The Transformation Story Archive Horses and Doggies and Cats, Oh my...

Prison Farm

by Bob Stein

Copyright 1995

Keith looked sullenly through the barred windows of the van, watching the guard talk to some skinny, white-haired guy in coveralls. Andy and Spike, two other boys from the Juevy Pen, slouched down in their seats, trying to look bored. All three of them were being 'transferred' to this friggin' work ranch because they were troublemakers. He snorted. Like some Elmer Fudd farmer was gonna make him toe the line?

There didn't seem to be much in the way of security here. Not that they needed much. Keith had no idea where this place was, but the van had traveled at least two hours over empty desert before they got here. So much for trying to escape.

"All right, 'gentlemen'. Time to get out." The guard waited for them to form the standard lineup outside. "You have been transferred to this facility because of continuos disruptive behavior, and refusal to submit to authority. This is your last chance."

Keith rolled his eyes. How many times had he heard that one? "Yeah, right. I gotta prove my worth to society, show that I can make a con-tri-bu-tion." He mimicked the Juevy Director's favorite line well enough to earn a snigger from Andy.

The guard gave him a hard look. "The Juvenile authorities don't want you back, and you are too young to stick in the State Penitentiary. There are a couple of ways to leave here. If you make an effort to improve, show that you are willing to work within the system, then you might end up going back to Juvenile Hall in a month or so. Trust me. That is the only way you want to leave."

Elmer Fudd shook his head. "Always so dramatic, aren't you Fred?" The guard tightened his lips, but didn't say anything. "You've got a long trip back. Why don't you head on now, and let me and the boys get acquainted?"

Keith sneered. "Yeah, Fred. Go on back. And thanks for the ride, butthead." Andy and Spike both smirked. The guard started to say something, but Elmer cut him off.

"I'll handle this. Leave, now." The old dude still smiled as he spoke, but there was a hardness behind the eyes. Whoever he was, he had power, because the guard immediately spun on his heels and stepped back up into the van. Just before he closed the door, the guard looked back at Keith. Funny thing was, he looked sad, not angry or annoyed.

As the van pulled off, Keith suddenly realized that their bags hadn't been unloaded. "Hey!" He broke ranks and chased after it. "Come back here, you asshole! You got all our stuff!" Fred ignored his outraged screaming, accelerating to leave Keith coughing in a cloud of dust.

Still fuming, he stalked back to the old man. "All my things were on that van! My clothes, my boom box, everything! You gotta call him up or something!" The man waited for him to stop, and gave him a long, searching stare.

"Keith Sanford, I presume?" He cocked his head slightly. "True to your reputation, I see. And these two must be your sidekicks. Andrew Stackhouse." He nodded at Andy. "And Marvin James." Spike wrinkled his nose at his real name.

Keith crossed his arms defiantly. "Yeah, so ya' read our files. Who the hell are you, old man? Old MacDonald? And this is your friggin' farm?"

Andy started to snicker, but fell silent as the old man gave him a piercing glance. Keith shifted uncomfortable as the old man focused that cold stare back on him.

"My name is Doctor David Johnson. You will address me as Doctor Johnson, Doctor, or Sir." He smiled, and Keith recognized the look from some of the gang leaders and pushers he'd met. Johnson had power, all right. The kind of power that you were real careful not to get angry with you. Living in Keith's neighborhood, you didn't make your 15th birthday if you didn't both recognize and respect that power when you saw it.

He dropped his arms and cleared his throat. "Yes, sir." Andy and Spike looked at him curiously. They didn't see it. But then, they were both from good families and nice neighborhoods.

Johnson gave him a satisfied smile. "All right then. There are individual rooms over there." He gestured towards a long, low building. "there are no permanent assignments, so you can take any one you want for tonight. As for your things, Fred didn't forget. You are allowed no personal belongings here. We will provide you with clothing, toiletries, and anything else you might need."

"What about my boom box? And my clothes?" Keith reluctantly added "Sir?" to his outburst. Johnson shook his head.

"Not allowed, Mr. Sanford. No radios, no TV, no tapes, no books. Also, no mail or phone calls to or from anyone outside this farm." He turned and started towards the house. "Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen. This is the only time you will have to relax. Starting tomorrow, you will work from sunup to sundown." He stopped and looked back at them. "There are no guards here. So you can try leaving if you want. I actually had a couple of boys attempt it a few years ago. We followed the vultures to what was left of them." Then he turned and went into the house.

