Usok

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Elsewhere

by Eliza Victoria

[Art by V.N. Benedicto]

Page 1

Entire page: nothing but black.

CAPTION: This place is not of this universe.

Page 2 Panel 1

The night sky. No moon, just stars. A tree is in view, branches and leaves waving in the wind. The tree’s branches look old, menacing. You wouldn’t want to sit in its shade.

CAPTION: Here, energy reaches the ground from the atmosphere in bursts, like lightning.

Page 2 Panel 2

Same. Lightning streaks the sky and illuminates the leaves of the tree.

CAPTION: But unlike lightning, the bursts are not connected   to approaching storms, and do not produce thunderclaps.

CAPTION: They cannot be predicted.

Page 2 Panel 3

We are looking at a man (40s) inside his house through a window. There is a table by the window. He is eating dinner. He looks pleased. On his face and body, we can see the outline of the tree in Panel 1. Inside his house we can see flat computer screens on the walls, hanging there like picture frames. On the screens are numbers, images. His furniture is sleek and is made of steel.

There is a small cube lamp hovering in front of him on the table – his source of light.

CAPTION: Most of the time the burst does not hit the ground, and is captured in mid-air, stored, and converted to electricity, to power this world’s cities.

Page 2 Panel 4

The man, startled, looks out the window. We see the shadow of the burst on his face.

CAPTION: But sometimes the energy bursts are strong enough to hit an object.

Page 2 Panel 5

The man is hit by the energy burst.

CAPTION: One Mississippi.

CAPTION: Two Mississippi.

CAPTION: Sometimes, nothing happens.

Page 2 Panel 6

The man sits slumped on his chair.

CAPTION: But sometimes…

Page 3

Entire page. We see the room in more detail. The man bursts out of his clothing, turning into a large centipede.

MAN: AIEEEEEEEE!

CAPTION: The people of this world call such transformations Anomalies.

Bottom of the page contains an editorial box with the title and credits. This is titled, “The Anomaly”.

There was a man who had been coming to Burgers Burgers Tasty Burgers every day ever since Tom began working there–what? A month ago? Even Tom couldn’t tell anymore. He used to joke to his shift-mates–mostly students, college graduates in job-hunting limbo, and fired call center agents–that Burgers Burgers Tasty Burgers had a name so godawful that it could bend time, or at least destroy a person’s perception of time. “It’s possible that I’ve been here for a million years,” Tom would say. And that man too, had been here for a million years. Tom’s shift-mates wondered why the man kept coming back. The burgers at Burgers Burgers Tasty Burgers were cheap but they weren’t that tasty.

It wasn’t Tom who first noticed him. Once, Jonas tripped over the man’s shoe, and the customer helped Jonas pick up the empty soda cans and French fries cartons and crumpled burger wrappers from the floor (Jonas was clearing tables then), apologizing profusely, as though he had done Jonas a great wrong.

“So of course I remembered him,” Jonas had told them, when he pointed the man out. “And I’ve kept an eye on him. He always sits on that cushioned chair by the glass wall.”

“You remembered him because he was nice?” said George.

“No,” said Jonas, who came to the restaurant’s foundation party three weeks ago in a pink wig and a magenta gown, “I remembered him because he was incredibly cute.” He turned to Tom. “He looked a bit like you.”

“I wonder what you are really trying to say, Jonas,” Tom said with a smile, and Jonas giggled behind a hand.

“You should probably get his number,” Mary said.

“Or at least his name,” George said.

“Ay, ateng, he might move to McDonald’s,” Jonas said. “And we’ve lost so many clients to McDonald’s.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard they have better burgers,” Tom said, which they all thought was pretty funny.

The man, (whom Jonas liked to call TBM – The  Tasty Burgers Man) was clean-shaven and silent, and looked young enough to be in his twenties, although the wrinkles Mary had seen on his face when she’d brought an order to his table could mean he was in his thirties, or under extreme stress. He was a habitual customer, but not a creature of habit:  sometimes he’d come early in the morning and order coffee or an entire breakfast meal, sometimes he’d come very late at night when the tables were usually empty, or during merienda, when the restaurant merely served as an air-conditioned sanctuary from the summer heat. The only constant was that he would come, every single day.

