Tag Archives: science fiction

The Truth about Spirit Lifter (Revision 2)

The Ability of Gary Cudgel Revision 5:

  • Added hints of Evamae’s fishing line trick (ten minutes)
  • Trimmed down to 2484 words (2 hours)

The Truth about Spirit Lifter

From the desk of Lance Corporal Philip Silver, USMC, Retired

You have no reason to trust me, but finally the relevant parties have passed, and I am ready to reveal the true identity of Spirit Lifter. My greatest crime in this story was to think it was all about me, so I will introduce myself only as an Afghanistan war veteran with a medical discharge and tremors. At the time, I worked with the government, and I lived in a section-8 housing complex terrorized by a gang from another neighborhood.

The Cudgel family lived in a one story house with brick siding, white shutters and a shallow-pitched roof. An old, rusted pickup truck sat in the overgrown yard, claimed by nature. I pressed the door bell and nothing happened, so I knocked. The door swung in, and a huge black-and-white pit bull lunged at me.

Inches from my chest, the dog made an impossible maneuver. It stopped in mid-air with a yelp and did a half-flip, landing on its back. It regained its feet and hopped on its front legs, whining and struggling against nothing. “Barkley, bad dog!” chided an old woman from the top landing. She made her way down the stairs.

“Come in, come in, Lance Corporal!” The woman beckoned as she descended the steps. Her hair was white tinged with flamboyant purple. The wrinkles on her face were all from smiling.

“You know me?” I asked, surprised.

“Of course we know you, Lance Corporal Silver,” she chided, “We do read the emails they send us. My name is Evamae Cudgel. Come in! Come in! You’re letting the heat in.”

I reddened. I followed Evamae into the living room, where a television was playing “Spiderman.” I heard a rattling noise of glassware. It was a tink tink tink coming from another room. “Gary,” Evamae uttered a sharp rebuke to the man sitting in an easy chair so motionless I had not even noticed him at first, “stop fidgeting.” Gary Cudgel, balding and obese in an enormous handmade sweater, turned his broad face from the TV and gave his mother an absent look. In another few moments, the sound stopped.

“Gary,” Evamae ordered, jabbing a finger in my direction, “greet Lance Corporal Silver.”

“Hullo, Lance Corp’ral Silver,” Gary said in a slow, guileless voice, turning to look at me. Then he gave his head three slow nods and turned back to his set position in the easy chair.

“Give him some time, Lance Corporal Silver. He’s a very talented boy. Please take a seat behind the coffee table.”

I had nothing to say, so I just nodded and sat in a cheap plastic folding chair behind a squat table with a plastic white tablecloth. I pried open my heavy government-issued laptop. “Mrs. Cudgel, you are widowed?”

“Yes, Lance Corporal Silver,” said Evamae, “do call me Evamae.”

“Certainly. Please call me Philip, then.”

Evamae smiled, “Philip, I reckon you’re gonna ask me if this one still can’t take care of himself?”

Gary seemed lost in his show.

“He’s very special,” Evamae assured me, “but he stresses easy. He’s wonderful as long as I protect him from too much excitement. Why don’t I put some tea on?”

I nodded and Evamae stood to go to the kitchen. “Ma,” said Gary, “can I go out for a smoke?”

“Go on, dear. Only one cigarette. Our friend Philip here is going to have some questions for you soon. Take the dog with you.”

“Yeah, Ma,” Gary agreed. With concerted effort, he rose from his seat deep in the easy chair. As Gary lumbered past, Barkley’s smile vanished. His collar slid to just behind his head and pulled, and he moved his weight back onto his haunches so all of his legs were pointing toward the man. He had moved his weight so far back it looked as if he should fall backward, but his collar kept him stable. I watched him whine and hobble behind Gary until they were both outside.

“Use your hands, Gary, if yer going out front where folks’ll see you.” Evamae shouted, “Come ask me questions in the kitchen, Philip. I suppose you’re wondering if I have a job? Taking care of this one is full time.” She nodded towards the porch.

I checked off the box on my form. The conversation continued in this way. Evamae rattled off a memorized list of questions and offered her colorful answer to each. She handed me a mug of sweet tea, grabbed her cane and left the room to get some official documents. I lifted the tea to my lips, but it was much too hot. My hand trembled as I tried to put it down again, and I grit my teeth as the tea sloshed out onto my wrist.

Stinging with defeat, I took the tea in my steadier left hand and brought it up to blow on it. When I saw out of the corner of my eye a massive figure standing in the doorway, I startled. The mug left me entirely, but it’s path downward was not a sensible one. Instead of tipping and spilling its contents, it fell straight down and settled on my leg. I stared at it for a moment before snatching it out of its preternatural balancing act and placing it back on the table. Barkley stood at my side, licking my hand. I looked back at Gary, who stank of tobacco and had a smile on his broad face for the first time.

Then we heard the shriek. “Gary!” Evamae’s shout was not of chastisement but of terror. Barkley’s claws scrabbled on the kitchen tile and he dashed to his master. I leapt from my seat to rush to the stairs, but Gary just stood where he was, his look transformed into one of intense concentration.

By the time I made it to the stairs, Evamae was at the bottom face down, her bony arms and legs splayed to all sides. Her purple-white hair covered anything I could see of her face. Her cane lay a few steps down from the landing. This was my doing. I sent her up those stairs. Why didn’t I think to help her, or even go up and get the information myself? I just sat like an idiot in the kitchen in a pathetic fight with a mug of hot tea. Good lord, I was no help to anyone at all.

“Evamae?” I ventured.

Evamae spoke at full volume. “Could you help me up, Philip? I’m sure I’m a very amusing sight right now, but it really is rude to stare.”

“Oh,” I took a knee and grabbed her hand, helping her get her legs under her and stand up again. Barkley hopped onto all fours again and yapped, dancing all around. “Are you hurt?”

“Do I look hurt?” Evamae stood straight and put one arm up behind her head, modeling for me. It boggled my mind – there was not a scratch on her. I realized I had not heard any thumping, either, like she had soared gracefully from the top of the steps to the ground floor.

She pressed past me to the kitchen. I hurried after and found her with her arms around her gigantic son, two heads taller than she. “You smell terrible, boy,” she muttered, “I want you to go take a bath as soon as you get a moment.”

“Yes, Ma.” Gary Cudgel mumbled, “Right away.”

When Gary was out of earshot, I asked Evamae, “If I may ask, what’s happening here?”

“Why, you’re welcome to ask, but I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I stammered and tried to describe what I had seen. Evamae put her hand on mine. She wore a bracelet made of fishing wire. A dulled hook held the ugly ornamentation together. She locked eyes with mine. “I told you he’s a talented boy. Can we leave it at that, dear?”

“You don’t need to be making do on meager social security.”

Evamae maintained her smile, “Did we have more questions to get through?”

I sighed and moved on, but when Gary came back into the room, I spoke directly to him. His face lit up, and the smile evaporated from Evamae’s.

Evamae and Gary pulled into my apartment complex. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw one of the miscreant gang members leaning against a brick wall, his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans. Evamae stared daggers at me through the window of her hatchback. The man filling the entire passenger seat looked like a boy on Christmas. “Gary,” I said, “that’s a bad guy. Can you find his gun?”

Gary nodded and concentrated. I watched the gangster jump. He turned and looked all around him. I saw the gun in the back of his pants as he put his hand to it, and I grinned. “Put it on the roof.”

