Dead Key Publishing
Annual Anthology 2
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Table of Contents
Stephen W. Smith
By Becky Bolinger
The first time I saw Jordan, I was seven. She was just six months older than me. My parents and I sat in front of a tiny color TV inside our tiny shack of a house. Eight-year-old Jordan Williams stared back at us through the television set. She wore a pink fluffy dress, white lacy socks, and oh-so-adorable Buster Brown shoes, with miniature buckles and little heels. Her silky, brown hair was parted into two perfectly even pigtails with curls, pink ribbons to top it off. She sat on a comfy, oversized sofa (so that her stubby little legs poked out in front, not even near touching the ground), and you could tell she was nervous because her cheeks (still full of baby fat) were a rosy red. It was her first talk show appearance. Her segment only lasted five minutes. The host (I can’t for the life of me remember who) asked her all these cutesy questions, and she gave her cutesy answers. It ended, the audience clapped, and she would continue doing all those talk show interviews for many years to come.
I hated her. I hated how cute she was, and how rich she looked. I had sat on the floor in my grubby pair of jeans. Hell, they weren’t even my jeans. They had been handed down to me. They had holes in them, and through those holes my dirty, scabby knees could be seen. My skin matched the color of dirt, because I had spent the day plowing the fields with my dad. I hadn’t even brushed my hair that morning.
So, yeah, I hated her. The thing I hated the most though, was that I had secretly fallen in love with her. And I made sure to watch every single TV appearance after that first one. My buddy Henry and I would make fun of her and plan horrible pranks against her. Henry and I promised that if we ever ran into her on the street (like she’d ever walk on our street), we’d take a bucket of mud and dump it on her. I probably would have, too. But I still loved her.
Jordan Williams was called the Baby of America. She was the youngest American. Out of 500 million people, she was the baby of the family. The Reproduction Law was passed on February 21st, 2023, and Jordan was born on February 26th. There had been this whole drama at the hospital that morning. Should they let her live? If they let her live, then ten days down the road, somebody else would have a baby and say, “It’s only been 15 days!” There had to be a cut-off.
So the president had decided that baby Jordan would be the cutoff. She would be the last legal birth. He had flown in, and a small ceremony had been held in the hospital for the Baby of America. Under no circumstances would any baby born after this be allowed to live.
I know, it all sounds so confusing. I just said that I was six months younger than Jordan. And Henry, well, he’s a whole year younger than Jordan. There are others, too. We’re known as illegals.
I had once heard the term illegal immigrant and asked my parents what that meant. My mom told me, “There once was a time when people from other countries would try to come into the United States without the government knowing. They were called illegal immigrants.” I knew that I wasn’t an illegal immigrant. I was born in the United States. But I wasn’t a citizen. I guess the government would probably call me an illegal human—when babies from inside the womb try to come into the world, specifically the United States, without the government knowing.
So that was the extent of my seven-year-old life. I was a grubby, scabby, illegal little boy who was in love with the beautiful Baby of America.
2053, New York City
“I found the information you’re looking for.”
I sat in a rundown coffee shop in Queens. Across from me sat Brad. Brad didn’t have a last name. Brad wasn’t an illegal, even though he was younger than me. His parents had left him in the woods when he was a baby. It may sound horrible, but it sounded like a loving act to me. They probably couldn’t stand the thought of aborting him, like all the other pregnant women had done. But they just couldn’t keep him and go into exile, which is understandable. Sometimes I wonder why my parents had done it. It was a hard life to live. Brad liked to tell everyone that he had been raised by wolves. But I knew the truth. A couple who lived nearby took him and raised him. When he was ten, the couple took him to a hospital and told the nurses that he was twelve. Twelve is the age when everyone goes in for the procedure—girls get hysterectomies and boys get vasectomies. The hospital had been very suspicious of this couple—why didn’t Brad have a birth certificate, a social security number? Why wasn’t he in the public school system? The couple convinced them that because of their religion, they preferred to live reclusive lives—and they had had the baby in their own home and then home schooled him. The hospital had fallen for it. They did the procedure on Brad and the paperwork was pushed through to get him a social security number.
But Brad wasn’t like the rest of the world. He could live in the regular world and hold a regular job—but he liked to help those of us who were illegal; deep down he knew that he was illegal too.
He cast a suspicious glance around the café and deftly slipped me a piece of paper under the table.
“The department was approved just over a year ago,” Brad said, although his lips didn’t move.
I was always impressed by his talent of talking without his lips. It probably took years of practice to ensure that no lip readers could ever spy on him.
“The department works on something called Project Red Planet.”
I snickered. “Well, that’s original.”
“They’ve got some super-genius scientist heading the project. Some distant relative of Einstein or something. Anyway, he’s split the department up into two groups. The first group works on the shuttle that will transport people to Mars—they’re saying the trip will take about one month. The other group is working on making Mars inhabitable. I don’t know—something about building a city underground and using solar energy and the polar ice caps. And apparently, Mars has a lot of energy resources.”
“You haven’t even heard the best of it.”
I leaned forward.
Brad smiled. He loved being the first to know everything. “There are already miners on Mars. I guess the city is halfway finished.”
“You mean there’s people on Mars?”
Brad nodded. “And they don’t want anyone to know about it.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” I asked in awe.
I didn’t doubt that Brad’s information was true. Brad had never given anyone false information. Anytime you wanted to know anything, he was the man to see. Somehow, he knew everything.
“Well, Eric, I know all—I see all—because I’m God. Does any other explanation make sense?”
“I guess not.”
I took the moment to slip the piece of paper into my back pocket.
“Tell everyone at the meeting tonight about this project.”
“Don’t take any of them with you. At least not yet.” Brad looked weary, a look I had never seen on him before. “The security is very high on this project. They’re keeping an extra eye out for illegals.”
“So, where am I going?”
“The desert…where else?”
I let out a disgruntled sigh. “Why do they always have to do their top secret shit out in the middle of nowhere?”
Of course it was a stupid comment. If I were going to build something the size of a building, I’d do it in the middle of the desert too. Nobody does anything secretive in New York.
Brad had a sly smile on his face. “Don’t worry, buddy. You won’t be lonely.”
I rolled my eyes. “Brad, if you ordered me another prostitute, I don’t want to hear about it. I am not taking some hooker to live with me while I’m spying.”
“I didn’t get you a hooker.” He still grinned, his face turning into the face of a used-car salesman. “Don’t you want to know who’s heading the shuttle project?”
My espionage training began when I was twelve. Dad had decided to start training me on my twelfth birthday (“When all the other boys are losing their manhood,” he liked to say).
The farmwork continued in the summers. In the winter, my father would wake me up at five in the morning so I could jog three miles. Then came an hour of weight training. After that, boxing, karate, and any other sort of fighting I could learn. After lunch, we hit the books. My mom and dad would teach me a little bit of everything—but the main focus stayed on the United States government: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, amendments, and any other laws and practices they thought it necessary for me to learn. It was all to prepare me for the war that would eventually come.
All the parents of all the illegal children did it. I was about fourteen when I discovered that my parents were part of a large underground network. They all shared information—information on training and schooling. They trained and schooled, and they hoped that the young generation of illegals would grow up and overturn the government that had made us illegal, that had forced all these parents into hiding.
When an illegal turned eighteen, he or she could become a member of the “secret society.” Of course we all joined; we believed in the cause just as strongly as our parents did. And we all planned to marry each other and make little illegals of our own—to carry on the tradition.
We were known as the Reproducers.
Nobody could tell us that we didn’t deserve to live because we were born after the law was passed. Nobody could tell us that we couldn’t have kids of our own. We would have them. And we’d make sure that we were the first people off this planet; just like the pilgrims fleeing from England, we’d free ourselves from the terrible grip of the government and start a whole new world.
We held our secret meetings in a derelict parks and recreation center. Children had probably not seen the inside of this place for at least a dozen years. Brad and I had told the owner that we all just wanted to find a quiet, out-of-the-way place to hold our AA meetings. He gave us a sour look, full of pity and disgust, and told us to hold the meetings no earlier than three hours after dark. Fine. That was perfect for us.
The night before I would leave for Nevada, about thirteen of us gathered around, seating our oversized bodies into grade school chairs. Jorge looked the most ridiculous: at six foot three, his knees nearly came to his chin, and his knuckles scraped against the shabby orange carpet.
“Good God, Jorge,” Melanie chided. “Put your hands in your lap. You like a damn ape.”
He frowned and curled his lanky arms, crossing them in front of his broad chest.
“You think everybody’s here?” I asked no one in particular. “Let’s start then. Our first order of business is the Shady Glen Retirement Home. Melanie, can you give us an update?”
She ceremoniously rose from her seat and cleared her throat. I’m surprised she never brought notes and a gavel to the meetings. I had always been amused by her obsessive behaviors and desire to keep things perfectly controlled and organized. Those were also the main reasons I broke up with her two years ago. She was still cute as hell though.
“The Shady Glen Retirement Home is located just outside of Cape Canaveral, Florida. I’m sure you all have a pretty good guess of what the problem is. After two months of research, Kris and I noticed a string of unexplainable deaths within the facility. Ten patients there have died within the past two months. Kris is still down there right now—she was able to obtain a position as a nursing assistant at the home. It is quite disturbing to know that most of these patients were located in the Alzheimer’s wing—and that all of these victims were in quite acceptable physical condition. Cause of death has been unknown.
“As you all know, Andy has been working under cover at Kennedy Space Center. In the past two months, he informed me that two employees have taken leaves of absence. One was a maternity leave. The other—one of the astronauts—left to tend to his wife since she has just given birth.
“It is exactly what we’ve feared. The government knows that society can’t go much longer without reproducing at all. They have granted NASA permission to reproduce. Which means, they knew they were going to do that from the very beginning—nobody in NASA received vasectomies or hysterectomies. In fact, many have been receiving special hormone therapy. Basically, they’re reproducing like bunnies out there.”
“So what about Shady Glen?” one of the girls asked.
“We don’t think this is the first retirement home they’ve targeted, but we’re having a difficult time connecting them to any other places. Our spies are pretty sure of their motivations though. They’re planning to completely remove the population at the retirement home. Our estimates have the home being empty within the next six months.”
“Dear Lord,” somebody muttered.
“How many people do you need?” I asked.
“I can’t go back, unfortunately. I have a feeling that someone’s on to me. But Kris will be good there for a while. I’m thinking we could use at least three more bodies out there. We’ve got to figure out which patients they’ll target first and come up with a game plan to prevent it. Any volunteers?”
Jorge raised his hand, and two others who I knew to be very reliable raised hands.
“Okay,” Melanie said, pleased with the outcome. “Meet me after the meeting and we’ll set up the travel and accommodations.”
“All right,” I said, taking in a deep breath. “Moving along…”
I could feel everyone holding their breath. They knew I had something important to share with them.
“The space program is making quite a bit of progress,” I started.
“Kris hasn’t heard anything new,” Melanie interrupted. Another one of her favorite characteristics.
I raised my eyebrows to her. “That’s because none of the work is being done in Florida.” I turned my attention to the others. “The shuttle project is based in Nevada. And construction for the underground Martian city has already begun.”
There were several gasps.
“Kris did say that several astronauts left for a top-secret mission about two years ago,” Melanie said, sounding flabbergasted. “She came in after that though, and nobody has been able to tell her anything. I guess it’s very hush-hush, even on the inside.”
I nodded. “It doesn’t get any more top-secret than this. Professor Lauder is the head of this operation. Apparently he’s been working with NASA for about ten years now. His design for a space shuttle is supposed to be one of the most cost-effective and practical designs ever made. This shuttle will transport one thousand bodies and can travel to Mars in just over a month’s time. Not only that, but it will also have the capability to return to Earth and repeat the trip several times without much maintenance at all. This is what we’ve all been waiting for, guys.”
Everyone nodded in excited agreement.
I pointed to John, a seedy looking guy who had scrunched himself into a corner, hoping to not get noticed. “John, I’m going to need your help getting papers on this one.”
“What’ll you need?” he asked in a low monotone.
“License, passport, pentagon employee ID card.”
He nodded and immediately slipped out of the room. Not much for conversation.
I scanned the rest of them and pointed out two more. “Tran, Agnes—you two are on draft selection. It’s up to you to pick the first thousand who’ll be going. This project should be completed by year’s end, and they need to be ready to go.”
“How do you plan on getting one thousand non-government people—including Reproducers—onto that shuttle?” Tran asked.
“Let me worry about that,” I replied.
“Katie and Robert,” I continued, pointing out two more—the two smartest people that I knew. “I want you guys on research. Find out anything you can on this Professor Lauder and his team. I want to know all of his research projects, all of his findings, and find out if there is any way to replicate this shuttle that he’s making.
“The rest of you are on quality control. None of this should get out. And try to make sure that the reporters don’t find out about the project in Nevada. Any word of this reaches them, and it will be nearly impossible for us to overtake this operation.”
I turned to Melanie. “I want you on standby. If I call you and need you to come out to the desert, I need you to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice.”
“Why can’t I go with you now?”
I shook my head. “No, I need to get a feel for what we’re dealing with first. You need to wait.”
She pouted, but I knew she’d listen to me. She always listened to me.
“All right,” I called out. “Everyone’s dismissed.”
Everyone milled around for about another twenty minutes, munching on snacks that Melanie brought, and talking of menial things.
All in all, a very productive AA meeting.
Many people named the year 2033 The End of Children Year. Disney, Pixar, Nintendo, Mattel, and many other children’s companies declared bankruptcy and went out of business. Jordan Williams had turned ten. All the youngest legals were ten. They were preparing to move on to middle school. Barbies were put aside; kiddie movies were no longer entertaining. And there just weren’t enough people interested to keep the businesses alive.
So much money was lost from these companies going under, it nearly launched the country into its second depression. The stock market couldn’t make it back from the blow, and the banks struggled to come back from the large bankruptcies.
The Preservation Act was passed in 2034.
Part I stated that individuals were no longer allowed to declare bankruptcy. Those who did not pay back their debts were sent to prison where they worked ten hour days at various jobs for no pay at all—supposedly their pay was going straight to the banks to make up for not paying their debts.
Part II stated that money could no longer be spent on the welfare program or on Social Security. Those who depended on welfare either ended up on the streets or in prison where they worked ten hour days at various jobs for no pay at all—supposedly their pay was going straight to city to make up for them getting free money from the government before. Those who depended on Social Security ended up living with family members, if they would even take them.
Part III stated that 10% of each individual’s income would be automatically deducted from their paychecks and placed into stocks and bonds. Nobody had a choice, not even the pimply 20-year-old boy making minimum wage at McDonald’s. Those who didn’t have enough money tried to get welfare that didn’t exist. So of course they turned to a life of crime and were sent to prison where they worked ten hour days at various jobs for no pay at all—supposedly their pay was going straight to the stock market to make up for the fact that they couldn’t deduct 10% of their wages to help the stock market.
I could go on, listing the remaining eight parts to the Preservation Act—but that would just be beating a dead horse.
I arrived at the secured site sweaty and grumpy. The nearest airport had been in Las Vegas, 47 miles away from my final destination. I thought I had rented a pretty decent car, except for the fact that the air conditioning went out at around 18 miles. I spent the rest of the drive having 110 degree weather blowing on my face.
“Does the air conditioner work in there?” I barked at the guard, pointing to the facility about 50 yards in front of me.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” he asked, apparently unfazed by my rude tone.
His eyes moved back and forth over my identification cards. His eyes flickered to my face, studying intently. Back to the ID cards. Finally he returned them and nodded his head toward the building.
“Keep those ready,” he said. “Another guard will check them before you go inside.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Another guard?”
“Yeah…you know…in case I’m too stupid to detect a fake ID.”
He chuckled, and I joined with a couple of nervous chuckles. John better have done a damn good job on these IDs or I would be in a lot of hot water.
Guard number one opened the gate, and I drove through, making my way to guard number two.
Number two acted as grumpy as I felt. Obviously the air conditioning wasn’t helping him.
“What exactly is your business here, Mr. Leland?”
“I’m a budget analyst—I work at the Pentagon. I’m here to see how our country’s money is being spent.” Number two glared at me. “I’ve been sent by the President himself to oversee the operations,” I added. “I just need to make sure that everything is running smoothly and on schedule. The President is very interested in things out here and wants to know even the smallest details. I know it’s a pain, but it’s my job. Call my supervisor if you want to.”
A long silence followed. Then, “If he’s so interested in us, why doesn’t he bring his chunky white ass down here and see for himself? What a lazy son of a bitch.”
Whatever. I had never met the President and didn’t care to. I didn’t really feel like talking about him either. I just wanted inside, and this guy was starting to piss me off.
“All right,” he said, handing me my papers. “Go on.”
I grabbed my bag and walked through the door.
Damn it. A third checkpoint.
“Over here, sir.”
The third checkpoint consisted of a metal detector, x-ray machine, and a scanner that checked the validity of official identification cards. I don’t know how the hell John got me those cards, but they worked.
And I was finally on the inside.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Leland.”
Holy mother of God, it was her.
“I’m Jordan Williams.” She offered her hand and a goofy smile. “I’ll be your hostess for the day.”
I had my first real interaction with a legal when I was thirteen. She was fourteen, and I liked to think that she was just like Jordan. Truth was, Emily was a lot more like me. Her family lived on “the wrong side of the tracks,” which was probably why she would hang out with me. Illegals weren’t such an abomination to poorer people. Hell, Emily’s parents would have gone into exile if she had been born eight months later. But she wasn’t, and so they were law-abiding citizens.
Emily found out I was an illegal a week after we started hanging out. She asked me to go bowling with her and her girlfriends. Sometimes I thought that she only liked me because I was an illegal—doing something wrong is always a thrill, especially for girls like Emily.
She soon became bored with me when she realized I was exactly like all the other thirteen-year-old boys. Rowdy, immature, incredibly thickheaded…
One night, we were hanging out at her house when her parents weren’t home (okay, we were making out). A little past 9:00, a knock sounded at the door. She told me to stay where I was, and she went to answer the door.
From my relaxed spot on the couch, I could just make out the sound of a man’s voice. “We received a tip that there is an illegal on the premises. May we look around?”
My training was already evident in me. I was off the couch and hiding behind the entertainment center in two seconds.
“He’s here,” Emily had hissed.
I could tell she was trying to keep her voice down so I couldn’t hear her. Fortunately for me, I had very good hearing.
“He’s keeping me hostage, and he won’t let me go.”
“How old is this illegal, miss?”
“Thirteen. He’s been trying to rape me so that he can impregnate me and make more illegals. I kept trying to tell him that I can’t have kids.”
“Step outside, miss. We’ll handle this.”
I heard the door quietly shut and the soft click of the safety of a gun being turned off.
My first test as a spy. Being an imaginative thirteen year old, I thought it sounded quite exhilarating. I poised my body and narrowed my eyes, focusing, intent on seeing only one thing.
The gun slowly came into view around the corner a moment later. I deftly kicked at it, sending it flying across the living room floor. I didn’t even look for my enemy. I dove for the gun, grabbing it and spinning around in one swift move.
I found myself facing a man who was probably well into his sixties. I almost laughed. This is what I was up against?
“Boy,” he said, his voice full of the sound of cigarettes and lung cancer. “I have two deputies on the front lawn. You really think you’re capable of killing three people tonight?”
“Do you want to find out?” I couldn’t believe how awesome this was!
The old man began talking again. I wasn’t listening anymore. I could see his left hand slowly inch its way toward his jacket pocket. This geezer was actually trying to pull a fast one on me. Just like the movies—keep talking and they’ll be too stupid to know it’s a diversion. He thought I was stupid!
“Mister…move your hand one more centimeter and I will kill you.”
He smiled. His hand flicked, and I shot.
I was very prepared for the recoil. I knew what it was like to shoot. I even knew what it was like to kill something. But, as romantic as the whole thing had seemed five minutes earlier, I felt mortified. The bullet had pierced him in his abdomen, and he started bleeding, way more than the raccoons or pigeons bled when my old man trained me. There was something else too. It’s so easy to watch a wild animal die. There are no facial reactions—just a pair of shiny, beady eyes staring back at you until the breathing dies away. The old man stared at me. I could see too much in his eyes. He knew he was going to die—he hadn’t done everything he wanted to do. He hadn’t told his wife he loved her when he left that night. Would he be going to heaven now? I could see it all in his eyes, and it didn’t leave even when his breathing stopped.
I didn’t have time to dwell. His two deputies barged through the door, their guns drawn. I had no choice. Either me or them. I had to do it. This time, I didn’t look at their faces. I quickly and accurately pulled the trigger twice and ran out of the house.
Emily stood on the front lawn, frozen in terror.
“Eric…what did you do?”
I strode over to her, my gun pointed at her face. “You didn’t leave me much choice, did you?”
Her eyes watched the gun, her arms started shaking. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not.” I grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her. “You think this is all a game. But this is real. You almost ended my life!”
I wasn’t going to shoot her. I just wanted to scare her. It worked. She fell to the ground, her body racked by uncontrollable sobs.
“Their deaths are on your head,” I said, dropping the gun on the ground next to her.
I walked away, refusing to turn around.
I never saw her again, and we moved the next day. But I never forgot her, or what she made me do.
“Here are your quarters,” Jordan said, beaming.
She reminded me of those old reruns of Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right. They always got these ditzy blondes to showcase all these dumb prizes. They’d walk to one side of a refrigerator, wave a delicate hand up and down, and walk to the other side. The only difference was, Jordan looked a hell of a lot more intelligent.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“How long do you think you’ll be staying, Mr. Leland?”
“Call me Jack.”
“I’m only looking to be in your way for about two weeks.”
“Well, I won’t bother you anymore tonight. We’ll have a very busy day tomorrow, so you should get plenty of rest.”
“Thank you, Ms. Williams.”
“Call me Jordan.”
She smiled once more and left my room.
I inspected my quarters, deciding where all of my belongings should go. It was kind of exciting. This place was a lot nicer than anywhere else I had lived. My current apartment, located in a shabby section of Queens, occupied about 250 square feet of space. It was the best place I could get that didn’t do background and credit checks. The manager also took cash on a month-to-month basis, preventing me from having to sign a lease or anything. The place stayed cold and dark all the time since I didn’t pay for electricity or heat. Sometimes, I’d have water, so I could take a cold shower there every now and then. But most of the time I would clean up in a public bathroom at a pub just down the street.
My living space for the next two weeks would be difficult to leave behind. The bathroom looked immaculate…and incredibly bright. A cream-colored wallpaper surrounded me, giving the room a feeling of warmth and coziness.
My room even had a compact kitchen off to one side. The kitchen contained a refrigerator and one of the new Series 800 Microwaves. I had never seen one—but I heard they were amazing. This microwave wouldn’t just heat your food. It cooked all foods the way they were supposed to be cooked: fried, baked, broiled, anything at just the touch of a button. Over 2500 recipes were stored in its memory banks, so all you had to do was type the name of the meal you were having into the keypad, and it would be ready. Most meals would cook in under five minutes. I opened the refrigerator. It contained about twenty small boxes labeled with various meal names. Inside each box would be all the ingredients for the meal. I pulled out a box labeled “Turkey Dinner.” I stuck it in the microwave, typed out the meal name, and my dinner began cooking. My mouth watered just thinking about it.
