previous Isekai ch19
I awoke in an alleyway. The streets were wet, uncomfortably cold. I had been sleeping on a piece of cardboard folded in half (to act as a pillow.) With a throbbing pain in my neck, I sat up, taking in the world around me. ‘Just fucking great.’ I opened my pathetic bedding, already knowing what I’d find. In large black lettering (likely made with a pen shoplifted from the local art store) were the words, ‘Hungry, please help.’ In my hand I held a dirty paper cup folded in half under my fingers. I could recognize the Starbucks logo (the green mermaid-thing that came to represent the cult-like power of corporate America.) I had been cuddling with my haul, as if it was my life savings, but the cup itself held only a few nickels, pennies, and a single quarter. At least I was alive. (For all that was worth.)
I stood up on my familiar legs. My body appeared to be the same; an adult male in his early twenties. ‘But who’s clothes were these?’ I wore a sweatshirt over several t-shirts (all of which had seen better days.) My denim jeans had holes in the knees, revealing painful bruises on my skin.
My immediate surroundings appeared to be the Italian district of a major city. In the distance, I could feel a gust of wind. I was near a beach? An ocean? I had no idea where to go.
“At least this is something different.” It wasn’t a warzone, a dungeon or even a prison. A car drove by, the license plate was from California. (But another, parked nearby, read Arizona.) It was safe to assume this was a normal American city. Now I just needed to figure out which one.
I crossed my arms over my chest. Maybe there was a better place to sleep around here; an all-night diner, a church, I’d even take a public bathroom. I walked down the street, blending in with the other hipsters. These people were young, beautiful, with all the free time they could ever want in this life. Their lungs produced candy-flavored nicotine while vodka mixed drinks coursed through their veins.
“Hey!” shouted a female voice. I turned to see a girl with Becca’s face. I could recognize her anywhere; her round cheeks, her childlike smile. This look was worn by an Afro-Latina wearing sky-high heels a two-piece suit and was visibly pregnant. There was no way she was speaking to me. Even if she was an escort, that was still a more respectable social status than ‘guy who sleeps on his cardboard sign.’
“Hey you,” she grabbed my arm, speaking quickly as we walked down the street. “Sorry I don’t mean to be a creep. I just need to get to the place at the end of the block.”
She motioned towards a restaurant with a Pepsi sign. This was a small corner shop with NY style pizza, a café and limited indoor seating. I allowed her to drag me through the doors, narrowly avoiding the talon-like claws of a woman who had been following.
“Who was that?”
“My ex,” she said casually. “Anyway, I’m Katie, this is my place.”
“Your place?” shouted a male voice.
“I’m a co-owner,” she said taking a confident seat at the counter. “Isn’t that right, J-J?”
The man emerged from the back. He wore a filthy t-shirt and apron, reflective of a hard day’s work. His name tag bore the word, ‘Jeff,’ but it was Jay. The same beautiful man I had fell for in the land of dragons. He smiled wide, like the Cheshire Cat character from Alice in Wonderland. His dark, wideset eyes seemed to sparkle with a warmth that I never knew I craved.
“Hi,” I said a little too nervously. “I held out my hand, unsure of what my name was in this world. You can call me Marcus.”
“Hey Marcus. The name’s Jeff, but my friends call me Jay.” He shook my hand before turning to the window. “And you two can just piss off.”
‘Two?’ I turned to the window. There were two people, one male and one female. The woman was small, maybe 5’3”, wearing a colorful jacket made of neon fake fur, with what appeared to be devil horns on the hood. She turned to face the door, slamming her hand against the glass while flipping the bird. The man accompanying her was tall, muscular with a bald head and a leather jacket. He put his arm around her. For a brief moment he scoffed allowing me a view of his face. There was no doubt in my mind: that was Tomas and Emma Rose.
They were together even in this world. (And that was unbelievably funny.) I took a seat next to Katie, trying in vain to hide my smile. “Do you live around here?”
“Um, yeah.” She pointed to a door that I assumed was a bathroom. “You want to go upstairs?”
That made sense. “Sure.”
She unlocked the door, leading the way. “Jeff, be a dear and grab some snacks when you head up.”
“I already tossed the leftovers,” he shouted from someplace out of view.
“Then bring us some beers,” she replied without even breaking step.
“Aren’t you pregnant?” I asked, struggling to keep up. With her energy it was possible I was very wrong.
“Don’t you know you’re not allowed to ask that?” Katie sat on the sofa, kicking her legs up.
Before I could reply, Jeff came up the stairs with a six pack of Pepsi. “Here,” he tossed one to me.
Katie groaned. “I can have one fucking beer.”
“Then you can get it yourself,” Jeff replied. “Katie thinks she’s all hot shit because she’s been clean since the pregnancy test. I got a cool hundred bucks that says that kid’s going to be born addicted to something.”
