Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
They gave me a million bucks to keep my trap shut, and I did, for fifteen years. But last night I was making the rounds, and I saw the professor again.
I had a heart attack three years back, and I tell you, when I saw him standing there in front of room 204, I felt another one coming on. He turned and smiled and it was like he hadn’t aged a day in fifteen years. “Hey there, chief,” he said, and that was it. I dropped my clipboard on the ground and high-tailed it out of there, never looking back.
What I’m about to tell you is liable to make me sound crazier than a three-horned goat. But I promise you, there’s crazier things out there.
The cops don’t believe me. The official story is that the professor and those students died 15 years ago. Room 204 just up and exploded, they said. Damndest thing. And there’s some truth there. That room did explode. But it wasn’t an accident. We knew exactly what we were doing. Or we thought we did.
* * * * * *
They call me an “assistant supervisor of maintenance,” but really I’m a janitor and always have been. (You might wonder why I’m still at it after getting that million bucks. That dough is for Junior, so he doesn’t have to go through the same shit that I did.)
The night this happened, I was assigned to the Astrophysics Center, a bit northwest of the main Harvard campus. Until that night, this was always my favorite beat. I mean, God help you if you wound up at one of the biology labs. Those goddamn dead, cut open animals all over the place used to give me nightmares. And really, thinking back, I’d take those nightmares of mutilated and scattered organs any night over the stuff that has haunted me ever since.
Anyway, I was there mopping the hallway on the second floor of the lab building when the door to room 204 opened up and this guy popped his head out. “Hey, you.”
I looked around, to make sure he was talking to me. “Yes? Can I help you sir?” I thought he was going to bitch about the room being a mess or something.
“How’d you like to make a thousand bucks, chief? An hour’s work at most. Easy money. Does that sound good to you?”
It sure did. Things were tight at home, as they always were. A thousand would knock off some of those long overdue bills. But I was also on a tight schedule. They didn’t give you much breathing room. Don’t want you standing around thinking about it all, I guess. “That sounds great, sir,” I said, “but I got to stick to my beat.”
The man laughed. “We’re about to make history, chief,” he said, “and you’re worried about emptying the bathroom trash? Come on, don’t sweat it, you won’t get in trouble. I promise. I’m a professor here. I’ll vouch for you.”
The guy did look like a professor, with carefully combed gray hair and big old glasses on his face. I shrugged, leaned my mop against the wall and said, “Sure. What do I have to do?”
“That’s fantastic! Come on in, chief! Come on in!”
I followed him into the room. One look, and I should have just turned around then and there and told him to keep his damn money. But I didn’t.
As soon as I stepped in, I felt the little hairs all over my body stand up. I don’t mean I was scared. I mean like there was an electrical charge in that room, and I had a guess about where it was coming from. There in the center of the room, on a round table, was a large glass globe, crackling with electricity. Like what you see if you go into a kid’s science museum. Like they somehow created a lightning storm in a glass ball. This one was sort of vibrating around on its stand and buzzing. And the lightning inside was black. I could feel the electricity coming from it, from across the room.
There were four kids there – students, I guessed – sitting in a row of chairs along one wall. More than sitting, they were strapped into those chairs, with metal things over their heads like those big bowl things you see at a hair salon. They all had their eyes closed.
“Uh…” I said. “What’s going on here? Those kids okay?”
“They’re quite fine,” said the professor. “As to what is going on, as I said, we are about to make history. We are going to open the first wormhole.”
“Wormhole?” I said. “Like in the movies?”
The professor laughed. “I suppose so, chief,” he said. “Now listen. We had a last minute cancellation, but that’s okay because it’s an easy job. We’re going to be kicking things off here shortly, and once they are properly kicked off, the wormhole will open. I will enter. If I am not back in thirty minutes, you are to pull that lever there, and this will close the wormhole.”
I looked to where he was pointing, at a big red lever attached to a giant, whirring machine that was hooked up to the metal bowls over the student’s heads. “But uh, won’t you be trapped on the other side of the wormhole?” I asked. Not that I had the slightest idea about what the hell was going on.
“Just so, chief,” said the professor. “We’ve got this down to two possibilities. One, the wormhole opens up to what we’re calling ‘the second Universe.’ The best way that I can explain this possibility is that there is a different reality that exists on the other side of this one… the other side of an invisible wall. The wormhole will provide a door in that wall.”
“And the other possibility?”
“That the wormhole will open to a place that man was not meant to go. Thirty minutes will give me enough time to get in, and out, if the first possibility is true.”
