“Welcome to Thoughtsburger, would you like to try our new Weltschmerz platter with a side of Bitterness and Longing?”
Ria stared at the person who had just addressed her. “Uh, no, thank you.”
“May I take your order?”
The person was fuzzy, so Ria brought her hand to the side of her face, as if to adjust her glasses. But this wasn’t the kind of fuzzy that a person was when she saw them from far away without her glasses on. This was just…she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She blinked and glanced up at the menu on the wall behind the counter.
She could read the items on the menu, but she kept forgetting them as she read them. She started feeling bad that she was taking up so much time. She felt so bad that she didn’t dare look behind her to see how many people were waiting.
“Do you have anything…cozy?”
And just as she asked the question, Ria realized that she hadn’t checked to see if she had her bag. She had the distinct feeling that she’d left her bag in the booth, and she suddenly feared that someone might run off with it, and with her shoes, which she’d also left in the booth for some reason.
“Yes,” the girl behind the counter said, “we have hygge-shakes. Unless, did you want a meal?”
Ria blinked again and felt a sudden relief as she glanced back down at the girl, dressed in the blue-and-orange uniform, smiling a polite and professional smile with a hint of natural friendliness.
Ria took a breath. “No, I’ll take a hue—uh, the shake, a small.”
“Coming right up!”
Ria stepped to the side to let the next customer step forward and give his order. She glanced over to the booths by the window and noted that her bag was still sitting in one of them. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Panic-relief-confusion. Ria’s thoughts were spinning and tumbling out of her head. She tried to breathe in and out slowly to calm them. One of the people cooking the food approached her from the other side of the counter. He held up something that looked like a thin rod and brought it close to her head. Ria opened her mouth to ask him what he was doing, but then she saw what he was doing.
He twirled the thin rod around quickly but steadily, and as he did, some fluffy, cottony stuff began to collect around the rod, forming an airy roll that just kept growing and growing. The fluff kept changing colors. The inside was an orange so bright it was kind of stressful. Outside of that layer was a cool and calming blue, and outside of the blue layer was a pink that wavered between a soft bubblegum shade and a vibrant magenta.
One of the customers in line behind Ria stepped aside next to her just as the man behind the counter finished off the roll of fluff, thanked Ria, and walked away toward what looked like a drive-through window.
“Did that guy just spin cotton candy from my head?” Ria asked aloud.
The person beside her turned to her. “He did indeed. You’re a corporeal. How about that.”
Ria felt a sense of urgency. She was supposed to be doing something. But she couldn’t recall what she was supposed to be doing, which then led to frustration.
“There’s a lot of activity going on in that noggin,” the woman beside Ria said.
Ria huffed out a laugh. “Do I look as lost as I feel right now?”
“Are you lost? Looked to me like you walked in here on purpose.”
Ria glanced around, not actually looking at any particular thing, but just in that way that someone glanced around when trying to remember a specific but mostly minor thing like “where are my keys?” or “why did I walk into the kitchen?”
“I did. I did come in on purpose.” Ria didn’t remember dropping her bag off in the booth before getting in line. She must have been lost in thought as she sometimes was when she went to get something to eat or drink. She really needed to start cooking at home more often.
“Dreaming, or astral-projecting?” the woman asked.
Ria blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Dreaming.” Ria spoke the word slowly. “Dreaming.” She spoke the word again, as if it were a path that she was following. “Dreaming…I’m dreaming.” She looked up at the woman, not quite seeing her, the same way she hadn’t quite seen the girl taking her order, not at first anyway. “I’m dreaming?”
The woman patted her arm. “Good for you, you’ve caught on. Let’s go wait for our orders in your booth. First time at Thoughtsburger?”
“I think so,” Ria said, sliding into the booth beside her bag. She glanced down at the floor, searching for her shoes, but didn’t see them. She frowned at her socks, wondering how long she’d been walking on them. They were probably already filthy.
“It’s a fairly new location,” the woman said. She rolled up the sleeves of her dark orange blouse. “But they haven’t advertised much to ethereals. And haven’t advertised at all to corporeals. Though why would they? That wouldn’t make sense. So I’m impressed you found your way here.”
