Clemmons brings me a computer. While I recuperate over the next few days I read about Judge William Helton, about me. Finding information isn’t difficult. Apparently I was at the center of one of the most glaring cases of judicial malfeasance ever uncovered. The news branded the scam the “Shelter To Prison Pipeline,” and it went something like this: A private prison named SecurAmerica was collecting $X dollars per prisoner from the state annually. The more prisoners, the more revenue. By paying me $Y per conviction, SecurAmerica kept the money flowing; in fact, over four years they opened eight new facilities throughout the state.
According to reports, during that same four year period I received just over ten million dollars in kickbacks from SecurAmerica. If you were unfortunate enough to appear in my courtroom during that time and it was evident that nobody was going to come looking for you, you were going to jail: vagrants, trespassers, addicts. I gave a woman two years for stealing a shopping cart, and that isn’t even the most egregious example. In emails between SecurAmerica and me these defendants weren’t even referred to as people. They were “fungible assets,” blobs of rap sheets and sinew easily substituted for one another.
This is why I was sentenced to live in this body for a year, to experience for myself how untrue that assumption was. Twelve months the judge thought it would take for me to learn my lesson, and I barely survived a single day inside the skin of the sort of person I sent to SecurAmerica’s facilities.
Clemmons dotes on me; well, not all of me. He panders to the tiny patch implanted behind my ear, the Helton part. That’s his payday. He hopes to exploit that little kernel for millions of state dollars. It’s not much different from the scam that brought me to this place, except it’s legal.
He visits daily, updates me on the case, assures me it’s a slam dunk. His visits are always about dollars. “You don’t even see me,” I finally say.
“What do you mean, your honor?”
“You look at me and all you see is dollar signs.”
“That’s not true,” Clemmons argues. “I see a man egregiously wronged by the system; a pillar of the community toppled by an inhumane punishment.”
“No, that’s Helton,” I say. I point to my scarred face with my calloused, black hand. “What about me?”
Clemmons shifts uncomfortably in his seat while he thumbs through the pages of the legal pad resting on his lap. “I—don’t think I have any information about the volunteer,” he stammers.
“Find out what you can, will you?”
“Yes, yes. We’ll do what we can,” the lawyer says, and he shakes my hand and leaves.
The pattern repeats day after day. “Goddammit, Clemmons, stop stonewalling,” I demand. “Tell me whose body I’m trapped in. Tell when we can get this thing reversed.”
He drops the slick attorney act for a moment, talks with me man to man. “Most kernel swaps are a few days, a week tops. The state pays rent to the volunteer body’s owner—good rent, too. For some of these people we’re talking life changing money. Homeless have gotten off the streets, transgenders have raised enough for surgeries. Atul, my clerk, paid off all of his law school debt with a three day hate crime swap.
“But your case was different. Nobody had ever been sentenced to a full year of kernel swapping. Even if the state could afford that kind of rent, which it can’t, who is going to give up his body for an entire year? For a scenario like that you have to offer something more valuable than money.”
“Just get to the point, Clemmons,” I say, and he holds up a finger to quiet me. He’s on a roll.
“And what’s more valuable than money? Freedom. Blue skies, Fresh air. Life itself.” The lawyer leans forward in his chair and tents his fingers beneath his chin. He’s a compelling performer. “That body belongs to Clifford ‘C.C.’ Cheney, convicted on a murder rap and sentenced to death, a sentence scheduled to be executed the same week as your kernel swap.”
“What’s in it for him?” I ask.
“Twelve more months of life,” Clemmons says.
“But what good does that do him if his body is roaming around without him inside of it?”
Clemmons shrugs. “The impulse to survive is perhaps our greatest impulse.”
“Well that’s a stroke of luck,” I say. “That means my body is locked safely away in a SecurAmerica detention facility. Let’s go get it and sort this thing out.”
“It’s not that simple, your honor,” Clemmons says, and he tosses the Becerra Picayune onto my hospital bed. I flip the newspaper over and read the headline: “Three Escape In Daring Prison Escape.” Beneath the headline are three mug shots. I don’t know who the first two suspects are, but there’s no mistaking the third. It’s a photograph of me.
Days pass. Judge William Helton’s daring prison escape dominates the news cycle. I’m even on “The Vortex with Bob Flynn.” The news never refers to the escaped convict as Clifford Cheney, or even Helton-Cheney or Cheney-Helton. No, they simply plaster my mug shot on the screen, flanked by the two other escapees, “Corrupt judge still on the run” in bold letters beneath the photos.
Clemmons visits for the first time since the escape. Well, he doesn’t. He sends Atul, the clerk. “With all of the negative publicity you have attracted, Mr. Clemmons feels that your case might be better suited for another firm.”
“I haven’t attracted any publicity,” I say. “I’ve been stuck in a goddamned hospital bed.”
“Yeah. We feel it’s best for all parties,” the underling says. “Best of luck to you.”
“How are we feeling today?” the doctor says as he passes Clemmons’s lackey at the door. “Looks like you’ll be going home this afternoon.” Just like that I no longer have a lawyer in my corner or a bed to rest my head.
I’m back on the street; well, somebody’s back on the street. Helton? Cheney? Meyer? I’ll be Meyer for now, the pseudonym they gave me when they implanted my Helton kernel memory into this Cheney body. This isn’t like the last time they shoved me through the hospital door. Meyer has some street smarts now. Meyer has a motive. Meyer sets out on the long trek back to Manna From Heaven.
I stand in line quietly, waiting for my tray of food, only I’m not just waiting. I’m watching, scanning faces, straining to overhear conversations, looking out for Bernard and Mik-Al, on the watch for anyone who can help or harm.