A soft jingle sounded from my bed. From my luggage. John must have packed a video phone for me. I ran over, opened my suitcase, found the phone, and answered it.
Brad’s face appeared on the screen. “How’s it going so far, buddy?”
“A little too early to report anything yet.”
“Whatever. Tell me, how did she look? Does she seem interested in you?”
“Geez, Brad, I haven’t even been here that long.”
“It only takes women five seconds to decide whether or not they want to sleep with you.”
“With me, or with any guy?”
Brad rolled his eyes. “I don’t know how you’ve ever had a girlfriend.”
The microwave beeped.
“I gotta go, Brad. Dinner’s calling.”
“Hey Eric, maybe you shouldn’t be eating too much food there. Your body’s not used to it. You’ll get fat, and then she definitely won’t want you.”
I hung up on him before he could add any more words of wisdom.
I didn’t care if I got fat. I ate my turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and corn with fervent pleasure.
On March 3, 2037, a Reproducer extremist assassinated the ultra-conservative President William Bentley. Didn’t make much of a difference. It was widely agreed that the vice president at the time should take over the office for another four years. That president passed many anti-Reproducer laws—laws the pusillanimous President Bentley would never have even considered—thus making life even more complicated for illegals.
The Reproducer (a man named Anderson, whose illegal child had been murdered by CIA operatives a year earlier) was found, tortured, and killed. His torture was possible because of the recently approved All Costs Law, which allowed government officials to torture an illegal to obtain information on the whereabouts of other illegals.
Mars is always portrayed as a bleak, red planet. Nothing good can come from there, and nothing good can happen there. What I saw appeared quite (pardon the pun) alien from what I expected.
“The highways are nearly finished. And we are now standing in one of the central cities. Think of it as the heart. The highways lead out, like veins, to various destinations. We have the living quarters lined along the way.”
The video image followed Stanley, a lean man with a slight German accent. Jordan watched the screen with pride. It was all definitely something to be proud of.
The central city, built entirely underground, stretched to seemingly impossible lengths. Its walls were well lit, giving off an almost natural glow. Parking lots lined the edges of the city. Elevators and conveyer belts connected the stores and the lots like a spider web. The stores stacked on top of each other, approximately five high. The result—hundreds of stores packed into the cave-like town without looking claustrophobic.
“Don’t you think people will begin to miss the sun? Trees?” I asked Stanley.
Jordan smiled and nodded to the video image. “Stanley, let’s take a ride.”
Stan took a conveyer belt to a nearby parking lot and jumped into a Toyota Aluvva—one of the models they introduced five years ago. It didn’t use gasoline or electricity for power. It used a special sort of battery (a battery charged by wind and solar energy). This battery, which used its technology to completely eliminate friction, caused the car to glide effortlessly at any speed until the driver applied the brakes. A hundred years ago, people would have called it a hovercraft.
The Aluvva sped down a narrow tunnel. Lights flicked past until the vehicle came to an abrupt stop.
We stared at the screen. A large door lay beyond the car with a sign in front of it that read “221 Milky Way Highway.”
“We named all the streets after systems, galaxies, suns, or planets. Nice touch, huh?”
The image followed Stanley through the doors and over to a freight elevator. Stanley pushed button thirteen.
“Are you thirteen stories underground?” I asked. “I didn’t know it went that deep.”
“No, we were only 7 stories deep. The rest is above ground. The buildings go up fifteen stories total. All of the buildings are vacuum sealed. The windows of each home are over a foot thick. Each apartment also has a balcony, or porch. You could also call them greenhouses. They each have grass, flowers, and small trees. They provide a major part of the oxygen for the planet.”
The elevator stopped, and Stanley stepped into a bright room. It was one of the nicest homes I’d ever seen (not saying much considering I’ve been dirt poor and exiled my whole life). The carpets, a plush white, led from the front door all the way to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Not only did greenery fill the porch beyond a wide pair of French doors, but plants could be found around the whole apartment. The place smelled like a forest—a lot nicer than some of the smells of New York.
“Are you sure anybody will be able to afford to live here?”
“All the above ground suites have been sold,” Jordan replied. “A million and a half dollars each.” She laughed, and I realized my jaw must have dropped to the floor. “The underground units are going for a more reasonable price—between 800 and 900. They’re not as much of a commodity without the windows. But they all still have balconies. The underground balconies face the highways.”
“I guess the majority of us will just have to rot here on earth,” I said.
Jordan frowned. “Mr. Leland, surely you make enough money to afford one of the underground units. And if you’re interested in one of the lofts, our crews are already working on another development.”
Oh shit. I was still acting like a poor bastard from the projects. What the hell was I thinking?
“I guess I’m just frugal with my money,” I said. “But they are very nice homes. I’m not surprised that you’ve sold them that fast.”
Her smile returned.
“If you two will excuse me, I’m going to be getting back to work.”
Stanley signed off from the satellite feed, leaving Jordan and me alone.
“How many homes are available on Mars so far?”
Jordan stood up and walked to the door. “Let’s make our way to the main facility.”
I followed her out of the room and down a long hallway.
“We have sold about three thousand units. We have another two thousand vacancies. The first transport should take place about two weeks from now.”
She nodded. “Our window of opportunity is quickly approaching, and the President wants everything done as fast as possible.”
“Why the rush? Is an asteroid gonna hit the earth or something?”
She gave me a funny look.
“Oh God,” I said. “Really, an asteroid?”
“No, Jack. He wants to shut down production and destroy this facility before anything leaks.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said, trying to process his line of thinking. I paused. “Unless he doesn’t want anyone else on Mars after all the Americans get there.”
Jordan snickered. “All the Americans? They really have kept you in the dark.”
I didn’t say anything.
Jordan stopped walking and grabbed my arm. “What you said about the poor people is right. The majority of this country can barely make ends meet here. The average salary in this country has actually decreased over the past 50 years. Nobody but the rich politicians and successful genius scientists will be able to afford the properties. That’s why we’ve only been ordered to make fifteen thousand homes total. And that’s it. Production shuts down, everything—all the blueprints are destroyed.
“Everyone else will be left here. And forgotten.”
The Class of ‘41, Jordan’s graduating class, probably had the most depressing graduation parties ever. They were, after all, the last class to graduate.
On a more humorous note, there were about 500 kids around the nation that normally would have been held back, not having enough credits to graduate. Of course. that couldn’t happen for the kids in the class of ‘41. How many teachers would stick around for another year just to try to get the stupid ones out the door?
Imagine how humiliating that would have been for those kids. So Billy Joe Bob, you didn’t do good enough in school and you don’t have enough credits to graduate. So, you are going to be the only slob here next year, as there are no younger grades. As if being a five-year high school student wasn’t bad enough.
Someone conceived the brilliant idea of letting them all graduate, no matter how terribly they’d done. Not that it did that much harm, I guess.
“Here is our first shuttle model,” Jordan said, leading me into a room.
For lack of a better word, the room was very large. It was quite indescribable—stretching to infinite heights. It had to in order to fit the monstrous shuttle looming above us.
“It has been named the Freedom Shuttle.”
“How appropriate,” I muttered sarcastically.
I was still trying to digest the information she had given me—hundreds of millions of Americans abandoned, left here on this hellhole of a planet. But of course it made sense. It’s the same reason nobody wanted the last crummy chips at the bottom of the bag. We were all just in the way.
“Maybe I should wait and show you tomorrow,” Jordan said.
“I’m sorry. I want to see it,” I said without much conviction.
“I don’t think you mean that.”
I turned to her and took her hands in mine. “I desperately have to see this spaceship. Don’t make me wait any longer!”
For a moment, I thought she’d be irritated by my flippant remarks. But she laughed as she took her hands away.
“Okay…but don’t ever call it a spaceship again.” She circumnavigated around the shuttle then slapped the side of it with her hand. “So, what’s the first thing you think when you see this?”
Millions of thoughts milled around my brain—but nothing I could put to words. “It’s…shiny.”
I thought that might piss her off again, but she smiled proudly. “That is Professor Lauder’s patented invention. The entire ship is made of an incredibly light-weight, yet very strong, metal alloy.”
Oh good. Some useful information I could give to Katie and Robert for their research. Let’s just hope I could remember all these big words.
“What elements are used in creating this alloy?”
“That’s classified,” Jordan replied, dropping her hand from the metal.
I snorted. “What? Are you afraid I’m going to try to make one of my own?”
“Just standard procedure.” She paused. “But I’m still surprised you haven’t just bought a ticket on one of the flights yourself.”
I shrugged. “So, what’s so special about this patented invention? We sent astronauts to Mars about ten years ago. Why can’t we just use the same design they used?”
“Well, for one, we’re talking about transporting a thousand people, compared to just three with the NASA missions. The light weight means we can add a lot more storage — and bodies— inside the shuttle without using much more fuel.”
“What about storage for food and stuff?”
“We have enough storage to last till we get to the refueling station.”
Jordan led me over to a computer workstation where she pulled up a three-dimensional image of the earth and its surrounding space. She pointed.
“There is the refueling station. It will take about three days to reach. There, the shuttle will be refueled with a special type of nuclear fuel — another patented invention of Professor Lauder’s.”
“Where can I find information on these patents?” I asked casually.
“You can’t—it’s classified.”
Jordan nodded. “Anyway, this fuel will propel the shuttle straight toward Mars’ orbit. We’ll meet with Mars right about here,” she said, pointing to the schematic on the monitor. “This fuel makes the trip from the space station very quick—only five weeks.”
“What are you going to do about food in that time period?”
“No food. The passengers will be unconscious through the entire trip and placed in liquid compartments. This removes the need for food — although they will be injected five times with essential vitamins. The water compartments prevent radiation exposure from spending an extended period of time in outer space. Like I said—all very efficient.”
Jordan began walking out of the warehouse and beckoned me to follow.
“I’m starving…we should get some lunch.”
“So, where are the other shuttles?” I asked as we walked down a wide, window-filled hallway. The windows looked out over the desert. A scorpion tapped impatiently on the windowsill, probably trying to find a way in out of the heat.
“That’s it. Well, at this location at least. There is one more at another classified location and the one that took the miners to Mars. That one is already in transit back to Cape Canaveral. We’ll be the first to leave, the second will leave three days after, and the third one three days after that.”
We took a sharp left and found ourselves in a cafeteria. I piled way too much food on my tray and followed Jordan to a secluded table. I wolfed my food down fervently until I realized Jordan was watching me. Shit, that was me acting like I hadn’t eaten anything in a long time—acting like some poor slob again. I don’t know what was wrong with me—I kept acting like an illegal; I might as well have been holding a sign. I was a professionally trained spy and doing a terrible job at it. It’s almost like I wanted her to discover the truth.
“Glad you’re enjoying the food,” Jordan commented, taking a delicate bite from her chef salad. “Obviously you don’t have one of those microwaves, which every bachelor needs. Only people I see that eat like you are all those single guys that never learned how to cook.”
I gave a nervous laugh. “Yep. That’s me in a nutshell.” Quick, move onto something else so she doesn’t keep thinking about your pathetic eating habits. “So, how can you only have three shuttles? You said you were building fifteen thousand units on Mars. You’d have to make like five trips.”
She shrugged. “Well, since the trips are only about six weeks each, it still won’t take too long.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. She was lying to me. I only knew this because my father had given me quite the astronomy lesson during the first manned mission to Mars back in 2034.
“What about the launch window?” I asked Jordan.
A slow smile spread across her face, and she leaned forward. “Tell me what you know, Mr. Leland.”
“Well, I know that you can’t fly to Mars whenever you want. It would be hopeless to try that trip when Mars is on the other side of the sun from us. You want to leave that space station and enter Mars’ orbit and basically run into Mars. So, your shuttles are taking off in the next launch window, which will allow them to reach Mars in this manner. Once they reach Mars, they have to wait for the next launch window to come back here. Then once they get back, they’ll have to wait for another launch window. Considering that those windows only come once every two years, it could take you like ten years just to get everyone out there.”
“Where did you learn all this?”
“My dad,” I replied, taking a large bite of hamburger. “Why are you so surprised that I know that?”
“Because you’re the first person I’ve met, outside of the space program, who knows about launch windows. Most people don’t even think about stuff like that. They just assume that you can fly to Mars whenever you feel like it, not ever considering the fact that there’s a 190 million mile difference between when Mars is closest and when it’s furthest away from us.
“They didn’t teach any form of astronomy in the last 30 years of the public school system’s life,” she continued. “The first manned mission to Mars wasn’t even televised because nobody cared.”
“Somebody cared,” I said quietly.
She gave me an inquisitive look.
“My dad and I listened to the NASA updates on the radio every afternoon.” I paused. “But we’re getting off track here. You didn’t really answer my question—in fact, I think you just lied to my face right now.”
“You know, when you said it wouldn’t take long because the trips only took six weeks…completely leaving out the part about the launch window.”
She shrugged indignantly. “I just didn’t think it was information that you’d be interested in.”
“Well, sorry for being rude, but you shouldn’t make assumptions about people you don’t know. I happen to be a lot smarter than you think.”
“Well, of course I think you’re smart, I mean, you work at the Pentagon! You’re just smart in a different way than me…which I realize is another assumption,” she added. She frowned. “So, what was your initial question anyway?”
“It’s going to take years for fifteen thousand people to be transported to the planet. I thought the whole subject was hush-hush and in a huge hurry to finish. Why not make more shuttles instead of waiting for the other ones to come back?”
“One,” she started, counting off on her fingers, “it would take just as long if not longer to build three more shuttles. We might as well wait for the other ones to come back since it would be cheaper anyway. Two, the fewer shuttles you build, the harder it is for information to leak out. Three, everyone who knows anything important about these projects is being transported to Mars first. There won’t be anyone left here with any information of significance.”
“This has all been perfectly mapped out, hasn’t it?” I said with an incredulous tone. All this work to make sure that nobody “unwanted” could end up on Mars.
Jordan finished chewing on a lettuce leaf and said, “Let me give you a sort of analogy, Jack. Let’s say the country is facing a terrible famine. No food can be found, and people are dying of starvation. One day, a man and his wife decide that they should take the food they’ve stored in their house and share it with people they meet on the streets. They pack a small bag of breads, meats, canned goods, whatever. They head out of their house and head for the nearest town.
“They soon come in contact with a very large group of people. They know they don’t have enough to share with all of them, but at least they can give ten percent of that crowd some food to eat. They start at the back, handing out a can here, a candy bar there. Then everyone starts to notice this couple handing out food. They can’t wait. They’re hungry and desperate for a bite. They don’t even see this sweet couple. Their eyes are focused on the food. That’s it.
“People start grabbing. Other people start pushing to get closer. The couple’s defense goes up. They back away, pulling their bag of food with them. But nobody wants to let them go. Of course they don’t mean to hurt these poor people, but that’s really the least of their problems right now. They just want to eat. What do you think is going to happen to that couple, the couple that tried to do something generous?”
“You could at least try to give people more credit than that. Because when you decide to be selfish for self-preservation’s sake, then you’re no better than the ‘barbarians’ you think everyone else is.”
Jordan stared at me for a few moments, and I felt my cheeks flush. “You have a child-like naiveté that is very appealing. Did you learn that from your dad too?”
I shook my head. “He was very much the save-your-own-ass-first type of guy. Not because he was a jerk or anything. He just never really saw the good in people. Sometimes that was a strength, but sometimes it wasn’t. I’m kind of opposite, I guess.”
“Where is your father now?”
I bored holes into my food, desperately wanting to change the subject again. “Dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Jordan said.
“Yeah, well…” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The rest of our lunch was quiet. Jordan must have guessed that I wasn’t in the mood for any more touring, because she took me back to my room once lunch was over.
“This seems like a good ending point for today,” she said as I opened my door. “When you’re ready tomorrow, just come to my office. I’ll take you to see our accountant, and we can all go over the quarterly budget reports.”
I gave an indifferent nod and went inside.
My mother died just before my fifteenth birthday. She and a handful of illegals had been caught buying groceries at a local market. My dad had always told her that she shouldn’t shop there, but she insisted that the store owner could be trusted. The store owner, Fred, had indeed seemed like a very friendly man. He confided in my mother that he didn’t agree with the government’s tactics at all. Making childbirth illegal was just against God’s will. This of course all went out the window when Fred realized how much reward money he could get for handing over five illegals.
The old movies always show how terribly widows and widowers handle their spouses’ deaths. But my dad seemed to handle things pretty well. Our lessons stopped for about two weeks, then started up again just like normal. After our lessons, my dad would take me out—we’d sneak into bowling alleys or ball games. My mom’s death actually seemed to bring us closer together.
One night, I had found him crying in his room. I was disappointed in him. He had finally lost it (I was one of those teenagers who firmly believed that men don’t cry about anything).
He had seen me peering at him through the door and motioned for me to come inside. I sat next to him, and he said to me, “I miss your mom every day. That’s okay. You can miss her too.” He didn’t say anything for a few minutes. “But I’m still very glad to be alive and to be with you.”
That was all I needed to hear. He wasn’t losing his sanity, or his manhood.
I figured my dad would die at a younger age. In my head, he always died in a blaze of glory, saving many illegals and taking down a bunch of government bastards with him. Sometimes, I still think he died that way.
But in reality, it was cancer. He had known for several years that he had it but had done nothing. What could he have done? One visit to the doctors and he would be in police custody. So, he suffered in silence, until he could no longer do so. A couple of Reproducers who had gone to med school stayed with us for a while. They had drugs and knew how to ease his pain. But they could only delay the inevitable.
In the final days, my dad wouldn’t let me see him. He said he wanted my last image of him to be of someone strong and courageous, which is how I will always picture him.
He died when I was eighteen.
Frantic knocking interrupted my slumber. I blinked a couple of times, trying to get my eyes to come into focus.
Where was I?
Oh…right…the desert. Now I remember.
I trudged out of my cozy bed and headed for the door. The frenzied knocking continued until I opened the door.
Jordan, wide-eyed and shaking, pushed her way inside and shut the door behind her.
“Professor Lauder is dead.” She sat down, looking up at me, waiting for a response.
“Recently?” I asked, unsure of what kind of reaction she wanted.
“How’d he die?”
Her face crumpled, and she buried it in her hands. “He was shot in the head. The police are investigating,” she added with a bitter note.
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”
She shot me a scathing look. “They’re not investigating anything. They did it!”
“The cops?” I felt like I was missing something.
“Yeah, with orders from the commissioner or something!”
I shook my head. “Why would they order a hit on the guy who’s building shuttles for them and taking them to a better world?”
“On Tuesday, he told the Vice President that he wouldn’t be going to Mars.”
Her shoulders shook as she started sobbing uncontrollably. I led her over to my bed and lowered her, patting her arm for reassurance. I know it was lame, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Then I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle out of the refrigerator. Ah, good old fashioned whiskey…or at least that’s what my dad always said. I grabbed two glasses, poured the liquor, and carried the drinks back to my bed.
“Why wouldn’t he go to Mars?” I asked.
Jordan took a healthy swig (definitely not a first-time drinker) and shot me a sour look. “Professor Lauder knew his destiny was not to fly off to Mars. How could the creator leave everyone behind? He wanted to build many more shuttles. He told me that the Secretary of Defense had told him that he would not be able to share what he learned or build anymore. And… he told Lauder that as soon as the mission was completed, all the shuttles, his beautiful inventions, would be destroyed. Lauder told me that he would not let that happen. He confided in me just last week! He said that he would give a copy of the blueprints to some underground scientists here in the states, and he would give a copy to the Russians.”
“Who else did he tell this to?”
“Nobody. I don’t know how they found out.” She turned pleading eyes to me. “You have to help me, Jack.”
My heart leapt up to my throat then dropped down into my stomach. Jordan wanted my help! Could I still be in love with her? Why did she want my help? Maybe I could get those blueprints off of her.
Thoughts swirled through my head. But a guy’s brain can only take so much. I couldn’t settle on one thought, so I just sat there, staring, my mouth hanging slightly open. Say something!
“How…how can I help you?” I asked.
“I know you’re a Reproducer.”
Okay, I wasn’t expecting that. Again, my brain froze. Deny? No, that would sound stupid. Admit? No, that would sound even more stupid. Well, what other choices were there?
“What makes you think so?” Oh, that didn’t sound stupid at all!
“The way you talked—it made me suspicious. So, I did a bit of investigating on Mr. Jack Leland. Your people covered almost all the bases. Almost,” she added, pointing her finger at me. “We checked at the Pentagon. Mr. Leland was on a business trip. We checked your prints and photo ID, and they all matched up. But, then I discovered that Jack had worked as a janitor in the Michigan State Penitentiary while he was in college. I found his photo ID and prints from that job…they came up different.”
Shit. I couldn’t think of anything else to do—my back was against the wall. A non-Reproducer hadn’t caught me since those cops I killed when I was thirteen. I never wanted to kill again, so I made sure to be extra careful. I knew I had gotten sloppy on this one. Now Jordan knew. What was I planning to do? Kill her? No, out of the question.
“Don’t worry,” Jordan said, standing up from the couch. “I’m the only one who knows.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Are you going to tell me your real name, Mr. Leland?”
I couldn’t see that it would do any more harm at this point. “Eric.”
“Well…Eric…I can tell that you are feeling rather exposed at this moment. You look like a cop just caught you pissing on the Statue of Liberty.”
I forced out a nervous chuckle. “Okay. So, what are you going to do?”
“I told you: don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything to you. Your secret’s safe with me,” she added in a whisper.
Why? Why would she keep something like this a secret?
“I have a secret to share with you,” she said, sitting back down and taking my hands in hers. “I have never told anyone else in my entire life.”
“Eric, I’m a Reproducer too.”
Little Jordan Williams had sat in the waiting room of the hospital, waiting for the doctor to see her. It was her twelfth birthday. Coincidentally, it was her first week of being a woman—her only week, because now they were going to take that away from her.
“Miss Williams, Dr. Hart will see you now.”
Jordan followed the nurse down the hallway. She stared at her shoes—shoes with heels. They made her feel so grown up. Almost like her mom. God, she wished she could be a mom. It seemed like such a cool thing. After today, there would be no way.
“Jordan, it is so nice to see you.” Dr. Hart gripped both of her hands in his. They were soft and warm, as was his smile.
Jordan’s family attended the same church as Dr. Hart. He seemed like a nice enough man. But he always looked tired and sad. He must have had a very stressful life. Jordan was shocked when she learned that he was in his early forties. He looked at least sixty—maybe even more. She wondered if anybody else worried about that too.
He gestured to the seat across from his desk. “How are you feeling today, Jordan? Are you ready for the surgery?”
Jordan didn’t answer right away.
“I don’t know. Please don’t tell anyone I told you this…but I’m kind of sad. I was thinking what it would be like to be a mom. I’ve wished that I could find out.”
