The Drink

The billboard screamed at me every morning on my commute. “ChiaKombucha! Drink it with breakfast! ChiaKombucha! Drink it with lunch! ChiaKombucha! Drink it with dinner! Throw away the soda, supplement the water! ChiaKombucha! Say yes to you, even when life says no!”

And, of course, the grinning Aryan girl at the bottom right corner, arms folded, a dialogue bubble–with small font that was fatal to read if you were driving–spewing from her mouth:

“I was diagnosed with early onset rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors told me that this was my new life. I drank ChiaKombucha with every meal, and now I’m a MARATHON RUNNER!” Harder to see was the even tinier text that said: “Do not drink ChiaKombucha before swimming or in inclement weather,” and anyway, it never rained in Los Angeles.

Maybe the billboard took on a voice in my mind because I’d seen the ads. They’d begin with a generic musical stinger, which you might find under “world music” on the Garage Band soundboard. Cue a shot of a woman running, a subtle expression of normality that you rarely see in the real world: the woman with the “perfect jogger’s body. Perhaps she and the Aryan girl from the billboard were in the same Eat Pray Love book club. She also provided a gentle voiceover:

“I was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of fourteen. It was…” and here they cut to her, sitting in a sterile library, text revealing her name was “Sarah.” She was trying to refrain from becoming emotional, as the cameraman gave her tissues. “It was…very rough. Oh, thank you. You get used to saying no to plans, to friends, to family, to life, to yourself. And every time you try to say ‘I can do this,’ then, you know, your leukemia, it says ‘no…no, you can’t.’ And your doctors advise you to take it easy, even though you know that were meant for something better.” She then sniffed and shook her head, as a calm smile grew on her face.

“My friend told me about ChiaKombucha. You know, I was skeptical at first, but I’d just had a really bad hiking accident, and I was, I was kinda willing to try anything, you know? And with just one cup at every meal, within a month I began to bleed less. I began to get less dizzy. I started daring myself to do more. I, you’d never believe this–“ here it cut to her scaling a cliffside– “I’m a mountain climber now!”

It then cut to an Asian woman in a white lab coat, text revealing she was “Sarah’s Doctor.”

“I was baffled,” Sarah’s Doctor said.   “I’d never seen anything like it.”

From nowhere, she procured her own glass of ChiaKombucha, which was pale green, with a milky texture, and filled with seeds.

“Now I drink ChiaKombucha every day,” Sarah’s Doctor said, taking a sip.

“Even though ChiaKombucha isn’t FDA regulated,” said a narrator whose voice would have been right at home in a 90’s animated Disney home video advertisement, “it is doctor approved. Just listen to all the professionals raving about the life changing effects of ChiaKombucha!”

A montage followed of vaguely “medical-looking” people, clad in scrubs, hair nets, and masks around their necks, all raising a glass and declaring, “Say ‘yes’ to you!”

“Do not drink ChiaKombucha on rainy nights or before swimming. In such cases positive results cannot be guaranteed,” the narrator said, then added much more boldly: “ChiaKombucha! Say ‘yes’ to you!”

The magic of advertising had given the billboard a synaptic shortcut to the entirety of the television ad in my brain, as I drove to my work in Beverly Hills. ChiaKombucha had recently become a major fad in Los Angeles, on account of the fact that for one, everyone in LA was constantly looking at everyone else in LA and wondering if their best life was one health cleanse away. Plus, it hardly ever rained, so no one paid much mind to the warning labels. There was a rumor that some people had even moved to more arid parts of the nation just to have more nonstop access to the drink.

I pulled off of the 405 and onto Wilshire, flipping through my iPod to find anything catchy enough to purge the ChiaKombucha music from my brain before work.

Working in Beverly Hills was the sort of thing that you talked up to your Midwestern friends when they asked how you were doing and you didn’t have any actual progress on working in the film industry to report. The conversation would go, roughly, “Oh, I work at a video store in Beverly Hills, a lot of rich people and celebrities visit!”

“Y’all ever see Steven Spielberg?”

“Well, no, but Stephen Merchant was there once.”

“Who?”

“Oh, uh, he was in Extras… really funny British actor.” At this point I’d pause and add: “Sometimes Christopher Nolan comes too.”

