“Hey buddy, you got any spare change?”
Karl stared at the bum, straight faced, and began to take the next few steps towards the
door of the internet cafe he spent his off time in.
“Alright buddy, God bless you,” the bum said with bored disappointment.
“What’d you just say to me? What the fuck did you just say to me?” Karl was shouting; people were stopping to see what was happening.
The man behind the counter of the internet cafe with the grease slicked hair looked up from his laptop screen, a rare occurrence. A cab driver turned the corner and honked his horn to try to stop Karl. At this point, Karl had a grip on the man’s shirt collar and was hurling weak, clumsy punches at his head. The bum, realizing he was no longer in any actual danger began to loosen up. Karl’s blows weren’t nearly enough to do any real damage, so the bum was able to crack a dirty, swollen smile.
The bum began to laugh and a crowd began to gather around the scene. Karl was incoherently screaming scientific facts about how God can be disproven and that saying, ‘God bless you,’ was the greatest insult of all to him and his community of intellectuals.
“You idiot plebeian!” Karl screamed, tears streaming down his face.
The crowd that had gathered around them began laughing with the bum. “Easy killer,” someone sarcastically remarked. Karl, out of breath, his wool khakis spotted with sweat around the buttocks and waistband, realized that he was probably on the losing side of this fight. He quickly dropped the bum and grabbed his leather laptop case which had fallen off his shoulder in the commotion. Then, quite ungracefully, he turned and ran back down Main Street. He ran for what felt like forever to him, but what was actually about 3 blocks to his apartment complex.
He burst through the front doors of building 4, crying and sweaty, and was greeted by the doorman.
“No luck today downtown, Mr. Johnson?” he asked. Karl ignored him and kept running to the elevator.
He ran past the pamphlets for events; Singles Dodgeball, Singles Aqua Aerobics, Singles Cooking Classes. Karl’s apartment complex was geared towards singles looking for love between the ages of 30 and 50. Karl got into the elevator and as soon as the doors closed he collapsed in the corner. No longer fueled by rage, he could only think, ‘I am so out of shape.’
The elevator bell dinged. Floor 69. The top floor. Karl pulled himself up and waddled out of the elevator, his pants chafing him with every movement. His was the only apartment on floor 69, a lazy design flaw by both the architect and engineers, and was located at the end of a long, doorless hallway opposite of the building’s elevator corridor. The floorplan was exactly the same as all the others, with apartments ranging from numbers 401-420. The 69th floor was different though, apartments 401-419 were nonexistent. The hallway was long and dimly lit, with cobwebs all along the length of it. It was in stark contrast with the rest of the apartment complex which was undecidedly modern and clean.
Karl opened his door and immediately disarmed the multitude of alarms that protected his home. Next to the alarm panel sat his homemade aquarium that housed one of his closest friends, a Chinese Red Cap Goldfish named Poncho. Poncho was the kind of goldfish that looks like it’s brain is popping out of it’s head; Karl praised it for being “one of the smartest non-humanoid beings he had ever met.” In reality, Poncho was nothing more than a common pet store variety goldfish.
Over the 8 years Karl had lived in his apartment he had spent upwards of $2,000 on furniture pieces for Poncho’s aquarium. He wanted to base the interior design of the tank off of the general aesthetic of the mythical lost city of Atlantis. His imagination of the mystical world stemmed from a version of it portrayed in the Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Poncho’s aquarium, garnished with a plethora of sea grasses, brass gears, and miniature brass submarines, was top knotch - to say the least. Karl liked to attribute Poncho as being one of the strongest and most supportive people he’d ever met. He would speak for hours to Poncho, explaining all of his ideas for inventions: gloves to keep dorito dust from caking your hands, a machine to perfectly synthesize the taste of Monster energy drink from home, a vehicle to travel between parallel universes. Karl had almost no scientific knowledge to backup his outlandish invention ideas, and Poncho knew that, but he never actually spoke up to dash Karl’s dreams.
Across the apartment, next to the collection of Victorian era gears and the scale model of an A-Frame house floating above the ground, suspended by a steam powered flying apparatus, sat an object that hadn’t moved for years. It was overgrown and unkempt but still gave off a certain aura that made you feel as though it’s eyes were following your every move in the house. Karl had gotten this Chia Pet years ago, and it bore a striking resemblance to the actor Adrian Brody. It wasn’t quite him, but for a second you’d think it was. Karl still called this ceramic planter Adrian, though. He had been tormented in his dreams by Adrian, an issue he often brought to Poncho for advice on. That aside, Adrian and Poncho were Karl’s only friends. He even considered them his family ever since the incident.
Karl spent his 30th birthday in the basement of his parents’ home, alone, in his underwear, and watching The Big Bang Theory. When his parents got home from their night at the theater they found him half asleep on his couch, with his bare hand in their peanut butter jar and peanut butter covering the immediate area around his mouth. He had done this regularly for his whole life and it drove his parents understandably insane.
