22 Mar Toast Wanted
“Toast Wanted”Written by Micah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
This is the story of how a novelty toaster ruined my life.
First of all, I want to clarify that I’m not the kind of guy who buys a novelty toaster. I got it at a white elephant gift exchange a couple of years back. You know, one of the swaps where everyone brings a gift and then you pick blindly and see what you get? Well, what I got was a toaster that burned the image of Jesus into the toast. People seeing Jesus in their breakfast was big for a while, I guess. I kind of remember when that was a thing.
Anyway, this toaster made it so you could have a miracle every meal. At least, that’s what it said on the box. I kind of hoped someone would steal the gift so I’d get another chance at drawing, but no one did, so I took it home, put it on a shelf in the garage and forgot about it.
Then sometime in the middle of last year, my regular toaster quit working. I put in a couple of slices for breakfast, pushed the lever, and realized ten minutes later that the toast had never popped up. For a minute I panicked, sure that it was on fire and I somehow hadn’t noticed it, but as it turned out the toaster contained two slices of perfectly cool, untoasted bread.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t even have cared, but I had someone over and I was kind of trying to make a big thing out of breakfast. You know how it is. I’d made bacon and scrambled eggs, and toast is just part of that. You can’t make a plate with eggs, bacon and some floppy uncooked bread. And the eggs and bacon were already done, so I was committed to the meal at this point.
I’d started preheating the oven, figuring I could probably manage to toast the bread in there if I was careful, when I suddenly remembered the novelty toaster out in the garage. It only took a minute or so of rooting around before I came up with my prize. Breakfast was saved!
The toaster performed as advertised: it took bread and made it into toast. I popped the first couple of slices out, noted that they did in fact have a face lightly burned into one side, then promptly cut them into triangles for better presentation on the plate. That was about as much attention as I was inclined to pay to the toast, but my overnight companion was apparently a more curious sort.
“What’s with the bread?” she asked, holding up one of the triangles and turning it back and forth, trying to make sense of the markings.
“Goofy toaster thing,” I told her. “Puts the face of Jesus on your toast. I didn’t buy it. I got it as a gift a while ago. I only got it out today because my regular toaster died. I’m not weirdly into Jesus.”
I was rambling, but that was all right because she wasn’t listening. She’d picked up the other triangle and was holding the two pieces together, looking at the full picture.
“Doesn’t look much like Jesus,” she said.
“Well, it’s heating elements on bread. You’re only going to get so good a picture.”
“Sure, but doesn’t Jesus usually have a beard?”
I looked. It was actually a surprisingly clear picture. There was some nice shading which I found very impressive given the medium. My date was right, though. It didn’t look anything like Jesus. It was a slightly heavyset guy, a little bit jowly, probably late fifties. He had glasses and a scowl on his face. He didn’t look holy at all.
“Huh,” was my intelligent contribution. I held up my own pieces of toast, which showed what appeared to be the same man in profile. This had to be a joke from someone at the factory. Someone had swapped out the plates, or whatever was inside. “Well. Maybe it’s Jesus in his later years.”
“Jesus didn’t have any later years,” my date pointed out.
“I know how to solve this problem.” I took a large bite of the toast. “There! Now it’s not a picture of anybody.”
It’s funny. I genuinely can’t remember her name or what she looked like, but I remember that face burned into the toast. It had kind of stuck in my mind even before I knew it was important. It really was an excellent likeness of someone who was definitely not Jesus, and that seemed like a weird sort of screwup to have happened in the manufacturing process. If it hadn’t looked like anything, I could have understood that, but to look distinctly like a different person?
So the toast was still on my mind when I went out for groceries that day. I wasn’t actively thinking about it or anything, but it was still there. Enough so that when I spotted a heavyset guy down at the end of the aisle, my first thought was, “He looks kind of like the guy from my toast.”
We were heading opposite ways down the aisle, getting closer to each other, and as he drew near I started to get weirded out. He didn’t just look kind of like the guy from my toast. He looked exactly like him. Same glasses, same slightly sagging cheeks, same haircut. I told myself that I was imagining it, that it was just a strange coincidence, but I couldn’t stop staring. The more I looked, the more certain I was. I’d seen this man in my toast this morning.
