He reached for the cup, frowning at its lightness, before sucking down the last cold dregs to drop it into the bin beneath his desk. His eyes stung like bees; he pressed hard into them with his palm, massaging deeply. He felt as though he had been awake for a lifetime. He glanced at the clock: it was still only 7:15. The number grinned at him like a winking eye in the clock’s sunshine-frame. He stared at it in disbelief until the number read 7:30.
The door opened, filling the room with the clank of heavy machinery and blaring alarm bells. The constant, mechanical whirring dissipated as the door swung softly shut, replaced with the rustling of the woman’s coat. The noise attracted the young man’s attention, his eyes falling upon her as she wrestled with it, twisting violently. She shrugged it off one shoulder and, without undoing the zipper, pulled her arms from sleeves before allowing it to fall down past her waist; it pooled at her feet, a puddle of red polyester.
“There,” she said triumphantly, stepping out of it before kicking the coat into the corner, behind the door. “I damn near died coming in, wearing a coat like that. It’s so hot out there!”
She didn’t look at him while she spoke but he grunted, noncommittaly, to assure her he’d heard. As he shifted his focus to the mountain of shining, stainless-steel needles before him, he heard the woman move toward her desk; he reached for a handful, pulling several thin needles from the blue plastic bin. He rolled them out neatly across his long, latexed finger, grunting as he pulled one from the end. Frowning, he reached out, holding it over the red bin, which sat to the left of the blue one, before dropping it.
It fell with a dull thud as he turned his attention back to the row in his hand.
“Seriously,” the woman whined after a time, “you’d think they might put some fans out there or something. Or open up a window, for Chrissake! This place might just kill me one of these days if we keep getting winters like these.”
The young man crossed his fingers as the woman threw off her scarf; he watched it fall to the floor at the foot of the woman’s desk, tangling itself in the wheels as she shoved the chair roughly. Rifling through the clutter on her desk, the woman pulled out a small, white remote. The soft hum of the air-conditioner whirred to life about the man’s head, sounding in time with the click of the woman’s stubby finger. Cold air fell over him like a blanket of snow, a thick drift that bit at his exposed shoulders. He leaned back, sliding his arms into the sleeves of the coat which sat, already waiting, on the back of his chair. He pulled it on fluidly before turning back to his work.
“That’s better,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Gotta get the room down to temperature. Us ladies, you know, we tend to run hot!”
She grinned at him, her eyebrows raised, but he did not look up. Training them on the magnifying lens, he watched the needles roll across the pad of his thumb, eyeing the steel surface for metal burrs. Finding one, he pulled it gently from his grip to drop it to the left, into the red bin. As he set the others down, carefully, into the green one, the woman was already upon him.
“And what’s wrong with this one?” she asked sweetly, dipping her hand deep into the red bin to pull out the piece he had just dropped into it. “I don’t see anything!”
His frown deepened at the sight of her ungloved hand.
“The tip,” he said, frowning slightly at the ungloved hand which now waved itself in front of his face. “It’s broken.”
“Broken?” She echoed, staring at him. “What’s broken?”
“The tip,” he repeated flatly, “it isn’t there.”
“What do you mean, it isn’t there?”
“Would you like to check?”
“Fine,” she said, reaching out her other hand, “give me your loupe.”
He nodded, handing her the circular magnifying lense. She took it from him, turning the switch on the side: a small ring of LED lights flicked to life behind the glass, shimmering against the needle the woman now twisted between her fingers. She squinted, one-eyed, through the lens, her tongue pinched firmly between her teeth. She scoffed and, laughing softly, lowered the loupe in her right hand to rap it smartly on the table.
As she raised it again, the man saw that half of the LED’s had flickered like moths and died. The man stared mutely at their torched, blackened husks.
“The loupe was too bright,” she drawled, “so you lost the tip in the metal’s reflection.”
He stared at her, repeating her words. Silently.
“It’s there,” she insisted, handing the loupe back to him, “you can check it if you like.”
He reached out his hand to take the piece but froze: she had already dropped it into the bin to the green bin. A sound bubbled strangely up from the back of his throat, rising like bile until it burst as the woman turned away. The young man felt his hand fall limply to his side. He looked at the magnifier: another light flickered briefly. Then died.
He leaned over the green bin, saw the piece she had touched and withdrew it—a smudge shone against the polished surface. He stared down at the others, counting out how many others this piece had touched. He stared at the red bin, then set the piece aside.
Then the woman was back, wagging her finger disapprovingly. He watched, nonplussed, as a manicured hand dropped deeply into the green bin, digging through the needles before pulling out a separate one. It glinted in the white light overhead.
