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Severance Pay
by Shane Nelson

'Have you ever been here before?' Here is a sterile white room without windows. Ventilation shafts line the ceiling. The building breathes through them. The walls have a rubbery texture; the dimpled surface is pliant to the touch. Soundproof.

The floor is white tile; beneath it, electrical current whirrs through two hundred thousand feet of insulated wiring. There are six identical chairs in the room. Two tables sit in the centre of the floor.

Nathan Winston raises his head. He has been distracting himself with the folder in his lap. It's filled with forms that bear his straggling script. Name. DOB. Age. Marital Status. Employment. Identification Number. Useless lines of type to which he is expected to provide answers.

'Excuse me?'

The man sitting across from him smiles nervously. 'I asked if you've been here before. Dumb question.'

'It's my first time,' Nathan says.

The man crosses the room and sits beside Nathan. 'I'm Byron,' he says, extending a hand. Nathan shakes it, noticing the dirt beneath Byron's nails.


'Goodtameetcha,' Byron says. He runs a hand through his hair and looks around the room. 'I wonder if it's always this empty.'

'I don't know,' Nathan replies.

'Probably not,' Byron says. 'Times are good. I guess only the real unlucky ones end up here, huh?' He looks to Nathan for support but gets only silence. 'Story of my life. I've always been unlucky.'

Nathan drums his fingers against the folder. Inside is a sheet of paper bearing the heading Rules & Regulations. Nathan has read them over and over. He thinks of one now. The recipient accepts full responsibility for his request and is granted one exclusion without penalty. Nathan thinks about the times he has stood outside this building, eyes cast toward the spire on its peak. One exclusion without penalty. Nathan knows what that means. Make sure you want to be here . . . you can only change your mind once.

'—wife?' Byron is asking.


Byron points at a photograph tucked inside the folder and asks, 'Is that your wife?'

Nathan closes the folder. 'Yes.'

'Didn't think many married men came here,' Byron says. 'Especially if they have a family.' There are children in the photograph – two girls – and Byron correctly assumes they are Nathan's daughters. 'Why are you here?'

Nathan looks at the door through which they are expected to go. It is white. There is no handle. A speaker is in the wall next to it. 'For the money.'

'I know that,' Byron says. 'I meant why? You don't look like a guy who might need—'

'Everyone needs money.'

'That's for sure,' Byron says. He rummages in his pocket and comes up with a package of Beeman's chewing gum. He offers a piece to Nathan, who declines. Folding the stick of gum under his tongue, Byron says, 'I lost my job back in '14. Government only helps so much.'

Nathan ignores Byron's lament. Inside the closed folder, the photograph seems to smoulder.

'What do you do?' Byron asks.

The time worn question. Nathan hates it. 'I'm a teacher,' he says, then corrects himself. 'I was a teacher.'

'A teacher?' Byron is incredulous. 'I didn't think educated folks ever fell on hard times. What happened?'

Nathan says nothing. It's not that he doesn't want to explain, but he wonders if he can.


'I don't know what happened,' Nathan lies.

Byron nods. 'I guess it comes down to a matter of survival. Looking after what's important.' He chews his gum. 'You still married?'

'No,' Nathan says.


'My wife died.'

Byron winces. 'Oh.' He sounds as if the wind has been knocked out of him. 'Sorry.'

Nathan reaches into the breast pocket of his shirt and finds a pack of cigarettes. He shakes one out, lights it with a battered Zippo and exhales a whispery cloud of smoke.

The speaker on the wall emits an audible snap. Nathan and Byron share a moment of trepidation. There is a flat hum in the air. Then a voice says, 'Byron James Allen, Identification Number 11-23853-2, report.' The speaker emits a breathy sound before going silent.

The door whispers open.

Byron stands and says, 'Guess that's me.'

Nathan feels he should offer something. 'Good luck,' he says.

