While no one said anything to Cindy, everyone at C.O.F.E. seemed to know what had happened in the supervisor’s office. When she took her place in line for the elevator, the conversations around her ceased and people pretended to be very busy adjusting their shoulder bags or fixing their hair. No one looked directly at her, but Cindy felt their eyes on her back. It made her flesh crawl.
After what seemed like an extra-long wait, Cindy took the elevator to her office. She stepped out into a small city of identical gray cubicles that extended in even rows to both sides. The government-run cafeteria and printing center were positioned in the center, up front next to the elevators. A sign announced hot breakfast options and the coffee-making schedule for the day. The overhead fluorescent lights flickered and made a gentle hum.
This had been Cindy’s home for the last three years. But today it felt like a hostile environment. Just as in the foyer below, all conversations stopped the moment Cindy stepped out of the elevator. She walked to her cubicle with her head down, careful not to look anyone in the face.
In addition to the expected mounds of paperwork dominating her desk, Cindy saw two unexpected packages. One looked like an official government transmittal packet; it was marked “urgent” with a big red stamp. The other was a delivery from the DeLessio Bakery—Cindy’s favorite.
Cindy squeezed into her cubicle and decided to examine the bakery package first—she needed a bit of tasty goodness right about now. The DeLessio box was pink with little white stripes and was tied with a silky black ribbon. As Cindy pulled on the ribbon, the box opened up into a little cake plate, like a carefully constructed origami puzzle. Inside was a miniature orange marmalade and dark chocolate cake. In beautiful scrolling script made out of white chocolate, the words on top read: “To my beloved daughter!” Little LED lights sparkled animated fireworks out of the tip of the exclamation mark. There was a note taped to the inside of the box: “Dearest Cindy, Miss you. Love you. Will stop by this afternoon. Your Father.”
Cindy almost dropped the entire box. Unfortunately her jerky motion knocked a few piles of papers from her desk onto the floor. It would be hard to clean all that up, she thought. I’ll do it later. And as much as she hated it, her mouth already watered with the anticipation of tasting the cake.
She licked her fingers and ripped open the other package along the dotted line.
Report to the Supervisor, Office 103, at your earliest convenience to discuss your unauthorized possession of the F.A.T.O.F.F. application.
The office memo was signed: “Charles Perrault II, Second Level Government Administrator of the Civil Office of Fat Excision.”
Cindy felt dizzy and collapsed into her office chair, which made a sick groan.
“You and me both,” Cindy said to the chair. She tried to collect her thoughts. No one ever got fired from C.O.F.E.—it was a government office after all. And she was sure she wasn’t the only one ever to have bought access to the F.A.T.O.F.F. papers—there was a going rate, for goodness’ sake, and a marketplace, even a gray one, had to set the rate. That’s how things worked. Sure, she was in trouble, but it couldn’t be that bad.
Cindy’s hands were shaking; electrolytes would help with that. She pulled a can of orange soda from her bag and gulped down the whole can. It did make her feel better.
“Well, I can sit here longer, but what’s the point?” She pushed away from the desk, causing more papers to tumble to the floor. She stood up, not caring where or what she stepped on.
The cake and its message stared back at her. With one finger, she swiped the white chocolate cream and ate the message. Despite its content, it tasted very good.
She tried putting the DeLessio box back together, but it seemed like an impossible task. The thing was meant to fly apart, not to be reassembled. It was as if the cake were insisting on being eaten right now. Cindy took another swipe and sucked on her fingers. She would need to stop by the bathroom and wash her hands prior to going down to the supervisor’s office. She took another mouthful of cake goodness. It was amazing just how good sugar made her feel.
It took just a few minutes to finish up the cake. Cindy crumpled up the pink and white box and dropped it into the wastebasket. She couldn’t throw away the black ribbon, though—it was too lovely—so she jammed it into her bag. Then she looked at the red stamped envelope again. She couldn’t put this off forever.
Sighing, she picked up the envelope, leaving little smudges of chocolate along with her sticky fingerprints on the envelope, and walked to the bathroom.