He never wore anything that would draw attention to himself. Jeans, rubber shoes, a dark plain shirt, often black or gray. Nothing red, nothing garish or expensive. The cushioned chair he favored was at a corner table for two. If Jonas hadn’t trip over him they wouldn’t have noticed him. He would have slipped in and out like the many childless adults who dropped by the restaurant for a quick and cheap snack, adults drinking coffee alone in a room of bright lights and plastic smiles, adults out of context.

One day, Tom was pulled out of the kitchen and instructed to man the counter. Usually Tom wouldn’t have minded, but it was Sundae Day, and to do counter duty on that day of all days was shitty luck, according to the other employees. On Sundae Day (which falls on the first Sunday after Burgers Burgers Tasty Burgers’ foundation date; if the foundation date falls on a Sunday then there would be two Sundae Days in one month) child customers up to the age of ten got a Double Fudgy Fudge Sundae for free. The end result: sugar-energized children ruining at least one toy in the play area; eleven year olds insisting they were ten, their screams tripling the decibel level inside the restaurant; parents shouting at the cashiers for not replacing a sundae that “wasn’t fudgy enough”.

Tom would very much like to punch the idiot who thought up Sundae Day.

To add insult to injury, the employees had to wear unwieldy paper headgear featuring Sundee, the Burgers Burgers Tasty Burgers’ Sundae Day mascot. Sundee looked like a fluffy chicken covered in cotton candy – an image that everyone found ludicrous.

“Why can’t we just have a fucking sundae on our fucking heads is what I want to know,” George said as he filled up his tray by the kitchen, his back to the melee.

“Shh, the parents might hear you,” Tom said.

“Fuck them all.”

Tom grinned and carried his full tray to the counter. The woman waiting there had lazy eyes and looked ready to snap someone’s neck. Tom’s ideal customer. “Thank you for waiting, ma’am. Here is your Special Tuna Tuna Tasty Tuna Fish Sandwich, with extra onions as requested, regular fries, and regular Diet Coke. On the next Sundae Day ma’am, perhaps you can bring a younger sibling or a cousin, and they’ll be able to get our free Double Fudgy Fudge –“

“Shove it,” the woman said, and left the counter with her order.

“Oh-kay,” Tom said, the smile nailed on his face, and lifted another tray to the counter. “Next, please!”

The Tasty Burgers Man was wearing a dark-blue shirt that day. He wasn’t looking at Tom as he approached the counter. He was looking down by his feet, at a little girl tugging at her mother’s jeans and spraying chocolate fudge on every leg that happened to be nearby. “Mommy I want Sundee,” she was saying. “Mommy I want Sundee they have Sundee on their heads Mommy.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” George whispered under his breath, and went off to fill his tray. Tom took a deep breath and let out a sigh. TBM looked as if he were in pain.

“Is this your first Sundae Day?” Tom said when the man finally looked up.

The man seemed bewildered by the question.

“That’s what we’re having,” Tom said. “Sundae Day.”

Suddenly the man didn’t look confused, merely tired. “I see.” And sad. Incredibly sad.

“So,” Tom said, hands poised over the touchscreen cash register, “what are we having?”

“Just a coffee,” the man said. “And a sandwich.”

“Which sandwich? Right now we have Tuna Tuna Tasty Tuna – “

“Yes, that sounds good.”

“All right. Would you like to add fries, a side dish, or – “

“No.”

Tom hated pressing customers to order more. He thought he sounded like a fundamentalist nut. “How about soup?” How about salvation?

“No.” This time the man smiled. “That should be fine.”

“One moment.” Tom filled up the tray, took the man’s bill, made change, and smiled. “Please come again,” Tom said, though everybody knew he would.

“Thank you,” the man said, and took his tray off the counter.

“Guy’s got the hots for you,” Jonas whispered when TBM went to sit at his table for two, on his cushioned chair by the glass wall. The man looked out at the street, his hands on his lap, and did not touch his food for several seconds.

