A Short Story – Feb. 12, 2010 – “Waiting”
A short story
by Chris Hibbard & Curtis Goodman
(AKA the taylor swift secret maple love story)
Looking around him, Taylor saw that one again he was just one body surrounded by a queue of people. He wondered to himself, “How did I get here?” He remembered hearing something. Something unmistakable. It was a sound that he did not want to recognize and was afraid to remember; a sound that haunted him for the past two days; keeping him up nights.
Grabbing his food tray from the pile Taylor walked down the line and picked a meal from the lunch buffet. He paused by the cabbage with the serving spoon in his hand. Some days he didn’t like cabbage. It was as if it stayed with him for days. The same went for the ginger beef. Going spicy never worked out too well, Taylor thought. Moving further down the line, he took two large helpings of the red jello salad. Looking around the cafeteria, he spotted Nancy. She was wearing the same coveralls as everyone else, but she had earrings in her ears. Taylor hoped that he was the only one who had noticed.
She was sitting at a table with seven others. Taylor quickly wove his way around the cafeteria tables and sat down across from her, between two broad-shouldered 16’s.
Nancy looked up quickly, as though startled. Looking questioningly at the thought of his presence, Taylor stuck his right hand out for a shake.
“I’m Taylor,” he said, settling down in his chair and laying out his plastic cutlery and plates, leaving just enough room so that his elbows didn’t disturb the men on either side of him. When Nancy didn’t move to accept the handshake, he nervously withdrew the hand, putting it underneath the table.
For a moment the diners just sat quietly, pausing and sharing anxious glances, before they slowly resumed eating.
Nancy’s eyes rested on his for several seconds, but to Taylor, those seconds felt like a minute. He looked down at the table, at the plates nearby, and was reminded of why he had chosen the jello. The man on his right was slurping up some sort of unidentified soup or sauce. It reminded Taylor of rice pudding. It was odorless, tasteless, and formless. When the spoon left the pudding, pudding moved in to fill in the vacancy. To his left, the other man’s mashed potatoes seemed even more unappealing, and smelled as if something was off with the milk additive. Taylor could not help but think about the way that potato paste had stuck to the roof of his mouth the last time he had ate it. It was like it had filled his mouth with papier-mâché and glue.
Nancy played with her food, a bowl of purple jello salad. He watched her as she poked her jello with her plastic fork, causing the cubes to jiggle and dance. Without lifting her head or making any eye contact, Nancy asked, “When did you get back?” She said it aloud, with a strangely smug tone in her voice. The people around them didn’t seem to hear anything. They sat there in their rows, eating the slop, chomping stale bread, making slurping sounds and scraping their forks.
Then, abruptly there was that chirping sound again – a high-pitched alarm call that made everyone sit up, his or her ears alert and anticipating the impending message. But no message came.
Taylor looked at Nancy strangely and asked her, “Were you asking me? How do you know that I even went away anywhere?” But as he said it, he realized the question was rhetorical. He recalled Nancy being present when it had happened; Taylor was dragged away by the orderlies drugged, beaten, and rendered useless. In retrospect, he had come to think, it wasn’t really all that bad. It had almost seemed routine, with doctors asking him all sorts of questions. They even made him do callisthenic exercises that he hadn’t done since the early years of Academy.
“THOWMP!” There it was again. Heads ducked nervously around the table, and one girl even let out a stifled scream. The sound landed on them – booming and echoing from all directions. The room was huge, Taylor thought, looking around him at the huge underground cavern they lived in, before realizing that he had never thought about that before, which caused a great deal more thinking.
Now, the intercom piped in, broadcasting a loud and clear robotic voice. The words groaned through the otherwise virtual silence. “Batch Number 18s please report to loading dock seven. Batch 18s to loading dock seven.”
Taylor looked around and saw one person from every table in the cafeteria push their chairs back in unison, standing up and picking up their trays before they moved on in a hurry, past the dish return and towards the far door.
Taylor noticed that Nancy too had stood up, grabbed her tray with haste and walked away. ‘It was as if it was a call to action’, he thought. At the table, Taylor realized he was the only one who had seemed to notice her departure. He now watched her as she walked away from him across the cavernous room. Nancy looked back at the table over her shoulder and curled a beckoning finger towards Taylor, upon meeting his eyes. She tossed some stray hairs back off her forehead and Taylor was caught in the moment. He was both compelled to follow her and yet he sat there and stared down at his dinner tray. ‘I need to do something’ he thought, but when he looked back towards her she had already disappeared. Taylor’s heart seemed caught in his throat.
“Aww..fuck.. I should have done something,” he thought aloud.
“Done something?”, the giant to his left replied. “There was nothing you could have done man. Don’t think about it.”
“But…what…what?.. what is that supposed to mean,” Taylor gushed.
“It means that Nancy, that girl you like..” the giant on Taylor’s left interjected. “..she was on her way to the top you know. She was just about to graduate.”
“Graduating?” Taylor questioned in reply, “like from college? Is that what you mean?”
“You know – just graduating. Like she’s outta here, moving, gettin’ on to the real world. Graduatin’, just like all the other 18’s.”
‘Holy crap,’ Taylor thought. ‘How could I have been so blind to this. He realized that he had a word from any of those people that had graduated. It seemed like there was this graduating class every three weeks or so. “Was there a ceremony with a robe and cap,” he wondered, as he looked around the cafeteria one more time. Why was this cafeteria so big? It was like a huge fishbowl, cavernous, echoing, and dark in the corners. Why was there no light other than from fluorescent bulbs, Taylor thought, and paranoia began stealing over him.
At once, the ground began to shake. From the far side of the room – where Nancy had disappeared, a brilliant light beamed from out of the darkness and there was a strange smell, like burnt plastic and pine needles thrown on a wet campfire.
“How long have you been here…like, shit man, what’s going on around here? How do you know about Nancy? Because this is all still really weird to me right now.” These questions babbled out rapidly with a long intake of breath afterward. “It’s like I can only remember today,” Taylor said now standing up and stretching uncomfortably. “My head hurt this morning and now I’m sittin’ here wondering how all these pieces fit together. Like, what the hell are these numbers all about anyway? Batch numbers, like a batch of eggs or what? Where did Nancy go? What is that terrible sound, and why is the roof so high in here?”
“Ha.. you really are new aren’t ya. You don’t even know, get that…” he laughed under his breath. “Hey Chuck, he doesn’t even know!” He paused to catch the man sitting across from Taylor laugh, snorting loudly and banging his knee on the table.
“Listen…Taylor, or whatever your name is. You have a number 19. I have a number 21. I have had this number 21 for a long time, and we are waiting, don’t you get it? We’re just waiting… we’re being fed, and fattened and fed and corralled and eventually, everybody is called up. ”
“Called up?” Taylor’s voice cracked as he yelled. “Called up where? Where did she go? What happens when your number is called?”
Chuck hit the table loudly, and leaned forward, white pudding stuck to one corner of a badly trimmed mustache.
“Listen bucko,” Chuck said. “All you need to know, since you can’t seem to remember anything since you punched that guard the other day… we’ve been here a while. Out batch numbers are our ticket out of here, and when our numbers called, we go. Simple as that. And that light, that smell…put the pieces together for yourself. I wonder what 19’s will smell like.”
Taylor looked nervously around the table, the remaining five pairs of eyes now watching this discussion closely.
Choosing someone sitting two seats down on the other side of the table, someone totally far-removed, a girl with dark curls and a pinch of freckles on her cheekbones, Taylor blurted out – “you, what the hell do you know about this? What smell do you mean? Somebody gonna let me in on the joke here”
The girl smiled sadly at him, and said, “That smell. The one that we are all smelling right now. That is the smell of a batch of 18s. The last time that annoying buzzer rang, The 17s were called out. That batch smelled like bacon fat. It made us all hungry. The 16s smelled terrible, like old moldy clothes buried in an attic somewhere with rats nesting inside them. But you’re a 19. We don’t know about you yet. We’re still waiting.”