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Our September Flash Contest was based on Creativity Prompt #168 (provided by Molly Torinus, Stone Soup contributor), which asked participants to write about themselves with one small twist: the story had to take place inside a parallel universe where they led a different life. The prompt was interpreted in myriad ways, with many branching into the realm of science fiction, others into fantasy, and some choosing to remain within the world of the mundane. We were dazzled by participants' creativity, our minds taken on journeys to a car ride with a yapping dad, a dystopian future where fires reigned supreme, a skillfully disguised Magic Store, and much, much more! As always, thank you to all who submitted, and please submit again next month!

In particular, we congratulate our Winners and our Honorable Mentions, whose work you can appreciate below.

Winners
"The Concert" by Lucas Hinds, 13 (Lenoir City, TN)
"Recognition" by Serena Lin, 10 (Scarsdale, NY)
"Are you Ready?" by Lui Lung, 12 (Danville, CA)
"Phoenix" by Eliya Wee, 11 (Menlo Park, CA)
"The Magic Store" by Chloe Yang, 12 (Cranbury, NJ)

Honorable Mentions
"A Day with My Drox" by Tahra Araujo, 9 (Brooklyn, NY)
"The Puzzle" by Anushka Dhar, 12 (Hillsborough, NJ)
"Normal Universe/Parallel Universe" by Nova Macknik-Conde, 9 (Brooklyn, NY)
"Mechanical Master" by Rishab Suresh, 13 (Sanford, FL)
"Duplicates" by Emily Tang, 12 (Winterville, NC)


Lucas Hinds, 13 (Lenoir City, TN)

The Concert

Lucas Hinds, 13

“Time to get up, boys!” my mom shouted, waking me.

“Please, just 30 more minutes,” I mumbled.

“No way!” she said sternly. “We have to get ready. We have a concert to go to.”

A muffled sigh came from behind me. I looked back, but didn’t see Peyton anywhere. He was buried in the warm, comfy sleeping bag. Tired from our late sleepover shenanigans, we grudgingly got ready to go. When we finally walked out the door—the sun shining high and bright in the sky—we got into the truck and headed out. My dad plays trombone for the Oak Ridge Community Band, and all the concerts are at the amphitheater in Oak Ridge, so we get to visit the ‘Secret City’ any time my dad has a concert, which is quite often. Today was one of those days.

“What a beautiful day!” I said sleepily.

“I hate mornings,” I heard Peyton mumble. “I’ve always been a night owl.”

The trip was extra uneventful. My family has never been that talkative during car rides. You hear stories about games and songs and all kinds of things families do during rides. Not our family. All we do is listen to the radio and enjoy the scenery. Only the occasional history lesson from my dad about the Oak Ridge National Laboratories or stories about the river being radioactive. My dad was so predictable in this respect that you could sense when he was about to go off. I knew he was about to go off on a tangent.

“Get ready. My dad is about to go off on one of his stories. I can sense it,” I warned Peyton.

“Wait wh—"

“Boys, we’re about to pass by one of the most secret laboratories in the US. They made a lot of progress in nuclear technology and—"

My dad was interrupted by a powerful force hitting our truck, nearly toppling it over, then we heard an ear shattering BOOM! As we looked outside, the sky was thick with a purplish hue.

“What was that?” Peyton asked. We looked around and were surprised to see no effect on the surrounding environment.

“Probably just some dumb teenagers trying to cause trouble,” my dad guessed. “I remember doing things exactly like this when I was your guys' age. In fact, back in my time, you could...”

“Oh, here he goes again,” I whispered to Peyton.

The rest of the ride was filled with tales from my dad’s childhood. When we finally made it to the concert, everyone was shouting at us.

“Tom! We’ve been waiting for you! What happened?”

“Come on! Are we gonna warm up or what?”

He was visibly confused at first, but then he realized something.

“Alright! Let’s get started!” He shouted to the band. “Let’s start with something simple, ‘The Star Spangled Banner!”

“What’s going on? He’s not supposed to be the conductor.” I whispered to Peyton.

“I don’t know, but something’s up.” He replied.

“I think it has something to do with the explosion back there. Maybe an experiment gone wrong.”

The rest of the warm-up and concert went by without conversation. Everything went smoothly, even with my dad in charge, and we didn't discuss anything until we got back home.

“What happened?” I questioned my dad, hoping he had a simple explanation.

“We’re in a parallel universe.”

“Funny joke, dad. But I’m being serious! Why were you the conductor! And why did nobody find it strange that you were suddenly in charge?”

