Making Ends Meet

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Image Credit: Lamp in a dark room

The online ad hovered somewhere just between “free babysitting” and “get rich working from home” on the sketchy-meter, but I was sneaking up on my fourteenth month of unemployment. So, recalling the lessons of my short stint in law school, I pondered the landmark case of Beggar v. Chooser and scribbled down the address on a Post-it. Surprisingly, the job market for an almost-lawyer with a BA in philosophy wasn’t thriving, so I was planning my interview outfit before my pen had stopped moving. The ad was vague and read like a flyer for the Boy Scouts. Applicants should be “dependable, organized, conscientious and punctual.” The sketchy factor came from the ad’s insistence on confidentiality and the fact that applicants must “apply in person and be willing to start immediately.” Considering myself to be a fairly boy-scoutish sort, and certainly available to start right away, I grabbed my coat and headed out.

It wasn’t far, less than four blocks from my door in fact. The place was located in a small office complex tucked between a Wal-Mart and a self-storage facility. It seemed that the developer who built the offices had kept costs down by hiring a colorblind architect who could draw nothing but uniform cubes. On the bright side, it was a tidy, efficient-looking place that did something to lessen my fear that I was headed off to have my organs harvested.

Before heading in, I checked my hair in the window of the adjacent unit, made sure everything that should be was buttoned and zipped. A pleasant little tone sounded when the door opened and I found myself in a tiny beige room dominated by a big glass security window. Behind the window sat a business-like young woman who quickly swiveled away from her keyboard to scrutinize me.

She pressed a button on the desk and the intercom next to the window crackled to life. “May I help you?” she asked.

“Yes, I saw your online ad. I’m here to apply for your ‘clerk’ position.”

She gave me a shallow nod of acknowledgement and swiveled back to her desk to rummage in a drawer. She produced a clipboard and, turning back toward the window, passed the paperwork to me through a mechanical metal drawer that protruded through the wall.

There was no place to sit down, so I hovered in front of the window trying to balance the clipboard on the little lip of a counter. The questions ranged from your standard, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” to your considerably less standard, “Explain your view on higher powers and providence in general.”

I hesitated, checked with my ragtag band of scruples, and quickly decided that I didn’t mind working for a passably benign cult if it meant that I could stop eating ramen for every meal and making coffee filters from old paper towels. I shrugged and answered somewhere on the spectrum between nonjudgmental atheist and skeptical agnostic. I passed the clipboard back to the young woman and continued standing awkwardly in the tiny beige room.

“Just a moment,” she said through the intercom then rose and carried the clipboard off to the right of the window and out of my field of view.

She returned after a few minutes, sans clipboard, and spoke into the intercom:

“I assume you can start today?”

I nodded, biting back on a hundred questions, each of which seemed both perfectly reasonable and quite capable of blowing the only real job prospect I’d had in months.

“You’ll be working as an independent contractor,” she said. “You’ll be paid by check at the end of each shift. Shifts may last up to, but not exceed, eight hours a day. There are no scheduled breaks. You may come and go as you please, but productivity is a factor in your continued employment agreement. I’ll have a 1040 W-9 for you to fill out when you leave today. Do you agree to these terms?”

“Yes,” I said. I felt ridiculous, but I was just too excited about the prospect of actually being employed to say much else.

The metal drawer opened with a clank. Inside was one silver key.

“The key opens both the outer door and the door to the production room. You’ll find your 1040 W-9 in the drawer with your first check when you leave.”

“Do I need to clock in or out?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, and turned her attention back to her work.

I picked up the key and thanked the young woman, but I had the impression that the intercom was no longer on. I eyed the key then pivoted to look for the production room door. I would have sworn that the front entrance had been the only way in or out of the room, but there it was, an unremarkable beige door with a silver handle and silver deadbolt.

Finding the door locked, I fitted the key, turned it, and walked into the production room.

My “cult” guess was still in the lead, but “about to have my organs harvested,” was really starting to close the gap again. The room was black, all of it, save for a pale strip of illuminated tiles set into the ceiling. The dim lighting ran parallel to some sort of conveyor belt that spanned the length of the room. It didn’t look like any machinery I had ever seen before. The belt was segmented, made from square sections of some kind of weathered-looking wood, held into place by a jointed framework of dark wrought iron.

In front of the belt was a grey metal stool and a low table with a bucket on it. I was just trading my “I wonder what’s in the bucket?” question for the more reasonable “What am I still doing here?” question when an intercom I hadn’t noticed next to the door buzzed to life. I jumped and, yes, maybe peed a little, but I didn’t shriek or fall down and I counted that as a win.

“Please have a seat,” said a deep voice that, by the sound of it, probably measured distances mostly in Marlboro miles.

To my surprise, I actually found myself doing as he asked. In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. I spared a brave look into the bucket as I lowered myself onto the stool. It held the sheen of some dark liquid but I couldn’t tell what it was. My five-year plan hadn’t really involved any jobs requiring buckets of unidentifiable dark liquids, so I wasn’t really prepared to make any guesses.

“There’s an electronic pedal just in front of your right foot,” said the voice. “Press it slowly to move the belt. When you see a box in front of you, stop the belt and I’ll give you further instructions.”