I watched the gun rise from the back of his pants. He looked up and grasped for it, but it was already out of his reach. He cursed as he watched it make a hard angle towards the flat roof and fall down.

The man put his hands to his head and uttered another string of invectives, darting his gaze around not knowing who to address. He fought with someone on his cell phone,  then stalked off and drove away.

Soon, an older, taller man with a gold chain arrived and went to the spot. This one saw me, “Hey, you, what’re you lookin’ at?” I shook my head and raised my hands. I slipped into the hatchback to watch through the window.

With a signal from me, he, too, was grasping for his gun as it rose to the roof. With more foul language, he also fled.

Gary looked back at me, and I gave him a thumbs-up. He grinned from ear to ear, “I’m a spiderman, Ma.”

“That’s right, dear” Evamae patted him on the shoulder, “I think it’s time to be going now. Say goodbye to Mr. Silver. You won’t be seeing him again.”

The criminals seemed thoroughly spooked and did not return. I smiled when folks mentioned how nice it was to have the neighborhood safe again. A rumor floated around the complex of a crime-fighting ghost. When the topic came up, glances went in my direction.

I didn’t understand it until I saw the story on my local news, “Spirit-Lifter: Mysterious poltergeist cleans up neighborhood.” In a video of the event, there I was to the side, grinning and pumping my fist like a giddy sidekick. My cell phone started ringing.

I tried to ignore it, but my phone just kept ringing. One message was from The Late Night Show with Cynthia West. Their offer was outrageous.

Evamae dropped all pretense of southern charm. “Why are you here again? I’m so close to getting Gary calmed down from all that nonsense with the guns.”

I mentioned the show’s offer and her eyes widened. “Can we get it ahead?”

I was taken aback, “I don’t think they’ll like that. Why would you need it ahead?”

Evamae grit her teeth and scratched her head with her left hand and that ugly fishook bracelet. “See if we can get it ahead. I’m not going to let anything happen to Gary.”

I didn’t like being shut out of whatever plan Evamae was cooking up, but I knew better than to argue. Somehow I managed to get us a quarter ahead, to Evamae’s great pleasure. Used prudently, even just a quarter of that money could support three people for the rest of their lives.

In New York City, it was 5:45. The show filmed at 6:00. An aide rushed into the prep room. She had a translucent pink clipboard that matched her phosphorescent hair. “Where’s Spirit Lifter?” she demanded. I had no idea. I could not control my shaking. At 5:55, Evamae arrived, “Thank God!” I exclaimed, but then I looked at her. She was wearing all black, including an old baseball hat. Underneath, she had bleached the purple out of her hair, leaving it a ghostly white. I leaned close to hiss in her ear, “Where is Gary?”

Our bubblegum aide burst in, “Finally, you’re here. You’re Spirit Lifter, right? Please tell me you’re Spirit Lifter.”

“Yes,” Evamae smiled broadly, “That’s me. The Spirit Lifter herself.”

Cynthia was as stunning in person as on the screen. With short-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses over her elegantly aging face, she embodied beauty and wisdom. When she clasped my hand and looked in my eyes, I knew she was the only person on that stage who was genuine. On the guest couch, I shoved my hands into my lap to force them not to shake. Evamae smiled and joked with the audience, drawing laughter and cheers and deftly turning aside all questions of her identity.

When Cynthia finally asked “Spirit Lifter” to show what she could do, Evamae beamed and reached for her fish hook bracelet. She undid it rolling the fishing line out to its full length. She tossed the hook over the scaffolding, and with deft movements of her fingers, she maneuvered it to catch the hat and lift it high up into the air. She even jiggled the hook and let the hat fall back onto her head. She grinned and put her hand behind her head, posing for the silent audience. Cynthia’s face smiled, but it had gone rigid. Everyone waited for Evamae to say “Just kidding!” and wheel out her real superpowers.

In a terse email, the show informed me that I would not be receiving the rest of the money promised. Evamae had not said so much as her first name, so all the angry fan-mail and personal harassment went straight to me. She was clear – she didn’t care whether the furor died down, as long as I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut about her and Gary. She said he had been thrilled to see his mother on TV and didn’t understand or particularly care that he was not going to be a celebrity. They would live the rest of their days in obscure comfort, with more than enough funds to take care of him after she passed. She thanked me for everything I’d done for her family and encouraged me never to speak of or go anywhere near them again.

The rest is history. Writing from my little cottage in the woods, I am relieved to finally tell the truth. I am still inclined to agree with Spirit Lifters fans. I, too, regret that Spirit Lifter passed away without sharing his talents with the world, but ultimately, that decision was not ours to make. I hope that his mother’s decision to keep his life small had been the best to make it happy.

The End of Infinity Part 4

“Boys,” Sarah-Maybeline said with a knowing look on her delicate features. She sat on Vanessa’s bed, her long dress bunched up beneath her. Vanessa sat at her desk and kept her head down on her math homework.

“You know,” Sarah-Maybeline said, “you should really go for this football thing.”

“Why on Earth would I do that?” Vanessa snapped, “I have more than enough on my plate between my classes, Toastmasters, and my job.”

“Your job at McDonalds.” Sarah-Maybeline lifted an immaculate auburn eyebrow.

“Yes, Sarah-Maybeline. McDonalds.” Vanessa straightened and turned around to look at her. “it’s teaching me valuable life skills and the money will help pay for college.”

Sarah-Maybeline fell forward and lifted her feet behind her. Vanessa wondered if Sarah-Maybeline’s mother would be scandalized to know that Vanessa was seeing her bare feet and shins. “You know what teaches valuable life skills?” Sarah-Maybeline said, “Football. You know what pays for college? A football scholarship.”

“I’m not going to get a football scholarship. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Vanessa turned back to her homework.

“Maybe not, but you will get attention.” Sarah-Maybeline paused for effect, propping her head up with her forearms and swaying her legs at the knees, “from bee-oh-wai-ess.”

Vanessa’s pencil stopped moving, all the math going out of her head. She was done with bee-oh-wai-ess. She was a strong and independent woman. There was no need and there would be no need for them in her life. She refused to let such a frivolous matter have any effect on her future.

Vanessa stood with Sarah-Maybeline in a wide green field overlooked by the ever-present Adirondack mountains. Sarah-Maybeline showed her how to grip the football with her fingers on the laces.

“How do you know how to do this?” Vanessa asked, incredulous.

“Five brothers, eighteen male cousins. I’m the only girl in my family, remember?” She took Vanessa’s shoulders and whispered in her ear, “So you can count on me to know boys.”

Vanessa lifted her arm above her head. She flicked her wrist and the football twirled and landed a few feet away.

“No no no, put your whole arm into it. Your core, too. Twist away from the direction you’re throwing, then send it all forward at once. Here, let me show you.”

Vanessa and Sarah-Maybeline looked like they were from another time in their long muted dresses. Vanessa figured a football looked out of place in her hands, but to see Sarah-Maybeline twist back and send the ball sailing far overhead to land out of sight behind a rolling hill was something else. She looked so at home in both a long dress and with a football that for a moment it was easy to believe the two were not in conflict with one another.

Now Vanessa was eager. She and Sarah-Maybeline ran over the hill to the ball, and she picked it up again, trying to mimic Sarah-Maybeline. “Correct my position,” Vanessa ordered. Sarah-Maybeline pulled her shoulder back, rearranged her fingers, and lifted her arm.

Vanessa’s arm lurched forward and the ball landed on its tip in the dirt a couple yards away. “That’s improvement!” Sarah-Maybeline assured her, “Now think about keeping the ball going in a straight path throughout your throw. The most perfect starting position won’t matter if you let it all loose the moment you start moving.”

