I've been spending some time lately writing a series of speculative short stories (2,000 to 2,500 words or so). For each of these stories, I start with a "What if?" question.
For this story, I asked the question "What if you discovered someone or something was trying to communicate with you in a strange way?"
I hope you enjoy it!
Reuben didn’t like change. He liked what he’d always liked. That’s why he was eating breakfast alone at 5:30 AM, just as he had always done. It was also why he’d bought a dozen boxes of Alpha-Bits cereal when some company in China started making the stuff once it was discontinued in the US. And it tasted pretty much the same as it always had, which was fine with Reuben. Alpha-Bits drowned in 100% whole milk. From a cow. Not from almonds, or soybeans, or chickpeas, or whatever else they were trying to make milk from these days.
With his mug of black coffee steaming beside his bowl of Alpha-Bits, Reuben spread out his old-fashioned printed newspaper on the breakfast table, careful not to crinkle the pages too loudly and wake Marlene. Marlene liked to sleep in. Always had.
So far it was a perfect morning. Reuben had already had a decent bowel movement, nothing to complain about there. He’d found the newspaper on the porch instead of in the bushes. And today marked his ninth year of retirement. It’d been a damn good nine years, too. Nine years of comfortable routine. Reuben and Marlene, doing what they loved to do, day after day. Some things they did together, some things apart. Just the right balance.
Staring at the not-so-perfect headlines about inflation and a new COVID-19 variant, he spooned up his first bite of cereal. Before shoving it into his mouth, he glanced at the pile of random letters on his spoon. Only they weren’t random. Among the haphazard letters on their edges or upside-down were six letters arranged in order: REUBEN.
Reuben stared. What were the chances? He had occasionally gotten a two-letter word, and one time he laughed his head off when he got the word ASS. But nothing like this. Today was indeed going to be a perfect day.
Grinning like a kid at Christmas, he ate his name, imagining that it tasted better simply because of the statistical improbability of it. He spooned up another pile. In the spoon, six letters again spelled REUBEN.
Reuben’s grin faded. For a moment he thought maybe he hadn’t actually put the first spoonful in his mouth and was still staring at the same pieces, but his mouth was full—he had eaten his name. Somehow the letters had arranged themselves into his name a second time. This was not only unlikely, it couldn’t happen. It just couldn’t.
He considered calling to Marlene, waking her up to see what he’d done. But she’d think he was pulling her leg, then she’d be in a foul mood from getting woke up. He shoved the bite into his mouth, stirred the cereal around in his bowl a few times to mix it up, then scooped up a totally random spoonful.
Six letters spelled REUBEN.
A wave of tingles began washing over Reuben’s face, from his scalp down. Maybe he was hallucinating. He’d eaten a sampler plate of seafood chowders at Buck’s Crab House the previous evening. Maybe he’d gotten a bad batch. But his stomach felt perfectly fine.
He turned the spoon over, splattering the contents onto the table. Somehow, in the mess, six letters still spelled out his name. His tingles spread down his neck and out to his fingertips. Using his spoon, he scooped more cereal onto the table, not caring that the milk was getting his newspaper wet. Among the scattered pieces of sugary, multigrain cereal, his name appeared again: REUBEN. He did it again, and again it said REUBEN.
He stood up and swiped the newspaper off the table. It fluttered noisily onto the floor. He went to the cupboard and brought back the half-empty Alpha-Bits box. After flipping open the tabs and unrolling the plastic sleeve, he sprinkled some of the cereal across the tabletop, working the box back and forth to spread the letters out. Clutching the box to his chest, he stared down at the mess. For several long seconds, he didn’t see anything unusual. Then he did. He spotted the word IMPORTANT. Once he saw it, it was obvious. And there were more words. There was an entire sentence.
REUBEN THIS IS IMPORTANT
“Marlene!” His voice cracked, so he shouted again. “Marlene!”
He wanted Marlene to see what he’d done, so he left the cereal on the table exactly like it was. He sat in his chair and sprinkled the rest of the cereal from the box onto the floor. Seconds later he found another sentence in the mess.
REUBEN YOU MUST SAVE YOUR PEOPLE
“What is it, Reuben?”
“You gotta see this!”
“I’m trying to sleep. Can’t it wait?”
“Dammit, Marlene, you gotta see this!”
Reuben went to the cupboard again, plucked out a new box of Alpha-Bits, and tore it open. He sprinkled cereal onto the counter below the cupboard. Seconds later he saw it.
REUBEN SAVE YOUR PEOPLE FROM TERRENCE
“Terrence?” he said aloud. The only Terrence he knew was the neighbor from next door. Strange man who never did much neighboring. “Who are you?” he said, feeling stupid, like he was talking to a box of cereal.
