"I can't believe it, I just can't!", cried Lea, the tips of her ears turning deep crimson, never a good sign. "From the moment I met you, Jay, I have not lived a single day when you didn't get us in trouble!"
But her friend was too absorbed by his iPhone to worry about their current situation.
"Relax...", he said, eyes still glued to the screen. "We'll find them in no time."
The girl, fed up, snatched the phone from his hands.
"What do you need WiFi for anyway?" Her eyebrows immediately lifted. "I've been waiting here just so you could get yourself some shoes?! You said this couldn't wait!"
"I meant it! They just went on sale, I couldn't miss this chance. Anyway, I ended up picking the black ones, do you think..."
"When will this get to your tiny brain?! I don't care about your stupid shoes! All I want is to find our class ASAP."
Jay was about to say that there was no reason to worry, but reconsidered after a few seconds of staring at the humongous crowds in the hall of the Cupertino Institute of Technology. He realized that finding even the 6'3" tall Martin may prove difficult.
Hoping to prevent another one of Lea's panic attacks, Jay pretended to glimpse their teacher in the crowds and yanked his friend around a corner and through an arbitrary door, not noticing the “staff only” sign. They found themselves in a large, dim lit, dusty room full of sophisticated-looking machinery and computers. Scattered around the floor were boxes of tangled cables, misplaced tools and pieces of scientific equipment.
"I don't know who you saw down here, but it definitely wasn't Mrs. Connolly," Lea remarked. "Let's get out of here."
But Jay wasn't listening. He was standing motionless, eyes fixed on a curious structure before him. A steel frame, not much bigger than a door, placed on a slightly raised platform with a ramp leading up to either side. To an ordinary mind, it was simply an unfinished project abandoned by a scientist, who didn’t get past the framework. But Jay had read more sci-fi comic books than he could count and it immediately got his brain running. Could it really be, at least a prototype of …
Jay snapped out of his trance.
"Do you see this?!" He exclaimed pulling out his phone again, "Absolutely spectacular! I have to get a picture!"
"I find nothing spectacular in a rusty old door frame. And we really should be going."
Jay, however, had other ideas. He leaped over a barrier surrounding the invention and in a matter of seconds was on the nearest ramp.
Lea felt the urge to yell at him to come back but a sudden feeling that something terrible was about to happen to her best friend spurred her to jump onto the platform herself to stop him from moving any closer to the mysterious device.
But as she stepped in front of the machine her panic was overtaken by a completely different sensation - curiosity. All of a sudden, the thing she wanted most in the world was to know what the unfinished invention so heartlessly abandoned in a dusty storage room was intended for. And so, when Jay moved closer to the frame, she did not object, but followed. Together they stepped through the door.
A sudden chill permeated their bodies, sending shivers down their spines. Blue sparks of electricity flew from the frame, crackling softly. Jay's head throbbed and he felt as if someone were cutting his brains open. Lea felt a slight shock to her ankle, immediately bringing her back to her senses.
"What are we doing?” she gasped. “We could have gotten electrocuted!"
"Yeah, let's get out of here," Jay replied, mustering only a faint whisper.
* * *
“Ms. Helen Connolly please report to the box office, two students are waiting for you.”
The loud announcement sent echoes through the building.
"Don't worry guys, you will be reunited with the rest of your class in no time." assured the young security officer, smiling brightly.
Soon enough they saw Mrs. Connolly storming in their direction, face as red as a tomato and drops of sweat on her forehead. Her eyes were daggers piercing through the kids' bodies. Teeth clenched, she murmured a few choice words about never knowing such irresponsible children and gestured to follow her.
The rest of the class was sitting around a huge model of an atom, subject to the tour guide's futile attempt at explaining the photoelectric effect.
"Here are our Hansel and Gretel." exclaimed the lecturer. "Come have a seat next to Gavin."
They both stared at him with puzzled faces.
"Who's Gavin?" Jay blurted out and a few classmates giggled.
"This is really not the time for joking," snapped Mrs. Connolly.
