When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store—but not that one—slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line…
Nino Cipri’s Finna—available February 25th from Tor.com Publishing—is a rambunctious, touching story that blends all the horrors the multiverse has to offer with the everyday awfulness of low-wage work. We’re excited to share the excerpt below!
When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store—but not that one—slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.
To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.
The bus abandoned Ava on the outskirts of LitenVärld’s vast parking lot, nearly three-quarters of a mile from the doors. The box store stuck out like a giant square pimple on the landscape, which had been scraped into gently undulating drifts of snow by February’s wind. Ava marched grimly toward the exterior, painted a cheery sky-blue and sunflower-yellow. The parking lot was mostly empty; it was a Tuesday and the weather was shit. Who would want to go shopping today?
“Fucking Derek,” she muttered into the wind, cursing the coworker who’d called in sick. If the world were even the slightest bit fair, she’d be home in bed, alternating Netflix binges with long intermissions to listen to Florence and the Machine and actively feel like shit. That’s what she wanted from her days off: equal time to nourish her heartbreak and distract from it. That’s all she’d been doing since she broke up with Jules, three days before.
LitenVärld was the bastard offspring of more popular big box stores, hanging in the margins between home goods giants and minimalist furniture mavens. It compromised between clean Scandinavian design and bougie Americana by selling furnishings that displayed neither virtue. Instead of sections, the store ushered shoppers through an upsetting and uncoordinated procession of themed showrooms, which bounced from baroque to postmodern design. The showrooms sat next to each other uneasily, like habitats in a hyper-condensed zoo. Here was the habitat for the Pan-Asian Appropriating White Yoga Instructor, complete with tatami mats and a statue of Shiva; next to it huddled the Edgelord Rockabilly Dorm Room, with black leather futon and Quentin Tarantino posters.
Ava made her way to Her Majesty’s Romper Room, a princess-themed play area, which had a doorway to the break room and time clock. It gave Ava a headache if she paid too much attention as she walked through the store, even using the shortcuts only staff knew about. The best she could do was to shut off her peripheral vision and focus only on her goal.
Maybe Jules won’t show up today, Ava thought as she squeezed past the gaudy miniature throne. Ava had told Jules that she needed space, and had changed her schedule so that she wouldn’t have to see them at work. Jules had listened grimly, then shrugged and said, “I’m not going to fight over territory I don’t want to be in anyway. I hate that place.”
Ava wasn’t quite willing to hope that they’d gotten fired, but a generalized wish that Jules wouldn’t be at the store? That felt okay. They were already on their last excused absence for the quarter; maybe they’d just quit.
Ava clung to that thought—that Jules might not be at LitenVärld today—hating that it brought her so much comfort. She clocked in, dumped her stuff in her locker, and got ready to go out onto the floor. She would have had to come back here anyway on Tuesday. She could do this.
As she turned the corner out of the break room, Ava collided with her ex.
“Crap, sorry,” Jules said, sounding distracted. Then Jules caught sight of who they were talking to, and froze. “Ava? What are you doing here?”
Jules had brought the cold in with them, ice clinging to their jacket and the thin ends of their twists, melted snow coursing down their brown skin. They smelled like wet wool and Old Spice, which had always been improbably attractive. Ava backed out of the danger zone, back into the smell of stale coffee and ancient crusts of food splatter from the microwave that emanated from all break rooms.
“I got called in,” Ava said. “Fucking Derek is sick.”
Jules looked panicked. Ava felt bad for them; she’d been prepared for this to happen, and they hadn’t.
“It’s just for today,” she added.
“Okay,” Jules said. They were visibly pulling themself back together. “I’m just gonna—”
The two of them did that annoying dance forced on any two people who wanted to get past each other in a narrow space. Finally, Ava backed all the way against the wall, waving Jules past her.
“Look, just go,” she snapped.
Jules opened their mouth to snap back, then shut it and moved past her. As they did, Ava caught sight of the scarf around Jules’s neck; light green dotted with blue, brown, and gray, crocheted with thick yarn. She’d made it for Jules for Christmas. In retrospect, the project had sprung from a desperate hope that the two of them might come together again, stitch fragile connections over the yawning holes opening up between them.
“Is that… ?” she asked, gesturing.
