Burckhardt hesitated, and then recognized him. It was a casual acquaintance named Swanson. Burckhardt sourly observed that he had already missed the bus.
He said, "Hello."
Swanson's face was desperately eager. "Burckhardt?" he asked inquiringly, with an odd intensity. And then he just stood there silently, watching Burckhardt's face, with a burning eagerness that dwindled to a faint hope and died to a regret. He was searching for something, waiting for something, Burckhardt thought. But whatever it was he wanted, Burckhardt didn't know how to supply it.
Burckhardt coughed and said again, "Hello, Swanson."
Swanson didn't even acknowledge the greeting. He merely sighed a very deep sigh.
"Nothing doing," he mumbled, apparently to himself. He nodded abstractedly to Burckhardt and turned away.
Burckhardt watched the slumped shoulders disappear in the crowd. It was an odd sort of day, he thought, and one he didn't much like. Things weren't going right.
Riding home on the next bus, he brooded about it. It wasn't anything terrible or disastrous; it was something out of his experience entirely. You live your life, like any man, and you form a network of impressions and reactions. You expect things. When you open your medicine chest, your razor is expected to be on the second shelf; when you lock your front door, you expect to have to give it a slight extra tug to make it latch.
It isn't the things that are right and perfect in your life that make it familiar. It is the things that are just a little bit wrong--the sticking latch, the light switch at the head of the stairs that needs an extra push because the spring is old and weak, the rug that unfailingly skids underfoot.
It wasn't just that things were wrong with the pattern of Burckhardt's life; it was that the wrong things were wrong. For instance, Barth hadn't come into the office, yet Barth always came in.
Burckhardt brooded about it through dinner. He brooded about it, despite his wife's attempt to interest him in a game of bridge with the neighbors, all through the evening. The neighbors were people he liked--Anne and Farley Dennerman. He had known them all their lives. But they were odd and brooding, too, this night and he barely listened to Dennerman's complaints about not being able to get good phone service or his wife's comments on the disgusting variety of television commercials they had these days.
Burckhardt was well on the way to setting an all-time record for continuous abstraction when, around midnight, with a suddenness that surprised him--he was strangely aware of it happening--he turned over in his bed and, quickly and completely, fell asleep.
On the morning of June 15th, Burckhardt woke up screaming.
It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life. He could still hear the explosion, feel the blast that crushed him against a wall. It did not seem right that he should be sitting bolt upright in bed in an undisturbed room.
His wife came pattering up the stairs. "Darling!" she cried. "What's the matter?"
He mumbled, "Nothing. Bad dream."
She relaxed, hand on heart. In an angry tone, she started to say: "You gave me such a shock--"
But a noise from outside interrupted her. There was a wail of sirens and a clang of bells; it was loud and shocking.
The Burckhardts stared at each other for a heartbeat, then hurried fearfully to the window.
There were no rumbling fire engines in the street, only a small panel truck, cruising slowly along. Flaring loudspeaker horns crowned its top. From them issued the screaming sound of sirens, growing in intensity, mixed with the rumble of heavy-duty engines and the sound of bells. It was a perfect record of fire engines arriving at a four-alarm blaze.
Burckhardt said in amazement, "Mary, that's against the law! Do you know what they're doing? They're playing records of a fire. What are they up to?"
"Maybe it's a practical joke," his wife offered.
"Joke? Waking up the whole neighborhood at six o'clock in the morning?" He shook his head. "The police will be here in ten minutes," he predicted. "Wait and see."
But the police weren't--not in ten minutes, or at all. Whoever the pranksters in the car were, they apparently had a police permit for their games.
The car took a position in the middle of the block and stood silent for a few minutes. Then there was a crackle from the speaker, and a giant voice chanted: "Feckle Freezers! Feckle Freezers! Gotta have a Feckle Freezer! Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle--"
It went on and on. Every house on the block had faces staring out of windows by then. The voice was not merely loud; it was nearly deafening.
Burckhardt shouted to his wife, over the uproar, "What the hell is a Feckle Freezer?"
"Some kind of a freezer, I guess, dear," she shrieked back unhelpfully.
Abruptly the noise stopped and the truck stood silent. It was still misty morning; the Sun's rays came horizontally across the rooftops. It was impossible to believe that, a moment ago, the silent block had been bellowing the name of a freezer.
"A crazy advertising trick," Burckhardt said bitterly. He yawned and turned away from the window. "Might as well get dressed. I guess that's the end of--"
The bellow caught him from behind; it was almost like a hard slap on the ears. A harsh, sneering voice, louder than the arch-angel's trumpet, howled: "Have you got a freezer? It stinks! If it isn't a Feckle Freezer, it stinks! If it's a last year's Feckle Freezer, it stinks! Only this year's Feckle Freezer is any good at all! You know who owns an Ajax Freezer? Fairies own Ajax Freezers! You know who owns a Triplecold Freezer? Commies own Triplecold Freezers! Every freezer but a brand-new Feckle Freezer stinks!"
