“What do you want for it?” Ted asked the clerk as he examined the strange white block on the floor in front of him, holding back a sneeze. The dust in the old store was going to kill him – he was sure of it.
He crouched to examine the block closer and brushed off a layer of dust. It had a musty, old smell to it – he figured from being confined to the old store for years. He imagined it must be an air conditioner – one of the portable ones that won’t break your back since it didn’t need to be set in the window. It was odd though, there didn’t appear to be any exit vent.
The clerk looked up from what he had been reading on the store counter and adjusted his glasses with his finger. “What? That?” he scoffed. “Oh I dunno – I don’t think it works,” he paused and looked up to the ceiling, “Five bucks and it’s yours.”
“Five bucks?” Ted smiled, thinking to himself that he was getting away with highway robbery. “Five bucks for an air conditioner? That’s a deal.”
“Ahuh. Like I said, I doubt it works. Been sittin’ there for years.” The clerk, clearly annoyed, smoothed out the newspaper and went back to reading.
Ted reached into his pocket for a five dollar bill and stepped over to the counter to hand the money to the clerk. The other man didn’t raise his head, but instead talked to his paper, “Just leave it on here” he patted the counter, sending a fresh cloud of dust into the air. Ted could feel his nose starting to clog, followed by runniness. It always amazed him how a nose could be stuffy and runny at the same time. He glanced around the room, devoid of customers and scoffed the clerk, “I can see you are busy. I hope I didn’t take you away from any important tasks such as keeping your shop tidy”, and set the money on the counter. The clerk never glanced up from his paper.
Worth ten times that, he thought and carried out the air conditioner. It was heavy and he had all he could do to get it to his rusty truck – an old Chevrolet that, to his relief, would not quit since it was all he could afford. A faint whistle from what seemed to be inside the machine caught him off guard and he almost dropped it from his shock. Who knew what kind of pest might have wound its way inside the old unit. The truck wasn’t far, soon he’d be able to load it and the wind from the drive should give whatever was inside the machine a good enough scare that it would leave. A thought entered his mind that he should just return the air conditioner and be done with it, but he quickly dropped the idea since he wasn’t on the best of terms with the grumpy clerk.
He took a deep breath and heaved old unit on to the back of the truck bed and pushed it all the way to the back, feeling a slight click in his spine. That was all he needed, a broken back.
Ted thought about his years in school. It seemed he had everything then, at least until the injury he had taken at a major football game. He was the star quarterback and could have gained a scholarship to some Ivy League school. Instead, he wound up with a cracked spine that took years to heal. School became secondary to him being able to walk again. Oftentimes, he would remember the sickening sound of his back snapping after the impact he had taken. The feeling of flying backward and hearing the crowd cheer in slow motion. The lights flashing – was it cameras or was it his vision fading out? Blackness encircled him and the feeling of the ground meeting him as he fell back. Years went by and now, stuck in the dead end job, he was working for his father in law’s friend, Roy, whom he despised. What a wonderful life.
Roy was an ambulance chaser. Roy would have him scan the police log in the local papers for car accident reports or listen to the police scanner. He provided a grid for Ted to follow and assign the accidents a category: Minor, Disabled, Might Check Out, Dead as a Door Knob. Roy loved the “Disabled” category – that was the biggest money maker. The “Dead as a Door Knob” category would mean calling the victims and offering legal services to family members which Roy always hoped it would a be a cute widow. Ted would often hear Roy close the office door at night when he had a meeting with a grieving widow with whom he’d make sure to offer some liquor to in order to “ease the pain”. Ted couldn’t imagine Roy’s scheme of getting the widow’s drunk in order to seduce them worked – but it didn’t stop Roy from trying. Between the widows and the latest cute secretary, he was a busy man. A busy man, who left his wife at home to drink away her loneliness like his own mother had done when his father had left her. Memories of taking care of his mother surfaced whenever he thought about his boss and he could feel his blood pressure spiraling.
Ted pulled up to the office and began to unload the heavy unit when Roy stepped out of the office building. Wearing his standard, all gray suit, Roy looked at Ted and pulled his belt up to cover his big waistline. Roy peered down and realized his fly was open and quickly zipped it back up, nodding at Ted as he did so. Rita, the new secretary scurried out behind him, adjusting her skirt. Roy watched her rush to her car and turned back to Ted. It was repulsive to see him with Rita, a childhood friend of Ted’s wife. Roy had known her since she was five. As if Roy could read Ted’s thoughts, his sleezy grin widened and he winked at him – as if to say, “yeah, I had her and she wasn’t bad.”
