Clocking In by James Forman

For decades George Anglin has worked hard every day in the factory making Styro brand products, until something unexpected changes.

Image generated with OpenAI
The tower alarm rang at 4:00am like it always did. It would continue to ring from inside my head until both feet cleared the entrance gate and touched onto the plant grounds.

Say you were running late or sick, you still couldn't stop the ringing. The only person I ever knew who tried was my neighbor Joe Glenton from Unit 5. He claimed it was just an attempt to fix some headphones, something to do with a pair of pliers, gunpowder, and a string of wire. But we all sniffed out what he was really trying to do. Joe's wife found him splayed out in the bathroom, leaning up against the Styrodoor, his torn and bloody ears sitting on each shoulder like two lifeless songbirds that had just collided with a window. You can bet he was still at work the next day, though he didn't look too dandy, all wrapped in Styrobandage.

The next time I saw Joe it was through the cracks in our fence. He was sitting in his yard in that flimsy webbed lawn chair, staring at his feet with a fresh white bandage wrapped around his head. The used and red Styrobandage was in the trash can behind him. Part of it hung off the side, weighted down with blood but still swaying in the light breeze. Joe had enough care to throw it out, but not the energy to finish the job.

I remember saying to him that day, my hand on his shoulder, "Joe, they mummified your head. I can barely see your eyes."

He couldn't understand me. I even tried yelling directly into his ear, my lips almost brushing the rubbery roll of the newly wrapped swathe. Eventually, he read my lips or just went on with it. Said he could still hear the alarm that morning. Even with his damn ears blown off.

"You'll be all right Joe," I said. "Just don't fuss with it too much and it'll heal up quick."

He never was much of a listener to begin with, always taking heat at work for being behind schedule or lost in a daydream, which is ironic since I guess all he could listen to after that day was his own thoughts and the morning alarm.

Joe made it to work the rest of that week and then didn't show up for about two weeks after that. They found his swollen body in between the gates at the dam, the floating and bloody bandage trailing behind his corpse across the black water.

I slowly inclined from my back, still thinking of Joe and trying not to wake Beth. She hated when I didn't wake her, but I just never saw the point in having two people exhausted. She had a full morning of her own: waking the kids, feeding the kids, feeding the dog, walking the kids to school, and getting to work of her own on time, all before the tower started buzzing her wrist at 8:00am sharp.

They quit installing the alarms in women about twenty years ago. Turns out it gave them such bad headaches that it messed up their fertility or something. Pretty soon we had more people passing than were being born. That just wasn't sustainable at scale. So, for a while there, about five years or so, the plant had to make an unfortunate decision and request employees work double time. That didn't last long. Most people even on the best drugs can only stay awake for two to three days before accidentally slicing a good working hand down the middle meat of their palm, or worse, going full ballistic berserker on whoever is unlucky enough to make eye contact with them. Those were tough times. Triple the work for the same pay. I guess I should be more grateful since we kept the plant running in the end. An honor really. Eventually, after the switch, the young kids got older and babies started popping out again, the whole thing naturally working itself out for the better.

I was currently on about four and a half days without sleep (thirteen is my record). Not all because of work. Reggie and Francis had been abnormally restless at night lately because the stomach cramps were keeping them up. I think they both were a little allergic to the carrot-flavored powder I had picked up from the plant store. Carrot was all they had left until the end of the month, so it was "tough shit" as my dad used to say - haha! Except, I don't really say that. At least not in a serious way.

The kids had slept a little better last night, finishing off the leftover Applebee's. Leftover from last week, that is. Or maybe it was the week before? From my end of the bed I could still see the Styrocontainer out on the hallway floor. Seeing it lie there made me wonder if they ever were proud that their old daddy made that with his bare hands, stretching armpits high on career day to hopefully be called on by the teacher and humbly boast to the class about what their parents did for a living at the biggest employer in town... create things.