Jules looked puzzled, then glanced down with a tense grimace. Jules’s emotions were always written clear on their face, and they looked like they’d found a snake wrapped around their neck.
“Never mind,” Ava said, and fled down the hallway, onto the shop floor.
Ava volunteered for shifts at the customer service desk with Tricia, their manager, to keep far away from Jules in stocking and assembly. Heartache felt like a persistent hangover: lethargy, a headache, an unshakeable belief in the cruelty of the world, drifting outside of time. It was hard to keep up the bullshit facade of industriousness when she felt entirely dead inside. The minutes dragged by as Ava attempted to look busy while Tricia hovered behind her.
A young woman with olive skin and thick, black-brown hair approached the desk, and Ava turned toward her desperately. “Good morning,” she said, trying to inject some cheerfulness into her voice—mostly for Tricia’s benefit. Ava thought she sounded strangled.
“Hi,” the woman said. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I think I lost my grandmother.”
“Lost her?” asked Ava.
“She was right behind me in the showrooms? I turned around to get her opinion, and she was gone. I’ve been looking for her for ten minutes and…” She trailed off, shrugging helplessly. Ava turned to find Tricia, then flinched back when she saw the manager already looming behind her. She hadn’t even heard Tricia approach.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Tricia said gravely. She had donned one of her Managerial Faces that Jules had reportedly seen her practicing alone in her office: Calm And In Charge. She tilted her head, the blond highlights in her midwestern manager-class haircut catching the light. “Let me make an announcement over the PA system. What’s her name?”
“Ursula,” the young woman replied. “Ursula Nouri.”
Tricia nodded, her face serious as she picked up the phone and pressed a button. Her voice came squawking out of the overhead speakers. “Good morning, shoppers. Would Ursula Nouri please meet her party at the customer service desk? Ursula Nouri to the customer service desk, please.”
Ava tried to smile reassuringly at the young woman. Tricia treated everything with the gravity usually reserved for state funerals and hostage negotiations.
Tricia set the phone back down in the cradle.“ Can you tell me what your grandmother was wearing?”
The girl nodded. “She had on a red coat and some purple fleece gloves. Oh, and a leather purse. I’ve got a picture of her, if that helps?”
Tricia and Ava dutifully looked at the picture the girl pulled up on her phone. Ursula looked like a fairly aver-age grandmother: white hair pulled into a low bun at the back of her neck, a billowy shirt hanging over a plump frame. The picture was obviously a selfie of Ursula and her granddaughter, the two of them smiling identically up at the camera.
“She seems nice,” Ava ventured.
“She is. I mean, she’ll tell you when your cleavage is hanging out or your boyfriend is trash, but…” The woman trailed off, staring harder at the small screen. After a moment, more words spilled out: “She doesn’t normally wander off like this? She knows I get really worried about her, because we’re like, the only family we have. It’s this whole, stupid, tragic story that I super don’t want to get into right now, so if you could just…”
Ava shot a helpless look at Tricia, who thankfully took charge.
“Ava, go through the showrooms and see if you can find her. I’ll send a couple of other people up there to look with you. Miss, why don’t you wait with me?”
Ava nodded. As she walked past the young woman, she hesitated. “I’m sure she’s fine,” she said.
The woman’s face cracked into an uncertain smile. “Thanks.”
The showrooms were eerily empty. The customer service desk was located at the central hub of the store, and even on slow days, it tended to bustle. The rest of the store felt abandoned, besides a few desultory shoppers and a pair of teenagers alternately making out and taking selfies in the Pastel Goth Hideaway. Then again, it was the downseason, a stark contrast to the roiling hell that had been six weeks prior to Christmas. And sure, it was hard to leave the house in February. Ava had suffered enough coming to LitenVärld today, and she was paid to be here. Still, it was odd to see all the fake apartments vacant; it reminded Ava of the haunting feeling of being the last one out of the store. Each showroom was like an empty home, waiting for its ghostly inhabitants to return.
Or maybe the inhabitants had never left, but were just hiding out, watching the interlopers pass through their abodes.
“Get it together,” Ava told herself. Could she blame her paranoia and morbid thoughts on the heartache? Or maybe she should blame it on February. The shortest month, and objectively the worst.