The doctor’s face fell. “Well, Jordan, there is nothing wrong with these feelings you’re having. It’s all part of becoming a woman—your body is going through so many hormonal changes, and your feelings reflect that.”
“What do I do about it? I don’t want to get into trouble.”
Dr. Hart gave her a reassuring smile. “It is very likely that you won’t have those feelings after the operation. Once we remove your uterus, your body will experience a whole new type of hormonal changes. If it makes you feel any better, a large majority of women have no desires to have children after the operation.”
“Oh.” Jordan looked down at her hands, desperately trying to hide her disappointment at this. “That’s good.” It seemed so shocking to her that the removal of one tiny thing from her body could alter the huge emotions she had.
And it angered her. It suddenly became obvious to Jordan that the government had complete control over her body and her thoughts. It just didn’t seem fair.
“Huh?” Her head popped up, and she looked at the doctor, attempting to gulp the inevitable tears back.
“I’m sorry that this is so difficult for you. Would you like a few minutes alone before we see the anesthesiologist?”
His eyes were full of concern. But it wasn’t his fault. Jordan didn’t want him to have to carry her emotional burden.
“No…I am fine. I…I’ve just never had a surgery before. I’m nervous about that.” She paused. “That’s all I’m worried about.”
Dr. Hart slowly nodded. Jordan didn’t know if she had convinced him, and she forgot all about the conversation until the next evening.
The phone rang during suppertime, an interruption that her father was never happy about.
“Williams Residence.” His look quickly changed from irritation to disbelief. “My God, are you sure that’s what happened?”
Jordan and her mother stopped eating, waiting for Mr. Williams to return and share whatever news he had just heard.
After five minutes, Mr. Williams returned to the table and looked from his daughter to his wife. “There was an accident at the hospital late last night. One of the day shift nurses went into Dr. Hart’s office this morning. Hart’s dead.” Mrs. Williams gasped. “It appears as though he hanged himself…but I guess they’re treating it as a homicide until they have all the evidence and the autopsy report.”
“The poor man,” Jordan’s mom said, tears springing to her eyes. “Why would he want to take his own life?”
Then Jordan thought of her conversation with Dr. Hart before she went in for surgery. He looked very sad after their talk. Surely that had nothing to do with his death though.
Jordan forced any thoughts of Dr. Hart out of her head until about three months later when she had her first period. Dr. Hart had not removed her uterus.
Jordan told no one; not her parents; not her best friend.
The only person who knew besides her had taken that secret to the grave. And Jordan knew—she somehow had this inner feeling—that Dr. Hart’s work, his full-time job of ripping future life out of prepubescent girls, had finally caught up with him. This was not what he imagined when he slaved his way through med-school. Jordan could almost see everything as he saw it: a young, beautiful, innocent girl who just wants the chance at being a mommy. And he physically could not do it. Not only could he not perform the surgery, he just couldn’t live with the thought of all the other girls who would never have their chances because of him. It had to end.
“Wow,” I said.
I had no idea how to respond. Sitting right next to me was Jordan Williams, the poster child for the Reproduction Law, the Baby of America.
And a Reproducer.
It was unfathomable.
“I’m really the first person you’ve told?”
She nodded. “I’ve always known that someday it would come out. Ever since I was twelve, I knew that I wanted to marry a Reproducer and have a family. The moment that happens, I will be an outcast. That’s why I’ve been working so hard on the Mars mission. It’s the only way.” She gave a mirthless laugh. “Could you imagine the Baby of America having a baby of her own?”
I chuckled too. But I could see it. I could suddenly see myself on Mars with her, raising our son. Catch in the backyard…er…back greenhouse room; pleasant strolls to the underground office; Tuesday night poker with the guys. We could lead a halfway normal life together. No way it could happen, but a nice thought nonetheless.
She gazed at me, her eyes twinkling. “So, I know your secret, and now you know mine. Tell me why you came here.”
“We wanted to know more about the mission.”
“Who told you about the mission?”
“Personal source. Why are you giving me the third degree?”
Jordan sat back and sighed. “I’m sorry, Eric. I have to protect the mission. That’s my top priority. I don’t want to give away your secret, but I do need to know your intentions.”
I thought about that. “Fair enough. Our intention was never to sabotage the mission…just change it a little.”
“Change it how?”
Here goes nothing. “I want every illegal and Reproducer on one of those flights. It’s the only way we can survive.”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. She bit her nails, then chewed on her lip, twirled her hair around her fingers.
Finally she sat forward. A slight smile played at the corner of her lips. “It seems awfully risky. I don’t know if we could pull it off.”
A thrill of excitement coursed through my body. It was almost an involuntary reaction to the word “risky.” I just loved that word. I grabbed her hands in mine. “I’m pretty good at making things happen against the odds. Hell, I was born against the odds! It’s in my blood!”
Her smile broadened, but I could feel her hands shake beneath mine. “But we’ve already sold all the units on Mars.”
“Well, that won’t really be a problem if we take over the flights. All the owners will be stuck down here, and there won’t be a damn thing they can do about it!”
She took in a deep shaky breath. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
In the year 2051, just two short years ago, our AA group did an underground nationwide census of Reproducers and illegals. Melanie headed the project. We sent 10 representatives to examine five-state clusters. The undertaking required five months of data acquisition, and six more months to successfully tabulate the results.
• 1183 illegal children had been born after Jordan Williams.
• 894 of those children were still alive for the census and became known as the illegals.
• 3412 legal citizens had refused the operations and had gone into exile.
• 1927 of those citizens were still alive for the census and became known as the Reproducers.
• 1890 illegal and Reproducer women were counted; 931 men were counted. We total 2821, and we are all known as the Reproducers.
• 64% of the Reproducers live in the north-eastern area (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, etc.); 30% of them live in California. The remainder are scattered throughout the country.
• 43% of the already deceased illegals died of SIDS, pneumonia, leukemia, and other illnesses or natural causes. The remainder died at the hands of law enforcement or government agencies.
• Only 12% of the already deceased Reproducers died of illness or natural causes. The remaining 88% (about 1306 of them) were killed by law enforcement or government officials.
• Ironically, one of the Reproducer casualties bled to death when she attempted an illegal abortion on herself.
• We have estimated that approximately 42 illegals have been born and 73 Reproducers have died since the census was taken.
TO: All Reproducers
DATE: May 3, 2053
RE: Operation Red Planet Takeover
Final Official Meeting of the Reproducers will be held two miles outside Las Vegas inside the old Toys-R-Us building. The meeting will take place on the 6th day of May, 2053 at 11:00 pm. It is urgent that representatives from each state attend so that they may share the information with others. See below for the meeting agenda.
MAY 6, 2053 REPRODUCERS MEETING 11:00 PM
• Introduction and Update (Melanie): Unknown to the majority of the population, three space shuttles will be leaving earth, destined for Mars, in the very near future. With the help of Jordan Williams, and other key individuals within NASA, seats will be reserved for every Reproducer. The powers-that-be do not know this, therefore, we must stress what a dangerous mission this will be.
• Background Information (Robert and Kate): We had the wonderful opportunity to meet Professor Lauder before his untimely death. Long story short—he was privy to who we really are, and he was very understanding. He provided us with many helpful contacts, as he was very enthusiastic about getting us onto these flights. Without his assistance, and without Jordan Williams, this would be an impossible task.
• Las Vegas Flight (Tran): The Las Vegas shuttle is scheduled to launch at 1:00 pm on May 10th. On the worksheet being handed out, please find your home state under one of the three flights. If your state is listed under the Las Vegas flight, you will need to be at the launch site no later than 6:00 am. We will be departing at 9:00 am, and we will not wait for stragglers. Please see me with additional questions about your flight.
• Houston Flight (Agnes) and Cape Canaveral Flight (Jorge): The Houston shuttle is scheduled to launch at 1:00 pm on May 13th, and the Cape Canaveral shuttle is scheduled to launch at 1:00 pm on May 16th. Because of the media frenzy, heightened security, and outrage of the government that will surely happen after the first flight (when our secret is revealed), these two flights will be much more dangerous. If your state is listed under one of these flights, you will be having an extra meeting on May 9th in the city of the flight. We will be going over the specific schedule. NASA security personnel (who are now working for us) will also be at the meeting to go over plans and procedures.
• Travel and Accommodations (Susan): Please see me for assistance in getting to your flight city. I will be providing cars, bus passes, and train tickets to all those who need it. I will also assist you in reserving hotels and will provide meal vouchers as well.
• Quality Control (Brad): So far, our secret seems to be staying a secret. I have already created a task force to ensure that all three of these flights take place with all of you on them. We will be working around the clock. See me with any questions or concerns.
• Summary and Closing (Eric)…
I stood at the front of the abandoned Toys-R-Us building and looked out at the many expectant faces. So much excitement fluttered around the room, I almost couldn’t stand it.
“This is an exciting day for all of us,” I started. “A day that many of us have been waiting for all our lives.”
Many returned my comment with a cheer.
“I just wanted to say…” I stopped and looked down at my meeting agenda. For Gods sakes I was going to cry right here, in front of a hundred other people. “I am so proud to be one of you. If we actually pull this off, I think we’re the smartest damn people alive.”
“I want to wish you all the best of luck. I hope that you reach your cities safely, and then I hope you reach Mars safely.”
“I will be here…on Earth…waiting to hear news of your safe arrivals.”
I could hear Jordan and Melanie gasp behind me.
“You’re not going?!” Melanie blurted out.
I turned around and looked at the two of them. I no longer felt the need to cry as I watched Jordan’s lower lip quiver and Melanie’s eyes fill with tears. I knew I had to do it. I turned to face the crowd again.
“I will be staying here to help Brad with the quality control. Robert and Kate will also be staying with me. We will be working to build more shuttles, and we will be recruiting workers to send to the moon, which we are hoping can be inhabited by people as well.
“I want to thank you all for coming. And good luck!”
I crumpled my agenda in my fist and clung to it as I stepped away from the podium. The volume in the building increased dramatically as everyone shuffled around, talking of their plans, of the future, of Mars.
Jordan walked over and put her arms around my shoulders. “You don’t have to stay.”
“Yeah, I do. I started this. I can’t just leave everyone behind.”
“What people are you leaving behind? Every Reproducer will be on Mars, which is where you should be.”
I shook my head. “Just because a person isn’t a Reproducer doesn’t mean they’re not worth anything. There are other good people out there, and why should we just leave them here? Plus, don’t you think that’s what Professor Lauder would have wanted—to give everyone a chance?”
“I always knew that you didn’t work at the Pentagon, or for the government. You’re just too nice…Mr. Leland,” she added with a smile. “I want to stay with you.”
“Why?” she demanded.
I wrapped my arms around her waist. “I was hoping that you’d go to Mars and pick out a nice apartment for us. Maybe a two bedroom, and we could start a family…” I drifted off. “I swear to you, I will come to Mars and be with you.”
I kissed her then. I had imagined the kiss since I was seven, and it turned out better than I imagined. We then spent the night together, and every night after until May 10th.
May 10th, 2053, Washington DC
At 8:55 in the morning, I stood in the oval office of the White House—clearance papers and fake ID in my briefcase (John had done wonderful work again), and security guards on either side of me. Jack Leland, representative from the Pentagon, would be giving the President an update on the three launches that were to take place in the near future.
“Mr. Leland, it’s a pleasure,” President Weatherford said as he came into the room, offering his hand.
I shook it and said, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” Hopefully he wouldn’t see through my lies as easily as Jordan had.
Not that it mattered much.
“So, we have our first flight scheduled to launch in about four hours,” the President said, seating himself in an oversized leather chair behind an ostentatious desk. “Can I get an update and specifics on that flight?”
I nodded and seated myself across from him. “Everything is running smoothly, Mr. President,” I said, pulling documents out of my briefcase. “So smoothly, in fact, that we have moved up the launch time to 0900 hours…in about 1 minute to be exact,” I added, glancing at my watch.
Weatherford looked from the documents, to the security guards, to me. “This is a joke, right?”
“Why wasn’t I told about this sooner? And who authorized this…schedule change?”
“I did, sir. I was under the impression you had received a memo regarding this matter and the reasoning behind it.”
“I received no such memo.”
I tried not to laugh at the look of confusion spreading across his face. I felt as though I had just pulled the ultimate prank.
Weatherford pressed an intercom button and leaned over the speaker. “Gloria, I’ve been told that there has been a schedule change in the launch time. Could you please have someone investigate this matter and report to me immediately?”
Weatherford folded his hands in front of his face and turned his attention back to me.
“I’m terribly sorry about the confusion, Mr. President. The memo also discussed changes on the passenger manifest for each flight.”
“Changes in passengers?”
This was so great.
“Yes, sir, here are the revised flight manifests.” I handed him more documents with the names of all the passengers. And, to top it all off—”Many of the passengers have been replaced with Reproducers and illegals.”
Weatherford chuckled as he looked down the lists. His chuckling increased to guffaws and then to hearty laughter that shook his whole body. “Reproducers and illegals on every flight to Mars?”
I nodded, which seemed to increase his laughter.
“Mr. Leland, that’s the best damn joke I’ve heard in a long time.”
I smiled. “I’m glad you find it so funny, sir.”
The doors to the office burst open, and a White House employee hurried across the room.
“Mr. President. We’ve just received news from Las Vegas that the shuttle has been…uh…hijacked,” he said in a shaky voice.
Weatherford looked at me, his face three shades lighter.
The phone rang. Weatherford, looking as though he had no energy left, lifted the receiver to his ear. I couldn’t make out specific words but could hear the caller’s frantic shouts.
“Who are you?” Weatherford whispered, returning the phone to its cradle.
“My name is Eric,” I replied. “I’m an illegal, and I am the one responsible for all of this. I have made sure that all of my friends are on these flights so that we may have what the rest of the population has always taken for granted—freedom.”
“How noble.” The repulsion in his voice was palpable. His eyes flicked to the guards standing on either side of me.
“Don’t look to them for help,” I said. “They will not harm me or detain me. I would have thought an altruistic leader, such as yourself, would have ensured homes on Mars for all your employees. But I guess lowly security personnel don’t count. Fortunately, I am far more generous and offered them lives that you refused them.
“And now you see how easily loyalties change. You may be leader of this country. But I have the power right now.”
“You’ll never get away with this.”
“I already have.”
I waited. There was so much more he needed to know, but I allowed him time to digest the information
“I can stop the next two flights from ever happening,” he said hopefully.
“You could try. I doubt you would have much success.”
Weatherford smiled. “Could you stop me from quarantining the flight cities, and completely shutting down and evacuating the NASA facilities?”
I shrugged. It seemed to anger him that this didn’t make me nervous. “You could make things challenging, but I think you’re underestimating what we can accomplish…I mean, I was born against the president’s orders. I know how to beat the odds.” I paused. “Plus, I don’t think it would be very beneficial for you to try to hinder us.”
Weatherford gave a sarcastic chuckle. “Why…are you going to prevent me from getting on that shuttle if I try to stop you? Mr. Leland…or whatever the hell your name is…you may think you’re powerful, but I somehow doubt you can keep me from that flight.”
“Mr. President, you won’t be on either of the flights, whether you cooperate or not. Your cooperation will guarantee your ticket on the next flights that we are planning. So, you better decide now if you want to help us or not.”
His eyes narrowed as he sized me up.
I stood up. “I think you should take some time. I will give you 24 hours to decide. You can take that time to weigh all your options. I think you will also learn in that time how powerless you are in this situation.
“If you agree, rest assured there will be many more flights. We are not only working building new shuttles with Professor Lauder’s blueprints, we are also in the planning stages of inhabiting the moon. Soon there will be plenty of room for everyone. And I am sure that you would be very happy with the way things will turn out for you.
“Give it some time, and I will see you tomorrow.” I didn’t bother extending my hand. I turned and left, the security guards flanking me as I exited.
On the front lawn of the White House I turned my gaze to the sky. I could almost imagine that I was watching the shuttle flying through space…toward a new future…toward home. “Jordan,” I whispered, “I hope that one day I see you again.”
Jordan looked down on Earth from the space station, the shuttle refueling for the long flight to come. Her hand slowly went to her stomach. She looked down at her stomach and smiled. “Eric,” she whispered, closing her eyes, “I hope that one day I will see you again.”
About Becky Bolinger
Becky Bolinger has her Ph.D. degree in climatology and is a climatologist at the CSU Department of Atmospheric Science in Fort Collins, CO. While loving weather of all kinds, and being fascinated with natural disasters, she has always had a love of horror novels. She grew up on the writings of Christopher Pike, Dean Koontz and Stephen King and wanted to follow in their footsteps by writing her own young adult horror novel. Ghost Town is her first published novel, and she had two stories in Dead Key Publishing’s first anthology.
Becky lives in Loveland, CO, with her husband and fellow horror fan, Justin, and their daughter Madelyn.
By Charmayne Hafen
My legs are sticking to the seat again. I squeeze my eyes shut and peel my thighs off the black vinyl. They make a sucking sound and I think of the algae eater on the side of our fish tank at home. I see its large, fleshy mouth cover a round portion of the glass. It moves along from one side to the other, cleaning and polishing its distorted picture window.
Michael stares out the windshield, miles away from here, miles away from me. His mouth is clamped shut, locked against anything conversational or intimate. The algae eater is more intimate. Does the world look as perverse to him as it does to me? How can the sun burst through thick white clouds and color the day with a brilliance that drips and oozes over every tree, car and building we pass? This time is dark, dreary and foreboding. We’re on a weekend trip to save our marriage. The sky should be in silent mourning, holding back its cool breeze, waiting for the end to come.
I release the pent up air in my lungs and glance sideways. Michael has a piece of Juicy Fruit between his teeth. His mouth moves up and down as he chews. The movement is comforting. It looks similar to the motion a mouth makes while talking. Perhaps he will speak to me and feed me a few morsels of his soul. My soul continues to starve.
My stomach rumbles and tells me the Cheerios I fed it two hours ago have dissolved and made their journey through my blood stream. “Let’s get something to eat,” I suggest, suddenly buoyant with the sound of my own voice. Silence can become so thick and heavy. Michael continues to stare at the highway ahead. I follow the direction of his eyes and squint to see if there’s something out there I’m missing. Sun, trees, shiny, expensive cars, a hint of smog against the blue sky—a typical weekend day in Southern California.
The question comes unexpectedly. My dazed gaze slams against it. My eyes refocus on Michael. “Where what?”
Deep furrows stack up across his forehead. “You said you wanted to get something to eat. Where do you want to go?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.” I can tell without looking that Michael is rolling his eyes. Michael doesn’t know our marriage is coming to an end. He doesn’t realize how important this trip is. His annoying little wife is going to leave him if something doesn’t change. “Sushi.”
The furrows dig deeper into Michael’s forehead. “Sushi what?”
“I want sushi for lunch.”
“Oh yes. Of course you would want sushi; especially since I hate it. Why do you always do this?”
“Do what?!” Now my forehead wrinkles.
“Now comes the puzzled look. That’s all part of it, isn’t it?”
“A part of what, Michael?” I’m enunciating each word.
“This game you play. You announce you’re hungry. I ask where you would like to go and you pick something that you know damn well I hate.”
I prop my bared foot up on the dashboard and wiggle back in my seat. I’ve assumed the battle position and I’m going in for the kill. “No,” I shake my head. “I don’t know damn well because you don’t talk to me. You don’t tell me anything; not even what you like to eat for lunch.”
“No. I’m not participating in this discussion.” Michael’s knuckles turn white as he grips the steering wheel. “I already know the outcome and I refuse to make excuses for who I am, Sam. You knew I wasn’t much of a talker before you married me.”
My eyes are rolling. I wiggle my head back and forth. “That’s such a lie. You did talk to me when we were dating. The first year we were married you told me what you were thinking and how you were feeling.”
“It’s easy to talk when life is sweet.”
Michael continues to stare straight ahead. I wish he would look at me. “What are you saying, Michael?” I almost hope he’ll ignore my question. He does sort of.
“You see that man on the side of the highway?”
I turn my head and look out the window in the direction Michael is pointing. A guy who looks like he could be Michael’s age from what I can see as we pass him carries a large orange trash bag. He walks and stoops down, picking up pieces of trash that lay scattered along the highway. I shrug. “What about him?”
“I’m just like him.”
Now I’m wondering why I ever wanted him to speak. He’s not making sense and I’m starting to feel depressed. I let out another sigh. “The air is stale in here,” I reason while rolling down my window.
Michael slams the air conditioner switch off. There’s another mark against my name today. First sushi, now rolling the window down while the air is on. “You’re not like that man at all.” I’m hoping to divert his attention from my most recent offense. “That man is doing community service for some crime he’s committed. He’s probably on his way to jail.”
“I’m already there.”
The side of Michael’s face is a blank. I can’t read him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I prop both feet on the dash, hoping to appear unshaken. I feel a quiver start at the center of my stomach and ripple against my ribs. I really need to eat.
“My life is a prison, Samantha. I may not have committed any crime but I’m still in jail just the same. “
He pauses. Nothing more is said. That’s it?! That’s all he’s going to say?!
“You see why I don’t talk, Sam.” This time he looks at me with a smug little grin scribbled on his face. I wish the algae eater were here to suck it off.
“Forget lunch,” I say, turning my head toward the window. “I’m not hungry.”
The world looks so small from the fifteenth floor of this Holiday Inn. That’s where I am right now, on the balcony of our hotel room. This must be how the world looks to God. We’re a bunch of ants fighting over the crumbs of life. Maybe if I threw all my problems off this balcony, they would become small like the people and cars below me. Maybe they would just disintegrate from the force of the fall.
Michael is in the shower. He’s trying to cool off. Things got pretty heated after we passed the man with the orange trash bag. The car ran out of gas.
That was my fault, of course. At least in Michael’s eyes. I think he sees me one way all the time—screwed up. I was supposed to get gas yesterday. I didn’t. Lisa called and I got distracted from my errands. Michael could care less that Lisa was in a crisis. All he knows is that we have now missed our cruise to Catalina Island.
I still say it’s partly his fault. He didn’t check the gas gauge when we got in the car this morning. I know he was tired and grumpy. I know we were running late and that I should have gotten out of bed sooner. Still, I wasn’t the one who kept him from checking.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve decided I’m going to leave Michael. I don’t really have any other choice. If I don’t leave, I’ll go crazy. Life is just hell when we’re together. He works at the bank all day. I talk for eight hours to cranky people who won’t pay their bills. We come home, eat dinner and stare at the TV until it’s time to go to bed. Then we get up and do it all over again. Nothing is fun anymore. See what I mean…hell.
We used to like each other. We even loved each other, I suppose. It’s hard to believe with the way things are now. We’ve joined the rest of the world and we’re fighting each other for the crumbs.
Michael used to write “I want you” on the bathroom mirror with toothpaste. We took some long showers then. Some mornings he would sit straight up in bed and grab my arm. “You!” he would say. “It’s really you. I thought you were just a dream!” I would laugh and smile at how good those words felt.