Tom just shrugged.

Tom lived in a house a jeepney ride away from the restaurant. It was a three-storey boarding house, with the ground floor occupied by the landlady’s family. Her relatives had recently set up a carinderia and sari-sari store right outside the building, so that solved virtually all of Tom’s problems with food preparation. Tom couldn’t cook inside the house. The kitchen was ghastly. There was grime on the tiles, the sink leaked whenever he washed more than three plates, and the refrigerator – filled with various jars and Tupperware’d leftovers and one or two rotting apples – smelled like an eviscerated corpse. He couldn’t eat there, much less prepare food there. While he did have experience cooking quick meals, he’d tried frying a burger for his dinnertime ulam­–barely a week into his new job–and almost gagged at the smell. “Perils of the workplace,” George had said when Tom told him the story.

And so every dinnertime (and during other meals, on his off-days) he’d go to the carinderia and become the customer for a change. Working in food service had made him see restaurant servers in a new light–he now saw that they didn’t give a shit about him. He was just another warm body. Later, he would be an empty seat, a table that had to be cleared away. It was refreshing to sit inside the carinderia where time and people moved slowly, where he could sit as long as he wanted and listen to the ceiling fans hum.

He’d sit at his usual spot, a small table for two near the entrance pushed against the wall, and order food that didn’t have a hint of burger or fries or mustard, food that wouldn’t make him gag. He didn’t hold conversations with anyone, except maybe the occasional prattle with Donna, one of the waitresses, who called him anak and showed him pictures of her grandchildren and gave him extra soup for free. Most of the time he listened to the other diners talk.

He chose that seat at the carinderia because there was a mirror there facing him, an old mirror, so dirty with age his face was almost obliterated. Look I’m disappearing, he had thought with a shock when he first sat down, but it was just the grime on the mirror covering his nose, his mouth, his neck.

Look I’m disappearing.

There were dreams. There had always been dreams, which Tom walked off, just as he did the muscle strain from standing behind the counter. He felt restless sitting with the other boarders in the shared living room (the sounds of the television and their chatter drilled into his head), and he couldn’t focus enough to read or relax enough to sleep, so after dinner he’d walk around the city, sometimes watching couples stroll under lampposts while he sat on a cement slab and smelled the air. If the dreams continued to cling he’d go back to his room, switch on the light, and write. He didn’t own a computer, so he wrote in longhand, neat little letters in a large notebook also filled with sketches. At first he drew blueprints (FIG. 1 BURST CAPTURE TECHNOLOGY), and then resorted to a narrative after discovering, on one of his walks, an old comic book script in a bargain book store, and falling in love with the form. When he had some free time at the restaurant, he’d write there, too, hunched over an empty tabletop, squinting in the harsh fluorescent glare.

On the nights he wrote, his sleep was dreamless.

Page 4 Panel 1

The city’s main avenue. The centipede, once a man, has left the house and is now prowling the city streets. We see the creature, harshly lit, from the top of a building, behind snipers capturing the centipede in their crosshairs.

SPEECH BALLOON: “The Anomalies are getting more and more dramatic.”

Page 4 Panel 2

We see the centipede from the sidewalk. People are aghast, running away. The centipede rears up as bullets from the snipers pass through its body.

SPEECH BALLOON: “I don’t think ‘dramatic’ is the word for it.”

Page 4 Panel 3

The scene’s colors drain; we see it now on a TV screen. The balloon’s tail points to the right of the panel.

SPEECH BALLOON: “Hm.”

Page 4 Panel 4

A man, in his thirties, dressed in a white shirt and loosened tie (his suit is hanging on the back of his chair) is sitting behind an impressive oak desk covered with papers and books. He is bent over a pad of paper, writing with a pen. There is a gooseneck lamp trained on the paper. Beside the lamp is a laptop, ignored. The only things illuminated were his hands, his chest, the bottom half of his face.

MAN: I suppose not.

Page 5 Panel 1

The man’s hand and paper in the foreground. Looking on and sitting in front of the desk is another man, seemingly also in his thirties, yet older than the first man. This second man looks amused.

