--- 1 ---
The peal of metal bars and jumble of raucous bellows start echoing off the walls. Jake Baumberger in the cell opposite mine shouts himself awake and leaps off his bunk like he thinks he’s being attacked. He blinks stupidly while the realization sinks in.
Delivery. New blood.
Normally I don’t take any interest in the new guys, or fish, as they’re called. But this one is signed up to be my cellmate since the last bunkie I had got MRed two days ago. I figure I’ve got to make an impression.
I wedge my shoulder in between the vertical bars and rest my elbow on my favorite horizontal one. It’s hard to judge where sound is coming from, yells and clangs echoing off the concrete all over, but it seems the jeering from down the hall has abated. The silence is contagious, and soon almost everybody has shut up. I can actually hear the new guy approaching, standard-issue steel-toed work boots clomping their way toward me. The silence behind the footsteps is ghastly -- usually fish get serenaded on their way in by a regular chorus of jibes and taunts. A favor to the new guy, really -- breaking him in, giving him a taste of life in the Big House. But as the backlit shape comes closer, flanked by the badges Pete Larsen and Al Phinney, I can tell why so few are daring to pester him. The new guy is enormous.
I make sure to meet his gaze. He’s got to know from the start that I’m not somebody to be pushed around. But then he and Larsen and Phinney pass me, keep going, and only then do I realize that the noise has started up again. Guys are yelling louder than usual, to make up for their cowardice against the Mammoth. The Berger across from me steps from the shadow he’d retreated into and peers curiously down the corridor.
Once the next fish is in view, I let my arm fall between the bars in relief. No wonder everybody’s so glad to pick on him. He’s just a Pretty Boy out of his depth. Nothing to fear from this one.
The badges leading my new cellmate don’t bother warning me to move my arm, but I have an instinct for it now. As soon as I hear those doors begin to slide, I step away. I open my mouth to join in with some friendly insult for Pretty Boy, but when the guards shove him into my cell he gives me a glare to freeze the sun. I turn away, acting disinterested, to lean once again with my elbows on my favorite bar.
The noise takes about five minutes to slack off. We get really bored in here, and as common as fish are, they always have the potential to surprise us.
The Berger yells, "Hey, what you in for, kid?"
I glance behind me, but Pretty Boy is ignoring everything, pawing through the mesh laundry bag we’re allowed to bring in and looking ever more annoyed.
"Drug running." My reply is as much for Pretty Boy as it is for the Berger. Pretty Boy drops his bag and stares at me. "He’s in for some running he did awhile ago. And miscellaneous computer crime. And arson."
This last gets the Berger’s attention. "No kidding? What’s your name, kid?"
Pretty Boy pauses, looking lost. He’s got the official CCDC Inmate Rulebook in his hand, but none of its bureaucratic blatherings are going to help him here. This is where he starts establishing himself -- deciding between friends and foes and learning where to pick his battles. And I’ve already thrown him off balance. I knew I’d have to ever since I coaxed his conviction from Larsen. A little drug running and computer crime -- that's just making an honest living. Guy does something he can get paid for. But the arson conviction? That’s a little harder to write off. Sure, you can find people who'll pay you to destroy things, but it ain't as easy as it should be -- ask how I know. Which might mean that burning down the barn was his idea, which might mean that my new bunkie isn’t as stable as he could be. I’m known around here for always being one step ahead, and Pretty Boy is gonna learn that.
The Berger repeats his question. It reverberates, and there’s so much noise from down the corridor to either side, that I suddenly realize Pretty Boy hadn’t heard him the first time. Now, he stands up and moves to the bars.
"Richard Maxwell," he answers. "Yours?"
"Jake Baumberger. Arson, huh? We’ll have to compare notes sometime."
Maxwell returns to his bag without looking at me.
I recline on my bunk with an outdated automotive magazine and pretend to read it while Maxwell digs through his bag some more and starts tossing things in his locker. He didn’t bring much -- or maybe he tried to but R & D confiscated it, which would explain his attitude. Once he’s done, he starts pacing the cell. Most others are quieting down for the night, so his steps seem louder than they should. Just what I need -- the sound of pacing to drive me crazier than these four walls already do.
I can only handle it for another minute or so before I leap to my feet and round on him. "Hey," I shout so the whole tier can hear me. "Stay on your side, Maxwell."
