Strange Things or the Amazing Mr. Peal and His Middle-aged Sidekick, Gilbert

by Steven Cuffari

1

Gilbert came to work one Monday morning early as usual and said hello to Bernice, the security guard, as he had for the past 20 years.

“Hi, Gilbert. Did you have a nice weekend?” She smiled at him.

He stopped and smiled back at her. “I did. Thank you. And yours?”

“It was good. Thank you, Gilbert.”

He nodded and waved back at her. “See you later.”

He went to the coffee room and was startled by Ashe, the museum curator, who was just standing there quietly sipping his coffee.

Ashe looked at the time. “You’re late.”

Gilbert was never late. “It’s 8:55.”

“Not by my watch. Anyway, we moved the Pre-Colombian exhibit out of your section.”

“What? Why?” It had been there since for almost 20 years, for as long as he could remember.

“Here.” He handed a piece of paper Gilbert. “Just read it.” And he left.

Gilbert wanted to tell him off, but he didn’t want to lose his job. He loved it, but Ashe made him want to quit almost every day. As a relatively new manager there, nobody really liked him. He had a vapid, nasty personality.

Gilbert sighed and made himself a coffee. When it was finished spurtling out into the white plastic cup, he added milk and chugged it. Here we go, he thought and went to his post.

At first, he was disappointed at the loss of his comfortable and familiar environment. He used to enjoy wandering through it when it was slow, dense with mysterious, centuries-old artifacts that seemed almost alien. But when he saw the new one, he couldn’t help but let it draw him in. It was somewhat experimental and eclectic. It had a marble sphinx from ancient Egypt, a portrait of a 12th century Mediterranean merchant, a rothkoesque painting of colored shapes, an installation made from balls of yarn and tin wires, and a small black obelisk.

The day proceeded like any other. Each time a visitor came in, he clicked his counter once. When there were guests in the room, he remained at his post. From there, he could see every piece without having to move. Whenever he was alone, he walked around the exhibit and examined the pieces more closely, enjoying the solitude.

At the end of the day, after the museum had closed and each art guard had cleared their section of visitors, Ashe arrived to get the number from Gilbert’s section. “So, how many?” he asked without making eye contact.

He said nothing, only sighed and showed Ashe his counter.

Ashe looked at his watch and wrote down the number.

Gilbert wanted to say something to him, confront him. He wanted to make him feel the same way that he made others feel. He wondered if he knew exactly how badly he was perceived. But before Gilbert could formulate a phrase, Ashe had left without saying another word.

Gilbert sighed again and went around to each of the displays and turned off the lights above their placards. It was one of the more solemn times of the day. He always felt that he was saying good night to the exhibition pieces. This time, however, was slightly different. Since the pieces were new to him, he lingered for a while at each one. As he peered at the glinting hilt of the medieval Arab sword, he was alarmed to see a small man emerge from behind the head of Jean le Baptiste.

He was carrying a worn leather briefcase and was dressed in brownish green tweeds, a dusty-looking hat and wire-framed glasses. He seemed to pay no attention to Gilbert.

I must be slipping, he thought. He realized that the man must have snuck in. He seemed blurry, and at the same time, appeared to have a border around his edges, separating him from the rest of the room. It was as if he were superimposed over his own silhouette, had he been two-dimensional. Like a cardboard cut-out.

At first, Gilbert thought his own vision was to blame. He rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t help. He decided that it didn’t matter and walked over to the hazy, flickering man.

It seemed to Gilbert that he was evading him.

He made a sharp turn around the Etruscan vase, and Gilbert called out to him.

“Excuse me! How did you get in here?” With no answer, Gilbert gave chase, but just as he thought he was catching up to the man, he disappeared. “What the f…” Confused, he frantically searched for him. He had completely vanished. Finally, Gilbert scratched his head, gave up and went home.

2

When he arrived at the museum the next day, he spoke to Bernice, got some coffee, and took his post. He clicked his counter with each visitor, like yesterday, and in between, he walked through exhibit and studied the artifacts. He had nearly forgotten about the strange old man.

It was a good day, almost completely free of contact with Ashe. At the end of the day, Ashe came in to collect his number. Gilbert thought again about finally telling him off. But he didn’t.

When Ashe left, he began to turn off the placard lights. This time, he stopped at the marble sphinx, by far his favorite item, and stared at it, resisting the temptation to touch it. Its combination of smooth and rough surfaces bespoke an ancient resilience. When he turned to the 18th century ferret-fur hat, he was startled by the strange man from yesterday. He was only a couple of yards away, peering at a medieval chalice, a relic from the crusades. He nudged his glasses a bit as he examined it. He was dressed like before, carrying a briefcase.