Byron turns toward the door. As he walks through, Nathan looks at the folder in his lap, wondering if he's doing the right thing.

It was a warm October afternoon and Nathan was standing in the University Lecture Hall, staring at a sea of intrigued faces. He had been pacing in his usual manner, gesturing enthusiastically, believing everything in his lecture.

'What you have to understand,' Nathan was saying, 'is that while morality can be more easily defined, ethics are questionable. Morals are reflective of individuals whereas ethics are the responsibility of groups. But ethics can be difficult when a government is concerned with the protection of the state.'

A hand came up. 'But . . . professor Winston . . . isn't the government made up of individuals? Shouldn't there be a morality inherent in government?'

The student's face was familiar. Unkempt black hair, blue eyes behind round lenses, a thin goatee. Nathan scanned the student list on the monitor beside him. Names ticked past until he saw the one he wanted. Hayes, Charles, I (Chuck).

'That simplified thinking, Chuck,' Nathan said. At the back of the hall a door opened, letting in a pair of men in nondescript brown suits. 'Once individuals come together in pursuit of a higher purpose – government, country or military – individuality must be surrendered. If it isn't, the state can't look after its own with any control.'

Nathan's eyes darted to the men in the back of the room. He said, 'You have to remember one thing: individuals are concerned with their own welfare. The scope of a larger body – our government, for example – is much broader. They are looking out for all of us. They can't always be expected to follow the same rules as individuals.'

Before Nathan could continue, the end-of-period bell rang. The students gathered their things. Nathan spoke above the clamour, reminding them of an upcoming exam. As he did so, the two men approached.

'Mr. Winston?' the taller of the two asked.

Nathan nodded. 'That's right.' He walked toward the doors marked by a bright neon exit sign. Something uneasy settled in his belly.

'We need to talk to you,' the second man said.

'Talk while I walk,' Nathan said. 'I have a class in fifteen minutes.'

'It's about your wife,' the taller man said.

The intercom activates with a dry snap. Nathan is looking at the folder in his hands, examining the way his sweat has blotched its edges. He imagines leaving the room, listening to the whisper of his feet on the floor. There is a trash bin on the curb outside the building; he can almost see the folder dropping inside, taking the forms bearing Nathan's straggling script, swallowing up the photograph of his past. You don't have to be here, he thinks.

On the heels of that: where can I go?

He knows why he's here. He's here because it's the last place left for a man whose life exists only in memory.

He gets the sense that someone is on the other end of the intercom listening to his thoughts. Paranoia.

'Nathan Mark Winston, Identification Number 75-56192-4 (2), report,' says the disembodied voice. The intercom falls silent.

This is your last chance, he thinks.

When the door opens, Nathan gets to his feet and walks into the room beyond.

The room has the personality of an administrator. The floor is hardwood and the walls teak. Nathan sits in a wingback chair. There is no one else in the room; the large desk sits like a ghost ship, captain and crew forgotten. Framed degrees hang on the walls.

There is a door behind the desk and two surveillance cameras in the corners. Dark glass eyes stare at Nathan. He stares back, thinking about the men who are watching him. He can imagine them gathered in a dim room, faces bathed in the light of the video monitors, guns and batons and restraints hanging on leather belts.

After a few minutes the door behind the desk opens and a man in a tan suit steps into the room. He is middle-aged, trim, officious. He sits behind the desk, setting a folder on the blotter in front of him. He says, 'Sorry to keep you waiting.'

'That's fine,' Nathan says, hating himself for being polite.

'My name's John Noen,' the man says. 'I'm the facility administrator.'

'Are you a doctor?' Nathan has noticed the degrees on the wall.

John nods. 'I have a PhD in psychology but I no longer practice.'

Nathan falls silent. Talking is a trap. Nathan fixes his gaze on Noen's tie and remains silent. John Noen looks at the contents of the folder. As he does so he removes a pair of glasses from his breast pocket and puts them on.

