Scene 46: OSA

Within the hour, Lucas and Amory sit in the busy lobby of OSA, waiting to be reprimanded for their incompetence. Amory fears they will be thrown in the RPF, and she needs to avoid that outcome if she ever wants to make it out of the Sea Org.

Previously On:

Amory meets her new partner in the ethics project.

Last Lines: “I know more than you think,” he says. “I know The Church, so I know you.” Lucas sits down against the wall, protecting himself from the icy rain pelting the concrete.

Within the hour, Lucas and Amory sit in the busy lobby of OSA, waiting to be reprimanded for their incompetence. Amory fears they will be thrown in the RPF, and she needs to avoid that outcome if she ever wants to make it out of the Sea Org.

The two wait quietly, their shoulders lightly touching due to the close chairs which they cannot move. Amory situates herself against the arm rest opposite of Lucas, trying to move as far away from him as possible. Lucas rests with his head back, staring up at the ceiling, and Amory rapidly taps her foot on the ground and twists the dirty gray scarf around her arm. She has a difficult time confining herself to the small chair while anticipating the inevitable. She tries to hide her face from the people passing them, but the effort is unnecessary since no one acknowledges the downstats as they come and go from their important work.

After they wait for twenty minutes, Tracy walks out to meet them. In the middle of the crowded hallway, she shouts, “You idiots! You are both pieces of shit who can’t do anything right! I heard that you two almost burned down the Celebrity Center. If either of you so much as coughs without authorization, I’m immediately throwing you in the RPF. Now get out of my face.”

Images of Erika flash in Amory’s mind as she listens to the familiar lecture, and old feelings of guilt and shame resurface in her body. The confidence she has been building drains from her instantly, and she sinks lower into her chair.  Every eye in the room is trained on them. She clutches her upper arms with her hands and stares at the ground. Each second seems to defy physics and last hours as Tracy’s words painfully reach their target.

After Tracey leaves, Amory follows Lucas’ lead and rolls out of her chair. They obediently run of the office as quickly as they can.

Once they are outside the department and slow back down, Amory sees that, somehow, Lucas is still smiling. Confused, she asks him, “What are you so happy about? Didn’t you hear with Tracy just said?” Lucas is a complete mystery to Amory, his words and actions outside her realm of comprehension.

“Of course I heard. Everyone heard,” he says indifferently.

Amory stops. “Don’t you care?” she asks, her brow wrinkling in bewilderment. Her tone is no longer angry but curious. She is perplexed by this strange creature, like a gruesome accident she can’t help but stop and watch.

“No, I don’t,” he says with a quick wink. He grabs her shoulders from behind and gently shakes the rigidity from her body. “Maybe you should loosen up a bit. Then you wouldn’t care either.”

For the first time today, Amory smiles. “Maybe you’re right,” she says under her breath. His touch no longer disgusts her, and she welcomes the warm contact. She leans back against his hands, and the pair walks side by side back to their bus.

Scenes from the Next:

It is Sea Org Day, Amory’s favorite day of the year. But this year, things are different.

Scene 45: New Ally

About two months into her ethics program, Amory lies shivering on her cot while a fierce El Niño storm rages outside. Fifty mile-per-hour winds, barrage her window throughout the night, savagely knocking the glass and screaming with the force of the dead.

Previously On:

Amory can’t tell if she’s hallucinating or if someone is taking pictures of her.

Last Lines: She can’t tell if she is delirious or if he was really snapping pictures of her. The stress of the past months must be clouding her rationality.  Amory can’t shake the thought from her mind as she tries to steal some rest before starting the cycle all over again. If only she weren’t so tired.

About two months into her ethics program, Amory lies shivering on her cot while a fierce El Niño storm rages outside. Fifty mile-per-hour winds, barrage her window throughout the night, savagely knocking the glass and screaming with the force of the dead. Freezing rain leaks through the frame and pools on the cold concrete floor under Amory’s cot, gradually trickling up the legs and soaking the fabric. Amory struggles to cover her body with her single, threadbare blanket, but her feet stick out of the end and rely on socks filled with holes to keep them warm.

Her fingers and toes are purple when her watch pounds on the door to wake her.c

“Some storm outside!” he shouts through the closed metal.

She tries to bring life back to her frozen body by bending her knees and wiggling her fingers and toes. Once she is confident her legs will support her weight, she stands to get dressed. She pulls her jeans to her waist, but the denim folds over itself as she cinches her belt tight enough to keep it in place. Her t-shirt, now a size too large, hangs loosely on her body and disguises the strong muscles that have formed on her arms, shoulders, and back. She easily ties the dirty gray scarf to her upper left arm, expertly looing the fabric with her right hand and teeth.

Moments later she looks for Garret, her watch for the day, in the hall, but he has disappeared. She searches for him and sees him down the hall a few rooms. She’s grown accustomed to someone always being there, so the change seems odd.

He sees her looking around, and says, “You’ve got a friend now.”

“Friend?” she asks, surprised at the word.

Garrett meanders back to Amory’s room, confidently pulling his sagging pants back up to his waist. He continues, “They don’t think you’re going to try and kill yourself again, so you and Lucas will be sharing a watch from now on.”

Amory curls her upper lip at the name. Lucas is the last person she wants to spend her days with. “As long as he doesn’t get in my way,” she says, “we’ll be fine.”

The three of them ride the bus to the Celebrity Center in silence, Amory refusing to acknowledge Lucas. When they reach their destination, she speeds ahead of him, charging forth into the blustering storm.

