The room Ben sat in resembled nothing so much as a padded cell. The walls were not actually padded, but had a deceiving texture in the dim light filtering in through a plastic panel in the ceiling. The walls were an off-white which somehow always looked grimy despite being cleaned daily. The room was silent minus a soft hum from the air filters. Ben sat quietly, eyes held lightly closed, the only motion an occasional drop of sweat breaking off from the damp ringing his hairline to find its way down his face. A few drops skirted by his mouth and his tongue snaked out to catch them. He loved the warm salty tang of his own sweat. He was not thinking of sweat though, but of cake. Chocolate birthday cake with layers of fudgy frosting, maybe a nice glaze, burning beneath a candle forest. Candles blown out, discarded; he left the small spatters of dripped wax, as he enjoyed the unexpected smoothness across his tongue. He couldn't say for sure why he was thinking of birthday cake - his 20th birthday in May was almost half a year away - but cake it was. He could almost taste it. A crumb dropped from his lip.
On the other side of the wall, Malcolm was still intently watching the taped meter. Back and forth, the needle bounced between the marked 1/5 of the dial and high noon. Slowly its average position moved to the right, as Malcolm's face got closer and closer. He had the habit of leaning in uncomfortably close to whatever he was looking at, and in his excitement he was nearly hunched over to bring his face right up in front of the glass. As the needle wavered its way into the marked area and stayed, a slow smile spread across his face. He hit a small button and across the room a ream of paper began spilling from the printer, covered in numbers and graphs.
Ben ate cake.
Just north of Los Angeles, Gary Bremlin, married, approaching middle age, was heading home. He was speeding on the highway, going at least 30 mph over the limit. All police in the area were 20 miles away, for assistance in a bank robbery that had turned violent. The bank's assistant associate vice president had tried to save the day, and so far he and three others had been shot. Eleven people had been held hostage for the past 4 hours. The robber was minutes away from turning his gun on himself in frustrated rage, though even he did not know it yet.
Knowing there was no one to pull him over, the only checks on Gary's speed were physics, his car's condition, and his fear of death. He sped furiously.
Gary was a programmer of sorts, for Celltec. His job title said Programmer, but he did nothing so creative. His job was to fix all the small mistakes in the company's existing code, which was volumous and largely undocumented. Earlier that day, twenty minutes after his lunch break would have ended had he taken it, moments after he had found the reason why all their clients in good standing had recently been mailed two-weeks-overdue bills, Gary went to have a talk with his manager. He stormed down the long hallway, littered with printers and carts and similar office detritus, and threw open the door.
"We need to talk."
His manager swiveled in his chair to face him straight on. He raised his eyebrows invitingly.
"Dave has got to go, you know this. Why is he still here?"
"He's here because he does what is needed, quickly. He's efficient, Gary."
Gary's voice dropped slightly. "He's not efficient; he's incompetent. I just spent my fucking lunch break cleaning up his mess."
"Thank you. If you want, you can get your lunch now." Perfectly cordial and calm.
"That's not the point! Everything he does, I have to go over and fix it all up. He doesn't check his work, he does everything ass-backwards, and he's squirrelly. And he makes--"
"You want his job."
"-- twice as much... well, yeah. Yes."
He closed his eyes for a moment, exhaling slowly through his nose. Invisible dust danced in the air currents. "Gary," and here he opened his eyes, focusing them somewhere above Gary's head. "If I had you as a full programmer, if you replaced him, nothing would get done. You're a great editor, but you can't produce anything."
Gary's response hadn't been very articulate, or considerate, but no harm was done. His manager was used to him coming unhinged every few months. He merely sat, lips pursed, hands folded on his desk, nodding until the bile had all been spewed. Gary had turned quietly and slunk back to his desk.
Now he was on the highway, whipping dangerously around turns, wishing he could push his car into beating the speed of light, wanting to get home before he got up this morning.
