He could smell the bleach on the wind as soon as the door opened. Whole place stank of cleanliness. Stepping out onto the sun-faded asphalt, he turned to see if she had anything to say, but she just looked ahead, eyes squinted to the rising sun, with a cigarette hanging from her lip. She drove off as soon as he let the door close. Just as well, the room would be filled with something worse than silence if she went in there with him. He heard the calls from the slotted windows on the other side of the fence, but the wind carried most of them away. Wiped them out with the bleach. Not that it mattered, he’d learned to ignore them anyway. He let the heels of his sneakers scrape with each step as he made his way to the gate, looking up at the camera and waiting for those in the booth to buzz open the sally port. After a few seconds the woman’s familiar voice came over the intercom.
“Is it just you this time, sugar?”
Nodding, he wiped his nose with his wrist. The buzzer sounded and he pulled the chain link gate open, careful not to let it slam shut on his finger again. He walked up to the glass control booth and the two dark women, one skinny the other not, smiled at him with bright, straight teeth, one canine in the big lady’s mouth shined gold. She looked at him now, her uncanny ability to pop her gum every time she chewed never ceased to amaze. The skinny one was handling other visitors, which was fine. To say her personality was wanting would be something of an understatement. The large woman sat back down in her rolling chair on the other side of the thick glass. Her considerable breasts seemed about to explode underneath the false-button shirt, and he tried not to look at them for fear of her noticing, but she always seemed to expect them to be looked at. His father would say that’s what they were there for. The zipper that held the shirt together could be seen beneath the buttons.
“Yo mama ain’t comin, baby?” He shook his head no. “I guess you got good enough at this now anyway, huh.” She smiled broadly. It was not a question. He nodded to her, and she tilted her head toward the door.
He pulled it open with the sound of the loud, mechanical click but did not step forward, being blocked by the tightly creased uniform of the day-shift lieutenant. He glanced down at the man’s black boots, shining like mirrors in the morning sun, then up at his face as best he could. His mustache was impeccably trimmed with strands of gray amidst the brown.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me, young man,” he over enunciated his words as if he were trying to mold every aspect of his life to perfection from his blinding boots and creased pants to his meticulously groomed facial hair. The only problem was that it made his noticeably imperfect lisp more pronounced. “We need to go to the isolation room. Follow me.”
The soft soles of his own shoes only gave slight squeaks on the absurdly waxed floor, but the hard soles of the lieutenant’s boots clicked with the near staccato rhythm of a horse on concrete. They passed through a series of doors, the lieutenant using his keys that were chained to his belt, and reached the room just outside of the administrative offices within a few minutes. There was no one in sight in this area on the weekend, on visitation day, and the officer let out a curse under his breath as he looked around. He pulled his radio extension from his shoulder and held it to the side of his mouth.
“L-2 to U, U-1,” only a few seconds passed.
“U-1, go ahead,” replied the radio.
“Give me a 21 in—” he looked around for the nearest phone. The only one was back in the administrative area. “Admin, 10-21 admin.”
“You wait here, young man. Go ahead and have a theat. We’ll thee about getting him here in juth a few.” He walked out, but before the door closed, the boy heard, “Nobody lithens in briefing.”
The room was small and indeed isolated as they’d passed no one else in the administrative area on a Sunday. This must be the most silent area in this place, as far as the boy could tell, and it smelled like paint. Tobacco and bleach drifted faintly behind, but the primary aroma was paint. There were windows that looked out onto an open grassy area. Two basketball goals and a sand-pitted volleyball court decorated the other side of this yard. White-suited men were walking in pairs toward the visitation area, a fence separating them from the adult playground. He watched them walk side by side, some smoking, all seeming to try with great effort to look dignified in the cheap, state-issued uniforms adorned only with blue stripes up the pants legs and on the collar. All failing miserably. He looked around the room, a cabinet high on the wall, a few folding chairs in one corner, and what looked to be a dressing screen in the farthest corner, oddly shaded from the light. There were fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling, but most of the light seemed to come through the one window that wasn’t covered with a blind. In the middle of the floor was a pad, a mat about the size and thickness of a single mattress that had been slept on for a thousand years. There were leather straps bound to the floor, two at the top and two at the bottom. They seemed to be overly thick belts. He got up from his chair to commence a more thorough inspection, and the hair on the back of his neck and forearms came to attention as the movement from the opposite corner caught his eye. A white-clad man like the ones he’d seen out the window stepped out from behind the dressing screen, from the only shadow in the room. He came out of it as if coming into existence right before the boy’s eyes. This man kept his eyes on the boy the entire time with a wry smile.