I can see the ocean from where I’m standing. It’s so grand. So is the sunset. It makes me sick to think of how this beauty is being wasted. How can I watch the sky burst into flames and feel cool, ocean air on my skin when my marriage is ending? I won’t look at the ocean. I’ll just watch cars and people.
My eyes follow a stream of cars into a large parking lot. To the right of the parking lot, the red and yellow neon lights of a Tilt-O-Whirl blink on. Then I notice the flashing white lights of a roller coaster and the bright green and purple sign for the Zipper. A carnival! I don’t think about what I’m doing. I grab my purse just as Michael shuts the water off. “I’m going to a carnival,” I yell at the bathroom door.
“What!? What carnival?”
I don’t answer. I slam the hotel door shut and keep walking down the carpeted hallway. I smile. It feels good to leave him hanging. He deserves it after saying that nonsense about being in jail and then clamming up for the rest of the trip.
I’m breathing heavily, partly because I’m walking so fast and partly because I feel so free, like I’ve just been let out of a dark, musty closet. Maybe Michael and I are both in prison.
The air is cool and salty. My skin tingles and I walk a little faster. I’m smiling at everyone I pass. I’m still a few blocks from the carnival and I can already smell the salty-sweet mixture of hot dogs and cotton candy. My stomach cramps and growls. We never did eat lunch today.
There are people everywhere—little kids with sticky, cotton candy mouths and wild eyes, parents clutching balloons and stuffed animals, couples with hands locked together or arms around shoulders and waists.
I stop at a hot dog stand and take my place in line. I watch plump, juicy links rotate slowly on a wheel at the left side of the metallic counter. Ten people wait in front of me. I feel impatient so I look around, trying to take my mind off my hunger. My eye catches a glimpse of a giant Ferris wheel off to my right. Bright red, blue and yellow lights wink on and off, outlining the spokes of the wheel. I step out of the line and walk toward it. The hot dog can wait. I love Ferris wheels. They’ve always been my favorite ride at carnivals. When I’m at the very top, I feel like I’m flying.
There’s another line for the Ferris wheel. It’s not as long as the hot dog line. Dinner time is the perfect time to catch a ride. I’ll be on as soon as this ride is over.
“Can I ride with you?”
Michael is standing beside me. His hair is still wet from the shower and his face is flushed. He must have run all the way from the hotel. His light blue eyes seem even more pale against his red skin. I smell the spicy musk of his aftershave. Surprisingly, every inch of me is glad he’s here. “Yeah, I think that would work.”
We don’t look at each other. It’s like we just met and we’re both feeling shy and awkward. It’s kind of exciting. Out of the corner of my eye I see him looking at his hands or his shoes—anywhere but at me. I feel a chuckle rising in my throat. “So what made you come? I didn’t think you liked carnivals anymore.”
Michael clears his throat. “Well…I don’t but I couldn’t see any point in sitting alone in that stuffy hotel room all night. I mean, we drove all this way. It would be stupid and a waste of time.”
Why can’t he say he wanted to be with me? Why does it have to be about wasting time or not wasting time?
The Ferris wheel stops. We climb in a bright blue carriage with a little umbrella overhead. I slide to the middle of the seat and wish I could slide over a little further. I don’t want to be next to him but I don’t want to look like a child. Michael slides in next to me and rests his hands on his lap. At least he isn’t putting his arm around me. Somehow, this makes me even more angry. Don’t forget, Sam, I think, he’s only here so he can avoid wasting time. The carriage lurches forward and we’re off the ground.
The cool, evening breeze is stronger and colder above the ground. I try to focus on the bright lights of the carnival below, on the moonlight bobbing in ripples on the waves of the ocean. I can’t distract my mind from the fact that I’m freezing. Goose bumps give texture to my arms and legs. I should have put something warmer on before I left. These shorts and tank top aren’t made for an evening out by the ocean. Michael notices my bumps and asks if I’m cold. No, your presence just thrills me so. Another unspoken thought. “Maybe a little. I’m all right, though.” Michael’s tan arm slides across my shoulders. I’m tempted to wiggle a little closer. The warmth of his body feels uncomfortably good but my anger still feels too right to let go of just yet.
“I’m not in prison because of you, Sam.”
This catches me off guard. I lose focus of my anger. “You’re not? I thought that’s what you meant, that our marriage is like a prison.”
“No. It’s just life. There’s so much pressure.”
Our carriage is moving backwards and descending to the ground. The pull of gravity along with Michael’s words makes me heady. My anger evaporates with the sea spray. I see myself tossing a few problems off the balcony at the hotel. I remain silent, almost holding my breath. Maybe he’ll keep talking. He does.
“I don’t like who I am anymore, Sam. All I do is work and complain about how awful everything is. And I hate what’s happening to us. All we do is fight.” I slide closer to him and press against his side. His hand squeezes my shoulder.
“I swore things would never be this way when we first got married. I made a promise to myself that I would not live a mediocre life like my family and friends.”
“We’re just living like a couple of algae eaters,” I say.
Michael smiles. I’m wishing I had my camera so I could take a picture of his face. His smile is so beautiful and so rare anymore. “What do you mean by that?”
“We’re viewing life through one window, and it’s distorted.”
He nods his head. “So how do we change the view?”
We’re at the top of the wheel again. “By what we’re doing right now,” I answer. “The world looks a lot different from up here, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll bet if we threw our problems off the side of this wheel, they would seem a lot smaller.”
“You’re a strange one, Sam.” Michael is smiling again. I love his smile even more than Ferris wheels.
“I know. That’s why you’re so madly in love with me.”
Michael scratches his forehead. “Yeah, I’ll buy that.”
We rode the bumper cars and ate greasy hot dogs. Michael kissed me in the fun house in front of a mirror that made our heads look like bloated ticks. I know that’s a repulsive description but it’s all I can think of right now.
It was after midnight before we made it back to the hotel room. Michael was wide awake. Hanging the tiny stuffed bear (which he spent five dollars to win for me) from his ear, he danced a strange dance and managed to peel his clothes off, somewhat awkwardly, at the same time.
The only thing I can say for the rest of our little trip is that we didn’t quite make it to Catalina. Missing our cruise turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.
We’re on our way back to the real world today. I’m driving. I’ve decided not to leave Michael. Tomorrow is Monday but I don’t think it will be the same as every other Monday. In fact, I don’t think our life will be the same. We’ve made a vow to change our view at least once a week.
I’ve got a strong craving for sushi and Michael has agreed to try it again. Things have definitely changed. We’re entering a new age, a fresh season and……we just ran out of gas. I knew I forgot something this morning.
The Infamy of Image
By Charmayne Hafen
A quick glance in the mirror said the two cups of coffee had done nothing to remove the dark circles that swelled below my eyes. It’s hopeless, I thought, now staring at my blonde hair hanging in frazzled clumps around sallow skin, an outcropping of my weary soul. Dragging myself into the bedroom of my six-year-old son, I was startled, once again, by row upon row of breasts peeking out of sequined halter tops on the calendar hanging beside Henry’s bed. Long legs extending from tight shorts became a line of slithering snakes, injecting poisonous venom into my withering self-confidence.
Anger pounded against my temples the way it had the day my husband, Jack, gave our son the calendar of these famous cheerleaders. Only six years old, Henry still thought girls were gross. The calendar wasn’t for Henry no matter how much Jack insisted it was. That’s what made it worse. How could I argue with a gift from a father to his son and interfere with their “male-bonding”? “It certainly is interfering with our marital bonding,” I said, yanking Henry’s crumpled bed sheets the same way I wanted to yank the shimmering, blonde hair from the cheerleader in the front row. My face was hot and flushed, a stark contrast to my marriage bed that had remained cool and distant for some time now. I smiled. Jack could have his calendar but he couldn’t have me with it.
“Why don’t you want it anymore?” I could hear Jack’s ongoing question that never got answered as I folded a load of laundry.
I thought about last night when I lay on my side of the bed, facing the wall, wishing he would just leave me alone. The kids were finally asleep, and I was exhausted as usual. I just wanted to sleep. Jack kept kissing my neck so I finally turned over and looked at him in the dark. All I could see was the silhouette of his tousled hair outlined against the moonlight streaming in through the bedroom window. His face was a shadow and, for a moment, I tried to pretend he was someone I didn’t know. Maybe then I would want him. His hand reached out and slid across my hip, moving upwards toward my breast.
I grabbed his hand before it reached its destination and told him I didn’t feel like it.
Jack couldn’t understand what had changed from when we first got married when I wanted sex all the time.
“Me,” I said, collapsing against the pillow. “I’m different.” That’s when Jack rolled over and said with disgust, “That’s for sure.”
I was too tired to care that he was angry. Besides, I was angry most of the time, so why should I care?
The ice storm that had begun in bed the night before was in full force this morning. Even my youngest child noticed the invisible glacier that stood between Mommy and Daddy.
“Mommy, is Daddy mad?” Molly asked, rubbing the sleep from her big brown eyes as she dragged her blanket across the kitchen floor.
“No, baby. Daddy’s not mad.” Jack dropped his briefcase and scooped her up into his arms. “But he is hungry. You look like a tasty treat.”
Molly giggled as Jack pretended to nibble on her ear and then her tummy.
The smile that eased its way across my face while watching Daddy and his little girl faded as soon as he looked at me.
“I’ll be home late tonight, Tam. I’m going to stop and have a drink with Rick.”
I knew what he was doing. This was my punishment for being the ice-maiden in bed.
“That’s fine,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t care. “I’m taking the kids over to Sandy’s house after dinner so I can shop for a dress for your company Christmas party.”
Jack was already headed for the door before I finished my sentence. “See ya,” he called without looking back.
“Just go to hell,” I muttered under my breath and then yelled, “Tell Rick I said hi,” before he slammed the door.
Rubbing my eyes, I looked at the clock on my desk and couldn’t believe it was already ten to six. I was supposed to meet Rick in ten minutes. I didn’t really feel like going for a drink. What I really wanted was to go home and lay down. I’d been processing loans all day, eating lunch at my desk, and could hardly see straight. I stared at Tammy’s smiling face in the family photo on my desk and felt angry once again at the thought of her rejection the night before. How could she treat me this way? I was a great provider. We had a beautiful home and nice cars. I coached my son’s soccer team and went to all of Molly’s ballet recitals. It wasn’t like I was a deadbeat dad or a husband who was never there. What was so hard about saying “yes” once in a while, about giving me what I wanted for a change? She was lucky I didn’t have an affair. Half the guys in this office had. Tammy didn’t know how lucky she was. I looked at the clock again. Five minutes to six. Grabbing my coat and briefcase, I rushed out the door to meet Rick. Maybe Tammy would appreciate me more if I wasn’t around so much.
Rick was already sitting at the bar when I walked through the door of the local pub ten minutes late. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. Ever since he’d gotten a job with another mortgage company, we’d lost touch.
I was surprised when he called me last Friday to invite me for a beer after work. I had turned him down because Tammy already had plans for us to go Christmas shopping. I was glad Rick was willing to meet today when I called him on my way into work. I needed an excuse to stay away from home, especially after telling Tammy I would be home late. She needed to learn a lesson.
Rick waved at me from where he sat at the bar and motioned for me to join him. Shaking his hand, I was shocked to see how much he had aged in a year. There were large patches of gray in his hair, and his eyes carried more lines than I remembered. Rick was my age, thirty-two, but he looked like he was pushing forty.
“So how have you been, buddy?” Rick asked as I took a swig of beer and handed the bartender a tip.
“Oh you know, I can’t complain. Work is crazy right now but it keeps the bills paid so what can I say. How’s your job at Loan Tree?”
“Same ol’ same ol’, except the pay is better than what I was getting at Myrons. There’s a new secretary; short skirt with tight sweaters. She keeps work interesting.”
“Still making the rounds, huh?” I said, smiling and touching Rick’s glass with my own. “Here’s to the ladies’ man.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Rick said, grabbing a peanut out of the bowl on the bar. “I can snag them, but I can’t seem to keep them.”
“You and Carla are doing okay, aren’t you?”
“Carla left six months ago,” Rick said, looking off into the distance. “She took the kids, and they’re all living with her parents right now. She served me with divorce papers last week.”
“Wow, I had no idea.” I gulped down half my beer, wishing I could drown the words that had opened this can of worms. “I’m sorry to bring it up.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, buddy,” Rick said, forcing a smile. “No big deal. Things were going sour long before she left. We were fighting all the time and things were ice cold in the bedroom, if you know what I mean.”
I know exactly what you mean, I thought, nodding at Rick.
“I don’t understand women. They’re red hot for you in the beginning and then one day you’re their worst enemy.”
“I know. Before Tammy and I got married, some of the guys at work warned me that she would change. I never believed them, but it turns out they were right.”
“Carla told me she was tired of feeling second best. She said I made her feel like she was never enough by the way I was with other women. Now, I’ve done my share of flirting and I had my subscription to Playboy, but I never fooled around on her. I always made sure we had a nice lifestyle. I don’t think she knew what she wanted.”
I could see Tammy’s cold eyes as if it were yesterday when I brought home that calendar for Henry. Tammy was furious and I told her she was being ridiculous. It wasn’t like I gave him a calendar of naked women.
“I miss my kids,” Rick said, taking another large gulp of his beer. “That’s the hardest part. I guess I miss Carla, too, but it’s too late now. She’s made up her mind and I can’t reason with her. So, I’m a wild and free bachelor once again,” Rick said, smiling and raising his glass. The smile didn’t reach Rick’s sad, lonely eyes.
I stared at my reflection in the dressing room mirror. Turning from side to side, I pushed up on my breasts to see if a push-up bra would make the top of the dress fit better. Dresses lay in piles around my ankles.
“Arrgghh!” I cried, pulling at the zipper in the back and wiggling out of the little black number as if it were a straight jacket. “This is impossible!”
“Is everything all right in there?” It was the sales lady who had given me a key to the room. I looked down at the floor covered in satin and sequenced fabric and knew I was way over the six-item limit.
“I’m fine; just trying to decide what to get.”
“If you need any help, let me know,” she soothed.
“I’m beyond help, lady,” I muttered hearing the clicking of the lady’s high heels as she walked away from the fitting rooms. Wiggling into my jeans and sweater, I opened the door, looked both ways, and then practically ran toward the front door of the store.
“To hell with the damned party,” I cried, jamming the car key into the ignition. “It’s just the same crap year after year. I have to act friendly with Jack’s co-workers and pretend I don’t notice the beautiful blonde, bimbo receptionist with the gigantic breasts. I sit and wonder if Jack is having an affair with her but I can’t act jealous or Jack will say I’m being ridiculous. That’s it. I’m not going.” I was relieved to see the parking lot was mostly empty. Thankfully no one saw me ranting and raving to an empty car.
I was shocked to see Jack’s car as I pulled the mini van into the garage.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Molly cried from the back seat. “Daddy’s home!”
The kids ran ahead and were already inside by the time I reached the door.
“Hi, Tam,” Jack said, holding Molly as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“You’re home early,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I thought you’d be home late since you were meeting Rick.”
“I decided to cut it short,” Jack said, setting Molly on the floor and watching her as she ran to join her brother in front of the TV. “It’s been a long day, and I’m tired. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
Was he really tired or trying to make me feel guilty? I decided to ignore the comment. “Are you hungry?” I asked, hoping he would say no. I was tired too.
“No, I’m fine,” he said, jamming his hands into his pockets. It was strange how awkward it felt to be with him sometimes, even after ten years of marriage.
“I’m sorry about this morning, Tam.”
I frowned, wondering what was going on. Jack never apologized. “I’m sorry too,” I said, glancing down at my watch so I wouldn’t have to look at him. I could handle the angry husband who left the house this morning. That was easy. How could I be the angry, bitter wife when he was apologizing?
“I’ve got to get the kids to bed,” I mumbled, walking toward the living room where the kids sat glued to the TV.
Jack tucked Molly in while I put Henry to bed. As I folded the covers down over his chest, I noticed something different.
“What happened to your calendar, Henry?” The heaving bosoms and microscopic shorts were gone.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t do anything with it.” For a moment I had the strange sensation that I was in the wrong house with the wrong family.
Jack was already in bed, staring up at the ceiling when I walked into the bedroom.
“Are you alright?” I had never seen him act so strange.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“Well, you’re acting weird.”
“I’m just thinking.”
“About what?” I was almost afraid to ask. Was this the calm before the storm, before some earth-shattering news was delivered?
“About my life and the way I’ve been with you. Rick and Carla got a divorce.”
“You’re kidding?!” I said, sitting on the bed beside him.
“I know. I was shocked too. I guess she got tired of the way Rick was and left. He hardly ever gets to see his kids.”
“It made me start thinking about us. Are we okay, Tammy? I mean, are you glad you married me?”
I lay back on the bed beside him and stared up at the ceiling. “Did you take the calendar down in Henry’s room?”
Jack looked over at me. “I didn’t think Henry needed a calendar like that.”
I smiled, feeling some invisible burden suddenly lift from my shoulders. “I’m glad I married you,” I said.
“Wow! That was easy.”
“I’m not cheap but I am easy,” I said, laughing.
“Easy on the eyes,” Jack said, pulling me against him as he kissed the top of my head.
“Thank you, Jack,” I whispered, trying not to sound like I was about to cry.
“For doing that. For understanding.”
“I want you to know you’re number one, Tam. I don’t want you to ever feel like you’re second best.”
I closed my tired eyes and, for the first time in a long time, rested in my husband’s arms.
About Charmayne Hafen
Charmayne M. Hafen’s love of Celtic mythology inspired her to write her debut novel, The Land of Twilight. She has written several short stories for children, teens and adults and is currently working on Indebted, a young adult fantasy novel. Charmayne has a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and psychology and a Master of Arts degree in counseling. When she’s not writing, she runs counseling groups for adults and a therapeutic photography group for teens. She lives in Lakewood, Colorado, with her husband, John, and her two Chihuahuas, Pepe and Frida.
By J.R. Hamilton
The light in the room was so bright it felt like it was burning all the way into my brain. I tried to raise my right hand then my left to cover my eyes, but neither of them obeyed my command. Speaking was out of the question too. My mouth and throat felt as though they were filled with sand, so I just tried to close my eyes but it was so hard. I had to concentrate on closing them and then keeping them closed. Suddenly from my right there was a loud female voice, “He’s awake!” and I heard footsteps leaving the room. Within a few minutes the room filled with people; one man opened my eyes and shone a bright light into one, then the other. It hurt my head so bad I wanted to choke him. Then I could feel hands, it seemed like dozens, all over my body as people asked me questions that were impossible to answer. It seemed like forever, but the room finally emptied of people except for one man who calmly stayed beside me giving me small amounts of water. At first the water actually burned as I worked to swallow but soon the cool, refreshing liquid began to quench my thirst, and I was actually able to speak.
“Where?” I asked. The one word was all I could get out.
The man, I could now see a nametag with Harrison printed on it, responded, “You are in the Corpus Christi Medical Center. I’m not certain where you were transferred from; there seems to be an air of secrecy about that and about you.”
“How long?” I asked.
Harrison picked up my chart. “You’ve been in a coma since before you arrived here eight months ago. Quite honestly we didn’t really expect you to wake up, but the doctors here have been insistent on your care.”
Eight months, I thought. I drank more of the water and could feel some of the fog lifting in my head. “What happened to me?” I asked.
Once again he referred to my chart. “I’m not sure. Maybe Dr. Webb can tell you when he comes in. He’s been notified that you are awake and will be here shortly.”
“I can’t seem to move,” I stammered.
“Muscular atrophy, it happens when muscles aren’t used for long periods of time. There is a team that comes in here three times a day just to move you around, trying to keep everything from locking up but that doesn’t help the muscles,” he said.
Just then a young man dressed in a sharply cut suit walked into the room, “Mr. Lawson, we were beginning to think you were going to stay asleep forever. I’m Dr. Webb. I’ve been overseeing your care for the last eight months. I’m certain you have many questions, but for now we need you to allow us to examine you. I was quite surprised to hear you had rejoined us, and it’s taking a little time to get the team together.”
Lawson, he called me Lawson—why doesn’t that name seem familiar? As I lay there I realized I had no clue what my name was, so I guess Lawson will do as well as any. “What happened to me?” I croaked.
“Well, I haven’t been made privy to all the particulars, only that you were shot seven times; one of the bullets penetrated the skull but I wasn’t informed as to the level of damage that was done. As far as we can tell, you are not paralyzed, but at the moment your muscles have atrophied to the extent that they will have to be completely retrained. Now, there will be a team of specialists here in a few minutes. Their job is to start getting you back on your feet. Work with them and this won’t take as long. I need to contact some people who will be very interested in hearing about your recovery.” Before I could ask anything else he was gone.
For the next hour I was poked, prodded and asked a million questions, most of which I couldn’t answer. It was during this time that I discovered I had lost memory of more than my name; now I was getting concerned. I had no clue where Corpus Christi was, who the president was, my name, where I was born, when I was born. It was like everything anyone should know had been wiped from my memory.
Over the next few days I was put through dozens of tests, and I started physical therapy but I could still do little more than lift my hands. I could manage some very simple tasks, none as complex as even feeding myself. I was frustrated, and anger roared in me at my failure to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. My rage built but the only thing I could do about it was bellow.
My eyes were barely open when two men walked into my room and closed the door. They were dressed like twins in black suits, white shirts and black ties; I couldn’t help but think about how boring they looked. The older of the two came up next to me. “I am Jason Miles. I was your…supervisor at the time of your accident.”
I glared at this moron. “Accident? How the hell does someone accidentally get shot seven times? Was I standing behind a target?”
He looked back at me. “That will be made clear to you later. For now we are having you moved to a safe facility. There are people who would be very interested to discover you are still alive. We’ve managed to cover up that fact for almost a year but it is becoming harder. The local newspaper has gotten word that you have come out of your coma after so long. They will be trying to get information about you. Fortunately, the picture they have of you is pretty bad, but if they publish any of that we will have a problem, and your life will be at risk. You’ll be moved tonight. In the mean time, if you remember anything, keep it to yourself.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I know what is going on here,” I said in my loudest voice.
He looked at me and smiled in a way that was almost evil. “I don’t see that you have any choice, unless you would like to get out of that bed and stop us.” Being wrong is never a pleasant thing but this was infuriating. “Look, Jess, you need to be out of here and in a place where proper security will be maintained and where you can have people working with you who can help you get back on your feet as quickly and completely as possible. So, don’t get upset, and cooperate with the people who come in tonight.” He and his younger twin turned and left the room.
He called me Jess. That name felt a little more comfortable than Mr. Lawson; maybe this was ok.
It was close to midnight when I felt my bed being rolled out of my room. Two men and two women were pulling me toward an elevator and eventually took me out to a waiting ambulance. Once I was secured in the back, the two men got in the front as the two women stayed in back with me.
