TCL #42 Winter 2022

Two Roads

“Dad, can you help me with something?”

You look up from your newspaper. Safari stares at her shoes, giving you surreptitious glances, flashes of her mother’s brown eyes catching the dim morning sunlight trickling through the kitchen blinds. Her posture is reticent, but her expression hopeful. It’s the same demeanor you’ve seen from countless diplomats, congressmen and women, even the president on occasion.

“Sure, what is it, kiddo?”

Safari straightens, wringing her hands. “I need help with my class schedule,” she says. “If I stick with music, I have to march in the band for football games and won’t be able to cheer.”

You smile, understanding the question behind the question. “I can only see major branches of my own timeline, if that’s what you’re wanting.”

Safari furrows her brow, one corner of her mouth lifting, pulling her lips to one side. “You use your ability all the time to help all those important people. Why can’t you use it now?”

You feel your face flush as you realize just how hurt she is. Hurt that the power you wield so freely for the sake of the world is locked away from her. You pat the couch cushion, beckoning for her to sit.

Frumping, Safari takes the seat next to you and tucks in under your arm, the same way she has since she was a year old. Her curls brush your cheek and you smell the scent of her shampoo, feel the heat of her body as she wraps her arms around your chest. You recall the way she used to try and link her too-short arms around you as a child and frown as they clasp easily around your torso now.

“I don’t always have to use my ability at work, you know,” you say, returning her embrace. “Many of the people that come to me are just looking for reassurance that they are making the right decision.”

“So then how do you know what the right decision is?”

“Sometimes, I just use my best guess, like everyone else.”

Safari snorts. “Whatever, you’ve never had to do that.”

You laugh and her head leaps with each chortle, riding the wave of your middle-age paunch. “I haven’t always had divergent sight. I didn’t even get it until I was in my teens. Even now I can’t see what happens if I order the steak or lobster at a restaurant, or what happens if I take a different route home at night. It’s only the big decisions.”

“So, what was it like before you got your power?”

You scratch your chin, picking through puddles of memory.

“When I was fourteen, I was at the county fair, waiting for your grandma to come pick me up. A car pulled up to the edge of the parking lot where I was standing and two white girls started yelling at me from the backseat.”

“What were they yelling?”

“All sorts of things. Vulgar stuff. Things that would appeal to a teenage boy. Wanting me to come closer to their car,” you tell her. “Two guys were sitting in the front seat, staring straight ahead. They never looked at me. Not once.”

Safari wiggles out from under your arm and moves to the opposite end of the couch, the whites of her eyes a ring around the chestnut disc of her iris. “What did you do?”

“Well, the girls were pretty cute, but it was the guys in the front who bothered me the most. I mean, what could four white kids want with me?” You lean forward, clasping your hands together. “I thought about it for a minute and then decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. They kept trying for a long time, though. If they’d ever opened a door I’d have run for it.”

Safari looks down at her own lap. “And you made the decision without your ability?”

You shrug. “Do you think I made the right choice?”

“Yeah.” Safari pulls her arms tight across her chest and stretches her legs across your lap. “I wonder what they would have done to you if you’d gotten in the car.”

“I honestly don’t know, kiddo. I really don’t,” you say, patting her leg. “Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

“I’ll think about it some more,” Safari replies. “Best guesses, right?”

“Best guesses,” you agree, smiling

You jerk back to the present, inhaling deeply, mouth agape.

“Hey, kid. Come here. We want to show you something.” A girl with a ruddy complexion and skyscraper bangs leans out the window of a brown, late model Chevrolet sedan, a lit cigarette dangling from one hand. The early October winds cut through your jean jacket and you stick your hands in your pockets to keep them warm.

“Yeah, come over here and we’ll give you a blowjob,” another girl yells, nudging her friend and laughing.

“A blowjob. You’re such a whore, Cindy.” The pair cackle, leaning into one other, angling for terrain through the car’s small rear passenger window. In the front seat, two pale, acne-spotted boys sit unmoving, eyes straight ahead through the windshield of the idling car, gazing out into the long night.

“Nah, I’m good,” you say, walking in the direction of laughter and screams and the scent of cotton candy and popcorn.

“Aww, c’mon,” Cindy says, her lips pursed in a pout. “What’s the matter? You don’t like blowjobs? Come over and I’ll show you my tits.”

You take off at a jog, leaving the girls promising more and more elaborate sexual favors, their voices dimming as they mix with the rising din of carnival barkers and screaming children.

When you are safely away, you pull your shaking hands from the pockets of your jacket. They reach in front of you, searching for the alternate timeline. They are almost there, a fingertip’s whisper away when you recall the smell of shampoo and the tickle of curls on skin. You ball your fists and withdraw, placing them back inside your coat. The possibilities evanesce, like breath in the wind. You blow out a sigh, as if you are trying to hurry them along.

