Escape from Empire
Why do interrogation cells always seem to drip? Why are they so dark and still? With that one dirty light bulb dangling in forever space?
Have you ever thought of that?
It reaches in again. Scrapes at my psyche. Those words. Words I need to say.
But the light wicks them away.
Asylum or death!
Yes, those are the words!
Asylum or death!
Asylum now! Ask for it! I feel it.
That’s what he told me. More or less. It's hard to tell. I don't speak Spanish. But I think that was what he was saying. I'm pretty sure.
But I'm so thirsty. Maybe he was saying something else. So parched. Dry.
Ask for it. Just ask.
The metal chair is hard and cold. It numbs my legs. No aches, unless I move. Unless I shift. Just two hunks of flesh below me, waiting to rot off. They are called legs.
Rusty bolts attach the chair's legs. More legs. Frozen to the stained concrete floor. Stains I don't want to think about. Dark paintings on the floor. Dried splatters on the walls. A lightly sprinkled ceiling.
There were many stories here. The ends of them. I see the art of insanity and now I have begun to enjoy it.
The room is cold. I am aware of an odor. Dirty shoes, dust and tacos. And something else. Something dead or dying. Me. I am the one dying. The cell is eating me as the light bulb, its one eye, watches.
On the scarred metal table in front of me, is a single yellowed sheet of paper. It’s blank. The paper has been there for a long time. An ancient prop. I screw my eyes up at it. The paper is not real. A facsimile. I blow at it. It does not move.
I have a pen in my right hand. The pen is trembling. The pen is also not real. It's a piece of plastic. A child's toy. I drop it. It clatters onto the table, rolls over the fake paper and off the other side, where it drops to the concrete floor and issues a dull snapping sound.
My left hand is restrained at the wrist. The greasy handcuff, that has eaten my skin, scabbed over my bones, is looped through a metal cable on the side of the table. The legs of the table are bolted to the floor, like the chair.
I put myself elsewhere. Transport myself from here. I am in a cushioned chair in my elsewhere. A television is in front of me. It is broken. I'm in the wide open. Dead fields of grass. Burnt in the aftermath of the wars. There is a dead city in the distance. It looks inviting in the mists, but it is an empty thing, devoid of life. A carcass laden with carcasses.
But the cold and thirst brings me back here to the stink of my cell. To the one blinding light bulb. A mean and hateful reminder of where I am. In this absent place.
There is another chair across from me. It has a cushion and looks very comfortable. It’s made of rough polished wood, has wheels and it reclines. I want to sit there, slide in and lean back, but I can't. The other chair taunts me with its promise of comfort. I imagine myself there, leaning back, sipping a glass of water, ice cubes tinkling, the chair squeaking.
Now I'm back in my cushioned chair, but my television is still broken. And I am still alone. The city is quiet and alone like me. Dying, like me. I wish I could stay in this place away from the prison cell. In this over-stuffed seat in the burned out fields, but the man is in my head again.
The man who was sitting in the recliner, across from me. The man who was asking me all those questions.
What did I eat last night? Where did I live? What was my name? How much did I weigh? Height?
The man was taking a piss break. That’s what he said. But he said it like “Peeze b’dake.”
He’s a Mexican Federal Official of some sort. He likes to rock in the recliner in front of me and make it squeak. And play with his mustache. Twist the ends and smile in quick little mustache covered grins. Thrum his knuckles on the table where the fake paper sits. And ask questions.
“Asylum or death,” he said, repeatedly. Only it came out, “Azileem or deeth.” It was not a question.
I nodded to him. “Yes sir.” But I didn’t write anything. I couldn't. I played along. “I’d like my lawyer.”
“Asylum or death!” He was exasperated. Then he took his break. That was hours ago. Or maybe it was yesterday. How long are piss breaks anyway?
Over the table, hanging from a cord, is one light bulb. It flickers and buzzes like an angry wasp. The bulb is one of those clear kinds with that blinding filament. The glass of it is stained with tiny dots. Dried specks of blood perhaps. It reminds me where I am. In some kind of interrogation room. Some kind of prison cell.
How I got here, I do not know, but I know. It was my mistake. I wanted to escape.
