Portal Piranhas

“I’m Clark Benson,” says the white-haired man in a three-piece suit, “and this is…” he holds his microphone out to a packed studio audience.


The crowd’s roars mix with piped theme music, making my ears crackle. I want to cover them but remember I’m on TV and everyone is tuned in—even those assholes from work. I try to smile, but end up looking more like a growling pug.

“That’s right!” Benson continues. “Tonight I’m here with Ted and Jack who are about to jump dimensions…for our amusement and their bank accounts!” he says, leading the crowd in raucous applause. “Are you ready, Ted?”

I nod. “Need to pay off those student loans, but I’m really in it for the glory!” I point at my opponent in playful aggression. “And to beat this guy!”

Jack mouths an obscenity.

I size him up. Squat with a fiery personality to match crazed hair. I’d have guessed he skipped high school, if there hadn’t been an age minimum for the show.

“That’s what I like to see,” Benson says. “I’m guessing you’re up to the challenge, Jack?”

“Eye on the prize,” he chortles. “And on this loser!”

“Best of luck.” I say, extending my hand. Jack bats it away. 

“The rules are simple,” Benson paces the stage with a Cheshire grin. “I spin the Wheel of Time. It’ll give us the place where Ted and Jack will compete for today’s jackpot. Once they’ve entered the Portal, they have fifteen minutes to complete their objective—armed only with everyday objects!”

“SPIN THAT WHEEL!” the crowd booms.

Words blur as the twenty-foot wheel whirls, clicking slower as our assigned location approaches. 

“Looks like you boys are getting your ears lowered. You’re headed to the ‘Hair Salon.’” Benson pushes a button and the huge digital display illuminates, tinting our faces red. 

“And the Randomizer says…” Benson taps his foot. “1954. Pompadours, crew cuts, and bouffants are in your future…well past.” He laughs. “Open the boxes by your stations to get your items.”

“Here we go,” I say.

Jack holds up a pair of rank gym shoes. I hold up a bottle of glue. 

The audience hollers as the Portal hums to life. Its essence spinning like clothes in a front-load washer.

“You must complete your tasks only with the items we’ve supplied.” Benson turns to me, “Ted, your mission is to convince Sue-Ellen to let you wash her hair with glue. And Jack, you’ll have to convince Bobby to swap his new saddle shoes for reeking gym shoes.” 

We walk through together and appear in mid-conversation with our respective clients. 

The Portal must have screwed with my head—I don’t remember the competition. My memory jumps from seeing the girl to Sue-Ellen hugging me and begging to keep the glue bottle.

“I guess I won,” I say to Jack with a shrug.

The Portal’s hum returns and it appears in the corner.

“That’s our ride,” I say. 

Jack rolls his eyes but follows me through.

We’re not met with riotous cheers and studio lights; we’re still in the hair salon—but it’s changed. Now dark, dirty, and grey. Its life gone.

“Where are we?” Jack speaks to me for the first time. 

“I don’t know,” I say, my voice dead. 

I run to the front door and shove, straining my back. “It’s not opening!” Jack rushes against it; it’s as solid as a brick wall.

“This isn’t supposed to happen!” My voice shakes. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I say to the ceiling. “I don’t care about the money! Jack can have it! You can keep it! Just let me out!”

A screen drops, covering the door. “And here’s the man of the hour!” Jack and I are mesmerized by the flickering images of our doppelgangers exiting the Portal, waving to the crowd and rejoining Benson on stage. 

My jaw falls slack. Jack clunks to the floor.

“I had the same reaction,” says a distinctive voice. “Skin-Stealers—at least that’s what I call them. They’re everywhere. You probably even know some.” 

“Skin-Stealers?” My face contorts. 

“You’ve at least met one.” 

I recognize the face flattened against the salon’s window peering at me. “Clark Benson?”

“The real Clark Benson,” he corrects. “The one you met and just saw on the screen isn’t me…not really. He shares my face, voice, mannerisms—not sure about his memories—but he’s not me anymore than those look-alikes are you!”

“I’m finished!” My voice wobbles. “I won’t sue!”

The real Clark Benson laughed. “I’m sure the Glael will appreciate that—“

“—The what?”

“Glael. The aliens—“

“—He’s insane,” I say to Jack with confidence, but I don’t believe my own words.

“I wish I was.” The real Benson squeezes his brow. “It’s an alien invasion…and not the ‘Take me to your leader’ type you’ve seen in movies where the mothership lands on the White House lawn. It’s the quiet, deliberate kind—engineered for their amusement.” His breath fogs the window from the outside. “PORTAL PIRANHAS is a takeover. Glael technology runs the machine, fame-hungry people the fodder—and now a Glael walks Earth in a Ted-suit.”

“You know my name?” 

“They let us watch here—wherever here is,” he says. “Fear make us taste better—or so Ms. Mefflon—the network’s CEO and Glael queen—claims.”

“Taste?” Jack jumps to his feet.

“Yes,” he pauses. “You’re going to be eaten.” The real Benson looked surprised, “I don’t usually admit that so quickly; it starts the process. You’ll be Ms. Mefflon’s next meal. Her royal table set with a Ted-dog and a Jack-burger to be had tonight when the show airs.”

Gears click, rotating the salon’s walls to reveal glowing red burners. I feel the heat instantly. My skin bubbles and Jack crisps.

“The only reason they’ve let me live,” the real Benson says, “is to season their meat with fear. I really am sorry.” His voice barely audible over our screams.

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