“Alan!” Athena’s voice echoed inside Alan’s brain, ping-ponging its way between his ear drums. Alan realized he had been staring at a box of cereal turned backwards on its rickety metal shelf. Alan glanced over at Athena who was standing next to him in the grocery store aisle. Alan didn’t really think of it as a grocery store though. There wasn’t produce or meat; really, anything fresh was lacking. Alan looked back at the box of cereal.
“Get out of your head, Alan. We don’t have much time left to get stuff before curfew,” Athena coaxed.
But Alan couldn’t get out of his head because he was still conflicted about what Marshall told him earlier at work. How could someone pick this life for themselves voluntarily? Alan contemplated that some special form of madness was constricting Marshall, pressing him into compulsory labor.
“You get out of my head,” Alan chided, his eyes slowly turning back to look at her.
“I’m not, but don’t make me,” Athena said, an innocent smile.
Alan didn’t wait for her to finish and changed the subject to something that was bothering him.
“When Marshall said we were going to a grocery store, I thought maybe it would have… groceries,” Alan said with a wry grin. Athena gave a short chuckle and looked at their aisle, sparsely filled with mostly boxed cereals and snack foods. The aisles to either side were also compromised of mostly canned foods and other snack foods that lasted a long time.
“Yeah, and they don’t replenish the stock very often. Just don’t lose your toothpaste. They charge an arm and a leg for it.”
“Oh, was I supposed to be brushing my teeth?” Alan joked, and he picked up a box of cereal. Athena punched Alan in the arm playfully. Alan feigned a groan of pain at her fist, cereal shaking around in its box.
“Stop!” Athena laughed, and she put Alan’s box of cereal back onto the shelf. “And you don’t want that. Especially if you won’t be brushing your teeth for the foreseeable future. It’ll rot your teeth, and we can’t ruin that cute smile, can we?”
“Cute smile?” Alan questioned, his smile ear to ear. Athena felt the blood rush to her reddening face. What seemed like an hour was merely a few seconds before Marshall came jogging into the aisle with a basket full of mac and cheese boxes.
“Guys! Mac!” Marshall showed them his haul, his outstretched hands holding up a plastic orange basket filled with an odd assortment of blue boxes with macaroni scrawled in elegant cursive. They rattled as he shook the basket, enthralled with his find. “They never have mac and cheese. This is the best day.” Alan was still taken aback by Marshall’s revelation early, and now he was aghast that Marshall hardly seemed to care or remember what they had talked about before. Alan didn’t realize he was giving Marshall a weird look until he noticed Marshall giving him the same look back. Athena had been talking in the void of conversation about missing chocolate, specifically dark chocolate in squares, when she noticed the two men were exchanging glances.
“Do I need to give you two a minute?” Athena asked, hands on her hips. Alan and Marshall looked at each other, not sure what the other was thinking. The one who could read minds didn’t much feel like doing it, and she was losing her patience with the deaf and mute routine.
“I can go back to the bus. Nothing looks good to me anyway,” Athena pointed out to the entrance where the bus, and most of the crew, were waiting. Alan nodded. It seemed like the only thing his mind was capable of doing. Athena grabbed a box of cereal, a brain type, and dropped it into Alan’s basket.
“That’s the stupid tax, I’ll see you two boys back at the bus.”
Athena walked out the door, the doorway chiming as she exited. Marshall looked down at the brain distastefully.
“That looks like crap-,” Marshall started, but Alan cut him off mid sentence.
“Are we going to talk about your little reveal earlier? Or are you just going to leave it at, ‘I chose to be here’?”
Marshall cleared his throat. It was a slip up, plain and simple. He’d gotten too comfortable with Alan. Alan had this way of smiling, listening, that made a person want to tell things – secrets – that weren’t meant to be shared.
“Listen, kid, don’t take my words and make them more than what they were,” Marshall said plainly, “I spoke out of turn, and I don’t want you to take what I said as some deep, dark secret to fill up the hours of your mundane workday. Let’s just leave it at that. It’s nothing. It’s not important to you.”
“Fine,” Alan replied, stone-faced but annoyed. “I’ll pretend I never heard it. Let’s get out of here.”