Vanessa stepped forward and picked up the ball. She assumed the position and let Sarah-Maybeline correct her. “Now, Vanessa, remember to keep it straight. Focus. Throw like you mean it this time.”

Vanessa put her mind on the ball and imagined it going in a straight line as the rest of her body moved in a fluid motion around it. She took a deep breath and unwound her tensed posture into what felt like the perfect throw. She watched with dismay as the ball began once more to flip side over side. It didn’t fall, though. It just kept going higher and higher like gravity had no interest in it.

“Wwwwwwwwwoooooooooooaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” Sarah-Maybeline cried, her wavy brown hair lagging behind her as she bent her knees to jump up again in triumph.

Sarah-Maybeline returned to normal and they watched the tiny dot in the sky as it finally began to descend, disappearing in the trees high on one of the mountains in the distance well to the left of the direction Vanessa had been hoping to throw.

Sarah-Maybeline tackled Vanessa to the grass. “Oh my goodness gracious. You are the coolest person I know! You are going to get so much money and everyone is going to want to be your boyfriend.”

Vanessa was stunned.

“First off,” Sarah-Maybeline considered, straightening up, still pinning Vanessa to the ground, covering most of her body in her long dress, “we need to buy my brother a new ball.”

The End of Infinity Part 3

Vanessa’s panic attack, as Dr. Saunder explained it, turned out to be an isolated occurrence. In five years, she had not had another case of feeling like time had stopped and the air was no longer responding to attempts to breathe or move it, and this was so much for the better.

Boys didn’t tend to look Vanessa’s way at Saint Francis and Mary High School. Despite the progressive dress code, many of her classmates were still wearing long skirts and dresses, and many of them seemed to have no trouble attracting attention. Sometimes her friend Sarah-Maybeline would confide in her that she received too much attention. This was despite the fact that Sarah-Maybeline’s mother made sure her dress consistently covered her ankles. Vanessa restrained herself from telling her friend what a wonderful problem that was to have.

With eighteen years under her belt, Vanessa was much wiser than she had been. She now understood that it was not her mother’s dubious fashion dogma that kept the boys at bay, it was something fundamentally and deeply wrong at the core of her being that would guarantee a life without affection no matter what remedy she might seek to take. “Comforting” was not the word she would use to describe this new understanding, but it did free her to spend more time on her studies.

Vanessa’s academic performance had skyrocketed over the past five years. Her parents marveled at the way she could read a whole book  for English in under two hours and then complete her math homework in fifteen minutes. To her it didn’t feel like two hours or fifteen minutes. She could have sworn she’d been struggling over her math for half an hour and she would look at her grandfather clock in the corner of her room and see only five minutes had passed. Dr. Saunder called this stretching of time the gift of concentration, and when Vanessa suggested that people often thought less time had passed when in deep concentration, not more time, he was not moved. Vanessa didn’t wear her Schaffhausen watch anymore, as despite her local watchmaker’s assurance that it was top of the line and in excellent condition, it ran alarmingly fast, sometimes as many as twelve times faster than the other clocks around her.

Vanessa awoke at six in the morning. No matter when she went to bed, when she awoke it was always six in the morning and she always felt well-rested. She did not tend to be inclined to abuse this phenomenon, as by the time ten at night rolled around, she tended to be thoroughly exhausted from a day that felt twice or three times as long as it should have been. She got out of bed and brushed her teeth, then washed and changed into her school dress.

Vanessa enjoyed the wooded part of  her walk to school. A blue jay flew past, reaching out its wings and pushing them down to propel itself forward. “one…. two…” Vanessa counted the beats of the wings as it floated by. She approached a little brown rabbit that didn’t seem to notice her until she was upon it. She wondered sometimes about the slow reactions of animals in this forest. She bent down and touched its soft fur as it tensed its  legs to bound away.

At lunch, Vanessa studied with Sarah-Maybeline at the outdoor lunch tables. She was beginning to reconsider this tradition, as more and more it had become Vanessa trying to study while Sarah-Maybeline pretended not to revel in the parade of boys desperately trying to get her attention. Today John “don’t call me Jack” Sprat, the captain of the football team sidled up to them while Vanessa tried to wrap her head around her calculus homework.

“One divided by zero is undefined,” Vanessa told Sarah-Maybeline, following the text slowly with her finger as to move too quickly carried the risk of starting a fire. “But the limit of one divided by x as x approaches zero is infinity.”

“Ha ha ha,” Sarah-Maybeline giggled tossing her auburn curls, “get rid of that stupid ball, dork.”

“The question is what is the limit of one divided by x as x approaches zero from the other direction?”

John flipped the ball in the air. “This ball is most of this school’s funding. A lot of rich Christians want to send their kids to a school that dominates on the field without compromising its traditional values. That money rests on these two shoulders.”

“Mm, broad shoulders. But I don’t care. I don’t need a star football team.”

Vanessa looked up, “Get out of here, John. We’re studying, you know, to get real jobs?”

Sarah-Maybeline fluttered her eyelashes, “Yeah, John, go make out with your stupid ten million dollar ball while you stretch your school-carrying shoulders. They must be so sore.”

John grinned and leaned in closer. Now his football was in the way, so he turned around and pitched it to one of the bigger guys a few tables away. “Heads up!” The burly guy turned his head surprisingly far for his absence of a visible neck and in one fluid motion reached up and snatched the ball from the air. John turned back and put his face right to Sarah-Maybeline’s “They are so sore. I think I need somebody to give them a massage. It would do wonders for the school’s bottom line.

Vanessa spoke up, “That’s a great idea to take to the principle, John,” she suggested, then she adopted a faux masculine voice, “Principle Carpenter, with a small investment of $100 a week for me to have a personal masseuse, I can increase donations to this school by upwards of 10%!”

Sarah-Maybeline giggled devilishly and pushed John away. He stumbled back and was still blinking and trying to understand what had just happened to him when Vanessa looked back down to her textbook. “So if we have a very small denominator, then we get a large number. If we have a very small negative denominator…” there was another shout, “Heads-up!”

Vanessa heard a grunt, and then a sharp intake of breath followed by Sarah-Maybeline’s voice. “Vvvvvvvaaaaaannneeesssssaaaaaa…”

Vanessa shook her head. The hubbub around her had stopped. With a sudden pit in her stomach, she thought she couldn’t breathe, but it wasn’t the case. She could breathe and she could move. John was floating in the air, his arms outstretched towards nothing. Sarah-Maybeline’s eyes were wide and her mouth gaped open in a shout.

Vanessa looked up and saw a football inches from her forehead. She reached up and plucked it out of the air. Everything returned.

“a!” Sarah-Maybeline finished. Then she did a double-take. “Good catch!”

John turned around and for the first time looked directly at Vanessa, all thought of Sarah-Maybeline out of his mind. “Vanessa, right?”

Vanessa furrowed her brow. “Yes… and you’re Jack Sprat.”

John gritted his teeth, but let it pass. “Did you just catch that ball? Did you even know it was coming?”

“I – yes, I clearly caught it, Jack. It was in the air, now it’s in my hand.” She brandished the ball as evidence.

John nodded quickly, “Have you ever played football?”

“What’s a football?” Vanessa sneered.

John nodded and pursed his lips, then he raised a finger, “I’m going to go have a chat with the coach.” He spun around and started away. After a moment, he broke into a sprint.