“But sweetie,” she said, waving it under his nose, “you managed to let this one slip through?”
He stared at it, locking his eyes on the metal gripped now between her long, red fingernails. She held them up to her eye line, smirking at him.
“What’s wrong with that one?” the man asked.
“The tip,” she said dumbly, “it’s broken.”
“Broken?” He held out his hand. “May I see?”
He flicked the small switch; the crisp, half-glow of LED light illuminated his whitened face.
“The tip,” she repeated, ignoring his outstretched hand. “It isn’t there, honey. You would hardly need a magnifier to see something as simple as that.”
He offered his hand again, but she batted it away.
“I saw it first thing, I did! Pieces big as these ones. I was the best at finding no-tips,” she boasted, twirling the piece in her grip, “on the old 20-22s. Tiny little parts, those ones were; you had to use magnifiers just to find them!”
He said nothing, offered only his outstretched hand.
“That was long before you showed up, anyhow. Back when I was the very best at it. No one in the entire company could hold a candle to me! That’s why they put me up as head of Quality.”
He grunted, stretching his hand out further: still, she ignored it.
“Now, those pieces were horrible little bastards. The 20-22s were thin, tiny little things. You could barely hold them still. And the tips were damn-near microscopic. That’s saying something,” she said impressively, “considering we couldn’t afford microscopes at the time.”
He felt his grip tighten around the cheap, 10x magnification lens. But when he spoke, he kept his voice calm.
“May I see it now?”
“But still,” she said, taking a step back, “I was the one that found them! Impressed the man upstairs pretty decently, considering how I ended up here. And that’s not the only perk of eyes like these–” he watched hers flash like two pin-pricks of emerald lightning– “let’s just say these eyes don’t come cheap. Let me tell you!”
They stared into his blue ones but his did not fall to meet hers.
“Can I see it? Please.”
He watched as her pupils fluttered between his own, then to his outstretched hand. Then they settled on the needle, which she braced tightly between her thumb and forefinger.
“You want to see this one?” she asked innocently. “Well, why didn’t you just say so?”
She was, for a moment, like a faceless statue: her sneakers were stones, rooted to the rough cement floor, as her arm turned to granite before him. Marveled at witnessing this sudden petrification, the young man did not react as the face cracked suddenly at the corners of the mouth. The lips carved themselves into a wide, toothy smile. In a single swift, fluid motion, she had crossed the distance between them to fill it with the needle.
“Look,” she declared, scraping the tip along the ridge of her lacquered nail, “there’s nothing there.”
He stared, blindly, for a fraction of a moment. His vision focused on the pattern; thin, yellow lines rose up the ketchup-red paint in uniform rows, crossing together at pinpoints. They looked almost like scales. The woman cleared her throat, holding the piece out to him, but he felt his hand drop again. When he didn’t speak, she smiled and turned her back to him once more.
“Seriously, sweetie,” she said, dropping the piece into the red bucket, “you do take this all too seriously. It’s quite alright if you miss just one or two. That’s what I’m here for, anyway: to catch the little mistakes like that!”
She turned to face him and smiled again. He was glad for his coat as she reached out to pat his shoulder consolingly, shaking her head softly like a wise, doting mother. He made a note to call his own during his lunch break as the woman withdrew her hand and slumped back toward her desk. She threw herself down into the chair and sank into it—deeply.
He turned back to the pieces, glancing at the loupe. He flicked off the light, then slid the remaining needles into the green bin to the right; they fell with a clink atop the other, now smudge-printed, ones. He reached into the middle bin and withdrew another clump.
“Well,” she drawled, “circling back to what I was saying before you asked for my help…”
“What you were saying…” he repeated automatically, squinting through the dark.
“Right, about the new girl.”
He rolled the pieces between his fingers, his eye catching at one end.
“The new girl?” he questioned. “What new girl?”
“Ooh, you didn’t know? I’ll show you!”
He heard her rifle loudly through the papers on her cluttered desk. He glanced at her over his shoulder before casually flicking his hand over the red bin. He coughed. Then, he carefully dropped the rest into the green one. He grabbed more.
The woman didn’t hear him as she scrolled through her phone.
“I can’t believe you wouldn’t know! So what you’re saying is, the boss only texted me?”
She pulled out a pack of gum and removed a piece. She glanced up at the young man, caught his eye. She looked at the near-full pack. Pocketed it. As she unwrapped the stick of ice-blue gum to stick it into her mouth, the young man watched as the wrapper fluttered gently down to meet the scarf on the floor.
