Alex Reynard's Online Books
by Alex Reynard
Muffled laughter bobbed down the hallway towards her, but it was the sound of a key in the lock that made Melissa Comeran look up from her magazine.
Sure enough, a second later the apartment door swung open and an effervescently silly bat and chipmunk duo burst in. They were falling all over themselves, giggling, tickling and kissing one another. One look and anyone would have assumed they were drunk. But the only thing they were currently high on was each other.
Melissa's thin tail flicked in annoyance. She watched them from the far corner, peering over the pages she held.
Brandi was in mid-smooch when she noticed her glaring roommate. "Yipes! Were we too loud?"
Her beau smiled bashfully, rubbing a paw through his hair. "Hey, M'lissa."
"Hi, Doug," she replied with a sigh.
Brandi was pouting now, about to go into 'I'm so totally sorry!' mode.
Melissa suddenly realized what a buzzkill she was being and gave her best friend a reassuring look. She knew her annoyance wasn't caused by them, but where they'd been.
"You were reading and we just barged in all loud 'n everything," Brandi said. "I'll try to be quieter next time."
The mousette set her magazine down and came over to pat the bat's shoulders. "It's okay. Really. I don't want you two to feel like you have to be dead silent around me all the time."
"Quiet as a mouse, you mean?" Doug kidded.
Melissa 'boop'ed the chipmunk's nose.
He and Brandi both giggled and kissed some more.
Melissa found herself grinning. Those two couldn't seem to go thirty seconds without some display of physical affection. Their love was like a warm sunbeam. Being near them just naturally cheered up anyone around them.
"Sure you can't stay for dinner?" Brandi asked Doug, barely separating their lips enough to form words.
The chipmunk gave her a tiny, loving head-butt. "I wish. Trev needs me to bring the car and help a friend of his get moved in downtown. I'll probably end up eatin' cheap pizza after we're all exhausted."
"Aww. Too bad, cutiepie." She nibbled his lip, then gave him an eskimo kiss.
He pinched her tushie and departed.
As the door closed, Brandi leaned on the kitchen counter like she was about to melt. She sighed in perfect contentment.
Melissa couldn't help a small flush of envy.
"So," the bat perked up, "what are we doin' for dinner tonight?"
Melissa walked over to the fridge. A brief check. "Frozen seafood stir-fry?"
"Sounds fine to me."
Melissa pulled out the bag and started running warm water.
Brandi and Melissa had been sharing the tiny apartment since they'd both graduated college. They'd been best friends so long they could barely remember life before each other.
Both were in their mid-twenties. Brandi was a petite bat with fuzzy dark fur the color of red wine. Her figure was cuddly and her ears were enormous. She stored the duo's energy. Melissa was a trim, athletically-built mouse with cappuccino fur and curly coffee hair. The quiet one. They were a textbook example of opposites attracting. Their interests and hours rarely overlapped, leaving just enough time for interaction without driving each other crazy.
Lately, however, Brandi had been spending more and more time with Doug. Melissa sighed as she started thawing the frozen sauce packet. Doug himself wasn't the problem. Not at all. The chipmunk was a silly sweetheart with abundant loyalty (and if she was honest with herself, quite nice to look at). The problem was where he'd been taking Brandi for the past few weeks.
Brandi looked her roommate up and down, taking in the pinched-ness of her posture. Her sunniness dimmed. "You don't have to pretend like it doesn't bother you," she said quietly.
The spoon Melissa was holding clattered on the counter. "What? What doesn't bother me?"
Brandi rolled her eyes.
Melissa squeaked at being so easily read. "I'm sorry! I really don't mean to bring you two down, but... But..."
"Say it and be honest. I'm tired of you tiptoeing," Brandi said with uncharacteristic firmness.
Melissa stared down at the frozen shrimp and peapods, rather than at her friend. "...I just can't think of that place without the word 'CULT' flashing in big red warning neon in my mind!" The mouse winced. She'd been trying her hardest all this time not to insult Brandi's new religion, but it was clear now that her attempts at politeness were irking her friend even more.
Brandi looked down and sighed a little. "I understand why you might think that."
Melissa whirled around. "I'm not even saying it is one. Just that... Well... There's not even a real church! You guys meet in the back of some old store. And I've never even heard of Devora anywhere else. I looked online: nothing! I'm not- emphatically NOT- saying that you and Doug are stupid or blind or anything else like that. The whole deal just looks really shady to me." She clutched her spoon harder. "And I worry about you. Like, maybe this is an identity theft ring or something. I dunno..."
To the mouse's surprise, when she mustered the courage to meet her friend's gaze, the bat immediately burst into giggles.
Brandi leapt across the kitchen and hugged her best friend. (Melissa had always loved being swallowed up in those warm wings.) "That's ALL!? I've been worried sick all this time that you'd heard something horrible out of context and were sitting up late, worried I was gonna get snatched away by devil worshippers!"
Melissa was wonderfully relieved that so much tension had evaporated between them. Honest communication once again proved itself a good idea. "Actually, that's part of what's got me so nervous. I know nothing about what it is you guys do there. Just the snatches of conversation I overhear from you and Doug. I know you worship something called Devora, and you do it at seemingly random times throughout the week, and, yes, you do always seem really happy when you get back... But that's it! Honestly, the fact that you're so darn bubbly every time you go there is about the only thing that's been keeping me from getting really scared!"
Brandi's mouth turned into an 'O' of total shock. She suddenly gave her mousefriend a crushing hug. "Melissa, I'm so sorry! I've been a terrible roommate! I just assumed I'd already told you at least the basics! I've been so caught up in it and it's so wonderful. I mean, I know you're kinda Miss Skeptic Rodent so you might not be interested, so I didn't push it. But I swore I thought I'd told you enough for you to not freak out about it!"
Melissa giggled at 'Miss Skeptic Rodent'. It was true enough. Melissa was a lifelong atheist. Not out of any real animosity towards religion, but because the more she studied science, the more sure she was that nothing else could challenge its truth. Trusting in physical evidence and reasoned logic was simply the best way of learning about the world. She remembered to turn on the stove so the skillet could preheat. "Nope, not a bit. I... Well, you're right that I'm not a likely candidate for conversion. But I'm at least a little interested. I do wanna know why you and Doug always come back from there looking like you've been to a carnival or something."
A grin spread across Brandi's face like fire along gunpowder. "I feel so stupid for not telling you earlier. Oh Melissa, I have got such a story for you! Let's get dinner made for now, then while we eat I'll tell you as much as I can."
Melissa raised an eyebrow. "As much as you can?"
Brandi shrugged cutely. "We gotta keep some of the good stuff for members only, right?"
"Okay. So long as it's not like one of those 'To receive the sacred wisdom you must donate $99.95 every month' kinda places."
"Not even!" the bat burst out. "Everything's free! It's so loose; there's barely any rules or rituals. It's just The Big Secret. And once you know it, you'll wanna change your whole life!"
At that, Melissa felt a bit of uneasiness set in. She couldn't deny wanting to share in her friend's exuberance, but the idea that a single bit of cosmic wisdom could change everything for her seemed highly unlikely. What was it? A daily meditation chant? A personal relationship with some unseen sky being? Suddenly the idea occurred to her that she might simply be unable to share this with Brandi. She was not the kind of mouse to take anything on blind faith, no matter how much it seemed to make others happy.
"You've got that look," Brandi noticed.
"That look like when we're watching the news and you see something that makes you smell bullshit."
Melissa blushed. "I'm sorry. I can't help it..."
Brandi nodded understandingly and leaned in to give her friend a peck on the cheek. "You're gonna be so surprised. You don't need to just believe in the big secret because I say so, or because anyone else says so. I had an experience, Melissa."
'Oh shit.' Melissa's heart fell into a puddle of dread. She could already picture a bunch of fursons taking dope, or staring into the sun, or looking into some Svengali's magic picture box, then receiving divine instructions. If Melissa went along with Brandi to a meeting and was shown the same experience, and happened to see right through it, Brandi would know. Melissa simply valued truth too much to fake it, and faking it would be cruel regardless. Even if the group simply let Melissa go her own way afterwards, she'd still have to deal with the rift it would create between her and her friend.
Brandi gave her friend another sympathetic squeeze. "I can see you've got your skepticism radar up. And that's okay. Don't worry about it, Melissa. Devora won't mind a bit. In fact, I'm sure she'd be proud of you for being cautious and for caring so much about truth."
The mouse nodded. At least this deity sounded forgiving. "So Devora's a she? I wasn't even sure if it was a who or a what or a place." She slid the shrimp into the skillet with a sizzle of cooking oil.
Brandi was happy to see her friend showing enough interest to ask questions. "She's kind of a she. You'll just have to see for yourself; it'd take too long to explain right now. All I'll say is this: Solcibus is a religion that doesn't require any faith at all."
That gave Melissa pause.
For starters, she hadn't even been sure if Brandi's group had a name for itself until now. But also, the very idea of a religion without faith? How was that possible? Wasn't the very definition of a religion to believe in something beyond needing evidence for it?
Melissa checked the package to see how long this stuff had to cook for. She couldn't wait to get to Brandi's explanation.
Fifteen minutes later there was a steaming skillet of dinner between the two furfemmes, and a considerable amount of conversation to get to.
Melissa shoveled food onto her plate, then handed the spatula over to Brandi. "Allright. Meal's on the table. You told me you were gonna explain this faith-free faith, so get to it. You've got my brain running around in circles trying to figure that out!"
"Well let me take a few bites first!" the bat giggled.
