Alex Thorley Eats A Burger
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rating: +63+x

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There's a line on the floor where the linoleum ends and the Burger King begins.

And just before that, the soles of your shoes — your feet, locked in place. You've been in a standstill for twelve minutes. You should not be here.

But that, more than any other explanation, is why you are here.

Because it's been bagels for the past week, Alex. The daze you've been trapped in, that air of unease upon you — it's not natural. These are the consequences of dietary neglect, the effects of eating bread for days straight. Do you really think the human body can sustain itself with flour and water?

Please.

It's time to eat *real* food.

Even your stomach is growling in agreement.

So, one foot in front of the other, you exit Site-19 and cross the cusp into Burger King. It's seamless, because there's no door. There's not even a wall separating it from the outside. Only a line on the floor — where the cold cruelty ends and the warm invitation of fast food begins.

A moist air greets you as you step inside. It must be around lunch time, you think, because there are dozens of bodies in this restaurant. A dozen more lined up towards the counter. They're all red eyes and chapped lips, crusted by overwork. Some of them are names you recognize — names from one-sided conversations, those held from behind tall podiums and big screens. The thought of them waiting in this long line — for a place to eat after all the sweat of the day — makes your mouth water. We're not so different, after all.

After some minutes, you shuffle to the cash register. The cashier offers a lopsided smile — his face is warm and inviting. Honestly, you'd call him cute, if he was a little shorter. You're not here to eat him, though, you're here to eat food.

Yet, you don't know *what* to eat. Every menu is full of options and each one is tempting. What do you choose? There is the Cheese Burger with fries, or the Chicken Sandwich with fries, or even the Turkey Burger with fries.

The choices are endless. Is there any difference between the Burgers? Any difference between the fries? How do you even know which one is better? You could order something from the specials menu — a hot dog, maybe a nuggets box. But you're afraid to eat that for fear of becoming fat. Not the right thing to do, you know.

You look back at the cashier. He's watching you with half-lidded eyes, and his gaze seems to want something. It's not so hard to figure out — the cashier's eyes, he wants you to buy food. He wants to put food inside you, right now. You do, too.

But you're not really sure. What should you buy? What should you eat?

The expectations don't vanish from the cashier's face and it's starting to feel like you're wasting his time, so you skip ahead to the answer.

"A burger with fries for me," you say. You pause for a moment. "A 'Cheese Burger', I mean."

"A bacon cheeseburger." The cashier nods, and slides a burger with fries in front of you.

Your eyes widen.

"Fries?" you ask, pointing to the fries.

"Yes, those are fries," he says, pointing to the fries, too.

"Pickles?"

"No pickles," the cashier clarifies, "unless you want it, you know, pickle-style."

"Thank you," you say. You don't want it pickle-style — you want it *plain-style*. That's the running theme here.

He smiles. You've been good to him.

And he's gone.




Your booth has this smell.

Like a cheap hotel, just off the highway, that's left to rot. All the air is stale, and the stench that drifts from the kitchen is a combination of smoke, cooking oil, and the unmistakable stench of shit.

It's a bad place to eat a burger, but there's not much of a choice. Every other table is taken. Hungry mouths that would never talk to you — let alone offer you a seat. They are men and women with dark hearts.

But it's fine. You don't need them. You have this burger and you have these fries. You have this booth — all to yourself.

It's exactly where you need to be. And you know what to do.

Start eating, Alex.

Your hands grasp at the fries. They're thick and crispy, each one a generous offering of salt and spice. You can't help but stuff them in packs, five or six in your mouth at once. The Burger King didn't hold back while preparing this — so why should you?

The fry basket drains into your gullet with vigor. Heads turn towards you in offense, their faces contorting into sneers. You pay them no mind — they've probably never eaten bagels; the worst food item in the realm of human gastronomy. They've never felt as the thirsty do when they find water — a feeling you're living in right now. So, without hesitation, you lap at your french fries until — finally — your lips kiss the floor of the basket.

It's exciting. Blood races through your body, thrumming with raw *vitae*. Is this what real food tastes like?

Oh, but it's not over. You haven't even touched the burger. You're still on the incline.

