Science Fiction prison

Its Hour Come Round

By James Van Pelt
Aug 14, 2019 · 6,696 words · 25 minutes

Photo by Michael M via Unsplash.

From the author: What is the purpose of prison? Reformation or punishment? For many, we send our frightening offenders to incarceration so they can learn the errors of their way. In isolation from humanity, they will contemplate their offenses and decide not to offend again. But for the worst criminals, the rapists and murderers and evil, there's a darker, more powerful motivation to punish and torment. The urge to hurt is strong.


     Bad news should be held to the end, don’t you think?  Especially the kind that unbalances everything else you’ve said, erases it even?  So I’ll wait until I’ve told you about how I love working in the orchards in the spring.  We hoe around the tree trunks, loosening the soil for rain and fertilizers; we rake away twigs and dead leaves, and a few dried apple husks that are all that’s left after the winter, until the ground beneath the trees is smooth and clean and almost holy.

     I love climbing the long ladders to inspect the buds.  Are they green yet?  Have they begun to bloom?  I love the pace of prison work.  An old-school lifer named Blue Buck Johnny told me once, “Drink plenty of water and walk slow.  You’re going nowhere fast.”  He started his term in Soledad fifty years before I met him, before the Mars colonies, before the 21st Century was properly rolling.  Soledad was the last of the big houses where they warehoused criminals.  No real treatment there, hormonal, psychiatric, genetic or otherwise.  No ET.  Just a bunch of maladjusts teaching each other how to be bad.  That’s when they held cons for “time served” rather than reforming them.  They grandfathered Blue Buck into the Mola Correctional Facility.  He was never going back to the world, but he didn’t mind.  He liked the inside and the shunt that stifled his urges.

     So do I, sometimes.  Did I mention I read poetry too?  Yeats, I read him a lot, but I like Houseman and Neruda and Walt Whitman too.  I speak the poems out loud to the bare branches when I’m hanging on a ladder, looking for beetle bore holes or frost damage. 

     I love breathing spring air.  It’s rainy here in the valley, not your California rain that settles in for months, where you don’t see the sun from January to May, but the sudden Colorado rain that sweeps up the valley in a heady gust that smells of Utah canyons and wet grass.  The wind comes across the treetops, bending the far ones first, so they shake their heads, and then the next and the next and the next, until it’s on you, loaded with dust and litter and fat, stinging drops that make dark bullet holes in that perfect dirt beneath the trees.

     I love all that, and I love people too.  Can you believe it?  There’s slang for people inside: white guys are peckerwoods, and most affiliate after a while.  AB’s a popular choice, the Aryan Brothers.  Blacks go for the BGF, the Black Guerilla Family.  Border Brothers for the Hispanics, or the NF, Nuestra Familia--they’re northern Hispanic.  The BGF is the power broker at Mola.  Even the guards step lightly around them.  You want something done, you go to the family.  Prisons may be different from Blue Buck Johnny’s day, but the power games, intimidation and supply and demand are the same.

     I, of course, don’t affiliate.  They’ve got names for me too.  This is the bad news I’ve been holding back.  It doesn’t matter that I like the sun on my face, or on any ordinary day I’m the most generous guy in the world, or I have parents and a sister I love, or in the fifth grade I won a citizenship award for collecting the most tin cans for the senior center fund raiser.  I’m a cho mo.  A diddler.  A chester.  A BGF lord named Grover Lincoln Douglas outed me at lunch my first week here.  Grover said, “This peckerwood’s name is shit.  He’s on a drug charge.”  I didn’t know what he meant then; I’d never done pharmaceuticals in my life.  Later I found out a “drug charge” was shorthand for, “He drug them out of the sandbox.”  I’m a child molester, and a child died.

     See, I told you.  It doesn’t matter what else I say.  You might have even started to like me.  I might have invited your sympathy.  The man loves books.  He appreciates nature.  He has a pleasant, measured voice.  I could have been your friend until you heard that.  No matter how long my story is, the one deed will color the rest of my words.  My life is measured, evaluated and overbalanced by that one fact.  Some mistakes never go away.

     But there, now you know.

