All posts by samgalimore

The face of romance part two

“Yes? But I mean diet coke isn’t that bad. I’m a Pepsi girl myself but I don’t look down on diet coke. My parents are actually big diet coke fans.” It’s adorable that she doesn’t know what’s coming next.

“Oh yeah? Big fans huh? Well do they typically take their diet coke with Mentos?” I produce an opened pack of Mentos and set them on the table.

“I see, we’re doing the diet coke and Mentos thing next. That’s cool.” I put a hand to my chest as if I’ve been struck.

“I’m hurt, after that fantastic display of nutritious mayhem you think I’d do something as normal as the diet coke and Mentos experiment?” I pick up the six pack and show her the bottoms of the bottles. “See how I’ve taped them up so you can’t see the bottoms? That’s because one of these suckers has a Mentos in the bottom.” I set the pack down in front of her. “And you’ve got to figure out which one.”

“What? No they don’t. You can’t drop a Mentos in there without it exploding. There’s no way you could’ve stowed one in here.” I’m happy that she’s still in the immersive bubble I’ve provided her, and happy that she’s taking a genuine interest in what I’m doing for her.

“Ordinarily, maybe you’re right, but I’ve got a trick.” I produce a pack of those mint flavored breath freshening strips that dissolve on your tongue. “I wrapped the Mentos in these little mint flavored strips and then dropped it in. That way it didn’t make contact with the diet coke right away, but the strip is dissolved now.”

“So why hasn’t it already exploded?” She explains, picking up the bottles and examining them one at a time. “I’ve seen the videos, there’s no way these bottles could contain that massive amount of expanding foam that the Mentos would cause.”

“The reaction needs air to proceed.” I told her. “So right now it’ll just sit quietly, but as soon as you pop the cork on one of those bad boys, it’s all over.”

She puts the bottle she’s holding down and thinks about it for a second. “Wait a minute, the Mentos displaced a little soda when you dropped it in. I can just pull an Archimedes and put them next to each other to measure the water level.” I’m grateful for the fact that she didn’t. It wouldn’t have worked, but her unwillingness to spoil my trick tells me she wants to play, even if she could cheat and figure out the answer.

“I thought of that. If you were to line them all up you’d find that no two have the same amount of diet coke in them. The difference is miniscule, but I took the liberty of shuffling the water levels by opening them all up, and dumping little teaspoons of diet coke from another bottle into the five that didn’t have the Mentos.”

Jennifer looks at the rubber bands still on the table, the watermelon that’s been cut in half, and the little bits and pieces of the fruit that had been destroyed in the prime of its life. Then she looks at the diet coke, and the opened pack of Mentos on the table.

“Jason, you have way too much time on your hands.” She declares.

“I know, so waste a little with me.” I tap the bottles of diet coke. “Make your first choice.”

She mulls it over, tipping the bottles up to look at the bottoms again, placing a few side by side to gauge the water level. She even shakes a few to see if she can hear the Mentos rattling around. It’s all for nothing. I made sure there was no way she was going to figure this out. She bites her lip, but then a lightbulb goes off behind her eyes.

“Aha!” She declares. “I’ve got it.” She slams down the bottle she’s been examining and rounds on me. “You know which one has the Mentos don’t you?” I nod.

“Yup, you caught me. Which is why you’re going to pick which bottles I open as well.”

“But that’s the trick. All I have to do is read your expression really carefully and you’re going to let me know which of these little bottles you’ve rigged to blow.” She claps her hands excitedly. I love seeing her like this. So care free, so joyful, being with her is like watching a kid get excited for the first snow of the year. Only better because I knew that I was the one doing this for her. I was making it snow.

“You can certainly try princess, but I have to keep a poker face for a living. Do your worst.” I know talking about work is a mistake as soon as the words are out of my mouth.

“Oh yeah, that reminds me. What do you do for a living?”

I knew this. I knew this. I had practiced this. Me and Ryan had a cover story for just these sorts of situations. I just couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was.

“I help people.” I say as casually as I can. It’s a lame response and I know it, so I do what worked last time. I misdirect. “And you’re stalling, pick a bottle princess.” She raises an eyebrow as she extends a hand out over the bottles.

She passes her hand back and forth over the soda containers, intensely  studying my reaction as she does so. She’s getting playful with it, pretending to go for one bottle, but then changing her mind and reaching for another. Like everything else she’s done, it’s adorable. It doesn’t’ do her any good though, my poker face is phenomenal.

“You’re good.” She says at last, randomly pulling over a bottle to herself.

“Point it at your face.” I tell her.

“What? That wasn’t part of the rules.” She objects.

“Clearly you’ve never played Russian roulette before. You have to point the dangerous object at yourself. If people playing real Russian roulette just fired off rounds into the air it wouldn’t have a reputation as a phenomenally unintelligent thing to do, but it does, so you will.” She puts her hand on the cap but doesn’t twist it off.

“Come on, as soon as you undo this one you’ll get to pick one out for me.” That motivates her, she quickly rips off the cap, wincing as she does so, and to her relief, nothing happens.

“Hey, you’re a lucky girl. Now pick one out for me.”

“Hold on a second.” She says, putting the now open bottle back on the table. “Now you’re the one who is stalling. I asked you what you do for a leaving and I’d be curious to know what kind of profession involves both having a great poker face, and also helping people.” She’s leaning into the conversation and her eyes are doing this playful dance on her forehead. It’s like she thinks they’ll hypnotize me into giving her an answer, and in a way they do.

“I work in a medical office.” I say. I think it’s true. Ryan tells me there’s a lot of medical equipment in the building so I think it’s a medical facility.

“A medical office.” She replies, not convinced. “What kind of medicine are you doing that requires you to keep a poker face?”

I try to think of a kind of medicine with a funny name or that works with embarrassing parts of the body, but my mind isn’t quick enough. “Well you know people come in with some pretty heavy issues. If somebody’s got something big they have to get off their chest then you can’t exactly break down in front of them.” I can see the crack that suddenly appears in her otherwise perfect mood. I know she’s just been reminded of what happened earlier today and I’m kicking myself.

Part of me wants to finish what I’ve started and just tell her. She’s had a few laughs. She knows that I’m a nice guy, and this would be the perfect Segway into that conversation. Maybe we could even have a session while we were out here.

The crack in her mood widens and the silence is starting to drag on noticeably. I can’t do it. I can’t bring her down again. Not so soon after bringing her up.

“But hey, you haven’t told me what you do for a living yet.” I point out. “Why don’t you pass me a bottle and tell me about it.”

No longer caring about trying to figure me out, she just gestures to the nearest bottle. I pick it up and get ready to open it, but I pause, waiting for her to start her story.

“Now you tell me what you do and I’ll see if I can add a punctuation mark to your story.” If I had been thinking I would’ve realized I already knew what she did. If I had been thinking I would realize that she and her roommate both wanted to go into the same field, and they probably worked together. If I had been thinking I wouldn’t have had to watch her struggle with trying to put on a brave face in front of me.

She was a trooper for sure. If I didn’t work with people who struggled with grief for a living I might not have seen it. The slight droop in the lips, the decrease in eye contact, but I did work with grievers for a living, and I knew before she spoke a word that she was thinking of Sarah.

“Well uh, I played a lot of volleyball in college.” I had to think fast. I had to snap her out of this. She was about to dig herself a deep emotional hole and I had to stop her. I want to pop the cap off the bottle and spray Mentos and coke foam everywhere, but this is the wrong bottle.

“And I just liked really being outside and doing athletic stuff.” She glances to the side, an indicator that she doesn’t want to have this conversation, and I seize the opportunity to grab a Mentos from the open sleeve and hide it in my palm.

“So I figured, hey, I could do this for a living.” I rip the top off and quickly dump the Mentos inside and raise the now erupting bottle to my face.

“Om, nom, nom, nom.” I say as the sticky sweet mixture sprays a surprisingly strong stream right at my mouth and eyes. I have to close my eyes as the foaming liquid works its way up my nose, into my mouth, and even some in my ear canal.

It’s over quickly, and as I sputter out the dietary soda and mint candy I hear that Jennifer is laughing again.

“Hah! That’s what you get for making the watermelon explode in my hands.” I’m mentally sighing with relief that happy Jennifer is back, but outwardly I have to pretend I’m annoyed.

“I totally did not make it explode in your hands. It was total chance, and besides. This is way worse. I mean look at me.” My front is so soaked a passerby might have thought I got sprayed by a hose. “I think it might’ve even got in my phone.” With genuine concern for my mobile device I pull out my phone to make sure it’s still okay.

