Red Ghost

He left his cubicle, heart pounding. His boss had just called him up to his office. In the last month, the company let go of 300 employees in the state, twenty of them of them at his location. There were rumors this office was going to get hit with more, or closed entirely with only a few select employees moved to another location. Rent was coming up soon. His savings were running dry from rent going up again. He braced himself for a call to his parents tonight. The heavy door of his boss's office stood before him now. He opened the door. His boss greeted him on the other side. "Jim, come in and take a seat. Oh, lock the door behind you." "Yes, sir." Jim did as he was told. He sat in the uncomfortable leather chair in front of his boss's desk. The chair's smell overpowered everything in the room. "You wanted to see me?" "Yes, I did." The man said. "I've been watching you for a while now." Jim stayed quiet, wondering if he was going to be let go for taking advantage of his work computer's access to the internet. "I've noticed some interesting things about you, or rather, around you." He turned around in his chair and hit a button on a remote. "I want you to see something." A video came on screen of security camera footage. Jim recognized himself in his cubicle. He watched himself get up from his chair, dazed, walk off somewhere. The footage switched to a different camera. He saw himself now walking down a hall, but he wasn't alone. A black, shadowy figure walked distantly behind him, its speed increasing more and more until it caught up with Jim and vanished. On the footage, Jim saw a bookshelf falling forward toward one of his female coworkers. The him on the footage snapped out of his daze and caught the bookshelf, pushing it back up against the wall. The woman thanked him. That footage ended. It cut over immediately to a different day. Jim noticed the date in the bottom corner was from two weeks after. In this video, the shadow was already behind him. Here, he appeared to be in a daze again. He was, from what Jim could tell by the location, likely walking to the bathroom. The shadow caught up with Jim's past self. Suddenly, Jim abruptly turned around to walk down a different hallway. Less than a minute later, several ceiling tiles fell down in the hallway he was originally going to go down. "Do you know what this is?" His boss asked him, pausing the video. Jim shook his head. "You've never noticed this...shadow behind you before? Not once?" "No, sir." Jim's heart pounded. "Interesting. So, you are unaware of it, but it seems quite aware of you. And very helpful." Jim's boss opened up a folder. "I've been reviewing your history here at the company. You're one of our most productive workers at this building. You're also quite lucky. You've won at least one prize at every raffle and contest we've held in this office. This has happened at conferences as well. Have you always been a lucky man?" "I don't know, sir. I don't think so." Jim said. "Jim, I want to tell you something. When I first hired you, I had some business come up and only had time for one more interview that day. So many candidates at the time were all essentially the same. If whoever came in next wasn't a complete idiot, I planned on hiring whoever arrived first. There were three interviews scheduled that day. Yours was last, but you showed up first. I went back and looked at the footage from that day." His boss resumed the video. It started in the parking lot. Jim on the video was visibly out of it. As soon as he exited his car, he ran, but his face was blank. The shadow chased him from behind. His directions across the parking lot were strange and chaotic. When the shadow finally caught up with him, Jim bumped into someone and knocked the person down. He apologized and changed directions once more, running faster. "That man you knocked down was the person who was supposed to come in for the first interview." His boss said. "He never made it. I didn't know that at the time. I assumed Sherrie turned him away after you came in." The video kept going. The man Jim had knocked down had dropped his wallet when he fell. He searched around the parking lot for where it fell. Jim was now inside the building. A car sped into the parking lot and hit the man, who was on his knees looking under his own car. The footage sent chills through Jim. "Why are you showing me this?" "I don't know what this being is, but whatever it is brings you good luck. And as my employee, perhaps you and I can find a way for this shadow man to bring us good luck, if you know what I mean." His boss winked at him. "How would we do that? I don't really know what this thing even is...or that it was there at all." Jim said. "Think back. Have you ever had an encounter with something you couldn't explain? Any strange stories in your family? Or unusual locations or items you've acquired recently?" His boss questioned him. "Um..." Jim could think of one thing, but he wasn't certain he wanted to say it. "This...this is...I'm not sure if it's related." "Go on." "Some years back...when I was in high school...actually, it was around this time of year. It was Halloween." Jim recalled. "I don't know. I'm not really sure what happened. I'm sorry." "No, no. Tell me everything you can remember." His boss said. "Don't worry about how it sounds. You could say I've encountered a lot of strange, unexplained things myself. I trust you'll tell me the truth." Jim considered what he should say next. "Well, I don't know." "Jim, we're family here. You can tell me anything. Whatever you've done, whatever you've encountered...if we can use it for our own good, it doesn't matter. Go on. Tell me what happened. It might help us get an idea of what to do next." His boss reassured him. "Well, I was with my friends walking around the neighborhood. One of my friends wanted to go a different way than usual. We came across a weird road that none of us remembered being there before. We all assumed it was something newly put in. There were lots of new roads and neighborhoods being put in around then." Jim's body tensed thinking back to that day. He avoided thinking about anything related to that. "When we went down the path, we ended up somewhere strange. We were near a mountain, but the mountain shouldn't have been that close. There was a road there that none of us recognized and none of us have seen since. But the really strange part was when we were coming back." "What happened?" His boss asked. "We heard a strange animal in the woods. I don't know what it was. It didn't sound like any animal I've ever heard. We ran, but we didn't get anywhere." "What do you mean you didn't get anywhere?" His boss leaned in. "Like the path kept repeating somehow. We were running, but got nowhere. And that thing, whatever it was, was getting closer." Jim said. His hands gripped tightly to his pants. "Something bit one of my friends, but none of us saw anything there. He was bleeding though. He had a bite mark." His boss nodded along. "I see. How did you escape?" "I don't know. Suddenly, we were back at that neighborhood again and that path was gone." "What happened to the other people who were with you? Did anything happen with your friend who was bitten?" His boss asked. "Yeah. The one who was bitten, Ethan, he got really sick. He was in the hospital most of the time we were in high school. Actually, recently they amputated his leg because the weird infection just kept coming back no matter what they did and they were worried it might spread across his body." "It was the same leg that was bitten, right?" Jim nodded. "What about whoever else was with you?" "There was only one other person, my friend Jesse. Nothing bad really happened to him. He was in a couple car accidents when we were in high school, but that wasn't long after he got his license anyway. Actually, Jesse also has really good luck. He won a lot of contests when we were in high school. He'd find hundred dollar bills on the ground and crazy stuff like that." "Really?" His boss leaned back in his chair. He grinned. "Your friend, Jesse, what does he do for work right now? Is he in need of a job?" "He's a nurse." "Do you think he'd be interested in changing careers?" Jim shook his head. "Probably not. He's always wanted to be a nurse. And I mean, for obvious reasons, I don't think I could convince him to work here through any kind of increased salary. Money's not exactly a problem for him." His boss laughed. "Right, right. Well, that's unfortunate. But you are here. Perhaps there's some way we can extend your luck." "How would we do that? I'm not sure I'm really all that lucky. What if there's some kind of catch to this? What if this is actually some kind of curse?" Jim asked. "There's no need to worry about that. When life gives you a gift, you shouldn't waste it. How you got that gift doesn't matter." His boss opened up a drawer. He pulled out a book and flipped to a specific page. "What is this?" Jim asked him. "I told you I've encountered a lot of unexplained things in my life. And those unexplained things are part of how I've acquired all I have now. Actually, I'm under several curses right now. But I'm always ahead of their effects and I have counter measures. You can't get something for nothing. I've found that even curses can be very useful if you think about their exact terms logically and find the right loopholes." He turned the book around and pointed to a specific passage. "What we need to do is sort out what the terms of your gift, or curse, if you will, actually are. Everything important is always in the fine print." Jim read over the passage. It described a ritual to summon a spirit into his dreams to communicate with. Jim was starting to wonder if his boss was pranking him. It was October first. His boss had always loved Halloween. "Is this...real? I'm sorry, this seems..." "Oh, I assure you it's very real." His boss smirked. Jim wasn't sure what to make of his expression. "How did you get all this information?" "I have my ways. Let me just say I happen to know some people who know a lot about this sort of thing and have been researching strange things for a very long time. Have you heard of Aurora?" "Aurora? Don't they work with police investigating sex trafficking rings and serial killers?" Jim vaguely recalled that information from some documentary on a serial killer he watched one Halloween years ago. "They also do that, but there's a lot they investigate that the public doesn't know about." His boss said. "You could say I'm very well acquainted with the head of their company. Actually, they sought me out after the first time I was cursed. They wanted to study it. I've gained a lot since learning about the conditions of that curse. I took the million my father gave me at eighteen and have turned it into hundreds of millions since through using those loopholes they helped me uncover." Jim wanted to ask, if his boss had so much money, why were they downsizing everywhere. But he knew better than to ask that. "How did you get cursed to start with?" His boss laughed loudly. "Haha, let's just say a girl I met at a frat party turned out to be a real witch. Not one of those silly Neopagan girls who pretend to be, but the real thing with real cursing abilities." Jim noticed his boss left out why the "witch" actually cursed him. "So, this ritual...did you want me to do this?" "Yes, do it tonight and report back to me tomorrow what you learned. From there, we'll sort out how to best use your gift." His boss pulled out a form. "I'm still in contact with Aurora. Part of our deal with allowing me to keep all this information is that I report back to them anything interesting and unusual I come across. I'll need you to sign here that you consent to me passing along your information to Aurora. Don't