Help I'm Alive
To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have ever known half the things I learn under Day’s tutelage, and though I don’t tell him I think the kid knows I’m grateful for his help. When I tell him I’m eighteen, his reaction is interesting: he doesn’t laugh except for a little, and mostly tells me that he’s sorry genetics had it out for me.
It’s the first laugh I make since that day in the alley that feels so long ago, and it feels nice.
He sits beside me on my bunk and explains to me how the camp works, as well as the schedule we have to follow; he’d woken me up maybe an hour after I curled in my bed, and though I’d been a bit grumpy about it I eventually became able to function.
The people here range in age, the youngest being about eight from what he tells me, and the oldest maybe twenty. Most of them keep to themselves much like I was doing, and some form a kind of “gang” if you will that takes advantage of the quiet types. They fight amongst themselves and pick fights with just about anyone, and he tells me to stay as far away from them; he says I’ll be able to recognise them when I see them.
Day also warns me about the kinds of crimes that are seen as good and bad here: felons who stole and vandalised fall under the radar, and others who assaulted or raped someone are seen in a very negative light and get treated like hell. When I ask him what murderers get treated like, he simply waves his hand sideways in front of his neck, pantomiming cutting it off a few times.
I get the message.
He simply tells me that the last one who let it slip that he was here for murder found himself in an unfortunate accident that had the guards cart his body away. I shudder.
At seven thirty in the morning, we’re made to get out of bed and brought to the cafeteria for what Day calls a gourmet breakfast in a sarcastic fashion, throwing his arms out with a mocking grin and a roll of his eyes; then we come back here, change into our work clothes, and take care of whatever task we’re assigned that day. There are three segments: kitchen duty, latrines, and field work. He tells me that I’ll quickly realise that field work is almost as bad as getting picked for guinea pig duty, but only better than that in the sense that it’s better than getting poked and prodded by a whole medley of things.
After work, which lasts about seven hours starting at eight thirty, we have a two hour break that runs until five thirty, where dinner is then offered for an hour and a half, a shower block of about an hour, and an hour of relaxation before lights out.
He offers to show me around tomorrow during the break, and I take his offer gratefully just before he stands and tells me that we’d better get to the cafeteria before the line gets too long. I’d changed back into the clothes I came in, so I simply follow Day out somewhat hesitantly, remembering his advice as I keep pace with him.
As long as I don’t make eye contact, I should be fine and will probably fall under the radar. Maybe.
As long as I don’t tell anyone why I’m here; I didn’t even tell Day, too worried about what he would do even though he looks relatively kind, but he didn’t tell me why he’s here so I don’t tell him. I get the impression that people don’t talk about it much here.
Day leads me through the main hub packed with what feels like a thousand other bodies all talking, but I don’t get the impression that anyone here really feels among friends. Apparently, from Day’s account, it’s not uncommon to get stabbed here if you cross someone, and the guards don’t really care much about it; they just get rid of the body, and intervene only when it gets really out of hand.
The turrets, he says, stop people from overtly stabbing each other regardless.
So I follow him through a set of hydraulic doors locked open that leads us into the same hallway the guard led me through, and we take a right and then a left as the hallway snaps at a sharp angle to follow the length of the building. The right side is made out of glass that looks bulletproof, and displays a view of the fence surrounding the compound; the sun is setting, painting the world red outside, and I tear my eyes away from the sight and try not to bump into anyone.
We reach the cafeteria after a few minutes, and Day and I follow the line for a while. Even in here, the air is a mixture of hostility and amicability that makes my head spin, a headache blossoming behind my eyes; I rub the bridge of my nose, sighing heavily, and I wonder if I’ll actually get used to this kind of routine the way Day seems to have done.
I have my bets set on the fact that I might actually be lucky enough to die quickly, but I doubt lady luck is on my side much anymore.
When we reach the counter Day tells me to let the scanner read the bar code on my hand, and when the green light runs over the black mark it stings a moment as it beeps in affirmation and I get moved along, handed a tray and, later, a… well, something sitting on a plate. I don’t quite know what it is, and along with it I’m given a spoon and a glass of water before Day leads me away to a nondescript table at the far end, well away from some of the tables already busy with activity.
I sit in front of him, looking around despite my apprehension, and Day snorts and waves at me with his spoon to get my attention.
