‘10%’, Edward W. Robertson

Illustrations © 2009 Douglas Draper


 [ Subway fight © 2009 Douglas Draper ]


What was wrong with Melanie was that nothing looked different. When you see someone for the first time in a long time, your eyes don't match up to the memory: if it's an ex-girlfriend in winter, she looks paler; an old friend looks balder, softer; a parent looks impossibly old, like a grandparent, like someone who's about to die. You're confused then—sad? Like you're saying goodbye again to someone you used to know. I felt none of that for Melanie, but it wasn't my fault. From down the train platform, she turned her head—she'd dyed her hair red again and she stood out from the commuters like a burning house—and her face was drawn, I could see her forcing this new me over the me she'd been seeing when she remembered. She hadn't seen me in eight months. I hadn't seen her in three days.

"Tom." She pulled back, palms hot on my cheeks. "You're thinner."

"Probably."

"I'm serious. Ten pounds."

"Probably had me digging ditches all day."

"You were doing something important." She cupped my chin and turned my head, examining my face as if they'd written it there. "They had to have been feeding you like a racehorse."

"Yeah. Oats and water."

Melanie smiled, then wrestled it away. "I missed you."

I hugged her again, pressed my nose into her hair, lavender. "Maybe this was the last time." I pinched her earlobe, touched her cheek. "Let's go home."


The money dried up fast. We splurged a little, restaurants, a new TV. Would have done a new car if either of us drove. I meant to invest, but Mel's mom had gotten sick while I was away, pneumonia or something else they should have cured a hundred years ago, and soon most of what I'd made had disappeared down those gray-green hospital walls. I'd only been back two months. I didn't want to volunteer again. I didn't want to bag groceries or sell clothes. I called Hank, then told Mel I was going back to the subway. She told me no, but it was her mom would die. Me and Hank bought some booze and some mixers and divvied them up in unspillable plastic cups, waiting for the night to glom on and the trains to thin out. Hank watched for cops while I walked the platforms, selling to knots of college kids, to solitary drunks with their faces in their hands and their blood going clean while they waited and they waited, to men smoking under "NO SMOKING" signs. Some laughed or went angry when they heard the price, but enough paid. Times were tough. No one wanted to go home sober.

Before we learned to read their faces, we used to get robbed—whenever we hit a dead spot, whoever was running platforms would hand his roll off to the one watching for cops, but sometimes they took us for twenty or sixty or two hundred bucks. It was only three nights back in the tunnels before I saw a short, thick man trailing me down the platforms, eyes on the money collecting in my hands. I sent our code to Hank on my walkie, but when it was me and the thick man alone in the subway stink of steam and old rain and wet newspaper, something told me I didn't have to run.

He walked up, hands in pockets. One came out holding a short-bladed knife.

"Give me the money," he said.

"Hi," I said.

"Think I'm kidding?"

"I think I'm about to break your arm." I shrugged off my backpack. He stepped into a crouch, hands in front of his waist, and he struck with the knife and I stepped to the side and guided him past, twisting his wrist and slamming his upturned elbow with mine. The bone cracked and the knife clattered on the platform. I kicked out the back of his knee and he just collapsed, fainted maybe, and I kicked the back of his head before he was done falling and he didn't move. I picked up my backpack and stared at my hands. I didn't think to rob him until Hank showed up and gave me a long look.

"What happened?"

"Something we shouldn't stick around to take the blame for," I said. We called it off for the night and went to a diner. Hank asked if he could finish my sandwich.

"It was like my brain just shut off for a minute," I said while he chewed. "Thing is, now, I can tell you what I did."

"Me too. Kicked his ass."

"I can tell you in Chinese."

He nodded, silent a while. "Are you sure you didn't know it before?"

"Do you know what 'kung fu' means? It means 'skills you only learn by busting your ass for years.' I think I'd remember—" I cocked my head at him. Hank raised his eyebrows. "No. Wrong. Stop thinking what you're thinking."

"The whole point is you have no idea what you're doing for them." Hank dug his nail between his top incisors and dislodged some bacon. He dropped his eyes to his plate. "Once when I came back, I knew how to knit."

"Like quilts and shit?"

He eyed me. "Don't ask me."

"I've been punching walls when I wait for Mel to get ready. It doesn't hurt—my knuckles are callused, they don't skin. I bought some weights—me? Lifting weights? I never drop things anymore, and when I do I catch them before they land. I know I could have killed that guy tonight. Been thinking that for a while."

