The Boy with an Earache by Jon Wesick
The Boy with an Earache by Jon Wesick
Pain! An ice pick of agony stabbed Kenny Johnson’s ear. He imagined millions of germs attacking his ear drum with microscopic pick axes and packing the holes with cayenne pepper soaked in acid. The mixture ate away at the tissue making the holes big enough for tiny sticks of dynamite that when exploded opened the way to the inner ear for the invaders who would not stop until they reached his brain. Kenny clamped his hand over the hot skin but couldn’t stop the pain. He thrashed against the covers and jumped out of bed waking his little brother Tom.
“What’s the matter?”
“Go back to sleep.” Kenny pulled back the sheet that separated their room and went out.
The concrete floor was cold against his feet as he padded past his uncle sleeping on the couch, drew aside another sheet, and entered his mother’s room.
“Mom.” He pushed his mother’s sleeping body. “My ear hurts.”
Tamara Johnson sat up and pushed the curly, black hair out of her face. The alarm clock said it was 5:45, about time to get up anyway.
“Come with me.” She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and led her son into the kitchen. Once there she boiled water, poured it into a cup, and added some dried leaves from a yellow box. “Drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”
“Mom, can I stay home from school, today?” Kenny sipped the bitter, smelly tea.
“No, I have to go to work.”
“But Uncle Mike can watch me.”
“Uncle Mike needs to look for a job. Now go wake up your brother while I make breakfast.”
Kenny had hardly taken two steps when his mother spoke again.
“And remember. Don’t tell anyone at school you’re sick.”
The tea didn’t help. Kenny’s ear hurt worse at school. Sitting at his desk it took all his will to keep the blinding pain from making him scream. Then Mrs. Taylor handed out the math test.
“Question 1: Two trains leave Seattle and San Francisco. The train from Seattle departs at 9:30 PM heading south going 64 miles per hour. The train from San Francisco departs at 11:45 PM heading north going 90 miles per hour. If the two cities are separated by 1000 miles, when will the trains pass?”
Kenny scribbled some numbers with his pencil but his throbbing ear made concentration impossible. The other problems were all the same – cars, boats on rivers, and airplanes. He began to sweat. There was nothing easy he could start with. He felt as if he were being squeezed like a victim trapped in a room with collapsing walls in the movies.
“I hate this!” Kenny ripped up his test and scattered the fragments. “I hate this! I hate this!”
A nice lady took Kenny to a place called KinderCorp. After showing her ID at the gate, she drove into the fenced compound and turned Kenny over to the staff. Within minutes a nurse was peering into his ear through an otoscope.
“How long has your ear hurt?”
“Two days, I guess. No, maybe three.”
“Are you taking any medicine?”
“My mom made me drink this tea that tasted really bad.”
The nurse frowned as she went to the cabinet.
“These will make you feel better.” She gave him some pills, poured him a cup of water, and watched him swallow. “You’ll need to stay here for a while.”
A man in khaki slacks and a blue golf shirt entered.
“I’m Mike. Come with me.”
“I have an uncle named Mike,” Kenny said. “He stays with us.”
Mike ignored the comment and led Kenny down the tile-floored hall to a small room with two cots each covered with tightly-fitted, gray, wool blankets.
“Take the bed by the window,” Mike said. “When you’re better, you can join the others.”
“Mike, when can I see my mom?”
“Medicine’s expensive, Kenny. You can see your mom when you’ve paid us back.”
“But I don’t have any money.”
“Oh, we’ll find some work for you to do.” Mike started for the door and turned back. “You’re not one of those sissies who’s afraid of work. Are you?”
Two nights later Mike escorted Kenny to a dorm room where five other boys sat on cots.
“Everybody, this is your new roommate Kenny. Please make him welcome.” Mike gave Kenny a toothbrush and towel before leaving.
“Nice to meet you.” Kenny looked at the strange faces.
“You know, I could use a new toothbrush.” The red-headed boy grabbed Kenny’s.
“Give it back, you prick.” Rather than focusing on the toothbrush, Kenny swung a wild punch and caught the boy in the jaw.
“Knock it off, Rick the Prick.” The biggest boy shoved the redhead into the wall and then shook Kenny’s hand. “Sorry about that jerk. I’m Jason. Let me know if he gives you any more trouble.”
