Ted shuffled towards the offered chair, adjusting his tie as he sat. The woman across from him smiled as he did so, then sat in her more lavish chair.
She sprawled her hands across the desk, its surface a faded brown. She tapped her fingernails against the desk briefly, studying the man’s face.
“Thanks for coming,” she said.
He adjusted his tie again.
“No worries, no worries. My name’s Ted. Nice to meet you.”
The woman tilted her head to one side.
“I mean, uh, my pleasure to be here. I’m sorry, just…nervous.”
“Not a problem,” smiled the woman. “We’ve all been there, Ted! Now, how did you find out about this position? We like to keep track of what forms of advertising are working the best. I’m sure you understand, given your previous experience.”
Ted nodded vigorously. “Naturally. Well, I found the position in the…paper. Yes.”
The tie received another jostling.
Ted nodded slowly, looking rather like some unfortunate animal caught in headlights.
“Interesting,” said the woman, lazing an arm over the chair. “I didn’t realise we were advertising in print anymore. I might’ve had to speak to someone about that, but you’re here!”
Ted managed something resembling a smile.
“So,” said the woman. “Why should I hire you?”
“Well. Did you read my resume? I’m a hard worker, of course. In my last job I was only late-”
“Come on, Ted! That’s cookie cutter material. We don’t do that here. We want people who stand out! Take a moment to think, and then tell me why I should hire you. What makes you different?”
The woman held his eyes for a few seconds, then took a cigarette from her suit jacket and lit it. She looked as if she were about to offer him one, then reconsidered.
Ted looked around the room, dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief. The walls were false wood, cracked and peeling and stained by smoke. A poster to his left said in large letters: SEIZE YOUR DREAMS, with a picture of a cat leaping after a mouse.
He frowned. The same poster was in the office of his last boss.
Ted shook his head, and turned his thoughts inward.
A tendril of smoke drifted towards him.
Her shoulders slumped.
“Alright. I’ve got a few things to attend to. If you’ve got nothing when I finish, you’re finished. Got it?”
Without waiting for an answer, she took out her phone and began lining up pieces of candy, exploding as they were arranged by colour.
Ted fixed his gaze on the poster, and then on a dented metal filing cabinet in the corner.
The patter of fingernails on glass filled the room.
“Miss? I’m done…being the mouse,” he said.
The tapping stopped.
“That poster. My whole life, I’ve been the mouse. Running. Being scared.”
She turned to look behind her, a trail of smoke tracing the movement. She seemed surprised to see the poster there.
“And?” she said to the wall.
“I want to be the cat now. I’m not leaving until you give me the job.”
She turned back and placed her phone on the desk.
“That’s bold, Ted. I think I like it. Now, don’t get excited, I’ve got a few more questions.”
“Will you treat your next family better?”
“Your family, Ted. Your wife left you and took the kids. And it was your fault.”
“How do you-“
“If you’re the cat now, surely you’ll be on the prowl for another family. Right, Ted? Will you ignore your next wife, too?”
“I don’t, uh, I don’t see what that-”
“It has everything to do with it.”
“I, uh. Yes. I will. I treated her poorly because I always…I always thought she was too good for me.”
The woman smiled brightly.
“Excellent, Ted. You’re right, she was. Perhaps your home life won’t interfere with your position here, should I give it to you.”
“You’re certainly…thorough,” he said. “On your background research.”
“It’s my job,” she said, shrugging. “And what about your next father? Will you treat him better?”
Ted stared blankly across the desk for a full five seconds, watching the smoke rise from her lip.
She raised her eyebrows, expectant.
“That doesn’t make sense, miss…I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“I never told you.”
“Right. Well, my father passed away a long time ago. I’m not sure what…”
The woman sighed, then sucked on her cigarette.
“I was trying to ease you through it, Ted, you know? I’ll make it simpler. But you still have to work it out yourself. Tell me, Ted, what was your last job?”
