Aphelion Issue 216, Volume 21
April 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

Listening to the Words

By Joseph Jordan

Part One of Two



As doctors, we can be proud of the advances made in medical science. Our ever-increasing knowledge of the human genome, along with the power of nanotechnology, has enabled us to cure many of humanity’s most insidious illnesses; however, we must never forget that we treat people, not diseases. We must be careful what we promise to our patients. High hopes and expectations, even in this age of medical wonders, can often lead to disappointment.

Dr. Isamu Nakayama
Patient Care in the New Age”
Modern Medicine –- October Issue, 2048


PART ONE

I thought I was pretty lucky getting a black judge for my case.

Even though I’m white as a sheet, I figured a black man would take pity on a poor, deprived fellow like me. I’d come from a broken home and had to put up with a lot of shit as a kid. My mother had been a part-time hooker, fulltime drunk. She’d gotten her kicks from slapping me around. When I turned thirteen years old, Maryland’s Child Protective Services took me away. As for my father? Well, I hope he’s having fun, whoever the hell he is.

“The defendant will rise for sentencing.” The judge’s voice echoed through the chamber.

I stood up, but my attorney had his head buried in his arms on the table.

“Hey counselor, we’re on.” I nudged the guy with my hand, trying to wake him before the judge looked our way.

My attorney groaned and raised his head. His eyes were bright red and his hair was a mess. He’d told me earlier about this great party he’d gone to last night.

So much for public defenders.

“Antonio D’Andrea.” The judged turned away from his computer terminal. He gave a disapproving glance at my lawyer before continuing. “You have entered a guilty plea to one count of selling intellectual property in violation of Maryland Criminal Law Article 8-611.”

One count, huh! I got caught selling a single Interactive Content Cube to an undercover policewoman. If the cops had bothered to search my apartment, they would have found hundreds of blank cubes and a voice-activated, high-speed digital transfer system. I had quite a scam going. A friend of mine had hacked the databases of a large entertainment content conglomerate. He downloaded petabytes of material and turned it over to me so I could make copies and sell them on the black market. I pulled in quite a bit of money from those sales, enough to buy a fancy automobile and plenty of sex drugs.

“Does the defense have anything to add before I pass sentence?”

“Uh. . .” My attorney rushed through some papers on the table and glanced at me to see whom he was defending. “Yes, your honor. We’d like to call your attention to our memorandum.”

The judge tapped away on his computer’s touch-monitor till he found the right file.

“This is my client’s first offense.” My attorney had somehow found the strength to stand. “He has confessed to the crime and cooperated fully with the court. We have drawn up a monthly payment plan to cover the fine and court costs. Therefore, we ask that the court consider our suggestion for probation and community service as an alternative to jail time.”

First offense -– what a laugh. Fortunately, in Maryland, juvenile court records could no longer be subpoenaed by the District Courts. As a teenager I’d bounced back and forth between juvenile detention centers and foster homes so many times I’d felt like a yo-yo.

“First offense?” The judge shook his head in disbelief, as though he saw delinquent stamped all over my face. “Mr. D’Andrea, according to the presentence report, you’ve been given all kinds of opportunities, yet you have done nothing with your life.” His finger scanned down the computer monitor. “As a virtual orphan, you were entitled to attend any college in the state for free, yet you dropped out of high school. You have no job. The state even provides you an allowance to help with rent and utilities.”

The judge frowned. “You’re a leech on our society, Mr. D’Andrea. Still, the probation office recommends no jail time as well. Since this is your first offense, I’m almost obliged to follow your counselor’s memo.”

He glanced at the computer monitor again. “Seems you like antique automobiles. A completely restored Firebird. Air conditioning. Media content system. Navigation system.”

Damn! The probation officer must’ve accessed my insurance records when writing the report.

“I don’t know where you get the money to afford such luxury, but I’m not allowed to speculate. However,” and the judge’s face lit up with a devilish grin, “I am allowed to do whatever I deem necessary to enforce the sentence I pass down. Therefore, Mr. D’Andrea, you are hereby ordered to one year probation, starting immediately. During that year you will perform ten hours of community service a week at. . .” He read over my attorney’s report. “. . .the South Baltimore Group Foster Home for Boys. There you will report to Ms. Harding.”

An orphanage? Geez! I hated kids. What was my attorney trying to do to me?

“Oh,” the judge continued, “and during the year’s probation, I’m impounding your automobile.”

“Not my wheels!” I almost jumped towards the bench, but my attorney grabbed my arm.

The judge stared at me, daring me to raise my voice again. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear: if you don’t do as Ms. Harding tells you, or you violate the terms and conditions of your probation, or you are convicted of any other offense over the next year, then you will serve eighteen months for this crime.”

The judge banged his gavel.

So much for throwing myself at the mercy of the court.

#

The group foster home was way down in Curtis Bay, over an hour bus ride from my apartment in the Baltimore Highlands. Ms. Harding wasn’t an old croon as I’d expected. She was a young woman with light brown skin, a pudgy but cute face, and a pair of the biggest boobs I’d ever seen outside of porn content.

She must have noticed me eyeing her over. “Buster, you better get those eyes back in your head, and if you ever think about letting your hands wander where your eyes have been, I’ll cut your fingers off.”

So much for first impressions.