Melissa fidgeted while Brandi chewed.
The bat took a swig of milk and a tiny burp escaped her lips. "'Scuse me!"
Melissa giggled. "You have the cutest burps of anyone I've ever met."
"Why thank you! Anyway, okay, let's try to explain Solcibus without giving too much away..." All while dinner had been cooking, Brandi had tried to find a way to ease into the idea gently. It wasn't simple. When Doug had first told her about it, she'd thought he was a complete lunatic.
Melissa took a few bites while Brandi composed her beginning.
Finally, Brandi just shrugged. "There's a big giant being who lives inside the sun."
Melissa's fork nearly hit her plate.
"Oh-kaayyy," she said. Sun worship? That's all this was? She'd expected something more... interesting. 'I guess that explains why they don't need blind faith. The sun does exist after all.'
Brandi could tell by Melissa's expression she was not at all impressed. "Her name is Devora. Or at least, sometimes she's a she. Sometime's he's a he. I think Devora's kinda beyond gender."
'Allright, at least that's new.' Melissa munched her broccoli without comment.
Brandi fiddled with her wingfingers. "I'm just gonna say 'she' because it's easier; Devora doesn't mind. Anyway, she's really old. Like, older than our solar system. Maybe even older than the whole galaxy. She doesn't even know herself. But she's, like... the apex of civilization."
Melissa's eyebrow went up in interest.
Brandi smiled with relief. She knew Melissa wasn't likely to believe her right away, so she'd settle for just telling her mousey friend an interesting story. "You know how in your hand right now, there's millions and billions of tiny individual cells? Skin cells and blood cells and nerve cells and whatnot?"
"And they're all alive, right? Each one a separate, living organism?"
Brandi grinned. "Okay, so imagine a species even more complex than us. And they got so evolved that eventually the entire species all fused into one big creature! All the individual beings turned themselves into cells!"
Melissa blinked. "Wait, how!?"
The bat shrugged. "I dunno. Real advanced science I guess."
"Well then why?"
That Brandi did know. "Because they'd reached the limits of what they could learn as individuals. This species got so good at exploring and learning and remembering that they pretty much just got bored. So they figured out a way for everyone to always know everything everyone else knew."
"By becoming a single being?"
"Yup!" Brandi sucked up a noodle. "They essentially transcended individuality. They became one big mind, and then figured out how to make themselves into a living spaceship so they could still go explore new stuff."
Melissa had to admit, she was becoming fascinated by this. "Sounds like learning was incredibly important to them."
Brandi nodded. "Yup. Devora says, once a species reaches a certain point, they all feel that way. She thinks that she's the next logical step in life's evolution. First single cells, then complex organisms, then ULTRA-complex organisms like her."
Melissa was stunned to hear such seriously heavy ideas coming out of her roommate. Not that Brandi was dim, but she'd never shown much interest in biology in school. And these were ideas Melissa had never even considered, as much a fan of evolution as she was. "Are there more of these beings?"
"Devora's sure there are. Somewhere. She keeps floating from solar system to solar system, looking. She says that, just by the law of probability, she'll find one eventually. She's pretty darn sure she's as close to immortal as anything can get, so she's literally got all the time in the universe to search."
Melissa sipped her milk. "You keep talking about Devora like you've had direct conversations with her."
The batfemme bit her lip.
"There's a 'holy book of Devora', I'm guessing?"
Brandi sighed in relief; Melissa wasn't ready for the big reveal yet. "Sort of. Devora has a rule. Whenever she watches over an ecosystem, no matter how fascinated she gets, she promises herself not to contact the inhabitants until someone can specifically ask to speak to her first."
Melissa went 'huh.' "Sooo... she waits around until someone gets the idea to telepathically hook up with a giant being, who lives inside the sun, named Devora? How often does that happen?"
Brandi giggled. "Well, she's a little more forgiving than that! Obviously, someone just worshipping the sun doesn't cut it. Or someone guessing by sheer luck that there's a God named Devora. But a few years ago, a guy here on Earth managed to think up the specific idea that there was an intelligent being living inside the sun, that it was the reason we all exist in the first place, and that it would answer if he sent his thoughts to it."
Melissa's expression was not one of enthusiastic acceptance.
"It, uh... sounds a little nutty, I know," Brandi admitted.
Melissa shrugged. "Not any crazier than any of the other established world religions," she had to admit. "So I assume this guy had a nice friendly chat with the sun-being and wrote down what it said back to him?"
"Even if your religion has a book, I'd still need to have faith that the book is true. That's not 'a religion without faith'," the mouse pointed out, trying not to sound snarky.
"Oh, believe me, it's not just the book!" Brandi defended. "And it's more of a pamphlet, really. And it's terribly written; he'd never had any other writing experience and he jotted everything down in a jumble right after it happened. It wouldn't convince anyone just by itself. There's a much better reason why belief in Devora is spreading, but I'll get to that at the end."
Melissa was curious why, but didn't press. "Okay, so if I remember correctly, you also said that this Devora is responsible for all life in the universe. Care to explain?"
"Oh, not all life in the universe. Just here. On this planet," she said, tapping the tablecloth.
"Well that's much more reasonable," Melissa replied with a trace of sarcasm.
Brandi gave her friend a 'You're so naughty!' grin. "I don't mean like she just clapped her hands and willed us into being. It's more like when a gardener plants seeds. Sometimes Devora finds planets that already have life on them, and sometimes she cultivates it. She found Earth a few billion years ago and very gently nudged it so the conditions would be right for life to arise. She doesn't force things to happen; that'd be like cheating. She just tweaked a few things. Like, choosing which meteors to let hit us, stuff like that. Then she waited. This time, she got lucky. She did her species' equivalent of taking a long nap, and when she woke up there were amoebas all over the place! She was soooo happy! She watched us turn into fishies and bugs and reptiles and birds and dinosaurs and humans and finally furries."
"She waited all that time? Billions and billions of years?"
"For us, it'd be like waiting for a package to arrive in the mail."
Melissa couldn't help chuckling at that. "Allright. So far this is a creation story that's at least consistent with scientific observation of the planet. The question then is: why? Why make us? Just 'cause she's bored?"
Brandi had been getting uneasy, since this was one of the hardest parts to explain and not sound coo-coo, but Melissa had unwittingly handed her a perfect way to sidestep. "You don't understand; for a being like Devora, boredom is literally starvation. She lives inside the sun because she needs energy like any other being, but her real food is learning."
Melissa was rapt. "Like... literally?"
Brandi nodded solemnly. "She exists to learn. Our life experiences nourish her."
The mouse winced a little. "How does she, um, get this nourishment? Is she just watching over us all the time? Everything we say and do?" That was not a pleasant thought. 'Even if I don't believe in it,' she reminded herself.
Brandi put her fork down. "I think... I'll let Devora explain that herself. When you're ready."
Melissa eyed her friend suspiciously. "What does that mean? I figured this was leading up to you asking me to go to one of your meetings. And I'm okay with that. This all sounds interesting enough, and I'm willing to keep an open mind. But I want to know what I'm getting into. You said you had an 'experience'. That... kinda sounded spooky to me, I'll admit. I'm not sure I want to be in a room full of strangers getting my perceptions altered."
At this, Brandi actually giggled in relief. "You don't have to do any of that!" she said. "Most people don't even start going to the meetings until after they have their experience. You can have yours tonight if you want!"
Melissa's eyebrows went up. "Do you mean like... we'd do a séance?"
Brandi's grin was immense. "It's even simpler than that! All you have to do is, when you go to bed tonight, just concentrate really hard on sending a message to Devora, saying you want to talk with her."
Melissa's tail had been rigid with anticipation, and now all the tension left it and it fell limp as a noodle on the carpet. "That's a little... anticlimactic."
The bat beamed. "And that's why it's so powerful. I guess I wasn't 100% accurate when I said it's a religion with no faith. You've gotta have just enough to be willing to ask her to talk. But that's all Devora asks of you. No sacrifices or rituals or penance or fasting or any of that stuff. She doesn't want to control anyone's life. She's far happier letting us choose whatever paths we like."
Brandi's tone got a bit more sedate. "She may ask a favor of you though. A change in how you live your life. But it's something you'll want to do as soon as she asks it, I'm sure you will! I know I did. So did Doug."
Melissa took a few moments to blink and tell herself this was really happening. "You want me to make a bedtime wish, basically?"
The bat bashfully nodded.
The mouse twitched a bit in incredulity. "I hate to even bring it up but... what happens in the incredibly-likely event that I ask and then don't have a dream about her?"
At that, Brandi leaned closer and gave Melissa the strangest smile the mouse had ever seen. A smile of absolute, total confidence. Not the slightest drop of doubt.
She 'boop'ed her friend's nose. "If that happens, we'll talk about it in the morning. For now, all I'm asking you to do is make a wish upon a star."
There was a serenity in her friend's voice that frankly unnerved Melissa. This all made a pretty little sci-fi story, but she was no closer to believing it as scientific truth than she would the story of the Easter Bunny. Yet Brandi's confidence radiated from every facet of her body language.
For the first time, Melissa began to wonder if she'd stumbled onto something serious here.
Her voice shook a little. "A-allright, Brandi. A bad skeptic would refuse just because it sounds so darn silly, but I try my best to be a good skeptic. And a good skeptic always wants to believe. We just need to see proof first. So I'll treat this like an experiment. I'll ask Devora for a chat before bed tonight. If anything at all happens, I'll tell you tomorrow."
Brandi simply nodded, as if it were a forgone conclusion that there would be something for them to discuss tomorrow.
