Take a break and chat with this dynamite conversationalist
Given Name: Melissa Sweetluck Age: 30 Home Region: Trevithick Pines Favorite Food: Hot wings (flats only)
Don't let her signature overalls fool you—Missy Sweetluck has a firecracker personality. Literally. A fan of explosions and fireworks since childhood, nobody in the Sweetluck family was surprised when Missy got a job in quality assurance at the Firebird Explosives factory. What was more surprising was that she quit her dream job in exchange for life on the rails.
Missy's outlook on life underwent a major shift after her experiences with Shayan Kahree, instilling her with a determination to offer help to any and all who might need it. But one thing remains the same: She always keeps a couple of bottle rockets on hand. Just in case.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” the man said. He was dressed like a train conductor, but from the way he said it, I could tell he hadn’t always worked on trains. He was nervous. “My name is Shayan.”
“Shayan, huh?” I said, looking him up and down. He stood with his arms behind his back and waited patiently for my introduction. When I looked him in the eye, he blushed and looked away. “I’m gonna call you Shy,” I said. He turned back to look at me and scrunched up his brow.
“Okay, then,” he said. “What can I call you, Blue?” He tilted his head to indicate my overalls.
“Blue works,” I said and shrugged. I could tell I was gonna like Shy, even if I didn’t want to.
We were at a bar in Trevithick Pines. I’d just gotten off my shift at the factory, and I was ready for a cold beer. When I tried to leave the bar, Shy had stepped in front of me and said some cheesy line about how he couldn’t let a beauty like me get away without saying hello. Normally, I would have told a guy like that to beat it, but something was different about Shy. He sort of bounced on his toes a little bit, and kept fidgeting with his hands behind him.
“Alright, Slick,” I said, feeling a smile stretching across my face. “One drink.”
“I thought you said you were going to call me Shy?” he fired back with surprising confidence.
“Isn’t that what I said?” I teased.
After we’d each had a few drinks, he said he wanted to show me someplace.
“Now, Shy,” I said, poking him in the chest. “I’ve known you for all of one hour. What makes you think I’ll follow you to a secondary location?” He looked at me and blinked a couple times, apparently choosing his words carefully.
“I work at the butterfly conservatory,” he said, finally. “We have a rare Jovian Monarch, right now. I though you might like to see it…” He seemed sad to think I’d assumed he would try anything with me.
I considered him, in the dim, golden light of the bar. He worked at the butterfly conservatory and dressed like a train conductor? My hand traced the outline of the pack of firecrackers I always kept in my pocket. Worst case scenario, if he tried anything…
“Alright, Shy,” I said. “Show me your rare butterfly.”
We walked to the conservatory, and he scanned a keycard to let us in the back door.
“Guess you really weren’t lying,” I said.
“Of course not,” Shy responded. He led us through the public viewing area, where butterflies flitted from tropical plant to tropical plant, sailing weightlessly through the air in the moonlight that filtered through the glass ceiling and walls. The streetlamps outside the building filled the conservatory with an ethereal glow. We came to a door marked “STAFF ONLY,” and he scanned us in. The door closed behind me with a click. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled at the sound.
The lab had solid walls, to keep conservatory guests from seeing into it, but the ceiling was glass just like in the rest of the place. The room was dark, lit by the moon and the light coming from a caterpillar incubator.
“So, where’s this spectacular butterfly you just had to show me, Shy?” I asked. I shoved my hands into my pockets. In my left hand I clutched at a firecracker; in my right, a lighter.
“Before I show you, I want you to see something else…” He reached into his pants.
“Now hang on, mister!” I barked. I pulled the firecracker and lighter out of my pockets. Shy’s eyes widened.
“That’ll be perfect,” he said, almost giddy. He pulled something out of his pants—a bouncy ball?—and casually tossed it at the floor between us. Instead of bouncing, it spread out in a wide, flat circle. As I stared at it, the circle flashed, and suddenly it was reflecting the night sky above us.
“Throw your fire cracker into it!” Shy urged.
“Into it?” I asked.
“Trust me, Blue.” He flashed a wide, confident smile. All traces of his earlier nervousness seemed to have vanished. I lit the fire cracker, dropped it onto the circle, and ran for cover. Shy laughed when he saw me run.
“Look up, look up!” He said. I looked up towards the glass ceiling and braced for the firecracker to go off at Shy’s feet.
And then I saw it exploding in the sky above the conservatory.
Shy laughed a hearty belly laugh. “Boom!” He said and cheered. “Try another one.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, but my hands moved on their own. I lit a second fire cracker. This time I watched as it fell from my hand and through the circle on the ground. The explosive detonated in the impossible space below the floor, and the room around me lit up with the light of the blast above it.
