“A rat?” 73 was sitting by the south wall, leaning on a piece of concrete-whatever that had been abandoned there a long time ago.
“A rat. And it’s getting bigger.”
“A rat, huh?” 73 smiled, “So you finally got a girlfriend.”
“Shut up. Cut me some slack”
“Well, it’s either that or it’s looking for a meal.”
“Yeah, I’ve been giving it some of that PS gruel they’re giving us in C-block.”
“Uh, that’s not what I mean.”
“What else is there to…” 56 saw 73’s Look Mark 3, the I Know The Joke and You Don’t. “Wait a sec, hold it, hold it. There’s no way that thing could ever-”
“And what makes you so sure?”
“It’s not big enough to eat somebody. It’d take days!”
“A rat can eat PS, it can eat a person. And a corpse is a week of good eating.”
“If there’s no little mouths to feed.”
“There could be more?”
“Rats don’t tend to go it alone. They hide out in the walls. You know,” 73 ran her fingers through her dark hair, “a whole bunch of them were nesting in the drainage pipes in 49’s room. You could hear them scuttle around in the night.”
“What the hell?!”
“Serious. But she didn’t know it ’til the critters ripped off her little finger in the night.”
“She’s not sleeping light any more.” 73 leaned in closer, “But don’t let it bother you.”
Every time he looked forward to meeting 73, to that devilishly wide smile, to those earthy brown eyes, to the lithe shape hidden in those blue prison slacks, one thought kept on returning to him.
“73, I’m pretty sure you’re in here for sadism.”
“City wide sadism. It must be.”
“I guess that makes you a masochist, then.” She smiled so sweetly.
“Stop saying weird things.”
“You make me sound like a pervert.”
“You must be a pervert, then.”
“Huh? How do you figure that one?”
“Cause you keep coming back for more. Pervert.”
56 opened his mouth. That didn’t work, so he closed it again and started to sulk. It wasn’t like he wanted to be chewed out every day, but he could never leave her alone. There was something close to annoying about her, something that nagged him and nagged him and wouldn’t let him alone.
“Of course I come back. Someone’s got to save the world from you.”
“You’re awful. I’m a sensitive young lady…”
“Please. I’ve always been here. You’re not a lady.”
“You’re no gentleman, so I guess we’re even there.”
“You never let me win.”
“You never want to lose.”
“So you’re going to annoy me for the rest of my life, are you?”
“To the end of the world,” said 73, “or until the walls fall down. Whichever comes first.”
The annoying feeling was coming back, a weird tugging inside himself that always came when 73 said such weird, stupid things. Maybe a regular citizen would know what these feelings were, but 56 never had a wonderful education – after all, learning how to stay alive is more useful than the facts of life in a prison. 56 gulped.
“But what if you get transferred? Who’ll annoy you then?”
“Not sure. I’d find someone. But that’s not likely. I heard some of the guards talking about PopCon prisoners.”
73 pointed at the letters with his number, the same letters on her own uniform. “PC. I heard them talk about it. Something about ‘Population Control’. Or something else as weird ass.”
“Serious. These new patrol guys really need to keep things zipped. Anyone could hear what they were saying.”
“‘Population Control’, huh?”
“Sounds twisted, doesn’t it? I like it already.”
“But what does it mean?”
“I dunno. Cutting down on people? Brainwashing people? Doesn’t matter. We’re not getting out of here. No transfer. No parole. Let’s face it, we’re stuck together.”
Whatever 56 thought about this was lost in the crash of the prison tannoy.
“New arrivals. All prisoners to return to their cells. Special Group A is to report to the South Gate to accept new arrivals. That is all.”