Another week brings us another chapter with number five, Ellie, today, and again we have an illustration of the POV character. I hope you’ve been enjoying the story so far, and if you don’t want to wait to finish it, order a copy of the full novel right here.
There was a time in her life when Ellie thought that no job could be more boring than slip, snap, clicking. That was a long time ago, before the accident that took her son. They took care of an employee after an accident in the family like that. That was how she got her pity promotion.
She went from production to quality assurance. Where production was repetitive and tedious, quality assurance was random and exhausting. There would be long stretches in which she could only stare at an empty conveyor belt, sitting alone in her ten by ten cube, just one door and the conveyor belt spanning between dark metal hoods on either side of the room. Then, during the rushes, there would be a flurry of work as items sped in from one side of the conveyor belt, stopped for a moment, then sped out the other: four eggs, check, four strips of bacon, check, four pieces of bread, check, blueberry jam, check, tray with plate, platinumware—not silver apparently—and coffee mug, check, check, and check. Then a slight rest. Then eight eggs, check, eight strips of bacon, check, eight pieces of bread, check, and so on and so on. She felt as if she were feeding a beast that got hungrier and hungrier the more that it ate until it couldn’t hold anymore and its stomach exploded. Then the thing woke up and ate its own insides, which only served to make it hungrier and hungrier again until it went through the same process over and over.
There she sat in her tiny gray room, counting the time away, ensuring that each item on the conveyor belt matched the words on the little screen in front of her. They always matched. There was a little red button next to the screen that she was supposed to press if there was ever a mistake, but she had never had the opportunity to press it. There was never a mistake.
She spent a lot of time wondering what would happen if she did press it. Not out of the blue, of course—she would probably be fired for that, and there was no good reason to test the hypothesis—but what if it didn’t match for once? What if the screen said “pan” and out came a fully cooked chicken? She’d press the button, of course, but then what? Would the conveyor belt stop? Would an alarm sound and lights flash? Would whoever needed the pan go waiting? Where was the pan going anyway?
That was another thing she spent her time thinking about. Where did the conveyor belt go to and where did it come from?
A bell rang. The screen read sixteen hamburgers. Sixteen hamburgers came out with barely enough time for Ellie to count them before they zoomed on down the line and out of sight. Sixteen buns, check, sixteen potatoes, check…
When the flood of work subsided she cleared her mind. She wondered again what the red button would do. Would it set off lights and sirens? Then she remembered she was on to wondering about the conveyor belt and went back to that.
It was strange, the conveyor belt. Impossible really. The “out” end went through the wall that Ellie had never seen the other side of, but the “in” end went straight through the same wall the door was on. Ellie had been on the other side of that wall, and she knew there was nowhere for anything to come from. The conveyor belt didn’t continue out into the hallway. It stopped right there at the wall. And there was no way it was coming from above, either. There were metal hoods covering the “in” and “out” ports, so no matter where she stood in the room she was unable to see where the things came from or where they went to, but when she stood up as tall as she could, she could see over the hoods to the other wall and knew that nothing was coming from up there.
The bell rang. Thirty two hamburgers, check, thirty two buns, check, thirty two potatoes, check. And so on and so on.
When it had all gone by and the work died down again, she wondered if the monster on the other side of the wall had finally burst. She squirmed in her chair, trying to lean over to see where the things came from, where they went to, but there was nothing, only darkness under the hoods. They came from nothing and went to nothing, stopping on the way so Ellie could make sure the correct goods got from here to nowhere.
She knew better than that, though. She might not know where they went—that much stuff all at once never ended up in the hands of anyone she knew—but she knew all too well where they came from. She had spent her time on the assembly line slip, snap, clicking away at who knows what, and everyone else she knew had spent their time on their own lines producing something else for someone none of them knew. Hell, she had paid the ultimate price for production, more expensive even than her own worn-out weary life, she had lost the new, endless life of her son, and as a reward, she got to sit in QA instead of work on the assembly line. Some reward!
Her heart beat faster at the injustice of it all. She wanted to break something, to take something, to get revenge somehow. She wanted to press the red button and see the look on their faces, see if they even had faces. She wanted to shut everything down, go out to the bar, and get stone cold drunk until she forgot who she was and thought the bar and the beer were all the world that existed, get drunk until she forgot the cost. But that wasn’t an option, that was death, and death wasn’t a choice. Her death wouldn’t bring her son back. It would only prevent her from getting revenge. The only recourse she had left was to wait, to bide her time until she could find an effective way to exact that revenge.