“What am I going to do with you?” Harding rubbed a hand through her hair and sighed. “The court’s gonna have to convict better people if they think they can help me.” She glanced over her shoulder at a group of kids playing on a swing set behind the home. “Right now I need someone to watch the children here while I see Mr. and Mrs. Rathchild. They’re here to talk with Jimmy Kramer. I think they might adopt him.”

She smiled briefly at the prospect of little Jimmy being picked up by some loving, all-American couple. Her smile faded quickly when she looked back at me. “It’s only for a couple of minutes. You stay here and make sure none of the children get hurt on the swing.”

I tried to tell Harding that kids and I don’t get along, but she ran through the back door and into the house before I could get any words out of my mouth.

I shuffled closer to the swings, checking out the place as I went. The whole group foster home was a mess. The building was as dirty and run down as the rest of the neighborhood. Most of the windows had cracks in them, or patches where whole sections had been broken out. The paint had peeled away in so many places I couldn’t tell what color the siding should be.

What a rotten place to raise kids. Why weren’t the boys placed in real foster homes? Even the social workers handling my case had managed to find unsuspecting couples to take me in.

As I watched the kids playing, I noticed something weird. One of the boys had braces strapped to each leg. Another boy had only one arm. A third kid was sitting on the ground, his head lolling back and forth, saliva dripping from his mouth.

What had I gotten myself into? This place was a goddam freak show!

The boy with the bobbing head suddenly reached into his trousers. When he pulled his hand out it was all brown.

“What the. . .” I turned towards the house. “Harding! Harding, get out here! Now!”

I continued screaming until Harding hurtled through the door.

“What’s going on here?” She stopped in front of me.

“Look at this!” I pointed towards the kid on the ground with his hands in his pants.

“What am I going to do with you?” she said to me, ignoring the kid playing with his own shit as though he did it every day. “Don’t worry about him, we’ll clean him up. But you -– man! -– I only asked you to look after the children for a few minutes.”

The other boys gathered around Harding, staring at me as though I was the freak.

“Look lady, I don’t like kids and they don’t like me. So I suggest you keep them away from me.”

“Fine, fine. I don’t want you near them anyway. I don’t trust you.” She patted the head of one boy who had walked over to hide behind her skirt. “You can do the cleaning. And you can help Martha with the cooking.”

She glanced at her watch. “Damn.” Her frown sank even deeper. She must have had a million things to do around the foster home. I almost felt sorry for the bitch.

“What I really need is someone to take David to the hospital for his therapy.” She looked at her watch again but still didn’t like what she saw. “Think you can handle that? He’s just one boy, fifteen years old. He won’t give you any trouble. Just take him to the Weinberg Institute up at Franklin Square. The bus will be here in ten minutes.”

I thought about telling Harding how much I hated buses, but I didn’t think she would care. “Sure. Where’s the kid at?”

#

When I found the third bedroom on the right, I knocked on the door.

“Yeah. Come on in.”

The door creaked something awful as I opened it. I looked around, surprised that the room was clean. Three beds sat against the wall to my left, all of them made with the covers tucked under their mattresses. Along the right wall I saw shelves covered with plastic space ship models. A skinny boy stood next to the shelves. He was holding one of the models in his hands.

“You David?” I asked.

“Yes.”

The boy’s hair was cut short and actually missing in some spots, but otherwise he looked okay. At least I didn’t think he would shove his hands down his pants to check out his own shit.

“Who are you?” David cocked his head like a confused puppy.

“I am none other than Antonio D’Andrea. But don’t you ever call me Antonio. You have to call me Tony.” I walked towards the shelves. “I’m here to take you to the hospital.”

David placed the model he’d been holding back on a shelf. “Yeah, I figured Ms. Harding was busy.”

I scrutinized each of the boy’s models, trying to decide whether or not I approved of his collection. “You like toy space ships, huh?”

“Yes. They’re neat, aren’t they?” His face almost glowed as he stared at the shelves.

I peered at David from the corner of one eye. “Yeah, neat. I was thinking just that.”

I picked up a large, silver colored model. It looked like some kind of satellite with big black flaps sticking out from the front and back. “Now this is neat.” I held it and studied it. “What the hell is it?”

David laughed. “That’s the old International Space Station. It was built at the beginning of the century.”

“Ah, thought so.”

“This one’s my favorite.”

“Look kid, we gotta go.” But I did like the model David lifted and held before me. It was sleek like a jet fighter, all smooth with a needle-shaped nose and a fuselage that fanned out to form delta wings. It was painted dark blue, with few features showing on the skin. “Hey, that’s the AeroSpacePlane, ain’t it? I saw it on television not too long ago.”

“Yeah, the LM-ASP-1. I hope to see a real one someday. Ms. Harding says she’ll take me to Edwards Spaceport as soon as she can. I had wanted to be an astropilot when I grew up.” He got a dreamy look on his face, his mind traveling far away.

“David, we’re all ready late.”

The boy snapped out of his trance. “Yeah, okay. Let me grab my jacket”

I watched the boy’s shoulders slump over. “Hey,” I said, “maybe you’ll become a -– whatever type of pilot you called that.”

David returned the AeroSpacePlane to its shelf. He caressed the plastic surface. “No, I won’t.”

I shrugged. “Suit yourself.” I opened the door. “Let’s go.”

#

One of the reasons I sold stolen media content was to buy a car, so I wouldn’t have to ride the damn Baltimore buses. But there I was, standing because all the seats were taken, rocking back and forth on a bus whose computer-controlled suspension had gone on the blink.

“David, you travel this route every day?” I almost fell over as the bus hit a large bump.

