Chapter 4 —

"Come on, you ain't waiting for no beauty treatment. You wanna get your asses off them couches?" One man started shaking his head. "That was a rhetorical question. Dumbass."

We shuffled to our feet. A No Smoking sign was stapled on the wall, yet there was a cigarette tray overflowing with ashes and burnt out cigars on the table. I could use a cigarette myself.

As a group we shambled down a narrow hallway and entered a small dim room with a back table laden with equipment.

"Step up there," came a voice from the back of the room. A hand was visible behind the heavy equipment, pointing to the front where on the wall draped a large piece of black cloth. No one moved. "Well hurry up! I haven't got all day." The man in the front slowly moved forwards. Someone pushed him from behind.

"Hands off!" He growled, and stomped in front of the cloth. Before he could question anything, something clicked, and was immediately followed by a bright flash. Vivid spots of light danced before me, right at the edges of my mind, taunting me.

"Next!" Another man replaced the first. Another click followed by another bright flash.

"Next!" The line budged forward a bit. "Next." I stepped in front of the camera. "Where's your number?" I didn't move. A pale face popped up from behind the table. His face was deeply shadowed. "Well watcha waiting for? Git it pinned on!" I gave a second's hesitation just to irk him, then grudgingly pinned the number onto the front of my shirt. In the dark my fingers were clumsy, and I drew a sharp stab of pain as the pointy end of the needle found my tender flesh. I closed my eyes.

Click. Flash. Silence..

"Next!"

By the end of it all, I confirmed to myself that I was half blind at the moment; my vision obscured with vivid albeit tantalizingly annoying lights. After we were restored with our possessions, we walked down a few more hallways, and turned around a few more corners. We approached a closed door with a plate and the number 536 on it and stopped. From inside came a low murmur. The lead man fished a ring strung with keys and chose one. The door swung open, unlocked. We filed into the room. I couldn't have been more surprised of what I saw.

The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was the smell of cigar and smoke and unwashed bodies I was only too familiar with. Then orange overcame my vision.

There were about a little over a dozen of them, dressed in matching orange shirt and pants, scattered around the room. Some were grouped in twos or threes, while some sat beside themselves, alone. All were looking at us, all men.

"Make yourself comfortable. You might as well since your gonna be staying here for, well lets say for now." The man in white said. He nodded at someone in the back. "Your identity numbers match your bunks, so get unpacking." There was a moment's hesitation, then with wariness we each drifted off in search of our beds. I could feel eyes on my back as I approached a thin bed with the number 84031 painted on the wood at the foot. It wasn't much of a bed to begin with. A cot would've suited it better by half. I pushed my bag underneath. A flat pillow lay at the head and a thin sheet of some stark material was smoothed over the cheap mattress. I picked out some faint stains embedded in the near-white cloth. On top of that were folded orange clothing. I looked up, searching for the man in white. He had left without a word. I gazed around the room. The newcomers were uneasily settling in, and most lay sprawled on their beds. The other men – the ones already in orange clothing – were watching us, casually chatting amongst themselves. Someone laughed, and others took it up. My eyes picked out the leader among them. He seemed to be enjoying himself; beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other sprawled on a moth eaten couch, laughing at something. An old TV was on running in the background, but it went mostly unnoticed. The man raised his cigarette to his lips, his cheeks compressing as he inhaled. The cigar left his lips just as his eyes caught mine. The corners of his lips turned into a scorn-cross-smile, as if saying Well look who just dropped in. I chose to ignore him.The men surrounding him jostled each other playfully, laughing at each other as if they were having the time of their lives. Another group had a game of cards in progress, bets being called back and forth like. While others kept to themselves.

In one corner of the room there were some dumbbells and weights laden on a rusty metal stand. One man was working at it, while muttering savagely under his breath. Muscles strove underneath skin sheathed in sweat.

There wasn't much else, aside from the rows of beds. Small narrow windows almost reaching the high ceiling were positioned in the far wall, almost undetectable.

I looked back at my made bed, at the small pile of orange coloured clothing that was waiting for me. For me to change skins. Shed the skin of my past. Well I was more than eager to do that.

I discarded my top layers, and removed the thin t-shirt I wore underneath it all till I was half-naked. It didn't smell too pleasant. Picking up the top piece of clothing I unfolded it. An orange t-shirt. It looked washed, better than the sheets at least.

"You work out or something man?" The voice was harsh and grating, of one who had smoked too many Slims in his life. I turned around. His cigarette was still held in his hand, between thumb and index finger, but he had left his beer. He wasn't as old as I had first thought; a full head of black hair that barely reached the nape of his neck and no tell tale wrinkles. He stood a head or more taller than me, and I had to crane my neck slightly to level with his eyes.

"Not in the least."

"You have a nice body there." He gestured with his cigarette. A trail of smoke entered my nostrils. I suddenly remembered that I was terribly hungry.

"Thanks."

He had one of those sideburns that didn't literally cover the area below his ear but that ran down the sides of his jaw, right at the angles. A strong jaw enclosed in smooth dark brown skin. Like those Italians in those Italian movies. He seemed to be of Latin-American ancestry.

Thinking of nothing else to say I turned back to my clothes. I slid the orange shirt down my body. It was a size too big but I wasn't complaining.

I was aware of the man still behind me; he hadn't moved. Well since he looked like he wasn't going to anytime soon, I might as well. I kicked off my shoes and shrugged off my jeans, tattered and worn. I quickly pulled on the orange pants and tied the laces at the belt. I decided to leave my number, so I rolled it up among my old clothing, squashed them into my sack and pushed it into the farthest reaches under my bed. When I turned around the man was still there, waiting. His eyes looked me up and down, then he broke into a grin, as if saying Now you're one of us.

