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Short Story
3,383 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Al’s Wormhole

by Sam Gridley

A deserted city street near midnight on a Wednesday—not the most comfortable place for 63-year-old Al Frandsen, whose hustling walk carried him past closed office buildings, parking garages, an auto supply, and a cheap electronics shop with a security grille. Across the four-lane boulevard shuffled a figure of indeterminate age and sex. A corner bar leaked a murky light through occluded windows, and brittle laughter spilled from the door.

In the afternoon Al had driven to this commercial district, a few blocks north of downtown, to examine a data colocation center in a rehabbed industrial building. An IT provider that wanted his organization’s business kept its servers there, and Al believed in checking out the hardware and environmental controls himself. When his visit concluded, it was time to head to his grandson’s birthday dinner in a townhouse about eight blocks southeast. Realizing he had a free, unlimited parking space, which wouldn’t be the case in his daughter and son-in-law’s neighborhood—parking being so difficult downtown that angry residents had appeared on TV’s Parking Wars, and Al himself frequently felt like punching somebody—he decided to leave his car where it was. From the trunk he fetched a “tub of dinosaurs” that the label assured him was appropriate for a three-year-old, and despite the fat bag banging against his leg, he enjoyed the 20-minute hike in the early December twilight.

For the next three hours he had a great time with his grandson, who untubbed and retubbed the plastic figures eight times. After the boy went to bed, Al’s daughter encouraged him to stay, so he remained late with the young couple drinking wine and talking about football, movies, politics, and how to fix a spastic laptop. Al’s social life being sparse, this was all a treat for him.

Now, at 11:41, traipsing back to his car with a raw December wind hacking his face, Al pulled his parka’s hood tighter and stuffed his hands in the pockets. Since leaving the residential area he’d been uneasy, and though he tried to hump along like a nighthawk of the inner city, his business slacks and leather shoes didn’t fit the image. As he passed building insets and back alleys, he scanned for potential trouble, his vision slightly blurred from the wine. Maybe he should have called a cab—but for just a few blocks? It was ridiculous to be so nervous.

He crossed the last main intersection and headed up the sidewalk, straining for a glimpse of his car, but his attention was caught by movement in a narrow lane that cut between two high buildings, connecting to loading docks and dumpsters. He turned his head, stared, saw nothing and sped up just in case his eyes had deceived him. Then his eyes did play a trick, because in a spot that had been empty a millisecond ago, by a dumpster about thirty yards away, two figures materialized, wrestling. One toppled. A pop broke the air like an icicle snapping. The standing figure kicked at the fallen one, then ran toward Al.

Before Al could fully surmise that the pop might have been a gunshot, the figure zoomed past. Stunned, Al needed a moment to reconnect with reality, and then—already doubting the wisdom of getting involved—he began a halting trot to check the person on the ground. There was no movement as he approached. A single light cast a glare, deepening the surrounding shadows. The man lay on his back, legs splayed, shoulders propped against a pile of cardboard boxes, his face gray with a large irregular splotch on one side. The alley smelled faintly of rancid meat.

Al pulled out his cell phone to use the flashlight app. In that surprisingly strong beam the eyes emerged, wide and staring at him in such a weird fashion that he stepped back. The look seemed neither scared nor challenging. It was, rather, a knowing kind of gaze, with maybe a slight plea in it—or was it irony? Whatever the quality was, it transfixed Al for some time—two minutes, three?—until his trembles made the phone’s beam bounce directly off the man’s irises, causing a strange pattern of brown and orange streaks to wink at Al.

He spooked, jumping farther back. He realized, too, that what had seemed a raggedy black patch was blood, shimmering from the shaved scalp down to the jaw.

As if to apologize, he asked stupidly, “Are you okay?” No answer except a flicker of the lids. Again the gaze locked on Al’s.

He turned the face of the phone back to himself, accidentally slicing his own eyes with the beam before he punched in the emergency number.


After the official questioning in a fortress-like police station with dingy yellow-green walls, it was 3 a.m. before Al reached his apartment in a near suburb. The next morning, exhausted, he called in sick to work with no explanation, knowing that his employer, a nonprofit housing agency, wouldn’t miss him for a day.