“Hi Jessie. My name is Elise and this is Denise. Our job is to care for you in every way. At least one of us will be with you constantly. We’re both physical therapists and your caregivers. I know you have a million questions but all I can tell you right now is that you are being taken to a secret facility that is prepared to provide you with the best care possible, and we will work to get you back on your feet using the very latest in equipment and the most advanced methods. I know you don’t remember me but you are the one who recruited me into the organization and made it possible for me to get through college and get where I am. Denise is another person you helped in the past as are Jacob and Daniel. That is why we were selected to be on your recovery team. Now, just lay back and relax. We will be at the helo pad shortly then off to your little retreat.”
For some reason her words soothed me and I just lay there, allowing myself to be moved and managed as we first got into the helicopter then landed on a sandy strip where I could hear waves breaking on a beach as I was taken into a rather large house. Once inside I was taken to a room toward the back and assisted into bed. “Now, rest for tonight, because we get to work in the morning. We need to get those muscles back. If you need anything at all, just yell. One of us will be seconds away,” Denise said as she closed the door.
Sleep came on me hard and when the morning sun came blasting through my window my eyes didn’t want to open to greet it. After a few minutes I opened my eyes and could see a couple of gulls just floating on the wind outside. The Gulf must be out in that direction.
I realized suddenly that my catheter had been removed and I needed to pee very bad. I yelled for Elise or Denise. Elise came through the door, “Well, good morning, you are of fine voice this morning,” she smiled.
“I need to pee, and I can’t walk, remember?” I stated rather sharply.
“Yes, I remember and I am right here to help.”
She held out a plastic container with a handle. I couldn’t remember what it was called but I remembered what it was for. “No, I want out of this bed. I am not pissing in a…a bucket.”
She shook her head, put the container back on the table and called for Denise, and the two of them swung me around and lifted me from bed. My legs were weak and shaky. “Come on, we’ll hold your weight. You need to move your feet,” said Denise as the two of them held me. It seemed to take a lifetime to get to the bathroom that was just across the room from my bed and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. They held me as, for the first time in almost a year, I relieved myself. It felt like pure fire passing through my penis and I screamed. By the time I managed to get back to bed I was completely worn out.
It was almost two weeks before I could get to my feet without aid; this was also the first time I had walked outside any enclosure for a very long time. It took most of my energy to make it to the chair on the porch. I wasn’t certain I had reserved enough to make it back. Elise brought me a cup of steaming coffee, “Very nice, another few days and you will be ready for a run on the beach,” she smiled.
“I don’t think I will ever run on the beach, I feel like some old man with all his years behind him,” I responded.
She looked at me. “Jess, if I have to I will be your nurse for the rest of your life, but I know you better than that. The old Jess wouldn’t stop until he had run up and down this beach like a teenager.”
“Exactly who was the ‘old Jess’? You talk about him as though he was some kind of super hero and here I sit without enough strength to even walk to the beach. I don’t remember anything about the old Jess, but the new Jess is useless at best.”
“You still don’t remember?” she asked.
“Only bits and pieces. Come on, you have been promising for weeks that you would tell me about me. Isn’t it time you came through?” I asked.
She sat thoughtfully for a long time, “Ok, I can tell you now. The shop told me to let you know anything you ask. Your name is Jessie Dunn, you were recruited from the Marines by an organization that does special contract work for the government, jobs that would not look good for our military to do.”
I took this in. “Wait a minute. You are still being vague. You say special contract work and somehow I get the feeling you aren’t talking about taking dictation. It does feel better to know I have a name that doesn’t feel wrong but if you are going to fill me in, fill me in completely.”
She laughed. “No. Jess, you were a hired gun, one of, if not the best there is, or was. You went into the field to…uh…remove…hmm…particular people when they became a problem.”
“A hired gun, do you mean that literally? Who are these people? Became a problem for who?”
“Ok, this is going to be tougher than I thought. Yes, literally a hired gun; in fact the word around the shop is that you know more ways to kill people than any person alive. These people are anyone who is a threat to the security of our government, our people, or our employer.”
“Fair enough. Who is our employer?”
“Somehow I knew that would be one of your questions. It is called simply The Company, the only name I have ever seen is Hobart but I can’t say who or what that is.”
Why did this information not surprise me? I still didn’t remember anything but it was almost as though I already knew what she was going to say. I am a contract killer, I should feel something about that but I don’t. “So why am I being kept in seclusion and under such close security?”
She looked down at her hands. “There are only a handful of people who know you are alive and we want to keep it that way. The men who shot you aren’t the only people around who wanted to see you dead, and our job is to make sure no one knows you are alive and keep you alive.”
I frowned. “But I am useless and defenseless. Why would they even care anymore? I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a shot gun and I certainly couldn’t hurt someone any other way.”
Now she was looking me right in the eyes. “Jess, you will get better. The Company is banking on it and I know you well enough to know you will get back one hundred percent. It will take time and a lot of work on all our parts. You can’t give up!”
I was almost angry. “You knew me. You knew the old Jess, you knew the man who had two strong arms, two strong legs and the skill set he needed to get the job done. That is not me, never will be me.”
She stood up, angry. “Fine, sit on your ass and feel sorry for yourself. That is exactly what a lot of people would hope for if they knew you were alive. Just sit there and rot, give up and just sit in that rocking chair like some old man. I give up, until you decide you’re going to get better, you never will, so why should I even care.” She stormed into the house and slammed the door leaving me alone on the porch.
I sat there for what seemed like a long time then began yelling for Elise or Denise to come help me and received no answer. I tried beating on the wall but barely made a sound. I rested for a few minutes then started getting to my feet. It was far harder to get out of the rocking chair than it was to drop into it. My feet and legs now completely under my body, I began working my way around the chair toward the front door. My whole body was shaking from the effort and each step seemed monumental, but I could finally see the door handle. As I reached for it I realized too late that it was further from me than I thought and I felt my body falling toward the door. My shoulder slammed against the door as I flopped to the ground. I lay there trying to get some energy back but it was no use. I couldn’t get to my feet so I just curled up and fell asleep. I vaguely remember someone picking me up but I was too exhausted to even open my eyes.
When I did finally open my eyes again I was back in my bed and for now I didn’t even care whether I got out of it again. I could hear voices through my closed door but couldn’t make out anything that was being said. I was hungrier than I had been in as long as my short memory could recall and I began calling out for Elise and Denise; it was Elise who opened the door. “Would it be possible to get something to eat?” I asked in a none-too-friendly voice.
She looked coldly at me. “Sure, get your ass out of that bed and come to the kitchen and I will gladly fix you anything you want.” As she walked away she said, “I’m tired of feeding you like some child.”
I was pissed. I wanted to choke her but I was fairly certain she would kick my ass if I tried so I began struggling out of bed and to my feet. Shuffling like an old man I worked my way into the kitchen to the table and fell into a chair, “Fine, I’m here, now can I have something to eat?”
That was really the beginning of my recovery; over the next few months my therapy gradually got harder and harder with Elise being my primary torturer. Every time I reached one milestone she would throw out another and start driving me toward it. As my body grew stronger my mind began to recover more and more of my past life. I began to remember people and events, even some of my assignments.
It was just after two in the morning when I awoke screaming, sweat pouring from my body as I grabbed for the places where the bullets had slammed into my body. After being awake for over six months that day came back to me so vividly that I could see the muzzle flash as the man pulled the trigger. I could see the bullets tracing paths from the gun to my body. I could feel the impact as the first round hit my left shoulder.
Elise came running into the room. My whole body shook as I described my nightmare. She sat there and listened to me tell her every detail I could remember of that fateful day. I could even describe the man. As I did so a name began to push toward the top…Amos…Amos Bets. Now I had a face and a name to relate to all my pain, now I could see a target for my anger, now I had a reason to get myself back to where I was before the day when Amos Bets killed me. I would get well, I would recover and I would find the man who tried to kill me and I would kill him very slowly.
It was another month before we went to the range and I began trying to rebuild my skills. The .45 caliber Kimber seemed to weigh a ton and just holding it was hard. The first round slammed into the back wall without even touching the target, but the gun felt like an old friend. I went back to the gym and began working harder than ever, building my strength; I spent hours there after which I would go running in the sand dunes. At first the sand grabbed me like quicksand, preventing me from even walking, but in time I was running up and down the dunes as though it was just a hill. Then I was back at the range for hours regaining my accuracy until I could easily keep eight rounds dead center in the paper.
Something else came back to me. I remembered the off shore banks where my money was and the codes that would allow me access. I contacted the banks and discovered that I had over ten million between three banks. I sat down with Denise. “Is all that money mine?” I asked.
Denise looked at the report on the computer. “Yes, these are your personal accounts. You also have a company account under a different name; there is a couple of million there as well.” She showed me how to access the account.
It had been a year since that day I awoke. In that time I had surgery to modify my face so I was not recognizable as the old Jess and my new moniker was Roy Carson. My body was very close to the condition it was in before the shooting, and my shooting and combat skills have been honed to a very sharp edge after spending many hours in the gym. The old Jess is back—he just has a new name.
We arrived at my new digs well after dark. By we I mean a team of well-armed, well-trained men, Elise and Denise. The place was a ranch house in the middle of fifteen acres just outside Corpus Christi. The house had four large bedrooms, a den with a fireplace (who needs a fireplace in South Texas?) and a kitchen fit for the finest of chefs. Separate from the house was another building that served as central security and my workout room. We had been there maybe an hour when security announced that Lester Bass was almost to the house. Bass was my new boss of sorts, we had a few meetings during my recovery; I had requested that Webb be removed as my handler; I knew someone had betrayed me and I wanted an entirely new team.
When Bass arrived we went into my new study and closed the door then I poured us both two fingers of single malt. “Did you get the information on Amos Bets I asked for?” I enquired.
He sat back in his chair. “Roy, there are a couple of things we would like you to take care of before you going traipsing around looking for Bets. We—”
I interrupted him. “Stop right there! I am doing nothing, is that clear, nothing until I settle the score with the man who shot me. If the Company can’t live with that they can live without me, all these people can get out of here and I’ll take care of myself. There is a debt to be paid and I don’t like unbalanced accounts. If you can’t or won’t get me the information I’ll get it myself. Do I make myself clear?”
Bass sat there for a long moment before he reached into his brief case, removed a file and set it on my desk. “Ok, there’s the information on Bets.” He pulled out three more files. “And here is information on your next three targets. Take as much as a month to take care of Bets then we need these taken care of as quickly as possible. There is an additional four million dollars in your company account, that should cover these three easily enough.” He handed me a large canvas bag. Inside was a collection of electronic devices, two cell phones and a collection of identification, passports and credit cards. “All of your weapons have been sent here and are in the safe in your bedroom. Here is the combination and instruction as to how to change it. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
I thought for a moment. “Yes, there is. Get all these people out of here and reassigned. Leave me two men, Jacob and Daniel then find me someone to take care of the house. The rest need to go or sooner or later people are going to start wondering why I need so many people around me. I don’t need nursemaids anymore and I don’t need people snooping around.”
He looked at me. “Roy, of course we will do what you ask but don’t you think maintaining security is important? There are still a lot of people who would like to see you dead if they knew you were alive. At least keep Elise inside. She would be happy to take care of the house. We really don’t have anything else for her right now and you can use her in the field as well.”
What he was saying made sense but I just hated that he was right. “Ok, Elise stays and two men for the outside, that’s it!”
He nodded. “Ok, that’s fine. Now when can we expect you to start on these three?”
I opened the top folder and read through it, then the same with the next; when I opened the third I was shocked, “This is one of our own, in fact he worked with me on a number of assignments. What is the story here, are we going after our own now? Do we have so little to deal with elsewhere that we have to come to our own back yard for work?” Jeff Godly was someone I had worked with, depended on while working a number of assignments, including my last one.
He looked very serious. “Roy, we have uncovered information that proves he was a part of the attack on you as well as a couple of other agents that were hit. We have him assigned where he can do us no harm but and he can’t access legitimate information right now. We can’t keep him out of the loop forever; he needs to go soon. This isn’t like working your local gift shop, just fire someone you don’t trust. He knows way too much.”
I ran my hands through my hair, feeling the edges of a headache coming on. “I will have to do my own research on this one. I won’t take down one of our own without confidence that he needs to be disposed of. When I get to Bets I’ll find out about Jeff one way or another.”
“Roy, our information is rock solid or we wouldn’t be pulling up his number. He needs to be dealt with, soon,” he demanded.
I stood, walking toward the door. “I’ll review what you have and make my decision. Now I think you need to go. I need some rest and I’m tired of talking to you. Oh, and next time call ahead and let someone know you are coming. I don’t like surprises of any kind.”
He grabbed his coat and headed out the door. “Roy, I’m leaving both the ladies here for the time being. I would feel more comfortable if one of them was with you as much as possible. They’ll be good protection and if anyone asks tell them they are sisters. If I don’t hear from you in a couple of weeks I’ll be back.” He headed down the steps.
“Well, don’t rush back on my account. I’m certain you have more important things to do than worry about me.” Before he could respond I closed the door. I returned to the study and began going over Jeff’s file; the information they had seemed pretty solid. From what I was reading it would not be hard to believe he was a part of me being shot. One of our own, a man I had worked with and trusted. Hate, anger and rage began building.
Someone knocked on the door. When I yelled for them to come in it was Elise. “What did the asshole want?” she asked.
I looked at her and handed her Bets’ file. “Take a look at this and tell me where you think the easiest place to snatch him would be. I want to isolate him and have a few words with him. I also need you to find a very private place, some place where I would not be disturbed for perhaps a few days, even if there is a lot of noise.”
She read through the folder. “I don’t understand. I don’t see where they have given any information about his activities; I mean the activities that brought him up on their radar.”
I looked at her lovely grey eyes. “This is the man who shot me and I have a few questions for him, but I expect I will have to do more than ask politely to get the answers I need. After I get the answers I want, he will have the honor of being my first kill, but his death will not come rapidly. This is very personal.”
Once again she looked at me. “I don’t remember ever seeing you like this. You never took any job personally; it was always just business. The idea of you taking on this one scares me. It is too personal. You aren’t going to be objective and more liable to make a mistake. If you’re sure this is the man who shot you, let the company assign someone else to him; if the point is to kill him, what difference does it make who does it?”
“It makes a hell of a lot of difference to me. Maybe I should let it go, let someone else deal with this one, but I can’t. I just keep seeing him pulling the trigger and I want him to see how badly he failed. I want him to know that I am still alive and that I am the one who is going to end his life,” I replied.
She sat there thoughtfully. “Then let me help you. Let me do the research, find a safe way to grab him. If we work on this together, perhaps I can help prevent a mistake that will end up with him succeeding in what he failed at before. You need someone who is able to be objective, to see this from a different perspective.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t crazy about involving her, or anyone else for that matter, but she had a point. I did need someone to help keep me on an even keel with this one. “Ok, you can help me but once I have him, I don’t want you around. As I said, this is personal and I want it to be just the two of us.”
Elise found him easily enough and for the next week tracked his every move; she found out when and where he ate, everything he did during the day and into the evening. She needed to find a way to get to him so we could grab him without anyone seeing or interrupting. She found a warehouse we could take him, a place where no one would hear anything. It was the second week that our chance came.
We followed him as he and a woman drove to Padre Island. They traveled down the island away from people until they were somewhat isolated then stopped. From a distance we watched as they set out blankets beside the car; she lay on the blanket while he headed for the water. We watched until he started coming back toward the beach then drove down the island. When we were right next to him I fired the dart, striking him in the neck; he dropped instantly. His car blocked us from view of the woman as we loaded him into the van and left for my little hideaway.
Once we arrived Elise helped me get him inside. “Ok, you can leave. I’ll call you to come pick me up later.”
“Roy, let me stay, just in case something happens,” she pleaded.
“No, we agreed on this before, now get out of here,” I told her.
Elise finally left and I began preparing my guest by securing him to one of two chairs bolted into the cement floor then turned on the bright spotlight that would shine right in his face. Amos Bets was in for a very bad day, the last day of his sorry life.
I sat smoking one of my fine Cubans and sipped on a glass of scotch while I waited for the drug to wear off. It took him another forty-five minutes to wake up and when he did he began screaming and cussing, telling the world how important he was and how much trouble I was going to be in when he got away from here. I let him sit there for another hour while I enjoyed, finished my cigar and took a relaxing nap. I didn’t want this to end too soon. I got up and walked into the room.
“Amos Bets, your threats are pretty much empty since no one can hear you and there is no way out of this building without a key, and I am the only one who knows where that key is. I’m looking for information and the only possible chance you have of getting out of here is to tell me everything I want to know. If you don’t, I’ll have no choice but to kill you. Personally I hope you don’t tell me. I would take great pleasure in skinning you alive then watch you slowly bleed to death. Now, this is how the game is going to be played; I will ask questions, and you will have the choice to either answer them or not. Each time you refuse or tell something other than the truth I will be forced to convince you to provide me with the correct answer,” I told him.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, and apparently you have me confused with someone else. Just let me go and we can just forget all about this. I’m an investment banker; unless your questions are about finances I can’t help you,” he responded.
I walked over to him. Between the bright light and the modifications to my face, he didn’t recognize me. I picked up the two-pound hammer and brought it down fairly hard on the bare toes of his left foot. His screams instantly filled the room. “I guess you didn’t understand what I said about telling the truth and maybe I didn’t exactly explain what would happen if you didn’t. Have I made myself clear now?” He nodded as he whimpered like a little girl. “Okay, good. Maybe we can start this a different way. I will tell you what I already know. You work for a man by the name of Carl Walker; you handle a number of tasks for him but you also freelance. About a year ago you shot a man by the name of Jessie Dunn. Am I right so far?”
He blubbered, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t know any of the names you mentioned. I am an investment banker. I don’t work for anyone.”
I brought the hammer down hard on the top of his foot. I could hear the crunch of bone over his screams. After he quit bellowing I once again spoke to him, “Ok, now I know I made myself clear, I know you understand what is going to happen to you, so I have no problem continuing this. You know, the feet are comprised of a complex collection of bones and tendons surrounded by a mass of nerves. Pain gets worse with each instance of injury and at some point the foot becomes so damaged that it is useless. Even the best surgeon in the world can’t save it and it must be removed. Next though is the ankle,” I slammed his ankle with the hammer, trapping it between the hammer and the chair, “and once the ankle is broken it takes a surgeon with tremendous skill to put things back right again.” I allowed him to calm. “Now, do you remember what I said or do I need to repeat myself?”
“I remember,” he stammered.
“Good, now, answer my question again. Isn’t everything I said true?” I repeated.
“Yes, I killed Jessie Dunn,” he said.
“Good, now doesn’t it feel much better to tell the truth? Let’s go with the next question; how much were you paid to kill Jessie?” I asked.
“Thirty grand,” he replied.
“Thirty thousand dollars, is that all? Damn, you’re cheap. Now for the ten-million-dollar question, who paid you to kill him?” I asked.
“You might as well kill me because if I tell you I’m dead anyway,” he screamed.
“Well, if that’s the case you need to decide who you want to kill you. If I kill you it may take days because I’m going to keep asking the question and each time you refuse to answer, something else gets broken and I assure you it will not be something that will end your life. Broken bones won’t kill you, but the pain will just keep on growing,” I said as I slammed the hammer against his left kneecap. “I’ll leave you for now and let you think about it. I suggest you move as little as possible. The more you move around, the more it will hurt,” I said as I slapped his left leg and walked away.
My cell phone showed that Elise had called twice so I returned her call. “Are you ready for me to pick you up?” she asked.
“No,” I told her, “I’m not through here yet. It may be a while,” and hung up.
I stayed away long enough for him to know I was serious then returned. “Ok, Amos, I’m getting tired here. You have got to take me serious and answer my questions, otherwise this is going to be a very long night.” I removed a needle and vile from my pocket. “I can stop your pain and get you some help, or I can cause more pain. Either way I’m going to get the truth out of you. If this doesn’t work I’ll bring your daughter in and you can watch as I do the same thing to her. What’s it going to be?”
“Okay, okay, whatever you want, it hurts so bad. Please, I will tell you what you want to know,” he begged.
“No Amos, I’m afraid I don’t trust you. I need the answers and I need to believe them first, so you better be very, very convincing,” I told him then gave him a drink of water.
“Jeff Godly was the one who contacted me and told me how to get to Dunn,” he said.
“That’s a good start. How many others have you gone after?” I asked.
“I have hit two others and I think he had someone else do a couple of others,” he replied.
“Who is Jeff working for, where do the orders come from?” I asked.
“He works for Carl Walker. I don’t know how long he has been working for him. I’ve told you everything I know. Now, please stop the pain,” he begged.
I laughed and tore open my shirt, “Do you see these scars, Amos? Do you have any idea where they came from?” I asked.
His eyes widened. “No, it can’t be. You can’t be Jessie.”
“Oh, but I am, and you, my friend are dead. Not just yet though. I need to get Jeff in here. I want him to see you so he’ll know what is coming his way. Then I’m going to kill him. Before he dies I am going to get my hands on Carl. This should be a great get together.” I picked up the hammer and crushed his right foot and ankle then called Elise to pick me up.
Complete the Revenge
Elise and I rode quietly back to the house; my head was throbbing as I thought about what I had just learned. Carl Walker was one of the handlers I had once worked for. Somehow he had managed to infiltrate the organization with Jeff Godly, and Jeff, by way of Amos Bets, had murdered two and thought he had murdered three. Is Jeff the only one? Are there more in the organization than that, are there more? Well, Jeff Godly would be my first target then I would go after Walker. I needed to talk to Bass and get Godly to my little hideaway.
As soon as we got to the ranch I called Bass. “Okay, you want me to take out Walker, I need you to do something for me. He will be out with Mona tonight. I want you to call him and tell him you need him to send Jeff Godly to meet you in the airport parking lot, section G2. I don’t care what you tell him but get him there at eight tonight.”
He thought a moment. “But then he will know I am involved.”
“So what? He isn’t walking away from this one,” and I explained to him how this was all going to go down.
I saw Bass arrive and made my way over toward him, making sure he saw me. About twenty minutes later Godly showed up. I walked right up to him, “Hello Jeff.”
His eyes went wide as he recognized my voice and like lightning he went for the Glock he carried, exactly what I expected so he wasn’t quick enough to avoid the sap that caught him right at the temple. He fell like a sack. Before we moved him to my car I stripped off all his clothes but his undershorts then cuffed his hands behind his back and shackled his feet. I turned to Bass. “Follow me. I need your help to get him inside. He won’t be out very long.”
Once we arrived at the warehouse we dragged him from the trunk and inside as he screamed and kicked. Another application with the sap and he went silent. We dragged him over and set him in the chair across from Bets and secured him there. Bass looked at Bets. “Damn Roy, look at him. You are nuts. I thought you were going to kill him.”
I stared at him. “You never did have the stomach for this part of the job, did you? Okay, you get out of here. I won’t be long, but I have a little job to finish here.” Bass turned on his heels and headed for the door. “One more thing, I need you to get a tracker on Carl Walker. He is the one who controls Bets and Jeff Godly. It looks like the Company needs two replacements.”
“Are you certain? I have known Carl for years. Our kids grew up together.”