“A few times every month. Usually Ms. Harding brings me. Sometimes a person like you shows up. Those people never stay. Will you be at the home for long?”

“God, I hope not.”

It took us almost forty minutes to get to Franklin Square. The Weinberg Institute was a hospital specializing in cancer, so I knew whatever was wrong with David couldn’t be good. Once inside, the kid led me through hallways that stank of medicine and antiseptic. We entered a room with a sign above the door that read ONCOLOGY in large, blood-red letters -– whatever the hell oncology meant.

As David waited to be called, I took time to watch the female nurses walk by. I thought about how long it’d been since I’d been with a girl. Almost three years. Lucy was her name. She wasn’t that great looking, but she moved like a mink in bed. When she turned eighteen, she decided there was no reason to give herself away to a pimple-faced guy like me when she could make good money with her body. So, she picked up her prostitution registration card, kissed me goodbye, and strutted off to find her fortune.

So much for true love.

That’s when I turned to sex drugs. Orgasmo-tablets, cum-drops: whatever you wanted to call them. Great stuff. They gave you the feel of sex without having to put up with a girlfriend’s yakking mouth. Unfortunately, the damn things cost as much as a girlfriend.

A nurse came over and told David the doctor would be ready for him soon. While I’d been watching the girls, David had been leafing through magazines on the waiting room table.

“Hey, David.”

He looked at me with a smile.

“What’s wrong with you, anyway?” I asked.

“I’ve got leukemia.”

“Leukemia?” I’d heard of that before, back in high school when we learned about diseases. If I remembered right, leukemia was one of the bad ones. “What do they do to you here?”

“Chemotherapy.”

“Chemo-what-apy?”

David giggled. He must have thought I was an idiot. He opened his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt. Before I could ask him what the hell he was doing, I noticed a large bandage on his chest, right above the heart. He pulled back the bandage to expose a –- a hole! There in the skin of his chest was a small hole, surrounded by a metal ring that looked like one of those old-style headphone jacks.

While I gawked, David calmly explained, “The doctor fills me full of drugs through this catheter.”

“What kind of drugs?”

The smile left David’s face. “Drugs that don’t make me feel so good.”

He put the bandage back in place and buttoned up his shirt.

I wasn’t sure what to think. “These drugs gonna cure you?”

David shook his head. “I’m not responding to the treatment.”

“What’s that mean?” I moved closer to him, lowering my voice. “Your dick ain’t gonna fall off, is it?”

The smile returned to David’s face. “No, nothing like that.” He patted the top of his head. “But I’ll probably lose the rest of my hair.”

A doctor came up to the doorway. She was a tall, older woman, with hair as white as her smock. “David, you can come back now.” She tapped her fingers against the doorframe as she waited.

David stood up, but I tugged at his arm.

“Seriously, David, what do the doctors say?”

He walked towards the doctor, turning his head just long enough to say, “I have about four months to live.”

#

I felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach.

. . .about four months to live. . .

I don’t know how long I sat there staring into space with my mouth hanging open, but after a while I felt saliva rolling down my chin. I closed my mouth and leaned back in the chair.

Fifteen years old and the kid knew when he would die. No, there was something wrong with that. Fifteen-year-old boys were at the beginning of their lives. That was when you’re supposed to be happy. You should be finishing school soon, looking forward to driving and moving out on your own. Girls were starting to look good.

You shouldn’t know you’re going to die in four months!

I stood up and began pacing. I couldn’t breathe right.

Calm down, I told myself. He’s just some kid you met an hour ago. Fifteen-year-old boys die all the time.

But they don’t usually know they’re going to die. What do you do when you only have four months to live? Of course, you sit at home and collect plastic models of spaceships.

Geez!

I had this crazy idea that I should do something. But they must be doing everything they can, all these doctors with their twelve years of schooling, their millions of dollars worth of fancy medical equipment, their three-hundred-thousand-dollar salaries and their fucking golf clubs!

I kicked one of the waiting room chairs so hard it almost tipped over. A couple of nurses passed by and gave me a strange look, but I didn’t care. I just kept pacing.

I calmed down a little before David returned from his treatment. His face looked pale and his eyes had lost their humor. He walked to me very slowly, as though he had to concentrate before making each step.

Was this how his last four months would be?

“Excuse me, sir!” David’s doctor had to call me several times before I noticed her. “Will you be accompanying David back to the home?”

“Y-yes.”

“Please give this to Ms. Harding.” She handed me a funny looking bottle.

“Tell her we had to increase the antineoplastic dosage today. We administered an antiemetic drug before the procedure, but he may need more tonight. Tell Ms. Harding to give David one dose if he feels ill. The computerized dispenser will give him the precise amount. ”

“Doctor, wh-what’s wrong with David. I mean, I know he’s got leukemia, but can’t you do anything to keep him from dying?”

For a moment I thought the doctor would tell me she didn’t have time to talk, but she must’ve seen genuine concern in my face. “David has a particularly resilient form of acute lymphocytic leukemia. He just doesn’t respond well to any combination of drugs we can come up with. Usually, in cases like David’s, bone marrow transplants solve the problem. But David has no living relatives to donate the marrow, and it’s almost impossible to find suitable donors outside the family.”

I rubbed my face, amazed at the difference in David before and after the treatment.

The doctor placed a hand on my shoulder. “I know it’s difficult to understand. Right now we’re just trying to prolong his life. With any luck, he’ll soon be sent to the Microgravity Hospital at the Station Spatiale Espoir.”

