When Colin arrived at the meeting place Tuesday night he found a group of about twenty people clustered around a light pole. They all seemed to know each other; all talking and smoking—glowing pinpoints of cigarettes speckling their silhouettes. He proceeded past them straight to the door, but, twisting the knob, found it locked.
"Running late," someone in the group said.
"Big surprise," someone else added.
Colin walked a ways off, leaned against a wall and eyed them, and he could tell they were eyeing him. The tone of voices indicated men in their thirties or forties, but occasional outbursts of high-pitched laughter suggested a few females. He heard one ask, "Who's the newbie?"
Heads cocked in Colin's direction, then eased away. "Do we care?" came one reply.
"I’m a Hinckley trainee," Colin answered in the cold evening air, aiming the comment at no one in particular.
Most didn't hear him but a few heads swiveled his way and gave him a closer appraisal.
"Does look a little like him," someone said and giggled.
Unsure laughter rose at this then fizzled. They went back to chatting as if he didn't exist, as if he were some anomaly, as if they weren't all anomalies. He watched them with distaste. Do you have to be a card-carrying member here? Tired of the sight he pulled out his smartphone and noted the time. 7:35 p.m. Bad enough to be sent here—they've got to keep you waiting like the perverts they assume you are.
He stuffed the phone, a graduation gift, back into his pocket and took in the setting. Only a trickle of traffic out. No one else on the streets. He had the peculiar feeling they were the only ones in the city, and the rest, wise to some impending doom, were all underground. Below earth was where he might end up himself, if he didn’t take warning, so he’d been told, and if he didn’t attend these sessions to obtain his diversion, his one-time pass, and get back on the right path.
He sighed, leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes. “Visalia, Gateway to the Sierras,” the archway at the edge of town had proclaimed. He had to deal with another gateway, a gateway drug of sorts—addiction to one Julia Spearman.
A jiggled flash of lightning from a storm to the west teased his eyes open. On the eastern horizon, John Muir's hulking Range of Light strobe-lit into view. A particularly dazzling bolt revealed the snow at the highest elevations. There lay his home away from home—the employee cabins at seven-thousand foot plus altitude.
* * *
When he'd first arrived at Sequoia National Park for the summer, he'd been chilled and amazed by the alien world into which the concessionaire's bus transported him from the Fresno airport. The snowbanks still towered twelve feet high along the winding road to the seasonal workers’ cabin area, and he felt trapped in some gigantic luge and felt his Houston past sliding forever behind him.
But the novelty of snow quickly wore off, and only made him shudder with its icy indifference. He'd come in mid-May and most of the other employees hadn’t yet arrived. He felt lonely and terribly homesick. The employee cabins were dark, and along the opposite wall to his sat a matching bunk with a naked mattress. He, as a fresh English major via Texas A&M with no "collegiate-level" job prospects, had been desperate to escape his parents' house. Now, he had every reason to breathe freely—if he hadn’t been choked with regret. He hadn’t said a proper goodbye to his family but skirted away with scarcely a wave. He felt bad about it.
* * *
When the door to the meeting place finally opened, the others, like a school of upright mackerel, moved forward, flicking their waning cigarettes onto the sidewalk as they funneled through. Colin brought up the rear. He wanted his pick of seats—somewhere he was unlikely to be called upon—but little chance of that now.
On entering the large fluorescent-lit room with its yellow no-nonsense cinderblock walls, he found the issue moot—the chairs had been arranged in a circle. Only two vacant spots remained and he took the one farthest from the entrance—where presumably would preside the leader. On the right side of the chosen gap sat a diminutive lady in her early seventies who surprised him by nodding and smiling at him. Did she really belong here? Colin could tell she had been a semi-beauty in her youth. Still slender, still elegantly dressed—though her outfit was sleeveless and dismayingly short—with a face not too adorned with wrinkles. Her hair glowed like freshly polished silver, dropped over her forehead in a sort of bang, and was topped by an undersized purple and off-center beret. But age had loosened her throat into a dewlap, and the distance between her nose and upper lip had extended as if a denture within had slipped and taken the skin with it.
A balding man sat to the left—wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with Winona Ryder's cute but world-weary face. He didn’t smile at Colin. This Ryder-man scooted his chair a few inches to the right as Colin took a seat, and Colin retaliated by scooting his a little to the left, being careful not to slide too close to the lady, who had, herself, shifted in her chair to study a printed sheet in her hands as if absorbed in studying the program for a wedding, maybe, or a church musical. She looked far too old and far too normal for this setting.