A new, giant file cabinet had been squeezed just inside Cindy’s cubicle; there was now hardly even room to turn around in there. She would have to back out of the cubicle when she left. Someone had also picked up all the papers from the floor and organized them into neat, tall stacks on her desk.
Taking a deep breath, Cindy swiped her security card, and the computer terminal lit up. But instead of the usual list of tasks for the day, her screen glowed with line after line of amber text against a black background. On the bottom of the screen, it read “page 1 of 37.” This was more work than Cindy was normally assigned in a week. And the work submission time was nine a.m. tomorrow.
“That’s simply not possible!” Cindy felt her knees go weak, and she collapsed into her chair. Criminals in government prisons weren’t expected to turn out so much work in such little time. But Cindy had a feeling she now had fewer rights than those prisoners. To whom could she complain? Who would help her? So she did the only thing she could do: she got started.
Cindy worked straight through the night that first night. Her father never came. But she forgot all about his planned visit; she was too busy. Even after working through the night, on the second day of her punishment she didn’t get to go home until after three in the morning. And she was back in the office just a few hours later. The third day was a bit easier.
Over the next few days, Cindy settled into a routine. She got to work about two hours earlier than anyone else and grabbed breakfast at the cafeteria on her floor. She was already deeply into her work by the time other people started to filter into the office. She ate lunch late and at her desk—a difficult feat considering how little space she had with her new workload and the accompanying mounds of papers. She ate dinner at work as well, after everyone else had gone home for the day. By six o’clock in the evening, Cindy was the only one left on her floor. But she always stayed until all her assigned work was done.
Cindy no longer took breaks, even the mandatory ones. No one forced her. In fact, people now actively avoided her. It was as if Cindy’s misfortune could rub off somehow.
The only person who still talked to her was Jacob. That first evening, he had stopped by at around nine; Cindy had been surprised to find that he was still working. He was pushing a large cart, delivering the work assignments for the next day. He tried to stop and talk with her, but Cindy waved him off. She wasn’t sure if she was trying to protect him or if she just felt uncomfortable talking with the man. He was so strange.
But Jacob came back, night after night. One evening, a few days into the new routine, Jacob brought her a fresh apple. Cindy had never seen a fresh apple before—apples were served cooked as part of a main meal or a dessert. She vaguely remembered reading a children’s book about an apple farm though. Cindy still remembered that she had been surprised that apples grew on trees—who knew?
“Where did you get this?” Cindy asked.
“I have my sources.” Jacob was grinning from ear to ear. The man really was strange. “It’s okay to eat it as is. It doesn’t need to be cooked,” he added. He must have caught Cindy looking in the direction of the office microwave oven.
“I don’t know,” Cindy said, carefully inspecting the fruit. It smelled good, but it was so hard. She gave the apple a tentative lick.
Jacob roared with laughter. “You can’t taste an apple like that. It’s not like ice cream. You have to take a bite!” He pantomimed taking a big bite out of the apple.
Cindy would normally have thrown the apple back at him, but he was the first person she had talked to in days, and she missed speaking. So she decided to humor him. She looked curiously at the strange fruit and took a small, tentative bite. Underneath the thin, red, waxy outer layer, the apple was bright white and succulent.
“It’s delicious,” Cindy said, surprised. A small drip of juice ran down her chin. She took another bite, and then another. Jacob watched in a self-satisfied sort of way.
“Red Delicious are my favorite,” he told her.
“There are other kinds of apples?” Cindy asked.
“Sure. Granny Smiths are green on the outside and really hard and a bit sour. There are golden-colored apples, too. In fact, there used to be forests of apple trees with all kinds of apples growing on them.”
Jacob’s eyes glowed as he told Cindy about how apples used to grow all over the world, even in people’s yards. Cindy didn’t believe half the things he told her, but it was fun to listen and imagine a world in which you could simply reach up to pluck food from a tree as you walked by.
