Child Work Labor

Child Work Labor

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New Bern, North Carolina
1894

Everyone whispers about me in the streets. It's not so much whispers as it is blatant slander. I ignore it, as usual, because I bet I'm getting more money then they ever would, and so far, nothing has gone wrong. But still, it unnerves me when I feel piercing stares the second I walk onto the street.

"Have you heard?"

"Heard what?"

"About Red Garrett, that foreign boy from Europe?"

"Oh, yes, Italy I think! It's so scandalous, can you believe it?"

"He's working for the doctors as an experiment. It is utter lunacy!"

I can deny the lunacy aspect of their accusations, but I cannot deny that I am a test subject for the doctors.

Dr. Morrison and Dr. Beauregard hired me all but a week ago to test possible cures that they have been developing since the end of their Civil War. They want to combat diseases such as dysentery and typhoid fever (three years later a vaccine was found) that killed vast margins of their Southern (and Northern) armies.

They do not share much information with me about what they develop or how it works, but I cannot complain because they pay me very well and my family is in desperate need of money – as are many other immigrants. I see the family down the road of our New Bern, North Carolina home (shack) struggling as we are, yet their three children barely bring home three dollars a day – combined. I walk past one boy, who is cleaning up after horses, on my way to work. I hope that today I'm not testing any of their concoctions. Frankly, I'd rather clean up after their test animals.

-

I'm strapped down today which makes me nervous, obviously. The leather straps feel way too tight and my lungs aren't taking in the air properly. Dr. Beauregard pats my hair and tells me that it is just a precaution. I'll be fine, he says. It doesn't really help me relax but at the end of the day, I'll have seven dollars to take home, so I don't say a word.

Dr. Morrison sweeps into the room, barely noticing my presence. I squirm a bit against the restraints on my wrists and ankles. The look Dr. Beauregard gives me is stern and agitated.

"Robert," Dr. Morrison starts, "Are you ready to administer drug X to Red?" He picks up a small vial filled with clear liquid and long, thick needle.

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My skin prickles at the memory of being stuck with several similar needles.

"Of course." Dr. Beauregard holds his hand out for the syringe. The other doctor extracts the clear liquid from the vial and places the needle carefully in Beauregard's outstretched hand. He taps it and pushes some of drug X out to make sure there are no air bubbles, I assume.

"Here we go. Are you ready, Red?"

I nod, turning my head towards the left, away from the arm in which the needle would surely be stuck. I feel the unmistakable prick and flinch. I keep my eyes shut tight and wait. They wait.

Both doctors are now standing in front of my chair; I can feel their curious gazes searching for noticeable side effects.

"How do you feel, son?" The voice of Dr. Morrison floats into my head and I open my eyes. His sterile, white coat is blinding. It's much, much too bright. Brighter then when I saw it earlier, surely. I blink and squint as their faces swim in and out of my vision. Their skin a violent hue, intensified by tens or thousands, I do not know. The pain is severe, like a hammer is knocking into my skull over and over again. I whimper in pain and try to mumble out words – any words.

"Hurts," I garble, pulling at my restraints again. My doctors might have shared a worried look, I cannot see to tell. They rush to my sides, undoing the straps around my wrists only.

"Hurts where? What is happening to you, Red?" Dr. Morrison asks, leaning close to my face.

I lift my arm and touch over my closed eyelids and run my palm across my forehead. Dr. Beauregard pulls my hand away and tries to coax me into opening my eyes. I resist, and fiercely at that, because I can still see the blazing white through my closed eyes. He finally just opens my eyelids with his thumb and finger and looks closely.

"Are you writing this down, Cuthbert? Dilated pupils, pain in the eyes and head, and sensitivity to light. Is there – oh! Twitching muscles too. Hmm," The doctor checks my pulse as the other man furiously scribbles my reactions onto a spare piece of paper. My arm, well to me it seems like convulsing, twitches. My fingers curl into a fist as I try to control my muscle's reactions. At this moment, I am purely terrified because this has never happened before. All I can keep thinking is that I'm going to die. Dead at the age of 14 – and it's my own fault.

-

Four hours later finds me lying on my cot, cursing at my still aching head. I am seven dollars richer, but still, it's not enough to get my spirits up. My mother is baking bread, I think, I can smell it from the kitchen, but the thought of eating makes me want to vomit – which I am sure will happen if I do attempt to eat. My blanket is uncomfortable and suffocating, the rough thread itching me in all the places I've never felt – between my fingers, the soles of my feet, and under my eyes. It all sinks in, all around me, into my pores where is lingers in my mind. Regret, to say the very least. I lament being so desperate for money (however necessary it is) and my choice of the doctor's (office? Laboratory?) for employment. I swallow thickly and my throat burns as though I just ingested a cup full of hot ashes. Whatever they injected into my body could be potentially lethal and all I can do is sit and wait.

-

After hours of twisting and moving, I finally fall into sleep. A very fitful sleep it was. I wake only two hours later, completely transformed. There are no physical differences except for a slightly crooked gait and slack face, but the mental differences are astronomical. I can't feel or see or assess anything like I could before. I feel animalistic, for lack of a better word. My hands tremble as I nearly rip my blanket to shreds because it is constricting my body, holding me hostage to the mattress. I leap up and wobble slightly because a dizziness rushing through my body in waves. I almost flop back onto the tiny bed, but I manage to hold my own, quickly gaining more balance, and dare I say it – familiarity? Upon waking, I didn't quite recognize where I was, but now it seems to be coming back to me. The walls around me seem to bulge and bend and I can still smell the bread from earlier, despite the passage of time. I step forward, my back bent and hunched and my eyes sharp. A floorboard below my shuffling feet creaks and I growl – yes growl – in annoyance at the offending floorboard. I shuffle closer to the door and fling it open.

Half of my mind knows that the way I'm acting isn't normal but the other half seems to disagree. It is more primal or something. The scent from the kitchen grows stronger as I open the door to my room. I step into the hall and make a quick left into the kitchen. I feel ravenous now and I begin rummaging through the storage cupboards. The air feels so clean and cool against my skin and I feel alert, but something (everything) still seems odd. Contradictions filter between the left and right side of my brain and whichever is harvesting this primal feeling seems to be winning because I am now abandoning the kitchen and wandering towards the road.

-

There is a man screaming. I can hear it and I can see him, he's right under me, but I can't stop anything. I can't stop his panicked yells and I can't stop myself. I'm angry, furious, and irate for no reason at all. This man, probably a father and a husband, stopped me on the road to see if I was okay. Which makes sense, because what kind of boy wanders the streets in the middle of the night, muttering and making indistinct noises? Boys that are chemically altered do, maybe.

The rock in my hand is heavy with flecks of glittering minerals that seem to glow at watts above my imagination. The man's eyes are wide and he is pleading and screaming, which only acts to blow my anger out of the water. I juggle sanity in my right hand and it looms over this respectable citizen's head. My lips curl and the man's eyes are horrified, his face contorted in fear. I bring my hand down and his screaming stops.

Everything goes black.

-

I am going to the gallows today. My mother is crying and my father does not even know. He is still in Italy and I can only thank God that he is still there. I am shamed enough without my father being embarrassed by my lethal mistakes.

These past two weeks I have spent locked away as the effects of Dr. Morrison and Dr. Beauregard's medication wear off. My mind still isn't right, but they do not feel like delaying my execution any longer. I cannot blame them, as I killed a man in my state of delirium. The guard down the hall is walking towards my cell and I know that any hope I had of becoming a successful school teacher and father of six are dust on the wind.

Each footstep down the hall echoes like the ones I took in Ellis Island and I can't help but think that I ran to die.
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