Then said Midwest friend would explain to me how either The Prestige or Interstellar was their favorite movie. Sometimes to mess with them I’d ask if they’d seen Insomnia. To be fair, neither had I. But at least, you know, I’d heard of it. I’ve been meaning to watch it. It was on my Netflix cue, before it expired. I’ll get around to it.

This was especially problematic given the fact that I did indeed work at an enormous video store, recently built on the corner of Rodeo and Wilshire, after the Boutique market had fallen on, surprisingly, hard times. The store itself, which was called “Hubbard’s,” was enormous, with a large showroom floor, and a mezzanine level that featured soundtracks and listening booths.   The conceit of the shop was combining high-end settings such as the Blaclight Theater in Hollywood with the size and scope of Paramecium Records, which had recently moved from Hollywood to Downtown.

“Got any plans for the holiday weekend?” my friend Donnie said to me as we stocked DVDs on the floor.

“I’m going to visit my grandparents’ place in Calabasas.”

Donnie gave me a look, an incredulous grin.

“You have grandparents in Calabasas? Are they like super rich?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I mean, not like Kardashian rich, but, like, middle of the line Calabasas rich.”

“So pretty rich,” Donnie said.

“They’ve got a nice ranch house,” I said, “and it’s in this really nice neighborhood. Lots of mansions. Great place to go Trick or Treating.”

“Yeah, yeah, Trick or Treating would be fun out there. Lots of Christmas lights now, I’d imagine.”

“Looks horrible in the sun, looks like downtown Branson at night,” I said.

“Branson? I don’t understand.”

“Oh, uh, Branson, Missouri. The Vegas of the Midwest. Looks kind of like Pleasure Island, but with more Hardee’s.”

“That’s right, I know Branson,” Donnie said. “I grew up near Springfield. Just didn’t have the context.”

“My little sister’s coming too,” I said.

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She’s a lot younger than me, so I don’t have as many stories.”

“What’s her name?”

“Amber. She’s fifteen.”

“So like, what, ten years younger?”

“Nine years, yeah. We fought a lot when I was younger, but she’s pretty cool now. My Mom always gets me involved when there’s a conflict because Amber thinks I’m a lot cooler than either of our parents, so, you know, she listens to me.”

“Yeah, my brother was always like that,” Donnie said. “I think that’s why I care too much. Like when we’re working on the floor and everything. I’ve always felt pressure to be the good example.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, and for some reason the ChiaKombucha jingle ran through my head again.

“You hear about this energy drink?” I said. “ChiaKombucha?”

“No,” Donnie said. “Wait, yeah, I have, don’t tell me–it’s that homeopathic thing, right? Miracle fruit?”

“Basically,” I said. “I can’t get the jingle out of my head.”

“I read this study saying people your age are especially susceptible to marketing,” said Donnie, who was only about six years older than me.

“Yeah, except I’m pretty sure my generation’s the one trying to die younger, instead of desperately clinging onto what life we have left.”

“I dunno,” Donnie said. “Feel like, you gotta respect the life you have, and then, like, be ready to let it go.”

“Gonna give a TED talk on that?” I said.

“Screw you,” Donnie said, laughing. “And hey, happy holidays.”

“Yeah, happy holidays, man.” I said.

>>>

For those who have experienced LA in the winter, you know within the same day it can either be 78 degrees or 54 degrees, and both feel much more extreme than they actually are. I laughed as I pulled up to where Amber was waiting by the Arrivals gate at LAX, shivering in shorts and a tank top.

“Do you have any warm clothes with you?”

“I have one sweater and one pair of capris,” she said, a little embarrassed.

“I got some overtime this week,” I said, “I’ll buy you some warm clothes before we get to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

“Thanks,” she said with a smile, as I helped her with her luggage.

“How’s school?” I said.

“Good, other than Mom and Dad constantly asking if I’ve met any boys. I have, and they’re all either grass-fed bros or anime fans.”

“Careful, Mighty Number Nine lost a whole audience over an insult to anime fans.”

“What’s that?”

“A failed product. But back to school: What’s the best thing about it?”

“I like my teachers,” she said. “I like Miss Epstein, our health teacher. She actually gives a crap about the class and goes into great detail about what wellness and health are.”

“You’re in LA now, you can say ‘shit.’ I won’t tell Mom and Dad,” I said.

“Sure that’s wise?” Amber said. “We’re about to be spending a weekend with the G’s.”

“Oh, darn,” I said, in a Minnesotan accent. “Oh lands sakes, no cursing in Calabasas unless someone runs a four way stop!”