She checked the conveyor belt again. Still she couldn’t see anything. Right about then she would normally have another string of hamburgers and potatoes, but nothing came. The bubble must have burst early. The monster was full and her shift was almost over.
The time ticked by slower when the work didn’t come. She sat staring at the conveyor belt, going through the same cycle of thoughts over and over again: Nothing on the screen. Where does the stuff go anyway? Where does it come from? Oh, I know all too well where it comes from. How could I let them know that I know? I need this job to exist, though. Nothing on the screen. Where does the stuff go anyway? Where does it come from? Oh, I know all too well where it comes from…
Sometimes she’d linger on one bit a little longer than the others, but most of her time was spent thinking about her son and how nothing could ever make up for losing him. The seconds ticked by at a glacial pace whatever she had on her mind.
A bell rang. This one was slightly different in tone. She still looked to the screen first to see what was supposed to come through, but when she saw that it was empty, she jumped from her seat and rushed to the door.
Her hurried footsteps echoed through the concrete hall. She kept her eyes forward, intent on the destination in front of her. She could hear some small conversations going on around her, and she had to fight through clumps of traffic because of it, but she tried to ignore it all. She was leaving. It was about to be a long weekend. She didn’t have to hear their stupid gossiping for a full three days, and she was overjoyed at that fact. She couldn’t believe that she was feeling as much Christmas joy as she was without her son there to bring it out of her.
She choked back tears at the thought of him and set her mind again on the bar. The sun was low when she burst out of the glass doors of the factory lobby. Shadows from the tall buildings all around cut across her face as the air started to cool. She shook her body a little to warm it up, and was about to set off toward the elevator terminal when, from behind, she heard a gravelly old voice that grated at her insides. “Ellie! Ellie, dear!” it called. Ellie shuddered more at the sound of it than she did at the cold air.
“Ellie, wait up, dear,” the voice said. “Please. My old legs aren’t what they used to be.”
Ellie relented, stopping in her tracks but not turning to greet the woman. She knew who it was. She knew the old lady had gotten the same pity promotion that Ellie had gotten, only for Gertrude it had been many years since. Gertrude was promoted for losing a son and a husband. She, too, knew the real cost of production. That was a big part of the reason Ellie didn’t like her. Gertrude had been put through the same torture at the hands of production—more, considering it took her husband, too—and here she was with nothing to show for it but a prolonged lonely life. Deep down Ellie feared that Gertrude was some kind of omen revealing her own future self.
“Oh, dear,” Gertrude said, finally having caught up to Ellie who still wasn’t moving. “I’m sorry, honey. You’ll have to let me catch my breath.”
“Hello, Gertrude,” Ellie said with no inflection. She looked the old woman up and down, studying her crow’s-feet and sagging cheeks, her sagging everything. More than even behind the conveyor belt, Ellie wished that she was at the bar, deep in drink, instead of on this busy sidewalk.
“You know, dear—You know…” Gertrude looked suspiciously at the people walking around them, as if they might be eavesdropping on their conversation. She lowered her voice so none of them could hear. “You know, I heard a juicy little morsel of information today. Juicy juicy, sweetheart. You wouldn’t believe.”
Ellie rolled her mind’s eyes. “Oh yeah, Gertrude? Did Maci finally find out who the father of her baby is?”
“Trudy, dear. My friends call me Trudy. And, in fact—now that you mention it—there has been another possible father added to the list. He’s a nice young man, it seems—much nicer than any of the current frontrunners, that’s for sure—from what I’ve heard at least. My fingers are crossed for her that it’s this one and not one of those other two deviants. That’s all I know.”
“Well, Gertrude—er—Trudy,” Ellie said. “You’ll have to tell me all about it after the long weekend, huh? Right now I’m off to celebrate. Merry Christmas to you.” She started again toward the public elevator.
“Ellie, dear. Wait!” Gertrude grabbed her arm.
Ellie almost gasped in surprise. It wasn’t like Gertrude to be so forceful.
“Ahem. Excuse me, dear,” Gertrude said. “I apologize. It’s just—I…” She looked around again at the people leaving work or going to it.
“What is it Ger—Trudy? Is something wrong?”
“I—uh—” Gertrude shrunk back into her old self. She seemed to age ten years with the bad posture. She looked frail and weak. Ellie almost pitied her. “Perhaps we could talk somewhere more…personal,” she said, looking around again, but still no one was paying attention to them.