Fortunately for them, there were only two seats left-next to the tall Martin. Lea and Jay took their spots, exchanging nervous looks.
A few minutes into the lecture, almost all the students were nodding off. Daydreaming about his recent internet purchase, Jay found himself staring at one of his classmates - a skinny Asian girl with round glasses dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans. She didn't look any different than the rest of the class, yet something didn’t seem right. Then it hit him: he'd never seen her before!
Why would some random kid be on our class field trip?
Jay poked his friend in the shoulder, "Hey Lea, who’s that sitting next to Vanessa?”
"I-I don’t know, " she hesitated. "Must be new, I guess."
But her mind would not rest until she found the right answer.
When the lecture finally came to an end, they immediately took action and approached the mysterious girl.
"Hey I don't think we’ve met, are you new to our class?"
"Nice one, Jay," the girl chuckled in response. "We've only been in the same class for like.. 3 years?"
* * *
"We're extremely exhausted, that's all. That would explain the memory loss." Lea concluded.
"But this is not just memory loss, it it? For all we know, Martin's name is now Gavin, Adrian is not in our class and instead there's some new girl, Shannon. It can't be a coincidence that we have the same wrong memories."
"What's your explanation, then?"
"There's only one. When we walked through the teleporter..."
"Well, you know, the big frame."
"That was a teleporter?!" Lea grabbed her head in disbelief. "Well, even if it was one, it obviously didn't work. We ended up in the same place."
"But did we? I think it actually did work and that we got transported to..." he took a deep breath, "...a parallel universe."
It took almost half an hour to explain what he meant. And another hour to convince her of this possibility. But to Jay, the conclusion was plain as day. He had read about it in multiple magazines and websites. Every choice you make, every second of your life, the universe, or rather the “multiverse”, splits into multiple parallel universes, each one based on a different choice. As the books called it, “differing only by a single quantum event”. It only made sense that the Door (this was the first word he thought of when he saw the teleporter) was a portal to an alternate reality.
"So what do we do?" She finally asked.
"Well, there's only one way to reverse this."
* * *
"I can't believe we're doing this again." Lea sighed, looking through the metal frame, paralyzed at the thought of walking through the Door.
"Don't worry. If this doesn't kill us, Connolly will take care of it for sure."
"Thanks for the pep talk, Jay."
They counted off and stepped forward.
Immediately, their bodies turned to ice. Their internal organs felt as if they were being squished an elephant. But they pushed on, miraculously mustering the energy to take one more step. And just as suddenly as it appeared, the pain was gone and the kids stumbled to the other side of the ramp.
The second they stepped outside, they knew they didn't make it home.
The hallway was crammed with people, dressed a bit unusually, but all alike: bell-bottomed jeans, bomber jackets and funny, conical hats. All around were shops and fast food restaurants Lea and Jay had never heard of. On one end stood a huge screen displaying ads for some new electronics, and in front a retailer was demonstrating the functions of something that resembled a round tablet. The place was extremely loud, with salespeople calling to attract clients, who had to shout to be heard over the advertisements playing from the loudspeakers.
As the kids tried to internalize what they had just observed, a group of students form their class passed by. Spotting Lea and Jay, they exchanged looks of surprise.
"There you guys are! You better report to Connolly, you're in so much trouble."
"Watch out though, she turns absolutely monstrous if someone interrupts her shopping." warned Shannon.
"And where did you guys get these funny clothes?"
Nearly every person they asked for help seemed too preoccupied with shopping to pay them any attention. A young woman offered to walk the kids to the information desk, but received dirty looks from her friends, who insisted they have more important issues at the moment. After an hour of fruitless searching for their teacher amongst the shoppers, the kids returned to the dusty room.
“We’re hopeless.” Lea declared, plopping down on the cold, metal ramp. “We’re stuck in some alternate reality, and the only person we thought was looking for us is most likely more concerned with the best deal on new kitchen supplies.”
Jay put his arm around her shoulder, trying to find the right words to console his friend, when she stood up and said:
“We need to get out of here, I can’t stand these people, behaving like a bunch of morons. They turned the Institute into a shopping mall!”