"And?"

I turned up my palms. "That doesn't sound a little messed up to you?"

"What would you do if it did? Start killing CEOs?"

"Maybe I could," I said, stopping my punch just short of his nose. He scowled. "I'm not going back, that's what I'm doing. That's the last they get from me."

"You gonna eat your pickle?"

"I should take it home in a doggie bag." I shoved my plate his way. "Gonna be too poor to waste anything now."


I told Mel about my vow so I'd stick to it. She looked happy. She got pregnant. I started hunting jobs. Outside the big places, the Sears and the Arnold's and the Firestone, I stared at their big bold signs and thought, Somewhere, whoever owns you, or maybe someone on their board, they taught me something they weren't supposed to teach. I didn't get hired. I found a local dojo, inwardly bristling at the use of the Japanese, and told the sifu I'd been learning wing chun for six months but had disagreed with the philosophy of my former teacher. He gave me an inscrutable look—he was a white guy in his 50s and his glasses hid his eyes—but he took me on. I found a peace there, a blankness, just me and my muscles and the breath in my chest.

There were no public records of what I'd done while I'd been under. That was part of the contract. I had no memory of my eight months; that was, too. Their recruitment signs plastered the subway trains: "You spend 30% of your life asleep. Why not spend 10% with us?"

When the cops knocked on our door, Mel's face went as white as spilled rice. "I told you," she said.

"It's a fine," I said. "Just unlicensed sale. Just a fine."

I opened the door. A cop with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth spread a warrant in my face while his blonde partner cuffed my hands. In our bedroom, they found a gun I didn't own. At court, the judge gave me a choice: three years in prison, or fifteen months unpaid in the Corporate Works Program. I took the months. I told Melanie for the thousandth time it wasn't my gun. Her face was puffy and tear-wet; I couldn't tell from not seeing me in fifteen months or from deciding she'd never see me again.

I could make myself go calm. I'd found that out in the dojo; when someone's throwing punches at your face every week, when they're twisting your arm so far you know another inch would break it, you find that, out in the real world, worries can't find the same toeholds in your head. I listened to my breath, counted heartbeats, memorized everything my judge and my caseworker said, oriented myself on the windowless bus to the processing center—north by northwest, upstate or the shallow Midwest, no more than four hundred miles from the city—I pegged accents and tallied minutes and made myself make friends with three of the other Tenners on the bus, low-rent types like me, Wilson, Bibbs, and John. At the center they hosed us down together and separated us for X-rays and MRIs and then shaved the sides of our heads. I remembered touching the curve of Melanie's cheek and telling her her nose didn't have to be straight. I cleared my head and introduced myself to the fat, smiling doctor, who said his name was Pearson. They put me in the chair and I repeated that in my head, his and the names from the bus, I broke down how far we must have come, then my heart got too fast to count and I forgot what I was memorizing and memorized it all: the pressure of the straps on my wrists, the sweat sliming up along my hairline, the steely scent of the fluid as they moved it to my IV, a nurse behind me asking what I'd done (is it a boy or a girl), me opening my sand-dry mouth, saying—nothing.

It's not like waking, coming back. When you wake, you remember you've been asleep, and that you've dreamed, even if the memory of those dreams is as hard to call back as how you felt as a child. Just blankness, then your sight and your skin and your ears snap on like a TV and you don't know what's wrong until the eye of your mind tells you Hey, Dr. Pearson's shaved his stubble, that nurse has a ring on her finger, the walls are shiny like fresh paint. Snow blanketed the asphalt out front. On the bus to the release center, I repeated my memories like a mantra. On the train home, I borrowed a pen and wrote them down. I found myself watching passengers to think what I'd do when I fought them.

It was a girl. Lena, Melanie said when she met me at the station, the kid bundled and held on her hip. Named for my mom. I said hello and hugged them both. Mel said she forgave me. She'd brought roses. On the ride home, we detoured down to Jersey and she left them on her mother's grave.


"What is it?" Melanie said, shifting up on one elbow. In the darkness of the room her body looked different, softer. She traced the fresh pink scar on the left of my chest.

"It's work. Everywhere I go, they look at my record and send me back out the door."

She made a noise I couldn't interpret. "You'll find something."

