Washington City, Cinalia
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
Sia groggily pressed the snooze button for the third time. A pillow is held to her chest as she rolled out of the comforting embrace of her bed. Her legs hit the floor first. Black pajama bottoms hung low on her hips and slipped underneath her feet as she dragged herself from the warm room. “Noooooooo.” She groaned into the pillow.
She turned away from the sunlight that shined through thin, blue curtains, and dawdled into the dark bathroom. The light switch is flipped, but her eyes remained shut. “Noooo,” she moaned as she set her pillow on the edge of the sink. Her hand blindly reached for a toothbrush and turned on the faucet.
Sia’s hips knocked against the granite countertop and water rushed over the bristles of the toothbrush. “Hiss!” She wiggled her abused fingers in the air and turned the faucet off.
Sia rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand before wrenching them open. Brown eyes glared into the mirror. It took a moment to adjust. She slid a finger under the slim blue strap of her tank top, placed it over her shoulder and glanced to the left of the mirror at the trip itinerary taped to the glass. Bold black letters stretched across the page and spelled out Cinalia to America, one-way ticket, and $1,500.
“Almost there,” she grumbled. After rinsing her mouth, she dropped her toothbrush into the sink and tapped a damp finger to the itinerary before exiting the bathroom.
A couple of steps down the dimly lit hall, was her father’s bedroom door. She stared blankly at the shut door and ran a hand through her short hair. The excess water on her palms slicked black strands away from her forehead and against her scalp.
The rest of the house was silent as she dragged her feet along the carpeted floor and squinted at the bottom of the staircase. Her shoulders sagged at the absence of a kitchen light or even a living room lamp being left on. Some sign that someone else had been within the house as she slumbered. Anything.
Sia didn’t need the lights on to navigate her home. She knew that at the bottom of those stairs would be an empty shoe rack, empty coat closet, and a minimally furnished living room with a coffee table that gathered dust day by day. The granite kitchen countertops would still be covered with the empty microwaved meal packs she’d carelessly discarded. The sink would be full of dishes from the past week. All but one stool against the countertop had been left unmoved these past few months.
Her fingers grazed the cool wall as she trudged back to her room to put on her uniform. The dark green jumpsuit wasn’t flattering on her tall, slightly overweight form, but it was easy to slip into after she pulled off her pajama bottoms and tossed them onto her dresser. The clock read 6:30 AM when she rushed out of the vacant house to catch her train to River City.
Sia stopped at each corner for a quick breather, gave the street a cursory check and galloped across. Must have been raining. The sidewalks were damp and the grass felt slick under her boots, but she couldn’t slow down.
She had ten minutes to make the train. It was going to be close, but she always bought her tickets a week in advance. She only needed to verify them before getting on the train.
She got to the station with two minutes to spare. Few people were around, so she could run through the station and arrive at her platform without any trouble. The train pulled up as the machine stamped her ticket with the time of departure.
When the automatic doors opened, Sia rushed inside to her preferred seat. Far from the cold breeze that accompanied the sliding doors, and right beside the small heating vent, was a back-corner bench that only sat one. Even with no competition to beat, she grinned impishly and nestled into the warm corner. She pulled out her phone and checked the notification screen. No new texts or calls; the phone was slipped back into her pocket. She ran a hand over the clammy skin at the back of her neck and leaned against the wall. The wide window was damp with raindrops streaming down the other side.
Sia’s brows furrowed and she looked down. She sighed in relief at the sight of her clean boots. Personally, she didn’t mind mud, but it would be just her luck to run into a higher-up from her current job.
ExplorerTech Industries was a small technology company. It was successful, but not well known. Sia was surprised she was able to get the job with no prior work experience as a janitor, but she wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Ever since the divorce of her parents, she’d searched for ways to make money. Life wasn’t hard, but if it was up to them, she’d end up a 50-year-old virgin who aspired to nothing and traveled nowhere.
The train bumped around a corner and made Sia’s cheek rub up against the chilled glass. She pulled away and took out her phone again. She glanced at her trip app and studied the itinerary and calculations. For the past three months, Sia has worked at ExplorerTech Industries. If she saved every paycheck for the next six months, she’d be able to visit her sister by the new year.
Her social life had thrived at her old job. The other librarians and college students always invited her along for their group outings. With her short seasonal trips, snack binging, and tiny—small—minuscule amount of shopping…She’d saved $50 from her past annual earnings.