Lucas runs to catch up to her, calling to her back, “Are you just going to ignore me all day?”

Amory keeps walking, disregarding his question. As they enter the building, she finally asks him, “Why are you here?” She knows he was a downstat months ago, but she hasn’t heard any gossip since she’s been in the ethics program.

“I’m routing out,” he says. “Can’t handle this place anymore.” He wipes the water from the lenses of his glasses, and tucks a wet, stray curl behind his ear.

Amory folds her arms across her chest and snips, “Don’t think we’re friends just because we’re sharing a watch.” She turns her back and walks away. The last person she wants to associate with is Lucas. Other than rumors, all Amory knows about him is that he’s from Denmark, his mom is a commanding officer in the Flag liaison office, and he’s in CMO like she is. She is not excited about being so close to a perpetual downstat, someone who could easily delay her progress.

At the Celebrity Center, Garret finds the foreman and checks them in. The project for the day is running electrical lines. They are installing boxes in the ceiling for overhead lighting. Amory has become pretty good at this kind of work and feels confident about her skills. Lucas walks upstairs so that he can catch the wires she feeds up to him. Amory cuts a small hole in the drywall next to the electrical outlet and fishes the line up the open cavity behind the wall. She aims straight for Lucas, whose boyish face she sees smiling down at her. He reaches down for it, but his hands keep missing the target. Amory says, “Here, let’s try this again,” trying to hide her annoyance. “I’m going to feed this right up to you. All you need to do is catch it.”

He says, “I know, I know. I’ll catch it this time. Don’t worry.” There is something calm in his demeanor. He acts as if he has all the time in the world to complete the task.

Amory is not used to working with people like this. “Ok, here goes.” She fishes the wire back up to him, this time more slowly. She wants him to see it, follow it with his eyes before he tries to grab it. “Got it?” she asks.

He reaches down, but fails. “Oh, missed again. But we were close that time. Let’s try again.”

His voice makes Amory’s skin crawl. Amory waits, impatiently tapping her foot.

Lucas stops to wipe the dirt and sweat off his glasses. When he’s finished, he says, “Maybe I can see better now.”

“Try to get it right this time,” she barks. “I don’t want to be working on this wire all day.” Under normal circumstances, Amory would need to file a knowledge report against Lucas for his behavior. He keeps making errors, thus slowing the progress of the project.

Finally, he catches the wire, and attaches it to the overhead light before descending the ladder. As his feet hit the floor, Amory and Lucas hear the crackle of heat and see sparks overhead. The electrical box erupts in blue and yellow flames that dance across the ceiling in an improvised performance of destruction and quickly run down the inside cavity of the wall, leaving a trail of black.

Amory screams, “Fire!” and Lucas freezes in place. Garrett runs to get a fire extinguisher. Everyone in the building drops what they’re doing and stares at Amory and Lucas.

“Get the foreman!” Amory shouts.

Garrett runs to the flames, extinguisher in hand. He opens the value and douses the fire in carbon dioxide. “Someone kill the circuit breaker!” He shouts, his voice shaking with anger.

Amory watches in disbelief as the chemicals smother the flames. Everything she has been building has been destroyed. She turns to Lucas and yells at him, “You did this! This is all your fault!” Before he can reply, she storms through the exit, and finds a path around the building that she walks as a track, the wind and rain howling in her face. She counts one hundred and six steps on her first lap.

As she begins her second lap, Lucas runs outside, trying to catch up to her. She ignores his pleas of “Wait! Amory, wait!” and she continues to speed around the jobsite, shielding herself from the storm with her arm.

After four laps, she stops in front of Lucas, who is sitting on a low wall next to the building exit. From a few feet away, Amory yells at him, “What have you done? We’re both screwed now!”

“This is not my fault,” Lucas responds calmly. “Everything in that building is suspect. There hasn’t been one inspection by the city, not one.”

“If you weren’t here,” Amory’s anger builds with each word, “that fire would have never happened!” Her reprimand is cut short by the foreman walking towards them, Garrett in tow.

“What the hell happened in there?” He yells at them.

Amory points at Lucas, and says defensively, “It was him. Lucas did it.”

“I don’t care which one of you did it. Both of you report immediately to OSA.” He heads back to the building, and yells over his shoulder, “And you can forget about lunch and dinner today!”

Amory’s thin hands shake. OSA is Daisy’s office, the last place she wants to be. She takes a deep breath and holds it in while closing her eyes, an act which typically calms her down. However, today, she is in no mood to be composed. She decides to let herself feel the full impact of her fury. She explodes at Lucas, “Why do you have to ruin my life? You’re a piece of shit downstat who can’t even wire an outlet! What is wrong with you?” When she is finished yelling, her hands rattle at her sides.

In a voice hardly louder than a whisper, he says, “Nothing is wrong with me.” He remains as calm as he was when the day began. “You’re the one who has no clue how to treat people. But I guess that’s not your fault,” he says with true sincerity.

Amory bristles and continues to pace around the room. She counts nineteen, twenty steps, the familiar ritual doing little to calm her rage. She does not understand what he said, even as she replays his words in her mind. Her confusion only makes her anger grow, and she shouts, a little softer this time, “You don’t know anything about me.” Amory wipes her wet hair from her eyes. Her clothes are soaked from the downpour, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

“I know more than you think,” he says. “I know The Church, so I know you.” Lucas sits down against the wall, protecting himself from the icy rain pelting the concrete.

