“Break the belts, grind the gears, this is what corporate fears. Stop the line for a time, through our will by our design.” It was well past midnight and the candles had burned low when the women assembled in Donna’s living room finished chanting and gazed down collectively at the sheet of paper on the floor. Though the presence that had arrived during the ritual did not remain once the lights were turned on, they all agreed that they felt a sense of fulfillment. Anna pointed out the irony as she poured herself another margarita.
What is fulfillment, anyway? Once upon a time, it came from a deep sense of inner satisfaction achieved through one’s efforts towards accomplishing a desired goal, but this is no longer the case for citizens of the waning American empire. These days, fulfillment comes from huge, boxy, gray buildings erected quickly in industrial parks, far enough from civilization to remain unobtrusive, but close enough to where you live to make dreams come true.
Long past are the days of waiting six to eight weeks for the arrival of some treasure purchased from a catalog. Now, overnight or same-day delivery is expected by a populace driven to fill the voids in their lives with web-based fast-food consumerism as they scratch their dopamine itches with products they neither need nor really want, shipped out from what those who decry corporate greed and materialism call “fauxfillment centers.”
The sense of need among the populace is so great that these facilities run twenty-four hours a day, all year long, even on holidays, staffed by people who are paid as little as the company can legally get away with. Across the country many of these workers live in their cars, or crammed together in the cheapest apartments they can find. Meanwhile, the corporate overlords generate obscene amounts of wealth. The conversation at Girls’ Margarita Night had turned to the inequity of it all shortly after the thirteenth invitee had arrived.
“Think about it this way,” said Donna, “If you arrived on this continent with Columbus and made $5,000 in 2023 dollars every day since then, saving every penny, you still wouldn’t be a billionaire. In fact, you would have made less in all that time than our CEO made last week.” The group of women looked shocked. A few of the younger ones pulled out their phones and quickly did some calculations, sighing at the results. The CEO was one of the richest men in the world, most famous for his online retail business, but he also owned supermarkets, ride-share services, and even a company that would take tourists to space for an exorbitant price.
“That’s legitimately fucked up,” said Yvonne, adding, “Fuck him, and fuck Columbus, too.” Tequila had provided the lubrication needed for the group of women to speak freely about the injustice and unfairness of it all, which seemed especially heinous in the wake of recent tragedies. There were friendships among them, but though they all worked the night shift at the fulfillment center together, they were mostly just acquaintances. Donna hoped that Girls’ Margarita Night would change that. She hoped it might change some other things as well.
Crew morale was important to the company up to a point. Workers who were too depressed to perform quickly or who might not show up were a financial liability, and so sometimes the managers brought in pizza, but likewise it was important to management that bonds formed among the crew not be so strong that the employees start talking amongst themselves about the real state of things. On the clock, with everyone set to their assigned tasks in the noisy structure, they could commiserate during breaks, but were given little opportunity to share their feelings with each other. This was very much by design.
Donna hadn’t invited the group over because she cared about crew morale at the fulfillment center, but rather because, after the recent tragedy and subsequent disappointing response from management, she had seen looks on the faces of some of the women who worked there that reminded her too keenly of the expressions her son had worn in the months before he’d taken his own life. Donna was one of the oldest employees at the center, a retired history teacher who should be enjoying her autumn years, but found herself plagued by insomnia after the loss of her son and had impulsively looked for a nearby night shift job, finding one overseeing label-making machines at the ends of the conveyor belts.
Over her two years at the job she had seen a lot of people come and go. Early in the summer a young man named Donovan had been among the new hires, and had begun talking openly about union organization as soon as he had completed orientation. He articulated cogent points, and even those employees who most consistently sided with management against their own best-interests, having “drunk the Kool-Aid,” as the crew put it, reluctantly admitted that he made a lot of sense.
