He was average, and he knew it.
Average name. Jake Brown.
Average height. 5’9.
Average job. Customer service.
Well, that one might’ve been below average, but that was beside the point.
The point was that Jake was average, and he would never be anything more. Never leave a mark in the world, never have a legacy to be proud to share with his children.
Jake was average.
Until he wasn’t.
It started with a morning like any other: wake up at six, shower, eat, run a comb through his hair. Show up five minutes early to work, merge with the sea of grey-clad employees. Hide behind a counter, his counter, and wait for some clueless person to show up asking where to find the toilet paper. Glance out the window every few minutes, have an occasional conversation with his fellow mundane customer service worker. Sharon, her name was.
Finally, a bright spot in the field of humdrum that was his life. Laughing at people as they turned away, getting lunch together every so often.
But that, Jake knew, was average too. And on days like today, when Sharon called in sick, his world was bleaker than ever.
“What can I do for you?”
He barely managed to plaster on a smile with the words as a silver-haired woman approached his counter.
“I have a question for you, young man.”
Jake almost rolled his eyes and sent her away with the customary “bathroom’s that way,” but he stopped himself. Wouldn’t do to get fired for rudeness—that would put him below average, the only thing worse than the routinely mundane place he was.
“What’s your question, ma’am?”
The woman glanced around, lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and spoke. “It’s about my son. We haven’t talked in a long while, and he’s been trying for the big leagues of society, if you know what I mean. I don’t know if he’s avoiding me, or if he’s afraid to talk to me.”
Jake felt one of his brows raise. He’d seen eclectic, but this was new.
The woman finally voiced her question. “What should I say to him? Or should I just leave him alone, let him forget about me?”
Jake didn’t know what to say. “Ma’am, I’m just customer service. I really don’t think—”
“Please, young man. You look about his age, so you would know what he might be thinking, yes?”
On one hand, giving advice wasn’t the type of customer service he was paid for.
But the woman’s sad, wrinkled eyes were pleading with him, begging him to at least try.
It was just advice. He could do this.
“Reach out to him,” Jake finally said. “If he’s just afraid, he’ll talk back. If not, then...at least you’ll know.”
The woman nodded as the clouds lifted from her features. “Yes. Yes, I think I’ll do that. Thank you, young man.”
He couldn’t brighten his own day from that misty grey, but at least he could shine a light into other peoples’.
Jake didn’t think any more of the eclectic woman until the next week, when Sharon pointed out a headline in the paper.
Picking a “headline of the day,” to put it in her words, was the one consistency with his bouncy coworker.
Young man helps reunite up-and-coming country star with mother.
Jake almost looked away, but the picture just below caught his attention.
The woman who had showed up at his counter, searching for advice.
Jake blinked and skimmed the rest of the article.
Jake Brown, 23-year-old customer service worker in Chicago, Illinois…
His name was in the paper.
He only registered bits and pieces of the rest.
Unknowingly saved a family…
Wanted to thank him with this article…
His name was in the paper.
Jake looked up from the article, stunned. “You’re kidding,” he finally managed.
“Nope. Of course you go and make yourself famous the one day I’m sick.”
“I’m not famous.”
“Really? Tell that to the people waiting in line for your advice.”
“Nobody’s in line, Sharon.”
“They will be.” She grinned. “Trust me. You’re famous.”
Jake’s lips twitched with a smile, but it faded before it reached his eyes.
He wasn’t famous, and he never would be, but that wasn’t what hurt the most.
What hurt the most was that he wanted it.
This little taste of fame, this little mention in the newspaper, and suddenly Jake was craving more.
But he couldn’t have it. He was an average person in grey clothes with clouds turning the parking lot outside his window pitch black.
Pitch black parking lot?
His watch told him otherwise, as did the clock on Sharon’s counter. Three in the afternoon.
Definitely not pitch black.
So then why, when he looked out the window, could he see nothing but black?
Jake forced his breathing to remain steady, shoved his hands in his pockets to stop their trembling. He wasn’t losing his vision—there was Sharon, clear as day, standing right next to him. And his counter, where a new customer was already approaching with a bag of what had to be returns. No, he couldn’t be losing his vision.
His mind, then. He was losing his mind.
No. That was insane. He was imagining this. He could look away, and everything would be normal.
Jake turned away from the window and went through the motions, but his mind was with the window.
Why couldn’t he see?