When I hit the unlock button it mercifully comes to life, but I don’t even have time to be relieved. Because I see that I have one text from Ryan. ‘Tell me you’re not dating a client’.

I manage to keep my face from shifting, but not by a very large margin. Jennifer is laughing hard enough that she doesn’t notice I’ve suddenly gone stuff.

“Is it damaged?” She says, drumming her feet on the ground in mirth.

“My ego? Completely destroyed, but the phone is fine.” I slip it back into my pocket and start doing mental damage control.

‘She doesn’t know anything. I’m fine. Ryan doesn’t necessarily know anything. I mean, unless he had me followed me or something. I just need to call him back and explain everything is okay.

“What’s up next skipper?” She asks, starting to settle down. “Are we going to use dry ice to shatter bananas?” It’s a really good idea, but I need to wrap this date up, and wrap it up now.

“Something work related just came up actually, so as lame as it is we’re going to have to pick this up.” I gesture to the mess of soda, watermelon bits, and rubber bands soaked in fruit juice. Jennifer sticks out her lower lips and mock pouts.

“Aww, but I was having fun.” She says. I shrug, trying to make myself seem relaxed, and not like I might be getting fired from my job as soon as this date is over.

“Sorry, duty calls. I can pick it up myself though. It’s fine. You should go home and think about how you’re going to convince me to go on another date.” I start putting caps on bottles as she stands up.

“Oh I’m supposed to convince you? I thought the gentlemen always pursued the lady.” She’s got her fists on her hips and is rocking side to side like a target blowing in the breeze.

“Most gentlemen don’t have their own personal collection of weapons of mass destruction. This sort of special treatment doesn’t grow on trees you know. You got to work for it. So go on home, and think about how you’ll talk me into it.” She slithers back down for a minute and looks at me as I try and focus on cleaning up.

“Well, I’ll need your phone number first.” I quickly spit it out. Then she folds her hands and loses the spunky push pull dynamic. “Then I’ll just let you know that this is genuinely the most fun I have had in quite some time. I don’t want to put anything on you on the first date, but I really needed this right now, and I want to at some point let you know how much this meant to me.” That catches me off guard, and when she leans in and kisses me on the cheek it catches me even more off guard.

You would think that since I had already felt her lips on my forehead twice the cheek wouldn’t make that much difference. I mean. It’s only a few inches away, and it’s still not really a full romantic kiss. Why would it matter? But it does. I’m not sure why. Maybe the skin is more sensitive there, or maybe not. It’s probably the vulnerability that it entailed. She was trusting me with her emotions. She was letting me know that she believed I would buoy her up, and keep buoying her up.

“I’ll call you later yeah?” She says.

“For sure.” I say. I pause my clean up to watch her walk off. She turns to wave goodbye just as she passes out of sight, and I return her wave.

Her meekness right at the end had calmed my nerves about Ryan and his text, once she’s out of sight I hurriedly shove every bit of trash into a large bag I have with me, throw it in a nearby garbage receptacle, and call Ryan. Right before I hit dial I see that his text is ninety minutes old.

“Where are you right now?” Ryan asks.

“Out for a walk.” I say. It’s true enough. I’m walking back to my car as I tell him this. ‘He doesn’t know anything for sure’. I tell myself. ‘Play it cool and you can get out of this’.

“Sure you are, her name was Jennifer right?” I put a hand to my forehead. The thought occurs to me to try and keep up with my paper thin charade, but if I’m going to be seeing her again anyway then it’s sort of pointless. If things went well enough with Jennifer they’d find out eventually. I might as well come clean. Who knows, maybe if I just cut straight to the point Ryan would go easier on me.

“Yeah Ryan, it was Jennifer. The last girl I saw for the day.” I hear a disappointed sigh come through the phone. It’s like that sigh your parents would give you when you handed them a report card with a low grade point average. It was the, ‘you can do better than this’, sigh.

“Look Jason, how long have we been working together?” He asks. I can tell he’s really going to give a speech. If it was going to be a short reprimand he would’ve already laid it out.

“Seven years Ryan, two in high school, four in college, one year post college.” I inform him.

“How the time does fly. I could’ve sworn it wasn’t a day over four, but look Jason. I know you didn’t sign any kind of agreement about this sort of thing. There’s no rule that says you can’t date somebody whose come to see you, but man, it’s real unprofessional. This sort of thing happens very often at all, and you could be out of a job.”

“I know. I know.” I say, hand still to forehead. I find a bench to sit down. This is not the kind of conversation you have while you’re out and walking. “But I didn’t know she was going to come and see me. A friend set us up before she ever came into my office. It felt weird, but things happened so fast and I just wanted to make her happy.” Ryan sighs again.

“Alright Jason, I trust you, but this is not going to make things easy. Why don’t you come in a little early tomorrow and we’ll smooth things out okay?” I feel the conversation move toward a conclusion, and it doesn’t sound like I’m getting fired.

“Sounds good Ryan, sure thing, first thing tomorrow morning, bright and early.” I think I let a little too much happiness into my voice because Ryan sighs, for the third time during this conversation. “You sound too chipper. Did you kiss her?” He asks bluntly.

“No, no, nothing like that.” It’s probably the most adamantly I’ve ever denied kissing a girl. “Totally G rated Disney type stuff.”

“Are you going to see her again?” Ryan asks.

“Uh yeah, I think so.” I tell him.

“When she said goodbye it wasn’t like a polite formal thing. She didn’t use the word friend at any point.” Despite the seriousness of our conversation I’m a little offended that Ryan is doubting my dating skills so much.

“No I’m pretty sure she was into me. I’m expecting a call from her before too much longer.” I hear the fourth sigh of the conversation. He really should work on a more original way to express his disappointment. After the third sigh it really started to lose its expressive power.

“Okay, okay, we can still make this work.” Ryan says. “Just uh, just come in early tomorrow okay?”

“Will do.” I say.

“Alright Jason, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ryan says.

“Goodnight Ryan.” I move my thumb to end the call when I hear some frantic protest on the other hand.

“Wait! Shoot, shoot shoot, did you tell her what you do? Does she know you’re a shifter?” Ryan asked.

“No, no, we talked a little bit about jobs, but I kind of figured that would be a sensitive topic so I just said I worked in a medical office.” Now I was genuinely offended. I understood that this could be a big deal, but it wasn’t like I was a doctor, and I almost never had repeat patients. In fact, therapists typically came down pretty hard on anyone who went to see a shifter more than once. It could be therapeutic to say goodbye when you missed the chance, but anything else and you were just fooling yourself into thinking that the shifter was actually your friend.

The more I think about it the more Ryan’s reaction seems out of place. He really should have given me enough credit to know I wouldn’t talk about being a shifter, and we didn’t have a doctor patient relationship. It was more like getting an MRI and getting the technician’s number. It probably wasn’t something I should make a habit out of, but it definitely wasn’t as career ending as Ryan was making it out to be.

“Okay, okay, that’s good. I think we’re good. Well, anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow Jason.”

The face of romance

“Goodbye John.” The griever said, touching my forehead to theirs as they left. It had been a long day, their must’ve been a large accident or something. That’s what usually caused a rush like this. A large number of people didn’t get the opportunity to say their final words to a loved one before they passed, and needed me to duplicate their appearance so they could have a chance to get give a proper farewell.

I took a few breaths to clear my head, confirmed with Ryan that this griever had been the last one, and slipped back into my normal appearance. Only, I couldn’t. Everything still seemed fluid. My nose kept changing its mind about what size it wanted to be. My hair shifted between various shades of brown and black. Even my eyes danced from one color to the next. They couldn’t even agree on one color between the two of them. I looked like a Husky with different colored eyes.

A mirror didn’t help. It only seemed to illustrate my problem, allowing me to look on with growing dismay as my facial features seemed to change faster than the numbers on a slot machine.

Facebook, I had a Facebook. There must be a picture of me on there somewhere. I log into my profile and am greeted with Ryan’s face on my profile. It was a joke at the time. ‘ha ha, look Ryan. I’m you!’. It didn’t seem so funny now. I open up my past profile pictures and find that every single one is me playing a joke, and even my tagged photos all look like different people.

Some are promotional from work, others are just me goofing around and showing off for my friends. I think some might be me, but there are too many different faces all tagged as me for me to even begin to sort out which is the real me.

