…And with that, I find that it’s Thursday afternoon, and I’m standing on Main Street. Nothing to do, no place to go. Aimless. Directionless.
It’s not that it was all that great of a job. Frankly, it sucked. But the company-provided housing was handy. Now I need to find not only a job, but a place to live. By Monday.
I just start walking. Seems more socially appropriate a thing to do than just standing there, getting cold. Most people I pass largely ignore me, although I caught one middle-aged guy walking with…his wife?…checking me out. Ass.
I feel like I hit the “autopilot” switch. My feet have walked me to my favorite coffeeshop, and I go in. A voice mumbles, “Gimme a mocha.” Money exchanges hands. From the pastry case, the reflection of a woman with mousy, brown hair stares blankly back at me, trying to figure out who I am, who she is. I’ve drunk half of the beverage before I even taste it.
I’m standing in front of the community bulletin board inside the shop. Band fliers. Dance classes. Unwanted furniture. No “roommate needed” posts. But one catches my eye.
“Need help finding the next step in your life? Call today!”
God, do I need help with that. Hope it’s not a cult. Cultists smell funny.
I pull out my cell phone. Punch in the digits. The touchtones play a tune: “Ring Around the Rosie”. A voice answers, prerecorded: “Thank you for calling! Is this Hope Bellicek? If so, say ‘Yes’ or press 1 now.”
I’m startled at the information – no doubt gleaned from Caller ID – and say “yes”. The voice of the woman with the mousy, brown hair sounds soft, distant, disconnected.
“Thank you! Using your telephone keypad, please enter your password. For ‘Q’, press 7. For ‘Z’, press 9. When finished, press the pound key.”
Obviously, I’m in shock: I realize that I should be asking, “What password?” But I don’t. My fingers just start pushing the buttons for my email password. I hover a moment over the pound key. Only a moment, though.
“Thank you! Your call has been processed, and one of our representatives will be working on your case immediately. Have a nice day.”
I blink at the phone’s screen, now announcing, “Call ended”. What the hell was that all about? A man brushes past me on his way out the door. Pretty sure his hand touched my ass. Bastard.
I walk out the door of the shop, drinking the rest of my mocha. I catch sight of one of the security cameras that were recently installed all across the downtown area to help stop crime. I give it the middle finger. Can’t arrest me for that, can they? …I hope not.
Guess I need to pack. It won’t take long; I don’t have all that much stuff. Benefit of not having a life, I suppose. I trudge the seven blocks from the coffeeshop to my apartment. It takes longer than it should. I have no reason to hurry.
As I arrive, the Super comes out the front door. He seems surprised to see me. “What, they forget something?” he says. I ignore him. I do most of the time, anyway. Today’s just easier than usual. I walk past him and go inside. He follows me.
At my door, I reach into my pocket for my key. It’s not there. Not in my other pocket. Not in my coat pockets. Not in my backpack. The Super asks, “You lookin’ for this?” He holds out a key. My key. It’s still got the pink rubber ring around the head of it. I nod, dumbly.
He jams it into the keyhole. “You always been quiet, and didn’t complain none. I’ll give ya five minutes. After that…” His arm and thumb indicate where I should go after five minutes. He throws the door open, but remains standing partways in the doorway. I have to push past him to get inside.
He smells like a cultist.
I look around at the bare walls. The empty shelves. The barren kitchen cupboard. The Super laughs from the door. “Yeah, they did a pretty good job, dinnit they? Best damn movers I ever seen. In and out in 10 minutes, flat.”
I should ask, “Who were they?” or “What did they look like?” or “Which way did they go?” I don’t. All that comes out is “Guess they got everything… Thanks.”
The Super looks at me. I mean, really looks at me. Probably the first time he’s ever really done so. “Hey, you okay? You look…I dunno. You look kinda messed up.” I nod, wordlessly. He looks again, then says, “Alright, don’t tell me. Five minutes are up. Time to get lost.”
I start to go past him, still standing in the doorway, when he shoves a twenty at me. “Don’t tell nobody, yeah?” he grumbles, then stalks off.
I go to put the bill in my wallet, which had been in my backpack. It’s not anymore. I’m not surprised. Instead, I fold the bill up and put it in the pocket which doesn’t have a key anymore.