Ellie didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to sit and listen to some pointless anecdote about the social life of someone she didn’t know or care the least bit about, and that was probably exactly the “juicy morsel” of information that Gertrude was so excited to share. But then there was something in the shrillness of her voice when she called for Ellie to wait, and it was strange to see her being so secretive with her gossip. Yes, usually she asked everyone she told not to tell a soul, but that was because she wanted the honor of telling as many people as she could herself. If anyone ever asked her about any piece of gossip, Gertrude would jump at the opportunity to share even the most personal of secrets, as long as it was her doing the sharing. This time, though, it was almost as if she was afraid that someone would find out what she knew. As if the secret was more important than the latest social gossip.
“I hear there’s an okay bar just down the street,” Ellie said. “Do you drink?”
Gertrude laughed a scratchy laugh. “The Water Cooler, dear?” she said, shaking her head. “Too many co-workers. I was thinking of something a little more…private.”
It must have been more than gossip if she didn’t want co-workers to hear it. Ellie was more curious than ever, but at the same time she was torn. She knew the perfect place to talk, where no co-worker would ever overhear them, a bar that no co-worker knew about, but that was exactly why she liked it. Everyone at the production plant and in a five mile radius would learn about it if Gertrude knew. But was that worth it for finding out what made the old lady so nervous to know and share?
“I might know a place,” Ellie said.
“Great, sweetheart,” Gertrude said with a smile. “It’s not too far is it?” She started toward the public elevator without waiting for an answer. “I’m not sure my old dogs can take it.”
“I said I might know,” Ellie said without moving. Gertrude stopped and turned back to her with a puppy dog look on her face. “But I wouldn’t want it getting around about this place. If you know what I mean.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Gertrude said. “You can trust dear old Trudy with that, you can.” She crossed her heart and spat on the ground. “If not me, then who can you trust? Huh?” She smiled wide as if she meant it.
“Like Maci and her potential fathers could trust you?” Ellie said. “Or Merl when he had his ED problems? Or Sally with her miscarriage? Maybe I can trust you like—”
“Now, now, child. Hold your tongue. None of those were secrets entrusted to me. They were all gossip floating in the air for anyone to catch and pass along. Secrets are different. Secrets I can keep.” She had a stern, serious look on her face as she said it, a look Ellie had never seen from her.
“But this will be a secret I entrust to you and you alone,” Ellie said.
“And I’ll keep it as well as I expect you to keep the secret I’m entrusting to you.”
Ellie looked her up and down one more time and nodded. “Let’s go, then,” she said. “I need a drink.”
The public elevator was crowded. It was always crowded. As they waited, the sun went further down, producing a cold breeze through the skyscrapers that towered over them. Gertrude took the chance to go over the finer points of Maci’s new baby daddy possibility while they waited. He loved reality TV and hated sports, which was so strange in a guy. He had a job in food production, so he made a good amount of tokens, but apparently he wasn’t very good looking. Although Gertrude thought that part shouldn’t matter. Then she admitted that it did matter. “Of course it does,” she said, winking at Ellie. “You’re lying if you say it doesn’t. But he’s an honest, productive worker, and that’s more important.”
When they were finally at the head of the line and the elevator doors slid open, Ellie was hit by the stale odor of urine. They stepped onto the elevator without acknowledging it, and Ellie said, “Elysian Fields.”
“So,” Gertrude said, as the elevator fell into motion. “Elysian Fields.” She tapped her nose with a finger.
“A secret you’re entrusted to keep,” Ellie reminded her.
Gertrude nodded and mimed a key locking her lips. Ellie suspected it might not have been a mistake to bring her along when Gertrude didn’t add another word for the entire walk from the elevator to the bar, down an alley a half a block away.
The air inside was stale with the scent of burnt tobacco and rank with the sour aroma of still fermenting yeast. Ellie took in a deep breath of it and her muscles relaxed. She walked straight up to the bar, sat at her regular seat on the far end, and ordered a beer, forgetting Gertrude who paused at the door to look at the place before walking cautiously over and taking the seat next to her. It didn’t take long because there was nothing more than a jukebox, pool table, dartboard, and a few booths to see.
“I’ll have what she’s having,” Gertrude said when the bartender brought Ellie’s drink.
“On my tab,” Ellie added, feeling guilty for not ordering one for her already.
Gertrude took in the place one more time. There was one other customer sitting at the opposite end of the bar, staring at the football game on the TV in front of him. “This is a nice place,” she said. “What did you say it was called again?’
“I didn’t.” Ellie took a drink of her beer. She remembered the long weekend and felt the Christmas spirit again, adding, “I mean, it doesn’t have a name. I just call it the bar because it’s the only one I ever go to. That’s why I wanted to keep it a secret.”
