He wanted me for something else. Something I couldn’t fathom.
| | |
My parents returned to the cell just before the buzz of lights out. I stared numbly at the ceiling, my face still throbbing. A few times I had thought to climb down and look to see if there was a bruise, but the thought of standing in the open doorway where anyone could see me glued me immediately back onto the bunk.
There was no talking, again. Along the walk the mumble of the Lifers echoed as they prepared for yet another night in the prison that had claimed them. But here, in my family’s cell, it was silent.
My parents looked exhausted. My mother’s eyes were glazed, giving away that she was already lost in a distant trance. Her hair stood in every direction, parts still sudsy from the vile laundry room soap. I could see her hands as she shakily took off her shoes. They were red and raw, small cracks in the worn flesh still lightly bleeding.
My father barely moved. He came into the cell far enough to pull off his shoes and line them along the bunk. Then I heard the thud and gush of breath as he landed hard onto the bunk. Everything fell completely silent. I almost leaned over to check on him, wondering if he still was still breathing, but stopped myself.
My mother stood in the center of the cell, swaying back and forth. I could see the side of her face, the exhausted droop of her lips tugging her face down. With my father asleep, no one would guide to her to bed now. When I was young, I would sometimes wake in the night to her standing just as she was now, mechanically swaying back and forth, for hours. I would lay and watch her, mesmerized by the clockwork of her movement. I thought it was beautiful. Like a dance to hidden music I had never been allowed to hear.
This time I could only see one thing: Insanity.
I felt oddly awake, as if someone had finally opened my eyes to the nut job my mother truly was. Her hands were gripped in tight fists at her side, nails digging into the soft flesh of her palms. A drop of blood, squeezed out from one of the open cracks on her hand, dropped with a tiny splash to the ground. As I watched, I realized that she wasn’t just swaying. She was moving. Her hands would slightly lift, then drop. Her head would lean to one side, turn to the other. Her eyes widened, then drooped.
Even though I knew better, I let my eyes glance to look at the space in front of her. Something in me expected to see another person standing there, silently joining her in this strange, silent conversation. Only the cold wall stood in front of her.
An hour passed. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She looked exhausted. Even in the darkness of the cell I could see the bags grow darker under her eyes. Her shoulders slumped, her wrists heavy at her sides as if weights had been tied to them and forgotten. Her lips quivered as she mouthed words. She whispered the hushed words over and over, sound never escaping her dry lips.
A sob suddenly escaped her throat. It was barely audible, easily missed if I hadn’t been watching her so intently. A choked cry of utter pain. Loss. Agony. It ended in a low growl of deep anger that continued for a solid minute. Then she stopped. Stopped moving, stopping talking, even stopped breathing as her entire body seemed to freeze into dead stone.
As if someone had slapped her across the face, my mother suddenly came to. Turning her head sharply, her eyes met mine. I could see the shine of tears in her tired eyes, glowing in the dim light of the cell. We didn’t speak. I just watched as she finally up-rooted her bare feet from the cold ground and crawled into bed next to my father.
Snatching up my notebook, I crawled down as soon as I heard her breathing even out into the slow, long draws of sleep. I crept across to the door then flopped down on my stomach. My shoe laces were already knotted together, the note already tied securely to the end. Without waiting, I threw the note out the door.
A minute later I felt the tug.
Reeling it in, I nearly ripped the paper as I pulled the note open, barely scanning my question that I had scribbled on the page.
What is a bird?
In careful curves, the returned note simply read:
I read the word again. I let myself whisper it, carefully pronounce it. It rolled off of my tongue, tickling my lips and disappearing into the murmur of the prison night. Something inside me longed for that word. I had never felt this way before. Now I couldn’t seem to feel anything else.
Orrin, what if I inherit this madness? They are both mad. Will I be too?
Orrin wrote back quickly, his hand-writing slurred as if he too felt the need for the answer that was pounding inside of me.
You are who you are, Millie. No one decides who you are but yourself. If you want to be mad like them, then be mad. But if you want to be different, please, be different.
But what will I become?
What is going to happen to me?
I swore I could hear the sigh of someone just down the walk. Then the echo of a light chuckle. The shoelace tugged.
Dear, that is a question every child your age has asked since the dawn of time. Life is ahead of you. What this Nation is doing...
Something was scribbled out, impossible to read past the angry dark slashes.
They lock away the people and make them become the criminals they so fear. I do not know what you will become. But I pray to God that you don’t allow them to decide your fate.
I felt confused suddenly.
What do you mean? What is the Nation doing?
There is a lot you don’t know yet, Millie.
Orrin’s handwriting slowed, curving carefully as he emphasized his words.
There is a lot to learn. Remember everything your schooling has taught you. But remember: To every truth, there are a million untold truths.
Do I get to meet you before I leave?
I wrote it carefully, trying to copy his perfect curving letters. I hoped that he understood the emphasis, the meaningful question of my words.
It took longer this time to feel the tug. Pulling it in, I carefully opened the note, my breath held.
Millie, believe me, I would love to meet you. You have become like a daughter to me in here. I lost my boys, and now I am losing you. But I would rather you leave with the memory of me as this fishing pseudo father of yours than the balding old man with nothing memorable about him. Can you do that?
I could feel sudden tears of disappointment sting my eyes. I had hoped that Orrin would instantly say yes. I could see us in my mind, finally meeting just as I left to take my Exam, his eyes proud, his smile broad and reassuring. It was true what he had written. Orrin truly had become like a father to me in this prison.