“And if it’s the second?”
“Then you’ll close the hole with that lever, and my students will destroy my work.”
This was all way above my pay grade, and my head was spinning. Why only two possibilities? How the hell did they come up with those two? And if this real, why the hell would the professor take a coin-toss chance of getting stuck in the “place that man was not meant to go”? I mean, those were just starter questions, among the swarm that was buzzing around my head.
“I see that you have some reservations,” said the professor. “I assure you that your only job is to pull that lever after thirty minutes. That’s it, chief. We’ll take care of the rest. And anything that happens isn’t on you. The documentation is quite in order.” He tapped a folder that was sitting on the circular table. “And here, I’ll write you a check now, before we proceed.”
As he wrote out the check, I wondered if it would still be valid if he got swallowed up by the wormhole. I actually had that thought, as crazy as it sounds. It was still all so weird and abstract to me at that point.
“Here,” he said, handing over the check. “Let’s do it, chief. As soon as I enter that hole, give me exactly thirty minutes. On the dot. That’s all you have to do.”
I took the check, mumbled a “thanks,” and watched as he walked over to the machine. He pulled the lever. There was a loud crackling sound, and I watched in unease as one by one, the students’ eyes shot open. There were no pupils there, like their eyes were rolled back in their sockets.
“Hey now,” I said, taking a step towards the machine.
“They are quite fine,” said the professor. “I assure you.”
Their jaws started to move like they were grinding their teeth.
The professor took a jar of neon blue liquid from a shelf on the wall. He unscrewed the lid and poured the stuff over the electric globe on the round table. The thing started going crazy, and then the globe shattered completely, bits of glass flying through the air as shoots of black lightning zapped out into the room. I ducked down.
I had had enough by then, and was ready to get the hell out of there. Then it happened. A fucking black hole appeared in the middle of the room, sucking in the bolts of electricity. It grew larger and larger, until it took up half the room. All I could hear was this rushing sound, like the world’s largest vacuum cleaner running at full throttle.
“Remember, chief!” shouted the professor, with a wild look on his face. “Thirty minutes exactly!” Then he stepped into the thing and was gone.
* * * * * *
At first my mind was a mess, staring at that whooshing back hole, that seemed hungry to suck everything in. I looked at the kids hooked up to the machine, their eyes rolled back – white holes, I guess they looked like – their jaws grinding away like crazy. It was too much to make sense of.
I looked down at my watch. 15 minutes and 31 seconds had gone by since the professor got swallowed up by the worm hole. My heart was pounding and I kept pacing back and forth, back and forth, trying to work out what the hell was going on. Then I started to zero in on it. I was getting pranked.
Not a prank like we used to do as kids, setting dogshit on somebody’s front steps and all that idiocy. I mean a prank like the sophisticated college folk do, where they tell you something’s going on but the whole point is to just observe your reaction. A psychological experiment. Probably cameras in here watching me right now. See what I do.
12 minutes to go.
I saw a trickle of blood come down from one of the kids’ nose. I leaned down to look at him closely. He was shaking a little bit, all over. If I throw that lever, this will all probably stop.
Maybe that was the test. I had to decide between trapping the professor in the black hole and saving the kids hooked up to the machines. None of it was real of course, but they didn’t know that I knew that.
But then, screaming in the back of my mind was that voice: what if it is real?
10 minutes to go.
The professor had promised me that the kids were alright. Another one started bleeding from the nose.
If it wasn’t real, it was a hell of a trick. Where did the professor go, if not through that black hole? I thought about touching it, but whenever I got close, I was filled with total terror. It sure seemed real. Like it really took you some place far, far away from here.
I walked over to the table and picked up the folder that was there. Just like the professor had said, the first page was instructions to shut down the machine and destroy it if he didn’t return within 30 minutes. I flipped that page over, and the next one had a photograph of one of the students. I read what it said. It was a consent form. “I, Jackson Stewart, acknowledge the possibility of my imminent death if I participate in this experiment. I am prepared to give my life to science.” I flipped that page, and there were three more just like it.
Now, I’m no lawyer, but there was no way in hell that this experiment was legal, if it was real, even with those consent forms. So it probably wasn’t real.
And if it was? Then the professor lied to me. He had said that the kids were fine. This folder was telling me something else.
2 minutes to go.
I took a deep breath and paced the room, watching each second tick by. My mind was telling me that none of it was real, but my gut was screaming in horror. I just looked at my watch. It would be over soon enough, one way or the other.
