As Karen opened the door to her office, she did not look at the child waiting anxiously on the plastic chair. Happy Homestead Day Care had employed a joyless administrator once upon a time, before it was acquired by the Foundation, and years of study had allowed them to determine that a joyless replacement seemed to be what a Tyler would most comfortably relate to, an observation that had saved the dozens of ‘administrators’ a great deal of time convincing each Tyler to listen, to obey them.
She took her seat and pretended to scratch out some manner of information on a legal pad before her, pretended to ignore the eight-year-old boy. After a few minutes of this, she finally put her pen down on her blank legal pad and looked at him.
"I know you were told by the nice adult who drove you here that you weren't where you were supposed to be this morning, Tyler." Karen didn't stop for a breath- if she did, they always protested. "But luckily, I've contacted your mother, and together we've made arrangements for you to spend some time with one of her friends until she gets off of work.
"A Mr. Jackson will be here in half an hour to escort you to his home. There's supposed to be some kind of pool party going on there, and I know that you haven't brought any swimming trunks but he promises his son will have some to spare. Apparently there's going to be a big surprise for all the boys and girls there so when you arrive, you're going to have to put on a blindfold, and I know you won't get into any more trouble by peeking, will you?" Tyler shook his head enthusiastically, quiet. Karen swallowed in the face of that trust.
“Good,” she answered, looking back at her legal pad. “There’s a TV over there and some video games. Or would you rather have something else to do?” She asked in a severe tone, knowing that she had just offered him his favorite pastime. He shook his head nervously and she nodded, pinching her mouth slightly and returning her attention to her nonexistent notes. “Go keep yourself busy, and if you get hungry or thirsty, let me know.”
She left him alone at midday and came back with corn dogs and tater tots- his favorite food. She gave him exactly two cans of soda, though a Tyler always got suspicious at the amount. She wasted an additional ten minutes explaining that she had the extra, as she always did. It was worth the effort. At one in the afternoon, she busied herself moving papers in her desk so as not to stare at the door. At five after, she jumped when it finally came.
“Tyler, that’s him. Finish what you’re doing,” she said as she opened the door. Eric stood before her, a sympathetic smile on his face. She smiled back gratefully, as always. “You must be Mr. Jackson,” she lied, knowing his last name to be Swallows. He took her hand in his, shaking brusquely as if he had too many things on his mind before entering the room.
“Heya, Champ,” Eric said, loosening his tie. The first Tyler’s father always loosened his tie when he came home from work, they had discovered, and little things like this made a Tyler less likely to fight. “Are you ready to come with me to my son’s party?” The Tyler nodded, putting everything away neatly. Eric turned to face Karen, a smooth turn on his heel. “I trust he didn’t give you any trouble?”
“No, he was fine,” she answered in a stern voice, and knew her eyes must be pleading when Eric gave her his half-smile. A deviation from script, so minor the Tyler didn’t notice, that Eric reserved for her especially bad days. She sighed, the most amount of gratitude she could show. “Now be good, and your mother will be there at seven to pick you up,” Karen said, sitting back down behind her desk as only a very important businesswoman would. When she heard the door shut, she abandoned the pretense and stood, looking over the room. Everything back in its place, everything in order, except…
Karen walked over to the TV. She straightened the stack of games up, putting them to rights as always. Her hands lingered for a moment on the controller, and even though she felt it coming, she couldn’t fight it. She never could. She knelt before the television, unable to tear her eyes away from the small plastic control in her hands, and wept.
Twice a day, four days a week, she looked into his eyes and told him what he wanted to hear. She put on a mask, a stern one, and told him what it took to make him pliant, suggestible. He was only eight years old, for God’s sake, and every day she sent him to his death, a new betrayal every time he sat before her. Every day was a new day for a Tyler. Every day was a repeat of the one that came before, for Karen, and even though she knew it was for the good of humanity, even though she knew he was less one-in-a-million and more one-of-a-trillion, every time she told him to go with the nice man, she was killing him.
Killing him. A child. Every day, every year, for ten years.
She slipped out of her office and down the hall to the tiny bathroom she shared with every other ‘administrator’ in the building. She turned on the cold water and splashed her face, her sobs silent as she rinsed the tears away. When the crying stopped, she met her gaze in the mirror, bloodshot grey eyes staring back at her.
Get it together, Karen, she said to herself, examining the blurred eyeliner just under each eye. No eyeliner was really waterproof, as she had cause to know, wiping it away with a scratchy paper towel as she had a million times. A million times, the water on the face to help chase the puffiness away. A million times, the pep talk in the mirror, the reflection of a jaw set in resolution, of a nose just a little too red to mean anything but tears. Well, she thought, straightening, let's make it a million and one.
She threw back her shoulders and stood, brushing her hair over one shoulder. She managed to look exactly as presentable as she did every other day at ten in the morning, and like always she knew her coworkers could hear her shoes striking somewhat-grimy linoleum, a staccato beat that ground out the seconds, the minutes, the hours, always moving forward, but never progressing, never changing. The sound of her determination to do the right thing.
As Karen opened the door to her office, she did not look at the child waiting anxiously on the plastic chair.