He awakes from the black, its darkness stained upon his memory. His own name and history is awash from consciousness. Beneath a hospital gown he is naked and trembling in unfamiliar skin, frigid with fear. From foggy eyes glazed over with sleep, he makes out the sight of venomous waters running leisurely between barrel-vaulted cement walls decorated with pipes dripping some kind of poison that fills the air with breathtaking putridity. Suddenly he realizes his environment as a sewage system and begins running aimlessly down a narrow walkway when he slams into the back of a giant.
Unflinchingly, this enormous pear-shaped man continues scrubbing his hands and arms with a bar of soap lathered to a morsel. Sliding around the large obstacle, he finds a village of sewage dwellers, all in pajamas. They have dammed a section off where they’ve constructed their primitive living quarters. One sits on a stack of various rags, tuning a small antique radio from fuzz to fuzz. One is laughing hysterically at nothing, with no one. Another cries maniacally, rocking to and fro facing his chosen corner of the sewage dam.
The most seemingly normal member of these bizarre characters approaches, offering his dirty hand. “It’s about time you woke up.”
“Why are we in the sewer?”
“That’s a long story,” he warns while presenting a most amiable disposition overlaying some hidden agenda.
“Who are all of you?”
Leading him to center stage of the sewer village, the man introduces, “That beautiful piece of eye candy over there,” he points to a middle-aged woman in an obvious wig seemingly made from straw; she combs the thinning hair of a doll with its body terrifyingly missing; she smiles a two-toothed grin before bursting into laughter at some hilarious joke she has told only to herself, “ ... we call her Blondie, because she has blonde hair”.
“What is her real name?”
“Well, you see,” the man explains, lending a comforting hand upon his shoulder, “They were all conceived in test tubes, so they didn’t have parents, you know … and the government never gave them names – not even a number – I guess they didn’t want us to own individual identities. So, anyways, we just call each other by the easiest thing to remember—whatever’s on our heads….
“Him over there,” he points to the boyish old man sobbing into his knees. “He’s Midnight, because his hair is black as midnight. That one over there,” he points to the youngest of the group toying with the radio. “That’s Cap, because he always wears a cap”: a piece of tinfoil fashioned into a Nazi military helmet of sorts. “The big guy you met earlier, that’s Bob.”
“Well, he too has black hair so we entitled him the first name to come to mind—Bob…. And me, I’m Shines, because my head is so bald it shines,” he chuckles jovially, rubbing his scalp. Actually, his entire body appears to be waxed clean of every follicle, missing eyebrows leaving his expressions blank.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Of course,” Shines replies too casual to be staring into the eyes of amnesia. “You’re Pepper.”
“Why?” he asks, completely unknowing of his own peppered hair.
Without answer the sewer crew erupts in the chant of “PEPPER”, all except Midnight. They bang on aluminum cans and other assorted items of trash personally collected by each.
“No offense,” says Pepper, “but you’re all mad…. So I think I’ll be going now to the surface for some fresh air.”
“But you can’t,” Shines grabs him by the wrist in a mechanical like grip.
“Why not?” spits Pepper harshly, struggling hopelessly to extricate his puny arm from Shine’s effortless clench.
“Because we’re not the only ones who are mad—”
Bob interrupts in an accent like a bad imitation of a British scholar, “Madness, let us not forget, is in the mind of the beholder,” concentrating upon his legs and bare feet as he scrubs frenetically with the nub of soap.
“Secondly,” Shines recommences, “The air up there isn’t so fresh—Here, have a seat,” he directs Pepper to a chair made from a couple stacked tires and an ironing board for back support. The sewer crew all gather round, all except Midnight who eyes a faded black and white Polaroid of a teenage girl, weeping ever louder.
Shines crouches beside him, the crew drawing closer, when a man steps from a nearby crevice with an obese rat nestled in his cradling arms, startling Pepper when he speaks in heavy-breathing words, “You know, man is more comparable to rats than to his own family of primates. Other than humans, rats are the only animals to wage systematic, prolonged, and deadly war upon its own species.” He pets the matted fur of the sleeping or possibly deceased rodent harder as his speech intensifies. “However, a rat automatically ceases reproduction when a certain state of overcrowding is reached. Apparently we are yet to evolve to the sophistication of rats.” He returns to his abysmal crevice lurking behind a veil of strange darkness, his breath almost echoing.
Shines gestures a disregardful wave of his hand. “Don’t mind him; that’s just Dreadlock. He’s crazy.”
In a lyrical tone, Bob muses, “Yes, but don’t be fooled, my dear boy. Crazy is not losing one’s mind—but finding too much of it.”