I lit another one. And another one. And another one.
Me and Shy stood in the lab of the butterfly conservatory, laughing and lighting fireworks until I ran out. In that moment I knew that I would follow him anywhere. I didn’t love him—didn’t think I ever would in the slightest—but I knew that wherever he went, adventure would follow.
And I’d been thinking of quitting my job at the explosives factory, anyway.
That’s how I wound up on his train with him. Turns out he worked at the conservatory and on a train. I never really understood what he did on the train; I was just happy to see the world. We’d stop at a station, he’d disappear for the day, I’d explore the local area, and at the end of the day we’d meet back on the train and be on our way.
It was nice. We made each other laugh. He’d cook me recipes he’d learned from his mother, and I’d tell him stories about my time at the factory. We were on a big adventure, and I’d never been happier.
Until the night he came back to the train soaking wet and covered in wounds.
“It’s nothing, Blue,” he said. He tried to sound casual, but I could tell he was barely managing the pain.
“This isn’t nothing, your arm is almost completely shredded. Let me look at it.” He backed away, but I followed him and took hold of his arm. He winced. The arm was covered in deep cuts that oozed dark blood. When I got a closer look, though, I noticed something else in the cuts. I felt my stomach turn over. “Shy, you’ve got… Are those roots under your skin?”
Shy grunted and pushed me away. I stumbled back and watched him bury his hand in his pocket. He took out something small and pink, which he put on the back of his tongue and swallowed.
“Hey, mister,” I said, voice trembling. “What’s the big idea, huh?”
And then the floor disappeared beneath me.
I had the wind knocked out of me when I landed flat on my back, ten feet beneath the floor of the train car. The surface beneath me was cold and wet. It felt like stone. I stared up at Shy’s face peering through the portal. He looked like he was going to cry.
“I’m sorry, Blue,” he said. The portal closed. I was alone.
“Are you shitting me, Shy?” I shouted at the spot on the ceiling where the portal had been. My head was spinning. “Are you shitting me?!” I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
What just happened? Where was I? Why did he send me here?
I sat on the hard ground until I caught my breath, then stood slowly, wincing as the pain in my back sent sparks through my body. It looked like I was in some kind of cage, or a holding cell. The walls, floor, and ceiling were made of concrete, and the light in there was pretty dim. There were light strips on the floors by the walls, and some of the walls had deep scratch marks on them.
And there was no door.
“Are you…” I started to say again. “Are you shitting…” I felt lightheaded and the room began to spin. And then it hit me: Shy must have planned this a long time ago. The hot pain in my back turned to ice as my eyes traced the lines of the scratches on the walls.
I wasn’t the first person to see the inside of this room.
Shy had sent someone here before—or something, if I had to guess based on the size of those marks. Had he just been waiting for the right time? When he got bored with me, was he going to trap me here, like an animal? Maybe even with an animal? What was this, Danielle in the lion’s den?
The questions came faster and faster, and I realized I was having a panic attack.
I leaned my back against the wall and slowly slid down it until I could feel the ground beneath my butt. I closed my eyes and took a slow, deep breath, holding it in, feeling my heartbeat in my ears.
“FUCK YOU, SHAYAN KAHREE,” I screamed, letting out all the air in my lungs.
And, wouldn’t you know? That helped a little bit.
I tried to remember the check list I’d learned to help ground myself during an episode.
Five things I could see.
The scuff marks on my boots. The light strip on the other side of the room. The bumps and cracks in the floor on my right. A set of claw marks on the wall to my left. A second set of claw marks on the wall to my left.
Four things I could feel.
The roughness of the ground under my hands. The pain in my back. The firecrackers I always keep in my left pocket. The lighter I always keep in my right pocket…
I didn’t finish the checklist (which was probably for the best: What was I supposed to taste in that place?)—there was something else in my right pocket. Something I didn’t put there.
A handful of Shy’s portal drops.
He must’ve snuck them in there when I was distracted by all the cuts on his arm… He’d sent me here, but he hadn’t trapped me here. And suddenly, all my rage felt premature.
I mean, yeah, it sucked that he’d tricked me into a weird pocket dimension, but clearly there was more to the story. His arms, and the plant roots growing beneath his skin? The pills he took before I fell through the portal?
Yeah, I was gonna get to the bottom of it.
I had no idea where the portals would take me. I didn’t even know how they worked, but I didn’t have time to learn. I stood and tossed one at the wall. It spread out into a disk, flashed with light, then opened up.
