Harold continued to swing his hips and poke his fingers skyward. He kept his eyes shut as tightly as he could manage. He was afraid of what he might find if he dared open them. Given the last ten minutes or so, anything could be waiting beyond those eyelids.
“Sir, here is your coffee,” a man’s voice said.
Harold had forgotten all about coffee. He stopped dancing, opened his eyes, and found himself standing at a coffee bar; one he was familiar with, as it had been part of his morning ritual to stop at this very coffee bar in Grand Central Station when he worked in New York City.
“Grand Central Station?” Harold said in a loud voice. He grasped the edge of the counter and looked around. “Grand Central… Station.”
The man behind the counter held out a cup. Steam arose from the hole in the lid. “Sir, please take your coffee. There are other people waiting.”
“Yes, thank you,” Harold said in somewhat of a daze and took the cup. He was not one to turn down a cup of coffee, even in the midst of some sort of psychotic episode. “But what do I owe you?”
He reached into his pocket and realized he was still wearing his blue terrycloth bathrobe. “Oh, for goodness sake.”
“You’re all set,” the man said and pointed to a man sitting across the way on a nearby bench: Carl. “He paid for it already.”
Harold sipped his coffee and stormed toward Carl. He wanted an explanation- he deserved an explanation. The crowd swelled, and his angry march across the food court was cut short after only a few strides. He politely excusing himself several times and by the time he reached Carl his anger had waned a bit.
Carl looked up from his phone and the anger immediately returned.
“What is going on?” Harold said. “I demand an explanation.”
“It’s really nothing to get upset about.”
“Isn’t it?” Harold said in a loud voice. His hands started to jitter with the rush of adrenaline. “Teleporting to Grand Central Station in my bathrobe is nothing to get upset about? My God, Carl, my cat yelled at you.” Just then, Harold noticed Carl was no longer in his underwear, he was fully dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt and sneakers.
“Maybe you should sit down. I will try to explain.”
Harold sat and managed a shaky sip of his coffee. The coffee was delicious and so hot he could barely stand to hold the cup; it was just the way he liked it. He looked around at the bustling station and took in the sounds and smells for the first time since his arrival. He loved New York. He had sat on this very bench, doing this very thing countless times. Well, not exactly this very thing; he had always at least been wearing pants.
“We are not in New York,” Carl said.
Harold looked around again. “We aren’t?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Could you please be more exact, if only for few moments? I could use some exactness.”
“I work for a company that specializes in experimental leisure activities, ELA for short.”
“Doesn’t ELA already stand for something?”
Carl sighed and gave Harold the stink-eye.
“ELA created a program called Pleasure Porting.” He held out his phone and showed the screen to Carl. The phone appeared to be a regular, run-of-the-mill phone. The screen contained a list of words, mostly junk food names: Pickles, chips, soda, pizza, tacos.
“That makes perfect sense,” Harold said sarcastically. “Thank you for sharing your shopping list with me.”
Carl looked around the station as though he had heard something alarming. “It’s not a shopping list. It’s a list of worlds.”
“What is the matter with you? Who would name a world Pickles? This is absolutely absurd and I’m going home.”He stood up and joined the endless stream of people rushing past the bench.
Carl remained on the bench looking at his phone.
Harold stopped after only a few yards. He had no money and it was a long walk back to Arizona. This was a fine mess—a fine, confusing mess.
“Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?” a woman in the crowd said to Harold. Other people continued to flow around them. She was tall, and Harold had to crane his neck to meet her radiantly green eyes.
He fumbled with the pockets of his bathrobe, searching for a watch that did not exist. “Umm… I’m sorry. I don’t seem to have the time.”
The woman stood in place. She appeared frozen. Not even her shoulder-length blonde hair moved as people rushed by. Harold backed away. Something did not feel right. “Are you okay?” he asked. Still, she did not move. He had an ominous sense that things were about to get weird again, not that they had ceased being weird in the first place. Planet Pickles, indeed.
Harold rushed back to Carl and stood over him. “Something is not right.”
“You’re telling me. Planet Cheeseburger isn’t responding at all. I can usually at least get a signal from them.”
“Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?” a woman said to Harold. She was identical to the first woman.
“Again?” Harold said.
Carl looked at the woman and then at Harold. “What do you mean, again?”
Harold took a few steps back. “She asked me for the time just a moment ago, and then she froze, and now she is asking again.”
Carl stood and shoved his phone into his pocket. “We gotta go.”
