“I have always seen the devil in the ash. Even now. And I wonder now—I wonder if it was the elusive figure burning in the smoke that was the devil. Or, far more likely and far more terrifying: was the figure none other than me? I was always the devil inside the smoke, the demon encrusted in the gray of the ashes of those around me, dying in a fiery pit, one by one.”
“That sounds pretty dark, to be honest with you, man. I was merely asking if you would pass the smoke,” said Huey. He was one of my cellmates inside the California State Penitentiary, block D, cell 162.
I looked at him and shrugged, turning back to the narrow window overlooking the fried brown grass, on what would most likely be another beautiful day trapped inside. In the distance, I could see the iron fences stretching out toward the sky like the gnarled hands of the damned reaching to a savior above. I sighed deeply; this was going to be another depressing day.
“Avi, I know white people are some greedy folks, but rotate—especially since you didn’t roll the damn thing and lost half my tobacco on the damn floor,” grumbled Huey.
I took another long drag, ignoring Huey as I took in the deep shadows disappearing into the morning blaze.
My cigarette ran dry—shit. I looked out the window for a minute longer, observing the men below as the sun rose higher and higher, burning the brown grass until the ground resembled a sea made of moving mud below me. It was like watching little ants running in the dirt. I turned back to my cellmates sprawled out on their respective bunks. A light-skinned Asian man lay on the lower bed, shoving a pack of cards back and forth through his fingers. He was chisel-jawed, without a trace of lines or deepening in his skin, which reflected bronze in the light through our barred window. Adjacent to him sat another man, his skin wrinkled and haggard from age, and a stump of a missing hand. He had a long, grizzled beard, misshapen and singed off in sections that were peppered white and a light auburn—a sign of its former color.
An unusual pair, but California was full of curious people. Best to go about your day—you were fucked anyways: welcome to prison, who cares about anyone else? They had become my cellmates a week ago, after my former mates and I had… well, let’s just say in prison that you do things you don’t want to do, or things will be done to you. New cellmates were always popping up for one reason or another. I lost track of the number after a while.
For the most part, the pair kept to themselves, which was all right by me. I wasn’t in the mood for making friends today, and they both looked a lot more dangerous and rough to be playing games. Especially the old man—his eyes were always cast away, looking out as if he wasn’t there, lost in some faraway place and time. The few glimpses I caught made my spine tingle. A deep gray, so iced over that you would think there was a world that never knew what the sun was like inside them. He had seen something to make his eyes like that—I knew that all too well.
I passed by the two and flipped myself onto the top bunk next to them. A nap was in order. I would need to get some sleep before yard time—it was the first of the month and the beginning of the month was when you would likely get your ass kicked for no other reason than it being the first of the month. I wanted another cigarette. Just one more taste before I heard the dash of the butt on my walls. It always felt good to be finished. It was like the end of toe-curling sex: a real time that was filled with all the right emotions to send you on a trip into the bliss, but over way too soon. I closed my eyes, dreaming of that sweet embrace of filter tips and the smell of burning tobacco.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Hey friend, got any idea when we go out into the yard? I got an itch, you know.” It was the Asian man asking. He was twitching in the shadows cast by the rising sun across our cell.
Great, I thought, another junkie. I had been in and out of prisons for as long as I could remember, and met all kinds of people. The worst ones were always the junkies. You couldn’t trust them not to try and stiff you on some kind of deal, or to steal from you the first chance they got. Hopefully, I could get rid of this guy before show time. He was a small man for his stature, with good shoulder posture though. He held himself way too well for a junkie or someone in prison. Not only that, his old friend with the stump hand looked frail but wild. I made a quick mental note of the pair—the only way to survive behind the fences was to know your enemy.
The old man seemed disinterested in everything. He hadn’t spoken a word since coming onto the block. Maybe he wouldn’t get involved, maybe he would. There was no way to be sure. His eyes unsettled me with their sky clouds pouring into my every thought, even as I looked at the cracked ceiling above. I sighed and prepared myself for the fight that was about to come—junkies had one thing that they at least did predictably: they were always working an angle and would strike if they thought they could win. And judging by the red of this one’s eyes, he had been on something strong and somehow was so high it was still in his system. I turned, preparing to strike, just in case. “How about you—”
I never got to finish as the cells doors slid open. “Wake up! Roll call starts in two!” shouted the voice of the head guard below as the stir of inmates all around us started ringing out in the early morning hours.
I grunted. “I would say now, man. Yard time starts now.”
The heavy steel door slid away as easily as a sharp skate on ice. It always amazed me how fast automatic cells could be closed, or how fast a door could be opened, and you could be granted a moment of freedom. Only, like most things in life, it would be just a for a second because even as we exited our cells, all of us lucky inmates at the California State Penitentiary were being flanked by rows of security, all aching for a chance to use their clubs in some way.
