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Paid in Full

Paid in Full
By Dustin Driver

We pop the pills, pile into the family station wagon and charge into the crowded tunnel at 130 miles an hour. I don’t remember much about the crash, only a deafening roar, white-hot pain and the sickening feeling of my body bending in ways it was never meant to bend. Then I’m on a gurney, sunlight trickling through a thin white sheet that’s been laid over my dead and battered body. The pill is working, but slowly, and I feel my limbs cracking into place, bones pulling back together, pale skin mending at a glacial pace. In time I sense more, feel the gurney lurch and rattle beneath me, hear the choppy rhythm of a foreign language, the grating sound of an old truck trundling over bad roads, a warm breeze kissing my newly revived skin.

When I wake up, I’m free. I’m out of the system, a ghost without a serial number, a person without a past, a man without debts. The truck hits another bump and I turn my head to peek out of the sheet. The gurney’s spindly legs end in beat-up casters that rest on rusty diamond plate. The warm breeze is stronger now and I realize that someone’s opened a window to air out the stench of dead bodies. Again, the machine-gun chatter of a foreign language being fired off somewhere in the truck. It’s Tagalog, spoken in the crackling waiver of two teenage boys. I smell cigarette smoke and hear pauses in the conversation when one of them takes a drag. No need to worry about second-hand smoke when you work with the dead.

I toy with the idea of simply sitting up, like a zombie in one of those old flat movies. But Filipinos, for the most part, still believe in God and these two might make me a saint on the spot, or worse, call me Jesus and whisk me away to the nearest chapel. Then I remember what Pop told us. No use waking up with our toe tags intact. We’d just get thrown right back into the system, with new fines for evading the bill collectors. I decide to wait until the truck stops. I’ll slip out when they’re not looking, take a body with me to make it look like the truck’s been raided by scavengers. These guys get fined anytime an unregistered organ hits the streets. They make up for it with a credit card and if they’re not careful, they land in a debtor’s camp over the holidays. No, my body’s disappearance won’t make the books.

The van ploughs through a minefield of potholes, springs creaking, shocks sucking and hissing. I lay still and let my mind wonder. We left the house during rush hour, bid farewell to all our things, all the things we didn’t really own. Sis said she wasn’t scared, but I knew better. She was just trying to impress Pop. Mum didn’t say much, as usual. She just swallowed her fate and smiled at Pop, the Milky Way locked up in her eyes. Two kids, 18 years and a few lifetimes of accumulated debt and she still worshiped him. She would’ve marched right into the debtors’ camp if he said so. Instead she fell for this wild scheme. We all did. Pop was like a puppeteer. He could tug anybody’s strings just right and they’d jump. And we really didn’t have a choice. The companies had already handed the tab over to the sharks. Pop said they were coming to get us, shackles at the ready. We all imagined working the factories and I’m pretty sure sis pictured the semi-legal pedophiliac whorehouses that the contract prisons keep overseas. I have my own personal nightmare: Life in one of the work camps, where every dollar owed has its corresponding meaningless task.

The truck stops and the motion yanks me out of the past. The drivers spit Tagalog and cigarette smoke at each other as they leave the truck. The shrapnel from their conversation stings my news ears. When they’re gone, I move. I try an arm first, pull it up onto my belly. It’s rubbery and the muscles screech like they’re conducting a few thousand watts. I take a shallow breath and brace myself. Then I sit straight up, like Dracula rising from his coffin. The sheet falls, sweeping down onto the rough diamond plate in one smooth motion. Light and heat hit my body like a sledgehammer. I clamp my eyes against the barrage and try to steady my newly re-animated body. After a few shaky breaths I’m back in business, a good dose of adrenaline circulating through my veins. I pry open my eyes and squint at the insides of the van. It’s all peeling paint, corroded metal and mysterious splotches of solidified liquids. The thing is filled with gurneys, swathed in its own blinding white sheet. Fierce noonday light streams in through dirty windows, mercilessly skewering every detail.

No telling where I am. The crematoriums are on the outskirts of the city, where low-class debtors don’t mind the smell of burning bodies. But in a city of 20 million, that doesn’t tell me much. Pop never was much of a planner—that’s why we ended up in this mess in the first place—and he never took the time to figure out which morgue, or morgues, would handle our bodies. His plan: Take the pills, die and head for the river, where the Ghosts were bartering outside the system. Meet up and maybe live like a normal family again.

