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Episode 017 The Shop

Episode 017 The Shop

June 1920

Barry Mullein opened his occult shop on Westfield avenue just after the war. He started it as a traditional pharmacy, intent on providing  common helpful goods and services to the people of Amon Heights.

In time, Barry's little store started to receive requests from members of the immigrant communities for unusual powders, blessed candles, and other folk remedies.

In response to the increasing demand for occult and spiritual items, Barry decided to expand his inventory. He began carrying specially formulated sachets, incense, and blends of occult oils, all intended to enhance contentment, happiness, and prosperity. These products became popular among the locals, and the store gained a reputation as a source of spiritual and mystical supplies.

One crisp October day, a new customer entered Barry’s Occult Shop, accompanied by the jingle of the shopkeeper bell above the door. The little man wore a charcoal gray suit with matching bowler hat and carried a gleaming black satchel. Thick black eyebrows contrasted with his paper-white face that somehow didn’t seem to match his head, almost like a mask. Every step as the man entered the store seemed almost too exact and correct, as if he were performing the act of walking rather than merely doing so. The stranger walked up to the counter and read aloud the aluminum sign directly above Barry’s head.

“We’re here to help.” said the man. 

“Yessir!” said Barry, “That’s my motto. Our entire mission statement. Barry’s Occult Shop, ‘We’re here to help!’  What can I do for you, mister?”

“Your motto? So I am safe to assume that you are the eponymous Mr. Barry?” 

“Right again, friend. So what seems to be the trouble? If your suntan needs work, I’ve got all kinds of ointments and unguents to assist in that endeavor.”

“A joke? Haha.” said the man in a tone that did not seem amused. “My employer is a lover of all forms of levity and frivolity. I think your shop will suit his needs quite nicely.”

“Oh. I see. You’re here on behalf of another then? Well, tell me pal, who’s your boss and what’s he need?”

“Well,” started the man as he picked up from the counter a small figurine with grotesque features formed from clay and painted with horizontal black stripes , “Mr. Chino, my employer, is a man of singular taste. He has in his collection many unique items that perhaps you would consider displaying in your little emporium.”

“Oh, I see,” said Barry, “You’re not fixin’ to buy, you’re lookin’ to sell.”

“Oh no sir.” said the stranger, “I don’t mean to give you the impression that Mr. Chino is a mere peddler. He is a connoisseur of the unusual. But he would wish to share his acquisitions with others who may be in need. As your sign says, he too would like to help.”

“Hold on a minute, sir. Are you implying that Mr. Chino is looking to give stuff away? Just like that? That doesn’t sound ordinary to me, sir.”

“Oh Mr. Barry. There is nothing ordinary about it at all. I assure you. However, my employer is quite insistent that your shop is the perfect place for his collection. And he understands that you are a businessman. Therefore you are not expected to allow him to take up space in your store without compensation. Please sir, feel free to charge whatever price you deem reasonable to your patrons.”

“Ok. Alright...Mister...”


“Mister Contragust,” continued Barry, “You’re saying that your boss doesn’t wish for me to compensate him in any way other than to distribute his goods to my paying customers and that he expects me to just TAKE the profits all for myself?”

“Yes.” mister Contragust said, “But, may I indulge myself one teensy bit? Should you agree to the deal?”

“In what way?”

“This.” Contragust said, holding up the tiny figurine, “It amuses me so.”

“You’re offering me free products to sell at one hundred percent profit and all you want is that Hopi sacred clown kachina doll?”

“I believe it is Zuni, not Hopi, but yes sir.”

“Then you got yourself a deal, Mister Contragust!” smiled Barry, “Where do I sign up!”

A contract was produced from the strange man’s bag and signed swiftly before Mr. Contragust went on his way.

The next day Mr. Chino’s new products started pouring in. Box after box delivered in a plain white truck by men in plain white overalls with the name “BALATRON” printed on the back. 

It was an odd assortment of items indeed. Barry found himself at a loss of how to categorize, display, and present most of these enigmatic products to his customers. As he unpacked the strange trinkets, ancient relics, and various objects that exuded an aura of mystery and mysticism, his employee, Millie entered the store.

