Flash Fiction: Eat Your Vegetables

A response to a flash fiction challenge at terribleminds: use an unusable stock photo to inspire a story. Here’s the picture:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/kristinchirico/stock-photos-that-no-one-will-ever-be-able-to-use?sub=3510664_4246249

And… here’s the story.

– – – – –

Eun Rhee quavered behind a nicely upholstered loveseat. Its smooth brown geometric curves on the soft cotton/polyester blend did little to sooth him, instead reminding Eun of the woman who had sat next to him, just an hour before.

He peeked over the top of the couch. Even barely sticking his head out, he saw a flash of green and fell back to the pristine wooden floor of the cabin. Normally, he would appreciate the fine mahogany with its natural grain and coloring. But with It out there…

The world burst into song and Eun yelped, the catchy beat tinged with a tinny quality. Colors splashed on his sight, he thought, a visual parallel to the bass line of the familiar song. He could not place it until his pocket vibrated, an anchor to the physical realm.

Scrambling with the phone, Eun tried to silence it, but the damage was done, he knew. Casting a terrified glance over the top of the couch again, he saw the green rustle and move.

It was coming for him.

The phone’s ringtone clicked off as its owner gulped, preparing to face his fate.

A face peeked out of the green. This development surprising in itself, Eun nearly leaped through the wall behind him when he recognized the face. “Rozalija!” he half-shouted before he could hush himself.

“Eun,” hissed Rozalija, blessedly alive and sane. She waved him over with her cell phone. “Stop hiding behind that giant potato and get over here.”

“Have you seen Mr. West?” Eun could not help but ask. He was worried.

“No sign of the boss so far.” Rozalija looked ashen at the admission.

“Is It here?” he asked, clutching the loveseat.

It will be soon. Come on, we have to do something.”

With a sharp nod and an intake of breath (it really did smell like hash browns behind this sofa), Eun crept toward Rozalija’s hiding place. Braver than Eun, she took cover in the bushy confines of a broccoli plant in the corner of the commons. Her pale pink pantsuit blended better than Eun’s dark blazer and slacks, as hers was covered in dirt and grime. Slashes and grubby holes showed through the pink fabric.

“What happened to you?” Eun asked, crowding into the corner behind the broccoli.

Rozalija let him in. “I was looking for something to stop it. The kitchen seemed like the right place to look but it’s crazy over there.”

Eun smacked a hand to his forehead. Of course, the kitchen over in the cafeteria building would have the appropriate tools for dealing with… It. “How did you get back across the camp?”

Rozalija grimaced, the expression unnatural on her cheery face. Eun wanted to take her back to the loveseat, sit there next to her again, their hands lightly touching on the border between their cushions. “I had to leave Jerry,” she said, and Eun’s couch compulsion vanished.

“What? Not Jerry!”

Rozalija put a finger to Eun’s lips, silencing him. “Jerry was turning,” she said, voice breaking. “You could see it in his skin, going all green. He sacrificed himself to give me this chance.” Tears formed on her eyes.

“What chance?” Eun was not sure he wanted to know.

“The power is out in the cafeteria,” Rozalija said. “The electric stove is useless right now, but there are some gas cans for the generator.”

“You have a plan.”

Rozalija nodded. “We tried something, managed to slow It down a little. But we need to add some heat.”

“Gas cans,” Eun breathed. “They’re just outside.” He gritted his teeth. “I’ll distract It to give you some cover.”

“Good.” Rozalija gripped Eun’s shoulders. Their eyes met, and she pulled him into a tight hug. “It has to be done, before this spreads any further.”

Eun choked back a sob, preparing himself to face his fears. “How long do you need?”

“It’s a high power stove. Once I’m over there, a minute to fill the generator, maybe two minutes to heat the weapon.”

“A three minute distraction.” Eun had done that sort of thing a dozen times in the three days they had been at the company retreat. Sure, it had been in the meeting room while waiting for Mr. West to arrive and start the next session, but the basics were the same. “I can do that.”

“There’s no time to waste, then.”

