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Justin was exhausted. His brain seemed to buzz faintly as he locked the door to his apartment, and his eyeballs ached. But he couldn’t keep a smile from breaking over his face as he shuffled down the sidewalk towards the bus stop. Fifty-six hours. That was how long he’d been at his computer, guiding his Paladin on a quest to reclaim the Holy Chalice of Verdorn from the Ogre’s secret lair. Fifty-six hours, interrupted only for bathroom breaks and food, and every second of the ordeal had been worth it. His party had succeeded. The chalice was safe, and his Paladin had risen to level eighty-two.
If he didn’t have to work today, he could have gone right back into his main objective, to find and rescue the Emperor’s daughter. After getting some sleep, that it. His smile faltered a little as the bus rounded the corner and came to a stop. Sleep sounded really good right now. A lot better than ringing up iced drinks and handing over the key to the restroom attached to the convenience store where he worked.
Justin stared out the window while the bus propelled him toward his workplace. His lack of sleep made everything look slightly off, colors a little too bright, movement too slow and swooping. He forced his eyes open wider even as he felt his body being lulled by the rhythm of the bus. Even the thrill of victory wasn’t helping anymore. He planted his feet and heaved himself up as the convenience store finally loomed into sight.
His co-worker Anna’s white Toyota was already parked in front of the building. Justin could see her inside it, watching him through the open window, her glasses tinted dark from the morning sun. Her light brown hair was pulled back in her usual ponytail. She got out and waved to Justin as he fumbled with his key ring.
“You look like shit,” she said cheerfully.
“I need coffee. Pots and pots of coffee.” He unlocked the door and flipped on the light. Anna skirted around him to disarm the screeching alarm. Justin made a beeline for the coffee station and began filling the pots with water. Anna appeared beside him holding a stack of filters.
“Did you go to a party last night or something?”
“Something.” He smiled again at the thrill of his hard-won triumph.
“It must have been pretty wild from the looks of you.”
“It was.” Justin stared with anticipation at the thin streams of coffee pouring into the pots. “It was amazing.” He couldn’t help smiling again, half with pleasure, half in self-mockery. He was a dork. He knew that, but it didn’t make his online adventures any less exhilarating.
“Justin!” Anna sounded shocked. “Did you hook up with a girl?”
Startled out of his reflections, Justin blinked at her.
“You did, didn’t you? Oh my God, Justin. You finally got some!” She socked his arm. “Aw, I’m so proud!”
Justin faltered, not sure how to respond. He grabbed a paper cup and concentrated on filling it with coffee.
“Look at you,” Anna cooed. “You’re blushing. Justin’s blushing!” she announced loudly to the empty store.
A small but gleeful laugh answered.
Justin’s hand froze, his cup touching his lips. His eyes darted to Anna. She was staring back at him.
A customer must have come in without either of them hearing. Justin tried to shake off his surprise. “Good morning,” he called out. There was no response. His eyes scanned the store as he made his way up to the register. Why hadn’t he heard the sensor on the door beep when the customer came in? And where was the customer? The store looked empty.
Justin tried again from behind the register. “Welcome to Quik Serve. Can I help you find anything today?”
There was a crackling noise down one of the aisles, like someone handling a cellophane wrapper. By now, Anna was up front too, standing a couple feet from the counter. At the crackling sound, she turned her head and started up a middle aisle. Justin followed, his heart starting to beat faster. The first aisle they checked was empty. The crackling sounds paused briefly, then started again. This time there was the definite sound of a package opening, followed by a soft exclamation. Justin crouched at the end of his aisle, then pivoted around it into the next.
He stopped so abruptly that Anna crashed into him and fell to the floor. A toddler stared back at him with huge green eyes, half of an unwrapped granola bar clenched in her tiny fist. Disheveled wisps of blond hair stood out from her head in a halo. Her feet were bare, her face smudged with dirt.
Anna crawled around his legs to see what Justin was looking at. “Holy shit, it’s a baby!”
Her voice broke the spell for both Justin and the toddler. The little girl turned her attention to Anna, chewing what was presumably part of the granola bar she held. Justin walked over to the little girl and crouched down. “Hi,” he said.
