The television was on for perhaps the fourteenth hour. The signal faded
in and out, the local station having long since gone off the air, and a
station from a distant town tried to push through the static. A burst of
words, a burst of static, another burst of words...
"--one of a kind--"
"--if you order now--"
Alone and in the dark, Cynthia Wilson watched, numb to the broadcast. She had spent the day there. It is Christmas Eve--technically now Christmas day. This scene repeated itself year after year, repeated with the dead familiarity of the Christmas specials she subjects herself to. She is here, alone and depressed, because it's the holiday season again. The winding up of another year. Another year filled with bad politics, the threat of economic failure, and thousands more dead in the name of God. Yet another year of trying to find any worthwhile accomplishments buried beneath the drivel.
On the coffee table in front of her was the small, tightly-wrapped box given to her by her sister Julia, the one who ran the novelty shop in the city. The box wasn't under her tree because she hadn't bothered to set up one this year. What few other presents she had were stacked on the kitchen table, waiting for the morning. This one, however, she debated opening early. Her sister always sent something unusual from her shop, and it was normally the only highlight of Cynthia's Christmas. She knew that she wouldn't sleep tonight anyway, so why not indulge herself with her one little stab of joy early on? What difference would it make?
Cynthia ripped at the red and green paper and popped up the tucked-together flaps of the boxtop. For a few moments she hesitated, afraid to find out what lay inside, afraid that it would not live up to her expectations and be a disappointment. Ocassionally, Cynthia was capable of short bursts of courage, just enough to overcome her doubts. She shook away her fear and reached in and pulled out a small colorful square: a globe, perhaps two inches in diameter, set wihtin a three-inch cube of Lucite. She held it up to the light of the TV, haloing it in a static snowstorm. She thought it strange that the globe had no labels or border lines or colors to distinguish countries--only a blend of forest greens and desert tans and snowy whites. Oddest of all was the way the blue and silver clouds seemed to flow and swirl as she turned the cube from side to side. It was almost as though she held an actual tiny planet in her hand.
Her imagination momentarily entertained a silly thought that the cube held an actual alien civilization. Perhaps the plastic casing was a protective force field to contain its strange alien atmosphere during its long voyage to our planet.
She peered closely at its land masses. No, there was Australia, and South America, and unmistakable North America. It was just a miniature representation of Earth, nothing more. Just another optical illusion plaything from her sister's shop, to go into the corner of the desk with all of the past trinkets she'd given. Unless...
Maybe it was a large-scale voo-doo doll! Whatever she did to this cube-Earth happened big-time somewhere in the real world!
She tapped the plastic above North America. No earthquake struck, no rumble of a thousand trains from the sky. It truly was only a toy for the eye. Still, the shimmering blue oceans were awfully realistic...
Come next morning, the cube didn't go oto her desk. It stayed where she left it, on the coffee table. For the next week, she paid little attention to it. On New Year's Eve, Cynthia popped the cork on a bottle of Gionelli Asti champagne. There was no one to share it with, and that was why she put down the entire bottle that evening and drank herself into oblivion. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, she awakened on the sofa. She realized that it was another day, another year, and that she forgot to take the sleeping pills at the end of the bottle.
She lay there on her side in the darkness and allowed herself to become lost in the television's static fuzz. From down there the cube-globe was backlit by static. The Lucite distorted and magnified the snow. And for a moment there seemed to also be something else.
Cynthia propped herself on one arm and looked at the cube. Nothing appeared different about it. She turned on the lamp and held the cube to the light. Nothing unusual. Nothing unusual, that was, besides the photo-realistic continents and the clouds and seas that appeared to move. Nothing which wasn't already there. She began to set it back down and her hand froze in mid-air. She swung the cube from side-to-side, in and out of the static background, making sure of what she had seen. She got down on her knees in front of the television and gently cradled the cube in both hands before her eyes. Like and old TV's picture gradually warming up, the globe faded from view and was replaced...