“I am absolutely certain. Bets was in no position to do anything but be truthful.” I went behind him and locked the steel door then hid the key just in case either of them managed to escape.
Amos Bets had been in and out of consciousness but was fully awake now as I sat there waiting for Godly to wake up. “Look, I know I have screwed you over badly, but if you let me go I can get you a lot more than Godly and Walker. I’ll do anything you want, just tell me, I promise, I swear.”
I laughed. “Yeah, right! I wouldn’t trust you to clean my toilets. No, Bets, you are a dead man. The only question is how long will I keep you alive and hurting before I end it for you. Well, look at this, Mister Godly has decided to join us.”
Godly looked up. Obviously his head was throbbing and he was none too happy to discover he was immobile. “What do you want?”
I smiled at him. “Oh, that should be pretty obvious even to someone with your IQ. I’m going to turn out your lights but I have a few questions first. Tell you what, I have to take a piss. Amos, why don’t you explain the rules to our new friend here while I relieve myself.”
I walked away and left the two by themselves for a while. As I returned I could feel the burn in Godly’s eyes. “Ok, Jeff, by now you must know that I am fully aware that you were involved in my shooting. The question is just how much more have you been involved in. I know you work for Walker, and I know there have been a couple of our agents who have fallen as a result of your efforts. How much more trouble have you caused? What else has been taken back to Walker?” I asked.
“Look, Jessie, I don’t know what this fool has told you, but he is just trying to cover his own ass. I’ve had nothing to do with any of our agents being killed—including you,” he stated with confidence.
I picked up the hammer and bent down at his feet. “Didn’t Amos tell you how this works? I’m sorry, that’s why I left you two alone,” I brought the hammer down hard on the bridge of his foot. After he stopped screaming I sat back down, “Now, in case you haven’t figured it out, every time you don’t answer or you tell me something I don’t believe I’m going to find another part of your body to introduce to my little friend here. At some point you will come to the understanding that I am serious.” I looked him in the eyes. “Let’s start with an easy one, one we both know the truth about. Who directed you to have me killed?”
I could see he was trying to decide what to tell me, how much to tell me, so I slammed the hammer as hard as I could against his left ankle. The crushing of bone made a sickening sound. “Not fast enough; you’re wasting my time.”
Once he stopped screaming he looked at me. “Walker contracted to have you taken out. You had gotten too close to finding out he had someone inside the organization and he wanted you stopped.”
“There, now doesn’t it feel good to get that off your chest? Now, what other information have you passed back to him, and don’t waste my time here, get to the truth,” I said.
“Honestly Jessie, I just followed instructions, I haven’t given him any information about anything,” he said, fear streaking his face.
I smashed his right foot. When he stopped screaming I crushed his right ankle. “You lied to me twice. I am really getting tired of your lies. You know, I can keep this up until I have broken every bone in your body. It isn’t a question as to whether you are going to live or not, you are as good as dead; but I can kill you quickly, I can take hours, or I can make this last for days. It is all up to you. You better start telling me something I believe.”
Amos started blubbering again; I took out the .22 caliber pistol and shot him in the stomach. “Now you shut up. Jeff, you know how long it takes a person to die from a gut shot and how painful it is. Is that how you want to go?”
His pain was serious and his fear real. “Walker told me to get the names of all our agents and where they are assigned. I just finished developing the list and haven’t sent it. It’s on the flash drive in my briefcase. I haven’t done anything else, Jess, I swear.”
“I’m not sure I believe you, but I will let it go for now. Why are you helping Walker?” I asked.
“For the thing that makes the world go round—cash. Walker offered me more than I was making with the company in ten years. Here you and some of the other agents were making big bucks and I was getting crumbs. It just wasn’t fair,” he replied.
“You sat behind a desk. You never had to put your ass on the line, and for a few dollars you were willing to have me and others die. Let me tell you how this is going to all wash out; first, you are a dead man; second, as you can see our friend Amos here is on his way; third, Walker will soon be gone along with his organization. So, what have you accomplished? You got people killed and you are paying for it with your life. Was it worth it? Did you enjoy the money? Don’t bother to answer. I really don’t care. I’m through here.” I pointed the barrel of the little gun at his stomach and pulled the trigger.
As I walked to my car I took out my phone and dialed Bass’ private number. “Godly is down as well as Bets. You know where they are. Get them out of there and clean up the place in case I want to use it again, but wait a day or two; their deaths will come slowly. You will want to retrieve Godly’s briefcase. There is supposed to be a flash drive there that will show you what he was doing. According to him the information never got to anyone else. It may be time to look into taking out Walker. He is the one who hired Godly and Bets. I’m going home and get some sleep, then I will take care of that other business. Then you and I are going to talk.”
“You should know, Walker has disappeared. His accounts have been cleaned out and no one has seen him for a couple of days. One of my people said he was seen taking a box of personal stuff out of the building, and his wife can’t be found either.”
“Damn! Well, I will find him, I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder.” I closed the cell, got in my car and headed for home. Now I have three people to run down, but first, rest.
By J.R. Hamilton
My name is Jessie Dunn, well, Roy Carson is my new name. It seems a lot of people wanted Jessie Dunn dead, which isn’t too surprising since he has made a lot of people that way. There are a lot of ways to carve out a living and I’m not a stupid man so you would think I could find a different line of work than doing the government’s dirty work. I probably could, but why? I have enough in the bank to last a lifetime, in fact a few lifetimes.
About a year ago one of my coworkers turned on me and I was shot seven times…seven times, and I am still standing here. People say when your number’s up there’s nothing you can do about it; if that’s true I must have a great number. As for the people who tried to take me out, well, let’s just say their numbers aren’t quite so good. Two of the three who tried to kill me are gone and the third will join them soon. The third one is locked in a room. I gave him a dose of LSD mixed with meth…he is completely freaking out right now and will be until I tire of his screams. While I am waiting for that to happen, how about I tell you about how I got to where I am right now.
It was three in the morning when I woke after a short night’s sleep after taking care of two of the people who had turned on me. They died painfully; I shot them both in the gut and left them to die a slow, painful death. If they were lucky they died in a few hours; if not they may have gone on for a day or so. I hope the latter is true. One of those two was a friend, or I thought so, who I had worked with on a number of assignments. To make a long story short, they were paid thirty thousand dollars to kill me…THIRTY THOUSAND!!! I wouldn’t stomp a bug for thirty thousand dollars.
There were two folders on the table, my latest contracts. I opened the top one: twenty-six-year-old Roger Whitehurst III. Now that sounds like upper-crust, son of Roger Whitehurst Jr., of course. That is when I got a shock, not because of who it was but because they wanted me to kidnap this guy. I reached for my phone then realized Bass would still be asleep and probably wouldn’t even answer the phone. I went back to the information in the folder.
There was a complete itinerary: his address near Visalia California (maybe I will buy his house, nice district); where he worked (for daddy, of course); when he went to the racquet club; the license number, model and color of his Maserati (I wanted to kill this guy just on principle and take his car); a picture of his wife in a mink coat (I hate people who kill animals just to show how rich they are). I would have no problem finding a time and place to take him down. But kidnapping, that isn’t what I do, even for the four-million-dollar price tag…okay, for that price I can be flexible.
I set that one aside and picked up the second one. Forty-five-year old Elaina Cortez…WOW! I have never in my life seen an over-forty woman who looked like that. She was tall, almost six feet; blonde hair, out of a bottle; eyes as dark as coal that I could imagine with a sparkle; and the body of a woman half her age.
Now, I don’t have a problem taking out snot-nosed daddy’s grown-up little boy; in fact I don’t mind that at all. And I am an equal opportunity contractee. I believe in equal rights for women. I have taken out a couple, but I don’t think I have ever even seen a woman who looked like this let alone bury one. With most of the contracts I have filled on women they looked like something the cat dragged in. Oh well, one dies as easily as another. My one rule, well, maybe not my only one, but one I won’t break is kids. I just can’t imagine a kid doing anything so bad as to take a life.
This one would mean a bit of travel, seems she belonged to some big wheel in Mexico. That made things a bit tougher. I don’t mean to do the job, that wouldn’t be easy but getting away afterward would definitely be hard. As I went deeper into the file it told me where I could find her—at a villa in the hills near Puerto Vallarta. Damn, this would not be a walk in the park.
I was starting to wonder if this was Bass’ way of getting rid of me. It was almost 6:30. Bass was surely awake. In fact he answered on the second ring. “Damn, you couldn’t wait until I had my coffee poured?”
“Lester, what is this kidnap deal? That isn’t what I do, you know that.”
“Jessie…Roy, I have a dozen different people I could call but I need someone capable of finesse and who will keep this guy alive until or if things change.”
“Okay, so which one goes first? Oh, and I need the information on Walker.”
“Damnit, Roy, I need these jobs taken care of. I don’t need you distracted. I want Whitehurst first. We need to force his father into negotiations. After you take care of these two, I’ll get the information you want on Walker.”
I hung up the phone and went out for a run, leaving my cell at the house. I could have sat there and argued with him and eventually gotten what I wanted but why waste the time. I know Bass—he will call and call, one of those calls will be him relenting. After that he will call again and eventually tell me he will have what I need in a couple of hours.
Sure enough, I went through sixteen calls before I found the message saying he would have what I need. But he surprised me; he promised in the same message to have it to me in an hour but he wanted me to take care of the other two first. I had already expected that so I went back to the files.
Roger Whitehurst III
Roger was the kind of guy I would rather shoot than spend five minutes with. He was a twenty-six-year-old thumb sucker. He was a spoiled brat. I understand a man loving his son, wanting the very best for him, but giving his kid everything the boy asked for had pretty much turned him into a nothing. When I first saw him, I wondered who wiped his butt for him.
The first time I saw him he was getting out of the back of an oversized Lincoln, his driver dressed like a bellhop. As the two of them walked by I could tell the “bellhop” was massive and carrying some kind of large handgun in a shoulder rig. This job was looking harder by the minute. How was I going to be able to grab this guy if the bellhop from hell was with him all day?
For the next two days I followed Roger around. I couldn’t find a time he wasn’t with someone to protect him. His wife was a total knockout, obviously married into money, not for love. I went back to the hotel and sat there going over the file and all the pictures I had taken. There were plenty of opportunities where I could take this guy out and get away, but snagging him was a problem.
I was about to pick up the phone and call Bass when my cell went off. I was thinking it had to be Bass so I didn’t even look to see who was calling. “Hey Lester, I was just about ready to ring your bell.”
The voice on the phone wasn’t Bass. “Mister Carson, we need to talk.”
There was only one person who had this number, Lester Bass. “Who is this?”
“I can’t tell you that over the phone. You are in Visalia to do a job that you won’t be able to do without me. There is a bar in walking distance from your hotel. Walk out the front door, turn to the right, go two blocks down. You will see a sign that says Mark’s. Go in, and tell the bartender you are Jake. He’ll show you to a private room. I understand you like good Scotch. Have a drink and wait there. Leave now.” The phone went dead.
I looked at the caller ID but the caller was blocked. I knew Bass well enough to know he wouldn’t tell me anything so calling him would do no good. I checked my Glock and strapped my little five-shot Colt to my ankle and headed for the door.
The bar was about as nondescript as any place I had been into. The bartender was with a couple of customers at a table so I waited at the bar. When he walked up I said, “Hi, I’m Jake, I’m…” I didn’t get anything else out before he turned and walked toward the back of the bar. When he came to a door, he unlocked it and looked back at me.
There was a long table near the center of the room with a bottle of Macallan Reflexion, a bucket of ice and three glasses at one end of the table. I knew my Scotch; this stuff sold for close to two thousand a bottle. Sure, I could afford that price but I had never spent more than a hundred. I broke the seal and poured three fingers into the glass, ignoring the ice; anyone who would water down something this expensive knew nothing about good Scotch. The golden liquid was so smooth it almost evaporated in my mouth.
I knew I had just been ruined for any other Scotch. I was pouring the second glass when I heard the lock on the door turn. Facing the door I set down the glass and rested my hand on the butt of the Glock tucked away at the middle of my back. A man of about fifty walked through the door, an older gentleman behind him.
“Mr. Carson, you have nothing to fear from us. Please take your hand away from your gun,” said the younger of the two as the men walked in and reached out his hand. “I am Roger Whitehurst Jr. and this is my father, Roger Whitehurst.”
I shook hands with the two of them then took a long pull on the Scotch, damn that was some great Scotch, then sat down as the youngest poured the two of them a drink. They sat across the table from me and took a drink. It was the senior who spoke. “I am certain you are quite confused Mr. Carson, I know I would be.”
“That is probably the greatest understatement I have ever heard, but I’m not a completely ignorant person. Either you have discovered what I am here for or you are the ones who contracted me.”
Roger Sr. smiled. “Very astute observation. If the former were true you would already be on your way elsewhere. So, yes, we are the ones who are paying for your services.”
“I am no less confused than when you first walked through the door.”
“Calling for your services was my idea,” Sr. said quietly. “My father came to this country with very little. No, he wasn’t poor but wasn’t wealthy at all. He bought a small company and grew it to a very profitable endeavor. I started pretty much on the ground floor and learned the business and eventually took it over. My son did the same but when his son came along his father was easy on him. As a result Roger Whitehurst III is soft, has a poor head for business and is pretty much controlled by his money-grubbing trophy wife.” Sr. continued after taking a drink. “At the rate he is going through cash, he will be broke in a couple of years and he will start taking the company down. He has already stolen from the company in order to keep his wife. It has to stop. We have done all we know to do thus far. Nothing has worked. So, you are very much our last resort.”
I took another drink. “Okay, I see your problem but how does my kidnapping your grandson fix anything?”
He leaned back in his chair. “A few months ago we cut off his access to company accounts. Now he has to manage on what he is paid and the remainder of what he has in the bank. It is time for this boy to grow up. Our first purpose is to show him his wife is just after his money. In order to pay the ransom she will be forced to empty their accounts and sell much of her jewelry, which we are certain she will not do. When she doesn’t do that, we intend for him to know she would rather have him dead. The second purpose is simply to bring him back into the fold.”
I am going to murder Bass when this is over. “I understand your dilemma but I think you have the wrong person for this job. This isn’t what I do.”
It was Jr. who spoke next. “We are fully aware of what you do. We were also informed you are the best at what you do, but you are the person we need for this. Mr. Carson, we know this is a very elaborate scheme. We are going to extremes that may seem unnecessary to you. Further, we are going to make it easy for you to do.”
I shook my head. “Elaborate is the second understatement. I have seen his security, watched him for days. I don’t see how this can be done without someone being hurt or killed, and one possibility is that someone will be me.”
“I assure you, Mr. Carson, we will help make it happen and no one will be hurt,” said Sr. as he slid a piece of paper across the table. “In addition to what we have already paid, this will be paid directly to you; half will be placed in an account within an hour of your agreement, the other half after you have completed the task.”
I looked at the numbers on the paper; wow, maybe it is time to retire. I nodded in agreement and we shook hands. For another hour we talked about the arrangements including a place to take him, a vehicle to take him there and someone who would assist me.
When I got back to my room, there were two cases of that lovely Scotch and an envelope. Inside the envelope was a key, an address and an account number, how to access the account and the password. After opening one of the bottles and pouring a drink, I went to my computer, signed in and transferred almost all the money to another account.
The next morning I went to the warehouse I had been directed to. After putting on my gloves I unlocked the door; inside was the van and all the equipment I was going to need and a cell phone. The note attached to the phone said, “Call the number on the phone. If there is no answer hang up and wait.” I called the number, no answer, so I waited.
It wasn’t long before the phone rang. “No names, someone will come to your room at 10:00 tonight. He will have the information you need to carry out the task and is there to assist. Leave your car at the warehouse. Drive the van back to your hotel.” Maybe this wouldn’t be so tough.
I went back to the hotel, had a great dinner, went back to my room and took a nap. The 10 o’clock news had just come on when there was a knock on the door. I was surprised to see the “bellhop” standing there, dressed in black and holding a briefcase. “I’m Larry, I understand we will be working together.”
“I guess so, but I am a little surprised. Don’t you work for Roger III?”
“Actually, I work for Sr. I am with company security.”
“Isn’t this taking a chance? I mean using someone who 3 knows?”
He opened the briefcase. Inside was what looked like a pellet pistol and a collection of darts. “Our faces won’t be exposed, no words and when one of these darts hit him, he will be out like a light. Security will be responding to something else when we get there. We will have about five minutes to get in the house, take him down and get out. I know the house well, so that shouldn’t be a problem. We will go in at midnight. His wife will already be asleep.”
We went over the plans for the house, how we would get in, where 3 would be and how we would get out. At 11:30 we left the hotel and drove to the house, sitting just down the block. At almost exactly midnight his phone buzzed. He looked at it. “Let’s go.”
We drove to the gate, he punched in some numbers, and we drove to the front steps. We ran up the steps, he unlocked the door, and we rushed to the den. Roger Whitehurst III jumped from his chair and I nailed him with a dart. Quickly we picked him up, carried him to the van, and I taped his hands, put a filthy canvas sack over his head, after taping his mouth then taped his feet while Larry locked the house. We were in and out, down the drive and gone in about three minutes.
Our little captive was just waking when we got to the warehouse. I dragged him roughly from the van and pushed him to the room where he would be spending a few days. The room was well equipped, even had television and food, bathroom, all his needs were met. He screamed, yelled, swore and threatened; fortunately the room was completely soundproof. We watched through the one-way glass as he stormed around the room.
The next morning a note was delivered to his wife. “We have your husband. He will be returned when we have $6,000,000 in hand. You have twenty-four hours to get the cash together. You will be contacted as to where to deliver the cash. Do not contact the police—do it, your husband dies. Fail to deliver the ransom, your husband dies.”
At noon the next day I called the wife. The phone was connected to a recorder. “Do you have the money?” I asked in my best kidnapper voice.
“No, I can give you a million but that is all the cash I have,” she replied.
“You have over three million in the bank, you have investments, jewels, furs and cars. Sell them. Do whatever you need to. I will give you one day, then your husband will die painfully.”
“Oh, please, do what you will do. I have no intention to pay you. The son-of-a-bitch is worth more dead than alive. A week after you kill him I will be on a beach somewhere spending his life insurance.”
“You are killing your husband, Mrs. Whitehurst.”
She laughed, “No, you are killing him. I’m just the one who comes out ahead.”
Larry shot into a stack of boxes. “You just became a widow.”
“And a wealthy one,” she laughed and hung up.
Larry looked at me. “Okay, are you ready?”
“Sure enough,” I said and handed over the tape, keeping the duplicate for myself.
Three more rounds went into the boxes, and the prepared dummy was tossed onto the floor. I headed for my car and beat feet. In an hour I was heading back to Corpus Christi.
A few days later as I sat in my hotel room on Padre Island looking through the file on Elaina Cortez the news reported on the kidnapping. The body they went to recover was nowhere to be found; both Roger Whitehurst III and Lawrence Ashton were certain the kidnapper was dead. It told how Ashton had found the warehouse where Whitehurst was being held, broke in, shot the kidnapper and rescued Mr. Whitehurst. There was no mention of the second man Mr. Whitehurst said had kidnapped him.
Padre Island is one of my favorite places in the world. When I was a kid we spent much of the summer here. I can lay on the beach for hours just watching the sky and listening to the waves crash on the shore. It is the only place in the world I feel truly whole.
Mexico was once a great place to go. I loved to walk through the market place, the small shops and street vendors. Some of the food from the vendors would challenge the greatest Mexican restaurants in the world; I have never had tamales anywhere that were as good. That is no longer true; where it was enjoyable to walk the streets any time of the day or night, you would now be taking your life into your own hands. I would love to see the border towns return to those wonderful days.
Getting any kind of weapon across the border is risky and getting caught could mean some hard time. There is so much drug traffic that even taking large amounts of cash is dangerous because it is almost always related to drugs. There was only one way I was going to manage this—I had to have a contact on the other side. Fortunately I knew a money-grubbing friend across the border.
I dialed the number by memory. As soon as the phone rang it went to message. “My friend, you know who this is. Call me.” Miguel and I never used names on the phone; I am careful, he is paranoid and probably for good reason.
Ten minutes later the phone rang. After I said hello Miguel said, “Amigo, it has been a long time. You do not call without reason.”
Right to the point, no niceties. “I need some heavy duty assistance. You still able to help?”
It was quiet for a moment. “You know where. Tonight at midnight.” That was it. He hung up.
Miguel and I have run together, fought together, fought each other and in the end became, if not friends, associates. Whenever one of us needed to meet we always had places, we didn’t have to name it. With Miguel it was the ABC Bar in Boy’s Town. It was a filthy little hole in the wall few vacationers could even find. I headed for the house, not far up the beach to get a different ride.
My old 1975 Ford Thunderbird was perfect for this. The car was a nondescript maroon; nothing special to look at but the five-hundred-plus turbo-charged power plant could leave the world in dust. I sat at the beach house and consumed a swallow or two of that wonderful Scotch then headed south.
The drive to Nuevo Laredo was easy enough. As I pulled up to the border police the usual question, “What is the purpose of your visit to Mexico?” was answered with, “Meeting a lady for dinner,” and after the dogs made a lap around the car I was sent on my way. There are few reasons for people to go to Mexico; one, of course, is for vacation on the coast, though few drive there; another is to buy drugs, but no one with a brain says that crossing over; the other main reason is to connect with a hooker, thus “Meeting a lady for dinner.” Oh, there are people who travel over to shop and there are some legitimate businesses, but those are the three main reasons.
It was 11:30 when I arrived at the ABC Bar and, of course, Miguel was nowhere to be seen. Oh, he was around; he watched me drive up and watched me as I sat at a table near the door. At five minutes after midnight he walked in, spoke to the bartender, picked up a bottle and two glasses then went to the back of the bar. I waited to see if he was followed, though I knew he wasn’t; there were already two of his people in the bar. I walked up to his table and waited for his invitation to sit down across from him.
He poured me a drink from his bottle and slid the glass across the table. “I have not heard from you for a long time, my friend. You must have been busy not to visit an old friend.”
I opened my shirt exposing the scars from the bullets. “I had a small disagreement with an old friend. Took me a while to get back on my feet.”
“I bet it did. Is this why you are here, to visit this friend?”
“No, I have a job to take care of. I need a 50, twenty-five rounds and a long range scope; I also need a Glock, three clips and one hundred rounds.”
“That will not come cheap,” he said then told me his price. I didn’t argue with him even though his price was three times the market. We worked out the details of payment and where we would meet. “Hey, got a question, who is your contract?”
I like Miguel, and trust him for the most part but I didn’t want to tempt him into trying to make more money. “It is much better that you don’t know. I am certain you will read it in the news.”
“What about the one who shot you?”
“Amos Bets. I took care of him. Carl Walker put out the contract, but I will deal with him later.”
Miguel laughed, “Mr. Walker is visiting Mexico now, spending a little time in the sun at Acapulco.”
“I will have to pay him a visit when this is over.”
“My friend, I can deliver him anywhere you desire…for a price of course.”
“Miguel, it is worth a million if you can do that, plus anything you find on him.” We agreed and he went on his way after telling me where I could pick up my hardware.
The next day I picked up my hardware, told Miguel where to deliver Walker and left for Puerto Vallarta.
The fifteen-hour drive to Puerto Vallarta was long and I needed to rest. I spent the next day watching Elaina Cortez. She didn’t move around much during the day but she hit the clubs at night. She danced, drank and spent the evening in the company of a half dozen men, each hoping they would be the one. Just before the sun broke the darkness, she returned to the villa.
The shot was three hundred yards, no big deal. The hill behind the villa blocked any wind from that direction and the night was deathly still. When she arrived at the villa she was with a young man; I watched as they got out of the car and walked up the steps. She made no attempt to hide her little tryst. They stopped at the top of the steps, just outside the door and she wrapped her arms around him. I had one shot; with her back to me I sighted in on the base of her skull, slowly squeezed the trigger. The round hit its mark before the sound reached their ears, went through her and struck the young man.
Before they hit the ground, I was headed down the hill, leaving the rifle where it sat and headed for the border, ditching the Glock and ammunition along the way.
The drive back to Laredo was exhausting, not just physically but emotionally. I kept expecting some cop to pull me over and drag me to some filthy cell, but it didn’t happen. I arrived at the border and, as usual, was asked “Anything to declare?” I could have made some smart remark about the weather or something but I was too tired so a simple, “No,” was all I said.
They pulled me forward, had me step out of the car and ran the dogs around while I sat there watching. They asked if they could look in the trunk and I said sure. An hour later I was on my way home.
So that brings us to where we sit right now. For the past four of days I have been dosing him, playing loud music and flashing lights. He hasn’t slept, his eyes are blood red, and his mind is mush. He hasn’t had anything for twelve hours and he is still freaking like his LSD trip is still on. A more humane person might put a gun to his head, but I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet. We will see.
About J.R. Hamilton
J.R. Hamilton was raised in Corpus Christi and lived there until he left school to join the Navy. After a time in Viet Nam, he was assigned to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, where he was also part of the pistol team.
J.R. started working on motorcycles when he was thirteen and discovered the love of his life when he rebuilt a 1959 Panhead. He began riding with clubs at a young age and belonged to one before he left for Viet Nam. He has ridden with clubs in Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio and Maryland.
By Angela Perea
The dawn creeps in through the window and spreads its orange glow across the room like a perfume model twirling an evening gown in slow motion across a TV screen. Summer blinks her eyes and tries to concentrate on the time divide between sleep and consciousness. She can’t identify the line but knows it existed as well as she knows anything. She could close her eyes and return to her dream, something she’s always been able to do—simply let go of the world and slip across the line into the other place—but something holds her back.
In this other place she is rarely scared. She usually conjures up dream worlds where she is safe and surrounded by people who love and care for her. Occasionally, she is late for a meeting, forgets to wear the right color pants, or casually reaches back into her mouth to pull out a bothersome tooth, but even these dreams don’t leave her feeling insecure as is the case this morning. This particular morning, as the warmth from the sun tiptoes across her bare shoulder, the other place clings to her consciousness and wedges itself between her and her husband of seventeen years as they lay together this Saturday morning.
In the dream, the world had been normal. Calm. Nothing stressful until a woman, a librarian in a quiet library, asks her to test reality. “Go ahead. Pinch yourself. If you don’t feel it, then you’re not dreaming. But if you do feel it, then this is real. Go ahead. Do it.” Summer takes the skin right above her pubis and pinches. The pain is excruciating.
As Summer considers the dream again, she is startled by the failure of this test. She depends on certain rules to her dreams, rules that make the line dependable and true. Now the line is shattered, and she knows she will spend several days repairing the damage. She also knows, based on experience, that she is likely to chalk it up as menstrual cramps invading her dream as her uterus contracts in the real world.
Summer now finds herself debating on how to wake up. She could stretch; waking up her muscles and her brain, and slowing acclimate to the room, eventually getting out of bed. She could close her eyes again and beg sleep to take her, no longer caring if she was able to cross over to the other place or not. She could roll over, push the covers off of her and slip out of bed, knowing that the minute her feet touched the ground, it was over and she had no other choice but to get up. Or…
Summer pulls her right hand out from underneath the cordiality of the pillow and, staying on her left side, slowly walks her fingers across the mattress toward Kyle’s back. Before reaching out and touching him, she pushes herself down the bed so her gaze is in the middle of his back, representing her true height compared to his. She is aware of how much she likes feeling small in relation to his size; somehow, the extra twenty pounds she’d gained since their marriage melts away, and she feels pretty and fragile. She smiles thinking how he wasn’t even aware of these contemplations yet she gives him credit as if he is complicit in making her feel this way. She can feel the heat coming off his body before she touches him. Like a magnet, her fingers make contact.
Then she remembers the secret. Oh god, the secret.
At first, Kyle’s mental illness was introduced into their marriage like an annoying neighbor whose dog won’t stop barking. At first you complain, even call the authorities, but after a while you accept the barking and learn to close the windows and live with it. Everything’s fine until one day the dog gets out of the gate and rushes you, taking a chunk of your thigh. You consider packing up and leaving but you love the neighborhood and your home, so you stay. The dog becomes unpredictable and more dangerous, leaving bits of you all over the yard. It learns to hide behind corners and come out in ways that make it impossible to feel secure. And then one day, ten years later, with the help of therapy and Prozac, the dog is silenced. Only with the passing of time do you begin to breathe deeply and accept that the dog is gone, and life can start all over again.
It was seven years into their marriage when Summer became pregnant, and six months after that when she elected to have her tubes tied. How could she bring a child into her home when Kyle was so sick? She couldn’t and wouldn’t. As she sat in the waiting room of the clinic, she explained to her unborn child the “why”. Your dad is sick. Too sick to care for you. I’m too tired. I think that I might also be sick. How can two sick, tired people take care of you? It’s unfair, and I can’t do it. She consulted no one before and told no one after, though she never felt like it was her secret alone; the unborn child had agreed with her and gone willingly. Her conscience was free. Or at least, it had been until the appearance of the birthmark.
Kyle continues to breathe deeply as Summer pulls the blanket down, exposing the brown discoloration. She gently runs her fingers across the apparition, this secret. What do you want?
“Do you see it?” she asked her sister-in-law at a pool party a few years ago. The one and only time she got up the nerve to talk to anyone about it.
“See what?” Susan struggled to put sunscreen on a squirmy, and now slimy, two-year-old. “Sit still, Boo Boo.”
“That birthmark on his shoulder.”
“Yeah. What about it?” Finally, Susan gave up and sent the little boy bouncing over to his seven-year-old sister, who was ankles deep in the shallow end of the pool, her hands outstretched.
“Does it look funny to you?” Summer tried to sound casual but knew that if her sister-in-law listened carefully she should be able to hear a fair amount of anxious alarm.
“What do you mean? Like cancer or something?” Susan spread the remaining sunscreen across her ridiculously flat stomach and brought her sunglasses down from the top of her head as she lay back in the lounge chair, tilting her head back to take in the August sun.
“No. I mean, its shape.”
Susan waited a beat and then, exasperated, lifted her sunglasses from her eyes and focused until she found Kyle’s back. “No.” She placed the glasses back on her head and resumed her sunbathing. “I don’t see anything.”
And that was it. Summer never said another word to anyone.
She’d find herself studying the birthmark often in the beginning, never touching, but in the shower or as Kyle was getting ready for work, she would focus her attention on its shape trying to see something other than what she did see. The shape, she was hoping her sister-in-law would recognize, was that of a three-month fetus. Hands with fingers, stubby legs and a head so large it doubled the length of the entire form. There was no denying it, but she could ignore it as she did the barking dog.
She continued to softly rub Kyle’s back, her thumb barely making contact with the birthmark. The pinch now made sense. It wasn’t menstrual cramps. Something was crossing the line in her dream and it wasn’t her uterus. Not really, anyway. Fear she hadn’t felt in years skulked up her spine. She had to tell her secret to Kyle to be free. That is what it, she, he, it wants. It wants to be free, she supposes. She feels betrayed and angry and sad. She thought they had had an agreement.
She takes a deep breath, preparing to talk, yet the words sit in the back of her throat. She takes another breath and then another and then begins to speak. “Kyle. Kyle? Are you awake?” Her own voice sounds strange as it breaks up the calm in the room. She notices that the sun is no longer orange but bright and colorless.
Kyle stirs and stretches. He rolls over onto his back and lifts his arm so she can snuggle up to him and place a hand on his chest as she often does. “Good morning,” he says, not opening his eyes, content to stay like this awhile longer.
“Can you hear that dog barking?”
About Angela Perea
Angela began writing in short stories in junior high, distributing pages of her risqué tale of stolen kisses and heavy breathing set against the backdrop of a high school dance and Madonna’s “Crazy for You” to classmates during recess. The cemented her love of the short story and fiction in general. She believes that all great writers were first great readers, and spends much of her reading life studying the masters: Nabokov, Faulkner, Woolf, Lawrence, Updike and Bradbury.
Angela received a Creative Writing degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver where she received several awards for her short fiction and poetry. It was while in college that she developed a love of filmmaking and started Holy Carp! Films.
Angela featured two stories in Dead Key Publishing’s first anthology.
By Stephen W. Smith
Sarah let the water run across her face and down her chest. She could feel it cascading down the rest of her body, sprinkling her feet before it went down the drain. She concentrated on the feel of the hot water hitting her skin. She could isolate any part of her body she wanted and zero in on the sensation of the shower. Her robotic body made her a Dual. Her very human brain made her one, too.
She was technically 140 years old. Seventy years of that life had been spent as Sarah Barnes, a married nurse who’d raised a family of three kids and lived in a small town in Kansas. Her husband had died when she was fifty. She’d enjoyed the rest of her life enjoying her three grandkids and friends she had made.
She was standing in this shower, isolating the feelings of water hitting her skin, because of an ad, evidently fashioned specifically to get her attention, when she’d been using a Fantasy Immersion Pod one night. The FIP had been designed in the late 21st century to mix together Facebook, music, holographic reality, television, movies, porn and full body sensory stimulation into one experience. It was supposed to relieve stress and prevent sex crimes. It may have helped with stress. It didn’t take away human nature.
Sarah had been walking into a Swiss village on a cobblestone trail, the Swiss Alps rising up behind a chalet. She’d expected Julie Andrews to walk up and start singing. She could have inserted that into the experience, if she’d wanted to. Or she could have a man with her. Any man, any age, who’d do what she wanted. He’d wine and dine her. He’d rip her clothes off, if she had put that in the program. But she’d only wanted to spend a weekend sleeping in an old fashioned bed in an uncrowded Swiss village. She sat on the deck and sketched drawings of the mountains. She slept like a baby. And on Sunday night, when she was returning to real life, a quick ad had taken the place of the village. A man in his early thirties sat on her bed. He was wearing pajama bottoms and looking into Sarah’s eyes. He started to speak and Sarah got chills. “Hi Sarah. Would you like to join me?” He patted the bed beside him. Sarah broke out into a sweat. “Do I know you?” Sarah awoke in the FIP at that point. The man faded from her mind.
Sarah had been in her mid-fifties when she’d spent her weekend in the Swiss Alps. She didn’t go to the FIP chambers very often. The cost wasn’t too bad, but she preferred to spend money on her kids and grandkids. On rare occasion she’d go just to have a sexual encounter. Since her husband’s death, she’d had a hard time with real relationships. Men her own age preferred the fantasy encounters in the FIP to someone their own age. Many wouldn’t have traded it for a real younger woman. And younger men didn’t seem to have any interest in her. A few men she had went out with seemed strange. One had tried to handcuff her. She had left as fast as she could. But she missed the touch and feel of a real body. The FIP did a good job of simulating the reality, to a point. But it still seemed like one of those dreams where you wake up thinking it really happened. But as consciousness takes over, the dream fades and you know it wasn’t real.
Sarah continued to work at her job as a nurse. She rotated, sometimes working with babies, sometimes working in the ER. For the most part, she enjoyed her job. She also traveled some. She went to Europe when she was fifty-eight. She met a Frenchman who was about her age, and he was wonderful to her. They ate in fancy restaurants and took walks. He spoke little English and she returned the favor with her lack of French. It didn’t seem to matter. And when they finally made it to a hotel bedroom, he couldn’t finish what they started. It didn’t really bother her too much. He’d held her and kissed her and had been kind. She’d not had the fondest memories of sex over the years, so maybe it had been for the best.
But she longed for something. She wasn’t sure what it was, but the man on the bed seemed to be a clue. She would think of him sometimes and hunger for him. She knew it had been an ad, and she recognized a psychological trick had probably been used on her. It had still occurred in the FIP, so it was no more reality than the other things she’d done there. But it haunted her.
One night when she’d had a long, tough day, Sarah went to the FIP facility to have sex. She wanted something kinky tonight. She didn’t know why. It wasn’t going to be real. When she climbed in the FIP chamber, she noticed an ad box in her peripheral vision. It was the man sitting on her bed. She reached for the small device, which much like the mouse from the previous century, could control what happened in the chamber. She opened the ad box. It took her to a place she would have never expected.
Sex had been the attraction that had propelled Sarah to the future. But the bigger selling point had been everlasting life. Artificial intelligence had been around for a long time. Robots were common at that time. They usually did menial tasks, and they mimicked human speech and actions. And they could make rational judgments in some cases and come close to actual human thought. But they still were not human.
Scientist had built bodies that were pretty much identical to humans. A company called Dual Eternal had teamed up with the government to start developing an idea that had been around for a century: implanting the brain into a robotic body. One of the selling points was a possible endless life span. Another perk was sex with another person who was also a Dual. Sarah went through lots of testing to find what her perfect mate would be like. Some of the testing was done verbally, some with computer profiling. And some came from her experiences in the FIP and her buying and entertainment habits. Marketing knew more about her desires than she did.
Sarah Barnes had died in 2112, at the age of seventy. She had breast cancer. It was ironic that so many advances had been made in medicine, but cancer still showed up at times. Her brain was removed and placed in a capsule, nourished by an oxygen and glycol mix, at a perfect temperature, in an inert state. She stayed there for fifteen years. She was one of the lucky ones. The first test cases had not fared as well. Revived brains in that period often failed to adapt to the robotic bodies. Some went crazy. Others committed suicide, often because of feeling disconnected from their new bodies. When Sarah was placed in her new body in 2127, the problems had been worked out.
She awoke in a body she could only have dreamed of in the past. She had always felt her breasts were too small. And she’d put on weight around her middle as she’d reached middle age. Her new body seemed perfect to her. And she was now, and would always be, a 35-year-old woman, who wouldn’t age, wouldn’t get sick, wouldn’t get fat and could still feel the sensations of a human. She still needed to eat and drink, to nourish her brain and nervous system. She would attach a tube to her side at night, and the digested food and drink would be removed, cleanly and efficiently. There was none of the messiness of the human experience. Just the pleasures of still enjoying food.
And sex was beyond belief. Her new body responded perfectly to the act. She met her partner on the first night of being awakened. His name was Robert. He was not the man in the ads, not the man on the bed. He was better. He was incredible. He was about her age, or his new body was, and he was in perfect shape. Muscular abs, but not overtly so. And his penis aroused her immediately when she saw it. She could not recall ever having had that happen with her husband. Not that she didn’t ever enjoy sex with her late husband. But his body hadn’t excited her like this. She had more orgasms on the first night with Robert than she’d had in her entire human lifetime.
The years went by. Sarah and Robert enjoyed each other’s company. They were not only compatible in bed, but they shared many other interests. Robert had been a teacher in his first life. Now he worked on an assembly line. It was ironic. In the late 20th and early 21st century, robotics had been introduced in manufacturing to eliminate costs and speed up production. Now, a Dual was put in the same position. It was more of a political move than a practical one. Sarah was working as a waitress. Her nursing skills were not being used. She was glad to have something to do, but she missed the challenges of medicine. She would have loved to have delved into the changes in the medical field since she’d practiced nursing. But the government tightly controlled the jobs given to Duals.
The world’s population had fallen to three billion people by the time Sarah had died in 2112. Wars had continued. New viruses and bacteria had adapted to the medications that had seemed on the verge of ending premature death. That was part of the reason that companies like Dual Eternal could begin extending the human experience. But as time went on, and the population of the Duals rose, humans began to have some fear of the Duals. Politicians began to stress the need to control Dual’s working and living conditions. Fear always leads to the need to control.
Duals in some way became second-class citizens. It didn’t bother Sarah. The part of Sarah that truly made Sarah who she was had been modified when placed in her new body. The brain had been rewired to allow for positive emotions, but parts of the brain that had allowed mental illness and mental disorders were removed. And a certain degree of engineering had been done to allow the actual biological parts of the brain to retain its elasticity and allow it to not age. Dementia would not be a problem. Empathy and morality still existed.
Biological humans on the other hand still struggled with a natural bent toward selfishness and uncontrolled emotions. Hence, wars and murders still occurred. And the last thirty years had seen the governments of most countries start employing Duals into the role of soldiers. They were practically perfect as killing machines. They would follow orders, they had to be severely damaged to be stopped, and with their abilities to control the sensations they felt, they could choose to not feel pain.
Sarah and Robert had talked about these developments as they happened. They could see the flaws in the thinking of the leaders who pushed Duals as a viable option for warfare. Duals had been promoted as a means for humans to extend their lives. Now, that was being thrown out for the expediency of killing humans and Duals. But war had always been extremely illogical. The ones who usually died were the young and strong.
Robert had been killed by a laser. A whole city block had been vaporized by a satellite laser precision strike. It sounded so clinical. Like striking cancer. Fifty human soldiers and twenty Duals had been targeted. Ten civilians had also been killed, and Sarah found it ironic that her country’s government filed a complaint with the Peace Union about the collateral damage. What about the soldiers and Duals? Who would complain for them? And the Peace Union was a joke, just like its predecessors, the United Nations and League of Nations.
Sarah wasn’t sure she could feel grief anymore. But she missed Robert. She missed his company and his touch. And though she wasn’t angry, the loss of Robert conflicted with her expectations, which was that she and Robert would always be together, for as long as their bodies lasted. She had not expected to lose another partner.
Ted had shown up at her door two weeks after Robert was lost. He was a little older, or at least in appearance, since his body wasn’t going to age. There’s not a lot of difference between 35 and 45 when you are not going to age, and your body is in perfect physical shape. It was a change on a lot of different levels, but they still matched up in interests, some areas being different than her commonalities with Robert, but the sex was still great and she was glad to have someone in her bed again. The government might be nervous about how many Duals were in the population, but they still kept their word about taking care of the original promises made to humans who had chosen that means of prolonging their lives. Well, except for the Duals sent to fight, who didn’t get to live indefinitely after all.
Sarah had recently been placed in a job in health care again. With several war zones in the world growing hotter by the day, more and more nurses were being sent closer to the fronts to treat wounded soldiers. Sarah was a little surprised that she hadn’t been sent to an overseas location.
Ted and Sarah worked their jobs, enjoyed each other’s company and got into the rhythm of life. Forces were at work to change that. Politicians were showing up on news feeds around the world, pushing for laws to demand that Duals be sent into combat ahead of biological humans. Duals were not going to riot or start demanding their rights, mainly because the computer components that had been conjoined with their brains prevented them from harming humans or other Duals. Unfortunately, leaders and scientists had modified the Duals being sent to war by changing the programing to allow them to fight and kill. If and when they returned from battle, the procedure was reversed.
Ted came home from work one evening with some interesting news. Duals had been a large part of the industry that built the robotic bodies and brain units for Duals. They also built the storage tanks for holding human brains until they were placed in a Dual body. And in an ironic twist, they built the nanotech that was used to override the Duals’ built in mechanism to stop them from harming humans. All the tools were there to stop the madness.
Ted said that the word was spreading around the world. Nano pills could be used in a plan to convert the world to a safer place. Sarah didn’t like the sound of it, but as they discussed it, it made more sense.
“So how many humans do we have to kill? I mean how many do I have to kill?” Sarah felt funny even saying the word. She could remember rare times in her human life when she’d been mad enough to think she could kill. But even then, she doubted she could have. And she’d never thought of it as a Dual.
Ted laughed nervously. “I know it seems odd. But remember. We are going to kill them. But we will put their brains in hibernation and they will wake in a Dual body. We are doing them a favor.”
Sarah wasn’t totally convinced. “But I’ve known humans who wanted no part of going on in a Dual body. What about them?”
Ted seemed to ponder the question for a moment. “I’m not sure. I know there is probably an answer to that question, but I don’t know it. I will see if I can find out.”
Sarah appreciated his honesty. Even though it wasn’t a surprise. Duals were honest to a fault. She wondered if that would change with the plan to kill humans. Some form of deceit would surely be required to pull the plan off. Just going against the human population was a violation of a longstanding trust.
Ted studied Sarah’s face. He could tell she was struggling with this. “So what are you thinking about this?”
“I just don’t understand why we have to do this. The humans trust us. Or most of them do. What am I saying? We are still human. Aren’t we?”
Ted smiled at her. “And you are still a great human, Sarah. But can’t you see what is happening in the world? Humans are starting to kill off Duals to keep their wars going. They are programing us to be killers. And eventually, humanity will kill off not only all Duals but most humans. If we don’t stop them, they will kill us all. This way they get to live long, enjoyable lives, and they can have their flaws eliminated. Greed, jealousy, the desire for power, the desire to hurt another was taken out of us. The humans are reprograming us to have flaws again. Just to wage war.”
Sarah’s job at the hospital afforded her the opportunity to kill many humans in a more humane manner. Drugs could make the process painless for many of her patients. And placing their brains in stasis would be much easier. There were also a large group of Duals working at the hospital, which would make the process go more smoothly.
Sarah found her mind wandering back to her first life more and more. She thought of her children. She thought about her parents and her childhood. She remembered the mistakes she’d made in life. Ted was right. Humans were flawed. But they were also capable of great acts of love and giving and caring. And the question of whether humans who wanted to remain totally human wouldn’t have a choice genuinely bothered her.
Though she had never been religious, she knew she had believed in the idea of God at one time. And the God she remembered hearing about allowed man free will. Wouldn’t they be taking away free will from humans?
That evening, Ted had given her a small pill and said to take it.
“What is it?”
Ted smiled. “It’s a ‘soldier pill’. It will make it easier to do what we need to do.”
A chill went up her spine. And fear. This plan must be much bigger than she’d ever imagined. Now she knew that it could really happen. They were using medication that was given to Duals before they went off to fight. The pills contained nanotech bugs that could modify the brain from the inside. It would stop the protective instincts that had been put into the Duals to keep them from hurting humans.
She went and got a glass of water and popped the pill into her mouth. She drank the water. The pill rested under her tongue. She hoped none of the bugs would be released into her system. Duals still had a circulatory system, though very advanced. The brain stilled needed glucose and oxygen. And nerves still needed nourishment. The mechanical systems didn’t break down, and could be replaced if need be. And the brain could survive for a month or more if the body system was not functioning. So accidents usually didn’t kill a Dual. Only destruction of the brain could do that.
