“You alright there Red?” The boy questioned with concern after a few minutes. I was sat on the floor, back against the wall, my head hanging low. I managed to give him a small nod before he rose to his feet and made his way over to me. “Cook.” He introduced as he extended both his cuffed hands to me and slid his back down the wall to join me. I took his right hand awkwardly in mine and shook it politely.
“Emily.” I croaked, my husky voice sounding deeper after crying.
“Nice to meet ya.” He grinned, getting himself comfortable. “Circumstances could be better, mind.” I gave a short laugh before he spoke again. “So how have you gone and got yourself exiled? You look like a right goodie two shoes to me.”
I scoffed at the statement. “Yeah? well looks can be deceiving.” I sighed, glancing at him quickly, he had an eyebrow raised in curiosity, urging me to go on. “Okay, so…well I…I like…I like girls.” I shrugged, stuttering nervously.
“Nothing wrong with that Red.” Cook stated firmly. “It’s the system thats wrong.”
“Christ.” I snorted. “Didn’t have you pegged as a politician.”
“Looks can be deceiving.” He laughed with a wink.
“Oh and my name’s Emily.” I corrected.
“I know. but Red suits you better.” He teased nodding at my hair. I rolled my eyes but was somewhat aware there was a small smile on my lips. It seemed Cook was actually quite easy to talk to and had cheered me up for the first time today.
We sat quietly for a moment before the door slid open again. “You can’t take my son away!” We heard a woman screaming from the auditorium. “He’s done nothing wrong!” Me and Cook stood as quickly as we could with cuffed hands to see a pair of guards restraining the woman and another push an inconsolable, curly haired boy inside the holding room with us before the door slid closed again, locking us in. The boy stood frozen to the spot, tears streaming down his face, his eyes fixated on the door, pining after his mother like a lost puppy.
He began to breathe quickly as he sniffed between tears and soon began to hyperventilate as the initial shock of the situation left him. Me and Cook looked at one another with concern as he began to pace the room. “No skill set. I’ve got no skill set. I’m useless. Fucking useless.” He cried breathlessly to himself, grabbing at his hair in distress.
“Mate. calm down.” Cook tried to reassure, placing his cuffed hands on his shoulder. The boy jumped, as though he’d just noticed our presence in the room. “It’s alright! it’s alright buddy, its gonna be okay.” Cook continued cautiously, guiding the boy to sit on the floor. “Whats your name?”
“JJ.” The boy breathed, catching his breath. “Well actually it”s Jonah Jeremiah Jones so technically my name is JJJ or just Jonah but everyone calls me JJ.” The boy rambled quickly.
“Okay, JJ mate.” Cook continued. “Just breathe for a minute yeah?” The boy nodded, taking shaky, deep breaths as tears continued to roll down his cheeks.
Me and Cook sat back down against the wall opposite him. Everything seemed so unjust to me in that moment, as much as I didn’t think Cook was an angel, all I saw in that room were three helpless teens trying to cope with their lives being turned upside down. To make it feel worse, we could barely help the things they’d exiled us for.
“Why..why are you here?” JJ asked Cook in a shaky voice.
“Drug offences mainly mate.” Cook replied. “And rejection of authority too I suppose.” He continued, grinning, seeming somewhat proud.
JJ nodded, taking in Cooks answer. “They told me I’ve got no skill set and that I don’t have anything to offer Briseton, which seems inaccurate to me considering my academic record and with regard to my mathematic aptitude I’m in the top 0.3% of the population, which is an interesting demographic statistic because paradoxically my communication interpersonal and intuitive skills are towards the lower quartiles, which is probably why they exiled me.” JJ ranted, finally finishing with a sigh.
Me and Cook both sat silent for a moment, taken aback by JJ, looking at him with looks of bewilderment. “Well…” I finally spoke. “It’s nice to meet you JJ” I smiled. “I’m Emily.” He smiled back at me nervously.
