by Erin Fanning
"Please leave a message," the computerized voice said.
"I'm in," Jake whispered into the payphone's receiver. He cleared his throat and added, a little louder, "Um, just let me know what's next."
Hanging up, Jake glanced right then left. Shoppers milled around him, but no one seemed to be watching, except maybe the babe in the tight sweater. He winked at her. She giggled and looked away.
Once I hit the big time the chicks'll be all over me, he thought. He smiled as his head filled with images of bouncing cheerleaders, ocean-side mansions, and private jets.
His cell phone vibrated and he yanked it open, listening to the messages. Only losers use pay phones, he thought. But the man had told him -- more like ordered him -- to call only from public phones in random locations.
As he sauntered out of the mall, Jake wondered if the guy had been for real. He caught his reflection in a window. I'm looking like a winner, he thought. No wonder the man had singled him out.
Jake wore the collar of his leather jacket flipped up and his sandy hair slicked back. Flared jeans rode low over biker boots, even though he hadn't ridden his motorcycle for years. His football coach, saying bikes were too dangerous for his players, wouldn't allow it.
Coach! What a schizo, Jake thought. One day old No-Neck would tell Jake he was the best running back in the world, then the next day he'd say stuff like, "Hey loser, you've got to run faster or you'll never make it to the pros." Jake planned to prove Coach wrong, make him choke on his words.
Opening the door to the parking garage, he climbed the stairs to level 5. The fluorescent lights blinked off, throwing the area into darkness. Behind him came a scurrying sound, then laughter. Someone, breathing hard, ran up the stairs. The lights came back on and the runner stopped.
Jake glanced behind him, yet no one was there. Was someone following him? That man with his use-only-the-pay-phone-orders was making him paranoid.
He entered the fifth floor, and as he hurried to his car, a clown stepped out of the shadows. He wore the whole get-up -- baggy pants, red nose, white makeup. The only thing out of place was the Louisville slugger the clown swung in his right hand.
Jake started to laugh, but the clown wasn't smiling.
"Got any balls?" the clown asked, nodding toward Jake's shopping bag.
This isn't good, Jake thought. This isn't good at all. The garage was empty, except for his souped-up Chevy Nova. If he could get to it fast enough, he'd be out of there before the clown could react.
"Back off, freak," Jake said, pushing his chest out.
The clown chuckled while tossing the bat to his left hand. "I'm ambidextrous," he said, stepping closer to Jake. "Know what that means, college boy? I can hit hard with either hand, which is important in my line of work."
Laughter came from behind Jake. He backed up, looking over his shoulder while trying to keep an eye on the clown. Lone Ranger and Tonto emerged from the stairwell, their rubber masks scarier than anything Jake had ever encountered on Halloween. What the hell did they want?
"Look, you can have my stuff." Jake dropped his bag on the ground and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a wallet. "Money, whatever. I don't want any trouble."
"Did you hear what the man said?" The clown nodded at Lone Ranger and Tonto. "We're just going to have some fun here. No trouble at all."
Lone Ranger and Tonto's costumes ended with the masks. They wore black jumpsuits, which strained against their broad shoulders, steel-tipped work boots, and plastic gloves.
Tonto released a cold chuckle, devoid of any humor.
"My associates enjoy their work," the clown said, bouncing from foot to foot while he practiced his swing. "As do I. We put some planning into our disguises to keeps things interesting."
Adrenaline rushed through Jake's body. Run, his mind chanted, run damn-it, yet his legs wouldn't cooperate. They felt wobbly, as if the bones might dissolve and splash onto the pavement in a river of blood and muscle.
Lone Ranger flicked open a knife, and Jake's legs finally obeyed, running faster than he'd ever sprinted on the football field. He concentrated on the rust covering the driver's door of the Nova, willing it to come closer, imagining himself behind the wheel.
Pounding feet and Tonto's laughter followed him. Lone Ranger tackled him, pinning him to the ground, and Tonto pressed his boot into Jake's head.
Lone Ranger dragged him to his feet and, along with Tonto, held his arms.
The clown sauntered over, swinging his bat and humming, "Take me out to the ball game."
"Come on, man," Jake said, not caring that his voice had slipped into a whine. "You can have whatever you want. Just don't hurt me." He felt warm liquid spread between his legs; the smell of urine mingled with sweat.
"Lookie here, boys," the clown said. "The big football player has wet his pants."
Tonto and Lone Ranger gripped Jake's arms tighter.
The clown's comment took Jake's mind off his predicament for a second. "Hey, how did you know I play foot -- ?"
The first blow hit Jake square on his knee cap. He screamed as a white-hot pain seared through his body. Falling to the ground, his head bounced off the pavement. Darkness rolled over him and everything disappeared. He welcomed the abyss, wanting to vanish within it.
The second blow, however, jerked him back to reality and he howled.
A fourth man stepped out of the shadows. A fedora was pulled low over his face; the collar of his black duster flipped up.
"That's enough," he said as the clown got ready to swing the bat again.
The clown ignored him and Fedora-man grabbed his arm. "I said that was enough. If you don't chill out, I'm going to dock your pay. I might have to anyway. Looks like the kid hit his head and that wasn't part of the contract."
Fedora-man wagged a finger at the clown, who said, "Screw you."
"This just might be your last assignment," Fedora-man said, his voice icy. "Now come on. Let's finish the job."
There was something familiar to Jake about Fedora-man, but as the men continued talking, a pulsating pain consumed Jake's world. It drilled everything down, making anything else immaterial. Make it stop, his mind screamed.
He heard an engine revving then darkness -- so welcome -- consumed him again. Something pricked his arm, but he was beyond caring. He floated away from the parking garage as the men began to drag him.
"Hello there," a woman said as Jake opened his eyes. She wore green scrubs and her corn-rowed braids were pulled into a pony tail, the beads clinking softly together as she moved. She pressed a cool hand against his forehead, lingering only for a second before vanishing.
"Come back," he whispered. The coolness had been welcome, somehow reassuring.
He lay in a hospital bed. Curtains were pulled back from the window, revealing an ebony sky. A branch, pushed by the wind, scratched at the glass, like hands reaching for Jake. He thought of the attack, the men with the masks. He shuddered and tried to sit up, but his arms were restrained to the bed with cloth straps.
"What the hell?" Jake asked, trying to pull his arms loose.
"Now just relax. No getting up for a while." The woman patted his arm.
"What's going on? Why am I tied down?" Hysteria rang through Jake's voice and again he tried to yank his arm out of the straps.
The woman ran her hand over his forehead. "You were a little anxious when they brought you in and tried to pull out your IV. The doctor took the restraints off during the operation then put them back on, in case you woke up a little agitated. It happens sometimes. Don't worry, the doctor will probably remove them when he comes in to check on you."
"Operation?" Jake gasped, memories rushing through his mind. "Oh my God. My knee. Is it okay? Will I be able to play football?"
"The doctor will explain everything," she said. "I'm Maddie, your nurse. You're at Mercy General Hospital."
From somewhere nearby came the creak of a door opening followed by murmuring. His Mom -- hair wild, eyes wide -- crowded into his vision. Between sobs, she asked, "Jake, honey? How do you feel?"
Then his Dad, gruff, "Come on. Let's give the nurse some room." His Dad's suit was crumpled, and he rubbed his eyes before pulling Jake's Mom backward.
"That's right, Mrs. Farmer. Let's give Jake some room," Maddie said.
A bright light flickered into Jake's eyes, accompanied by the return of Maddie's touch as she adjusted a tube that ran from his arm.
"The doctor will be here soon. Maybe it's best if you wait outside, Mrs. Farmer. You too, Mr. Farmer," Maddie said.
"But-but," Mrs. Farmer said as she was led away by Mr. Farmer. "We'll be right out here, Jake, waiti -- ." Her words were cut off as the door closed behind them.
"Sorry I had to do that," Maddie said. "But I need to examine your leg and the doctor will want some privacy."
"That's okay." Jake said, his throat so dry he could barely get the words out. "Water," he rasped, feeling relieved that his parents were gone. He had this strange feeling of guilt, as if the attack had been his fault. The reason hovered in the back of his mind, but for some reason he couldn't get a grasp on it.
Maddie interrupted his thoughts. "Are you in any pain?"
Jake shook his head. He felt numb, except for a tingling sensation in his right leg. It pricked at his memory, bringing back flashes of the men in masks and the baseball bat.
"Good but let me know if you need anything," Maddie said. "Oh and some man came by to see you while you were sleeping. I don't know how he got in since you weren't supposed to have visitors. So I made him leave, and he left his card."
Maddie held up a business card for Jake to see. It read, "A.F.T. Inc.," and listed an 800 number.
Jake shook his head. It seemed vaguely familiar to him, yet he couldn't place it. Besides, his brain hurt, as if it had been overloaded with information.
The door swung open and a man in a white doctor's coat rushed into the room. "I'm Dr. Bingham." He peered at Jake for a second before concentrating on the chart at the end of the bed.
Jake could tell he wasn't reading it. Was the doctor buying time? What could be so bad?
Silence fell. Maddie fiddled with Jake's pillows, again asking him about pain.
Jake ignored her. "What's going on, doctor?"
Dr. Bingham, rocking back and forth on his heels, put his hands in his pockets. His face had the pulled back look of a plastic-surgery junkie, and his gray temples contrasted sharply with the unnatural shade of his auburn hair.
"Do you remember anything from last night?" Dr. Bingham asked.
"Some," Jake said, wincing. "I remember being hit with a baseball bat. After that -- it's all fuzzy."
"You have a slight concussion. So expect a few memory lapses for events that happened right before the attack. But you should regain your memory." Dr. Bingham said. "And, well, the men didn't just hit you with a bat."
Maddie touched Jake's hand, her eyes downcast.
Dr. Bingham added, "I don't know how to make this any easier, so I'll just say it. They ran over your right leg with a car."
"But, I don't feel any pain, so you fixed it, right? Right?" He tried to reach down, to feel his leg and reassure himself that it was okay. The strange tingling was stronger now, almost a dull pain. The restraints held him back, and he screamed.
"I'm sorry... we had to amputate," Dr. Bingham said.
Again Jake pulled at his restraints as Maddie stroked his arm, murmuring soft words, "You'll be okay, Jake. You'll get through this."
Jake closed his eyes tight, trying to keep tears from escaping.
"Nurse, a sedative, please." Dr. Bingham said.
Maddie bustled away, returning with a syringe.
"Now, listen to me, Jake. Your Dad told me that you play ball at the U and have hopes for a professional career," Dr. Bingham said. "They don't have to end. You know they've changed the rules -- players with prosthetics are competing in the pros. Some of them are just as good as any regular player, maybe even better. In fact, what with artificial intelligence and materials like titanium, it might be that your new leg will give you an advantage. The rehab will be tough, but once you're through it you'll be stronger. You'll see."
Jake no longer listened. Something pressed at Jake's memory. A discussion he'd had recently about prosthetic-enabled athletes. What was it? Someone telling him that it was the future for sports, Jake's ticket to the pros. He drifted to sleep, thinking that maybe losing his leg wasn't so bad after all.
That thought disappeared, however, the next time he woke up. Pain blinded him. He wanted to scream, rip out the IV, and tear what was left of his leg from his body. At least, his arms had been released, and he fumbled through the sheets, looking for the button that would alert Maddie that he needed help.
"Where is it? Where is it?" he muttered.
"Looking for this, son?" a man said from next to the bed.
In his misery, Jake hadn't noticed that someone else was in the room. A sliver of light escaped from the bathroom and a full moon leaked around the curtains, filling the room with a yellow glow. The bedside clock read 3 a.m.
"Hey, press that button," Jake said, not sure who the man was but not really caring either, just wanting the pain to stop. "I'm dying here."
"No need," the man said. "I know what to do. I'll get you taken care of in a jiffy." He fiddled with the IV tubes. "Just relax and soon you'll feel better."
