“You’re the reporter, right?”
“Yes, Allison Stone with the Times. You’re ‘Cindy’?”
“That’s what they call me,” Cindy said. “So what do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk to you. I’m doing a story on the-“
“Discards,” Cindy said.
“I was going to say Corporate Family Adoptee Program.”
Cindy laughed. “That’s what they call it, huh?”
“The official name anyway,” Allison said.
“I’ve only heard us called ‘Discards’,” Cindy said. “Usually by people screaming at me for taking their job. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“If it makes you more comfortable.”
“I should quit. I really should,” Cindy said. She took a cigarette out of its carton, lit it, and took a long drag. “It takes up more and more of my credits every month. Vice taxes, you know. Fucking government. What do you want to know?”
“You understand what the program is?”
“Well, I lived it. But yeah, after the government banned abortion, there were a lot of us that weren’t wanted. The fuckwads in the government thought feeding and housing us was too expensive, so they sold us to our corporate ‘families’. That pretty much the gist of it?”
“I doubt Congress would share your views, but more or less, you’re right. They opened the way for corporate persons to adopt children in the foster care system. What is your experience like with the program? You sound pretty negative about it.”
“It’s slavery,” Cindy said.
“Slavery? No, slavery is still illegal.”
“Is it? Still seems like the right word to a lot of us.”
“How so? You’re paid a wage and given room and board and you’re free to leave. You’re free to meet with me.”
“Am I? How many others responded to your interview request?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“You think it’s because their employers won’t let them?”
“I know it’s because they won’t let them.”
“But you’re here.”
“Because I don’t care anymore,” Cindy said. “It’s fucking sick. It’s all fucking sick.”
“The program! My life! All of it!” She took another drag on her cigarette. Her hand visibly trembled.
“Are you okay?” Allison said.
“Yeah,” Cindy said. “Just fucking great.”
The two women sat in silence for a minute. Cindy smoked, Allison drank from her coffee cup.
“What do you know about the program?” Cindy said.
“The basics, but I’m more interested in your experience,” Allison said.
“My experience,” Cindy said. “Fine. The first memory I have is being in a Megamart day care center with 50 other kids. They were playing this stupid video about employee safety. Safety the Safety Pin doing a dance about cleaning up spills. That was what passed for entertainment. Stupid HR videos marketed to children.”
“When did you know-“
“That I was a Discard?” Cindy said. “Early. They didn’t call us that, of course. We were part of the MegaMart family. I was Cindy Anne MegaMart. Don’t know why they chose that name. Probably because some fucker in HR thought it sounded friendly. Anyway, they told us that our parents didn’t want us, and that the only family we had now was MegaMart. When did I find out?”
She took another drag on her cigarette.
“We were at a park on a field trip. They would take us off campus occasionally, if we all did well on a test or it was a company holiday. We were playing, like kids do. I wanted to play on the monkey bars and a bigger kid that was there with his mom shoved me off and told me that the playground wasn’t for ‘Discards.’ I didn’t know what that was, he told me my mom and dad didn’t want me. Said I would have been aborted fifty years ago. I didn’t know what any of that meant, so I ran back to one of our caretakers, Molly. She sat me down and explained it all to me. She tried to be nice about it, but then she drove the stupid boy and his family from the park by threatening to sue them for damaging Megamart property. I think she thought she was helping, but it just reinforced what the boy had said. I wasn’t a person. I didn’t have a mom to fight for me. I had a company that owned me. I wasn’t a real person. Just property of Megamart.”
“Did you ever find out who your parents were?”
“I looked into it when I was fourteen and they started letting us use the internet. I found out her name. That she was still poor and worked as a housekeeper in Kentucky where she lived in a tenement with my two sisters that I’ve never met.”
“And your father?”
“Alcoholic. Died after he drank too much and fell off a railway platform in front of an incoming train.”
“I’m sorry,” Allison said.
“I’m only sorry that he was an alcoholic. The company rations how much booze they’ll sell to me every month now. Yeah, they can do that. Keeps the health care costs down.”
“Did you ever reach out to your mother or your sisters?”
“I tried a few times. Sent her an email. Told her I didn’t want much, just to get to know her, but nothing ever came back. I gave up. Three years ago, HR calls me off of the floor and tells me she died of breast cancer and that from that point on, I was to visit the company clinic for annual mammogram screenings, so… yea!”
“What about your sisters? Did they ever reach out to you?”
“No,” Cindy said.
“Did you try to get in contact with them?”
“No,” she said. “I got the message from mom’s silence.”
“Tell me more about your early life in the company’s daycare system. What was it like growing up in ‘the Megamart family’?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t know any better, so we all thought it was normal at the time. The company was pretty strict about depictions of families. Every family was always shown to be part of the Megamart family, with a happy mommy and daddy leaving the company dormitories and leaving their happy little babies in company care.”