“I just told you. One of the trombone players told me what happened. Apparently, he’s a scientist at the labs. He said they were doing experiments with time travel, but instead of time travel, they figured out how to go to parallel universes. One of the experiments with these universes got out of hand, and now here we are,” he said.

“I knew I shouldn’t have done this sleepover,” Peyton complained. “Something weird happens whenever I’m with you guys.”

“Do you have his phone number, honey?” My mom asked. “If he’s the one doing these experiments, maybe he can get us back.”

“I already arranged a meeting. Today at 3 PM.”

“Well? What do we do until then? We have about 2 hours!” I said.

“Play games, duh,” Peyton said.

“Well, I think we should go shopping. Just because it’s a parallel universe doesn’t mean they don’t have good deals!” said my mom.

“Sounds like a plan,” my dad said, and we left for the nearest grocery store.

When we got there and started shopping, I saw a familiar face. Zander, or, as his close friends called him, Z.

“Hey Z!” I shouted in his direction.

“Who are you?”

“Long time no see!” I replied.

“Do I know you?” he said, before walking off.

“We need to get back to our universe,” I told our group.

After some time shopping, I looked at my watch, and realized that we had to be at the lab in 30 minutes, so we checked out and drove to the lab. Suddenly, as we went through the gates, sirens went off.

“NO IDENTIFICATION DETECTED,” a robotic voice resonated from the speakers. We did a U-turn and began to drive back, when we heard another voice.

“I got you good with that one,” chuckled the scientist. “Come on in!” The gates swung open. When we finally got to the lab, we were greeted by this mysterious scientist.

“Hello, hello! Come right this way and watch your step!”

When we made it to the lab where the project was taking place, we heard the mechanical whirring and buzzing of different types of gadgets, each designed to do their own separate task.

“Step in here, we’ll start with you,” and he pointed at Peyton.

“Why me!” Peyton said worriedly. “I’m always the unlucky one,” he said as he walked into the see-through chamber.

“Aaaaand 3, 2, 1, go!” The chamber spun round and round, and when it was finished, Peyton had disappeared.

“Who’s next?” asked the scientist. “Me, Mr. ...”

“Mr. Anderson. Now, step right in.”

I stepped in and saw him press the button. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the truck with Peyton, on the way to the concert again.


Serena Lin, 10 (Scarsdale, NY)

Recognition

Serena Lin, 10

“Eat your vegetables, Serena,” Sophia, my sister, reminds me at the dinner table. I give her the stink eye. Why does she always have to be the food cop and tell me what to do every second? “Have you played violin these days?” My dad questions me at my desk. I stick out my tongue at him as an answer, and go back to reading. Why does he always have to be the violin cop and catch all my wrongdoings?

“Did you read that article I sent you?” My mom asks me in the living room. I give her a pouty face after admitting I didn’t, then turn away. Why does she always have to be the extracurricular cop and remind me about everything all the time?

At night, I fluff my favorite pink pillow, getting ready for bed. But sleep doesn’t hit me. Instead, I toss and turn and wonder, why couldn’t I have another life, family, and world? Why did I have to be stuck with this? I close my eyes, hoping that in the morning all will be better.


I’m sitting at the dinner table, forking myself some vegetables. “Madilyn, eat your veggies,” I remind my little sister, seeing her noticeable lack of green on her plate. She glares at me, obviously annoyed. Sheesh, like I want to be reminding her constantly. This is for her own good.

I notice dust rising on the front of the piano after dinner, and I frown, looking at it closer. Why would there be dust on the piano when Madilyn plays every day...? I sigh, yelling up the stairs, “Madilyn, did you play piano this week?” There’s silence. “You know, I’m reminding you so when Mr. Kermit comes on Tuesday, he won’t get mad at you for not practicing.”

As I settle down to reread all my summer reading books, I realize something. “Hey, Madilyn, did you ever check out your summer reading books? School starts in a week.” Madilyn huffs, stomping away, muttering something about nosy sisters. I call after her, “You don’t have to be so grumpy. If I hadn’t told you, you’d be in trouble on the first day of school. You don’t want that to be the case, right?”

At first, I think that Madilyn’s going to ignore me, like always. But this time, Madilyn whirls around. “Why did I have to be stuck with you, of all sisters? Why couldn’t I have been an only child, someone who didn’t have people on their back all the time?”

The words echo in my mind as I settle down for bed, smoothing out my light blue pillow. They seem so familiar, yet I can’t place them. Maybe I should just sleep on it. I’ll remember it sooner or later.


