Depending on who you ask, none of this is real.
HE WALKED INTO THE BREAK ROOM - arms traveling through the sleeves of his dark bomber jacket.
Despite his best efforts, Finch’s eyes met his - an arresting glance lingered between both men.
Finch sensed he was in a hurry. Nothing good ever came from him being in a hurry. He already took hour-and-a-half lunches, sometimes two. What was his rush today?
“I don’t know. He went out for a smoke, I think.” a woman two tables over from Finch muttered. Just loudly enough to be audible inside the cramped break room.
The short, intense man from IT straightened his jacket and panned around the room, unconvinced - as if hoping to find Erik hiding somewhere in the shadows of the plain as day furniture that barely stood out under the harsh fluorescent lighting.
Finch took another bite of his burger and stared emptily at the cuffs on his jacket as he buttoned them. A familiar feeling of dread settled inside him. Three years now and practically nothing had changed. He was still as insufferable as the first time he wandered into the office for a job interview.
“We were supposed to grab lunch at the sandwich place down the road.”
The woman shrugged off his inquisitive gaze. “Don’t look at me.”
Finch, not really expecting an answer: “What’s the rush, Shan?”
The sandwich place down the road had a sign erected a year ago. Precisely a year ago. The sign read "BUNDY SANDWICH" in stark, black neutraface type and stared down into the parking lot of the business annex like a lighthouse.
Erik stopped before entering his car and became captivated with the sign. His peacoat smelled of cigarette smoke and excessive cologne.
"I just watched Shan cut outta here like a bat outta hell." An older man returning from lunch yelled from across the lot. "Wouldn't even wait to see if the road was clear."
Erik shook and shivered at the unrelenting cold of the afternoon. He could see out of the corner of his eye that the man was also looking at the sign.
"He tell you where he was headed?" he hollered back at the man.
"You eyeing the sign for it." The man's southern drawl defiant against the wind chills. "Same place every--"
Erik slammed the door to his car and the older man's voice became indistinct. At mention of the sign, he had gotten into his car so quickly, the man wouldn't notice until the engine started.
Just as quickly, he found himself pulling into the brimming block of mom-and-pop storefronts that housed the sandwich place and a few other lunchtime spots.
People at work would often describe their favorite eatery as a hole-in-the-wall and you were never quite sure they were using the phrase correctly but circling around the shops a few times, Eric became convinced Shan had indeed found a place without a discerning door to enter through.
Defeated, he slowed to a coast and rolled his window down.
“Excuse me?” he stuttered, eyes begging in rehearsed tourist fashion.
A young woman walking her poodle and clutching her windbreaker through the pockets turned her head.
“Do you know how to get to bundy sandwich?”
“I’m sorry?” the woman replied, her poodle tugging lightly at his leash.
“The sign says it’s here somewhere--” He tilted his head up at the sign. It never seemed to shift in angle or perspective. It stared straight down at him regardless of where he was in relation to it. “The bundy sandwich place?”
The woman sighed and took a knee. To her poodle: “Come on, boy.”
Erik’s smile wavered as he watched the poodle mosey about for a bit, ignoring the woman who now seemingly ignored him in turn. She didn’t bother looking at the sign.
“Did you check the other side?” she replied, having finally gotten her poodle to return to her.
From the exasperated look on her face, Erik knew she must have found either him or the poodle to be an annoyance.
“Yes. Thanks anyway.”
He rolled his window up and drove a bit further before calling Shan - something he suddenly realized he should’ve done before leaving the office.
“This is Shan.”
“Shan, dude, where are you?”
“I’m at the sandwich shop. You coming or what?”
“Dude--” Reeling from the question. “Where the hell is it? I don’t see it anywhere! I see a sign for it-- but I don’t see it. I’ve circled around this place a dozen times already. I haven’t even found parking--”
“Chillax. If you’d been ready in time, you’d be inside right now.”
Erik sighed, ashamed at his outburst. “Just tell me how to get to it.”
