Even from the corner of Mang Vicente’s eye, the portal loomed over the main laboratory. He tried to focus on mopping up the spilled coffee on the floor before it spread to disturb any of the wiring that snaked about on the floor but there was no questioning the power of the portal. It took up most of the lab. The thirty foot circular structure meant to open doors into other dimensions buzzed and hummed like a hive of wasps.
Today, they would open it for the first time.
“Hurry that up, will you?” said the scientist. Dr. Stanley Mariano scratched out some notes on his clipboard as he tapped his foot on the ground. Normally, Vicente would be able to feel the intensity of Dr. Mariano’s annoyance. The man’s gaze would crawl up Vicente’s spine like an insect under his clothes. But today, with the portal warming up, Stanley Mariano’s rage seemed a tiny thing.
“Yes po, doctor.” Vicente rung out his mop into the small plastic cart by his side.
“Twenty seconds to activation!” called out a voice over the lab’s sound system.
“Goddamn it,” muttered Mariano. “The next time somebody brings a cup of anything into this room, I am going to kill them!” He shouted loud enough to fill up the whole room. Humble responses of obedience came back soon after.
Vicente mopped up what was left of the coffee, watching the brown stain spread thin onto the off-white tiled floor. He would have to come back with some bleach to really get it out.
“All right, you need to leave,” said Dr. Mariano, patting Vicente on the back.
Vicente loaded his mop into the cart and began to wheel it out. He looked over his shoulder. The portal’s buzzing didn’t so much get louder as much as it got stronger. It was as if the volume on everything else in the lab was being turned down while the portal’s stayed just the same.
A thin screen of translucent light began to form in the circle. Vicente could still see through it to the lab workers and scientists on the other side but there was something about this light. It called to him. That same power he had felt thrumming through the portal’s structure now radiated out from this light.
The light solidified into a blinding brilliance. A burning white filled the portal, forcing Vicente to shield his eyes. Even the scientists wearing shaded goggles had to turn away. Once the initial shock subsided, all that was left for Vicente to do was stare. The power remained.
Vicente realized what it was about that power that bothered him. It was calling to him.
He walked towards the light. More focused than he’d ever been in his entire life, he headed straight for the portal. He didn’t notice the scientists in the room doing the same thing. He didn’t see the men standing on the opposite side of the lab tumbling into the light, disappearing into whatever awaited on the other side. He wouldn’t have seen Dr. Stanley Mariano walking in step right behind him, making that same determined approach.
Vicente reached out as he neared the portal. The light burned but it did not hurt to look at anymore. He dipped his hand into the pool of white light. It warmed Vicente. It rushed through his bloodstream until he could almost feel his cells singing. He took a single step through, his left foot disappearing beyond the portal.
And the screaming began.
* * *
Vicente blinked, hoping that each one would bring the world back into view. All that greeted him were confused cries and shouts. He couldn’t make sense of the yelling. The sound of his breathing filled his ears, backed by the pounding of his heartbeat. He wanted to run, just grab his mop and leave before anything else could go wrong that he might get the blame for. He wasn’t sure what had happened but he knew it could somehow be pinned on him.
He turned to leave but couldn’t. His left leg caught on something that he couldn’t see. He could feel his left foot moving but couldn’t lift it too far off the ground. Something had a tight grip on his lower thigh. As he kept struggling to leave, he felt the same grip on his right arm.
Lights started to appear. Not the brilliant white of the portal but just the dull glow of battery operated flashlights. People were still screaming but Vicente could see that he was still in the lab. Pieces of the panicked screaming started to push through his daze. The electricity had gone out in the laboratory. People were rushing about to check on what damage had been done.
Dr. Mariano’s voice rose up next to Vicente. “Where is everybody else?” he asked.
Even Vicente could answer that. They went through.
Again, he tried to step away and leave. But that same grip locked down on his right arm and left leg. “Help!” he called out. “I can’t move!”
Light filled Vicente’s vision. For a second, he thought the portal had opened again. He could finally slip through where there were no coffee stains to clean. But it was just the flashlights aimed at him. He blinked against the brightness then looked down at himself.
He screamed. He tried to speak but words refused to form. Only cracked, grotesque cries of terror pouring out from his mouth.
Where the ends of his right arm and left leg should have been, there was only a clean slice of air. It was as if parts of him had simply ceased existing. He screamed again, his mind wriggling the toes and fingers on both missing limbs. He could still feel them.
“What is happening?” cried out Vicente.
“Oh my god,” said Dr. Mariano, approaching with a flashlight. The doctor circled around to where Vicente’s limbs ended in flat walls of matter.
