Smells

This story is the winner of our Addition Writing Challenge. I also appears in Phase 2 Magazine Issue 3.

By David Castlewitz

Not funny. But Cary knew the kids didn’t mean this to be humorous. They enjoyed watching him withdraw. That’s why the buzzers followed him from tiny room to tiny room in this abandoned building they’d taken him to after putting him to sleep. He remembered nothing about the trip. Not its length. Nor any landmarks. He remembered folding his arms around a portable odordisk, his main concern being the status of its battery, the scent from the disk putting his brain into a state that belied the tragedy that had become his life. He remembered being happy, and then there was nothing, as though he’d fainted.

He grabbed at his front left-side pocket and squeezed the thin khaki until he felt the outline of a quick-hit disk. He stood and dug out the thin wafer. He squeezed the rim with his fingers. Squeezed and hoped and squeezed and let the tears drip from his eyes. Not even a whiff of something. He checked the disk’s battery indicator strip.

Dead. Red.

He glared at one of the insect-like buzzers above, out of his reach and close to the ceiling.

He checked his shirt pocket, and then the back pockets of his pants, and the space in his leather shoes where his instep arched across the soft velvet lining. All the places where he put disks so he could carry them around at work, at home, anywhere and everywhere.

Those kids left him nothing.

He looked into his murky surroundings, eyes tearing. Not enough light to make out details, but just enough detail to tell him the room was tiny, the ceiling high and the walls close. A closet? Did they put him in a closet in his own house? He felt the baseboards, where the walls met the floor. He skittered around on his hands and knees, running his open hand along the cold cement floor.

Cement.

He didn’t have any cement in any of the floors of his house. He preferred hardwood.

Blonde wood with a distinct grain. When he invited friends to gather, he set the house polisher to work hours beforehand to bring out the gleam in the wood, the texture of the wood, the wood of the wood.

Cary shut his eyes, his back against the wall. He urinated, soaking his pants. He didn’t care. The useless odordisk fell from his hands, out of his clenched fist like a slimy sea creature he’d caught and couldn’t hold onto.

At home, with its tesla-grid, he’d put the disk on a charge plate and let the magic of distributed electricity take over. At home, he always had a few disks in the charging state.

At any moment he might want one, so there were always several at hand. At his command. At his bidding.

He mentally enjoyed the memory of turning on a disk and letting its odors waft into his nostrils. Smells shouldn’t be soft, shouldn’t have texture, shouldn’t be more than pungent or less than irritating or anywhere between soothing and exciting.

Confusing. Disk odors should be so indefinable that they confused his mind and set it to humming.

Eyes shut, Cary recalled how he felt when he sniffed a disk’s final puffs. He rifled his memory for a whiff of what he felt with a working disk in his hand, its battery dying while the tiny creatures inside churned and excreted their mind-altering vapors.

He pounded the wall, his fists beating the plaster behind his head, curled hands beside each ear, the vibrations tickling the sensitive spot where his brain joined his spine.

Standing, he walked the room. Walked into a wall. Turned and walked into another wall.

Why did he think he’d been taken to a vast and empty building with many rooms to explore? He trembled. Someone had slipped a sleeper disk in with the stimulators, he supposed, and immediately suspected the playful urchins that ran rampant in his neighborhood. They played tricks on the elderly and videoed the result, which went to

Live-Now or TubeOfTubes or some other online site.

Old ladies skidding on waxed floors and old men with their battery-driven wheelers shot by a sonic charge that sent them out of control vied with views of dogs tricked into leaping into empty swimming pools and cats hunting mechanical birds they could catch but couldn’t eat.

For all Cary knew, those urchins could be live-steaming his dilemma right now. Those buzzers overhead! Did they work in the dark? And he was in the dark. Not total. But dim because the light above him entered through a narrow slit-of-a-window in a corner near where the wall met the high ceiling. Of course, he thought. Plenty of light for the buzzers.

He swatted at the annoying contraptions buzzing above. He retrieved the odordisk he’d dropped and squeezed it in hopes of waking up the bacteria inside it. Maybe they didn’t need electricity to activate. Maybe a good hug would do.

He hunted the floorboards for an electrical outlet. Maybe this prison lacked a tesla-grid and airborne electricity. Those urchins may have taken him to an old part of town where old-fashioned cords and plugs held a quaint sort of glamour for the residents.

Cary found nothing attractive about the old days. As soon as he reached high enough in his career, he opted for a detached house in the modern part of the city, where driverless cars and cleaner-bots and wall-sized video screens with holo-projectors — all the marvels of the society he helped to build and worked to keep functioning — provided a blissful and wonderful lifestyle that he augmented with odordisk.

And why not? In old films, successful people drank to excess, smoked cigarettes until their lungs rotted, took opium and barbiturates and cocaine and meth. The people running the world enjoyed their vices. They had a right to them.

As a partner in a management consulting firm with clients worldwide, Cary had reached high enough on his personal achievement ladder that he not only indulged in the privileges of success, but also its liberties.