Scenes from the Next:

Amory and Lucas receive their punishment at OSA.

Scene 39: Voluntary Disconnection

Amory awakes early the next morning after her first Int Rundown, before the sun is up, feeling like she never really slept. She spent the entire night tossing and turning on her cot, her mind carried away by a wave of new thoughts and emotions. Her decision to leave The Church is too painful to contemplate, the enormity of the decision too overwhelming, that the only thing she can think about is her immediate escape plan.

Previously On:

The march routine at the Cadet Org.

Last Lines: The teacher yanked the girl up and reminded the rest of the cadets, “All right. Back at attention. Remember—the greatest good for the greatest number. Reset the clock!”

 

Amory awakes early the next morning after her first Int Rundown, before the sun is up, feeling like she never really slept. She spent the entire night tossing and turning on her cot, her mind carried away by a wave of new thoughts and emotions. Her decision to leave The Church is too painful to contemplate, the enormity of the decision too overwhelming, that the only thing she can think about is her immediate escape plan. She decides that her first step must be to disconnect from those around her, to sever all ties that hold her to her current life and strangle the personal agency she will need if she ever wants to leave.

She determines that she must route out properly—finish the Int Rundown, testify before the examiner that she is “rehabilitated,” and then still decide to leave. At that point, she would not be considered a threat and would be judged to be of sound mind when she left. She could walk out without being declared and still communicate with her loved ones.

But finishing the Int Rundown means playing by the rules of The Church and lying to do so. She would have to “realize” that the good people of The Church have done everything they can to help her, but that she is an insane criminal pervert for rejecting their goodwill and leaving the group. Since she is not very good at lying, she decides to practice the stories she will tell in session.

Amory finally accepts the fact that she won’t sleep any longer and grabs her book. She sits on her cot reading under the dim light of her lamp until daylight begins to shine through the bars on her window.

At what must be seven o’clock, she hears Adam’s voice calling, “rise and shine sleeping beauty.” The butterflies are back. She tries to stifle them, acting upon her recent decision to disconnect, but they remain in her stomach.

Rather than rushing into the hallway to see Adam like she truly wants, Amory forces herself to take her time getting dressed. When she pulls on her clothes, she can see how three weeks of heavy labor has changed her body. She must cinch her belt to the next tighter hole so her jeans stay around her hips. Her arms show the definition of every muscle, and her core is stronger that it has ever been. Amory spends an extra minute admiring her new physique in an uncharacteristic act of vanity, proud of how far she has already come.

She opens the door and runs past Adam, shouting “Back in five minutes” over her shoulder.

The bathroom is deserted, as always, since she’s one of the only people on this floor. She finds herself in the mirror and is startled by what she sees. There isn’t one in her room, so she doesn’t glimpse her face much these days. Despite her lack of sleep, her eyes are bright, sparking even, as they catch the light. Her cheeks have a healthy color, growing brown in the natural light of the job site. She brushes on some neutral eye shadow and waves some mascara on her lashes. She even dabs some tinted gloss on her lips. She feels silly putting on makeup before a day of hard labor, but she does it anyway.

Amory finds Adam sitting in the chair stationed outside her door. He’s whistling a tune she’s never heard.

“What took you so long?” she asks.

“We should get going.” He tries to act annoyed, but Amory see the left end of his lip curl up in a smile. “You might want to grab a sweater. It’s starting to get cold outside.”

Leaving the building, she feels a warm winter sun on her face, giving her hope that the months ahead won’t be so bad.

“Ready for another day in paradise?” He asks as they wait for the bus outside the HI. Adam places his hand on the small of her back.

At first Amory’s body tenses. He is close, too close. This is the first physical contact she’s had with anyone in months. Not even a handshake. As the tension lifts, she pauses for a moment longer than she should. Being so near to him sends a rush through her body. She turns and looks him in the eyes, a mere inches away. After a lingering moment, she turns her head so they’re cheek to cheek, then whispers in his ear, “Ready.” She can feel her warm breath bounce off his neck.

As soon as she hears herself, she cringes. This is exactly the behavior she resolved to avoid. She wipes the gloss from her lips and steps away from Adam.

Acts of flirtation are new for Amory. She has certainly never kissed anyone. Even close proximity to other people is a foreign sensation. It’s not that the The Church prohibits intimate relationships outright, it just makes them very difficult. Working over one hundred hours a week, Sea Org members don’t have time to develop relationships. Unofficial Church policy is to split up families because each Sea Org member’s ultimate loyalty needs to be to The Church—not to herself, not to her family, not to anyone else. Amory has not been close with many people, or anyone really, in her life. The sensation Adam gives her is strange and new.

The bus pulls up to the curb. Most of the seats are taken already. Amory walks down the aisle looking for an empty spot at the back, past all the eyes that look away as soon as they see her and her dirty gray scarf. She’s grown so accustomed to being shunned by everyone in a Sea Org uniform that she has stopped looking at them. If they’re going to avoid her, she will save them the hassle by not seeking their engagement.

But today, something strange happens. Halfway down the bus, she hears, “Hi. How’s it going?”

At first, the greeting doesn’t register. When Amory hears people speaking, other than Adam, she assumes it’s directed at someone else. Not looking up, she hears it again, a little louder this time. “Hi Amory.”

My name? Someone said my name? she thinks, confused. Amory looks up, surprised to see her old friend Kimberly directly addressing her. “Hi …” Amory says, startled by the act of kindness. “Thanks.”

