The man focused his camera on the woman, but she never heard the shutter click. In a week, her skin withered, her red hair faded to grey, and her bones turned to dust. And as a young old woman died in her bed, a striking beauty on the sand hung frozen in time upon the man’s wall.
It was a check-cashing place in a bad part of town. He was Slither-O, former king of the Viperian. They were – and still are – an ancient reptilian-like species from caverns beneath the surface of the Earth. And while that might seem like little more than lazy exposition, it’s also why Slither-O had been left waiting at the counter for nearly twenty minutes.
“I’m sorry for the wait, Mister,” a voice called out from somewhere behind quite a lot of security glass, then pausing to ensure they were, in fact, reading this silly name correctly, “Slither-O?”
“Yeah-huh?” Slither-O sarcastically hissed.
A woman stepped out from the small cubicle where she’d been pretending to speak with someone else and approached the counter. “So, I spoke with my manager.”
“Here it comes.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you cash your check today.”
“And why the Hell not?” he spat with the flaccid fury of a middle-aged, former king having been forced to wait twenty minutes for an answer he did not like.
“Well,” the employee said, then said nothing at all as she desperately searched for something, anything at all, to say, but then settled on, “you are a, uh…”
“You know…” the employee said, trailing off in that way where one really, really, really doesn’t want to piss off the former leader of an entire society of subterranean serpents, but really, really can’t avoid doing so.
“No,” Slither-O snapped. “I don’t know.” He pressed his face and fangs against the grimy surface of the security glass, and glared into the employees eyes. “So, why don’t you tell me?”
The employee began to speak. “Because you’re–”
“A man-snake?” Slither-O interjected.
The employee waited, realized she wasn’t going to be interrupted a second time, then finished her thought. “A supervillain.”
“Anyway,” the employee continued. “Mr. Slither-O. Because of your, let’s say, history with our, and other – many, many other – financial institutions–”
“Financial institution? This is a check-cashing place in a stripmall.”
“True,” she agreed. “But you were the one who went around robbing us. And I do mean us – this location – specifically. On several occasions.”
Slither-O threw the equivalent of his hands into the air. “That was years ago!”
“Also true. But because of that very true history, you’re officially banned from this location.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting,” Slither-O sighed.
“And all our sister locations,” she added.
“This is ridiculous! I served my time!”
“Also, the whole ‘man-snake’ thing.”
Slither-O looked at the woman, and the fight left him. “Wow.”
“Do man-snakes even have a valid form of identification?”
“I gave you my driver license.”
“Yes,” she said, “but aren’t man-snakes from like, Mars, or somethin’?”
Slither-O writhed in pain and groaned a loud, frustrated groan. “My family and I are from Arizona,” he corrected the employee. Then added, “Well, the caverns beneath Arizona”
“Hey!” someone shouted from behind Slither-O. “You can’t call it that.”
Slither-O turned to find a graying, bearded man with a large tummy and skinny legs poking out of a very short pair of shorts standing close behind him. “It?” Slither-O huh’d.
“Snakemen,” the graying, bearded man said. “Not ‘man-snakes.’”
Slither-O looked at the man. “Can we go back to how you called me a fuckin’ ‘It’?”
And yet another voice thought it a good idea to open their damned mouth at the worst time possible. “Snake-people, Dear.”
The graying, bearded man turned to a graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady. “What’s that?”
The graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady repeated herself. “They prefer to be called, ‘snake-people.’”
“No,” Slither-O said. “We don’t.”
“Oh, right,” the graying, bearded man said to the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady, then turned to Slither-O. “Sorry,” he sorry’d. “Snake-people.”
Slither-O looked at the smiling pair of oddly shaped people in front of him. “I should have incinerated you people years ago.”
The employee gasped, and clutched at a string of pearls that were very most definitely not there, as later made clear by security footage. “Excuse me?!”
“Did he just threaten us?” the graying, bearded man asked of no one in particular.
“I think so,” the graying, moderately fuzz-faced lady shrugged.
“Fascist,” the employee hissed from behind all that security glass.
“What the Hell is happening?” Slither-O sighed. “Are you hairless apes serious right now?”
The hairless apes gasped a collective hairless, ape-like gasp.
“Racist,” the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced ape ook’d.
“Robberies are one thing to overlook, Mr. Slither-O,” the employee said. “But I will not tolerate racists in my financial institution!” And she slapped a big, red button labeled SECURITY ALARM.
