Alt Esc

by Bob Sorensen

part 1 of 2


Ben Askey was bored. The Monday morning staff meeting was in full swing, and his boss, Kurt Peters, was droning on about some new initiative or program or whatever that everyone needed to immediately make the most important part of their job.

Ben and the rest of the team were gathered around a shiny and blatantly artificial wood table, squirming in their seats, heads down, working hard to look interested and stay awake at the same time. They were counting the minutes until 9:30, when Peters and all of the other minor bosses currently meeting in similar conference rooms would go off to have their meeting in a somewhat nicer conference room.

Ben pushed up his glasses, which had slipped down his nose, and snuck a glance at his digital watch. Ten minutes to go. He risked a look over at Madison, the new software engineer who worked over in testing and verification. She was cute, with short hair — today it was purple — cut in a punky do that worked for absolutely no particular reason. Best of all, Ben thought, she was one of the best developers in the group. He had been taken with her from the first day, when she had moved into the cubicle three up and four over.

Ben had never actually spoken to Madison. He knew he would have embarrassed himself spectacularly, stumbling through some painful exchange, glasses fogging, sweat beading, until his small talk got so small it would disappear entirely.

Instead, he had blissfully settled into a routine of unnoticed glances and lengthy daydreams, many that helped get him through these morning meetings. Ben sighed and looked at his watch again. Three minutes had passed. Not bad, he thought, shifting his weight so that his cell phone wasn’t digging as hard into his side. Unfortunately, as he pushed back in the chair, he hit the edge of his notepad, which slid sideways and knocked into his coffee cup. It was pretty much filled because Peters didn’t like people slurping during his meetings.

Shooting forward in his chair, Ben grabbed for the cup, but he was too late. Spilling out, the brew shot across the table, finally rolling off into the lap of the unsuspecting Peters who was otherwise engrossed in the sound of his own voice.

Peters jumped up, staring at the decaffeinated stain that was rapidly spreading across his lap, speechless for what may have been the first time in his life. Ben stood up as well; he could already feel the blood starting to rush to his face.

“Oh no, Mr. Peters. I’m so sorry.” He grabbed his notes and threw them down in the stream of coffee, trying to cover the damning trail that pointed directly back at him.

“Askey, you idiot!” Peters roared, his voice already returning to full force.

“I have to be up in the front office in ten minutes. Today, we’re going to scrutinize division administration expenses. I can’t miss that.”

Mary Beth, Peters’ long-suffering personal secretary, ran out to the break area and came back with a thick wad of paper towels. Peters snatched them from her and began to blot at the expansive spot on what were clearly dry-clean only wool trousers. Everyone else in the room sat frozen, torn between the instinctual desire to get the hell out of Dodge or to stick around to enjoy the continuing embarrassment of their so-called superior.

After it became clear that his pants were not easily going to return to their normal state anytime soon, Peters threw the wad of paper towels on the table.

Turning to Ben, he snarled, “We’ll deal with this when I get back.” He disappeared out of the office.

The team was silent for about ten seconds before everybody burst into laughter. Men and woman came over and patted Ben on the back, some shook his hands, others punched him on the shoulder. Jack Dvorak, the senior coder and resident joker in the group, came up and gave him a big hug.

“Junior, I couldn’t have done it better myself. Didn’t know you had it in you.”

Ben smiled weakly as the team filed out of the room and went back to their desks.

He leaned over the conference table and gathered up his sodden notes. When he looked up, Madison was standing in the doorway smiling.

“I don’t want to know if that was an accident or not. But either way, it was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.” She giggled.

Ben loved the way her nose crinkled when she giggled.

Ben smiled back. “You think so?”

Madison nodded. “Hey. It made my day.”

Ben stood up straight. “Well, then I guess it was worth it.”

Suddenly embarrassed, he just stood there, his papers dripping coffee on his sneakers. “I guess Peters will let me have it when he gets back.”

Madison’s face clouded. “Don’t let him push you around, Ben. You’re better than that, and a lot better than he is.” She turned and walked away.

* * *

That night, Ben sat down at his computer and scanned websites for a new coffee cup. Peters had returned to the office shortly after lunch, wearing a pair of sweat pants borrowed from one of his manager buddies. At first, he seemed to be in a pretty good mood, joking with the staff about the spill. It turned out that all of the other execs had thought it was pretty funny, and they had started calling Peters “hot pants.”

But once Peters got Ben in his office, the man had let loose for fifteen minutes. Worse, everyone had probably heard through the thin walls. Ben hunkered down in his cube for the rest of the day; at quitting time, too embarrassed to face her, Ben managed to sneak out without running into Madison.

Ben had figured that the safest thing to do would be to get a new coffee cup, one with a tight, leak-proof lid, and wait it out until Peters re-targeted his wrath in some other direction.

Cruising though the usual sites, he saw any number of cups that would do the job, but nothing special. He wanted something different, something that maybe Madison would notice, and that he could use to start up a conversation.

Still fuming over the embarrassment of the day, he pounded at the keys, sometimes hitting more than one at a time, causing him to backspace frequently to correct his spelling.

Then he remembered a site that Jack had mentioned. He had picked up a few novelties for the office Christmas party a few months back: a whoopee mouse pad, fake spilled coffee — ha-ha — Ben thought. He typed in the website from memory.

