I'm telling you, I just can't take this anymore," Tommy Clay said to his girlfriend Becky from his hiding place under the soda-mixing vats.
Tommy liked to sneak off here for at least an hour every day in order to call Becky. It made it easier to cope with his job, which was to sweep the spiderwebs out of the exhaust vents at Mr. Cod's Miracle Cola Plant #3. It was hot and sticky work, and sometimes he even had to scrunch his tiny body into the vents themselves to get at the faraway webs, and that always made his shoulders hurt and his clothes smell like old molasses. But his tiny body also let him crawl under the vats to hide, which was nice. It smelled like fresh lemons down there, and the throb of the mixers was soothing, like a heartbeat.
"You should quit," said Becky. "You should put your resume together and go out looking for jobs. You could start playing music again, or maybe work in a nice office as a data clerk."
"I don't understand why you're so critical of me," Tommy said. "I'm trying to get ready to do those things. But I can't believe in myself and do them when you act so critical to me. It would help me a lot if you paid me a compliment."
"I'm sorry, Tommy," said Becky. "You're very well-meaning, and an honest person. You deserve better than they're giving you."
"That's right," said Tommy. "They're mean to me."
"They sure are," said Becky. "You deserve a raise, at the very least."
"I do!" said Tommy. "It's so funny that you say that, because I was thinking the exact same thing."
"You should ask them for a raise," said Becky. "Today."
"I will," said Tommy, nodding furiously.
"I'm very proud of you," said Becky. "Now I have to go."
"Wait," pleaded Tommy. But Becky had already hung up.
Tommy stayed under the vat for ten minutes, thinking about how many wrongs the Miracle Cola corporation had done him and how good a worker he really was. He stroked his long, ragged mustache as he thought. It helped to focus him.
Then, his mind made up, he wriggled out from under the soda vats, brushed the sticky white dirt off of his purple slacks, and marched off toward the plant offices with a righteous fury in his tiny heart.
Mr. Cod's secretary Posey was blowing her nose into a lace handkerchief. Tommy always thought that she was very attractive with her wide mouth and her watery eyes and her stringy red hair. But now her makeup was running and she looked not very attractive at all.
"What's wrong, Posey?" he asked. "You look kind of blue."
"My--my brother," she said. "He was killed."
Tommy raised his eyebrows and stroked his mustache again.
"No shit," he said. "Did he die in a car crash or something?"
Posey shook her head.
"He was--murdered," she said. "By the serial killer, in the papers."
"That's horrible," said Tommy. "I guess we're both having bad days. Do you know how many times I had to climb up the exhaust pipes today?"
"No," said Posey.
"Three times," said Tommy. "Almost four. I can't stand this anymore. That's why I'm here to ask for a raise. Don't you think that's a good idea?"
"Yes," said Posey. "That is a good idea."
"But what if it's not a good idea?" asked Tommy. "Maybe they would interpret it as me being demanding. I wouldn't want that."
Posey shook her head.
"No, it's a good idea," she said, her voice breaking. "You should ask for a raise. Really."
Tommy stroked his mustache, then smiled.
"I guess I will," he said. "You talked me in to it. Is Mr. Cod in?"
"I don't know," said Posey, eyes watering again. "Sure."
"Great," said Tommy. "I hope your brother gets better!"
He walked to Mr. Cod's door and went in while Posey dug in her desk for a fresh handkerchief.
Mr. Cod was a squat, bald man with a white goatee that did not hide his monstrous lower lip. He was putting on his leather jacket and his ball cap.
"What can I do for you, young man?" he grumped as Tommy came in. "It'll have to be quick. I'm late for an important appointment."
Tommy closed the door behind him and put his hands on his hips.
"Mr. Cod, I want a raise," he said in a proud, big voice.
Mr. Cod rolled his lower lip. Tommy thought he looked mean.
"A raise," he said. "What have you done to deserve a raise?"
"You've been mean to me," Tommy said.
Mr. Cod's lower lip rolled further.
"I'm a good worker," Tommy continued. "I'm the best worker. You should give me a raise, because I deserve it, and because it would inspire me to work even harder."
He took his hands off his hips. Mr. Cod waited.
"Is that your only reason?" he asked.
"I don't understand what you mean," he said. "You have to explain yourself better."
Suddenly Mr. Cod's lip stretched into a great pink smile. He didn't look so mean now. He must be a friendly person after all.
"I see your point," said Mr. Cod. "You're a very singular young man. But let me explain the situation to you."