We laughed as we pulled away from the gate.

“But you like your health class? That’s so unusual,” I said.

“I don’t know, I guess I found it inspiring. So many people back home either live very unhealthy lives, or are about health only in terms of how it can make you look, or what it can get you. But I’d really like to feel better.”

“That’s awesome,” I said. “Honestly I look forward to the day I can be intentional about health. Right now I just count all my running around at work as exercise.”

“I count eating healthy food as exercise,” Amber said with a laugh.

We chatted more as we drove to pick up a beanie and some other cold weather wear. Grandma and Grandpa refused to turn on the heat in their house, and for that reason it was always cold as ice. Best to be prepared, I explained.

<<<

Dinner was ready by the time we arrived. Grandma Westinghouse was setting the table, and Grandpa was off in the study, studying a deposition. Law wasn’t my thing, but Grandpa’s understanding of the legalities of the film industry was a nice boon out here.

“They’re all sharks,” Grandpa had said one time, “beasts on the inside, these other lawyers. And you have to keep the beast within you at bay, even as you fight the beast they’ve given in to. At the end of day, it’s about how much of the board you see, and how quickly you can put that knowledge into practice.”

“Anything I can help you with, Grandma?” Amber said.

“Yes,” Grandma said, “actually I have a very special task for you, dear. Would you mind fetching the ChiaKombucha?”

I shot Grandma a look. “Not you too,” I said.

“Oh, come on, now, that isn’t fair,” Grandma said. “You really must try it!”

We were pulling up our chairs at this moment, and while it was a familiar moment, even a normally warm moment–we joined hands and said grace, Grandpa cooed an “ah-men” at the end in that way that made you feel warm and safe and fuzzy–I felt an sense of dread.

It centered on the drink that was being poured at the table.

Don’t drink the ChiaKombucha, my mind’s voice, that part of the brain we attribute to conscience and intuition, said with a horrific firmness.

Amber tilted the bottle to pour it into my cup.

“Hey, this stuff’s expensive,” I said, “and I’m actually allergic to it. Mind pouring me a Diet Coke instead?”

“That stuff’ll kill you,” Grandpa said.

“Water, then,” I said nervously.

We sat down, our meal before us, a roast chicken that Grandma had prepared.

“Amber, dear, how do you like it?”

“Oh, this chicken is delicious, Grandma!”

“That’s nice,” Grandma said, looking impatient, “but how is the ChiaKombucha? Your mom told us you’ve gotten to be quite the health guru!”

“Oh,” Amber said, “I, uh, yeah, I’m not so much into homeopathic remedies.”

“This isn’t homeopathic, that’s the great thing,” Grandpa said. “This doctor I go to church with drinks it every night. He says it cured his nephew’s tonsillitis.”

“Good for him,” I said with an ambiguity that I hope they didn’t attribute correctly as sassiness.

“So give it a try,” Grandpa said.

“You sure that’s wise?” I said. “I hear it’s going to rain tonight, and there’s some sort of warning about having it on a rainy night.”

“Limits liability,” Grandpa said. “Besides, it never rains out here. It’s only if you step into the rain. My understanding is you get a bit of a rash, maybe some excitability.”

“Excitability?” I said. “Like, it affects your mood?”

“Harmless.” Grandpa said. “Give it a try!”

“Only if you want,” I said quietly to Amber.

Amber looked at me, shrugged, and took a sip.

She winced.

“It’s a little milky,” she said.

“You have to get used to it, for sure,” Grandma said. “But trust me, it really grows on you! It’s like sushi.”

It was nothing like sushi. Sushi was FDA regulated.

“Hey, uh, so, what’s been new in you guys’ lives?” I asked, desperately wanting to hear of anything other than the drink.

“Wonderful–heavenly,” Grandpa said, putting his hand on Grandma’s. “We’ve been hiking every day, even take our bikes out for a spin every now and then.”

“That’s awesome,” I said, happy that they were staying active.

“For a while we were worried our age would keep us from doing what we wanted to do,” Grandma said. “You know, when you get to be this age, there’s always a risk that each fall will make your life exponentially harder.”

“Then a friend from church mentioned ChiaKombucha at golf one day,” Grandpa added. “Now we’re living our seventies the way we should have lived our teens.”

I took out my phone.

