There was an alarming surplus of pants. Robert didn't remember having this many pants and definitely didn't remember putting them all on while he was asleep. There was a reason for this. That reason was magic.
Magic was created long ago by the gods of old, the vengeful gods whose Saturdays included doling out equal parts revenge and suffering. And yes, that is gods plural; something like magic could only be the result of a committee.
That's not to say that magic is dangerous, volatile, and almost always lethal. In fact, it is very dangerous, very volatile, and always lethal, but then again, so are most things when you boil it down* boiled into a nice lather and consumed directly by the eyes, that is..* The experience can only be likened to being crushed by a series of recursive elephants, which is why attempts to quantify it by men in white coats that you wouldn't want to be stuck with in an elevator have failed.
Scientists have actually observed magic countless times. It tended to manifest itself in the inevitable misplacement of lab equipment. The effect is called the "Where did the god damn beaker go?" corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It is not an overly publicized theory.
The real effect, of course, lies in quantum physics. Without getting too specific, the answer lies in probability bubbles, which is a fancy way of saying that some mornings your hat may turn out to be a duck and you just have to deal with it.** In reality it's more like nanohats turning into nanduckies, but the explanation still holds.
But back to Robert, who was now working his way through peeling off his last layers of pants. Robert works a simple job at a faceless and now come to think of it, armless, legless, and torsoless corporation. The only things it really has in abundance are fangs and misery.
It was a Monday, which meant that Robert still had time to spare until he was late for work. He logged on to his computer and googled "sleep dressing + too many pants." He cringed and quickly turned safe search on.
He found many results—this being the internet—but what he did not find was any mention of magic. No one on Earth currently knew about magic. Well, a few did, but they were largely ignored. No one listens to dead people, these days.
Shrugging his shoulders and dismissing the problem, Robert began to get ready to go to work. After almost scalding himself in the shower and nearly carving his face a few new nostrils while shaving, Robert glanced at the clock.
"Oh," he said to himself, "I'm going to be late."
Robert promptly laid down and thought of nothing in particular for a while.** He never missed work, but sometimes he was just a few days late.
He knew that most people would probably feel at least a modicum of guilt or worry at being late to work, but he was not most people. Robert, though he didn't know it yet, was a wizard. Through a bizarre series of sexual encounters, all wizards received a double shot of the gene that controls dopamine levels, the reward and motivation chemical of the brain. This gene also happens to regulate magic levels. The end result is a person who can manipulate space/time, but just can't seem to find the motivation to do so. There were, in fact, quite a few wizards living on the planet at the moment, who were correctly judged to be the laziest human beings on the planet at various points in their lives.
Wizards also carry about them at all times, through no effort of their own, a sort of sphere that radiates antiproductivity. Wherever they walk, people suddenly remember how interesting the backs of theirs hands are or realize they owe the sandman some interest on last night's slumber.
Of course, because of this fact, most people loved wizards. Wizards especially make some good friends in college. Most of modern humanity seems to strive for this wizard-like quality. Curiously enough, it had the opposite effect on Robert's boss.
So Robert got up and surveyed his apartment for a few moments, or rather, he corrected himself, his clothes' apartment. His clothes occupied a lot more of the apartment than he did.
He waded through them, got in a brief struggle with the door, and headed down the stairs. He failed to notice the wood beneath his feet melt after every step he took. He also failed to notice that his bus arrived unusually early and that the advertisements were making faces at him the entire bus ride. The only thing Robert didn't fail to notice, really, was that he was exhausted after his ten minute commute and ready to lean back for a quiet nap in his cubicle when his boss confronted him.
"Robert," he said in a tone of voice all too familiar to wizardkind, "you're late again."
Robert snored loudly.
Another thing about wizards; they had about as much tact as a drunken freight train.** He was supposed to have been taught decorum back in the first grade, but, like most teachers, his had never really gotten around to it. In fact, there was a teacher once who briefly considered doing actual work. The obituary listed the cause of death as a brain hemorrhage.
"Robert!" his boss shouted.
