I don’t remember life outside the Camp, because I was born here. I hear tales here and there about the beautiful world that sounds like a fantasy to me, too good to be true. I don’t know if people are just making up tales to comfort themselves. Life is pretty tough here at the Camp, I’ve to admit, but it’s all that I know. During the day, we get a few breaks for water and food, but other than that, we keep on working from dawn till dusk, nonstop. We don’t have a choice. Though everyone keeps silent and rarely talks to one another at work, I know many, who’ve lived in the outside world, are full of complaints. When working hours are over, I overhear them talking about “human rights” and “liberties;” about “wages” and “holidays.” I don’t understand those foreign-sounding concepts and know nothing of the sort. Yet hearing these conversations makes me ponder what the outside world is like. I feel that something’s out of place, that perhaps it’s unnatural for me to be kept in this Camp; that perhaps one should be able to choose when to work and when to leave the place; that perhaps I should be given more food and water to quell this hunger and thirst I’ve gotten so used to over the years.
But everyone knows, without openly discussing it, what the consequences of breaking the rules are. Disappearance. And eventually the body of that person, all bloody, hanging from the roof of the dining hall. Every time you look, you’ll quickly glance away, and knowing the individual personally makes the grotesque sight more painful than ever. I lost many friends as a child that way, and I suspect that my parents faced the same fate years ago when they disappeared one day. Once they vanished, I never saw them again, and that’s how I became an orphan.
I recall so vividly what it’s like to be outside the Camp. I remember wandering among the desolate woods and imagining what they’d look like if they had those nice green leaves that we saw in a video from science class. I remember lining up for food with ration tickets in my hand. I remember holding a bucket to queue up for water from a dripping tap. I remember school being canceled because of the downpour, hurricanes, and heatwaves. Yet I remember even more clearly the night I was abducted, after seeing my parents getting killed. We were walking into the barren woods but we weren’t supposed to be there, since there was a curfew at the time issued by the government. They told us to stay in our homes, and there’d be trucks to relocate us to the Camps.
They tried to convince us that, in these Camps, we’d be safe from the flooding that was consuming our neighborhoods near the shore. They promised that there’d be guaranteed meals provided at the camps. They told us we climate refugees would no longer have to worry about food ration tickets anymore. The relocation program was advertised as a way for us to contribute to the greater good of society, which I now find is to fulfill the greedy needs of the rich at the expense of the poor.
My father told me there’s no way that he’d allow us to be imprisoned in the Camps, that it’d be a guaranteed “game over” if we chose to comply. And so we quickly packed our belongings to try and escape the city. We scuffled along in the darkness for an hour or so, before the headlights of the law enforcers’ vehicle shone on us. They came after us and yelled at us to stop, threatening to shoot. My father didn’t believe they would. He ushered us along and we picked up our pace. Then two shots rang off, and I screamed, sprinting away. I didn’t even get the chance to take a last look at my parents. I didn’t see where I was going so I tripped and fell, and they pulled up and knocked me out when I struggled. The next thing I knew, I was chained to a cage, on my way to the Camp. I never saw the outside world again. It was five years ago when all of that happened.
Yesterday, a man was hanged from the roof of the dining hall again. I’d seen him before, picking tomatoes in one of the greenhouses, but I’d never really interacted with him. Now all I see is his lifeless face, and I feel this numbness from seeing yet another dead body, which is unnerving. Rumors spread that he wanted to get more food for his ravenous family, so he stole some fruits from a greenhouse. The surveillance cameras probably caught him in the act and now he’s been executed.
I don’t understand why all of this is happening. Why they don’t give us enough food to stay satiated. Why they’ve to treat us that way. But I guess sometimes there are things that you’ll never understand, just like why every day is so swelteringly hot, or why the crops have to grow in these peculiar glass structures instead of outside in the sun.
I’m just trying to keep my head down, to survive and not get killed, unlike my parents. They’re venerated by almost everyone at the Camp. I think people knew them before my parents arrived at the Camp, as leaders of the community. I remember my parents staying up late at night to engage in muffled conversations, holding a device that they concealed so warily from the security guards. They told me that they may be able to get everyone out of this place. They also told me that they loved me, but may not return from work one day and I had to be prepared for that. That nightmare turned out to be true, and I still remember myself wailing hopelessly for my parents that evening when they were not around. I now realize they were probably planning a mass uprising and escape for everyone from the Camp. I would’ve told them to give up on that foolish idea and not risk their lives, if I knew what was happening at the time.