'Nathan Winston,' he says. 'You have a doctorate in political education and English.' Raising his head he asks, 'Do you have your forms?'

Nathan hands over the manila folder. Noen opens it and removes the pages. He makes notations with a red pen. 'Just a few questions,' he says. 'I want to make sure everything is in order.'

He stares at Nathan. Nathan's eyes dart to the video cameras.

'You taught at the University for twelve years,' Noen says.

'Almost,' Nathan replies. 'They let me go before I could finish my last year.'

Noen marks the page in front of him. 'You were let go at the request of the University board and the Minister of Education. Correct?'

Anger cinches Nathan's chest. 'That's right.'

'Your teaching credentials were revoked.' Noen shuffles the pages. 'You didn't challenge the dismissal?'

'What's the point?' Nathan asks. 'I know how the system works. I was wrongfully dismissed. But I had no options. Accepting the dismissal was the best thing to do.'

Noen asks: 'You do know that you're Listed?'


The Department of Homeland Affairs keeps the List. Though compiled by the government and paid for by the citizens, the List isn't in the public domain. Nathan's name is locked in a database somewhere, floating like an embryo. If his name is entered into any computer, red flags rise. Nathan Winston is potentially disloyal and his attitudes and behaviours are potentially harmful to the security of the state. At present, he is Listed as Class 2, which means he can be considered for retraining.

'I know,' Nathan replies.

'You've declined retraining. Why?'

'I told you before,' Nathan says. 'I know how the system works. What I know can't be retrained out of existence.'

'You were released from your job because you were declared to be disloyal to the state and its people. Wilfully spreading propaganda in opposition to your teaching and the laws of the country.'

'What's the point of this? I thought you had questions for me. You're doing nothing but rehashing my . . . résumé.'

Noen says, 'You're aware that Listed people are . . . discretionary? It's up to me to accept their application for assistance.' He leans back in his chair and pauses. 'Frankly,' he continues, 'I don't know why you're here. You have other avenues, Mr. Winston.'

'The truth,' Nathan says.

'Excuse me?'

'I know the truth, Mr. Noen. I know the government. The body is weak. It's falling apart but no one knows it yet. Can you train me to think otherwise?'

For the first time Noen's cool demeanour flickers.

'You're a part of that body, Mr. Winston. Perhaps it's the unhealthy parts that make the body weak.'

'That isn't the case,' Nathan replies. 'And you know it. I'm interested in truth. Retraining, re-education, reapplication for my teaching credentials . . . none of that will bring me truth.'

'You think there's an absolute truth, Mr. Winston?' The smile remains tacked on Noen's face. 'Isn't that rather arrogant?'

'The government taught me to believe in absolute truth,' Nathan replies. He sees the smile on Noen's face waver. 'There may be no absolute truth. But there are lies.'

Noen sniffs derisively and looks into the folder. He removes the photograph clipped to the inside of the folder.

'Your family?'

A blade touches Nathan's heart. 'Yes,' he says.

'A family is a whole,' Noen recites softly, 'and you are a part of that whole.' He sets the photograph down. 'Your daughters were placed in the protection of the state because you were an alcoholic.'

'My daughters were killed,' Nathan says. 'They called it an accident. Just like my wife.'

The smile flees Noen's face, replaced by a mask of condolence. 'Please,' he says, 'tell me about your wife.'

Nathan has convinced himself that he never had a wife. He tries to remember as little as he can but her face haunts his dreams. It is like the ghosts of his past: his job, his office, his home, his life. But a ghost with meaning.

'What do you want to know?' Bitterness oozes between his words. 'How we met? Our first kiss? I don't remember any of that because it was built on sand. I didn't know it then but I was trying to make something whole out of bits and pieces that didn't fit.' Noen is frowning now. He doesn't like Nathan's tone. 'Let me tell you about my wife, Dr. Noen. I'll tell you what I do remember.'

