Pink: Episode 1, Part 6

Pink5

The line was short, only two boys my age stood ahead of me. A single attendant sat at one of the many windows, glass as thick as my arm shielding her from any harm us on the outside might try to bring. She wore a camouflage uniform, her dark hair slicked back into a tight bun at the back of her head.

“Next,” she droned to the room at large. The boy at the front of the line walked eagerly forward.

The room smelled stale, as if a window hadn’t been opened since the place had been built. Overhead, long banks of lights flickered green. I looked over at the security guard, standing at attention, two hands on his gun. I wondered what he was waiting for.

“What’s a pretty little thing like you doing here?”

It was the boy in front of me. I glared up at him, then looked away. He snorted.

“Aw, come on now, girly,” he said, taking a step towards me. “I’m just makin’ friends.”

I glanced over at the security guard, but I could see his eyes flitting back and forth as he scanned his lens. He would be no help.

I turned back. The boy’s white-blond hair had already been shaved short, and the stubs that remained glinted in the green light from overhead.

“I have all the friends I need, thanks,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

He stepped back, cupping both his hands over his heart.

“Oh, why you gotta go and hurt me like that?” he said, smirking. Then he turned back to face the counter again. “Have it your way, princess. But when you’re out there on the field and ain’t nobody comin’ to help you out, you’ll remember me then.”

Another boy had entered the room, and he walked up to stand in line behind me. The two young men towered over me, the one in front turning to appraise the other new recruit. The new boy danced in place like he was waiting in line for the bathroom. Blondie looked him up and down, then nodded to him as though he had known him for years.

“Next,” called the woman behind the counter.

Blondie turned and puckered his lips in my direction, then approached the window. I sighed with relief as he moved away.

The first boy, the one who had been at the counter, walked across the room and through two large metal doors. They opened automatically as he approached. I peered in his direction, trying to see through the opening, but the doors quickly closed behind him the moment he was through. Suddenly, I desperately wanted to know what was on the other side of those doors. My imagination flitted around, and I saw a series of archaic torture devices in my mind. My hands felt slick with sweat.

“Ugh, I’m nervous,” the boy behind me said.

I glanced back, but didn’t respond.

“What if they don’t take me?” he asked no one in particular. “Mind you, Ma wasn’t too happy when I told her. But she’s just sore. She ain’t thinkin’ right. If I die, she’ll get the death benefit. And if I don’t, then we’ll be rich. Seems like a win-win for her.”

I turned around.

“Death benefit?”

“Yeah,” the boy said. His eyes were kind. Blue. “A hundred grand. Not a fortune, but enough to get her by for a couple years.”

I imagined my mother a year from now out in the city, spending the money gained from my death in a matter of days.

“I don’t want the death benefit,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” he asked, still shifting his weight from side to side. “Of course you do! What about your family?”

I faced the counter again.

“Don’t have any,” I said.

“Aw, that’s too bad,” he said. “Are you an orphan? My pal, Jimmy, was an orphan. I can see what you mean. Those places they put you in, they’re no good. In school he never wanted to go at the end of the day. He’d always hang around till late, till he didn’t have no choice but to get out. Is that what it’s like for you?”

I sighed heavily, hoping he’d get the hint.

“Okay, okay,” he finally said. “I get it. You’re not a talker. My ma ain’t much of a talker. She’s always saying that I should learn how to shut up and listen—”

Blondie stepped back from the counter, something silvery sticking out of his fist. Then, he turned and sauntered by.

“See ya around, Pink,” he said, smirking, his chin up as he walked through the metal doors.

Pink?

“Next,” called the woman behind the counter.

I stood staring after the boy, puzzling for a moment. And then I realized.

The hair.

“Next,” she called again, irritated.

The metal doors shut with a loud clang, and I turned and hurried to the window.

“Hi,” I said. She didn’t look up.

“Name.” Her hands hovered over a keyboard on the other side of the glass, her voice scratchy and magnified by a speaker somewhere I couldn’t see.

“Uh, Livia,” I said.

“Full name.”

“Oh, Livia Marie Taylor,” I sputtered. “Sorry.” Her hands quickly flew across the keys.

“Date of birth.”

“March twenty-fifth, two thousand eighty three.”

“Mmm-hmm,” she said, not noticing or caring that today was, in fact, my birthday. “Ever been arrested?”

“Uh, no.”

“Wanted for any crime?”

“No, I—”

“Address.”

I paused, unsure.

“Can’t I, can’t I just pick up the money here? When it’s over?” I asked.

“I need an address to notify your next of kin in the event of your death.” Her voice was flat as a board.

“I don’t want the death benefit,” I said.

“Address,” she repeated.

“Is there someone I can talk to—” I said, my stomach sinking.

She looked up, finally making eye contact.

“Look, I can’t put you in the system without an address,” she said. “If you don’t want the benefit, you can talk to them in there.” She tilted her head towards the doors.

I stared at her for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Then, unable to think of another, I gave her our apartment address in Brooklyn.

She pulled a thin, plastic card from a tray and slipped it into a slit beneath the keyboard. The clear tag glowed as my information was transferred to it. She handed it to me through an opening half an inch wide in the glass.

“Do you like being in the service?” I asked tentatively, taking the card. Looking around the room, I thought that if I were so lucky to have a job like this for the next two years, I would make it to the end for sure.

“I ain’t in no service,” she said, chuckling. “Hey Sam, this baby girl thinks I’m in the service!” The man with the gun grinned. The woman looked back down at the computer, shaking her head. “I may be poor, but I ain’t stupid.”

“So, you just work here?” I asked.

She didn’t answer, just kept shaking her head as she tapped against the screen. Finally, she pulled a thin, metal chain from her drawer and passed it to me.

“Good luck, baby girl,” she said, her eyes meeting mine for the first time. “You gonna need it. Next.”

I stepped away from the counter, and the kid who had come in after me bumped into me as he raced up for his turn.

“Oh, sorry,” he said. “Hey, nice talking to you.”

I stared, finally turning towards the doors. I wondered if, once I stepped through them, I would ever emerge again.

 

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