“Trust me, Cas, you don’t want them to think you’re too curious. I’ve known you less than three hours and I already know that you wouldn’t survive five minutes against one of them,” he says casually, and I reluctantly look down to the unappetising mess on my plate.
“I’m not trying to pick a fight,” I protest, picking up my spoon and poking the strange, slightly grey blob and watching my spoon sink into it as I make a face. “Trust me when I say that’s the last thing I want to do.”
Who knows what would happen this time? I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I find out just how terrifying I can be; since that day, I’ve had nightmares about it. It haunts me, just like I knew it would.
Who’s the ghost now?
The worst part is that I still don’t know his name. I don’t know what he looked like, who he was; in my memory, he’s just… a shadow backlit by the sunlight, towering above me. He could be anyone.
“Well, let me give you a warning, then,” he continues, happily digging into the meal as if it’s the greatest thing he’s ever had. I suppose that at some point, you get used to it; so, swallowing my pride, I take a bite and feel my insides curl in a little bit.
It’s a weird texture, kind of like pre-chewed puree and then spat out again before being served, and reminds me of how my grandmother had the habit of turning everything into a puree soup that most often had me sitting in the bathroom for hours. The taste is just as strange, a mixture of salt and something dry, as well as something that probably should have a lot of flavour but got killed by everything else. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not good and is a step shy of what grandma Heather makes.
Not a pleasant reminder.
“If they wear a scarf or headband, do not get their attention in any way, shape, or form,” Day continues lowly, and I glance back up at him. “If they call you, ignore them and walk quickly the other way. Those guys will make your life a living hell.”
I nod uneasily, looking to my left when Day looks in that direction as well when a shout erupts; there’s a guy with shoulder-length black hair tied into a messy ponytail pinning another kid to the wall, shouting at him to repeat what he just said. Day looks away and looks quite interested in his regurgitated meal, but I keep my gaze on the display just a little longer.
Whatever the kid chokes out makes the guy angry, and he throws the kid on the ground; I wince, remembering what that feels like, and I realise Day is looking at me curiously so I turn my attention back to him and arch an eyebrow.
“Yeah, point in case,” he states around a mouthful, gesturing with his head to the nameless thug. “That guy’s all around bad news, believe me. Out of everyone here, I daresay he’s the worst of us – he commands respect through fear, and no one knows what he’s in for but he has this bad habit of trying to set things on fire so it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
I look back out of the corner of my eyes to the guy towering over the kid, yelling something at him I can’t understand despite the sudden hush in the crowded room; then he kicks the kid and tells him to get the fuck out of his sight.
Making a face, I look back to my tray and try to swallow the lump in my throat. My appetite has vanished, but I force a little more of the slop down, knowing that I’m going to need it even though I’m not too happy about it. When I push my half-empty tray away, my stomach lurching in protest at last, Day takes it after a curious inquiry and I gladly let him take it.
Instead, I sit there with a hand on my forehead and try to will my headache away; now more than ever I kind of just want to disappear, just become invisible and maybe turn into the ghost I’ve been accused of being. My stomach is protesting at the meal, even after I down the water, and when Day finishes we take our trays back and he leads me through the crowd in the hallway back to our room.
I get shoved around a bit, as does Day, but for the most part this just feels like a routine to me – something I’ve had to live with for years, so I’m quickly numbing myself to this. I can tell some of these people are looking to maybe give themselves a reason to pick a fight, but I’m so tired I don’t even bother thinking about indulging them.
Not that I think I’d win. Gods, I’d get murdered at the rate things are going.
A fitting end for a murderer.
Following his instructions, I take a change of clothes with me as we go back towards the shower; my skin crawls at the thought of a shared shower, the prospect horrifying in many ways; and when I tell him that he simply shrugs and tells me it’s something you get used to. I can’t see how, but he tells me that as long as I keep to myself, I should be okay.
That shouldn’t be too hard; I’ve been doing that for years.
There’s a small changing room for us to undress in, a designated bin for each room where you toss your clothes in to be washed (where is beyond me, but Day told me earlier that latrine and washing duty kind of go hand-in-hand so I think I’ll find out eventually). Then, I follow the twelve year old into the next room already unfortunately occupied with about twenty or so guys of all stages of their childhood through their teens, and I realise that even here there are spots designated for each room, which I really wasn’t expecting.
