The Lorelei Signal
Thank You for Applying to
Written by Tracy Falenwolfe / Artwork by Marcia Borell
Not like this. That was the only thought in Evelyn Reid’s head as the bullet raced toward her. She watched it slow as it spiraled closer, as if the atmosphere were made of clear, viscous goo, impeding the projectile until it barely moved at all. She was going to die in slow motion. She saw it coming.
Her life should have been flashing before her eyes. She should have been reliving her highs and lows, her twenty-year marriage, her wishes, her regrets. Instead, the job interview she’d just left invaded her thoughts.
It had been odd. Even the application process had been odd. But it had been quick, and Evelyn had no time to waste. The call for an interview came thirty minutes after she’d completed the online questionnaire. Could she come right away? Sure. Why us? Why now? Why indeed. The truth wasn’t flattering for either party. She needed money, and they offered money. It wasn’t any more complicated than that.
She arrived at the office five minutes before noon—not too eager, nor in any danger of being late. A sophisticated brunette greeted Evelyn at the door and led her to the inner sanctum. There were four metal desks in the room, topped with four manual typewriters and four clunky phones, facing four Bakelite wall clocks.
The brunette ushered Evelyn past the empty desks into a Spartan, aged office. No pleasantries were exchanged, no small talk initiated, no company history offered. The questions began the moment Evelyn sat. When pressed, she admitted she had no idea what STW Enterprises did or sold or produced. But, she assured the brunette, she could answer phones for anyone. It was the wrong answer, of course, but the brunette’s face didn’t show it.
Evelyn’s apathy toward most things annoyed some, but it allowed her to cope with any situation. She’d been known to accommodate the most frustrating customers, listen to the most boring clients, and share space with the most abrasive coworkers, all because of her ability to separate herself from anything and everything. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the outcome of things; it was more that she didn’t care to argue about things that didn’t directly affect her.
Perhaps her unique skill harkened back to the way she was raised: ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,’ was an oft-quoted adage at her house. So was ‘don’t rock the boat’ used interchangeably with ‘don’t make a spectacle of yourself.’ They all meant the same thing—keep your mouth shut and press on.
Over time, she’d adopted the sentiment as a personality trait. She’d been called cooperative, agreeable, and dependable, but she preferred to think of herself as durable, when she bothered to think of herself at all. She’d been praised for taking one for the team on more than one occasion.
“Please excuse me for a moment, Mrs. Reid,” the brunette said, and held up a finger. The nameplate on her desk read Miss Kintz, though she hadn’t formally introduced herself. She continued to refer to Evelyn as Mrs. Reid even after Evelyn invited her to use her first name, and she had asked only broad, general questions about the state of the world, as if gauging Evelyn’s moral compass rather than her aptitude.
Whatever floats your boat, Evelyn thought. If she passed Miss Kintz’s vetting, she could toe the company line—whatever it was—for eight hours a day. It wouldn’t change what she thought or did in the privacy of her own home after hours.
The large black rotary phone on the desk rang as if on cue. “Yes, Mr. Blocker,” Miss Kintz said. “I’m with Mrs. Reid now.” No first names for anyone at STW Enterprises it seemed. Evelyn made a mental note, so that if she were hired, she’d be sure to fit in. She was like a chameleon in that way, constantly adapting to her surroundings.
After the phone call, Miss Kintz sat primly and showed Evelyn a polite smile. She didn’t ask any more questions, so Evelyn figured she was being passed over. Again. It was just as well. She already had two other jobs, and she didn’t have time to research every company that posted on the job board. Nor did she care to.
That didn’t sit well with some interviewers. They wanted her to beg or to prove her worth or her commitment to the company. The truth was that as long as it paid and was legal, Evelyn would take any job. She was desperate on the inside, and maybe it showed a little on the outside.
Being a new widow was daunting. Sometimes she hated Frank for leaving her alone in a world from which he’d shielded her. Sometimes she hated him for shielding her in the first place. It made everything so much harder now. But she was careful to keep up appearances, to put on that brave face and press on. Life had handed her the situation she was in, and there was nothing she could do about it now.
She smelled coffee all of a sudden, though it seemed to be coming from nowhere, and she heard a low chatter even though she thought she and Miss Kintz were the only two people on the floor, in the building, even. She listened hard, but the voices may as well have belonged to revenants, echoes from some other time, prodding her to remember something, to do something, though what she couldn’t say. Their nagging was unsettling. For a moment, she couldn’t tell if they came from somewhere inside the building or from somewhere inside herself.
“Thank you for your time,” Evelyn said, and stood, panic clawing at her gut.
Miss Kintz motioned for her to sit back down with one finger.
Evelyn complied, ever obedient, ever malleable. The echoes grew louder. Evelyn tried to ignore them, to push them away. She needed to block out the murmur, the cloudy call to action, at least for long enough to get this job. But, for the first time in a long time, it took her more effort to ignore something than it would have to do something.
She was so close to speaking up when the phone rang again. Miss Kintz picked it up and only listened this time. Then she placed the receiver back in the cradle. “Mr. Blocker would like to know, if you had one special power, what would it be?”
“Um,” Evelyn stammered. “You mean like a superpower?”
Miss Kintz did not elaborate.
Superpower? Evelyn felt her cheeks burning. Had she really said that? Damn those voices in her head, in her bones. She’d come dangerously close to making a spectacle of herself.
“I’d like to be able to slow down time,” she said, recovering from her gaffe. It was true. The single most honest thing she’d ever said at an interview
Since Frank died, life was no longer tidy. Prepackaged. She had to take care of herself now, make her own decisions now, and she felt like the world was a giant carousel, spinning faster and faster and all she wanted to do was jump off. Instead, she stood on the edge, one foot dangling into the abyss, the other planted firmly. She wanted to be able to shift her weight and leap, but that never happened. She simply pressed ahead, soldiered on, kept a stiff upper lip. She was a prisoner inside of herself, for no reason other than that’s what she’d always been.
The revenants called to her and she pushed them out of her mind again. Onward, she thought. She needed another job, and that’s the only reason she was here. It wasn’t looking good, though. Evelyn could do without whatever mind games Miss Kintz was playing. There was no room in her busy schedule for self-examination. No room for thinking that there could be more, that she deserved more, or that she had more to give.
She looked at the clock again and realized the minute hand had not moved. Either the clock didn’t work, or what felt like twenty minutes had passed in a matter of seconds.
The murmuring voices grew louder. They were accompanied by other noises. The ding of the manual typewriters, the ringing of the sturdy desk phones, the ticking of those Bakelite clocks. Evelyn fought the urge to place her hands over her ears. Something was happening here in this building. Something urgent, something necessary. Something Evelyn couldn’t quite grasp.
She needed to know what went on here, but she’d been trained her whole life not to ask.
Miss Kintz offered no help as Evelyn struggled to ignore the sea change taking place at her core. Miss Kintz didn’t nod, didn’t smile, didn’t jot any notes. She simply said, “Very well,” and led Evelyn to the door. When they passed through the room with the four desks and the four typewriters and the four clocks, the scene was exactly as it had been before. There was no one present and no evidence there ever had been anyone present. The clocks still said five till twelve.
Miss Kintz turned Evelyn out on the street without so much as a ‘thanks for stopping by.’
Now, back out on the sidewalk, Evelyn watched that bullet floating straight for her forehead. The voices she’d heard inside the building were in her head now, and they were screaming for her to make a choice. In the blink of an eye, she could be right back with Frank. Her epitaph would say she’d been a good wife, and a hard worker, and that she’d never rocked the boat. Never made a spectacle of herself. Never stood for one damn thing.
Or, she could choose to make her own way, to do more, no matter what people thought, no matter how bold it seemed.
She focused on the slug, realizing the whole time it had been heading toward her she’d seen nothing else, heard nothing else, sensed nothing else. Inches from her eyebrow, the tiny piece of brass fell out of the air and onto the sidewalk at her feet. It made a hollow clink. With that, all of her other senses returned. She felt the summer heat beating down on her scalp, heard the whiz of traffic flying by, smelled the aroma of frying onions wafting out of a nearby food truck.
And she saw Miss Kintz tucking a pistol into the waistband of her skirt! Her heels clicked on the concrete as she approached Evelyn. “Congratulations, Mrs. Reid. It looks like you got the job.”
Evelyn knew her mouth was agape but couldn’t do anything about it. “You shot at me.”
Miss Kintz shrugged it off. “It’s much easier to learn how to control your special power by using it than by reading the manual.” She handed Evelyn a plastic badge. “Here’s your ID. Obviously, your power has been granted and is in good working order.”
“What?” Evelyn was baffled. “What power?”
“Mrs. Reid, you applied for a job with Save the World Enterprises and have been equipped with the power to slow down time.”
“The power.” It was sounding better every time she said it.
“It’s a brilliant choice, I have to say.”
“But what am I supposed to do with it?”
“Whatever you can.”
Evelyn considered the possibilities. She looked back at the building. It was stark and unassuming. Plain, even. Just like her. Her ears buzzed with the encouraging voices she’d heard inside. You’re enough. You can make a difference. You can change the world. She heard the typewriters. The frantic pounding of the keys by those who’d written their own stories, charted their own courses. Those who’d left their mark.
Miss Kintz looked at her watch. Evelyn did the same. It was still five till twelve.
Miss Kintz smiled. “It’s time,” she said. Then she went inside and shut the door.
Evelyn smiled. It was time indeed.
Since winning the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award in 2014, Tracy Falenwolfe’s stories have appeared in over a dozen publications including Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, Crimson Streets, and several Chicken Soup for the Soul volumes. Tracy lives in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.