Being part of the good guys meant so much to him. He didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot.
Officer Fell fidgeted with his collar brass, and thanked whoever might be listening that his new locker was tucked back in a corner. It made him less anxious to be starting a new job, still out of his element, but not stranded in the middle of the men’s locker room, adrift in a sea of boisterous bodies—men who already knew each other, drank beer together, were almost entirely from the same small-town-nowhere-county as Paradise Correctional Institution.
Fell, by contrast, was an odd import. Educated, not rowdy, and inclined toward enjoying a ratty tartan blanket and a spot of hot cocoa on a dreary day, he had formerly been a counselor at Eden Youth Rehabilitation Center, which was colloquially referred to as “The Garden” by both its staff and juvenile wards alike. The offer of better pay and better benefits had eventually enticed him to trade in his old business casual attire for the work uniform of a maximum-security prison.
While the other officers joked and pointedly ignored him with their respective cliques, Fell was trying to estimate the best time to go through the rolling gates. The last thing he wanted to do was appear to be running behind, but he was also awkwardly cognizant that nobody else even seemed ready to start their shift. Fell got the distinct impression that being the first one to report to roll call would all but ensure that other officers would ostracize him for years to come.
He settled on being the third man out of the locker room. That seemed normal, right? Not too lackadaisical, not too brown-nosey. Fell was highly intelligent, but sometimes all those unspoken rules of being a human got to be hard for him to track.
Fell found the housing unit to which he was assigned to work as a wing officer. He stood outside the central pod, where he could clearly see another officer and a sergeant sitting and laughing together, and waited to be let in. The sergeant glanced up at him through the glass, and then leaned over and murmured something in the ear of the corrections officer beside him, who all but doubled over in hysterics.
There they were, those pesky, “Did I miss the ‘how to be a human’ class?” rules again: Was he socially expected to knock as though they hadn’t already seen him standing there like an idiot, or should he continue to look like more of an idiot and not knock?
A lanky, ginger-haired man standing in front of a mop bucket, or, quite possibly, a mop bucket with a sentient red mop on a stick, watched intently from the entrance of A-tier. He tilted his head to one side, expression unreadable under dark glasses.
Just as Fell was nervously lifting his hand to try tapping on the glass, the officer in the pod sprang to her feet, opened the heavy door with a paracentric key, and fluidly dropped back in her seat as silently as a cat stalking its prey.
“Um,” Fell cleared his throat tentatively, “hello. I’m your new officer—”
“Fell,” drawled the sergeant. He had a grating, high voice and an off-putting smile that made Fell think he would much prefer it if he shouted and scowled at him. “Welcome. I’m Sgt. Sandal.”
“Uriel,” said the female officer. Her eyes stayed locked on Fell, and the coldness of her gaze did unpleasant things to his stomach. He was instantly grateful that he had only eaten three of the doughnuts in the lobby. “I work B-tier. You were a counselor before this.” It was not a question.
“Indeed I was,” Fell agreed pleasantly, not sure where this was going but already knowing that he was not going to like it.
There was a beat of silence.
It was not the comfortable kind.
“I’m going to do a round,” Uriel stated simply. She let herself out of the pod and tossed the heavy keyset she had been carrying to Sandal so that he could lock the door behind her.
“Unusual choice of career change,” Sandal remarked blandly. “Not the strongest people, counselors.”
“I shall endeavor to make the transition worth your while, sir,” said Fell.
“That will not do.” Sandal’s voice was sickly-sweet, yet somehow still aloof and faraway. “You may call me sergeant. Tell me, Fell, do you know the difference between the words ‘sir’ and ‘sergeant’?”
“Ah, I suppose rather more letters in one, yes?”
Sandal did not seem amused. Nor did he seem to have been listening for a reply at all—more like he was luxuriating in the thrill of listening to himself.
“Someone you call sir sits behind a desk while we’re at war with those derelicts out there.” Sandal gestured vaguely at the tiers of cells seen through the windows of the pod.
Fell bit back the urge to point out that Sandal appeared to be sitting at a sergeant’s desk while his officers were out on wings.
