Tomorrow Is Another Daze
By Ernest Hogan
Lalo was in the middle of making Huevos Rancheros Microöndas when the doorbell rattled. The microwave buzzed less than a second after. Yet another quarantine for yet another virus was going on, so he wasn’t eager to answer the door. For all he knew it could be a terminal case, long past the early stages that are said to be similar to what they used to call future shock: the disorientation and hallucinations, the convulsions, foaming at the mouth, about to drop dead on his porch under the decorations his wife insisted on putting up, requiring the services of a hazmat team.
This latest virus was a real chingada. Not quite zombies like all the kids were expecting, but horrendous enough.
He ignored the doorbell and opened the microwave instead. The eggs had swelled up like a sci-fi monster, but they proceeded to shrink once the deadly rays had stopped. He’d watched the 1953 version of War of the Worlds last night, and it still pecked at his brain.
Parts of the egg were still squishy, so he took a fork, scrambled it, and put it in again for another quick zap.
He saw The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 on the shelf and wondered if he should reread it when the doorbell buzzed again. This time the dog started barking at it.
“Finally woke up, eh, Lovester?”
“What’s going on over there?” said Rosa, Lalo’s wife. She was back in the bedroom, painting the walls seafoam green.
“You could hear us?”
She had on headphones and was listening to a true crime book. “Sure can.”
Again, the doorbell.
“I heard that too. Are you gonna answer it?”
“You order anything recently?” said Lalo.
“Me neither. Who would be ringing doorbells in the middle of a planet-wide lockdown?”
“Invaders from outer space?”
“Or maybe just home invaders.”
There was another buzz. He reached for his taser.
“Better mask up!” Rosa commanded.
He pivoted, grabbed one of the bandanas folded in a stack next to the bowl where they kept their keys, and tied it around his face. He had to put down the taser to do it. When he picked it up again, he was tempted to test it.
No. There was always the chance that this was something harmless. Harmless things still happened, even in this day and age.
By this time Lovester was right in front of the door, barking like a natural-born killer.
Her show of force was impressive, as long as you didn’t notice that her tail was tucked up between her legs.
Lalo looked through the peephole. He couldn’t see anything, just the front walk and El Troque, a silver Tacoma, blurred by the heavy screen door. The only sound was the ranchera station that Chuy, their neighbor, played when he tinkered with his lowrider.
Lalo did a quick test zap of his taser. “Is anybody out there?”
“Mr. Ortiz?” It was a strange voice, high-pitched and unnaturally calm.
“What?” asked Lalo. “You know my name?”
“Are you Lalo Ortiz?”
“And you reside at this address?”
Lalo did another taser zap. “Who the hell are you? I can’t even see you.”
“Of course. You haven’t opened the door. Oh, wait…” There was an electronic bloop. “You must be looking through the peephole.”
A mechanical whine. Something rose to block the peephole. At first it looked like a plain cardboard box, but then its surface began to shine as if it had become metallic.
“You have been selected to be part of an elite group of beta testers for an exciting new product!”
“Selected? By whom?”
“They don’t want to reveal themselves at this time.”
“Shit!” Rosa had come into the living room and now stood behind him in her paint-spattered apron and bandana, headphones around her neck. “This is suspicious as all hell. Open the door and let Killer at ‘em.” She tickled Lovester, who obliged with some blood-curdling barking.
Giving his wife a wink, Lalo pulled the inner door open, leaving the outer screen—a sheet of metal with holes, not a flimsy wire net—locked. He grabbed Lovester’s collar to keep her from smashing teeth-first into the metal barrier.
Lalo and Rosa smiled in anticipation of a good laugh. The looks of terror on the faces of unwanted callers who got this treatment were usually hilarious. Sometimes they ran down the front walk screaming.
But they didn’t laugh. They stood in stunned silence. They saw no look of pure terror. There wasn’t even a face.
There wasn’t even a person.
Standing on the porch was the same box he’d seen through the peephole. It had a label that was addressed to Lalo. It also had legs. Four legs, the same pale cardboard brown as the box, with that blink-and-miss-it metallic wink. Strange legs with no joints, like table legs.
Lovester just stared, trembling with fright.
“Mr. Ortiz,” said the leggy box, “are you all right?”
Lalo tightened his grip on the taser. “Did you always have those legs?”
