Actual Slices of Life

by Louis Kemner

"Got any plans tonight, Mike?" Mr. Scott asked, finishing double-checking the cash in the music store's register. His brown eyes were focused laser-sharp on the work, his fingers fast and coldly efficient. But at least his voice was warm.

Mike shrugged, setting a bass guitar back onto its wall rack. "Oh, I dunno. Get my money's worth from my Netflix or Hulu subscriptions, get a six-pack, something..."

Mr. Scott finished counting, and his graying moustache twitched as he grinned. "Funny how you only bring up food or beer whenever I ask about that."

"I've got simple tastes, okay? Pun intended." Mike grinned back, but damn, it was another dull day, and not much waiting at home. Whatever. He was already 28; shouldn't he be the one owning this music shop, especially in a modest town like this one?

"Well, just don't talk with your mouth full in case you've got a date." Mr. Scott smoothed his button-up shirt, got his coat and hat off the rack, and headed for the door. "You're a good assistant, Mike... why not have some cheer while you're at it? Have a good night."

"Thanks. You, too." Mike shrugged again as he followed his boss out the door and into the cool autumn evening. Long shadows and loose orange leaves drifted on the wind. It should look idyllic, like a postcard... lame.

Mr. Scott drove away in his '98 Toyota while Mike took the same, overcrowded bus as usual.

Not for the first time, Mike played air guitar as he walked from the bus stop to his apartment, head banging to mental music. What he wouldn't give to save up for the real thing... stupid landlord, increasing rent this year...

Mike jolted when his foot kicked away something small but hard. A wood-handled knife skittered across the cracked sidewalk, and he hurried after it. Why? It was just a dumb knife...

Mike knelt by the knife, ignoring the middle-aged couple that walked past, or the teenager crusing along on her bike. No one watched the dead-end twenty-something pick up a knife from the ground.

I bet this thing was fancy once, Mike thought, weighing it in his hand. It was dented and discolored from age, both its cutting and back edges chipped from probably two decades of use. Did some junkie or hoodlum drop this? Maybe that anonymous thug had finally upgraded to a proper sword! Mike chuckled to himself as he idly swung the bare blade through the air.

Rrrriiip!

"Whoa!" Mike automatically jumped back when he heard the loud tearing noise, as though he'd sliced through a tough canvas. He whipped his head around to check, but it was just empty air around him. No people, no nothing. He heard a distant police siren, heading away from him. Maybe he should drop this piece of junk and order some Chinese takeout and get on with his typical evening.

Mike found himself swinging the blade again. With the same noise.

Hold on... Mike tensed as though about to enter a knife duel, heart racing. He felt like something alien and huge was looming before him... he blinked. He was going crazy. No...

He drew the blade through the air more slowly this time, carefully, as though cutting off a piece from a large cloth. And this time, in the same space where his knife cut through the air, a thin, glowing line traced itself in the air. Cold air seeped from it. No... something else, something Mike felt inside himself, in his mind. More than air.

Oh my god... Mike cut a perpendicular line, then another, and a fourth, carving a square in midair big enough to walk through. His brain reeled in shock as the scenery before him folded downward like a poster within the square, with what looked like TV static inside.

No way. Mike circled around the square, looking for... what? But from the sides and behind, he saw nothing. Just felt the cold mental air billowing out from the square hole. Something primordial in Mike's brain screamed at him to run... but how often did something like this happen?

Mike squared his shoulders and stepped into the static square.

"Oh, the shop..." Mike stood before Mr. Scott's music shop, but the sign overhead read "Mike's Rad Music Shoppe", not the name Mr. Scott used. And it was a warm spring morning.

And Mike was in a small crowd.

"There you are, Mike!" someone Mike didn't recognize said. "Aren't you gonna open today? Where you been, man?"

"I..." Mike swallowed. "I don't have the key. I've gotta wait until Mr. Scott gets here."

The man looked puzzled. "Why would he still have the keys? You bought the place, Mike! Where's your key?"

Mike's mouth went dry and he grinned without realizing it. "M... my shop?" He also checked his pocket; yup, a new key on his key ring! He unlocked the door and the grateful customers spilled in.

"You've got some new stock, huh?" someone else said, examining the polished guitars and drumkits along the walls. "Nice, Mike. I bet you'll open up a second location, with your business goin' so good!"