Karl had ruined countless jars of peanut butter this way. His parents would try to salvage the jars but by the time they would get there, Karl would have already tainted them with a toxic mixture of Mountain Dew and crushed Doritos. On its own, the Dorito-Dew cocktail was tolerable by some but it was something about the oils in peanut butter that changed the chemical makeup of the mix and caused it to be repulsive and extremely conductive to electricity. His parents were tired of this happening. Their son turned 30 years old that night and he still had no job, no life, and no aspirations. Judy and Paul were both successful lawyers and it pained them to see their son wasting his life this way. They didn’t understand his internet comics or steampunk outfits. When they found him at home that night, hand in their brand new jar of peanut butter, they decided that they had to do do something. His father looked at him in disgust and disappointment, “Get your hand out of that jar and get out of our house,” he said with a crack in his voice. Karl’s parents paid for his apartment and gave him money to live off of every month but otherwise they hadn’t spoken since Karl left his childhood home 8 years ago.
At home, Karl often had night terrors. He would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and thrashing in bed. He described his incredibly vivid yet terrifying dreams to Poncho every morning. “They’re pushing me to my limit, I’m telling you. The dreams, they.. they keep getting more and more elaborate. It’s hurting my huge mind!” He said one morning while reading his copy of Anime Quarterly.
That night, Karl poured himself a snifter glass full of Mountain Dew and sat down by the window to look out at swirling night sky. Karl found Kansas City profoundly beautiful at night, more so than any other city in the world, even though he had never actually been out of the Midwest city. He would just sit and watch the sky and think. Doing this, he found, was just as therapeutic as discussing his problems with Poncho.
Karl watched a helicopter fly across the sky and land on the helipad of Kansas City Memorial Hospital. He scoffed and figured that some idiot from Park City probably blew up their meth lab or something. The night was especially cloudy and he could see lightning striking a few miles away.
“Storm’s a brewin’,” Karl heard from across the room.
“Wh-who said that?” Karl asked tentatively after taking a gulp from his glass.
“The lightning’s getting closer. You better get ready to go.” Karl watched Adrian’s ceramic lips move and he couldn’t believe his eyes.
He took a gulp from his glass, finishing it, already intoxicated from the high sugar levels of the soda, then threw it against the wall. Karl knew exactly what to do.
He had a strange sense of Déjà vu; he had seen this all in a dream before. It had all happened, up to him throwing the glass at the wall. Adrian wasn’t oddly cryptic in the dream, though. He was uncharacteristically conscice. Adrian knew everything about Karl and therefore had the utmost control over him. He was able to use Karl’s insecurities against him and play with his heart. Karl could recount a handful of dreams where Adrian had given him what were supposedly top secret government secrets, information about the future, and even the meaning of life. This got Karl into a lot of trouble after he would wake up and try to act on his new found “information.”
The lightning cracked again in the sky, this time slightly closer. Karl recounted a dream he had had just 2 nights prior in which Adrian gave him the blueprints to a vehicle that could travel between universes in the multiverse. Adrian mentioned specifically the codes that needed to be input into the machine to get to Karl’s own version of Utopia: the steampunk universe.
Karl rushed around his apartment to assemble to components he could remember from the list Adrian had given him. He ripped the circuit board out of his television remote and hot-glued it to the lense of his camera. He then ripped the battery pack out of the camera and replaced it with the ignition switch of a barbecue lighter. The intended outcome of this hodgepodge invention would be for the user to stand perfectly still and press the shutter button of the camera, which would cause a web that sucks in everything within 5 feet into a different universe.
Once Karl had the contraption set up as best he could, he took a look out of the window to see where the lightning was. It had just struck the lightning rod of another highrise in his cluster. He took a look around his apartment. It was littered with all of the waste he detested from modern American society. His gaze turned to all of his steampunk figurines and scale models. He grabbed his bottle of Mountain Dew and took a swig straight from it then grabbed a Dorito and his jar of peanut butter and took bites from both in one sweeping motion. He turned around quickly and clumsily, knocking the open bottle into the pile of crushed chips and peanut spread. He was ready to be in the universe he was meant to be in.
He pressed the button and nothing happened. Karl was shocked; for some reason he couldn’t believe that Adrian would trick him like this again. He looked over at the chia pet, it sat there petrified with a smirk on its face. Karl sighed deeply with disappointment and dropped the camera on the ground.
Just as his camera hit the ground, a bolt of lightning shot through his window and struck his kitchen table right at the divergence of the Doritos, Mountain Dew, and peanut butter. It’s hyper-conductivity and complex chemical makeup caused a reaction once the lightning hit it that viciously tore a hole in Karl’s universe and swept him up into a Purgatory-like tunnel. He was falling, yet felt weightless in this strange vacuum. He saw clocks and gears and vast expanses of color flying past him. He looked to his left and narrowly escaped the grip of a dinosaur’s jaws. He was confused and scared.