I tracked Wilson down from the bus; his girlfriend said he had four more years under. John had moved to Oregon. I found what I thought was his email but he never replied. Bibbs lived way up in the Bronx off the orange line and said come on up and to bring beer. On the train I stood against the doors and watched how people moved. They wore tough faces, the city kids, but wore their arms and legs like designer clothes, something to look good in, nothing more.

Bibbs looked as happy to see me as for the Rheingold under my arm. His apartment was dark and smelled like dust and cigarettes. By the trash basket in the middle of the room, an old shoe brimmed with ash and butts. We cracked a few cans and talked about finding jobs. He asked if I had a wife and I told him about my kid. Probably everyone says this, I told him, but I was set up: something funny's going on up there. I wished I could remember what they'd had me do.

"I once knew a guy who when the doctors put the bypass in his head, they didn't check the leads." Bibbs leaned toward me with drunken authority, then glanced at the window like he expected to see a nose pressed against the glass. "It shorted out."

"So when he got out, did he remember?"

"Everything."

I stayed late, bought some 40s at the corner deli, drank one on the train home and sold the others. I woke with a hangover, told Mel I was off to make some applications, then went to a coffee shop, logged on, and yellowpaged Dr. Pearson. He wasn't there, but he had a footprint in other corners of the net. Lived upstate. That night I called Hank and we worked the trains until the sun came up. Parole hearing that weekend, I told Mel. I hid my knife in my belt and she kissed me bye and I grabbed a bus to Bristol Lake. I called his clinic and his receptionist said he was in. I made an appointment under a fake name and settled into a cafe with a view of the clinic's parking lot. Humidity draped the town as bad as the city, but it was cooler here, and the open space of the quiet streets felt like shade even when there were no trees.

Dr. Pearson left the clinic with the sun nestling the western hills. I got out on the sidewalk and watched him haul his big body to a silver sedan, which he stood outside while he fiddled with his cell. I'd decided stealing a car was safer than renting one. My window was too brief for second guesses—I wrapped my knife in a handkerchief and bashed out its driver's window, the crash of glass muffled but impossibly loud, then climbed in, my hands rerouting the car's palm lock as automatically as they'd beaten down the mugger on the subway platform a year and a half ago. I was fast, but the doctor was four blocks down by the time I pulled onto the main road, his silvery four-door winking in the sunset. I closed as quick as I dared. Five miles outside Bristol Lake, he turned down a dirt road. A set of porch lights shone in blinks between the black trees. I drove another mile, pulled far off the shoulder, and headed back.

I got close enough to the grounds to learn he didn't have a dog, then retreated into the dark circle of woods. The night stayed warm. At 10:30, his downstairs lights flipped off; a few minutes after that, the yard and the upstairs went black. I waited still, letting him sleep, letting him dream.

I crossed the dark pool of his lawn. The palm pad on the back door was older than sin. It was like watching someone else slip on the gloves, unfold the knife, climb the stairs. I touched the blade to the folds of his throat and let him scream.

"Don't!" he said, dimpling into the mattress. "Take anything. It's yours."

"I know." I stepped back and clicked on the bedside lamp to let him see my face. "Dr. Pearson."

His lips went white. "Marley. Tom Marley." With a shock, I recognized the look stealing over his eyes: a man calculating how not to die. "What do you want?"

"Don't look so surprised. You trained me for this."

"I haven't done anything."

"You have," I said, suddenly convinced. I put the knife behind my back. He stared at my waist. "They'll put me under again no matter what I do. I might as well kill you."

"So move. Leave the country. You always have a choice."

"They don't let felons fly." I flipped out the knife, then hid it again. "I couldn't leave my wife. My kid."

The corners of his mouth sagged. "It was supposed to be volunteers."

"What else was it supposed to be?"

"I don't know," he said. I showed him the knife and he pressed himself against the headboard. "Do I look like a Rockefeller? I hear things when I stitch you up, when they make me check your bypass every damn month. I don't even know who you work for."

"Who brings me in for checkups?"

"You come in yourself and leave with some company ghost. HemiCo, but he wouldn't tell you anything even if you could find him." Pearson wriggled upright in his bed and met my eyes. "Are you going to kill me?"

I shook my head. "There's something else you can do for me."

"I don't know anything else."

"Sabotage my mnemonic bypass."

He went still, then jerked his chin. "They'd kill me."