He stepped out slowly, careful not to drag his heels as he did, and he carried a broom with the straw side up as if he used it more for walking than cleaning. His hair was matted and mousy under the cloth cap he wore that matched the material of his uniform. The stubble on his face and neck was much darker with no gray in it even though the man was old, unidentifiably old by the loose leather of his face. A roll-up cigarette was tucked behind his ear, and his eyes were the color of new charcoal. Lips parted in a yellow smile. He seemed to favor his left leg, but he didn’t let it slide as it was taboo in the chain gang to scuff the immaculate floors. The man stopped in front of the window, dimming the room only slightly but perceptibly, and he stood looking at the boy for some minutes. His hat, old and worn, was bent down in the middle, perhaps broken or just too tired to hold its shape anymore, and the sides stuck up and out as if he were wearing a chalice on his head cut down the middle. He ran his fingers down his stubbled cheek, the tips of each digit stained yellow, but despite his appearance he didn’t smell bad. The foul, stale odor that usually accompanied these men with their constant use of the cheap tobacco and state-issued toiletries did not linger around this one. He smelled clean like the harsh, lye soap they used, and it blended with the bleach. He pulled the rolled cigarette from behind his ear, passing it under his nose like it was a fine Cuban, and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. He let it hang there, putting his hands in his pockets and leaning back against the wall, propping his foot up as if he were standing on the sidewalk outside a bar waiting on a ride. When he crossed his arms, the boy could see a lone tattoo on his wiry forearm. No doubt obtained in a facility much like this one, it was made with standard-issue prison ink blown from the tube of a cheap pen, most likely one with a translucent plastic case. Too much was used, and the ink had bled thicker in places, but it was the outline of a bird. That much was clear.
“Hi-dee, young feller. What you doin in a place like this on such a fine Sunday mornin?”
The boy just looked at him in response, letting the initial shock of someone else in the room subside. The boy’s natural state of calm returned, his unfathomable ability to disregard falling back over his body like a warm blanket. This man was obviously an orderly. His job was the cleaning and upkeep of the administrative offices, and if that was his job, he must be a trustee, somebody about to get out or one who never gets in trouble.
“Don’t you speak when you’re spoke to, son?” His voice was not deep, and it carried a rhythm to it, whether intentional or not the boy could not tell.
“I ain’t your son,” the boy replied in his own high voice.
“Oh, well look at that, you do got sense enough to talk,” he took the cigarette from his mouth and stuck it behind his ear again, twirling the broomstick a little back and forth, gazing at the boy who only stared back in return. “No, I don’t expect you are my son. Not that I reckon anyway. I was probably housed in another fine establishment such as this while your mama was gestatin. What are you, ten? Elebm?”
“About that,” the boy replied dryly. The man gave him a curious look then tilted his head back and breathed in deeply, glancing out the window behind him before turning to face the boy again.
“You know why that mat’s on the floor yonder?” He sucked at his yellow teeth but didn’t move otherwise. “That’s where they strap down the bad men. That’s where they put the ones can’t control themselves or refuse to be controlled by others. It’s a natural response in a place like this, when grown men are told what they can and can’t do like they’re children.” He leaned forward and kicked the strap closest to him.
“Yessir, strap you face down, sometimes without a stitch on you, as naked as you are under them clothes there, and they shoot you up full uh Thorazine,” it came out thoor-zeen. “Yessir, they shoot you up with the good stuff and you go down for the count. I don’t care how big you are, how bad you are, how many people you killt, how many women you raped. They stick that in your arse just as hard and fast as they can, and you go to sleep not long after you feel the sting of the needle that’s hollow as a scorpion’s tail. Thoor-zeen, that there is man’s answer to the devil.”
