“So what am I doing here?” I asked The Executive. “Am I selling you or are you selling me?”
She looked alarmed. “Beg your pardon?”
“This job. You know. The thing that could finally free me from this weird-ass nocturnal existence? The one thing you guys could do to actually make me give a shit again and possibly compel me to behave like a normal twenty-something in search of wealth and social respect. Do I have to sell you or do you have to sell me?”
She pursed her lips. She was not amused.
“Candor is one thing, Phil,” she said. “What you’re saying verges on disrespect.”
I grimaced in a way I thought was cute. “Sorry, Boss.” At that, she smiled a little. At least, I think she di–
The door to the office swung open. “PHIL, DON’T DO IT.”
We both looked up. The Executive sputtered. I groaned.
Standing in the doorway was yet another version of me.
“Where are my friends?” Phil (The Third One) asked, bleeding profusely out of his left arm socket.
“Why…back at the trash tunnels.” The girl at the front desk leaned forward ominously. “Where they belong.”
Too weak to muster up the rage he intellectually knew he should feel, Phil frowned and turned a slightly lesser shade of green.
The Front Desk Girl titled her head. “Now, there’s one person in this Skyscraper who can maybe save your life, pal.”
“Don’t call me ‘pal.'”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She fluttered her eyelids. “Darling?”
“Uh…” Phil closed his eyes. His breathing came in ragged sighs.
The Front Desk Girl stood up from behind her glass table and slowly stepped toward him. “It confuses you, doesn’t it?” she said. “You’re not quite sure how people should treat you. Or what it is that you want.” She stooped down and hunched over, so she could be eye level with him and whispered, “You were allowed up to the Lobby for a reason, you know.”
“My…” Phil breathed. “My frien-”
“Shhhhh.” The Front Desk Girl placed one hot pink and perfectly manicured nail on Phil’s cheek. “Those who get left behind get left behind. Now think about it. If you bleed out here, all your efforts and all your friends’ efforts will have been meaningless.”
Phil glanced upwards, trying to focus on her eyebrows. “If I go…If I….”
“Yes, yes, yes. If you go, another one will take your place. But aren’t you sick of it, Phil? Aren’t you sick of waiting for some future version of you to get what should rightfully be yours? Why not you? Why not now?”
“Shhhhhhhhh.” She was crouched down now, in the position of a detective observing a corpse. She cupped Phil’s chin in her bronze hands. “Let’s get you patched up, okay?”
Down in the trash tunnels, Theodora was staring at a broken picture frame that was hanging on to scraps of parchment. If she had to guess, she would say the frame had once contained a portrait, but like so many things in her life, she couldn’t really recognize where it came from or what it was meant to be.
Next to her, Blonde slid down the metal sheet wall until he was sitting in the same position, his thigh pressing against hers. The ground was sticky and disgusting.
“Veggie says she saw him fly through that hole in the ceiling. Dudebro thinks he’s alive. No one else is really sure.”
Blankly staring at the broken portrait before her, Theodora gave a flat response. “He’s dead. He’s always dead.”
Blondie bit his lip in discomfort. “You know…we could get up there on our own. We don’t have to wait for yet another Phil.”
“Okay,” Theodora said.
Unconvinced, Blondie sighed. “Or we can just stop. We can go home, you and me. We’ll deal with things together and we don’t have to fight anymore. Maybe it’s just not our fight.”
In the exact same tone, Theodora said, “Okay.”
Blonde, also known as Peter, shook his head and cradled his forehead in his hands. “Theodora, I’m your friend. I want to help you, but I just don’t know what you wa-”
“What I want doesn’t exist.” Theodora stood up. She grabbed a cigarette from her pocket and stuck it in her mouth. “I’m a person stuck in the future looking for someone who can only exist in the past.” She fumbled for a match, found one, but dropped it. Her last one. She shook her head and flicked the cigarette on the trash heap along with the broken picture frame. “So you know what?” She threw up her hands. “I’m just along for the ride. Let’s go home. Let’s keep fighting. It’s all the fucking same to me.”
She walked toward the end of the tunnel and left Blondie to contemplate in the sticky wreckage.
Almost as soon as I had burst into my own meeting, I disappeared from the doorway. The Executive, flabbergasted, made a face like a goldfish.
I scratched the side of my neck. “…Really sorry about that. Whenever I have a big decision to make, I tend to….multiply.” I winced.
She turned her head to look straight at me. Her expression shifted a little. “You can….You can do that?”
I nodded. And in addition to the abject horror in her expression, I started to see a faint glimmer of interest.