Even the sandwich artists who built hoagies for a living knew the importance of balance. They had a carefully selected cut of sliced ham – but only four paper thin meat curls are placed on the bun. Next the cheese, the vegetables, and finally condiments. Deborah might have enjoyed mustard, but that doesn’t mean she wanted the whole sandwich sloshed with tart yellow sauce. And that meat lover, Brandon? Give him too many slices of turkey and he’d be gassing up the whole damned restaurant. It’s all about how much is enough. When was it ever time to stop and move on?
As I walked into a miniature brick building illuminated with a neon yellow submarine sandwich, I was quickly lost in a cloud of fresh bread steam. Save for the sizzling bread and a bash-your-head-in drip of stale water from the faucet, the place was quiet. It surely was not the place kids went to on a Friday night – especially not in the west side of town.
“Welcome Marty’s,” an uninterested worker bee hummed my direction. Whether she was on the verge of collapsing from heat exhaustion from the ovens, or if she just needed another hit, I was not sure. “Weewhiteherbinschass?” The poor woman – a smiley sticker covered most of her name tag except for Fe – appeared to have retreated into a cheap version of autopilot; she couldn’t speak in coherent sentences but I deduced that she inquired my preferred bread type. She tried again, “Witwheaherbsicheez.” Her hazy eyes twinkled under a set of LED bulbs that could have fully illuminated the ocean. She breathed, annoyed, and finally she just asked, “Bread?”
How could I tell her I hadn’t come for a sandwich after all? I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, not after the effort it took to muster the first question of the grand sandwich formation. I was an artist, but I definitely wasn’t the starving one between Fe and I.
I grinned, blinked twice and scratched the erect pimple on my neck. The dripping faucet seemed to get louder and faster. I gave in. “Herbs and cheese.”
My face muscles began to hurt from the forced smile I was wearing, right eye slightly twitching. I surely hadn’t planned on wasting so much time selecting a sandwich. “Six inch, please.”
Right as she opened her mouth to shoot another garbled request, Fe slouched forward. Her grisly bleached hair blanketed the shredded cheese and turkey breast. With one hand supporting her weight on the counter and the other buried in pepperoni slices, the woman’s knees buckled and she fell to the floor. For a split second, I wasn’t sure if I should just let her sleep, or call the police. Sensibly, I chose the former.
I hopped over the counter, my boot catching the napkin dispenser. The metal box of napkins slid over the counter and clanged on the floor, nearly clipping the slumbering sandwich artist’s angel wing bicep tattoo.
“Sorry,” I mouthed, returning the fallen napkin tin to its position. I caught her hand twitch slightly as I leapfrogged her and walked to the back, near the register.
“I didn’t take you for an herb’s and cheese kind of guy, Vince.” A man approached from the cooler. His collar and hands were dripping red.
Every inch of the cooler was littered with wet floor signs – most of them collapsed rather than erect. A red hand print topped every filthy, plastic warning. There had to be at least fifty in the refrigerator; a pile deep enough to lose somebody.
I just blinked at the sight. My lips pursed and hands knotted in pockets. “Dave.”
My associate straightened and started stammering. “Vince, it’s not – if you hear me out.”
I didn’t really want to hear it; I would have rather taken him back home and call it a night, but at that point I wasn’t sure if that was an option considering the mess he created. “Go on.”
I followed Dave into the cooler where he uncovered a second unfortunate worker who had fallen ill – this one wasn’t as lucky as Fe. The skin of his face was completely torn off, replaced with another rotting one. His arms and legs had been dislocated, and his wrists slit, but there was no blood. Rather, the wet floor signs were bathed in red paint.
Before I could roll my eyes the fuck out of the establishment, Dave closed the door, leaving him and I pinned inside the cold, metal room with an exsanguinated sap and a red lake. The whites of Dave’s eyes glimmered. “This is it,” he piped. His voice grew darker. “We found it.”
“Well, you’ve certainly lost it, Dave. I don’t think you’ve found anything.” I tried moving him aside, but he wouldn’t budge. “I don’t even know why I entertain these activities of yours anymore. If it weren’t for dad, I’d have you locked in an institution.”
“Yeah-yeah-yeah, who cares about that? Old news, Vince. What I’m saying is: We got it.”
“Got what, you moron?”
