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by Michelle Kaseler 

2,989 words

Light stings my eyes. The walls and ceilings are white.

The shadowed outline of a tilted head and dangling ponytail moves closer. “What’s your name?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

Nothing looks familiar. A beeping screen with numbers and jagged lines hangs above my bed. The woman’s eyes, dark and intense, come into focus. I can’t look away. Don’t want to.

“Where are you from?” Her scent sparks memories of soft shapes and bright colors.

“Here?” Something tells me there are other places, but I don’t know any of them. I curl and flex my fingers and toes.

“What’s my name?” She points to the badge clipped to her white coat.

“Doctor Angela Ramirez.”

Flowers. She smells like flowers. My pulse thumps in my throat. She’s as pretty as one, too.

She holds up cards with pictures and asks me to identify each one. Horse. Mountain. Strawberry.

“Good, good.” She nods. “Do you have any personal memories of these things?”


A hint of a smile brightens her face. “He’s ready.”

“Ready for what?” I wince as she removes the electrodes from my shaved head and chest.

I follow her gaze to a man in a dark blue uniform with hair that juts up like rusty needles. His shoulders are as wide as the doorway.

“Ready for assignment.” He drops an orange jumpsuit and a pair of shoes on my lap. “You’re minenow. Get dressed.”

B9 is tattooed on my left hand, but it means nothing to me. The man—Merten according to his nametag—doesn’t have any markings on his hand.

Dr. Ramirez leaves me alone with him. I want to ask if she’s coming back, but his face convinces me not to. He blocks the door, arms folded across his chest. They’re twice the size of mine—he could snap me like a stick.

Merten raps his nightstick against his palm. “Get moving, ant.”

My backside is a little numb, but nothing hurts as I pull myself up by the railings and step into the stiff, scratchy jumpsuit. It tugs around the middle.

Merten escorts me down a corridor, past several rooms with people hooked up to monitors and IV bags. Dr. Ramirez is in one of them, writing on a clipboard.

“Stop staring,” Merten grunts. “Creep.”

My cheeks warm, I avert my eyes. Am I?

We pass a larger room where three bodies covered with sheets lie on slabs, toes up. My stomach becomes a block of ice.

“Third strikers.” Merten presses his nightstick against my back. “Observe, behave, and don’t become one.”

I quicken my step.

We end up in a room filled with dozens of metal bunks. A man lies on his side, moaning.

“Infirmary must be full. Keep it down, A5.” Merten pokes him as we walk by, then stops in front of the bunk marked B9-B10. “You’ll sleep here.”

“Am I supposed to sleep now?”

“I don’t care. Just stay put and don’t cause any trouble.” He points at a camera mounted on the ceiling. “Or we’ll be on you like flies on shit.” The guard smirks. “You should sleep. You’ll be busting your ass soon enough.”

After he leaves, I climb the bunk and lie down. Light filters in through barred windows and ceiling fans fill the room with a sputtering hum. I watch a nicked blade go round and round.

One, two, three. . .

Hunger gnaws at my stomach, but I stay put like Merten said.

Two hundred ten, two hundred eleven . . .

I trace the B9 on my hand. What does it mean? Who am I? Why am I here?

Three hundred ninety-nine, four hundred . . .

Footsteps jolt me awake. It’s dark outside. Under the light of bare bulbs, thirty or so men in jumpsuits like mine, only dirtier, fan out to their respective beds.

A burly man with a heavy brow pounds my bunk, making it shake. He’s not quite as broad as Merten, but he’s taller. His lips curl, revealing several blacked, uneven teeth. “I sleep up top.” His left fist is marked with B10. It resembles mine, except his has a single line underneath.

I scoot to the bottom bunk.

“Stay in your place, leave me alone, and we’ll get along fine,” he says, “just like I did with the last B9.”

* * *

Weeks pass. Every morning after a powdered egg, dry toast, and canned fruit breakfast, we board the bus to the mine. The driver, a plump guy with circular glasses and wispy curls, leads us in a chorus of “Heigh-Ho” as we bounce down the dusty road.