The woman’s words touched on a memory. Ria was there for a reason.
What is the reason? Ria wondered.
The woman stuck out her hand. “Good to meet you, soñadora.”
Ria smiled and shook the woman’s hand. “I’m Ria.”
“A name. How charming.”
“Well, it’s Victoria. But I go by Ria. And, you are?”
“I don’t have a name of my own. We don’t need them, you see.” The woman’s face came into focus and her golden-brown eyes twinkled. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take the first part of your name, just to make conversation easier. I’ll be Vic.”
“That’s what my brother calls me.”
“I see. Well, that won’t do then. How about…?”
“Vicki?” Ria suggested.
“Vicki it is, and it looks like our orders are up. I hope you’re in the mood for something sweet and salty from the looks of that shake you got.”
Ria grinned. “Always.”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Ria squinted. She couldn’t quite make out the shape, the form, of the person she was speaking to. But she sensed that the person was a woman, about her own age. And the woman was sticking her hand out.
“Vicki’s the name,” the woman said, and her hand came into focus, along with several amber bead bracelets around her wrist. Her manicured nails were painted the same amber color. She smelled a little like cinnamon.
Ria cocked her head at the coincidence. “I’m Ria.”
“Short for ‘Victoria,’ yes, we’ve gone over this before.”
“Last night, and the night before. I have two words for you, soñadora. Lucid dreaming.”
Ria raised a brow. “Oh-kay.”
“But you’re here now. Let’s sit and talk. I’m curious. How did you find this place?”
Ria took a breath and tried to think. She glanced around to try and trigger a memory. But while the place did seem familiar, especially the blue-and-orange vinyl booths, she couldn’t recall a specific memory.
She suddenly felt a familiar sensation in her left hand and raised it to find that she was holding her notepad. The little four-by-three top spiral pad that she wrote her field notes in. She flipped through it.
Vicki watched her. “Anything?”
Ria glanced up at the woman, who she could now clearly see. Vicki lifted her burger to her mouth, shaking her head slightly to get her dark curls away from her face. The burger was wrapped in orange paper printed with the word “Thoughtsburger.” Also on her plate was a large spread of fries seasoned with some kind of herby garlic seasoning. The seasoning smelled good, but for some reason it reminded Ria of a fight she once had with her best friend in middle school.
“Are you a wordsmith, Ria?”
Ria shook her head to shake off her random memory. “I’m…yeah, I suppose. I’m trying to be a journalist. I work for a small publication that used to be reputable, then lost its good name, and is now aiming to restore that reputation.”
Vicki licked some relish from the corner of her mouth. “Yes, indeed. A good reputation is paramount to the success of any business. Tell me more about this publication. Why did you choose to work there if you yourself have a reputation to establish?”
Ria had told the story before, to friends and family who had wondered the same thing. She’d grown hesitant after meeting with blank stares the first few times. But the more she spoke now, the more Vicki seemed to grow engaged. Her eyes brightened. She leaned forward, and Ria caught the scent of lemon and blueberry and pineapple.
When Ria finished her account, Vicki sat back and pressed her lips together.
“I could make a meal out of just the thoughts and feelings that were coming from you with the telling of that one simple story,” Vicki said.
Ria wasn’t sure if she’d just been given a compliment. She decided to take it that way.
“It’s working,” Ria said, as she slid into the booth. “Lucid dreaming. You were right. I’m remembering when I wake up. Sorry about all the repetition.”
Vicki smiled. She moved her little basket-weave tote bag to make room for Ria, then lifted her fork to her mouth. She was eating what looked like a chocolate mousse pie with a few florets of whipped cream decorating the edge.
“Bitter and sweet,” Vicki said. “If the balance is just right, it can be quite tasty.” She closed her eyes as she plunged the fork into her mouth and began to chew. From the expression on her face, Ria guessed that this particular slice of pie had gotten the balance right.
Ria remembered coming into the Thoughtsburger before, and meeting Vicki and ordering a hygge-shake. She remembered that she had come in to investigate a lead on a piece she wanted to write. It started off with an observation, one of her sources recording an odd energy reading over the city, a reading that seemed to go back a few months. She had no idea how it led to her dreaming about some imaginary fast food place.
