A loud crash echoed through the warehouse. Shouts and expletives shot back and forth, accompanied by the din of conversations stirred up by the fervor. The line manager looked at the spilled boxes of cereal, tumbled from the recently assembled store displays and rolled his eyes. “Alright, goddammit,” he shouted. “Fred! Dammit, get back before you screw anything else up!” He looked across his area for someone-anyone-that could salvage this debacle. His eyes landed on someone. “Manny!” His shout got the attention of a heavyset worker supervising a team as they placed shampoo bottles in packages of two to be sent off to stores. “Get your ass over here and fix this shit!”
Manny turned away from his team and towards the source of the shouting. “Aight,” he agreed. “Be there in a moment.” His eyes scanned for the least stoned person there. “Bobby! You make sure these shampoo bottles get put in the store units! We gotta get a hundred and eight more before the shift ends!”
“No prob,” the man said, looking up from his place on the line.
The heavyset man rolled his eyes and trundled over. Sure, he was fat, he knew, but damn, having to walk so far over to a new station to fix a problem was putting a strain on his back. Most of the time, he got to stay in one station and keep to the job at hand, and his ability to sleep might be thwarted tonight, thanks to whatever numb nuts managed to cause a spill. He looked at the manager of the cereal shipments station and down at the mess and pulled up a broom and handed a dustpan to someone next to him. “Is this it?” Manny asked.
“Yeah,” the other supervisor said, “but I got rotation duty, so you need to fix this!”
“Yeah, gotcha,” Manny agreed. He pointed. “Jackie!” The young man’s attention switched from whatever la la land he was in, to the dustpan in his hand. “Help me out with that.” He swept bits of cereal into the pan. “Rick, can you get me a trash bag?”
The man with the iron cross tattooed on his shoulder approached with a black trash bag and held it open. “Here,” he flatly stated.
As Manny moved cereal from floor to trash, he looked at the station. “Keep the store displays going!” he ordered. He set the last of the cereal into the trash and looked at the sheet on the clipboard by the manager’s area of the station. “We’ve got to get a hundred and two more store units put together.” He approached the crates. “Open that, and those three, and that should be it. And try not to spill it again!”
“Hey!” A worker protested. “We were told we were leaving at three!”
Manny sighed and put hands on hips. “You think I’m happy?” he retorted, shaking his head. “You think I wanted to leave the station where I had everything under control to come over here? I’m not making much more than you! Maybe a dollar or two more at the most! Don’t give me shit about this!” The anger disappeared and he was left with blind frustration. His job paid him maybe eleven dollars an hour, and he wasn’t going anywhere upwards anytime soon. The economy had left him behind with all the others who weren’t lucky. Now he had to hope that the rejects who’d washed out everywhere else could keep their crap together long enough to get him through another shift without having to hold their hands.
“We’re about halfway through the orders,” Bobby said, indicating the finished store displays of shampoo at the end of the line.
“Good,” Manny agreed. He looked around, before his brows furrowed. “Where the hell is Doug?” He threw his arms up. “Fine! Whatever. Bill, help me put these store displays in the crates to go on the trucks.”
“Comin’,” Bill said, brushing the silver hair out of his face. He and his line supervisor started assembling crates full of store displays of shampoo-conditioner two-packs, sealing them when full, and placing the sealed crates on pallets to go on the trucks.
About an hour later, the last of the orders of shampoo and conditioner store displays had been crated, sealed, and placed on trucks. Manny approached his clipboard and checked his watch. “Alright, everyone,” he said to his station crew, “we’re done, with eighteen minutes to spare, so no penalties.” At least five separate hallelujahs went up. He began filling out his paperwork to indicate that, yes, no disaster had occurred, and life could continue as normal. The other station supervisor would have to fill out paperwork indicating that product had been damaged, but thankfully, that was not his problem, so he could go home and not have to worry about anything. “Remember, everyone, scan your badges on the way out or you’re not getting paid.”