My pleasant thought was interrupted by a whiff of fart from somewhere on the bed. It seemed to be a human discharge, but was hard to track precisely since I knew the kids had developed a bad habit of sneaking food to the dog. Beth and I had recently surrendered to letting everyone into bed with us. Nobody was sleeping much anyways, the kids on account of those carrot stomach aches, me and Beth with work lately, and the dog, June, just naturally being an anxious spinning machine. Still yet, laying down was always better than sitting up all night, staring at the wall while stranded on a deserted island in your head. It was nice, in our silent code of the night, knowing we were all awake together, staring at the same ceiling.

The alarm increased a notch louder, so I swung my legs off the bed and onto the floor, quiet not to wake anybody, and rubbed circles around my eyelids until I could feel the edges fill with water. It was a trick I picked up that time I nearly stayed up for two weeks. If you rubbed hard enough it would temporarily subdue the ringing.

As I made my way down the cold stairs, June scampered beside me. I lectured at her big dog eyes and flappy ears per our morning routine. Talking out loud was another trick.

"You take a long enough nap for both of us today, okay?"

"Maybe you will catch that squirrel?"

"Don't be digging in that trash again though, okay?"

Upon entering the kitchen, I opened the pantry door and was instantly startled back, a platoon of Reggie's green Army men and three of Francis' Barbies fell out onto my bare feet.

What the hell were they doing in there?

Those troops and dolls usually stayed on separate ends of the house. Those stinkers. Lately, the kids had been perfecting their acumen at pranks with each offensive getting more elaborate. The other day Reggie had taken some of my clear Styrotape, after which he must have found a way to move the table with a little help from his taller and older sister, and extended it across the width of the doorway frame. I remember leaving the house around 4:30am, about to swing the door open, when I got a face and mustache full of sticky plastic. Struggling to rip it off in the dark, I tripped over the dog who then proceeded to squeal and yip, waking the whole family. It was actually one of our better mornings, we were laughing too hard to eat breakfast.

I grabbed the toys off the floor and spent ten minutes carefully hanging and tying them with string from the ceiling fan. They would get a kick out of watching the swinging a merry-go-round as they slurped their carrot powder. It was another ten minutes of ringing I could have avoided, but imagining their smiles made it worthwhile.

It was already half past the hour, so I hurriedly hopped into my jumper, laced the boots, and grabbed a Styrobar from the monthly box work dropped off on the first. A lot of people hated them, but I didn't think they tasted half bad. Nothing wrong with saving a little dough and having some extra energy to start the day!

I then re-heated the coffee cup Beth had prepped for me and enjoyed the feeling of wrapping my hands around twenty more seconds of microwave heat. In between quick sips I leaned forward against the counter and hovered over the kitchen sink, same as I did every morning, staring out at Mount Pleasant through the small kitchen window.

Even in our modest home, we had been fortunate enough to have one of the nicer views in town. The kids especially loved it. It gave them something else to look out at other than our faded yellow dog-piss grass and sagging termite fence, dreaming up all sorts of fantastic dragon and princess stories as they rolled around the backyard.

On this morning, the mountain peak looked especially impressive through the dense clouds and swaying tips of the ponderosa pine needles. I took two more gulps of coffee and two more unblinking stares at Mount Pleasant, hoping to lock in a screen saver that could last me through the duration of my shift. Good thing I did, because just as I was putting my shoes on and as the first sliver of dawn appeared, the punctual daily fog rolled in and swallowed the mountainside.

Maybe it was because I was so tired or the wires temporarily malfunctioned, but on my walk up the hill toward work, I could barely hear my alarm. The ringing typically increased with volume the closer to clock in, but on this day, I could have almost forgotten it altogether. There was even a minute there where I thought I heard a chirp passing the grove! I would have waited to listen more if it wasn't already so late. In reality, it was probably just the garbage rail grinding its breaks. But it was still fun to imagine. Seeing a bird is not something you would want to happen while alone anyways; you need a witness, so people don't call you crazy.

The fog of Mount Pleasant was now almost directly above me, meaning, even though I couldn't see it in the twilight mist, the front arch of Surge was just in front of me. As I always did on the last hundred yards, I stepped into a brisk jog and leaned forward like a sprinter at the finish line, passing through the ribbon and stopping the alarm, that is, at least until tomorrow morning. I then punched my card and headed up through the main floor elevator to Floor 2 of Unit 3.

My station partner for the last ten years was Darrel Clemons. I knew Darrel about as well as I had ever known anyone, as I rightly should, since I saw him more than anyone. Turns out both of us had gotten pretty damn good at making units together over the last two decades, being at SurgeStyro the longest of anyone in our department. There was even a little slash on our name tags, to indicate our years of service. We were quite proud of that.

Darrel always said the same thing to me every morning. It was our ritual.

"Now look who the cat dragged in."

Although this morning happened to be different. He didn't say it. He was doing something I had never seen anyone do on the job, something that was an immediate cause for suspension of time, pay, and SurgeStyro benefits. George was sitting down.

He had a chair pulled up and was leaning back against his station on two legs, reading a magazine and whistling between exhale sweeps of cigarette smoke.

As soon as Darrel saw me enter our unit, he jumped up and flashed his teeth. He never smiled that way, with teeth.

"George, George, George!" he said excitedly. "Now today, today is a good one. Ain't it feeling like a good one?"

"What's with the chair and smoking, and teeth?" I asked. "You're going to get us marked up."

"Can't you see Georgie boy? Look around my man! You ain't even noticed it yet!"

I didn't think there was much to notice. There never had been before. Although, I guess it was true, I couldn't recall the last time I stopped to look for something new, even if it wasn't there. Usually, the quicker I got to my station and hands on the belt, the quicker I could meet my quota and get back home to Beth and the kids.

But today Darrel was right, this was different.

I hadn't noticed the stalled belts, the absence of our entire unit, or even, and most importantly, that Mr. Scolt wasn't in the top box peering down on us.

"See now you blind bat? I told ya!" Darrel said, flashing even more new teeth from somewhere behind his cheeks. "Rest of the crew downstairs. They're in Mr. Scolts office having a jolly old time by the sound of it!"

I took another look around and didn't see a reason not to go downstairs, even though technically, it was strictly prohibited by official SurgeStyro policy. The right thing to do would be to solve this so we could meet today's quota. Yeah, that's a good idea now that I think of it. That won't get anybody in trouble. May even land me a promotion is what it will do!

Darrel was already standing in the elevator holding the door open for me. "C'mon now, Georgie boy. Nobody's going to see us. You see anybody around? It's a ghost town. Now get your ass in here and let's see what the noise is all about."

We rode the elevator down to the office floor and walked toward the boiling commotion over at Mr. Scolt's office. Darrel was right, the rest of our crew was there, and they were even more relaxed than Daryl had been leaning in his smoking chair. Every single one of them was half-drunk and screaming old songs at each other.

Somebody handed me a flask and I took a swig. It was a warm landslide on top of the cold coffee in my empty stomach. I had another sip and then went to find the already vanished Darrel who was now leading a game of darts in Mr. Scolt's private office.

I stepped in and ducked my head to avoid any flying objects.

"So uh, where is Mr. Scolt anyways?" I asked Darrel.

"You really are lazy-eyed this morning Georgie boy. He's right where he's been all morning long. Look!"

Indeed, there he was. Forked across his desk like a cadaver, head buried face down in a pillow of two large open hands. Entrails of ledgers, documents, and spilled coffee were scattered across the desk and floor.

I had a strong urge to question Mr. Scolt on the reason for the disruption of our work. A quick knock on the desk failed to spur any sign of life so I started aggressively shaking his right and then left arm. When that didn't do it, Darrel's impatience grabbed a nearby bottle, extended Mr. Scolt's overcoat collar with one index finger, and emptied a beer down his back.

He suddenly jerked his limbs and looked around his now re-invented pool hall of an office.

"Mr. Scolt," I said, "Hey there, Mr. Scolt. How are ya?"

"Huh... oh... yeah... what is it?" He had one eye open and looked around before putting his head back down. "Don't ask me, George. The answer is I don't know either."

"Hey, Mr. Scolt!" Darrel said, reaching out to hand him a metal dart. "Rip one in there would you old boy?"