     This spring, my fourth at Mola, I first saw Chika Achutebe as she arrived on the morning bus.  I watched from a treetop when the stringer of fish, all newbies, filed by to housing orientation, their shunts so fresh that infection still streaked their biceps.  Chika’s blonde afro stood out, her dark face shining beneath it, all Arabic and sleepy eyed.  I thought she was on depress already, but that’s just the way she looks.  There were seven fry, a big shipment.  Blue Buck told me at Soledad they’d get fifty cons on a bus, and they’d get a couple busses a week, all men.  No coed populations then!  No wonder time was so violent.  Hard to imagine that much fresh meat, and Soledad was just one of hundreds of lock-ups.  Of course, most of the cons were returners.  Revolving door justice.  Lots of recidivism back then, before they started grading the prisons.  Before the shunts and ET and that whole therapeutic cocktail they’ve cooked up to keep us from coming back.

     So these really were cub scouts, so scared they didn’t know if they should shit or go blind.  But I picked out Chika; she was huddled up on herself, shoulders pulled in, hands squeezed so tight together, and taking little steps like she was afraid that if her feet got too far in front of her they might not come back.  Gang bangers checked them out as they went by.  Grover Lincoln Douglas leaned on his hoe (the long-handled kind for breaking up dirt), marking who to recruit.  Couple of the Aryan Brothers worked as trustees, handling paperwork for the transport bulls, and they wracked up the possibilities too.

     You’d think in a controlled environment like this there wouldn’t be much violence, and there isn’t.  The shunts, ET and therapy out the wazoo work, but it’s still dangerous.  You don’t go from crime to cure in a day, you know.  Some urges don’t ever go away, and most the cons are Coving it, Crimes of Violence.  When you get off on hurting people, you’re an ET candidate for sure.  Mola pulls a Clockwork Orange on you and that old blood music never sounds the same.

     It would be a week before I saw her again–it takes the medboss that long to put them on a program–but then she was out.  Best chance I have to make friends is to break in the new ones, so they know me before they know my time.  I’m gregarious by nature.  Talkative.  It’s a craving the shunt doesn’t manage.

     We met at breakfast.  “Can I sit here?” I asked.  The cafeteria is big enough for two-hundred, but there are only eighty prisoners and a dozen staff members at Mola.  Blue Buck told me Soledad housed over 7,000.  Hard to believe there was that much crime.  Here, big windows open onto the orchards.  Some of the apples had blossomed all white and pink in the sunlight, and I could see apricots and peaches farther off.  Pancakes that morning.  The room smelled of maple and sizzling butter.

     “Yes, thank you,” she said without looking from her food.

     Up close she was even more striking.  Hair so blonde it was nearly translucent.  Classic cheekbones.  Skin as dark and smooth as chocolate pudding.  Heavy, long lashes over those sleepy eyes.  Narrow shoulders.  Trim figure under the khaki work shirt.  My shunt kicked in.  Sometime you can feel it: a tiny click under the skin as a microdosage releases.  Sexual depressant.  I hadn’t had a hard-on in four years.

     She said, “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m sad.”  She looked toward the windows, but I don’t think she was seeing anything.  Her eyes were red-rimmed.  “I used to have a dog named Fardel, but she’s gone now.  When I wake up I think I hear her barking, but it’s never her.”

     Her voice was tiny and soft.  She frowned when she turned back.  “If I got a puppy, I’d name her Fardel Two, because she would be the second.”  There were no lines in her face, no worry marks above her eyebrows, no creases anywhere.  Absolutely pure, unwritten-upon skin.

     “How old are you?” I said.  My shunt clicked again, and then twice more.  Different doses.  My brain fuzzed a little bit; the room got sort of whispy and underwater.

     “Twenty-seven,” she said in the voice of a ten-year old.  “Twenty-eight this June.  How old are you?”

     “Thirty-six,” I whispered.  “Thirty-seven in November.”  She’s retarded, I thought.  What could this little girl have done to earn a stay at Mola Correctional?

     The medboss ordered an unscheduled ET for me that afternoon.  I was stacking bug powder for spraying next week.  “Empathy Training, 3:00, Knavely,” she said.  She wore scrupulously clean pants suits, razor-like creases pressed into the legs and arms.  Short, black hair, streaked with grey, like a maiden aunt.  A pleasant smile that showed her gums, although she didn’t smile often.  Old-fashioned glasses.

     “Yes, boss,” I said, without breaking rhythm.

