A gamey odor settles beneath the smells of fresh paint and chlorine in the lobby, where koi fish swim beneath fountain sprays. I smell the paint first, then the chlorine, then the fresh meat scent, and I accept the first two, but brush off the third.
I make my way to the bank of elevators, which will take me to the fifth floor, where I’ll set up my desk and get my employee badge. When the door opens, I step inside. Unfamiliar faces smile, when they see me looking at the stained fabric lining the walls.
“That’s from the hot sauce fight,” a woman in a tie-dyed T-shirt says. The others around her tell the story of the time they all got stuck in the elevator, with the CEO, and he started a hot sauce fight that was legendary. Laughter follows, then silence, as the doors open, and we file out.
At my desk, a co-worker named Stacey hands me my badge.
“Never take the stairs,” she says. “The badge sometimes doesn’t work between floors. You’ll get stuck in the staircase.”
And I believe her.
At lunch, I take the elevator one floor below to join my co-workers in the breakroom. We all sit at one long table, which is lined with bottles of hot sauce. I watch as co-workers open up their sandwiches, containers of pasta, or salad, and douse their food generously with the condiment. As they eat, it runs down the corners of their mouths, oozing out between bits of food stuck in their teeth. I pour a soda into my plastic cup, hoping to settle my stomach with carbonation.
“Hey, if you want ice, it’s in the freezer there,” Stacey says.
When I open the freezer, I find the ice, but also something gray, somewhat round, but lumpy. Next to it, I find more of these things—absolutely crusted over in ice.
“What’s in here, with the ice?” I ask.
Jake licks his fingers, which drip with hot sauce. “Don’t know. We never figured it out.”
When we ride the elevator back up to the fifth floor, Stacey and Jake remind me about the meeting in the conference room.
As I pass by my desk, to get to the conference room, I smell hot sauce on everyone’s breath, but also that gamey smell, which floats underneath everything else: the hand cream someone applies, a spritz of air freshener, the musty odor of the air conditioner. I follow it to the conference room, which is small, filled with oversized, stuffed chairs. We sink into the cushions when we sit down, with our notebooks and pens. We’re supposed to brainstorm a new line of products. The CEO, Braydon, writes the ideas on the board and passes around a bottle of hot sauce. Everyone takes a swig from the bottle. I don’t really want to participate, but the bottle’s thrusted in my face, and I take a drink. The sauce burns my throat. I choke out an idea. It’s not a good one, but everyone cheers and urges me to pass the bottle down, but I notice that Jake, who has been contributing the most ideas—and his ideas are quite impressive—is slumped over in a chair, and he’s convulsing.
“What’s going on?” I ask Stacey.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she says, as someone drags him from the couch.
Patricia has also been shouting out excellent ideas, but she’s complaining of a sore, dry throat. She gets up to get some water from the breakroom downstairs, and I follow her. When we arrive, I hear something like a chainsaw coming from the other side of the room.
“Maintenance, probably,” Patricia says. “So annoying. They’re always working on something.”
Patricia chugs a glass of water, and I do the same, but when we get back to the conference room, more people are slumped over in their chairs, convulsing. The dry-erase board is filled with so many ideas, there doesn’t seem to be room for any more. But Stacey’s pumping out ideas like a machine.
“Step up your game,” she says to me. “Braydon needs more, and your job depends on it.” She hands me the hot sauce, which is dripping down the sides of the bottle. Backwash from everyone’s saliva floats on top. My stomach wants to revolt, but I push that instinct down and take a swig. The heat travels right up my nasal passages, burning my eyes, pricking my brain. A cloud seems to wash over me, and I feel nothing. I just rattle off words. They make no sense to me, and my vision goes blurry. I can barely see the marker on the dry-erase board moving back and forth. The room spins, and my body sways, but I’ll be damned if I hit the floor.
“Just give in,” Stacey says.
I continue to fight.
“If you don’t give in, you’ll throw up,” Stacey tells me.
No longer in control of my own body, I succumb to the cloud that envelops me, and the hot sauce comes up—a fiery trickle that swallows me whole.
A grating, whining noise startles me awake, and I discover I’m lying on the cold, linoleum floor of the breakroom. Around me, there are barber’s chairs, which look like they’re attached to a retractable pole, just below each linoleum square on the floor. Braydon has donned a smock and is sawing open the head of co-workers, who are passed out in the chairs. He’s dousing their brains with hot sauce.
“That’s where the ideas live, and we vault them for later,” he says, pointing to the freezer. “The sauce—it’s a preservative.”
I try to stand, but my legs are weak.
“Just rest,” I hear Stacey say. “It’ll all be over soon.”
Her blurry form presses up against Braydon, and she’s pushing her hips into his, as they embrace, rhythmically moving their pelvises against one another, gasping for breath as they pour hot sauce all over, lick it off of each other, and my co-worker’s exposed brain.
“Me and Braydon—we’re immune,” she finally says. “Sort of. This sauce does make us produce ideas, but we don’t pass out. The ones who do, get their brains preserved. There’s a lot of turnover here, but a lot of institutional knowledge too, soooo. Yeah.” She looks at her nails and licks her fingers.
Someone drags in more bodies. I want to retch again, but I see a door marked “Exit,” only to remember that my badge, which I still have wrapped around my neck, won’t work between floors. When I might reach the first floor to get out, the door won’t open.
Again, I force myself to stand, only to have Stacey knock me back down, but I do manage to grab a bottle of hot sauce and break it on the floor. Jagged glass points outward as I steady myself against a wall. When Stacey comes at me, I shove the jagged pieces into her throat. She goes down, blood dripping from a gaping wound. She has the nerve to rub hot sauce in it and moan before hitting the floor with a thud.
Braydon, I suspect, has stronger tools to subdue me, but it seems that I’m not even on his radar.
“Jackpot!” I hear him say. He’s opened up Jake’s head, fully exposing his brain. “This one holds the most ideas. I can see them, buzzing about like electricity.” He douses the brain with hot sauce and wraps it in plastic. While he obsesses over the biggest head he’s ever seen, one so massive and ripe with knowledge that the company’s ideas supply will never run dry, I pull the exit door and use my badge to escape. It works on every floor. Until I get to the koi pond lobby. There, I inexplicably slow down, dripping with blood and a longing for spice—and I remember Stacey’s words. That I could get trapped between floors, and this is what she probably really means: The pull is incredible. I actually want to stay. I can taste the sting of peppers on my tongue, mixed with something crude and vile, and I want more. Reaching into the koi pond, I’m determined to put the fire out, swallowing deeply, sticking my head directly under the fountain, and rushing for the door. When I’m out in the fresh air, which smells of salt water and flowers, I shake out my wet hair, grateful I have half a brain to not get hooked on the sauce.
Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio for over 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Before teaching, she worked for a small-town newspaper covering marriages, divorces, and juvenile court; library meetings, and some local famous people. She also once had a summer job of checking people in and out of a busy hotel. (Sometimes she accidentally checked people into rooms that were already occupied, but kept her job because she showed up every day and tried really hard to smile.) Since 2017, she has written and published short stories in journals, magazines, and anthologies online and in print in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and Nigeria. Currently, she is employed full time in her dream job as a copywriter. On the side, she’s a proofreader for Flash Fiction Magazine, an editor for Running Wild Press, and an adult beverages columnist for The Daily Drunk. Author Website: https://ckennedyhola.wixsite.com/ckennedyportfolio