Amory has worked with Kimberly for a few years and made her grovel more than once before signing off on her conditions formula. And now Kimberly is fraternizing with the downstat and putting herself in jeopardy. They catch each other’s eyes, and Kimberley looks back down, staring awkwardly at her feet. Amory does the same, embarrassed by her past behavior.

But she keeps smiling as she sits down in the last row. Amory rests comfortably for the first time in weeks. She is reminded about how deeply she is tied to these people, and if she will ever, really, be able to disconnect.

Scenes from the Next:

Amory installs ductwork at the Celebrity Center, and Daisy overhears a conversation.

Scene 36: Health Clinic

A few days after the dumpster scrubbing incident, Riley pauses outside the clinic. She was given the name of this facility from a friend who was in the same situation she now faces. Having traveled to an unfamiliar part of town on a new bus line, Riley is a foreigner in a strange land. Her hands tremble as they pull the door open and she steps inside.

Previously On:

Amory completes her first Int Rundown session.

Last Lines: Her hands have finally stopped shaking. She takes a deep breath as she sits down on the cot. She exhales twice as slowly as she breathes in—trying to push all of the air from her lungs. She needs to let go. She needs a fresh start.

A few days after the dumpster scrubbing incident, Riley pauses outside the clinic. She was given the name of this facility from a friend who was in the same situation she now faces. Having traveled to an unfamiliar part of town on a new bus line, Riley is a foreigner in a strange land. Her hands tremble as they pull the door open and she steps inside.

The large waiting room is chaotic. About fifty chairs line the open, square space, and most of them are occupied with people of all ages, shapes, and colors. Riley scans the area, looking for some kind of direction. She sees a young woman sitting at a desk behind a glass screen and quickly rushes to her. The receptionist does not look up at Riley, so she stands there, staring, for a moment.

“Can I help you?” The receptionist asks while filing some paperwork.

“Yes Sir,” Riley mumbles, careful not to make eye contact. “I’m here to have a procedure.”

“Yes?” the receptionist looks up, but Riley stands silently. “And what procedure do you need, honey?”

“Oh,” Riley says, a little confused, not realizing the clinic did more than one thing. “I need to get an abortion.” The word feels sour passing through her lips. It is always the thing people do but never speak about. Saying it out loud, the word passing through her lips, makes her feel like an evil person.

The receptionist hands Riley a clipboard holding many papers and a pen and says, “Just fill these out and bring them back when you’re done.”

Riley is surprised by the nonchalance of the woman, who doesn’t seem to think anything of what she is about to do.

“And please sign your name on this sign-in sheet here.”

Riley looks down at the paper full of names. The top names are crossed out, but there are about twenty names before an open space. She doesn’t know if anyone would be able to trace her back to this clinic, so she decides to be careful and sign a fake name.

Clutching the clipboard to her chest, Riley hunts for an open seat. She walks past toddlers squirming in their seats and being scolded by their mothers, solitary women reading magazines, men waiting impatiently. No one notices, or no one cares, when she walks by. She finds a seat in the back corner and is thankful for the anonymity it affords.

After sitting down on the cold plastic, Riley looks through the paperwork and begins completing the top sheet. She fills in her name, but is quickly confused. She does not know her address. She knows where she lives, of course, but has never been asked for the address, The Church always taking care of official business for her. Leaving those spaces blank, she lists Amory and her pager number for the emergency contact information. She leaves the rest of the page empty. She flips through the following forms—medical history, health insurance. All of the directives seem to be written in another language, the letters and words familiar but the sentences incomprehensible. Embarrassed, but not knowing what else to do, she walks back across the strange room to the receptionist’s desk.

“Sir?” Riley says meekly to the woman behind the counter, who does not acknowledge the greeting. “I have your paperwork for you.”

The woman looks around, searching for someone who could be called “Sir,” and when she sees no one, takes the clipboard from Riley. She leafs through the pages and notices that most of the forms are still blank. “Uh, honey,” she says annoyed, “you need to fill these out, especially the health insurance information.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Riley says in a hushed voice.

“You don’t have health insurance?” she asks, not really hearing Riley’s comment.

“No Sir,” she says with downcast eyes.

The receptionist sees a scared young woman who must be in trouble. “Well, that’s okay dear,” she tries to reassure her. “How do you plan on paying for the pregnancy termination?”

Riley was warned by her friend that the procedure would cost money, so she came prepared. She pulls a stack of bills, her entire life savings, from her pocket. Unclear on how much to give her, Riley asks, “How much does it cost?”

“Four hundred dollars,” the woman answers factually.

Riley’s eyes grow wide at the impossible amount of money. She could never save that much, but she needs the termination if she wants to stay in the Sea Org. She looks at her humble savings without any idea of how she could afford such a great sum. She puts the money back in her pocket and turns away.

She only gets a few feet before the receptionist calls out to her, “Well, honey, how much do you have?”

“Not nearly four hundred dollars,” she says as she rifles through her stack of one and five dollar bills. She guesses that she has two hundred at the most.

The receptionist watches her count the worn cash. “Well, it’s not over yet,” she adds hopefully. “Four hundred is the total price. If you have insurance, they cover most of it. But for people who can’t pay, we have other options.”

Riley perks up at the new possibility. “You do?” she asks, surprised by the flexibility.

“Oh sure!” the receptionists answers, happy she can help the poor girl. “We have discounted rates for people with low incomes, and payment plan options as well. Don’t worry about paying, honey. Looks like you got enough to worry about. We’ll take care of you.” The woman gives Riley a reassuring smile, and she is immediately put at ease.