They watched him leave, and then looked around in confusion. There were no other people around. Andy whispered, "This place gives me the creeps. It's already getting dark. Wanna make a run for it?"

Keith snorted and started walking towards the rooms. "You can become vulture food if ya' want to. I don't think the Doc was kidding about those two guys. Besides, I wanna check the place out."

The rooms weren't much more than closets just big enough for a cot, and a fold-down shelf. Except for a single clothes hook, the walls were plain painted plasterboard. There wasn't even a light bulb in the ceiling. Every one was identical, right down to the stiff white sheets and painted concrete floor.

"This sucks, man!" Spike kicked at the door to his chosen room. "I seen better cages at the pound." Andy ruffled his hair and grinned. "Yeah. From the inside!"

The restroom facilities, if you wanted to call them that, were around the back. Keith whistled when he saw them. "You gotta be kidding."

Shower heads rose up on long pipes over a plain, open concrete pad. There were no handles to turn them on or off. And a long, low trough with water flowing through it seemed to be a combination urinal and toilet. They didn't see any paper products.

They were still complaining when they heard the motors. Running around to the front, they watched as two dusty trucks pulled up to a halt in front of the dormitory, and their fellow prisoners climbed out.

"Hey man! How's it hangin?" Andy's greeting was ignored by the dull-eyed youths. Other than a few curious glances, none of the boys paid them any attention. All were dressed in identical baggy sweatsuits and boots, muddy and streaked with sweat and grime. It was hard to tell much, but they seemed to all be in the 14-16 age group. And somebody had been real busy with the ugly stick.

The workers trudged slowly around the back of the building, stripped out of their clothes, and stood under the showers. There was a sputtering sound, and then the showers came on all at once. From the wincing, Keith guessed that the water was cold.

One thing was obvious. Some of the guys here were older than they looked. He hadn't seen so many hairy bodies since his mom took him to the zoo. Weird.

The water shut off abruptly after a few minutes, and most of the boys made use of the latrine. Keith stared. They were using their fingers as toilet paper, and rising their hands clean in the fast-moving water.

Swallowing hard, he backed away as the still-wet youths shuffled slowly to rooms. There was no talking, no jostling. A couple of them looked up briefly as they passed, but it was as if they were frightened of him. He felt a cold hand close around his belly. What the hell did this place do to you?

Less than 15 minutes after the trucks had arrived, all of the boys had gone to rooms and shut the doors. The sun was settling quickly, and would be down in another half hour. Keith glanced up nervously as floodlights started to click on. "Let's get back to our rooms, guys."

Keith and Spike had to choose new quarters, as their original selections now had shut doors. It didn't matter, except that now none of them were together. Keith tried knocking on the door to his left. "Hey! How 'bout talking to me?" At first there was no response. The door opened a crack, and he caught a glimpse of odd brown eyes. "Go away." The door shut again. He clenched his fists, but decided against pushing things. If the creep didn't want to talk, that was fine with him.

There was a creaking noise coming closer, and he turned to see a man in one of those long white coats like doctors wore. He had a big wheeled cart, and stopped in front of the first door. The occupant opened up before the man had pulled the first tray out, and the rest of the doors flew open almost simultaneously.

After the first boy took his tray, the man held up what looked like a flashlight, pointing it towards the kid's forehead. Then he checked a list and made a mark with a pencil. Reaching into a large bag, he pulled out something small and handed it to boy, who snatched it and popped it into his mouth eagerly. The kid then stepped back into his room and shut the door as the man continued to the next room.

If the man noticed Keith, he gave no indication. The process was repeated unchanged until he reached a room in the middle of the building. After checking the list, the man continued past without taking anything out of the bag. The boy, a thin Asian with a lot of body hair, cried out. "It wasn't my fault! 82 started it! Please!" Keith wrinkled his nose in disgust as the kid actually fell to his knees, sobbing. The man ignored him, already handing a tray to the next kid.

Keith moved to his doorway as the cart rolled closer. He noticed that neither Andy or Spike got the flashlight treatment, and they did not get one of whatever was in the bag. The kid who'd told him to go away looked scared as the man approached. He took the tray when it was offered, but his eyes were locked on the strange bag. The man pointed the flashlight at his forehead, and though there was no beam of light, Keith was startled to see a green '82' glow brightly against the olive skin.

