Given my rare set of skills, it is safe to say that I have worked in some… unusual places. Always as a cleaning lady, of course.
Until recently, I would have told you that the worst place I ever worked at was that interdimensional restaurant that served its patrons to themselves. See, while I can hop dimensions on my own – the rare set of skills I was talking about earlier – most interdimensional connections require the use of a complicated and unstable combination of technologies. Inevitably, I would end up working in places that had their own transfer machines, but needed dimension hoppers for cleaning and maintenance, or else hire new (un-exploded) people for every shift. Now the novelty restaurant had their machine hooked up to a doorway that had a chance of 1/900 to burn you to a crisp if you stepped through it. Any customers who walked through that door and survived would be served an exquisite meal containing a share of the charred remains of their less fortunate counterparts from alternate realities. I would love to tell you that I quit that job as soon as I fully grasped what was going on. Unfortunately, the pay was pretty good, and it is hard to sympathize with the kind of wealthy, competitive jerks who would go to a place like that, utterly convinced that they would SURELY be the patron, not the crunchy.
Anyway, I’m still not sure how the next gig ended up being even more disturbing. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what happened, exactly.
This time around, I was working behind the scenes for some sort of game show. Cleaning and maintenance, the usual. I didn’t speak the local language, and saw no reason to pay
much attention to what was going on outside my specific area of expertise.
Their transfer machine was connected to a sort of “magical closet” at the center of the stage. Each episode was filmed in front of a live audience and broadcast in real time across multiple realities. As part of my compensation, I was granted an interdimensional TV set. My kids back in my home dimension would watch the show while I was at work. At first, it was mere curiosity and pride (it was “mom’s show”, after all), but pretty soon, they were hooked. They even invited their friends over, just to watch the show. Everything I knew about the show itself, I either learned from my kids or through the few short
glimpses I got from behind the scenes.
Each episode, the host would welcome a new guest to join him on stage. I figure they had to pass some sort of contest to win this exclusive honor. When they arrived, they were always excited, trembling all over, some of them even crying tears of joy.
During the first portion of the show, the host and his guest would watch clips from the guest’s everyday life on a big TV screen and comment on it.
Afterwards, the guest would be taken in front of the magical closet and connected to some sort of scanner. Most guests were sweating like crazy, staring at the closet with unnerving intensity, and even the host’s playful banter provided no more distraction.
There would be fog, hissing sounds and dancing lights. At this point, a lot of guests would fall to their knees and start praying.
Here comes the part where it gets really confusing for me. By watching the show every day, my kids had assimilated the language and the basic concept on some subliminal level, but when it came to explaining and translating it, they were at a loss.
The doors of the magic closet would open and reveal a “prize”. It could be anything – a machine, a plant, but usually, it would be some kind of creature.
Seeing the contents of the closet, the guest would start crying, every single time. But those were not tears of joy. It was hoping against all hope suddenly turning into abject disappointment and utter
The host and the audience, on the other hand, would burst into laughter. They would point at the object of the guest’s distress and scream „ZOINK!“
They would laugh and laugh, there would be applause, standing ovations.
After things had calmed down a bit, the host would gently take the guest’s hands, help them back on their feet and slowly take them closer to the magic closet to examine their „prize“.
In one episode, for instance, the „prize“ was a shaggy, bipedal creature with googly eyes and a trunk, docile yet obviously confused by its new environment. The host would point to different parts of the creature, say, pick up the tip of its trunk, repeat something the guest had said earlier, and then comment on the selected feature. He was unable to contain his amusement, punctuating his observations with bursts of laughter and „Zoink…! ZOINK!“
However, at this point, the guest usually started laughting too. Reluctantly, at first, but something about the way the host was analyzing the results of their little „experiment“ was just too funny to resist. What had felt like gratuitous sadism before became surprisingly wholesome. At the end, the guest and the host would hug, then the guest would take a bow in front of the audience, receiving thunderous applause, and leave the stage.
The “prize” would either be brought to a local shelter, relocated to a more suitable dimension or
incinerated if it was considered too dangerous.
During my time with the show, the list of items included a singing and dancing tea set, a plant shaped suspiciously like your paternal grandmother wielding a pair of scissors, a spherical snake, an angry, orange humanoid creature in a suit, a dentist drill with the size and behaviour of a house cat, a disembodied neck beard, an upside-down palm tree, a glass full of screaming gas, a ceiling fan with legs, a purple rat, a giant rubber dinosaur toy come to life, a steaming pile of minced meat (sentient) and a naughty pony with shark teeth. All of them were considered very “Zoink” (especially that orange guy).
Harmless, nonsensical fun, I thought. Until one day, it all came to an abrupt, cataclysmic end.
It was an episode like any other. The guest, the gentleman host, the interview, the scanner, the ecstatic audience. I was backstage, reading a magazine. But when the show reached its climax, there was none of the usual crying and gloating. There was no “Zoink”.
This time, there was a confused silence. Then there was screaming.
So much screaming.
Startled, I looked up from my magazine. There was utter panic, not only in the
theatre, but in the studio as well. People were running around like
headless chickens, audience and staff alike, searching for an exit.
Someone even jumped straight out of a window.
I didn’t stick around to investigate. Trusting my survival instincts, I cleared my mind and transitioned back to my home dimension.
Knowing that my kids must have been watching the show, I rushed home as fast as I could. I found my children and two of their friends curled up in the fetal position. They had collapsed on the living room floor, in front of the TV, crying their little hearts out.
It took them over a week to recover from the shock, and even afterwards, they refused to talk about
what had happened. They begged me to never return to the studio, and while they had made a recording of the fateful episode, they told me not to watch it.
I tried to reach my employer by interdimensional phone and email, but I never heard from them again. One afternoon, when the kids were at school, I finally decided to check out the recording
As I suspected, there was nothing unusual about the episode up to the point where they would open up the closet. The guest, a lady not much older than myself, was sharing clips of a laughing child on a tricycle, a little house with a picketed fence, a fat man with a beard who I assumed was her husband.
When the fog cleared and the magic closet finally revealed its contents, I witnessed the very birth of that panicked, chaotic stampede which had brought an end to the entire show. The incredulous faces. The guest who fell down on her knees, and the blood-curdling scream which set it all off. I half expected to spot myself somewhere in the flailing crowd, but of course I had been in a completely different part of the studio at the time.
The closet, as it turns out, was completely empty.