LitenVärld was laid out like a twisting vine, with showrooms branching off a central walkway that wound through the store, curving back on itself before dumping people out into the food court and registers. Ava made her way quietly down the path, peering into the cubes for Ursula Nouri. Each room was alien and strange relative to the one before it. Strung together, they resembled an ugly necklace designed by a child, picking out the most garish beads to thread.
That familiar sense of disorientation came over Ava, that slight queasiness at seeing all these clashing rooms squeezed together. It mixed with her dreadandmadeher stomach churn. She turned a corner, saw a tall figure in the middle of the Nihilist Bachelor Cube, and let out a shriek before she realized it was Jules.
“Fuck!” Jules shouted, colliding with modular shelves stacked with Camus and Palahniuk novels. “What the hell! Why are you screaming at me?”
“Sorry!” Ava said. Her fright was quickly transmuting to irritation, as all her feelings seemed to do when Jules was concerned. “You startled me.”
“I startled you?” they asked incredulously. “I’m not the one sneaking up behind people and screaming like a Nazgûl. God, I almost pissed myself.”
They had a fist pressed to their chest, like enough pressure would slow down their pulse.
“Sorry,” Ava said again, the word sour in her mouth. Seemed like too many of her conversations with Jules had required apologies. “Did Tricia send you to look for the missing grandmother?”
“I volunteered. A soccer mom enlisted me to help harangue her husband into shelling out money for a new bathroom vanity. She managed to misgender me four times in two minutes,” Jules said. They bent down to pick up the books they’d knocked off the shelf. “Two different pronouns, completely ignored my nametag, eventually settled on calling me ‘the kid.’”
“Have you seen the old woman?” Ava asked, cutting off Jules’s nervous rambling. “The granddaughter says she disappeared around here.”
Jules shook their head. “I’ve been through all the rooms back there,” they said, waving their hand the opposite way Ava had come. “Didn’t see anything.”
“Shit,” Ava said. Where could an old woman escape to in a furniture store? She leaned against a showroom wall to think.
“I still think this is the most depressing showroom,” Jules said conversationally. “It reeks of misogyny and sadness.”
The Nihilist Bachelor’s room was one of the smallest show apartments. Tiny kitchenette, a fold-out desk beneath a loft bed, fake exposed brick along the walls. A single brown leather chair in front of a flatscreen TV. Ava thought briefly of Jules’s studio, which wasn’t much bigger, but was infinitely more comfortable. Jules had refused to buy anything except a set of plates from LitenVärld, and had furnished it from estate sales and Goodwill trips instead. Everything at work is part of a set with everything else, they’d explained. I don’t fit into any of those sets.
Ava realized that they’d been standing and staring at each other. She turned on her heel and said, “Maybe she
wandered into housewares.”
“Am I that awful to be around?” Jules asked. There was something raw in their question; something flushed and bruised, radiating hurt. “You can’t even stand being in the same room as me. I thought you wanted to be friends.”
Had she said that? Probably. That’s what you were supposed to say when you ended a relationship with someone you couldn’t hate, but didn’t know how to love, either.
“Please don’t be so dramatic about this,” Ava said, trying to keep her voice cool.
“Me?” Jules said. “You switched your entire schedule around so you’d never have to see me again. And you’re calling me dramatic?”
“I think it’s reasonable to want some space!” If it was so reasonable, some distant, detached part of her wondered, why was she so defensive?
“You’re acting like a stranger, or like I don’t exist, like we never—”
“So what, you think I’m just overreacting?” Ava spat. It was one of the accusations that had stung her the most. She was emotionally volatile. She made mountains out of molehills. She couldn’t control her feelings. She’d never claimed otherwise, she’d just stopped being able to fake it around Jules.
Jules opened their mouth to answer, then snapped it shut. “I’m not gonna do this with you in this stupid room,” they said, and turned to go.
“This is why I changed my schedule,” Ava hissed at their back.
Jules suddenly stopped, and Ava felt her hackles rise. Was this it? A rehash of the fight, their last fight, which was just the same as every fight?
“Ava,” they said instead. And there was something in their voice that cut through the fight-or-flight haze: something low, confused, vulnerable. They said her name like they were reaching for a life jacket.
“What?” she replied. Still on guard, but putting away her guns.
“Weren’t we in the Bachelor Cube?”
