Sweet and Salty
Ally Vahn was perfect.
Actually, everyone was perfect. Ally Vahn simply failed to be an exception. She was five feet tall and had a perfect BMI of eighteen point five. Her cheeks were soft, her face flawlessly symmetrical, her fingers precisely the right length: the results of human mastery of the genome. Inside, she knew, was perfect too, just the right amount of platelets and cholesterol receptors and little inflammatory proteins, each joint submerged in exactly the correct amount of synovial fluid and each precisely the correct distance apart.
Ally was twenty-three years old and worked as a cook. She liked to refer to herself as a "chef," a word she'd heard her friend Mandy use once, but that term hadn't been popular since the Old Days. She worked on a line with nineteen other perfectly built cooks. Each of them produced fifty identical meals of exact, measured proportions, as mandated by code. They did this thrice daily, once for each meal of the day. Then the one thousand citizens of New Mount sat in the gigantic mess hell and finished eating in thirty minutes before returning to their jobs, or, in the evening, home.
On this particular evening, which was, of course, exactly like every other, Ally was clearing away her supplies for the cleaning bots to handle. It was lovely, having things like cleaning bots and retail bots. It meant that each and every New Mount citizen worked from seven hundred hours to seventeen hundred hours each day. There was no need for humans to work late at night anymore, not now that these services could be performed by unthinking machines. So every night, Ally cleared her station, placing her dirty dishes into the designated area, and left.
Which was why, when something rather unusual occurred, Ally was exceedingly surprised. After all, unusual hadn't really happened since the Old Days, either, or so she'd heard.
What happened was as follows: Ally heard a knock on the door.
Perhaps a knock on just any door wouldn't be irregular, just her fellow cooks alerting her to their presence as they bustled in and out of the kitchen making their evening preparations. This particular door, however, was situated in the very back of the kitchen, just meters from Ally's station, and it had never been knocked on before. In fact, as far as Ally knew, it had never even been opened.
Naturally, Ally turned to inform her coworkers of the Oddity, as per protocol, only to find that she had gotten distracted by the sound and had gotten left on her own. Ally closed her still-open mouth, feeling foolish indeed, and made her way to the neat stack of papers labeled "Oddity Report" on the counter. She'd been trained to do so many times (sixty-eight, to be precise), but as she penciled her name in uniform letters at the top, she hesitated.
The trouble was that Ally had always been the curious sort. It was she, and not her sister Sarah, who had asked why there were only ten names girls could be named yearly in New Mount, and received "That's the way it is" as an answer. It was she who questioned why the Old Days were spoken of only in hushed tones and neglected in history classes, she who was told time and time again to mind her place, lest she find herself in a nasty bit of trouble. It wasn't that she wanted to be curious. She simply was.
So, be that as it was, Ally found herself standing rather close to the door in question indeed. There was no sound coming from it now, and Ally's fears of some mysterious figure on the other side began to abate, and she began to think of what sort of marvelous Oddity could be inside. A stray animal, perhaps, as they persisted despite the Government's very best efforts to contain them. A broken machine, crumbling loudly to dust as it aged.
Ally's hand really was getting dreadfully close to that door, and she reminded herself sternly that it was not at all appropriate for her to be here investigating an Oddity after-hours. She really ought to go home. Her sister and mother and father would be missing her. She really ought to go home. She really ought to--
She opened the door.
It took a moment or two for her stinging eyes to adjust to the dark and the dust that settled over her like a second skin. When they did, she was a bit disappointed. Contained in the room were several pink and white bags on rusted old shelves. On the floor was a book, splayed upon the ground where it had fallen. The knocking noise, Ally realized, as she was no intellectual but was certainly smart enough to discern the sources of noises, had been the book falling.
Ally had honestly expected the door to be locked, and she had definitely not expected an old-fashioned, honest-to-goddness book. The proper thing, of course, would be to turn it in so that the Government could preserve it properly. Her fingers trailed along the spine, the texture rough and lovely, and she shivered.
It wouldn't hurt to turn the book in tomorrow, would it?
With that, Ally seized the book in a moment of euphoric boldness, then hastened out, shutting the door firmly behind her. When she arrived home, her parents expressed mild worry and disapproval at her absence, which she waved away with explanations of a cooks' meeting, although that was ridiculous, since the cooks only met every other Thursday. She avoided their questions and small talk and the second she was alone in her room, she flung herself to her bed and opened the book.
It was...hmm. It called itself a cookbook, which Ally found curious, and the dishes it described weren't like anything she'd ever seen, definitely not formulary-compliant. Breads and pastries, pastas, things she was almost certain would have improper caloric distributions. And yet, illogically, inexplicably, she found her eyes drawn to the photos in the book. These foods were so colorful, some golden-brown around the edges, some even possessing tiers of different hues. They were so unlike the nutrient-dense efficiency foods the formulary required she cook daily.
Her eyes were drawn to one of the descriptions. "A sweet treat for the whole family to enjoy," it said.
This was understandably a confusing sentence for Ally to read, and perplexed her on a number of levels. Only the family was to enjoy this treat? Additionally, in what food group were "treats" in the first place? She lingered on another unfamiliar word. "Sweet."
Vaguely, she thought she recalled one of the older, crotchety-er cooks mentioning something along the lines of "sweet." Something about an ancestor, the Old Days. Ally had discounted it because half the things the man said were entirely incomprehensible, and, well, at the time she was trying to put a damper on her investigative nature, futile as she would later find out it was. She returned her eyes to the book, which said, "If you'd rather a less sweet, more bitter cake, simply reduce the amount of sugar by one-fourth cup."
She didn't remember where she had seen the word "sugar" until the next day, when she was unable to resist sneaking back into That Room after the others had left. There, on each pink and white bag, was that same word. Sugar.
Her control altogether gone now, Ally ripped open a bag, revealing a crystalline white powder. Something shifted in her brain, and without knowing why she did it, she scooped a bit of the stuff into her palm and licked it off. Interestingly, it dissolved on her tongue, much like the elemental salt supplements she sprinkled on each person's morning meal.
She stuffed some of the tiny crystals in her pocket, resolving to ask Mandy about it after work.
Her pocket burned all day as she worked, and true to her word, she headed to Mandy's the second it was time to go home, sending her family a quick message to let them know she'd be home late.
Mandy's house was a strange place, just as Mandy was a strange person. They'd been friends since Ally was little, although Mandy was much older, probably in her fifties now. She was the type who never held down a job for very long. Asked too many questions, yelled at too many people. Generally being a nuisance. Ally thought it was exceedingly charming, ever since she'd had Mandy as a babysitter.
"Mandy," she beamed as she entered. The windows were covered by thick black curtains, the room dusty despite being lived-in. Random, seemingly unrelated documents were scattered all about the floor, covering every surface. She recognized at least one paper as a court summons from when Mandy was arrested for public indecency, which Mandy claimed was code for "refusing to be an obedient little puppet."
"Ally," Mandy replied. She had that look she always had. Her proportions were as perfect as anyone else's, skin flawless, eyes large and doe-like and precisely her mother's favorite shade of green. Ally wasn't sure, then, how she managed to look like an overgrown raccoon, but she did nonetheless. It went well with her reputation as local conspiracy kook. "What is it?"
"I wanted to ask you about something," Ally said, and plopped down on the well-abused couch without further preamble.
"You'll get yourself in trouble, kiddo," whispered Mandy in her usual scratchy voice. "Like a smoker's," she'd joked to Ally once, although Ally hadn't the foggiest what that was supposed to mean.
"Okay," said Ally, and then everything spilled from her mouth in a jumble, in typical Ally fashion. "What's cake? And sweet? And bitter? And sugar? And--"
"Where did you learn those words?" rasped Mandy rather sharply.
