A prison bus is waiting to pick us up in the courtyard. It’s a faded yellow school bus with bars on the windows and the word “Wrightgate Prison” stenciled into the side. In the coming days I will think about the life of that bus, how its intent was transformed from “we believe in your future” to “we believe you have no future.”
Professor Munger stands next to the bus with two empty-faced prison guards. Behind them are a heap of holey knapsacks with numbers and letters written on them. We’re told to take a knapsack and get on the bus. One guard counts us off as we climb the steps. He ends on 26, which is odd. I know from grading papers there are 28 of us in the class.
“In those knapsacks are everything you’ll need for your visit,” Professor Munger says. “As always, please remember: soon you will have the power to send people to prison. Learn as much as you can from this experience, see with open eyes what the ramifications of your actions as a Peacekeeper will be.
“One last thing: you will meet people who do not like Peacekeepers; for your safety, I’d advise you not to tell anyone in Wrightgate that you’re associated with the military.”
With that, she disembarks the bus. Its engine turns and it grundles to life. With a jerk, we’re moving.
“That was ominous,” Zelda says.
“Why isn’t she going with us, I wonder? And where are Jancy and that other girl who always follows her around – Beta Jancy?”
Zelda shrugs and opens her knapsack. Inside is a ragged blue cotton jumpsuit and a book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
“What the hell are we supposed to do with a book?” Someone mutters.
“Hey! You speak when spoken to, J15,” one guard says. “Now listen up: you have an hour before this bus arrives at Wrightgate. You’d better be in your suits by then or the other inmates will lick your bones clean.”
Zelda raises her hand. “Sir? I think there’s been a miscommunication. We’re just coming for a tour.”
The guard walks halfway down the bus towards us. Everyone avoids eye contact but everyone’s eyes track him. He looks like a bulldog built by Dr. Frankenstein – dead eyes and vicious jowls punctuated by combat scars.
“You telling me how to do my job, J12?”
“No sir, I –”
He smiles. Two long scars on his cheeks stretch grotesquely. These aren’t driller scars, they’re too perfect for that. It looks like someone tried to carve his mouth wider with a knife.
“No talking. That goes for all of you. Chapman, mark her for the hole,” he says to the other guard.
Zelda opens her mouth to argue further but I elbow her in the gut. This is what they want, how can Zelda not see that? They’re making an example of her. They’re showing us that they have all the power and we have none. I open my knapsack and pull out my jumpsuit. It’s as wide as it is tall. I recognize the jumpsuits – I used to see men and women walking to work in them every day until the foam finger factory in Reno closed. “We’re no. 1!” indeed.
I can hear my peers furtively undressing in their seats. Zelda is frozen, looking down at the book in her hands. I take the book and place it on the seat between us, pull out her jumpsuit and put it in her lap. Then, when she still doesn’t move, I pinch her on the elbow. Hard.
My jumpsuit has snaps; Zelda’s zips but the zipper is broken so she leaves her shirt on under. The guard, Bulldog Frankenstein, notices. “Remove your shirt, inmate.”
When she opens her mouth, I pinch her skin so hard my fingers hurt. She gets the message and closes her mouth. Hot tears pool in her eyes as she undresses. Zelda has always been able to charm authority figures into liking her. It’s her survival tool as much as mine seems to be knee-jerk selfishness. This field trip is going to be rough on her. I pat her leg in soothing circles and turn to look out the bus window. My phantom leg itches like it does when something bad is about to happen. I ignore it – nothing weirder than scratching a metal leg in public, I’ve found. Plus, I don’t believe in omens.
The remainder of the ride is tense, silent. Street people move out of the road and watch as the bus trundles by, but their interest in us is faint. We’re nobodies like them.
This is the first time I’ve been off base without having to watch my step and I enjoy the view, even as the pit in my stomach deepens. I think I spot a few edible plants tucked between graffiti-covered houses. Blackberry bushes, which are hardy enough to survive the winter without losing all of their leaves.
