Pat and Ron didn't know what to expect as they walked into the New Life Rehabilitation Center. Would they be welcomed? Would they be turned away? As mutants, Pat and Ron were familiar with rejection. They heard voices in an adjacent room, and they entered, discovering a circle of chairs that seated a variety of alcoholics, many of them mutants like Pat and Ron.
"Sorry," said Pat. "We can come back later."
"No, that's alright," said an elderly shrimp as he pulled up a chair next to him. "Come. Have a seat."
Pat and Ron looked at the shrimp with uncertainty, but they sat in the offered chair.
"So," said the shrimp. "How about an introduction from our newest inductees?"
"Well…" said Pat. "I'm Pat, and that's Ron."
"He's usually more talkative than this," said Pat.
"I understand," said the shrimp. "This is never easy the first time around. I'm Guy Perchins, founder of New Life. I'll do whatever I can to make you feel comfortable."
"Thanks," mumbled Ron.
Guy Perchins stroked his long, thin beard. "So, do you both have a problem?"
"No," said Pat. "It's just my brother. I'm only here because I'm attached to him."
Ron looked down.
"It's alright," said Perchins. "You're among friends. In fact, one of our other group members was just about to relate his own story when you walked in. Jim?"
Jim, unlike most of the patients in the room, wasn't a mutant. He grew up in a privileged family and was on board to inherit a vast technological empire. He never wanted the fame or fortune that his name commanded, however, and he ran away from home at the age of 16 with a suitcase full of clothes and ten thousand dollars in his pocket.
Jim, like many other runaways, settled in Insulam. It was an arrangement that he was happy with at first, but as days turned to weeks, he began to miss his friends and family back home. The knowledge that he could never return lest he forfeit all his newly acquired freedom put him into a deep depression. Insulam's "drink-your-problems-away" culture appealed to him, and before he knew it, he was drinking twelve bottles of liquor every day.
"Now that you have a feel for what we do, are you ready to tell us your story?" Perchins asked Ron.
"Umm…" stuttered Ron.
"It's fine if you aren't," said Perchins.
"No, I am," said Ron. He took a deep breath, and began to tell his story.
SpongeBryan strolled through the streets of Insulam, hoping to find a Help Wanted sign somewhere, anywhere. The money he managed to secure from his apartment in Alveus was running out, and running out fast. If he didn't find a job soon, he'd have to start begging, or worse, stealing just to make ends meet.
"And stay out!"
SpongeBryan heard the call from a few blocks behind him. He saw a teenager running from a liquor store and a man, presumably the owner, shaking a broom at him from inside the store.
"Jackass," grunted the owner as he slammed the door behind him. A few seconds later, a Help Wanted sign appeared in the store's window.
SpongeBryan, seeing the opportunity, ran into the liquor store.
"Excuse me," he said, catching his breath. "I saw the Help Wanted sign in the window."
"Oh, you did?" said the owner.
"Yes," said SpongeBryan. "And I wanted to apply for a job."
"I see." The owner took out a small tablet. "Just sign this and you'll have the job."
"It's that easy?" SpongeBryan pressed his index finger on the tablet, and it dinged in approval.
"Yes." The owner smiled. "Say, I don't recall seeing you around here. What's your name?"
"Well, SpongeBryan, welcome to the crew! I'm Mr. Fins, and you'll be working the counter along with my daughter, Sally. Speaking of Sally, where in the world is she at?"
As if on cue, a young seal walked in from another room.
"There you are, Sally!" said Mr. Fins. "Meet our newest employee, SpongeBryan!"
"Hi," said Sally, looking down at her feet.
Sally belonged to one of the few species of mammal on the planet. As the air above water became unbreathable, seals, dolphins, frogs, and other semi-aquatic animals had to adapt to breathing underwater full-time. All other species, unable to make the same transition, gradually went extinct.
"Do me a favor and show him around the shop, dear," said Mr. Fins. "I'll be in my office."
