In bed, with a bad case of the flu, Michelangelo has a couple of visitors he hadn't expected.
THE TURTLE WHO NEVER WAS
The Two Spirits
Michelangelo couldn't sleep.
His bed (normally a nice and comfy bed, just perfect for curling up in for a nap or maybe with a snack and a dozen Justice Force comics) was suddenly the most uncomfortable, horrible resting place in the world; somehow managing the impressive feet of being too hard and too soft at the same time. The blankets were so hot that they might as well have been made out of red-hot coal, and the pillow was just as comfortable to rest his head against as a rock. A wet, slimy, moss-covered rock.
He was sure that his shell was so hot he could have fried eggs on it -- if he had wanted eggs, that is. As it was, the merest thought of food made his stomach toss and turn.
He would have tossed and turned a bit himself, but it hurt to move. He felt sicker and more miserable than he could remember ever having felt in his sixteen-year-long life.
And nobody cares, he thought, feeling very sorry for himself. I'm suffering here, but they couldn't care less.
All right, maybe he had been a little demanding of them. But how often was it that he had the opportunity to have his brothers waiting on him hand and foot? Could they really blame him for wanting to make the most out of the situation?
Once again, the scenes from earlier in the day played for his inner eye.
Raphael had been the first to lose his patience, of course. After having gone to the kitchen five times in one hour for 'another glass of water,' the red-clad Turtle had returned with a bucket filled with icy-cold water and threatened to pour it over Mike unless he quit his nagging.
"Besides," Raph had snarled, "If you drink any more now, you're either gonna puke, or need ta go to the bathroom. And I don't feel like carrying you to the bathroom, and I really don't feel like cleanin' up your disgusting vomit."
Mike had tried the puppy-dog-eyes look. "You wouldn't even do that to help your sick little brother?"
"What do I look like, yer nanny?" Raph's voice had dripped with sarcasm. "Want me to tuck you in too? With your blankie and teddy bear, huh?"
Well, of course that line had been too good to pass up. "But Ra-a-a-aph..." Mike had said, turning his voice into a whiny parody of a five-year-old's. "Can't you at least tell me a sto-o-ory?"
Raph's eyes had narrowed threateningly. "Here's a story for ya: Once upon a time, there were four mutant turtles, and the youngest one didn't wanna go to sleep, so his older brother strangled him to death! The end!" With that, he marched out of the room, and that was the last Mike had seen of him.
Donatello had held out longer, but he'd had enough after the twelfth time Mike had asked him for a TV in his room.
"You were the one who wanted all the TVs out in the living room for that 'entertainment center' of yours," Don had sighed. "I'm really busy with finishing the new alarm system, too. I don't have the time to move TVs or re-wire them every time you want one moved. If you're that bored, can't you just read something?"
"Reading hurts my eyes," Mike had complained.
"In that case, watching TV would hurt your eyes even more."
"I'd be happy just listening to the sound of it..."
"You have a radio, Mike! Listen to that!"
Mike had felt a sheepish grin form on his face. "Heh... well... I kinda dropped it on the floor the day before yesterday, and now it doesn't work. You wouldn't wanna fix it for me, by any chance?"
Don hadn't answered that. He had just left the room with the clear message that he really had to go work on that alarm system and that Mike wasn't to call on him again unless it was something really important. Apparently, he hadn't counted more pleas for a TV or a fixed radio as 'really important,' because he had stopped responding after the third time Mike tried that.
Leonardo had entered Mike's room soon after that, with that unmistakable 'I'm-going-to-give-you-a-lecture-whether-you-want-one-or-not' look in his eyes. It hadn't helped that Mike had tried pretending that he was asleep either, because Leo had an uncanny ability to tell when someone was really asleep and when they weren't.
"I know that you're sick," Leo had said, his voice stern. "But you aren't that sick. You're perectly capable of managing on your own for a few hours. Quit bugging everyone!"
