Republished from the inimitable Stories My Friends Started, where a single sentence provided by a friend becomes mayhem in the hands of the authors.
For Isaac Fenelon
“Now that he was actually standing in front of the shimmering portal, it raised some questions: would he know the language of the peoples on the other side (assuming there were people), what if physics existed in a totally different way (or at all), could he ever come back–the only thing he was assured of by the ad on the side of the cereal box was an experience OUT OF THIS WORLD.”
Charlie’s day always started the exact same way. He rolled out of bed, stood, and hopped in the shower. Three minutes later, he was shaving, and three minutes after that, he was groomed, polished, and ready for his day. Charlie prided himself on his morning routine, a seamless, drilled thing of beauty. Breakfast was always a bowl of cereal and a coffee from the cart outside work, and lunch was always a slice of pizza with Marshall, at the place halfway between their office buildings. Work was a precise series of stock choices. Only in the evenings did his routine vary. Some nights he went out with Sheila or Marshall. Some nights he worked late, or stayed home. Last night, he’d stayed in, watched a pay cable action flick, and gone to sleep early.
This morning, as he was putting on his favorite tie, the one that Sheila had given him for his birthday, he looked at the clock. Seven minutes, and he was dressed for work. Nice.
He walked into the kitchen to grab some breakfast before he left for work. He found the box of cereal in the pantry, looking otherwise exactly like every other box of Chocolate Frosted Os he had ever bought. But as he held it, he turned it in his hand to read the side labels, and a banner said, “Prize inside! Experience an Out of this World Adventure!”
He flipped the box over and ripped open the bottom flap and plastic liner.
Inside he saw what looked like a tiny silvery plastic ring, slightly transparent when he looked closely. When he picked it up, it was flexible and seemed to weigh nothing at all. He rolled it between his fingers a little, noting that it wasn’t flat on the inside, but a perfect toroid. Therefore not meant for fingers.
He noticed that the toy was only slightly larger than the cereal bits it was mixed in with, and somewhat resembled them. Hadn’t they cared about the choking hazard?
Without looking away from the toy, he put the cereal box down on the counter-top, upside down now that he’d opened it at the wrong end. He rotated it in his hand, and was deeply disappointed. Maybe it would fit Sheila’s tiny fingers, but it seemed strange to give a girl a fake almost-ring from a cereal box. Plus, she’d been weird lately.
He picked up the box, saw the ridiculous claim on the side, and just didn’t know what to think at all. An out of this world experience with a cereal box toy? Well, at least there was cereal. He set the ring aside, next to the sponge by the kitchen sink. For some reason, he felt a little reluctant about putting it down.
He finished pouring his cereal and shoved it back in the pantry upside down. He opened the fridge and stood in front of it, pouring milk over the bowl, then put the milk away, and thumped closed the door of the fridge with his foot. Looking back toward the ring, he started crunching down on his favorite food. He stood in the kitchen for a moment, munching on chocolate frosted goodness, and pondered what purpose the ring might be meant to have.
He started walking back out into the dining room, but couldn’t seem to stop himself from taking one last look back at the little ring. In the dining room, he set the bowl down on the table, and picked his phone up from where he’d set it down on the table the night before. Huh. It was off. He thought he’d left it on. He pressed the button to boot it up. It started pinging messages repeatedly. Six missed calls last night. And they’d all left messages.
He scrolled and swiped, telling his phone to play all messages.
“Charlie, you always pick up. What gives? It’s Pete. So, anyway, we’ve got a work emergency. You need to come back in right away; it’s about the PRC Mutual account.” Click.
“Hey… Charlie. Where are you? We need you to come in right away. And do you have the PRC Mutual file? It’s not cool that you’re not answering, man.” He looked down at the dining room table, the PRC Mutual file sitting on top of a stack of take-home files. “I’m asking Dimmitt to call you. Maybe you’ll pick up for the boss. It’s Pete.” Click.
“Hey, Dude. It’s Marsh. Look, before Sheila says something, I wanted to talk to you. Call me back, please, man.” Click. Beep.
That was weird. Marsh hated Sheila.
“Charlie, seriously. This is Dimmitt. The PRC file is missing and you’re unacceptably unreachable. The client’s about to lose a fortune here, and we need you urgently. Don’t screw us over here.” Click. Beep.
“Hey Charlie, sorry, Charlie,” Sheila’s drunk voice drawled out of his phone, “I waited three years.” Had it really been that long? Didn’t seem like it to him. “Wasted. I am a woo-man with a ticking clock. And you wasted me. I’ve got a new man now. I’ve been seeing him for months now behind your back. Oh yeah, and… It’s your best friend, Marshall!” Sheila laughed over Marsh’s voice in the background, “Come on Sheel, do you have to t-” Click. Beep.
