By J.T. Aris
George gave the retiree his best fake smile and pressed the call button beneath the ledge of his desk.
“Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor!” he called.
It was easier this way; to let them think that there would be another friendly human face on the other side of the door. Mrs. Whitfield could be anyone. Some retirees might imagine a kindly old woman who would serve them tea and cookies and pat them on the cheek in sympathy. Others might expect a mature, sexy woman in a tight dress who would slink over and purr something in their ear to make them forget their sorry lives. Or they might envision a brisk, severe-looking woman in sharp spectacles who would, at the very least, tell them there was no time for tears or protestations. They both had a job to do. Everyone did, and everyone knew it.
“Go on through, sir,” said George, still baring his teeth in a wide, painful smile. “She’s ready for you.”
George pressed a second black button that had grown shiny with use. There was the loud click of a heavy lock dragging back, and then the door to George’s left slid open with a dull grinding noise.
The current visitor’s glazed eyes slid over George for barely a moment before he tramped through the doorway. George did his best to give him a kindly smile. Poor sod. But they all burned out eventually. People could only cope so long with sitting in traffic, standing in their assigned lines for lattes, and working ten or more hours per day, decade after decade.
The door rumbled shut behind the visitor. The lock slid back into place. Silence.
George breathed out a long sigh. Thank the Bureau he didn’t have to start the day with a screamer. They always made him twitchy.
George’s job was to greet Retirees and ask them to wait in this room. The walls were the color of oatmeal that had been left sitting out too long and were twice as lumpy. The team of interior designers had attempted to brighten the place up with several forgettable pictures of flowers, but by the time the images had been approved by the Retirement Bureau, there was hardly more color in them than on the walls themselves. Several chairs and tables made of wicker were spaced along the walls. Magazines with neutral faces were scattered here and there. A solitary coffee machine sat in a corner, letting out small guttural pops now and again as it filled the room with an acrid smell. A worn rug lay along the center of the room’s floor, dusty with the residue of countless shoes that had trekked across it toward the door to the left of George’s tall wooden desk. But really, there was only so much you could do to disguise a cave for what it really was, especially if anyone were to look up. A ceiling had been deemed unnecessary by the Retirement Bureau. Water dripped down into the room, running along the walls in thin rivulets.
The next appointment wasn’t for another hour, so George sat back and put his feet up on the desk with a yawn and a stretch. He fiddled with his watch and started browsing the news headlines on it.
Damn. Looked like they’d be overbooked here next week. Again. Somehow these Noncompliant outbreaks always seemed to come in waves. Scientists getting sloppy with the gene pools probably. Just making more work down the line for the Retirement Bureau. George sniffed. Really, they only had one job to do, just like everyone else.
There was a knock at the door at the other side of the room, and George jumped, long legs falling from his desk and knocking several things to the floor.
“C-Come in!” George called, hoping he sounded cheerful. He kicked the mess behind his desk to hide it and folded his hands on the wood before him.
The knock at the door repeated itself. George cleared his throat and called out, “Come in, valued Retiree! Welcome!”
“Can’t!” said a slightly muffled, very small voice.
George blinked, cautiously slipping from his chair. He stepped around his desk and approached the door. He tugged it open and saw no one behind it. Then he looked down.
“Couldn’t reach the door handle, stupid,” said a very little girl, her freckled nose wrinkling in displeasure.
“Oh,” said George, still staring. He remembered himself enough to add quickly, “My sincerest apologies, Miss. Er, are you sure you have the right department?” He scratched the back of his neck. He was used to the old and downtrodden—with a few younger Noncompliant adults tossed in here and there. Not… The Bureau would never send kids to early retirement, would they?
The girl waved a grey piece of paper at him. It took George two or three attempts to snatch it from her fingers.
“Thank you,” he said, looking down at it. Everything appeared to be in order. “Eliza Bennet?”
“Yeah.” The girl stuck her tongue out at him.
“Could I…could I just check?” George asked. The girl rolled her eyes and folded her arms.
“Er, okay.” George retreated back to his desk and rummaged around for his scanner in the things that had fallen to the floor. “You can have a seat if you’d like. We have coffee! If you… I mean…”
George returned with the scanner in hand.
“Um, open wide please.”
The girl eyed the scanner, giving George an imperious look before opening her mouth. He held the scanner up, the laser light running along the roof of her mouth until it found the chip implanted there. The scanner beeped and spat out:
“Unit 640137A-047. Designated Eliza Alice Bennet. Female. Intended Occupation: Geneticist’sAssistant. Revoked. Unit non-compliant. Scheduled for Retirement on 28-09-2083.”
“See? Told you,” said Eliza.
“My apologies,” George croaked, his heart suddenly pounding. No. No they had to have the date wrong. The year. George seized the girl by the jaw.
“Ow,” she said.
The scanner beeped.
“Unit 640137A-047. Designated Eliza Alice Bennet. Female. Intended Occupation: Geneticist’s Assistant. Revoked. Unit non-compliant. Scheduled for Retirement on 28-09-2083.”
George looked down at the girl. She rubbed her chin, looking grumpy.
“Uh, um, please wait here. Mrs. Whitfield will be… just a minute.”
