The two women sat across from each other across the chipped, hardened tabletop inside the run-down diner. Their absolute focus trained squarely on one another, having little regard for the lack of patrons or padded blanket of silence. The ice in their complimentary, yellow-brown plastic water cups had long ago melted into ambiguity. The bright sun presented its light through the cobweb cornered, pane glass window that hadn’t seen the presence of soap in what appeared to be decades.
“So this is how it ends?” The younger Cleo asked as dust danced between them.
“Well, now that’s all up to you.” Her older-looking counterpart replied. Janice's eyes locked onto Cleo as she spoke.
They looked at each other this close for the first time since the beginning of this universe. Each woman managing eternal hate for the other. Janice had antagonized Cleo through various destruction of her world-building or attacks on her creations with Cleo retaliating in kind. Those on Hy Mountain who kept order in the multiverses had enough of the senseless conflict. They mutually decided that a final, non-violent confrontation needed to happen before the two immortal goddesses began hurling stars at one another from across existence.
The beings had agreed to take the shape of a human woman. Neither would come to give ground in agreeing on representing any other life form. The same mediators had offered to assign the meeting location. Janice offered to take responsibility for that detail. Cleo accepted the generosity, knowing that this invitation could possibly become a massive advantage to her victory.
The two consented to a duel of wits, with the winner becoming the sole goddess of their realm. The loser would be reduced to whatever insignificance the winner chose by uttering the word fhtagen at the battle’s conclusion. The mediators explained that they would be trapped in the provided structure until a winner had been determined, regardless of time or condition.
“Can I ask you a question?” Cleo started off the assault, the large orange-red sun shining on the left side of a face that she worked hard to acclimate into.
“You can ask me anything,” Janice responded ready to play, “should you,” she leaned forward to drive home her words, “would be… the better question.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the younger of them smirked with contempt.“Why a diner? Why a diner on the lone planet of an unremarkable solar system.” Cleo painted her words with simplicity.
Goddess Janice became struck with surprise. Of all the possible strategies to find victory, this had been the one her competition had chosen. A question about a fucking diner.
“Why not a diner?” Janice offered with a nonchalant flip of her mocha hand, attempting to disregard what she didn’t fully understand.
“How blasé. I mean, c’mon, you could have made any structure or none and you choose a diner.” The young woman spread her ebony hands with contempt.
The women continued to look at one another, both shifting deeper into the impasse while probing the other.
“I suppose you wanted something grand with a large, Trandilian staircase and sparkling chandeliers over a Ghulian fountain.” Janice offered, maneuvering her arms for effect.
“See, that would have been worth our time together.”
“Who says your time has any worth?” Janice looked her companion up and down. Cleo decided she needed to shift focus.
“How can you be so sure that I didn’t blink you into existence?” Cleo lobbed into the discussion, wondering how her nemesis would react to such audacity.
“How can you be so sure that I didn’t blink you into existence? I may have been here for lifetimes before you even showed up.” Janice parried and countered with a bluff.
“Technically, technically that’s possibly true,” Cleo stalled for a pause. “But what if I made you and just remained in the multiverse background watching you fuck up everything?”
Janice’s face registered unmistakable displeasure at Cleo’s idea as the young woman continued. “Then when the time was right, ‘pop’ here I am.” Cleo flipped her hand, palm facing the diner ceiling as if holding an invisible tray. “Your mommy has returned, baby doll.”
Janice took the bait. The anger of the audacious statement festered like atom fire. “You… are… not… my… mommy, egg-bearer, father, parent, anything to me other than a brash, underdeveloped ‘flim-flam entity,’” the older woman looked through squinted eyes,“that couldn’t even pass through a black hole.” She allowed the insult a long moment to marinate in the air. “I am the significant one in all dimensions.”
Cleo smiled at her plan finally beginning to show definitive results. “Oh, is goddess grandma getting cranky,” she offered with a pouting face. “Maybe creating the backwater dive devoid of any real substance has worn you out.” She sat back with arms crossed, proudly displaying confidence at the power of her insult.
The second of the triple suns rotated through the lower sky casting expanded shadows throughout the empty building. Both women caught the sun rays across their expressions.