“I’ve got them here,” she droned, “the messages, I mean. Do you want to see them?”
He said nothing.
“That’s alright. It’s probably better; it’s a new phone and all. I wouldn’t want to dirty it right out of the box. So I’ll read them to you. The boss says it all here.”
She took a moment to straighten herself up, clearing her throat while smacking the gum between her lips. The room was frigid, like spearmint. He pulled his jacket up higher and zipped it to his neck. She cleared her throat again and read:
The new girl will be arriving no later than 12 p.m. today to train under you in Quality.
“‘The new girl,’ he says. He does carry on about things as if I should know them, doesn’t he? But really,” she complained, “he didn’t even give me a name.”
She waited a minute, weighing the silence. The young man left her to it.
“Honestly,” she droned on, “it’s not like I couldn’t figure it out. I heard from Bunter in Cleaning that—Oh? You know Bunter. The short one, with the long black hair. Miserably fat little devil. Doesn’t speak any English? —anyways, I heard from him that she’s his sister-in-law’s niece’s babysitter.”
Silence fell over them again.
“A babysitter,” she repeated, as if she couldn’t comprehend it, “can you believe it? In Quality!?”
She allowed the shock of her words to settle in the room like a coat of fine dust; the man wiped some of it off the needles before dropping them into the green bin.
“Anyway, so back to this girl… or better yet, this babysitter! She’s coming here to train under me. The boss upstairs must be hoping for a miracle if he thinks I can train someone up to work like I do, and with no real-world experience besides!”
“You’re right,” the young man replied. “He must be.”
“Well, I am the very best that Quality has to offer,” she said smartly, looking around the nearly empty room, “so it makes sense why he’d choose me. But to pick today of all days, I’ll never understand it. And when it’s so damned hot out there, too!”
The man hunched forward, rolling his eyes. He shifted himself slightly to one side, blocking the view of his monitor. A blue-filmed finger snaked across the tabletop to fall upon the mouse: it squeaked beneath a nail’s pressure. The faintest sound of softened music filled the room, shattering its crypt-like silence.
“They say that she is only in her twenties,” the woman said after some time, “‘round the same age as you. Can you believe it? I’m practically a babysitter myself now, watching after such small, young things!”
He grinned as the silence fell again and he was met with the sound of sweet, soft music. His peace was short-lived, as the sound of an alarm bell rang through the room. The door was opened. He turned to face her as the new girl stepped into the room.
She allowed the door to swing shut behind her, muting the piercing whistle as the wood thudded bluntly back into its frame. The girl took a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room. They flickered around it before finding the woman; she smiled before turning toward the young man.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling at him, too. “It’s nice to meet you both. My name is Grace.”
“Grace,” the woman repeated, matter-of-fact. She looked at the clock: it read 11:15. “We’ve been expecting you, Grace.”
“That’s perfect,” Grace beamed at her, “and you are…”
“I’m the Specialist, and your supervisor. But as you’re only training today, it’ll be much more like babysitting. That’s my station there.”
She jerked her head toward the cluttered desk. Grace glanced down quickly at it, then turned to face the door. The woman met the man’s eyes, laughing in mock-silence as she pointed at Grace, whose back was to them as she removed her coat. When she turned again, the coat folded neatly in her hands, her cheeks were slightly pink.
“I’m very sorry,” Grace said, “but I didn’t catch your name.”
The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she stared down at her nails, trying to smooth away a pin-sized puncture from the hot-red lacquer. Grace stared at her before meeting the young man’s eye.
“Well then, how about you over there? Your name would be?”
“Hello,” the man began, “I’m—.”
“That’s our Quality Inspector. He does tips and burrs.”
“Ooh, that sounds very interesting.”
The woman barked with laughter. “Oh no, it’s horrible work. Horribly simple work. So simple, even a monkey could do it. But a monkey costs more than a man in most cases, so the boss makes do. Believe me, Grace,” she laughed, “It’s truly some mind–numbing stuff. But you do get your own loupe, for one thing.”
“That’s a magnifier, Grace, to see the imperfections,” the woman said, sounding slightly harassed, “you’d best get familiar with the terms, even if it’s just to save me time in explaining them.”
“Right,” Grace said, “so only the Quality Inspector gets a loupe, then?”
“Well, they get a loupe. And they get the chair by the air conditioner,” the woman said bitterly, “that’s another perk of the job.”
The girl glanced quickly around the room, scanning the four walls. After she had turned all the way around, she laughed aloud.
