1. Coolland Pizza

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“And what do you want to do on your birthday this year, Landon? You’ll be six this year. It’s your special day, birthday boy.”

The Voice always arrived unannounced and never at the same time of the day. Sometimes it would gently awaken him from his nightly slumber, coaxing him awake. Sometimes it would wait a bit and not sound off until he was already bathing or playing with his action figures. There were even days where he wouldn’t hear The Voice until those final minutes before the TV was automatically shut off, the lights were dimmed, and sleep was induced. Landon rarely remembered what The Voice spoke about on those days, but it never deviated from its kind assurance. Today was one of those days, as the clock on Landon’s VCR read 7:46– scant minutes before his usual bedtime.

 The Voice spoke in a soothing, gentle tone– something Landon assumed was “motherly.” It was pretty similar to what all of the mother-like figures on his favorite shows sounded like. The Voice was maybe a little too June Cleaver for Landon’s tastes– he saw himself as more Eddie Munster than The Beaver– but considering this disembodied voice was the only real contact you have with anyone resembling a parental figure, he took what he could get.

Landon knew his birthday was soon. Next week, in fact! He’d been thinking about it for weeks, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

“I want to go to Coolland Pizza! Just like last year!”

There was a brief pause before The Voice chimed in, although Landon thought he heard some faint voice in the background… sigh in relief? Landon started to wonder what that was all about, but soon had his train of thought derailed when The Voice replied. “That sounds fun. Pizza and games and The Cool-A-Fyed Experience singing you Happy Birthday. And who do you want to invite to your party?”

Landon thought about this for a minute. Last year he was only allowed to invite one friend. “The Coo-A-Fyed Party Pit only has room for so many people,” The Voice warned last year, and it was true. The single table in the Party Pit only had six chairs, and if The Others were all there again, there would only be room for one guest. 

Maybe this year would be different? Maybe the table is bigger? All of the commercials for Coolland Pizza had big rooms filled with all sorts of tables and huge birthday party groups with tons of kids around them. Maybe the Coolland they went to had expanded? Maybe there’s room for eight people now! That would make room for three friends. 

Yes. Three. That was the number Landon settled upon.

“I want to invite Linda and Kennan and Annalise! It’ll be so fun to have almost all of my friends in the same place at once!”

The Voice hesitated, and this time Landon could hear… muttering in the background? Like The Voice was talking to someone else? Who could The Voice be talking to? Landon knew it was an actual person who was in another room or another building, not like when he was three and assumed it was God or a ghost talking to him all the time. He knew they were likely sitting at a desk with a big microphone, watching him on one of the cameras positioned in the corners of his room. But The Voice never spoke about being with anyone else. There were The Others, but they rarely spoke, either to Landon or to themselves. And when they did speak for whatever reason, they rarely returned to see Landon after that. Again, Landon’s imagination was derailed as The Voice returned with its answer.

“I’m sorry, Landon. You remember last year, right? Coolland Pizza only has enough seats for six people. If everyone else who usually goes with you is going to go, then you’ll only be able to invite one of your little friends. You’ll see the others another time, and they’ll be able to wish you a happy birthday then. But you can only choose one for your big day.”

Landon didn’t hesitate with his answer. “Linda! I want to invite Linda! She always has the coolest presents.”

“And what else?” The Voice asked Landon, as it always does when he insists on Linda being “the one” who gets singled out for singular invitations.

“And… and… alright. Yeah. Yeah. I like Linda. She’s my favorite…”

“And what do we call that, Landon?”

“Augh. Do I have to say it? You know…”

The Voice was silent, but Landon could hear it all too clear.

“Augh. Fine. Love. I love her. She’s my friend and I love her, alright? That make you happy? Dang!”

“Yes. That’s what we call it when we like someone more than someone else. Love. And who else do you love?”

Landon pouted and folded his arms. He knew what The Voice wanted to hear, but Landon knew he’d be lying if he said it.

“Landon. Please answer, Landon. Is there someone else you love?”

A small slit in the single door leading out of Landon’s room popped pen. A familiar humming sound came out of the opening. Landon looked at the slit out of the corner of his eyes, doing his best to pretend to not care. After a couple of seconds of humming, a small object dropped out of the slit and onto Landon’s carpet. He recognized what it was even out of the corner of his eye.

It was a Star Wars figure. A new one he didn’t have. He couldn’t quite tell who it was from where he stood, but from the brief glances he made it definitely looked like some sort of Ewok. 

“It’s an early birthday present. I think it’s the one you need to have them all, right?” 

One of the drawers Landon kept his toys in popped open. On top of the Star Wars figures in the drawer was the cardboard backing off of one of one of the recent figures he got. As he got new figures, Landon would mark them off of the picture of figures on the back. There was one figure on this cardboard backing that was unmarked. 

An Ewok.

This was the last one he needed. At least for now. Landon knew they would make more figures and he’d need a new cardboard backing to mark off this new set, but for now this would be the last one. This would make his little set of Star Wars guys complete.

Landon’s face slowly lit up as he realized all of this, and soon enough his pout gave way to a smile. Just as he was about to turn around and reach for the Ewok, the Voice interceded. 

“Landon. Yes. This is the one you need. But I also need something. Please, Landon?”

“You. I also love you.”

Landon lied.

“Thank you, Landon. Please, have fun with your toy. You being happy makes me happy.”

Landon didn’t really care. He just cared about playing with his new Ewok figure and imagining how fun it’ll be playing with Linda at Coolland Pizza on his birthday. 

That fun was short-lived, though, as Landon’s bedroom filled with odorless, sleep-inducing gas, and The Others walked in donning their protective gear to begin that night’s dream observations.

Tonight’s dreams were prophesied to bring great insight, and The Voice laid the seeds for their gestation in Landon’s young psyche.

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