“It will be dark soon, maybe you should run away to the Hy Mountain and into Wise Ones’ Grand Room like you always do when things get rough.” Janice lobbed the hurtful comment like a spoken grenade. The emotional shrapnel worked as planned.
“I only did that once -” Cleo stammered before being cut short.
“Proving once and for all… that you’re not a true goddess, only a sham copy of me,” Janice interjected.
Panic fluttered across Cleo’s eyes. She hadn’t expected to be on the defensive so soon after being ahead in the battle. She did everything possible to hide her insecurity.
“I can’t be you because I… am ‘Très Goddess, Extraordinaire.’” Cleo painted over her festered concern with embellished hubris while bringing up a hand in front of her chest, fingers winding tall to a point under her chin as if personal regalia of a queen.
“Well, I’m sure you’re correct.” Janice looked outside across the barren landscape offering a healthy disregard for such a bold statement. “Then tell me this, why did the Wise One’s allow me to create this solemn place for our meeting if you’re so all-powerful?” Janice turned back to face Cleo, waiting for the response.
Janice had clearly decided to play directly for the win. The younger-looking Cleo stalled. This was the question that she feared. Her mind raced for the mental bookshelf for the correct response. Time ticked ahead as she sped read through her thoughts. A spotlight lit behind her almond eyes trickling into a sly smile full of confidence.
“Queens don’t do servant work. Servants do servant work.” Cleo leaned forward on the lacquer table with its wrapped silverware, catching Janice in a true moment of victory. “And, you, did servant work just fine.”
Janice’s eyes widened. No, she said to herself in panic, it’s not possible.
This hadn’t been foretold by the Wise Ones atop the Hy Mountains. She shouldn’t be reduced to insignificance over her own dominant offer for controlling the location. Silence held its breath in the long, window-laden room. Cleo enjoyed watching her bested opponent begin to emotionally wither before her eyes.
“What’s wrong there, did I say something to upset you?” Sarcasm slowly oozing off of every one of Cleo’s specifically chosen words. She leaned in, grabbing Janice’s wrist. “Only one more word and you forever become as meaningless as a piece of rust on an iron rock, right outside these walls.” She flashed her thumb towards the windowpane.
Cleo leaned in to drive deeper her point, tapping her fingernails on the table. Her full lips smiled widely, further insulting the trapped Janice.
“One more word. That’s all it would take. Fht…” Cleo then contemplated her options. Her expressive eyes looking upward in thought. “Or,” She passed through a long mental hall of decision-making doors until coming up to the one that read Nothing More. “I could say nothing more and leave you here in the hell of your creating. Every passing second you would be forced to pray for one of these three fireballs to blow up large enough to engulf your dreary diner within its embrace.”
Janice fought against her newly acquired immobility, acquired at the moment of her loss. She had never experienced an inability before. A new star for an established solar system. Poof, done. Teleport across a galaxy. Poof, done. Rest inside a supernova at the moment of explosion. Poof, done. Her mind raced for anything to counter this insane, new disability. She dreaded the nightmare of living powerless to do what she wanted as she wanted.
Cleo let go of Janice’s wrist, fresh brown dust falling to the Greek, inspired bordered placemat. She dusted her hands off while sitting back against the cracked plastic, red bench. Their eyes locked.
“I’m not going to say the last word, the final word, to give you the mercy of existing insignificance because not so long ago, you told me something important.” Janice looked on with absolute worry, sensing her situation would continue to deteriorate until Cleo left the diner.
Cleo sounded out perfectly in Janice’s voice.“‘I am the significant one in all dimensions,’”
Her tone returned to normal. “And I wholeheartedly agree that you are. So here you will sit looking at whatever creature I put in front of you on this decrepit, plastic bench. Maybe a shrieking Julindian snatcher or a pair of Retre lizard-rock hybrids, like the ones you so very often infested my creations’ dwellings with, or…”
The sudden realization became as clear as the older woman herself in front of Cleo. A thought so profound and amazing that she would relish her brilliance into the birth of the next universe. She savored the idea as one savors the last bite of a homemade cake that won’t ever be made again.
“You.” The words slowly passed through Cleo’s lips for effect.