He awoke with a start, hands already on the keyboard typing away. Years of this kind of thing tend to hone one's reflexes. He looked up and saw his boss glaring at him. He flipped through his mental index, found the card labeled with a red exclamation point and began to work his, ahem, magic.
"Oh hi there, sir. Sorry I'm late. I was just tired from a long night here last night. Didn't get much sleep, you know? Anyway," he said, reaching under his desk before his boss could interject, "here is that project you wanted done by Friday. Figured you'd want it sooner than later."
His boss stood there with a suspiculous (suspicious/incredulous) look on his face while his brain worked all this out. He was in the unique position of being enraged and ecstatic at the same time. His boss had wanted this project in by last Friday.
Perhaps lazy isn't the best word for Robert. Perhaps the correct phrase would be "radically efficient." Through a careful series of delegations, avoidances, and tiny spurts of progress, Robert had gotten the project done more than a week ago. He had been saving it for a rainy day like this.
"You really have to work on getting here on time," his boss said chidingly, in the tone of voice all wizards and children love to hear. It wasn't exactly fatherly, but it meant that you just got away with it nonetheless.
Robert's facial expression didn't change, but on the inside he relaxed. In fact, his brain turned on the auto-nodder and went to get a coffee. He briefly noted when his boss walked away and closed his eyes, muttering, "Damn manager couldn't manage the pants off a doorknob." The truth was Robert couldn't metaphor the spit out of a camel.** Editor's note: the author couldn't self-reference his way out of an Escher painting.
Robert fell asleep.
He awoke an hour later, ready and raring to work. This thought frightened him terribly so he took his coffee break.
Standing in the break room were Mary, Doug, and Bill. Mary was a keen, round-faced woman whose niceness almost made the work day bearable. Doug was similarly good-natured, tall with scruffy hair and a warm smile. Bill, on the other hand, was loud, obnoxious, and single-handedly** Literally. contributed to the rampant inflation on the value of high-fives as social currency.
They were all having a pleasant office conversation, at least technically. Bill was busy gesticulating while, by the looks of it, Doug and Mary were practicing for the awkward Olympics.** They were practicing the cocked-eyebrow-mouth-partially-open dash. Bill just kept on talking, as people like him often do, oblivious to their looks, plowing on like a car breaching a guard rail and plunging off a cliff.
Robert approached the break room, catching sight of Bill just as Bill looked over and waved. Bill was good at that. Robert ran through his mental list of gestures he could make to avoid having to talk to Bill, but he came up blank. He bravely walked in.
"Hey there, champ!" Bill said, clapping him on the back, "How ya doin'?"
"I'm not," Robert said in the typical wizarding response to such questions.
Bill laughed. Oh dear God, thought Robert.
He turned towards Doug and Mary, away from Bill.
Bill, of course, took that as his cue. "So how was your weekend? Mine was great," he continued without a pause, "I went to the club and got a little tipsy, went home with a nice little lady."
He gyrated as he said all this, turning the collective stomachs of anyone within eight meters of him, including Sue, who was sitting on the other side of a solid concrete wall with no direct line of sight.
"So," Doug remarked poignantly, "how was your weekend, Robert?"
"Oh, you know, I just relaxed. It was nice. Yours?"
"It was all right. I went hiking Sunday which was cool, but I had to work on Saturday."
"Oh..." said Mary. "That sucks," added Robert.
Bill began laughing. "Haha, that was supposed to be me working Saturday, but I said I had a doctor's appointment! Nice going!" He pumped his fist grotesquely.
"Well thanks," said Doug coolly.
Robert started to get mad. He genuinely liked Doug and knew that he did a lot of interesting things outside of work, whereas Bill did comparatively little and was otherwise detestable.
He addressed Bill, "Look, why did you do that? You would have been paid overtime and saved other people the trouble of having to work."
"I'm not coming into work on Saturday!" replied Bill, "Only suckers do that!"
"Whatever," Robert said as he turned to Mary. "How was your weekend?"
"It was wonderful! I finished a book and knitted a hat! I can show it to you later if you want."
