How Johnny Cash Saved My Life
300 Years After He Died
“Just shut up already! I don’t care about Rosanna!”
I know it’s a just song, but it’s 4:30 in the morning and I’m exhausted. Otherwise, I’d shut him up myself. The jailer curses me and sings louder. I didn’t exactly expect anything from him. He’s one of those strange fellows who likes to sing off-key to three-hundred-year-old songs–just to annoy the prisoners. And to keep them from sleeping. He also likes to make crude comments about anything, but me in particular, seeing how I’m the only girl he gets to watch tonight. No wonder he can only get a job as a night jailer. Still, between him and this ridiculously uncomfortable night-club getup, sleep is nearly impossible.
As the song ends, another jailer barks into my block about a call. The singing jailer steps out and, for the first time that night, I think I snag some sleep. Then, I hear the music clearly.
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since– don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
At that moment, I fall in love.
‘Course that doesn’t matter while I sit in prison waiting hopefully for someone–anyone–to post my bail. On that, I’m being way too imaginative. I’m the kind of person no one wants to be known to associate with so, of course, no one posts my bail. Hell, who am I kidding? There’s only one person wanted to associate with me period and he’s long gone. Now, there’s no one. And it’s not just because of my long string of arrests with no convictions. It’s my head. They just don’t know I know the reason. They don’t know the reason themselves.
Towards sunrise, a new jailer comes in and I get a few hours of sleep before he drags me out to be processed before a judge. As the judge talks, I work on “convincing” him to let me go. He’s tough one–strong on morals. Those are always the hardest, but lucky for me, they’re also pretty rare now. Within five minutes, he releases me with a warning. Like that will really stop me. Then again, they don’t know half of what they could arrest me for.
First thing I do once free is change into sweatpants and a plain, loose shirt. Comfort clothes. Then, I find out who sang that song and torrent every single one he ever recorded. Turns out he’s called Johnny Cash. There’s a lot of rip offs from about 2070s. Got to be careful. Toss those in my cloud and make sure my pod is synced before I head out on the first spaceship that leaves that planet. Don’t really care where I go so long as I’m gone.
See, I’m real good at reading between the lines. Maybe it’s just another manifestation; I don’t know. All I know is some people are awfully close to figuring out all I did and, once they do, I’ll be tossed in a military prison. Been there twice. First time, I got lucky. Saw someone who had ‘nough authority to release me that first day. That’s the only way I can get out of those. Second time, I was so drained from the “conversations” that my mind didn’t do me any good. Then the people higher up stepped in and I got in trouble for even getting caught. They don’t like that. I’m suppose to be invisible. Untraceable.
So, soon as I read I might get caught, I skedaddle out of a place.
During that flight, I get a good chance to listen to this Johnny Case dude. Turns out he’s my brother. Not in genetics. A lot of crazy things came out of the radiation storms, myself included, but no time-traveling, space-traveling sperm. (Or would the outer colonies were I was born be where Old Earth was when Johnny Cash born? Then we’d just need time-traveling.) No matter. He knew how I feel. How empty the world is. Sure, if the higher ups knew how I managed to do so well, some’d say I need therapy. A person can’t twist another’s mind every time she gets into a scrap and not come out without some psycho damage. But that’s the least of my problems. I mean–seriously–if i ever actually told someone my own mother dropped me off at school one day when I was six, soon after she figured out what I could do, and never came back, they would never let me do this work. Not without months of therapy. Even then, I doubt they would. Bouncing through foster homes made them pause long enough.
That’s why I tell everyone my mom died. My dad–he died too, but I never knew him. Radiation storms were pretty dangerous and the outer colonies weren’t prepared for anything like that. But I can’t rightly say she died there too, seeing how she’s still pregnant with me then and not that far along. So she “died” when I was young; I say I can’t remember it. It keeps the questions to a minimal and so long as I’m not the reason–like she died giving birth to me–it’s passes without any therapy needed.