I gaze down at my new-old body. It’s bone white and thin, thinner than it’s ever been. But everything is there, perfect and in place. I marvel at the technological wizardry, tiny undetectable machines that can rebuild a battered corpse from blueprints. Completely illegal. And unique to each user, so unique that they’re worthless to anybody else. Pop must’ve sold his soul to get them. That, or he charmed them out of some engineer. We didn’t ask too many questions

I swing my feet down onto the rough floor, reel for a few seconds, then stand. I’m weak, but I can move. I grab the sheet, wrap it around my body like a toga and get to work. I avoid the lumpy sheets, the ones that hide piles of humanity—pieces and parts shrink-wrapped for transport. Still, the first one I reach for crumbles in my grasp, gelatinous limbs and organs spilling to the filthy floor. I heave, but there’s nothing to throw up, just bitter stinging breath. I push the bits aside with my bare foot and carefully prod the next cadaver. It’s in one piece. I scoop it up, throw it over my shoulder. Lucky me: It’s light, a petit woman or maybe a kid.

Lucky again: The morgue truck is wedged between two huge intercity transports that form a secluded valley. I can duck through the dark space without raising any alarms. I open the door, toss my traveling companion out and slink down after her. I use the truck’s tire iron to smash a window, make it look like somebody broke in. Then it’s a good five minutes of breathing hard, back against a grimy tire, hand resting on my companion’s cold shoulder. When my heart slows, I look at her. Pull back the sheet to reveal coarse blond hair radiating from a china-white face. She’s pretty, and young. Her ice-blue eyes are still open, gazing up at the blaring white sky. Guilt falls over me like a sheet. A debtor’s son gets the miracle gift of rejuvenation while a pretty thing like this gets sent off to the fire. I shake it off, tell myself that she suffered from something that even the magic pills can’t fix. And deserving or not, I’m the one with a working brain, a functioning respiratory system.

When my head gains a little weight I crawl to the rear end of the nearest transport and take a peek my surroundings. It’s a standard roadside stop, one that caters to the Southeast Asian crowd. Plastic park benches wedged in under a riot of corporate-sponsored umbrellas. Open flames licking at skewers of honey-colored meat, cauldrons of curry and soup steaming into the air. Prunish old ladies squawk at their customers through the hot fog. Drivers slurp down noodles, shovel larb down their gullets with globs of sticky rice.

I creep to the other end. It faces a lot crammed with rusty rigs and vans. They roast in the sun, curtains of hot air rising off them like ghosts. The street lies beyond, a ribbon of congealed traffic oozing along under an elevated toll causeway. Pricy cars blast along the skyway like heat-seeking missiles, tires hissing with distain. The lot is surrounded on three sides by buildings, sealed cement edifices rising into the sky. I scan their walls for a way out. The mouth of a small alleyway yawns a few dozen yards away, across the lot. The path to the alley is in full view of the bustling sidewalk and the street beyond.

There’s no clear way out. One way I stagger right into the hands of my chauffers. The other way I advertise my new occupation as a morgue robber to a few thousand commuters. It’s a big city and people are used to seeing strange things, but a kid in a sheet lugging a dead girl through the streets is bound to catch somebody’s attention.

Crawl over the body, head back to the morgue van. The door’s still open and I slide into one of the slick vinyl seats. It sighs as I sink into it, foam blowing a miasma of ash, curry and cheap cologne. I gag at the smell, stomach clenching like an angry fist. A deep breath, then I dive into the cab’s nooks and crannies. Fingers crawl through a thick stack of leaflets in the glove box. They whimper at my touch, text flickering across their creased screens. Most are too feeble to form coherent sentences, but some spout advertisements in exuberant falsettos. I slap the box shut and reach under the seat. My fingers find the satisfying crinkle of fresh plastic wrapped around something soft. I pull the package out of its hiding place. A set of spare coveralls. They’re pale blue, emblazoned with the City Morgue’s logo: A dark blue spiral. I toss the sheet on the floorboard, tear open the package and pull them over my new skin. The outfit knows enough to lengthen its sleeves and legs to cover my lanky limbs and pull itself snug around my torso. I slink back to the van’s hold and nab my gurney. I shove it out the side door, let its telescoping legs ease it to ground level. I follow, a walking cadaver in pale blue.

