This has received amazing feedback, and I am honored to have made such a good impression. I've changed the categories to include horror, as most have noted that in their reviews, and I've made changes to better suit this to Fiction Press.
The second chapter is incoming. I'm busy, and want it to be up to the standard of the first, so it may be some time yet, but it's going to happen.
The wind, heavy and humid, curls through his hair. The trees blur past on either side. Thick ferns brush against him, and smooth branches sway overhead. His motion is mechanical, yet alive; fluid and reactive in the darkness. He drinks, inhales the watery air.
And the jungle breaths too.
He can feel the ritual tune of the trees and bushes and vines. A thrum of energy permeating the wild. The forest bends around him, maneuvering itself out of his path. He runs and the jungle twists to allow it. The soft earth withholds its sounds for him, the trees shift out of his way, the dense foliage untangles to accept him.
In the far distance, in a place he has never seen, amber light begins to trickle through the wilderness. He knows, knows without really knowing, that this is what he is heading towards, what he has wanted. The light and the warmth, the sight of a true day. The experience of something other than dark, other than-
Obscurely, the man knew that there was something strange. He had a sense of it from the moment he opened his eyes, but couldn't place the origin. He scanned the room groggily, examining the musty curtains that spread morning light onto the floorboards, the dingy furniture and cabinets, the general disarray that he would have actively denied to be his apartment.
Nothing was out of place or unusual. It was exactly as he had left it- untouched and unaltered from when he fell asleep. With an enormous amount of effort, he pulled the sheets off himself and started his routine, turning and deactivating the alarm clock before it began to ring. It was funny to him, in a distinctly un-humorous way, that alarm clocks were rendered inert after a certain period of repetition. The very object that reinforced a way of life was eventually consumed by it and made obsolete. He scowled into his dresser mirror, pushing any previous thoughts about strangeness or clocks or repetition from his head; this was not the time for that. This was the time to begin.
He rinsed himself in the tiny, ice cold shower. He dried his naked body. He brushed his teeth. He consumed two peanut and almost-chocolate breakfast bars. He dressed in a semi-formal collared shirt, jeans, and a red plaid jacket. He drank a single glass of water. He stared into the mirror.
Despite his best efforts, the face that looked back at him was the same as the one from earlier. Shaggy brown hair and overlong sideburns surrounded a set of equally brown eyes and an angular face. Normally such features might be praised, but they only seemed to make him look unkempt and borderline simian. The important distinction from before, however, was that this face smiled back at him, albeit a little forced.
Satisfied nonetheless, he turned and made his way to leave.
There was a small, grey card stuck to the door across the hall. He spotted it the moment he left his home, it had not been there the day before. He strode over, peering at it curiously, taking time out of his schedule to examine the thing. It was slate-like in appearance, with large, bold letters embossed on the surface.
Squinting, then grimacing at the words, he continued walking. Anything people left on vacant apartments was bound to be a source of annoyance and confusion. Still, he rolled the words around his head as he descended the stairs, partially distracting himself by trying to discern meaning from them. He quickly abandoned the pursuit, though, and chose instead to look out the stairway windows.
He reached the exit quickly and strode out into the late autumn, the leaves that were not already brown glowed red and yellow, luminescent in the early light. Wind shook the branches above and long shadows danced across the pavement. The sky in the distance was just shifting from gold to pale blue. He smiled sublimely as he treaded through the fallen leaves and jubilant shades, enjoying this moment of respite between the grime of his apartment and the mind-numbing quality of his job. The grin slid from his face as he approached the restaurant.
He arrived, as always, at the same time as her; their eyes slid vacantly over each other as they entered the place simultaneously. Fellow coworkers passed by them, nodding in vague wishes of greeting as they hung their coats on the wall. They entered the kitchen and took their positions, back to back. He thought, as he began pulling on a set of white latex gloves, that he should learn her name. He had never taken the time to find out any of his cohorts' names. He should, he thought as he flipped the stovetop on, ask for the name of his shift's other line cook.
He rummaged through the drawers, pulling out the various knives, spoons, and pans he would need before his shift began and placed them carefully in the workspace. The head cook, whatever their name was, bustled in behind him and began setting up the main stovetop. There was a minute's pause. Then another. He stroked the side of his station's stove idly, waiting. Then the first order card came in; and with a breakfast of biscuits, sausage, hash-browns, and a judicious amount of gravy, the monotony began.
He started with dicing up the sausages and heating a pan, taking the time to peak over his shoulder just long enough to see the girl working on the potatoes and the head cook preparing the gravy. Then came a double serving of waffles with diced fruit and chicken. Then a beef and bean omelet. Then French toast with bacon.