“Oh, real nice. I’m sure Angelo would love to hear you say that about his kid.” Katie pulled out a joint and lit up. “We inherited all this from our partner.”
“Your partner?” I asked, looking around for any tell-tale photos or artifacts. “He founded the pizza place?”
“No, Angelo inherited it from his mom and pop,” she said as she took a long drag, releasing the distinct smell into the air. “He just kept it going since the property was protected by rent control. As long as none of us drew a paycheck, we didn’t even need to turn a profit.”
“Of course, our savings are shot to shit,” Jeff groaned. “Can’t even afford a headstone and burial.
“Because we don’t need to!” Katie took another drag, calming her anger. “We lost Angelo just under a year ago. His ashes are in an urn, which we will disperse in his native homeland.”
“Russia,” she replied. “Our Angel was a blonde white guy with an Italian name. Angelo was adopted as a baby. I think his mom died in childbirth, or something like that. He always dreamed of returning to his hometown.”
Jeff rolled his eyes, shaking his head in disagreement. “That’s such bullshit. Angelo never wanted to return to Russia. If anything, he’d want to be buried here in California next to the people who actually raised him.”
Katie patted her stomach. “You didn’t know him the way I did.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Jeff said as he stood up. “But I guess I should be grateful you actually have a plan to do something respectful instead of keeping him around like a creepy hoarder.”
Now they were both standing, and I suddenly felt like an awkward third wheel. “I’m sorry. I can go, if you want.”
“No,” Katie said with a pout. “Please stay.” She reached for a series of framed pictures, gently lifting one off the wall. “Here, this was our Angel.” She handed me a picture of Jeff, herself and a third man. They were sitting on the roof together, attempting to use a selfie stick (which appeared to be made of tape and cardboard.) The image was actually pretty endearing.
The older blond man bore a striking resemblance to my father, except for one detail. This man had a massive scar on his face. It was similar to the joker, but only on one side, as if he had taken a bullet to the jaw. But even still, his smile shone through. He smiled like someone who lived through hell to come out the other side.
“That’s actually why I went out,” she explained, while lovingly caressing her stomach. “Today would have been our two-year anniversary.”
“We’ve been together longer than that.”
“Two years since we took our vows as a family,” she explained. “Jeff is gay, I’m straight, and Angelo was a bisexual from a time when that could get you run out of town.”
Jeff sat next to her, letting her rest her head on his shoulder. “We lost him to the big C.”
“Covid?” I blurted out. Where that word came from, I had no clue.
“Actually, it was cancer,” he said with a sigh. “It’s a fucked-up world when one little letter can carry so much bullshit.”
“Actually, it was a combination of both,” Kate said as she played with a lock of her hair. “Our beautiful angel had been busy running his family business, trying to keep up the legacy his old man left to the neighborhood. We feed the needy; donate time, energy, and pizza.”
“So, who was the girl trying to rip your face off?” I asked. Whoever the Emma Rose lookalike was, she and Katie were certainly not mother and daughter, in this particular universe.
“She’s my ex-pimp.”
‘Of course.’ I nodded. “That’s interesting.”
“She didn’t like the fact that I found a home with Jeff and Angelo.” Katie stretched her back, closing her eyes. “My poor angel. The last time we made love, I remember he had a fever,” she said through tears.
Jay was holding her hand. “He only agreed to go to a doctor when the internal bleeding got really bad. It was inoperable bladder cancer, that had already spread to his bones.” Jay bit the inside of his mouth, forcing himself to regain his composure before opening his can of soda. “Angelo had just started chemo when the pandemic hit. I don’t know what the fuck he was thinking.”
“In starting chemo?” I didn’t have a medical degree but I was sure that chemo was something that could not be put off for a later time.
“Angelo kept the place open, let people pay with whatever they could,” Jay explained. “Until he became too sick to work.”
Katie nodded. “His lungs were the first thing to go. He was put in to quarantine and just a week later he was in hospice. All he wanted was to make the world a better place.”
There were two questions on my mind; and I decided to go for the one that seemed less inappropriate. “What happened to his face?”
Katie pushed her self-off of Jeff. “That’s your story to tell.” She walked to the fire escape to finish her cigarette.
“He was shot in the face, during a robbery,” Jeff explained in a deadpan tone. “I was one of the first paramedics on the scene.”
“Oh,” that was not what I expected. “But you work here?”
“Long story; when God closes a door he opens a window, that kind of thing. The day I met him,” he paused, blinking his eyes with an undeniable show of emotion. “I saw this big biker dude with blood all over his face. He was on the ground, just refusing to sit up or let anyone take a look at him.” Jeff paused to take a sip of his drink. “So, I asked if I could just hold his hand. I had a go-to script about God, Jesus and all that fate shit. I tried to get him to talk to me about his family, that was when I found out the truth; Angelo had grabbed the gun and pointed it at his own jaw. He’d been daring the robber to shoot him.”