"I found an old cookbook at work," said Ally, and didn't bother following it up with "Don't tell anyone," because that was pointless when Mandy didn't talk to anyone anyway. She did follow it up with, "There were bags of something called 'sugar' too, some kind of powder, like the elementals."
Mandy was silent for a long moment, shadowed eyes darting from Ally's left to Ally's right. "It might upset you," she said. "To know."
"You know me," Ally said, which was answer enough.
"My mother was a geneticist." Ally didn't answer. She knew this already, had been told many times. "She used to bring some papers home. Wouldn't say anything, never really did, but I looked. I liked to read."
"Sure, Mandy," Ally soothed, familiar with Mandy's cycles of agitation and sensing a spike.
Mandy took a deep breath. "There's stuff the Government doesn't want you to know."
Ally tried very hard not to feel disappointed. She hadn't come for more random conspiracy babbling.
"People used to get fat," said Mandy. Ally nodded; she'd known that much, been told in school that obesity used to be a huge problem before genetic mastery had been achieved. "The geneticists of the Old Times figured out that there were hundreds, thousands, of gene variations that caused it. Receptors for certain kinds of lipoproteins, recycling proteins, enzymes, inflammatory mediators."
"They fixed it when they got rid of genetic diseases," recited Ally.
"It wasn't only that, though," Mandy said darkly. "They figured, even if your genes are perfect, you could make yourself obese. There was this whole...this stigma about it, that being overweight was as bad as cancer, somehow. Made you ugly. And they figured, you could still get fat even with perfect genes, if you ate too much, or the wrong things."
"Why would anyone eat too much?" Ally responded automatically. "The formulary is very clear and nutritious."
"There wasn't always the formulary," says Mandy, as though Ally were a very small, very dense child. "People used to eat whatever, whenever, just by themselves, or with their families. Things that tasted good, or whenever they felt hungry." Sensing Ally's lack of understanding of these words, she sighed. "Humans were...we originally had a hunger drive, a sort of urge or need or almost pain you would feel when you needed to eat. But some people didn't have the right amount of hunger, or felt hunger when they were stressed, so the geneticists shut down your brain's ability to process hunger, just clean snipped some nerves off the hypothalamus.
"And then some foods tasted good. They would...they would hit your tongue and you would feel good. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes salty. It's...hard to explain. But every food tasted different, and the chefs I told you about, they would compete to see who could make the best food, and they would sell it in restaurants. Only sometimes when food tasted good people would eat too much of it, so now, we can't taste."
"Why wouldn't they tell us about that?" asked Ally skeptically. Her brain was whirring, struggling to process. "They told us about the other genetic manipulations. They were good for us."
"Because, kiddo," said Mandy, "if you had any idea what's been stolen from you, you'd burn them to the ground."
Ally read over the cookbook again that night, trying to decide if she believed Mandy. It sounded insane, and Mandy was insane, in all fairness. But at the same time...Mandy hadn't made the cookbook, and it definitely sounded like "sweet" and "bitter" were qualities of these foods that Ally didn't, couldn't, understand. Sure, she liked the texture of some foods more than others, but she ate all of her food anyway, because that was how it worked, how one got one's nutrients. "They would hit your tongue and you would feel good," Mandy had said. Absentmindedly, Ally touched the tip of her tongue, probed along its length. Felt the bumps there, wondered what they were for, or if they were just one of the useless mistakes of evolution that humans sometimes had.
She tried to imagine it. Taking a bite of the food she made every day, and it made her feel. She couldn't envision, not really, how she would feel because of food. Would her mouth feel warm, or pleasantly tingley? She licked her finger, just enough to moisten it, stuck it into her pocket. It coated with sugar.
Ally stared at her finger for a long, long time, so long her bent elbow grew tired and achey. Hesitantly, she popped the finger in her mouth, and felt the sugar dissolve on her tongue, and tried to pretend it tasted good.
It plagued her. The idea of hunger, of taste. Of feeling something upon eating, of wanting to eat, rather than eating because it was scheduled to be so. It was bizarre, and she still half didn't believe it, and yet it consumed her completely, totally. She sprinkled the measured cubic centimeters of elemental salt supplements on the colorless blend of food for the afternoon meal and wondered what it would taste like. Salt, so salty? The cookbook had said more salt made a dish flavorful, tangy. Would her dishes have flavor? If she were a chef in the Old Days, what sort of flavor would her food have?
Each and every day, she tried the sugar, just a little. She furrowed her brow and scrunched up her face like a child throwing a tantrum, gave herself headaches trying to feel something, to taste something, anything. She rubbed her stomach and imagined she was hungry, imagined feeling a hole there and filling it and feeling satisfied.
She imagined she was a world-famous chef who owned a restaurant. She imagined people liking her food, not just tolerating it, not just eating it because they were supposed to.
Still, she tasted nothing. At least, she didn't think she did. How would she even know if she started to feel something? Was it even possible? She didn't think so, and yet, against her better judgment, against all logic, she kept trying and trying and trying.
The Oddity report lay forgotten, trampled underfoot long ago. Ally couldn't remember if she'd ever finished writing her name on it.
Brains were plastic, Mandy had told her once. They could adapt. Change. Could build new neuronal connections over top of old, outdated ones, compensate for damage. But this...this wasn't damage, not really. It was just a hole. There was nothing there. Nothing at all.
Ally should've expected the other shoe.
"This door shouldn't be open," snapped Rob. Ally, in her haste and frustration, had accidentally left the door open the previous night and had not arrived early enough for the morning meal to fix it. She cursed herself silently, schooling her perfectly pretty face into a neutral expression. She wondered, distantly, if this was the taste of bitterness: bitterness at her mistake, at what she would lose. Bitterness at the fact that she never really gained anything to begin with.
"If I find anyone opening this again, they will be fired," Rob said, shutting the door and locking it with a final-sounding click. Ally turned back to her station and weighed out an exact portion of fibrous nutrition supplement.
Mandy was right. Ally wanted to burn them, and she didn't even know what it was, precisely, that she had lost. Her curiosity had turned into a mind-consuming pursuit of answers that were impossible for her to find.
Ally Vahn was perfect. Ally did not require working tastebuds, did not need hunger. Didn't want them. She was, after all, perfect without them. She stood in front of her mirror all night that night, studying her perfect face with her perfect eyes, eyes the exact color her parents wanted them to be, a misty blue-gray that changed hue in the light. She brushed back straight black hair and reminded herself that a genetically masterful modern human did not require such silly things, was better off without them.
Frantic suddenly, angry, she turned her pocket inside out and watched the remaining sugar spill onto the floor, wasted. Good, she thought viciously, chewed agitatedly at her nail, only to stop short and stare in wonder at her own reflection.
She laughed too loudly. Tears, she found, tasted salty.
Chewing on chalk. The sensation and the taste were the same. It was like chewing on fine powder. Bland and unappealing. Disgusting in its lack of any discernable taste. However, it was a fine filet mignon. It just wasn't right.
The fine pinkness of the meat and brilliant presentation hinted at craftsmanship to be lauded. He could feel the juices flowing within his gullet. As the succulent flow of umami dared enter his mouth, the instant the juice touched his tounge a shockwave splashed against his mind.
It was bland. Beyond bland. There was nothing.
Grasping for the water, he touched the glass to his lips. As the water escaped the container and passed his lips, he swished and spat the mix back onto the plate.
The waiter stood at attention. In his years of serving at such a fine establishment, he had never seen such rudeness on display. "I'm sorry sir. I'll get you another." The waiter quickly shifted his face back to its blank state. There was no need to further infuriate such a terrible customer. Even if it was the Golden Tongue.
