The More Things Change
There's a new mug in the cupboard, and all Max can do is stare. It's made to look like a hamburger, sesame seed bun and all, and Max's first instinct is to throw it straight into the trash. Her second instinct is to stop herself, because it doesn't actually belong to her. She picks it up by the handle, holding it between two fingers as if to touch it as little as possible, and stares down into the empty cup. There is, expectedly, nothing inside it, but her upper lip curls anyway as she absentmindedly closes the cupboard with her other hand. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Kira enter the kitchen and make for the fridge.
“When did you get this?” Max asks.
Kira hums in question, and glances at the mug as she turns towards Max. “Oh no, don't you try that again. You know your sister will be really upset if you disown that thing. Much as I would love to claim it as my own, she'd be devastated if you gave it up. I'm not willing to get on her bad side for it.”
There's a slight laugh in her tone, and Max furrows her brow. When did Chels give her this mug? And when did she try to pawn it off on Kira? Kira knows Chels well enough to know that the mug is perfectly inline with her bizarre tastes. She also knows that she has a tenancy to think her own preferences when giving a gift. Is it all just a big joke?
“I don't remember Chels giving me this.”
“Wow, you managed to block it from your mind already? I'm impressed, you've only had it for a week. I think you should try using it, honestly. You might grow to love it.”
Max's eyes snap to Kira. “Me. Love it. Seriously?”
“Hey, call me an optimist. Anyways, I need to get to work. See you tonight,” Kira says, grabbing a drink from the fridge and heading for the front door.
As the door locks behind her roommate, Max sets the mug on the counter. The urge to toss it is still strong, but Chels would never let her hear the end of it. It's not worth the risk. She opens the cupboard back up and moves all the other mugs around a bit, creating a space in the back right corner. The mug slots easily into the new opening, and Max shifts everything back so that it can't been seen easily. Satisfied with the arrangement, she closes the door and resolves to forget it exists.
Five days later, Max is watering the plants around the apartment when she stops short in the living room entrance.
It's a cozy room. There's no space for a coffee table, but it holds an old, battered couch and lumpy chair that don't match. Across from the couch is a television that doesn't quite display colors correctly, but was more than worth the twenty dollars it cost. During the day, light pours in from the large windows, and two lamps sitting on wobbly end tables brighten the room at night. The walls are a very light blue; a pretty shade that compliments the muted yellow rug spread out on the hardwood floor. Or at least, it would be pretty, if not for the fact that the walls had been pale gray yesterday.
Max pivots so she's directly facing the wall that surrounds the entryway. She reaches her empty hand out and carefully touches the paint with the pad of her pointer finger. It comes away clean. There's no smell of paint in the room either.
The sound of a door opening carries down the hall, and Kira's voice follows soon after. “What's wrong?”
“Come look at this!”
Footsteps sound and Kira appears in the entrance, long blonde hair half done and bobby pins held in one hand. “What's got you in a tizzy?”
Max gestures vaguely around the room. “Look at the walls!”
Kira glances around, blank expression shifting to mild confusion as she looks back at Max. “What about 'em?”
“The color is different!”
“Different?” Kira scrutinizes the walls for a few moments. “No, they've been that same drab color since we moved in.”
“But they're blue now!”
“They've always been blue.”
“No they haven't! They were gray up until last night!”
“Gray? Well, I guess you could call it kind of gray. If the light hits it just right, I mean. It's like one of those colors that's like, halfway in between two different colors, you know? But I think I would call it blue, myself.”
“What? No!” Max rubs her forehead. “I'm saying that they're a completely different color now!”
“I... really don't get what you're talking about. Are you feeling okay?”
“Yes,” Max snaps. “Of course I feel fine! How are you not seeing this?”
“They're not any different than they've always been, Maxxie,” Kira says, and steps closer, putting the back of her hand on Max's forehead. “Well, you don't feel warm. Maybe you should call off work and go back to bed for the day or something anyway. Clear your head a bit.”
“Kira, I swear, the paint was a different color yesterday.”
“I really don't see any difference. And look, if you makes you feel better, I will swear to you right now that the walls have always been, and let's be real, will always be, the color that they currently are.” Kira holds one hand flat in the air, palm facing Max and bobby pins laced between her fingers. With the other, she takes the watering can from Max's loose grasp. “See? I Swear. Now go call your work and lay down for a while. I'll finish this for you.”
There's sincerity in Kira's eyes, and Max nods. “Yeah... okay.” She takes one last look at the walls, and slowly heads back to her own room.
Once the door is closed, she picks up her phone, calls into work, and then dials her sister.
“Maxxie!” Max jerks the phone away, having forgotten to turn down the volume before Chels picked up. She fumbles with the buttons for a few seconds.
“Hey, Chels,” she says and brings the now quieter phone back to her ear.
“I'm so glad you called. These last few days have been nuts and I have so much to tell you. But you called me, so you go first.”
Max is quiet, and the question that begs asking is burning in her lungs.
“What's the matter?” Chels asks. “You kill another one of your plants?”
“What? No, that-that's not it. I just... look, I have a weird question for you, okay?”
“I don't think any question is too weird for me. Shoot.”
Max chuckles halfheartedly. “Right... So, uh, what color would you say that the walls in my living room are?”
“In your living room? I think they're blue. Like a really, really light blue,” Chels says.
“Uh, no. Not gray. You sound kinda off. What's going on?”
“I... everything's okay. It's nothing. Really. Just, Kira and I were debating the color earlier. I wanted to get another opinion to see who was right.” Max grimaces. There's no way Chels will believe her.
“Okay,” Chels says. “If you say so. Was it you or her? Wait, aren't you supposed to be going to work right now?”
“I'm taking the day off.”
“Are you really sure you're fine? I can take today off too, you know. Come visit you. It's not that far for me to drive.”
“No, no. Don't worry about it. Everything's fine. I'm just a bit tired today. Just need a day off to rest. Anyway, enough about me. What did you want to tell me?”
“Oh! Well yesterday, me and Eric...” Chels keeps talking, and Max stops hearing. The only things on her mind are the maybe blue, maybe gray walls of the next room.
Max shoves the key into the lock, but the door won't open.