The bus slows. Fences come into view, multiple fences, mountainous fences, topped with barbed wire. We roll up to a gate with guards, who stop to chat with Bulldog Frankenstein and his companion, Chapman. As they laugh over a story of casual violence, movement catches my eye. It’s a small rooster. He’s missing one eye and half his cockscomb. And he’s pecking out the eyes of a dead cat.
I choose to take it as a good sign.
They march us off the bus, ordering us to take our books and leave everything else behind. When they line us up, some cadets are still quietly joking and laughing. They don’t get it: this isn’t a tour, it’s a sentence. The only question is how long it’ll be.
There was a soup Vivian used to make during the war. Bone soup. Before Reno was bombed, she’d take us out into the street to collect as many fresh bones as we could find – rooster bones, cat bones, squirrel bones, bird bones, unidentifiable bones. They all smelled equally awful. We’d take the bones home and she’d boil them day and night, until the bones were bleached bright white and the marrow and everything else that makes a bone a bone had leaked out. Then she’d remove the bones and boil the broth some more. In the early days, we had dried herbs: tarragon, oregano. Later on, we were grateful if we had salt. The broth would turn a dull, murky gray, a colorless color that reminded me of what “giving up” must look like on the color wheel. Bone soup would be our dinner and, if we were lucky, breakfast, too.
The prison building looks just like the color of bone soup: the color a building would turn if you leached all of the joy and hope and nutrients out of the people inside, until all that was left was a holding place for bones.
“I heard you have a gimp with you. Where’s the gimp?” asks Bulldog Frankenstein.
I guess that’d be me. “Here sir,” I say.
“You’re a chico, too? They should’ve sent you to Farm 28.” He and the other guard chuckle. I say nothing.
“You’re coming with me,” Bulldog Frankenstein says. He snaps his fingers and starts walking towards the side of the building.
On impulse, I grab Zelda’s hand and give it a quick squeeze. “_Be safe_,” I whisper, not sure if my words are an order or a prayer. Then I drop her hand and follow.
Our walk is short. He leads me to the entrance of the medic ward, a small outbuilding located in the prison’s shadow. Once there, he orders me to wait in the waiting room, so I do. It’s weird to me that a prison hospital has a waiting room. Wouldn’t prisoners simply wait in their cells until they’re ready to be seen?
I flip open my book. I’ve been given How to Make Friends and Influence People.
A nurse enters the waiting room. “This way.”
She takes me to an examination room like the ones in our medic unit on base, only much dingier. This is not a hospital that prizes sterilization. There are straps on the table. She begins strapping my left leg down.
“What’s this for?” I ask. She doesn’t answer. She cinches the strap tight and turns to my other leg. She reaches for it. I move my leg.
“If you don’t want the shackles, sit still,” she says sharply. There are arm shackles hanging from the bed. A chill runs down my body.
“What is this for?” I ask again. Almost pleading.
Before she can answer, Bulldog Frankenstein enters the room, followed by a doctor. He’s carrying a wooden leg.
“It won’t hurt if you don’t struggle.”
I get one restraint off before they can shackle my arms. They roll up my pant leg. I start pleading. The guard shoves a dirty gag in my mouth and puts the full weight of his body down on my chest. Every limb, every nerve, every intricate twist of muscle in my body fights this violation. They do it anyway.
It hurts, having a limb removed. Even a fake one. I shut my eyes and scream my rage and fear into the gag. Cold liquid burns on my stump, then they’re pulling on it to get it lose. There’s a ripping feeling. A lightness as half my leg leaves my body.
I can feel the guard laughing, feel his hot breath on my face. He’s enjoying this. Shock or hopelessness sets in and I stop struggling.
The guard slides off my chest.
“There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” he says.
They remove the shackles. My whole body folds like a wilting flower over my stump.
I didn’t understand why FL Stewart didn’t fight his attackers. Now I do. Now, my fingers worry over tender flesh and my mind softy chants “no no no no no” as they deposit me in a wheelchair, shove the wooden leg in my lap, and wheel me to my cell.