Always The Fool by Melissa R. Mendelson
I was meant to be home today, but they called me in, ignoring the pass day. The operator was vague. Some kind of babble about someone calling out sick, but we were all assigned to certain days. If something came up, if someone was sick, the deliveries would be held until the next day, but if I dared question the system, the fine would be heavy. I was already broke.
I reported to the dock at nine a.m. My pay was docked one hour. The system did not care for traffic or construction or any other kind of delay. Work started at eight a.m., and my locker was stuck. It took forever to jar the door open, throw my stuff inside, and slip into that uncomfortable, gray plastic suit. The gloves were even more uncomfortable, and I couldn’t find my face mask. But they didn’t punish me for that.
“One delivery,” the guard said to me as the door opened. “Take it down to the inferno.”
“One delivery? I was called in on my pass day for one delivery?”
“You got a problem with the system?” The guard watched me shake my head. “Good, and where’s your damn face mask? Those fumes will kill you.”
“I don’t know. I think someone was in my locker.”
“Well, you got one delivery, and then you’ll be sent on your way. Just hold your breath.” He signed the clipboard that he held, making a strange, red mark by my name. “Cart’s waiting.” He raised his eyebrows up at me, and I slowly moved away. “What a waste,” he muttered.
I steadied my hands along the cart. Sometimes, they were so heavy to push, but this one was light. The grab slab on the flatbed was the same size, width and height, but it weighed nothing. I was tempted to open it, but I never wanted to look inside those things. I never wanted to know what it was that I was pushing into the inferno. I would not question the system. One delivery, and then I would be on my way like the guard said.
I stepped into the warehouse. I pretended that the cart was heavy, taking my time to the inferno. I could smell it already, an ugly, burnt smell. Where the hell did my face mask go, and who would have taken it? I glanced up at the corridors along the warehouse, spotting others pushing their gray slabs to the inferno, some returning this way with empty carts to reload. One delivery. What a joke.
“Put a face mask on,” a youth remarked as he skid by. This did not bother him. Instead, if he racked up enough deliveries, he could leave early and game all night. That’s what he lived for, but those older knew better. There was no escape from the system.
“Delivery.” I finally made it to the steel doors. Maybe, I should have quickened in pace. I wanted to go home not to game but to sleep. My dreams were pleasant, unlike this harsh reality. I swiped my badge over the panel, but it did not turn yellow. “What the hell? It worked yesterday,” and I swiped again.
“Supervisor notified.” The operator’s voice boomed overhead. She was always cold, indifferent, hardly human, but that’s how she survived. “Please, wait,” she said.
My stomach flipped. I had the rationed meal. One bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk with a few lumps. I was not privileged for more better quality food or drink. Sometimes, after a successful week, I would be rewarded with a chicken or fish dinner and not that gray stuff that they called meat. I haven’t had that kind of dinner in a long time.
“Collar?” The supervisor appeared on the scene. He stood six feet back. “Collar,” he repeated.
“6543219,” I said.
“Right. Pass day?”
“Today,” I answered, and he caught the annoyed tone. “Called in,” I said. “One delivery.” I hid my tone that time. “Here to deliver.”
“Come inside.” The supervisor swiped his badge, and the steel doors opened. “No face mask?”
“No,” I answered.
“Try not to breathe.” He smiled as he said that, and I did not like that smile. He followed me inside. “You were here for the visit last week?”
I pushed the cart into the dim room, pretending it was still heavy. I felt the fires from the inferno, an ugly machinery with various doors for various floors, all leading to the same end result. Burned. “Yes, I was here,” I said, trying to hold my breath, but I could already taste that smell.
“And you saw him?”
“What?” I realized that the supervisor was close, and I cringed. “Saw who? The Auditor?”
“No. Not the Auditor. Him.”
I knew who he was talking about. I passed by the dining room and saw all that food stretched out on the decorated conference table. I was so hungry, but I did not dare to venture inside, even for a bite. That’s when I realized that he was there at the head of the table, eating like a pig.
“You saw him.” That was not a question. “You watched him eat.”
“Okay. Yeah. I saw him, and I watched him eat. Can I throw the delivery in now?”
“He didn’t like that. You watching him eat.” The supervisor walked away from me. He approached the gray slab on the flatbed. “He reported you, and that’s why you are here.”
“That’s why I was called in on my pass day for one delivery? Because of that? Watching him eat?”
“Yes.” The supervisor did not look at me. He stared at the gray slab. “Do you ever question what it is that you are always burning?” He watched me shake my head. “These gray slabs are large, large enough for a human body.”
I paled at his words. “Excuse me,” I said.
“They are large enough for human bodies,” and he threw open the gray slab, revealing nothing inside. “Get inside,” he said.
“What? Wait. We’re burning people? Alive?”
“Get inside.” I noticed the gun in his hand. “Your choice. Alive or Dead.”
“For what? Watching him eat his fucking food?”
The supervisor’s finger wrapped around the trigger. “You offended him, and this is your punishment. Get inside the gray slab.”
“There has to be another way. Please,” I begged, and the gun went off. The bullet pierced my leg. The next hit my shoulder. I realized that he did not want to kill me. He wanted to burn me alive. I burned so many people alive, and I never realized it. But my supervisor knew, and he knew exactly what he was doing now. And for what? The system? “Please,” I screamed as he lifted me up and threw me into the gray slab.
“Save it,” and he slammed the gray slab shut.
Melissa R. Mendelson is a Horror and Science-Fiction Author. She has been published by Sirens Call Publications, Dark Helix Press and Transmundane Press. Her short stories have also been featured on Tall Tale TV. She is currently working on completing her Horror novel, Ghost in the Porcelain, which surrounds an evil, porcelain doll.