By: John F Zurn
Long before Uriel Fox had traveled the world searching for some purpose for his life, he lived in a number of boarding houses. He resided in these residences because they usually proved to be inexpensive, so he didn’t need a high paying job to support himself. In his current situation, he had a cordial relationship with, Mrs. Wick, the owner, so he was allowed to roam anywhere he wished in the four story brick house. It was in the attic and the basement where Fox discovered an extraordinary number of artifacts and papers left by Mrs. Wick’s husband, a mechanical engineer, when he passed away. Mrs. Wick felt certain that this basement and especially the attic might reveal research that the professor had created during his retirement.
This privilege of free access to these rooms proved to be very worthwhile because Professor Wick left behind thousands of musty boxes and scientific papers that were scattered or stacked up everywhere. Since the task of sorting and labeling seemed too overwhelming for the professor’s wife, she felt quite agreeable to the idea of allowing Uriel to organize the basement and attic on his own. The notion could be seen as mutually beneficial because Uriel secured the opportunity of searching for various scientific treasures while Mrs. Wick would be gratified that her husband’s work would receive the attention it deserved. The only thing Mrs. Wick asked of Uriel was that he share any valuable discoveries with her.
The exploration of the four story house might have been a method for Uriel to direct his restless energy, originally. But ultimately, his curiosity and perseverance led him to a truly unique discovery. In the back of the attic, behind an old pine dresser, Uriel found a ripped and sagging shoebox. Inside the rather ordinary carton, an old rotary telephone with no cord or wall mount was concealed beneath some faded packing material. When Fox carefully liberated the object from the old box, he noticed the words, “Terminus-calculator” written on the underside of the device.
Fox slumped down into an old arm chair against the wall with the terminus-calculator in his lap. A number of possibilities existed to explain the purpose of the invention that bubbled up in Fox’s mind. Perhaps it might be some kind of electronic abacus, or a direct line to one specific person. As Uriel continued musing over the device, he finally decided it must be simply a left over component from some antiquated rotary telephone. Nevertheless, he did carefully hide the device in his room in his shirt drawer.
Hiding the terminus-calculator from Mr. Wick seemed dishonest; however, so that night, Fox approached her. “Mrs. Wick, I grabbed a shoebox from the attic that had an unusual type of telephone inside it,” Fox asserted. “I hope to determine how it works, if that’s okay.”
“Wonderful!” Mrs. Wick enthusiastically replied. “I’m delighted that you found something of value in that disorganized mess up there. Just promise me that you’ll tell me if you find anything intriguing about the phone.”
“Absolutely,” Fox gratefully replied.
Fox returned to his tiny room and began fidgeting with the terminus- calculator. He began to consider the name more carefully. Fox felt certain the name of the device was some kind of clue. He recognized that the word “terminus” meant end or conclusion while the noun “calculator” described an instrument involved with numbers. He also rightly assumed that the number sequences were the key to understanding the inventor’s purpose. Fox experimented liberally with this unorthodox idea by entering dates into the phone. Uriel even attempted to correlate the letters on the rotary dial with various locations. However, although Uriel’s choices seemed highly inspired in their own way, none of his experiments created any desirable effect or produced any tangible evidence of the invention’s intent. Finally, Uriel tossed the device on the sofa and retired for the night.
The next morning, Fox’s curiosity hadn’t abated, so he climbed out of bed, ate a cold breakfast, and then returned to the terminus-calculator puzzle. Feeling somewhat whimsical, he dialed the local coffeehouse telephone number haphazardly. The moment Uriel dialed the final digit; he perceived a whirring sound, and then the dissonant noise of a loud groaning door opening. Finally, he appeared to be standing outside the coffee shop itself.
Both Uriel’s bewilderment and concern caused him to immediately repeat the event in his mind, if only to remember its importance. He recognized the connection between dialing the coffee house number and his sudden appearance outside its door. But how was such an experience possible? The incident couldn’t be considered “time travel” because Uriel’s watch indicated the identical time both at the coffee shop and in his room at the boarding house. “Astral-projection” could also be ruled out since his body was definitely not in two places at the same time.