“An illustrator, at a graphic design company. Didn’t you read my res-”
“Right. And what job are you applying for right now?”
“An…” he frowned. “An illustrator?”
She shook her head. “How did you get here, Ted?”
The tie was given a ruthless jostling, his eyebrows furiously attempting to grasp each other.
Seconds passed, slowly.
“I don’t remember,” he said. “Though I’ve always had poor mem-”
“No, Ted. You were lazy. You didn’t have poor memory.”
“Didn’t?” he said.
The word hung in the air between them, mixing with the cigarette smoke.
Something behind Ted’s eyes changed.
“Can I…borrow your phone?” he said.
She slid it across the desk.
Without turning the screen on, he held it up to his face.
He let out a whimper, and his hands began to tremble.
In his reflection, a quarter of his head was missing.
“I’m dead,” whispered Ted.
“Precisely! Now I can get rid of this filthy thing,” she said, and crushed the cigarette against the desk.
“It’s not…I’m not sure…well. It’s now quite how I thought it would be. I mean, all this…it’s just like life.”
“This room is always exactly what the interviewee expects it to be. Hence the poster and the smoking, just like your last boss. My last client was a geologist, we had this up on the lip of a volcano. Drinking tea. During an eruption. Took her longer than you to work it out, even with the setting.”
Ted was staring at his hands. They were slightly grey.
“Do you want to know what happened?”
“I…don’t really know. Do I?”
“You have to give me direct permission, Ted. That’s how this works.”
“Alright. What…what happened to me?”
She smiled. “Brilliant! Do you remember driving to work this morning? It was raining, slightly cold but not cold enough for a coat. Stairway to Heaven was on the radio. Would you believe it? Not quite how this works though. There was an oil truck driving in front of you.”
Ted thought for a bit, his eyebrows knitting an invisible sweater. “Yes.”
“The truck’s tire blew out. You swerved off the freeway, big old tree branch went straight through your windscreen. Quite the way to go, eh?”
“That’s it. The last page in the Book of Ted. Well except for the epilogue, funeral and all that.”
“Did you…do that?”
The woman laughed, then held her hands up. “Whole other department looks after that stuff. Don’t shoot the messenger, Ted.”
“And the truck driver?”
She glanced at her watch. “Having his interview as we speak. Now, back to the question. Will you treat your next father better?”
Ted was silent for moment, his eyes shining.
“Of course I will,” he whispered. “I wish I had the chance to treat my…last father better.”
The woman nodded solemnly, then pushed a piece of paper across the desk.
“Great answer. You’re cleared with me. Fill that out, and we’ll get you moving along.”
Ted looked at the sheet.
The first line read: REINCARNATION APPLICATION.
“I’ve nominated you for advancement,” she said, businesslike. “Meaning, your next life will be, if everything goes through right, slightly better than the one you just left. Naturally, you’ll forget all of this when you’re reborn.”
Ted signed his name at the bottom of the page and pushed it back.
“Can I ask how many lives I’ve had?”
“Of course. One moment.”
She opened the filing cabinet and fished out a manila folder. Her fingernails rifled through its contents, then pulled out a sheet with a chart and held it up for him to see.
“These are your lives plotted against your karmic value. So you’re about to enter…number 100! That’s a big milestone, Ted. Well done.”
He studied the chart. It was a wide V.
“What happened there?” he said, eyeing the low point.
“That? Oh, nothing really. Bit of a bad streak, everyone gets them. Came down to two things. You were medieval royalty, and you were completely balmy.”
“No bother,” she smiled. “We don’t hold grudges! If we did, we’d never get anywhere. Now, your next life is waiting.”
A door that he hadn’t noticed before suddenly made itself known, and Ted found himself moving towards it. He glanced at the poster as he walked, then grasped the door’s handle.
“Good luck, Ted,” smiled the woman, giving a mock salute as he went past. “Seize your dreams!”
Behind the door was a long dark tunnel, and at the very end was the light.