She saw my blank expression. “The Hope Space Station,” she clarified.

“Oh. I’ve heard of that place.”

“Well, they have a new treatment up there that could save his life. But I don’t have time to tell you about it. Unfortunately, David’s not the only child in Baltimore suffering from a disease like this. I have more patients to see. Ms. Harding can tell you more.”

She walked away, leaving me with David. I couldn’t imagine seeing several kids like David every day, waiting and watching as they dropped off, one by one. I guess the doctor was stronger than me.

I put an arm around David’s shoulders. “Ready to go, kid?”

He looked up and smiled, a feeble attempt to show me he was okay. “Year, sure.”

I pulled him close as we walked through the corridors.

So much for modern medicine.

#

As promised, I had a chance to help cook and clean up afterwards. When I finished putting the last plate away, Ms. Harding thanked me for taking David to the hospital. “Did it go okay?” she asked.

“Okay?” I shook my head. I tried to come up with a smart-assed remark, but just couldn’t think of one.

“I know.” Harding sighed. “It’s tough. I’ve been dealing with David’s ailment for three years.”

“Three years? Man, what’s going on? Why can’t they cure the poor kid.”

“It’s a long story.” Harding looked exasperated, the way I must have looked when listening to the doctor. “They give him certain drugs, and the cancer goes into remission. . .”

“Remission?”

“It -– uh, goes away. Temporarily. Then it comes back, but the drugs that made it go away before don’t work anymore. So the doctors give him stronger drugs that make him feel worse, and the leukemia goes away again. But it always comes back. This time. . .” She stared at the floor and let her voice trail off.

Two boys came into the dining room with crayons and coloring books. They climbed up on chairs and began coloring on the table. One boy had hearing aids attached to his ears. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with the other fellow, but I knew all the boys at the group home had some kind of handicap. They were Baltimore’s forgotten children: the orphans no family wanted in their home –- not even temporarily, much less permanently.

Ms. Harding touched me on the arm. “Come with me.”

We went into the living room. Harding curled up on the couch and I sat in an old armchair opposite her. Springs dug into my ass, but I didn’t say anything.

“David’s mother died in an auto accident about five years ago. Then David came down with leukemia. His father couldn’t handle it alone. When the doctors told him his marrow was unsuitable for transplanting into his own son, he killed himself. David’s been here ever since.”

“And all he does is build model spaceships?”

“Oh, but he loves it! He loves everything about space. He reads all kinds of books and magazines. When he’s not building those models he’s glued to the Internet on the only computer we have here, surfing for one space-related thing or another. He sends letters to the NASA astronauts. David doesn’t know it, but I always put a short note explaining his condition along with his own letter so the astronauts will be sure to send photos.

“He really enjoys building and painting those models. I try to buy him one every once in a while, but the things are so expensive.”

It wasn’t enough that she had to look after twenty boys with only three regular staff members. Harding also spent her hard-earned cash on the kids. My opinion of the woman was changing rapidly.

“I keep telling him I’ll try to get him to Edwards Spaceport,” she continued, “but I haven’t been able to scrape the money together.”

“Hey, speaking of space, the doctor said something today about the Hope Space Station. She seems to think David could be saved if he went up there.”

“Yes. They’ve got a treatment that can genetically alter the bone marrow. But the procedure can only be performed where there’s no gravity.”

“But how the hell does a kid like David get up there? It must cost a fortune.”

“It does. David’s on a list to be sponsored by the federal government, but the list is long.”

I slammed my fist on the chair. “Dammit! Doesn’t the fact he’s dying matter at all?”

“Calm down, Tony.” Harding rubbed her eyes. She looked too tired to keep talking. “All the people who go to the Hope Space Station are seriously ill or dying. But the station is small, and they take patients from all over the world.”

“I don’t know. The whole thing stinks.”

“There is another possibility, one we’ve been working on for over a year. There’s a charity organization that sponsors one child every three months for a trip to the Hope Space Station. It’s sort of like a lottery. We haven’t won. . .”

“Ms. Harding.”

I turned to see David standing at the bottom of the stairs in his pajamas. He was holding his stomach.

“I-I’m gonna be sick. I need. . .”

Before he could even finish his sentence, David puked on the hardwood floor. Yellow liquid gushed all over the place. It took a lot of concentration to keep from throwing up myself.

“Oh no!” Harding jumped from the couch. “I’m out of anti-nausea medicine!”

“Oh shit!” Harding’s remark jogged my memory. “I forgot. The doctor gave me some medicine for David.” I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the little bottle with its strange looking dispenser on top.

We cleaned up David and let him rinse his mouth out with water. Then Ms. Harding put the dispenser up to David’s mouth and sprayed the stuff inside. He felt better about a half hour later –- at least he stopped making those terrible heaving noises. He still looked like a cat that had been run over by a truck.

By the time we got the living room floor cleaned and David tucked into bed, it was late.

“Well, guess I’ll stay here the night,” Ms. Harding said. I had a feeling she did that a lot. “How about you? Got a way home?”

I looked at the clock and cursed. “The buses cut back after nine o’clock. It’ll take me about two hours to get home now.”

“There’s an extra bed in one of the rooms upstairs.” Harding smiled weakly. “Afraid I get the couch.”

So much for a good night’s sleep.