“Thank you,” Riley says. The thought of being taken care of is uncomfortable, but a welcomed relief.

“Just have a seat until your name is called, and I’ll finish up your paperwork.”

Scenes from the Next:

Riley has the procedure.

Scene 28: Celebrity Center

After what seems like hours, even though it has only been about ten minutes, the bus stops in front of the Celebrity Center. Amory sits in silence as everyone descends the staircase.

Previously On:

Amory meets her new ethics officer.

Last lines: She fixes her eyes on the emergency exit at the end of the bus and takes a seat in the very last row. In order to keep the rage from building, she stares out the window, trying to clear her mind of all thoughts by breathing out every idea as it emerges.

After what seems like hours, even though it has only been about ten minutes, the bus stops in front of the Celebrity Center. Amory sits in silence as everyone descends the staircase. “Time to go,” the ethics officer barks at her. When she does not budge, he softens his tone and says, “Name’s Adam, by the way.”

Amory looks up at him and smiles, surprised by the unexpected effort of connection.

The Celebrity Center is bustling with activity. Uniforms cover the job site like ants, marching here and there, carrying materials and equipment. The Church is completing improvements of the building, an enormous Gothic-style edifice nestled among palm trees on Franklin Ave, across town from HCO. Its spiked towers reach up to the sky, piercing the clouds. The entire building looks like a maze of nooks and crannies, hidden hallways and steep staircases that seem to bury the secrets of tenants past and present. Everything is ornate and decadent, the polar opposite of the building where Amory is currently living. And here she is to help with improvements. She wonders when the HI last saw a construction crew, especially one this size. But that’s the marketing strategy of The Church—appeal to celebrities, cultural icons, and the rest will follow. And the rich and famous need buildings, retreats as they call them, worthy of their presence.

Amory knows that she is there to help develop the property for The Church, but she hopes that she can construct something of her own in the process.

She sticks close to Adam as he seems to be her only connection to reality. He also knows what she’s supposed to be doing, which is more than she does. As soon as he steps foot in the Celebrity Center, his speed doubles. He wants to get her to her post, fast. She runs, once again, to keep up with his stride.

“Come this way, over here,” Adam motions for Amory. “They’ve got you on drywall in the new ball room. Ever done it before?”

Amory thinks back through her years of MEST work, but drywall is one of the few items not on her list. She nods her head no.

He cracks a smile, his first today, and responds, “Ok then. You’re lucky I’m your watch today. It’s back-breaking work.”

Lucky? she thinks, not feeling very lucky.

After hustling through the service entrance at the back of the building, Amory enters a huge, open room, everything removed but the studs. Stripped bare and ready to be rebuilt. They are surrounded by uniforms, working on everything from electrical and plumbing to hanging drywall and muddrywading. With a crew this size, even an enormous room like this will be finished in a few weeks. Everyone has his little part. Amory wonders what the finished product will look like, how much different it will be than the original. She has seen buildings transform before. Unrecognizable sometimes.

Adam’s well-trained eyes scan the room. He quickly finds the site manager and heads straight to her. “Hi, Sir,” he says. “I have Amory Baldwin reporting for duty.”

She looks down at her clipboard. Her eyes stop, and she looks up, startled. She makes eye contact with Amory. Her look says: Don’t even think about messing with me. She then fixes her gaze on Adam. “Thank you,” she says. “Your criminal here is on drywall. Have her get the sheets, carry them over to the south wall, and get to work.”

“Yes, Sir,” Adam obeys.

As the site manager turns her attention to other matters, Adam finds the pile of drywall standing about five feet high, sheet lying on top of sheet. He then looks at Amory and warns her, “This stuff is real heavy, especially for a girl your size. Do the best you can. I’ll help.”

Amory tries to lift the top sheet of drywall but almost collapses under the weight. She looks down at her arms and is embarrassed by her lack of muscle.

“Nice arms, Popeye,” he jokes.

His sincere looking eyes touch her heart. She forgets where she is for a moment. When his joke finally registers, she is confused by the reference. “What?” she asks.

“You know, spinach? … The cartoon?” Adam did not grow up in The Church like Amory, only joining the Sea Org as an adult.

“Never seen it,” Amory says brushing off her ignorance. She missed nearly two decades of cultural references, thanks to The Church’s strict policies that limit contact with the outside world.

“Oh, right … never mind,” he says, remembering her upbringing. “Here, I’ll lift … You measure.”

They find the others who have begun hanging the drywall. The ceilings are at least thirty feet high, so Amory is nervous about how they are going to cover the walls all the way up to the roof. The expanse is too great and the sheets are too heavy. She asks him with a timid voice, “How are we going to do this?”

He puts his hand on her shoulder and says with confidence, “One sheet at a time.”

Adam lifts the first sheet up to Amory, and she sees the veins swell under his skin. His muscles flex but easily support the weight of the drywall. Maybe I am lucky that Adam is helping me, she thinks. Any other ethics officer would be sitting to the side, watching her fail and not bothering to help. “Not my job,” he would probably say. And he would be correct—his job is to guard the downstat, make sure she doesn’t get into trouble or try to leave. Maybe Adam is different, she thinks.

For a moment, Amory tries to forget that she’s being punished and that Adam is her ethics officer. She is thankful she’s there, doing MEST work, and not on her usual post. She doesn’t have to worry about a project or listen to Erica yell. She asks Adam, “How many sheets are we supposed to hang?”