Truth is I know exactly where she lives. Tracked her down once. She has a new family–a safe family. Sometimes I wonder if she ever thinks ‘bout me. All I know is that she’s still alive and thriving in a safe environment while I’m doing the best I can avoid arrest, prison and some torture thrown in for good measure.
Now I remember after work,
Mama would call in all of us.
You could hear us singing for a country mile.
Sure ain’t like how Cash described his family. But all siblings are a bit different, right?
The thing is if I’m not careful, they’ll throw me in a psycho ward. I need to say all the right things in my decom interviews so I don’t raise any red flags that say I’m crazy. That takes smarts. Smarts I doubt they think I have. So far as those shrinks know, I’m clean and I have no lasting problems from my work, my past, or anything really.
Would you have no lasting problems if the only job you could get is that of a spy? Things changed a lot since Cash’s time. All businesses run a medical background check, since they’re mandated to supply insurance. With these checks, any possible employer knows my brain is different. They don’t know how exactly; I don’t let any doc run any tests and I didn’t cooperate with them as a kid. Who knows what they would find if they did? All they know for sure is that I have some “brain damage from intrauterine space-radiation exposure related to the radiation storms.” Yeah. That’s a mouthful. But that’s enough. Any employer who runs the check finds that and–Bam! I’m too crazy for work. Too many people heard the stories and are scared of the radiation storms to hire me, even if they happened twenty-four years ago.
For a while, thought about going the mercenary route. Heard there’s good money in illegal work. But once I learned that soon as I get tired, I’m no good, figured that wouldn’t work. If I made any kind of name for myself–and I would–once caught I couldn’t get out of prison. And I’ve already proved I’m good at getting caught. So instead, I ended up here, where a government can bail me out if I get caught instead. Still just as alone as if I did the mercenary thing though. Actually maybe worse, since I did have the chance to feel wanted once before.
When I finally land, I’ve listened to each of the Johnny Cash songs ‘bout ten times. Not ‘cluding while I sleep. Strange, I think. I can’t sleep without noise. My mind is too active otherwise. But thanks to my mind, I can still tell if someone is coming, particularly if they intend to harm me.
‘Course, soon as I leave the ship, they meet me, bring me into the decom, and make sure I’m still stable. I manage to steal a glimpse of the brilliant sunset as they shove me into a car between the spaceport and the office building. I’d much rather go for a long walk down the river to settle my thoughts before decom, but it never works like that. I give them the same crap answers I always give, take my hotel key, and escape into the twilight.
Yet–as I walk outside–the silence envelopes me. I don’t remember ever feeling this empty. Not when my mom left me, and I waited outside of school for three hours, all the while assuring the aide that my mom would be there. She probably just ran to the grocery store or something. Not when I told him the truth about me and spent the whole night pacing my room, both waiting and dreading his eventual call. Nor when he decided I revolted him and vanished on a black mission for over a year. Inside me is just–empty. It’s like something left me and yet nothing could leave because I’ve got nothin’ to begin with. I want something to happen now. Something to shock me to life. I don’t know what. My heart feels like a giant metal lump in my chest. A darkness dragging me down. I feel worse after this mission than I have in months–though missions always have a bitter ending for me. Like a rude reminder of my cruel reality.
Flesh and Blood need flesh and blood
and you’re the one what I need.
I start to walk the streets. Quietly. Like a ghost. My hood pulled tight over my head. Signs flash above me. Music–rough, loud, nonsense music–blares from stores and through my headphones. Occasionally, a couple walks past me or some teens laugh and joke. Yet, even then, I’m a ghost.
I hate this feeling. I hate the night. The darkness. I hate everything involved in this torture of returning from a mission and having nothing to return to. Getting nothing. Not a single moment of happiness. A simple nod that I did well. Not once do I even get a chance to enjoy myself in a comfortable part of town. Like some rich hotel with pools, massages, and HDs with an unlimited supply of movies. Forget all that fancy junk; I’d be happy with just an small HD in my room and free movie rental.
I turn towards my hotel. If I can fall asleep, I can get my next mission sooner. Maybe tomorrow. Enough people won’t want them right now with the holidays coming up. Sure, I don’t particularly the missions either; but I hate this loneliness more.
I find my hotel in a sketchy part of town. Nothing special marks it as a hotel besides the half-burned out neon sign. Nor is it anything special. Half the rooms smell; I know, because I’ve been here before. It’s like my bosses don’t have any clue about what I’m capable of. I mean, sure, they know that I’m very good at not being traced back to them. But do they realize that I can manipulate thoughts? Do they realize that if I wanted to, I could convince every single one of those men in that room to increase my pay by 1000% and they would do it? In a week, they might wondering why they did, but they would it.
I was a highwayman. Along the coach roads I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side….
The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five
But I am still alive.
I pause across the street from my hotel and stare at the sky. Why don’t I? Why don’t I just walk into a fancy hotel somewhere and ask for a nice room for free? I would deserve it; veterans get it. And I could get them to do it for me. I can get anything I want. A nice HD. A better job. Good assignments. The ones that don’t take too much out of me. Anything at all.
Instead, I try to scrap by on my own in this world and where does that end? Most everyone whose plans I’ve stole or sabotaged through work would laugh at this right now. Me–one of the most successful spies galacticly–here. Most everyone expects I’m from one of the central planets–the ones that have super-advanced technology for specialized training. Not an inner edge planet. Not standing in the middle of a street littered in garbage, something putrid burning nearby, a fight down the alley and a stray rat poking its nose around a wall. That doesn’t include the things no one else can see but I can sense. The gross. The filth. The miserable drunks hiding in the shadows. The drug users and prostitutes near by. And in my pocket, a two-year-old pod with Cash’s voice echoing through my head.
Who ever came up with the name of pod for a music player anyway?
I start to cross the street. A door slams open; a drunk trips down the stairs towards me. Reactively, I punch him in the chest, then slam him to the ground. He crumples with a moan. Only then do I fully realize what I did and shudder. I try not to look down as I step over him. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I had two choices as a teen to get my anger out: fight in the gym or get in trouble with the law. The reflexes built up during that time have only been sharpened through my current training.
I glance back at the drunk, still on the ground, gripping his chest. I probably broke his sternum. At least his sternum.
My throat begins to close. I gasp. I need to get away. I turn and run. The darkness swallows me, swallows his moans, and in an instant, I’m gone.
The next thing I know, I’m at the river. The cool wind whips my hair around my face and tugs at my clothes. I duck under the condemned sign and walk onto the old bridge. Here, no one will bother me.
The dark water swirls beneath my feet. I shudder as I watch it move. I feel compelled to jump. Like it is another trick to show I’m not afraid. The water whispers my name and seems to pull me to itself. Why? Why?
I hurt myself today
to see if I still feel
I focus…. on the pain
the only thing that’s real.
Maybe I’m tired of being so dead. I wanted to feel something tonight; I would feel something if I jumped. The panic as I drop sixty feet; the crash of the water as my body hits; the tinging stabs as I break through; the water closing over my head; the darkness, and then–for once–to not have control. Crazy talk from a girl who struggled her whole life to stay in control. Yet–my whole life I’ve been forcing my way into the control seat. Making people tolerate me long enough to get something. What would happen if I suddenly just stopped worrying about that?
What would happen if the water swallowed me?
I should turn away. Leave this death trap. Leave the water. This is nonsense. I should go back to that hellhole of a hotel and leave this all behind. Leave the temptation to try something I would regret–if I even survived. No one would care if I did though. Not even… anyone.
I want to stay. I stay. I watch as a cup gets thrown about by the water. There’s no fighting this current. Isn’t that what everyone else experiences? Absolutely no control over anything? An understanding of when to stop fighting? That’s something I don’t get. But don’t I deserve better than what they give me? Shouldn’t I take what I deserve?