“You forgot whatever this thing is,” Vanessa shouted after him, throwing it overhand. It slipped out of her hand and bounced on the table and into Sarah-Maybeline’s side.

“Vanessa, ouch!” Sarah-Maybeline whined, putting her hand to her ribs.

“Sorry,” Vanessa shrunk and returned to her calculus. Negative infinity. Once you got it it made perfect sense. There was something satisfying about the order of math.

The End of Infinity Part 2

Vanessa Koltrane lived a routine life with her family in a little town near the Adirondack mountains. When her school changed its dress code to allow girls to wear pants, she asked her mother to buy her a pair of blue jeans, but was sternly rebuked and sent to her room. She stared out of her window at the towering mountains and pouted.

The next day, passing by her local corner store on the way to school, she saw a pair of bell-bottoms that looked just like she had seen on TV. She turned her eyes away, but the they lingered in her mind. She could barely pay attention in school. She wasn’t the only girl in a skirt, but she was sure hers was the ugliest and brownest.

On the way back, Vanessa stared longingly at the jeans. She knew she could never afford them, but maybe if she could just try them on it would be enough.

Moe took off his sunglasses to give her the side eye when she carried the pants in. He put out his cigarette and asked, “Did your mudda say ye could buy those, V? I don’t think I could sell them to yeh without permission, y’know. It’s not like she’d hafta guess which stoah they came from.” he screwed his face up into the odd, leering expression he made when he was practicing his comedy routine.

Vanessa knew Moe was from the Big City and didn’t share her mother’s old-fashioned values. “I’m just gonna try it on, Moe.”

Moe chuckled deep in his throat. “I won’t tell if you won’t.” He returned his sunglasses to his face in a symbolic show of turning a blind eye.

The pants were the most wonderful thing Vanessa had ever experienced. Just the feeling of them hugging her body was ecstasy. In the mirror she looked like she was a TV star. She stepped out of the dressing room and Moe grinned at her. “You like ’em?”

“Yes.” Vanessa twirled and leapt, exulting in the freedom of having no loose fitting cloth weighing her down. Moe laughed. “Gosh, V, I’d just give ’em to ya if ya mudda wouldn’t flay me alive. Ain’t she gonna be expectin’ you home about now?”

Vanessa froze. Why did she have to take these off? Moe was even going to give them to her for free. The only thing in the way was her mother. She wrote it off and resumed dancing.

“Hey,” Moe said after a moment, “honey, I think it’s time for you to change back and head home.

Vanessa strutted in front of the mirror in the open dressing room door. “Do you think I look like a movie star?”

“You look like a princess, sweetheart, now I know yer mom is a piece a work and it ain’t fair, but I’d really appreciate if ya could maybe get moving.”

Vanessa did not want to go home. She was happy here. She just wanted to stay here in these pants. Not forever, necessarily, just a little longer. She spun around to beg Moe for more time, but he looked different. Moe’s sunglasses were back in his hand. She watched his face contort again for his comedy routine, but it did so much too slowly to maintain any joke.

She stood silent and stared. mouth stretch out to one side and his eyes bug out as usual, but achingly slowly. They seemed to just keep stretching further and further, buggier and buggier. As this happened, Vanessa felt like the air around her had grown heavier. When she breathed in it felt like she was breathing molasses.

Soon she had stopped paying any attention to Moe and focused all her energy on forcing air in and out of her lungs. One two-ton breath in haaaaaaaaaaaaa, one two-and-a-half-ton breath out aaaaaaaaaaah. “Moe” she squeaked, “help.” For a long second, she couldn’t breathe at all. She tried to pull her arms to her neck, but the air resisted her. She was trapped. She was going to die here. Just like Mom tried to warn her, God was punishing her for wearing blue jeans.

Then Moe finished his rictus and donned a look of concern. He rushed forward and kneeled in front of Vanessa as she gulped in breath after breath of the hot, tobacco-scented air. “What the hell just happened to you? Pardon my French.”

“I’m going home, Moe,” Vanessa croaked, “I’ll take the pants off. Thanks for letting me try them.”

“Uh, yeah, no prob. You sure yer ok? Do you need a ride? I can close this place up fer five minutes, nobody comes by anyway.”

“No,” Vanessa whispered.

“What were you doin’ all of a sudden tryin’ to breathe so fast? I never seen nobody pump their lungs like that.”

Vanessa nodded and stood up. She returned to the dressing room, changed, took her pants back to the rack, and walked back home.

Little Vanessa sobbed and shook and blubbered unintelligibly in Dorothy Koltrane’s arms. “There there,” she soothed, doing her best to follow what her daughter was saying, “God still loves you. There there.”

The Sympathetic Universe: The End of Infinity Part 1

I’m going to start labeling my short stories set in “The Sympathetic Universe” separately. For installations after the first, I’ll include only the story title, and leave “The Sympathetic Universe” as a category.

A yellow Prius screeched to a halt as Franklin Jones Watson crossed the street back to his apartment from Avengers: Endgame. Frank waved off the driver’s shouted curses. The movie’s approach to time intrigued him. He watched Back to the Future to see if it really was all bullshit, and indeed was appalled by the basic failure to understand even simple principles of cause and effect. Standing behind the desk at his neighborhood’s Best Buy, he fretted. “If Marty McFly disappears because his father never met his mother, how can he do it slowly? Doesn’t a slow change require time? Is there one time that we experience and then another time that governs changes to that timeline? If that’s the case, how can Marty see his history being erased? Wouldn’t his memory be erased along with it?”

Frank watched Terminator, Hot Tub Time Machine, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Looper, and came no closer to a satisfactory understanding. He wondered over a tepid hot pocket in his company break room, “If they cut off his limbs in the past, why is it only at that moment that we’re watching that they vanish? Why would he suddenly be unable to use the brakes in the car because he’s lost his leg? Why wouldn’t he not have been able to start driving the car in the first place, since he by necessity would have always not had the leg?”

Franklin lay in his folding reclining chair and watched through all of the old and new episodes of Dr. Who. “U R all being played,” he wrote on a Dr. Who fan site. “I thought at first Big Media just struggled with time travel, but now I know the truth.  In the modern Season 9, Episode 4 : ‘Before the Flood,’ the writers unambiguously brag about how the show has neither the desire nor the intention to take time travel seriously. This is really far from the first of a long series of offenses, but this one I found especially galling. The Doctor himself takes the time to carefully explain to the audience how what he is doing is a paradox. He points out that when he followed the instructions of a version of himself visiting from the future, he then gave those instructions to himself in the past simply because he remembered having been told them. Where did the instructions come from? Then instead of a satisfactory explanation of how in fact it is possible what the doctor has done, the show doubles down and suggests that the audience should be impressed that the writers have no respect for time travel. I’m starting a petition to boycott this show and all other attempts by Big Media to confuse the public and suppress knowledge of time travel. -FJW”

When a woman said in her OKCupid profile said that she liked to wonder about time travel paradoxes, Franklin meticulously explained to her how time travel has not once been properly represented in films and TV. He had recently rewatched Avengers: Endgame, for example, and realized that despite an initial promising confession that Hollywood and New York TV Establishment had been brainwashing us with lies like Back to The Future, it in fact was no less guilty. “If you believe the horseshit that Steve Rogers did not alter history appreciably when he decided to stick around in the past, what about chaos theory? Watch Jurassic Park. Every individual action we take is affected even if it’s in individually undetectable ways. If Steve Rogers appears and pushes air out of the way to make room for his volume and it moves a particle of dust an inch to the left such that it gets caught in a different air current and ends up in the nose of a passerby, it can cause him to sneeze when he otherwise would not, slowing him down by a full second. Not to draw the whole explanation out, but his interactions in the office will change when he meets everyone a second later, then their lives will be changed so on and so forth. If you say the big events won’t be affected, consider that Gavrilo Princep had given up trying to make the assassination that would begin World War I, and just by coincidence happened to be eating a consolation lunch on the street that Franz Ferdinand’s car was turning onto. Chance events make history.”