The only difference between the four concrete walls of my prison cell, besides their cracks, is that one of them has a old steel door. It has hinges the size of my fist. Mangled and twisted. There is a cracked mirror-window in the door, at head level and a waist high food slot that appears rusted shut.
There are no windows to chase away the shadows in this cell. No breeze to freshen the dank air. No vents. Just the floor drain caked with hair and filth.
After the Mexican Fed left, two army types came in. They had wrinkled uniforms, torn caps, beards and knives. They appraised me at first then made some inner decision.
They took my clothes and left. They never said a word. Just yanked off my shirt. Cut off my pants. Took my shoes, socks and underwear. They were not nice about my underwear. I am still sore where they pulled and twisted. I screeched like a girl when they pulled and cut away the last of them with their knives. All grins and laughter to them. All horror and pain to me.
I am naked and swollen now and I’ve lost track the time, but my heart rate is slowing.
“Asylum or death.” I keep hearing that. But there is no one there. The cushioned chair across the table is empty. Taunting. Squeak-less. Silent.
I try to return to my imagination. To that soft fat chair and the broken television and the dead city. But I can't. It has abandoned me.
More hours whisper by. Days that I cannot recall. Moments locked in some weird half dimness. A substitute reality. Then it all breaks open, spins away.
I've passed out again I realize too late.
The door opens again. Gives its signature squawk and clangs shut. I am disoriented. Snapped awake from the daydream? What time is it I wonder? What day?
Then the realization again. The burning bulb buzzes.
A nurse enters. She's wearing a white nurse's dress and not one of those colorful smocks you see at most hospitals. She is Hispanic, kind of pretty, and has nice eyes. She is wearing an old fashioned hat as well. Like she's about to serve me fast-food at one of those ancient restaurants we were told about in school. Places where you order things called burgers and fries and sodas.
Have they a stage somewhere I wonder? A place where they keep various uniforms and fake plastic pens and fake paper?
In one hand the nurse, if she really is a nurse, because her uniform smells musty and is wrinkled, holds out one of those open-backed hospital gowns. It looks dull and ragged, smells of urine and stale sweat, but I take it with my free hand. It is stiff and thin.
I am naked, I remember, but I don't seem to care. It is like I am a witness to myself. Why don't I feel embarrassed? I am suffering and yet I feel detached. The gown stays in my hand until the nurse motions for me to dress.
She helps me into it the gown, having to rip out one arm, because I am attached to the table. I feel awkward, but thankful. I admire the flowers on the gown for a moment, ignore its reawakened uric aroma, then I look up. Her perfume punches me full in the sinuses, but her eyes are warm. I blink the smells away, but hold her eyes.
The nurse seems pleased, expectant. Slight curls work at the edges of her lips, but I could not say if they were kind or condescending.
“I am thirsty.” I say it slowly. Hoping she can understand. I remember then. "Agua?"
My mind transports me. I'm holding a bottle of water high. Pouring it into my mouth. It is so good. So cold in my throat. "Agua," I say again, pleading now. "Water? Do you have some water?"
She understands. Reaches into her bag. A white bag with a big red cross on it. Yet another prop. Like a child's toy-nurse-bag. She pulls out a bottle of water. It is sweating, dripping cold. She hands it to me quickly. It has no label. It is wonderful.
“Gracias,” I said. I am too thirsty. The water is refreshing, but sweet and chemically. The aftertaste tickles my throat, but I don't care. And then it is gone. Consumed in seconds. I am amazed at my own thirst.
"More?" I ask. "Mas?"
She shakes her head. I drop mine. I am still thirsty. More at this moment than I have ever been.
She folds her arms. “Asylum or death?” she asks in flawless English.
I don't expect that. Not you too, I think.
“Must I?” I say after a moment. I wonder who she is. Why they sent her in, if she wasn't here to help me. Why is she here?
“If you want to remain in Mexico, Señor, you must ask for asylum.”
So I'm in Mexico, I think. I made it then. Why this then? Why must I ask? Some test? Isn't it obvious? Was I a spy to them, then? Some criminal?
I know the deal. The back story. What we heard in the interior. In our walled country. Pancho Cesar Villa would accept you in Mexico if you asked for asylum. It was all over the internet. Colleges were dealing with riots the world over. “Tear down that wall!” they said -- from their dorm rooms. “End the Embargoes!”