"There’s a line down the middle of this cell, you see? Don’t. Cross it."
Maxwell blinks, looking caffeine-deprived. "I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we were quite so juvenile."
He makes like he’s going to turn around, but I grab his shoulder and spin him to face me. He’s a little shorter than I am, so I get right up in his face and demand, "What did you say to me?"
The guy doesn’t flinch. "I said, ‘you’re a child’. I said, ‘grow up’."
I grab a fistful of his collar. "You don’t know the first thing about life in here, Maxwell. And you know even less about me."
"Oh?" It comes out choked, but he still looks so serene. "Myron Jones, hails most recently from East Chicago, arrested in Richfield. Plea bargained his way to just three years for multiple counts of felony vandalism, two instances classified as hate crimes. Prefers government buildings decked out in blue and green shades of spraypaint, likes cars better when their windows are broken."
I realize only when he stops talking that my grip has loosened enough for him to step away.
How does he know?
"Never call me that again," I manage.
"That, too. You got the name wrong. It’s Jellyfish."
I can write to you even if I don’t believe in you, can’t I? It’s just I can’t think of anyone else. My father has forgotten I exist, my mother wants to forget I exist, and my sister doesn’t care I exist. And everyone else I know hates me. Well, almost everyone. Maybe you do, too, huh? I wouldn’t hold it against you.
I thought all my pride was gone after giving up and confessing all of my schemes. I thought that I was duly humbled. But that was nothing to the way Receiving & Dismissal handled me. I smiled for my mug shot, though. Are you proud of me for that? Could you understand how much that hurt me?
This notebook is the only thing of mine they let me keep -- not even the books I wanted to bring. Jake Baumberger says it’s arbitrary, it all depends on who's working the desk on the morning you’re checked in. Everything else I have now is state issued. The Berger says it’s better this way -- the hacks (a.k.a. badges, i.e. custodial officers) perform random searches for contraband in which they throw around all your stuff, anyway, so it’s better not to have too much for them to mess up.
When I arrived in my cellblock (headed to cell 337, on the third tier), they called out "delivery," as if I was a box of Christmas presents from distant relatives. Delivered into CCDC’s able hands. They say that jail makes you less human -- that all the guards and all the cons objectify you until you think -- huh -- maybe I am as innocuous as a box of Christmas presents. But never as welcome.
I tried to fight this trend on the way in by conversing in a friendly manner with Officer George Kyes. He was bored so he ended up telling me a whole lot about the other convicts. I’ve been here one full day now. I’m just scoping the place out, observing the social order. And thanks to George’s info, I’m pinning names and crimes to faces so I’ll know how to handle them. The big guy I came in with, Lowell "Edge" Edgefield, is already carving a name for himself here as a bully. I can tell the long timers don’t appreciate it.
The Berger keeps wanting to talk to me about incendiary bombs. Not really what I want to think about right now. Last night I woke up with a flashlight beam in my eyes -- the echoing sounds of footsteps like my nemesis getting away -- bunks creaking like beams snapping and falling among flames -- somebody down the hall sobbing like the wail of a siren -- my leg twinging as if crushed again under that machine -- and I thought that the fire had finally reached me. It was just the officers doing a routine check. It made me realize I’m no less free here than I was trapped under that machine, that death is just slower here than it would have been if Whittaker hadn’t saved me.
This whole thing is surreal. I never thought it would be me in here. Never.
--- 2 ---
The windstorm knocked out our TV reception, so everybody is cranky today. I’ve lost two packs of cigarettes over poker this afternoon, and now I’m looking for a way to distract the guys. Big enough distraction and they might forget the losses and I won’t have to pay up.
"Come join us, Maxwell," I call.
The other guys shut up. Maxwell's been here four days already and hasn’t buddied up to anyone. They’re all curious about him.
My cellmate is a mystery.
Across the room, he’s reading the newspaper. He doesn’t look up, just says, "I don’t smoke."
"You in for another round, Jellyfish?" Cali -- so called cause he’s from California -- grins as he shuffles.
"Nah," I say. "Hit me up next commissary day and I’ll get you your winnings." I hope he’ll forget; I don’t have a work assignment here in prison yet so I’m pretty short on funds for the prison store.