"But I'm dying of boredom here," Mike had protested. "That is, if the disease doesn't kill me first."
"Try to sleep." Leo was still in his 'lecture' mode as he continued: "Or better yet, try to meditate. You could do well with some more mental training. Besides," he'd added after a short pause, "just because you're miserable doesn't mean you have to make everyone else miserable."
" What, I can't spread a little misery if I want to?" It probably hadn't been the smartest thing to say then, but Mike had never been able to pass up on a golden opportunity like that. "I spread happiness all the time. Whenever I feel happy, I do my darnedest to share that feeling with you guys, and nobody thanks me for that either. And first none of you ungrateful Turtles will pay me back by bringing me a little happiness here in my misery, and now you're telling me I can't even -- "
Leo had interrupted him at that point, rolling his eyes and switching from his 'lecture' mode to his 'I'm-about-to-get-really-irritated' mode. "How can you lie there," (he'd stressed every syllable here) "and call us ungrateful?"
"Well, I can't really lie anywhere else and say it."
"Mike, we've been bending over backwards for you all day, and now you call us ungrateful!" Leo's mode had just been upgraded from 'about-to-get-really-irritated' to 'Okay-now-I'm-definitely-irritated'. "Don't you ever bother to look at what sort of mood you're spreading? Because if you've missed it, you're not making anyone happy! You're annoying! You're annoying when you're well, and you're twice as annoying when you're sick!"
With a murmur, the blue-clad Turtle had exited the room, and he hadn't come back.
Splinter had been grave when he came in sometime later.
"I have spoken to your brothers," he'd said, his voice as calm and serene as always. "I know that you do not care for having to stay in bed for so long, but it is the only way that you will get better."
Being lectured by Splinter had always felt both better and worse than being lectured by Leonardo. Splinter seldom nagged or got all 'fearless leader' about things the way Leo did, but he was an expert on, with just a few choice words, making you understand better than ever exactly what it was you had done wrong, why it was wrong, and why you should feel bad about it. You couldn't blow him off the way you could with Leo, because you knew he was generally right.
"Master Splinter," Mike had asked afterwards. "Am I really that annoying? I mean... when I'm not sick, too?"
Splinter hadn't replied at once. He'd just given Mike a look that Mike hadn't been able to figure out before finally saying: "I believe you have been called that several times before, especially by Raphael. I have never seen any indication that this have bothered you before."
"Well... it doesn't. Not really. It's just that..."
"Then do not let it start bothering you now, my son. Try to get some rest."
It wasn't until five minutes after the rat had left that Mike realized: He never said that I wasn't annoying...
All right, Mike thought, closing his eyes and leaning against the disgusting pillow for the umpteenth time. Maybe I am annoying. So what? I don't care. At least I know how to have fun. That's more than what I can say about them. He sighed, opened his eyes again -- even though it hurt to do so -- and stared up at the ceiling. I wonder if April and Casey think I'm annoying too. And Leatherhead, and Usagi, and Angel... and professor Honeycutt... but not Klunk. I'm pretty certain Klunk doesn't think I'm annoying.
"You are more than annoying, Michelangelo. You are worthless."
The voice came suddenly. Mike sat up in bed, so startled that he didn't notice that he was no longer hurting. "Wha-" he began, and then saw the source of the voice:
Right there in front of him stood a tall, menacing-looking man, wearing steel armor with so many blades that one careless swing of the arm could decapitate an entire room. The man's face was completely hidden between a metal mask; only a pair of cold, merciless eyes were visible, staring at Mike with a mixture of contempt and amusement.
"Shredder!" Mike yelped, instinctively reaching for the nunchucks on his belt, only to remember, a split second later, that he wasn't in the habit of wearing his belt, or his weapons, in bed. "What are you doing here?!"
"Wasting my time, apparently," said Shredder coldly. "I'm not here to fight, no matter how much I'd like to tear your shell from your body with my bare hands. But that would be too easy. You are in no condition to fight."