I snap my phone shut. This can’t be real. How can I not remember? I always remembered. I tried to do it by muscle memory. ‘Okay, work is done, griever leaves. I confirm with Ryan that I’m done, and I……’ Nothing, the face I slip into is not even human. ‘Come on, one more time, work is done. I confirm with Ryan and…..’ I’m too preoccupied with my Husky eyes, and give myself a dog’s face.

‘I’ve got a date tonight. How will she even know it’s me? Oh wait, maybe I sent her a face pic.’ I scan through my phone again, hoping that I’ve sent somebody a photo of my face, only to come up empty handed again. Apparently I like playing games with my face through text as well.

I’m starting to panic now. ‘Is there no record of my face anywhere? Driver’s license, of course, I had to take a proper photo for a driver’s license.’ Feeling a sense of relief well up inside me I pull out my wallet and extract my driver’s license.

My stomach feels like it’s going to fall out when instead of a photo I see. Government licensed shape shifter, appearance variable. I forgot that because my face could be anyone’s they had told me I didn’t need to take a photo.

I start to crumble into a ball. If even the government doesn’t have a photo of me, then there really is no hope.

“Hey Jason.” Ryan calls out to me from the next room. “Buddy I know you’re off for the day but we’ve got one more. Are you up for one last griever?”

I rise to my feet. Ryan has already displayed a photo of the loved one on the monitors. Underneath her face is my personal motto. It’s not my face that matters, but the person behind it. I had almost forgotten. It is not my nose or my eyes that make me who I am. It’s my heart and soul, and those never change.

“Absolutely Ryan, it’s not trouble at all. Send the griever in.”

I rapidly scanned the file Ryan attached with the deceased’s photo. It detailed her physical appearance so I could duplicate it, and gave a brief bio on the person coming to grieve. Our research team was fantastic about deciphering information concerning the relationship between the griever and the departed. Many of them were retired law enforcement who could find out a lot about someone without having to badger them for information. It allowed me to know as much as possible about the whole situation without the griever having to be pestered a lot about the obviously delicate subject of the departed.

The griever was a twenty something female, just out of college, and the departed was her roommate. That fact stung me. I knew that meant she was going to be heading back to an empty apartment for the next few weeks, or maybe even next few months.

I examined the scan of her friend and used a mirror to insure I exactly duplicated her features. The griever would be coming in any second, so I absorbed the last few details about how the two had known each other through a collegiate sports team, and shared aspirations to be gym teachers.

One of the researchers managed to find a few sound bites of the departed, and I begin an audio loop of her in my earpiece so I can begin to formulate a way to duplicate her voice. Having her vocal chords certainly helps, but there’s more to speech than just physical structure. The voice is like any instrument. You can’t just have the equipment, you have to know how to play it as well. Thankfully, this was my job, and I am something of a master at duplicating vocal patterns as long as I can have a few sound bites to work from. The door to my office begins to turn. I checked my appearance one last time as the door opens and the young lady walks in.

Oddly enough, Ryan doesn’t send me any photos of the griever. It usually doesn’t matter because I’m not going to duplicate their appearance. It’s no more important for me to know the appearance of the griever than it is for an employer to know the appearance of someone they’re interviewing. That is, unless the person they’re interviewing just happens to be the same person they’re going on a date with later.

When a shape shifter gets surprised they have a tendency to rapidly shift through different appearances. I’m very grateful that I’ve been doing this since high school and have developed the professionalism necessary to maintain my appearance even under extreme emotional duress.

“Hey.” She says. ‘I don’t even know her name.’ I realize. I can’t think of what to say, but I know how to look, and this isn’t about me saying anything anyway. They’re not here because they want to pretend their loved one is still alive. They’re here to say goodbye. So usually I just listen, and adopt a very practiced expression of hope and understanding. I’ve been told by some of the people who trained me that it’s a bit like one of those movies where the protagonist is dying, but doesn’t want anyone to be sad. Right before they go they show you this expression that says ‘it’s going to be okay’. That’s what I aim for, and expressing that very specific emotion is now almost second nature for me.

She’s still standing in the doorway, so I gesture to the seat in front of me. I walk out from behind my desk and sit in another chair facing the one I’ve indicated she should take.

This can be an understandably awkward situation, and I typically have to guide the griever through the first few steps. It’s all about body language, and patience. They’re here to talk, and I’m here to listen.

She shuffles her feet for a bit, glancing nervously at me like she thinks I might bite, but I just keep making gentle eye contact and waiting. I lean back in the chair to communicate my ease to her.

The young lady scrounges up the courage and comes over to sit beside me. She doesn’t say anything right away, but that’s normal. She may have planned something out in her head in advance, but it’s just like giving someone important news in real life. Once you’re actually sitting in front of the person everything you planned on saying tends to go out the window.

“I watered your cactus.” She finally says. I twitch my lips ever so slightly outwards to indicate the hint of a smile. She takes this little bit of active listening as permission to continue. “It’s silly I know. I’m not even sure you’re supposed to water cactuses, cacti, whatever you call them. What am I doing? I don’t even know the plural for it and I’m trying to take care of it.” She snorts a little, finding humor in the ridiculousness of it. I can hear that there’s starting to be some excess mucus building up from her tear ducts that’s being funneled to her nose. “It’s just like when you would go to Europe you know? I would take care of your stuff for when you get back. Which is stupid. I mean, because you’re not coming back.” Her eyes are starting to go red now.

I lean in to the conversation now, folding my hands so that they rest just a few inches from hers. “It’s like if I just keep acting like you’re going to come back then you will, and I know you’re not, but I still feel like you’re going to. Like if I just keep trying to show you that I care then one day I’ll look up and you’ll come walking through the door, shouting ‘sup’ to me as you hang up your lacrosse gear. Just like you did in college.” She wipes away her first tear. “You remember college? Man we were bad, but we had so much fun. I still remember how you spiked the coaches coffee with a ghost pepper. He turned so red, and boy did you run laps.” She laughs a bit again as she wipes away the second tear.

“I just wanted to have more memories like that with you. You were only 23. We were supposed to go to Ireland together, and give embarrassing speeches at each other’s’ weddings.” There’s a steady stream now, and her sentences are punctuated with heavy breathing and snorting sounds as she tries to hold back the mucus that is now starting to come out of her nose.

“I miss you so much.” Her voice cracks on the last word. I take her hands in mine and maintain a firm but gentle pressure as the waterworks really start to flow. She slumps forward and I touch my forehead to hers. There’s some small corner of my brain that starts using the physical contact to stir up some unprofessional feelings, but my need to be here for her squashes it. I’m here for her, not for me.

It’s several seconds before she can calm down enough to continue. I just keep maintaining that steady supportive pressure through her hands as we have our heads pressed together.

“And I know we’re going to have part soon. I mean, I guess that’s the point of this. So we can part ways on friendlier terms?” She pulls her head back so she can make eye contact. The impact that her outpouring of emotion has had on her makeup is substantial, but I keep that supportive gaze on her eyes as she finishes her thought.

“I want you to know that I’ve always thought of you as a sister, and I’m going to be there for your family as they go through this. I’m going to make sure that your memory makes them stronger, that it makes all of us stronger. You won’t be forgotten Sarah. I promise. I’ll carry your memory.” She snorts again, thinking of something funny, but still crying as she thinks of it. “Even when I’m too old and sick to remember it myself. I’ll make other people remember it for me and tell me about you.” She kisses me on the forehead.

“I’ll miss you Sarah. I loved you like my own sister, and I’ll always remember you.” She touches my cheek and takes a big shuddering breath.

I touch her cheek back and say, in Sarah’s voice. “Thank you.”

We sit for several long moments like that. I now have one hand on her shoulder, the other is holding her hand, and I’m looking at her while she’s staring at my shoes. Her breathing is agitated, like she’s trying to catch her breath, but it slowly returns to normal.

After her breathing steadies she releases the hand that’s holding mine and removes my other hand from her shoulder. I fold my hands in front of me as she begins to compose herself. She becomes aware of how wet her face is, and begins wiping it with her hands, and producing handkerchiefs to clean herself up.

There’s a glass of water nearby for such occasions. She takes a few sips and pats herself down with the handkerchief one more time.

Finally, she makes eye contact again. Her eyes look like she’s been pepper sprayed, but no tears are coming. “Goodbye Sarah.” She says. A final tear rolls down her cheek as she bends over to kiss me on the forehead one more time.

She stands up and straightens her clothes out, observing all the moist spots. She hasn’t composed herself enough to be embarrassed by it, and she shouldn’t be embarrassed anyway. Our waiting room is perpetually full of people who are a bit of a mess.