The voice screamed inarticulately with rage. "I'm warning you! Get out and buy a Feckle Freezer right away! Hurry up! Hurry for Feckle! Hurry for Feckle! Hurry, hurry, hurry, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle...."
It stopped eventually. Burckhardt licked his lips. He started to say to his wife, "Maybe we ought to call the police about--" when the speakers erupted again. It caught him off guard; it was intended to catch him off guard. It screamed: "Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle. Cheap freezers ruin your food. You'll get sick and throw up. You'll get sick and die. Buy a Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle! Ever take a piece of meat out of the freezer you've got and see how rotten and moldy it is? Buy a Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle, Feckle. Do you want to eat rotten, stinking food? Or do you want to wise up and buy a Feckle, Feckle, Feckle--"
That did it. With fingers that kept stabbing the wrong holes, Burckhardt finally managed to dial the local police station. He got a busy signal--it was apparent that he was not the only one with the same idea--and while he was shakingly dialing again, the noise outside stopped.
He looked out the window. The truck was gone.
Burckhardt loosened his tie and ordered another Frosty-Flip from the waiter. If only they wouldn't keep the Crystal Cafe so hot! The new paint job--searing reds and blinding yellows--was bad enough, but someone seemed to have the delusion that this was January instead of June; the place was a good ten degrees warmer than outside.
He swallowed the Frosty-Flip in two gulps. It had a kind of peculiar flavor, he thought, but not bad. It certainly cooled you off, just as the waiter had promised. He reminded himself to pick up a carton of them on the way home; Mary might like them. She was always interested in something new.
He stood up awkwardly as the girl came across the restaurant toward him. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in Tylerton. Chin-height, honey-blonde hair and a figure that--well, it was all hers. There was no doubt in the world that the dress that clung to her was the only thing she wore. He felt as if he were blushing as she greeted him.
"Mr. Burckhardt." The voice was like distant tomtoms. "It's wonderful of you to let me see you, after this morning."
He cleared his throat. "Not at all. Won't you sit down, Miss--"
"April Horn," she murmured, sitting down--beside him, not where he had pointed on the other side of the table. "Call me April, won't you?"
She was wearing some kind of perfume, Burckhardt noted with what little of his mind was functioning at all. It didn't seem fair that she should be using perfume as well as everything else. He came to with a start and realized that the waiter was leaving with an order for filets mignon for two.
"Hey!" he objected.
"Please, Mr. Burckhardt." Her shoulder was against his, her face was turned to him, her breath was warm, her expression was tender and solicitous. "This is all on the Feckle Corporation. Please let them--it's the least they can do."
He felt her hand burrowing into his pocket.
"I put the price of the meal into your pocket," she whispered conspiratorially. "Please do that for me, won't you? I mean I'd appreciate it if you'd pay the waiter--I'm old-fashioned about things like that."
She smiled meltingly, then became mock-businesslike. "But you must take the money," she insisted. "Why, you're letting Feckle off lightly if you do! You could sue them for every nickel they've got, disturbing your sleep like that."
With a dizzy feeling, as though he had just seen someone make a rabbit disappear into a top hat, he said, "Why, it really wasn't so bad, uh, April. A little noisy, maybe, but--"
"Oh, Mr. Burckhardt!" The blue eyes were wide and admiring. "I knew you'd understand. It's just that--well, it's such a wonderful freezer that some of the outside men get carried away, so to speak. As soon as the main office found out about what happened, they sent representatives around to every house on the block to apologize. Your wife told us where we could phone you--and I'm so very pleased that you were willing to let me have lunch with you, so that I could apologize, too. Because truly, Mr. Burckhardt, it is a fine freezer.
"I shouldn't tell you this, but--" the blue eyes were shyly lowered--"I'd do almost anything for Feckle Freezers. It's more than a job to me." She looked up. She was enchanting. "I bet you think I'm silly, don't you?"
Burckhardt coughed. "Well, I--"
"Oh, you don't want to be unkind!" She shook her head. "No, don't pretend. You think it's silly. But really, Mr. Burckhardt, you wouldn't think so if you knew more about the Feckle. Let me show you this little booklet--"
Burckhardt got back from lunch a full hour late. It wasn't only the girl who delayed him. There had been a curious interview with a little man named Swanson, whom he barely knew, who had stopped him with desperate urgency on the street--and then left him cold.
But it didn't matter much. Mr. Barth, for the first time since Burckhardt had worked there, was out for the day--leaving Burckhardt stuck with the quarterly tax returns.
What did matter, though, was that somehow he had signed a purchase order for a twelve-cubic-foot Feckle Freezer, upright model, self-defrosting, list price $625, with a ten per cent "courtesy" discount--"Because of that horrid affair this morning, Mr. Burckhardt," she had said.
And he wasn't sure how he could explain it to his wife.
He needn't have worried. As he walked in the front door, his wife said almost immediately, "I wonder if we can't afford a new freezer, dear. There was a man here to apologize about that noise and--well, we got to talking and--"
She had signed a purchase order, too.
