At 11:37 this morning, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and, since tragedy could strike at anytime, debated not answering the call. Then I thought, “Gravy! It might be Publisher’s Clearing House!” so I answered.
It was not Publisher’s Clearing House.
Let me repeat that for those of you planning to ask me for a loan. It was *NOT* Publisher’s Clearing House.
It was, in fact, Sheila.
“Good afternoon, this is Sheila with Cancer Research of America, how are you today?” a rather chipper voice asked. It was the type of voice that would shortly be asking me for a donation.
“I’d be better if you knew it was morning here, Sheila,” I politely replied to the chipper east coast elitist.
“Yes, of course, good morning,” she said, stumbling over her canned speech.
“Well, what can I do for you today?” I asked, opening a Wikipedia article about puffins on my laptop.
Sheila took a breath, launching her pitch. “Cancer Research of America is a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for cancer—“
My ears perked up.
“What’s this? A cure for cancer? I’ve seen quite a bit posted on Facebook about cancer, Sheila. Many of my acquaintances share posts in support of those fighting cancer. Tell me more about cancer,” I said, honestly intrigued.
“You haven’t heard of cancer?” Sheila asked, seeming a bit befuddled. East coast elites always seem to think people have nothing better to do than keep up with the news.
“No, please, tell me more about cancer and this cure you’re funding. Will we be sending troops in to destroy them or is this more of drone operation?” I asked, pulling out a pen and pad of paper. I felt the information Sheila was about to offer would be invaluable to my friends. I wanted to get every detail right.
“Troops? Drone operations? I’m not sure I understand,” Sheila said, sounding more confused than when she started. Perhaps she wasn’t the tactician I needed to answer my questions.
“The cure for cancer. Given the voracity with which so many people want to fight it, I assume it’s a terrorist organization. Foreign? Religious oriented? Hiding their operatives in refugee camps in order to take down our way of life? I’m certain my city is a prime target. In fact, I don’t like to talk ill about anyone, but I have this neighbor—“
“Let me stop you there,” Sheila said, the chipperness draining from her voice. She obviously felt quite strongly about the evils of cancer. Perhaps she had a relative fighting them. “Cancer is a disease which kills over half a million people a year in the US alone. More than one-and-a-half million people in the US will be diagnosed with cancer this year. As a whole, cancer is a significant health crisis—“
“A disease?” I said, setting down my pen. I had just been to see my doctor and was the picture of perfect health. In fact, she had taken four or five pictures of my perfect health.
“Yes. And we were wondering if you would donate to help us find a cure for this disease so no other people have to suffer.”
“But Sheila, what about heart disease? Asthma? Ingrown toenails? There are a lot of diseases and ailments out there. Your organization is spending God knows how much money to research and stop only one of them? That seems rather shortsighted.”
“Shortsighted? Cancer destroys the health and lives of so many people—“
“All health matters, Sheila, not just the health of those fighting cancer,” I replied.
The other end of the line was quiet. Then Sheila said, “I’ll take you off our list.”
“Thank you, Sheila. I’d appreciate that,” I said. “Of course, if your organization ever decides to expand their focus and admit #AllHealthMatters, I’d be happy donate.”
I’m not sure Sheila heard me. The line went dead before I finished speaking. I considered calling her back and letting her know I’d be happy to help with the all health matters movement but Wikipedia articles on puffins don’t read themselves.
After lunch, the dog and I went for a short walk through the turgid summer heat native New Orleanians call ‘a bit cool for the season.’ Our efforts earned one of us a sheen of sweat and the other a drooling pant. I won’t say which one won which.
Our next door neighbor, lovingly referred to as “Crazy Shawn” since he is both crazy and Shawn, was outside working on his lawn. Or, for those familiar with Shawn’s house, his lack of a lawn. Shawn spent many years spraying Round-Up on his front yard until every blade of grass was sent to the great green fields in the sky.
Optimists who visit say beautiful things like, “He must be preparing a rock garden.”
He must. Without the rock or the garden.
Rain has eroded half-a-foot of soil from his front yard, weakening the foundation of his house, Crazy Shawn laid down tar paper to protect what was left.
Guests plagued by positivity say to us, “A tar paper garden. Doesn’t Gwenyth Paltrow highly recommend those?”
If she does, I applaud her critics’ collective restraint in their descriptions of dear Gwen.
So this afternoon, Shawn is working on his tar paper lawn, weeding away grass which has launched an attack from our yard on the quarter inch of dirt between his fence and the tar paper.
Shawn is muttering to himself.
As those who know Shawn are aware, Shawn’s mutterings are the flapping wings of a butterfly which eventually cause a tsunami halfway across the world. Only, in this case, it isn’t a tsunami we need fear. Shawn’s mutterings grow into 911 calls, stalking charges, and physical violence.
Reminds one of Wilson from Home Improvement, n’est pas? And just like Wilson, there are important fence related conflicts I don’t have time to delve into today.
As anyone on the street will tell you, it’s best to pass Shawn by when he’s muttering. They’ll tell you that then ignore their own advice — but that doesn’t make the advice any less valuable.
Do as they say, not as they do.
So I pass, ignoring the muttering mischief-maker, when one word catches my attention.
I am a renter, could this muttering be about me? My natural sense of victimhood said, “Of course, why would he talk about anyone but you?”