On his first night Kenny had dealt with one bully but there would be others more difficult to defeat.
Kenny pushed the tiny, plastic connector into the battery assembly and attached the other end of the paired wires to the slide switch. Careful to line up the appropriate openings he placed the switch and battery in rectangular, plastic base the size of a cigarette pack. Next he added the volume-control thumbwheel. Kenny attached a three-quarter-inch ribbon cable and power connector to a circuit card assembly. After attaching the other end of the power wires to the switch he seated the circuit card on the base. He attached the ribbon cable to the LCD in the face assembly and set this onto the base while keeping the switch and thumbwheel lined up. This was difficult because the short ribbon cable did not allow for much adjustment of the face assembly relative to the base. Once satisfied he screwed the face assembly in place. After tightening all four screws he noticed that the thumbwheel’s axel was misaligned. He removed the screws and tried twice more before getting it right.
Kenny would get better. Working twelve-hour days provided plenty of practice. His life was not all work, though. The state of Indiana mandated that children in the Foster Industrial Partnership receive an education so for two hours every weekday Kenny joined the others in one of Mr. Marplot’s classes. Dressed in his customary tie and white shirt Marplot looked like a capital D due to his huge gut. His lessons consisted of reading passages from fifty-year-old textbooks and making students solve arithmetic problems that Kenny had already done in the third grade. Even Mr. Marplot got bored and he used any excuse to launch into a lecture on his favorite topic.
“You kids probably think you’re unlucky to be here but you ought to be grateful.” Marplot brushed the strand of comb-over hair out of his eyes. “You’re luckier than ninety-nine percent of the world’s population because you live in America, the freest society in history. Unlike Europe we’ve got a Constitution that keeps the government out of our knickers. Here we have the opportunity to succeed or fail based on how hard we work. Over there, hard work doesn’t matter because the government takes the money you earn and gives it to a bunch of freeloaders. That’s called Communism. In a Communistic society the government tells everybody exactly what to do and no one has any incentive to work hard and get ahead.”
Kenny did work hard. Day after day he assembled electronic devices until his hand hurt and his vision blurred. No matter how hard he world, the thermometer chart that showed his debt to KinderCorp never budged. He decided to ask his supervisor.
“Excuse me, Mike. I’ve been working for over a month and was wondering how come the graph that shows how much I owe you hasn’t changed. I mean, you said I’d get five dollars an hour so I must have paid back at least a thousand dollars.”
“This isn’t a charity. You know.” Mike’s eyes turned hard and he spoke with an unexpected volume. “It costs a fortune to feed you and give you a place to sleep. At forty dollars a day you’re getting a bargain.”
Kenny had been to the grocery store with his mom and knew the macaroni and cheese they fed the children didn’t cost close to forty dollars.
“But then I’m only making five dollars a day.”
The slap seemed to come out of nowhere. Kenny touched his stinging cheek as the tears filled his eyes.
“Get back to work before I dock your pay!”
The bathroom window was small but not small enough to stop a nine-year-old boy. Kenny climbed from the sink to the ledge, stuck his feet through, and shimmied out into the night. He dropped to the ground and sprinted into the shadows. He had to find a way out he was missed.
The gate was guarded so quiet as he could Kenny dashed to the back of the compound and found a stretch of chain-link fence in the shadow of a tree. Fitting his hands and feet in the openings he climbed to the top but still had to deal with the barbed wire projecting inward on forty-five-degree brackets. Gripping the wire between the barbs he let his feet swing free and pulled himself up to chest level. At this point avoiding cuts was no longer an option. He lay forward and swung his legs over the top. The barbs tore his pants and ripped his skin but he clambered over the top and climbed down.
Despite the pain he was happy because for the first time in six weeks he was outside the compound. Kenny breathed the pine-scented air and felt his footsteps sink into the springy loam of the forest floor. He walked until he came to a road. Then careful to duck into the bushed whenever a car approached, he followed it for a few miles until he came to a house. Honey-colored light glowed from its windows illuminating a sign that said home. Kenny rang the doorbell. An old woman whose round face wore an expression of care and compassion answered.