“What the heck is all this junk?” she asked him.

“Now, Millie,” said Barry, “This isn’t junk. These are...umm...curios.”

“Well, I’m pretty curios about how you intend to stock it all. It takes up half the shop!”

“I’m working on it. I think I need to move the counter back a few feet and that will leave room for a grand display. I can stack a few crates and drape them with a few old sheets. When I’m done it will actually look quite nice I suspect.”

“When did you order all this stuff? It don’t look nothin’ like our usual crap.”

“Our silent benefactor donated them!” beamed Barry. 

“Silent what-a-factor?” asked Millie.

“Certain Mr. Chino.” Barry said. “He’s providing his gimcracks, gewgaws, and baubles for our clientele to ooh and ahh at. Between you and me, I can’t say I expect this merchandise to move, but never look a gift horse in the mouth. That’s what I say. If nothing else, we should have a nice window display to draw ‘em in!”

“Draw who in?”

“Why, our customers, of course.”

“But they already come in. For the services we provide them”. Millie said.

“Yes, but maybe we can lure a few new folks into the old shop! If not, no harm done. That’s what I always say.”

“And this Mr. Chino, you sure you trust him?”

“Why wouldn’t I trust him?” asked Barry, “What’s he stand to gain by giving me products to sell pro bono?”

“What’s he stand to gain?” gasped Millie, “Oh I dunno. Maybe he’s fixin’ to unload his stolen goods? You ever think of that?”

Barry was truly taken aback. He’d never considered the notion.

“But,” he began, “but that don’t make sense. If he’s lookin’ for a fence then certainly he’d want his piece of the pie. But I tell you, this guy doesn’t want a dime!”

“Well, that’s even more suspicious!” said an exasperated Millie, “He’s probably a smuggler!”

“A smuggler? Come now!”

“Think about it, boss. He gets you to hold onto his ill-gotten gains until he can pass it off to the real buyer. They pay you and then...”

“And then what? How’s he supposed to get his cut? There’s no logical way for that to happen. I tell you Millie, this fella is simply an eccentric altruist.”

“I don’t know what an owl truthist is, but he sure sounds eccentric.”

Millie crossed her arms and shook her head, skeptical about this whole arrangement. "I just don't trust it, boss. There's something fishy about all of this."

Barry, always the optimist, shrugged off Millie's concerns. "Well, we won't know until we give it a try. Besides, if it turns out to be legit, we stand to make quite a profit from Mr. Chino's unique items. And if not, we can always return them or report any suspicious activities to the authorities. But let's not jump to conclusions just yet."

Over the following days, Barry and Millie worked diligently to reorganize the store, creating a dedicated section for Mr. Chino's enigmatic wares. They carefully displayed the bizarre figurines, ancient manuscripts, and otherworldly relics in a way that piqued the curiosity of passersby. The new display quickly became a focal point of the shop, drawing in a stream of intrigued customers.

As weeks passed, the items from Mr. Chino's collection began to sell, much to Barry's surprise. People from all walks of life were captivated by the peculiar items.

Customers often had questions about the items, but Barry could provide almost no info regarding them. Each curio came with a handwritten tag, but the labels offered little in the way of illumination. In most cases the tags had two or three words on them such as “Sadness Bowl” or “Box of Rectification”. Nevertheless, nearly every article that a customer asked about was sold immediately. It was as if merely touching one of these strange artifacts was enough to encourage a sale. On the other hand, as Barry preferred to believe- the customers were drawn to the object that best suited their needs.

The donated objects didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, but Barry noticed an uptick in sales in general as his reputation as the man to go to when you have a seemingly unsolvable problem increased. 

Mr. Granahan came in one day looking for something that would stop his wife’s snoring. Before Barry could offer him a tonic which he’d stocked for just such a problem, the man picked up an old pillowcase that lay folded on the display. Barry hadn’t even noticed it before. Of course, that was often the case with these items. There were so many that Barry couldn’t keep track of them. Still, he was certain that some of these objects just seemed to appear just as they were needed.

“This is it.” said Mr. Granahan. “Just the thing! I don’t know how you do it, Barry.” 