As the stoners, criminals, and other various end-of-the-liners exited the building, completing a ten-hour shift with a quick run of their badge across the scanner, Manny stepped into the break room, opened his locker and removed from it his cell phone, wallet, and car keys, and placed them into his pockets. As his knees grumbled and his back nagged away at him, the chairs, hard plastic as they were, looked awfully inviting, though he doubted he’d want to get up if he sat down. Yes, he thought to himself as he exited the building, scanned his badge, and headed for the parking lot. I’m fat. I get it. Don’t need a constant reminder.
He exited the warehouse and stuck his key into the door of the ten-year-old, 2005 Toyota Corolla. It was beige, with a permanent stain on one of the seats, and a dent in the trunk lid, but it still ran well, most of the time. The lock unsealed and he pulled the door open, sitting down with a whump. He closed his eyes. “Oh, Christ, my back,” he uttered as a wave of relief washed over him. He’d been standing for ten straight hours and it felt like a desert traveler finding a bottle of cold water just lying there when he sat in his car. The moment lingered. Finally, after almost a whole minute, he put his other leg in, closed the door, and fired up the vehicle. He pressed the eject button and a disc exited the player. He put it in the case in his middle compartment and put in its place a burnt CD of remixes of old Super Nintendo music. Tiredness crashed into him like waves on a beach, but he steeled his mind and put the transmission in reverse gear and backed up, then put it in drive and headed out of the parking lot.
As old-school video game music played, he drove out of the cluster of warehouses in between Wood River and Edwardsville, Illinois, and towards his hometown of Alton. After passing through chunks of disposable capitalism surrounded by trees and past the Roxana oil refinery, he stopped at Wal-Mart and parked in the lot. From the middle compartment he pulled two naproxen sodium out of a generic Aleve bottle and stuffed them in his pocket. Fat-fingering a bunch of change from his ashtray into his other pocket, he headed towards the building. As he ambled towards the building, he stopped at the vending machine. He examined the coins, removed fifty of the eighty-seven cents he’d grabbed, and purchased a generic diet cola. Finally, he reached into his pocket, stuffed the two generic Aleve into his mouth and took a big swig. “Oh, fuck that’s good,” he whispered, as his dry throat almost sang to him for the drink.
He headed towards the grocery section and snatched a bag of pre-cooked hot wings from the freezer section and a bag of frozen meatballs. He still had spaghetti noodles and sauce from last week that he hadn’t cooked, waiting in his closet. Right now, though, he was too tired to cook. After placing a few more essentials in his cart, he grabbed a footlong deli sandwich for tonight. It was Thursday, after all, and he’d completed a forty-hour, four-day work week. He didn’t have to be back until Monday. Cooking could happen tomorrow.
After checking out, he popped the trunk and placed the bags in the back. His shopping wasn’t complicated, after all, because he didn’t have a lot of money. He had more than enough clothes and his supply of pop culture wasn’t needing any upgrades right away. His drive back home passed by almost hypnotically, as he found himself pulling into his driveway with little memory of getting there. Throwing the car into park, he blinked several times to get the tired out of his mind enough to get in the house.
He hoisted all three bags of groceries and huffed and puffed his way up the short steps to his front door. An almost juggling act ensued, as he muscled one bag into his other hand so he could plunge his now-free hand into his pocket, fish out his keys, and open the door, all the while, his other hand shouted pain at him. The door came open and after he rested his body against it to keep it open, he shifted the bag back into his other hand. The bags landed on the kitchen table with a thud, as he pulled the frozen stuff out of the bag and stuffed them in his freezer. A hasty examination of his buys told him nothing else had to be refrigerated.
With a sigh of relief, he set his thermostat to sixty-five, turned the air conditioning on, and plopped into bed, wriggling his shoes and pants off. As his body settled in, the pain pills started to kick in and he made several more groans of relief before falling fast asleep.
His body told him he was awake, and he blinked his eyes as he rolled onto his side and then lurched upward into a seated position. After he stretched and shook the sleep out of his eyes, he saw it was six forty-two P.M. He’d been asleep for almost three hours. It honestly surprised him that he’d only slept that long. Ten-hour shifts for him started at five in the morning and he didn’t expect to have any energy remaining after. Certainly, in the past, he’d had plenty of days where he slept until his phone alarm woke him up in time to go to work.
