My eyes trailed down the hall into the darkness, knowing his office waited beyond. That day, a year ago, I had walked away with my parents on either side. My mother had jabbered excitedly about my future, my father silently smiling as he kept his eyes glued ahead.
No one else stood in the hall today.
I finally reached the door.
As I stood in front of it, I felt my stomach tangle up. This was the test that would help decide the rest of my life. Would I go free? Would I fail and be labeled? My hand hovered over the metal handle, suddenly scared to twist it and walk in. My confidence had fled me, hiding away in a place I knew I would never dare to go and retrieve it.
A feeling rose inside me, longing for my mother’s laughter and my father’s presence. It had always been there. Gritting my teeth, I shook my head. The feeling disappeared, escaping into the fog hiding in the corners of my mind until it was gone.
Knees shaking, throat tight, I finally twisted the handle.9
I stood in the doorway, my hands clasped tightly together. “Yes.” My voice shook. I cleared my throat, trying to chase away the shake that spread like fire over my entire body. It wouldn’t leave.
Come in and stand on the line.”
I watched my feet as I quickly walked in and made my way to the yellow line painted on the cement floor. The door swung shut behind me, clicking loudly. With my toes carefully touching the line, I finally dared to look up.
In front of me, sitting in a row behind a simple metal table, five people stared back. A single light hung from the center of the ceiling, casting strange shadows across the room and darkening the faces of the panel. Letting my eyes adjust, I watched them nervously as they took me in.
Reverend Smitson sat at the left end of the table. My family never attended church, but I had seen him before when I walked down the prison hallways. He had his own small chapel near the psychiatric wing. Sometimes I would slow as I passed, listening to his booming voice as he preached about God’s love and mercy to his small congregation. Barely anyone, it seemed, bothered to publicly practice religion in here anymore. The few who chose to attend always had to travel in tight groups, protecting themselves from the many inmates who were intolerant of faith.
Faith, it seemed, was a dying trend.
Reverend Smitson watched me, his brow knitted and his lips parted as if ready to launch into another ‘Praise the Lord and God’s great Nation’ tirade. His skin was dark, nearly black in the dim light of the exam room. It shone as if polished. He was dressed in his usual black, a strip of white tightly wrapped around his slim neck.
Next to the Reverend sat Dr. Eriks. Her lips were pursed, the spray of lines drawing my eyes in. Even though I hated seeing her sit there, her dull eyes smugly watching my every move, I felt a strange comfort in seeing those lines.
Warden Binns sat in the center. His stomach had loosened since the last time I had seen him and his dark hair, neatly cropped, had new sprinkles of gray. The Warden’s hat sat neatly on the table, his fingers occasionally reaching out to lightly stroke its worn rim. Crammed awkwardly in his chair, his face echoed the angst of being forced to sit.
To his right sat Judge Wood. I had never seen him before. I only knew it was him because of his nose.
A few years back there had been a large commotion in the Commons. It was so loud, roaring so thoroughly through the cement walls and closed doors of the prison, that I had heard it clear in my cell. Out of dumb curiosity I had crept down the hall and peeked into the crowded Commons. Inmates were standing around, laughing and cheering as they happily clapped one another on the shoulder. It was a strange sight to see.
One standing near the door was talking rather loudly. I barely had to lean in to hear what had happened. A man had been in court, fighting against a charge of Arson 1. Even though he had evidence proving his non-guilty plea, there had been one small stipulation that had managed to sentence him. Judge Wood had slapped him with a fifteen year sentence.
In rage, the man had jumped the table and reached the Judge before the guards had a chance to react. In one swift swing, his fist made contact with the Judge’s nose. It had shattered instantly. Everyone in the Commons cheered on the man, who was now sentenced to life with no parole.
Judge Wood’s nose now sat severely crooked on his chubby face. I could hear the soft wheeze of breath as he sucked air in and out. Everything about him was chubby. His sausage fingers tapped the table mindlessly, dimpled knuckles bending and popping. He licked his bloated lips, his bulging eyes blinking slowly.
The last person at the table had to be Oscar Ramos. He was small, his shaggy brown hair oiled down in an obvious attempt to better his dirty appearance. Everything about him seemed oddly dusty. Even though his clothes were cleaned and pressed, they still held the worn look of a farmer. One hand nervously brushed across his mouth, his knuckles pressing hard into his thin lips.
The Warden cleared his throat. “942B, are you ready?”
Licking my lips, I forced myself to nod. The Warden glanced at the others, then looked back to me. “Begin.”
I shut my eyes a moment, focusing on the memorized words I had practiced over and over the last few days. Looking them in the face was too intimidating. I could feel their focus on me, waiting. Flicking my eyes back open, I focused on the table. I hoped they would accept this as a fair trade.
In the late 20th century, the United States of America stood as a strong force in the modern world. With allies scattered across the globe, the U.S. held a power that other nations could only dream of. But within the country, they were weak. National debt was rising. The very citizens tore at each other worse than any war ever could.” I took a deep breath. My voice was coming out strong, clear and sure of its words. Inside, I shook harder than ever.
Crime rates were rising on a crazy upward climb. Law offices sprouted up, taking advantage of the accused to rake in money that should have been going back to the government. By the dawn of the 21st century, it became the norm to sue instead of settle. And crimes still kept climbing. The country was bankrupt.
The U.S. government finally realized that their nation was crumbling. They formed a plan to save it. Discarding the cursed name, our country renamed itself the Nation. A strong, powerful name, lacking any shame of the past.