Before Robert could respond, Bill laughed again. "Knitting? Really? More like SITTING in the dark alone, Grandma! I mean, seriously, who knits?"
Robert saw Mary frown and look away quickly, as if she were about to cry.
"That's it!" yelled Robert. "Leave, now!" He pointed violently towards the door. There was a discontinuity. Bill wasn't there anymore.
Robert looked around, bewildered. What just happened? he thought. He looked over at Doug who apparently hadn't noticed. He saw Mary and rushed over to her.
"Are you ok?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said looking down quietly, "I just really hate it when he does that.
"He really doesn't know when to stop," Doug observed.
Robert hugged Mary, patting her on the back softly. Bill's such a jackass, thought Robert. His thoughts echoed through the breakroom.
Mary, now recovered, broke the hug. "Thanks," she said.
"You're welcome," said Robert. There was a pause.
Awkward silence, the three thought silently.
"So," Robert began, "did either of you notice Bill leave?"
"What do you mean?" asked Doug.
"Well, it seemed like one minute he was there and one minute he wasn't! I don't remember him walking out the door. He was just...gone."
Doug and Mary both looked at Robert, puzzled. They thought about what he said for a bit and looked back, jigsawed.
"You know, come to think of it, I can't remember him leaving either," Doug said, scratching his head.
"Yeah, me neither," agreed Mary.
"Hmmm, I guess he just skipped out of here, and we didn't see," Robert said without much confidence.
"Maybe," Doug said dismissively. "Anyway, I have to get back to work. Are you sure you're ok, Mary?"
"I'll be fine, thanks. Talk to you later."
"OK, bye, you two," Doug said as he smiled warmly and strode off.
When he was gone, Mary turned to Robert and said, "Thanks for standing up for me. I can't really deal with him at all. He doesn't even think he's being a jerk and needs people to stand up to him. I really appreciate what you did for me.
Robert, blushing, said, "Aw, you're welcome. If he ever tries to give you any trouble, just tell me, and I'll do my best."
"OK," Mary said, smiling, "See you at lunch?"
"Yep, see you there," Robert replied, smiling as Mary walked off.
Well that was odd, Robert thought as he walked back to his cubicle, I wonder where Bill went.
Shrugging as he sat down, Robert, barely five solitaire cards later, fell asleep.
As for Bill, the explanation is really quite simple. He suddenly remembered he had to go to the bathroom. In England. Four thousand miles away. Which was really very tactless as it was approaching tea time there. Magic is very powerful, but culturally insensitive.
Robert's keen wizard senses woke him just in time for lunch. Taking his lunch bag to the cafeteria, he found Doug and Mary and sat down with them.
He began to make small talk with his friends when he noticed something.
Robert stared into his lunch bag, more flabbergasted than he had ever been before in his life. He looked to his left, then to his right. He glared at his lunch, or rather, what used to be his lunch. He asked Mary to confirm what he was seeing, and she nodded, bewildered.
"What's going on?" asked Doug, "what happened?"
Robert sighed and pulled a miniature French horn out of his lunch bag.
"For lunch, I packed some French bread with stromboli and cheese, a pickle, a crumpet, and some Jello." He pulled the rest of the items out of the bag.
"The French bread has become a French horn, the stromboli is a trombone--stromboni?--, the pickle is a piccolo, the crumpet is a trumpet, and the Jello is a cello..."
"What's the cheese?" Doug inquired.
"Moldy," Robert said, frowning.
"Is this a joke?" asked one of the onlookers who had gathered around the table at the spectacle.
"N-no! This is just bizarre!" replied Robert sincerely.
"Is this one of those situations you set up just so you can say puns?" Mary asked slyly.
"No!" Robert said, pausing, "although you have to admit that if it was, then it was quite well-orchestrated."
A groan rose up around Robert, and people dispersed quickly, assuming the joke was over. Robert, however, was still baffled.
Turning to Mary and Doug, he said, "Seriously, I don't know how this happened. Someone must have switched my lunch while I was sleeping because I know I didn't do this."
