It was just before dawn, but Pelgrem was only half asleep. The incessant dripping of water through the tiny cracks in the window kept him awake. As much as he tried, in two years, he was never able to fully shut out the sounds of the camp. The water constantly reminded him of where he was and that he was helpless to stop the dripping or fix the cracks in the window next to his bed.
Camp 17 was the worst camp in America. It was where the worst offenders were sent. It was ideal, set in the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska, where few people visited. It was isolated, yet close enough to a major city to serve as a constant reminder to the local camp population of what they missed, what they had, and what they had lost.
Camp councillors reminded the men of 17 each day of the freedoms they had lost, but Pelgrem felt freer and more alive inside the camp than he ever did as a free man. He didn’t like to think about it though, because there was still a small desire in him to discover what was happening in the world and what happened to his sister the day he left for the camps.
For now, he was silently cursing the rain for creating the droplets that kept him awake. Each time he began to slip away, a drop would hit the floor. It was as loud as a sonic boom in the silence of the overcrowded dormitory. Pelgrem squeezed his eyes tighter and tried to concentrate on a bright, sunny day. No rain, no droplets, no puddles to splash in. Just the radiant, yellow sun warming his face. The glow soothing him to sleep.
His feet. Something grabbed his feet. Pelgrem was wide awake now and he sat straight up in his bunk. Instinctively, his hand grabbed for what was grasping his feet. He couldn’t see who it was, but he knew the voice.
“Shoes,” Damaes said as he shook Pelgrem’s leg. “Five minutes.”
“Thanks,” Pelgrem answered as he reached down and began untying the laces on his shoes. Camp policy regulated that all shoes were to be replaced every three months. This was to prevent the residents from hiding weapons or other items, such as food, in makeshift compartments. However, shoes were replaced three weeks ago.
“Hurry Pel. There isn’t much time,” urged Damaes as he let go of Pelgrem’s leg and climbed into the cot next to Pelgrem. Pelgrem hurriedly pulled his shoes off, dropping the left one onto the floor between his cot and Damaes’ cot. He took the right shoe and carefully peeled back the paper-thin insole. He reached into the shoe and pulled out a small magnetic strip card. The card read GCS33 on the top edge. Other than the number, the card was quite plain, a white strip card of seemingly grand unimportance. The card was rather large for its design. Three inches by one inch. Its length signified a locker. Pelgrem placed the card into his sock. He then replaced the insole and dropped the shoe on the floor.
Pelgrem then waited for the councillors. The wait was taking too long. Pelgrem was sure five minutes had passed. Maybe they weren’t coming. Maybe they were already there, watching with night vision cameras and were waiting for him to panic. His heart was racing. Maybe they knew and were waiting for him to do something. Too much time had elapsed. Pelgrem’s mind was racing. The sock. They will look at the sock. They’ll find it instantly.
Pelgrem reached down and pulled the card from his sock. He felt its smooth surface in his hand while turning it over time and again. Where to put it? Under the blanket? No. Too easy to find. In his pockets? Too easy to see the indentations. Toss it out the window? No guarantee that someone else wouldn’t find it. Then, a handsome reward would be required to retrieve it.
Footsteps. They were near. Pelgrem could hear the door unlocking. Peril. In mere seconds he would be caught. The door opened, lights came on. In a panic, Pelgrem shoved the card in his mouth.
As the councillors entered, the residents immediately rose and stood at the ends of their beds. They were a smarmy bunch who strutted around in their black uniforms like the only roosters in a hen house. They took pleasure in abusing residents in any manner they saw fit. There were no repercussions for them. The residents didn’t exist. Their suffering didn’t exist. Most of the councillors didn’t exist. The entire notion of camps in America only vaguely existed.
Camps were more of a threat to small children who didn’t want to eat their peas. Parents used it as a threat and was as common as the bogeyman. The general population of American citizenry either didn’t care, didn’t know, didn’t want to know, or outright denied the existence of any type of camp that horded people together like cattle if they stepped out of line. Thus, when a child was threatened, it was no more real to them than walking on the moon. It was all rumors and supposition.