“So there were the fifty of us in my clutch. All born the same year, so we all grew up with forty-nine siblings all under the watchful eyes of security cameras and MegaMart employees.”
“How many employees were watching over you?”
“Depends on the age. Infants get more caregivers. Toddlers, fewer. By the time you’re a teenager, there’s only two, a guy and a girl. There were enough to keep things from getting too crazy, but never enough to catch all of the shit we did.”
“What kind of things did you do?”
“We all knew where the places the security cameras didn’t see were, so we’d go there and fool around or smoke out. Sometimes things got dark. Couple of girls were raped.”
“Raped? Oh my God. Did the company report it?”
“What do you think?” Cindy said. “Of course they didn’t report it. They handled it all inside the family. Keep it inside the family, they always said. HR would come down, write up an incident report, take the girls off to the clinic, and then if HR actually believed her, they’d take her rapist away and we wouldn’t see them again.”
“Where would they take them if not to jail? Did they have their own jails?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Cindy said. “But I don’t know. I asked our overseer about it and she said we shouldn’t talk about it. But we did. We all heard the rumors of building 13.”
“Building 13? What’s that?”
“Whatever you want it to be,” she said. “Private prison. Torture room. Crematorium. Lab with human experimentation. Monster factory. Everyone knew of a mysterious building on campus that was always guarded, but no one ever went into. That everyone was forbidden from going into. The story is that was where they took the ‘bad’ people and once they went in there, they never came out.”
She snuffed her cigarette out on the ground, withdrew another one from the carton and lit it.
“It’s wasn’t all bad. You didn’t have any privacy unless you were in the shitter, but you always had someone to play with. You also were competing for attention with 49 other kids, so you held back a little bit from each other, even your friends.”
“Did you bond with any of the employees in the nursery?”
“No. I tried a few times. There was one woman, Helen… she said I reminded her of her granddaughter. She would read stories to me. Try to teach me a few things. But then they fired her or transferred her. I never saw her again. I’m not sure what happened. But they rotated out the employees frequently. I think they wanted to make sure we didn’t start seeing anyone but the company as family or who knows? Maybe they had trouble keeping people in a job that required them to treat children as property? I don’t know. You’d have to find one of them and ask why. Not that they’ll talk to you.”
“Because they’ll lose their job,” Cindy said.
“They can always find another job,” Allison said.
Cindy laughed. “You don’t know, do you?”
“We can’t find another job because we can’t do anything else.”
“You’re supposed to have a high school education.”
“No, we’re supposed to have 12 years of schooling. People assume the company schools are like any other school, but they’re not, well, I don’t think they are from what I’ve read. Six years of general education, then job training. From early on, they start analyzing you. Watching you. Looking over your test scores. If you’re smart, they put you on a management track. Send you off to college. If you’re not, they start job training you for menial work: cashier, stocker, warehouse work, cook, whatever. Once you’re there, you’re locked in. Your education gets specified to make you the best cashier or cook you can be. And that’s what your life is… forever.”
“What are you?”
“Level 2 buyer. Yea. In theory, I could get a job at another store, but they probably already have their own Cindy Anne, so I’m stuck. And if I get fired, I’ll be fucked. Figuratively and literally. Last job for a Discard is sex work. And that’s only if Megamart doesn’t demand immediate payment of my company debt.”
“Child Services Debt is only supposed to last for five years after you turn 18.”
“Sure. Sure, it does. What happens when we turn 18? You get a job with the company. You move into company housing. The company takes the money for rent out of your paycheck. Shop at the company store, they extend you credit. Eat at the company commissary, the cost is added to your debt. It adds up. They take a minimum payment from your paycheck every week, leave you with the rest. If you’re careful and have no life, you might… might pay off your debts in 20 years. If you’re a stupid kid and you buy new clothes, drink, go to the company doctor because you’re sick, or want a TV, the debt just keeps piling up. You’ll never get it paid off. Ever. I told you, they own you.”
“When I was 18, I had a thirty thousand dollar debt to pay back. 6 years later, it’s thirty-five thousand.”
She finished her cigarette and dropped it into the ashtray.
“I always liked this park,” she said. She took another cigarette from her pack.
“Do you want to know the most fucked up thing?”
“What?” Allison said.
“Because it’s individual debt, it’ll roll over to my next of kin when I die. And then they’ll own my kids. Fuckers can take a two billion dollar write off last year, they can’t forgive 40 grand in employee debt. It’s why I never wanted kids. Told my boyfriend Mike to get a fucking vasectomy. Started taking the pill when I was 13.”
“They’ll own your children?”
“Yep. Until they pay off my debt. Which they’ll never do because from the moment they’re born, the company will start charging me for their delivery, their housing, their food, their medical care, and education. Perpetual servitude.”
