Ertajj had one leg up on his first day of work: he was always up before the sun anyways. His new boss had threatened that he would lose his job if he was even one minute late, and as Ertajj was desperate to make some money he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize his new opportunity.
He bumbled around the kitchen in the squat he shared with his friends for a while, looking for something to eat, but only found some salty crackers. He stuffed too many into his mouth and couldn't swallow them, and so he stood by the sink and took sips of water to wash the glutenous blob down his throat. It was a pretty awful way to start the day, but Ertajj knew a bakery where he'd be able to get something to eat on the way to his work site.
He left the squat in his only pair of clothes. The night prior he had tried to wash out the most egregious stains, but he didn't have a needle to sew together the many rips and tears. He figured he was going to be doing pretty dirty physical labor anyways. Was his boss really going to care if he was clean and neat?
"You're filthy," the scruffy-faced foreman at the work site said to Ertajj. "Come like that tomorrow and you're off the job."
Great, Ertajj thought. A wonderful start.
"I'm sorry, I..."
"And on time is late around here. You need to be here five minutes early."
"Why didn't anyone tell me that?" Ertajj asked.
The foreman leaned out of his little booth and grimaced. "I'm telling you now, aren't I?"
"Yes, sir," Ertajj mumbled. "Where do I go?"
"Back corner," the foreman said, pointing with a greasy thumb at a huge mound of dirt. "Behind the mound."
"Thank you," Ertajj said. The foreman didn't respond.
Ertajj looked over his dirty clothes as he made his way to the dirt pile. Did he really look so bad? If he looked too filthy for a work site, what did people in town think about him?
"Hey!" a voice shouted at him. "Get over here!"
It was Ertajj's new boss. He had met the man downtown yesterday. Actually, all of Ertajj's friends had spoken with the construction boss about a job when they had met him the day prior, but Ertajj was the only person he had been interested in. While Ertajj had felt good, special for having been chosen, he now wished he had been rejected as well.
"Yes?" Ertajj asked, trying to keep his spirits up.
"Get over here and grab a shovel."
Ertajj made his way over to a pile of shovels, and then could see more clearly the deep trough being dug. There were five other men in the trough, all covered completely in mud and sweat, heaving up mounds of mud onto the towering pile next to the hole.
"What should I do with it?" Ertajj asked, after picking out one of the shovels.
"Pick your ass," his boss said. "You really need to ask me that? Get in there," he ordered.
Ertajj tried to lower himself down into the hole slowly, but he slipped and fell in. His shovel fell on his face, and he let out a yelp. Not that the other men noticed, though. Ertajj just picked up his shovel and began to heave.
At first it was actually kind of fun, to throw dirt so high, and Ertajj was not one to shy away from physical labor. He was, for a moment, just happy to be at work. He had wanted a job for so long.
But then his arms started to burn. It was just a little at first, but the pain grew exponentially as the day got warmer. He felt like his muscles were bleeding as he tossed shovelful after shovelful of mud up out of his hole. It seemed downright punishing the longer it went on. When was there going to be a break? What were they digging anyways? Ertajj felt like a prison worker.
When lunch was finally called, Ertajj felt wasted. He had only eaten those crackers for breakfast, and his stomach was growling so loudly that the other dumb-faced workers were giving him strange work. Thankfully, the foreman set out a big bowl of rice and another of stewish-looking matter. The other workers had their own bowls, one of which Slate was able to borrow. As he sat in the dirt and ate, he spoke with the worker who owned the bowl.
"Pretty good, huh?" Slate asked the worker of the mush he was eating.
"It's terrible, are you kidding?" the worker scowled.
"Oh," Slate said. "I guess it's not that great, huh? Good to have work though, right?"
"What, this slave labor? I'm not thankful, not for this curse."
"How long have you been doing this kind of work?"
"Three months now. Used to have my own woodworking business, but the new tax codes drove me right out of business. Corporate bastards."
"It's good to be able to work though, right? There aren't many jobs these days," Ertajj said.
"I ain't gonna call a pile of crap a daisy because there aren't any flowers around," the worker grunted. "This is terrible."
"So why do you do it?" Ertajj asked, as he licked his dirty bowl clean.
"What are we supposed to do? Gotta make a dime," the man said.
"But maybe you'll get promoted, if...," Ertajj began.
"Like hell. We'll get promoted to the graveyard before we get promoted through the ranks of this construction company. It's a family thing. They only give they big jobs to their own blood."
"Well," Ertajj said with a sigh,"I don't need very much. I just want to make some money to save, to maybe travel."
"Good luck," the worker said. "Good luck making enough to live, to get food."
"I don't need very much," Ertajj said. "I've been living with very little."
"Well, get used to it. When you grow up, Jaidour won't even be owned by the Proterse anymore. It'll be owned by Fjird, or Opal Pools. You'll be slaving away like this your whole life, kid. Better get used to it."
"You really think that?"
"I know it. And to think otherwise is stupid. Good luck on that vacation. It'll never happen."
The whistle signalling the end of break sounded, and the worker grabbed his bowl back from Ertajj. "And tomorrow, bring your own bowl," he said.
Ertajj looked around and the sad, dead faces of the men as they headed back to their mud hole. Off in the distance, Ertajj heard children laughing and playing. He looked back at the surly men and then realized he didn't actually want to work. Not there. Not towards a future where he was broken and sinuous like the dull workmen. He stood up and walked towards the gate.
"Where you going?" the foreman at the gate asked. "You're not done yet."
"Anywhere but here," Ertajj said. "I'm very, very done."
Ertajj then made his way to the beach, where he scored some free fish off one of his old fishermen friends. Eating it in the warm sun, he realized he was going to be fine without a job. At least, without that job. Life was too short, his spirit could soar too high. He would rather travel on the winds of chance than wander around the maze that most people did their whole lives. He was made for more, and if he never reached it, at least he wouldn't have settled for less.