Cindy ate her apple as Jacob talked, holding it between her two fingers at the stem and the tip. She was about to bite it in half when Jacob stopped her.
“No, no. You don’t eat it all the way through the core.” He pointed at the fruit’s center. On one side, Cindy could see a little bit of a black plastic bead peeking out. She started to spit out her last bite.
“No, it’s okay.” Jacob stopped her again. “It’s not poisonous or anything. Those are just seeds. You know, seeds? It’s how you can grow a whole new apple tree.” He took the apple core from Cindy and gently picked out the little black seeds from its center. Then he took a small plastic container from his pocket and deposited the seeds in it like they were a priceless treasure.
“What are you going to do with those?” Cindy asked.
“Plant them,” Jacob said. He hid the box somewhere underneath his uniform. “I have a few seedlings growing inside my dorm already.”
“Really?” Cindy had never heard of anyone growing anything inside their living quarters. “Isn’t that illegal or something?”
“I don’t think so.” Jacob’s tone of voice put an end to that discussion. But then he brightened and asked, “Do you want to see?”
“My apple seedlings, of course!”
“I’ll help you finish these reports, and we can walk to my place. As you know, it’s just around the corner. It won’t take long.” The last part sounded almost like pleading.
Cindy was ready to say no, but there was something about the way Jacob was looking at her. And she was curious to see the baby apple trees. “Okay,” she said finally.
“Okay?” It was as if he hadn’t been expecting Cindy to say yes so easily, or maybe at all. “You’ll really come?”
“Yes. But I have to finish my work here first. So go away and let me work. I don’t even know how long I have left.” Cindy turned back to her terminal. There were still ten more pages of reports to do.
“After I finish making my deliveries, I’ll come back to help you,” he promised and practically dashed down the path between the cubicles, leaving neat little piles of papers on the desks as he passed.
Three hours later, Cindy was done. It would have easily taken her another hour, maybe more, if not for Jacob’s help. But true to his word, he came back after making his deliveries and helped her fill out, organize, and submit the requisitions for the applications to get the F.A.T.O.F.F. paperwork.
It was dark as they walked the street to Jacob’s place. Walking was a strange experience, but over these past few days, Cindy had started getting used to it—since the people-mover stopped running after ten at night. Regular people never went out that late in the evenings, except on special days, like Federal Tax Day and National Vote Gathering Week, and then the people-mover had extended hours.
Jacob’s dorm was neat and orderly and looked a lot bigger without the double-wide office chair. Jacob motioned for Cindy to sit on the only chair in the room, then he walked to the window and pulled out a box that was about six inches tall and fit perfectly within the width of the windowframe. It looked so much like a part of the window, Cindy wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t noticed it the last time she was in this room.
“Here,” Jacob said proudly. He turned the box so it faced Cindy.
The side of the box that had been facing the window was made out of a transparent plastic. The other sides and the top and bottom were all wooden, but on the inside, the top had reflective material glued to it, along with a string of small bright lights. But the most amazing part was the strip of dark soil on the bottom: it hosted at least a dozen little green sprouts.
“Are these baby apple trees?” Cindy asked, standing up and looking over Jacob’s bed to get a better view inside the box.
“Yup. These are a month old now. I started hatching them in the bathroom, inside a wet towel. And when I got roots, I moved them into this box and into soil. Not all of them made it, of course—”
“You killed some?” Cindy felt bad for the little plants.
“No, of course not.” Jacob sounded indignant. “Not all seeds hatch. Not all hatchlings grow. Even these little guys might not make it.”
“I don’t know.” He gently returned the apple box to the window, then made sure it was properly situated and the lights all worked. “Get me some water, please?”
“You mean like tap water?”
“Yes. There’s a glass over by the sink there.” But Cindy remembered from when he’d offered her water the last time she was here. She went over and filled the glass.
“This much okay?” she asked.
“That’s good,” Jacob said, and he took the glass. “I just need to water them a little bit. If I give them too much, they die. If I give too little, they die.”
“How do you know how much is too much?”
