God, his head hurt. He had been beaten once by a bunch of punks in prison. They held him down, pounded him with a chair. Brke his orbital bone on one side, knocked out two teeth, dislocated his jaw. This was worse. It was a deep pain, aching down to his core.
“Feels like an elephant ate a ton of bricks, then shit on me.” said a voice, close to his head. Frank was inclined to agree, but the pain was starting to fade, surprisingly quickly. It was even seeming to slip from his mind. He found he could open his eyes.
He was on a bus, converted school bus, it looked like. Guy next to him was slumped over against him, asleep. Guy who spoke must be across from him, and he was grinning across the aisle.
Frank struggled to compose himself. He didn’t like not being aware of where he was. The last 3 years in prison proved that to him.
Pulling himself up in his seat, he twisted around, taking in everything. Full house. Two convicts to each bench seat, buckled in. Two guards up front, looked like two in the back. Guy across the aisle seemed to be the most together of all of them, everyone else was out cold, or lolling about in their seats, moaning slightly and barely awake.
He didn’t let himself relax, but settled in with his eyes half hooded, fighting the ache that persisted in the back of his neck, and let time pass for a while. Then there was movement to his left, and he bolted upright. Guy in a doctor’s coat was passing smelling salts under his nose, then, seeing he was awake, reached over and shook the guy next to him and roused him with the bottle.
The doctor worked his way up the aisle, and as heads appeared over the back of the seats, he studied faces. No one familiar. Probably a good thing. He was surprised to see a fair number of women scattered about. One in particular caught his eye. Blond with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, face in profile was gorgeous, if bleary eyed.
“Pretty girl.” It was the guy across the aisle again, following his gaze. True. He wondered what she was in for?
He looked away. The guy next to him was sitting upright, smiling at him with an unnerving grin. Amazing how cracked guys get in prison. He decided to keep an eye on him until they were safely off the bus.
With most of the bus awake, a guard took the front of the bus with a clipboard.
“Listen up. You’ve all here to finish out your sentences. Your cooperation will result in your early release, lack of cooperation will not go well for you. You may have been able to bend the rules where you come from. Not here. Even minor infractions, all guards are allowed to respond to with lethal force” the guard next to him patted the butt of his gun grinning. “You may fraternize with other D-class personnel, but may not speak of anything you see in the barracks. You will be monitored, we will know.” he consulted his clipboard. “Polygraph tests daily. Follow orders, and we will have no trouble.”
“And after a month we’re free?” piped up the guy across the aisle.
“You will get release.” responded the guard. “No one here wants to know your story. We don’t care if you’re innocent. We don’t even want to know your name. You’ll find your classification number on your wrist.”
Frank twisted his hands around in the cuffs “D-85793”, a fucking tattoo. How did that get there? When did his clothes change? He shook his head. He still felt disoriented. The whole situation had a surreal halo around it, nothing seemed quite solid in his mind. The guy next to him was still staring, still smiling at him, with wasn’t helping the situation.
They were pulling into a dirt parking lot before he could collect his thoughts, and the guard ordered them on his feet. They were marched at quick pace off the bus, feet crunching on the frosty ground. He had an impression of concrete walls, a fence, some sort of building that looked bigger than the Penitentiary he came from. Then there were through one, two, three metal doors, and being marched down a few flights of stairs deep underground and through another doorway.
The door slammed behind them and before they had a chance to compose themselves, a voice came over an intercom.
“You’ll find the keys to your handcuffs on the table. After you free yourselves, please place the cuffs on the tray by the window. Be prepared to report at 0600 hours tomorrow.”
The intercom buzzed off, and Frank and his compatriots blinked around the room at each other.
This was it then. One month to his freedom. Once out from their shackles, they explored their surroundings. This was amazingly better than prison. The dormitories were more comfortable, sleeping four to a room, and there were a ten bathrooms with their own showers. There was a kitchen stocked with single serve dinners and snacks. There was a living area, with a nice big screen tv, and a full stock of movies, all older films. A bookshelf with all the classics. Best of all, a foozball table, and a closet with cards and board games. Within a half hour they were starting to chat, settle in, and bond. Frank felt himself relaxing in spite of himself. This didn’t feel like prison. It felt like summer camp when he was ten, if you ignored the security cameras. If anything, it almost bothered him how this felt like a kid’s room. The walls were institutional green, but the furniture had a school like quality to them. Obviously, someone didn’t think highly of them.