What kind of question was that? But Jules’s uncertainty infected her. She glanced to the right; Fight Club and The Stranger were still on the bookshelf. “Yeah?” she said. “So?”
Jules slowly turned around. “Doesn’t it look kind of… big?”
The Nihilist Bachelor Cube—like its cousins Coked-out Divorcée, Parental Basement Dweller, and Massage Therapist Who Lived in Their Studio—were all two hundred square feet or smaller, with an open floor plan to make each feel less claustrophobic. Jules had stomped into a separate room that shouldn’t have existed, a room Ava hadn’t seen from the walkway. Its design was radically different: bright, colorful, filled with floral prints and fake plants, posters of fantastic places on the wall. It resembled the Midlife Crisis Mom room, but that was on the other side of the store, and had been painted a warm peach color. This one was done in sand and cerulean.
Past the edges of the cube, Ava could see a whole other walkway, one that shouldn’t exist. Her gaze traveled up, and she gasped as she saw a seam connecting the two rooms. It was a dark purple, the color of a fresh bruise, and wriggled and squirmed as if it were alive.
“This is weird, right?” Jules said from the other side of the seam. Their voice was normal. Ava had expected it to be warped by passing through the seam.
“This is really fucking weird,” agreed Ava. She couldn’t seem to tear her eyes from that writhing border. It took a moment to hear Jules calling her name.
“What?” she asked.
They held up a pair of purple fleece gloves. “The old woman was wearing purple gloves, right?”
“Shit,” Ava sighed. She pulled out the phone on her hip.
“This is amazing,” Jules said. “It’s a creepy Scandinavian Narnia. I can’t believe we found something like this.”
“Tricia,” Ava said into the phone, and Jules whipped their head around. “We’ve got a situation up in the showrooms.”
“I’ll be right there,” Tricia replied, and hung up.
“Seriously?” Jules said. They sighed with melodramatic disappointment. “We find a wrinkle in time and you tell the manager?”
“What did you expect me to do?” Ava said. “Will you get out of the… whatever that is? You don’t know what’s in there.” That seam between the rooms twitched unpleasantly, and Ava took a step back.
“It can’t be much worse than what’s back there,” Jules said, waving vaguely at Ava, LitenVärld, who knew what.
Jules always wanted to run away. For along time they’d talked about the two of them leaving together, moving or traveling. The destination changed, but the wanderlust remained the same. The last few weeks, they had more often talked about disappearing on their own. No destination in particular, just… away.
“Jules,” Ava said urgently, but couldn’t think of anything to follow it with. What could she possibly say to bring them back?
Jules sighed, looked down at the gloves in their hand, and then trudged over the threshold. “Ursula had the right idea,” they muttered as they passed Ava.
Tricia called an emergency meeting, and everyone who wasn’t working a register crammed into the break room.
It always surprised Ava how many people worked at LitenVärld. She only saw most of them crammed in here during the pre-Black Friday war meeting, or for their exquisitely painful “sensitivity training.” She’d only gotten through the latter by focusing on her and Jules’s plans to get obliteratingly drunk afterward.
They hadn’t even been dating at that point. They’d woken up the next day in Ava’s apartment; Jules’s shoes had been in the bathtub, while Ava was wearing their shirt. It had smelled like blunts and Old Spice, unexpectedly comforting. Jules was sleeping on the couch, wearing an oversized sweater and a pair of boxers, using Ava’s bathrobes as a blanket. She’d stared at them for nearly a minute, trying to piece together the events that had led to her cute new coworker sleeping half-naked on the couch. Eventually, she shook herself out of her daze, told herself to stop being a creep, and went into the kitchen to make coffee. Jules had stumbled in twenty minutes later, wearing the bathrobe they’d slept under, curls flattened on one side. “I will trade you my soul for coffee,” they’d said solemnly. Then, when they saw that all Ava had were Nifty!brand beans from PriceLow, they cringed and said, “Those only get part of my soul.”
They hadn’t hooked up that night, or even that week, but infatuation was already sinking its claws into Ava, catching her bleary and unprepared.
Ava went to the far side of the room, opposite to where Jules was standing. She caught a few whispered conversations between her coworkers, a couple of raised eyebrows, but kept her eyes down. This was the other reason she hadn’t wanted to be scheduled with Jules. She hated being gossip fodder. Jules, of course, was impervious to gossip, willfully oblivious. They’d never understood why it irked Ava so much. People are going to talk, they always said. No matter what you do. Ava had admired their courage at first, but she eventually recognized it as yet another way of shutting people out before they could hurt you.
