Something about this man, Renato, makes me think of bread. A dense bread, like rye, dark and porous. Tougher than the cheap white bread I buy that gets smushed on the way home from the supermarket. No, Renato is not my kind of bread. He’s made in a bakery and not sliced to fit bologna. His face is an artisan loaf of pumpernickel.
Renato may hire me. He has said very little in the interview, giving me time to compare him to bread. Most of the time, he reads my application, rubbing his fingers on the paper, his mouth in a chewing motion. All he has done is read my application to me. If he ever asks a question, I am ready to answer.
“There is something I like about you.” He places my application on his desk and places one hand over the other.
“I have no idea what that could be.”
“You don’t feel the need to speak when the room goes silent.”
His dark eyes sparkle as if he has just said something wise I would want to remember. “Thank you.”
“You must have questions for me.”
I have more questions for him than I’m comfortable asking. What is this job? Where am I? Why was I driven through two sets of high-security gates and then underground for twenty minutes? How far underground are we? Those are my preliminary questions, but he has complimented me for silence. Maybe I should wait for the information.
“I assume you have a driver’s license.”
“Of course. Does this position involve driving?”
“Your first question. Well chosen.” He doesn’t seem to want to answer. His eyes are on my hair, then my eyes, drifting down my face to my sweater. Slightly creepy. This job may not be for me.
The room is made of metal and plastic, like a spaceship movie set made in the sixties. The screens along the wall behind Renato flash photos of well-known earthly destinations. Teotihuacan. Petra. St. Basil’s Cathedral. The Hague. Renato catches me glancing at the photos and he smiles, his doughy cheeks rising to his eyes.
“You must have questions.”
“What is it you do here?”
“Your second question is also excellent.”
The man who drove me from the outer gates to this place, whatever it is, enters. I know very little about him, other than his name. Janos. He blurted out during the long drive through the tunnel that his parents were Hungarian. I offered no information about my parents, my disabled mother, and a father with three ex-wives and seven children I have never met. Janos has no likeness to bread. He reminds me of a comic drawing of Don Quixote on the cover of a condensed version of the book I read in high school.
Janos leans and whispers to Renato. He nods at me and I return the nod. Maybe I should be afraid.
“Let’s eat lunch, Elizabeth.”
“You can call me Beth.”
He stands, motioning me to join him. “I look forward to calling you Beth. You can call me Renato.”
“I’ve never been fed at an interview, Renato.”
He is extending an arm in the direction of the door—I suppose to invite me to walk through the door first. He takes my hand as I walk past. Renato’s pudgy hand stays connected to mine through the corridor as if we are third-grade sweethearts on the way to recess.
“I’m so happy to share lunch with you, Beth. We make the best bread in the world. I assume you eat bread.”
“Of course.” The yeasty warmth of bread is my next breath. The possibility that I may have been aware of this odor all the while is comforting—I did not compare Renato to bread for no reason. Not enough, though. I must have been delusional when I accepted the interview. The ad claimed the starting pay was fifty grand, no experience, no job description. Only an email address to send a resume. Such a job doesn’t exist.
What exists is a man who doesn’t answer my questions and who asks none, holding my hand, and walking me into a new room with windows to what could be the Garden of Eden. In the center is an apple tree with bright red fruit. It is walled in, or seems to be, with ivy-covered limestone. I believed moments ago I was far underground. I have never felt so disoriented. My walk toward the window is stopped by Renato’s pull to the right.
“Beth, this is our friend, David.”
David, an elderly bald man, is seated at a table with a young woman who keeps her eyes on her bowl of soup. David’s soup is almost gone and he has just taken another piece of bread from the center of their table. I am suddenly hungry enough to take bread from his plate. “Nice to meet you, David.”
“You, too, Beth.”
Renato directs my eyes away from the woman at the table. “Our friend Avery is not meeting new people at this time.” He leads me to the corner. “Please feel free to make use of our personal facilities. The doors are labeled with either a penis or a vulva, depending on which you may currently wish to own.”
I stifle a laugh. I noticed similar doors near the entry. I believed the vulva was an artistic version of the Eye of Horus, and the penis a dropping boulder with the shaft lines indicating the speed of the drop.
Is this a cult? Some sort of care facility? So much time has passed, I feel I can’t ask. “Thank you. I would like to wash my hands if we’re eating.”
