The alley, along with everything else today, was drenched in the dry summer heat that everyone pretended not to notice. It was always just a little out of place; the only of its kind in the city, the one place where things just didn’t meet up perfectly. One side of it, the one on Frank’s left, was the result of the ass-end of a shopping mall; the other, the sides of a block of retail stores. The bricks had been painted over several times, but were a deep maroon now, with flakes of yellow showing through on both sides.
Because he’d grown up in cities – thus, well-versed in the dangers of an alleyway – he had never walked it before, and, even in broad daylight, had never seen anyone else take it, either. But the shortcut it provided was obvious to everyone – a quick way through an unusually long block that was stuffed to the gills with antique stores, furniture outlets, and odd-food restaurants (like Crepes and Hot Wings).
This shortcut would prove to be exceptionally valuable today. Not that dinner with the in-laws could ever be considered a charming or desirable thing, mind; but because he’d been “unavoidably” late so many times in the past that The Wife had actually threatened to leave him if any “unforeseen” delays on his part cropped up today. Though normally good natured, she had said it seriously and calmly enough for him to take her at her word.
The alley would save him ten minutes, easy – enough to put him at their doorstep early.
So, without much thought, briefcase in hand and perspiration already moistening his starched off-white shirt, he turned into the alley at a brisk walk.
It certainly was a strange little place. A bit narrow for his liking, with a drainage trench down the middle. It was unusually clean in here – only a single 40oz bottle to the left, and not much debris or broken glass underfoot. Though there were no doors, it looked for all the world as if someone were paid to look after it. Which, in this town, wouldn’t surprise him in the least.
What was really striking, ten steps in, was just how quiet it got in here. One could barely hear anything “out there,” as it were, once “in here”. He wondered if he should start to take his few (but cherished!) cigarette breaks in here, as most of his other getaways were often noisy and too populated with his office mates. (Nothing ripped the joy from his soul more than being forced into a conversation with a co-worker when all he’d really wanted was a few minutes outside with Mr. Nicotine).
His thoughts died the instant the heat hit him. It felt for all the world as if he were walking into an oven. The haze often visible from a great distance on a patch of asphalt was now as close as the insides of his lungs (which were busy revolting at the invasion of the fetid air). Everything suddenly smelled horrible; his brow broke into beads of sweat that immediately evaporated off of his person. In a dizzy panic, Frank shambled to quickly exit the alley, hitting two walls an a pipe on his way out as everything shimmered violently around him.
And then it was over. He was on the other side of the street, dizzy, wet, and nauseous, but reveling in the slight breeze and (relative) cool of the town outside of the alley. Hands on knees, he gulped fresh air with great relief. Remembering his appointment, he turned to look at Happy Donut’s LED clock sign to see if he was still on track.
Only the sign didn’t say Happy Donut. In fact, he had no idea what it said, as he didn’t recognize any of the characters on the sign.
Thinking it odd, but not unbelievable, for a donut shop to close and get replaced by some foreign rug shop or somesuch, he checked his watch… and still didn’t know what time it was. The digital characters were indecipherable, even after some tapping and shaking.
Though confused, he figured he’d best sort this all out later and be on his way, when someone right next to him screamed “Froop dilean!” in his left ear.
Spinning, holding his briefcase to his chest, his gaze met a disheveled street urchin, holing out a chipped ceramic mug. “Froop dilean! Froop dilean!” insisted the unshaven, toothless scowl that glared back at him angrily. Frank just stared, incredulous. After some very uncomfortable seconds, the bum shuffled off, nudging a very confused Frank out of the way with his shoulder, and muttering gibberish.
A sharp-looking businesswoman walked past, barking into her cell phone. “Em sera pithoot! Jay careem sil! Nodool, nodool…”
Wide-eyed, Frank’s head swiveled mechanically, scanning every sign from here as far as his perfect 20/20 eyes could see. Nothing was readable to him. Nothing made sense. License plates were jibberish, and no conversation on the street could produce anything he would recognize. Even the logos and icons on the T-Shirts of the kids walking across the street were foreign to him.
He began to back up, a sheer act of instinct, and turned to run back to the alley… but met only a solid wall, a fact that did not change no matter how hard or frequently he slapped the bricks before him.
Feeling more exhausted than he had ever felt in his entire life, Frank let his suitcase drop and sat down heavily on the curb, much to the dismay of the skater-punks who yelled at him in a language he didn’t comprehend.