“You young people,” Grandma said, “always on your devices. What, does it do something Grandma doesn’t?”

I texted Amber:

My god, it’s like a walking commercial.

With all the ribbing I was getting, though, Amber was too nervous to check her phone.

“I’m getting pretty tired,” I said. “Will I be sleeping in the living room?”

“Oh, um,” Grandma said, shooting Grandpa a look. “Actually, do you mind sharing a room with your sister?”

I was quiet a moment, confused.

Finally: “Why?” I said.

“We’ll be having cleaners come in tomorrow, to shampoo the floor, all of that. You can sleep in if you’re in a room. There’s two twin beds, so it won’t be too awkward.”

“All right,” I said, looking at Amber. “If you’re fine with that.”

“Sure,” Amber said, shrugging, trying another sip of the drink.

>>>

I woke up in the middle of the night to a palpable chill. There’s a coldness you can wrap yourself in sheets to escape and then there is a coldness that seems to sneak in under your sheets and crawl into your clothes, like some shapeless, evil force that wants to remind you that you’re helpless. I hated this feeling now because it reminded me of the nightmares I would have as a child, where I would wake up, in what should be the safety of my room, but I could feel a coldness in the corner, watching, staring.

The problem with feeling that as an adult was that I had to take it much more seriously now.

I looked at Amber’s bed, and saw that she was awake, staring at the door, too terrified to say anything.

I could hear snarling, like a restless dog, coming distantly from the other end of the house. It was a ranch, but one that was quite large, with different sets of hallways around a central living room and dining room.

Joints ticklish with fear, I slowly crawled off of the bed and joined Amber in hers.

What is that noise? She whispered.

I don’t know, I whispered back, but let’s pretend we don’t notice it, and hope it goes away. Follow my lead, but don’t look out from the blanket.

Amber had a large, thin, pink blanket that she used to cover her bed. Fortunately it was big enough to throw over us, like a little tent. We both sat upright and cross-legged underneath it, crouching to keep a low silhouette. Despite being occupied by two bodies, the thin blanket did nothing to block out the cold, creeping air.

And then we heard the snarls growing, steps coming towards us.

I quietly put my hand over Amber’s mouth.

Swishing, almost like the trot of paws, came over the hardwood floor. But unlike the paws of a dog, there was palpable weight to the steps.

I heard a giggle come from the direction of the snarls.

Grandma.

I knew now that whatever was happening, we needed to get out of there. But I also knew we’d have to wait for the best moment.

I could hear Grandma and Grandpa whispering back and forth, panting as they did so. I could tell they thought we didn’t know they were there. They were going to try to sneak up on us.

Amber looked at me, her eyes screaming.

I could make out their forms through the sheerness of the blanket. They were hunched, tall, and hairy, but with the brightness of the moon outside the window, even through the parting clouds, I couldn’t make out much more.

I waited, hoping they would simply sniff our sheets and leave.

I realized, then, that they were both standing at the foot of the bed, ready to pounce.

With a loud growl, Grandma tore the blanket from us.

“NOW!” I shouted, not taking a second more to see what fate had befallen my grandparents. With the strength only adrenaline can give, I yanked my sister’s hand and charged out of the room, into the darkness of the hallway, through the living room, and after a panicked fumble with the front door, tumbled onto the front lawn, running until we reached the center of my grandparents’ cul-de-sac.

I felt making a scene was our best friend here.

“Help!” I shouted. “Something is wrong with Grandma and Grandpa!”

I began hitting cars as loud as I could. The ground was shining and slippery–it must have rained earlier. With some relief I saw people stirring in their houses, and began to make my way towards them, still gripping Amber’s arm like a vice.

“What do you think…what was that? Why were Grandma and Grandpa all hairy?” Amber said, in a panic beyond tears. “What happened to them?”

I felt raindrops hit my arm.

I felt Amber wrench her arm out of mine.

The rain picked up, and I wished I wasn’t sure of what it brought with it.

Before my eyes, my sister’s eyes turned yellow and feral, thick, mangy hair grew out of her arms and hands, covering her face, which took on a horrid snoutlike appearance, wrinkled and angry. She began to snarl as her teeth grew longer and sharper, and her ears traveled to form two triangles atop her head. Her feet began to curve like a dog’s hind legs.

I dropped to the ground and grabbed onto her hind leg for all it was worth as she began to run away.

