My blood pulsed hard through the left side of my face.
The burn rash on my cheek throbbed in time with my heartbeat.
It hurt, but the weirdness of it was interesting, like having two hearts.
I couldn’t sleep, but pain isn’t always a bad thing. It’s the best teacher there is.
Today’s lesson is: stay away from crazy people.
If I slept on my right side, the cool air made my swollen left side itch. If I lay down on my left side, the rough, dry sheets scratched the tender burns. Lying on my back seemed to work best, but then at some point in the night, I’d roll one way or the other and wake up gasping.
Lying face down wasn’t an option. The country club had lost plenty of guests, smothered in the night. It’s hard to fight back when you’re face down and sleeping. I trusted Booker, but trust doesn’t mean stupid.
I could always ditch the pain by killing myself.
That idea crosses my mind at least once a day. Seems like a good option to keep nearby. But for some dumb reason, I have an instinct to stay alive. To watch this stupid show until the end.
Besides, if I ever decide to make an exit, I’d prefer it had some flash.
I settled on the best of lousy choices, resting on my right side. My burnt left was exposed to the air but that was better than scratching the tender skin.
Still no sleep.
That’s why I heard the footsteps coming.
The sun was just rising, throwing angular shadows across the open space between our cells and the ones across the main hall. The apes were usually switching their shifts by this point, but maybe they were training some rookies, so I figured the steps were just going to pass by.
I closed my eyes, hoping to grab what relaxation I could before first bell.
The clomping stopped and five harsh clangs bounced around the walls and inside my skull. I’d heard the sound a million times, but it never sounded any less ugly.
My bed rocked as Booker, in the bunk above me, moaned and shifted.
“Good morning, guests,” the ape bellowed. “You. You got a visitor.”
I didn’t move.
Bang! The ape smacked his club on the bars. My eardrums vibrated. The gong of a single hit was somehow harsher than the casual multi-bar swipe. I felt it in my burnt cheek.
“I said you got a visitor,” the ape barked. “Get up!”
“Booker!” I yelled. “You got a visitor.”
Booker groaned. The bunk bed rocked again.
“Not for him,” the ape said. “Visitor’s for you, Gorey. I’m looking at you. I’m talking to you.”
“Must be some mistake. I ain’t expecting no one.”
“Is your goddamn name Raphael Gorey?”
“Then no mistake. They asked for a Raphael Gorey. So unless you know someone else who’s got a jacked up name like that, I suggest you move before I shove this stick up your dumb ass and drag you out.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“Well someone’s expecting you. Now get out of bed.”
“It’s a mistake. I don’t know anybody on the outside.” All this talking was flexing my cheek skin, opening the burn cracks and making them weep.
“Get going!” Booker yelled from the top bunk. “You just got back and I’m already wishing you were gone again. Fidgeting all night long. Sick of it.”
“Time bomb ticking,” the ape said, flipping through the huge ring of keys at his hip.
“All right, all right.”
I tried to lift myself up, but my back was still stretched and sore. I tried rolling off the edge of the bed, but muscles I never knew I had pulled and tightened. I pushed against the wall with one hand, grabbing the bed support with the other. My lower back seized, like a Charlie horse right at the top of my ass. My knees popped like cracking knuckles.
“Fuck,” I said, “Everything hurts.”
“Everything gonna hurt worse you don’t move faster,” the ape said. “That’ll learn you stay out of fighting. Look at that burn on your face. You even uglier than before.”
I was at least sitting up now. I rocked and counted one, two, three and leapt up off the bed. When my feet hit the floor, bolts of pain shot up to my hips. The room spun. I had to press against the far wall to keep my balance. As my hand slid off I accidentally tore one of Booker’s lady doll posters. The paper fluttered onto his desk. A black girl with a giant ass was bent over and smiling as she looked back over her shoulder, a white thong up her butt crack.
Only now some of her ass was missing.
“Damn it, Gorey.”
“Ain’t my fault. I want to stay in bed.”
“Just get going.”
“Hurry up,” the ape said, his key clacking in gate. Metal scraped on metal as he pulled the bars aside. “Don’t keep a lady waiting.”
“Lady?” I said, holding out my hands, wrists together.
The ape kept talking as he slapped on my handcuffs. He had to be a new guy. I didn’t recognize his face. “Well maybe she’s a man who thinks he’s a lady. Like that Nick character.”