The man checked his list and moved to Keith's door without giving the boy his 'treat.' To his credit, the Asian kid didn't make a fuss. But there was a look of such utter despair in his eyes that Keith couldn't help feeling sorry for him.

Keith took the offered tray, and made a half-hearted attempt to joke. "So, what's for tonight? Should I order some wine or something?" The man gave him a twisted smile, saying nothing as he continued to the next door.

Sitting on the bed, Keith folded down the small table and took the lid off the tray. "What the hell?" Two large cubes of what looked like stiff brown Jell-O shared space with a large drinking bottle full of clear liquid. He opened the bottle and sniffed. Water. Not even cold. He pushed the tray aside and jumped up angrily. The man was almost to the end now, and Keith shouted after him. "Hey, you asshole! What kinda crap is this? I know my rights, man! You can't do none of this!"

Andy poked his head out of his door, and gave Keith a quick thumbs-up, but Spike didn't even show his face. Keith frowned. Less than an hour, and the bastard was already hiding like the rest of these babies. The man turned and gave him another weird look. Keith got that cold feeling in his gut again, and abruptly went back to sit on his cot. It galled him to realize that he was scared.

He laughed suddenly. It was all a big psyche game! That Johnson dude was really something. How he could run a camp like this without having Social Services all over his ass was beyond Keith. Hell, even Juevy Hall had televisions and games and stuff. And what about school? Not that he wanted anything to do with English and math, but the state required schooling until age 16. And he was only 15.

Well, he wasn't gonna let the bastards pull their tricks on him. There were laws, and if they worked for the state, then they had to follow those laws. Satisfied, he picked up one of the cubes. It wasn't bad, once you got used to the texture. Had a kinda sweet taste, but he couldn't really identify it. The water was pretty much what he was used to. It wasn't Macdonald's, but he could handle it.

The stuff in the bag bothered him, though. What was it? Some kind of drug, for sure. He recognized the fear in '82's eyes, just like he recognized the attitude of Doctor Johnson. The kid was addicted to whatever was being handed out. All of them were. Keith pressed his lips together in a grim smile. They'd never get him hooked. All he had to do was refuse to take it. Or better yet, take whatever it was and hide it so they didn't know.

It was dark in the cubicle now, despite the open doorway. The sun had set, and even the floodlights outside had been turned off. It occurred to him that all of the kids with shut doors must have been sitting in total darkness. Maybe it helped not to look at what you ate.

There were no napkins or anything else to clean up with, but the meal hadn't really left any mess. Just an empty tray and water bottle. Wouldn't take much to clean up. Just like the sweats and boots. Probably all washed at night and handed out in the morning. That reminded him of his own clothes. Well, he wasn't gonna parade around naked like those other guys. If they tried to take his stuff, he'd scream rape or something.

Keith realized that he was really tired. Funny, it wasn't even much past 7 at night, and he usually stayed up past midnight. Maybe he'd lay back for just a little bit. In a couple of hours, he could go out and scope the place out. After all, nobody said he couldn't leave the room. Satisfied, he closed his eyes.

A loud clanging startled him up out of deep sleep. Everything hurt, as if he had been beaten with clubs all night. Groggy, he staggered to the door and fumbled for the latch. As he did, his shoulder brushed across something soft on the wall.

"Huh?" The reddish glow of sunrise provided just enough light to make out a set of sweats hanging from the hook. And with a sudden rush of horror, he looked down to see that he was naked. "Son of a bitch!" They'd stripped him while he was sleeping! "Bastards!"

Some of the other boys were already emerging, dressed in identical and now-cleaned outfits. Fuming, Keith pulled on the sweats, and then the boots which had been placed in the corner. They were made of some soft, thick cloth, with hard rubber soles. Like heavy-duty slippers.

Spike and Andy emerged in the same clothing, both looking confused. They'd also been stripped during the night, Spike even having his earring and nose pin removed. And they had the same aches and pains. As they compared notes, Keith noticed that they were the only ones talking. None of the other boys even looked at each other. He pulled his two cronies close and whispered. "Look, guys. They are pulling some kind of mental tricks here. Trying to psyche us out. Lets stick together."

They nodded, though Spike was looking around nervously. Keith got annoyed. "Whatcha gonna do, Spike? Become one of those friggin' zombies just because they fed you Jell-O and took your clothes? Man, we've handled a lot worse than this."