“Damn it,” she mutters as she pulls it out. It's harder to remove than usual. Wiggling the handle and pushing on the door with her shoulder don't work either, so Max bangs on it with her fist. “Kira! Kira! My key's not working, can you let me in?”
The door suddenly opens about half way, and Max begins to take a step forward before freezing.
“Can I help you?” There's a woman in the doorway. Mid-forties and stout, with curly black hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Max glances up to the number on the door. It reads 312, like always.
“I... um... this is my apartment,” Max says, craning her neck to see inside.
“Uh, I think you've got the wrong one. I've been living here for the past two years.” The lady closes the door a few inches, blocking Max's view.
“What? No, my roommate and I have lived in this apartment for the past year. This is 312, right?” She points to the number on the door.
“It's 312, yeah, but it's definitely not your apartment.” Max's jaw is slightly slack as her eyes flicker back and forth between the woman and the number on the door. The woman's eyes soften a bit and she gives a small sigh. “Alright, you said you have a roommate? What's their name?”
“K-Kira. Kira Abrams.”
“Kira Abrams? You need to go one floor up.”
“One floor up?”
“Yeah. A couple months back the postman accidentally put a letter in my mailbox for a Kira Abrams. It said apartment 412 on it.”
“I'm sorry, but that's really all I can tell you. You need anything else?”
Max sputters, and tries to tell her that yes, she does need something. She needs this lady to get out of her apartment. She needs the police to come an arrest a squatter. She needs the world to start making sense again. But nothing comes out, and the woman takes her inability to produce a coherent sentence as an answer.
“Okay, well. Have a good evening then.”
The door closes, and Max stares at the number drilled into it. What the hell's going on? She's never been in any other apartments in this building, let alone lived in them. Unsure of what else to do, she starts walking back towards the stairs and up to the fourth floor. The feel of the rail is barely noticeable under her shaking hands, and each step higher takes more effort than the last. She stops in front of apartment 412, and brings the key up to the lock. It slots into the opening after a few misses, and turns easily. She grips the knob, twists it, and pushes on the door. It creeks as it slowly opens wider on it's own.
There's a blue welcome mat just inside the threshold. Shoes are haphazardly scattered about the entryway, and a purse is sitting on the small end table pressed up against the left wall. A framed black and white photo of a windmill surrounded by sunflowers hangs above it. On the opposite wall is a closed door that leads to a bedroom.
Everything is exactly the way it's always been, and yet none of it is right.
“Kira?” Max tries to call, but it comes out as a croak. She clears her throat, and speaks louder, but it's still strained. “Kira?”
The door opens and Kira pops her head out. She looks Max up and down briefly, then steps out into the hall and approaches her. “What's wrong?”
Max wants to speak. Wants to say that everything's wrong, that nothing makes any sense anymore, but the words won't come. Instead, there's tears that can't be fought back anymore. Kira grabs Max's purse, sets it next to hers, and takes Max's hand.
“Hey, hey. It's alright. Come on, let's go sit in the living room, okay?” she says. Max nods, and let's Kira lead her to the couch. “You want me to get you some tea or something?” Max shakes her head and Kira sits down next to her. “Tell me what's going on.”
Max takes a couple deep breaths and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “I think I'm losing my mind or something.”
“What makes you say that?” Kira rubs her hand on Max's upper back.
“I just... things don't match up with the way I remember them. And I don't know what's going on or why it's happening or even if it's actually happening at all. Maybe I'm just imagining everything, but I can't shake it. I... I don't know what to do,” she says, voice cracking on the last word.
“Okay... I'm gonna need you to break this down for me. What things are different?”
Max sniffles. “Our apartment's on the wrong floor, for starters. We're supposed to be in 312, not 412. But I haven't noticed-” Max sits up straighter and looks around the living room. “The walls! Kira, what color would you say the walls are?”
“Just answer. Pease.”
“I don't know... I guess they're sort of gray?”
Max raises both eyebrows, looking Kira dead in the eyes. “You think they're gray? Do you remember the conversation we had about this a few days ago?”
“Um... I don't think so. Remind me what we said?”
“I came home from work and the walls in here were blue. Then I asked you about it, and you said they were always blue, but they looked kinda gray depending on the light. It was definitely a different color than it is now, though! I thought maybe I was seeing things wrong, but they're back to the way they were before...”
“Well, I honestly don't remember that. But whatever this drab color is called, I can confirm that the walls have looked like this since we moved in.” Max goes rigid, because Kira had said something very similar before. Was that conversation a dream? The kind that give déjà-vu when they come true later? Or maybe some sort of memory that never actually happened? It's a bizarre thing to talk about, so surely Kira would remember it too. Was she really losing her mind?
“I'm gonna be honest,” Kira says, startling Max. “I don't really understand this. But I promise that everything is exactly how it's always been. We've been in this same apartment for a year. I don't think I've ever even been on the third floor of this building, actually. And the walls have definitely not been painted. Goodness knows we can't afford to hire someone to do that. And if we did it ourselves, it wouldn't look very pretty.”
Max can't help the small smile that pulls up at the corner of her lips. “You aren't wrong about that. But if you don't remember it, then...”
“Hey, if I notice anything out of the ordinary, you know I'll tell you. But far as I can see, there's nothing. Maybe you're just tired. You should take it easy for a while and reevaluate later.”
“I... yeah. Maybe you're right. Maybe I just need to get some more sleep,” Max says.
Kira nods. “I think it'll help. I wish I could stay longer, but I need to go into work tonight to cover Jess's shift. She called in 'sick' again. I don't know why they haven't just fired her already. So call me if you need anything, okay? And you better actually rest! It's not gonna do you any good to stay up fretting over it.”
“Okay,” Max relents. “I'll try. See you sometime tomorrow.”
Kira gives her a smile, squeezing her shoulder as she gets up from the couch and makes for the front door. A few seconds after the lock clicks, Max gasps and jumps to her feet, beelining for the kitchen. She wrenches the door of their dish cupboard open and starts grabbing the mugs inside. They clatter as they knock against each other when they're set down on the counter. When enough space is made, Max reaches for the one in the right hand corner and pulls it out.