“He had no family?” I asked. I could not imagine my father being depressed enough to take a bullet to the face.
“No wife or kids. He may have had distant cousins but he’d been alone for the majority of his life, devoting himself to the business. We talked for a while, I even visited him when he was out of surgery. Around the same time, I was having issues with my roommates. Let’s just say I fucked up really good and was about to lose both my job and my apartment at the same time.”
“And this depressed stranger with a messed-up face, just invited you to stay with him?”
Jeff placed his hand upon the photo. For a moment there was silence. “Yeah, just like that. I went to work for him, he taught me everything he knew about cooking, and we just lived as partners.” He paused to take another sip. “And then Katie moved in.”
I looked at Katie who was clearly listening via the open window. “Angelo had a thing for taking in strays.”
“You’re a funny one.” Katie with her pregnant stomach made her way back inside. She took a seat next to me, resting her legs on my lap. She looked so familiar, exactly like my childhood friend, except with her sexuality turned up to eleven.
My mind was rushing, resulting in my word vomit. “You are a poly, a threesome?”
Katie laughed so hard I was certain I was blushing. “Whatever you want to call it.” Her eyes glanced at the photo and her smile faded. “At least we were. No one could ever replace Angelo.” She sat up, and kissed me on the cheek. “But you’re welcome to try.”
Accepting the invitation, I placed one hand on to her stomach. I could feel the baby kick. I chuckled. “It’s like he knows me.” I didn’t mean to say those words out loud. Since establishing myself as a creep, I fully expected to get kicked out. I was already planning on a nice sleeping spot near the dumpster shared by three different businesses.
That was when Kate kissed me. ‘Kate? Becca?’ The image flickered in my mind like an old movie. Soon their images melded together as one; the cute, friendly girl with a talent for science, and the sexy pregnant goddess who wanted me to fill a very specific hole. (In her heart.)
Jeff stood up, making his way to my side. His mouth was pressed to my ear. “Are you alright?” His breath seemed to pause, as the world went in slow motion. His body was in a compromising position; with the heat of his hips pressed against my exposed skin. He was waiting for my approval.
Yes, we had sex; all three of us, in the bedroom where I could see the shrine to Angelo’s ashes. I tried my best to be comfortable. This was everything I ever wanted. Except I felt like I was auditioning for a film role. When it was all over, Jeff and Katie went to sleep facing opposite sides of the room. I took one look back at my new family, before leaving. I closed the door slowly, making my way towards the sitting room. There was a small kitchen, with a hotplate, microwave, minifridge and a kettle. (I assumed this was because all of the actual food was kept in the first-floor restaurant.)
I left via the window, rolling down the ladder of the fire escape until I was able to place my feet on solid ground. I could come back if I wanted to. ‘Did I want to?’
“Penny for your thoughts?” said a female voice coming from the direction of the alley.
I knew it was Emma Rose, but I didn’t care. I needed some advice, even if it came from the witch queen herself. “Were you waiting for me?”
“Did they make love to you in the second-floor bedroom?
“How did you know that?”
Emma Rose (the version of this universe, with the punk rock, goth, cosplay fashion style) moved into the light, sitting cross-legged on the pavement. “You think you’re the first?” From her sleeve she produced a deck of cards. “Did you see the shrine? I think they’re keeping him in an old coffee can.”
“I saw it.” I watched as she started to deal. The cards were metallic purple and blue with hints of gold. “Are those tarot cards?”
“Take a seat,” she said flexing her bare feet. Her toenails were painted with a chrome color that seemed to shift with every passing light.
There were still plenty of restaurants and clubs open, cars on the road. I could leave, run if I wanted to. “No thanks. I’m good.”
“Please?” The woman puffed out her cheeks, pouting her lip like a small child. “Not even for old times?”
“No.” I wanted so badly to walk away but there was a reason she was here. She was an old, powerful soul; someone who had done the multiverse jump many times. I needed to know more.
“Fine, if you don’t want to sit, you can stand.” She shuffled her cards again, keeping in constant motion. “This is your past.” She placed a card facedown. “This is your present.” She placed a second one beside it. “And this is your future.”
Without thinking I sat across from her. The very concept of tarot cards had me captivated. She had me under her spell. “So what?”
“Your past,” she spoke softly, flipping over the card to reveal a bound male figure hanging by his feet. “The hanged man; indecisiveness, spending your conscious years being dragged around like a dog on a leash.”
I was interested to know why the ‘hanged man’ was not hung by his neck, but I assumed that was a different, more sinister card. “That’s my past?” I asked. “So, does that mean I’m no longer such a pathetic person?”
“It’s a snapshot of your past,” she replied. “Let’s see what, if anything, followed you into this present timeline.” She flipped the next card; a typical image of the biblical characters Adam and Eve standing naked before the tree of knowledge. “The lovers.”
