While at the beach you decide to write a message in a bottle. What would it say? Who would you like to find it?
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.”
“Welcome to Work Precinct 308,” the robotic voice chimed from the self-driving car’s dashboard.
The car stopped softly, the windows slowly transitioned from opaque to transparent, and Alan saw his new home for the foreseeable future. It was an old apartment complex, mostly concrete with soft edges, with blacked out windows and strong metal doors with bars. The front office was designed like a hotel with an awning resting just over the car Alan was in.
“Please exit the vehicle.”
The door opened without Alan’s effort. Alan grabbed his bag and stepped out into the dry air. The front office of the complex was the only thing not surrounded by a concrete wall. It was the only entrance and exit for the entire campus. The front desk’s windows were tinted, but Alan could make out that someone was coming toward the front door.
The door swung open, and a short, stocky man came out with a clipboard and a wicked mustache. He looked down at his brown clipboard, his facial hair wagging back and forth.
“That’s what they call me,” Alan joked. The man looked up from his clipboard with deathly annoyance. He made a check mark on the paper, and pointed at Alan’s bag.
“Bring your things in here,” the man said gruffly, and then stomped back into the front office lobby.
The room was unadorned, save for a lone plant. The white tiled floor was scuffed and the grout was filled with dirt in aging cracks. A small desk was at the back wall, a stack of papers sloppily hanging off the edge facing Alan. The papers were a mixture of white forms and red slips.
“My name is Randall Finch. People around here just call me Finch. I don’t care what you call me, just follow the rules. Don’t leave the building without telling me, and you’ll be fine. Don’t invite people to the building, and you’ll be fine. Don’t tell people on the outside where you live, and you’ll be fine. Don’t bring liquor or drugs into the building, and you’ll be fine. Don’t leave your room after lights out, and you’ll be fine. Give me your red slip, and let’s get this over with.”
Alan held out the paper and Finch tore it out of his hands. Finch looked over the red paper, made some notes then began filling out the paperwork on his clipboard with the red slip guiding him. His pen marks were hard and swift, much like the rest of his actions. He didn’t have time for the new guy’s jokes. Jokes got people in trouble. Then they got shipped out to the processing center and had to deal with the board of directors. Finch, whether he wanted to admit it or not, did care about the people brought into his unit, and he didn’t desire to see them go before the board. He wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy.
Alan noticed beyond the desk was the door that led out into the courtyard of the complex. There were people hanging out in the green patch of land, the only green patch Alan could remember seeing in his journey to his new home. A few palm trees surrounded a circular grass area with an empty swimming pool. But Alan didn’t realize he was staring at a group of guys who were sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the courtyard, but they had noticed. The men looked at each other and got up from there seats, pushing their way into the lobby.
“Hey, baby bird, who’s the new guy?” the apparent leader of the group asked.
“Baby bird?” Alan said, setting a sideways glance at Finch. Finch rolled his eyes.
“Shut up, new guy. I’m talking to baby bird.”
Finch clenched his teeth and pointed at his clipboard, “I don’t have time for this, Castor. I need to input him in the system so I can clock out. Why don’t you take your entourage back to the courtyard.”
Castor didn’t like that. He grabbed Finch by the arm, Castor’s hand turning red hot. Finch winced, his arm heating up and blistering.
“Don’t you ever tell me what to do,” Castor said angrily. Finch struggled, but Castor wrenched Finch’s arm back and tightened his burning grip. “You normies just think you’re better than us. I don’t like the way you look down on me.”
“Castor, let him go.”
Castor looked at the back wall where a tall, muscular man was standing in the courtyard doorway. Alan released his fist, and the desk gently came back down onto the floor without everyone noticing. Everyone, except for Marshall, the man in the doorway. He was subtly looking at the desk, when Castor finally let Finch go. Alan looked at Finch’s arm, red finger marks burned into his flesh. Finch picked up his clipboard off the ground and started making notes.
“That’s another strike for you, Castor. One more, and you’ll have to be processed.”
“Don’t test me, baby bird,” Castor sneered, and he nodded to his guys. “I’ll catch you later, newbie.”
Marshall watched, unmoving, as Castor and his friends went back out into the courtyard. Once they were outside, Marshall relaxed his posture and turned his attention to Alan, who was anxiously standing in the middle of the room.
“You’ll have to forgive Castor, kid. He wasn’t blessed with an abundance of intelligence. You okay, Finch?”
Finch nodded, exhaling a breath of relief. “I’m fine. But Castor? Castor’s on his last warning. And we know what comes after that.”
“Let me worry about Castor,” Marshall said, his eyes staring back at the courtyard. “So who’s the new kid?”
“Alan Mitchell. Just got shipped here from…” Finch looked down at his paperwork.
“The 305 I guess,” Alan replied. Finch looked up from his clipboard.
“Yeah… the 305,” Finch said with a look of displeasure on his face. “Anyway, I’m going to file this paperwork. Alan’s in room 224b. Can you show him around, Marshall?”
Marshall looked at Alan, sizing him up with a discerning eye. “Sure thing, Finch. Come on, kid. Let’s see if we can get you into some trouble.”
“No trouble,” Finch chided as Marshall and Mitchell walked through to the courtyard, where Castor was still sulking. Marshall put a hand on Alan’s shoulder and pointed around the area. It was more a sign to Castor that Marshall was looking out for the kid than a genuine act of friendship, but Alan appreciated it anyway.
“The cafeteria is down at the end of the courtyard here. Mostly just the old high school stuff. Pizza day on Friday, so that doesn’t completely suck. We go grocery shopping in groups on Wednesday, so you’ll want to use your credits to get snacks then. They’ll bring you soap and toothpaste and that kind of stuff, so don’t waste your credits on it in the store. Your room is on the second floor.”
Marshall ushered Alan up a metal staircase blasted with white paint, chips of it flaking in well-trafficked areas. They finally got to his room, and Marshall showed him in. The room was a single bed, wrapped in white sheets with brown carpeting on the floor and a small bathroom. It was about as dingy a hotel room as Alan could remember seeing before. He looked back at the front door.
“No lock?” Alan asked.
“Nope. Nobody has locks. It seems kinda pointless since we’re not allowed to leave and there’s cameras all over the place. If someone steals your stuff just let me know. We tend to take care of matters on our own. Keeps the board out of it.”
“I heard Finch mention them earlier. They don’t sound great.”
Marshall stopped for a moment, looking out the curtain draped window of the room. Castor’s friends had left and they had been replaced with a group talking down at the empty swimming pool, their legs dangling over the edge. Marshall seemed to be thinking about something far off.
“No. They aren’t ‘great.’ If you see the board, then you’re screwed. So don’t get yourself into trouble. Anything else?”
Marshall asked the question more for himself, his eyes pensively looking to the popcorn ceiling trying to muster another thought. He snapped his fingers and pointed at Alan, a big grin on his face.
“Marshall and Mitchell. That’s us, kid. Anyway, that was the whole show. You need anything from me?”
Alan shook his head, so Marshall went for the exit.
“Wait. What do we do here?” Alan asked. No one had ever told him. Since the received his red slip, no one had told him what exactly he was in for. Marshall turned around, his face showing a disappointed frown.
“It’s a work camp, kid. We do what they tell us to do.”
Marshall’s voice was compassionate for Alan, and sad for all the people working in the 308. It was a work camp; there wasn’t more to it than that.
“Dinner’s at 6. Don’t be late. If you can believe it, the food gets worse.”