She smiled, showing bits of chewed granola. “Hi!”
“Is your mommy here, or your daddy?”
The little girl shook her head. Her ears, Justin noticed, were unusually pointed at the tips. “Are they outside?” Justin asked.
She studied him momentarily, then bit off another chunk of granola bar.
“You think someone dropped her off here?” Anna said. “Or are her mom or dad around here somewhere?”
Justin turned. “I don’t know. Why don’t you look around and see if you can find any adults nearby. Search the store and the parking lot. Look in the bathroom.”
“The bathroom’s locked.” Anna stood where she was, not taking her eyes off the girl. “Justin, look at her hands.”
Justin looked. There was something a little off about them. Then it clicked in his mind. “She only has four fingers.”
“Her ears are all weird too. They’re like elf ears or something.”
The little girl had stopped chewing again. She looked back and forth from Anna to Justin, a frown beginning to creep over her features.
“Go look for her parents, Anna. Hurry up.”
Anna left. Justin turned his attention back to the child. “Come on, let’s go up front and wait for your mommy or daddy to get you.”
She nodded, then as he watched, she rose several feet into the air, looking at him expectantly.
Justin’s mouth fell open. He stumbled backwards. The child’s eyes opened wider as she watched him, and a thought seemed to flash across her face. She sank down quickly, until her feet were touching the floor. “No fy.” She nodded, her big, luminous eyes staring into Justin’s. “Wait for Mommy.”
He stood frozen in place. The store seemed to swirl around him.
“Come,” she said, more loudly. “Wait for Mommy.” A couple seconds passed. “Come!” she repeated, and stamped her foot.
Justin turned in a daze and led the way to the checkout counter. Every couple feet he turned to look at the girl. She followed him easily, with none of the unsteadiness he had observed in very young children. When they got there, Justin lifted her up and set her on the counter. His arms barely registered her weight. He looked her over, again taking in her pointed ears and missing digits. “What are you?” he murmured.
“Thirsty,” she answered decisively. “Can I have a juice?”
“I mean—“ he glanced around him, but Anna was still outside. “Are you an elf? Or something like that?”
“I want grape.”
“Please,” she said. “Can I have a grape juice, please?”
Anna came through the door then, looking worried. “There’s nobody out there. I even knocked on the bathroom, but no one answered. I guess there’s no one else in here either?”
“I haven’t looked, but I haven’t seen or heard anybody.”
“Why didn’t you look?”
“I have to keep an eye on the kid. Go see if there’s anyone else in here, then check the bathroom again. Unlock it this time and look in there.”
“I was just out there. Besides, what if there’s someone passed out, or....” She grimaced. “You go. I can watch the kid.”
“Fine.” Justin glanced back as he walked quickly away. “Just keep a very close watch on her, okay?”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine,” Anna said. “Just go.”
Justin searched every place he could think of inside the store. There was no one up any of the aisles or in any of the nooks and crannies of the back room. He even checked the supply closet, holding his breath as he slowly opened the door. Relief mingled with his mounting concern when he found only cleaning supplies. He jogged back to the front of the store, snagging the restroom key off its hook as he passed. Anna and the child were as he’d left them. He shook his head to indicate he hadn’t found anyone, then continued his jog towards the bathroom. He hesitated outside the door, then knocked loudly. There was no answer, of course. He put the key in the lock and pulled open the door. Empty.
Justin headed back inside the store. “No one in the bathroom or anywhere in here,” he reported.
Anna tilted her head towards the little girl who was still sitting on the counter. “I don’t think her parents brought her here. She said she came ‘by herself.’” She curved her fingers into quotation marks as she said the last part.
“Where did she come from?” Justin asked. “We’d better call the police.”
Anna nodded. “I’ll do it.” She walked behind the counter and picked up the phone.
“Anna, did she do anything...strange while I was gone?”
“She tried to drink your coffee. It was yucky, wasn’t it?” Anna nodded at the girl.
The toddler nodded back, scrunching up her face. “Yuck cof-fee. Want grape juice.”
