According to ODOT – The Omniversal Department of Transportation – as the number of civilizations capable of interdimensional travel approaches infinity, so too does the probability that any one citizen will encounter one of his or her alternates. I learned this firsthand late last night as I was shopping at the twenty-four-hour YumYumFoodMart beneath my apartment. I was having trouble getting any sleep, so I sought out the next best thing: junk food.
I had just dropped a carton of Fruit Snack Attack ‘Ems – perhaps the greatest culinary invention of our time – into my basket when a group of young men in a conga line, hands on the hips of the man in front of him, jogged up to me. It was like standing in a carnival house of mirrors; they were identical, as if I had been scanned into a 3D printer and someone had hit copy a dozen times.
Each appeared to be a perfect duplicate of me: short curly brown hair, dull brown eyes, chestnut-colored skin, and a sense of fashion that said, “I’m too poor to buy new clothes.” Specifically, they were wearing the same outfit as me: blue jeans that hadn’t been washed in weeks, a yellow-stain-splotched white tee (although their stains didn’t match up), and a wrinkled, flannel button-up.
As they bounced by, they held out their hands and slapped me across the face, each shouting, “Stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself!” in turn. I tumbled over and, like the big bang in reverse, I saw brilliant stars, then nothing but black. That night I also learned firsthand that repeated blows to the head were detrimental to my health.
I woke to the crack of a fresh slap, its sting red on my cheek, and I wondered if that was how they greeted one another. I was lying on the floor, the bristles of the carpet tickling my neck, and one of them – one of me – was looming over me. He sported a stylish leather jacket and pulled a fine-tooth comb from the front pocket. He ran the teeth back through his slick, shiny pompadour. I was still seeing stars, and for a moment it was like Rockabilly-Me sat at the center of his own universe.
“New Brad’s up!” he said, and a chorus of cheers rose around me. I lay at the center of the room and leaned up to glance around. The furniture had been pushed back against the walls and a dozen of my copies had taken seats wherever there was a flat surface. It was like The Dandy Disguise Depot had thrown up on them; they each wore a different costume.
Despite the absurdity of it all, I had my priorities. “Wait, where are my-”
“Fruit Snack Attack ‘Ems?” Cowboy-Me answered from my right. He sat on the couch and tipped his ten-gallon hat in my direction. “We got ‘em.” The YumYumFoodMart basket rested in his lap and a mound of wrappers lay near his spurs. I felt a pang of sadness in my chest. Those were supposed to be my fruit snacks.
“Who are you guys?” I asked.
“Y’already know,” Cowboy-Me said. He tried his hand at a southern drawl, which was terrible at its best. “You, and we, have all read ‘nough science fiction to figure out that we’re yer analogs from parallel universes.” He said it like it was obvious and pointed toward my towering bookshelf, populated by a mix of sci-fi B-movies and pulp novels. Honestly, I had figured this sort of thing would happen to me someday. Although, in my head, there had been more video games and Fruit Snack Attack ‘Ems, and less Halloween costumes and physical abuse.
“Okay, but that doesn’t explain-”
“These here costumes?” Cowboy-Me said. “It makes it easier fer us to tell each other apart. Play your cards right and you’ll get your own soon enough.” He winked at me and “shot” me with a finger gun. I pretended not to notice that he had slipped out of his cowboy-talk and into normal talk somewhere in the middle of his speech.
“How long have I been out?” The shades had been drawn and the lights dimmed, so I couldn’t tell if it was light out.
“Five. Ten minutes,” answered Mime-Me, who had perched himself up on my computer desk. Everyone glared at him. “Damn it! I keep forgetting.” He frowned and a single tear streaked his white face-paint.
Cowboy-Me made a gesture like he was hitchhiking and pointed at Mime-me with his thumb. “When you’re freshest outta the box, you gotta play your part. Them’s the rules.” I only understood half of that sentence. “Unless yer just so darn gud at it! Then ya keep goin’! Ain’t that right?” Cowboy-Me grinned and my other alternates smiled nervously and nodded along.
“Right… So you guys-”
“Carried you up here and got dressed?” Cowboy-Me said. He gobbled up a pack of Fruit Snack Attack Em’s, chewed, and spit out just the wrapper. “Dude, we all lived above the YumYumFoodMart and we’ve gotten really good at kidnapping ourselves.”
“Really good,” Mime-me said. Ninja-Me, who was covered head-to-toe in black, save for the slit for his eyes, tossed a nunchaku at Mime-me. He tumbled off the desk in a poor attempt at dodging and the ancient weapon smashed through my computer monitor and lodged itself halfway through. I winced and held out my hand as if I could have saved it.