There was a spray of blood on the wall by the elevators. It had dried into a crazy Rorschach pattern that wavered before Nathan's eyes. Behind him, the two men in brown suits took him by the elbows. Neither had spoken a word since driving Nathan to Memorial Hospital. One of them spoke now.

'We should wait, Mr. Winston,' he said. 'Someone will be here in a moment.'

The moment passed with excruciating slowness. Men in white uniforms and paper boots were stringing yellow crime scene tape across the hallway. Nathan looked at the congealing puddles of blood and felt a gorge rising in his throat. He turned his head and saw the elevator doors open, spilling out three chuckling doctors. They barely glanced toward the carnage beyond the sagging yellow tape.

'Mr. Winston!' A short and rotund man approached, a swollen-cheeked face floating above a neat blue suit. 'You had a pleasant ride over?'

Ignoring the question, Nathan asked, 'What's happened to my wife?'

His eyes drifted to the bloody fan on the wall again. Seeing the smiling bureaucrat in his blue suit did little to alleviate Nathan's fear. Professionalism and courage under all conditions is important in a leader, no matter whom he leads. Nathan had recited that time and time again to his classes.

'I'm afraid there's been an accident.' The smile slipped a little.

'Is it Marie?' He grabbed the man by the front of his suit. 'What happened?'

'Mr. Winston,' the man said, 'just come with me and I can explain. There's no need for— '

Nathan bolted down the hallway. The yellow crime scene tape snapped and floated lazily to the floor. He leaped over the muddy pools of blood, aware of the goggling stares of the crime scene technicians. His feet slapped against the floor as he ran around the corner at the end of the hallway and found out what had happened to his wife.

'They hadn't even covered her up,' Nathan says. 'She was lying in the middle of the hallway, throat torn open. I could see her eyes. I see them every time I try to sleep.'

Dr. Noen's silence infuriates Nathan.

'There were men standing there, smoking cigarettes, making jokes. Suddenly they're staring at me like I don't belong. Men like you, Dr. Noen, who hadn't had the decency to throw a blanket over my dead wife.'

A page whispers as Noen turns it. '"Marie Winston, wrongful death occurring at place of employment."' Raising his eyes, he blinks at Nathan. 'She was killed by a deranged prisoner who had been taken to the hospital for a routine exam.'

'She was killed by the government,' Nathan responds. 'By its incompetence. By its lack of humanity.'

'Not so, Mr. Winston,' Noen says. 'The patient, Donald Moore, had been in custody for three months. He was a combatant man with a history of violence.'

Donald R. Moore, Detainee

Arrested on charges of vagrancy and resisting reintegration. Trial judge recommended re-education in detention centre for a period of six to nine years. Detainee demonstrates combative tendencies. Struggles with authority figures point toward a propensity for violence.

Transferred to Memorial Hospital for surgical re-education and reintegration.

'You do know what re-education through surgery means, don't you?' Nathan asks. 'They were going to lobotomize him. He was a frightened man living on the streets. A man no different from me. I was lucky enough to be educated. But I know how close I've come to being the man who killed my wife. I sometimes imagine what I might do if I were in his place.'

'He was a criminal, Mr. Winston. And he was punished accordingly. You were given justice. Yet you turned on the very institutions that worked to protect you.'

Nathan had tried to convince himself that justice had been served. He had harboured rage for the man who had murdered his wife. But then he had discovered the man's true crime and realized that what he wanted wasn't justice but vengeance. The poor man had reacted like a caged animal. Even later on, when the nights had been numbed by alcohol and sleep, Nathan had found out that the man had been unrestrained despite his own threats. Marie had been placed in front of a human animal with nowhere to go.

'They didn't protect my wife,' Nathan whispers.

'You blamed everyone else for what happened in the wake of your wife's accident. You began to drink. You abused your position at the University by spouting long-dead rhetoric that— '

'The truth,' Nathan says.