"No. Get me the caviar. I need some salt to get some flavor back into my mouth." Scoffing at the dish in front of him, he pulled the napkin up to his mouth. Dabbing it, he cleaned the filth from his lips.
It only reminded him of that hole-in-the-wall in Louisiana he visted last. Such high expectations. And such an absolute disappointment.
He could hear her now. "I curse you Golden Tongue! May you never find joy for the rest of your days!"
Her dish truly deserved that one star.
The waiter came along with the small dish of caviar. As he sat the dish down, the fine dinnerware made its presentation.
Top notch! A Mother of pearl caviar spoon! They were truly pulling out all of the stops.
They needed to eitherway with how poor that first dish was.
Gripping the spoon, it ducked beneath the awaiting pile. Coming up for air, the spoon pulled with it a fine helping of caviar.
Inspecting the utensil for any abnormalities, he pulled it into his waiting maw. Clasping his mouth around the fish eggs, he awaited the splash of salty goodness to sweep along his palate. Yet, nothing came.
Spitting out his second batch of food, he raised his voice.
"What the hell are you serving me?"
"Caviar sir." The calm reply sobered the awestruck room.
"Taste that rubbish. Nothing comes from it."
The waiter grasped for the spoon. Digging into the dish, he tasted.
"There is nothing wrong with the caviar sir."
"You have to be shitting me. Nothing comes from that pile of filth."
"Are you intentionally trying to ruin my restaurant?" A voice bellowed from across the room. Obviously it was some bigwig. He had always hated when they complained. He was the critic here.
"The food tastes as bland as a sheet of paper. So, I'd say it is you intentionally sabotaging my fine taste."
"Yeah rubbish. Exactly how I would describe your food." He took a breath. "Now, get me a fine bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon!" He had to wash it down with something.
The waiter did not even hide his contempt. "Right away sir."
A minute passed. "Here you are... sir." That title came rather late.
Wafting the fine drink, he could smell the richness. This would be good. And he drank.
Only now did he realize.
He didn't have anything.
It was all gone. Like chewing and drinking chalk.
That Louisianian woman did something to him.
He couldn't taste anything.
He was the Golden Tongue.
Alan shut the door behind him and stepped into his dark apartment. He sighed, contemplating whether he should turn the light on or not.
Ari might already be asleep so it’ll be fine. He thought, flicking the switch. The dim light turned on, giving him just enough light to see to get to the fridge. During the day time, the sunlight was brighter than their light but at night, they had to use the old fixture to see.
He opened the fridge and bent down to look through it. A sub was pushed to the side of the fridge, untouched. He pulled it out and examined it, trying to figure out who’s it was.
“Ari’s?” he looked for any markings. “Or Vernon’s?”
He put it on the counter and turned back to the fridge trying to find something to drink. He straightened, confused. “Was it mine?”
Shaking his head, he grabbed a soda from the bottom shelf of the fridge. To his relief, it was unopened. He turned, shut the fridge door with his heel, and picked the sandwich up off the counter. He walked to the couch and plopped down, switching it on to the news channel.
As he unwrapped his sandwich, he listened to what the news anchor was saying.
“There was an accident on Interstate 78 this afternoon. A truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and caused a five car pile- up ...”
He tuned it out as he ate. He looked behind him at the wooden door that was shut.
“Is she really sleeping?” he asked himself.
Taking one more bite, he set the sub down on the coffee table and stood up. He walked to his sisters bedroom and opened the door a crack. Letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, he saw her flopped over the bed, blanket barely over her.
He walked through the doorway and pulled his sleeves over his hands more. Grabbing the edge of the fluffy purple blanket with his covered fingers, he pulled it up and over her. He tucked it over her shoulders and stood back, satisfied.
He left, shutting the door quietly behind him. He smiled for a moment but then it disappeared as Lucas’s words came back to him.
“Don’t you want to have a family?”
His head dropped and he looked down at the floor, his sleeved hand still holding onto the doorknob. He stayed like that for a moment, thinking.
Do I want a family? He asked himself. I don’t want to let them down like Dad did…
He stopped himself, not allowing his thoughts to go there. It wasn’t fair. His hand
dropped from the doorknob and he took a couple steps away from the door before stopping. A certain feeling filled his chest, spreading through his whole body. It was cold and foreign and for a moment, he thought he was having a flashback from the doorknob.
But I didn’t touch it.
And then it was gone, leaving a feeling of loneliness in its wake.
Alan sat in his chair, flipping his pen over his thumb impatiently. He had his red hood
pulled over his head, trying to block out the surrounding noise as best as possible. He studied the open book before him, propping his head up with his other hand.
Someone bumped into his back as they dodged a paper ball. They laughed and picked it up, throwing it back.
He glared at them but kept his mouth shut. He felt safe in his jacket, secure from the
invading memories and habits. After reading the old flower woman yesterday, he had picked up on the habit of tucking his non existent long grey hair behind his ears. Just thinking about it, he reached up and tucked the ends of his red hair behind his ear.
He jerked his hand down and held the edge of his book to keep himself from doing it again. He gritted his teeth as the people around him got louder. He slammed his book shut with a loud snap and everything was silent for a split second.
And then the door opened and a girl walked in. Her dark black hair danced around her waist as she entered, shutting the door behind her. Her brown eyes took in everything in a single glance; the two obnoxious boys standing on either side of the classroom, one about to throw the paper ball, the group of four girls in the far corner whispering about the latest drama, and the other people that were scattered about, minding their own business, and lastly, Alan.
She made eye contact with him and for a moment, Alan didn’t want to look away. An
easy smile spread across her face, making her beautiful eyes light up. She ran a hand through her hair, flipping it over to the other side before heading to her seat, the front left corner. She sat down, hooking her backpack on the hook on the side of her desk.
Alan looked back down at his book and pulled his sleeves over his hands even more, the secure feeling growing stronger.
He studied the edge of the sleeves, battered and worn from their use. He loved the
jacket as it had protected him for as long as he could remember. He rubbed the edge of the cuff between his forefinger and thumb for a moment.
I need a new jacket.
The teacher entered and he straightened, reorganizing the pens and book on his desk. Class was starting and he had no time to think about his jacket or the dark haired girl.
Ari straightened behind her brother as they stood in line, waiting for their food. She
stood on her tippy toes, trying to be the same height as her brother.
“Why are you taller than me when we’re twins?” she asked, pulling on his shoulders to shorten him. He shrugged them off.
“I don’t know,” he answered quietly, stepping forward. “Why are you so short?”
She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “At least I’m not a jerk.”
“Look, Ari, I’m kind of tired,” he looked over his shoulder.
She perked up and peaked around him. “You read someone, didn’t you? You always get moody and tired after reading someone.”
She watched him for a moment as he reached up and brushed the tips of his hair behind his ear.
“Oh,” she pointed at what he had just done. “You did! You even have their habits!”
He glared at her. “It was that woman who sells flowers at the corner.”
She laughed. “The one that always yells at me whenever I stop to smell the flowers?”
Pinching her nose, she spoke from the back of her mouth, trying to imitate the woman. “You don’t get to smell them if you ain't gonna buy ’em.”
“Hahaha, very funny,” he rolled his eyes. “But yeah, it was her.”
“What did you see?” she prodded, poking his arm. “Tell me.”
He ignored her for a moment as he slid his tray down the line, telling them what he wanted.
“I saw her son as a baby,” he answered, waiting for her to get down.
“Her son? He’s been gone for years!” Ari said, leading him towards their normal seat. “When he left for college, he never called or came back. Never wrote, never visited, never showed his face.”