Curiously, this woman who supposedly enjoyed intellectual inquiry did not find Frank’s points intriguing and never responded. Frank brooded on humanity’s refusal to think seriously about time travel while waiting at the bus stop. What could we accomplish if this knowledge were not kept from us as a species? If only, Frank thought as he got off the bus, if only I could explore time manipulation myself. As he crossed the street, Frank was hit by a purple Jeep and killed.

In a great black expanse, Frank heard a voice. “THIS IS AN AUTOMATED PROCESS TO RESTORE YOUR MEMORIES.”

Then Frank remembered that his real name was BABBBABBABABAABBBABABBBBABABABBBBBBBABABAABBBABABABABABABABBBAA, and he could experiment with time as much as he damn well pleased.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 25

Eloy remembered. Hesitantly, he sloughed off his decrepit old body. He reached out to Gabriel, who at this point it was needless to say was not in Hell.

“That was a terrible game,” they agreed. Gabriel’s god chimed in, “Eloy, it was fine until your god wrecked it.”

“That game was WRECKED from the START,” said Eloy’s god.

“Why are you still talking like that?” Angel’s god snapped, “You don’t see me trying to communicate by sending you all cryptic visions.”

“If you don’t mind,” said Mr. Tiger, “Some of us are still playing. Destiny is so close to second place.”

“A DIS-TANT second place. Eloy, I’m still LAUGH-ING from your conviction that I was your mother. I went through an no-IN-TER-VEN-TION version of Eloy’s life before we started the game, so if AN-Y-THING, I’m YOU from the future! It’s A-MAZ-ING how we become our parents, I suppose.”

Eloy wasn’t amused. Part of him agreed that this was just a silly game, but a larger part of him felt like this was his life. “You let me believe I was fighting to not go to Hell.”

“And HOW HARD you fought, my child.”

Eloy said nothing. He turned to the game. The whole universe was a few astronomical units in every direction. Most of it was just there to avoid having to hand-engineer the day cycle, the seasons, and the weather. The whole thing was copied from a few thousand BC, with Camp Virtue placed in what would be Yellowstone National Park.

Eloy watched Eliza, Destiny, and his children stand at his pyre. He wondered how he could already be declared the victor if there were still two people playing, so he checked the score.

GABRIEL: 10,442 Points

ANGEL: 25,321 Points

DESTINY: 30,001 Points

ELIZA: 30,125 Points

ELOY: 246,681 Points

Well, that explained that. Destiny delivered the eulogy and got another ten points. Eliza had graciously let Destiny deliver the eulogy, which earned her twenty points. This system really was a terrible one. With the help of his god, Eloy had pinpointed the highest-return virtues in the game and exploited them to achieve an order of magnitude higher virtue than anyone else without really being a substantially better person. That and learning that really nothing was on the line in the end made it all seem pretty pointless.

None of the next generation were on the scoreboard. Eloy’s common sense told him that they were just products of the universe. More than not being part of the competition, they wouldn’t have any consciousness until someone decided to try living their lives, which, this being a minor spin-off universe, would likely never happen. The notion was an affront to the mortal Eloy he still strongly identified as being.

“Gabriel, Angel,” Eloy asked, “would you and your gods like to play another game?”

“No,” all four entities answered in unison.

“No, no, a different game. I was thinking we could take out the whole point aspect. We don’t really need to have just one winner. Instead of trying to optimize virtue using a sloppy scoring function, what if we just helped our charges lead meaningful lives that make sense to them? I also would suggest that we don’t relocate everyone to a camp in a deserted universe. We ended up pretty stunted with no other people around.”

Their silence suggested he had their attention. “When this game is done, let’s take Robert, Avery, and Janet. Don’t separate them, just move them into another world with people. We can pick some other people too so Destiny and Eliza can join. Since it’s a shared universe, no altering it except for communicating with your chosen. Also no fast-forwarding or rewinding – we have to all operate in the same time at the same time.”

“Honestly, that sounds boring,” Eloy’s god said.

“I was thinking I’d just go off and do my own thing for a while,” said Gabriel.

“Fine, so the eight of us can mix and match mortals and gods. Sound fun?”

This seemed like a reasonable idea and it met with general approval.

“Ok, I’ll start setting up a world while this game finishes up.”

Soon, Eloy was watching Avery from outside time and space. Unbeknownst to herself, Avery was the same entity that had been her late mother Eliza. Her eldest brother Robert used to be the god to a severely displaced French Monk named Gabriel, and her older sister Janet was the consciousness of their aunt Destiny. They were charged with raising one little child, formerly Angel’s god, with advice from the god formerly known as The Grasshopper. Eloy had left the naming of this child up to the mortals. He even insisted on this when Avery won the game of Super-Chess to decide who would get to pick the name and begged him to just tell her what name he wanted her to pick.

“Avery,” he chided, “Great divine plans are overrated. Don’t worry too much about how it will all add up in the end. Just do your best for the world you have now.”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 24

As promised, Eliza made a point of celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December and Destiny’s birthday on January 1st as separate holidays. She also quietly selected s’mores for dessert since it was her day to select on Destiny’s real birthday, December 18th. On January 2nd, the day that next year Destiny had announced would be her birthday since she didn’t like everyone being tired from New Year’s Eve, Eliza realized that she no longer felt certain that next year would not come. Reluctantly, she added a year counter to Eliza time. For lack of any point of reference, she simply declared that as of January first they had entered the year 1 Eliza Time.

As January deepened and the days got colder the hike out to the foot of Mount Endurance for her daily calisthenics was becoming less and less enjoyable. Eliza struggled to keep her balance as she shivered through her jumping jacks. Eloy had proven to be immovable with his secret, but if she was condemned to Hell, she at least didn’t have to let him off the hook about it.

By the year 2 ET, Angel’s regular patrols of the fridge had hardened into a comforting habit. “Hi Angel,” people said as they pulled out ordinary food day after day. Angel had been on edge, expecting at any moment that there would be a crisis. She had expected some event to happen that would required her discipline and fine-tuned sense for danger, but it had not come. Now that she understood that this had been her thought process, she knew intellectually that the great crisis might never come.

In 11 ET, Gabriel fell ill. He did not complain to his campmates about the clawing pains in his bowels. He merely took his morning prayers to thank God for choosing him for direct contact and guidance and to ponder at the wild turn his life had taken in his final decade. Still, he knew from the way people treated him that it was clear to all he was on his way out.

After eleven years at Camp Virtue, he found he could hardly remember his life in the thirteenth century. Of course, he could hardly remember anything at all at this point, so maybe it wasn’t as significant as he’d like to think. He chuckled for a second and coughed for five. Eliza put her hand on his back, “Destiny, get him some water.” Destiny was sprawled out across the couch, her long legs dangling over the side. She rolled her eyes, “get it yourself.”

Eloy put down a copy of Ulysses he had borrowed from Eliza’s small library for the umpteenth time and that he was squinting at yet again in his vain attempt to understand. “I’ll get it.”

