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Norbert Johnson had never met such strange people in all of his life, much less two on the same day within the same hour even. Odd. Very odd indeed.
Norbert, with his scraggly gray hair and his rumpled gray pants and his wrinkly gray shirt, had worked at the post office in Macadamia, Alaska, for twenty-three years, seven months, twelve days, and he looked at his watch just a hair short of four hours. In those long, cold, lonesome years he'd met just about every type of human being you could imagine. Nice people and mean people. Ugly people and pretty people. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, cops. Crazies and convicts. Old hags and young whippersnappers. Oh, and lots of celebrities, too.
Why, if you believed his highfalutin stories (which most people quit doing about twenty-three years, seven months, twelve days, and three hours ago), you'd think he'd met every movie and music star in America. Though exactly why these famous folks were up in Alaska dropping off mail was anybody's guess, so it may have been a slight exaggeration of the truth.
But today's visitors were different, and Norbert knew he'd have to convince the town that this time he was telling the truth and nothing but the truth. Something scary was afoot in Macadamia.
The first stranger, a man, entered the small, cramped post office at precisely 11:15 A.M., quickly shutting the door against the blustery wind and swirling snowflakes. In doing so, he almost dropped a cardboard box full of letters clutched in his white-knuckled hands.
He was a short, anxious-looking person, shuffling his feet and twitching his nose, with a balding red scalp and round spectacles perched on his ruddy, puffy face. He wore a regal black suit: all pinstripes and silk and gold cuff links.
When the man plopped the box of letters onto the post office counter with a loud flump, a cloud of dust billowed out; Norbert coughed for several seconds. Then, to top everything off, the stranger spoke with a heavy English accent like he'd just walked out of a Bill Shakespeare play.
"Good day, sir," he said, the faintest attempt at a smile creasing his face into something that looked like pain. "I do hope you would be so kind as to offer me some assistance in an important matter." He pulled a lace-edged handkerchief from within the dark recesses of his fancy suit and wiped his brow, beads of sweat having formed there despite the arctic temperatures outside. It was, after all, the middle of November.
"Yessir," Norbert answered, ready to fulfill his duty as Postal Worker Number Three. "Mighty glad to help."
The man pointed outside. "Simply dreadful, isn't it?"
Norbert looked through the frosted glass of the front door, but saw only the snow-swept streets and a few pedestrians bundled up and hurrying to get out of the cold. "What's dreadful, sir?"
The man huffed. "By the Wand, man, this place, this place!" He put away his hanky and folded his arms, exaggerating a shiver up and down his body. "How can you chaps stand it the bitter cold, the short daylight, the biting wind?"
Norbert laughed. "I take it you're just a-visiting?"
"Visiting?" The sharply dressed man barked something between a laugh and a snort. "There'll be no visiting from me, my good man. The instant these letters are off, I'll be heading back to the ocean. The very instant, I assure you."
The ocean? Norbert eyed the man, a little offended by the stranger's dislike of the only town where Norbert had ever set foot. "Well, sir, how long you been here?"
"How long?" The man looked at his golden pocket watch. "How long? Approximately seven minutes, I'd say, and that's far too long already. I'm, er, eager to be on my way, if you don't mind." He scratched his flaky red scalp. "Which reminds me is there a cemetery closer than the one down by the frozen riverside?"
"Yes, yes, a cemetery. You know, where they bury poor chaps with unbeating hearts?" When Norbert only stared, the man sighed. "Oh, never mind."
Norbert remembered hearing the word befuddled once on television. He had never been quite sure what it meant, but something told him it explained exactly how he felt at that moment. He scratched his chin, squinting at the odd little man. "Sir, may I ask your name?"
"No, you may not, Mister Postman. But if you must call me something, you may call me Master George."
"Alrighty then," Norbert said, his tone wary. "Uh, Master George, you're a-telling me you just arrived here in Macadamia seven minutes ago?"
"That's right. Please "
Norbert ignored him. "And you're a-telling me you come all this way just to mail these here letters, and then you're a-going to up and leave again?"
"Egads, yes!" Master George squeezed his hands together and rocked back and forth on his heels. "That is, if you'd be so kind as to..." He motioned to the box of letters, raising his thin eyebrows.
Norbert shook his head. "Well, how'd you get here?"
"By...er, plane, if you must know. Now, really, why so many questions?"
"You got yourself your own plane?"
Master George slammed his hand against the counter. "Yes! Is this a post office or a trial by jury? Now, please, I'm in a great hurry!"
Norbert whistled through his teeth, not taking his eyes off Master George as he slid the box closer to him. Then, reluctantly, Norbert looked down, a little worried the stranger might disappear once they broke eye contact.
The box was filled to the rim with hundreds of envelopes, yellowed and crumpled like they'd been trampled by a herd of buffalo, the addresses scrawled across the wrinkly paper in messy blue ink. Each frumpy envelope also bore a unique stamp some of which looked to be rare and worth serious money: an Amelia Earhart, a Yankee Stadium, a Wright Brothers.
Norbert looked back up at the man. "So, you flew in your own plane to the middle of Alaska in the middle of November to deliver these letters...and then you're heading back home?"
"Yes, and I'll be sure to tell Scotland Yard that if they're in need of a detective to ring you straight away. Now, good sir, is there anything else I have to do? I want to make absolutely sure there will be no problem in the delivery of these letters."
