From the author: Nathan Pinkwater is a regular at the Green Horse Café, so regular that server Jiao Ming knows all his weird and unpleasant quirks. So when Nathan shows up inexplicably wearing a magic, transdimensional coat, Jiao knows something is Wrong. Where the hell did Nathan get it? Why is he being so coy? And what awful things has Nathan hidden in its infinitely deep pockets?
It begins to unravel in the Green Horse Café. And that frighteningly athletic-looking waitress (that's Jiao Ming, by the by, and she's gotta be 5'10" if she's an inch) is gonna be the one to pull that first, tempting thread.
The moment hits at 12:05 P.M., when this guy that Jiao wishes she didn't know enters with a gust of ankle-biting air. His name, as Jiao has read from his credit card on prior occasions, is Nathan Pinkwater. Slender but flabby, tall but self-conscious, he slouches in a funny way when he walks and bites his nails all over the place (look at those cuticles, would you; ugh), and tends to flirt with all the debonair suaveness of a shaven orangutan. At least the usual dandruffy snow on Pinkwater's shoulders has evaporated in the happy spring of improved personal hygiene.
And—wait a sec. What the hell is he wearing?
Jiao stops mid-stride to stare, a grilled-focaccia-avocado-sprout-pepper plate in one hand, as Pinkwater slouches in his funny way towards his favorite crappy table by the kitchen. He is wearing a coat. But is that even a coat? Such perfect drape.
The way it pulls light in, and won't let it out.
Pinkwater removes it. He arranges the garment on the back of his chair, like it's a cloak adorning a throne, and Jiao nearly forgets to deliver her focaccia-whatever plate before approaching his table.
"Hi," she says, and because Pinkwater's habits are pretty regular, Jiao asks, "Pot of Jasmine green tea?"
He looks up in startled pleasure to find that Jiao is his server—"Oh, hi!"—then squints ineffectually at the chalkboard menu over the serving counter. "I'll have a... umm..."
"I can come back."
"Wait. No, actually, green tea is fine. But..." Pinkwater smiles at her. Jiao wearily braces herself for a terrible pick-up line, but that's not what Pinkwater's going for at all.
He goes for his coat.
Rather: he reaches somewhere into that perfect, inky blackness, and pulls out a teapot.
Jiao stares. Teapots, now, even those little ones—and this one was full-sized, heavy stoneware—cannot be crammed into pockets. Not if you want such a seductively smooth and perfect drape.
Pinkwater is smiling like a Labrador that just rolled in something too nasty to specify. "Can you put it in my teapot?"
Jiao says, "I get off work at 2. Stay until then. Then we'll talk."
Pinkwater's smile falters. His nail-bitten hand curls around the teapot protectively, as if sheltering a kitten. "Listen. Uh—"
Jiao goes to the kitchen without taking it.
At 2 o'clock, Jiao's as good as her word and comes straight to Pinkwater's crappy table. "Ready?"
"Oh. Uh." Pinkwater picks up his coat (oh, that drop of ink; oh, that slice of midnight) and follows Jiao in funny-slouching nervousness. They leave the building, and Jiao's long exhalation steams out into the sharp winter air.
"Let's sit in my car," she says.
Pinkwater's eyes grow into eager moons, but Jiao turns and doesn't look behind her. She stalks over the salted ice to the lot. Her rusty steed, bearing the opinionated bumper stickers of owners long absent, awaits. She unlocks it and gets in and starts the engine, the heater plastering her with chill air.
Pinkwater slithers into the adjacent front seat.
Jiao turns to him. He's wearing the coat with Style and Flair, which should not be so, since the manner in which he slithered inside the car should've twisted it all up. Nope. It sticks to him like an octopus made of wet silk.
"Look," says Jiao. "Uh—I'm Jiao, and this is my shitty car. But forget that. If you actually have a magic coat, what the hell are you doing wasting your time in a stupid coffee shop in Boulder?"
Pinkwater's lips move in a feeble infant-like way before he gets any words out. "It's not magic."
Jiao's eyes harden. She holds out her hand. "Gimme your teapot."
Pinkwater blinks, and produces, impossibly, the offending and telltale teapot, from a section of coat that drapes perfectly over his lightly-flabbed ribs.
"If that's not magic," says Jiao, taking and inspecting the teapot at critical and close range, "I don't know what is."
"It's not magic," says Pinkwater, a little indignantly. "It's sleight-of-hand."
"Bullshit," says Jiao. "What else you got in there?"
