The world beyond was white and featureless. The vault is all there was, rising from the endless waste in stark contrast, black, angular, foreboding. Inside, on a network of computers, was the last bastion of human knowledge. He was there to protect it.
His first thought was, “Why am I the one who has to protect it? I’m just a nurse aide.” Try as he might, he could no longer remember who left him the charge. Still, inexplicably but unshakably, he knew it was a solemn duty. He couldn’t run from it. Even if he wanted to, where would he run?
His second thought was, “Who am I protecting it from, anyway?” The nondescript white deadness beyond felt empty of all human life. He felt like he was the last one. Was he? He couldn’t remember.
When he saw her, it brought no hint of relief that he wasn’t left alone. She covered the distance beyond with a surprising swiftness. She looked immeasurably old and felt immeasurably older. She was wiry and stooped over. Before he understood how, she was over him, on top of him, wrestling him with uncanny strength.
Her hands were full of treble fishhooks and she wielded them with the flashing speed of a granny’s knitting needles, thrusting them through his cheek, his nose, his ear. Gasping in pain, he tore first one loose then the other, ripping the barbs through his own screaming flesh. He grappled for control of those knobby twisted fingers, but every time he grasped one finger it was really three fingers, and each one had a treble fishhook. He thought, “The hands of Hydra!” and the thought terrified him.
There was no white beyond. He was in a tropical place, a rainforest with a natural clearing where the group was gathered to listen to the tour guide. He was a small man with fierce eyes and a pointed chin he kept jutting forward. “And do you know why the hippo is one of the most dangerous animals in the wild?” he asked, his ironic eyes surveying the face of each tourist for the confidence to face his cunning questions.
A young timid woman with a blond ponytail spoke up. “Umm, because they can trample you?”
“Yes, they can trample you!” the tour guide replied in derision. “And also – here he paused for dramatic effect – they throw rocks.” He said it with a confidence that brooked no disagreement.
His attention was turned away by a movement in the corner of his eye. It was a hippo, charging people across the green grass, trampling any who were too slow to get away.
He looked around for shelter and saw a huge fallen log. When he looked back up, he was greeted by a steady stream of rocky projectiles, buckets of them, rivers, like the discharge of a fire hose only made of fist-sized rocks instead of water. In panic, he dove behind the log just before the stream of rocks began to pelt him. Every time he found the courage to peek above the log he saw the hippo charging people. But soon, another spray of rocks was flying his way and he’d have to duck back down.
He tried to imagine a hippo scooping up rocks with its huge lumbering feet. It didn’t make sense. He couldn’t envision it. Still, every time he lifted his head above the log, there they came flying at him to prove him wrong.
The last thing he saw was a workman with a big scoop-shovel clearing the pile of rocks away from the fallen tree trunk.
But he wasn’t guarding the last bastion of human knowledge and he wasn’t touring Africa. He remembered that now. He was just a nurse aide, he was at work, and his only problem was scooping up a pile of nickels that had fallen to the floor in front of the big double doors to the dining room. He was in a hurry because the residents were beginning to leave the room and he didn’t want any of them to trip on them.
There was music in the background, songs that he knew and was singing along to. Then there was another song and it sounded closer, much closer and more lifelike.
…I wanna love you, but I better not touch (don’t touch)
I wanna hold you, but my senses tell me to stop…
He knew that song. He knew that voice. He looked up. Alice Cooper was standing there in makeup, holding a microphone, singing and giving him an inscrutable stare.
He looked back down to the floor and the pile of nickels was as big as it ever had been. He kept scooping them up but every time he looked up at Alice Cooper he would look back down again and the pile would be just as large.
…I wanna kiss you, but I want it too much (too much)
I wanna taste you, but your lips are venomous poison…
The song was mesmerizing and he looked up again then looked back and saw that the nickels had returned. Once more he started to scoop them up.
There were other nurse aides there and one of them wondered what the song was. He said, “It’s Poison, by Alice Cooper,” but either she couldn’t hear him or didn’t believe him because she stated again, “I wonder what song that is.”
“Is it a George Michaels song?” one of them asked.
“No,” he said, “It’s Alice Cooper.” She didn’t respond.
“Maybe it’s Don’t Stop Believing,” another one suggested.
“How could it be Don’t Stop Believing?” he thought in his mind, but he didn’t say anything out loud. He looked down and there it was again, the pile of nickels, the same size it had been at the first.
…You’re poison runnin through my veins
You’re poison, I don’t wanna break these chains…
But something was wrong with the song. It was too tinny, too annoying, like bells or alarms or a ringing telephone.
And it was a ringing telephone. It was. With sudden awareness he threw back the covers, ran barefoot across the cold hard floor of the room and answered the phone. “Why was I stupid enough to leave the phone on the other side of the room?” he thought groggily as he made his way through the darkness.
Then he was stumbling into his clothes and up the stairs into another world, just as fascinating and inexplicable. But in this world, at least, hippos didn’t throw rocks and old women didn’t (usually) wield fishhooks.