Vicki gestured to Ria’s bag, which was lying on the seat between them. Ria reached for the bag and found something familiar inside.
“My laptop.” She blinked. “Wait…” She opened the cover and logged in. “I’ve already started writing the story?”
She started reading.
Welcome to Thoughtsburger!
By Ria Velasquez
Yet another location of the fast-growing eatery that promises and delivers on consistency, efficiency, and most important of all…tastiness of the real and hearty food on their ever-expanding menu. I visited their Los Angeles location in dream form on more than one occasion, trying a variety of menu items, and I have to say…
Ria frowned. “A fluff piece? What publication is this for?”
That wasn’t what she wanted to write about. She flipped through her notebook, and words began to appear that hadn’t been there before. The lucidity of her dream must have had a bit of a delay.
As memories filled her mind, notes filled her notebook, notes she had taken of her conversations with Vicki.
She remembered agreeing to write that restaurant review as a favor to the owner in exchange for the answers to her questions, answers that Vicki, a loyal Thoughtsburger patron, would give her.
“You wouldn’t answer my questions until I learned to lucid-dream,” Ria said. “You didn’t want to keep repeating yourself and telling me things I’d forget when I woke anyway.” She looked up at Vicki. “But why answer my questions at all?”
“Because just your being here is impressive. Do you know how many resources important corporeal agencies and organizations spend on trying to find what you have found all by yourself? There’s no stumbling into Thoughtsburger. Not for a corporeal, even if you’re in ethereal form.”
Ria narrowed her eyes. “You’re referring to…my dream self.”
Vicki nodded. “Matter versus energy.” She waved her hand before Ria from head to toe. Her fingernails were painted with orange flames. “This, this is your ethereal form. But you also have a corporeal form, a physical body. I do not and neither does any other being in this establishment, and neither, for that matter, does this establishment itself have a corporeal form.”
Vicki nodded again. “Beings made of various different kinds of energies. Your people don’t know much about ethereals. Or rather, your knowledge is scattered and fragmented. Muses, fairies, ghosts, and apparitions. You’ve encountered us before and tried to make sense of what you experienced. But it’s never been quite right. You’ve imbued your experiences with far more weight than they actually warrant, which is interesting considering that we ethereals don’t possess the quality of weight.” She grinned.
Ria scribbled frantically in her notebook.
Vicki leaned forward. “In your physical body, you would not perceive us at all. Speaking of which, your physical body requires sustenance, nourishment. So do we, only we don’t eat matter as you do. We consume energies.”
“This has something to do with the weird energies that my friend—my source—has been detecting over the past few months.”
Vicki smiled. “This place opened a few months ago—by your measure.”
“So, this place, you’re cooking raw energy into edible energy?”
“What kind of energy are you eating? Like, radiation…light?”
“No, those are too harsh. We use such energies for vehicles, but for our own ‘bodies’ we actually need to consume something that you corporeals produce personally.”
Ria furrowed her brow in thought. “Heat?”
“Not quite so crude. Think, Ria. What is this place called?”
Ria glanced down at the placemat on the table.
Welcome to Thoughtsburger.
“And emotions,” Vicki said. “From the simple, like the joy of a hug, to the complex, like a newly discovered mathematical concept.”
Ria shifted her gaze to the plate of fries before her. “This gives new meaning to ‘eating my emotions.’”
Suddenly, her eyes widened. “Wait, are these my emotions and thoughts, or someone else’s? What about getting permission? You’re taking private thoughts and feelings and turning them into food? Juicy fantasies into juicy burgers?”
Vicki held up her hand. “It’s not like that. We’re not taking anything from anyone. This food is made from cast-off thoughts and feelings. You’d be surprised to see how much energy you corporeals expend thinking and emoting. Some of that energy you keep, willingly, some of it your keep instinctively. Some of it is just lost, the way your bodies lose heat. It’s from the inefficient ways your people are constructed.”
Ria closed her eyes. “Remember, girl, this isn’t real,” she said to herself. She hadn’t meant to speak the words aloud. She was trying to calm herself. But she kept going. “What I learn in dreams, what I feel, that’s always been real. But this dream is just my mind’s way of making sense of the things I’ve learned about this story. Putting puzzle pieces together, thinking outside the box. Just keep it organized.” She opened her eyes.
