Maybe she’d acted a bit too quickly.
Carla did not have grandparents, at least not any she’d ever met, but from what she’d learned of her family their fatal flaw was a penchant for rash decisions. Her mother had been kicked out of the house for getting pregnant and her father, well, he’d gotten her pregnant in the first place. Then he had to go and die, leaving Carla nothing but his genes.
Well, that and the hat. There was always the hat, except when it wasn’t there, and that was now. Because like an idiot, Carla had decided to blow up at her uncle and storm out without taking her dad’s old hat.
So that night, Carla had retraced her steps and searched the entire visitors’ area of the Ste. Nero Minimum Security Correctional Facility. After checking the doors and finding them unlocked, she checked the rest of the small prison, including the bathroom, the break room, the kitchen, the lockers, the warden’s office, the cafeteria, the yard, the other bathroom, the guard shack, the recreation center, the classroom, the day room, the night room, the hallways, the petting zoo, the woodshop, the workshop, the freezer, the rock-climbing wall, the bakery, the library, the commissary, the conjugal rooms, the storage closet, the basement, the showers, the dog kennel, the garbage and recycling center, the infirmary, the cleaning cupboard, the processing plant, the gym, the chapel, the laundry, the morgue, the arboretum, the reptile room, the various French delicatessens, the science lab, both garages, the water park, the candelabra dispensary, the pool, the audiovisual club meeting room, the power plant, the garden, the front porch, the ballroom, the bird sanctuary, the armory, the park, the rec room, the gravity chamber, the fire exit, the mailroom, the insect hatchery, the pond, the fireplace, the bus station, the nap room and the aquarium, before finally deciding to check the prisoners’ quarters.
Carla always carried mace, but the strange thing was that she didn’t see any prisoners at all along the narrow hallway. Or maybe the strange part was all the rooms she had just checked. Come to think of it, what kind of prison had a basement, anyway? That was just unusual. Her head hurt.
At last, at the end of the hall, sat her little burger hat. But when she bent down to grab it, the hat turned and looked back at her. It blinked. She blinked.
Sure, the hat moved sometimes. It would imitate her movements and open its bun to utter a word or phrase once or twice. But it had never moved without her. It most certainly had never run away.
In school, once or twice, Carla’s teachers might have mentioned object spirits. Her mom had talked about yokai every now and then. She really should have paid more attention. But from what she could remember, object spirits were like ghosts or something taking residence in an inanimate object. Whatever they were, they were super rare, and Carla had listened long enough to know that her hat wasn’t one of them, because it never did anything on its own.
When she picked it up, the hat went limp. Even when she shook it, it didn’t move at all. But she could’ve sworn she saw it-
A feeling Carla didn’t know she’d been feeling all along hit Carla’s mind. It wasn’t a sound, although there was a great woosh of air rolling past her, and it wasn’t a light, although from just around the corner a throbbing blue pulse was shining, had been shining for a while beyond her notice. Something subtle in Carla just changed, like someone had reached in and switched every bit of her out for a nearly identical part.
Feeling tingly, Carla rushed around the corner to see the source of the shifting differentness. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw it. There were a few people around, but what immediately grabbed Carla’s attention was a great hole, a blue gate into nothingness and everythingness. Wind was gushing forth from the hole, but for all the force pushing against her Carla couldn’t help but feel it was pulling her in.
“What did you just do to my prisoner, Hammerdick?” Genkai coughed half of her words. “Only one asshole was supposed to go in that portal, and it was supposed to be you!”
Hammerstein reared up to his full height and roared out a laugh. “How were you going to send me into the portal, tiny woman? You’re like, four feet tall at most.”
“Right, yes, I’m a helpless old lady and all that. Except I have this!” Genkai pulled a knife from a hidden pocket in her suit.
Hammerstein looked at the weapon, then down at the one in his hand. To his credit, his was much more impressive. “What I have is a gun, and you pull that on me? What the hell is that?”
“You know what it is, bitch. Mel!”
On her signal, Mel sprung back onto his hands and forced his legs straight into Hammerstein’s tailbone. The kick wasn’t enough to knock the large man down, but a surprise hit in the back will do wonders as far as breaking someone’s concentration. Genkai rushed forward and stabbed the knife into Hammerstein’s arm three times in rapid succession and his hand spasmed. Before he knew what was going on, Hammerstein had flung the gun into the open portal.
Mel righted himself as Hammerstein cried out in pain. Genkai was smiling smugly, spinning the knife in her hand when-
The miniature senior citizen flew into the wall, the victim of a backhand from Hammerstein’s good arm. Mel rushed over to check her pulse.
“Oh, what the hell, man?”
“I am not some wimp who is taken out by one little knife, prison boy.” Hammerstein tore off part of his shirt and tied it around his wounded arm to soak up the bleeding. It was a quick but well-executed impromptu bandage, especially seeing as he did it with one hand while speaking. “I am a Redshirt. Fighting is not just my passion, but my job. And I have never, ever, lost a fight.”
Mel confirmed that his boss was alive, if only barely conscious, and breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh wow, good news for once.”
“What are you, deaf?” Hammerstein flexed the arm wrapped in his now blood-dyed shirt, wincing at the pain. “I told you, in all of my fights I have never lost once.”
In an instant, Mel’s palm flew into Hammerstein’s nose, already injured from the ley stone Genkai had thrown. Before Hammerstein could react, Mel brought his other hand over in a tight fist.
“You’ve never lost a fight?” Mel’s fist slammed into the tall man’s side, knocking him further off balance. “That just means you haven’t had enough experience!” A sweeping leg brought Hammerstein’s legs out from under him. “If you really want to get better, nine times out of ten you’re going to lose!” Mel punctuated the sentence with a light push to his opponent’s sternum.
“Growing up, I had my ass kicked by my sister, my parents, myself. I know what it feels like to struggle just to survive a battle. And most importantly, I know how to handle losing. You go around hitting old ladies and holding hostages, that tells me you can’t stand not getting your way.” Mel took a final step forward and caught the falling Redshirt by his collar. “Come back when you know what it feels like.”
Mel let go of the bruised and disoriented mercenary so that he could finish his fall into the portal.
At this point, three people and a hamburger hat came rushing forward. Carla tackled Mel with a hug while Rodrigo and Rabadash brought Genkai to her feet.
“Don’t call me an old lady,” Genkai was having even more trouble breathing than usual, but she was at least able to talk. “And you two,” she turned to the prisoners. “Good on you for not running away after that asshat sprung my whole goddamn jail.”
“We figured, you know, if it’s somebody wants to make a mess like this,” Rabadash gestured to the ruined prison cell, pieces of rubble slowly gravitating toward the blue tear in space-time, “they can’t be good people. We’re not taking any chances out there if they busting in here to try and kill us.”
“Yeah, like, we hid out, then heard all this shit going down, so we grabbed this,” Rodrigo held up a duffel bag Mel recognized as his own emergency survival kit. “But I guess we got here too late to help.”
Mel took the bag in one hand as Carla let him go. Both of them were breathing hard and apologizing profusely to the other. Standing only inches from the portal, the light made it hard for anybody to see that Carla’s signature hat was still staring directly into it.
The hat raised its little cartoon arm toward the light, its three stubby fingers nearly reaching the indistinguishable surface. As one finger connected, everybody in the vicinity clearly heard it utter one word, the only word anybody had ever heard it say.
In an instant, the hat was sucked in. And as it happened to live on her head in full contact with her, Carla was zapped in as well before anybody could react. And in just enough time for Mel to realize he was still touching his niece’s shoulder, in a moment only long enough for Genkai, Rabadash and Rodrigo to blink, he was gone too.