The characters on the card did not appear to be in love, at least not with each other. “Which means what exactly?”
“At a crossroads one cannot take both paths,” she said with a smirk. “But you knew that already.” She flipped the last card. It was a court jester looking at a butterfly. “Your future.”
“It actually fits you quite well.”
“Real nice.” I was about to get up when she touched my hand.
“It’s not about lack of intelligence,” she said with a kind, compassionate smile. “As a future card, it’s a message; you must allow yourself to be spontaneous enough to stretch beyond the realm of logic.”
“What?” I asked with a laugh. This was stupid; her words had no meaning. “How is this helpful?”
“It’s not.” She gathered her cards. “There is no advantage to be gained by thinking you possess the knowledge, or power to direct your own reality.”
“The Fool has no ambition to manipulate a specific outcome. Just be happy to be part of the whole.” Her eyes glanced upward, to a figure standing behind me. “Well, hello there. I wondered how long it would take you to get here.”
I turned to see Leo standing with his arms crossed. He wore a t-shirt and boardshorts, looking way to tropical for the chilly night. “Are you done?”
Emma Rose nodded. “Of course.” She gathered the deck, shuffling the cards as they appeared to fly up her sleeve. (It was like what a magician would do with rabbits or birds.) “I’m done with my reading anyway.” Out of her opposite sleeve, she produced a business card. “I’m a professional fortune teller. Feel free to stop by.”
“Thanks?” I accepted the card, if only to see where her place of business was located (so I could try my best to never go there.) Turns out, she was a long way from home. According to the little map on the back. Her shop was near both a hospital and a high school. It was the perfect place for a person selling answers. Readings were affordably priced at twenty dollars (time limit of twenty minutes.) I had to wonder how wealthy she actually was. Was Katie telling the truth? Was this girl a pimp? Maybe the fortune telling business was a cover? ‘No, don’t be a fool.’
“Or maybe you should,” she stood up, not allowing me a chance to respond. Strutting like a supermodel, she walked off, down the alley, towards what I assumed was a solid wall. I sprinted forward just in time to see her disappearing into the darkness.
“Is this it?” I asked. By default, my question was addressed to Leo.
“No, I doubt you’ve seen the last of her.” He motioned for me to follow him back up the fire escape.
I wasn’t ready to return just yet. “Can we talk?”
“Yeah, I was thinking about the roof. Hopefully, we can have some privacy from any more multiverse hopping, fortune teller witches.”
I followed Leo, passing the second-floor window, to take a seat by his side. We watched the stars. The darkness and beauty of San Francisco nightlife had a pulse. The vibration of ever-present music reminded me of something; deep, dark, sinister. Was this Hell? I was reminded of every joke I had ever heard about how fun and awesome Hell would be; Hell was where all your friends were, you’ll be safe from all the stuck-up bible thumpers. Hell was a paradise for the lost. And that seemed pretty accurate. “Is this the light at the end of the tunnel?”
Leo nodded biting his lower lip. He was buying time as he thought of an actual, reasonable answer. “Are you asking if this is eternity? I can think of quite a few people who’d love to spend forever in San Francisco.”
I figured he was talking about himself. “Do you have to leave?” I suddenly felt a rush of sadness; I would never be able to become a full-fledged angel, despite how hard Leo had worked to train me into a hero. And with that fate came the unfortunate truth: I could never fight by his side.
“No,” he said in a calm, hypnotic state.
“This is not eternity, not really.” Leo leaned back, bathing his face in the glow of the moonlight. He truly looked like an ethereal being. “Just another layer of the multiverse.”
“How long can I stay?”
“As long as you need to.”
I wanted to ask how I got here. Did I have a new name? Was I still me? “Can I still talk to you?”
“Of course.” Leo put his hand upon mine, his soft, perfect fingers gently massaging my cold, rough knuckles. “Just put your lips together and blow.”
I smiled, overwhelmed with a sense of purpose, peace, and hope. “You’re not mad at me?”
Leo put his arm around my shoulder. “I could never be mad at you.”
Leo scoffed. He paused as if considering changing his answer. “Nope. We’re still good.” That was when he kissed me.
I closed my eyes and opened my mouth taking in the taste of his breath. His lips felt warm and inviting. At that moment I truly wanted to vanish into his embrace. Were his eyes closed too? Would Leo be willing to take me with him? (No, my place was here, in San Francisco.) I would have to settle for kissing him the way I always wanted to.
I closed my eyes for a moment, when I opened them, Leo was staring with loving intensity. His lips parted revealing his gap-toothed smile. “Live for today, act like a fool.”
He already starting to vanish. I knew in my heart this was not goodbye.
A plane flew across the sky.
“Maybe I will,” I shouted at the wind. ‘Maybe.’