Despite the strange surroundings, it was amazing how quickly they let their guards down. After years in prison, Frank found himself letting some of the tension he had held for the past years dissolve. And why not? This was to get them out. One month of “service”, and back into the real world. There was a strange sort of comraderie thanks to it. They were all in the same situation, it was them versus this place with the world to win. The party atmosphere continued well into the night, they joked about their code numbers, they ate, they bet on foozball, they ate the junk food that they hadn’t tasted in their time in prison. Yes, thought Frank, this was just like summer camp, only with bigger and scarier campers.
There was Joseph, D-7745 the guy who sat across the aisle from Frank on the bus, he was a ham, life of the party and former actor who would tell stories and jokes that made a crowd gather around him. Including, Frank was sad to see, the pretty blonde they both had noticed while on the bus. She was Jennifer, coded D-0835, a bright thing with a silvery laugh and icy blue eyes. By the time Frank got up the nerve to talk to her, she had already taken to Joseph, sitting on his lap and laughing. There was, too the guy who had been sitting next to him on the bus. He sat separate from all of them, watching with shifty eyes.
It was, to Frank’s dismay, the latter who he found settling uncomfortably near him late that night.
“Hello there Frank. Guess you don’t remember me, huh?”
“How do you know my….”
“You don’t remember me, do you!” the man’s voice cracked, he seemed close to hysteria. “Of course you don’t, of course you don’t. No, but I know you. We’re old buddies, aren’t we?”
“I know you from the Penn?”
“No.” he laughed again, high pitched and wild. “No, but I know you, I like you. I know all about you. I know you’re a good man. I know you’re innocent!” He burst into a peal of laughter, and stuffed his fist into his mouth, then turned and half ran away.
Frank watched after him. He had seen guys crack in prison before. But still… He shook it off. He wasn’t here for this. He was here to get free.
It was a bleary morning when the intercom blasted Revelry. They dumped into their jumpsuits, and wandered into the living area.
There were assignments for half of them, Frank and the rest found themselves ushered into a room and hooked up to a lie detector. Some basic questions, some questions about their stress levels, general psych stuff. By noon they were ushered into a cafeteria, where their whole barracks sat at one table. There were 3 other barracks, apparently, although the guards wouldn’t let them talk to each other. After lunch, Frank found himself with assignment.
Apparently they were to be janitorial staff. Frank found himself cleaning the bathrooms, then was ordered to scrub a floor on a vacant cement block room. He walked in and had to take step back out, retching. What looked like bucket loads of vomit was coated down the walls and covering the floor, rancid. He braced himself in the hall for a moment, then picked his cleaning bucket back up. It was disgusting work, but he had to remember that it was only four hours until he was back in the barracks.
A month worth of this, and he’d be free and clear? He’d take all the puke they could dish out.
So his time there continued, day in day out. There were changes, of course. For all the days he was working in the cafeteria or doing basic cleaning, there were days he found himself doing truly strange tasks. Like one day, he was charged with lugged barrels marked biological waste down to be incinerated. They shifted and sloshed as he moved them, like they were full of water, and smelled like copper and ozone. He found himself cleaning some sort of black slime another day that moved away under his hands like it was running from him. Crazy shit these government guys made, scientist boys were always nuts.
There were some things he noticed, too. Like, in the cafeteria, as you grabbed a tray, you could see through the kitchen. There was a mirror cafeteria area there, with a weird mix of folks in lab coats, army camo, suits, and causal slacks. If Frank passed them in the halls their eyes would slide over him. It was like none of the noticed he existed.
The work, the weirdness was secondary, and time in the barracks especially was making time fly. If anything, Frank’s biggest concern was sleep. Almost every night, he’d jerk awake from some nightmare that would fade as soon as he opened his eyes. Must be the result of the stress of prison leaving him. It was no matter. There were plenty of night owls, so he wasn’t alone on his awake nights. He’d hang out with Joseph’s clique usually. Their evenings more calm than the first night, they were exhausted after their day of work, but it was still upbeat, joyful. They’d play cards, and Frank would eye up Jennifer as she smiled up at Joseph.
They had been there four days, and Frank was watching Jennifer’s ass as she swayed across the room with cups of soda for the guys, when he heard a voice close by.
“Oh, you’d wish you could remember three months ago.” It was the twitchy guy from the first night. This was the first Frank had seen him talk to anyone. He kept mostly to himself.
“What’s your name boy?”
“Junior. Oh yes, and your name is Frank, and your son’s name is Mike, and you own a green Chevy and you worked as a mechanic in upstate New York, yes”
Frank jumped to his feet and stared down at the man “You got a file on me? Who the hell are you.”
“Junior. I’m Junior! Sit down, we’re friends aren’t we? Oh we were.” His voice was getting stressed again. His eyes pleaded, and there was something so pathetic about the guy that it stopped him in his tracks. He found himself sitting down, again.
“What’s going on?”
The man patted his knee “That’s better. We can talk. Haven’t you noticed something is wrong with this place? You had to have. Oh, but I know. I’ll tell you the story. You see, they call us D-Class personnel. Dead, destroy, done. You don’t believe they’re going to release us at the end of the month do you? No, we’re their lab rats. They use us in their experiments. If you are used in an experiment, you’re dead. If the experiment doesn’t kill you, they’ll off you at the end of month. Sometimes they take a lot of us, sometimes just a few. But us, right now? We’re what you call ‘light use’. Keep us on to do dirty work until they are ready to use you. They wipe your memory first, though. Send you to another facility, and you start over never knowing you’ve done it before. And it’s all the same again and again.”
Frank smiled at him “Crazy theory.”
“No theory, no. See, my brain is wired different, maybe. But the shot they give you, makes you forget everything? Don’t work on me. I remember everything. But I am smart. Pretend it don’t. Just pretend to pass out when they give you the shot, then I pretend to wake up, and I do the whole month over again. Done it now, what? Ten times?”
“Bunked with a guy who thought he had been abducted by aliens once. Strange what stress will do for you.”
Junior ran his fingernails down his face and laughed again, high pitched, “It’s the truth! It’s how I know about you, all about you, Franky. We were buddies before. Think about it. What was the last thing you remember? It’s been six months you been here with me. Think!”
Almost unbidden Frank let his mind wander back. He was in the penn, talking to the warden about this program, commutes your sentence in exchange for a month of labor. And then, what? He was talking to someone else, doing… something. Voices. And then he was on the bus, the pain in his head…
He got up from the couch, turned his back on Junior, trying to shake the idea out of his head. “Crazy theory buddy. When you get out, you should get help.” Junior laughed behind him, his voice getting higher and higher.
Frank got himself a soda, pretending he wasn’t bothered by the strang conversation. But there was something that he couldn’t shake. When he talked to the warden, it was June. When he walked in, there was a dusting of snow on the ground.
He wandered over to the bright circle of Joseph’s card game and didn’t let himself think about it. He focused his mind on the game, on Jenn’s smile, anything else. He wasn’t going to let the crazy rantings of some redneck who spent too much time inside concrete walls get to him. He had a job to do, and a life afterwards.
He had almost managed to get it out of his mind, when the next night there was a fuss as they got back from assignment.
“Anyone seen Milton?” called one of the other cons in the far bedroom. A quick nose count and they realized one guy hadn’t come back from assignment
Junior was suddenly in the room, laughing until he doubled over. “Told you! Told you! We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die!” He was too loud, too close to the cameras. Jackass was going to get them all in trouble. Frank grabbed him and shook him, but he kept laughing. Then Joseph wound up and slugged him across the jaw. He landed in a heap on the bed.
They tried to settle in afterwards, play some poker, relax, but the mood was damaged. Soon, they found themselves whispering to each other about it. Where was the missing guy?
Jenn was snuggled next to Joseph on the couch, wide eyed. “Do you think something happened?”
“Maybe he got sent to another duty, there’s more than one barracks, you know.” murmured Frank. He wondered how her ass felt pressed up against him like it was against Joseph.
“Either way, shut up or go to bed. Talking will only piss them off and I need out of here.” said Joseph. He pushed Jennifer off of him. “Instead, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, raising his voice and taking on a faux accent “allow me to regale the assembled with a dramatic retelling of my adventures one drunken evening and how I managed to illicitly obtain the hand off of a national statue, and personally change the mind of lovely young woman considering taking the vows of a nun…”
Within a few moments they were all laughing and some of the levity was restored. There was no booze in the barracks, but they cracked out some extra snacks and soda, and soon were telling their own stories. As he bested them all in poker one of the other D-classes told Frank a story about his girlfriend back home which only made him think harder about Jenn.
That night, Frank awoke from the same nightmare he had had since he came to the barracks, the details slipping from his mind as he opened his eyes. Screams…. That was all.
He rolled out of bed, made his way to the kitchen for a drink. There was a whisper from the dark of the common room.
“Want to know why you wish it was three months ago?” It was Junior.
“Get back to bed before you fuck everything here.” Hissed Frank, glancing for the closest camera
“Three months ago, you and Jenn were an item, you know that? It wasn’t just some fling, either. You two had a real thing that month. Pity. She hasn’t given you the time of day any of the cycles since.”
“Shut the fuck up, Junior”
“Oh, you were upset about it last time too. Ended up hooking up with some chick with big violet eyes and huge knockers. But that was some fling. No, you and Jenn, that was something.” Junior laughed in his cracked and broken way, and scuttled away.
It hung in Frank’s head the next day, as he was called to clean another room. Dressed in a some sort of protective suit, he was cleaning up some sort of acid-like substance off of a polished metal floor with 5 other cons. He looked up to realised he didn’t recognize the woman in the suit across from him. Her suit read D-55493, and she smiled at him with huge purple eyes. He gasped, walked backwards and scrubbed the other side of the room, praying the guard didn’t notice.
The next morning, the loudspeaker buzzed on early. “D-94923 is requested for special duty. Please report to the exit immediately.” From the next room, Frank heard someone cursing, rummaging around as they got dressed, and shambling footsteps through the room.
He wasn’t back by first call. He wasn’t back that night either.
They played poker that night and no one at Joseph’s table mentioned it. Let the rest whisper. They’d be silent and behave themselves. They were getting out of here in 18 days, no need to ruin it.
Junior was lurking in the corner, grinning at Frank. Frank turned away as much as possible, but the eyes burned into the back of his head. He tossed down his cards and stormed into his bedroom. He was going to make it to end of month. Nothing changed that.
He dreamt that night, first time he had a dream that wasn’t that damn nightmare. He was in the barracks, but it was different, same institutional green walls, but arranged differently. And Jenn was there, smiling at him, half in his lap, those blue eyes hooded and inviting. She said something, and pulled him onto his feet, and they whispered down the hall, through the hall and into an empty bedroom. Pulling him close, she ran her fingernails up his arm, raising goosebumps, then pulled him in, kissed him hard.
“The cameras…” He said, coming up for air as she played with the waistband of his jumpsuit
“Let them watch.”
He woke up in a sweat.
The next morning, there was another buzz on the intercom, right after they returned from their polygraph. “D-7745, please report immediately for special assignment.”
Joseph turned pale for a moment, staring at the intercom. But it was only a moment, before he popped back into his over the top self.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, as you can tell they obviously chose me as they need someone to woo and bed beautiful women. I will return to you anon, and farewell!” He bowed, and they all mock applauded for a moment as he waved his way out.
It was a moment before Jennifer started crying. The dream in his mind, Frank wanted to hold her, to make it better. But instead he lined up for duty. After all, what could he said? He hardly knew her, dreams of intimacy meant nothing.
Junior was waiting for him when they came back from duty.
“You guys made such a great couple. I heard you make plans, you know. You said you knew a place near a lake to settle, said you went there as a kid. You wanted to build a deck, start a new family…”
“Shut up” He tried to sound solid, but he could see it in his mind’s eye now. His grandparent’s lake house, fixed up. Jenn serving lemonade and sitting out back on the old porch swing, staring over the mountains and planning their future. He’d fix up the kitchen for her, turn the old study into a nursery…. Why did this all seem so real, so solid in his mind?
“I’m telling the truth aren’t I? You know that now. Oh, and there’s so much more.”
“You say one more word to me ever, and I’ll slug you myself.”
Junior squealed in laughter and skittled into his room.
The next day, Frank was tasked with scrubbing strange orange sludge off of the walls in one of the halls, when he saw two D-class personnel he didn’t know half carrying a man down the hall. He was raving nonsense, gibberish, eyes wide, one arm completely missing, the scar black and oozing. Frank tried not to look, he tried to pretend that he didn’t recognize him.
He didn’t say anything when he returned to the barracks. He pretended not to notice the way the atmosphere had changed, or that Jennifer was crying in her rooms. He ate, he let his eyes settle over a few pages of a biography of Lincoln, and turned into bed early. In the next room, everyone whispered things they had been keeping in. Stories of half seen shadows in the hall that made no sense. Overheard conversations from the guys in labcoats. Words started to trickle to the surface that people were holding in . Demon. Alien. Monster. Fears everyone was holding back were threatening to burst through.
None of this mattered. He had two weeks to go. He could make it through it. Junior was insane. Ignore him. Put him out of mind. Everyone else was under stress, pay them no mind either.
He pretended to be a ghost. He lurked about his duties, he spoke to no one. He ignored the calls, one here, one there, for people in his barracks for special assignments. He pretended he didn’t notice the empty beds, or the quiet that was falling over the barracks. He had to keep his head down. Just play by the rules. That’s why the other ones were called out, never to be seen again, wasn’t it? They must have broken the rules. No, he would make it to the end of the month. Move somewhere, not to his grandparents place, no. Just, start over, new city new girl. Forget all of his past. Ten days left.
He was called to move a body from a room, but the shape in the body bag wasn’t right. He could see the outline of the head, a leg. None were in the right place though. He did it without question, head down, silent. No matter what muck they threw at him, he could handle it. He couldn’t have doubt.
And then, as he scrubbed down the cafeteria kitchen with a half dozen other cons, there was a huge crash from down the hall. The guard’s walkie buzzed to life, barking out codes and orders. There were screams somewhere close. The guard ushered them into a concrete room, slammed the door shut, and they listened as in the distance sirens wailed and voices yelled indistinctly. Something slammed the building hard enough to shake it, and then, silence.
Frank realized Jenn was pressed against him.
“Hey, guess they’ll forgot us here, huh?”
“They’ll remember us soon enough. Someone has to clean their toilets.”
Jenn laughed. She had such a pretty little laugh. “You seem like a nice guy. What the hell you in for?”
Frank hadn’t told anyone the story in those years inside, but now he found it so easy to tell. “I was 15 when my girlfriend got knocked up. Never knew my son as a baby, her parents raised him. But he sought me out when he was in high school. Fifteen years old. Same age I was when he was born, my spitting image. He could be a great kid, he was smart, funny… but he was a troublemaker. I tried to set him straight, but it was all just a little too late. And then one day, I came home and there he was on my couch, blood on his shirt. Damn fool tried to knock over a liquor store. Got in a scuffle with the clerk, ended up killing him. Fifteen years old, a goddamn murderer, his life was already over.” Frank swallowed hard. “What could I do? I swapped clothes with him, let myself get caught near the scene of the crime. I wasn’t there for him when he was a baby. Even if it was late, I had to be his father. Gave him another chance to live.”
Jenn stared at him with watery eyes, “You did the right thing.”
Frank shook his head “Three weeks. Three goddamn weeks later and he robs another store. Clerk didn’t put up a fight, but he shot him in the goddamn head. I gave him another chance at life and he blew it for 200 bucks and a bottle of Jack.”
Jenn gasped, and placed her hand on his. His skin tingled. He had so much else to say, thoughts that had crept into his head since his talk with Junior. If that bastard was right, he had a past with this woman, and he had planned a future. That dream, the way she touched him… But if Junior was right, it meant both of them only had one possible path, and it lead to death.
He reached out to touch Jenn’s face, looking at the question in her eyes. And then the door slammed open and a guard ordered them into the hall, down and back into the barracks.
He huddled over by himself in his room. Half the barracks was empty beds. The rest huddled panicked in the common area, speaking in hushed tones about half seen things in the hall. Frank wanted nothing to do with any of it. He shut himself alone in the room.