“Good evening, sir. How are you?” the server says.
“Just give me the food,” I say.
“Jesus loves you,” she says, and she ladles steaming starch onto my tray.
I find an empty stretch of table and plant myself on a bench. Someone sits down beside me. We eat quietly, neither one of us acknowledging the other until he says, “I know who you are.”
“Who am I?”
“I know who you are. I know where your body is,” he says.
“Who am I?”
“Look at me,” he says. I look up from my tray, but I don’t see his face. He’s turned away, as if looking to his right. All I can see is the back of his shaved head, the small scar obscured by the thick, broken cartilage of his red ear.
“You put me away for life for something I didn’t do,” he says. “C.C. never did nothing, either. Most of us committed no crime besides being broke and homeless.”
“You know Cheney?”
“You would’ve let us die in there, and for what? A few million? Do you know how desperate you have to be to give up your own body just to survive?”
“I understand desperation,” I reply.
“Do you know what it’s like to be just a lottery ticket to somebody else?”
“I’m a lottery ticket that was just tossed into the gutter,” I say.
“You ruined our lives,” he says.
“For a few dollars.”
“Was it worth it?”
There’s nothing left to lose, no lower station to which I can sink, no reason to lie. “I can’t remember enough of my Helton life to be sure, but I suspect that if I hadn’t been caught and all of this wouldn’t have happened, then I would say yes, it was worth it.”
“‘Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.'”
“What’s that from?” he asks.
“I don’t remember yet,” I answer. “Where is my body?”
“Finish your food, then I’ll take you to him.”
I turn to face him and offer my thanks. Seated beside me is one of the two convicts who escaped with Cheney-Helton.
We return to the hospital of all places, but we don’t enter through the front. He leads me to a service entrance, where I’m secreted away in a laundry bin. I roll along in darkness, linens piled on top of me. It’s hard to breathe and sounds are muted. I hear elevator doors, feel the occasional bump as the bin moves from one floor surface to the next. Eventually we come to a stop. Someone pulls the linens away and I emerge from the bin like a Meyer-in-the-box. Sitting on a gurney in front of me is me, Judge William Helton, wearing a hospital gown.
We study each other for a moment, Cheney looking at himself while I do the same. It’s a surreal moment. Our kernel memories may be our souls, but they are clearly not the entirety of us. They know where they belong, and they are drawn almost magnetically toward their corporeal manifestations.
“They’re looking for you,” I tell Cheney.
“No, they’re looking for you,” he replies. “I never did anything to anybody, and you know it.”
Dr. Maduro enters, dressed for surgery. “Mr. Meyer, back with us so soon?” he grins. A pair of nurses remove my clothing and slip a gown over my shoulders while he speaks. “This procedure won’t take long. We’ll have you home before you know it.” I hear the whir of the clippers before I feel them bare the skin behind my ear. One nurse swabs my arm with alcohol and the other glides a needle into my vein.
“Count backward from ten for me,” she says.
I look at Cheney-Helton, at my own face. “How?” I ask.
“Helton’s face, Helton’s money,” Cheney-Helton smiles, and the room darkens.
I am not black.
Not much else is clear to me: what hospital this is, why I’m here, why I’m handcuffed to the bed’s safety rail, but the skin on my hand is white and freckled with age.
There is no television in this room, no windows either, nothing but a couple of busy nurses, a pair of guards blocking the doors, and a row of beds occupied by male patients. “You awake? How you doing, Helton?” a nurse shouts.
“Confused,” I say.
“You’ll be back to your cell soon enough,” he says.
I am no longer Judge William Helton. I am inmate BC35208, serving a ten year sentence at SecurAmerica’s correctional facility just outside of Becerra, Idaho. I have been convicted of honest services fraud, escaping prison, and defrauding the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. I’ve yet to see a breakdown of these expenses, and no one will tell me what they were for.
I continue to try to find evidence that kernel swapping exists, but no one in either the private or public sectors will corroborate my story. No trace exists that I was sentenced, as Jack Clemmons claimed, to one year of kernel swapping. In fact, Clemmons claims he’s never met me.
According to both court records and news accounts, Clifford “C.C.” Cheney was executed by lethal injection on schedule and without incident. I can find no trace of “Tommy Meyer” in the public records, but that’s not surprising given that I assumed the name Tommy based upon a hand-me-down shirt.
SecurAmerica charges the state $63,376 each year that I am incarcerated. Each inmate at the facility bears the same price tag. We are fungible assets.
Bernard and Mik-Al are here, as are a few other familiar faces from Manna From Heaven. We do the institutional shuffle together three times per day–three hots and a cot–but otherwise we ignore each other. That’s not quite right. They don’t ignore me so much as they don’t know who I am and they don’t care. I’m just another inmate.
My wife divorced me, my boys never visit. I am forgotten.
Occasionally I get a picture postcard from an Asian or South American country where U.S. dollars go far and questions are sparse. The cards are never signed, never contain a message, but I know who they’re from. I don’t know whether he’s flaunting it or letting me know that it all turned out okay for him, but either way is fine by me. Once you’ve lived inside another man’s skin, you begrudge him nothing.
Himes,, this was effing great. I wish you would write a collection of sci-fi short stories. I have read a lot of shot sci-fi and dystopian future/present stories written by the best out there, and this story goes head to head with every single one. Just my opinion, but I think you’ve found your fiction niche.
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Hey, thanks Kel. Glad you liked it!
Excellent! I think Rod Serling would have loved this!
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Couldn’t ask for a nicer compliment than that. Thanks, Robbo!
Just as I hoped, a happy ending for all.
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What .ore can you ask?