She went through the nightly pill routine for a week. She could tell Ted was watching her. She’d not noticed the change in him before. He was acting edgy and jumpy. She tried to listen to him and see if she could detect any other changes. She started trying to mimic his manners of speaking, to convince him that she was taking the pills.
Sarah began to formulate a plan. Ted had taken her to a meeting of Duals about a week after she finished her pills. She felt like it was a good sign that he didn’t suspect her of anything. As they drove to the meeting, Ted told her that the plan was going down in two weeks. The meeting tonight would be a review for the Duals in their area to know what they each needed to do.
She barely remembered that meeting. Talk of injecting humans with deadly drugs, which would paralyze them, and slowly kill them, but allow several days for Duals to harvest their brains. She imagined how terrible that would be. She couldn’t let that happen. She didn’t know how, but she couldn’t let this happen.
Memories of her first life, a lifetime ago, flashed through her mind. Her parents. Her kids. Her husband. Memories of laughter and love. Human love.
What she did remember that night was a Dual woman who had begun crying. The leader of the meeting asked her what was wrong and she mumbled something about killing children. Two other Dual women escorted her out. She could hear her screams as they left the room.
On the way home she asked Ted about the woman.
“She won’t be a problem.” Ted said it with no trace of regret or surprise in his voice.
Now, standing in the shower, feeling the water hitting her body, she was very aware of her body. Was it really human? It had been manufactured after all. The only actual cells in her body that came from Sarah Barnes were in her brain. As she thought about it, she began to cry. It wasn’t something she had ever done as a Dual. Negative emotions were not supposed to be a part of Dual life. And they hadn’t been. Until now. Somehow, she was remembering who she was. She was Sarah Barnes. She was human. She was soul. She would make a stand.
Ted had begun to take her to work and pick her up every day. He’d never done that before. He also didn’t let her out of his sight when they weren’t working. She knew something was up, and she knew she was running out of time. She bided her time and waited. Three days before the killings started, Ted got a call.
“I’ve got to go pick up our medical supplies. You stay here. Okay?”
“Alright.” She tried to sound nonchalant. He was studying her face. He grunted and went out the door. She peeked out the window and watched the car leave.
She ran down the sidewalks from their home and tried to remember where the nearest police station was. As she approached it, she heard a car motor roaring down the street behind her. She just made it in the door as Ted jumped out of the car and started running up the stairs. He thought better of coming in and stopped.
She looked at him through the window and he looked angry. She’d never seen hate on Ted’s face before. He’d always been kind and loving.
He mouthed words at her. “You’re dead!”
The small mountain town in the Rockies was never inundated with people in the summer. But a steady stream of tourists would come into town, especially in the summer to meet the only Dual person still alive. The year was 2350. It had been a century and a half since the Great Dual War, the war that had eliminated all Duals, except Sarah, and nearly eliminated the biological human race. Only forty million humans had survived. And they were only able to survive because Sarah had warned them.
She had a hard time convincing the police officers of what was coming, but eventually they called the mayor. When the killings started that night, instead of two days later, everyone started believing. And it became apparent that the Duals had changed plans. They weren’t just injecting humans and coming back to harvest their brains. They were injecting the poison straight into their brains. Many humans died just from the brain trauma, instantly. And the Dual population began getting their hands on other weapons. Guns. Bombs. Nuclear weapons. Lasers. A full-fledged war ensued. It lasted for ten years and nearly ended humanity. The leaders were careful to protect Sarah. She would become a symbol of the worst and best of humanity. Duals had been model citizens. They had contributed to society and done nothing to harm society. But human weakness led to taking advantage of the Dual’s advanced capabilities. And eventually, Duals became all too human again, in the wrong way.
The second Dark Ages followed the war. But in a lot of ways, it was good. Humanity had been humbled in a severe way. When people came to visit with Sarah, they remembered the stories of the war and the great losses of that time. They would always ask her why she didn’t go along with the plan.
She would look at them, smile and say, “Because I wanted people to have a chance at life, like I had.”
Then they would ask her, “How can we prevent this from ever happening again?”
She’d smile again and say, “Don’t play God. And never forget your humanity.”
About Stephen W. Smith
Stephen W. Smith is a musician who lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Cher, and son, Joshua. He has always been a songwriter, but a long time ago, during a brief period of unemployment, he wrote a science fiction novel about a colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. That novel disappeared somewhere along the way. (It was in the era of floppy discs. Who knows where it went.)
His love of language and words has never left, and two of his stories appeared in Dead Key Publishing’s first anthology.
By Cher Smith
On the Highway 270 ring, as he crept along at speeds that didn’t register on the speedometer, the epiphany burst upon him, as shiny and silver as a Christmas tree ornament, as surprising as first frost on still-green leaves. One day, I will be no more.
It confronts everyone, this idea of death, somewhere between cradle and grave, but he had never felt its sorrowful power before now. Even now, as his drive became ever more protracted and the line of cars ribboned in front of him like some brightly colored but deadly snake, he could sense each sand dropping into the bottom bulb of the hourglass. It was possible that the cars in front of him in like manner dropped off the horizon into the dark chasm, that endless night, and he would die before ever reaching his destination.
One day, I will be no more.
The weight of his own impending and inevitable future bore down upon him.
And life, that tiny fragile thing that he could hear thundering in his ears when he walked up the stairs, would go on without him.
How could it? It was the ultimate betrayal that the world would still spin. He would be no more; he would be forgotten, never having left any sort of mark on the world of men. He couldn’t even claim making a mark on his average and mundane job as a bookkeeper. His life had been dribbled out in numbers, sums that he toted up, and in the end, he found his life in the red.
But even as he peered into the abyss, life, that tiny fragile thing that he could feel pulsing just beneath his wife’s fragrant skin, granted him a boon. It came in the form of the black sports car zipping along the highway’s shoulder as though it didn’t have to be defined nor restrained by the laws of mortal men.
Its license plate read KWT.
And it thundered in his ears and pulsed under his own skin. Life, his life, refused to go gentle into that good night.
He could quit. He could be like Paul Gauguin and spend the rest of his days in the tropics, sand cushioning his form as he watched the endless tides.
He could quit. He would give no notice. In truth, the last twenty years had been working off his notice. He would call his wife and tell her to quit, to meet him at the airport with no luggage, nothing but the clothes on their backs, which they would shed like Adam and Eve once they were on the beach, and they would make love as they had on their wedding day, drinking in salted skin with hungry lips. Alive.
With the epiphany came clarity and heightened senses, as though quotidian dreariness had been torn away to reveal the sharp colors that lay beneath the dinginess. This, indeed, was reality.
He saw trees and watched them shiver in the cold, thin sunlight. He saw chlorophyll flooding the capillaries of each leaf, granting green-gold life in the amazing process mundanely called photosynthesis. He saw each one as though it lived independent of all the others and only for him.
He saw the other motorists as though he had never seen people before. It struck him with a force like a shotgun’s recoil that they were individuals. That one’s bulbous nose, that one’s moving mouth as she sang with a song he could not hear, that one’s red face as he bashed down on the horn in a futile attempt to alter time and space. Where were all these people going? What were their lives like? Did the epiphany and its ensuing sign summon them as it had summoned him, or was it for him alone?
But more than these, he saw light. He saw Light. It crackled as it leapt from object to waiting object, blessing them – blessing him – with glimmering radiance, transforming everything Midas-like to gold. It was a sprite dancing on waves of cars, and when it glinted off a windshield, smiting his eyes until they watered, it burned off the last vestiges of his old life.
To deny the epiphany’s invitation was to accept death. To go into work in that drab and shabby little office with its adding machine and outdated computer, to sit at the desk with its worn corners and faded varnish and musty drawers, would be to murder his own soul, to admit that life is nothing more than the dingy cover that cloaks reality as a miser might hide his gold.
He couldn’t bear it if it slipped away. He didn’t want for the light to fade and slip into an area of the brain called nostalgia, where maybe he would remember it twenty years hence and think, “Ah, then I was a young man.” That would be a bigger tragedy than if he had never awakened from slumber. No. He would rage, rage against the dying of that green-gold light.
At last traffic moved, and although he moved with it he felt immeasurably changed, no longer the man who had originally climbed into the car with no more thought for the day than how he would pass the dull hours until lunch.
He pulled into a parking space and anticipated his boss’s withering tirade because of his lateness, and he smiled a bit as he thought of his boss’s reaction to his resignation. In two hours, he would be at the airport discussing flight options with an ill-fated ticket agent who had not eyes to see.
He reached his desk and put his briefcase down. As he waited for his computer to boot up, he dreamed of sand and colorful drinks with paper umbrellas and his wife’s sun-kissed skin.
He typed and printed out a letter, signed it, and folded it carefully, the last act of an undying man. He placed it in his boss’s in-box and then went back to his computer. He pressed the Internet button and went to the search engine. “Tahiti.”
Under the Influence
By Cher Smith
They were such a good Christian family. Everyone said so. After all, Randy conducted Bible studies at work during his lunch hour. He served as an elder at church. He tithed a consistent ten percent—on the gross. Sally participated in the women’s Bible studies. She helped with the junior high and Sunday school programs. She baked casseroles for the homeless shelter downtown. Their thirteen-year-old daughter, Reba, showed few signs of rebellion, maybe a B on her report card, but nothing like some of the children today. No drinking. No drugs. Certainly no sex. A good Christian family. Everyone said so.
“Good morning, Mrs. Macy. Is Reba ready for school yet?”
“Hello, Liz,” Sally replied, wondering who Liz reminded her of. “She’ll be down in a minute.”
Long blonde hair, perfectly straight, worn with a barette on the side. No help there—that didn’t remind her of anything. She wore a t-shirt with kittens on it tucked into jeans with holes cut in them. Sally watched as Liz went upstairs to find Reba. One of the cuts slashed right beneath the left buttock. Any higher and underwear would be showing. If she wore any. Hmmm.
“Eddie Haskell,” she said.
“What was that, dear?” Randy said from behind the morning’s quota of death and mayhem.
“Eddie Haskell. That’s who Liz reminds me of. She’s nice and polite and sweet, but she’s just a little too nice and polite and sweet. You know, like Eddie Haskell.”
Randy set the paper down. His forehead looked like a slept-in suit. “You’re right. How are her grades?”
“She’s been grounded because of Ds and Fs, but Reba says she’s working harder now than she was before.”
“What do you think the problem is with her?”
“It’s that, that boy she’s dating. She sees him every day during school and then every night. She doesn’t have time for school work.”
Randy shook his head. “And only fourteen years old.” He sighed. Sally caught the contagion and sighed with him. Exasperation, fear, anger, and worry whispered out on that wisp of wind.
“Reba says they might go to the movies on Saturday.”
“Well, with Liz’s boyfriend and one of his friends.”
“A double date?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
Sally sighed again and poured Randy another cup of coffee. “It’s just . . .”
“Just what? I thought we agreed that Reba wouldn’t date. Are you changing your mind?”
“Oh, no! I still feel that way. It’s just that I’m worried about Reba. Liz is the first friend she’s had since . . . well, since Amanda . . . died.”
“Since Amanda killed herself,” he said. “You might as well say it. Are you forgetting what Amanda was like? She spent the night here—at our house, Sally—and then snuck out, with Reba I might add, and we found her drinking rum and cokes in the park. She was a bad influence.”
“I know. And Reba understands that. But I’m concerned about her relationship with Liz. Liz is her first friend since Amanda. They do everything together. And I’m not sure that Liz isn’t a bad influence as well. I just thought that maybe if she met this boy, she might let go of Liz a little.”
“No,” Randy said and, like a rattlesnake warning away further conversation, rattled his paper for emphasis. “That would just compound the problem. We’ll just take them one at a time.”
He stood, kissed Sally on the forehead, straightened his tie, and headed out the door like a Crusader headed for Jerusalem.
Sally watched until Reba and Liz disappeared around the corner and then headed for the bedrooms. Sheet day today. Every Thursday. She pulled the sheets off her and Randy’s twin beds, her thoughts already on the next room and what it contained. She paused at the doorway. The pink ruffles of a child’s innocence had been cast aside and repainted with a less innocent, less young blue. Posters of rap idols and TV stars littered the walls like a post-rock concert park. But nothing seemed out of place. She didn’t see what she always feared she would see as she stood on the threshold—cigarettes, matches, a condom, or maybe a needle.
She paused a little longer. It was so much easier when Reba was little. Boys were “yukky” and not mentioned unless absolutely necessary. It usually wasn’t. You took drugs when you were sick. They, also, were yukky. Sex meant whether you were a boy or a girl, and Reba had never heard of “safe sex.” Sally remembered a time when Reba thought that a condom was where her grandmother lived. Now, thanks to the dreadful public school system, Reba knew what a condom was, what it was for, where to get it, and where to put it.
She entered the room with a sigh. The weight of a million mothers crushed on her shoulders. She would not throw off her responsibility like so many had done. Some things a mother just has to do to protect her child. She yanked the sheets off the bed as though they were an enemy hiding military secrets. She reached far under the mattress. Her fingers wrapped around the leather and jerked it free from the mattress. She set the diary down on the naked bed and walked to the closet. She pulled down an old stuffed animal that zipped up the back. Reba used to keep her pajamas in here. Now it housed her diary key.
Sally had been dismayed when she first learned that Reba kept a diary. What did she need to conceal from her very own mother? But over the last year, Sally had found it a valuable source of information about her daughter. It had been in the diary that Sally first learned about Amanda and the drinking. Shortly after that, Amanda had . . . committed suicide. Sally had read about that in the diary as well.
She slipped through the last several entries. She read the diary only once a week, on sheet day. And there it was. On Tuesday. “Liz told me she’s going to set me up with a guy named Rick. He’s Ron’s friend. We’re going to the movies this Saturday. I don’t know if my parents will let me go but I’ll find a way to go whether they let me or not. Liz says he’s really cute. We’re going to go to a movie we’ve seen before. Liz’s mom will drop us off at the theater and then we’ll sneak out. Liz is going to do it with Ron.”
Sally had no doubt what “it” was. Doubt had been cut away with the same scissors that had cut away Liz’s jeans to reveal her bottom. Sally carefully wiped off any fingerprints she may have left on the leather and then returned the diary to its post. She left the room as she had found it, minus sheets.
“That’s what it said, Randy. That Liz and Ron are going to ‘do it.’”
“I hoped that Liz would be different.”
“None of them are different, Randy.” Sally was fixing dinner, furiously pounding the lumps out of the mashed potatoes. She hated to hit Randy with news like this as soon as he walked in the door, but this was so important. Randy was right. He had pointed it out to her before Amanda committed suicide. She had said, “It’s just the way kids are today. If they’re not interested in sex, they’re interested in drinking. And if they’re not interested in drinking, they’re interested in drugs. And if it’s not drugs, then it’s sex. How can we fight that?”
Randy had looked at her with a kind of light in his eyes, a righteousness that thrilled her. “We can’t,” he said. “At least not for all those kids. But we can fight it for our daughter. The question is how?”
They had found out how with Amanda.
“Okay,” he said now. “What do we do? I don’t think it would be good for Reba to lose another friend to suicide.”
“No. I think something else is called for. I found this in the mail today.”
Randy took the blue and white flyer. A child’s picture smiled out at him. “Have You Seen This Child?” was printed across the top. “Thinking of a disappearance? That could be tricky.”
“Not really. I think I’ve got it worked out. Both Liz’s parents work. Of course. It wouldn’t be that hard to get her to let us in. She trusts us. Then we club her.” She pounded a particularly vicious potato. “Let it be a lesson to all those working mothers out there.”
“What would we do with the body?”
Sally smiled. “Leave that to me,” she said and patted her cookbook.
The neighborhood took Liz’s disappearance in stride. Sally told the other mothers at the bus stop that that was what working women who denied God’s plan of submission could expect. She wasn’t surprised, she told them. Liz had seemed a little wild to her. The other mothers solemnly nodded and praised Sally for how she was raising Reba.
Reba wasn’t rebellious. She was a little serious and a bit withdrawn, but she came home with exceptionally good grades. She didn’t have many friends; Randy and Sally considered it more important that she get into a good college, and with all her new extra curricular activities, she wouldn’t have time for friends.
Randy taught Bible studies at work, emphasizing the need for sexual purity and abstinence from alcohol.
Sally baked casseroles for the homeless shelter downtown. Her specialty became her beef stew with man-sized chunks of carrots, potatoes, and meat. The recipe had called it a “hearty meal for the working man.” In this case, it was hearty meal for the non-working man.
For Love of Holly
By Cher Smith
There was no question mark after that single exclamation, no wondering if that was indeed the cat’s name. No. After seven months, three weeks and four days she finally uttered a word, and it was the damn cat’s name.
Nightshade, his tail held high as he wound circles around Holly’s legs, purred as loudly as a motorcycle on a quiet summer night. She swept him up and held him close, burying her nose in charcoal-colored fur. He responded by butting his head against her face, re-marking his territory, claiming her as his.
“He missed you,” he said unnecessarily, awkwardly.
She looked at him as she put the cat down but said nothing. He watched her eyes, but no recognition of him—her husband—sparked there.
She had finally uttered a word, one word. And it was the damn cat’s name.
“And why do you think that is?”
He gave the question serious consideration. “I don’t know. She named the cat after a character in one of her favorite books. Maybe that’s why.”
His heart twisted. “Does she remember me?”
The priest waited a time to answer. “She was in a dark place for nearly eight months. Her mind retreated in order to protect herself. Her mind is still in that dark place where she feels safe. Be patient. She will find the light again.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
He waited a week before going back to work.
“Did I used to work?” She sat on the couch watching him get ready, Nightshade beside her as though afraid to let her out of sight again. She perched on the edge of the couch, her back straight as she refused to sink into its comfort.
“Yes. Do you remember anything about it?”
The priest had suggested asking gently, not prodding, not feeding her answers—not even about his name, which she still hadn’t remembered—but allowing her to find the light in her own time.
Her head tilted, and a lock of blonde hair caught the morning light.
“Was I a writer?”
He smiled. “Yes. You wrote press releases.”
“For a museum.”
His smile broadened, but he fought the urge to press her further. Say my name, his heart whispered. But for love of her, he would be patient. “Yes, Holly. For a museum.”
“What should I do while you’re gone?”
“Whatever you want. Do you want to come with me?” He saw the flicker of fear in her eyes, and he touched her hand. “You don’t have to,” he said quickly. “You can do whatever you want.”
In the end, he left, and even though his bosses had been sympathetic and continued to be so, he couldn’t concentrate. He fidgeted and finally picked up his cell phone and called her. No answer. Don’t panic. She just didn’t answer. He tried to work but couldn’t rid his mind of panic. In the end, he worked four hours and then went home.
He was horrified when he walked in the door to see her perched on the edge of the couch. Exactly where he had left her.
He sank down next to her. “Why didn’t you do something?”
“I didn’t know what it was okay to do.” A tear slipped out of her eye and made its way down her cheek.
He wiped it away and put both hands on her face. “It’s okay, Holly. I will work from home for a while. “ And if I need to quit and find something else, I will. “I won’t leave.”
His parents hadn’t said anything. They couldn’t. But her mother had. Six months in, she had looked at him with eyes that would never be fully happy again and said, “I wouldn’t blame you, you know.”
“I know,” he had said.
“For better or worse,” she said and sighed. “But no one ever suspects that worse would be so bad.” And she broke down and started crying. He hugged her awkwardly then and wondered briefly if she would always be considered his mother-in-law.
“I wouldn’t blame you for leaving.”
“I won’t leave.”
He lay beside her at night and wondered if he should touch her. She didn’t mind his hugs during the day and even first thing in the morning. But it seemed different at night with the lights off. It was dark, and he wondered if it were as dark as the place in her mind. He also imagined that if he tried touching her, being intimate with her, she would allow him passively, as limp and unresponsive as a doll. And perhaps she would retreat further into her darkness in order to protect herself. So he didn’t touch her except to brush her hair off her forehead as a caress or to press her hand briefly to his lips to tell her goodnight. There would be time when she was ready.
“I hate the thought of her in that place, and I can’t stand thinking about what he did to her.”
“Have you asked her?”
“No. I don’t think I should.”
“Her power, her control was taken away. She needs time to relearn that she can take control, that she can make decisions. That she is safe. That this is her life.”
“But I need to know …”
“It feels like it.”
“What would you do with the knowledge, even if you had it?”
He opened his mouth then closed it as the question roiled in his mind like hurricaned waves. “Nothing,” he said at last. “I couldn’t do anything.”
“Then let it go. For love of her, let it go. Find peace in just having her back. Let it go and let her find her own way back. Because she will.”
For love of her.
When he got home, Nightshade greeted him at the door in the same way he had greeted Holly. But he was surprised to find Holly standing in the kitchen. Not where he had left her a mere hour before. He smiled at her. She would find her own way back.
She smiled at him, the lopsided tom-boyish grin that had knocked him for a roller-coaster loop the first time he met her. Her eyes didn’t quite match the grin. Tentativeness still lingered there. Be careful, it said.
“Well, hi there,” he said, and he hoped she could hear the safety and invitation in his tone.
“Hi there,” she said. “Ray.” Her grin widened, and for one brief moment, the fear left her eyes.
He let his own smile grow as he took her in his arms and kissed the top of her head.
It was okay. No, it was good. For love of her. In the morning, he would start the process of changing his name.
About Cher Smith
Cher Smith began her writing career when she was eight years old, folding over notebook paper to look like a book. While her novel “Lazy Bones” was never finished, she never lost the love of creating characters and placing them in awkward, mysterious, dangerous or romantic situations, sometimes all at once.
Cher has published several novels, articles, movie reviews and magazine feature stories. She is the founder, editor and chief instigator at Dead Key Publishing. It is her desire to bring novels—hers and others—to readers who love books. Two of her stories were featured in Dead Key Publishing’s first anthology.
About Dead Key Publishing
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Dead Key is dedicated to giving a voice to those who may not be able to or have the desire to be published by a traditional publishing house. We love our authors and hope you do too.
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From the beginning of time, people have loved stories. And novelists have loved trying their hand at writing them. Short stories are their own art form, and have their own beauty and even their own challenges. It's a rewarding art form for both reader and writer. Dead Key Publishing is proud to announce the release of its second annual anthology of short stories by the writers in its catalog. The stories range in length from short-short to almost novella, and range in type from literary to science fiction to men's, women's and mainstream. A collection as diverse as Dead Key's catalog. Inside the anthology, meet the last baby born legally in America and the illegals born in defiance of Reproduction Law; fall in love (again) in the car of a Ferris wheel; explore marriage, family life and body image; watch a paid assassin at work; walk the line between guilt and mental illness; discover what it means to be human—and robotic; find a bookkeeper's re-discovered life, a family who takes parenting a little too far, and a man longing to be re-discovered by his amnesia-affected wife. What you will also find are stories you won't want to leave, characters you love and maybe some you hate, and we hope that will lead you to read more of our Dead Keyers' works.