Still hanging his disheveled grey and balding head, Scolt ripped the dart towards the board, missing badly to the right and instead hitting the small window on his office door, shattering it, and spraying a bright pile of glass shards across the floor. Darrel and the crew erupted into laughter while Mr. Scolt shrugged and returned his hands to their place as face pillows.

Mr. Scolt always came off as a proud, successful man, a happy and confident boss. Whatever this new version was, it was hard to watch. Either he was dying or had given up. Maybe it was both. Whatever it was, and what the rest of the other guys had forgotten, in all their skip-day fun, was that we needed him badly. He hired us, wrote our checks, and perhaps contrary to his view but kin to mine, had through the last twenty years, by sheer familiarity, become a friend.

At least once a day, one of us would look up at the tower box and ask Mr. Scolt how his day was going or if he caught the game last night. He would then call out through the scratchy megaphone as we rushed through the daily assembly of our roles. "I'm not your friend. I'm not your buddy. I'm your boss for Christ's sake. I don't give half a rat's ass about anything other than meeting today's quota." After which he would wait a few minutes, be unable to resist, and then proceed to cheerfully tell us all about his weekend smoking cigars and putting colored golf balls in his backyard or how when he played football way back in the day he had broken his clavicle, refused so much as a Styroprofin, and walked himself to the emergency room with it poking out from the skin. Because kids were just tougher back then.

I crunched some glass under my foot and returned to the desk, poking Mr. Scolt again on the shoulder.

"Sir, can you tell me what's going on here?"

No answer.

"Last thing you and I both need sir is for our unit to get behind a month and risk another check. The kids can't stand carrot and it's st..."

Mr. Scolt finally unfolded from terminal stiffness and grunted with all his might to get up and out of the desk chair.

"There's no quota George. That's it."

"I'm sorry? I don't think I understand," I replied.

"We did it. We made it all. There's nowhere for it to go."

I gave another look of confusion, causing Mr. Scolt to lose whatever tolerance he still had and instead reach under the desk for his signature megaphone.

"HEY! Listen up all you decrepit knaves! If you're all going to trash this fuckin' place, then I might as well show you!"

Everyone was more than satisfied to be caught up in the excitement of a day off, probably the first in company history, but they were even more eager to see the reasoning for it. Pin-drop silence ensued, besides the low chug of Darrel finishing off the beer Tony handed him, his Adam's apple doing a little dancing motion, as the workers of SurgeStyro watched their boss exit his office door.

Without hesitation, the thirteen of us followed our boss upstairs to sections of the plant we had neither accessed nor heard of. We jammed into a corner elevator and rode up ten floors, exited at the sound of a ding, and then passed through seven or eight separate and unique doorways, all courtesy of Mr. Scolt's Premier Tier SurgeStyro scanning badge. Shuffling through unmarked hallways quickly led up the fire escape, alongside the creek, over the dam, onto the path, and finally ending at the disposal platform site. Most of us had seen the platform site sketch on the map, and a few had even been here at night through a different entrance, but never this way, and never in broad daylight. It resembled a gigantic version of the rusted slinky the kids left out in the rain last summer, a descending circle of metal platforms that didn't have a clear beginning or end, all surrounded by the encroaching forest and fog.

Mr. Scolt turned around to address us all with the flashlight from his belt. He pointed it out towards the center of the spiraling platforms.

"See now boys? Take a look. You did it. You made enough, actually too much to be exact. It's all over, there's nowhere for it to go."

Even quick-witted Darrel was speechless. It wasn't entirely clear in the dark, but it was obvious by the beam of the flashlight that what stood before us was incomprehensible. It was the biggest and tallest rock I had ever seen. It must have been thousands of yards tall. You could have almost climbed into heaven!

Mr. Scolt belched out a dense fume of whiskey and then waddled over to flick on a row of large light switches. The high-beam flood lights casted out their glow, ending all speculation and proving instantly that it wasn't heaven or a rock, just an unimaginable storage pile of Styrorolls.

With each new buzzing lightbulb, the immense tower grew taller and clearer. It was indescribable. Years and decades of work by all ten floors of SurgeStyro's labor force sat naked on this seemingly endless stack.