And seeing as many of the neighbors have restraining orders against Shawn, there aren’t many people for him to talk about let alone to.
Then he paused. He nodded his head. He said, “Really? I can’t believe it,” while yanking up a tuft of grass and tossing it aside.
Silly me. It was an honest mistake. He was wearing a bluetooth device and talking to a friend.
A silly mistake that.
The dog and I passed through our front gate and she flopped down on the lawn. While she rolled around, I listened to Shawn go on about property values.
“And with such an expensive property!” he said, picking up unrooted clumps of grass and tossing them in a garbage can.
“Exactly. How do you handle it?” he asked, after a pause.
His friend must have some really awful renters. People destroying their property. Ruining the neighborhood. It’s unthinkable and, given this alternative, it makes me momentarily thankful to have Crazy Shawn as my neighbor instead of these reticent neer-do-wells.
Loaded up with grass, Shawn turns to drag the garbage can out to the street, giving me a clear view of his other ear.
The ear I assumed the bluetooth device was hung since is other ear was naked.
There was no bluetooth device.
No phone on speaker as he answers and asks questions about those… these… horrendous neighbors.
It was another bright and cheerful day at Heroes Incorporated until disaster struck.
Little did she know it, but today would be the day Shrink Girl finally made her mark at Heroes Inc.
“Code Rose!” Mike, the Middle Manager, yelled, running through the cubicle farm. The world’s most famous superheroes popped their heads over the cubicle walls like a herd of masked prairie dogs. Mike turned down one row, up a column, down another row, rounded a corner, and started retracing his steps, all the while shouting, “Code Rose!”
Beet red and breathless, Mike stopped and leaned against a cubicle wall.
“Anything I can do to help, Mike?” asked the Human Megaphone.
The Human Megaphone never missed an opportunity to help middle management, unless there was a chance to help upper or executive management.
“Need… to find… Shrink Girl!” Mike wheezed. He bent at the waist, forcing blood back to his head.
“SHRINK GIRL! REPORT TO SECTION B, ROW 7, CUBE 27A! I REPEAT… RRRREEEKEEKEKKEBBERRR!”
Everyone covered their ears to block out The Human Megaphone’s feedback.
“Who is using a transistor radio?” The Human Megaphone glared at the heroes around him. “I’ve asked you not to use transistor radios as they interfere with my abilities! … Mike, I’m so sorry. I’ve told them…”
A row over, Scarlet Mime switched off her nonexistent radio. There was, in her opinion, no need to shout in an office.
“Hello? Did someone call me?” Shrink Girl asked, rounding a cubicle corner. She bit her lip in an unsuperhero-like manner and assumed she was in trouble.
“Where have you been?” Mike demanded.
“On The Public Relations Importance of Catchphrases When Dealing with Collateral Damage webinar. I had my headphones in,” Shrink Girl said, lowering her eyes.
“This is exactly why headphones are forbidden in the office. Right, Mike?” The Human Megaphone said, at a volume 4, so everyone heard.
“That’s right! I know you’re new here, Shrink, but we have rules for a reason.” Mike launched into a lecture on the dangers of headphones in an office, which is easily summed up by saying, “And that’s why radioactive marine life now run Topeka.”
Mike, as Middle Manager, was obligated to give the longer explanation.
Shrink Girl had only worked with Heroes Inc. for three months, replacing the former shrinkable hero who left to pursue a career in accounting.
Since starting, Shrink had only been allowed to attend seminars, conferences, and webinars on all topics superhero and legal. She had also taken forty-seven tests on the Super Employee Handbook and Crime Fighter’s Manual and passed each one.
And all of this experience led Shrink Girl to one, undeniable conclusion. She was underutilized.
So she began sending out her résumé.
“And just after Google installed a fiber network. Such a waste,” Mike said, finishing his lecture.
“I’ll never wear headphones again. I promise,” Shrink Girl said, wondering how the Dastardly Debutante would enjoy listening to tomorrow’s webinar: ‘To Rescue Or Not To Rescue – The Likelihood of Lawsuits.’
“Good. That will be all,” Mike said.
Shrink Girl turned to go.
“Mike, what about the Code Rose?” The Human Megaphone whispered.
“Of course!” Mike shouted, grabbing Shrink Girl’s hand and dragging her off through the cubicle farm.
“Good luck, Mike! Your work is appreciated!” The Human Megaphone called after them.
“The Human Megaphone’s a good guy. Keeps up morale, which is very important. You could learn a lot from him,” Mike said pulling Shrink Girl towards the stealth hanger.
A Code Rose? Thoughts swirled in Shrink Girl’s head.
A Code anything was important.
Someone had taken notice of her test scores and hard work!
Soon she would be in the stealth plane getting debriefed on the Code Rose situation!
Now, if only she could remember what a Code Rose meant.
Red indicated a major continent was being attacked.
Orange meant a minor continent was under attack.
Blue was for asteroids, space junk, or other inanimate objects hurtling towards Earth.
Shrink Girl blanked. She pictured the page in the manual, but couldn’t find Rose.
Not that she would admit this to Mike, the Middle Manager.
They were ten feet from the hangar doors when Mike made a sudden left. Shrink Girl, lost in hashtags descriptions for her first mission, missed the turn.
She lost her footing and fell into the doorway of the 4th floor supply room.
Red-faced, Shrink Girl stood up. Three heroes, plus Mike, stood there staring at her.