My date is pretty easy. She lays on the gurney without too much fuss, her sheet shining merrily in the sun. I take a deep breath and push her out toward the alleyway. I move with purpose, try to make myself look official and important. I don’t even look up at the sidewalk or the jelled cars beyond. Act like you know what your doing and most people will let you get away with anything. The gurney skips and clatters over the crazed pavement. The bare soles of my feet scream and sizzle on the hot blacktop. I feel eyes on my back, accusing stares and quizzical glances. Try to keep focused, but I lose it. I look up.

The city, viewed over the soft white bulge of my new traveling companion: A steaming snake of cars, some still spewing exhaust, slithers through a valley of decrepit apartment blocks and office buildings. This is the middle-class barrio, a warren of tiny “efficiencies” stacked up like Lego bricks to form blocky towers. Wedge a few office high-rises in between and you’ve got “easy urban living.” Climate control units are stuck to everything like ticks, their frosty metal shells humming happily as they cool the balmy summer air. The wide walkways are lined with cafes, tabacs, pharmacies, implant shops, gene splicers, food carts and leaflet stands. Sweaty wage slaves, homeless junkies and guttersnipes bounce between them like Pachinko balls. No one is looking my way. They’re all stuck in their own heads, thoughts circling in tight, safe orbits.

I charge into the alley. The gurney rattles and the sound ricochets around me like gunfire. I aim the stretcher at a big dumpster at the far end and push with all my might. Concrete buildings soar up on either side like the walls of a gulch. The sticky blacktop is crawling with trash. Scraps of paper and dying leaflets scatter over the asphalt, caught in the funnel of air rushing down between the buildings. My heart pounds like a pile driver. I cringe and flinch at every passing piece of trash, certain it’s part of a patrol swarm. I imagine a cloud of little metal bugs, each one spewing a ribbon of sticky string. They wrap me in a cocoon until the cops arrive. Sharks are one thing, but cops are worse, especially when you’re looking at charges for grand theft. All federal prisons are forced labor camps, worse than any debtor’s camp by far.

I’m nearing the dumpster when I hear a voice behind me; a wispy thing pushed through big teeth with an untrained tongue. “Do not throw it away, mister.”

I turn to see what I’ve riled. It’s a boy. A ragged dirt magnet in tatters. He’s swathed in a patchwork ankle-length thawb; rough-spun un-dyed khaki organics stitched and hot-glued with patches of synthetics. Every square millimeter is stained or soiled. His feet are clad in simple animal-hide sandals, his head capped with a dingy blood-colored fez.

“Yeah? Why not?” I try to sound tough, but the words come out like crinkled tinfoil.

The kid takes a few steps into the alley, his sandals slap on the dark pavement. The draft tugs at his thawb. “It is worth. . . very. . . much,” he says. He stares at the gurney like it’s made of solid gold.

I never actually considered selling the body. Scavengers and parts pushers were always comic book criminals to us, so despicable as to be unreal. But I’m walking make believe anyway, a zombie in coveralls. “W-where can I sell it?” I stutter. I immediately feel foolish. This kid could be anybody, could lead me right into the hands of the collection agents. I should be running him off, not collaborating with him.

“I know a . . . a . . . store,” he says. He’s translating in his head, grinding his native tongue into an easily digested English paste for my benefit. He must think I’m some kind of top-floor socialite, too good to learn a common language. An easy mark for people who really do scavenge and sell parts, a walking pile of parts begging to be sliced up and shoved in the display counter of the nearest underground organ shop.

I weigh my options. Follow this kid to the recycling shop and possibly end up for sale, or wander the streets until the cops grab me. I look at the kid. Mahogany skin smudged with grime, fingernails rimmed with black. Hungry green eyes hiding a mind that’s humming like generator. I decide that it’s not plotting my demise. It’s trying to decide how much food it’s going to buy with all the loot, what color the new thawb is going to be. “Take me there,” I say.