I open my eyes. Sitting up, I notice my pillow is pink. I have a faint memory of falling asleep with my head on a blue pillow. Then, the rest of my memory comes back. My younger sister, Madilyn. But... isn’t it Sophia, my older sister? It must’ve just been a dream, right? I furrow my brow as I get out of bed. It seemed so real, though...

Needless to say, my violin is played, the articles are read, and all my vegetables are finished today without a word.


Lui Lung, 12 (Danville, CA)

Are you Ready?

Lui Lung, 12

Clouds of dust flew into the air as I dug through another pile of memories. Old toys, unopened gifts, things I never remembered having. How were we ever going to throw any of this out? That Barbie doll may look messed up, but it was still my Barbie doll. That mini tea set held sentimental value, too. And that slightly creepy teddy bear? Its button eyes stared back at me. Okay, maybe not the teddy bear, I decided.

I moved to sort through a new stack, when something caught my eye. A small black box tucked away into a corner, like a piece of black licorice in a pile of Skittles. I pried it open eagerly, revealing a battered disc that lay inside it. It didn’t look like much, just some video game that had been played one too many times, but I was curious nonetheless.

I glanced down at the trapdoor of the attic. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I clambered down from the attic, skidding across the floors in my socks over to the living room. Bounding over to the television, I pushed in my disc.

ARE YOU READY?

The words flashed in white lettering before my eyes. A few lines of instructions appeared below them. I plopped down into a chair, carefully maneuvering the controls of the game console. My knee bounced up and down as I waited.

The screen flickered again.

LOADING COMPLETE!

I leaned forward in anticipation. A minute passed. Two minutes. Then five. I frowned. “Oh, come on,” I complained, getting up from my seat.

I poked and prodded at the screen. I mashed at the buttons of my console. I sighed when the screen remained blank. My lips parted to call for help, when noise began blasting from the television. They were sudden snippets of conversations, too muddled together for me to make out a word. It was as if someone had taken control of the remote and was randomly flicking through channels, bursts of sound and voices cut short filling the room. I took a staggering step back when I pieced together three words, repeated over and over like rapid gunfire.

ARE YOU READY? ARE YOU READY? ARE YOU READY?

The world tilted and the words swarmed me, a scream still lodged in my throat.

I blinked. A picturesque neighborhood sped by me as I pedaled, the air full of the sound of cars passing by and the chatter of my neighbors out on a morning walk. The weight of my backpack sat upon my shoulders. It was a bustling Monday morning, with kids off to school and their parents rushing to their jobs. There was a lingering tense feeling in me that I couldn’t quite shake. I was probably just tired. I knew what I was doing. My posture loosened.

This was just a normal bike ride to school. But still, it felt wrong. A neighbor stopped to wave at me, called a name. That’s my name, I thought. It was my name, but it wasn’t. Panic surged. I didn’t ride my bike to school. This wasn’t my neighborhood. That wasn’t my name. Where was I? The wheels tripped over a bump in the road as I lost control, and I was sprawled across the sidewalk, the bike clattering next to me.

I scrambled to my feet, running up to a jogger dressed in neon colors. “Please, you have to help me! This is wrong, I’m not supposed to be here!”

A brief, conflicted look passed over their features, until their face snapped back into a blank mask. Cold and indifferent. Mechanical.

I stumbled back from them. What was going on? I seized my next chance of an old woman tending to her garden.

“Please! Where am I?” I pleaded with her. A jolt of memories pulsed in my mind, and I clutched them close to me. They were all I had left. “There was a game, and... and...”

I had something to say. It was balanced on the tip of my tongue. But what had it been?

The old woman’s face twisted, the very same expression I’d seen the jogger wear. My hands clenched onto the gate of her house. “The game! There was a game! It put me here.” When I saw her slowly turn from me, three words burst from my lips. “Are you ready?”

Her watering can slipped from her hands, and she clasped my wrists. Her grip was like a vise. Her eyes were wild, as if some spell had been broken. She repeated my words, murmured them again and again beneath her breath. “How long?” she gasped. “When? Where? Who are you?”

“I don’t know!” I cried, trying to wrench my arms from her grasp. “I’m... my name is...” I stammered. “There was a game.”

“This is the game,” the woman said, squeezing tighter. “We are the game. You don’t understand. They’re coming. You have to—”

The world around me glitched. The trees toppled and reformed, the sun collapsed, the skies switching from a dull gray to bright blue to nothing at all. The woman vanished, her mouth still open.