As a high-pitched, rather annoying alarm shrieked and a group of hairless apes eyed the equally hairless Person of Scale, Slither-O considered bashing his skull against a wall until he no longer could. “What’s next? Is some caped-crusader asshole gonna show up and–”
“Pot today, Slither-O!” yet another voice still shouted.
But before Slither-O could even begin to respond to such a terrible, no good, damned awful pun, a big fuckin’ pot shattered atop his skull and he howled in excruciating pain.
“Everyone okay?” Slither-O’s assailant asked of everyone but Slither-O.
“Thank you, Gnatman!” they all replied in unison for some reason.
“I heard the alarm from the parking lot,” Gnatman started, then corrected himself. “I mean, my gnat-sense was, uh, buzzing.”
“Did you seriously just hit me with a potted plant?” Slither-O concussed.
“Stay down, Slither-O,” Gnatman ordered.
“I think I have a concussion.”
Gnatman laughed like a damned maniac. “Good thing they have a wonderful doctor down at City Jail!”
“This is such bullshit.”
“It’s true, Mr. Potty Mouth,” Gnatman chastised. “They keep Dr. Magician on retainer.”
Slither-O rolled his eyes. “Huzzah.”
“Though,” Gnatman added, “I think he’s technically a registered nurse.”
“I don’t care.”
“Anyway,” Gnatman continued. “The police will be here any minute to deal with you.”
Police sirens bleated as they pulled into the stripmall, and the little bell above the door tingled as some unseemly anachronism wearing a trench coat in the middle of a pleasant summer afternoon entered.
“We’re here to deal with Slither-O, Gnatman,” Detective-Man said.
“Detective-Man!” Gnatman gushed. “Just in time!”
“Me?” Slither-O squinted. “I was trying to cash my goddamn paycheck before The Craptacular Jack-ass here–”
“Hey!” Gnatman whinged.
Slither-O glared at Gnatman, then continued mid-breath. “–conveniently shows up ‘out of nowhere’ and assaults me!”
“Assault? You’re a supervillain.”
Slithero stomped what he called feat and screamed. “Retired! I’ve been retired for like, five years!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Detective-Man yeah-yeah’d and cuffed what he assumed were Slither-O’s wrists. “You can blog all about it while we process you down at the station.
As he was escorted out the door, Slither-O litigiously lobbied at the oblivious idiot flirting with the employee behind the security glass. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, Gnatman!”
“So, uh,” Gnatman uh’d.
“Yeah?” the employee replied.
“Slither-O did try to rob you, right?”
“Yes?” the employee lied.
Gnatman shrugged. “Good enough for me.”
The revolutionaries stormed the final doors, and the king watched. “They are here for us, Sister.”
“Not us,” she whispered in his ear, pushing a knife into her brother’s heart. “You.”
“You would have done the same to me.”
“And that’s why you die a fool.”
Transcribed from recording labeled “Audrey”:
When I first met Audrey McGuire in the bar of a hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles, she was a fiery shock of red hair poured into a full skirt dress that teased a curvy figure beneath.
Her full, blood-red lips pouted at me as she performed a sob story about needing money for a bus ticket to Indianapolis, to stay with her mother after her husband had raised his hand to her one time too many.
The second time we met, Audrey was a willowy blonde wearing long boots and a short skirt, lying through thin lips about visiting her sister in San Francisco.
Recording stops, continues.
The third time we met, I observed Audrey gracefully flowing from one potential mark to the next, shedding her previous appearance between tables before seamlessly slipping into a new life with a single, gentle touch of each man’s hand.
One moment, she’s an olive-skinned beauty in a cardigan distracting a married man with her piercing blue eyes as she steals his wallet. The next, she’s laughing it up with a group of drunken suits pawing at a pair of milky thighs exposed by the short hem of her fashionable Mod dress.
I never gave a second thought to the way she’d temporarily leave with this or that man as she wore this or that face–sometimes an hour at a time, sometimes for mere minutes. But when some loud, dark-haired stranger in an expensive suit dragged Audrey away by the wrist, the panicked look she shot my way from a hauntingly familiar face convinced me to follow close behind.
Recording stops, continues.
I caught up to Audrey and that dark-haired stranger in the stairwell, just in time to hear a cry of pain closely followed by a drunken voice demanding to know why he had to hear from the boys at the office that his wife was moonlighting as a whore in a hotel bar.
Cynthia. Some poor housewife named Cynthia was probably somewhere cooking dinner for a husband she didn’t know was drunk in the stairwell of a hotel, threatening a frightened woman wearing her face.
