The Meeting

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A week passes uneventfully.

The people of Compound 4 are exceptionally good at pretending nothing has changed. I attribute it to fear of actual change. People go to work every morning and pretend that everything is the same, wearing their usual frowns and uniforms. Occasionally, I will see some people from a different compound wandering around, checking in shipments. They wouldn't have a clue that everything under the surface is different.

Yet, I can see it. Walking to and from work in the fields, I see more people laughing, taking an extra minute to say goodbye to one another. Young people kiss on the sidewalk; mothers slick down their son's hair with wet cloths, dusting off their noses. Everything seems a little bit brighter than before.

The work in the fields is hard. Since it's winter, we are tearing up all the fall crops, retilling the cold, frozen ground. We leave the potatoes and lettuce, weeding the endless rows daily. Bent over under the warm sun, I focus on the work. Forgetting everything else comes easy.

At night, though, I don't have an escape. The guilty thoughts come to me in my dreams, the haunting idea that he's never coming back. Dad holds me as I cry, letting me get it all out of my system.

"It will stop," he tells me one night, pushing my hair around from my face, "This depression."

Some nights, I wonder if he wants that more than I do.

Howard joins me in the fields after a few days, giving me a hearty hug. No words pass between us, but he squeezes my hand, his cheeks red from the wind chill.

Sometimes, I'll look up from our long shifts, eyebrows raised high. He stays close to me, and we find comfort in each other's presence.

"Hey, Howard," I say one day, leaning on the shovel in my hand, "Wanna hear a joke?"

He pushes his glasses up on his nose, nodding. A half smile plays on his lips.

"How do you know when the moon has had enough to eat?"

The smile breaks out over his face as he raises his eyebrows at me.

"When it's full," I whisper, returning his look.

His laugh is the same single outward breath of air, and he rolls his eyes at me. I laugh at him, regardless of the ache in my back.

"That smile looks good on you, Jay," he says, voice dropping in seriousness, "You should bring it out more often."

So, I try to tell him jokes more often, keeping the air soft between us.

One afternoon, on our break, the speakers crackle, and everyone looks up. Ollie gave her normal morning announcements already; there's nothing left to tell us for the day.

"Will Jaelyn Price please report to the Research Facility? I repeat, will Jaelyn Price please report to the Research Facility?"

Ollie's voice isn't the one I hear. Instead, the chipper receptionist runs the microphone. I look over at Howard who is eating a carrot.

"Think I'm in trouble?" I ask, standing up.

"Probably" is his reply, chewing loudly on the orange vegetable. I pack up my stuff, tell the supervisor goodbye, and return my tools to the shed. I haven't been to the towering building since my execution day. If I don't see it, I can't remember how it felt to be chained up.

Looking up at the Research Facility, though, I feel dizzy. My execution post is still there, a reminder of where I've been. The cuffs dangle uselessly off it, rattling in the winter wind. I hurry up the steps, through the open doors. They're always open, now, giving people shelter from the cold and sunlight.

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