I wander over to the couches, by the window, wondering why Maxwell chose to sit there, where it’s freezing from the wind and rain outside. I swear the warden decided to punish us by not paying our heating bill.
"Odyssey Times," I read from the back of his paper.
"Oh? They write something up about you?"
Maxwell sets the paper aside, and I’m surprised to see a pained look on his face. "Not exactly," he says.
I pick up the paper and start rifling through it casually. I’m still trying to gauge where this guy fits in our hierarchy. "No smokes, huh? What do you play for? On the outside, I mean."
"Nothing. And I prefer pool. Or chess."
"Want to play chess?" I ask absently. The article he’s been looking at involves the Odyssey Police’s continued search for a guy called Regis Blackgaard. It doesn’t enumerate the guy’s crimes, but does include a picture. He looks sort of regal and imposing.
"Sure." Maxwell goes to ask the guard on duty for access to the games cupboard. He comes back with the chess set, which I haven’t seen in awhile. "Where are all the black pieces?" he asks in dismay.
"All the white ones are here." He starts setting them up. "But all the black pawns are gone, and -- and one of the knights!"
"What, the horsie?" I grin, rolling back my left sleeve to expose my forearm. "It’s right here."
Maxwell looks aghast at my tattoo. "You . . . you . . ."
"Melted it. Better than Bic ink."
"Why didn’t you just mix toothpaste and ground-up pencil lead?" he mutters, but I can’t tell if he’s sarcastic.
"It’s a jellyfish," I explain.
"It looks like a wad of gum with shoelaces."
There’s a lot of people I wouldn’t let talk to me the way this guy does, but I’m letting it slide. Something tells me he’s not going to be a threat. He’s too busy being torn up inside, and there’s no way he’d be any great shakes in a real fight.
My chess is a little rusty, but we play anyway, using bits of ripped-up newspaper for the black pawns and missing knight. Maxwell smiles grimly when I take out the pawn bearing Blackgaard’s face, even though it‘s his piece. He plays aggressively, for the most part, but seems as intent on protecting his knights (one real piece, one a bit of newspaper with "sey" written on it) as he is on his king. He sacrifices both bishops and a rook with no hesitation, risks his queen with abandon, but his knights he keeps far from harm. I don’t get it, but before I can ask what he’s doing I register that there’s been a disturbance escalating in the far corner for awhile now.
The Mammoth, called Edge, has already magnetized some cronies to him, and they’re surrounding Chris Wallace and talking trash.
Maxwell grimaces. "Isn’t Larsen going to do anything?"
"Pete Larsen? Sure, he’ll do something. He’ll turn his back and ignore them."
Maxwell stands, craning his neck to see around Edge. "That guy wasn’t doing anything to them."
"Wall? He and Cali slaughtered Edge and Dash in two-on-two this morning," I explain, wondering if Maxwell would notice if I slip my bishop a square sideways. He seems pretty intent on the altercation.
He heads toward them. "Somebody’s got to stop this."
Chess forgotten, I leap to my feet to snatch at his arm. "Are you crazy? Do you know what that guy is in for?"
"Yes, and yes. Aggravated assault."
"And you’re about to aggravate him."
"You don’t have to come." Maxwell nods at the chess board behind me. "It’s your move."
My cellmate is psychotic.
I retreat to the chessboard to watch from a safe distance. From the corner of my eye, I spy Larsen whispering into his walkie-talkie, calling for reinforcements. The guards don’t usually have to get physical with us, but who knows what kind of handling Edge might need.
Maxwell strides between Edge’s guys and stands next to Wall. "Is there a problem?"
Edge shifts his weight from one foot to another. "Yeah, a problem, between me and Wally here. Get out of my way."
"Eh . . . no."
"What are you gonna do, Arson? Set me on fire?"
"Is that all you think I’m capable of? Like many of us here, I wasn’t convicted for everything I did."
"This must be your first stint in the Grey Bar Hotel, Maxwell," Edge sneers. "'Do your own time', don’t you know? Do your own time, and let us do ours."
"I’m doing my time," Maxwell says. "Trust me, I’m doing my time. If I wasn’t, do you think you’d be enjoying my company right now?"
"Get out of my way!" Edge demands. "This is between me and that religious freak."
From my angle, it’s hard to tell, but it looks like Maxwell turns his head away from Edge to see what Wall is reading (the Bible, Wally’s always reading the Bible). Edge is probably as astonished as I am -- so much so that he doesn’t take the chance to strike.