Rozalija grabbed Eun’s face and pulled him into a kiss. Before he could catch his breath, she stepped out from behind the broccoli and inched toward the cabin’s corn cob door. Eun followed, clenching his hands into fists. They shook.

Pushing into the kernel that served as a door handle, Rozalija charged outside and slipped along the side of the cabin. Eun stepped out and saw It watching her.

The figure would not have been so intimidating in its sleek black suit, an upper crust version of the one Eun wore now, if not for the head. Where the man’s head should be, a giant stalk of celery reached for the heavens, replacing the neck and disappearing down into the buttoned collar.

“Hey,” Eun called to It, his voice weak. It ignored him. Eun called to mind the kiss and added some steel to his voice. “Hey, you!”

That turned Its attention his way. It stalked toward him, leafy greens bouncing.

“No one likes celery,” Eun said, trying to mask his fear with a jeering tone. “Why don’t you head back to the crisper and wilt?”

It moved faster now and Eun yelped. He headed to the left, away from the gas cans. There was not far to go that way, he knew, for the retreat was enclosed in an onion-tinged fence to keep out the wildlife.

Maybe it would keep in this abomination.

“Got it, Eun!” The cry came from around the cabin. “Bring It toward the kitchen!”

Eun’s breath caught as It came closer. He would have to cirle around It. Bring It a little closer…

“Hey leaf brains! You’re only good for, like, tuna salad!”

It raised Its hands, spreading them wide and waving them about. Eun felt a warm trickle descending his pant leg and knew he would have to visit the dry cleaners if he made it out alive.

Ducking past the horrible creature, Eun narrowly missed its grasp. He backpedaled along the manicured lawn, keeping It in sight. “Don’t you want to get a piece of this?” he cried. “Come on!”

Eun did not see the body before tripping over it. The Hawaiian print shirt positively identified it as Jerry. Otherwise, the inflated green head would have made it impossible to tell.

A cucumber. Jerry’s head had turned into a cucumber.

Eun screamed.

It came closer.

Scrambling to regain his footing, Eun pled. “Why are you doing this?”

Though the celery stalk retained no facial features from its host, one identifying feature came clear as It approached. A name tag, affixed to the jacket.

Hello, My Name Is, it proclaimed, and beneath that someone had scrawled:

Mr. West.

Eun screamed.

Rozalija appeared and dragged Eun off the ground. “Help me with this!”

He had not realized that the kitchen was just beyond his location. Eun turned to see a larget metal cooking pot filled with a viscous beige substance, steaming hot and bubbling. “What is it?”

Mr. West approached.

“Peanut butter! It’s the only thing that makes celery palatable.”

“I never liked peanut butter and celery,” Eun moaned.

Mr. West stepped over Jerry’s body.

“We heated it up,” Rozalija said. “It should be enough to stop it!” Her cheeks bulged into lumpy cauliflower shapes.

“Roza,” Eun whimpered, but he grabbed his side of the handles. They lifted the heavy pot, and Rozalija swung it back.

“On three. One.”

Mr. West raised his arms again.

“Two.”

Mr. West grabbed his leafy greens with all too human hands.

“Three!”

Mr. West charged toward them, and they heaved the bucket forward. Searing hot peanut butter flew, and Eun’s world faded to black.

When he awoke, chained to a hospital bed, Eun wept, happy to be alive. About to call for someone, he stopped when the sounds of a television captured his attention.

“Shocking news from the annual Finley-West Pharmaceuticals retreat,” said the newsperson, a stern-looking woman in a blue suit. “An accidental release of the company’s experimental drug to increase the appeal of vegetables led to violent behavior and the hospitalization of the CEO, Malak West. The company has yet to release an official statement at this time, and Mr. West could not be reached for comment.”

Eun’s stomach turned cold as he saw the news anchor’s nose turning into a carrot.

The news anchor was forgotton, however, when a nurse with a turnip for a face came into his room.

Eun screamed.