Gilbert was angered seeing him again. He wasn’t a proud man, but he took pride in doing his job right. It was his mistake, his responsibility. So he walked straight over to him.

“Excuse me sir,” he said.

The man ignored him.

Gilbert kept his anger from showing on his face. “Excuse me sir,” he said again but this time waving a hand in front of his face.

The man realized that Gilbert was talking to him, but he seemed confused. “Oh… Hello, young man! I wasn’t sure that you could see me. I’m so happy that you can! I’m Mr. Peal.” He reached out his hand, ecstatic. “What’s your name?”

Gilbert didn’t want to shake the man’s hand, but he did anyway. There was something about his friendliness that made Gilbert unconsciously like him. “My name is Gilbert. But what do you mean you weren’t sure that I could see you?”

Mr. Peal moved his eyes thoughtfully searching for an answer. “I don’t know how exactly to put it. You’re the first person I have spoken to in some time.”

“The museum is closed now,” Gilbert continued. He sensed that there was something off about him. “You shouldn’t be here. This is the second time I’ve seen you after closing.”

Mr. Peal continued to ponder his answer while Gilbert waited patiently, hiding his frustration. “I might as well tell you. There’s no reason not to really. And since you can see me, you might even be able to help me.”

Mr. Peal pulled out what looked like a smartphone. “I used to be a history professor, but now I am, for lack of better word, what you might call, an explorer. And I use this device to travel through time and space.”

Gilbert looked at him for a moment in befuddled amazement. “Ooo-kaay. Time to go,” he said turning away to leave and waving for him to follow. This one’s certified, he thought.

“I had a feeling you wouldn’t believe me. But if you let me stick around for a few minutes, you’ll see for yourself.”

“Come on now, it’s late,” Gilbert said frowning. He shook his head and turned back to Mr. Peal. “You’re going to have to leave.” When he turned around, Mr. Peal was gone. He just vanished. Gilbert again frantically searched for him.

Maybe I’m the crazy one, he thought. Finally, he left the museum scratching his head once again.

3

The next morning. Bernice. Coffee. Post.

Mr. Peal was waiting for him when he got there. He was somber. “Hello Gilbert.”

Gilbert was surprised to see him during the day and had a knee-jerk reaction. “Now I’ve got you!” Gilbert shouted. “Just stay right there!” He pulled out his cell phone and started dialing the police.

“Don’t do that Gilbert. You’re just going to make a fool out of yourself,” said Mr. Peal. “I just need you to listen to me.”

“No, no, no. This time I’ve got you! Don’t try that invisible disappearing thing again. I’m warning you!”

Ashe came in after hearing the noise.

“Gilbert!” he whispered. “What is wrong with you?”

Gilbert looked at Mr. Peal and then back to Ashe. “I caught him. This man has been sneaking in here for the past two days.”

Ashe looked over at Mr. Peal and then back to Gilbert. “What are you talking about, Gilbert? Caught who? You’re the only one here.”

Mr. Peal tilted his head and said, “I told you. You’re just going to make a fool of yourself.”

“Are you feeling okay, Gilbert? Don’t tell me you’re sick. That’s just what I need right now.”

Gilbert looked at Mr. Peal and shook his head. He hung up the call again, just as the police answered. “I’m fine,” he said to Ashe. “It’s nothing.”

Ashe gave Gilbert a dirty look and left without saying anything more. His dislike of Ashe was momentarily dwarfed by his amazement at Mr. Peal.

Gilbert continued to stare at Mr. Peal until he felt that he had the right words to say.

Mr. Peal stared back. He was serious.

Gilbert sighed and crossed his arms. “Alright, fine. I’m listening.”

“I haven’t told you everything.”

“What is it? You’re not actually from another dimension?” Gilbert said, trying to keep his skeptical side awake.

“I know that you don’t want to admit that you believe me, but I know you do,” Mr. Peal said. “You’ve seen enough to know you can’t deny it. I’m not just an explorer. I’m lost. Stuck, rather.” Mr. Peal paced for a moment before he continued. “I used to think that my brother, Ben Peal, was a great scientist. But now I know that he is greater than anyone ever knew. He died when I was 19 when he was 34. Soon after he died, I realized that I hadn’t really known him at all.”

“He had left the majority of his money to charity and gave some to his friends and family. To me, he left his house and his laboratory in the basement. In the will, he said that I could do whatever I wanted with the house, but that I should have everything in the basement destroyed. I would have done what he wished if he hadn’t written the next line. He said, ‘No good could come of it.’ It rattled my curiosity so much that I moved into the house right away. When I first arrived, the door to the basement had several locks on it. It took me hours to find all the keys. I thought about taking the door off its hinges, but in those days I wasn’t very handy. The lab was filled with large stacks of paper and clunky-looking machinery. That’s when I found this.”

