THE MANDATORY SIX, Part One: Ella Wen 9/16 | 10:30 p.m.

Meeting up to watch for possible news of a devastating earthquake wasn’t a typical date, but Ella was bored, and opportunities to hang out with D-list actors didn’t come along every day. Maybe Daniel had producer friends who could get her on a reality show. Even better, maybe she already was on a reality show.

She did a check in the bathroom mirror. A single swipe of thick black eyeliner. A bit of contour and highlight. Some clear gloss. She liked to keep things simple. This was technically a pajama party, so she chose her flowy golden pants and a designer tank top. The gold looked pretty in the artificial sunlight from the little bulbs above the mirror. She had them all over the apartment because they supposedly helped with depression and sleep cycles and all that, but she’d still been staying up until six every morning. At least last night, it was for an interesting reason.

It all started around 1:32 a.m. with four simple words.

Daniel:  David Youngstone came back.

She’d been halfway through a bottle of expensive champagne, and the sound of her “Hah!” echoed through the apartment. Drunken Ella had been even more determined to believe this whole thing was a prank, especially once she’d realized Daniel Hale was the same guy from those ridiculous crocodile horror movies.

Daniel:  He came back through time because whatever you were planning on doing, it doesn’t work. You can’t do whatever you did. You need to do something different to save Jasmine.

Ella:  I’m not planning anything. How can I not do what I did when I didn’t do anything?

Daniel:  You haven’t done anything YET. He came back to change whatever you would’ve done if he hadn’t sent me to stop you. He said Noland needs to help Jasmine. He’s gonna try to go to Pasadena the day she dies. We need to stop him.

Ella:  Who the FUCK is Noland? I’m too drunk for this shit.

Their chat had continued, and somehow, over the hours, and in between arguing and obsessing about David Youngstone and his multiple supernatural visits, she’d spilled her guts about her financial problems and obsessive shopping sprees. Daniel didn’t judge her on any of it. He was a good texter, and funny, too. They’d typed many a LOL before finally crashing around sunrise.

She’d woken up today in the middle of the afternoon with a headache and more texts waiting for her, including an embedded video.

Daniel: Someone who was there uploaded this.

MAN FROM FUTURE PULLED THROUGH PORTAL, it was called. Its shaky footage depicted a city street at night, darting about as a woman screeched and some guy yelled “what was that?” again and again. There were other sounds, too, like the roar of some sort of animal and another man’s shout.

The camera focused on a glob of something in the air near the street lamp. It was hovering there, spinning in place, growing smaller with every rotation, and then it was gone. The end of the video went on to show a dazed-looking Daniel Hale and a few other eyewitnesses describing what they’d seen.

Ella:  Special effects are good. But it just looks like some gunk. I don’t see a portal or a man.

Daniel:  I know. They didn’t catch it in time.

Ella:  How convenient.

Daniel:  He said the earthquake would happen tomorrow. Do you want to maybe come over tonight? Once the clock strikes midnight, we can watch the news and see. Plus … I really enjoyed talking last night.

Ella: Well, it’s supposed to happen on the 17th. That could be anytime in the following 24 hours.

Daniel:  You can hang out here for that long if you want. I’ll take the couch. Or you can just come the next morning. Or I could come there. Or not. Whatever.

Ella:  You provide the food and beverages?

Daniel:  Sure. I’ll order whatever you want.

That was all the motivation she needed.

Ella:  Then I’ll come to you. 24 hours. Unless you decide you want to throw me out.  

 

His apartment was upstairs in a small, quiet complex in Glendale. Daniel met her at the door. He wasn’t what you’d call unattractive, but he was no David Youngstone. Still, he gave her a nice hug, and he didn’t smell terrible.

His place was clean with decent masculine décor. A succulent plant and stone garden sat in the center of a glass coffee table. A carved swirl of dark wood hung on the wall.

She took a seat on the couch as he got her a beer. He skipped one himself, claiming this whole thing had sobered him up.

“Everything’s changed now,” he said. “I’ve changed. You can’t see something like that and not change.”

They got set up with their laptops on his coffee table, seismology websites open, the news on mute on the TV in front of them as soft piano music accompanied them in the background.

“You’re classier than I imagined,” she said, nodding and looking around. “It’s nice.”

“Thanks?” He watched her take a sip from her beer. “You don’t think it’s really gonna happen, do you?”

She gave him a sideways look. “Are you implying I’d come over for some other reason?”

“Can’t think of one more interesting.”

She snickered. He was right, and despite what looked like a pair of kissable lips and pleasantly sparse facial hair, she restrained herself. If they screwed right away, she might face all sorts of disappointments in the aftermath—not to mention during or even before. Plus, she liked him. What if he could be an actual friend?