I was ravenous. I couldn’t stop myself. That afternoon I was working at the greenhouse where we planted peppers. I picked one and slid it into my jacket pocket. I was swift with my movement so that hopefully I wouldn’t be seen by the surveillance cameras. I immediately regretted doing that, but it was too late.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept imagining my corpse hanging from the roof of the dining hall. Then I realized I probably shouldn’t be staying around any longer. I didn’t really have any belongings as they were all confiscated upon my arrival, so I just silently crept out of my hut into the darkness.
The crops were picked by some of us during the day and loaded onto the cargo trucks at night, for delivery the next day. I decided I had to give the trucks a try. I’d spend the night hiding among the cargoes so I wouldn’t be caught by anyone, then leave the Camp the next morning.
That was the longest night I’d ever spent at the Camp. Despite being exhausted from work during the day, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I stiffened at any sound I heard. I felt I was falling into a trench, getting myself into deeper and deeper trouble. But now there was no way I could return to my hut and survive. I officially became a fugitive.
I can’t sleep tonight, for some reason. In fact, I haven’t had a sound sleep in a while. That’s strange, since the scorching weather has recently become unusually unmerciful, and even in the well-conditioned greenhouse, work is fatiguing. I should be passing out the moment my body meets the hard mattress. Perhaps the reason I can’t sleep is the nagging hunger that’s worsening by the minute. They’re cutting down on food once again, and we only get two meals every day now. This is the first time they’ve done that in all the years I’ve been here. Increasingly frequently, I feel the urge to snatch a fruit from the greenhouse and take a bite. The only thing that has kept me in check is the gruesome image of a body hanging from the roof of the dining hall. My survival instinct tears me apart — starvation or death? So far I’ve chosen to stave off the hunger, but to be frank, I don’t think I can hold off any longer. I’m sick and tired of being treated this way. I’m starting to understand why my parents wanted to break free; in fact, I’ve been thinking about how to accomplish that myself.
The next morning, “wanted” posters are posted everywhere around the Camp. They all have an image of the same person on them — a girl named Joyce. I’ve seen her before, but we haven’t really talked much. All I know about her is that she’s one of those who were brought to the Camp from outside. Her disappearance is unusual because the typical, forced evaporations for misconduct are silent and discreet. This time, the authorities clearly don’t know where she is yet, and are, to some degree, frantic. I’m secretly excited that finally, they don’t seem to be the ones in control.
I suddenly decide to leave this place. Never in so many years have I felt this compelling sense of urgency, but Joyce’s departure serves as an inspiration. I feel that the time has come for me to take matters into my own hands and reject the harsh reality I’m currently living in. The whole morning, I keep on looking around for an opportunity to slip away, and that moment finally comes during a water break. When no one’s looking, I pretend to head for the bathroom, but after I turn around the corner, I deviate towards the parking lot where the delivery trucks are. I reckon that the surveillance cameras have probably already recorded my actions, so I have to get out of there, fast. The trucks are my best option to avoid detection, as my understanding is that they don’t scrutinize the cargoes too seriously before setting off. The engines are rumbling and I have little time left, so I quickly clamber into one. I enter just in time as the rear lid begins to automatically close, but then I’m so shocked that I let out a small cry. You won’t believe who’s right in front of me. Joyce.
I woke up with a start to the rumbling of engines. I must’ve drifted off. All of a sudden, I remembered where I was and became nervous again. I was thankful, though, that the authorities hadn’t discovered where I was, yet. Just as I was praying to God that I’d leave the Camp unharmed, a shadow appeared very close to me. Then I saw a figure. I froze, knowing that this was the end for me if it was one of the guards. To my relief and simultaneous surprise, a boy came into view. I’d seen him before, but I didn’t know his name. Suddenly, I became suspicious of his arrival.
I backed away from him and asked coldly, “Who sent you?”
“Oh, no one. Don’t worry! I’m a runaway, just like you,” he said, rather nervously.
My suspicion gradually subsided as we struck up a conversation. The inside of the cargo was dim, as the only light came in through the crevice on the sides of the rear lid. He recounted how “wanted” posters of me were plastered around the Camp, and my escape inspired him to carry out his own. He was shocked, just like me, by the improbable coincidence of ending up on the same truck. I liked the way he talked, with his warm and deep voice. Especially the hints of simultaneous hopefulness and disillusionment in his tone — I could totally relate to him. Based on the sounds from outside, my guess was that the truck had already left the Camp and was rumbling along the road towards its destination.
His name was Julius. He was born at the Camp, so he never knew what it’s like to live in the outside world. He was so curious and interested to learn more about that though, and so I started sharing some memories from a few years back.
“You mean the trees don’t have leaves anymore?” he asked, astonished.
