A short story offering from Laura Austin - The Applicant
When the door opened, every face in the room lifted from his or her various distractions: cell phones, magazines, and nervously twisting hands. Yet another pair of hopeful eyes swept the small waiting area. Jobs were hard to find in this busy business district, and jobs that paid what this one was offering were nearly non-existent. The newly arrived young woman spotted the only remaining chair and sat stiffly, clutching her purse in her lap. Her skirt rode up over her knees and she worried that she should have worn different shoes. Her appearance today shouldn’t matter beyond looking clean and professional, but she knew that it did.
Across from the woman was a middle-aged man from West Africa. His suit and tie were respectable enough, but they did nothing to hide his age; the gray at his temples made sure of that. He was confident in his credentials, but worried that his strong accent would be a disadvantage. The extreme competition made nearly everything a disadvantage.
A nearby door opened and a name was called. The applicant rose and made his way to the assistant who would see him to his interview. Candidates shifted in their seats, impatient and irritable. All except one would be turned away. They would soon come to regret their eagerness to be seen.
Several minutes later, the applicant returned. He walked straight through the waiting room without glancing at anyone. He marched mechanically to the door and left, not looking back. Assuming things had not gone well for him, no one paid any attention. The next person was called back, and his behavior upon returning was the same. After nearly half the applicants had come back out showing the same unawareness as the ones before them, the African became suspicious. His people were not as superstitious as they had been in past generations, but neither were they fools. When the next man came through, seemingly oblivious to everything around him, the man rose from his chair and decided to speak. “Hey, man, how did it go in there? Are you alright?” The applicant didn’t even seem to notice him. “My name is Ayibaemi. It means ‘God exists’.” There was still no response. The man continued as if he didn’t see or hear him and left. Chills went down Ayibaemi’s spine. That man had not been whole. He wasn’t sure what was going on, or what had caused it, but he had serious second thoughts about trying for this job.
Undecided, he sat back down. The young woman who had been the last to arrive spoke to him. “I guess he couldn’t handle the rejection, huh?”
Ayibaemi looked at her oddly. “It wasn’t the rejection,” he stated firmly. “Something was wrong with him.”
The woman wasn’t sure what to say to that but took a guess, “Drugs?” she asked dubiously. Even she had noticed that it wasn’t just one person’s behavior. They had all been alike, robotic in their movement, and completely oblivious to their surroundings. “I’m May, by the way.” May held out her hand and he shook it.
“I am Ayibaemi. It is nice to meet you. I am not sure you should stay here. Things are not what they seem to be.” He still felt a sense of foreboding, and his grandfather had always taught him to listen to his inner self. One could perceive things spiritually that one could not see physically.
May considered him for a moment. Was he simply trying to get rid of some of the competition? He seemed nice, and his accent was very charming, but she didn’t want to be naïve. She would be a fool to walk away from such a great opportunity just because someone else had the heebie-jeebies!
Just then, another applicant finished with whatever he had been doing in the back (Ayibaemi was sure it hadn’t been an interview) and crossed into the room. Ayibaemi stood directly in front of him, not allowing him to pass. The man stopped, but did not look into Ayibaemi’s face. He simply stood and stared straight ahead, waiting to be allowed through. When Ayibaemi could no longer stand the eerily vacant expression on the man’s face, he moved aside. Coming to a firm decision, he turned to May. “You leave here now. Do not stay. There is no opportunity for gain here, only loss.” Agitated, he left.
May was stunned. He had just walked out! Even if the people here were a little weird, she didn’t see any injuries or harm. So what if they were rude? This was a major city, and no one had the manners she was used to back in her small southern hometown. She stayed in her seat, unsure. People were still being called back one by one. Each one came out the same as the ones before them. Even though she couldn’t explain it, she was unwilling to face any reality that included her leaving this possible job behind. She really needed to get her foot in the door, and this wasn’t just any job! It paid far more than other jobs like it. In the back of her mind a little voice told her that maybe it was to good to be true. Maybe it was just the bait for the trap. That was silly though! This isn’t a horror movie, she told herself, it’s real life and in the real world I have to get a job! Deciding to stay, she clutched her purse harder.
Twenty minutes later, the assistant called her name, “May Faulkner?” May got up, brushed at her skirt and approached the door. Stopping for only a second, she got the strangest feeling. She didn’t want to go any further. She wasn’t sure why, it just seemed like some long buried instinct telling her not to go through that door. Shaking herself lightly, she proceeded through. The thought of being the one to land the position was too great a temptation.
