I want to start off by saying that if you think we’re using our real names in this, you are out of your mind. I don’t want to get into all that much detail of how we left the camp either or else the policy enforcers might figure out who it is telling this story. To make double sure of that, I’ve changed a few things. Man, but you’ve not lived until you’ve taken to the road in this day and age. Back before the war, it was cool but could get a little dull. Now…oh hell…it is a totally different ball game. I didn’t care what happened or where I ended up as long it wasn’t back in one of those damn camps.
Me and Jeff were sick of the camps. We’d been to two in a year, right? Both were a beat scene and nothing a couple of ramblers like us would ever, ever get used to. I didn’t know Jeff before because he was locked up. He got stabbed in the throat and neck in a fight so then he had to speak through a voice box. Sometimes he didn’t even bother with it and just spoke in what had to be the faintest whisper. When they let out all the “low risk” offenders, they turned him loose or rather put them and us in the minimum security prisons we call “the camps.” That’s right, they have a war and we all go to prison for it. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the state to make any sense. They called us Wreck Mouth and Robot. I guess since I had bad teeth and Jeff had an electronic voice, huh? To tell the truth, his teeth were a lot worse than mine.
They had Jeff and I working in the food storage warehouses. We had a good thing going at first. We used to grab little stuff we could sneak out and sell it to folks who wanted to eat between meals. They didn’t let you have food in your dorm because they said it led to health concerns and hording. Also they said that it interfered with rationing. Yeah right! They just wanted to make sure they had total control over you. If you had to come out of your dorm to eat, you had a hard time staying out of sight. Also, they could control you with food. How? Simple, if you acted up or just grumbled too much, they’d cut your rations. Next time you scanned your card, you’d have less food credit.
Our policy was that you had to eat the stuff in front of us to “destroy the evidence.” If it came with a wrapper, we took it back with us to where we stashed them. We did it this way because you know that the first one that got caught with the snacks on them would snitch us out. Finally, somebody found one of our wrapper stashes and they started actively looking for whoever was taking food from the warehouses. Jeff and I knew there was no way to catch us on the books because the system was full of ways to be ripped off already and to go after us meant you'd have to scoop up some big fish too. We saw the shirts (kind of like guards but not exactly admin people) slipping a case of this and a crate of that off all the time. They’d sell it to someone outside the wire who would in turn give them something in trade for it. Whatever they got in trade was presumably something that couldn’t be easily stolen from inside the camp.
My guess was most of the shirts were on meth or something like that. I’ve been around enough tweakers to know one when I see one. They’d talk on and on for hours to one another while the rest of us worked. They'd yammer on 90 to nothing all day just about. Sometimes, you’d leave the warehouse, go home and realize you forgot to scan your card or left something in your locker (or needed to steal something on short notice). You’d go back 6 hours later and there would be the same shirt who was there 16 hours earlier, still acting sketchy. They were all paranoid too. I’m not talking about pot-paranoid. I’m talking about paranoid like if a blind guy just shanked somebody and had no way or knowing who saw it go down or not. And tempers? All the guards had tempers but the shirts were the worst. I heard that most became shirts because they didn’t do well enough on their psyche profile test to be regular guards. If they had been allowed to carry sticks, they would have spent half their time just beating us. A few guards would beat or taze someone just for fun once in a while and some stayed in a bad mood. But the shirts were always on the edge of snapping, at least the ones working the food warehouses.
The longer they stayed at work, the worse they got. But the very worst you ever saw them was when the camp was on lockdown. That meant no outside work-details, nothing coming in and nothing going out. After about 24 hours of this, the shirts started getting edgy. After 48 hours, they were in a walking panic. How come? Whatever was keeping them jacked up all the time was on the other side of the wire. Me and Jeff joked that if we could figure out what they were on and cooked it up in some forgotten corner, we’d run the camp. But I’ve always steered clear of hard drugs—doing them and handling them. Jeff, I couldn’t say the same for him.
We started planning to leave. That is all you need to know. Jeff said he was too close to the road and he couldn’t stand it anymore, he had to get outside those walls. Jeff had been locked up in a state prison for two years before getting transferred to the camps.