Ben, wiped clean of sweat and wearing a white cotton bathrobe, stepped into the room. He cupped a small mound of crumbled cake in his left hand. Malcolm bounded across the room and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Oh Ben, my boy! You did it!"
Ben flushed and offered him some cake. He picked a small chunk and examined it closely.
"It's good?" He popped it in his mouth and chewed slowly. "A bit airy..."
"It's cake, Malcolm. I thought up cake."
Malcolm nodded and the men grinned at each other. Ben had cake on his teeth. On a table near the door, the printout had been stacked into a loose pile.
"Yes you did! We got the frequency."
"Was this it, then? I'm done?"
"I think so. It won't take long to adjust things, maybe an hour, and we'll be able to see."
"Everyone gets their cake," Ben said. He walked to the small trash bin and wiped the crumbs off his hands.
Filter was on the radio. Gary turned it up. This song always reminded him of college, of his asshole roommate and old girlfriends. He'd met his wife in college. He was going out with her roommate, actually, and after a spectacularly drawn out breakup, somehow they ended up together. He remembered kissing her on the worn out couch he had found at the side of the road one morning. He'd sewn a few holes shut and it was serviceable. He didn't mind stains in secondhand furniture. It wasn't that he was poor, but he didn't see any point in getting a new couch when someone was done with this one.
He remembered being impressed with how methodically she kissed. She left no room for mistakes and confusion, even now, five years later. They only spoke of love on anniversaries and birthdays, when they went on long aimless drives. Sometimes, after a movie, they rented a motel room and got drunk together in bed. He'd never asked her about old boyfriends. She always smiled at him when he came home. He was very content.
Ben had been an unhappy engineering major for almost two years before he became an unhappy convenience store clerk and lab rat. Malcolm was his introductory physics teacher at Winstone College. They both hated the class, but Ben needed it to graduate and Malcolm needed to teach so they would fund his research. Two days before the midterm, Ben walked into his office with a stubborn question about angular momentum and inertia. An hour later they were discussing his mounting debt, and he volunteered to assist Malcolm's experiments. He got a stipend, and it wasn't hard work: sit in a room with some wires on you and think of what you like.
He understood none of the science behind it, but Malcolm was trying to manifest wishes and he had plenty of those. Some sort of frequency, some sort of harmonic resonance, some sort of particle, and a lot of fancy equations were Malcolm's contribution, and together today they had made chocolate cake out of (carefully filtered and monitored) thin air. Ben had worried sometimes that their slow progress had been his fault, that he wasn't concentrating properly for whatever measurements were being made. He had some other wishes he had never mentioned to anyone, and he caught himself a few times dwelling on them. What would happen if the wrong wish began to happen?
Malcolm had been removed from his professorship at the end of last year after a drunken confrontation with the dusty old woman on the College Board of Directors who every year tried to pass a bill regulating the length of skirts. Most of the school would (in private) describe her as a definitive twit, but she made large donations and had been there longer than most of the students had been alive. The circumstances of his removal had very nearly caused a strike of the teaching staff, and by the time the dust had settled, the school needed to raise tuition to cover the new salary hike. Ben, being poor and unexceptional, was forced to drop out, leaving him a permanent sophomore with an unconsummated 3.1 GPA and an unmentioned infatuation with a man twice his age.
Now he lived in a small apartment and made ends meet by working the night shift at a convenience store. The pay was okay, and there weren't many people coming in at those hours. He enjoyed the solitude. He was still Malcolm's lab rat. The research was being funded by private donations, but there was not enough coming in to pay him for his time. He went now for the company.
Ben was aware of the futility of his feelings for Malcolm - he told himself it was nothing more than a slight crush, but found that less convincing by the day - but he sometimes found himself slipping into his daydream world. He often caught himself on the verge of taking Malcolm's hand, because it just seemed so natural to do so. Ben knew Malcolm was decidedly straight, had been seeing one Ellen Gramercy for years, that he would never see the heart-rending sparkle in his eyes. He wondered what might have happened if, in that instant when the algorhythms came together and he found himself holding a piece of chocolate cake, he had been thinking of Malcolm instead.