The whole bus belts it out with him. It’s the only music I ever hear in this place, the only song I know.

I sit with A7—Ace—who always tears up a little as he sings. He’s not as loud as the others, but he has a richer voice. “Why does it hit me like that, Bean?”

I don’t know, but I understand. It hurts and feels good at the same time. “Does it make you think of a girl with blonde hair?”

Ace shakes his head. “It makes me think of short guys.”


“I don’t think so.” He shrugs.

Like the seats on this bus, Ace may look worn down, but he’s as solid as they come. And unlike me, there’s not a strand of silver in his dark hair.

We met a few days after I arrived. It sticks in my mind because out here, smiles are rarer than wildflowers.

“You must be new,” he had said.

“Isn’t that obvious?”

“Your skin gives you away.” He held his leathery arm next to my peeling, pink one. “If you want, you can work in the tunnels, and I’ll do the lifting and hauling.”

“Thanks,” I said.

He looked down at my hands, and the lines on his face deepened as he grinned. “I’ll bet you haven’t done much outdoor work.”

He was probably right.

The days, much like the dunes that ripple across the barren landscape, blend together. We dig, pick, and haul. Sometimes, we see the doctor and she puts us in a clanking metal tube. New people come, and others disappear. Sometimes, they come back. The work has hardened my arms, and my stomach pudge is gone.

It’s cooler now, so we get three water breaks instead of four. Ace and I sit together and drink from our marked bottles.

“What’s the first thing you remember?” I ask.

“Dr. Ramirez’s eyes.” We both grin, then his stare turns distant. “Before that, waking up in the white room.”

“Me too.”

“Do you ever wonder how we got there, Bean?”

My throat tightens.

“B9!” My bunkmate, B10—Beat—strides over. “Gimme your water. Some asshole stole mine.”

I’ve learned to give Beat what he wants. He squeezes the bottle until it sputters, grunts a thanks, then drops it at my feet. I wipe the dirt off the nozzle.

The siren blares, and we return to work.

The air is thick with dust when I resurface. Coughing, I pull the collar of my jumpsuit over my mouth and look for Ace.

Guards rush about, picking up pieces of paper scattered on the ground. Merten snickers as he grabs a leaflet. “Dumb do-gooders concerned about birth defects. Like these ants are gonna knock anyone up.”

“Where did they come from?” I ask Ace.

“A drone dropped them. The guards said not to touch them, but I can’t help if one landed at my feet.” His eyes twinkle.

“Did you read it?”

“Just a little before they took it away.” He furrows his brow. “Stuff like ‘Prisoner rights are human rights’ and ‘Rebirth is inhumane.’”

“Rebirth,” I mutter. Charlie, one of the guards, talks about living water and being born again. The others call him Charlie Chaplain, even though his last name is Drake. None of it makes any sense to me. “Why do you think we’re prisoners?”

“Dunno.” Ace shrugs. “I don’t remember doing anything wrong.”

I kick the dirt. “Me neither.”

So why are we here?

Soon, it’s back on the bus with people singing “Heigh-Ho” and wagering whether it will be hot dogs or spaghetti for dinner, but I just stare out the window. I want steak, ice cream, and tacos, the kind of food the guards talk about, the kind that doesn’t exist in the world of mines, dorms, and dunes.

* * *

The days have grown warm again when a new guy sits next to me during water break. His posture and smooth skin aren’t the only things that stick out—the way he watches everything reminds me of a guard.

“D2,” I say, looking at his hand. “That sounds familiar.”

His eyes light up. “Did you ever see Star Wars?”

“No.” I imagine the stars, so distant and still, fighting each other, and chuckle. “Do stars have wars?”

“No.” D2 sighs. “Wait. This might help.” He hums a few notes and looks at me expectantly.

Instinctively, I hum a few bars.

