Solitary Confinement, Please
The engine revved with humiliation as Drew steered toward his new place of employment. The bright greens and yellows of his HappyLand employees’ shirt mocked his sixteen year old brain with the unwanted reality that he was who he did not want to be.
A green light released him from his neighborhood drawing him ever closer to the ridicule that was likely to accompany his first day on the new job. His foot let up on the gas and shifted over to the brake pedal of his ten year old car. He drove the decade old rusted out hatchback every day to his high school where he lugged a huge tuba in and out of the small car and into the band hall where he helped the band director police the halls and snitch on his fellow students who were breaking rules. He sported old fashioned pilot glasses that came down below his cheek bones magnifying the blemishes on his face. He even let his hair hang shaggy and in need of a trim while leaving a receding hairline already noticeable at his young age. All these things and being employed by HappyLand left his stomach twisting with anticipation of the humility.
He drove his beloved vehicle into a left turn lane and stared out the side window at the hideous fast food restaurant that matched his bright shirt glowing from the corners of his vision. The light flashed a green arrow. He stared at the building. The arrow turned yellow, then red. Honks came from behind him upset that he refused to go to work. A deep breath filled Drew’s lungs and he turned back to the traffic light.
His eyes trained on the red circle, but the cartoon colored restaurant mocked him from the periphery. When the green arrow came back Drew forced himself to press the gas pedal just enough to approach the store. Dark music played in his head as he slowly crept toward HappyLand. The soundtrack in his mind could have been appropriate for an approaching army of demons, but that would somehow seem less intimidating than the idea of being seen working for HappyLand.
Still barely rolling down the road, his car gently drove up the driveway into the parking lot. He instinctively parked in the back and let his head fall into his hands as he overdramatized his unfortunate place of employment.
His stomach filled with the uncomfortable carbonation of anticipation as he opened the car door and placed his black sneakers on the asphalt. Every step he took toward the door felt like a step toward the end of his social life or at least what was left of it. As the wind played with his unkempt hair he scorned his parents for forcing him to take a job.
They saw his lack of friends as a weakness and making him gain employment was their only solution. His pleas for a reprieve fell on deaf ears when his father called an old buddy who happened to own a franchise of the horrid HappyLand outside their neighborhood.
Drew had told them he was fine, that he did not need money, that many highly looked upon people were hermits, but it was no use. Apparently his parents did not want to raise a monk or a serial killer and chained him to the prison that was a job.
Drew looked at the door not wanting to walk inside. It was a metaphor for an entry into a darker world. Or maybe it was an exit from his childhood. Either way he did not want to enter. He could see Mr. Harkins walking around with perfect posture in his sweat-stained Wal-Mart business attire. The pale blue tie swung around his thick neck reminding Drew that his new boss and his father’s longtime friend was former military. The realization of just how horrifying his new militaristically disciplined career may be caused his knees to go weak.
Drew’s balance went and he fell forward with his face and the glass echoing an ugly splat into the dining room. This caught the ear of Mr. Harkins who quickly trotted over to obtain his new employee.
The manager’s military humor kicked in as he pushed the door open with enough force to toss Drew into the parking lot while he remarked, “Oh, gee, didn’t see ya there young man.”
Drew pulled himself to his feet refusing to look Mr. Harkins in the eye. He walked with slunk shoulders past his new boss and into the headache-igniting dining room of HappyLand. The bright greens and yellows made Drew squint in agony, a feeling he never felt as a customer in the grease-filled death trap.
Mr. Harkins looked down on the boy, slightly disgusted with his lack of self-hygiene or at least self-respect for his fashion sense. “Report to the training room behind the kitchen. You are a bit early, sit in a chair and wait for your trainer to arrive.” He turned on his heel to march back to the bathrooms leaving Drew to find the training room on his own.
He watched the ground as he walked past the cashier’s counter and into the kitchen. Slipping on the greasy floor he kept his eyes on the ground to avoid meeting a gaze with anyone who was employed there. He knew that he was on the low end of the high school totem pole, but that did not mean he did not want to move up on that scale and working at HappyLand could do nothing but the opposite.
A deep voice came from Drew’s right directing him to the training room which he mechanically wandered into. The floor went from a greasy slip and slide to dry rubber tiles being temporarily tarnished by his now filthy black sneakers. The room was very empty - a chair, a television and a few inspirational posters on the wall. Drew collapsed into the chair, exasperated with defeat.
He looked at the walls ready to give in and accept the misery that was now to be his life. He read the first inspirational poster trying to convince his sub-conscience to learn its lesson.
The first in the nice line of six inspirationals said, “Get up and get to work, NOW.” Drew thought to himself, ‘I don’t feel motivated.’ The accompanying picture was no help either, just an empty boat with a paddle lying inside.
The next said, “The job you deserve is this one.” The picture was a smiling cartoon sheep knitting a sweater. Another feeling of self-worthlessness swept over him.
“Hell isn’t punishment, it’s just for failures.” Above the slogan was a picture of an ugly bodybuilder type man that had so much of a fake tan that he looked orange. In it he was signing a last will and testament and he was oddly happy about it. Drew could not stop his disgust at how demented Mr. Harkins was.