Wow. Marsh obviously didn’t hate Sheila anymore. Not cool, man. Somewhere deep in his head he felt the urge to call them and tell them both to go to hell. He took a deep breath.
“Charlie, It’s Dimmitt. Four hours. You’re obviously ignoring our calls, and Pete’s sure you have to be dead. The client is furious. Presumably, you are the only one who knows what’s going on here, so we can’t even find out what we promised them. So, if you’re not dead, you’re fired.” Click. Beep.
He set the phone down on the table without deleting any of the messages. His finger hovered over the touchscreen while he debated repeating them, but didn’t think he could handle listening to that train wreck again.
One night. One night in ten years that his phone was off. And everything was crashing down around him. What the hell. He sat for a moment, absorbing how fast everything could change. Maybe he could solve this. Maybe if he called everyone, he could smooth this all out. He picked up his phone to call work, and then something in him said there was a quick way to solve everything.
He pushed the phone back onto the table, and anger suddenly leapt up in his his chest. His right hand clenched, and he banged it on the table. He stood quickly, walked back in the kitchen, and stared at the ring. It seemed larger now. Why had he thought it looked like plastic? It was obviously metal now. It seemed to twinkle at him for a moment. Odd trick of the light.
A little voice in his head said the ring was the key to everything. He knocked over the dish soap as he thrust outward to grab the toy off the counter beside the sink. He curled it into his clenched fist, and satisfied his sudden urge to try to crush it. His fingers tightened down, nails bit into his palm. He focused all the anger he felt at his boss, for firing him after ten years, at Sheila for cheating, at Marsh for breaking the bro code, and at life for being so crappy, right into the middle of his hand. It felt satisfying to follow the impulse.
As he squeezed, the ring strangely felt like it was slipping out of existence in his hand, then it was suddenly too hot to hold. Instinctively, he dropped it when it burnt his hand. The moment it left his fingers, the pain disappeared like it had never been. The silvery circle started to fall toward the floor. He turned his hand over to look at the burn. Nothing but his fingernail marks, which made little white crescents in his skin.
He looked down toward the floor for the toy, but a chill ran down his spine as he realized it was hovering in midair halfway to the floor.
It was definitely pulsing now. Charlie couldn’t look away as he watched it fold into itself and re-form; however, instead of shrinking, each fold made it grow in all directions. Every time it folded, his senses twinged, like the air pressure was building. Larger and larger, until a large semi-transparent metallic bubble floated there in his kitchen. Each time it pulsed now, his senses buzzed so hard that he couldn’t tell if it was undulating or if it was his eyes watering. A slightly nauseating wave of energy crackled through him, and then through the apartment. The microwave made a popping noise and started smoking. How big would this thing get? Could he withstand it?
Still, it continued to fold in on itself as it grew until it spanned the space from where it had stopped falling all the way through the floor. The center shimmered like a pool of mercury, and when he looked at it, it seemed friendly and inviting. He just knew it was safe to touch, although how he knew that, he couldn’t say.
The undulating mass must be visible from the apartment below now, Charlie thought. The dish soap was dripping out onto the pristine counter top, but Charlie couldn’t stop looking at the force taking over his kitchen. He took a few steps back, but he felt a sudden urge to walk closer, which he struggled against briefly. He settled for standing stock still.
It continued to increase, until it was taller than he little by little. Now he knew it had to be downstairs, too, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t quite define where it began or ended. And nothing in the kitchen was blocked from view. It made no sense, and he could feel his brain struggling to process the visual input it was receiving. But every time he looked into its center, he felt like it was welcoming him.
He stepped closer.
Now that he was actually standing in front of the shimmering portal, it raised some questions: would he know the language of the peoples on the other side (assuming there were people), what if physics existed in a totally different way (or at all), could he ever come back–the only thing he was assured of by the ad on the side of the cereal box was an experience OUT OF THIS WORLD.
What did he have left to lose? Why not try an adventure? He’d never been particularly brave, but today felt like a good day to start. He walked closer. Then closer, and he felt the hair on his arms stand up straight, and his eyeballs felt hot. His sinuses hummed; his whole head hummed.
He took another step. Suddenly, there was no more Charlie in the kitchen, and the portal ceased to exist. A wisp of smoke from the microwave was sucked toward the center of the room, and then dissipated. The dish soap continued to drip, now from the counter-top onto the floor.
Charlie lived alone, but if anyone had been standing in the dining room, and happened to be watching his phone, they might have seen Charlie’s message count go from six to zero before his phone turned off.