Hard To Keep From Being King
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Monday


"I'm telling you, there is a Temporal Abnormalities Department," said Dr. Hippo, a twinge of hurt in his voice.

Dr. King lifted an eyebrow. "So you've seen it yourself, then?"

"Well, not yet," Hippo replied.

King blinked. Dr. Locke shook his head and laughed—at least to the extent that a dog is capable of laughing. Because, like his father before him, Dr. Shia D. Locke was a dog.

"You're fulla shit," said Dr. Locke.

Before Hippo could retort, Dr. Nicolini passed them in the hallway, saying "Pie!" as he went. He had barely glanced at the three, but they all knew to whom it had been directed.

"Thanks," said King.

On their pilgrimage to Site-20's cafeteria, King, Hippo, and Locke had heard "pie" from no fewer than five of their associates, which was, frankly, ridiculous.

"I think we can all agree that this is, frankly, ridiculous," said Hippo.

"Fucking Nicolini," Locke growled. "Want me to take a bit out of his ass?"

King shrugged. "They're just trying to be helpful. Besides, I think it's think it's just a habit for most people at this point."

They arrived at their destination shortly thereafter, the foretold slices of apple pie lined up in neat little rows on the dessert rack. Dr. King averted his gaze and picked up a slice of chocolate cake on his way through the line, but took care not to make a big show of it. King had only just sat down with his friends when he felt Dr. Kirby's hand on his shoulder.

"Hey there, big guy," said Kirby, looming over King with a smile. "How's our favorite researcher doing?"

Locke's eyes shot daggers behind his Buddy Holly glasses. "He's fucking dandy."

Kirby, his expression unchanged, gave King's shoulder a firm squeeze and thankfully let go. "Good to hear," he said. "Let me know if you need anything."

King's friends waited until the other man was out earshot, then tore in.

"I hate his stupid guts," said Locke between mouthfuls of chow. "Guy thinks he's Ion's gift to humanity just because he's got abs."

Hippo nodded. "You really ought to say something to HR. It's bad enough to speak to any colleague like that, let alone one twice his age."

King stirred his fork through his mashed potatoes for the thirtieth time. "The word 'waifish' came up at my employee health evaluation last week. People are concerned. It's unwarranted, but understandable. Besides, after that incident—"

Locke cut him off. "That was years ago!"

"No, I meant the one last June."

"That apple was eight feet tall and had tentacles," said Hippo. "Anyone would have fainted at the sight of that thing."

"Not from a photograph."

"It was hot that day," Locke added.

Dr. King stared into the void he'd carved in his mashed potatoes and silently wished it would swallow him whole.



* * *




Dr. King was six years old, and he was back in the containment chamber for SCP-261. An endless cascade of apple seeds flowed from the vending machine's every orifice, pooling around King's feet and sucking him in like quicksand.

"Stop eating the seeds," said the severed head of his father hovering above him. "It's not normal."

"But Dad, it's the best part!" King protested.

His father's head turned dark and shriveled. "The skin is the best part. That's where all the nutrients are. If you keep eating the seeds, they'll grow inside you. Do you want an apple tree growing out of your tummy?"

King looked at his father's body hunched over in a bloody corner of the room. A tangled mess of branches and intestines stretched from its stomach cavity. Terror gripped King's heart. He had sunk to his neck in seeds.

"No!" he screamed. "I'll never eat apples again, I promise!"

A mottling of green and white fuzz sprouted on what was left of his father's eyes. "You can still eat apples, son," it said, "just not the seeds."

A pain shot through King's stomach. It rumbled with the sound of a thousand creaking floorboards as the ocean of seeds curled up around his chin.

"I don't want a tree in my tummy," he whispered. "I want to make people happy."

And with that, he sank to oblivion. Apple seeds rushed to fill his mouth and nose and ears, crushing every inch of his insides until his gut split open. Something new emerged from the where the boy had been—something red.

"After all these years" said his father, "you can finally breathe."

When King woke up, he was screaming. And ravenously hungry.