He scanned the newspaper. He checked his email and texts. He dozed. Then he tried to read a mystery novel by his favorite author, but instead kept putting it down to replay last night’s events, attempting to identify what bothered him. By mid-afternoon, restless, he felt he had to talk about the incident with someone other than himself, but this wasn’t the sort of thing he discussed with his few office friends or his golf buddies. On impulse he phoned his ex-wife, who had missed the birthday party because of a business trip.


“Yeah, Al, hi. What is it? I’m not home yet. In fact, I’m grabbing a quick lunch in San Francisco.”

“Oh, sorry, I can call later, I was just hoping...”

“Wait a sec.” Sounds of plate clanking, paper napkin rustling. “There. Enough of that. Sourdough bagels are greatly overrated. Okay, if you don’t mind me finishing my coffee while we chat.”

“No, of course not. Who’s there with you?”

“Nobody. You know I’m out here on an emergency client thing, I wouldn’t skip Matty’s birthday for anything less.”

“I know you wouldn’t. We missed you.”

“I called him, he’s like a real person on the phone now. I promised he’d get my present this weekend, and he promised to save me a piece of cake.”

“That’s my little man.... The cake was good.”

A pause. He listened to her slurp the coffee, imagining her mane of red hair (artificially colored for the past two decades, but still lovely) floating above the table.

“On the way back to my car after Matty’s birthday, I saw a man get shot.”


He sketched out the episode for her, his sense of helplessness, the police officer’s guess that the conflict was a typical one about drugs. Then he began talking about the man’s eyes.

“I had the flashlight on. You know, the cell-phone light thing? To see how bad he was hurt? I think the EMS crew said he was shot in the chest, but what I saw was blood on his face and, mostly, his eyes, which were like, almost like, looking out of his soul. If you can ever say that. A kind of appeal, I mean. Not for anything specific, not even for me to help him, just—I don’t know. Whatever differences there are between people, whatever—”

“Was this guy black or white? Or Latino or Asian or...”

“Um, black, I think. It was really dark in the alley.”

“How old was he?”

“I don’t know, it was hard to tell.”

“And the guy who shot him?”

“Yeah, the shooter was a guy, I think.”

“I can tell you were a great help to the cops.”

“I found the victim! And I called right away!”

“Right, right, Al, of course, I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

“It’s not about me! I mean, I work for a nonprofit that does good in the community and I’m proud of that, but you get in a situation where you see, like, the exposed humanity, the raw stuff leaking out of someone’s eyes, and what happens is—”


“—you feel like you’ve only been touching the surface, you know?”

“The surface is all we can ever touch,” she said.

Al went silent. Was that sadness in her voice or a hint of accusation?

“Al,” she sighed, “this sounds very existential for you, and I’m not sure I can deal with it in a coffee shop. I’ll be home tomorrow, if you want to get together and talk in more detail.”

“It’’s, not really the detail,” he muttered.

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t know.... Partly it’s that—I miss you, you know.”

She cleared her throat. “And I miss you, Al, in a way. All eight years I’ve missed you, but I also missed you when we were together. And saying it again doesn’t change anything.”


Later that afternoon, Al’s daughter phoned. Having spoken with her mother, she was upset about Al’s experience—and peeved that he hadn’t told her how far away he’d parked.

“We would’ve called a cab for you, Daddy! We don’t want you walking around unsafe neighborhoods late at night.”

“I’m not a child. I’m not defenseless. I’m six-two and in good health. And this is hardly the point. I’m not the one who was attacked.”

“But it could’ve been you.”

“Not likely. The police think it was a drug quarrel.”

“It could’ve been you!” she insisted. “Was the guy dead?”

“Not when I last saw him.”

Annoyed, he ended the conversation abruptly.

Half an hour later, after persistent emails from the IT salesman who’d shown him around the colocation center yesterday, he called the man to tell him the decision would take some time. And he gave a brief account of the incident he’d witnessed half a block from the center.

“My god! Are you okay!”

