The oversized plate glass doors whooshed open as Doug and the other employees pressed inside. Outside, beyond the doors, somewhere out in the pale yellow field opposite the building was a rich, putrid stink that attacked the nose and stomachs of anyone outside the Ronto Corporation. Inside the ten-story building, each floor reeked of antiseptic and what smelled like old lemons. Compared to outside, Doug found it refreshing.
The casual voices all came together as everyone complained to each other of the smell. Eventually making his way past the group, into the long tube like hallways, the voices all digressed into other complaints and plans.
“This one time, my toilet broke, the smell was like burning tires stuffed with used baby diapers.”
“I just want to go away this weekend with Joe. Maybe up North to that bed and breakfast with the pool you told me about.”
“Dude threw it for like 40 yards and killed my flex player.”
The crowds grew from the hallway into the lunchroom blocking his entrance. Inside the cafeteria he found an empty Formica green table he spilled his backpack onto. Typically early, he liked to spend his mornings taking notes for his blog on the bits of overheard gossip and stories.
Doug sat at the circular wooden table and began typing. His blog had been getting a good number of people reading it, so he was more accustomed to updating it every morning before work. He knew people enjoyed reading it throughout their workday. It was a source of comfort, as he worked such a mindless job.
“Hey, did you hear, some are saying the smell outside is cancerous.” Mike said. Doug darted his head up from his laptop, looking to Mike whose face was always such a sad comedy of errors. The comically sallow, wide eyes reminiscent of Droopy Dog’s, the sloped nose that ended in the red tinged bulb of skin. Truth is it was all just stains of alcoholism.
“Oh please, it is about as cancerous as anything else around this building, come on.” Doug said. Mike stood too near for comfort, but most did as he typed up his blog. People always came over in failed tries to steal a glance of what he was writing. The lie was he was working on a novel. People jokingly called him Hemingway after a month of it.
“Yeah, but that stink is horrible. There is no way in hell that is safe for us.” Mike said. He reminded Doug of a dog begging for scraps of meat. Why is it the less you care, the more everyone wants you to care? Doug thought.
After a few more minutes gossip, Doug went back to ignoring Mike until he wandered away at last. No one knew what the stink was and he didn’t really care. It was a smell. There were others things about the corporate life he would rather hook into. The tanker deal being brokered upstairs was for some would-soon-be-rotting ships, but no one would dare to confirm his suspicion. He had tried to pull together as much proof as he could and posted some half-assed reports on it, but eventually gave up as no one was going to talk on the subject and lose their job. Instead, he filled his blog day in and day out with the mindless antics of corporate bossery and gossip on his co-workers.
The blog had started as something to pass the slow hours of data entry. Working for Ronto Doug had never intended to stay longer than a year, much less stay in for the past five years. Instead of typing the inane legal jargon needed on several thousand documents, he pecked away at his blog, posting about how his boss had thought Hawaii was land-locked or had lost several binders of contracts and blamed it on his team. They were all docked a day’s pay after being sent home in a petty, yet exceptional display of cowardice by Flanders his boss.
“Doug, Flanders needs you,” Stephen said. Doug watched the tall, skinny man walk away. He wanted to trade places with him instead of going to Flanders office. Swimming in garbage would be better than having to sit in Flanders office, Doug thought.
Doug packed his laptop and walked into the main office floor. The summons was not the worst of it. Anyone that headed down the hall towards Flanders, the air seemed to collapse around them. He had heard a few people complain that going to Flanders was like walking while being choked. There was now a feeling of too many eyes watching him. A few people waved their hands in the air as he passed. They were the only ones too old and burnt out to care if someone was in trouble or not. The others pooled together in a long montage of pained, angry faces.
Flanders’ office was significantly white. White chairs, white IKEA style bookcases, even a white art deco desk with silver steel legs. Everything smelled liked it was freshly polished two minutes ago. Like a team of cleaners he kept in a secret compartment came out every hour to re-clean the office, then scamper back to their hidden hole.
Flanders waved Doug in and to the seat in front of him while whispering to the stoic, quiet man next to Flanders. The quiet man wore a black suit, black tie, and slicked-back black hair that outlined his head in a widow’s peak at the front.
Doug sat on the other side of Flanders’ desk. The chairs were smaller than they looked, the off-white cloth portion stuffed with flat, uncomfortable padding. He wondered if they made these types of awkward chairs specifically for corporate management. It seemed possible these were simply devices left over from the auto-da-fé.
“Doug,” said Flanders, “this is one of our chief corporate officers. He asked to be here today to discuss your career here at Ronto.”
