Waking up with a clear head, Rion realized he was lying on an uncomfortable cot. There was a teenager about his age standing over him.
“Hey, bro, good morning. How you doing? You doing good?”
Rion looked around. He was in a room with blank taupe walls, a beat-up dresser, and a desk. Another trundle bed lay on the opposite wall.
“What?” Rion said.
“My name’s Scooter. What’s yours?”
Scooter held out his hand to shake.
“Nice to meet you Rion. Listen, I hate to be a buzzkill, but I have to be quick. They’re about to leave. That Adravil you took, the total price was twenty dollars. You have that?”
“What?” Rion mumbled. “Where am I?”
“The teen shelter. Look, do you have twenty dollars?”
Operating on auto-pilot, Rion touched his pocket. It was empty. All his stuff was still in the hotel. Not that it mattered, he’d given his last cash away.
“Dammit,” he shouted. “No, I don’t have anything.”
“We can take you to an ATM. Or to your place, to get the money. Cash only.”
“I don’t have a place. I mean, I don’t have any money… at all.” Rion looked around again. “Where am I? Why am I in a teen shelter? What happened?”
“Do you want to work it off? Twenty dollars would be about a day’s pay, depending on what you’re doing.”
Rion glared at him with a blank look.
“Look, I know you were in a tight spot. Whatever you had, you looked really bad. But we can’t just give them away to anyone who’s desperate. Especially new faces. We’re not a charity organization. We can’t help people unless we make money. The Doc has zero tolerance for freebies.”
“The boss. The general of the farmy.”
“What’s a ‘farmy’?”
There was a distant car horn beeping. Scooter said, “Look, yes or no. Work?”
“Sure,” Rion said, having no idea what he was talking about.
“Okay, good, I was hoping you’d say that. Come on, we gotta get going.”
He hoisted Rion up off the cot, and led him down the stairs. Rion didn’t even get a chance to take a look at where he had slept before he was taken outside. The sun looked like it was rising.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Eighteen hours. I’ll tell you all about it once we get there.”
Almost running, he dragged Rion to a Toyota Corolla waiting by the curb.
“Jeez, Scooter,” said the teenage driver. “How long does it take you to whack off? Who’s the noob?”
“Sorry,” Scooter slid into the back and Rion squished in beside three people. “Everyone, this is Rion.”
A chorus of ‘hey’s and ‘hi’s.
“He’s the guy who passed out last night.”
A chorus of ‘oh yeah’s and ‘I heard about that’s.
“Rion, this is Jude,” he pointed to the driver. “Van, Yolanda, Miriam, and Rylan.”
“What’s going on? Where are we going?” Rion said. “Why do I owe you twenty bucks?”
“You owe twenty bucks for the Adravil the doc gave you. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember getting some pills, but then I passed up and woke up with you standing over me. What’s a farmy?”
Jude said, “He doesn’t know who we are.”
Scooter said, “Really? No clue? Then how’d you get there?”
“Someone picked me up and drove me. It’s hard to explain.” Rion hoped they didn’t have any follow-up questions.
“Well, you fell asleep after that. Never saw Adravil do that to a person. We took you in, then it was time to close up, you still weren’t awake. You didn’t have any ID on you. So I volunteered to take you back to the shelter.”
“Close up what?”
“The farmy. The short version is we make drugs and things for people who can’t afford insurance.”
A light came on in Rion’s mind–not ‘farmy’, but ‘pharmy’, for ‘pharmaceutical army’–drugs.
“Ohhhh,” Rion said.
“Yeah, cute name, huh.”
Miriam said, “Jeez, Scooter, don’t tell him everything. He might be a Narc.”
Scooter scoffed. “Why would a Narc show up screaming his head off for drugs and pass out for a day and a half?”
“I don’t know. Just don’t tell him anymore. The Doc wouldn’t like it.”
“If he’s going to be working it off, he needs to know what’s going on.”
“Let’s just see what the Doc thinks.”
They rode the rest of the time in silence. Rion stared out the window. He was in a different part of the city. Low-class and high-class met and clashed with fat glass-paneled buildings sitting next to brownstone brick three-story apartments.
They pulled into the parking lot of a dilapidated warehouse that looked like it might have been an assembly plant at one time. They parked in front of a garage door, and entered.
There was almost nothing here besides a vast concrete floor, shrouded in industrial gray. A collection of young adults with patchwork clothes darted around a set of connected folding tables, messing around with lab equipment, flasks, and powders.
The five teenagers went their separate ways while Scooter led him to an alcove at the other end of the warehouse. A man in a white coat and a football shirt was sitting at a desk, keeping a magazine open and making notes. His face was aged from stress, and he had salt and pepper hair.
“Hey, doc. I brought sleeping beauty with. He needs to work off his Adravil.”
