“How are you doing, Cindy?”
The voice sounded soft and sweet, like a cold pillow on a Sunday morning.
Cindy opened her eyes. She didn’t really want to, but she was having a hard time remembering how long she’d had them closed, and she was starting to get concerned.
“Where am I?”
She didn’t recognize the location. The room seemed like a standard, government-issue dormitory single—a ten-by-twenty-foot room with one window opposite the front door and a small bathroom off to the side, separated from the main room by a translucent glass brick half-wall. Only this wasn’t her dormitory. And this one had an electric cooking range set up on a desk—definitely illegal.
“I took you to my dorm. I didn’t know where you lived, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to stay at C.O.F.E.…” The voice trailed off apologetically.
Cindy turned and looked at her host. “You’re Jacob from the mailroom, right?” Cindy knew she was right, but she wanted the man to confirm it.
“You know my name!” Jacob seemed genuinely pleased.
“Of course I know your name. You deliver my mail every day.”
But why was she here? Cindy looked around again, then focused back on Jacob. He was about her age, but there was something different about his face that she couldn’t put her finger on. Jacob looked young and old at the same time. He was wearing a gray office uniform with the C.O.F.E. mailroom logo. It was huge, but fit strangely around his neck—who buttons their shirt all the way up like that?
“You weren’t feeling too good, so I took you here to get some rest,” Jacob explained.
Cindy noticed that she was sitting in a double-wide office chair—the same offending chair that was the cause of her current pain. And suddenly the whole afternoon flashed before her eyes: the F.A.T.O.F.F. papers hidden on her desk and then under her shirt; her stepmother’s demands; the supervisor; the stupid chair; and the loss of her once-in-a-lifetime chance at becoming a human being again. Cindy started to cry.
“Oh, don’t do that.” Jacob jumped up and rushed to get her a glass of water.
“What kind of soda do you have?” Cindy asked between sobs. She was ravenously hungry. But even more than food, she craved a hit of something sweet.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any.” Jacob looked apologetic and offered her a glass of water again.
“I don’t drink water,” Cindy said.
“Try it,” he urged. “It’s good. I filter it myself,” Jacob tried to reassure her.
“But we aren’t supposed to drink water. Where did you get it from?”
Jacob pointed to the sink on the wall.
“That’s only for washing.” If nothing else, this surreal interaction had made her stop crying.
“As I said, I filter it. And I have a test kit. It’s good quality, really.” Jacob made a big show of taking a big sip, then offered the glass to Cindy again.
She took it and looked at it skeptically.
“I don’t think I should,” she said finally and handed it back to Jacob.
“Suit yourself.” He drank the water, finishing it all in one go. “Mmm, good.” He smiled at her.
“How did you get me in here?” Cindy asked as Jacob sprang up and washed out the glass, then placed it back on the shelf above the sink.
“I pushed you here in the chair.”
“All the way?”
“Sure. I don’t live too far from the office.” He pointed out the window. The square gray C.O.F.E. building was just visible on the right.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Cindy asked. She was feeling very hungry. And if she’d had to push someone three blocks to her dorm, she would have been starving.
“Sure. Do you want to get something to eat?” Jacob said enthusiastically.
“Yeah. I think so.” Eating was far better than thinking about what had happened this day. Cindy pushed all thoughts other than food from her mind. Fortunately, her rash seemed better, so it wasn’t a constant irritant reminding her of the life she had just lost.
“I’m very sorry, by the way.”
“About your loss.” Jacob seemed uncomfortable bringing up what happened with the F.A.T.O.F.F. papers. “That woman stole what’s yours…”
Tears fell from Cindy’s eyes as if on cue. Was this man really talking about her tits access? No one talked about the F.A.T.O.F.F. papers or tits outside of the official capacity. It just wasn’t done. Was he being rude on purpose?
“That woman was my stepmother,” she said.
“Your stepmother stole your papers?”
“No. It wasn’t like that.” Cindy decided to modify a few details and change the narrative to something she could live with. “I was just keeping them safe for her. You see, my father seems to have lost some money on the stock market.” She checked Jacob’s reaction. Was he buying it? “And my stepmother needed a small bridge.”
“A bridge? To where?”
Was Jacob dumb or just pretending? “You know, a bridge!” She looked at Jacob as if he was being obstinate on purpose. “My dad will make the money back soon, and everything will be okay again.”
“I see.” Jacob nodded, but he clearly didn’t believe her. “Why didn’t he come to see you personally? And why does your stepmother get the application? Will she give it to your dad? And—”
Cindy cut him off. “In any case, I think I need to replenish my electrolytes. It’s been a very hard day.” She tentatively tried to get out of the chair. It seemed that this time she wouldn’t have a sticky problem. Why couldn’t it have been this easy when it counted?
She stood up. But as she tried to take a step, she felt woozy.
“Oh, please! Sit back down. I can go and get whatever you want. You want soda? What kind?” Jacob was looming over her now. It was amazing how fast this round guy moved.
“Orange. I need my vitamin C.” Cindy fell back into the chair with a groan. This was awkward.
“Orange it is!” He seemed genuinely enthusiastic to get Cindy whatever she wanted. Good.
“Thank you, Jacob. I will pay you back tomorrow. I don’t think I have the energy to walk with you to the cafeteria right now, and I don’t think they’ll take my meal card if I’m not physically there.” She fingered a little plastic card she wore on a lanyard around her neck, next to her C.O.F.E. security card.
“That’s not a problem. I’ll use mine. And you can pay me back whenever. I don’t really use mine anyway…” He trailed off and looked away guiltily, pretending to be busy with something behind Cindy’s head.
“You don’t use your card? What do you eat then? You know that the government regulations state that we should eat three hot meals per day in addition to the mid-afternoon snacks. The government cafeteria ensures that all of our nutritional needs are met with these three meals. Are you… cheating the government?”
“Of course not.” Jacob waved her away, then changed the subject. “What would you like me to pick up for you?”
“On Tuesdays, I prefer selection number three—chicken with rice, gravy, mushed vegetables, white bread with butter, and apple pie dessert with ice cream.”
“Aha. Got it. I’ll be right back. Just relax. Make yourself at home.” He flashed her a smile and literally ran out the door.
The guy was crazy, Cindy decided.