With a howl, she turned and began clawing at my arm. Whether adrenaline or shock, I watched without feeling as my flesh was clawed off of my arm, little by little. I was determined not to let go, but it was raining so heavily that my fingers were too wet to have any real grip, and she yanked free, howling and yelping as she ran into the woods.

I stood up, only to slip and fall back on the wet pavement, skinning my knee.

Clumsily I stood up again, and charged after her, barging through brush to find a large McMansion at the top of the hill beyond, lights on, the bass of music emanating from within. Some hope returned, I ran as fast as I could, even as I nursed my bleeding arm.

The backside of the mansion was mostly glass, a sunroom sitting room, a golden glow in the midst of the dark blue void of the rainy night. I stumbled into the party, drenched and in pain, trying to flag down the partygoers.

A man in a suit stood near the windows, glass in hand, noticed me and motioned to the DJ, who pulled the arm off of the record that was blasting the music.

“Guys, guys,” the DJ said through his mic as he pointed at me, “who the hell is this?”

“Please help,” I gasped, “my sister, something’s wrong with her, she ran this way…”

“Young man,” the suited man in the corner said, in a refined voice that almost sounded British, “nothing to worry about, your sister will be fine.”

“She had ChiaKombucha and got into the rain.”

“Ah,” the suited man said, taking a sip of his own drink, and I noticed with a mounting dread that this too was not wine, but a pale green cocktail of some kind. “Some of us live for that sort of thrill, you know.”

I scanned the room.

They were all drinking the ChiaKombucha.

A crack of thunder, and the DJ set the needle back down, stereos blasting a combination of pipe organ and screamo, as the partygoers laughed and drank, their faces growing snouts and their eyes becoming reflective of the lights.

The suited man himself transformed, his suit becoming too tight for his emaciated, beastly frame. Still he smiled and sipped, or perhaps the smile was just an illusion brought upon by his snout.

The partygoers who were less accustomed to the drink began to pounce upon each other, ripping each other’s throats out, covering the sunroom walls in blood.

Still, no one screamed, only laughter, raucous and rapturous laughter.

I heard the DJ snarl as he climbed over the booth and prepared to pounce. Some adrenaline left within me, I stumbled under him as he leapt. I prepared to defend myself, but another engorged partygoer quickly picked a fight with him, and I watched in horror as the two began to eat each other alive.

The suited man had quite the chuckle at this, and raised a glass towards me, his face now completely lupine.

“A toast!” he shouted, and those who were still somewhat lucid howled back with a “here here!”

Glass held in the air, as other partygoers began their predatory dance of death, the suited man shouted: “To ChiaKombucha! To saying yes to the beast within! All hail the drink! All hail ChiaKombucha!”

“All hail ChiaKombucha!” the partiers screamed.

They downed their glasses to final gulp, and tossed them aside, filling the room with a sound like hail, as the glasses shattered. They all howled, releasing themselves to the beast within, and they were upon each other, each equal parts predator and prey.

Only the suited man remained, and he eyed me with great mirth.

“Sorry about your sister,” he said cheerily, “but worry not, I’m sure she’ll turn up!”

He tore his suit to reveal a hairy chest, with ribs sticking out, and howled with glee.

<<<

“How was your weekend?” Donnie asked, as we stocked DVDs the next way.

I winced a bit, as I shelved An American Werewolf in London.

“Uh,” I said, “my sister went missing. Reacted poorly to the Chia…to that drink. Tore up my arm pretty bad.” I held up my cast.

“You call the police about it?” Donnie said.

“Oh, definitely. They’re looking.”

“What are you doing here, then?” he said.

“Well, I have to work. What else was I going to do?”
“Fair enough,” Donnie said.

We continued stocking for a while in silence.

Donnie cleared his throat.

“So, uh, do those side effects always happen?”

“Just when it rains,” I said. “But never drink the stuff. It, you wouldn’t believe it, something about the drink, it turns people into giant angry dogs, like werewolves almost, but more lucid, less predictable. I saw my sister transform before my eyes, become something less human, soulless almost. All she wanted was blood, and what else I don’t know, but it took her away from me. And my grandparents too.” I laughed, looking for anything to relieve the horror of all I had seen in the past day. “Can you even believe that?”

“Honestly, Sam,” Donnie said, not missing a beat, “nothing really surprises me anymore.”

And with that, the conversation was over.

+++

Samuel Cullado
24 December 2016

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