James Harden awoke to unfamiliar sounds outside his bedroom. For some reason, he could hear car horns blaring, engines running, the normal background noise of urban life…but he didn’t live an urban life. His home in Houston was tucked far back into an exclusive suburban community where the slightest hint of loudness would attract a dozen noise complaints filed with the local police.
When he opened his eyes, he found he had a bigger problem than just the unexpected sounds; his richly-furnished bedroom had been replaced with a concrete-walled, uncarpeted, undecorated hovel. His bed, normally appointed with a multitude of pillows and many layers of blankets, now had one simple white sheet atop a lumpy mattress. Just as he was beginning to try to make sense of this situation, he noticed something even more alarming:
His beard was missing. The mass of hair that tickled his chin and constantly appeared in the periphery of his vision, conspicuously absent.
Now starting to become anxious that he had been kidnapped and forcibly shaved by a terrorist organization of some kind, he went to check for his phone in case it had somehow been left with him. However, when he glimpsed his arm, he let out a gasp of surprise; it was no longer black, but a light brown color. Throwing off the sheets, he saw that the skin color of his arm was not an anomaly, for his entire body was the same shade.
“Vikal, come get your breakfast!” yelled a female voice from another room. When James didn’t immediately respond to the call, still being extremely confused about the present goings-on, the face of a woman appeared in the doorway. “Stop being lazy and get out of bed! And put on a shirt before coming to the table!”
James was aware of a strange dichotomy; the words coming from the woman’s mouth were clearly in a different language, but he had no problem understanding them. A hypothesis had formed in his mind, although it didn’t offer a satisfactory explanation for his predicament: somehow, his consciousness had been transferred to the body of a young boy somewhere in southeast asia.
He wasn’t sure if he would be able to speak the language as seamlessly as he could understand it, however, so he obeyed the woman’s (his mother’s?) command silently, pulling on a loose pair of pants that was on the floor and opening a drawer (the one piece of furniture aside from the bed) to find a small selection of shirts from which to choose. Apparently Vikal had a bad habit of walking around the house only partially-clothed, so James pulled one on and followed the smell of food into the kitchen.
The scolding did not stop when James sat down at the table. “Don’t you remember how mad the manager was last time you were late? Do I need to remind you that we need that income to buy diapers for your sister?”
This statement pierced through James’ thoughts, which were all focused on what he might have done to cause this swapping of awarenesses and how he could reverse it. He nodded blankly at his mother, shocked that a boy as young as himself would be made to work a job. To keep up appearances (and to hide his surprise), he sampled the porridge in front of him, trying not to grimace at the unfamiliar flavor.
His mom shooed him out the door when he was only half done with his food. James stood in the street, which was packed with foot traffic and the occasional worn-down car honking its way through the throng, unsure which direction he had to go. He thought about just running away somewhere to wait out this weirdness, but guilt over a sister he barely knew prevented him from doing that.
“Vikal! Late too? Come on!” shouted a boy about his own age from across the street, somehow spotting Vikal through the mass of people. The boy started running down the street, so James made his way over to him so he could follow. After a few minutes of nimbly dodging between walkers to keep up, they got to a building which looked almost as run down as his house was. A rancid smell was wafting out of the open windows, making his eyes sting. Just inside the open door, James could see a dozen kids his age huddled around workbenches, applying glue and stitching to shoes.
So this was his job. Working in a sweatshop to make shoes. On closer inspection, James could see the Adidas logo on some of the finished ones: the same company that he was signed to in his real life. Was that a coincidence? Had he tumbled into a cosmic karma experiment by virtue of using his basketball fame to sell shoes that were made by child labor?
Sitting down at an empty seat and covertly watching his coworkers to get some idea of what he was supposed to be doing, James began to work on the shoes. As he smeared glue with his fingers on the precut soles, he suddenly remembered what he had been doing before this had all happened: he had been in his bedroom with an Instagram model whom he had successfully wooed.
James wondered how Vikal was dealing with that situation.