Audio: Author Christopher Merchant reads.
by Christopher Merchant
This work of short fiction is adapted from the author’s novel-in-development.
Nic worked as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school. Work meant showing up on time with a manageable hangover. Most mornings, he’d wake up, stop hugging himself on the cold couch, get in the Honda, and listen to FM radio for a dozen minutes while he drank a Gatorade and a Red Bull. Recently, he had taken to drinking the sugar-free variety of both beverages. They say your metabolism begins slowing down at 25. Nic was 26.
The kids called him Mr. Nielson. This wasn’t the sort of job he had imagined for himself when he was in college, mostly because he had not thought much about what he would do once he graduated. He had just sort of ended up here. Jeunecole Elementary was the kind of 21st-century-hippie place where you could have a liberal arts degree in whatever and a general disposition toward folks being nice to each other, and that was enough to get you a job alongside a handful of other misfits.
Nic needed a mattress. His ex, formerly his live-in girlfriend, took the bed when she left. Nic kept the couch. He hadn’t been too bothered by crashing on the couch over the fall term, but he wasn’t exactly telling his workmates about eating Cup Noodles on the same piece of furniture he would end up passing out on. Most of the fourth-graders he worked with probably had nicer beds than him.
2002 Honda Civic EX en route to Jeunecole Elementary School.
Rockridge, Oakland, CA.
Airtime: Monday, 7:22 a.m.
Vehicle paint color: Champagne
Some direct-to-consumer mattress companies use the raw-egg test. Not Apostrophe. We won’t waste your time hiring a film crew to shoot a beautiful fashion model throwing a dozen Grade A Extra-Large USDA Certified Organic brown eggs at a horizontal slab of purple memory foam just to show you that those delicate eggs won’t so much as hint at cracking and making a gooey mess. Did you know that some sources assert that those eggs are hard boiled before the cameras roll? It doesn’t matter. Our mattresses are made of a special blend of seven types of top-of-the-line, sleep-inducing foam. So don’t go with some egg mattress. Choose the direct-to-consumer mattress company that advertises on FM radio. Choose Apostrophe.
On his way into the school, Nic saw Warner walking up to campus along the sidewalk of Jeunecole Road. Warner was a wild-haired math teacher. Some said he had a screw loose. As far as Nic could tell, that was a job requirement at Jeunecole. Warner once told Nic that you can’t be killed by a Tesla coil. Tesla coils are the things you’ve seen where some guy touches a Slinky-looking device with enough of an electrical charge to cause his hair to stand up without simultaneously causing his heart to seize up. Long story short, Warner was really into Nikola Tesla. He did lots of little home experiments. There was a rumor among the students that he once tried to make a time machine out of a microwave oven. And, Nic couldn’t help but notice, Warner rarely blinked.
Nic could feel Warner watching him as he approached the front doors of the school. He hurried inside before Warner could catch up with him.
In the faculty lounge, a radio ad for home paternity testing kits was playing in the background. Nic dutifully poured his first cup of coffee for the day. It was very important to stay caffeinated. Jeunecole’s art teacher, Tabatha, was sitting at the main table in the faculty lounge reading a book called “1,001 Ways to Live in the Moment.” Nic had never had a conversation with Tabatha. Some of the kids gossiped that she was mute, but that mainly came from students who had never had a class with her.
Emma was also around. Per usual, she was wearing overalls over a T-shirt. She taught graphic design. She had recently been dumped, and her boyfriend had taken the couch when he moved out. She didn’t want to keep the bed they used to share.
“Nicky,” Emma cheered. “You wore a different dress shirt today.”
“It’s a Monday,” Nic said. “Trying to change things up.”
“You look great,” Emma said. “Hey, so, I’m not trying to be pushy, and you can totally say no, but I was wondering if you were interested in taking that mattress I told you about.”
“Mm-hmm,” Nic said, which wasn’t so much a confirmation that he wanted the used mattress as it was the only kind of generally polite sound he could make while drinking coffee.
