Good morning sirs,” I said stiffly.
The chubby old guard stifled a yawn, his hooded eyes closing for a moment. Letting them droop back open, he caught me glancing tentatively at the new guard. “This is the new replacement day guard for Floor B,” he offered, his voice sleepy.
Replacement?” I asked quickly, my voice squeaking slightly. Embarrassed, I pursed my lips shut, feeling the Dr. Eriks lines spread out.
The Nation is finally letting me retire. Got a notice saying that I successfully completed my service and am now allowed to relax.” The chubby guard chuckled. “Relax meaning moving onto some desk job,” he mumbled under his breath. Stretching his arms in front of him, he added, “It’s alright though. I have had about enough of this walk.”
Oh. Okay,” I replied softly, my eyes glancing over to the new guard.
He smiled at me, his arms folding across his solid chest as it rose and fell in perfect rhythmic breathing. The chubby guard motioned to the new one. “Carl GF4 gets to have this exciting job now.”
Oh yes, very exciting,” the new guard, Carl, replied. He winked at me. I felt a chill go down my spine, but managed to keep my face calm as I looked back at him.
Well, come on Carl. Gotta finish the line, then I can finally clock out for good.” The chubby guard glanced at me. “Be good, 942B.” With that, he moved on to the next cell, leaning his chubby frame inside. Carl watched me a moment longer, then silently followed.
Swallowing the lump that was still solid in my tight throat, I ducked back into my cell. I had suddenly remembered the dry thirst that had been growing and stretching through me all day. Cranking on the faucet, I grabbed my old metal cup from the shelf and filled it with the warm water that poured out, then tilted my head back and swallowed a large gulp. The water tasted like metal, stale and too warm to fully quench my thirst. I didn’t care. It felt good to fill my stomach with something other than butterflies.
Something stirred behind me. I let my eyes lift to glance into the metal mirror. A dark figure was standing there, the familiar stoop of the shoulders relaxing my nerves. I didn't say anything. Turning away, I tilted the cup to take another mouthful of the metallic water.
Hi Millie,” he said, his voice slow and distant like always.
Where have you been?” I asked, not bothering to reply to his greeting.
Huh? Oh. My appointment.”
Your appointment?” I turned, my brow furrowing in confusion. “You didn’t have an appointment today. Your appointment is always at the same time as Mom’s.”
My father sat gently on the edge of the lower bunk, barely squeezing on as he tried to not stir my mother. With a grunt he pulled off his shoes, carefully lining them alongside the bottom of the bunk. “They, uh, they changed it. They want to see us separate now.”
For the last eighteen years my parents had been going to all of their appointments together. My mind reeled, wondering why they suddenly were being forced to be seen apart. Then something in my mind clicked. Moving toward my father, I waited until he looked up then locked my eyes onto his.
It’s because of me, isn’t it?”
He offered a sleepy grin. “Of course it is, Millie. You are about to turn eighteen. Of course it is.” His words faded out. Licking his dry lips, he laid down next to my mother. “They said dinner is in cell again tonight.”
I nodded. I had heard that too. “Don’t sleep too long then, okay? I don’t want you missing dinner again.”
If I do, just have mine, Millie. No use letting it go to waste.”
His eyes fluttered shut. I knew the conversation was over.
When I was younger, I would always jump at that offer. I would wait and see if he fell asleep early, then eagerly devour his small share of food. It wasn’t until recently that I realized those nights that I ate his offered ration, he didn’t eat at all. Once, while chomping down on a stale roll, I caught his eyes fluttering, watching me eat as he pretended to sleep. That had been the last night I let myself eat my father’s food.
Letting out a slow breath between my teeth, I pulled the thin blanket over both of my parents. When they slept, they looked so happy and peaceful. My father always draped his arm over my mother, pulling her in protectively against his body, shielding her from any sleep demons that may have tried to snatch her away.
Why can’t you be that protective when you’re awake?” I whispered, the words barely passing my lips before they disappeared.
The sound of metal grating across cement echoed in the cell. Turning, I saw the tray with three covered plates waiting in the doorway. Knowing that in a few minutes the inmate who was on food delivery duty would be back for the tray, I snatched the plates up and moved them to balance on top of the sink. I could smell the usual aroma of a tuna sandwich and a cup of some sort of sliced fruit. Variety wasn’t something the prison cared much for.
Lifting the lid to one plate, I saw I was right. Apples, browned and wrinkling from the time they had sat in the open air before being delivered to our cell, filled a small bowl. Along with the sandwich and fruit, there was a small carton of milk. That was it. My stomach growled, hungrily reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Carefully stacking my parent’s plates under the sink, I grabbed mine and climbed up to the top bunk. The pad was all but flat underneath me. My back already hurt at the idea of having to sleep on it tonight. We were already six months past due for new bedding, with no word about the hopeful change. I didn’t even hold my breath anymore.
Picking up half of the sandwich, I tentatively took a bite. There was always too much mayonnaise, leaving the sandwich mushy and wet. Even though I didn’t need to, I sat and chewed the mush, letting my eyes close as I leaned my head against the wall.
I felt something crinkle as I settled down. Reaching under my leg, I found the piece of yellow paper from my session, still wadded into a tight ball. It must have fallen out of my pocket when I climbed up. Sitting back again, I took another bite of my sandwich and flattened out the paper.
My name is Millie 942B.
Next week is my eighteenth birthday. And I dread it with every fiber in my body…
Something still nagged at me when I read it. I almost felt ashamed as the words sunk in. Like I should have never written them to begin with.
Shoving the last bite of the sandwich into my mouth, I pulled out my old notebook. Dr. Eriks had given it to me a year ago for my journaling assignments. I could tell it had already been used by someone before me. The cover was ragged. The pages hung limp, dog-eared, the spine giving away how many sheets were already missing. Still, it was mine. Few things in here actually belonged to me, so I couldn’t complain about this one used notebook. It was mine.
