He stood at the corner of the street, leaning on his cane, wondering whether or not he should really be going into work today, or if he had not better be in the park, plunking down at one of the benches. There was a particular tree he was drawn to, one some kid or other had carved the letters J-A-C-K deeply into the bark of the trunk, the scarred letters looked years seasoned by rains and snows and heatwaves. Sitting at the bench, looking at the letters gave him a spooky feeling, as if the carving meant something. Sometimes he toyed with the idea that his own father had carved those letters there, years ago, as a boy, when the tree was much smaller, but he deep-down knew that this was just a fantasy he enjoyed toying with, and today was not a day for fantasy, because he had to make it into work, despite the agony of it, and get a few pieces of work done, under the collective eye of the unholy trinity, Bloody Marty, Hissin Lewin, and Sewie.
He could leave this job anytime if it all got too bad—it wasn’t as if he had a family to support—and the thing of it was, it had already gotten too bad, but Stacey was not a quitter. He’d see it through. He was tempted, oh yes, he was tempted, but not today. Today, he would see it through.
When the light changed and he set out across the street, hobbling lightly upon and delicately over his left foot—it was a gout day, and both his left big toe and heel were inflamed, he was walking on broken glass with that foot, the little acid crystals snapping and stabbing with every step—his cane offered only token support, as he shifted his weight more to the cane with each step of his left foot.
A small crowd was gathered about something or other, probably a heart attack, and the milling crowd actually moved out into the street to brave the one-way traffic, just to get around and proceed up the street. But like look-loos everywhere, many of the passerbys were sucked in, adding to the logjam.
“I will not look,” Stacey told himself, as he was just not the looky-loo type of guy, at least this is what he told himself, but as he was pulled into the current of the crowd jostling close amidst people too close to his swollen foot, he glanced between heads and made out a portable, rolling puppet show, a novel little craft on what looked like mismatched bicycle wheels, but what was odd was that the theatre itself seemed to be comprised of a very fancy coffin, beautiful red wood, with brass fittings, with a swelling of pop-up red velvet curtains above.
A man in a tall top-hat stood behind the coffin, a cadaverously pale man apparently working the puppets—Stacey figured there must be a door set in the lid of the coffin, otherwise it just didn’t make sense how the Puppet Master was working things, his bizarre face peering over the lid. As he passed the crowd Stacey caught glimpses of the show going on, which appeared to be a Punch and Judy show, with both puppets battering each other with clubs.
“I said the kisser, not the kissee!” a comical voice bellowed, and the people in crowded together exploded in laughter.
Punchinello’s Theatre, the golden plaque read, the letters in flowing script, looking Olde English, and the whole thing gave Stacey a weird, creepy feeling, almost the haunted sensation of déjà vu, but a little different, a little darker. A goose didn’t just cross over his grave, but it vomited up its guts and then fell over dead. That’s what it felt like, dread smacking in the face with a dead fish.
His hand gripped his cane, and he shifted his backpack, and actually found himself pushing through the crowd, as if he wanted to escape the puppet show. It was weird, as if he was slipping into a panic, which would be very unusual for him, as he rarely lost his cool. But he wasn’t sure that he had actually just caught a glimpse of the sign—it was more that he remembered what the plaque read. He had seen it before, in his childhood. Maybe not. It was weird. He wanted away from it. He wanted no part of it. He didn’t even want to think about it.
He did not much like the crowd gathered before the puppet show, an odd group of businessmen carrying umbrellas, bizarre. As he passed, he glanced back once and caught the smoldering eyes of an Asian businessman beneath a bowler hat, and he almost thought he knew the guy. Was it someone he knew, or someone famous? He looked familiar, or at least it seemed he should know the guy.
He was close to his building and put the puppet show and umbrellas out of his mind. He hobbled up the many steps to the entrance and badged in, swiping his CAC card over the reader. He paused, staring at the reader. Someone had used something sharp to scratch a shape into the hard plastic of the card reader. A circle with a ring about it. It looked like a little kid had used a nail to scratch the planet Saturn into the surface. Weird, but didn’t it remind him of something? What was wrong with him, as everything was freaking him out.
The door clicked, locking again. He had waited too long. Staring at the scrawled Saturn, he reswiped his card and pushed through the doors into the interior of the dark VS building. Why did it seem that the place was always deserted?
He stood, feeling his head reel. Again, déjà vu, only it was like déjà vu in reverse. It seemed he had never been here before, that everything was odd, irregular, unknown. Of course, he knew he had worked here for the past three years, dreading every single moment of that time spent in hell, working with some of the nastiest people that could ever be imagined. But again, it was as if he was walking through these doors for the first time. I mean, come on, he knew that poor tree growing there in its big pot, he had patted its trunk in passing, perhaps a hundred times, always feeling like he should just steal it away some night, revive the poor little tree with a little love and affection.
He limped to the tree, keeping his weight off of his left foot, which seemed hugely swollen, and stood before the poor little tree. Its leaves looked half-dead, in the process of shriveling and withering.
“Poor little tree,” Stacey said, and then blinked. Back in the dark, under a clump of leaves, something dangled. What in the world? It looked like a piece of fruit. Was someone playing a joke? Some lumpy old pear, looking bruised and ready to fall, it just hung there. Stacey reached out a hand, almost touching the fruit, but he paused. It could be a hornet’s nest. Or a bomb. Or some mutant being, hiding in the darkness.