“She’s here. If anyone can find the paper jam, I’m certain Shrink Girl can!” Mike announced to the group.
“Just use the 3rd floor machine,” Mister Stretch said for the third time today.
“That’s for support staff,” Mike replied, clearly appalled at being lumped in with them.
Mister Stretch rolled his eyes.
“Shrink Girl, this is important. A rash of yogurt thefts are bringing down morale. We need fifteen signs reminding people to only eat their own food. But the copier is broken,” Mike said. “If we don’t have morale, what do we have?”
“Paychecks?” Lady Mystery suggested.
“People don’t work for paychecks, Mystery. At Heroes Inc., we work for the love of our job. This is our passion and a yogurt thief will not undo our commitment!” Mike replied, banging on the Rose-McKellan copy machine.
Lady Mystery’s smile was difficult to read.
“Here’s the background, Shrink. I got Stretch, but he couldn’t reach the jam, and Kongliath wasn’t able to shake the paper out. Now you’re up. Make me proud!” Mike said, stepping aside.
“What about Lady Mystery?” Shrink Girl asked, hoping to finally figure out the Lady’s powers.
“I just came for a pen, but stayed for the excitement,” Lady Mystery replied, leaning back against the laser printer, as if to say, ‘Why not just print more pages from this?’
“So get in there and show us what you’ve got, Shrink Girl!” Mike said, popping open a compartment door.
“Okay!” Shrink Girl said, hoping enthusiasm hid her disappointment. Only Mike seemed fooled, but Shrink Girl figured this was fine, since Mike was the only one who cared.
She dove into the open compartment door, shrinking to the size of a pea, and landed on tab B. Shrink Girl climbed over a roller and entered the heart of the Rose-McKellan.
Back in the supply room, Mike’s head snapped towards the door. “Did I hear Paper Mate out there? Isn’t he still on vacation?”
“Today’s his first day back,” Kongliath replied, picking a nit from his forearm.
“Why didn’t anyone say so?” Mike asked, hurrying off to find Paper Mate.
“I’m starving. What are you two doing for lunch?” Lady Mystery asked.
“I brought mine,” Kongliath sighed. “Dan has me on a diet. I couldn’t fit into that monkey suit for his 40th birthday, so now I’m stuck eating chicken feed and lettuce.”
“I’m going to Jimmy Subs. You’re welcome to join,” Mister Stretch replied.
Lady Mystery shrugged. She’d already eaten Jimmy Subs twice this week and was getting tired of them. But she was also one punch away from getting a free sub. “Let me get back to you,” she said, as Mike pulled Paper Mate into the supply room.
“G’day, mates. Whad’ve we ‘ave ‘ere?” Paper Mate asked.
Originally from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the corporation rebranded Paper Mate to appeal to their Oceanian clientele.
As part of the rebranding, Paper Mate spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons working with an Australian linguistic coach. So far he had managed to alienate most of New Zealand and the better part of Queensland.
He looked at the Rose-McKellan’s display panel.
“We’s pulled the machine apart, but it still won’t run,” Mister Stretch explained. “There’s a scrap in there somewhere.”
“Nah. Yoo joost ‘ave to turn it off then on a’gin,” Paper Mate said, slipping into a terrible Canadian accent.
He flipped the power switch.
“No!” everyone yelled, except Mike, the Middle Manager, who muttered, “Yes, of course! Turn it off and on again.”
The machine buzzed to life, spitting out signs reading, “Remember: Gogurt Your Own Yogurt!”
“Something must be wrong with the ink saturation,” Mike muttered, throwing the top five pages into the recycling bin. “Oh nevermind. No more red streaks. We’re all good.”
“Oh! That’s me!” he yelled, raising the ticket over his head and pushing through the crowd.
At the entrance to the Great Hall! a middle-aged woman waited to take Plupart’s ticket. A placard identified her as, ‘Agnes, Ticket Agent.’
“I almost moved onto Number 474—“ Agnes muttered.
“Did you call 474?” a knight in shining armor asked from a foot away.
“No. Wait your turn,” Agnes snapped.
Plupart tried to apologize. “I’m sorry. We’ve been waiting for days and… well the mind wanders, one forgets the number, makes a new one up—“
Agnes tapped a small sign next to her which read: “Absolutely NO Soliloquizing!”
“Yes, sorry about that,” he muttered. Having graduated with honors in Soliloquy from the Realm’s Knightiary, Plupart thought it rather rude of the ticket taker to interrupt.
“Okay, you may go in,” Agnes said after checking Plupart’s ticket.
“I need the rest of my party,” Plupart replied, standing on tiptoes to find his friends in the crowded cavern.
The knight in shining armor, a scantily clad barbarian, and a cudgel-wielding orc all sighed.
“Sir, your entire party must be present—“
“They’re all here. It’s just so crowded, you know?” Plupart replied, making a small hand gesture suggesting Agnes calm down.
“Yes, sir. Flamebro the Wicked is very popular, especially during the holidays, but the rules state—“
“Bree! Thomas!” Plupart yelled over the conversational rumble of the crowd. Several heads turned. The torchlit gloom made it difficult for Plupart to distinguish the faces, so he waved his hands wildly, yelling, “We’re up! Come on!”
“Sir, I need to keep the line moving—“
Plupart again gestured that Agnes should calm down.
