Not a care in the world
Dee Powell attached crinkly strands of blue and yellow crepe paper to the basketball goal in the Eden, Texas middle school gymnasium. She and three of her friends from the Art Department were decorating for the upcoming ninth grade graduation dance.
My buddy, Cade Johnson, had gone down to the basement and brought up the ladder on which Dee stood. We had brought up pretty much everything the girls were using.
“Well, don’t just stand there staring, Jack Lewis,” Dee called. “Go on down and find that last box of crepe paper.”
I ducked my head; mortified she’d caught me ogling her. I’d been downright mesmerized by the glimmer of the fluorescents bouncing off the rhinestone headband in her dark hair.
In less than three months we would all be in high school. My dad had already started grilling me about colleges and career choices. My stomach knotted up at the thought. The idea scared me almost as much as the idea of asking Dee to dance with me tomorrow night.
“Well?” Dee called down again. “Are you going to the basement or do I have to climb down off this ladder and do it myself?” She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
“Go ahead, buddy,” Cade said. “I’m pretty sure I saw that box just past the stairs.” He nudged me and whispered, “Besides, I left you something. Know what I mean?” He winked and made an up and down motion in front of his groin with his closed fist.
I rolled my eyes. Cade might be my best friend, but he could be a real ass. I shoved his arm down. His attitude really irked me. I didn’t want all of my dreams and desires to be nothing more than teenage horn-mones (Cade’s word). I wanted these feelings to be something more, something real.
Something like . . .
“Dude.” Cade’s voice bellowed even though he was standing right beside me. “I think Dee really needs that crepe paper.”
Dee smiled and looked at me and for a moment we shared something across that wide space that was almost as bright as the burnished floor. That gentle smile said she knew how he was, but she didn’t hold it against me.
I could’ve stood there, looking at her, for the rest of time, but one of the other girls called her name and she turned to catch a new roll of tape in midair. Directly past her head, tree branches clawed at the narrow gym windows. The West Texas wind had been howling all day.
I hurried out of the gym before my “best friend” could say or do anything else to embarrass me. Sometimes I wondered why I put up with him. I had a pretty good idea of what he had left me in the basement. Today he’d given his PowerPoint presentation in Biology. That meant he’d brought his laptop to school. Not only did he delight in looking at his dad’s porn, he also delighted in sharing it with me—whether I wanted him to or not.
I think he copied the dirtiest pictures just to shock me. As if to test me somehow. As if we both knew that if I ever gave in to the desire to demand more ugly pictures—which I really wanted to do sometimes—then I might end up tossing away all the tiny good things I haven’t even experienced yet. Like dancing in the gym beneath a twisted canopy of crepe paper, or a sharing that special glance that might lead to a first kiss.
Feeling like a fool, I yanked open the heavy basement doors. The stairwell and storage area were both lit by the usual flickery fluorescents. I boogied down the stairs and located the box of paper.
Cade’s laptop sat on top of a five-gallon pickle bucket.
Setting the box aside, I pulled over a second pickle bucket to sit on, and then opened the computer. Instead of the pictures Cade had bookmarked, I pulled up one of my own nerdy websites. It was a science site run by a university professor who did his best to use physics to explain the unexplainable. I just didn’t want to look at Dirty Sluts of the South and then go up and face Dee in the gym. On the other hand, if I went right back up, Cade would know I didn’t look at all, and I’d never hear the end of it.
My website sprang to life.
The lights went out.
For a moment, my skin tightened up like a dried leather glove, but then I remembered the wind. It sometimes messed with the power in our little Podunk town. I took a deep breath and tried to make myself relax. It was either that or lose it completely and run screaming for the stairs. Dee would really be impressed if I burst out into the hall screaming like a two year old. Thankfully I still had the laptop’s screen light. I figured the power would come back on in a few minutes like it always did.
I glanced back down at Dr. D’s Adventures in Dimensions. The credits claimed he was an astrophysicist. Today he didn’t sound very academic. In fact, his voice was downright shrill. “Listen,” he demanded. “Our universe is expanding too fast. The fabric between the dimensions is growing too thin.”
I thought the man’s voice was too thin. As he continued, it turned into a screech. He said today’s show was a warning. “Something is happening,” he yelled. “The world exists in a multiverse and each universe is a parallel dimension.” Now, he stared directly into the camera. “Try to understand! It’s important for you to understand! Our universe and the one paralleling it have been expanding at different rates.”
He removed his glasses, his eyes growing wider and wilder as he spoke. “The fabric between our dimensions is shredding—” He glanced over his shoulder as if he’d heard someone approaching. Then he leaned closer to the camera and whispered. “The dimension paralleling ours is Purgatory. Its inhabitants are awaiting new souls.” His voice dropped into an even lower register and he hissed, “Get underground.”
It occurred to me it had to be a practical joke. The doc was trying to prank us into calling in and saying something stupid. Or doing something stupid like that War of the Worlds radio stunt my Granny told me about. The radio announcer had made it sound like a real alien invasion—until everyone started to panic. I decided that must be what Dr. D was trying to do. It’ll probably be trending before the webcast is even over.
But as I watched the doctor stalk about, tugging at his Einstein hair, the LOW BATTERY message appeared and the computer winked off.
I sat perfectly still, a rectangular after-image of the screen hanging in front of my face. Fear overtook me and I was suddenly five years old waking from a nightmare in the dark. I took another deep breath and carefully closed the laptop before getting to my feet. My toes immediately encountered the empty pickle bucket and scooted it across the concrete floor. It threw me off balance and I stuck my hands out in front of myself like a B-movie-zombie. The absence of light gave the darkness a texture like black felt. I shuffled forward, pushing the pickle bucket with my toes.
The professor said they need new souls. Who are they?
Don’t think about it. It’s just a show like that War of the Worlds thing or those reality shows on TV that are supposed to be real but are really so fake. Why can’t I find the stairs? Maybe the basement expanded right along with the universe.
I swept my arms from side to side, trying to locate the stair rail, but they met only air. The panic I’d been keeping at bay suddenly crawled into my gut and made itself at home. I shoved the pickle bucket aside and dashed for the place the stairs ought to be. A solitary bead of sweat itched its way down the back of my neck into my collar. I swatted it like a pesky mosquito just as my toes found the first step.
Relief washed over me and I stumbled up the stairs certain something would reach out before I could—
Scritch scritch scritch
My head rotated toward the sound as if pulled by a puppeteers string. The noise seemed distant, yet close. I lunged forward, scalp tingling, certain that at any moment a hand would latch onto my ankle, or the empty pickle bucket would come flying at me through the darkness.
The next thing I knew I was on my knees, hands clutching my ears. A deep, throbbing vibration threatened to stop my heart. It seemed as if a million tubas were blowing the same bass note in unison. The panic in my gut exploded and I jerked myself to my feet and scrambled up the rest of the stairs on my hands and knees.
Earthquake? Tornado? Bomb?
I didn’t even realize I’d reached the landing until I whammed into the unexpected push bar with my shoulder. I was surprised the doors weren’t blocked by debris from whatever disaster had befallen us.
But they weren’t blocked.
They flew open and I fell out into a dimness that was somewhat brighter than the basement, but not nearly as bright as it should be.
The power was off in the rest of the building, too.