worry. Your information won't be used for anything harmful. This will only be seen by their scientists. No one else will know about anything you tell me." Jim looked down at the form. Most of the words were in very small font. He didn't understand what little he bothered to read. When he was younger, he would have hesitated and tried to read it anyway, but he'd filled out enough lengthy, jargon filled forms by now that he didn't bother worrying over that anymore. He signed his name. "Good, good." His boss took the form back. "Take the book with you and report back to me tomorrow what you find. You may leave for the day." "Are you sure? I still have..." "Someone else can handle it. Go on and prepare for tonight." "Yes, sir." Jim took the big book and left the room. He read through the ritual when he got home. Jim would need to go back out and buy supplies. He wasn't happy about that. That was more money out of his bank account that he didn't want to take out. Jim mumbled under his breath. "Lucky. If I'm so lucky, why am I always back to being broke whenever I think I'm about to get ahead?" Jim returned quickly from the grocery store. He was really starting to believe his boss was pranking him and that his boss had assumed the story Jim told him was a prank in return. He presumed the video footage was also likely doctored, though he questioned why his boss would put in footage of a man dying in there. Jim figured there must've been a trick to that as well. All the supplies he needed for this secret ritual could be found at any grocery store. The more he thought about it, the more he was certain his boss was messing with him. But the story Jim told was real. Jim and his friends really had encountered something strange years back on that Halloween afternoon. The three of them rarely spoke of that day, though Jim didn't see his two old friends that often these days anyway. He'd moved away from that place, and they'd moved on to somewhere else. Last he talked to them, they were renting a small house together in Paulding and Jesse was sometimes assisting Ethan around the house. Ethan had gotten a prosthetic leg recently, but had spent much of his recovery using a wheelchair. The house they were renting together had a wheelchair ramp. The doctors were hopeful that with the leg gone, Ethan would make a full recovery. Jim wondered if losing a leg could really ever be something one could recover from. At the time, he remembered Ethan told him he'd be willing to lose half his limbs if it helped him survive. Jim couldn't imagine life missing one, much less more than one. He personally would consider that a fate worse than death. When his grandfather was old and already near death, he had a bad fall and spent the rest of his remaining life in a bed. His family tried to take care of him, but eventually moved him to a home. It was too much work. The thought of someone having to help him every time he needed to go to the bathroom horrified him. He never wanted to be in a position like that, nor on the caregiver end of that either. He knew Jesse had helped out Ethan's family with Ethan's health issues even before they left high school. He never asked if Jesse ever had to do anything like that for Ethan, but Jim knew he definitely wouldn't. He'd never be able to look Ethan in the eyes again. Jesse wasn't a squeamish person. From all the nasty stories Jesse told him about working in a hospital, none of it fazed Jesse. The day they encountered that strange creature, it was Jesse who bandaged Ethan's wound. Jim was concerned for Ethan, but he didn't want to look at all the blood and the broken skin. Jim would be meeting up with Ethan and Jesse again soon. They planned to have lunch together in a week. Jim wasn't really looking forward to it. He didn't want to spend any extra money on fancy food. He only agreed to go because Jesse was paying for everyone. If he was being honest with himself, that wasn't the only reason he didn't want to go. When he moved away from home to Fulton, he wanted to cut ties with everything from his life back then. Jesse and Ethan were part of that life he wanted to forget. They barely had anything in common anyway. He knew, deep down, if they were born in a place with a higher population and bigger schools, he likely wouldn't have been friends with either of them in the first place. Some lingering nostalgia bound him to them, but that was fading the longer he was away. Jim doubted he would see them again after this month. In fact, Jim actively wished for that. He had hoped he could forget entirely about that Halloween afternoon too, but his boss's curiosity brought that back to the forefront of his mind. Jim sighed. He performed the silly ritual in the book. With a piece of white chalk, he drew a circle. On top of the chalk circle, he added another circle made of salt with a three inch opening. Thirteen candles in thirteen different colors were placed along the outer part of the chalk and salt circle. Inside the circle, he drew another, smaller one and added salt over that one. For this circle, he made a salt circle over it with a two inch opening. Seven candles of seven colors decorated that one. In the middle, he drew a symbol from the book and placed two candles in the middle. One was red, the other blue. Salt was poured all over the symbol in the middle, except directly near the red and blue candles. An inch of empty space was left open around the candles. From that space, he used his finger to open up a one inch wide path between the two center candles and then two one inch paths from each of the candles back to the two inch opening of the smaller circle. Jim lit the candles, starting with the outer circle, then moving in. He lit the blue candle last. Jim stood in on the salt covered center and recited a passage from the book. "Oh, being beyond mortal lands, who holds my life within your hands I summon you here to now make it clear my praise of your perfection, your wisdom, your ambition. for all my love, may I see all that will soon be taken, all that you have gifted me." Jim felt ridiculous saying the words aloud. He wondered if his boss had hidden a device in the book to listen in on him and was laughing away at his desk. He sighed again, cleaned up the mess, and ordered food for dinner. Jim thought about what he should tell his boss tomorrow when he asked Jim what he saw in his dreams. Would his boss want him to keep playing along or tell the truth so the prank could be revealed? He decided he'd worry about that in the morning. Around midnight, Jim got ready for bed. His mind returned to the ritual he did earlier. He didn't believe anything supernatural would happen that night, but he did expect he might have a nightmare over being reminded of that day. Jim stared up at the ceiling fan for a while, then reached over for the remote on his nightstand and turned on the TV. A rerun of the evening news played. He closed his eyes, begging for his mind to let him sleep. When he opened them again, the channel had gone off the air. A black dog sat facing the screen. Jim's eyes widened. He sat up in his bed. The dog turned its head to look at him. Red eyes met with his. The dog smiled, its mouth widening to an impossible grin. Sharp teeth glittered in the dim room, pearl white with red stains. The dog spoke. "So good to see you." Jim couldn't speak. The dog melted into a shadowy puddle and vanished. Jim heard its voice. "You called me here. What do you want, boy?" Jim looked around for it, but he couldn't see the dog anywhere. "I...I didn't mean to...Please..." "Didn't mean to? You accidentally performed a ritual? You knew the right words and the right way to get it done without knowing anything? No, boy, you lie. Your employer gave you that book to use. Why do you lie when your life is on the line?" The voice said from behind him. Jim felt someone breathing down his neck on the right side. His heart raced. He didn't want to look, but he couldn't stop himself from glancing over. A long, black snout and white teeth were the first things he saw. Up close, he could see how thick and slimy the fur of the creature was. He was certain the dog was much bigger in size than it was when he first saw it. Jim turned his head more to look at the being's eyes. The red eyes met with his. They didn't remind him of a dog anymore, but of a human's eyes. Unconsciously, Jim started to cry. He could barely breathe. The beast reached up with a long arm and grabbed hold of Jim's face. The being's hand was more human than dog, but not quite either. Long claws scratched against his cheek. The fur against his skin felt wet and sticky. The beast smelled of burnt flesh and rotting leaves. A blue-spotted salamander emerged from underneath the fur of the creature's arm, then sunk back down below around the creature's right shoulder. Black millipedes dangled on the underside of the arm, mixing in with the long hairs of the being. The beast wore tattered clothes, stained so heavily splotches of varying shades of brown were all that remained of the colors. Mushrooms grew out of pockets. Maggots spilled forth from the seams. Smiling wider, the creature asked again. "What is it you've called me for? You brought me all this way. You better answer or I'll take from you what I have given." Jim mustered the courage to say something. Through tears, he said. "W-what have you given me?" The creature tightened its grip on Jim's face. "I have given you Time as your playmate." "What does that mean?" "Your not very bright, boy. I should take your gift for being so unworthy, but Time will decide if you are not worth playing with anymore by herself." The creature moved its face closer to Jim's. Jim smelled autumn air, the unmistakable scent of fallen leaves, decaying pumpkin, and crisp, chilly wind. Inside the beast's mouth, he saw the salamander again. It crawled out from the beast's throat onto its tongue before vanishing again underneath it. "Please...please explain to me what you mean. I am not...smart enough to understand you." Jim's voice was quiet. He couldn't get himself to raise it any louder. "Man is bound by Time's paths. You are all born playing her game, racing down the tracks she lays for you in her chaotic way with the other builders. How long you get to run is decided by you by the routes you take. But you...you can skip ahead to the conclusions you want. You can skip along to alter your routes and others however you like." The beast explained. The longer Jim stared in its eyes, the more human they appeared. The red turned from a brilliant, bloody shade to a dry, dull brown. "How would I do that?" Jim asked. The creature's fur fell off of its arm, disintegrating into ash. Underneath, human skin remained. The skin broke open, dripping with red and exposing white. "Your desire lets you skip. You've been skipping along since we met. You could choose more precisely if you wished. Call forth Time and she will let you peak through your paths through her window. You can go to wherever you want from there." "The shadow...is that you? Is that Time?" Jim asked the creature. The creature laughed. Its snout was decreasing in size. From its right arm, the rest of the body's fur disintegrated. "That is you. That is you from the past running to catch up to you on the path you've decided to race toward. Only you can ever run along the paths allotted to you." Jim remembered what his boss told him. The important details are always in the fine print. "What's the catch? Why have you given me this ability?" "Those are two different questions. For your arrogance in not letting me have time to answer the first, I will not answer the second." The creature's face shifted. The snout was gone now, the face entirely human looking. Skin all over the body cracked open. Blood rushed out, burning hot where the drops