"Not if I kill them before they know what's wrong."

"I could promise I will now, then put you under anyway."

"I'd kill you when I got out and noticed the big blank in my memory." I clicked the knife closed. "What they're doing with me, do you think it's right?"

"How the hell should I know? You're a criminal, aren't you? What does it matter what they do with you once you're under?"

"They're stealing my life."

He blew air through his nose, deflating like a settling sheet. "I can give you the first week. When they bring you back to make sure it took, I'll have to fix it then."

I nodded. "You'll see me soon."

"You just got out."

"If I volunteer before they decide to arrest me again, at least my wife will see some money." I dropped my eyes to my feet. I'd tracked mud and wet grass onto his carpet. "Thank you, doctor."

He raised a hesitant hand as I turned away. Two months, I thought, and then I was gone.


"How was the hearing?" Mel said, drawing back. She flicked a blade of grass from my sleeve.

"Good as I could have hoped," I said. "What are you doing today? You and Lena?"

"I thought we'd go clubbing." She gave me a look. "I don't know. Watch some TV."

"Let's go to Central Park. Watch some ducks instead."

"They do a lot of hiring at the park? What kind of salary do trees pull?"

"That can wait. She's my daughter. I need to spend time with her."

Mel frowned at the floor. "Just her?"

"Oh, I guess you can come."

We watched the ducks. The day was hot and awful; kids booted a soccer ball around the lawn while we sweated in the shade. Lena yanked fistfuls of grass and shook them from her fat, tiny fingers. I worried about bugs biting her. Mel licked moisture from her lip, scowling, then retied her hair for the third time that afternoon.

"Is this everything you thought it would be?"

"Heavenly," I said. "Is heaven the hot one?"

"Scoot back," she said, shooing me. I leaned back on my elbows and she nestled the back of her head into my stomach. "Your hips are all bony."

"Kung fu's good for more than killing people." I touched the film of sweat across her forehead, ran my finger along the curve of her ear. I knew if I walked past the trees to my right I could see the Upper East Side, but the city felt far away. Distantly, I thought of moving to Argentina, to Iceland; if we'd had the money, I might have been able to convince Mel it wasn't crazy. Beside me, Lena stuffed a fistful of dirt into her mouth and laughed.

I told Mel I was having hard luck, then spent the time I was supposed to be hunting jobs walking the city, hitting old neighborhoods, restaurants I'd loved and forgotten. I thought about calling some friends I hadn't seen for years, but knew it wouldn't mean anything. I don't know what I was looking for. I'd be back soon—for good, if I did it right—but it felt like saying goodbye. By night I'd keep myself awake until Mel eased into sleep in my arms, waiting in the dimness to see her eyes shifting beneath their lids, metronymic in REM, then I'd untangle and slip to the other room to watch Lena beneath her hand-stitched blanket and the soft green glow of her nightlight. I promised myself I'd go in six weeks, then stretched it out to seven, nine. I had no way to know whether they'd force me under in six months or two days. Three months to the day after I'd been released from my last bid, I made the call.

Mel was quiet when I told her I couldn't get hired and I was going back under. I waited for her to say something, then explained it was best if I went now, while Lena was still too young to remember. I promised her it would be the last time; that much was true. I told her she needed to trust me.

"You sell booze on the subway," she said. "You kept a loaded gun in our house. There's no trust in all you've done to tear us apart."

"This one last time."

"Don't do it," she said, pinning my eyes with hers. "You can find something else."

"This isn't something I want to do."

"Then why are you doing it?"

I talked more, but I had no answer she could believe. What I remember is silence like a streetlight under snow, the days between then and when I left shifting by in wordless breakfasts, of Mel on the couch and the TV while I walked and sweated and tasted the exhaust and steam of the city summer, in afternoons on the rug with Lena while Mel bought groceries and diapers or went for lunch with her friends. Then it was time: I hugged her and she hugged me back so hard that, when they gave me my physical at the processing center after the long bus ride, they asked about the small crescent scabs on my shoulders. I made up a lie about sex and the doctor laughed through his nose. He was thin, pale, a strip of wiry gray hair around the back of his head like laurels. My blood pressure was high, he said. I asked where Dr. Pearson was. Prepping for the procedure, the doctor said, fixing on me. I laughed and explained that, as far as I could remember, Dr. Pearson had always been painless with me. The doctor chuckled and cleared me.