The hallway was far longer than she thought it should be. The building really wasn’t all that big. There were no other halls branching off, just a straight path that stretched on and on. May squinted, trying to see to the end of the hall where the door to the hiring manager’s office should have been. She couldn’t quite see around the assistant, walking briskly in front of her, but there didn’t seem to be anything there. Suddenly see could see a door. How was it still so much farther to go? This is crazy, she thought. Maybe I should have listened to Ayibaemi after all. Feeling like she had lost her chance to walk away, she kept going and then stood behind the silent assistant and watched her push a series of buttons, opening the door. As soon as May entered the room, the assistant and the door vanished. Stifling a scream, May spun around to look at the room. It was huge and she knew that there was no way it could possibly fit into the small downtown building she had so unwittingly entered a couple of hours before. The walls were like smoke, drifting and changing shape. She could feel a solid floor beneath her feet, but couldn’t see anything below her knees. Turning in slow circles, she tried to grasp what was happening. This isn’t real, it can’t be, she thought, but no matter how unrealistic her situation was, she was here. She wished that she had left when Ayibaemi had, instead of being so stubborn and ambitious! There had obviously been more going on than what she had pretended! Those other people hadn’t just been rude; they’d been damaged somehow! Crying silent tears, May simply waited, helpless to do anything else.
After waiting for what had to have been several hours, May noticed movement in the room. It began as a swirling of the wall to her right. Slowly it began to condense until it solidified into a large door. Horrified, she didn’t know whether or not to approach it. It could be a way out, or it could be a trick. With nothing to lose, May started moving toward it. Just as she was within reach, it began to open. May scurried away just as a being passed through. He seemed like a man. He was tall with broad shoulders and long, almost apish arms. She tried looking at his face and found she couldn’t. It was a blur of shifting features, never taking on a specific shape. Terrified, May backed up and turned to run, so blind in her panic that she had forgotten there was nowhere to run to. The large man-thing grabbed her short hair and held her in place. Screaming, May kicked with her heels and tried to turn and swipe at him with her fingernails. Annoyed but unmoved, he shoved her around and the wall turned solid just as her face made contact with it. “Be still,” it said. “Do not provoke me further.”
May was helpless and she knew it. “What do you want?” she screamed. It didn’t answer and she became even more desperate. “I’ll be missed! I’ve been gone for hours now and there were other people waiting! They’ll know something is wrong!” May wasn’t convinced they would be concerned for her welfare, but was reasonably sure that they would at least want their own turn and complain.
“It has been mere moments, woman. Time passes differently here. Did you notice anything amiss when the others came back here? Did you feel they had been gone long?”
Horror washed through May’s whole body. She was truly in trouble. “What do you want with me?’ she whispered this time. She trembled and felt like her legs were going to give out on her.
He watched her coldly. “Nothing that you will not give.” She stared at him in terror but then, too late, realized her mistake. She was caught in his gaze. His eyes had formed out of the cloudy shifting mass that was his face and they glowed with power. She couldn’t drag her eyes away. She felt like she was being pulled inside out, the pain making her eyes water but she could not scream or even breathe. She could see fire in his eyes now, an inferno without end. His hands were caressing her arms almost tenderly, but everywhere he touched became scorched and her flesh began to roast. He continued sweeping his hands along her body, going lower to her legs, around to her back, her skin turning black and sloughing off. Bone began to show through where her skin had been and she wondered why she didn’t die. Pain was her world now; nothing else existed. After he had consumed all he could from her, he let go. She tumbled to the floor, suddenly whole. Her flesh was untouched, her clothing unmarked by burns. The pain was gone, but the memory wasn’t. She was in shock, silent and shaking. She closed her eyes and prayed to a God she never should have forgotten. When she opened her eyes, she was back in the hallway, lying in the floor. The assistant peered down at her. “Get up. It’s someone else’s turn now.” May slowly became aware of her surroundings. She couldn’t speak, and was so engulfed by the terror and agony of her experience she obeyed and got to her feet. She walked back down the hall, not looking around her or caring about her surroundings. She was vaguely aware of passing through the door to the waiting room and distantly thought she should be relieved. She should run. She should warn the others.
The memory of the smoky demon silenced her. No one would believe any of this. Even if they would, she still couldn’t speak. She just stared ahead and walked. She didn’t look at anyone as she crossed the waiting room. She thought she heard someone speak to her but couldn’t make her body react. Her memory of her ordeal began to fade and then disappear as she walked through the door that would take her outside, back to her car. She really needed to get a job…