SJF – Chapter 24

This entry is part 24 of 25 in the series SJF Chapters

background-tile3.jpgThe following Monday, Darius woke up earlier than he had hoped. He’d had the nightmare again—the same nightmare that had been plaguing him for years. Rather than try to get back to sleep, he decided to get an early start on his day, hoping he might get a quick nap in before going to work.

Darius started his day at the Super Justice Force Research Library. Located on the first floor of the main building—across from the gift shop—the library looked, at first glance, like a standard collection of books, periodicals and movies. But the massive digital collection at the library is what made it one of the most impressive places Darius had ever been. Thousands of publications—maybe even millions—were stored in the digital files. It was supposedly the biggest digital library in the world. Darius could access any book he could think of on the library computers, the pages appearing on the monitor in front of him. He could read digital copies of classic comic books dating back to the adventures of the first Captain Freedom.

After his first trip, the library became Darius’s favorite place at HQ. The head librarian, Evelyn Bartee, was an older woman, with long dreadlocks peppered with grey. The ugly scar running down the left side of her face made Manny’s scar look like a scratch.

Evelyn Bartee called Darius “Mr. Logan,” and he called her “Ms. Evelyn.” She helped him set up an account on the library computers, in preparation for his on-line GED class. “Study hard, Mr. Logan,” said Ms. Evelyn. “There’s no such thing as too much knowledge.”

Ms. Evelyn reminded Darius a bit of his mother. It wasn’t that the two women looked alike—because they didn’t. It was just that Darius’s mother never stopped emphasizing the importance of education. “Ignorance is not an option for you, young man,” his mother would say. From the moment he started school, his mom expected nothing less than straight A’s.

As his life spun out of control over the years, his grades slipped. It was hard to get decent marks when you went to three different high schools in one year, and equally hard to worry about getting decent grades when living to see the next day was in question. Still, despite all that happened, Darius understood the importance of learning.

The Monday after the barbecue marked Darius’s first day in the on-line GED program. He spent two hours setting up his student account and doing course work, and an hour reading “My Life as a Do-Gooder: The Autobiography of Jacob Kirby,” by the original Captain Freedom. With an hour until his mandatory meeting with Trang Nguyen, and feeling hungry, he headed to the employee cafeteria.

Because he couldn’t eat anywhere else—unless he cooked in his apartment, which he didn’t do—Darius ate all of his meals in the employee cafeteria, making him the most regular customer. After his first week he knew almost the entire staff of cooks and dishwashers at HQ. Ezekiel “EZ” Manigo ran the cafeteria. An old-school Chancer—one of the First Ten—EZ Manigo had moved his way up on the job, and oversaw one of the biggest crews at SJF. There were more than a dozen members of the Manigo family who worked for Super Justice Force, including EZ’s nephew Julio, whom Darius had met his first night on the job.

Darius sat by himself as he did much of the time, having just started eating his lunch, when a small group came up to the table. “Mind if we join you?”

Darius’s heart pounded at the sight of Elladia standing by his table with three of her friends. His mouth dried up so much he had trouble swallowing his food. Breaking out in a cold sweat, part of him wanted to tell Elladia and her friends to go away. With her this close, he couldn’t concentrate on the simple things—like breathing. Instead, he choked down his food, said “sure,” and tried to look as cool as possible, even though he knew that was impossible.

Elladia introduced Darius to her friends—Rayven, Lillette and Chico. They all smiled politely, and said how great it was to meet Darius, and he pretended it was great to meet them as well.

Darius wasn’t sure if Elladia’s friends were ignoring him, or if he had suddenly turned invisible. Either way, he wasn’t part of the conversation, which was fine with him. It all had to do with television and fashion and music, none of which mattered to Darius. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d watched television, he only owned two pairs of pants—not counting his work uniform—and his taste in music had not progressed beyond what he listened to with his parents.

There was no denying the fact that Darius did not fit in with Elladia and her friends—not that he wanted to. He felt a certain disappointment, however, that Elladia would keep company with people like this, who could prattle on and on about nothing at all. But as the conversation dragged on, Darius noticed that Elladia barely said a word. She smiled, and nodded her head in agreement, and kept up the appearance of being part of the conversation, but she hardly said a word. From a distance, Elladia looked like she belonged with these other people. Up close it was a different story.

I wonder if she thinks her friends are as boring and annoying as I do, Darius thought, smiling for the first time during the entire conversation.

Elladia noticed his smile, and the two of them made eye contact while her friends engaged in a heated exchange about who was being voted off of this show and that show. She smiled at him. It was a different smile than the one she had with her friends, and the only way anyone would ever notice the difference would be if they really paid attention to Elladia’s face.

It could have easily been a magical moment—the start of a great romance—except it was interrupted by a voice coming directly behind Darius. “Darius Logan, you’re under arrest.”

Darius turned around to see Chuck Maslon, flanked on either side by two SJF security guards and four police officers.

“What’s going on?” Elladia asked.

“You shut your mouth, little lady,” said Maslon. “This doesn’t concern you.”

Darius thought about jabbing his fork into Maslon’s eye. What’s the worst they can do, arrest me?

“You can’t just come in here and arrest him. What’s the charge?” demanded Elladia.

“The charge against you, señorita, will be obstructing justice if you don’t shut up,” said Maslon.

One of the cops grabbed Darius by the shirt and hoisted him out his chair. He shoved Darius up against the nearest wall, frisked him, and then slapped the handcuffs on.

He couldn’t cry, because even though Darius knew he would never see any of these people again, and that he was headed off to prison, he didn’t want them to think of him like some kind of sissy. The humiliation of the moment was bad enough—dragged off in handcuffs in front of everyone. In front of Elladia.

The cops pushed Darius forward, shoving him toward his new life in prison. Maslon got directly in Darius’s face. “This didn’t last long,” said Maslon, sounding satisfied.

From where he stood, Darius could have head-butted Maslon. I’d probably break his nose, Darius thought. At the very least, I could hack up a nasty loogie and spit it in his face.

Darius chose, instead, to not become the punk Maslon wanted him to be. It didn’t feel as good as kicking Maslon’s ass would’ve felt, but given the circumstances it had to do.

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