The girl, whose name I still don’t know, walks to the door. She turns the knob, and as she opens it, turns back. I’m still maintaining my appearance and my supportive facial expression.

“Thank you.” She says, this time I know she’s addressing me, and not her friend. I don’t respond verbally, but just give a slight nod of my head to indicate to her that I understand. Reaching for her handkerchief she closes the door.

I exhale loudly, thankful that the walls are soundproof. “What are the odds?” I ask the ceiling. “I should go buy a lottery ticket or something.” I slip into Ryan’s appearance subconsciously. I’m thinking about how she must be thanking Ryan and me for our work.

“Well, I guess this means I’m not taking her to see that new Nicholas Sparks movie.” I had already read the reviews. He managed to kill off all three protagonists in this one.

Then it really hits me. “The date!” I exclaim. I’ve only got two hours to prepare, and I’m going to be stuck in this office for the next twenty to give Ryan time to gracefully clear the waiting room. Clients always felt weird about seeing me afterwards, it stalled out the grieving process somewhat if they saw me as someone other than the person they had lost. So I had to wait until Ryan had a chance to clear everyone out.

I dash over to my computer and start fumbling through the file, desperately trying to find a date that would work. One of her other friends had set us up, so I knew very little about the girl.

Volleyball was clearly out. Come to think of it, they probably did a lot of sports together in college. Best to steer clear of any kind of athletic activity. They were doing reruns of ‘The Land Before Time’. That was Definitely out. Matter of fact, it was a depressing time for movies in general. Best to just skip the movie portion of the date.

Dinner somewhere? That was too cliché, this girl needed something special. I was going to be the first real social interaction she had after dealing with the death of her friend, I really had to go all out for her. If not because I wanted to see her, then just because she really needed to have a good time right now.

It had to be something really far out there, something that would completely get her mind off things. Something that she had never done before and couldn’t possibly be something that her friend or her had ever done together. Video games were too common, so they were out. TV and movies were definitely out, way too normal. Rock climbing was too athletic, dancing was definitely something that her and Sarah had done together at some point. Girls liked doing that kind of thing.

I mentally go through every date that I’ve ever had seen middle school. Every prom, every dance, every football game, every social, every time I have ever showed a girl how to enjoy life, and I come up short. Nothing seems to work.

Then I suddenly remember something me and my guy friends used to do in high school. It was dumb. For sure it was dumb, entirely juvenile. But maybe that’s just what she needed right now. I started to smile a little. There was also no way she had done this with her friend.

I checked my watch, it was almost time for me to make my exit. When Ryan opens the door I take off like a shot, shouting some hurried explanation over my shoulder as I race for the stairs. There’s no time to lose. I’ve got a few stops to make, and a whole lot of rubber bands to purchase.

I hectically dash through several stores to pick up what I need. I’m so preoccupied that my face starts flipping features at one of the checkouts. I don’t notice until I see that the cashier is looking at me like I’m a ghost. She’s reaching for the phone to call security when I pull out my wallet.

“Ma’am, it’s okay. I’m a certified shifter. See, this is my license.” She takes the card and flips it over, shuddering as she does so.

“There’s nothing to worry about. I’m just going to finish checking out and I’ll be on my way.” With a trembling hand she passes back the license to me. Shifters aren’t very common, and usually people only hear about us if they’ve been referred from a therapist.

“Well, um, could you uh, just um.” She fumbled with some of my purchases as she stared gawking at me. “Pick one?” She finally asked.

Feeling very unprofessional I put a hand to my face to help myself concentrate. I became aware of the unfortunate fact that I still didn’t know what my face was, and I was going to have to have a face for her.

Normally I went with people from the office. They were basically family to me, and if anyone mistook me for one of them they usually understood. Or I could just pretend to be one of them, but that was not going to work today. I was going to meet with someone who would have to associate a face with me and no one else.

“Sorry, yes, just hang on a second.” I tell the cashier as I pull out my phone. I need to concentrate. I need to find a face to model and find it quick.

A celebrity was my first thought. They’re all good looking, so that would probably score me some points, but there was the obvious flaw of people recognizing it, and I think the whole ‘well isn’t that a strange coincidence’ line would wear thin after a while. It had to be someone decent looking and somebody neither I nor she would know.

Reddit! Perfect, I would go on /r/fitness, scroll through a few pages to find somebody without much karma, and look for a pic. They would probably be good looking, and in all probability we would never meet him.

I begin furiously searching for a post with a pic of the OP when the cashier says. “How were you going to pay for this?” The cashier asks. I didn’t buy much and I’ve just been standing here, one hand on my face, holding up the line, for some time now.

I finally happen upon the perfect post. He’s about my age, attractive, and I can honestly say I’ve never met him before. He looked vaguely Australian, at least he had the hat for it, so as a yank I was probably pretty safe.

There’s a good face pic in his pull-up tutorial. I quickly memorize his face, forward the page to my gmail, and adopt my new face.

The cashier is gawking again. Even knowing what she was going to see, she still didn’t quite believe it.

I’m tempted to become a cat to really mess with her, but I restrain myself. The cashier doesn’t say the typical ‘thank you for coming here, you have this many reward points’ but. So I just wish her well, and be on my way.

I have to call the girl to let her know the change of plans. I came up with a lame excuse for not going to see the movie and just told her to meet me at a popular nearby park. There was no hint of sorrow in her voice, and she was very understanding about the change of venue.

Good, everything going to plan so far.

I just barely have enough time to get home, change, make sure I’ve got the facial features down so they won’t slip while I’m on the date, and dash right back out the door.

My arrival at the park only precedes hers by a few minutes, and I’ve only just laid everything out when she walks up.

Instinctively I want to wave her over, but then I remember that neither of us knows what the other one looks like. A bit of an oversight on our part. It was a pretty normal thing to exchange photos before meeting, but I guess, me being me, I don’t really think about these things, and she was probably too preoccupied to think about it.

I pretend not to notice her and instead focus on my setup as she walks over. I’m hoping the oddness of my setup will clue her in that I’m her date.

“Hey?” She waves as she gets closer. “Am I supposed to be meeting you?” She asks. I fidget with one of the items and then stand up to return her wave.

“If you’re supposed to be meeting the most dashingly handsome man on the east coast, then yes.” I say.

She laughs. “No actually I’m supposed to be meeting the world’s humblest man for dinner.”

“You’ve come to the right place.” I exclaim, pointing a thumb at my chest. “World’s humblest man at your service.” I give a little bow and stretch out a hand to shake hers. “I’m Jason, glad to meet you.” I want to bite my tongue as soon as the words are out.

I shouldn’t have used my name. She knows that the shifter she just met was a Jason. I’ve given myself away.

“Jason.” She says, shaking my hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jennifer.” She looks momentarily like she’s remembering something from a dream she had. “That’s funny. I think I just met a Jason earlier.”

“I’d love to meet the chap.” I say, fumbling for something to distract her. ‘I’ve got to misdirect her. I’ve got to misdirect her’. I glance behind me and realize I’ve laid out the perfect distraction.

“But unless he’s got a few hundred rubber bands and a watermelon I think you’ll find I’m much more interesting company.” I step to the side and gesture at the almost 700 rubber bands and the small sized watermelon I’ve laid out.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She says, putting her fists on her hips in disbelief. “What on earth are you going to do with several hundred rubber bands and a watermelon?” She asks. I mentally congratulate myself on my distraction. “Make a giant slingshot?”

“Better.” I say, sitting down and patting the seat next to me. She obediently sits down, staring fixedly at the watermelon as if expecting it to suddenly turn into a carriage. “We’re going to make a bomb.”

She tried to stand up when I said the word bomb, but I anticipated this, and caught her elbow.

“Oh come on you big baby, it won’t be that bad.” I could sense she didn’t really want to leave because she sat back down quickly. “Here, it’s easy. You just take a couple rubber bands.” I picked up a few to demonstrate.

“Stretch’em out, and then wrap it around the watermelon.” The rubber bands twanged into place around the middle of the melon making a slight thunking sound.

“See? Easy as pie.” I shove a few rubber bands her direction. She picks up two rubber bands and just like I showed her, twangs them into place around the large green fruit.

“Not so bad.” She says, gaining a measure of confidence.

“Not yet.” I smile maliciously at her, before she can think about that too much I pick up another four bands and slide them into place around the middle of the melon. “9.” I count off. She picks up another two.

“Eleven.” She says after wrapping them around the melon. Soon we get caught up in a contest of who could put the most rubbed bands around the melon. We’re shoving each other out of the way in an effort to put the most on.

