wasn’t she – ”

“The one that got away? She got hooked in again.”

“Wow, that’s amazing, Dani and you…Dani and me…” My own loneliness hits me like a slap in the face. Dani and I had dated for a few months, but it didn’t last. She didn’t like the direction my life was heading in. I guess she was wrong. Or will be wrong. I could potentially get back together with her, live in a big house and have a great job. It all sounds so perfect.

He motions to the bar, where his two companions are deep in conversation.

“Didn’t recognize her, did you? I’m not even sure if she’ll recognize you. She never got to see that beard, lucky her.”

Whoa. That’s her. She’s dyed her hair since the last time we’d seen each other but now I’m surprised I didn’t see it sooner.

“That’s…insane. You’ve really got it all together, huh?”

He shrugs. “Hey, nothing’s perfect, right? But I can’t complain, man. Life’s been pretty good to me. And it’ll be pretty good to you, if you let it.” He downs the rest of his drink in one gulp, the remnants of ice cube clinking against the glass. “Look, it’s been good catching up, but I better get going. If I hang around here too long, that won’t be good for the timestream. Plus, don’t wanna keep Dani waiting, y’know?”

We nod at each other and he slides out of the booth. I watch him walk back to the bar and join the conversation there, wrapping an arm around Dani. It’s as if I’ve become invisible again, retreated into the past that he didn’t want to completely relive.

I’ve just been wasting my time here, wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, thinking that I’m being denied some magical life I deserve by an uncaring world. But, I realize, that life is mine to take. All I have to do is reach out for it and pull it towards me. Big things. That’s what he said. There are big things in store for me if I just walk out of here and try to make something of my life.

The again, it’s Saturday night at Donaghan’s and I’ve still got a tall glass of beer with my name on it. I reach for the glass, take a long sip and let the bitterness coat my tongue.

I look to the bar. My future self is still there with Dani, but he’s looking back at me now. Even from a distance, I can see the panic building in his eyes. I smile, raise my glass, and chug the rest of my beer. He’s nowhere to be found among the usual drunks that frequent this place.

Good. That guy was a dick anyway.

 

Check out Part 1 here and Part 2 here. For more unusual tales, head to The Reading Room.

The Way It Was, Pt. 2

That’s impossible. Well, not quite.

I mean, there are people who have a striking resemblance to each other in real life. Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel, for example. Or Robert Downey Jr. and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But a man with the exact same face as mine, standing in the same bar that I’m in? That’s just way too big a coincidence.

I realize that I’m staring at the guy, so I try to look away but it’s too late. He sees me. He smiles and raises his glass in my direction. What the hell? He doesn’t seem the least bit surprised. To my growing discomfort, he excuses himself from his companions and heads over to my booth. This could get awkward.

“Well hello!”

The man looks like me and he sure sounds like me but he can’t be me because I’m me. Aren’t I?

“Umm, hi…”

My doppelgänger slides into the seat opposite mine, grinning like a maniac.

“I knew I’d find you here!”

He did?

“You did?”

The man takes a sip of his drink. Whisky on the rocks. One of the top shelf brands, no doubt.

“Course I did, bud. Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

I chug my beer until it’s almost gone. There was this crazy suspicion I had right after I noticed the resemblance between us. As I look closer, that suspicion starts to grow stronger. The man isn’t an exact duplicate. His face is a bit thinner, his hair has a lot more gray threading through it. I can hear now that his voice is a bit lower than mine, a bit rougher.

“You’re…from the future.”

He sits back with a satisfied smile.

“Yes. I mean, sort of.” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “Think of me as your unfulfilled potential. I’m the man you could be in ten years.”

“The man I could be.”

“That’s right. Look at your life right now. Really look at it. What are you doing? Where are you going? You’ve had a few setbacks. Lost your job. Had no luck in love. So now you’re stuck in the same routine, day in and day out. You’ve given up. Hell, your life has given up.”

“And if I try real hard, I can become a dick like you?”

He gives me a look, the kind of look you might give a small dog that’s trying to jump onto the couch but not quite getting there. I don’t like that look.

“Well hey, this dick’s got a pretty solid bank account and a living room the size of your apartment. So you tell me.”

He makes a good point. Not that it gives him any right to be a dick about it.

“And you’re here to get me to turn my life around, to become the man I was meant to be. To become you. That it?”

He smiles. It’s really beginning to annoy me, even though it’s the same smile I’ve seen in the mirror and in countless pictures of myself. I used to love that smile.

“No, that’s not why I’m here. I just came to look back at my life. To see the way it was before I changed. Before you changed, I should say. I lived such a sad, meaningless life back then, didn’t I? I’d forgotten just how much time I spent in this damn place, stinking of stale beer and piss. No goals in sight. No hope in mind. Just drinking the time away until a new day arrives.”

Unbelievable.

“So you came back to…mock me?”

He shrugs. “It’s good to look back on your past now and again. See the dead end paths you’ve walked to avoid walking them again.”

I’m tempted to smack him upside his pretentious head.

13 Tales of Terror: Plots For Sale

Marty wasn’t having a good day.

He had just found out his job was nearing its expiry date, and his love life had already crossed that threshold earlier that morning. Katie didn’t see their relationship going anywhere so she’d gone away instead.