The ‘doc’ looked up. “Jesus, you brought him here? We’ve got Novril and Glycolauric Octanol floating around everywhere. What if he’s a Narc?”
Scooter looked nervous. “Ah… well, he’s… he’s not old enough to be a Narc.”
“You know they don’t care about age. They’ll use anyone to make a bust.”
Rion spoke up. “I’m not a Narc.”
The man glared at him. Rion felt five years younger. “Then what’d you need the Adravil for?”
“I had a headache.”
“Must’ve been a bad one.”
“What’s your name?”
“Rion,” he replied.
“You from around here?”
“What?” the doc asked.
Rion stammered, “Yes, yes, I’m from around here.”
“And what’d you do to need the Adravil so badly?”
“I- nothing,” Rion said. “What do you mean?”
“The only people who need Adravil like that are junkies on withdrawal.”
Rion glowered. “I’m not a junkie. Do I look like a junkie?”
“Some of the best looking people I knew were strung out on all kinds of shit.”
“Look, all I want to do is work off my debt. Would a strung-out junkie want to do that? Just let me WORK,” Rion shouted, surprising himself. It was a sudden bubble of anger, like a leak from a gas tank.
The man held out his hands. “Calm down, son. I didn’t mean anything by it. You don’t have any money?”
Rion shook his head. “Not a drop. Nothing in my pocket or the bank.”
“All right, go ahead and get on with Scooter, if you want. But you-” he pointed at Scooter. “Don’t show him anything one-timer doesn’t need to know. Have him fill capsules.”
Scooter led him back to the tables. Everyone had been watching them, and they put their heads down, back to their activities. Rion said to Scooter, “Who is that? Your drill sergeant?”
Scooter laughed. “No, that’s Dr. Kinneburg. He’s the pharmacist. The real one, I mean. He’s a good guy. He’s just paranoid about keeping his secrets secret. I don’t blame him. If you want to become a perm, maybe then…”
“What’s going on here?” Rion asked. “Is this like a shop of some kind?”
“Kinda. That’s how I got into this, for my asthma medication. It’s something I need all the time, you know? I mean, I have health insurance and everything, but they switched me to Oxyvale, which doesn’t do shit. It’s like having a low-flow toilet–you better never have a real problem, cause it’s not powerful enough to take care of it.”
“And this pays for the ‘real stuff’?” Rion asked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty nice. I work off what I need, and I can get a little pocket change besides. So I became a perm. Let’s go over here.”
Scooter led Rion to an empty station and showed him how to fill capsules with drug powder. He set thirty-six little holes with capsules halves, dumped a blue powder on the grid, stuffed it in with a ‘comb’, and then setting the capsule tops with another grid.
Rion demonstrated that he could do what he’d been taught. “Make sure those retaining screws are good and tight,” Scooter said. “The last thing we want is someone to spill nitro glycerin on themselves.”
“Is that what these pills are?” Rion asked.
“These? No, they- ahhh, sorry. T.M.I.,” Scooter muttered. “Let me know if you have any questions, or if you run out of anything.”
Rion nodded, and Scooter left him alone.
At first, Rion thought that he could get a lot of pills out quickly. But the process of putting the cap bottoms and tops in each little hole was time-consuming and dull. With his power, he could do so much more.
How did he get here? Who was it that was chasing him? Hotel security? Government agents? If they found him again, would he run a second time? Maybe they knew who he was. But if they did, would they stop and listen? Tuesday was right–if he was lost, there was someone looking for him. Problem was, it might be someone he was trying to get away from.
“Hey, bro… bro?”
Rion looked up. A teen across from him was looking at him.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Cool, I’m Diego. I’m a friend of Scooter’s too. Did you just get into town?”
“Yeah, a few days ago.”
“Oh, lucky you. This is a good place to earn some bread if you’re just starting out. Beats working the streets. Plus if you don’t have health insurance. I’m working for my diabetes. Do you have something?”
“Um,” Rion said. “Frequent headaches?”
“You know, you should talk to Kinney after quitting time. He might make you a perm. He was pretty paranoid about me, before I joined, too.”
Rion nodded. “Yeah, this would be a good place to make a start.”
A sharp crash and a girlish scream interrupted them. Everyone froze. A girl with a plaid flannel and a knit cap was backing away from a yellowing box with cup-holders.
“Mr. Kinneburg?” she called out as if she were addressing a teacher.
The doctor approached her. “Jane? What? What happened?”
“I think the distiller broke.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“I was just working on it, and it stopped working.”
“Did it bust or something?” He moved aside beakers of yellow liquid.
“I- I don’t know,” Jane said.
Everyone gathered around. Apparently, it was an important device, and judging by Kinneburg’s expression, one they couldn’t do without.