Changes began with simple measures: guaranteeing harsher punishment for crime. The Nation hoped this would deter potential criminals. It worked for a short time, but soon that plan showed its weakness. Lawyers and juries still leant a soft ear to the lies of the criminals. Twisting the truth and playing on the selected jurors’ weaknesses still enabled the criminals to go free.
That was when the final laws were put into motion. The Nation discarded the practice of law offices. Along with that, all trials were only conducted as bench trials, leaving the well-trained and fair Judge to determine the sentence without having to deal with simple-minded jury members and lawyers.”
I paused. My eyes flicked up to the panel. Their gazes were locked on me, waiting for me to continue. Judge Wood had straightened in his chair, a proud look crossing his chubby face at the mention of his job.
Twenty-five years ago, the UN accused our great Nation of crimes against its people.” I went on, steadying my breath. “The Nation realized it no longer required the allies of the world. All it required was itself. Our Nation withdrew from the UN. And the UN threatened war.
That was when our great Nation built the Wall. It stretches along each coast, and through the land that borders between Mexico, and Canada. No one without clearance is allowed in, or out. It is our protection. Within our Wall, we can now keep in our justice, and shut out the world’s threats.
We are safe now. We are secure now. The good, the strong, walk free in our great land. And those who commit crimes are justly punished. We need not fear evil, for the only evil is that which we lock away.”
I stopped. Something inside me twisted. I could see my mother’s face, looking at me with the glazed look of insanity. My father leaving his dinner out for me to eat. The fishing paper, with Orrin’s perfect handwriting carefully lined across it. The memorized textbook words twisted in my mind. My head started to spin.
I could hear someone clear their throat. Looking up, I saw all five were staring intently at me, leaned forward slightly in their chairs as if waiting for something. I mentally shook my head, forcing the twisted knot to hide away.
I… I am proud to be part of our great Nation.” I said. “I look forward to my release, where I can prove that I am good and strong. I will work for our Nation to keep it strong. Those in the Prisons deserve their sentences. Criminals are liars, and we cannot trust them. I hope to be trusted, as I prove that I have been cleansed of the evil that brought me into this world.”
For some reason, I felt the sting of tears behind my eyes. I tried desperately to push it away. To show weakness now, at the end of my exam, would be a catastrophe.
The panel was quiet, watching me. I could see Oscar running his clenched hand across his lips, glancing occasionally at the others who sat down the table from him. Dr. Eriks had the smug smile spread on her lips. The Reverend was nodding, the Judge bearing into me with his disheartening gaze.
The Warden stifled a yawn. “Thank you, 942B. You may be excused.”
That was it. The Exam was over. I realized I had finished it too soon. I had heard that the Exam could take hours. Mine took mere minutes. Panic raced in my mind, worrying that I had left out something. Replaying my words in my head, they all seemed perfect. But why had I finished so early?
I didn’t realize that I was walking down the hall until I hit the Commons. Inmates sat in small groups, barely noticing me as I passed. I could only see the tattooed bodies, the angry faces, the shaded eyes, the occasional flitting eyes of a hiding Jail Baby. I could only see danger. I couldn’t wait to get away from this place.
With hours to kill, I did the only thing I could think of. I crawled into my bunk, and fell asleep.
| | |
The sound of someone washing their hands pulled me from my empty dreams. My father leaned at the sink, scrubbing at his hands vigorously. I could see a stream of red mixing with the water that flushed away down the rusted drain.
What happened?” I asked before I could stop myself.
My father jumped at the sound of my voice. I could see his shoulders sag as he let out a heavy sigh. “Just a cut. At work. They said I don’t even need stitches.” I saw him wince in pain as he scrubbed at it again. “Don’t worry.” Still wincing, my father pulled a small sliver of metal out of the cut on his hand, dropping it to wash away down the drain.
I climbed down from my bunk and crossed over to him. Unrolling some of the rough toilet paper, I waited for him to turn off the water, then handed him the wad. “Thanks,” he muttered, taking it carefully from me and pressing it to the cut. I could see dark red already soaking through the thick paper.
You should go to the Infirmary. You need to get that checked again.”
My father stared at his hand, pressing harder against the bleeding. “No, they said I’m fine. Don’t worry, Millie.” He looked up at me, forcing a small smile to pass on his face before he winced again in pain.
Moving past me, he sat heavily on the edge of the bunk. Unrolling more toilet paper, I walked over to his side and waited. He kept his head down, carefully pulling the now blood saturated ball of toilet paper off his hand. As he moved to cover it with the new bundle, I caught a glimpse of the wound.
The side of his left hand, right along his thumb, was sliced cleanly open. I could see the bulge of white fat and gleam of bone clearly, all covered in the thick red of flowing blood. It clearly needed stitches.
My father pressed the clean ball of toilet paper to the wound, shamefully handing me the dirty one. Without pausing, I moved over to the toilet and dropped it in. I watched as the red toilet paper soaked up the water, already tearing apart and disintegrating. I hit the flush handle and the red mess disappeared.
He didn’t need me. He was my father, but he was also an adult. I had been told that the prison would take care of him. I almost turned to walk away, to let him lie down and rest. They had told him he would be fine, so who was I to argue?
I looked back to my father’s face. It was losing color fast, his lip quivering as he pressed harder on his bloody hand. His eyes were focused on the ground beneath him, drops of blood splattering onto the cold cement.
I stepped closer, my hand rising to softly touch his shoulder. He lifted his eyes too look at me. They were watery, floating in the pain he tried so hard to bite back. My fingers snagged on the rough fabric of his shirt. I felt something in my chest heave.
I parted my lips. I wanted to say I forgave him. I wanted to feel him cradle me in his arms like he had when I was small, chasing away the shadows of this world. I wanted him to protect me like he protected my mother.