Tricia finally came in, wheeling a boxy television that looked like it predated LitenVärld itself, or at least this particular store. She plugged it into the wall, then turned to address everyone.
“Can I have some quiet, please?” she called into the already quiet room. After a few seconds, she said, “Thank you. So for anyone that hasn’t already heard, we’ve got a maskhål.”
There was a swell of dismayed groans and whispers. Ava, almost unwillingly, found herself seeking out Jules. They had done the same, and mouthed, A what?
“Quiet, please,” Tricia said again. “And please hold all of your questions until the end. For the benefit of those who’ve joined us since our last maskhål, I’m going to play a short instructional video.”
Another groan, this one softer and more hushed. Tricia didn’t even bother to shush anyone, just bent over and pressed play on… was that a VHS player?
The video began with a click and a whir. Static flickered in lines across the screen, then cleared, but the color was still slightly off, oversaturated and alien.
Yellow letters traveled across the screen, marquee style: Maskhål och du. Below it, in subtitles, “WORMHOLES AND YOU.”
The LitenVärld logo appeared at the bottom of the screen as a man and woman walked into the shot. Judging by their hair and fashion, this video had been made before Ava was born. They both wore polo shirts in LitenVärld’s signature sky-blue, with yellow and crimson accents, tucked into unflattering khakis with pleats where no pleats should ever be. Their hair didn’t seem to move, stuck in helmet-like structures to their scalps, which made the rest of their faces look weirdly mobile.
Their voices were overdubbed. Badly.
“What’s up, amigos?” said the pallid white man. His voice was a cross between Wolf of Wall Street and California beach bum. “I’m Mark!”
“And I’m Dana,” warbled the blonde.
“Is Dana drunk?” Ava whispered to one of her coworkers. The coworker rolled his eyes and didn’t say anything. (God, they were all so boring. She’d forgotten how this store sucked the life from people.)
Mark spoke again. “We’re here to tell you what to do if a wormhole opens up on your shift!”
Mark spoke in exclamation points. His voice was far more energetic than the actor, who was wan, bland in that vaguely Scandinavian way, an off-brand Mads Mikkelsen with all the interesting bits filed off.
“First, we should get our disclaimer out of the way,” Dana said, in her wobbly, nasal whine. She had an affected Mid-Atlantic accent, like she was auditioning for a minor role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The original actress moved with the confidence and poise of a piece of seaweed washed ashore. “LitenVärld accepts no responsibility or liability for any losses or injuries that wormholes incur, since they fall under the Act of God clauses on our employee insurance. This training video does not replace the longer and more in-depth training for our FINNA division—”
Tricia bent over and skipped ahead on the video, speeding through what looked like several more minutes of banter and/or legalese. “The FINNA divisions were made redundant during the Recession. Each store handles the maskhål in-house now.”
She restarted the video on a close-up of Mark. “—that’s out of the way, it’s time for a short physics lesson. In physics, the term quantum entanglement refers to particles that are linked in strange ways that we don’t entirely understand, but that we can measure.”
Mark’s pallid face with its receding hairline faded into a cheesy animation. Two blobs appeared on the screen: one a dusky pink, the other a sky-blue. Ava could guess what was coming next, but that didn’t stop the physical pain of watching it happen. The pink blob grew eyes with heavy lashes, two spots of reddish purple appearing on what could generously be called its cheeks. The blue blob also grew eyes, along with a heavy brow and—god save them all—a handlebar mustache.
Then the two blobs began flirting—cooing and blowing kisses at each other. It was the most obnoxiously heterosexual thing Ava had seen since the last St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“Even across vast distances of space and time…” Dana said in a dreamy voiceover.
The two blobs were torn away from each other, flung to opposite sides of the screen with a crude galaxy projected between them. Good, Ava thought savagely, as the blobs squeaked in distress.
“…entangled particles find ways of reconnecting,” intoned Dana, and the two blobs snaked out long, ghostly limbs toward each other, joining hands across the galaxy. The two blobs burbled happily, and Ava rolled her eyes.
“This video is making me gayer out of spite,” Jules muttered, clear even from the other side of the room.