The nurse was staring at me and oddly, keeping away from the water bottle in my hand. I noticed she was wearing gloves, several layers of them, and holding her hands well away from her body.
Graffiti was painted everywhere. Even on the dome of the abandoned U.S. Capitol Building, according to the news. But I found it difficult to believe. I had taken trips to Washington as a child. Seen the Golden Domes of Trumpus Maximus. Washington was now the City of Gold and Gems, not a pile of ruins. Empire Square Tower was adorned with a billion diamonds.
So the news was a lie. Had to be. Surely that new wall around Washington was to protect our heritage, but I knew better. It was just in case. Just in case we revolted.
"Will you ask?" The nurse was becoming impatient.
"Ask what?" I delayed my answer.
But life inside the wall was a sham as well. Everybody wanted to defect from America. It was all true.The wall did not keep us safe. It kept us inside. There were no hordes of Mexicans and terrorists at the walls. No attacks upon the United Empire of America. Just freedom beyond it. Even if only a wasteland of freedom.
Mexico was a wasteland, was it not? Yes, but it was free.
The nurse is patient now. Gazing at me. She takes the chair opposite me. “This is a mistake, Señor.”
"Do you?" She smiled. "Admit it."
"That you sneaked in. That you want asylum. You hate the Empire."
I thought about it. Maybe it was time to admit it. Stop playing games. Maybe there was a Pancho Villa whatever. Maybe he did want asylum seekers to repopulate Mexico. Maybe the Mexicans weren't kidnapping anyone from the Empire.
So many maybes.
I thought if I was finally safe outside of the Empire and beyond the walls, then all of the stories about the wastelands were lies.
The nurse turned her head. A burn scar ran down her neck. Ugly and molten. I stared and she noticed.
"It is from a bomb. A nuclear bomb. The one the Empire detonated over Mexico City." The nurse smiled wickedly. There was revenge in her eyes. Hatred.
Everybody knew that we were slaves in the Empire. Few would admit it. That Americans -- slaves -- were defecting. Hell, I was defecting and I wouldn't dare admit it. Not yet.
I made it though the wall drains. Crawled my way through them for two days. Feces and rats. Urine and bones. But I made it. Came out in a land of mud, rubble and smog. Found this building in that smog. Banged on the door. A steel giant guarding heaven or hell. I did not care.
Then the soldiers came. In khaki uniforms. Arrested me. Beat me. Took me to hell. It's where I am now, until I think of my cushioned chair. My broken television. The open-air auditorium in my head.
"I want Asylum," I finally said. "I confess. I want asylum." I repeated it. I felt a weight lift. My heart hollow out. I had ended my slavery to the Empire with those words, but it still felt wrong. Like I'd lost a father. A betrayal of my kind. Slaves or no, I wanted to belong somewhere.
The nurse's smile widened. "Good Señor. That is good."
Something felt wrong now. The fake nurse. The props. I couldn't figure it.
Her hand went into her bag. Out came a syringe. “You must understand. Asylum is punishable by death."
I'm in shock now. The syringe is full of blue liquid. I instinctively pull my body away. The restraints bite into my wrists and ankles, but I'm barely aware that I am cutting myself. Bleeding. Screaming.
"No!" I yell over and over. "You cannot do this!" I demand...I demand!..." Then I shut my mouth. Resign myself to my fate. Suck in and hold my own fear and hatred as not to given her the satisfaction of it.
"Shall I use this?” She held up the syringe. Always that hint of a smile. Sweet revenge for the bomb on Mexico City and all her friends. Payback for her scars.
It was difficult to answer her. “Why?” I asked finally. "What does it matter now?"
“Señor. You are a fool."
She tossed the syringe away. It's on the floor now. Yet another prop. Blue liquid that was not liquid at all. Just painted there.
I stare at her. Then keys rattling in the door and cursing in Spanish now. I looked at the fake pen on the floor. The toy syringe again. The yellow paper on the table, that is not paper. What am I missing?
I try to think.
The nurse glances at my empty bottle of water, and I know now. Her gentle practiced smile. Her gloves. It tells all.