“What’s God’s?” the boy asked looking down at the mat.
“What’s God’s answer to the devil if that’s man’s?” the boy asked again, and the man cocked his head a little, squinting at the smooth, freckled face of the boy.
“You’re a odd duck, aintcha?” the man asked, lowering his leg from the wall and shifting his weight to the broom. “I knew it’d be somethin to come talk to you. Well, boy, I reckon man is God’s answer to the devil, but if you ask me thoor-zeen is better.”
A nod of the head was the only reply given. The man stood there looking at the boy for several minutes, occasionally shifting his weight to find the comfort that was not wholly attainable and rubbing the bristles on his cheeks. He opened his mouth to speak but seemed to think better of it, letting silence creep in like a figure itself, and waited for the boy to succumb to it. After several minutes, the man began to believe that the boy would beat him at the game, but either his curiosity or boredom got the better of him.
“How is it they leave you in here by yourself?” the boy asked. “This is right next to admin, but it ain’t admin.”
“I spect I could ask you the same question,” the man replied, but shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “Well, I kinda go where I please. I’m one of these that don’t like to be controlled by someone who thinks he has power over me. That’s always been the case. Ever since the beginning, I ain’t liked bein told what to do.”
“You still have to go where they tell you.” The boy just looked into his eyes.
“Maybe so, but the trick is making them think that’s where they wanted you to go in the first place. That way they think they won, but really you did. A better trick than that is gettin em to forget about you altogether. I like that one better.”
“I guess you’re gonna tell me you’re one of those bad men,” the boy said with his first real expression, turning up one corner of his mouth.
“Boy, I’m about the baddest one you’ve seen, but I’d only tell you that. See, tellin you that does nothin to me. If I told them that, it would draw attention to me, and that’s not what I want. I want to go unseen, doin what I want to do, you get it?”
“I get it.”
“I knew you would,” he said stepping away from the wall, watching the boy to see what he’d do, but he didn’t move. The man’s gaze left his and went to the door. “Scuse me a minute.” With that, he shuffled with the tapping of the broomstick back to the dressing screen, disappearing behind the fabric just as the lieutenant opened the door.
“The yard offither is going to get him shortly. He was plathed in itholation for—well I’ll let him explain that to you. We feel that he can’t be around general population right now for thafety reathons. He really ithn’t thupposed to have vithitors, but they thought theeing you might help him thum. Anyway, I’ll thtay here with you two during the visit—”
“10-10 in M-1,” a frantic voice came over the radio. “10-10 in M-1 and M-2!”
“Jezuth,” the lieutenant said opening the door. He turned around briefly before running out. “You thtay right here. Thith area is thecure. I’ll be back in juth a minute,” then with the radio to his mouth, “L-2 to U, U-1—”
The tap of the broomstick echoed just behind the closing of the door, and the boy watched as the man peeked his head around the corner of the fabric and smiled, making his way back to his position in front of the window, once again dimming the room a little with his presence. He pulled the cigarette from behind his ear again, but this time he followed it with a book of matches from his sock. Folding one of the matches over without tearing it out, he pressed it against the sandy strip on the back side with his thumb, popping it down with a sulfuric hiss, stinging the boy’s nose only briefly before the stale smell of the cheap tobacco took over the room. He inhaled deeply and released the cloud through his nose giving him a sinister look in front of the lighted window.
“I thought y’all couldn’t have matches,” the boy said plainly.
“Don’t like to be told what to do,” the man replied with a wink. He blew the next drag into the cherry of the cigarette as if blowing it a kiss.
“What’s a 10-10?” the boy asked with indifference.
“That’s a fight, young feller. One that should’ve happened a little sooner, but it served its purpose nonetheless.” He smiled again and waited. The boy glanced down at his arm.
“What’s that?” he asked, and the man held the leathery old arm up to better catch the light. The boy looked closely at the tattoo.
“That there’s just a little somethin I got to carry with me,” the man replied. “It’s somethin called a memento mori. You should look it up. This one is a mourning dove.”
“Do they only come out in the morning?”
“Not that kind of mourning, boy. You should look it up too. I spect you will. You like to read.”