I walked over to the machine and put my hand on the lever. Goddammit, why is he cutting it so close? I watched the seconds tick by, and I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I could risk trapping the professor wherever the hell he had gone off to.
5 seconds. My hand was shaking. 4 seconds. Sweat was pouring down my face, dripping into my eyes. 3 seconds. One of the students started to moan. The one that I saw was named Jackson in the folder. 2 seconds. Oh God oh God oh God. 1 second. Jackson started to shake. 0 seconds. Shit.
I tensed my muscles to pull the lever. One look at Jackson and I knew I had to pull it. He was violently jerking around now.
I snapped my neck around to see the professor’s head sticking out of the black hole.
Then his shoulders were through. I turned back to Jackson. Blood was pouring out of his eyes.
“I’m almost through!”
A second kid started to shake.
“One more second!”
I looked to see that the professor was through. He was back in the room. “Do it!” he shouted.
Two things happened after that, at the exact same time. I heard a wet popping sound, and I watched as the wormhole disappeared, as though it was never there. But I had never pulled the lever.
I slowly turned to look at Jackson. His head was gone. Judging by the bits of brain and splatters of blood on the bowl thing above his neck, his head had just exploded.
The whirring of the machine gradually died down, and then it was silent. The three kids who were still alive stopped shaking, and closed their eyes.
“A tragedy,” said the professor, pointing at Jackson, with the exploded head. “But not for nothing. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it! Chief, I’ve seen it!”
I hunched over and puked. It was weird, but my first thought was: what a mess I’ll have to clean up later. I don’t know. I guess my mind had sort of shut down and I was going on autopilot. I was the janitor. I cleaned up messes. That was all I knew.
Then it hit me, the reality of what had happened. “You sonofabitch!” I yelled. “You told me those kids would be okay!”
The professor put this sickening smug grin on his face. “He would have been, chief, had you pulled the lever at the 30 minute mark as instructed.”
“You told me to wait!”
“Yes you fucker! I’m calling the police!” I had a walkie clipped to my belt. It wouldn’t get me the police, but it would get campus security. I reached for it and had it in my hand when I heard a groan behind me. I turned to see that it was one of the kids. They were waking up.
I went over to unstrap them from the chairs. The first kid’s eyes blinked open, and when she saw the professor, she started screaming.
“It’s okay,” I said, “shh, it’s okay, it’s all over.”
She kept screaming, then the second kid woke up. He looked right at me with wide, terrified eyes. “Get us out of here!” he shouted.
“I’m working on it, kid,” I said, fumbling at the straps. They were on tight.
The third kid woke up. “It’s here,” she said. “It made it through.”
“Everything’s okay now,” I said. “Your friend didn’t make it, I’m afraid, but it’s over. I’ll make sure the professor pays for what he did to you and your friends.”
The first kid was still screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Get us out of here!” shouted the second kid again.
The third kid looked me dead in the eyes and, in a totally calm voice, said, “That’s not the professor.”
“What? Of course it is,” I said. What I saw when I turned to look at the professor will haunt me forever.
The professor’s mouth was twisting around at odd angles, like something was moving the lower half of his jaw randomly, or like he was trying to get a hair out of his mouth that kept jumping around. The veins on his neck bulged, then sunk back down, then bulged again, so that they were thick as ropes. His wrists were rotating in ways they weren’t supposed to rotate, as his arms flailed around wildly.
I had the first kid, the screaming one, free. She jumped out of the chair and ran to the door. But her legs were wobbly, and she tripped over herself in the middle of the room. I went to work on the second kid, whipping my head around every second to look at the professor. It looked like there was something crawling around under his skin. Something big.
“Get us out of here!” the second kid shouted yet again. The first kid was still on the ground, screaming. I worked away furiously on the straps.
“If you believe in God,” said the third kid, with an eerie calm, “then pray.”
I took a glance at the professor, and that’s when the first bone burst out of his chest, through his suit. I call it a bone, but it was pure black, and dripping with green slime.
“As for me,” said the third kid. “I do not believe that there is a God. Not after what I have seen.”
The second kid was free and made a run for it. I scooted over to the third kid, but watched as the professor reached out an arm and grabbed the second kid by the top of his head. The professor gave one quick twist and let go. I heard a terrible snap and the kid slumped to the ground, dead.
Three more black bones came out of the professor’s chest, dripping. He laughed and bent down to the first kid, who was still screaming, as bones began to poke out of his back, like a fucking Stegosaurus from Hell.