The wind cuts through my jacket as I walk out the door onto the sidewalk. I stop to try to think of what’s next. I have no idea. It takes a moment for the sound of my name being called to break through my introspection.
“Ms. Bellicek? Can I offer you a lift?” This tall guy in a suit stands beside a town car parked right in front of my building. The building. It’s not mine anymore.
I blink and snark back. “Sorry, buddy. Really not interested in riding in your rapemobile. Although upgrading from the panel van? Nice touch.”
“I don’t think you understand. You made a call about an hour ago, right? Need help with the next step, right?” I nod. “We’re who you called. Get in, and we’ll explain.” The window rolls down and I see a blonde woman with sunglasses behind the steering wheel, smiling at me.
I turn my backpack around to my front and shove my hand around a bottle of pop. “Okay, but I’ve got my pepper spray right here,” I lied, “So, if you really are some sort of whackjob…”
“Nothing to be concerned about, Ms. Bellicek,” he smiles and opens the rear car door. I step in. Nothing to lose, I suppose.
They drive me to the edge of town. The man and woman don’t say a word to me during the drive. I’m not too upset about it. Still have my hand around the bottle in my backpack in case of emergency. Figure I can at least shake it up and spray it in someone’s face if they get handsy.
We stop in front of some sort of sprawling office building. The man gets out of the car and says something about us needing to get the full workup completed. They usher me inside. The place is all glass, plastic and steel. Looks expensive, like something out of a movie set. I’m hoping it’s not “Terminator”.
We walk into some sort of huge, industrial room. No windows. Corrugated steel ceiling. Fluorescent lighting. And my stuff. All my stuff: clothes, furniture, TV, food… All of it laid out on the floor in some sort of grid. Well, it’s not a lot, so it’s just one corner of the large room. I grab my bag of pretzels from grid 2-E. I’m hungry.
The man turns to look down at me. I realize that when I saw he was tall, I had no idea. I mean, I barely come up to this guy’s chest, and I’m not all that short. He says, “I realize that all of this may seem very strange, but we’re here to help you, Ms. Bellicek. And we’re sure that you can help us.”
“Help you? How?” I ask, feeling stupid. I look at the woman, who’s much more normal-sized, but still wearing the sunglasses. She’s working with a rolling cart with two stools that has some sort of device on it. Looks medical, with electrodes coming off of it.
Tall Dude motions me to one of the stools. I sit down and start eating a pretzel. The woman sits on the other stool. He says, “We just need to take a few measurements. Remain calm.”
“‘Remain calm’?” I laugh as he places electrodes on my forehead. “Next you’re gonna tell me that ‘this won’t hurt a bit’, and that’s when you taze me or something, right?”
The man grins slimly. It looks really odd. Like he’s not used to grinning. And then the woman puts the rest of the electrodes on her own head. The man flips a switch on the device, and I feel a buzz inside my skull. A deep, thrumming buzz. I drop my pretzel.
The buzz stops. I’m not sure how long it was. I reach down to get my pretzel… Wait, I reach down to… No, I’m not doing anything. I can’t move.
The woman reaches down to get my pretzel. She sniffs it, then takes a bite. “Kinda gross, lady,” I think to myself, since I can’t talk either. That’s when the lady takes off her sunglasses. And her hair. It was a wig, covering up mousy, brown hair underneath. I do the only think I really can right now: stare at her. At me.
The man looks her up and down, evaluating, studying. Looks at me for comparison. He asks her, “Is the transfer complete?”
The woman nods and starts rattling off a series of dates. My birthday. When my father died. When I got my first period. When I moved to this dumpy little town. When I got the job that I just lost today. She ends by saying, “She has no significant relationships or close family…”
“Aside from my pretzels, bitch!” I can’t yell.
“…Aside from her pretzels,” she finishes, smiling at me. It’s a warm, genuine smile. It creeps me out even worse than the man’s smile. Because it’s mine.
The man nods, satisfied. “Excellent. This human provides us the perfect opportunity to infiltrate human society. She has tremendous, untapped potential. All she needs is direction.”
The woman with my face turns to me. “And that’s what we’ll give them. Direction…straight to ashes.”
“What the hell kinda lame villain line is that?” I think really loudly at her. She points some sorta scifi-ish gun at my head.
“This kinda lame,” she snarks.