“I do.” The boy replied.
“I know,” the man said in a somber tone that pulled a slow moment between them. When enough time had passed, he smiled and flicked the cigarette prematurely in front of him. “So, why ain’t you in church on Sunday mornin?”
“Because this is time for visitation,” the boy replied.
“Oh, it always is,” the man replied and laughed despite himself. He started coughing on the smoke he inhaled and held up a hand telling the boy to give him a moment. “I’m sorry. That just struck me funny. I know that ain’t the visitation you meant. So, you go to visitation rather than church then.”
“I wouldn’t go to church noway,” the boy replied. “We never have, so I don’t see as why we would now.”
“Well now, you’re supposed to go to church. It says so in the book.”
“Yessir, I reckon it does.”
“Says so in Hebrews and in Romans, if I recollect. Uh course, you can make it say so in any verse whatever way you want to read it,” the cigarette was somehow nothing more than a stub all of a sudden, but the man held it between his two fingers. The boy didn’t see how it couldn’t hurt.
“I reckon it does, but I can’t say that I know much about it,” the boy said with the demeanor of a grown man. “I guess I’d rather go cause I wanted to rather than be scared not to.”
To this the man stood straight, holding the broom in both hands. The cigarette had now disintegrated, seemingly turning to nothingness if such a thing were possible, and perhaps it could be in here. He looked at the boy with half astonishment, stepping away from the window for a moment and giving the room a new level of light. He ran his knuckles briskly up and down his cheek and repositioned the hat on his head though it did not lose its shape. The boy didn’t move, simply keeping his eyes fixed on the man’s own. After a few moments, the man composed himself again in front of the window, dulling the world. Behind the man, the boy could see two more white-clad figures walking up the sidewalk.
“It’s strange you should say that,” the man said with a stern face. “Fear’s the most effective way to promote a response. If you’re not afraid there’s nothing else that will do. Well, nothing else works as good I can tell you that.”
“Always seemed like a backward way of doin it to me,” the boy explained, putting his hand in his pocket. “Seems to me most folks go out of fear of burnin rather than love of doin it.”
“How old did you say you were, boy?”
“Hot-a-mighty, I knew I wouldn’t regret talkin to you. I was bored before, but this has turned out to be mighty fine.”
“What’s your name, mister? I noticed you ain’t got no ID on your shirt. I thought y’all always had to have that.”
The man tilted his head in reply and waited.
“You don’t like for people to tell you what to do,” the boy said nodding, and the man gave him a wink. “So, what’s your name?”
“What you think it is?”
“I got no idea.”
“I think you do,” the man stood in silhouette against the window with legs shoulder-width apart and broom in hand.
“I think you want me to think it, but I just don’t know.”
“Winston,” the man said with a grin.
“First or last?” the boy seemed to have a genuine curiosity.
“Just Winston, it’ll do as good as any if you’re determined to label.” The man pulled a light blue bag from his back pocket and commenced rolling another cigarette. Several moments went by as he did so in silence. He did not ask the boy’s name in return.
“So, you’re not afraid of goin to hell?” the man asked, popping another match.
“It used to bother me somethin awful,” the boy said somberly. “Used to keep me up at night in my room, thinkin bout going down there forever and ever, burning in a fire that never dies, hearing those around me scream in pain, those with the same fate as me.”
“Heh, you say it like it was some time ago, like you haven’t lived but a handful of revolutions on this dirtball.”
“I guess it wasn’t so long ago.”
“Why were you afraid?” the man asked. “I thought you never went to church.”
“Daddy used to talk about it a lot. I reckon he looked to put the fear in me, and he did for some time.”
“But you just decided not to be afraid anymore?”
“It wasn’t gettin me nowhere.”
“Heh heh, boy you beat all I seen in a while. You ain’t scared right now? You’re in a room with a feller you don’t know, says he’s the baddest thing to walk the earth.”
“I know what you said you are.”
“It don’t scare you?” he stepped toward the boy, but he didn’t move. The boy pulled his hand out of his pocket, holding something. The man squinted to see what it was. It looked to be a toy of some kind then the boy began using it and cleared up the mystery. He slipped the string around his middle finger and flipped his wrist down toward the ground, letting the yo-yo roll just above the waxed floor before snatching it up.
