Month: September 2023

The Status of Your Refund

Carl goes line by line through the bank statement with his trusty lime green highlighter. He’s known for his detailed work. The last performance review he had called him “eagle-eyed.” It’s been seven years now since he was evaluated, but he did not become an auditor for the recognition.

He’s alone in the office again today. It’s been a long time since the other cubicles held the bodies of his colleagues. There are plenty of coworkers he doesn’t miss seeing, but there are other times when he wishes he could catch up with Greg and discuss highlights of the last Chargers game. But that’s just the way it is. People come and go.

Carl congratulates himself for a thorough, months-long investigation. After going through a string of 15 complaints about this financial institution, he determined that this small regional bank owed almost $6500 back to its customers for improper charges. He was sure it was more, but with the computers down, he was relying on the mailed complaints only. That wasn’t gonna stop him from slapping their ass with another $3000 fine, too. That’ll show this greedy bank not to mess with the general public, he thought, signing his name on a strongly-worded letter to the bank’s compliance department. He’ll have to figure out the address later.

The corporate fridge still has a few Cokes in it, even though the collection jar for snack purchases has been empty for months. Carl has been trying to avoid soda, but this is a special occasion. He cracks open the can of lukewarm cola and allows himself a ten minute break to look at the family photos on his desk.

He re-reads the complaint that kickstarted his audit of this bank. Mrs. Lolamae Harrison, 85, Wilmington, Nebraska, claimed she was overcharged for her checking account monthly fee. She kindly asked for help in getting her $15 back.

There was a bit of a backlog, of course, in processing the complaints. The Bureau was understaffed these days, and Carl’s specialty was accuracy, not speed. Mrs. Harrison’s mailed-in bank statements were from a few years ago, the coffee stain on page 3 long dry. Carl’s job was to audit, not to pass judgment, but he still noted her $600 monthly donation to her church. He had wondered if $600 per month had been enough to buy her way into a better place.

He assumes Mrs. Harrison is probably dead now. She could have survived, he chides himself, it’s possible. But, she was elderly, and everyone knew Nebraska had been a hot mess. Almost nobody had made it out of Omaha alive. Most likely, the virus didn’t spare her. And if she had made it, well, Carl figures she probably had more pressing issues than collecting a $15 refund from a bank with no branches left standing.

What justice is there against sickness? He can’t punish the antibodies of the dead for their failures. He can’t cite a disease; can’t slap a fine on the plague. But he can still audit.

The virus took his wife. His son. It took away football games and potlucks and normalcy. Every day, he looked out the window in the corner office he’d finally commandeered after four years of waiting for his boss to come back, he saw the city where he’d grown up and lived a humble, good life falling around him in decay.

He pens a handwritten note to Mrs. Harrison, informing her that he has put in the request for the $15 refund from her bank. He thanks her for taking the time to write to the Bureau and apologizes for the lengthy delay in remedying her concern. He tells her that wherever she is, however she is doing, she was absolutely 100% correct that the bank overcharged her, and that he hopes that this truth brings her comfort in these uncertain times.

Carl peels a Forever stamp off the roll. Once, the roll seemed infinite, but now, after all these years, the stamps are dwindling. He pushes the thought out of his mind. He doesn’t want to imagine a day when the stamp roll is empty, his highlighters have dried up, and there is not a single goddamn complaint left.

He puts on his respirator, goes outside, and crams the letter into the overflowing mailbox.

Gracie Beaver-Kairis is a Pacific Northwest based humor and fiction writer. Her work has been published in McSweneeys, The Hard Times, Slackjaw, and other outlets. You can find her on Twitter @beaverkairis.


“Allow me to taste your ink, if you’d like to enter my library,” the vampire said as soon as I crossed the threshold. Moonlight speckled silver in the gaps between the heavy curtains covering the windows in the front room. Rows of bookshelves stood at attention in the dark beside my host, waiting for me to pay his fee. My eyes burned and blisters throbbed and I knew the rumors I’d followed into the forest were true. The vampire’s library contained more information than most humans could fathom, but his knowledge came at a price. Most paid it with their lives on the journey; there were many things living within the trees ready to tear and bite and lead travelers astray. Arriving alive was half the goal.