touched Jim's own skin. He felt heat radiating from the open wounds. The top of the creature's head now sprouted long strands of black. The face was handsome and hideous. As the being spoke, half of the face's skin had rotted off. The salamander peered out of a hole where the being's right cheek once was. "Time will play with you as she wishes. If you upset her, you may find she will trip up your race. When things become slow, she brings the finish line closer to you, and to me. When she is pleased, you may find your world spins differently and that end ahead of you is farther away." "I don't understand...how can moving faster to something...make it farther away?" Jim asked. In this human-looking form, he was less afraid of the being. The being's right eye fell out of its socket. Mushrooms grew out of the space it left behind. The skin of the arm holding Jim's face had completely rotted away, leaving only burning hot bone behind. The claws turned to thorns and the veins, devoid of blood, shifted to dried vines. "If you thought on it, you would understand it. For such a foolish question, I will not grant you an answer." "Did you give something to Ethan and Jesse?" Jim asked. "Yes." "What did you give them?" He asked. The creature pressed its half-rotten forehead against Jim's. The being smiled. "You pry of those you seek to discard. So slow, you wicked rabbit. When I come to eat you, I will be quite satisfied." Jim realized, as the being grinned, that though the face was now human-looking, all of the being's teeth were still that of a dog. The salamander rested against the sharp lower row. "I...I was only curious...since you gave me something...What are you?" "Why do you think you are entitled to know?" The creature asked him. "I...I only wanted to know who gave me this ability." "You were given many things in life. How few of them do you question, and how fewer are you grateful for. Why should I answer you when you have not asked for the names of all those others?" From the black strands, tree limbs grew out of the creature's head. Leaves unfurled, then died. The limbs shifted from green to brown, then cracked and crumbled. "I am sorry...I didn't know...I was given anything else..." Jim's face was drenched with tears. Though the creature only touched his face, the now bony hand somehow felt as though it were gripping tightly to somewhere else in him; somewhere he couldn't place nor name, deep inside his body and all over his skin. It grasped at his breath and his heartbeat, down through his lungs and every blood cell flowing in him. The sensation, both tugging and scraping, left him with searing pain across his organs and bones. Behind his eyes, within his ears, in his throat; everything burned and squeezed without anything ever touching him that he could see. "I didn't...I didn't mean to offend anyone...Please...I'm sorry..." "You wish to know what I am that badly?" The creature let go of Jim's face. The pain slowly dissipated from Jim's body, but a small amount lingered on under his skin. The creature's body restored itself, except for the right eye. The salamander had now moved to rest on a large mushroom growing out of the socket. The being spoke. "I am always near, always within you and everything you have known. I embrace you in the moment before Death takes you, and it is by my kiss that he knows to come. I stop your heart, and I eat it. You run through life across my belly, and from my belly you were born out of the hearts I ate before you. I am Decay." "Decay..." Jim didn't know if the being meant that literally or metaphorically. He was too afraid to ask and make the being angry again. He asked a different question. "Why...why would you show yourself to me that day and give me something? I thought...I thought you were trying to kill me then." "I only wanted to play." The being leaned back and smiled again. "In that space you dwelt in before, I ate so much there. That part of my stomach was satisfied and I was bored. I gave you an ability that could keep my presence over you weaker, or stronger if you so chose it to be that way. I wanted you to have more control over when we finally embrace. I wonder, what will your heart taste like when I finally swallow it? Will you be tasty or your heart too heavy and hardened to enjoy?" "What does..." Jim started to say. The being covered Jim's mouth. "Rude thing. You ask too many questions when you are only food with thoughts." The being's face changed rapidly, shifting back and forth between the face of a dog and the face of a man. As the being's form changed, the creature bit down into Jim's neck and ripped it open. Jim tried to scream, but he couldn't speak anymore. The being swallowed a chunk of Jim's neck. It rose up and looked down at Jim, mouth covered in blood. The salamander tilted its head down at the same angle as the being who's face continued to shift. The world around Jim moved, slowing and speeding up. Everything wobbled and shook, except for the being and the salamander, who remained fixated on Jim's eyes. Jim felt himself dying. The world faded, and then there was nothing. A loud ringing went off. Jim opened his eyes. He was still in bed, but it was morning now. The TV played the morning news. Jim took a deep breath. "What the hell was that?" He rationalized to himself his dream was a byproduct of what he did yesterday, resulting not from any supernatural reasons but out of his brain creating a dream to match what his mind was being primed to expect from the ritual. Jim got out of bed and went to get ready in the bathroom. He washed his face off first. Jim felt a stinging sensation on his neck and cheek. He looked closely at himself in the mirror. On his left cheek, he had four scratches. The left side of his neck had a single, deep cut down it. He ran out of the bathroom to the area he had done the ritual in. Everything he had cleaned up and tossed in the trash was back on the ground exactly where he had first put them down. The candles were all lit, except for the red one in the middle. The book he had put away last night was sitting on the sofa. It was open to the page for the ritual. Jim quickly blew out all the candles. He grabbed the book and rushed to get ready for work. Maybe his boss wasn't pranking him. Maybe he did know something about this sort of thing after all. He stopped. A thought occurred to him. He remembered the creature said he could control this and mentioned a window. "Is there a way I can see what's coming?" 'If I really want something, I can move to it. I want to move to see how I can do that.' He thought on that desire as hard as he could. He felt something within him leave. Then, he was floating in light. There was no land below him, no sky above. A rainbow of colors moved around him, flowing back and forth, down and up. The movements reminded him of sea waves and spider webs caught in a stormy wind. He reached out to touch the lights, but he couldn't feel them. Jim kept feeling around until one of the lights hit him. He grabbed hold of it, the light having the texture of a silky string. He tugged at it. Several lights moved in unison as he pulled at the center string. From the midpoint that they connected at, a black ball appeared. Jim touched it. The ball exploded into a rectangular shape. Jim could touch this too. When he pressed his hands against it, the screen let his hands push deeper in, as if he were pressing against foam or slime. He pulled his hands away. Jim thought about what he might want to move to. He didn't want to get ready for work or have to explain everything he saw in his dream. He wanted to skip ahead to his boss's reaction to after he told him everything. Jim concentrated on that thought. The black window began to have color. It showed him a vision of himself in fast motion getting ready, leaving, arriving at work, and telling his boss everything. The edges of the screen glowed red. Jim touched the red on the left side. He saw another version of the days events but he arrived earlier in the conversation with his boss. Jim touched the right side now. It showed him the first vision. He touched the right side again. The third vision was the same as the first one, except he also asked for a promotion for his future services. He couldn't speak in this space, but his thoughts were audible. 'I can choose from different versions too? Was the version before just random? Whatever. I want the promotion.' The window glowed. A strong current wrapped around him and pulled him through the black window. He briefly felt himself walking quickly, then he woke sitting in that leather chair in his boss's office. Jim looked behind himself. "Did you see the shadow?" He asked. "No, I didn't, but you told me you used your powers to get to this point." His boss said. "I did. It worked. But I guess I already told you what I did." Jim said. "So, you can't remember how you got here?" Jim shook his head. "Interesting. You held a lengthy conversation with me, completely lucid, but your eyes were dull. It's as if you are using your body as a marionette as you move through time to wherever you wish." His boss said. "That beast you encountered, I can't say I've ever heard of it, but those at Aurora may know something. I'll pass that information along to them. As for the conditions of your gift, I've been thinking...the creature wants you to use your gift for reasons beyond yourself. So, that should work quite well with using this gift to help the company. You would be helping everyone who works here thrive." "That makes sense. But what should I be doing?" Jim asked. "There is something I had in mind as a test for you. If you pass this test, I will consider your proposal of giving you a promotion. I need to test your loyalty to the company. If I cannot verify at the start that you will only use your gift for our collective good, I can't see a reason to give you any special treatment. Do you agree to perform my test?" His boss asked him. Jim nodded. "Whatever you want." "Good, good." The man leaned back against his heavy chair. "There's a construction site I know has not been keeping up to our standards. I've warned them already, but from internal investigations, they continue to work outside of safety regulations. There's bound to be an accident there at some point. I am in the process of hiring new management for that project, but it's only a matter of time. They've turned the place into a walking death trap. I'm going to be shutting everything down there for a week to assess what to do about it. That's planned for the day after tomorrow. For tomorrow, I want you to go to that location and ensure that, no matter what happens, we avoid a lawsuit. Do you understand?" "I'm not sure...how I would help with that?" Jim asked. His boss put a large suitcase on the desk. He opened it. Inside were many folders. "This is all the information on all of the staff and contractors working at that location. Read through them." Jim took the suitcase. "I...still...don't think I get what I'm supposed to do?" "Perhaps, if something does go wrong, there is someone who should take the fall or perhaps, should be the one to be involved in whatever does go wrong. If anything going wrong is an unavoidable path, of course. If you can find a way to ensure nothing goes wrong, that would be for the best. But if something must go wrong, I want you to find the 'best' way it could happen. Do you understand now?" His boss asked him. He was smiling, but his eyes were cold. Jim felt a chill down his spine. "Yes, sir. I'll do that now." "You can skip ahead already?" "I think so. Let me try it." Jim stood up from the chair. He didn't want to talk with his boss anymore. Jim was afraid to ask him for more information on what to do. Deep down, he already understood exactly what he meant. If something bad had to happen, it was best to happen to people the company wanted to get rid of but weren't easy to fire or people that were very disposable, like the undocumented workers the company hired under the table that had no real record of working for them. If it was the former, depending on what happened needed to occur in a specific way that would hurt the company less than keeping the person. For the latter, Jim knew his boss would easily be able to cover up the deaths. Though they were a construction company, Jim never worked out there with those people. Most of the people actually doing the construction work, managers aside, were contractors. From what he heard, many were not "officially" employed and were paid in cash under the table. Jim looked over the address of the construction site that was listed on one of the folders. He concentrated on what he wanted to accomplish. 