He bought odordisk on the open market at an online store he browsed using the holo-projector, which put him into the middle of a street market complete with sagging awnings, fawning vendors, wheeled pushcarts and those ever-present street urchins, some of whom worked as messengers bringing odordisk to customers in RL — Real Life.

Cary always tipped them, shooting his All-Pod in their direction when they dropped off a delivery. He took for granted that they were on the grid with All-Pods of their own to “catch” what he threw. If not… Well, he couldn’t care about everything. He had his job, his clients, his schedules to meet and his teams to lead and his personal whims to which he must cater.

Every few days he had a new odordisk. He liked trying different flavors. He liked the wild rides of the purple sage brand, which sent him to dizzying heights when he inhaled the stringent aroma. He liked the release of the sex-oriented red daisies, which let him explore daring dalliances’ without commitment or the physical danger of sexually transmitted disease.

Damn urchins! He stood on the cement floor with his forehead against the wall, legs spread, palms flat.

He’d experimented with daring Dash Disks and pungent Periwinkle Purples, which let him try a different sexual orientation, even a different gender, and some of the odor-induced revelries grew intense enough to leave him in pain, with bruises where he imagined himself struck by whips, burns where brands were applied to his skin, and, once, broken bones from a few minutes of rough handling by a lady wrestler he’d conjured from his imagination.

After a few of those experiences, Cary swore off Periwinkles. Lately, he’d been buying Homer Hogties, though three recharges killed their bacterial ammunition and the electricity eating buggers stopped emitting mind altering smells. With Homers, Cary always imagined the last of the bacteria choking like cartoon characters: white-faced, eyes bulging, hands at their necks in acts of self-strangulation.

Sometimes, the Hogties left him short of breath. Sometimes, they sent him spinning out of control into deep caverns where devils beseeched him and fires burned and indistinct voices made him cup his hands over his ears so he’d not hear the cries.

Usually, he didn’t remember much from those sessions. He’d awake, as if from a restless sleep, groggy and dissatisfied about something he couldn’t identify. He remembered no amazing beauty, no dazzling coupling with a splendid object of affection, no enriching experience so out-of-the-ordinary that it couldn’t be found except with drugs.

He wondered if those street urchins had manufactured a few Homer-like disks with their version of fun.

He laughed at the thought. The walls closed in on him. Of course. This was all a bad smell pawned off on him by street kids looking to video the disaster he’d stumbled into. If he rested a bit more, eyes shut, everything would pass soon enough and he’d wake into the world as usual, urchins be damned.

Cary took control of his breathing. He willed the walls to slip further apart, the high window to widen, the buzzers to cease and the gloom to lift. He blinked several times. He picked up the disk and held it in cupped hands and wished its power to return, although he knew that to be impossible. Once depleted, the battery must be recharged; and once dead, the disk must be replaced.

Laughter erupted on the other side of the walls. High-pitched voices mixed with the tinkling of glass. Music? Stringed instruments and electronic organs and bellowing trumpets thundered somewhere beyond this room.

“Cary.”

He identified the female voice. He remembered, she wore torn shorts and sandals and a tee-shirt inside-out. Bev was her name.

The walls parted. He walked and the gloom lifted from his mind. He looked at the kids standing in the street, amid the clutter and garbage, next to worn-out cars rusting to oblivion. Somehow, he’d wandered into a part of town where he didn’t belong.

He walked out of the decrepit house where he’d absorbed the odordisk and sent himself into a morass of mental hysteria. The kids stared at him, laughed at him, talked about him.

A few adults loitered on the steps of a nearby building, as though in line for something. Odordisks? Cary wondered, and stepped to the end of the queue.

“Free today,” someone muttered.

One of the kids called out, “I got Hogties and Miracles. Better than ever. Right now. Don’t stand in line like a bunch of fools. I got what you want.”
Cary fiddled in his pocket for his All-Pod. He couldn’t find it. He remembered hiding it from himself before indulging in his disk. He didn’t want to spend recklessly. He wasn’t so addicted to the disks that he’d do anything and spend everything just to get a whiff.

“How do you know it’s free?” Cary asked, directing his question to no one in particular.

“It better be,” someone answered. “I ain’t got no money.”

The kids standing nearby laughed, as did a few of the people in line, and Cary settled down on the cold stone steps and waited for the line to move. It wasn’t unusual for the city to hand out these treats, to give the addicts what they craved. It kept people from doing crazy things for an odordisk.

A quick hit, Cary thought, and then he’d return to his real life, where personal success gave him the right to pamper himself with these excursions into society’s underbelly. A free whiff, a moment of ecstasy, and then he’d go home. Without his All-Pod he couldn’t buy a long-lasting and stronger disk even if he wanted to, although he might if he found a street kid he knew, who’d trust him to pay up.

A quick hit. A free one. And then he’d see what he could muster from the hustling kids hanging on the corner.

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