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Offered Food

               There were four of them in the car parked at the curb in front of the split-level house with a conspicuous lack of curtains in all windows. The driver had never been named. The handler, riding in the front passenger’s seat, was known as Mrs. Champion, a name to inspire confidence assuming you were on her side. The codenames of the two young men in the back were “Paraffin” and “Tallow.”

               Mrs. Champion unbuckled her safety harness and turned to address the assets strapped into the seat behind her. Her white hair was cropped short so assailants couldn’t grab it. The thick lenses of her glasses were indestructible. “Final instructions,” said Mrs. Champion.

               Paraffin and Tallow waited, listening intently. They wore similar suits and ties, but they were of different ethnicities. Tallow was taller than Paraffin, whereas Paraffin had bigger hands and feet.

               “When you get inside,” said Mrs. Champion. “She will offer you something to eat. Do not eat it. No matter what, do not eat it. Decline it, reject it, accept it and then throw it away, do whatever you want to do with it except eat it.”

               Paraffin and Tallow nodded.

               “You’re going to get annoyed with me now,” said Mrs. Champion. “Because I’m going to belabor the point. But it is vitally important that you do not eat the food she is going to offer you while you’re inside that house. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to not do. The food inside that house will be visibly repulsive. It will smell terrible. It is food that no person would be tempted to eat. Then why tell you not to eat it? Why make an issue out of it? Because it is that important that you not eat it. If there’s even a slight chance that some misguided impulse would compel you to eat the offered food, I want to make sure that you heard specifically not to eat the offered food so that you will be empowered to resist that extremely unlikely impulse.”

               Mrs. Champion paused, watching Paraffin and Tallow for signs of misunderstanding or rebellion. She saw none. Which concerned her. Were they that skilled at concealing signs of misunderstanding or rebellion? Or was there truly no misunderstanding or rebellion within them?

               “Let’s address some reasons that one might choose to eat the offered food despite the fact that it looks and smells awful,” said Mrs. Champion. “First, one might be exceptionally hungry. Or, if not exceptionally hungry, then exceptionally weak-willed in regard to one’s hunger. Which is why we came here straight after a large meal of your favorite foods. Paraffin, you ate several different kinds of fish. Your pants are still unbuttoned. Tallow, you ate only one kind of fish, but several helpings thereof. You both had dessert. You’re both stuffed. You both rejected additional portions of your favorite foods not more than 30 minutes ago, so there should be no reason for you to accept a portion of food you find distasteful.

“Moving on, then, second: one might accept food offered by the woman inside the house out of a sense of politeness. So let me remind you that this woman is our enemy. Our relations with her are fundamentally adversarial. Politeness should not be a concern in our dealings with her. Even if you do feel some sympathy for her as a fellow human being despite her status as our greatest enemy, she herself does not expect you to accept the food that she offers you. She knows that I am out here telling you not to eat the food. That is why she does not even bother to make the food appealing. It’s the same kind of food she’s been offering for years, concocted by one of her own methods. She knows no one wants it, yet never alters her approach. Thus, there is no reason to feel any social pressure to accept the food. The woman inside is a lifelong resident of Multioak. You will not be violating some foreign cultural norm by not eating the food.

“Let us now move on to more extreme potential reasons for accepting the offered food beyond mere hunger or politeness. Third, one might accept the food out of a defiant spirit. Because such a ‘big deal’ has been made out of not eating the food, perhaps one might be tempted to eat the food in order to assert one’s mastery over one’s self, to show that one is not subject to the authority of their superiors. But, Paraffin, that isn’t consistent with your character. Nor is it consistent with yours, Tallow. Throughout your training and the missions you’ve been involved with so far, you’ve shown no inclination toward disobedience. You have suffered, you have endured countless degradations and debasements, and you’ve never balked. So why should you choose now as the moment to ‘act out?’ When the food is not only disgusting, as I’ve said, but also dangerous, which I have not yet mentioned, but must now emphasize. The food is toxic, made from toxic ingredients. But, if you’re secretly suicidal, the toxins in the offered food would not be sufficient to kill you, even if you were to eat all of it. No, the goal of the toxic material is only to inflict intense discomfort, to afflict you with symptoms both painful and humiliating which will stay with you in some form or another for the rest of your life.

“Fourth. Perhaps you think I’m lying. Perhaps you think I’m deceiving you, that the offered food actually tastes good, or will actually, when consumed, bestow pleasurable sensations upon you. Perhaps you think it will expand your consciousness, grant you insights that I fear you to possess. But if this is how you feel, why remain an associate of this organization? Why risk your comfort, your reputation, your very life in pursuit of our goals if you believe me to be a deceiver? Why accept any of my instructions at all? Well, it may be that one or both of you are double agents, working for the woman inside that house while pretending to work for us. And maybe you fear that you’ve been found out and that this is my way of dealing with you: sending you on this mission and telling you not to eat the offered food knowing that this will somehow result in your elimination. But if this were the case, I know for certain that the woman inside this house, your true boss, would also warn you not to eat the food. Because she would know it’s dangerous because she made the food and it is dangerous. It would render you just as ineffective as a mole for her as it would render you ineffective as an asset for us. Which means, yes, that even if you are loyal to us, and even if we were willing to forgive the disobedience of eating the food despite being thoroughly instructed not to – which we would not be – you would be ineligible for continuing with us, much less promotion, due to the severe physical – and mental! I forgot to mention the mental effects – of eating the offered food.”

Mrs. Champion took a deep breath. “Do you understand that you are not to eat the offered food inside this house?”

Paraffin nodded. “I do.” He buttoned his pants.