Pearson made no sign he knew me as the nurses shaved the side of my head and sunk an IV in my arm. Fog crept in the edges of my sight and I tried to catch Pearson's eye but his broad back was turned. The nurse asked me a question, but then I knew nothing at all.


Going under, in some ways, is exactly like waking in the middle of a dream—the anesthesia is thicker than the thickest sleep; you remember some things at once, a vague sense of self and what you've got to get done that day, but other parts stay hidden, emerging at last with the sharpness of remembering your heart has been broken. The first thing I knew was that I wouldn't know whether the bypass was disabled until I woke at the end and either remembered what I was seeing now or looked back on this time and saw only a mute and seamless blank. Currently, I was in a bed in a small, warm room, and I remembered I'd awoken here or in one like it before. I remembered puffs of dust from the far end of an open range and a target blurring in my scope as the rifle jerked into my shoulder. I remembered breaking my thumb on the wooden dummy in the dojo and returning the next day with my hand cast in a thick plaster glove. I remembered lying beneath a lean-to in the cold woods with an out-of-uniform HemiCo ghost watching over me. I remembered thinking how I could kill him and light out—screw my thumb into his eye, crush his windpipe with the blade of my hand, or simply kick out his knee and then kick him to death on the ground—but I remembered, too, that it would do no good. I had already tried, and they had shown me just how much more they could take.

My boss and only contact was a man named Marsden. I drove to his office in Buffalo and I saw his red-knuckled hands and the dotty stubble of his shaved scalp and remembered joking with him in his car while rain tapped the roof and we waited for an executive whose disappearance would make local news three days later.

"Came back quick this time." Marsden flipped off his monitor and bulged his lower lip at me.

"I felt like I had to."

"Never know how that stuff will work." He sniffed; some far part of my second mind reminded me he had a perpetually runny nose. "Ready for the next one?"

"Unless you'd rather pay me to sit here doing nothing."

"Afraid I'm already filling that position," he smiled. "Call you in a couple days. Apartment's where you left it."

It didn't matter. I drove to my room and lay in my bed remembering how hard I'd schemed, when I first learned what I was being trained for, to smuggle what I knew back to my other life: a tattoo, a subcutaneous chip, an email to Mel, but when I mailed the letter to myself at my cousin Rob's house they told me what they'd done to Mel's mother and how they could do the same to Mel, and later, when Lena was born, to her, too. I was a ghost; if I tried to reach my other life from here, all I'd touch was death.

Three days later I got the call and went in to pick up the pictures and the profile. I killed the rest of the week planning, and the day before I was to leave for the farmhouse outside Chengdu, I was sent to the clinic for my checkup. Pearson was there, as I remembered he would be. As he fitted the mask to my mouth, his brows flicked up. I shook my head.

 [ Bypass © 2009 Douglas Draper ] That was the first thing I remembered when I came back, that sad smile on his fat face. It was trying to tell me something but the anesthesia fog didn't lift until I'd been two hours on the train. For a minute then I was just catching pieces of it—my shirt sticking to my back on the drive into Buffalo, the scar on Marsden's chin, wiping the dust from the TV in the quiet of my two-room apartment—then it burst in my head like a dropped glass and I saw it all till the moment Pearson had knocked me out and reinstated the bypass in my brain.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and grabbed it, meaning to yank it and break it. I registered the blue of the conductor's sleeve.

"Everything all right?" he said, letting his hand be squeezed.

"Sorry," I said. "My wife's mom died."

He gave my hand another squeeze, said he was sorry, and moved along. The skyline resolved in the haze and I pressed my fingers to the window but when the platform had cleared I still hadn't found Mel. I waited, then went home. My key didn't fit the lock.

She had moved with Lena to Jersey, outside Princeton; she was too pretty to stay single for long. Behind the smoked windows of my rented car, I watched her scoop up a toddler with Lena's face and carry her across the crosswalk. On the other side, she set Lena down and hugged a tall man in a black coat. I drove back to the city.

I gave it a week, then called the company. But I doubted she kept pictures, and memories fray and thin like the knees of old jeans—in another five years, if she was ready to forgive me, would she recognize me at once, or would she step back, one hand rising, unfelt, to touch her cheek, until she saw me in the gray of her daughter's eyes? To me, it would feel like no more than a few days.


© 2009, Edward W. Robertson

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