For some reason he thought of wheat or tall grass shifting as something moved through a field. He slowly withdrew his hand. The piece of fruit seemed surreal, real but odd. It looked entirely organic, it had really grown there, seemingly overnight, but it also looked fake, as if it had grown and withered there in a matter of moments, possibly in the moments that Stacey had spent outside the doors, puzzling over that little scrawl of Saturn on the card reader.
Something was wrong with him today. Everything was seeming out of place, just a little shifted to the left, not entirely there or right. Maybe he had food poisoning, or was experiencing the first tickles of a tumor in his skull. That’s entirely how off everything seemed to be, unfamiliar and strange.
The elevator doors rumbled open. A bell dinged. Stacey stood staring at the fruit.
“Well, are you getting on, or not?” someone said from inside the elevator.
Stacey edged his head over, leaning almost comically upon his cane. Why in the world was someone in the elevator, and why was whoever it was asking him if he was getting on or not?
There was certainly someone in the elevator. Stacey could see a reflection of bright red. This was too weird. He hobbled out in front of the elevator and peered in.
A guy stood in there, not a particularly big guy, but someone almost Stacey’s size, wearing an old-fashioned bell-boy uniform, or elevator attendant suit, something, a red coat with gold buttons, and a small, flat red cap that looked like the kind of thing a monkey would wear, perched on an organ grinder, capering for change.
“Is this a joke?” Stacey said, staring at the man.
“Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” the man in the elevator said.
“What?” Stacey said.
“Oops, there go the ears,” the man in the elevator said. “First your tootsies, now your hearing, what’s next—you gonna start seeing things, Mr. Colton?”
Did the guy seem familiar? Not in the slightest. But despite himself, Stacey clumped into the elevator.
“Do I know you?” Stacey enquired, staring at the man.
“Very funny, Mr. Colton, but have a heart. Yeah, this job sucks, but you don’t have to rub it in,” the man in the elevator said. “What floor?”
Stacey stared at him. Fine.
“Don’t you know what floor I work on?” Stacey said, looking the man in the eye, wiling him to crack under the pressure.
“Duh, yeah, like Floor Seven, for what? A hundred years?” the man said, comically rolling his eyes. But then his gaze returned to meet Stacey’s eyes full on, like absolutely no other man would do. “But you know, that cute little Asian blonde, on Floor Fourteen? Thought you might want to make up an excuse to pay her a little visit?”
“A blonde Asian?” Stacey said, considering. He broke eye contact to peer up at the lighted panel above the door. Strange. That didn’t look familiar. A white digital readout. “Okay, let’s ride to Floor Fourteen.”
The man in the elevator, the guy wearing the ridiculous monkey suit, grinned, and winked.
“That’s the spirit, Mr. Colton! Let’s have us a little glimpse, what say?” He turned to the panel alongside the door. An absurd amount of buttons stuck out of the panel, going from the floor up to the ceiling. None of the buttons were marked. His fingers tripped and tickled, danced and leapt, and he seemed to push two buttons at the same time, over and over again, choosing here and there, like reading braille. The elevator doors rumbled shut.
And then the floor seemed to fall out beneath Stacey. He gasped and seized the railings that went about the elevator at waist-height. They seemed to do freefall. Stacey thought he could feel his feet lift up off the floor and he nearly dropped his cane.
“Oops, sorry about that, wouldn’t want to send us through a wormhole!” the elevator attendant laughed, sounding a little nervous. He punched another series of buttons. Stacey glanced, with all the blood rushing to his head, and tried to divert his creeping terror by calculating the amount of buttons on the panel. His eyes counted ten buttons from left to right, but there were so many crowded on top of each other that he would never even snatch a bare guesstimation on how many ran from top to bottom.
The elevator motion smoothed out, and the guy punching the buttons smirked guiltily at Stacey.
“Sorry, this is my first day on the job!” he said, barely suppressing a giggle.
“Who are you?” Stacey demanded, glaring at the grinning rogue. The guy was immensely enjoying himself, and had obviously pulled that prank on purpose, to give Stacey a big scare.
“Mr. Titan, but don’t you know me, Stacey?” the elevator attendant said, smoothing out his monkey suit. “You’ve been over my house for barbecue, right?”
“Must be the brain tumor, to go along with the deafness, and gout,” Stacey said, sourly, leaning back against the rear wall of the elevator. How long were they traveling, surely they had already gone more than fourteen floors. But, a nagging thought tickled at the back of his memory, for he did seem to remember standing with Titan, in a small backyard, with children screaming, jumping into a small wading pool, splashing, the scent of sizzling meat and slopped-on sauce. He remembered biting into a burger.
“Funny, I’m a vegetarian,” Stacey said, more to himself, almost trying to reason with himself. If this wasn’t all so real, he’d think he was dreaming. He felt like a puppet, strung along through a maze. The puppeteers were trying to convince him...of all...this.
“That is funny,” Mr. Titan said, punching a few more buttons.
“Why is it funny?” Stacey said.
“You said, and I quote, ‘Funny, I’m a vegetarian,’ which I do find to be funny, so I merely said, and I quote, ‘that is funny.’”
“You are a funny guy, Mr. Titan,” Stacey said, looking up at the panel above the elevator doors. Numbers and letters were flashing, incomprehensibly. Stacey thought he saw foreign symbols and characters amidst the numbers and English letters. Was this some kind of practical joke? Perhaps he was on some hidden-camera comedy show, and millions of people were laughing themselves silly, even at this moment, as Stacey twitched and reacted to all the bizarreness.
“That’s what they tell me, Mr. Colton, and you too, are a funny guy,” Mr. Titan said.