“Yes!” Head bobbing up and down, he joins back in.

Our melodies match perfectly, and my heart swells. I feel like I’m flying through space. I think of the little blonde girl again. She’s flying, too. She’s going to get hurt! But she lands safely in the sand, laughing, then climbs back on the swing.

“You’re still in there.” D2’s words break the spell. “Now, I want you to think carefully before answering my next question.” He leans in and lowers his voice. “Does the name ‘Thomas Fairbanks’ mean anything to you?”


“Damn.” D2’s shoulders slump as he looks up at the sky. “Too bad your life didn’t have a soundtrack.”

Merten approaches with a heavy stride and D2 shields his face. Once he’s gone, D2 slips something into my pocket. “Read this, but don’t let anyone else see it.”

The siren blares.

“I’ve got to get back to the tunnels,” I say. “If you want the guards to leave you alone, you’d better get working, too.”

He gives a crisp nod. “We’ll talk later.”

I stand up and walk away.

Moments later, Beat shouts, “Give me the fucking bottle!”

I turn to see him rip it from D2’s hand and knock him to the ground. D2 moans as Beat kicks him in the stomach. As I rush to help, a guard pushes me aside.

Charlie Chaplain tackles Beat from behind, but Beat tosses him off easy as flicking a fly. Two more guards run over, tase my bunkmate to the ground, and put him in cuffs.

“That’s strike two,” Charlie says.

“Tweakers.” Merten spits the word out. “I’ve been telling the doc for weeks that this one needed an adjustment.” He points his nightstick at the rest of us. “Show’s over. Get back to work.”

After they take Beat away, Ace and I help D2 up. His face is caked with dirt, and blood oozes from his nose to his split, puffy lips. Bright red everywhere. Electric pulses ricochet inside my head. I close my eyes, but I still see the blood coating his teeth. Dribbling down his chin. My fists want to fly. To pummel. I hold them tight against my side.

“I’ll take you to the infirmary,” a guard says to D2.

Wincing, D2 straightens up. “No. I’m fine.”

“Then get to work.”

D2 pushes a wheelbarrow back to the pits. Ace and I exchange a look. Why would someone turn down rest and medical care?

* * *

I search for D2 on the bus and at dinner but can’t find him. He must have gone to the infirmary after all.

After returning to the bunks, I open the envelope he gave me and remove a newspaper clipping.

Fairbanks Found Guilty in Millionaire’s Death.

There’s a picture of me, face hardened with hate. Next to it, there’s one of a man, maybe ten years my senior, wearing a suit. His smile is benign, but he has the eyes of a predator.

Something clicks and buzzes like an intercom before an announcement.

I’ll tear you apart, you filthy sack of shit!

More than a voice, it’s a feeling. Feral. My hands tighten into fists as I continue to read.

Thomas Fairbanks, a senior actuary and volunteer math tutor, has been convicted of murdering business mogul Harvey Paxton. Those close to Fairbanks maintain that he’s an exemplary citizen, a devoted husband and father who only became violent due to his daughter’s suicide.

Daughter. Jamie. Images of the blonde girl flood my mind. My stomach clenches. But she wasn’t a girl anymore.

Seventeen and studious, she was so proud to be selected for Paxton's student entrepreneur program, she hung the article on her wall. Four smiling high schoolers with Paxton standing behind, his hands resting on her shoulders.

“She trusted you,” I whisper, voice hoarse.

She’d never been a chatty girl, but she couldn’t stop talking about the program and her plans for the future. Then one day, she didn’t talk at all.

“How’s my favorite entrepreneur?” I asked.

“I quit.” Her voice trembled. “I’m just not cut out for it, okay?”

I didn’t press.

Later, I found her body dangling from a makeshift noose and a note on her desk.

Paxton called me into the boardroom alone to go over some mistakes I’d made. It was hot, and he slipped off his jacket. Without thinking, I took off my cardigan as well. Why didn’t I wear something with sleeves? While he stood over me, pointing out my error, he slid the strap of my dress down my shoulder. I slapped him away. He said it was an accident, but if I was going to be this difficult, I wasn’t right for the program.

The next day, I lost my scholarship. I begged to get it back and he laughed. “You’re not smart enough to succeed. I only picked you because it looks bad if there aren’t any girls, and you were the only one who looked halfway decent. None of you ever amounted to anything.”

Acid grief floods my chest, leaving me hollow, liquid, and raw.

I’ll tear you apart, you filthy sack of shit!

Then I remember something else.

Paxton lying on the ground and coughing up blood as I pummel him again and again. Red everywhere. So thick, I could smell it. Taste it.

My stomach heaves. How could I have forgotten all of that? I return to the article.

As a measure of clemency, the State will assess him for participation in Project Rebirth, in which citizens bound for death row are offered a chance to unlearn their violent tendencies and contribute to society.

“It’s exciting technology,” said Dr. Angela Ramirez, the physician whose research into memory and aggression made the program possible. “A chance to heal damaged individuals while sidestepping the moral quagmire presented by the death penalty.”

When asked about potential side effects, Ramirez scoffed. “Worse than a lethal injection? Not to mention, as we refine our methods, the ramifications for the future could be monumental. What if we could stop violence before it happens? Imagine a world without bloodshed.”

Congressman Jeffrey Walker, one of the program’s champions, released the following statement. “I’m a staunch supporter. Rather than wasting taxpayer dollars sitting in jail, these criminals will be put to productive use.”

* * *

The next morning, Beat boards the bus with a gentle smile on his face. I don’t acknowledge him. Two marks sit under the B10 on his hand now.

When the driver launches into “Heigh-Ho,” I don’t sing.

“What’s wrong?” Ace asks.

My daughter is dead, and I killed a man. But I can’t say it, can’t make it more real, so I simply shake my head. “Nothing.”

During the water break, D2 walks over. His face is cut and bruised, but he smiles when we make eye contact. “You remember.”

I hurry away, but he follows and grabs my arm. I jerk it away. “Why did you show me? Life was better when I didn’t know.”

“You call this a life?” D2 snorts. “They stripped away every shred of who you were.”

“No, Harvey Paxton did that.” I glare at him. “What’s it to you, anyway? Did you know me?”

He leans closer. “I’m not a prisoner. I’m a reporter, and I’m going to blow the lid off this place. What they’re doing is wrong, and rumor is, it extends beyond death row inmates. It’s the homeless, gang members, addicts, and petty criminals. . . . Anyone without a family to ask questions.

“I’ve got a man on the inside. He told me about the memory loss accompanying the docility procedure, but I had to see it for myself.” He shudders. “But now that we know being confronted with major life events can reverse the effect, we can do something about it.”

“Why?” My head throbs. “Now I feel pain. Now I feel rage.”

“Thomas, I need you to channel that energy so we can get your story to the—” A cloud of dust blows by, and D2 is overtaken in a sneezing fit. When it stops, blood leaks from his still-swollen nose.


I’ll tear you apart, you filthy sack of shit!

With a roar, I strike his face, over and over. The skin under his eye splits.

Pain explodes down my back, like I’ve been hit with a shovel. I collapse mid-blow, body twitching.

The guards cuff me and drag me away. “That’s strike one.”

* * *

I’m in the hospital, on my back, sedated. My vision is muddy, but I can hear.

“I didn’t bank on this one getting a strike. Decent guy from what I read. I mean, if I lost my daughter . . .”

“These crime-of-passion types have been the most unpredictable. Expose them to the right—or wrong—stimulus, and all bets are off.”

“Beginning secondary adjustment on subject B9.”

The voices fade.

* * *

Light stings my eyes. The walls and ceilings are white.

Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when reading and writing. She enjoys funky shoes, hot sauces, and long runs. Her short fiction has also been published by Flame Tree Publishing, Daily Science Fiction, and Stop by to learn more.

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