MAN 2: Hm.

Page 5 Panel 2

Same.

MAN: Now what?

The second man looks away, a smile on his face.

MAN 2: The best technology in the world, and you’re writing longhand.

Page 5 Panel 3

We see both men in the same panel. The first man stretches; on the other side of the table, the second man’s arms and legs are crossed.

MAN: I enjoy writing this way.

MAN 2: That man –

Page 5 Panel 4

Same. The first man has lowered his arms. The second man is gesturing toward the television (off-panel).

MAN: Hm?

MAN 2: Several months ago he applied for law school. An old dream. He already had a thirteen-year-old son – did you know that? Fortunately the boy was on vacation when the burst entered their home. Anyway. The man worked for an IT company, but he wanted to be a lawyer, apparently. In fact, he received a letter today, just after he left his office.

MAN: He got accepted.

MAN 2: He called his son. He was going to take him on a trip, to celebrate.

Page 5 Panel 5

Same. The first man’s head is lowered.

Man: A shame.

Man 2: Do you think the energy burst is God?

Page 5 Panel 6

Same. The first man stares at the second man. No dialogue.

Page 5 Panel 7

Man 2: Don’t look at me that way. I know you’ve been wondering the same thing.

Page 6 Panel 1

Man: There is nothing in this world that is more powerful – and more feared – than the energy bursts. In that sense, yes, it is God.

Man 2: But does it punish? Does it praise? There was a girl who was given the gift of flight –

Man: The bursts are random.

Page 6 Panel 2

MAN 2: And so they mean nothing. Something that can change you so, so completely – they mean nothing.

MAN: No. I suppose not.

Page 6 Panel 3

The second man looks away. No dialogue.

Page 6 Panel 4

The second man takes the first man’s pen.

MAN 2: That is –

Page 6 Panel 5

Close-up of the second man’s hand holding the pen on his open palm. The pen is whirling in mid-air.

MAN 2: – what I find -

Page 6 Panel 6

Same. The pen is now gone. Nothing on the man’s palm now but traces of the tiny whirlwind.

MAN 2: – so hard to accept.

Page 7 Panel 1

Back to the look of Page 6 Panel 3, except this panel is in black and white, the men mere silhouettes.

CAPTION: If the energy bursts do not physically transform, they give additional abilities, change the chemicals in the recipient’s brain.

CAPTION: There are several, according to the Book of Changes, categorized as follows:

CAPTION: Turn, Flight, Burn –

Page 7 Panel 2

Back to color.

MAN: Where did you take the students?

CAPTION: Travel.

Page 7 Panel 3

Same.

MAN 2: The students.

Page 7 Panel 4

Same.

MAN: Yes.

MAN 2: I don’t know.

MAN: That makes two of us. Oh god.

Page 7 Panel 5

Same, except that the first man now has his head in his hands.

CAPTION: Murder.

MAN: Oh god where did I take them.

Page 8

Text. Splatters of blood on this page:

Twin energy bursts struck me and my brother on [redacted]. You would think that, as President and Press Secretary, respectively, we would be protected–security detail, advance party, expensive burst-proof orb, the works. (Once there was a clerk named [redacted] who got hit by a burst and received the Protect ability – he could create a burst-proof orb for thirty minutes. He used to travel with us, until he got shot by a deranged man who believed in Equality. I was fond of that boy. He was very diligent and polite.) (Also, “received”? Must I use this word, as though the energy burst is an entity that willingly gives?) But the orbs were restrictive, and we were children too, once–we had the orbs removed when we knelt on our mother’s grave.

And that’s when the bursts came.

My brother and I weren’t transformed into giant bugs or reptiles after we were hit. Nobody realized that an Anomaly had occurred.

My night was filled with violence. Men fucking pigs and then roasting them, and then fucking them as their skin split and bubbled over with fat bursting from the heat, and I came over to the fire and the pigs had turned to girls but I fed on them anyway, pleasured myself even as they screamed into my ear. All of a sudden a corridor and I could feel someone breathing down my neck and I was stabbing an old man in the dark.

