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I've worked in halfway houses and mental institutions all over the country, in countless cities and towns. The work isn't bad and it pays a bit better than most menial jobs I've held. I try to be a good girl, to be kind and polite to others, but my job has affected me. To help the sick and broken you need to harden your heart and accept unpleasant truths about people. Accept that some addicts don't want to get clean. That what seems like compassion can sometimes be indulging the delusions of the mad, and that some people really do need to be restrained for their own good.

I won't say the name or location of the place I work now, only that I've been here for a long time. When I was first hired the pay was low and the hours were short and I was not in a position to complain. I'd been working reception for a week or two when a man came in, walked with purpose to my desk and asked to see The Holder of Denial. A look of confusion must have come over my face, because he grew suddenly impatient. He screamed at me and I flinched, he banged his fist on the desk and insisted that he see The Holder of Denial. I was still trying to calm him down when my supervisor came forward. Mr. Musil took one look at the man and the man fell silent. Mr. Musil nodded to me, said "it's all right," and led the man down a hallway that I must have passed a hundred times without ever noticing. The man glanced back at me with a grim smile on his face. I glared at him, there was no excuse for rudeness like that and I was irritated that he'd calmed down so quickly for my supervisor. It had made me look incompetent.

Others came after him, all demanding to see the Holder of Denial, all screaming and making a scene only to calm down once Mr. Musil arrived to take them away. I walked after them once or twice, just out of curiosity, just to see what they were doing. Each time, Mr. Musil led them through a door, locked them in and walked away. He smiled at me when we passed each other. Once he left the key in the lock behind him and I nearly used it to open the door. But when my hand touched the key I felt a sick sense of guilt, a hard chewing feeling in my gut that I'd felt before when I knew the mess I was about to be punished for was my fault and my fault alone. I pulled the key out and returned it to Mr. Musil's desk. He'd left early that evening.

It wasn't until the next day that I heard what happened to him. How he'd driven his car with his wife and son in it off a bridge. How the windows had been rolled down and the seatbelts buckled, and how it seemed that none of them had tried to get out of the car. They'd all sat there while the filthy river water rushed in and drowned them.

The next time someone came demanding the Holder, I hid. I can't stand to be yelled at, so I ran to the back room and hoped the red-eyed, pregnant woman at the front would go away and look for her "Holder of Denial" elsewhere. She'd been shouting for eight solid minutes when I went to Mr. Musil's desk and found the key I'd left there. I led her to the door at the end of the hallway without the slightest feeling of unease. Though I did wonder if Mr. Musil had been in the habit of going back to let them out later in the day. He always locked the door behind them, so they surely weren't getting out on their own. There must have been some other exits they were using. That seemed likely.

I didn't worry about it.

After the pregnant woman, the next person to ask for the Holder was a young man who'd only started his shouting when I cut him off, saying "I'll only take you if you quiet down and ask me politely." He looked around uncertainly and repeated his request in a more civil tone. He trembled as I led him to the door, as did the next few who came to see the Holder. All were at a loss in the face of a few words that they hadn't expected.

From then on I took care of the sad-eyed, determined ones who asked to see the Holder. They were mostly men but there were a lot of women too. Almost all of them wore a dry, haunted look on their faces, and the few who didn't smiled so brightly that they frightened me. I took the ones who wore piles of rags and the ones who wore tailored suits. I took the ones with scars and tattoos, with long beards and tight smiles, with pale skin and dark skin and veins that bulged at the surface. None of them came back. I felt such tenderness towards the quiet, broken-looking ones. With them I felt like a mother putting a sick child to bed. The arrogant, cruel-eyed ones I sent through the door laughing inside, feeling an inexplicable, mean satisfaction. For the life of me I couldn't tell you why; after all they'd asked to go through that door, hadn't they?

I must make it sound as if these people come in every day, but that's only because they've blurred together over the years. Really, they arrive occasionally and randomly. Sometimes months will go by without one arriving and then two will come on the same day, just hours apart. I've only seen a lot of them because I've been here a long time. The bad habits that used to keep me from holding down a job—tardiness, absentmindedness, my tendency to slip out the back and sneak secret joints that led to the absentmindedness...none of these things bothered anybody so long as I kept leading the Seekers to the door. I took longer hours. People covered for my mistakes and started looking at me strangely, the way I used to look at Mr. Musil.

By and by I began to feel a nagging doubt. I wondered; what if there was no second door, no exit for that room? I'd never seen anything but darkness inside, never taken more than a second's accidental look. How big could it possibly be? All those people going in and never coming out, it must have begun to get crowded in there. It might be better if fewer people ever entered the door. Around the time I started entertaining these thoughts I began to notice a button under the front desk. I don't know if it had been there before, hard and jeweled and amber colored, but if I pressed it when a Seeker came the lights in the room would flicker and go bright. And while I was blinded I'd feel something soft move past me and smell something foul, and when the lights returned to normal the Seeker was always gone. Sometimes they'd leave a tear in the carpet or a dark stain which I had to clean, but at least I didn't have to send them all down the hallway.

I pressed the button on the Seekers who hadn't learned that I value politeness and on those that didn't ask politely enough. When I saw something smirking and contemptuous in the Seeker's eyes I would press the button hard enough to break the skin of my palm. I began to take comfort in cleanliness of light and the muffled cries that sounded like songs. I took any excuse I could to press the button and not send a Seeker down the hall. Those I did send still didn't return.

Until one day, when one man did return. I didn't like him from the moment he entered, with his sharp suit and sharp smile and empty, empty eyes. I went for the button before he reached the desk, but something stopped my hand. He nodded and asked me, very politely, to see the Holder of Denial. Some people I lead to the Holder tremble with visible fear, others hide it, and a very small number seem to be able to suppress it. But this man simply lacked it, the way a story might lack a proper ending. It chilled me. I was relieved to send him through the door. He gave me a too-wide smile and a wink, and disappeared into darkness. I locked him in, stumbled outside and smoked until a thin excuse for calm returned to me, then I went back to my desk and pretended to busy myself with paperwork. I heard footsteps coming down the hallway that I must have walked down a hundred times without hesitating on, and the man with empty eyes came out. He was carrying something in his hands. Something covered in hair or perhaps made of hair, long wet strands of hair that trailed down through his fingers. I tried to press the button that would bring the clean, white light, the light that was pure and that would cover this ugliness. He stopped me. He moved faster than my eye could follow and stopped me, keeping my hand held in his, grinning a devil smile and clucking his tongue. His grin was too wide. I was sure it would swallow me up.

Terrified, I only asked one question: "What are you going to do to me?"

I thought he would kill me. What he did was much worse, he explained things to me. He told me what had happened to each person I had sent down the hallway. Told me in great detail the tests they had failed and the tortures they had suffered. He told me what happened to Seekers under the blinding light that kept me from seeing the things that set on them, that tore them apart and dragged them into the white-hot filament of each light bulb. He told me about the thing I had been helping to guard, and the thing that helped me guard it. He made me see what I had done.

He left. I didn't.

Seekers still come asking for The Holder of Denial. Some I send down the hall, some I press the button on. I don't know if there's anything there for them to seek anymore. No others have ever come back. I try to be a good girl, kind and polite to others, but my job has affected me. To stay whole and healthy, you need to harden your heart to unpleasant truths about yourself. To tie your thoughts down for your own good.

The trichinobezoar the man carried out is Object 138 out of 538. And I am the least of the trials that you must face to find it.

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