“Why?” he sat down.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. They don’t know either. You probably saw that scene because she hates the fact that her one and only son doesn’t even call.”
He chewed on his lip for a second, thinking. “Wouldn’t you get over it eventually?”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Get over it?” she laughed. “You can’t just act like your son, which you carried for nine months, birthed, and raised to the age of eighteen, didn’t hurt you by leaving and never coming back. Could you?”
He nodded. “Just don’t think about it. If you don’t think, you don’t feel.”
“Is that how you deal with grief?” she asked, frowning. “Is that why Mom and Dad’s death was so easy to handle?”
He stopped eating and swallowed, shocked. “What? No!”
“Then how was it so easy for you to act like nothing has happened?” she raised her voice. “Was it easy to forget them by not thinking about them?”
He bit the end of his tongue to keep from snapping at her. Steadying himself, he answered. “We’re just dealing with it differently.”
She scoffed. “Sure, okay. That’s great.”
She stood up and grabbed her tray. “And I bet you didn’t even remember that this is the one year anniversary of their death, did you?”
And then she was gone, stomping away from him. He didn’t blame her for being mad because he hadn’t remembered. Maybe that’s why he’d had that weird feeling last night. He thought back. It had been around midnight by the time he’d gotten home, around the time the accident happened.
He closed his eyes as hot tears boiled up. He rested his hands on the table and took a deep breath but it didn’t stop the tears from flowing. He reached up to wipe his tears away but he stopped when he sensed someone standing next to him.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the girl. He recognized her immediately, Jules Wiles, the girl who he had seen earlier that day. She carried herself with control and confidence, each step having a purpose.
She reached out and wiped one of his tears away with the edge of her thumb. His skin turned cold as he anticipated a flashback but none came.
“Sorry,” she smiled. “It just makes me sad to see someone crying.”
And then she was gone, continuing on her way. He watched as she sat down a couple tables over with a group of girls and guys, laughing.
He reached up and touched where she had, confused.
“Why didn’t I see anything?” he studied his hand. “What is this?”
He looked back at her, watching as she pulled her hair up into a ponytail.
“Is she special?” he questioned, letting his hand drop. “Or did it go away?”
Pearl Before Swine Prologue
I cannot see, cannot hear, not by the usual definitions of those words, but I possess an awareness that sets me apart from the other rocks. I am a speck, a spark cradled in the sand’s coarse embrace. It churns, ebbs, and flows, heavy, then not.
Grains scrape my sides, and I capture them, consume them. The circle of my being pushes outward, slow but steady.
Light waltzes with the water, clothed in warmth, and shadow herds the dance, its voice an empty chill. I like them both, the balance, the variance, and as my awareness expands, so does the minutia of those differences.
For a moment, light strokes my sides with a slow touch, and my spirit leans into that weightless hand. It taps in rapid bursts, and I want to move with it.
Why do all things move except me?
As a speck, I did not understand motion, but as I catch up in size to the pebbles that litter the sea floor, I see it everywhere, and I want it with the same want owned by the electric things above me.
They fulfill their wants, long, lean bodies dashing to and fro somewhere between me and the light. They work with the water, a give and take, chaos always imbued with some level of grace.
The longer I watch, the more layers I perceive. Water does not keep a set form, sloshing and twisting, two droplets rarely meeting again. Yet, though they bend, these creatures have a limited range of shapes, and within their basic outline, all movement is organized—a beating heart, a flapping gill, a ticking mind.
Do I move on the inside like that?
I imagine pushing against this prison formed of my own body and swimming toward them. Though my round sides do not leave the sea floor, I touch the creatures and sink into their thoughts. It is another sea, and I flow with its waves.
Is this freedom? Is this enough?
The want burns, ever more hungry, and I clutch at the liquid thoughts around me. If I can stay in here, does that mean I belong? Can I travel with these fish when they leave, see what lies beyond my dimple in the sand?
Energy slides through the cracks of my fantasy hands until I hold nothing, and I jump to the next fish. And the next. And the next. They are all the same.
Why am I alone? Are there others like me somewhere? Can they show me how to do this right?
Light flees from a large shadow, and ice shoots through my small fish. The feeling pushes them faster than I have ever witnessed them move, but for the one weighed down by my attention, the shove is too weak. The larger creature draws it in, and the cold flame of fear explodes into a hot, sticky sensation.
Water constantly rips and crashes, never the same shape from moment to moment, heedless of its shifting form, but for this solid creature, tearing apart hurts.
I flinch away, a new flare growing beside the desire, but it dies as quickly as it arrived. The prey’s pain does not last, and everything the creature had been soaks into the clockwork of the larger fish, filling in its missing pieces. Warm, soft satisfaction blossoms in the surviving animal, equal to the pain of before.
Balance and difference, like with the light and shadow. This is right, never too much of one or the other.
Where do I fit? The fish consume each other as I consume the sand, but I am not sand. It does not feel, yet I do, so what am I?
As always, the fish swims away, and I cannot follow. Where do they come from? Where do they go?
I continue to capture the only thing I can until I am the largest of the pebbles within my range of awareness, and as I grow, so does the breadth of my senses. More exists above the water, the domain of air. It does not move like ocean or sand. What would it feel like rubbing against my sides? Softer? Faster?
A bird soars through the currents of the sky and dives, spearing a fish before taking off again.
Notice me! Carry me away like that.
The birds come again and again, and none hear me.
The sand trembles in rhythmic crescendos beneath weight I cannot fathom, and water makes way for humongous paws. The sea floor squelches and dips, and finally, I move.
For the first time, light caresses my underside, but it lasts less than a moment as I roll, not far. The sand catches me again, an abrasive but gentle-handed prison guard. This imprint is larger than mine was. As the beast that made it splashes along the shore, chasing fish trapped in tidepools, I wonder at its size.
Can I grow that big? Other creatures will have to notice me then.
I gobble sand as quickly as I can, but I do not seem to expand any faster.
Why am I alone? Why does no one see me? Do I even exist?
Watching the other beings—fish of the sea, beasts of the land, birds of the sky—and experiencing the world through them brings something similar to the satisfaction they feel when they fulfill their wants. Yet, it is incomplete, one raindrop to quench a drought while laden storm clouds wait above, just out of reach, crackling with the thunder of my frustration.
Then, it happens. The sand shifts as it so often has beneath the feet of many creatures, but none have been like this. Light describes a face rippling through the water, eyes nowhere near as round as a fish’s, a short, pointed nose, a wide mouth, and a strong chin. He is looking at me.
A hand cuts through the surface, and fingers scoop beneath my curves. His touch is tentative as if he fears I will break, but firm, not allowing the retreating waves to haul me away. Fear nips within me. How many times have I witnessed prey’s capture? Will he consume me? Will it hurt?
It will mean becoming a part of him. In that way, I can leave this place.
Will it still be me, though? Will I still experience it?
I rise and at last taste the air. It is cold and bright, weightless and smooth. I barely feel it at all as he pulls me closer to ever-widening eyes.
His thoughts are an ocean deeper than any creature’s, a chasm stretching further than all the others combined, and as he stares at me, that sea within him fills with wonder. Excitement swells and undulates the electric waters.
Can he feel my emotions like I feel his? Can he hear me? Am I like him?
Vibrations pour from his mouth, and he runs from the water, showing me to others. They form a cacophony. Is this how they communicate, by wild gestures and discordant noises?
None of them can hear me either.
He drops me in a silken bag, and light shrinks as he pulls the top closed, but still I listen, studying the vibrations. They form patterns. Some repeat.