Some corporate algorithm had decided that even new hires whose employee files acquire a “toxic” label on their first day should optimally be worked for three weeks to recoup the cost of orientation and severance. Overnight, every OSHA approved surface in the facility was plastered with anti-union posters and every shift was required to attend mandatory meetings where management spoke about the evils of organization. Appealing to the overwhelmingly young, male demographic in attendance, they pointed out how paying union dues would mean fewer video games in their collections.
Donna had held Yvonne’s hand during the meeting, feeling the single-mother tense with anger when the line about video games elicited grumbles from the crowd. “They are so fucking stupid,” Yvonne had hissed.
At the three week mark, Donovan had been summarily fired. Citing at-will employment, he was not given a reason, though it was explained that he had been blackballed from their hiring system, so to not bother applying again at any location. Darren, the manager in charge of terminations, took joy in his job. He had drunk so much Kool-Aid that his dedication to the company was fanatical in nature. On the wall of his office, mounted and framed, was a glove from one of the CEO’s personal spacesuits, an acquisition he would brag cost him more than the yearly salary of the average company employee. Darren had enunciated the word “blackballed” in a display of microaggression blatant enough to elicit snickering from the security guard present, as well as a stern glare from the lawyer at the end of the table.
That night Donovan had called Donna, explaining that he had expected nothing less than what had happened, and that the truth was that he was part of an organization dedicated to unionizing America’s workforce. Minimum-wage paying fulfillment centers and big box stores were their primary targets. He’d said that his work was not over, that he’d be back with others of his group to stage protests. He told Donna that he could tell she was sympathetic to the cause and that the crew respected her. He hoped that she’d use this earned influence to assist them in doing what was right. Donna had agreed to help.
The protestors had arrived before dawn and were set up outside during shift change. Several of the night crew made their way to the gates of the property to show their support, and so were present to see Donovan be arrested by the local police, who untruthfully claimed that the protest was blocking the facility’s truck entrance. Cellphone footage shot by Anna, one of the college students hired for the summer, would go viral several days later after certain tragic facts became clear. Anna was, of course, fired, a scapegoat for the negative PR.
Handcuffed, alone, and unsecured in the back of a police van, Donovan would be driven around the back roads of the county for two hours. He was unresponsive upon arriving at the jail, having suffered a head injury during his long trip there. Three months later he was still in a coma, with charges pending for breach of peace, disorderly conduct, and disruption of vital transportation systems.
The police had been slow to release body cam footage, and by the time of the first Margarita Girls’ Night the public had only seen his initial arrest, which seemed pointless to hold onto following the release of Anna’s video. Recordings from the camera in the back of the police van had been requested via the Freedom of Information Act by numerous organizations, but thus far remained unreleased.
Legal proceedings filed by his family and on behalf of the non-profit organization he had been working with against his former employer, the police force, and local municipality had stalled, as Donovan’s fate was still uncertain. Damages had certainly been suffered, but it remained to be seen whether or not the end result would be a wrongful death. Recovery seemed unlikely.
At the mandatory meetings following the tragedy, everyone received $25 gift cards redeemable on the company’s website. The anti-union posters remained up. A rumor spread among the crew that Darren had almost been reprimanded for emailing a gif of Vice Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club saying, “You mess with the bull, young man, you get the horns.” but avoided punishment by claiming it was in reference to something else.
New transfers appeared on every shift, all attractive young people who seemed overly keen on the opportunities provided by working at the fulfillment center. Every payday they’d exclaim loudly to everyone in earshot how they were glad they didn’t have to pay union dues and how everyone had really dodged a bullet. Despite management’s best intentions, the presence of these obviously planted corporate shills had a demoralizing effect on the already emotionally taxed crews.
Donna spotted Yvonne crying in her car one morning in the parking lot and decided to host a margarita-based gathering that coming Friday. She made a list of eleven women she wanted to invite, deciding to forgo the inclusion of any men, as she wanted to provide a safe space for those she could tell needed it most. The crews were full of creeps, though that wasn’t to say there weren’t some decent men among them, but when she realized she needed to add Anna to the list, a germ of an idea began to take hold.