'Let me ensure tomorrow that if anything goes wrong, it goes wrong for the company in a way that causes the least amount of problems for us.' The room faded away from him. He was in the space of colorful lights again. Jim searched for the string of light he pulled last time. When he found it, he pulled hard on it to make the black ball appear. Jim tapped it. The black window appeared before him, already beginning to show him a vision. Jim watched through ten different scenarios. Though he hadn't read anything before he left, Jim knew everything that was in the contents of that suitcase. His recall of information seemed to be heightened far beyond his normal abilities while he was in this space. He knew every face, every address, and every flaw, or what his boss would see as a flaw. Jim wasn't sure what to choose. There were too many options. He changed his focus. 'Which of these choices will lead me the quickest towards a promotion?' The screen changed to display a certain set of events. There was no red along either side. He touched the sides to see if there were other options. Nothing happened. 'So, this is the one that will get him what he wants the most. Which one is this?' Jim watched the events play out. A concrete slab was being lifted into the air to move to a different location. Jim instructed two specific men, who Jim knew were undocumented workers, to go to the area near where the slab was to be lowered down. The slab wobbled within its chains as the crane moved it, becoming more unstable as it moved across the lot. The chains snapped and the slab dropped down. Before the men realized what was happening, it was too late to run out from underneath it. Jim saw their bodies flattened. Red rushed out from underneath the slab. 'This is the only path for that?' Jim corrected himself. 'No, this is the quickest. This is what he wants the most.' Jim considered the other options. Someone was harmed or killed in all the visions he saw before. He changed his intention again. 'Show me the one that will give him what he wants, what I want, and where no one is harmed.' The window turned black. 'There isn't a way for that? Someone has to get hurt?' Jim tried again. 'Show me how to make sure no one is harmed tomorrow at that location.' The screen showed him a new vision. He stayed home that day and unplugged his phone. Jim packed a backpack and drove to Jesse and Ethan's house. Once there, he had a conversation with them then looked for a hotel to stay at. Jim wanted to yell at the window. 'I can't quit my job. That's not an option.' He thought on the situation more. 'There's no way to make him happy without someone getting hurt. Is that the test itself? That I would hurt someone for the company? No, that can't be it. I'm thinking of this in the wrong way.' Jim considered other ways to word his intentions. He had an idea. 'Show me what is the best thing I can do tomorrow that will be the best for the company's prosperity.' He thought this one would work out better. It wasn't about his wants or his boss's, but what helped everyone in the company. There were a lot of people who depended on the company to live. Once more, the window showed him the vision of the two workers dying under the concrete slab. 'Why this one?' Jim didn't understand. He thought on it more. Perhaps, he reasoned, their deaths triggered events he wouldn't be able to comprehend from what he saw and that's why it needed to be this one. He couldn't see how losing two people versus none helped, but life was complicated. There was no way to know how each event led into the next. That was what Jim told himself anyway. He decided that was the future he wanted to skip to. The screen pulled him through again. Jim felt himself walking along a path. He couldn't control anything he was doing. Unlike the first time, he was able to feel this sensation longer before arriving at the point in time he wanted to go to. Jim woke up again just after the death of the workers. He stood before the slab, shoes soaked in red, and tried to tell himself, somehow, this must've been the right choice. He wanted to get out of there immediately. Jim skipped ahead once more to seeing his boss again. His desire was so strong and specific, he didn't see the lights or the window. Briefly, he felt himself moving somewhere, but not for longer than a moment. When he woke up again in his boss's office, the room was spinning. Everything seemed to be moving just a little faster than before. Jim chalked it up to his anxiety rising. "I've...I've done what you wanted." He said. "Yes, you have done quite well. I assume avoiding any sort of accident was not possible." His boss said. Jim hesitated. "Yes, that's right." "Then, it couldn't be helped. Someone was bound to be harmed at that place today. By ensuring it was those two contractors, you've made sure we won't have to worry about any pesky lawsuit. I've informed their families of the deaths and that, if they wish to stay in America, they won't say anything about it. The families have been properly compensated for all the hard work those two gave the company. They won't need to worry about money for a while. I've taken care of everything." Jim stared at the floor. "Is this...something that happens often?" His boss got up from his chair and walked over to Jim. He put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I understand. It's painful to have to play god with other's fates, but you did the right thing. If there was a lawsuit there, imagine how many people might lose their jobs instead of only two? How many lives could have been lost if you chose something else? How many people might have suffered? Sometimes, the right thing for most doesn't benefit everyone. It's like the trolley dilemma." "What is that?" "The basic gist of it is that you have a trolley going out of control. You can choose which way it goes. One way, you kill five people, the other, only one. What do you choose? There is no way to avoid a death, so what is morally right at that point? Do you see what I mean?" His boss asked him. Jim nodded. He wondered what would have happened if he had quit instead of going to work that day. How would he have survived? In that vision, he was in Paulding, far too close too the place he was trying to get away from, back with the old friends he was in the process of letting go of. If he wasn't able to find a job quickly after quitting, he'd likely have to move in with his parents and be back exactly where he started at. He couldn't live with himself if that happened. Jesse and Ethan might put him up for a while, but he didn't want that either. This was his home now. Whatever it took to keep that home, he would have to do. "Did I pass your test, sir?" Jim asked. His boss grinned. "Yes. You have definitely passed. I have some more tasks for you to do next." "Um, about the promotion..." "Oh, yes, I'm still considering it. But I want to see that you're reliable first." His boss sat back down. "The next task is a simple one. You can breeze through conversations with your power and say all the right words. I'll be introducing you to a new client of ours tomorrow at a party. I want you to seduce her and ensure she agrees to the contract. She'd be a big client for us. With her on board, that may open up some new jobs in Macon." "You...you want me to sleep with her?" Jim asked. "Couldn't I just...get her to agree without doing that?" "No, I don't think you understand. You're the prize to make the deal. All you need to do is not disappoint her. This should be easy enough. I'd think you could seal the deal without using your gift, but you should use it to ensure everything works out." His boss said. "I...is this really how those sorts of deals are arranged?" Jim asked. "You don't need to worry on that. There's a lot of things that you don't know about. I'll guide you on what you need to do. I'm not paying you to question me or the company's dealings. Do what I say, and you will be greatly rewarded in time." His boss said. "It's only sex. It's not a big deal." "Yeah...I guess it's not..." Jim said, mostly to convince himself. "Do you have a picture of her?" "Oh, of course." His boss opened a drawer and put a photo on the table. "This is her." Jim looked down at the photo. The woman was a lot older than he expected. She looked around eighty years old. His stomach turned. 'She looks the same as age my grandma.' His boss noticed his reaction. "Yes, she is a bit on the older side. I'd keep the lights out, if I were you. Her age should ensure it won't take long." Jim took the photo. He looked her over again. He was sure that she was actually older than his grandmother. He would have to use his power to be able to get through sleeping with her. 'Should I really do this?' Jim's body was still tense from earlier, despite him skipping ahead in time. The deaths of those two workers was fresh in his mind. He grimaced. "It's only sex, right?" "That's right. We all have to do things we don't like to get ahead and help others out. Take one for the team. I'll repay in you in the future." His boss reminded him. "The promotion?" "That's right. But you need to prove yourself worthy. Don't let me down, Jim. I'm counting on you." His boss said. Jim put the photo back on the desk. Rent was coming up soon. He needed more money to keep living there. This was what would get him there. This was what was best for the company too, he told himself. Jim used his power again. This time, he skipped ahead of that night all the way to Friday night. He didn't want to see his boss for a while, but when he chose his path, he made sure that pleasing his boss and completing any other tasks for him before Friday evening was done to his boss's maximum satisfaction as well. Skipping through time via the lights and watching the scenarios was getting easier for him, though the time he spent in between the two moments was growing longer. He assumed that feeling he got when he skipped ahead was him moving as the shadow to his future self along the path. Jim rested in his bed, staring up at the ceiling fan. He got up and went to the couch. Jim reached in his pocket and found a piece of paper with the directions for the ritual written on it. He hadn't bothered cleaning up the mess since the morning he found it reappeared on his floor. Jim lit all the candles and recited the incantation. After that, Jim took three sleeping pills to ensure he knocked himself out quickly. He returned to bed and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he felt wide awake. The TV was on, but the channel was off the air. A black dog sat in front of the screen. Less afraid, Jim spoke to the creature first. "What are you watching?" "Spiraling and spinning, how we all move around in this expanding emptiness. It's beautiful and terrible, but my stomach is quite full in places because of it." The black dog turned its head back to face Jim. It grinned widely, a human hand dangling in its mouth. The