“Not sure,” he says. “There’s no stats on ethics project.”

She can’t comprehend the ambiguity of her new post. She needs order. “Well, how about we try for twenty?” she asks.

“Twenty sheets?” Adam asks. “Well … we should be able to get that pretty easy.”

She continues, “Okay then, we’ll do thirty.”

Adam shakes his head in bewilderment. “Thirty huh?” he asks. “And they got you on ethics project? Go figure.”

Adam leans down to lift another sheet, but Amory jumps in front of him, revitalized by her new goal. She says, “Here, I can do this.”

He finds her naiveté endearing. “Oh you can?” he taunts.

“Check out these muscles,” she says. She flexes her arms, pretending to look bigger than she really is. She attempts to lift one sheet but buckles under the weight. Climbing the ladder while carrying drywall suddenly seems like a Herculean task.

Adam sees her struggle and asks, “Why don’t you leave the heavy lifting to me? You can screw them in once they’re up there.”

Amory is embarrassed she can’t complete the task herself, but is thankful for the help. She accepts his offer of kindness and climbs the steps.

“You’ll need this,” he says as he hands her the screwdriver. Their eyes catch for a moment. His look is inquisitive. The stare itself is harsh, but his brow wrinkles in curiosity.

Amory’s cheeks grow red in a blush as she averts her eyes. She grabs the screwdriver out of his hand and climbs the ladder, trying not to lose her footing. Once they begin working, they quickly fall into a groove—Adam lifts a sheet and holds it in place, Amory screws it to the studs. Soon enough, they’ve hung five, ten sheets. Looking up at what they’ve done, Amory feels proud of the work, especially considering this is her first time hanging drywall. The lines are a little wavy, but overall it looks good for a novice.

They labor side by side the entire day, taking only a short break for her lunch of leftover rice and beans. By the time eight o’clock rolls around, Amory is exhausted. She’s filthy, completely covered in drywall dust, sweat, and grime. She can see trails of dried sweat in the dirt on her arms, which are so sore she can’t even hold them upright. If she pulled the rubber band out of her hair, it would stand together on its own. She sits down on the pile of remaining drywall to give her back a rest.

Adam brings her back to reality. “No time to rest yet,” he says. “Bus’s about to leave.” He holds out his hand to help her up.

“Alright already.” She pretends to protest, but after a coy moment happily accepts his hand.

“Well, did you meet your stats?” he asks.

Her eyes shine as she remembers her target. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “Forgot to count.” Gathering every ounce of strength she has left, Amory runs back to the room and counts the sheets they hung.

She shouts, “Thirty-three!” Hearing her own words, she is embarrassed by her childish excitement.

“Wow!” He can’t help but smile, infected by her energy. “Too bad you don’t need to be upstat anymore.”

The light disappears from her eyes immediately, and her face grows serious. “I do,” she says, “but this time for me.”

Adam puts his hands on her shoulder, in a gesture more intimate than one permitted between ethics officers and those on guard. “Let’s get to the bus. Can’t miss out on dinner.”

She is grateful for the change of subject. “Yeah,” she says, “wouldn’t want to be late and miss my gourmet meal.”

As she walks back to the bus, Amory feels tired, proud, satisfied, but mostly relieved that the first day of hard work is over. If this is any indication of how the next few months will proceed, Amory thinks she’ll be just fine.

Scenes from the Next:

Amory sees her sister Riley doing MEST work of her own.

Scene 27: New Ethics Officer

The next morning, Amory is again startled awake by a loud pounding on her door. Her groggy head tells her that she’s still recovering from last night’s excursion. As she dresses in her new uniform—jeans, a t-shirt, and the dirty gray scarf—and combs her hair back into a low ponytail, she feels the pangs of her isolation.

Previously on:

Flashback scene to Amory’s first job, or “post,” in the Cadet Org

Last lines: When Robert checked their work, Amory asked him how many days they had to meet their stats for the week. He reassured them that they were scheduled to work four days, but that he could always bring them down extra, or stay late, if they needed more time to finish their task.

The next morning, Amory is again startled awake by a loud pounding on her door. Her groggy head tells her that she’s still recovering from last night’s excursion. As she dresses in her new uniform—jeans, a t-shirt, and the dirty gray scarf—and combs her hair back into a low ponytail, she feels the pangs of her isolation. She wants to tell someone, anyone, about the new thoughts racing through her mind, but she has no one to talk to.

A new ethics officer sits in the chair outside her door. He catches her by surprise. She has the uncanny feeling that she’s seen him before but can’t place him. He’s clearly older than she is, probably in his early thirties, and much taller. The muscles of his arms and chest stretch his shirt across his body. When he stands, she feels his presence, his strength, filling the void in the room.

Without even a glance in Amory’s direction, he says, “They’ve got a project for you today, pretty much what you’ll be doing for the next few months at least.” He turns and sits back down on the chair.

Even though he treats her coldly, like a typical ethics officer, Amory feels her pulse race as she works up the courage to say something. “Okay … I’m Amory, by the way.” She surprises herself with her confidence. Her desperation for human interaction must be stronger than she thought.

He gives her a quick once over and responds, “Yeah, I know. They’ve got you doing construction work at the Celebrity Center. And we better hustle. Need to be there by seven.” Whatever initial attraction she feels is obviously not shared.

Out on the street, the ethics officer has such giant strides that Amory has to run to keep up with him. She wants to shout at him to slow down, but he doesn’t seem like the type to disobey orders, even for a moment.

