“What’s that look about?” Darcy asked. Her coworker, Mason, stared oddly at her as she joined him at the small table. It was one of four in the small break room. He had a confused, surprised look on his face as he stared at something on her head. He gave his head a shake and smiled.
“Nothing. I was just thinking of something else,” he said. Darcy unpacked her sandwich and chips from her colorful metal lunch box. “So what’d you do with your surprise day off yesterday?” he asked as he reached across the table and stole one of her potato chips. Though the pair were good friends, they’d only been friends for a short time. Mason did not feel comfortable sharing his secret yet; it helped that he himself did not know what exactly it was.
Mason could see a loading bar floating above people’s heads. The bar was about a foot long and about three inches thick. Mason managed to measure it on a sleeping friend one time during a sleepover in jr. high. The bar was filled to different points on different people; but, in 23 years he’d only seen two different colors: red and green. The most puzzling thing was that not everyone had one, including him. That made it more difficult to solve what exactly the bar measured. He noticed a few instances of people gaining a bar when they didn’t have one.
Unfortunately, the few times he saw it; it happened to strangers or people he did not know well enough to question. Until now. A mostly empty bar floated over Darcy’s head with just a sliver of green showing. The last time he saw her, the day before yesterday, she did not have one.
“You’ve heard of the Fresh Start Clinic, right?” Darcy asked with a smile.
“Yeah?” Mason sat up straighter. As soon as she said the clinic’s name he realized his coworkers that gained bars had also mentioned it.
“Since they didn’t let us come in yesterday, I had time to visit the clinic. I went through their ‘Character Rebuilding’ procedure.”
“No way!” Mason was genuinely enthused. He had considered the procedure multiple times but he never found the time to follow through. He was even more excited at the possibility that it would help him decode his ability. “What’s it like?” Darcy shook her head.
“I can’t tell you that,” she said. “But, I can tell you that it’s totally worth it. You should go get it done.”
“Can’t tell me? Since when?” Mason asked. It was the first time in their two-year friendship that she’d intentionally kept a secret from him.
“Since I signed a dozen NDAs,” Darcy replied; she had yet to touch her food.
“Pffft, it’s just you and me,” Mason said. He leaned over the table and tilted his ear toward her. She rapidly shook her head and leaned back.
“No,” she said flatly. “Just go see for yourself; they’ll answer your questions.”
“Fine,” Mason whined playfully and grabbed another one of her chips. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asked. Darcy shrugged.
“Not hungry I guess. You want-” Darcy stopped asking because Mason was already biting into the sandwich before she finished the question.
“Shanks!” he said with his mouth full.
After work, Mason made his way to the clinic. A handful of patients waited in the lobby; none of them had bars above their heads. He almost chalked it up to coincidence until a patient came out of the back with a brand new bar above his head. He’d never seen one so empty before; there was no sign of red or green. Mason decided he was in the right place and approached the desk. A plump, greying woman with a full red bar above her head smiled at Mason.
“Hi, uh I wanted some information about ‘Character Rebuilding’?” he asked. The woman nodded politely and handed him a clipboard with a form on it and a pen. He picked out one of the plastic chairs and sat down to fill it out. The questions were mostly what he expected. The only thing that stood out was the blank that asked for his favorite number. He filled in ’52’ and wondered what its purpose was. When he was done, he returned the clipboard to the woman at the desk. She flipped through the sheets to make sure he answered all the questions, then stopped. She looked up at him.
“What’s your favorite number?” she asked.
“52,” Mason chuckled. He meant to say, “Same as what I wrote”, but by the time he had that thought his mouth had already answered the woman’s question. Her eyes widened for a moment, but she recovered quickly. She managed to disguise the look of surprise with a cough into her hand.
“Someone will be right with you,” she said through a clenched smile. Mason nodded then returned to his seat. He waited for almost two hours, but he was glad for it. In that time he watched four or five people walk into the back without bars above their heads. Each of them came back out with a brand new bar; he felt like he was finally on the right track.
“Mr. Rodriguez?” a woman called out. Mason jumped to his feet and approached the woman at the door. All the staff he’d seen come out of the door wore white labcoats; but, this woman did not. She was a short, plump, pale woman with raven dark hair and no bar above her head. She wore a sharp black business suit and looked more like a mob boss’ bodyguard than a clinic worker. “Follow me, please,” she said. The short woman led Mason down a long, narrow, white hall. They passed several closed and open doors; as far as Mason could tell they were all offices.
“You guys sure like trees around here,” Mason joked as he followed the woman. Every open door he peeked into had a red pine tree growing behind a glass wall. She did not reply at all until she stopped walking several paces after his joke. She stopped in front of a red door that Mason did not even notice from the other end of the hall. Looking back the way he came, he could not see the entrance of the hall.
“In here, please,” she said and opened the door. This office was different from the other ones Mason saw. The walls, floor, and ceiling were the same stark white as the other offices, but that was the only similarity. There was no red tree behind a glass wall; just another white wall. The small desk in the center of the room did not have a computer monitor like the rest. Mason walked in and sat in front of the desk while the dark-suited woman walked around and sat behind it.
“Well, Mr. Rodriguez,” the woman said, then she pointed at the air above her head. “Why don’t you tell me about what you see, or maybe don’t see?”