Jay reminded her there was a high chance they would end up even farther away from home.”
“Wherever we go, it can’t be any worse than this.”
* * *
Expecting a rough landing, they stretched out their arms to protect their heads from hitting the floor, but were surprised to find their hands deep in a pile of mud. Looking up, they saw a sea of bright-green leaves, ruffling softly in the breeze. The noble redwood giants shaded the rest of the forest, keeping a gentle eye over the smaller plants and creatures below.
A few minutes passed before Lea came to the realization that they must have landed in a universe, in which the Institute had never been built. Her deep thoughts were interrupted by a chill-sending screech of a sharp instrument on metal. She turned around to see Jay working gingerly with his pocket knife on a small engraving on the Door. As if he had felt her eyes on him, he answered her unstated question.
“I’m leaving a message.”
“Ourselves. Our alternate selves, “ he said, finally taking his eyes off his work. “If I’m correct, every time we step through the door, another pair of us from the universe we travel to, comes here. But the Door doesn’t move. It’s a portal, so it has to be part of each of the universes. This led me to the idea that if we write something on here, parallel universes can see it.”
“So you’re hoping that our alternate selves figured out how to get back?”
“Actually, I think I figured it out myself.” he smiled proudly. “all we have to do is jump through the Door at the same time as the alternates that are currently in our home universe, and we’ll be teleported back to the Cupertino we know.”
Lea came closer to the Door, inspecting her friend’s work. Across one side of the fame, in lopsided handwriting, he had inscribed the words: THIS IS J AND L. SWITCH PLACES.
The only problem was that they needed to notify the correct alternates. After pondering in silence for what seemed like ages, Lea jumped up in jubilation.
“Jay, what was the delivery time for you shoes order?”
“Next day, why?”
* * *
In about an hour, their masterpiece was finished. The message on the Door now said:
THIS IS J AND L. SWITCH PLACES IF YOU SEE PACKAGE OF BLACK JORDANS AT J HOUSE. CROSS MAY 15 5:00 PM.
And so there was nothing more to be done, the rest of the plan was left to their alternates. They collapsed on the ground, gazing blankly into the wilderness. The red and purple colors of the sky reminded them that night was nearing, and they were alone, deep in the woods, with no food or shelter.
“Well, you’re lucky I was once a Girl Scout” Lea remarked.
* * *
This is it then, thought Jay. In a couple seconds we will be home. Or a million universes away...
Lea ran through the plan in her head again. All alternates see our message. Those that find black Jordans at Jay’s house are from our universe because that was the last choice we made before jumping through the door and the last separation of universes. They jump through at the same time as us and we switch places.
She let out a loud sigh. The time was nearing. Five. Four. Three. Jay took her hand, smiling reassuringly. Two. They took a running start, hearts pounding, threatening to burst forth from their chests. One. Eyes closed, they jumped through the door.
The agony they felt as they crossed the frame was indescribable. A thousand needles pierced their bodies. Raging fire scorched their skin. Blue sparks shot out of the frame, dancing in the air, flying in all directions. Repeated shocks burned lightning-shaped scars across their flesh, and the heart was spitting out blood into the veins so fast it was on the verge of rupturing.
Before they had time to cry out, the pain ceased and the kids broke through to the other side of the Door. They fell to the ground in the dingy maintenance room, unconscious.
* * *
After a tiring day at school, where Lea had constantly been asking Martin what his name was and if he knew a girl named Shannon, Jay was finally sitting at the dinner table. Never in his life was he so happy to taste his mother’s spinach and mashed potatoes, and in the heat of the moment completely forgot about his new shoes, until his dad mentioned a package that had arrived for him. Immediately after dinner, he darted into his bedroom to try them on. He ripped the sealing tape off the box and flipped the lid open.
At that instant his world came crashing down. The twinkle of excitement left his eyes, his gaze became expressionless, vacant. He felt his heart sink so low, he already knew he’d never dig it out.
The shoes were red.