The man left and Jake whirled back toward the window.
It would be normal.
It had to be—
He bit back a yelp. The scene outside hadn’t changed.
He was losing his mind.
Jake took a step back. He bumped into the counter, grabbed hold of it with white knuckles.
“I’m—I’ll be right back,” he stuttered, eyes glued to the endless expanse of shadow that filled the window.
Sharon’s brow furrowed. “You alright?”
“No. Yes. I meant yes. I just...need some air.”
Jake stumbled out from behind the counter and made a beeline for the door.
He had to get outside.
His unsteady, lurching walk attracted a few stares, but Jake couldn’t bring himself to care.
He ran into the doors, shoved them open, and froze.
The parking lot was fine. Bright as day, not a cloud in the sky.
But...that was impossible.
I’m losing my mind.
Jake just stood, dumbstruck.
Everything was fine. Normal.
Average. Like him.
The trembling in his hands remained, but his breathing began to slow. He would go back inside, look at the window again, and everything would be fine.
Jake turned around, facing the gigantic grocery store, and let out a small scream.
Inside every window was the same pitch-black expanse he’d seen earlier.
Every single window, right down to the tiny rectangles set in the doors.
Jake stepped back, tripped, and landed sprawled on the asphalt.
I’m losing my mind.
He was definitely losing his mind.
Jake scrambled to his feet and took a shaky breath.
He had to think about this. Rationally.
Fact: The store wasn’t dark inside, like he saw through the windows now, and the parking lot wasn’t dark, either, like he saw through the window behind his counter.
Fact: Nobody else, not even Sharon, had a reaction to the windows.
Conclusion: He was losing his mind.
No. There had to be a different way to explain all of this.
New Conclusion: He was the only one who could see the dark in the windows.
Better. That was better.
Jake approached the building slowly.
If he was the only one who could see the dark, if everyone else saw normally, then he knew exactly what he had to do.
He had to keep working as if nothing was wrong.
As if the dark abyss waiting to swallow him behind every window didn’t exist.
Jake took a deep breath and, clammy hands hidden in his pockets, returned to his counter.
He could do this.
Just don’t look out the window.
Sharon looked concerned when Jake walked in, but didn’t push him for details.
The waiting area for customer service was just the same as ever: completely empty of people, minus one young boy pointing at Jake and whispering to his mother.
But nothing about this was average.
The boy dragged his mother to Jake’s counter.
Jake wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans.
He could do this.
“You’re the guy from the paper, right, mister?” The boy’s eyes glimmered with excitement as he stood on tiptoes for a better look at Jake.
Jake nodded. “That’s me.” He glanced at the mother. “How can I help you?”
The mother gave a slight smile. “My son just wanted to see you. The famous advice-giver.”
“My name’s Colton!” the boy blurted. Jake offered a grin.
“Hi, Colton. I’m Jake.”
“I know! I saw you in the paper!” He looked up at his mother. “Ask him, momma.”
Her smile faded. “Ask him what, sweetie?”
“About dad! He helped that one lady, so he can help you, too!”
The mother blushed. “I don’t—”
She hesitated, then looked at Jake. “I don’t know how he expects you to help, but I’ll tell you. My husband...we haven’t been on great terms, and he hasn’t talked to Colton in weeks. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what to say to him to fix things.”
Jake considered. “Before you can fix things, you have to figure out why he’s like this. Get to the root of the problem, then build up from there.”
The mother grabbed Colton’s hand. “There. He gave us an answer.” Eyes back to Jake. “Thank you. Colton really wanted to see you.”
Jake gave a sympathetic smile. “Good luck.”
The pair left.
Jake turned to look out the window, out of habit, and his eyes widened.
The black expanse had changed. It had a block in it now, a single brick.
What was this?
It didn’t matter. Nobody else could see it, and so Jake would pretend he didn’t, either.
He was average.
People kept coming, kept asking questions, kept getting answers. For every question Jake answered correctly, he noticed, a brick appeared in the window.
He didn’t know what happened when he answered wrong.
He never answered wrong.
The line in front of his counter grew exponentially in the next few weeks, and the amount of bricks in his window grew with the people. They were forming a rapidly-growing tower.
Still, he never answered wrong.
The questions got tougher.
“Should I invest in this company?”
“How do I know if my girlfriend is the one?”
The tower grew taller, until Jake could no longer see the top.
