Pepper was dreaming of canned sardines when someone knocked at her door. Waking almost immediately she yawned and unzipped her weathered sleeping bag; which took her about a minute these days with that dang busted zipper. This time took her two minutes. She slid open the makeshift door that separated her from the thin hallway of other makeshift apartment doors.
Waiting at her doorway was a terribly thin man. He was wearing the same green shirt with the picture of the brown blob that Pepper had on, as well as a face full of grief.
“Alfredo?” she said, squinting her eyes from the harshness of the outside lights. “What’s wrong?”
Alfredo looked at her, his lips pursed. “Sorry to wake you, Pepper, but he—,” his voice trailed off as he looked to the ground.
“What is it, Alfredo?”
His gaze lifted back to hers and she could see there were tears in his eyes, great dollops of tears that fell slow as honey down his dark chocolate lashes and onto his milky white cheeks. “It’s Father, Pepper. I fear that tonight may be his last,” he choked. Then, as if realizing the meaning of his words, he began to sob, his cries echoing through the all but empty hallway like the distant sounds of some far away ice cream truck tune.
Pepper held her tongue and stared at Alfredo in his anguish. Her heart ached with weight of the news but she would not cry, not for now at least. There would be plenty of time for that later with the rest of her siblings she imagined. Today she would be the strong one. If not for her siblings, then for her father.
She took a deep breath. “Take me to him.”
They walked quietly down mostly empty hallways of apartments on their way to their father’s chamber. Pepper could hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 playing far up above. Along the way they passed by the Tenets, four lines of sacred script written by their lord in large black lettering on the wall. Pepper stopped to look up at them, and read the words like she’d done many times before. They read:
Deep Friars of our lord, rise forth from your holes
To live out the purpose lain root in your souls.
Break free through the ice to reclaim what was stole,
Only then may you know what it means to be whole.
As she read the words she listened to the only sound she could hear now: the piercing smack of metal breaking ice. After every few seconds. THWACK! Once upon a time it used to make Pepper jump. Even less far back it had filled her with hope. Now it just made her anxious. She stood there for a moment before continuing on. A short time later they reached the staircase that led up to their father’s private chambers. Alfredo stopped and turned to her, his eyes still swollen from crying.
“You don’t think he’s really gonna die, do you?” he asked.
Pepper looked at him. Almost all of her siblings, including Alfredo, had blue or brown eyes, but not her. No, hers were a violent shade of green. Something like the sea during a storm. They were eyes made for fury, nothing like the woman they belonged to.
“I don’t know, brother, but I promise I will do everything I can for him.” Then without another word she made her way up the stairs and into her father’s room. The room was utterly dark save for a few candles (saved for very rare occasions) whose flames flickered weakly against the tide of darkness. Almost immediately came a smell, something distinct, something sweet. It clung to her tongue and left her with questions. She couldn’t help but wonder what it could be.
“Pepper,” came a hoarse voice through the darkness.
Pepper froze in her tracks and for a second the candles were gone and she was alone. Only the darkness remained, encapsulated by the smell and the intrigue of not knowing something. Then suddenly she remembered where she was and better yet why she was there. “Father?” she asked the darkness. “I’m here, Father.”
A horrible wheezing sound answered her followed by one cough, a second cough, and finally a deep, terrible sigh. “Pepper, please come closer. Please, there is something I must tell you. Something very important.”
Pepper’s heart leapt at the thrill of something important but was quickly overwhelmed by another something, one much more pressing: the sound of her stomach growling painfully. She winced but moved closer to the side of her father’s bed. Her thin, shaking fingertips grasped the edges of the mattress and her mouth fell open in awe at its softness. She had never touched a mattress before.
“Father, I’m here,” she said. “I’m listening.” She could see nothing through the darkness.
“Oh, my sweet Pepper, there is something very important I must tell you.”
“Yes, Father? I’m listening.”
“It’s something I should have told you a long time ago. All of you. So long ago…” His voice was weak, and Pepper couldn’t tell whether it was out of fatigue or regret. It seemed an eternity passed before he spoke once again. “The foo,” he at last muttered softly.