He purchased the pillowcase and left. Barry wasn’t entirely sure how it was supposed to help Mr. Granahan’s problem, but he’d not had a single complaint about the new products so far.

Sometimes weeks went by without any of the items moving, but sooner or later someone or other would come in looking for the solution to a problem. Inevitably they’d pick up the “Satchel of Coveting” or “Laughing Dog Figurine”, declare it was exactly what they were looking for and then leave happy.

Barry almost felt guilty charging for the things since they’d cost him nothing at all, but Mr. Contragust had insisted. There had been a contract and everything.

One day Millie came in with a gentleman. 

“This is Rodney.” she said, introducing the man, “He’s a...friend of mine. I told him about the new products we’ve been selling and he’s really interested.”

“Interested in what?” asked Barry.

“Interested in making you a wealthy man!” said Rodney. “You seem to be sitting on a gold mine here.”

“Well, business is doing just fine. I don’t think I need-”

“Don’t need more money?” Rodney interrupted. “Come now, Barry. Everyone could use more cash. Am I right?”

“Well, sure, but-”

“Let me tell you what I can do for you! You’ve got a good line of products! But you need to expand! This little rinky-dink shop isn’t gonna get you where you need to be! I got a buddy in the real-estate biz. He can set you up with a bigger place in the city! That’s where the money’s at.”

“Well, friend, I’m not sure-”

“You should listen to Rodney.” said Millie. “He’s got an MBA...from Wharton.”

“What the heck is an MBA?” asked Barry.

“It’s a certificate that says I know what I’m talking about!” said Rodney. “You listen to me and the sky’s the limit!” 

“Look,” said Barry, “I’m not against expanding my business, but hold your horses there mister. I got into this line of work first and foremost to help people. That’s what I do.”

“Well,” said Rodney, “Think of all the people you can help with a bigger store. Two stores! Ten! You could have a line of Barry’s Emporiums all across the country! You could be the next Woolworths! The next Sears!”

“That sounds a bit much.” said Barry.

“Look. Barry.” said Rodney as he picked up a small glass globe. “You got the goods, right? People love ‘em. But say you take this here-what’s the tag say? This here ‘Orb of Courage’ - good one!  You take this Orb of Courage and you mass-produce it!”

“Mass produce it? These are all one-of-a-kind.” Barry protested.

“That’s the problem, Bar - you think too small! We could easily make a million of these babies! What do you sell one of these for?”

“Oh, that one’s three dollars!” said Barry.

“So, are you the kind of man to say no to three MILLION dollars?” asked Rodney.

“Now, don’t be ridiculous,” said Barry. “People come here with a need and I help them fulfill it. I’m not trying to sell them cheap...crap. There I said it. Crap!”

“Barry, you’re not getting it.” said Rodney as he flourished the little ball in his hand. “It wouldn’t be crap. It would be high quality replicas of all your best sellers!”

“But each thing I sell is unique!”

Rodney tossed the glass globe in the air as if juggling it.

“Hey,” said Barry, “Be careful. That’s my merchandise!”

Rodney caught the globe and held it out to Barry, presenting it between his thumb and forefinger. 

“Here you go pal.” said Rodney, “I don’t want to run afoul of any ‘you-break-it you-buy-it policy’!”

Barry snatched the glass ball from Rodney, but in his haste, he dropped it and it fell to the floor, shattering.

“Oh butterfingers, Barry.” said Rodney in a tone that was more mocking than sympathetic. 

“I-I told you not to mess around with it!” said Barry. “You don’t understand. These aren’t mere knick-knacks.”

“I’m sorry, pal.” said Rodney, as he pulled out his wallet. “Here. Lemee make it up to you. Here’s a fiver. Keep the change.”

“Get out of my store!” barked Barry.

“Oh c’mon boss.” said Millie. “He’s only trying to help. He didn’t mean to drop the glass. And he’s payin’ for it.”

“Get out! You have zero respect, Rodney. And I won’t listen to another second of your chicanery!”

Rodney set the five dollar bill on the counter and turned to leave. 