Sandal passed him a set of keys and a bottle of pepper spray. “So on that note,” Sandal switched gears, allowing just a teensy bit more maliciousness to peek through the curtains of his smarmy demeanor, “shouldn’t you be out there working?”
“Of course, sir— Sergeant,” Fell said as he exited the pod. “Right. Jolly good.” Sandal slammed the door behind him.
Fell mentally swore as he walked out onto A-tier. Had he really just said “jolly good”? Was that honestly a thing that happened? He had opened his mouth to address a sergeant who had obviously already decided that Fell was not tough enough to do this job, and the words that his brain had settled on were “jolly good”?
Fell anxiously dragged his fingers through his fleecy blonde curls and prayed that nothing else would go wrong on his first day at work.
Fell enjoyed a good twenty minutes or so, of nothing going wrong.
He was sitting in the officer’s station, pouring over the logbook for the wing, when an inmate approached his open door. “CO, can I grab a roll from you?”
Fell turned for just a moment to pick up a toilet paper roll behind him and absently handed it over, neatly dispensing it into the open palm of a lieutenant.
Fell’s head shot up in surprise, his mouth a perfect “O.”
The square-jawed lieutenant glanced down and gave the young inmate a Look, and the inmate decided that he very urgently had somewhere—anywhere—else to be.
Lt. Gabriel tossed the roll in the air a couple times like he was playing with a ball, before setting it down firmly on the CO’s desk and beaming like he was doing a commercial for Whitestrips. “New recruit!” As he clapped his hands together, tone deepening a notch: “Welcome aboard!”
Sgt. Sandal’s smile was creepy. Lt. Gabriel’s was terrifying.
Fell started thinking about Shark Week.
Fell scrambled to his feet, honoring the white shirt and silver bars in front of him. “Th-thank you most kindly, Lieutenant,” he said.
“Oh, no need to stand on ceremony—you can just call me sir,” said Gabriel, smile almost impossibly widening. He pointed at Fell’s desk. “A little early in your career to be sitting down, don’t you think?”
“Well, um, of course, you’re right, I was actually just, ah, acquainting myself, with the logbook, as it were, seeing, as one does, the way of things he—”
“That’s what end of shift is for, right?” Gabriel pressed on cheerfully. He swept a hand over the logbook, which was shamefully splayed still open. “I mean, just imagine if some inmate were to come up here asking for some nonsense and they could just read what was in there. We would never set ourselves up for something so stupid. Right?”
Fell struck out both hands to snap the book shut. “Forget my own head next,” he gasped.
Gabriel was all too delighted to keep grinding. “Not to mention that you’re like a sitting duck in here. Didn’t even hear me walk in.”
“Yes, no, right,” Fell nodded. He was really running out of words to say. He wished he were by a lake somewhere, feeding some ducks. Just tell me I’m incompetent and get on with it then, this slow death is a nightmare, he thought.
Gabriel clasped Fell’s shoulder, giving it a hearty shake. “You’re not in Eden anymore, sunshine,” he said brightly. “You’re not talking to kiddies about their feelings. This is the real deal! You can do this, tiger!”
Well, which is it, Fell thought glumly, sunshine or tiger?
“Right, right,” Fell sighed.
“I’ll be back!” Lt. Gabriel promised—or threatened, depending on one’s position. And Fell’s position seemed to be at absolute rock bottom of the food chain. Gabriel headed for the door. “Oh, and Fell?”
“Toilet paper only gets handed out on Tuesdays.” Gabriel winked and disappeared around the corner.
“Good Lord,” Fell grumbled to himself.
“Almost forgot!” Gabriel burst back around, nearly giving Fell an apoplectic fit.
“The gym is open for all staff to use before and after shift. Just thought you might wanna know.” He paused meaningfully. “All right, now give ‘em hell!” And then he was truly, finally gone.
Fell considered, quite seriously, banging his head off a wall until he could forget about that whole interaction. I made a mistake, he told himself, I can’t do this, these people are dreadful, I’m so … soft …
“Well,” a voice from behind him interrupted Fell’s downward spiral, and it was the first reasonably friendly-sounding voice he’d heard all day: “that went down like a lead balloon.”