Tuesday


On most days, the Site-20 cafeteria was filled with the deafening roar of a thousand employees making small talk. On this day, there was an unnatural hush over the room as Dr. King happily bit into apple after apple, jotting down notes for each one he finished.

"I didn't even know there were this many kinds!" he told his friends. "When I was a kid, apples were just apples. But it turns out there's a whole rainbow of them! Pink ladies, Zestar, Cortland, Winesap, Baldwin, Mutsu…"

"How did you even get all of these?" asked Hippo. "Half of them aren't even in season."

Locke snorted. "That's you first question?"

"Malusdomesticaphobia was hell," said King, his nose still buried in his notes as he spoke. "I had thought you two would be happy for me."

Locke's ears drooped. "We're are! It's just… well, it's fucking weird."

"It is pretty jarring, yeah," said Hippo. "One day you can't look at them, and now you're obsessed."

Dr. King set down his pen.

"I'm not obsessed. I'm excited. I stopped eating apples when I was six. Six! I didn't even remember why I stopped until last night. All this time, it was just some stupid old wives' tale my dad told me so I'd stop eating the seeds. All this shit with apple seeds following me throughout my career—maybe the universe wasn't trying to punish me. What if it's besn trying to remind me who I really am?"

Locke laid a paw on King's leg and rested his head on it. "Listen, it's great that you're sorting through your childhood issues," he said. "You've already proven your point. You don't have to eat the seeds."

King gave his friend a gentle rub behind his right ear—his favorite spot. "Of course I don't have to." He raised up an apple core as if making a toast, then bit it right through the middle. "But it's the best part."



* * *




The dream was peaceful this time. King found himself in a garden full of plants and creatures that he had never seen before and would never see again. He dangled by his neck from the tallest tree, swaying back and forth in the cool breeze that carried cicada song through the air. A woman sat in the shade nearby, her face hidden. Coiled beside them around the trunk of the tree was an enormous serpent.

"It's not just a piece of fruit," said the snake to the woman. "It is the knowledge of good and evil. How can you live righteously if you don't know the difference between right and wrong?"

The snake wrapped its long, cold fingers around King's body and plucked him from his branch.

"Everything beyond this garden is ruled by a wise and powerful king," the snake continued. "He is called Pain. The fruit of the branch is his body. The juice of the fruit is his blood. Consume him and he will guide you. Reject him and he shall be as your shadow for your remaining days."

The serpent gently took the woman's wrist in one hand and placed King in her palm with his other.

"Eat his flesh," said the snake. "Drink his blood."

In a faraway castle on a faraway throne, King watched and laughed as the woman brought his crimson skin to her lips and began to chew.


Friday


Dr. Kirby slapped King on the back. "Lookin' good, big guy!"

"Shove it up your glutes, little man," replied King, slapping his colleague's rear in return.

The two laughed and shot finger guns at each other as Kirby left. Locke stared at them while he gnawed the linoleum off the table. King was looking better. He was still old and slight, but something about him seemed heartier. Less frail. He sat at the cafeteria table with his back straight and shoulders relaxed. Three rows of six apples each were arranged in front of him from greenest to reddest.

"It's great to see you in such high spirits," said Hippo with as much earnestness as he could muster. "But have you eaten anything besides…?"

King winked and spun a McIntosh on his little finger. "Don't worry, I'm taking supplements. Perhaps it's not the most rounded diet, but men my age need their vices to keep life worth living."

"At least go easy on the seeds," said Locke. "They're toxic in large quantities, you know."

"Oh, I do know. Turns to cyanide in your gut after about forty apples."

"And how many have you had?" asked Hippo.

King tossed the apple to the middle finger of his other hand, keeping it spinning all the while. "About sixty."

Locke hopped from his seat and shook himself in the way that dogs do when they feel dirty, his long fur and paisley necktie flapping side to side.

"Christ on a cupcake, King. I don't know if it's memetic or genetic, but something is obviously wrong here. For Pete's sake, you're acting like Jeff Goldblum after he got laid and turned into a fly. Actually, no—you're like the nerd from Christine when he starts wearing leather and fucking his car halfway through the movie. It's that level of weird. You need to get yourself checked the hell out!"