His body made it to the kitchen, and he tucked into his sandwich while reading comics on his old laptop. Midway through, he got up to get a soda and stretch his legs. The latest release of First Breaker, a comic he’d enjoyed since being a small child, played out on the screen. The action managed to grab him still, even after all this time, and he logged into a forum to discuss the latest issue.
“How is Cyroya still fighting the Dragon God,” one poster, username C_Victimizer01 wrote. “Didn’t she finish off this idiot in the previous issue?”
Manny rolled his eyes. “This is a different Dragon God,” he reminded. “This is the one she met in Pareion, remember? That happened in issue #181.”
A few moments later, a person named LastThunderMage08080 responded with, “Wait, that was a long time ago, which place was Pareion?”
“Basically, the Bakeru religion’s hell,” C_Victimizer01 posted. “Remember, she’s the Goddess of Strength, and got sent there for bad deeds? Way back in volume 1.”
“Kareth, the God of Mercy and Creation,” Manny explained, “had to fight her back in ancient times. He sent her to hell, she had to do that to become a good guy. It was there that she met the original Dragon God. This was a different Dragon God.” As much as it bothered him to answer such basic questions, he couldn’t let it bother him. After all, having new fans into a series from the late seventies was a good thing, and he didn’t want to let the fandom get toxic like some others were.
After that, he checked to see if there were any new comics in the Furious Thunder series, finding an issue one of the latest release, volume seven. Unlike First Breaker, this comic was a traditional superhero story, although, it had a unique twist. Being one of the earliest comics to feature a female superhero as the protagonist, it came out originally in 1952, and had been a hit. Manny finished his Diet Coke and pitched it into the recycle bin. A few minutes of reading later, and boredom crept in, so he put all his clothes back on and grabbed his car keys.
The first place his friends would likely be if they were free and bored would be the bookstore in Edwardsville, the nearest in the desert of culture that was rural America. After almost twenty minutes of driving, he found his way to the familiar mini mall with the bookstore and a bunch of clothing stores.
A five-minute roam around the interior told him that, sadly, only he had the idea out of his friends to congregate here. Still, having come all this way, he perused the manga section, reading a few volumes of series he hadn’t caught up on, then perusing a few volumes of Spirit Blood. Not much later, he couldn’t justify staying here. Leaving the bookstore, with no desire to buy anything, he got in his car and began driving back home.
Driving past the endless examples of disposable consumerism reminded him of the reason for his boredom. A few times he’d gone north to Chicago for various reasons, and each time he’d found stuff to do beyond just the reason he went. Here, however, society seemed built for the pacification of the worker, he figured. There were endless cheap fast food options, the Targets and Wal-Marts for workers to spend their meager paycheck at, and it bothered him. He hated being a cog in the machine. The industries had abandoned the rural Midwest decades ago, leaving behind a permanent culture of replaceable part-time workers. All of this weighed on his mind as he lamented the fact that he’d gone almost fifteen miles to another town to get to the one bookstore in hopes one of his friends had gone there.
The sounds of classic rock from the local Saint Louis station played over the radio as he navigated traffic. Not much into Wood River, the radio crackled, and the digital time display went erratic. Frustrated, he fingered the seek button, although it only passed over more distorted signals. Flashing lights reflected in his windshield and on his dashboard. With a racing heart, he looked in the rearview mirror.
That’s strange, he thought, it isn’t the cops.
He pulled over and noticed the reflection kept changing. Colors kept switching and he didn’t know what to think. Then, he leaned his head out the window and looked up. His jaw fell open. Cars up and down the road began to pull over, with drivers exiting and standing all over the road, just looking up in disbelief. Almost in a trance, he found his hand pushing the door open and wandering out into the street. The whole time, his eyes couldn’t be pulled away from the scene above.
From many points across the evening sky, light shot out in every direction. Each light had a different color and a pattern of movement. Some shot straight out, some wriggled as they moved, but each of them moved incredibly fast. No sound came with the dazzling show. Every conceivable color man could see emerged. Somewhere in his mind, Manny’s rational self reasserted itself and he stumbled to his car, fumbling for his cell. He began recording the sky.