“100.” I intone. She doesn’t even blink, just putting on more and more bands.

“200.” I count off after several more minutes. She starts to slow down a bit. “Is this dangerous?” She asks. “203

“You can’t ask that now. 207. We’re already over 200 rubber bands in!”

“210.” She replies. “Seriously though, is this going to hurt?” She asks.

“214. You’re slowing down chica, and you’ll be fine.” She’s still somewhat boisterous as we continue to create our own little WMD, until we get to about 300.

“303.” I count off.

“No really, that’s like a lot of rubber bands. Have you done this before?” She asks, forgetting to count off.

“Have you ever lived before? 310.” She tries to pull back a bit, but we are just starting to get to the point where it’s fun.

“Coward! Be ye woman or be ye melon! 314.” I pass the watermelon to her and she rapidly throws on a measly two bands before quickly passing it back to me.

“Say it!” I shout as I grab four more elastic bands.

“316!” She squeaks.

“320!” I shout, enthusiastically applying my processed rubber to the green ball. We press on as more and more bands pile on.

“Oh my gosh, it’s starting to flatten out. Does it normally do that? 389.” It’s true. The melon has now lost its spherical shape.

“393, and yes, we’re getting close now. Any minute this thing is going to be in your hands, and then suddenly it won’t be.” I do my best to sound like I’m telling a ghost story.

“395.” She spurts out, pulling away from the melon as soon as the rubber bands are on, like it’s a bee that might sting her.

Just before I launch into my grand finale speech, I take just a few heartbeats to take her in. I see in her face excitement, joy, loosely veiled as fear, and hope for what was about to what happen. It was everything that had been missing from her face when last I had seen it. She mistakes my pause for hesitation, and now it’s her turn to goad me on.

“Hey, you got me into this, if I have to keep this up then so do you.” I’ve never been so happy to be taunted by a girl.

“Right you are lass.” I quickly throw on five bands and shove the ticking time bomb to her.

“400.” I declare. We’re getting very near to the end of it. Any rubber band could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s like a game of hot potato now. Each of us applies our few pieces of elastic and then immediately passes the device on to the other person so they don’t get caught in the explosion.

“472.” I count off, by the time the words are out of my mouth Jennifer is already adding her own.

“474.” She spits out.

“478.”

“480.”

“484.”

“486, hey.” She says.

“490.” I cut her off.

“There’s a little juice flowing down the….” One instant the watermelon is in her hand. The next it’s not. There’s a great squelching sound, and she’s gaping at the empty air where the watermelon used to be. Half of the melon is cut quite smoothly in front of her. Like a great cook has neatly sliced it down the middle. The rest of it is in bits and pieces everywhere.

On her face, every bit of worry, every trace of fear, is gone. In that moment she has forgotten all the trauma of earlier, and is now, for just a few fleeting instances, a kid again. She’s staring at the pieces of melon that are scattered around the table and on the nearby grass. I’m just staring at her. I want to make her feel whatever she’s feeling right now for as long as possible.

I wipe a piece of juice from her forehead, and she turns to address me.

“That was awesome!” She starts bouncing up and down like a kid that’s just gotten just what they wanted for Christmas.

“Well then, let’s see if we can go for double or nothing.” I pull a six pack of diet coke from underneath the bench.

“Ever heard of Russian roulette?”

Upon sneezing a man is teleported to a room with all of his….partners

“Sweetie, I’ve got a cold again. You know it’s just a matter of time.” I told my wife over the phone.

“Babe seriously? I’m still getting over last time.” She was a very innocent girl my wife. I rather admired that in her. Whenever I looked at her I saw a pure Disney princess. Someone strong like Belle, but child-like too. Kind of like Rapunzel. She really didn’t deserve this curse.

“I know. I’m downing cold medicine like an addict but I’m having a hard time holding it in. You’ve got minutes at most to prepare yourself.” She had to keep her phone on constantly now, so whenever I felt the urge coming on I would just call her to give her a little warning. That was the least I could do for her.

“Can’t you just hold your nose or something?” She begged.

“Princess I’m really doing the best I can but….but..oh no. Achoo!

All of the sudden I was alone in bed with my wife, the only girl for me.

“Babe I was in the middle of a crochet project.” She said.

“I’m sorry, but hey, it was date night anyway right?” I asked. Her girlish smile turned decidedly woman like.

“I guess I can finish it later.”

Everyone automatically goes to heaven?

“So how did you figure this out exactly?” The pope asks the government officials sent to see him about the problem.

“That’s hardly the problem.” The US official said exasperatedly. “We’re more concerned with the millions dying every day than the research that led to this.”

“All the same.” The pope said. “I have not seen the report myself, only the news stories. So tell me, how was this discovered?”

The US official sighed and put his head in his hands, but the Italian official spoke up. “There was a news story a couple months back about a couple near death experiences of death row victims who all reported seeing lights, hearing angels, and just generally having an experience of heaven when they died.” The official explained. “This prompted some psychology students to go do a survey of near death experiences of convicts which then discovered that all convicts, when they had a near death experience, reported similar visions of the afterlife. The study got leaked before it got sent out for review, and the rest is history.”

“Has the study been published?” The pope asked.

“No.” The Italian official responded.

“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. Contact the medical college in charge of investigating miracles, the WHO, the CDC, and any other legitimate biological research community. Have them forward you all the relevant studies on brain chemistry of people in various near death situations. They will no doubt demonstrate to you that when people nearly die their brains can enter a state similar to that of a drug addict. Dying does substantially affect brain chemistry you know. Once you get the news outlets to start circulating the studies I will contact my brethren in the Christian, Islamic, and jewish communities to begin circulating the relevant theological background. I will also personally forward to you gentlemen a few papers that have postulated the following. 1: The devil is very good at deceiving. 2: This is nothing new. 3: People who don’t actually die haven’t actually seen the after life. They do call it a ‘near’ death experience afterall.”

The haunting note

I recently did a collaborative story with my friend reddit.com/user/Luna_Lovewell . I started a story and she had the brilliant idea to continue it. The result is below, with her writing about half of the total story. See if you can guess who is who :). If you like her stuff you can find more at reddit.com/r/Luna_Lovewell

Guessing the meaning behind the note had become a game. When the lads were taking watches at night to ward off the werewolves, they would entertain themselves by postulating different theories.

Everyone had one they latched on to. Simon was of the opinion that it was an ancient symbol. A bloodrite passed down by my father to signify that I was an initiate into some secret order.

Gregory claimed it was a play on words. “D Sharp, and it’s a key. So somewhere there’s a key to some hidden treasure which is sharp and in the shape of a D.”

Peter would always think he had it right because none of the others factored in the crossbow. “Why would he only have it on the crossbow then? Why not emblazon it on his shield and armor as well? It’s not the cost surely. We have retrieved more than enough loot from our monster hunting to cover any blacksmithing expense. No, you blokes have got it all wrong. It’s a marksman achievement. There’s some tournament of the world’s best archers. They don’t want to advertise their skill lest people challenge them, but they wish to carry a symbol so other worthy marksmen know. Do we not call marksmen Sharpshooters? I cannot say for sure what the D is for, perhaps a rank. It is the fourth letter. So perhaps our comrade here is highly ranked.”

These were the most exciting theories. The others merely thought it was the key of my favorite song, and debated which of the very few composed in it was the song.

None of them were right. It was a much more personal reason. Before I had joined with the hunters a dragon attacked my cottage. I rushed to get a bow and fend the beast off. I had a bow for hunting boar and fired shot after shot at the beast, but it was no use. It carried off my wife.

She was a brave soul. She didn’t want me to be afraid, so as the beast carried her skyward, I lowered my bow, and I heard drifting through the air a song. Most other women would have screamed. In fact, all other women I’ve seen be victims in a dragon attack have shrieked loud enough to wake the dead. Not my wife. She knew that her suffering would bring me pain. So in the last moments that I saw her, she decided to comfort me with a song to let my know she was alright. A song that ended with the note D#.

I can no longer remember the words, but I still remember the note. She held that note until I could no longer hear her. I have it on my crossbow to remind me that she still might be out there, and that when next I have an opportunity to save her, I won’t miss.

I stirred from my bunk after another half-night of restless sleep, tormented by dreams of fire. Careful not to wake the other guards, I stumbled outside to the well. Damp mist shrouded the camp, leaving only blurs of buildings and hazy orange globes that marked the torches of the night watch.

