So, saw a comment from the forward thinking Rose Eveleth ( @roseveleth on twitter, check her podcast, Flash Foward ) about a small contest being run by another writer @hels on twitter. Write a story using this opening line, and she’ll buy you dinner at OG. Well, im good without the dinner ,but the first line was too good to pass up. Especially since literally minutes before reading it, I had been discussing with a coworker dopplegangers. You know the old saw about how everyone has one? I met mine, when I was 6, in a restaurant bathroom. We were looking at each other in the mirror while trying to comb our hair.
There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors. They come in a hundred shapes, a dozen sizes. Some have knobs, and a sign that says “Pull Me”. Some have brass plates inscribed “Push.” Some slid open, sound waves detecting the unwary that walk by, smells of garlic and chianti enticing them to enter. One, Western themed, has handles made of cast copies of the Colt Peacemaker. If you are reading this, though, you are unlikely to ever come across that door, as the world on the outside of it has a gravity that will snap your bones and stop your blood in your veins.
Chances are, if you’ve been to four different Olive Gardens in your life, spread around your home state, you’ve only walked through one actual door. Maybe two. They are like holes, drilled into the shell of a vast multidimensional Nautilus. Each leads to its own chamber. Alike, but different, growing into being as the Nautilus extends it’s shell in directions whose mere existence would decimate your mind to comprehend. Growing larger as the Olive Garden beast grows, the door, the same door, appearing across each individual landscape as it bends and buckles in four dimensions, a hyper door, a single door for each face of hole into that particular cavernous chamber of the growing beast. Perhaps one day there shall be a thousand and one doors, but today, there are a thousand. The shell of the Olive Garden beast keeps each chamber apart, keeps the denizens from mingling, but the back of the beast runs through them all. It twists in those dark directions our three dimensional mind knows not. Ana and Kata, Ceriden and Quariden. It spins and turns, passing through vast holes in what, to our small minds, seem solid walls painted in yellow tones and festooned with fake rock slabs.
It takes a determined klutz to fall in a direction he doesn’t even know exists. And as my mother, friends, and lovers will all tell you, I am a DETERMINED klutz. (We aren’t talking about the chicken egg incident. It was as much Samantha’s fault as mine, and I hear most of her hair has grown back and the skin graft took with only minor scarring. ) Digging into some pasta dish with a dozen tiny sea creatures cooked into it, I managed to miss my mouth with the glass of Merlot. I mostly blame the fact that my mouth was a moving target, as I was mid delivery of a particularly bad brick joke when I tried to take a sip. Excusing myself from the gaggle of coworkers who had gathered for lunch (when you’re here you’re family MY ASS), I shuffled my way in the supposed direction of the bathrooms.
Dabbing at my soaked shirt with the napkin in my hand, I slammed bodily into a large man in a suit coming out of the hallway to the bathroom doors. I ricocheted off his solid bulk, hit my head on the hanging lantern behind me, which caused swears of surprise from the couple seated at the small table there, and spun widdershins on one foot trying desperately not to fall on my ass. I brought my other foot back down to support me, and stepped on… something. If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on a person while navigating a dark room during a sleep over (or whatever parties you may have gone to that involved many people on the floor, I won’t judge), you ALMOST know the sensation of squirming flesh under my foot. It twisted, it moved, in a direction that felt WRONG. My feet slid out from under me as the ground was suddenly off to my side somewhere, and bright lights flashed behind my eyes as I rolled up hill, down hill, the world spinning around me. I slammed against the wall, finally, and tried to rise to my feet. My stomach churned, the white sauce laden sea bugs in my stomach threatening to make war upon my esophagus, and I lay there trying not to vomit for a moment.
Finally rising, the world seemed to flicker in and out as I blinked my eyes, like a badly programmed video game redrawing vectors slowly. Blinking, I stumbled down the hallway and pushed past the heavy wooden door marked “stneG”. The light was dim, and someone was already standing at the farthest sink from the door. I grabbed a stack of paper towels and stood next to him, blotting up wine. I looked down to wet the paper towel and looked back up at myself, but I found that no matter how I moved my hand, I kept missing the stain, just touching the pale cream of where I HADN’T spilled on myself. This went on for a few moments before I realized that something was wrong. I looked at my face, and saw that my eyes were pointed to the side. I had never seen the side of my eyes in the mirror before! There was something else wrong with my face, but it wasn’t immediately clear.