“Does it bother you if it don’t scare me?” the boy asked, getting up from his chair to gain a more convenient height for the toy.
“It should, but maybe you don’t feel much of nothing,” Winston said, tapping a white ash from the cigarette that never seemed to hit the floor. “Maybe you get it honest. What’s your daddy in here for?”
“Can’t you tell me?”
“Easy, boy,” the man’s face took on a seriousness that caught the boy’s attention. “I’m enjoying our time together. Don’t ruin it,” he stood back and relaxed. “I could tell you. I could tell you whatever you want. I could tell you what you’re thinking right now, but that would ruin the experience. Now, what’s your daddy in here for? Is he a bad man?”
“Ain’t everybody in here one?”
“No, some are, but most of them just want to be. They can’t find any other way to fit in.”
“Yessir, I reckon he’s one of the bad ones.”
“You think you’re a bad one?” the man tried to relax his expression again.
“I think I wouldn’t be if I had to say it.”
Winston laughed an empty laugh, a sound without echo, a hollow sound. For a full minute he gripped his knees, the cigarette bouncing up and down in his lips before finally righting himself back up against the wall. The boy turned his back to him, whipping the toy up and down, as if the monotony were soothing to him. The room stood motionless around him as he flipped his wrist over and over like he was trying to escape the toy that would not leave his finger. He seemed not to care if the world moved up and down away from his motions rather than the centripetal force of the yo-yo fighting the gravity that surrounded it. Winston watched him nearly mesmerized.
Time along a linear path from that point to this showed one instance after another of the will of man succumbing to the introduction of fear. Fear was a heightened sense of awareness, a realization that not only was it all going to end but the odds were that it wasn’t going to end well. It was claustrophobia, being contained by the surrounding universe. Existence was here and there was no dispute and once a man witnessed the finality of it all, he experienced fear. That is what the emotion was, a realization. Knowing there was no escape. Here stood this boy, playing with a toy with his back to him. It didn’t matter who he believed he was, whether he was the embodiment of fear or a pedophiliac orderly searching the administrative desks for personal pictures that belonged to the fools who sat in their swivel chairs day in and day out unspooling the time that passed from nothingness to the same place. It didn’t matter. The fact was the boy showed that he didn’t care. Whether his fearlessness was genuine was unquestionable because no man, no child especially, could conceal the rawest of emotions from his onlooker. It couldn’t be done. The boy was real. The question was how did he come to be?
“They always let you bring that toy in here?” the man asked, approaching the dialogue from a different vantage.
“They usually hold it for me when I go to th to the visitation room,” the boy replied without stopping his repetitive play.
“I thought so. They wouldn’t allow it because of the string. Afraid somebody would try to strangle someone with it.”
“I reckon so.”
“Oh yeah, it’s so,” Winston replied. “Not that it matters. Did you know you could make toilet tissue just as strong as a rope?” He waited for the boy to make an inquiry, but none came. “Oh yeah, you just have to have plenty of paper and a lot of patience. You can braid it strong enough to hold up a full-grown man, no tellin how many little boys.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You gonna tell your daddy bout it? Maybe it’s somethin he’d want to know.”
“Why would he want to know that?” the boy asked without looking up.
“You’d be surprised. It may be somethin you never thought of.”
The man looked out the window just in time to see the lieutenant walking back toward the infirmary door. Knowing the man would be here in a matter of minutes, he walked toward the door then stopped and looked back at the boy. After a few seconds the boy stopped playing with the yo-yo and put it in his pocket, turning to face the man again.
“Your buddy’s comin back,” Winston said in a whisper. “I’m just gonna stand back over in the corner. I’ll be right behind the curtain.” With that, he crossed the room, careful to stay clear of the boy, as if touching him would dissolve his being, and stood in the only spot in the room that caught no light behind the dressing screen. No sooner than he stood there, the door opened, and the lieutenant stepped in.
