As Brother writes on the blackboard at the front of the room, the chalk squeaks.
Van flinches. He thought this would be easier, or at least more bearable over time.
But Van’s cravings haven’t stopped.
Isn’t that the purpose of The Institute, to take away their desire, to facilitate removing what The Director called their “toxic qualities”?
Brother taps the chalkboard. “PERSISTENCE.”
The boy on Van’s right giggles, as he’s been doing since the four of them were rousted from their cells an hour ago. What a bunch of losers he’s grouped with.
Five weeks in, Van feels no more “cured” than the day he arrived with his father, whose idea this was. “You say you want to change,” he’d said. “This place helps… people like you. This is your chance.” The intensity of the word made it clear that this chance was Van’s last. His father pulled him out of school to come here. He’ll have to play catch-up when he goes back, but it’s this or be tossed out of his parents’ house.
“Persistence is what you’ll need when you’re back out in the real world.” Brother looks at each of the four young men in turn. “Which is today.”
There’s murmuring amongst the other boys, then that disorderly giggle.
“Today’s Graduation Day.” Brother smiles benevolently; the sun-glassed armed guards by the door politely applaud.
All moisture instantly flees Van’s mouth and moves to his underarms.
There’s some mistake, he’s not ready, not nearly. That which has been denied him these past thirty-seven days is like a phantom limb; gone, but still tangible.
“So, do we get a party or something?” one of them says snidely.
Brother laughs. “Oh, nothing that fancy! Just a few words with The Director and you’ll be on your way.”
They all stand, but Brother holds up his hands in an intercepting gesture.
Van notices the guards’ change of posture: they’re both on High Alert.
“No, no,” Brother says, firmly but lightly. He gestures to the inner door across the room. “The Director will have a private interview with each of you.” He pats the shoulder of the first boy in the line – the trembly, delicate one - and leads him through the door. One of the armed guards follows them.
The remaining guard turns toward the group, hand tense above his holstered gun, perhaps aware he’s outnumbered. Nobody moves immediately. Then, as if by unspoken command, they sit down.
The Giggler starts in again, low and slightly manic.
Van’s thirsty, but the thought of drinking water makes his stomach clutch. In the last five weeks his body has begun to reject replenishment. Rather, it rejects what the Institute considers food: gelatinous frozen sludge, with a vague lemony undertaste, and thick, oily water. The same meal, three times a day. It makes Van logy and thickheaded, and has gnarled up his insides until his excrement is no different in texture than his urine. This, he’s repeatedly assured, is his body releasing toxins and purifying itself; but it feels more like being drugged and starved. The boys weren’t fed this morning - not necessarily a bad thing.
The only sound is the high-pitched sibilant crackle of fluorescent lights. Then comes the insistent giggle. Before Van can tell the kid to shut up, Brother comes back, alone.
“Where’s Joey?” The boy now in front stands defiantly, eyes narrowed, chin out.
Van emits a tiny gasp. The patients aren’t supposed to know each other’s names, a rule made clear from day one. They do, though, some names: whispered in hallways, at meals, to the next in line at the one-on-one counselling sessions; exhaled nightly through the windows of their cell doors to mingle in the concrete corridors.
Van steals a glance at Brother. Did he catch this breach? His eyes betray nothing as he leads the Suspicious Boy across the room and through the door.
Perhaps, Van thinks hopefully, their families are in there, waiting for them.
A heavy clomp! from behind the door begs to differ. Van jumps at the sound. The guard grips his weapon.
The first guard returns, looking pale.
Brother pops in, a smile stapled to his face.
“Sorry about the noise,” he says with starched buoyancy. “Nothing to worry about.” He turns to the Giggler. “Come along. It’s okay.”
The Giggler’s laughter is almost hostile now; he grips Van’s arm painfully hard. His eyes are full of such concentrated fear as to infuse his entire being with its essence. The Giggler, Van realizes, has achieved at last the emotional purity promised by the Institute; but it’s the wrong emotion.
Brother drops his smile and motions the guards with a jerk of his head.
As the guards pry his fingers from Van’s arm, the Giggler begins hooting more intensely. By the time they’ve dragged him through the doorway it’s just screaming.
He’s not ready, like me, thinks Van. In fact, none of them were. A bunch of screw-ups: Delicate, Suspicious, Giggly.
Van’s bowels lurch.
No matter what he’s fed; how he’s counseled; no matter how many times he’s beaten, his addiction is unstoppable.
From the next room, the Giggler’s scream shuts off like a flicked switch.
Van looks up at the remaining guard. “Help me,” he says, his voice so shaky the words sound like a nervous tic. His tongue feels glued to his palette. “Please. Help me.”
The guard smiles neutrally behind his sunglasses. “Didn’t you hear Brother? You’re going home.”
“Just let me go. I won’t tell anyone.”
Brother steps into the classroom. His face is red, as though from exertion.
“Come along,” he says gently.
Van turns to the guard. “Please.”
Brother takes one arm; the guard takes the other. They steer him toward the door.
“Please,” Van says.
Inside, The Director sits placidly at his desk, while the other guard stands at attention.
Where are his parents?
Where are the others?
“Welcome,” says the Director, smiling.
“Please,” Van tries to say.
The Director gestures toward a chair, into which he is deposited.
Van hears the door shut softly behind him.
Lin Morris lives and writes in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. His short novel The Marriage Wars is available at Amazon, and his story "The Necklace" appears in the flash anthology, Flash of Brilliance. His left-handedness is the answer to any question regarding what made him who he is today. Lin recommends Raphael House.