On the other side of the door was something I didn’t expect. An office hallway. A perfectly normal office hallway. Too normal. It looked like a Tollhouse Cookie. A piece of advice if you ever, God help you, get sucked into this kind of work: if something reminds you of a Tollhouse Cookie, one of the plump, perfect ones from the commercials, just run. Do not stop to eat the cookie.
The only time my mother ever swore was when she took a tray of cookies out of the oven. She would look down at the mangled, misshapen lumps of congealed dough and let out long strings of angry syllables in Urdu, even though she didn’t speak any Urdu. She claimed she learned them from her brothers. Once the internet came out and made it embarrassing to be ignorant of how to be foul in all the world’s languages I looked them up. I don’t think she ever knew what they meant; either that, or my mother was more knowledgeable about butt stuff than she led me to believe.
“Why don’t they look like the packaging?” she would say. Every time. None of the kids cared because they tasted good. And no cookie made out of actual food ever looks like it does on the packaging. The cookies on the packaging aren’t real. They are always perfect. Just like this hallway. Every ceiling light, every door, every patch of carpeting had exactly the right number of chocolate chips. It weirded me out, even though I had come in through a door I tried hard not to realize was probably secretly Godzilla’s sphincter.
“So, are you coming to the company picnic this weekend?” said a man to the woman standing next to him at the water cooler. He had Ken Doll Hair and wore the exact suit and tie you are now imagining.
“You better believe it, Mister,” said his colleague, the female equivalent of him. “I never miss it. Are you bringing Sarah and the kids?”
“You betcha,” said Ken. “My son Jimmy just loves competing in the sack race.”
It was creepier than the stairs. The 1950s must have been horrifying.
I kept my breath held and snuck past them. I needed to find Sigmund Reefer’s office. I only had…
Six minutes, said Axon.
That’s very helpful, I said. Are you synced up yet? Can you tell me where to go? Or what the hell we’re dealing with? Or anything useful?
You will eat exactly 19,000 cookies in your lifetime, which puts you at the dead center of the statistical curve. Unless you die young, in which case you eat too many cookies.
Fuck. I ate a lot of cookies. I told myself the Olympus Mons-sized lie that I would cut back, and walked towards the nearest door. It was unlabeled. Could this be the office? Could I be that lucky? I opened it, slowly, and peeked inside.
“Quarterly intake is up 14% this quarter,” said a man standing in front of a group of people at a conference table. “Which is encouraging, but we’re going to have to do much better if we want to stay alive.” He spoke very quickly, and sounded like an As-Seen-On-TV pitchman. I half expected him to whip out a sample case and start trying to sell everyone there a talking squeegee or a new laundry detergent that could also double as salad dressing. No one was looking at me, so I ducked inside, took another breath, and then left the room to check out the other doors.
None of the doors were labelled, so I went to each one and opened them and looked inside.
How will be even know if we have the right door? I asked Axon.
It’ll be the door you open that offends and terrifies you at the most fundamental level. That makes you laugh at the absurdity of existence and weep bitter tears at your own inability to care.
That was Axon for “you’ll know it when you see it.” With a side of “shut up and do your job” to be going on with.
Comforting. The fact was, every door I opened scared me. Maybe I’m just frightened of office work. But in a situation like this there is absolutely no telling what you are going to find. No rules, no safety net, not even any logic you can count on. No training or ghost stories or preparation can prepare you for impossible things that don’t exist. It sounds stupid and obvious, but you can’t let yourself get used to this stuff. I wasn’t even supposed to be doing this, and I never got used to it. I’ve been told that’s the main reason nothing had yet managed to digest me out of existence.
There were a lot of doors, and I didn’t have a lot of time, as Axon kept helpfully reminding me. I found stacks of off-brand office supplies. I found a meeting that I think was an exact copy of the one I saw before, with the exact same words and the exact same suspicious absence of laundry detergent. I found two people on a table doing things my mother could have described in Urdu. But no Sigmurethra. No Ultimate Goal. There were only a couple of doors left. I didn’t have much time, and I was an invader. Sooner or later I’d be noticed.
That’s when I saw the window. The only window I’d seen in the whole building, and it was down a long hallway all by itself. I only checked it out because the light coming from it was strange. It shifted rapidly from moment to moment, and it was green. I sprinted up to take a look.
I knew what this part of Ducksburg depressingly well. God help me, I knew what every part of Ducksburg looked like, inexplicably appearing buildings notwithstanding. From here I should have be able to see the statue in the center of town everyone pretends to be proud of , Liliandra’s Antique Wigs, and Tuesday Bagels. What I shouldn’t have seen were fifty foot high blades of grass. A moment later the scene zoomed in rapidly, as if the building thrust towards the nearest stalk. Then it pulled away, and the stalk had a large segment missing. The building just took a bite.
Then I saw the eyestalk. The other eyestalk, because surely I was looking out of one of the eyes right now. The perspective didn’t make sense; it didn’t map out to the shape of the building I was walking in. But why should it? I was looking out of an eye and I could see the other eye, and through it I could see into another part of the building.
So we’re not inside Gozilla, I thought. More like Mothra.
That means we don’t have to deal with a stockpile of fuel for nuclear fire, said Axon. Unfortunate, but you’re probably not ready for that.
I knew what kind of creature I was in. It was a slug. An enormous slug with an office building full of sphincters and 1950s executives. And outside, occupying the same space as my hometown, was an enormous garden.
Axon, what happens to Ducksburg if this thing eats all of the foliage.
That’s a bad question, she said, because the universe will some day wink out without it ever being answered. Let’s end this fucker. I’ve always hated gardening.