“What the heck you got there Ted?” he asked, squinting at the sun shining down on them. A trickle of sweat dripped down Roy’s forehead and he wiped it away with his embroidered Handkerchief which Ted assumed must have been made by his wife.
“I picked up an air conditioner,” Ted replied and heaved as he pulled the unit off the truck to set it on the ground.
“I’m not buying a darned air conditioner. You got a fan already,” he replied as he shook his head.
“You didn’t buy it, I did.”
“You’re not installing that junk in my office.” Roy turned to go back to the office.
“If you want me to do my job and keep my mouth shut –“ he stopped short and nodded to the secretary who was now pulling out of the parking lot, “you’ll let me install it.”
Roy turned and glared back at him, his frown turning into a sly smile, “Sure. You go ahead, Son.”
Ted watched him go and then hauled the unit to his small, cramped room where Roy had set up a space for Ted to work. Ted assumed the room probably served as a small laundry room at one time; large enough for a small washing machine and dryer. Roy required Ted keep the door shut in order to keep the back office work out of view from the clients as they walked in. The summer had been an excruciating one: record breaking heat and little rain. The cramped space allowed for little air flow aside from the window which opened out to the back parking lot and the little fan he had at his desk.
Again, checking the back of the unit, there were in fact no vents. The only thing attached to the unit was a black cord which he plugged into the wall. A neon blue light began to blink. Thinking briefly about the strange sound of whatever was in the machine; Ted pushed it to the back of his mind. He was hot and this old piece of junk was going to bring him some relief. He reached out and pressed the button.
The room melted away as if the walls were made of butter. Ted felt his head spinning and soon all he saw was blackness. Stars surrounded him and light flashed, causing him to raise his arm up to keep from being blinded. A moment later, he found himself in a dense forest. Clicking sounds of nearby woodland creatures echoed in the trees. A sound of some strange creature reminded him of the sound he had heard when he was loading the machine into his truck.
Ted gasped and scanned his surroundings. It was more than he could imagine. It was beautiful. He could not see the sky, as he was deep in a forest of some sort. Yet, he did not recognize the trees. They had an exotic look to them. Mysterious fruit hung from the limbs high above him and gave off a strange illumination, changing colors from purple to neon green in a slow wave. Turning around, he saw the black cord of what appeared to have been from the air conditioner unit. A few feet ahead, it disappeared into a white cloud where he could make out the slightest bit of his office.
Incredible, he thought. That machine – it made a portal. Ted shook his head in disbelief and half in thought and half speaking asked himself if he was losing it. He didn’t know if he was going crazy or if this was real. As beautiful as the scenery was, he had the feeling something was off. It was still hot, yet a breeze was steady. The air smelled of flowers, but at the same time, it smelled of rot. Feeling his legs begin to tingle, he wondered to himself how long he had been standing in one spot.
Cautiously, he took a few steps. The ground was soft and mushy and he could feel himself sinking in the mud. Curious, he knelt down to touch the earth he was ankle deep in. He gasped at what he saw. The ground was moving. What he had thought was overgrowth, was in fact, worms. Lots of worms.
Ted tripped and fell backward. Bugs of all forms began crawling up his legs. He screamed and jumped to his feet. What had been the clicking noise he discovered had actually been the worms on the ground ripping at the soles of his shoes.
”What is this place?” he shrieked.
He pressed his back against a tree trunk, but it didn’t feel right. The bark was a sticky, rubbery substance. He tried to wrench free, but he was stuck.
The white portal was not far ahead, in front of him. Dark voices, some deep and guttural, others high pitched and strained as if in terrible pain, whispered in the woods and with each word, grew louder as they approached.
Ted thrashed and ripped one arm free, but his other shoulder was still firmly stuck to the trunk of the tree.
“Hungry.” A dark voice whispered and something cracked in the woods followed by piercing laughter.
More voices chimed in. “Hungry. So Hungry.”
Ted could make out large shadowy shapes now to both sides of him. His feet burned. The worms had burrowed into his shoes.