I don’t deserve it. Because I don’t earn it. What I do–the effort I put forth–is not my own. It’s not hard for me. It’s easy to twist a mind once I learned how. But I don’t deserve anything special for it. I’m a monster. A freak of nature. Alive because of some radiation storms before I was born.
If I could start again
a million miles away
I wound keep myself
I would find… a way.
“How, Cash? How?”
My voice gets swallowed in the crashing of the river. I can’t just walk away from everything. They will never let me. I know too many secrets, too many things they wouldn’t want a civilian to know. They wouldn’t trust me. Besides, I signed a contract. I promised I would work… least longer than I’ve worked so far. I don’t remember when it’s exactly up. I could twist their mind, but would that really be the best way to start a new life? Anyway, it doesn’t last that long. They would realize what I did and throw me in prison for desertion. Then what could I do? Nothing. They’d make sure of it.
A gust of wind springs up and the rickety bridge seems to sway beneath my feet. A loose board plummets to the river below. White-tipped mountains rise and fall in mere seconds beneath my feet. A moment later, the board has vanished. The river is alive–and angry. What would it feel like be in that angry water below my feet? To let go? Like the board?
Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I stand my ground and I won’t back down
I just need to get fired. That’s it.
However, that’s not easy. I have to be careful. If I just up and told the truth that my mom abandoned me and I’m dying inside, I’d be locked in a psycho ward. No good. The goal is to be free. And I can’t ruin a mission. I do that enough with my own “loving” personality that they wouldn’t ever think twice about it. And I can’t manipulate their mind.
I needed a new weapon. A new tactic. One of my own. One that relies fully on wit.
Cash follows me all the way to my hotel room, where I check in and find yet another room that smells a strange mixture of musty, sour and blah. The dirt is hidden by dim bulbs. I don’t sense any bugs though. An improvement to the last four times. I plop on the bed and try to think. The orange stains in the ceiling taunt me, saying I can’t do this. It’s a different kind of thinking than I’m used to. More complicated. But I like it. As the plan begins to form, my eyes drift close. With a quiet grumble, I shove myself out of bed to find some paper, so I don’t forget what I have so far. If they bother looking through my stuff–and I doubt they do–I created a code when I was ten. I’ll write it in that. Just in case.
No paper in my bag. No surprise there. I only bring the necessities. I rummage through the drawers of the small desk. Nothing in the first five. On the last one, I pull it open and barely see the faint corner of a piece of paper poking over the back edge. I pull the drawer out to find a piece of paper squished in the corner. Ah-ha! I grab it and flip it over. One side’s already written on by some foreigner. No matter. I can still use the other side.
Then the writing catches my eye.
The writing is mine but I don’t remember writing it. Yet–it’s written in code. My code. The paper is old and yellowed. Maybe two years old. As I begin to read, a cold lump of dread forms in my stomach. I find myself reading notes on how to get myself free from this job with all the gaps filled in. At the bottom, there is a note that confirms a meeting with the director and a date and time.
A date two years and five months ago.
For a meeting that I never remember having–or arranging.
I begin to pace. First problem: How did the paper get here? No. That’s not a problem. I’ve stayed here often. I’ve probably had the same room before. The room numbers never really mattered to me.
Problem two: How did my plan for escaping show up here? I skim the paper again. It is the same plan that I just developed. Nearly exactly. But I never thought about leaving before tonight. Or so I thought.
Problem three: Why don’t I remember planning it? I wouldn’t forget something like this. I wouldn’t forget that I tried to leave once. Tried to have a new life.
I want to call up the second-director. Demand that he explain this to me. But gut instinct tells me that’s not a good idea. I just can’t imagine they’d want me to work for them so much that they would manipulate me into doing it. Everything I do seems so minor, like shopping errands in the world of spying. Yet–could I really be far more effective as a weapon than I realize?