Renato lets go of my hand and I choose the Eye of Horus door. Nothing strange here. Ivory tiles, two stalls, two sinks with a bubbling rock fountain between them. Floral scents drifting from the wall vents. The mirror shows my appearance has not changed in these hours of oddity. The man who called to confirm my interview assured me that I should dress as I normally do. “We want to see who you are. Do not put your best foot forward.” I should have known better. If grad school taught me anything, it would be to always pretend to be better than I am.
In the pristine toilet stall, I resolve to say something when I return to Renato. They have the wrong person, although that may be difficult to defend when I don’t know what the position is. My fear is probably paranoia. Nothing here is threatening, and even Renato’s hand-holding feels benign, like holding my grandmother’s hand. If I’ve been trapped in a cult, I doubt I’m easily swayed to sign up. After the age of six, I refused to even attend my mother’s church.
Renato is waiting outside the door to take my clean hand. Our table, still too far from the window for me to understand how it exists at this level, contains the same soup and bread that our friends David and Avery are eating on the other side of the room.
“I’m so honored to be dining with you.” Renato pulls a chair for me. It’s a meal of perfection, although it is simple. A woman plays a whiny violin near the window. David and Avery leave and two men take their place. Renato is right about the bread, which I know I will regret never eating again when I leave here. If I ever leave. My car is miles away and I’m not sure any interviewing has taken place. I picture myself at home, where I would coat the bread in butter and cram it into my mouth, sitting on the couch with my mother and the television on. Here, I must restrain myself. Renato’s table manners are impeccable.
After lunch, Renato wants my hand again. “Our bread is worth your long day here, I don’t doubt.”
“You’re right about that, Renato.” I am thrilled that we are walking toward the windows. The garden overwhelms, stepping onto the soft grass and cool breeze that seems to fall from above. Looking up, cliffs tower on all sides, higher than the limestone walls that enclose the garden. Renato’s business, cult, or home has been built into the cliff. Windows line the cragged wall of rock.
Across the lawn, two women walk in identical black dresses holding hands. The cult vibe feels real again. I should be home now. I promised my mother I would help her with her new chair this afternoon, and the interview hasn’t started. I’m too polite—I’ve been criticized for this before. I need to tell Renato to move along with his plans, whatever they are. It seems both frightening and intriguing to work for him. Maybe more frightening than intriguing. The memory of the bread wins and I opt for patience.
“Beth.” The way he says my name. The look of pleading in his eyes. Is this a proposal? I expect him to drop to one knee, but he takes both of my hands in his.
His grip intensifies. “I would be honored if you would pick up friends from the airport and bring them here.”
“This is the job?”
“Our friends that you will bring to me are no longer making large decisions. It is your duty to remember this and to drive without questioning, without commenting, without adding stress or complication.” His grip on my hands feels warmer as he speaks. “It is most important that you will be prompt, helpful, and quiet.”
Now I am almost positive Renato is a cult leader. I should leave. However, his warmth reminds me of bread again, and I want more bread. It shocks me that I am more swayed by lunch than the generous salary for the simple task of driving.
Renato has more to say. I can tell by the way he squeezes my hands. “I wish for you and our friends to be comfortable. I will provide you with a Mercedes. I only request that you do not hold another position of employment. You may only be needed to drive two or three times a week, and maybe not at all, but I would appreciate it if you could be reliable.”
I should say no. I really should.
I knew this would happen one day. Why did I believe I could take my mother to a doctor’s appointment and still do an airport pickup?
“Go on,” my mother says and the receptionist agrees with her. “They’ll take me home.”
I apologize, guilt piercing my stomach as I leave for the airport. No matter what my mother says, she wants me to stay with her for these examinations. Years ago, the two of us made our peace with my involvement in her disabled life; she took care of me when I was helpless, and I would do the same. I convinced her she is not a burden for me. Nothing can convince her that other people feel the same.
I dry my tears at the airport, though. I have worked for Renato for almost a year with no complaints from him or his friends. I have always followed directions. I’m on time, I’m quiet, and I do not add any stress or complication to the situation. After all, this job could not be more perfect for my situation. I have been home with my mother and I’ve pursued my dreams of being an artist most of the time. On days that I’ve worked, I’ve also received bread. The craving never stops.
Miriam’s flight is on time and she smiles when she sees my sign bearing her name. Like all of Renato’s friends, she says nothing other than a greeting and a “thank you” or two. This is a standard pickup; Miriam in the back seat, solemn and calm, and her luggage in the trunk. It is a long drive to Renato’s cliff. Many times, I have wondered how I have never driven in rain, snow, or heavy traffic. There has never been a late flight. No lost luggage. Renato’s cult, whatever its premise, seems to attract perfect conditions for travel.