Melissa looked down at the remaining stir-fry on her plate. And for reasons she didn't understand, she felt scared.
'This is stupid,' she thought.
Melissa was lying in bed, face up. Streetlamp light seeped in, just enough for her to see the ceiling. Everything was a calm grey. Her blankets were warm and her pillow was cushy. Melissa was comfortable, but her mind was not.
She laid on her back like a plank of wood. Stiff with uneasiness. It wasn't Brandi's story she thought was stupid, it was her own fear. She was risking literally nothing by trying the experiment her roommate had suggested. And she'd meant it when she'd said that only a bad skeptic would reject the idea out of hand. But... it was so ridiculous! No different from saying 'Now I lay me down to sleep, etcetera' before bed and expecting it to mean anything!
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She had to be honest with herself; she was hesitating out of sheer embarrassment. This seemed so childish. But really, what was she embarrassed of? Her bedroom was empty, apart from maybe a few dust mites. No one was watching her. If she called out to this Devora thing, no one would laugh at her.
And she'd made a promise. To her best friend. Silly or not, she had promised to do it. Melissa prided herself on her honesty, and part of that was being honest with herself. Sure, she could go to sleep without trying the experiment, then tell Brandi tomorrow that nothing had happened. Shrug. Oh well. But her heart would know that she'd lied to her friend for no good reason.
That was what finally convinced her. Not her lofty adherence to scientific exploration, much as she did value that. But her loyalty to her favorite bat.
'Allright, Devora...' she thought with a sigh.
Her lips parted; the bedroom was so quiet she could actually hear it.
"Devora? Are you there?" she whispered as silently as possible. "My roommate told me about you. She said for me to ask you if we could talk for a bit. I'll be honest; I don't believe in you and I think this is all kinda silly. Intriguing, but silly. But I promised her I'd ask, so I'm asking."
She waited a moment. She knew there wouldn't be a reply, but she still half-expected one.
Her lip quivered. She felt so foolish. "You'd better be there. I feel like a total schmuck talking to my ceiling tiles."
Her only reply was silence, and the hum of faraway traffic outside her window.
Melissa rolled over and pulled the sheets up to her nose. She wrapped her tail around herself. She squeezed her pillow in momentary frustration.
Part of her wanted something to happen when she fell asleep. Another part of her was terrified of that possibility.
It couldn't be true. It couldn't. But what if it was?
If all this Devora stuff was real, Melissa's own loyalty to the truth would force her to accept it, no matter how much she might want to push it away. It was incredibly hard, admitting when she was wrong. Even when admitting that meant she was replacing bad ideas with new, truer ones. Even when being wrong was a cause for celebration because it meant she had learned and expanded her knowledge. Rationally, she was eager to be proven wrong. But her deep, petty instincts hated the idea viscerally. It was always a brief struggle to slap them away and let the new information in.
'Whatever happens, happens,' Melissa thought to herself resolutely. If Devora showed up and they had a nice chat, she would admit it to Brandy no matter how much her cheeks might flush with embarrassment. And if her dreams tonight were nothing more than the usual anxieties and randomness, she would tell Brandi gently. Her friend would be disappointed (and Melissa had to admit that a part of her would be too), but she would tell the truth, no matter what the night had in store for her.
Melissa worried that with all these thoughts bustling around in her brain, getting to sleep would be difficult. Soon enough though, she was yawning.
Then her breathing slowed, her eyes fluttered, and she was elsewhere.
She felt herself drifting.
Floating weightless. Her pajamas fluttered soundlessly around her.
There was darkness at first, but a light shone at the end and Melissa realized she was being guided along through a tunnel. The exit grew clearer. She felt like she was swimming, but on nothing thicker than air.
The darkness receded enough for Melissa to perceive that the tunnel around her was actually a cave. Brown rock surrounded her in a circle, looking like chunks of baker's chocolate.
Melissa emerged. She hovered for a few seconds at the cave mouth before descending slowly to the ground. Her feet touched sandy softness, but she hardly noticed.
Her eyes were straining at their sockets in wonderment.
She stood on a small cliff, about the size of her living room. Beyond it was a city made of light.
She was so high above, she could see everything. She had no fear of falling. She felt safe. Below her were buildings of indescribable diversity, stretched out in all directions. Their architecture was not limited by physics: circles, loops, moving platforms, flying trains. Roads like Möbius strips. Towers like glass candy waterfalls. There were treelike things too, also made of light, growing everywhere on everything. They seemed alive. And tiny lights were moving all around this illuminated cityscape. Cars, maybe people? It was like an entire world made of Christmas decorations.
It was so beautiful, Melissa realized she was crying. She could feel the tears warm and wet in her eyes.
Her legs wobbled and she sat down. Conveniently, a chair-sized rock was just behind her. She plopped down with a plume of dust.
It couldn't be! She swiped up some of the 'dust' from around her seat and held it up to her nose.
Cocoa powder! The cave rocks didn't just look like chocolate, they were chocolate! Melissa was sitting on a lump of milk chocolate big enough to make a year's supply of candy bars from!
She giggled. "Oh how fun!"
Another giggle answered. "I thought you might like it, little mäuschen."
Melissa sat bolt upright. The voice had come from no direction and all directions. It was simply there. Like narration in a movie. And stranger still, she knew that voice intimately. "Who's there!?" she yelped.
She felt the motion before she saw the figure come into view.
From just beyond the edge of the cliff, Melissa saw a glow.
It grew slowly in intensity. When the first sparkles of its owner came into view, Melissa nearly leapt backwards.
Her jaw dropped. Lights glittered in the reflection of her eyes.
It was her. From her hairdo alone she could tell, but when the face emerged Melissa knew for sure. It was a gigantic Melissa Comeran. Humongous! Gargantuan! Fifty feet tall or more! She floated into view with a joyful, playful smile on her mousy muzzle. She flew with lazy grace, as easily as an astronaut in zero G. Her hair swirled around her in a nimbus with her every motion.
But it wasn't just seeing herself that so utterly dazzled Melissa. It was what this giant copy was made of. Pure sunlight. She radiated yellow as if nothing else in the universe could ever possibly embody the color more. And she wasn't solid either. It was like looking up close at newspaper comics: everything was made of tiny dots. Just like the immense figure hovering before Melissa now. She was made up entirely of tiny points of light. Like raindrops. Sunshine drops! Tiny spheres of liquid sunshine! All moving in fluid synchrony as a single organism.
The enormous mousefemme smiled happily at seeing Melissa's gawking stare. She liked to make an entrance.
Melissa was blushing a bit as well, because her doppelgänger wasn't wearing a pinch of clothing. Her breasts were proudly visible, making Melissa modestly reach a paw up to cover her own.
The light-being giggled, then swam up suddenly to give Melissa a good look at all of her. She did a majestic loop-de-loop through the air, then settled down with her elbow resting on the edge of Melissa's cliff, her body lying comfortably on empty air.
"Hi," said Devora.
Melissa was too shocked to speak for a moment. Her eyes bulged. Her jaw moved too, but the only sounds that came out were tiny gasps of astonishment.
Devora chuckled silently. This part was always so much fun. She reached out a finger nearly as big as Melissa's whole body and gave the mortal mouse a reassuring pat on the head.
Melissa cooed. Devora's touch was like nothing she'd ever felt before. It was like every moment of calm pleasure she'd ever felt in her life, all condensed. Eating her favorite food. Coming inside after a brisk, chilly Autumn walk. Snuggling up in her bed as a little girl surrounded by her favorite stuffed animals. Finishing the last chapter of a great book. All of that and more.
She released a trembling breath as Devora took her finger away. She felt completely relaxed and clear.
"Better?" the goddess asked.
"A lot better, thank you. I was so dumbstruck I couldn't speak for a bit there. But... Wow! You're here! You're really, actually here! I'm looking at you! And you're ME, for crying out loud!! ...Why are you me!?" Melissa sputtered.
Devora giggled and her tail swished behind her. "I hope you won't think me a copycat," she said in Melissa's own voice, "but I've found that these first meetings tend to go smoothier if I appear as someone my new friend is already inclined to listen to. In your case: you. You trust your own voice the most, so here I am."
"Isn't that kind of like cheating?" Melissa teased. She was surprised with how suddenly comfortable she felt, talking with a fifty-foot goddess. "What do you really look like?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be nearly as interesting in my real form," Devora said. "I'm just sort of a big blob. I'd look like an illuminated watermelon."
Melissa laughed out loud, covering her mouth with both paws.
Devora smiled beautifully. It was clear she loved to see other beings' laughter.
Melissa took a deep breath. "Wow... I'm still not quite thinking straight yet. I mean... here you are. I thought this whole thing was absolutely crazy at first. I went to bed feeling like an A-1 nutbar for going through with asking you for a conversation. And now here we are. And you're a ridiculously huge me made of sunlight, and we're actually talking!"
Devora rested her head on her hand. "Overwhelming, huh?"
The mousette nodded.
"Don't be worried, tinyfriend. Take a moment to get used to it if you need to. I don't mind. I'm patient. I waited a few billion years for you Earth critters to gain sentience. A few more seconds is less than nothing to me," she said with a grin.
Melissa smiled too. "I didn't expect a god to have such a breezy sense of humor."
"Oh, I'm no god!" Devora said with a snort and a bashful giggle. "Brandi explained what I really am, I heard her."
"Right; you're a whole civilization living as a single entity," Melissa said.