Donna lived in a well kept, but sagging farmhouse not far from the industrial park, and the blender was whirring as her guests began to arrive that Friday evening. By 7:30 there were a dozen women in the living room. Donna entered carrying a tray of margaritas, the thirteenth member of the group. They made small talk for an hour before Donna brought up Columbus and inequality.
After Yvonne’s litany of “fucks,” Lila, a pretty, painfully shy girl raised the hand hand she had been using to pet Donna’s sleek, black, friendly cat, Beans. Donna called on her, feeling like a teacher again for the first time in many years. Lila acknowledged that union organization seemed like the right idea, but asked how they were supposed to fight a tyrannical management that clearly had no ethical boundaries. She said it seemed hopeless. Donna had never heard Lila speak so many words in a row.
There were murmurs of agreement from those assembled. Donna agreed that it seemed hopeless, and reminded them that the company was using century-old, time-honored techniques against them. She made her way to the antique wooden secretary in the corner of the room, saying, “But, there are other ways to fight.”
Donna withdrew a few aged, typewritten pages from a drawer and asked if she could read them a story. Yvonne walked around with a pitcher, topping off everyone’s margaritas as Donna took her place in front of the assembled.
The story was about a girl named “Donna” who was in college in the 1960’s. The school she attended had taken government research contracts to develop weapons to be used in the war raging overseas, much to the disapproval of the student body, many of whom had lost high school friends in the unpopular conflict. They also had sympathy for the people we were at war with, and knew that the terrible devices being developed would be used against real human beings with hopes and dreams and potential. None of this seemed to matter to the school’s president, who was rabidly pro-war, and had a history of espousing racist, jingoistic beliefs, though, at the time, this was considered “normal” to most Americans, and only the burgeoning hippie culture seemed to stand against it.
Protests against the research had been met with billy-club wielding riot police, and several student-activists had been expelled. A few had already been drafted, and though some had escaped to Canada, at least two had died in the war. Donna was inclined to drop out and go to Cambodia to work with the indigenous people who had become victims of the secret war taking place in their country alongside the main conflict, but unreported in the news. However, with only a year left until graduation, she wondered if this was a foolish choice to make.
One night the girls in Donna’s dorm were drinking whiskey out of coffee cups, talking about the unfairness of the system, and how they had become unwitting, but complicit cogs in the machine of the military-industrial complex. They agreed that another protest was needed, but lamented the sacrifices already made on that front. Suddenly, Elizabeth, a ginger-haired girl from Massachusetts who had filled her cup more times than anyone else stood up, dislodging Beans, the sleek, black, friendly dorm cat who had been sleeping in her lap, and started counting.
“…eleven, twelve, thirteen,” she finished, adding “We could form a coven.” The girls laughed. Mary Sue, the most devoutly religious among them laughed uncomfortably. “Jesus was a warlock,” offered Elizabeth. Silence followed. “Nothing else has worked, why don’t we cast a spell?” Elizabeth asked.
The Donna in the story reflected on how, two decades into the Atomic Age, that sounded quaintly silly. Then she thought about how, for all its promises, “progress” had birthed an increasingly poisoned world for all its offers of convenience. She wondered if maybe a new take on an old way of doing things might have some value. What was there to lose, she asked herself, maybe just Mary Sue’s immortal soul.
Elizabeth suggested that they create what she called “a hypersigil,” and focus their energies on a runic representation of their desires that they’d collectively inscribe on a page. They turned off the lights and lit candles before beginning the ceremony. It did, indeed, seem silly at first as they chanted “A loose wire starts a fire. The end is seen for the war machine.” while filling the page, but as they passed the charcoal stick among themselves, a weightiness settled on the scene.