creature swallowed the hand. "Do you cause everything to die everywhere? Why are you bothering me specifically?" Jim asked. "Again, you ask me two questions together before giving me any time to answer the first. For that, I will not answer the first one this time. And for the second, you have already asked me that. I will not answer you a second time." The creature grew in size rapidly, its form becoming more upright and human-like. From its back sprouted branches and tall grass. As quickly as they grew, they died. The black fur beneath the withered wood turned to a thick cloak. The creature fully turned around, its head now that of a man's. The creature's left eye was missing instead of its right eye. Gordian worms filled the socket. Atop the pile of worms sat the salamander. The being's skin deteriorated in spots, then healed and rotted somewhere else. "What are you really?" Jim asked. "I have already answer that. Is that all you've called me hear for, to answer questions you already know the answers to? Do you love to hear my voice that much that anything will do?" The being laughed. His eyes changed again from red to brown. Jim stared at the creature's face. The features of the human face, he couldn't place them to anywhere. They seemed to be pieces from all over at once, gradually shifting to some other place's face before he could locate where any specific feature originated from. "Are you alive or dead yourself?" "Am I alive?" The creature pulled at the tattered shirt and ripped the buttons off. Rotting flesh was exposed underneath. Then, the creature pulled again and ripped open its rotting skin. Underneath the skin was a skeletal frame coated in blood, but there were no organs. Leaves, alternating between green, orange, and brown, filled up the rip cage. Vines sat where intestines should be, baring fruit that fermented immediately after turning ripe. Mushrooms grew all along the spaces in between the leaves and the vines. In the center of the rib cage, slightly to the left, a small pumpkin was cradled by the thick leaves. Earthworms poked out of it as flies buzzed around it. Within the rig cage, the blood turned to water, raining down on the dying plants and hungry insects. The creature repeated the question. "Am I alive?" "You're dead?" Jim asked. The being ripped its own arm off and tossed it onto Jim. The arm bled out onto his stomach. Jim tossed the arm off. "Am I dead?" The creature asked Jim back. "What makes me dead? What makes you dead?" Jim gave him a logical answer. "My heart's beating. If my heart stops, I die. If my brain dies, my heart will stop and kill me. If my brain and heart are working, then I'm alive." "Then you don't need much else, do you? To be alive?" The creature sat on the bed and returned to watching the static. It didn't bother retrieving its arm. "No, I need more than that. That's what would kill me." Jim answered. "What is it, then, to be alive?" The creature asked Jim. "My heart and brain make sure everything else works in my body. Those keep my body alive. I have to eat and sleep, or I'll die." "You've again brought yourself back to killing." "I don't understand." Jim said to the creature. "You aren't wrong. Your answer is incomplete though." The creature pulled off one of its legs and dropped it on the floor. From the rotting flesh, flowers and vines grew out of it. The vines snaked their way up the bed and around Jim's left leg. Jim tried to free himself from the vines, but the more he struggled, the tighter they got. "You fight often over things you cannot change, and not often enough over what you can." The creature said. "Are you saying I shouldn't fight this? It's going to rip my leg off." Jim used all off his strength to pull at the vines, but he couldn't stop them from wrapping tighter. "You don't have the power to stop what's happening. Let it go." The creature fell back and through the sheets. It reappeared on the wall behind the headboard, half inside the room and half on the other side of the wall. "Do you need your leg to live?" "I don't want to live without my leg." Jim yelled as he pulled at the vines. "You haven't sorted out how this game works, have you?" The creature leaned further out of the wall. Its black hair turned to Eastern kingsnakes that fell upon the sheets. The snakes wrapped around Jim's arms, preventing him from fighting with the vines. Jim now began to fight with the snakes. Unable to fight with both, Jim focused only on the snakes. The vines tightened faster and in a matter of seconds, snapped through his leg. Jim screamed. Tears rolled down his face. They burned wherever they ran across one of the cuts the creature had given Jim before. He fought harder against the snakes, who in turn bit him for squirming. As he writhing on the bed, pushing and screaming, his leg bled out profusely. "Why are you fighting?" The creature asked. "They're trying to kill me." Jim answered, his voice drained. "This snake is the friend of man. They would not eat you. They're biting you because you are harming them." The creature lowered its right arm to the snakes. The snakes slid up the arm and made their way back from where they came. "They attacked me to start with. They tried to squeeze me to death." Jim said. "No, they curled themselves on you, but they had no ill will. You assumed such. Your assumption has given you quite a few bites. If you had stayed still, they wouldn't have bitten you and your leg wouldn't be bleeding the way it is now." The creature called one of the snakes back from its hair to its arm. The kingsnake shed its skin and made its way down into the rib cage. It settled somewhere behind the pumpkin. The being took the snakeskin and turned it into a bandage. It wrapped the bandage around Jim's open wound. The pain stopped. "The vines were going to cut it off." Jim was too tired now to fight anymore. "Yes, and there was nothing you could do about it. So, why did you fight?" The creature's lower half turned to a black fog. It floated above the bed and returned to the floor in front of the TV. Its appearance reverted to that of a black dog. "You don't fight with your employer, who has no power over you, but you fight with nature, that is infinitely more powerful than you. So slow, little rabbit, you let the end come upon you. You'll be in my belly soon." Jim, completely exhausted, was finally able to focus on why he had summon the creature again. A part of him was still tempted to keep up this back and forth with the creature, but he knew the being was intentionally wasting his time. "I have a question that I haven't asked you before. I can skip forward. Can I skip backward and undo anything I've done?" "Go back? No, man can only go forward. One does not go backwards in a race." The beast did not look at Jim when it spoke. Jim sat up. His leg had reattached itself. "Could you...take this gift from me?" "Oh? Didn't you want the money your employer is promising you?" "I do, but...if I don't have this, he won't ask me to..." "Will he ask anything of you?" The creature looked back at Jim. Its eyes were red again. The salamander sat inside its mouth. "I can take from you what I have given, but what is done cannot be undone. What is dead can only return to life in a new form once Death has come to take his claim and I have fed upon the heart. I could give new life to the ones you killed, but their lives are over as they were." "Would they remember who they were?" Jim asked. "I could give them that, but that is a cursed existence for one who lives among humans. They could never return to their families, as none would recognize them. I could make them forget the past, but then, that wouldn't mean anything to you, would it? That would be a new life for them with no knowledge of the pain you caused them. You must live with what you have done." The creature, mostly dog in appearance, raised a human-like arm to turn the dial on the TV. Jim saw fuzzy images of people, but he couldn't make out what they were doing. The creature turned the knob again to a colorful image. The station played an instrumental piece on trumpet. The creature lowered its hand, seemingly satisfied with its selection. "Only forward, yes, that is the only direction the living move in." Jim moved to sit at the edge of the bed. "You won't take this from me, will you? You can, but you won't." "If you would like to answer your own questions, there's no reason to wait for me to speak." The creature replied. "If I have to be cursed with this, then so be it." Jim said. He stood up from the bed. "You told me not to fight nature, so I won't. I'll use what you've given me to its fullest." "Whatever could that be, I wonder." The creature turned around. It changed its form back to that of a half rotten man. "Run as you please, as often as you please. I don't make you run." "If we're all heading toward an end, how can we not run from it?" "From?" The creature laughed again. "You can stop and the waves of Time will drift you to me, if you'd like. The choice to run is yours. Do not contact me again. I will eat you if you do." "But I..." "Another word, and I will eat you now." The creature snapped. It grabbed hold of Jim's left arm and cut down it with one of its claws. Jim closed his eyes in fear. When he opened them, he was in his bed. He rushed to the ritual area. The floor was clean. There was nothing in the trash. He checked his arm. The cut was still there. It was Saturday now. Jim was supposed to meet his old friends, Ethan and Jesse, at two for lunch. The hands of the clock on his wall seemed to move faster than before. Time itself felt as if it were rushing forward, pulling him along. Jim wanted to get the lunch over with already. Rather than be glad that time was moving faster than it should, he wished it would move even faster so that he could hurry up their meeting and return home. He considered using his power to speed through the entire lunch, but he wanted to be present for the lunch. While he wanted to get rid of his old friends, he didn't want to do it in a cruel way and somewhere in him was still debating on if he should discard them or not. He hadn't decided yet what he really wanted, as much as he told himself he had. Rather than skip the lunch, Jim skipped ahead to just before the lunch. He waited for the two of them to arrive in front of the restaurant Jesse picked out. Jesse and Ethan arrived within a minute, but that minute felt like seconds around him. His irritation with time only increased. Everything was moving fast, but he seemed to be stuck outside of it. It was moving away from him. Jim didn't understand how that could be. He was the one skipping ahead. Jim didn't ask the creature anything about that. He had forgotten to in their last meeting. There was no way he could ask the creature now either. He would have to sort this anomaly out on his own. Ethan was in a wheelchair. Jim could see he had the prosthetic leg on. Jesse was pushing the wheelchair for Ethan. Ethan and Jesse hadn't changed much since their high school days. Jesse still had the same questionable fashion choices. A shell necklace around his neck, the same tacky one from tenth grade, stood out as particularly embarrassing. Ethan, Jim thought, just as lazy as ever. "Hey. Hope you didn't wait long." Jesse said. "I didn't. I just got here." Jim said. "That's the new leg, huh?" Ethan lifted his prosthetic leg up. "Yeah. Still not really used to it. Physical therapy today was brutal." "How's it feel?" Jim asked. "Kind of...weird. I probably won't keep this one anyway though. I'm sure I'll get used to it." Ethan shrugged. "He's been doing really great. The infection seems to be completely gone now." Jesse said. "Really?" Jim asked. "Thank god." Ethan said. "No more experimental drugs and treatments. No more laying in a hospital bed for weeks. No more damn