“Well thith hath been a hell of a morning,” he said, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiping his forehead, pulling down several times across his neat little mustache. “When I told you we’d bring him thoon, I wathn’t lying. All my yard offithers have just been tied up with other things.” He looked around the room carefully, his eyes finally falling on the mat in the middle of the floor. He stood there for some time fixed on the stained pad seemingly held down itself by the restraints.
“You need anything, a thoda maybe?” the boy shook his head. “It looks like I’ll have to bring him up here mythelf. Do you want to wait in front at the control room?”
“Nossir, this is fine,” the boy replied, again shaking his head.
“Okay,” the lieutenant said, not hiding his impressed expression. “I’ll be back in juth a few.” With that, he closed the door behind him.
The boy looked over at the corner, but it seemed empty, black despite what light there was in the room. He could make out the dressing screen, and he watched it for a full minute until Winston stepped out again. Broom in hand, though not standing quite so erect, Winston’s demeanor had changed. He seemed less confident, his vitality gone somewhere in the brief strand of time since the boy had arrived. Once he took up his position in front of the window, he stood looking at the boy who stood with his thumbs hooked in his pockets.
“How come you didn’t leave when he asked you?” Winston said.
“Seemed like a waste of time to walk all the way back up there just to be brought back for the visitation,” the boy replied blandly.
The man pulled his pale blue bag from his back pocket and commenced to rolling another cigarette, never taking his eyes from the boy. Once he passed his tongue across the thin paper, he tucked it behind his ear and returned the tobacco to his pocket. He propped the broom against the wall beside him and folded his arms across his chest. After a few minutes of what appeared to be deep contemplation, his eyes opened wide and his brow unfurled as the appeasement on an epiphany covered his face. Rubbing his hands together, he positioned himself.
“How long till your mama comes back to get you?”
“How you know it was my mama that did the bringin?”
“Let’s just assume I’m right and you didn’t walk all the way from Dixie.”
“She’ll come get me when she’s good and ready I reckon, mister.”
“What does she do while you’re here, you think? You figure maybe she sits in the parking lot and reads a book?”
“She passes the time as much as anyone else, I’d say.”
“Maybe goes to the grocery store and gets the week’s shoppin out the way.”
“I don’t reckon either one of us is in the position to tell.”
“Maybe when she pulls up in that ragged, faux-wood-paneled station wagon with glossy yellow eyes and the smell of trash on her breath you’ll know where she’s been.” He stood away from the wall now, all weakness in his leg appearing gone.
“Maybe she had enough time to service that feller in the trailer that sits off the road just above the bridge. The one you’ve sat outside of only a handful of times cause she’d rather go when you’re not around. Maybe she had time to give him some happy so she could get some back through that pipe, son. What you think? You think that’s where she went, or you think she’s at the IGA gettin your week’s worth of sodee pop?” The boy stood up from his chair, his fists clenched at his sides. Winston smiled and breathed in deeply the air of satisfaction. He pulled the cigarette from behind his ear, popping a match with his other hand at the same time. He had it lit and pulled back the first hit with the sulfur.
“I told you I ain’t your damn son,” the boy hissed, his chin down.
“And I’m tellin you right now I don’t give a shit,” the man leaned back against the wall and looked at the end of the cigarette. “Anger. I’ll take anger if I can’t get fear. I can’t even recall the last time I had to resort to it, but like I said before, you beat all I’ve seen in a while. I see now it was right to talk to you. This needed to happen.” He stepped forward just out of reach of the boy.
“What is it?” asked the man. Through the window the boy could see officers running up the sidewalk. If Winston noticed, he paid it no mind. “What you wanna do? Kill me? It can’t be done, boy. I do what I want, always have, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be one-upped by a yo-yo slinging bed wetter like you. You’ve got spunk. I’ll give you that but consider this a lesson to carry with you the rest of your cold life. Every man’s got a spot you can touch that will set him off his wits. I’m not even done yet. I’m an unstoppable force, and that’s the simplest way I can put it to you. I am motion incarnate, the devourer of time, set loose by that which would see me far away, and you’ve been placed in my path.” Winston grinned at this last and let out a sigh of complacency. He mimed fixing cufflinked sleeves then turned to walk out, pausing with his hand on the door handle at the voice of the boy.