She saw herself walking down a city street, arm-in-arm with a man named Brian. She and Brian had been sweethearts briefly in high school, but they drifted apart after he left for college in the city and she chose to stay in their hometown and work up some savings waitressing at the truckstop on the edge of town. He had gotten a job and stayed in the city, but she had remained in town. But here they were, together again, as though they had never separated. The scene faded into them at a restaurant, where, bathed in candlelight and surrounded by piped-in Italian music, he asked her to marry him and she said yes...
Cynthia dropped the cube and burst into tears. Of course Brian had not spoken to her in ten years. Not since the phone conversation in which he told her that she had no ambition for not wanting to join him in the city. He had no time, he said, for someone who didn't want to go anywhere, who wanted to fall into the same rut her parents did and repeat all of their mistakes.
She picked up the phone and dialed her sister, intending to ask what the hell she meant by giving such a present. But her sister didn't pick up, and Cynthia slammed down the receiver and went to the kitchen to find the other bottle of Asti. It slipped her mind to try to phone Julia again, and she eventually passed out. She did not wake until the phone call in the morning informing her that her sister had been killed by a drunk driver in the early hours. Her brother-in-law Mike was in the hospital, but expected to recover.
The funeral three days later was the first time Cynthia could bring herself to leave the house. Mike was still hospitalized and unable to attend his wife's burial. After the service, she wanted to visit him, but decided that the sight of tubes and monitors was too much to deal with right then, so she called him instead. They exchanged the obligatory consolitory remarks and some family-related small talk. Then she asked the question which was the real reason for her call. What did he know about the globe that Julia gave her? Mike didn't know anything about a globe, didn't know that Julia had given her anything. But the last few weeks before Christmas were hectic--you know how it gets--so he probably hadn't noticed. Cynthia thanked him, wished him well, and hung up. She was on her own to discover the cube's secrets.
After some experimenting, Cynthia learned that the cube only worked whenever held in front of television static. She didn't know if what it showed was some kind of broadcast signal or something else. It could have been like one of those cereal-box decoders where the card showed random colors or dots until you held it behind a colored descrambler and it revealed a picture or words. Maybe the cube was a descrambler for images hidden in the static. However, the cube worked no matter which channel the TV was on as long as there was static, so she ruled out the hidden-signal theory.
In Cynthia's Cubeworld, she and Brian had gotten married and were about to have their first child. She knew that if it was a boy that they would name it Tommy, and Molly if it was a girl. She had settled on those names years earlier. In a way, Cubeworld made her sad, but at the same time it made her happy to see what could have been. Realworld Cynthia was able to live vicariously through Cubeworld Cynthia. Julia had, in what small way she was able, given her the gift of a happy life.
Over the next few months, Cynthia looked into the cube less and less. She was still lonely, still going nowhere, but hurt a little less to know that she was doing OK in Cubeworld. In September, Cynthia lost her job at the furniture factory and had to settle for a part-time secretarial position at the elementary school. At around the same time, Cubeworld Cynthia was promoted to manager at her accounting firm.
In March, Cynthia and Brian learned that their son Tommy would soon have a brother or sister, just when Realworld Cynthia learned that she had ovarian cancer and would have to have both of her ovaries removed. Realworld Cynthia sometimes wondered why she led such a cursed life, but she never reached for the bottle of sleeping pills in the upstairs medicine cabinet. Knowing that they were there became a source of comfort in a way. She knew that they were always an exit for her should she need it. But she didn't feel the need to head for that exit because in Cubeworld she found hope. She reasoned that some people might see Cubeworld as a taunting insult to their entire lives. But in its staticy visions were fragments of hope, and dreams of what she might have someday; just enough to keep her going from day to day. She knew that at least in one world her life had not been a total loss. She also felt that Cubeworld Cynthia's well-being was somehow dependant on her own misery, which bolstered her with a small sense of purpose. So she continued collecting and holding on to her slivers of hope.
--© 2000, W.A. Seaver
Written: 12/87 - 12/00
On: C-64 & Hermes 3000