In the eyes of Seventh County, and to anyone that mattered, Miles Richard Morris was a cold-blooded murderer. There, dressed in a dingy white hospital gown, shackled to his gurney, Miles stared at the cork ceiling tiles and wondered what went wrong. He imagined no scenario where he didn’t push a beast of a man off of his mother while she begged for her dignity. How could he foresee the officer’s untimely demise? A single tear trickled its way from the side of his eye and pooled in his ear, but rage refused to let him cry. He adjusted himself on the gurney and dried his face with the corner of his gown. He then abandoned the notion of figuring out the “whats” and the “hows” of his current situation and focused on the hiss of the radiator instead. The room was a cement box, about the size of a large walk-in closet, and painted a pallid gray. It smelled like the same sour mildew and processed meat aroma that permeated the entire facility. You’d think he was used to it after three and a half years, but wouldn’t that be surrender?
He stiffened at the sound of combat boots approaching his door and closed his eyes as he listened to them stomp into the room. After seeing them repeatedly kick you until you lose consciousness, the echo of them treading across the concrete floor was nothing less than a sound of death. The steel door clicked and then sighed as it opened. Several people entered and began to move about the room. Miles refused to open his eyes and allow the amassing tears an outlet. He didn’t need to see anything to know that two heavily armed guards, clad to the tee in black gear, stood at either side of his bed. A nurse clacked her way in, probably wearing white pumps and pushing an old, whiny surgical cart. A doctor, most likely some old gray-haired man in glasses, entered next in standard dress shoes and started barking orders. Miles lay flat on his back, fists and teeth clenched, sucking in deep, exaggerated breaths until the nurse gassed him into unconsciousness.
The whole procedure took less than an hour. How long should slicing into your forehead and chiseling an X into your skull take? According to the Correctional Medical Association, thirty-five minutes. After that, flood the cavity with irradiated titanium, stitch the gap and prisoner number MRM01784 is good to go! Miles awakened from his surgery with a heavy heart, but a heavier head. Why didn’t they just kill me? Soon he recovered enough for discharge. This time he wasn’t headed back to cell block D, he was going home. A stocky, blond guard dressed in gray handed him his belongings in a paper bag before leading him down a dusty, gray corridor to the exit.
“If you have any problems with your wound, call the number on your discharge papers.” She held the door for him to leave, but blocked his exit to give him his final instructions” Your post-op nurse and the probation officer will meet you at the discharge house tomorrow. We suggest you go directly there. You have enough TrasnporTokens in your bag to get you there. Good luck and stay right.”
Miles nodded and slinked past her into the blinding noon sunlight. Luckily, his pain tablet wouldn’t wear off for another 6 hours. Even still, the brightness of midday seared his eyes like a hot iron. He fished his sunglasses out of his bag and trudged along the adjacent dirt road for about half a mile until he finally found the bus stop. He sat on one of the two green, rusty benches planted next to the depot sign. It was nice to smell something besides the prison stench. He inhaled a waft of wild basil that blew in from a field of weeds growing behind him. He looked peered down the road, checking for the bus. The schedule says fifteen more minutes. That thought brought him some comfort as he turned his face to the sky and closed his eyes. The sun stroking his swollen face, the crickets chirping in the field, and a stream babbling somewhere behind the field, were all reasons why he was glad he told his family not to pick him up.
Miles stared out of the window as the bus rode past a row of abandoned warehouses. The overcast sky melded with the empty buildings in a bleak array of grays and dark, matted blues. The engine’s hum and the soft hiss of tires splashing through the wet streets lulled a few passengers to sleep. Even Miles closed his eyes and almost drifted away until a pothole interrupted the lullaby. His eyes shot open and darted around the bus before they settled on a young boy staring at him from the seat in front of him.
“What happened to your face?” The boy eyeballed his stitches.
I killed a cop by mistake because he was raping my mother. But nobody cares about that because who’s going to believe a poor white boy from the tracks, and because cops are kings and soldiers are gods, right? Miles stared back at the boy as his mother chided him to sit down. Of course, there was more to the story, right? Was she scoring drugs when it happened? Was she whoring on Vine Avenue? Was he stealing something, and she covered it up? Was there a history of violence? He scoffed and tried to distract himself by watching shoppers carrying their bags and talking on their cellphones through the window, but it was impossible. For as much as he scrubbed at the memory with his favorite songs and scenes from classic movies, there was no sharper image in his mind than his mother bent over their kitchen table pleading with that monster with red, puffy tear-soaked eyes.
Miles’ teachers always had pleasant comments for his report cards. “He’s a pleasure to have in class.” “He’s a model student.” By senior year he had enough ribbons and trophies to decorate the entire south wall of their tiny brownstone apartment. Awards for spelling bees and mathlete championships were the pride and joy of his mother, Alice, and the envy of his baby sister, Junie. It all added insult to the injury caused by the media’s constant smearing of his image to the public. “A troubled youth from the Tracks.” “A history of violence in the home.” No one wanted to believe that Miles defended his mother’s honor. No one cared about his 3.9 GPA or near-perfect attendance. The only thing that mattered was, he couldn’t afford to buy himself a not guilty verdict.