Doug looked to the man, then back to Flanders, a bit confused of who to focus on. He finally decided to focus on Flanders. The quiet man had the presence of an overly large spider, his arms tucked quietly together on his lap, serene as any hunter before his prey.
“You have always struck me as a straight kinda guy,” Flanders said, “so I want to do the same with you. We found you have been running a blog detailing aspects and even specifics of Ronto’s business dealings.”
The quiet man adjusted in his seat and brought out a silver cigarette case. It was polished and etched with a monogram Doug could not read. Was that a C.S.M.? He couldn’t be sure because the sun was reflecting off it from the window.
It was a few minutes of staring at the cigarette case before he realized what was being said. He had been found out. His blog had been read by Flanders and some of the other higher-ups in the corporation. His feet felt tingly as his stomach pushed acid up into his esophagus. Everything in his body wanted to bolt.
“But what I think we can do is offer you a way of” – here, Flanders interlocked his fingers together to form a bridge – “bringing everything back together. Make amends with a corporation that is here to help you succeed. We aren’t in the business of hurting anyone or taking advantage of our clients.”
The quiet man puffed on his black cylinder with a blue light that blazed as he smoked. It was an electronic cigarette, artificial, yet that did not stop the quiet man from handling it as if it were the real thing. Doug looked back to Flanders, and his stomach ached, roared, then ached again. His brain went down a checklist: being evicted, losing his car, becoming homeless in an alleyway somewhere, sleeping on piss-stained blankets.
“Here is – and I am sure you will agree – what is a very fair offer. We have a need for someone to go out and dispose of whatever is causing the smell in the field next to us.”
Silence. No one made a sound except for the sad wheezing of the quiet man on his fake cigarette. Doug thought he looked more human as he smoked.
Flanders continued. “Basically, the city has been out and tested the ground. They say it is completely non-toxic, non-carcinogenic. It appears to be something buried in the earth.”
“Non-cancerous? Really?” Doug said. The interruption furrowed Flanders eyebrows while his mouth kept the same granite smile. A jaw and nose so geometric it had to be unreal. The quiet man wheezed again.
“Of course, it is non-cancerous. The city came and checked it out. Clean bill of health. So all we would need you to do is go out there and dispose of what is in the ground over there.”
“But what is it?” asked Doug. “What is it that smells so foul and is not harmful? What am I digging up?” Doug twisted in his seat to get comfortable, but instead leaned too far forward in his seat, giving the appearance that he was ready to run at any second.
“We are not sure. From what the city could tell us, the ground was overly ripe and fertile and it could be some type of vegetables grew in wrong, too fast, and are festering under the soil.”
Flanders’ explanation didn’t ease Doug’s safety concerns. Then again, what is the concern of safety compared to living under a dumpster and using a sack of garbage for a pillow?
Doug wanted Flanders to reveal more details, at least how deep he would have to dig. Flanders looked over to the quiet man slowly puffing his artificial cigarette. The quiet man finally removed it from his mouth, tamped it on his polished cigarette case, placed it back in its sleeve, snapped it shut, and stood up. Without a word, he walked towards the back door. Then, as if he had never been there, he left. Doug felt the air rush back into the room.
Flanders cleared his throat to stop Doug from staring back at the door. Perhaps waiting for the door itself to make an explanation for the exit. As Doug turned back to Flanders, the two men adjusted in their seats, both obviously a little relieved that the quiet man had left.
Flanders explained the rest of the details and offered an escort out to the field. He said he would have a detail of two men who would be overseeing his work. He would even get a shovel which was probably Flanders’ way of offering some exotic-styled olive branch.
Doug left the office, his shoulders slumped forward. He walked along the same choking corridor, feeling each step was a statement on him and who he would never be. He was a man always under someone’s thumb. This was not the life he chose, but the life he was granted like a parolee going back to prison.
It wasn’t till he reached the lobby that Doug realized he would have to be in the stench all day. He thought about how he would have to write this up for his blog. But he knew they were probably monitoring his site for updates now. Anything posted would surely send up a red flag.
Breathing deep, Doug locked the breath in his chest and walked outside. He quickly inhaled. He couldn’t escape it now. It was not just a smell. It was as if the putrid stink had become the world around him.
Doug saw his escorts ahead. The bigger of the two resembled about the fourth or fifth version of man on the evolutionary chart. The smaller one had more rat-like features and a squirrelly mustache that grew in spurts around his tiny mouth full of smoke-stained teeth. The rat was leaning on the shovel. Both of the guards wore white surgical masks.
“Any chance I can get a mask?” Doug asked. The rat threw the shovel towards him instead.
“Just get the fuck over there so we can all go inside,” Rat said.