It's one of Kira's, white with an uncolored bumblebee and the phase “Bee Happy” on the front. Max cradles it in both hands and turns it over a few times, as though it'll magically transform into what she's looking for if she just stares at it long enough. Nothing changes though, and it's added to the others. She takes out more mugs, until the shelf is bare and then adds them back in one by one.
But it's not there. It's not in the dishwasher or the sink either.
It should be a good thing. After all, the hideous cup was shoved to the back of a cabinet for a reason. But it's disappearance is another bullet point added to the list of things that don't make sense anymore; things that Max can't get out of her head.
The apartment number is 412, the living room walls flip flopping between blue and gray, and the hamburger mug is gone.
Two weeks pass. Kira's concerns are brushed off on the second day with the excuse that all the inconsistencies were from a very dream. And it would be amazing if that were true. But nobody thinks that they live on the third floor of an apartment building for a year without actually living on the third floor. So Max spends the rest of the first week trying to find any scrap of evidence that the apartment she and Kira are in is not theirs. Every bit of mail is addressed to Maxine Shorney or Kira Abrams in apartment 412, including the eight month old utility report collecting dust on top of the microwave. Nobody comes knocking on their door, telling them that they're in the wrong apartment and actually live downstairs. Even her lease contract, bearing her signature and shoved to the bottom of a rarely opened drawer in her room, is for apartment 412. There's nothing at all to suggest otherwise.
She spends the second week trying to swallow the idea that maybe she's losing her mind. It's a bitter pill to choke down, and it's even harder trying to bring it up to anyone else. She calls Chels one afternoon and avoids asking “what apartment do I live in?” because there's no good way to say that when you supposedly haven't moved in over a year. It's much easier to say “I saw this crazy looking mug the other day and thought it would be something you'd like. It's shaped like a hamburger. Have you ever seen anything like that?” instead. As it turns out, Chels hasn't, but would absolutely not complain of someone were to gift one to her for Christmas or her birthday.
Nothing else changes in those two weeks. The walls remain gray, and mug is nowhere to be found. Max continues to go to work, because if there's one thing sure to never change, it's that there's bills to pay and not enough money in the bank. After work, she walks up the now four flights of stairs (it only takes about a week to get into that habit) and double checks everything in her apartment, including the number on the door.
On the morning that two weeks roll into three, Max opens her bedroom door, intending to go into the bathroom to get ready for work. The opening isn't more than six inches wide when a gray blur darts through. Max jumps and brings a hand up to her chest, but her scream catches in her throat when she realizes what's at her feet.
It's a cat; young, probably about six months old, and staring at her expectantly. She reaches down to pet it, but it darts away and back into the hall. Max follows it out and into the living room, where Kira is pouring cat food from a yellow bag into a small bowl.
“Morning!” She looks up at Max and scratches the cat under it's chin.
“Morning,” Max mumbles. She looks around the room and sees cat toys scattered all around and a litter box in one corner. Next to the couch is a well used pet bed, covered in gray fur and squished down in the middle.
“Wha- oh, yeah. I'm fine,” she says and abruptly turns around, walking towards the bathroom.
The cat hangs around for three days before all evidence of it suddenly vanishes. In it's place is a new light fixture above the kitchen table; one of those gaudy chandeliers that's supposed to look fancy, but is too low quality to actually be taken seriously. Kira makes no note of it, so Max stays quiet too.
Max opens the pantry to grab a snack. Instead of the potato chips that are usually inside, there's nothing but organic foods and rice cakes. After scrounging around and failing to find them, Max walks over to the living room, where Kira is watching TV on the couch.
“Do you know if we have any more chips?”
Kira groans and dramatically falls to the side, draping herself over the armrest. “Don't tempt me, Maxxie,” she whines. “I would kill for some chips right now. Why did we have to decide to eat healthier?”
“Sorry. Never mind then.” Max leaves before Kira can say another word. On her way back to the kitchen, she looks up at the light over the table. It's still the same chandelier.
After more than a month of living in apartment 412, Max wakes one Friday to find the pantry back to normal and the chandelier gone. A cursory look around the apartment reveals nothing unexpected – the living room has gray walls and no cat, there's no hamburger mug in the cupboard, and there's nothing else new or out of place.
It's not until Max steps out into the hallway and glances at the number on the front door that it becomes clear. It says 312. She blinks rapidly a few times, trying to make sure her vision is working properly, then lifts a hand to trace the plastic 3. It's firm under her fingers, definitely real. Max looks to the door across the hall, and sure enough, it's 311. She quickly steps back into her apartment, leaving the door open in haste, and gives it another – more thorough – look over.
But still there's nothing unusual, and that in itself is concerning. If there's one thing that's becomes clear since it all began, it's that there's always something out of place. Maybe just one thing, like the mug, or maybe multiple, like the food and the light fixture. But always something. Except this time, it seems. Could everything be back to normal now?
Max goes back to the hallway to double check the number on the door. 312, just like before. She stands halfway in the apartment and jumps when the door across the hall suddenly opens. It's her neighbor, the same twenty-something girl that moved into 311 a few months after she and Kira started living in the building. They rarely see her, haven't seen her at all in the past month, actually, and have never spoken. The girl gives a smile as she heads towards the stairwell, probably going to work, just like Max should be. After the girls footsteps no longer echo in the stairwell, she shuts her door and leaves the building.
Max returns in the evening and makes it up three and a half flights of stairs before stopping mid-step. She sighs and heads back down to the third floor hallway, where the door to 312 opens easily with her key. Unintelligible sounds from the TV bounce off the walls toward the doorway, but Max moves straight towards her bedroom and shuts the door behind her. She digs her phone out of her purse and scrolls through her contacts. Finding her sister's number, she presses call, turns down the volume, and brings the phone to her ear. Instead of ringing, there's three quick and high pitched beeps.
“We're sorry, the number you are trying to reach is disconnected or no longer in service-” Max pulls the phone away, and double checks that she picked Chels number. Confirming that, she hangs up and tries again.
“We're sorry, the number you are trying to reach is-” she ends the call, then reads each individual number slowly, double checking that they're all in the right order. They are, so Max selects a different contact and waits for an answer. The call is picked up after three rings.