Marlene’s voice came from beyond the bedroom door. “What did you say?”
“You need to get out here!” He moved to a new spot on the counter and dumped out more cereal. He saw the sentence.
REUBEN YOU MUST KILL TERRENCE NOW
He stared. This was insane. “Who are you?”
He dumped more cereal.
“What’s important?” He dumped more cereal.
KILL TERRENCE NOW TO SAVE YOUR PEOPLE
He poured out some more.
KILL HIM NOW REUBEN
The bedroom door opened. Marlene was in her robe. “For God’s sake, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing! You have to see this.” He showed her, starting with the words on the table, then the ones on the floor, then on the counter.
“You woke me up for this? Aren’t you a little mature for this kind of joke?”
He stared at her. “Someone is telling me to kill our neighbor!”
Her eyes grew wide as she studied his face. Now she looked as scared as he was. “Are you okay, Reuben?”
“No, I’m not okay!”
She turned and headed back to the bedroom. “I’m calling Clinton.”
“Good, you do that.”
Clinton was Marlene’s brother—a psychiatrist, and a good one too. Clinton had helped save Reuben and Marlene’s marriage years ago. Reuben liked the guy, even though he drove a hoity-toity Jaguar. Yes, Reuben needed to talk to Clinton. Right now.
Seconds later, he heard Marlene talking to her brother in a hushed tone.
Reuben decided he needed something better for these messages than breakfast cereal. He went to the closet and dug out the Scrabble game. He cleared the coffee table in the living room, opened the box, then dumped out the hundred letter tiles from the cloth bag. It took him only a few seconds to spot a message.
TERRENCE IS GOING TO KILL YOUR PEOPLE
He was surely going mad. “Why are you saying these things? Who are you?” He scooped up the tiles and dropped them onto the tabletop again.
KILL TERRENCE NOW
He scooped them up and dropped them again.
YOU ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME
He did it again.
REUBEN YOU MUST KILL TERRENCE NOW
“Ahh!” Reuben shouted, and he flipped the coffee table over, scattering the tiles across the carpet. He sat on the couch, trying to steady his breathing. Was that a pain in his chest? Was he having a heart attack?
Marlene came into the room, stared for a moment, and said, “He’s on his way.” She turned the table upright and started picking up the mess. She had changed into a dress. Reuben was losing his marbles, maybe having a life-threatening heart attack, and she had taken the time to change her clothes. After putting the tiles back into their bag, she sat beside him. “Reuben, you’re trembling.” She put her arm around him, which he actually found to be comforting.
Clinton knocked on the door within minutes, and Marlene showed him in. Reuben was now lying on his back on the couch, with a warm washcloth over his eyes. He sat up, feeling slightly dizzy.
“I think it started as a joke,” Marlene said, after accepting a hug from her brother. “He was trying to be funny, but now I’m really worried about him.”
Reuben shook his head. “It didn’t start as a joke!”
Marlene gave her brother a look that said a lot without her needing to speak any words. It was infuriating, but at this point Reuben wanted Clinton to find that he was having some kind of episode—something there might be a pill for.
“Show Clinton what you think is happening,” said Marlene.
Reuben grabbed the bag of tiles and dumped them onto the coffee table. He held his breath, hoping there wouldn’t be a message. He needed to be proven wrong.
Then he saw it. He pointed to the first word then moved his finger over the entire sentence.
REUBEN MARLENE AND CLINTON YOU MUST KILL TERRENCE NOW
He turned to Clinton, who was frowning.
“How did you do that?” Clinton asked.
Instead of answering, Reuben scooped up the tiles and dropped them again. He found the words and pointed.
KILL TERRENCE OR HE WILL DESTROY YOUR WORLD
Marlene sucked in a breath, as if this was the first time she had actually seen the words. “What’s going on, Reuben? This isn’t funny. Not one bit.”
“How many times has this happened?” Clinton asked.
Reuben scooped the tiles up again. “It started at breakfast—with my Alpha-Bits, for God’s sake! And it happens every time. It keeps saying to kill Terrence. Our neighbor’s name is Terrence.” He dropped the tiles on the table then pointed.
YOU ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Clinton said. “And to be honest, it’s rather frightening.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. “For lack of a better idea, I think the police should probably pay a visit to your neighbor.” He nodded at the phone in his hand. “Do you mind?”
“Please do,” said Marlene.
Reuben shrugged. This debacle was ruining his whole day. Now he wanted the whole thing to go away. Then maybe he’d be able to convince himself it had never happened.
Twenty minutes later, two Dubuque police officers were standing in the living room, staring at a new message on the coffee table.