A shined red cherry of a car flew past him, barely clearing the pass, tires throwing up gravel like a comic-book bully kicking sand. Gary never moved his head, but his eyes followed the car as it sped past, engine purring smoothly. He pressed down on the gas, and got a few more mph out of the old Chevy. It shuddered in fear, and the engine squealed like a cat in heat, but he didn't let up. He turned the radio up louder; one of the back speakers had blown last month, but once you got it past a certain volume you couldn't tell.
He veered closer to the edge of the road on every turn.
He'd gone into programming for the money; too many people did, and the money dried up. Gary had never admitted this to anyone, but he really wanted to be a cobbler. Something about it appealed to him: the feel of the leather and the tools, the solitude, the craft. Creating something unique and real - shoes were such a basic need. He'd bought a kit once, at a hobby store, but nothing wearable ever came from it, so he took some of the extra leather and made himself a wallet. It lived in his pocket, fat but not obese. It caressed his hip when he sat, and spoke of possibilities he would never pursue.
Ben was his full name, his mother Janelyn told him one day, as that was what he would be called anyway as a Benjamin and she saw no reason to be obstinate about it. She knew better than to make waves.
Gary's house was small but presentable. There was a small lawn he tried to keep well mowed, some flowers that sprouted up around the mailbox, and a small garden snake that had made itself a home in a hole in the foundation. He left it snacks sometimes, but had never bothered to learn what snakes eat, and in truth raccoons took most of what he left. Once he had been sitting out on the lawn reading, which he did most days when his wife was out with her friends, and it slithered right up onto his leg. It just sat there, silently flicking its tongue, and eventually he found himself putting down his book and talking to it.
He didn't have much to say, but there was no one else for him to talk to and he was frustrated. He was so frustrated with his life, it didn't seem like anything had gone according to plan. He had a job he hated to make money that didn't come. His house was too small and his car was too old. He didn't have any friends in the city and was too shy to make any. His co-workers were indifferent to him. He was so tired all the time. But he did have his wife, that's right. He had his wife, and he was very thankful for that. Thanks for listening, you snake. It had hissed and slithered off, leaving him to think on his own for awhile.
He hadn't seen the snake in a few months, and promised himself he would look for it on the weekend. For now, he just wanted to kiss his wife, have some dinner, and take a nap. He usually felt calmer after a nap.
With a grin and a wink, Malcolm walked across the room and flicked on the dusty stereo. The Rolling Stones "You Can't Always Get What You Want" swelled in, the angelic choir of its introduction coming tinnily through the small speakers.
"We're going to prove them wrong, my boy! No more frustrations, no more pain. We're going to make everyone so happy."
"Are you sure it's ready? I mean, it didn't work for me until I was concentrating so hard, and you had me alone in that room."
"That was just calibration, Ben. I was measuring what to look for, and you gave it to me. This time, all anyone has to do is want."
"Everyone wants, all over the world. And we're going to give them their dreams. Wanting isn't even so conscious, usually. I wonder what I'll get. How about you, Ben? Any idea what you dream of?"
Ben glanced out the window, focused on the clouds. "Well, there's this guy..."
Malcolm laughed, "I suspect there will be a lot of that." He clapped decisively, walked across the room, and punched a button with a smiley face drawn on it.
As he reached for the doorknob, Gary was suddenly aware of a strong floral scent coming from inside the house. Far off behind him a muffled shriek fell flat, wetly. He did not have long to marvel at the front door of his home literally melting away at his touch, as he found himself confronted with his wife standing in awe of the ceaseless army of well-muscled young men threatening to crowd her into the wall of what was suddenly their isolated mountain villa. Overhead, with a silent thunderclap, the clouds rained gold, and wheat, and sex. His wife flushed slightly, watching all those men grin lasciviously at her, their eyes twinkling in unison. Gary's right hand quivered slightly.
Then, there was nothing at all.