“Dad? Hey, do you know if Chels got a new phone number? I'm trying to call her but I keep getting an error message.” She says. There's a long silence, and she looks at the screen to make sure the signal wasn't dropped. “Dad?”
“Maxxie... we told you last week that we were going to stop paying for her phone to stay connected, remember?” His voice is gentle, but it only increases the impact of the weight that drops in Max's stomach.
“Wha... why was that, again?” She silently prays that the waiver in her voice doesn't come over the line.
“We have to let go of some things. I know that you didn't want us to, but it doesn't do anyone any good to keep it around. We'll never be able to move forward if we don't.”
Max bites her lower lip, stopping herself from saying anything she shouldn't. This must be the thing that changed this time around, and though she can't pinpoint what exactly it is, it's clearly bad. Very, very bad. She can't ask, because she should already know and if the conversation continues much longer, she won't be the only one with questions.
“I... yeah, okay. Sorry. Uh, Kira is calling me. I'll talk to you later, okay? Okay, bye,” she lies, and hangs up before her dad can get a word in. She quickly turns the 'Do Not Disturb' setting on.
What happened to Chels? There are few scenarios where she wouldn't need her phone, and none of them are good. Max's head starts to feel fuzzy, so she plants herself on the edge of the bed. With shaking hands, she pulls up the phone's internet browser and tries to search for her sister's name. It's hard to hit the correct letters though, and takes three tries to get right. Once it sends through and the results pop up, Max has to read the first one over and over again to make sure it says what she thinks it does.
Details and names of victims of single car crash released
It's dated from four months ago, and on the website of the local news agency in her hometown, about an hour away. Where Chels still lives.
Max's finger hovers overs the link, and she swallows hard as she forces herself to press it. The spinning wheel of the loading page seems to move in slow motion. When the article comes up, there's no photo, and the text is short. But like the headline, Max has to read it multiple times to comprehend what it says.
Authorities have released more information regarding Sunday's single car crash on Forest Road.
The crash occurred in the early hours of March 22. There were no witnesses, but another driver saw the car on the side of the road and called 911 at 1 AM.
Emergency responders arrived to find the victims car collided headfirst with a tree, about 15 feet off the side of the eastbound lane.
The driver has been identified as Eric Nosa, 27, and the passenger as Chelsea Shorney, 26, both of Centerville. Both victims died at the scene.
The exact cause of the crash remains under investigation.
Max is still for so long that her phone runs out of battery and the screen fades to black. It slips from her fingers, clattering to the ground, but the sound doesn't reach her.
Her sister is dead.
Maybe she should scream, sob, or wail, and throw back her head, shouting why at the universe. Maybe she should tear down the art decorating the walls, throw it against the ground in rage and let the glass shatter into millions of tiny pieces. Maybe she should knock everything off her dresser, or tear her pillows apart with her bare hands. Maybe she should leave everything behind and start a new life in a new place, where her memories have no roots.
Instead, Max sits on her bed, and the feel of the comforter under her legs vanishes. Tears begin to pool along the bottom of her eyes, and everything blurs into shapeless colors. The only noise reverberating in her ears is the blood rushing through her veins. Her breathing shallows, and the tremors in her hands grows until they consume her whole body.
It may be minutes or hours later, but steady footsteps in the hallway jerk Max back to awareness as they pass the door. The light filtering in through the closed blinds is dimmer than it was when Max got home. She's lying flat on her back, apparently having moved at some point. Stiff arms to come up to rub at her dry face and force her body off the bed. She ambles over to the door, and squints as bright light fills the room. The phone is still on the floor. She picks it up and tries to turn it on, but nothing happens. After plugging it in to charge, it reboots and the lock screen shows the time.
9 PM. Late enough to go straight to bed.
Max shuts the light back off and climbs underneath the covers, still fully dressed in the clothes she'd worn all day. It doesn't matter – just like her growling stomach or the thin plaque layer on her teeth. She brings her blankets up under her nose and splays her legs in search of cool spots. As her eyes close, the quiet emptiness of sleep takes hold.
When Max opens her eyes in the late morning, everything rushes back in full force, and she squeezes her eyes shut again. Maybe the knowledge of what happened will go away if the rest of the world does too.
It's strange. Chels is dead, but also very much alive. The conversation they'd had on the phone after the apartment number changed was real. March 22nd wasn't that long ago, and Max has to think hard about anything from that day that sticks out. There's nothing though, and even all the days between then and the start of the changes were unremarkable. So Chels can't be dead, not really, because nobody spends months forgetting that their sister's gone. This is just a temporary stop in the long line of strangeness that has been Max's life for the past few months.
She draws the covers back and walks over to her phone. Removed from the charger, the screen lights up and Max takes a deep breath as she dials the number again.
Three beeps. “We're sorry-”
Max sets it back down and rubs her temples to try and ward off the approaching headache. The mirror of her vanity reflects a disheveled mess; swollen, red eyes, wrinkled clothes, and hair sticking up at strange angles. There's a bad taste in her mouth. She makes for the bathroom, holding in the tears that want to escape. Shedding them won't help, because one day she'll wake up, and Chels will be just fine.
The TV is on again when Max enters the living room in the early afternoon. Kira's on the couch, reheated Chinese food in a take-away container on her lap.
“What are you watching?” Max asks.
“Doctor Who, of course. What else would it be?”
Max balks. Chels mentioned the show to them once, sometime last year. Kira flat out said it sounded boring, and Max had never got around to checking it out. “When'd you start watching that? I didn't think you even liked sci-fi.”
“What? I've been watching this show for like, three or four months. You've watched a few of these with me,” Kira says.
Max stares at Kira blankly for a few seconds before moving her gaze to the TV. She slowly walks over to the couch and sits on the left side.
“Kira, I'm gonna tell you something,” she says. “And you'll probably think I'm insane, because I also think I'm insane, but you're also probably not going to remember this conversation in a few days, so what the hell. Might as well, right?”