'Your drinking led to the removal of your children into the care of the state. It was bad enough that your drinking led to their fate, but you lost your job as well.'

'They killed my wife and kids,' Nathan says. 'You see that, don't you?'

Noen leans back in his chair. 'An individual is responsible for itself and others, Mr. Winston. The others are the members of a household, a community, a country. Responsibility requires strength. You suffered terribly when your children were lost— '

'They weren't a set of keys,' Nathan said. 'They weren't lost. They were killed. The state put them in a run-down child care facility that didn't meet one of three-dozen standards. They burned to death in their beds. Did you know that? Restrained in their beds because they had tried to run home.'

Noen closes the folder. 'I had hoped to convince you that you still had an economically viable position in society. But a weak man always blames others. You blame everyone but yourself. Someone else caused the death of your wife. Someone else caused you to drink yourself out of your family and your job. Someone else killed your children. None of it lies on your shoulders.' Noen clasps his hands together and says, 'It must be nice to be free of responsibility.'

'I'm not free of responsibility,' Nathan says, getting to his feet. He puts one hand on Noen's desktop. 'All of this is my own fault. I was so blind in the beginning that I couldn't save my family.'

'You play the victim,' Noen says. 'You chose self-pity and— '

Nathan brings a fist down on the desktop. The framed photograph of Noen's family falls over. Nathan shouts, 'Can't you see that one is connected to the other? Of all people, you should know that. We make our choices, but sometimes we have help.' Nathan chokes, unable to remember what he wants to say. Collapsing into the wing-backed chair, he draws a shuddering breath and says, 'I'm sorry.'

'I'm sorry, too, Mr. Winston,' Noen says, his voice filled with disgust. Without another word he removes Nathan's application form from the folder and looks at it.

While Nathan watches, Dr. Noen stamps the word Accepted across the bottom of the page.

After the dry, emotionless air of Noen's office, Nathan finds the quiet solitude of this room comforting. The walls are white; the ceiling and floor are a pale winter blue. Something hums faintly, just out of sight, enhancing the calm of the room's quiet colours.

Aside from the chair in which Nathan sits, there is little in the room. A bare counter juts away from one wall. In the centre of the room is a glimmering metal table. Next to it is a small metal stool.

A door opens and someone enters the room. This someone is tall and gangly, with a shock of white hair. He is wearing a white body suit, lab smock and latex gloves.

'Good afternoon, Mr. Winston,' he says. 'I'm Dr. Flutey. I hope you're comfortable.' He removes a thin silver book from beneath the counter. He hands the volume to Nathan and says, 'You can take a few minutes to look this over and make a decision.' Nathan says, 'I've already completed the forms and— '

'I know. But you need to be sure. This is a big decision.'

Flutey fills a syringe with a green fluid that makes Nathan think of coastal waters in places he's never seen. His eyes close. He can see the slowly lapping green water and the sun, sinking like a memory beyond the curving slope of the world. He can hear the soft sound of the waves and the shrill cry of birds as they wheel across the turquoise sky.

'Mr. Winston?'

Nathan's eyes open. 'Hmm?'

'There isn't a problem, is there?' The doctor cocks his head. 'I was told that you were distressed earlier and— '

Nathan closes the book. 'I'm fine. And I've already made my decision.' He points to the thin manila folder that Dr. Flutey brought into the room. 'It's in there.'

Dr. Flutey takes the book in one gloved hand and places it beneath the counter. He faces Nathan again.

'Remove your shirt, please.'

As Nathan unbuttons his shirt, his fingers betray him by trembling. Telling himself he isn't afraid – he can't be afraid, he's lost more than he's about to lose today – he finishes removing his shirt and sets it aside. Dr. Flutey directs him to the stool next to the table.

Parts of a whole, Nathan thinks. Individuals are parts of a greater whole. The society they create is that whole. And parts of that society are what create the greater body of government and state. Every part is important and cannot be forgotten. But remember: not every part is necessary.