Marshall didn’t believe Alan was going to give up that easily, but he did know that the bus was about to leave without them so it didn’t bother him much to leave it where it was for the time being. The two checked out and got back on the bus, and the computer signaled for everyone to sit down.
The bus was full, and people were chatting as the sun sat leisurely right above its final rest for the night. The orange light cast a line across the horizon as the bus made its way back to the 308’s compound.
Athena was telling Alan about her old cat. If the stories were true, her cat was the smelliest cat in all the world. In fact, at one point Athena mistook him for garbage in the middle of the night. She tried to put him in the can, but as soon as she had grabbed the tail, all hell broke loose. Alan had laughed all the way through the riotous tale of the smelliest cat, and so did Athena.
“Do you have stories from back home, Alan?” Athena asked. Alan smiled.
“Yeah, I have stories. I had a childhood,” Alan said jokingly.
“Sometimes we forget,” Athena replied, her eyes looking out at the sun setting. “It can be easier that way.” “But who would want to forget about your garbage cat?”
Athena smiled brightly, a smile Alan didn’t recognize. Maybe it was the smile Athena wanted to share, or the one she never would. When she realized Alan was looking at her, she stopped immediately.
“Your turn. Tell me a story,” Athena said. Alan turned his body toward her, and looked in her green eyes. He remembered this one time…
“Who’s Elizabeth?” Athena asked quizzically.
Alan wasn’t sure what happened first: the swerve or the collision. Either way the bus that was carrying them ended up colliding with a car and sliding against a railing on the road back to the compound. Sparks flew through the air, and people screamed. But not Alan. He’d witnessed this before.
The bus was careening toward a large oak tree off the side of the road, going at least sixty miles per hour. Alan held his hand out and felt the air brakes screech from the overload. Alan felt the front of the truck: the metal fender, the wheels, the frame. He felt its pulse, the magnetic field. He pressed his mind as far as it could go. The bus groaned to a halt, not three inches from the massive oak.
The crew all seemed to exhale at the same time. Alan didn’t look at his friends, but out the back of the bus at the car they had struck. Alan ran out of the bus wreck and across the street to a small sedan bent up against the railing.
DMP buses were programmed to avoid human vehicles at all costs, even at the expense of the bus and its occupants. But a person could strike a DMP bus if it really wanted to, or if someone had lost control.
Alan looked down at the woman slumped over in the sedan, a bloody air bag ballooned up against her face. Her long brown hair scattered in strands around the bag, mixed with blood and fragments of the steering wheel. The blood in Alan’s veins ran cold, and he could perceive some of it ran out as well. His arm throbbed, bathed in dark blood in the early moonlight.
Alan tried to forget. He thought serving his time would dull the memories. But even now she was one the surface, easy enough for Athena to pluck the name out of the air.
“Alan,” it was Athena, standing a few feet away, between Alan and the bus. Alan felt a shiver down his spine, his hairs on his arms standing up. His arm hurt like hell, now that the shock was wearing thin.
“Is everybody okay?” Alan asked.
“More or less.”
Alan didn’t look back, his eyes still set on the woman in the car. She didn’t look much older than twenty, a bottle of alcohol propped up in her dashboard, broken in half.
“Why would she-?” Alan managed to grumble out of his mouth, his throat hoarse and tight. Inside the compound, outside the compound, nothing felt real anymore. Everything was some grand illusion of reality. Everything until this.
“- drink?” Athena finished the sentence. Alan clenched his teeth. Senseless was what it was. Free, not free. Everybody was somehow in prisons of their own. Alan mused that whether he had gone to the 308 or not, he’d still be locked away in some respect. Like the woman who had drank until she couldn’t have the sense to keep on the road, Alan would’ve dulled his memories some other way. Sirens faintly skipped across the hills in the distance, the red and blue lights of the police heading their way. They would soon be back in the compound, left wondering what had really transpired out on the road that evening. The only person who could’ve told them would never speak again.
“Alan,” Athena spoke up, her voice shaky. Alan looked back at Athena. Her eyes were kind; kind and compassionate. “Alan, who’s Elizabeth?”