“This way! Yes, over here!” Plupart yelled, seeing his friends making their way through the crowd.
“Plupart! Thank goodness!” Bree said, popping under the arm of the barbarian. “We’re finally up?”
“We are,” Plupart said.
Agnes violently cleared her throat and tapped another sign that read, “Under NO Circumstances Will Children Be Allowed to Battle Flamebro the Wicked.”
Plupart groaned. “You really shouldn’t—“
“I am a 327-year-old vampire, ma’DAME! I have as much right to be here, if not more, than…” Bree sneered at the knight in shining armor, “some wannabe hero who is more shine than shimmer! Your lack of respect for vampire culture—“
“Identification, please…” sighed Agnes, holding out her hand. The knight in shining armor huffed and turned to look at a rather drab wall sconce.
Bree handed her vampire age identification paper to Agnes. “This really is inconvenient. No other species—“
“Fairies, water nymphs, wind sprites, most of the lesser gods… the list goes on. If you feel offended, take it up with your Senator, as they write the legislation regarding children and battles,” Agnes replied, peering through her spectacles at Bree and then at the paper.
“Plupart! Are we up?” Thomas asked, sliding between two rather large Normanshire wrestlers.
“We are, let’s do this!” Plupart said, drawing his sword and raising it high above the crowd.
“Sir!” Agnes shouted, quickly tapping yet another sign that read, “All Weapons MUST Remain Sheathed Until Entering The Arena.”
“Sorry,” Plupart said, returning his sword to its scabbard.
Agnes sighed and lifted the Gate of Entrance!
The party passed through the gate and headed down the Great Hall! to Flamebro’s arena.
“Did you call Number 474?” the Knight in Shining Armor asked Agnes.
“So help me, Rudolph, if you ask me again, I’m skipping straight to 475,” Agnes threatened, lowering the Gate of Entrance!
“475 right here!” the wrestlers shouted.
Agnes rolled her eyes and huffed. She needed a vacation.
II. The Great Hall!
“Stand to your left!” Haverford the line keeper shouted. “No crowding to the right! It’s a fire hazard!”
“What? What’s going on?” Plupart asked, looking at the long line in front of them.
“This is the line to get into Flamebro’s Arena,” answered the Kensian warrior standing in front of them.
“Cherries!” Plupart cursed.
“In front of a child? Have you no respect?” the Kensian warrior said, nodding towards Bree.
“Thomas, what does the book say about this line?” Plupart asked, as Bree heatedly reprimanded the warrior.
Thomas unshouldered his satchel and dug out The Warrior’s Guide to the Realm. A green bookmark, once the tongue of the Donaldstown’s Hydra, marked the page on Flamebro’s Cavern!
Thomas scanned the page. “Get a number from Agnes… enjoy company of other famous warriors… number called… Ah! Here it is! ‘After passing through the Gate of Entrance! the warrior will find themself standing in a formalized line awaiting their turn to battle Flamebro in the arena. As Flamebro dispatches his challengers with relative ease, the warrior should expect a fast-moving line. While waiting, take time to enjoy the company of Haverford Hacklin, Flamebro’s linekeeper and Agnes’s husband. Ask Haverford about his parakeets.’”
“Look, I’m sorry. But you have to admit it’s an easy mistake,” the Kensian warrior said.
“I don’t see how. How many 13-year-old girls do you know with dagger-like canines?” Bree asked, flashing her teeth.
“I don’t make a habit of examining 13-year-old girls’ teeth. Perhaps you should wear a cape or something!” the soldier snapped.
“Oh Gods,” Plupart groaned.
“Wear a cape? Vampires were forced to wear capes as part of the Grendlin Inquisition, singling us out for…”
“Haverford! Hello!” Plupart called, waving to the shrunken man who was more moustache than face. Haverford was now reprimanding a troll for not standing far enough to the left.
“I don’t care how big you are! No one stands on this side of the line,” Haverford snapped, pointing to a line in the sand. “If you’ll excuse me, I hear someone calling my name.”
Haverford waddled to the back of the line where Plupart was waving.
“Afternoon and welcome to Flamebro’s Cavern!, how may I make your pre-execution experience more enjoyable?” Haverford asked.
“I hear you have some pretty amazing parakeets,” Plupart said. “I’m a fan myself.”
Haverford’s eyes welled up, his sniffed, and shook his head. “My parakeets died five years ago, thank you very much. And if you warriors weren’t so cheap and bought the updated version of the Warrior’s Guide, maybe I could finally get over my grief!”
Haverford wiped his eyes, turned, and headed back down the Great Hall! yelling “Stand to the left or I’ll throw you out! I don’t care how long you’ve been waiting!”
“Well that was embarrassing,” Plupart muttered.
“We really should get the updated copy of the Guide,” Thomas said. “Remember the attack on Fero’s Cove? We were thirty-seven people in before discovering everyone was cured of zombism two years earlier,”
“That was a messy quest,” Plupart said.
III. Flamebro’s Arena!
The Guide was wrong about the parakeets but correct on the line. Within an hour, the trio was escorted into Flamebro’s Arena!
“Charge!” Plupart shouted, pulling his sword from its sheath.
“Just a moment, Sire. I need to finish moving these bodies and sopping up their blood,” said Blarf, Flamebro’s Arena keeper. He tossed one of the Kensian warriors into his corpse cart.