That’s the way America worked ever since the Uprising twenty years ago. No one batted an eye when the police unions banded into a federation and lobbied their way into authority. The National Guard became the ruling power under the chairman of the federation: United Officers of America. People danced in the streets singing songs about “law and order.” Suburban housewives cried during interviews about how grateful they were that their beloved country would finally be peaceful. Working men saluted their new saviors as they paraded through the streets with promises of restoration and reconciliation. Little boys clad themselves in black and stomped though the streets in little black boots shooting at the “bad guys.” By the time the stink of corruption hit the airwaves, it was too late. America had cosigned and endorsed the largest gang of crooks in the country. Bribes, kickbacks, exploits, and human trafficking plagued poor neighborhoods while the middle class sank into extinction. Meanwhile, the rich, the police, and the military became untouchable.
In some ways, poverty is far more expensive than wealth. Miles learned that lesson firsthand as he left each failed interview a little more broken than before. Every scowl at his X’d forehead, every whisper as he walked away, every fake smile and judgmental eye chipped away at his soul until he was surprised there was anything left. His only solace was in knowing he did the right thing, and he would do it again to save his mother. Eventually, he found a job hosing down a slaughterhouse at the end of the day. He’d finish about midnight, throw on his hoodie, and trek three miles home. Avoiding the police was the worst, especially if he failed and wound up detained for 12 hours. Most nights, he made it home without incident. He always checked on Alice, who was hopelessly slipping into alcoholic despair. At least Junie was in college on the west coast. She promised she would take her scholarships and run as far away as possible without looking back. So, most nights he checked to make sure Alice was still alive, eat a frozen dinner, and watch reruns of Friends until he fell asleep.
Six years later, Junie was an expectant housewife, married to a Guardsman. He worked in the personnel department, and both Miles and Junie were satisfied that she would be just fine. Alice had passed away two years prior when her cold medication caused an adverse interaction with her nightly regimen of cheap beer. After yet another night of police harassment, followed by spit in the face from an old lady who thought “Xers” were the worst kind of people in existence. He heard of an underground procedure that removed the chiseled portion of the skull and replaced it with an undetectable alloy. He finally had saved enough to pay for the surgery and run to Mexico.
“Stay here and let the sedative work while I get ready.” A lank, brown man with a perpetual frown gave instructions. “Lay on this slab. Hey, it’s not the Hilton but it will have to do. Jenny here,” He looked across the slab at a thin, blond woman in a white, vinyl coverall. “She’ll get you all hooked up and I’ll be back in a bit.”
Miles clambered onto the slab while Jenny held it steady. He found her gum-chewing habit annoying and was glad that in a few seconds he’d be too oblivious to be agitated. He lay flat on his back and stared at the dim track lighting until it began to get blurry. His tension began to fade, and finally, he wasn’t having sporadic “daymares” of being caught and dragged off to the penitentiary. Anyone found aiding, abetting, or participating in the removal of an X in any way was automatically shipped to the pen, also known as “Hell’s Rock.” But soon it would all be behind him. He had the money. He had the contacts. He found a way out and all he needed was the X removed and after that, it was “all systems go.” He exhaled and closed his eyes, relieved to finally let go. Warmth spread from his belly to his extremities, and then to his head. As he drifted off to sleep, he thought he heard a familiar sound; feet stomping towards his door. Black, heavy, boot-clad feet. No, it couldn’t be.
When Miles regained consciousness, he was in a different room. It wasn’t the old wooden shed with the aluminum slab. He found himself in a gray cement block of a room that smelled like wet plaster and bologna. “Noooo!” A moan was all he could muster, but his soul screamed loud enough to rattle the universe. A familiar face stood over him with a look of concern.
“Mr. Morris, please try to remain calm.” It was the same doctor that had marked him for life. “Your face has undergone significant trauma. I don’t want you to rip your stitches and increase your risk of infection.”
Miles bucked his shackles and let out another shallow moan. Despite the physician’s attempt to soothe his patient, he flailed and thrashed until the nurse administered another sedative.
“Just kill me.” He whispered.
“Excuse me?” The doctor leaned forward to hear better.
“Just kill me. Please, just kill me.” Miles continued to beg for mercy until he faded away again. The doctor bit his lower lip and shared a desperate glance with his nurse. They both had several rotations at Hell’s Rock. What happened there was the stuff of nightmares, the kind that reduced grown men to whimpering infants. They both knew Miles wouldn’t last a week in there with his petite frame and pretty, pink face. He remembered patching him up several times after being stomped by the guards or clashing with another inmate. The nurse nodded and stared at the floor. She handed him another needle and hurried out of the room.
Junie flew in from Arizona to collect his remains. She decided not to hold a memorial service with his ashes. Who would come? Nobody could explain to her what happened. Nobody cared. To the world, he was one less scumbag the hardworking citizens of this great country needed to feed. Junie cared, though. She lit a candle for him, said her goodbyes, and spread most of his ashes in the Mojave Desert. The rest, she stored a small corked bottle in a hope chest at the foot of her bed. Six months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Miles Morris Cooper had his mom’s eyes, his dad’s smile, and his uncle’s name.