“We are a funny couple of guys,” Stacey said, watching the numbers. He didn’t feel intoxicated, or drugged—he was thinking quite clearly, and the pain in his left foot grounded him. None of this could be in a dream, and yet none of it, although entirely real, seemed entirely real.
The elevator stopped. The bell dinged. Stupidly, the lit screen above the doors displayed: for teen.
“For...teen?” Stacey said, staring up.
“Don’t you worry,” Mr. Titan said, “she may look young, but I know she’s much, much older.”
And with that Mr. Titan shoved him out of the elevator, so hard that Stacey nearly stumbled forward to trip and go sprawling, and it was only his great sense of balance that kept him on his feet. Pain flared in his left foot, and he stood for a moment, collecting himself, leaning on his cane, glaring back at grinning Mr. Titan as the elevator doors closed and severed their connection. Stupid guy in a stupid monkey suit. And rough, too. Barbecues in the backyard, how utterly preposterous.
“What are you doing on this floor?” a woman asked, with a tone of outrage.
Stacey looked up and around, feeling guilty. He stared into the strangest eyes he had ever seen. The powdery-bluest blue he had ever seen, her irises practically glowing like the tiny blue flames from a gas stove, and as advertised, she was a blonde Asian, although her hair was white, with not a trace of color (and she didn’t really appear to be Asian, but something else, perhaps from a long, long time ago, when women were far more beautiful)—it swept up in a great mound behind her head and fell back long, and Stacey could only imagine it piled up behind her on the floor, great Rapunzel locks, masses of the luxurious white-gold stuff. She was so still she almost appeared a statue, and she was breathtakingly beautiful, although severe, and she seemed old—or ageless. Stacey stared at her, as if struck by a bolt of lightning.
“Just come up for a peek, is that it?” she said, her face not moving, she was looking at him from the tops of her eyes, as if she had just been reading and had glanced up when he came stumbling from the elevator. The angry librarian who would absolutely kill anyone that spoke louder than a whisper in her library.
“I’m sorry, I was just heading into work,” Stacey said, dumbly.
“Floor Seven, correct?” she said, still not moving, not even the fluctuation of her dark eyebrows.
“Yes, Floor Seven,” Stacey repeated, feeling asinine.
“You seem to have doubled your pleasure, as this is Floor Fourteen, and you are not authorized here,” she said, staring at him, her eyes boring through him.
He couldn’t even manage to swallow.
“Yes,” he said, pleased that she knew something about him, “I’ll just head back down.”
“Please take the stairs,” she said, and her hand shot out, a long finger pointing, a very long white fingernail extending from her index finger. Her hand looked too long. In fact, her arm looked inhumanly long. Her fingernail looked like a white claw. Still, the overwhelming impression was of ethereal beauty, something not of this Earth. Something far above this Earth. He imagined this was the appearance of an angel, before the unworthy eyes of a lowly, corrupt man. He felt naked. And filthy.
He headed in the direction of the pointing finger, and nearly blundered into the door with the little picture of stairs. He fumbled with the door, glancing back one time at her. She had turned her face and hair had fallen over half her face, so that her intoxicating eyes stared at him through the white curtain, and her full lips were pursed, as if she were judging him (or posing for a selfie). And he hurried into the stairwell, terrified beyond all reason.
He paused at the railing, his head reeling. He stared over the side. It seemed he was peering into eternity, because the stairwell went on and on, far beyond any fourteen floors, it went down into diminished perspective and darkness. This can’t be real, he told himself. He glanced up and saw the stairwell going up forever, into bright, white light. If this were real, this building would need to be something in the neighborhood of a thousand floors, going from the heavens down into the bowels of the earth. Maybe this is the stairway between Heaven and Hell, he thought, and he realized he wasn’t making a joke to shake the tension, but was actually thinking a serious thought. The idea was just as possible as all the other impossible probabilities.
He could remember yesterday, eating at the Starbucks half a block away from the VS building. He had cappuccino and a croissant, a small bar of milk chocolate. He remembered the day before yesterday, sitting in the park with a vente Soy Cafe Miso, smoking a cigar, writing in his moleskin journal, feeling depressed, willing himself to ignore the ache in his left foot. This gout attack had been going on now for more than a week, and aspirin and baking soda just were not cutting it. Usually these attacks lasted two or three days, and there could be a gap of a eleven months or more between them, but this was a bad one, only three months after the last attack, and there were some warning tingles in his right foot that it could end up swelling-up both his feet, from the ankles down, and he’d have to miss work, which was very rare. He’d have to stay at home in bed, soaking his feet, and packing them at night in Vicks and bags of ice.
He headed down the stairs, clumping lightly over his left foot, leaning on his black cane. He stopped. And stared at his cane. It was nondescript, black, with a rubber tip. For just a second, it appeared to be knobbed piece of wood, like a club—a shillelagh. He blinked his eyes, leaned on the railing and lifted his cane before his eyes. On an impulse, he twirled the cane between his fingers, and it slipped and fell and he snatched at it, and only managed to bat it further out of his grasp, and it clattered on the steps, spinning crazedly, actually walking down the stairs like a slinky toy, and he feared it would clatter ahead of him all the way down, but it finally stopped, several inches of it sticking out over the void of the stairwell. He hurried down and around the stairwell, dancing over his swollen foot, until he made it down to his cane, snatching it up, and almost managing to drop it again. Damn, why was he being so clumsy? He was an utter oaf.
He rarely questioned his own sanity, but this was one of those moments. What if he was going crazy? Or, yes, more probably, what if...they...wanted to make him think he was going crazy? Yeah, he knew that sounded crazy.