Kira opens her mouth to respond, but Max presses on before she can. “For the past, I don't know, two months or so, things have been changing all of a sudden and then going back to the way they're supposed to be, and I have no idea why. It's mostly random stuff, like the color of the walls, or the light above the kitchen table. But some of them are a lot bigger than that, like... like Chels. I came home yesterday and tried to call her, only to find out that she died,” Max's voice cracks as her throat constricts, “in a car crash four months ago, even though it's only been a few weeks since I talked to her last. And every time I've told you about any of it, you don't remember the conversations when the next thing changes.”
Kira stares at Max, mouth pulled tight at the corners. There's a long silence, but Max doesn't say any more, so Kira takes it as her cue. “Well, I can't really argue with what you said. That does sound pretty insane. But you should consider the possibility of parallel universes.”
Max blinks at Kira a few times. “What?” She chokes on the word and clears her throat.
“Parallel universes. You know, like at the end of season two.” Kira points to the television, where the show is still playing. “Well, actually, maybe you don't, but we'll get to that. Anyway, the Doctor said that every decision we make creates a parallel universe. So like, you said the walls changed color, right? So maybe whoever painted it was torn between two colors, and in one universe they picked one, and in another they picked the other.”
“Oh my god, and I thought I was the one losing their mind,” Max says.
Kira laughs and sets the container of food on the end table next to her. “I mean, they're not scientifically proven to exist or anything, though I googled it and a lot of people way smarter than me think they could be real. But I'm pretty sure you're not a Time Lord, so unless you've been hiding a police box from me, I have no idea how you'd being going from one to another. Obviously, I don't study this stuff, but far as I can tell, it all lines up. So until I have a reason to think otherwise, I'm going with it.”
“What are you even talking about? Why are you so serious about this? This isn't a TV show, Kira! And why is that the first thing you come up with? Nobody thinks of that! It sounds completely crazy!”
“It wasn't the first thing I thought of. But I've had time to consider it.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Look, you've seen all these things that are 'different' right? Nobody but you notices them, and when the 'difference' switches from one thing to another, nobody remembers ever talking to you about it, right?” Kira asks, and Max slowly nods. “Okay, so bear with me here. Let's say that this parallel universe idea is real. What happens to the original you in the new universes that you end up in?”
“I don't... I don't know what you mean.”
“If there are parallel universes, then there are parallel 'you's' that live in them. So if you're, as in the Maxxie sitting in front of me right now, moving from universe to universe, where are the 'you's' that live in the universes that you're passing through?”
“How would I know?”
“You know what, I'm just gonna cut to the chase. You're not the only Maxxie that I've had this discussion with. In fact, I'm pretty sure you're the sixth. I'm starting to lose count, honestly,” Kira says. “Although, with the first few times, I had no clue what was going on. I'm still not sure I do, actually, but I'm just rolling with it.”
Max's heart pounds so hard, it could burst through her chest. She presses her shoulders against the back of the couch, and the feel of it grounds her. “And you believe this multiple universe idea because...”
“Because I know you. You wouldn't make up this sort of thing. And each 'you' that I meet is way too consistent. You all have a different set of things that changed and different timelines. I actually started writing it all down because it's getting hard to follow. There's no way you'd be able to keep it all straight. This, clearly, isn't a normal situation. And abnormal situations mean abnormal explanations. Besides,” her voice softens, “I think that by the time each 'you' gets here, you've kind of had it with pretending that nothing's going on. Which, given what happened with Chels, isn't too hard to understand. And since I've had you tell me about all the nuttiness so many times, I pretty much have to believe it, don't I? Otherwise I'd start to think I'm going insane too.” Kira grins at Max's dumbfounded expression.
“I... I have no idea what to say to all this,” Max says, distress starting to slip into her voice.
“Well, I'm not surprised. This is pretty much how it went the other times, too. If I'm really taking to multiple versions of you, then so far, you're basically the same person in every universe. If that makes you feel any better.”
“Whether you're right or not, what am I even supposed to do? I have no idea why or how any of this is happening. How am I supposed to stop it? What started it to begin with? What if it goes on forever? What-”
“Maxxie. Breathe,” Kira says. Max closes her eyes and forcefully draws in a few shaky breaths. “Like I said before, I have no idea how it would all work. Maybe it's completely out of your hands. I'm not saying that you shouldn't try to figure it out, but don't let it eat you alive, okay?”
Max doesn't answer. Kira returns her gaze to the TV and picks her food carton back up. Max follows the line of Kira's sight, and watches as the episode ends and credits start to roll. It's not until the cold opening of the next one changes to the title sequence that Max speaks up again. “Can you tell me about Chels?”
Kira grabs the remote and pauses the show. “Pretty much everything I know about it was what you told me. It was Eric's birthday, so he and Chels went to some bar downtown with a few friends. They left a bit after midnight, but I guess that they underestimated how much they'd been drinking. Eric was speeding and he lost control of the car, and by the time someone else drove by and saw them, there wasn't anything that could've been done,” she says.
There's no hesitation in her voice, nor waiver. Telling the story must get a bit easier each time. Max bites her lower lip in an effort to distract herself from the new round of tears that sting her eyes. She should be done crying by now. But hearing about what happened to her sister shows that she's a long ways off still. How long did Chels suffer in that car? Why did nobody see the crash? Maybe someone could have saved her and Eric if they had just gotten there sooner. Maybe she could've-
“Hey,” Kira's says, breaking Max's stream of thought. “You're gonna see her again.”
“You don't know that. And even if it ends up being true, it doesn't make this any better.”
“No, it doesn't. You have every right to be sad, and you should air it out. But don't just leave yourself empty. It doesn't have to be right away, but make sure you let something good patch up the space, okay? And don't you put any blame on yourself. Or any other version of you, for that matter. You couldn't have done anything.”
Max wipes at her eyes and let's out a puff of disbelieving laughter. “God, you really believe this.”
“Of course I do! Now,” Kira turns so her body is facing Max and eagerly leans forward, “tell me everything that you've seen since all the weirdness started.”
“Everything? I'm not even sure where to start.”
“Give me the most interesting. Or from the beginning. Doesn't really matter. I want to know all of it.”
“Okay, well... You ever thought about getting a cat?”