My mind traveled to various tangents my brother had pursued since he’d completely lost his sanity. None of the possibilities added up, so I took a shot anyway. “Oh, I don’t know… The gate to Hell?” A few months prior, he woke me up and demanded that I pledge my soul to the devil and walk with him through this massive black gate that was supposedly inside of his bedroom. Instead of a black gate, I found three black men nailed around his bathroom door.
Suddenly, Dave slapped me in the face, sending my glasses into the murky red waste. “Fucker!” I yelled, swiping the paint from my eyes, instantly going down to fish for my spectacles.
“The motherfuckin’ Krysolux. I got it.” The light flickered above as Dave spoke. “We’re going to be rich.”
I sighed, giving up the search for my glasses after I had heard a loud crunch. “And what does that have to do with all of this?” I asked, gesturing to the horrific scene before us. My head started to burn.
“This? Oh, nothing at all actually. Not really…”
I sat in complete silence with my brother for a minute, just trying to digest everything that I had seen and heard in the hour I had since arrived at Marty’s. I wasn’t sure if it was the insanity of it all that was causing me to get light-headed, or if it was all the paint fumes I had ingested.
“So, just help me get this clear, Dave.”
“You found the Krysolux.” Squinting, I glared at the fuzzy blob of color that was my brother.
“And after that, you came here to Marty’s.”
“That’s right, V.”
“You mutilated that man – let me guess – outside by the trashcan? And just so happened to have one of the spare faces from your collection with you.”
Dave chuckled. “It’s like you’re an oracle, bro.”
“And then you stuck Fe with some concoction you mixed up at home.”
I sucked my teeth. “Then something called upon you to cover the cooler with paint.”
“It’s actually paint with some water,” Dave corrected. “I needed the paint to be thinner.
“Right.” I waited another few seconds to recollect my thoughts. “And you called me here to tell me you found an imaginary thing. That’s all?”
“I wouldn’t call it imaginary, but you’re basically correct.” He grinned. “You mad?”
“Hand me this Krysolux,” I demanded, to which Dave complied. He fished a small globe from his pants. I wanted to kick myself for indulging in Dave’s fantasy. Expecting some disgusting thing, I took a look at the item.
At first glance, the orb was all gold, emitting a white cast, but as I more closely examined the item, the more I can see that it wasn’t solid gold at all – something within it was moving. The inside of the Krysolux was a deep yellow liquid, molten sunlight, and it flowed with the rhythm of my breath. The paint on my face and in my hair dried after peering into the orb. The item hummed in my grasp and radiated heat inside my palm. Flecks of red and silver floated within the golden syrup.
“See, brother? That’s not imaginary.”
My face and lips grew chapped; my eyes reddened. “Where did you find this?”
Dave snatched it from me. “Watch this, watch this!” It took everything I had not to slam his head against the wall and steal back the enchanting item. He took it in both hands and raised it to his mouth, whispering into the ball. The room began to change, or rather, revert.
The wash of red paint receded from the cooler, fizzling into nonexistence along with the worker’s corpse. I spotted my glasses on the floor, untouched and perfect. I had never been a man of faith, but at that moment I reconsidered everything.
Now I stammered. “How… H—”
Dave was ecstatic, jumping up and down. “They finally allowed me to let you in on our secret!” His loud echoes pierced my skull. “You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting to tell you!”
Fifty-thousand questions filled the haze in my mind. My chest grew heavy and I leaned against a crate. The room started to spin. “What did you do?”
Dave shook his head. “There’s a time for questions later, big bro. Follow me; we have’ta get out of here before Felinna finds us.”
“Felinna?” Oh, Fe.
“Come on!” Dave whispered, pulling me out the back. Outside, I spotted the faceless worker, now perfectly fine, tossing out the trash. I needed answers.
When Dave and I got a safe distance from Marty’s, my head cleared and equilibrium was restored. “Tell me what the fuck just happened.”
Dave shrugged, flashing a cutesy smirk. “They said you’re not ready yet, Vince. And there’s usually no changing their mind. Trust me, I’ve tried. Be glad they even allowed me to tell you about it.”
“Come back to Earth, you little shit. Where did you find that orb? What did you call it?”
My brother put his index finger against his lips, and whispered, “We’re not supposed to talk about it anymore, I mean it. Not in the open. Not ever.” He dropped his gaze. “She’s looking for it.”
“Who?” I whispered.
“They call her Abigail.”