It had been the damnedest day, Burckhardt thought later, on his way up to bed. But the day wasn't done with him yet. At the head of the stairs, the weakened spring in the electric light switch refused to click at all. He snapped it back and forth angrily and, of course, succeeded in jarring the tumbler out of its pins. The wires shorted and every light in the house went out.
"Damn!" said Guy Burckhardt.
"Fuse?" His wife shrugged sleepily. "Let it go till the morning, dear."
Burckhardt shook his head. "You go back to bed. I'll be right along."
It wasn't so much that he cared about fixing the fuse, but he was too restless for sleep. He disconnected the bad switch with a screwdriver, stumbled down into the black kitchen, found the flashlight and climbed gingerly down the cellar stairs. He located a spare fuse, pushed an empty trunk over to the fuse box to stand on and twisted out the old fuse.
When the new one was in, he heard the starting click and steady drone of the refrigerator in the kitchen overhead.
He headed back to the steps, and stopped.
Where the old trunk had been, the cellar floor gleamed oddly bright. He inspected it in the flashlight beam. It was metal!
"Son of a gun," said Guy Burckhardt. He shook his head unbelievingly. He peered closer, rubbed the edges of the metallic patch with his thumb and acquired an annoying cut--the edges were sharp.
The stained cement floor of the cellar was a thin shell. He found a hammer and cracked it off in a dozen spots--everywhere was metal.
The whole cellar was a copper box. Even the cement-brick walls were false fronts over a metal sheath!
Baffled, he attacked one of the foundation beams. That, at least, was real wood. The glass in the cellar windows was real glass.
He sucked his bleeding thumb and tried the base of the cellar stairs. Real wood. He chipped at the bricks under the oil burner. Real bricks. The retaining walls, the floor--they were faked.
It was as though someone had shored up the house with a frame of metal and then laboriously concealed the evidence.
The biggest surprise was the upside-down boat hull that blocked the rear half of the cellar, relic of a brief home workshop period that Burckhardt had gone through a couple of years before. From above, it looked perfectly normal. Inside, though, where there should have been thwarts and seats and lockers, there was a mere tangle of braces, rough and unfinished.
"But I built that!" Burckhardt exclaimed, forgetting his thumb. He leaned against the hull dizzily, trying to think this thing through. For reasons beyond his comprehension, someone had taken his boat and his cellar away, maybe his whole house, and replaced them with a clever mock-up of the real thing.
"That's crazy," he said to the empty cellar. He stared around in the light of the flash. He whispered, "What in the name of Heaven would anybody do that for?"
Reason refused an answer; there wasn't any reasonable answer. For long minutes, Burckhardt contemplated the uncertain picture of his own sanity.
He peered under the boat again, hoping to reassure himself that it was a mistake, just his imagination. But the sloppy, unfinished bracing was unchanged. He crawled under for a better look, feeling the rough wood incredulously. Utterly impossible!
He switched off the flashlight and started to wriggle out. But he didn't make it. In the moment between the command to his legs to move and the crawling out, he felt a sudden draining weariness flooding through him.
Consciousness went--not easily, but as though it were being taken away, and Guy Burckhardt was asleep.
On the morning of June 16th, Guy Burckhardt woke up in a cramped position huddled under the hull of the boat in his basement--and raced upstairs to find it was June 15th.
The first thing he had done was to make a frantic, hasty inspection of the boat hull, the faked cellar floor, the imitation stone. They were all as he had remembered them--all completely unbelievable.
The kitchen was its placid, unexciting self. The electric clock was purring soberly around the dial. Almost six o'clock, it said. His wife would be waking at any moment.
Burckhardt flung open the front door and stared out into the quiet street. The morning paper was tossed carelessly against the steps--and as he retrieved it, he noticed that this was the 15th day of June.
But that was impossible. Yesterday was the 15th of June. It was not a date one would forget--it was quarterly tax-return day.
He went back into the hall and picked up the telephone; he dialed for Weather Information, and got a well-modulated chant: "--and cooler, some showers. Barometric pressure thirty point zero four, rising ... United States Weather Bureau forecast for June 15th. Warm and sunny, with high around--"
He hung the phone up. June 15th.
"Holy heaven!" Burckhardt said prayerfully. Things were very odd indeed. He heard the ring of his wife's alarm and bounded up the stairs.
Mary Burckhardt was sitting upright in bed with the terrified, uncomprehending stare of someone just waking out of a nightmare.
"Oh!" she gasped, as her husband came in the room. "Darling, I just had the most terrible dream! It was like an explosion and--"
"Again?" Burckhardt asked, not very sympathetically. "Mary, something's funny! I knew there was something wrong all day yesterday and--"
He went on to tell her about the copper box that was the cellar, and the odd mock-up someone had made of his boat. Mary looked astonished, then alarmed, then placatory and uneasy.
She said, "Dear, are you sure? Because I was cleaning that old trunk out just last week and I didn't notice anything."
"Positive!" said Guy Burckhardt. "I dragged it over to the wall to step on it to put a new fuse in after we blew the lights out and--"