The hair on his neck stood up-although he could have imagined it-as he watched wriggling and spinning streaks of color pulse and dash across the darkening background of space. Moist night air passed over his tongue as he stared, agape. The feeling caused him to reflexively spit and shook him out of his stupor. When he returned his gaze to the sky, his thoughts fired off in a storm of questions. Was this because of aliens? Was this religious in nature? Why wasn’t there any noise? Almost involuntarily, his right hand scratched the back of his head.
At least ten minutes passed, with streaking balls of colored light firing off in different patterns into the distance. Once the last light fired off, it took a while to register that it was over. He almost fell as he struggled against his racing heart and mind to steady his hands. He shoved the phone into his passenger seat and climbed into the car. Sweat beaded on his forehead. As he reached into his glove compartment for a towel, he noticed his breathing came in fast bursts. The displays on his car returned to normal, and his radio began broadcasting its normal music. Thankfully, he found his trip home uneventful. The whole way, he expected something to crash from the sky or emerge from the ground, or for some horror to occur, but his heart returned to normal as he found his way back.
Cars rapidly found their way back to normal traffic. People congregating outside businesses chatted about what had just happened, and he passed by people on the side of the road freaking out. Thankfully, he had the sense of mind to keep some semblance of calm. His body seemed fine, nothing had changed in his mind, and he didn’t see any imminent danger. The scientists and the news media would likely reveal in the coming days and weeks what exactly had happened. For all he knew, it was some bizarre new thing tested out at some lab somewhere that had mucked about with the ionosphere or something like that.
Returning home, he fired up his computer and immediately, the social media feeds had been inundated with every type of post about the events that had just occurred. News agencies were talking about it, and scientists hadn’t gotten a chance yet to find anything out about it. Some kind of presence tugged away at the back of his mind, but he chalked it up to worry over the strange light show. Don’t worry, Manny, he assured himself, this’ll all work out. He didn’t know how true or false it was, but he needed to feel safe in order to function, so he told himself everything would turn out fine.
He took a deep breath and let it out, forcing himself calm. After what had just happened, he yawned and stretched and headed in the bathroom. The electric toothbrush worked its twice daily magic, keeping his teeth clean, and he did his best to push the freaky scene in the sky to the back burner. He spat out the toothpaste and rinsed his mouth, flossing and swishing mouthwash after, and stretched yet again. Lifting a plastic cup to his mouth, he swished some water and spat, then ran his fingers through his curly charcoal hair, ignored the dark stubble on his pasty German-Irish skin, and rubbed a wet finger on both eyes before blinking and drying his mouth and eyes in a towel.
The scale read two hundred and seventy-eight pounds. Hey, lost three pounds, he noticed. Setting the toothbrush on its charger, he shuffled off to bed, taking an evening puff of his inhaler and popping a generic Benadryl. One last sip of water, and he set the cup on the chest of drawers and slid into bed.
Ten minutes later, but feeling like an eternity, his eyes popped open, as he realized he couldn’t sleep right away. Sliding out of bed, he popped a melatonin gummy to chew on while he perused his bookshelf for comics to read to pass the time. His finger landed on a thick volume of volume five of Furious Thunder, the one where they rebooted the Capacitor character in two thousand five, right about the time he entered college. The familiar adventures of one Michelle De Lanter began just as he remembered it. Flipping through the pages, he saw her pull her cousin out of his pod in the river.
I think, of all the powerful characters I’d like to be, he thought, I’d like to have her powers the most. He felt a twinge in the back of his mind, and he blinked several times. It annoyed him. He got back to reading. Tiredness began to creep over him after he got a third of the way through the book.
Although it hadn’t been too terribly distracting, the feeling…or whatever it was, at the back of his mind, wouldn’t go away. What was that? It bothered him that he couldn’t get it to go away. He focused on it and found his mental image of it lacking. It had no defined form. A chuckle escaped his mouth. This was insane. What it would be like to be a superhero like Capacitor, like the red-haired Michelle De Lanter and her amazing powers, he figured. It would be so amazing not to have to worry about physical or mental ailments. Just for laughs, he pictured walking around as her. The decision was made; that would be preferable to being fat, dumpy Manfred Voren.
He felt something change about the twinge in his mind.