...an alien god that works for the Government...
Whoa, where had that thought came from? It was almost like a memory. But who in the world would ever say anything like that, that this was a Government test, or God was doing this, or aliens were playing games, or...an alien god that works for the Government. He stood, feeling dizzy, and somewhere from impossibly far below, he heard a door open and slam, and feet trudging on stairs, and he stood listening to the climbing feet, it sounded like boots, getting louder, but then another door loudly opened and then even more loudly slammed, and it was quiet in the stairwell again. And standing here, he could not feel the presence of thousands of people. He seemed to remember sitting in a coffee dive, stirring his coffee, talking to a boy, or wait, was it that he remembered when he was a kid, sitting in a coffee place, or restaurant, talking to a much older man? He seemed to remember it both ways—was this schizophrenia?
But then he remembers having pancakes with a circle of friends, and discussing the end of the world. He remembers bells ringing, terrible bells, like whenever he has a fever, those fever bells ringing, as he twists and turns in his sweaty sheets, listening to the bells that will never stop ringing.
“What is happening to me?” he says out loud, to nobody in particular. He is certainly not praying, but his echoing voice reminds him of God whispering in the night—God, whispering in the night? What brought on a thought like that? He was cracking up, oh yeah, he had already gone over the edge.
Stacey places his hands on his forehead and he feels warm to himself, and in fact, he just might be feeling the first swirls of chills blowing across his body. That’s it, he has to get out of this place, this endless building. He needs to get home, climb into bed, bury himself under sheets and blankets, and just be quiet, just listen, see what his pounding heart is trying to tell him, just figure out what was going on, what is going on, right now, at this moment?
He starts going down the staircase, shuffling his feet as fast as he can manage it, trying to keep his weight off of his left foot, and he winds down, and down, passing flights and floors, and he glances at the numbers beside the doors set in small golden plates, 287, 300, 41, 72, and sometimes there are letters, odd groupings, QOS782, AKQ141, QQN777, and he does not attempt to figure out what the numbers and letters represent, but just keeps descending, watching for any sign that he is approaching the ground floor, or at least normal descending numbers. He notices that the letter Q features more prominently than any other letter, and that there are scads and scads of sevens. But don’t think about it, he tells himself, and continues, descending. Probably, if he took a few moments, and paid attention, he could probably figure out the pattern to all this—it all had to mean something, didn’t it?
He feels glass jabbing into his heel, stabbing upward through his ankle. But he’s used to this sensation, has experienced it for the last five years or so, ever since hitting his thirty-second birthday. He pauses, so how the hell old was he, anyway? A part of his mind said thirty-five years of age, of course, that’s how old he was, but another part of his brain screamed out that he was forty-two, no, fifty-four years old, no, he was only twenty-one—what the hell was going on? His age is like a drunken slide rule inside his head, going this way and that way.
He scrambled down the stairs, tempted to throw his cane aside and strip off his backpack and desert it, just go, as fast as possible and as unencumbered as possible, just get the hell out of this place, flee this fell Dodge, this nightmare, but he keeps going around and around, circling every downward, spiraling, caught in half of an infinity loop, ever descending, how was this even possible?
Stacey was out of breath, gasping, his asthma flaring up like crazy as it always did when he was stressed out, and he was on the point of screaming, as he nonsensically kept going down, almost at a run, skipping steps, his boot heels skidding and sliding across the edges of the steps, and if he were not careful, he would soon be going head-over-heels down, tumbling and crashing like Jack before Jill, cracking his crown on every step, damn it, but what was going on?
Finally, he stopped on a landing with a door without a label. The door seemed larger than usual, and he finally decided to test it, maybe find his way to an elevator, do anything he could to escape this place, because in a moment or two he would be screaming for help, calling out to anyone who chose to acknowledge him, and every second it seemed more and more likely that he was in this strange tower, all alone, fated to ever descend into the lower depths of hell.
And if he really did not pay attention, he might throw himself over the edge and test the depths, see how far the rabbit hole actually went.
He tried the door. It was unlocked. He peeked into the room with one eye, and discerned a short corridor, and cubicles beyond. He opened the door and stepped in, pulling the door closed behind him. He heard the murmur of voices. Down across what seemed an endless maze of low cubicles, he saw a few heads pop up here and there like prairie dogs peeking out of their holes. The large room certainly did not seem familiar. He had never been here before, that was obvious. But where was he, that was the real question.
I have a fever, he told himself. That’s why everything seems strange. When you have a fever, everything seems unreal, too sharp, too angry, everything pokes at you, everything is sharp and dangerous. I have a fever and am suffering some kind of breakdown, and the most important thing is, I have to get out of here, I must flee, just go to someplace that is not so strange.
Stacey glances to the side and sees the woman standing there staring at him. He nearly screams, because she is unmoving, and unreal, and then he realizes after only a moment that she is a cardboard cutout, some marketing device, discarded, standing there, smiling, her hands upon her hips. Visit Saturn, a slogan is printed on a banner that bisects her body. He calms himself, taking deep breaths, his lungs hissing, asthma whispering in high-pitched squeaks, it’s just an advertisement, for...Saturn?
He moves out and starts walking along the cubicles. These are the short cubicles that only reach the level of his chest, but he does not want to look at the people sitting inside these little boxes (he could, if he made the smallest effort, all he had to do was bend forward a little, peek over a side, but he doesn’t want to do this), but he can hear them chittering, hissing and chattering. He hobbles along the cloth sides of these little boxes, grimacing at the pain in his foot, and he senses the people standing in their cubicles as he passes, they stand and watch him as he passes, he can see some of their heads popping up in his peripheral vision, but he maintains his quick hobble toward—where, he has no idea, but he has to keep moving, keep going, he had to get out of here, and soon.
