Volume 1.7: 'Lost and Found'
In retrospect, it would've made more sense to celebrate after we'd tested Frank's device, rather than before. I'd felt silly toasting something that I knew nothing about, but after the fifth or sixth glass, the strangeness receded. By the time the third champagne bottle clonked onto Frank's meticulously scrubbed lino, I didn't care. What are birthdays for, after all?
We'd planned to throw the switch at midnight – drama! - but by then, Frank couldn't remember how to work it. All he would do is sing songs about sailing the sea and giggle drunkenly to himself like it was a secret joke. In the end, once all the booze was gone, I passed out in his bed and Frank, gentleman to the last, slept on the sofa.
When I woke up the next morning, I wasn't hungover: usually, two glasses of wine will leave me flat on my back for the whole next day. Maybe the good stuff really doesn't have headaches in it. I might've laid there for hours more, revelling in my luck, except for the clatter in the kitchen.
“Sorry,” said Frank as I entered. “I'm just tidying up all this chaos.”
He pointed at the three empty bottles lined neatly against the wall.
“You've got a problem, my friend,” I yawned and squeezed past him to make toast. In the bread bin, each slice was individually wrapped in cling film.
“For freshness,” he explained, scrubbing at the floor beneath the empty bottles with bleach.
I didn't know how to bring it up but ever since Matilda had left him, he’d gone strange.
Even the butter in the fridge had been excised surgically from its tub, with knife incisions so straight they might’ve been drawn with a ruler. When I’d finished my own clumsy extraction, I felt guilty at ruining the geometric precision but Frank swept in to neaten it again.
“So,” I said through a mouthful of toast. “did you steal the stuff for your machine from work?”
Frank blanched and turned away, putting the spread in a space in the fridge neatly labelled 'BUTTER'.
“Well...the University's swimming in cash at the moment, so...” he started.
“Actually, it's not,” I interjected with a grin. “It was in the newspaper: the Humanities departments are all having to make big budget...”
“The Sciences are fine,” he continued smoothly. “All the components I used were excess from completed projects anyway.”
He casually wiped away the toast crumbs I was sprinkling on the kitchen table with a new cloth, then disposed of the cloth immediately in the bin. Looking him square in the eye, I let a gobbet of melting butter fall to the surface with a soft 'pat'.
He shuddered and forced a grin. His fingers twitched.
“Ha. Ha. It's fine. I'll just clear it later,” he said through gritted teeth, eyes never leaving the cheerfully settling stain.
Still eating toast, I wandered out of the kitchen, through the connecting door into the garage. The sound of frantic scrubbing followed me.
Frank's device had a distinctly homemade look, despite his best efforts. He'd tried to contain it in a polished steel case, but there was too much duct tape to mistake it for a professional effort. He scurried in when I started poking at the LEDs winking through the casing.
“Doesn't look like a boat engine to me,” I said, poking at one winking red. “Wasn't this supposed to go sailing on the ocean or something?”
Frank smiled but snatched the box away from me.
“Have you ever heard of the Super Sargasso Sea?” he said, carefully wiping my buttery fingerprints off the steel and buffing it back to a gleam.
“No, but then I was never good at Geography,” I replied, patting the crumbs off my top and onto the floor. “That's why I'm a graphic designer rather than...a...”
“Cartographer?” Frank prompted with a sigh.
“No...the one that makes maps.”
Frank winced and I smirked. He was incredibly easy to wind up. Even Matilda leaving hadn't changed that.
“Have you ever wondered where your lost pens go?” he asked, trying to divert me.
“Oh...this is your 'dimension of lost things' idea,” I said, laughing. “You lose pens all the time because you work in academia and stealing pens off each other is all that you lot do.”
By the expression on his face, I had crossed a line. Frank was very serious about his work. Since Matilda left, he'd been serious about lots of things. The first he'd known that she's gone was when he came home from the University late one night and found all her house keys lined up neatly on the kitchen work surface. He'd gone right back to work the next day. He took his work very seriously. He hated it when other people didn't.