The water. Something in the water. I had been poisoned by the damned water. That is her smile -- my death.
“No last meal?” I ask.
I can't hold onto my open space. My imagined cushioned chair is fading. My television is gone. The ground darkens. The field evaporates into the city. Changes back into its true self. A concrete floor here, in this cell. This eternal hell. A stained and stinking cracked floor. Dirty feet and tacos smells, now.
I scream again and an electric jolt of fire arcs through my spine and down my legs.
The nurse leaves. Turns and exits through the now opened door. Her perfume lingers.
The fat little Mexican Fed from earlier, returns. He rounds the table. Twists his mustache and grins. Plops into the cushioned recliner. It squeaks. It always squeaks. Mocking me.
I want to rip his mustache off. Feed it to a dog. I need a dog, I think. Maybe a doberman. Yes, a vicious starving doberman pinscher, but there are no dogs anymore. We ate them all long ago.
The memory brings me to the past again. Eating my dog as a child for Thanksgiving. Watching the parades on the big screen at the center of town while we stand at attention; armies of ragged workers. Trumpus Maximus giving moving speeches. His mop of red hair longer than ever, reaching his shoulders, but bald on the top. Pink skull and flabby flesh, adorned in diamond robes.
“Señor, how you are this morning?” The Mexican Fed has on a fresh shirt and slides a leather satchel on the table in front of me. “I hope you slept well!”
I want to lift that satchel. Brain him with it. I can see his broken face there. I giggle at my own pain.
His accent is thicker. I have to focus in order to understand.
"Oil," I said.
"You should oil that chair," I said. I'm not sure why I said it.
“Señor? Has the nurse given you a drink?” He looks at my eyes, but I am having a helluva time trying to focus. His greasy mustache seems much larger now. Black, like a paint brush dipped in tar.
It takes a minute, but thoughts form through a fog of disjointed memes. I was drugged. I can't take my eyes from his mustache. It's absolutely fascinating. Glowing black now. Is that possible? Can a black mustache glow?
He laughs. “Ah, you have. You have accepted our water! But it was not really water and don’t worry, it is not a painful death, Señor! It is, how can I say, a loco experience, I understand. Pain and joy at once."
Death I think. What is that? I try to shake my head, but it wobbles instead.
“Now, back to business, as you Americano’s say. There is little time.” He pulls out a sheath of papers. Real ones this time. Scans them. Finds the one he wants.Checks it.
Then he removes my gas mask from his bag. Smiles. "I think you left something." He tosses it on the table.
My anger has left me now. Peace and pleasantness, but there's a weight on my mind. A throbbing pull threatening to eat my sanity. He has found my mask,so what? How else could I survive outside?
“This one, Señor? Does it work for you?” He has a paper. An official looking document.
I glanced down through warbling eyes. A typed letter. The letters all all uneven. I struggle with it. The Mexican Fed laughs, but it echoes softly away.
‘I, Jackson Filberton, on the 17th of September, 2317, did on or about 10:00 P.M., ascend the wall, better known as The Great Wall of Trump and attempted to enter the Free Mexico, without permission...'
I skipped down. Readjust my eyes. '…and I bequeath all of my internal organs to the cause of …'
I quit reading. Can't focus now.
“No.” But it came out slurred. More like “Nawh.” I'm so confused now. My organs?
“Nawh! Kizz my azz.” My tongue is numb now. It feels like cotton. I probe my teeth, but I can no longer feel my tongue. Was it gone? I wasn't sure now.
This wasn't going right. Maybe I should go home. Take my licks. Where is my tongue?
Something seems to drift at the edge of my consciousness now. But what?
The Fed picks up the letter. Puts it back in his satchel. Begins to laugh. "I love my job," he said.
I didn’t respond. Just listened. I am amazed. His accent seems to be fading. My head has become so heavy.
He stands, gathers his satchel and walks to the door, but turns, after he taps on the mirror-glass with his knuckle. I can see he has a bracelet. The same kind the police wear in the Empire.
“You, Señor Filberton. It is people like you who keep us alive!" Laughter.
The door squeaks open. A soft light probes the cell. My eyes finally adjust.