KILL TERRENCE NOW IF YOU WANT TO SAVE YOUR PEOPLE
It was the sixth message in a row that they had seen, and Reuben was starting to wonder if they were ever going to believe what their own eyes were showing them.
The heavier man, last name Brewer, shook his head for the umpteenth time. “Let me try it.” He gathered the tiles and dropped them.
Marlene saw the message first and pointed it out.
SOON IT WILL BE TOO LATE
“Jesus Christ,” said the smaller one, last name Bramley. “What do you folks know about your neighbor Terrence?”
“Almost nothing,” said Marlene. “The man hardly speaks, even when we holler hello. Doesn’t even wave.”
The two officers eyed each other for a moment.
Officer Brewer said, “You folks stay inside until we get back, okay?”
They all nodded.
When the officers stepped out the front door, Reuben, Marlene, and Clinton gathered at the only window that had a view of Terrence’s front porch. The officers crossed the lawns, climbed the steps to the porch, and knocked. They knocked again, and Brewer shouted something.
Terrence opened the door, stepped out, and closed the door behind him. He stood facing the officers, with his back to the three observers. Brewer and Bramley were asking questions, but they didn’t seem very happy with the answers. Or maybe they weren’t getting any answers at all.
Reuben saw something strange, and he squinted. Terrence was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, but something was happening to his hands. They were changing shape, seemingly growing longer.
Abruptly, Terrence swung both his arms from behind his back and struck Brewer.
Marlene let out a scream.
Reuben stared in confusion. Officer Brewer’s head was gone. His body collapsed in a heap on the porch.
Officer Bramley shouted something and took several steps back as Terrence drew his arms back to thrust them out again.
A shot rang out, then another and another and another. Terrence toppled down the porch steps and onto the sidewalk.
Reuben ran for his front door and threw it open, ignoring Marlene’s pleas for him to stay inside. He ran across the yards and stopped at Terrence’s body. But it wasn’t a normal body. It still had Terrence’s face, but the impossibly long arms were shiny and orange, with wide, flat blades instead of hands, like two plastic, jointed canoe paddles.
As he stared down at Terrence, Reuben barely heard Officer Bramley shouting into his radio, calling for help.
Orange fluid—maybe blood—was flowing from Terrence’s gunshot wounds onto the sidewalk, forming tiny rivulets on its way toward the street. The rivulets started shifting, changing directions, some of them even flowing up the slope. Within seconds, they formed a string of letters.
REUBEN GO INSIDE AND TURN IT OFF NOW
GREEN LEVER BLUE LEVER THEN WHITE LEVER
Reuben knew he needed to do this. He had no idea why, he just knew it. He leapt up the stairs, past Officer Bramley and his dead partner, and into the house. He found the door to the basement, descended the carpet-covered stairs, and stopped, staring at an object unlike anything he had ever seen before. It filled most of the basement, from floor to ceiling. It was mostly black, with irregular streaks of orange running parallel to each other, like reverse tiger stripes.
He felt something, a silent vibration that jiggled his internal organs. It was getting more pronounced with every passing second, growing, intensifying, strengthening.
Something caught his eye, on the concrete floor. Sawdust and dirt. The particles were moving, pulling together, forming letters, words, even punctuation.
GREEN LEVER BLUE LEVER THEN WHITE LEVER
NOW NOW NOW
He turned back to the massive black and orange object. To his right, at chest level, was a control panel with dozens of buttons, switches, and levers, each a different color. He found the green lever, in the up position, and he shoved it down. Then he found the blue lever and shoved it down, then the white lever.
His organs stopped jiggling.
He turned back to the sawdust and dirt on the floor. “What did I just do?”
The particles moved into formation.
YOU SAVED YOUR PEOPLE
“Why couldn’t you do it yourself? I mean, if you can move dirt and Scrabble tiles and Alpha-Bits?”
MY INFLUENCE IS LIMITED DUE TO MY GREAT DISTANCE FROM YOUR WORLD
Reuben tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. “Who are you?”
I AM AN OBSERVER
YOUR WORLD INTERESTS ME
“Are you like Terrence?”
IN MY BODY TYPE ONLY
NOT IN MY INTENTIONS
“Did I save the world?”
YOU MUST LEAVE THIS HOUSE NOW
OTHERS LIKE ME WILL ARRIVE SOON TO DESTROY THE WEAPON
“Why couldn’t they turn off the weapon?”
THEY WERE TOO FAR AWAY WHEN THE WEAPON ACTIVATION WAS DETECTED
IT IS FORTUNATE YOU WERE NEAR
YOU MUST GO HOME NOW
“Will you continue talking to me? You know, with the cereal or whatever?”
LET US HOPE IT IS NOT NECESSARY
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.