The man stepped back, shoving his hands into a purple and white pin-striped suit coat. A fedora was pulled low over his forehead.
"You," Jake whispered as the morphine or whatever it was started to take effect. "You were in the parking garage. You and your buddies did this to me." I should be scared. Or mad. But hard to be mad when the drugs feel so good...
The man smiled, his front teeth protruding slightly, giving him a feral quality. "My friends enjoy their work a little too much. Hitting your head wasn't part of our agreement. Don't worry, they've been punished."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jake asked. Although he felt a little better, his leg still throbbed. "Hey, I don't think you gave me enough of that stuff."
"I will when I leave," the man said. "But for now I want you alert, your senses on edge."
Jake, closing his eyes tight, sank back into the pillows. He wished the man would just get out, pumping him full of the morphine first. He wanted to escape reality.
"We've spoken before." The man's voice came closer, until Jake could feel his hot breath against his cheek.
Jake opened his eyes.
"Close your eyes, sonny," the man said. "I want you to concentrate on my words not my face. The less you see of me the better. In fact, we may never meet in person again, but I'll be in touch. No names, however, not now."
Jake shut his eyes and sensed the man leaning over him, bringing with him the smell of cigars and spearmint gum.
"Think hard. Concentrate on my voice. Do you remember the conversation we had a few weeks ago? I approached you after one of your football skirmishes," the man said. "Think, boy, think." He gripped Jake's shoulder, shaking it slightly.
Jake probed his memory. He found in its shadows a meeting after practice, sitting in a black sedan and sipping on a cola while a man said that he could make Jake into a star. It would take some initial suffering, but it would all be worth it. Was this that man?
Jake's eyes popped open. "Are you the guy who promised -- ?"
The man put his hands on Jake's face, lowering his lids. "No lookie, got it? And promise is a bit strong. I had a little business proposition, that's all. You agreed and here we are."
"I didn't think it'd be like this." Jake groaned as a wave of pain washed over him.
"To be the best you have to suffer," the man said. "It'll be worth it when you're making millions, and A.F.T. will be there all the way with you. Taking its share of the profits, of course."
"Athletes For Tomorrow. Prosthetic-enabled athletes are the future of sports," the man whispered in Jake's ear. "A.F.T. is just pushing the timetable a little."
"I didn't expect to be attacked. You guys scared the hell out of me."
"Your injury had to look real. What'd you think it'd be? A little tap on the leg? We had to give the doctors a reason to amputate. Insurance has to pay. We've got to be above-board as much as possible."
"Remember, sonny, you're going to be the best running back the pros have ever seen. You were good before, an above average college player, but nothing for the NFL to get too jazzed about. Let's put this way -- you would have been lucky to get drafted. But now, after you've rehabbed. Well..."
"And what if I don't..." Jake cleared his throat. "What if I don't make it to the pros?"
"You'll make it," the man said. He grabbed Jake by the front of his hospital gown. "And if you don't, well, then you become a liability and you can guess what A.F.T. does with liabilities. We can't afford them."
What had he done? Then Jake remembered his dreams. Maybe this was the only way he could make the big bucks, live in a mansion, and help his folks out, who had sacrificed so much for him.
The man stepped away. "I'm giving you the full dose now. Soon you'll be sleeping like a baby."
Jake felt himself lift off the bed, floating away. In his mind he was running, his bum leg replaced with one of those funky prosthetics. He jumped, caught a pass, and flew down the field. Outside, the tree scratched against the window. This time, though, it sounded like applause.
As Jake drifted away, the man said, "Good night, sonny. We'll be in touch. A.F.T. likes to take good care of its assets...."
© 2009 Erin Fanning
Bio: Erin Fanning is the author of the novel The Curse of Blackhawk Bay (available from Sam's Dot Publishing), the cycling/travel book Mountain Biking Michigan (Globe Pequot Press), and numerous short stories, articles and essays. She splits her time between the mountains of central Idaho and the lakes of northern Michigan. For more information, visit Ms Fanning's website, Erin Fanning - Author & Researcher.
E-mail: Erin Fanning
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