Mr. Peal held up the smartphone-looking device to Gilbert. “I spent days reading through my brother’s logs and papers. The work he had been doing, from what I could understand, was way ahead of its time. I soon found out that his work in electromagnetism had lead him to theoretical research in interdimensional time travel, most of which was illegal, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

Gilbert was involuntarily getting sucked in. “That’s quite a detailed story,” he said. “But they’re just words. And besides, what does that have to do with me?”

“Well, my problem is that the device has run out of power and I’m stuck.” Mr. Peal knew how crazy it all sounded and waited for Gilbert to deny him once again.

“Stuck? What do you mean stuck?”

“In between dimensions. You see, the device, it changes you. My brother warned me against it. His notes warned me too. But I didn’t listen. Now, I am stuck. Without a working device, I can’t free myself from this prison.”

“So, how can I help you? I don’t understand.”

“Like I said yesterday, you are the only one that can see me. I’ve been stuck like this for months and you are the first person to see me. All I need you to do is find a battery that can fit this. Before it’s too late. Will you help me?” he asked.

Gilbert could see that he was distraught, and although it was his instinct to avoid trouble, he knew that what he was being asked to do was nothing extraordinary and that he had nothing to lose. “Okay. I’ll help you. But on one condition.”

Mr. Peal’s face brightened. “Anything,” he said.

“When I find the battery and show you that your device is just a piece of junk, you’ll admit to me that this is just a story you made up, and you’ll tell me the truth.”

Mr. Peal smiled, thought about it and put out his hand. “It’s a deal,” he said.

Gilbert shook it. “Let’s get this over with.”

“You must take the device, now, before I disappear. Here.” He gave it to him in a black leather pouch. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this will help me.”

He opened the pouch and examined the device. “No problem,” he said. But when he looked up, Mr. Peal was gone.

4

The next day at the museum, Gilbert passed by Bernice, said hello, got some coffee and walked to his post. On the way, he passed Ashe who said something to him, but ignored it. Gilbert was on a mission. In fact, he had completed his mission. He had found a battery for the device yesterday after work. He had been surprised how easy it had been. He took his post and patiently waited for Mr. Peal to return.

Gilbert spent the day clicking his counter with each visitor and became worried when the museum closed and there was no sign of Mr. Peal.

Ashe came to get his number and Gilbert ignored him again. “You’ve been acting very strangely lately. Is everything okay?”

He moaned an affirmative and kept waiting for Mr. Peal.

Ashe eyeballed Gilbert and shook his head. “Just finish up here and go.” He muttered something on his way out.

Just as Ashe left, Gilbert saw Mr. Peal appear by the trophy head display. “Finally!”

“I’m sorry Gilbert, but you know I can’t control it. I told you.”

Gilbert smiled and handed back the leather pouch to Mr. Peal.

“Well, did you find it?”

Gilbert nodded and pulled the battery from his pocket. “I did.”

“Oh, Gilbert! Thank you!” Mr. Peal fumbled with the device until he got the battery in. He stared at it in silence.

Gilbert smiled and waited while nothing happened.

“I guess it takes a minute to activate.” Soon, a red LED lit up and it beeped. Mr. Peal jumped up in excitement. He grabbed Gilbert and embraced him, dancing around. “I’m free!”

“Okay, okay.” Gilbert grabbed Mr. Peal and held him steady. “I’ve done my part, now you do yours. Tell me the truth.”

Mr. Peal smiled wickedly. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll show you. Take my hand.”

Gilbert sighed. “Okay, whatever you…” And in the next moment they were no longer in the museum. Instead, they were in what appeared to be a garden. It was surrounded by arches and ionic columns with a fountain in the center. “What the fuck!” he shouted. He tried to move, but was too dizzy.

Mr. Peal helped him to sit on a stone bench.

“Where are we?” said Gilbert.

“This is ancient Rome, my friend. My favorite place to be. In any dimension!”

“What? What? No. No. That doesn’t make any sense. Really where are we? I feel drunk.”

“That’s the device. It hurts the first time, but you get used to it. This, Gilbert, is my home!”

“I’m going to vomit. Take me back. Please.” He dry heaved.

“Yes, yes of course.”

In the next moment, they were back in the museum.

“That was…” Gilbert began to regain his balance.

“Amazing?”

“Unbelievable.”

“I’m sorry Gilbert. I have to say that I never had any intention of fulfilling my part of our bargain. As you have probably realized. It’s not just a story. It’s the truth.”

“I can’t believe it. It’s really true. But how? I don’t understand.”

“You saw it with your own eyes. It’s real. Don’t question it so much. It’s easier that way.”