This is me. This is what they call me, and as their mouths mold the sounds, they think of the depths of a night sky, the radiance of a thousand sunsets. That is what they see in my curved sides, and it saturates me with a feeling that bubbles and laps at my circumference. My body is still a prison, but when they look upon me, they experience such wonder, their gaze lost within me as if they can see my thoughts.
Why can they not? These bipedal beings are better than the fish, the beasts, and the birds. Am I better than them because I can do something they still cannot? Or are their nuanced noises simply too advanced for me? How I wish I could at least hum. I want to join the conversation blaring all around.
We move. He walks with an uneven gait. He rests. He repeats the process, and the further he travels, the duller the sounds. Tall, slow-thinking creatures line his path, amused by the chirping birds that flit through their branches.
I am torn between two emotions, sitting in the palm of fear while fascination shines upon me. Each time he takes a step, I traverse new land. With every stride, I notice something I did not before, and I never want this to end.
Yet, his hunger grows, and so fear refuses to release me. Why would he carry me if not to satisfy that void within him? Why does he wait? His middle growls. Can he understand it?
On top of this, a wrongness surrounds him, as if he, too, has curved sides extending in all directions. It incites all who can to flee. Wary birds watch from far above, and the trees whisper that he does not belong.
At long last, he stops and kneels, pulls me from his pocket, and carefully divests me of the bag. Light is weak and slanted, but I am so starved of its touch, I rejoice at its return, tugging it around me like the cloth that wraps this man. It is a rebellious and difficult material, spearing off in disjointed rays, and my bearer stares, awe boiling over.
The emotion shivers through me, and my giggle ripples the light. His lips peel back, revealing teeth, and I tighten my grip on the glow. This is it. He will eat me.
But he does not. Spikes of fear pin him to the ground, cushioned by hope, as shadows shift and part. An entirely different being approaches, and every spark within me stills. The new presence washes over and through me, heavier than a whole ocean. Every mote of my attention is captured and drawn in.
“Terra,” the man whispers, and the mighty being acknowledges the address with an inclined face. While similar in form to the man’s, Terra’s features comprise the sharpest of angles and smoothest of planes as if chiseled in stone and metal instead of molded of clay.
He is a tempest, powerful and chaotic yet calm at his core, every part swirling by his design. The man chatters to him, and when Terra speaks, it is thunder. The rock walls shake, but my fear has vanished. Though loud and deep, his voice is akin to luminescence and warmth. The man trembles, but I want to feel it again.
I toy with my cloak of light, weaving it into bold flickers and dark lulls. Will he notice?
As the man lowers his head and lifts his hands, Terra’s gaze falls on me. Gold glints in burnt brown irises, matching the twisted walls of this cave. The corners of his eyes and lips pull back as he steps forward, hoof clicking against rock and arm extended. The man’s fingers tilt, and I roll into Terra’s grasp.
Though I had nearly filled the man’s palm, to Terra, I am a grain of sand just barely too large to sink between the stitches of his ruddy skin. Giddiness hums within me, and I wave my light faster. Keep looking at me.
If they stare for long enough, can I use this to communicate?
Terra speaks again. Curiosity shimmers across his edges.
I recognize some of the man’s reply. “Sea stone.”
Several sensations pass through Terra, but like him, they are so immense and quick, I glimpse only their corners before they are gobbled by his tranquil center. Shock. Regret. Hope. Wonder.
Am I the cause of these feelings? Does he know what I am, where I should be?
Now that I have seen his core open its mouth, I perceive its cracks. As the man leaves, bursting with satisfaction, I find something too familiar in Terra. The feeling of being unseen, trapped, alone.
Why would he feel this way? The man clearly knew of him and traveled a great distance to interact with him. He is leaving now, but he will return. The fish always returned, and they did not even know I was there.
“Ah, it is a feeling you know.”
Again, everything within me freezes. What is this? A thought that is not mine. It is his, yet it is meant for me.
I sculpt a reply, scraping its outline clean. “I have always been alone. But you can hear me?”
He chuckles. “Because we are the same, you and I, in more than just our loneliness.”
“Why? You are not alone.”
He strides further into the cave, and I revel in the rhythmic clack of his four hooves, in the breeze that brushes my sides and tousles his russet hair beneath his curved horns. It means we are moving, and though this motion is not in result of my own will, I feel I can add a “yet” to that sentiment. Someday I will move because I wish it.
We pass other creatures, small things with fur and tiny insects who ignore us like my fish. Others formed of stone pause in their work as if awaiting a command that does not come, faces turned toward us always.
“What are they?”
“Golems. Creatures of Essence. They live because I wish it.”
I languish in the feel of having an answer, even if I do not fully understand it. It is a start, and I hold it even closer than the light. But the satisfaction fades quickly, trampled by a myriad of more questions.
“What are we?”
Terra releases something between a sigh and a hiss. “I am the Essence of the Land. Stone and soil belong to me, and you are full of questions, as is typical of one so small, I suppose.”
I am not only full of questions. I am overflowing. Is that also normal?
He waits for me to ask another, expectation pulsing against my sides. The spaces between those beats hold my attention—snapshots of emptiness so vast, my wonderings could never fill it.
A statement attempts to instead, an echo of something I have already said. “You are not alone.”
He stops. We stop, and his hand rises to bring me level with gigantic brown eyes.
“No, I am not alone as some would define it, but everything that rises, falls, and everything that comes, leaves.”
Continued in Chapter 1: The Essence of the Sea
Thank you for reading!
Pass the Pen Challenge (Part 2)
I have to get away before...before They come.
Eric’s heart thudded in rhythm with his pounding feet as he scrambled over the rocks and ridges surrounding the work site.
“Where ya goin’?” Radcliff yelled after him.
No time, no time.
“I said, where do you think yer goin’?” Now he was angry, massive vein-crossed arms folded across his chest.
Eric didn’t look back but picked up his pace, stumbling and almost falling head-long down the rapidly increasing decline. Radcliff and the rest of the workers were swallowed up, though their shouts echoed after.
A quick glance at the sky confirmed that a storm was rolling in, its sickly green and purple clouds mocking his plight.
They can’t find me!
The first spattering of rain came, drops hissing as they landed on the dusty rocks. Eric frantically searched for cover. There--a small nook carved under a jagged overhang. He leaped the rest of the way to the bottom of the gulch just as lightning flashed across the sky.
First Day of School
“The vampires only come out during naptime.”
“Listen, don’t eat the glue. Unless it’s Elmers. We don’t eat that off brand stuff.”
“It’s totally fine to pee at your desk. It shows commitment.”
“Well, kiddo, your mom and I won’t ever see you again. Don’t worry. They feed you at lunchtime and give you naps. Bye!”
I Headed East
In the year of ’94
I left old England’s shore
to sail for evermore
I headed East
Through the storms of Biscayne bay
Past Portugal and Spain
to The mediterran I came
I headed East
Onto Egypt’s Port Said
and the canal that man has made
amongst Arab world I sailed
and headed East
Sri Lanka and Malaysia passed me by
Christmas Island I saw on high
to Australias Southern Bight
I headed East
On Japan’s Serene shore
I dallied a month or more
then into the Pacific Sea once more
I headed East
To Pannama I came
to the canal of Million graves
Then Carribeans bountiful isles
and headed East
The whales they sang to me
my home I would soon see
Across the Atlantic sea
if I headed East
This world I’ve sailed all round
no circumfence I found
by heading out I’m Homeward bound
I headed East
Part of the Total
On August 21, 2017, much of the United States will participate in a mass viewing of the first total solar eclipse in almost 100 years to be visible in our country. I will be out and watching, but I will only see a sun eclipsed 81 percent, as I am several hundred miles north of totality's path. Why don't I just hop on a plane or get in the car and go to a location that will see the total event? I would love to, but I can't. I'm sorely disappointed, but it's not the first time.
