by Jennifer Dyer
Some call it death row. Others, The End of the Line. Whichever, I’d been moved here, all the way to the back of the prison. The fresh inmates get the spots closest to the door, but us hopeless cases move backward as each newbie enters. When someone gets to the last row, that’s it. The next stop isn’t a cell. It’s the Big Door of No Return at the end of the cell block.
I’ve thought a lot about what happens when they pull us through that last door, the one next to my cell that smells like death. Maybe there’s a few moments of fear, but then I hope for meadows, running, streams of water, and sunshine.
Yes, I could live with that, if you will excuse the expression.
But I’m still in this cell for the time being. There are lots of things I hate about it, but the worst part is the smell. Mildew, sweat, ammonia, and antiseptic, but the undertone of it all is death from the Big Door.
I have no idea how long I’ve been here. I remember the storm, the swirling winds, waking up and wandering until a truck picked me up and brought me here. The sun comes up and goes down through the barred windows, but otherwise I cannot tell time. A paper on the front of my cell identifies me: Female 001363. No one knows my real name. I can’t tell them, either. They don’t speak my language.
The door opens at the front of the room. The other prisoners stir, standing and shaking out their stiff limbs. A few speak up, but don’t say anything the two-leggers understand.
I hear two sets of footsteps. One belongs to Winker, as I call him. He works in the front room. He comes by often and winks at us, sometimes giving out a few scraps of a sandwich, but there’s so many of us and so little sandwich. Today he smells of loneliness, tobacco, and stale burgers.
The other set of footsteps, though, is jagged. Step…scrapestep. Step…scrapestep. It runs together. A limp and a step.
I hear them talking. I can’t understand it all, but the limp scraper has a low voice full of dreary skies and empty rooms. He pauses at each cell. “No. No. Not that one. Something bigger. Too hyper. Too fearful. Too dominant.”
Step…scrapestep. The shadows cross my path first. Winker stops in front of me and winks, but the other man takes longer, working a stiff leg and a cane. He’s young, maybe early twenties, but walks like he’s old, stooped and broken. I can’t help but stare at him. So often I do the best listening with my eyes.
His eyes tell of loss, his smell is of prepackaged food, antiseptic, and sugared tea. His clothes are pressed, but sag on him as though he’s lost weight. He pauses when our eyes meet. I stand, edging toward the front of my cell. I’ve seen eyes like his before. Hollow and bare, like a tree after the tornado that brought me here. I’m the one in the cell, but the man before me lives in the prison of his own.
He pops his cane into a little seat and settles in front of my cage. Winker nods. “She’s a real beaut—but big. Sheds too much. Plus, looks like one of them guard dogs. Most people ‘fraid of this one.”
The sad man holds out his hand. I sniff. There was nothing in it but the offer of something more than food. I press my nose to the bars of my cell to get closer.
He leans closer. “Name’s Mike. And who might you be, Lady?”
I sit. Lady. No one had ever called me that, but it sounds nice.
Winker clears his throat and nods at the cane. “You just get back?”
Back from where? I take another sniff. He smells too much like this place, like he has medicine and strong cleaners oozing from his pores. Mike moves his head a tiny fraction up.
Winker sighs and leans back. “I could tell. Marines?”
Again with the fraction of a nod.
Winker taps his shoulder. “I was injured too. Shot, clean through my shoulder. Arm never worked the same since.”
Mike doesn’t respond. Instead, he slides my door open. I don’t bolt like I did the first time a family opened my door. The kids screamed and I got shoved back inside. Back then I‘d been near the front. That was a while ago.
“It’s okay, Lady,” Mike says. “Come here.”
I wag my tail and hang my head. I shouldn’t wag, I shouldn’t trust. They always look at me and leave. I always mess it up.
Mike scratches behind my ears. Memories stir of other ear scratches, but they feel like burning glass shards between my toes. I banish them and lean into Mike’s hand.
Mike leads me outside, to the play yard I rarely visit, scraping his bad leg behind him. What happened to him? I can’t ask, but I see how he winces with each step. I sniff again. The leg he drags smells unlike the rest of him, tangy and sharp, like the metal inside. Maybe he lost his leg in the Marines thing Winker mentioned.
He tosses a ball. I try to hold back, but can’t. I run. Moving like this is a luxury, a joy. My ears flop in the wind and my toes dig into the soft earth. I smell grass and pollen and gasoline exhaust and hundreds of animals and their fear, but a thin curtain at the end of the fence is freedom. I run in circles around him and roll in the dirt.
Mike’s voice is soft. He motions me to him. I trot over and give him back his ball. No one will accuse me of having bad manners again. I think of my cell near the death door. Not for long, anyway. Mike sighs. Maybe he wants to go home. Maybe he’s tired from dragging around a metal leg. Maybe I did something wrong.
He puts a hand on my head. “You wanna get out of here? Smells too much like the rehab I lived in for a lifetime.”
I wag my tail, this time my whole rear moves with it. Mike smiles. His cheeks stretch, but his eyes take a moment to follow, as if they’re out of practice. He nods at Winker. “I’ll take her. She’s mine.”