I nodded, and he held out his hand. His palm was white, unnaturally smooth, no wrinkles. No lifelines.

“It only stings for a moment,” he said, voice smooth, soft—a quiet reassurance, like my father’s had once been, steady, chasing away monsters I now willingly sought.

A sharp pinch precluded the dull ache that crawled up my arm, through my chest. I looked at the vampire, but startled to feel the warm press of my mother’s embrace. The ink pooled on my skin, dragging memories forward so vivid I could nearly see them in the sheen clinging to my skin. I flinched at the memory of my brother’s hands shoving at my shoulders, turned toward the sweet scent of cinnamon, tried to back away from the cloying taste of blood on my tongue. The vampire held me fast.

Thick globs of black, depths glistening purple and midnight blue, smeared across my skin. A cosmos of memory caught in the flickering candlelight, part of the story that made up my life until the moment I’d reached the library. The ink rolled down my forearm, looped around my wrist, and then dug tight into the vampire’s hand. A bitter tang clung to the back of my throat. The memories remained, but now part of them belonged to him. My mother’s goodbye stung a little less deeply. My father’s indifference was shared. I thought back to my brother’s sneer, when I’d fallen and bled before I left. It hurt less, as if someone had rubbed the raw edges of those moments grey. I felt worse knowing someone had tasted the broken pieces of me.

“Salty,” the vampire said, pulling his tongue across his teeth. His eyes had gone dark as the ink that’d disappeared between us. “You taste like salt and smoke. A hint of cinnamon.”

When stressed, my mother baked. When pressed, I’d fled.

“Stay the night,” the vampire said. “Search if you’d like. Don’t set the collection on fire.”

He left me with a row of unused candles, walking into the shadowed stacks as I rubbed at my wrist. I could still feel the slight ooze of ink against my skin. That memory remained sharp.

I woke with pages crushed beneath my cheek and the vampire tapping on my shoulder. Night had fallen again and found me in a deeper, darker place. My dreams had urged me homeward, taunting me with a warmth that wouldn’t exist if I failed to find answers in the library.I’d turned pages until my hands cramped, read until my vision blurred and smeared and failed me.

“Will you remain in my library?” the vampire asked.

“Yes,” I said, offering him my hand. “I’m not finished.”

Together we watched the ink spiral down beneath his skin. More of my story, but some of the older pages, when my feet had always been dirty and my stomach always full. My ears rang with old laughter, coated sour on the edges with the pleading I’d done before I’d left. Begging my family to listen, to understand. When he released me, I couldn’t recall the exact words I’d said, or track the tension written into the lines of my family as they’d let me go.

“Stay the night,” the vampire said, patting my hand, just once. “Remember that one day your ink will run dry.”

I swallowed down the panic that rose to meet his warning. When the ink was gone, I would have nothing left to pay the vampire, and he would force me out of his library. Back into that cold, dangerous forest; back to my loneliness. The story of my life wasn’t so long, so far; I didn’t have much time before my welcome would run out. I needed to find my answers quickly; I had no other choice. Nothing to go back to if I arrived empty-handed.

I turned back to the books, finding some comfort in their indifference toward who held them.

“What question brought you here?” the vampire asked on the third night. He’d found me deep in the library, down a spiraling stairway and across an echoing chamber. A cramp locked my neck and my eyes burned for sunlight that couldn’t be found there.

“If I tell you, could you help me find my answers?” I asked, pressing my lips together, tight, when he glanced away. I’d known I’d be doing this alone; the stories I’d followed never mentioned any assistance offered by my host. Still, I realized how nice it was to have someone sit beside me, someone who might listen.

“I look after the books,” the vampire explained. “I don’t look into them.”

He waited, dark eyes fixed on mine, as if I’d promised him a story.

