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Mr. A. has cold, cold eyes.
I am standing in front of him as cool air streams directly from the air conditioner over his head and onto my face. His arms are disproportionately long, splayed out on the table like weapons. His skin is pale and dull, and the hair on his head is a grey garden, thinning at the sides. Things I hadn't noticed before. The first time we met, I actually thought he was kind of cute in a silver-fox or cool-uncle-at-the-club kind of way. Not anymore. This is the first time I have been in his office. It is efficiently ugly. All awkward angles and off-centre placements and lots of open space with no pictures or art or anything that isn't functional. Apparently, it’s been recently remodelled. I’m not sure what it looked like before, but I doubt this is an improvement. Nothing is out of place but the severity of it all has bred a bland, unfeeling ugliness, finished in whites and greys and blacks. He does not ask me to sit down.
He is looking at me now with those cold, cold eyes, having finished reading my employmetrics on the lightscreen that is projected into the air in front of him from the computing scroll sitting flat on his desk. I can see the display too, but in reverse, a string of bright yellow text, numbers, and graphs that are supposed to indicate not just how well I have done in the last quarter relative to the company's objectives but also map my cognitive abilities and project my future performance. His face contorts into something like a caricature of a smile and a chill runs up my spine. It’s almost impossible to reconcile the strange, serious man in front of me with the jovial person that took me for coffee at Umutu café just across the street two days after I joined the company. A management meet-and-greet he'd called it. He'd been so welcoming that day, I remember thinking how lucky I was to have gotten a job in a place with people that were so friendly in this Lagos. He'd even shown me pictures of his dog, a cute little brown and white Azawakh named Rover.
“Thank you for staying a bit late for this performance review, Nneka.” Mr. A says slowly. “Please, sit down.”
Finally. I lower myself into the black mesh chair facing his desk, and it only gives a bit when my weight settles into it. The room is dry. Perhaps the air conditioning has been on for too long. There is a faint smell of warm tobacco wafting around which is odd because they told us during our orientation that the company doesn't allow smoking anywhere on the premises. I begin to doubt that the windows have ever been opened. They are low and overlook the concrete and asphalt expanse of Lagos, its buildings pressed uncomfortably against each other like half-siblings forced to share a room. Through a network of dusty black wires and cables hoisted up by solid wood poles that keep the city functioning, I can see a mass of bright yellow taxis, okadas, luxury cars, and beat-up danfos slowly but steadily streaming along Akin Adesola Street, towards Falomo bridge, trying to get out before the traffic really hits. There will be no such luck for me today. At least Amina, my colleague in sales is waiting for me. She started about the same time I did, and her own performance review was scheduled for about half an hour before mine today. We plan to head to Sway66 bar, where she DJs part time, for drinks after. To talk about how our reviews went, and depending on the situation, celebrate or drink until we don't care anymore.
Mr. A says, “It’s been a very busy afternoon, but I wanted to make sure we conducted this review face to face.”
“Of course,” I reply, “It’s no problem. I was already planning to stay on the Island a bit late today anyway.”
I'm nervous. Talking too much maybe. But he'd been so friendly and open when we'd first met, I don’t really know how to approach this. It’s like his personality has been bleached. Drained of colour. I try for the familiar. “How's Rover doing?”
He cocks his head. “Rover?”
“Yes, your umm, dog. You showed me pictures a few months ago.”
“Ah the dog. Yes.” He says it like he has just remembered an item on his grocery list. There is not even a flash of emotion in his eyes. “Rover is fine. Very fine.”
I swallow the remainder of my surprise and simply say, “Good to hear.”
“Now. Let us get to it. Before we go into the official particulars, how do you think you did last quarter?” He asks. He's smiling at me, and I can see the bright yellow reflection of my performance metrics in his eyes.
I take a deep breath and clear my throat. “I think I did well. I haven’t received any complaints. And I hit all my KPIs so I think I'm meeting expectations, at least.” The lifting of my voice makes it more question than statement. I don't want to seem too eager about my own perceived success just in case there is something in the numbers that say otherwise.
