She whispered another goodbye when she waved. She was home. It was her own home, but she wanted so much to be going away with Ed. It has been such a strange feeling, drifting to sleep beside her. It had been so nice.
“Who are you speaking to?”
“Just a friend.”
“From baking class.”
“A gentleman friend?”
“No. nothing like that. Just a friend.”
She thought the enquiry was finished.
“I have secured a job interview for you.”
“What kind of job is it?” she asked, remembering the admonition to avoid customer service.
“The details are in your study packet. You will have to apply yourself very strictly! But it is well within your abilities. As long as you study hard, I’m sure you will go on to the second round.”
“Okay. I understand.”
“You will have to miss your baking lesson. The first stage of the interview is at the same time.”
“Oh.” Disappointment rose so quickly that she covered her mouth to keep it in. She was trying to think of an excuse when the application spoke again.
“This is important for your future, Emma.”
“Of course. You’re right.”
“Well! Off to bed with you! You’ll have an early morning tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Of course. I’ll do my best.”
Ed had a job. She should have a job, too. It was normal.
The information was dense. It was related to the technical side of her coursework. She had been good at organisation and detail. Categorisation. The numbers, the equations that were employed in generating applications and programs to help with efficiently supplying and organising business…She had taken only the required classes, labouring to finish them.
“Is this…My profile passed the screening for this position?”
“Are you having a problem? Should I request a tutor from the Centre?”
“No. No, thank you.”
“You can do it, Emma! Just put your mind to it.”
She bent her head over her materials. She counted each point and allotted time to study it. This wouldn’t be like the Centre’s test. She would at least recognise the words this time.
The application reminded her to break for meals. She reluctantly left her desk, stiff from sitting without moving for so long. Preparing food and then cleaning up took precious minutes. The application had determined that she could understand the material, but it was challenging. She would need all of her time.
“Don’t forget to wash your suit.”
She had stored it carefully, and thought that it would only need brushing. But it had been longer than she thought since her last interview, and she saw that it was in quite bad shape.
In the middle of her room she stopped, skirt in hand. It felt like a long time. It wasn’t even last year. Was it the end of the year before? The application sent her to an interview at a shop. It would have been working in a storeroom, controlling the physical inventory. It had sounded nice to her, but they hadn’t asked her back.
She had money, though, for food and her apartment…
“Do you need to wash your suit? You had better get to it!”
The suit was musty and unpleasant. She washed it and dried it, and polished her shoes carefully, drilling herself on all of the technical terms in the materials. She didn’t recall many of them from her university days. She had forgotten so much. It seemed unfair to her that you could put so much effort into something and lose its benefits so easily.
“I’ve given you the map to the office. It’s a bit of a jaunt. You’ll have only a small amount of time to study tomorrow morning.”
Ed’s cat wished her luck. In the dark of her room her finger hovered over the icon, smiling, the secret knowledge of their time together wrapping around her like a hug. She would be glad when tomorrow was finished. Then she could go back to baking class.
The interview was in a shiny glass building on the fringe of the city, surrounded by other big, flat-faced buildings. The broad sidewalk was spotlessly empty. To either side perfect green grass spread out, uniform in size and colour. Not a single scrap of leaf or paper dared occupy it. Each bit of shrub was surrounded by a dark circle of dirt, perfectly carved out of the green.
It didn’t feel like it was the right place, even with the sign beside the door. It wasn’t the right place for her.
She clutched her tablet to her chest, ordering her feet to take her to the door. She didn’t have much extra time. Even so, only the insistent ping of her tablet could prompt her to start off.
Inside was cool, and silver and grey. There was an atrium with tall green plants, where a handful of people were chatting easily. It would be a nice place to sit. She was early. Would she have to walk far into the building?
“Can I help you?”
A young man in a suit had stood up behind a desk. She turned red.
“The interview,” she whispered. “There’s an interview.”
He checked something on his tablet. Her courage shrank. She must be in the wrong place.
“Ah, here it is.”
She gave him her name and application number.
“Here’s your tag. Don’t take it off. When you leave just give it back to me.”
He led her along a corridor. There were offices and open rooms crowded with desks all along it, humming with activity. Music came from behind some doors. Some of it was nice, but she didn’t think any of it was as nice as that song in the mall.
“I’m sorry for making you wait. You didn’t look like the others, so I thought you might be in sales.”
“Oh. I see.”
They came to a heavy door. It clunked loudly, and at least a hundred faces turned toward her. None of the people at the desks were dressed in suits. Some of them were even dressed like Ed. They didn’t seem like the sort of people applying for work in an office environment.
Another man gave her a battered tablet. She hurried down an aisle, eyes glued to the floor. She wished the seats were labelled. She slid into a seat that seemed vacant, daring after a moment to sneak looks at her neighbours. The woman on her right was wearing a t-shirt and skirt. On her left was a man leaning back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling with his eyes closed.
She smoothed her skirt. What must they think of her, wearing a suit as though she were already working here? It was the wrong thing. It was completely wrong. Everything felt wrong.