The water is unforgiving, slipping from hot to cold so quickly I curse under my breath and try to be as quick as possible; that doesn’t prove to be too hard, since I’m already tense like you wouldn’t believe. We’re in and out in probably ten minutes, and I gratefully dress again and hug my arms to my chest as we walk back to our room.
Day grabs a book from the dresser and pulls himself onto his bunk, and after I visit the washroom I glance at the titles he has. I miss my collection I had at home, and I idly wonder to myself if they have any of my favourites here; yet I severely doubt it.
“Can I ask something, Day?” I call, picking up a well-thumbed book and looking at the cover curiously; I’ve sort of heard of Metamorphoses, although I’ve never found a copy before.
The boy grunts in agreement, putting his book down a moment and looking at me as I curiously turn to the first page.
“Do people… talk about why they’re here?”
Making an ‘ehh’ sound and a noncommittal wiggly hand gesture, he lets his head hang off the side of his bunk as he watches me.
“It depends who you talk to, I guess,” he answers, his face slowly turning red with the blood rushing to his head. “I mean, if you ask then they’ll definitely punch your lights out, but sometimes you can hear people willingly tell someone what they’re in for. Johnathan did that a bit – he would lie in the bunk and stare blankly above him, and he’d talk a lot about what he’d done.”
“So, they don’t say anything out of guilt?” I inquire, and he barks a laugh.
“Nah, most people are pretty proud of it – or at least they pretend to be,” he admonishes, grinning. “It’s just that trust is hard to come by here, and it’s easier to think that someone will use your crimes against you than actually believe that they want to know out of the goodness of their heart.”
“Then everyone here is guilty, huh?”
He looks at me strangely as I look back to the book, the pages having fallen to one that’s been dog-eared: titled only Daedalus and Icarus.
“You don’t get sent here for being innocent, Cas. At least, not unless you’re really, really unlucky.”
Sighing, I close the book and put it back on top of the pile, rubbing my temples and trying to ignore the headache that feels permanently glued to my skull.
“I guess not.”
I get under the sheet of my bunk, pulling it over my head and trying to drown out what noise I can hear outside the room and shut my eyes tightly. Day moves around a bit above, probably settling back as he was, and he’s quiet.
For a while, anyways. I can only hear him turning the pages quietly, sighing every once in a while, and though I feel exhausted sleep seems to elude me for some reason. I focus on the sounds outside as they quiet and rise again, people moving around as the break lets them relax after a long day, and despite my situation I find them almost comforting.
Here are people who, like me, their parents abandoned. Disowned members of society of all walks of life, who fucked up, and got burned for it.
We’re all brothers in chains.
“I got sent here because I didn’t want to conform to my parents’ religious standards,” Day says above me, and I feel my ear twitch slightly at the sudden confession. “They’re Christian, devoutly so, and didn’t like it that I preferred science and evolution over God. It didn’t help that I had a bad habit of taking things that weren’t mine, but to this day I think they really just hated how I always picked a fight and refused to go to church when it was time to go. When they found out I’m a klepto, ffft.”
The sound effect he tacks to the end makes me laugh a little, and I glance up at his bunk.
“We’re all here for a bunch of reasons, some of us for very good reasons,” he continues quietly, and I lie on my back and put my hands behind my head, sighing as I close my eyes. “In one way or another, we all belong here.”
I hum an agreement – I can’t deny that. Even for myself.
I could’ve just incapacitated him – he was already down. I just had to run away – but instead, I took his knife and stabbed him. With brutal finality I made sure he could never hurt me again, all the anger at the years of being treated like the world’s most visible ghost finally making me snap.
Like everyone else, I belong here.
“If you think you’re innocent, I honestly don’t know what to say – the rest of the world didn’t think so.”
Laughing bitterly, I frown.
“No, I don’t think I’m innocent. But the story that was used to get me here is false, so I suppose I’m just a bit bitter about it. It’s kind of like my truth doesn’t mean a damn,” I say idly, shrugging a shoulder, and I hear him agree quietly. The noise outside is starting to fade away again, leading me to believe it’s a bit before light’s out. “No one else believes my truth.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, so long as you’re alive you’re keeping that truth alive. Maybe one day the rest of the world will know it, too,” Day says, and I appreciate it but I already know that those are empty words. I think he knows it, too, but I suppose you can’t quite help it.
Especially when in the end all you have is yourself.
“Thanks, Day,” I call, and he chuckles quietly.
