“And the guy who made it’s brother, what about him?”
“He was ahead of us. He went in already.”
“Did he come back out?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“No. I guess not.”
They waited in silence, taking hits off their cigarettes and watching the line shrink until they were at the front and someone else was way back there where The Roulette looked like a gray dot on the horizon.
The taller boy envied those behind him. He wanted to go join them, start other forbidden conversations with another kid, and hear another truth. But he couldn’t. They, the guards, would get him for sure if he stepped out of line. At least by waiting, he had a chance.
“Hey, man, you all right?” the smaller boy asked. “You’re shakin’.”
“I’m just cold, man. I’m just cold.”
“Okay. This your first time through?”
“Nah. Third. Last time, man. Then I’m free. Free, man, free! You know what that means, man? Freedom? You can go anywhere. Do anything you want, man. You never have to worry about nothin’. Jesus, man. Free. I want it so bad, I can taste it.”
“You’ve come out the other side two times? What’s it like on the other side?” the taller boy asked, awed.
“It’s wonderful. Sometimes you got family over there, sometimes not. But the third time, man, they say everybody’s over there. Even the President, man. The President. He gives you this award or some card that says you’re a free man. And then you party, man. Party `til your legs fall off, man. Damn, I want that.” The smaller boy fell silent, seeing his party; the President, giving him his free papers. He free to roam, untouched by anything. Free.
“Do you think you’re going to make it?” the taller boy asked the smaller boy.
“Huh? Oh, yea, man. Definitely. I come from a family of lucky kids, man. My two older brothers made it, hell, even my sister made it. They’re all free and they’ll be waitin’ for me on the other side.”
“How can you be sure, man? It’s all chance. You might not make it. The guy in front of you might.”
The smaller boy was suddenly angry. He grabbed the taller boy by the front of his T-shirt, snatching him down to his level.
“When did you become such a fuckin’ expert? Don’t you ever fuckin’ say that to me again, man. Ever. I’m gonna make it because I’m lucky, man. And I’ll spit on you, man. So, fuck you, man. FUCK YOU!” He released the taller boy, shoving him a step out of line, warranting them their first and only warning from one of the guards along the line.
They waited in silence once more. They were so close now that the taller boy could smell the pungent odor of sweat and fear The Roulette burped from its throat. Faintly beneath that, he could smell the other side. The sweet, summer honey smell of freedom. He shivered in spite of himself.
“You cold, man? Here.” The smaller boy handed the taller boy his jacket. Beneath he was bare-chested.
The taller boy put on the jacket thankfully. The smaller boy didn’t apologize for his outburst, and the taller boy didn’t ask for one.
The line moved and they moved with it. It was terribly silent now that the two boys had stopped talking. The taller boy watched the bodies swallowed by The Roulette and wondered if they will make it. He thought of their families, of his family. His mom, really. She was his only family. He’d had a father, he had been shot by one of the guards when he tried to run. And an older brother, but unlike the smaller boy’s lucky lineage, he never saw the other side.
. . .to be continued.
More short short stories here.
*Image credit: “Desert Tree” by StockF8.