#

Two weeks later David had another visit to the hospital. Ms. Harding took him this time. It made my skin crawl to see David after his treatment. I spent enough time with him to know how he should be. To see him limp as a noodle, eyes glazed over. . . I couldn’t stand it.

Today I hoped to bring him back to life a little with a gift. That morning I went to a toy store and bought a model rocket for his collection -– actually bought. The damn things were too big to steal; besides, I figured David wouldn’t appreciate the gift so much if I picked it up that way.

“Hey, David,” I called out when he returned. “Come here. I got something for you.”

David ambled over to the kitchen table.

“Yeah?”

With a big grin on my face I pointed to the table where the box sat. Damn if I didn’t feel like Santa Claus himself.

A bit of David’s spirit returned as he inspected his new toy. “Wow.” His voice was weak, but I knew the enthusiasm was there. “It’s the Chinese Jianghu heavy-lift vehicle. It can carry a hundred thousand kilograms into high orbit.”

“Hey, you don’t have this one all ready, do ya?” I couldn’t remember which models David owned. I simply asked the salesperson for the biggest, most impressive space ship they had.

“No, no.” David turned the box around to review the instructions. “I’ve read a lot about them, though. I’ve always wanted it.”

Ms. Harding gave me a kiss on the forehead. “That was a sweet thing to do. How can you afford something like that?”

“Don’t ask.” The model cost over three hundred bucks.

So much for common sense.

#

Ms. Harding caught me that evening after I’d finished washing dishes. “I’d like to show you something.”

She led me to a small den where a computer sat in the corner. It was an antique model, probably donated by some geek twenty years ago. At least it had high-speed Internet access.

“This is the website for that charity I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Hope for the Children.”

I sat in front of the computer, fumbling at first with the mouse –- first time I’d had to use one of those things in a long time. I began reading.

Hope for the Children had started about five years ago. Every quarter a panel of judges went through a list of children recommended for the trip. Anyone could enter the name of a child for consideration, but the board had strict guidelines on who could be entered into the drawing. The child had to have an illness or injury that could be treated only in the microgravity environment of the Hope Space Station.

I didn’t know what microgravity was until I followed a link to its definition. Apparently, if you went high enough above the Earth, your body would be weightless. There’d be no up or down, and things would kind of float around in the air. They used to call it zero-gravity, but some wise guy pointed out that there is no place in the universe where there is no gravity. So another wise guy said fine, we’ll call it microgravity.

On another web page I found a digital image of the Hope Space Station. The thing looked strange, like someone had thrown a bunch of railroad boxcars into space and welded them together with large pipes. Much of the station was devoted to medical experiments and treating patients. Those parts of the space station were called the Microgravity Hospital.

“Wild, man.” I clicked on another link.

Back at Hope for the Children, the names of all the candidates who passed the panel’s inspection were placed in a computer and chosen by random. The winner received a fully paid trip to the station. The last person to win was a U.S. senator’s son who’d been covered with burns from an automobile accident. Doctors had developed a new method to graft skin that could only be done in microgravity.

“Well, I guess this kid really needed help, but more so than David?” I looked over at Harding who’d been watching me read.

“I know. It doesn’t seem fair.”

“A senator’s son, no less.”

I followed another link to a web page listing all the kids who’d been chosen by Hope for the Children. I recognized half the names. The kids’ parents were either famous, or rich, or both.

So much for random drawings.

At the bottom of the home page I found a photo of James Watkins, director of Hope for the Children. Under his smiling face was an address where you could send tax-exempt contributions.

“Ms. Harding, you’ve been wasting your time with this charity. The whole thing’s a setup. They receive donations from the rich and choose one of their own. It sucks.”

Ms. Harding started crying. “I know. But what else can we do? Each time I keep thinking they’ll come to their senses and pick David.”

“Not likely.” I stared at the monitor screen with Watkins’ mocking smile. “I’d like to strangle that director.”

“I’ve tried calling him.” Harding blew her nose into a handkerchief.

“I’m sure that did a lot of good.” I continued staring at the monitor, hate building inside me like a bomb ready to explode. “When will the next kid be picked for the trip?”

“I think it’s next month.”

I noticed an imaging unit attached to the computer. I clicked the print key on the keyboard, pleased to see that the unit still worked. A hardcopy of Watkins’ face and the address to his charity spit out immediately.

That information could come in handy.

#

I tiptoed into the bedroom, trying not to make any noise on the hundred-year old floor. I crossed the room, passing the three beds where David and two other boys slept. I opened the closet door and reached for the top shelf. Like so many other nights, I was staying over at the group home. Only this night it was cold in the other room where I slept. I couldn’t find any blankets there, so I thought I’d try David’s room.

I found a thick, wooly blanket and pulled it from the closet shelf. A large cylinder-shaped object behind the blanket caught my attention. It was a plastic model, one that looked familiar. It was the Chinese heavy-lifter I’d given David earlier in the day. But no, this one was completely assembled and painted.

I looked over at the table next to David’s bed. In the dim light I saw the model that I had given him, now only half built.

“I’ll be damned,” I whispered. David did have that model, but he’d hid it away so I wouldn’t have my feelings hurt.

I put the blanket back in place. It wouldn’t kill me to sleep in the cold for one night.

#

The next time David had an appointment for his treatment, I talked him into running some errands with me before going to the hospital. We grabbed a bus headed for East Baltimore. On Hoffman Street, the bus lurched to a halt.

“This is our stop,” I said to David. After stepping off the bus I grabbed David’s hand. “This way.”

We crossed the street while the sign said DON’T WALK, pissing off motorists as their pedestrian-avoidance systems detected our bodies and brought their vehicles to a screeching halt. We continued up Hoffman Street, dodging the cardboard-box homes of the city’s less fortunate residents. This area was the part of Baltimore the mayor and his Office of Community Investment would rather you didn’t know about.

“Are we safe up here?” David mumbled as he struggled to keep up with my pace. We stepped over a body that may have been sleeping or may have been dead.

“Sure, kid, just stick with me.”

As we traveled, the buildings became more decrepit. We rounded a corner into a residential section where only black people lived. We stuck out like sore thumbs around here, but everybody ignored us. White people came up this street for one thing only, and that’s why we were here.

I found Tammy where I’d expected her to be, two blocks away from the back of Greenmount Cemetery. She saw me coming and turned her back. Her multi-colored shawl flew through the air as she turned.

“Ah, come on, baby,” I said, “ain’t you glad to see me?”

Tammy tilted her head my way. I could barely see her eyes through the strands of straggled hair. “I got nothing to say to you.”

“Come on, Tammy, you know you’re the only love in my life.”

“Cut the crap.” There was no humor in her voice. “Man, you are hot. Whatcha doin’ up here so soon after being arrested? You bring any bug-eyes with you?”

Bug-eyes was the newest nickname for the police. The name came from the night-vision equipment they wore after dark.

“Shit, Tammy, you worry too much. I got picked up for one little misdemeanor. They caught me selling one of my cubes.”

She grunted as though she didn’t believe me. Then she saw David. “What’s with the kid?”

“He’s a friend. He’s okay. Look, all I need is some stuff.”

“You after sex drugs again?” She finally smiled. “You horny little bastard.”

“Actually, I need coke.”

“Cocaine? Gonna cost you.”

“I got the money. Give me two bags.”

She reached under her shawl and came out with two one-gram packets. I pulled out three hundred dollars.

“Uh uh.” She shook her head.

“More?” I dropped my hands to my sides. “Damn, Tammy, would you believe the stuff’s not for me? I’m actually gonna do a good deed.”

“You, a good deed?” She laughed, but then she looked at David. Her expression turned solemn. She could tell David was suffering, almost as though she could see the leukemia inside his body. “You ain’t gonna. . .”

“No, it’s not for him. But I’m trying to help him out.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, the numbers clicking away in her mind. “Tell you what. Another two hundred will get you the coke and three cum-tablets.”

“Ah, I don’t know. . .”

“Tony, when’s the last time you had a good orgasm?” She brushed her hand against my crotch.

“I don’t want any of those. . .” My voice trailed off as I stared at David. He was standing on the edge of the curb, shuffling his feet nervously. I knew he felt out of place in this neighborhood, away from the safety of Harding’s group home. If he had his way, he’d be sitting in his room with those damn space ship models. The kid had nothing else to live for. He needed something more.

“Okay, you talked me into it.” I passed Tammy the cash and she slipped me the merchandise. “Ciao!” I said.

I grabbed David by the shoulders and steered him in the direction we needed to go.

“We have a bus to catch.”

#

“Hey, David,” I said while rocking back and forth on the bus.

The kid looked up at me.

“You ever been with a girl? I mean, really with a girl. In bed, you know?”

David giggled. “Tony, I’m only fifteen years old.”

“Right, dumb question. You ever play with yourself?”

“Tony!”

“Okay, forget that. What I’m trying to tell you is, I’ve got these pills that’ll make you feel like you’re with a girl.” I glanced around to make sure no one was watching and pulled the packet of tablets from my pocket.

David lowered his voice. “Aren’t those things illegal?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry about that.”

“I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“I won’t. But I think you should try these.”

He stared at me for a moment, not sure if I was serious. “Uh -– uh.” His mouth puckered up like he’d just eaten something sour. “No, I don’t want to do that.”

“But it feels real good.”

“But it wouldn’t be real. Sex should be something special between two people who. . .”

“Geez, you sound like a damn preacher!”

Several passengers turned around to glare at me. I crouched down in my seat till they turned away.

“No,” David continued. “Being with a girl would’ve been nice.” He shrugged. “It’s too bad I won’t have a chance.”

“David, don’t say that.”

“But it’s true. . .”

“Shut up!”

David closed his mouth and moved closer to the window, away from me.

I felt like a heel. The kid was so brave. He’d come to grips with death, something most of us couldn’t even bear to think about, and here I was trying to rip down his wall of strength. Dammit, I didn’t want him to feel bad, but I wanted him to fight.

I probably should’ve kept my big mouth shut at that point, but I felt so helpless. “Listen, David, I can’t explain what it is now, but something wonderful is going to happen soon. I promise you.”

David continued staring out the window. I couldn’t tell for sure over the noise of the bus, but I thought he said, “I doubt it.”

#

When Charlene finally arrived at the coffee shop, she barged through the door like a tornado.

“Shit!” Her plastic raincoat dripped all over the floor while she searched for me. The other customers stared at her.

So much for being inconspicuous.

Charlene sloshed up to my table and grabbed a chair.

“Fine day you picked.” She dropped her body into the chair with a splash.

“Sorry. Forgot you hate the rain.”