“Lost things should be found again,” he scolded. “Usually they are, but sometimes they're not. When they're not, they've gone somewhere else.”
This new obsession of his was obviously to do with Matilda, I decided. I'd seen his house keys hanging on the wall in the kitchen – five green keys, all labelled neatly with the door they opened. They were Frank’s set. Beneath them hung four yellow keys identical to their partner above and a single missing slot. It should’ve held the yellow partner of the green key above – stamped GARAGE – but the green key was alone. Its absence, I thought, was the root of his weird obsession.
When he saw my doubt, he smiled gently and set the box down on his work bench. It was the size of a loaf, but it looked heavy. Wires trailed out of crude holes in the back like after-thoughts, connected to an old car battery. A few dials protruding from the top which looked like they might've been scavenged from microscopes. A tablet computer with a cracked screen sat proudly on top, neatly super-glued into place. It could easily have been a high school student's science fair project.
“Frank, let's go and do something fun. I don't know what this is, but it's my birthday and I want to get drunk again. I don't want to see lunchtime sober, especially when I've got work tomorrow.”
He lined the box up with one of the grey walls of his garage and turned one of the dials slightly. There was a hum and I felt my skin prickle. The paint on the wall began to blister and crinkle as if under intense heat.
“Is a death ray?” I joked, covering my astonishment.
Frowning, Frank looked at the tablet display which now had lit up, covered in rapidly evolving graphs, and turned a few more dials on the top. Great scabs of paint began to smoke and slough off of the wall. Within a few more seconds, a circle reaching from floor to ceiling had burnt through the paint and was scorching the cinderblocks behind.
“Point proven – you're a brilliant inventor,” I said, wondering if Frank had gone full-blown mad scientist this time. “Turn it off now. Please.”
“One more second,” Frank muttered, without looking away from the tablet screen. “Almost there.”
The cinderblock circle softened and distorted. The wall faded away, leaving just the brightly glowing, sparking perimeter. Something came into view, like the circle was now a window to somewhere else.
It was a park. Just an average looking park that you'd see in any town anywhere. Grass, a duck pond, paths and benches. A bandstand looking slightly shabby and a closed ice-cream stand. And it stretched into the distance infinitely. And there were dogs. Lots of dogs of all shapes and sizes. And no people at all. It was not an average park.
“I found Pickles for you,” Frank said proudly, pointing at a little Yorkshire Terrier. “Happy birthday! This is my present to you!”
My jaw dropped. I'd lost Pickles about twenty years ago: he'd run off from my parents' house one Fireworks Night. I'd been inconsolable.
“Where is this?” I gulped, overcome by emotion. “Where did you find him?”
“All lost things go somewhere,” he said. “Think of this like the Lost Property box of the universe.”
I stared. Pickles was sniffing one of the benches, getting ready to cock a leg against it. I'd forgotten how often he peed on everything. Looking at him, a lot of repressed memories about how much I didn't like dogs came flooding back. The way he'd howl suddenly in the middle of the night. The way he'd chew my shoes to damp rags. The way he'd actually been my father's dog, but it'd been my job to walk him. The way I only missed him because that was what you were supposed to do when dogs vanished.
Not that I planned on telling Frank any of that; he looked incredibly pleased with himself.
Something was odd, though. Pickles looked exactly the same as he did when he vanished twenty years ago. Frank caught my expression.
“It's outside of the normal flow of things,” he said. “Strictly speaking, time doesn't pass there. I can show you the mathematics of it if you like.”
I shook my head, suddenly consumed by the dread that Frank was going to rescue Pickles from...wherever this was. I had a very small flat and, unless there was a big raise in my future, no money either. I didn't want a dog to look after.
“I can't get him out,” he said sadly. “Things that end up here have to be found again in the real world. No shortcuts, I'm afraid.”
I pulled my best sad face.
“Well,” I said, faux-miserable, “It was nice to see him again. He looks happy.”
Frank frowned at that.
“It's really odd. I mean, that it's a park. Lost dogs – really, incredibly lost dogs - get shunted into this holding area until they're found again, but it's a park. A park on a nice day. It's almost like the universe wants them to be happy.”