Vicki smiled. “That’s the real reason you learned to lucid dream. To remember all your puzzle pieces. It wasn’t to talk to little ole me.” She peered at Ria. “Because you didn’t think your old friend Vicki was even real.”
“Come on, Vicki. How could I? You have my name. Why? Because you are some part of me.”
Vicki crossed her arms. “So, you’re solving your mystery by talking to yourself in your dreams.”
“To help kick loose some insight that you might not have otherwise had.”
Ria felt hot. Vicki was staring at her and it was making her feel…uneasy.
Why are you scared? Ria thought. It’s just you staring at yourself, dummy.
But was it?
Who are you Vicki?
“I’m glad you’re back.” Vicki grinned. She moved her basket-weave tote bag out of the way and patted the empty space in the booth beside herself.
Ria remained standing.
Vicki propped her elbows on the table, intertwined her fingers, and rested her chin on her hands. “Not to sound like a creep, but you’re a feast right now. Thoughts on top of thoughts, meaty and hearty. Ideas weaving in and out liked a braided bread. Feelings, some of them as bright and fresh as a lemon, some deep and rich and filled with—what’s the word you used before for my burger—umami. Granted it’s all a little raw and unrefined for my taste, but maybe I just give it some time. You’re your own furnace in a way, your own fruit-picker, sautéing and broiling, chopping and arranging.” She sat back and folded her hands in her lap. “Throw in a dessert every now and then, maybe something to drink, and I could probably live off you and you alone.”
Ria felt her stomach drop. She got that little-girl-lost feeling. The one she used to get when she’d have nightmares about some hulking creature in the dark woods running after her on a chilly rainy night.
She had told herself before returning to her dream that she should treat it all as if it were real, so she could get to the bottom of things. Treat them as if they were real, the restaurant, the staff, the customers…Vicki.
It was so easy to dismiss it all when she was awake. But now…
Get a hold of yourself.
She didn’t have to act as if it were real. It felt real. It was real.
Ria pulled out her notebook. She had a wild card to play. But she had to be patient. She had to start easing into the interview. “This thing, where our thoughts and emotions become your food, is it a natural cycle? Like photosynthesis or respiration?”
Vicki gave her blank look.
“The nitrogen cycle?”
Still, Vicki gave no response.
“Okay, is it more like a symbiotic relationship? Human corporeals, we’re not being hurt, right? But we are providing something to another lifeform. In this case, we’re providing nourishment.”
“What is your real question, Ria?”
“Is any waste created from the consumption of human corporeal thoughts? Is that what’s causing the unusual energy signatures above our city?”
“Unlikely, everything consumed by ethereals at this establishment is used. The only waste that Thoughtsburger produces is the discarded thoughts, emotions, and ideas that could not be transformed into anything edible to begin with.”
Ria exhaled. “Let me guess,” she said. “Hateful thoughts, revenge, petty ideas.”
Vicki tilted her head to the left. “Actually we’ve never received such thoughts and feelings. They’re too heavy. They tend to fall back down on you, on your corporeal selves. Do you want to sit?”
Ria shook her head. “Wow, so we’re all soaked and swimming in our own trash thoughts, while you guys are getting all the good stuff. All the love and kindness and genius moments? Is that right?” She crossed her arms. “Like, the mild hostility I’m feeling right now, that’s probably going to drip off me and down that drain in the corner.”
Vicki straightened her head. She nodded to the server who set down a tray before her. “It’s as I said before, which I hoped you would remember. We only take what you don’t use. Far more energy goes into a thought or emotion than what a corporeal human recovers by will and by instinct. The rest would go wasted anyway, if we didn’t claim it.”
Ria glanced down at the food that Vicki had ordered. She was familiar with the menu now. It was one of those Weltschmerz specials. It was a heavy meal. She had never seen Vicki order it before. Vicki usually went for the lighter fare.
“Do you ever cultivate what you want to consume?” Ria sked. “Like how we grow crops and raise feedstock?”