“Honestly,” she beamed, “I thought someone must have left a window open and forgotten about it! But now I realize there are no windows. Goodness gracious, it is quite cold in here!”
“Well, the room’s simply got to stay at one temperature, I’m afraid. This place is so cheap, the air conditioner’s broken—it’s stuck at that temperature.”
“Would you mind, then, if I opened this door?”
Grace reached for the handle and turned it. The sound of metal thumped rhythmically outside the door. Somewhere beyond it, an alarm bell rang out. The young man felt a tendril of hot air lick his exposed ankle: the blood flowed, sluggishly, beneath the surface of raw skin. He shivered.
“Sorry, sweetie. The door’s simply got to stay closed. Quality has a strict sound policy– there can’t be any, I’m afraid.”
The girl’s hand froze beneath the woman’s critical gaze. As the latch clicked back into position and the room fell silent once more, the woman’s mouth twisted into a sickly sweet smile. Grace did not move from her place at the door; she stood, for a moment, as a chunk of solid ice. But as the young man watched her, she slipped her coat back over her shoulders and, without pausing, zipped it to her neck before stepping forward.
“That’s fine,” Grace said, “is it alright if I wear this? I didn’t bring a cardigan.”
“Alright? Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Well, it says on the sign…”
The woman laughed at her. “We put up that sign to keep those grease-monkeys out there from coming into our room. As a member of Quality, you don’t have to follow it.”
“But,” Grace hesitated, “Quality is meant to be a clean room, isn’t it?”
“It’s clean,” the woman reasoned, “or at least clean enough, so long as those damned machinists stay far away from here. They’re always coming in and leaving their dirty rags.”
The woman laughed again before glancing down at her phone. The young man watched Grace’s eyes flutter to the wrapper on the floor, then to the desk. The scarf pooled at the woman’s feet, twisted up in the roller wheels as the woman pushed her chair forward. Grace turned slightly, eyeing the floor in the corner near the door. The young man sighed, picking up his loupe again. He took one shining piece from the middle of his newest row and placed it down softly. To the left. All the others, he laid gently to the right. In the green bin.
Grace cleared her throat.
“I was told that you would be the person training me.”
“That’s right. I am the supervisor, after all.”
“Okay then, what am I supposed to do?”
The woman ignored her, leaning closer to her desk. Her phone blared loudly; the sound of a woman’s voice, loud and shrill, broke through the sound of concert music. A shriek of wild laughter rang out through the room. Grace and the man shared a private look. When Grace repeated herself, the woman, again, did not answer. The young man sighed deeply before leaning forward; the sound of classical music raised, minutely, within the small room.
“Alright,” the woman said after some time, noticing Grace still watching her. “Now that you’ve got that coat business settled, I guess I can finally begin.”
Grace was not thrown off. Instead, she merely smiled.
“Great,” she said cheerfully, “I’m ready to learn.”
“Well, you needn’t be so eager, as you’ll just be sorting today.”
“Sorting,” the girl repeated, “alright. So what do I do?”
The woman motioned Grace to sit down at an empty station; she perched on the edge of the desk, checking her nails, as she explained the process. You sort the clean parts from the dirty ones. It’s terribly simple work, so I’m sure you can handle it. Grace said nothing, merely nodded, pulling on a pair of gloves before setting herself to work. The music raised by a fraction as the man added three more pieces to the pile in his red bin.
The woman did not move from her spot on the desk, where she scrolled through her phone and explained her opinions on the videos that the two others could not see. Occasionally, she would look up to correct Grace’s work, grabbing roughly at the clean parts.
“Oh no, sweetheart,” the woman said, twisting the part before the girl’s eyes, “don’t know how you could have let that one slip through.”
“Oh, I thought that you had to wear gloves when you—”
“No, no. Because you’re so new, you needn’t worry about making little mistakes like this one. But this one isn’t at all clean, anyone can see that.”
As she dropped the piece into the girl’s red bin, the man rolled his eyes again.
“Well, it’s certainly dirty now, isn’t it?”
The young man froze as the woman turned to look at him, her face seared scarlet. Catlike, she slid from her spot on the girl’s desk and slunk over to him. She dipped her hand into the red bin, rummaging through the pool of damaged needles before pulling out a small handful.
“So wasteful,” she spat, glaring at him, “I simply don’t understand how the boss could have named you a Quality Inspector.”
She dropped them all into the green bin; the young man winced as he heard the pieces smack against each other. Hard. He stared, wide-eyed, as she reached her hand in after them and dug her fingers to the bottom. She swiped a hand over the pile’s surface.