“You need something?” He’d caught me staring.
“No, sorry, you just remind me of someone.”
Jesus, I thought, but the man didn’t look like he had much of a sense of humor. I just shook my head and said, “Just someone I used to know. You’re the wrong age, though. Sorry.”
We pushed our carts past each other and went our separate ways. I refrained from looking back over my shoulder for fear that he’d catch me staring again. But when I got home, I put another slice of bread into the toaster. The image that came out was definitely the man I’d seen in the grocery store.
I told myself that it was just a weird coincidence. The toaster had a weird flaw, the guy had a generic kind of face. That was all it was. But it was still bugging me when I got up the next morning, so I made toast again. I had a vague idea that I could reverse-image search the picture, maybe find some sort of facial recognition program to compare it to online photos or something. I don’t really know how this stuff works. I just know it’s out there.
In any case, it turned out to be irrelevant. When the toast popped up, I snagged it out of the toaster and was confronted with a picture of a totally different person. This one was a man with a hipster beard in maybe his mid-twenties. No glasses, no scowl. No chance that it was the same image as yesterday.
The profile view showed some odd markings below his ear, maybe birthmarks. It was clearly an image of a specific person. There was no way I could dismiss this as a defect.
I put in another piece of toast and got the same image back, as identical as variations in the surface of the bread would allow. I peered inside the toaster, trying to see the piece that made the image, but all I could see was flat, featureless metal. It was like it was creating these pictures out of nothing at all.
I thought about opening it up, but there was a label on it warning of a risk of severe electric shock, and I had no idea what I’d even be looking for anyway. Some sort of plate with shifting pins? That might explain how it was able to do two different pictures, but not how it made a picture of a man I saw later in the day.
That part really was just happenstance, I told myself as I ate my toast. It’s just got some sort of preprogrammed set of options, and one of them happens to be a generic older white guy. I probably saw dozens of guys like that every day. Really, there were lower odds that a toasted image wouldn’t look like one of them, when you thought about it.
In fact, that explained the whole thing. I looked around online and found that you could buy selfie toasters where you could put in whatever image you wanted. This must have been one of those models that had somehow gotten into the wrong box. They probably made them all in the same factory. Once I could figure out how to change the settings, I’d stop getting the factory presets on my toast.
I was able to keep telling myself this right up until I took my dog Odin out to the dog park. He was having a good time roughhousing with the other dogs, but at one point it started to turn a little too serious. I stepped in to grab his collar just as the owner of the other dog came to pull his away. I was looking down at Odin at first, so he didn’t really register at first; all I saw was the hand on the collar and a pair of skinny jeans.
“Thanks,” I said as I looked up. “Sorry about—”
I froze as I found myself looking directly at the man who’d been on this morning’s toast. Same facial features, same beard. The marks behind his ear that I hadn’t been able to make out in the toast were a series of small tattooed stars. It was perfectly clear now that I was looking at him in person. The image had definitely been him, not just someone like him. It was too perfect to be a coincidence.
“No problem,” he said, not seeming to notice my alarm. “C’mon, Bruno. If you’re gonna be a bully, you can’t play.”
He gave me a half-wave as he towed his dog away. I stared after him, trying to figure out what this meant. Something insane was going on. My toaster was predicting the future. Or I’d just gone totally crazy. Of the two, the second option seemed a lot more likely. People went crazy every day, after all. Toasters very rarely became prophets.
Odin twisted in my grip, anxious to get back to running around with the other dogs. I let him go and watched with envy. He was carefree, blissfully unaware of magic toasters and whatever strange messages they were trying to send.
“Enjoy it while you can,” I told him on the car ride home. “When I get sent to the loony bin, you’re gonna end up at the pound. Then you’ll understand why this matters.”
I became obsessed with the toaster. I had to know what it meant, what it was trying to tell me. I made toast every morning and studied the two pictures, looking for anything that connected them to the previous ones. I took photos so that I could compare multiple days of images side by side. I took notes, made measurements, searched for answers.
