The mic squealed as she adjusted it down to her height, fingers nervously drumming the splintered edge of the podium. The clearing of her throat echoed through the wood-paneled church basement, and she attempted a weak smile. No one returned it.
“Hello, my name is Anna, and I am magically impaired.”
Weak helloes rose up from the small group below her, scattered across tidy rows of metal folding chairs. Men, women, old and young, their calloused hands clutched Styrofoam cups of coffee, bringing them up for loud slurps in the silence that followed as Anna gathered her thoughts. The facilitator, a kindly old woman with a bursting binder open across her lap, nodded to her with a gentle expression.
“So… lately I’ve been trying to get a new job. Something better than a dishwasher, anything really.” She waited as the chuckles died away. “I know. But I feel like I have to try to do something different. I hate feeling like I’m trapped, just stuck living a boring, meaningless life. And yes, I know, Mrs. Gabor, we have to make our own meaning in life, but there’s only so much purpose I can get out of learning to draw. I’ve been reading the Classifieds every morning, searching online for anything with low qualifications, entry level stuff mostly. I was a straight A student in high school, you’d think that would count for something.”
There was more bitter laughter while Mrs. Gabor raised her pen in the air to interject. “Don’t diminish your accomplishments, Anna. You have to value yourself first before anyone else will.”
“Yes, of course.” She trailed off as she fought the urge to argue the platitude, but reminded herself of Mrs. Gabor’s genuine good intentions and many kindnesses. Anna pushed down her cynicism and continued. “Anyways, I had an interview yesterday to be a receptionist at an outreach charity downtown. It went really well, the woman was really impressed with all my answers to her questions. We even laughed a little bit. But then, of course… she had to ask.”
Anna remembered. The neat, middle-aged woman across the grey conference table had straightened her file as she flipped to the final page of the interview package, and even before she spoke, Anna had felt that sinking foreboding that was so familiar. Her chest had tightened, her fingers had begun to twitch in front of her. Her borrowed pantsuit began to feel unpleasant against her skin and she had felt entirely out of place. The interviewer had smiled, oblivious to her sudden anxiety.
“She asked… ‘So what can you do?’ I pretended I didn’t know what she was asking, I don’t know why, I knew what was going to happen next. We all know. ‘What is your talent, Miss…?’ Well. The look on her face when I said, ‘Nothing.’ It was like she was embarrassed for me, or sad for me. Obnoxious.”
“Anna, please,” Mrs. Gabor said.
“Sorry. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off as her throat constricted and tears started to brim up in her eyes. Her fists were clenched on the laminate in front of her. She consciously relaxed her hands, stuffing them into her pockets. “It’s really frustrating. Just because I don’t have magic, I can’t be anything more than a dishwasher. Even though it’s illegal to discriminate against us, they still can, and do. Just quietly. I have done fifteen interviews in the last two months while working sixty hours a week scrubbing pots and pans, and none of them – none of them – will come to anything. Because I am a Blank. A useless, goddamn Blank.”
Anna stepped back, fighting the urge to run up the stairs, through the church, and out into the night, to keep running and running and running. Instead, she glared at Mrs. Gabor as she climbed the two steps up onto the dais, holding onto a concrete pillar for support. The old woman shuffled over to her, binder now folded under her arm as she reached out to touch Anna’s arm. Anna tried to pull away, but the gentle, papery touch of Mrs. Gabor’s hand fell on her skin, and a rush of warmth and calm spread through her. The anger and desperation slowly faded, and Anna reluctantly hugged the facilitator as slow applause came and went.
Mrs. Gabor let her go, gesturing for her to take a seat. Anna went back to her chair in the second row from the rear, as Mrs. Gabor stepped up to the podium and craned her birdlike neck to speak into the microphone. “Thank you for sharing, Anna. Now, I know that it can be hard to stay positive during times of change, but you simply must do what you can to keep your chin up and work the system when you feel like giving up. It is important when confronted by bias and prejudice to remember our motto – Endure, Elevate, and Educate. And I will remind you all that Blank is an ugly word and we do not use that term here. This is a space of support and healing, and that word doesn’t help that. Now, would anyone else like to share?”
Chair legs scraped on tile as a rotund man in plaid and suspenders rose awkwardly to his feet, trundling over to the small stage. “Hey, everyone. I’m Donny, and I’m magically impaired.”
“Hi Donny,” Anna said softly, staring at the back of the chair in front of her. Someone had scraped their name into the green paint, then crossed it out after someone else (presumably) scraped “eats poo” after it. Below both, down and to the right, was the phrase “The City Will Fall”. Anna frowned slightly, feeling out the chipped paint letters one after another. A chill in her spine, she turned her eyes up to listen politely as Donny described his last month to the group.
They filed out into the humid summer night, street lamps hissing with yellow light above the parking lot. Downtown towers loomed up around them, glowing, window-scaled behemoths blotting out the stars and clouds in the darkening sky. Donny and Bill, both garbage men, lit up cigarettes in the chill air as they emerged, grimly muttering to each other off to the side as the rest of the support group passed them. Anna pulled her sweater tighter around her belly, fishing through her pockets for change. Mrs. Gabor stepped up beside her, “May I have a word, Anna?”
“Sure,” she replied. There it was; she pulled out the clink of coins and started sorting through it.
“You know, if you are looking for different work, there are services out there that can connect you with employers. I know a lot of the magically impaired can get a real leg up if the company is looking to make a diversity hire.”
“Makes sense, I suppose.” $3.84. Just short of a full bus fare. In the lot, cars were purring to life, headlights flaring as they warmed up, exhaust rising like steam into the night air.
Mrs. Gabor touched her arm, and Anna felt a quick surge of resentment before calm warmth filled her up again. “Would you like the information for a few agencies we partner with?”