Even with my love of astronomy (I was going to minor in it in college), I have not seen many of the wondrous phenomena that have taken place in our skies. Halley's Comet? Cloudy. Hale-Bopp? Cloudy. What about the Perseid meteor shower each year? Cloudy or raining almost every single time. I think I've seen a couple of meteors, but I also live in an area with a great deal of light pollution, so I can't really be sure. Same goes for the Leonids and all the other showers that light up the heavens around our planet. I have a nice telescope, but it's too heavy to carry around to a deserted area most of the time although I did see Jupiter with three of its Galilean moons the first time I used it - awesome!!
So, back to the traveling. Bottom line - I don't have the money to get a plane ticket. Traveling is expensive, and due to a disability, I can work only enough hours to just make ends meet. It's been this way for so many years that I've stopped even thinking about the possibility of such a luxury. And sitting in a car for hours hurts my body more than I care to admit. For someone who used to love driving cross-country, that's kind of sobering, too.
But even if can't see the total eclipse, millions of other people will, and I'll be out with my funky protective glasses to look at the 81 percent this area will get. And with the internet, I'll be able to see some fabulous pictures and share in the amazing science that's going to be uncovered by this event. I could be all mopey and refuse to enjoy the day, but what purpose would that serve? Life is what it is, and it's up to each of us to make the most out of what we have. I will be out, virtually sharing the day with every other sky watcher. Together the sum of all our parts will be greater than the total.
"NO, STOP! PLEASE, GOD!"
"It's going to be ok James! I swear to you, it will all be ok!"
That was a lie. I knew that it was not going to be ok. These people took us for no reason, NONE. Now I am here, strapped to a table, alone in the darkness. There's only one window, with a shape of a cross, and it sits directly above my head. The only sound that was present was the constant screaming from James and the yelling of the others in the asylum. To think that today was such a good day until now. I was laying down by the lake, looking at the sky, and thinking about the times. Unfortunately, I am now here listening to people's screams.
Suddenly, four people walked into my room, all of them males. Three of them had pen and paper while the last was just staring at me methodically.
"Hello William. How do you feel?"
"How di I feel? You kidnaped me and my best friend for no reason!"
"Oh, but there is a reason."
"Well, what is this "reason?""
"We received troubling information from a few of Watts's residents."
"You know what you did, William."
"I don't! I was just minding my own business by the lake until you bastards came and took me away!"
The man wiped his forehead while letting out a deep breath. "Todd, go ahead and start the Shocker.
"What? No wait!"
But it was too late. The pain was bad, but the faces of the cold, stern men just looking at me with no expressions was the worst part. The pain was so unbearable that after they shut it off, I was beginning to weep a cataract down my face.
"I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING!"
"Wait, no please! AHHH!"
"I didn't do anything, I swear to god!"
"Ha, funny. Again!"
They shocked me two more times before I passed out from the pain. when I woke, I was strapped tightly in a bed. This was the first of many nights that this would happen. I would scream for what felt like hours, then hear the screams of James and a few other patients for the rest of the night. I would go weeks without showering. I would often be forced to still be strapped to my bed even after I soiled it with my waste. At some point, I had had enough and decided to confess my crimes.
"So, you decided to finally admit your crimes?"
"I have laid in bed with another man."
"Who was this man?"
"His name is James. I've been hearing his screams and cries for months now. Is he ok?"
"Of course. He admitted his crimes a month ago. He's even been sent home."
A sadness slowly creeped through my body. I wondered why I wasn't told, I would of said something a long time ago, but instead I am here. I am suffering. And now I am alone.
"You will be able to shower and go outside the facility for a short period of time. I understand that it's been about a week since you've gotten a nice, hot shower."
The bastard, It had been two weeks since I've had a good shower. When the water hit my body, I felt a release of relief and happiness, one that can only be comparable to the feeling that many men feel when they hold their son or daughter for the first time. After the shower, one of the nurses took me outside where I could see the sky. It was the most beautiful sky that I have ever threw my eyes upon. I stood there for about five minutes until I was escorted back to my room. At this point, being strapped in my bed was my life now, it was all I knew. I laid in the quiet for about an hour until I heard a voice say, "William."
"Who was that? Where are you!?"
"James? My love?" I said while my voice cracked.
"It is me."
"I don't understand, where are you?"
"I'm so sorry, my love, but I am dead."
"No. I must be going insane. They told me that you were released a month ago!"
"Do you really believe anything that comes out of their mouths? There's no leaving here. They killed me William."
"I am so sorry. Please, take me with you, get me out of this hell."
"It's not your time yet, but I will get you out of here."
"Really? But when? How?
"No time to explain, the men that tortured us are on the way here right now. Just let us handle It."
"Good evening William."
"Now, we got some things planned for you today. After we finish, you will be able to go home and see-" Before he could finish his sentence, his neck snapped off his head. The other men in the room screamed in terror, but before they could run for safety, all of their heads snapped off as well. I should of been horrified, yet I wasn't. I decided to rejoice In the deaths of these monsters.
"HAHAHA!" I yelled viscously.
"Go William. We will handle the rest."
As I walked through the asylum and out of that hell-hole, I realized something. I was wrong before, THIS is the most beautiful sky I have ever laid my eyes upon. All of the blood floated in the air and halted, forming the shape of a skull. Before I left, I looked back, one last time, and said, "Thank you, my love."
The noise of the alarm clock reverberated around the tiny bedroom, bouncing hostile sound waves off the bare, magnolia walls. Trevor Broadbent awoke from another unsettling dream. He sat up in one efficient, swooping movement and switched off the alarm letting his fingers linger for a moment on his trusty time keeper. He shook his head, as if to clear out some of the lingering images.
"Never take your work home with you," he muttered.
Trevor was usually a deep sleeper but he had never been late for work; not once. Yes, another day at the supermarket, bright and early with things to do, work to be done. There was something about today, however, that didn't feel quite right. Perhaps another storm was coming? Trevor glanced at the window. The flimsy green curtain was struggling to contain the bright light behind it. His feet found his slippers in their usual precise location and marched into the bathroom to shave with his head aloft. He efficiently disposed of the dark shadow of stubble which had crept onto his face and combed his dark hair into a neat side parting, placing the tools of his grooming neatly back in their resting places.
Trevor’s apartment was small and uncluttered with a rather outdated collection of seventies furniture. He got dressed and treated himself to breakfast in the kitchenette (his usual – black coffee with one sugar and two pieces of wholemeal toast lightly buttered, right to the edges with three slices of bacon). Trevor then straightened his tie and headed down the stairs and out to his car. It was a sunny day and there were several neighbours outside in the street.
“Hi, Mr Broadbent!” called Mrs Tillman raising her sunhat adorned head from her plants for a moment.
Stupid woman, she doesn't know there's a storm coming, he thought.
Trevor waved his arm stiffly and got into his car. He drove the short distance to the supermarket in 3 minutes and 43 seconds – his personal best. He smiled to himself as he passed through the brightly lit doors of the store.
“There he is! Hey Trev!”
Trevor rolled his eyes and continued walking. “You know my name Douglas, I suggest you use it.”
“Yeah, well, I prefer when people call me Doug but hey.”
Doug skipped in front of Trevor and turned to face him, trotting backwards whilst he spoke.
“As I was saying, Trev, you know what Melissa and I just heard?”
Trevor carried on walking past Doug with a frown. “No, and I don’t particularly care.”
“You will, Trev, you will. Listen, we overheard Bob talking on the phone. The area manager is coming in for a spot check today.”
Trevor stopped in his tracks allowing Doug to catch up. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. And they have no idea that we know. We can totally wipe the floor with the other departments this time. We’ll be the meat kings!”
