The fire liberated us on day six, but who knows how long Professor Munger meant to leave us there. The bus pulls up to collect us at dawn. By that time, the fire had burned itself out. As hundreds of prisoners mill about, rubbing their arms and legs to combat the cold, Bulldog Frankenstein calls our numbers and we filed back on the bus, where our sacks of clothing and personal items await, including my leg.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to Peaches. The last thing she whispered to me was “snake” as two guards pulled her limp body from under mine, that one word breathy and soft from the pain of her cracked ribs.
“Tell your sister hi for me,” I replied. I hope she understands I was trying to be her hero.
The ride back to base is subdued. We are sleep deprived, starved, smokey. Someone behind me cries softly. Zelda won’t look at me. She’s lost weight in six days – we all have – but with her it’s different. Not just a gauntness about her cheeks and belly; she’s folded in on herself, deliberately occupying less space as if willing herself out of existence. Still, she clutches that book: Man’s Search for Meaning. I can tell from the cover it’s about the Holocaust, which I guess is the prison version of a beach read.
A thought occurs to me.
“Were you in the hole this whole time?”
She nods slightly. Keeps staring out the window. That’s all I get.
I mean, I don’t expect her to thank me for saving her life but a little eye contact would be nice.
When we arrive back on base, we’re split into two groups: half head to the showers, the other half to a team of medics waiting to check us for lice.
I’m the last to leave the bus. I bypass the counselor. I want my leg back.
A medic named Dr. Riley sees me. The good news is I’m lice free. The bad news is, he’s reaching for the maxi pad before I remember the tattoo.
“Wait!” I say but it’s too late. The pad is off. He removes his glasses, polishes them, returns them. Drops down to his knees. Gets right in there.
“Wow,” he finally says. “Just what exactly is that snake doing to that baby?”
My brain fails me – not even the whisper of a lie comes to mind. He’s so close I can feel the gentle puff of his nostrils on my knee.
“It doesn’t appear infected, which is good. We should still get some ointment on and let it heal for a week before we reattach your leg. The detail is actually very impressive.” He stands again. “Sound like a plan?”
All I can think to say is “I’m sorry,” even though I don’t owe him a thing.
He smiles. “You know, I did a rotation in that prison. It was good military training because so many of the injuries we saw there mirror those found in battle. Anyway, I’m not here to judge you, I’m here to make sure you didn’t bring bugs back. You did what you had to do to in difficult circumstances – you didn’t get stabbed. You assimilated. That’s what we train you to do.”
He’s pulling out ointment, bandages.
“The prison burned down,” I say. “Last night.”
“I’d heard that, yes. How tragic.”
“Do you know if anyone died?”
“You know, I didn’t ask.”
I find it strange for a doctor, and a former employee, not to be curious about casualties. He’s applying ointment to my stump with gentle hands. I wonder how many people his hands have helped. I also wonder if they were as gentle on those in shackles.
“Do you know where they’ll put all the displaced prisoners?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be taken care of.”
“Some of them mentioned farms,” I say, carefully. “Did you ever work on a farm?”
His hands pause. “Farms are just a crude nickname for satellite jails.”
“Why do we need satellite jails if we’ve got regular jail?”
“Some people steal food because they need to eat. That’s a crime. Other people murder people. That’s a much bigger crime. Both sets of criminals must be taken from the streets to preserve order. But is it fair to lock up petty thieves alongside murderers?”
“Okay. But I heard some of the farms were full of, like, innocent people. People who were just sleeping on the street. Even kids.”
“Sleeping on the streets is a crime. And it would be cruel to throw kids into the same places as murderers, right? Think of the satellites as different flavors of prison.”
They all sound pretty shit-flavored to me.
He ducks his head and focuses on wrapping my stump. I sense our talk is over, yet I still have questions: who decided being homeless was criminal? And if it’s so dangerous, why is the law selectively enforced? Most importantly, how do prisoners end up with war-like wounds when the war ended years ago?
“All wrapped up,” he says. “I want to see you back here in a few days. Then we’ll fit you back in your leg.”
I’m grateful for his help – I am. I also suspect that he thinks I’m naive. Worse, I’m beginning to suspect he’s right.
I figured it out: braille. That’s why the Peacekeepers haven’t been able to tell how gutter-tricks communicate. They all read braille. It’s not truly braille – they just scribble dots to represent letters and words they all understand, and write their messages on trash or graffiti on buildings. I bet they also tag trains, which is how they communicate between cities. No one notices because we’re not trained to look. I feel smarter than Nancy Drew solving the secret of the old clock in a hidden staircase on Crocodile Island.
I figured it out in prison. I spent six days there before I had to stab a woman to save Zelda’s life. But it was nothing compared to what Zelda suffered. They put her in an isolation cell – a dark hole in the ground. She was left alone for almost a week. I looked up isolation cells in our Tactics 101 textbook. Being isolated for that long is a form of torture.
I keep remembering the guard’s face when he sent her there. He was smug about it. He tortured her for essentially nothing – for “talking back,” and he knew she wasn’t a prisoner. She was somebody. A cadet. A future Peacekeeper. He could’ve ruined her life. He’s probably ruined many other people’s lives, just because he could. Because they were nobodies.
That could’ve been me. I could’ve been sent to prison after my leg was blown off, instead of a military hospital. I could’ve ended up in the hole. Unlike Zelda, I kind of deserved it.
One of the last times I saw you, you told me what to do should I ever get arrested in Reno. I hope you never have to follow your own advice.