They knew people disappeared for a while. Some never returned. Many people assumed that law breakers ended up in prison, but the rumors of the camps persisted enough to make some wonder whether they really did exist. It was enough of a rumor, however, that it kept most citizens in line.
* * * * *
The Mayan pictorial calendar predicted that the world would end in 2012. For millions of people across the world it did. Concentration camps were constructed first in America, then throughout the world. Millions of people, believed innocent in the past, were thrown into oblivion. Their names erased from history and the minds of their families and neighbors.
By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the horrors of the Nazis and Stalinist Russia were a distant memory. History had been pushed aside for the convenience of ignorance. Students no longer learned the mistakes of the past. Scant survey courses were the norms of classrooms across America in an attempt to circumvent the standards the rest of the world had held. The false inflation of perceived evidence rippled through America until it cascaded into the rest of the world.
The world had willingly arrived at a new age by gleefully giving up its sacrifices of the past to the new security the world’s last superpower could provide. In less than twenty years, America had control over most of the world. Her pressure and influence was welcomed among the many nations. Now, in 2047, martial law ruled, though many believed that the Constitution still held and people still had freedom of choice. Privacy, nearly non-existent, was no longer a concern of the citizens of America. Safety was all that mattered in a world where those in the camps realistically had more freedom and choices than those in the outside world.
Camp 17 wasn’t on any map and Pelgrem knew that if he were caught that was it. No appeal. He no longer existed. But he had to keep his card and hope it would never be discovered.
Johnny was still rising when a councillor arrived at his cot. He was directly across from Damaes. Johnny was overweight and was always slow to get up. He was a mere five foot nine but weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Johnny never understood why he was there and no one in all of camp 17, resident or councillor, knew how he continued to stay so fat. Speculation narrowed it down to either eating rats or other things in the morgue where he worked during the day, or sexual favors. Whatever it was, he didn’t fit in with the rest of barracks 84 and probably never would.
Councillor Chadwick Drake began making his infamous stroll down the barracks. He enjoyed harassing and torturing the campers in barracks 84. He had a special distaste for campers like Pelgrem who knew too much about the inner workings of the government and the world in general. The campers in barracks 84 were special. They were not your typical criminal that murdered or robbed people of their food and credit. These campers defied the very system that was put into place to protect all Americans from all criminals. People like Pelgrem and Damaes were a threat, not to the good, law-abiding citizens, but to the government itself. So if councillors like Drake wanted to have a little fun, the government looked the other way.
Three other councillors came into the barracks with Drake, though Pelgrem didn’t recognize them. He assumed they must be the councillors on night duty that were rarely seen. Occasionally, campers would be awake in the middle of the night, and possibly speak with their bunkmate or someone in the next bunk, but it was rare to see a councillor from the night shift unless you had been caught doing something wrong. Pelgrem had seen some councillors at night from his window, but it was always dark and he was never able to make out their faces. The only thing he ever saw were the red stripes, signifying their ranks, on the cuffs of their sleeves as they occasionally passed under the lamp posts outside.
Two councillors headed towards the right side of the barracks and Pelgrem could hear some rustling from that end of the barracks. Barracks 84 was divided in two, with the bathrooms in the middle. Thirty men were forced to share the bathrooms, which held three toilets, a urinal, two sinks and two showers. Pelgrem disliked and barely tolerated most of the men on the other side of the barracks, mainly because they had lived there for many more years than the men on his side. Several of them had been there ten years or more and knew nothing of the outside world. They didn’t care about it anymore and were considered useless by society.
Those men gave up trying to understand why they were even being kept alive since the government had already deemed them unworthy for a place back in society. They couldn’t be re-educated and, thus, were useless. No one understood why they just weren’t executed. After all, these men didn’t exist and it would have been cheaper to kill them rather than continue feeding them year after year. Nonetheless, there they lived, in limbo, not knowing anything but the four walls around them and the occasional work they were allowed to perform.