It wasn't really natural or a beauty at all, it wasn't really anything.

"She's not as pretty up close, huh?" Mr. Scolt said, as he pulled back his navy-grey striped slacks and sat down in a groan to drink from metal flask number two.

It was a heap of plastic shit. That's the only way to describe it. An incredibly tall and stacked illusion.

For a long time, it was shock and fascination among our crew of thirteen. Nothing but the back of heads pressed to spines as we all processed the growth before us.

"Son of a bitch!" Darrel said, breaking the silence. "Son of a BITCH!" He was off in the far corner across from the rusted fire escape stairs, pulling on the doors of what appeared to be a control box that was now unfolding on its own to create a large opening. "SON OF A BITCH! Now this some fake moon landing shit right here!"

A couple of the others and I went over to get a closer look.

"Oh, trust me," Mr. Scolt hollered without looking. "It only gets better."

Past the grating walkways and separating from the moss and needle-covered forest floor, an apparent underground corridor of synchronized cannons began to appear and rise one by one from out of the soil.

"What the hell is this shit?" Darrel asked.

Mr. Scolt stood up and huffed as if were a college professor, forced to explain this once a day. "Smoke machines."

He then pressed a button on the remote that was dangling from his neck and a smaller control box opened from behind a light pole. Scolt approached the new box, entered a long code, and out appeared an additional dozen or so mini light poles that sprouted from the cannon containers.

"And these are the lasers," he said. "It might be sort of bright in the daylight, but we can try."

"Just do it," I said, surprising even myself at my directness. "We came this far."

The cannons then started pushing out dense puffs of fog and clouds as the lasers wiped over the plastic pile with holograms made of snow and rocks. Even the trees were fake, plastic needles and pinecones.

"Pretty impressive all things considered, huh?" Mr. Scolt said, appearing pleased for the first time in his life.

Yeah, I thought to myself, pretty impressive for a mountain of sh- wait... yeah, mountain, a MOUNTAIN of shit! It can't be? No. Yes! That's exactly what it was! The same mountain whose natural beauty my kids and I had gawked at every night before bed! There it was!

If only Reggie and Francis knew! Their beloved staple of nature was actually a fake pile of shit. If it wasn't so sad it would actually be pretty funny. A stunning prank.

Most of the crew sat down and fell into a horrifying but mesmerizing trance with the hologram. Others found Styrorolls with model numbers they proudly recalled making years ago.

Darrel walked over to me and put his palm on my shoulder.

"Well God damn, Georgie boy. I always had a feeling that mountain looked a little too good to be true."

"How much does all this cost you think?" I said, still looking up.

Darrel gagged out a laugh, not because it was funny, but rather the air needed to escape his mouth.

"Let me find that out, good buddy. I think our old boss is in a sharing mood today."

"Heyo Scolty boy!"

A small "Mhmm" came from behind a tree.

"How much all this shit we make cost compared to the shit it take to hide it?"

Out of laziness, Scolt grabbed his megaphone and started talking.

"A lot more than all this shit is worth, I know that."

"But why?" I yelled back.

No answer.

"I just don't understand. I want to," I motioned to Darrel. "But I don't understand. I mean, who's this for?"

For the hundredth time that day, and probably the ten thousandth in his life, Lark Scolt took a drink, dusted himself off, and then rose with the agility of a fence post.

Darrel walked over to our boss and did something he wouldn't even dare daydream about on a regular workday, charging directly into the atmosphere of Mr. Scolts face and pushing a large index finger right on the tip of his nose, smooshing it up and back until it resembled that of an odd pig-man creature.

"Now you listen here Scoltie boy, everyone here has had about enough of this hall of mirrors charade."

"Enough," Mr. Scolt, replied under his breath.

"No, no. YOU enough," Darrel said, tracing his finger from nose to a firm poke in the center of Mr. Scolt's chest, backing him up two steps. "We're the ones who make this place spin. We're the ones who get to know. We wanna know who's making a bag off us Scolt! What's this shit doing just sitting here waiting for hell to heat it over, huh? What's it doing?"

Darrel's previously smiling teeth had sharpened into switchblade canines.