She leaned in closer towards the sound of his voice. “What’s that, Father? I couldn’t quite hear.”
“The food,” he said, a little spittle flying from his mouth. Pepper’s stomach growled a second time, but neither she nor her father paid it any mind.
“What, Father? The food? Is there more food somewhere? Oh Father, do you know where food is?” her hands clasped in the darkness and finally found her father. She clutched his large, meaty hand softly within hers.
“Sweet Jesus, the food! I should have known it would get me,” he shouted, not so much to her as to the air. Then with a choked cry, “Goddamn botulism.”
Pepper squeezed her father’s hand a little tighter, half out of fright and half out of curiosity. “Father, I don’t understand what you’re saying. What are you telling me?”
Her father shot up quickly, his hands suddenly upon her, soft and yet strong, strong but never seeming able to grip her. “It’s all a lie, Pepper. The whole goddamn thing. I made it all up.”
“Everything I told you and your siblings was a lie. The whole paradise thing, me being god and all. I made it up.”
“What? But, the Holy Land—”
“THIS PLACE ISN’T THE HOLY LAND.”
A silence to silence all silences entered the dark room. It was the breaking of a heart and the existential crisis of a young woman. But most of all it was the sweet relief of a dying man.
Her father fell back onto the bed and begun coughing violently. After a minute he cleared his throat and continued as if he’d been reading from a prepared script. “This is a grocery store, Penny. People used to come here and buy food with money.” He sighed loudly. “Money is— was pieces of paper that people gave value. Does that make sense?”
Pepper’s heart raced painfully against her chest and she could not tell whether that was her stomach grumbling or whether that terrible sound had been there all along, stalking her. “Um.” she managed to whisper.
“Christ, it’s not important,” he continued. “This place was called Roots. I used to work here, Pepper. It was my first job. I was working part time while I went to school. God, I was so young. So fit.” He sighed sadly. “There was a whole world out there, Pepper. There were trees and rainbows and video games and porn. Christ, Pepper, there were so many things. You wouldn’t even believe it.” He paused, then suddenly as if realizing who he was talking to continued. “Well, honestly you couldn’t believe it. You’ve lived almost your entire life in a grocery store. I mean, Jesus… Your mind can’t even possibly conceive what the sky is even if I was to tell you. I mean, wow, hearing myself actually say that… It’s pretty depressing,” he said, making a short whistle. “I’m getting off topic again. Where was I? Ah, yes, there was a whole world out there, Pepper, and it was great. But people screwed it up and the world got pretty angry at us and once day it started snowing. You know what snow is, right?” He waited for her to respond and when she didn’t he coughed. “Pepper? Are you even listening to me?”
The darkness whispered back. Cold. Emotionless.
“Yes,” came a sound.
“Yes? Well, good, because I’m only going to say this all once. I’m struggling just to get this much out. Anyways, yes, one day it started snowing and it never stopped. A lot of people died I expect. Definitely everyone I knew. My parents, my friends, probably even Ashley Cox from my human sexuality class. Though, I really hope not,” he sighed that same deep, sad sigh again. “But not me, Pepper. Because even though I may not be a god, I survived. And that sure as hell makes me something worth worshipping, don’t you think? I mean THIRTY FUCKING YEARS is a long time to make it in a grocery store buried under an ocean of snow and ice.”
“Father,” said a voice weakly. “Please. Please tell me this is a test. Please tell me that this isn’t true. I can’t—“
“Jesus, Pepper! This can’t really come as too much of a surprise. Did you honestly never question it even once?”
Pepper heard a dragging hiss and the room was immediately encompassed in bright light. She hid her eyes until her they adjusted then looked peeked through her fingers. It wasn’t a very large room in particular, but it did have the unique feature of having a window that overlooked the entire world. Pepper’s apartment, Alfredo’s apartments. It overlooked them all. Pepper could even see the emboldened letters of the Tenets far off in the distance, scrawled upon the wall.
