She stared at the Do Not Disturb sign, hating the lie of its existence.
The premise was cordial enough. Written in classy cursive lettering powdered on creamy plastic, its only arm crooked over its head like a forgotten student, the invitation to privacy bespoke of a tangible service ready to answer when called upon.
She ran her thumb and index finger over the smooth manufactured perpendicular of promise before testing its pliability. The card touched its toes without breaking a sweat. The only wrinkle creased its words to flake. She returned the notice to its brass hook nailed to the sliver of pale peach wall by the door. Privacy. What hokum.
She used to believe in such delusions. Then she witnessed what people do with belief. Still, the lie beckoned.
“What if I just try it,” she thought. “What if this time it comes—”
Two knocks rapt like gunshots against the door. She sighed. Sometimes you just really wish life would work the way you were told it would.
Without so much as a pause for consideration, the key swept in and the door buzzed accord. Dutifully, the hinges submitted. The room opened to a gruff heavy in a collar, cuffs, and two pleats. He flushed through and caught the door before it shut on his gold tie. Taking the placard from its brass hook, he gave it a job outside and turned to see Leslie Sonder. She glared back.
“Sit down,” Mr. Gold said.
Leslie complied to a nearby ottoman. Mr. Gold looked around the suite, cocked his head and pursed his lips out of sincerity.
“This is nice,” he said. “How’s the food?”
Leslie remained silent. She had been fasting for days, but the only consequence of her resolve was the headache of inevitability that now stood at her door. Mr. Gold spied the morning’s dry lacquer of sad saline trailing from her eyes to her chin.
“Salty?” he suggested with a half-smile. He took the wooden chair from the desk and walked it over to Leslie. He placed the future pile of kindling a yard in front of her and took a seat.
“We’ve never met before, have we?” he asked.
“It was rhetorical. I know we haven’t met. But I know you. I used to find people just like you. Poor. In debt. Decrepit and crippled. Addicted to desperate. I found them, trained them, threw them at whatever problem people had hired me to solve. Over and over again. Made it my life’s work, finding people to burn.”
Leslie bit her tongue, choosing to let the blood pool in her mouth than in her eyes.
“But you? You took the job to a completely different level. You had to go and make it maternal,” he continued, shaking his head. “I learned something recently that struck me about mothers. Before you gave birth, that darling child of yours was pristine. Uncolonized by anything but incubated potential. But in that last push to evacuate, you had one last gift to bestow. You donated your intestinal flora.
“It’s an act so essential that to not do it severely impacts the child’s ability to survive outside the womb. But let’s not sugarcoat it—mothers have to literally defecate on their progeny in order to prepare them for this world.”
Mr. Gold then shifted to the edge of his seat so he could look Leslie in the eye.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? You piss and shit on your babies and then watch adoringly as they drag that stink for the rest of their lives.”
His bile had frothed and fermented on her. Leslie wiped the spittle from her face.
“You talk as if I gave birth to a curse.”
“A curse. A miracle. Who’s to say which is which. That’s the way life works on this planet. Same shit, different name.”
“You don’t have any children, do you?” Leslie asked pointedly.
“Offspring? Not that I know of.”
“Thank the good lord. The thought of you as a father—” she shuddered while shaking her head. “You strike me as the type that would cannibalize his own for a snack.”
With her pupils dark and bold, Leslie then laughed a note that would make the most hardened of men flaccid.
“And as for a wife, you would probably use her wedding dress as a napkin.
“You and your overlords may have conquered the world over, Mr. Gold, but you have no idea how strong a woman needs to be. You have no idea what it’s like, what it takes, no idea of the sacrifice or the discipline necessary to raise good in this world. You come here and question me? A mother who is willing to die to see her own?”
She then pointed those pupils at Mr. Gold’s to punctuate her resolution. Mr. Gold’s cleft chin bunched under his lip. Leslie noticed.
“You. Have no. Idea. But you know who did? Your mother. And for all the well-meaning and good intention she may have had fostering nascent dream to your conception, if your mother heard what you just said she might question whether you were worth the shit stain you came out of.”
Mr. Gold rubbed the stubble on his face, mouth puckered with bitterness.
“You might be right. We might all be demon spawn in the end. But where does the moral high ground lie with you?” He began moving his hand up and down like a lift in limbo. “Because from my view point, it keeps moving.”