He looks me up and down, cold eyes scanning for something. The lines radiating from the edge of his mouth deepen as he glances to the lightscreen, then back to me. Smile stuck in place. Finally, he speaks. “Let me begin by saying that I mostly agree with that statement. Overall, you've done quite well in your brief time here. All your key performance indicator numbers are good. You hit your sales targets, even exceeded them by 1.2%. Your team members have all given you good collaboration ratings and customer satisfaction is just north of 93%, where we need it to be. So well done on that front.”
I tuck a loose braid behind my ear and say, “thank you,” because I'm not sure what else to say to this version of Mr. A. and because I am sure he isn't done. I've worked at enough of these large multinationals to know that they always begin performance reviews positively. If there is a sting, they like to save it for the end. And there is almost always a sting.
“We are quite pleased with what you have done so far. But while you are currently meeting expectations, you are meeting them at the least possible capacity. Which is unusual for most of our new hires.”
There it is. The sting.
“And some of your assigned internal process tasks were not completed in time. Minor, but significant. You're only 70% compliant. It's like you are just getting by, Nneka.” He says, his eyes never leaving my face, “you’re only just meeting expectations.”
The statement takes on a sinister tone.
“And perhaps even more importantly, some of your employmetrics are... concerning.”
The employmetric stuff is pretty standard now with most companies. Remote monitoring of brain activity, speech, and movement during work hours. They use low frequency electromagnetic field sensors to measure hippocampal neuron stimulation - those are the neurons that help in forming new memories and learning. I remember them because I made a joke about hippos in the brain. They also have microphones and motion sensors everywhere that record what we say and how we move to run it through speech emotion recognition and motion efficiency software. And then they take twice daily magnetic resonance tomographic scans of our caudate nuclei - the part of the brain that aids the mind in switching gears from one thought to another - at the door when we enter and when we leave. I read the terms and conditions of my contract about six times, in fine detail and even asked my friend Bidemi - he studied corporate biotech at UNILAG even though he is an artist now - to check again before I signed it. Just in case I misunderstood something. As if I wasn't going to sign it regardless. I needed the money. Still do. I just wanted to know exactly how much of my soul I was selling when I accepted the offer.
“What exactly is concerning about them?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“Your aggregate employmetric scores are: Communication efficiency – 83%. Creativity and Adaptability Index – 97%. Normalized Learning and Retention Rate – 62%. Task Focus Factor – 53%. As you can tell, they indicate that while you communicate very well with your team and your clients and you are learning every day, your learning rate is relatively slow, and you are not sufficiently focused. It takes you a long time to settle in between new tasks, and they often overlap in your mind. Your aggregate scores are in the 33rd percentile.”
Another sting. Worse than the last.
“I see.” I say, swallowing back the emotion that is building up behind my throat. “But what about the Olorogun case?”
“What about it?”
“Sarah in HQ said I was the only one who came up with a workable solution.” I feel my face flush hot. I don't like bragging, but I need to make sure my achievements are known to upper management and accounted for when they are looking at all this and reducing my actions to numbers. “Unique, Sarah said. She said that if not for me there would probably have been a serious client complaint. Olorogun Inc. may have even withdrawn their purchase order. Doesn't that show up in the employmetrics? Doesn't it show I have enough focus to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems?”
Mr. A's smile doesn't wane. “It does. There was a significant spike in your frontal cortex activity during that high stress situation. It's an impressive note in your records and that’s why your Creativity and Adaptability Index is so high. But we can’t rely on sporadic bursts of creative brilliance to run the company. We need consistent and predictable high performance. Our recent records show that these bursts of inspiration are not reliable as a basis for successful company performance. We accept them when there are no other options, but they sometimes lead to unexpected negative outcomes. A risk we are becoming less willing to take with our business in this global economic climate.” He leans forward in his chair and puts his fingertips together forming a triangle underneath his jaw like he is in the middle of some sort of strange meditation. “Focus. Consistency. That's what we need now above all else. That's why we've invested so much in our people. In you.”
I don't like the way he says that last part. My face feels numb from the never-ending stream of cold, dry air. It chills me through and through. This is not what I expected. I thought I was doing really well here, and I was being modest when I said, “meeting expectations at least”. Forget about meeting them, I thought I was exceeding them. Apparently not. But this, even though he said he agreed with my modest assessment, everything that has come after indicates the opposite. And I've learned that once companies start talking about how much they have invested in you, there are one of two options: they are either about to invest significantly more, or they are about to cut their losses. I swear would be sweating right now if it wasn’t so cold. I really don't want to lose this job. I can't afford to, so I force a small smile and spread my hands—the universal sign of openness and equitability.