“What? We waited three days!“
“And I wouldn’t want you tripping on a corpse or slipping in bowel slop,” Blarf said. “Real tragedy, that would be.”
“He’s got a point,” Thomas said.
“Let me give you a hand with that,” Bree said, diving on the Kensian warrior who had called her a child, and sinking her teeth into his not-yet-cold neck.
“Much obliged,” Blarf said, tossing another body into the cart.
“Sorry for the delay, brahs,” said a fiery redhead coming around from behind the cart. He wiped his hands on a bloody towel and tossed it on the nearest corpse.
“Flamebro! Gods, it’s an honor!” Thomas said, hurrying forward to shake the elemental consort’s hand.
“Flamebro!” Plupart screamed. He pulled his sword from its sheath. “Die, elemental scum!”
“Woah, dude, be cool,” Flamebro said, holding up his hands showing he meant no harm.
“Yeah, Plupart, be cool,” Thomas said, before grinning stupidly at Flamebro. “This is the meet-and-greet part of the battle, isn’t it?”
“You got it, little man,” Flamebro said.
“Sorry, did you say ‘the meet-and-greet?’” Plupart asked, sheathing his sword.
“Yeah, man. Doesn’t happen often, since Blarf’s really efficient with the clean-up. But there were forty-seven of those Kensian warriors. Even Blarf isn’t that quick. Are you, Blarf?”
“No, boss! But I’m trying!” Blarf yelled back.
Flamebro sighed. “I keep telling him ‘call me Flamebro, bro.’”
Plupart scratched his head. “You’re Flamebro? Elemental consort to Goddess Rujan? Slayer of Lord Braxwell and Lady Miff’s armies? The Boar-Tusked Demon?”
“That’s right, brah. But I’ll tell you, I haven’t had time for Rujan since starting this whole enterprise. I haven’t hung with my crew, drinking wine and spit roasting virgins for… I don’t know how long.”
“Spit roasting virgins?” Thomas asked, somewhat confused.
“Ask this guy. He knows, amirite?” Flamebro said, clapping Plupart on the shoulder.
“I know no such thing,” Plupart said disgustedly.
“Sorry, I assumed you attended the Knightiary.” Flamebro said.
“I did and graduated with honors in soliloquizing. But as knights, we pledge ourselves to upholding the values of honor, fealty, and chastity,” Plupart said, beating his chest as he repeated each value.
“Oh, brah…” Flamebro said, shaking his head.
“Uh, Plupart?” Thomas said. “It’s charity… not chastity.”
“No, it’s… well it was…” Plupart glanced from Thomas to Flamebro to Bree to Blarf and saw the same look of pity in everyone’s eyes.
“Gods on Heaven’s Bench!” Plupart cursed, flinging his sword across the arena.
“Tough break, brah,” Flamebro said, throwing an arm around Plupart’s neck. “Finding that out just before you die.”
“No… it… I mean… All those years!” Plupart groaned.
“So… Uh… Flamebro. This is quite the operation you have here,” Thomas said, changing the subject.
“Thanks, l’il man. We’ve grown a lot over the years, haven’t we, Blarf?”
“Yes, boss. We sure have!” Blarf said, grabbing the handles of the full corpse cart and dragging it to the other side of the arena.
Flamebro chuckled. “That guy cracks me up! You know, back before all of this,” he gestured to the cavern, “I was under constant threat of a surprise attack. Warriors showing up without notice, expecting to fight on the spot. No regard for the fact I might have plans.
“You know, I tried to see Hemswell’s ‘Whose Mule Is This?’ seven times. Every time, I was pulled into a fight.”
“How rude!” Plupart said. Being a fan of the theater, he strongly believed in honoring a ticket holder’s plans.
“Right? Well one day, two different groups show up to fight me. The first said to the second ‘take a number’ and inspiration struck. Boom! Set it up in a cavern, no more surprise attacks!”
“And you were able to see ‘Whose Mule Is This?’ How did you feel about the third act?” Plupart asked.
Flamebro grimaced. “Haven’t seen it yet, brah. Hopefully in the next year or two. Now that everyone knows where to find me, there’s a lot more day-to-day volume. But we’re working out the kinks, making things more efficient, and soon we’ll be back to an eight-hour day.”
“How so?” Thomas asked.
“Efficiencies, brah. I already said that,” Flamebro replied. “This guy ever listen?”
“That’s what I thought,” Flamebro said.
“What I meant was… how are you going to make it more efficient? Won’t there always be more warriors showing up to avenge their lost comrades and take down the Lord of the Wicked?” Plupart asked.
“Well… Yeah, brah… But if we’re more efficient, we can… like get through everyone quicker. And then there will be fewer people to fight,” Flamebro said, sensing he may have missed a pivotal part of the plan.
“How will there be fewer people?” Plupart asked.
“All set boss!” Blarf called out.
Bree rejoined the group. “Shall we get this underway?” she asked.
“Hang on there l’il sis, I need a minute. Brah over here just blew my mind,” Flamebro said, miming an explosion with his hands.
Plupart, Thomas, and Bree dove to the ground. Flamebro was, after all, a fire elemental.
“Sorry, l’il man,” Flamebro said, pointing to Thomas’s singed eyebrow.
“No problem! How many people can say they got singed by Flamebro?” Thomas asked, doing a little victory dance.
