You are the cafeteria worker at the state mental hospital. Your dad got you the job after you dropped out of college. He says he’s proud of you but with an excess of enthusiasm that makes you doubt his sincerity, the same way he was proud when you got your green belt when you were nine. Now you get a pension, he says, and can retire in twenty-five when you’re only forty-three. You’re going to do great, he tells you and everyone. For a moment, you allow yourself to believe in the possibility that you can be great, even amazing, at this one thing.
The hairnet alone makes you want to quit after the first hour of your first shift. The elastic is loose, and the net falls down on your forehead over your eyebrows. Eventually, you stop pulling it up. You try not to be constantly aware of the way it scratches your skin and enters your field of vision. It’s like trying to ignore a cockroach crawling up your arm.
The tall, thick girl working the hot dog bin next to you, standing too close and glancing at you too often, tells you the net keeps the hair off the food and the lice off of you. Now your head itches.
You stand behind the buffet and spoon out creamed corn with a plastic ladle. After an hour, it feels like a part of your hand. When the patients with pink wristbands get in line, you set down the ladle, relieved to have your hand back, and use a slotted spoon. Some Pinkies don’t mind the cream on the corn, but most of them do, so you drain it for everyone, taking your time, making sure every drop of gelatinous yellow goo is gone. If you could, you would rinse it and dry it for them and transform it into regular corn.
Hot Dogs thinks she’s your supervisor. Maybe she is. She yells at you, rushing you on. The other Hairnets snicker and roll their eyes at you. But you can’t rush it. It needs to be perfect, or the Pinkies won’t eat. They need their corn in even numbers. Doesn’t everyone?
The patients with gray wristbands are the reason the ladle and slotted spoon are rubbery and distinctly unstiff at their ends. Grays will stab you in the heart with the ladle still in your hand if you let them. You white-knuckle the ladle and imagine it sticking out of your chest with blood oozing out and that nasty corn-cream dripping down onto you and into you. You lose your focus, and a large Gray notices before you do. He lunges forward and growls. You screech and jump up in the air just enough that the Grays smile and the Hairnets giggle and name you Squeaky. They don’t know you’re tough. They don’t know you made it to green belt and would have done black if your dad hadn’t snickered when you told him you would.
Eight Pinkies lean back in their chairs and look up to you, not a kernel of corn left on their plates. The looks on their faces make you like your job a little, just enough. “We love you, Squeaky,” their expressions say. You love them too.
Later, when you begin to rinse the sticky cream from a pan, someone nudges your arm. “Squeaky, your daddy’s here.”
“Ain’t that sweet?” the woman next to you says in a tone that says she hates you. She is short and unnaturally thin but has a look in her eyes that tells you she wouldn’t let a violent felon scare her. She’s dauntless. You wish you were her but can’t imagine how that would feel.
Your daddy hugs you from behind before you get all the corn rinsed out of the pan. You know it’s wrong, but for a moment you wish the slotted spoon wasn’t soft at the end. You feel like stabbing him in the heart so he can feel your pain. And their pain. The Pinkie pain.
You tell him you have to finish working and are grateful when Dauntless interrupts—until she tells him you’ve fallen behind. You don’t have to turn around to know he’s scowling at you. “Squeaky is slower than most,” Dauntless says.
“Squeaky?” he asks.
No one answers, not even Dauntless.
Nine seconds of silence makes you think he’ll stand up for you. You hold your breath and hope and wait.
“See you at home, Squeaky,” he says, and they all laugh, loudly and for too long. He’s the boss, your boss’s boss. Everyone knows he got you this terrible job that you couldn’t get on your own. You feel naked and wish there was a shadow you could hide in. You wish you were a ninja with a pocket full of stars.
Smiling, Dauntless sends you to the ward with a large metal cart filled with compartmentalized plastic trays with creamed corn in the large rectangle. She sends you alone as if to test your courage. The patients on the ward are mixed. Grays intermingle with a rainbow of colors. Most wear bright, almost neon, cyan-colored wristbands. Cyan is blue—you know it, and so do they. Blues are only a danger to themselves.
Pinkies don’t belong here. Neither do you. On the color-spectrum, blue isn’t close to pink, but in this place it is.
Your face flushes with anger and compassion and the discomfort of knowing no one has your back even though your daddy promised they would. You can’t pull a tray without exposing your back, so you imagine you’re a ninja and prepare yourself for a spinning back-kick, acutely aware you haven’t done one since you were nine. You breathe in and out and count to twenty-two by twos twice and hear the quick approach of footsteps.
The tray in your hands is heavier than expected. You turn. The man in front of you is too close with messy hair and bad teeth. He has no wristband. You remember the rule: if there’s no wristband, assume gray. Your front kick always sucked. You hear your sensei’s words: “Use what’s at hand for self-defense.” You look at the congealed yellow corn-cream. You regret it before you do it but only because the cream will fly everywhere. It will freak out the Pinkies and you.
You use the tray like a ninja star and tag the man in the throat.
Dauntless storms in and yells at you while she checks on the man who is struggling to breathe. “He’s not a resident,” she screams, holding up his name tag. “Your daddy’s gonna be pissed.”
Through the hairnet that has slipped down over your eyes, you see the Grays nodding, looking proud, prouder of you than your dad ever was. You nod at them and remove the net. The Blues stare, and the Pinkies look at you like they don’t know you anymore. You count again by twos to twenty-two, aloud this time, barely a whisper, and tell them with your eyes that you are kind of sorry but not enough to stay here with them. “I love you,” you say. “Don’t let them put cream on your corn. That’s not right.”
They nod as if they forgive you—as if they understand.