Once they were left alone, SpongeBryan chuckled. "So, he's your dad, huh?"
"I was adopted," Sally muttered as she went behind the counter. "So, here's how the register works…"
When Ron finished telling his story, he opened his eyes for the first time in what felt like hours. When he turned to Guy Perchins, he saw nothing but sympathy in his eyes.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," said Perchins.
"Yeah," said Ron. "So do I."
"Well, listen," said Perchins. "The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have a problem, and you've made that admission by coming here. Next, you have to realize that all this stuff that's happening, it's not your fault."
"Not my fault?" cried Ron. "SpongeBryan was arrested because of me! All this crap that happened…all of it was my fault!"
"No," said Perchins. "That wasn't you. That was the alcohol."
Ron laughed with disbelief. "I'm sure that SpongeBryan will believe that a bottle of whiskey turned him into the feds! I don't even know why I wanted to do this! This is completely pointless!"
"Ron, calm down," whispered Pat. "He's only trying to help."
"Well, it isn't working," said Ron.
"Well listen, the group session is almost over," said Perchins. "So if you want to come back tomorrow, you can."
"Thanks, but no thanks," said Ron.
Pat and Ron got up and left with the rest of the patients.
As Mr. Fins locked up for the night, SpongeBryan attempted to talk to Sally one last time.
"Well, thanks for showing me around," said SpongeBryan.
"It's not like I had a choice," said Sally.
"Well, it was still nice of you." SpongeBryan stretched out his hand for Sally to shake, but she simply put her hands in her pockets and headed for Mr. Fin's car.
"Look at that," said Mr. Fins as he looked down the road. "'New Life Rehabilitation Center'. Ever since that place opened, I've been losing customers left and right. Someone needs to shut that place down."
Upon hearing the name of the facility, SpongeBryan's eyes opened wide. Ron! His friend was struggling with alcohol, and here he was, working at a liquor shop. He felt as if he sold out his soul for a couple of bucks an hour. But how many opportunities like this would he find? Especially in a small town like Insulam.
SpongeBryan walked to the apartment that he shared with Pat and Ron. Once he was inside, Pat and Ron greeted him, both with nervous looks on their faces.
"Guys, there's something I need to tell you," said SpongeBryan.
"Us first," said Pat.
"And you're probably not going to like it," said Ron.
"It can't possibly be worse than what I'm about to tell you," said SpongeBryan.
Pat and Ron looked at each other in confusion.
"Okay, you first," said Pat.
"I took up a job at the liquor store," said SpongeBryan. "I know you're recovering, and I promise I won't bring anything back. Neptune, I feel so selfish."
Pat and Ron paused for a moment, then laughed.
"That's all?" said Ron.
"We don't have a problem with you working at a liquor store," said Pat. "In fact, that's great! We'll need a new source of income."
"Oh, okay." SpongeBryan laughed with them. "I can't believe I was so worried. Hey, what was it you were going to tell me?"
Ron stuttered, "J-just that I'm making great progress at New Life, that's all."
SpongeBryan raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't seem so bad."
"Yeah, now that I think of it, it isn't," said Ron. "Well, see you tomorrow morning!"
Pat and Ron hurried into their room, and SpongeBryan shrugged and made a sandwich.
The bounty hunter stepped over the country line into Insulam. The first thing he spotted was the food stand, and he walked up to the vendor at the stand and showed him mugshots of SpongeBryan, Pat, and Ron.
"Have you seen these three before?" growled the bounty hunter.
"Don't remember them," said the vendor, barely paying attention.
The bounty hunter formed a ball of pure electricity in his hand, and he threw it it at the food stand, blowing it up. The vendor, moaning on the street, with the debris of his products all around his, gasped as the bounty hunter held the mugshots of the fugitives in front of his charred face.
"Remember them now?" said the bounty hunter.
The vendor nodded in terror.