I stepped through the portal and found myself in a room that looked a lot like the one I’d just left. But in this one, the walls were covered in feathers. Millions of feathers, all different shapes and sizes and colors, gently waving on a breeze I couldn’t feel, sending ripples of motion across the walls. As I looked around the room, my eyes landed on a door handle in the middle of the far wall.
“Well, at least there’s a way out,” I said to nobody.
And it was the weirdest thing: When I said it, the walls came to life, like they responded to my voice.
“Hello?” I tried. The walls fluttered with activity. “Helloooooooo!” I said again, causing the walls to shudder even more aggressively. Some of the feathers on the wall came loose and flew toward me. And then more, and more, until they completely surrounded me, like a tornado. That’s when I noticed the room was getting brighter, and in the new light I finally realized they weren’t feathers—they were butterflies. And they hadn’t been clinging to a wall: They’d been piled on top of each other so thick, they just looked like walls. The room around me faded away as the rest of the butterflies joined the gentle tornado, spiraling high into a bright blue sky.
I couldn’t help but laugh. It was so stupidly beautiful and unreal.
“Alright,” I said. “Butterfly room. Why not?” The butterflies disappeared into the sky, leaving me in a big, open field, standing in front of a door. It wasn’t connected to anything. Just a free-standing door, like you see in movies when the main character is dreaming.
“Are there more butterflies in here?” I teased the door as I pushed it open.
Once the door was open, it was like the room rushed forward and swallowed me up. An old lightbulb hung down from a cord in the middle of the ceiling, lighting up an empty chair. The floor around the chair was covered in dark splotches, like some kind of dark liquid had been spilled and left to dry. The air felt thick and smelled like iron.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the chair, so I reached behind me, hoping to find the door. But there was nothing there. I slowly turned around. There was no wall at all. Just darkness.
When I looked at the chair again, there was something sitting in it: a heap of fabric that hadn’t been there a second ago. And it looked like there were thick leather belts sewn into it.
“And we’re done here,” I said, reaching into my pocket for a portal drop. I threw it at the floor in front of me at the exact moment the light went out. I lowered myself through the portal and looked at the chair one more time—just in time to see the light turn back on. There were shadows of people flickering all over the empty room.
I let go of the floor and watched the portal close above me as I fell further and further, glad to be out of that nightmare. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to look down and see what I was falling toward, but I really hoped it was water. Or at least something soft.
I held my breath and closed my eyes as I felt my feet slip beneath the surface of…something.
It wasn’t water. It wasn’t liquid at all. Hundreds of round, solid objects pushed past me like people trying to board a train. And surprisingly, it didn’t really hurt, like you might think it would. When I finally stopped sinking, I opened my eyes and laughed. I’d fallen into a gigantic ball pit, like at one of those pizza places for little kids.
I swam-climbed to the surface and took a long look around me. The ceiling looked like it was miles away, and I couldn’t see any place I could climb out of the pit.
“Alright,” I said. “Time to try another portal.” But the portal drop bounced off the plastic balls. No matter how hard I threw it, I couldn’t get it to open up. “I guess it only works on flat surfaces,” I said.
That’s when I heard a rustling in the balls behind me, and I turned in time to see a dolphin pop above the surface. An honest-to-goodness dolphin. I promise you, I ’m not making this up.
The dolphin opened its mouth and said, “Wish your driveway looked smooth and crack-free?” Its mouth didn’t move at all when it spoke, which was weird. It was almost like a pre-recorded message was playing from a hidden speaker.
“My driveway?” I asked.
“Boost your home’s curb appeal by calling Connie’s Concrete for a top-notch driveway restoration!”
“I’m not…” I looked around me. Still nothing but ball pit. “You got the wrong gal, Dolphin. I don’t even own a house.”
“From flatwork to stamped and stained concrete, our team has the skills to make your driveway look beautiful.”
“Listen,” I said, “it sounds like Connie runs a great business, but I need some help finding a flat surface around here.” The dolphin got quiet for a few seconds. Then…
“Ready to make your neighbors jealous? Visit our website to schedule a service date.”
And then it dove back below the surface of the balls.
I didn’t even have time to think before I felt the dolphin position itself between my legs, lifting me halfway out of the pit.
“Be sure to ask about our military discount!” it said. Then it took off swimming, carrying me on its back.
The dolphin chattered on as it swam, telling me about all of Connie’s services and special offers. When we finally reached the edge of the ball pit, it had pretty much sold me on investing in a stamped concrete patio for my back yard (which I didn’t have).
