by: Julie Howard

“The system had simply given her a larger prison, but she still belonged to them.” A short story about a felon who is given a second chance in life — but only if she’s willing to undergo DNA reprogramming…

Olivia Graciella Gonzalez-Palmer was the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of murderers. Her family tree was filled with rapists and forgers, arsonists and petty thieves. Most were eventually caught. Olivia’s relatives weren’t the brightest bunch. They were, however, prolific.

“Eighty-two first cousins,” she confessed. “That I know of.”

The office was the size of a closet, room for just her, a desk, and the intake officer taking notes. The door was locked, and the officer had a taser at his side. Olivia’s hands were handcuffed and tethered to the chains at her ankles. While the Gonzalez’s were known for their criminal propensities, her Palmer side was known for its flash-point temper.

Olivia’s crime was aggravated assault during a robbery at a mini-mart. If the guy hadn’t joked about her birthmark, she wouldn’t have clubbed him. She wouldn’t have kicked his head so hard it almost killed him. She would have escaped. In the heat of her crime, she didn’t notice the blaring alarm and didn’t hear the siren of the squad car.

“Eight of them are here,” the officer informed her. “Twelve are in federal prison. Lots of Gonzalez’s and Palmers filling up our cells. They all said no to our offer.”

Olivia nodded, not surprised. Distrust of authority ran in the family on both sides. “If I do this, you let me out? For real?”

The officer slid a piece of paper toward her toward her. It was signed by the warden and the governor. If she did what they wanted, she would be pardoned. Why not? she thought. It was just a bit of spit in a cup, and some classes to attend, and one other major detail. Focused on the pardon, Olivia scrawled her name.

“Breathe,” the counselor said. “In through your nose, and out through your mouth. And then again.”

Olivia obeyed, her eyes shut and her arms relaxed at her side. Breathing was better than watery eggs and a thin mattress in a locked cell.

“You’re a fat bitch,” the counselor said.

Olivia’s eyes snapped open.

“Keep breathing,” the counselor added. “Slowly now.”

It was laid out on the paper she’d signed. Reprogramming, they called it. DNA metamorphosis. There were a lot of words she didn’t understand. Olivia glared at the counselor in warning. The woman better not call her fat again.

“Ugly cunt. Big headed bitch. Remember, in through your nose, out through your mouth. Pay attention to your heartbeat.”

The insults roiled in Olivia’s belly; her heart thudded and stomped.

There was a round of high fives at the session’s end. Olivia slapped everyone’s hand a little harder than necessary. The counselor smiled a knowing grin at her. Olivia wanted to punch her in the face.

After five months, the insults flowed over Olivia like water. She breathed through them, her hands relaxed at her sides and her heart beat slow and even. She moved onto other classes — one for impulse control, another on healthy food choices. After two years of reprogramming, the urgent desire for chaos and destruction faded to the background of her life. In time, she started a job as a restaurant cashier and handled scads of cash without slipping a nickel into her pocket. She rented a one-bedroom apartment, stayed clear of her repugnant family, and contemplated adopting a dog. Yoga and meditation classes continued twice a week.

The intake officer called one day, mid-way through her third year.

“Hello Olivia.”

Her breath shortened and her voice grew tight. “Marvin.”

“I’ve heard great things about you,” he said. “You’re our biggest success story.”

Olivia swallowed. There could only be one reason Marvin called. That other detail on the contract she signed, the one she never fully acknowledged. These people wanted something from her in return for her freedom.

“The governor would like us to move forward now,” Marvin continued, “before it gets too late. Before you get much older. There’s a clock ticking, after all.” He actually chuckled.

“You’re sure it’s not too soon?” Olivia asked.

“No. We are right on schedule,” Marvin said, and then cleared his throat. “You’re one of our early birds. We have hundreds like you out there. Bottom line is, this is your time.”

Olivia studied the wall in her apartment. Keeping the walls free of artwork made her feel at home. For the first time, it struck her that those walls were her cell. The system had simply given her a larger prison, but she still belonged to them.

“What do I do?”

Marvin gave her the rundown. There was a clinic near her apartment. Private. All costs would be picked up by the government.

“At the end…I’m free? I’m done?” she asked.

“You’ll never hear from us again,” Marvin promised.

The promise was broken nineteen years later.

“Hi Olivia, remember me?”

“What’s he done?” she asked, not missing a beat. “Chopped someone’s head off?”

“Accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, that’s all,” Marvin crowed. “People here are popping champagne.”

Olivia sat down heavily. Her feet and back hurt from standing behind the cash register all day. At fifty-two, her hair was mostly gray and her middle was weighed down with rolls of fat. In the past two decades, she never once was arrested, never once stole anything, never beat anyone up. There’d been boyfriends, one serious for a few years. And there was just the one pregnancy, nineteen years ago.

“He’s a good boy? My boy?”

“You changed your DNA and because of your efforts improved the outlook for future generations,” he said. “Good work, Olivia.”

Olivia stared at her feet in disbelief. Surely, this kid of hers — who she gave away at birth as a living experiment in DNA modification — would grow up to be a bad man. She felt strangely depressed at her son not carrying on the family tradition of murder and mayhem. He was a stranger in more ways than one.

“Don’t call again,” she warned, and hung up.

For a moment, she wished she never signed the contract that set her free. The feeling passed and then she went to run a bath. Her swollen feet needed tending and she was lonelier than ever.


Julie Howard is a former newspaper journalist and editor who has covered topics ranging from crime to cowboy poetry. She is the author of mystery novels “Crime and Paradise” and the upcoming “Crime Times Two.” She has also published short stories in Literally Stories, The Piker Press and Dime Show Review. Read more at juliemhoward.com.

One reply on “DNA”
  1. says: Frederick Foote

    Julie, your stories are always expertly crafted, provocative, and insightful.

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