In this nightmare I had power but I had never felt so helpless.

The next day I killed a group of students.

Not in a dream. No. I was wide awake, or as awake as I could manage; I was running on five cups of coffee. The students were holding a Leadership conference in [redacted] and they wanted me to be there, give a short speech, or if I couldn’t be at the conference–I am a busy man–at least record something they could screen for the attendees. You had me cornered, I said. They laughed. My right knee was jackknifing, my heart a whimpering child. The way they smiled at me, their teeth and eyes close and closing in.

I smashed my coffee mug into the face of the one sitting to my left, closest to me. Screams, blood on porcelain, the guards inside the room shouting Sir and raising their guns. I grabbed the weapon of the guard standing closest to me and shot everyone in that room. I was waiting for the other guards to come in and shoot me Come on Come on but there was only my brother closing the door behind him saying Stop.

My brother made everyone disappear.

He touched them, and they were gone, and I don’t know where they went.

Nothing in the room but me and my brother holding me and the blood on my skin.

The bursts, my brother said. It’s not your fault.

And yet I wonder.

I feel sick. Soul-sick. Gut-sick. The Vice-President has taken over, for the time being. They gave me pills. They gave me notes like:

X-chromosomal gene K-version diff. from enzyme monoamine oxydase-A (MAO-A); repeating sequences altered; high activity in amygdala; serotonin build-up alarming

All it means is that I am not me. Or that the burst that hit me has uncovered who I truly am.

I do not know anymore.

I live in a room with white walls. Sometimes the pills are so strong I cannot feel my face. My brother visited me once and said Hello and I know I said Hello back but the video the doctors played later showed me sitting there as silent and as still as a statue.

Please. Please.

I want to die.

I want to get out of here.

Tom was alone when the Tasty Burgers Man decided to talk to him.

He was on the late-night shift with Jonas and the supervisor, but it was a slow hour, so Jonas was out on an early cigarette break, and the supervisor was in the kitchen, berating the cooks or rechecking the stacks or god knows what. Tom didn’t care. He was glad to be alone for once, mopping the floor, the restaurant cool and silent and devoid of children.

He didn’t notice the man by the glass wall until he started mopping his shoe.

“Sorry,” Tom said, and the man, wearing black that night, a Styrofoam cup of coffee steaming on his table, looked up at him and said, “I’ve been meaning to return these.”

The man was holding up a sheaf of papers filled with sketches in pencil and ink, rough boxes cut up into panels, and Tom’s words. It must have been one of the drafts he’d written at work. Tom couldn’t remember leaving it behind.

“You draw really well,” the man said, handing him back the sheets. Tom held the mop handle against his chest and with his free hand took his papers.

“Thanks,” Tom said. He couldn’t decide whether he should turn away or not.

“What happens in the end?” the man asked.

“Excuse me?”

“What happens in the end?” The man gestured toward the script. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to read it.”

“Oh.” Tom glanced at the pages. “It’s all right. I don’t know. Maybe the President kills himself.”

“Hm.” The man seemed to be studying him. “You think so?”

“If you’re a big-shot comics guy I’ll buy you a burger right now.”

The man didn’t laugh. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he said. Tom, by then, had begun mopping the floor around the man’s table.

“It’s the accent, isn’t it?” Tom smirked.

“You’re not from around here,” the man said.

Tom put on a look of surprise and confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you know me?”

“I didn’t know the Travel would make you so young,” the man said. “And I didn’t know you’d survive the transfer with your memory more or less intact. I can take you back. The Second Anarchy is over, everything’s all right now. We can go back. I’ve figured out how to do it, how to make the skill function in-between worlds.”

Tom stepped back, almost tripping on his mop. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I should talk to you.”

“Please.” The man looked miserable.

Tom regarded the man for a few silent seconds. “I could just walk away right now, you know,” Tom said in a soft voice. His supervisor might emerge from the kitchen anytime soon.  “I could have the police lock you up, if you kept badgering me.”

“Please,” the man said.

This time, Tom sat down, the mop handle between his knees, the wood resting against his shoulder. Finally:

“Why didn’t you talk to me before?”