Ava snorted. She couldn’t help it. Jules turned toward her in surprise, and she cleared her throat and turned away.
“Quiet, please!” Tricia said.
On the screen, the obnoxiously heterosexual blobs had been replaced with the vapidly heterosexual actors. They relaxed in a retro LitenVärld showroom—Newly Retired Swinger, Ava would call it. It was done up in beige and mauve tones, with some palm tree and flamingo accents to keep it from being too bland.
“You may be wondering what this has to do with the wormhole in your store,” Mark said. The actors’ mouths always kept on moving for seconds after the end of the dub, which was giving Ava a headache.
Dana addressed the camera head-on. “Some scientists believe in the many worlds theory.” She pronounced it as if it were something strange and exotic, not three words that could come up by themselves in any conversation.
The blue-and-crimson logo on-screen shivered and split into two parts. Mark spread his arms, fingertips extended, augmenting the physics lesson with jazzhands. It was embarrassing to watch him try to emote.
“This means that there are an infinite number of universes,” Mark said. “Endless varieties of them. That means that there are endless varieties of LitenVärlds!”
Dana and Mark snapped their fingers. Suddenly, they were sitting in two entirely different rooms; hers was a lavish, baroque French drawing room, and she wore the gown and powdered wig to match. Mark sat in a room that might have been considered “futuristic” when the video was made: lots of neon, inflatable furniture, and one of the largest and ugliest desktop computers Ava had ever seen. He was wearing wraparound sunglasses, a puffy orange vest, and fingerless gloves.
Mark took off the sunglasses and continued. “The unique layout of LitenVärld encourages wormholes to form between universes. These wormholes connect our stores to LitenVärlds in parallel worlds.”
Mark and Dana looked at each other, then snapped their fingers again. Now Mark stood in a rustic log cabin, wearing lederhosen and carrying an ax. Dana relaxed in a beach house, wearing a sarong over a bathing suit and
holding a daiquiri in her hand.
“That is not how physics works,” Jules muttered. Why was it so easy to always catch their voice?
Tricia bent over to fast-forward the video again. “It goes on for a while,” she said. “You all get the idea.”
They watched Mark and Dana flicker through a series of settings and costumes, some of them benign or bizarre, others straight-up racist. Dana in a teahouse and an exaggerated geisha getup got a couple of disgusted sighs, but Mark in a hut and with fake black dreadlocks and a bone through his nose earned widespread groans, and someone (probably Jules) threw a wadded-up paper at the screen. Not even Tricia could say anything about that.
The bizarre zoetrope of Marks and Danas ended with the two actors in foam dinosaur costumes. They attempted to snap their fingers again, fumbling with their thick, rubbery claws, but the sound effect was apparently enough to bring them back to their original world, original bodies. They both heaved affected sighs of relief.
“Now,” Mark said, putting his hands on his hips. “Before you decide that traveling to other universes is all fun and games, we should warn you that not all LitenVärlds are as nice as the one you work in.”
Dana added,“Here’s some footage taken by one of our FINNA divisions during recoveries.”
Ava’s eyes grew wide at the shaky, grainy footage that blasted across the screen. It was hard to make out the details, but Ava caught glimpses of something enormous, something with far more legs than a sane universe could ask for. There were shouts and screams in what a distant, shocked part of Ava’s mind guessed was Swedish. A spray of blood hit the camera, and the footage cut out.
Back to Mark and Dana in the bland Retired Swinger living room. Ava broke out into goosebumps when she saw their smiles again.
“Now that you understand what wormholes are, and what might lay on the other side of them, we’re going to tell you what to do in case one opens up in your store,” Dana said.
Mark leaned forward. “After alerting your manager to the presence of a wormhole, the first and best thing to do is rope off the affected area. Make sure that no customers or associates enter it. They’ll usually collapse on their own within a couple hours.”
“The only time you need to worry is if someone accidentally wanders into the wormhole. Since 1989, all LitenVärld stores have been equipped with the FINNA, a patented piece of equipment that can locate lost people using quantum entanglement. It helps the FINNA division in your store navigate the series of wormholes that the lost person may have wandered through. In our experience, wormholes tend to travel in packs.”