Instead, the device produced the sensation of overlapping or folding time in such a way that Fox seemed to have superimposed his own spare time reality on top of the coffee house. This experience resembled something like two people staring into a distorted mirror at the same time. It would appear that the terminus-calculator simultaneously relocated Uriel to the exact location as the number dialed on the invention. The device seemed to be a technological achievement far beyond anything Uriel Fox was familiar with in his lifetime. Fox felt exhilarated that he had finally begun to comprehend Professor Wick’s remarkable machine.
Nonetheless, Uriel’s discovery of the device’s purpose also frightened him. Although he understood the basic principle behind the calculator, he still couldn’t be certain about his conclusions. Could dialing a specific number take him outside a prison? Could the folding itself adversely affect his body and mind? If the telephone number correlated to a passenger’s phone on an airplane, would Fox become trapped outside the plane? All these fears and uncertainties convinced Uriel to hide the terminus-calculator under his jacket, and to suddenly walk home instead of dialing his home number. He felt sure that that his misgivings were justified even though he didn’t consider himself to be closeminded or timid. Fox continued to consider the almost limitless possibilities associated with the device, but he became more cautious and deliberate in his dealing with the machine.
Not surprisingly, Uriel’s curiosity took over once again, so Fox ultimately was determined to experiment with the terminus-calculator. He decided upon several guidelines, however, to help keep him safe. First, he would only experiment with telephone numbers he already knew. Then, Fox would make absolutely sure he dialed the number correctly, so he wouldn’t end up in an undesirable location. Finally, Uriel decided to continually evaluate his progress, and terminate any experiment if any sign of danger occurred.
Despite all his hopes and reservations, Uriel decided continue learning all he could about both the inner workings of the terminus-calculator and any hidden danger it might pose for him. In addition, Fox felt eager to identify the possible applications for the invention even though he realized he couldn’t predict all the nuances of the machine’s inherent power.
Fox’s first real excursion using his terminus-calculator occurred several days later when he phoned a friend named Alice. His arrival via Alice’s telephone coordinates proved to be exactly correct. She was an artist and enjoyed modern philosophy, and over the years, she eventually became a good friend. Not only did Alice brew excellent lemon tea, she also valued discussions concerning art, politics and religion. Almost always Fox’s visits were warm and filled with witty exchanges. Yet he now felt preoccupied by his need to further investigate the invention that so captivated him. Despite all the beautiful paintings and Alice’s friendly company, Uriel attempted to conjure up an excuse so he could leave Alice’s cozy ranch home. After an almost rude farewell, Uriel excused himself, and conveyed himself back to his room at the boarding house.
It was becoming obvious to Fox that the professor’s device appeared to be slowly taking over his life. This obsession really took control when he contacted others using his machine. Uriel directed his calls to numerous friends’ homes, and then he began arriving at places like the coffee shop, restaurants, and even laundromats. As the weeks passed, Fox seemed to avoid specific contact with fellow house members, had trouble sleeping, and forgot to shave and bathe. In fact, he appeared to recognize only individuals who he contacted through the device. Fox didn’t notice these changes, but others did, like Mrs. Wick.
“Uriel,” Mrs. Wick exclaimed. “I’m worried about you. You seem to be avoiding everyone. Have you been drinking?”
“Heavens, no!” Uriel loudly protested. “I’ve been working hard with you husband’s unfinished projects.”
Mrs. Wick seemed only partially convinced. Just be sure she continued, “It’s important that you make time for our friends and for your daily routine. Don’t get so buried in the professor’s projects that you don’t come up for air!”
Uriel smiled at the uneasy woman, and in order to terminate the conversation, Fox acted as if he had an important task to finish in his room. “Thanks for the advice, Mrs. Wick. I better return to my books back in my room.”
Uriel’s desire to end the conversation with Mrs. Wick turned out to be only partially a ruse. While they were chatting, another application for his terminus-calculator came to mind. He wondered if he could launch himself to a specific destination, and then, instead of returning home, he could continue on his travels to more destinations. Then, eventually, he might guide himself back home again. Since the device didn’t involve time travel, he felt it would be possible to return to the same space and time where he began, at least, in theory.
Despite his belief in his plans, Fox didn’t seem confident enough in his own skill to operate the machine in such a complicated manner. He did, however relish a difficult challenge, so Uriel eventually came up with an intriguing idea. Since he knew how to shift his way back to the boarding house, he believed he could possibly dial a random number, and then dial his way back home again.
To become familiar with his theory, Fox created a kind of phone tree involving his friends around town. When he arrived at each destination, he talked with them for a few minutes and then ended his trip by returning home again. This procedure was only an approximation his theory, but was useful. These short stopovers gave him the added confidence in his abilities, so, after a few weeks, he contemplated his first genuinely historic visit into the realms of the void with the terminus-calculator.
One morning, just after dawn, Uriel formulated a random number sequence with an unknown area code and seven unplanned digits. And so, like an ancient explorer, Fox began his sojourn at a place called Slipton. Since Uriel had never been to this new destination, the house where he arrived appeared to be completely unknown to him. The building looked rundown with metallic walls that seemed to be grimy and unattractive. Even the door of the edifice looked barely serviceable. The yard consisted of volcanic rocks with no foliage of any kind. Uriel decided not to approach the disgusting door and waited impatiently to observe what might happen. With one hand clutching his device, Fox surveyed the neighborhood which turned out to be as ominous as the space directly in front of him. Then he refocused his attention on the location in front of him once again.
Finally, the front door swung open violently, and two hideous creatures stepped beyond the threshold. They possessed deformed limbs and their four eyes were vertically affixed on their face. The creatures’ voices also produced a high pitched squeal that only they could understand. Uriel realized that he was in real trouble, so he quickly attempted to dial his way back to the boarding house.
However, one of the wretched beings noticed Uriel and his terminus-calculator and instantly ran up and attacked him stole the device from him. Suddenly, Fox was utterly alone in a very dangerous place. He felt so distressed, he simply froze. All he could think about was escaping the hell he had tumbled into, so he could return home. If the device were broken or disabled somehow, he might be trapped in this perilous place for the rest of his life.
Then, a most remarkable event occurred. Uriel observed that he had unintentionally phoned himself into a horror movie set, and now he appeared to be participating in the film. He could only hope that the terminus-calculator might recognize the movie as “out of time” and return him to his home when the film was finished.
Now with the courage that was buoyed up by hope, Fox found an old musty building and hid therein order to wait for the film’s conclusion. The delay proved to be both tedious and terrifying. Like a prisoner enduring a frightening prison term, Uriel felt moments of faith and despair. Then the providential hand of the creator appeared, and the film ended. Uriel now stood directly in front of a blank screen behind a person who appeared to be the film’s director. Promptly, Fox fumbled for his now present terminus-calculator and entered the digits of his home number.
Fox’s device instantaneously returned him to his glorious boarding house room. He felt grateful and humbled. Without any careful thought, he threw down the terminus-calculator and smashed it with his boot. He realized that the world could never be predictably safe. This realization gave Fox the inspiration to trust in the present wherever he was meant to be. Perhaps, the professor who invented the terminus-calculator had realized the dangers and ramifications associated with his device, yet couldn’t destroy it himself. Like a gambler, worried about his future, the professor needed to keep his invention handy-just in case.
John F Zurn has earned an M.A. in English from Western Illinois University and spent much of his career as a school teacher. In addition, he has worked at several developmental training centers, where he taught employment readiness skills to mentally challenged teenagers and adults. Now retired, he continues to write and publish poems and stories. As one of seven children, his experiences growing up continue to help inspire his art and influence his life.