An electric prickling traveled from head to toe and back down again. A great pulling yanked inward at his bulbous gut. All sleepiness evaporated and his eyes shot wide open as he saw flesh retreat. Oh, shit! Oh Christ! He mentally shouted. Fear of death blasted through his mind, and he began grabbing away at his abdomen, pinching flesh uselessly within his fingers as if it would accomplish anything. The retreating stopped at a flat stomach. Chest hair vanished in a heartbeat as his saggy man-boobs pulled upward and moderately outward. An ‘eep’ sound escaped his mouth as he stared in utter shock as his pudgy arms became slender, his mallet-like hands with sausage fingers lengthening out into pianist-worthy digits. Doughy legs became sprinter’s calves and weightlifter’s thighs and hips, and finally, hair touched his shoulders, the sensation shocking him out of his dumbfounded reverie. A hand went to cover a gasp, only to feel smooth mouth and chin, with his stubble eradicated. “What the fuck!”
His own voice came back, but it wasn’t his. It was the register of an adult woman.
In a mad dash to the bathroom, he almost tripped over his pajamas, which fell to the floor. The sight that greeted him in the mirror froze him where he stood. A woman, no older than thirty or younger than twenty stood in the mirror, hands moving where his hands moved. When his mouth dropped open in disbelief, hers did too, and when he closed it, so did she. He blinked one eye, she obeyed him. He ran toned arms over shoulders and torso, and the reflection cooperated exactly.
No, he decided. This was insanity. He’d lost his marbles, gone off his rocker, and all that.
Every possibility had to be explored, the conclusion said in his mind. Sure, the most likely cause was a mental defect, some kind of tumor or disease, as what just transpired violated everything he knew about reality. Still, as a good skeptic, he had to proceed. What were his options, he wondered?
Was he this woman all along?
Nervously, he stumbled to his room and pulled his cellphone off the charger. Hastily, he snapped a selfie from neck up, and texted it to his friend John. “Have you seen her before?” his message asked. He knew what would happen. If, somehow, he’d hallucinated being Manny-and he couldn’t comprehend how that could be-the message would indicate something like that. He doubted it, but he had to be sure.
“No,” John’s reply was, a minute later. “She’s hot. She your new girlfriend?”
“No,” Manny texted back.
“Hey,” John retorted, a few seconds later, “I’d do her. Don’t let this chance slip by.”
Manny rolled his eyes, thanked his perverted friend, and put the phone back on the charger. Okay, one piece of evidence, he decided. What would serve as another? He snapped his fingers. The identity of this woman! He had to know. Was this some generic redhead, or the Capacitor? Sure, he’d skipped multiple steps, but it gave him a chance to work on more than one hypothesis at once.
He bent to nearly one knee in front of his refrigerator. Even with the muscle tone, he realized, there was no way a woman of this build could lift a refrigerator. Wrapping both arms around the huge white rectangular prism, several long breaths came and went as he steeled his nerves. He pushed up, ready for his back and legs to scream at him.
His body reached a full erect position, holding the refrigerator. It startled him to such a degree that he had to at once right himself to avoid three simultaneous problems: first, hitting it on the ceiling, second, hitting the wall, and third, dropping it. The absurdity of it made him laugh a bit. It felt like holding a bag of bread. Gingerly, he knelt, the huge fridge thumping on the ground.
Alright, great, he decided, but what was a test that could prove he wasn’t hallucinating?
“Reading!” he thought out loud.
He stood in his hallway and stared. He squinted. After a long minute of nothing happening, he began to see layers of obstacles becoming transparent to his vision. The character’s see-through vision was a power she had, and that itself served as another piece of evidence. After peeling away many layers, the bookshelf in his neighbor across the street’s house became visible. A few more layers and he saw the first real page of prose in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. He blinked and shook his head and his vision returned to normal.
At once he turned to his phone and bought a digital copy of The Old Man and The Sea. The first page matched what he saw precisely.
Alright, this still might be a hallucination, he thought, but damn, that’s a good indicator.
How would he turn back into Manny, the thought crept into his mind? “No, fuck it,” he decided, throwing up his arms. He didn’t have to be at work tomorrow. Enough had happened. He would sleep on it and worry about that in the morning. He pulled the string to turn the lights off and just about threw himself into bed. This time, there were no interruptions.