"And it's weird that someone would happen to have all these miniature instruments on-hand. I mean, what type of place even sells these?" added Mary.
Doug, rubbing his chin ponderingly, picked up the miniature cello and plucked a few strings.
"Hey look!" he said, smiling, "I'm playing the world's smallest violin for you!"
Robert and Doug both started laughing as more groans escaped the mouths of curious eavesdroppers.
When the laughter died down, Mary said, "If it's a prank, then it's a damn good one."
"Well it's a good thing I keep emergency snacks in my desk. I'll be right back."
Robert walked, baffled (like a penguin), back to his cubicle, where he found another oddity. His computer screen had been replaced with a music sheet stand. Robert peered closer, mouth agape, and read the paper resting on the stand. It was titled "http://google.com", and the notes on the staffs were configured in such a way as to look eerily similar to Google's home page. Robert took the paper, folded it neatly, and stuffed it in his pocket. He strode off to find his boss.
Luckily, Robert found him dosing lightly in his office.
"Uh, sir, I think someone took my computer screen," he said meekly.
"Stole your what?" his boss said blearily.
"My computer screen. Come on, I'll show you."
He reluctantly got out of his chair and followed Robert to his cubicle.
"Here it--" Robert stopped. His computer screen had been replaced, Post-Its and all.
"Um," he stammered, "I swear it wasn't here 5 minutes ago!"
"Oh," muttered his boss, already walking sleepily back to his office.
Robert checked the music sheet in his pocket from before. It was blank.
Let it not be said, then, that magic does not have a sense of humor. A terrible sense of humor, yes, but it has one. It is not so much a malignant force as an inept one, like a person on heroin covered in bubble wrap.
Back at the cafeteria, Robert sat down, no longer hungry. He told Doug and Mary what had happened. They both looked at him, confused and sympathetic, and tried to work out what could be the cause of the day's strange events.
At the mention of "work," Robert's mind retreated like a frightened turtle's head into its shell of ignorance. His mind just couldn't take the sensory overload, especially on his lunch break.
His interest piqued, however, when Mary mentioned that word.
"What did you just say?" Robert asked, sitting up.
"I said that it almost seems a bit magic, but it's probably just some prankster," she repeated.
Magic, Robert thought, could it be?
There are two competing mindsets in current ontological thought. The first, Occam's Razor, says that the simplest explanation is almost always correct. The second, Occam's Laser, says that the coolest explanation (hence Occam's Laser) is almost always the most awesome, and therefore correct.** Of course, these are bastardizations of the full explanations. For example, the official literature on Occam's Laser contains many more instances of the word "dude." For more on Occam's Laser, see String Theory.
So which principle did Robert choose? Well, let's put it this way; he might as well have been shouting "pew pew pew!" with his hand held out like a pistol.
"But magic doesn't exist," said Doug, giving his brain a good shave with Occam's Razor.
"Yeah, you're right," said Robert, visions of lasers dancing across his eyes.
"Anyway," Mary said, "I should probably get back to work."
"Yeah, me too," Doug added, standing up in that peculiar post-lunch manner, "tell us if anything else happens, Robert."
"OK," said Robert.
After a bit, Robert got up and strolled back to his desk, his mind so mired down with thoughts and confusion that if he tilted his head sideways he thought pudding would come out of his ears. As he approached his desk, he wondered what he would do next, but his Circadian rhythms (which were currently doing the Mambo) and the inevitable afternoon slump had him nodding off before he even realized it.
Robert awoke with a splitting headache. Literally. It felt like one half of his brain had turned to packing peanuts and the other half had become a burning out-of-control merry-go-round. He glanced at the clock and saw it was still only 4:15. He considered briefly that clocks have their own cruel magic and left his cubicle.
Robert headed down to the copy room. It was a notorious time sink for anyone looking to waste fifteen or twenty minutes "struggling" to get it to work.
A green spark flashed from his fingers as he neared the copier. Robert, shocked, hesitantly inserted a piece of paper. When a perfect copy came out instantly, Robert's jaw dropped. He yelled to the rest of the office, "Everyone, I think something's wrong with the copier! I-It's working!" Immediately a terrified hush spread throughout the office.
