Neil had just dumped the garbage into the dumpster behind Budgen’s Grocery when he noticed the sign, flapping white in the darkness. It was out of place, and it almost seemed to glow as its corners fluttered. The acrid stench of rotting garbage rose as he flipped the black plastic sack into the pile of other sacks. He brushed his hands off on his pants and raked his fingers through his wild hair.
It had not been a good day. Neil spent most of it trying to clean up a pile of peaches that someone had knocked from their bin and then trod over, making the linoleum floor juicy and sticky. He wiped up juice with a dingy rag that had once been white and meditated on sticky. His whole life was sticky. He thought when his mother passed that he might be able to leave Cromer. The final, thin rejection letter from University of West London this afternoon confirmed that he wouldn’t. Eight colleges and no one wanted him.
The white sign stood out brightly. It was taped to the roof and it was made of butcher paper. Someone had written on it in black ink: Cornelius Cumberpatch, This Is Your Destiny. A bolt of icy anger shot through his body, and years of taunting echoed through his head: “The Patch,” “Cornypatch,” “Horny Corny.” He clenched his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms. The asshole that thought this was funny would pay.
Neil charged into the brick grocery and up the stairs. He climbed out the window of the break room and pulled himself onto the sloped tiles of the roof. A moist ocean breeze blew the strings of his green apron behind him. The sign flapped up over the edge of the ridge, curling. Neil crawled over to it and ripped it towards him. Triangles of white paper still clung to the tape on the shingled roof.
He laid the sign out on the gravely tiles. It now read: Penny For Your Thoughts? Place Penny Here, Place Hand Here. There were arrows, and two circles. One was the size of a penny, and the other was just big enough for Neil’s hand. Neil blinked. He could have sworn the sign had his name on it only a moment ago.
The break room window was still open, blinds tapping against the frame. He expected to see his coworkers clustered, laughing at the look on his face as he took in their elaborate practical joke. There was no one there. There wasn’t even a plausible place for a hidden camera.
His eyes narrowed, and he looked at the paper again. The letters shimmered. Neil thought, why not play along? He reached into the pocket of his blue jeans and pulled out a small, copper penny. He looked at the letters again, considering. He placed the penny in the small circle. Nothing seemed to change. He shrugged to himself, raked his hands through his hair, and placed his hand in the large circle. The letters glimmered a coppery orange.
Around him, the world shifted to swirling gray fog, moving across his bare arms and drenching his clothes. He was cold, and he could see nothing in front of him but the swirling mist and the droplets collecting on his body as he stood on – something.
The gray began to clear, and Neil realized that what he stood on was silver. He was in the middle of a vast city of gleaming, copper towers. Domed spires reached through the gray. He was on top of a silver fire escape, looking down into a lustrous alley. A copper cat with riveted joints cleaned its paws with its shiny tongue below him. It ticked.
Neil looked around. The paper had disappeared.
There was a silver ladder to his left. Neil climbed down the slick, cold rungs. As soon as he took a step onto the street the cat jumped. It ran off down the alley, its paws pinging on the metal surface. Neil followed it.
The cramped alley spilled onto a broad avenue. Hundreds of copper people strode along the street. Their joints were also riveted, with shiny silver balls in their shoulders and knees. They wore elaborate dresses, or suits with top hats, all made of metal mesh. It was like the pictures of Victorian Cromer had come to life and then warped to become all wrong. The sound of a thousand watches ticking filled the air.
The middle of the street was crowded with moving vehicles. They were all a combination of gears, rivets, wood, and pipes spewing gray mist into the sky. They rushed back and forth. Some sprouted wire wings that unfolded like accordions and rose up between the spires. Neil felt something hard rub against his leg. It was the cat.
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” he told it. It opened its mouth and let out a mechanical whirr.