Devora nodded. "And more than that, thanks to you nice Earthlings and the populations of several other planets I've tended. Now I'm the sum knowledge of fifteen different worlds. Fifteen! I wish I could describe it. Even if I asked you to imagine reading all the books from every library on your world, plus all the ones never written but only dreamed of, it still wouldn't come close!" Devora's eyes sparkled with delight.
Melissa was surprised at how approachable Devora was so far. Cheerful, even youthful. She wasn't sure if the sun-being was just mirroring Melissa's own personality, but her emotions did seem genuine.
Devora clasped her paws together. "So! I'll bet you have questions!"
Melissa made a 'you got that right' sound. "You may not be a god, but you're a lot closer than anything else science knows of. Just a few minutes ago I was an atheist. I don't know what I am now."
"I suppose you still are," Devora said. Her cheerfulness fell flat. "You can't imagine how heartbreaking it's been for me, watching you Earthlings go through deity after deity. Some of them at least benign, but most of them... Some of your kind seem to yearn for cruel gods. The guilt you put yourselves through, and the hate you show towards each other... Not you personally, of course," she was quick to correct. "And I know some of this is a natural consequence of natural selection. You can't have a life system based on competition to the death and not have some lingering mental effects." She shrugged. "But unfortunately, that's how evolution turns out nine times out of ten."
Melissa tilted her head. "...And the tenth time?" she couldn't help interrupting.
Devora smiled a bit again. "Cooperative organisms. Often existing as tight-knit colonies. They're a much more peaceful bunch, but also a lot more boring. Conflict, terrible as it can be, produces a greater richness of character, doncha know. Cooperatively-evolved beings usually don't get far enough along to produce art, technology and space exploration. So while I'm happy for the individuals from such worlds to not have to suffer nearly as much... if I'm honest, I have to admit that worlds like yours put on a much better show."
Melissa chuckled awkwardly, not quite knowing how to feel about that. She tried to imagine life without conflict. She tried to imagine total safety and comfort. And, admittedly, that would probably be pretty boring after a while. Still, was boredom a worthwhile price for a life where everyone wasn't always trying to kill or outdo one another?
"We could talk about that all night, but you have plenty of time later to experience it for yourself," Devora said.
Melissa blinked away her musings. "Huh?"
"Brandi mentioned The Big Secret, but she didn't tell you what it was."
She nodded. "How did you know? Are you, um, omniscient?" she asked, barely remembering the correct term for an all-knowing being.
Devora laughed. "No! And I wouldn't want to be; there'd be no more surprises! No, dear Brandi agreed to help me by letting me see through her sometimes. We're connected. When she lets me, I can see into her like peeking through a keyhole. I have several friends on Earth who trust me enough to help me like this. Otherwise, all I know of what's going on with you hoi polloi is what I can see from up here."
That was a bit unexpected. It just seemed like basic god stuff to know everything that was going on. "So, how good's your eyesight?"
"Well, it might surprise you that I can't even see your apartment building right now. But that's because your side of the planet's turned away from me. I can see almost everything when the sun's shining on it. I can count the leaves on a tree, or the legs of a bug on a leaf on that tree!"
"...But only during the daytime! Fascinating!" The very idea of a godlike being that was bound by the laws of simple physics was incredibly amusing to Melissa.
"Like I said, I'm no god. I might be more evolved than you, but neither of us can see what light doesn't bounce off of. And I can't hear any sounds either, since soundwaves can't travel through a vacuum."
"How'd you hear me call out to you then?" Melissa asked reasonably.
Devora snickered, as if it should have been obvious. "Because you thought it! And in a way, I can 'see' thought. It's tricky to explain since it's outside your capacity to perceive. Imagine trying to explain scent to someone without a nose. Or sight to someone without eyes. It's a completely different sense. But it's not magic; nothing is. The easiest way to give you an idea, even though it's terribly oversimplified almost to the point of uselessness, is to have you imagine a drawing of people on a sheet of paper. I can see the other side of that paper where their thoughts are written."
"But it's mostly just a blur to me. Normally I only see an entire species' thoughts as a single huge whole. The zeitgeist. All those thoughts, from everyone, all at once; it's like looking at a page covered in scribbles. But when someone calls out to me, it's like suddenly seeing my name appear on the page. I have a point of focus now. Suddenly, your thoughts are distinct from everyone else's. As if your scribbles turned a different color. You were one mouse out of several billion sentient furs, just someone Brandi and Doug had told me about. And then suddenly, you were Melissa!
"There are other dimensions alongside this one that your mind can touch more easily when you're unconscious. Yet it takes a mind capable of consciousness to reach it at all." Devora shrugged. "Excusez-moi if this makes no sense to you, but there's no good way of describing it, other than to say that thought is more real and more special than you're capable of imagining right now."
The mousette shook her head a little. "I guess I can just accept for now that it's beyond me."
"I can show you someday..." Devora said quietly.
Melissa's interest leapt. "How?"
"Well, toots, that's The Big Secret. Do you think you're ready for it? It scares most people terribly at first, which is why I always wait to make contact until life evolves to the point where it's capable of comprehending me. Anything less than that and you're also not capable of dealing with the truth without it driving you shitbonkers."
For the first time in the presence of this beautiful, calming being, Melissa felt concerned. "Do I... have to know?"
"Well, not really," Devora admitted. "It won't harm you if you don't. And whether you know about it or not, it's inevitable. But most people who I leak it to get used to it soon enough. And then it brings them incredible happiness!"
"Hm." Melissa said. It only took a moment of imagining Brandi and Doug's giggling to confirm that. They apparently knew, and they were apparently fine with it, whatever it was.
'My mind can take it, right?' Melissa asked herself. She had a robust thirst for knowledge. She knew that sometimes she'd learn things that were disappointing, sad or frightening at first, but the knowledge was enriching over time.
She took a steadying breath. "Allright. Lay it on me. Whatever it is, I can take it."
Devora smiled and patted Melissa with her fingertip for her bravery. The mousette glowed momentarily with pleasure at the celestial touch.
Devora settled herself in, leaning against the cliff face with her arms crossed. She looked down to the mortal mouse, seeing the trepidation in her eyes. Devora had lived this moment many, many times, and it always scared her. Most of the time, nearly always, the knowledge was a blessing for her little mortal friends. But sometimes... Sometimes they would not see past their initial, instinctual horror. Sometimes the knowledge broke them. When this happened, Devora would weep. She was aware at all times that she was responsible for the billions of tiny, fragile lives living on that blue ball just across the void. She did not see herself as a parent, nor a mentor. Just someone who cared and wanted to see them all find happiness in their own ways. Causing them pain, in any way, even for that brief eyeblink of their mortal lifespans, was crushing to her. Mortal life was painful enough. Adding to it, she felt, was inexcusable.
So, she always asked. She always let them choose whether or not they wanted to know the truth of their existence. It did not make her feel any less guilty when they reacted badly to it. But at least she knew she hadn't forced it upon them.
Devora spoke slow and evenly. "Brandi let me listen in on your conversation over dinner. I know what she told you. So you know what I am and why I gave your planet a few pokes here and there to help life develop."
Melissa nodded. "Thanks for that. I rather like existing."
Devora chuckled. "You're welcome. But there's a reason I did this."
"So you could learn from us," Melissa remembered.
Devora nodded. "But Brandi didn't tell you how I learn from you."
Melissa felt suddenly uneasy. There was something worrisome in Devora's voice.
"You see, what you think of as the soul is real."
Melissa's eyebrow raised. She'd assumed belief in souls was just a byproduct of religion: a way to escape the fear of death by pretending that a furson's consciousness survived after death. Melissa had never been happy with the idea that everything she was would simply cease to exist when she died (in fact, the idea of it was so terrifying it kept her awake some nights), but she accepted it.
If it wasn't true though, if a part of her really did survive death, wouldn't that be a wonderful thing to know? How could that knowledge terrify someone?
"When you Earthlings die," Devora continued, "your physical body goes kaput. But your consciousness- the cluster of thoughts and memories that animates your physical self- still exists. Because it's not just connected to the physical world. Remember how I said I can lift up the page and see those scribbled thoughts? Even if you erase the drawing from one side of the paper, what's on the other side remains. Connected, but in a different place."
Melissa drew in a deep breath. This was heavy.
"These thoughts; your souls..." Devora said solemnly, "...are my nourishment."
Melissa tilted her head, not understanding for a moment.
Nourishment. Brandi had told her that Devora was like a gardener. Why did gardeners plant seeds?
Her fur stood on end.
Instinct dumped adrenaline into Melissa's dream-body. She shrieked unthinkingly and dove behind a chocolate rock pillar.
Devora closed her eyes and whimpered sadly. "I'm sorry if that frightens you."
"You don't mean it, right!?" Melissa screamed from her hiding place. "You don't really EAT our souls? And DIGEST them!? Please tell me you don't!!"
Devora wanted to hug the little mortal reassuringly, but also didn't want to frighten her more. She leaned closer, her expression brimming with compassion. "I understand your reaction completely, dear Melissa. I told you the Big Secret is hard to deal with at first. But remember: your friend knows. And she's not afraid. She wanted to tell you, to share this with you. She must have a reason, yes?"
Melissa fidgeted. Her back was against the pillar and she bit her lip in trembling uncertainty.
Finally, she poked her head around the corner.
Devora was there, looking incredibly sheepish.
The sight of a fifty-foot celestial being cowering behind her folded arms in apologetic worry made Melissa giggle despite herself.
"Darn you, logic," she muttered. Thinking of Brandi's happiness, the mousette cautiously stood up and stepped away from her hiding spot. "Explain," she said simply.