“So is it too much if I ask you what brought you here?” he questions, and I tense up; the kid jumps down to put his book back, reaffirming my hunch that light’s out is soon, and looks at me from the dresser with a curious expression.
I sigh heavily. Do I really want to trust a kid I just met with my biggest regret, especially since I know that people here treat murderers like the worst of the worst? Day goes to the washroom a moment while I think it through, and just as he’s about to climb back to his bunk I tell him to sit on mine, sitting up so he has ample space to sit with his legs crossed and watch me curiously.
I lean against the wall, close my eyes, and take a deep breath.
“I… I killed a man,” I whisper, and I feel him tense. “He attacked me first, I assure you, and something just… snapped. People always called me a ghost, due to my small and pale appearance as well as my name, and this guy was going to kill me. He’d done a lot of what that guy in the cafeteria was doing, so I wasn’t thinking straight. I was terrified, and when I saw a window of opportunity, I incapacitated him but for some reason I couldn’t stop.”
Hugging my knees to my chest, my grip tightens on my legs and I grit my teeth.
“He had a friend keeping watch so no one would come in, and when he saw what was happening he left his friend to die. I ran home, stayed locked up in my room, and he went to the police and told them that I attacked his friend unprovoked. That I cornered him in an alley and stabbed him to death.
“The cops called my parents and told them the situation, and that they could either file for a proxy or they would take legal measures. No matter what I did, no matter how much I pled innocence, no one believed me. Then again… in a way I really am a murderer so I suppose I belong here all the same.”
Day is quiet for a while, and when he shifts I look at him; his facial expression is a mixture of things, and he licks his lips in thought before taking a deep breath and letting it out noisily.
Then, with a smile, the kid zips his lips and pretends to toss the key towards the toilet.
“So you’re telling me that you got caught vandalising a government building?” he asks, his smile breaking out into a grin and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. I blink at him a moment, but then I catch on. I sigh, shooting him a grateful smile. “For shame, Cas, for shame.”
He winks at me in response to my smile.
“You’re a nice guy, so I’m not going to hold it against you. For what it’s worth, I believe you,” he says with a smile I immediately know is sincere; he’s surprisingly open about his emotions. Reaching out, the kid touches my shoulder and squeezes it reassuringly. “I’ve heard worse, believe me.”
I arch an eyebrow at him, and he gestures to the cot we’re sitting on.
“Johnathan was sort of proud of the fact that he’d raped and physically abused his girlfriend,” he says simply, shrugging, and I make a face. “My ears rang whenever he went into details; believe me when I say that I don’t miss him.”
I laugh, pushing away from the wall a bit and nodding.
“I don’t even blame you, Day.”
Flashing me a grin, he looks up a moment when a loud klaxon goes off and waves a salute at me before jumping off my cot and pulling himself onto his. I watch him go, leaning out of my bed a bit, and his feet disappear a moment before the lights shut off and the camp is bathed in the night lights that are decidedly tamer. The transition is a bit weird, but I quickly get used to it.
The room is almost pitch black, though.
“Sleep well, because with your luck you’re going to get field work tomorrow,” Day calls from his cot, and I return the sentiment before turning back and getting comfortable in my cot again. I settle in pretty much the same position I was in before dinner, and in the eerie quiet of the compound I somehow manage to fall asleep.
I’m slow in the morning to realise what’s going on, but then again having a twelve year old shake me awake is not on my list of things that happen on the daily; I stare at him a minute, trying to recognise him, and he simply tells me that I’m going to miss out on breakfast unless I get a move on.
So, groggily, I dress and follow the kid down the same path as last night, yawning up a storm that makes him look at me incredulously and ask me how I functioned before now. My reply is to tell him I was never forced awake at a time smaller than my age before, making him bark a laugh.
The sinking realisation that they basically give us the same slop every day almost hurts, but it’s dulled by my lack of sleep that was as restless as it’s been since that day, so eventually I shake it off and mutter into my water that I wish I could have some coffee. I manage to hold down a bit more of the slop, although Day still gets a decent chunk of it, but I’m afraid to admit that I’m already getting used to it.
The knowledge that I’m going to be eating this until I die helps me get used to it, unfortunately.
When Day realises I’m relatively functioning, he gestures to the wall to my right (his left) where I notice, for the first time, a thin layer of glass that has come to life, a plasma TV that’s literally taking up the whole wall. My eyes scour along the four lists there.