“Your loss, mister.” he said.  Just as he got to the door, Rodney turned and held out his business card and added “In case you come to your sense-”  but the words cut off as Rodney found himself standing face-to-face with a hulking, shadowy figure.

“What the hell?” Rodney managed to gasp before the inky-black being in the vague shape of a man grabbed him by the throat.

Millie looked on in shock as Barry held his own hand out in the same position as the shadow that stood in front of him.

“Get out and take your card with you!” sneered Barry. “I won’t be needing your services!”

The shadow stepped forward, pushing Rodney by his tensed neck, dropping him onto the pavement outside. 

“And stay out!” snapped Barry as the shadowy figure dissipated like smoke.

“What the FUCK was that?” spat Millie. “Barry. What the hell? What?” she started sobbing, and backed away from him.

“Millie. I’m sorry.” said Barry, “I didn’t mean to lose my temper like that. That Rodney fella, he just got under my skin. I shouldn’t have snapped like that.”

“You...” she began to say but lost her breath.

“I what?”

“You...DEMON!” she ran out of the shop and continued down Westfield Avenue.

Barry swept up the broken glass and placed it in the dustbin. Then he sat down at his usual spot behind the counter and read the paper.

After a while the shopkeeper bell rang once more and in walked Mr. Contragust.

“Mr. Barry.” began the little man in the charcoal gray suit.

“It’s Mr. Mullein, sir.” corrected Barry.

“Of course. No disrespect intended.” 

“So, what brings you into my shop today?”

“Mr. Mullein,” said Mr. Contragust, “It has come to my attention that a portion of our wares has been used by you.”

“Oh,” said Barry, “The Orb of Courage, yeah. It was a little accident. The fella responsible paid up for it, though.”

“Yes, very well.” Mr. Contragust continued, “But that leaves one thing.”

Barry could sense a change in Mr. Contragust's demeanor, and it felt like  a serpent made of ice slithering down the back of his shirt. 

"Mr. Mullein, in the contract, it explicitly states that you are not to use any of the items for your own benefit," Mr. Contragust declared, his voice cutting through the room. "The items from Mr. Chino's collection are meant to serve others, not you."

Barry tried to explain, "It was just an accident, Mr. Contragust. Rodney, that man who was in here a while ago, he was pressuring me to mass-produce the items, and he dropped the Orb of Courage. I didn't mean to use it for myself."

Mr. Contragust's dark lips curled into a cold smile. "Accidents, Mr. Mullein, have consequences."

Barry looked on as Mr. Contragust opened his gleaming black satchel and produced a small, intricate wooden box, adorned with symbols that seemed to writhe and shift as if they were alive.

"This, Mr. Mullein, is a Punishment Box," Mr. Contragust explained. "It contains the means to restore balance when one has deviated from their agreed obligations."

Barry started to panic. "You can't be serious. I didn't do it on purpose, and the damage has been paid for."

Mr. Contragust's voice remained unyielding. "The rules must be followed, Mr. Mullein. You used an item for your own benefit, breaking the agreement. And now, you must face the consequences."

Barry watched in horror as Mr. Contragust opened the Punishment Box, revealing an array of tiny, malevolent-looking figurines. Each one was unique, and all of them exuded an aura of darkness and foreboding. He couldn't help but notice the tag on the box: "Figurines of Retribution."

Mr. Contragust selected one of the figurines, a grotesque and nightmarish creature with jagged teeth and hollow eyes. "This will serve as a reminder, Mr. Mullein."

Mr. Contragust placed the figurine on the counter. 

"What... what's going to happen?" Barry stammered, his voice quivering.

Mr. Contragust's tone remained as cold and emotionless as ever. "This figurine will exact retribution for your transgression. It will take something from you in return for the misuse of the Orb."

Before Barry could protest or plead for mercy, the figurine leapt from the counter and latched onto Barry's hand, sinking its jagged teeth into his flesh. He cried out in pain as dark energy surged through him.

The figurine fed on his fear and regret, absorbing his very essence. As it drained him, a patch of Barry's hair turned shock white, and deep lines etched into his face. He felt weaker and frailer with each passing moment.

When the figurine finally released its grip, Barry slumped against the counter, gasping for breath. 