“I wasn’t sure you remembered me,” the man said.

“I remember you,” Tom said, his eyes on the floor.

“Why didn’t you talk to me?” the man said.

Because I remember you,” Tom said.

The man said nothing.

“How are you?” Tom said. “Do you have a job?”

The man smiled. “Yes, I do. Cashier at some bookstore not far from here.”

“Amazing how easily we adapted, isn’t it? The language, the climate. It’s as if our brains –”

“How we’ve changed, eh?” the man said, cutting him off. “An entirely new life, at the price of a random burst and a universe sliced open.”

Tom said, “You mentioned an Anarchy.”

The man nodded. “A group of radicals presented themselves, unprotected, to the bursts. Allowed themselves to be turned. The ultimate lottery, but they didn’t care. If they ended up getting skills, they used those skills to attack the guards. If they ended up being creatures, they destroyed buildings. They were well-trained; the resulting creatures were actually semi-conscious. If the city weren’t already in the middle of a complete breakdown I would have considered it remarkable.” The man sighed. “But all that’s over now. We’ve elected a new leader. Everything’s slowly coming back to normal.”

“And yet nobody’s altered the Book of Changes,” Tom said, looking up. “Tell me, do they know now that the energy bursts can create psychopaths?”

“The energy bursts can create monsters,” the man said.

“I’d rather be turned into a monster,” Tom said. “I’d rather not see my face when I look in the mirror. I’d rather not know my face.”

The man sighed and closed his eyes.

“If I had turned into a monster at the graveyard you would have shot me,” Tom said. “All the guards would have. I should have been shot.”

Beyond the man and the glass wall, cars zipped by on the street, oblivious to other worlds.

“You’re not coming with me, are you,” the man said.

“The Travel altered me,” Tom said. “It cured me. My brain structure must have changed itself to conform to this world, as if the extra chemicals from the bursts were luggage I left behind as I changed flights.”

“Don’t you want to come back?” the man said. “Don’t you want to come home?”

“If I go back I am going to kill,” Tom said. “Don’t you understand? I can’t go back.”

“We can find a cure.”

“I’ve already been cured.”

Tom’s brother straightened his back, leaned over to get his cup and finished his coffee.

Tom was already behind the counter, handing fries and a ham and cheese sandwich to a woman in a suit, when Jonas walked in smelling like nicotine. “Thank you,” Tom said to the woman, who looked about ready to fall asleep. “Please come again.”

“Aw,” Jonas said, glancing at the table by the glass wall. “He’s gone already.”

“Yes.”

Jonas stared at him.

“What?” Tom said.

“You look sad,” Jonas said with a smirk. “You have the hots for him too, don’t you?”

Tom rolled his eyes, and stepped out from behind the counter. “Say, Jo, can you man the counter for a bit? I’d like to sit outside.”

“Sure thing,” Jonas said, then almost immediately boomed, “Welcome to Burgers Burgers Tasty Burgers!”

Tom maneuvered his way around a group of students coming in for a midnight burger fix. Outside, the air was surprisingly warm. He sat down on the curb and watched the vehicles follow their headlights. He sat there, calming himself, controlling his tears, and tried to watch the road as though he belonged there, as though the city belonged to him.

About the Author

Eliza Victoria was born in 1986. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications based in the Philippines and abroad, most recently in High Chair, elimae, The Pedestal Magazine, Expanded Horizons, and Philippine Speculative Fiction V. Her children’s book, Jeremy’s Magic Well, is one of the ten winning stories of the Gig Book story-writing contest and is now available from GASFI. She received a Palanca award in 2009 for her poetry collection, “Reportage”. Visit her blog, or follow her on Twitter.

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Carinderia: An informal canteen or eatery, which can range from a proper restaurant to a temporary roadside stall.

Sari-sari Store: A small convenience store, sometimes operated as an adjunct to a residential house. In smaller stores, customers conduct their business at a window and never actually enter the store.

Ulam: The main dish, the part of the meal that does not consist of rice or bread.

Anak: Roughly, “my child” in Filipino.

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