The next day they found themselves working immediately, no polygraph test, not even a lunch break. There was too much work. Whole walls were missing, bricks pounded to dust like a wrecking ball had come through the subterranean walls. The pieces of wood they shuttled out in wheelbarrows were charred, and some of the bricks actually looked glassy and melted. It was backbreaking work to clean up, and the guards rushed them at breakneck pace, as though there was some risk should the construction not happen quickly.
It made it easier, actually. Everyone collapsed when they got back to the barracks. Frank didn’t have to talk to anyone. He didn’t even have to think. Just work and sleep. The two days were much the same, although now they had to rebuild the broken walls, laying concrete blocks and timber. He didn’t have to think about Jenn, didn’t have to see Junior.
He didn’t even remember that it was their last day until the loud speaker buzzed the next morning.
They were gathered in the common area, waiting instructions. Everyone’s reaction was so strange. Some were celebrating, talking about their plans when they got out. Others mourned lost friends from the disaster three days prior. Others looked depressed and resigned, or suspicious and angry. There were so few of them left, only 18 from the original 40.
Jenn sat in the corner with another female con. He could see she was crying.
He wandered over to her “Jenn, what’s wrong?”
“Fuck off, you might be getting out, but you have no chance with her.” The other woman said, glaring at Frank.
“No, it’s okay, don’t.” said Jenn, looking up at him. “I think, I think I’m pregnant, Frank. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t… I’ve been in jail for 2 years, how did this happen?”
“No, we never risked it with the cameras. Besides, I think I’m further along than that…”
Frank took two steps back, horrified. Jenn stared at him, confused, a little hurt. And then Frank fled across the room, back into his bedroom.
He tried not to acknowledge Junior when he crept into the room, squatted down beside him, giggling his little laugh.
“Wishing you were three cycles ago again?”
“Fuck off Junior, let me enjoy my last hours before I’m free.”
“You seriously think you’re going to be free!” Junior laughed “You know you’re not. You know I’m right. The first time I told you, you knew it was true. I knew you’d understand, because I knew you were innocent.”
Frank looked for the first time at the man who sat wild eyed beside him. “You know nothing.”
“Oh, but I knew you, knew you before you even got here. That son of yours? Took the same damn deal as his father. Went through two cycles with Mikey. He told me all about you taking the rap for him.”
Frank jumped to his feet and glared down at him “You shut your damn mouth!”
“But it’s true! You were here for his last cycle, you know? When they called him away, you begged for them to take you instead, but they didn’t. No, they took him. You saw him again though, you took his body away. He was changed a lot then…”
Frank stared at the man, a roaring in his ears. The nightmare was playing in the back of his head, images pulling up to the surface. A single hazel eye in a mass of flesh, looking at him, begging him as he pressed it into the incinerator, panicking and trying not to break down. Voices. A guard shooting into the fire when the mass wouldn’t stop moving, screaming, begging with that look in its one eye even as the flames consumed it.
Junior was laughing, harder and faster.
And then, he charged over to the microphone under the speaker, and pressed it on.
“Hello, I know you’re listening, hello hello!”
There was a pause, then the speaker clicked on.
“We are almost prepared to escort you to your release, please…”
“No, listen. I know. I know you are going to wipe our memories. I know I’ve been here months and months, and I know what’s happened to the other guys.”
“Do you ?”
“Yes, and I have one request.” He looked over at Jenn, who sat by herself in the corner. He looked at Junior who grinned at him from across the room. “Please, wipe my memory before anyone else. And make sure I’m not put with any of these people again. I want to forget, I don’t want to ever remember again.”
There was fuzz from the speaker, and the door across the room opened, guards entering the room, ordering everyone into cuffs and into straight lines. He took his place, let the cuffs be put on him, and was relieved to see the doctor approaching with the needle. Let them take away all this pain.
“Funny thing, Franky!” called Junior from across the room as the doctor pressed in the plunger. “You asked for the same thing last time. Don’t worry, Franky, I won’t let you forget.” Darkness, pain was surrounding him, memories bubbling up from nowhere. “I won’t let you forget at all.”