They reach the bus stop outside HCO, and Amory bends forward trying to catch her breath. There is a row of uniforms waiting. They obediently form into a single-file line, even when they don’t need to at a bus stop. The pair unconsciously continue the procession.

As they stand shoulder to shoulder, the officer asks Amory, “You ever done construction before?”

She looks up, surprised by his small talk. “Just the typical Sunday work,” she says. After cleaning and doing laundry on Sunday mornings, Sea Org members usually spend the afternoon doing mandatory construction work. The Church always seems to be buying old buildings that need work, and instead of hiring people to renovate them, they have Sea Org members do it. They paint, knock down walls, lay irrigation, everything. Amory has plenty of on-the-job training for construction work.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, Amory asks, “Do I know you?” still trying to place why he seems so familiar.

“I don’t think so,” he says, keeping his eyes trained forward.

The bus labors to a stop, and the line of people climbs the steps, joining the other Sea Org members already on board. They pack the seats with uniforms. Sea Org members don’t make enough money to buy or maintain cars, so people like Amory who grew up in The Church don’t even learn how to drive. Most people ride the bus when they need to go farther than a few blocks.

As Amory climbs the stairs, she sees people she has known for years, her only friends. But now, when they catch her glance, they immediately look away, pretending not to notice. Everyone who wants to stay in good standing, who wants to remain a good person, can’t be caught fraternizing with a downstat. She is familiar with the behavior and has engaged in it herself countless times before. She has a new perspective, though, now that she’s the exile. As she walks past the first couple rows, the people she passes turn their heads and look out the windows. Each diverted glance feels like a shot to her heart. These are the people that share her values, her mission, yet they cast her away at the first sign of trouble.

The anger she felt while doing the exec’s laundry yesterday builds with every step. She fixes her eyes on the emergency exit at the end of the bus and takes a seat in the very last row. In order to keep the rage from building, she stares out the window, trying to clear her mind of all thoughts by breathing out every idea as it emerges.

Scenes from the Next:

Amory begins her work at the Celebrity Center.

Scene 24: Laundry

Amory wakes up from her first night’s sleep in her new room to a loud knock on the door that scares her out of her cot. She has no idea what time it is, but it’s still dark outside.

Previously On

Flashback scene to Amory’s time at the Cadet Org, when he father mistook another girl for his own.

Last lines: He gave up everything to be with them—his freedom, his identity, his passions. That was the only way. And now look at him. He couldn’t even recognize his own daughter. He had never felt more ashamed. He bent down to pick her up and whispered to her, “Come on baby girl, let’s get you home.”

Amory wakes up from her first night’s sleep in her new room to a loud knock on the door that scares her out of her cot. She has no idea what time it is, but it’s still dark outside.

She throws on her new uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, and she opens the door for her ethics officer of the day, Garrett. He throws a dirty gray scarf in her direction. No explanation is necessary. She already knows she’s supposed to tie it around her upper-left arm and wear it the entire time she is in the ethics program. She struggles to loop the ends into a knot with one hand, but Garrett doesn’t offer any help. After wrestling with it for a few minutes, the smell drifts up to her nose, making her gag. Once outside, the late summer humidity makes her skin sweat under the filthy material.

Garrett escorts her across town to the compound, and they find a small condo complex she has never seen before. It is hidden amongst some office buildings, a secret retreat complete with lush plants and a splashing fountain. They find a tiny office at the front of the building. Garrett tells her, “Amory, this is Don. He’s in charge of you today.”

“Looks like we have you on cleaning duty,” Don says without a smile.

“Yes Sir.”

Don continues, “Why don’t you start with laundry. Some of the execs need it done.”

Amory is surprised by the order. Usually it’s an honor to clean the executives’ clothes. Any contact with the privileged few is a sacred distinction. But she can’t question anything, especially an easy work assignment like this. She responds, “Yes Sir.”

Amory follows Garrett to the first residence. Before they even open the door, she is struck by how clean and new everything is, a vast contrast to her dorms, current and former. She has heard rumors that the top brass have nicer living spaces, but has never seen them herself.

Garrett gives her instructions: “The laundry should be in a sack right in the living room. Just grab it and come straight out.”

“Yes Sir.”

Once inside the room, her curiosity is beyond control. There is a plush new couch, covered with pillows and draped with a warm blanket, sitting in front of a beautiful cabinet. She wonders if there is a TV closed inside; it is rumored that some of the execs have TVs even though it is against Church policy. Heavy velvet curtains, hanging from floor to ceiling, cover the windows in lush extravagence. She peeks in the kitchen and sees the remnants of a breakfast tray—fresh fruit, a half-empty cup of coffee, part of a bagel with cream cheese and honey. Her empty stomach growls, and she realizes that she hasn’t had a meal in two days. The food looks delicious and decadent, galaxies beyond what is served in the mess hall. Her mouth salivates, and she’s tempted to inhale the leftovers until she remembers that Garrett is waiting outside. She hears him call, “Do you see it?”

Amory quickly grabs the laundry sack. “Right here,” she shouts in Garrett’s direction. “Coming Sir.”

A week ago, this sight would have inspired her to work even harder so that she could become an executive leader in The Church and have a suite like this to herself. But not today. She leaves the condo angered at the disparity between the top brass and everyone else. She works just as hard, if not harder, than whoever lives here, but she’s given a third-rate room and disgusting food to eat. And that was before she got in trouble.

As she exits the room, he looks at her impatiently and barks, “We’ll get a couple more sacks, and then you can head down to the laundry room.”

