Doug woke hungry the next day. His stomach rattled and revolted like a prisoner trying to escape.
For the first time ever, he wanted to go to work. Not to work on his blog, but to dig. Something unremarkable but powerful pushed him to shower, dress, and leave.
Before he left, he noticed he still had some of the stink on him. Whatever the odor was it would not wash away. Finally, he surrendered and left for work, but not before spraying on a half-bottle of CK One cologne. It did not help.
His security detail stood in the parking lot waiting for him.
“What took ya so long? Flanders wanted us to tell you, you got four more days left. You better get rid of whatever the fuck it is.” The two men stared at Doug. The white surgical masks moving as they talked made the whole thing feel somehow less human. Like he was talking to a speaker at a drive-thru. “And no skipping out early today. Ill drag you back to that hole by your hair if I had to” Mouth-breather said.
The smell had diminished today. It wasn’t as bad as yesterday or before, but he also smelled just as bad now. He was glad he wasn’t inside today, even though air conditioning would be a treat come noon.
Out in the field, Doug felt a small freedom. He wasn’t confined inside. He wasn’t arched over a desk with his back and shoulders’ throbbing from the stuck position office work contorts a body into. He was outside, shovel in hand, cracking the earth open.
Then he remembered Michael. A gold Lexus. Too many gulps of Jamison. A small girl with her face peeled off from the wheel of the car running over. He assumed she was dead, because her skull was cracked open, he remembered from somewhere. It was a vague yet detailed impression that confused him.
His stomach started up again. This time, the hunger pains shot around his body. His arms ached to dig, and his mind cleared to the point all he could think of was the fruit.
With the shovel, he dug into the earth for several hours, but with nothing found. After the first hour, his body ached and growled with hunger. During the second hour his arms pumped furious with pain as he tried to find even a sliver of the grotesque fruit. Nothing.
The sun felt like it was sitting about five feet above his head. His neck was already tender from where the massive sunburn would be tomorrow. His stomach continued to moan low, pushing his thoughts to the fruit he found yesterday. The taste he couldn’t remember, but somewhere, down where his spirit would sit if it existed, lay a tiger. The kind of animal who circled, always growling with its fangs out. It would eat anything you threw to it, but these wicked animals were finicky.
It had a taste for something specific, and in that laid its game.
It was mid-shovel when Doug wondered why he was there. Sure, the job paid well, but he could get another job. No amount of money was worth this. His whole family worked hard, but even good Presbyterian farmers like them would draw a line somewhere.
His stomach started gnawing on itself as acid scrapped inner wall lining. Maybe he just needed to get out of there? Maybe he needed to go home? But, if he left, wouldn’t mouth-breather and the rat beat him dead? Or better yet, he would go home, but for how long? Eventually he would starve as his bank account dwindled and he had no close relatives for help. He thought about going home again. Instead, he pushed the shovel again into the ground.
The hole had now grown to the point where he could barely see out. His khakis were caked in mud, making it look like he wore disgusting boots. His tie and shirt were coated in mud as well. No part of him escaped it.
The smell was growing worse as he went further down in the hole.
Almost collapsing, Doug drove the shovel into the ground, and then left it standing. He was tired, and the smell was driving him weird. His hunger pains drove thoughts into his head of memories that felt real, though he couldn’t place how he knew them.
As he crawled up the muddy slope to leave his job he heard the deep sigh he heard the day before. The psychedelic colored juices wept from black holes he knew to be mold. He could sense it; the fruit was just below the shovel.
Then it snapped in him again. He lunged down to the shovel, ripping it free with one hand and scrapping at the dirt with his free hand. He looked mad, mud all over, his mouth perched open wide and hungry. The smell grew as he dug, his fingertips rubbing against the tiny hairs of mold across the fruit. It would have tickled him, had his mind been rational.
Thrusting his hands into the dirt around the fruit, Doug freed it. Even though frantic, he did not rip it out right away. His digging grew progressively deeper, trying to care for the fruit, but hunger driving his hands. Finally feeling its underside, he cradled it with his hands and yanked. The fruit pulled from the earth, and Doug toppled back. He landed on his back with a thud. If the crash had hurt he would not have known. By then, he had already gnawed into his find.
He tried to pay attention to the taste, but his mind was slippery. He couldn’t hold onto one thought for more than a split second before a milky haze filled his mind.
Then he was back as before. On the negative field. The Polaroids clapped up and down the aisles. The trees were mostly yellow this trip. The shrubs each burned with a dull grey and blue fire. He wanted to touch it for some reason, but decided the pictures would be safer.