“I don’t,” Jacob answered.
“Oh. How many baby apple trees didn’t make it?” Cindy asked. She truly felt for those little guys.
“Too many. But I think these will make it. They look like the healthiest bunch.” He opened the top of the box and sprinkled water over the little trees by dipping his fingers in the glass and then dribbling the water over each plant. He talked to the plants as he gave them water. “There we go,” he said. “Doesn’t that feel good?”
Cindy sat back down in the chair and watched Jacob tend to his plants. He was incredibly tender with them. It made her smile, and somehow it also made her like Jacob a lot more.
“All done,” he said at last. He smiled at Cindy. “Do you want to see how I hatch the seeds?”
“Sure.” Cindy was genuinely interested now. It would be great to someday taste the fruits of Jacob’s labor—literally!
“Here, in the shower.” Jacob squeezed by Cindy and stepped into the area behind the glass brick wall. He pulled out a small plastic tray with a blue towel and leaned over to show Cindy. “The seeds have to be kept moist at all times. But you also have to make sure they don’t develop mold or rot. I change the towel every day.”
Cindy looked inside the tray with the seeds. There were several dozen seeds in there—at least five apples’ worth, she figured, not that she was an expert on how many seeds each apple produced.
“I have to dry the seeds out first,” Jacob continued. “So the seeds we collected today from the Red Delicious you ate need to stay out here in the room. After a week or so, I’ll move them to join their brothers and sisters in this tray.”
“You have to get them dry to keep them wet?” It didn’t make any sense to Cindy.
“Well, the first time I tried it, most of the seeds rotted. So I went to the library and tried to find something about how to grow apples.”
“You did what?” Cindy had never met anyone who’d been to a library. “All the libraries in the city have been closed for almost a decade. Where did you go?”
“Well…” Jacob had a very guilty look on his face. He covered up the seeds and placed the tray back in the shower enclosure.
Cindy realized she’d made him uncomfortable. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. Let’s just clean my apple seeds.”
“You don’t mind that I’m keeping a secret?”
“I do, but you clearly don’t want to tell me about it now. Perhaps you will some other time,” Cindy offered.
“Perhaps.” Jacob gave Cindy a long, intense look. It made her feel slightly uncomfortable, like she was being judged. She had been judged too many times lately.
“Let me see my seeds,” Cindy demanded.
“Here.” Jacob smirked a little as he dug his hand deep into his pocket and procured the little plastic box where he’d hidden Cindy’s apple seeds.
Cindy took the whole box. There were more in there than the four seeds Jacob had dug out of her apple core. “Where did the other seeds come from?”
“Oh, I’ve been saving them for a while,” Jacob said noncommittally.
Another secret he wasn’t going to share, Cindy decided.
She gently caressed the seeds. They felt smooth and fragile. She really wanted them to grow into big, apple-bearing trees. “How do we dry them?”
“Yes, we. It was my apple,” Cindy insisted, but she smiled at Jacob.
“Here.” He took a plate, lined it with a paper towel, and gave it to Cindy. “Just lay them out on this.”
Cindy gently deposited each seed individually on the plate, making sure they were well spaced.
“Very good,” Jacob said.
“Okay. Now you’re going to have to bring me back here for regular custody visits,” Cindy said. She got up. It was getting late.
“You need to go already?” Jacob asked.
“I have a long day tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that…” Cindy’s mood darkened.
“I’ll walk you home then,” Jacob said.
Cindy smiled. “Thank you. That would be nice.”
From that day on, Jacob stopped by Cindy’s office every evening after he finished his deliveries. He helped her complete her requisitions, and most days, they then walked back to his dorm and sat and watched the little apple seeds grow.
Unfortunately, Jacob couldn’t get another fresh apple for Cindy. She asked, but he said he couldn’t. And that was the end of that conversation; another of Jacob’s secrets. But Cindy didn’t mind. She knew that if Jacob ever got his hands on another fresh one again, he would share it with her.