As a matter of a fact, Charlene hated everything. She had been a friend of my ex-girlfriend, Lucy. I had tried to make a move on Charlene after Lucy left me, but Charlene made it clear that I disgusted her. Still, we remained friends. I kept her supplied in drugs because she didn’t like buying the stuff out on the street, and she -– well, she didn’t do a damn thing for me.

Until now. I had always believed it would come in handy having a secretary for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore as a friend.

“Hey, Charlene, you got the information on Hope for the Children, or what?”

“Sure, but why the hell are you interested in this case?” She pulled a plastic pouch from beneath her raincoat. “Do you realize how much trouble I’d be in if someone caught me accessing files from the. . .”

A waitress stepped up to the table. “Can I get you something, miss?”

Charlene gaped at the waitress and almost panicked.

“Uh, yeah,” I intervened. “A coffee for my friend, please.”

The waitress wrote down the order and headed towards the kitchen.

“Man, will you calm yourself. . .”

“You don’t understand, do you?” Charlene’s eyes remained wide open, like a wild animal backed against a wall. “These documents come from the main Department of Justice database down in D.C. I’d like to know how you even knew about this case.”

“Lucky guess. Relax, I got something special for you today.” I set the packets of cocaine on the chair next to hers. She snatched up the bags.

“This case is really strange,” she said.

“Charlene, this case is never going to trial.”

She rolled her eyes. “How would you know?”

“Because the guy being investigated is a friend of the Attorney General. Hell, he’s friends with almost everyone in Washington.”

“So?”

“So, how long has the case been open?”

“Almost two years. A complaint was registered by one of those citizen groups that watch over non-profit organizations.”

“Right. And how many times has an agent from the Justice Department been over to talk with the director of Hope for the Children?”

Charlene opened her mouth to object, but closed it. She’d read the file and knew I was right. “But what is your involvement here?”

I stood up and grabbed the pouch. “I’ll tell you about it another time.” I tossed a five-dollar bill on the table. “Enjoy your coffee.”

#

The waiting lounge at Hope for the Children headquarters was spacious and nicely decorated. Real leather chairs, oriental rugs, oak paneling. I wondered how many kids could be sent to the space station with the money spent on this lounge alone.

Ms. Harding sat next to me, fidgeting with the camera hanging around her neck.

“Relax,” I said.

“Relax, he says.”

“Man, don’t worry about it.” I leaned back in the chair, slowly. The two-piece suit Harding had found for me was ready to rip along most of the seams. “You know the bastard deserves it.”

“I know.” She continued staring ahead.

The receptionist strutted up to us. She was one of the cutest brunettes I’d ever seen. Her smile melted my heart. “Mr. Watkins will see you now.”

She led us down a long corridor that gave me ample time to admire her curves and the way they shifted as she walked. Eventually we arrived at a pair of wooden doors that opened automatically as we approached. Inside, Watkins greeted us.

“Ah yes, the people from the Baltimore Sun.” He offered me a hand that I forced myself to shake. Ms. Harding’s hand trembled as she accepted his handshake. I hadn’t wanted to bring her along, but I thought we looked more legitimate as a two-person crew, and Harding was the only person I knew with a decent looking camera. Besides, she had a car, and I had dreaded the idea of taking public transportation all the way to downtown Washington D.C.

The receptionist departed and Watkins offered Harding and me seats across from his desk.

He sat down in his own chair, adjusting his tie in anticipation of a photo session. “The Washington Post comes over frequently for interviews and statements, but your news media company has never shown an interest.”

“Lots of things happen in Baltimore,” I said. I pretended to activate the computer-tablet I’d been carrying. “So, tell me Mr. Watkins, do you believe your friendship with the Attorney General will keep the Department of Justice from charging your organization with tax evasion and fraud charges?”

Watkins sat perfectly still, examining me with his blue eyes while trying to think up something to say.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, “what are you talking about?”

“This.” I threw the stack of papers Charlene had given me onto the desk in front of Watkins. “We know about the case that’s been open on you and Hope for the Children over the past two years.”

He flipped though the printouts and then pushed the stack back to me. “This case was not to go public. How did you get these?”

“Do you really expect me to tell you?”

He glanced back and forth between Harding and me. “So, this is why the Sun is suddenly interested in me.”

“You dumb shit, we ain’t reporters.”

“I see.” His frown deepened. “You really think you can get away with blackmail?”

“You know what would happen if these documents went public. Not only would people stop donating to your so-called charity, the friends you’ve accumulated around the country would desert you, looking after their own asses. The Justice Department would have no choice but to prosecute.”

“Well, what are you looking for? A set price? A percentage of the donations?”

“We’re not after money.”

Watkins slammed a fist on the desk, making Harding jump in her seat. “Then what the hell do you want?”

I slid another piece of paper in front of him. The paper held a photo of David and all the information needed for his application. “We want this boy to be the next winner for the trip to the Hope Space Station.”

Watkins studied the paper. “We’ve all ready selected the next winner.”

“Change it.”

“She’s a five-year old girl. Her face was disfigured when her brother hit it with a baseball bat.”

“Oh, God!” Ms. Harding covered her mouth.

“The front of her skull can’t be reconstructed in gravity,” he continued. “She must go to the Hope Space Station.”

“David must go,” I insisted, “or he’ll die within four months.”

“You people think you’re so noble.” Watkins sneered. “You come in here with your threats and your sob story. We sort through thousands of applications every month of babies and children who are crippled, sick, or dying.”

I shrugged. “I can’t save the world. I can only do my part.”