Kitchen: 10558383, 10008326, 10249864 –
Latrines: 10705822, 10634695, 10281335 –
Field: 10078465, 10036953, 10007658 –
Testing: 10046965, 10683659 –
“Find your number there – that’s where we get told where we’re going to be working today,” Day tells me around a mouthful, keeping his spoon in his mouth. “It’s weird at first, but eventually you get good at picking yours out. I’m in latrines.”
I look at my hand, and I notice he chances a look at it too as if about to memorise it; his eyes flicker back, and with a laugh he points at the second column.
“Welcome to the third shittiest position in camp, Cas,” he grins, and I find my number a moment later at the top. I make a face. “Honestly, I take anything as long as I’m not in the fourth list – not that you have a choice in the matter – or paired with the second number in the kitchen. Poor bastards.”
“Who’s that?” I ask, and he gestures with his head to my left this time.
“The guy who tried playing football with the kid yesterday,” Day says simply, and I make a face. Oh. “His name’s Abel, which is ironic in a sense; I think he’d be much better off as Cain.”
I snort into my glass as I try to drink my water, grinning. The kid finishes his meal, stretching his arms over his head before giving me a wicked grin.
“Let me introduce you to the finest shit this place has to offer you, Cas; and you’d better like it because you’re going to be doing it a lot more often than you think.” He gets to his feet and shoots me a grin, and I roll my eyes as I get up and follow him.
Despite my shit luck so far, I’m happy with this circumstance. I could’ve gotten a much worse roommate that would’ve left me to figure all this out on my own, and for that I’m grateful that he’s around.
I mean, I wish a kid like him didn’t have to be a test subject, but he seems pretty okay with his situation so he may or may not be making me try to see the bright side of things a bit.
It could be worse. Things could definitely be worse – this will definitely not be my sentiment after I realise what working latrines entails, but I’m happy enough for the moment.
Naturally, that’s when Lady Luck shows me her rear end.
Someone jostles me roughly as I follow the kid out, and I’m planning on just skirting by like always – only this person grabs my shoulder and pushes me roughly, so much so that I stagger into the wall to my left. His shout is the next thing I note, and I make the mistake of looking up in defiance.
I can somewhat see Day looking at the way the guy in front of me pins me to the wall with his forearm on my throat and winces, but my attention is focussed on the person in front of me, for obvious reasons. Fear and anticipation makes the hair at the back of my neck stick up, but adrenaline makes me reckless.
It’s as if ever since I killed that guy, the urge to fight back suddenly becomes so much stronger than that to run. Something changed when I did what I did, and I know I’ll be paying the price for it eventually.
“Looks like you don’t know your place yet, whelp,” he hisses, and I narrow my eyes at him and dig my fingers into his forearm, not pulling it away but definitely making it unpleasant as I dig my blunt nails into the skin. The guy has surprisingly dark skin, a kind of dark brown I used to get when I was younger, and vivid green eyes narrowed at me. Around his neck, a bright blue scarf is wrapped loosely.
I don’t say anything, not even when Abel’s arm pushes into my windpipe a little. He’s about six feet, towering above me, and although he reminds me of the one who attacked me he only makes me mad – I feel the fear, yes, but at the same time I know that I want to challenge him as he tries to assert his dominance over me.
Like hell I’m going to let anyone control me or my fate. I didn’t let that piece of trash do it, and I’m not going to let some nameless convict do it either.
“What, not used to having someone actually stare back?” I goad, arching an eyebrow, and his eyes flicker to my right hand before locking right back on mine.
He pushes against my throat hard enough to make it protest in pain, and after kicking my stomach to knock whatever air still in my lungs he drops me, letting me collapse in half on the ground and wrap my arms around my stomach as I try to breathe. A hand grabs a fistful of my hair and pulls my head up so I can look back at him, and despite how my throat and stomach protest I’m happy to. There’s a large crowd watching in anticipation, and Day is shaking his head and seems to be muttering something to himself.
“Better watch yourself, new blood, or the next blood on my blade will be yours,” he swears, and I can’t help but grin at him despite my situation.
“I’ve faced worse demons than you, so forgive me when I say you don’t scare me,” I spit back, and he pushes my head away and kicks me again for good measure before walking off. Almost immediately the crowd goes on, their talk animated, and feet stop in front of me a moment before a laugh that is borderline insane rips through my lips.