Vicki sprinkled the house seasoning on her side dish. All the seasonings were emotions. Emotions, even when not condensed and refined, were bursting with flavor. “What you’re talking about is more sophisticated and refined than what we are doing. Thoughtsburger is about speed and convenience.”
“I get it. It’s a fast food joint after all.”
“Fast food.” Vicki grinned and Ria realized that she had never use that term before. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
“And, are you the owner?”
“Just a long-time patron, as I’ve said before. I like their seasonal specials.”
“Honestly, what are you looking for, Ria?”
“Cause and effect. A leading to B leading to C. A story, as I have said before. What are you looking for?”
“Nothing. You’re the one who walked in here, remember?”
“Yes, but you obviously have an agenda concerning me. You’ve been answering my questions. And you had me write that article.”
“I did. Is that what you’re suspicious about? I’m just trying to spread the word. Thoughtsburger locations will be opening in other cities. I’m not the owner, but I suppose I’m an investor of sorts. I have an interest in making sure that fast, convenient food is available to ethereals.”
Ria peered at her. “Well, you should be careful. I don’t know about ethereal fast food, but corporeal fast food isn’t always the healthiest. Or the best quality.”
“I’m certain we can maintain health and quality. Ethereals aren’t concerned about petty things like profit.”
“Oh yeah? What kinds of petty things are ethereals concerned about?”
Vicki laughed. “Are all journalists as tasty as you are?”
Ria inhaled. She tightened her jaw and tensed her shoulders.
Vicki rose and winked at her. “Don’t take it personally, soñadora . I look at everything and everyone as if they were food. It’s in my ether, or as you would say, it’s in my blood.”
There it was. Vicki had just dropped another clue. Ria had been collecting them in her notebook. Observations about Vicki’s facial expressions, turns of phrase, food and drink orders, even her outfits.
“I’ve done some digging,” Ria said, “and I believe I know who you are. I think I even know your name. Your real name, that is. If I were to say it out loud…”
“Would it grant you power over me? Not likely. My reason for not telling you my name was not to protect myself from your dominion, but rather from your preconceived notions. You seemed a learned individual. I couldn’t risk that you would know who I was according to the stories that your people told.”
“Oh, right.” Ria peered at the woman, noticing for the first time that she was much taller than Ria, that she had eyes the color of amber and honey, and she smelled like freshly baked bread, that she was holding a basket in the crook of one arm, a covered basket, and the fingertips of her other hand were engulfed in little flames.
Maybe she appeared that way because it was Ria’s dream and Ria’s mind was thinking about all the research she had done. She had seen a few depictions, etchings and paintings that looked just like how Vicki now appeared.
“I think I’m going to get my food to go this time,” Vicki said.
But Ria tapped into her lucidity. She remembered seeing the clues in her dreams. The colors—various shades of orange and brown, the scents—always food, the symbols of the flame and the basket.
“I’m not trying to close this place down,” Ria said. “Not without cause anyway. I just want to make sure it’s on the up and up.”
“You’re looking after your people,” Vicki said, “as I’m looking after mine.”
Ria watched Vicki pack up her meal, another sight she hadn’t seen before. “Will you be here, the next time I come in?”
“Probably not,” Vicki said, tilting her head slightly. “There’s a new location opening soon. I’m heading there.”
“I’m not done investigating yet.”
Vicki’s golden-brown eyes twinkled. “I know. You’ll have to find another source.”
Ria offered half a smile. “Shouldn’t be a problem. I could just ask if anyone wants to spin some cotton candy from my happy childhood memories, in exchange for some quotes.”
Vicki pointed up behind the counter. “Just be careful. You might end up being a local special on the menu.”
Ria shrugged. “So long as it doesn’t hurt me or anyone else, I wouldn’t mind that.”
Vicki pressed her lips together as she inhaled. “I’m certain I’ll be back this way someday. I hope I see you in here when I do.”
Ria grinned fully now. “As a customer or an investigator?”
Vicki didn’t answer. But she seemed to give a slight nod as she picked up her bag of take-out. She waved to the staff, and with a wink to Ria, walked out of the door.
As the door swung shut, the sign on the inside above the crash bar came into view. A sign that Ria had now read a dozen times.
Thank you for visiting Thoughtsburger. Eat hearty and come again.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel