James stepped down onto the sidewalk, leaving the crowded, smelly bus behind him. He straightened his black, clip-on tie and adjusted his burgundy V-Neck sweater so that it almost covered the soup-stain on his formerly white shirt. He was a mess and he knew, but it would have to do. His briefcase, which was tucked under his left arm due to it's lack of a handle, held a few dozen copies of his resume and various writing samples, ranging from a few college newspaper articles to the first chapter of his long-abandoned novel. He even had a copy of the anthology which contained one of his better short stories. The fact that he had been sleeping with the editor of said anthology at the time of publication usually failed to surface during polite conversation and interviews. Usually.
The ad hadn't said to bring any résumé's or samples, but James wasn't about to be caught without them... Again. Actually, the ad hadn't said much of anything. He had come across it by accident while he was flipping through the 'Creative Loafing,' searching for the weekend's happenings... most of which he couldn't afford to attend.
'WRITERS WANTED' it said in tiny black letters. There was a phone number underneath, but no description or address. No requirements or qualifications, either. Whoever they were, they'd left the applicant pool wide open. It took James all of three minutes to make the call.
He got a recording that simply gave a street address. No company name. No hours. Just an address. The next day, James dressed himself in his best interview clothes and caught the bus to the other side of town.
The bus dropped him off several blocks away, and James spent walk practicing for the interview:
"Yes, sir... I am published. Would you like to see some samples?" he was using his 'interview voice,' which was a good two octaves deeper than his normal one.
"Yes, ma'am, I DO have a resume."
"As you can see, I have a bachelor's degree in journalism."
"My GPA?... uhhh...."
James had managed to stump himself. Hopefully the interviewer wouldn't notice his less than stellar grade point average. Not that is mattered... he had been out of school for almost a decade now. Experience was what counted... which meant he'd probably be returning home without the job.
Finally, he arrived. The place was in one of those ubiquitous cookie-cutter office buildings that sprouted up like mushrooms during the last commercial developing boom. This one was a three-story rental. The sign out front was blank. The building looked deserted. It wasn't run-down or dilapidated, but it did have that indescribable *empty* feeling that buildings acquired after standing vacant for a time. There were no windows in the front, and the door had been covered with newspapers.
James checked the address against the barely legible numbers painted on the edge of the sidewalk. It was a match.
"Damn." he said. He was immediately peeved that he had come all the way out here just for someone's practical joke. "Writers wanted... yeah, right."
Just to be sure, James gave the door a good yank. It swung open and nearly smacked him in the face.
"Whoooaaa!" James twirled and stumbled into the building.
"Are you okay?"
"Uhhh..." James looked into the eyes of the most... unique woman he had seen since college. She was seated behind a large receptionist's desk, and either her chair was elevated or her standing height had to be over six and a half feet tall. Her hair was too red to be real, and the deep tan of her face and neck told of a standing appointment at a tanning salon somewhere. She wore a conservative black business suit that displayed less cleavage than James would have liked. She was beautiful in a strange sort of way. And she was smiling at James.
"Uhhh.... I'm here about the ad?"
"Of course you are!" the receptionist's smile widened. Her voice was higher than James had expected. It was almost a little girl's voice, and it certainly didn't fit with her size.
"Umm... what company is this? I didn't see a sign..."
"Oh, were just getting set up and the sign people are giving us the run-around. So you want to write, huh?
"Yeah. I'm a freelance writer, James M-uh-Morrison-" James approached the desk with his hand extended.
"Have a seat." she said before he got halfway across the room. She waved him towards the waiting area. It was just a corner of the room that had been furnished with a glass-top table a set of those plush leather chairs that farted when people sat in them.
The chair farted.
"I hate those things." the secretary giggled from behind her desk. "So do you like to write?"
"Yeah. I'm freelance-"
"That means 'waiter'."
"Huh? How'd you know I was-"
The secretary giggled. James got the joke, but didn't like being the butt of it. He was a waiter... but the fact that most wannabe writers ended up waiting tables was pure coincidence. He was a REAL writer...
"I- uhh- I'm published, too. I wrote for my college newspaper, and I've had some of my short stories printed. I've got some samples right here..." James reached for his briefcase. He knew that he was only speaking to the receptionist, but he might as well consider this as more 'practice' for the interview.
James opened the case and pulled out the tattered paperback that contained his story. He stood-
"Oh, I'll look at it later, have a seat and relax."
James sat back down, causing the chair to fart loudly.
"Oh, MY!" The receptionist giggled.
"Sooo...you write fiction or non-fiction?"
"Well, like I said I was in the college newspaper and I do short stories.... so I guess it's both."
"You ever write a biography?"
"Nooo, but I interviewed one of my professors once. It went really well, and we got into some biographical stuff. Is that what you're needing? A biography for someone?"
"Well, more than one. It's sort of like a series."
"Oh... is this like a publishing house or something? I didn't catch the name-"
"Publishing? Well, yes in a way. Mostly for a very limited audience."
"Ohhhh...." said James. 'Limited Audience' usually means 'little or no pay.' "So who am I interviewing with?"
"Me." said the receptionist.
"huh? But you're just-" James frowned and kicked himself for assuming that the woman behind the front desk was a secretary. But what *else* would she be?
"S-So could you tell me more about the position, then?"
"Position? Third row from the back, second desk from the end."
"What?" said the secre-... woman.
"You just... I... is this a full time position or just a temporary?"
"Oh, it's permanent."
"Besides learning all the dirty little secrets?"
"Biographies... right. But umm... medical and-"
"Medical is covered."
"Cool! I mean, great! I mean...uhh... that's good."
"You like to write, don't you?"
"Yeah. Sure." How many times was she going to ask that question?
"That's good. We like giving writers work... no use letting all that talent go to waste. It's a sin, you know."
"Wasting talent. It's in the Bible somewhere..."
"Guess I never read that part. So, tell me more about the position. What will I be writing?"
"I don't understand."
"Doesn't matter... you're hired."
"You're hired, silly!"
"Oh, that's great! Uhhh... How much is the pay? How much money will I make?"
"How much do you WANT to make?"
"Well, I, uhhh...I mean I don't know-"
"Maybe you'd like to get started. Take a little tour? Give the position a try?"
The secretary pushed back from her desk and stood. She was indeed a *tall* woman. She walked over to the door opened it, revealing an undecorated hallway with white walls. She stood to one side and beckoned for James.
He stood and preceded her into the hall. As he passed her, James caught a whiff of her perfume. He didn't recognize the fragrance... but it was thick and exotic.
"On down to the end of the hall and through that door," she said.
James saw the door she was referring to. It seemed so *far away,* the building wasn't that big, was it? And the hallway... long and white with no other doors an decorations. It was surreal.
Yeah, thought James, I like that word... 'Surreal'...I'm going to have to use it.
They walked for what seemed like an hour, but was most likely only a few minutes. The door grew large and imposing before them. When he stopped in front of it, the secretary reached around him and stuffed a thick iron key into the lock.
"What's the lock for?" said James.
"Security." The secretary turned the key. There was a solid *cli-CLUNK* from the mechanism.
"Security." said James. "Yeah."
That was a STUPID question...
The door swung open.
The smell of dusty old books wafted out into the hallway. James turned away to cough, and when he looked back, his mouth dropped open...
The room at the end of the hall was packed with row upon row upon row of desks. Men and women were hunched over, scribbling furiously in the blank pages of large, leather-bound tomes. James had entered the room from the rear, and all of the workers were facing away from him. There must have been hundreds of them, and there were quite a few empty desks as well.
"Follow me." The secretary pushed past James and began weaving her way through the rows of workers. James followed her. He was in a daze... what was this place? What were they writing? Why were there some MANY?
"This is just a satellite office," said the secretary. "The two main branches are upstairs and downstairs."
"What? I- I didn't see any sta-"
"We've got these little branches all over the world. Amazing, isn't it?"
"I'm not sure I understand."
"You will. This is your position."
The secretary had stopped beside small desk that was identical with the rest. Third row from the back. Second from the end. On it was a large, antique book. It was closed, and there was an ornate symbol embossed on the leather cover. No words. Just the symbol. He reached down to touch it-
"Have a seat."
James sat down in the small hard-back chair. It was uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. It made his back hurt and his legs tingle.
"Hey," he said as he squirmed in the chair. "I don't like this one. Can I get another-"
"Here-" the secretary was holding out a pen. It was a large black fountain that seemed to have been made for a giant. The barrel had to have been an inch in diameter. "Take it," she said.
"A pen?" said James. "No word processors? No computers?"
"We're an old-fashioned shop, Mr. Morrison. We stick with what we know best. Here, take the pen."
James reached out and grasped the odd utensil. It throbbed in his hand. Over and over... like a pulse. His fingers twitched.
"Theeeeere you go. Now here," The secretary reached down and opened the book to the first page. It was blank. James put the pen to the page and it began to move of its own accord, drawing words across the glaring white surface. The handwriting wasn't James'... it belonged to someone, or something else.
"You know there are more people alive today than have ever died in the history of mankind? Really puts a big hole in that reincarnation theory, doesn't it? But the population explosion really set us behind. All these people... all these lives. We didn't know what to do at first.... we're on a deadline that just won't slide for anyone. We had to contract out... take on freelancers like yourself. Put some of that wasted talent to work."
James listened to the words without actually hearing them. His hand... his arm... the words kept coming and coming. They wouldn't stop, even when his arm began to cramp. It just got faster...
He looked around at the other desks, where silent workers sat scribbling, hunched over in tortuous positions. He couldn't see their faces. Why couldn't he see their faces?
"Don't worry about them, Mr. Morrison. Everybody's got their own assignment. Let's see what you're working on..." She leaned down and looked at the words. "Oh yes, I forgot. You do your own first."
James looked down at the open book. His rogue hand had already completed the first page and was now rapidly filling the second. James read the first few lines:
BORN, SEPT 7, 1963 TO MARTHA AND JEBIDIAH MORRISON.
AUG.12, 1966- 12:13:18PM - JAMES LIED TO HIS MOTHER CONCERNING THE BROKEN FLOWER-POT IN THE LIVING ROOM.
AUG.13, 1966- 8:18:56PM - JAMES LIED TO HIS FATHER CONCERNING THE GRAPE-JUICE STAIN ON HIS FAVORITE CHAIR.
AUG 19, 1966...
It went on and on. Every lie he ever told. Every sin he'd ever committed. It was a roll-call of all the things he had ever done wrong. Every profane word. Every lustful urge. Every envious or angry thought. He watched in horror as his hand traced them out in gruesome, crisp detail: The time he let his eyes... and then his hands... wander over his little sister's sleeping body. The time he threw firecrackers at the neighbors dog, chasing it out into the street. He never told the truth about how that dog died... until now. The time when he dropped some of his college roommates 'funny pills' into a girls drink at the local bar. The time he threatened to kill himself just to get Helen in bed... and get his story in her anthology. All of it. It was all there. It HAD to be... It was his book. The book of James Morrison.
"What's going on!" James tried to stand, tried to force his hand to stop the unwilling confessional, but his body would not respond. His limbs were no longer his own. He couldn't stand. He couldn't move. It was the chair... he couldn't get out of the damned chair!
"Shhh..., Mr. Morrison! Don't disturb the other writers. We're behind enough as it is!"
Sure enough, the man at the neighboring desk lifted his head and turned toward James. The man had no face. His eyes and mouth were stitched shut with wicked, black string, like some demonic rag-doll.
"Oh, that's just to prevent eavesdropping, Mr. Morrison. Standard procedure. But don't worry... medical is covered with this position; you won't have to pay a thing."
"h-h-HELLLP!!! Let me OUT!!!"
"Oh, Mr. Morrison... I thought you LIKED writing?"
Copyright 1998 by Marc Washington (Dark Icon)