The woman froze in place, and Harold could now see the first woman had not moved at all; she was still standing in the crowd. He wasn’t sure if that made things any clearer or not. He wasn’t sure of much of anything. Only in New York can a woman turn into a statue and nobody bats an eye.
“Come on,” Carl said as he ran away from the bench and ascended the marble staircase to the main concourse.
Harold arrived at the top of the stairs moments later laboring for breath.
The concourse was busy but less so than the lower level. People milled around the circular information booth at the center of the large space. New York’s most famous clock ticked away atop the information booth.
Carl motioned to the information booth. “That’s where we are going. We need to get out before the Three have time to complete their series.
“The three what?”
“No, just the Three, like the Beatles: the Three. They are the same energy that was at your house earlier, only in a different form. They can appear as any human form. They always travel together and they all must complete the same action before moving on to the next action.”
“Why do they freeze?”
“They freeze once their action is complete and come back to life when a new series starts.”
“Why didn’t the first lady simply kill me if that is her goal?”
Harold stopped to ponder other questions. “Why are people trying to kill me?”
“They aren’t people to begin with, not anymore, anyway. They must complete an entire series with their victim before they attack. If a third woman asks you for the time, you’re in big trouble. You only have seconds to react if a series completes. When they attack, they do so simultaneously.”
“Have you ever seen them attack?”
“Yes, and it’s not pretty. The victim is torn apart, piece by piece.”
“Piece by piece,” Harold whispered to himself. He had many more questions but needed time for the current overload of information to sink in.
Carl suddenly sprinted across the concourse without warning and maneuvered around people in the crowd like a quarterback heading for a touchdown. He took out his phone as he ran.
Harold jogged along, some distance behind as not to attract attention. People were already beginning to stare at Carl. A few people realized the men were a pair and gave Harold the dirtiest looks they could muster. “He’s okay,” Harold said to an older couple as he jogged by, “just a little eccentric.” Their expressions soured and they stuck up their noses.
Carl leaped onto the edge of the information booth and jumped onto the roof with two fluid strides.
Now everyone was looking at Carl, including half a dozen security officers who ran toward the booth.
“Get down!” people took turns shouting.
“Oh my,” Harold mumbled to himself. “This is no good at all.” He sprinted through the crowd toward the booth.
“The reception is much better up here,” Carl shouted to Harold, who was now stuck in the equivalent of a mosh pit at the base of the information booth. “Cheeseburger is coming in loud and clear.”
“Oh, thank goodness for that,” Harold said as he squeezed through the crowd. “Excuse me, excuse me.”
Carl Pointed to Harold. “He’s got a gun!”
A woman screamed and the crowd dispersed, clearing the way for Harold to ascend the information booth. By this time, the police, with guns drawn, had the booth surrounded.
“Now what?” Harold asked. “Do we do the Chicken Dance and bang our chests so we can teleport to the Eiffel Tower?”
“No,” Carl said and held his phone over his head. “This is just the station. There are many ways out, and each way is different.” He pointed to the ceiling. “A lot of people think the mural was painted wrong, but it isn’t.”
“Good to know,” Harold stated with a flat tone.
“You might want to hold on to something.”
Harold hugged the clock.
Streaks of eclectic-blue lightning shot from the phone with a deafening roar. Carl braced himself against the recoil as the beams of light scanned the ceiling. Harold clung to the clock with great attention. A second burst erupted from the phone. The bolts fractured until there were hundreds of laser-like blue streaks streaming from the phone.
The beams scanned the ceiling of the concourse and converged on the constellation Triangulum. The shape lit up and began to spin. The beams then outlined Musca, the fly, and the image flew across the ceiling, triggering a chain reaction. The Pegasus came to life, then Aries, then Gemini. The stars rained down a shower of white-hot sparks, and the ceiling shattered and was sucked upward into the vacuum of space.
The air rushed out of the concourse at a ferocious velocity.
“Are you ready?” Carl shouted over the rushing wind.
Papers and debris flew past them. Anything that wasn’t bolted down rushed out through the ceiling.
Harold could not catch his breath to speak, but he managed a nod. He looked around the concourse. Everyone had fled. The suction intensified and pieces of the information booth begun to rip free. Harold’s feet lifted into the air. His grip on the clock was slipping. Carl was gone.
Three figures stood in the whirlwind: three tall, slender female figures with radiantly green eyes. Harold looked at the clock and then addressed the figures: “It’s half past ten!” he shouted and zipped into the atmosphere.
To be continued…