He sat through a few seconds of dead silence and then:
“There’s a door next to the tanning salon entrance with a sign that says USE OTHER DOOR.’”
“A door with a sign that says ‘USE OTHER DOOR--’” he repeated in disbelief.
“You get here before I order and you could get in front of me. Otherwise the line is long.”
“The line is long-- inside a place with a sign that says ‘USE OTHER DOOR?’” His anger grew.
“Hurry, bro. The sandwiches are good!”
With that, Shan hung up.
“I’ve got a shandwich for you.” Erik muttered as he hurried toward the door. He paused in the middle of reaching for the loose knob jangling carelessly off the jagged wooden edge of the windowless door. The door was already ajar and the sign indeed said “USE OTHER DOOR.”
As he entered, it occurred to him that the sign didn’t have an arrow pointing toward another door.
The high temperature and the vertigo hit him so violently where he stood and left him feeling like he was falling down a flight of stairs.
It became clear after staggering forward onto the contoured ground of the desert barrens that he had wandered into some sort of arid landscape.
The land was massive and hilly. Its golden brown sands shone so bright under the sun, it was blinding. Weird, withering vegetation that looked a bit like cactus at first glance but more like sculptures made from compost grew out from it and spread sparsely across the land.
Having blinked enough to adjust to the harsh sunlight, Erik met eyes with a buxom middle-aged cowgirl riding a donkey at the bottom of the plateau and did what anyone else faced with a development so bizzare would do.
He turned around and headed toward the door, repressing every urge to process what was happening till he was on the other side of it.
The presence of the door, worn and wooden with the same sign on it, gave Erik a quixotic sense of relief as he paced briskly toward it, unwilling to register the large boulder it was wedged into.
The doorknob - just as loose as the one on the other side - came off after only a second or two of Erik tugging furiously at it.
He paused for a beat under the shade of the boulder and thought longingly about the anxiety pills and the camels sitting in the glove compartment of his car. Also the gun. He could probably use the comfort of a gun right now.
After banging his fist against the door yielded nothing, he spun around, figuring it would be best to keep his eye on the cowgirl and the mysterious sprawling desert range for the time being.
Just then, he remembered his cellphone and placed a call to Shan while looking around for signs of the cowgirl. Cellphone reception, much like the cowgirl, was nowhere to be found.
He considered trying the cops but decided first to take pictures of himself in this eerie setting and send it to friends in case anything were to happen. The pictures stalled and refused to send.
He held his phone up high and wandered aimlessly around, trying desperately to find signal.
Looking at one of the pictures he had taken as he tried to send it, he noticed for the first time that his face and shirt were drenched in sweat. The salty taste of it filled his lips and just then, it occurred to him that he wouldn’t be able to return to work. Not without a shower and a change of clothes first.
The heat from the sun grew hotter as Erik watched his phone slip out of his numb, sweaty hand. His breathing became labored and he felt weak in his knees. Hunched over, he undid his tie with the sole intention to unbutton his shirt but soon he was down to just his undershirt and boxers.
He sat on the bare earth and considered his next course of action, submitting momentarily to the futility of his efforts so far. He decided he would go back and try the door. He would just keep pushing or pulling till something happened.
Before getting up, he watched a toad hop across the area in front of him and it made the place feel real in a way it hadn’t until then.
Suddenly he heard the sound of a large bird flapping as it took flight. A ghostly wind picking up pieces of dirt across the dusty hills and valleys. The idling of a mosquito buzzing in and out of his ear.
A wilderness as annoying as it was frightening. In his state, he knew if he hadn’t yet, he was very close to losing his mind.
His phone sat just out of reach. He lay flat on his belly and stretched his arm out toward it, not thinking about the growing numbness that now plagued him from the waist down.
He pulled toward the phone and the phone seemed to pulled farther away.
His eyelids fell shut.
For all their continued bickering and play-wrestling, the two boys standing underneath the ironwood tree didn’t seem exhausted.