“Shaken a little but otherwise fine. I was up late talking to the police, though I couldn’t tell them much about the shooter. He must have been young because he ran by me like a flash.”

“I want to assure you, Al, that this kind of thing is a rarity in the neighborhood, and in any case, the building is safe. There’s 24-hour security, you saw the guard there yesterday, and surveillance cameras on the perimeter, so anything short of a nuclear explosion—”

“I’m not worried about that.”

“No, no, I agree, a nuclear attack is unlikely. And as far as conventional weapons are concerned—”

“C’mon, who’s going to use guns to attack a server farm? Let’s not be silly.”

“Sure, sure, it’s cyber-security you mean. We talked about our protections against hackers. I can outline them again if you—”

“Jon, this is not what it’s about!”

“Then, um, if you let me know exactly what your concerns are, I can, uh, I’m sure I can address them in a modified proposal.”

“Give me a couple weeks, Jon. That’s all. Time to think about it.”


The next morning, from his desk at work, Al phoned the police officer who had interviewed him. He conveyed his one new thought, that considering the gunman’s foot speed and agility, he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. The officer thanked him for this information but, when pressed about the investigation’s progress, would say only that the detective squad had Al’s number if they wanted to ask further questions. It did not sound like the officer expected further questions, and in fact the matter seemed of little interest to him.


Al had been mugged once—socked in the face, knocked down, wallet ripped out of his pants—and it’d left him not just nervous for weeks but angry. He had wanted to find a mugger—any one of the species would do—manacle him to a wall, and tattoo his scrotum with a welding torch.

By the third day after the shooting, a Saturday, Al had developed a similar rage but with no clear focus. It was a strangely dislocated emotion, and the more he tried to calm himself, the more it seemed to spread around his body, affecting his stomach and bowels and even his balance. Walking through his apartment, he guided himself with a hand against the walls.

The image that came back to him, again and again, was the depth of the man’s eyes—unworldly, like a link to another dimension. What was the term in science fiction for a bridge to another point in space-time—a wormhole? Not a nice thing to say about a person, that his eyes resembled a wormhole, but that was their effect on Al, who felt he had glimpsed something on the other side. And he was irate that no one seemed to care about what he’d seen, or about whether the man lived or died.

That question, the victim’s survival, prompted another phone call to the police officer, who failed to answer. Al tried to remember the man’s name; he had heard someone say it when the rescue team found an ID in his pocket. Was it Tom something? Tim? No, no, Tompkins, that was it, maybe. First name...Carl? Clarence?

Given the location, which hospital would the EMS crew have taken him to? Al made an educated guess, found a phone number online, and called. “Is Mr. Tom, I mean Clarence, Tompkins still a patient there? Do you have an update on his condition?”

After a long delay, during which Al assumed he had the name or the hospital wrong, the information was delivered in a flat tone: “His condition is listed as serious. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“Visiting hours?” asked Al, surprising himself.

For the rest of the day and into the night, Al pondered whether he had any connection to Clarence Tompkins that merited further attention. The answer was that he didn’t, but that didn’t stop him from asking himself the question again, repeatedly.

The next afternoon, Sunday, without knowing why, Al turned up at the hospital, taking care to park in a garage this time. At the check-in desk, a large semicircular island in the lobby with a chest-high counter, a seated security guard typed the patient’s name on a keyboard and studied the monitor. “That unit, only family members allowed. You a relative?”

“No, but they didn’t mention that on the phone,” Al protested. “I was given the hours with the implication that any concerned person could visit.”

“Sorry, bud.” The burly security man swiveled his chair away and returned to perusing a newspaper.

“What’s the point of that rule?” asked Al. His anger was rising again. “What if the patient doesn’t have relatives? What if other people are closer to him than relatives?”

No answer. “Well?” demanded Al. At last the guard muttered, “Go to the nurses’ station on the floor, ask them.”

What did you say?”

“Nurses’ station,” the man re-mumbled. “Sixth floor. Elevator,” with a flip of the forearm that indicated any place not in his vicinity. And he pushed a visitor’s pass one-third of the way toward Al, who snatched it off the counter without a thank-you.