I shudder at that thought. They have some kind of technology out there that will erase memories. It’s usually used for prisoners or people who were in highly traumatic situations. I–they had to have used it on me. I would remember this otherwise. Who knows what they know about me? Who knows–
If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies.
I need to get out. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. I just need to leave.
Hastily, I begin to gather up my bag, then stop. They would realize I ran away. I needed to make it look like I’m gone–but not on my own will. A kidnapping. That would be explainable.
For once, the massive number of fight movies I’ve watched as a child have a purpose. I begin to choreograph and recreate a fight scene. It’s hard, being two people at once, but what choice do I have? About forty-five minutes into my scene setting, someone yells at me through the walls about all the noise and calling the police. I do my best to sound like a man, and push his thoughts in that direction too, but tell him mind his own business. However, I immediately knew that’ll cause him to call the police. Sometimes those twists reacted different than what I plan because of past experience. Fine with me though. Time to leave. Time to kidnap myself.
With the room now trashed from something I’m hoping more than a junior policeman will call a fight, I take only my pod, the paper and just enough money to get by. Don’t rightly know how I’m going to manage without anything else. But I can’t risk it. I shouldn’t even take my pod but the idea of leaving behind Johnny Cash can’t be considered.
With that, I slip out the window and into the alley. I walk quietly through the mostly deserted streets, except for the late, late night partiers. No one notices me. Most people are not even conscious enough at this time of night to notice anything. Still, I take as many back roads I can ‘til I make it to the spaceport. From there, I pick the next flight with a liner that’s not subject to my country’s legal jurisdiction. That way, they can’t extradite me or stop my ship before we reach our destination. Once again, I don’t care where I go, just so long as the bored and exhausted teller believes that I’m a battered woman fleeing my husband. That keeps my name from being put on record. He’s too tired to even notice my mental shove in that direction.
I shove my ticket deep into my pocket and press my way through the crowd. My hood is over my head. I need to be invisible. Completely invisible. I send that impulse out of me. Mass manipulation. It’s almost as hard as moral people and even more tiring. But the lack of caring, with my extra probe, means no one will remember me even in a week.
I don’t stop. With all my inner strength, I shove the suggestion towards him that he has me mixed up with someone else. It’s not me. It’s not me!
“Marie!” He grabs my shoulder.
I spin and strike. He blocks and catches my other hand before I can strike again. Reflexes are too predictable and he knows all mine. We sparred each other too much not to. He also knows it takes me three strikes before I think ‘bout what I’m doing.
He reaches over and pulls out my headphones. His hand just barely touches my cheek. I try to ignore the shivers he sends across my skin. It’s been two years after all; I shouldn’t care about him one little bit. “Long time no see.”
I try not to look up at his face, and his warm, chocolate brown eyes, but I can’t help myself. He’s right. It has been. Nor has he changed one little bit. My heart stops a beat. I’ve done my best not to notice what Rob Straights has done since we last spoke. I didn’t want to remember him at all, let alone have emotions for him effect me. He didn’t want anything to do with me. Made that one pretty clear.
I put a hand on my hip. “So? You’ve been off saving the galaxy. Just as I have.”
He releases the grip on my arm, confident now that I’m not going to hit him. Least not from a reflex. “Still the same perky attitude I see.”
“You dated this perky attitude for two years.”
He pause. “That I did.” He looks at me. “Coming back in?”
“I’ve already been in. Heading out.”
“That’s a quick turnaround.”
“What do you know about my turnaround time?”
He shrugs. “I keep a bit of an eye on what you are up to. Want to make sure you’re doing fine.” Strange. After two years I can still sense his emotions as easily as the day I last saw him. He probably forgot that. Otherwise, he wouldn’t lie to me. I just wish I knew which part was the lie.
“Well, you know how much I hate the holidays.”
“Too much focus on family. I know.” He pauses again. “You’re still so beautiful.”
“So–? What is it with you, Marie? You’re about as tense as a–a convict or something. We haven’t seen each other in almost two and a half years and you’re still acting like it’s my fault we broke up!”