At the time, it hadn’t been much of a loss. At eighteen, during a gap year, she was supposed to enjoy herself. That was what it was for. You enjoyed yourself before you had to suffer through more school and be transformed into the boring replica of the parents who raised you.
Luckily, no one cared to notice the year was up, and Sia was ready to enact her new plan. A gap year in America would be quite different from a gap year in Cinalia. She should get to know both her countries, then she could decide where to study and begin her life as a carbon copy, but in order to do that she would need a higher paying job and better financial management. In other words, Sia needed a career change. The position in ExplorerTech Industries had been exactly what she needed.
She closed the trip application and pressed an envelope icon to read over the recent messages sent by her mother and younger sister.
Call me when your shift ends. -received 7hrs ago
Did you tell your father I called? -received yesterday at 8 PM
Did you do your taxes last year or did your…-received yesterday at 6:50 PM
Aaliyah told me to forward the party photos…-received yesterday at 6:45 PM
Your grandma misses you. Everyone looks for…-received yesterday at 4:29 PM
Make any new friends? -received yesterday at 11:55 AM
Whoo!!!!!!! It’s ur 3 month annvrsy I’m proud…-received yesterday at 11:54 AM
Her sister, Aaliyah, always kept in touch. Her messages were mostly highlights of a young teenager’s life, but she included the latest family gossip as well. Sia didn’t know if Aaliyah understood how much she appreciated being included and asked after, but it kept her sane these days.
The welcome mat is missing. Replace it or…-received 17/1/2018
She won’t be coming with me. I’ll see you when I…-received 16/1/2018
Sia ignored the old messages sent by her father. They were at least two months old. She paused over her mother’s message from last night
Did you tell your father I called? -received yesterday at 8 PM
What does she mean, did I tell him she called? Did she tell me to? Are they fighting again? Ugh. I don’t want to be in the middle of another fight between them.
The relationship between her mother and father became amicable after all their time apart. Sia could almost forget about all their past bickering. The online video calls they exchanged throughout the six years started out strained, but transformed into a seemingly healthy, yet still distant relationship. It could be because they didn’t have to see each other every day. It could be because her mother finally felt fulfilled and cared for back home with people she’d grown up with. She could finally relax in the arms of her first love without shame.
It could be because her father’s new wife kept him busy with her own nagging and annoying habits. A new wife, formerly known as the assistant who dreamt up fake appointments and meetings to enjoy her father’s company. It could be they were holding tight to their perfect fantasy images until the video call ended, so they could trash-talk each other without a floating head involved in their conversation.
Sia couldn’t understand how she was related to such irritating two-faced people. These days her father didn’t pay much attention to her. He confirmed she was alive, made sure she did her chores, and kept the kitchen stocked with food she could consume while he was gone. His wife paid even less attention to her than him.
Their lack of attention was in her favor. As long as she didn’t skip the chores, he would never seek her out for conversation. Yes, Sia handled the cleaning and maintenance of her father’s home. Of course, he could employ a maid, but why would he do that when he had a healthy child who could do it for him?
Dirty bathroom? “Sia, don’t forget to clean the upstairs bathroom.”
Dirty kitchen? “Sia, this time don’t forget to clean the oven.”
As she got older, the chores became more elaborate.
The door won’t lock properly? “Sia, after school make sure you put the new knob in.”
Toilet clogged? “Sia, the half bathroom toilet has been acting up; consult the manual.”
With years of maintaining a four-bedroom house, her job felt like a never-ending chore. Most of the janitorial staff worked during the other shifts, and if she was lucky, she only needed to clean a few hallways before it was time to clock out.
The train arrived at her stop and she long-legged it to her job. Fortunately, the employee entrance was near the women’s locker room. The locker room had a basic setup. It contained rows upon rows of horizontal metal storage closets with a large bathroom attached to the main room. She pulled her identification card out of the deep pocket of her jumpsuit, pulled the lanyard over her head, and tucked the card inside the neckline. Then she headed to the restroom area.
The stalls were empty. The blue doors were pushed in to reveal gleaming white porcelain toilets. Her eyes scanned the room before she walked over to the paper towel dispenser affixed to the white wall. The dispenser emitted a small rumble as she signaled the motion detector with her hand.
She tugged a few brown paper towels out of the machine and wiped the sweat off the back of her neck. After she adjusted her hair, she pulled out her cell phone and checked the lock screen. Whoa. Just in time…gotta clock in.
She jogged out of the locker room and stopped outside of her supervisor’s office to stand before the gray machine that was attached to the wall. She tugged her lanyard out of her jumpsuit to scan the identification card.