"Thanks," Mike said automatically. He couldn't stop grinning as more people complimented his astounding businessmanship and awesome stock. And... there! Mike's high school crush, Kristen, approached, all smiles.

"I thought about what you said," she said brightly.

Mike blinked. "Oh yeah?"

"That's right. I'd love to set you up with my friend Valencia! No problem!"

Mike laughed. "Oh, uh... thanks. I look forward to it. But, uh... I need a bathroom break. Be right back."

Pushing through all the customers in Mr. Scott's... no, his shop, Mike locked himself in the well-lit bathroom and held up the battered old knife to his face.

Did this thing grant wishes? Or automatically grant success, specifically? Or did it look into his heart and realize his fondest aspirations...?

Focusing on that last part, Mike cut another square into what he guessed was the fabric of the universe holding all the infinite dimensions apart. Once again, he stepped into the static.

At once, the smell of a hopsital and the beep of a heart monitor made his heart sink.

Mike gasped, but none his family members gathered by his bedside heard him. That's me! He stared at his own older self lying in the bed, tubes hooked up to his body. Was he... in a coma? He looked horrible...

Then Mike held out a hand, and he saw right through it. I'm dying... what happened? Am I gonna fade away?! Panic tightened around his incorporeal heart as he rushed to his body's side.

"This is what happens to wannabe rock stars," Mike's older cousin Phil said, shaking his head. "Poor Mike. Why did he do this to himself? Getting mixed up in those drugs, shootin' up or snorting who knows what..."

"Shush!" said his elderly aunt Matilda. "It's up to Jesus now. He will look after Mike. I know he will save him."

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Mike thought bitterly, holding the knife in his hand. The semi-transparent knife. If he didn't hurry...

Mike stood upright, cleared his throat, and cut another square.

Now he stood in his old living room, everything conspiculously in mid-1990s fashion, as his young self dug through his toy box of plastic dinosaurs, robots, and action figures. His younger self did not look at him.

Another square. Another, shakier step forth. Mike found his 12-year-old self strumming a cheap guitar, seated on the edge of his bed, head nodding as he mastered the chords and scales. What? Mike had never done that! He stepped onto another tear, this time, next to his shabby, homeless older self huddled in an alley while well-off people walked past on the nearby sidewalk. Again... and he was in a screaming match with Valencia, and Valencia threw a small vase at Mike's head. It shattered against the wall as Valencia shouted at him to "admit" to seeing Kristen behind her back. Sometimes he stood beside another version of himself. Other times, usually in the alternate present, he lived it, and the feeling... it was crushing on the inside. Living in a shell he wasn't supposed to inhabit. Or worse, watching its destruction from afar in the future...

No... no! Mike cut hole after hole, always ending up in a familar, but unfamiliar, slice of his life, past and present, things that almost happened and now did, or ended up much better or worse than Mike could imagine. Kristen, the shop, drugs, power chords, a lonely country highway, graying hair, his face on the cover of trendy magazines, some for his fame, some for his spiral into madness...

The reaper of death -

NO! Mike just saw a single flash of the end of his life, a razor-thin slice of time that somehow seemed infinitely thick once it lodged itself into his memory. Seen for a split second... imprinted into his brain much longer than that.

"No, no, no!" Mike wildly swung his knife as he felt himself falling into a black abyss, the hundreds of almost-lives swirling around him. "This isn't me!"

He fell through the static inside another carved square -

"Ouch!" Mike landed on a cracked sidewalk, autumn leaves skittering along the surface as a cool evening wind blew. He heard that distant police siren, and the bark of a big black dog he'd seen around sometimes...

Mike held the knife in his open palm, his face slick with sweat, his body trembling. Visions of the future? Glimpses of wishes granted? Warnings of a life gone wrong? Temptation to take what wasn't his to take?

Trouble.

Maybe getting some Chinese and watching a sitcom on Netflix wouldn't be so bad. Hell, it was his life.

It's mine to control.

Mike jogged down the sidewalk and toward his apartment, the knife held close to his chest. Must get ride of this insane thing, dispose of it so no one will ever find it...

He felt a chill, and he held out his hands. Empty.

"Hey, someone dropped their knife..." Mike heard someone comment, far behind him. "Looks pretty beat-up..."

"No! Don't do it!" Mike stopped and whirled around, searching for the speaker or the wood-handled knife on the sidewalk.

Both were gone.