Panic set in deeper and he thrashed harder. This can’t be how I go, he thought. A tree in his line of sight swayed with the crashing of shrubs not far behind it. He realized then, had Roy not been such a jerk, he wouldn’t be in this mess. He’d be sitting comfortably in his air conditioned room, using the air conditioner Roy had purchased for him. The idea that he was about to get eaten by – who knows what – all because of that sleazebag infuriated him. With a surge of strength he did not know he possessed, he wrenched free his other shoulder. He dashed to the portal and heard the mysterious beasts running for him. He could almost feel as though they had him. He leaped into the portal.
Crashing into the door of the small room, Ted was back at work. Feeling a pull to the portal, he kicked with his foot at the power cord, knocking it from the outlet. The portal faded out and he took a deep breath.
Slowly getting to his feet, he examined his feet. Most of his shoes were ripped away and red welts covered his skin from the insects feasting on him. A worm, the size of a linguine noodle lay near his foot, squirming towards him for another bite. Kneeling down, Ted picked it up and held it close to examine it. It snapped at his face with tiny razor teeth. Smiling, he thought about how inferior the worm was now. He was the master. For once in his life, he had power.
“You think you are better than me?” he asked the worm, imagining Roy’s face on the body. “You think you can just bite me whenever you want?”
The worm with Roy’s face kept lashing at him. Laughing, Ted realized he wasn’t powerless. Not anymore. Lifting the worm to hang in front of him, Ted picked up a pair of scissors and cut the head of the nasty creature. Yes, that’s better, he thought. What was it? Was it the air of that strange world that helped him to see how powerful he really was? He didn’t know, but he did know that Roy needed some form of discipline for all the years of torture he made Ted endure. The worm’s head lay motionless on the floor, no longer resembling Roy. He’d have his revenge. Glancing excitedly at the clock, he grinned. He had spent longer in the strange world than he realized. Time must be different there, he thought. It wouldn’t be long now and Roy would be leaving which meant he’d have his chance to implement his ad-hoc plan.
Ted could hear Roy laughing and flirting with the other ladies in the office. Roy’s voice faded and the sound of a door closing signaled that he was out of the office and on his way home. Ted waited patiently for the others in the office to leave. When the last employee had left, he walked to Roy’s office and took out the existing window air conditioner unit. He was tired, but the thought of revenge was so sweet.
Glancing around the room, he searched for a note pad and found one next to a picture of Roy and Ted’s wife when she was younger. A tinge of sadness crept over him. What am I doing, he thought – this is wrong. No, no, no! I’m the boss now, not him. His hands tightened into fists and he felt his nails digging into his palms. Roy was sleazebag. Grabbing a pen and the notepad, he scratched a note and attached it to the unit he pulled from the window:
“Broken. Took A/C from closet”
Signing it as the janitor, the task was almost complete. A grin crept onto his face. Soon, he thought – soon. He ran back to his closet and began the arduous task of hauling the mysterious machine in Roy’s office. Sweat dripped from his forehead and he could feel a migraine on its way. No time for that, there will be plenty of time later to rest, he thought and pushed himself harder.
He stood over the machine, next to the outlet. There would be no way back after this. Smiling, he realized he didn’t care and plugged the machine into the wall. The blue neon light began blinking with a strange ominous glow. He could almost hear a call to him from inside the machine. He wanted to smell the air of the strange world again and his thoughts felt jumbled. He hadn’t noticed his finger was resting on the button and he snapped it back before he pressed it. Taking a deep breath, he turned to leave the room. Now, it’s time for fate to take its course, he thought and walked back to his office. He’d stay there for the night. He didn’t want to miss this.
Morning arrived. It seemed to take forever. Ted jumped from his chair when he heard Roy’s voice.
”What the heck is this?” Roy asked.
Footsteps followed and shortly after a knock at Ted’s door. Roy didn’t wait for his answer and opened the door.
Ted tried his best to look mad. He didn’t wait for Roy to question why his A/C had been replaced. “I bought that unit with my own money, Roy.”
Roy smiled. “Yeah, sometimes we need to make sacrifices.” Turning, he let the door close behind him.
Indeed, Ted thought.
Ted listened as Roy started the machine. A minute passed and Ted quietly made his way to Roy’s office and peered inside. Roy was not there. A black circle was behind the machine – calling him. Ted stepped a little closer to where the cord was plugged in the wall trying to ignore the call to the portal.
Cautiously reaching for the cord, he could almost hear screams from far far away. Have fun Roy, he thought and smiled before yanking the cord free. The cloud vanished.
“Not bad for five bucks.” He smiled and went back to his closet office.