The ride down seemed a lot faster than the lift up. Cindy walked the long corridor to the main office on the ground floor, which was located right next to the entrance to the foyer. It was still early, but there was already a long line at the reception desk. Hundreds of people were told “no” every hour, and yet the same people came back day after day. Cindy understood why: getting a F.A.T.O.F.F. application was equivalent to winning the tits lottery. These people hoped to win, and today could be their lucky day.
She remembered what Jacob had said about the tits lottery, and how she didn’t know anyone who’d ever won it. She tried to think if she knew anyone who had ever gotten a F.A.T.O.F.F. application. Cindy herself had done so yesterday. She rubbed the skin under her breasts where the remnants of the rash could still be felt. She sighed. Today she was back at square one, just hoping for her luck to turn once again.
The guard at the main office made Cindy swipe her ID, pretending not to recognize her. She didn’t bother confronting him on that; she just walked straight ahead to Office 103.
She knocked, and the door opened. Supervisor Perrault had one of those remote-operated doors—press a button and it opened; press again and it closed.
The room looked just as it did yesterday. Someone had even rolled in another double-wide office chair for her to sit in. She took it.
“Good morning, Ms. Rella.” The supervisor greeted her with a wide, fake smile. The door shut behind her with a soft click.
“Good morning, sir.” Cindy couldn’t even recognize her own voice. It came out all raspy and strange.
“How is your stepmother?”
“I don’t know, sir. I haven’t spoken to her since yesterday, in your office, here.”
“I see. Well, she managed to get expedited approval using that stolen F.A.T.O.F.F. application you were hiding under your blouse.” He said all this in a calm, conversational voice, but his eyes were scary.
Cindy tried to press herself deeper into the chair. “I didn’t—”
“I am grateful that you’ve at least returned the office equipment.” He motioned to her chair.
“I’m just curious: how much did you pay for the stolen application, Ms. Rella?”
“It wasn’t stolen.”
“I’ve heard that the going rate is about eight months’ full salary?” He turned the statement into a question.
“I paid about six months’ worth.”
“You did well then. Very well. Don’t bother telling me who you paid. We know, and she has already been fired. We have to keep closing these little loopholes. That’s my job, Ms. Rella. My job.” He pounded his desk for emphasis. “I patch the system. I keep it from being broken by the likes of you.”
The supervisor picked up a piece of paper from his desk, a form of some kind. “Ms. Rella, do you know what this is?”
“No.” Cindy’s voice was barely audible.
“It’s a lifetime ban on Federal Assistance with Transdimensional Offloading of Fat and Flab, Ms. Rella. A lifetime ban.” He emphasized each word individually. Charles Perrault II, Second Level Government Administrator of the Civil Office of Fat Excision, had a sick smile on his face. It made his beautiful features look ugly and twisted. “You and your little friend from G.O.W.A.M. are now blacklisted from the program. Congratulations. Oh, and I’m personally making sure that you pay back the system for disrupting it. You’re going to pay, and pay, and pay. Everyone knows what you did, Ms. Rella. So we’re going to make an example of you. An example.”
Cindy couldn’t move. It was as if her body had decided to stop responding to commands from her brain. She wanted to scream and rage and throw this stupid chair right through that stupid smile. But she was frozen in place, unable to make a sound. The only thing she was grateful for was a lack of tears. Oh, they would come—but not here, not now.
Supervisor Perrault pressed a button on his desk, and the now-familiar muscle men walked into his office.
“Roll her out of here. She has a lot of work to do,” the supervisor ordered. Then he turned his attention to the jumbo-sized computer terminal on his desk.
Cindy felt herself being rolled away, the door to the office almost smashing her nose. The buff security guards didn’t roll her far though; they just left her staring at the closed door to Office 103. Someone coughed. One of the security guards laughed.
Cindy felt hot tears rolling down her face. It was all over. Her life was over. There was no more deluding herself into believing she had a chance at happiness. She was one of those people she had only vaguely heard about: people without hope. One of those who were already in hell during their lifetimes.
Somehow, Cindy managed to get up and walk to the exit. She wanted to go home, but her bag was still in her cubicle upstairs, and without it, she had no way of getting into her building. No way to get food. She couldn’t even get on the people-mover. She turned and walked to the lobby to stand in line for the elevator. Her life was over. And she had a lot of work to do.