Janice looked on without recourse. No, no, not that, she thought, anything but that. She immediately regretted every single incident of despair she had created with the blatant intent of causing Cleo or her creations harm.
The victorious woman casually slid her borrowed form towards the open end of the bench. The callused balls of her bare feet pivoted on the broken, checkered tile. She leaned over the side of the single post-supported table. She telepathically caused Janice’s head to turn towards her gaze.
“Don’t fret, Janice. I’m going to make sure you have you to keep, well, you, company. But not the impotent, pathetic new version of you. The self doubting, loathing, insecure version of you hidden deep inside.” Cleo snapped her fingers. Second Janice popped into the warmed seat and began talking at a volume several times louder than necessary for two people in an empty building.
“I am so scared of everything. I can’t do anything right. No one loves me. Everyone is out to get me.” Janice stared at Second Janice as her identical being began the unending, verbal chain of nearly screaming, negative commentary.
Cleo blinked causing her new creation to become muted.
“Now, you’re probably asking yourself, ‘why is Second Janice so loud when it’s just the two of you?’”
No, no, no, no, no Janice thought to herself immediately figuring out Cleo’s chess game. Second Janice continued to move her lips without volume. Her facial expression squinting with self-doubt. Her eyes becoming tear-filled from time to time.
“As the premier, immortal being now, it would be cruel for me to leave you in this empty diner with only one person to keep you company. I mean, look at where you put this place. On a rock planet void of all but the simplest of life under its soil, not of any interest for any intelligence to give a fuck about and with all these empty seats that could be occupied by those of your caliber.” Cleo smiled.
She snapped her fingers three times. The diner’s entirety immediately filled every bare, red plastic seat with Third Janice, Fourth Janice, Fifth Janice, and so on, all reminding each other of their deepest faults. Their conversation immediately filled the silence with a deafening clutter of harsh criticisms regarding all matter of self-observation. Several waitresses began walking from table to table taking orders on order pads, wearing cheaply sewn name badges reading Janice. Each lamented their nearly indistinguishable patrons with cruel observations. Hair netted, short-order cooks behind the open-faced wall lamented their abilities to make simple entrees. A silver bell on the serving counter would ding every 11.4278 seconds with the comment “My pathetic meal is ready.”
Cleo grimaced at the stimulation overload. “Such a loud place. Well, toots, it’s about time for us important deities to get on with business. I’m sure Second Janice will keep you entertained for the next ten,” Cleo snapped her fingers, “make that fifteen and a half, million years when the sun finally goes red giant. Until then, I suggest you ask one of the Waitress Janice’s about the soup de jour. Spoiler alert, it's the same soup day in, day out. Ta-ta, loser.”
Cleo began to walk away, her shoulders held back in satisfaction. She reached the cashier near the front door and slammed a large, gold-bronze paper money note on the glass counter, nearly knocking back a cup of cheap candy suckers. She looked at Cashier Janice manning the arcane register.
“Give the change as a tip to our waitress. I think her name may have been Janice. I could be wrong.” Cleo shrugged.
Cashier Janice looked at her. “Yes, ma’am. I won’t fail like I’ve done so often. I don’t deserve this job.”
“Good girl.” Cleo pivoted to the door. She stopped with her left hand wrapped around the black, metal door handle. She froze in contemplation among the incessant chatter and background, bell dings. “My pathetic meal is ready. I’m sorry for being sub-average.”
Her eyes worked along the concrete ceiling, searching its smoke, yellowed paint for an answer to a taxing question.
“I feel like I forgot something. Purse, phone, keys, immortal ability to do anything? No, it’s all here.” She wondered to herself openly.
Cleo’s eyes popped open with the delight of someone finding a forgotten wad of cash in their pants pockets. She snapped her fingers. Janice’s head rotated back to her doppelganger. Through the verbal waterfall, Cleo could hear Second Janice’s voice take life again.
“What a worthless piece of garbage I am. I fail at everything. Who would want to love me? I don’t value myself because I have no value…” Second Janice continued without pause.
“Better.” Cleo blinked her form out into the starry universe as the overlapping conversations of all but one Janice lamented inside the obscure diner. Incessant bell rings littered the background every 11.4278 seconds with fifteen million years ahead.