He grabbed at the closest Polaroid. It was a picture of Flanders at a computer, his pants on the ground. The picture then filed rapidly past images of chat logs and girls’ faces that had to be twelve or thirteen.
Without any explanation, Doug knew what it all meant. It was something he understood the same way he knew what a blue sky is, how to breathe, or how to work his microwave. It was an innate learning he could not describe.
Before he could grab another photo, the wind picked up. This time, it whipped the fire from the shrubs across the photos, which all began to burn. Before he could stop it, the fire raced across the pictures towards Doug.
He tried to back away, but before he could escape it had caught his feet. He saw his legs were no longer muddy, which was an odd comfort as he felt his body ignite.
Startled awake, he slapped at his body, trying to put out the imaginary fire. Instead of feeling sad or scared, there was a continent of anger in him. Something deep and righteous he wanted to use to destroy everyone.
He clawed up out of the hole and stomped across the field. The two guards did not move as he passed them. Mouth-breather snorted at Doug, but now barely rated notice.
As he crossed the parking lot, he stopped to catch his bearings. He couldn’t figure out what to do with what he knew. He stared up at the building, its jagged corners cutting into the sky. It was so large that it looked like it should block the sun. He could see a few of his coworkers staring out the window, down at him.
He knew what they were worried about. They had secrets too.
For the most part, their faces were as indistinct as if wrapped in wax paper. Some faces looked like giant peaches; while others he could make out actual features: ears, eye brows, facial tics. Each part of their face was a story. Then he remembered the girls and Flanders.
The doors parted for Doug. The cold, damp air bristled and confused him. The air smelled almost unbreathable. He could only smell that stench. That same damn stench.
By the time he made it to Flanders’ office, he had forgotten the smell. All he could think of was how Flanders would stare limply at him soon. He could see Flanders’ face go slack and give out, the same way Doug’s must have at their meeting the day before.
“Doug, please go back outside. Don’t track mud in here,” said Flanders when Doug walked towards that same white desk. The same chairs. The same professional cleaning job that had to happen every morning.
Doug sat down in the uncomfortable chairs, but not before wiping his jeans against the boring white padding.
“Stop. I gotta replace those now. This is bullshit, Doug. You are done. Done.” Flanders grabbed the white phone handle.
Doug leaned forward, and his smile went wide as he felt the hunger again.
“Go ahead, call security. Let’s see what they think about you and little nude girls on your computer.”
Flanders’ face went impossibly rocky. He moved like a robot rotating its body to face him.
“What?” said Flanders. His face unmoved as if an emotion had never crossed it. Doug wanted to lean back, but felt the awkward bar of the chair push back at him.
“Well, you know, the fact you have been talking to all those underage girls.”
It was then Doug noticed the room allowed for an uncomfortable silence. You couldn’t hear a thing of the outside world. If a fiber of cloth had fallen to the floor, it might have made an echo loud enough to hear. He was sure of it.
“Douglas, you have exactly” – Flanders checked his watch – “ten seconds to get out of my office, or I swear to God we will sue you for everything you and all the generations you spawn with your weed-addled testicles. Get.”
“You can’t do that. I got you.” Doug left the words to sit and reach full bloom.
Flanders stared at Doug and only said, “Five seconds.”
“I’ll call the cops!”
“And what proof do you have? What proof do you have anywhere of these claims? Exactly. Get back to your job or every lawyer between all three neighboring cities will be called to make your life a living hell.”
Like a ruptured balloon, Doug felt his body go limp. He practically folded in on himself in the chair while Flanders smiled and checked his watch again.
Doug got up and slumped out of Flanders’ office. He stared down the halls where people were now eyeing him cautiously. Those closest had faces of disgust as he moved past them.
The smell again. The same damn smell.
He had made it to the cafeteria before anyone stopped him. Mike’s dog eyes looked at him in a mixture of contempt, pity, and nausea.
“Man, you OK? What are you doing out there?”
Doug was lost. He couldn’t find the words. He mumbled something about a bottle in the toilet.
Mike followed him down the hall. “What bottle?” Then Mike’s face went bright, and he spit as he yelled. “YOU LEAVE THOSE FUCKING BOTTLES! DON’T YOU DARE, YOU DRUNK! YOU ASSHOLE!
Doug muttered he wasn’t drunk and fumbled outside. Everything looked too bright. He wished he would have brought his sunglasses, then laughed at himself for wishing for such a childish comfort.
For the first time, he felt afraid of the people inside. Why did he have to smell so bad? That is why they stared at him. They wanted to know why he smelled like the field. Why he had the stink.