“Thank you for this feedback. I really appreciate the opportunity to work here and everything the company has done for me.” I say, watching the numbers that are being used to judge me shift and swim in the black of his eyes. “And I'd be happy to take any recommendations you have for me to improve going forward.”
“I'm very glad you said that Nneka. Very glad.” Mr. A leans forward, head precariously balanced on fingertips, and I instinctively lean back as far as the rigid mesh chair will let me. That smile. The eyes. It’s almost reptilian now. I feel like I have just walked into a trap.
“The board of directors have just approved the roll out of a new intervention for employees whose employmetrics are in the lower 50th percentile in certain key offices. Lucky for you, Lagos is on the list.”
I don’t feel lucky at all.
He reaches below his desk and pulls out a transparent glass prescription bottle and places it on the desk between us like it’s a gift. It's full of spherical white pills that seem to glow in the light like miniature moons. “Optimiline. It’s a new drug developed by our sister pharmaceutical company that helps with mental focus. It will soon be available on the open market, but it has shown such impressive preliminary results that we want to offer it to our employees first.”
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
I'm confused so I ask, “you want me to take this?”
The clear bottle glints, its edges catching both the natural light from the window and the artificial light from the lightscreen.
“I am officially recommending that you do, yes. But the choice is yours entirely, of course.”
“What does it do exactly?”
“Optimiline is a synthetic nootropic that modulates interactions between the prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and the hippocampus areas of the brain by selectively inhibiting and enhancing certain neurotransmission receptors. Enabling better prioritization and synchronicity between them when executing specific kinds of tasks. It dampens the influence of external inputs, preventing distractions. Better focus, essentially.”
Mr. A sounds like he is reading from a textbook or a marketing flyer. Probably marketing, given how vague he’s being. I’m going to guess that he has no real understanding of what he just told me because I have no clue myself even after spending hours on the phone with Bidemi talking about how the brain works and how its performance is measured and modelled by companies. But this is something different. It’s not measurement, its change.
“Are there any side effects?”
“A few people have reported dizziness, even fewer have complained of headaches when they first begin taking it, but these are temporary. Minutes to hours at the most. It’s very safe and we expect regulatory approval to be very quick, even in certain, difficult markets.”
Right. I’m sure difficult in this context probably means places where the federal food and drug agencies aren’t incompetent or can’t be bribed, or both. But that’s a different kettle of wahala, I need to face the one in front of me and decide what to do. This performance review has gone bizarre. As far as I know, companies recommend training courses, self-development activities, mentorship, things like that to fill out perceived gaps in performance but this... pharmaceutical intervention, changing the way my brain works to make it more amenable to their expectations is frightening. I consider my options carefully.
“And if I don't want to take it?”
Mr. A's smile finally dims, but only momentarily. He drops his thin, ashy hands and leans back into his chair, maximizing the distance between us. “As I said, that's entirely within your rights. Nothing will happen. We will simply make a note and consider how to move forward with you at our next business review meeting.”
Of course. I should have expected that no-answer answer from him. He knows I can sue the company from Yaba to San Francisco if they compel me to take a drug against my will. Or fire me for refusing it. They will probably just wait and just fire me later, when they find a convenient and legal reason to do so.
I'm shivering nonstop now. My face feels a bit numb. I need to get out of this room. I need to get away from this man. I need a drink.
“I need some time to think about it.” I tell him.
“Yes, naturally, take your time. Of course, I cannot give you any Optimiline until you sign the consent forms.” He reaches out and slides the bottle out of my reach. “I will update your review status in the system. Thank you for your time today. Remember, the company wants what is best for you, because it’s what's best for us too. We want you to maximize your potential.” His smile expands again, making his lips thin and his cold, yellow-flecked eyes narrow. He reminds me now not so much of a reptile but of an Egungun mask. Rigid. Uncanny. Terrifying.
I manage a quick “thank you,” then I stand up, smooth my skirt, and walk out of his freezing office. The temperature differential hits me like a blast when I step into the corridor. I take in a deep breath.