"It wasn't in there," objects Pinkwater. "Strictly speaking."
Jiao removes the teapot lid and peers inside. Deceptively normal. She hands it back and says, "What, are the pockets in some other dimension?"
Pinkwater colors. "No," he says.
The ensuing silence between them is uncomfortable and sharp. In the lot outside, five students squeeze into a car even shittier than Jiao's and drive away.
"You're a terrible liar," says Jiao.
"I'm not lying!"
"Pocket dimensions quantumly anchored to ordinary up and down quarks," Pinkwater scoffs. "That's ridiculous."
Jiao eyes him.
Pinkwater colors again. "Listen, uh, I'm very flattered that you were impressed, and I'd be happy to show you some more tricks sometime—say, over dinner? This Friday?—but really—"
Jiao leans across him, tigress-like, and sets her left hand on his door, twisting her body to face him. Pinkwater stares at her and wilts. "Listen," says Jiao, "wouldn't you be curious if someone showed up at... wherever it is you worked... and brought out a thing like this? I'm not trying to get you in trouble or steal your secrets. I'm really just dying of curiosity."
Pinkwater eyes the predatory way she's leaning. Jiao dislikes using sweetness or flattery as a general rule, so it is an effort for her to smile and lean back a little. "Please?"
Her reluctant guest draws in a thoughtful inhalation. "Well, it isn't just up and down quarks," he finally says. "Obviously."
Jiao waits. Pinkwater says nothing further, only glances at her, conspiratorially. He opens his coat, and Jiao realizes that Pinkwater is still holding his teapot. Not when he reaches in and puts it away, though.
In its place, he withdraws a rubber chicken.
Pinkwater gestures with the rubber chicken as he talks, its vulcanized bits wobbling stiffly against a backdrop of growing fog on the windshield as the heater gathers steam. "You see," he says, "what you really need are gravitons and anti-gravitons, which are by the way neither particles nor strings but really kind of like a state of oscillation localized to a certain neighborhood." Flop, goes the chicken neck. "And all you need to do is find a way to line them up and enmesh them with up and down quarks—or I mean, whatever, it doesn't have to be common matter—for which you basically need to set up these other oscillations that don't really have any names yet." Flop, goes the chicken neck. "Basically, it's like taking a big fishing net and... no. Okay, it's like a big ball of... no, that's not right. Maybe a soap bubble?" The chicken pauses, evocatively, in mid-air. "Yeah, a film of soap bubble, that you hold metal rings against before blowing bubbles through the rings. And then the bubbles stick to the original film. I wish you knew math."
"Who says I don't?"
Pinkwater sets the chicken, fastidiously, on his lap. From the coat he withdraws a box of crackers. "Well, then I wish we had a marker board. If you know math, why are you wasting your life waiting tables?"
"If you know English, why are you wasting your life building a magic coat instead of teaching ESL in Korea?"
"It's not magic," huffs Pinkwater. He sets the crackers on the dashboard and withdraws a pair of dress pants. "It's science."
"Sure," says Jiao. "What's with the chicken?"
Pinkwater withdraws an iPod, a glossy magazine, a liter of Mountain Dew, an abused bag of trail mix, a pair of sneakers, a change of socks, a pile of mismatched screws, a pair of noise-canceling headphones, a first aid kit, and a checkbook. By this point his lap is thoroughly smothered, but he still produces a bag of potting soil. It's got a leak in it. Rich peat drizzles onto Jiao's passenger seat, leisurely, and even though the seat was already pretty filthy anyway, she now dislikes Pinkwater even more. "You wanted to know what else I was carrying," says Pinkwater, producing a flyswatter.
Jiao winces. "Put all that shit back before somebody sees you!"
Pinkwater gestures at the fog-covered windows and wipes his forehead with a wrist. The heat is blasting now. "Nobody's going to see me."
Jiao wipes her hand all over the windshield.
"Hey!" Instead of replenishing the technopocket nerdcoat, Pinkwater leans over his treasures like a child protecting a pile of blocks. "I thought you didn't—"
Jiao buckles her seatbelt.
"What are you doing?" Pinkwater asks.
"Taking your dumb ass some place less public."
Jiao glances at Pinkwater, now sullenly restocking his coat, as she drives. Her curiosity has been joined by alarm at his naiveté—surely some shady authority figure, representative of The Man, would catch Pinkwater flaunting this thing, and then?—as well as anger at herself for getting involved. Hell, some government lackey could be following them right now. Jesus, what was she doing?