“Yes Sir.” She collects four more laundry sacks from four more beautiful suites. With each residence, her resentment grows.

Garrett instructs her to return to Don’s office when she is finished.

She replies with a curt “Yes Sir,” biting her teeth to contain her true thoughts. The tiny complex of six condos has its own laundry room with three washers and dryers. Her dorm building has a hundred units and four washers and dryers for everyone. They get Sunday mornings, their only time off, to clean their rooms and do laundry, which makes it impossible for everyone to wash clothes.

This is the first time Amory has been in a laundry room alone. Just her and the clothes. She doesn’t know how to pass the time. She throws in one load and then carefully sorts the other clothes until the first cycle is finished. Amory considers removing the dirty gray scarf from her arm and washing it with the other clothes, but then quickly decides against it, fearful of the repercussions of such a blatant act of insubordination.

When the first load finishes, Amory folds with the utmost precision, just how she was taught. The creases need to be in exactly the right places, the folds perfectly symmetrical. In the Cadet Org, the children studied LRH’s policy directives detailing how to fold. There were hundreds of directives they studied, from making beds and cleaning dishes to folding clothes. Everything, even the most mundane tasks, has a process to be followed exactly. Amory remembers the directive word for word: lay shirt flat out, collar away from you, front of the shirt up, buttons buttoned, smooth out all wrinkles; fold sleeves in the front of the shirt, make fold even with outside of shirt, fold sleeves diagonally at the shoulders to make even with outside of the shirt; fold outer edges of the shirt and sleeves inward almost to buttons; fold top of shirt over towards center, leave two inches between shoulder seem and top edge of shirt, fold bottom of shirt up four inches; fold lower half of shirt evenly over upper half, even all edges, adjust so that all sides are exactly the same length and width. And those are just the directions for shirts. Pants, undergarments, socks, undershirt, small towels, large towels, jackets, blankets, sheets, and hats each had their own protocol. She can recite every one.

In an effort to relieve the silence she’s not used to, Amory sings the directive as she folds. She gets a little carried away and even begins to sway her hips. After two shirts, she stops to laugh at herself and looks around to make sure no one heard. This is the most fun she has ever had in the Sea Org.

After folding a few items in the familiar way, she starts to feel rebellious and haphazardly takes a shirt out of the dryer. Leaving in the wrinkles, she brings the sleeves across the front, folds the top down, and then folds it in half lengthwise. She tosses it on top of the growing pile, trying not to look. Still making an effort to be careless, Amory reaches back in the dryer to grab the next item.

But the poorly folded shirt hurts her eyes. It looks sad and lonely as it sits on top of the pile, neglected compared to the other shirts. A pang of pity stabs her heart, and she can’t leave the shirt like that. She refolds it in the familiar manner and stacks it with the others. She smiles as she inspects the folded clothes.

When she finishes the laundry, Amory finds her way across the courtyard to Don’s office. Garrett is nowhere in sight. Skipping across the flagstone path to the tune she make up while folding, she carries all of the laundry with her, not wanting to leave it unattended and risk punishment.

Her smile instantly disappears at the sight of Don behind his desk. “Good afternoon Sir,” she calls, trying to get his attention.

“Finished already?” Don replies.

“Yes Sir.”

“Here, let me see the clothes.” Don motions for her to put the sacks on the desk. He opens each bag, combing through the piles of folded clothes to uncover sloppy and inconsistent work.

Amory stands at attention, afraid she will have to redo everything. To her surprise, he tells her the laundry looks good and excuses her. For once, she doesn’t care about the approval. She’s just happy she doesn’t have to wash and fold the clothes again.

The clock on the wall reads half past five. Typically, she would eat dinner and then study her Church lessons, but now those chores are over. Even though she’s confused about what to do with her free evening, she doesn’t dare ask Don what to do. He would surely think of something.

Now that she’s on ethics project, she needs to wait until everyone else is finished eating before she’s allowed in the mess hall. She finds a quiet corner buried in the hallway and curls up to read until dinner is over.

When she thinks all the uniforms have cleared out, she enters the communal dining area. She rounds the corner and runs right into two people—Lucas and Dave, the downstat and her twin from their studies. She tries to excuse herself by saying, “Sorry … I, uh …”

The rumors about Amory are already circulating, so they both know she’s on ethics program. “Oh, hey, Amory … We were just leaving,” Dave cuts in. He gives her a pained look then hurries out the door. Lucas stares at the ground, completely avoiding eye contact.

Amory remembers how she treated Lucas before and is ashamed at her earlier behavior.  She can relate to him now that she knows how it feels to be shunned from the group. Maybe I am the piece of shit Erika insists I am, she thinks. Amory grabs a plate, and she scrapes the bottom of the beans and rice trays. She sits alone, aimlessly pushing the cold, leftover food around her plate. Her stomach is an empty pit, but she forces a few bites down her throat, chewing the tasteless mass and swallowing as quickly as possible. She longs for the days when she could afford Frosted Flakes.

Other than Garrett and Don, Amory hasn’t spoken to anyone all day. Her head has been a confused mess of boredom and resentment, relief and obedience. She has no idea what to think anymore. But, somehow, it doesn’t bother her. She feels free to drop the charade for once, and she concentrates on pushing all thoughts from her mind until nothing is left. Only her. She can be quite and still, finally listening to herself for a change. She feels her lips rise to a smile.

Scenes from the Next

Amory has her first encounter with “normal” life.