“It is your fault; you–” Two and a half years. Suddenly, the paper in my pocket’s on fire. I’d forgotten that. We broke up three days after that scheduled meeting. Could it have been because…. “Why did we break up again?”
He frowns. “I don’t remember. It’s been a long time.”
He’s lying. Again. “Why did we break up?”
“Marie, I didn’t stop you to get into an argument.”
I catch his eyes. It’s easier to apply the pressure. Just enough. It’s like my words go directly to the brain as a drug. He needs to do whatever I say. “Just answer the dumb question then, Rob. Why did we break up? What made me so intolerable at that moment that you couldn’t spend another hour with me? Couldn’t even break up in person? That you had to get a long-term assignment and vanish right away?”
He clenches his jaw. I can already feel his emotional wall crumbling. I’ve never done this to him; he insisted on taking me out actually. I never thought I’d want a relationship ‘till he came along. But he’s very easy, maybe because I know him. “Marie–don’t ask me. Please. I can’t–”
I lean up close to him and whisper. “Why?”
He closes his eyes. The walls fall. Suddenly, he grabs me and shoves me against a support pillar. My first instinct’s to fight. Instead, I take a slow breath. He isn’t going to hurt me yet. He leans next to my ear. “I know you’re making me tell you this. That’s why. I couldn’t live–” He pauses. I can sense an inward struggle. He’s the only person I was ever close enough to feel the deep emotions to. But my mind doesn’t seem to be the core issue. Sure, I told him. Barely. Okay. To be honest, I panicked. When I could tell he planned on proposing that night. I didn’t think I was ready and I thought it would postpone him. It did. Then a few days later…. “I can only say that I was–strongly advised–by the higher ups that we had no future beyond simple lovers. I knew you wouldn’t go for that.”
He’s right; I told him as soon as we started going out that I needed commitment or nothing. He’s not lying either. I close my eyes, still very much aware of my surroundings. Another gift from my mind. I can look defeated and still be very alert. “Who told you that?’
“Came from the director. I know more but it won’t be good for you if I tell you.” A truth. A desperate truth at that. Maybe he does remember then. Maybe he’s using my skill against me here. I told him everything that night, including that I can sense his emotions very acutely. Either way, he doesn’t want me to ask me more. He’s scared of something relating to that information.
“Let me go.”
“Just let me go, Rob!” I shove him away from me, both physically so he moves backwards and mentally so he suddenly finds me revolting. He trips on the sidewalk and falls. I take off–making sure to crunch his hand as I do–and shove the emotions of futility towards him. It’s worthless to chase me. The pain is too much after all. And that broken hand will help his defense if they start questioning him too much. It keeps him from looking like he helped me. Just so long as he doesn’t call me in.
Oh please don’t call me in!
It seems to take forever to get to my ship. My hands are wet with sweat as I shove my ticket at the attendant. She beams plasticly and allows me on board, not even mentioning that I barely made it. I find the most tactically advantageous seat. One that will let me escape if I need to. I don’t normally like to leave the enemy behind like that. Without a clue as to what they’ll do. Nor do I know what Rob will do. He should call it in. He probably knows I’m lying. But would he realize that I’m running right now? Did he ever know I intended to quit?
I can only wait, while trying my best not to act tense. My life and mind are on the balance here. Not just prison. They have to know. They will do everything they can to keep me confined. To keep me their tool. That much Rob told me. I’m still tense even twenty minutes later, when the ship takes off. Something is bound to happen. I’m bound to get caught.
But nothing does.
Only when the ship shifts into interspace travel do I relax. Then, and only then, do I dare to turn on the music. It feels comforting, my three-hundred-year-old brother singing in my ears. telling me that I did it right. Telling me… maybe I’m not as alone as I thought in the wide, wide galaxy.
Six foot six he stood on the ground
He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds
But I saw that giant of a man brought down
To his knees by love.
Songs cited in order of appearance (All recorded by Johnny Cash):