アレックス・ソーリーはハンバーガーを食べる
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床の上に、リノリウムが終わり、バーガーキングが始まるラインがある。

そしてその直前で、君の靴のソールは─あなたの脚は、固まってしまった。12分間もそうして立ち止まっている。君はここにいるべきではない。

しかしながらそれこそが、他のどんな説明よりも適切な、君がここにいる理由だ。

先週はずっとベーグルだっただろ、アレックス。ここのところぼーっとしているのも、君に不穏な雰囲気が漂っているのも─自然じゃない。毎日毎日パンばかり食べている適当な食事の結果だ。まさか人間の体が小麦粉と水だけでやっていけるようになっているとは思ってないだろう?

頼むよ。

*本物の*食べ物を食べるときだ。

君の胃さえ唸り声を上げて同意してるじゃないか。

そして、一歩ずつ、君はサイト-19を退出してバーガーキングに突入する。シームレスな移動だった。だってドアがないんだから。外と中とを隔てる壁すらない。床の上の線だけ─そこで冷たい残酷性は終わり、温かいファストフードの出迎えが始まる。

中に踏み込むと、湿潤な空気が君を歓迎する。このレストランには何人もの人がいたので、きっと昼時に違いないと君は思う。カウンターに向かってはもっと人が並んでいる。みんな過労で眼は充血し、唇はひび割れている。何人かは見知った名前だった─演壇の上とか大きなスクリーンから一方向の話で聞いたような。彼らもこの長い列に─一日汗水垂らした後に食事する場所を求めて─並んでいるのだと思うと、君は食欲がそそられてくる。結局我々はそう変わらないのだ。

数分後、君はレジの前にたどり着く。レジ係はいびつな笑みで出迎えてくれる─彼の表情は温かみがあり魅力的だ。本当に、もしもう少し彼の背が低ければ君は彼をかわいいとまで言っていただろう。まあ君がここに来た理由は彼を食べるためじゃなくて食べ物を食べるためなんだけど。

まだ、君は*何を*食べるか決めていない。どのメニューにもオプションがいっぱいでどれも惹かれる。どれにしようか?チーズバーガーとフライドポテトか、チキンサンドとフライドポテトか、ターキーバーガーとフライドポテトもいいな。

選択は終わらない。それぞれのハンバーガーにはどんな違いがあるんだろう?フライドポテトには?どっちのハンバーガーの方が良いかなんて知る由もない。特別メニューからなにか頼むことも出来る─ホットドッグとか、ナゲットのボックスもいいかも。だけど、君はそれを食べて太るのが怖い。そうしちゃまずいってことは分かってるだろ。

君はレジ係を見返す。彼は君を半開きの目で見ていて、まるで何かを欲しているかのようだ。その目線が何を言いたいのかを理解するのは難しいことではない─食べ物を買ってほしいのだ。彼は君の中に食べ物を入れたがっている、今すぐにでも。君自身だってそうだ。

でも君はまだ良くわかっていない。どれにしよう?どれを食べよう?

レジ係の顔から期待は消えず、彼の時間を浪費してるんじゃないかと思い始めたので、君は結論に急ぐ。

「ハンバーガーとフライドポテトで、」君は言う。少し間を開け、「やっぱり『チーズバーガー』で」

ベーコンチーズバーガーですね」レジ係は頷き、ハンバーガーとフライドポテトを君の目の前にスライドさせる。

君は目を見開く。

「ポテトは?」君はポテトを見ながら尋ねる。

「ええ、ポテトもあります、」彼もポテトを見ながら言う。

「ピクルスは?」

「ピクルスは入ってません、」レジ係は答える、「ご希望がなければ、ピクルススタイルってやつです。」

「どうも、」君は言う。君はピクルススタイルにしてほしくはない─*プレーンスタイル*が好みだ。ここではいつもそうしている。

彼は笑う。彼には良くしてきた。

そして彼は立ち去る。




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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  1. portal:5207145 ( 16 Mar 2020 13:55 )
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