“I’m going to tell him you said that,” I said. “Plus, you got it backwards. Nick was a woman who’s now a man.”
“I know that. I was making a joke.”
“Oh. Funny stuff.”
Booker made an annoyed grunting sound and flopped about on his top bunk. The ape assembled my ankle jewelry.
I squinted hard. After all that time in the dark of the pit, sunlight was still a painful experience.
The ape stood behind me.
“Walk,” he said.
I hesitated for a second just to annoy him.
“Move it, guest!” he yelled. “Now!”
I shuffled forward and he kept ranting. I’d hit a nerve. Good.
“You ain’t got nowhere else to be for the rest your goddamn life. If she got the wrong person, you tell her as politely as your crude mouth can. Then you can come back here and sleep like the big baby you are.”
“Yes fucking sir.”
“What you say?”
“I thought so. Now walk.”
I had to shuffle because of the chains, but I moved more slowly than I needed to without being obvious. The new guys came on strong trying to remind me they were the boss.
I got in my revenge, however small and stupid, where I could. I had to do something to keep from getting bored while I was waiting to die.
After a while, I stopped the small steps. Every movement hurt in some way and I had pissed off the ape enough to satisfy my need. Now I wanted to get this done fast.
The fat guy at the gate pressed a button to let us through. The door buzzed and the electric locks clacked. It felt like someone was kicking the inside of my head with a steel-toed boot.
I ignored the call-response song.
“Prisoner serial number?”
Blah, blah, blah.
I kept my head down, shuffling ahead with my eyes closed, trying to get some rest. That’s one advantage of the country club: sleep-walking. You can be half-dead and not worry about where you’re going because you’re pushed and pulled everywhere. No need to think about anything.
“Number four,” my escort said, and I knew we were in the visitor room.
The room was split down the middle by bullet-proof glass. Seven booths were set up on either side, walls in between for privacy. A phone was available for each person on either side of the glass.
It looked different, like they had painted it. I remembered it as a dull green. Now it was a deep blue. Last time I was here my beard was dark. Now I was all white whiskers. I’d done a lot of talking with reporters back then. After that, about once a year, some criminal justice student would show up to ask me stupid questions.
Then years and years of no one. Until now. First day out of the pit after that brawl with Dillett and I have to trudge up here for some mistake.
The room was empty on the con side. That made sense, it was so damn early. Through the glass, I could see another guard, but I couldn’t see anyone on the visitor side of booth four. At least not from here.
The ape undid my bracelets and gave my shoulder a shove. It felt like a knife went in. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed it, but I was aching all over from the burns of Dillett’s last meal.
I hissed through my teeth.
“Get going. Now. Before I drag you there.”
My ankle chains were still on, so I shuffled down to number four, sticking out my arms for balance. When I passed the privacy divider for booth three I could see the visitor.
Some old lady. Not really old, but my age old. Early sixties.
Her shoulder-length hair was faded brown and laced with grey stripes. She was hunched over her huge purse, rooting around inside. She stopped and rubbed her hands together as if she was freezing.
She hadn’t seen me.
I stared for a second, then turned back.
“I don’t know her,” I said.
He pointed to the seat. “Sit. Talk and sort it out.”
The lady looked up and jolted when she saw me standing. She stared at me for a while and I could see her eyes move to the huge red burn on the left side of my face. She had to be thinking, “Who is this asshole?”
I know that’s what I was thinking about her.
She reached for the phone and knocked it off its hook. It bounced around on the small shelf in front of her. Her hands were shaking as she gathered the receiver.
I bent down into my seat, as slowly as I could to ease the pain. It didn’t work. I landed on my ass, gasping. After a few impatient breaths, I lifted the receiver.
The stranger lady had finally mastered the skill of holding a phone. I grabbed the one handset on my side and pressed it against my ear, just in time to remember half my face was on fire. I grunted, switched ears and leaned over.
I barely looked at her. I was thinking of cursing her out for waking me up early.
She pushed the talk button.
“Mister Gorey?” she said, her voice trembling.
Something about the way she said it got my attention. She didn’t seem to be the reporter-type because she didn’t have those twitchy junkie movements. And she wasn’t wide-eyed like some dumb student.
So who the hell was she?
“Mister Gorey? Are you Raphael Gorey?”
“Yeah. That’s me,” I said.
“It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Lady, I don’t know who you are.”
“No. I’m sorry. You don’t know me. But I know you.”
“Yeah, okay. What-”
“I wanted to thank you.”
“Thank me? Lady, you have the wrong guy.”
“No. I’m certain I don’t. If you are Raphael Gorey, then you’re the man I want to speak with. The one I want to thank.”
“Please. Call me Shannon.”
“Shannon, I don’t know you.”
“I know you don’t. But first, let me show you something.”
She set the phone down and opened her purse. She fished around inside and pulled out a gold heart-shaped locket half the size of her palm. She opened the heart and pressed it against the glass. Inside was a photo of a boy sitting in front of one of those cloudy blue studio backgrounds. I didn’t know him either. He was just another smiling kid with a couple teeth missing. Any kid from anywhere.
“Cute kid,” I said.
I didn’t really think so. I didn’t think otherwise either. I didn’t think like that at all, but that’s what normal people like to hear. It’s what they say to each other when they show off pictures of their kids. When I see kids, all I think is here’s another damn person who will probably piss me off at some point. Or get in front of me in line for food. That’s how I really felt, but I’d been around long enough to know how to hide my true self at least a little. The world can’t handle me being honest.
She put the locket away.
“He’s my son,” she said. “We called him P.J.”
Her lips were quaking. Her eyes filled with tears and overflowed quickly. A drop shot down her cheek.
“He’s dead,” she said, gurgling, “Murdered.”
She wailed and dropped the phone, smashing her face in her hands.
The guard on her side rushed to her and put his hand on her shoulder. The ape on my side stomped over behind me and kicked my chair.
“What did you say, guest?” he yelled. “What did you fucking say?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“No,” the lady said, scrambling for the phone. She knocked on the glass and waved, yelling into the phone. “He didn’t say anything. It’s all right. I’m just emotional, that’s all.”
She turned and said something to the guy on her side. He listened then nodded. My ape kicked my chair again, sending a painful vibration through every sore muscle in my body.
“You watch your ways, guest.”
They retreated to their corners. Shannon picked up the phone again.
“My boy was murdered, Mister Gorey.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
Another line from the normal people script. I didn’t feel sorry and that didn’t matter. I didn’t feel anything. People got murdered all the time. I just said what I knew I was supposed to.
“My son was murdered by,” her voice dropped real low as she said the name. “Roy Dillett.”
She managed to hold on to the phone this time, crying into her free hand.
This was starting to make sense. She knew Dillett, the crazy fuck who hit me in the side of the head with his piping hot vegetables. About a week ago, I guess. He was in front of me in the lunch line mumbling to himself, getting pissy about the meal not having enough carrots or something. I didn’t pay him any mind because plenty of the psychos in here talk to themselves.
But then Dillett spun and threw his tray. I think he only intended to chuck it in the air, but the scalding vegetable mush hit me in the face and burned like hell.
Then everything went red.
That happens to me when I get really mad or really hurt. Everything goes red, and nothing hurts me so much. Only problem is I lose control.
Later, I woke up chained to a bed surrounded by guards. I knew something bad had gone down because they were so quiet.
Only one spoke to me.
“You fucked up, Gorey. You fucked up huge.”
It took me some time to remember what happened.
The burning hot soup hit me, and then a red lens dropped over the world. The pain of my boiling skin faded and I felt only distant thumps as I kicked Dillett’s ass. I knocked him down with a solid uppercut and kicked him in the belly until he shit his pants. Then I stomped on his head until his brains came out all over his food that didn’t have enough carrots.
The apes rushed me, but too late for Dillett.
“They took me to the morgue,” Shannon said. “To identify my boy. I didn’t want to look. But I felt like I had to, as his mother. I wish I hadn’t. His angel face looked just like he was sleeping. But I knew he wasn’t in there. How can I tell you what that’s like? When this is the last time you’ll ever see your boy and he has bruises–”
Come on, lady. Get it out so I can get back to bed.
The tears were pouring down both sides of her face now. Two non-stop rivers cut trails through her makeup. All I wanted was to go back to sleep. But I was told I had to listen, so I just stared at her and counted my pulse through my cheek. Give her a few minutes and then I’ll wrap it up.
Then it’s back to wasting time until I die.
How should I end it, then?
What would a normal person do?
You’re welcome, lady. I’m glad I killed the guy who killed your son and that made you happy. Sure. Anytime. See you. Have a nice life. Or don’t.
I should probably skip that last part.