“You’re a dead man; you know that, right, Cas?” Day asks, crouching in front of me, and I lift my head up and shoot him a pained smile. People openly stare at me as they pass.
“Like hell that guy scares me after what I’ve been through,” I tell him, and he sighs in defeat and presses a hand to his head, shaking it.
“I don’t know whether you’re a genius or a madman, but I guess I’ll find out as long as your body isn’t the next one to leave here in a bag.”
Day helps me to my feet, still appalled that I had the gall to say and do what I did; and a part of me agrees with him, in a state of muted shock that gets silenced by the pain and, moreover, the desire to never feel helpless again. Whenever that feeling of helplessness comes, I’m brought back to that alley as if he towers over me, cornering me, and like a puppet master he controls my every step. It brings a bitter taste to my mouth, and I swear to myself that I refuse to be that same helpless kid that let them punch me and beat me, that let them harass me for years and years and just took it.
I’m tired of holding my tongue.
God, you really do learn a lot about yourself when you finally let your demons out.
I follow Day through the throng of people walking to their posts, and when I pass they whisper behind their hands and openly stare at me as if I’m already dead. Some of my apprehension returns and my skin crawls at the attention, and the desire to disappear overwhelms me again.
Whatever confidence I had then gets shot to hell.
As we change for work, Day teases me and tells me to prepare my will as he promises to write my obituary, and in response I throw my shoe at his head and tell him I’m taking him with me. He barks a laugh.
Then, after dressing in the kind of uniform I expected when I first came here (coveralls and a plain cotton shirt), Day leads me to the left and further into the hub, skirting alongside all different types of people all somewhat dressed the same – three distinct uniforms keep popping up, from the one I’m wearing to one clearly designated for working in the hot baking sun.
At the end of the surprisingly long hallway, there’s a door that leads to a large supply closet that has an obvious turret mounted to the ceiling, following our movement carefully and probably itching for a reason to turn us into Swiss cheese. I decide that that’s not exactly how I want to die, and don’t want to give it a reason to try.
The closet is filled with pails stacked one over the other, a bunch of mops, some cleaning supplies, and a faucet to obviously fill the pails. Day hands me a pail and tells me to fill it as he grabs a jug of bleach and a toilet cleaner, and the hot water scalds me a bit as it splashes onto my hands. When I shut it off he pours a bit of bleach into it and with that I follow him out, carrying the pail and a mop.
He’s told me that kids in the same room tend to be given the same job, although not always, so I take that to mean that we’re going to be working as a team at this, at least. It makes me feel a little better.
That is, until I realise how disgusting this job is.
We start at our room and work down the numbers on our side, the same way the others given latrines are doing, and along the seven hours we clean so many I lose track. Most rooms are all right, sort of, and all I really have to do is mop the floor while Day tackles the more disgusting job, but sometimes I have to scrub furiously at a bloodstain or vomit, which is unpleasant in itself, and together with the smell of bleach I eventually start feeling light-headed alongside my headache.
It’s not so bad with him around, though; we talk at times and crack jokes, and sometimes we work in comfortable silence. I find out that the kid’s been here for about six months, lasting through his original roommate and two others before me, and I feel quite surprised when I hear that.
I didn’t think the disappearing acts were that common.
One time, he stops working so he can prop his foot up on the toilet seat and, holding the brush like a microphone, begins rattling off some bullshit obituary that makes me tell him how gross it is that he’s holding that thing so close to his face, only to throw him my shoe again when he doesn’t stop.
Finally, after what feels like forever, Day stops and shouts quitting time in a singsong voice. I laugh, really happy to hear that, and after we toss literally everything we’re holding in the pail he carries it back to the supply closet while I bring the mop back.
Then, keeping true to his promise after we change out of our clothes and toss them down the chute I only just realise is in our room, Day shows me around the bits of the compound that we’re allowed to explore.
Instead of taking a right to go in the direction of the cafeteria, he leads me down the left side in the direction I came from the first time I walked through here. It’s strange to say, but I’m sort of getting used to this routine already; it’s simple, and yet at the same time it really just makes me feel like I’m at least doing something in my day.
Well, that’s a weird thing to say.
Anyways, down this way are a lot of bodies that go to and from places; some of them are wearily dragging their feet, looking exhausted, and others are simply leaning against the walls talking with those around them. Some of them still stare at me incredulously and openly as I pass, whispering as if I’m already dead.