I could find no links. The people were random each day. All races, all genders, all ages. They were most often in the range of 25-50 years old, but there were more than a few whose wrinkles stood out prominently in the char, and at least a couple of children who couldn’t have been any older than eight. The ratio was about 60:40 men to women, but there was no clear pattern for when one or the other would appear. Sometimes I’d go a week with nothing but women in my toast.
The only thing they all had in common was that I saw them at some point during my day. It was usually just a passing glance, but as my obsession grew I began to scan crowds as I walked through them, determined to catch my target unawares. I reasoned that if I could follow them, maybe overhear them, I might find out what connected them all.
This, too, was of no use. I did begin to spot many of them before they saw me, and even successfully followed a few unobtrusively. They all simply seemed to be going about their lives, though, no different than anyone else I had passed. Why, then, did the toaster care about these specific people?
I found out almost by accident. Actually, completely by accident, for certain meanings of the word. I was out walking Odin one day, doing my now-standard paranoid scan of my surroundings. I noticed I’d caught the attention of a young family walking on the other side of the street and gave them a cheery wave, trying to act like I was normal.
Their child, a small boy, spotted Odin. His eyes lit up. “Doggy!” he yelled. Before his parents could stop him, he took off at a run, directly across the street and into the path of an oncoming car.
I don’t recall hearing the child scream. I do remember the twin screams of the parents as the car sent their son spinning away, tossed through the air like a bag of garbage. I remember the screeching tires as the car skidded to a halt, and then again as the driver saw what he’d hit and fled the scene. I saw the driver’s face as he looked back, pale and shocked. Even frozen in horror as it was, I recognized the man from that morning’s toast.
The boy, unbelievably, was all right. More or less, anyway. One leg was badly broken and an entire side of his face was bleeding from being scraped across the pavement, but he was lucid and crying, which under the circumstances seemed like a very good thing. The parents took their son to the hospital while I waited for the police.
“Any chance you saw the plate?” the policeman asked me, after I’d given him my story.
“No, but I can describe the driver.” I gave a thorough description based on what I’d seen in the toast.
The policeman looked skeptical. “Yeah? You saw all that in the instant he turned back?”
“I had a very clear view of him,” I insisted. “It’s sort of burned in.”
They let me talk to a sketch artist, who ended up making a very good likeness of the man. They even put it up on the evening news, though I think none of the police expected anything to come of it.
It worked, though. According to the news the next night, the man turned himself in after seeing his face on the news. He begged for clemency, saying that he wasn’t a bad person; he’d just panicked in the moment.
That got me thinking. What if what linked the people wasn’t a common goal or plan, but a concept? Not something they were on the outside, but something they were on the inside?
The next day, my toast had a picture of a bearded man with facial tattoos. The two pictures looked more like mugshots than ever. On a whim, I went to the website for the local jail and started clicking through the recent bookings. It only took a few minutes before I was presented with a mugshot that looked almost identical to the picture in my toast: Richard Bowman, booked on a swath of charges ranging from drug possession all the way up to murder in the first degree.
My plan had been to go out to the jail to see him, but then I thought: what if I didn’t? What would happen if I disproved one of the toaster’s predictions? Now that I knew where it thought I would be, I could just not go there. I had free will, after all.
Then I thought of all the ways I could meet a violent criminal that didn’t involve walls separating us, and decided that this wasn’t the time to test causality theories on my psychic toaster. I hopped in my car and drove off to the jail.
On the way there, I tried to figure out how to ask to talk to Bowman. They probably knew who his family was, and they definitely knew his lawyer. I probably needed credentials to pose as a reporter. I thought about just saying “I saw him in my breakfast,” but decided that this was not really a situation that called for the truth.
In the end, I didn’t have to say anything. As I was parking outside the jail, I saw several guards overseeing a half-dozen men being loaded into a small bus. One of them turned and met my gaze. Even with the distance and fences between us, I recognized Richard Bowman.