Kira gasps. “I had a cat? Wait, don't say any more. I'm gonna grab my journal,” she says, and jumps off the couch. In her haste, she slips on the edge of the rug and flails her arms to keep her balance. She regains her footing and looks back at Max sheepishly.
Max brings her hand up to cover her mouth and stifle her giggling. It shouldn't be funny, someone trying to catch theirself before they fall. But Kira's exaggerated movements look so completely ridiculous that Max's amusement crescendos into a fit of laughter that culminates in a snort. Her cheeks heat up as she hides her face in her elbow, but Kira lets out a guffaw of her own and Max's composure breaks completely.
There's many things that don't make sense anymore. The color of the walls, the mugs in the cupboard, the light above the kitchen table. But this moment, laughing uncontrollably about something so simple, isn't one of them. And as Max clutches her stomach and doubles over, the sound bounces off the walls and comes right back to where it came from.
THE DRAGONS WANT A HERO TO SAVE THE WORLD
The little clearing in a forest lit up in the middle of the night. A magic circle was glowing amid the grass.
Then nothing happened.
“Why is it taking so long?” Said one of the creatures standing in the dark a little away from the circle.
The other one consulted a book it was holding. “It says here…” It turned a page, “we might have to wait a while. That world is particularly slow.”
The creatures waited some more. The circle was still glowing. Then the light faded. Something was at the center. The creatures got closer for a better look. That something slowly stood up, then wobbled a little, as if disoriented.
One of the creatures, the one holding the book, fluttered forward on wings and grinned. “Welcome, young human, we have been waiting.”
- - -
A math problem about subtended angle where one could find the length of a rope using Sine Law was the kind of problem Tatsumi furiously thought about during exams in simpler times. Now he was furiously thinking about how to save himself from a 10-foot-tall green bear that could shoot its claws like shuriken, which was now chasing him. he was currently running for his life. the katana bumping against his thigh as he bolted through the forest was supposed to be one of the 6 legendary katanas forged by a master swordsmith to fight the Demon King. But now it just swung uselessly from the sling.
“Great swords come with great reawakening rituals,” the fairies had said. “you can only unleash the power of Alokbortika by sharpening the blade with a dragon scale in the light of a blue moon and glazing the tip with a drop of your blood.”
Now on his way to the dragons’ lair, Tatsumi was running into one terrifying beast after the other, unable to fight them because the stubborn sword refused to leave the scabbard.
“Oi oi oi! I’m in a pinch here, Bort.” Tatsumi smacked the hilt of the katana. “Would be great if you could at least help me like a regular sword. I don’t need your anti-demon magic right now.”
The katana grumbled once and went quiet. Tatsumi tried to get it out of the scabbard to no avail. Again. Now his only hope was the confounding spell he had learned from the fairies, which only lasted for about a minute. This only gave him enough time to avoid a deadly blow from whatever beasts attacked him and run in the other direction. The fairies had promised that his powers will get a lot stronger and he would know more spells once he is blessed by the dragons, then they had practically abandoned him in the middle of the forest.
A few hours later, Tatsumi was sprawled on his back in the shade of a tree after somehow escaping the bear. His heart was hammering in his chest and his lungs were dying. If this kept up, he would never make it to the dragons’ lair at the top of the mountain. These beasts kept sidetracking him. He had run uphill and downhill several times and now he had no idea where he was. This time, one of the claws the bear threw almost impaled him in the chest. His armor had a pronounced dent at that spot. He was dead in his homeworld and about to die any second in this second one. Tatsumi was too tired to even curse at the fairies for reincarnating him into this world without even a superpower. What hero got summoned into another world without any superpower? That stupid sword didn’t count.
A voice said from above, “Heading to the mountaintop, are you?”
Tatsumi opened his eyes. A brown owl was perched on a branch, looking down at him. Tatsumi frowned. “Did you just speak?”
“What. A green bear can fire its claws at you but an owl cannot speak?” The owl sounded indignant.
Tatsumi forced his exhausted mind to concentrate. Who knew when the owl would swoop down to attack him? “For a talking owl, you seem to be touchy about owls not being able to talk…”
“I’ve met the likes of you. You always go- ‘what! A talking owl!’” the owl mimicked a surprised tone, “even though you’re on your way to meet DRAGONS that are as rare as talking owls in YOUR world.”
“The likes of me?” Tatsumi sat up. “What do you mean?”
The owl seemed to be smirking. “Oh you think you’re so special. You all do.” It spread one wing. “Go this way. You’ll find a path leading up. Follow that straight to the top and you’ll get to your destination.” Then the owl spread both its wings and flew away.
True enough, there was a game trail going uphill. Tatsumi took a quick meal break and hurried along before another wild monster appeared. The owl had said that there were others like him. Tatsumi was guessing that more people had been summoned into this world to fight the Demon King. The previous ones must have failed or there would have been no need for Tatsumi. But if multiple others had failed, would he be able to succeed?
Tatsumi halted in his tracks.
What if … he didn’t go to the dragons? What if he found a village and tried to settle in?
So he trudged on.
- - -
Surprisingly, no more monsters appeared and Tatsumi found himself near a cave opening by dusk. He was panting heavily and his legs were screaming. This wasn’t exactly the mountaintop but he wouldn’t complain. The cave mouth had a board above it that had some signs scribbled on it. Tatsumi did not know the language but he could understand the illustration of a dragon and a sword pretty well, so he decided this had to be it. Then he wondered how he had understood the owl and the fairies perfectly well. Amid all the confusion of being summoned into another world and being chased by monsters, he hadn’t really thought of the language barrier that should exist.
Just then, an elf peeked from inside the cave. It took a look at the sword at Tatsumi’s waist and asked, “You’re here for the test?”
Tatsumi nodded. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were as bugged out as he thought they were. He hoped not, it would be rude. The elf took his name and names of the fairies who summoned him. Then the elf escorted him inside. The interior of the cave was lit with torches and paintings. On one side there was a desk with some bookshelves next to it. A wooden plaque on the desktop said: reception. A wooden bench sat facing the reception. The elf told him to wait there while he finished the paperwork. Tatsumi sat on the bench and waited. He had been anticipating tests, yes but he had not expected the dragons to have a receptionist. Now he was having doubts about what type of tests he would have to do. Fight monsters? But his sword still didn’t feel like coming out of the scabbard.
