by Monica Felizardo
Kat ends the call, lips twitching with restrained triumph. Stretching back in her plush black office chair, she rolls her shoulders until she hears a satisfying click in her neck. She glances at the giant electronic scoreboard, noting her name perched at the top with relish. ‘TOP PERFORMER OF THE MONTH,’ the screen blares in black blocky letters. She scans the list—sales closed, hours rendered, AHT, QA—then pauses, narrowing her eyes in concentration. The difference between her and the next agent is too close for comfort. A couple of lucky calls could easily bridge that gap. She runs a hand through her hair. She could file for another rest-day OT, maybe take in more calls, bulk up the sales. Just in case.
She pulls up her virtual timecard on the desktop and notices the date and time. It’s half-past ten in the morning. She’s late. Again. Shutting down her computer with a forceful push of the button, Kat dashes out of her cubicle.
Just before she passes her boss’s workstation, he walks out, a stainless steel cup in his hand. A thick fume of men’s body spray hits Kat square in the face and stops her in her tracks. “Gonzales! Good numbers. Keep it up.”
“Just going for a quick recharge?” Peering at her hopefully, he cranes his neck down a degree. She catches a glimpse of the softly glowing patch behind his left ear. Letharium. Possibly the new model released just this year. Envious, Kat looks away, brushes a stray length of hair behind her own left ear.
“Um, yeah? I mean…I could stop by…”
“By the way, you handled that account…” Boss closes his eyes, struggling to remember. As he massages the crease between his eyebrows, the patch behind his ear starts flickering erratically. “Yeah, the Obsidian account? You made that sale?”
“Great work. I expect more of that when you come back. You’re coming right back after recharging, no?”
“Oh, uh…” Kat bit her lip. “I’m gonna have to skip the RDOT this time, Boss. I promised Anya I’d pick her up today.”
“Ah.” Boss takes a sip from his cup. “You almost beat your three-week OT streak. Sayang.”
Kat averts her eyes. “I better get going, Boss. Have a good shift!”
Kat crosses the street and strides into the Hypnos Recharging Center. The automatic doors slide open smoothly. A zen melody wafts from the overhead speakers. The rest of the reception area is just as inviting: faux mahogany walls, lush black carpeting. Facing the reception is a long black couch pressed against one side of the room. Right beside it is a tall potted plant in the corner.
The lady at the counter is dressed in a tasteful gray jumpsuit. She greets Kat with the company motto, in singsong: “Never miss a moment!” A large TV screen on the wall behind her is playing a loop of an advertisement that Kat’s seen probably a thousand times before. A famous primetime actress is tucking her child in bed. Leaving the child’s bedroom, she heads straight to her home office and goes through stacks of paperwork at blazingly fast speed. A smiling, yellow moon watches outside the window behind her. The people you love deserve nothing but your 100% effort. Work 100% more with Hypnos.
After Kat logs her name on a tablet, she heads toward the narrow door next to the reception desk. She’s walked through this door so often, she can make her way around the room behind it with her eyes closed. Yet when she opens the door, the sudden shock of antiseptic white lights and the cold, squeaky clean tiles of the uncarpeted floor still take her aback. Leaving the luxurious reception area behind her, she paces around a grid of sixteen ceramic white pods, several of which are closed and occupied. The walls of the charging room are plastered over with company posters. Some of them, she even remembers seeing from her childhood—like the one featuring a wide angle shot of a deserted office space with papers scattered all over the floor. That one bears the simple slogan: “Workers Gone? Let Hypnos Help.” Another poster, glossier and more recent, shows an earlier model of the Letharium patch, looking bulkier, but not unlike the one the Boss now wears: “Hypnos: Better with Letharium.”
She finds an open pod and presses a button on the screen mounted beside it, opening the standard menu. Her finger hovers between ADEQUATE and STANDARD, completely disregarding the glowing PREMIUM option. She makes a quick mental calculation, takes a deep breath, and presses the screen.
You selected ADEQUATE SLEEP QUALITY. Please press “Confirm” to proceed with payment or go back to select a new option.