I probably am, but just don’t know it yet.
Day shows me the yard, where those of us willing to brave the sun can go outside a bit, but just watching the heat rise from the ground is enough to deter me from that idea. I get the impression that I’d know exactly how it feels to be boiled alive if I stepped into that place.
When I tell him that, he agrees with a musical laugh as he shows me the rec room he’d mentioned before. This room has a bookshelf that’s seen better days, but there are far more books on it than I’d anticipated; a few tables are strewn about where a few games of cards are underway, and one is host to an arm-wrestling contest.
It’s simple, but very noisy: I can see why Day prefers staying in the room.
As we’re walking back there, he tells me something else.
“Sometimes, if someone gets caught doing something the guards really disapprove of, they take the kid in for solitary. I don’t know where it is, but I’ve never really heard of anyone leaving it before; it’s seen as a death sentence.” I stare at him incredulously as we walk, and he shrugs a shoulder. “If you’re caught out of a room during lockdown, you’re cooked.”
“Lockdown?” I parrot, and he nods vigorously as we turn into the main hub of the long hallway of rooms.
“When something happens, like a turret activates or a riot breaks out, the guards initiate a lockdown; whoever doesn’t get in a cell in twenty seconds flat is a dead man and will either be shot down by the turret if they’re in the place the riot started, or taken to solitary if they’re in the hub,” he says, pushing the door to our room open and going in. I follow him. “If the door to your room is closed, it automatically locks – so I tend to leave it open by half an inch, just enough for the locking mechanism to not trigger.”
As the door closes behind me, I stare at it and bite my lower lip.
“How long does lockdown go on for?”
“The longest I’ve seen ran from four-thirty until the next morning.”
Day grabs a wad of paper as he climbs onto his bunk, and I watch him go without a care in the world and settle down the same way he was when I came in yesterday. He begins tossing his paper in the air.
“Since breakfast is made at the same time as dinner, it was a pretty long day.”
I hum in understanding, wincing a bit; my mind jumps to the way I would complain if I missed breakfast because I was going to be late, and a feeling of guilt washes over me even though the two are completely unrelated. Missing a meal is one thing, but I always had two others to make up for it, at least.
My hand idly runs its fingers into the gouges in the wall, biting my lower lip. It feels like so long ago since I was home, but I suppose I don’t really have a home anymore; no, I definitely don’t.
“What’s this wall for?” I ask curiously, my eyes counting the groups of tally marks – I count thirty pairs, making that exactly sixty.
Something hits the back of my head, and when I turn to look I notice his wad of paper on the ground; the kid himself is looking at me, having shifted.
“Whoever was here first started the tradition,” he begins, and I pick up his wad of paper and toss it in my hands. “Each mark represents someone who stayed here and died; eventually, both you and I are just going to be another number.”
I glance back at the wall.
“How’d they die?” Day makes a sound that tells me how would I know, and I toss him his wad back. Frowning, he looks at the paper.
“A lot of people just get too sick from the tests, and the scientists terminate them and use them as a sample,” he says, turning onto his back and staring at the ceiling. “When a subject dies, the screen in the cafeteria obtains a fifth column where a list of yesterday’s terminated subjects are written in red. When you’re more useful dead than alive – when they want tissue samples in places where they can’t possibly keep you alive – your number just becomes another on the list.”
I can’t help but stare at him, a mixture of shock and horror settling in the pit of my stomach.
“What happens to the bodies?”
“You’ll find out when you get field duty. If I die first you’re definitely getting field duty the day after – that’s how they work, the sick fucks.” He tosses the paper up violently, and it bounces off the ceiling and lands on his mattress somewhere. Day sighs in irritation.
Judging by his reaction, I decide not to press the matter further. There’s something about the way it works that makes me realise that he’s bitter about it, but then again I get the impression that I will be, too, when I find out.
“Just don’t expect to survive forever,” Day tells me as I take the same book as yesterday and walk over to my cot. I look at him briefly, and note how he’s closed his eyes with his hands behind his head. “We’re all dead men walking here, but none of us want to admit that.”
That’s definitely a statement I can understand; being alive here is kind of like some sick form of torture, with the dread and anticipation that you constantly have to watch out for the others stuck here with you. The knowledge that you can’t trust anyone and that you’re all alone is all you have left, so I can see why he’s bitter.You’re alive, and you’re screaming for help in a deaf world.