“I need to find a way for them to understand me,” I said, flushing under his attention. From frustration, and shame, and anger that I had even been forced to feel ashamed. “Then I can go.”

“Who is it that brought you here?” the vampire asked.

“My family,” I answered. My brother, whose lips had peeled back as he’d shouted at me to fix myself or never return. My mother, who would have me shove the truth away inside me, deep enough to rot and fester. My father, who had already started the slow process of pretending I didn’t exist.

“Myself,” I added later. Because through time and distance, the weeks that had passed since I’d left home, my despair had dulled into determination. Because beneath the hard words and rough hands and confusion, all I really wanted was a way to claw back to happiness.

I stared at one of my open books while we held hands. That night, the ink stabbed deep.

How To Keep Your Cool If You’re A Mech First Day On The Job

Damn, the exoskeleton was hot. Two minutes strapped into the smart harness with its thick exospine and the oversized, carbon-fiber limbs that grew from it, and sweat pooled between Jenna’s shoulder blades, over her own spinal column. The whole thing hummed with electronics and throbbed with support motors. Nothing like the black top, mini skirt, and sneakers she’d worn on her previous job, waiting tables and tending bar at Lazy Dog’s.

But the pay was three times what she made in tips, and she had the evenings to herself.

She was moving up in the world.

Jenna raised her thick new arms in front of her, closed and opened her fists, rotated her wrists, wiggled her fingers. Her robotic hands enlarged her motions, each finger lined with a flexible pad for a non-slip grip.

The clear visor of her hard hat displayed the specs. Lifting capacity: 400 lbs.

Holy shit, she was strong.

If Paps were still around, he’d be both horrified and impressed. He’d worked the docks all his life, loading and unloading endless trucks of e-commerce goods and wrecking his back in the process, before exosuits became “cost-effective.” All to give her a roof over her head and some measure of security at a time where robotics and AI were turning the job market upside down. He wanted her to have a nice, clean office job and wear a suit to work.

Well, she was wearing a suit all right. Just not the kind Paps imagined.

Anyway, she wasn’t cut out for office work. Couldn’t imagine anything duller than sitting at a desk in a cubicle no bigger than a port-a-john and staring at a computer all day.

“What the hell are you doing?”

A grim-faced man stepped in front of Jenna. Piercing blue eyes under black hair peppered with gray. No exosuit, but judging by the way his muscles bulged and roped under his long-sleeve tee, he’d worked construction for a while. He held a tablet in hand. “You don’t move until I tell you to move. I’m still linking you up. Got it?”

She’d forgotten her Mech trainer.

His name was Daron, and he’d looked pissed from the moment she’d walked into the hangar this morning, after onboarding in the office trailer—an entirely computerized process that consisted of a rudimentary quiz on safety rules, followed by two dozen electronic forms, half of them the company’s liability waivers. He barely spoke to her as he helped her suit up and run system diagnostics, and now he jabbed at his tablet, a permanent scowl etched into his face, like her very presence was a lousy joke.

“What’s your problem?” Jenna snapped.

That got Daron’s attention.

He looked up at her, gaze sharp enough to slice metal. “My problem? Right now, you’re my problem. I have five houses to print this week, a rig that can handle two, and I’m a man short. I need a real Mech, with experience on the job. Remind me, sweetheart, how much experience have you got?”

Jenna bristled. Sweetheart? Was this guy for real—or messing with her?

So she was new—fine. But her tech certificate required sixty hours of VR practice, and she’d clocked in ninety-four and aced all her tests, on top of a hectic schedule at Lazy Dog’s. She busted her ass to get here. A little appreciation would be nice.

“My name is Jenna,” she corrected. “And if we’re as busy as you say, why are we wasting time standing around here talking? Give me a job to do. I’m a fast learner, sweetheart.