She inserts her cash card into the slot scanner below the screen, and waits impatiently as a tiny green glow briefly washes over her steel gray plastic. A postpaid subscription would do away with this inane, time-consuming process. Soon, Kat tells herself. When you become the Team Lead. That promotion can’t come quickly enough.
Finally her phone vibrates. Kat checks the message that confirms the transaction. She winces at the sight of the amount that had been deducted from her balance. But all is well. She’s got a pod to slip into now, and a train to catch later.
She clambers into the pod, and settles down on the lumpy cushions that pad the interior. It always makes her feel uncomfortable, like she’s lying inside her own casket. She presses a switch on the side control panel. Darkness envelops her as the cover shuts. The air turns stale. She feels the sudden urge to claw away at the dark like a rabid animal, but a comforting hum issues from hidden speakers, and a dim blue light projects the HYPNOS logo in front of her face. It annoys her that the startup process takes so long. She clicks the ‘NEXT’ button, eager to get on with the program.
Caution: storage space is running low.
She scowls at the barrage of suggestions that follow. Clear data? Upgrade to premium storage for only Php 4,999/month? You wish.
Kat presses ‘IGNORE,’ and settles back, expecting the familiar jolt of renewed energy as soon as she blinks. Instead, a dense fog coils around her. When she reaches for the control panel, her hand encounters open space. Disoriented, she flails helplessly, as though she were falling.
But Kat isn’t falling. She’s walking, taking uncertain steps towards a tower rising above the gray haze. As she draws closer, she realizes it is a heap of office chairs, a bizarre installation. She watches a slack-jawed, blank-eyed woman drag a chair to the pile. Kat does not dare breathe, lest she disturb the strange ritual. She reels, then succumbs to the darkness.
The pod opens.
Kat’s eyes burn as she walks unsteadily to the reception staff at the counter.
“I just had a really weird experience. Did my transaction fail?”
“Let me double-check. Your ID please?”
She slides it over. “Have you ever had a dream on Hypnos?” Kat can’t help but ask.
Averted eyes. Telling silence.
“Is that pod currently under maintenance?”
Fingers quickly tapping on a keyboard.
“Your transaction was successful, ma’am. And I can assure you that all our Hypnos pods are regularly maintained.” Smile.
Kat doesn’t buy any of it, but she takes her ID back. She’s got a train to catch.
Kat jolts herself awake by pinching her left thigh. It’s only been forty-eight hours since her last charge. She should have been good for another five days. I knew something went wrong during my last visit. She makes a mental note to return to the Hypnos Recharging Center after her shift and give the staff a stern talking-to. If she manages to stay awake.
The caller on the other line isn’t helping matters any. He’s complaining about some mistake on his billing, even after Kat had explained the issue—or non-issue—three times over. Another stupid hour-long call.
“I just don’t understand why you would screw us over like this. I mean, look at this, it’s preposterous. No—it’s criminal. Eighty-nine additional dollars! And I thought my two-hundred dollar plan was steep enough.”
“I understand the frustration sir, but I assure you—”
Out of the corner of her eye, Kat notices a blur of movement pass by her workstation. A woman toting a child is quickly walking past the agents’ cubicles. The sight of the pair puzzles Kat. Other than the agents and authorized personnel, nobody is allowed on the operations floor—and that should include family members, right? It stumped her why the Boss didn’t seem to be paying them any mind.
“No, you don’t understand! That’s why I have to stop in the middle of my day and call you, because none of you understand. Eighty-nine dollars. What in god’s name could you even charge me eighty-nine more dollars for?”
“Sir, the exact breakdown of the charges are stipulated on your monthly bill…” Kat says this, as though on autopilot. Meanwhile she’s listening to the sound of the mother’s footfalls brushing over the office’s dirty carpeting. She looks at Boss’s station, watching the top of his scalp bob in and out of sight over the partition. He still seems unbothered by the visitors’ presence. The other agents remain hunched in their cubicles, busy with their own calls.
“Ah! My bill! I’m looking at it right now. Let’s see—thirty-two dollars for federal tax, and then on top of that another twenty-dollar state tax? Did you really think you could pull that dirty trick on me? Do you know how much my cousin pays for tax on his bill? Definitely not this price. Are you listening to me?”
Kat fights the urge to press the mute button. As far as she can tell, the mother and child are approaching the “junkyard”—a corner of the office floor, by the fire escape, where the company had stored its discarded desks and chairs after a quick renovation some weeks back.
“…probably a mistake letting you guys keep my card on file… any charges or conditions you should tell me upfront… very dissatisfied with this experience and I will complain to your…”
The child starts whimpering, but this quickly escalates into sobs. Why doesn’t anyone take notice?
“…useless to be explaining all this … won’t even understand how our country… just because it’s fine over there doesn’t mean we won’t…”
The child is now screaming nonstop, short-circuiting Kat’s brain. There’s an itching sensation gnawing from the top of her spine, just under her skin, and each successive howl pierces her eardrums.
“CAN YOU PLEASE SHUT UP!”
The voice on the other end of the line falls silent. Kat waits with bated breath for the backlash that is sure to come.
“I—I-no, sir… I’m not… Sorry, not you… no, of course not, sir. I’m… I’m so sorry…”
He looks up at Kat, a question dangling from his lips. He nods, picks up the phone, and waits for the call transfer.
Kat returns to her desk, split between wanting to crumple into a tight ball and wanting to watch the way Boss’s face changes from confused to apologetic to angry as he tries to clean up her mess. She does neither. She turns her gaze to the pile of old furniture beside the fire exit—the spot where she last saw the mother and child but finds only the large splotch of cola on the carpeted floor from a spill caused by a rowdy agent about two years ago.
“Kat, log out. Now.” Boss’s voice thunders throughout the operations floor. He doesn’t wait for Kat to lock her computer and is already seated when Kat scuttles towards his workstation, dragging her own chair behind her. He already has the phone on speaker mode. Amid the barrage of demands and insults from the caller, he can only rub his forehead in dismay. Dismay that Kat feels in double measure. In her five years of service, she had only experienced this kind of encounter once before, and that was when she was still a trainee.
When the call ends at last, Boss finally comes out with it: “Kat, I am very disappointed. If anybody knew how to handle that call, it would’ve been you.”
“I know,” Kat tries to protest. “But if that child had been barred from the floor in the first place…and that woman—who allowed them in?” Kat is outraged. This is a professional setting, not some site for a family outing.
Kat points angrily to the junkyard, though the corner is now empty, save for the pile of furniture awaiting their eventual fate. But when she looks at Boss, it’s clear that he doesn’t understand what she is talking about. Frantically, she surveys the rest of the operations floor, but finds no trace of the irresponsible mother, the disruptive child. Kat feels faint.
As though her silence were an admission of guilt, Boss launches a barrage of reprimands. “What will we do if QA picks up on this? I can’t defend this. This is a terminable offense.”
But Kat has tuned out completely. Her eyes stray back to the corner where she had last seen the pair. A chill runs down her spine.
“I’m really sorry, sir,” she finally manages to say. “It’s been a long night.”
Back at Hypnos, Kat’s hope of getting a refund is dashed by a steel-boned representative, who answers her questions and complaints with a placid smile and an infuriatingly calm tone.
“I understand your frustration, ma’am, but that’s just not how Hypnos works. Hypnos doesn’t give you dreams. It only simulates the sensation of falling asleep by stimulating delta waves in the brain. Though we have received some reports in the past of cases that are similar to yours, they were all identified to have been neural feedback caused by lack of storage. Have you considered expanding with a Letharium package? I can get you our starter subscription to try.”
“Is that really the only solution?” Kat asks suspiciously, searching for a crack behind the blank smile. She works as a sales representative herself and knows the tricks of the trade by heart. The girl is obviously trying to overwhelm her with scientific jargon, to convince her there is no other solution except to fork over more money.
“I’m afraid that there isn’t enough space to keep the Hypnos recharge program running, ma’am. You’ll really have to clear some memory.” With a glint in her eye and a shark-like grin, she continues, “or you may choose to upgrade to premium storage for only four thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine pesos per month.”
I knew it.And yet Kat finds a part of herself considering this purchase. She pauses, running up an inventory of all her upcoming expenses. Groceries for two, tickets to a musical premiering on Thursday, rent due in a week, train passes, more Hypnos recharge sessions… “I really can’t afford to upgrade…Maybe next month, once I get my promotion confirmed.”