     The Adjustment Center dominates the housing yard.  Single-story prisoner bungalows line the four streets that lead to the circle drive around the AC.  From the air, I imagine Mola looks like a sniper scope.  An eight-foot high fence to keep deer away from the fruit circles the compound.  Inside that, a two-hundred-yard clear zone to the trees, the orchards; then the roads, which form the crosshair, the Adjustment Center in the middle.  Administration, medical services, counseling, parole and the warden’s office fill the upper floors while ET takes the entire basement.  A placard next to the entrance reads, “NEITHER NATURE NOR NURTURE IS DESTINY.”  They’re serious about it too.

     My hand barely shook as I signed in.  This would be my seventy-eighth ET in four years.  One a day for the first month, and then one a month after that.  I knew the drill.

     Take a chair.  Strap my feet in.  Plug the IV into the shunt.  It’s pretty easy once you’ve practiced.  The access port is under a skin fold on the bicep.  The shunt itself, an inch wide and three inches long, is buried in the muscle.  You don’t feel it after the first few weeks.  Hard to believe it analyzes the patient, makes dosage decisions, transmits and receives all in that little unit.

     The medboss bustled in, checked my straps, then locked down my hands and chest.  She looked me in the eyes before lowering the diving bell over my head.  “Pretty routine now, eh?”

     I nodded, feeling anything but.

     Empathy Training.  I don’t know what you’ve read, but it’s not like that.  Not virtual reality.  Not “Electro-psychotropic Simulation.”  It’s total immersion in fear and pain.

     The helmet came down, covered my eyes, fastened under my chin.  My shunt rattled a complicated series of clicks in my arm.  I waited for the scenario.  Different one each time.  I have no idea how they make them.  Then, I’m squatting on a beach, packing sand with a little shovel.  My feet are tiny.  I slip them into a puddle and squish the water between my toes.  The sky’s bright, the sand is crisp and smooth, lazy waves slide toward my castle to slip back into the sea.  Tomorrow’s my birthday, I think, and I’ll be seven.  Seven, seven, seven, I sing to myself.  A shadow covers my work.  I look up at a dark silhouette.  My mouth goes dry, and he picks me up.  Already I’m scared.  My legs don’t straighten.  I stay curled, shovel in hand, and he carries me that way, hustling me toward the bathrooms.

     I know it’s chemically and electrically induced anxiety.  The diving bell reaching into my cortex, stimulating the right reflexes, but it feels real, not simulated.  I’m genuinely terrified.  Sometimes I scream.  After ET I can’t talk from the hoarseness, but this time I’m silent.  The door opens and closes.  He turns the light off.  My head bangs on something, a bathroom stall maybe.

     He’s so big.  I’m small and weak and scared, scared, scared.  Wet myself scared, and I do.  My pants come down.  He turns me and my chest is pressed against the ceramic edge of the toilet bowl in the dark.  A noseful of unflushed urine smell, my face nearly in the water.  Then I scream.  His hand’s on my mouth.  I can’t breathe.  It goes on.

     It goes on.

     It goes on.

     When the diving bell came off I was weeping.  “Oh god oh god oh god,” I heard myself saying.

     “I know,” said the medboss.   “I know, Knavely.”  She was not unkind.  It was the job.

     “Why don’t you just kill me?” I gasped.

     The chest belt fell away, and I leaned forward, still strapped at the hands and ankles, to throw up.  They’d hose the room down later.  The medboss patted me on the back until I finished.

     “There’s no such thing as a throw-away person,” she said.

     I staggered out of the AC.  His hands still on me.  My ribs hurt.  My ass hurt.  I was afraid to feel back there.  Surely I’m bleeding, I thought.  Sometimes cons develop bruises.  There was a guy in here a couple years earlier on an assault and battery beef whose face would be puffy, his eyes black, after ET.  Psychosomatic symptoms.  Stigmata.  No one touched him, but he’d take days to heal.

     Nobody talked to me as I walked through the apple trees, through the peaches and apricots, past the last tree and into the clear zone.  The fence was two hundred yards away, but I wasn’t trying to escape, nor going for a “bush pass.”  No one escapes Mola.  I kept walking.  There was a proximity guard in the AC.  I was on a grid, and when I got far enough away from the center, long before I reached the fence, it knew.