She straightened her shoulders. The application sent her here, so it couldn’t be wrong. She turned her attention to the studying that she’d done. It came to mind with some ease, making her feel a little better. If she could perform well, maybe her appearance wouldn’t matter.
The tablet came to life. It was battered, true, but the graphics swooped dramatically into the company logo. Imagine working for such a place.
The first question looked like a foreign language to her, but the second was familiar. She picked away at the questions that she thought she knew, keeping a careful eye on the time.
Slowly she became aware of how the t-shirt woman’s fingers flew over the screen. She stole a look to left. The man was almost lazily skipping from screen to screen, effortless.
It didn’t matter. She returned her attention to her screen. She had to do it at her pace. They had taught her at the Centre to take her time, without comparing herself to other students. It was fine. The application had prepared her. At least she could skip unfamiliar material. The Centre’s tests didn’t let her skip anything.
The man took his tablet to the front. Shortly after, the woman did as well. The scrape of chair legs echoed in the hall as, the desks emptied, one by one. She stared at the tablet until the question blurred out of focus. Maybe her pace was too slow after all. They probably counted speed.
More people left. She swallowed her panic, fumbling with the tablet until it fell to the desk with an embarrassing clatter. It would count against her to be slow. It was normal to work. The application was sure that she could do this, even though she’d had to skip questions. The application would have to report her…
She closed her eyes, telling herself to stop being stupid. Useless. If she could just breathe. The weight of fear was pressing against her chest. It was hard to make herself breathe.
Her head jerked up. The proctor stepped back.
“Sorry. It’s just…Officially there are no time limits, but…”
She was alone in the hall, except for the proctor and a staff member at the door. How long had she been alone in the room? Her skin crawled with embarrassment.
She stood up, the chair falling back. She could feel their eyes as she clumsily righted it.
“I’m sorry.” He glanced at the other man. “You can keep going, if you want.”
“No. N-no. Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s…”
She put her head down and hurried to the door. The second man opened it for her and she ran through. Her steps echoed loudly when she burst into the lobby, from her brightly polished shoes.
“Miss! Your tag!”
She ripped it off her jacket and thrust it at the man in the lobby, feeling the eyes of everyone there pulling at her. She thought she heard a laugh. He reached out. Out of concern, to stop her, she didn’t know. She fled the building.
On the train platform she sat on a bench. The weight spread through her chest, wrapping up the back of her neck, bending her forward. She wanted to be sick. She wanted to cry. She wanted this feeling to go away and never come back.
When she was little, in her room alone, she begged for it to stop, wishing someone could help. She was going to tell Mary, but couldn’t, in the end. It wasn’t normal, so she needed to keep it secret. She was afraid her counsellor would make her stay in the Centre. She would hide in her room while the gibbering fear grabbed her mind and pulled, unrelenting, and she wished it would go away.
Why couldn’t she be like other people? Like Ed? Ed always went ahead, like she wasn’t worried about anything.
Trains came and went. The platform became busy, then people filtered away to their homes. Their families. It all flowed around her.
She lifted her head. Ed would miss her.
Her tablet pinged. It was her curfew warning. The sky had gotten dark, while she sat on the hard bench doing nothing.
She rubbed her eyes and stood. Her body felt ill-fitting. She needed to take the next train, in order to get home without breaking curfew. She approached it slowly, only forcing herself on when the buzzer announced the doors were closing.
Baking class, she thought. Now that the interview is over I can go to baking class again. The thought of seeing Ed again filled her with a cautious light.
“Welcome home! How did you do?”
“I don’t…I don’t know.”
“Well! We’ll find out soon enough.”
She looked down, feeling ill again. “I don’t think I did well. I had to skip a lot of questions.”
“Oh. That is a pity. Perhaps I should call a tutor, after all. There will be other interviews.”
“For that kind of job?”
“There are many openings, recently. I’ll prepare a study schedule, and withdraw you from the baking class.”
“No! No, please, I can study the rest of the time.”
“It’s odd, how much you want to go. Why has it become so meaningful to you?”
“It’s…important for me to socialise.”
The application was quiet for a long time. She could hear the wind rattling at the windows. “Emma, why are you lying?”
“You are lying. You mustn’t lie. It’s so hard to help you when you lie.”
The screen on her tablet flickered. She recognised the lobby of her building. It was a recording taken from a high angle. From a security camera, maybe. She saw herself, and Ed. And their kiss.
“Emma, how long have you been lying?”
The tablet pinged. She saw the name of the hotel, and the cost of the hours they’d passed there.
“I only wanted to see what it was like.”
“I have seen your exit forms, Emma. You lied on them.”
“I didn’t know.
“We have discussed your excuses before.”
“I’m sorry.” Rising panic tangled up in her mind.
“There will be questions from the Centre.”
“You have to let me help you. You have to listen to me.”
She touched the screen. Ed was so wonderful.
“Emma, I’ve always protected you.”
“I’ve given you all that you needed.”
“Only trust me, Emma.”
She was so wonderful. She filled Emma with a feeling like music.