Councillors hated checking that side of the barracks. It was useless to them and no amount of pain delivered upon the campers had any effect. Mostly, Pelgrem just heard mumbling and grumbling from that end of the barracks with the occasional “Fuck You,” or “Piss Off,” from a camper. Pelgrem’s end of the barracks, on the other hand, was a whole other story. Most of the campers on his side had been there three years or less. They were still green and could be cajoled, kicked or beaten into submission.
Some of the campers on his side had actually ended up back in society working for the government. They were usually placed into secure fields where they helped catch people like Pelgrem. These were the people he hated most. They defied the law to try to bring about change, but the smallest amount of pain, and they conformed right back to what society had expected from them. Pelgrem hated these campers the most and wanted to hurt them himself for betraying what he believed so dearly.
Councillor Drake stopped near Larry’s cot. Larry had been in the camp nearly a year, yet only once did he show that he might crack. This was after Drake decided to beat him mercifully and then tie him to a rack out in the hot, summer sun. Larry appeared as if he was going to crack and repent from his imaginary infractions. However, Fat Johnny saved him. In the middle of the night, Johnny brought water and bread to Larry. He did this for three nights until Drake was bored with torturing Larry and let him return to the barracks.
After that, no one called him fat Johnny. He was just Johnny. Though everyone still wondered where he got the extra food and bread, no one asked. They were just grateful that Larry survived. Afterwards, Drake took pleasure in random beatings of Larry, just to prove that he was still in charge.
Drake stepped closer to Larry and inspected his clothing. “I see you still haven’t managed to dress yourself properly,” Drake said to Larry as he took a step back in order to have enough room to swing his billy club at Larry. Larry wanted to respond, but knew it was best to say nothing. Drake swung his billy club and it landed squarely on the right side of Larry’s head. Larry fell down to his knees and, as he tried to get back up, Drake hit him again on the back. “I did not tell you to rise, you scumbag.” Drake walked over to Larry’s bed and stripped it, throwing pieces of his bed linen on the floor and onto other cots.
“You are indeed a swine. How is it possible that you are even allowed to sleep in a bed? If I see you sleeping in your bed again for the next week I swear, I will kill you.” Larry, afraid to rise to his feet, nodded assuringly in response that he understood. Drake walked back past Larry and kicked him twice in the stomach, then hit him in the head until a cut opened up under Larry’s left eye. “Go clean that blood up now,” Drake shouted as Larry hurried into the bathroom. That was the safest place to be now. No one ever went in to check the bathrooms at night.
Councillor Drake moved further down the line, kicking or beating people at random. Pelgrem still wondered why they were here. Councillors hated entering the barracks and only did so when they were forced to exact some punishment that someone higher up decided needed to be dealt with immediately. Councillors especially enjoyed beating campers outside for all to see. They believed it was a great deterrent as well as entertainment for the councillors who were stationed in guard towers and bored most of the day.
It was much more fun for them to have a camper ask permission to use the bathroom and then force them to run in circles until they pissed themselves. It was also reassurance for them that the campers were worthless because, during incidents such as these, there were always a few campers who would laugh. Councillors claimed that this was proof that even the campers had distaste for each other. Thus, the councillors have always said that they would consider it an honor to eliminate many of the campers.
Pelgrem stood as still as he could, trying not to draw the attention of Councillor Drake. He desperately needed to swallow but was afraid he might choke on his card. Drake walked slowly over to him. Pelgrem’s heart began to race. He could feel it beating in his throat. He was in no mood to be beaten or interrogated tonight, yet he feared that Drake knew he was hiding something.
“Good evening, Mr. Godschalk,” Councillor Drake said to Pelgrem.
“Mr. Godschalk? Oh no!” Pelgrem thought to himself. Drake was using his last name. That was worse than when his mother called him by his full name as a little boy. Pelgrem looked down to the ground, showing deference to Drake and signaling that he heard Drake and was admitting that Drake was the one in charge. He hated doing this, but Pelgrem knew as well as anyone, letting Drake think he was in charge was better than any punishment he might mete out upon a camper.
“I see your shoes are not properly placed together at the edge of your bed. Is there a reason for this?” Drake said as he began to circle around Pelgrem. Pelgrem wanted to reply but knew if he did, Drake would surely know there was something in his mouth. There was no way to remove it without being seen either. Pelgrem began to panic and he glanced over at Damaes, hoping his friend could give some advice.
Damaes motioned towards his own feet and placed them together. Then he glanced over towards Pelgrem’s shoes. Pelgrem immediately moved away from Drake, bent down, and aligned his shoes as they should properly be. He then stood back up at the edge of his bed, waiting to be whacked with a billy club.
“You see, you filthy campers?” Drake shouted as he stepped back into the center of the room. “This man understands that there is no argument. He knows when he is wrong and corrects his behavior.” Drake walked back to Pelgrem and patted him on the head. “That’s very good of you, but I have reports that you are hiding contraband. I cannot have the head of my barracks breaking the rules.” Pelgrem looked at Councillor Drake and couldn’t hide his shock.
“If you tell me now, it will not be as bad for you.”
“Yeah, like that’s a true statement,” Pelgrem thought to himself. “Get bent you dirtbag. Try and find it.“
Drake looked at Pelgrem as if he knew what Pelgrem was thinking. “Fine. Have it your way.” Drake motioned over to the other councillor that was with him, and they began tearing apart Pelgrem’s belongings. They tore up his bed, sliced open the mattress, flipped over his closet, ripped apart his shoes, and made him strip naked but they found nothing. Frustrated, Drake whacked Pelgrem three times in the head and face with his billy club. Pelgrem fell to the floor, spitting out blood from his mouth. His card slipped part way out but he was quick to suck it back in.
Luckily, Drake had not seen this happen and was busy yelling at Johnny, who had taken a step towards Pelgrem to help. Although he stopped once he realized what would happen, Drake had already drawn his gun and was waving it towards Johnny. Pelgrem was had kept his card concealed, but was worried that Drake might go nuts tonight. Once the other councillor moved towards Johnny, Pelgrem took his card out of his mouth and slipped it in the fresh, open slit of the mattress.
“Do you want me to kill you? Do you?” Drake shouted at Johnny. “Because I’ll do it right here. I don’t give a shit about contracts or who’s looking out for you. I’ll blow your fucking brains out right now, you worthless piece of shit.” Drake pulled the hammer back on his pistol. Everyone thought he was going to kill Johnny. Pelgrem jumped over and stepped in between Drake and Johnny.
“So, what’s the problem in the barracks?” Pelgrem asked as the barrel of the gun was now touching his forehead. “It can’t be to kill Johnny. He doesn’t do anything.” Pelgrem could feel his hands shaking from fear, but he had to try something. Drake uncocked the hammer and put his gun by his side.
“Godschalk,” Drake said, keeping one eye on Johnny and the other on Pelgrem. “You’d better control your people better. Next time, I’m not giving a warning. I’ll just shoot him.”
“Yes, sir,” Pelgrem said, again lowering his head in deference to Drake. He looked over at Johnny and signaled to him with his eyes that he should do the same.
“Thank you, Sir, for the warning,” Johnny replied with his head down. “I won’t let it happen again.”
The two campers stood there waiting for Councillor Drake to decide what he was going to do next. It was only a few seconds, but, to the campers, it felt like a lifetime. Drake holstered his weapon and said, “New guy,” amid a response of low moans.
“Find a spot for him, Godschalk, or I will keep searching for whatever it is that you’re trying to hide.”
“Yes, Sir,”Pelgrem replied.
“Oh, and everyone place your shoes at the door to the barracks. You’ll get new ones tomorrow afternoon. That is, everyone but Mr. Godschalk. You can keep those,” he said, pointing to Pelgrem’s now mutilated shoes. “Or you can go without. It’s your choice.”
Pelgrem opted to keep the shoes, hoping that he may be able to repair them enough to make them wearable until the next time new shoes were distributed. The new guy, who was standing near the exit door, was pushed forward by one of the councillors. He stumbled forward a bit, but kept his composure. The new guy looked around for signs of where he should go while carefully keeping an eye to the ground so that Drake would not hit him on his way out. Drake and the councillors left without further incident, relieving the campers of any further stress for the evening.