The black expanse didn’t scare him anymore. In fact, he looked forward to seeing it in every window he looked through. It was proof of his progress, proof that he wasn’t average.
The mundane, misty grey days were long gone.
“Jake.” Sharon nudged his arm one day.
“Hmm?” His eyes were fixed on his tower, trying to measure how high it was.
“We haven’t gone out to lunch in forever.”
It was tall. So tall he could barely make out the top.
“You want to go now? While you have a break?”
A customer, far away, started walking towards him.
“Maybe another day,” Jake responded. “I have a new customer.”
Sharon shook her head slowly. “You could probably make your own business out of this, you know. Set up a stand on a street corner. ‘Jake Brown: Professional Advice-Giver.’”
Sharon’s words didn’t leave his head for the rest of the day.
He liked the ring of that.
Jake did exactly what Sharon said—set up a stand, with a hand-painted sign, on the corner outside the grocery store. He even cut a little square out of a piece of wood and filled it with glass so he could have his window with him wherever he went.
People lined up outside, fought each other for a chance to talk to the legendary Jake Brown. After all, his advice was never wrong.
The tower in the window only grew taller.
Jake soon forgot about Sharon. He forgot about everything except the tower.
All he knew was that he had to build it taller.
He had to keep giving people answers.
He had to keep giving the right answers.
And he did. For years, Jake stood on the corner, watching his tower grow with every piece of advice he gave.
Nobody could bring him down from here. His tower was too tall, he was too right, and his fame would just keep spreading.
The man who could never lead anyone wrong.
The tower grew.
Jake had just finished posing for yet another camera crew—there were too many to count at any given moment—when a man approached him.
Bags under his eyes, grey streaks in his hair, a shadow over his features. He reminded Jake of the boring, distraught man he used to see in the mirror.
Jake was far from boring now.
“I have a question. An important one. I’ve been in this line for almost a month now…”
Jake tuned out the rest of his introduction.
He knew his services were in good demand, but a month-long line?
He really was legendary.
Jake focused just in time to hear the question.
“What’s my purpose in life?”
For the first time in years, he hesitated.
He really didn’t need to; this was one of the easiest questions yet. Jake was successful, rich, well-known. He had everything he could possibly want.
Except Sharon. Or was it Shannon?
It didn’t matter now.
Jake was well above average.
All he really had to do was tell this man what he did to get ahead, and that was simple.
“Build your tower,” Jake finally answered. “Make yourself seen, make yourself known, and you’ll end up with everything you want and more.” He flashed a grin. “I speak from experience.”
The man’s features brightened. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Next!”
The man left and Jake glanced through his window to watch the new brick appear and shoot to the top of the golden skyscraper he’d built.
No brick appeared.
Jake’s brow furrowed. He’d answered the question right—he was sure of it. It was the easiest question he’d ever been presented.
What’s my purpose?
Build your tower.
But the lack of a new brick said otherwise.
What if he was wrong?
No, he couldn’t have been wrong. He was never wrong.
A spindly black line appeared on the side of his tower with a sickening crack.
What was happening?
The line spread, becoming a jagged black spiderweb across the base of his tower. It expanded, and Jake’s eyes widened in horror.
It was a crack.
A network of cracks, spreading over his beautiful tower.
The golden skyscraper tilted with a sound like nails on a chalkboard, but Jake didn’t have the presence of mind to cringe.
His tower was falling.
It tipped farther, on perfect track to crush Jake right where he stood.
But the tower was on the other side of the window.
It couldn’t possibly crush him.
The golden bricks crashed through the window and the rest of his tower followed.
It’s so much taller close up.
Those words, along with the sound of shattering glass and screams, were the last that crossed Jake’s mind.
The next day, Sharon found Jake in the paper again.
This time, the headline was different.
Golden skyscraper flattens half of city, along with legend Jake Brown.
Nobody knew where the tower came from, but everyone agreed it had something to do with Jake’s unnaturally accurate advice.
The last person Jake talked to had asked him the question that everyone, deep down, was searching for the answer to. Nobody had the right one, not even Jake.
The man who asked Jake the question said that Jake mentioned something about building a tower. Oddly specific, in Sharon’s mind, but that could be the man talking crazy. According to him, Jake Brown had been flattened by his own golden skyscraper.
Then again, nobody could come up with a more plausible theory.
The world would never know what happened to Jake Brown.
Sharon folded the newspaper and threw it in the trash with the rest.