With no clock and no windows, Cindy had no way to tell the passage of time. And she couldn’t hear any sounds coming from outside the holding room. She thought about leaving, but was scared that she might find that the door was locked—and it would feel too much like prison to know she couldn’t leave if she wanted to. It was better to be ignorant of her status.
Waves of lightheadedness swept over her as she waited. Her stomach got so loud that it was starting to scare her. Cindy had never gone so long without food. Food was something that was just everywhere—easy to spot, easy to grab, easy to consume. Food was like a security blanket that enveloped everyone, soothing away their fears and anxieties. Of course, Cindy had read about food shortages and famine, but those things happened in such a dim and unfathomable past that it was impossible to have a visceral comprehension of how people might have felt when there was too little to eat. At most, Cindy only ever skipped a snack or two a day. And lately she’d had to adapt to a more regimented food schedule due to her extra workload and how uncomfortable her officemates made her feel when she was interacting with them. But still, food was always readily available—that was part of her government contract. Now the lack of food was making Cindy panic. What if that door was truly locked? She was stuck in a cell with no food. Cindy bet that was against some kind of law. Food was a human right, after all.
Cindy was surprised to find herself writing her dad’s name over and over again on the death papers: “Dexter Rella Dexter Rella Dexter Rella…”
I’ll probably need a new set of papers, Cindy thought. These are ruined. But her hand kept writing and writing.
Cindy tried to count in her head while she wrote out “Dexter Rella,” using the count as a measure of time. It seemed to take about two seconds to write the two words. She started to count how many times she’d written her dad’s name so far. She gave up after about fifty—it was better to write than to count, she decided.
After a while, Cindy’s hand started to cramp up, and her handwriting grew bigger and more crooked as it wound down the page. She was having trouble focusing. Her vision was tunneling, and the walls around her were getting darker.
I’m going to die in here. They’ll starve me to death.
Cindy tried to push her fears down below the surface of awareness, but the thought kept bubbling up.
Finally, unable to keep it together, her hands shaking, her tears flowing, and her body going into full starvation mode, Cindy cried out: “Please! Just please let me go. I need to eat.”
The door immediately opened, and a woman dressed in a gray government uniform with no insignia stepped inside.
“You finished?” she asked.
Cindy just stared at her.
“The death papers, please.” The woman extended her hand.
Cindy obediently picked up a jumbled mess of tear-soaked papers with “Dexter Rella” scribbled all over them and passed them on to the stern woman.
The woman made a show of putting on a rubber glove prior to accepting the papers. Then she slid them into a large, official-looking envelope. “Thank you very much, Ms. Rella. You are free to go. The next train for the city leaves in ten minutes.” The woman turned to leave, paused at the door, and then added, “Have a nice day.” And with that, she was gone—and so were Cindy’s dad’s death papers.
Cindy got up and tentatively looked through the door, which the woman had left open. It looked like a regular government facility: government-gray walls, government-gray plastic cubicles, the people working at their terminals wearing gray uniforms the same shade as Cindy’s. And everyone was morbidly obese.
Leaning against the wall for support, Cindy walked out of her “prison cell.” She looked right and left. The great room if front of her was arranged in a standard twenty-four-cubicle layout, just like Cindy’s floor at the downtown C.O.F.E. office. At the center were a print station and a small cafeteria. Cindy’s mouth watered. She stumbled toward the food-dispensing kiosk as fast as she could. It was past lunch, but before dinner. Third afternoon snack time, by the look of the options displayed in the kiosk window.
Cindy swiped her ID card, and the kiosk dispensed a sealed bento box containing a hot ham and cheese hot sandwich, potato chips, a small doodle chocolate bar, and a cup of juice. Cindy ripped open the sandwich’s hygienic seal. Even before she bit into it, Cindy felt an enormous sense of relief settle in, washing over her like a wave of calmness, erasing all her anxiety. Just the smell of food was almost enough to stop Cindy’s hands from shaking. She devoured the hot sandwich in two bites. She didn’t even bother to chew—it was hot and smooth and nourishing.