He thought about the fruit. Its raw, fur-trimmed skin was all shiny, as if polished into colored steel. He wanted another. No, he wanted them all. The pulpy meat had released something inside of him. He wasn’t sure if what it told him was real or not, but he knew things. And now he wanted to know more. His stomach growled low like an over-eager predator.
Mouth-breather and the Rat stood in front of their chairs, eyeing Doug’s approach. The bigger one had his arms crossed, and his understudy followed in mime.
“Hey faggot, get the fuck back to work.” Mouth-breather forked his thumb back towards the hole. “Not kidding this time. You don’t get done, we are gonna rip you apart.” It was a threat that didn’t need reinforcement. Mouth-breather meant it.
Feigning fright, Doug put his hands in the air like a hold-up victim, then moved towards the field. His shovel lay broken on the mound of dirt he had collected. He grabbed the shovel’s severed head and jumped into the hole. His hands struck the soil with the shovel’s tip. It was there again, the smell, growing as he uncovered the fruit.
He tossed the shovel aside and scrapped hard at the ground. He threw the dirt around him as dust drifted in the air, causing him to choke a few times. Instead of stopping, he dug like a lunatic. His nails broke and bent, chipping off and starting to bleed below his nail lines.
It was then he found another fruit. Jerking it up, he paused to eat it, but he saw another growing just under where this one had been.
He put the two uprooted fruits next to one another. He wanted to eat them, but felt something moving him to dig farther.
His hands burned as he tilled the ground with them. The pain compelled him to stop. Instead, he continued with an unbroken pace. His stomach burned inside again.
Giving up on finding a third fruit, Doug rushed back to the two by his side. He chomped through their shiny, flaky, hairy shells. He took bites from one, then the other. He continued till he upturned one and the juices splashed blue and orange all over him.
For a moment, he just stood there, covered in mud, blood all over his hands, his face awash in disturbingly colored juices of the fruit. Then he shook again and collapsed.
He woke again in the negative field. Instead of fire and colors, everything was a muted green. There was a rose bush at the far end of the field, growing up into the sky. The roses formed into steps that went nowhere. The roses were colored bright yellow and the stems were all black.
He felt relief for the first time in days. How could anyone find a sense of normalcy in a reversed world?
He ran up and down the aisles, plucking up the photos. Once he stopped by the rose bush, the holes that had been emptied of Polaroids all sighed in collective relief, like an orchestra of tired old men wheezing.
He flipped through the photos, each flickering some coworker’s secret, some pillbox of terror they kept locked inside the chimneys of their hearts, hoping it won’t clog up the works. Most forget secrets are different than property. Secrets are the load-bearing wall we put up in ourselves. The thing that, when kicked out, would topple people into rubble.
This wasn’t really so distant a place. People walked across it every day, littering the emotional garbage they never want to think about again.
Doug then saw that the next picture was the one he’d hoped to find. The picture showed Flanders, paused in mid bend, and hiding something large out by the dumpster in the back of Ronto.
Without a sound, the rose bush started to twist and move. Its vines shed all their black triangular needles that looked like sharks teeth. They fell like a rain around him. The roses themselves folded one by one into a bud and then burrowed back into the vine as it all grew backwards and then into the soil.
Doug knew this was how the universe would eventually grow. Backwards. As it should have always been, he thought.
He then found himself standing in the hole. He braced himself up against the wall with his arm. How he’d get past the guards was his only concern. Mouth-breather would surely tear him apart if he tried to leave again. The more they stayed outside, the angrier they seemed, to the point that just seeing Doug seemed to incite them.
He crawled from the hole and ran down the length of the field. Doug found himself not facing the two guards, their line of sight obstructed by the trees. Down the far right side of the field and through the shrubs out onto the back parking lot, Doug paused in the far right corner of the Ronto building
He could see the giant trucker bays where the garbage stayed till it was picked up on Thursdays. The large green containers were piled with all the trash of everyone who worked there. Every forgotten note to pick up milk or remember a birthday was in there.
Doug walked up the red staircase onto a main landing behind the giant dumpsters. He had to slide between the wall and container to get all the way across. He could see a small grey backpack that was tied on to a back green handle of the furthest garbage bin. Doug almost laughed when he imagined how dirty Flanders got shimmying his way through here to hide the backpack which was wrapped around the iron rebar handles of the dumpster. He pulled the bag up and ran back towards the stairs. The smell was noxious, and he knew he smelled worse than if someone had lit it on fire and coated it in rotten mayonnaise in the August sun.
He moved behind the building and then across the lot. Finding his car, he zipped home to get some sleep. Tomorrow was going to be different.