“All right, all right.” An alternate of me, sitting in my computer chair, rolled to my feet. He wore a long, flowing black robe and popped a curly white wig onto his head. Brown curls still snaked out beneath the wig. He held a hammer in one hand and one of my prized Spaceman Spencer coasters – the hand-painted porcelain ones that showed Spencer falling perilously toward a burning orange-red sun – in the other. “Time to get to the matter at hand.” Judge-Me slammed the hammer to the tile and the high-pitched clank made me want to cry.
The small pockets of conversation dropped to nothing and my alternates swiveled to face Judge-Me. The way they fell in line made it seem like this was routine. Judge-Me shuffled a pile of papers in his lap.
“Brad 0417, we’ve converged to review Form 0518C – the official application to join the Brotherhood of the Traveling Brads.” His words were met with applause. He smiled and his cheeks flushed. “Please, please, I’m only doing my job.” He held up his hands and bowed his head to every alternate in turn. “No thanks necessary.”
“What form?” I asked. As far as I knew, I had submitted no such thing.
“0-5-1-8-C,” Judge-Me said.
“I don’t remember filling anything out.”
Judge-Me shot me a quizzical look. “You are Brad 0417, aren’t you?”
“I, uh, maybe?” I shrugged. “I’m Brad, that I know.”
“Technically aren’t we all?” Judge-Me said. ‘Mhmms’ and grunts of agreement rose up around him. “I do see your point, though.” The crack of his makeshift gavel cut the sounds of approval short. I said a silent prayer for Spaceman Spencer’s well-being. “Are you telling me you did not submit these documents to our tribunal?” He held out a packet and 1940’s-Gangster-Me ran them over to me. His zoot suit puffed out like a parachute as he moved.
Beside Form 0518C, which had my familiar scrawl over a dotted line, the pile also contained the ODOT: Ordinance of the Omniverse. I flipped through the manual. “No, I didn’t. And this could be any of our signatures.” I swept my hand, pointing around the room.
“Hmm,” Judge-Me said. “You raise a good point.” He stroked his chin. “These mistakes do happen.” My alternates nodded along in sync. “Unfortunately, seeing as our brotherhood doesn’t exactly operate within the confines of omniversal law and you’ve seen too much, you will need to be dealt with.”
“Disintegration?” Gangster-Me said.
“Maroon him in a parallel universe?” Cowboy-Me said.
“Seppuku?” Ninja-Me said. He patted his sword, though I was certain it was made of plastic.
With my fate on the line, it felt like someone had pushed the thermostat into high gear. “Just kidding!” I said, my voice an octave higher than usual. I faked a laugh and slapped my knees. “I totally filled these out.” I waved the papers in front of me like a cheerleader waves pom-poms.
“Seeing as we’re all you, we can see that you’re full of crap,” Judge-Me said. “However, we like ourselves so we’ll let it pass.”
“Sweet,” I said. “So…did I get accepted?”
“Almost. As you can see, our standards aren’t very high.” He nodded toward Mime-Me, who sat with his head tucked close to his knees in the corner of the room, next to my rack of old magazines. “We will, however, need you to sign the charter.” He produced the charter and a fountain pen from inside his robe and extended them to me. I signed the form on the floor. The pen curved over the paper, shaping one of over a dozen identical signatures.
“Now, there’s just the small matter of the duel,” Judge-Me said.
“The duel?” I asked. My alternates perked up and formed a circle around me.
“The duel. It’s more of a formality than anything.”
“With whom?” I asked. “And what happens if I lose?”
“As per tradition, your duel will be against the second-newest Brad in the Brotherhood, and nothing happens if you lose.”
“Except for the shame,” said Cowboy-Me.
“And dishonor,” added Ninja-Me. He ran his fingers over the hilt of his play-sword.
“Yes. Except for the shame and dishonor.” Judge-Me entered the circle and donned a pair of sprigged oven mitts. He pulled out a small cube from within his robes and placed it on the shaggy carpet in the center of the circle. Every side was green and spotted with lines of silver and circuitry, as though a computer’s motherboard had been shrunk and neatly folded into a box. He gestured for Mime-Me to come forward and my alternates parted like the sea to let him in.
“Uh, what exactly are we supposed to do?” I asked.
“Simple. I give the signal and the first one to slap the cube wins.”
“That’s it. It’s a test of reflexes.” Judge-Me jabbed at the air in front of him, shadowboxing. “Seeing as we’re all the same, we’ve deemed us to all be on equal footing.” He was right; the logic was sound. Still, something felt off about the whole thing. I had never been one for spectator sports and my alternates stared at me with hungry eyes. “Are we clear on the rules?” Judge-Me asked. Mime-Me straightened the beret on his head and I nodded.