“I’ll get you some.” Justin opened the cooler and brought back a small bottle. “We don’t have any grape juice. Is apple okay?”
She considered a moment, then nodded. “Thirsty.” She took the open bottle and began to gulp the juice. A stream ran down her chin onto her shirt.”
“Hey, slow down,” Justin said. “You were really thirsty, weren’t you?”
She nodded, examining the now empty bottle. “All done.”
“Do you want another one?”
“Yes, please,” she said.
“You have very good manners,” Justin said, opening another bottle of juice for her. “Did your mommy or daddy teach you that? To say please?”
The little girl looked up at him, her green eyes intense. “We wait for Mommy?”
“Well, uh....” Justin looked over to Anna who was reciting the store’s address into the phone. “Right now we’re waiting for some nice people who are going to help us find your mommy.”
“No.” She shook her head.
“No? You don’t want to find her?”
“No help. I can do it!” The toddler rose into the air, unfolding her legs from her sitting position until she was standing on the counter top. She peered at Justin from the corner of her eye, a stubborn look on her face, as if defying him to notice that she had gotten to her feet in an unusual way.
He gaped at her, only marginally less shocked than he had been the first time.
She frowned at him, the stubborn expression stronger. Before he could react, she was zooming towards the front doors.
“Hey, stop! You’re going to hurt your-“ Justin’s voice broke off as one of the doors swung open of its own accord. The little girl didn’t even look behind her as she passed through the doorway, floated across the parking lot, and rose higher into the sky.
Later that evening, a family across town sat eating dinner and watching the news. The anchorwoman smirked slightly as she segued into the next brief. “And earlier today a young man was reportedly hospitalized when he suffered a mental breakdown after playing a popular video game. The twenty-two year old came into work this morning after staying awake for more than two days playing an online RPG.” She went on to describe the game.
“Early this morning, a report came in of a lost child from the convenience store where the man is employed. Police arrived on the scene to find the young man on the verge of hysteria, claiming an elf had come into the store, drank some apple juice, and flown away, apparently without paying for the juice.
“The young man was admitted to Saint Mary’s Hospital, where he was treated for exhaustion, and is currently being held for observation. Doctors report his outlook is good, but strongly recommend he stay away from video games for the time being.”
The two adults at the dinner table exchanged looks. Then they turned to their teenage daughter. “Mel,” the woman said, “don’t you play that game?”
The teenager rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but I’m not a psychopath loser like that guy. I’m not going to start hallucinating because of a game.”
“But you do stay up very late sometimes playing it, especially on weekends,” the woman persisted.
“And there was that business about the lady in the library,” her father added carefully.
“That’s different!” Mel slammed down her fork. “She lives there, I swear to God. She went in one night and didn’t come out when it closed. And she was there the next day. She’s always there!”
“Maybe she came out and you just didn’t see her,” her mother suggested.
“Wearing that cloak with the big-ass hood? I was watching for her.”
“You watch your mouth, young lady,” her father said. “We don’t use those kinds of words in this house.”
“’Ass’ isn’t a bad word. What about you when you watch football? Or soccer, or—“
“Mel, stop,” her mother said.
The man reddened. His wife looked at him expectantly. He cleared his throat. “You’re right,” he said. “I do curse sometimes when I get worked up. But I’m working on it. It’s a process.”
“That’s all we ask, isn’t it, Mel?” Her mother patted her father’s hand.
“Whatever,” Mel muttered. She went back to eating dinner. Her parents followed suit.
Miles away, a blond toddler with big green eyes was caught up in her own adventures, the convenience store and its employees already forgotten.
Note from comic creator: Some liberties were taken because this is fanfiction, but the general reader might like to know that at the time baby Amanda/Ivy is the age she is shown to be here, the time period for Negative One actually is in the early to mid 1980s, so there were no online RPGs--well, no online. Also, during her library-living stint, Adele was not living in the same city as the Fisher-Ling family; she emerged into the human world somewhere in Illinois, while the baby is in New York City. I'm afraid I don't do a very good job conveying this to the reader, so maybe I have some work to do on settings, but now you know!
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