“She’s gay.” Cook interjected casually, making JJ blush and I shot Cook a quick disapproving look.
We were held in the room all day, joined by other exiles every ten minutes or so, until the day stretched into evening and around 50 of us were packed into the holding room. As predicted the skinny, dark haired girl joined us but kept to herself in the far corner of the room. As did many others, some formed small groups, chatting and comforting one another, all of us nervous and in the dark about what was to come and how our lives were going to be from now on. The anticipation of it all was thick in the air, it created a buzz, I could only only wish it was one of excitement.
The chatter in the room halted a little as we heard heavy footsteps of multiple people approaching the door. A high ranking officer took centre stage as the door slid open. “All of you, on your feet.” He commanded. “Now!” We followed orders, climbing to our feet, the rattle of handcuffs escorting the fear that was notable around the room. The officer then stepped aside revealing a long line of lower ranking officers. They entered the room, one by one escorting us out, an officer for every exile. With their grip firmly on our forearms they led us back through the auditorium and outside where a large black, streamline bus was waiting for us. The head officer stood outside the front of the bus as we were filed in. “Boys to the left, girls to the right. Sit down quickly and no talking.” He commanded.
My officer let go of my arm as we reached the bus and gave me a small push to move inside. I climbed a couple of steps to join the others that had already boarded. I looked to the right, following orders and sat down in the next available seat. Mystery girl, a nickname I had coined for the brunette I’d been seeing all day occupied the seat next to me. She gave me a raise of her eyebrows and a smirk and I returned it with a pathetic small smile. “You lot are headed for West Watch.” The head officer spoke again as the bus reached full capacity. “You have failed to meet requirements that the great country of Bristeon expects and for that you will be punished. Any rights you once had are gone, any personal possessions you once had mean nothing now. You will listen to the staff and guards at West Watch who give their time and livelihood to help keep Briseton safe from the likes of you and you will do as they say. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir.” The bus mumbled.
“I said is that clear?!” He questioned again, urging a better response.
“Yes sir! We all spoke in unison, louder than we had before.”
“Okay then, over to you Kieran.” He said turning to the driver who started the engine as the head officer exited the bus.
There was absolutely nothing pleasant about a silent bus journey. If not boring, it certainly amplified everyones anticipation and upset. We all had questions and queries swirling around our head, bad thoughts and feelings of shame; being left alone with them was torture. The road we drove on was a straight, direct road from Centre City to West Watch, as we drove away from Centre City the houses and buildings became more few and far between until we made it to the official border. A brick wall was built around the entire circumference of the city and a large sign posted, manned gate greeted us. “You are now leaving Briseton Centre City entering exile territory” It read. Kieran brought the bus to a halt as we reached the gate, producing an ID to show the guards in the manned booth beside the gate. I watched from the window as the guard glanced at it before allowing the gate to rise so that we could continue our journey. We drove for a further half an hour along the long stretch of road, nothing but fields and countryside flew by the windows, taking us a world away from the city lives we all knew. The late evening started to fall and the fields and vast land seemed to blend together, looking like great stretches of empty space. Eventually we reached our destination, however I couldn’t help thinking we were better on the bus.
“Here ya are Exiles.” Kieran announced. “Your new home.”
The entire bus peered out of the windows, as two massive metal gates opened inwards to allow us into a bleak looking compound, surrounded by a barbed wire fence and tall flood lights that gave the place an eerie glow. The stretch of road continued for another 100m or so past the gate, where in the distance we could see a large, double doored building, surrounded by semi circle rows of smaller buildings. The first buildings we came across, however were on our immediate left and right. Huge blocks of grey concrete, enforced with their own layers of fencing and wire, finished with a small watch tower on each of them and tiny, sparse, barred windows.