I panned my eyes to my right, and found myself staring at myself, the way a good mirror should. There was a mark on my forehead where i had smacked into the lamp, a red mark quickly purpling into a bruise. I slowly raised my arm to touch it, wincing, and noticed in my peripheral the man next to me doing the same. My eyes flicked back and forth between the two images of myself. Same clothes. The face… the one without the mark on his forehead looked like pictures of myself. Not my face reversed in the mirror. I have a missing tooth in the front, that was the most obvious misplacement. And the stain on our shirts were almost mirror images of each other. Not quite the same, no Rorschach blotch test could ever produce two identical stains, but close enough. I could see his eyes flickering back and forth as well, our brains moving in unison. Slowly, we turned and faced each other.
His voice broke over my eardrums like static, obviously reversed. From his expression, mine treated him the same. Almost as one, we pulled the small notebook and pencil from our back pockets. While I couldn’t HEAR backwords, I had spent lots of time as a child learning to READ backwards. Wizard writing, it was called in several books. Hopefully he had done the same.
We communicated slowly through writing, both easily able to read backwards. I told my story, and he nodded, understanding. He told me that he had slammed into the same man, but avoided the lamp. We threw out theories for a few minutes, then, flipping to a new page, he wrote out a single word. “ANA?”
I wasn’t thinking as quickly as he, I blamed the bash to my head and getting twisted in some unknown direction. It wasn’t until he wrote “ketchup packets” that I remembered. A book I’d read as a boy, with people that moved in other dimensions. Left, right. Up, down. In and out. And for the fourth? Ana and Kata. I nodded slowly, and closing my eyes, tried to remember the feel of moving that strange direction. He giggled a strange reversed sound at the sight of my head bobbing, then gasped as bright light and geometric shapes burst out in my eyes again. I moved back and finally did throw up, losing my lunch into the sink next to me. He looked a little green as the smell rose. I can’t imagine what chirality must be doing to the smell of bile.
Grabbing his pad, he wrote, “Your head vanished!” I almost had it. I held out my hand and he took it, and closing my eyes, I stepped. I felt his hand slip out of mine, and desperately hoped that he was left in his old world, and not dumped randomly somewhere, unable to step in this new direction. Opening my eyes, i saw fragments and pieces of the bathroom, and the rest of the restaurant, panels sliding in and out of existence as I walked. In the distance I saw a great curtain of white, the only truly solid thing as I stepped around. I suddenly felt the floor squish under me again, and jumped backwards. Embedded into the floor was a great column of grey flesh, nearly a yard across, and raising a foot high before descending back into the ground. It pulsed, red veins specking it, a large black cord running down the middle, just inside the translucent body. It ran off in either direction with no end in sight.
I followed it, ducking around portions of walls, half lamps that hung in midair, and the occasional chest, head, hand, or leg. After several minutes of walking, I came to the white curtain. I touched it, and it was solid, but also round under my hand. I understood that it ran solidly in this fourth dimension i could now move along, the large flesh tube running through a small hole in it. Ducking down, I crawled over the flesh and moved Kata back the way I had twisted. I found myself in Olive Garden, the walls solid, the curtain and tube gone. I walked to the main dining room and saw my coworkers sitting at our table, my own spot empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, I rushed to the table. Marjory looked up at me and screamed in horror. I stopped dead, looking into her one, large, green eye, flickering in the center of her forehead. I heard the bathroom door open behind me, and I was shoved out of the way by… myself. The rest of the restaurant had started screaming and pointing, and I watched myself lumber to a stop, and turn around slowly. A single giant eye, a saucer sided plate of glass held by two thick bars in front of it. I spun and watch as the walls slid away, and I could see the cord to follow again.
The cord seems to only go in two directions, and following it back the other way seemed obvious, but past the mirror world was one where the atmosphere was thick and foggy. I’ve traveled up and down the grey cord for a year now, grabbing plates to eat when no one is looking, sleeping on empty tables. I’ve thought about walking out the front door a hundred times, but there seems to be a safety in the Olive Garden, no matter how dangerous the outside is, it only inconvenienced me within the chambers of the great Nautilus that is the Olive Garden. I’ve tried drawing a map, but it’s useless, the cord moves in directions I still can’t perceive.
It is an interesting thought though. Should someone ever find my notebook, and understand the words, realize. Every time you enter this place, nine hundred and ninety nine other you’s do as well. Some just slightly different. Some downright monstrous. But they are all you. Related through time and space, even if not truly related by blood. A family of other yourselves. And now I understand the true meaning of their slogan. When you’re here, you’re family.