"Convict 24601." The man looked up, hearing his number called. This guard was the only guard that ever addressed him. They hated him, the others. And yet this man would not even use his name. Would not even speak the words that reminded him this prisoner was still a human being.
"I am here." He stood up, walking to the doorway of his cell. In twenty long years he had seen very few rooms other than this one. His cell, the dining hall and the exercise hall: those were the only places in his life.
"Your time is up - you're free to go." He hardly dared to believe it. "Here - your pass. Now, get some clothes and get out of here."
"Me?" Jean Valjean was confused. He was losing track of time, but the last year had passed quickly.
"Do you not understand what I am telling you?" the guard asked harshly, swinging his baton from hand to hand. "Go on, get out of here."
"I'm free." Jean Valjean whispered the words. Free ... after so long.
"Free from here, perhaps, but you've a criminal record, now. Do you think anyone will hire you after what you did? You're just another thief."
"I stole ten pounds from a bank, to save my starving nephew! Does that really merit twenty years?" How could the law be so cruel? He was convinced that something had gone wrong along the line - little did Valjean know that his long imprisonment was the result of an unfair trial.
"You broke a window, knocked a man out cold - ten pounds you took, but that was not all. Property damage and medical fees when he partially lost his memory because you knocked him so hard. Besides, you had a criminal record. This was not the first time."
"Twenty years for stealing ten pounds..."
"It was not the ten pounds, and you know it. If you were so desperate to leave, why did you try to escape? With two other convictions - whether you believe you were guilty or not - it was a stupid idea. You already had a record, 24601."
He disliked being addressed only by a number. It was a reminder of his shame.
"My name is Jean Valjean." This much the man was certain of. Much of his memory had been lost over the mind-numbingly repetitive days in the prison, but he knew his name, though none of the other prisoners used it. No one ever spoke to him. They thought he was a murderer, to be kept there so long.
Maybe he was. He could no longer remember.
What was happening? Everything that made him who he was had slipped away over the years. He had been a good man, he was sure. He had acted only out of love, to save the child's life.
The guard pushed him out of the cell, directing him towards another room. Here he would change his prison uniform for some normal clothes; here he would pick up the documents he needed to get out of this place without being re-arrested.
"And mine is Javert. Do not forget me, 24601."