Daron’s eyes widened and his lips twitched, his face a fraction less menacing for a second. But then the scowl was back in place. “Okay, Jenna. I see you’re eager to get out there. Super. But I still need to know one thing. Your number one job qualification, and not something I can look up in your file.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

The Mech stared her in the eye. “Are you going to lose your shit when something goes wrong?Yes or no? Because my crew are out there, and I don’t want anyone hurt on my watch.” He pointed his thumb at the open gate of the hanger and a dusty office trailer baking in the sun. “So if you can’t handle the heat, do us both a favor and quit right now.”

Jenna clenched her teeth and glared. What a dick. Was that supposed to scare her? He wouldn’t be the first to try. “Sorry, I’m not much of a quitter,” she snapped.

“Is that right? I guess we’ll find out.” Daron rotated his arm, the tablet unused for the moment, and jabbed a quick pattern on the touchscreen strapped to his forearm. “And speaking of safety. See that faint lock icon in the upper right corner? It’s a motion override. You try anything stupid, and I’ll freeze your ass.

Jenna glanced at the icon, indignant. She knew about the safety feature. It was for emergencies only. She was about to tell her trainer to go ahead and try it, see what happened, when a loud metal bang shattered her thought.

Another Mech—a woman in a full suit—had just brought her massive carbon-fiber fist in contact with the gate. Her hard hat was in her other hand. Tattoos swirled up her shaved head and sweat glistened on her throat. “Daron, you coming? We need you to QC.” Her eyes moved to Jenna. “Who the hell is this?”

“Hi, I’m Jenna,” Jenna said quickly. “I’m new.”

“No shit,” the woman answered, then banged her fist on the gate again. “Come on, boss. Chop, chop. It’s getting hot out there.” And she was gone.

Common Test

In the middle of the room sat the machine—a monolith to the uninitiated, a sleek, oblong contraption with a complicated register and a series of sliders attached to one side.

It was meant to impress, but Geok Hong was unmoved. Over the last five months a copy of this machine had occupied one entire end of her rented shophouse room, where she had operated it for six hours a day. She knew what every dial did and what every string of keystrokes activated. Instead, her eyes wandered about the room, first to the wooden shutter blinds, then to the pendant lights, and finally to the grimy walls plastered with garish government posters in every language: Prussian, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Japanese and English. She fidgeted with a handheld fan as the machine’s technician, a thin girl in a worn uniform, explained the procedure to her.

“—we will work until six, taking breaks only when your child needs one.”

Her child. Werner sat in the highchair, goggling at the skinny young man strapping him in, a yoyo of drool bouncing from his lip.

The two technicians moved to their posts. It appeared the girl, Man Moy, would operate the machine first, while Razak would observe Werner’s reaction.

As they began, Geok Hong feigned ignorance to the process, finally glancing at the pamphlet they had given her when she had entered the facility.

Fifteen years ago, when the government had introduced the process of birth language identification for newborns, they had touted it as a modern, rational, scientific process, destined to change Temasek. Their reasoning for doing this stemmed from research done in the 1920s, where, amidst the boom of Prussian science, several of their psycholinguists had discovered that children were born fluent in one language—except it was almost never the one from their homeland. They further discovered that by educating children in their birth language, they learnt skills faster and retained more.

The two technicians’ job was to ascertain—at the age of six months, before it was possible for children to have picked up the languages in their environment—whether the child’s birth language was one of the twenty-six taught in the top state academies.

It was vital for Temasek to invest in its most abundant resource—its labor force—as fresh conflicts between Prussian Indochina, Nusantara and Langkasuka left the viability of international trade, once Temasek’s primary industry, in jeopardy.

Geok Hong watched as Man Moy pecked away at the register, activating various phrases from the audio phrasebook. In front of the child, Razak sat, checking to see whether Werner reacted to any of them.

His only response was to gurgle.

That wasn’t the reaction they were looking for, Geok Hong knew. They were waiting for the moment a phrase triggered a verbal response from Werner.

If he responded fluently and appropriately to any of the twenty-six languages, his future would be secured. He would be enrolled into a specialized school devoted only to teaching students of his birth language, and the stable and comfortable life of a bureaucrat would be all but assured for him.

