This story is by Dorothy Al-Ghosien and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Mikey grunted as another kick crashed into his ribs. It was all he could do. He couldn’t move his body anymore, much less protect what was probably another broken rib. Even as he wished impatiently for death, he was almost amused at how bored the thugs were now that his spasms had stopped. Still, he had mixed feelings when he saw the leader’s leg swing back for a vicious kick to his head.
Mikey lay in the alley languidly drifting in the haze of barely-conscious and unconscious, dimly aware he was alone now. After a while, he seemed to drift to another place and now realized he was lying on a table in a bright room. Moaning, he tried to turn away from the light. Swift footsteps clacked a sharp beat and stopped in front of him. “Hmm, pretty bad,” a familiar voice murmured. “We almost didn’t get you out in time.”
Mikey tried to open his eyes and speak, but his eyelids were too heavy and his lips only twitched. As everything slowly dissolved to black again, he heard, “Ok, move him to Recovery, Intensive again—he’s listed as a volunteer in two days. Release Mr. Anderson to his funeral and credit Mike Lang’s account.”
Mikey woke with a start. He looked around, dazed, as if from a deep sleep that wasn’t quite over. He was buckled in an airplane seat. As more of his senses tuned in, he heard the growl of the plane’s engines, the excited chatter of people around him, and the pilot’s tense announcement about the seatbelt advisory. He was in first class, with an empty cup that smelled of bourbon in his hand. I could’ve used that, he thought bitterly.
Suddenly the plane lurched to the left. Mikey gripped the armrests, as his dropped cup raced the other cups, tablets, books, and everything else that wasn’t secured to the left side of the plane. Mikey felt the lady next to him dig her nails into his left arm on the shared armrest as she squealed in panic. Mikey held his breath as the plane flew sharply angled for about 30 seconds. Then the plane rolled over and downward, and Mikey choked with full-blown panic, heaving for air as his heart thumped wildly in an effort to escape his chest. The plane’s lights flickered on and off, intermittently illuminating the chaos of debris crashing and bouncing through the cabin, but Mikey didn’t notice. His eyes were squeezed so tightly shut, his tears pooled, unable to run free. His screams were lost in the cacophony of other screams, the arhythmic thumping of flying luggage and debris, and the whining sounds of the plane straining to hold together. He tried to push against the pull of gravity, though he knew the plane was in free fall. Mikey’s heart started to thump erratically, painfully. He clutched his chest. In his last seconds of misty lucidness, he wondered which was going to kill him first, the plane crash or his heart. Then everything was black.
Mikey sensed he wasn’t alone in the same too-bright room. “Too bad about the heart attack. This assignment was almost long enough to finish off his sentence. Okay, we know he’ll want another assignment, and as soon as possible. Take him to Recovery, but book him for the next one that sounds quick, even if he’s still in Recovery.” It was Pain Supervisor Frank Kelly’s voice again.
“Oh, no,” Mikey thought groggily, “it’s not over…”
As he slipped into sedated holding, he felt Kelly touch his arm, “One more, Mikey. I’m sorry.”
Mikey opened his eyes and immediately blinked and squinted, trying to adjust to harsh, sterile light. As he felt his right arm being yanked up his back, he realized he was in a bank. His mind began to focus, and he was startled to see a scared man standing in front of him.
“Open the vault or …,” snarled a voice. Mikey yelped in pain as his arm was yanked even higher up his back and the cold muzzle of a gun was forced against his temple. Mikey saw the bank manager’s panicked hesitation and accepted his fate: a half-heard click, an immediately excruciating pain, and then black.
Mikey began to come out of sedated holding with a worse groggy hangover than usual. Creaky aches and pains told him his body had been inactive for far too long again. Why is this room always so bloody bright? He blinked as if each blink were a wiper that cleared away fog. Groaning, he tried to sit up, but his arms quivered so badly a prison assistant rushed to support him.
“Medic’s here—one last time, eh? How are you, Mikey?” Kelly asked, as Mikey steadied himself sitting.
“Good, Kelly, good…or I will be,” Mikey said, still steadying himself.
Dr. Patton performed Mikey’s physical, chatting, as usual, almost to himself the whole time. “Well, Mikey, trading years for Pain Service really paid off for you. I don’t know that I’d like my consciousness transferred to someone else to live their pain for them, especially with some of the issues still being worked out, but you did good for our patrons. Spared them the pain of accidents, muggings, and even death, or near death—have to get you guys out before death, don’t we? I’d say the service is priceless, but then I’ve seen how exorbitant the fees are! Maybe one day I’ll be wealthy enough to get one of those implants, and someone will live my pain when I press it. Ha!”
Then, after assessing Mikey’s mental state, Dr. Patton signed Mikey’s release papers. “Take care, Mikey,” Dr. Patton threw over his shoulder as he left.
Kelly stood in a formal stance, “Mike Lang, you have served your prison sentence. Please collect your belongings and exit the prison. We expect to not see you here again.” Kelly smiled and held out his hand. Mikey shook his hand and grinned widely.