     Tears rolled down my face.  My legs shook.  I did that to someone.  Who was I?  There’s this poem by Yeats where he says, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”  There was a beast in me, or I was the beast, I don’t know, but how can one live with knowledge of what he has done when the victim’s pain is so fresh?  And so, for the seventy-eighth time, I walked toward the fence until the proximity alarm sent a signal to my shunt.  It clicked.  Suddenly, I was drowsy, and unconsciousness washed over me.  Vaguely, I felt myself falling, but I don’t remember hitting.

     Sometimes a con pisses a bull off, and the guard orders a cho mo double feature.  Not all the staff at Mola is as compassionate as the medboss.  There’s sadism; there’s violence, even with the shunts.  Sometimes it’s the inmates; sometimes it’s the staff.  On goes the diving bell and the poor bastard gets a long load of my normal treatment.  Nothing worse than being a diddler in prison.  Nothing worse than being one, period.

     By the next afternoon, I was in the trees again, pinching buds.  I culled out every other one so the crop would be more robust.  It was non-thinking, physically trying work involving moving the ladder often and climbing up and down it scores of times.

     Maybe I was the only one not to hit on Chika the first day–most cons aren’t at Mola for COP stuff, crimes of passion, so they don’t get chemically castrated every time a sexual thought crosses their minds–or maybe it was just another of nature’s cruel tricks, but when I came down the ladder the umpteenth time she waited for me.

     Even the way she wore her clothes was childlike.  An adult makes adjustments, draws the shoulders square, smooths away the wrinkles.  Not so with Chika.  She’d missed a button three down from her collar.  “Can I watch?” she said in her little girl voice.

     I shrugged.  “It’s a free prison.”  The day after ET, I’m not nearly as chatty.  It’s sort of like that old joke about not wanting to belong to a club that would have you as a member.  A person who wanted to talk to me probably wasn’t worth talking to.

     She sat cross-legged at the foot of the ladder and played with her shoelaces.  “I have a tree at my house, but there’s a table for tea and two chairs.”

     Not many branches left to do on this tree.  It’d take me another twenty-minutes to finish, but I was tired.  When I reached the ground, she moved aside by scooching on her bottom.

     “My new bed’s nice,” she said, her expression totally innocent.

     I leaned back against the tree a yard from her and slid until I was sitting too.  She looked around, her slender fingers cupping her knees, hair like a halo, wide-eyed, as if she was on a field trip.   

     “Do you have any idea why you’re here?” I asked.

     She ducked her head.  “I did a bad thing I shouldn’t have.  They’ll keep me until they’re sure I won’t do it again.  That’s what my attorney told me.”  She said “attorney” carefully, getting each syllable right.  “What are you here for?  Did you do something bad too?”

     Nothing I could say to that.  There is this phrase, “Do your own time.”  It means, mind your own business.

     “Yeah, I did something bad too.”  I wanted to hold her.  She trembled even though the day was warm, pulling her arms in close.  It was weird: her size and build said she was adult, but her expression and posture said she was a child, a frightened kid who didn’t know who to turn to.  I kept my hands firmly still.  Everything in me wanted to reach out to comfort her.  I could picture it, her leaning into me, her blonde hair against my face.  I shook my head and moved a few inches farther away, waiting for the shunt to click, to save me, but it didn’t, so I tried to think about the night that put me here. 

     The funny thing about it is that I could hardly remember the actual event.  For so long, my life had been bound up in Mola’s orchards that everything before, my schooling, my work, my marriage, my own children, my crime, seemed to belong to someone else.  All I kept from that former life is the burden.

     She shifted on the ground so she faced me more, her knees apart, ankles crossed.  “Do you get scared at night, Knavely?”

     Before I go to sleep sometimes, there’s an image from the trial that gets me.  It’s the mother.  I’d been sentenced like everyone else to an RTL,“reformation to life.”  They were taking me from the court when the mother leaned out of the crowd at the door, her face white and dead.  “I hope you never sleep peacefully again.”

     After sentencing I’d gone straight to surgery for my shunt.  I didn’t know if I slept peacefully or not.  When I stayed awake too long, the shunt took care of me, then I slept.  Who knew if it was peaceful?

     “I get scared,” Chika said.  “People moan, and I ask them if they’re all right, but they don’t hear me.  I think they’re having nightmares.”