Staring daggers at Cap, Shines telepathically orders him to turn off his radio blaring static. He absorbs the rare silence of the crew before explaining to Pepper in just more than a whisper, “Hell has finally risen and Satan walks the earth as free as the wind. God no longer recognizes his own creation….
“It all started when the earth’s resources began to dwindle well below the ever-increasing demand of the population. After such an irreparable collapse of the global economy, governments began to dissipate and all countries became autonomous … until the many gangs around the world grew into organized factions, controlling stockpiles of food, oil, and weaponry.
“Only the strongest survived. Many died of starvation or were killed fighting for food and the populations rapidly decreased below the level of resources. Finally there was enough to go around ... but it didn’t—”
Bob barges into conversation enthusiastically, “At the time of Napoleon, France had the largest population in Europe leading theorists to believe that his troops remained obedient primarily as a social-subconscious effort for population relief.”
“Anyways,” Shines continues with a puzzled eye upon Bob, “Some of the factions grew very wealthy and the ones that didn’t died off. The most powerful group was led by a man they call Doctor Thomas. He is absolutely genius compared to his competitors—politics, religion, militarism, you name it. He stood head and neck above the rest.
“The only problem though is his ego. If any of the other factions try to help themselves without his approval he sees it as some sort of sacrilege and overwhelms them with his raging swarm of blood-lusting troops, burning villages and dropping bombs like buckets of water on an anthill.”
Bob joins half-attentively, rubbing his soapy hands over the back of his large folded neck, “They say that when he attacked Italy you could hear the fiddle of Nero playing once again through the flames.”
Shines bites his bottom lip, trying to distract from the annoyance of Bob’s groundless interruptions. As his lip begins to bleed, this mental diversion serves its purpose and he continues, “With his amazing wealth, Doctor Thomas pumped funds into labs that designed the nutrient capsules which eliminated lunch breaks for his workers and troops and brain chips that reduce the need for sleep; but most every ounce of wealth is deposited into life-preserving medications. Doctor Thomas and his followers have been living for eons while the rest of us are content with the natural cycle of death—we have to be; it’s all we know.
“When the machines took over, labor became a thing of the past. Humans evolved smaller bodies that made their heads look enormous; their fingers grew long for button-pushing; they lost all of their hair because of the toxins they’re subjected to. We call them ‘the Aliens’—”
“Why don’t you guys look like that?” curiously interjects Pepper.
Looking the group over with a sly grin, Shines answers, “Well, we’re what they call ‘the Apes’. They call us that because, compared to them, we seem very hairy and they believe that we evolved backwards, back into animals because we live without the machines, refusing their technology.”
Pepper imposes timidly, “But why don’t you have any hair, Shines?”
“My Father was an Alien. He raped my Mother. Back then Doctor Thomas fed his troops so much testosterone that they became rabid with lust and violence. But he put a stop to that when his troops began turning on themselves. He employed other methods of control:
“In test tubes he eliminated the conditioning of parents that made it so difficult for him to own the minds of his people. He poisoned all the world’s water supplies with undetectable chemicals that left females infertile. All but a few species died off.”
“How did the rats survive?” asks Pepper as he kicks a brave rodent sniffing at his feet.
“I don’t know,” Shines replies earnestly. “I guess rats just know how to thrive when times are tough.”
Blondie explodes into comical hysteria when she shouts, “Tell him the story about how we found him.”
Cap sings, “When we found you,” again toiling with the radio dial.
“Here, take this,” Shines offers Pepper a little blue pill.
“About now is the time the gasses from the surface begin seeping into the sewer. This pill helps your body tolerate the effects.”
Dreadlock peeks his head from his crevice, all shaded but his face. “We’ve polluted the bird’s air to which they fly. We’ve chopped their trees in which they nest. We’ve littered their grounds and waters from which they feed and drink…. There’s little wonder why they shit on everything we own.” He again recedes into the darkness that he has become.
“Didn’t the birds die off?” Pepper inquires perplexingly.
“Yes,” Blondie giggles, “but Dreadlock’s crazy. All he thinks about are those stupid animals.”
Dreadlock, hidden behind his curtain of shadows, carries his speech upon thick respiration, “If we are wiser than animals then why is it so difficult for us to find our spot in life when all other creatures are born knowing theirs?”
“Just tell the damn story,” Midnight orders between sobs.
“Alright,” Shines continues. “We were on the surface scouting for rations when we encountered upon two of Doctor Thomas’ henchmen. We hid behind a pile of rubble and that’s when we noticed you. You were unconscious as they dragged you along. We hadn’t found another Ape in so long that we just had to follow.
“They took you back to their clinic for their brainwashing sessions—”
Bob cuts in as mannerly as one may interrupt, “You know, I think they went and gave the wrong definition to the word ‘brainwash’. You see, a man will remember to wash his hands, wash his face, even wash between his toes and behind his ears, but he never takes the time to wash his brain. Yes, a man with a dirty mind is a filthy man no matter how often he scrubs.”