With Bowman being transported, I could easily imagine all sorts of scenarios where he and I had met under less separated circumstances. I congratulated myself on my decision not to test the toaster’s abilities.
I was at last beginning to form a theory about whose picture the toaster created. It was showing me people who had done—or would do—bad things. Over the next few weeks, I tested this theory, and slowly refined it to be more precise. Each day, the toaster showed me the worst person I would see that day.
Some people, like the man from the hit-and-run, had just made one very bad decision. Others, if I made a point of going where I knew they would be, would show up day after day. Often they seemed to be perfectly normal citizens. No one but me knew what they were actually like. I fantasized about digging up their secrets private-investigator-style and turning them over to the police. Everyone would be amazed at my prowess. “We had no idea,” they would say. “However did you figure it out?”
I would tell them about my investigative techniques. I would not tell them about my toaster.
The morning toast had turned from a worrying aberration into an exciting puzzle. I researched the people it showed me, hunting for hints about what might have been in their past. I watched the news to see if anything they had done that day featured. It was a game, and it was fun. Until the day my mother came to visit.
It all started innocuously enough. She called to say that she’d be in town for a week for work, and I invited her to stay at my house.
“If it’s not an imposition,” she said.
“No, of course! It’ll be great to see you for a week.”
“I’ll bring your stickers,” she promised.
I laughed. Growing up, Mom had always traveled for work. She was gone about a week every month, and for as long as I could remember, she’d always brought me back a small sticker from wherever she’d gone. I had a huge wall map of the United States that was covered in these stickers. She and I would put them on the map together over the city she’d been in, and she would write the date on it.
The map was folded up in a box somewhere, but I still had it. Mom was continuing to travel for work, and whenever I saw her she’d give me the envelope full of stickers she’d been saving for me. I hadn’t gotten around to putting a lot of them on in the last few years, but I always meant to, and I still enjoyed getting the stickers.
Mom rolled in early on Saturday morning. She’d always preferred to drive through the night, so I knew to expect her early. Still, she got there before I was fully functional, so I let her in and told her to get set up in the guest room while I showered and generally made myself presentable.
I emerged from the bathroom to the smell of breakfast cooking. Mom waved at me from the table as I entered the kitchen. “I made breakfast, I hope you don’t mind. There’s plenty for you. By the way, I love your toaster!”
I let out a small laugh. “Yeah, it’s—”
“Where did you get the pictures of me?”
My blood ran cold. My mother was holding up a piece of toast which unmistakably bore her image. She was smiling as if it meant nothing. And why would it mean anything to her? But to me, it was horrifying.
“You okay?” Mom asked, noticing my sudden freeze.
“Yeah, I’m fine!” I forced a smile. “I just—yeah, breakfast sounds great. I’ll—how was your drive?”
We made small talk as we ate. I pretended everything was fine, but I heard almost nothing she said. My mind was racing. This couldn’t possibly be right. My mother was a wonderful woman. She was no saint, but there was no way she was the worst person I was going to see today. Unless maybe we didn’t go out? That would make sense. If I just stayed in all day and didn’t see anyone other than her, then by default she’d have to be the worst person I saw. That was probably all it was.
“I used up the last of your milk in my coffee,” my mother said. “And I notice that your fridge is a little low on veggies. You’re eating well, I hope?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m fine. I just usually go grocery shopping on Saturdays, so I’m low on stuff.”
“Well, don’t let me break up your routine! I’m sure I can entertain myself while you’re out.”
“I can go later.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Go, do. Pretend I’m not even here.”
Reluctantly, I left the house to go to the store. I tallied the people I passed, every person who met my eyes clanging another condemnation against my mother. She was worse than that man, worse than that woman, worse than that whole family. By the time I got home from the store, I’d crossed paths with hundreds of people.
I wondered if she’d hit something on her way here, like the man I’d seen before. Someone, I didn’t want to say to myself. But her car looked fine, and she seemed completely unrattled. Still, something bad must have happened. Maybe she stole something from me while I was at the store? I turned it over in my mind all day, watching her for clues. I saw nothing out of the ordinary.