“You’re an actor,” she said. “So, I guess you can understand why it’s hard to believe this isn’t bullshit.”

“I barely count as an actor. I’m a comedian, and I’m not famous.”

“I knew who you were.”

“The first thing you did was ask ‘who the hell’ I was.”

“Yeah, but I was buzzed and not looking at the picture. Anyway, what’s your point?”

“Do you know what it’d take to set up a stunt with that level of special effects on a residential street without anyone noticing? Something like that would cost millions of dollars if it were even possible. They wouldn’t use me as their guy. They’d use some A-lister.”

“Maybe they’re trying to throw me off.”

“Then why not use someone unknown? Why use someone from a cult movie franchise?”

“Okay. You have a point.” She nodded toward the clock on the news screen. “Guess we’ll find out pretty soon. It’s midnight.”

“Are you sure you still want to spend twenty-four hours with me?”

“Gets my mind off the treacherous road back from the hell I’m currently living in.” She shrugged. “What about you?”

“Same, kinda,” Daniel said with an awkward laugh. “And yeah, of course. You’re the only person I can talk to about this. You and my friend Nelson. He witnessed the whole thing, but I think he’s getting tired of me texting him about it.”

“You two have theories?”

“No, not really.” He slumped forward, hands on his thighs. “None of it makes sense. Why didn’t you see any crazy shit? Why just me?”

“Because it cost a million dollars, and they could only afford to do it once?”

“Good answer. Wrong, but good. At some point today, you’re gonna become a believer. So, we might as well start discussing how we’re gonna approach Noland.”

Ella let out a gasp. “I’ve got it. Maybe this is one of those shows where they test your morals by seeing if you’ll go out of your way to help someone.” Her eyes widened. “Maybe … if we help Jasmine … we’ll get a million dollars.”

“If it was that, they wouldn’t do the earthquake thing.”

“Maybe it’s a test. To see if we’ll try anyway just in case.”

“You’ll change your tune soon,” Daniel said, giving her a smirk. “I can’t wait to see the look on your face.”

“You shouldn’t look forward to the mass destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.” She glanced at the television, where a group of political analysts were discussing something the president had posted on social media.

“Is that what I said? Don’t play it that way. I feel bad, I just don’t know what I can do. If I warn someone—”

“It’ll open up a whole other realm of possibilities,” she said. “I know. I thought about it too.”

“So, you have considered this is real.”

“I considered the prediction making me famous, and me becoming a world-renowned psychic with my own talk show.”

“But you’re not really a psychic.”

“Yeah, but I think if I got a convincing head start, I could probably fake it from there.”

He shook his head and sighed.

“Yeah, yeah. I get it,” she said. “The big, scary earthquake is coming. Oooh. I’m bored. If we’re gonna pass the twenty-four hours, we’ll need to find something else to do other than just sit here.”

“We’ll have to sleep at some point.”

“That wasn’t what I had in mind.”

His eyebrows perked up. “Uh … What does that mean? You’re being coy.”

“Do you prefer direct? Okay. How about we use each other for sex to pass some of the time?”

“Um—”

“We know how this is likely to go. The earthquake won’t happen. We’ll see about Jasmine, and it either will or won’t get us a million dollars. But either way, you probably won’t talk to me again after this.”

“Why would you say that? I want to talk to you. You’re cool. As for the sex—”

“Too late.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m already bored of the idea.”

“What?” He let his jaw drop open. “Aw, come on.”

She laughed in her cruelest voice. “Eh, okay. Why not.”

She crawled over and kissed him. So much for restraint. Who was she kidding? She was Ella Wen. Lying to herself was part of the gig.

It was easy to get lost with his arms around her, but that wasn’t saying much. Sex was an escape, just like shopping, but its effects were less life ruining—if you were smart.

“You got a condom?” she whispered in his ear. She had some in her purse, but the more she spent on condoms, the less she could spend paying off her debt.

He didn’t answer.

She pulled back to meet his eyes. They were huge, stunned, and not focused on her.

“Ella.” He swallowed, raising a trembling finger toward the computer screen. “Do you see that too?”

She looked over her shoulder. There, on the map of South America, was a big red dot in the northern part of Chile.

No.” She pushed herself off Daniel and turned around. “That’s not possible.”

He furrowed his brow, dark eyes lit with the glow of the screen. “Magnitude eight-five.”

Her arms fell limp at her sides. “Well.” Her voice was dry. “Guess you don’t have to spend the next twenty-four hours with me.”

“You’re right,” he said. “Figuring out how to save Jasmine might take a lot longer than that.”

__

 

Discover more of the story in BEYOND MY DYING MIND, available now on Amazon.

 

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