August 9th, 1912
The rattle of the jail cell as it slid in its track struck me to my core. The grating metallic sound reverberated in my chest. Clanging at the end had a harsh fierce cold finish to it. My death knell? Maybe.
I’m going to hear that sound for the next twenty years…
“Well…go in. He ain’t gonna bite,” chuckled the burly guard behind me. Officer Darryl Norris shoved me into my new cell mate.
“Jesus! They said I was getting fresh meat, but I didn’t know it was this raw!” A man, lanky and sinewy, scanned me up and down, his lips drawn into a tight white line. He had a shark’s sneer.
“This here is Kevin Harrison, Ralphie. The newest convict to join us here at the Joliet Correctional,” Norris introduced me. “Oh and by the way, he’s innocent of all charges.”
They both burst out into laughter. Norris turned and left the cell. After locking it, he called out, “Lights off at 7:00 PM.”
The top bunk was cleared off, a shelf on one wall next to it was also empty. Ralphie had the bottom bunk obviously. A shelf carved out of the cement bricks had his toiletries and a pair of worn out paperbacks. The walls of the small 6′ by 6′ cell were patchy and crumbling in disrepair. A single barred window gave a glimpse of gray skies but little else. We were on the fifth floor. A wispy odor of bleach clung in the air, the stench of urine barely masked underneath it.
My cellmate turned away from me and plunked down onto it without a word. His clothes were thin, gray like the walls, and had patches sewn on the elbows and knees. His shaggy black hair hung just above the collar, his patchy beard covered an acne-pocked face. He swept up one of the books and rolled over onto his side. Perhaps I had already been forgotten.
That’s fine with me. The less we talk, the better. I was in no mood to be nice.
I’m not going to keep telling everyone I’m innocent. That’ll only get me in trouble. I’ll let the fat lawyer do that on the Outside, but in here, I’ll keep low and out of sight.
I set a burlap sack of my own toiletries and a twin exchange of my prison uniform in the corner. A rickety, rusted ladder was built at the end of the bunks. I crawled on top of the hard stained mattress.
Someone had carved out the days in lines in one corner. Others had written nonsensical sentences or scribbled symbols. It boggled my mind. How many others had laid here before me?
My mind wandered and I recalled how my fat lawyer, I forgot his real name, kept spouting, “We have a solid case here. I am sure we can appeal and maybe you’ll even see Christmas back in San Diego, Kevin.”
“There’s nothing left in San Diego for me. She’s gone.”
“Oh… Yeah, sorry, kid.” He said offhand as he lit the end to a massive cigar. We were in a guarded conference room. Case file folders, random papers and the photos of the crime scene splayed out on the metal table before me. I saw her body splashed in streaks of crimson. Her long blonde hair pulled out in clumps floating in a large puddle by her head.
“You were shot in the war, right?” he asked, enveloped in a thick white cloud of smoke.
“Yes. In the shoulder. So?”
“That’s the ticket,” he slapped at the table and then slid about the papers as he searched through them. “Yes. Yes, here it is. You suffered loss of movement and mobility per this doctor’s report.”
He pushed the paper in front of me.
“I wish I had thought of this during the trial. Sherry Devenroe was killed by blunt force. The intruder crushed her head in swinging a metal baseball bat –” he stopped seeing me wince.
I finished his thought. “So, I couldn’t be the murderer because I can’t swing a bat with any such force. Right?”
“See. You are a clever lad.”.
That was a bold lie. I wasn’t what I once had been, but it had been some time since the injury.
Now as I stared at the cobwebs slowly swinging about the ceiling, I wasn’t nearly as confident he could get me out.
I closed my eyes, clasped my hands, and started a silent prayer in my head.
You and I haven’t talked much and I’m not saying I have been the best of your children here on Earth, but I know I can do more, do better. I just need another chance. Please, Lord, please don’t let me rot away in here. Give me a second chance to go on and be free to spread the Good Word as Mama always spoke of. Be–
“Your Mama going to visit you in here?” Ralphie asked out of the blue.
He chuckled to himself and rolled over onto his back. “I asked if your Mama was going to visit you in here? Going to spread her Good Word to us animals?”
“I…I don’t know.” I whispered in shock.
“You were speaking aloud, Kev.”
No I wasn’t.