He stopped, and glanced back, and in complete quiet, he saw the faces watching him, perhaps a hundred or more, heads up above cubicles. Some of the faces obviously belonged to short people, and he only saw eyes and foreheads and sometimes noses, but some of the heads were on tall people, and thin men stood quietly, staring at him, and severe women, eyes glued to him, they stood and stared at him as he glanced through their ranks and lists, hundreds of eyes watching him. His breath shuddered in his throat, but then he turned and started moving up the aisles, registering again the heads popping up just as he passed, and yet he seemed to be making no progress, because before him was a seemingly endless sea of cubicles.
Again, as in the stairwell, he is on the verge of panicking, breaking down into tears, screaming, pleading for help. But then a figure steps into his path, up about seventy-five feet or so, a figure with the light behind him, but it looks to be a very thin man, standing in the aisle between cubicles, arms folded over chest. Stacey slows, but continues moving forward, toward this grim-looking specter. And then he stops, still unable to make out the man’s face. He glances back, and is surprised that all the heads have returned to their prairie dog holes.
“Stacey, what are you doing, wandering around,” a snide voice says, and Stacey glanced about to see the thin man walking toward him. It is Bloody Marty, the Director, and he’s pointing his comically large and pointed nose right at Stacey, as if he’s homing in. Stacey, despite himself, almost feels relief.
But then, only for a second, because, doesn’t he remember Marty as being a...woman? Well, sort of a woman? Because even right now, it is difficult to judge whether or not the figure coming toward him is male or female. He always dresses in what looks to be pantsuits, but then again, they are obviously styled after the typical man’s blue business suit, well, more or less, kind of a fluffy version. Marty comes to stand just before Stacey, cocking back his head to look up at Stacey, the ever-present sneer, pretty much ever present. “I got a call that you were wandering around where you’re not supposed to be. Did you know I could...let you go, you did know this, didn’t you?”
Marty’s blue clown’s eyes rolled exaggeratedly, and he sneered at Stacey, fingering his moustache. The poor hairy thing looked as if it were pasted on. Marty’s dyed red hair was garish, and his bleary red-rimmed eyes glowered at Stacey for a moment.
“Whatever you need to do, Marty, I was just looking for the escape hatch, as I need to head home, I’m not feeling well,” Stacey said, putting up the best front he was able, but still feeling like he might erupt in screams at any moment. But dealing with this farcical creature seemed to lend him some backbone. Stacey peered at the man, and attempted to make a final gender determination, but found himself unable. Marty sold himself as a man, so Stacey guessed that was the best way to deal with the...man. It made no difference to Stacey whatever gender Marty was or pretended to be, or what sexual orientation his indicator pointed toward, it was just the thought, regardless of homosexuality or heterosexuality, of Marty connecting to or affixing to or slathering over—any of those notions gave Stacey the shudders, and he tried not to allow even the trickle of such a thought to ever enter his mental domain.
“You are not going home, Mister, as there is an art project that needs to be done, today, and Erin is in no way up to it, so that leaves us with you,” Marty said, tsssking and tutting, grabbing Stacey by the arm and yanking, but Stacey merely glanced down at the hand as the slim figure tried to make some kind of impression on him, but it was as if Marty tugged on an elephant’s leg, after a moment or two the man sighed and rolled his eyes at Stacey. “Let’s go, Stacey, now.”
Stacey felt it best to follow. At least following behind Marty seemed almost normal. The director led them down a side passage through the cubicles and within twenty seconds they were at a normal looking elevator, which opened as soon as Marty pushed the up button. They stepped inside and Stacey glanced about, there was no elevator attendant present, as how could there be? Really, there was no such job, anywhere. And the elevator panel seemed to have the requisite number of buttons for fourteen floors, and normal black indicator above the doors that flashed red numbers of which floor you were presently at. It seemed they were on the thirteenth floor—that could explain, partially, some of the Twilight Zone aspects of the last hour.
Bloody Marty poked at Button Seven, and it glowed. Looking down on the little man’s head, it was pathetically obvious, the bad dye job, and such a ridiculous shade of red—what was it, fire engine red? Candy apple red? But at least this negative aspect was somewhat lessened by the copious amounts of dandruff. Stacey looked away.
There were no pinging bells, no chimes, and the elevator slowly churned like any regular lift, and they passed floor twelve, eleven, ten, descending gradually, no surprises, no sudden thrills, all in regular succession, until they finally slowed at seven, and the elevator door slid silently apart. Stacey recognized the flat golden carpet. He recognized each turn as he followed Bloody Marty back to his office. As he entered the office Stacey paused to admire the gleaming golden fire ax on the wall. The thing was massive, and deadly sharp. Then he quickly turned his attention aside before Marty noticed what he was looking at.
“I’ve purged more employees than any other director,” Bloody Marty loved to declare, proudly, whenever anyone paused before the grim-achievement award. If you needed to get rid of a whole lot of warm bodies, you brought in Bloody Marty. And that’s what they had done here. Hundreds of employees that used to work here, no longer did. To be, or not to be, Marty decided. And it generally ended up being not. Stacey was amazed, almost on a daily basis, that he was still here after three years.