The machine’s dark screen lit up, Sia’s name flashed across the screen in blue along with the time, then the device beeped and turned itself off. She tucked her ID back into her jumpsuit and went to retrieve her supply cart.
The day went by the same as always. After a few hours of work, Sia parked her cart outside the bathroom door. She’d been paged to clean up a chemical spill on the third floor. She didn’t have to search the glossy tiled floors for long.
Blue liquid spilled out from underneath the nearest laboratory door. The door was slightly ajar. Sia could hear voices arguing within. Without hesitation, she placed her respiratory mask on her face and tugged on her black gloves.
“Check, check.” She grabbed the handle of her supply cart and pushed it toward the door. She blocked the rest of the hall with the cart. Two “Caution: WET FLOOR” signs were placed a few meters down the hallway in both directions. “Excuse me!” She knocked on the door. She paused, but there was no answer. “I’m coming in!”
The voices paused in their heated discussion. Sia walked back over to her cart and grabbed two black, rubber mats from the side. She opened the door fully and dropped a mat on top of the fluid. She watched for a moment to see if the chemical would react adversely to the rubber. No reaction. She stepped on the mat and dropped the second one down into the room.
The room was designed the same as many others. A few wooden and metal tables placed around the room in neat rows. Atop the tables were liquid containers and vials. The back wall was covered in computer screens. Data ran across the screens at an impressive rate. Sia ignored all of this and focused on the mess. The blue substance followed the natural curve of the floor to spill out into the hallway. Sia’s eyes tracked it from the doorway to its tabletop, right beside a small fire.
Dammit. She rushed back into the hallway and grabbed her fire extinguisher. Swiftly, she stepped onto the mats and hopped off to the dry lab floor. She cranked the extinguisher and sprayed the entire table.
“No! What the hell are you doing?!” a nasally voice yelled. Her shoulder was jostled and she struggled to control the spatter of foam. She turned it off, but not before spraying the paperwork and laboratory equipment on another table.
“Idiot!” The female scientist behind Sia shoved her aside. For a second, Sia was blinded by blonde hair. She dropped her extinguisher and grabbed hold of the doorknob to steady herself. The man rushed over to the table and shook his notes.
His white lab coat was stained with blue along the front. The female scientist rounded on Sia and threw a white-gloved hand up, at what would have been her face if she were shorter. Instead, the hand pressed at her chest and forced Sia to back up. She blinked at the two ExplorerTech employees.
“Do you even know what you’ve done?! That’s hours of work ruined. Why would you—” the blonde woman fumed. She gestured at the toppled vials and foamy glass containers.
“We can still salvage this.” The graying man picked something up from the burnt materials.
“You don’t even understand the breakthrough you’ve interfered with. Why the hell would you barge in like that?” The woman turned her back on Sia and examined the sample saved by her colleague.
Sia ignored the woman and bent to retrieve her fire extinguisher from the ground. Viscous, blue fluid coated the bottom of the metal canister. Sia sighed and went back to her supply cart. She opened her biohazard garbage and tossed the extinguisher inside. She went around to the other side of her cart and pulled two folded lab coats, in plastic wrap, and two protective sleeves for their shoes from a laundry bag attached to the side. She braced herself and reentered the lab. The woman and man were huddled over a computer.
“Excuse me, I need your soiled coats and shoe covers.” Sia placed the new lab coats and shoe sleeves onto a clean surface, then walked back out into the hallway.
She returned to the room with a biohazard plastic bag. Neither of the scientists attempted to remove their contaminated clothing. One scientist scanned computer screens while the other labored over the surviving sample. Sia couldn’t tell what it was. Their bodies hid it from sight. She placed the biohazard bag next to the new lab coats.
“I can’t leave until all the contaminated materials have been removed from—” Sia spoke to their backs.
“Yeah, we get it!” The woman’s volume alternated from soft muttering to the other scientist to an indignant roar. Sia’s shoulders twitched at the abrupt change in tone. “Get away from us! You’ll taint the results even further!”
Sia turned on her heels and exited the room once more. She pulled out her mop and cleaned the spill from the floor while a high-pitched voice raged behind her back. “Yes, just smear the remains of our work all over the floor! I don’t know why they—”
Sia leaned her mop onto the wall beside the doorway and bent to retrieve the soiled shoe covers and lab coats they’d tossed to the floor. She stuffed the materials into the biohazard bag, grabbed the mop, and tossed the bag at the hanging waste bin attached to her cart. She chucked the soiled mop head into the garbage, replaced it, retrieved the mats, then cleaned the hallway. The dirty mats were placed into a container with the other contaminated material.