“If they could still talk, around 347,000,” Flamebro muttered, sliding down to the ground.
“And how many more will there be?”
“Look, it’s rough now, but like you said, there are efficiencies. You’ll get through this,” Plupart said. “I believe in you. Bree believes in you. And Thomas definitely believes in you. So if we could just get this started, I’ll go get my sword and—“
“I’m not really in the mood,” Flamebro said.
“We’ve come all this way. Waited three days and—“
“Brah, I’m sorry. But it’s just… I need a moment. I’ve been doing this nonstop for a century. I’m immortal and I’m tired,” Flamebro said, running a hand through his hair.
IV. Career Change!
“From one immortal to another, have you considered a career change?” Bree asked, plopping down next to Flamebro.
“Huh? No way, l’il sis. Look at what I’ve built,” Flamebro said.
“You don’t seem very happy,” Thomas pointed out.
“True, l’il man,” Flamebro said.
“What are you two doing? We’ve come here for a battle and—“
“Plupart, hush. We agreed to never fight an injured foe. How would it look for us to take on a burnt-out fire elemental?” Bree asked.
“Exactly, brah. Not cool,” Flamebro muttered. “So what were you saying about a career change, l’il sis?”
“I’m saying sometimes a career change helps. I used to be part of the Royal night watch. Things were going well until I got good at my job. Then they had me guarding the walls at night and the castle during the day. I worked around the clock!
“So I switched to being a thief. Didn’t know a thing about it. Everyone cuts the newbie a ton of slack because they’re still learning.”
“It’s called a learning curve,” Thomas said. “I was a highly sought after milliner. Nobles constantly demanding my services. My fingers bled felt. Now I’m an alchemist. The hours are great, I’m learning new things all the time. There’s literally no pressure.”
“He can almost turn water into tea with the right herbs,” Bree said, winking at Flamebro.
“Don’t exaggerate. I can almost always turn water into tea with the right herbs,” Thomas corrected.
“How about you?” Flamebro asked, looking at Plupart.
“Me? I’ve been a knight since leaving the Knightiary seven years ago,” Plupart said, throwing back his shoulders with pride.
Bree cleared her throat.
“Fine! If you must know, I’m hoping to earn enough to start a cake shoppe,” Plupart said, shaking his head. “You probably think that’s stupid.”
“No way, brah! That’s awesome. Follow your dreams,” Flamebro said.
“And what are your dreams?” Bree asked.
Flamebro thought a moment, then shrugged. “I still have this guitar from my battle with the band of Rogues. I’ve been wanting to learn how to play, but just haven’t had the time.”
“There you go!” Thomas said.
“You could become a balladeer,” Bree said.
“A what?” Flamebro and Plupart both asked.
“A balladeer. You know, the person who travels with the heroes putting their exploits to song, making the heroes famous, that sort of thing,” Bree explained.
Flamebro nodded. “Cool. Yeah, it might be nice to get out of the Cavern for a few decades. Learn to play the guitar, sing about other people’s battles. I like it, l’il sis.”
“So, what do you think, Plupart?” Bree asked. “Can he join us? It’ll be good publicity… once he learns the guitar.”
“I don’t know…” Plupart said, not sure he wanted a fire elemental traveling the Realm with them. Especially one as battle prone as Flamebro the Wicked.
Flamebro’s head sank. “And what about Agnes, Haverford, and Blarf? They depend on me.”
“Bring them along! We need someone for battle clean-up. Haverford could raise messenger birds so we don’t have to trek back and forth across the Realm. And Agnes… I suppose she could make sure we don’t battle any children or break any rules,” Bree muttered.
“And you just came up with that?” Plupart asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ve been working on an org chart,” Bree admitted. “They all just happen to fall into it.”
“I love this idea, brah! Let’s do this!” Flamebro said, jumping up from the arena floor.
“Look, I don’t know if it’s such a good idea,” Plupart said.
“I’ll show you how to spit roast those virgins,” Flamebro said with a wink.
“Well… maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have a fire elemental on our side,” Plupart said, looking around for his sword.
“All right!” Thomas said, jumping up and doing a victory dance.
“Come on, Blarf! Let’s talk blood,” Bree called.
“So about this spit roasting,” Plupart asked in a hushed tone.
“Yeah, brah. First, you build a bonfire. You don’t want it too hot, otherwise the thing’s over too quickly,” Flamebro the Wicked began to explain.
It’s a lovely afternoon in New Orleans… a lovely afternoon for EVIL.
After what we’ve experienced, Mardi’s keeping a close watch on the front gate. Every two minutes she turns to me and gives the all clear. Mostly this sounds like “ruff,” but I know what she means. Even though we don’t speak the same language, when you’ve been through the trenches with another creature a connection is wrought. We can ruff without ruffing.
Our excursion began innocently enough. An after-lunch walk through neighborhood to aid in digestion; which is society’s polite way of saying it helps us poop.
People used to walk in the evenings after dinner. Now they watch television. The loss of the evening walk is, most scientists agree, the reason so many people are full of shit.
Pardon me, I’ve veered from my tale of horror into the realm of fact. Facts, I’m afraid, are life preservers for the coward’s sanity. And I, my dear friend, am a coward.
We perambulated down one street and up another. The sun shone, but the birds did not sing. Perhaps they knew of the darkness in the light. Perhaps they were singing racist Disney songs.