When it was just Hissin’ Lewin and Sewey, things had been bad for Stacey at VS. They practiced, through glowering intimidation, to exclude people they decided to hate, and they exercised a fair amount of power, since people were terrified of them, but when Bloody Marty came on board about a year ago, and joined them, making a dark trinity, things had gone from ugly to grotesque. Bloody Marty, as a director, packed some real power. Stacey ought to have just quit, outright and upright, about a year ago, but there was something that must be twisted deep inside of Stacey, as he just couldn’t bring himself to quit. Today, with some of the psychedelic flashes going on and off inside his head, things could take a wild turn. He had a pleasant image of popping Bloody Marty, right on his noggin, bringing his black cane down once, abruptly, just a short...knock. The thought was quite...lovely.
“Your work has just not been quite...what it should be,” Bloody Marty said, plunking down in his massive office chair behind his fifteen-foot wide desk. The desk seemed to be made of thick plastic, or glass, and Marty had absolutely nothing on the surface, save for his tiny, pink hands. The telephone was behind the desk on a shelf that ran around the office, along with everything else you usually had on your desk, pens and stacks of paper, ledgers and books.
“If you want to try something fun,” Stacey said, sighing, this could be it, because he just wanted out of here. “You ought to let Lewin try his hand at art. This place could use a little humor.”
Bloody Marty glared at Stacey.
“Or Sewey,” Stacey said. “You people, you all want to be artists, don’t you?”
“What do you mean, you people?” Bloody Marty said, going very still. She sounded scandalized, or he did...oh, whatever.
“People like you, and Lewin, and Sewey. People exactly like you. You people.”
Stacey stared at the little man. For an awful moment, he felt he would burst into laughter. But the truth was, it could go either way—he was probably just as close to bursting into tears.
But enough was enough. These were not even people. So to say “you people,” he could just as easily say: “you unpeople.”
The soulless, the heartless, the dreamless.
Creatures. Creatures that enjoyed sucking the life out of people. Soul suckers. Stacey could hardly manage to stay in the same room with this being devoid of emotion or empathy, sympathy or kindness. A displaced citizen of the Third Reich, denizens of an invisible country that existed wherever hatred simmered.
“I do not think I understand what you are trying to say to me,” Bloody Marty said, spacing his words, quietly building in cold acid.
“I realize that, and I’m sorry for you,” Stacey said, contemplatively. He turned and exited the office, heading toward his desk.
“Where are you going! What do you think you are doing!” Bloody Marty shouted, springing from behind his desk and chasing Stacey out into the corridor. “I did not dismiss you! Get back here! Now!”
Stacey passed Lewin and Sewey. He saw flashes of their reality. Lewin sat in the dark, forcing everyone else around it to sit in the dark, and hissed whenever anyone passed close to its cubicle. Sewey was a creature that slithered around the office, leaving a slick trail of goo in its passage. How could there be three of these creatures, together, in one office, genderless and sexless, and oozing spite and hatred? How was that even possible? They fed on souls and fear and hatred and anger.
Stacey grabbed a few of his things, just a book, a coffee mug, a few gel pens that he brought to the office, a Photoshop manual, and as he rummaged through the drawers and overhead bin, Bloody Marty came and stood just outside his cubicle. Sewey and Lewin edged in close like bookends, smirking in at Stacey.
“What do you think you are doing?” Bloody Marty half-shrieked, his/its voice rising, losing its necessary roughness, escalating from alto to tenor to soprano in a few seconds. “I will fire you. Terminate you. Execute you!”
“Really?” Stacey said. “You’re going to execute me?”
He found a Starbucks bag and stacked his few possessions in it.
“I didn’t mean execute, but I will see to it that you never get another job,” Bloody Marty said, quivering with impotent rage.
“Is that even legal?” Stacey said, content that he had the most important stuff. These things could divide the rest of his stuff, it wasn’t important but for them, it would be...spoils. Enjoy it.
He was surprised at how calm he was. There was a distinct part of him that wished to lay about with his cane, striking these—he almost said scorpions, but he supposed scorpions were less poisonous, and all around more...nice, than these three. What were they, anyway, some hybrid form of human? Some facsimile of humanity? Were they aliens? If they were human, of a fashion, Stacey would not be surprised at all if they had bodies buried in their gardens.
“Legal!” Bloody Marty spluttered. “Legal! What do you mean, legal? What is legal?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m done,” he said, and Stacey felt a very large weight fall off of his shoulders. One second he was immersed in poison, and the next second he was out, breathing free and clear. It was actually quite wonderful. He should have done this a year ago, when Bloody Marty came on board.
“Let him go, finally,” Sewey said, “he’s just been sittin’ here, sittin’ here and we don’t need him sittin’ here. We can find someone like us, to be, you know, sittin’ here.”
Lewin hissed. Stacey stared at her, or him—he had heard him make this noise before, but he had never actually seen the expression on its face when she made the noise, the catlike hiss. It didn’t say anything, it just hissed. It was perhaps the least human of the three creatures.
Bloody Marty was mostly like an automaton, a wind-up jack-in-the-box, a deadly creature that sprang free, waving its golden ax.
Stacey shrugged. Thank God. He was free, finally. He walked toward them and they literally scattered before him, almost going over on their backs, like stink bugs. He managed to contain his limp, he was just too full of delight to feel any pain in his foot. It wasn’t until he was in the elevator that he paid the price for walking fully on his foot. He sighed, leaning on his cane, as he jabbed at the G button. I am free at last. He sighed, and almost burst into tears. It felt so good to escape from this place. From these people, or creatures, he must have been insane to remain here this long, for no purpose. What had been wrong with him, anyway? How could any sane person put up with such treatment, in such an environment?