'Mr. Winston,' Dr. Flutey says, 'place your forearm on the blue line.' The doctor points to the surface of the table, as if Nathan might not see the thick blue mark before him. He lays his forearm on the line, feeling the cool whisper of steel against his flesh.

'This will feel cold,' Dr. Flutey warns. In his hand he holds a silver aerosol can. He depresses the nozzle and a white cloud of gas erupts from the canister. It coats Nathan's arm within a few short moments. To Nathan it feels as if his forearm has been immersed in a bucket of ice water. His skin tingles and he can see the hairs on his arm beading with condensation. Within a few moments the sensation passes, leaving only numbness.

Dr. Flutey picks up the syringe. 'This is a sedative,' he says. 'It isn't required, but sometimes it helps.'

Thinking of his wife, her staring eyes, Nathan says, 'No.'

Dr. Flutey sets the needle aside. Nathan closes his eyes for a moment and sees the soft green waters of another life. Another world. When he opens them Dr. Flutey is standing on the opposite side of the table, scrutinizing a row of switches on the wall. He says nothing as he raises the first switch. Nathan feels a great pressure pulling his arm against the table. His numb flesh can barely feel it. He can see the hairs on his arms disappear, however, as a tremendous force pulls them free.

'Did that hurt?' Dr. Flutey asks.

'No,' Nathan says. 'I barely felt it.'

'Let's just be certain.' The doctor produces a needle and, while Nathan watches, punctures his arm in three separate places. Blood beads. There is no pain.

'Very good.'

Dr. Flutey turns back to the row of switches on the wall. 'You're doing the right thing,' he says. 'You need to be viable in society, Mr. Winston. In any way you can. Remember: we can do amazing things with medicine now. Society thanks you.'

Nathan can think of nothing to say.

With his finger touching a switch on the wall, Dr. Flutey says, 'You may not wish to watch. You'll feel nothing, but . . . it might be disturbing.'

Nathan rivets his eyes to his forearm.

The switch is thrown and Nathan hears a faint whisper. Beneath him, the table vibrates softly; he can feel it in his shoulder and neck. There is no sensation in his forearm. He tries to imagine what it would be like if he could feel.

'Mr. Winston?'

Nathan ignores the doctor and watches as the whirring object rises from the tabletop.

'Mr. Winston?'

It spins rapidly, dividing the air, nothing more than a hazy blur.

The blade is virtually silent.

You're doing the right thing.

You need to be viable in society.

Nathan remembers the listing in the book. Third page, fourth line, the type dark and neat and empty of thought, wisdom or emotion.

Right forearm, Severance Pay: $25,000

Society thanks you.

In the time that it takes, Nathan wonders about many things.

He wonders about his wife, about what she might have thought in the last moments of her life. He wonders about his daughters, restrained in their beds. He wonders if there is a place with green water and warm sunshine where nothing like this is necessary. He wonders if a man can build a house on sand and survive.

He wonders if there will be a lot of blood.

He wonders if it will hurt afterward. Is it true what they say? Will he wake up in the night, trying to scratch a non-existent itch on a limb that is no longer there?

Every part is important and cannot be forgotten.

Nathan wonders if he can learn to write with his left hand.

He figures he can.

The End

Story Copyright © 2007 by Shane Nelson. All rights reserved.
Illustration Copyright © 2007 by Bonnie Freeman

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About the author

Shane Nelson is a writer and a teacher who received his Education degree at the University of Saskatchewan. His stories have appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Storyteller Magazine, Dreams & Visions, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Brew City Magazine and Green's Magazine. He also has a story forthcoming in Abyss and Apex. He is a three-time Journey Prize nominee and was awarded the Harding Prize from Green's Magazine for best short story of 2003. When not in the classroom he is locked away in his home office where he does his best to write every day. He lives with his wife in Glenavon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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