At the nurses’ station Al explained himself to a crew-cut young man in a powder-blue snowflake-patterned top and matching solid pants. “I don’t know how often his family has come in, but I was there when he got shot, I’m the one who called the police, so it seems right that I stop by to see him.” The young man went to the far end of the station to consult with a sharp-faced female nurse, who discreetly scanned Al over her reading glasses. Al drew himself erect and assumed his best respectable-IT-professional mien.

The male nurse then motioned to Al, and they walked down a corridor, past glass-windowed doors, miscellaneous gurneys and carts, and an empty wheelchair. The nurse whispered an update: “His condition is still guarded. He’s had three surgeries but we’re not sure the internal bleeding has stopped. If he has family around here, we haven’t seen them. He’s been out of it most of the time, even when the police tried to interview him.”

“Thank you,” said Al. “I won’t disrupt his rest. But on the chance it might do some good to let him know that somebody has been thinking about what happened and is concerned about the...”

“Yeah, fine,” the nurse cut Al off. “It’s here,” indicating a doorway. “Please, no more than 10 minutes. Like I said, he may not wake up for you.”

It was a double room, the nearer half vacant. On the far side, cool winter light spilled through the window across the beige tile floor, gleaming off the chromed feet of a stand that held only a box of wipes. Clusters of machines and instruments hovered over the bed. A hum emanated from some electronic device.

Without removing his coat, Al stood at the foot of the bed and scrutinized the occupant, who at first looked unfamiliar. He was older than Al expected, at least 40. Was this the right man? A bandage covered the left side of the face from the cheekbone to the jaw. The surrounding skin echoed the color of Al’s chinos, a medium grayish-brown the pants manufacturer called taupe. The jawline held gray stubble that matched the short hairs sprouting from the scalp. The eyes were closed, their lids tinged with violet. One arm was obscured by IV lines and other attachments; the other lay lifeless on the thin cotton blanket. Al studied the purpled puckers of the elbow as if they might tell the man’s secrets.

“Clarence?” Al whispered. No answer.

Al shifted his feet, adjusted his coat. An ammonia-like odor annoyed him. After several minutes, when he was about to give up, the man’s eyes flew open.

“Clarence,” Al said again. “My name’s Al Frandsen. I’m the one who called the ambulance for you.”

After wandering the ceiling, the eyes drifted down to find Al—not focusing precisely but casting a circle of attention. They locked in that circle, neither moving nor blinking. The irises were brown, but the pupils had expanded so much that the effect was like two black holes sunk through white jelly flecked with blue and red streaks.

For an indeterminate length of time Al was sucked in, in the same way as in the alley. It was a zone of deep quiet, a darkness that expanded through an infinite distance. Somewhere off to the side lay a pain so intense it laughed at him. But there was also a human element here, a sort of sentimental mist or plasma that he felt he ought to understand.

Only Clarence could break this spell, and he did so by turning his head to the side, taking one sharp, jagged breath and closing his eyes.

Snapped out of his trance, Al said, “Clarence? Can you speak? Do you understand who I am?”

As Al waited for a response, a bell rang in the hall. It seemed irrelevant until two nurses dashed into the room, pushed him out of the way, and began jabbing at the patient and the monitors, pulling at lines, shouting instructions. Another person shoved in with a gurney, chasing Al to a corner in the room’s empty half.

In seconds the patient was wheeled out and rushed down the hall, with four people running beside or dashing after.

“I didn’t do anything!” Al cried, though nobody was listening. “I didn’t hurt him!” Randomly trailing in the wake of the gurney, he noticed a chair in the hallway and sat down on it. He set elbow on knee, head on hand, and fell back into a trance.

Some time later, a voice roused him. “Can I help you?” it asked. “What are you doing here?”

Al looked up into the face of a young woman with red hair who resembled Roberta many years ago. “Oh, hello, honey,” he said.

“Can I help you?” the voice repeated, with an edge to it.

“I don’t know,” Al said. “How have you been? I’ve missed you so much. But you know that, don’t you? Does it help us at all?”


SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Sam Gridley

is the author of the novels The Shame of What We Are and The Big Happiness. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog, and hangs out at the website

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury