They only bring us one dinner. Bulldog Frankenstein must feed on the misery of others. He has grown fat on it – on our stolen meals.
We share it, sitting side by side on the cold floor, the sack of contraband between us. I pull out the perforated plastic.
“Do you know what this is?”
“Yeah, don’t you?”
She takes it from me. “I thought you said you could read. It says: ‘take what you need, leave what you can.’”
That’s incredible. “How can you read that?”
Again, the pitying look. “It’s brailleish. We use it to communicate.”
“So this isn’t really your stash?”
“It’s everybody’s stash. People stash things behind toilets. Always. Guards won’t reach way back there. It’s the only place that never gets clean.”
Zelda had told me about braille – a tactile alphabet that allowed the blind to read with their fingers. It’s what’s in those books I found in the green room. But this wasn’t tactile, just dots on a page.
I slap my stump. Of course! That makes it all the less obtrusive. The dotted trash the tasered girl was clutching!
I get so excited that for a moment, I forget how hungry I am. But my stomach does not forget. It painfully twists and growls, demanding its meager portion of stale bread. Peaches hands me the slice. Passing it back and forth, ripping off a tiny crumb, pressing the crumb to the roof of my mouth with my tongue and letting it melt away, it reminds me of home. It reminds me of meals with Peasant: totally unsatisfying, wholly shared.
“Do you have a sister?” I ask Peaches.
She cringes and sighs as if I’ve pressed my thumb into a deep bruise.
“Older or younger?”
“I have a younger sister I haven’t seen in more than a year.”
She pores some astronaut powder into my hand. “I haven’t seen mine in about three years. Since Farm 5.”
“What is Farm 5?”
“It’s where they put kids.”
Kids they catch in street sweeps sew and patch up clothes for soldiers in exchange for a bed and meals, Peaches says. The trick is, what the government charges kids for a bed and meals is more than what they pay them for their work. So essentially, they sweep up homeless kids and make them into indentured servants.
“Eventually, you get old enough to realize they’re scamming you,” Peaches says. “And you start to make trouble. That’s usually when they either send you to another farm or kick you back out on the street, but then you can’t even qualify for rations because you owe the government money, so you’re basically screwed for life. They sent my sister to Farm 19 and threw me back to the streets.”
“Why did they separate you?”
“She stabbed a kid in the face with a pair of sewing scissors but he deserved it. He ratted on some of us for stealing socks.”
“Right? A pair of socks hands my sister a death sentence.”
“How is the farm a death sentence?”
Her expression is such a perfect mix of pity and condescension that for a moment, she resembles Zelda on her highest horse. “No one comes back from Farm 19. That’s where they plant the drillers.”
I laugh. “That’s insane.”
Peaches gets very still. “Don’t call me that.”
“I wasn’t calling you – I just mean, nobody plants drillers. They’re already planted. By Mexico. It ended the war. Everybody knows that.”
She nods. “Yes, everybody knows that.”
“Some farms are filled with people who go out and dig them up. A lot of them come back tore up like you, or dead. On other farms, the farmers are forced to replant the drillers where the military wants them.”
Peaches looks at my half a leg. “The prisons, they’re just a holding place. They don’t make money so they don’t keep us here. That’s why nobody’s stashes are really their own – no one’s here long enough to make this place home. The guards, they either release you if you’re old or injured, or they send you to a farm if they need the bodies and they can work you.
“Some of the farms, the good ones, are brutal. The bad ones are a death sentence. My sister has a death sentence but she’s the only family I got. And it’s not like living life out there alone is grand.”
She gestures to the window, to the billboard with its biting red grin and the world beyond it.
“I want to be where she is.” She shivers. “Should we start a fire, do you think?”
I nod for I, too, am chilled.
That night, as we burn tampons and book pages, my mind turns Peaches’s words over and over, looking for flaws. As much as I like her, I don’t really know her. She could be paranoid. Or delusional. Or mistaken. Except I’ve seen a farm in Reno and Bulldog Frankenstein referenced one when we first got here – he made a joke about how I should be on Farm 28 because I’m a “chico.”
If the government does run forced labor farms, it would make a certain amount of sense that they’d have inmates digging up drillers. The work would be brutal but then I’d assume people imprisoned on those farms are there because they’ve broken laws – big ones. Digging up drillers could be the government’s way of forcing them to right their wrongs.
But planting drillers?
As Peacekeepers, we are the eyes and ears and hands and occasionally fists of the government – a government assembled to serve and protect its citizens. Planting drillers around cities wouldn’t serve its citizens; it wouldn’t protect them. There is no higher good I think of for the plantings, which means Peaches must be paranoid. Delusional. Mistaken. Except I feel in my gut she’s only half of those things, at most. And her story is too close to what the girl who ran told me in Reno.
If Peaches is not paranoid, delusional, or mistaken, we are being lied to. It means the most vulnerable among us are being coerced into making prisoners of us all by those whose paramount duty is to protect and serve.
“Hey,” Peaches says suddenly, “you want a tattoo?”
I pull myself out of the dark place my head has gone and back into this dark place, this temporary hell that now feels less like punishment than enlightenment.
“Yes,” I say. “Absolutely I do.”