The next day I was up before my mother. I wanted to hide the toaster before she saw someone else’s face on the toast and asked questions about who it was. I’d thought about telling her my theory, but I obviously couldn’t now.
Before I put the toaster away, though, I popped in a piece of bread and set it to toast. I wanted to know who to be looking for later on.
A few minutes later, the toast popped up. For the second day in a row, it was a picture of my mother.
I left the toaster on the counter. Mom wouldn’t have any suspicions. She would think it just made sense to have the same picture day after day. Anyone would. Anyone but me.
My thoughts whirled. Was my mother hiding some dark secret from me? She didn’t seem any different. How long had she been doing it?
I googled her hometown crime statistics, missing pets, missing people. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. I started to breathe more easily. Whatever it was, it wasn’t as severe as I’d feared.
Then my mother came in for breakfast. She had an envelope in her hand. “I’ve got your stickers! Do you still keep them on the map? Where is it?”
“It’s out in the garage,” I told her. “It’s put away right now.”
“Well, un-put it away. We’ve got stickers to put on.”
I rummaged around in the garage and returned with the map. We spread it across the table. Mom clucked her tongue as she looked at my pile of unattached stickers.
“You’re so far behind! Well, I have my own record of where I’ve been. We’ll get this fixed up.”
So saying, she picked up one of the stickers and affixed it to the town where it belonged, adding the date she’d been there.
An idea that had been tugging at my sleeve for attention suddenly grabbed me by the wrist and pulled. Her hometown wasn’t the place to look for unusual activities. The travel map was. All of the locations marked with the dates she’d visited. That was what I needed to search.
I waited until she went to bed that night, then took my laptop into the kitchen and set it on the map. I picked a city at random—Denver—then pulled up a missing persons website. I told myself that I’d start with the worst thing possible to get it out of the way first, then move on to more reasonable ideas.
There were two people who had gone missing from Denver around the date of Mom’s travel.
I told myself that it was fine, that Denver was a big city. I just needed to pick somewhere smaller. Ogden caught my eye, down in Utah. I put it into the database.
Another missing person.
On and on I went, frantically typing in city after city. I breathed a sigh of relief every time I found no match, but there were far too few of those. More than half, maybe even more than two-thirds of the ones I checked had people who had gone missing while she was there.
This was everything I’d been looking for in all of my research on the strangers I’d seen in my toast. This was the huge case, the break no one else was ever going to get. Her pattern didn’t exist if you didn’t know where she’d been over the years. I knew. The map laid it all out. It would link together hundreds of cold cases.
And all I had to do was turn my own mother in to the police.
She was a murderer, a serial killer. The most prolific one I’d ever heard of. The evidence was all there in front of me. And even if I tried to explain it away, the toast made it clear that I was lying to myself.
I laid awake all night agonizing over this. The next morning, my mother commented on it.
“You look rough. You should get more sleep before work on Mondays. Here, I made breakfast.”
She passed me toast. It had her face on it.
All week I fought with myself. I told myself that I’d misunderstood something, made some illogical leap. Meanwhile, I kept finding news articles of bodies found in shallow graves, matched to missing persons whose dates and locations coincided with my mother’s travels. And every day, no matter where I went or how many people I saw, the toast bore my mother’s face.
Friday night, the local news had a report about a teen who had been missing since last week.
“Poor kid,” my mother remarked. “I hope they find him.”
I thought of the news articles of the people they had found, the bodies buried on the roadside. I searched her face for any hint of compassion or remorse and saw nothing. She was utterly unconcerned.
She left late that night. I knew what I had to do. I had to call the police. If I didn’t, there was every reason to believe that she would find a new target on the way home, a new victim to leave under shallow sands for the animals to dig up. She had to be stopped, and I was the only one who could do it. I was the only one who knew.
I turned the phone over and over in my hands. I stared at the screen. I dialed no numbers.
Eventually, I went to bed.
The next morning, the toast showed me my picture. It’s been the same every day since. I know what I need to do to stop it. I know what has to be done.
Instead, I just tell people that it’s a selfie toaster. It’s easier that way.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableMicah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A