Navigating my way downstairs to the sales cubicles on the third floor, I take my time. Slow but deliberate steps. I think about my brother's university fees and my dad’s dialysis treatments. About how badly I need this job. Bad enough to take some strange new drug that will change my brain just to keep it? I don’t know. I need to look into this Optimiline thing a bit more. See what people are saying about it online, if anything. I pull out my phone and set a reminder to call Bidemi at 10 am tomorrow morning. Then halfway down the stairs, I change it to 2 pm. We’re going to Sway66 after this and I might need time to recover from a hangover, given how much booze I think I need to drown what just happened in Mr. A’s office. I hope Amina's review went better than mine did.
At the bottom of the stairs, I push open the doors and enter the sales area of low cubicles and high windows. The faces of a few remaining co-workers that haven’t fled the Island traffic are illuminated by lightscreens. The familiar noise of their talking, typing, swiping and chitchat is almost comforting. There is a kind of lightness here and a warmth and a buzz that makes me feel better. At least it’s not freezing. I make my way to the far side of the room, where Amina’s workstation sits just beside a window overlooking the street. Through the maze of clear plastic and glass and wood panelling, I can see she isn’t there. Her review isn’t over yet? Or is she in the bathroom? Maybe talking to someone? I spin around, searching for her bright red headscarf and matching tank top. I don’t see her, so I approach her desk anyway and stand beside it, waiting. Looks like she’s been doing some cleaning up. It’s been cleared of her cute little miniature vinyl collection, and the picture of her and her boyfriend at the Eiffel tower which I have never been a fan of because it’s just so cheesey and cliché and not like her at all.
Outside, the traffic has slowed to a crawl.
I hear the clicking of her heels before the flash of red enters my peripheral vision.
“You this babe! Where have you been? How did your review go?” I ask, eager to talk to someone about Mr. A, and Optimiline and all that madness from upstairs.
Amina’s full eyelashes flick up and down as her eye move, taking me in like she hasn’t seen me today. A small, strange smile twists the corner of her wet mouth. “I think it went very well.”
“Ehn okay. Serious mama. Na you lucky pass. Mine was a mess. You won’t believe. Get your stuff and let’s roll out to Sway abeg I need a drink. We can talk about it on the way,” I say, looking straight into her eyes. I don’t like what I see. It’s like she is looking not at me, but through me. Distracted?
“I don’t think I am going to Sway anymore,” she says. “I feel a bit dizzy.”
She looks away and carefully places a clear glass bottle on her desk beside her computing scroll like an offering to some invisible god. It is full of those moon-shaped pills.
“Did they give that to you?”
She nods. “Yes. To improve my performance.”
My heartbeat accelerates. Optimiline.
“And you took it already, just like that?” I ask, full of an unspecified dread.
“Yes, about fifteen minutes ago.”
A shiver runs down my spine even though the air is warm here. The fear in me runs bone deep.
Something’s changed. And quickly too. Her eyes remind me of Mr. A’s. She is still smiling at me, just like he was, but in that smile, there is a faint memory of the joy I remember seeing in her eyes whenever she is behind the turntables, rocking from side to side with the music or laughing boisterously as we gulp down gin and tonics. I think to myself: no, it’s just my imagination.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
“Okay. Babe for real, you need to tell me what happened. Let’s go to Sway. Now. Let’s talk. Then you can play your tunes and we chill and vibe out first before the night crowd arrives.”
“Tunes? What tunes?” She asks, and the hope in my chest sinks like a stone. “Ah you mean the DJ stuff. Sorry I really don’t think I’m up for it today,” she adds, but it’s already too late. The weight of realization is like a stone in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want what I think is happening to be happening, but I can’t pretend that it isn’t.
“Let’s do it some other time okay?” She keeps smiling at me.
I stand there, stunned to silence, until eventually, she looks away. I turn around and leave without taking my things, walking briskly out of the office into the sweltering Lagos heat. Grey clouds are drifting lazily across the blue and orange sky. I don’t know where I’m headed but I keep walking along the broken, sandy pavement towards Bar beach. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving, trying not to think about the empty look in Amina’s cold eyes and what the decision I have already made will cost me.