One would pin the other to the ground and declare himself champion and shortly after, another round of heated colloquial banter and posturing would ensue.
One looked to be in his early twenties while the other didn’t look a day older than 14. They both looked a bit on the scrawny side and wore oversized white beaters that hung like tablecloths over their jeans and boots.
An older man sat nearby with a cowboy hat tilted over his face so all that was visible was his grey fu-manchu and his square chin. He spat chewed up tobacco in the direction of another man sitting close to him.
The teenage boy fell on his back and the other one pressed his boot on his chest:
“You tired yet, boy?” he yelled.
His voice travelled across the small desert basin to the neighboring hill.
Erik opened his eyes. He barely had time to panic at still being stuck in this fever dream before the sound of more yelling alerted him to the men in the distance.
Without exercising any thought, he stood up and began the long walk toward them. He never took his eyes off them for fear he would lose sight of them like he did the cowgirl.
His entire left side was now painted with sand and his socks ripped at the heel. The ground burned under his feet. The men didn’t seem to notice him approaching.
“Shan?” he yelled, recognizing one of the men.
He called out to him a few more times and picked up his pace till he was now limping madly up the low hill. Shan was in an undershirt and boxers similar to his, rocking back and forth and mouthing something he couldn’t make out.
When he finally got close, he saw pieces of a sandwich scattered on the ground in front of Shan and heard him chanting under his breath:
“Home, home, home on the range. Where the dead and the antelope play.”
“Shan, we need to leave--”
“Home, home, home on the range. And the skies are not cloudy all day--”
“Home, home, home on the range. Where the dead and the antelope play--”
“Tell me how to get out of this fucking place, Shan!” he erupted.
The two boys continued to wrestle and the older man didn’t so much as flinch at Erik. He looked around at them in disbelief before his anger propelled him toward Shan.
He grabbed him by the back of his shirt and dragged him a few steps back until he rolled over on his side and the chanting stopped.
Out of the corner of his eye, Erik spotted the cowgirl riding her donkey at the bottom of the hill and stopped to catch his breath while Shan quietly returned to his spot next to the old man.
The boys stopped wrestling, also spotting the cowgirl and one of them - the older one - spoke:
“She act like she never wohked a day in her ol life.”
“She got dem big ass hands” the younger boy chuckled.
“Tell ya what she could do with them.”
The boys snickered and soon they were at it again - slap-boxing this time.
Erik hunched himself forward and supported his weight on his knees, unable to catch his breath. He was confused at the boys and the cowgirl, terrified at the thought of being stranded there, and angrier at Shan than anything else.
The sight of the cowgirl - the older woman in a shirt too small for her body and curly dirt-blonde hair under her hat - riding away on top of the fatigued donkey and then turning back around continued unnoticed by everyone except Erik.
She seemed pretty occupied with the act of riding the donkey. Its gallop was unnatural yet meticulous and measured in a way that suggested training for some sort of parade.
“Why don’t you have a seat, friend?”
The calm and world-weariness of the old man’s voice struck something inside Erik’s increasingly breaking reserve because he promptly started sobbing and shaking uncontrollably.
“I just want to go home” he cried as he fell to his knees. He sat and quickly wiped his tears. Shan was seated in front of him at a 90 degree angle so he was visible in profile. He smiled and drew shapes in the sand.
“Only way out is in-- and only way in is out” the old man continued.
Erik turned to look at him. He had pulled his hat back so the rest of his face was now visible. It bore enough stress marks and bruises to last him a lifetime. His smile was disarming.
Erik funneled all his confusion at the old man in form of a curious, frustrated stare. Shan’s chanting resumed.
Under the ironwood tree, the boys chewed dip and spat incessantly.
“Wish she would help out around the house sometime” the older boy said, stretching his words. “Can’t cook, can’t clean, can’t even have a reglar convoseyshin. Boy ah tell ya ain’t seen nuthin like it.”
“I seen her collect payment from a man cross the way once” the younger boy replied.