As you lift the bacon cheeseburger to eye-level, you take it in from every angle. It is double-stacked — two slabs of cooked beef, buttressed by melted cheese and bacon, and placed between a pair of enormous buns. The magnitude of this sandwich makes you feel *weak* in its presence. Your reverence of its power, however, is more reason to accept it into your body.

But then, something flickers in the backdrop of your vision. The cashier is staring at you from the kitchen window. His wide eyes betray anxiety — anxious, about you. You can't imagine what has him so worked up. Is he worried you'll fall into glycemic shock? Suddenly—

A flash of light envelops you. The snap of thunder splits your ears. Electric frissons crawl down your fingers, leaving behind cold, empty air.

The cheeseburger is gone.

…No!

You lose your shit instantly. You look around the table, under the tray, in your pockets, under the table, under your *seat*, inside the fry basket, up at the ceiling — and nothing, the burger is nowhere to be found. It has vanished into the ether. What is going on? What happened to your burger?

"I destroyed it."

The cashier leans over you, the air around him tinged in a sort of wordless sorrow. His eyes glisten at the corners. He doesn't regret what he did — he regrets that he hurt you while doing it.

"It was not a real cheeseburger," he says.

"What?"

He looks aside. "It was a trick of light — a 'nothing-burger' — placed in your hands by beings with hidden designs."

"The fries, too?"

"No, those were real." He smiles weakly. "I made them for you."

It's only a small consolation. You want to tell him that you're not angry. That he didn't hurt you, not at all. That you forgive him because he's hurting too. But you can't find your voice.

The cashier kneels down. He pulls you close and presses a gentle kiss to your cheek.

"I'm sorry, Alex."

Your words fall out in slow, halting tones. "I just want to eat…"

The burger wasn't real, you tell yourself. But the message — what it meant to you. It was real. It was a small clarity in a long cascade of illusion. Hope in the midst of these *things* happening to you — these anxieties that never find their answers. And now it's gone. It's nothing, again.

You remember the first time you felt this way.

It was during your orientation, the one for the Department of Unreality. The room was packed — hundreds, maybe thousands of people. And behind the podium, on a tele-call projected on a screen, there were big names: site directors, department heads, even members of the O5 Council. You barely made it in before they locked the doors.

Somewhere in the middle row, you negotiated your way through a line of chairs, trying not to knock anyone's bagel out of their hand. You found an empty spot and took it, even though you weren't assigned a seat.

The talk was more of the same: welcome to the Department of Unreality, and how amazing, you're the *best* of the best, you're very important!

You wanted to believe them, but you didn't. Not really.

When the crowd died down and people started to leave, I sat next to you and introduced myself.

"Hi," I said, putting my hand out. "Alex Thorley, Reality Liaison."

You smiled, ritually, and shook my hand.

"Jennifer." You paused for a moment. "I was transferred here from Memetics."

I nodded. Most of the department's transfers come from Memetics, Analytics, or Internal Affairs. The skillsets overlap to an extent, but it's usually the circumstances of their work that lead them here.

"I'm happy to meet you, Jennifer." I said. "I have a couple of things I need to run by you."

"Wait…"

"Hmm?"

The linoleum shrieks as you leap out of your chair. You turn and look around the empty conference room. Something isn't right.

"What is this?" you say.

"Huh?"

"What is this?" you say again, louder. "Where am I?"

"Calm down." I walk closer to you, putting your bagel back in your hand. I watch as you take a long, shaky breath. "You're going to be fine."

You look around the room again, squinting. But you can't focus on anything for more than a second or two. Your mind keeps going in and out of focus, like a bad camera lens. Images appear and vanish. People speak to you and you answer back — but they're not real.

Something inside you is dying.

"I'm…"

"You're in the Department of Unreality," I say. "This is where you should be."

You can't object to that.

Jennifer.

"Okay." You let go of your breath and sigh. "I'm sorry, Alex."

"It happens to all of us," I lie. I look at my watch — it's getting to be around noon. "How about we discuss this over lunch?"

You look down at the line on the floor. The soles of your shoes.

"Sure."


















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