The big man we’d met last night squeezed through the far door. He shoved Ken behind him. “Get the hell out of here before I let these kids wail on you.”
The boy next to me gave the tiniest grin. If I hadn’t been staring in his direction I would have missed it, it flitted across his face that fast.
Christ. The man was built like a mountain. He stomped towards us. I forced my sluggish brain to remember his name. Monte, his name was Monte, a name which I guess means a mountain or high place or something. But I knew he couldn’t be real. I felt like I wasn’t even there, like I stood outside of myself, watching myself, as if whatever was happening wasn’t happening to me, but to a complete stranger.
And then, no matter how hard I wished he wasn’t real, he stopped in front of me, this heaving mountain of a man with a gravel crusher for a voice, and I knew this was happening to me, not to someone else, but to me. I couldn’t help myself. I slid closer to Jael for protection.
“Here’s how it works.” He looked down at me but he spoke to both of us. “You have fifteen minutes to wash up and dress. There are clothes in the shelves behind you. Today we have a five mile run before breakfast.”
Neither of us said a word.
“Do you hear me, boy?”
“The answer is, sir. When I speak to you, I want to hear yes sir or no sir or thank you sir. Do you hear me, boy?”
“Yes sir.” I pressed my knees together to keep them from knocking.
He stood so close my nose brushed his chest. “You sound like a girl, pretty boy.”
I imagined ducking between those tree trunks he called legs, sprinting for the open door. But instead I said, “No sir.”
“Then give me twenty.”
Twenty? Shit. Twenty what? “Uh, sir?”
He grabbed Jael by her shoulders and shoved her down onto the floor. “Twenty. Now, girlie.” He held a fistful of her t-shirt. “Like this, boy.” And he jerked her though twenty push-ups. “Maybe you didn’t hear me last night. You screw up, she pays. She screws up, you pay. You’re a team. Joined at the hip.”
He swung a red-faced Jael upright. She stood beside me, weaving a little. I reached for her arm, it was sort of automatic, but she brushed me off, managed to square her shoulders and stay on her feet.
Monte looked Jael up and down. “Tough little girl, aren’t you? Well, we’ll see.” He turned his attention to everyone else. They all stared straight ahead. No one had moved a muscle. “What the hell are you waiting for? Get dressed.” He stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The room exploded into this weird muted chaos. Clothes, shoes, bathroom, running water, half naked bodies. All serious, all silent as a tomb.
The young kid next to me dug through the shelves and grabbed some clothes. He threw a few pairs of camo pants and brown t-shirts onto my bunk. “Try these and be quick about it. There’s hell to pay if we’re late. And make your bed. Tight. Make it tight. Hospital corners and all that.”
Jael was already on her knees, tucking in her sheets and blankets. “Watch,” she said. “This is a hospital corner.”
I tried to imitate her but I couldn’t seem to get my bedding to smooth out. To be honest I didn’t really care. I didn’t see the point of hospital corners. I didn’t see the point of anything.
“I’ll fix your bed today,” she said. “You find me some clothes. This is paramilitary stuff, Caleb. These guys are fringe. I don’t want to end up buried in a shallow grave because you can’t make a hospital corner.”
I picked at the clothes while she made my bed. “I want to go home.”
I didn’t think Jael could move that fast. She slammed me against a locker.
“Ow. My back…”
“Shut up,” she hissed. “I don’t give a shit about your back. Just shut up or you’ll get us both killed. You do every single thing they tell you to do.” She gestured at the young kid. “Why do you think he’s alone?”
He was already dressed, lacing up his boots. He lifted his head. “She cried all the time,” he said. He nodded at Jael. “Get dressed or they’ll hurt her, and maybe the rest of us.”
“Yeah, listen to him. And listen to your girl. Get your ass dressed.” It was an older boy, seventeen, maybe eighteen. He tossed aside an electric shaver, balled up his towel and threw it in my direction. “And pick that up. I don’t want to get caned because you’re a cry baby.”
I saw the marks on his bare back, raised, red fading to pink. Caned? I ran to the bathroom.
Buy link: Winnerland, by J.R. Barrett