Trevor licked the corner of his mouth fervently. Last time they had done the area spot check the pharmacy department had come out on top and Nasser had been smirking at him ever since. His sly comments made Trevor’s teeth clench and he once squeezed a pack of sausages so hard they shot out the end of the plastic like little porky fingers. An unnecessary mess, indeed.
No. This time he would be ready. Everything would be pristine. He nodded slowly at first but then more excitedly as he relished the thought of the opportunity. He looked up at his young colleague.
“Thank you, Douglas. This is excellent. Good work.”
“Yeah, baby. High five!”
Trevor glared at him. “Don’t you have something important to do? Start with the labels. Everything has to be perfect!”
Doug rolled his eyes. “Yes, Master Trev” he said mocking him with a salute and strutting off towards the fridge section of the store.
Trevor dropped his belongings off into the staff room and walked briskly back out onto the shop floor. He inhaled deeply, prepping himself for what was about to come. This time he would be ready. He’d not be overlooked for promotion again. They were going to notice his work, this time.
As he headed to the pork section to check on the presentation of the aisle he heard a muffled murmur coming from the direction of the fridge. It was a very low sound, its origin quite indefinite. Trevor stopped for a moment, cocking his head to the side and straining his ears to hear. Nothing but the hum of the fridge. He paused, certain that he would hear it again but the sound was gone.
“Are you slacking?”
Trevor jumped at the sound of another voice behind him. “Uh, no Bob. I was thinking.”
“Oh, don’t do that Trevor! You might cause yourself a mischief!” Bob said, still laughing.
Trevor was distracted for a moment by the sight of his manager’s portly middle juddering up and down as he laughed at him. He thought of this greasy, fat little man, stuffing his face, laughing to reveal a mouth full of half chewed burger. The thought of it disgusted Trevor. He gritted his teeth once again and persuaded his mouth into a smile at the corners. He forced a disingenuous chuckle.
Bob stopped laughing immediately. “No time for fooling around Trevor. I want you to help on the tills today.”
Trevor’s mouth fell open. “But, Bob. I haven’t worked the cash register for such a long time.”
“We all have to do it occasionally,” said Bob, slapping Trevor between his shoulder blades. “Anyway, it’s good to get back down to the grass roots every now and again.” Bob grinned at him now, showcasing those slightly oversized teeth of his. “Go and relieve Marjorie, she’s due her break.”
Trevor stood, staring past Bob, stunned into silence. The fat bastard knew he had work to do before the inspection. None of the section managers ever had to work the tills. The idea was preposterous!
“Go on then, man!” Bob motioned with his hand, flapping it around like he was trying to put out a match. “Poor Marjorie’s probably desperate for a ciggie.”
Trevor looked at Bob briefly, and instantaneously imagined his fat, heavy, naked body propped up on top of an eager Marjorie in bed, surrounded by ashtrays full of spent cigarette butts.
Horrified, Trevor blinked hard, eager to erase the image from his mind but it felt like it had been burned into the backs of his eyelids.
He he he.
A low hum of laughter echoed in the back of his brain. He rushed off to the till feeling queasy, leaving a bemused looking Bob at the fridge shaking his head.
Trevor approached Marjorie’s till and waited for her to finish ringing through her current customer. She nodded to him and thanked him in a deep, smoker’s voice and squeezed her square behind out of the cashier’s booth. Trevor forced a smile and sat down on the seat. It was still warm. He shifted on his hips and started to scan items for the next customer – a mother with two whining kids. He looked over her shoulder trying to spot Douglas.
Douglas waved from afar, mouthing. Trevor couldn’t make out what he was saying but it appeared to be a question. He scanned a jar of peanut butter and made a face directed at Douglas who waved frantically in reply. Glancing over to make sure Bob wasn’t looking, Trevor waved Douglas over to the till and breathed with relief when his colleague decided to approach.
“You wanted a price check, Trev?” he said, grinning proudly as if he’d thought of the cleverest ruse.
“Yes, Douglas. Thank you.”
Douglas leaned in whispering. “This is clearly sabotage. You know that, right?”
“Yes, yes Douglas, I don't care what it is,” Trevor said gritting his teeth like a ventriloquist. “Just do something about it!”
“I’ll see what I can do. Be right back with the price.” Marching off with purpose, Douglas left, taking a jar of jam with him. Exasperated, Trevor sat staring at Douglas, wondering what on earth his next move would be. His concentration was interrupted by a low, rumbling voice.
You dirty bastard.
Trevor looked around for the source. The woman in front of him stood impatiently waiting for her jam.
I know what’s in your filthy little ’ead, Trevah.
Again, Trevor looked around but he could not locate the source. He felt uneasy – on edge. Today was, getting to him.
Douglas finally came bouncing back over to the cash register, jam in hand.
“Here you go, Madam. I’ll take over after this, Trev. Anne needs you over at the fish counter.”
Trevor’s shoulders relaxed. He quickly scanned the jam and two packets of bacon to finish the woman’s purchase. When he got back to his section, he was appalled to find that there was still a lot to do. Labels were not straight, some stock was uneven and he found some ham in the turkey section. He got to work straight away.
As he was working, the hum of the fridge seemed, once again, to intensify. He rubbed his temples and carried on. But the hum, to his surprise, continued. It sounded like a low vibration but it was uneven now, almost rising and falling in waves. Trevor stopped and strained to listen. It was not a hum that he could hear. It was more like a multitude of voices, shouting in the distance.
Trevor tried to follow the sound. He put his ear to the fridge moving his head lower and lower until he was crawling along the floor. No matter how hard he strained to hear it, he could not locate the exact position of this infernal noise. As soon as he thought he was heading in the right direction, the sound would seem to move and he would have to start all over again, listening intently for any increase in volume. He crawled along the ground, ear to the floor, and then paused to lift his head. In front of his eye line he could see a row of mince, and next to it, some steak. He eyeballed the nearest packet of meat.
Trevor reached out and grabbed the nearest packet.
You FOUND me, Trevah!
Trevor stared at the steak in his now quivering hands. He dropped it onto the floor and let out a pathetic shriek. At once, he heard a symphony of low humming, growling and laughter. Covering his ears, Trevor stood rooted to the spot, eyes darting from left to right at the meat fridge in front of him.
“Stop! Stop it! Shut up! SHUT UP!”
“And as you know, this is…”
The cacophony died down and Trevor heard the voice behind him. He turned to see the area manager, Dawn Lidman, now staring, side by side with Bob, carrying out her spot check of the store.
Trevor’s mind instantly created an image of Dawn, in lingerie and thigh high leather boots with a hungry expression on her face. She was rubbing butter into the skin of Bob's pale, naked rump and he looked to be enjoying it. Those oversized teeth were all on show now amidst his wide, exaggerated grin.
He closed his eyes tight, breathed deeply and tried to erase the image from his mind.
“Are you alright?”
Dawn Lidman was speaking to Trevor and all he could see in his mind’s eye was this disgusting, repulsive vision. He opened his eyes. The image was gone. He let out a sigh of relief.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asked again.
“Y.. Yes. I’m just fine,” Trevor replied.
No, you aint. Hehehe. You want to see her meat.
Trevor thrust his body forward and threw up the contents of his stomach onto the shop floor. Coffee-coloured jam toast particles peppered the floor in front of him. It looked for a moment like it was covered in writhing, brown maggots. He stared at it momentarily, eyes watering, snot dripping from his nose.
“Jesus Trevor, what the hell is wrong with you?” Bob said, finally after some awkward moments. Dawn Lidman just stood silently beside him, unable to retract her stare from the mess on the floor. “Go on. Go home before we all get sick," Bob continued. "I'll get someone to clean that up."
