Bourbon Penn 29

The Old Ones of the DMV

by Chloe Smith

Every morning at dawn, we thank our uncaring fates for the power that flows from the Line, for the way that the pent-up emotion provides sustenance for our masters. We pray that today the Line’s bounty will not fail. We pray that we and all our fellows will be spared. Even the new hire.

Before light has fully lifted up the sky, we crawl from our beds and dress in our creased and faded uniforms. We shuffle from our homes, turn the ignition keys in our dented vehicles, make our way through mazes of commuter gridlock.

We understand, as brake lights blink like baleful eyes, as we each crawl along our converging paths, the value of impatience. We know to be grateful for the compressed heat of frustration, like that which builds in the slow-moving flow around us. We can’t taste it ourselves, for all we sense its surge. We know it is good. Better for people to choke on road rage and stymied desires than on their own blood, their flesh rent by unimaginable mouths.

We arrive at work one after another, half-scoured shells thrown up piecemeal by the tides of traffic. The Line began well before that. It forms in the dark of the small hours, a serpent’s coil around the building’s hulk. The people in it are silent, dim-eyed, so still that the occasional, slight movement seems explosive. We can feel the banked fire of their collective intentions, their small idle thoughts, their silent wants.

The new hire speaks directly to those in Line, assures them we’ll be open soon. We suppress chills of concern. We warned her about disturbing the balance of frustrations, told her that she would learn best by observing her seniors’ actions, following in our footsteps. A veteran takes her by the elbow to guide her into the building.

• • •

The hands of the great clock on the windowless back wall tremble and hitch forward. The hour is upon us. One of our number unlocks the front door. “Good morning. What brings you here today?”

We direct the arrivals to one window and to the next, depending on what ends they seek. We tell them to step forward, to step back. We send them around to wait for a number, to stand in one line, then another, then another. The truth is, all lines are part of the great Line, the sustained, trammeled skein of suspended anticipation and need. Here, within this crowded space, that skein thickens. Power sloughs from the Line, rises and flows away from us, toward the windowless wall and the Directors whose many limbs coil behind it. The air is staticky with supplicants’ frustrations. We hope that it may slake the Directors’ endless hunger.

Sometimes, the power surges. A waiting supplicant will break from the Line or balk at a redirection between windows. Voices crack the air. “But can’t you see—” “I’ve done that—” Such outbursts fill us with crystalline fear. We can sense the Line’s pent-up desire draining, as people crane their necks to watch the show or, embarrassed, look away. We do our best to quell such spectacles. We respond according to our natures—with harsh words and steely gazes, or with blank inaction and masklike smiles. We act to calm the exercised supplicant, to restore order, but the Line will not be moved at any pace besides its own.

Still, we take note of the ruptures. The Line must move, if slowly; otherwise, there would be no hope. We know that faint hope, threading up from all who stand and shuffle forward; the Directors have told us its flavor is sweet, a gratifying seasoning to the stew of frustrations. Supplicants must not give up and leave. They must comply, and wait, and they will be answered and pass on, once they have served their purpose. That is what the Directors require.

The hours grind on. Those nearest the new hire begin to notice a differential in the accumulated energy nearby, the ambient impatience draining away. The branch of the Line that terminates at the new hire’s window is moving more quickly. Frustration wanes as hope and optimism bloom. The palate of suppressed emotion becomes distorted. One after another, supplicants leave her window with easy thanks, disappear through the outer doors and are gone.

The rest of us begin to eye each other across the flimsy partitions between our sections. It is risky to draw attention to ourselves, to name the reality we all labor under—supplicants should not hear us speak so bluntly. But it’s dangerous as well to let her continue, to pollute the harvest of the Line. We know what could happen. We’ve seen it happen before.

A few of us lean over and whisper to each other between supplicants. “Do you see—” “—is she—” “Someone should—” Our mutterings don’t have time to evolve into action, though. It’s already too late.

The message appears on all our monitors at once. It spells itself out in rusty letters on the papers stacked beside our keyboards. It flashes onto the number display that hangs above the Line, in between the announcements of openings at window A17 and G6. The supplicants don’t recognize it. The new hire frowns. She hasn’t been here long enough to see this happen before.

We have.

The nearest supervisor’s face grows haggard. He steps to the new hire’s window, hangs the “closed” sign over it.

“It’s my break already?” She blinks at him, but he won’t meet her eyes.

“No. You’ve been summoned.”

“Oh, really? That’s funny, ’cause I was going to point out—”

The supervisor takes her by the wrist. “No. You noticed nothing. You weren’t aware of how you were passing people along.” He leans in, voice a whisper that does nothing to hide the tension behind it. “If you plead ignorance, they may let it go.”

“Ok-a-ay.” The new hire looks as if she wants to pull her wrist back, but not as if she is afraid for her life. We pity her. In small, selfish parts of our hearts, we envy her innocence. Perhaps that is why we skimp so on employee onboarding, why we let the new hire and those who came before her stumble through suspicion to horrified realization, tell them only to keep their heads down and mimic their fellows. We tell ourselves it was generosity. We are afraid it was only the self-protective cowardice of silence.

None of us look up as she follows him through the inner maze behind our windows. We don’t want to see.

We know where they are going, though. We know the heart of the building, the door in the windowless wall. We know how few return from beyond it.