I blinked. A nice-looking old woman hummed a tune to herself as she watered her flowers. She glanced up. “What were you saying again, dearie?”

I smiled. “That’s weird. I can’t remember.”


Eliya Wee, 11 (Menlo Park, CA)

Phoenix

Eliya Wee, 11

They call us the phoenix. We are born anew from the flames, as if we are washed clean.

We have fire drills often at our school, it’s essential to living in SoCal. It’s the first week of school, and I’m listening to the teacher talking about the homework. She passes out the papers and I slip mine into the folder where I keep my work. I catch my friend’s eye as we wait for the bell to ring.

I should’ve smelled the smoke. I should’ve kept my eye on my friend. And in my mind, I did all those things and more. I held my friend as she cried into my shoulder. But that’s not what I actually did. I panicked at the critical moment. I closed my eyes, almost running out of the door. I ran back to lock it. My hands clasped over my ears to block out the screeching siren. Maybe... maybe if I closed my eyes, blocked my ears, I would fly away from the fire, away from the scorching blaze, away from the fear.

It was only when we reached the steps to the field. Like an itch, I knew something was wrong. I searched the crowd for that familiar face, and not finding it, I turned my face to the flaming building. Then I began to scream. I wanted to turn back, run into the flames to find her.

The smoke clouded the air as I tried to turn and run. Salty tears cut through the ash that coated my face. I kept screaming. I felt hands holding me back, grabbing my shoulders. And the darkness. The ash... so much... too much... it was too hot...

I felt the soft carpet beneath my head as I pulled myself up. My hands were covered in swirling patterns of ash. The teachers were whispering at the front of the portable. “Wh- where’s Meira?” I winced at my dry, cracked voice. I felt tears come to my eyes as I whispered “I had a bad dream. Where Meira was stuck in the building.” I started to cry. “And- w- we forgot her- it was a dream, right? E- everyone is here, and safe, and...” my voice died down and I felt warm arms surround me.

The windows were coated with ash, and we walked together through the ash to the building we escaped. There were a couple of frames of metal that weren't burned in the fire, but one thing caught my eye.

Meira had been playing with her watch. It was given to her by her late mother, and she treasured it more than anything. She had made it to the door, but she had forgotten her watch on the table. She ran back, and I saw her, but it didn’t compute through the roaring in my head.

There it was. Coated in ash, but still gleaming. It was Meira’s watch, and I held it to my heart as I collapsed to my knees, shaking with tears.

We are the phoenix. We rise from the flames. But no one ever remembers what we lose in the flame. And when the sun rises, it brings hope and light, but the sun also sheds light on all the things we tried to forget.


Chloe Yang, 12 (Cranbury, NJ)

The Magic Store

Chloe Yang, 12

There is a part of my town that I have never been to before. It is where Green Pin Oaks Drive stops, and there is a left turn onto Ephemeral Street. No one goes on that street, because they say it is abandoned. I have been to the edge of it; there was a bright red light post, which is where everyone stops. It is a kind of rule: Do not go past the red light post.

I was there with my friend. She peered in, with wide eyes, and then not a minute afterwards tugged me by the hand and said, We should go. This place is creepy.

The only illumination there had been was that of the light post, its red body bathing in the light its head produced. The rest of Ephemeral Street was dark, and always is.

It is never said that the street is haunted, but the meaning is there, plain and clear. Even the parents avoid it. Even the jocks, who claim they are not afraid of anything, avoid it. There has never been any record of anyone straying into Ephemeral Street, even by accident, and I used to suppose there never would be either.

That street is like a sore thumb in the bustling, happy town, where we go to the pizza shop to see how many toppings we could place on the Make-Your-Own Pizza, and where we exchange two dollars for a comic book at the local bookstore instead of buying actual books, where we go to Teddy’s on holidays. Everyone just ignores it. If we act like it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t. That’s how everything in this world works.

---

When I get home, my brother immediately asks me, “Can you help me with the video game? Please?”

I sigh. “No.”

He frowns. “You promised me, yesterday!” “I need to do my homework.”

“Your homework can wait.”

I shove him away. “It can’t.”

He staggers and falls backward, hitting his heel on the sharp part of the table. It’s then that I realize my mistake. He immediately starts bawling, like the drama child he is. My father, who’s working downstairs, comes up with a frown pasted on his face, and his glance at me is accusatory. “He was annoying me first!” I say.

“She PUSHED MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” my brother yells.

“You’re so annoying! You think everything revolves around you, and that everyone serves you! You always take my stuff, anything that I have that you don’t, and you always expect me to always cater to your expectations!” I throw back.