But Geok Hong hadn’t practiced with Werner non-stop since his birth just for an iron rice bowl, as attractive as it was. No, she had trained him for the past five months to respond only to and only in Prussian, the international language of trade and science. If the technicians tagged his birth language as such, he would be sent to the National Institution, the elite boarding school that trained the nation’s future ministers, generals and star academics.

She remembered the moment her postpartum confinement had ended, how Werner’s father had paid four coolies to lug the monstrous language machine—in parts—up to her rented shophouse room. Without consulting her they had rearranged the whole room, and when they were finally done, she could barely walk a step without bumping into the bed, the dresser, or the table.

When she had seen the rearrangement she had wanted to scold him. How on earth could she live with the room like that?

But she couldn’t say that, of course. He had paid for her furniture, he had paid for her care and food during confinement, and he paid her rent. He could put whatever he wanted in the room.

And besides all of that, he had agreed to stay for dinner.

So Geok Hong had kept her mouth shut.

That night, as she relished the rare treat of nasi schnitzel, he had lectured her about the need to train Werner daily.

“You can’t just hope Werner picks up Prussian through the kopitiam radio. You need to teach him to respond to the machine.” At that point he patted the cabinet-sized device, making a satisfying clang. He beamed. Geok Hong had no clue how he managed to procure one, and while he had boasted about it all throughout dinner, he had kept mum about the machine’s origins. “Werner is not going to live as a second-class citizen,” he said.

He had also been very proud that he helped pick his son’s Prussian name.

Geok Hong had been afraid. “They’ll put him in the National Institution with children whose birth language is actually Prussian. He won’t be able to keep up. Besides, how can I fool a language technician?”

At that, his face darkened, the way it did when she asked him to stay the night.

He said, “If they discover your situation, they’ll take him away anyway. You can barely support yourself as it is. The question is, do you want him adopted by another coolie family like yours, or by Temasek’s top school?” Then his face softened, as he added, “Do as I say and it’ll be all right. Trust me. All the other officials do it too.”

With their legitimate children, Geok Hong almost shot back. But she pressed her lips together. He had been in a good mood until then. Perhaps he’d stay the night if she acquiesced.

She jolted alert as Werner started grizzling.

“Ma’am, please wait—”

But it was too late. Geok Hong scooped the baby into her arms. “He’s hungry.”

Razak and Man Moy shared a look. “We’ll take a break.”

When they resumed, they swopped places, now Man Moy watched the child, while Razak operated the machine.

Geok Hong recognised the rolling tongue of Japanese playing from the speakers. When it came to selecting the twenty-six languages the national schools would teach, the government had eschewed the Malay and Mandarin dialects spoken on the streets. Instead, they had chosen to teach in the foreign languages of the world’s great powers—nations whose languages had a large trove of existing scientific, political, philosophical and military literature, in the hopes that the children who spoke those languages as their birth language would better absorb the innovations and ideas from them, and use this knowledge to bring glory to Temasek.

Geok Hong listened as Razak played more phrases. Over the last five months, though she never learnt the words, she could recognise the cadence of each language. Portuguese was a rower paddling a canoe. Tamil was an acrobat jumping skip rope.

She noticed they were avoiding Prussian.

The boy’s father had warned her some technicians would save it for last. “They know people want it,” he said, pressing a sheaf of marks into her hand. “Use this if necessary.”

The money was now in two separate angbaos, tucked away in her purse. If she offered, would they take it? Were all officials like Werner’s father?

Geok Hong imagined her son’s life at the National Institution, walled off from the rest of Temasek so its students could focus on their sole job: studying. She missed him already. How would he fare? Would he find success and happiness?

Or would he wear the same expression she did now?

She eyed Man Moy, who smiled as she watched Werner. She hadn’t been much different a few years ago, before she met Werner’s father—uniform thin and yellowed, wearing ratty shoes that had been passed from sibling to sibling, working as some office apparatchik.

How could a girl like that look so much happier than her?

The first track in Prussian played, and Werner gave a gurgle. Man Moy cooed back, and made a mark on her document.