“Sounds good,” I said, doing my best to at least play the part of “normal first day at a normal job.” Hearing my own cheerful voice actually did make me feel a bit better about the situation. Something about filling up that creepy room with my words gave me a sense of power, ownership.

I pressed the pedal and the belt clacked and creaked into motion. As it did a continuous line of small identical boxes emerged from a hole in the wall to my left. In front of each small black box was a square of sable cloth and a coil of copper wire.

I stopped the belt when the first box was in front of me and waited for more instructions from my phlegmy employer.

“Remove the contents of the box and place it in the center of the cloth,” he said.

I did so. There was a single shriveled strawberry and a few old bottle caps.

“You will be gathering the cloth around the items and holding it fast with the wire, but before you do that you need to add something of your own,” said the voice.

Here we go , I thought. Here comes the organ harvesting.

“You must whisper a secret you’ve never told another living soul into the cloth before you seal it.”

At that, I actually looked over my shoulder at the intercom. I bit back a, “You’re kidding, right?” and settled for a snort. There was a pause and then the voice added in a low rumble, “Do this in earnest, boy. I’ll know the difference.”

The room felt a few degrees colder. I shuddered. “I will,” I said weakly. I felt an odd, external sort of pressure coaxing the words from me. I tried to shake if it off, and turned my attention back to the little cloth in my hands. It was actually sorta hard to think of some hidden thing I had never told another person, but I managed it.

“I stole $10 from my mother’s purse after she wouldn’t let me go to Tyler Triplett’s birthday party,” I whispered. Then, I gathered the cloth into a small pouch and wound the wire into a closure.

“Good,” said the voice. “Now, dip the cloth into the bucket and place it back in the box. Continue in this fashion until you end your shift. Lock the doors behind you as you leave.”

I dipped the cloth in the bucket. I still couldn’t tell what was in there. Tea maybe or just dirty water. It was too thin to be any of the grosser options I could come up with. I returned the dripping little bag back into the box and pressed the pedal just enough to bring the next section of wood in front of me.

This time, there was a half-smashed pocket watch and a couple of those goldfish crackers. I gathered them into the cloth, whispered, “I used to masturbate to JC Penney catalogs,” into the bundle, then sealed, dipped, and returned it before moving on to the next one.

I was surprised how quickly I could come up with unique secrets. I never would have guessed I had so many secrets, but they flowed out of me faster and faster even as my speed increased with the repetitive little gestures of the work. It was actually kind of fun. Cathartic.

When I came to a box containing a little finger, my mood changed. It was a pale, bloodless little thing that weighed nothing at all. It looked like it might have belonged to a child. With it, was a scrap of denim and three perfect little tiny teeth.

My stomach twisted a bit and I swallowed back hard on my impulse to wretch. I looked at the little bits of another human being laid out on the tiny black cloth in front of me and felt my initial shock and surprise galvanize into something cold and numb. If possible, the emptiness was even worse than the horror that was trying to gain some sort of footing in my disparate thoughts.

I stood up, turned from the belt and walked to the door. Some part of my brain warned me about angering whoever was behind this place, but my body was on autopilot. It registered that the situation had become unacceptable and was, consequently, removing me from it. Just as simple as that.

I walked back into the miniature lobby, which seemed absurdly bright after the production room, and turned to walk out the front door. But, something stopped me. A shape in my peripheral vision. I turned toward it. There, in the metal drawer that jutted from the wall beneath the security window, was the little rectangle of a check.

I picked it up. It had my name on it. And, next to my name, a number: $1,000. The memo line read: Two Hours.

I blinked at the little slip of paper for a moment and felt something strange. A smile was stretching my face. I looked from the check back to the door of the production room. I thought of the little finger. The teeth. Lots of industries use cadavers, I thought to myself. Are medical students evil? Are dentists dangerous? I had jumped to an unfair conclusion. Whatever this business is, I reasoned that it must be regulated by somebody.

I folded the check and placed it in my wallet. Then, I retrieved the 1040 W-9 from the drawer and filled in my information. I sent the drawer back through the wall with a clank and turned and locked the production room door with my little silver key.

I had to unlock the front door to exit. I did so and began to step out onto the sidewalk when I felt eyes on my back. I turned to see the young woman standing on the other side of the window. She stood perfectly motionless, watching me with wide eyes. Directly behind her was a man. He was head and shoulders taller than she, but rail-thin. He looked to be wearing an ill-fitted suit of some odd, ropey material that streamed down from his skeletal frame. His face was a featureless gray mask.

Probably one of those sterile suits for working with sensitive equipment, I figured. I waved at them both and mouthed, “See you tomorrow.” The man and woman waved in eerily perfect unison. I nodded cheerfully, shut and locked the front entrance, and headed off to pay my rent and buy a steak.

end article

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Jarod Anderson

About Jarod Anderson

Formerly, Jarod taught college English. Currently, he works at a foundation that raises money for a wide range of college scholarships. He writes about education by day and ghosts, monsters, and madmen by night. It’s a good arrangement. Jarod’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, The Colored Lens, and elsewhere.