Gertrude nodded and locked her lips again. The bartender brought her beer, still frosty and wet from where the head had overflowed, and Gertrude looked at the glass as if it wasn’t clean. She picked it up anyway and took a tiny sip, then smiled and raised it when she saw that Ellie was watching.
“So,” Ellie said, taking a drink from her own glass. “You had something you wanted to tell me.”
Gertrude looked over at the other patron, still enraptured by the game on the TV, then leaned in close to Ellie. “Something you want to hear, dear,” she whispered. “This is one piece of information I’m not sure I want to share.” The door opened as she said it, and she jumped at the sound, looking around to see a few regulars who Ellie knew always came in to play pool. “Wanna take a booth?” Gertrude asked when she had gathered herself. “It should provide more privacy.”
Ellie nodded and led Gertrude to the back booth. She had to know what it was that made the old lady so jumpy. “So…” she said when they had both sat down.
“So,” Gertrude said. She looked behind Ellie at the people playing pool, the door, and the lone drinker, watching the game, before she continued. “How’s your new job treating you?”
“It’s paying for these drinks.” Ellie took a sip to drive the point home.
“Yes. It does pay, doesn’t it. If only it paid better.” Gertrude laughed.
“It can always pay better.”
“How true.” Gertrude nodded. “How true. I wonder, dear. Do you know where this bar gets their beer?”
Ellie shrugged. “Out of the tap. As long as I can drink it, what do I care where they get it?”
“Hmmm. I guess you’re right.” Gertrude took a thoughtful sip of beer. “But you know where it comes from, don’t you?”
Ellie thought about her son, tightened her lips into a line, and nodded.
“Well, dear,” Gertrude said. “Do you ever wonder where it all goes?”
Ellie took a big gulp of beer. Getrude couldn’t have found that out. Could she? It did seem like a piece of knowledge that she would put more discretion into sharing. “Every day I sit behind the conveyor belt and ask myself that same question,” Ellie said.
“Yes, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding. “Yes. I think we all do. And not just in QA, either. Every one of us down here slip, snap, clicking, and growing food, and shipping this and that here, there, and everywhere. But still, with all these advancements in production, all these jumps in productivity, still not even the slightest percent of what we make ends up in our hands. No, it all just seems to…seems to…disappear. Poof!” She waved her hands as she said it and laughed, then perked up in silence and looked around the bar to see if her outburst had drawn the attention of any curious onlookers. When she was satisfied that it hadn’t, she leaned over the table close to Ellie and whispered, “I’m sorry, dear. I’ve been gossiping a long loooong time to get this piece of information.” She sipped her beer.
There was no doubt left in Ellie’s mind that this was actually something worth knowing, something beyond Gertrude’s usual workplace gossip. She took a big gulp of beer in anticipation and emptied her cup with it. “Wait,” she said, holding up a finger. “Wait. I know what this means, but wait. I need a beer to take it with. You want another one?”
“Of course, sweetheart.” Gertrude smiled. “Thank you. And, yes. I think a beer would help grease the gears, so to speak.”
Ellie went to order two more. She sat in the booth, handed Gertrude her beer, and took a swig of her own. “You said you know where it goes.”
“Oh, ho ho. No, sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “No no no.” She looked around the bar and leaned in close. “If I knew that I wouldn’t be here to tell you. No. It’s not me. But…You work in QA. You know we’re on the last line of defense, we’re the last thing that each commodity sees before it goes on its way out into the wide world. You know all that already, right?”
“Of course you do, dear,” Gertrude said. “We all know that down in QA. It’s our job to know it. But none of us knows where the commodities go. None of us who can talk about it, at least.” She grinned and took a sip of her beer. Here was the Gertrude Ellie knew: happy to lord her knowledge over the ignorant.
“How?” Ellie asked. She didn’t want to give Gertrude the satisfaction of asking what was already implied.
“How else, dear?” Gertrude said. “She went right down the conveyor belt like a Christmas turkey!” She had a big smile on her face when she said it.
Ellie almost choked on the beer she was drinking. She set it down and said, “No.” So many times she had thought that going through herself would be the only way to find out where everything went, but she never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to actually try it. She wondered what it felt like, what she—Ellie didn’t even care who she was—saw, what Gertrude knew about it and how.
“Yes,” Gertrude said with a smug grin, taking a sip of her beer.
Ellie waited a full minute, staring at the delight on Gertrude’s face from dangling the information in front of her, before she said, “Well…”
“Well, dear?” Gertrude said, prolonging her joy for as long as she could.