Devora was incredibly relieved at this and it showed in her expression. She gave Melissa a huge 'please bear with me' smile. "First things first. Yes, I eat you."
Melissa grabbed her tail and squeezed it fretfully. "Doncha think you could maybe... put it another way? Soften the blow a little?"
"I've tried that," she said. "I've found that it's usually better to be upfront about it. If I reveal it later, most beings feel like I've lied to them. I not only don't want to cause that feeling, but it makes it harder for them to trust me."
'Fair enough,' Melissa thought.
"And don't let the word 'eat' scare you. It's not like you normally think. I don't just gobble you up like wiggling jellybeans. Remember those cooperatively-evolved lifeforms I mentioned? There's still predation among those beings too, but it's completely different. It's like merging. Like being brought inside another being and becoming the same as them, then constantly changing species over time as different beings consume you."
Melissa blinked. That was certainly less horrifying than ripping someone to shreds with teeth and claws. But she wasn't sure she liked the idea of changing her species. She squeezed her tail again. She liked being a mouse.
"My species evolved in the typical way," Devora said. "And having been prey to some species and predator to others, we instinctually empathized with both. So when 'we' made the change to become 'me', we engineered ourselves very carefully. I exist with one foot in the physical dimension and one foot in the mental. Like Brandi said, some of my energy comes from the sun. But I am also built to be literally nourished by learning. And so I help create other species and absorb them into me.
"Left on their own, untethered to a physical body, a dead furson's thoughts will simply decay over time. Like going to sleep, but you dream less and less until you no longer dream at all."
Melissa twitched. That sounded less awful than just suddenly ceasing to exist, yet simultaneously more awful. The helplessness of it.
"So I make sure that doesn't happen. I take those leftover thoughts into me. I'm like a living library."
"Libraries don't digest their books," Melissa pointed out warily.
"Touché," Devora conceded. "And I'll admit that, yes, I do. But it's an incredibly slow process. So slow and painless you'd never notice it."
Melissa's eyebrows drew down in a scowl. "How is that any different from just letting us fade away on our own then!?"
Devora smiled. "That's a good question. And there is a difference. A huge one. When your souls fade away naturally, they are unaware. It's like sinking endlessly into a dim dream and there's nothing you can do about it." The mouse-shaped being spread her hands. "When I swallow you up, It's your life experiences that are my true food. Seeing the world through your eyes, feeling what you've felt, learning what you know, that's what keeps me alive. And if I simply digested you away, I would be fed, yes. But it would be a very brief meal. What's better for me, and better for you..." Her grin grew wide with joy, "...is if I have a self-perpetuating food supply."
She let Melissa ponder that for a moment.
"But how could..."
The mouse's eyes suddenly went wide. Devora ate life experiences. For that to be self-sustaining, the souls would have to keep on living...
She gasped. "They're inside you! They're still alive, living on inside you!! All of them!?"
Devora laughed in relief to see Melissa beginning to grasp the wonder of it. "Nearly all, but I'll explain that in a moment. But yes, you've got it. I give you a chance to live beyond death. I give you a chance to wake up from that last dream, and continue it in any way you can imagine."
Melissa was struck silent by the enormity of this new knowledge.
"I'm so glad to see you're listening, Melissa," Devora said earnestly. "Some folks won't. Some people only hear the eating part and their fear takes over. I cannot express the regret I feel when that happens. Some beings just can't handle the reality of it. So I create afterlives inside me. Every realm ever dreamed of by every religion; they all exist inside me. There are Egyptians living in their New Kingdom, alongside bits of me playing the parts of Osiris, Ra and others (I particularly like being Bastet). There are parts of me that are Valhalla, Heaven, Moksha, Nirvana, the Elysian Fields, the Summerlands, Jannah, Queltoo; even Tartarus and Hell. Whatever place you most deeply believe you will go, you will go."
Melissa's heart was pounding. "So, the people there, they never find out that they're living inside a giant space watermelon?"
Devora burst out giggling at that. "No, no; I do tell them eventually, when they've explored all they can explore of their chosen place and want to know more. Plenty of souls travel between afterlives, even ones from other planets."
That idea made Melissa nearly salivate. "Seriously!? After I die, I could meet aliens!?"
"Holy shit!!" Melissa exploded. Then she blushed quite a bit. "Oops. Sorry about that. I usually don't swear."
Devora gave her a look. "Do you honestly think I mind? There's a culture inside me who use your very name as a word meaning 'shit place'."
Melissa blushed even more.
"They would be very amused to meet you," Devora teased.
"Just so long as they don't try to poop on me," she replied. Melissa tried to steady herself. "This is a lot to take in. My head's kind of spinning. Let me just make sure I understand."
Melissa ticked items off on her fingertips. "Beings like me have souls."
"And me," Devora corrected. "Everything capable of thought has at least a little one."
"Right. And when we die, normally these just fade away. But instead you eat them, and they fade a lot slower. Or do they never fade away at all if they keep on living inside you?"
At that, Devora smiled strangely. "Well now, that's up to you."
"What do you mean?"
"You won't live forever inside me, let's just get that out of the way. But who would want to? Even I don't want to be me for eternity. I get excited sometimes, thinking that I might encounter another being like myself somewhere in the cosmos and they'll gobble me up and change me into something else."
Melissa flinched. "I dunno if I'd call that thought 'exciting'."
"Change is inevitable, pumpkin. Eventually you come to accept it, and even welcome it," Devora replied. "I certainly don't want to cease to exist; almost no one does. And I have all my passengers inside me to consider. But becoming a new being with a new personality and new memories would be something I can't even imagine. And when your imagination stretches as far as mine, the thought of something beyond it is... tantalizing."
"Okay, I suppose," Melissa conceded. "But what about me? What about what happens to me when I'm inside you?" She fidgeted. "I'm assuming I don't really have a choice here."
"But you do!" Devora said with a mile-wide grin. "You have so many choices it's just ridiculous! But let's generalize. For starters; yes, I do gobble up everyone's soul automatically. It's like I'm a great big vacuum cleaner pointed at Earth," she giggled. "Once they're inside, most beings are content living in what they believe is the afterlife for a long, long time. And, so long as they keep on having more thoughts and more memories, I'll never fully digest them."
Melissa had to stop her there. "Hold it just a moment. When you say you digest our memories... you don't mean they vanish forever, do you?"
Devora couldn't help but give the little mouse a comforting hug with her finger. "Au contraire, dear little mortal! I'd never do that to you. I know it'd be torturous for any being to have their memories fade away like that. Thankfully, information is infinitely copyable. You don't forget a story when you tell it to someone else, right? Or when you listen to a song, the song doesn't disappear?"
Melissa sighed in relief.
"And before it occurs to you to ask me about privacy, let me reassure you 'bout that too. I have so much sensation coming to me at any given time, it'd be nearly impossible for me to filter out a single being. Unless they wanted me to. If you want to keep anything secret, I'll still experience it, but it will be just one sensation among zillions. Unconnected to you."
"I guess that sounds okay," Melissa said, leaning against the giant finger. It was quite warm, like an electric blanket.
Seeing that Melissa was enjoying her finger, Devora turned her hand over and gently scooped the mouse up, making a chair for her.
Melissa settled in with a smile of unmistakable enjoyment. "Ooh, now that's comfy! It's like a waterbed full of warm honey!"
"Muchas gracias! Now, as I said, most beings are unaware of me when they enter me. I let them believe whatever they like, but inevitably they come to want more. And I reveal the truth to them if I can feel that they truly need it. I'm so glad Earth has evolved to the point where I can finally start telling you directly! It's oodles easier and you guys have plenty of time to prepare for it. But once you're aware that your soul is my food-"
Melissa was about to make a 'soul food' joke, but then she realized Devora had probably heard that a near-infinite amount of times.
"-I let you choose what happens in the long term. Like I said, so long as you keep living and learning, you're completely safe. But even with all the people and cultures and realms in me, it's still finite. If you ever reach a point where you feel like you've done everything you can imagine doing, I can make a change for you.
"For starters, if you want to give yourself to me fully, you can. This would be like the natural death of your soul, except you wouldn't simply be dispersing into nothing. You'd fall asleep and I'd absorb you fully. You would cease to be you, but you'd continue being a part of me."
That sounded kind of nice, Melissa thought. Kind of poetic.
"Or I could digest your memories. Or even just a part of them. So you'd be able to experience things again as if for the first time. I could even help you reincarnate. You would lose your memory, but retain the basic elements of yourself, and I'd send you back to Earth in a newborn body. A totally fresh start."
'That sounds interesting too. Not sure I'd want to lose my memory though.'
"Or..." Devora's smile fell, "some people, when they find out the truth about me, are deeply offended that I interfered with the natural progression of things. They believe that if their souls would have faded away after death, there must be a reason why that happens and I shouldn't have meddled. So, I spit them out and let them fade. I don't like doing this. I don't like thinking about even one precious, unique, irreplaceable life disintegrating into nothing... But it's their choice. I don't have any right to force them to exist. And I can't know everything. Maybe there is a purpose that I don't see. Maybe their souls do go on to somewhere I can't perceive. I can't help but acknowledge... maybe I am interfering."
Melissa's tail curled around Devora's finger at seeing the celestial being so clearly distressed by this idea. "I guess you're right; we can't know what we can't perceive. But I do know that... if I saw a book that someone had tossed in the garbage, I'd rescue it."
Devora looked at the little mouse and gave her a measurelessly grateful smile. "That's a pretty way to put it."
