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Contemporary Fiction American

“No, it’s Ji-wi-an,” Jillian repeated herself to the beady-eyed woman sitting behind the glass at the county clerk’s office.

“That’s what I said, Ma’am,” the woman gazed up at Jillian, revealing her irritation, “Jiwian Wester.”

Jillian heard two little girls behind her giggle, clearly eavesdropping on her conversation. She turned around to see what-must-be their mother, grinning at her, not stopping her daughters from ogling at Jillian. She felt like a circus act.

Jillian felt her eyes well-up in tears. “Ji-wi-an Wester. Not Jiwian Wester!” She started to feel her quivery voice raise and began to panic that the woman behind the glass would judge her more than she already was. This was exactly why Jillian was here at the clerk’s office to change her name. She couldn’t deal with the embarrassment of not being able to pronounce it anymore. She couldn’t deal with the arguments that came each time she introduced herself to someone new. She felt a cauldron of rage in her begin to boil and took a deep breath.

“Have you ever heard of the name Jiwian before? Why would my name by Jiwian?” Jillian elevated her pitch as she grabbed her license out of her purse and pressed it up to the glass, “See? Jiwian Wester!”

The woman’s eyes scanned Jillian’s license and a smirk slowly drew on her face. “Jillian Lester, your number fifty-seven. Have a seat and wook for your number to come up on the screen.”

Jillian was caught off guard by the woman’s clear insertion of wook instead of look. How can people be so cruel? she thought to herself. She closed her eyes and felt the boiling inside her begin to bubble up. Flushed and sweaty, she took the license from the glass and placed it back in her purse. She drew a deep breath to gather herself together before finding an empty seat in the middle of the crowded room.

As she sat down, she felt her phone vibrate and grabbed it out of her purse. She had just received a new rating: Jillian Lester received a one-star review from Janice Dawson.

Janice Dawson? Jillian thought to herself, who could that be? She squinted and looked up at the name tag of the woman sitting behind the glass who was now helping an elderly man with thick, black glasses. She could scarcely make out the small writing on her black and yellow nametag: Janice D. Janice glanced up at Jillian and looked away quickly, her face turning red, clearly caught. Jillian had been given a lot of one-star reviews in the past. But the nerve of Janice to rate her poorly while Jillian was still sitting in front of her? That was a whole new level of low.

Jillian opened her Ratebook App and found Janice Dawson’s profile. She knew the rules: you were not supposed to give someone a low rating just because they gave you a low rating. In other words, no spite-rating allowed. But this was not a spite-rating. Janice was rude. Jillian’s fingers hovered over the stars under Janice’s profile picture, debating if she should give her one or two stars. Normally, Jillian didn’t give any rating below a three. But after being mocked and given this one-star review, Jillian needed vengeance. She pushed the one-star button before she could second guess herself and closed her eyes, feeling a bead of sweat trickle down her temple.

Tentatively, she opened her right eye and then her left one, staring directly at Janice behind the glass as she picked up her phone, looked down at it, and then up at Jillian. Jillian smirked at her and then looked back down at her phone in frustration. Janice’s rating had moved Jillian’s overall Ratebook score to two/five stars. Almost every single low score Jillian had received was because she had gotten into an argument because she could not pronounce her name correctly.

People always asked Jillian how her parents could have given her a name with so many L’s. And she always responded with how could her parents have known when they named her that she wouldn’t have been able to pronounce her L’s? They had named her what they named her. And now she was a twenty-four-year-old with a speech impediment and a bad rating.

Jillian looked up at the screen above her, “Number thirty-three,” she mumbled to herself, dreading the long wait time in the cramped room.

The elderly man with the thick glasses who had been speaking to Janice turned and sat down next to Jillian, giving her a friendly smile. Jillian forced a smile back and looked back at her phone, scrolling through her recent ratings.

“Ratebook, huh?” the man asked pointing down at her phone.

Jillian looked up at the man in surprise and a little irritation that he was snooping in her business. “Uh huh,” she said and quickly glanced back down at her phone, hoping he was not going to chat with her. She didn’t need another bad rating today.

“Back in my day, people didn’t give ratings to one another,” he told her as he took his glasses off and cleaned the lenses off with the bottom of his shirt.

Jillian raised her eyes up towards him. She had heard this speech all before from her grandparents. How individuals didn’t used to rate one another. People could curse one another out, say a rude comment, butt in line, and no one could do anything to damage their reputation.

“When I was growing up, phones were for calling, taking photos, and using the internet. I don’t know how you kids do it now-and-days. You can’t get away with anything, can you?” he asked her, giving her a little wink.