The Donna in the room read the words of Donna in the story, who described what happened “as if a conduit had been opened, like being present for a birth.” The candles flickered, and Mary Sue, who was holding the charcoal exclaimed “I can’t feel my hand!” as she wrote hard on the page with the stick.
This time it was Anna who raised her hand. “Yes?” said Donna, pausing in her reading.
“Did that really happen?” asked Anna.
“The candles didn’t flicker,” replied Donna, before continuing the story.
Shortly after the last of the assembled girls had finished her turn with the charcoal, the dorm mother arrived and turned on the lights. She said it was awfully late to be up drinking coffee, and so the girls drained their cups and they all went to bed, though Beans stayed up that night, prowling the dorm.
At 4 AM everyone asleep on campus was awakened by an explosion, and within fifteen minutes the air was filled with the sound of screaming fire engines racing to the school’s science building, which was where the controversial research was being conducted. Classes were canceled that day, and the story ended with the thirteen girls assembled around the six-o’clock news, where a reporter on scene, with the smoldering wreckage behind him, said that so far the investigation seemed to indicate that faulty wiring had started a fire that had led to the detonation of materials on site, resulting in the total destruction of the building, which had been mercifully unoccupied at the time. The girls in the story made eye contact, but remained silent.
When Donna was finished reading, the women in the living room said nothing as they looked amongst themselves. Finally, Yvonne spoke, saying “Shit, let’s give it a shot.”
After they decided on the nature of the spell, Donna produced a large sheet of paper and a stick of charcoal. Candles were lit and they chanted in unison as they inscribed the hypersigil. “Break the belts, grind the gears, this is what corporate fears. Stop the line for a time, through our will by our design.” They would later agree that it had, indeed, felt like being present for a birth.
The rest of the weekend passed without incident, though more than one attendee of Margarita Girls’ Night had a hangover all Saturday. At noon on Sunday a text went out to every employee of the fulfillment center saying to not report to work until further notice. Eventually, word spread through the crews that a scheduled firmware update for the conveyor systems had caused the machines to attempt to run at beyond their maximum rated speeds, resulting in tremendous damage to their inner workings.
Then the news alerts started. Due to “technical difficulties,” 80% of the company’s fulfillment centers were offline. The firmware update had been rolled out simultaneously across the country and a significant portion of the infrastructure had been catastrophically damaged. The “Margarita Girls” group text began blowing up. The general tone was of disbelief tinged with pride, but a great amount of concern was likewise expressed. They all agreed to meet Tuesday night, as it didn’t seem like the center would be back online by then.
The company’s problems dominated the news cycle, bumping reports of the current war and congressional infighting to the crawl at the bottom of the screen. The CEO of the company rarely addressed the public, who saw him as some sort of devil they had made a deal with, but in the wake of the crisis made appearances on news shows, where he pointed fingers at the IT department and their firmware update.
Former employees came forward, giving interviews where they claimed that real fault lay with the corporate culture of profit at all cost, and that faulty in-house code was merely a symptom of an unsustainable business model that was doomed to fail eventually. Regular people appeared on the news, sharing tragic-to-them stories of how their childrens’ upcoming birthday parties would be ruined, or how they’d have to cancel trips if the problem wasn’t resolved quickly. The CEO promised that new parts were on order, but it would likely be two weeks before things returned to normal, and begged for patience, but the public had grown accustomed to convenience and were furious with the company.
By Tuesday night, as thirteen women assembled in Donna’s living room to discuss the situation, the news was reporting corporate losses in the billions. They didn’t discuss responsibility, as the weightiness of their shared experience on Friday night had washed away any doubts as to the situation’s true cause. They did discuss how their actions had put over a million people temporarily out of work, though Lila brought up a news report that had said business for brick and mortar retailers, which had been declining for years, was booming. Judi said her parents’ sporting goods store was financially solvent for the first time in a decade. This seemed like good news for American Main Streets, but they were shouldering a great deal of responsibility about their out-of-work cohorts as the margaritas were poured that night.