I thanked the dolphin as I climbed off its back and hoisted myself onto the plastic deck.
“Take the first step toward designing your dream patio by calling us now. You won’t regret it!” The dolphin disappeared into the depths of the colorful pit and I disappeared into a portal.
I must have gone through a dozen different realities, just trying to find the one where I belonged.
Some of them were more normal than others. Some of them even had other people in them. In one of them, people’s arms were longer than their legs, and they walked on their hands while their feet dangled. In another, everybody looked normal, but they were all addicted to tracing the wood grain on their floors with their tongues.
In one reality, everything was covered in grass. Everything. The buildings, the trains, the people, the toilets. Everything.
In one, all of the grass was just tangled-up Christmas lights.
In one reality, juice boxes were worshipped as holy, and in another I almost got arrested because of my overalls. Apparently, wearing denim had been outlawed after somebody murdered Pope Blue Jeans.
One of them was just an empty white space with stained concrete floors stretching on and on, probably forever.
I wish I could’ve built a ball pit there. I think the dolphin would’ve liked it.
I spent a long time there, in the empty universe. Or at least, it felt like I did. You know? I kept walking, hoping that eventually I’d find something, anything that would make it feel like there was a reason that place needed to exist. And that gave me a lot of time to think about things.
What if Shy never had a plan after all. Why did he give me so many portals if none of them connected back to our reality? I thought he’d sent me to that first room for some reason that he’d explain once I finally found my way back to him… But what if I never did?
What if the portal drops wound up in my pocket completely by accident? Could that even be possible? If there could be universes where people worshipped juice boxes and dolphins swam in ball pits, surely anything was possible.
I was laying on the cold concrete floor when I started to feel the panic set in.
Five things you can see.
Four things you can feel.
Three things you can hear.
Two things you can smell.
One thing you can taste.
But there was nothing. Just me, a pocket full of firecrackers, two portal drops, and infinite nothingness.
I had to do something to distract myself from my anxious thoughts, so I threw a portal at the ground and sat on the edge of it with my feet dangling through it. Below me, I saw a starry night sky peeking through a rock formation. I lit one of my firecrackers and tossed it in.
After falling for a few seconds, it exploded with a satisfying BANG, sending a shower of sparks raining up toward me.
“Huh,” I said. “Upside-down gravity is a new one.” I threw in another firecracker and got the same result. So I lit another. And another. Watching the sparks fall toward me was kind of calming. It felt like I was sending a part of me out into the universe and the universe was sending back something beautiful.
That’s when I heard it: a tiny voice in the too-quiet silence that follows an explosion. But I couldn’t tell what he was saying. I tossed in another firecracker, held my breath, and waited.
“HELP ME, PLEASE, SOMEBODY!”
I pulled myself forward and tumbled through the portal face-first, feeling gravity shift as I re-oriented myself. I was sitting on the floor of some kind of cave. The portal closed behind me.
After spending so much time in the empty universe, this new place had my senses firing on all cylinders. I could feel the cool, damp stone surface beneath me. I could smell mildew, stagnant water, and gunpowder. I could hear something screeching and snarling—or maybe a lot of somethings. And I didn’t have time to taste something, because I could see a man hiding behind a rock on the other side of the cave.
“NO, GOD, NO!” he screamed. And then I saw the somethings making all the racket: dozens of green-ish turtle-things scrabbling across the cave floor towards the man.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do. I just knew that in this universe, someone needed my help.
Without a better plan in mind, I lit a firecracker and chucked it towards the monsters. It soared in an arc and landed in a puddle.
Some of the turtle things stood in front of the guy while the others climbed over the back of the rock he hid behind.
“HELP ME, STACY!” he yelped.
I lit another and tried again. It left a trail of smoke as it flipped and tumbled through the air, landed on the ground, and skittered across the stone toward the man and the monsters.
I pushed myself to my feet and started running toward the poor fella as the explosion knocked back the creatures surrounding him. My hand closed around the last portal drop in my pocket.
“I got you!” I yelled, throwing the portal at the ground next to him.
He looked up at me just before I could tackle him.
“Hold your breath!” I said as we fell through the portal.
But it turned out we didn’t need to: We landed in a pile of hay.
“Sorry,” I said, standing and brushing myself off. “I’m always worried those things’ll open into water.” I stuck out my hand to help the man up from his back.
“Who—” he started to say. He was soaking wet and had a funny, confused look on his face. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Missy,” I said. “And you?”
The man took a few deep breaths, and I waited for him to calm down.
“I’m Billy,” he said. “Billy Clover.”