Melissa blushed. "Aw, you've probably heard it before. You're older than the dinosaurs, after all."
"Ah so," Devora admitted, "But the beauty of it's still real. It doesn't matter how many times I experience a similar feeling. It doesn't matter how many times I share the memory of the same place or picture. It's always different. It's always illuminative. Because no two viewpoints are ever quite the same. Millions of you could all read the same book, and it would be a different book every time for me because you'd all see the characters and settings differently. Every story has an endless amount of different sensory adaptations for me."
"That sounds ...incredible!" Melissa said, knowing the word was inadequate.
"Oh it IS! I've never regretted my choice to become this form! There's never been a planet I've regretted seeding. I know you Earthlings often fret about all your wars and injustice, but all sentient species do. And you all tend to not see the bigger picture: that as time goes by, you get better. You learn more, you treat each other better. The first few millennia I spend with a planet, the bitter taste of bloodshed always dominates the other flavors.
"But it's always worth it. Because when I'm patient enough to wait it out, other flavors emerge. Empathy, kindness, compassion, selflessness. Imagine a meal that just tastes better and better and better with every bite you take!"
It felt weird to know Devora was speaking about munching on souls, yet Melissa was surprised at how well she was taking the whole idea. She guessed that maybe Devora emitted some kind of a calming smell, or aura. 'Then again, it could just be that she's really sincere.'
Devora continued to rhapsodize. "Altogether, it's a sea of sensation. A soup of infinite magnitude! A pizza with all the toppings the mind can conceive! But sometimes I focus in on little bites of information. Little experiences. Oddly enough, I think one of my favorites is when someone tries guacamole for the first time."
Melissa blinked. "Really? Why's that?"
Devora shrugged her gargantuan shoulders. "I dunno. Why do people like guacamole itself? Or anything else they like? I'm also quite fond of people opening gifts, going deep sea diving, changing tires, most sexual fetishes, and definitely people jumping off very tall buildings!"
Melissa was a bit alarmed. "Oh! Um, I wouldn't think that would be a very enjoyable experience."
"Flavor and emotion don't always correlate, chommie. When someone is moments from death, or when they truly believe they are, their brain dumps a fascinating array of chemicals into their bloodstream. The taste is like no other. Of course, by the time I enjoy it, they're safely inside me."
That led to an interesting thought. The idea of falling and then... "You're kind of like a safety net, aren't you?"
Devora giggled ebulliently. "Correctamundo! That's one of the reasons my followers tend to be so full of life and confidence. I help free them from that most primal of fears, thanataphobia. You no longer have to be terrified of death. I'll be waiting with open arms to catch you when you fall."
The celestial mouse's smile was overflowing with love. So much so it made Melissa shudder. Were her eyes tearing up again? "I... I don't know what to say to that. Um... But don't we, in some ways, need that fear? It's probably our most powerful instinct. Don't we need to it drive us, to motivate us?"
"Isn't your own will motivation enough?" Devora countered. "True, fear of death can drive us to flee from predators and keep ourselves alive. But it can also hold us back from taking risks. Do you reach out for what your heart desires, or do you stay where it's safe and comfortable? All fear can be traced back to fear of death. All of it. Have there ever been times when fear has kept you from doing what you wanted to do?"
Melissa rubbed her footpaws together and blushed. "Plenty." She silently remembered that vacation she'd never taken because the thought of being lost in a foreign country had made her shake uncontrollably. She thought of the hobbies, classes and activities she'd never tried because she was afraid of failing and looking foolish. The fear of failure was really the fear of humiliation. Ostracization. Aloneness. ...Death.
It really did all come back to that.
And Devora had freed her from that. Or so she said.
Having had millennia to read body language, Devora was quite skilled at it. "Would you like to try a little of it before it happens, ma petite souris? A free sample?"
Melissa's ears perked. "You mean, um, death?"
"What happens after death," Devora corrected.
"I'm not sure... I mean, maybe we're not supposed to know. Maybe it's the mystery of it that..." She blinked suddenly. "No. I'm just rationalizing my reluctance now. No cowardice allowed, Melissa." She looked back into Devora's eyes. "What'll it be like?"
She was glad to see her little mortal friend being bold. "Here, let me show you." A feather-light fingertip touched Melissa's face. "Close your eyes..."
She did, and felt the environment around her change. The warm wind of the cliff became the calm, slightly chilly air inside a room. Devora's hand became an office chair.
Melissa opened her eyes and gasped.
A city of lights. Again. But a different one this time. Before her were windows looking out over a panorama of black night and colorful flickers. She was sitting on a high floor of a skyscraper, the room totally empty apart from the chair she was in. She stood up and walked towards the windows.
"Am I dreaming this?"
"Sure are. The real you's still fast asleep, snug and safe."
Melissa looked up to locate Devora's voice. She burst out laughing when she saw a playful mouse winking at her from high in the sky. Devora's glowing face was the moon!
"Hey, I thought you were supposed to be the sun!" Melissa teased.
"I'm flexible," she shot back. "And moonlight is reflected sunlight after all. Anyway kiddo, do you think you're ready to dip your toe into the great beyond?"
Melissa cast a wary glance towards the windows. Inside, the air was still. Out there, she knew, the howling wind would suck her right off her feet. "Uhh... are you going to ask me to jump?"
"Not if you don't want to. If you like, you can just relax and let me reel you in."
"How's that work?"
The mouse in the moon grinned. Her eyes twinkled with mischief. "Like this!"
Melissa screamed bloody murder as an invisible force surrounded her and yanked her straight towards the high-rise windows.
...And then straight through them!
Still screaming her head off, Melissa was barely able to register that she wasn't actually falling. She was being pulled forwards and upwards. At a velocity so ridiculous it should have been shearing her fur off!
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?" she bellowed.
"Chill out and enjoy the ride, homegirl!" Devora giggled in her ear.
Melissa tried her best. The city lights were a blur far below her. She was being whisked up higher and higher towards the night stars. With a flurry of blinking, she was pulled straight through a cloud, then another. She gasped as she saw the sky above them. Pure black, and diamonds...
The invisible force held her securely, even as Melissa felt her speed increasing. Faster than she thought airplanes could fly. She wondered why she hadn't heard a sonic boom, then thought to wonder if whatever causes a sonic boom is capable of hearing it.
"Having fun yet?" Devora asked.
"S-sort of," Melissa replied.
"I don't always do the hyperspeed routine," Devora said, "Most folks just sleep through the trip and wake up inside me in whatever afterlife they prefer. But it's such a dazzling journey, I like to treat my followers to it. It's a pity you're only seeing what you'd imagine it to be like. On the actual trip, there would be hundreds of other souls all taking the same journey. All around you, like shooting stars. Like a meteor shower made of souls."
Melissa thought that sounded beautiful. She was past Earth's atmosphere now, traveling on nothing but aether far above everything she'd ever known. The void surrounded her, but she was still breathing and comfortably warm. At the rate Earth was falling away from her, she knew she must have been going faster even than the space shuttle. "Has anyone ever thrown up during the trip?" she asked. She was fascinated by all this, sure, but also a a bit queasy and panicky. Who wouldn't be?
Devora chuckled. "None so far. You're a being of pure thought now. You're in the realm of nothing happening to you unless you allow it."
Melissa began to circle around the planet. She saw Earth, a magnificently blue swirling raindrop, spinning below her. Sunlight peeked from behind, then began to gently enfold the horizon. Melissa gasped. This was what a sunrise looked like from space. But instead, it was her traveling towards the sun!
The sight was so gorgeous it took a few moments for Devora's last information to catch up with her. A realm where nothing could happen unless she allowed it... That got her thinking.
"What about people who hurt other people, on Earth?" she asked quietly.
"What about them, querida?" Devora responded.
"Well... What happens to them inside you? Is it just... anarchy? You said nothing could happen unless I let it. If someone tried to hurt me, or kill me, what would happen?"
Somehow, Melissa could feel Devora nod in understanding. "I try not to judge much," she said. "There's good and evil in everyone. Across species and different worlds, I've seen it again and again; almost everyone tries their best to be good. But I know that sometimes people's purposes clash.
"For a while there, I tried precisely what I said before, to the letter. No one could harm anyone. All souls inside me were 100% invulnerable."
Melissa snorted a chuckle, remembering one of her PC games that she sometimes liked to blaze through on God Mode to blow off steam. She imagined an entire world of people with cheat codes enabled at all times.
In the blink of an eye, Mercury shot past her.
Devora's voice sounded faraway in thought. "But that caused problems. People would encounter others who had hurt them, abused them, even murdered them. And they wanted revenge." She sighed. "Who am I to deny them that? So I changed my rules a little.
"Now, whether or not you can hurt someone depends on whether they know in their own heart that they deserve it."
Melissa reflected on that. "What if they don't believe they do?"
"There's what you believe and what you know," Devora replied. "Unless you're completely devoid of empathy, and I have separate ways of helping people like that, you will feel shame over something you did wrong, even if your mind has completely rationalized it."
Melissa had to admit that was true. She touched her chest and felt her own heart drumming inside.
"I do my best to stay out of the way of my little passengers," Devora continued. "Unless someone asks me for help, I know most people wouldn't be too fond of an all-knowing being hovering over them all the time. I don't pry. I glance sometimes. But I respect privacy as much as I'm asked to. I do my best to be a good host for my guests. If I'm going to feed off you, I feel like I should certainly show you a comfy time while you're digesting."
Melissa shivered a bit. "Ohhh, it feels weird thinking of myself as food!"
