Cindy woke to the smell of coffee. People were talking in low voices just outside her modified cubicle wall. She tried to listen, but all she could tell was that one person was a woman and she sounded unhappy about something the other person was saying.
Trying to move as silently as possible, Cindy sat up and slipped into her clothes. The bed was quiet enough—it was a solid box with a foam mattress—but as soon as Cindy tried to get her shoes from underneath the chair, it made a squeaky noise. The conversation outside instantly stopped. Cindy put on her shoes, took a big breath, stood up, and opened the door.
Three people were eating breakfast at the table farthest from her cubicle. A woman who seemed to be in a bad mood, Digger, and Jacob. Digger and Jacob were dressed as they had been last night. The woman was wearing a suit with a white lab coat over it.
“Good morning,” Cindy said with a smile.
“Morning, Cindy.” Jacob waved her over. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like a stone. Let me wash up and I’ll be back to join you. There’s still some coffee left, right?” Cindy tried to sound cheerful and upbeat. She hoped it masked how she really felt—nervous and uncertain. The woman in the lab coat eyed her unhappily.
“I’ll make another pot,” Digger volunteered, glancing over at the woman.
“See you soon,” said Cindy and walked to the bathroom across the modified office. No one spoke until she closed the door behind her, then she heard more arguing. This is not good, she thought as she brushed her teeth and washed the sleep from her eyes.
There was a shower, but Cindy didn’t have a towel, and she didn’t feel comfortable undressing and taking the time for her full morning routine here. So she just brushed her hair and tried to make herself presentable. Her black dress, which seemed perfect for a weekend picnic, now felt a bit too casual. But so be it. Cindy closed her eyes, took another deep breath, counted to ten to calm her nerves, and walked back out, wearing a fake smile on her face.
“Here you go.” Digger gave her a steaming cup of black coffee as soon as she joined the group. “How do you take it? There’s cream and sugar.”
“This is fine,” Cindy said, even though she hated black coffee. Demonstrably, she took a big sip. “Thank you very much, Digger.”
“You’re welcome.” He pulled up another chair to the table for Cindy. “Please, join us.”
Cindy sat down and looked at the woman, who was still examining her. She was of medium build, not thin, but not fat either. Her face looked tired, and her hair was graying. But the most remarkable thing about her was her age. She seemed ancient. Life expectancy for fat people was rather low. There were a few fat people in Cindy’s old office who were close to forty, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Fat killed people. That’s why everyone wanted to offload the fat as fast as possible and as completely as possible. Thin people, of course, lived much longer. In fact, it was hard to tell the age of thin people—who can tell the years on a beautiful face? But this woman was not one of the artificially thin. She was thin the way Jacob and Digger were thin. So that meant she was… naturally old. More than anything, that gave Cindy hope.
“My name is Cindy, in case the guys didn’t mention it,” she said to the woman. The woman just frowned.
Digger introduced the woman. “This is Dr. Pearson.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Doctor,” Cindy replied. She wondered what the woman’s issue was. She didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“I don’t have time for this, Digger. I told you I was busy this week.” Dr. Pearson sounded very annoyed.
“Cindy has been losing a lot of weight,” Jacob interceded. “We couldn’t wait much longer. People were starting to take notice.”
The woman huffed and got up to pour herself more coffee.
“Come on, Pheebs,” Digger called to Dr. Pearson. “None of this is the girl’s fault.”
Cindy bristled at being called a “girl,” but she didn’t say anything.
“They killed both of her parents,” Jacob added.
Cindy looked at him. She was surprised that he thought of the deaths of her parents as murder. They had just died; they hadn’t been killed.
“I still have no time this week,” the woman repeated, but she did return to her seat at the table.
Cindy finally spoke up. “Look, I didn’t ask to be brought here.” She was starting to get angry with this woman, and the anger displaced her fears once again. “I came because Jacob asked. Frankly, I can go home right now.”
She stood up as if to leave. Jacob jumped up and put his hand on her shoulder, pushing her gently back into her chair.
“Hold on, hold on, everyone,” Digger interrupted. “Phebe, the decision has been made. We’ll show Cindy around. If you could spare some time, it would be great.”
“What I’m working on is important,” Phebe said, sounding a bit defensive.
“Of course it is. But Cindy lost her tits connection almost a month ago—”
“Four weeks and six days, actually,” Cindy clarified.
“Four weeks and six days,” Digger said. “And she’s lost a significant amount of weight. How much would you say, Cindy?”
“I don’t know. About five column divisions worth,” Cindy said.
Digger looked at her blankly, but Jacob helpfully translated. “The city mall uses column width as a volume measure.”
“Bastards,” Phebe Pearson spit out.
“Agreed.” Digger was happy to transfer Phebe’s anger away from Cindy. “But you can see that we have a problem. They will come for her—and sooner rather than later.”
“Who will come for me?” Cindy asked, looking from Digger to Phebe Pearson. She felt little pricks of adrenaline flooding her nervous system. She didn’t want anyone to “come for her.” Her life was finally stabilizing; it even seemed hopeful, happy. She didn’t want things to change. Not yet. Not while she was enjoying her work—and, she admitted to herself, Jacob’s company.
“Don’t worry, Cindy. We won’t let them take you,” Jacob reassured her.
Cindy felt less than reassured. “Who? Where?”
“Come down, everyone.” Digger stepped in again. “One thing at a time. Okay?”
He looked from Jacob to Phebe to Cindy. Jacob and Phebe nodded, and Cindy stared back blankly. She wasn’t following this conversation at all.
“Okay, then,” Digger continued. “Today we’ll show Cindy around the food court. This will give you”—he looked at Phebe—“a chance to finish up. And tomorrow, we’ll tour the Farm. Would that work?” He was asking Phebe, not Cindy.
“Okay. But I only have an hour. That’s all,” Phebe said.
“Good. An hour it is.” Digger seemed satisfied.
“Not good,” Cindy said. Her voice sounded shrill. “Someone better start explaining things to me. Or just take me home right now. Jacob?” She stood up abruptly, bumping her cup and spilling coffee all over the table. Jacob was there instantly, mopping it up with napkins.
“Cindy…” Digger put his hand on her shoulder.
Cindy brushed it off. She’d had enough.
Digger smiled gently but didn’t touch her again. “Cindy. This is exactly what we were planning on doing. We will explain everything. I promise.”
“When?” asked Cindy. “Because it can’t be soon enough.”
“Well, we can start right away. Why don’t you go put your things in your cubicle?”
When Cindy came back to the table after stowing her hairbrush and toothbrush in her backpack, Digger walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a beautiful Red Delicious, which he handed it her. Cindy took it. She had to; she’d learned that she loved raw apples.
“You can eat this now, or you can save it for later. Just don’t take it with us,” Digger told her.
Cindy nodded. She was hungry. She took a bite, and it was wonderful. She smiled despite herself. And that made Phebe smile as well. Jacob was positively beaming.
“Good. Glad you like our apple, Cindy.” Digger sat back down to watch Cindy carefully consume the little red treasure. When she got to the core, she noticed that the others around the table tensed up. Cindy stopped and picked out the seeds—five again—and then ate the core, all but the wooden stem. Phebe nodded with approval. Digger and Jacob sounded relieved as they let out breaths.
“Here.” Cindy extended a hand holding five little, brown, glistening apple seeds. “Take them. Grow more.”
Digger carefully scraped the seeds from Cindy’s hand and put them in a little plastic box that he pulled out of his jeans pocket.
“All right, then. Let’s go,” Digger said. And he, Cindy, and Jacob walked out the way they had come in, leaving Dr. Pearson behind.