The friends always welcome Renato’s embrace. Sometimes there are joyful tears. Miriam is the same as the others, her pace quickening at the sight of him until she is in his arms. I do not know what Renato says to his friends during the embrace because I am always placing luggage on carts with Janos. I move to the dining hall, sometimes with Janos, Renato, or sometimes alone where I am served whatever meal is appropriate. It is my favorite perk of the job.
Today I have begun to tear a roll open when I hear Renato say my name. He sits across from me. “It warms my heart to see you today.” His hand-holding no longer creeps me out. I put the roll down to hold his hand now for a long moment, during which he gazes at my face with friendly concern. “I am your friend. Your burdens are mine. I see you are troubled today.”
“I shouldn’t be. Everything’s fine. I misjudged my time this morning and had to leave my mother at her doctor’s appointment to get to the airport on time. She’s in a wheelchair.” My guilt has transferred to his face. “No, it’s alright. They will take her home. I just know she would rather I do it.”
“It would be my greatest honor to host your mother here in my home. To take care of her would bring me such happiness.”
“What?” I didn’t mean to say it, but at least he smiled at my expression of shock. “You want my mother to live here?” I shove bread into my mouth to stop my next thoughts from spilling out. I’ve seen no evidence of anyone harming anyone in this cult, or whatever it is, but I could never leave my mother here. Despite her happiness that I have this job with few and flexible hours, she has also expressed fear of what may be happening here.
“Your mother may visit tomorrow. She will enjoy lunch with us. She will decide for herself.”
I can’t argue with that.
My mother seems different here at our table for three, where she loves the bread as much as I predicted. Her love for Renato is unexpected, after the fearful statements she has made about him in the year I’ve worked for him. From her chair, she reached up to hug him as if he were familiar. I recall her as this open, loving, happy woman, but I can’t place it on a timeline. Her life to me has mostly seemed painful. As she eats and glances from Renato to the sunlit garden outside, I see no trace of her usual agony.
“I could stay here forever,” she says while my jaw drops.
Renato’s smile lifts his round cheeks to his eyes. “I am overjoyed to hear this. I have room for you here, my friend, and it increases my joy that you are Beth’s mother.”
“Mom, are you saying you want to live here? You want to move in here? Out of our house?”
“More than anything I’ve ever wanted.”
I wait for laughter. Some signal that this is a joke. Renato smiles and takes her hand and then mine. “Mom, we need to talk.”
“Is that the restroom?” She’s pointing to the doors across the floor and ignoring my request to talk. I can talk to her in the restroom, with any luck. My mother cannot join a cult. My mind won’t accept it.
“I’ll take you.” I push her chair but she stops me. She wants to walk instead. It is usually so painful, she will stay in the chair until we reach the stall door. She pushes the wrong door.
“Mom, that’s a penis.”
“I know. I’d rather have a penis.” She continues through the door and I follow, glancing back at Renato, shrugging at her gender error. He continues to smile.
Mom doesn’t want help in the bathroom. I wait at the double sinks by the urinal. “You can’t be serious about living here.”
“I’m staying. This is where I belong.” She flushes and washes her hands next to me. “Darling, this isn’t your decision.”
“Aren’t you in pain?” She hasn’t stood for this amount of time in years.
She shakes her head, smiling like Renato.
Someone with as many college degrees as me should be smarter. There is something in the bread. There can’t be any other explanation. Even the smell of it seduced my mother into the cult. I’m obsessed with it, too, although I have more resistance than my mother. She has lived with Renato for a week. My visits are welcome, but she is happy with or without me, it seems. Rarely is she restricted to her chair. My warnings from her doctor have been received with kindness, as Renato knows no other way to communicate.
“I’m not in pain,” Mom tells me when I visit. Alone to eat with her, I have asked what happens here at night, if she is being mistreated, if there are cult ceremonies. “We are happy here.” I see the happiness. It should be enough that she is happy, but I wonder about the bread when I’m at home. My need for it points to addiction.
I am saying goodbye to my mother when Renato invites me to his front office, where I was interviewed so long ago.
“No friends are arriving next week, Beth. I want very much to provide you with a vacation. Accept this cruise with all my love and gratitude.” He slides a packet of papers across the desk.
“But my mother?”
“We agree that you deserve this reward. Go with your mother’s love.”
I only think of the bread I’ll miss when I have left the gates. A week without it will be torture. A cruise would have thrilled me a year ago. All the years of caring for my mother had created a very small world for me. Dreaming of an escape to the ocean or the mountains seemed foolish.