Mr. Contragust collected the Figurine of Retribution and returned it to the Punishment Box. "Remember, Mr. Mullein, the items in Mr. Chino's collection are not to be used for personal gain. If you break this rule again, the consequences will be far more severe."

Barry, still reeling from the ordeal, nodded weakly. "I understand, Mr. Contragust. I won't make that mistake again."

Millie did not return to work the next day, nor the day after that. Barry continued to run his occult shop single-handedly until the day he died.

Episode 016 - The Other Half

Episode 016

The Other Half

Another Time. A Distant Place.

Ste hobbled through the red wastes beneath the colossal moon. He found moving difficult on his mismatched limbs, but lumbered on. Half crawling with his arm, half hopping with his leg. The moon above nearly filled the sky, a glowing sphere of orange, striped with shifting bands of tan and yellow, a gigantic crimson eye peering from its center. Ste crawl-hopped to the edge of the black abyss and scanned it in search of his brother, whom he’d seen fall into it moments ago.

Ste suspected himself and his twin to be the oldest beings of all time, having been alive for well over one minute. Throughout all the seconds of eternity Ste and Ve bore witness to all of creation. They saw the red, dusty, badlands that spread out to the edge of the world. They contemplated the gigantic moon that floated overhead. They presided over the pit of shadows from which all living things had risen. Most of this Ste had to experience it alone as Ve plummeted to his presumed death mere seconds after coming into existence.

Nevertheless, Ste searched for signs of Ve, his sibling, his constant companion, his mirror image. Since the universe began Ve had been there beside Ste. Initially they sat next to one another, born upward out of the massive hollow in the surface of the world, gliding heavenward to the rim of the crater on their sliding seats. The momentum of their motion had carried them some distance along the red powder of the broken landscape. 

Shocked to find themselves suddenly existing, Ste and Ve gazed at one another for many seconds there at the dawn of time. Ve looked very much like Ste, as far as Ste could tell. Having never seen his own face, Ste could not be entirely certain, but his brother’s form was nearly identical to his own. 

Hunched in his seat, Ve’s hand clutched a thin rope that connected to the front of it. Like all beings, Ve had one arm and one leg. His limbs protruded from the right hand side of his torso, while the left was the typical exposed mass of bones and internal organs. Looking down at his own hand, Ste saw that it held a similar reign attached to the thin seat upon which he’d ridden out of the birthing crater. 

The only difference of note between the two was that Ste’s limbs grew out of his left side, and the exposed interior of his body was on the right. His lung attempted to suck in the cold, crisp air, but it did not fill. His half of a heart pumped blood through his veins, though no oxygen occupied his vital fluid. Ve’s pale face turned toward Ste and they examined one another with their singular milky blue eyes, rimmed with red. Ve’s exposed brain throbbed within his skull. 

Attempting to stand, Ve rose clumsily. He had nearly made it, perched upon his single foot, but his imbalanced form could not maintain verticality and Ve toppled, rolling toward the edge of the basin, seemingly freezing for an instant as he looked pleadingly at Ste in the moment that he disappeared over the precipice.

Ste sat in horror as the only companion he’d ever known vanished into the crater.

For the rest of time, Ste vowed to locate his brother. It took him nearly seven seconds to make it to the edge of the hole where Ve had fallen. A long time indeed, but nothing to a being who has been alive since the universe began nearly a minute ago.

No light reached the bottom of the pit, but Ste could see a trail where his counterpart had rolled down the slope. It continued more than halfway to the bottom before disappearing into the shadows. 

What can I do, thought Ste other than follow him?

The pit itself was huge, easily twenty or thirty Ste’s across. Its bowl-shaped interior ran smooth as far down as Ste could see, but it seemed to be about ten to fifteen Ste’s deep, a perfect semi-spherical hole in the world. Draping his leg over the edge of the pit, Ste pushed off and slid down the decline as cautiously as possible. His acceleration grew rapidly and before Ste could think, he found himself lost in the shadowy darkness. In less than two seconds Ste found himself at the bottom.