Having consumed the sandwich standing up, Cindy found a place to sit and managed to finish the rest of her snack in a relative comfort. No one walked up or bothered her, but she knew people were watching. When she was done, she picked up her trash and threw it away. It was time to go home.
It felt like it took no time at all to get back to the city and ride up to the government building where Cindy lived. At the side of the door to her dorm, a small green blinking light indicated that she had a package waiting for her in the mailbox downstairs. Cindy almost decided to ignore it, but years of working in the office had trained her to pay attention to blinking lights. She knew she wouldn’t get any rest or peace of mind until she picked up whatever it was and made the annoying blinking go away. So she dutifully turned back to the elevator and rode down.
When Cindy opened her mailbox in the lobby, she found a small cardboard box with a smiley face drawn on it in permanent marker. She almost threw the thing against the wall; there just wasn’t any humor left in her after the day she’d had. But there was a weight to it—not too heavy, not too light—and it made Cindy hesitate. She took the box back upstairs to her room. The green light had stopped blinking.
The dorm was already set for the evening: window shades down, lights on, wall clock glowing a warm orange. Cindy liked auto presets, and she subscribed to all the latest bells and whistles as soon as they became available in her government-maintained building. Aside from paying into the employee’s tits program, these little amenities were the only luxuries that Cindy allowed herself. Of course, now that there was no longer any need to squirrel away money to pay for the F.A.T.O.F.F. application, she could probably afford to do something else with her income, but she hadn’t found anything she wanted to spend her money on yet. There was food, but there was no time to eat anything other than what was offered at the C.O.F.E. cafeteria on her office floor anyway.
Cindy sat down on her bed and opened the smiley-faced package. Inside, carefully wrapped in many layers of tissue paper, was a golden-colored apple. The smell of the amazing gift from Jacob—it couldn’t be from anyone else—made Cindy’s mouth water. She caressed the apple with her fingers. The skin felt more delicate, and slightly rougher, than she remembered. The Red Delicious had felt waxy to the touch. The golden-yellow apple was also a bit smaller.
Cindy licked the skin and smiled at the memory of Jacob’s laughter. She wished he were here to watch her enjoy his treasure.
Cindy wanted to stretch out the experience of eating the golden apple, which tasted completely different from the Red Delicious. But somehow the apple simply vanished in her hands. When she was done, she put the core down on the table and gently extracted the seeds from the apple flesh. There were five this time. Once the seeds were out, Cindy ate what was left of the core. It had a few unpleasant hard bits, but the taste was so amazing that Cindy didn’t mind. She wished now that she had eaten the core of the Red Delicious, too. She’d know better next time.
Cindy went to the bathroom and got a little pillbox. She emptied and cleaned it out carefully, then deposited the five apple seeds inside for safekeeping. Then she looked around for a good place to store the pillbox and its seeds. But every time she started to set it down, the seeds seemed to call to her. She felt she needed to hold them close to her. So finally, Cindy hid the pillbox inside her bra. The slight irritation against her skin made her feel happy.
On a sudden whim, and because she was really thirsty, Cindy filled her toothbrush cup with water from the tap and drank it all. It was cool and satisfying. This small act of government disobedience made Cindy feel defiant. But then, the government hadn’t been very nice to her today. She refilled the cup and drank it down again. It was good, just as Jacob had said.
Cindy checked the time; it was getting late. If she hurried, she could still make dinner at the food hall downstairs. But she just had no energy left. She’d been keeping very long hours lately, and she’d been up since five this morning. After a moment of consideration, Cindy decided to skip dinner and go straight to bed.
Cindy had never deliberately skipped a meal before. This was the first time in her entire life she decided not to eat. Cindy knew she would get a reprimand tomorrow—the government insisted on maintaining healthy eating habits for its employees, and her ID card would register almost no food activity from today—but she didn’t care.
She set the alarm for five o’clock again, then crawled into bed and was asleep in seconds.