"I don’t know, Edge," Maxwell says, turning back. "The most religious freak I see here is you."
I share an incredulous glance with Cali. My cellmate is suicidal.
"What?" Edge whispers.
"A little tetchy now you can’t worship at your television altar, aren’t you?"
By the time I get to my feet, all I can see is badges closing in around Edge. Maxwell ducked out of view when Edge threw his punch, and now Edge is howling because his knuckles slammed with not a little force into the concrete wall. As soon as the guards leave with Edge, the room gives way to relieved sighs and cheers.
"Kamikaze!" Cali bellows, raising both fists in the air.
"’Divine wind’?" Maxwell asks.
"He means you have a deathwish, Maxwell," I call.
Congratulations to "Kamikaze" follow Maxwell as he heads across the room back to me. I hurriedly make a move on the chessboard.
He stares down at it for several seconds, takes out my bishop with his knight, and says, "Stalemate."
I stare at the board awhile. "Huh. I guess it is."
My cellmate is my equal.
You may not know this about me, but I’m a pretty calculating guy. This hit me as soon as Whittaker saved me. I wouldn’t have done what Whittaker did. You know why? Because he didn’t get anything out of it. I just don’t do that kind of thing. I do what I do because it benefits me. The only reason I’ve ever helped anyone is because they could help me back.
I’m explaining that so I can ask you this. Why on your green earth did I step in front of Edge’s fist to help out Chris Wallace? If I’m really the user I think I am, wouldn’t I be trying to get on Lowell Edgefield’s good side?
The only thing I can think of is that something in me recognizes something in Wallace that I’m gonna need. Either that, or I really am as suicidal as Jellyfish tells me I am.
Wall thanked me. He told me he had the situation under control, but then he thanked me anyway. Then he said something funny.
"Let me see your papers, man."
"Your commitment papers."
I didn’t want to show those to anyone. Information is the only real currency we have in here. But then again, Jellyfish somehow knows most of it, and Wall seemed friendly enough. So I showed them to him.
"Five years for drug running, various conspiracies, various theft, and arson," I recited while he read it.
"Prior convictions?" Wall asked, never looking up from my papers.
"Only fights and things at school -- just got some community service for that."
Wall handed them back to me. "Twenty months, plus change."
"You’ll be out on parole in twenty months, give or take. No more than two years. If you behave."
I didn’t believe him. "My attorney never told me -- "
"Your attorney didn’t know. I do. Believe me, I do."
Dare I hope for two years? Two years seems like nothing after contemplating five. Two years, and then out on good time. Out. Out -- where Blackgaard is.
Life here is tough and it’s boring. I thought I’d at least be making license plates, but it turns out prison jobs are few and far between, and it takes awhile to get one. Jellyfish has been here six months, applied for work detail right away, and is still on the waiting list.
Jellyfish -- interesting character. I either like him or hate him -- can’t decide. He asked me if I meant what I said when I told Edge I hadn’t been convicted for everything I’d done.
"Yeah," I said. "I meant it."
The truth is, I did come clean about everything illegal. But none of that is as bad as the pain I caused everyone. Let's see . . . give me another five years for threatening Nicky Adamsworth’s future. One year for making Eugene Meltsner take the fall, and another for trying to destroy Connie Kendall’s relationship with Whittaker. Ten years for burning down Tom Riley’s barn and gambling with his life. Add another year or two for the horses. A deuce apiece for my mother and my sister, for being just another shame to my family. Eight years for risking John Avery Whittaker’s life in the Blackgaard’s Castle fire. Twenty years for putting Lucy Cunningham-Schultz in the hospital. Fifty for breaking her heart. And all day, the big L, a life sentence for letting Regis Blackgaard go free.
Yeah, Jellyfish, I did a little more than I told the cops about. But Wall says I’m getting out in two.
Everybody’s calling me "Kamikaze" now, like I’m some sort of hero. I hate the name. It’s too honorable. There is so much stuff going on in this place that I don’t step in and stop, so many bullies I won’t confront. I keep trying to tell everyone that "kamikaze" didn’t originally mean what they think it means, but nobody wants to hear it. I wonder what Edge will do to me when they let him out of solitary, and I wonder who will stand and call me "Kamikaze" then.