Karl realized where he was after 10 long seconds of falling that felt like forever. He remembered stumbling upon a book at work, Costco, that detailed theories about our universe. He remembered a chapter about the multiverse theory that hypothesized that our universe is nothing more than a bubble, surrounded by fundamentally similar but slightly different universes in their own isolated bubbles. The theory dictated that each universe began the same way but followed a different timeline of possible options. In one universe, the dinosaurs never went extinct, in another, dogs were the dominant life forms. Anything was possible in the parallel universes. Karl realized that in this case, the separate universes were stacked on top of each other, explaining the pipeline he was falling through.
Karl realized the potential for a positive outcome after getting pulled out of the tunnel. He knew that somewhere, somehow, there’d be a universe that followed the steampunk timeline. Karl also realized the potential for his new universe to be catastrophically bad. What if he got sucked into a universe where Earth was just a barren wasteland? What if he was shot into a universe where everything was claymation? He couldn’t handle that.
Just as these thoughts were going through Karl’s swelling head he felt himself being pulled in every direction. ‘This is it,’ he thought, ‘It’s happening!’ All of a sudden, Karl’s senses were hindered. He was floating in a sensory depraved bliss. All of the thoughts that troubled him, all of the pet peeves that drove him insane, and all of the physical limitations of his imagination were gone.
Karl woke up on a foggy, moss covered beach. His wool khakis soiled and his polo shirt stained with tears and his own saliva. He rubbed his face and touched the ground, just to make sure he was actually conscious and in a real place. He sat up, his head pounding and massaged his temples. He looked to his left and through the fog saw what looked like a man. Karl examined the man from a distance. He immediately noticed the man’s faded brown leather tophat, garnished with brass trim. Karl had once seen a tophat like it on an online steampunk forum. He kept looking at the man, to see whether he was friend or foe and noticed the man’s extremely thick neck. In fact, the man was quite large all around. He could tell from a distance that this man certainly possessed a physical strength far greater than his own. Karl began to wonder why this man was sitting in perceived solitude on the beach.
Karl tentatively approached the man whose gaze seemed to be set on the open ocean. Or was it a harbor? Karl had no idea.
“Hello comrade!” Karl yelped from about 20 feet away from the man.
Karl watched the man slowly turn his head and stare at him from behind a pair or horned rimmed brass glasses. After about 15 excruciating seconds, the man lifted a finder to his mouth and made a loud “Shhh” noise.
“Where are we? What year is it? Who are you?” Karl spat out nervously.
“I reckon you’re new here, huh boy?” The hulking man said. His voice slow like molasses with a thick accent that sounded cajun.
“The name’s Tommy, Tommy Hilfiger.” He said
“L- Like the designer?” Karl asked, thinking he was being duped.
Tommy gave a crass chuckle. “I do declare you’re out of your element, son. I am no designer; I’m a military man myself. Been fighting ever since I can remember. I know what you’ve been through, I’ve been through it too. The war has ravished our society and displaced many a person like you and I.”
Karl knew this man had no idea what he had just experienced and normally he would aggressively correct him but something inside him told him that would be wrong. Did the trip into this new universe change him? That was neither here nor there he decided. He wanted to talk to this stranger more to try to piece together where he was. At that moment a huge airship passed over them both. The fog parted and light was set onto this steam powered goliath that resembled a cross between a zeppelin and a fighter jet. “Great scott..” Karl managed to whisper to himself. He had made it, he was in the steampunk universe.
Karl heard a faint hissing in the air, the sound of steam being released at an incredibly high pressure.
“I’d say we should probably find a new spot to talk,” Tommy said nonchalantly. Karl didn’t hear him, he was focused on that incessant sound coming from the sky.
“You must be some kind of simpleton,” Tommy said, grabbing Karl’s arm and in a swift sequence of steps pulled them both off the beach and behind a pile of boulders about 30 feet high.
“How dare you call me a simpleton!!” Karl screamed, unaware of the brass box that had just landed on the spot they occupied just moments ago.
Before Karl could continue his rant, Tommy grabbed him and forced him in a cavern formed in one of the boulders. Once again, Tommy silenced him and nodded towards the beach. Within seconds, an explosion rocked the area.
Trembling, Karl stood up. He was ready for Tommy to give him guidance. A tear ran down his fleshy cheek and he couldn’t believe that the world he had always dreamed of living in was plagued with war.
“Let’s saunter over to my safehouse, son.” Tommy said, sensing fear in Karl.
“That’d be nice,” Karl managed to say.
Tommy noticed that Karl had soiled his pants during the explosion and muttered a well intentioned, “God bless this boy,” under his breath.In his head, Karl began to think of ways to scald Tommy about this comment but realized his pomposity, along with his general weakness would prove futile against Tommy and against anyone in this world that was quickly becoming his nightmare.