“What did she see?”
“Sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “I told you I wouldn’t be sitting here if I knew what she saw. You’re asking the wrong questions, dear.” She sounded like Ellie’s school teacher lecturing her on proper slip, snap, clicking technique and timing. They both used the same patronizing voice and had the same pompous look on their faces when they spoke.
Ellie thought about what to say next, about what the right question might be. Gertrude didn’t mind waiting. She was happy to hold out on her information for as long as she could. She was relishing it. “How did you find out?” Ellie finally asked, satisfied it was a pointed enough question.
“Ah, dear,” Gertrude said. “Now that’s a question worth asking. And for the first line of evidence I present to you the fact that she didn’t leave her hall with the rest of us at the end of shift on the day in question.”
Ellie knew there was more to come, but she humored the pause in Gertrude’s explanation with the hope that cooperating would speed the process along. “But that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “She could have been sick and gone home early. That doesn’t prove she went through the conveyor belt.”
“True, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding solemnly. “True. But she also told me about her plans to go through.”
Ellie had more questions about that point, but she knew if she went off on a tangent now, they would never make it to the end of the explanation, so she held them for later. “Still,” she said instead. “She could have lied.”
“Also true,” Gertrude said, raising a finger. “But then why would the protectors have come and questioned everyone on our hall about her whereabouts?”
How was Ellie supposed to know that they did? She took a big gulp of beer. But that did seem to point to it being real. “But why’d she do it? What was her plan when she got through?”
“That, dear, I’m not entirely sure of,” Gertrude said. “She did mention to me that she planned on doing it, but that information came at great cost. As to what she planned on doing once she was through, that was too expensive to bear, even for me.”
“What’s on the other side?”
“Again. I couldn’t tell you if I knew.”
“Okay,” Ellie said, sighing. “So you’re telling me that she went through the conveyor belt and never came back, then the protectors came and questioned you about it.”
“I don’t know if she came back or not,” Gertrude said.
“What did the protectors say to you?”
“Like I said, they asked general questions. If we noticed any suspicious behavior, if we knew where she might be, things like that.”
“Just like that?” Ellie said. “Nothing else?”
“Just like that.” Gertrude nodded.
Ellie took a swig of beer, started her question, then took another drink. “What would it cost to know what she planned on doing?”
“Now that’s the question I’ve been waiting for all along, dear,” Gertrude said with a smile. “Are you sure you want to know the answer?”
“She told me I’d have to commit to going through myself. Or at least, to doing something equally insane. She wasn’t specific, and she didn’t want to tell me about it at all, but that was the gist of it.”
Ellie thought about whether she would do it, about going through the unknown into a dark abyss. She wondered how it would feel, what she would find, and if she could bear to try. “You thought
that was too expensive?” she said.
“We’ve seen what it did to our poor friend—well, sort of,” Gertrude said, shrugging. “It cost her everything for all we know.”
“We haven’t seen, though,” Ellie said. “We’ve only assumed.”
“Well, I guess that’s true, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding. “But do you think the presence of the protectors indicates any other outcome?”
“Maybe they took her for what she did.”
“Then why would they ask if we knew where she might be? And what would they do with her if they did take her?”
“I—well…” Ellie didn’t know how to answer that.
Gertrude smiled and sipped up the last bit of her beer. “Would you like another, dear?”
Ellie nodded. She could use one to help process all this new information. Gertrude went off to order them.
What would she actually be risking by going through? She could die. It could be something impossible to live through. She had never seen a living thing come down the conveyor belt. But what cost was that? She had lost everything worth living for except her need to avenge that fact, and Gertrude was offering the only real piece of information concerning where the things that her son had died making went.
But then again this was really nothing. It was all hearsay and rumors and all from Gertrude the Gossip Queen. So some woman Ellie had never met said that she might want to go through the conveyor belt. Ellie herself had thought the same thing on many occasions but never mentioned it. If she had mentioned it to someone and happened to miss work for a couple of days, they would be saying the exact same things about her.
But then there were the protectors. They lent credence to the theory that this mystery woman had attempted to go through. But they also added an element of danger if Ellie decided to go through herself. She knew good and well that there were things worse than death—worse even than the helpless, alienated life she already lived—and if anyone could make those things a reality, it was the protectors.
Gertrude set the beer in front of Ellie before she sat down. She looked around the bar one more time for good measure, took a sip of her beer, smiled, and said, “So, dear. Do you think you’d be willing to pay the price?”
# # #
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