Labels Break Me
Jason Cockburn was awarded the Dawson Prize in Fiction in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
A boy plays in the backyard chasing his big dreams with a cardboard refrigerator box with a little sticker that says “Spaceship.” In his tinfoil suit with another little label that says “Astronaut.” A tiny little label no bigger than a hand. But it makes the boy dream of the stars and chasing aliens in a far more sophisticated ship then the cardboard one he crawls in. But he doesn’t care, all he needs is a few little words scribbled on paper to chase an endless stream of his own dreams.
He grows and he grows and still dreams of space. But along come friends to show him how to get there. A little plastic bag no bigger then his thumb. He spins it around and around in his hand. But there are no words of warning. No labels on either side that would caution him of what was to come. So how bad could it be? Because don’t all bad things have a warning on the side? He laughed off any ill feelings he had as his friends put the contents into a spoon. He marveled at the needle, which to him looked like a tiny rocket. Filled the thing and jabbed him in his arm. “Junkie” was his new name, or the one everyone said. But little did he care. Because with every hit he got closer to the stars. So close at times they seemed to drip through his fingers. Till one day he hit the ground hard gasping for air. His body convulsed. He was sure he was ready to die.
But aliens picked him up and carried him away to a place that was so bright he could hardly see. But for the tiny wristband with “Drug Addict” next to his name on the side. Surely this wasn’t him. So he struggled to rise, but all he found was a clipboard with “Patient” inside. They fixed him up and told him he was great. But in his mind echoed the words “junkie” and “addict” again and again. So he no longer dreamed he could fly!
Instead he dug a hole and, man, it was deep. He let people fill it with words like “worthless” and “lost” and those words spun around in his head like the stars. No one ever told him any more what he could be, or told him he would one day reach the sky!
So he stayed in his hole and pulled all the names inside hoping at least it would give him a place to hide. But it didn’t and one day he was so full of the names he was called, he began to believe he would have to cut them all just to be free once again.
So with a razor he sat on the floor. Rocking and shaking and feeling he just didn’t care anymore. He cut at his wrist over and over again. Till there was so much blood you couldn’t tell where it began. And once he lay down in his dark little room there were screams over and over again that the aliens were there. They had come for him once again to take him to the stars. But the trip for him didn’t seem very far.
He awoke in a padded room. Convinced this was space. As he floated around the room in a drugged-out haze. But when he drifted to the bubbled window to see out to Earth, he saw a hall with doctors and patients outside. Some looked up to his face to mutter words like “suicidal” and “sick.” And as he looked down at his wrists he could almost see the words carved there. If he could, he knew everyone else could too. When he got out, he only came out at night. Something about the stars made him feel safe. But he hardly knew why. And the black hoodies he wore hid the scars, but not the names people would call him. Till even the face in the mirror muttered those names. Drowning out every dream he had of outer space.
He hid in the night and took what he could, cutting out the names when they filled him again, letting them trickle to the floor in warm pools of red.
Till one night he was dazzled with lights and knew they weren’t aliens. They just didn’t look right. “STUPID criminal,” they yelled. “Get down on the ground!” He wished he had a pen to add that name to the list. But he didn’t and so he went towards their promise of space. And got it, his own little six-by-nine-foot promised space. Where he was robbed of every star and even a peek at the sky, why oh why did he have to end up in here, with no peek at the stars yet he didn’t know why.
But with every name floating in his head he couldn’t even cry.
They let him out and he wandered the streets to be called a “felon” by everyone he would meet. Dashing even the memory of loving the stars, he no longer looked up at the sky. Just at the place where his Prison ID used to hang on his chest. He couldn’t see it even though all the people he would meet seemed to see it there.
So he tried to look back to his very first dream and all he could come up with was “junkie,” it would seem. Try as he might he couldn’t remember the stars or his cardboard rocket in mama’s backyard.
So he picked up a tiny rocket one last time. But I doubt he even smiled as he filled it this time. And he didn’t even flinch as the needle pierced his skin. He waited real quiet for his trip to space to begin!
The tag on his toe was the last label he’d get. It filled many of those who had called him names with regret. For it was as close to space as he’d get. Space #34 and in this space there weren’t stars or dreams anymore!!!