Perhaps I once knew the reason but that knowledge was scared out of me.
I chatted to my four-legged companion. “Will you be voting for Beagle Sanders or Pug Cruz in the upcoming Pawsidential election?” I asked. “Or perhaps Basset Trump?”
Mardi gave me the same look you have now.
Two houses ahead I spotted an elderly lady making her way down her front steps.
She bore the marks of Cain – a light blue dress and wild white hair. I know these marks well. I went to Catholic school.
Was it morning or afternoon? I asked myself, preparing a proper greeting, so as not to draw her ire.
She glanced up. Evil was in her eye.
Most people mistake evil for cataracts.
Those people did not go to Catholic school.
“Good—“ I began, in way of a greeting, but was unceremoniously spun around, before I had a chance to finish.
The dog was flat on the sidewalk, muscles taut, attempting to army crawl backwards down the block.
“Knock it off,” I hissed, pulling on the leash.
Perhaps if the old woman did not know the I knew what she knew to be true, she would let us continue on our way.
But the pull launched my companion into action. She bolted to the side, across a lawn, and dragged me into the street. She continued moving backwards, keeping her eyes on the old woman.
“I think your dog is hurt,” the old woman said.
An obvious ploy with which to invite us into her house of horror, which was accented with a lovely azalea bush.
“Yes, she must have — Oof!” I stumbled, the leash slackened, Mardi bolted. My imbalance afforded her the opportunity she needed to get us to the other side of the street.
I kept myself from being thrown to the ground by locking my knees and pinwheeling my legs. Safely on the other side of the street, Mardi pulled forward, away from the woman.
“I think she’s hurt,” the old lady called out again, relentless in her pursuit to draw us into the devil’s pit itself!
“Yes, perhaps she is — Oof!” the dog yanked me back a few steps.
Frustrated, I knelt down and took her face in my hands. Making eye contact I firmly said, “Calm down. It’s fine.”
I wanted to explain the dangers of letting evil know you know it’s evil, but before I could, she nudge me aside.
I was blocking her view of the old woman.
“Ruff!” she said, with just enough softness to suggest maybe she hoped the old woman wouldn’t hear her. She turned, lowered herself to the ground and began crawling down the street, dragging me behind her.
Every five steps she turned, looked back at the woman, and let out another, barely audible “ruff.”
“Have a good morning!” I called, waving to the woman.
Damn, it was the afternoon.
Would my lapse show her how terrified I was?
The woman rolled her eyes, bent down, and began weeding her garden in the cruel, soulless way evil has of landscaping.
Mardi dragged me three blocks back home, all hopes of a properly digested lunch gone.
The dog knocked against the gate until I opened it.
She knocked against the front door, until I opened it.
Then she bolted to the front window, where she stands now, waiting for the woman to appear.
“Ruff,” the dog says, her hackles rising. She tucks her tail between her legs. Someone is knocking on the front door.
Ma and Pa Adler are visiting New Orleans for the first time on their bi-annual inheritance tour.
What is an inheritance tour you ask? Why a tour to identify the child most deserving of the inheritance. The middle brother has been the running winner for over a decade, but I’m hoping to eek out a win this year.
Here are a few of the things I’ve already done to secure the top spot during this tour:
I picked Ma and Pa up at the airport.
I helped carry one of their bags!
I made Ma a cup of tea.
I let them buy me lunch! (Parents love spending money on their kids, especially the moochy, adult ones.)
Pretty good, huh?
And to help secure my spot, last night I pulled out Cards Against Humanity. Ask yourself, what else would two, god-fearing, Midwestern parents want to play?
Winning an inheritance is about one thing – Know. Your. Audience.
Some people would argue those are three things. These people don’t understand dramatic pauses.
Don’t be one of those people.
No one likes them. (I’m looking at you, Yolanda!)
In Round 7, yours truly was the Card Czar and I was magnificent at it. The skill, the charisma… Apparently, Card Czaring is what I was born to do. Thankfully, I was born in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes I feel bad for people who weren’t born at the right time or in the right place. Then I enjoy a Kit Kat, because empathy is a downer.
I read the card… “And the Academy Award for <blank> goes to <blank>.”
And here is the winning response:
Yep. “The Academy Award for the Art of Seduction goes to Daniel Radcliffe’s delicious asshole.”
Played by none other than Ma Adler herself.
Tears streamed down her eyes, her complexion turned ruddy.
“Ma!” Pa said, shocked.
“I don’t even know who Daniel Radcliffe is,” Ma said, choking on laughter and falling from her chair.
“It’s Harry Potter!” I said, clutching my proverbial pearls.
“Oh. Oh! Well that’s not appropriate at all,” Ma Adler said, becoming quiet, before melting into a fit of laughter.
Now I’m just a small-town inheritance scientist, but this seems like a really good sign. I think I may take down the reigning champ of the tour… the middle brother.
They still have a visit with the youngest brother, so anything can happen.
But regardless of the outcome, I suppose I’ve already won the inheritance tour, since we now know where I got my sense of humor.
Now sentiment aside, I still want the real inheritance – Grandpappy’s old Folger’s can of nuts and bolts.
“Professor Icicle, sir! Professor Icicle! Excuse me, have you seen Professor Icicle?” A high-pitched, anxious voice asked a few cubicle rows over.