Spike shifted uncomfortably, avoiding Keith's angry gaze. "I dunno, Keith. This is really weird. Maybe we should play along for a little bit, until we can figure out what gives." Andy nodded in agreement.

Keith was honestly amazed. "You pussies! Go kiss ass if you want. I'm not gonna let them bust me. We're kids! They can't do nothin' to us, not anything bad. They can't hit us, or starve us. We got rights, man!"

The trucks were pulling up now, and the boys started climbing in. In minutes, they were the only ones not aboard. Spike moved hesitantly towards the back truck as another man in a white coat came towards them. Keith recognized him as the same one who had delivered the trays last night.

He held up a clipboard and looked at some papers on it. "9, 44, and 138. Come with me. You'll be taken to the work site after you finish indoctrination." He started to walk away, followed by Andy and Spike. Keith remained stubbornly where he was. The man stopped and looked back at him expectantly.

Keith shrugged. "You didn't say anything to me, man. I ain't no number." The man checked his pad again.

"Number 9. Oh, yes. Keith Sanford." He gave a curt nod. "Well, for now. Would you please join us Mr. Sanford?" Feeling triumphant, Keith joined them as they went into the house.

Inside, the place looked like a hospital. There were tables and beds everywhere, with people in white coats and grim faces. The sight of so many strange instruments and strange gadgets made Keith nervous, but none of those areas were their destination. Instead, they were taken to a small, plain office where Dr. Johnson was waiting.

He had some file folders in front of him, which he glanced at before he spoke. "44, 138, and 9. I'll make this short and very simple. I'd advise you to pay attention, for you will hear this only once. Afterwards, any infringement of our rules or regulations, whether intentional or not, will result in Withholding."

First of all, this is not a State institution. I own and operate this facility, and I also set the rules. You might say that I am an independent contractor. What that means is that I am not bound by any restrictions which might have coddled you in the past.

He paused to let that sink in. "There are no social workers here, no kindly volunteers to feel sorry for you. The State has tried its best and given up. In the old days, they would have locked you away until they could throw you in with the adults, but prison space is just too crowded. I am providing an alternative. No matter how violent, mean, or -stubborn-" he looked directly at Keith, "every boy who comes here will leave ready to make some contribution to society."

Keith returned the look with a defiant glare. Johnson simply smiled and continued. "Now, the rules. First of all, you will respond to your assigned numbers. Names are not used here." He looked at the folders, and then at Andy. "You are now Number 44. You," he turned to Spike, "are Number 138." Then back to Keith. "Leaving you as Number 9."

He stood up. "You will rise each morning when the alarm sounds, and get dressed. When the trucks arrive, you will get on one immediately. They will take you to the work site. Once you are there, you will be directed to an area for specific assignments. Food and water are provided at the site at all times, as are toilet facilities. You are allowed rest breaks, and can eat or drink whenever you feel like it.

"However, there is no talking allowed to anyone but your work supervisor. Contact between residents is not allowed. Speaking to another boy here is punishable by Withholding. Failure to perform your assigned task properly is punishable by Withholding. Disruption of activities due to arguing, refusal to perform, or any other action on your part is punishable by Withholding."

Johnson sat back down and leaned back in the chair. "At the end of the day, you will reboard the trucks, return here and strip for your shower. Clothing is collected at night and cleaned for the next day. Once the showers are turned off, you are to find an empty room and go inside. Meals are served within 30 minutes after showers. You are not to leave your room after meals are served. You will talk to no one unless it is an emergency, and then only to a Supervisor. There is someone here at all times."

Keith stared at the man in disbelief. What kind of trash talk was this? No way this was legal. Johnson met his eyes with an even gaze. "We have a very good system here. If you follow it, you might eventually get another chance to live in the real world again. Any attempt to thwart this system, no matter how small, is punishable by Withholding."

Johnson stood up suddenly and called to the man outside. "Take them to the worksite." He gave them a last look. "From now on, you fall under the rules. I suggest that you follow them."

"Eat me, Doc!" Keith fired off a rude gesture as he walked out of the office. So much for the rules. He grinned broadly at Andy and Spike, only to have them look away in obvious fear. The man leading them pulled out his clipboard and made a little mark. Right. Like Keith wasn't used to demerits. Well, let 'em try this Withholding on him. He was tough.

The worksite was a good ways from the main buildings, and turned out to be some sort of big livestock operation. Horses, cattle, sheep, pigs. It stank like crazy. There were four large barns, some smaller outbuildings, and two large corrals grouped together. He could just make out another large building set back maybe a mile further, but no one went there.

The Supervisors were mostly sour-looking young men and women with clipboards. They all wore coveralls, but they might as well have been wearing the same white coats that the people in the house had on. The three boys were sent to different areas. Keith found himself in a large stable, presented to a Hispanic woman as "Number 9." She made a check mark on her clipboard, and handed him a shovel. "Start mucking stalls, starting with Number 1."

He stared at her dumbly. "Do what?" The woman looked annoyed, and pointed to the clearly marked stall. "Horses eat hay. Horses digest hay. Horses shit. Shit has to be cleaned up. Shoveling horse shit is called mucking. You are going to muck stalls." She glanced at the chart. "Might be educational for you."

Keith flared at the barb, though something about it also made him uneasy. "Up yours, bitch!" He threw the shovel down. "I ain't cleaning up after some dumb horses. Whatcha gonna do about it?" He glared defiantly at her.

The woman simply shrugged. "Your choice." She made a mark in her clipboard. "This is your work assignment." Then she walked away to check on one of the other boys, leaving him standing there.

Keith was confused by her lack of reaction. No threats, no mention of punishment. She just walked away. Then he grinned. Maybe that's all there was to it. They had all these rules. And one punishment. Withholding. Big deal. Giving the shovel a scornful kick, he wandered outside. No one stopped him, or said anything. All of the other boys were busy brushing animals, hauling straw, or doing simple maintenance jobs. Suckers.

The day proved to be long and very boring. As promised, there were trays of the brown Jell-O and racks of water bottles for the taking. He was surprised how often he started nibbling at the stuff. It was sorta like popcorn. Once you had a little, you wanted more. Toward the end of the day, the aches that he had woken up with were even worse, though he hadn't done any work. That damned cot.

As the sun started to go down, the trucks arrived. Keith climbed in, conspicuously clean among his filth-streaked companions. No one responded to his few attempts at conversation, not even Spike, who was sitting across from him.

When they got back to the main farm, he climbed out stiffly and stretched. The others were heading for the showers, but he wasn't dirty. Instead, he went to a room and flopped on the cot still dressed. He half expected a guard to drag him out, or Johnson to come yell at him for breaking all the rules. But nothing happened. Even when the cart came by a little later, the delivery man just handed him a tray and shined a light on his forehead. "Number 9. Yes, I should have known."

Keith couldn't decide if he was more surprised by the man actually speaking, or the sudden realization that he must have one of those glowing numbers on his forehead as well. He did not get anything from the bag. That pretty much confirmed what he had suspected. Whatever this "Withholding" was, it had something to do with the 'treats'.

He sat down on the cot and took off the lid. Despite having eaten a lot at the work site, he found that he was hungry again. He wolfed down the Jell-O, drained the bottle dry, and then flopped back to think.

Naked again. Keith jerked up out of bed as the buzzer went off, aware that he had been stripped during the night. Damn! The aches he'd felt in his muscles had gotten worse, sinking deep into his bones and joints. And he was hungry again. Really hungry. Pulling on the expected fresh clothing, he stumbled outside just as the trucks pulled up. He'd thought about hanging back and wandering around the main farm, but the food was at the worksite.

When the truck stopped, he made a beeline to the trays. Only a few of the boys joined him, the rest going to their jobs. Keith finished off at least a half-dozen of the Jell-O squares before he was finally satisfied. After washing them down with a couple of water bottles, he decided to wander over to the stable.

The woman was there again. She pointed to a shovel. "Start mucking stall number 10. Continue from there." He sneered and started to make a smart remark. But something about her tone stilled the comment in his throat. It hadn't been threatening, more like pleading. Without really knowing why, he picked up the shovel and headed for the indicated enclosure.

There was no occupant now, but Keith figured it had to be one of the bigger horses. The odor was stronger than he remembered it from yesterday, but for some reason, it didn't bother him as much. Probably because he hurt. The exercise actually seemed to loosen up his muscles and joints some, and that helped a lot. Another boy appeared with a wheelbarrow as soon as he finished, and hauled the soiled straw off without a word.