“Thank you, Eloy,” Eliza said, exchanging glares with Destiny. Eliza had taken the longest to forgive Eloy for his refusal to explain what he knew about Camp Virtue, but like everyone else, she had been worn down by time and the shortage of other options for friends. Gabriel noted that the pair were the only two of close to the same age. He had seen the wild swings of their relationship starting after the first few years, and he hoped he’d at least live long enough to see them settle down with each other.

In 13 ET, Gabriel married Eloy and Eliza. Destiny forced her resentment out of her face and smiled for them. She suspected that the doddering old Gabriel himself was the only happy person at this wedding, having been suggesting it with greater and greater urgency for the past year. Since they already lived together Destiny could see no point to it except to enhance the contrast between them and everyone else who had no sensible person to form a romance with. Angel had accidentally admitted during the preparations that she felt like her adopted children were marrying each other, and Eloy and Eliza themselves had only been together again for a few weeks after their last breakup. They were certainly having this ceremony to pretend at the lives they would never get to really lead. Nevertheless, they were Destiny’s family, so she smiled.

In 14 ET, Eliza had a son. The whole camp had participated in deciding on a name, but ultimately Eloy and Eliza decided against “Michael”, and “Jesus.” Why should they stick to the “divinity” theme they had never asked to be part of in the first place? They named their son “Robert.” Everyone worried about how the childbirth would go without modern medical equipment, but fortunately mother and child both ended the process exhausted but in good health.

A few months later, little Robert slept in Eloy’s arms as Eliza delivered the eulogy for Gabriel. The four remaining travelers from other worlds were all adults, and they had all worked together to expand the fire pit into a pyre, but all agreed that it should be Eliza to wield the blowtorch to send Gabriel off. Staring into the blaze, Eliza wondered where Gabriel was going, and the thought sent chills deep into her bones.

In 20 ET, Destiny explained to Robert that he could pick any day of the year to be his birthday. Eloy protested that everyone knew exactly what day he had been born and it was not at all like Destiny’s case. Destiny set her jaw, “you know, Eloy, what’s so important about what day it is? We’re just five people here. We can make whatever traditions we want, can’t we?”

“Yeah!” Robert agreed, raising a tiny fist in the air, “I want a birthday cake every day!”

In 31 ET, they sent off Angel. Eloy remembered all the times Angel had tackled him in his youth, how she had stolen his van all those years ago, and how she had had once wrested the blowtorch he now held in his hand from his grasp. It had taken years for her to trust him, but trust gained was all the better for being hard-earned. It wasn’t the same blowtorch. That one had died a while ago and they’d pulled out another one using the creme brulee trick, but it felt the same. The refrigerator room seemed desolate now that its sentinel was gone. When he lit the pyre, he struggled more than he had in the thirty years before not to think of all of these people he so loved going to Hell. He didn’t know that. His mother’s enigmatic words could have meant anything.

A few days later, Robert hurried up to Eloy. He had always looked so much like his mother, but now that he was becoming a man his features were beginning to more closely resemble Eloy.

“Dad, what’s this?” he withdrew a piece of paper he’d found buried at the bottom of a desk drawer in the room Eloy and Eliza shared. It was folded and crumpled and ragged at the edges and it had notes scrawled on the back and typeset words on the front. Eloy chuckled in amazement that it had not been lost forever.

“Son, you go show that to your mother. Tell her I said ‘better late than never.'”

On the eve of 55 ET, Eloy read the Bible in his easy chair. Not Gabriel’s illuminated copy, which was not only much too beautiful and fragile for casual study, but also written in 13th century French, but a copy from Eliza’s little library. He had read every book in it several dozen times, but he found himself going to the Bible more and more. Plenty of books were an easier read, but living in a home where everyone had a direct relationship to the divine (or was the descendant of one with such a connection) the book seemed to have more meaning. His studies seldom went anywhere, though. He would read passages that seemed like they described his and his family’s struggles, but then on closer inspection would write it off as wishful thinking. His favorite passage was John 3:16, and each time he read it he did so aloud for the benefit of everyone else in the common area.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Eloy reading this at full volume with no warning was so commonplace now that Robert and his two sisters Avery and Janet didn’t even look up from the game they were playing. It was a game with little wooden pieces they had carved themselves as children. It was loosely based on chess, which Eloy had half-taught them before losing interest. As they had become bored they had modified the rules. To resolve fights over one child being left out, they tweaked it so that three children could play. To keep things interesting they had added new pieces with different abilities that you could swap in and out to make your own chess army. They carved dice and alternative boards. Now the laws of the game were so labyrinthine and arcane that no one but the three co-creators could make any sense of them. Likely due to the absence of anything else competing for their interest, even as adults they continued to play, immune to Destiny and Eliza’s harsh judgement. When Eloy wasn’t reading his Bible, he liked to watch them and wonder at the creations of which their minds were capable.

That night Eloy put his bible down and shuffled to bed. He had a funny feeling in his chest, but he ignored it. He kissed Eliza on her forehead and lay down next to her. He passed into slumber, never to return.


“CON-GRA-TU-LA-TI-ONS, Eloy,” said a voice in a great dark expanse. It was a voice from a lifetime ago, but Eloy would never forget it.

“Mom, where did they go?” Eloy shouted, desperate for the answer to the question that had defined his life, “Are they ok?”

“We won the GAME, my boy! Give me a moment to get your MEM-OR-IES back to you and EV-ER-Y-THING will make PER-FECT sense.”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 23

When there wasn’t much else to distract her attention, which of course was always the case at Camp Virtue, it turned out that Eliza could stay angry for longer than Eloy had previously thought humanly possible. First it was little things. Eliza started going to bed early and skipping Eloy’s regular campfire. Eliza’s calisthenics time changed abruptly, and whenever he adjusted his schedule to meet hers, it would change again. Then, If he needed to tell her something, he would always have to say it twice. Sometimes he would say it the second time and she’d say “what was that?” and he’d be obliged to say it again a third time. Other times, his second attempt to communicate would be met with an icy “Yes, Eloy, I heard you.”

By November, the rift between them was so palpable that the whole group had become chillier along with the weather. Eloy didn’t know if Eliza had said anything to them, but it was clear to him who was taking what side in this quiet fight.

If it had ever been really friendly, Gabriel’s attitude with Eloy had become brusque, and more often than not, Eloy was beginning to suspect he was underselling how much English he had learned in order not to interact with him. Angel seemed grumpier even than usual. At first she focused it on Eliza herself, especially when she ignored Eloy, saying “Eliza, Eloy is speaking to you,” sometimes with a “carajo” for good measure. Overall, though, she interacted with Eliza much more than with Eloy, and everyone knew whom she respected more. Eventually she stopped speaking up, and seemed to accept Eloy’s shunning as the new normal.

Destiny was happy as long as Eloy kept coming up with creative desserts to feed her. Or s’mores. She never got tired of s’mores. One evening she and Eloy were again the only people at the campfire. Angel came to supervise the lighting, but now more often than not left once the fire was started and she had the blowtorch back in her safekeeping. Destiny expertly mashed marshmallows onto a stick until the whole stick was obscured in the mushy white cylinders.

“Destiny, how are you going to roast that?” Eloy chuckled.

“I roast one side, then the other.” Destiny carefully grabbed one end of the stick and then the other to demonstrate.

Eloy grinned approvingly. “Sounds great. Let’s see you try it.”