Professor Icicle hung his head and took a deep, calming breath.
“Who’s that?” Lady Mystery asked.
“My temp,” Professor Icicle said, rolling his eyes.
“What happened to Marcus? Did he find another job?”
“In a manner of speaking. He died during last month’s attack on the lobby.”
The lobby was still under renovation after Doctor Fuzzle and his slime minions attacked the Starbuck’s stand, attempting to negatively impact productivity at Heroes Incorporated!
Several line graphs suggest he succeeded.
Flying Girl had been demoted to ‘acting elevator’ for those unable to fly.
“I’m sorry to hear about Marcus,” Lady Mystery replied. “He seemed like a good guy. I remember one time—“
“Oh! Professor Icicle! There you are, sir!” Alan, the temp, called from three cubicles away. “Oh goodness! It took me ever so long to find you… The mayor of Reno is on the phone! I can transfer her over to… uh… uh…” He looked at Lady Mystery and obviously did not know her name.
“Lady Mystery, a pleasure to meet you, Alan. Welcome aboard,” Mystery said, standing and shaking Alan’s hand. Professor Icicle caught the smirk she threw in his direction. He always had the worst luck with temps.
“Yes, Lady Mystery, nice to meet you. I can transfer the mayor to Lady Mystery’s line for you, Professor Icicle, sir!” Alan said, beginning to salute, thinking better of it, and instead put his hands behind his back.
“That won’t be necessary, Alan,” Professor Icicle replied, adjusting the lapels of his tweed jacket. “I really should get back to my desk anyways.”
“And I should finish this expense report before you-know-who gets up in arms over it,” Lady Mystery said, nodding towards Mike, the Middle Manager.
“Good luck with that,” Professor Icicle replied, turning and following Alan back through the cubicle farm.
“I asked the Mayor to hold and came to find you immediately. She offered to leave a voicemail, but… well she is a Mayor so I figured she deserves priority service,” Alan said.
“You put the President of Bolivia into voicemail while his home was being attacked by killer robots,” Professor Icicle pointed out.
“Yes, but this is an American mayor,” Alan said, emphasizing all of the wrong words in that statement.
Professor Icicle grimaced. “All of our clients are important, Alan.”
Had he gotten the Bolivian call when it came in, Professor Icicle would currently be enjoying a celebratory glass of champagne with the President and his wife.
Instead, someone with a higher paygrade was franctically working to keep the former Bolivian Vice President from cancelling the contract.
“What does the Mayor of Reno want?” Icicle asked.
“Serious problems with the Winter Festival,” Alan said, lowering his voice, “the snow machine has broken!”
Alan’s hands fluttered in what Professor Icicle concluded was Alan’s attempt to show excitement at what he considered a wonderful opportunity.
“Super,” Professor Icicle replied icily.
Mayor Margaret was his most troublesome client.
Not troublesome like the Mayor of Toulouse who, as the former President of the Planet Frinx, suffered from regular assassination attempts by the Galactic Waste Collection Union.
Nor was she troublesome like Mexico City, which sat atop a 15,000 year old Titan named, Brock, who kept breaking his chains of imprisonment and clawing his way to the surface.
No, Mayor Margaret was the type of trouble that called when an ice machine was broken. Or the city hall’s HVAC system was on the fritz. Or her lemonade was tepid.
“Okay, transfer her over,” Professor Icicle said, standing at his desk.
“Done!” Alan said, rushing over to listen in on the call.
Professor Icicle watched the phone, waiting for the transfer light to blink.
“Alan, she’s not here,” Professor Icicle said.
“She must be,” Alan said, leaning over the cubicle wall and grabbing at Professor Icicle’s phone. “Huh… I’m sure I transferred her. Let’s see…” Alan dug in his pockets and pulled out a slip of paper. “Hit hold. Transfer. Hold. Hashtag. Star. Park. And Hang-up.”
“And you entered my extension?” Professor Icicle asked.
Alan looked confused. “Of course, I did. Right after… No before… I mean…” Alan blushed. “I’ll get her on the phone right away.”
“Thank you, Alan, that would be great,” Professor Icicle said, settling down in his seat.
“Oh! And there were a few messages while you were away from your desk,” Alan said, holding out a ball of crumpled pieces of paper.
“Why didn’t you come and get me sooner?” Professor Icicle asked.
“They were foreigners,” Alan whispered, before hurrying back to his desk to get Mayor Margaret on the phone.
Professor Icicle pulled the crumpled pieces of paper apart and smoothed them out.
‘Vatican under attack by Lord Conductor.’
‘Alien spaceship hovering over Sydney playing Bananarama on repeat.’
‘Canada has disappeared.’
Professor Icicle took a deep and cleansing breath.
“Hey there, Ice. How’s it going today?” Mike, the Middle Manager, asked, popping his head around the cubicle wall.
“Fine, Mike, and you?” Icicle asked.
“Not so great if I’m honest. I’ve been getting a lot of 411s from your clients and, golly, if they aren’t angry. Why don’t you swing by my cube when you have a chance so we can pow-wow the sitch, alrighty?” Mike said, giving Professor Icicle a thumbs up.
“Fine,” the Professor said. “Just fine.”
“Okay, she should be there now!” Alan said, running up to the cube and bumping into Mike as he turned to walked away.
Professor Icicle glanced over at his phone and waited for the light to blink.