“This is bullshit.” A nearby boy mutters under his breath. Unfortunately the rest of us were completely silent, so his words echo off the cavernous tiled walls beautifully.
“Have something to say?” A beak nosed man in his pressed and clean cut uniform looks up from the newspaper. The metal folding chair he had been sitting in scrapes horribly, sending a shiver down my spine from the hair raising noise as he stands slowly. Folding his paper carefully at each of the creases, the entire room, filled with thirty silent boys seems to draw out with a vengeance. The boy who had spoken now cowers, looking to any of us for help. But none of us dared. We were already in here thanks to a punishment. There was no way we were going to push the man’s patience any further. At this point, we all appeared so similar that after only a week of knowing each other, identification of who this poor soul was, was impossible. Same to the rest of us, the boy is dressed head to toe in the monotone khaki button up jumper that is our uniform. I think, from the quarter inch fuzz atop his buzzed head, the kid had been blonde. Unfortunately upon arrival we had been taken into basically what could only be described was a shed. There they had sheared us like sheep, given us a full physical, and made sure we were up to date on our shots. That was one thing I hadn’t been prepared for, and therefore had not been prepared to miss it so much—my thick black hair. Now it was twin to the peach fuzz on every other boys head. I sigh, as quietly as I can to myself, then return my attention back to work. At least the other boys knew what they were getting into. They had a choice. Me? Well I was nothing to nobody. Just an unwanted orphan who had no where to go. Actually that is not true—I had my granddad. But he decided after one day with me that he didn’t want ‘deal with me’ and called in a few favors with some old war buddies. Next day I was on the train headed here, Invictus Academy. The first day they had give us some crap like, it was an honor to get accepted, and what amazing things we are going to get to do and bring out into the world after graduation. But that facade quickly dropped after that first night. Obviously the being herded like animals should have been our clue that it was only a matter of time before things turned sour.
Yesterday, some kid thought it would be funny to kick another in the balls right he was carrying the bowl of soup that was supposed to be our lunch. Naturally the victim dropped like a rock yowling in pain like a kicked dog. But so dropped our lunch, and it went everywhere. At that point we were instructed to eat what we could from whatever surface, and they left us. A lot of us just resolved to go hungry until dinner, but some kids were hungry enough that they risked slurping some up. I didn’t think I would ever be that hungry. That is until dinner time came, and they opened the dining hall to reveal the soup still caked across the room, now cold and congealed. I was hungry enough then to risk some of the soup I deemed safe enough, retching the entire time. This morning we had been instructed to grab our toothbrushes and we were going to spend the day cleaning every surface. I guess no one told our Professors that collective punishment was technically against the Geneva Convention and therefore was war crime. I certainly wasn't going to. I may be a smart ass, but I was smarter than that. I still work silently on my stall— each of us had been assigned one as we entered the bathroom.
“I think you had something to say?” The beak nosed man whispers theatrically in the shaking boy's face.
Keep your head down. Don’t start trouble. I remind myself, and start to scrub harder against a particularly questionable stain on the wall. That was how I had gotten myself here in the first place. It was my fault. I had defended a kid from a bully in my last school and got sent to the headmaster’s office with a black eye and bloody nose, but still smiling. The gray, flabby man, Professor Almsead had called my parents and told them I was suspended for the rest of the week and they had to come pick me up. I had sat there, waiting and waiting in the uncomfortable chair outside of his office. Soon the phone rang and the secretary, a middle aged woman whose hair was perfectly quaffed and her lipstick perfectly applied for the tenth time that hour had answered the phone with her chipper greeting. I didn’t know what was wrong. I just remember that she made a funny little squeak before her wide eyes locked on me and filled with tears. She asked the caller to hold, and then clipped quickly into the headmaster’s office, but I caught the look of pity in her eyes before the door shut—and I knew something was not right.
The crotchety headmaster that comes out to get me had now transformed. Suddenly his temper had soothed, and his blue eyes looked like a droopy hounds as he asked me to please come into his office and there was something he needed to tell me.
My parents had been coming to get me when there was an accident. He didn’t give me the details, but Professor Almstead said that they would not be coming to get me. They were gone, you see.
I don’t think I cried. I don’t think I did anything at all. Though I could have been screaming myself raw and I don’t know if I would remember it. Their forms lying cold in the ebony coffins are a frozen blurry image that I see each night as I fall asleep, but their funerals I remember vividly. It was like everything had been turned on high definition as I did everything in my power to not sob like the child I was. I still had the crescent scars on each of my forefingers from where I had dug my thumbnail in hard enough to break the skin. Hard enough to pull my attention from the pain in my heart.
My toothbrush stills in my hand. It was one month ago. I realize with a start. I begin scrubbing at the next stain even harder, until my vision goes bleary with tears that fill my eyes.
“I’m sor—sorry” the kid mumbles pathetically and the beak-nosed growls directly into his face.
“I guess you enjoy punishment.” He grins down at the quivering boy.
“No but you must!” I shout, before I can clamp my mouth shut. I had thought the room couldn’t get any more quiet. I was wrong. I take a slow breath and decide that since I was going to get in trouble anyway, I might as well face it head on. I always hated bullies, and well I know I had sworn to mind my own business—but I had no one left anyway.
“And why do you say that?” I swear the man almost sounds surprised. Either by my comment, or my balls. I’m not able to guess which.
“Well looking at a face like you got has to be painful, and God you stare at yourself in the mirror often enough. So you must be a glutton for punishment.” The beak nosed man stares at me a few seconds before throwing his head back and laughing from his toes. My brows shoot up and the other boys around me exchange a nervous look. The laughter goes on for enough time, that I shift on my feet, loosing all my courage that had reared its head suddenly.
“That.” He points his beefy calloused finger at me, once he catches his breath enough to speak again. “That is what we are looking for here. Courage, wit, a big set of balls.” The man grips his hands behind his back and turns around, looking at each of us in turn, who gape openly at him. “We are not training quivering nancies, or quiet little doves. When you graduate—if you graduate—you are going to be thrown out of the nest and if you haven’t learned to fly by then you will splatter on the concrete. While I would advise you not to make a habit out of talking back to your commander—stick to your convictions and your courage. Get out of here and go to bed. Toss your toothbrushes in the garbage on the way out, fresh ones are waiting for you.” With that the man turns and scoops up his newspaper from where it sits atop the folding chair, before whistling and walking out of sight. One by one the boys all turn to look at me in awe, then a cheer goes up and the boy who I had saved blushes but whispers a grinning thank you before rushing off after the others, each of whom pats me on the back genially.
Maybe I will like it here… I can’t help but think as I toss my disgusting toothbrush in the garbage as I pass and pick up whistling where the man’s tune had stopped.