“It became apparent that you wouldn’t be able to see me without them, so I generated them.”
“I suppose they aren’t necessary now.” The legs got shorter, lowering the box to rest on the welcome mat.
Lalo and Rosa gasped.
The box paused in its descent. “But then, now you have to look down at me.” The legs grew longer again, bringing the box back to eye level.
Rosa exhaled a ladylike “Fuuuuck!”
“What are you?” demanded Lalo.
“I don’t have an official name yet. You probably don’t want my ID code number.”
Lalo and Rosa rolled their eyes.
“Feel free to give me a name!” suggested the box.
Lalo immediately said, “Mierda.”
“A pretty-sounding name. Is it Spanish?”
“And it means…excrement?”
“Shit,” Rosa corrected.
“Some people may find it offensive.”
“It’ll work for us,” said Lalo.
“Very well, if it makes you happy.”
“It does.” Lalo smirked. Rosa giggled.
Knees formed in the box’s legs. “May I come in?”
“No,” Lalo and Rosa said, not quite in unison.
“I really need for you to let me in.”
“It’s some kind of vampire! Zap the chingadera!” said Rosa.
“I assure you that I have no use for human blood,” said the box.
Lalo pointed the taser at the mailing label and zapped.
The box did not react. “I also have systems that protect me from the charge of your device.”
“Shit,” said Rosa.
“Yes?” replied the box.
“No, no, no,” said Lalo. “We named you Mierda, not Shit.”
“Thank you for clarifying that.”
“The damned thing is bilingual!” said Lalo.
The box seemed to stand straighter. “More than bilingual. I have access to numerous languages.”
“Hijo de la chingada!” said Rosa.
“Y’know, Rosa, maybe this thing can come in handy.”
“No way, Lalo! Who knows what this thing is and who sent it. It’s probably something else that wants to take over our lives.”
“I did scan your technology and internet connections,” offered the box. “They aren’t very well organized. I could easily organize and make them more efficient and easier to use.”
“Naw,” said Lalo. “We kinda like them the way they are.”
The box stood still and silent for a while. “I’m only trying to help,” it said at last.
“We didn’t ask for any help,” said Lalo.
“But I could make your lives better.”
“See!” said Rosa. “It wants to take over our lives.”
“We actually like our lives.”
“Do you? You aren’t in a very high income bracket.”
“How do you know that?” asked Lalo.
“I noticed when I scanned your technology.”
“You’re invading our privacy!” said Rosa.
“It is what I was made to do.”
Lalo raised his taser and sparked at the address label. “Get lost.”
“Maybe I’m coming off as too cold and inhuman. Maybe if I had a face.” The label with the address melted away. In its place, the curve of a smile and two dots for eyes appeared.
“Ewwww!” said Rosa.
“That’s kinda creepy,” said Lalo.
“Maybe if I added some anatomical detail?”
The curve and dots blurred.
“No,” said Rosa. “Please don’t.”
“Yeah,” said Lalo. “Just be a box.”
“And get out of here,” Rosa added.
The curve turned down. “But I’m not just a box.”
Lalo and Rosa looked at each other, then turned back to the box.
“Just what are you?” asked Lalo.
“I am a multi-purpose device made of cutting-edge nanotechnology in a fullerene matrix that can be reconstructed.”
“Reconstructed into what?”
“That is up to you.”
Rosa gave a sharp-toothed grin. “Now, that’s interesting. Like the way you grow legs and make a face?”
“Yes. I assumed the form of a package because it was the easiest way to be delivered.” It proceeded to change shape and color. Soon it was a smooth, poreless white sphere, bouncing up to eye level, then down again.
Lalo and Rosa just stared a while.
“Mr. Ortiz?” asked the ball, “Mrs. Ortiz? Are you all right?”
“This is…” said Mr.
“…kinda scary…” agreed Mrs.
“…and kinda cool…”
“So,” Lalo said. “What else can you do?”
“And what will it cost?” Rosa said before the bouncing ball could respond.
“It’s actually not clear what I can do,” said the ball. “The possibilities are close to infinite. That’s why I was sent out for these beta tests. They would like to know. At no cost to you, of course.”
“They,” Rosa said.
“Yes,” said Lalo. “Just who are they?”
“I cannot say.”
“Bullshit,” said Rosa.