He nods, the matted tassel on his fez flopping forward. Then he’s off, dashing past me straight to the dumpster, flapping his grubby hand in my direction, beckoning me to follow. I ease the gurney forward and his eyes flare. “No cart!” he hisses. “Carry it.”

The girl is still light, but my bones are like rotten wood, my muscles like broken rubber bands. Still, I manage to get her wrapped in the sheet and on my shoulder. I shamble after the kid, the wind lashing at my coveralls.

Another alley branches off behind the dumpster, a capillary passage into the poor underbelly of the city. The kid moves quickly and I do my best to keep up. We cut through alleys and back streets, tunnels of ramshackle sunshades and umbrellas that snake between buildings. No one sees us. They are all too busy minding their own business; peddling knock-off electronic gear, cooking food, watching dusty displays and pouring over wrinkled leaflets. It smells like the third world threw up—acrid sweat, dried fish, rancid meat, bug spray, boiling oil, cheap sunscreen, fried fossil fuel and raw sewage stirred in a pot over high heat. Bullets of sunlight punch through the makeshift ceiling and ricochet through the cramped lanes. It is sweltering and at this depth of the city, there are no cooling units. My feet become black, then bleed as my new skin gives way to rough pavement.

After some time we reach a dilapidated shop wedged into the base of a crumbling skyscraper. Its glass storefront is webbed with a protective steel cage. Dim shapes resolve through the streaked windows—various parts and pieces recovered from dead or dying appliances. It’s a junk shop. The kid barrels through the door, triggering an explosion of old brass door chimes. A dust storm forms in his wake, riding the blowback from his fierce entry. I plow through it after him, stooped under the weight of my cash cow.

Our noisy assault is met by a shambling old man in a greasy thawb, round spectacles perched on the bridge of a hooked nose. He hisses at the kid, spits a slew of foreign curses at him. The kid whines furiously, releases a dizzying salvo of explanations in his native tongue. He waves his hands through the dusty air, eyebrows arched under the strain. The old man tsks and zooms past me, trailing a cloud of more curses. He slams the door shut, flips a few dozen locks. Then he spins and fires a disapproving look in my direction, eyes dipping to my bare feet, crawling over my stolen coveralls and coming to rest on the bundle over my shoulder. “Come,” he says. I follow him through the shop.

The place is crammed with rusty old appliances, snapped circuit boards and matted bundles of optic cable. Dust motes hang in the air like fog. The rear of the shop is spanned by a clear case that contains a jumble of scavenged portable devices, disposable phones, cracked cameras, worn-out watches, scratched display spectacles, media streamers. Given enough conductive cement and know-how, a guy could remake the city with all this junk. The old man runs a wrinkled had along the dusty counter, motions to me with the other one. “Here,” he says. I lower the girl down onto the glass, muscles trembling under the strain.

The old man digs through a corroded toolbox and produces a scalpel. An actual piece of steel. He throws back the sheet. The girl is face up, pale blue eyes terrified and frozen. The old man arches over her, examining her skin, prodding it with twig-like fingers. He looks up at me. “All untagged. . . and fresh?” he says.

“Yeah, untagged. Destined for the burn yards.”

He nods and bends over the body, his blade descending. I turn my head as it touches her flesh. Everything grows very quiet as he works, strips away flesh, exhumes organs, prods for tags. “Good, fresh, yes,” he says. The words fall out of his mouth like drool as he works. “Very little decay, nothing that can’t be fixed. Very good find, yes.”

Again, silence. I study the dirt under my toenails, the scabs around the edges of my feet. Try not to think about the girl, her innards exposed, flesh oozing embalming fluid. An epoch passes this way, me breathing dust, staring at my feet. Then the old man breaks the silence. “Seven thousand and two thousand to the boy,” he says. I hear fabric sliding over fabric, the sheet being thrown over the corpse. I look up. The girl is hidden again, a vague white lump on the counter. The old man slips the blade back into his toolbox, pulls the specs off his face. He shuffles to the other end of the counter, punches a few buttons on a console and retrieves two shiny chips. Physical cash, numbers imprinted on metal. I’ve never actually seen it before, didn’t think it still existed. He hands one to me and one to the kid.
The shop closes in around me, its darkness like deep still water, suffocating and deadly. “I need to get to the river,” I say. “I’m meeting someone there. . .” I spin, head for the door. Dizziness falls over me like a net, tangling my legs as I move forward. My stomach lurches skyward, my brain plummets toward the grimy floor. Then I’m licking lineolium, face down in filth.