“That doesn’t sound legal.”
“They say it is. I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer. It shouldn’t be. A lot of things shouldn’t be.”
Cindy started to cry.
“Fuck,” she said.
She wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Are you okay,” Allison said.
“No, no, I’m not okay. Nothing is okay about this whole fucking situation.” Cindy sighed and watched the lake. A mother duck led her five ducklings from the grass down to the pond. The breeze brought a welcome coolness. Cindy watched the ducks for a moment and sighed.
“Here,” she said. She pulled out a data drive and handed it to Allison. “There’s more. More stories. Stuff that happened in the orphanage. Rapes. A few murders. Everything I could find on building 13.”
Allison took the drive from Cindy. “I’ll make sure your name doesn’t come up.”
“Don’t worry about it. Put me on the record. Put it all on the record. It doesn’t matter now.”
“You’re not worried about repercussions?”
Cindy shook her head. “No.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“No, I’m not okay. I’m pregnant.”
“Oh… oh,” Allison said.
“You should probably leave,” Cindy said. “Sometimes they’ll have Human Resources follow us, to check up on us.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No. Goodbye, Allison,” she said.
Allison reached into her bag and handed Cindy a business card. “Take it. Call me if you need anything. I mean it.”
“Okay,” Cindy said.
Allison took her purse and started on the path to the car.
“Thanks. For listening.”
“You’re welcome, Cindy.”
Allison had just reached her car when she heard the gunshot echo from the lake. When Allison ran back to find Cindy, she found her body face down in front of the bench, a revolver in her hand, blood pooled and slowly rippled out from where her left temple would have been.
“No! No no no no no,” she said. “Cindy!”
Allison dialed 911. It was several minutes before the ambulance arrived. When they did, Allison stepped back as two EMTs approached.
“What happened here?”
“I don’t know,” Allison said. “I had just left her and heard a shot when I got to my car.”
“Shit,” the first one said. “Is there a pulse?”
“What do you think?” The second EMT said. “She’s missing half her head.”
“Alright, alright. Just checking. Get her ID and let’s find out who we need to call.”
The EMT kneeling next to Cindy’s body, took out a cell phone, opened an app on it, and pressed Cindy’s right index finger on it. After a moment, the phone emitted a ping. The EMT looked at his phone and sighed, “Another Megamart.”
“Big surprise,” his partner said. “Alright, let’s call Benny at corporate. Have them come by and pick up the body.”
“You’re not going to call the police?”
He shook his head. “Megamart family member, Megamart jurisdiction, Megamart’s problem. Trust me, this isn’t our first Megamart suicide. We call the cops, they come in and call corporate, then yell at us for not just calling corporate ourselves.”
“What’s going to happen to her?” Allison said.
“They come and pick up the body. Don’t know after that. Don’t ask. It’s not my job. Now excuse me, I need to call this in.”
Allison sighed and started recording with her phone. The EMT had dialed his phone. “Hey. Benny? Yeah, it’s Alex from District Five. I’ve got another one for you. Cindy Anne Megamart, Age 23, Store 3502. She’s in Liberty Park. Yeah. No, looks like suicide. Okay…. Okay…. Good. Great. Thanks, Benny. Appreciate it.”
“How long we have to babysit a corpse?” the other EMT said.
“About ten minutes,” Alex said.
“Don’t you care about what happened? She was a person,” Allison said.
“Every minute I spent here, is one minute I’m not helping someone I might be able to help. If she were still breathing, I’d care, but she’s not,” Alex said. “She’s just another Discard that couldn’t handle life. Bag, tag, and move one to the next one. Speaking of which, you tag her yet?”
Just another Discard, Allison thought.
It was nine minutes before a van painted a friendly yellow color bearing the Megamart logo of a smiling dollar bill on the side appeared and stopped in front of the park. The driver was a middle-aged woman with brown hair pulled back and tucked under a yellow Megamart cap. She wore a bright yellow pantsuit with a blue tie with yellow polka dots that upon closer inspection were small capital M’s. The side panel of the van opened and two men in scrubs stepped out carrying a large black bag. Alex, the EMT, waved them over.
“Patricia Morgan, Human Resources Reclamation,” the woman said.
“Alex Jones, Mercy Medical. Sign here,” he said. He held out his phone. Patricia signed with her finger on the screen, then pressed her finger in a confirmation box. “Okay. She’s all yours. What’s left of her anyway. The hospital will send a copy of all forms to your primary contact.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jones, better luck with your next call,” she said. “Tommy, Martin, you know what to do. And whom, may I ask, are you?”
“Allison Stone, with the Times.”