Being lead out to the yard through the tightly constructed maze of iron and concrete was smooth as always. One thing was for sure: death camps, prisons, or anything else that involves people with guns, they always seem to be quite efficient. Never any mistakes made—well, only by those in the chains. As we made our way down the first flight of stairs leading outside, one inmate was getting wild. It’s never a good idea to get crazy when someone else has a gun and you don’t. Just like clockwork, though, we were all on the floor, in a barrage of shouting and banging of clubs on the old metal railings of the prison, sending a ringing through the steel and concrete, which shook my cheeks as I lay down on its cold surface.
We all knew the drill. Even the new guys behind me could figure out to drop to the ground and put your hands behind your head. It didn’t pay to look around when the guards were getting a high of their own from the opportunity to become heroes. People with guns guarding animals all day get bored, and it becomes even harder to stay entertained when you’re forced to get your kicks from somewhere. I kept my head down flat. I didn’t need to look around as I heard the inmate who was making the noises go down in a hail of thumps and brutal cracks from the butt of a gun.
“Just another fucking day in paradise,” I muttered. In the confusion, with all of us dropped to the ground, I was now facing the one-handed old man, his glossy, almost silver eyes staring hard into my own. I never liked looking into people’s eyes. My grandmother told me once as a child that staring into the eyes of another is like seeing a mirror into their soul. Yet my grandmother believed souls were actually real, and if they were, they had long since left this place. No soul would stay around here if they had a choice. So I never put any stock into what Grandma said. I’d already had my doubts, and as the guards dragged the half-dead man away, still bleeding trails of blood thicker than his words, he was still muttering curses somehow. Yeah, if souls were real, they were smart in leaving this place, I thought.
I ignored the old man’s brief but far too intimate look. I couldn’t see anything in his eyes anyway, just a sadness that filled me like gas inside a balloon. You would be hard pressed to not find that in human beings trapped behind walls. It was easy; don’t stare into the eyes of those who are caged. Want to see sorrow? Look into the eyes of the imprisoned.
After we were all lined up again and led outside in single file, the warmth of the sweet summer air felt like heaven on my face. A disturbance such as that man had created was commonplace—I had seen a lifetime of guards beating on someone else, or even me. The smart thing to do was to distance yourself from it. You can’t be beaten if you aren’t a part of it. I tilted my head up and for the scarcest of moments, I was a free man again somewhere beyond this place of iron and tears.
The yard was already a buzz of men laughing, arguing, and generally going about their lives the best they could. It’s a jungle when you’re in the pen, and the best way to survive, as I had found, was to avoid the center and keep to yourself as much as possible. Some groups were making diesel, though prison tea would never seem good to me. No matter how much the guys from F-block claimed it to be mostly made of real ingredients. Others were rolling little fellas, and the yard was full of the standard black markets. Must stay busy—must stay protected as well. It also didn’t hurt to keep something sharp on you—I had some form of cutlery in almost every sleeve in my faded gray clothes. Which isn’t excessive by any means—Huey had double that in just his left boot.
I saw the nearest benches toward the end of the yard and made a beeline to their safety of rotten, splintered wooden boards, yet still durable enough to sit on. The drama of this morning seemed all but forgotten by everyone in the yard. Blood and gore is just life. That was all I had ever known—or rather, all I could remember. I took my seat away from everyone else, huddling tight into myself on the pews, the sermon playing out across the concrete jungle—I was being preached to on a glorious sunny day. This was the best part of my day, enjoying the sunshine and what little openness I could find. I imagined it must be like what a fish feels when they’re moved from a smaller bowl to a larger bowl. More room, but still trapped in a bowl, with just the dream of a bigger ocean.
Still, as I sat, I just focused on the sun. It kept everything from seeming so close, and took me miles away. I thought of Linor’s black hair. It was a splendid tangle of wispy curls, flowing in every direction. I had often made fun of her as a kid, yet I missed those tangles now. I missed the way they seemed to move with her mood. I wondered if she was still alive, and if she would be seeing the sun in the same way that I was now, and whether her hair would still be in waves.
Huey interrupted my thoughts, a fresh cigarette already rolled as he took his customary place next to me on the bench. I liked Huey. He talked a lot, but he knew when to enjoy the sun. Huey had been in prison about two years longer than me, for inciting a protest—or, as he called it, “cracker knocking.” Either way, it ended with him in jail with little old me on the first sunny day of the year. We had both managed to stay out of a gang. That was soon coming, though. Everyone got into a gang. Everyone. From the straight-laced type who never dreamed of deep-throating a man’s junk or getting beaten to death. You joined a gang. There was no choice in the matter. So far, since we were roommates, we had decided that when that day came, we would do our best to look the other way. So far, we were left alone. So far.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” asked the red-eyed man as he sat with his back near me, staring off at some unknown object in the distance. To the left of him sat the one-armed man, his mutilated stump of an arm being used as a blocker for the sun. I ignored the man and continued to look at the sun. I wasn’t about to lose my train of thought for some asshole.
