The remainder of that day was used for “processing.” We were checked from stem to stern like we were animals being prepared for a 4H show and auction. It was worse than the sports physical I had been forced to get the previous season so that I could play softball.
At first all of us girls kind of went along with it because it was all women doing the inspecting; at least until we saw some of the older girls crying as they came out of another building down the line. Some of those girls looked mad at the same time. When that happened the rumors started flying and everyone got scared and some of the younger girls started crying.
I thought no way are they going to touch me if that was what they planned on doing. I was young and dumb but not that young and not that dumb. I was also a product of the public school system so by the time Momma got around to giving me “the talk” I knew a lot she didn’t realize I did. She sat me down and explained things back when I had started my monthlies and started developing but it was kind of like shutting the barn door after the cows got out. I thought it was sweet and didn’t have the heart to tell her that I knew most of what she was telling me already. And let’s face it, I was raised on a farm too so it isn’t exactly like I was blind to how things worked and what went on. Momma … and Dad … just wanted to make sure that what I knew was real and true and that I didn’t abuse the knowledge by acting stupid like some guys and girls tended to once they got to a certain age. No problem with that, I’d seen too many kids – and a few at our church – get stupid and I didn’t plan on it … ever.
Thinking of Momma and Dad made me angry. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been forced to go into that building that some of the other girls my age had already been in but it never came to that. The whole process got shut down as more and more girls started crying and getting hysterical. It drove the staff crazy and I loved it.
Oh, not that I enjoyed seeing the other kids cry and get upset. No, I didn’t like that at all. That part just made me want to make more chaos. It was that something in me got a taste for causing the staff of the “re-education camp” heart burn just for the sake of messing with them. For the next two weeks I did everything I could to teach these interlopers that they were badly underestimating kids in general and me in particular. I was going to make sure that their belief that all American kids were just whimpy and frail couch potatoes really came back and bit them on the rear bumper. It wasn’t always a big problem I caused, or a wide spread one, and it wasn’t every day, but I did manage to get a few pretty good licks in without getting caught.
Aside from the small things such as slowing down the lines or making the staff think I was about half-baked and stupid which made them have to work harder, I did some real humdingers after dark. I snuck out the floor panel in the old portable I was assigned to sleep in and clogged up the main sewer line that was used by the staff commandant so that it backed up and created a huge stink … figuratively and literally. Since “campers” weren’t allowed in the staff area guess who had to clean it up? And none of them seemed real happy about it.
I put clay dirt in the gas tanks of several of the camp vehicles and all of the buses that continued to bring new kids into the camp for processing. The dry, almost powdery, clay completely gunked up the inner workings of the engines and fuel injectors. There weren’t enough mechanics or parts to fix the vehicles so they sat idle except for the one or two that I hadn’t been able to get to.
The food that they fed us kids was mostly just rice or grains with a little flavoring mixed in. The camp staff was fed from a completely different storage locker. Whoever these people were, they weren’t used to the abundant animal life you find in the backcountry. It was way too easy to create places that wild critters could climb in through. Between the mice, rats, raccoons, possums and assorted other varmints the staff food supply really fell in quality and quantity … something that really chapped the hindquarters of the commandant who got all over the adults that were supposed to keep a watch over such things.
I followed that nifty trick by stealing a small piece of raw meat from the kitchen and keeping it in a piece of plastic I found. The next time I was on kitchen duty – a couple of days later – I dumped it into the staff cooking pot … after everything had been cooked. So many of the camp staff got sick that they locked us all in our portables for two days because there weren’t enough adults left to control us. Lucky for me they put it down to contamination by the animals in the other incident.
Every day I bided my time looking for the next opportunity. I never lost my zest for it either because of what they were forcing on us. When we weren’t being worked like dogs digging holes only to fill them back in, moving stacks of cut wood back and forth to different piles, and that sort of idiotically mean make-work they were trying to indoctrinate us. We had to watch all of these DVDs over and over and over again – and take tests on them – showing how great the UN was, how bad the US government was, how selfish we were while so many other people around the world were suffering and dying, how it was our country's fault that the world's environment was in the shape it was in.
Obviously some of that stuff was true for some people but the way they told it was way turned inside out. I was only thirteen and even I understood what they were trying to do to us, but a lot of the younger kids and even some of the kids my own age seemed to be falling for it hook, line, and sinker. And the staff didn’t seem to think they’d had a successful session with us unless at least a few kids had started crying; they really liked it when there were nightmares at night. They also woke us up early, kept us up late, kept us on short rations and in general did things that tried to cut us off from our previous lives and strip our relationships from us. What a bunch of sickos. I learned what hate really was in that camp.
I have to admit though, after two weeks of this even I wondered if I couldn’t give in just a little to get some real food for a change. I know that if they had offered me a chance to see Daniel or Jeff I might have fallen for the temptation, but they never did. I almost asked why they didn’t. We all saw that they did that for some of the kids as rewards for “good behavior.” I should have asked. I might have at least been prepared for what happened.
It had been almost a week since my last “terrorist act.” Someone was getting smart and the opportunities to bedevil the staff had completely dried up. I was getting desperate to burn off some of my anger by taking action and had planned to just sneak out just for the sake of being rebellious and if an opportunity presented itself then so be it. However I never got the chance.