“Because like I said,” Emma continued, “I don’t even want any money for it. Like, I will just let you have it.”
“Yeah,” Nic said.
“I would even help you move it.”
“Right, you mentioned that.” Nic excused himself to go to the bathroom.
The faculty bathroom was already occupied, undoubtedly by Jeffrey. Jeffrey taught in the niche video program for the youngsters at Jeunecole. Shooting, lighting, editing. There were no video classes during first period, on account of that being homeroom for most of the kids, so you could count on spotting Jeffrey walking down the hall toward the single-toilet restroom around 8:10. Nic waited in the hallway.
Warner came around the corner and stopped a few feet away from Nic.
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife,” Warner said.
“I’m not married,” Nic said.
“Oh,” Warner said, unblinking. “What year is it?”
“That would be 2014,” Nic said. He wished he had another cup of coffee.
“What have I done?” Warner said. Little beads of sweat were starting to form on his brow.
“Forget I said anything,” Warner stuttered. “I don’t want to cause a paradox.”
“This isn’t exactly the kind of social interaction a person can easily forget, Warner,” Nic replied.
“Shit,” Warner whispered. Everyone generally agreed that it wasn’t a good idea to swear in areas where students might hear you. At least, not too loudly. “OK, well, if I’ve already created a paradox, I might as well tell you not to take the mattress.”
“Sure,” Nic said. He hoped in his heart of hearts that if he reacted to Warner’s comments as if they weren’t totally batshit, then the exchange would be over sooner. “I kinda have a bad feeling about it, myself. Sleeping on a co-worker’s used mattress that they shared with their ex has like a slight hint of being gross.”
“It’s cursed,” Warner said. The sweat was seriously beginning to bead up. He took a step closer to Nic.
“Mhmm,” Nic murmured, nodding. The bathroom door opened. Jeffrey stepped out with his iPad. Nic smelled the distinct odor of air freshener.
“Excuse me,” Jeffrey said. Nic did that gesture where you point your thumb over your shoulder and simultaneously nod your head in the same direction you point with your thumb to indicate nonverbally that you are walking away now.
“You can fix things with your wife if you don’t take the mattress,” Warner pleaded, raising his arms up, his hands uncomfortably close to Nic’s face.
Nic ducked into the bathroom. Warner, deflated, lowered his hands and stood alone in the hallway.
Warner watched his juvenile self playing alone, sprawled out on a rug. He knew the boy must have been nine, almost ten, but he looked more like the first graders at Jeunecole. If Warner were honest, he could not remember most of his childhood.
This was at least the 20th time-traveling trip Warner had taken. The first few had been historic moments, mostly combat-related: the Battle of Waterloo, Little Bighorn, Washington crossing the Delaware. These proved to be risky for a variety of reasons, most prominently that there was a nontrivial chance of being shot, but also because the inevitable cuts and bruises he sustained caused more than a few raised eyebrows when he returned to his day job at Jeunecole on Mondays. After going through a handful of action-packed adventures, Warner realized that he was mostly visiting famous scenes that he had incorporated into his games as a child, and he decided to revisit that time of his life.
Warner took the proper precautions to avoid any potential paradoxes: He wore a disguise (Groucho Marx glasses), hid the time machine (he replaced the microwave in his childhood kitchen with the time machine and then hid the microwave under the sink), and made sure not to make contact (he watched kid-Warner through the boy’s bedroom window).
The scrawny boy was playing with a toy train set that the elder Warner did not recognize. The sheets on the bed were covered in cowboy imagery. Plastic gray, green, and tan army men were littered about the floor. A neglected teddy bear sat on a small stool in one corner. Warner squinted and made a mental note to improve his disguise by outfitting his glasses with prescription lenses when he got home.
Warner’s mother appeared briefly in the boy’s doorway. Everything about her was small, just like the boy. She was thin, with thin legs and thin lips.