“Yes,” I replied, “The climate is too arid for any plants to grow healthily. Desertification is very severe. We learned that in class.”
“Wow, I wish I had school when I was young. They never teach you anything here at the Camp. All you do is work.”
“School was fun. I enjoyed it a lot. Especially science class,” I said. “The teacher showed us models and videos of the plants and animals, and they are amazing. You won’t believe how many species there were in the past. Now most animals have gone extinct.”
“All I know are the crops that we grow in the greenhouses back at the Camp,” he said, “I am envious of your vast knowledge of other forms of life.”
“But school was always canceled due to extreme weather events. The cyclones and rainfall were so frequent and severe that our homes were often destroyed by water and debris. That’s why so many of our neighbors trusted what the government said about the Camps. It’s a big fat lie, my father told me,” I said. Then I thought about him and mother, and I became so miserable that I stopped abruptly.
“Are you okay?” he said, concerned.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I mumbled, tears rolling down my cheeks. After a pause, “They were killed when we tried to escape the relocation order to the Camps. Shot by the law enforcers.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. We were quiet for a while before he broke the silence.
“So I guess we’re both orphans,” he remarked.
I looked up and saw his eyes turn wet. “They disappeared when I was a kid,” he said. “I think they were planning a rebellion and escape for everyone. I never saw them again.”
I regretted bringing up the topic of our parents. We were chatting so animatedly about life outside the Camp, and now silence hung in the air, heavy on both of us. But soon, a lighter conversation returned.
I haven’t expected to see anyone on the truck. Joyce is very friendly though, and the awkwardness very soon vanishes. She never judges my dumb questions about the outside world and is always keen to provide answers.
She tells me about the amazing classes she had at school when she was a little kid. She tells me how plants used to blossom all around the world without the need for greenhouses, and how animals used to roam the Earth in harmony with humans. Then the temperature rose to a point where these creatures could no longer be sustained, and they rapidly died out. She also tells me about moving every other week with her parents because the floods would force them to. Sometimes, droughts and heatwaves would leave them and their community with little water. I feel so miserable upon hearing these inconvenient truths.
After a while, I ask a pressing question I’ve had in my mind all along.
“How did we end up here?” I ask. “I mean, why were the Camps set up in the first place? Who are we working and producing food for?”
“I’m not sure,” she says, “but my parents explained some of that to me when I was younger. They said that the governments and politicians ignored the warnings from scientists about climate change. Global warming worsened and adaptations to counter its effects became more and more futile. Soon, regions around the shores were submerged underwater with the melting polar ice and the rising sea levels it caused. Massive-scaled migrations of climate refugees occurred across the globe. Food turned so scarce and became the currency of the impoverished. According to my parents, the Camps were set up so that the poor would be enslaved to serve the privileged. I’ve also heard rumors that the food we produce goes to supermarkets where only the powerful will purchase their meals. That’s why my parents didn’t want to be relocated there and risked their lives to escape.”
I don’t know why, but I feel the rage boiling in my chest for the inactions of my previous generations. I am also furious to learn that the authorities are using my hard work, and that of many others’, to satisfy the needs of the wealthy. Swallowing hard, I try to accept this horrible reality of the world I am living in right now.
At other times, our conversation carries us off to lighter and merrier planes. When we rest, I savor the indescribable feeling of freedom in the silence. I’ve never felt that before in my life. Yet, I also feel kind of sorry for others at the Camp. The fact that they still have to toil and suffer as I venture off makes me feel that I am betraying them by leaving them behind. But soon, other worries occupy my head. I don’t know if I can even survive in the outside world; it’s all very much unknown to me. Whether I can find food and shelter. And what if the Camp and its law enforcers decide to pursue us, and we live in fear for the rest of our lives, constantly on the move? I can only speculate, and can’t provide an answer to any of the questions buzzing in my head. All I know is that being in Joyce’s presence brings me comfort, and right now, with her by my side, I feel safe. At least for the time being.
The journey was a long one. We chatted a little bit more, and then for a period, both of us fell silent. I gazed across at this worn face looking back at mine. The silence allowed me to examine his countenance closer. His eyes seemed to tell a tale of a battered sage, yet for all his wisdom, he was full of sheltered ignorance, never having set foot in the outside world. A profound sense of compassion filled my veins. Our encounter seemed almost serendipitous — that fate had drawn us together, two souls of the same age, two orphans having been worn down by the same harshness of oppression that was the Camp. His face spoke for itself, showing how much he had gone through, yet despite the weariness of his expression, his features were beautiful. Suddenly, I realized that I was lost in my thoughts, staring at him for a bit too long. He quickly looked down, smiling sheepishly. I blushed a little and looked away too.