Already, I need the bread. I foresee a week of separation from my addiction compounded with guilt for leaving my mother in a cult. Placing a call to Renato or my mother rarely works. There is no signal inside the cliff. The most I can do is text Janos, who is responsible for sending me airport information.
Janos replies, “Go with your mother’s blessing and Renato’s best wishes. All is well here.”
I wasn’t wrong. The cruise feels like a solitary experience. I am locked inside my unsatisfied addiction and guilt, my gaze always cast toward the shores of home. With each day, my insanity becomes more obvious. I can’t believe Renato is evil. Yet, he is in control. Without my dose of bread every few days, this world begins to look ordinary. I had forgotten the common world.
Driving all night after the cruise is fueled with desperation. I need the bread. I need to take my mother out of Renato’s control. I entertain calling the police, although I fear they wouldn’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe my story. Renato is a criminal genius, his gradual permeation of my life undetected for so long. I struggle with his motive. His “friends” arrive with an overnight bag of clothes and toiletries. Is money being transferred to Renato? My mother has no money other than disability payments. I see no reason for Renato to capture her.
The morning is stormy and I sit in traffic, unmoving, on the highway to Renato. My calls do not go through. After an hour of sitting still, I receive a text from Janos. “Road closed. Please visit tomorrow.”
“Dearest Beth, you must have questions.” Renato and I are in his office again. The doors to the rest of the building are closed, and Janos stands by them with his arms folded. “You have been without bread for a week. This was intentional. I apologize for the discomfort.”
“What is in the bread? What have you done to my mother?”
“It is because of your mother that I must share some knowledge with you.” He extends both hands across his desk and nods.
I shouldn’t take his hands. After all this time, it is a reflex. His hands are cooler today.
“You must know that nothing has gone wrong.”
I believe him. I should question him, but I can’t.
“You must know,” he repeats as the room darkens. The screens behind him flash bright and instead of nature and architecture photos, I see my mother. She’s alone in her wheelchair in our house, cooking, bathing, cleaning, and all the other mundane chores of daily life that I always helped her to achieve. Only I’m not in the photos. I see her last doctor’s appointment, where she sits alone. The screen freezes and I see an outline of my body, transparent, hovering over her in her chair.
The smell of bread and Renato’s hands heating in mine stop me from screaming.
“You do not understand yet.” Renato waits for me to focus on his face. The room darkens again.
“You’re trying to convince me I’m dead! I’m not dead!”
“No, you’re not dead, my friend.” The screens flash again. It’s a wrecked car, smoking, surrounded by firefighters, police officers, and paramedics. Again, I see my mother. She is on a stretcher, crying in anguish. How could I forget this wreck? I remember it now.
Just as I remember, the screen changes. Two firefighters and a paramedic stand over my young, limp, and bloody body. I’m silent. My mother is still screaming. I have always known this happened.
The next screen is my body, grown. A hospital bed. Mask over my face. Machines attached to tubes and wires. I feel the pinch of needles when I see this. I hear the purring and beeping of the machines near my head.
“How long have I been in a coma?”
“Time means nothing now. You have served as a magnificent chauffeur, as those in your state of consciousness do.”
“I’ve been bringing the dead to you?”
“Our friends are transforming. It is a comfortable transition, not measurable by the clocks on earth.”
“My mother’s dead?”
“Your mother is completing her transformation today. She is waiting for you. It was necessary to deprive you of the bread because you are still alive. You can only understand this process from the perspective of the reality you know. Now that you know, we can end your hunger and you may see your mother.”
It’s more than I can comprehend. “None of this is real.”
“Beth, this is as real as anything is. You feel my hands in yours. In life, death, or any place in between, you translate your environment into what you can understand.”
Janos appears with a platter of bread. More than ever, I need it. The wreck, I realize, was my last memory attached to time. The rest is imaginary, or like movies I might have seen—helping my mother, painting canvases I never seemed to finish or find twice, collecting college degrees that had no titles. As I chew, the normalcy returns. In Renato’s eyes, only compassion. The screens are dark again.
“Am I waking up from the coma?”
“You will do as you choose when you feel it is necessary. Now we have the honor of watching your mother’s transformation.”
I hold Renato’s hand. In the garden, my mother smiles at me, fading in a flash. Painless. Free.
Kimberly Moore is a writer and educator. Her short works are published in Typehouse Literary Magazine, MacroMicroCosm, and 34 Orchard. Her first novel is a finalist in the 2021 Launchpad Prose Competition and 2021 New Media Film Festival. She lives in a haunted house where she indulges the whims of cats.