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There is a wonderful old log cabin in Rockaway Beach that my writers group, the Wordos, rented out for a weekend write-a-thon. The goal was to have something to read out loud at the end of the stay. I thought: why not write a story that could be read both forward and backward? After exactly two paragraphs of that nonsense, I chucked the idea and wrote something fun, fast, and quirky.


Before the hamster hit maximum stride, before the flexing wires and filaments sputtered and sparked into full life, blowing open the parallel reality, Carla, a strong-minded girl who nonetheless had her doubts as to the viability of using hamsters in conjunction with quantum physics, stopped thinking about Gerald’s cute smile and said, “Oh, shit. It’s going to work.”

If, before that, Gerald hadn’t laced the hamster’s water with the equivalent of a pot of Italian coffee boiled down to a teaspoon of baby-fine dust, the hamster would never have made those kinds of speeds. But Gerald, whose chest still hurt, knew his experiment would work. He had his sister’s life and free beer riding on the outcome — and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of free beer.

All he needed was a hamster’s worth of physics, a split moment of reality blurred long enough for Gerald to send Anthony the Thumb packing a hundred miles away — far enough that he wouldn’t be able to date Rachel anymore, which would suit Gerald just fine because he had higher aspirations for his sister’s marital status — namely, the bartender, Dan, down on Court Street who’d had his eyes on Rachel since she snuck her first shot of tequila when she was eighteen. Dan gave Gerald a beer on the house so long as he talked about how Rachel was about to break it off with the Thumb.

Gerald probably would have coasted on the one beer a day for the rest of his life, but Dan the bartender sweetened the deal by offering Gerald the family plan — free beer for the rest of his life — as soon as he and Gerald were family.

It was a good thing Rachel wanted to dump the Thumb anyway — she’d said something near enough to that, in Gerald’s living room just an hour before he’d boiled down the coffee and fired up the hamster.

If Rachel hadn’t taken a fistful of Gerald’s t-shirt and enough chest hair to get his attention, he may have missed her gentle confession when she said: “I’m getting married to who I want when I want, asshole. Screw that up, and I will kill you.”

Good thing Gerald had already called Carla over the night before to help him rig the hamster-bulb-reality-blur contraption.

Carla was in on the experiment because she had the math to back up the blink theory, all of it except for that little gap during the actual phenomenon itself — that lightbulb blink that happens when you’re just sitting around the house, not doing anything and the lightbulb dims and refires in a blink, and you know it isn’t caused by a flux in the electric feed, flawed bulb, bad wiring, or falling barometric pressure, because you’ve checked all that.

Carla’s theory was that the blink only happened when parallel realities bumped into each other, and for a split second, became the same reality. Unfortunately, the exact moment in which a blink occurred was the part of the theory Carla hadn’t quite nailed down.

Which was okay, except that Carla didn’t really think the experiment would work. She helped out because she kind of liked Gerald, the clean-shaven angel-eyed slacker slob who was a little tight with his beer money, but cute enough and nice enough that he was probably going to go gay if a girl like her didn’t step in and turn that smile he used on bartender Dan around to a good girl like her.

So when Gerald called, she said: “I still don’t have the blink accounted for,” while she twirled a pencil in her hair, the mirror in front of her desk smudged from the frenching she’d been practicing right before the call.

At that point, Gerald was past caring about the why and how of the blink, and more focused on the if and when. “But we can do it, right?”

“Yeah,” she said, “we can do it.”

Gerald got real excited and told her to come over right away before his crazy Thumb-sucking sister ruined everything by buying stationery with Mr. and Mrs. Opposable embossed in gold script on it. Gerald was worried. Screwing with reality was one thing — trying to return gold embossed stationery was out of his league.

Fortunately, Carla said she’d be right over. She hung up the phone, tucked the pencil behind her ear and put on a new coat of lip gloss. She’d get Gerald to shine that angel-eyed slacker smile on her tonight — hamster or no hamster.

Gerald was ready for her. He had left his bedroom window open just enough for the ground wire attached to the city light pole to get through. He’d rigged the ground in case they blew the half-dozen drained car batteries strapped together on the floor of his room. The wire snaked toward the hamster cage on his desk like, well, like snakes — and there the cables and wires connected to hangers, six sets of jumper cables and a broken handled turkey fork held in place above the cage with a network of de-papered twisty ties which in turn wrapped around the bars of the squeaky wire exercise wheel and the forty watt lightbulb in a socket in the corner of the cage.

Gerald had taken extra care to strap the whole deal together with generous strips of duct tape, because he wasn’t about to risk reality or beer to a half-ass wiring job.

Once Carla arrived, they fueled the hamster with super-condensed Italian caffeine, and dropped it into place on the wire wheel. The hamster ran — all four of its nubby legs pounding like hummingbird wings, moving faster than any rodent had ever moved.

Gerald already had the phonebook open in his hands and his finger planted on Anthony’s address. He stared at the hamster and repeated to himself, Anthony’s gone, Anthony’s gone. He tried really hard not to think about the beer, the free beer, just Anthony gone, free beer, Anthony, free beer, gone . . . when the hamster hit the threshold speed and triggered Carla’s mathematically unpredictable blink.

A firework shower of sparks filled the cage, first too bright then too dim, and then just plain too dead. The lightbulb went dark and stayed that way.

Carla covered her nose, her eyes watering from the smell of scorched hamster — a little like over heated vacuum cleaner and three-day old road kill skunk. “Did it work?” she asked.

Gerald glanced at the phone book and realized that under his finger was Torlioni, Anthony, same street as always, even the same phone number. Realities might have bumped, but they hadn’t changed.

Gerald shook his head. By now Rachel had probably picked out the stationery, maybe even registered for wedding gifts, the bitch. His window of opportunity was gone and the Thumb hadn’t budged.

Carla was talking, her words coming out sort of muffled. “Sorry about the hamster.”

Gerald looked down at the tan-colored lump and felt an overwhelming moment of guilt. He hadn’t meant for the little guy to croak.

“I don’t know why it didn’t work.” He gave the hamster a gentle poke. Nothing.

“It’s not your fault,” Carla said. “You were great. I should have predicted when the blink would hit and warned you. Maybe if I try —”

“Naw,” Gerald said, “That’s it. One hamster is my limit.”

Gerald glanced at Carla, who looked pretty cute with her hand over her nose.

“How about I buy you a . . . uh . . .” He paused. “We could go out for a . . .” He glanced at the hamster. Something. He was thirsty for something. The ghost of a memory slid by, cool and fizzing, tantalizing, and was gone in a blink.

“For . . . coffee,” he finished. “Would you like to go out for coffee?”

Carla looked surprised.

“Unless you’d like something else?” he quickly said.

“No, no,” Carla said, “coffee sounds perfect.”

And it was.

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