Ria snapped another picture on her phone, peered at the result, and said, “Why?”
She glanced up at the food truck that was parked several yards away from where she was standing under a lamp post.
She held up her phone again. The image on the screen showed the food truck, the customers, the servers in the truck, the cars driving by on the road beside the lot, a seagull hopping toward the trash can full of empty paper plates.
She lowered her phone and looked at the scene with her own eyes, seeing the exact same things, with one exception.
There were giant…beetles or something flying in and out of the food truck.
What are they? Ria wondered, taking off her glasses and putting them back on. The bugs were blurry without her glasses, but still present. They reminded her of the iridescent green beetles that came out every summer. Except, these food truck bugs were graceful and quick. Who else can see them?
No one else, it seemed, from the reactions of the food truck workers and the customers. She would have expected someone to comment, or try to swat them away, or change their minds about patronizing the truck.
If she was the only one who could see the bugs, there had to be a reason.
Ria hadn’t expected to stumble upon a mystery when she came by the location of the food truck that she had volunteered to write a story about. She needed to submit one more story before she took off on vacation. Thanks to her solid work in her first year as her publication’s deep-diving science reporter, her boss had let her pick an easy assignment.
Come on, Ria, she said to herself. Third time’s the charm. Just walk up, place your order, pay, get your food, and get as far away as possible.
The bugs didn’t seem to drift any farther away than about ten or fifteen feet from the food truck. So if she got far enough away, she wouldn’t be bothered by them. No one seemed to be suffering any stings or bites, so maybe they were—as scary as they seemed, being so huge—maybe they were harmless.
The first time she’d arrived at the truck, which would be parked in its current location for a week or so, she had been horrified to see the bugs. And she’d immediately tried taking pictures from afar, so she could look up what they were, or ask one of the many experts she’d added to her professional contacts list over the past year. She was sure she interviewed an entomologist in her first week.
But the pictures didn’t pick up the bugs. At first, she thought it was because they were moving too fast. But she didn’t see any sign of them in the pictures. Not a blur. Not a glint from their glossy wings.
Ria wasn’t as squeamish about insects as she used to be when she was kid. But she didn’t want giant beetles hovering over her lunch. And no matter how wildly people raved about the food, it couldn’t have been so good that customers would tolerate what was obviously an infestation or a hive or something in the food truck.
She realized upon her second visit that no one else could perceive the bugs.
But when she got home, she convinced herself that she had maybe imagined being the only one who could see the bugs.
Then why didn’t you ask?
It’s the first thing she should have done. March up to another customer and ask them if they could see the huge bugs flying around the locally famous—and growing in fame—Pizazz Pocket Pies.
She was reluctant to ask.
Because she thought she might know the answer to the question, “why?” She probably knew from the moment she saw the bugs, just as she knew that they weren’t really bugs. They were something else. She was just too nervous to walk up and take a closer look. But she had to get closer. She couldn’t cheat. She couldn’t use her camera.
Maybe I could borrow a telescope, and come back, she thought, right before she started walking toward the truck.
She felt her the forceful beating of her heart and a wash of heat over her face. She flinched when one of the bugs flew past her from behind, over her shoulder, zooming toward the truck, landing on the counter, leaving a trail of sparkling dust in its wake.
Ria glanced at the figure that had landed on the counter, and immediately, her heart calmed, her face cooled, and she exhaled a slow relieved breath.
The figure standing jauntily on the counter, gently flapping a pair of gleaming watery wings, was most definitely not a bug.
She-he-they—the figure appeared like a tiny human being about five inches tall, whose wings must have spanned about twice that length. As Ria watched, the flight wings folded down and she observed a second pair of wings fold over them, hardened and shell-like, shimmering in iridescent pink and purple.
Just like a beetle’s elytra. Ria glanced away and tried not to look obvious as she approached the counter and placed her order.
“One cheese-and-onion pasty,” she said, sneaking a furtive glance at the tiny flying person. “Uh…one chicken empanada. A spanakopita. A pepperoni pocket. And an apple—no, a strawberry and cream cheese pie.”
She paid and stepped aside for the next customer. Pizazz Pocket Pies was so popular that they always had a line, but the line was never long. They kept things moving along.
Ria spotted another tiny person landing on the counter. This one’s elytra were a pearlescent silvery black. Ria couldn’t help but to stare just a bit too long.
“Can she see us?” the first one asked. They both turned to her just as Ria looked away.
She focused on the cooks in the back, taking pies out and putting pies in to any one of a bank of ovens. There was also a stove top for cooking items like gyoza and pierogis.
Ria’s attention was caught by an oven that popped open on its own. She was just trying to see—and maybe smell—what was cooking inside.
