The Intake Office
THE INTAKE OFFICE
Bea called over her next client.
The boy pointed to himself, me?
As he walked toward her, clutching his two extra shrouds to his chest, Bea tried to see his terror and confusion. But it was hard. Harder and harder lately to care about the predictable emotions of the recently deceased.
Bea put on her gentle working face for the boy who was now cowering next to her desk. “Hi, I’m Bea,” she said. She checked her screen “Jonathan Smith, right?”
Her client nodded, looking stunned.
“Have a seat, Jonathan,” Bea said, pointing to the chair. “You must have a lot of questions and I’m here to help.”
Jonathan ran his fingers nervously through his hair, and was about to speak when a high shriek split the air and echoed crazily throughout the office.
Jonathan leapt out of his chair and hit the ground.
Bea automatically glanced at Quinn’s desk to share an eye-roll over her client’s dramatics. The emptiness of Quinn’s desk struck her again, as if for the first time. Was her memory so screwed up that right in the middle of feeling miserable over Quinn’s disappearance, she could forget why she was feeling so bad?
Bea reached down and touched her client’s shoulder but that just made him crouch even lower.
“It’s OK,” she said. “The jumpers always come in screaming.”
Jonathan peeked up at her. “J-J-J-Jumpers?” he asked in a trembling voice.
Bea patted the chair beside her and he climbed back into it while she explained, “Bridges, roofs, window ledges, treetops, cliffs. I’m not sure why,” she said with a shrug. “Screaming is just a jumper thing. You get used to it.” And she smiled.
Jonathan stared at her without blinking.
“Have you had a chance to look over your FAQ sheet?” Bea asked, pointing to the paper he’d mangled in his sweat-less hands. “It’s a list of most Frequently Asked Questions.”
The boy looked down at it as if he’d never seen it before and had no idea how it got in his possession.
“Maybe we should go over it together,” Bea said, trying not to let her irritation show. Why did they think they were given the sheet in the first place? So much time is wasted when they won’t do the simplest things they’re asked. The newly dead, Bea thought, are just pathetic.
She knew it wasn’t nice to scoff at their confusion or belittle their fear, but everyone knew they were going to end up here eventually, so why all the drama?
It used to help Bea act sympathetic to remember her own first day, her own initial trek down these halls. But that was such a long time ago that half the time she wasn’t sure if she was remembering her own process or combining her story with all the others.
She pulled a fresh FAQ sheet out of her drawer and read it out loud, running her finger under the words for Jonathan Smith to follow along like a child. “Number one,” Bea read, “Am I dead? Yes. Number two…”
“Jonathan interrupted her. “You mean dead dead? Or like dying? Or in a coma in some hospital or ambulance or something?”
Bea reminded herself to be patient. “Dead, Jonathan. I’m sorry, but that life is totally over.” She gave him a second to digest that, then, as sweetly as possible said, “Ready to go on to number two?”
“Do I look all…” he made a face, “like bloody and mangled and…”
“No, you look just fine,” Bea assured him.
Jonathan ran his hand nervously through his sticky-up hair muttering, “Good, good, that’s good.” Then he looked confused again and said, “Where are the grown ups?”
“No one on The Island is older than 19,” Bea explained, “or younger than 13. See?” She pointed to number six on the FAQ sheet. “But let’s take them in order, shall we?”
When they’d finally finished, Jonathan stood up and stumbled off in the direction Bea pointed, without so much as a thank-you. Bea sat back, crumbled his grubby FAQ sheet into a ball and turned to toss it at Quinn and ping her in the head. But Quinn still wasn’t there.
Bea sprang to her feet. How had she forgotten something so utterly crucial as Quinn’s disappearance? And WHERE THE HELL WAS QUINN?
Bea bolted through the Intake doors to search the lobby.
She rushed outside to the steps where she’d found Quinn yesterday, but no luck. She scanned the few Solids on the scene, but none were Quinn.
Would Quinn go back to their mausoleum, alone? Bea asked herself. To the beach, alone? Both options were equally unlikely, impossible, in fact to imagine. Quinn didn’t go anywhere alone.
An unpleasant squeezing sensation seized Bea’s chest as she tried to make sense of the nonsensical. Action beat inaction, she decided, and took off for their mausoleum.
She found thick dust suspended in the dim light. The endless row of cots were mostly empty with the majority of the deceased at their day jobs.
But no Quinn.
Bea spun around. Beach next. But what if Quinn wasn’t there? There was really no where else to check. Or, more precisely, everywhere on The Island was just as unlikely as anywhere else.
Bea tore down the beach path, hoping she’d soon be laughing at how ridiculous she’d been to worry. She tried to picture Quinn teasing her for over-reacting, but she knew Quinn would have panicked just as much if Bea had suddenly vanished.
She saw a girl she knew walking by and called out, “Hey, Rose! Have you seen Quinn?”
Rose shook her head, and looked concerned. “How long has she been gone?” she asked.
But Bea didn’t stop to answer. And she did not like the word “gone.”
Next she hailed a kid from the Laundry, pushing his wheelbarrow heaped with dirty shrouds. But he didn’t even slow down. Bea scurried along beside him asking, “Have you noticed a girl go by with….”
She was about to describe Quinn’s hair and height but the Laundry guy cut her off. “Suck it up, Dude,” he said. “When they split, they split.”
“No buts,” he said, and trundled off.
Bea let him go.
It was a fairly long way to the beach, but Bea ran and was soon standing on the warm sand, facing the empty waves. Very few Solids were there this time of day, and none of them were Quinn. Bea and Quinn only came to the beach in the evenings, for sunset. Bea now noticed there were blues in the mid-day waves that Quinn would be sorry she’d missed.
Bea pried her eyes away from the crashing surf and wondered, “Now what? Now where?”
She felt all arms and legs and stupidity. Her panic had sunk to her gut and turned to a thumping dread. Quinn’s a big girl, she told herself. She’s been dead a long time and knows how to take care of herself. But Bea knew they were empty words wafting off with the ocean spray.
She turned her back on the sea and plodded without destination, wondering what was happening to Quinn.
When she arrived more or less automatically, back at the Intake Office, she took one last look around, then entered the building and headed for her desk. Bea figured that at least then Quinn would know where to find her. Wasn’t that what they used to tell the living to do if they were lost in the woods? Just stay put?