“AMEN!” Cap trumpets with the full exertion of his lungs and vocals.
“Anyways,” Shines glares at Bob, “We didn’t make it in time before they could lesion your hippocampus.”
Blondie injects her bit of information, “That’s where your memories are.”
“Very good,” Shines encourages as Blondie chuckles in pride of acknowledgment. “Fortunately we did make it before they could implant their chips and electrodes and all other mind-controlling devices.”
“How did you get past the Aliens?” asks Pepper, on the edge of his seat.
“Well, you see, without their weapons and machines they can’t fight worth a lick and their large heads make easy targets for our fists.”
Suddenly Pepper blurts accusatively, “What did you give me?” He holds his heavy head, his eyes springing from their sockets.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” says Blondie, laughing at his inexperience.
“You can sleep it off,” suggests Shines. “It’s getting late anyways. Here, I’ll show you to your bed.”
His bed is comprised of crumbled newspapers, covered by tattered sheets. His pillow is a wadded red, white, and blue flag of some ancient civilization foreign to Pepper’s memory. He lies immediately beside the northern dam picking at its plaster, testing its faulty structure.
“You sure this thing will hold?” asks Pepper.
“Don’t worry,” orders Shines, blowing out the many candles and torches. The sewer crew each take their private bedding areas falling fast asleep, all except Midnight who can be heard whimpering from under his beach towel blanket, crying himself to sleep. Pepper holds his eyes closed, pretending his lights are out, waiting for them all to fall deep into R.E.M. But the drug has made him drowsy and he finds it difficult fighting the coma from whence his new life was born.
Finally, the snores begin echoing and he makes his break, slinking his way between the others nestled warmly within their strange dreams. He enjoys a moment of relief before he is startled by Dreadlock who leaps forth from his crevice just as Pepper approaches.
“We are the animals,” he says in a deep whisper.
“I beg your pardon?” indulges Pepper amicably as not to incite alarm.
He takes Pepper by the arm illustrating in wide gestures with his free hand as he recites, “I’ve never known a squirrel to worry about a tax deadline. I’ve never seen a frog hiding from collection’s agencies. I’ve never heard tale of a bankrupted sparrow. Have you?”
Pepper quietly shakes his head struggling for passage when Dreadlock continues, “I’ve never known a whale to spill oil into our oceans. I’ve never seen an eagle drop missiles onto our cities. I’ve never heard tale of a snake oppressing its species. Have you?”
Again Pepper shakes his head finally passing as Dreadlock shouts, “We are the animals!”
Pepper runs the length of the sewage tunnel before happening upon an iron ladder bolted to the wall that ascends to the surface and to freedom from those deranged maniacs. As he takes a single step upward, he feels a poke at the back of his neck, collapsing into paralysis. Just before fading from consciousness he looks up to see Bob towering over him with a dripping syringe in his hand.
He awakens in a fog some indiscernible time later, the sewer crew encircling and leering into his mind stored within dilated pupils. He tries to lash out but ends up only fighting the jacket in which he is restrained. His legs are chained to the floor.
Shines sits before him with pen and paper, nonchalantly puffing on an unlit cigar. Taking notes, he asks, “So why did you run away?”
“I want to be free.” Pepper’s words seem to fall from his mouth with great effort.
“What’s stopping you from being free?”
“You are, you fucking lunatics!” Pepper strains his every muscle impotently threatening.
“Why do you call us lunatics?”
And the questions continue following each response like the swinging silver balls on an office desk. They each take a shift probing his thoughts, all except for Midnight who somehow finds each question more depressing than the last. Pepper is poked repeatedly by needles and forced to ingest pills tasting of chalk, but obviously some kind of condensed form of cotton that absorbs all moisture from the throat and gums. The itch on his nose feels like dancing spiders mocking his inability to scratch. Blondie’s laugh is amplified at such an unbearable pitch he can hear his own eardrums failing. One moment his heart is pounding from his chest like the foot of a warranted officer at the door of his big catch, the next his pulse slows to that of languid drops from a leaky faucet. He sweats profusely but is frigid with fear.
Ceaselessly for days he is drugged and probed and analyzed; sterilized; synthesized; remolded. He feels like an abducted guinea pig removed from his natural habitat and placed in an alien world where he is powerless to do anything but to pace this cage and run circles within a wheel of questions and confusion.
Finally he relents and the sewage therapy penetrates his skin, crawling with the sickness of mental disease. “I fear I’m going insane.”
It is now what they call “the brain shift” of Bob. He snaps from his stupor retorting, “What other way might you assimilate to such an insane world?”
“But I’m scared.”