But instead of the pies she was expecting, she saw a liquid flickering of the empty space inside the oven, like the mirages that formed above baking asphalt.
A tiny leg suddenly popped out of the flickering space, followed by the rest of the tiny person that appeared. The person bent down and leapt into the air, yellow-gold elytra flicking up to let the hindwings beneath start thrumming and lifting the person into the air in a puff of sparkling dust.
Ria took a step back.
“You can see us, can’t you?”
Ria glanced at the one who had spoken, the one with the iridescent pink-and-purple wings.
“Yeah…you can see us. Wait right there, Miss Human. Mama Xephra will want to talk to you.” The tiny person bent one knee, as if readying to take flight, and then straightened again. “Also, if you like our empanadas, try our chicken samosas next time. They’re my personal favorite. One moment.”
With that, the little flying person launched into the air. Ria reached out with a finger and poked at the cloud of sparkly dust left behind. From her peripheral vision, she noticed a couple in line looking at her. She glanced over at them and smiled. They nervously smiled back and turned aside.
“Excuse me, miss.”
Ria turned around to find a familiar face. One of the cooks who’d been there on all three of Ria’s visits. An elderly woman with a raucous laugh, who always kept a pencil stub tucked behind one ear, or poked through her hair bun.
“Mama Xephra?” Ria asked.
The elderly woman gestured to one of the tables that was farther from the others.
Ria kept her eye on the woman as she circled around and sat down. The woman sat down across from her.
“I’m Amanda,” the elderly woman said.
“Victoria Velasquez, but please, call me Ria.”
“Lovely to meet you.”
Ria held out her hand, but Amanda just bowed her head, so Ria did the same, trying to bow deeper.
“Are you the owner of Pizazz Pocket Pies?”
“I’m one of them, yes.” Amanda, who had folded her hands before her on the table, reached down with one of those hands and pulled up a small silk purse in a lovely red-and-gold rose pattern. She set it on the table. The purse had a snap opening, which Amanda opened wide and lay down.
Ria was not surprised when another tiny person emerged from within the purse. This one was much older than the others, and seemed to be female. Her hair was also tied in a bun, a tiny bun atop a wizened purple-brown head. Her wings were covered with cloak or a cape that was made of the same red-and-gold rose silk that made the purse.
“I am Xephra,” she said, and Ria exchanged greetings with her as well.
“Most humans can’t see us, Ria,” Mama Xephra said. “So, what’s your story? Are you an astral projector?”
Ria shook her head.
Ria creased her brows, and noted that Amanda seemed to stiffen a bit.
“Do you mean…sleight-of-hand?” Ria asked.
“No, I don’t.” Mama Xephra crossed her arms. “Dreamwalker?”
“I’m sorry, no—oh wait. Well, there is this one place that I visit in my dreams. It’s…” Ria hesitated and glanced at the truck. “It’s a diner.”
“Where they serve stuff like ‘kvell pudding’ and ‘half-baked sudden notions’?” Mama Xephra asked, raising a tiny brow.
Ria narrowed her eyes and nodded. “It’s called Thoughtsburger. You’ve been there?”
“They have one in our plane—our dimension, whatever you want to call it. I suspected it might be a chain.”
Ria tilted her head toward the tiny woman. “Your dimension?”
Mama Xephra unfolded her arms and put one hand on her hip, while she pointed with the other. “Ria, are you familiar with myths, fairy tales, fables, that sort of thing?”
“Not too familiar, sorry.”
“Ever heard of pixies?”
“Xephra, hold on. Let me do this part,” Amanda said, placing a gentle finger on her friend’s shoulder as she locked gazes with Ria. “She’s an interdimensional being. Her kind have visited Earth at least since humans have been around. We humans call them fairies. Pixies are a specific kind of fairy. The laws of physics are slightly different in their dimension, but some are exactly the same. And as a result there’s some degree of convergent evolution occurring, I suppose, and that’s why their forms are humanoid. Or they would say that our forms are pixiod.”
Ria, who was accustomed to and even comfortable with handling such information dumps, nodded. “Okay…I don’t suppose there’s any way I can confirm these facts.”
Amanda shrugged. “There may be. It’s up to her.” She glanced down at Xephra.
“Your visits to that diner explain why you’re able to see us,” Xephra said. “Spending so much time on the ethereal plane has stretched your perceptions to new limits. You can now perceive what you once would have missed.”
A pixie—the one with the pink-and-purple wings—flew toward them, bearing a plate that seemed too big and heavy. Ria rose and reached for the plate, but the pixie deftly laid it on the table before flying off to get another order.
Ria glanced around to see if anyone else was wondering how her plate came floating over to her table.
“She’s moving very fast,” Amanda explained. “Too fast for them to see. Your eyes are just able to keep up, that’s all.”