Ben did not, however, notice that the little finger on his left hand accidentally brushed against the ‘Alt’ key just as he banged the ‘Enter’ key. So, Ben did not notice that the site that came up was not the one that Jack had visited, but was, instead, a different one. One that offered the usual retail merchandise, plus more than a small number of extras.

After a few minutes of browsing, Ben picked out a silver and black mug; it was an insulated job that came with a “permanent top, guaranteed never to leak.” Plus instant delivery was free. Ben smirked at the empty promises. He ordered it, then turned in for the night.

Leaving for work the next morning, Ben almost tripped over a bright pink box sitting on the front steps of his townhouse.

“What the...?” he said, picking up the package. It had no address, no stamps, no postage marks. In the upper left hand corner were three small black letters:

ALT

Ben shrugged. Interesting. Must be my coffee cup. Man, that was fast, he thought.

He carried the box to his car and tossed it on the passenger’s seat along with his backpack and laptop.

* * *

After he got his computers up and running, Ben took a pair of scissors from his desk drawer and sliced open the box. It was filled with white packing peanuts. Ben watched in amazement as the peanuts started to evaporate. Within ten seconds, the box was empty except for a thin layer of white powder on the bottom. That, and his mug, which had been concealed by the now departed packing material.

Pretty neat, Ben thought.

He picked up the mug and tried to open the lid. It was stuck. He couldn’t twist it off. He struggled, straining until his face went red.

I need to get to the gym more often, he thought.

He set the mug down on his desk.

Don’t tell me I’m going to have to return the stupid thing, he thought

He picked it up again. He noticed it was a lot heavier than it looked. He shook it and was surprised to hear something swishing around inside.

After sneaking a quick look around to see if anyone was watching, he took a sip.

It was coffee, hot, for that matter. And it was light and sweet: the way he liked it.

Ben looked around again. He expected to see Jack leaping out of some hiding place crowing about how he had burned Ben again. No Jack.

He took another sip, then a few swigs. It was the best coffee he had ever tasted, he had to admit.

In the next ten minutes, he drank what felt like a couple gallons of coffee. The mug never got any lighter.

Confused, he sat there staring at the mug. Then he knocked it over with one finger. Nothing came out. He turned it upside down and shook it. Not a drop.

Then he remembered. The web site had claimed that the mug was guaranteed never to leak.

Well, they weren’t lying, he thought. And since you can’t take the top off, it has to refill itself. Makes perfect sense.

Ben set the mug down on the corner of his desk. He wasn’t afraid of it, but he wasn’t exactly in the mood for any more coffee.

Right before lunch, Madison stuck her heard in Ben’s cube. It was an orange hair day. Ben was engrossed in a troublesome procedure call and decidedly not fueling his creative efforts with any more coffee.

“Hey,” she said. “Feeling better today?”

Ben sat up from his professional-grade programming slouch and pulled off his earphones.

“Yeah. Umm. Fine. No problem. Umm. How are you?”

Madison smiled at him. Like yesterday, but up close it was even better, Ben thought.

“Great. I’m glad to see that Peters’ little lecture didn’t get to you. We kinda all heard.”

She reached over and picked up the mug. “Can I have a hit?” she asked, taking a drink without waiting for an answer.

Ben jerked forward, trying to stop her.

“Yum,” she said. “Black, no sugar. Cool. We like our coffee the same way.”

She set the mug down.

“Gotta run. See you later.” She moved on down the cubicle corridor and then turned left out of sight.

Ben took the mug, shoved it back in its box, and pushed the box as far under his desk as it would go.

* * *

When Ben got home, he immediately jumped on his computer and typed in the address of the site. It came up, but this time there was no mention of the bottomless coffee mug. In fact, Ben noticed that whole sections were missing. He was sure there had been an electronics tab; and where was the link section to other sites?

He pushed his glasses up and frowned.

He tried the computer’s history file, but it led him back to the same dull site.

Ben drummed his fingers on the desktop.

After a few minutes, Ben walked out to the front of his townhouse and got the box with the mug out of the trunk of his car. He carried the box inside and put it down on top of the leaning stack of gaming magazines next to his computer. He stared at the box. He stared at the web site. Ben’s cat came over to investigate the complete lack of activity. She rubbed against Ben’s leg unnoticed.

Ben lifted the box. The label stared back at him.

ALT

This is too weird, he thought.

Slowly, Ben retyped the web site address. But this time, before he hit return, he made sure to hold down the ‘Alt’ key.

The screen blinked, and Ben was once again looking at the site he had been at last night.

Ben spent the next hour or so exploring. Most of the products were familiar, some, not so familiar. Others, he realized, had no use that he could even begin to fathom.

Finally, he decided on a simple purchase. It was only $19.99, a cheap experiment if this turned out to be some weird marketing stunt, he convinced himself.

When Ben opened his front door the next morning, a familiar pink box sat on his welcome mat. Ben picked it up and carried it to his car. He had decided it would be safer to test his purchase at work.

At his desk, he sliced open the tape on the box and once again watched the packing popcorn disappear.

At the bottom of the box was a small thin black rectangle covered with red and white buttons. On the top was printed, “Universal Remote.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Bob Sorensen

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