“It happens a lot you know. Mamas all proud of their sons, fiercely defending them, professing the real crimes are against their little boys being falsely charged and imprisoned. Happens all the time. They stomp their tiny feet, wave their fists in the air in outrage and cry tears of injustice at the drop of a hat. Then… the first round of whispers come, the fingers pointing at them, then the not-so-quiet remarks made behind their backs. The odd looks from once friendly neighbors. The awkward excuses by friends why they suddenly can’t come by. It all adds up quickly. Mama’s will and determination fades. Mama comes by less and less, the letters stop. Happens all the time. You’ll see. Mama’s Good Word will be spoken less and less on your behalf!”
Ralphie’s cynical speech ate at me and the deepening shadows in the room swallowed me whole.
“You don’t know me. You don’t know my Mama. Shut the fuck up.” I said it, but there was no power behind it. It was going to be a long, hard night.
“True. True. I don’t know you. I guess, time will tell.”
He grew quiet and must’ve went back to reading.
The sun had gone down. My stomach rumbled aloud.
“You missed chow time?” he asked.
“I was on the bus coming here.”
“Yeah? Sorry. I didn’t like much what was served, but you eat what you get here. Still hungry myself.”
I pulled my arm up over my eyes, trying to muffle and hide my emotions. Thinking of Mama and how she’d become embarrassed by me really hit home. She said she knew I was innocent at the trial. Came each day to support me. But was Ralphie right? Would those lingering doubts and the shame erode her belief in me? I had been convicted by an actual jury of my peers, right?
I am only nineteen! I don’t belong here! Oh, Mama!!
Suddenly a book flew up and landed on my lap. “Here. Books are a great way to keep your mind clear of your troubles.”
He was making an attempt to clear things between us. I appreciated that. “Thanks.” My voice scratchy and thick with emotion but he didn’t make light of it or comment.
For the next hour I tried to read but my stomach kept whining.
“Look, Kevin, I may be damned for doing this, but… maybe I can help you out. Come down, let’s talk.”
I set the lame mystery aside and went down. He was sitting up, his hands together between his knees. He smiled and extended his hand out to me. I shook it.
“Kevin Harrison, I’m Ralph Otara.” He moved over a few feet and gestured for me to sit.
“You have a lawyer right?”
“Yes. Says he’s going to appeal.”
“They all say that. Do you have anything else going for you or just your Mama at home? A plan for the future?”
I lowered my head and stared at a spot on the floor between my shoes. “After they found Sherry and took me in, my boss fired me from the car plant. I don’t have anything right now.”
“That second chance you were praying for… that chance to do more if you were free. Are you really interested in an escape?”
I blanched and pulled back to stare at the older man. He barely knew me, but was willing to invite me into his confidence and be involved in an escape plan? Talk like this could get you thrown into solitary or worse under the boots of the guards.
“You don’t know me as I said before. I’m young but not stupid. What is this really about?” The anger tinged my voice, welling up inside me.
He held up a hand trying to calm my suspicions. “Whoa, whoa. I’m just trying to help. I hate seeing such a young guy in here, wasting what little time we all have here in this world.”
Ralphie stood up and dug around in a small stack of wash cloths. He looked around and listened to be sure a guard wasn’t walking up. Then he turned around with that shark sneer and he held out a chocolate candy bar. “Peace offering.”
I smiled and felt foolish. I took it and greedily devoured it.
“Kev, look, I was sincere about an escape. When we get out, we’re all going to need to stick together, help each other on the Outside. I see a lot of potential in a young fellow like you. I admit it, getting you out will help me too.”
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing ever came easy to me or my mother. With my Pops not around, I learned that lesson quick. Only hard work gotcha ahead.
“I don’t know.”
“What would you lose? You think that asshole lawyer’s going to come through for you?”
“When we get out — there’s a small group of us in on the plan — we’re going to be the Next Family. You understand? Out there, if you got a record, no one will do anything for you. Never going to look past your crimes. Or they imagine you done worse. So we stick together, stick to the plan and make the world bend to our will. You with me?”
“Maybe…” I said.
The lights blinked. “Lights out!” A voice bellowed out. The line of hanging lamps began shutting off as dictated.
“What’s this plan? You actually think you’ll get out?”
He didn’t answer. It was all silence.
In the dark, a sharp frigid air enveloped me, taking away my breath. Suddenly blind, all I could sense was the shift in weight on the bunk bed. He had moved closer.
A hand shot out and clutched my throat. The fingers were coarse, gnarled and vice-like. The claws pricked my skin, drops of blood beaded up.
Ralphie — or what was once Ralphie — leaned in close. Blood red eyes opened up. He was so close his nose was almost touching mine. I could feel his hot damp breath as he snarled, then said, “We have a plan, a great plan. You will too. We all have it in here. We are all infected.”
A spark of moonlight flashed off the set of fangs just before they plunged into the side of my neck.