"W-what?" someone stammered from their cubicle.
"This can't be good," said someone else.
"I think we should warn people about this," Robert suggested.
There were general murmurs of agreement, and Robert made a sign saying "Warning: Device Functions Properly! Use at Own Risk" and crept back to his cubicle.
At this point, Robert knew something magical was happening. Being a strict rationalist, he had to accept the evidence and what it suggested. At the moment, it suggested that his office chair was a baby brontosaurus.
Robert, his brain throwing in the towel, shrugged his shoulders and sat down on the reptile. It didn't surprise him when the small reptile turned back into his office chair.
His mind reeled. Physics, math, logic, none of it made sense anymore. Not that they did in the first place, Robert thought, but someone who knew something about them would probably think the same thing. He did consider that he might be dreaming, but then he remembered that he never dreamed. The way he saw it, dreaming is just a waste of brain power while it could be doing something useful: nothing.
Looking to ground himself in reality, or at least this reality people called "work," Robert logged onto his computer. He sent off a few carefully-worded emails to his coworkers that, he knew, would finish what little work he had for him. In fact, he kept a file on all his coworkers that detailed each person's "free work threshold," or how much work a person would be willing to do for him before saying "just do it yourself."
Robert waited a few minutes and received friendly emails back saying, more or less, "of course I'll do it." Some people thought that if they helped him out, Robert would eventually teach them his lazy, i.e. wizardly, ways. Others willingly sacrificed their time for him, like an Olympian's supporters, knowing that while they could never achieve the ultimate laziness, perhaps he could. The rest of the people who would work for him just liked Robert, and would be willing to help him regardless of his clever wizardry.
In fact, there were only a few people in the world who hated Robert. One was curled up in a loo in England, trying to get some sleep after an abrupt and confusing tea time. The other was his boss. His boss, despite his best efforts, was not a wizard. He could not master the laziness that came so naturally to Robert.** His first problem, of course, was trying to be lazy. An oxymoron if ever there was one. As such, Robert's boss was deeply jealous of Robert and endeavored to make his life as miserable as possible. He was on one such endeavor now.
Earlier in the day, he had nothing to hold over Robert's head. Now, at almost four thirty, he strode confidently toward Robert's cubicle, a manila folder stuffed with paper in his hand. The folder had Robert's name on it. Robert was packing up to leave when he heard his boss' footsteps, an easily recognized gait because it was the only one in the office with purpose. This purpose, Robert knew, was misery.
He was magically suspended on the ceiling next to a glass skylight. He tried to make himself invisible as his boss approached. It didn't work.
His boss looked up and said, "Robert."
"What are you doing up there?" his boss said sternly, "this company has a strict policy against glass ceilings. Get down from there."
"I don't think I can, sir," said Robert, doing a test jiggle to see if gravity would reassert itself. No such luck.
"Well anyway, I have some work for you to do," said his boss with a barely concealed grin.
Robert didn't hear the words. He only heard a whipcrack, a gunshot, a shell exploding overhead. He felt a knife's edge in his brain. He was physically blown back.
His boss handed him the manila folder, and Robert felt the weight of the whole world in his hand. He felt faint, a low level screaming tearing through his skull. His mind sputtered, ripped, twisted, and was torn apart as his boss detailed the w-w--Robert was going to throw up.
Then he heard, through ears filled with the din of thousands of bees:
"I'm going to need this by tonight, so you'll have to stay late."
At these words, Robert's already upside down world somehow turned further upside down. Robert's brain shut down from the pain of his boss' words. He felt explosions behind his eyes and saw stars: supernovas, in fact. His vocal chords felt as if they had become string cheese. All the pain inside, Robert couldn't take it anymore. He screamed.
There was a noise akin to the sound a rubber band makes as it criticizes your culinary skills and the universe imploded for a bit. There was an exhalation. The universe reformed.
Where his office had stood was now a small duck in an empty lot. It looked at Robert, now standing in the street, and quacked thoughtfully.
Robert turned and ran.