Dr. Kinneburg held up the box of cup-holders, examining it from all angles. He doctor pushed the button. It clicked. He hit several other buttons with no results.
The pharmy looked dejected, as if NASA’s new rocket ship had blown up on the launch pad.
Kinneburg grimaced and hit the machine. “Great,” he muttered. “Piece of shit machines. We can’t make anything without it.”
“Can’t we fix it?” someone suggested.
“Do you know how? I can’t even see where to get it open,” Kinneburg said.
Rion stepped up. “Can I see it?”
The doctor frowned at him. “Do you know about these things?”
“A little,” Rion lied.
Kinneburg stepped aside and let him at the device. Rion held it up. It was pretty heavy, a lot of iron and metal inside. He turned it this way and that, testing buttons, feeling the tray, trying different settings. In reality, he had the answer in a half-second.
“I think there’s a gear inside that’s slipped off. In the motor. I think the grease has dried out. This is a pretty old machine.”
“All our machines are old. They’re all secondhand,” Jane said.
“We’re not exactly government-funded here,” another said.
Rion added, “I think you can screw the cover off. Then it should be pretty simple to set the gear.”
Dr. Kinneburg placed his hands on his hips. “How did you know that?”
“I… uh… I could hear it inside. The motor spinning its wheels, trying to start. I had a similar problem in the past.”
“You work on distillation units much?”
“No, I mean, um, on my… car.”
Dr. Kinneburg didn’t look convinced, but didn’t look suspicious either. He picked up the distillation unit. “Jane, why don’t you work on mortar and pestle in the meantime.” Dr. Kinneburg left, and everyone went back to work.
Rion returned to his station. He knew that he shouldn’t have used his power, but he had to prove that he was worth having around. He felt safe and useful here. People were talking to him, treating him like a new friend.
An hour later, he felt a fierce tap on his shoulder. Rion turned to face the doctor.
“You just saved me nine hundred dollars.”
Rion smiled and looked around sheepishly.
“How’d you do that?” the doc asked. “Do you do a lot of mechanical stuff?”
“Um, sometimes. Mostly, I’m good at finding things.”
“We don’t have any real handymen with us. Most of us just know computers and, well,” he hushed his voice. “Nothing else. Youth, you know?”
Kinneburg continued, “Back when I was young, people fixed things. Now, if something breaks, you throw it out and buy a new one. We can’t afford to do that here.”
“Well- you can- don’t you-” He regarded Rion. “You really don’t know what we’re doing here, do you?”
“No, I have no idea, ” Rion said in a pleading tone. “I’m dying to know, but no one will tell me. It looks like you’re pushing drugs, but then why would you be concerned if I was a junkie? And everyone’s so organized and civil. I have no idea what to think.”
The doctor threw back his head and laughed. “Well, either you’re telling the truth or you’re a damn good actor.” He coughed. “All right, first you’ve earned your Adravil. So you don’t need to worry about that. Second, I know you’re not a cop, since you’ve already helped me out. Undercover cops can’t participate in anything illegal. That’s aiding and abetting. However, if you want to work with us, I have strict regulations. No stealing, no coming in high or drunk, no getting busted for some other crime, and don’t breathe a word of our secrets. Any of that and you’re out. Got it?”
The doctor sighed. “So, the pharmy. Basically, we’re like the Robin Hoods of prescriptions. We make drugs that are too expensive for people without health insurance.”
“And even some with,” Diego piped up.
The doctor nodded, “And we sell them here.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” Rion asked.
“Technically, yes. The drugs themselves aren’t illegal, and I am board-certified, but the ways and means are illegal, because all the drug companies hold patents on their drugs. So it’s technically illegal for anyone to manufacture them. Which is like making a fried chicken recipe illegal to make at home.”
“You used to be a real doctor?” Rion asked.
“I did. Private practice. Once they gave pharmacists the ability to write prescriptions, I didn’t have enough patients to keep it open. To make a long story short, I went deep in debt, then realized it was easy to make drugs at home, as long as you had the parts. With a little science background and the Internet, you can make just about anything.”
“Isn’t that dangerous? You could hurt someone if you get a mixture wrong.”
“So would the big companies. The only difference is they have high-priced lawyers to get them out of it. But so far, no one’s died because something got mixed wrong.”
Rion asked, “Why didn’t you get a different job in some other field? Something more legitimate?”
He laughed, “I’ve tried. But, you know, you can’t stop being a doctor. I always thought those TV war dramas were bunk, where you’ve got the battlefield doctor stitching up patients while they’re shelling him. I’d point and laugh, thinking I’d be the first one out of there. But then I realized I’m one of them. I just can’t stop helping people. It’s in my blood.”
“Well, you can’t deny your nature,” Rion said.
The doc nodded. “I think the only way would be to wipe the slate clean.”
Rion smiled. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”