But man... just consider that coat.
Maybe Pinkwater—kind, generous, grateful Pinkwater—had a second one that he wouldn't mind loaning out.
"Okay," says Jiao. "So you got this coat. You built it, right? I mean you don't get that shit off of eBay."
"Yes," says Pinkwater. "I built it."
Jiao eyes him as she sails through a stop sign. "You're lying to me again."
"I am not."
"I already said you were a terrible liar. Who built the coat?"
Pinkwater looks offended. He picks up his noise-canceling headphones, shakes out the potting soil, and slips them back into the contested garment. "I designed it. I didn't steal anything. The other guy stole my blueprints, so I just took back what belonged to me."
Jiao's hands squeeze the wheel. It makes a sound like the rope of a tire swing, twisting in mid-air under the weight of several panicking children. "Okay," she says, with forced calm. "Who did you steal it... er... take it back from?"
"I told you. My lab partner." Pinkwater's fluttery mouth stills and scrunches in, and his features sour in displeasure. "Well, all right. He's the P.I."
"The head of the lab." Pinkwater flips through his checkbook, ensuring that all blank checks are present and accounted for. He slides it into a pocket. "He acts like we're his slaves. Takes credit for everything."
Jiao's hands are still clenching. This makes it hard to steer. She realizes that if she crashes like this, her body is going to snap apart on impact, while blithe, stupid, dopey Pinkwater's is going to flop around happily in his seatbelt like that goddamn rubber chicken. "Okay," says Jiao again, relaxing, albeit not very far. "Does he know the coat is missing?"
"I don't know. I don't care, either. He doesn't think I know that he went ahead and built it, so there's no way he'll think it's my fault."
"You know what," says Jiao. "Maybe we should just move on and forget this whole conversation. Can I drop you off somewhere?"
Pinkwater's disappointed expression is almost pitiable. "What? But I thought you—"
"Think whatever you want, but I draw the line at getting involved in some kind of mad scientist feud. No matter how awesome your coat is."
"I'm not a mad scientist," says Pinkwater, defensively, heaving up his unopened Mountain Dew. "And if I were, I'd be doing much worse with this technology than just designing a coat."
"Like your mad scientist lab head might be?"
"What could he be doing with it?" Jiao demands, though of course, Pinkwater has no way of knowing, and she immediately regrets asking the question. She can answer well enough, anyway, with the aid of frenzied assumptions and half-baked suspicions. Mostly, you could smuggle things. Guns. Landmines. Bombs. Hell, warheads and tanks, for that matter, if maybe you made a pocket on a big enough tarp or something. Drugs. Stolen electronics. Diamonds. Gold.
Pinkwater opens the coat to replace the Mountain Dew, and a living, wrinkled hand reaches out to accept it.
"Oh," says Pinkwater.
Jiao screams. The car fishtails under her panic until she gets it to the other side of the road, roughly in a parking space in front of a public park. It's cold enough for the park to be empty, except for two dog-walking women, who stare at Jiao's car in puzzlement as they pass.
"What the SHIT!" says Jiao.
Gingerly, Pinkwater pulls the pocket open with both hands and peers inside. "Hey. I think that's him."
Pinkwater shuts an eye and squints into the pocket, as if peering down the barrel of a rifle. "How'd he get in there?"
The hand comes out again. Pinkwater slaps it, as if shooing away a fly, but it finds his throat and begins to squeeze.
Jiao wants to open the passenger door and kick this horrifying tangle of WTF onto the asphalt and drive away, but she doesn't have room to kick. So she opens the glove compartment and pulls out a pocketknife. Pretend you're killing a zombie, she thinks, giddily, as she unfolds the blade. A disembodied zombie hand. But it's not a zombie. It's an actual guy in there. Pinkwater is turning purple-red, his weak nerdfingers fluttering around the enraged strength of that terrible coat limb. Jiao slashes the blade across the back of the not-zombie wrist, barely producing a scratch.
But it's enough. The hand retreats.
Pinkwater leans back, gasping, holding his tender throat. Jiao throws the knife onto the floor. "Jesus, Nathan!"
"I guess he's mad," Pinkwater gasps. "What do we do?"
"We?" Jiao shoves him. Fine potting soil rains from his pants onto the floor. "We don't do a damn thing. You get out of my car. I'm sorry I ever invited you in here, and I'm sorry I ever asked you about it. I don't know anything, I don't want to know anything, and I don't even know you."