In only a moment the elevator doors opened at the ground level, and Stacey limped out as quickly as he could manage on his bad foot. He dropped his badges and CAC card at the front-desk receptionist, and he paused, because wasn’t there something familiar about her? A young Eurasian woman—nothing weird about her, no flowing white Rapunzel cascade of hair—she winked at him as he dropped off the badges without speaking, and he went through the front doors, several pounds lighter, and years and years younger.
A homeless man sat on the steps leading up to the building, and smiled as Stacey came out and started down the stairs. Stacey did a double-take, because the man reminded him of the actor Alec Guinness. The name “Old Ben” immediately popped into his mind, and he nearly chuckled out loud. The man nodded to him, and might have mumbled something along the lines of “God bless you,” or, oddly enough, he might have said the word “Tippecanoe.” But Stacey was too charged from his recent escape from hell to ponder anything deeply, and felt he deserved a trip to the park, to the Jack tree.
He should stop and get some coffee, as there was a Starbucks right on the way (okay, so there were three Starbucks pretty much on the way to the park, one of them in a Safeway), but something tugged at his mind...that coffee place, what was it called?
He could picture in his mind, a dump truck backing up, pouring out a torrent of coffee beans, but could not for the life of him remember what the place was called. Coffee truck? He thought he remembered sitting in this little place, a greasy spoon? No, it was a coffee house, but there were books, lots of books surrounding the diners. And Old Ben, wasn’t he there? No, come on, now his mind was just playing tricks upon him. Why should he remember an old homeless man dressed up like Obi-Wan Kenobi? But...Jack...
...it was on the tip of his tongue, or at least on the tip of his mental tongue, what a thought, no, Jack was the name carved in the trunk of the tree in the park. Other than that tree, Stacey didn’t know any Jacks, although he had toyed with the idea of Jack being his own father, but he never knew his father, or his father’s name. It was just a fancy, and after all the weirdness today, his mind was probably fried. He had been thinking about sitting at his picnic table by the tree, when the weirdness began. What had touched it off, like a flame held to an old ship’s cannon?
The puppet show, yes, that’s when it all began, or maybe it was where it all began. Something about Punch and Judy, and that coffin, the red velvet, and those businessmen with their umbrellas. When the hell was the last time he had seen a rolling puppet show out in the street? Okay, so it was on the sidewalk, but come on, why the hell was it drawing such a crowd?
This world was crazy, it made no sense, with thousand-floor buildings and soul-sucking leeches in business pantsuits and bad dye jobs.
But no, he was feeling odd when he woke this morning. He kind of got ready in a daze. And what had happened last night? He couldn’t, for the life of him remember anything about last night—had he blacked out, or something? It was like some of his fights, ten years ago, sometimes he would take such a beating he could barely tell who or what he was the very next day. Could this be something like that? Like a flashback to his fight days?
Hadn’t all of this happened before? The businessman with the umbrella and his angry glance? The puppet show? The tree with the carved letters. He felt like he was going crazy, or that his mind was shutting down, or that his world was folding in on itself. The three jerks in the office—he could remember them, but both as men, and as women, and now, this in-between, genderless bizarreness. Pretty soon he’d be one of those guys strolling around, jerking, twitching, stumbling, talking to someone just over his shoulder, and batting away invisible, what—bats? Yes, that would be just lovely.
And his gut, that seemed somehow, I don’t know, different. Stacey felt as if he had packed on about thirty pounds. He didn’t remember being this heavy. I mean, he was pretty much, fat? Yes, he was fat. It all seemed like something from another universe, or at least another world.
He was in the park, and even that was weird—it was more than a mile from the VS building to the park, and Stacey, for the life of him, cannot remember walking here. Sure, he remembers coming down the stairs, seeing Old Ben, and walking, crossing the street...? Does he remember crossing the street? No, he does not.
And wasn’t there something about walking across the park to his bench, and racing to get there before...who? Or is that something he only heard about, he can’t quite remember, and it is driving him crazy, like a splinter of glass driven into his brain. He feels déjà vu, again, like an echo of an echo, because hadn’t all of this happened before?
But he sees—across the park, someone is at the bench under the Jack tree. Stacey feels his gut plummet. Yeah, so what. Let someone try and keep him from that bench, just let them try. Stacey was an introvert, true, but he wasn’t going to be pushed around, I mean, come on, a bench was big enough for two, especially a picnic table, which had two benches, one on either side of the table. But as he drew nearer, he doubted himself, because the guy at his table was huge. He was some kind of giant, the kind of guy that actually worked for the circus, because even sitting down it was obvious he was a dude perhaps a foot taller than Stacey, who stood six-foot-two.
As he drew nearer he saw the guy register his approach, and it gladdened his heart, because the guy was smiling such an open smile, so broadly, so innocently, that you knew this was a good guy. And Stacey, bizarrely enough, recognized him, although he couldn’t place his name. But he definitely knew this guy. It was a huge black guy, built more like a football player than a basketball player, with close-cropped hair and beard, mocha-colored skin, with just the kindest eyes Stacey had ever seen.
But this wasn’t right, was it? Maybe Stacey was mistaken, because the big guy he knew was white, wasn’t he?
“Hello!” the big guy bellowed as Stacey drew near. The guy’s voice was as big as his body. He was...loud.
“Hello,” Stacey said, at a significantly lower decibel.
“We know each other, don’t we?” the giant said.