Through the doorway I can see the wall. The inside of the wall, as it fades into the distance like the gray snake it is. A wall that crawls around everything. I had not escaped at all. I was still here. In some kind of cell. Some kind of interrogation chamber of horrors and perfumed nurses.
I had never escaped.
* * *
I looked at the Trump Wall in all its grandeur. One of the largest public works projects in human history. A wall fully 5000 feet high and over 1000 feet thick. Steel, concrete and missile batteries.
The Trump Wall made the Great Wall of China look like a collection of toy blocks. Stretches not just along the border with Mexico, where I'd tried to escape, but along the Canadian border as well.
I recall a documentary years ago, about how the Trump Wall, manned by five million soldiers was its own country. Has its own farms, airports and shopping districts and even a supporting civilian population.
They made us watch the documentaries in school. Repeatedly. Recruiters taking names and ignoring those who asked too many questions. Guys like me.
Work was currently underway on the wall off of Hawaii and Puerto Rico. There was even an entire Reality Television Series devoted to planning stages of the new Sea Wall Projects, designed to close the rest of the ‘gaps.’
“Keep America Safe!” That was the mantra. Schools sold the honor badges. If you didn't buy, you were not a patriot. You were anti-empire or an "ant."
I fainted again. I think I did. I'm not in my cell. I'm in a forest of black now. Ghostly trees and solitude. I can't make sense of this, but it's not a bad place. I'm just standing there. Doing nothing. Thinking nothing. Being watched by the phantom trees. I know there are things in the darkness, just beyond those trees. Inside the forest. The waiting things. The deathly quiet things. I scream at them, but my tongue ignores me.
Suddenly, I am awake. On. Alive.
The tree ghost dream is gone. There is a cacophony of buzzing. The screeching of machines. Saws. Whirring hums.
Mumbling voices morph into orders being issued over speakers far above. I am in a Harvester, in America. I’d heard about them, but never believed they existed. The nightmare is true. The huge warehouses that we could see from to edge of town were gray and triangular just hike these buildings.
Don't defect, they had said. Never admit it. They will harvest you. I had been too vocal. Spoken my mind on occasion. They had discovered my transgressions. Now they were taking me apart. Literally. I would be harvested.
I couldn’t talk, couldn't move. I could see. Oddly, my mind was clear. But my eyes were frozen. I could stare and blink. Stare at the American Flags draped over thousands of coffins with the word 'RePat' painted on their sides.Stacks of coffins.
I could blink at the flicker of lights. Stare at the paintings and sculptures of Trumpus Maximus. Thousands of them, all back-lighted in red, white and blue.
What did that mean? RePat? Repatriated? Brought home -- to be harvested?
There is a screen above my face now. Red letters were flashing. My name, Social Security Number, height, weight – all my personal data. The face of my handler -- the Mexican Fed -- scrolling by.
Then three dimensional views of me. My feet, bones, groin, internal organs and even my brain were all represented, on the screen. Numbers, percentages, levels of hormones, blood type, age -- an encyclopedia of me.
Behind my stats, a stylized American flag flew, waving in a solemn breeze. Why I wondered?
'Thank you for your sacrifice,' scrolls by on my screen. 'You will be remembered.' Then Trumpus Maximus again. On screen. Smiling. The words 'for God and Empire' beneath his flabby neck.
Little blinking green lights are everywhere behind the screen. Beyond it. Monotone sounds. Saws and drills now It was difficult to make out. But that hospital smells were not hard to discern. Rubbing alcohol and an odd burning scent permeated the open building.
Long spiraling tubes clung to the ceiling. They looked like grotesque vacuum cleaner tubes, except they were wet with entrails which still hung from small hooks along their sides. Hooks that held other unidentifiable parts that dangled and dripped.
One such part looked familiar. Perhaps my leg? It was being examined by an elongated balloon, protruding from the ceiling as well. An armature appeared from the purple balloon. From this, spindles of claws rotated outward and began to probe my detached leg. Scissors appeared from a multi-jointed limb, also affixed to the balloon-like thing. They cut into my leg then and I turned away.
It took a moment to understand the parts and pieces that dangled were full and complete organs as well. Human parts surely. But bones, livers, hearts and eyes all parading by on thin green strings and conveyor belts. Full hips and knees, held in fizzing solutions. Steaming and ready for transplanting.
Robotic arms with nozzles, waving in a sickening dance, spraying the organs as they were moved along. Other robotic arms that were lifting the organs and scanning them with flat beams of light, then returning to them to the belts, tubes, cartons and hooks. Sometimes the balloon-like things inserted the various parts into a pocket near the top of their bodies. Special organs for special people.
Some of the flesh was discarded. Bins of yellow liquid, a bubbling stew of parts and pieces. It smelled like bacon and hell.
I seemed to be on a conveyor belt of some sort myself now. Something was tugging at my hair. I could not feel my lower body and arms. I am torso and head, but I feel no pain.
I go away from my self again. It is like a faint, but without the dizzy feeling. Almost natural. I await death. Hope for it. Beg. Yet life comes again. Onward, I march.
Now I am back in the black forest. Waiting again. Being watched by these strange tree sentinels. I don't think I should be here. It's a bad place. I feel bad in here. Let me out! But I cannot scream. I don't think I have a mouth or a face any longer
Voices echo in from the darkness. From behind the trees. I cannot see the talkers, but I know they exist.
“You suppose they are awake?” The voice came from nearby now.
“Nah. They are comatose, Harry. Don’t worry. The blinking is just a reflex. Just remove Filberton's heart, they said we only have eight hours max – after that the organs are no good. And he's a perfect match for the recipient it says here."
“You are heartless!"
"You're pretty funny, Harry. But don't quit your day job!"
More laughter. "What choice do I have?"
"Hey!" It was Mr. Scritter, the super. They both looked up.
Behind the dark glass of the monitoring station, Scritter was leaning forward, staring. "Get that one prepped now. His heart is going to the big boss this afternoon."
"Crap, Harry. Let's get this show on the road. This'll be Trump's tenth!"
"Tenth heart? For Trumpess Maximus?"
"You bet. But careful with the descriptive titles, Harry. The air has ears, you know." He pretended to look over his shoulder at the rows of bodies moving along an impossible number of conveyor belts. All for Trump's family and friends. All bought and paid for.
"What is he now, 400 years old anyway?" Harry asked.
"Hell, I dunno how old the Founding Fuhrer is," he laughed as he lifted the circular saw. Gave it a squeal. "Sorry Buddy, Trump said their would be consequences if you left the country..."
Harry smiled. "But seriously, don't you get tired of this?" he asked.
"What?" the saw's whining was drowning out much of the conversation. He was starting to make a cut.
Harry switched to his microphone. "All this prep work?"
He pulled the blade upward. "Why do you ask Harry? You want to defect so I can cut out your liver?" He was smiling again.
"Nawh. I mean why can't we play the Mexican Fed part? You know. have some fun?"
"What, and I can be the nurse? No way Harry, I ain't going over that wall to that nuclear wasteland! Play jailer? Please. Trick people into thinking there is still a Mexico beyond the wall. Come on, Harry. I like it here. I get to eat and go back to my wall apartment every night."
He started the saw again Hit bone. Filberton's rib cage was nearly off.
"Jeez. The wasteland is 100 miles farther on. We could have some fun. You know, maybe get a raise. Get promoted to interior even." Harry was hopeful. "Beats the chop shop."
He stopped again. "Are you insane, Harry. You have to be a full citizen to do that! I suppose you want mating privileges too. Maybe have a kid or something and a farm, maybe some real chickens in your backyard!"
"Well this guy did. Look," Harry said.
Filberton's body was laying there. What was left of it. "Yes, he has all of his parts, Harry. But he was neutered, just like us. He's just for spare parts. You know that."
"Yep, I know."
"Bye Bye, Filberton." Harry looked down. Snipped. There's a heart in his hand. "Once a citizen, always a citizen," he said.
I feel a fine mist upon my face. It is warm. The wind is blowing here...in this black forest. Tree limbs crack. I must find the dark things now.
"Don't worry Filberton, Harry leans in and whispers, "I have a spare heart around here. Don't you worry."
"Hey Harry! what are you doing?"
"Just saying goodbye to a patriot. I'll do the dump."
Harry wheels the cart with Filberton's torso and head -- what are left of them -- to the back.
© 2016 Jack Shorebird