Two roads diverge but you don’t need to travel both to know which way your future lies.

Robert Balentine, Jr is an emergency room physician in the southern US. His works have been featured in Bewildering Stories, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine most recently, though he has several awaiting publication as well.

Edge of the Universe

Leira owned the Edge of the Universe. The café glimmered in the pocket of downtown between the clothing boutiques and the bowling alleys and none of the customers knew the accuracy of the name, or how close they meandered to the brink.

Flowers touched by Midas draped its railings, and a tree sprouted multicolored pastel lights. Little stands held up spider plants and aloe vera next to the tables, and Leira had named the margaritas things like “Kiss the Frog” and “Stay Out of the Forest.”

She had knitted the magic of the place to draw in the broken, the endangered, and those in trouble who maybe didn’t know it. When the girl wandered in, arms folded around herself like wrapping paper, Leira didn’t need the glow of yellow fear radiating from her to understand the situation. She’d seen enough of them over the centuries.

The girl had drifted in alone. Leira smiled at her. “First time here?”


“The drinks are all five dollars.” She gestured at the menu on the wall, and then pushed forward a small piece of paper. It read: “Poison Apple,” and had an asterisk: “Ask for this with lime if you feel unsafe.”

The girl’s eyes met hers. “I’d like the Kiss the Frog,” she said, with such a small voice Leira’s immortal heart almost cracked.

“Of course.” Leira bustled about, getting it ready. The girl settled in the corner of the café, far from the window, where the vines and the books bloomed into camouflage.

“Here you go.” Leira set the glass on the little table. The girl started. She’d been staring at her phone.

Leira hustled back behind the bar. She ignored the girl and didn’t call attention to her, but then the bell tinkled over the door. A guy strode through.

Leira slid the Poison Apple note back behind the cash register. “Welcome to the Edge of the Universe! What can I get you?”

The guy flicked his gaze around, searching. The girl hunched in the back; her legs drawn up on the chair. The magic flickered, hiding her, the vines protective and growing larger, the books towering by the table.

The guy hissed through his teeth. He had that perfect golden Da Vinci sheen, a veneer of handsome that glowed with a rotten yellow green. “Just looking for someone.”

“Oh?” Leira tilted her head to the left and the right of the shop. “Huh. We’re fresh out of someones besides you, sorry about that.”

The girl had gone so still. The vines grew thorns, and the books grew more pages. She’d begun to drink the Kiss the Frog, and the magic had given voice to her unspoken wishes. Good girl.

Da Vinci guy set his jaw but didn’t leave. He marched to the back of the shop, then stopped at the wall of thorns. He could probably sense the magic, but humans had problems identifying that which they didn’t believe in, be it common sense or magic thorns. Leira’s heart pounded.

The girl didn’t reach out to part the vines. The yellow terror glowed bright like a sun, but she did not show her position.

The guy snorted and pulled out his phone, shooting off a text. He pivoted and flashed Leira a smile—the smile that had likely ensnared this girl with its carnivorous charisma. He would prey on other helpless girls with that smile.

Not if she could help it.

She pushed a button under the bar. The Edge of the Universe glimmered outside. The bell tinkled, and the guy stepped through and fell, screaming. The brink swallowed him in seconds.

Faery would deal with him much better than Earth. All faeries saw straight through veneers to the rottenness beneath. They’d find him within hours and lock him up. Leira was just the gatekeeper.

The vines pulled back around the girl. She trembled. “He—he’s gone?”

“Yeah.” Leira leaned over the counter. “He was too dangerous to leave on this side. I’m sorry if . . . if that’s not what you wanted.”

The girl unwrapped her arms from around her legs. “This place is like a dream.” The light around her evened out to a warm orange, and her fingers twined around the tabletop. “You’re sure he won’t come back? Are you sure? I mean if he does—oh God, what have I—”

“He won’t be coming back.” Leira poured a crystal-colored drink into a vial. “Here. Take this.”

Her voice flickered like a light with faulty wiring. “What is it?”

“Faerie Sight. It lets you see a heart’s intent. Drink it next time you’re on a date; it helps to sort out the bad apples.”

The girl tucked it in her purse. “Thank you. I wish—I wish I had asked for that other drink, now. I wish I’d been braver.”

Leira shook her head. “You did make that decision. The vines and books responded to you, they did only what you wished. And you wished to stay away from him.”

The girl thanked her again and left. A year and a second misted by, and Leira had enough time for a quick muffin and a tea before the bell tinkled. A young man with the body of a girl wandered in, arms wrapped around himself, head tucked, a purple shame surrounding him.

Leira smiled. “First time here?”