“It’s the hair—you never quite forget what the hair looks like. How it smelled, how it looked like the kernels of the yellowest of ears picked in the summer,” muttered the man with one arm.
That managed to stop my thoughts. That managed to pull me from my isolated world. I hated when people interrupted me. I especially hated it when people were making a scene. From a mouse fart to paper notes, someone in this yard had just heard what he said. Believe me, when you’re in prison, the new guys make a scene with everything that comes out of their mouth. Someone nearby was probably listening and could use anything they said against me.
“What the hell are you going on about, old man?”
He turned to look at me, a pleading look that someone would expect to get from a disciplining mother and not an old man trapped behind walls of iron. “Don’t waste your life in here, kid—don’t let the things that are inside consume you before it’s too late. I’ve been there—I am still there now. You have to run young man, run as fast as you—”
“Enough of that now, James. You know that we can’t change what’s in motion. Only they can change that,” said the red-eyed man, his tone much more revealing of his accent, but carrying an authority to it that matched someone of a much older age.
The old man glanced at the Asian man, whose back was turned to us with an eerie stiffness that I couldn’t place. A sternness that shaped his shoulders into pride: a free man’s shape. The old man continued, moving closer to me, “Listen to me, please—everything must change. Everything must change with you if you’re to get through this. If you want to see her hair again, you will need to put to sleep the beast.”
“This old cracker man is nuts,” muttered Huey, eyeballing the two with a look of unease.
I flinched from the old man as he got closer. What was he trying to do? Was he insane? Someone could think the three of us were together. In prison, you only touch people if you’re meaning to settle business with them. His hands almost touched mine and I flung myself back from his touch, pulling out a sharpened comb from my pocket. I had been saving the sharp plastic for a bigger threat—you never know how many strikes you’d get before guards took you down—and something told me this old man could take a few. The comb would break fast, but the bladed end was sharp, quick, and precise. I have a lot of experience at using blades.
He flinched. I could tell he knew what was coming as I slid from the bench as his one hand reached out toward me. “Please, don’t lose someone who loves you—someone who will keep your heart warm on a cold night. It’s not worth it. You are not an animal—”
“What kind of liberal platitude are you uttering, you crazy old man?” I asked, reaching for the comb.
“Shut up now, James,” snapped the Asian man, turning toward us, his eyes the color of blood, his eyes like those of a dragon.
I had seen eyes like that once as a child, and I knew only one thing that they could mean. Images span their way into my head, crawling from the safe place I had made as a little boy. Keep the pain away, keep the red away! I was screaming inside my head, tortured, and facing the fire, peeling away my sanity like the skin of an apple.
I turned to flee, and collided right into the body of someone massive. My comb was out, and it had gone deep into his flesh. Hot blood splattered around the puncture wound, fighting for a chance to flow out, aching for a chance to erupt. The man I had stabbed was in shock, and emitted a small yelp. I had taken him right in the heart, and he fell down a few breaths later, what felt like an eternity lasting through the moment.
“Great, James. Well, you might want to get to running, my friend.” The Asian man motioned as all around, the yard whistles blew and guns were fired. I dropped the knife, putting both my hands up, as guards flew almost out of nowhere in my direction.
“Avi, what the hell, man?” shouted Huey as he dashed his cigarette, jumping to the ground. The world was spinning, and I felt the blood from the large faceless man spill slowly to ground. It had otherwise been a fine day.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I stammered, dropping to my knees as someone hit me from behind. My head bounced off the tough, cracked earth. Don’t bleed, don’t bleed! I swore and closed my eyes as the person that had hit me dragged me to my feet. I felt another smack on the side of my head and I fought to stay conscious. All the while, I chanted inside my head not to bleed, over and over again. A voice shouted back to me in the darkness. “Yes!” I replied, looking at the benches. Both men had disappeared into a sea of people. Huey was nowhere to be seen, and everything was suddenly getting very dark.
I snapped open my eyes and saw the looming stretches of concrete all around me. I sighed deeply, knowing how lucky I was, how lucky everyone else was that it had been me who had woken up in this small cell. My legs were cramped in toward myself. I had just enough room to stand up and could only lie down with my legs curled in. I was in solitary, but that was okay. I felt my head and face for blood. I was bruised, and lumps were forming on my head. I was still me—I had not become the monster.
Take a breath, take a big deep breath. I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t sure if the walls around me were moving. I could feel flames, a heat rising inside my mind and in the very air itself. I could hear their laughter. I could feel their gazes on me.
The feel of their sharp fangs ripping into me, my fellow brothers and sisters. I was drowning, I was drowning in images. I fought my way through the haze as a banging came from the door to my cell.