The next stall wasn't as bad, and Keith was feeling better. It went faster, as did the next. By the end of the day he had not only mucked all the stalls, but put in fresh straw, cleaned and refilled water buckets, and cleaned up some saddles and harnesses. There had been several breaks between jobs, which he spent stuffing himself with Jell-O. And the pain had gone away.

When the trucks rolled up that evening, he was just as filthy as the others, and dead tired. The cold shower made him jump, but it felt wonderful to rinse off the dirt and sweat. He was surprised that he didn't need to use the toilet, especially as much as he'd been eating and drinking. Probably have to take a wicked dump tonight.

Tonight, the man reached into the bag after checking off Keith's name, and handed him what looked like a large sugar cube. He'd been a good boy. And for what? Keith nibbled experimentally at the edge of the cube, and spat it out. The sugar couldn't quite mask a chemical taste. What the hell was in this? Dropping the cube on the floor, he ground it into the concrete with his foot. They weren't gonna drug him!

The Jell-O didn't quite satisfy his hunger completely, but there was nothing else available. And the damned cot was too small. He grumbled as he shifted around to get comfortable. All these rooms were supposed to be the same. Right now he was too tired to care.

The buzzer jarred him awake, and he reached up to rub his eyes as he sat up. What the hell? He needed a shave! Coarse stubble had appeared on his cheeks. And he itched all over. Stumbling over to the door, he threw it open and stared at himself. A dark shadow of fine hair covered his whole body.

Keith pulled at some of the strands, wincing as they pulled free. It was real, all right. He was still staring at himself when the sound of approaching trucks made him scramble for his clothes. It was hard to coordinate, and he was still fumbling to pull on a boot after he climbed onto the last truck. What was wrong with him? The pain had returned, though not as bad as before. And he was starving. It took real effort to force his mind off the racks of Jell-O squares.

Some of the other boys stared at him every now and then. There were others here with hair on their faces, and they actually seemed to be pitying him. Keith managed to paste a sneer on his face, and leaned back in a casual pose. He tried to fold his arms, but they felt a little stiff and sore, so he just let them hang.

Despite his hunger, Keith checked in at the stable first. Funny, the woman looked smaller than he remembered her. She seemed surprised to see him, and checked her list a couple of times before handing him a shovel. Work was very slow until a trip to the Jell-O trays satisfied his hunger, and also eased the aches. Even then, he couldn't quite work the shovel like he had yesterday. It kept slipping in his hands, and he actually dropped it a few times.

The problem got worse as the day went on, and the woman finally pulled him aside. "Did you get your treatment yesterday?" Keith gave her a puzzled look, not understanding. She shook her head. "The sugar cube. You did get it didn't you?" Keith nodded, and she muttered something and left the stable. So that's what they called it. The Treatment. Keith managed a grin as he went back to work. This was one flunky who wasn't gonna fall for their tricks.

He couldn't lift his arms to scrub his hair in the shower that night. It didn't really hurt. More like being too stiff. It was hard to tell in the dark, but the shadow of hair on his body looked heavier than it had that morning.

Dinner was little more than snack, but he'd been smart today. Just before the trucks came, he'd stuffed himself with Jell-O, cleaning off a half-dozen trays of the stuff by himself. Even so, the two squares on his plate had been wolfed down.

He held up the sugar cube and grinned. The delivery guy had actually waited for him to eat it tonight. Even with fingers that were oddly thick and clumsy, Keith had been able to palm the cube and fake eating it. More than one doctor had been fooled by that move. They kept trying. But he was too smart for them.

Keith tried to stretch out, and cursed. If anything, this room was even smaller than the one he'd gotten last night. Tomorrow he was gonna make sure he found one of the ones like he'd been in the first night.

He woke starving again. The hunger was so great that he could think of nothing else. Bursting out of the room, he staggered over to the waiting area, anxiously watching for the trucks. The other boys backed away from him as he approached, and when the trucks did come, huddled away from him as they rode to the work site. Keith didn't care. Hunger gnawed at his belly, and as soon as they got to the work site, he scrambled over to the trays. He couldn't get his fingers to work right, dropping square after square onto the ground. Frustrated, he dropped to hands and knees and devoured the fallen Jell-O, pulling into his mouth with thick, pliable lips.

He ate without stopping for a long time, only dimly aware that someone was starting to drop the Jell-O in front of him. Finally, he could eat no more, and tried to get up. He couldn't. Confused, he willed his legs to straighten. They told his brain that they already were straight. But that was impossible. He was still on all fours.