After an excruciating few hours at his desk making small talk with people he’d rather not talk with at all, it was finally lunchtime and Marty could have a few moments to breathe. He didn’t really have much of an appetite that day, so he went for a long walk instead. He could still hear Katie’s voice echoing in his head, telling him that he really needed to buy himself a new life.

Marty kicked a can across the street in frustration, which was about the time he realized that he had no idea what street he was on. He stopped and looked around. None of the street signs were familiar. Neither were the buildings. His office was nowhere in sight, nor any of the office blocks that surrounded it. How far had he walked?

“Plots for sale! Plots for sale!”

There was a man standing on a street corner, perched on top of a small box. He was old, though Marty couldn’t guess at his age. His hair, or what little of it he had, was iron gray, as was the scraggly beard that covered his face. He was dressed in what seemed to be maroon wizard’s robes, tattered and possibly covered in dust. Marty tried not to pay too much attention to him.

“Plots for sale! Plots for sale! What would you like, sir? A thriller to set your heart racing? A little romance to make you dance? Ah, perhaps what you need is a good mystery to solve!”

Marty looked around, puzzled. It was clear the old man was talking to him. After all, he was the only one there. It didn’t make any sense. How did he end up on this strange street by himself? Where was everyone else?

“Come now, sir, don’t be shy! I have so many plots to sell! A new life awaits you with just the turn of a page!”

A new life?

“Right this way, friend!”

The old man waved a hand in the direction of a derelict bookshop. Before Marty could blink, the man was standing next to him and steering him toward the storefront. He wanted to protest. He had to get back to work. He had to find his office. He had to get back to his life. Or did he?

As Marty mulled over the direction his life had taken from the moment he woke up that day, he allowed himself to be led into the dingy bookshop that smelled like musty old paper. Maybe he could pick up some sort of self-help book.

“Well, sir? What will it be?”

The old man’s eyes shone as he displayed his wares, books spread out across rows and rows of dark wooden shelves. The shop was a lot larger than it looked from the outside.

“Perhaps you’d like to purchase a spy plot, full of suspense and intrigue?”

Marty opened the book that the man thrust into his hands. The pages were blank. Marty looked up to ask the shopkeeper about it but he wasn’t there. In fact, the shop wasn’t there. Marty was in an elegant casino, dressed in a sharp dark gray tuxedo. There was a high stakes poker game going on, and Marty was playing one of the most notorious arms smugglers in the world. The fate of several nations would depend on the outcome of the game. Keeping his cool but nervous on the inside, Marty turned over his cards…

“Well? What do you think?”

Marty was back in the bookshop and the old man was eyeing him hungrily. He looked down at the book; there were words in it now. It was describing the plot that Marty had just lived.

“I see spy stories aren’t quite your thing. Perhaps something more in the science fictional realm?”

Marty opened the next book he was given. He was in a satellite that was orbiting a dying world. As the leader of the last remnants of an alien race, Marty had some difficult decisions to make about where they would go next. They wouldn’t last off-world very long. He had to find them a new home. A new planet. He looked at his astronomical charts to determine their next course of action. And that’s when the missiles hit. They were under attack! Marty knew he had to do something, but another round of missiles knocked him off his feet…

“No? Is this not to your liking either, sir? My oh my…you are a tough customer.”

The old man stroked his chin, thinking for a moment. “Well, my friend, I think I have just the book for you.”

Marty’s head was still reeling from the last story, but he was curious about what else the old man had in store. Maybe the next plot would be the one for him.

“Ahh, here we go,” the man said, handing Marty a heavy leather-bound tome. It was devoid of any dust, and seemed almost out of place in the old shop. Marty ran a hand over the cover, relishing the feel of it. He opened it up, hearing a soft sigh escape from the book’s spine. Like the others, it was blank.

But this time, Marty wasn’t sucked into a spy story or a science fiction adventure. He wasn’t sucked into any kind of story at all. There was nothing around him except blank space. He heard a loud thump from somewhere in the distance.

“There, that’s better. Poor fool. You’ve wasted your life, wasted the potential story you could have told. But perhaps someone else will be able to use this plot, and to tell a better tale than you were capable of.”

Marty could do nothing but stay frozen in place as the old man placed the book back onto its shelf. He was nothing more than a blank page now, doomed to stay that way until someone wrote their story.

A to Z Challenge: Vortex

v

 

Violet stared into the vortex that had opened up rather unexpectedly in her bedroom wall. Colors of all tones and hues swirled around in it, including some that she couldn’t even identify.

Where the vortex came from, or where it led to, she didn’t know. She didn’t really want to know. But she couldn’t stop staring at it. It was mesmerizing.

What secrets lay hidden within? Was it a gateway to another dimension? Another universe? She had no way of knowing. Unless…no. Her fingers hovered inches away from the swirling vortex. Perhaps she could just take a peek at the other side.

The vortex brightened, its colors blending together to form a blinding white sphere. Someone, or something, was coming through.

One clawed foot, attached to a leg made of some dark metallic substance, clanked against the floor. It was followed shortly by five more, attached to a horselike body with a long snaking neck protruding from it, on which sat perched a single growing red eye.

Violet sighed sadly. Another dimension of evil robots.

She clenched her fists, charging up her Devastation Gauntlets, and waited for the thing to attack.