For what seemed like an infinity of seconds the starless black of the pit surrounded him. He began to move, his single arm and leg carrying him forward through the abyss. His hand grazed the smooth surface, seeking any irregularity, any hint of his brother's presence. The darkness refused to yield.

As despair threatened to consume him entirely, he felt it—a faint tremor beneath his fingertips. It was subtle, almost imperceptible, but it was there. The thing before him almost seemed to emanate coldness from its form.  Fixing his eye on the spot in front of him, Ste could make out a patch in the darkness that was somehow darker still. Blacker than black, a shape stood before him and a strange shape it was.  Silhouetted among the shadows of the pit, stood what Ste almost took to be two figures beside one another, but that could not be. This being moved with one mind, one body, and yet it had two arms and two legs. Unbelievable as it seemed, Ste could not ignore his own eye. The being was as two fused together, the seam of them along the sagittal plane, where normally organs should be exposed, this shade had none.

“What are you?” Ste tried to say, but his mouth could only form the wordless utterance, “Wuss.” before the thing reached out and placed an obsidian finger alongside his visible hemisphere of a brain. 

Suddenly Ste could see the world around him. The bizarre, two-legged shadow was not alone. Several similar beings dashed and darted around as if at work on some esoteric project.

His counterpart, Ve, sat less than half a Ste away. 

Ve's pearly blue eye met Ste's, and a sense of recognition and relief emanated from their shared gaze. They had been apart for what felt like an eternity, and now, against all odds, they had reunited. Ste reached out for his twin, their hands locking as they pulled one another closer. 

Several of the shadow beings gathered around on opposite sides of Ste and Ve. they drew closer and entangled the twins, like ropes of black silk. As they tightened, Ste felt his organs press against those of Ve. Another of the shadow beings approached and leaned in to look closely at the twins. Ste tried to speak but still could only murmur “Wuss” as the shadow slipped between him and Ve through the narrow space still left ‘twixt the two. The binding shadows pulled taught as the shadow within stretched its limbs into those of Ste and Ve as if it were putting on a coat. The shadows enveloped the twins until Ste felt his mind bind with that of Ve. In an instant the two became one. Steve.

The shadows binding him released and spread about the pit. 

“Who are you?”, asked Steve. “Who am I? What am I?”

With a collective voice the shadows spoke directly into Steve’s brain. We do not use sound to communicate. Therefore we do not have a name. But you have called us a word with your tongue, so if a name is needed, you may call us that.

“What?” gasped the now fully formed Steve. “I didn’t call you anything?”

You called us Wuss. Expressed the shadow beings. So that can be your word for us. Or not. We do not care. Names have no meaning to us.

“What am I? How do I exist? I have...memories...inside me...I had a life. But it isn’t mine.”

You are one of us and you are not one of us. You wear this skin like a vessel. With it you can walk among the beings of flesh. You can be as one of them.

“You made me a person? I mean...I was a person...or at least this brain was a person’s brain.  I know everything he knew...which wasn’t much.”

The form you have taken was that of a youth. It did not have much time in the world.

“WHY?” asked Steve, “Why do this to me? There’s one of you...inside me, isn’t there? Don’t I have a say in this?”

No. No one has a say in being born. You are Steve and you are not Steve. You are Wuss and you are not Wuss. The body we took to make you was ill. It had a growth in its corpus callosum. The body and mind would have died soon. We have removed the growth and will put it to good use, just as we have put the body to good use. The...Wuss...within you is only an observer. It cannot control, only sense and suggest. Together you are something new. Through you we will see the world and understand it.

“What if I refuse.” said Steve, “I’m not your servant. You can’t make me do anything.”

No. We cannot and we will not. We will merely watch and we will learn. If you are a success we will create more.

“So you’ll just hijack some other body? Hitch a ride in someone else’s brain? What gives you the right?”

The imperative gives us the right. Every being has the right to continue its existence. We are no different from you in that regard. Our kind is trapped in this realm. We cannot fully enter the world of the flesh as we are. Yet, if we do not, we will perish.

“What do you mean you will perish?”