– – – – –

Post game analysis:

If you have not checked out the Buzzfeed lists that have inspired Mr. Wendig’s stock photo flash fiction challenges, you owe it to yourself to look in on those strange worlds. In fact, I participated in this challenge the last time it reared its bizarre head. I did not love that story, but it did raise some intriguing potentialities.

This week’s entry, as I suppose (and assume) you read above, had no choice but to be ridiculous. I mean, it’s a guy with a celery stalk instead of a head. Where can you go with such a prompt that is not totally wacko?

Hmm, I sense some dissension in the audience, evidenced by a low murmur and the furious munching of peanuts. This picture, poignant piece of photoshopped art, could have represented a deeper societal issue. An allegory for the Vegetable Industrial Complex, it could represent one man’s struggle to maintain his sense of principles while fighting for a healthy diet, and–

And I’ll just stop you there. That’s not really my gig. I mean, maybe I could write the next great American novel about man vs. celery, but if there’s not at least a little weird somewhere in there, I tend to not be quite as interested. (But, in deference to your theoretical wishes, I shall set the idea on tumble dry delicates, to see if anything shakes loose.)

In case it was not completely clear, the main gist of this story was people suffering from some pretty serious hallucinations. (After all, that is a relatively mundane explanation for why someone has a celery head, right?) Writing hallucinations is not easy, I have learned, for you must mix in a little unreality with the same tone that you describe everything that is actually going on. If you over sell the hallucination, it will seem like a fantasy world where the laws of reality are apparently different from our own. If you under sell the hallucination, it will seem like a poorly written metaphor.

This is especially true when dealing with a mass hallucination. Everyone in the scene is getting their own flavor of illusion, one presumes, and so their interactions will potentially disrupt certain perceptions. Part of the reason I kept to two main characters in this story, aside from space limitations, was to mitigate and minimize this effect. Rozalija says a couple of things that do not directly conform to how Eun sees it, but because he is so wigged out, he adapts her observations to his own perception.

There is also the general ridiculousness inherent in what you see in a hallucinatory state. When described to someone who has not experienced such a thing, it can seem ridiculous that anyone could possibly believe such a thing. However, when so much of your life (see: all of it) has been spent trusting the messages coming through your senses, it can be a tough adjustment to believe that the impossible isn’t happening right before your eyes.

Consider dreams and the occasionally inherent madness that occurs in them. All but the most critically aware tend to take the happenings in the dream at face value and act as if what is happening, no matter how impossible, is the reality of the situation. Sure, you feel a little silly when you wake up that you believed anything of the sort, but your consciousness is set up to believe whatever your senses pipe in.

On that note, this story is actually a good preliminary exercise for a project I have marinating in the back of my mental refrigerator, which involves a fair bit of traipsing across the mutable field of dreams. See, these flash fiction stories can serve a useful purpose!

Back to this story. I had no real idea of how to handle the situation I concocted because there is no way to calm these afflicted souls until whatever drug they’re on wears off. I did enjoy coming up with a justification for why these people might have come under such a problem, though I feel like I did not do a good job of communicating that they were at this corporate retreat to discuss how best to move the company’s agenda forward. I suppose it is a little unbelievable that the CEO would be personally involved in the first round of under the table human testing, but maybe he’s a hands-on sort of executive.

Also, the so-called solution to destroying the celery head abomination is madness, but I like to think that Rozalija was just adapting to the madness of the situation. Clearly, she was coping better than Eun, who seems to collapse under pressure and, it would seem, has no real future in this industry. (One can hope, however, that he will come to his senses and then write a bestselling memoir about his experiences, which is then adapted into an award winning documentary which is shown to tens of thousands of psychology students to help them understand the nature of madness and tens of thousands of ethics student to help them understand that dispensing untested drugs upon your employees could at least potentially be bad.

There is a lot going on with this story. To do it justice, I would probably need to expand it a little further to dig down into Eun’s perceptions, maybe give a little backstory for how this happened. Doubtless, a little research into how corporate retreats are actually laid out would serve me as well.

All told, it’s not one of my better stories. But it was kinda fun, and that’s worth something in itself.

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