I was sixteen when I enlisted in the army. I don’t know why I did it. It wasn’t for the money, it was hardly enough to get by and it was definitely not enough to go and try to get myself killed for. Mostly it gave me a chance to figure out what I wanted to do and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The year was 1916. Everyone was excited about going to war back then. We were true heroes. They even had a big parade with banners that waved us goodbye and made our hearts flutter with the anticipation of going down in history, of making our mark. It all seemed so heroic, romantic even. All of the posters and the signs down at the recruitment stations said so.
‘Your Country Needs You!’
They called out to me in strong, bold, yellow letters, the silhouettes of brave soldiers standing proudly against a red background beckoning me to join them, daring me to decide what it was that I believed in.
‘Stand Up and Fight For Freedom! Be A Hero!’
But I couldn’t tell what it was that I was willing to fight for. All of those things seemed like the right things, the only things to stand up for, and what did I know, I was only sixteen.
And it was so easy. I just lied about my age and before I knew it I was uniformed and packed off to a war that I didn’t understand nor was I prepared for. But then once we were actually in it, we all regretted it.
That’s when we realized that we were meant to die, that we had been tricked. We could never have known that it would be that way but I would never forget it, not in a million years.
They’re called night terrors. They cause me to wake up in the middle of the night consumed in a blind, cold sweat, shaking and restless, sometimes even screaming, desperately fighting to escape.
Day after day in those godforsaken trenches, I remember wondering if I would ever see home again. I would be down on my knees in the mud and the guts praying that if I died out there to just let it be dry wherever I was going.
Freezing cold and wet, that’s what I remember. I could never get warm and I could never tell if my feet were even attached to my body anymore they were so numb. That was trench life, scared out of my mind, soaking wet and hunkered down in a cold, black ditch waiting for death and watching the bodies pour down like the unrelenting rain.
And man did it pour, buckets and buckets of rain every day. Food was limited to whatever we had left in our ration packs that hadn’t gone off from the damp and no one could sleep. We were on constant alert after having been hit twice with the mustard gas.
That was something else, everyone running and screaming, strangling in the noxious fumes, frantically pulling on the masks. Then scrambling, counting, piling up the bodies. Who is left? Hell on earth.
And then it got worse. A man doesn’t think clearly when he deliberately forces himself to walk into death. It takes a unique kind of insanity to be at the ready, alert and waiting for the command, to never hesitate.
Endless time spent in the trench and we were all just crazy enough to do it. We were all just itching to be free and it didn’t matter where we ended up because anything was better than where we were at. Nothing prepared me for it though. The day we were sent over the top, my entire life changed.
Our commander had been in his bunker all day, waiting for the signal. All we could do was lie in wait.
I had decided that if I ever got out of that war alive then I was going to apprentice to be a millwright. I didn’t know much about it but all I could think was that it would be warm. I would have given anything to be warm and dry. I would have given anything to be pretty much anywhere but in those pits of despair.
About mid afternoon there was a lull in the rain and that’s when it came, the signal that we were to go over the top. We had just enough time to gather our wits about us before we were expected to climb out of those trenches and charge into no man’s land.
I was terrified. I hadn’t signed up for freezing to death in the trenches and I had definitely not signed up to charge blindly into enemy machine-gun fire. I decided that I wanted to live to see that millwright’s job; that I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be a hero anymore, just another statistic of the war.
We were all huddled at the base of the trench waiting. When the sergeant gave the command, everyone started to climb like mad. I jumped up easily. The trench wall wasn’t difficult to scale for an agile kid like me but when the first gunshots were fired my heart sprung to my throat.
That’s when I started counting. One step, two, three, four, march, two, three, four, don’t think. As though maybe that was all it took and maybe I would live to tell all about it. Step, step, step. I would sit on a white porch one day in a rocking chair and I would have a dog, maybe even some grandkids. Step, step, step.
I now realize that it would probably have been better if I had been gunned down that day. I wouldn’t be in the mess that I’m in and I could definitely do without the nightmares.
But I didn’t die. I just closed my eyes and kept walking. Quiet, quieter still until soon I couldn’t hear anything at all.