We were practicing our ways. Exploring the realms of reality. That is what we do. We observe. We report. We gather information. But we have been cut off from our own realm. Here we have little substance and even less dimension. Here we are shadows. With every moment spent here we grow weaker and less substantial. For a very long time we have attempted to communicate with the flesh beings or your realm, but the ways of the flesh are simpler than ours. The flesh beings do not understand us or our needs. We have tried to grow our own flesh bodies  through intermediaries, but that has continually failed. The bodies have become corrupt. Our only choice is to bring flesh here and alter it to our needs.

Steve thought for a moment, looking back into the life lived by the body he now inhabited.

“This body. It belonged to a kid. A kid named...Steve. That’s my name now? I’ve basically stolen it. Maybe this Steve was going to die, but how do you expect to do it again?”

We have convened with the painted ones. They are beings of the flesh realm. We have shared some of our knowledge with them. In turn they will bring us the forms we require.

“Painted ones? Who the hell are they?” said Steve, finding his own voice stronger and bolder than he knew it could be. “And who’s bodies do you intend to steal?”

These questions are inconsequential. It is time for you to go to the realm of flesh. We can return your body to the same time and place from which you came. The other beings will not discern that you are not exactly the same as they.

“No. Wusses can’t make me go. I have questions. I want answers!”

The shadowy figures retreated and faded away, leaving Steve alone at the bottom of the perfectly smooth basin. For a long while he stood there lost in the darkness.

Then Steve felt a pulling in his gut and his head began to swim. as the world around him flipped like gravity was reversing. In an instant, instead of the bottom of a black basin, Steve found himself at the top of a white dome.

The crisp and frigid air filled his lungs with the exhilarating chill of winter. The ground beneath his feet was soft and pristine, covered in a thick blanket of pure white snow that sparkled like a million tiny diamonds in the sunlight. 

Steve's disorientation was overwhelming as he transitioned from the shadowy pit to the white, snowy environment. The sudden change in surroundings left him dizzy and confused. He staggered on unfamiliar ground, trying to regain his balance and grasp the reality of his situation. He nearly fell over when he saw the figure of a boy lying in the snow in front of him.

Leaning down, Steve saw it to be a child of nine or ten years, thin and white, with light brown hair. The boy was dressed for cold weather and a wooden sled sat beside his unconscious body.

“Get up, wuss!” came a voice from behind him. Whirling around Steve saw two other boys. One was pudgy and wearing cold weather clothing like the boy on the ground. The other was lean and wiry with long red hair and a face full of mischief. His clothes were inappropriate for the climate. He was the one who had spoken.

“Wuss?” said Steve. “You know about them?” but the other boys pushed past him and pounced on the one lying atop the hill.

“He’s dead!” shouted the red-haired boy.

“No. He’s breathing.” said the other one

“How?” said the supine child as he sat up weakly. “How did it happen?”

“You were just laying there on the top of the hill,” said the husky one. “It looks like you passed out.”

The previously unconscious boy looked directly at Steve and said, “What happened to you?” 

A flood of  memories came to Steve’s mind. The body he inhabited knew these boys. He could envision the other Steve’s life. Every experience was tucked into his mind, right up to the moment when he was sliced in two and removed from this world. Everything that happened with the pit and the shadow creatures had been only an instant from the point of view of these...children of flesh. Steve didn't want to seem out of place, so he responded the way that he suspected the kid whose body he wore would. 

“What happened to me?” he said, trying to sound shocked. “What happened to YOU?I went down the hill with you right behind me. When I looked you weren’t there. By the time we all made it up to the top you were knocked out on the ground. It looks like you fainted.”

The other boy, whose name turned out to be Christopher, told his tale of Steve gliding down the hill and being split in twain. The other two laughed and mocked him. 

Steve felt a pang of guilt for allowing it, but he needed to fit in at least long enough to figure out his next move. 

The boys all claimed that they were done with sledding for the day and decided to go home.

Steve wandered along the snow-covered street, stopping when he saw a house that fit the memories that were not his.

He knocked on the door for a long time until a plump woman with white hair answered.

“What are you doing, Stevie?” she asked him. “The door’s unlocked, c’mon in and get warmed up. Daddy made hot chocolate.”

With nowhere else to go, Steve entered the home.

He didn’t even notice that the woman had two shadows.