The coat flutters independently of Pinkwater.
From inside, a voice says, "Is someone else out there? Can anyone hear me?" But it's not the voice of an enraged male mad scientist. Nope.
A young woman's voice, that is.
Jiao gapes. "And who is THAT?"
Pinkwater's eyes are baffled pools. "I don't know."
From elsewhere in the garment, the originally expected male mad scientist voice says, "Who's there?"
Jiao and Pinkwater gawk at each other in horrified, you've-got-to-be-shitting me shock as Pinkwater's coat engages in a heart-wrenching conversation with itself.
"My God! Who's there? Where am I?"
"My name is Martin Stroek. And unless I am mistaken, we are in a pocket dimension, artificially connected to, but separate from, our usual reality."
"Oh God. Oh God. Don't stop talking. Let me find you."
"You're right on top of me, Miss."
"I don't feel you. Where are you?"
"Calm down. You can't feel me because an infinite number of objects can occupy the same space, here. The physics are very different."
"How did he get me here?"
"I can't speak for you," says the scientist grimly, "but me—I was pushed."
In a moment of frigid clarity, Jiao thinks: Actually, Pinkwater is an excellent liar.
Pinkwater sees the transformation in Jiao's eyes. His pale skin pales further. "Wait. You don't have the whole story. I didn't—"
Jiao lunges across the car, opens the door, and shoves Pinkwater onto the asphalt. She crawls out after him, bone-chilling cold be damned. Pinkwater mewls and gets to his knees on the gritty ice, holding up his hands and dithering, but Jiao tackles him and rips the coat from his thrashing, flabby body. "You don't understand!" Pinkwater cries. "He had the coat for weeks before I got it back! I don't know where it's been! Who he's shown it to!"
"This is bullshit!" Jiao reaches into every pocket—and there are so, so many—and grabs and removes. All of Pinkwater's miscellaneous weirdo crap comes out, but now there's more, tons more, and it gets more alarming as it goes. Receipts and ticket stubs; eight bags of groceries; a woman's luggage set, full of luggage; silk bed sheets, lingerie, flowers. Photographic film prints: Pinkwater and a young woman. Time and date stamp: several years prior. Some people have real, real trouble letting go. So much trouble, they go back and grab. Eh, Pinkwater?
Jiao finally grasps a frantic, pawing hand. Pinkwater is pleading: Jiao doesn't know what she's doing, she has no idea of what's at stake, she'll ruin everything. Jiao pulls anyway.
She doesn't look much older than her photographs.
She clings to Jiao, a tiny woman, head barely up to Jiao's armpit. She quivers like a terrified rabbit. She's so small that Jiao can wrap her left arm around her shoulders while she uses her right arm to shake the ever-unliving bejesus out of the terrible coat as she yells her judgment at Pinkwater. "Who else you got stowed away in here? An ex-boss you never liked? The step-mom you hated? The girl that turned you down at a sixth-grade dance? Now you don't ever have to let go of anything, isn't that right, Nathan?"
"It isn't like that!" Pinkwater wheedles. His hands paw uselessly at the parking lot grit atop the filthy ice. "It isn't like that at all!"
Jiao wants to kick him.
Instead, she digs through the coat again while the small woman eases her grip and hides behind her.
Maybe Pinkwater does not keep (specifically) his ex-boss and step-mom and sixth grade crush in his coat, but there are certainly many, many more people in addition to the woman and Dr. Stroek.
And none of them look happy.
They assemble themselves in a ring around their pathetic, trembling captor. He doesn't try to run. Somehow, this only sickens Jiao further, and with a hiss, she throws the coat (now empty... right?) down onto the asphalt, at Dr. Stroek's feet.
She doesn't suggest anything. Nobody does.
But they all get the same idea, at about the same time, and nobody feels the need to discuss it. In fact, nobody talks at all. They just take the coat and force Pinkwater inside. Inside inside.
Jiao turns to Dr. Stroek. "So if you made these pockets, can you sew them up?"
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
KJ Kabza is back with a second round of fiction that’s “Incredible” (Tangent), “Fascinating” (SFRevu), and “Worthy of Edgar Allan Poe” (SFcrowsnest). Featuring his freshest work from top SF/fantasy venues of today, including F&SF, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and more, UNDER STARS showcases wonders from worlds both here and beyond. Included is all of KJ Kabza's work published from mid-2011 through 2013, plus 5 new pieces, exclusive story notes, and 69 dirty limericks with a speculative twist.
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