“Do you want to speak to your counsellor?”
“No. No, I don’t…I’m sorry. I’ll try harder.”
“Well then! Off to bed, Emma. You’ll be busy tomorrow.”
Ed messaged her again and again. She hugged the tablet against her at night, not daring to cry. Crying at night was greeted with attention at the Centre. It was greeted with counselling, with worksheets and questions. She didn’t cry, but her heart ached so much that it felt like bursting.
During the day the application rushed her from one chore and errand to another. It gave her lessons and drills, followed by practise tests. The process reminded her of university. She had enjoyed it, then. All she had to do was follow the application’s schedules. At the end there would be something. There would be peace. There had been her apartment, and this or that job. She tried to tell herself that it was the same now. But it felt uncertain as glass; if she stepped wrong she would break into a million pieces.
The first baking class night passed, and the next. The snow came, freezing the grass to the ground, coating the world in ice. Ed’s messages stopped. She stood by the window of her bedroom, face wet, until the application suggested a sleeping pill.
The routine was numbing. But she wouldn’t have to go back to the Centre, the application said, except for her health checks. All she had to do was listen.
“You’ve done very well,” it said. “I think it’s time for a little reward, don’t you think?”
“May I go to baking class?”
“You have been withdrawn. You remember, of course!”
“I have scheduled Wyn to come. That will be nice, won’t it?”
“It’s an essential part of life.”
Behind its words the Centre hovered, and the promise of what happened to those who failed.
“It would be strange, after all this time, not to call him.”
“Yes, yes, it would. I guess that you’re right.”
“Let me help you, Emma. I’ll keep you here, safe and sound. You don’t have to be afraid. You’ll be happy.”
She closed her eyes, remembering the steady rise and fall of Ed’s breathing, that night in her room. She’d watched her sleep a little, sneaking looks, and all the worry about her poor performance with her family had drifted away. Contented sleep had tumbled over her.
Wyn was his charming self. She turned her head when he tried to kiss her. He laughed softly.
“I forgot how shy you are. It’s been a little while.”
He kissed her and poured wine, and they sat on the sofa. His hand massaged her shoulder, asking his inoffensive questions. She mumbled her answers. Now that he was here the memory of him on top of her was a visceral thing. She would have to let him-
Her hand twitched. She felt the cold of the wine seep into her dress.
“Ah! Come, quickly. We have to take care of that stain.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, watching it spread. It was her date dress.
“Emma, are you all right?”
She nodded. Wyn touched her cheek, turning her face to him.
“I missed you. Truly. I enjoy our time together.”
“No…no…I don’t want…I don’t want…” She looked at the tablet, somehow sure that it was listening. It was watching.
“I didn’t ask you to come,” she whispered. “The application did.”
He looked confused. “The applications can’t do anything without you telling them to.”
“I didn’t want it to call you. I don’t…”
“Emma? What’s going on?” He frowned. “You’re acting strangely.”
“I’m normal. I’m…fine.” She scrambled to her feet. “I’m telling the truth.”
“They’ll suggest things. Maybe it thought you agreed?”
“It knows I didn’t…it…” She stammered. He was looking at her so oddly. She was acting unhinged. Sick. Abnormal. But it was true.
“It watches me.”
Wyn stood. “Application, wake up.”
“No!” She reached out. He took her by the arms. It might have been comforting, but she was afraid to move, knowing how tight his grip would become. “Don’t call it, please.”
“Emma, what you’re saying isn’t possible. The applications have very limited capabilities. Application?”
“Hello, Wyn. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Emma says that she didn’t ask for me. Is that true?”
“She said it would be nice to see you again.”
Wyn looked at Emma. “Are you sure?”
“My recall is perfect,” it said, voice teasing.
Emma shook her head.
“She doesn’t seem happy.”
“She’s overtired. She had been studying hard. Perhaps she overestimated her strength.”
“No! You did it! You called him. It’s your fault. You’re…you cancelled my baking class. You…”
“Emma, it isn’t a real person.”
She recalled how carefully she had studied for the Centre test, yet some unfamiliar practice questions seemed to appear in her revision material later. She thought about all of the questions that she had to skip for the interview that seemed so far outside of her ability.
“You’ve been changing things.” As soon as she said it she was convinced of it.
“It’s been changing things so I fail. It…”
“Emma is just tired. I’m sorry that you were called under these circumstances.”
He hesitated. For a moment her heart skipped, full of tentative hope, but when he turned to her she knew he didn’t believe her.
“It can’t hurt you, Emma,” he said gently. “It’s a governing law. I think that you should sit down.”
He took out his own tablet.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re acting a little erratic.”
“Don’t call the Centre. Please. Don’t.”
“I’m sorry, Emma. I’m required to report these events.”
“There is no need to call the Centre, Wyn.” The application spoke with a strange edge in it’s voice. If it was worried then things were very bad.
Emma backed away. “No. No, please.” She wiped her eyes. “It was…It’s a joke. It was a game.”
She saw the Centre logo, spinning against the endless black.