hospital food." Jesse laughed. "Speaking of food, we should go in. I reserved a table for us." "Is this place that popular? I've never been here before." Jim said. "Really? It's not far from your apartment." Jesse tapped the button near the door to automatically open it. He wheeled Ethan into the building. Jim followed behind them. The hostess took them to their seats. "This place is nice looking." Ethan said. Jim looked over the menu. "These prices are steep. Are you sure you can afford this?" "Yeah, order whatever you want." Jesse said. Jim ordered a cheaper dish. He knew Jesse likely could cover everything, but just in case, he wanted to make sure he could afford it himself if it came to that. While they waited on their food, Ethan moved away from the table. "I'll be right back. Bathroom." Jesse looked over at him. "Do you want me to come with you?" "Nah, I'm not that tired." Ethan laughed. "Alright." Jesse said. Jim waited till after Ethan was out of sight to say anything. "Do you help him with that?" "With what?" "Going to the bathroom?" Jim asked. Jesse gave Jim a strange look. "I mean, not usually, but he's pretty wiped out today and you never know what the bathrooms are gonna be like in any place." "So then, you have though? In the past?" Jim asked. "That isn't weird to you?" "Weird?" "I couldn't do that. I don't think I could do that for someone I was married to." Jim confessed his disgust. "Eh, it's not that big a deal." Jesse said. "I've had to deal with a lot nastier things involving complete strangers. Last week, this guy came in and I swear to you, he had this glass bottle about this long stuck up his..." "Spare me the gross details. We're about to eat." Jim cut him off. "Haha, right. Yeah, it gets worse from there." Jesse shook his head. "Anyway, I'm not fazed by stuff like that. Never have been." "So then...you've touched his..." "I've bathed him before. I've touched everything." Jesse said nonchalantly. "Hell, if it'd happened to you, I'd do the same for you, if you asked me." "Really? I just...I can't imagine..." "Yeah, I get that. It's not something most people would wanna do. It's not like I want to do those things either, but I do want to help people. Sometimes, that means having deal with the parts of life that aren't so...glamorous." Jesse rested his chin in his palm. "I thought you already knew this stuff. I stayed with Ethan's family on and off during high school to help him. Don't you remember? There were some weeks when he couldn't get out of bed at all." "I remember that, but I thought his mom did everything or a nurse or something." Jim said. "She helped too, but you know, this stuff is awkward. He was more comfortable having me help him with all those 'intimate' things than having his mom help. It's not like this was something he could opt out of. He couldn't do a lot of things on his own after those procedures they'd put him through. Some of those times...I didn't think he'd make it till the end of the month. That's how sick he was. Someone had to do that stuff. It's not like he wanted to be in that situation." "His family isn't taking advantage of you, right?" Jim asked. "They are paying you for helping him, right?" "I volunteered to help, free of charge." Jesse said. "That's a lot of time lost. You're doing that and working at the hospital. You went to college too." "I'm still going to school at half-time." Jesse said. "I can handle it." 'When do you have time for anything?!' Jim didn't know Jesse went back to school again. "Sure, maybe you can, but the money lost..." "Money?" Jesse raised an eyebrow. "Ethan's my best friend. There's no amount of money worth more than him." "Look, I'm just saying..." "What happened to you in the last few months? The Jim I knew would never say something like that." Jesse's mood turned sour. "That boss of yours put that idea in your head?" "No. All I'm saying is I think they should be paying you at least something for helping him." Jim defended himself. "You're putting in a lot of work for him." "They already offered. I refused." Jesse said. "Why?" "Because money doesn't mean anything to me. The only money I need is enough to pay for what's important. Bills, food. If I can make rent, I'm good." Jesse stated. "My job covers everything I need for myself." "Must be nice, Mr. Lucky." Jim's own mood was getting worse. "What?" "Back when we were in high school, you won every contest you entered. Some of those I know were for a ton of money. Must be easy when you're rolling in the green." Jim snapped at him. Jesse checked his watch, then looked over toward the bathroom. "I don't have that money anymore." "Blew it all?" "Some of it, yeah. I gave most of it away." Jesse said. "Why?" "I don't need it." Jesse looked over at the bathroom again. "You remember that Halloween a few years back, when we were attacked by that...thing..." Jim froze. He didn't want to talk about that. Jim pretended he didn't know what that creature really was. "It was probably a coyote or..." "Don't give me that. You know it wasn't. That wasn't some animal." Jesse wouldn't let it go. "After that day, that's when I started winning things. I'd find money on the ground everywhere, twenties, hundreds, thousands. People would just give me random money for no reason. When I'd go to spend it, that's when it'd happen." "What happened?" Jim asked. "The first time I won a lot of money, I bought a car. Someone rammed into it the next day. I bought a bike. A tree fell on it right after I got off it. Got another car, got into another accident. Bought some CDs at the store and drove home in my mom's car. Totalled, all the CDs tossed through the broken windshield and shattered all over the road. Every time I spent a dime of what I won, something bad happened." Jesse recounted. "Then I did a test. I gave the money away. Nothing happened, to me or the other person. I can spend the money I work for and I'm safe, but 'free' and 'easy' money always leads to a disaster unless I gift it." "Is that why you didn't want to take their money? It's easy money?" "No, it's not 'easy'. Helping him can be hard work sometimes. But all that got me thinking--did I really care about most of the things I wanted to buy? The first car I bought was stupidly expensive and flashy. My current car is fine. It's nothing special, but I appreciate it more. I'm a lot more careful about how I spend my money. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to give away what I didn't need. We live in a really poor area. Even an extra twenty can really help someone out. I had to ask myself, why was I always jumping first to buying something fancy and ridiculous instead of asking if anyone needed any help first? I don't want to take money from my best friend's family. They already struggled a lot paying for all of his medical treatments. If I can help out some, I should. I'm a nurse. Why wouldn't I help?" "I can see not buying expensive things...but you do buy yourself fun things right? Do you have any savings?" Jim asked. "I probably have more in savings than you do, but it only comes out of my work paycheck. I still go out places and buy things, but not like how I did when I was younger, and only from my paycheck. When I was spending it all on myself, those 'lucky' streaks were nothing but curses. But now that I give it all away, there's power in that." Jesse said. "Power? But you don't get anything out of it." "I have the power to decide who will." Jesse said. "And you know, that's pretty fulfilling." "I don't think that would really make me feel all that great." Jim said. "Really? You used to always be worried about others." "Yeah, well, I'm a lot hungrier these days." Jim said. He went quiet as the waitress put their plates down. Jesse waited until she left before opening up his wallet. He handed Jim a thousand dollars. "Here." Jim counted the money, in shock. "That's...that's a lot of money." "None I can keep." Jesse looked over at the bathroom again. "If he's not back in a couple minutes, I'm gonna go check on him. So, I take it you're feeling a bit cursed right now too? What's your situation?" "It's nothing like that." Jim denied it. "If anything, my luck is getting better. I've been moving up in the company pretty quickly. I'm probably going to get promoted again soon." "Then why the money troubles?" Jesse asked. "It's just the place I live at. Rent's been going up a lot. But once I get promoted, I won't need to worry about that." Jim changed the topic from himself. "What about Ethan? Do you think he's cursed? He got bitten by...whatever that was." "He was." Jesse said. "Now that he's lost the leg, the curse has left." "You think it only affected his leg?" "That infection never quite went away. Ethan was in and out of the hospital all the time over it, doing whatever everyone wanted. Try this treatment, try this experimental procedure. Nothing was working. He was getting sicker and more miserable. One day, he finally had enough and asked them to just cut the damn thing off. He's been recovering so quickly. He healed up from the amputation so fast the doctors couldn't believe it. He's been doing great at his physical therapy sessions. And ever since then, he's finally stopped letting people push him into things he doesn't want to do. He's really come alive since then." Jesse's eyes brightened. "You're saying he's more 'alive' after losing a leg?!" Jim narrowed his eyes. "He looked pretty tired to me. And he's still using a wheelchair. Why isn't he walking on that leg now?" "We just came back from another therapy session. He's always exhausted after those. And he'll probably keep using a wheelchair for the rest of his life, for the times when he's worn out from walking. That's not unusual." Jesse said. He took a sip of his drink. "You don't think that's sad?" "He seems happier to me. He's actually adjusting really well. We had to do a few modifications to the house we're renting, but he's really been doing great." Jesse smiled. "You know, it wasn't so bad with us, but he's always done whatever other people around him wanted him to do. He'd cave really easily, especially with his parents. He's much more confident and assertive than he used to be around them. He's not afraid to say what he really wants anymore." "I just...don't understand. How is it losing something important is somehow making your lives better? It doesn't make sense." Jim shook his head. "Well, I..." Ethan returned from the bathroom. Jesse turned his attention to Ethan. "You alright?" "Yeah. I'm a little more worn out than I thought I was. The door wasn't that wide either." Ethan rolled his eyes. "Sorry to keep y'all waiting." "It's not a big deal. The food just got here anyway." Jesse said. Jim watched the two of them. Ethan looked tired. He always had that tired look in his eyes every time he saw him after that afternoon. But he was smiling. Jesse was smiling too. His clothes were worn out. The Jesse he knew in middle school and early high school wouldn't have ever worn anything like that. He didn't smile like that either. As they talked, Jim compared the two. Ethan was dressed nicer than Jesse. Jim noticed a flashy, colorful band on Ethan's left ring finger. Pink, purple, and blue stones were set in a gold band. Jealousy rose in Jim. 'Did Jesse buy you that too? You're really living it up, huh?' He didn't recall Ethan ever wearing accessories like that when they were in high school. He thought it looked absurd. Jesse looked absurd too, looking so shabby next to Ethan. They both looked absurd. He couldn't stand hearing anything they had to say. 'Why are you both so happy?' Jim wondered. He looked to Jesse. 'He's using you, you know? Don't you see that? You're getting nothing out of this. You'll never get anything.' Jim looked over at Ethan. 