The portable buildings didn’t exactly have thick walls. You could hear everything that went on at night. I didn’t really pay attention to the sounds of trucks at first because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard them though it had been a few days … since I’d doctored their fuel tanks to be precise. But the sound of arguing that followed sure caught my attention. The staff always tried to show a wall of solidarity against us kids, it was one of the ways they controlled us; what I was hearing was on the opposite end from that.
I crept over to the clouded over Plexiglas window accidentally stepping on and waking up some of the other girls in my “cabin.” It was so crowded in there that they had taken away our bed frames and we simply slept on wall-to-wall twin mattresses. It worked out to two or three girls per mattress if you did the math. I figured next they would have double deckered the room and we would have really been like sardines.
Our “cabin” was one of the closest to the staff area. I should have been able to understand what was going on … should have since we were that close, but I couldn't. Those of us who were interested listened at the window. It sounded like a bunch of hens going at it as they reworked who was at the bottom of the pecking order. It made no sense. It was like the staffers couldn’t understand what the new group was saying to them and were fighting with them over something. Then there were loud pops, some screams and a bunch more noise.
Then there was another loud pop and the Plexiglas shattered right beside me and the girl that had been standing there suddenly had no face. Five seconds. It was like the air had escaped the room and you could have heard a pin drop … and then the screaming started; first in our cabin then in other ones as the pops were understood to be gun fire and panic set in.
I don’t know who was the first one to leave our cabin since it wasn't me, but I wasn’t the last one to get out of there. My only thought was that this was my chance to find Daniel and Jeff and I was going to take it. Adrenaline kept me moving even though I’d lost several pounds over the last couple of weeks between the change in diet and the extra work. I knew I wasn’t the only one but when everyone looks like a scarecrow you don’t really feel too bad about it; or maybe that was just me.
I got to the fence that enclosed the girls’ compound. I had to get over the fence, through the staff area, and then over the fence into the boys’ area before I could even start looking for my brother and cousin. I was at the fence and half way up it when I was joined by Monica, the girl I’d met on the bus.
“Good idea. Charlene and some of the other girls are hauling butt for Nature’s Classroom. I’m going to make sure the guys know where to hook up at. You in?”
“As long as it gets me to Daniel and Jeff,” I said back. Neither one of us quit climbing.
I started to go through the staff area but Monica pulled me back. “Not through, around. No sense in taking chances we don’t need to.”
We headed around at a run, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. I would have continued but Monica had to stop and catch her breath. “Look …,” she stopped and coughed. “Look over there. There’s a break in the boys’ fence. Bet some of them are already out and on the run.”
“So? I have to know for sure. I have to …”
An explosion lit the night and I was thrown to the ground as something charged into me.
As fire danced off to the left, I got a good shaking. “Dacey don’t you ever stay in one spot?!” It was Jeff.
After giving him a brief, hard hug I demanded, “Where’s Daniel?”
“Over in the bushes. You are going to have to help me with him. He’s in bad shape.”
Monica interrupted. “We are supposed to hook up at Nature’s Classroom.”
Jeff glared at her. “Are you crazy?! Right out in the open like that?!! As soon as whatever this is settles down they’ll be all over this place with their vehicles …." He stopped when I started I coughed to cover an hysterical laugh. "What? Oh no. Dacey … what did you do?” he asked extremely irritated.
I shook my head. “You don’t want to know. Just trust me, there is a good reason none of the buses and few of the other vehicles have been moving very much,” I added passed more inappropriate giggles that wanted to escape.
Jeff rolled his eyes and then pulled me as we ran to where Daniel was hidden. When Jeff pulled back the branches that he'd used to hide Daniel I was shocked, scared, and then furious. “What did they do to him?!”
“I’ll explain everything when it’s safe and we have a place to hole up.”
Monica said, “We do have a place to go. I told you …”
“And I told you. If you want to go then go. They brought Jackson in. We were in the same tent. He’ll probably …”
“Hey Dude, pick someone else’s name to take in vain.” A skinny blonde guy a little older than Jeff stumbled up.
“Jackson!” Monica gave him a duplicate of the quick, hard hug I had give to Jeff.
Jackson and Jeff looked at each other. It was like looking at a couple of dogs trying to decide if they were going to be friends or not. Geez, boys, you know? “Will you two stop being such guys?! Jeff, are we going to the spring or not?”
“Not,” he replied to my question while he moved in front of me. Turning to Jackson he said, “You do watcha gotta for your family. I wouldn’t hang at the spring for long though, not any longer than it takes you to get them all together and keep moving.”
Thinking for a second I said, “Jeff …”
“Enough Dacey.” His mouth was saying one thing but his eyes were adding a whole bunch to it that only I could read.
“Sure. Whatever,” I answered understanding that he didn’t want me saying anything else.
As the gunfire and shouting spread through the whole camp Jackson and Monica went their way and Jeff and I took Daniel and headed another.
“Jeff, why did you …”
“Later Dacey. Save your breath. Daniel is only nine but he is still going to get heavy before we get where we are far enough away that we can take a rest.”
He was right. We had to keep stopping every so often so that we could get our bearings. Finally, as the sky lightened Jeff took us deep into the woods off the county road we were following, and under a big cedar tree whose limbs folded down to the ground. We crawled under the branches and pushed the leaves around so that we could sit without worrying too much about getting chiggers on our backsides. It was then that I got my first good look at Daniel.
“Jeff,” I said softly as I tried to comb Daniel’s matted hair down without pulling at the tangles. “What happened? What did they do to him?”
Jeff had just come back with a handful of fresh morels. “Here, just eat them slow. We can’t be too far from water – smell it? But I can’t risk hunting it down yet. And if those rain clouds do what I think they are going to do I might not need to. Try and keep Daniel as dry as you can.”
“Jeff …,” I said, repeating myself.
Jeff looked at me real sad and then straightened his back and put his “adult” face on. “They didn’t really do anything to him Dacey … they just didn’t do anything for him either.”
It took me a second to process what he was saying. “They weren’t mean to him? Are you sure? Look at him. He’s bruised, dirty and he’s even skinnier than we are.”
“Dacey, you and I both know that Daniel has … issues. He had melt down after melt down. You didn’t see him. I tried to tell them to go get you and he’d behave better but …” he shrugged. “I wound up in solitary for three days when I wouldn't let up. When I got out they’d just left him to wander around. Some of the other guys tried to take care of him but you know how he is. He wouldn’t eat right. He wouldn’t wash. The staff tried to put shoes and socks on him and keep him dressed against the cold and damp but he’d take everything back off and walk around without a shirt on or shoes and socks. The one concession they did make was that they let him come with me because his melt downs would scare the other little boys his age and disrupt things too much.”
I just looked at my brother. “Oh Daniel.” He didn’t even react. “Jeff, if we can get to the cave …”
“Not if … when. We’ll make it. We’re more than half way there distance wise but from here on it gets rough because we have to cut across rather than go by the roads … too much chance of being seen otherwise. The cave is on the other side of the woodlot so I don’t think theise foreigners would have bothered going back that far, they’d just assume it was only more forest back there. Besides they had enough to keep them busy at the house.” He saw me wince and hunch my shoulders. “I’m sorry Dacey. But we have to be … realistic.”
I nodded. “I know. I’m not a baby … or stupid.” After a pause I asked, “What … what do you think … you know … what did they do with Dad and Momma?”
This time Jeff was the one that shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m sure they did something. I don’t think the locals that were with them would just … I’ll look around once I make sure you and Daniel are safe.”
Jeff could see that I was about to ask more questions but he said, “Let’s get some rest. I expect there is a real hornet’s nest over all the kids who escaped. I'm must not sure how much effort they'll put into catching us all.”
“What was all the squawking about anyway?” I asked as I tried to break one of the morels into small pieces and feed them to Daniel. He loved hunting the wild mushrooms with Momma in the spring; they were like treasure to him and were one of the few things he would eat without any reservation at all. I figured that was one of the reasons that Jeff had picked them.
“Didn’t you see?”
I looked at him and said, “Would I have asked if I had?”
Jeff thumped me with his hat like the older cousin he was. “Smart aleck. Some Asian looking dudes … I think they were Chinese … showed up and got in the face of the blue hats who I think are UN Peacekeepers. They rumbled over whose turf it was.”
“Rumbled? Seriously?! Who do they think they are? The Bloods and the Crips?”
Getting serious Jeff said, “Things are going to get even crazier Dacey. I need to get you and Daniel to the cave so that I can …” He looked at me, suddenly uncomfortable.
“So that you can what?” I asked already knowing the answer. It was only his obsession and only reason for staying in school.
“Dacey, I can’t just sit back and do nothing. You know I was only waiting until I got my highschool diploma.”
“Yeah, and you still don’t have it.”
“And probably won’t ever get it the way things look.”
Daniel whimpered and we both stopped and looked down at him. Jeff said, “I’ll get you two settled. I’ll … I’ll hang around long enough to make sure that you two can make it OK at the cave. Then …”
“What if it is everywhere Jeff? What if it is everyone, including the military? What are you going to join up with then?”
He looked straight at me and said, “There will be groups that fight both the Chinese and the UN. This is the USA, that’s what we do, we fight the bad guys.”
“It looks to me like everyone is turning into the bad guys. Our family was betrayed Jeff. I know that sounds made up but it is the truth. You saw it, you were there. I’ve known Deputy Baker and his family like forever … or at least I thought I did. Look what he did. And my old bus driver. Sure he used to be cranky all the time but I never thought he’d do what he did. How many other people are going to be like that?”
“I don’t know Dacey. But not everyone will.”
“How can you know that for sure? And how are you going to find these people, the ones that aren't traitors?”
“I don’t know.” He lay down on one side of Daniel and pointed to me to lay down on the other. “I don’t have all the answers. I just know that I can’t sit around and do nothing.”
“Daniel and I aren’t nothing,” I said in a small voice.
“I know that Dacey. But … look let’s just get some rest OK? Nothing is going to get figured out right this second and we’ve still got some miles to go to get to the cave.”