“Right this way,” the elf started to lead him further into the cave – which was some sort of a corridor – and added after a beat, “please.” After a few more seconds, “if you are asked about how you were received – I was a very polite elf, right?”
Tatsumi didn’t really have a benchmark for elvish politeness, so he guessed he should play along. After a while, they arrived at a room that seemed to be an arena. The ceiling was open to the sky. Tatsumi wondered if this was a refurbished volcano. He could directly see the night sky through the opening. The inside was bright, however, the light source hidden somewhere. There was an elevated stage in the middle of the – floor? Tatsumi couldn’t decide what to call it. To one side of the stage, there was a bunch of machinery. Tatsumi did a double-take. Machinery? There definitely were a bunch of stuff that looked like treadmills and monitors, etc. There was even a desk with a laptop on top of it. A girl with a clipboard was standing there. She checked something on her clipboard and said, “are you ready for the test?”
Now, this was the first human Tatsumi was seeing a human since coming to this world though he couldn’t be sure if it was a human or merely another being that looked like a human. He was so unsure about so many things. “Um…what is this test?”
The girl frowned. She looked down at her clipboard. “Didn’t Trixie and Ziki tell you about it?”
Tatsumi shook his head. Trixie and Ziki were the names of the two fairies.
The girl sighed and adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. “What did they tell you then?”
Tatsumi recounted how he had died in a car crash in his previous life- he only remembered getting hit by a car while he was on his bicycle and the fairies had informed him of his eventual demise- about how a Demon King was plaguing this world and the fairies were waiting for a Hero to appear who could defeat the Demon King and save everyone, and that the fairies believed Tatsumi to be the one. Then the girl made him tell her all about the monsters he had encountered on his way here and how he had fought them. She clicked her tongue when she heard that the fairies had sent him on his merry way with only the confounding spell. She muttered something that sounded like Tatsumi wasn’t supposed to be any good with spells without any magic items in the first place. He took out his sword.
“They said Alokbortika is a katana powerful enough to defeat the Demon King. But I cannot get it out of the scabbard until I am blessed by the dragons.”
The girl suddenly looked exhausted. “That is just a magic sword and you only need a key to unlock it.”
She sighed. “I keep telling these damn fairies not to mislead the applicants with fake promises of legendary swords. Boosting their confidence like this is no good. But old habits die hard.”
Tatsumi stared some more.
The elf had set up a screen and a projector in the meantime. Tatsumi was given a chair. The girl went to the desk and opened a PowerPoint presentation. Tatsumi stared. Why in the world were there computers and MS Powerpoint in a world with dragons and demons and talking owls?
The presentation began with a welcome speech- a video featuring three dragons awkwardly looking toward the camera and saying how they wished the Hero watching this was the one, that they would love to support the Hero to defeat the Demon King and bring peace to the world. Then the girl introduced herself.
“I am Toph, secretary to the Jasmine Dragons.” Then she proceeded to explain the tests to him. He would have to take them in two phases; one now and the other tomorrow, after a good night of rest.
“We wish to see your mana level when you are weary compared to when your energy is replenished.”
Tatsumi learned that he did actually have some mana that he didn’t yet know how to channel. The machinery were mana detectors. He was shown clips of people taking the tests- several humans like himself, a dwarf, a witch, two orcs. Then there were some images of towns and villages ravaged by the Demon King and his army.
“This evil being must be taken down and you might be the one to do so. Now, questions?” Toph asked when she arrived at the last slide displaying ‘thank you for your kind attention, the floor is now open to questions’.
Tatsumi raised a hand- he didn’t know why he felt the need to do that- and asked, “why do you have Earth technology here?”
Toph looked a bit proud. “These are not Earth tech. Sure, I took reference from there but I designed these myself. Lord Iroh followed my designs to Create them. Anything else?”
“The dragons are guardians of this world and they protect the balance of power, right? So how could the Demon King take over? Why don’t the dragons fight him?” Tatsumi blurted out.
Toph didn’t seem to take offence. “The dragons’ forces are tied to this mountain. They cannot leave here. That’s why the Demon King has made his territory far from here. Also, the great ones are not omnipotent.” She ended with a pointed look at Tatsumi.
“So…when do I get to see the dragons?”
“Tomorrow,” Toph replied and gestured him to come near the machinery.
He had to run on a treadmill with some plug-like things attached to him, wear a headset that made him feel like a patient at a mental asylum, wear a bracelet that was something like a smartwatch and hold some glowing rocks that were supposed to trigger his mana. Every time, some graphs and numbers appeared on the monitors and Toph was furiously typing away at her laptop.
“Okay, done for today. Phi will show you to the dorm and bring you dinner. You can take a bath and sleep. Tomorrow we do the second phase of tests.”
“That’s it?” Tatsumi couldn’t believe it. “Don’t I get tried for combat or anything like that?”
Toph sighed. “I really should put that in the presentation,” she muttered. Then she spoke louder. “You haven’t been trained yet and you can’t even use your weapon, so combat trial is really not an option right now.”
Just like that, Tatsumi was sent off with Phi the elf.
The next day, he had to go through the same tests. Toph kept frowning at the monitors and Tatsumi wondered what he was doing wrong.
They were only through the first test- the treadmill run- when the arena darkened. Three clouds had blocked the volcano mouth (Tatsumi had decided to go with this theory after all). Soon, the clouds descended into the arena. The clouds turned out to be enormous scaly beasts with serpentine bodies and large wings and sharp claws.
“The Jasmine Dragons have arrived,” Phi announced.
Tatsumi’s jaw hung open. The dragons stared down at him. In the video, they had looked like cartoons. They were much more real in real life (duh!). Sparks of flame escaped their nostrils every time they breathed. One of them was pure black, its scales having a metallic tinge. Another was flamey orange, like molten lava. The third one was lavender, the scales giving off a bluish hue. This was the one that spoke first, its voice like the rumbling of storm clouds.
“How does the new hero fare?”
“Sir,” Toph stepped ahead, “his mana levels are quite stable. There are still two more tests left and I would like to comment after conducting them.”