Patricia sighed audibly. “A journalist. Well, terrible business this. Megamart deeply regrets our loss and will be reviewing our departmental mental health policies and practices to see if there was anything we could have done to help Cindy Anne before this unfortunate event. If you need an additional quote, please contact our Media Relations Department; otherwise leave us to our work and no photography.”
The Reclamation team moved with a practiced efficiency that made Allison wonder exactly how often they had done this. Cindy Anne’s effects were neatly tagged and bagged and loaded onto the van. Cindy Anne herself was quickly moved and zipped into the large black bag. Tommy and Martin loaded her into the Megamart van, while Patricia mopped up the remaining gore on the park bench and sidewalk, and stuffed the cleaning materials into a biohazard bag. The entire process was done in under ten minutes, then tthe Reclamation team and the Megamart van were gone.
Allison stared at the empty parking space, then at the bench. She sat on the bench where she had been sitting just half an hour earlier and ran her fingers on the place where Cindy Anne had been. It was like she had never existed.
Jorge Diego Megamart had been the Manager of Store 3502 for just under six months and had already developed a bad drinking habit. He had inherited the job and the habit from his former boss who died of a heart attack during the company picnic’s sack race, an event that Human Resources had since banned at all future company outings.
“The job is the job,” his boss had said more than once. “You don’t have to like it. You just have to show up and do it.”
So he did. And the company thought he was store manager material.
He had received notice of Cindy Anne’s death from HR the following evening – an email asking him to add the item to his list of morning announcements. He had known Cindy Anne, but not well. She mostly kept to herself, did her job, and only had to be corrected a few times for using sarcasm on the job. He wondered if anyone would cry when he made the announcement. He hoped not. It would make the rest of the announcements awkward.
As the last few stock clerks shuffled in holding their cups from the Megamart coffee store, he started.
Sales goals had been met. Employees would enjoy a complimentary pizza party. Losses from shoplifting were up 3%, the company wished to remind all employees that EVERYONE was a Loss Prevention associate.
Cindy Anne’s death was mentioned between two bulletins about the formation of this year’s company softball league and the announcement of a new line of cosmetics from teen pop sensation Jessica arriving in time for the Christmas holiday season.
“We will be holding a ceremony to bury Cindy Anne this Friday at 6:30 in the morning. If you are not scheduled to work, attendance is mandatory and will be unpaid,” Jorge said. “Her supervisor will be delivering a brief eulogy.”
Jorge felt sick to his stomach when he realized that the level 3 Buyer position was still unfilled, which made him Cindy’s acting supervisor.
The Megamart accounting division took a tax write off on Cindy’s unpaid debt, and another on the loss of future labor, netting the owners of Megamart an additional $100,000 in profit for that fiscal year.
“Jacob? What the fuck is this?” Allison shouted as she stormed into her boss’ office.
“It’s a transfer order,” Jacob said. “To the Anchorage division.”
“What the fuck, Jacob?”
“The fuck is that news of your story managed to find its way up to the top floor, Allie.”
“Cindy Anne’s story?” Allison said.
“Yeah. There were ‘concerns’ about the piece.”
“What concerns? I have her testimony, I have the materials she gave me about the company, how they treat the kids they ‘adopt’, about the rapes they’ve covered up. Everything she told me, she backed up with evidence.”
“Evidence stolen from Megamart and evidence they demanded back from our bosses two days ago.”
“They didn’t,” Allison said.
“Yes, they did,” Jacob said. “Turns out one of the owners of our company also sits on the board of Megamart. Has kids that play in the same Lacrosse league as the Megamart owners’ kids.”
“They can’t bury her story,” Allison said.
“Can and did,” Jacob said. “We have nothing, Allie. Corporate came down and took everything you had.”
“I’ll go public anyway,” Allison said.
“And they’ll sue you for defamation and you’ll have nothing.”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Allison said. “I can’t do nothing.”
“Can and will,” Jacob said. “Look, Allison, you’re a good journalist, but you’re also a good person. You can’t be both in this world. Take my advice. Go to Anchorage. Do your penance. Let the corporate goons forget who Allison Stone is for a year or two, then come back and resume your career. You can still be an anchor somewhere by 35. Maybe national by 40.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then there’s the door. And don’t count on finding another job in journalism. Those corporate boys talk to one another and there won’t be room on a news team for a reporter who’s not willing to go along with them and just do the job they expect of her.”
“She died because of this,” Allison said.
“And you haven’t, so don’t commit career suicide over some-“
“Discard?” Allison said.
“Yeah,” Jacob said. “Is she worth it to you? Worth throwing away four years of college and five years of career experience? Worth having to start over in a new career? I hear Megamart is hiring.”
“You’re a fucking bastard, Jacob.”
“Yeah, I am. So what’s it going to be, Allie? Anchorage or unemployment?”
Allison sighed. She pictured Cindy Anne’s corpse smiling cynically as Allison said, “When is my flight?”