“What is that thing?!” I asked, as I fumbled at the straps of the last kid.
“It does not belong here,” said the kid.
“No shit,” I said, getting one strap free. “But what is it?”
“It comes from a terrible place. A place where there is nothing save pain. Endless pain, incomprehensible to our minds.”
“Great,” I muttered, as I noticed with a sinking heart that the screams from the girl behind me had stopped. Then I heard a wet crunch. I couldn’t help it. I looked to see the professor tearing into that poor girl’s throat with long black fangs, dripping in green slime.
I turned back to the kid, almost done with the straps. Just a few more seconds. “What’s your name, anyway, kid?”
“Claire,” I said, my mind trying to stay focused. “When I get you out of these straps, I want you to pick up this chair and throw it at that thing, okay? I’ll do the same thing, okay? Then we make a run for it. Do you understand? Can you do that?”
“I understand,” said Claire. “I do hope it works.”
I did hope it would work, too. “We have to make it work, Claire,” I said, yanking off the last strap. “Come on.”
We stood up together and I reached over to pick up a chair. I hurled it at the professor with all of my strength, and it shattered against his boned back. I heard a terrible shriek then, and watched as Claire’s chair followed behind.
I grabbed Claire’s arm with one hand and reached for my pocketknife with the other. The only way out of that room meant passing by the professor. We started running as I pulled the knife out and flicked it up. The professor stood, still shrieking, as the green slime mixed with the red blood from the kid’s throat and dripped down his chin.
I took a wild stab at the professor’s neck, and connected. I kept running with Claire, leaving the knife stuck in the professor’s neck, and made it to the door. I had my hand around the knob when I felt Claire pulling away from me. I looked back, helpless, as I saw the professor reach long black claws into her gut. I threw the door open and left her there.
Good God, I left her there.
* * * * * *
I made it outside the lab building somehow. I don’t remember how. My mind just sort of shut down as I ran like hell I guess. I did have the presence to go around and lock all of the doors from the outside. Then I got on the radio to campus security.
“You guys need to get the police over to the Astrophysics Center fucking ASAP. There was a fucking massacre in there.”
The front door started to rattle, and I heard the godawful shriek again.
“Repeat,” said a voice over the walkie.
“Look,” I said. “Call up Lawrence Summers, right now.” That was the president of Harvard at the time, and I had seen his signature on the papers in that folder with all of the consent forms. “Tell him that the wormhole experiment has gone way the fuck South.”
The rattling at the door stopped. I only prayed that that thing didn’t figure out it could just break a window and crawl out that way.
“This is the janitor, right?” said a different voice on the other end of the walkie. “Is this a joke? The ‘wormhole experiment’? Have you been drinking?”
“Call Lawrence Summers. If you don’t, I promise you that you’ll never be able to live with yourself. Do it now.”
There was a horrible pause. I heard the professor trying the side door now, shrieking once again.
* * * * * *
A fleet of black SUVs pulled up two minutes later. A team of heavily armed men jumped out and ran past me, breaking though windows and jumping inside. I heard a stream of gunfire. And screams. So many screams, and the professor’s horrible shrieks. After a while, it was quiet, and a second team of men jumped through the broken windows. I didn’t hear any more gunfire.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and whipped around. A man was standing there. I don’t remember a single thing about what he looked like. But I remember our conversation.
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
I told him the full story, the same one that I’ve told you.
“We are prepared to give you a lot of money to sign a NDA.”
“Non-disclosure agreement. It means that you can never tell anybody about what happened here tonight.”
“A million dollars.”
“And a promotion.”
The man paused. “You mean… you still want to work… work here… after tonight?”
“Somebody’s gotta clean up the shit,” I said.
“Fine, of course.”
“And one more thing.”
“And what’s that?” asked the man.
“I want to know that this will never happen again. I want you to blow all of that shit up, and burn all of the notes.”
“And I want to watch.”
“Of course,” said the man.
* * * * * *
And so I thought it was over. But it’s not. Last night, I saw the professor again. He looked me right in the eyes, flashed that smug grin, and said: “Hey there, chief.” That’s when I ran the hell out of there.
The police don’t believe me. I’ve sent a dozen e-mails to Lawrence Summers’ assistants. I’ve called every number that I’ve found listed for him. I haven’t heard anything back. I don’t know who else to turn to.
I’m afraid the professor is going to open the wormhole again. And I’m afraid this time, he might bring his friends back with him.
Check out Nathaniel Lewis’ dark horror comedy, The Electric Boner, now available on Amazon.com.