'And you, you know your life will be shit now. If you lose Jesse, no one's going to care for you like this. You're a burden now. You act like a burden. You don't own up to it. You take his money and take his time and smile about it. But at least you are getting something out of this. Jesse, you're just a fool.' Watching the two of them, overcome with jealousy and rage, he thought, 'Whether I get promoted or not, the future where I don't have to see you two after this month is the one I want most.' Jim had wanted to see this dinner through in his normal time, but he was tired of being stuck in this place watching the world move on without him. He concentrated on a new destination, Monday morning, to do whatever his boss wanted. After all, if he worked hard enough, there was a promotion waiting for him. He found himself in the space of flowing lights. It was second nature to him now. Jim instinctively knew where to pull to find his string and access the black window. He could be skipping through his last meeting with those two without giving a proper goodbye, but he really didn't care. Monday morning, his boss had a new task for him. He needed to steal some documents from one of the competing companies at an event. Jim had no qualms against doing that. Unlike the first task his boss gave him, no one would be injured in this. His boss wanted to find evidence of them breaking some safety regulation and slipping that information to the local news to ensure some small fines their way. The other company was much smaller and newer than theirs. The fee would be small for his boss to endure, but could be enough to destroy the smaller company. "Of course, if they aren't doing anything wrong, there won't be anything to find and they shouldn't have any problems with the media." His boss said. "But you and I both know that no company meets all those silly regulations all the time. Those small businesses coast off the public's presumption that only big companies bend the rules. You and I both know if they can get away with it, they will. But there is a chance that they are innocent. There's no harm in looking to make sure of that, right?" Jim agreed to do it. When he skipped forward this time, he walked through his entire route as the shadow. When he woke back in his body, his sense of time was more disoriented. Everything around him felt even faster. He couldn't seem to catch up. His movements were a few seconds behind what he saw with his eyes. Despite his disorientation, Jim was able to get the documents by stealing the keys from one of the staff, leaving the event, and breaking into a certain part of the building. He turned the documents over to his boss. "Good work, Jim. I have another task for you." Jim got used to hearing those words. Through the day, for two weeks straight, he used his power to complete questionable tasks for his boss. The more he did it, the more things seemed to be speeding up around him. Jim got used to it. He learned to work around the time distortion. After those two weeks, Jim noticed something else strange started to happen. The window would sometimes appear on its own to alert him of things coming up. The first time it happened, he saw if he went a certain way, he would get hit by a car. When the window appeared on its own, it didn't show him alternate paths. He had to guess the right course of action for those. From what he could tell, the window would only appear on its own to alert him of danger to himself or others. He managed to push his boss out of the way of a falling ceiling tile thanks to one skip, but due to the time distortion, Jim wasn't able to get his own body fully out of the way in time. Jim chose not to tell his boss about these changes. He knew his boss would want him to contact that creature again to get the full terms and conditions of this part of his ability. His boss would force him, and if that creature kept its word, Jim wouldn't live to use his powers again for anything. He kept quiet about that and hoped he would sort out the terms on his own. In the third week, Jim's boss took him with him to another conference. This was the biggest one of the year for their business in their area. All their competitors were there. Jim's boss was coming up with a list of tasks for Jim to complete before the weekend was over. The first day, his boss told him, was for them to observe their enemy first before making any moves. Jim stayed close to his boss throughout the day. Around four, Jim had one of the windows pop up for him. He saw into the window a group of people walking toward an elevator. He recognized the building. It was the same one they were in now but several floors up. The group consisted of his own boss, himself, the CEO of one their biggest rival company, and three other people he didn't recognize. They were dressed similarly to everyone else, but in cheaper clothes than the two company heads. Two of them wore pins with his company's logo. He saw the elevator open. It was packed. The rival CEO and the two wearing his company's pins got into the elevator. He, his boss, and the person without a pin waited for the next elevator. Before the elevator door shut, the lights down the hall and in the elevator flickered. Then, there was a loud snap and crack. The elevator dropped rapidly, all those inside screaming. Jim immediately pushed through the black window, forcing it to send him through. He ran as the shadow now, feeling just as at home in this form as he was in his regular body. Jim was now walking in that same group of people. Faintly, he could see the forms of their future selves ahead of them in a hazy red. He quickly wrote a note to his boss and slipped it to him. It said: 'The elevator is going to fall. We mustn't get on it.' His boss read over the note and nodded at him. As they approached the elevator, the events began to play out as he had foreseen them. The CEO got in the elevator first, along with the two employees from his company. His boss grabbed one of them by the shoulder and pulled them back out. "George, we should let Mr. Kim go first since he works with Avery." His boss said, grinning widely. Jim's eyes went wide. He froze. Kim started to get into the elevator after George stepped out. Instinctively, Jim reached forward to stop him, but his body felt sluggish. He couldn't move fast enough. The lights flickered, then came the snap and the crack. Down the elevator went, with Kim half way between staying still and descending. What remained behind hung off the side of the empty space where the elevator once was before gravity took the rest down with it. The elevator door closed right after. Screams echoed through the building, up the bloodied shaft. Jim's suit was stained with red. He fell to his knees. Later, after the police and ambulance arrived and left, Jim was alone with his boss. His hands and shoulders shook uncontrollably. "You...you didn't stop them." He muttered. "Why?" "Avery's been in my way for over a decade. Couldn't let a once in a lifetime opportunity like that pass me by. It's not like I killed him. That was a freak accident. I didn't warn him, that's all." His boss said. "But what about the others?" Jim asked. "Did you know them?" "We wouldn't have been able to get them all out in time. I saved who I could." His boss told him. Jim stated the obvious. "One of our employees died." "Julio was leaving the company next week to work for Avery. He chose his fate." His boss said. He laughed. "If anything, I did the next person who takes over the company a favor. I was gonna fire Julio if he didn't quit anyway." Jim's body went cold. "I see." His boss put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Look, Jim, I know what we saw back there was pretty rough stuff. That'd mess with anybody's head, but you did good there. We didn't save all those people, but think of how much you just helped the company. You know I'm all about rewarding my employees for their hard work. Remember that promotion we talked about? Starting Monday, you're going to be a very important man." Jim looked over at his boss. His eyes lit up for a moment. He wouldn't need to worry about rent or food anymore. He wasn't going to get laid off and he was going to make more money. His excitement faded back as he looked down. His clothes and skin were still covered in red. "Thank you, sir. If it's alright, I'd like to get cleaned up." "Right, right. You got the worst of it. Haha, right in the splash zone. You get yourself to a shower and come down for tonight's dinner." His boss walked to the door. "Yes, sir." His boss lingered at the door, then looked back. "Oh, and after that, meet me up here. I have some tasks for you to do tonight." After his boss left, Jim undressed himself. He felt something wet clinging to the bottom of his shirt. Jim examined it. A round, ruby colored wet mass with a protruding piece of pinkish-white in the middle sat in his palm. He pressed against it. The bright, wet part was squishy, and the middle white part hard and sharp. His mind took a moment to realize what he was touching, in shock that such a thing could ever be in his hand. His eyes opened wide. Jim tossed the mass onto the floor. He winced and got a paper towel to pick it up with and put in the trash. Jim dumped all of his stained clothes in the trash and tied up the trash bag. Jim showered. The water washed away the blood, but none of his guilt. His stomach growled. Jim collapsed in the shower and cried. He brought himself to the space of lights and skipped ahead another week. He found himself in his bedroom, staring up at the ceiling fan. The TV played the morning news. Jim was aware of all the tasks his boss made him complete. He wondered how that worked, that he had skipped over him skipping ahead. Jim realized, outside of those two dreams where he met with the creature, he hadn't actually allowed himself to consciously sleep in weeks now. His body must have slept in that time he skipped over. The fan spinning above him moved like a tornado. He couldn't make out any of the blades. He was sure he hadn't changed the fan's setting from low. Jim sat up. His body felt heavy. His limbs were sluggish. The scratches on the left side of his body burned. His phone rang. Jim picked up the phone. "Hello?" "Hey Jim. It's me. Can you get to the office early today? I have some things I want to discuss with you. I have some special tasks for you to do today." His boss said. "Alright. I'll be there soon." Jim hung up the phone after that. He thought about sleep again. He really wanted to go to sleep and do nothing. Jim concentrated and pulled himself to another day, in the evening. He was in bed again. Jim got under the sheets to finally rest. His phone rang again. Jim looked at the caller ID information. It was his boss. He ignored it. His boss called again. Jim covered his head with a pillow. The phone kept ringing. He considered unplugging it, but he didn't want to know what his boss would do if he couldn't get through to him about whatever it was. Jim skipped forward once more, concentrating on the thought of convincing his boss to let him rest for a day to recuperate from using his powers so much. Somehow, he had done it. In all the time he had worked for his boss, he hadn't once taken a day off. He was always rushing to complete whatever his boss wanted, then on to the next thing tomorrow. For once, Jim rested. He slept a long time and dreamt of nothing. In the morning, Jim's boss called him again. He had extra tasks for him today to make up for Jim taking off the previous day. Jim skipped over his tasks. He was too tired to think about what he was going to have to do. He didn't want to know at all. When he skipped ahead, as his shadow self, he went through multiple points in time, but his awareness of what he was doing was hazy. Once he reached himself again, he saw the world full of threads. The