A gentle laugh. "Prey instincts poking at you? I think you'll get over it soon. We're getting close now. I think you'll enjoy the introduction."
Melissa had been looking down at her fur, unaware of the light surrounding her. When she looked up, the sun loomed before her, bigger than her mind had ever dreamed it before.
She gawked. She instinctively shielded her eyes against the light, then blinked a bit and realized she didn't have to. Sol was boiling brightly as ever, but Devora seemed to be shielding her from the light and heat. Otherwise she would've expected her eyeballs to go kapow like popcorn.
She'd never thought the sun could be so beautiful. A ball of lava, bigger than her imagination could handle, red and yellow arcs of molten gases chasing each other across its surface. It seemed impossible that such a thing could occur naturally, hanging here in space, supported by nothing but physics.
Melissa felt tiny.
She was zooming ever closer to the blistering ball. She held her arms tight around herself as the churning lava filled her vision.
"Be not afraid..." Devora whispered, like a lullaby.
Melissa shut her eyes tight as she flew at a million miles an hour straight into the surface of the sun.
There was no impact. Instead, Melissa felt a warm splash as she broke through the thick gases. As easily as popping a bubble. She felt like she'd cannonballed into a pool full of hot feathers.
Cautiously, she peeked past her slitted eyelids.
There was nothing to see but white. White hot burning hydrogen surrounded her completely. Yet the heat was pleasant. Loving, even. She allowed herself to stretch out and bask in it.
Devora enjoyed the wide, fearless smile on the mouse's face.
Melissa curled her fingers through the bright broth. "How much of this is you?"
"Oh, you're not quite there yet. I'm a little deeper in," Devora replied. "Right about..."
Melissa saw a dimmer sphere approaching. It grew until it was larger than Earth.
Another momentary sensation of breaking through. Melissa briefly wondered if this was what sperm felt like at the moment of fertilization.
She was inside Devora now, and her eyes had no reference for what they were seeing. It all looked like white noise at first. Just endless yellow static. But gradually her eyes adjusted, making sense of the shifting, undulating, directionless terrain within her cosmic friend.
"I'm inside you..." Melissa whispered, awestruck.
She felt an affectionate touch on her cheek. "Not quite, dear friend. This is still just your dream. We're still separated by ninety two million miles. A bit of a jog for you but practically next door for me. This is me showing you as best I can what it's like inside, stitched together from the memories and sensations of a million different beings who've made the journey themselves. How d'you like it?"
Melissa blinked, her eyes still not quite focusing. Her head was swimming. "It's... trippy."
Devora chuckled. "Several people have said it's like being inside the patterns you see when you close your eyes real tight."
Melissa immediately nodded. "That's it! I was trying to think of what it reminded me of." The mousette was still moving forward, slower now, and she realized that those undulating patterns were actually folds of... whatever soul-eating space beasties were made of. Devora was like a hollow ball with an endlessly convoluted inner skin. Melissa remembered what the small intestine looked like; all those rubbery little villi. But this was villi upon villi. Like a fractal. Wherever she looked, there were rubbery protuberances covered in smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller ones.
There was either deafening sound or none at all. It was the same either way. Melissa felt herself being drawn towards Devora's saffron flesh. Now the soupy atmosphere felt like syrup or gel. She opened her mouth, curious what it might taste like, but she couldn't tell. It was like trying to bite fog.
Her eyes were wide open and darting, trying in vain to take everything in. The closer she was pulled, the deeper she still seemed to have to go. There was no visual reference in here. She'd seem to be getting to the smallest possible villi, only for them to be big as skyscrapers when she finally passed them.
Devora was amused by Melissa's goggle-eyed staring. "You're not even seeing this place at full capacity. Inside the real me, there are billions of souls, of all different life forms, zooming all around. I take in so many every moment, it'd be impossible to count. Just imagine that."
Melissa's heart beat even faster. She thought of a sky filled with birds, all of them turning in perfect precision.
"So close now..." Devora whispered.
Finally, Melissa seemed to be coming to the end of the fractal. The invisible escalator she was on seemed to be guiding her to one villi in particular. Up close, it was a wobbly, translucent, honey-colored tube. The end of it looked like a sphincter, which was a little gross, but also like one of those volcano-like Jello molds one was more likely to see in cartoons than real life.
Her feet were guided towards it. Melissa held her breath as her toes pointed towards the opening orifice.
A crackling blossom of sensation rocketed up Melissa's nerves the instant her flesh made contact with Devora's. Her head snapped back and a primitive scream escaped her. The villi pulled her feet inside, sucking at her ankles to guide her in further. It was like being licked by a thousand tongues, stung by a thousand jellyfish, caressed by a thousand lovers, cooked in a thousand degrees.
She could see her nervous system. The sensation was so intense, every single pathway of her body's wiring lit up with heat and voltage. Her eyes saw nothing. Her mind was nearly blank.
Beyond the obliterating pleasure, a single clear sentence broke through. Devora's smiling voice:
"And this isn't even the real thing."
Melissa was engulfed up to her thighs. When her private flower made contact, her mind was blanked in an explosion of pure white nothingness. She ran her hands all along her body. She begged to go inside further. The thought of pleasure like this surrounding her head to toe was as irresistible as it was frightening. Would she ever want to leave? Would she lose herself? And if she ever left, would nothing else ever compare to this?
Devora gave no answers, but she did keep watch over the mouse as more and more of her was swallowed up.
That wonderful, unearthly, sizzling touch was creeping up her belly now. It felt like her lower half had been twirled apart into spaghetti strands. Wherever Devora's innerflesh touched, Melissa felt like every one of her molecules was being gently teased apart with a tiny spark of separation each time.
'Unzipped,' she thought.
Despite the 'Pop Rocks times infinity' intensity of the sensation, she welcomed it wholeheartedly. It was more than just the physical pleasure. It felt right. Like she was the plug of an extension cord slowly easing into the socket she'd been made for. Glittering drizzles of touch danced along her swallowed body. She wasn't even sure it was there anymore, or if it had been unraveled into a million chaotic strands. But she knew, consequences be damned, that she wanted this. All over. Every part of her inside and experiencing this.
If this was what eternity felt like, she'd never feel fear again...
The feeling slipped over her face like a blanket. Lighting her on fire. Calming her like floating on the ocean.
Inside, it was bliss unlimited. Like being wrapped in a cocoon made of the most beautiful music she'd ever heard. Like the color gold made liquid and poured all over her every curve. Vibrations of life and love and knowing rippled and penetrated through her, spreading her body out into its own spinning galaxy.
She was dizzy.
She was grinning.
She was peaceful.
She was exploding.
She was happy.
She was home.
...And then she was awake.
Her vision was blurred and her sense of balance was near-nonexistent. But she was in bed, she knew that. She could feel her ear smashed into her pillow; her blankets fuzzily tucked around her.
She felt almost cheated for a second, until her eyes registered a glowing mouse sitting at the foot of her bed.
"How was it?" Devora asked.
Rubbing her eyes, Melissa managed to coax herself into a sitting position. "Is this still my dream...?" she blurrily asked.
"Sure is. Check for yourself," she pointed out.
Melissa turned to look and jumped a little to find herself face-to-face with her own face. The sleeping Melissa had her mouth wide open in a quiet snore, with a little trickle of drool in the corner.
Devora seemed amused. "And the proof it's a dream is that you're still making it. The you in the bed is flip-flopped left to right, since that's how you see yourself in the mirror."
"Oh. Interesting." Melissa barely registered this tidbit. She was shaking. As she'd feared, her experience inside Devora was lingering within her. Like a string vibrating long after it was plucked. She could feel the ghost of that incredible sensation, and her heart wanted desperately to return. Yet she knew that soon enough she'd be waking up for real. She'd return to her own normal life. It seemed impossible to even think about going on as usual after what she'd experienced tonight.
Devora was still a three-dimensional pointillism portrait of Melissa herself, but on a similar scale now. The cosmic mouse scooted over to put an arm around her mortal friend.
Melissa immediately leaned into the hug, resting her head on Devora's shoulder. "I've never felt anything like that before," she said in a shaky, quiet voice. "I've never dreamed I could feel anything like that..."
"Did you enjoy it?" Devora understated.
A vigorous nod.
"It was..." There were no adjectives. Melissa didn't even try. "Is that really what it's like? All the time?"
Devora ran a luminous paw through Melissa's auburn hair. "Not always. Just when you choose to be aware of it. But yes, that is what it feels like to be my nourishment. You can feel that any time you please. Though mostly your mind will be in whatever world you choose to inhabit at the moment. Learning, experiencing, meeting other passengers, making new friends."
"For as long as I want?" Melissa asked, barely believing it could be true.
"As long as you want."
"Is there..." Melissa's head slipped down to Devora's lap, looking up into her own face. "I mean, it seems too good to be true. Like, at first I was wary of the idea of me essentially being your snack. But just getting a moment of what it felt like... It's worth it. Anything. Even if you digested me in a handful of minutes, just to feel that again, it'd be worth it. And you say you'll take care of me and let me explore this mindscape inside you and... I almost feel like I ought to do more to deserve that."
Devora laughed softly. "I told you, I'm not a god who needs your worship or your praise. You don't have to do any dances, sing hymns or wave your hands at the sky. Though if you want to do something for me, there is one thing I often ask my followers..."
"What?" Melissa asked urgently.