Even fewer of those survivors speak of what they witnessed. We remember one veteran, wizened and nearing his final retirement, who whispered of his experience, the way it haunted his nightmares. He said that a great weight fell on him when he stood before the Directors. Unable to look up, he stared only at the ground beneath their feet. He described in painful detail the grooved paths carved into the linoleum tiles, as if by massive claws. They were the channels, he murmured, along which blood drained from human sacrifices, in former days, before the Directors learned their taste for more ephemeral foods, for the frustration and impatience generated by the Line.

If we had anything to pray to, we would pray that the Directors never decide their new sustenance is more trouble than it’s worth, that they would prefer to return to the old forms of sacrifice.

The supplicants shuffle and mutter. Our machines whir. Beneath all that, we still hear the click of the door opening. It echoes in all our ears. The supervisor steps aside, and the new hire precedes him through it. The door shuts behind them, final as shears snapping thread.

We continue to tend the Line. We breathe deeply, bow our heads, hesitate a moment longer than we might, before pressing our seals to accepted forms, before clicking through to new windows on our bowed and flickering screens. “The readiness is all,” as the saying goes? No, the sustained pace is all. The more we draw it out, the more we propitiate the Directors.

What more can we do?

We fear and expect the supervisor’s reappearance, so when the door unlatches again, many of us can’t stop ourselves from looking over, however much we might like to. A wave of focus passes through the room, as the rest of us realize that those peering gazes haven’t flicked away again. For a pair of breaths, no one is looking at the Line, or the supplicant before them, or at their screen or pile of documents.

All eyes are focused on the new hire, as she walks back to her window. The supervisor trails her, eyes wide and face haggard. Her expression, though, is diamond-sharp.

She reaches her station, flicks the “closed” sign away. “Next!” She looks out at the waiting Line, and then, for a moment, turns and sears us all with her smile.

• • •

The day falls into evening. Daylight fades. The new hire’s window continues to move supplicants like grains of sand falling through a glass, slipping away, frictionless.

At last, the minute hand on the great clock staggers its way to the end of the final hour. We shoo away the remaining supplicants—both those who have been served and those who must wait until another day. The new hire has no one to turn away, just one last man, who smiles and waves as he leaves, the page of his new permit fluttering.

Most evenings we leave with little more than muttered goodbyes. There is nothing to talk about, and we are all eager to hoard the hours we have to ourselves. Now, though, we linger. We crane our necks toward the new hire, who shrugs her bag onto one shoulder.

As she steps toward the exit, a few of our number lose the battle with curiosity and hurry up behind her. “Wait! Are you alright?” One of them bleats.

She pauses, with an expression of mild surprise. “I’m fine. Why should you ask?” Her tone holds ice we’ve not heard before.

Her interlocutors fumble. “We thought—” “When you were summoned, we were sure—” “—afraid we’d never…”

“And you wanted to protect me?” She asks, “Just like you want to help all the people who come here?” Her smile is all teeth now. “Is that why you warned me before I was summoned? Explained how things work, so I didn’t have to figure it on my own?”

Ashamed, we grasp at the one thing we think we can defend. “We do help the supplicants—” “What we have to do—” “—why the Line has to wait—” our voices trail away to nothing.

“But that’s the thing, it doesn’t have to.” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry. If you’d talked to me, rather than forcing me to work alone; if you’d wanted to hear what I realized … Then maybe now the Directors wouldn’t be so disappointed in all of you.”

Her words fill up the building’s shuttered dimness. They echo into silence that thickens, deepens—and then is silence no longer. Air moves behind us, rustling movement as the door in the back wall opens. We glance back, and then forward to where the new hire is just now slipping out the front entrance. We move to follow, but the shifting air catches the front door and slams it behind her.

We know we must turn, and the knowledge is terrible. Shadows extend through the passage from the back room, shifting in the peripheries of our vision. Failure. Disappointment. The worlds are a susurrus on the edge of hearing.

“But how? What is our failure?” The supervisor’s voice quavers, pitch rising. “We have brought you so much, the simmering frustration—”

Frustration? The shadows lengthen. We turn one by one, find ourselves pierced by the Directors’ inscrutable, depthless glares.

And with that look comes uncanny awareness, the feel of emotion, the offerings we’ve cultivated, delivered, but never known ourselves. We taste the bitterness of impatience, the acrid essence of pent-up rage, all the stifled feelings that have simmered in this building for years beyond count.

“Wasn’t that what you wanted?” Some desperate whisper from among our group.

If that was all we were offered, the answer comes, thrust into our minds with such disorienting force that some of us fall to our knees. On the heels of that response come other sensations, tied to memories of the new hire’s face, her quick response, her smile. We taste a different bouquet of emotions: relief, desires fulfilled, the weightless surprise of anticipated pain failing to materialize. These feelings are sweet as nectar, an alluring chaser after so much bitterness.

Satisfaction, the Directors tell us, that is the sustenance you could have offered up.

“We were wrong!” Someone cries. “We can change! We promise.”

Even as we cry and cringe away, though, we know it is too late. The eldritch Directors have tasted human satisfaction, and they realize now there needs to be a new approach—internal restructuring, shorter wait times. But for now, for those of us who have failed them, the old, trusted methods will do. Punishment. Sacrifice.

Faced by the final horrors, few of us can spare a last, generous thought: we hope that the new hire will remember that the Directors still—always—seek their own satisfaction first.

Chloe Smith teaches English and history to 14-year-olds, which is never boring. She also works as a proofreader for Fantasy magazine and writes science fiction and fantasy stories whenever she can make the time. She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she lived in Texas and Washington states, New York City, and rural France before coming back to California. Her short fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Interzone Digital, and elsewhere. Her debut novella, Virgin Land, came out in February 2023 from Luna Press Publishing.