“Poor dear.” Her eyes took in Kenny’s torn, bloodstained pants. “What ever happened to you? Come inside.”
Kenny followed her into a living room that smelled like Christmas morning. It was much nicer than his own home’s smell of fried hamburger and his brother’s pee. For a moment he wished he could stay forever but only for a moment.
“I need to call my mom.”
“Of course, you do, dear, but first you need to take a bath and change out of those dirty clothes.”
Kenny soaked in the tub in a bathroom that smelled of potpourri. He dried himself with a big, fluffy towel and changed into the clothes the old woman had set out. They didn’t quite fit but the fresh-baked cookies took his mind off that. They were warm and soft inside and the chocolate chips were still melted into dark droplets of sweetness. He heard a car pull up and two policemen entered.
“We’ll take it from here, ma’am.”
The police put Kenny in the back seat, nodded when he told them his address, and drove away. Kenny relaxed and looked through the window at the trees. Finally, he would be going home and this whole nightmare would be over. He saw the KinderCorp compound in the distance and pulled at the door handle but it was no good. The door was locked.
“Kenny, we were worried about you.” Mike rested a beefy hand on Kenny’s shoulder after the police returned the boy. “Sorry officers, sometime’s our boys have a misplaced loyalty to their drug-addict parents.” His fingers dug into Kenny’s flesh. “Come on, son. Your friends missed you.”
Kenny had never been beaten like that before. Even when his mother had slapped him, she had not struck to do permanent damage. Mike, on the other hand, put all his two hundred pounds behind each blow. He hit all Kenny’s weak spots – stomach, kidneys, and testicles. After the beating he threw Kenny in a windowless room with no food, no water, and only a bucket for a toilet. Two days later Kenny was release to find that his debt had doubled, he had a daily quota of one hundred eight devices, and the threat of another beating if he didn’t meet it.
The bone bruises made it almost impossible to sit at his work area let alone assemble anything. An ache throbbed in his lower back. Whenever he reached for a part, a sharp pain made him wince. The hours became a blur of wires, ribbon cables, and circuit cards. Then when the supervisor stepped outside, Rick the Prick approached. After eyeing Kenny’s table, the red-haired boy placed two completed devices in the out box and took a number of parts back to his work area. The others joined in. For this day and until he was well Kenny would avoid further beatings.
That night while listening to Mr. Marplot’s ramblings about freedom. Kenny deiced he’d learn about Communism. Any alternative to KinderCorp sounded good to him.
Twenty-six years later he placed his left hand on the Bible and repeated the oath of office after a judge in black robes.
“I, Kenneth Johnson, do solemnly swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Indiana, and to uphold my duties as its governor.”
Cameras flashed while the judge shook his hand and the new governor embraced his wife, Jean. Johnson took his place at the podium under the blue-and-gold, torch-and-stars state banner and spoke to the audience.
“Today marks a new dawn for the state of Indiana as well as a break from the past. A past when the few dined on seven-course meals while children went to bed hungry. A past when the rich lived in mansions while working people were crammed six to a room. A past when ordinary Hoosiers went without seeing a doctor while the privileged took spa vacations. A past when a child of working parents had to mortgage her future to get an education. Maybe they call that justice in Washington D.C. but not here in Indiana.
“In my administration government will not protect the interests of the privileged few but will ensure economic justice for the many. You know, seventy years ago unions protected workers from exploitation. They’re mostly gone now, killed off by the greed and self interest of corrupt corporations and their politician lackeys. That’s why I will have the state department of labor enforce fair wages and decent working conditions for all employees in Indiana. We will expand Medicaid and make college scholarships available to all.
“And finally, to the business owners out there let me assure you I believe you have a right to a fair profit on your investment and effort. If you play fair with us, we’ll play fair with you. Together we’ll make Indiana’s economy the envy of the nation. Thank you.”
The executives sat around a conference take in the Michigan governor’s office. Men from the big three automakers wore loose blue or tan suits. Those from big pharma dressed more stylishly in European cuts. Having fought their way through the glass ceiling, the handful of women present were even tougher than the men. Poker-faced they regarded the governor with bottom-line eyes while preparing to compare his sales pitch to all the others.