In response, Mr. Scolt reached into his striped suit coat pocket and pulled out a gun. Everyone, even fearless Darrel, immediately took three steps back, pushing up against the metal railing.

"Thank God," Mr. Scolt said, releasing a heavy breath. "Thought I was going to have to use this thing one of these days."

He then threw the gun at the pile, it softly disappearing into the stuffing of Stryo as he reached for another suit pocket. Out came a phone; Mr. Scolt lazily dialed a number. He tapped the speakerphone button and it started to ring. "Here," he said, handing the phone to me. "Ask to talk to Mr. Hovoker, and when he doesn't answer, press pound 2 and ask for Mr. Nelsigson.

The phone rang as Scolt, Darrel, me, and the rest of our crew huddled around in a mist of fog and passing lasers.

Holy shit, I was going to talk to the boss and maybe even his boss. This was my chance. What would I ask? I'd start by thanking him for the job, obviously. But maybe I could politely ask about the alarm level and the powder allotment. He would be impressed with my honesty and resolve! Also, my service marks. Yeah! Especially in his time of need. Nope, no time, the phone was ringing.

"Hello. How may I direct your call?"

"Hello, yes," I said. "This is George Anglin, Floor 2 Unit 3, I'm uh, looking for a Mr. Hovoker."

"Very well sir," the voice replied. "One moment please."

I gave Mr. Scolt a look of, "See this wasn't so hard."

The phone rang and rang. A few minutes passed, then five, and then ten.

Just as Mr. Scolt requested, I hit pound and two for Mr. Nelsigson. Another ten minutes of ringing passed by.

"You better just give me that," Mr. Scolt said putting the phone back in his pocket. "It's been that for as long as I can remember." He started walking back towards the pile and spread his hands out as if he were presenting something. "That's when I found this little beauty."

One of the younger men, Benny, who (you could tell by the bandage on his head and ashy ravines under his eyes) was still exhausted from getting accustomed to his alarm, approached Mr. Scolt.


"Yeah, go ahead."

"If you don't mind me asking. Is this it? You know, for our employment."

"Well, you still need the money don't you?"

"Yes, sir. Very much, sir."

"Then I'll see you all tomorrow morning, like usual."

Mr. Scolt then pointed out across the valley through the fog machines, hologram lasers, and plastic trees, towards the rows of glowing homes and dim streetlights of town, twinkling like a galaxy of dollar store stars in the distance.

"And I don't see any reason they need to know," he said. "Besides, it's not that bad to look at when it's all up and running."


  1. This sentence, “ thought I heard a chirp passing the grove!” made me so sad. Something you take for granted. Birdsong. The tone of this story was even and steady…it reminded me of 1984 the book. It reminded me of something else. When I was driving cross country, I broke down in the middle of nowhere…no cell phones back then…followed the light coming from what was a factory town. Everyone there worked at the factory…rented their home from the factory…bought their groceries from the factory store….It was eerie. This story was eerie. The guy blowing off his ears then dying was desperate and heartbreaking. Well done!

  2. I know this a tale of a dystopian future where everyone works for the same company, but I found it rather confusing and tediously over-detailed. It was an intriguing notion– the implanted alarms – and other details of a crazy future. I chuckled at the indigestible “carrot powder.” The author displayed some writing skill, but frankly I found it an unpleasant read. Sorry.

  3. A bit Kafka-esque. Disturbing surrealism deployed to make some very real observations.
    — David Henson

  4. Doug Hawley
    Points out a dismal future of pointless activity. The present has "Reality" shows something like Rome had circuses. Keep the mindless public amused.

  5. I will propose a contrarian opinion on the future presented in the story. It is certainly dystopian, but how dystopian really? From a Maslvoian perspective, the protagonist and his peers have: food, shelter and clothing; the reasonable expectation of food shelter and clothing tomorrow, wives, children, dogs, presumptively sex and love, community, entertainments (sports games), a health care system, cell phones, etc. They are better off than much of the world population in our present reality.

  6. I like the way this story progresses. Specifically, I like the way the author doesn't tell you all at once how bad this company and this world is -- that we find out bit by bit.