Copyright is held by the author.

THE MONITOR overhead beeped.

“Number 44.”

For the tenth time in as many minutes Stephen glanced at the slip in his hand which indicated he was number 78. He sat back in the uncomfortable plastic chair and sighed. His phone was almost out of juice and he had forgotten to bring a book. He stared into the abyss, his mind numb from ennui and interminable waiting.

Mr. Jamison, his boss was sure to be furious. He had managed to wrangle a couple hours off to get his passport renewed because he needed it for business travel. He wasn’t sure how to explain that it really did take a whole afternoon. Jamison was a no-nonsense guy. He would not believe that Stephen was actually enduring the torture of sitting in a government waiting room for that long instead of drinking a beer at the nearest pub or otherwise just goofing off.

He tried to count his blessings. It could be worse. He had a seat (as uncomfortable as it was) and wasn’t standing in a line up snaking around the block. He was inside in the air conditioning instead of in the blazing sun. There was a bathroom, but of course he might lose his place if his number was called while he was indisposed. That was it for the blessings.

He looked at his slip again. Still number 78. Still 33 people ahead of him.

The counter was manned by three clerks. The one directly in front of him was a youngish looking slightly obese woman with an unflattering bobbed haircut and bangs that fell over her eyes. She would stop every two minutes to sip a large Slurpee. The man next to her was an exhausted looking Asian with streaks of grey in his mane of black hair. He peered at everyone who stepped forward over the rim of his tortoise shell glasses and glared at the computer screen for a full two minutes before uttering a word to each new applicant. The third was a wiry young man who seemed to need to ask for assistance for every application he processed. He had the harried look of a completely clueless new recruit.

Stephen tried to decide who would be the best choice. That was, of course, if he could choose. Who would be the most efficient? Who would be the most courteous? It was a like a parlour game with no winners. He began to imagine scenarios like a fire alarm or a medical emergency. Maybe his own medical emergency. What if he had a heart attack? He had noticed defibrillators on the wall with instructions in both French and English. Then he decided that was a bit too dramatic.

He looked at his slip of paper again, then surveyed the room around him. Everyone waiting had the same dull look in their eyes. Like they were prisoners. Or worse like sheep waiting to be taken to slaughter. He hoped for some spark of revolt, some sign of resistance. No one was rude or unruly. They just sat or stood, shifting from foot to foot, staring glassy-eyed at their cell phones, enduring the torture of waiting like the good soldiers they were. Or more like the walking dead.

He looked at the woman sitting on his right. She was hunched over a book almost like she could climb into it. She had blond hair that fell over her shoulders in soft waves. He noticed her fingernails were bitten down to the quick. She was wearing a bulky sweater she pulled around her as if in defence against the blowing air conditioning. He could see gentle curves beneath the sweater and long legs in tight black jeans.

To cover his embarrassingly overwhelming interest he looked at the floor. Her feet, neatly tucked into little white sandals and blue with cold, invaded his peripheral vision. He wasn’t sure if she kept her nose buried in her book as a distraction from her physical discomfort or to avoid his obvious gazes in her direction. At least she had an actual book unlike the rest of the zombies apathetically waiting their turn. Stephen jealously wondered what could be so enticing as to numb her to this insidious waiting. He cocked his head trying to not to be obtrusive to get a look at the cover of the book. His movements made her look up and smile. Her smile was radiant. Full pink lips in a creamy complexion. “Wow,” he thought. I lucked out, I’m sitting next to a Venus.

Trying not to alarm her with too much attention he looked at the man to his left. He was a youngish man with black stubble over his chin and cheeks. He had a loose cotton shirt untucked over a pair of tattered blue jeans. He had draped a grey hoody over the back of his chair and slouched, glued to his iPhone.

He looked at his slip again and at the monitor. Number 45 had gone up to the wicket with the young woman with the bob haircut who took a moment to have a big drink from her Slurpee. He sighed. Jamison was going to kill him.

Having no other distractions, the desire to know what book the woman was reading began to tug at him irresistibly. Unable to contain himself he finally summoned the courage to ask when she looked up from her book and smiled at him again.

“What number are you?”

Surprised by this unexpected interest, he went momentarily mute.

“I know this waiting is so difficult. I hope my car is Ok. I’m not sure I put enough money on my parking ticket and my cell phone is out of juice so I can’t use the app.”

Even more surprised by this burst of conversation Stephen had to calm his heart beat down before replying.

“I’m number 78. What about you?”

“65. I have feeling it will take another hour.”

“You are probably right,” he said softly. He felt he had been there so long the outside world was just a dream. Indeed he was a prisoner in Plato’s cave. If he ever escaped he wouldn’t know how to adjust.

“I’ve almost forgotten why I came.”

She chuckled. “I know what you mean. I think they really have to do something about this. We live in the technological age. Not sure why it is so complex.”

The shock of her conversation started to thaw the numbness the waiting had imposed on him.

“What are you reading? If you don’t mind me asking that is,” he asked boldly.

“In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.”

He sat back, unsure what to make of this. Certainly all this waiting conjured up vivid memories. But he was no Proust. That line of conversation was going to be a non-starter.

To his surprise she picked up the conversation for him.

“It is one of those things I felt like I should conquer. You know. Not easy to read. A bit like running a marathon.”

Now that was a topic he could discuss, having run a couple of them.

“This is certainly a bit like that.”

“Tests your endurance and makes you proud when you finish.”


He looked into her eyes and noticed they were pale blue and fringed with the longest dark lashes.

He began to feel a growing intimacy. Maybe he could tell her about his marathons.

He began to think the day would not be a waste. After telling her about his job and Mr. Jamison maybe they could go for a drink after this horrible process was over. They would laugh about it and make a plan to meet next week.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the counter. A young man in a suit and a middle aged woman in a fussy knit dress opened two more wickets. The monitor began to light up. Numbers began to flash. The line was moving not only quickly but just a little too fast.

Time has just magically speeded up. His window of opportunity was evaporating. He had to ask to see her soon. Then he realized he did not even know her name.

“By the way I’m Stephen. What is your . . .”

Number 65 flashed on the monitor.

“Oh thank goodness. That’s me. Well good luck. Hope they call you soon.”

She trotted up to the wicket manned by the tired Asian.

He sat there feeling like Thor’s hammer had crashed through his skull.

Now what?

Within moments number 78 came up on the monitor.

“I’ll have to go back to work and explain why this took so long to Jamison,” he thought as the woman in the fussy knit dress smiled at him and began typing into her computer.


Image of Suzette Blom, wearing a yellow sun dress and sandals, posing outside by a walkway, over looking a view of water and mountains.

Suzette Blom has had careers in academia and law. She has published 15 short stories and lives in Toronto.

1 comment
  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Loved the whole concept of watching and waiting. Too bad the guy missed out! But sometimes, that’s just life.

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