“Avraham Aleksandrovich,” said an unknown voice. It was like a lifeline, though, pulling me from the fire. I didn’t respond. Instead, I took that moment to focus on calming my heart. It was running fast, burning like the flames of a wicker candle.
“Avraham Aleksandrovich,” affirmed the voice from behind the door. Or at least, what I thought was the door—the voice seemed muffled from its veil as I lay in the darkness.
“Yes?” I muttered, afraid to speak up for fear of exposing my dreams out loud.
At the response of my words, a flap was lowered and a blast of sunshine came through a small opening across the room. Bewildered, I turned to the sun. It hurt my eyes, but it fed my soul. Almost greedily, I moved toward the light.
“You’ve been charged with the murder of one man. The repercussions are death. Death by firing squad, until the time that you expire in a pile of lead and a pool of your own blood. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
I couldn’t see who was speaking. It was as if the light was the only thing that was talking in that moment. “Wait—death? That is a little extreme, don’t you think?” I asked the voice, trying to peer at whom was talking.
“I say again, sir; do you have anything to say for yourself, Avraham Aleksandrovich?”
That made me pause. Americans never could pronounce my name on the first try. Most people in general couldn’t say my name right. In fact, my name was butchered so much it was why I went by “Avi” instead. It had been a long time since anyone had spoken my name—not with such clarity. I was reasonably sure when I came here the guards didn’t bother saying my name, they just said “A” and pushed me along. This was queer. This was something where I needed to know how he was doing that. “Who are you?” I asked the voice. “No one gets my name right.” No one living, that is.
“That is all you have to say? Your last words and the most you can say is ‘What?’ You people are always the same, so brassy and noble. At the end of the day, saviors end up the same, though, filled with mirth and self-loathing, with everything always having to be about them. It’s such an odd complex, I suppose. You would think a person could only wholly be one or the other. Oh well, that must be why your type is always picked to save it all, for whatever reason.”
I was confused, lost in the man’s words as I saw an object shining in the light and gleaming as only something designed to kill would gleam.
“The way I see it, you have two choices, my friend. Either stay here and die, or take this knife and slit your wrists. Let the beast out and take control of your life. Or not: let some bullets enter you. I wonder if they would even kill that thing inside you. Time is ticking, and you’re still hooked on what I’ve said, rather than what you think you should be doing. Sheep, every single one of you! Goodbye, sir. This will be the last time we meet. Good luck. You have ten minutes before they come for you.” The voice cajoled, then left, and the flap closed.
And like that it was dark again; it was dark inside my mind and I was all alone. This is insane—who the hell was that? One moment I was out enjoying what little sunshine I could ever have, now I was in this shit, waiting to be executed. I looked down, somehow seeing the outline of the blade in the dark. How did he know about—about him?
A rumble started, a growl and a roar. Clawing, biting, thirsting for blood. It sprang from somewhere deep inside my mind. “Use—the—blade—free—me!” boomed the voice from within. It’s him. It is the beast. “Free—me!” growled something just below, like a lurking shark waiting for a bird to land at sea. Patient, hungry, ready to feast on the unknowing.
“No, I’m not going to let you lose,” I called back weakly, my voice sounding strained in the thick air. I could hear footsteps approaching—so many, coming from somewhere. They were coming; they were coming to get me.
“Do—it—fool!” echoed my own voice, along with the beast, as I reached for the knife in the darkness. It had been a long time since that animal had come out, a long time since I had unsealed him. I had thought that by going to prison I would be safe—or more importantly, everyone else would be safe from me.
I took the knife, holding it against my arm. My hand shook. I only needed to apply my strength; the rest would happen on its own. “Forgive me,” I whispered into the darkness as the blade punctured my arm. I pulled the blade up, dragging its sharp edges until I reached my bicep. Hot syrup rained down from my arm. My clothes soaked fast in blood. It quickly dried, steaming and rolling from the heat, bursting beneath my skin. He is coming. The air was heavy with hot iron, melting and moving in tendrils of fire.
Instead of cold, I felt hot. I felt fire, I felt rage boiling to the surface. And then the drum started: drum, drum, drum. My heart pumping to the beat of the fools coming to my cage. I could hear their footsteps approaching—he could hear their footsteps. They should be running, I thought as the drums reached their highest tempo and my ears begin to flush with heat. The monster started his cry: Freedom at last! The blood from my wound started flowing, flowing all around me, turning the air into a thick red gas. He was coming. There was no stopping the demon now.
My body continued to burn, as my bones started to crack, shake, rip, tear, snap, and dislocate themselves from my body. The pain caused me to cry out as my voice mixed with that of the beast. The more brittle the bones, the darker the hole, I screamed into the darkness of my mind.
The drums continued, and the solitary door flew open. In front of me were five flabbergasted guards.
“Run!” I howled as my skin peeled away and the madness broke free.