Ria looked at Amanda. “And yours too?”
“And people don’t think twice when food suddenly shows up.”
The smells from the various pocket pies that Ria had ordered wafted up to her. She didn’t want to be rude by eating. She offered to cut her pies in sections to share with her tablemates, but they insisted she eat and tell them what she thought. She started with the pasty, her shoulders immediately melting in flow with the cheese filling. She cleansed her palate with some cold water, and started on the empanada. It was even better than the pasty.
“The seasoning…” Ria trailed off.
Both Amanda and Mama Xephra beamed. “That one is a customer favorite.”
“Is it pixie dust?” Ria asked. “Is that the secret ingredient?”
Mama Xephra frowned and twisted her mouth. “What? That’s disgusting. Why would we put our dust on your food? That’s abhorrent!”
“Pixie dust is like…skin flakes on humans,” Amanda explained. “It just comes off them. It’s not useful in any way. But there was a time when humans thought it held magic, and some huckster pixies decided to capitalize on the rumors.”
Ria widened her eyes and ducked her head in apology. “Sorry! I just thought…well, it looks so pretty.”
Mama Xephra shrugged. “I’m sure there are some peoples out there who think human skin flakes are pretty too.”
In a reflection of the pixie’s earlier expression, Ria frowned and twisted her mouth.
“We make our pocket pies with real ingredients found on Earth,” Mama Xephra said.
“You saw the rift in the oven, didn’t you?” Amanda nodded. “You did. Okay, so Xephra and the gang all come from a pocket dimension. The dimension itself is vast, but on Earth, the opening that leads to and from that dimension is no bigger than a pocket. Most such openings are, which is why larger beings rarely crossed between dimensions, at least not with their physical forms.”
Ria glanced down at Mama Xephra. “So you are a physical being, a corporeal being, not an ethereal one?”
Mama Xephra tipped her head to one side, then the other. “Eh, we’re a bit of both.”
“It’s too bad I can’t write about all of this,” Ria said. “Because that would mean I get to research it. But I did come here to review the pies.”
“You did!” Mama Xephra’s golden wings flicked open to reveal her crumpled hindwings, which nevertheless unfurled as she threw out her arms.
Ria explained that she was not a well-known or well-respected food critic. Nor was her publication broadly read. She admitted that she usually covered science stories, and that she was reviewing the food truck as an enjoyable—and she hoped—easy assignment to do before heading off to vacation.
“Still, we are honored,” Mama Xephra said.
“Thanks, and what I’ve eaten so far is amazing. So, for what it’s worth, it’ll be a glowing review.”
“It’s worth a big thanks,” Amanda said. “Goodness knows, we could use another thumbs up, especially now that we’ve got heavy competition.”
“Speak of the fallen one.” Mama Xephra glared at something over Ria’s shoulder.
Ria turned to see a red pick-up truck pull into the parking lot. Some of the customers who had just arrived glanced over and drifted toward it.
A woman in an apron hopped out of the driver side, then climbed into the truck bed. She opened one of a set of coolers.
“That’s your competition?” Ria asked, turning back toward her hosts, who were both glaring at the woman in the pick-up. “A lady in a pick-up with homemade food? Is that even legal?”
Amanda and Mama Xephra exchanged a startled look. Amanda sat back in her chair, her attention now on Ria. She peered at Ria through narrowed and knowing eyes, and smiled. “You really can see.”
“Impressive young lady, isn’t she?” Mama Xephra said. “Glad she’s on our side. You are on our side, aren’t you, dear?”
Ria frowned in confusion. She turned to look at their competition again, and this time, when she blinked, she saw, not a pick-up truck, but another food truck. The woman in the apron was standing behind the counter by herself, serving the customers. The sign on the food truck read “Harriet’s Healthy Hand Pies.”
She blinked again, and the red pick-up returned.
“The red pick-up is real?” Ria asked, turning back around to find Amanda nodding. “And…Harriet’s Healthy Hand Pies?”
“It’s a long story,” Mama Xephra said.
Amanda took a breath. “She used to be one of the owners of Pizazz. It’s a human-pixie partnership as you’ve observed, I’m sure. Here’s how it happened. Pocket dimensions are usually stationary. But we found a way to make this particular one portable.” She pointed her thumb back toward the pocket pie truck. “To do it, I had to gather a number of people with the necessary talents to pull it off—magicians, alchemists, a metaphysicist. Harriet was one of those people. A friend of a friend, that sort of thing. She didn’t like how much money we spent on ingredients—“
“Real ingredients. Found on Earth,” Mama Xephra reminded.
