art by Tais Teng
Not with a Bang
by Michelle Ann King
"You're welcome, caller," Elizabeth says, and disconnects the line. She leans back in her chair, her hands kneading the aching muscles in her neck.
One of the temps comes round with a tray, and she grabs a coffee from him with a grateful smile. The red light on her console flashes again. She hesitates, then presses the button to log herself out. She's been on for the last five hours straight, she can afford a five-minute coffee break.
She picks up her mug and takes a sip. The coffee tastes slightly burnt and a little tangy, as if the milk is just turning. But her throat is dry, so she drinks it anyway. Lately, a lot of things taste like they're on the point of going bad. She's not sure if the fault is in the quality of the food, or her tastebuds.
She looks down at her mug. It isn't clean; there's a faint trace of lipstick on the rim. She puts it down on the desk beside her keyboard. Elizabeth hasn't worn lipstick for a long time.
She logs back in and the console lights up immediately. She clears her throat. "Thank you for calling the Central Health Advice Line, my name is Elizabeth. Can you please tell me your primary symptoms?"
There's a pause, then a man's voice says, "Well, um, I've got a rash. And a cold. And my eyes are sore."
"Thank you," she says, and clicks on the link that brings up the diagnostic screen on her monitor. She hardly needs it any more, but the habit is ingrained. "What does the rash look like? Spots, or big raised patches?"
She waits, her hand poised on the mouse, for his answer. Her earpiece buzzes faintly. She imagines the young man laying the phone down and pulling up his shirt to check.
She looks around at the other operators, all doing the same. Well, not all: there are a few more empty desks today.
Answer the calls, read the script, enter the data. And when certain words or phrases come up, type out the alarm codes. Then smile (the callers can hear it in your voice) and explain that help is on the way.