Anna smiled softly. “That would be nice, thanks.”
As Mrs. Gabor shuffled over to the low wall flanking the stairs to open her ever-handy binder, Anna heard footsteps approaching, as well as low, muffled music thudding from headphones. She looked toward the far edge of the parking lot, seeing a group of maybe ten figures, mostly in hoodies, coming towards the church. They were laughing, talking loudly, just far enough away for her to miss what they were saying. It was fairly common to see gangs in this part of town, but they usually kept to themselves. The artificial peace she had been given by Mrs. Gabor hung in her like slowly dispersing smoke, worry beginning to grow in the far corners of her mind. The old woman muttered to herself over the binder, oblivious to the world as she flipped through the tabbed and color coded sheets. Anna glanced over to Donny and Bill, and they were warily watching the miscreants from the corners of their eyes.
“Mrs. Gabor…” Anna said softly. The young men across the parking lot had approached Bethany and Michael, two twenty-somethings that were hooking up between meetings and had been talking by Bethany’s SUV. Michael had moved ever so slightly in front of her, both not making eye contact as the group casually encircled them, laughing, snarling. Other cars were pulling away now, their drivers eager to avoid confrontation.
“One moment, my dear, I know I have that here somewhere.”
Bill stamped out his cigarette and began sidling toward the crowd, Donny watching him carefully. A tall man in a cap stepped forward, almost bumping into Michael, saying something full of derision, mockery. She still couldn’t make out the words. On the outskirts of the slowly tightening circle, some of the men were beginning to bounce from foot to foot, their toothy grins bright from a distance. Dread was now creeping up her esophagus, pressing in on her from the shadows. “Mrs. Gabor, something’s happening…”
Two of the gang members saw Bill approaching, and broke off, striding towards him with drug-fueled intensity. Anna saw sparks flying from one of their mouths, and the other seemed to be getting bigger as he bore down on Bill. Donny started forward immediately. Bethany was crying.
“What is it, Anna?” Mrs. Gabor turned. Her jaw dropped and she paled quickly. “Oh dear.”
Anna was shocked as the old woman began to shuffle forward, her arms raised. “You there! We want no trouble. Please leave or I will call the police.”
“Shit,” Anna said. She began to creep towards the right side of the church, towards a space between two buildings, almost an alley but too narrow for any car. Her heart was beginning to pick up speed. Sweat was beading on her forehead, palms clammy. The gang shouted profanity at Mrs. Gabor as she approached, cackling like jackals. Bill was now flanked by the two men, both cursing at him loudly, the one with arcs of hot energy crackling between his teeth as he chattered off a string of insults, the now bulging giant snickering as he stood behind Bill, arms akimbo. Donny tapped the big guy on the shoulder, saying something in a calming, conciliatory tone.
“Oh, shit!” she gasped, and broke for it.
The tall man formed his hand into a gun like a child at play, pointed it at Michael’s temple, and yelled, “Bang!”
Michael dropped, head snapping back in a wet spray. Bethany screamed. The Giant grabbed Bill and Sparkmouth lurched forward and bit his face. Anna heard a jittery wail as bursts of electricity surged around Bill’s head, torso, even flicking across the Giant’s arms. Engines roared as the remaining support group members raced out of the parking lot, gunfire cracking in their wake. The last thing she saw before she rushed into the narrow alley was Sparkmouth’s head pulling back, something in his mouth shooting blood across the night air, Donny’s face being crushed in the Giant’s meaty palm. As she ran further, she could hear Bethany pleading, begging, then a horrible noise like cracking, wet ripping, and the screams ended.
Anna’s eyes didn’t adjust quickly, the alley was just blackness around her. One shoe splashed, the next caught on something that scurried away. Her shoulder clipped a heavy metal mass, pain shooting up and down her side. A dumpster. She fumbled for the heavy plastic lid, fingers clawing for the edge. She pushed it up, wrapped an arm over the slippery cold side of it and pulled, kicking as hard as she could off the ground. The edge bit into her stomach as she tipped and flipped and fell in, landing flat on her back on cardboard, cushioned by full bags of filth. Rotting filled her nose, the lid slammed shut with a clatter. Light filtered in dim through a slot in the side.
Laughter and shouting and more gunfire. The sound of a car crashing into something, maybe a building. Victorious whoops, flashes of green light from outside as explosions went off in the air. Laughter, and sobbing. Mrs. Gabor’s sobbing. Anna scrambled up to the slit, pushing her face against greasy steel. She couldn’t see anything but the narrow view of the back entrance to the church. There appeared to be blood spattered across the whole rear wall, but that could just be her imagination, hard to tell when panic set in what was real.
Silence fell as someone shouted for attention. She turned her head, pushing her ear to the opening. Loud, angry words, interspersed with tearful begging. Anna’s heart thumped so loud she was surprised the dumpster didn’t rattle. There was a skid across the ground, she looked out to see a figure standing in her narrow view of the church. She gasped and pulled back, shaking the dumpster. Slapped both hands over her own mouth and shrank deeper into the stinking, pressing darkness as footsteps padded closer. Her chest ached, her muscles quaked. Long seconds passed as the footfalls came closer and closer.
Sirens began to howl in the distance. Someone shouted. The footsteps stopped, too near, too close, then retreated. Anna struggled to stay silent as air rushed out of her mouth and she gasped, breathing again. Tears poured out of her eyes as the sounds from the lot faded, many feet running into the distance. Fire crackling somewhere nearby. A distant moaning. Mrs. Gabor crying. But Anna did not move. She stayed in the dark, in the horrible rotting womb of the dumpster, curled in a shuddering ball, crying silently as the sirens brought safety through the night toward her.