"I don't have the money," said Mr. Cod. "Not to pay you more for the job you're doing."
"Mr. Cod, that's unacceptable," said Tommy.
"I know, I know," said Mr. Cod, putting up an apologetic hand. "I know it is. So I'll tell you what we'll do. I have another job. A job for my best workers, like you. A job that pays--nine dollars an hour."
Tommy's eyes got big again.
"Does that sound good to you, young man?" smiled Mr. Cod.
It sure did. So Mr. Cod rolled back the file cabinet in his office, wheezing a little as he did it. Behind it was a gigantic vault door. Mr. Cod turned the combination dials with a tap-dancing ratchet sound, then pulled the door wide with a vacuum hiss. He and Tommy descended a long iron staircase that went deep into the dark brick foundations of the plant. At the bottom of it was another door. It led to a tiny room completely filled with glass bottles the size and shape of inkwells. An Erlenmeyer flask and a Bunsen burner were the room's only decorations, along with a lightning plate inexpertly hammered into the brick wall.
"Gosh," said Tommy. "It looks like a future movie in here."
"Very astute," said Mr. Cod. "Because it's here that the future of Miracle Cola is made."
He gestured to the bottles on the walls. Each was labeled in a scratchy, cramped hand and stopped with a cork.
"These are all of my secret formulas," he said. "I use all mixes of ingredients, from astral spices to zephyr eggs. And of course carbonated water. I create many things, young man. Many great-souled things. But no creator can ever really know whether his creations are successful. Unless someone is there--to test them."
Tommy stroked his mustache.
"And that's me," he finally said.
Mr. Cod clapped him on the shoulder.
"You're a good man," he said. "I've got to get to my appointment now. Start testing immediately. I'll be back to let you out of here tomorrow morning."
"So I'll get overtime," Tommy said.
"I can see I'm going to have to watch myself around you," Mr. Cod smiled. "Don't let me down, young man."
"I won't," chirped Tommy. But Mr. Cod was already gone, shuffling and clanking up the iron stairs. Somewhere far above, the heavy vault door slammed and locked.
Tommy looked around at the tiny bottles. There seemed to be a lot more of them now than there had been earlier. They all watched him like mute glass soldiers. He clapped his hands together.
"Time to get to work," he announced.
He picked up one of the bottles. It was ruby-colored and labeled something like "Tendonmint Variant 6 -- Cherry." He uncorked it and he poured it down his throat.
It tasted like wet ashes with a hint of cherries and an aftertaste of old bacon. He quickly ran into the corner and threw up. The salad he had eaten at lunch glistened up at him, pale semi-digested arugula in a pearly sheen of acid. He wiped his mouth and decided that he was not going to give that one a good rating.
But had Mr. Cod actually explained to him how to rate the formulas and report on them? There were still thousands of bottles along the walls, watching him. Was he just supposed to remember how they all tasted and tell Mr. Cod about them when he came back to let Tommy out of the vault in the morning? That was a really long time from now and he didn't know if he would remember them all. He didn't want to drink any more, actually, or to get sick again.
He would call Becky and ask her what to do. His pants seemed a little bit tighter than he remembered as he fished his phone out. The soda was probably making him fat, and his phone had no reception down here, and he wished, oh how he wished Mr. Cod would give him his old job back. He didn't deserve this kind of job at all.
He tried to put his phone back in his pocket, but suddenly his hand wouldn't quite fit. His phone looked much smaller, too, only as big as his middle finger. Now it was only as big as his pinky. He blinked at it and tried to rub his eyes with his other hand. Maybe his phone was getting smaller. Or maybe--
It hurt a lot when his swiftly expanding shoulders smashed through the first layer of brick that shored up the basement. It hurt a lot less when they smashed through the second layer, then through the ceiling of Mr. Cod's Miracle Cola Plant #3. His bones and muscles must have been growing stronger and more solid as the rest of him grew. Unfortunately, his clothes were not growing stronger or more solid, and they quickly tore and fell away. He was standing in the ruins of the Miracle Cola Plant, his old co-workers running and screaming around his gigantic bare feet, avoiding the falling machinery and the tidal spills from the upset soda vats. All of them could see his immaculately-manicured pubic hair.
"This is crazy," giggled Tommy.
And it sure was crazy, but he wasn't sure what he should do about it. And now his phone was too small for him to call Becky. Maybe if he could find it he could ask one of his co-workers if they could call her for him, but they all looked too busy to help him.