“Maximum Security Exile.” Kieran answered the murmurs and gasps that were floating around the bus. We all stared, some with mouths open at the horrible site. I gulped, feeling sick and unashamedly scared. I didn’t agree with the exile system, but I could make an exception for the people I knew inhabited within those walls. To be considered in need of a similar level of punishment as them however, was heartbreaking.
Thankfully, the bus moved forward quickly and we reached the large building ahead of us. A lush, green lawn surrounded it and a circular pathway surrounded that, sprouting off other pathways that lead to the smaller buildings around it. “West Watch” A large sign read above the entrance to the main building.
A fleet of guards swarmed towards us, walking in disciplined unison and dressed in all black, combat style uniforms. The bus came to a halt and Kieran rose to his feet as the doors opened. “Okay, one by one file out please.” He gestured towards the exit. “I don’t give a rats arse in what order, just fucking behave please.” He wasn’t exactly loveable nor approachable but something about Kieran’s lack of professionalism told me he didn’t have the same mean streak in him most exile staff did. We did as we were told and I filed out of the bus behind Cook and JJ, who had been sat a couple of rows in front, Mystery Girl was following behind me. We were met by the patrol of guards, who once again paired themselves up with us, escorting us into the main building. A stage, at the back of the room greeted us, with a large projected screen above it. To the left was the front of a large canteen style kitchen and to the right, tables, which I presumed exiles would eat at, had been pushed against the wall. It was clear to me, this was a some sort of multipurpose common room. Chairs had been set up in rows with an aisle down the middle, facing a uniformed member of staff, who looked like the definition of authority. Her dark brown hair was slicked back in a tight bun and her all black suit gave her a morbid feel. She stood rigid, her hands behind her back, stern and still, with two other staff members behind her, waiting until we were all inside the hall before she made any movement or motion to speak.
The guards took each of us to a random seat, standing behind us once they had done so. The main officer at the front of the hall then gave a small, commanding nod and the guards released us all from our handcuffs before resigning to the perimeter of the hall. I was completely separate from Cook, JJ and the Mystery Girl now as I looked around the room, feeling somewhat lost in the sea of unfamiliar people, as I itched at my irritated wrists.
“My name is Harriet Wicks.” We heard from the front of the hall. “I am the director of West Watch. Now…Let’s be clear from the offset. Nothing happens in this compound without my say so, and nothing goes on here that I don’t already know about or won’t find out about.” She intimidated. “You’ll be stripped of any personal belongings and clothes and given your uniforms. But firstly you’ll be assigned to your quarters.”
“Fuck this shit!” A tanned boy, with dark hair swept across his face stood up in anger. “All of this is so wrong, I want to go home.” He spat. Two guards from the side of the hall began to move towards him before being halted by the director with a raise of her hand.
“What’s your name boy?”
He paused for a moment to look around the room before answering. “McClair. Freddie McClair.” He grimaced.
“Well Mr McClair…What makes you think you’re fit to return home? You were after all exiled here like everyone else. What were your charges?”
The whole room had fallen silent and were listening intently to the exchange, all slightly on edge. “Drug offences and rejection of authority” He mumbled flatly.
“Clearly.” The Director spoke with a raise of her eyebrow. “You have been exiled because you are simply not fit to be a citizen of Briseton. The sooner you accept that, the sooner life here will be easier for you, if not you’ll quickly find yourself in one of those delightful buildings you saw on your way in here. She gave a patronising, chilling smile that made my stomach turn. “Consider this your first warning McClair, you won’t get a second.”
With that, the boy sat down, a look of defeat fresh on his face as he clenched his jaw.
“Anyway.” The director continued as if Freddie’s protest hadn’t taken place. “Whilst you’re here at West Watch, you will also be given work assignments, they will be decided tomorrow after breakfast. Your work will earn you units, which you are free to spend however you like. Now…Time to assign you to your quarters. Your accommodation here at West Watch works in blocks of streets, named alphabetically and numerically. We have just moved some older exiles out of ‘A’ block and into our elderly quarters, so ‘A’ block is your new home. The blocks are the small buildings that you would have seen on your way in here and you will pair 2 to a room. Pairings are picked at random and work on a traditional segregation of males and females. There will be serious punishment for those of you here with homosexual perversions and act on them whilst in a same sex room pairing. Is that clear to all of you?”