“Well, what they he-ell for? She don’t do sheeit.”
“Betcha won’t say it to her face” the younger boy taunted.
“Maybe you oughta talk ta ha, you lil fucker. Why onchu go on ahead and broach the sub-ject?”
“Old man Bundy fucks her all the time. How come he can’t talk to her?”
The older boy shook his head and shrugged off the question.
Old man Bundy.
Erik had only a second to pick up the name amidst the banter from the boys he had all but tuned out. Another second and:
“You got business here, fella?” the older boy inquired sharply as he approached.
Erik stood up slowly, locking eyes with the boy while peeking at the hand he hid behind his back. He swallowed hard and took a step back.
“This here is private property and you trespassing!”
“I don’t know how I got here,” Erik said softly.
“I don’t know how I got here!” Erik screamed, scared now.
“That’s not gon’ cut it, friend!” He turned to the older man: “Old man Bundy, you let him in here?”
The old man - old man Bundy - shook his head. Erik reexamined old man Bundy - suddenly his ticket out of this god-forsaken place, he hoped.
“Shan?” the older boy yelled, now turning to Shan who didn’t for a second break away from his chant and his drawings in the sand.
The long barrel of the older boy’s revolver poked into Erik’s sweaty forehead and caused him to raise his hands up swiftly.
With his comprehension of the English language suddenly all but gone, he began hyperventilating.
“Tell me how ya got here, stranger!” persisted the older boy, keeping the revolver pressed to Erik’s forehead.
“Shan!” Erik screamed. “Shan, tell him how I got here!”
“Why onchu leave Shan outta this?”
“But-- but he led me here. I came in through the door with the sign, just like he said.”
“Door with a sign?”
“Shan, tell him! It was supposed to be a sandwich place!”
Eric let out a loud whimper at the sound of the gun cocking.
“You spect me ta believe you come all the way out here for a sandwich?”
“I don’t know!” Erik shook and jumped and expressed as much frustration as he could under the barrel of the gun. “I don’t know how I got here!”
“That don’t make a lick a sense, mister!” He called out the the younger boy: “Moss, you buying any a this?”
“Naw!” the younger boy replied from underneath the ironwood tree.
“Alright, mister. You got till the count of five to tell me truthfully what business you got here or swear to God, I’m putting one of these through your temple.”
“Shan!” Erik’s voice cracked. He wept and wiggled under the barrel and wouldn’t allow himself to listen to the countdown.
“Shan, you fucking cunt son of a bitch! Answer me!”
Shan finally looked up and stared straight at Erik from the behind the older boy and the revolver. His face had no expression on it.
“Shan.” Erik gave up and tilted his head down to the ground, bawling like a child. “Why Shan?”
The drench of tears and sweat flowed freely from his face to his chest and stomach and down his loins and thighs. He was feverishly cold and shaking, hyper-aware of every pore in his skin.
A few seconds passed and left him uncertain about the current nature of his existence. He allowed himself to look up briefly and saw the boy lower his revolver and laugh wickedly at him.
Erik bent toward his knees and took deep breaths. A loud bang erupted behind him.
The boys watched with demented smirks as the bullet from the shotgun propped Erik’s upper half up and caused his back to arch.
His shirt ran red with blood and his face opened wide in shock - as much shock as his waning lucidity would allow him to muster. He struggled to maintain his balance enough to sit while everyone watched.
“Y’all talking bad about me?” a sultry voice behind him asked.
He turned his head and barely recognized the hazy outline of the cowgirl clutching her shotgun.
The older boy placed the bottom of his boot on the side of Erik’s face and pushed lightly until he was on his back.
Old man Bundy got up, slightly disgusted.
“Gaddammit Marsha!” before sauntering off.
Erik coughed up blood. He struggled to lift his head, determined to get a look at Shan. As a final serving of surprise and confusion, Shan was nowhere to be found.
He twitched and mouthed something indistinct and took his last breath to the sight of the cowgirl kneeling behind him and leaning over his head.