The orange dragon craned its long neck. “I see a good aura around this one. Let’s have him do the challenge.”
Toph objected. “But sir, we need the data to-”
“No need for this data thing if he’s the one, is there?” The orange dragon didn’t let her finish. The lavender dragon seemed to be agreeing with him. But the black dragon took Toph’s side. He seemed to be the boss dragon because the other two acquiesced immediately.
So Tatsumi did the rest of the stupid tests too. Last evening, he had been an exhausted wreck and this time he was a nervous wreck. The dragons watched quietly- only the orange one munching on something and burping from time to time- and Toph kept frowning at the monitors. Finally, the ordeal was over and he was told he had to complete a challenge to prove his worth. He was made to stand on one end of the stage. The orange dragon flew over to land right behind him. Tatsumi gulped. He had no idea what the challenge was about but Toph refused to give him any pointers. The surprise was supposedly part of the challenge.
“But if you can’t stay on the stage, you fail,” was all she had said helpfully.
“RUN!” The orange dragon bellowed from behind him, and Tatsumi ran like he never had in his life, not even with the monsters in the forests. He risked a glance behind and saw a ball of fire hurtling toward him. The dragon was breathing fire at him! Tatsumi ran faster. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. He was almost at the opposite edge of the stage. He couldn’t get pushed out so he wildly turned to his right and ran that way. The orange dragon threw another fireball at him.
“What the hell is this challenge?” Tatsumi thought as he turned and ran another way. He might have been weeping. Or the tears might have been from the smoke stinging his eyes.
Out of nowhere, a desk appeared right in front of him and as he ran straight into it, he stubbed his toe. A shriek tore through Tatsumi’s throat. He bowled over and fell.
“FAIL.” Bellowed the orange dragon.
Tatsumi had been rolling on the stage surface, hugging his toe. He sat up when he heard the announcement.
“I didn’t fall off the stage!” he squeaked. He looked at Toph.
“I never said that was the ONLY way you could fail.” The girl shrugged.
Tatsumi gaped at her and the dragons. “You put a DESK in front of me while trying to set me on fire!”
The orange dragon laughed. “Do not think the Demon King will play fair, boy.”
“WHERE DID THE DESK COME FROM?”
The purple dragon had apparently Created it so that Tatsumi would stub his toe on it.
“YOU WANTED ME TO STUB MY TOE?”
The black dragon said coolly, as coolly as possible for a hot dragon smoking through its nostrils, “You cannot bear the pain from stubbing your toe. You would not last through the training.” Then it turned, unfurled its wings and flew away. The other two followed suit. Tatsumi gaped after them. Then he whipped his head toward Toph, who was typing away on her laptop, frowning again.
“WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?” he shouted.
Toph glanced briefly at him. “You were rejected.”
“WHAT THE HELL? WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA WAS IT TO TEST A HERO LIKE THAT?”
Toph sighed. “You are not a Hero. We were testing if you have what it takes to become one and the Guardians just decided that you don’t. Anyway, your mana level is not high enough, so it’s good that you didn’t get dragged into this mess. You know, the Demon King or his generals eat up all the heroes who have fallen in battle.”
“Couldn’t I level up?”
“This is not a game,” Toph answered mechanically as if she faced such outburst from all the rejected applicants.
Suddenly a thought crossed Tatsumi’s mind. “You’re from Earth just like me. How did you become a secretary here?”
Toph adjusted her glasses and looked up at him. “I was summoned into this world just like you.” Then maybe she felt sorry for Tatsumi, because she went on explaining, “at that time, the dragons were supporting any potential hero who were brought into this world by the fairies. The fairies have this ‘sacred secret’ art of locating promising individuals about to enter the afterlife and bringing them here. But so far, none of them have succeeded to bring down the current Demon King. It was a waste of time and resources. The dragons’ powers are not infinite and they were frustrated with how the heroes were failing. They become easily attached, you see,” Toph shrugged. “So I gave them a plan to be efficient and effective.”
Tatsumi sat down – he didn’t know when he had jumped up – and held his head in his hands. “So… what do I do now?”
“You can live peacefully in one of the villages at the foot of this mountain. Better than going out onto the battlefield and dying quickly.”
Tatsumi didn’t look up, so he couldn’t confirm if Toph really sounded sympathetic or if it was just his imagination.
- - -
Trixie and Ziki knelt on the floor of the throne room with their heads hung low. The torches flickering on the wall created a spooky environment. But that was not why the fairies were feeling were scared.
“You keep failing.” Came the somber voice from the throne, dark, without any torch near it to repel the shadows.
The fairies cowered. “We apologize, my lord,” they said together. “This human surely had a lot of powers. We were careful with the summoning.”
“As you were before. Still he did not pass the screening,” roared the Demon King. “I told you to bring me heroes and you can’t summon a good one. Now begone.”
The fairies whimpered and flew out the huge windows of the throne room without delay.
Ziki was still sniffing. “Couldn’t we summon the heroes in the lord’s castle directly?”
Trixie bonked Ziki on the head. “You idiot! The humans are no good if they aren’t blessed by the dragons.”
Ziki rubbed her head and said, “Ever since that secretary came, we can’t get any hero blessed by the dragons. I hate her.”
“We should go to the Fairy Queen,” Trixie said thoughtfully. “We need to learn the mana level the dragons are accepting. Maybe the Queen can help us.”
- - -
Toph was finishing up for the night. She folded up the papers she was reading and looked out the window. The Peddler’s Moon shone gloomily down on the forest.
Just two more years, she told herself. That’s how long the Demon King could sustain himself without absorbing a strong Hero. If he perished, the Evil Force would not be able to reincarnate itself. If she could keep this up, this world would finally be rid of this evil.
So many ifs.
The dragons did not understand. It was in their nature to seek Heroes and train them to fight the Demon Kings that came. It was the way of this world and this very system was killing it.
Toph closed the window. Nothing could harm her within the dragons’ territory but she didn’t want to take any chances. The battle was far from over.
Voting lasts until Friday, the 31st of July. I already provided all the participants with the participation VCC. If you have any questions about the voting, feel free to ask! :