“Indeed, and quality ingredients usually cost more money. Finally, Harriet left to start her own truck. Fair enough, I thought. But here’s the problem. She stole the pixie recipes. And she’s trying to drive us out of business. As you can clearly see, she is using visual illusions to cut corners on her truck. And she’s using culinary illusions on her hand pies. Only half of them are real. The other half are not. People buy them, eat them, and they vanish from their stomachs. Some customers complain that they feel hungry within an hour of eating at Harriet’s. But a lot customers eat her real pies, and they shout down the naysayers.”
Ria blinked slowly. “I’d like to back up to the part where you…” She sat back in her chair and sighed. “Magic?”
“…is real,” Amanda said. “And I long for the day when magic and science clasp hands and this whole either-or business is over. It’s all the same thing, after all.”
“So true,” Mama Xephra said. “So true.”
Ria sat ruminating.
Mama Xephra pushed the paper plate toward Ria. “Are you alright, dear? You haven’t touched your spanakopita.”
Ria sat forward again. “I’m surrounded by facts, facts that I can verify with my own perceptions. But if I write a story with all the details, it’ll sound like fiction.” She shook her head as she took a bite out of the light and flaky spanakopita.
Amanda propped an elbow on the table, and rested her chin on her fist. “And yet, if you leave out the details that sound fictional, you won’t be telling the whole truth. Is that it?”
“It is…but, a news story can and should have a focus. You wanted me to focus on the food anyway, right? That’s what the people can see and touch and taste.” Ria suddenly sat up. She snapped her fingers. “Okay, please don’t take this the wrong way, Mama Xephra. I have a thought—an idea, maybe. I don’t mean to offend.”
“Tell me, dear. Or the suspense itself will offend.”
Ria admitted how she had been put off by what she thought were giant insects flying around the Pizazz Pocket Pies truck. She was certain that if others saw the pixies from afar, they too would hesitate, maybe avoid the truck, unless they got close enough to see the pixies.
“Maybe if a few of you flew around Harriet’s truck, and if people could see you, you’d have the same effect,” Ria said. “It might help even the odds. Considering she’s cheating, I think you need to do something beyond just making the tastiest pocket pies.” She raised the last bite of her spanakopita to her hosts.
“But even standing still, pixies move too fast for the typical human eye to see,” Amanda said. “They just vibrate at a different frequency, I think.”
Ria wiped her fingers on a napkin and pulled out her phone. “I think I may know someone who can help, assuming what you believe about science and magic is true. A researcher working on wave-particle something. I can’t really remember. Anyway, it was about light and vision. I can call—“
“Or maybe leave us the number,” Amanda said. “We’ll all be gone from this lot in a few days. We to our next destination. And you to your vacation.”
“I can at least introduce you. Set up a meeting, assuming someone in the lab remembers me.”
“We’ll drop your name,” Amanda said, waving a hand. “You’ll be doing more than enough if you write about us.”
“Have some pierogis to go!” Mama Xephra said. “Or would that be considered a bribe?”
Ria grinned. “How about I consider it a gift?”
“Not a parting gift, though.”
“No, I will definitely come back—uh, when you’re in my neighborhood.”
“For you, dear,” Mama Xephra said. “We’ll deliver.”
Ria let herself settle in. Her train car was quiet at the moment. The countryside was whipping by the window, and the two friends with whom she was traveling were both dozing in their seats. They had just eaten lunch. And they were on their way back home after a glorious and relaxing week away.
She reached for her phone to check the news. She was technically still on vacation, but she hadn’t checked any of her news and messages for a week. She didn’t think it would hurt to plug back in a bit early. She brought up her last story, entitled “Pocket Pies from a Pocket Dimension.”
She had decided to tell the whole truth after all—at least about Pizazz Pocket Pies. People seemed to find the “framing device” of the pixies making pies to be a charming touch. Especially considering that Ria had given a real and detailed description and review of several of the truck’s most popular pies.
She scrolled through several messages. Most from family. One from work. And one was from her newest friends. It was a link to an article from another publication. The headline read, “Harriet’s Hand Pies, Not So Healthy.” Not a great title, but the image made up for it. It was of Harriet’s truck, the illusory food truck. And it was absolutely swarming with what appeared to be large insects. Customers were fleeing from the truck. Ria scanned the article, and smiled when she read that Harriet had shuttered her truck, and was considering making amends with her former partners, and rejoining the Pizazz Pocket Pies family.
She put her phone away, and gazed out the window. Far in the distance, she thought she spotted a liquid flickering of the air above a white fence. She peered at the spot until the train passed it by.
Maybe it was something—a pocket dimension. Or maybe it was just a mirage.
Ria’s perceptions had been stretched beyond those of a typical human being, by her dreams, her work, and a serendipitous visit to a food truck.
But for the time being, she would relax those perceptions. She was still on vacation, after all. She folded her arms, leaned her head against the window frame, and shut her eyes.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel