Jul 27, 2009

You May Rely On It

Gary almost laughed when his eyes fixed themselves on the dusty black sphere on the back row of items on the shelf. He’d come in here looking for a nice accent piece for his new cube at work – something with a bit of character to it, maybe something artistic. Maggie had suggested one of those electric meditation fountains, but those just made him need to pee. He’d driven past this old antique shop – why are there never new antique shops, he’d mused – various times on his way to or from work, and he simply felt the jones to swing by and check it out today. A sort of celebratory tour in honor of his recent promotion, he decided.

It was a nice – if not mildly overpriced – selection in the musty store. Mostly handmade and well-worn items from the 1920s, some WWII memorabilia and signage, a slightly wobbly coat rack and loads of furniture. He blinked, trying to rationalize the appearance of this silly toy from the 1980s. But his eyes weren’t deceiving him – it was a magic eight ball. He reached out and picked it up, blowing the thin layer of dust which had collected on it from presumable months of being overlooked. The faded and handwritten orange sticker listed the price at $1.00. He smiled, shaking it lightly and wondering to himself, should I buy you, little eight ball?

He turned it over and nearly dropped it when he read the words float to the surface of the deep indigo liquid: Yes, you should.

He looked up, feeling a little strange. He’d never owned one of these back then, but he couldn’t remember that having been one of the phrases on the plastic geodesic widgets inside of these toys. “Whoa,” he breathed. “That’s creepy.”

The owner of the store was an older gentleman, likely retired, with a blue shirt and grey slacks which were held up by a pair of dark green suspenders. His thin reading glasses sat further down on his pointy nose than would likely have been helpful, and Gary had the momentary suspicion that he only wore them to add a sense of dignity to his appearance. He was shuffling about near the front window displays with a feather duster, meticulously adding a few million motes to the already cluttered air. The sunlight outside the window seemed almost helpless to penetrate the countless floating specks. The old man looked over at Gary, half-smiled and returned to his task.
Gary was shaking up the ball again, muttering to himself. “Why even bother? The place is just gonna get dusty again in five seconds.” He grinned at his pessimistic observation, but stopped instantly when he saw the words floating up on the surface of the eight ball: I know exactly what you mean.

He extended his hand, suddenly uneasy with the toy. But before he could replace it, he decided to give it one more test. He closed his eyes, inverting the ball and giving it a gentle shake. Do you really know what I’m thinking?

He held his breath, turned it back over and read: Of course I do.

He bit his lower lip, furrowed his brow and thought again, giving the ball another spin. “How much do you cost?” he whispered.

When he spun it upright to read the spindle, he gasped. It read: One Dollar.

He paid the dollar in cash and left the store.

Gary’s apartment was your standard Seattle flat – small bedroom, small living room, small kitchen, with an even smaller bathroom tucked off to the side. He’d been living here for about two years now, and remained among the more affordable parts of his current lifestyle. Though the Capitol Hill area had its random incidents, the local flavor and proximity to his work kept it favorable, and the price had miraculously remained lower than most apartments in the northwest – to say nothing of the downtown housing in general.

They also had a single floor of underground assigned parking – the parking alone was worth its weight in gold. Gary pulled into his space, locked the car and went upstairs, his messenger bag held tightly under his arm.

Up in his apartment, he went about his usual homecoming routine – bag on the couch, keys by the door, wallet on the end table. He microwaved a simple dinner, some flavorless box of something resembling meat with vegetables and some sort of opaque sauce. The light on the answering machine was flashing, but for some reasons he didn’t feel like checking it. His eyes returned to the bag each time he walked back through the living room, and, after a few minutes, he finally settled down on the couch next to it. He unsnapped the latch and drew out the black plastic ball.

Holding it in his left hand, he used his thumbnail to scrape off the price sticker. “I’ll say one thing for you, you really don’t look like an unusual toy,” he muttered. “Just like any other random magic eight ball.”

He flipped it over, and read the words as they floated to the top.

Ask a question.

Chuckling, he turned it back over, and asked, “What makes you so special?”

The ball then read: I always tell the truth.


You may rely on it.

“Good touch,” Gary laughed. “But it’s kind of... weird. You don’t mind if I put you to the test or something?”

It’s up to you.

“Okay, then…hmmm…” Gary looked around the room, finally grabbing the remote and turning on the TV. CNN faded into life, the talking head there sharing the screen with a graphic of a meteor or something, and talking about ‘most favorable conditions’ or whatnot. “What’s on TV right now?” he asked the ball.

The News, the ball responded.

“Whoa. Cool.” Gary flipped a few channels, stopping on a football game: Patriots versus the Oilers. The Pats were up by three with only seconds remaining. “Who’s winning?”

The Oilers.

Gary’s smile froze. He looked from the ball to the screen a couple times. “Okay, well, you’re wrong. That’s, just… weird.”

Wait for it.

At that moment, there was a commotion on the screen. Gary looked up to see one of the Oilers’ defensive lineman pick up a fumble and run the ball all the way to their end zone, a few seconds after the time ran out. Final score now showed the Oilers winning by three points.

“Oh my god. That’s amazing! How’d you do that?”

Hello. Magic Eight Ball.

“But seriously, that’s really cool. Um… what should I do now?” he asked, unable to think of anything at the moment.

Take a shower.

“What? Why?”

You stink.

“Nice. I meant, was there some reason in particular?”

Big day tomorrow.

“What kind of ‘big day’? Am I gonna win the lottery?”

You don’t play the lottery.

“Well, if I was going to win, I’d play,” Gary explained. “Though I suppose that kind of defeats the purpose of gambling, doesn’t it?”

Good answer.

“So you’re not going to tell me what’s going to happen, besides telling me it’s a big day?”


Gary frowned. “I can’t even play ‘hot or cold’ or something?”

Quit stalling.

“Geez. For a plastic oracle, you’re pretty pushy.”

You should meet my sister.

He laughed, delicately set the ball back on the table and went off to the bathroom. Whatever this “big day” was all about, it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.

Morning. 5:30 am. Gary turned off the alarm and practically jumped out of bed. Dressed and cleaned up in record time, he walked into the living room and went straight to the magic eight ball. He’d picked it up before he’d even realized he didn’t know what to ask. He grimaced a moment, then simply turned the ball over.

You’re going to be late.

He looked at the clock, which showed ten minutes before 6. Normally, he ran out the door around 6:10, and still got to work on time. “You’re off your mind, man. I’m totally early.” His mind flashed back to the last-second, come-from-behind win in the football game. Frowning, he turned the ball over. “Why am I going to be late?”

You’ll miss the bus.

“Some prophet you are,” he laughed. He placed the ball in his messenger bag and picked up the ring of keys by the door. “It’s called owning a car, mister Wizard.”

He locked up behind himself, took the elevator down to the parking level of his building, and stood for five minutes in front of his empty parking space.

“You could’ve told me the car was stolen,” he muttered. “In fact, you could’ve warned me that the car was going to be stolen.” He looked down his shoulder at the bag. “No, I can already bet what you’re going to say. ‘You didn’t ask.’”

Snapping his fingers, he unzipped the bag and pulled out the ball. “Where’s my car?”

It’s called car theft.

“Smart ass. Now what?”

You’ll miss the bus.

He could already hear the bus arriving at the corner as he ran from the parking lot entrance. He stopped at the corner, bent over with his hands on his knees, panting heavily. He didn’t waste time with the ball; most likely, it already knew what he was thinking.

He finally got to work fifteen minutes late, tossed his messenger bag on the desk and sat at his computer. For having a miraculous prognosticating ball, his day was off to a fairly craptacular beginning. Shaking his head, he pulled up his email – the most recent one was from his girlfriend, Maggie.

“Didn’t hear from you last night. Is everything okay? Bad news, I can’t make it to dinner today, I got called into an emergency office planning meeting. Call me later?
– Mags”

He sighed. They’d been dating on and off for a couple years now, and with their time being dedicated so much of late to their respective jobs, they didn’t see each other very much at all. He’d half thought the ball’s promise of today being a “big day” might even be a hint at some new direction in their relationship. His head rested down on his desktop. This day was not going well.

“You okay, Gary?”

He sat up. It was Amy, from two cubes down. They’d engaged in casual “office flirting” for the past few months, ever since she’d broken up with her boyfriend. She was attractive, but he hadn’t really given it any serious thought. But now… He smiled. “Yeah, just a little winded. Someone stole my car and I missed the bus and…” he chuckled. “But I’m here, so that’s something.”

“I’m going downstairs for a coffee. Want to come with?”

He took a slow breath. “Nnnoooo, I think I better get to work, I’m already late.” He added, after a moment of mentally kicking himself, “but thanks. Maybe next time?”

She nodded, smiling. She had a nice smile. “Okay. Be right back, then.”

He sat back in his seat, shaking his head. His hand reached into his bag, pulled out the 8 ball.

“Moron or hero?” he asked, mostly to himself.


“We’re gonna talk about my car when I get back,” he muttered, putting the ball down and jumping up. He called out after Amy, catching up to her as she held the elevator door for him.

She did have a very nice smile.

The rest of day was lively. He and Amy chatted over instant messenger, and it was actually enjoyable – any guilt he might have otherwise felt was fading fast under the barrage of Amy’s obvious interest.

Before he knew it, it was getting close to lunchtime. He looked from his email window to his instant message window and, from there, to the magic eight ball. He found himself hoping for a specific answer to his unspoken question before he even touched the ball.

Ask Amy.

He had a small thrill of excitement when she messaged him “yes”, even though the ball had already told him she’d accept.

They decided to go to a nearby diner – it was pleasant and cozy, and the food wasn’t bad. They took a booth near the window and made small talk. Things went nicely – the gentle tingle of potential attraction was intoxicating, and a good enhancement to the meal.

About five minutes before the check arrived, Gary got that sinking feeling – the strange “someone is looking at me” vibe, the herald of doom, if ever it had a name. He looked out the window to see Maggie and two of her friends standing, staring at him. He couldn’t tell if Maggie was about to cry or throw one of her friends through the window at him.

Needless to say, the lunch ended poorly. He’d run after Maggie and tried to talk to her, but her friends ran interference until one of the chefs from the restaurant caught up with him and threatened to call the police on Gary for running out on the bill. In the commotion, Maggie and friends made their escape. Gary went with the chef back to the restaurant in time for Amy to slap him across the face and leave. He settled the bill and slowly made his way back to work.
His manager met him on his way back to his desk, and they had a brief conversation regarding interoffice relationships and his repeated tardiness. He slumped into his chair and glared at the magic eight ball. Snapping it up from the desk, he tried to calm himself.

It’s not my fault.

“What do you mean it’s not your fault?” he whispered. “You said to ask Amy!”

That’s right.

“But it ruined everything! Now she hates me, Maggie hates me, and my job’s in danger!”

That’s also right.

“Wait…” he frowned, “are you just trying to ruin my life, or is this one of those things where you trim out all the bad things so that I get something good?”

Trust me.

Gary sighed. “Well, we still need to figure out where my car is.”

The widget seemed to take its time rising to the surface. Don’t worry about it.

His eyes narrowed and a long breath made its way from his nostrils. “Easy for you to say, all you have to do is tell the future.” If the ball answered him, he didn’t waste any time reading it. He had four more hours on the clock to try and salvage his job, and would probably need every available second of it.

At some point after 5:30, he capped off a pretty horrible day with some reasonably impressive reports, and watched his manager reluctantly concede that Gary’d still have a future with the company, which, at this point, Gary was prepared to accept as a victory. Amy had already left, so thankfully he didn’t have to avoid eye contact on his way to the elevator.
He was already halfway across the parking lot before he remembered that his car had been stolen, and, having no better ideas, sat down on the parking block and pulled out the magic eight ball. It was a cloudy evening, unusually warm with the sky the gentle orange of sunset. He looked across the street at a convenience store. The word “Lotto” blazed at him, its undeniable temptation feeding into his frustration.

“Should I start playing the lottery?” he asked. A woman was leaving the store at that moment, a small nylon bag of groceries in her hand.

Don’t bother.

“What, you’re not going to help me win quick cash? Some help you are. Is there some rule or something that won’t let you help me get rich?”

That’s not it.

“Then why?” The woman had turned the corner, leaving Gary alone with his increasing frustration.

She has the winning ticket.

Gary closed his eyes. He could probably hit the far wall from here with this stupid ball.

Yes, you probably could.

The widget rolled of its own accord, changing to read: But please don’t.

“Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t! My whole life is ruined – I’ve lost my car, my girlfriend, and almost lost my job, all from listening to you.”

It’s for the best.

Gary sighed. “Yeah, and now you’re gonna tell me how I’m going to do something really big in the future that will save the world or something, and it’s all because of all the crap you’ve helped happen now.”

No. Not at all.

“Not really helping your case, man.”

Your car was a piece of crap.

“Dude. Totally uncalled for.”

I'm sorry. But I'm right.

Gary sighed. It was a piece of crap. It was paid off, but it was starting to nickel and dime him. Still, it was paid off and that meant something.

“Fine, I’ll agree with that, but Maggie?”

You didn’t love her.

Gary stopped as he was about to argue with the ball. As much as he hated to admit it, he didn’t really love her. They’d been together for a long time, but he really didn’t see the relationship going anywhere. Maybe it was for the best that they broke up and she found someone else who really cared for her like she deserved.


“Okay, fine. So you haven’t totally ruined my life, then. But at least she’d be able to come give me a ride home.”

Also true.

“So, see? That would’ve been a good thing, then.”

Not for her.

He shook his head. “Thanks, that’s really nice. I get that she deserves better, but it’s not like giving me a ride home would’ve killed her.”

Funny you should say that.

Gary read this latest response twice. “What do you mean?”

Nothing. Don’t worry about it.

“Oh no, you don’t. You meant something.” He shook the ball. “You said you always tell the truth. What did you mean by that?”

The little widget again seemed to take its time in floating to the surface. When it finally slid into place against the clear plastic, Gary nearly dropped the ball.

You’re going to die.

Gary’s throat nearly closed. “Wha- what? When? How?”


He blinked at the unexpected revelation. “No way. You’ve got to be joking or…something. Right?”

I’m sorry.

“But - - -but how?” The words “I’m sorry” repeated on the ball. Gary shook it again, harder. “Tell me!”

It doesn’t matter.

“It matters to me!”

You can’t avoid it.

“At least tell me! I can try to… I don’t know, change it, or something!”

No, you can’t.

“Don’t you tell me that!” he screamed. He stood up, oblivious to the people pausing briefly in passing to stare at the man’s apparent argument with a small black plastic sphere.

“I’ve watched those movies, there’s always a way to change the future or something!”

I only tell the truth.

Gary looked into the ball. It all seemed darker, somehow, like all the light had gone out of the world. He felt defeated, exhausted. The air tasted like ash in his mouth, the air felt dry and bitter. His eyes welled up, and he looked back at the crystal ball in his hands.

Don’t look up, it read.

Gary didn’t.

Ren, 2008

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