Then he got a good idea. His legs were a lot longer now, and it wouldn't take him much time at all to go visit Becky at her apartment. Then she could help him decide what to do.
It was pretty fun to walk across Queens and Brooklyn when he could see them from above. It was really easy to navigate, just like reading a map. He liked maps. And he liked the idea that all the girls he passed would have to look at him and his penis. He wondered if any girls he knew were looking at it. They were probably pretty excited if they were.
He thought of a good joke as he walked and he couldn't wait to tell it to Becky.
Becky lived in a high-rise in Gramercy. Tommy stood on Third Avenue, stroking his mustache and trying to figure out which window of the building was hers while the news vans and fire trucks swarmed around his feet. Fortunately, she saw him first. She came onto her fire escape wrapped in a bedsheet, her black, short hair rumpled.
"Hey, Becky!" Tommy smiled. "Why are you naked, too? That's weird, that we're both naked!"
Becky was hyperventilating.
"Tommy?" she asked. "What--what did they do to you?"
He put his hands on his hips. It was time for his joke.
"I guess I got that raise after all!" he said.
She didn't laugh. It was mean not to laugh, after he had spent so much time thinking of that joke. But that wasn't even the meanest thing of all.
"What's going on here, Rebecca," grumped Mr. Cod as he came to window. He was naked, too, and his lower lip was drooping even more than it usually did.
Tommy narrowed his eyes.
"That's what I want to know, too," he said.
Becky blushed and dropped her eyes. A news helicopter snapped a photo of her.
"You only gave me that job to get me out of the way," said Tommy. "So you could sleep with my girlfriend!"
"Who are you again?" asked Mr. Cod, squinting. Then he shouted and tried to run, but Tommy was too quick for him. He held him up like a grasshopper between his fingers.
"I didn't want to do this," said Tommy as he plucked off Mr. Cod's arms and legs one by one, then flicked his wailing, hollow-eyed head off with a quick flick of his middle finger. "But she's supposed to be helping me."
He was all ready to forgive Becky, but she was squatting on the fire escape, her hand clamped over her mouth, shaking and her eyes frozen in a stare at Mr. Cod's falling head. It scared Tommy to see her like that, so he quickly killed her too. He did it more humanely, of course, smushing her instantly between his finger and thumb. She left a little red blood mark, like a fly.
A SWAT team helicopter was coming from somewhere over Midtown.
"Excuse me, sir," said the SWAT captain through a bullhorn. "We couldn't help but notice you kill two people there. Am I correct that their names were Elijah Cod III and Rebecca del Monte?"
"It was Mr. Cod," said Tommy sadly. "They were mean to me."
"Because if it was Elijah Cod III," continued the SWAT captain, "then I think New York owes you a big thank you. We were just coming here to arrest him. We have proof that he was the serial killer in all the papers. And I'll just bet that your little girlfriend was his partner in crime."
Tommy stroked his mustache.
"So--you're saying I'm a hero?" he asked.
"The biggest hero New York has ever known," chuckled the SWAT captain.
They even gave him a special medal. They used an industrial-grade winch chain for the loop around his neck and they tied the key to the city to it with a little green string. Then they used a construction crane to put it around his neck with two helicopters as spotters. It sure felt good to be standing there with the key to the city around his neck and everyone below him like little ants, applauding him and his penis. Now this was what he deserved. And he didn't even need Becky's help at all.
His neck felt tight, and then it swelled so much that the chain snapped off. He shook his head as he watched the links fall, smashing into the buildings and people far below.
"Jesus," he said. "You people are so incompetent. I don't even want to deal with you any more."
And he never had to, because he just kept on growing. Soon he was too big to fit in the city, then he was too big to fit on the continent. One last deep breath filled his lungs with the entire atmosphere, killing everyone on the planet, but at least he would live. He went around gobbling up atmospheres for a while once he got so big that the Earth's gravitational field would no longer hold him and he went tumbling into the infinite void. It was kind of nice being in free fall, like floating in an endless bath. He thought about how aliens must be watching him with their crooked silver telescopes and how much they must love him.
He was stroking his mustache and thinking about this when he finally grew so large that he occupied the entire universe. All thermodynamic motion stopped with a lurch and the cosmos died a quick heat death.
And then there was nothing but Tommy Clay, smiling and content and filling up everything.
BIO: John Thornton lives and writes in Queens, New York. His writing has appeared in Night Train, Word Riot, the Santa Clara Review and other places. He's also a member of the notorious Fiction Circus literary group and a toiler in the night for Seven Stories Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.