I wake to the smell of incense. A few lances of light strike my face. I’m lying on a rickety cot in a claustrophobic room, staring up at a slit of a window jammed in along the ceiling. Crumbling cinderblock walls hem me in on three sides. A radio or television squawks in a foreign language. I sit up into the smoky air. My senses lag, stretch out behind me like they’re tied to the cot. They snap back all at once, slap me awake. I spin and drop my feet to the grimy floor. The cuts on my soles scream. The room is long and narrow, everything wedged into a nook or cranny—moth-eaten clothes, a small desk, countless old books, odd electronics trailing tentacles of wire. The old man is sitting at the desk, staring at a tiny shrieking scroll, pipe in his mouth. He turns, smoke curling around his head. “Sit,” he says. “You must rest.” He grabs a steaming mug off the desk and shoves it in my hands. The acrid smell of synthetic supplements rides the vapors up into my nose. I nod, take a sip. The liquid numbs my tongue and sends a few volts into my brain. Everything gets a little sharper. “I need to get to the river,” I say. “To meet someone.”

The old man takes a thoughtful pull on his pipe, pushes smoke into the air. “Yes,” he says. “Raheem will take you. You cannot stay here. There is too much risk.”

I nod. If the cops found me here they’d tear this shop apart. They’d throw this guy and the kid in a cell.

He turns toward the door and calls for the kid. Raheem pads in on bare feet, his hands wrapped around a pair of sandals, their soles crazed like the surface of the moon. He holds them out for me at arms length, like he’s feeding a crocodile. “Thanks,” I say. I take them, slip them over my feet. Their straps reach up and twist around my legs in an artful pattern. They struggle, but find enough strength to reshape themselves to my feet. The pressure feels good on my lacerated soles, jolts my brain awake with a nice dose of pain.

“We will charge you for this, of course,” he says.

Again, I nod. Everything costs money, even when you’re a ghost.

We blow out of the shop in a cloud of dust, door hissing closed behind us. The grime of the shop sticks to me, clogs up my head for the next few blocks. I plod after the kid, mesmerized by the lazy bob of the matted tassel on his fez. Things start to clear up when we break out of the tunnels and stumble onto a main avenue. I blink at the sunlight. The compressed hiss of traffic on the skyway above hits me like a bucket of cold water. I pause, forcing Raheem to wave at me furiously. I dive into the mid-afternoon foot traffic after him, trying to look and feel normal.

I can smell the river now—fish, rust, sweat and industrial waste riding on the wind. It’s cooler too. The river siphons some heat from the city, spits it out into the gulf a few miles downstream. Raheem presses on, eyes narrow and determined. He’s eager to complete this quest, dump me onto someone else, rid himself of the risk. I toy with the idea of cutting loose. I’m free now, no longer a slave to Pop’s debt. I could scrounge out enough to live, maybe even buy my way back into the system with a new name. Then I think about Ma and Sis, crouching in a riverside hovel, gnawing on poisoned fish while Pop tells them about his next scheme.

We turn a corner and Raheem stops. “We’re here,” he says. I lift my head and my eyes catch a spear of sunlight lancing off the river. It’s about a block away and I can see the camps clustered along its banks. They steam in the heat, fume at the glass towers that line the waterway. There’s only a few yards of flat land on either side, but it’s enough. People stick to the two moist strips of dirt like moss. Most are simply homeless, still in the system but too poor to afford anything. The rest are there by choice, content to live without credit, even if it means squatting in homemade shanties that get periodically razed by the cops. I spot the diner Pop told us about—a shiny steel lozenge on the waterfront. It’s a charity, pumping food into the poor and unfortunate, and today it’s besieged by a swarm of scruffy vagrants. A solidified river of traffic separates us from the scene.

Raheem points his fez at the crowd and we plough through the thick traffic and charge into the press. In a few seconds we’re neck-deep in the stinking mass, deflecting insults and threats, making our way to the front door of the diner. I try not to make eye contact, fearing retribution for cutting in line. But things stay calm. A riot or even a simple fist fight would shut this place down in an instant. I don’t see any form of crowd control until I’m on top of the door. A hulk with arms like hydraulic cylinders blocks the entrance, mirrored shades reflecting the scene.

We stop and I watch. The diner shoots out a happy customer every few minutes, then the front door opens and the silver slug swallows another one. It’s a happy bum factory, churning out its product like clockwork. I wait while the machine sucks up another unit for processing, then I move toward the doorman. When I get within a few feet he stops me, placing a huge hand on my chest, holding me at arm’s length. “Wait your turn,” he says.

I say the magic words: “I’m here for Gerhard, I’m Gavin’s son.”

His hand moves up and latches onto the scruff of my coveralls. He yanks me toward him like a straw doll. His face is a mountain range of sharp craggy features, pale in the bright sun. I search it for signs of life, stare at my own reflection in his shades. His grip tightens and the fabric of my coveralls digs into the back of my neck. His other hand moves up to his temple. He’s receiving orders. Insults and cheers fly out of the crowd around us like shrapnel. These people are hungry for blood and nothing would make their day more than the sight of my thin frame being balled up and tossed in the river like trash. But it doesn’t happen. The guard speaks: “Go with him,” he says.

Another powerful hand clamps onto my shoulder and I’m jerked through the crowd, away from the diner. I turn and see that the hand belongs to another piece of heavy machinery, a muscled menace in a pair of dark goggles. He hauls me toward a low building along the river’s edge, a small crumbling dock house. I look down and see that the kid is still with us. His face seems world weary, eyes like two empty wells. This isn’t the kid I met in the alley, the kid who was eager to feed his family, itching to buy a few pieces of candy. The heavy mover yanks on my coveralls again and my eyes shoot up toward our destination. The place is glued together with insulation foam and swathed in pieces of bright weatherproofing fabric. The lurid sheets flap and snap in the breeze coming off the water. Then I spot Sis.

She’s standing in the shack’s open doorway, back turned, arms crossed. A flowing yellow robe swallows her thin frame. I smile to myself. So Pop’s plan worked. My suspicion and doubt melt away, leaving a clear view of the future. We’ll all hop on a boat and sail away from the city, settle down on one of the new resort islands off the coast. I imagine myself landing a poolside gig fetching towels for rich rejuvenated women.

I’m a few feet from the doorway now and I call out to Sis, my voice raspy and broken. The sound spins her around, revealing her round pale face and fierce green eyes. Right away I can tell something’s wrong. Her forehead is wrinkled with worry and as I get closer I can see that one of her eyes is rimmed with purple. Her hand is wrapped in a grubby bandage. Blood blossoms through it over her knuckles. She jerks forward, rushing toward me with terror in her eyes. “Run!” she screams.

The hulk clamps down on my shoulder, squeezes a few bones together in a way that brings me to my knees. I try to get up, but he wraps a thick arm around my chest and holds me in place. A wiry guy in a flowing orange toga catches Sis, wraps his spindly fingers around her neck. I try to break free, but my captor just squeezes harder and the air gushes out of my lungs. He hauls me to my feet and starts dragging me toward the shack. “What. . . what’s going on?” I ask.

No answer, but Sis is screaming now. “Get away, run!” Her captor slaps a hand over her mouth and hauls her inside. I look down at Raheem. He’s glaring at the river, arms crossed. “Get help!” I shout. “Do something, I’ll pay you!”

“Yes, you will pay me,” he says. The words are in perfect English, each syllable pronounced with a sharp, clean tongue. “You will both pay me.” I stare down at him, my mouth gulping the humid air. I manage a feeble “What?” as the hulk lugs me closer to the shack. I can see into it now, through it to the river. A narrow pier stabs into the water. A small boat is lashed there, two great cages on its deck.

Raheem laughs. It’s not the laugh of a child. It’s the laugh of an old man, a kingpin, a slave trader. “You actually believed that your father could pay for those pills, with all his debt?” He steps before me, blocks my view of the boat. I hear Sis scream and struggle. A man curses. The kid snaps his fingers and the thug forces me down to his level. “Your father had nothing. Nothing but his family.”

