Today in Terraform: A part-time bodega gig takes a turn for the surreal and maybe (hopefully?) otherworldly, in the inimitable Meg Elison's speculative satire about the immensely precarious present—and our rippling desire to escape it. Enjoy -the ed
The first time the portal erupted on aisle four (Pringles on one the right, motor oil on the left) I was too shocked to do anything. I just stared at it, thinking that it was inside my head. Maybe I was having a stroke. Maybe I was so sleep-deprived that I was seeing things. The rim of it was burn-bright, like when something grinds against your eyelid and you see little firework-explosions on your eyeball in the dark. The middle of it shimmered like heat coming off something glossy and black in the summer. It went from dark to light, from wobbly to still. It was impossible to look at; a hole cut in space with no depth to it at all. I ducked my head below it and saw its edge disappear, leaving me to stare at bags of Combos and Doritos.
The second and third times the portal opened, I got a little closer. After that, I started to try to figure out what it was. I started to study it.
It only happens at three a.m.
And I mean three a.m. on the dot, at the second when the satellite-synced clock on my phone switches over from 02:59 to 03:00. There’s no clock on the wall and none on the register. If my relief didn’t show up and my phone died, I might be here forever. I have timed it on over forty occasions.
Yeah, I know what people are going to ask. Look, I tried to take pictures. I tried to get video. I tried with my phone. I tried with a dust-covered disposable camera from the bottom shelf of aisle two (condoms on the right, Mars bars on the left). Both times, the frame was completely white. It looked like I had jammed my camera up against the side of a lightbulb. And then I had to get that film developed myself! Do you know how many places there are in this town that develop film? Zero. I had to drive clear over to Riverside.
Anyway, it’s happened every night at three a.m. for the last four months. That’s how long I’ve been working here. I don’t work every night— just the four nights a week when I don’t have class. But I’m sure it happens when I’m not here. Because otherwise, it’s specifically about me, and I can’t even think about that. I can’t look directly at my grades when they come in or read texts from someone who I think is mad at me. I hold them both at arm’s length, tilted away from my face, while I whisper not me not me not me so I really can’t deal with being stalked by an interdimensional occurrence, ok?
I don’t know that it’s interdimensional, I guess. That’s projection, on my part. Portals on Star Trek look kind of like this one, but sometimes they only reach through time or space, not dimension. There’s no security cameras. Yeah, I know that looks like a camera, but it’s just a box with a blinking light. If there was a camera, the owner might know that I drink on the job, and that I steal a fair amount. Oh and they might know about the portal that opens every day at 3 AM. But that guy doesn’t know anything. Trust me.
So yeah, maybe it’s a portal into the past. Or the future. Or an alternate universe where I didn’t run out of financial aid and graduated on time and got a job with health insurance and didn’t have to pull out my own bad molar with a pair of needle-nose pliers (aisle three, with the motorist emergency kit. I’ve heard that the flares are old and greasy and don’t light. I didn’t steal any of those.) There’s no way to know. I got brave and threw a loaf of Wonderbread (aisle 1, 800% markup of what it’s worth, right above that weird brand of peanut butter with the thick, furry dust on the sickly orange lid) into the portal a couple of nights ago. And you know, this story would be better if the portal spit out twenty perfect pieces of toast, or an angel with a trumpet, or a snarky note that said THIS UNIVERSE IS GLUTEN-FREE. It’d be just tits if the portal barfed out Winston Duke in his M’Baku costume who looked at me and said “This offering of bread pleases me… sexually.” It’d be great if I heard cheers or screams or mariachi music on the other side.
But nothing happened. There was Wonderbread, and then there was none. One piece struck the edge and half of it hit the dirty floor, sliced cleanly without pinching down. So maybe it’s not a portal. Maybe it’s just a shimmering disc of annihilation. Maybe I ought to be careful walking around it.
And it just about figures that the only interesting thing that’s happened to me in months is still boring. Unprovable. Meaningless. I pitch my trash into it, the lint from my pockets, the peel from a banana I stole from the blackening counter display (Healthy Snack!) Three a.m. at the gas station is the weirdest blend of torporous boredom and utter terror. The fluorescent lights buzz constantly and make me look like a zombie from some movie where the zombies aren’t even hot. It fucks up my sleep cycle, too. Thank you, vodka icees for breakfast. (ST:Discovery-themed cups available at the icee machine! Try the lemonade flavor. I usually combine 20 oz of that with one of the flat plastic pints of vodka in the extra-large cup.) There’s nobody around, not even cars out on the street. I have to keep the door closed and locked from the inside, and everyone who comes to my bulletproof window hole wants ten bucks in gas or a pack of cigarettes, or to tell me their fucking life story while I can’t possibly get away. I’m not convinced the glass IS bulletproof. Probably it’s nothing-proof.
That’s what it’s been like, until tonight. This guy comes to the glass and starts whispering to me through the little speaker-hole. Let me tell you, it is never good news in the service industry when a guy starts whispering. The best case scenario is some light sexual harassment. Mostly, it’s the heavy kind, or a threat. I know this guy. It’s not his first night. I know what he’s going to say to me. What he always says. He’s got it all ready. I can see it in his mouth.
There’s nowhere to go, really. I can wander around inside the store, but the whole front of the place is glass so it’s just like I’m giving him a better look at me. Once I did do that and this guy took the opportunity to make sure I got a better look at him, if you know what I mean. So the whisperer starts up and I don’t look at him. I look at nothing. I look at the Take 5 bars, (aisle two with the rest of the candy, straight across from the pregnancy tests.) I don’t look at the clock, but I don’t need to. Because the portal opens.
The guy must see it because I don’t know what else would shut him the fuck up. Certainly not the cops, who told me in my first week not to bother them unless I was being robbed. The whisperer sees it shuts the fuck up, so this thing is a miracle already. I walk toward the glowing rim of the thing, its surface like water in a staticky vaporwave video. I haven’t had my icee treat yet, but I feel unsteady on my feet.
“Come on,” something inside the portal says.
I step back.
It sounds like a girl I used to know. Mel. She was the one who had this job before me. She’d leave me a voicemail now and again about anything at the gas station I might need to know. Her voice sounds like that now: tinny, recorded, elsewhere. I only saw her coming and going. Her backpack was too heavy and her shoes were worn out. She dropped out one day, and then this job opened up. I never looked at that thought directly. I held it at arm's length, tilted away from my face, thinking not me not me not me not me.
I walk closer, down aisle four. Mars and motor oil, M&Ms and funnels too small for the universe to leak through. I lean forward without moving my feet, mindful of the razor edge of this thing and yell back into the portal.
“Are things better on that side?”
Silence for a second. Then, an answer. Not from the portal, but from the whisperer at the window. “You’re too pretty to—”