Unlikely Portal

by Charles K. Carpenter

 

Crawling up onto the roof to fix the swamp-cooler is not on John’s list of favorite ways to waste a weekend, but he has promised his wife, Janet, he will have the repairs made before the real heat of June turns their house into an unbearable oven. And, of course, a promise is a promise, even though at the time he was just trying to get her to cut him some slack and let the problem lie for a while. How could he know the temperature was going to jump up into the nineties almost overnight, or that she would be so quick to leave for her mother’s place until the repairs were made. It’s unsettling just how fast those two things came together simultaneously. And very vexing.

Having brought his tools out of the garage at first light, he leans the ladder against the house to carry up everything he thinks he’ll need for the job, setting it on the roof near the alien-looking swamp-cooler unit. He isn’t all that certain what type of repairs he is going to make, but he can start by removing the mounting bolts from the four legs and tilting up one side, holding it there with the board he has brought up for that purpose. Having it tilted up that way, he will be able to see the plumbing, electrical wires, and the drain pipes, most of which hide inside the large, tin duct that connects the cooler to the ceiling vent down in the hallway. It’s a plan. A good one, he thinks. At least, until he drops a wrench down into the duct and tries to reach for it. Then things go from bad to worse.

Bent over the hole of the duct, he’s about as far inside it as he dares to go when he begins to slide slowly down the slick slope of the metal vent. Trying to stop his descent by pushing his arms out to his sides, he only succeeds in getting them ripped to shreds as his flesh comes into contact with the numerous metal screws that have been twisted into the tin to hold the pieces of duct together. As his uncontrollable slide gathers more speed, and before he has completely slid inside the hole, his feet come over the edge of the roof to knock the board out from under the cooler and cause it to slam down in place just missing his ankles. The next second he hits the ceiling vent down in the hallway and rams right through it, knocking it to the floor as he shoots from the vent, hits the wall, and crumbles to the floor.

In some form of shock, he lies there in the dark trying to understand what has happened, and also, how he avoided breaking his neck. Above and beyond all this, he begins to sense something is wrong. It takes him a few seconds, but he finally realizes what it is—it’s dark inside the house. Wondering how this can be, since it is morning, the sun should be streaming in through the windows. He hasn’t been knocked out for any length of time. At least he doesn’t think he has. And besides, he can still feel trickles of fresh blood running down his arms from his tiny, long-drawn-out wounds. No, something else is wrong here. As he ponders this, he begins to hear hushed voices coming down the hall from his bedroom. That’s right. His bedroom.

Wondering if he should run to or from the bedroom, instinct takes over for thought, and he knows he has to hide. Someone is in his house, and soon lights will be coming on. With panic as a helper, he struggles to a standing position and moves towards the stairs that will take him down to the lower floor of the split-level house and into the garage. As he leaves the landing, a strong beam of light flashes down the hallway behind him, and in his mind’s eye, he pictures a big guy standing there in his shorts, a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

Gaining the garage, he makes his way to the man-door that had been left open, but is now locked. Fumbling with the lock, he pulls the door open to the dark of the back yard and runs around the corner to the front of the house. Lights inside the house are flashing on behind him as he reaches the street, and he knows whoever is in the house will be calling the police.

But why? This house is mine, not theirs. Mine!

In the dim light of the corner street light, John turns back to the street to see something he has never seen before, and stops to squat down, running his hand over its cool, slick finish in wonderment. It’s a rail similar to those trains ride on, but not so large nor wide. A pair of them are running down his street. He takes a moment to glance around and finds to his amazement that each driveway has a set of rails running up its length to the garage. Even his! He runs a hand over his forehead which has begun to hurt. Trying to rationalize all this away, he wonders if the city has been secretly installing these rails while everyone is at work, and if they are going to make them convert their vehicles to the rails so they can keep track of them. He doesn’t know. He can’t even guess.

Standing, he notices with some alarm that the porch lights of every house on the street are coming on in a uniform pattern, starting down at the end of the street where the street T’s and coming back towards the cul-de-sac and his home. This can’t be good. Soon he will be spotlighted there in the middle of the street like an escapee in a prison movie. Deciding to hide, he runs towards the closest house sporting excessive greenery around it. If he can get beneath a large evergreen, he’ll be hidden from view.

After hiding himself, he sees with some concern that all the porch lights are now on, and people in robes and slippers are coming out of their homes to stand on the sidewalk near the curb. He has no idea what is going on, but is fascinated by the uniformity of it all—everyone doing the same thing at the same time.