Destiny nodded and held her marshmallow wand out over the fire. When it was nicely browned, she pulled it back and grabbed the other end. “Ouch!” she withdrew her tiny hand, covered in hot melted marshmallow.

“Try taking those ones off,” Eloy suggested, “and then holding that side to roast the others.”

“No,” Destiny put her hand in her mouth and sucked on it. Then she grabbed the squishy half-melted marshmallows again and held the stick over the fire.

“Eloy, when is your birthday?” Destiny asked.

“Well, let’s see. Eloy tapped his chin thoughtfully, When would I like it to be?”

Destiny rotated her stick as the marshmallows browned on the bottom.

“How about today?” Eloy asked.

Destiny jumped, “Oh no! I don’t have a gift for you! Can you have your birthday tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Eloy laughed, “I don’t mind having been born tomorrow at all.”

“Great,” said Destiny, sliding her marshmallows off her stick into a goopy pile on a black and starred tupperware top. She carefully maneuvered her prize between two graham crackers, then slid in a bar of chocolate.

“Eloy,” Destiny asked, gaping in a marshmallow-chocolate smeared yawn, “what is Hell?”

All the energy went out of Eloy in a rush and he sighed. “Who told you that word, Destiny?”

“Eliza said your god told you we’re being tested and and and it’s a stupid test and and and we’re going to Hell. She says that there’s a secret your god told you that you won’t tell us because you only care about yourself.”

Eloy furrowed his brow, “Do you believe her, Destiny?”

“No. My mommy told me God loves everybody and so everybody goes to Heaven. She said there’s no such thing as Hell.”

“What did Mr. Tiger say?”

“He never wanted to talk about it. He said to focus on this world and then when I came to the next world I would learn what to do about that then.”

Eloy smiled, “That’s very wise of Mr. Tiger. Now you are in the next world, though, so what will you do?”

Destiny thought about that. She took another bite of her s’more. She had completely finished her s’more by the time she spoke again. “It’s the same,” she declared. “I’m just sad everybody’s mad now. Did your god tell you a secret? You can tell me. I pinky swear I won’t tell anyone.”

“I do have a secret,” Eloy grinned. Destiny’s eyes widened.

“My birthday was yesterday.”

“Oh no!” Destiny squealed, “I missed it! No, no, no, make it tomorrow again!”

“Ok, it’s tomorrow. Let’s get to bed so my birthday can come faster.”

“Ha ha, ok”

Eloy poured his bucket of water over the fire and he Destiny headed back to the cabin.

That night, storm clouds brewed. Eloy would rather be sitting outside brooding in the rain, but it was too cold, so he had brought a dinner chair out to the cabin’s roofed porch. He had taken to keeping the guide to virtue folded and on his person at all times, like Angel did with the blowtorch. Now that people suspected, he figured he could count on his room being raided. He hoped again, as he had many times in the last month, that the end of this stupid challenge would come soon, and he could just get to heaven and quickly forget the difficult decisions this bizarre situation forced him to make.

He pulled the guide out again and studied it again for any further hints as to what his strategy should be, but nothing stood out to him besides integrity and humility. “I haven’t lied to anyone,” Eloy mumbled, “I can’t even guess what humility means in a competition with just one winner.”

A sound made Eloy leap from his seat and spin around, shoving the guide behind his back. The door remained shut, rattling in the wind.  Eloy gave an exhausted sigh. Every muscle in his body felt tense. He folded his paper up and returned it to his pocket. “Please end soon,” he prayed before returning inside to go to bed.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 22

“I don’t like my birthday,” Destiny explained one chilly October morning over breakfast, “because it’s too close to Christmas. All my friends get two parties, but I only get one.”

“Well,” said Eliza, pulling a sausage out from her green tupperware, “We won’t combine them. We’ll celebrate and give you gifts for both days.”

Destiny’s eyes lit up at this, but Eloy chimed in, “Actually, Destiny, as far as I’m concerned, time is so screwed up now our real birthdays don’t really have much meaning anymore. I mean, will you really be a year older because a girl from thirty years in the future has guessed based on the movement of the sun and the temperature a month ago that it might be December 16th?”

This got less of a reaction. Eliza finished chewing her sausage and chided, “Eloy, you’re just being confusing. Also, you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.”

Destiny laughed at this, “Ha ha, Eloy is gross!” Eliza nodded vigorously.

Eloy fumed and swallowed his mouthful of pancake. “I’m serious. Even if your date is exactly right for wherever we are now, it’s not the same as the dates we came from. It was June in my dimension.”

Eliza shot back, “What good does it do to wonder about these things? Let’s just let Destiny have her birthday.”

“Yeah!” Destiny pouted, “Don’t take away my birthday! That’s mean!”

“I’m not – ” Eloy started, then he stopped to swallow his sausage. “I’m not taking anyone’s birthday away! In fact, Destiny, how would you feel if you got to pick whatever birthday you wanted?”

Destiny’s voice was muffled by her mouthful of both pancakes and sausage. “I want two birthdays!” she forced some of the food down, “No, I want a birthday every day!”

Eliza glared at Eloy, who raised his hands, “That’s not what I mean, Destiny. You still get just one birthday, but it can be whatever day you want. When do you want your birthday to be?”

Destiny thought about this as she poured more maple syrup into her tupperware. She reached in with her fork and brought out a piece of pancake, the syrup falling off it in a thick stream. She put it in her mouth and said “I want my birthday to be far, far, far away from Christmas. On the other side of the year. My new birthday is January 1st.”

Eloy and Eliza glanced at each other. “Destiny,” Eloy said, “do you understand that January 1st is closer to December 25th than December 16th is?”

This earned him an exasperated look. “It’s on the other side of the year, Eloy,” Destiny explained.

Eliza grinned as Eloy narrowed his eyes. “Destiny, do you know what day comes after December 31st?”

“Yes, Eloy,” Destiny said, “January 1st comes after December 31st.”

“So, if your birthday was on January 1st, how far would it be from December 25th?”

“A whole year, Eloy.”

“No, think about Christmas first. If you start at Christmas, how long will it be until your new birthday?”

Destiny pouted. She took a maple-syrup soaked sausage and put it on the table. Then she put her dripping fork onto the other side of the table. Eliza grimaced. “This,” Destiny pointed at the sausage, “Is the start of the year. This fork is the end of the year.”

Eloy pursed his lips.

“Do you see how far away they are, Eloy?” Destiny put her arms out all the way to either side.

Eloy opened his mouth, but Eliza interrupted him. “Ok, Destiny, your new birthday is January 1st. We’ll celebrate both holidays. Now finish your breakfast. Eloy, may I speak with you privately?

Eliza sat across the fire pit from Eloy, each on their own stump. She spoke in hushed tones, “Why are you always talking about time, Eloy?”

“Time?” the wind picked up and Eloy pulled up the hood of his coat.

Eliza’s tone became harsh, “Do you really think we’re going to be here long enough for it to matter when Destiny’s birthday is?”

Eloy was taken aback. “I have no idea how long we’re going to be here. Do you?”

“Eloy, don’t you wake up every day and hope that when you open your eyes you’ll be in your old room again?”

Eloy didn’t know what to say.

Eliza continued, anxiety pushing her voice higher, “In your own universe? With your own god?”

“I…” Eloy stopped, “I don’t think we’re ever going home. This doesn’t seem like a spiritual test to you? Don’t you think we’re more likely to be sorted into Heaven and Hell than just dropped back into our own worlds?”