Her father sat squat on his bed, his large brown body almost half the size of the mattress. His eyes stared blankly ahead, not at her. No, hardly ever on her. Just ahead. And they were huge. Bigger than cans or even paper plates.
“I mean look out there. Does that look like the definition of heaven? All of you live in cubicles. Cubicles, Pepper. Cubicles made from pushing together hundreds of shelves and pallets and whatever shit we could find.”
“I don’t believe you!” Pepper shouted, pulling away from the bed, away from her father.
“Look at me, Pepper! Haven’t you ever questioned why I don’t look anything like you? Like any of you?” he shouted. Pepper began to weep, her withered body jerking in painful spasms as invisible tears fell from her tired eyes. “Answer me!”
For the first time in her life she screamed. It was a sad, dry thing that came out as more of a choke, but it felt to her as if a hole had sprung inside of her and everything that she had ever been was expelling out faster than she could comprehend. Her stomach grumbled furiously and she wondered if anyone had ever been as hungry as she was. The sweet smell of the room had surpassed its curiosity and instead tangled itself around every fiber of her being. Her mouth watered out of utter necessity.
“Because you are our god!” she screamed merely to block out the cries of her own body.
“Pepper, I am wearing a giant potato costume.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“Pepper, it’s true.”
“No,” she repeated.
“Pepper, look at me. Look at my goofy little hands. They’re not real. They’re made out of cotton. Or at least I think it’s cotton… It definitely feels hot enough to be cotton.” He coughed again, but it had become as unnoticeable as Pepper’s pleading stomach. “The point is, this isn’t my real body. It’s a potato. I’m inside of the potato.”
“Liar!” Pepper said, spitting hot saliva onto his gigantic lifeless eyes.
“Liar? Really, Pepper? My lips don’t move when I speak! Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”
Pepper fell to her knees and began to bow her body up and down religiously. The shadows on the walls shook and twisted as she recited the Tenets with eyes curved up to the ceiling.
“Deep Friars of our lord, rise forth from your holes. To live out the purpose lain root in your souls. Break free through the ice to reclaim what was stole. Only then may you know what it means to be whole.”
“Oh Jesus, are you going on about those damn tenets? Pepper, I already told you it’s all a lie. I made them up. Those words on the wall aren’t even the same words. They’re the Roots Market mission statement.”
“Deep friars of our Lord—”
“To live out the purpose—”
“And top-notch customer service!”
“Are at the ROOT,”
“May you know—”
“Of our business!”
Pepper slammed her fists against the ground. “But you were our S’Bud!” she cried, her voice breaking.
“There is no S’Bud! S’BUD IS NOT REAL.”
She stared at the giant brown blob in front of her, at the big eyes and big hands. She looked into his wide, eternally open grin, seeing nothing but the same soft flesh that covered his entire body.
“Pepper, I am more than a giant potato.”
“WHAT IS A POTATO?” she finally shouted at the top of her lungs.
“It’s a root vegetable.”
She continued to stare at him with the same blank expression.
“It’s food. Potato is food.”
Pepper put her head into her hands, wishing she could be anywhere else but in that room. Her body shook as if she was cold, but she wasn’t cold, was she? She couldn’t recall. She thought about her siblings down below, starving to death, and everything that her father was telling her.
“I don’t understand. If what you’re saying is true, if it’s all a lie, then why? Why fool us for so long? Why not just tell us the truth?”
“Ah, and that, Pepper, is truly the important question. I guess I did it because I wanted you kids to have something to believe in. Somehow it didn’t seem right to tell a bunch of scared children that the world had ended and that their lives were meaningless. Does that make sense?”
Before Pepper could answer him he let out a cry and fell backwards off of the bed, onto the dirty ground below. She sprinted over to him on instinct and rolled him over onto his back. His mouth still smiled, his eyes still stared in friendly ignorance at open air. To look at him you’d see nothing had changed. And yet everything had changed.