Jillian perked up and smiled at his friendliness. “Your tewing me about it,” she agreed, showing him her phone. “Wook. Two out of five stars. You can’t get much worse than that. Even some murderers have better ratings than me.”

The man put his glasses back on and looked down at Jillian’s phone, squinting. “Only two stars for a pretty, young woman like yourself?” he asked her, looking her over in curiosity, “That can’t be right.”

“When you have a speech impediment and can’t pronounce your own name, it causes a wot of mishaps,” Jillian explained.

“Lambdacism,” the doctor had told her parents when she had been diagnosed with the condition at the age of ten. “It should go away with age and speech therapy.” But it had not, in fact, gone away with age and speech therapy. Not at all.

Eyebrows raised, the man frowned at Jillian, clearly hearing her impediment for the first time. “What’s your name dear?” he asked her with a look of genuine concern on his face.

Jillian reached into her purse and took out her license to show him.

He took the card from her and then chuckled to himself after reading it. “God really does have a sense of humor, doesn’t he, Jillian?” he asked as he handed the license back to her.

“He sure does,” she agreed as she put the license back into her purse and held up her phone again. “Every time I meet someone new, I have to try to expwain my name. And nine out of ten times, it ends up in me getting a bad review.”

The man shook his head in dismay. “What this world is coming to. My mother would roll over in her grave.”

“So that’s why I’m here today. I’m changing my name,” Jillian announced to him, feeling proud of her bravery. She hadn’t even told her parents yet that she was changing her name. She was sure they wouldn’t like it that she was banishing the Lester name from the family forever, her being their only child.

The man’s eyes lit up and he looked at Jillian in surprise. “Changing your name? To what?” he asked.

“Emma Webb,” Jillian said matter-of-factly. “Do you know how many names have wetters I can’t pronounce? A wot. Emma Webb is perfect,” she repeated the name again. How sweet it was to be able to say her new name correctly without messing it up.

“Emma Webb is a beautiful name,” the man said, frowning at Jillian as he noticed a tear creeping out of her eye. He pointed down towards her phone. “What happens to Jillian Lester’s rating once you become Emma Webb?”

Jillian glanced down at her phone, digesting his question. “Well, I’d have to open up a new account I guess,” she said shrugging her shoulders.

“So, Emma Webb gets a fresh start then on Ratebook, huh?” he asked her.

Jillian grinned, in realization. “Yea, I guess she does,” she responded.

“And you are changing your name today?” he asked, pointing up to the number forty-five that flashed up on the screen.

“That’s the pwan,” she said, nodding her head.

“So, Jillian could do anything she wanted right now…get any rating…and it wouldn’t matter? Because Emma is starting fresh?”

Jillian’s eyes lit up. “Yes…” she said slowly, looking around the room.

“What are you going to have for your last meal?” he asked her, grinning ear to ear.

Jillian’s heart was racing in an excitement she hadn’t ever felt before. All her life she had to follow the rules. Make people happy in fear of getting a bad review. But she was about to get a blank slate. She was about to clear her record. She looked over at the man, needing someone’s approval first.

“Do it,” he urged, smiling at her.

Jillian stood up and walked towards Janice’s desk, butting in front of the lady speaking to her.

“Hey,” the lady exclaimed, eyeing up Jillian in judgement.

“Hey yoursef!” Jillian said. She directed her eyes towards Janice and pointed her finger towards the glass. “The next time you rate someone badwy for having a speech impediment, maybe you should think about how it is going to affect them! How dare you give me a one-star rating for not being abwe to say my name! And how dare you mock me!”

Janice’s eyes widened in surprised as Jillian turned and walked back to her seat before stopping towards the mother of the two girls who had been giggling at her. “And you! You are supposed to be raising those wittwe girws to be kind humans, and you wet them gawk and waugh at me. What kind of mother are you?” Jillian pointed her finger at the woman as she grabbed her little girls and pulled them close to her.

Jillian turned to the room of people, now all staring at her in astonishment. “Each and every one of you! You just rate and rate peopwe aw day without thinking about how it is going to make them feew! Wew, wet me tew you, it feews pretty terribwe!” Jillian began to cry as she walked back over to her seat next to the old man, feeling tears stream down her face. She felt the man’s hand pat her back as she cried into her hands. It reminded her of when her grandpa used to put his arm around her back when she was little.

“Shh, get it all out,” he whispered to her as she cried. “They all deserved it.”