Finally, Sia walked back over to the door and knocked twice. “Is there anything else you’d like removed from—” Sia’s monotonous voice interrupted their discussion.
“That’ll be all!” the man yelled.
“Go!” the woman shouted with her back to the door.
Sia tightly grasped the doorknob, but gently closed the door. For several moments, she stood outside the door and took slow breaths in and out.
“Who hires these fools? Do they expect us not to report their incompetence? Imbecile! You called for a liquid spill and he comes barging in and destroys our controlled experiment.”
“Their hasty cleanup will set us back at least two weeks. Time the company doesn’t have to waste its money on.” Their voices were hard to hear when they walked further away from the door, but after a moment they returned back to their previous location. “—evolved past errors of this magnitude.”
“Well, we can’t expect much from someone who only qualifies for this sort of job.”
Sia was done with listening to them belittle her and turned back to her cart to take her break. As she briskly walked through the quiet halls, she imagined what she could have said to those obnoxious people. Maybe if you didn’t ignore people when they call out to you this wouldn’t have happened! I wouldn’t have sprayed the table if you hadn’t have pushed me! I can’t let the entire building burn down while you two chatter on the other side of the room.
Sia didn’t know what ExplorerTech developed and she didn’t care. Nothing they created would make it okay to treat other people the way they did. As if their brains were too focused on complex systems to spare common courtesy. It was always like that. Sia didn’t find the job difficult, but after three months of that, her scheduled shift seemed to be a disadvantage.
A few hours later, Sia clocked out and stormed into the employee locker room.
“What is their problem?!” Sia unzipped her uniform and sat down on the bench across from her locker. She untied her wet laces and kicked away soaked boots. Coffee soaked socks were tossed onto the floor. She wiped her hands on her knees and wiggled out of her dark green janitor jumpsuit. She opened her locker, stood on the dusty, soiled clothing, and gazed into the mirror balanced inside. Her dark, tan skin was wet with sweat and a weird yellow dust-like substance. “This better not be poison. I don’t get paid to be a lab rat.” She pulled a towel from her locker to wipe around her eyes.
She squinted at her reflection and looked for any raised skin. Not finding anything odd, she stripped her underclothes and changed into a new outfit. A red striped t-shirt and black jeans were pulled on. “Sir, ma’am…I mean…Whatever.” She pressed her hands to her chest and stared back at herself. Her hands loosely gripped the small mounds of flesh that were neatly settled beneath her form-fitting shirt. “I’m obviously not a man! If they took a moment to take their head out of their asses maybe they’d notice.” Her lips continued to frown as she roughly pulled down the edge of her t-shirt and slammed the locker door closed.
She pulled on her sneakers and placed the wet items inside her dusty uniform then she stuck it all under her arm and stomped away. Her grumbles could be heard quite clearly as she neared the locker room door.
“Sia! Just the girl I was looking for!” her supervisor cheerfully exclaimed the moment the door opened to reveal Sia’s tall form. Ron, her supervisor, stood at about 185 cm and Sia was a couple centimeters taller.
She used to take pride in her height in high school, even if it served as a disadvantage when trying to hide or run off. But it’s served to rob her of any decent conversation she could have had in months. People didn’t appreciate having to crane their necks back to speak with her, so they gazed somewhere near her shoulders while ordering her around. Sometimes she only pretended to be busy while she meticulously polished the same windows over and over, and no one ever saw fit to interrupt her. Most of the women here found her intimidating, and the men got weird when she spoke and revealed she was indeed a woman, not a young comrade in arms.
“We’ve got an opening on the night shift and I’m looking for someone to cover it for now on. Are you free nights or would that ruin your ‘me time’? I know how important a healthy social life is for kids your age. I–” Before Ron could start rambling about his opinions of her generation and all the generations to come, Sia accepted the shift change. “Twelve to seven AM might seem like a boring shift, but it’s the best time to get everything important done while the other employees are gone.”
Sia nodded to Ron as she slowly slid away towards the side exit hallway.
“You can’t slack off on that shift like you do on this one, little lady.”
Sia held her tongue and swallowed the comment she wished to make. If only she could get around the corner and disappear from his old man gaze.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow night, Ms. Chen.”
“See ya!” Sia briskly turned the corner and jogged to the exit.