“You had better do your homework,” she said. “Your father is about to get home.”
The boy did not respond. Instead, he kept rolling the train back and forth on invisible tracks. Warner’s mother looked younger than he ever remembered seeing her. Even so, some things about her were familiar, especially how she scrunched up her mouth when she wasn’t happy. She watched the boy play with the train for a few moments before she turned and left. As soon as she was gone, young Warner stood up and closed his bedroom door.
The older Warner winced. A patch of clouds opened up in the sky above, and the sun cast his silhouette into the bedroom. He ducked to avoid detection, rustling the bushes outside.
The child was still, listening. He got up from the rug, opened a wooden toy box against the wall, and took out an orange plastic dinosaur. Outside, Warner pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
McAlister’s Irish Pub.
Rockridge, Oakland, CA.
Monday, 11:33 p.m.
Nic sat next to Desmond at the bar. Desmond was Nic’s buddy. Sort of. He taught social studies. Desmond was convinced that the kids could really get down on history. He often veered off curriculum and riffed on Trotsky. He thought of his classes as more of a bohemian salon, but as far as anyone else could tell, the kids at Jeunecole probably didn’t get down on history as much as Desmond thought they did.
Desmond had this order at the bar that he got so often that the other regulars had taken to calling it a Desmond Special. There wasn’t necessarily anything special about it; all it was was a shot of the bar’s cheapest well whiskey alongside a can of their cheapest American lager. The place wasn’t very fancy, though, so the name stuck. Desmond and Nic were both having Desmond Specials.
“Sometimes I have this dream I am getting sucked out into outer space,” Nic said between sips of his beer. “Like, I am right at that very moment where I’m falling asleep, and all the sudden gravity reverses itself and I’m sucked feet first out of my bed and out the window into the vacuum of space.”
“Hypnagogic hallucinations,” Desmond said. He had a habit of looking straight ahead at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar when he talked rather than turning his head and looking at Nic.
“You can’t be dreaming before you fall asleep because you’re not in a REM cycle yet,” Desmond said. “What you’re talking about are hypnagogic hallucinations. And you don’t have a bed, Nic. You’ve got a threadbare green couch with a Nicolas-shaped divot in it.”
“I’m working on the bed thing,” Nic said. “Or, well, the mattress thing. One problem at a time.”
“OK,” Desmond conceded. “Tell me about this dream where you’re getting sucked into space.”
Desmond drained his glass of whiskey and tried to wave down the bartender for another.
“So like I said, in the dream, I’m not even sure I am still awake anymore because I am basically asleep, sort of like standing on the threshold, and then the dream happens,” Nic said. The bartender was pretending not to see Desmond.
“And it’s really just a feeling, like the physical sensation,” Nic continued. “I can feel myself going feet-first out the window. But I know, in that way you just know things sometimes in dreams, that I am getting sucked into space.”
“Right,” Desmond said, still waving at the bartender.
“And it scares the shit out of me,” Nic said. “It wakes me up, and I have to go through the whole ritual of falling asleep again.”
“Dude,” Desmond said. “Why are you even afraid of this?”
“Of getting sucked into space?” Nic replied. “Oh, I don’t know. Probably because of the whole sudden-death thing.”
Nic finished his whiskey and signaled to the bartender, who began walking their way.
“How come he always ignores me but he comes running when you start waving?” Desmond said.
“He’s coming over because we’re both waving,” Nic lied. The bartender, Jonah, didn’t like people doing coke in his bar. Desmond didn’t particularly care what Jonah liked.
“Let me guess: two Desmond Specials?” Jonah said.
“How did you know?” Desmond said. Jonah poured two whiskeys over ice and opened two cans of the pub’s cheapest lager. He set the drinks in front of them and walked back toward the other side of the bar.
“Hey wait,” Desmond called after Jonah, “can I get a straw?”
Jonah shot Desmond a sidelong glance. “No,” he said.
“Why do you want a straw?” Nic asked.