The shirts were getting wise to our racket. One had OD’d (we think) and disappeared from the warehouses. This led to the FEMA brass doing random drug test. The shirts knew ways to beat it and in fact, one came and asked Jeff which was the best method! The drug tests themselves weren’t their big worry, it was now the brass saw drugs as a potentially serious problem. Oh, they always knew there was some of that going on but what did they care? They turned a blind eye at the inventory reports always coming up terribly wrong and in return. They got people who would run around the warehouses all day and night keeping everything more or less running on track. Both parties had to know it wouldn’t last though. Crankheads don’t just go on forever before they mess things up in a big way. One finally flipped out, either from too much drugs or the lack thereof. He beat up another shirt and broke his jaw. If it would have been one of us, nobody would have cared but shirts were the system. They weren’t supposed to ever suffer damage. Soon there were guards everywhere in the warehouses. If you stepped outside the white tape walkways on the floor, they knew and would write you up for a fine. Our gig was over and it was time to move on. Screw that, we said. We put in for work on the farms.
I think they were happy to see us go too, otherwise the request would have sat on someone’s desk for weeks. The new shirts who were trying to run the place were wanting to get control of the inventory problems. They figured at worst, we were causing some of it and at least we weren’t helping it get any better.
We started hiding stuff on the outside during our trips out for aggri-work detail. Farm work isn’t that bad with fuel but because of the lack of fuel, a lot more was done by hand, hands belonging to guys like us marked “unskilled labor.” I’ve got skills but I haven’t ever been paid to use them! Not yet! So we started cashing in on favors and collecting supplies for the road. We heard rumors but didn’t know what to expect once we got out.
Our first time on Alpha farm was creepy. The farm house where the farmer had once lived was burning to the ground and all the buildings nearby had bullet holes in them. According to rumor, the farmer who owned all the land had refused to hand it over to FEMA or whoever was in charge of taking over stuff for the “emergency use.” It had ended up in a bloody shootout between the farmer and the military or cops. Just for kicks, Jeff asked one of the shirts about it. How did the building get burned? The shirt just said the Chinese had done it early in the war. Yeah right! There weren’t really any Chinese this far east and if there had been, why would they just burn a house down? What about all the equipment, grain silos, the warehouses and fuel? If they had come to destroy the farm, they would have set explosives or whatever and ran off. There wouldn’t have been a big shootout like what we’d seen evidence of everyday when we arrived for work. Everything they ever did to anybody got blamed on the Chinese. If a guard knocked your teeth out, it was the Chinese-made stick which was to blame.
So we started slipping stuff into a pair of holes we had dug at the edge of a corn field. We had all the time in the world to do it since the work team leaders really didn’t care what we did. The biggest thing was finding plastic to wrap our supplies in before we buried it. The irrigation system soaked the ground for a few feet and if we dug for more than a few feet, somebody would have probably noticed. So we stashed some food packs, some extra clothes, some lighters and a couple of cut in half blankets with enough cord to sew them back together. You had to carry the blankets out in halves so you could hide them. Clothes smuggling was easy since you just wore two shirts out and one shirt back, like that.
If you went missing on work detail, it was a big deal for some reason. Our plan wasn’t to leave then. They actually looked for you if you weren’t there during the return roll call. They counted heads before we got back on the bus, you know. So we just pretended to be assigned to help out some guys who were moving some food processing equipment between camps. When they loaded up, we just got on the truck with them and they assumed we were supposed to. Hell, they were glad to have someone help them unload what they’d picked up anyway. But we weren’t going that far.
When we stopped at a fuel depot, there were army guys everywhere. Military people are very concerned about security around fuel depots. For one reason, the fuel doesn’t care if it is in a Chinese, Cuban or American ride. For another reason, Chinese commandos love hitting these depots since they might be able to take out some armor while it is just sitting there gassing up. There were army people everywhere with guns but they were all looking for people to try to sneak in, not necessarily sneaking out.
Jeff was sketchy but I told him it was our best chance since we didn’t know how good security was at the camp we were headed to. They might card everyone who goes through the gate. Some camps are loosely run at the gates and others aren’t. You see, the Chinese don’t attack camps. They like the fact that we’ve got these huge places where hardly anyone ever successfully produces anything and they always have to eat.
We got off the truck and said we were going to find a restroom. We then found some regular guys like us washing tanker trucks. I just walked up to them and told them that we were to take over washing and they were to go check with their supervisor for a more important job. One asked who sent us and I said, man, some army guy. They gave us hoses and told us to start at the front and work our way back. They hadn’t even got finished with one truck and there was like 8 of them. We said we’d start at the back and come forward since the sun was setting in that direction. Cool, they thought! Those guys know what they are doing when it comes to hosing mud off mud flaps!
We washed for about 2 minutes, for free, and then casually walked away. Jeff and I had to sleep in the woods that night but that wasn’t a big deal. The next day, we headed back to the fields to uncover our stuff. Pretty soon the office would know we were gone. You see, everything in the camps works on cards. You slide your card to go anywhere. You have to have it to eat, leave and return to your dorm, go on work detail and all of your money is on it except you can’t use it at an ATM. You know, you aren’t even allowed to have cash in the camps anymore. So if the office sees your card hasn’t been used for anything in 24 hours, they come looking for you. They know the last place you were so that is where they start looking. That is another reason we couldn’t bolt during a work detail. Even if they somehow didn’t miss us in the head count, they’d know sooner or later that we never came back. But if we went missing in the camp, they’d figure we were hanging out somewhere and just avoiding using our cards. All total, we figured that gave us about two days to put between us and a search detail, if they even sent one.
Unless you were important or worse, someone they didn’t trust, they didn’t come looking for you. I was just what they called a drifter and Jeff was considered a non-violent repeat offender. Neither of us were probably Chinese spies and neither of us had a very important job. Pulling weeds and picking corn a few hours a day didn’t keep the whole camp population alive. Leaving the camps would land you in jail but what I heard was that they often beat you to death or shot you. They’d come back and go out again the next day. The next day is when they’d “find” your body. This scared a lot of people into staying put. They’d say how it was bandits or Chinese or whatever. Maybe they were telling the truth sometimes. Who knows?
Once in a while, they’d open up the 50’s on something in the night and blow off a few concussion grenades. An old Marine told me they were concussion grenades because there was no shrapnel damage anywhere. It would scare the hell out of everybody, especially the old people. Then guards would tell everybody that some Chinese sappers tried to throw explosives over the wall but they killed them from the guard towers. Now that is a joke they keep telling even though it isn’t funny. First, the Chinese must have super human strength to throw something over even the lowest part of the wall. These are the semi-portable walls they had stacked everywhere alongside the roads right before the war. You might could throw a grenade over one if you were in the major leagues. Second, if they shot some Chinese with their machine guns, they must have eyes in the backs of their heads since the MG’s are almost always pointed down at us. And how come the bombs were always “thrown over” when we were on lockdown and there was never anybody around to see it happen? Besides, the camps were ringed with intrusion detection equipment and some people had ever heard there were land mines.
Jeff and I figured out that a lot of people just didn’t go to the camps. They rounded up the people who didn’t resist or were already locked up for stupid stuff. I was staying with some friends when it all went down. We were told on TV to go to the camp for assistance. We heard they were giving out food and supplies. Nope. We showed up, got processed and locked inside. SUPLI—Showed Up, Processed, Locked In. You got assigned to a housing zone and that was it.
We spent about half a day walking back to the fields. It poured down rain the whole way too. But that was a good thing! They never sent out an outside work detail in bad weather. So there was nobody around when we got there. Sweet!
It wasn’t long before we were back on the road with our gear. What we did was tie both bundles onto the ends of a long straight stick and take turns carrying it. This worked fine until we found some packs. That was a really bad scene. The packs were empty and undamaged and I wish I could have said the same for their former owners. Somebody had shot the three of them full of holes and took their stuff, leaving the empty packs. The three bodies laying there rotting kind of freaked me out but Jeff said I’d get used to it. No way, not in this lifetime. We couldn’t even tell who was a man and who was a chick. Whoever killed them took their socks even. At least it wasn’t plague, radiation or chems, huh? I don’t know, maybe that’s a better way to go out: shot up and gone in no time.
We were moving pretty fast then with our new packs. I couldn’t stop thinking of where they’d come from though. People are so un-cool to one another. You don’t see blue birds trying to peck the eyes out of red birds, let alone one another, you know. I knew that when I got the chance, I was going to trade for a new pack, one that didn’t belong to a robbery and murder victim.
Everybody talked about Atlanta and how everybody there was dead except for a few. Chemical warfare attack, they said. It was on our way since we were headed south. I didn’t want to stop through there even though Jeff was constantly trying to talk me into it. What the hell did we know about chemical warfare? Nothing except how to die in it!
Going through the north Georgia Mountains was incredible. Life hadn’t changed much up there for some people. The power blinked in and out, there was less on the menu and not many cars on the roads but for a guy living on the side of a mountain in a single wide, life changed only slightly. That was the kind of person we came across first.
Crook was a guy in his 50’s. He was short, had long unruly brown grey-streaked hair and looked like what you’d think Willie Nelson would look like on his first day out of prison in a long time. His place was down a back road and on a little flat stretch of land, half way up one of those bigger hills. He was out messing around in his yard and he signaled to us when he saw us walking down the road.
We walked down to where he was and without even saying hello, he called out, “you guys want to buy some grass?”
I know weed was illegal and I guess on the books it still is. But to us back then, it was a good alternative to alcohol. You could easily pack enough of it to keep you going for a long time and you never got a hangover. But he might as well been offering to sell us a ride on the space shuttle. We didn’t have any money and nothing good to trade.
“That’s fine,” Crook said. They called him “Crook” because his middle finger was crooked. “You guys can work off some if you want to.”
He offered us a job. You see, Crook had been on government disability for about 20 years or more. He was one of those people who worked like a dog for about 10 years until he found a good way to get himself hurt, either by accident or on purpose. With the right doctor and lawyer, a guy like Crook could retire at age 30, more or less. His dad before him had done the same thing, he told us later.
Crook really did have a bad back though. He’d hurt it working at a big money job where they were building a nuclear plant. There were a lot of things Crook hated doing and some things he just couldn’t do. Most of the weed he sold to people walking down the road was trade for services he needed to keep his place going. He told us he had about all he needed as far as material things went.
He had a young wife who actually turned out to be his girlfriend. His original wife had run off right after the war started and the power started winking in and out. His new “wife” was a gal he’d been slipping around with “for years”, which was scary since she couldn’t have been more than 20. She smiled a lot, didn’t say much but didn’t seem too dumb either. Me and Jeff both assumed she was his daughter until he told us they were married. Another thing about her was that she didn’t wear shoes and kept her long hair pulled back all the time except for a beaded braid that hung down by her ear. She laughed at everything and we couldn’t tell if she was happy or just high all the time. It would make sense either way but she handled the pot growing side of Crook’s homestead.
One thing his wife, Annie, wouldn’t do with Crook was hunt. She wasn’t against meat or shooting an animal. She just could be still and quiet long enough, Crook told us. So Jeff and me spent the whole day gathering game that Crook brought down with his .22. Leaning over to pull a weed from his garden once a day was fine, but all day bending over to pick up small game would leave Crook unable to leave his bed for days. He later told us that Annie probably just carried on giggling and laughing just to avoid helping him in something she wasn’t interested in.
“She’ll cook a rabbit but hates squirrel,” Crook told us. “She didn’t like cooking deer either but we haven’t shot any in a long, long time.”
When we got back from our first half-days hunt, I came to a conclusion. Crook wanted to get to know us a little better while he had a gun in his hand. He was a fairly trusting soul after that. We skinned the small game and Annie got to cooking it. It was the most food we’d had since we started off on wanderings. Crook cleaned his scoped .22 while we sat on the floor with Annie, listening to her read from an old paperback. Eventually, it got too dark so Annie got up to light one of the Crisco candles and set it in between us. The night was cool but not cold and before too long, I was stretched out on the soft shag carpet, dozing off faster than I’d like to have.
We woke up the next morning to the sound of an electric vacuum cleaner roaring by our heads.
“Sorry boys,” Crook shouted over the noisy machine. “But the electricity is on for the first time in days! It’ll fade out before you know it!”
Annie called out something from the bedroom. Crook called back, “put it on fast charge but watch it! You could blow up a battery if you aren’t careful!”
Jeff got up, found his voice box and asked Crook if there was anything we could do. Crook shook his head so Jeff lay back down to get another couple hours sleep. I knew Jeff couldn’t really talk but then I was wondering if he was a little deaf too. He slept right on through the racket that was going on around him. Finally, Crook told me to toss a load of laundry in the beat up old washing machine that was recessed into the hallway next to an equally old looking dryer. I did and when I turned it on, the whole trailer shoot like it was in an earthquake. Jeff slept through that too. Annie was happy as could be since she could get a day’s work finished in a couple of hours.
Over lunch, Crook asked us frankly if we’d escaped from one of the camps. We said we had and that we were headed south to Florida where we heard they were closing the camps and letting people out anyway.
Crook shook his head. “They are but not without special ID cards. The cards are called ‘Campus-Cleared’ or CC cards or CCC. What it says if that you’ve been to the camps and eventually got cleared as a non-security risk. Once they get ready to close a camp, they’ll start out-processing everybody over a few months. If you were never in the red or orange zone, you get processed out pretty quick. No infractions and green zoned the whole time you were interned; you’d get your card. The CC card lets you get through check points, purchase whatever where you can find a store, whenever you can find a store and that sort of thing. If you get caught without your CCC, you’ll go straight back to the camps and it will be a long time before you ever get out again, legally at least.”
“We didn’t leave legally this time,” I told him.
“Yeah…escape or being AWOL is a pretty big infraction. I’d say you wouldn’t get your cards anytime soon if you go back.” Crook shook his head in pity as he looked at me. “Or get caught.”
I began to have that sinking feeling we all get when we know we messed up and the consequences are coming soon. Jeff didn’t have that problem. He never gave the future a even minute of his time. His criminal mind worked a lot faster than any part of my brain too.
He lifted his voice box to his neck and said, “where do we get fake ones?”
“Ann knows a guy not far from here,” Crook replied, lifting a spoonful of soup to his mouth. “He is pretty sketchy and doesn’t make them for just anybody. You have to meet certain conditions.”
“Great…” I said, knowing we had nothing to trade or offer.
“What conditions?” Jeff asked.
“He has to either know you, need something you’ve got or owe you already,” Crook told him. “He both knew and owed me so I got Ann’s for her.. Ann might have gotten hers without me though. He’s got a thing for women that goes beyond what most consider normal. I told Ann to wear shorts and a tank top when she went to see about her card. I got mine legit when they were setting up the whole thing. Believe it or not, I still had a security clearance from when I worked at the nuclear plant.”
“It was November too!” Annie added, laughing. “I almost froze to death wearing that skimpy get up!”
We finished our day doing handy work for Crook. Whenever Annie would appear, Jeff would look her up and down, especially when she was walking away. Crook didn’t like this and every time Jeff would check out Annie, Crook would be staring right at him. Maybe he hoped Jeff would notice that he didn’t approve without him having to say it. I was going to talk to Jeff about it but Crook kind of beat me to the punch.
After a few more days of light work around their property, Crook told us it was time for us to go see the guy about some fake CCC. This was his nice way of saying “get lost.” I don’t think he minded me much but he was definitely starting to dislike Jeff.
So we got up one morning and packed our gear. Annie was nice enough to fix us breakfast but Crook didn’t get up to see us off. Annie said his back was giving him trouble and he was just going to stay in bed all day probably. It was a good thing he did since Jeff tried to kiss Annie on the mouth once we were outside but she smiled, turning to offer him her cheek. Oddly, she touched her lips to mind after I only held out my hand to shake hers goodbye.
This little gesture caused Jeff to stare at me as we made our way back to the main road. Jeff, you see, didn’t talk unless he had to since his voice box ran on batteries. He kept four or five with him and they must have lasted forever since I never saw him change them. But he still said he was always afraid of running out. So instead of making small talk about Annie’s kiss, he just looked at me like I was supposed to explain something. It was the first time I’d ever touched Annie in my life but maybe he didn’t think so. So that led to him thinking that I was the reason Annie never paid any positive attention to him. Jeff was that type of person. No, it wasn’t that he was a bit of criminal with ugly tattoos and scars all over. And no, it wasn’t because he didn’t know how to talk to women, with or without his voice box. I guess he would have done fine if he could find a girl who fantasized about being seduced by a robot. No, it wasn’t that Jeff treated almost every woman like a prostitute. Annie didn’t like Jeff for the soul reason that I was there and somehow I’d done something to woe her first. And naturally, I did this just to piss Jeff off. I wanted to point out to him that most people didn’t like him. Only about half the people I met liked me but that was about triple the amount that seemed to take to Jeff. We just walked down the road not saying a word to one another.
Our directions were simple which wasn’t really a good thing. I asked Crook to draw us a map and he did but told us to memorize it before we left since he wasn’t going to risk us getting caught with it. We both thought he was being a little over-cautious until the second day we’d been walking.
I knew what a drone was but wasn’t 100% sure I was looking at one until it turned around and came back over us for another pass. Once in a while, one would circle the camp. If it hadn’t been late in the evening, I wouldn’t have seen it at all. This one had two blinking lights on the wings and on the second pass, I knew what I was seeing for sure. There is no mistaking the profile of that particular model. It was the most common, I guess. I always wonder why they didn’t make them look like regular planes then people wouldn’t have gotten so freaked out by them.
I pointed it out to Jeff who started to freak out a little. “What if it attacks us?” he asked. “We need to get the hell out of here!”
“If we run, they’ll know we are up to no good,” I urged him. “Just walk normal but stop and look at it. We want them to know that we see it.”
“What if it is one of those kind that just go killing anybody they can’t identify?” Jeff asked. His face registered fear but naturally his electronic voice didn’t.
“There is no such thing…” I told him. “Guards tell people stuff like that to keep them from leaving.”
The drone made a third and final pass, this time even lower. That is when Jeff did something I could have totally predicted but couldn’t have stopped. He raised his finger and shot a bird at the drone. I glared at him and shook my head.
“What was the point in that?” I demanded. “Just a minute ago you were worried about the thing attacking us!”
“I don’t like people who don’t mind their own business,” he said before making an exaggerated gesture of turning his voice box off.
So we kept on going until dark. We camped off the road a few hundred yards and didn’t make a fire. The drone, maybe two of them, kept flying over. They didn’t make much noise but as silent as the world was those days, you could hear a lot of things you couldn’t normally hear. You also got used to relying on your ears more since a car, truck or bus wasn’t going by every minute. As I lay there in my homemade sleeping bag (two wool blankets stuffed with old paper and stitched together), I figured out what they were doing. They knew we had left the road but at what point? One side was mostly a mountain that the road had been cut into. We wouldn’t have climbed up it. They had to know we climbed down the hill on the other side but where? We had been sure to leave the road when we didn’t see a drone overheard and that had to create a little confusion.
What if they found us and just killed us rather than dragging us back? That thought hung in my mind and caused me to have nightmares. Twice I woke up thinking I heard someone coming through the woods.
Neither of us spoke until daybreak. “It was nothing,” Jeff said in his robot-duck voice. “They don’t have time to waste on guys like us. We’re a couple of bums.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong…
We heard the white SUV a long time before we saw it. They were riding slowly down the road about ten miles per hour, shouting through a PA. The loudspeaker was hard to understand because the echo coming off the hills. Also the guy on the other end of it had a heavy Mexican accent.
“Come out peacefully with your hands raised. If you have any weapons, drop them at once. This is not a game. You are in a restricted area,” the voice called out. At least that was what we thought he was saying once we were able to figure out the gist of what was being said.
“Screw them,” Jeff scowled as he spoke through his voice box. “Let them come and get us.”
We started to bolt for the valley below us. The woods weren’t very thick and I knew that was a problem if the drones started looking for us again. I figured they’d give up though. Didn’t they have a huge problem with the Chinese invading our country? Why bother with a couple of zeros like us?
This was the second time I was wrong that day.