The alarm bells were sounding. I jumped up thinking FIRE! As I rubbed my eyes and looked around I heard the clanging again. Yes! That was what it was. The sound was unmistakable, the tone, the tempo was right. This was it. The red envelope was coming. Someone on death row was going to get the red envelope. I took my mug and joined in on the clanging. It was a warning. A system devised by the oldest of the lot that lived here and handed down, generation by generation. The kid jumped up and shouted over the din, “Alex, what is this god awful noise? Why is everyone making this noise?” I looked at him, my face filled with surprise. Then it struck me. The kid didn’t know what it was. He had never seen anyone get a red envelope. I had to tell him. “When a convict gets his final marching papers, when he gets the final call, ‘the date’, these sadistic pricks bring it out in a red envelope to the concerned person. The warning is for each person to prepare himself so that he isn’t caught unawares. It’s an old tradition started by the first people who were imprisoned here. They passed it down generation by generation and now I will pass it on to you so you can pass it on.
The three men given the duty of handing over the envelope were in position. The three men, two at the back and one in front started marching forward. Their uniforms were crisply ironed and their shoes were polished to a near mirror shine. Their shoes echoed on the linoleum floor. To be picked to be the one to hand over the red envelope was a great honour for them. Every cop that worked in here coveted it.
Every convict stood by his door, some praying theirs would not be stopped at, and others praying that their door was the destination for the envelope. I looked across the floor at Steve. His was the date that was the closest as far as I knew and I had this feeling in my gut that said it was for him. Steve looked at me and tried to smile. The person receiving this envelope had exactly 14 more days to live as of that minute. They passed the other cells and were approaching our cells that were right at the end of the passage way. I closed my eyes and prayed it wasn’t me. My date wasn’t due till later next year but the fear of dying was always there. I heard the shoe falls get closer; they seemed to be slowing down a little bit. I opened my eyes and saw that they were almost upon me and then slowly they passed me without even a second glance at Steve. I sent up a silent prayer that it wasn’t me or Steve. Then I realized they had stopped. I wondered who the unfortunate soul was. I opened my eyes and the sight that greeted me was not one I was ready for. They had stopped right after my cell. They had stopped at the kids’ cell. The kid was the one getting the red envelope.
For a second there was hushed silence all around and then almost as one, there was outrage. People were shouting, screaming. How could it be the kid? He had just gotten here. He hadn’t done anything that bad to get his execution sped up. He was just a misunderstood kid. Yes he had killed but not because he had wanted to. He did that as a reaction, as a whiplash. Why did the courts do this? What was happening?
The cop right in front, his name tag shining ‘Williams’ cleared his throat. The whole jail once again fell silent. He was loving the attention he was getting. Slowly he extracted from his pocket a paper. His script had been scripted out carefully and now he unfolded it and started to read, “Prisoner R-3199, Rohit Jayaram a.k.a. OC, I hereby serve you your Red Envelope. You have 14 days from this minute to get your papers in order and to make your final will. If for that purpose you require a legal adviser and you cant afford one, he will be provided to you. Your last day can be spent with any person of your choice, as long as he/she consents to spend it with you. Your actions will be monitored at all times. One meal of your choice will be provided to you subject to availability. No alcohol, tobacco or any form of drugs will be provided. In exactly 14 days from now, electricity will be passed through your body till you are dead. Do you have any questions?” The kid just shook his head.
Williams passed the red envelope to the kid. Then very smartly, the three of them turned on their heel and marched away. I couldn’t see the kid but I could fathom how he was feeling. Slowly the murmuring started, people started talking to each other. I moved to the left of my cell and I put my head close to the bars. I didn’t even know what to say to the kid. I just cleared my throat and was about to say something when the kid said, “I don’t want to talk about it, alright?” I said “ok. It’s ok.” I looked across to Steve; he just closed his eyes and shook his head.
The next day, the kid refused to meet anyone. He stayed within his cell or by himself. If any of us tried talking to him, he just walked away. The poor guy didn’t want to talk about it. Not that it would have helped the situation but maybe we could have eased the pain.
None of us could understand it. Why did the kid get his sentence sped up? I couldn’t see him like this. I didn’t care if he was going to shout at me, I had to go and try to talk to him. I walked up to him. He was shooting a few hoops at the basketball court alone. I walked up to him. The minute he saw me, he looked away. he stood there for a long time. I stayed right by him. Then he threw away the ball and said, “Alex, I can’t do this. I can’t.” The poor kid had tears in his eyes. He was so scared. I put my arms around him and we hugged. He held on to me for a really long time. He didn’t want to let go. When he did finally, he looked at me and then he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Thank you. Thank you for being like a father to me in here. I love you,” I didn’t know what to say. My eyes filled with tears as I looked at him. I had grown so close to him in this short time that I had spent with him. He had actually come to mean so much to me. Then I looked into his eyes, smiled and said, “They’re all waiting for you. Go on. Talk to them.” He looked at me, wiped the tears away from his face and nodded. Then he hugged me again and then walked towards the rest of them.
A few days later, the kid seemed to have come to normal. He seemed to have made it out of the depression he had dipped into. He was having a heated discussion over what was the best option to order for the last meal. Steve said he ought to get burgers and fries, Parks disagreed. He said, “Ask for roasted chicken wings from Joe’s. They’re the best.” The kid looked at him and said, “Parks, when was the last time you ate from Joe’s?” Parks looked at him and said with a straight face, “Um, something like 7 years ago.” Everyone around burst out laughing. Parks joined in with them. “7 years ago”, the kid said and shook his head with a smile.
At dinner, the guys all got together and decided to show the kid a good time. The minute he entered the mess, Parks met him at the door and said, “Sir, may I please direct you to your table?” the kid didn’t know what to say. “Parks said, “Right this way sir” and led the kid to a table. There on the table was a napkin all white and shiny. We had to wash it thrice to get it that clean. Then Parks came towards the kid, pulled out a card and put it in his hands and said, “The Menu, sir.” The kid looked down the card and there were three things listed. ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Dinner.’ The kid laughed when he saw this. He looked at the card with a lot more concentration and then said, “I think I’ll have Dinner.” “Brilliant choice”, said Steve. He nodded to me and I got the already loaded plate to the table. He looked up at me and I said, “Dinner is served sir.” He looked at me and smiled. His eyes twinkled. He was so happy. Then he said, “Alright, alright. I give you all the honour of eating with me.” everyone laughed and then everyone joined in. Everyone sat together and had dinner together. It was like this whole happy family having dinner. The kid was so happy.Everyone was doing their bit in giving the kid a great last two weeks. They did the small things that they could to make his stay the best. No one talked about the dreaded date. No one mentioned it. As the date drew nearer, I couldn’t keep up the façade all the time. Sometimes I’d just break down. I couldn’t help it. The kid had come to mean a lot to me. I couldn’t think of life in here without the kid. He had become such a large part of us. That night I lay in my bed thinking. Would all of us just leave like this? One by one, we’d all get our dates. No! I wouldn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think of it. What was to happen would happen and I couldn’t change that no matter what.