Norbert shrugged, then shuffled through the stack of envelopes, verifying they all had stamps and proper addresses. The letters were destined to go everywhere from Maine to California, from France to South Africa. Japan. China. Mexico. They were headed all over the world. And by the looks of it, the man had estimated the required postage to perfection.
"Well, I'll have to weigh each one and type the location into the computer, but they look all right to me on first glance. You wantin' to stick around while I check them all?"
Master George slipped a fat wallet out of his jacket pocket. "Oh, I assure you the necessary postage is there, but I must be certain. Here." He pulled out several hundred-dollar bills and placed them on the counter. "If you find that additional postage is required, this should be more than sufficient to pay in full. Consider the rest as a tip for your valuable service."
Norbert swallowed the huge lump in his throat. "Uh, sir, I can tell you right now it won't take nearly that much. Not even close."
"Well, then, I will return home feeling very satisfied indeed." He squinted at Norbert's name tag before tipping his head in a formal bow. "I bid you farewell, Norbert, and wish you the very best."
And with that, Master George slipped back out into the frigid air.
Norbert had a sneaking suspicion he'd never see the man again.
Norbert had just placed the box of odd letters on a shelf under the front desk when an even stranger character than the finely appareled English gentleman stepped into the quiet post office. When the woman walked in the door, Norbert's mouth dropped open.
She wore nothing but yellow her floor-length dress, her heavy overcoat, her pointy-toed shoes, her tightly fitted gloves. She pushed back the hood of her coat, revealing a bald head that shone as bright as a chrome ball, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on her steep ridge of a nose, and eyes the color of burning emeralds.
She looked like a lemon that had been turned into an evil sorceress; Norbert surprised himself when he chuckled out loud before she said a word. By the way her eyes narrowed into green laser points, Norbert figured that wasn't the smartest thing he'd done in a while.
"Something funny, mailman?" she asked, her voice soft and seductive, yet somehow filled with a subtle hint of warning. Unlike Master George, she had no accent Norbert recognized she could've been from any city in Alaska. Well, except for the fact that she looked like a walking banana.
After a long moment with no response, she continued, "You'll find that Mistress Jane doesn't react kindly to those who mock her."
"Um," Norbert stuttered. "Uh, who...who is Mistress Jane?" As soon as he said it, he knew he must sound like an idiot.
"Me, you blubbering fool. Are you daft?"
"No, ma'am, I can hear just fine."
"Not deaf, you moronic stack of soiled snow, daft daft. Oh, never mind." She took a step closer, placing her gloved hands on the counter right in front of Norbert. Her eyes seemed to have tracking beams focused on his own, pulling his gaze into a trance. "Now listen to me, mailman, and listen to me well. Understand?"
Norbert tried to utter agreement, but managed only a small squeak. He nodded instead.
"Good." She straightened and folded her arms. "I'm looking for a little stuff-bucket of a man red-faced, ugly, more annoying than a ravenous mouse in a cheese factory. I know he came here just minutes ago, but I don't know if I'm in the correct Reality. Have you seen him?"
Norbert called upon every ounce of willpower in his feeble little body to hold his face still, hiding all expression. He forced his eyes to focus on the Lemon Lady's bald head and to not let them wander to the box of letters on the shelf at his feet. He didn't have a single clue what was going on with these two strangers, but every instinct told him Master George equaled good, Mistress Jane equaled bald he blinked uh, bad.
What does she mean about being in the correct reality, anyway? Norbert marveled that two such interesting people could enter his tiny post office within a half hour of each other.
"Polar bear got your tongue ?" Mistress Jane asked with a sneer, glancing down at his name badge. "Norbie? Anybody in there?"
Norbert ignored his racing heart and simply said, "No."
"No what?" the yellow woman snapped. "No, you're not in there, or no, the man I'm looking for didn't come here?"
"Ma'am, you're my first customer of the day, and no, I've a-never seen any such person as you described in my life."
Mistress Jane frowned, held a finger up to her chin. "Do you know what Mistress Jane does with liars, Norbie?"
"I'm not a-lying, ma'am," Norbert answered, trying his best to look calm. He didn't like fibbing to such a scary woman and crossing his fingers under the counter wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if she found out but somehow he just knew that if this evil lady wanted to stop Master George from doing whatever he was trying to do, then those letters needed to get in the mail, no matter what. And it was all up to Norbert Johnson.
The lady looked away as if lost in deep thought over what she should do next. "I know he's up to something," she whispered, barely audible and not really speaking to Norbert anymore. "But which Reality...I don't have time to look in them all..."
"Miss Jane?" Norbert asked. "May I "
"It's Mistress Jane, you Alaskan ice head."
"Oh, uh, I'm awfully sorry I just wanted to know if there's any postal service you'll be a-needing today."
The nasty woman looked at him for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, "If you're lying to me, I'll find out and I'll come back for you, Norbie." She reached into the pocket of her overcoat, fidgeting with something hidden and heavy. "And you won't like the consequences, I can promise you that."
"No, ma'am, I'm sure "
Before he could finish his sentence, though, the last and by far most bizarre thing of the day occurred.
Mistress Jane disappeared.
She vanished into thin air, as they say. Poof, like a magic trick. One second there, the next second gone.
Norbert stared at the empty space on the other side of the counter, knowing he needed a much stronger word than befuddled to explain how he felt now. Finally, shaking his head, he reached down and grabbed the box containing Master George's letters.
"These are going out tonight," he said, though no one was in the room to hear him.
Text copyright © 2008 by James Dashner