               “Me too,” said Tallow, nodding.

               A sad look passed over Mrs. Champion’s face.

               “What’s wrong?” asked Tallow, the more forward of the two.

               “I just got a premonition,” said Mrs. Champion. “I got a sinking feeling that you’re going to eat the food.”

               “I don’t think so,” said Paraffin. “I know I’m not going to eat the food.”

               “Neither am I,” said Tallow.

               “I can’t send you in there,” said Mrs. Champion. “You’ll eat the food.” She began to cry, although this did not interfere with her stern bearing.

               “I won’t,” said Paraffin, patting his handler’s arm. “It means so much to you. I won’t let you down. I never eat disgusting, toxic food.”

               “And I only did once,” said Tallow. “Years ago, and believe me, I learned my lesson! Never again.

               “Really?” said Mrs. Champion, her tears not only ceasing to fall but also drying instantly from her cheeks. “You both really mean that?”

               “We do,” said Paraffin and Tallow in near-unison.

               “I’m still nervous,” said Mrs. Champion. “But you can’t get anywhere in this business without taking risks. Both of you get in there and do your thing. And don’t eat the food. Do not.”

               Paraffin and Tallow got out of the car and closed the door behind them. The windows were tinted so dark that even right next to the car, they could see no one inside, neither Mrs. Champion nor the driver. They turned toward the house and crossed the lawn to the front door. In the upstairs window they saw the silhouette of the woman waiting to meet them. She wore a dress shaped like those favored by housewives of the 1950s. She held a bowl far away from her body with her head turned in the opposite direction. The handles of two spoons rested on the rim of the bowl.

               “I think I’m going to eat the food,” said Paraffin. He shot Tallow a sheepish look.

               “You are?” said Tallow. “Why?”

               “It isn’t for any of the reasons Mrs. Champion mentioned,” said Paraffin. “I don’t think so, anyway. The truth is that I don’t know why I do most things. And I don’t know why I’m going to eat the offered food here either, but I’m going to.”

               “Well, don’t feel bad,” said Tallow. “I’m going to eat the food, too.”

               “You are?” said Paraffin. “Why are you going to eat it?”

               “I don’t actually like fish,” said Tallow. “I wasn’t eating any of that fish at dinner. I was using sleight-of-hand techniques to make it ‘disappear.’ And now I’m hungry.”

               “I’m not thrilled about the effects of the toxins, though,” said Paraffin as he rang the house’s doorbell.

               “Oh, me neither!” said Tallow. “I was not thrilled to hear about those. I almost wish I hadn’t known about them until they hit me.”

               The door opened and the odor emanating from the bowl in the woman’s hands hit Paraffin and Tallow hard. Their eyes watered and they gagged.

               “Come in,” said the woman. She stepped back out of the doorway to grant the young men entry, closing the door behind them. The house had dark hardwood floors and very little furniture. The whole atmosphere stank of the vile bowl of toxic food. The woman directed Paraffin and Tallow up the stairs to sit on a couch with plaid upholstery in the otherwise empty living room on the top level. They had a clear view through the window of the car from which Mrs. Champion had sent them. They knew she was watching them through the small pair of binoculars she kept in her purse.

               The woman stood facing them with the reeking bowl extended toward them. It was clear she wished her arms were longer. Absurdly long, even. She began to speak, then stopped herself. She squinted at Paraffin and Tallow from her side of the bowl. Then she said, “Oh, who are we kidding?” and she left the room. A grinding sound came from somewhere deeper in the house. When she came back, she was empty-handed.

               “What happened to the food?” asked Paraffin.

               “I poured it down the garbage disposal,” said the woman. “What’s even the point anymore, you know? No one’s ever accepted it and it’s only getting worse.”

               “Ah,” said Tallow. “I see.” He looked at Paraffin out of the corner of his eye, but when he saw Paraffin was looking at him, they both looked away in embarrassment.

               “Well,” said Paraffin. “Shall we get down to business?”

               “Yes,” said the woman. “Yes, we may as well.”

               “You guys go ahead and get started,” said Tallow. “I need to use the bathroom.”


               Back in the car, Mrs. Champion was elated. “This mission was a total success! You did everything we asked and more. And, most importantly, you didn’t eat the food. I don’t know why I ever thought you would. No one ever has before, why would either of you? Even up until the moment that she took the food away, I felt like I could see something on your faces while I watched through the binoculars, something that terrified me. But I was wrong! I was wrong.”

               “Yep,” said Paraffin. “We didn’t eat it.”

               The driver dropped Paraffin and Tallow at the corner of Muskrat Street and Sapling Street. It was well after midnight. The two young assets stood under the streetlight and watched the car drive off. Once it had vanished from view, Tallow reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was stiff and roughly the size of a notecard, yellowed with age.

               “What’s that?” asked Paraffin.

               “Remember when I said I had to go to the bathroom?” asked Tallow. “Well, I didn’t really go to the bathroom.”

               “Putting your training to use,” said Paraffin. “I’m impressed.”

               “Thank you,” said Tallow, grinning, prolonging the suspense.

               “What is it?” asked Paraffin.

               Tallow unfolded the piece of paper. The writing was a little difficult to read beneath the red skull-and-crossbones someone had stamped all over it. “Look,” said Tallow. “It’s the recipe.”

Discussion Questions

  • Assuming you would eat it regardless, would you rather find out about the toxins in food you ate before or after you ate it?

  • What are two substances that have been commonly used in the making of candles?

  • Why would you eat the offered food? Hunger? Politeness? Defiance? Reasons that you yourself do not understand?