Watkins sat silent for a moment. He weighed his options and came up with the only possible solution. “Very well. But if I agree to select your friend here, how do I know you still won’t go public with the information you’ve got in your possession?”

“Look, we want you to send David to the space station. The last thing we want is Hope for the Children to close down.”

Watkins took David’s application and folded it. “Okay. You win.” He stuffed the paper into his shirt pocket. “Now, please get out of here.”

#

A week later, Ms. Harding ran into the kitchen clutching a letter. “It’s here! The official notification is here!”

I dumped the sponge I’d been using and grabbed the letter. It announced David as the newest winner of the Hope for the Children’s lottery.

I cheered and Ms. Harding took me in her arms for a hug.

“Let’s tell David.” She wiped tears from her eyes.

We met David in the living room and showed him the letter. He read it carefully, but still seemed confused.

“David.” I held the boy’s shoulders as I spoke. “You’re going to the Hope Space Station. You’re going to get the treatment you need at the Microgravity Hospital. You’re going to be saved.”

His eyes widened. “I’m going to the space station? Wow! I can’t believe this. I’ll be in freefall and I’ll get to see Earth from outer space!” He ran over to Ms. Harding and hugged her. “I’ll get to fly in the AeroSpacePlane. Unbelievable!” He ran back to me. “The letter said an adult must come with me. Will you go with me, Tony?”

“Wh-what?” I hadn’t even considered that possibility. I hated to disappoint the kid, but I’d never even been on a regular airplane. No way I would let them launch my ass into orbit. “Sorry, David. I can’t.”

“Ah, come on.” David tried his best. He made me feel awful, but in the end he saw I wouldn’t change my mind.

“Oh well, I’ll tell you all about it when I come back.” He ran for the door. “I can’t wait to tell everyone else.”

I remained seated for a long while, staring at the wall. Something was wrong.

“I don’t understand why you won’t go.” Ms. Harding’s voice startled me. I’d forgotten she was still in the room. “He wants you to go so badly.”

“Forget it. You can’t make me go. Why don’t you go? You’ve been looking forward to this longer than I have.”

“I wish I could, but I’ve got to look after the group home. Can you imagine these boys with anyone else in charge?” She laughed, but I remained silent. “Too bad,” she added. “You would’ve been ideal. Still. . .” She walked over to me and kissed me on the forehead. “What you did was wonderful.”

She noticed the far away look in my eyes and asked me what was wrong.

“I don’t get it.” I scratched my head. “David didn’t seem the least bit interested in the fact that he’s going to be cured. He’s only happy because he’s going to space.”

“Well, you have to understand something.” Harding sat next to me and hugged my shoulder. “This isn’t the first time David’s been told he’s going to be cured.”

She stood up and walked out of the kitchen, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

#

I stayed at the group home that night, but I couldn’t sleep. I pushed the pillows against the wall and sat up in bed, careful not to make any noise that would wake the other boys in the room. The whole day had been exciting, and I couldn’t help but smile when I thought about David going to the space station.

What I’d done was wonderful. In fact, I deserved a reward. I reached for the floor and grabbed my trousers. The sex drugs Tammy had sold me were still in the front pocket. I popped one tablet in my mouth and set the others on the nightstand.

Somehow the “back street chemists” had found a way to create drugs that stimulated directly the sex drive part of the brain. They had modified medicine normally used to treat sexual dysfunction in clinically depressed patients -– probably much to the surprise and embarrassment of those who created the original medicine. Obviously, I didn’t understand the technical stuff, but I’d known for years that the things work.

Fifteen minutes later, the pill took affect. The chemicals caressed my brain in all the right places. My skin felt like it was on fire, as though a soft hand was gliding over it. Blood began pounding against my temples and collecting in my groin. My heart beat faster –- my breath came in short gasps.

I didn’t even have to touch myself, just imagine that I was with some beautiful girl. Yeah, like Watkins’ receptionist. We’d do it in his office, on his desk. She would wrap her legs around me and hold me tight, calling my name. I began writhing on the bed, the same way I would if I was with that girl. My body shook uncontrollably.

I imagined we would climax just as Watkins entered the office.

That’s when the orgasm hit me.

#

“David, wake up!”

My body jerked. I had to squint against the morning sun. I saw Ms. Harding standing over my bed, hands on hips in that way women do when they catch a man doing something he shouldn’t. I pulled the covers closer to my neck, painfully aware of the wet spot between my legs.

“Just when I thought you were turned around and heading in the right direction, you go and do this!”

I followed the sweep of her hand to the nightstand. I groaned. How could I have been so stupid? The remaining sex drugs were sitting there for all the world to see.

Harding paced back and forth.

“Disgusting! In the same room with children sleeping nearby.” She grabbed the tablets from the nightstand. “If I told your probation officer about this, you’d be locked up for sure.”

The judge’s words came back to haunt me: you will serve eighteen months for this crime.

“But I’ll give you a choice, young man.” She looked down at me as though from a mountaintop. “We can tell your probation officer about these drugs, or you can make David a very happy boy.”

I pulled the covers over my face. “Oh God, not that!”


To be continued...


© 2007 Joseph Jordan

Joseph Jordan is a 47 year old defense contractor who has served in such places as Germany, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. When not wondering around these exotic locations, he tries to keep up with his wife, his daughter 24, and his son 21, who live in Naples, Italy. His novelette, At the Gate of God, won third place in the Writers of the Future contest for the third quarter of 2005.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.