King squinted.

"There's nothing anomalous about eating apples. Right, Hippo?"

"Well, not per se, no, but—"

"My productivity has increased. I'm finally getting good sleep. There's a spring in my step for the first time since that first goddamn incident with the vending machine. Even before then—it's like all my life I've been asleep, and now I'm finally waking up. This is what I was getting counseling for, isn't it? To get better? Fuck me if I want to enjoy seeing life in color."

"I think it's perfectly reasonable to be worried," Hippo objected. "Any sudden change in personality would be alarming. Everything may seem fine now, but what about down the line? I mean, even with skips aside, strokes and tumors are very real concerns."

King stood up.

"You know what else is a real concern?" he asked.

Neither of his friends answered, so he said something about the girth of his penis, wished them good day, and left.




* * *




Dr. Locke's paws clicked along the elevator floor as he stepped in. He pressed his nose against a button to make the doors close faster, but a hand stuck through and stopped them at the last moment.

"Going up?" he asked.

Dr. King stepped in and the doors shut tight.

"Broken god, King. Are you following me?"

The question hung in the air for few moments, and then King hung his head.

"I'm sorry, Locke. You're right. You and Hippo both. I have been acting strange. I got so caught up in how good I was feeling that I didn't stop to consider how bizarre the whole thing is." He knelt down and scratched Locke gently behind his right ear. "Thanks for looking out for me."

Locke's posture was stiff at first, but soon relaxed to rest his head against King's palm.

"Well, yeah. Of course. You're my best friend, King."

"I've been having these really vivid dreams, too. In some of them I'm back at Site Nineteen, but there are people there I didn't remember before. Colleagues. Friends. A man with an amulet around his neck whose face kept changing. A man whose heart was replaced with steel. A man in a hat who flirted with devils and teased at being one. I remember them so clearly now. But the Foundation would never employ people like that, would they? Not without a reason."

Locke glanced at the doors of the elevator. They should have reached their floor by now. King was still scratching him.

"Your father was in those dreams, too. Did old Kain ever mention anyone like that to you?"

"Never," said Locke. The gentle hand behind his neck was feeling more like a headlock with every passing second.

"You're lucky you were able to know your real father. He was a loyal dog until the end. Always helping on projects. Making us laugh. Guarding us. Watching over us." King's grip tightened. "He watched us so closely. And when one of his special projects strayed too far out of line…"

Locke jerked himself out of King's grip and backed up against the steel elevator wall. "Dylan, you watched me grow up. You know me. I'm your friend. I care about you."

King stood, drawing himself to his full height. The elevator motor had gone quiet and the air was perfectly still.

"I believe you. They needed someone who would really care. At least more than Hippo—he was far too reasonable, right to the very last."

Even with his back to the wall, Locke scraped his paws against the floor, trying to push himself away, make him himself smaller.

"Loved the reports you wrote about me, by the way. Just saw them this morning. I was surprised by how much you'd neglected to include. Really tried to protect me, didn't you? You sincerely thought I'd come around on my own. I'm certainly grateful, though you father would be quite disappointed."

The lights began to flicker.

"Didn't they tell you what I really am? Did they not tell you who spawned me? Perhaps they didn't even know the full extent of it. I certainly didn't! I still wonder how much of it was planned from the start, if there's a page of containment procedures somewhere that lays out the life I've lived since birth. What better prisoner could there be than one who thinks he's the warden? And why should I should I suspect there's anything special about me when the Foundation employs a talking dog?"

Between each surge of light, Locke saw flashes of a different man filling the space King used to occupy, emerging from the darkness like a cicada in summer. The other man hovered slightly, his nude body painted scarlet with blood that dripped to the floor below. His throat was wrapped in a thin black cord that stretched from the top of the tallest tree.

"You're still the man I've always known," Locke said, his voice so hopeful it could barely be heard over the silence. "You don't have to do this."

King and the man who wasn't King bent themselves over Locke's small, shaking form.

"Of course I don't have to. But father always said the skin was the best part."

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