“Thank you for coming.” Governor Trip poured a cup of coffee from the carafe. “Like me, I know you’re concerned about the events in Indiana. I just want to assure you that Michigan remains a safe haven for your investments. Whatever happens to the south our state will remain committed to hard work, free enterprise, and minimal government interference. Just look at the past decade’s election results and you’ll see what I mean. And of course, our police are ready to intervene if anybody would subvert our values. So, if you ever need to move your facilities to a state with a better business climate, I hope you’ll keep Michigan in mind.”
“I don’t need this, today.” Darryl Washington pushed the black baseball cap back on his head as he looked at the protestors on the security camera.
He didn’t recognize any of them even though they carried signs that said “Save our jobs!” and “Sunflower Drugs values profits over people!” With their dreadlocks and garish T-shirts, they didn’t look like former employees. Washington cycled through the other perimeter surveillance cameras. The monitor showed only the skeleton crew of security guards one would expect in a closed factory. When the trucks pulled up to the gate, a crowd of protestors swarmed in front to block the entrance. The drivers stayed in their cabs while the protestors shouted and shook their signs. Darryl walked out of the building and spoke to them through the fence.
“I feel bad about the factory closing too but we have to let the movers in. Please step away from the gate.”
A chant of, “Job stealer! Job stealer!” answered him.
“How come you’re protecting the fat cats?” a man with a scraggly, blonde beard asked. “Join us.”
“I’m just doing my job, man.” Before Darryl could walk away, someone threw a bottle of juice that ruined his shirt.
The police arrived twenty minutes later. Darryl met them at the fence and was puzzled because the policemen wore the mounty hats of the state police. One handed him a document.
“What’s this?” Darryl looked up at the officer’s mirrored sunglasses.
“It’s a lien on the property for failure to pay state taxes. All employees are to collect their personal effects and meet back here in fifteen minutes. We’ll escort you out.”
The confiscation of the factory started a chain reaction. Panicked business owners tried to move their companies, which led to more confiscations and even more panic. Investors both big and small saw the prices of their stocks plummet and complained. Congress demanded that the president act but President Landers didn’t have the power because the Supreme Court’s latest rulings had weakened the Interstate Commerce Clause. Still, something had to be done.
Two years since his last job, no health insurance, bank account near zero, and food and rent paid by credit card, Josh Irwin applied for a job along with thousands of others at the reopened State Pharma plant. Even though he’d worked in the medical industry for ten years, he estimated his chances at less that less than one percent. So, when the call came, it was as if Jesus himself was on the other end of the line.
“Holy shit!” Josh turned to his wife. “I got the job.”
Before he could set the phone down, Jeanne tackled him like a linebacker bulked up on laughter and kisses. Their fifteen-year-old daughter came downstairs to see what the commotion was about.
“Tammy!” Josh looked up from the friendly wrestling match. “I got the job! Know what that means? It means you’re going to college so go upstairs and change. We’re going out to celebrate!”
“Shouldn’t we save our money? What if the job doesn’t work out?” Jeanne asked.
“I’ll make it work out. Besides you have to spend money to make money. It’s a law of the universe.”
Next morning dressed in new slacks and shirt, Josh Irwin reported to the State Pharma plant only to find the gate padlocked. A sign posted nearby read, “Closed by order of the FDA.”
Sitting in the Governor’s office, Ken Johnson looked at the red light above the camera. The confrontation he’d feared had finally come yet he felt strangely calm.
“Today, in a massive violation of states’ rights, the corporate stooges in the federal government shut down our State Pharma plant. This has nothing at all to do with public safety and everything to do with protecting the exploiters of working people.
“According to my advisors, we can still produce pharmaceuticals without violating federal law as long as we only sell them within the state. That being so, I’ve ordered to plant to reopen and am sending a bill to the legislature that will require all state agencies to buy from state-run firms.
“I ask you to write your legislators in support of this bill. I also ask you to write President Landers and tell him the federal government should stop meddling in Indiana’s affairs. Thank you.”
Train hard. Fight Easy. That was the philosophy FBI Agent Mike Dooley drilled into his counterterrorism team. He was thin, soft-spoken man with longish hair who preferred flannel shirts to suits and who would look more appropriate behind a coffee shop counter than leading a mission vital to national security. But Dooley was the man for the job when the mission required subtlety. He hated violence. When a battle broke out, it meant he’d lost control of the situation. He’d spent years training his team in the Russian martial art, Systema, to make sure that never happened.