“His father left me after that.” She was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “Said he was dead inside, couldn’t ever love again. I went to the trial alone. All alone. Every day. The people at my job were nice, but I just never went back and finally that was gone, too.”
A little ball of snot was crawling down her upper lip. Each sentence she squawked out caused her pain and caused me to sit here longer.
All she had to do was stop talking. I said nothing. Silence ends conversation. That’s another normal-person thing I’ve learned.
She kept going. I made sure not to roll my eyes.
“They talked about the death penalty,” she said. Choke. Sob.
“I prayed to God they would kill him. Execute him.” Gasp.
“I even prayed to. Prayed to-”
She leaned in, whispered.
“I even prayed to him.”
She pointed at the floor.
“Who?” I said. I knew who she was talking about, but I wanted to hear her say it. I was bored and I couldn’t help but mess with her.
“Him,” she pointed to the floor again, “You know. The fallen one.”
She pulled at a gold chain resting on the slight folds her neck. She wasn’t fat, but chubby like most people. She grabbed the crucifix and turned it upside down.
“Satan,” she whispered.
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t add, “No shit.”
She was full-out crying now. Tears, snot, all of it. “You have to understand how desperate I was,” she said. “No one was listening to me.”
My ass was starting to hurt from the wooden chair.
“I didn’t really know how to pray to the evil one, so I just kind of called out in my mind,” she said. “Just like I was praying to God. It’s scary how similar it was.”
Now she was shaking.
Lady, I wanted to say, if you need to speak with the devil, you came to the right place.
“God forgive me,” Shannon whispered, “But I even prayed to his adversary. You have to understand, Mister Gorey, I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I just kept thinking, ‘Where is the justice for my little boy?’”
Don’t laugh, Raphael, I said to myself. Don’t do it. I had to bite my tongue because here in the country club, it’s hard to hear the word ‘justice’ and not crack up. It’s a joke and punch line all by itself.
“No one answered me. No one listened to my prayers. My boy was dead. My husband left. I was alone and that monster,” she lowered her voice to say the name.
“Dillett.” She sniffled some more and dried off her face. “He lived. They gave him a life sentence. But he would live.”
She took a bunch of deep breaths like she had just gone for a run.
“It’s been years. Almost nine years, Mr. Gorey. And I still hear my boy. I feel his heartbeat on my chest when I held him during thunderstorms. Sometimes I even feel him kick inside me.”
She started to choke and I hoped she would just gag and die.
“I tried to kill myself, too. They put me in the hospital for a while. For mental distress. Still no one answered my prayers.”
She pointed right at me, and tapped her painted pink fingernail on the glass. The look in her eyes changed. I’ve seen plenty of psychos in here. Her gaze reminded me of them, but it wasn’t mean, it was, happy. No. Joyful. Overjoyed.
I tensed up and every muscle stung. I had been nodding off, but my head snapped back up again.
“I prayed to God,” Shannon said. “I prayed to the devil. I begged the police, the lawyers, the judge. Wrote my representative, my senator, and even the president. No one listened. No one answered my prayers. No one cared for my desire for justice. Until you.”
The look in her eyes made my skin chill. What the fuck?
“They say angels walk among us, Mr. Gorey. And I believe it now.”
I chuckled and the vibration made my chest ache.
“I’m serious,” she said, smiling a little. “When I heard that had you killed that… thing, why, I think it was the first time in years that I got a full night’s sleep.”
I wanted to beg her to stop smiling, stop that look, but somehow the words didn’t come. There was nothing in the normal person’s script for this. So I just nodded.
“You’ll never know how much you mean to me,” Shannon said. “You’ve saved my life.”
This was getting weird. I didn’t like how her green eyes seemed to be looking past my own eyes and into my brain. She didn’t look like the religious guys here, who shout their love for God because it’s obvious they’re trying to convince themselves. This crazy lady really believed her own crap.
She looked down into her purse. “I want you to have this,” she held up a wallet-sized picture of her son. “He’s gone, but he’ll always be in my heart. And you’ll have a special place beside him as his guardian angel.”
She motioned to the guard on her side of the glass. He came over to her.
“Can I give this to him?”
“Of course, ma’am. I’ll make sure he gets it right away, as soon as you’re done.”
“Thank you, officer.”
“No problem at all.”
He took the picture and held it in his palm, like it was fragile as a bomb. He retreated to his corner and stood staring straight ahead like he wasn’t listening. What other crazy shit must those guys must hear?