“Like the sands of time,” Leslie countered.
“Funny you should say that. Because—correct me if I’m wrong—you’re still on the clock. Our clock.”
Mr. Gold stood and towered over Leslie, inflated with menace.
“Have you ever been a waitress?” he asked. “You know that if the girl flirts, smiles, says sweet nothings and laughs at your jokes, it’s for the money. Yet the majority of men will still fall prey to this basic tact. It is the world’s oldest profession after all. Seduce for use, right?”
Leslie kept her mouth shut. Mr. Gold noticed.
“Yeaaah, I know you know. Because people made a real investment in you Leslie. Rehabilitation. Gave you a mission. Trained you to nurse. And testament to you, you followed suit. By all accounts your performance report was spectacular. Delivered on creating the—what’s the term?” He began snapping his fingers as a way to conjure the word from the recesses of his mind. “The Florence Nightingale effect,” Mr. Gold exclaimed. “I mean, people were impressed. But then you had to go and find your raison d’etre in this little gig of ours.”
He then paced his energy to the door, opened it, and quickly grabbed what he needed. In his hands was the Do Not Disturb sign, taken from its hang on the knob.
“Sadly, despite all of our prior success, when it comes to people in this business usefulness is the only currency that matters,” he continued, applying enough pressure to compromise integrity. “The moment something becomes not worth it, it’s disposable. Discarded. Garbage.”
The plastic snapped. He took the break and looked at the pieces. Choosing the longest shard, he showed it to Leslie. The shiv was sharp enough to hook plenty deep.
“Which brings me to you playing both sides too often. In a posh jail cell. Going on a week. What use are you to me? What use are you to anyone?”
Leslie looked down at her hands. Her self-inflicted gash had faded into the flushed pigmentation of her palm, but her aubergine nail polish had begun to crack. It revealed the vitamin deficiency of bleached keratin.
“I did as I was told,” she whispered, the fight sputtering out of her. “I did what I was supposed to do.”
The corner of Mr. Gold’s mouth twitched. He returned to the edge of his seat.
“Leslie, you and I are in the business of sacrificing lives for a lifestyle. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why I’m here. Wasting my time. With yours.”
His eyes were transfixed on her lower abdomen.
“The only reason I can think of is that stain. And I think a solution could be removing that uterus of yours. Solving its secrets.”
“The powers that be are asking questions Leslie. And when these people start questioning their investment, that’s when they start cutting the fat.” He then traced the outline of her torso. “We don’t want that now, do we?”
She violently shook her head no, barely keeping the neck from snapping.
“You know I am here to help, right?”
Leslie’s hands could not stop trembling. Her head followed suit. Mr. Gold used the accord as a springboard.
“Because that’s why I’m here. To help. The thing is, help isn’t giving people what they need. No, true help is giving people what they don’t. You know what people want, don’t you Leslie? They want a bottle, a blanket, and a lullaby telling them how wonderful everything is and will forever be.
“Our species is on the cusp of a new horizon. We’ve cured, conquered and created, even touted the divine. But for all that we do, the kismet of our species is to naval gaze as we bury our heads in plastic. We’re addicted to killing and enslaving. Life has always been our favorite toy to throw away.”
Mr. Gold threw the shard into the waste bin. He then reached into his breast pocket and removed a silver bar.
“I know cultivating cocoa practically impossible these days, but what the hell,” he said, slowly unwrapping the foil. “I’ve been saving this for a special moment, this meeting of the minds.”
He placed the bare piece of chocolate in Leslie’s hands. Her eyes sprung relief, tearing at the candy, dotting the morsel with the warm seasoning of human misery. Hesitation evaporated with desperation and she chomped at the bit, consuming as he continued.
“Remember when you used to worry about your next meal? Why go back to that? You and I both know that knowledge is good but not needing is better. We sold our chaos to push order. We’ve chased every lie that we could to wash our souls clean. Don’t worry about the mess you’ve left behind. You’ve already done enough. All we could ever aspire to be came from that motherly stain of yours. Forget the rest.
“After all, memory is the cancer we share with each other.”
Mr. Gold then patted Leslie on her obedient head, her mouth encircled with an ugly brown smear.
“Now, let’s go get your son.”