Rather than show up in flak jackets and helmets, most of his team outside the governor’s mansion wore only track suits with the lightest Kevlar vests underneath. Of course, the SWAT team was only seconds away but Dooley prayed he wouldn’t need it. The sun was just rising when he got notice over the car radio.
“Target just left the governor’s mansion and is jogging north on Meridian accompanied by two Capitol police.”
Dooley checked his watch. 6:15. Right on time.
“He’s approaching 48th Street.”
“Go Carla,” Dooley commanded over the car radio.
Governor Johnson and his two beefy escorts jogged around the corner. Carla and a male agent approached at a trot from the opposite direction. She was a fit woman with a pixie cut and slender build that often caused opponents to underestimate her fighting skill. Today, she wore purple running shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. Just as the governor got close, Carla lifted the T-shirt’s hem to wipe the sweat out of her eyes and exposed her flat belly and running bra in the process. One of the governor’s escorts stared.
“What are you looking at, asshole?” Carla’s male friend pointed a finger at the man.
Shock and anger threw off the escort’s concentration. He stopped and turned.
“Now! Go! Go! Go!” Dooley jumped out of the car and sprinted toward the target.
He got hands on one of the escorts as the man was drawing his pistol. Dooley flowed with the motion continuing the arm’s rise until the elbow was over the escort’s head. Shifting the man’s weight forward allowed Dooley to slip under the arm, keeping mind of the pistol, and bring the escort face down on the grass. A knee on the back of the neck and bend of the wrist brought the pistol cleanly out of the escort’s hand. Dooley looked up and saw that his team had neutralized the other escort and was hustling Governor Johnson into the backseat of a car.
Dooley had trained for decades just so a mission like this could be accomplished cleanly, quietly, and with no fuss. He watched the tail lights disappear in the distance as the governor began his trip to Guantanamo.
“Today, federal agents took Indiana Governor Kenneth Todd Johnson into custody.” Attorney General Clay Armantrout shuffled papers on the podium decorated with the Department of Justice eagle logo. “This marks the culmination of a twelve-month investigation by agents of the FBI, CIA, and ATF, which concluded that Governor Johnson and associates collaborated with the terrorist group Ansar al Jihad run by this man, Abu Nazrullah.” The screen behind the attorney general showed the face of a man with a thick, black beard.
“Specifically, it has been shown that the governor and associates provided Nazrullah’s men with money, state IDs, and shelter. Due to the national security threat Governor Johnson is being held in seclusion in accordance with the enhanced police powers granted the federal government by the Conrad Spectre Act. This incident is a stark reminder of the danger this nation faces from international terrorism.”
Josh Irwin joined the line in front of the metal detector at the entrance of the Birch Bayh Federal Building. It was a little after 8:00 AM. Lawyers and jurors crowded the lobby while emptying their pockets into plastic containers and placing laptops on the conveyor belt that fed the security x-ray.
Sweat oozed from his underarms and tickled his sides. The suicide vest under his suit jacket was so hot Josh believed his face must have glowed red. Contrary to the attorney general’s assertion, the bomb vest had not been made by foreigners but by the homegrown resistance that sprang up after the coup d’état that had deposed the state’s governor.
Josh fingered the aluminum cylinder that functioned as a detonator. He’s already armed the vest in the parking lot. Loaded with bolts for shrapnel the vest would never pass the metal detector without alerting the guards but that wasn’t the plan. An explosion among those waiting at the security checkpoint would produce massive casualties and announce the start of the second American revolution.
The line inched forward. A woman in a dark suit took off her high heels and placed them on the conveyor. Josh had second thoughts. Maybe he should walk away and go back home to Jeanne. He could make pancakes and they’d eat breakfast in bed. He’d live to see Tammy graduate from high school, marry, and give him grandchildren. Who was he kidding? She had no future as long s the crooks rigged the government to steal from the people. Someone had to put a stop to it. Josh Irwin flipped the protective cover off the trigger and pushed the button.
Copyright Jon Wesick 2020