“Every man’s got a spot. I won’t argue with you on that,” the boy had his head up now looking into his eyes. “But I’ll tell you something else that’s sure and certain. Everything dies. From a blood cell to a star, to the universes that hold them both, one way or another one time or another, no matter when that time is, if it seems to be nowhere down the line, even if it can scarcely be said to exist, it’s there. So, you can stand there and say you’re whatever you want to be, whoever you want to be, so help me maybe you are, but don’t make that claim. I’ll correct you in one place, mister. I don’t beat all you’ve seen in a while. I beat all you’ve seen. Maybe I’m the answer to the devil. Mayhap I’m there to cease the motion he carries in whichever direction he travels. Now you carry that with you and be on your way.”
The man frowned and turned toward him when they both heard the keys jingle from the other side of the admin offices. One lock turned and the door shut behind it. Less than a minute would be needed for the lieutenant to get to the medical isolation door. Winston stared forward for a moment then turned around, walking back across the room. He brushed past the boy, but the boy didn’t move. He simply kept his gaze fixed on the man as he grabbed his broom and headed to the corner.
“I’ll be seein you, son.” A low growl as he made his way to the shadow behind the screen.
“That’s up to you,” the boy replied, and he turned around to the sound of the door opening.
“Whew, you been thmoking in here, young man?” the lieutenant was perspiring profusely, most of his light blue shirt now dark. “It doethn’t matter. Come with me. We’ve got to get in touch with your mother. Do you know where the ith?”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
“Let’s go. We’ll see what we can do from the control room.”
“Wait a minute,” the boy said, pulling his arm away from the officer. “Has somethin happened to my daddy?”
The lieutenant reached to grab the boy’s arm again then thought better of it when he saw the look on his face. He stood looking at him for several minutes trying to decide what to do. When he saw the boy wasn’t going to cooperate, he had no alternative but to talk.
“Yes, thumthing hath happened. There’th been an inthident.”
“Did he do it to himself?”
The man was taken aback at the kid’s candor, but as the senior officer on duty, he didn’t have time to placate this boy. Before this day was over, some heads were going to roll because of this, and he wanted to make sure his wasn’t one of them.
“Leth go, young man. Pleathe, I’m sure you’ll hear about it enough anyway.”
Sitting in his mama’s car in the parking lot he could hear the voices again from the slotted windows, but they weren’t yelling at him. They were carrying on with the commotion from the events of the morning. They loved chaos, and whenever they saw the opportunity to prolong it, they would gladly carry it to its greatest lengths like a kite on the wind. That much would probably make Daddy happy knowing he’d caused that with his leaving. He rolled the window up against the noise and he waited for her to come back out, back from inside the locked front gate. If they even let her leave after witnessing the state she was in. He closed his eyes and pictured the man with the broom. He pictured Winston, burning that image into his memory just as firmly as he could until he heard the gate slam shut and a few seconds later the car door open. She got in with the smell of trash and she grabbed the steering wheel, half laughing and half crying. He sat there and looked forward until she finished then she looked over at him and grabbed him under his chin to turn him toward her as was her habit.
“Your daddy’s dead,” she said with a grin, her eyes yellow and glossy and her gray streaked hair half pulled out of her ponytail. The smell of slightly good quality tobacco was on her breath, but only in comparison to this place. “Damndest thing I ever heard in my life. Had him on suicide watch. Nothin in his cell but toilet paper. Now how you think a man can hang himself with toilet paper?”
She started the car and pulled out onto the back road that led to the highway. Cracking the window, she lit a cigarette and dropped the empty red and white box on the seat. The boy glanced at it and the name across it then looked out the window at the blur of trees as they passed.
“Heh, ain’t that a peach,” the end of the cigarette bobbed up and down as she spoke. “What a way to go. Well, there’s one that hell was made for. He’ll dance with the devil for sure.” She looked over at him, and he looked back at her to her surprise.
“Maybe so,” he said with an even voice. “Maybe we all will.”
As an undergrad, Bryant worked as a correctional officer for four years. He transitioned directly into education where he taught high school English Language Arts for fifteen years. He has been a media specialist for the past seven, and he blends his experiences and childhood into his fiction.