Update: Though the National Novel Writing Challenge is complete, the story is not. I’m still writing on Nexus. I am attempting to take it to its natural ending and am doing some scene building. Editing will begin when I’m done, but besides many self-edits, beta readers and a group edit, I’m not sure Nexus is going to have the professional treatment in the time frame I would like. — C.H.
A short story: Benefits
Dirty office chairs, those plastic jobs with a red cushion seat and back spotted with some kind of black goop set in front of each station. Each station was partioned from every other station and they were all constructed of fake blonde pine, a piece of plexi-glass on the side of each partition.
Applicants and interviewers could view each other being interviewed and interviewing, but there was a reasonable amount of privacy.
A new schedule had been posted on the front door of office. Tuesdays were now the only interview days. Thursdays were call back days. If you were called back you would show up early Friday morning.
Ellen had shown up on Monday and though she read the sign on the office door, she pushed through it and went to one of the empty stations.
Five feet away from the partitions were four rows of chairs, with six chairs in each row. There were only three people sitting there. Two women and a man. One woman had dark glasses on. The others were blank-eyed. Blank faced people, as if they had done this several times already.
A large dark-skinned woman sat behind the partition, staring at empty space. A spot separating one area from another. The defining line that said she was the interviewer and whoever sat on the other side was interviewee.
Ellen sat in the interviewee chair, waited for the woman to speak, but the woman only glanced at her briefly, then looked back at the spot. “Can I help you?” she asked without looking at her.
“I’ve come for benefits,” she said. “I would like to apply now.”
“Name?” The woman leaned back in her own chair, reached a hand out and pulled a computer monitor into view. She scooted away from the desk and pulled out a keyboard, setting it on to her work area.
“Have you been here before Ellen?”
“I was here last week, but decided not to apply.”
“I see.” The woman glanced at her again, briefly, but returned her eyes to the screen. “Birthdate please.”
“Have you already filled out an application Ellen?”
“No, I was hoping to get that done today.”
“You’re aware once you fill out the application and are scanned the company is authorized to call or not call. You are forfeiting all rights?”
Ellen looked down at her hands, bit her bottom lip and considered walking out. “I don’t want to do this. But I have run out of options. My grandson…”
The interviewer put her large dark hands on each side of the keyboard and leaned over. “Ellen, you don’t have to do this. It’s a choice. No one is going to force you. Once you’re scanned that choice no longer exists. You’ll be in the system.”
She had heard about some of the things they did to the older women, but chose to ignore it. Most people who received benefits would not talk about their experience. A neighbor had once come home with a bag full of fresh fruit, vegetables, a whole chicken. She had a gas card that lasted a month. Despite the benefits, she had committed suicide two weeks later. Hadn’t even used the full card.
She nodded, glanced over her shoulder at the three waiting in the seats behind them. “They did it, didn’t they?”
The dark woman threw a look in that direction, gave a slight nod, but revealed nothing verbally. “I cannot give out that kind of information. Each case is confidential.”
“How long would it be before I know? I mean can I get the benefits immediately, or do I have to wait for… you know.”
“You do not receive benefits until you are chosen. Applications are input once a week. If you are chosen, you will be interviewed. If the interview goes well, then you’ll receive benefits and within the week can expect to attend your session.”
The woman’s large, dark eyes carried a caution. There was a slight jerk to her head as she held the scanner in front of her.
“It would be a week before we received anything?”
The woman nodded. “Yes, a week. If the interview goes well.”
“My grandson. He’s only eleven. His mother left him with me and it’s been hard…”
She told herself she would not break down. She would continue to hold on to this stoic facade, because once even a crack showed in the structure, there was a risk in the whole thing coming down.
A whole week they would have to wait. They had run out of flour three days ago. She had done some scavenging, but with so many hungry these days, there wasn’t much to be had. Still, she knew that if she passed the interview there would be that. They would have groceries for a month.
She felt her teeth grind together, but held out her hand. “Do it,” she said. A moment later, the beep told her she was in the system.
“Is that it?”
The dark woman nodded, almost sadly. “That’s it Ellen. Someone will be calling you next week, if you are chosen.”
Smiling, she pushed through the door on her way out of the benefit office, saw the three reflections of the people still waiting, pushed the sight from her mind and thought about the chicken dinner they would have next week.