“Yes Ma’am” The hall resounded.
“Please stand when I call your name.” The director then announced. “Ahh, our little protester Freddie McClair.” She sniggered. “You’re first on my list.” He stood immediately.
“Paired with James Cook.” The name caught my attention and I watched Cook rise out of his seat from the right side of the room. “A1. Please follow Doug through the room to your left.” I watched as they disappeared behind the door and continued to watch as more and more names were called, brewing agitation within me as I sat there. “Jonah Jeremiah Jones?” My ears pricked up again as JJ stood shakily. “Paired with Thomas Tomone, A9.” And off they went out of sight. I feared slightly for JJ being paired with a complete stranger and wished he could have at least had Cook bunk with him.
“Emily Fitch?” I finally heard my name called after a further few minutes. I stood quickly, not wanting to do anything to upset The Director. “Paired with…Elizabeth Stonem, A18.” The director spoke, reading from her clipboard. I watched as Mystery Girl stood up. My stomach churned a little bit, there was something intimidating about this girl and I feared I’d have a hard time avoiding trouble if I was around her, but at least I could put a name to a face now. I went to exit to the aisle but The Director spoke again. “Stonem?” She questioned Elizabeth. “Any relation to Anthony?”
“Maybe.” Elizabeth shrugged plainly.
“That was a yes or no question.” The Director spat back, looking irritated.
“He’s my brother.”
“Well well. Trouble just runs in your family doesn’t it?”
Elizabeth gave a sarcastic smile.
“Off you go with your partner then.” The Director instructed, happy with her torment. “Doug will let you through the door, to the right this time”
I quickly stepped out into the aisle to follow Elizabeth who walked in front of me towards the door. A fairly tall man with thin strawberry blonde hair and a face far to friendly to be an officer let us through the door. He waved an ID card and the door slid open into a small room where we were greeted by a female medical worker.
“Sit down please.” She spoke to both of us with her back to us. She turned around with a que tip in her hand. “Open please.” She spoke directly to me.
“Open your mouth.” I glanced at Elizabeth with confusion and was met with her expressionless face before I begrudgingly opened my mouth. She swirled it around my cheeks before placing it in a test tube and sealing it away.
“You can calm down, it’s for your profile. We have to keep a DNA sample.” The worker explained before giving Elizabeth the same treatment. “Okay, remove your clothes now please girls.” She instructed, gathering two yellow jumpsuits, embroidered with A18 on the left breast. She could clearly see the shock and unwillingness on our faces as she turned back around. “Don’t make me get The Director, do as you’re told.”
We did so uncomfortably and I climbed into the ill-fitting, baggy jumpsuit as quickly as I could before she took our clothes from us.
“Hey, what are you doing with them?” I quizzed, my tone filled with mild anger.
“You won’t be needing these anymore.” She replied, however, I wasn’t too sad not to be seeing the god awful black dress again. We were then handed one pair of black plimsoles and one pair of combat boots, along with a second jumpsuit and a plain white t-shirt, which were given to us in small, tatty cardboard boxes.
“One last thing before you can move on.” The worker spoke. “Your unit watches.” She said, producing two small banded watches with a little digital screen attached. “Arms out please.” She instructed and strapped one to each of us. “These are synced to you and will match up to your profile, so no losing it or swapping.” We nodded, taking in what she was explaining. “Okay, you’re both done. Exit that way please.” She finished, pointing to a door to the left of the room.
As me and Elizabeth made our way to the door, I glanced at myself in the full yellow jumpsuit, clutching my tatty box. My eyes were puffy and dark and stress was evident across my face. The Emily Fitch I was this morning was truly gone forever.