The front door to the house he’s hiding in front of opens, and an older couple comes out onto their porch to look around. He begins to sweat. If they look to their right they’ll see him for sure. He begins to inch his way back into deeper cover. As he does so, he spies a rolled up newspaper the paperboy has thrown to the side of the porch. He stops sliding back when he sees something that brings on fear and astonishment. The date on the paper is June 19, 2042.

A loud humming sound coming up the street catches his attention as the older couple leave their porch and walk towards the sidewalk. Pulling the spider webs from his sweaty face, he adjusts his position so he can see more. A large, shiny globe about the size of a basketball is advancing towards the cul-de-sac, riding the air ten feet above the ground. The humming sound intensifies as it comes closer, and he hears a beeping in the background every time the two red, eye-like lights flash. This thing seems to be searching for something, and it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to realize it searches for him.

Watching it move around the turn-around, he sees the two people from his house have also come to stand near the street like everyone else. Frowning in thought, he thinks this coming out must be a common practice. What its purpose is, he doesn’t know. But it’s weird.

A louder beep from the globe sounds off as if to draw attention, and is followed by a computerized voice saying, “Alert! There is an unregistered humanoid in your area that has not yet been located. Please move to the left side of the street and follow me down to the intersection so this area can be searched more fully.”

Watching the globe come full circle and start off down the street towards the intersection, John realizes this has to be the time to move, and does so by crawling out from under the shrubs and running towards his house. He believes he’ll make it if the silver globe doesn’t see him and shoot some kind of paralyzing ray his way. He glances back over his shoulder as he runs and sees the globe is still leading the people down the street. He begins to feel lucky and wants to cry out in joy. But, of course, he doesn’t. This nightmare is still a reality.

Slamming the door closed behind him, he twists the lock and dashes up the stairs to the kitchen. Removing a stool from the island, he hurries to pick up his wrench and kick the vent out of the way so he can set the stool beneath the hole in the ceiling. It’s not high enough. He has to get another from the island. Setting it on top of the first one, he begins to crawl up his makeshift ladder and finds the climb precarious; each stool wanting to go its own way Finally getting the height he needs to crawl back into the vent, he hears someone pounding hard fists on the front door, wanting in.

Trying not to panic, he jumps up and begins to pull himself inside the vent. He can feel the flesh on his fingertips being ripped anew by the sharp, wicked end of the penetrating screws, but pays the severe pain little heed. He has to make it to the roof on this first try. Something inside tells him he’s not going to get a second chance.

Once high enough so he can use his feet, he pushes up with them as his tortured hands claw their way towards the top. For the first time he can see sunlight streaming in around the cooler, and it occurs to him he has just left the dark of night. Bumping his head on the bottom of the unit, he braces his feet against the sides of the vent and slides the cooler to the side of the hole. Blinded momentarily by the bright sunlight, he crawls out onto the warming shingles to lie there for a second or two, the cool breeze caressing his sweaty face and body as though welcoming him back. Again he feels like weeping for joy, but there is no time for that. He has to slide the cooler back over the hole and fasten it in place. Slipping the washers and nuts onto the mounting bolts, he begins to tighten them to make the unit immobile.

The urge to weep comes upon him once again when he is finished, but he won’t give way to his feelings. Not now. There’s still one last thing he has to do. Picking up his wrench, he wipes the blood from it onto his shredded shirt front. Glancing at his arms and legs as he works, he sees his blood has stained his jeans and is still oozing from his arm wounds. Standing, he’s hit by dizziness and has to wait until it passes. From where he stands, he can see the street, and is more than happy not to find a floating globe or slot-car rails imbedded in the street.

Long-held tears of joy blur his eyes as he moves towards the ladder, but he hardly notices. He has to get back into the house and do the one thing that will make this nightmare go away forever.

Stepping into the kitchen, he pulls the phone book from a drawer, looks up a number, and with a bloody finger punches it out. Someone answers, saying, “Good morning. Clayton’s Heating and Cooling.”

“Help me,” John says in a feeble voice. “I really need a repairman to come out and see what’s wrong with my cooler.”

“We’ll be happy to come right out, sir. Give me your address, please.”

John relays the information while wiping the perspiration from his forehead onto the back of his arm.

“Oh, I see on the computer we’ve been out there once before. Ah, a couple of years ago.”

“We didn’t own the place then. We just bought it last year.”

“I see. Well, it won’t be the same repairman, anyway. He up and quit right after he finished that job.”

“He quit?”

“Yes. Just up and disappeared on us altogether.”

“But—”

“We’ll be out within the hour, sir. You’ll be there?”

“I hope so,” John says, eyeing the vent grille lying on the floor of the hallway.

 

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