"You can't stand, Mr. Sanford." The use of his name was surprising, as was the speaker. It was Dr. Johnson. "Don't worry about it. We're going to help you through this stage. And it doesn't last very long."

Keith felt arms slide up under him as two men lifted him up. They grunted a little, which was weird, since he wasn't all that big. As they carried him over to one of the trucks, he saw Andy and tried to call out to him. The sound that emerged from his mouth was unintelligible, and he worked to clear his throat. Andy had tears in his eyes, but at an order from Johnson, all of the boys clustered around him jumped back to their assigned jobs.

Johnson climbed up into the truck with him, and they headed not for the main camp, but the other building he'd seen the first day. Keith struggled to break through a numbing fog that blanketed his thoughts. It occurred to him that he had forgotten to get dressed this morning, yet there was no feel of bare skin. Arms would not respond to his efforts to touch himself, so he twisted his head around. What little he could see of his body was glossy black. Same for his arms and legs, which also seemed too long. It was hard to make out detail, and he realized that his vision had blurred a little.

"You didn't eat the cubes." Johnson made it a statement, not a question. "Clever, that trick you used on Barry last night. He was sure you had eaten it. Of course, I knew you wouldn't."

A barrage of strange sensations kept Keith off-balance, unable to concentrate on what was going on. Johnson was running his fingers through long hair in the middle of Keith's neck and back as he spoke, and while eyesight was getting worse, his nose and ears were starting to work overtime.

"I really thought you might figure it out first." Johnson scratched under Keith's chin and lower lip, and ran his hand over the boy's protruding muzzle. "The cube, I mean. Why do you think the others were so anxious to get it?"

Keith struggled to find the words, and then had trouble getting them out of his misshapen mouth. "Dwwug. U dwug uff."

"Drug you?" Johnson laughed. "I did that the first night. Part of the process. We stripped you, tattooed you with your number, and then I classed you. To be honest, I cheated a bit. Gave you something special I've been working on. Not that the Treatment wouldn't have worked if you'd taken it. But I was positive that you wouldn't, and frankly, I wanted to see if the new stuff was as good as I thought."

They had reached the building now, and Keith saw it was a small stable. The stalls here had barred gates like a prison, and as he was carried into it he gaped at the odd creatures. A misshapen bull lowed sadly in one, with an equally distorted moose in the next. The stall they took him to already had a huge mare in it. Unlike the others, she looked perfectly normal.

The men set Keith down, and he stood up on wobbly legs. Four wobbly legs. Johnson squatted down beside him, and Keith realized with a shock that his vision was split by a heavy mass in front of his face. The Doctor patted the boy's long neck.

"You see, Keith, I've found the key to genetic coding. That means that I can fix things, terrible things. Like cancer. Maybe even old age. All I need to do is refine the process so I can do little things. That's the hard part. I can't just change your hair color, or tell your body to get rid of a cancer. That requires changing one tiny little part of the DNA code that made you Keith Sanford.

"But I -can- replace the whole code." Johnson's hand slid down Keith's back, stroking silky fur. "In your case, I injected a new DNA code that told your body you were a Shire filly. That's a kind of draft horse. A little girl horse."

Keith barely reacted to that. But a growing awareness of his body told him that it was true. There was nothing between his legs. His hind legs. Her hind legs? Keith shook her head, trying to retain some fragment of thought. Johnson was still talking, but his words were becoming meaningless sounds.

"The State helps by sending me the worst troublemakers, subjects that won't be missed. Parents often don't want to know anything as long as the problem child is no longer thier worry. If they do press for details, well, there are always tragic accidents or fatal illnesses to explain things. And I am fully self-supporting, so there are no budget controls, no red tape."

He laughed and stood back as Keith began to stumble towards the huge mare. Hunger was overpowering again, but now her nostrils told her that satisfaction lay not in brown Jell-O, but the thick black teats between the horse's legs.

Johnson patted Keith's rump as she started to nurse. "You'd be amazed how much some people are willing to pay for one of my conversions. In fact, I sorta rushed you along because I have a breeder desperate for just the right foal. A quarter-million dollars desperate. And to think your Social Worker said you'd never be worth anything!"

- end -

Prison Farm copyright 1996 by Bob Stein.

<< Possibilities The Puzzle Box >>