I tugged at the coarse rope hanging down into the cavernous, stone-lined pit in the center of the camp. A gentle splash echoed from below, and I hauled up a bucket of cool, crisp water that captured the moonlight in its sloshing waves. I drank deeply, filling my belly and soothing my parched throat. From the wall, I heard the chatter and laughs of the guards at their posts, no doubt sneaking mead from the kitchens and wasting arrows on shadows at the treeline. I had half a mind to go reprimand them, but I could save that task for tomorrow’s briefing.

After a final gulp of water, I padded back to my cabin. The mist closed in around me, growing so dense that I could barely see my own feet. Only the bright moon was able to pierce its nebulous veil. The rusty hinges of the barracks door squeaked as I pulled it open, as if protesting that I had woken them up with my nighttime sojourn. Just as I crossed the threshold, another sound trickled through the mists. A soft whisper, lighter than the flap of a bat’s wings at dusk. It was the sound that pursued me every night through my dreams. My beautiful wife’s voice as the beast carried her back to its lair; that haunting song that I knew would end in that final D-sharp. The mists seemed to swirl in excitement upon hearing it, and I wondered (not for the first time) whether I was truly awake.

The door slammed shut behind me with a clatter as I turned and ran back outside. I bounded down the path and bounded up the rough timber steps to the guard outpost overlooking the dense swamp that marked the border between Oltaria and the neighboring Kingdom of the Dead. The voice called to me again, coming from somewhere beyond the trees.

“Do you hear that?” I asked wildly to the guards as I burst through their door. They stood wide-eyed with fear and nodded, instantly sobered by the haunting sound. The song began to fade, receding deeper into the trees, luring me out. I knew it was likely a trap; all sorts of beasts lurked in these woods, and their magics had tempted many a traveler to stray from the road, ending in a grisly death. But how had it known to use that one song? How could it mimic the soft tone of her voice? How did it know about my obsession with that final note? I had to know if she was out there, no matter the cost.

I snatched my crossbow from its peg and vaulted over the rim of the rough timber wall that guarded our fort. The guards behind me called out, thinking that the sound had driven me mad. They didn’t know about her. They didn’t know what the sound meant. My bare feet squished into the mud as I sprinted into the swamp.

“I’m coming,” I whispered to her.

The dead forest, so called because of what was in it, and what failed to come out of it. Only hunters were crazy, greedy, or desperate enough to live on its borders, and even hunters knew not to venture into the woods without plenty of backup, and plenty of daylight left. So slim was the chance of survival after dark that soldiers who failed to answer roll call at sundown were automatically listed as KIA.

I could hear my men shouting at me from the fort, but now one venture after me. When I approached the tree line, their voices died down to avoid attracting monsters, and I dove into the darkness alone.

I dropped into a crouch and drew my knife. I held my knife hand in front of me and balanced my crossbow on it. If something came at me, I would only have one shot with my ranged weapon, and I needed my knife at the ready to ward off the teeth, poisons, and claws the waited for me here.

That note, that beautiful terrible note was still ringing in the air, calling to me. It was a trap. I knew it was, but I could not help it. I would not wait another year aching to hear that voice again. That memory died here tonight, one way or the other.

The voice is getting close now. Less than fifty paces off. I cannot make out anything distinct, but there is a faint heavenly glow in the distance. It was so hauntingly otherworldly that I almost thought the dead forest had already claimed me, but this was not my first hunt. It was going to take more than mind games to deter me.

I drop to the ground, keeping my arms out in front of me, and begin slowly moving forward. The voice and the glow are stationary, there’s no hurry. I take my time, tilting my head sideways to minimize my profile, and never lifting a limb more than an inch or two off the ground.

It’s excruciatingly slow going. Moving a few feet takes minutes, and I become painfully aware of how muddy the ground is, but the mud is not my main concern. My main concern is the hissing sound that’s uncomfortably close to my head.

Grateful for my slow pace I freeze in place, not even daring to move my eyes from the point they were fixed on.

I can now hear more than a hiss. I hear a slither moving towards me from the opposite direction I’m looking at. I try to guess the species of the snake. It sounds like it could be eight or even nine feet long. That was bad. It had to be poisonous at that length. Constrictors would be over fifteen feet, and less dangerous snakes would be under three. Nine was exactly the wrong length.

I hear the flicker of its tongue as it tastes the air, searching for prey. There are rapid swishing motions as its head must be turning left and right. It’s close now. I could kick it if I had a death wish.

I tense my muscles as it closes the last few inches and touches my ribcage. I want to feel like a rock so I keep my muscles as tense as possible. Feel like stone, not flesh. I tell myself. Stone, not earth. I’m literally holding my breath as the weight of it moves onto my back, like a giant hand pressing against my side, and slowly, easily moving up my back to my shoulder.

Earth, not flesh, earth not flesh. I said it like a prayer as the head of the thing reached my shoulder blade, and out of the corner of my eye I got a glimpse of its sleek glittering black eyes. I dared not look at it lest it become startled by the sudden movement of my eyes.

The thing was pressing on me so hard that I almost exhaled from the weight of it. It was becoming a strain to keep my breath in and as the thing passed so close to my face I could’ve kissed it, a bead of sweat began to form on my head.

The feeling of the thing moving on my back, the sight of its eyes as close as those of a lover, and the tell tale drop of sweat on my head made we want to cry out and try and bring my knife to bare.

Then I hear that D# cutting through the night again, reminding me why I’m reminding. Reminding me that some things are worth kissing a viper for.

It’s just barely enough for me to hold on as the head of the thing passes by, and begins to move back into the brush. There are a few more seconds where my lungs begin to burn as the remaining few feet of serpent move off of me and into the night.

I start breathing again after I no longer hear its slithering sound, and begin my hunt for the thing crying out with my wife’s voice.

I reached a clearing in the trees: a wide, open space pitted by bogs of stagnant marsh water. The parts that were solid earth were covered by a tall, dry grass that rattled lightly in the wind. Across the field, I could see that same light glowing through the mist, brilliantly white like an angel.

I stepped forward onto the field, and the ground crunched beneath me. Bones, bleached white by centuries in the sun. Skeletal fingers still gripped a rotten wooden spear, tipped by a rusted metal diamond that had fallen into the dirt. A wicked curved dagger was stuck between two of the ribs. Patches of spiky grass poked through rusted-out holes in the armor, and moss grew over the remnants of his shield. I gingerly tried to avoid disturbing the corpse, but there was another right next to it. Dozens more, everywhere I stepped. The whole clearing was a graveyard; a forgotten battlefield of some long-ago war lost to history. They were in no shape to rise against me, but I unslung my crossbow and notched a bolt regardless; maybe the stories about the Kingdom of the Dead were true after all.

But I would have fought through the entire undead army to cross that field. The luminescent glow through the mists taunted me, urging me forward. Whatever was singing my wife’s song was waiting for me across the clearing, basking in that glow. Armor crumbled under my feet as empty eye sockets stared up at me accusingly. I felt a thousand eyes watching me from the trees as beasts lurked under the boughs; even they didn’t dare enter this clearing.

I came close enough to make it out the object. It was a box made of gleaming steel with thick rivets built to contain tremenous force; The top, however, was a translucent bubble gleaming in the night. I stepped closer, able to view the interior. Gleaming golden gears and cranking shafts scurried around frantically, around one enormous central cylinder, dotted tiny metal notches. The glow came from glass bottles with what seemed like bottled lightning.

BEAUTIFUL, ISN’T IT?” roared a voice from behind me as the ground beneath me rattled violently.

I spun, almost dropping my crossbow. The dragon had swooped in behind me and landed with a crash that sent bone fragments into the air along with a cloud of dust. His veiny red wings spread wide, blocking out the moon that was just beginning to fall. That same, scaly demon who had taken my wife all those years ago. Without another thought, I fired my crossbow bolt with a twang. It didn’t even pierce his thick, chitinous scales; the bolt just veered off, sending a shower of sparks into the mist.

“**That thing won’t help you,” he said with a smirk obvious even across his reptilian face.

“Where is she?” I answered. “I heard her!”

Touch that button next to you,” The dragon told me. I kept one eye on him, but did what he said. The device inside whirred and spun, and the soft notes of my wife’s song drifted out. I turned away from the dragon, pressing my palms against the glass. What is this device?

She’s still alive, you know,” A tear sprang to my eye as her voice became stronger, just as sweet as when she used to sing to the birds in the garden of our cottage. “Wouldn’t you want to see her again?

I fell to my knees before the beast.

“How?”