“I lost my keys,” Desmond said. “Anyway, so you’re afraid of instant death in outer space.”
“Actually I think it’s more than that,” Nic said. “It’s like thalassophobia, but worse. You know thalassophobia? Fear of the ocean?”
“I know what thalassophobia means.”
“OK, so it’s like that, but on steroids.”
“The cold vacuum of space?”
“The endlessness of it. Like, at this very moment, if you look out in any direction, space is going out infinitely in that direction. Even though we are here at the bar, right now, space is out there like one big, dark, endless ocean, and it’s all around us. And it’s mostly empty. It’s just enormous and black and silent.”
“I swear to God, if I start having these dreams because of you,” Desmond trailed off. He stared into his glass and swirled the ice around.
“And the other thing I’m afraid of is Big Time,” Nic said. He leaned back on his barstool and felt like he might slip off before he steadied himself. “Like, space is huge, but so is time. It just keeps going on and on.” Nic took a sip of beer. “The only thing more terrifying than mortality is eternity.”
“You’re a delight tonight, Nicky.”
“No, I mean it. Think about it. Humans live maybe a hundred years. Can you imagine living for a thousand? A million? A trillion? It’s all infinite and endless and we are all just out here in a little lifeboat on top of the ocean.”
“You’ve got no rudder,” Desmond said. “That’s why you’re flying feet-first out of the window in these dreams.You don’t have your feet on the ground. You got no idea where you’re going.”
Nic took another sip of beer and looked straight ahead at the mirror behind the bar. Desmond waved at the bartender.
Tuesday, 8:22 a.m.
Jeffrey was desperate. The faculty bathroom had been occupied since at least 8:10. It was now 8:22. Jeffrey functioned in a world of order. Of lighting, and lenses, and the cool glow of iPad screens. There were right ways and wrong ways to do things. Showing up to the faculty bathroom at 8:10 was spot-on in the right things list. Abandoning all hope and waddling to the boys’ bathroom with his iPad in hand and his knees kind of pressed together was in the wrong things list. But Jeffrey was desperate.
Tuesday, 8:27 a.m.
Nic was running late. He had not slept well the night before. On the way to the teachers’ lounge, he had successfully avoided having a conversation with Warner, been ignored by Desmond as he slipped into the faculty bathroom, and observed Jeffrey downright squirming down the hallway.
“Hey Tabatha,” Nic said as he made his way to the coffee pot.
“Hi,” Tabatha said.
Nic stopped in his tracks. He turned to look at Tabatha. She was sitting at the lunch table, reading a book about cats and astrology.
“How are you?” Nic said.
“Pretty good,” Tabatha said.
“Yeah,” Nic said. “For sure. Got any weekend plans?”
“Well, first we have to get through the rest of the week, and then I need to buy a new pot for my cactus. It’s root-bound. You?”
“I was thinking about buying a new mattress.”
“Not taking Emma’s off her hands?”
“I dunno. Warner says it’s cursed.”
“Oh, it totally is,” Tabatha said, turning a page in her book. “Everybody who takes that mattress ends up breaking up with their significant other within, like, six months. The only way to break the curse is to pawn the thing off on someone else. It’s like ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,’ except for instead of being a pair of jeans that make your butt look good no matter your body type, it’s an old mattress that makes your lover decide to leave you for your sister. According to Emma, that is. Just don’t buy one of those Apostrophe memory-foam mattresses. The foam causes cancer.”
Nic was dazed by this exchange.
“Right. Thanks for the heads-up.”
Tuesday, 8:31 a.m.
Everyone dies. Jeffrey understood that. He wasn’t a baby about it. The truth wasn’t all rainbows and birthday cakes, but it was the truth. What was hard for Jeffrey to swallow was that he was forced to use the boys’ bathroom for his morning routine. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he was going to be able to make it there. For Jeffrey, this was death.
