The waiting room vibrated with nervous energy.
Chilly blank walls offered no comfort to the hopefuls, and the chairs were hard steel. A cherry office desk stood at the front of the room, guarding a metal door. The placard on the desk read “Christine Trumbull,” and sitting there admiring her nails was a gaunt white woman. Her hair was jet black, her skin unusually pale. Her lips were painted crimson, her eyes a pasty green.
Christine enjoyed her job; it provided her with all the benefits an aging single woman needed; dental, healthcare and a salary to support her bad habits. Her guilty pleasures. She’d moved again into a larger apartment, dumped tens of thousands of dollars into a high-yield account. For all the benefits, the job was simple: Christine told the applicants it was their turn to go in, and kept the others at bay until it was their turn or they left, discouraged at the length of the process.
The first week had been disorienting. She was used to doing more, but once she settled in she took to the job with an increased fervor. If a hopeful got up to ask where the bathroom was, she’d say, “There is no bathroom. You can wait until it is your turn, or you can leave.” Most often the questioner sat back down with an anxious look on his face, trying to judge how long they'd be able to hold it in.
Christine loved calling the hopefuls into the back room. Each time she called a name, the nervous energy in the room would spike, producing a pleasant tingle at the base of her spine.
“Thomas Yuergens!” she called one day. That day's applicants all jerked their heads around to look, eyes wide. Their fear washed over her. She savored it.
Thomas, bewildered and embarrassed like he'd been caught napping, pulled himself out of his metal seat and staggered up to the desk.
“It’s your turn to go in now, Mr. Yuergens.” Her voice was robotic, perfectly trained to say these exact words. She looked forward to the next part.
“Me? Now?” Yuergens, cowboy hat hiding greasy brown hair, had his mouth half open in either disbelief or stupidity. Christine motioned him closer. He bent over.
“You won’t get the job,” she whispered.
“You’re too stupid, Mr. Yuergens. I wouldn’t trust a man like you with a John Deere tractor.”
Yuergens straightened up as if he’d been pinched somewhere unpleasant.
“Well I--” he protested, but she interrupted.
“You go right on in, then, sir. Good luck.”
The man looked at his feet. His body language had changed; he seemed half a foot shorter than before. He shuffled to the door and took a deep breath, then went through.
The time spent with applicants differed. Sometimes it would be fifteen minutes between entries, sometimes only a couple. Over the months Christine challenged herself to guess how much time each hopeful would merit.
Yuergens lasted almost no time at all.
When he leaned in close, she told him he was too fat.
"There’s no way you'll be given this job, fitness is one of the prerequisites."
She looked into his eyes and saw she’d done it. Cast enough doubt. It was all just a psychological trick. She told them they weren't good enough for some reason or other, and they’d believe it. They’d take their momentarily mangled identity into the back room and sabotage themselves.
“You’re too old. Too weak. You can’t outrun your regrets,” she’d say on occasion.
“You have gum disease, it smells like there’s a microbial genocide going on in your mouth, I could smell it from here,” was a favorite.
“The chair won’t fit. You’re not tall enough.”
“There’s no point. You’re a dud.”
Things like that. Whispers meant to cast doubt. The applicants were here for a job; they’d waited a long time. Right before showtime, she’d strike.
Christine didn't know what was beyond the door. Whatever the position, whoever the employer, she didn’t think any name she called should have the job. She wanted them to drink bleach.
Today was Christine Trumbull’s last day. The end of her contract.
There were four people left; the first time she’d seen more than two of the seats empty. She hummed a tune of disquieting apathy, and the men in the chairs each ticked in their own nervous way. The tall black man in the chair closest to Christine stared at her, still but for the occasional upward curl of his lip that drove his expression into a snarl. Christine smiled back, enjoying that the man believed he was intimidating. Beyond his outer shell of calm, she could feel his confusion, his anger, his fear. The stink peeled off him, his brow rippling with confusion as Christine’s smile grew wider. When she called his name he'd stand promptly, showing no sign of the roiling aura surrounding him. He’d take three steps toward her and she’d beckon him closer, so that his ear hovered before her lips. She’d whisper, and the giant man would wilt a little more, perhaps even visibly. He’d take his next three steps and open the door leading to the man and his interview, and he’d be gone.
She’d savor it.
She’d save him for last; there were three others to attend to first.
Some of them, like this Throggle, a gangly sweaty man with horrible yellow teeth, would bring the ad with them. They’d enter the room, look around, perhaps notice the way the walls sucked all the color from the room, sucked all the color from everything and everyone but the woman behind the Christine Trumbull placard, and take another peek at the little strip of paper. Some of them, like this Throggle, would squint, and gulp. Would look toward the desk at the front of the room and would begin to speak, Adam’s apple working furiously to keep any actual noise from coming out.