“Well, in that case, your Hypnos recharge may just overwrite your existing memories. But there’s nothing to worry about. It is usually the unimportant stuff that gets replaced.”
Kat is only half-listening; her mind has fixated on her inventory of expenses. She is mystified by the image of musical tickets that she had conjured up. What were they for? Has the Hypnos program already taken charge of her memories and decided what should and shouldn’t be kept? Kat runs up a second list in her mind: Proper call-handling, ACW should never exceed two minutes, KPIs: QA, AHT, Sales… No, everything seems to be in order.
“Is everything all right?”
She shuts her eyes tight and takes a breath. “Can I have a different pod this time, please?”
“Of course. This way, ma’am. Let me assist you with the start-up, too.”
Kat is at the locker room, having come back from a quick shower. She makes a quick inventory of the remaining clean sets of clothes she has in her duffel bag: she’s down to one pair of jeans and two shirts. She wonders if she ought to swing by her house after the shift for some fresh clothes. As she’s zipping her bag shut, she hears a familiar sound—a tinny version of a pop song coming through the battered speakers of her ancient phone. With irritation, she opens her bag to retrieve her phone. An unlisted number blinks on the smartscreen.
“Yes, who is this?”
The other end of the line is silent for a few seconds before the caller answers. “I’m sorry, this is Tess, ma’am.”
“Yes, I’m so sorry to be disturbing you. I know you’re busy at work. It’s just that I noticed you haven’t made a deposit to my account over the last two months. I normally wouldn’t bother you, but now I need the money badly, ma’am.”
Money? Kat struggles to put together the pieces of the caller’s timid scramble. Was this one of those scam calls that have been coming up on the news lately? But the caller sounded too diffident to be a scammer, as if she were afraid of Kat.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think you have the right—”
“Again, I’m really sorry to have bothered you about this ma’am. Anya said you might get mad if I called…”
Through the glass partition separating the lockers and the operations floor, Kat sees Boss making his way down the aisle of cubicles, as though he were heading straight for the lockers. For a moment, it seems like he is staring straight at Kat through the glass panel. At once, the voice on the other end of the line dies out. Kat feels her palms getting sweaty, and her hand struggles to keep hold of the phone against her ear. She hardly catches herself biting the inside of her left cheek. It is only when Boss makes a hard left towards the door, clearly headed for the smoking area (the “lung center,” as they like to call it), that Kat comes back to her senses. By then, the person on the other end of the line has dropped the call.
Although she still has ten minutes left of her break, Kat thinks she should probably get back to work. After the sudden drop in her metrics (her name coming down two places on the scoreboard) due to the shameful cursing incident, she has been in a frenzy, working up a storm to get her name back on top—an agenda she achieved in less than three weeks. But even with her name back on top, she can’t let herself rest. She has to be better. With her offense hanging over her neck, she needs to make herself irreplaceable. It is only a matter of time before someone in QA eventually picks up on that call and catches her mistake. Gross misconduct, rudeness and profanity, terminable offense.
To stave off the specter of the unthinkable looming over her, Kat drowns herself in work. Her eyes dart back to the scoreboard. She espies her name at the top, amid blocky letters and percentages in bold, red font.
At her table, Kat starts typing furiously into her keyboard, logging herself in. Securing her headset and adjusting the mic closer to her mouthpiece, she clicks a button and the virtual dashboard flares green. A piercing beep, and the call begins. She loses no time in pulling up the notes for this customer, her fingers pressing furiously into her keyboard, the hard plastic keycaps chipping away at the cracked polish on her fingernails. A little bit of coaxing, she sets the bait and reels her customer in, seamlessly closing the sale. She allows herself to indulge in a self-satisfied grin—but not for too long. She has more calls to take.
She is wrapping up another call when she looks up to see Boss standing over her cubicle. Kat’s heart drops twenty floors in two seconds. She jumps up from her chair, accidentally pushing it to the opposite bay in recoil. “Sir!” she blurts out, like a rookie soldier addressing a drill sergeant. “What’s wrong?”
“And here I was thinking you were too busy for doughnuts,” he says with glee. “Want some? They’re in the pantry.”
The train stops in the middle of the tracks connecting the Fifth Avenue and R. Papa Stations. A crackling voice apologizes over the intercom, “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience. There’s a coach stranded at Monumento Station. We are on standby until the situation is resolved.”
Kat raises her wrist to consult her watch for the hundredth time in two minutes, the digital reading stubbornly refusing to change. Ten-eighteen in the morning. Her legs shake involuntarily. I’m really running late.
But for what? She allows herself to finally confront the question, which had first surfaced when the train stopped at UN Avenue. Call Quality Monitoring Assessments? Auto-fail: Account Verification? Compliance? Closure? If Hypnos can overwrite her memories, she needs to detect if it has already deleted critical data. Zero-tolerance policy: Call-avoidance? Call-riding? Improper Hold Procedure? NCNS?
She looks around her. The coach is filled with kids in public school uniforms, the logos of state universities patched onto their breast pockets. It is clear where they are headed. But what about her? In the ether of her mind, she conjures the image of broth in a pot simmering over a stove, and two plates set over a tabletop. Lunch. Kat’s legs stop shaking.
The intercom crackles to life. But instead of the train operator’s voice, a deafening boom follows—then static. Kat reels in her seat. A child wails. She snaps to attention, and sees, right outside the train window, a towering structure in the skyline piercing the late morning sky and disappearing into the clouds. The child’s wailing continues over the intercom. Kat’s heartbeat matches the child’s rhythmic heaving, as its cries rapidly reach a crescendo.
Her phone rings.
The wailing stops. The other passengers give Kat dirty looks. She realizes she’s kept her phone ringer at maximum volume. She fumbles for her phone—it’s Boss calling—and as she answers, looks out the window. The tower has vanished, and only the concrete tenement houses, which have always been there, remain.
“Kat! Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No—not at all.”
“I’m so sorry to be calling outside of your regular shift. It’s just too good not to share.”
“It’s done! It’s confirmed!”
“Your promotion. I just got the papers from Boss Mike, the OM himself, and all that’s left for me to do is sign it, and you will officially cross over to be part of our ranks. Of course I’m signing it! But you should know I’m sorry to lose my best agent. Welcome, TL Kat!”
Kat cannot find the words to respond. Happiness wells from inside her in an astonishing wave, but there remains an undertow of confusion and fear.
“I know, I know, it’s a bit much to take in right now,” Boss continues, hardly bothered by her silence. “You’ve been working on this promotion for years, I know exactly how you feel. Anyway, I don’t want to keep you too long.”
Kat looks out the window, still searching for the vanished structure.
Boss continues, “You watch out, ha. From this point on you’re competition. Kidding! Take care now! And regards—” With a jolt, the train starts to move. The rest of his words dissolve in the grunt of rusted wheels grinding against rusted rails.
Applause reverberates through the whole floor as Kat is finally announced as a new Team Leader. The Operations Manager himself makes the announcement. A few of Kat’s teammates wave cheerily while Boss gives a brief overview of her new responsibilities.
“I can think of no one else more deserving of this promotion than you. Once you settle in with your new team, you can finally take some time off. What do you plan to do? Spend time with the kiddo?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Your daughter—Anya, was it?” He turns to Kat, forehead creased, while the blinking light on his Letharium picks up pace. “She’s in the sixth grade now, if I remember correctly. Will you finally go on that Disneyland trip? I remember my time with my boys back then. Make sure you…” Boss drones on about his own memories of the place, regaling her with tales of tantrums and tears, and an eight-year-old’s obsession with a talking snowman. At each recollection, the light behind his ear flickers even faster.
Stunned, Kat stares back blankly in reply, heartbeat pulsing with every blink of the light.
About the author: Monica Felizardo is a graduating student of creative writing at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Her recent works have been the recipient of numerous distinctions at the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s monthly Life UPDates Contest. An aspiring fictionist and poet, she is currently finishing work on her undergraduate thesis, a collection of short stories touching on her experiences working as a call center agent. When she’s not writing, she’s either junk journaling, painting, or binge watching zombie movies on Netflix. She lives in Las Piñas with her cat, Yena.