Eliza’s jaw dropped. She shook her head, wide eyes fixed on Eloy’s face. “It’s not – That’s not- We can’t possibly – ”

“Be judged for eternal reward or punishment based on this ridiculous, sloppy trial?”

Eliza relaxed a moment, at least understood, but her voice remained tremulous. “I mean, what about Gabriel? Will he be punished eternally because he couldn’t handle being transported eight hundred years into the future to try to fit in with four people from a country that would never even exist in his lifetime?”

Eloy reached for something reassuring, “I don’t… think he’s doing that bad,” he mumbled.

“Or Destiny. How is she going to be judged? A five-year-old isn’t fit to understand virtue.”

Eloy thought about the guide from his mother. How sure was he that only one person could emerge from this trial victorious? Some foolish part of him felt that it was wrong, even beyond the official measurements of the competition, that he was making everyone else fly blind. She had been clear, though. Each god was helping their own chosen be the most virtuous. Eloy couldn’t fool himself into thinking there was a possibility of joint victory, and it was only right that he try to save himself from eternal damnation if it was between him and four other people.

Eliza watched him. “Eloy,” she asked, “what is it you’re thinking about when you get that calculating look?”

“What?” a chill ran over him.

“You furrow your brow and your eyes look left and right. What do you think about?”

“I, uh, you know, nothing, I guess. I’m just zoning out.”

Eliza raised an eyebrow. “What did your god tell you?”

“You know, it’s been a while since we’ve checked on Destiny. We should probably go back in.”

Eliza’s expression remained impassive. The way she looked at Eloy made him feel like he was sweating despite the cold. “I’ll just go on ahead,” he said, “Take your time.”

Eloy looked back as he reached the door of the cabin. Eliza was still sitting, staring into the woods. He found himself hoping he wouldn’t have to deal with these people for much longer, but he also couldn’t really abide the idea of them all going to Hell. He blew out a breath that fogged the air for only a moment before blowing away, then he wrenched his eyes off of Eliza and went back inside.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 21

Angel watched Eloy chop wood from a few hundred yards away. What could he possibly have planned? There was no way to light anything here. “Hey,” she shouted, “What are you doing?” The small figure of Eloy looked around confused, then shouted back at her from the distance, “chopping firewood!”

“How are you going to light it?”

Eloy paused. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll find a way.”

Angel nodded. He had received a lighter directly from his god, unless there was some other way to get something like that. Certainly she couldn’t have him burning the cabin down. Didn’t he say something about being protected from fire? Did he think he was going to be virtuous by rescuing them from a fire he set? Setting aside all the other failures in this reasoning, surely he didn’t think that a fire rescue would be so easy without his god’s direct assistance.

Angel stood in the corner with her arms crossed, watching Eloy withdraw his lunch from the refrigerator, taking uncomfortable glances back at her as he did so. “Hey, Angel,” he asked as he withdrew a sloppy joe from his red lunch tupperware and took a bite, “is there a problem, officer?”

Angel’s eyes narrowed, and Eloy rolled his own eyes and put the rest of his sloppy joe back into the tupperware. He reached into the refrigerator with his free hand and passed Angel another lunch. She accepted it and held it, continuing to glare.

After lunch, Angel watched Eloy from a distance as he collected tinder. At supper she was in the kitchen again, this time before Eloy. She stood in the corner while he scrunched his eyes next to the fridge. “What are you thinking about?” Angel asked.

“Supper.” Eloy answered.

“What kind of supper?” Angel pressed.

“A delicious one. It will blow your mind. If you don’t mind, I’m trying to concentrate.”

Angel was quiet. Eloy crossed his fingers and reached to open the refrigerator. He pulled out a blue supper tupperware, and peeled it back. He pressed his lips together in frustration. He pulled out another one and popped off the top. His brow furrowed. On the third tupperware his face lit up. Angel stepped forward as Eloy withdrew the smallest blowtorch she had ever seen. He only had time to turn and let his grin of triumph fall away as Angel leapt to tackle him to the ground.

“Let go of the blowtorch.” said Angel, pinning Eloy to the ground, his arm behind his back.

“Ahh! Ow, ow ow, Angel, you’re hurting me!”

“Let go of the blowtorch,” Angel repeated.

“What is your problem!?” Eloy whined, and Angel pulled his arm further to the wrong side of his body.

When he finally released his prize, Angel took it. “I’m in charge of everything to do with fire.”

Eloy crawled to the corner and cradled his arm. “All right, Fire Marshall Ramirez. Fine. I wanted it to be a surprise, but may I have permission to make a campfire tonight?”

Angel tried to keep the surprise from her face. That was all he wanted to do? “With supervision,” she said.

“Humility,” Eloy mumbled.

“What was that?” Angel asked.

“Grace. Ok, that sounds good. If you feel more comfortable managing the fire, that’s fine. Thanks for not actually breaking my arm.” Eloy bared his teeth in an overwrought smile.

That evening, Angel brought Eliza who was, of all things, a boy scout. She assured both of them that in 2019 this was something that could happen. She showed Angel and Eloy how to set a perimeter for a fire. They cleared a ten-foot perimeter around a flat area a little ways away from the cabin. Then they used a shovel from the supply shed and dug a pit in the dirt about a foot deep. They constructed a wall of stones around the pit, and they were done. Eloy asked Eliza if it was ok if he did it on his own from here. Angel was impressed with how well he was managing his wounded pride. It was obviously a great effort. Angel leaned against a tree and watched him mumble some kind of mantra to himself as he worked. Once Eloy had built a small tent of twigs and sticks, Angel held out the blowtorch.

That night, flickering firelight lit the faces of the campers. Eloy grabbed Destiny by the back of her shirt and pulled her away from the fire when she got too close. Gabriel grinned and said “We had this in my time.” He looked at Eliza for approval on his English, and she smiled at him and nodded. Angel held the blowtorch in her hands, thinking about how to keep something so dangerous safe in a cabin with no locks. Around eight-o-clock Eliza time, Eloy left the fire and went back into the cabin. He returned with two black tupperwares speckled with yellow stars. “Did you know,” he asked, “that a nighttime snack is a meal of the day?”

Eloy opened the first tupperware to reveal graham crackers, and the second had Hershey’s chocolate bars and Jet-Puffed marshmallows. Eloy helped Destiny roast her marshmallow and Eliza helped Gabriel, although once he had the concept he did not require further supervision. Eloy showed Destiny how to stack several marshmallows on the same stick for maximum marshmallowy goodness, her eyes wide with wonder. When the fire died low and everyone had sticky fingers and smiles on their faces, Eliza told Eloy it had been a great idea. Eloy shrugged and made a face that said, “well, I don’t like to brag.” Destiny suggested they eat s’mores every night and for every meal. When Eloy tried to tell her that they would have s’mores frequently, but they had to eat other food, too, Destiny insisted. Then she started crying and Eliza, her self-designated caretaker, moved to pick her up to take her to bed, but Eloy said he’d do it, and did.

Angel took the bucket of water she’d kept next to her the whole time and held it above the fire. “Does anybody mind?” she asked. “Don’t worry, Angel, I’ll do it.” said Eliza. Angel put the bucket in front of her and moved to leave. She had bruised her shoulder tackling Eloy and was exhausted. In her bed she resolved to keep the blowtorch on her person at all times, but she didn’t know what she could do if someone summoned another one. She might have to hang out in the kitchen every day at mealtimes, then again for the late evening snack. The prospect did not thrill her. She struggled to think of a strategy that could keep everyone safe without being such a drain on her time, but her thoughts grew more sluggish until finally she fell asleep.