I hesitated at the imposing glass doors. Inside I could see a receptionist busily tapping her keyboard. The ornate and rather uncomfortable looking chairs that lined the wall were empty. I nervously straightened my tie, swallowed, and opened the door.
The receptionist looked up as I approached.
"Troy Bertram," I introduced myself. "I'm here to answer your ad."
She gave me a warm smile that she must have given to thousands of clients. She probably practiced in her mirror every morning.
"Certainly, Mr. Bertram." She rose from her chair. "If you would follow me…"
My eyebrows rose involuntarily. This was getting stranger by the minute. It must have been an important job, for the receptionist to leave her desk.
As I meekly trailed the woman, I reflected on the ad I had seen in the paper the week before. It had immediately caught my attention, and I had read it over so many times that I had memorized it. It was a wanted ad for "young men and women, fit and healthy, with no family or community ties." At first I had thought it must be a scam, but as the days had worn on, my curiosity had gotten the best of me, and I had driven out to this monster of a steel building pushed up against a forest on the outskirts of town.
"Here you are, Mr. Bertram."
The receptionist had led me to a small room with rows of metal folding chairs. About half of the chairs were occupied by healthy, young men and women, obviously fellow applicants.
"Please take a seat," the receptionist told me before she left to return to her desk.
I glanced around the austere room and then sat in a chair near the back.
I fidgeted, uncomfortable with the silence.
After a few minutes, I tapped the shoulder of the redhead in front of me and stuck out my hand when she turned around.
"Hi. Troy Bertram." I forced a cheery voice.
She gave me a tight little smile.
"Hello, Mr. Bertram," she replied distantly, and turned to face forward again, ignoring my hand.
Thus spurned, I sat back in my chair and studied the walls. It didn't take long. The walls were plain, straight, and glaringly white with two doors facing each other. Almost as soon as I looked at the ceiling I rejected it. It looked like another wall above my head, with three rows of fluorescent lights. Before I could turn my attention to the floor, a door opened and an older woman strode in. Her short blonde hair was streaked with gray, and her nondescript black pants and shirt were finely tailored but seemed more utilitarian than stylish. She paused at the front of the room and gazed at us with steel gray eyes before speaking.
"I will not keep you long. You may all leave, do what you must, and return here in one hour, fully prepared to stay with no outside contact for two months. You may bring anything you wish, though you will need nothing; we will provide anything you require. Any of you who can not return in one hour need not come again at all; you will not be considered for the position. Those who do return are not hired, but only accepted to a specialized training program." With that, she left the room.
After a moment of mild shock, we all stood and filed quietly through the door, absorbed in our own thoughts. I knew I should have walked out the door, gone to my apartment and called the convenience store on the corner to see if they had any job openings. I knew I should have.
Twenty minutes later I was back in that same room with the next two month's rent paid and all the perishable food in my fridge eaten. I hadn't bothered to bring anything with me. They said they'd supply everything, and I wasn't a picky guy. Over the next forty minutes, the rest trickled in, some carrying bags, but most empty-handed like me. I noticed that about one third of the original group didn't show up.
Precisely on time, the woman in the black suit stepped through the door, with three young men at her heel.
"These men will show you to your rooms," she announced without prelude. "You will find a badge on your bed, which you must wear anytime you leave your room. Feel free to explore today; everyone has been instructed to answer any question you may have. Tomorrow will begin your training."
After she left, the three called off names and took those recruits to their rooms. I was in the last group. We were led down a wing through halls with cream walls, dark green carpet, and fluorescent lighting. The man left me at my room without comment and continued down the corridor with the others in tow.
The room seemed like an extension of the hall, with the same walls and carpet. In addition to my fluorescent light, a desk lamp stood on a small table in the corner. The opposite corner held my bed, little more than a cot, with the pristine sheets and gray blankets folded on the pillow, maybe to prove they were clean, but more likely to save them time in making the bed. Shelves lined the wall next to the door, filled with hotel-sized soaps and shampoos, washcloths, towels, extra blankets, pens, paper, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, and several suits of nondescript gray clothing.
I was reaching for the doorknob when I remembered my badge. Turning again to the bed, I found it lying on the blankets. It was cheap plastic, white with navy blue letters proclaiming that I was Troy Bertram, Special Trainee. At the top it was strung with a ball chain to hang around the neck. It reminded me of army dog tags or press ID. I slipped the chain over my head and left the room.
I wandered the halls until the green carpet changed to white tile and I began glimpsing offices through open doors.
Well, she said anyone'll answer my questions, I mused to myself. So let's try it.
I poked my head through the next doorway.
"Yo, 'sup?" I remarked.
The man at the desk looked up from his neatly organized piles of paper. He seemed a little perplexed as he sat with his pen still poised over the file he had been working on. Then he saw my badge and set down his pen with a smile.
"Hello, Trainee… uh, Bertram. What can I do for you?"
"Hey, yeah." I stepped completely into the room. "I was just wondering what this job is that I'm trying to get."
"Oh, um, I'm afraid I don't know that."
"Well, that's ok. Do you know who would?"
The man looked thoughtfully at the ceiling.
"Only the commanders, and Commander Adams is the only one here."
"Well, where can I find him?"
"Ah, well, she is in charge of the trainees, so you've probably already seen her. Blonde, stern looking?"
"Oh, yeah, her." I nodded and put the name to the face. Mrs. Drill Sergeant is Commander Adams.
"But I don't know where she is now," the man continued, "and I don't think she would tell you anyway. Everyone's been really closed up about this whole thing."
"That's all right. No problem. Seeya." I threw him a wave and left his office.
Well, that's just great, I thought. He doesn't know anything, and according to him, no one else does either, 'cept for Commander Adams.
I wandered about for a while more, talking to random people, but I found that the only real question I had was what I was doing there in the first place.
When I returned to my room, I found a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice sitting on the table. After I had eaten, I made my bed. I draped my suit over the back of the chair and slipped between the sheets. I lay there staring at the ceiling, wondering what the next two months would bring, or even the next day, and if I would prove worthy of the job, and what I would need in order to do so. My last thought, however, was none of these. I suddenly remembered that I hadn't drunk the half carton of milk in my fridge.