Alan didn’t eat well at dinner that night. He almost forgot to eat at all. Arriving late, he got the bottom of the barrel so it wasn’t exactly hard to lackadaisically poke at his food. Alan had zoned out to such an extent that he didn’t notice when Marshall sat down next to him with Athena.
“Hey, kid. I told you not to be later,” Marshall quipped, looking down at Alan’s slop.
“Huh?” Alan looked up as if snapped out of his hypnosis. Athena rolled her eyes in a light, playful manner and went back to eating her pudding. “I was just…”
“I remember my first day too,” Marshall joked and slapped Alan on the back, a bit too hard for him. Alan coughed a bit and went back to poking at his food. “It gets better. Well, it gets easier.”
“It doesn’t,” Athena retorted, her eyes on her pudding. “But you can trick yourself for long enough.”
“Thanks,” Alan replied sarcastically.
“I’m just being honest, Alan. This place doesn’t change. You change. We all change. Enough to get through another day. Sometimes that’s enough.”
“Athena,” Marshall said, his voice sounding paternal.
“Marshall, stop patronizing him. He knows what situation we’re in. To say otherwise is to treat him like a kid, and he’s not. None of us are anymore. We don’t have that luxury. And don’t tell me I’m being pessimistic.”
“Get out of my head, Athena,” Marshall replied in a calm, but firm manner.
“I’m not in your head, Marshall. We agreed I wouldn’t do that to you. But I’ve known you long enough to know when we’re in for another Marshall sunshine speech, and I’m not having it today. Nick was an idiot, but he was our idiot. And I know, Alan didn’t mean to get him in trouble, but he did.”
She was a reader. Alan didn’t think to ask before, but now it was right in front of him. Athena could read people’s minds. Could she read his mind too?
“Only what’s on the surface,” Athena replied out loud to Alan’s thought, “But I try not to do it. It doesn’t seem polite.”
“Athena,” Marshall said, his voice repentant. Athena pushed herself away from the table.
“Don’t worry about it, Marshall. I wasn’t that hungry. I’m going to take a walk.”
Athena left Alan and Marshall alone at the cafeteria table.
“That would’ve been good to know about Athena,” Alan lectured Marshall. “I mean what if…”
“Kid… Alan, if Athena wanted to know something about you, she’d figure out how to get it. But she doesn’t care. So don’t worry about it. I would’ve told you if it had crossed my mind. Enjoy your dinner.”
Marshall got up and left the cafeteria, leaving Alan alone to ponder his slop.

After dinner, Alan took a walk around the complex, seeing how people kept their rooms. Nothing seemed different from his own stark room. A few people had colorful curtains instead of the drab gray ones that were in his room, but everything else seemed the same. He saw a few guys standing around in one of the doorways, mostly a few guys from the Magnets group. They gave Alan rude glares, and he guessed they had been friends with Nick. They dispersed and Alan saw that it had been Nick’s room they were standing around.
Alan stood in front of Nick’s room, somehow hoping he would just appear in the doorway and punch Alan’s lights out. But the doorway was empty. The door was opened, and the room had been stripped of any sense of living. The bathroom light was on, and all Alan could see was a mattress without its sheets. It was as naked as his heart felt. Back home when he ran his mouth or took a joke too far, he’d get popped in the face and that would be it. Now, Alan was responsible for a man being locked up. Well, more locked up than he already was.
Alan felt like he was fourteen again, waiting for his parents to come home from a date. But this time they weren’t coming home. In fact, they weren’t coming back, and they had abandoned Alan in this purgatory between the real world and death.
Alan didn’t realize he had garnered Marshall’s attention, who was walking back to his room that evening. Marshall could tell something was bothering Alan, and he knew what it was.
“Kid, if you didn’t show up to work today. Heck, if you never showed up to our camp ever, someone would’ve set Nick off; and he’d be seeing the Board anyway. Did you stop to wonder how he got the first two strikes? Sometimes you can’t stop people from doing what they want to do, and sometimes what they want to do is be self-righteous, or angry, or in charge. And you can’t fix people if they don’t want to be fixed. Nick Bradford had his issues long before you messed with his beam.
“Don’t think about how you can control his situation. You don’t owe him the patience. I can’t count how many times I tried to help Nick; kept him from getting caught, tried to work with him on his temper. He never wanted to get right. He got comfortable being a jerk, and he didn’t feel like changing. Now, I don’t know where he’s gone, but if they just moved him to a new camp; it’ll be the same there. If he’s not… well, if he’s not, then that’s on him. He knows the world we live in. You didn’t send Nick away, kid. That’s just how things are here, and Nick knew that already, and he still chose his path. Now, go to bed before lights out. You already have one strike.”

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