     In my unit people moan.  Six cons per apartment.  Blue Buck told me that prisons used to be noisy all the time.  People screaming, doors clanging.  Never a quiet moment.  Mola’s not like that.  No slamming, barred gates.  Much calmer.  Half the pop’s on depress, though, so it’s hard to tell what it would be like otherwise.  From where Chika and I sat I could see a dozen other cons just standing among the trees, too tanked to make a move.  Sometimes in the summer I’d go and turn them if it was a sunny day.  They could get a bad burn if they weren’t wearing a hat.

     Chika leaned toward me and whispered, “A man comes to me every night.  He wants to get in, but I won’t let him.  I can’t see his face.”

     I found myself standing over her–I have no idea how I leapt to my feet so fast.  I yelled, “What?”  She fell back in the dirt.  Her hands covered her mouth, and she cried.

     “No, no.  It’s okay.  I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean to startle you.”  Sweat dripped into my eyes.  I wiped my face with the back of my wrist.  A steadying breath, then I counted to ten slowly. 

     Chika rolled to her side away from me, drew her legs in, and sobbed.  I squatted beside her until she suddenly relaxed.  Her shunt had dropped a load.  When she sat up, her eyes glazed over.  It was as if I’d never said anything. 

     “My new bed’s nice,” she said again.  “I like pink sheets.”

     Her thumb went into her mouth.

     “She’s mentally incapacitated,” I said.  “She shouldn’t be here.”

     The medboss sat behind her desk in her corner office.  She could see half the facility through the floor-to-ceiling windows.  “I’m not in a position to judge,” she said.  “The courts found her competent.  Chika’s very high functioning, considering her IQ, capable of making choices.  She’s made some poor ones.”

     I forced myself to stay calm.  Sun bathed almost the entire office, warming my legs.  It would be only a couple hours until nightfall. 

     “I think she needs protection.  She’s not safe.”

     The medboss consulted her records.  Screen after screen flickered by.  When she stopped, it wasn’t at Chika’s profile; it was mine.

     “Knavely, I appreciate your concern, but, really, she’s much safer in here than she’d be outside.”  She studied my charts.  “You have a parole hearing next week.  I’m recommending your release.  What do you feel about that?”

     I didn’t even have to think.  “No.  I’m not ready.”

     She appraised me from her chair, her dark eyes steady behind her glasses.  “The state pays us to cure you.  If you recid, we lose money.  If we keep you too long, we lose money.  When the therapy team says you’re turned, and the board agrees, out you go.  Assuming we did our job, you’re a new man, society is safe, and you can get on with your life.  You’ll be relocated, renamed and be given a whole new background.  The state wants you to have the best chance possible of making it.”

     My tongue stuck to the top of my mouth, and I had a sudden flashback to yesterday’s ET session.  The room smelled like unflushed toilet.  “I haven’t been punished enough.”

     “We can’t punish you, Knavely.  Punishment is old-school.  This is a reformation facility.  All we’re worried about is a relapse.  Do you think you’ll commit another crime?”

     I thought about Chika.  I wanted to hold her, but there’s lots of ways to hold someone.  “I’m not confident.”

     The medboss shrugged.  “Nothing’s certain.  All we can do is look at your profile.  I’m recommending dismissal.  I’ll bet you clear 369, and we’ll collect triple bonus.”  She smiled, lots of gums.  If I didn’t recid in thirty months, the prison received performance pay.  Sixty months later, they collected again, and ninety months earned them a third.  A full 369.  Mola Correctional guaranteed their freebirds.

     “But what about Chika?”  I said.  My legs shook.  I doubted I could stand.

     The medboss turned back to her display, called up Chika’s charts.  “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about her.  She’s tougher than she looks.”

     “She’s just a little kid.  She can’t make decisions for herself.”

     Outside an inmate crew unloaded smudge pots from a flatbed.  The prediction was for a frost tonight, and if it was too cold for too long, the buds would die.  There wouldn’t be a crop.   Rather than look at the medboss,  I watched them wrestling the unwieldy furnaces into position.  A pressure itched at the backs of my eyes.

     She said, “Five months ago your ‘little kid’ killed her father with an ice pick.  She decided to do that.”

     “Surely it wasn’t premeditated,” I said.

     “Daddy was tied up.  The coroner testified she took two hours to finish him.  Don’t know what started her, but she had plenty of time to change her mind along the way.  I wouldn’t paint too pretty of a picture of her in your mind.  Your girl has some anger management issues.”

     After dinner I walked Chika to her dorm, trying to decide what to do.

     “I like you, Knavely,” she said, and held my hand.

     The hairs flew up on the back of my neck.  My arm went rigid as an impulse to jerk it away was answered by a fear of frightening her again.

     We stopped at the door.  In the orchards, the bug lights were on.  So was the one hanging from the dorm’s gutter, five feet away.  A cool, polar light washed over the wall, turning the windows into icy squares.  Bugs zapped themselves into ash all around us.  A front was coming in, and I felt frost in the air.  They’d be lighting the smudge pots soon.  Chika didn’t let go.

     “I don’t want to talk to that man again,” she said.  She kept her head down, so I could just see the top of her head.  Her feet shuffled on the cement.  “He scares me.  He said, ‘I can be your honey, Chika.’” She looked at me, her eyes shiny, reflecting bug light blue.

     “Tell the dorm bull you don’t want visitors.”

     She giggled.  “What’s a dorm bull?”

     “The guard in your unit.”

     She squeezed my hand, serious again.  “No . . . not the guard.”

     And then I knew, it wasn’t an inmate.

     A faint squeaking filled the night air behind me.  Bats dipped and circled through the trees.  She watched them, the corners of her mouth turned up in delight.  “Did I tell you I had a dog?” she said.  “His name was Fardel.”

     “Yes, you did.”

     “I like animals.  I’m going to ask them for a puppy.”

     I was ready to go.  How could I help tonight?  And what about tomorrow night, and the one after?  The medboss said she’d recommend parole.  I might not even be here in a week.

     “Could you stay with me, Knavely?” she said.  “If you’re with me, the man won’t come.”  Her grip was intense.  “I could . . . do things for you.”

     My gut twisted.  “No,” I said.  “Oh, no.  I can’t.”  I paused, waiting for the shunt.  This was when it should click, sending a soothing dose through my veins, but it didn’t.  Was she a child or an adult.  And what was I?  I felt a stirring.  Holding my hand, Chika looked at me, pleading.  I gasped, “You’ll be fine.  Really.  You’ll see,” and I disengaged my fingers.

     There’s no curfew at Mola, but most go to bed early.  A hard day in the orchards’ll take it out of you.  I walked from Chika’s apartment, afraid to look back.  She’d still be on the porch, her bed awaiting her, and the long night.  The late shift moved between the trees, carrying torches.  A few smudge pots were lit, and an oily smoke eddied in the cold air.  Without a coat, I shivered.

     Grover Lincoln Douglas and three of his BGF cronies bunked in the last unit on North Street.  I went in without knocking.  Cigarette smoke twisted around a desk lamp in the middle of their card game.  He put his cards down when I moved into the light. 

     “I need to buy something,” I said.

     “What do you have to offer?”  He spat on the floor.

     “Name your price.”

     Grover leaned back in his chair.  Shadows surrounded him.  Only the beds’ edges were visible, then I realized that two of them were occupied.  Eyes glinted, watching like coyotes.

     He glanced at his cards on the table as if he’d rather be playing, then folded his hands across his chest.  “It might be too expensive for you.  What do you think I have to sell?”

     “Protection.”

     He laughed.  “Nothing can buy you that, Cho Mo.  No soul here would slap your back if you were choking on a chicken bone.”

     “It’s not for me.”

     His chair flopped forward so he could rest his elbows on the table.  “That’s different.  Maybe we can deal.  It just so happens a pair of  fish I know have a desperate urge you can help them with, and they’re willing to owe me big for the privilege.”

     I swallowed, knowing what he was talking about.  Grover specialized in fulfilling urges.

     Grover said, “No charges.  Not a word.”  He drew a finger slowly under his chin.

     We worked out the arrangement.  Last thing I said was, “She stays safe.  No predators.  No coercion.”

     “I’ll put the word out.”  He tilted his head and looked up at me, eyes narrow.  “Funny request for someone on a short ticket.  I heard you’re riding the 369 out soon.  Why should you care?”

     It was a tough question.  “Sometimes I don’t know why I do stuff, but I’ve got to do it anyway.”

     A coyote grunted on one of the bunks, “Ain’t that the truth.”

     Grover picked up his cards, “Be at the peach tree blind in twenty minutes.”

     I nodded and left.  By now all the smudge pots were fired up and the orchards stank of kerosene and diesel smoke.  No wind, so there was a chance the buds wouldn’t freeze, even if it dropped into the mid 20's.

     There are several blinds at Mola, places where surveillance cameras don’t reach.  Activity happens there in private.  While I walked between the night-blackened trees, I thought about Grover and the shunts.  He’d been out of the world for fifteen years.  Whatever he’d done, the medboss and the rest of the staff weren’t convinced he wouldn’t do it again.  They were planning on kicking me after only four years on a manslaughter and molestation conviction.  Some folks must be harder-wired for their lives than others.  I walked a slow circuit around the orchards, checking the smudges, thinking about reformation, redemption and punishment.  Mola only offered one.  The others I’d have to find on my own.  Dull yellow flames undulated within the smudges, belching warm smoke.  A con nodded in acknowledgment as I went by.  He must not have recognized me.

     Grover and two others waited at the peach tree blind, a distant fence light illuminating their heads and shoulders but leaving the rest dark.  He was talking to them.  “Here’s the package.  You take your shot, best you can.  I’m not responsible for administrative follow-up.  You can’t perform, it’s your fault, not mine.  Payment in full on your side regardless.”

     They nodded.  Both held something a foot-and-a-half long.  Hard to tell in the shadows.  Probably rubber hose.  The light showed their faces clearly enough, though.  Fresh fish.  One I recognized from Chika’s bus.  Young, hard, wary.  Asian eyes on him; a twisty scar across his cheek and the corner of his mouth.  The other was bland, peckerwood suburbia.  Straight teeth in his smile.  He smiled now.  “I want to go first,” he said.

     As I said, there’s violence in Mola.  Not much, since meds and therapy work hard to stomp it out, and, of course, recidding in prison is a short route to another month or two of daily ET., but the urge is there, even when there’s little opportunity.

     Suburbia said, “Are you scared, asshole?  I like it better when they’re scared.”  He popped the rubber hose across the palm of his other hand.  “Grover here says I can’t kill you, but he didn’t say I had to leave anything for anyone else either.”  He whacked his palm again.

     He looked at Grover.  Grover nodded.  Suburbia stepped forward, his smile wider, eyes bright.  I didn’t flinch.  Maybe somebody had molested him when he was young.  Maybe he was abused.  All those nurture arguments.  Or maybe nature programmed him for violence.  Too much of one hormone, not enough of another.  Maybe a genetic flaw.  Lots of reasons people behave the way they do.  There’s no discussion of evil in technological corrections, no room for it, and no treatment.

     He got close, exhaled in my face.  “Damn, this will be good!”  He breathed hard.  Licked his lips, working himself up.  Raised his hand, and I could see the hose clearly–he’d jammed glass shards in it.

     The hose would hurt, when it hit, the glass would rip, and I would deserve it.  I clasped my hands behind me so I wouldn’t protect myself by reflex.

     Then, his eyes crossed.  It would have been funny in any other context.  When his eyes crossed, and all the tension went out of his face, he sagged as if he’d been erased inside.  Shunt magic.  He struggled for a second, raising his hand again, but the hose rocked loosely.  He gasped, then dropped his arm to his side.  “Damn,” he said, no force behind it.  “This isn’t fair.”

     “I told you that might happen,” said Grover.

     “Huh?” said Suburbia.  He sat at my feet.  “Can’t shtand anymo’.”  With his legs crossed, he fell over backwards, his eyes shut.  A soft snore bubbled in his throat.

     Grover looked at the other one.  “Your turn slant-eyes.”

     The boy murmured under his breath, chanting a mantra.  “Stay calm,” he said.  “Stay calm,” but his brow oozed sweat.  His shunt was already working on him.  He approached anyway, hand pressed against his stomach, hunched a little like a washerwoman.  In the mellow light, he grimaced, paused, then shuffled forward another couple steps.  “Oh,” he moaned.  “I’m gonna be sick.”  The rubber hose plopped onto the dirt, and he shambled off, bent almost double now, into the swirling smoke.

     Grover laughed.  “You did those boys a favor, Knavely.  They’re seeing the errors of their ways through you.  Bet they’re out of here a year earlier each because of this.”  He picked up the hose.  “You get what you want, and I collect my fee anyway.”

     I took a shuddery breath.  They’d been so close.  Another step, and either would have been on me.  The strong arm.  The quick lash, and I’d get my inadequate payback, but they’d faltered.  Reformation without punishment.  The medboss would send me into the world unmarked.  My hands unclenched.  I hadn’t realized it, but my fingers had been squeezed so tightly my fingernails had dug into my palms.  Blood seeped from both.

     “Pity to waste the opportunity, though,” Grover said.

     The hose whistled in the air, and the first blow took me across the chest, knocking me against a tree.  The second snapped a rib.  My hand went up, and he broke my wrist.  Grover reeled back drunkenly.  His shunt must have been dumping everything at once, but he came forward again, arm high, and I looked up in time to see retribution coming down.

     The medboss sat at my bedside, peering over the glasses that had slid to the end of her nose.  “So you fell off a ladder?”

     I nodded, the thick dressing clinging to my face.  The drainage tube running out of my cheek brushed my neck.

     “And this happened in the middle of the night, not only shattering your cheekbone, but also breaking a pair of ribs and your arm?”

     From the high infirmary window, only clouds were visible.  I turned away from her to look at them.  My head made the maneuver in a pulsing, oceanic slosh that didn’t settle down for several seconds after I’d stopped moving.

     “How’s the crop?” I said carefully.  Talking sent razored slivers through my jaw.

     In the corner of my eye I could see her studying me.  Her hands came up and templed against her lips.  “No frost damage.”  She sighed.  “You know, we can’t help anyone if you stick to this story.  We don’t know what happened out there.  I have some medical clues.  I know what the shunts did, but I don’t know why they did it.  I don’t know which of my records correlate to what you’re covering up.  There’s sick folk in here.  The only way to treat them is through knowledge.”

     I shrugged, and that hurt too.

*          *          *

     Two weeks later I met Grover under the apple trees, thick with blossoms now, and the air so pollen-filled my eyes watered.  He worked a weed pick, uprooting anything small and green with a twist of the wrist.

     “I hear you’re on the next bus,” he said without looking up.

     “They’re waiting for me at the gate.”  My arm ached hollowly from where they’d removed my shunt.  “I never said anything.”

     Another weed popped out.  He ground it under his heel.  “That’s why your baby’s still sleeping alone.”

     “Good.”  A breeze knocked down some petals.  They drifted down like pink parachutes, pattering around us.

     Grover scratched his chest.  “You taking a beating won’t bring back that dead kid.”

     My throat went dry.

     He said, “The kid’s still dead, and in a week or a month or sometime, Chika will find some horny bastard who won’t scare her too bad when he asks her to sit in his lap.  You get a honking scar out of the deal.  A useless gesture won’t redeem you Cho Mo.”

     “In time, the scar will fade,” I choked out.

     “Yeah, but why the bother?  What’s the point?”

     Another breeze blew through the boughs.  No petals fell this time, but they all fluttered, a vast pink comforter whispering overhead.  I said, “You’ve got to do what good you can do, regardless of who you are.”

     I didn’t see Chika on the way out.  I never said goodbye, but as I passed Administration, the Asian kid with the twisty scar staggered from his first ET, tears streaming down his face, his eyes unfocused and desperate.  He saw me, changed direction, caught me by the shoulders.

     “They didn’t tell me it’d be like that!  I’m not . . . human,” he said.  “That night in the orchard.  I’m so sorry.”  He rocked his head from side to side, mouth open, until he fell to his knees, then tipped to his side.  “They should destroy me,” he blubbered.  He pulled his knees into his chest, fell to his side, then wrapped his arms around his legs, burying his face.  “I’m a mad dog.”

     The long road from Mola stretched in front of me.  At the end I could see the checkout booth and the bus.  I knelt beside him, patted him on the back while he shivered.  Grover was right: nobody could bring the dead child back, and nobody could forgive me either.  All I could do was wait for the scar to become a part of my face and then accept it as my face.

     “There are no throw-away people,” I said.

This story originally appeared in Talebones.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."