By Amelia Ell:
Darrin was climbing up an endless set of stairs. An audience of childhood stuffed animals lined the path upwards. Pandy (the panda bear with the missing arm) trudged forwards, blocking his path. Soon the teddy was joined by Veronica (the bunny he’d spilled tomato juice on and had never quite recovered) and Vermillion (the pickle-shaped sock puppet who looked mysteriously like the old stockings Darrin’s late uncle used to wear). “You promised to take care of us…” they chanted.
Darrin awoke with a gasp, a trickle of cold sweat on his temple.
* * *
“Sir! We’ve done it! We’ve broken the formula!” Darrin burst in triumphantly, eyes glistening. His boss, Hemingway, was a humorless woman whose only apparent job was to watch obscure history documentaries in a CEO’s office full of raw wood and mustard stains. At the moment, she was cradling a little yellow squeeze bottle of discount mustard in her oily fingers. The label was always furtively covered by a “great value” sticker, which only supported Darrin’s theory that it was in fact made entirely from discarded processed cheese slices. Darrin eagerly flipped through his clipboard documents, finally landing on an orange line graph. “And you’ll never guess the figures on this. It’s the cheapest one yet!”
“That better be true. Your last genius idea was impossible to finance even before adding the cost of the portable mini fridges they came in.” Hemingway raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What’s it this time?”
Darrin opened his mouth, but nothing came out. You see, Darrin was a smart man. Far too smart to be working for DreamXCorp under a supervisor that was the personification of used pickle juice, but he was terrified of working for a more sophisticated company in fear of triggering his ergonomic office chair allergy (it's the yoga ball ones that really get at him). The portable mini fridge was not his best work, but at least it sounded somewhat like a real plan. Regardless, he decided that his newest product deserved a proper introduction.
“Come with me, boss,” he declared, his confidence blooming again like the floral pattern of his employer’s aloha shirt.
DreamXCorp had been long working on a niche medication that would sweep the world off their feet: “the pill that makes your wildest dreams come true.” They had a working prototype, however its complicated list of ingredients threw a bit of a wrench in the marketing model. DreamDone 1.0 just didn’t work the same without the requisite tears-of-brother-in-law or constant exposure to tuna casserole-breath. But DreamDone 2.0 was different.
Darrin lead his boss down a muddied hallway littered with long-forgotten craft glitter. The corridor walls made the place look like some sinful combination of a public washroom and a municipal prison. Finally, the two arrived at a room filled with charts, whiteboards, and jail cells.
“So what does this one do? Make you grow wads of bills instead of nosehairs?” Hemingway guessed. “I think we were getting somewhere with the tesla cybertruck toenails.” “No, no, ma’am; this one is a completely new approach. It literally makes your wildest dreams come true. It-it… well, it doesn’t do anything.”
“It doesn’t do anything?!”
“Well that’s the thing, ma’am… it’s entirely psychological. In fact, our study group produced 100% effective results exclusively in the placebo group.”
Dramatically, Darrin flipped a whiteboard over to display a half-finished game of hangman. The word in progress was clearly password, but someone had been determined to make it appear extremely difficult to guess.
“Not that one,” Darrin yelped, quickly covering it with a scrawled list of names. “Now, as you can see, every study participant responded to the drug when presented with the cautionary pamphlet.”
Hemingway’s eyes bulged. Perhaps she was impressed, or maybe she’d just come to the realization that a 100% pie chart is, in fact, simply a colored dot.
Darrin went on. “That’s the magic of DreamDone 2.0! We can put sugar pills on the shelf and as long as people read the packaging, their imaginations will do the rest of the work. Everything is running relatively smoothly, however we’re having issues with the Inappropriate Obtrusive Thoughts frequency rate. Subject 36 here has been exhibiting astronomical IOT symptoms.”
He strolled over to one of the iron doors and rapped on it three times. The door slowly swung inwards towards a man with his face buried in his hands. He was shaking his head aggressively and wailing in a paroxysm of mortification. “Augh! No! Why!?”
“It’s all okay, mate,” Darrin said, clapping the poor man on the back. “You can’t control your involuntary thoughts. What was it this time?”
“That creepy extroverted taco delivery guy from last night!” He cried. “He-he’s my dad!”
Hemingway, a little shaken, ran her fingers through her hair. “So do these dreams actually come true?” “Of course!” Darrin cheered. “That man who was eating the raisins out of the oatmeal biscuits in the lobby said he came in to pick up his son.”
Subject 36 sobbed wildly. “Nooooooo…”
With a very pleased smile on his face, Darrin clicked the door shut. “What are your thoughts, ma’am?” “Well… it works, but I’m beginning to think that these the kind of dreams aren’t the ones we really want to get DreamDone.” Hemingway appeared to be fighting a mental battle between cheap production and the dignity of humankind. With this kind of power, who knows what the twisted human subconscious could contrive. “I’ll tell you what—”
It was then that they were interrupted by a piercing howl and a clatter from the darkness of a distant hallway.
“What was that?” Hemingway demanded, turning on her employee.
“Might be… another one of the test subjects?”
Cries for help echoed through the walls.
“That’s it, we’re shutting this project down!” Hemingway began a lopsided jog towards the commotion. “This is even worse than the magic gluten-free converter.” She compulsively shook her head: what a disaster.
When the two of them arrived in a dusky confinement room, they were immediately pummeled by a battle between a horror-stricken man and two guards. At the sight of them, the man grabbed Hemingway by the shoulders with a suffocating grip.
“I’m doomed! I’ve seen to much! They’re coming for me!”
“Who’s coming for you?”
“The mustard people! Oh why oh why did I look? I didn’t mean to lift the sticker! Oh God… I- I- just got curious!”
“Calm down sir. You aren’t in any danger.” The sharp odor of Hemingway’s outstretched hands only drove the man away with little squirrel-like squawks.
“I didn’t mean to see what it was made of! I-” His eyes darted around the room, panicked as if he expected someone to come running in displaying his middle school photos.
“I can assure you, sir, the building is completely safe,” Hemingway continued, repeatedly failing to place a grubby hand on the man’s sleeve.
Suddenly, the man’s terrified expression darkened into resolve. “No… no. The world will never be safe until they hear the truth.” With that, he took off down the hall screaming, “it’s cheese! It’s all a lie! It’s made of CHEESE!”
The guards stared after him for a moment in shock. Hemingway, on the other hand, took a crumpled mustard packet out of her khaki pocket and in one frantic gulp, she swallowed it whole. After contemplating the flavor, her face contorted to an image of desperation and betrayal.
“What have you done?!” She stepped towards Darrin, viciously searching for a reason not to fire him for butchering her favorite condiment.
Darrin stumbled backwards like a lamb surrounded by a pack of ferocious, mustard-loving wolves. Hemingway and the guards closed in until he was trapped against the corner of the room.
This would be the end of him! His precious creation gone to waste! It really was the ultimate solution. It should have been foolproof. It should have gone perfectly smoothly… Darrin considered this. Something was wrong about today. Had his boss always been obsessed with mustard? Had the facility always been equipped with prison cells? He shook his head, confused.
It was then that he was hit with a pungent whiff of tomato juice and old socks. From behind his aggressors, he could just catch a glimpse of Pandy and the animal army advancing towards him. It was an all-too-familiar rhythm. “You promised to take care of us…” they chanted.
Darrin awoke with a gasp, a trickle of cold sweat on his temple.