He sprinted, as much as one can with their knees tucked together in desperation, to the students’ bathroom. Fortunately, the halls were mostly empty. With his iPad clutched with both hands and pressed to his chest, Jeffrey was now mere feet from relief. Death comes for everyone, but it would not come for him today.
He bounded into the bathroom, into a stall, pants already about ankles, iPad at the ready. As Jeffrey lowered his shaking hamstrings to the cool porcelain, he heard the soft pat-pat-pat of a child’s shoes. The student used a urinal, washed his hands, and, on his way out of the bathroom, turned out the lights. Jeffrey’s face, bathed in the blue light of the iPad, was serene.
McAlister’s Irish Pub.
Airtime: Tuesday, 11:42 p.m.
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10¹⁰⁰ years after the Big Bang
Millions of millennia ago, human astronauts reported that space had a smell. After extended spacewalks outside of the International Space Station, they often noticed a smell, or more accurately a stink, lingering on their exosuits when they returned to the pressurized cabins of their satellite home. Accounts vary on what exactly space stinks like, but most folks agreed that it was somewhere between the odor of very hot metal and the carbon char of a steak that’s fallen off the grill and into the fire. Later speculation posited that the smell was the result of molecules having escaped from the hull of the ISS only to be snagged up in the fabric of the astronauts’ space suits. If that was the case, the astronauts were only detecting the scent of metals exposed to a vacuum, not the smell of space itself.
When Warner winked into existence at the heat death of the universe, he did not smell anything. He wasn’t even aware that there had ever been a debate about the smell of space. In fact, there were a lot of things that Warner did not know. For instance, despite being a math teacher, Warner did not know that 10¹⁰⁰ was the decimal notation for a number also known as a googol, or the digit “1” followed by 100 zeroes. Nor did he know that he had set his Tesla, which was what he called his homemade time machine, to travel a googol years into the future. He had simply turned the modified guitar amp dial up to 11 and watched the Slinky-shaped transformers start to spark. Nor did he know that another would-be spacefaring human was scheming back in Warner’s departure date to topple the American automotive industry with his own electric vehicle, also referred to as a Tesla. Nor did he know that his presence at the heat death of the universe would be particularly puzzling to any 2014er dedicated to physics, who would surmise that nothing, and specifically no Warners or space suits or old microwave ovens, could exist in a system approaching maximum entropy. Warner wasn’t a physicist. He was just a bad math teacher with a homemade time machine.
Fortunately for Warner, he was smart enough to put on his 2202 Terra Firma スペースボーイ Exosuit before going on this particular adventure. He drifted through the inky dark, the Tesla strapped to his back like a cheap Ghostbusters Halloween costume. He had learned not to let the device out of his sight when he was traveling. Other than Warner, there were no celestial bodies. There were no stars or nebulae or planets or moons. No expanses of great gas clouds or loosely assembled belts of rock and ice. There was nothing moving anywhere, and no light shining on anything.
The time machine had facilitated a great number of adventures, including a quick jaunt to the 2200s to pick up the exosuit. Warner had seen it all: the rise and fall of myriad empires, a couple of isolated exchanges of nuclear weapons near the Pakistan-India border, the eventual extinction of humanity (many, many years before the heat death of the universe), and the resulting erasure of everything indicating that humans ever existed in the first place (which happened not too many years after their extinction, in the grand scheme of things). The universe was a strange place to live.
Warner was stirred from daydreams about his adventures by the twinkling sound of wind chimes in the far-off distance of the great expanse. As the final particles in existence ceased vibrating, the time traveler breathed a sigh of relief and gazed, unblinking, upon nothing. ♦
Christopher Merchant, a native of rural Tennessee, has lived in Oakland for six years. After a stint in journalism, where he covered crime and courts, he realized it was better for his constitution to write about fictitious problems rather than real-world ones. In addition to reading, writing, and working with this magazine’s fine editors, he also enjoys backpacking all over California, sleuthing out new Thai restaurants in the East Bay, and reveling in the misfortune of his enemies.