"Want a smoke?" He offered, "I could do with another one." The cigarette in his hand was burned out, black on white. "My name is Alberto,"

"Terrence." All of a sudden I sounded shy.

I followed him, walking past the rows of poorly manufactured beds to where his cronies were. I counted five of them.

"Look what I just hauled in." Alberto said, and pulled me forward, like displaying a prize-winning salmon.

"Get a load of him!"

"Hey saucy boy, where's ya momma?"

"How the hell did his ass end up here?"

"Who the hell fucking cares?"

I think I heard a wolf whistle mingled among the calls.

"Yo Brandy, gimmee a smoke," Alberto turned to me, "you said you wanted one right?" I nodded. "Make that two." The guy named Brandy, a stocky man with a baldhead, drew out a packet and removed two slim cigarettes, handing them to Alberto, who passed one to me. The white wrapping that held the toxic drugs felt smooth and cool beneath my fingertips. It felt good. Alberto presented a lighter to me, the small red flame shimmering weakly. I dabbed the tip of my cigarette in the flame, and immediately it flared up. I settled the cigarette to my lips, its presence so familiar. I inhaled, and my lungs choked with intoxicating yet pleasant fumes. Alberto settled down on the moth-eaten couch and crossed one leg over his knee.

"Shove off," he said to a man beside him. The guy left promptly and settled on the ground without a word. "Come," Alberto proffered to me, patting the empty space beside him. I sat warily, trying not to let all the eyes bother me. All those envious eyes.

"You smoke?" He asked

"Used to," I answered.

"Quit?"

"Something like it," I shrugged. I felt lightheaded, and that reminded me not to smoke on an empty stomach.

"What's ya name boy?" Someone called with a Jamaican accent.

"Terrence, and I'm not a boy,"

"Ya pretty enough to look like one,"

"What are you then? A girl?" Some else called. Laughter.

"Men, let him be -" Alberto started, but I cut him off,

"I'm 18." I said indignantly.

"The po-"

"That's Joe," Alberto quickly said, indicating to the man who had just asked my name. The skinny Jamaican man with a shaved head said,

"Ya man." He pronounced man like mon.

"That's Stevie," Alberto nodded to a blond guy. "That's Mirco," he turned to a fat obese man with tattoos running down both his bare arms where he had rolled up his sleeves.

"John," a man with half a dozen piercings on each ear and one each on his nose and lips. "Christian,"

"Anything but." The man named Christian called, and laughed at his own joke like it was the funniest thing ever. "And Brandy." The purveyor of the cigarettes nodded.

"So Terrence," Alberto swung his arm around to drape on the back of the couch behind me, but not touching me. "How did you end up here?" He looked at me sideways, dark chestnut eyes roving up and down my body.

I exhaled, tasting the bitter taste of smoke on my tongue. A football game was being aired live on the TV at the moment. There was a crack in the window, causing a slight distortion of the images on the screen. Finally I said,

"I got hitched." Peals of raucous laughter immediately broke out from the men around me.

"No man! You must be kid-ding!" Joe called.

"Seriously? Just like that?" Asked Alberto, snapping his fingers.

"I was freezing my ass off at that time, looked like a good decision to me then." I reasoned.

"You came in with them right." Alberto pointed with his thumb at a small cluster of the men I arrived with.

"Yes."

"Do you know the-"

"Yo Terrence, your mommy's looking for you!" The blond man named Stevie called. I decided to ignore him.

"Do you know them?" Repeated Alberto, shooting an irritated glance at Stevie, who cackled in laughter.

"No." I replied.

"None what so ever?" I shook my head. The others I had come with were all dressed uniformly in orange, and were either chatting with each other or unpacking.

"Good," murmured Alberto, who shifted his arm slightly. His cigarette was already nearing its end, and so was mine. He leaned forward and tapped the excess ashes into an ashtray on a table. The table was heavily scarred and stained, and held half a dozen beer bottles and an overflowing ashtray.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Damn it felt good. My life was looking up. I could spend my days smoking cigarettes while lounging around these guys. It was better than being homeless. Way better.

I looked sideways at Alberto through slitted eyes. He had uncrossed his legs and had them stretched them out onto the small wooden table in front of the couch, black shoes resting on the top. Alberto discarded his burnt out cigarette in there, throwing it with an age-old accuracy. I followed him, daintily dropping my own into the pile.

I sat back and stretched, listening to the men talk and joke, sounding so at ease and carefree. I heard my name mentioned more than a few times amid their chatter. I wondered how long they had been here for.

"Hey guys, how long have you been here for?" I voiced my thoughts. Instead of all the random answers I had expected from the men, Alberto spoke for them.

"Most of them are fairly new. See that guy over there? Royce?" He pointed to the muscular man working out at the far corner. "He's been here for 'bout seven months or so. He's reckoning he can break out soon with all those muscles he's pumping." He laughed harshly, and the rest followed him. I laughed also, albeit weakly. I didn't really see what was so funny. I looked at the man named Royce, whose cheeks were flushed. He must've heard us, even from across the room. But he paid us no attention, his eyes glued in front of him and muscles pumping. Pumping.

"Why does he want to break out?" I asked after the laughter ceased. Alberto shrugged coolly, as if saying Hey it beats me.

"We don't need him anyways." But something flickered in his dark brown eyes, which were fastened on the body of Royce.