Trevor drove home bewildered, not even thinking about the journey. The sunny morning had given way to an afternoon of uncertainty in the sky. Grey clouds dominated the horizon and the air felt heavy and close. Trevor let himself into his flat and sat down on the brown sofa, gathering his thoughts. Why did he have to be ill today of all days? He would have to wait even longer for his promotion. He opened his mouth to burp, screwing up his face at the acidic taste now offending his tongue.
What on earth was wrong with him? Perhaps he had a fever. That would explain the hallucinations. He decided to take himself to bed to rest.
Trevor lay in bed, at first staring at the ceiling and then struggling to find a comfortable position. He was hot. The sweat was running down the side of his head, saturating the pillow, but he didn’t have the energy to change it for a dry one. Instead he tossed and turned. He could hear the intermittent buzz of a lone fly. The fly seemed intent on buzzing around his headboard, stopping every now and again to tease him with a moment’s peace. He pulled the covers over his head for a second but couldn’t bear the heat. The fly continued to flit from spot to spot for what seemed like an age, and Trevor eventually sank into sleep.
In his mind’s eye, the confusion of a dream began. First, he was the fly, impatiently moving from place to place, stopping every now and again to take in his surroundings. He buzzed through the supermarket, past Douglas and Melissa gossiping in the corner, out through the stock room and then into what appeared to be a large dining room. He flew past a group of luncheoning ladies and saw Bob, lying on a platter with an apple in his mouth, ready to be devoured. He rested for a moment in the hair of an elderly woman named Maud as she waited for her slice of thigh.
He flew off again and headed through a kitchen and into a freezer room, passing by a row of hanging carcasses. As he prepared to land on one he was hit by a fly swat and found himself hanging by a hook embedded in his back.
“Would you like to be stunned first, sir?”
Trevor raised his head as best he could towards the direction of the voice.
He could feel the cold hook stretching the skin on his back, opposing the weight of his body but he was powerless to alleviate the pain.
“I said, would you like to be stunned first? I hear it’s much better that way.”
The voice was coming from a man dressed in a waiter’s outfit holding a large stun gun. Trevor looked ahead of him and watched as a man wearing a plastic apron proceeded to stun a woman resembling Mrs Tillman from next door. He struggled to free himself from the hook, horrified at what he was about to watch. The man in the apron was holding a very sharp knife and he was humming loudly. He stepped towards Mrs Tillman’s throat…
Trevor gasped for breath, his eyes open. His heart was beating fast in his chest and his head was throbbing. It was just a dream, he thought.
But, he could still hear the humming.
He sat up in bed and wiped the sweat from his brow. Confused, he glanced across at the clock. It was 9:34pm. The loud hum was coming from the hallway. He staggered through the bedroom, still feeling weak and unsteady. When he opened the door he realised it was coming from his kitchen.
“What the… ?”
Trevor turned on the light, squinting at the brightness for a moment. He walked over to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. “It’s the bloody fridge!” he thought, sighing. He gave it a couple of whacks on the side and the hum stopped.
Relieved, Trevor headed to the bathroom to look for some headache tablets.
He stopped for a moment to look at his reflection in the mirror. He didn’t look well at all. His eyes looked sunken and droopy with dark shadows creeping down towards his pale cheeks. He looked exhausted – about as bad as he felt. He shuffled back towards the bedroom, eased himself back into bed, pulled up the covers and closed his eyes.
Impatiently, Trevor sat bolt upright in bed, his head immediately punishing him for his swiftness. He groaned, cradling his temple in one palm as he shuffled back towards the kitchen. He whacked the fridge again but the humming didn’t stop. Frustrated and fed up, he reached around to the back, unplugged the fridge and headed back to bed. He rested his head on the pillow and breathed deeply.
Confused, Trevor sat up once again. “What the fuck?”
Hehehe, that’s more like it Trevah.
Trevor froze, the hair on the back of his neck lifting up. He pinched himself on the arm.
Hehehe. You’re not dreaming, Trevah.
The words sounded like they were coming from the kitchen. Trevor didn’t want to go back there again. He lay back down in bed pulling the covers up above his head.
You think this is all in your ’ead, don’t ya, Trevah. Well, it aint. Hehehe.
“Go away! Shut up!” Trevor pulled the pillow over his head to block out the sound.
You’ll end up just the same, Trevah.
“What do you want?!”
It’s not what I want, Trevah. It’s what you want… You’re just the same as the rest. Hehehe. All just waiting to go back to the herd.
The hum sounded more like a growl now. Trevor stood up in bed and grabbed his bedside lamp, dragging the wire from the wall. He was going to take control of the situation. He staggered towards the door and headed into the kitchen. The growling got louder as he approached.
Hehehe. You can’t escape Trevah, there aint nothing you can do now.
The voice and the growling seemed to be coming from the fridge. Trevor crept ever closer, placing the lamp on the kitchen worktop and reaching instead for a knife. He turned on the light, poised with his knife held high. With a yell, he threw open the fridge door.
Hehehe. Found me…
Trevor looked closer. The fridge was almost empty - he’d been meaning to do some shopping today before he came home – aside for a couple of packets.
“Meat,” he said aloud. “It’s more fucking meat!”
Trevor grabbed the packet of ham and threw it on to the floor. He stomped repeatedly on it, crying out as he did so. The growl, dissipated for a moment then returned. He reached for an open packet of sausages and began stabbing them repeatedly in a frenzy, shouting “fuck you!” and then sliding down the wall into a heap on the floor where he started to cry.
He was blessed with silence.
He picked up the obliterated packets of meat and threw them out of his apartment window onto the street below.
Relieved, Trevor closed the window and headed back inside. He was completely exhausted and his headache was turning into a migraine. He wanted to crawl back to bed and stay there for a week. Head hanging and weary, he headed back towards his bedroom.
Hehehe. You’re almost there, Trevah.
Trevor screamed, grabbing his hair with both hands. When was this going to end?!
You want it to end, Trevah, it’ll be so easy.
Trevor looked down at his arms. The voice was coming from inside his arms, under his skin. It sounded like it was coming from his own flesh.
You’re just a piece of meat, Trevah. Hehehe.
The growling was deafening. The pain in his head, excruciating. Trevor rushed towards the kitchen once again. He picked up the knife and began cutting into his left arm, a mad grimace of determination on his face. He watched as the first beads of blood appeared on his skin, and then as it pooled slowly around the blade. The pain hardly registered and he carried on cutting, desperate to get it out of him, slashing the skin to shreds, searching for all the flesh beneath.
That’s it, Trevah. That’s my boy. Hehehe.
Trevor screamed again, in disbelief. It wasn’t working! Why wasn’t it working?! And then he paused, dropping the knife. He grinned from ear to ear. He knew what to do. Aha! He knew exactly what to do. And then Trevor reached for the blender.
“You might want to save your lunch for after this one, Detective.”
“What? Oh, I just ate a burger. I’m used to this kind of shit anyway. Years on this job numbs the senses a bit.”
“Yea, well, I did warn you.”
“Jesus. You’re not kidding.”
“One of the neighbours called. Said she heard some shouting. Asked somebody to come over to check it out. This was what they found.”
“God. That is one fine mess. Where's the rest of him?”
“I’m guessing on the walls and in this blender, here. What a way to commit suicide.”
“Hey, does he look like he’s smiling to you?”
“He must have been one sick puppy. Glad it’s not contagious.”
“Yea, me too. Poor bastard.”
“Right. Let’s get this over with. I can’t hear myself think with the hum coming from that fridge. It's starting to give me a hell of a headache.”