The Grisly Ghosts of Gruesome Time – Chapter 11
The Great Substack Story Challenge
The siren blared.
Red lights flashed.
Sweat dribbled down their faces.
But Mr. Grisly had a phenomenal memory.
Within forty-two seconds—Joey timed it—he recalled and perfectly recited the master code.
What followed, however, baffled them both.
When the vault door opened, all they saw beyond was darkness.
Their hesitation was cut short by the sound of running feet coming toward them, while the siren continued to blare and the red lights continued to flash above them.
“The hell with it,” muttered Joey as he quickly stepped through, followed by his other self.
They heard the door slam shut behind them and spun around.
“Oh great! Now we’re stuck in a vault.”
“Not quite,” said a familiar voice from behind them.
As they spun again, their eyes went wide.
They now stood in a gloomy street surrounded by decrepit buildings, tagged walls, and broken-down cars. Joey could still hear a siren—the sound had never faded, though it now seemed distant.
A man stood before them, his face hidden in the shadows. He took a few steps and the lamplight revealed Joey’s face.
It was another him!
“You must be kidding me...”
“Us,” corrected Grisly.
“Right. Kidding us. What the hell?”
“Come,” said the new Joey. “We must hurry.”
“I’m not going anywhere until—”
“You want answers, don’t you?”
Joey frowned. “Yes, of course.”
“Then you must follow me. It’s not safe out here. You’ll get all your answers once we’re indoors.”
The man turned and walked off at a brisk pace.
The two other Joeys looked at each other and shrugged. It was one of them, after all... if they couldn’t trust themselves, who could they trust?
So they quickly followed.
As they walked, Joey looked up. He saw cars flying by, large flashing billboards advertising the latest detergent, and dark towers scratching the belly of clouds while lightning streaked the night sky.
A sudden stink made him wrinkle his nose. His eyes darted in every direction and he soon found the source of the foul stench. A fish stall.
There weren’t many people walking here, but the vendor still waved his hands in the air and shouted his vain attempts at drawing suckers in.
He noticed both other Joeys squirming as they quickly walked past the offending stall.
Further up the street, he saw a hooded man in a brown cloak standing by a wall, watching them go by.
After they turned the next corner, Joey recognized the building they were headed toward—except here it wasn’t a bank, and it wasn’t called Mite Files, or Mike’s Flies, or Miles Pile, or whatnot.
Thunder clapped in the distance as he paused at the entrance, staring at the sign above the door.
Time Flies it read.
Joey snorted and walked into the restaurant.
Again, he paused.
It was a very large room, filled with tables and chairs. To the right was a bar. To the left, four doors. There were only a handful of customers.
But what struck Joey was the far wall, right across from him. It was entirely made of glass. And through that glass, he saw...
He walked closer, a little shaken.
There were stars everywhere. Above and underneath, where there should have been ground. Within the stars were strips of spiraling colors. Occasionally they would burst into flames, swirl, then merge into new stars. And the cycle would begin again.
He heard footsteps behind him.
“Breath-taking, isn’t it?”
Joey jumped and spun around.
“Crystal! How can you be here? You were out there...”
The beautiful blonde grimaced. “Those were my clones. I was always here. I’m stuck, just as you are.”
“I’m not really stuck,” said Joey as he remembered the disk in his pocket and brought it out. “I can jump out of here whenever I want.”
She shook her head. “Won’t work here. Go ahead. Try it.”
He pressed the disk and frowned when nothing happened. With a curse, he shoved the item back into his pocket.
“Oh, that’s just peachy! So why make me come here if you knew I’d get stuck?”
“Because you are the key to getting us all out. Come. I must show you something.”
He frowned but followed her, admiring her curves as she headed toward the bar.
“Where are we?” he asked as they walked.
“At the edge of time, of course.”
As they approached the counter, his eyes noticed a book that rested there.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
She glanced at him and smiled. Nodded.
“The manuscript. That’s what you came looking for, isn’t it?”
A man behind the counter came up to them.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“Not now, Roy,” hissed Crystal.
“Actually, I’ll have a whiskey,” said Joey as he brought out his beloved bottle and set it on the counter. “Just give me a glass. Wait, scratch that. I’ll do like I always do.” He pulled the cork out and started to bring the tip to his lips.
Crystal grabbed his arm to stop him, a disapproving look on her cute face.
“No, Joey. You’re sober, remember?”
“Not anymore,” he argued. “Kinda fell off the wagon with all this mess.”
She wrinkled her nose prettily, pulled the bottle out of his hand, and handed it to the bartender.
“Well, you’re officially on it again, starting now.”
“Hey! That’s mine!” he protested as Roy placed the bottle on a shelf behind him and walked away.
“Focus, Joey!” she said while tapping the tip of a finger against his forehead. She then used that same finger to tap on the manuscript.
“I thought you said I couldn’t have the final say, because it’s a collaborative effort?”
Crystal scoffed. “Is that what my clone told you? Come now! You must have realized you can’t trust anything she says.”
Joey squinted. “Why should I trust you?”
“Have I ever lied to you?”
Joey was about to answer yes when he realized he’d only ever talked to clones. Except maybe that one time on the phone...
“Wasn’t that you calling me from Limbo?”
“Well, alright, you got me there. But honestly, would you have believed me if I’d told you I was calling from a restaurant at the edge of time?”
“You mean as opposed to believing you were calling me from the afterlife? So much more believable, you’re right.”
“How about we let bygones be bygones, dear? Let’s take a table and have something to eat.”
She took his arm, pulling him toward a table.
“Do they have tacos here?” he asked distractedly.
“They have everything.”
“Even fish and chips,” she added.
He grimaced as they sat.
The bartender apparently doubled as a waiter. He brought them a plate filled with tacos and they ate in silence while Joey processed everything he’d learned until now. It was difficult figuring out what was true and what was not.
He jerked his head up and looked around.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Where are the other Joeys?”
“Oh. There can only be one of you in here. The real you. You could say you all merged. You are whole.”
“Whole? I thought we were all from different realities?”
He gritted his teeth. “What are you not telling me? Out with it!”
She sighed. “You are different, Joey. There is only really ONE of you in all of reality. Your personality was splintered and spread across the multiverse. That is why you don’t remember anything. To be fair, when I said you were whole, that wasn’t entirely accurate. There are still other parts of you out there. Once you are whole, you’ll remember everything.”
“How can I achieve that?”
She chuckled. “You already know the answer.”
He stared at her for a moment, then jumped out of his chair.
She nodded, watching him curiously.
He started toward the bar, then stopped. Looked at her again.
“What about the bomb in my head?”
She smiled. “There is no such thing. They all wanted to confuse you, to keep you distracted so you wouldn’t find out the truth. They even used teacups to spy on you.”
“Teacups?” he cried out.
“Yes. The tea you drank was filled with nanobots they could use to trace you.”
“So that’s how they did it!”
He felt both outraged and vindicated at the same time. He had always known there was something fishy about those teacups.
“Why don’t they want me to know the truth?” he finally asked.
“Because the truth will set you free.”
“Never mind. Let’s just say that once you are whole, you will regain your powers. This frightens them.”
“Why would it? I’m your wife, after all.”
“You are what?”
Her laughter was like a stream of clear blue water running under a sunny summer sky.
“You’ve always been the only one for me, dear.”
“John said he was your husband.” He paused and frowned. “As did Rob, come to think of it.”
“Like I said, they all want to confuse you. They’re likely also jealous,” she said dismissively. “I wanted to draw you here so I could help you become whole.”
She stood and grabbed his arm again, and they slowly made their way back to the bar.
“There’s something I still don’t understand,” he said. “Who wrote the book?”
“Anton Deckard,” she said softly.
“Who the hell is Anton Deckard?”
She shrugged. “That is not for me to say.”
They sat at the counter and he flipped through the pages of the book.
The bartender-waiter approached. “Can I get you anything else before I go?”
“Is it already the end of your shift, Roy?” The man just nodded. “Well, it’s alright, I think we’re good.”
Roy smiled back.
“Great. So long,” he said, “and thanks for all the fish.”
The man walked away and Joey stared at him, then at Crystal.
“What is it with this place and fish?”
“I never did ask you why you don’t like fish?” she asked thoughtfully.
“What do you mean, why? They don’t have feet! That’s disgusting.”
She laughed as he turned his attention back to the book.
He noticed the last lines had him sitting at the bar and flipping through the pages of the manuscript, exactly as he was doing now. The rest of it was blank.
“How does this work?”
“What would you like to happen next?”
He glanced at her and thought he had a few ideas of what he would like to happen next, but none of them would be appropriate to write down.
Joey blushed as he looked back at the counter.
“I need a pen,” he muttered.
“I can help you with that,” spoke a voice from behind them.
Joey turned and saw the hooded man with the brown cloak standing at the entrance of the restaurant.
There was something familiar about his voice, too.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Anton Deckard.”
The man lowered his hood, revealing a weathered face with long graying hair and beard. The face of a man Joey had not spoken to in two decades.
“I am your father,” added the stranger.
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Text (c) 2022 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header image by Erica Drayton.
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