“New guy,” Pelgrem said as he motioned to the new guy with his hand. “Come over here and sit on my bed. We’ll find you a spot in a few.” Pelgrem picked up the various bits to his bed and threw them on top of his mattress. He put his shirt and pants back on and grabbed the card from the mattress, sliding it into his pocket. Then, he went into the bathroom to clean his face.
“Hey,” Pelgrem said as he greeted Larry in the bathroom.
“Hey,” Larry replied looking around nervously. “They gone?”
“Yeah, you can go back to bed. I don’t think they’ll be coming back anytime soon.”
“What did Drake want this time?”
“To harrass me,” Pelgrem paused for a moment. “And to give us a new guy.”
“A new guy? Geesh, we don’t need this crap. We don’t have room for a new guy. And who’s to say he’s not spying for Drake?” Larry asked.
“It’s okay, Larry. I’ll sort it out.” Pelgrem dried his hands on the lone towel hanging in the bathroom. “You shouldn’t worry so much. And stop being so paranoid. If he is a spy, he’s probably looking for me. They know I have something but they don’t know what, which means there’s already a spy around us who knows half the story.”
“Did they find it?”
“Nope.” Pelgrem replied with a coyish smile. “It’s right here,” he said tapping his fingers on his right pocket. “Go ahead, get some sleep. We’ll sort everything out in the morning.”
Pelgrem finished cleaning his face and then took the card out of his pocket. He cleaned the remaining blood off his card and said to himself, “I sure hope this still works.”
Pelgrem walked back to his bed where he found the new guy clutching his possessions and refusing to talk to anyone. Pelgrem shook his head and tried to take the new guy’s stuff. The new guy responded by clutching his possessions even tighter than before.
“Come on, jerk. I don’t have time for this crap tonight. Gimme your stuff.” The new guy shook his head no and tried to move away from Pelgrem. “I hate jerks. I really do,” Pelgrem stated as he looked at Damaes. Pelgrem shook his head again and then shouted, “Anyone here want the new guy’s stuff?” A collective “NO” rang out. “See? No one wants your junk. Now give it to me or you can sleep outside.”
The new guy thought for a second and then released his death grip from his possessions. “That wasn’t so hard now was it?” Pelgrem asked as he began putting the new guy’s belongings under the bottom bunk.
Pelgrem leaned over towards his left and looked down the row of bunks. “Hey, young jerk.”
“Yeah?” came the reply from the far left hand side row of bunks.
“What’s your name again?”
“Barney?” Pelgrem asked. “No shit? That’s your name?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“No wonder you never complained about being called a jerk. Well, I think I would have killed myself if my parents had given me such a stupid name.” Pelgrem looked back at the new guy and said to him, “From now on, you’re the baby jerk and, when we think you’re ready, you’ll just be a jerk.”
“But my name is…”
“Don’t care, jerk. You may not live long enough to get a real name anyway.” Pelgrem said this so matter-of-factly that, if you didn’t know him, it would seem as if he didn’t care about anyone in the camp. However, all the campers knew there was little time in the camps to make friends. Most people died or were re-educated before they made it to Barracks 84. Those that did make it to 84 were either turned into spies or couldn’t hack the life in 84, thus making 84 the ultimate re-education facility in the entire camp.
Pelgrem didn’t like inadvertently re-educating people but he also wasn’t stupid enough to betray the other campers in 84 for some jerk who knew nothing of the rules, of loyalty, or even of life. He was kind when he needed to be, but otherwise never trusted any new jerk. Tonight however, Barney had earned his trust. Barney had spent nearly nine months in 84, never giving anyone trouble and generally being one of the more trustworthy men to have been placed there. Besides, having more than one jerk in the same barracks can be dangerous.
“I’m not sharing my bunk with a jerk so you’re going to have to spend the night on the floor until we find other arrangements in the morning,” Pelgrem told the new guy as he helped create a makeshift bed on the cold, concrete floor. The new guy settled in to his new accommodations while everyone else busied themselves with returning to their slumber, dreaming of better days and a better life.
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