He had thought before, and was thinking again, that working in a kitchen must be a bit like working in purgatory. He moved little, and was unable to sit down or relieve his feet. After the first twenty minutes the air became hot and humid, and choked out any pretense of comfort. Servers and bus boys rushed around him in a fog, carting plates in and out, leaving behind order cards.
Scrambled eggs with onions and turkey.
Pumpkin pancakes with banana, whipped cream, and sliced ham.
Steak, eggs and potatoes with cheese and peppers.
Spinach leaves with bacon, mushrooms, tomato, and onions.
The world became a dense, colorful blur. Staff darted in and out, taking prepared dishes and depositing dirty ones, dropping order card after order card before him. His knife flashed repeatedly into a block of pig before he passed the utensil into a sink and began stirring a pan of assorted greens and tomatoes. He scraped the contents of the pan into an egg patty, placed the ham slices on top, and then folded it into an omelet. The moment his hands left the plate, someone else's came and took the meal away, dropping an order card in its place.
Eggs with turkey and whole wheat toast.
Chicken fingers with diced potatoes and cheese.
Double size grilled cheese with mixed pork and herbs.
Steak burger with lettuce, cheese, onions, and olives.
Hotdog topped with mac and cheese and beans.
He lightly fried several pieces of bread while separately caramelizing herbs and a chunk of steak. As carefully as he could manage, he slid the bread slices out of a pan and onto a plate. He picked up a square of cheddar and Colby jack and began to melt them together in the pan on low heat while grabbing a potato and dicing it into thin strips. Once the potato was sufficiently sliced, he pushed it in with the steak and herbs, let them fry together for a while, then scooped the whole concoction out and placed it onto one of the pieces of bread. Scraping the cheddar-Colby jack out of its pan, he placed it on top of the meat, herbs and potatoes, and then capped it with the other loaf of bread. An unseen someone snatched the sandwich away and tossed another order card in front of him.
Eight hours of eternity later he collapsed into an empty booth, taking deep breathes of clean, artificially-warmed air. It had been too busy for any of them to take their breaks, which meant they had worked constantly for their whole shift. He ran his hand across his head, half expecting to find grey hairs as he pulled his fingers away. The girl was sitting some distance away at another vacated booth, speaking incoherently, and the head chef was already bustling out the front door. The replacements had already set up, and a steady stream of meals were being carried out of the kitchen and to their respective customers.
He sat for a long while, gazing out into the late afternoon sky, trying to piece together what he should do for the rest of the day. He had neglected to eat, and needed to restock his fridge, but for now he was content to watch the outside world. The trees were vividly bright, their branches shifted overhead tranquilly.
He flicked his head toward the sound, toward the something sitting at the opposite end of the table. He stared at it, trying to get his eyes to work properly, for some reason he couldn't seem to focus on the shape.
"Wha-Th-That's not me," he said, attempting to put words together. His voice sounded odd.
The thing leaned forward, a mouth sliding open as it shifted into tangibility.
"No? Well then, not-Dral, shall we put that to the test?"
The something was a man, with greasy, black-brown hair to his shoulders and gooseflesh skin. The man's eyes were so bloodshot the whites were pink, and it seemed impossible to determine where iris ended and pupil began. The man did something that looked like a smile.
He opened his mouth to respond, and his stomach growled loudly instead. He looked down, then returned his attention to the man, who was now sitting next to him. He slid slightly away from the stranger, then attempted to respond.
It struck him, too late, that this was an exceedingly weak response given the scenario; he grimaced in spite of himself. The man, on the other hand, only seemed to spread his un-smile wider and lean closer.
"You, Dral-who-is-not-Dral, could call me Mr. N. Now, may we begin our exercise?"
He found himself instinctually inching away from the stranger, keeping his eyes fixed on the man's smile. There was something unnerving about the man's mouth, but he couldn't figure out what it was. More than that, he did not feel safe in the man's presence.
"I think you have me mistaken," he said, silently proud to have not butchered the words, "I need to be elsewhere."
He began to slide himself out of the booth, freeing himself from the table before striding towards the door. Behind him, the stranger was saying, "Surely you've got time for one question?"
He turned to give a parting response, and the man's face was leaning over him; a hand grasped his shoulder, overlong fingernails bit into his skin. The man drew closer, and Mr. N breathed into his ear:
"What is your name?"
Something cold was driving itself through his chest, and the room was attempting to slide away from him. He tried to take a step towards the door, tripped on his own foot, and fell across the ground. He had a hazy impression that the man was crouched next to him, and words floated from everywhere, "You will have enemies and friends in the time to come. I will be the best of both."