Pulling my pencil out of the spine, I flipped it open to a new page. As soon as the pencil touched the paper though, my mind froze. I couldn’t think of anything to write. For some reason, writing a journal entry about my mushy sandwich or my still unstable mother seemed useless. I had written about it all one too many times.
The face of the new guard, Carl, flashed in front of my eyes. I pushed the pencil against the paper, then stopped myself before the first word could form. My body started to shake. For some reason, I suddenly felt uneasy. The thought of writing my thoughts about him had stopped my pencil dead.
Giving up, I flipped the notebook shut and leaned back against the wall again. I looked over at the browned apples, my mouth twisting into a frown. I had never been a fan of apples. There was something about their texture that just bugged me. Seeing them sliced in the bowl, browning and already bad, didn’t entice me to take a bite.
I pushed the tray aside, then swung my legs over the edge of the bunk and slid to the ground. My parents were fast asleep. My father softly snored, his mouth hanging open in his sleep, a thin line of saliva already trickling down his rough cheek. There was no doubt about whether or not he was faking. I quietly crept over and divided my apple slices into each of their bowls. Then I sat back on the ground, the coolness of the cement helping to keep me awake.
Something buzzed, loud and harsh. I barely twitched as the sound cut through the night. I could hear the sudden rush of feet hurrying down the walkway. The inmates were all returning to their cells for the night, the buzz warning them that it was five minutes until the doors shut and locked, leaving those locked out to be sent straight to the Hole.
The footsteps died down. I could hear the murmuring rise of the inmates as they crowded into their cells. The few that still passed were the older ones, unable to move as fast. On floor B, there were a lot of older inmates.
Floor B was the floor of Lifers.
The buzz cut through the air again. I could hear the familiar crank of gears rev up, then the slide of doors as they snapped shut, one after the other down the walk. Our cell’s turn finally arrived. The door slid out from the wall, slow at first, then suddenly snapping shut tight as if it had been kicked awake. It was solid, with a small grating along the top and about three inches shy of meeting the ground. Just enough room was left along the bottom for the medicine that was slid in each night.
Right on time, I heard the matching footsteps of the two nurses as they made their way down the walk. They stopped before each cell, asked if everything was alright, then promptly passed along any prescribed medicine. Occasionally, during some nights, you would hear an inmate demand medicine that he wasn’t prescribed. Usually a quick ‘no’ would suffice, but sometimes the inmate wouldn’t let up. The quick, heavy footfalls of a guard as he approached the cell would echo down the walk to calm the situation. There had been a few times I had heard the door grate back open, then the demanding would abruptly be silenced. I hated those nights. Tonight, luckily, all was calm.
The nurses stopped in front of my cell.
942B, is everything alright tonight?”
Not bothering to stand, I answered, “Everything is fine. My parents are asleep.”
Very well.” With that, three small paper cups were slid under the door and the sound of the nurses moving on to the next cell disappeared into the night.
I picked up the cups and carefully lined them along the back of the sink. My mother’s cup always had four pills in it. My father’s held three. Mine held only one. They told me it was a vitamin supplement, something needed to keep me strong. I didn’t really care what it was. Filling the cup with water, I threw the pill in my mouth and chased it down with the warm liquid.
The buzz sounded once more. This was the longest one. It cut through the prison for a good minute, making sure that every inmate had a chance to hear it. Then, as the last echoes of the buzz died out, the lights suddenly went dead. In each cell a small light glowed near the door along the floor. It cast eerie shadows along the walls of the cell that never moved or danced, the glow the only lighting we would have until five in the morning when they would snap all of the lights back on at once.
I blinked a few times, the darkness of the cell refusing to adjust to my eyes. Finally giving up, I forced them wider and leaned against the sink. My stomach still rolled with hunger. I thought for a moment about taking a half of my father’s sandwich, but stopped myself as my hand hovered above the lid to his plate. I knew he would wake up hungry. I didn’t want to be the one to cause that hunger to stay, again.
I slid my hand up onto the top bunk, feeling around until my fingers found the binding of my notebook. Pulling it down, I moved to sit near the glowing light on the floor. I quickly tore out a page, closed the book and laid the page down on the cover. Pulling my shoes off, I carefully unstrung the shoelaces, knotting them together to make one long rope.
What is blue?
I scribbled on the paper. Folding it until it wouldn’t bend anymore, I tied the end of my shoelace rope around the paper ball and pulled it tight, then flattened myself to the ground. Sprawled out on my stomach, I laid my face close to the opening at the bottom of the door, and waited.
The sound of a night patrol’s boots thumped past. I waited until it died into the distance, then slid my hand under the door. Holding tightly onto the end of the shoelace, I flicked my wrist, throwing the paper bundle far to the left. I could hear it as it hit the ground, barely audible above the rumble of whispers bouncing down the walk.
My eyes closed, enjoying the coolness of the floor against my cheek. Time passed. I could feel my fingers cramping as they held tightly onto my end of the shoelace. It was almost time to give up for the night. Just as I propped myself up onto my elbows, the shoelace suddenly tugged.
A smile spread on my lips. I yanked on the shoelace, reeling it back into my cell, then sat up. The note crinkled as I unfolded it. I glanced to my parents, but they hadn’t even stirred. Smiling again, I leaned against the dim light and started to read.
Blue is water. Isn’t it a bit early to be fishing?
My smile broadened.
Fishing was the one way to have hidden conversations with the other inmates, while never having to know exactly who you were writing to. Using my shoelace as the fishing line and the note as the bait, I had slowly captured and gotten to know the inmates along my walk. A few nights every week, I fished. In my own way I had found how to be the silent socialite of the prison.