A piece of technology popped up on the screen. To Ava, it looked vaguely like the brick phones that bankers talked on in movies set in the ’80s. It faded into an exploded view, familiar to anyone who had had to put together a piece of furniture from a LitenVärld instruction booklet.
Tricia paused the movie, then shut off the TV. It went black with a quiet pop. “As I mentioned, the company closed its FINNA divisions back in 2009, as a cost-saving measure. Instead, I’ll need two volunteers who are willing to take the store’s FINNA and go after the missing woman.”
The room went silent, as every employee became intent on disappearing. Ava shrunk down in her seat and avoided Tricia’s eyes. She felt a momentary pang of guilt, thinking of the young woman who’d reported her grandmother missing. But Ava had no interest in death by… by whatever those things had been.
“Are we getting overtime for this?” someone else asked.
Ava glanced up long enough to see Tricia shake her head. “Not unless you remain in the other worlds past eighty hours in a single pay period. But! I do have a couple of Pasta and Friends gift cards for the brave volunteers.”
Ava scrunched down in her chair even further. Nobody in their right mind would volunteer for—
“Jules!” Tricia said, and Ava felt the name go through her like an electric shock. “Thank you for stepping up.”
Ava looked over to see Jules with their hand raised. Everyone else in the room was staring too. Jules shrank under the attention, and awkwardly waved before slumping back down in their plastic chair.
“I don’t really need the gift card,” they told Tricia.
Tricia shrugged. “Well, that just doubles the incentive for the next volunteer. Any takers? Two gift cards would make for a pretty good date night.”
If it had been possible to crawl underneath her chair, transform into a literal puddle, Ava would have done it. She hadn’t thought she could sit through a worse work meeting than the sensitivity training.
“Well, if nobody volunteers, corporate policy is to have the people with the least seniority go. That’s Jules, but since—since Jules has already volunteered, we need someone else to join Jules on this mission.”
Ava winced as she listened to Tricia contort her speech in an effort to avoid using they or them. I just can’t do it! Tricia had cheerfully told Ava once, completely unprompted. I guess I’m too much of a grammar nazi! Since then, she went out of her way to avoid using any pronouns at all when talking about Jules, warping her sentences around her refusal. Ava wondered, not for the first time, why anyone would so proudly declare themselves to be any kind of nazi. She was so distracted by her irritation that she missed the last bit of Tricia’s speech, and it took her a few seconds to realize everyone was staring at her.
Rewind: The policy was to send the person with the least seniority. That was Jules. Jules had been hired on two months after Ava. Was there anybody else in between them?
Derek. Fucking Derek, who was the entire reason that Ava was here on a day she’d explicitly asked not to work.
“Oh, hell no,” Ava said.
“Why don’t the three of us talk in my office?” Tricia said sweetly.
Tricia’s office was a purgatory of fallen LitenVärld fashions, a claustrophobic island of misfit furniture. Chairs with denim upholstery, a glass-top desk with chrome ac-cents, and a gag novelty lamp in the shape of a hairy, muscular leg, complete with sock garters. The look was completed by a couple of soulless art prints that reminded Ava of waiting rooms in urgent care clinics.
Ava decided to take a reasonable approach, since it was that or run screaming out of the store. “Tricia,” she said. “This is really unfair. I know I don’t have the seniority—”
“You do have the right to refuse the assignment,” Tricia said.
Relief flooded through Ava. “Okay, in that case—”
“But it would be grounds for termination.”
All the relief flooded right back out of her, replaced by a vision of her current checking account balance. “What?!”
“Listen,Tricia,” Jules said, leaning forward. “I’m happy to do this by myself. I don’t need—”
“Jules, I appreciate your willingness to go above and beyond. It’s a nice change from your usual MO.” Tricia laughed like the soulless bitch she was. “But we do have to stick to policy, which says that nobody goes through a maskhål alone.” Tricia turned her blank gaze back to Ava. “Furthermore, I’d like you both to keep in mind that there’s a young woman sitting in the cafeteria who’s scared for her grandmother. Customers always come first.”
Ava was, possibly for the first time in her life, too angry to speak. If she lived through this, she decided, she was going to track Derek down and kill him.
“Let’s get you the FINNA,” Tricia said. “Oh! And don’t forget these!”
She slid the two gift cards across the table.
Excerpted from Finna, copyright © 2020 by Nino Cipri.