It looks benign.

Nestled between Columbia and Kansas City on a county road just a few miles north of the interstate. Almost like a convent within a comfortable wrought-iron fence.

The welcome gate—open between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:30. The tiny red sign with precise white lettering facing the road. The wide pristine lawn within which rests a two-story gray stone building; its various juttings suggesting the shape of a cross providing a lifetime of seclusion and safety from an increasingly curious and infringing public. The type of place where you could be greeted with a joyful “Welcome,” followed by “Bless you, my child.”

Seen from the county road are rounded white stones forming a circular path under a shielded entrance—the carriage house just to the north of the main building connected by a covered pathway. To the east of the main building, an oak-columned pole barn protects three light-blue busses with privacy windows guarded by wide W-beams.

Were your vehicle to approach during daylight hours, it would be halted by a spike strip running across the entrance in front of a cattle guard laid over the six-foot ravine. Were you to enter and stand silently near the front door you’d see bustling figures in various shades of blue clothing. Were you allowed on the second floor you would notice that of the sixteen people forming a huddled crowd, only one scurries between the assigned bed and the solitary chain link door.

“Pardon me. Am I on the list?”

“First names only.”

She spelled the name cautiously. “S-h-a-u-n-a.”

“Shauna. Nope.” The figure in dark blue replied with eyes not moving from the top of the sheet.

Shauna’s face hardened. She walked back to her bed, and said to Joyce, “Nope. Not stayin’ here.” Walked back with caution, pushed her glasses up, then attempted to weave her small hand through the heavy mesh. “Excuse me. Just one more time. Sorry. Am I on the next page?”

“How long you been here?”

“Two-hundred and sixty-three days.”

Eyes peered over bifocals. Said nothing. Flipped to the second page. Eyes flat, said, “Nope, not here.”

Shauna read the page upside down. In other circumstances, she would have pointed, but not here. She stepped back, inhaled, and said, “It may be down at the bottom on the left.”

“Yeah, I see it; I see it. It’s right here. Missed it. Get in line.”

Standing next to Shauna, Joyce said, “I’ll be so glad to get out of here. Look at the newbies. At each other’s throats as soon as they walk in.” Shauna leaned her shoulder against the bunk, bent forward, lifted the mattress, and secreted her trial transcripts.

“Wonder why you weren’t called initially.” Joyce said. Shauna would wonder about it for years.

They were marched through the halls, down the stairway. Those in dark blue made a broad display of ordering the others to stop inside the lobby for a head count, then resumed their walk out the back door, across the pebbled path to the pole barn. A few yards from the bus, Shauna looked toward the sky, inhaled, and continued to look skyward. Even with assignments that allowed for some outside time, this was her first taste of direct sunshine in weeks.

Another figure in dark blue paired them off. “Move on to the bus. On to the bus, ladies.” Her face amplified her voice—scowling, angry at some ancient slight, eager to displace that anger at the first defenseless opportunity.

Together, Shauna and Joyce stepped into the light blue transport bus. No restroom, no circulating air. They sat as if shackled. Confined behind a chain-link wall segregating them four rows from the driver.

Shauna strained to look out the window—under the obstructing W-beam. “Look up there.” Motioned toward the second-floor window.

“How sad. Look at that.” Shauna nodded toward the thin young figure in light blue who had tagged after her for over a month. “Look at that face. Scared as hell. Left up there.”

The bus creaked as it gathered momentum. Stopped and exhaled smoke compounded by a mounting smell. The driver cranked it again. “They ever service this thing?”

“This’ll be a joy,” said Shauna.

“Well, at least it’s life-affirming.” Joyce said without smiling, then added, “It’s not as if we didn’t have a choice.” Shauna turned her head, peered over her glasses, raised her left eyebrow, dropped her hands, then slumped.

Thomas Elson

Thomas Elson’s stories appear in many venues, including Ellipsis, Better Than Starbucks, Bull, Cabinet of Heed, Flash Frontier, Ginosko, Short Édition, North Dakota Quarterly, Litro, Journal of Expressive Writing, Dead Mule School, Selkie, New Ulster, Lampeter, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.