Shannon turned back to me. “Don’t ever let someone tell you your life is without a purpose, Mister Gorey. When God ignored me, when Satan offered me false promise, when all those in power turned away from me, only one person stood by my side. You.”
A chill fanned out from my heart to my finger tips and toes, and up through my scalp.
Me? An angel?
Better than God?
Those ideas were crazy but the biggest joke was the idea that my life had purpose. That was more hilarious than justice.
I couldn’t remember the last time someone said something nice to me. Maybe they never had. A faint sensation was on my tongue, like the honey they sometimes put in the iced tea during summer lunch.
“Bless you Mister Gorey,” Shannon said, “I would say God bless you, but I don’t believe in God anymore. I’ve only worn this dumb thing out of habit.”
She wrapped her hand around the crucifix at her neck and yanked at it, snapping the chain off. She pushed it into the corner of the table before her.
“Someone else can have it,” she said.
She had stopped crying. Her breathing was normal now.
“So,” she said. “You’ve been awfully quiet.”
“Do you believe in karma?”
“I don’t believe in anything,” I said.
“Karma means many things but I use it in the sense that what goes around comes around. What you do comes back to you times three. I think that evil man, Roy Dillett, he got some of it. Not all of what he deserved, but some, for sure. At the very least, he got something. You will get your reward, Mister Gorey, and I will get my punishment, but I don’t care. If God is real, for what he allowed to happen to my son, if I ever meet him, I’ll spit in his face.”
Her green eyes bulged. They were focused and crazed.
I looked away.
“I have to go,” she said. “Remember, everything happens for a reason. Bless you, sir. Bless you.”
She hung up the phone while I sat there stupidly still holding mine.
She smiled, kissed her fingertips and pressed her hand against the glass.
I watched her leave.
I was still holding the phone when the ape kicked my chair.
“You’re all done, guest. Move it. Now.”
Clack. Buzz. Talking. Clack. Buzz. Talking.
I was awake now. I shuffled faster. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could, get clear of the weirdness. I imagined it like a second shadow, chasing me down the hall.
Everything still hurt, but I was forcing myself not to dwell on it. Too many dudes try to prove they’re tough by talking about their injuries. That always made me want to say, “Hey, if you hurt that much, you’re actually a pussy.”
Clack. Buzz. Talking. Clack. Buzz. Talking.
I waddled back through the checkpoints until I was in familiar territory. The second shadow disappeared, and my breaths came easier.
I was back. My home for most of my life: The Calliope Valley Advanced Detention Facility. Owned and Operated in the state of Pennsylvania under federal contract to some damn company with a French name that I couldn’t pronounce.
They tried to make it sound nice, calling a prison a detention center. I guess they called it “advanced” because of all the weird traditions here. I’d been moved to a few prisons in my time, but only here did they offer therapies like yoga classes, meditation with wimpy space music, or batting a balloon around in an empty room. There was probably more that I hadn’t heard about. They were always trying something goofy in here. I guess they had to experiment with their pointless rehab tricks somewhere. Someone had to be first to see if it worked.
Which it never did. I didn’t respect it, but it was good for entertainment.
Everything here was a little off.
We were convicts. But officially they were supposed to refer to us as ‘guests.’ Which they sometimes did, sometimes didn’t. Seemed to me it was just another dumb normal person activity, using different words for the same hard truths.
So we prisoners played the game right back and called this place ‘the country club.’ Our cell mates were ‘life partners.’ Our cells were ‘suites.’ They had their unique slang and we had ours.
Instead of guards, most places called the inbred idiots who watched over us ‘bulls.’ Since we have to do everything different here, we called them apes.
I turned right, but the nearest ape pulled me left.
“Wrong way, guest. Time for nature therapy.”
“I didn’t eat yet.”
“Too bad. Breakfast is over. Gotta get you back into the flow.”
“Lose a pound or two. It will do you good.”
“So you’ll be avoiding breakfast for the next year?”
“You watch your mouth.”
I could have mocked his fat ass all day, but I didn’t. No need for another fight. I was aching all over from burns and pulled muscles. When my body went into red freak-out mode, it did things it shouldn’t and I felt it later.
The ape undid my jewelry and shoved me out the door into the sunlight. He slammed the metal gate behind me. My legs creaked as I stiffened to stop from falling. It hurt, but I pretended I only stumbled.
The ape chuckled.