“I believe we do, but I can’t remember your name,” Stacey said, sitting across from the giant, accepting the gigantic handshake offered over the table top. The guy’s grip was amazingly gentle, I mean the strength was there all right, but the big guy knew how strong he was and was being as gentle as possible.
“That’s okay, I don’t remember my name, either,” the big guy said.
“You really don’t remember your name?” Stacey said, leaning his elbows on the table. He instantly trusted this giant.
“No, I don’t even know how I got here, I just remembered where Michael lives, but when I knocked, he didn’t live there anymore, not since he was a little kid,” the big guy said, and he sounded as if he might burst into tears.
“Michael,” Stacey said, a bell ringing, distantly, inside his head. “Michael and Joshua.”
“Joshua? Is that my name?” the giant said, his eyebrows drawing together in concentration.
“I’m not sure, but I think so,” Stacey said. “Have you always been black?”
“Am I black?” the big guy said, with some surprise, looking at his arms, and comparing his skin tone to Stacey’s. “It looks like I might be, but I can’t remember anything. I guess I’ve always been black, but I really can’t remember.”
“You remember Michael?” Stacey said, feeling especially empathetic with the big guy, because even though he had all his memory intact, still, he was about as discombobulated as this giant. Thank God it wasn’t only him, and Stacey was not alone in this crazy world, thank God.
“I think so, his legs, and canes,” the big guy said.
“Yes, very short, and he looked like a meerkat,” Stacey said, and then wondered at that. What in the world did he mean, he looked like a meerkat?
“A meerkat, those cute little things? I don’t think so, but maybe. I can’t remember anything, not much. I remember we had to save poor Wolf the wolf, he was in a cage.”
“Wolf the wolf,” said Stacey, concentrating, that sounded familiar. Wolf the wolf, and Wolf the man, was that right?
“He had to get to Stacey,” the big man said.
“I’m Stacey,” Stacey said.
“Yes, that’s right, you are Stacey. Hello Stacey, nice to meet you, I am...well, I still don’t remember my name. But it’s very nice to see you again, for the first time. Uh, you know what I mean, I think? Is it only me?”
“No, it’s me too, Joshua. That’s okay, we’ll just go with Joshua, for now, okay?” Stacey asked, wanting to help this giant. He felt they were bound together somehow.
“I guess I’m okay with Joshua, but I was hoping I was Michael Jordan,” he said, and bellowed with laughter.
That set off some warning bells. Stacey looked at the giant. Please, no more crazies, at least for a little while. He needed a break, a good rest, and only then, go ahead, bring on the crazies, after the rest.
“I was kidding, I was kidding!” Joshua said, smiling the biggest and sweetest smile Stacey had ever seen.
“Listening to you two is giving me a headache like you wouldn’t believe,” the little girl said, coming around the Jack tree. “You’d think you two were from a different world, or something.”
Stacey looked at the little girl. Uh oh, he remembered something about her, but he could not remember what it was. But whatever she said, he was going with that. Thank goodness, someone with a brain had shown up, because he doubted that he and Joshua together could make up one brain.
“Hello little girl,” Joshua said. “I hope your memory is working better than ours. Or are you totally bonkers, as well?”
“Oh, I remember both of you, big guys,” the little girl said, climbing onto the bench next to Joshua, sitting directly across from Stacey. “You two are my favorites, you always have been.”
“We know you?” Stacey asked.
“Oh not yet, but now you will, in your own times and places, because you are pretty much dead in High Vale, Stacey, and Joshua did die there, so I had to bring Joshua around in another world, a very similar one to where you grew up, and where he grew up, I mean originally. You were the best way to get him, even though you had to jump through a few hoops first. I really am sorry about that, Stacey. Technically, I’m not supposed to be doing any of this, I mean I’m breaking a whole lot of rules. But it’s helping me make up my mind about a few things, so I think under special circumstances, it’s okay to break a few rules, you know, the smaller ones, the kind that never made any kind of sense anyway. Right?”
“Sure,” Stacey said, sitting up straighter. “Do we have to watch out for guys with umbrellas?”
The little girl laughed. “No, not them, I can handle them okay. But the other guys, the ones with feathers and melted faces, they all look alike, keep an eye out for them. They usually like to wear athletic clothes and sneakers. If we see any of them, we could be in trouble.”
“Do you mean like...those guys?” Joshua said, innocently, pointing across the park to group of men that were coming across the green at a trot. Some kind of team of athletes, carrying black spikes in their hands.
Stacey glanced and knew instantly that they were indeed in trouble, because trouble emanated from these guys. About six of them, and they all looked the same. He glanced to the other side of the park and saw a similar group—no, it was the same group, but there were more of them—racing toward them from that direction.
“Oops,” the little girl said, “I should have been watching better. Come on, both of you. Stacey, if you please?”
Stacey looked to where the little girl was indicating. She was waving her hand toward the Jack tree, to the engraving, which now glowed like a fiery rainbow. Stacey nodded, a distant memory detonating in his brain, and he came around the picnic table and placed his hand upon the carving.
A bright circle of light ignited about under the Jack tree.
“Down the rabbit hole,” the little girl said, giggling, and she stepped through, vanishing.
“In you go, big guy,” Stacey said, shoving Joshua through, and forgetting to warn him about the fruit.
Stacey glanced back at the group of men, who were now running all-out pell-mell toward him, but they were still an easy fifty yards away, and Stacey was so, so happy to again be leaving this world. I hope I never have to come back here again. Oh, am I glad to depart.
He flipped the bird to the oncoming group, then turned and flipped off the group racing from the other side.
Thank God, he thought, as he neatly dove into the portal, vanishing, again.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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