I could feel a tingling at the back of my neck, but I said nothing about it. We sat and relished the pleasant silence, with electricity crackling mildly in the air. It was nice not to be alone and to have someone to talk to, and the fact it was Julius gave me a sense of elation I had not felt for longer than I could remember.
Time seemed to pass so slowly. I leaned against the wall of the cargo. Julius fell asleep, but I couldn’t despite being exhausted. My mind was full of racing thoughts. As I looked at him, I wondered what it’d be like to have him as a companion. Or even to begin a relationship, if that wasn’t too far-fetched. Yet I quickly drew myself back to reality from that all too beautiful fantasy conjuring in my head. I’d lived in the outside world for years as a child, and I knew, very clearly, what it meant to have another person around whom you care about. Life was challenging for me and my parents, with food and shelter never a guarantee. Now that we were outlaws, life would be twice as harsh on us.
The prospect of letting someone into my life was accompanied by the fear and high probability of losing yet another person. We were both already vulnerable in this harsh world, and to leave ourselves vulnerable to one another, and the risk of more loss, would not serve us well. So however much a part of me wanted to continue this journey by his side once we exited the cargo truck, I deemed it best for both of us to live on our own. I’d remember forever the image of him sleeping, his features so handsome and serene. I felt a tear roll down my face as I made the decision to close my heart.
I slowly open my eyes. It is the first time in weeks that I’ve managed to sleep soundly. It’s starting to get dark outside the truck, and in the dim light, I can see the graceful visage of Joyce, now asleep. As I study her face, I begin to ponder what my future would look like… would she be in it? To be honest, I’m increasingly unsettled by the prospect of being alone in a hostile world. It would surely be nice, even helpful, to have her as a companion in an environment so foreign to me. Yet I know this thought originates from my selfishness. I would be a burden to her, with my ignorance and unfamiliarity of the circumstances outside the cargo truck. My strong desire to protect her conflicts with a feeling of inadequacy to do so. Besides, I don’t want to experience the emotional pain of losing someone again. Throughout childhood, I’ve lost my parents and quite a few close friends at the Camp. I’ve also heard stories of others who’ve lost loved ones and seem to be less likely to survive as a result of more burdens. I genuinely fear losing Joyce if we’re to stay together. Perhaps, it’s better to have clear boundaries with the people I come across, since the world is too treacherous to afford to love another.
For the rest of the ride, the two voices struggle within me, but I finally come to the conclusion that our separation may be beneficial to both of us. I’m saddened by this reality, still furtively dreaming to stay with her for the days to come. My admiration and desire for Joyce will burn forever like an inextinguishable flame.
The cargo truck finally comes to a stop, after hours that have seemed like forever. Joyce’s guess is that the driver will begin to unload the cargoes soon, so we should be ready to leave at any moment. Sure enough, the rear lid slowly creaks open. The fresh night air blasts at us, and I take a deep breath. The taste of freedom, at last.
We’re very cautious to land outside without the slightest noise, so the driver won’t hear us. The driver is still in his seat, and we tiptoe away from the truck. When we’re far away enough, we hold hands and sprint for our lives. I’ve never felt so alive before.
After a few minutes or so, we stop, catching our breaths. We look at one another deeply in the eyes. Then we both rush forward. Her lips feel so soft on mine, and we linger for a bit. The night is not so cold anymore, with her warm breath on my face. I wish that moment could last forever.
Finally, we release from our embrace, panting heavily. “So long,” she says charmingly, after a brief pause. She’s so pretty under the moonlight.
“So long,” I reply. I can’t believe that we’ll be parting ways, so soon. But the world is challenging enough for one person, let alone two. I want to say something more, but I can’t find the words.
She smiles and turns around, starting on her way. I stand there, gazing at her diminishing silhouette. I feel an urge to go after her, to hold her hands and tell her to come with me, but I stop myself. My wish to remain with her is, to some degree, unrequited, but I understand that the wish is somewhat naive, in this bleak world we live in.
The next moment, she disappears into the night and I am all alone. It all feels like a lucid dream, even to this day. The night becomes dark, chilly, and unforgiving once more. At this point, I’m more thrilled than anxious about the future. I anticipate my exploration of the world that I previously could only imagine from Joyce’s descriptions. Life will be hard, and the world may not be as wonderful anymore because of climate change, but the thing is, I’m out of the Camp. Filled with hope, I let the darkness of the night swallow me into the world, into a life truly my own.
Alistair Lam is a rising sophomore at The Lawrenceville School, NJ.