Hands began wrapping around him and he kicked out, struggling, writhing. He almost got away, but the hands redoubled their grip and hauled him to his feet. He stumbled slightly, but managed to steady himself enough to look into the shock of auburn hair in front of him. He paused for a moment, adjusted to the dizziness, and succeeded in shifting his focus into her eyes. He had just enough time to realize that they were green, then that her entire face was green, then she turned, hunched over, and vomited across the floor.
He stood there and watched as she retched and retched, heaving up bile until it stained his shoes and she ran out of fuel to purge. He watched until all she could do was make noise.
Staff members began shuffling around them, giving them concerned and irritated looks while cleaning up the mess. He wasn't sure if they said anything as they led the two of them away, through the front doors and down the street. He didn't really care either. His head was pounding, dark shapes flitted across the edges of his vision. He tried, repeatedly, to remember the last time he had seen his name written, the last time someone had spoken it. He couldn't recall, couldn't dredge up a single memory of it. He ran through all the names he could think of, desperate to find something familiar.
Eventually he realized that they were alone, he and the girl— they looked at each other, once, but neither really saw the other. The forms in his eyes twisted around each other, weaving in and out, obscuring and revealing the world; every once in a while, he would find that he had no idea where he was. Sometimes she was there, and sometimes she was gone. He lost track of the buildings and the signs and the trees, they were all alien to him. The sky overhead became a deep orange, then slid to purple, then grew darker still.
When the shapes cleared again, he was alone. Thousands of pinprick lights gleamed from the inky heavens, but they provided little illumination. He stood still, taking a minute to fully understand what he was looking at; in front of him stood a shadowed, concrete wall.
He stepped forward and squinted, and the things that had appeared to be shadows sharpened into recognizable images. Someone had painstakingly painted a mural onto the wall, entirely in black. He had to almost push his face against it to accurately make out the pictures. Oddly distorted figures seemed to dance in a sea of symbols and glyphs, holding their arms up towards-he stood on tip toes to view the things above the pictograms—what looked like other, massive humans. He brought his face nearer to the image, and the things he had thought were larger people now looked different; he noticed horns and multiple arms, mismatched limbs and overlong bodies. Some of the figures were obviously inhuman, unsettling things that twisted through the upper layers.
Entranced, he tried to pull himself higher on the wall. He could make out massive forms that loomed in the farthest reaches of the mural, but couldn't quite see what they were. Failing to climb any farther up the wall, he took a step back, trying to see the painting in its entirety. Looking up, he found he could not accurately tell where wall ended and the sky began. It reminded him of something he did not like. He stepped forward again, reaching out to stroke the rough surface; he ran his hand along the wall, absorbing the sandpaper texture. He started to turn to leave, and his fingers brushed against something smooth.
He returned his focus, noticing that there was a small, flat object that had been stuck to the wall with paint. He traced its outline, found a raised edge and, with several experimental tugs, succeeded in pulling the thing free. He held the object up to his eyes.
It was the grey card, now partially covered in pitch-like paint. Most of the words had been coated, and now the card simply read:
Confused, he turned and stared at his apartment door. He spun, over and over, looking from his door to the vacant apartment, and then down at the card in his hands.
His head had stopped pounding, and the dark forms that had once pestered him had now dissipated, but his fingers trembled and sweat trickled down his forehead, stung his eyes. After what felt like hours, he dropped the card on the floor and entered his apartment, locking the door as it closed behind him. His feet were even more sore than when his shift had ended, and he felt much heavier as he sat down on the bed. The clock on his bedside table flashed 9:17pm. Despite this, he considered, hoped, that he had hallucinated everything; but he still could not remember his name.
He looked over to his dresser mirror, where he could just make out the outline of his head in the dim room. Starring at the black form of his face, he wondered if he was the same person who had woken up that morning. Had, perhaps, something changed about him during the day? The person reflected in the mirror gave no answers, merely gazed back at him with invisible eyes.
He pulled off his shoes, socks, jeans, jacket, shirt, and underwear. Naked in his dark home, he allowed himself to fall backward onto bed. The streetlamps, while not bright enough to illuminate the room, cast vague silhouettes of tree branches across the ceiling of his apartment. He had never been to a jungle, never seen one but for the television, yet found himself reminded of the smooth branches and thick foliage of a rainforest. He shrugged away the thought almost as soon as it came; instead running names through his head, names he had already thought many times before.
The names slipped, water-like, over him, and his eyelids began to pull themselves closed. He tried to fight it, to force more names to the surface, but he couldn't manage it. He fell backward, slowly, into oblivion.