“Out of desperation, unwavering dedication is born.” This one had a picture of a man from the eyes up tapping his temple as if to say, “What an epiphany this is.” There was an odd tattoo on the man’s hand, looking somewhat like the Greek letter ‘delta’.
“Of everything you want, you have this.” Mr. Harkins was pictured above the somewhat inspirational line in full military garb with a very serious look on his face, but for some reason he had one eye opened wide while the other was noticeably closed.
Drew thought how much his new boss had fallen from the height of the military to being a lowly fast food manager.
The last poster bore the image of two people on a roller coaster with a thought bubble above their heads saying “YipeeeeeeE!” The last e in the word was oddly capitalized. Drew wondered about the purpose of the capitalization as he read the line below. “Here is the rest of your life.”
He leaned back in the chair looking at the line of posters, the big E in the last still perplexing him. Out of boredom he started to play with the posters, counting the number of words in each phrase, looking for repeating words, comparing the background colors of each…
But after a couple of coincidences he noticed something that made his neck hair stand on end. The first word of each poster made a sentence he did not want to see. “Get the Hell out of here.” He figured it to be coincidence, but it made him a bit nervous.
Unable to sit still he continued searching the signs for other hidden messages. He kept staring at the E.
He looked at the ‘delta’ in the fourth picture and couldn’t help but focus on Mr. Harkins’ eye in the fifth. His heart began to race as he put the letters together. Delta was the Greek letter for D. Eye. E. DIE. Drew’s breathing began to pound his chest. His heart was racing faster than he could handle.
The rest of the posters began to make sense. There was an oar in the boat. A female sheep was a ewe. The orange man was signing a will. He put them all together. Oar ewe will D I E. Get the Hell out of here or you will die.
Drew was terrified. Forget coincidence he decided as he sprang toward the door realizing there was no handle on the inside. The message made no sense, there was no reason for him to fear for his life, but there was no time for logic now.
Drew took a few steps back into the room and charged the door with a shoulder block. He bounced off the steel door and fell to the ground, his head cracking against a hard rubber tile dislodging it from the ground. He picked up the tile instinctively wanting to return it to its place when he noticed the word wrong was written on the back of it accompanied by a small twenty seven. He turned to his side and ripped up the tile next to it.
Another wrong with the number twenty six. Over the intercom came a weasel-y little voice speaking directly to Drew. “I’ll be in a minute, why don’t you turn on the TV before we get started.”
Drew tried to ignore his fears and turned on the television, telling himself he was crazy. The old television came on with a small electrical buzz in the background.
There was a man in a HappyLand hat talking about inspiration, but Drew could not focus. He kept looking at the tiles on the ground that he had pulled up. There were eight tiles from wall to wall in each direction making sixty four tiles total. Counting from the front corner of the room they were tiles number fourteen and fifteen. Counting from another direction they were tiles ten and eighteen. Why were they labeled twenty six and twenty seven?
The television spoke in the background, “At HappyLand we help every customer. We pay attention to every word. If we are speaking to a customer, we count every smile. If we are cleaning, we clean every tile. If we are reporting, we pay attention to every column and every row. “
Drew continued to try to calm himself down by taking slow relaxed breaths while the television repeated the same line over and over. As his heart rate slowed, the words of the TV drilled into his skull as if he was having brain surgery. He began to chant the line.
“Every word”, he paused. “Every Smile”, another pause. “Every column, every row”, then it hit him. The tile was not labeled twenty seven it was column two row seven. His connection to the randomness of the situation pumped the adrenaline back into his veins.
He repeated things to himself again. Word. Smile. Column. Row. He turned back to the poster and counted words again. Forty two. That can’t be it. Six posters and each had seven words. So, seven was the column. He looked back at the posters looking for smiles. The sheep was smiling, the orange man, and the two coaster riders. Four.
He kicked the chair out of the way to get to tile seven four. Again fearing for his life he pawed at the rubber square yanking it out of the ground. As the tile came up he could see a small red button sunken into the ground. Without hesitation he pressed the plastic circle and the door popped open.
A wave of relief flushed through Drew’s body as he saw his freedom open to the kitchen. Until he saw Mr. Harkins step into the door frame. The large fit man stepped into the room closing the door behind him.
“Let me out of here! My dad knows where I am!” Drew screamed out through the crackling in his pubescent voice. His hand kept mashing the red button popping the door back open.
Mr. Harkins kept slamming the door each time it popped open. His jaw began to clench and his face reddened. “Drew. Stop hitting that button. NOW!”
“I don’t know why you want to kill me, but…”
“I am not going to kill you.” He took a step toward Drew, but had to retreat to close the door again. “I said stop it.”
Drew just kept pressing the button as tears weld up in his eyes.
“You are safe. I need your help actually.”
“What are you talking about?” The words came out in globs past the tears streaming down the boys cheeks.
“Pull yourself together! You are the first one to solve the puzzle. You are only the second one to notice it even exists.”
This caught Drew off guard. Maybe he was safe after all. “Puzzle?”
“Yes it is just a puzzle. We need to be able to identify those who can read between the lines of the universe.”
Drew popped the door again. He was relaxing a bit, but still didn’t trust Mr. Harkins. “Who is we?”
“The United States military.”