Kelly had been nice to him since the day Mikey entered the prison. Ten years ago, as a surprise for his dad’s birthday, Mikey flew home from college. When he arrived, he found his mother lying dead on the kitchen floor, with a man sitting next to her, poking her with a fork and giggling wildly. Overcome with rage, Mikey beat the man to death. A neighbor heard the racket and called the police, who found Mikey sobbing uncontrollably between two dead bodies. The man he killed turned out to be a mentally-impaired helper his mother had been sponsoring. She had suffered a heart attack in front of him, and apparently the trauma of witnessing her death caused him to lose his already tenuous grasp on reality. Mikey was utterly crushed over his mother’s death, but also completely gutted that he’d killed an innocent, defenseless man. He’d willingly accepted his 30 year prison sentence, but after years of perspective and penitence, he began to forgive himself and long to be free.
Now, thanks to Pain Service, Mikey was one of the very first to stand outside the prison sooner rather than later. His father, his once close and beloved namesake, had died two years ago; that loss especially left Mikey feeling untethered at this threshold of his new life. The only thing Mikey knew about his future was that it included a lifetime of doctor visits to verify the program’s recovery procedures had been enough to keep him from becoming a quivering mass of crazy from all the Pain Service trauma. Mikey took a deep breath of non-prison air and decided he was fine with that risk.
He looked down at the money and apartment address Kelly had slipped him on the way out. Given his few options, Mikey flagged down a transporter and entered the apartment’s address. As the transporter navigated traffic, Mikey looked out onto the city and mused at how much ten years in prison, nearly a hundred transfers, and the deaths of his parents had altered his perspective.
Mikey knocked on the door of the apartment. A woman opened the door and smiled. “You must be Mikey. My husband said to expect you. I’m Mrs. Kelly, Beth,” she said as she waved him in.
Mikey walked in, surprised Kelly had sent him to his home. It was nice inside. “Please, sit down. Frank’ll be home soon.”
Mikey’s eyes wandered around the apartment, landing on a baby grand piano in the corner. Beth saw him looking at the piano. “Do you play?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. I’ve never had lessons.”
“Are you sure? Why don’t you sit down at the piano and try?”
Mikey frowned in surprise at her, but she just smiled back at him. He hesitated, and then shrugged and sat down at the piano. He felt ridiculous hovering his fingers over the piano keys…but suddenly he knew what to do! His fingers struggled to keep up with his mind, but even so, Mikey recognized the beginning of his mom’s favorite Mozart sonata, Number 16. Mikey gasped and jumped up, overturning the piano bench. He looked at his hands in confusion.
Beth clapped in glee. “Yes! Frank suspected it!” She waved off Mikey’s emerging questions. “Here, look at these financial statements. Would you buy this company’s stock?”
Mikey looked at the numbers being shoved in his face. He had been a chemistry major before his life had gone to hell; he didn’t know anything about business! However, he felt a rising sense of urgency to buy the company’s stock as several of the numbers somehow flittered through calculations in his mind—it was a great buy at that price!
Mikey threw down the reports in a panic. How did he know these things? How did she know he’d know these things?
Beth thumped her head. “Oh, of course you don’t know! Why would you?” She motioned for him to sit with her on the couch and took his hands in hers. “Frank has watched you prisoners, excuse me, ex-prisoner for you! After you’ve come back from transfers, he’s noticed changes.
“For instance, remember when Harris almost lost three fingers in the waste grinder while trying to unjam it? Well, Frank was transporting Big Hill, and they saw Harris trying to reach medic. Big Hill grabbed the wall medkit, stopped the bleeding, and bandaged Harris’s hand. He probably saved Harris’s fingers. Harris was too traumatized to realize everything, but Frank was shocked…until he remembered Big Hill had recently done a transfer with a surgeon who’d drowned.
“Frank thinks you guys come back with some of the hosts’ knowledge. He figures no one else has noticed because the program was originally tested on, well, the least capable prisoners, both as host and as transferred, in case there was damage. Then, after the program was moved to the outside, no one’s noticed because you prisoners are held in sedated holding so much, and even when you’re awake, what opportunities do you have in that barren prison?”
Mikey stopped Beth, “They need to rethink using prisoners. Believe me, I wouldn’t wish Pain Service on anyone, but most of those guys are redeemable. If Pain Service reduces their sentences and gives them skills for legit jobs, that’s great…for everyone. But giving the hardcore, unredeemable ones better skills, that’s a problem. They’ll just be more trouble and harder to catch.”
Beth nodded somberly, “Yes, Frank’s been worried about that too. They’ll probably shut the program down, at least temporarily.” She smiled, “But Frank’s been waiting to say anything. He knew how close you were to being released.”
She said, excited again, “Mikey, you’re free now. You have more transfers than anyone, almost a hundred, right? Think about what those people knew. Frank thinks you might be the most knowledgeable person alive, and not just in music and business—you just need to try things!” Mikey’s breath caught as he realized the implications. “Mikey, you’re going to have the most wonderful life!”