I think I never got shot because I wasn’t shooting back. I was too paralyzed to do anything, but my legs pushed me forward anyway. All I could do was march into that hazy cloud that blanketed the rough terrain and pray.
“Please god, don’t let me die. Please god, don’t let me die.” Over and over again I prayed as I marched until suddenly, I tripped and fell over into a ditch.
I lay there for a minute not knowing what had hit me. For a second I thought that I might be dead, but I was wrong. I lay there for a few minutes more and then, suddenly, the rain started again.
That’s when I got caught. I was laying there in the rain, trying to think what to do next, when a shadow loomed up over me. At first I thought that he was going to shoot me dead right there, but instead he hauled me up out of that ditch and dragged me back to his camp.
That was the end of life as I knew it, in the trenches or otherwise. I spent eighteen months in a prisoner of war camp with nothing to eat except a bowl of broth and something that resembled bread and whatever else that could be found crawling between the cracks in the floors. They shaved our heads to prevent lice and tattooed a number on our arms. They tortured us, starved and beat us.
A lot of it I don’t recall. After a while, things just got a little blurry. It was better that way. What I do remember is thinking that I was a whole lot stronger than I ever thought I was. When they beat me, I remember believing that I would die. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to take another day, but then I would just go right on living anyway and I think that I was just as surprised as anyone.
That’s when I knew that I was meant to survive and that was probably the only thing that kept me alive, knowing that I was stronger than anything that they could ever do to me.
After the war ended, everyone was eager to leave. The group of us who remained was anxious to go home. We never considered at the time that they wouldn’t allow us to return, but it should have been obvious.
We had beat all odds, survived terrible things; inhumane things. We had suffered at the hands of the enemy and we had lived to tell about it. What we didn’t realize was there had never been any intention of letting us go. We were never meant to go free.
We had become what were called unclassified prisoners. That meant that we had been taken off of the map. We had been forgotten, erased, the letters sent home, heroic day of memoriam and then life continued on, but not for us.
Instead we were bound for a Top Secret government experiment. We were put on trucks like chattel and carted off to a large hospital which was really just an old run down insane asylum, The Meadowvale Sanitorium. There we were examined, poked and prodded and stuck all over with pins and needles. Then they began the treatments.
In the beginning, they gave us injections, every day for six months. Six months of little test tubes full of murky fluid and labeled UC-I28. Six months in a cell with a kid named Lucas who couldn’t have been more than sixteen like me, but who always looked pale and sick, as though he had just seen a ghost. Although who was I to judge him, most of us felt just the same.
We had been chosen for our strength, our stamina and our will to survive. We had been to hell, and just when we thought that we were on our way back and still fighting strong, the real hell began.
It seemed that the government wanted to create an unstoppable army or a super race, whatever the case, but after a while it was clear that the experiment had gone horribly wrong. Some of the prisoners mutated, developing tumors the size of grapefruits. Others went crazy and there were many of us who were lucky enough to die.
Despite everything, Lucas became my best friend in that place. He wasn’t as strong as I was, but it looked like he had had to put up a much bigger fight, and he walked with a limp, a byproduct of the war.
Most of us were like that. We were used up, washed up and tossed away like pieces of garbage that nobody wanted. We had nothing to believe in anymore and nothing to lose. We were drifting endlessly without purpose, without any idea where life was going or if we would even live long enough to get there.
But we were different, Lucas and I. We had hope. We vowed that we were going to get out of that place one day and the strange thing was that against all of the odds, we were surviving. We were going to make it. We were going to be okay.
And after those first six months, it did appear that we were reacting differently. In fact, we were among the few who were thriving. We were the ones who didn’t seem to be displaying any irregular side effects from the treatments whatsoever.
Day after day we kept each other alive in that place. We would spend our nights just talking about home, about life before the war, and about the people that we loved. I told him that I wanted to be a millwright and he said that that sounded pretty good.
Lucas was like me. He had left home at an early age and joined the army thinking that he was going to be part of some heroic fairy tale, that he was going to get his day of glory. He said that he had joined up mostly to impress his father who had been a merchant marine, but that his real passion was art and drawing. He said that he had stacks of sketchbooks and primers back home, but he didn’t think that he would ever get the chance to draw again.
So I stole him a pencil, and it was the happiest that I had ever seen him.
After that, he would stay up really late working on small drawings on the wide metal slats of his bed.
I told him that he had talent, but he said that it was nothing. At least it wasn’t enough to impress his dad and he didn’t think that he would ever use that talent anyway. I told him that anything was possible. They couldn’t keep us there forever. One day they would have to let us go.
But then one night I woke up with the acrid smell of smoke in my nose, searing hot in my lungs. I felt dazed, as though I had been drugged and all I could hear were people screaming and screaming, but the door to our room was locked.
Through the tiny window, I could see the flames and I knew that we were in trouble. I tried to wake Lucas but he was out cold, probably drugged as well.
The government was going to terminate the project. They were going to try to dispose of us as neatly and quietly as possible by burning the whole thing to the ground. We had to get out. I ran back to the door and started to pound on it, desperate for anyone to hear.
Suddenly, I saw her and I couldn’t tell if she was a nurse or a doctor but she was wearing a white lab coat. She was tearing through all of the file cabinets, snatching up as much of the paperwork that she could carry. She saw me then too, through the window and I pounded harder, my eyes pleading with her but she just gave me an apologetic look before she turned to make a run for it.
My heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach, but then somehow, by the grace of God, I don’t know, she seemed to change her mind. She turned back toward me, hesitating a little and in that moment, I felt as though time was frozen still. She glanced quickly around at the rapidly disintegrating office before dashing toward our door.
She fumbled a little with her collection of keys and I thought for a brief moment of terror that she might just give up on us, but then she found what she was looking for and the key turned in the lock.
Merciful hallelujahs rang through my head and I think that I might have kissed her had she not turned immediately and bolted toward the exit. It didn’t matter. I hoisted Lucas onto my back and made a run for it.
It was hard to see. Smoke was everywhere, filling my lungs, but still I pushed on.
All I could taste was freedom. My eyes were burning but I could see the exit sign brightly beckoning. There were people shouting, and guns were firing, but I couldn’t tell where the shots were coming from.
I ran faster. All I could do was focus on that exit sign, behind which was fresh air, life, freedom.
And then we were through, the cool rush of air hitting my face like a dream, but it wasn’t a dream. We were out, we were alive, and we were free. Dragging Lucas, I scrambled up the hillside as fast as I could. I was out of breath and elated when I reached the top.
Dumping him down on the ground, I looked back down the side of the embankment just as a huge tower of flames rose into the night.
I was ecstatic. We had made it. We had survived. They had tried to stamp us out but we would live on.
I turned back toward Lucas. We were both covered in soot and ash, and our hospital issued pajamas were torn and stained black. We had no shoes and nowhere to go, but we were alive. That was all that mattered.
And then suddenly I looked at his face and my heart stopped. There in the centre of his forehead was an ugly black hole. I touched it, but then I recoiled instantly as my hand came away oily and dark with blood.
I was confused for a brief moment. I didn’t understand.
But then it hit me, and I began to scream, the sound starting out low in my throat and then rising up out of me like a ghost. It sounded so far away. As though it was someone else who was screaming.
I immediately flew into a rage, and I threw myself upon him, shaking him so hard that I thought had he not been dead already, then I would have killed him. Finally, I did the only thing that I could do. I gathered him up in my arms and cradled his head in my lap.
I huddled there, long into the night, clutching his still frame. Silent tears of anger dropped down to mingle in the blood and dirt as I watched our prison burn against the dark night.
Lucas was my best friend. Without him, I would have never survived. And now, I will never give up. I will not stop fighting for him. His death is fixed on my soul, and it is a far greater hell than all of my worst nightmares combined.
They stole everything from us. They took our freedom, our dignity, and even our lives. So I will fight, for justice and for truth, but most of all I fight for peace from the nightmares in my head, and the war in my heart that will never end.
It is the dawn of a new age now. The world is heading into the new millennium. It is a world of new technology with greater weapons and no memory. The causes that I fought so bravely for have become forgotten. They are obsolete, and yet I still remain. I don’t know how long I will last here, but I know that I don’t belong. I know that one day, if they find me, they will kill me too.
My name is Phoenix Wilder, prisoner number 13567, and I am seventeen years old.