Devora 'boop'ed her nose. "You don't have to join Brandi and Doug's 'church' if it doesn't suit you, but you can do what they do nonetheless. I've told you about all the wonderful flavors your experiences give me. So if you really want to do something for me, live fully. Live unafraid. Try everything that tickles at your heart. Try things that scare the bejeepers out of you.
"...Though not too scary," she corrected herself. "I know some of my mortal friends are so excited about the idea of feeding me, they want to 86 themselves right away. But unless you truly, desperately need to escape from this life, I'm a strictly no-sacrifice-or-suicide deity."
"Why's that? And I thought you just said you weren't a deity?"
"Oh, I'm definitely not. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy having religions springing up about me here and there." Devora blushed a little, trying not to sound conceited. "Like you wouldn't enjoy all that attention?"
Melissa nodded bashfully, trying to picture herself on a throne surrounded by kneeling acolytes.
"As to your other question about suicide, it's not that I disapprove for any moral reasons. Other than wanting to see all my mortal friends live as long and full a life as possible. But if it ends prematurely... Well, you wouldn't want to eat bread that's not finished baking, would you?"
"Good point," Melissa admitted.
"If someone dies early, by accident, there's nothing I can do about that. C'est la vie. But I'd certainly prefer my mealfriends to stick around and reach their full potential, even when it gets rough for them." She smiled humbly. "My Earth followers tend to call themselves Ingredients. They honor me by living fully and fearlessly. And their term for this, is seasoning themselves."
Melissa guffawed. She imagined shaking spices in her hair, or rolling in salt and pepper. But it made sense too.
"Do you think you might like to season yourself, Melissa?" Devora asked warmly.
The mousette took in a deep breath and just thought about it.
Seasoning herself. What did she taste like now? Bland, maybe. She hadn't really lived as much as she'd always wanted too. She was, admittedly, a living stereotype of the timid little mouse. She envied Brandi, who never seemed to let the world make her afraid. And even less so since recently.
'Could I be like her?' Melissa asked herself. Now that she knew the safety net was there, could she let herself stand up on the tightrope, and maybe even dance?
"I'll try," she told Devora.
The cosmic mouse hugged Melissa again. "Thank you. I don't require it of anyone. And it's not only for my own sake just to get extra-tasty snacks."
"I honestly want you to be happy too," she continued. "You and all the lives I watch over. I've never seen a reason why you can't be. No matter how much you mortals tend to convince yourselves that there's a set amount of misery and drudgery and fear you simply have to put up with... I see you Earthlings make life better and better for yourselves as each generation learns from the last. The more you help each other, the higher you're all lifted. Yet you still have your old, moldy instincts. Narrowing your vision. Making you see past the good and focus on the worst. I do my best to free you from that once you're with me. But if I can help free you of at least a bit of that while you're still living... It's my honor, yakiri."
Melissa closed her eyes. "Thank you."
"Thank you too, Melissa. For opening yourself to the possibility of me. For showing me trust. For listening. And for being willing to 'season yourself' for me. I hope you enjoy it." She had another thought and looked the mousefemme in the eyes. "And don't ever worry about whether something you want to do will taste good or not. Don't get hung up on that. If it's someone I like discovering something new, that's pretty much guaranteed to be delicious."
Melissa's tail flicked back and forth as she giggled and squeezed Devora. "I'll keep that in mind. " She exhaled, finally starting to feel a bit exhausted from the night's mental journey. "What now?"
Devora cocked her head. "Well... you can go back to your normal dreams if you like. Or we can talk a bit more."
That sparked a question. "Is, um, is this like a one-time thing? Or can I 'call you' again if I need to?"
A big smile. "Sure you can, tomodachi! Now that we're connected, we can chat as much as you like."
"I wouldn't be bothering you?" Melissa asked bashfully.
Devora literally handwaved the notion. "Naaah. Even with all the stuff goin' on inside me at any given time, my mind can process a gazillion interactions at any given moment. I pretty much just assign one of my cells to each conversation, then absorb it into me as it goes."
"Okay then. Still, I'll try not to be a pest." Though of course, now that she knew she had all the time in the world to say anything she wanted, she couldn't think of anything at all.
She did think about Brandi though. And Doug. And their meetings. The idea still felt kinda funny to her. This new knowledge was something she felt she wanted to keep to herself. At least for now. The idea of sharing it with a group felt... odd. But, she could at least try it. And she knew for a fact that her best friend would help her through her unease.
Thinking of Brandi made something else click. The skeptical part of Melissa's mind, which had been taking a backseat nap for a while now, gave her a poke. "Hey, um, I just thought of something."
Melissa tried to phrase it in a way that wouldn't sound rude. "I know I didn't believe in you at first, but of course I do now. But... Y'see, I know myself, and I know my mind. And when I wake up tomorrow, I might feel different. It might be easy to assume that this was all just a long dream."
Devora nodded appreciatively. "You want a bit of proof then?"
Melissa was glad to see she understood. "Yes, please. If that's okay."
"Don't get your knickers in a twist about it. I told you, I don't need anyone to believe in me on blind faith. And while I can't give you a magic necklace that you wake up holding like in the movies, if you can think of some kind of test that'd satisfy you, I'm up for it."
"Okay." Melissa set about thinking of what exactly that might be. If physical proof was out, then the next best thing would be confirmation from an outside source.
Melissa suddenly grinned. "Can you visit Brandi and give her a message from me?"
"Indubitably!" Devora had guessed she might come up with that idea. It was a pretty common one actually, and a good way to prove she wasn't just a hallucination.
"Hmmm. Something specific. Not like, 'Devora told me Melissa said hi.' Something random enough she couldn't just guess it..." She shrugged and just picked the first nonsensical phrase that came to mind. "How 'bout robot teapot?"
Devora snickered. "That'll do fine. I'll be sure to pass that along to her." She blinked. "In fact, I'm doing it right now."
Devora glanced at the sleeping mouse on the bed. "There's still plenty of time before the sun rises. If your body wakes up while we're talking, we get disconnected until you fall back asleep again. Awake, you're not as in touch with your subconscious, so the best I can do is listen in if you let me. But for now, we've still got time. Was there anything else you wanted to ask me? Any more questions?"
Melissa sighed happily. "Probably a few million."
"Well, we don't have that much time," she kidded.
"I'll try to limit myself to just the most important ones then," Melissa said. But then she snickered and blurted out the first thing that occurred to her. "...Do you poop?"
"Technically, I poop bad ideas and nightmares."
Morning came. And one sleepy mouse began to stir.
Melissa woke to the usual sounds of outside birds yelling at each other and cars chugging along. It was Saturday. No alarm today.
She stretched beneath the covers. She knew she was truly awake now. It felt different from before. Even though her eyes were still gummy from sleep, she knew this was real. Her real bed, her real life.
Sitting up, she curled her back and spread her fingers. She yawned.
She looked out the window.
The view was the same as always, yet every single thing was different. Melissa had seen behind the curtain. Life wasn't pointless anymore. Being an atheist, she'd long gotten used to that idea. If one looked at the world objectively, there was no clear, divine path. There was only randomness. Sometimes beauty, sometimes cruelty.
And Melissa had accepted that. If there was no purpose to this life, then she had to make her own. More than just accepting that idea, she had found joy in it. Sure, it was a little scary to some. It would have been easier to just believe in someone else's certainty of what 'the true path' really was. But it was also exhilarating, to know that her destiny was in her own hands. She was facing the wilderness of an unknown future with no guide to show her the way. But that meant she could face it on her own terms, in her own way. It was her life and she was in control.
Now though... She knew that wasn't quite true either. There was a purpose and a path. Yet it was still hers too. Devora only wanted her to be happy. She had no set of sacred rules (besides obvious decency to others). She had no master plan. Melissa was still the captain of her own life. She was still free to steer herself in whatever direction she chose. And she was still free to fail.
Oddly enough, that was the most reassuring thing to her. She could screw up, and no one would help her to her feet. She still had the responsibility of being an adult and standing back up on her own.
But she knew now that failure wasn't the scariest thing in the world. If she messed up so bad it cost her her life... it didn't mean oblivion anymore.
She was still free to fail, but she could do it with far less fear now. And, she thought, that likely meant a much greater chance at succeeding.
"Fortune favors the bold," she whispered to herself. "Or maybe it should be 'flavors'." She laughed.
Judging by the smell of coffee, Brandi was awake too. Melissa stood up, popped her joints and wriggled into her robe. It seemed especially comfy this morning.
When she opened her bedroom door, she heard Brandi jump up right away. Before she could even get to the kitchen, an eager bat was in her way.
"ROBOT TEAPOT!!!" Brandi burst out gleefully, and dove at her best friend in a piledriving hug.
Melissa hugged back and smiled ear to ear. She already knew her experience with Devora was real. But it was good to have confirmation nonetheless.
The batfemme was trembling with happiness. Melissa even felt tears trickling through her shoulderfur. "I told you!" Brandi exploded. "Aren't you glad you listened to me? Wasn't she great? Did she look just like you, or was she me for you too?"
"Okay," Brandi said. She gave Melissa an extra squeeze, then stepped back to see the changed look in her roommate's eyes. "I'm so happy for you. Do you think maybe you'll wanna come with me 'n Doug to the meetings now?"
Melissa flinched a bit and started nudging her way towards the bathroom. "Maybe. We'll see. For now I'm still just getting used to the idea that we're both pizza toppings for a galactic thought entity."
Brandi cackled. "Yeah, ain't it great?"
Melissa ducked into the bathroom and just as she shut the door, called out, "I'll bet your life experiences taste like anchovies!"
"They do NOT!" Brandi burst out, nearly falling over laughing.