His hand suddenly reached up to her face and his touch made the hairs rise on the back of her neck. It felt nothing like the feel of her siblings’ hands. It was cold and apathetic. Like being caressed by half a dozen frozen salamis.
“My sweet Pepper,” he whispered. “I’m not long for this earth, I can feel it in my body. Would you please do me one last favor? I know I probably don’t deserve it, but what if we thought of it as a dying wish for the man who raised you alone?”
She gazed down at him for a silent minute but finally nodded.
“I would very much like to look upon you with my real eyes. Would you help me remove my head?” He moved both of his hands to the sides of his head and held them there. “All you have to do is help me pull. I’m just so weak on my own, Pepper.”
Hesitantly, she moved her hands towards her father and grasped the sides of his head.
“Yes, just like that. Now pull,” he said.
They both pulled and wouldn’t you know it, his head popped off like a cork on a bottle. Pepper gasped, dropping the inanimate head in the process. It was true. It was all true. There was a man inside of her father, a grotesque creature of a man. Long clumpy yellow hair fell over his face like greasy spaghetti. And his face, my lord, his face. He looked like a bad loaf of bread; crumbly to the touch and speckled with mold colored warts. A long beard, almost as long as his hair and the exact same color of lemon custard, drizzled down his face like cheese fondue. Bloody saliva had accumulated under the fatty curvature of his lip and dried like the top of a berry cobbler.
In an instant the illusion was shattered. He was no god. No god hid beneath a shell. Really there was only one explanation. Her father was a demon. Surely, a demon. Or worse. Pepper looked down at him as he sucked in deep, gasping gulps of air like a dying fish. Juices running down his eyes, down his moustache, soaking the pillow. At last he took one last gulp then, blinking, looked at her.
“Thank you, Pepper. I never thought I’d—” he started.
“What happened to my mother?” she interrupted with the same tone she’d use to talk to any inanimate object. His gaze darted away from her to a spot on the wall she imagined, just anywhere but her eyes, even without his head still anywhere but there. She wished she could make him look.
“If I had to take a guess I’d say she died out there in the snow somewhere. All of your parents did I imagine.”
“You told us we were born here.”
“Well, I lied.”
She looked at him, noticing his oily prune-colored eyes. “You’re not our father then, are you?”
“No,” he said flatly.
“Well who are you then?”
He looked at her, as if seeing her for the first time, and smiled. It was the happiest she had ever seen anyone look. It lit up his face like candles on a birthday cake. “Well, I’m just your friendly Roots S’Bud, Chad Baker, here to serve you with a smile. Can I help you with anything, ma’am?”
Pepper grabbed the first thing she could, which happened to be one of the candles on the table, and gripping it, smashed it down on Chad Baker’s forehead. The first strike wasn’t very strong but he didn’t move. Chad Baker kept on smiling even as the second strike hit, then the third, and a fourth. But not the fifth. The strikes has blended together. Pepper never stopped. That fury in her eyes had come alive and every fall of the candle was that thwack against the ice. She went until the candle shattered on the ground, spilling hot wax all over her hands. Then she grabbed the second candle. Her hunger, having nothing left to eat, had grabbed her. Splitting flesh and muscle with rotting teeth, hot blood cascading down its haunches, it devoured her. Pepper had entered the other side.
A long time later Pepper came down from the stairs. Alfredo, who had fallen asleep on the ground, suddenly awoke and seeing his sister, sat up quickly.
“Is he gone?”
Pepper nodded. Alfredo’s heart sunk and he bowed his head, waiting for the tears to come. No, came a voice deep from inside of him. Today he would be the strong one. If not for his siblings, then for his father. Alfredo looked back up at his sister. “Did he say anything before?”
“Yes, brother. Father, in his dying words offered us a glorious feast.” She reached out and took Alfredo’s hands into hers. “Alfredo, have you ever eaten a potato?”
He looked at her blankly. “No. What’s a potato?” he asked.
Pepper smiled, and for such a terrible day it filled him with warmth.
“Oh, Alfredo. It’s divine.”