“W. . . where is he?” I ask, expecting Pop to saunter out of the hut, announcing this whole thing to be some sort of twisted prank.

“I do not know.”

“What do you mean?” My head is swimming, pounding, ready to burst.

The kid takes my chin in his grubby fingers. “His freedom has been purchased with yours.”

I struggle, scream, scratch. Raheem laughs. The thug rams his fist into my kidney. Pain explodes through my abdomen and bolts up through my eyes. I’m jerked up, head lolling, eyes streaming. Raheem speaks somewhere below me. “Careful, he can’t work if he’s damaged.” Sis is still screaming and I can hear a man laughing. I’m lifted like a sack of dry grass and hauled through the shack. Colors blur through the tears. The pier rocks under us, lurches with the thug’s heavy steps. The cage door opens and I’m tossed in headfirst. I scrape my hands on the deck as I land. The door slams behind me, rattles the web-like bars of my cage. I stagger to my feet, grab the bars for support. Raheem stands in the prow, arms crossed. “Where is my mother?” I demand.

“She was not worth the pill that would have given her new life,” he says. “She did not survive the crash.”

I fall to my knees. The thug emerges from the shack, Sis over his shoulder. She’s slack and lifeless. The boat rocks under his weight. He tosses her into the other cage and slams it shut. I stoop, reach through the bars to her. Her eyes are closed against the glare of the water, the stink and heat of the city. I look up and watch the riverside shanties slide away as we glide down river.


This piece gives us a rich picture of your future in a very tight timeframe. Nicely done. I like the opening a lot.

I think this sentence would make a more powerful ending, though:

The kid takes my chin in his grubby fingers. “His freedom has been purchased with yours.”

I know it would take some shuffling and/or cutting to make it the last line, but I think it would be worth it. Also consider changing it to active voice: "He purchased his freedom with yours." It'll twist the knife a little harder. Know what I mean?

Your prose, metaphors, and imagery are always very strong. Keep it up!


Thank you!

Thank you thank you thank you!

It's always nice to receive praise, and productive guidance!

I'm working on the second revision of this today. I told myself that it would be completed and sent off to a few magazines a few weeks ago, but things have been hectic for me. Alas, today is a day of calm!



kelson.philo's picture

Yes. If Dear Old Dad really

Yes. If Dear Old Dad really is that much of a bastardo, then a little bit more of family time at the opening would be a good thing. Just to infuriate the reader more with the level of deception at hand. That a society coould be so stricken with debt culture as to have a father renounce his family is a terrifying prospect.

Action plan

How about more in the flashback? Leave the opening nearly unchanged to grab the reader, then take the reader back to where it all started. I know the flashback is a cheap trick, but I think it could do more in this case.

Vonnegut wouldn't like it, all that suspense. But oh well, I like suspense. And I like BANG leads, from my newspaper days.

kelson.philo's picture

Vonnegut also didn't like

Vonnegut also didn't like semicolons, (Link) but that didn't stop him from using them when they were the most effective device for the situation at hand. I'd like to point out that his novel "Bluebeard" is like one big flashback, and it's a great read.

I think the issue KV saw with things like flashbacks and semicolons and I'm sure a host of other things is that they're very easy to fall into. I like emphasis a lot. Too much, probably. Which is why I now think having to use the "em" tag is a blessing in disguise as it points out just how often I use it.

All that being said, try out the flashback. I think it will work fine without slowing down the momentum. Lenny Zero's take on the pill rebuilding neural functions is a purty good observation as well.

That'll do.

Flashbacks aren't necessarily a cheap device. Perhaps the medication needs to rebuild the memory as well as the body.

If there's any way to keep that first sentence while giving us more character, do it. It's got a great pop nihilist ring to it.

Solid concept.

I like your writing: crisp, great sense of place, and the plot moves along like a...
well, like a car crash. In a good way. I just walked (or limped, rather) away from
motorcycle wreck & it pretty much happened like the first paragraph did. Except
for the dying and coming back to life bit.

As much as I like the first sentence, personally, I'd have liked a little development
of the family pre-crash. Might be nice to lull the reader into a false sense of
security before you hit 'em with the crash.

Strong entry- I'd like to see a revision.

every wall collapses, given enough time.