He walked back to his desk and climbed into his seat. He clasped his hands to keep them from trembling. The intercom light glowed green. George looked over at Eliza. She had clambered into one of the wicker chairs and was now kicking her feet. They didn’t even scuff the ground.
George swallowed. He tapped his watch violently and called his manager.
“Er, Julie. Hi. Could you run a check on Unit 640137A-047?”
“Oh! I wondered about that one too!” Julie’s chipper voice replied. “But it’s all correct. Bureau doesn’t really make mistakes, do they? Just go ahead and send Unit 640137A-047 in to see Mrs. Whitfield. Standard procedure.”
“Oh. Kay,” George breathed. “But—”
“I know this unit is a little young, but think of it this way! We’ve caught the Noncompliant units early! Less chance of cross breeding and that whole mess. You remember the paperwork from the last outbreak. Ghastly!”
Julie’s cheery tone didn’t change. “We all have a job to do, George.”
“Yes. I know. Okay. Standard procedure. Thank you, Julia.”
He hung up, feeling rather light-headed. He pressed the intercom button and mumbled, “Mrs. Whitfield, a visitor to see you.”
He looked across the room at the girl and couldn’t even manage a grin as he pressed the shiny black button. How many times was it now? The Bureau had sent him a little card after his 50th. He wondered if the next cheery note would appear after his 75th Retiree. Or his hundredth. Or maybe he would have his own Retirement notice sent to him before he reached that milestone.
“You can go in, Miss Bennet,” he said, mouth dry.
Eliza hopped off her chair and flounced to the doorway. The lock made a loud click and the door slid open. Eliza hesitated, peering down the dark hallway beyond, her toes on the edge of the doorframe, dress fanning out behind her as she leaned in. Her nose wrinkled as she pulled back, crossed her arms, and looked George directly in the eye.
“I don’t wanna,” she stated.
George opened his mouth, but all he could manage was a deep breath. The protocol said—it directed him to—
“Don’t keep her waiting,” he meant to snap, but his voice was almost too quiet to hear. A ghost of a smile shifted his lips. “It’ll be alright, Eliza. Mrs. Whitfield can help.”
The girl looked down the hall doubtfully. A red light at George’s desk flashed and let out a harsh honk that made them both jump. He needed to think quickly. Mrs. Whitfield would be making her way up the hall soon.
“I’ll go with you!” he said, voice high with false cheeriness as he slipped from his chair and stepped to Eliza’s side.
The hall did look frightfully dark from this angle. He could just make out the sound of something heavy and wet gliding along in the distance. Coming closer.
“Come on,” he said, holding out his hand.
Eliza crossed her arms and stuck her tongue out at him again.
“I’m not a baby,” she said.
Now the light above the door was blinking. The light at his desk honked again. Failure would mean early Retirement for him as well. Someone had to do it, and that someone was him. That was how it had always been.
Eliza was right there. Right there. She just had to step across the threshold, then the automatic door would seal and it would be over. George’s hand hung in the air behind the girl’s narrow shoulder blades.
“I’m sorry. We all have a job to do,” said George.
He gave the girl a hard, firm push.
Eliza squealed as she fell into the hall beyond, arms windmilling. She lay sprawled on the floor, starting to sniffle as a long low hiss drew nearer from the end of the hallway. She screamed. George made an instinctual grab for Eliza, to pull her back into the waiting room.
But it was too late. The heavy door slid shut. The lock ground into the rock hidden beneath the neatly painted frame. George could only stare at it in horror. He could hear her crying, louder and louder, her little voice rising in pitch.
Until it stopped rather suddenly, and the only sound left was the coffeemaker and George’s own ragged breathing. He couldn’t look away from the door. If he did, he would have to look down at his hands. He could still feel the texture of her dress, the weight of her little body as he had pushed her.
George shook his head and walked over to the coffee pot. He looked at his distorted reflection in the side of it, straightened his jacket and poured himself a cup of stale coffee with a trembling hand. He tried to steady himself with a sip.
“Come now,” he told himself. “The unpleasantness is over. You were only doing your job. Back to work.”
He gulped his coffee and ambled back to his desk chair. The intercom light went green, as he sat. There was a knock at the door. The next appointment.
“Come in!” George called.
The next Retiree did, and George felt his heart sink. Another child, though at least this one was tall enough to open the door on his own.
“Do you have your slip, Mr…?”
“Thompson,” the boy replied, his voice cracking on the first syllable.
“Very good,” said George and took the slip of paper the Retiree handed him. His eyes trailed over it.
“And let’s just check your chip.”
The boy leaned in and opened his mouth obediently. The scanner beeped.
“Unit 640137B-042. Designated Samuel Ryan Thompson. Male. Intended Occupation: Retirement Bureau Administrator. Revoked. Unit non-compliant. Scheduled for Retirement on 28-09-2083.”
George swallowed as he inadvertently met Samuel Ryan Thompson’s eyes. The boy looked frightened. George smiled to put him at ease.
“All in order, Samuel,” he said, reaching for the intercom button. “Mrs. Whitfield? A visitor to see you.”
His hand moved toward the button to unlock the door, hesitating for only half a second. He pressed the button. The door opened and Samuel stepped through. The doors sealed behind him. The Retiree cried out, but only once. George sighed in relief.
“There,” he muttered to himself, stretching back in his chair. “You see? Just a job. Gets easier every time.”