“But it must be some kind of trick. It’s impossible. No, wait. Wait. Let’s go back. I have to see that again!”

They went back to Mr. Peal’s villa in Rome and enjoyed the ancient courtyard.

“It’s so beautiful here. I never thought I would go to Rome, let alone actual Rome!”

“I know. It’s a great thing. A great gift from my brother.”

“Why did he want you to destroy it? What harm could come of it? Other than being stuck I mean?”

“That, Gilbert, is another story. One I myself have learned about the hard way. The device doesn’t only change you. If you use it too much, you can also become addicted to its power. Some people can’t handle it.”

“What? What other people? What do you mean?”

Mr. Peal realized that he had let something slip and tried to change the subject. “Never mind. Let’s just say, in my case, I realized that I was abusing it. Imagine having a private jet that can take you anywhere in the world. But this jet can travel through time.”

“I would go everywhere,” Gilbert said.

“Exactly. But it takes a toll on you. And I’m still not sure how much.”

“You said that some people can’t handle it. What people? Are there others?”

Mr. Peal hung his head and sighed. “I’m very tired. How about I come to see you tomorrow and tell you all about it?”

“I understand. That sounds great.”

Mr. Peal smiled at Gilbert. “I have to change out of these clothes. They’re quite dirty.” He glanced at their surroundings. “And not very appropriate.” With a few presses on the device, they were back in the museum.

“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Gilbert.

Mr. Peal smiled and nodded. “Goodbye, Gilbert.” The expression on his face had a finality to it that Gilbert didn’t understand. He went home that night, believing that he would see his new friend again.

5

 The next day, Gilbert arrived at the museum and went through the motions. He cared more about his meeting with Mr. Peal than work. He went to his post and ignored Ashe once again. This time Ashe got angry at the snub, but didn’t say anything.

Gilbert got to his post and patiently waited for his friend. Clicking his counter with every visitor, Gilbert waited until the museum closed. Mr. Peal didn’t show up.

Finally Ashe came in and Gilbert showed him his counter.

“Thank you Gilbert, but we need to talk. I can get your number in a moment.”

Gilbert was confused. Ashe never wanted to talk. “What is it?” he asked.

“Well, frankly, it’s your attitude recently.”

Gilbert couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As he listened, he became sad with the realization that Mr. Peal never intended to come back. There was something he had been hiding. He had noticed yesterday, but hadn’t been sure. Now he was.

“You’re coming up for review soon, and I just wanted to make sure that you understood, how badly–”

“Review?” Gilbert interrupted.

“Yes, your review. I have to say it’s not going to be very good this year. Your performance–”

“Review? Do you want to hear a review, Ashe? I am the best employee here. I’ve been here longer than anyone, and I should get some kind of prize for putting up with you. And you, you are a steaming pile of shit. Go fuck yourself. I quit.” He dropped the counter at Ashe’s feet and walked out.

Ashe was speechless.

On his way out, he passed Bernice. “Goodbye,” he said.

“It’s about time!” she replied. “Good luck Gilbert!”

6

A few months later, Gilbert had settled into his new life. He enrolled in a history program and got a part time job at a café. He was happy, but there wasn’t a day that passed that he didn’t wonder about what could have been.

One day, he was making cappuccinos when he turned around and was surprised by Mr. Peal standing at the counter.

“I was expecting you sooner,” Gilbert said.

Mr. Peal pursed his lips and nodded. “I apologize for that. I really thought it would be for your own good if I never came back.”

“Oh really? So then what are you doing here?”

“I need your help again.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Gilbert.

“To tell you the truth, I haven’t been honest with you since the beginning.”

“I realize that now.”

“Well, when we first met, I told you that I was stuck. That was true. But that wasn’t my worst problem.”

“There’s something worse than being stuck between dimensions?”

“Yes. Someone is after me. He is obsessed and will stop at nothing to get to me. I thought that once I was unstuck, I would be able to escape him. I was wrong.”

Gilbert nodded as he listened. “So there are others…”

“Yes, there are. I can’t do this alone. Will you help me again, friend? I need you now more than ever.” He put out his hand to Gilbert.

Gilbert paused and then spoke. “I don’t know. I’ve got a new life now. I can’t just abandon it on a whim. I need to know more.”

Mr. Peal smiled, but behind it there was a desperation. He was about to explain everything when Gilbert took his hand and shook it vigorously. “Nevermind. Why don’t you just show me?” He smiled widely. “Let’s go.”

Mr. Peal smiled back at him, ecstatic. “I had a feeling you’d say that,” he replied. Then he pulled out the device from his tweed jacket, pressed a few buttons and instantly, they disappeared.

THE END