“Don’t worry, my dear boy. You’re not the first, certainly not the last. Unfortunately but a few thoughts insulate our susceptible minds from insanity.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re not alone—well, maybe you are, but we’re all alone together.”
Although Pepper stands a football field’s distance from understanding, he is satisfied with this reply and he sleeps cadaverously for the first time in days. As he is revived by Cap’s hammering of the radio with bleeding fists, Pepper realizes the freedom of his arms and legs, yet he has no desire to flee. He knows here resides his only place of belonging and is comfortable in its madness as if an old shoe formed perfectly to his personal step, however awkward and staggered.
The rest of the crew returns carrying supplies: flashlights and batteries; a pack of hotdogs; an ‘I heart New York’ t-shirt; plenty of tinfoil for Cap; and soap for Bob. They share raw hotdogs, drawing Pepper into the group with playful banter and congratulations for his successful reconditioning.
Pepper feels this an appropriate time to state his concerns, “Do you think the dam is safe? I mean, the water has risen a lot since I’ve been here.”
“Don’t worry,” laughs Blondie with a mouthful. “You worry too much.”
Day after day the water rises and Pepper’s warnings go unheeded. He begs to accompany their next rations party on their mission to the surface but they refuse and he grows increasingly suspicious—his suspicions intensified by the delirium that dominates his thoughts. The weeks slug by without event as his mind swells with boredom. He entertains himself by playing games with his own shadow and collecting the chips he scratches from the dam.
The crew for days remains like mannequins in fixed positions, staring into their own shaded realms. Eventually the time strolls along for return to the surface and Pepper begs to go. Shines promises him a spot on the next scavenging team but this is utterly unacceptable to a man plagued by untested theories of the upper world that constantly fills in the abscesses of his memory. The brink of madness has long been surpassed as he unleashes maundering curses upon the crew, chucking words like spears he hopes will pierce their brains and leave them squirming in the pain he, himself, has suffered since his return from unconsciousness all the way into insanity.
Instead, they go unscathed by his ravings and hold him down, extracting his every ounce of strength by way of the needle. He struggles to maintain reality when he is strapped upon a table and fitted with what feels like tentacles that shoot lightning into his skull. What could be years or seconds later, Pepper awakes again and again, nodding off several times before building the muscles in his neck capable of supporting his burdensome head.
He is surprised to find himself unrestrained but hasn’t the desire to move; he hasn’t the desire even to imagine movement. So he sits motionlessly watching the crew that gathers like trained chimps desperately awaiting their portion of the rations.
Midnight diffidently brings Pepper his slice of moldy bread and a capful of cheap liquor, but he silently refuses. Moments later Shines sits with him asking, “Why did you find it necessary to insult us all?” Pepper remains unresponsive but the questions continue as the crew joins analysis, “Are you refusing to eat as a way of exercising control?” Pepper doesn’t respond; he doesn’t flinch; he gazes emptily in catatonia, an image comfortingly familiar to the crew.
Rations parties leave and return without Pepper, but he lends no opinion. Meals go untasted by his dry tongue and therapy sessions carry on without his caustic input. Still, Shines revels in the success of his creation, highly approving Pepper’s complete reformation.
Yet the sewer waters continue rising and the dam bows inward and one night explodes in a loud CRACK! In the chaos that ensues, the crew frantically running about, Pepper leaps from paralysis and drags his weighted body, staggering through the drugged haze.
Dreadlock springs from his crevice saying, “We are all but a mere tooth and claw away from animalism.”
Pepper throws his led fist at Dreadlock’s mouth but only displaces the air before him. Dreadlock gets upon all fours growling and biting at Pepper’s ankle when he is kicked in the jaw and howls like an injured coyote. The sewer crew is ignorant of Pepper’s escape nonetheless, as he climbs the iron ladder to the surface.
There he hears the droning of traffic, the drilling of construction. There he sees the sidewalks alive with workaday humanity, pedestrians all in a rush. The sky seems so blue though draped in smog, the air so sweet though wafting pollutants.
He hears from afar the calling, “Doctor Thomas.”
“Where?” he panics when a woman in scrubs approaches him.
“Doctor Thomas, I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“You must be mistaken, lady.”
She nervously studies his eyes. “Don’t you remember me? I’m Katharine—I work with you, Doctor Thomas.”
“Stop calling me that,” demands Pepper, plugging his ears of the street that suddenly buzzes agonizingly.
“O my God,” Katharine tears up. “You don’t remember, do you?” She carefully leads him to a bench like a lost child. “You’re a doctor in the psych ward where a couple months ago the patients knocked you unconscious and escaped, taking you with them. They stole all the medications and even one of the old electroshock machines from storage…. Don’t you remember any of it, Doctor?”