colorful lights extended out and in front of people, entangled around others, and draped over everything. He walked through the dangling threads that didn't belong to him. Near others, he saw glimpses of their near future. He saw so much information before him he couldn't comprehend any of it. Sluggish, he reached around for his own thread to follow, but couldn't find it. Jim stopped and leaned against a wall. He covered his face to block out all the light. Jim felt a buzz at his side. He opened his eyes. The lights were gone. Jim looked down. His boss paged him. He wanted Jim to call his home number. Jim walked over to the nearest pay phone. He reached in his pocket for some change. Jim dialed his boss's home number. "Hello?" His boss answered. "You wanted me to call you, sir." Jim said. "Oh, Jim. I'm glad I was able to get in touch with you. I have something I need you to check on tonight. You remember that location we had to stop work at for a week due to safety issues? You know, the one you went to for that test I had you do?" His boss asked. "Yeah, I remember." Jim leaned against the pay phone. The world around him rocked back and forth. Ants on the top of the machine ran across the rusted metal so fast they left a trail behind them of where they once were. Planes shot across the sky like rockets. His boss's words came out too fast, almost too fast for him to understand at all. "Did you want me to do something there?" "Yes, I do. Tonight, I want you to keep an eye on staff there. Make sure if there's any more accidents they don't cause any serious risks to the company. We're still having issues at that place. I'll be transferring some staff over from our Smyrna location to there soon to fully change out the staff there, but we'll be stopping work there for another week tomorrow. I can't have any big issues happening tonight." His boss said. "Why would anything happen tonight? Are there people working there this late?" Jim asked. "Yes, we're behind schedule from stopping everything for a week. I've had to have them work into the night to catch up to where we should be with that project. This next week is really going to set us back even further. They're to work until seven in the morning tomorrow and not stop one minute before then." His boss said. "That's why I need you down there. I need you to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. You know what to do. Can I count on you?" Jim couldn't focus on anything. Bits of light threads appeared and vanished before him. "Yes, sir." Jim hung up the phone. He wanted to skip over doing this task, but he was so tired, he wondered what would happen if he did another round of skipping forward past a moment he was already skipping through. Jim rested against the pay phone. 'Maybe I should quit. I could walk away.' Jim said to himself. 'I can't walk away. I need the money. I just got promoted. I can't.' "Jim? What are you doing?" Jim looked over. Jesse was standing in front of him. Ethan walked up beside Jesse. "I had to take a phone call. What are you doing here?" Jim asked. "It's Halloween. We decided to go out tonight for some fun." Jesse said. "We just left the mall. Ethan wanted some new shoes now that he's walking around more." "Oh, I see." Ethan asked. "Hey, are you off tonight? We're gonna see a horror movie later after we get something to eat." "Sorry, I can't. I'm really busy." Jim said. He saw more lights popping in and out of his view. Threads fell out of Jesse and Ethan's bodies, entangled with one another's and some with his own. He saw what he thought was an image of their near future, but he couldn't make out what he was seeing. The images were overlapping and fuzzy. There were two figures but the images of them overlayed in a way he couldn't tell them apart, as if they had become one person. Jim rubbed his eyes. All that he knew shouldn't have been there disappeared again. "More work?" Jesse asked. "Yeah, I just got promoted recently, so I have a lot I need to do." Jim listened closely. Their voices were too fast. "Oh, really? Congratulations." Jesse said. "That's great." Ethan also congratulated him. "Yeah..." Jim looked down at Ethan's legs and feet. Ethan had on brand name shoes. "No wheelchair today?" "Nope. Left it at home." Ethan said. "I'm getting a lot better at it. Probably going to switch back to my chair when I get back home for the rest of the night. I know I'm gonna be exhausted later." "By the time we get back, you'll just go to sleep." Jesse laughed. Jim noticed Jesse was carrying all the shopping bags. Ethan carried nothing. "You'll lay down in bed to 'take a break' and then you'll be gone for the night." "I will not!" Ethan laughed with him. "You're right. You'll fall asleep in the car before we get home." Jesse joked. He looked back to Jim. "I guess we should get going. Don't want to hold you up. Are you free next weekend? We're going out to eat next week. I'll pay." "I don't know. I'll have to get back to you on that." Jim said. "You alright?" Jesse asked. "You look really pale." "I'm fine." Jim said. Jesse came closer. He lowered his voice. "Hey, did something happen? I know last time we talked, you said..." "It's taken care of now. I'm fine." Jim reached in his back pocket. He opened it and handed Jesse the money he gifted him back. "Now that I've been promoted, I don't need this." "You don't have to give it back. Put it in your savings account for an emergency." Jesse refused to take the money. Jim handed the money to Ethan instead. "You take it then. You seem to be good at taking his money." "Excuse me?!" Ethan's face went red. Jesse got between them. "Hey, what's your deal? Why..." Jim skipped ahead to later in the night. He stood outside of the building his boss wanted him to go to. The lights slipped in and out of his sight. He rubbed his eyes and watched the workers. Everything spun. His watch raced forward, circling the twelve faster than his ceiling fan had moved last he saw it. Jim stumbled forward and rested against another wall. "What did I do? What did I say?" Jim asked himself. He couldn't remember clearly. His mind recalled himself running to this spot as a shadow when he skipped ahead, but he couldn't remember how he actually parted ways with Jesse and Ethan. He didn't know why he acted like that around them these days. Jesse was right. He didn't used to be like this. But ever since that day, when he looked around that place they all once called home, he only saw decay. He saw it in the way the old houses were bulldozed down so easily, and the ones in less desirable spots were left to rot. He saw it in how his county spent so much money on building a new, big high school in the wealthy part of the county while his own high school continued to have plumbing issues and leaking roofs. He saw it in his own house as his parents didn't have the money to repair this or that to the point he wondered if it was safe to live at home. And he saw it in Ethan, how that wound festered and destroyed his leg, and all of his high school life. Ethan didn't go to any parties or events. He missed every sports game, as a competitor and as a spectator. He couldn't join any clubs or do anything after school. He eventually had to be taken out of public school altogether, spending his time in the hospital working on math problems alone, waiting for Jesse or him to visit after they left their school. There, in that hospital, he saw decay too. People came in, and many didn't leave. Of those who left, many weren't much better off. They were alive, painfully, the same as Ethan was. For every new neighborhood they built, good jobs weren't flowing in. Fast food came instead. On the day of his high school graduation, he helped his mother fill a container to have the county test their water for contamination. Jim wanted nothing more than to run, run from whatever was rotting that space underneath his feet. If he had to, he would find a way to fly. That's what he thought back then. In his running, he was willing to let go of anything that might weigh him down. As much as he had pitied Ethan, he soon came to see him as dead weight, a heavy burden to carry on the backs of whoever aided him. Jesse, he saw as someone content with existing in decay. They lived in a dying world. He didn't want to join them. That they were so happy in their little world made him question all his running. If they were happy, what was all of this for? Maybe, he thought, he should skip to apologizing. He could probably find another job. Jesse had plenty of money to give. Jim checked his wallet. The thousand was still there. He moved from the wall. Maybe he could swallow his pride and ask Jesse for help. Jim didn't understand it, but he knew helping others made Jesse happy. He could walk away from this. Jim's beeper went off. His boss sent him a message. Jim looked back at the construction site. He sighed. "One more job. I'll just do one more, then I'll make a plan to leave." A window appeared before Jim. Unlike all the others, this one was pure red. The vision in the screen kept the red hue. He saw himself inside the construction site walking underneath a concrete slab being moved by a crane. The slab wobbled, then broke through the chains holding it up. Jim watched himself slowly walk forward underneath where it was falling, looking up at it in horror and doing nothing to get out of the way. The slab came down on Jim right as his body was halfway out of the path of the descending slab, crushing the left side of his body. The right side hit the ground and fell away from the left, coated in so much of his own blood that no part of him was not red. Jim couldn't understand how he could die this way. He walked so slowly underneath the falling slab. He saw it descending down, and continued on in the same pace as if nothing were wrong. Yet, his face showed his terror. Why didn't he run? He had to save himself. After all the events he'd manipulated, he felt this one at least was completely justified to change. He pushed hard through the red window and found himself underneath the concrete slab. He saw his future self a few feet away. This time, his shadowy form was not black, but red. He didn't dwell on that and ran. All he had to do was catch up to himself and run as fast as he could. Once he passed the third beam ahead, he would be safe. Jim ran as fast as he could, getting almost nowhere. He had noticed how long he stayed in this shadowy state had been getting longer, but he was moving nearly as slow as his future self. Jim forced his legs to work harder, gradually shrinking the distance between his future self and his shadow self. Jim reached out to grab his other self and pull him back into his shadow self. Jim got close enough to do this. Once the two bodies had returned to one, Jim tried to run, but remained unable to get anywhere. The slab appeared to be falling at an impossible speed. Jim finally understood. When he watched the events through the window, he was the one moving slow. Everything else was occurring at an ordinary speed. Nothing around him had been speeding up. As he skipped forward in time, once he returned to ordinary time, he was slowing down. Tears ran down his face. He was so close. If he could move just a little faster, he could outpace the slab. If he could run just a little faster, if he could make this, he'd change everything. He'd walk away from that horrible job and his boss. He'd leave this place. He'd never let anyone convince him to do horrible things again. He swore those intentions to the universe and anyone or thing else he hoped might be listening and take pity on him. So close to the edge, Jim looked back one last time. 'I'm not going to make it.' Straight down the middle, he felt the heavy weight. Then, he felt nothing at all.
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