Doug read his name tag: Day. ’Why give a disgusting thug a name,’ Doug wondered. He felt that instead of a name, people like these guards should just be labeled. The bigger one he wanted to call mouth-breather, but not to his face. Sweat started to crowd his face as he thought about how mouth-breather would retaliate from the name.
“Time to work, and if you take more than a day or two I swear to God we will kick your ass.” The mouth-breather said. His lungs gusting hot air probably smelled as bad as outside did right now.
The trio walked up the embankment out onto the field. Doug’s body began to sweat, the noon sun choking the men. The shovel was heavy under the heat. Doug cradled it under his arm and walked into the field. The yellow wheat sat sallow as he trampled through it.
He unbuttoned his top collar and pulled his undershirt up to cover his nose. It barely blocked any of the smell, but still he left it up.
His stomach actually felt a little calm as he stopped near the middle of the field. The smell seemed strongest here, but he couldn’t be sure.
After a while, he felt more accustomed to the stench.
Doug shoveled the soil into a pile off to his right. He could see the two guards off at the end of the field. The two men were resting on green folding chairs. He resented them, but knew it was his own fault for being careless. His guilt soon set his stomach grumbling. Despite the noxious odors of the field, his hunger beat stronger. He had eaten his usual breakfast of bananas and oatmeal, which kept him full most the day. But each time he crashed the shovel into soil, his stomach stung with hunger.
By the time he had gotten two feet into the ground and was ready to run off to eat, he found the first fruit. It was a moldy green thing and oozed something blue and orange. He pushed at it with the shovel. The rusty liquid erupted from small black holes. It took a few seconds, but the smell whacked him in the nose, causing a violent hunger.
As if his brain had been shut off, Doug reached for the fruit and brought it close. It was spherical and shiny except for where the goop was smearing across it, dripping off onto his hand.
Staring at the ooze jolted his body awake. His thoughts became clear enough that they disappeared from his mind. Doug licked at the runoff leaking down his hand. His eyes went wide and his body shook. He looked possessed, or like an animal mauling its prey, as he devoured the grotesque, rotten fruit. The feeling of fuzz from the skin tickled his throat as it rushed down to his stomach.
Sucking the remains from his fingers, Doug froze stiff and then fell like a tower into the hole.
He wasn’t in the hole, though. He woke to find himself in a field with thousands of Polaroid pictures propped up on their corners, stuck up from the soil.
The field was laid out the same as before. Five wide aisles ran up and down the length of the field, bordered by rows of soil. Desperate to gain his bearings, Doug walked up an aisle. He could feel blood on his lip, and his nose stung. The sky was an electric purple color that looked hypnotic against the black and yellow trees and shrubs.
The Polaroids in the soil each flapped singularly from an impossible wind. A wind that made each picture flap in a different direction.
Doug moved to another aisle looking for someone, anyone. Hell, even the Ronto building would be a welcome eyesore, he thought. But even that was gone wherever here was.
Finding his way down the aisle, looking down to the pictures in the ground as he walked, it took a few minutes until he noticed it didn’t smell here. While the field layout was the same, aside from the colors, he did not feel lost. It was as comfortable as the old brown recliner in his living room.
Finally, he came to a group of pictures all rattling, each in a different direction than the next.
Whereas before he felt a deep and odd hunger, he now felt a pressing curiosity. Reaching down, he yanked up a picture. The ground sighed like an old man as he lifted it.
It was a picture of Michael, his co-worker. He was hiding a bottle in the toilet at work. Impossibly, the picture shifted as it cycled through flashing images of Michael hiding bottles in different places. Finally, the picture stopped on a shot of Michael in a car, his Lexus slamming into a small girl on a wider, country road.
Without a sign, a wind picked up and started blowing, it wailed against him until it was almost a tornado. Doug was knocked to the ground as clumps of soil flew around him. The yellow trees shook like epileptics. The world looked ready to sink. Before he could move, he went black again.
Waking up, Doug could see the world was back. He could feel the dirt under him. Catching his bearings, he looked up to see the two security guards rifling through his wallet. He moaned low to warn them of his waking.
“Any chance I could get that back?” Doug said. The rat had about ten dollars in his hand, while the thug held his driver’s license and a credit card.
“Sure, ain’t shit here.” They threw it all at Doug who still lay in the hole. The wallet slapped his chest, and the cards fell around him. He grabbed his bills, credit cards, and license before escaping the hole. His head hurt, but that could have been the fall.
“I’m going home,” Doug said as he left the field. “Don’t feel well.” The two guards shouted at him, but he didn’t listen.
As he walked to his car, Doug tried to remember what he had seen, but it was mostly gone by that point. Left somewhere near the front of his brain was a small, buzzing memory of Michael, booze, and a dead little girl.