“That’s all the work you’ve gotten done today? You’re moving too slow. It’s nearly lunchtime!”
She turned on her heel and took a step toward Grace, who watched them. Then the woman paused, turned around again, and closed the distance between herself and the man. She grinned wickedly as she grabbed at the computer mouse— laughed as the sound of soft music died suddenly from the room.
“You’re breaking the sound policy,” the woman said, walking toward the door. “Quality has got a strict sound policy—there can’t be any, I’m afraid.”
From their desks, the two stared at the woman as she fished her coat from the corner. The young man’s eyes flicked up to the clock. 11:35. He cleared his throat but the woman, now struggling with her coat, didn’t hear him. She made a show of looking for her scarf, swearing loudly as she untangled it from the wheels of her chair. By the time she stood at the door, the scarf wrapped around her neck, the clock read 11:45.
“Well,” she said loudly, “it’s lunch for me. And hard-earned too, with the day I’ve had!”
Grace stared at her. “But lunch is at noon, isn’t it?”
“Oh, it is. But by the time I make it through that hellish warehouse, and find my keys, then get into my car–” her fingers found the door handle, opened it slightly so whistling filled the room once more— “I’ll still have to wait while the damned thing heats itself. It’ll be long past noon by the time I go on my lunch, really.”
“Oh,” Grace said amusedly, “well, I suppose that makes sense.”
“It does, which is why I come back a bit later than all of you—an extra couple of minutes break helps me prepare myself for the second half of the workday.”
“Right,” the young man said, still staring at the clock.
“Well, Grace. The nearest place to eat is Freddy’s,” the woman told her, one foot already out the door, “it’s the only place, really, for miles and miles. You take a left as you leave the parking lot, opposite the way you came in.”
“A left,” Grace repeated, “to Freddy’s.”
“It’s this ruddy little bar, quite the dive. But the food is decent as it could be, for the town we’re in. And I’m sure, if you ask nicely, they’ll serve you without I.D.”
“Oh! Well, I don’t really drink.”
“Well,” the woman scoffed, “that works out wonderfully for you then, doesn’t it?”
As the door swung shut, the room fell to silence once more. Grace glanced at the young man before each turned back to their station. The man pulled out one needle from his hand and dropped it into the, now empty, red bin. He paused for a long moment, staring at the bow tied neatly in Grace’s hair. Then, reaching out his hand, he grabbed the green bin and dumped it all, in its entirety, to join the one he had just discarded. The blue bin was now empty, its pieces now stacked, nearly identically, into the bin standing on its left.
As he stood and walked toward the door, Grace was waiting for him. Passing by her station, he grinned as he saw that her green bin, too, was empty.
He pulled the broken loupe from his pocket and tossed it onto the woman’s desk; it landed dully amidst the papers, before rolling to the edge to fall upon her chair. As he pulled the door open, a soft silence filled the room. The young man followed Grace as she led them through the heat-soaked machinery to the door outside. Together, they walked quietly through the frigid parking lot to where their cars sat, side-by-side. Once they’d reached them, they each turned around: without speaking, the two stared at the beige, nondescript building they had just exited.
Without entering it, it would be impossible to tell what sort of business occurred inside.
The sun shone weakly overhead as Grace turned to face the young man. She was smiling at him.
“Well,” she said softly, extending her hand, “it was wonderful meeting you.”
He took it, grinning now as well. “Certainly it was, Grace.”
“You take care now.”
“And you,” he said, opening the car door for her. She sat in it. “Drive safely, Grace.”
Her engine sputtered as the young man closed the door. As he got into his car, he turned the key: the engine sprung to life, humming rhythmically as he followed her through the empty parking lot toward the fork in the narrow road. As she pulled slowly into the right turn lane, he pressed the brake on her other side. When he turned, he found her watching him through the window. She waved, grinning as she smiled once more.
He watched as the broken tail-light of her silver, Mitsubishi Gallant disappeared around the curve in the road.
After a minute or so, the young man realized his car was idling. He pumped the brakes, then checked his rear-view mirror. His breath plumed like a cloud of smoke to hang in the bitter air of his car–he smiled as he flicked a dial. The heater roared to life. He flipped the turn signal, filling the silence with the soft, melodic tick of green, electric light. He turned on the radio, twisted a knob until he found the station: classical music swelled to fill the silence. He looked left and then right. The engine purred smoothly as he shifted the gear into drive and, without looking back, cut across the lane to follow where the girl’s car had disappeared.
To the right.