"I'm in plenty of condition to kick your --" Mike began, leaping out of bed and not even noticing that his feet made no sound as they hit the floor.
"You are in no condition!" Shredder barked, with a tone of voice that Mike had never heard before. "Haven't you even noticed that you are no longer in your body?"
"What are you talking ab--?" Mike cut himself off as he cast a quick glance back on his bed and saw that he -- or at least a Turtle that looked exactly like him -- was still lying there, deathly still and with closed eyes.
"Your body is still lying there in your bed," said Shredder in a tone that almost seemed like a mocking parody of Leo's 'lecturing' voice. "Your spirit has left it."
"...am I dead all of a sudden?" said Mike, feeling a sudden chill around his heart... or at least around the area where his heart would have been, if he'd had a body. "Nah, I can't be, this is just some kinda bizarre 'out-of-body' experience... or a dream! Yeah, that's right, it's a dream! Hey, Mikey!" he yelled, bending over his own still form. "Time to rise and shine! Up and at 'em, buddy! Wakey-wakey!"
"I am afraid you will find that your efforts are in vain, Michelangelo," came a new voice from just behind him. Mike spun around to find himself staring into a very familiar, very kind and very hairy face.
The old rat smiled. "No. I am sorry, Michelangelo, but I am not the Splinter you know. Nor is he" (he motioned with a furry hand towards the Shredder, who was still standing motionless and watching the scene with those cold eyes of his) "the Shredder you know. These are merely the forms you perceive us in."
"Oh-kaaay..." Mike took a step backwards, but jumped forwards again when he discovered that he was going through the bed, as if either it or he was made out of fog, and that sensation creeped him out worse than anything else had so far. "Why am I doing that? Uh, who are you?"
"We are your guides, Michelangelo," said Splinter -- or the thing that looked like Splinter -- kindly.
"You are at a crossroad. Your final fate, or destiny, will be decided in these hours."
Mike gulped. 'Final fate' didn't sound promising. "So I am dead, then?"
"Not yet." Shredder looked at him. "But were it up to me, you would be. You are a complete waste of space, as far as I'm conserned."
"Your disease," said Splinter, "was originally nothing to be worried about. A passing case of the flu, nothing more. But just as you yourself have mutated into something far beyond an oridinary pet shop turtle, so might the virus mutate into something far more lethal. You will have to make a choice. And we are here to guide you and help you make that choice."
"Ya mean I get to choose whether I wanna live or die?!" Mike laughed. "That's the easiest choice I've ever had. I wanna live, of course!"
"Why?" Shredder fixed him with his eyes. "Didn't you just now think how nobody cared about you, and how you were only an annoyance to everyone you knew?"
"Well..." Mike paused.
"Face the facts, Turtle. Your brothers and your master would be better off without you. They are the ones who accomplish things. They are the ones who matter. What have you ever accomplished, besides running around like a fool and fouling up the lives of everyone unfortunate enough to know you?"
"Hey, you're talking to the Battle Nexus champion here!" Mike protested.
"A fluke. A stroke of blind luck. Don't even try to convince yourself otherwise. Besides, what did you accomplish with that victory, apart from constantly bragging about it afterwards and annoying your family with it? Your master Splinter, and his master Yoshi, both used their victories to create inspiration in others. You just use it to boast your own greatness, even though you know that greatness to be fake."
"And I'm the Turtle Titan!"
"A joke of a superhero who would be better off leaving the crimefighting to the real heroes."
"Um, and I helped take down the Shredder -- the real Shredder!"
"Your part in that was minor at best. The others would have done just as well without you."
"...I delivered all those Li'l Orphan Alien toys to Brown Street children's home?"
"Oh, please. "
Mike turned to Splinter. "Ya know, not to nag or anything, but could I have another guide? Someone who isn't him? I don't think he's gonna work out. Hey, the Silver Sentry would be great if ya got 'im!"