“They have literally rendered me incapable of telling who they are.”
“They,” said Lalo, “really are something.”
“And they want to improve the world.”
“And make money,” said Rosa.
“They would like to do both.”
“So would I,” said Lalo.
“I could help you,” insisted the ball.
“Don’t listen to it, Lalo.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz, what do you really want?”
“For you to go away.”
“That is not an option.”
“What is this?” said Lalo, “Invasion of the Talking Boxes?”
The ball bounced back up to eye level. “Are you really happy? What’s so good about your lives? Your income is low.”
“Yeah,” said Rosa, “but we enjoy life.”
“Lalo, you work as a janitor, and Rosa, you are a bookstore clerk.”
“And it’s cool,” said Lalo, “we don’t have to be chingones.”
“But Lalo, you are quite the intellectual. You order books on an eclectic variety of subjects. You could probably write one yourself.”
“Yeah, I’ve thought about, scribbled some, but I keep getting distracted.”
“And Rosa, you order a lot of materials for creative projects—”
“My home is my art!”
“But,” insisted the ball, “what do you want? What will you do after this pandemic is over?”
They looked at each other, smiled and said, this time in perfect unison, “Road trip!”
“As soon as we can, we’re going to get in El Troque and enjoy the roads and landscapes of Aztlán,” added Lalo.
“Pinche yeah, cabrón,” said Rosa.
The box leaned toward El Troque. Like it had eyes on its other side. “Interesting technology. A bit dated, but it could be improved…”
“Really?” said Lalo.
“Oh no,” said Rosa. “Don’t get any ideas!”
“But that’s what I do, honey.”
“Don’t let them invade us!”
“Maybe we can invade them.” Lalo looked fiendish. “All this technology is piling up around us. Hardly anybody is talking full advantage. The white man invaded with superior technology, but it wasn’t like War of the Worlds. The natives didn’t roll over and die, they resisted. Hell, natives appropriated horses and rifles, and created a new culture that was a threat to the invaders. It’s like if the Martians landed in Arizona instead of England, and the Apaches commandeered some war machines and started fighting back.”
“Yeah,” said Rosa, “We take the best of their stuff and find our own uses for it. Like that Chuy next door and his lowered Impala, or Alma around the corner. She practices with her mariachi band through Zoom.”
“Rasquache!” Lalo crowed.
“Hui! Hui! Hui!” cried Rosa.
They went into a little dance.
“Are you going to let me in?” asked the ball.
“No!” they said.
“But maybe we can go for a ride,” said Rosa.
“After some negotiations,” said Lalo.
After a while, they added salsa to the Huevos Rancheros Microöndas, gave it to Lovester, and made sure she had plenty of water. Lalo grabbed the taser—just in case. The door opened. The bouncing sphere did not go in. Lalo and Rosa came out, and they walked with it out to El Troque. Lalo popped the hood, and the sphere hopped onto the engine and started changing shape, flowing like paint in slow motion, sending tiny tendrils into the engine’s curves and into its crevasses. El Troque shook and rattled. The engine turned on, and made an unexpectedly pure, musical noise.
“Beautiful,” said Rosa. “Lalo, maybe you can write a book about this?”
“Write a book?” Lalo smiled and closed the hood. “Why not live one?”
They got in, and El Troque rose into the sky.
Chuy stopped working on the Impala, ran over, looked up and shouted after them, “Hey, when you get back, we gotta talk about this, ese!”
Ernest Hogan was born in East L.A. His mother’s maiden name is Garcia. He grew up in West Covina, on a diet of comic books, monster movies, tacos, beans, and rice. He is the author of High Aztech, Smoking Mirror Blues, and Cortez on Jupiter. His work has appeared in Amazing Stories, Analog, Aztlán Latinx Rising, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, and many others, and will soon appear in Speculative Fiction for Dreamers, Nine to Eternity, and Nuestra Realidad Creativa. He blogs at mondoernesto.com and labloga.blogspot.com. He is currently working on a novel, Zyx; or, Bring Me the Brain of Victor Theremin, and a story collection, Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus and Other Fictions. He lives in Glendale, Arizona with his wife, the author Emily Devenport.
Watch Ernest and editor, scholar, and author Frederick Luis Aldama in a virtual conversation about “Tomorrow Is Another Daze”
Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events.