“You’re new, right? Well, we’re glad to have you. Have you tried the fries yet?”
It was the question everyone had been asking me since I started work at the facility. I wasn’t enthusiastic about eating lunch there…for a number of reasons.
Firstly, my work: I cut up fish corpses for science. You can get used to the smell (brine, formaldehyde, dead fish, cleaning solution) but you never really get it out of your nose.
Secondly, cafeterias attached to laboratories–like this one was–had always grossed me out. In theory, I know that the food stays separate from our preserved canisters of deep-sea creatures…but in practice, I can’t stop imagining slimy black eels in the gallon-jugs of ketchup and dead anglerfish floating in the soda machine.
Ridiculous, I know–even hospitals full of infectious diseases have their own cafeterias, right? But even after a week of working at the facility, I still haven’t set foot in the dining hall.
Social pressure is a hell of a drug. I didn’t want to be known as the weird new guy who ate his sandwich outside with the seagulls every afternoon. Besides, the whole lab went to the cafeteria: if I didn’t join, I’d never get to know any of my coworkers.
And so I found myself washing my hands twice, sighing, trying to make my reflection in the staff bathroom mirror look less paranoid and strange. I didn’t even have to eat anything, I told myself. I could just sip a drink and socialize.
With a final deep breath, I left the restroom and pushed open the door to the laboratory dining hall.
It seemed clean at least, and I liked that. It didn’t have that harsh chemical smell so common in facilities like ours, but the stainless steel surfaces practically sparkled. I’d underestimated the number of researchers at the facility: workers with rubber gloves and hairnets scurried between the huge tables, carrying trays of food. Instead of the slop, I remembered from high school, plates were piled high with fresh and colorful foods–today’s menu was ‘tandoori chicken with roast vegetables’ or ‘vegetarian lasagna with chopped greens.’ Both meals included fries and a drink.
I stuck to my plan of just grabbing a coffee, but I tried to sneak a peek into the prep area, too. A squat, white-haired chef planted herself right between me and the kitchen, so squarely that I wondered if she was blocking my view on purpose…and was that suspicion in her eyes?
I told myself I was just being paranoid.
I should just focus on my coffee. As I poured it, though, I yelped and nearly scalded myself. Something was swimming in the pot!
It flicked its black-finned tailed and vanished into the brown murkiness–
Or did it? I looked again. Swirled the pot. Swished the coffee left and right–
A bald guy from finance–Chris or Chuck or something–cleared his throat behind me, lifting an empty mug. I filled it and left the pot empty, with no nameless creature flopping around inside.
I had to make myself get over this.
On impulse, I grabbed a tray of tandoori chicken and vegetables. At the end of the line, a server stopped me. I reached for my credit card–
“No honey, it’s free if you work here.” She looked me over. “I have seen you around. But you ain’t got any fries! Them’s the best part!”
“Uh…” I looked around at all the signs promoting golden piles of fries. “I’m just not that hungry, I guess.”
“Suit yourself,” she rolled her eyes and waved me on. It was weird, how much the cafeteria seemed to be pushing them. Maybe they were the cheapest thing to make. Maybe management put them up to it. But fried food upset my stomach…and you couldn’t always tell what it had been before. I thought of the thing in the coffeepot and shuddered.
My coworkers practically cheered when they saw me. “We thought you’d never make it!” Dante, my boss, seemed to be in a rare good mood. He gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Welcome to the lunch crew!”
I saw a lot of familiar faces over the heaping plates of fries. The positive energy was contagious: I’d walked into the lunchroom wondering if I could make one friend at my new job; I left it feeling like I’d made several.
The truth was that moving to a new city and starting this new job at the facility was stressing me out more than I was willing to admit–even if I was finally working in the field I’d been fascinated by since I saw Blue Planet as a kid. Around the lunch table, though, I felt like maybe this could be my place. I was still stressed, but I didn’t feel so alone…at least until I fell asleep early that evening.
The thing is, you’re always alone in your nightmares.
In this one, I was alone in the vast stainless-steel cafeteria, wearing the white uniform, gloves, and hairnet of the lunchroom staff. Something was dripping in the kitchen.
I had to stop the leak–but where was everyone. Something scuffled behind me, but when I turned, the tables waited empty and still–almost like they were willing me forward. Florescent lights buzzed overhead. I tried to swallow, but my throat was dry.
I passed by the drink machines and behind the buffet. I didn’t recognize a lot of the machinery in the kitchen–especially the three huge steel cylinders on the wall. The lid was removed from one. Something leaked from its pipes.
Soon I’d be close enough. Close enough to know what was in the vast, the source of the dripping. I leaned over the rim–
I woke up screaming.
I had to get over this ridiculous phobia. My whole new life was at stake! The next day at lunch, I added a heap of fries beside my hamburger.
“Hunter!” Dante shouted over the din. “You’ve been working with the new samples, right?”
“I am!” I replied. “And this organism is different from other deep-sea life in a lot of ways…”
I was thrilled to be talking about my work–so much so that I forgot to eat. My coworkers ran off to a meeting, leaving me with my plate of (now-cold) hamburger and fries.
I reached for the burger–
The fries started squirming like tentacles, inky black, and slimy. The meat of my burger flopped like a reanimated tissue sample, one of the gray bits of skin I examined beneath my microscope. I pushed myself away from the table with a scream; my food went flying across the floor.
“Everything alright?” The white-haired chef bent down beside me. I mumbled an apology and scurried out of the cafeteria.
That night I dreamed I was swimming in a lightless metal tank, so cramped it was suffocating. In the morning, my sheets were soaked with (what I hoped was) sweat.
I felt tired, feverish. I struggled to concentrate on my work. When was the last time I’d eaten? More importantly, where were the rest of the researchers in my lab?
Around noon, Dante stuck his head in the lab door: “Hey Hunter! Want to come for lunch?”
I thought of fish entrails and spaghetti-thin worms writhing beneath the seafloor. I had to bring a hand to my mouth to hold in the vomit.
“Are you feeling alright?” I kept my teeth gritted and mumbled an excuse. When he finally left, I let fly into the trash can. I found myself relieved that nothing was staring back at me from the chunky yellow mess I’d made.
I went home early that day, and spent two more days in bed with fever and delirious dreams…but my experiments were time-sensitive. I had to get back to the facility.
Instead of the lab, however, I found myself hurrying to the cafeteria. I still couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten, but I had to know what was in those meals. If I could just find out, it would all make sense, I was sure of it.
Ignoring the shouts and warnings of the staff, I pushed my way through to the big metal vats in the kitchen. The white-haired chef charged me, but she was too late: I was already lifting the lid.
What I saw inside defied all description. The vampire squid, lampreys, and dissected anglerfish were nothing compared to it. All I could do was stare in horror until I was dragged away–
Or so I thought.
Later, when the security guard reviewed the camera footage with me, the vat was filled with perfectly ordinary frying oil. I needed to explain my actions, he said. I’d upset a lot of people, he said.
I didn’t have to worry about excuses, however, because a knock at the door called the guard away, leaving me with the still image of myself on the screen, frozen while I screamed at a vat of oil.
The guard stayed gone for a while. I slipped out of my chair and pressed my ear to the door to listen in on the conversation outside:
“…almost like a kind of deep-sea rabies…”
“…brought in by the new specimen…”
“…now believed transmittable to humans…”
“…results in a kind of dread of food, a psychological inability to eat…”
“…subject will probably enter a starvation-induced coma, but will suffer horribly over the feeding tube…”
I think…I think they’re talking about me. Please, I don’t want anything pumped into my throat. I don’t want to be fed from that horrible creature. Please.