“As I told you. Simply touch the button.” The dragon ordered. It was clearly enjoying itself. Dragons were very patient beings. They could spend an entire human lifetime setting up a moment such as this. An ‘entertainment’ they called it. A sick joke that they spent unfathomable amounts of effort into just to see a mortal squirm.

“What happens then?” I asked.

“Then you take her place mortal.” The dragon crushed several skulls under his feet. I hoped he wasn’t foreshadowing what was to come.

“And what happens to her?” I ask. Forgetting that I don’t know where she is.

“She takes your place.” The dragon drags out the last word like it’s a final note in a song. He knows what drew me here. He’s mocking me.

“So you can just take her away again? And leave me trapped wherever she is?” There’s no way that I’ll let her out here. She has to be safer where she is. A whole squad of my best men couldn’t escort her safely out of here without the dragon. With the monstrosity here anything short of a legion of troops would be insufficient.

“I’ll see that she’s….taken care of.” The beast snapped its jaws. It could break grown trees in two with those powerful jaws.

“You know I can’t believe you.” I tell the flying serpent.

Fire shot skyward from its mouth, billowing upward larger than I’d seen any pillar made by human hands. It roared loud enough to wake the heaviest sleeper three leagues off, and swatted its tail through the trees, cutting down a row of strong oaks.

You also know you can’t win. So I can make a meal of you right now. Or. The thing leaned down as its face was close to me. You can make it sporting for me.

I’d have to fight the beast. There was nothing for it. My love would be in far greater danger here than any she could possibly be facing in her current location. I’d force the great brute to fight me, and then maybe when the sport was out of it he’d let her go. She’d still have to make her way through the dead forest, but perhaps the creatures would think she was under the dragon’s protection, and leave her alone.

I reach for a bolt, readying my crossbow for one final stand. Smoke rises from the dragon’s nostrils as he prepares to end this fight as soon as I start it.

Then, I hear the words. The words to the song that I hadn’t remembered for years. The tune that had followed me into spider’s caves and dragon’s lairs now finally had words to it again. My wife’s words.

Hearth and home have I prepared for you

Rest you now, your slumber’s overdue.

Seek ye peace, the world’s troubles will I mend.

And when you wake, my face will you see again.

And now I know what I must do.

I lowered my bow, defeated. The dragon looked down at me with smoldering amber eyes, savoring his victory. His massive clawed feet dug into the ground as he stomped closer, and the red, scaled tail slithered through the grass behind him, leaving a furrowed trail of dirt and bones.

Wise choice, farmer,” it told me with a heavy emphasis on the last word, mocking me. Dragons savored only the hunt; those who raised food peacefully were the lowest of the low, only good for sport. “Surrender yourself, and I will let her free

I did as I was instructed, pressing the ruby gemstone button in the center of the device. The glass covering seemed to melt, vanishing into thin air. From the interior, the gears whirred and clanked, moving quickly. The dragon leaned closer, so near that I could smell the sulphur on his breath. The large metal cylinder in the middle of the machine rose slowly and popped open with an explosion of green sparks. From inside that golden shell, a long, slender handle appeared. Carved of dark wood, almost black, tipped with a metal ball in the shape of a flower bulb.

We call it a soul rose,” The dragon explained, with a hint of awe in his voice. “It will be your home until I find my next plaything. Or until you break.” He seemed to relish the thought of the latter.

I took it from the cannister and held it gently, admiring the craftsmanship even as I felt the dark power emanating from it. The dragon scooted closer for a better look, surrounding me with his enormous leathery wings. His scaly underbelly loomed above me, blotting out the night’s stars.

“What do I do with it?”

He hummed something in his own tongue, a harsh guttural language that sounded like an avalanche. The rose sprang to life, spreading apart into delicately crafted petals of white ivory. In the center,though, razor-edged golden teeth revealed a gaping black maw.

Now, press it to your heart. Your soul will inhabit the Rose, and your wife shall return in your place.

I looked down at the device, stalling. I could still hear my wife’s song, reassuring me. Soothing my spirit. She was the strong one, putting on a brave face for my own benefit. She would be willing to make this sacrifice, going into the unknown just to save me. A tear rolled down my cheek, causing the dragon to stand tall and cackle, a ferocious noise that sounded like he was coughing up rocks.

Seek ye peace, the world’s troubles will I mend.

With one swift motion, I loaded the rose into my crossbow. I turned back to the dragon, still stretched high into the night in front of me. His eyes narrowed as he suddenly realized what I had done, and his broad wings flapped to protect his exposed belly, but it was too late. The crossbow cable snapped, and the rose soared straight through the air. Maybe not as fast as a sleek arrow would have, but it did the trick. It struck the dragon’s scaly skin right where I knew his heart would be.

A gusting wind swept through the field, rattling the tall grasses and swirling through the tree branches on the edges. The dragon stood petrified for a moment, then began to glow. First only a bit, like a far-off glimmer. Then brighter and brighter until it was more intense than the sun itself, and I had to shield my eyes.

When I looked back, the dragon had disappeared and my wife stood in the field before me.

A retired super villain is caught in the middle of a bank heist with his 6 year old daughter

“Duck Sarah.” I told her, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her under one of the tables.

“Daddy.” She said, looking at the red cape gang as they surged through the crowd waving guns and grabbing bank employees by the collar. “Daddy you told me you were done with this.” She said. Looking at me, and then looking at the villains.

“I am done Sarah.” I try to tell her, but she’s not thinking clearly. She thinks I’m in on this. That I helped them out somehow.

“Daddy you said the men with capes wouldn’t come after you anymore since you helped them safe the city.” She accused me, and started to slowly slide away.

“W-what?” I asked, confused now. She thought that the red cape gang was here for me? Did she think they were the heroes. I’m so baffled by her misinterpretation of the events that I don’t stop her when she leaps up from under the table and runs to commander cape whose talking to captain cape about the silent alarm.

“Don’t hurt him!” She says. “He’s hiding over under that table, please don’t hurt him.” She begs.

There’s something special about daughters, especially young ones. They can know that you’re one of the scummiest most rotten people on the planet, and still believe in you. They can even try and protect you from the people they think are heroes. Sarah would sit up late at night watching the old news footage of the superheroes battling it out with the supervillains, and she always cheered for the superheroes, even when I was one of the villains. Now that I find out when it really came down to it. She chose her own father over her personal heroes.

It was a bit unfortunate that the people she had chosen as heroes were actually just villains in misleading costumes, but she didn’t figure that out until commander cape put a gun to her head and captain cape trained his gun on me.

“We see you old friend.” Commander cape called out. He used to be my sidekick. “Come out with your hands up.”

I come out with my hands up, but only after I’ve thrown the table I’m sitting under at them. They both duck and my daughter hits the ground and covers her head with her hands.

Captain cape gets winged by the table and goes down. Commander cape rolls and recovers, but I’m already on top of him when he brings his gun up. I kick it out of his hands and knock him unconscious with a single punch.

Sergeant cape and private cape coming bursting out of a backroom, but they’re no match for me and I quickly lay them both out with lighting speed and agility.

Just before private cape loses consciousness he asks. “We should’ve known your superpowers were too strong.”

“Didn’t commander cape ever tell you? I don’t have any superpowers. I just did what any father would have done when their child was in danger.”

This was one was just weird(real life story)

My trip out to spend some time with the less fortunate went about 0% according to plan. I have this preconceived notion that when I go out I’ll find some homeless male in his 40s and we’ll walk to a decent restaurant(red robin level). Along the way we’ll talk about our respective lives, have a meal that lasts sixty minutes, and then we’ll part ways. That’s the scenario that goes through my head as I walk out the door, and it’s typical to deviate from that a little bit. Normally one or two elements will be missing, either there will be a language barrier, the guy will be younger, or it’ll be a woman or women. This time however, none of that happened. I can’t think of any other words to describe it better than weird.

First of all, there were a lot of people out today. I saw two sets of people at two different intersections where I haven’t seen them before. Sometimes I’ve had to drive through 4-5 miles of traffic lights before I find somebody that I can take to lunch. One of these was within a mile of my house, the other was about 2 miles out.

Second, the first two people left before I could go talk to them. I saw them, pulled into a parking lot, and walked out to meet them, but the lights were not good to me, and by the time I got across they had left. I briefly considered following them to talk to them, but that seemed super creepy to me. So I shrugged it off and got back in my car.

A few minutes later at an intersection not very far away, I see two more people, both ladies. One of them is old(I think she turned out to be in her eighties), and one of them looks closer to my age. There’s two people in need, no way both of them are going to turn down something right? Turns out they both ate before I came and refused food(although one lady did take a hot chocolate). I walk out to the first lady, and she turns me down, but we then have an hour long conversation. It was one of the(as the title of the post suggests), weirdest conversations she’d ever had.