The group asked Donna what had happened after the science building had burned down. With great sadness she explained that even though the initial reports were correct about the cause of the fire, the school and local authorities had enacted a coverup, scapegoating an immigrant janitor, claiming he had been smoking on the job, though it had been his day off. The student body believed that this was done so that the government contract would not be lost. The janitor was sentenced to five years and died in prison due to inadequate medical care. Looks of shock and sadness appeared on the faces of those assembled, similar to what she had seen on the faces of her dorm-mates as the scope of the conspiracy became clear. She then went on to explain that they had enacted another ritual, a darker, more powerful one. A day or so after, the president of the school had choked to death on his steak at an ROTC fundraiser.
They then each spoke in turn about their hardships and losses. Donna told of how the mental health industry had let her son down, offering only empty promises before his demons consumed him. Yvonne related how she often fantasized about moving to Europe, where many countries seemed to understand the plight of single parents, and had programs in place to assist them, but how she could never afford to do so. Lila spoke of how she wanted more than anything to continue her education, but likewise, could not afford to do so. Judi spoke of how she wished her parents could retire, but their store couldn’t compete with the prices set by predatory online retailers. Jen said she had wanted to join the Air Force before she became awakened to the horrors that entailed, and now she felt lost. Anna said she just wanted a summer job that didn’t feel like it was eating her soul.
They discussed how speaking truth to power no longer seemed sufficient. Even well articulated appeals for some measure of sanity that might be the first step towards a better world were drowned out in the cacophonous multitude of voices vying to be heard. They agreed that direct action was necessary, but acknowledged it was hard to know where to start. The people pulling the strings were insulated by a system they had designed that had resulted in unprecedented wealth, providing ample opportunity for further consolidation of power. Though clunky and brutal, there was an elegance to the system, with arms made up of corporations, government, law enforcement, financial institutions, media, military, technology, and education attached to the head of a malevolent kraken consuming everything in its sight and shitting out money and poison.
They discussed how The System was designed to drive people apart, keeping them at odds, blaming each other for the state of things, so as to distract from the true culprits. The women assembled in Donna’s living room felt sick, not only of being active participants in such an arrangement, by virtue of their employment at the fulfillment center, but at the fact that, in practical terms, they had no choice. No one did. Freedom was an illusion, a falsely promised pot of gold at the end of the rainbow bridge to fauxfillment, achieved by grinding out dollars as so to acquire more things.
They began to theorize that the only way to dismantle such a structure would be to strike at its nerve centers. They acknowledged that despite its camouflage and armor, The System was a fragile thing, just look at the damage wrought to it by the loss of some plastic gears. People were furious with the company and had started arriving en mass at the fulfillment centers that evening to get “their things.” The company was in a panic, and by their response it was evident that they had no plan. Protestors and rabble-rousers might be dealt with swiftly and brutally, but it was clear that there was no contingency in place for the arrival of what the company considered “real people,” (see: consumers) as opposed to how they viewed their employees, past and present.
“Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage,” sang Lila.
“Avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak,” said Jen, quoting The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.
Following a moment of silence, Yvonne said, “Let’s do it, let’s get that fucker.” Donna said it wouldn’t be easy, that to focus on an individual in such a way required an object that belonged to the intended target, and that Elizabeth had snuck into the president’s office and stolen his reading glasses. She also said that it had not assuaged any of the guilt the coven had felt, and it had been naive to think it would. “The death of a terrible king often results in the ascension of an even worse one,” she added.
To Donna’s surprise and delight, the other witches didn’t care. “If they won’t take accountability for what they’ve done and what they do, we have to hold them accountable,” said Lila. The rest agreed. Donna beamed.
“Darren has that stupid space glove in his office,” said Anna, “Would that work?”
Donna said, “I do believe it would.” Beans meowed in knowing agreement.
About the Creator
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