No cubby differed. Not mine, not Finn’s, not Em’s, not even Lynchman’s, a three ranker. It didn’t matter what you eventually became, everyone in the company got the same bad deal: four blank walls, a bed, and a commode that barely held anything.
Occasionally, we swapped cubbies. Me with upstairs, Em moving four doors down, those one rankers just over the atrium playing switcheroo with the boys in C Wing. No one seemed to notice. We only ever worked for what, at minimum, a few hours a day and so we’d leave for the shift from one cubby and return to another, pretending, fooling ourselves, trying to get a new perspective on things.
But nothing changed: I worked, I ate, I slept, I folded and unfolded my uniform, and I spent a few nights a week inundated in silence. The deep thoughts came then. A longing. There had to be more than this, other ways to go.
They weren’t the greatest days lived, but the money I was saving by scrubbing ChemCo’s rocks — so to speak — made it worth it. For now. Once I had enough saved up, it was Philly…
Or maybe Atlantic City, America’s favorite playground.
Either way, that was my plan, always had been: somewhere else or bust.
But then we were all issued roommates.
“Sorry, Jess,” Lynchman said, setting my roommate up in the corner of my cubby, opposite the commode. She got a thermal blanket — its colorful honey-combed pattern really messed with my eyes — and brought a book with her. “Everyone’s buddying up.”
“Company policy.” Frowning, Lynchman updated his checksheet and left.
From my bed, I took in my new space-sharer. She was a woman of indeterminate age, of unadorned clothes. With skin as colorless as the wall she sat against and mahogany curls, she did not give off a ChemCo vibe. Least not in the scrubbing department. Maybe HR, maybe phones. I’m sure I’ve seen her before, though.
When I introduced myself she half-looked up from her book and said, “Your shift starts in four hours, twenty-three minutes, and seventeen seconds. Inventory duty. You will return here at five o’clock for check-in.”
I tried again. “Er, thanks. Everyone calls me Jess. You?”
She didn’t even hesistate: “Your shift starts in — ”
“You already told me.”
I learned my lesson after two more attempts and napped until it was time to go.
Em is gone.
Not dead, just terminated. As in, we no longer want you. Might as well have been the Final Leap, the Last Gasp, the Concluding Call. It hurt all the same. Em thought she’d spend the night in Finn’s cubby, and his roommate would have nothing of it, alerting every three ranker up before she could even make it around the corner.
These roommates meant business, that I knew. It’s really silly that everyone else keeps calling them that. More like little siblings, security cams.
I wondered where Em would go. Suddenly, I realized I knew nothing about her. Not even her favorite dish from the cafeteria. How sad.
“Home or bust?” I asked accidentally.
Jane, that’s what I named her, reacted immediately, squalling the same update about my next shift. Her voice never fluctuated, and I had trouble falling asleep, courtesy of her; I knew she was awake, always awake, watching me, making sure I was where I was supposed to be. Heaven forbid I needed to pee or get something to drink and didn’t ask first.
I did have to pee, but I held it.
There’s a period right after my shift ends and a few hours before I go to sleep that Jane will actually talk to me.
“I still can’t believe Em is gone,” I said. “They could’ve issued a warning first or something.”
Lacking judiciousness, Jane said, “Everyone is supposed to return to their cubbies after work. It’s part of being employed here. And for everyone’s safety.” Still, there was a mocking, vicious undertone in her voice that put me on edge.
“Well, it’s not fair.” I couldn’t hide my whininess. “ChemCo didn’t care before when we switched rooms.”
“Actually, it did. And now it’s done something about it.”
“Do you want to file a complaint or something?” Jane asked. “About Em? Us?”
“No, that’s not it.” I grabbed a pillow and hugged it. “I’m just feeling really… down. Everything’s changed, changing. My plan’s always been to save up enough to get my own place and — ”
“You’re still doing that.”
“For now. But what happens when I go directly to the cafeteria after my shift or I get sidetracked or whatever? What then?”
Jane said nothing, returning to her book.
I’m behind glass, in a tube, in a tube in a room, in a glass tube in a room that’s dark save for a worktable. Seated at the table was my roommate Jane — and a man. They were talking, talking about me.
“I told you that hearts were impractical,” Jane said. Though muffled, her voice no longer came across lifeless. She was angry.
“You also said they’d be on the low end of mingling, so shut it. I need to think.” The man rubbed his forehead. Like Jane, I swore I knew him from somewhere else.
“No, you need to start over. Em, Jess, more to follow. Wipe it clean.”
“ChemCo will never allow it.”
“They’ll never have to know. Scrap the one rankers, and put every three ranker on the line. They’ve been fine.”
The man grumbled. “Fine.”
Spinning his chair, the man punched at a computer’s keyboard. One button, two buttons, five deep jabs. My innards twisted. No pain, only a low fading. I spoke; no, I didn’t. My mouth stayed shut.
As my eyelids lowered, as the dark room turned forever darker, Jane glanced up from the table at me. She frowned and said, “And please, please, stop giving them memories of the East Coast. You’re not going back, they’re not going back. Give it up.”
Paul Abbamondi reads and writes speculative fiction compulsively. His short stories have appeared in Shimmer, Aberrant Dreams, and Apex Digest, among other fine publications. In his spare time, he draws a comic strip about the mundane happenings of his life and loves looking at LOLcats. You can send him emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes emails.