I could look. I could find him. He was only a cell or two away. It wouldn’t be hard to discover which man he was. I just needed to see him, to know he was real. To know that even after I left, Orrin would exist. I knew though, even as the desperate thoughts flooded my mind, that it wouldn’t happen.
His words, speaking in my mind, repeated over and over. Was his sentencing all truly just a big mistake? Or was he lying, knowing that the truth of him also being a monster would only chase away this young girl he had mentally adopted as his own? I forced the thoughts away. Orrin had never written anything to me that seemed like a lie. I believed him.
I needed to believe him.
I had to.
I wrote carefully,
Why don’t you fight it? Why don’t you try to prove your innocence?
I tried, once.
He wrote back.
I had found out that after my sentencing, there were more murders in the town.
The handwriting suddenly smudged. I stared at it a moment, confused at the strange spray of wet pencil scratch. My finger lightly touched it, its surface still warm. It was a tear
. My wife had been killed. My older son too. They had been killed the same way as all the other murders and I was miles away, locked in this cell, unable to protect them. I tried to use it as evidence that I was innocent. But the authorities didn’t care. They deemed it as a copy-cat killing, and denied my appeal request. I search the archives but I never could find my youngest boy who had survived. He had vanished. He was gone. I had to give up.
Seeing that Orrin had given up felt like a slap across my face. My cheek began to throb, suddenly reminding me of Carl.
But it is the truth. They have to listen to the truth.
I wrote back. I felt feverish, my hand pressing the pencil so hard into the page that it tore through and scratched loudly against the ground. Glancing up to my parents, I caught my breath. They didn’t even stir.
Orrin seemed to tug on the shoelace as soon as it landed. I pulled it back in and read the scribbled words, spotted with more tears.
I had no truth to return to. Here is your first lesson outside of the books, Millie: In Prison Nation, the truth can’t set you free.
| | |
Orrin hadn’t responded any more to me that night. I tried. I threw the note out and waited, but no tug responded. I read his last message over and over, after finally climbing into my bunk. My eyes ached from squinting in the dark. Whether it was the intense slant of his painful writing, the splattering of tears, or something else, I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading.
I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up, my hands still painfully clutched the paper. The doors hadn’t opened yet. Grateful that my inner clock was finally working again, I tucked the note tightly into my notebook then climbed down, stretching my fingers out painfully. Stepping in front of the mirror, I threw on my clean clothes, breathing in the smell of the soap I hated so much. I finally stopped to look at my cheek.
It was still red, but luckily had not bruised. I raised a fingertip to lightly touch it and winced as a sharp bolt of pain shot through my cheek and down my jaw. Cranking on the water, I felt the sudden sting of ice cold water pelt out of the tap. I bent down and splashed it over and over on my face, grateful for the coldness that shocked me awake. Before long, my face was numb. My entire face was red as I looked back into the mirror, the sting on my cheek masked by the cold shock of water.
I felt fully awake for the first time in days. Moving to stand near the door, I let my body lean against the wall as I waited for the buzz and the door to slide open. It seemed to take forever. I could see the glow of morning light shining in the thick window. Inmates in cells nearby moved around, prepping themselves for the day ahead.
My parents were still asleep. Frozen in time, always in the same position, they looked like stone etched statues. Monuments left to lie forever in that small bunk as a cold reminder that they did, in fact, exist. I turned away, focusing my eyes on the door.
It finally slid open.
As I hurried down the walk, I could feel my stomach growl in hunger. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. I didn’t have time to go to the cafeteria though. Luckily, most days a cart was left along the wall in the Commons, equipped with a small pile of old fruit and stale rolls. Someone would roll it in before lights on, and its stale stockpile quickly disappeared before the first rush of inmates emptied the Commons.
Pushing my way toward the cart, I grabbed a crusty roll and ducked away as those behind me reached for their share. The roll was stale, obviously left over from some meal the day before. I forced myself to swallow it, feeling it stick in my throat. After a few hard swallows, I finally felt it move down.
As I hurried away, angry voices started to rise behind me. Someone shouted something about the food. Followed quickly with the dull thud as a fist made contact with a body. Before I knew it, more voices rose, screaming at each other as the sound of bodies slamming into each other grew louder. The pound of heavy boots was the last thing I heard as I ducked into the doorway and disappeared down the hall.
I didn’t pause to look back.
I had only been down this hall one other time in my life. One year ago, almost exactly to the date. I had requested to pull out of the schooling program and continue as an independent study. Before they could grant me the request though, I had to meet with the Warden.
His office tucked neatly away at the end of this hall. My parents had come with me that time. Sitting before the man, his large body barely tucked behind the small wooden desk, had been intimidating. I had been grateful that my parents sat on either side of me, feeling as if their presence had been some sort of protection against the unknown.
It seemed that most of the citizens who worked in this prison were bored, their eyes almost always hooded, a yawn always present on their face. That was the Warden. I had heard he was once a Marine. Special Ops. Whatever that meant. Once the Nation had built the Wall, the push for Marines diminished. The rest of the world had decided to leave the Nation alone. The need for armored grunt men became almost inexistent. I had always wondered if the bored look on the Warden’s chiseled face was regret.
He had carelessly warned me that if I failed to accomplish the schooling, I might not be allowed out on my eighteenth birthday. Then, without waiting for a promise or any questions, he had stamped my request and sent me away.