Charlie Watkins towered over the ants on the playground while gripping a magnifying glass to bring certain doom to the hexapods below. His eyes focused in time with the iris of the lens flare and the ground sizzled. Frightened and confused, the ants ran from the burnination back to their thatched roof cottages, only to be saved by a shrill noise they did not hear.
The noise grew louder and the searing pain ceased with a flash of light. The ants sighed in communal relief as the torturous inferno disappeared. Little did they know that the sound of their salvation was a dreadful discord to Charlie. As he slipped away into his personal torture, the ants rushed back to the village and began a great celebration.
The sound of the shrill school bell drew Charlie back into his brick red prison. Removed from the solace of the playground, he took his place with the rest of his classmates in their cell like desks. The children sat perfectly organized in rows never deviating from the norm. Confined to his seat, Charlie sat quietly awaiting repetition of the shrill cry that would ring his freedom.
Charlie never dared move for fear of reprimand
. Nonconformists were not to be tolerated and he knew it. He wrote as he was told to write, read aloud when instructed, and obeyed the commands of The Warden
until such time as the three sharp high pitched blasts rang out. Relieved for the day, Charlie rose from his chair and calmly exited the red brick building, 19th in the line from his class, never straying from his course until he was out the door and off the premises of his prison.
Charlie gazed back at the anthill. He watched the ants march one by one in single file all working as one, never straying from the beaten path. "Mindless creatures..." he muttered "poor fools." Looking away from the anthill Charlie continued on the concrete path which would return him to a five story apartment building. Charlie began his slow ascent up the same three flights of stairs that he descended every morning at 7. He reached a dull red door - marked 342b - pulled a rusty key from his pocket, turned the lock, and went inside.
Charlie awoke to a shrill beep from a digital chronometer. He turned the alarm off, shrugged the sheets off his body and rose from his bed. Clothed and fed, Charlie descended the stairs, left the building, and began the short walk down the cracked path. Having arrived at his penitentiary prior to schedule, he walked to the playground to wait for the harsh tone to call him in.
Charlie watched the ants. If the ants had any recollection of his attempts to purify the ground they occupied they did not show it. They ignored Charlie and marched in straight lines back and forth from their village carrying small white bits of food back to the community. "Pitiful things... don't they ever feel a need for variance? Don't they ever get bored? They don't have do go to this place... aren't confined by its walls. Why do they stay?"
The sound of the bell beckoned Charlie back to his cell and he began to walk towards the reformatory. He stopped and looked back at the ants. He turned away from the school house and began to follow the ant ranks. They traveled over a small grassy hill into a wooded area Charlie had never seen before and he followed into the shadow.
Half a mile into the woods the ants led Charlie to a clearing in which he saw two large baskets of muffins sitting side by side. Attached to the handle of each basket was a gold card of a millimeter in thickness, seven centimeters wide and twelve long . Each card had a word inscribed upon it in a calligraphic style. The card on the left read
"Safety and Happiness".
The ants were swarming upon the basket on the left, but Charlie ignored them. Intrigued, he approached the untouched basket on the right and read the card
Charlie took one muffin from each basket, shaking the ants off his happiness muffin, and sprinted out of the forest.
He ran all the way back to the schoolyard. Night had descended, and Charlie would have long since been dismissed from his cell. Hoping no one took notice of his absence he ran all the way home. Charlie pulled the key from his pocket and opened the door to 342b. Slamming the door behind him, he leaned against the wall and sighed. Charlie entered his room, set the muffins upon his nightstand and prepared himself for bed. He climbed under the cotton sheets and took another look at the two confections. He reached out, grabbed the Freedom muffin, and examined it. “Blueberry… mmmmm”…
Charlie sat in his cell staring straight forward. The Warden glared at him, suspecting his absence from the prior day. Fortunately for Charlie, all the students look the same to The Warden in his old age and no one else had noticed him missing. A light from the window shone upon The Warden’s face. Charlie found the light eerily soothing and without realizing it he slowly turned his desk towards the window.
A few minutes later Charlie realized he was facing a full ninety degrees left of center. Startled, he glanced back at The Warden expecting a fierce stare and a strong backhand. The Warden did nothing and said nothing, but continued with his lecture and propaganda ministering. Another child squirmed in his cell “SIR – Watkins isn’t facing front. Non-conformity is disallowed.”
“Silence.” The Warden slapped his heavy hand upon the squealer’s desk “It is none of your concern. Face forward, remain silent. It is my duty to enforce discipline, not yours. Your duty is to do and say what I tell you to when I tell you to and speaking freely is a privilege you are not privy to. Is that perfectly clear?” “Yes sir.” The Warden looked at Charlie, sneered, and nodded. Charlie was confused but did not question the actions of The Warden.
The Warden addressed the room “You may have your mid day meal now. Report to the cafeteria.” The group rose from their chairs and marched single file to the mess hall. Charlie lagged slightly behind, still awaiting reprimand. “Retrieve your rations and sit in alphabetical order at that far table” The Warden pointed across the room, then looked at Charlie “You may sit where you please.”
Several students glared at Charlie as he chose a seat near the end of the assigned table.
Free time arrived and Charlie and the other inmates went outside to the designated play area. Charlie approached a group of prisoners playing basketball “May I join you?” No player responded verbally, a few gave nasty stares, but all continued to play the game ignoring Charlie. “Well… that was rude. Perhaps the others will be more receptive. I don’t really like any of that set anyway…” He walked towards four girls playing badminton. A small girl with red hair looked him in the eye “Leave us. You don’t belong here and nonconformists are not to be tolerated. We want nothing to do with you.”
The shrill tone of the bell commanded the end of free time and the return of the prisoners to their cells. The red haired girl skimmed past Charlie keeping perfect stride with the other students in line back to the cellblock. Charlie returned to the room and sat, rotating his desk to face front once again. He sat staring at the blackboard till the bell would ring again and the prisoners fled.
Charlie approached The Warden at his desk. The Warden continued to make marks on papers the students has written upon as instructed, never looking up.
“What do you want of me, you’re free of this place… go now.”
“The other students are behaving strangely towards me sir... Cruelly even.”
“And what would you like me to do about it? Why should I care?”
“Sir, with all due respect, is it not your duty to care? Are you not supposed to protect me?”
“It’s very simple Watkins. You can either be safe and I can protect you, or you can be free. You’ve made your choice; there is nothing I can do for you. Leave this place now, but if you choose to return I advise you to choose your actions carefully. Go.”
Charlie sat on his bed staring at the remaining muffin. He picked it up, turned it over in his hands, set it in his backpack and went to sleep.
Charlie approached the prison yard and looked at his watch.
“Still have a few minutes…” He looked at the anthill and watched the ants traveling back and forth. “Maybe they aren’t so poorly off after all… perhaps they have it all worked out.” He pulled the muffin from his pack and eyed it for a moment. The familiar shrill ring of the bell caught him off guard. He jumped, relaxed, looked hard at the muffin and shoved it in his mouth, finishing it in one bite. Charlie joined the rest of the prisoners.
Facing front, he took his seat saying not a word. From the corner of his eye Charlie saw the little red haired girl turning towards the window. Charlie remained motionless and smiled. The Warden glanced at the girl, looked back to the chalkboard and continued his brainwashing. Outside the world turned grey and the ants went marching…