“What? What is it?” said Vicente.
“Calm down,” said Mariano.
“What do you mean calm down? Why can’t I move? Where is my foot? My hand!”
“You got caught in the portal when the power blew.”
“Where is my foot?” demanded Vicente again, the panic in voice scaring him even more.
“It’s not been cut off! We built in a failsafe for just this situation. You’re still intact. Your foot and your hand are just caught in whatever dimension the portal opened up to.”
Tears began streaming down his face. He tried to blink them away and failed. He had just wanted a job, anything to help pay the bills. He should have listened to the doctor and hurried cleaning up the coffee. If he hadn’t been so slow, he could have gotten out. Now, here he was without a foot and a hand.
A sob clawed its way out of his throat, a tiny whimpering sound.
“Look, just calm down,” said Mariano. “Once we get the power back up, we can get the portal open to get you out of there.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. He didn’t know why but he’d learned that it was a good thing to say to anyone in charge. Better to just be sorry.
Mariano’s jaw tensed but he placed a hand on Vicente’s shoulder. “We’re going to get you out, okay?”
“It’s so cold,” said Vicente. Wherever his hand was, it felt almost freezing. His foot stood on something solid. When he shifted it about, whatever he stood on shifted the way wet sand might. Maybe it was snow. He had never seen snow, never had the chance to travel to where there would be any.
Vicente let out a scream.
“Calm down,” said Mariano. “We’re doing the best we can!”
“Something grabbed me! It grabbed my leg!” Vicente tried to shake whatever it was off. It only gripped harder though. Through his janitor’s trousers, he could feel the fleshy, meaty solidity of what held onto him. The sensation felt familiar enough. “I think it’s a hand. One of the others!”
The hand yanked at Vicente’s leg. He lost his footing and would have fallen if not for the dimensional divide holding him in place. He wanted to stumble. Stumbling at least would have felt normal.
The hand let go for just a second. Just long enough for Vicente to plant his foot in the ground. Again, the hand at his ankle. It only pawed at it though, not able to get a good grip. Then the fingers slipped away.
The sudden lack of sensation horrified Vicente worse than the grabbing.
* * *
The faster the scientists scrambled to get the lab back and running again, the slower time seemed to move. Every second dragged its way past almost as if travelling the distance between this world and the next. Just a slow, laborious crawl through time. All the movement amounted to very little. Darkness persisted. After what had felt like two or three hours, Mariano told Vicente it had only been twenty minutes.
Vicente began to shiver. Not only out of fear but also from the cold on the other side of the portal. His right hand already felt numb. He flexed his fingers but still the cold seeped in. It crept past his skin and down deep into the bones where it settled. Vicente could feel the cold rushing up his arm, into his own dimension where his body shivered. He had never known such cold before.
Dr. Mariano had someone bring him a cup of coffee. One careful worker approached with it in hand. He stepped carefully, not wanting to spill any.
“Hurry up!” ordered Mariano.
The worker did as told, a few drops spilling over the edge and onto the floor. In the back of Vicente’s mind: I’ll have to get that later. Bleach will do the trick.
Mariano took the cup in his hands. “Here, put your hand on it first.”
Vicente placed his free hand on the cup. His hand trembled, making the coffee inside slosh about. Mariano kept the cup steady with his own hands. Vicente breathed in the scent of the coffee. Cheap instant had never smelled sweeter in his life. With Mariano’s help, he took a deep drink of the coffee. It burned going down but Vicente didn’t mind so much.
The burning helped with the chill.
“Thank you,” said Vicente.
The lights came back on. All around the sighs of reliefs and small cheers echoed through the lab. Vicente could hear the slight hum of electricity starting to power up the computers and machines inside the lab. Already, things started to sound more normal.
“Okay,” said Vicente. “I can go now, right? Just turn it on.”
“Not yet,” said Mariano. “The machine takes half an hour to warm up and activate. Just a bit more and we’ll get you out, all right?”
Vicente nodded, feeling the warmth of the coffee already start to fade. He drained the last dredges of it from the cup. He hoped the heat would make it to his arm and leg but the cold fought it back. Vicente felt no wind on the other side though. The air stayed perfectly still. Still absolute cold.
Vicente regretted not rationing out the coffee as the time went past. The cold only got worse. He tried to distract himself by watching the scientists. Mariano tried to stay with him when he could but the doctor had to help oversee the activation of the portal as well. Above him, the machine began its low hum, gaining power as it had before.