And as Cynthia’s face attempted to lie her way out of a literal corner, Cynthia’s husband raised his hand. But as he raised his hand, her face changed. Her left eye darkened and swelled shut. Her bottom lip split and bled. And bruises appeared on her from head to toe.
Whether by fortune, divine intervention, or alcohol, Cynthia’s husband stumbled backward down a flight of stairs and scuttled out the door without another word, looking as if he’d just seen a ghost. Then once we were both sure he wasn’t coming back, I returned to the bar with a woman who looked like my dead wife.
Recording stops, continues.
Over the next several hours and drinks, I found myself lost in the glittering hazel eyes and gentle lines of my wife’s face as she shared the story of a life she never lived with a name she never knew. There was mention of a one-bedroom apartment in Shermer, Illinois, some boy named Reggie, and a kiss behind the high school gym that left her with no choice but to leave behind both Shermer and Reggie forever.
As we danced, the woman I struggled to call Audrey inquired about my work with childish wonder and glee. And as I explained the nature of the microscopic Sutherland Fluke coiled around both her central and peripheral nervous system, how it allowed her body to instinctively reshape itself in reaction to physical and emotional stimuli, she pulled her body closer to mine.
Audrey was gone by morning. And while I’m unsure if I’ve seen her in the years since–or if a person by the name of Audrey McGuire from Shermer, Illinois, ever existed–I do know a lost soul gave a lonely man one last night of happiness. And for that, I will always remember her.
Transcribed from recording labeled “D’ja Vu’larian”:
Feeding exclusively on those threads of time and space intertwined with some poor soul’s untimely, traumatic death, the D’ja Vu’larian’s morbid appetite is seen by some as a cosmic blessing in disguise.
Effectively a wholesale rejection of death itself, these individuals…I hesitate to call them “victims”…regain consciousness sometime in their own past, with only a faint, dreamlike recollection of what transpired.
But much like those affected by a Chronopiller, there is a serious philosophical discussion to be had regarding that lost part of us, devoured moment-by-moment, and now slowly digesting in the belly of some great, trans-dimensional worm.
Transcribed from tape labeled “Smeltett”:
DR. FINE: The very existence of the Smeltett has been a point of contention for millennia, with records of arguments spurred on by the sudden onset of a foul and malicious odor found in the form of rudimentary cave paintings in both Africa and central Asia.
Current research of the Smeltett leads many to believe that it is the female of the species which is responsible for the foul odor, used in an effort to attract the attention of nearby males, which are believed to be responsible for the… sound also associated with the Smeltett.
Unsurprisingly, all major contributions to research on the Smeltett have been submitted anonymously.
Transcribed from tape labeled “Wah’wazzat”:
DR. FINE: I hesitate to refer to such a frightening, malicious thing that gleefully toys with its unsuspecting, isolated prey as a mere “creature,” but the Wah’wazzat is certainly one of the most elusive, deeply unsettling entities I have ever encountered.
Because the human mind is fortunately, mercifully incapable of properly processing the physical appearance of the Wah’wazzat, wouldbe victims are left to question the origin and direction of the scattered sound of skittering, rustling, and faint breathing as the Wah’wazzat closes in for the kill.
If not for the fact that the Wah’wazzat is easily and conveniently startled by so much as a quick glance in its general direction, I suspect reports of missing persons would quickly outpace the obituaries in every morning paper.
They stood again where they stood countless times before.
“Again, then?” the voice asked, as it had countless times before.
“Isn’t there anything else to do?”
The voice shrugged in the way a voice does. “There’s a gift shop.”
They never chose the gift shop.
Transcribed from tape labeled “Whattamadoon”:
DR. FINE: The Whattamadoon itself is hardly a creature worth making note of, as its teeny-tiny, squishy, toothless body makes it incapable of causing any physical, temporal, or psychological harm to any living creature.
However. The Whattamadoon’s web is notorious for snatching up any thoughts blossoming and fluttering about one’s head as they pass through the doorway in which said web is hung.
Fortunately, walking back through the web often allows an unwitting buffet to recover whatever million-dollar idea I totally believe you had before the Whattamadoon can feast upon it.
Transcribed from recording labeled “Chronopillar”:
The chronopillar is a ridiculous looking, but wholly frightening creature with the ability to directly interact with the very fabric of time and space.
A single, undisturbed chronopillar has been known to devour upwards of several weeks of isolated space-time, leaving victims unaware that an entire summer has literally (and not simply metaphorically) passed in a blink of an eye.
But as frightening as such an event may be, it pales in comparison to the wholesale rewriting of our timeline whenever a chronopillar survives long enough to emerge from its singularity cocoon as a fully-grown quantumfly.