The chatter in the room began to pick back up and Jillian felt her phone buzzing in her purse. Ratebook. Her two-star rating was going down quickly after that performance. But for the first time in her life, she didn’t care.

“I think you’re up,” the old man took his hand off her back and pointed towards the screen. Jillian’s eyes rose to the number ahead of her: fifty-seven.

She widened her eyes and stood up, grabbing her purse from the ground. She turned towards the man before she walked towards the door.

“I didn’t get your name,” she said.

“Matthew Schneider,” he said, “But don’t bother rating me. I don’t use it. No need for it at my age.”

Jillian nodded, understanding that once you retired and owned a house, there wasn’t much need for Ratebook anymore. Once you got to a certain age, it didn’t matter what people thought of you. Must be nice, she thought.

“But don’t worry, Emma Webb,” he continued, “when I see you walk back out of that door, I am going to be the first person to give you a five-star review.” He gave her a wink and she felt her face flush.

“Thank you, Matthew,” Jillian said before she walked towards the clerk’s office to become Emma Webb. “See you on the other side.” 

April 14, 2022 17:17

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16 comments

Graham Kinross
15:04 Apr 29, 2022

This reminds of of the talk show host Jonathan Ross who can’t pronounce r sounds but it hasn’t held him back. I’ve heard there are systems like this in place now in a more watered down way to ensure the loyalty of citizens to the dictatorship. It’s not about rating the person in that system but their obedience. Horrible stuff. This is more hopeful somehow than the idea behind it. There’s an episode of Community about a similar concept, have you seen it? The episode is called App Development and Condiments.

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Kathleen Fine
22:56 May 22, 2022

Thanks Graham! I haven't seen that episode or that show but I will check it out!

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Tommy Goround
07:43 Apr 26, 2022

Thank you.

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Sharon Hancock
01:37 Apr 19, 2022

Omg you have the best most unique ideas for stories! And they always have this clear, endearing quality that is so rare. I enjoyed this so much. It’s not much different from what we do now with that “like” button, but still unnerving to think about. And she was right to fuss at everyone. Poor girl. I felt her empowerment from changing her name , though and that’s awesome. 😻

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Kathleen Fine
18:04 Apr 19, 2022

Sharon, thanks so much for the compliment! And I agree, It is not so much different from what we do now. I was going to mark this as, "sci-fi", but it's probably too near in our future for that!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
00:28 Apr 19, 2022

Terrifying concept, but we probably aren't that far from that anyway, right? Great story premise and extremely well executed. Jillian is an excellent protagonist, and Matthew, the wise sage. The interaction between them is lovely. There's also a lovely 'go-get-em' message in here about if you don't like something, change it! We are not trees!

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Kathleen Fine
18:05 Apr 19, 2022

Yes, I was going to mark this as "Sci-fi", but felt it wasn't far off from reality, so I didn't!

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Aeris Walker
20:43 Apr 18, 2022

I was expecting this to go in a totally different direction—maybe the old man would give her a pep talk, tell her she was special, all the warm fuzzies, and I thought she’d end up keeping her name—but I love what you did so much better. Jillian’s reactions were totally believable. And what an original idea with “ratebook.” Good job.

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Kathleen Fine
18:05 Apr 19, 2022

Thanks Aeris!

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Michał Przywara
16:22 Apr 15, 2022

This is a fun story with a terrifying premise. Not the speech impediment, but the omnipresent computerized rating -- very dystopian. Jillian/Emma is easy to root for though, and I'm sure most people can relate to her admonishing the others. Getting the last word like that is a common justice fantasy. I liked the line "When I was growing up, phones were for calling, taking photos, and using the internet", even though it makes me feel old :P I also liked "Jillian nodded, understanding that once you retired and owned a house, there wasn’t mu...

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Kathleen Fine
18:06 Apr 19, 2022

Thanks so much for your feedback Michal! And yes, very dystopian, but not too far off from reality!

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Lavonne H.
23:01 Apr 14, 2022

Jillian is a strong woman who shows her mettle in your story. And Matthew is definitely the male who is not threatened by a strong woman. Kudos to both of your characters and to the story line. You deserve 5 stars! Yours in writing, Lavonne

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Kathleen Fine
18:06 Apr 19, 2022

Thanks as always Lavonne! :)

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❀Leo Fall❀
20:16 Apr 14, 2022

We love confidence. Very inspirational story, I think. Wonderful job writing it.

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Kathleen Fine
18:06 Apr 19, 2022

Thanks so much B.E.E.!

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❀Leo Fall❀
18:16 Apr 19, 2022

Of course!

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