My dad levels a calm gaze at both of us, but my brother breaks into a fresh round of bawls and he rushes to calm the young child. I storm away, into the other room, and wrap my arms around my knees. My brother is so annoying sometimes; that’s all he seems to exist to do. My parents love him, because he’s the younger one. They never comforted me like that when I was his age.

It would just be better if I never had a brother.

I clench my fists. I need to cool off steam, so I go to the best place I can. Outside. I don’t pay attention to my feet as I wander around. I know I’ll always come back home, but for now I need to be away.

It’s then I realize that I’m right in front of Ephemeral Street. I hesitate, but think, what’s the worst that can happen?

Once I step in, I don’t know what I’m expecting, but nothing happens. I wander a little bit, the bright red lamp post growing farther and farther away. Finally, I see a hint of light, and I run towards it. When I stop, I’m in front of a quaint shop, the only building in the alleyway. I can only see the front, which is bright red, and there are windows on either side of the equally bright red door. Out of curiosity, I peer at the faded lettering above the door. Some of the paint is chipped, and so it just looks like T E MAG C STOR , but I can tell it probably once said THE MAGIC STORE. Above these letters is a clock, but I cannot see what time it is. I frown and look at the blinking ‘closed’ sign on the window, and make to leave.

Just then, a small ding! distracts me. The ‘closed’ sign switches to a neon blue OPEN, blinking on and off. The missing letters of THE MAGIC STORE are suddenly there, and they glow a soft yellow, and the clock ticks directly onto midnight (I didn’t know it was midnight--that couldn’t have been possible). I take an involuntary step back.

As I gaze around frantically, the door opens and a young girl of maybe seven steps out. She gazes up at me, and then breaks into a wide smile. “Hello, and welcome to The Magic Store, valued customer!” She takes me by the hand and leads me inside. “Our business has been rather slow, but we’re glad you stopped here!”

Inside the shop, the floor is made of yellow and white checkered tiles, and rows of red shelves reach to the back of the relatively small space. An old man with a mustache looks up from where he’s checking something on a thick notepad, sees me, and smiles as widely as the young girl.

“Welcome, welcome. Do you have an appointment?” He hurries out and nods to the child, who goes to the back of the store and disappears.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,” I say nervously, trying not to look too unsettled.

“Nonsense,” the man says, still smiling. “Everyone who comes to The Magic Store is supposed to be here! I take it you don’t have an appointment then, hmmm, that’ll be a little complicated...well, okay, then. Please wait here for a moment.”

Because I don’t know what else to do, I wait. The man goes to one of the red shelves and starts thumbing through the folders there, muttering something to himself about disorganization and about someone whose name seems to be Eleanor. Finally, when he comes back, he’s holding a bright red folder that’s so glossy I can see myself reflected in it. He holds it out kindly.

I swallow, and take it, because what else am I supposed to do?

Inside the folder is a thick bundle of papers, labelled at the top, BROTHER, and then under that, my name. “Go on,” the man says.

“Do what?”

He tsks. “You really don't know what you’re here for? These are all your troubles, listed specially for you. You see that pen in the crook of the folder? Just take that and underline a problem you want to solve, and then you’ll live in a world where that problem doesn’t exist. Just come back, when you make your decision.”

“Does that mean... I can keep that world?” I ask, looking down at the first trouble of mine. Brother. It’s vague, but I know what it means.

“Oh, well sure you can,” says the old man. “Now, take your time. It doesn’t exist here in The Magic Store.”

I hesitate. Can’t hurt to try, so I take the red pen, which has highlights of gold, and uncap it. Then I circle the word brother, the ink glowing golden. The circle smolders brightly, and rises off the page. I watch it with fascination as it enlarges before my eyes and shimmers towards my face, and the old man--whose name I still do not know--watches on approvingly.

Suddenly, my vision turns golden, and after a brief pause that feels like I’m in a tunnel, but moving 500 miles per hour, I’m in my room. It’s 3, on a Monday, which is the day before I had headed to The Magic Store. I head out of the room, and peer into the doorway of my brother’s room. It’s empty, with no sign of anyone ever living there. As I head downstairs, I notice all the pictures have a significant lack of my brother. It’s only me in them.

A feeling of euphoria rises within me: I have no brother. No one who pesters me, who turns my own parents against me. I’m alone.

I go downstairs to do my homework. Dimly, I think, has the house always been this big? I shake it off. I’m just not used to being alone.