“Is this...am I?” they, like this Throggle, would ask, and Christine would nod.
“You’re here for the interview,” she’d say. “For the job.”
The man at the other end of the room would take another look at the tiny strip of paper in his hands, before shoving it into his pocket and choosing a seat. He’d most likely try to make eye contact with some of the other hopefuls, as had this Riley, and would most likely be completely unsuccessful in the endeavor.
A few of the men had taken their strips of paper directly to her, putting it in front of her green eyes and asking if they were in the right place. Christine had been intensely intrigued by the whole thing the first few times it had happened since all she ever saw was a blank strip of paper; no ink or writing on it at all, nothing there but some torn edges and a few greasy fingerprints.
She often asked the men to read her what they saw on the paper, and the best they could ever do was give her a look as blank as the paper between their fingers. This little game had long since ceased amusing her, and she’d often surprise the hopefuls with her knowledge of their names instead. Only a few, like the tall black man who was still staring at her, would show no reaction to such a simple trick.
She ushered the other two candidates in, confident neither would get the job. Of them, the more suited was a petty thief named Gregor, and she could tell he lacked ambition and will just by glancing at the needle-scarred arms he hung lazily at his sides.
Finally it was just her and the black man, a Robert Beasley, him staring quietly into her eyes, her smiling pleasantly at his occasional snarl. She could feel Gregor’s interview coming to an end, but thought she’d mess with the black man a little more before it was his turn. She smiled some more, wider than she’d ever bothered to try. How disquieting, he must be thinking. That woman looks insane. Insane. She giggled inwardly at the thought.
Then the last thing Christine was expecting happened. The man spoke.
“Why do you want it?”
He’d already said it, no clearings of the throat or false beginnings; it was as if he’d already asked the question before his lips had even parted, and the force of it still vibrated throughout the room as he waited for Christine to process his words.
Christine’s smile wilted and her heart beat hot, fire in her blood.
“Want what, Mr. Beasley?” Her voice was tiny compared to his; she blinked and tried again to smile, feeling something she hadn’t felt in so long.
“Why do you want my job? Why do you think you’ve already won, when the thing you feel you’re winning is nothing you can handle?” His voice was like a hammer on heated steel, a forge inside Christine’s head. The smile stayed on, but only out of habit. Inside, she was a roiling mass of nerves. Don’t answer him, don’t. His business is with the man in the back room, not with you. You don’t answer to him.
“He’ll see you now, Mr. Beasley. Good luck.”
The big black man didn’t move. Instead, he chuckled. “No, Miss Trumbull. Your man’s no longer in. Good old Gregor was his last one for the day. Can’t you tell?” He pointed at the door leading to the back room, and Christine followed his finger. To a blank wall.
The door was no longer there.
_Keep calm, keep calm. You still have the upper hand, you felt his fear before, all this is just a facade. Accept it, and move on. No door, no problem. _
“I suppose you’re right, Mr. Beasley.”
“Call me Bub. And you haven’t answered my question, Miss Trumbull.”
“Call me Christy, Bub. I want the job because I’m more qualified than anyone I’ve put through the door here. I want the job because I deserve the job. It fits me. In my opinion, the boss made a mistake working his blank advertisement on men. Men aren’t strong enough, patient enough, or smart enough for a job like this. I’d have told him that, but I’ve never seen the guy.”
“So you know what the job is, then. You know why the men that go in to interview never step back into this room. You know what the job is, and you still want it.” The black man didn’t seem to believe that what he was suggesting was a possibility. Christine winked at him.
“Bub, I was born for this job.”
Bub Beasley rose to his feet and took three swift steps to Christine’s desk. He extended an oversized hand, meaning for Christine to shake it. She did. Beasley leaned over, putting his mouth near her left ear, and whispered.
“You thought you had me beat, Christy. Because you sensed my fear. It’s best you know now, rather than find out on your own. Fear is essential in a job like this. A fearless ruler is a stupid ruler. And where you’ll be ruling, fear will be your friend. Understand?”
Christine nodded. The black man straightened up again.
“Congratulations, Miss Trumbull. It’s yours. May the position be everything you hoped for and more.” He reached into the collar of his shirt and pulled a chain from his neck. On the chain hung a key. He held it out to her. Christine didn’t move.
“You. You’re him? You’re Satan?”
Bub took hold of one of the woman’s hands and dropped the key in, clasping her fingers around it. He spoke once more, and then he was gone.
“No. You are.”