The cold crept along his skin. Up and down like tiny insect legs. Then, piercing pain. He let out a cry of shock. Though he couldn’t see, Vicente knew that it was bite. It hadn’t been the cold at all. Something had actually been crawling up his leg. And it had bitten him. Vicente shook his right hand as much as he could. He felt the biter come off his arm, whatever it had been.
“Vicente, are you all right?” asked Dr. Mariano.
“Something bit me!”
“Bit you? Was it human? Maybe one of the others?”
Vicente shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak but a hot pain coursed up his arm and into his chest. The pain gripped at his chest, a searing pain that made him clench his jaw tight. He screamed through his teeth.
I’m going to die, thought Vicente. I’m going to die here with a foot and a hand caught in another dimension.
At the back of his mind: And I didn’t clean the coffee either.
Another surge of pain from his arm. He wanted to scream but his teeth only clenched down even harder. He felt pressure building in his ears and the sudden heat in his arm rushed into the rest of his body. Sweat broke out on Vicente’s forehead. Again the pain, burning hot.
Vicente tried to flex his right hand but he couldn’t. Where his mind perceived his hand to be, there was only pain now. As if his entire had arm had transformed into a fiery sun that had grown a fleshy tumor that was the rest of his body.
Vicente’s grabbed Mariano by the shirt. The doctor let out a cry of shock. “Vicente, just hold on! Fifteen more minutes and we can get the portal open again!”
He wanted to speak but the pain kept his jaw wired shut. All he could do was groan in agony. Vicente prayed for unconsciousness. The pain was bad enough that he should have passed out long ago. But every new surge of it shocked his system back into wakefulness.
Vicente clawed at Mariano’s chest. The doctor took Vicente’s hand in both of his. The doctor’s grip was strong. “We’re going to help you! Just stay with me. Look at me now!”
Vicente looked into the doctor’s eyes.
“Stay with me!” said Mariano.
“Make it stop,” he begged but the sounds that trickled through his teeth were not words.
The pain continued, coming in waves that washed over Vicente and his entire body. The heat of it coursed through him. A powerful thrumming heat. On the other side, he could feel his arm again.
But that’s not my arm.
Vicente couldn’t see it but there was something wrong about the flesh on the other side. It didn’t feel like an arm. It felt far more sensitive. When he tried to move it, he felt long tendril like pieces of flesh brush up against hard sinewy meat. He moved even more and he felt sharpness. Sharp hardness like bone. Teeth? On the other side, what had been his arm was now slick and writhing. Blood? My blood? Something else maybe. Something worse.
Vicente began to yell anew.
“Damn it, let’s get it moving faster now!” cried out Mariano as he held Vicente’s hand.
“Six more minutes, Dr. Mariano!”
But then the pain and his jaw clamping down so hard that he thought his teeth might shatter.
My normal teeth. Not the new ones.
“Don’t worry!” said Mariano, patting Vicente’s hand. “We’re almost there.”
“Three more minutes!”
Vicente found the strength to shake his head. He tried to pull his hand free from Dr. Mariano but the man kept a tight grip, doing his best to calm Vicente down. The doctor did his best to talk to Vicente, trying to break through the haze of the pain. Vicente screamed words but they came out only as garbled cries of anguish.
Don’t open the portal, he wanted to scream.
On the other side, he felt his flesh grow. He hadn’t been sure at first but yes, he felt it. It grew. Whatever had been his arm was now changing on the other side. And it was getting bigger.
And it has teeth. What used to be his arm now had a mouth. He could feel it, opening and shutting, breathing in the cold air of the other side. He could feel the thick slobber building inside of it and dripping down the mix of hardened tissue and muscle that now made up what he might have once thought of as skin.
“Sixty seconds, Dr. Mariano!”
“We’re almost there, Vicente! Two minutes then we’ll get you to a hospital!”
Not only teeth. It was not Vicente’s thought. But he heard it in his mind all the same. He heard it and knew. It came from the other side. The thought did not even have any kind of language in it. But Vicente understood because his body had made it. That thing on the other side had made it.
“Ten seconds to activation!”
The seconds counted down and Vicente shook his head. It was all he had strength left to do. He looked up at Dr. Mariano’s eyes and pleaded. Pleaded without words: Don’t. Stop.
Hungry. Whatever thoughts came from the flesh on the other side came as only that word. A singular word that burned bright as the portal’s light in Vicente’s mind. He screamed his throat raw but the pain continued to surge. He felt his veins popping against his neck. He felt his throat rip apart. But more than that, he felt hungry.
The portal opened.