Time goes by quickly, and I’m finished with my homework. That means that I can go to my friend, Isobel’s, house. I take my bike there, since the town is so small I can do that. She opens the door with a happy smile, and does not ask me where my brother is, like she always does if he’s not there. I smile to myself.

A couple days later, my father takes me on our weekly trip to Giovanni’s Grill, a restaurant that serves the best Italian food. I bring my Kindle with me, for I know my brother will not be there to distract me. Somehow, the thought isn’t as great as I think it will be. I clutch my Kindle tightly. It’s a great time for just my father and me, anyways.

No need to be thinking about the brother I used to have.

And I’m right, the experience is nice. The food is great, as usual, and I get to have a pleasant chat with my dad that I haven’t had in a while.

---

My mother tells me I need to buy new clothes one day. She usually brings my brother along, and he complains all the way, but now, with him not there, I happily accept. A girl’s night out, just my mom and I. We end up going to seven different stores and getting a manicure and a pedicure.

Life is good.

---

And that’s true--at least for a while. Not being constantly annoyed, not having my stuff stolen, and I am constantly being told by my friends that I’m extremely lucky not to have a sibling.

Then, the pandemic starts.

There’s a virus spreading around the world. It’s not deadly to kids my age, but a quarantine has been issued by the government. I can’t see my friends, and I’m doing online school; I can’t go buy groceries, even, my parents have to do that.

During the past few months, a bit of something has been pricking at me, whenever I get lonely and wish I have someone to talk to, a feeling that has been amplified lately with the quarantine. I dismiss that notion, usually. I wanted this, did I not? As I roam the house for the umpteenth time, wondering what to do, I sigh and collapse on the couch in a fetal position. I don’t have a brother. I don’t regret that. I don’t.

---

Aiya, this pandemic has been so annoying,” my mother complains over dinner. “We have to stay inside all day, and we can’t see any friends...are you lonely?” she asks me, worry written all over her face.

I sigh and stir my pasta. “A little,” I mumble. I don’t tell her that I wander the house every day when she and my father are working from home, and wish that I have someone to play with.

“If only you had a sibling.” She sighs as well.

One thing I have noticed is that no one knows that I used to have a brother, in another universe, but I keep quiet that night.

When I’m in bed, I toss and turn and wonder: Do I want a brother again?

I clench the sheets with my fists. I remember he used to grin at me toothily every single night and tell me his progression in anything; his homework, his grades, updates about his friends, anything. Sometimes he would disturb me when I was doing my homework, but all I remember now is that he made me laugh till my sides hurt. Whenever I got bored I would seek him out, and we would have a small fight about something irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter at the end, because our boredom would be sated and we would joke about it later.

He used to be one of my best friends.
At that moment, I think, yes, I want my brother back.

My vision fades to black and I’m standing in front of a red store with the words T E MAG C STOR on the front. I frown. I don’t remember this one being in town anywhere, but I feel a strange sense of tranquility. The clock above the words is cheerfully ticking to midnight. I should run, because I don’t know where I am, but I stay there, calmly.

The clock points to 12:00. The closed sign is gone, and now it’s a bright neon OPEN blinking on and off. The missing letters of the store’s name are there, the words glowing a soft yellow, and the light turns on in the windows. The door opens and a young girl with bright cheeks positively beams at me. “You’re back!” she squeals, and takes me by the hands, dragging me inside.

Once I’m inside the quaint store, a rush of force hits my head and suddenly I remember. Didn’t I trade my old life, with a brother, for one without? I gaze around frantically and see the old man who gave me my parallel life, calmly sitting behind the cash register. I shake my hands out of the girl’s and dash towards him. “Give me back my life!”

He raises an eyebrow and addresses the young child. “Eleanor, you can leave now.” She nods and skips to the back of the store, through the racks that contain red folders of everyone’s troubles. “So, you figured out what you want?”

“I want my old life! I want my brother!” I search for his brown eyes desperately. “Please, give it back!”

He nods. “Do you understand now?”

I almost say, understand what? But instead, the words that come out of my mouth are, “Yes. The life I’m given is the most precious one I’ll get. I know that now.”

His eyes twinkle. “Precisely. Now,” he adds with a businesslike manner, “You won’t be able to come here again. One who visits our store does not visit twice. You’ll forget everything about this besides your lesson. Understand?” I nod. “Alright, then follow me.”

He leads me to the back of the store, where an unassuming door--well, as unassuming as bright red can get--stands. He opens it. On the other side, a beautiful white aether awaits.

I step in, back to my life.

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