It was a sweet thought, but Pickles was an inside dog. He loathed the outside world and yelped through every walk I ever took him on.
“Frank...” I said, coming to another realisation. “It's not just dogs that get lost. What about everything else? Phones, wallets, that sort of thing. Do they go somewhere too?”
He frowned like the thought had never crossed his mind. With an absent expression on his face, he wandered back to his work bench, pulled out a notebook full of precisely inked mathematics and started scratching his chin.
I looked back through the circle into the park. Pickles looked just fine there; he probably wouldn't want to come out, even if I could get him. Yeah.
Frank wandered back with his notebook and fiddled with some of the dials.
“Theoretically, everything lost has to go somewhere,” he muttered. “Universes stacked next to each other, perhaps?"
The circle crackled and gave out a choking blast of ozone. Pickles, thankfully, vanished forever. The view shifted, melted, and reformed on a new scene.
It turns out that pens do grow on trees. At least, lost pens do. They dangled from the branches of trees in an infinite forest. Red, blue, black and the occasional purple.
“This is where the universe stores lost pens?” I asked.
He nodded. Beads of ink ran down the filaments they dangled from, slowly refilling their reservoirs as the wind stirred them gently, making them clack together like cheap wind chimes.
“This is the universe's idea of making pens happy?” I said with a smirk.
Frank pointed. The pens had all been carefully capped, but sometimes not with the right coloured lids: blue shielded red, blue to purple and so on.
“I think the universe cares, but not that much,” Frank smiled anxiously. His fingers twitched at the mismatch in colours.
“Where do people go?” I asked suddenly. “Those people who go missing and are never found.”
Frank returned to his dials, biting his lower lip. The tablet had several evolving graphs now which it was gamely trying to superimpose over each other. I don't know why I was urging him down the rabbit hole: I'd gone from sceptic to zealot in just a few minutes.
The circle spat and sparked again; the air in the garage grew hot. When the view reformed, I smiled and asked Frank if we could step through. With a matching smile, he agreed, but on the condition that we didn't stay too long. He didn't say why.
There was a moment of lurching transition, then we both stood in the box where the universe stored lost people.
A funfair. An infinitely large funfair. It was bright with neon, loud with the sound of cheery pop music and spiced with the smell of cooking popcorn and candy floss. Over infinite stalls and milling people, a Ferris wheel towered, so large that the upper cars were lost in the clouds. All around us was the clack of hoops thrown over bottlenecks and the sigh of people who'd almost knocked over enough cans to win a prize.
Frank and I scurried out of the surging crowd and took refuge by a Test-Your-Strength machine. It loomed over us like the 2001 monolith with a giant red boil on top.
I stared at him and he stared at me. I shrugged at the crowds laughing past me.
The flow of revellers was a mighty river, but it diverted around a rock in its path. A small knot of people sat on the damp, glitter-spattered earth, and glumly looked at the fun around them. Frank and I wandered over, intrigued, elbowing our way through the revellers.
A Japanese samurai sat slumped, armour and weaponry scattered around him, next to a Napoleonic musketeer, powder-blue uniform covered in fragments of popcorn, who in turn sat next to a woman in ripped blue jeans and a shabby-chic white jumper, checking her smart phone with a miserable expression.
“Everything okay?” I said, sitting next to her.
“Why am I here? I only took a short cut across the moors,” the woman whined, stabbing a finger at the 'no signal' on her smart phone. “I hate fun fairs.”
Frank squeezed my shoulder and, when I looked up, he shook his head at me.
“Don't get involved,” he whispered. “The universe clearly cares about people, but...not that much. It's too big to care about personal touches.”
The samurai was looking at the Hook-A-Duck stall with a look of total bewilderment: it was obviously completely outside his cultural context. Perhaps he'd gotten lost walking in the mist one day and ended up here in this neon bedlam, stuck until someone found him again in the real world. Why would an early twenty-first-century fun fair be of any solace to an ancient Japanese warrior?
Frank shook my shoulder again and pointed at the window back to his garage. The outline was trembling, spasming even, like it was struggling to stay open.
“Time to go,” he muttered, pulling me away.
The woman on the phone, the samurai and the musketeer didn't even watch us go: they just staring at the sugar-saturated chaos around them with baffled expressions.
When we stepped back through the circle, the air inside the garage was oven hot. The ramshackle contraption projecting the circle was struggling now: a wisp of smoke leaked from one corner carrying a strong smell of electrical burning.
Frank examined it with some concern. I know what he was thinking. His device was supposed to find my childhood dog and, after all my emotions were spent, switch off forever. It wasn't supposed to keep browsing these Lost Property boxes.
“One more maybe,” he said, touching the machine's case before retracting his fingers with a suppressed hiss.
The funfair lurched out of view with none of the grace of the previous dissolves. Fat sparks dripped from the circle's circumference, burning sooty silhouettes on the garage floor.
When the view reformed, it was of a shining metallic sea: trillions of metal shapes of every colour, forming colossal, static waves that shimmered upwards into glittering crests, before crashing down into deep, silent troughs that sparkled like lonely stars in outer space.
“My god,” breathed Frank. “Treasure!”
I stepped through onto a shifting, slithering surface, barely lit by a strange nebulous light that came from everywhere in a blank grey sky at once. The strange light revealed something odd with the infinite miles of dollars and doubloons: they weren't circular. It was difficult to see what they were, though. Every footstep sent more metal cascading down the giant waves in deafening roars that reverberated off into infinite, sterile distances and a sky devoid of any celestial ornamentation.
Frank came through after me. He crouched with difficulty on the shifting floor and picked one of the coins up.
It wasn't a coin; it was a key.
It was a whole ocean of lost keys, from the highest wave to the abyssal depths.
“I guess the keys to my shed must be here somehow,” I said with a grin.
As he held the key aloft, a padlock descended from the bland sky, dangling from an almost infinitesimally thin thread. It fell fast at first, then slowed until it was directly in front of Frank's eyes.
“I guess...” he muttered and slotted the key into the padlock.
There was a cheerful chime and both padlock and inserted key retreated upwards, vanishing. Presumably, both were now happy – if that's the right word for two inanimate lumps of metal. Frank smiled: there was a little more order to this strange, lost world.
I started chattering, rather than recognising the danger signs.
“It's funny. If the universe really cared about happiness, the keys would already...”
Frank was already picking up another key from the ground and holding it aloft. Another, different, padlock descended. He slotted it in and both lock and key retreated again. He smiled broadly – wider than I’d seen since Matilda took the kids away – and picked up a whole handful. He tidied them on his palm so that they were all lying nose to tail in neat inverted rows. I worried that he was thinking about a different row of keys, all neatly arranged, but bound up in pain and loss. I worried that he was thinking about the missing yellow key, the one that had left its green partner hanging alone.
Eight more padlocks descended from the sky.
“How can a car key fit into…?” I started, but they were already rising again. Frank watched them go fondly.
The whole place was starting to creep me out. It was silent except for the occasional metallic slither of dislodged keys and there was no wind at all – even when I moved my arms, I couldn’t feel any air moving. I unsuccessfully tried to snort that weirdly pervasive copper smell out of my nostrils; it was coating my tongue with a bitter taste.
“I think…I think I’m going to go back,” I said. “I don’t like this place.”
Frank didn’t reply. He was sitting on the ground now, sorting keys into piles by type, before subdividing them by colour. Was he looking for a yellow one stamped GARAGE?
“Frank?” I asked, shaking his shoulder. He made a vague, noncommittal noise and shrugged me off roughly, not even pausing from his methodically sorting.
“Frank?” I repeated. “I’m going now, Frank.”
This strange pocket world was hostile. Every glint and slither said ‘not for you’. And, really, it wasn't.
Through the hole, I could see Frank’s machine starting to drip molten solder from the widening cracks in its case. It was audibly struggling too: a coarse thrum of mechanical distress.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” I said, stepping back, leaving Frank alone on the sea. "Don't get lost."