Splinter smiled. "I am sorry, Michelangelo."
"I only speak the truth," said Shredder, "and deep down, you know it. You don't matter, Michelangelo.You never have. Unless you count annoying your brother Raphael as mattering. Personally, I wouldn't."
"Now now," said Splinter calmly. "Everyone matters to the ones they are close to. Michelangelo is no exception."
"Michelangelo is a waste of space," Shredder repeated. "He has never, and will never, do anything worthwhile."
"Excuse me? I'm right here, you know," said Mike, starting to feel rather ticked off. This entire situation was starting to get a little too weird, even for him. "Look, it doesn't matter what you guys say. Worthwhile or not, I wanna live, so why don't you reverse whatever it was that you did to separate my spirit from my body and let me get on with getting better. Please?" he added as an afterthought.
"Would you care to make a wager?" said Splinter, looking at Shredder.
"A wager?" said Shredder, looking interested despite himself. "What sort of wager?"
"I claim that Michelangelo does matter," Splinter answered, "while you claim that he does not. If he is willing, we will take a little peek at what the world would be like if he had never been born, and thus be able to see whether..."
"Whoa!" said Mike. "Hang on! I'm not interested in seeing any me-less worlds! Besides, could you get any more cliché than that? I've seen it on TV, like, a million times!"
"What?" said Shredder.
"We see that movie every Christmas -- well, Raph doesn't, 'cause he says he never could get past the title, but... And it's not like it's only that movie either," Mike continued. "Everyone does the 'the world would be different if I was never born' thing! I mean, Kermit the Frog did it, Garfield did it, Donald Duck did it, and the Silver Sentry did it in one of the issues of Justice Force, but he says that was just something the scriptwriters made up and that it never actually happened..."
"Michelangelo!" said Splinter, sounding so much like the Master Splinter Michelangelo knew and loved that the Turtle instinctively shut up.
"Are you afraid of finding out what the world would have been like without you?" said the Shredder. "You might as well admit it right away, Turtle."
"I'm not afraid!" Mike glanced at Splinter, but the rat said nothing. After a quick mental debate with himself, Mike turned back to Shredder. "All right," he said. "You're on!"
It was impossible to really tell behind that metal mask, but Mike had the distinct impression that Shredder smirked. Well, that should prove once and for all he's not the Shredder I know, he thought. That Shredder doesn't even know how to smile, let alone smirk.
"But, uh, this is reversible, right?" Mike added, casting another glance at Splinter. "I mean, I'm not gonna get stuck in a reality where I don't exist?"
"You have our word that we will see you safely back to this reality," said Splinter. "After all, you would not be able to make your choice if you were lost in a different reality."
"Great," said Mike. "Just had to ask. So, how do we do this? Click our heels together three times, or...?"
"No, nothing so complicated," said Splinter. "Watch."
And, almost without warning, the room started to spin around them, pulsating and flickering not entirely unlike multicolored strobe lights.
Just as Mike began wondering whether he'd get motion sick (after all, this couldn't be good for a Turtle who was already feeling sick?), the lights stopped, and the room slowed down, finally coming to a halt around him. After the lightshow, it seemed exctremely dark... He blinked, looking around and letting his eyes re-adjust to the new, lover level of light.
And then he discovered it: It wasn't his bedroom anymore.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Author's notes: Michelangelo's comment about everyone who's done this story before is only partially correct -- Yes, Donald Duck had an 'if you were never born' experience in the short 1994 comic The Duck Who Never Was (a story created in celebration of the Duck's sixtieth birthday), and Kermit the Frog had one in It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie from 2002 -- but Garfield never had one. It was Wade from the U. S. Acres/Orson's Farm segment on the Garfield cartoon who had the experience (and discovered that the world was more or less exactly the same without him in it): As for the Silver Sentry, I made that one up.
Oh, and Raphael never having seen It's A Wonderful Life because he could never get past the title is a reference to Batman.