Mime-Me inched toward the box, extended out his gloved hand, and hovered it a meter over the cube. I did the same. It hummed and the contoured lines glowed. Years of video games had honed my reflexes, kept them sharp as nails. I prayed Mime-Me had devoted his time to something far less intensive, like sports. My alternates were chanting “slap, slap,” and beating their hands on their legs like war drums.
“Ready?” Judge-Me asked. He held up his hammer. “Go!” The hammer’s fall was like a gunshot. I pounced on the cube. My palm covered the top and my skin sizzled. It was cold, as though my hand had just been flash-frozen. The feeling shot through my veins, pumped through my heart, and soaked my brain. It wasn’t until my vision blurred and faded to black that I realized Mime-Me had never reached for the cube and everyone else was grinning.
Waking up was like an old CRTV turning on. My ears rang, my vision was fuzzy, and slowly everything came into focus. I felt like I had run a marathon, passed out, and been flattened by a steam roller. My head throbbed, my muscles ached, and my legs felt like limp noodles.
I was lying on the floor of a dark room. It was laid out like the living room and kitchenette of my apartment, with a few adjustments. There were no doors or windows and a single spotlight shined down from above. The room seemed taller; looking up, I couldn’t see the ceiling. Shadows crawled up the walls and faded into blackness. One corner of the room was piled high with Fruit Snack Attack ‘Ems wrappers. Two clothing racks had been shoved against the wall, stocked full of Halloween costumes. Fluffy boas, an assortment of crowns, helmets, and hats, and plastic props overflowed onto the floor.
“Yes! Yes yes yes yes yes!” Another alternate of mine, this one decked out like a pirate, hopped out from behind the couch and danced around me. He adjusted his pirate’s hat on his head and grabbed the fake parrot off the computer chair. He affixed to his shoulder.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The duel, right? You fell for the duel, too?”
I nodded and crawled to the couch, climbing onto the worn cushions with what little strength I had left. My heart pulsed between my ears.
“Man, don’t feel bad,” Pirate-Me said. He un-looped the eyepatch that hung from the computer monitor and fixed it over his left eye. “I mean, Arrr, don’t feel bad, matey! A rite of passage, it was!”
“God, please stop.”
He frowned. “Yeah, figured that might have been too much.”
“Where am I?”
“The box. I wasn’t kidding about it being a rite of passage. The new Brad is always sucked down here to wait until the next Brad is found, so we’ve all had our turn.” The room shook and Pirate-Me braced himself on the computer desk. I held tight to my couch cushions. The spotlight dimmed and the ceiling opened. I was right about the room being taller – it seemed as though it was at least ten stories. Looking down on us was a giant, dull brown eye. Because things somehow hadn’t been weird enough already.
“Uhhhh.” I met its gaze with fear and confusion painted on my face.
“I’m down here!” Pirate-Me said. The eye disappeared and a giant hand took its place, descending upon us. “There’s enough Fruit Snack Attack ‘Ems down here to last a lifetime. You’ve got cable TV and universal cable TV, which is sooo much better than regular cable but you’ll find that out.” The giant hand slipped around Pirate-Me’s waist and lifted him up like an action figure. He gripped tight to the giant thumb and forefinger.
“Wait, how long were you in here?” I shouted, holding out a hand as if he’d take me with him.
“A couple weeks!” Pirate-Me shouted. “You might want to use this time to think of what theme you’ll want to take!” He was soaring by then, higher than a plane. “I’m freeeeeee!” He was still shouting when he passed through the aperture and the ceiling closed.
I buried my head in my hands and waited for the disorientation to wear off before I perused the costumes. I settled on a fishbowl helmet with a TV antenna screwed on top. It was silly that no one had opted to be Spaceman-Brad. I wondered if Spaceman Spencer existed in the other universes.
I sat down at my computer, which was an exact replica of the one in my apartment, outdated parts and all. A post-it-note had been stuck to the bottom of the monitor, a URL scribbled on it in my own handwriting. Always curious, I opened the browser and typed it in the address bar. When it loaded, the page heading read, Form 0518C–Brad 0417: Completed. Beneath it: Would you like to submit another application?
My palms felt sweaty and I looked up at the ceiling, toward the nothingness. I clicked “yes” and was redirected to a new page, this one listing hundreds of Brads in hundreds of universes. Pirate-Me had been stuck down here for two weeks and, from the looks of it, it would have been much longer if he hadn’t taken matters into his own hands.
Slipping my helmet on, I propped my feet up on the desk and glanced around the room through my fishbowl. I hovered the cursor over one Brad at random, Brad 1102, and clicked. Maybe I wouldn’t be waiting as long as I thought.
David Olszowy is a senior in Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Writing Program and has been previously published in The Lab Review. Although most of his time is spent in retail drudgery, he’s prone to flights of fancy and can often be found daydreaming in the produce section.