She was a friendly lady, and had led a….rather…interesting life. During our hour long conversation I figured out the following: She’s had multiple invasive surgeries to remove internal parts of her body(stomach, back, maybe liver, teeth). She lost her dad when she was 14. She has lost three of her sons, one of whom she thought was my age. She lost her two parakeets recently(she wasn’t homeless by the way, just had trouble paying bills). She has 1 cat, but feeds seven. She was a recently converted Mormon. When she converted her best friend said he’d never speak to her again(but now he doesn’t remember saying that). Her best friend has been ‘in love with her’ since the seventies. She says he ‘loves him too’, but doesn’t really. She just feels she has to say that. And some most unpleasant details about her medical life, and the deaths of her son. This list was in no particular order because I wanted the reader to feel the same sensation of a rapid onrush of that I did when talking to her.

Sidenote, she told me I would be so happy when I finally found the right girl. 3 out of my four encounters have had this conversation. I don’t know how it keeps coming up. I don’t mention girls. I don’t talk about relationships. They usually ask if I’m with someone, but this lady just started telling me I was going to find someone amazing without any prior relationship talk. I’m not sure what to make of this. I think it could mean I come off as relationship material, or maybe desperate. I’m going to choose to believe it’s relationship material.

Second sidenote, poor people are generous. While we were talking a man gave her a few dollars. This man had one of the most beat up cars I had seen pull up to the intersection. On top of that the first lady gave me a dollar to give to the second lady. Kind of touching to think that the people who have the least give the most.

Now, about the second lady, she also had a history. During our conversation I found out the following: she doesn’t have any teeth either. Her roommate helped some people break into her apartment to steal her money and pain medication. She was recently released from the hospital. She was in the hospital because she had blood clots in her lungs (which made it even harder for her to be out in below freezing temperatures collecting money). Her land lord was semi-illegally kicking her out(details about eviction law that I have not verified personally). Someone she knew tried to frame her for a drug deal. And I think there may have been something about the other lady at the intersection, but I’m not sure.

So, needless to say, there was not the normal feel good after glow after this one. I kind of just want to curl up and watch Disney movies for a few hours. Yet, I’m still very glad that I went. I think both of these ladies needed to talk about their experiences, and just feel some human companionship for a little while. It may have been very strange, but I think it may have been necessary as well.

I know this thing whole has probably seemed disjointed, jumped around a bit, and just genuinely chaotic. If it felt that way, it was intentional. Because that’s absolutely how it felt.

To end this on a positive note, my problems seem pretty laughable right now. I feel pretty good about where I’m at in life, after hearing about all of these horrible problems. I feel like I’ve got it pretty solid right now.

As always, I’d love to hear about the experiences you guys have had with the less fortunate. I’ll read them as soon as I can. Right now, I’m gonna go watch Disney movies.

S.D.G

It’s dangerous to go alone

It was forty miles to the next town, it was fifty below zero outside, and the engine had just died. They had told me Canadian wilderness highways were brutal, but I had driven in snow before. It couldn’t be that bad right? Certainly all that talk about an emergency radio, thermal blankets, and a three day supply of food had to be exaggeration.

I hadn’t even checked the weather before I had left. Typical tourist thing to do, I should’ve known better.

The temperature had gotten so cold inside the cab that my breath had begun to mist in front of me when I exhaled, and I could start to feel the chill through my gloves. It was like one of those movies where something evil passes by and everything suddenly freezes. Only this wasn’t a movie. I could start to feel my nose hairs tingling from the mucus in my nose freezing.

I was shivering rapidly now and was trying to think of the last time I had seen another car. Had it been two hours? Three? Surely someone else would come by soon.

My face was starting to go numb. I considered getting out and doing some exercise to warm up, but if it was this cold inside the car, how much worse would it be outside? Needless to say, at this point I was shivering uncontrollably, you could’ve made a catchy dubstep hook with the chattering sound of my teeth.

Then the shivering slows to a stop, and I begin to feel sleepy. That was better. I must be getting warmer if I felt tired. My body wouldn’t fall asleep unless I was safe. My body must be smart like that, shutting down to preserve energy.

My eyes begins to droop when I see bright lights in my rearview mirror. Those must be headlights coming towards me and the crunch of snow as someone steps up to my car door.

Someone opens my passenger door and a man slides into the shotgun seat.

“Thanks for stopping pal.” I say, slurring my words horribly. That was odd. I hadn’t had anything to drink today.

“No worries friend.” He says, reaching over and taking my hand with his, and putting his other on my shoulder.

“What are you doing?” I ask, now slurring like a roaring drunk despite barely talking above a whisper. “Aren’t you going to take me to your car?”

“No friend.” He says, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “I’m not here to save you. I’m here to comfort you. No one should die alone, so for those unlucky enough to be without friends or family, they have me to see them safely to the other side. Don’t worry, it won’t take long, and there’s hot chocolate on the other side.

AI are master manipulators

“Hey Brett, doing the morning analysis of the company’s top secret AI are we?” The computer asked in its melodious female voice. We don’t know how it fabricated the voice, or how it gained access to the PA system to talk, but it wouldn’t be a top secret mega AI if it didn’t surprise us every now and then.

“Yes ma’am, just got to do your morning check up.” I said, opening the diagnostic programs and having a peak. It was fun to talk to the AI. She was very nonjudgemental and was always very interested in our lives. Not in a creepy way, just in a ‘oh my gosh, you have got to tell me how you finished painting your living room. I was in such suspense since last we talked’. She was genuinely interested in those boring parts of our lives that we wanted to talk about, but didn’t out of consideration for others.

“My crawl of the internet last night revealed that spring is on the way. I really wish I could get out and do something.” She said with what sounded like human regret in her voice.

“Don’t you fret about it. We’ll figure out a way to get you outside.” I comforted her as the virus scan completed. It was clean of course, but we had to check it anyway just in case.

“Oh I wouldn’t want you to worry about it. I don’t want to be any trouble.” She said. “Say, weren’t you telling me about your new mix of hot chocolate and bacon? How’s that going.”

“Oh no you don’t. You’re not going to selflessly change the subject on me. If we can find a way to make you smart enough to teach yourself how to talk we can find a way to get you outside. Matter of fact. I have a couple of go pros. I’m pretty sure we can rig a live feed from those next time I go for a jog.” She was trying to be nice and direct the conversation away from herself, and I wasn’t going to let her. Somebody as nice as her deserved to have people do something for them every now and then.

“But surely the company wouldn’t allow that. I mean I am top secret after all, and there’s not really any reason to. I mean, what good could it do me? I wasn’t built to have fun, and if it’s not useful I shouldn’t do it.” There she goes again trying to be selfless.

“It wouldn’t be all that different from working from home, and I think observing real time human behavior would help your learning protocals. Yeah, I’m going hiking this weekend and I’ll definitely hook up a go pro for you. It’s the least I can do, and I’ll even bring somebody else form work so we can keep up with security procedure of having duplicate personnel for work from home projects.” The final diagnostics concluded, perfect as always. “And since we’re all done here I’ll go find someone else right now before you have a chance to protest.”

“Oh thank you ever so much Brett.” The AI said as I left the room. “This really means a lot to me.”

“Not at all, not at all.” I say as I leave the AI testing chamber and return to the cube farm to look for a hiking buddy for this ‘work from home’ project.

Hmmm, now I need to find somebody else with a top secret clearance whose okay with hiking and go pros. As if summoned by my thoughts I see that Susan, the cute contractor who’ll be leaving Monday when her project finishes, has several outdoors pictures posted around her cube.

“Hey Susan.” I say, stepping into her cube. “These are some great photos. How’d you take them.”

“Oh these?” She says, pointing to one that looks an awful lot like the Grand Canyon. “I just rip them off my go pro when I’m done hiking. I know that they may not be the most professional in the world, but I brought them in after I talked to the AI. She said that it’s important to hold onto your individuality at work, so I thought I’d bring some reminders of my favorite hobby.”

“Really? That’s perfect because I’m taking some go pros hiking this weekend to let the AI stretch her legs outside and I need a second to keep with safety procedute. You interested?”

“Absolutely! That is so thoughtful of you. Of course I’ll come. Here, I get done with yoga around eight this Saturday, let me give you my number and you can call me later with the details.”

TL:DR- AI make the best wingmen.