Copyright is held by the author.
I STROLL across the common area taking care to look casual. My gaze darts back and forth, landing on the table of guys playing poker. Most of the other inmates are in the yard taking advantage of the last of the summer sun. The poker pot is hot tonight: two cases of pop, seven chocolate bars, gum, even a note for a tub of ice-cream that sits in the freezer. Gone are the days when the pot had packs of smokes. No smoking in jail, not unless you can “hoop” some tobacco after a family visit — I’m not particularly fond of putting stuff up my ass. Not like I get visits to the joint anyway.
“Hey,” Jack calls from the table, startling me. Jack is a big deal here. He’s got connections on the street. He’s not a huge guy, fit, but no one would mess with him here anyway.
He gestures to the empty seat beside him. “You want in?”
“Naw, I’m broke till payday.” I saunter off, keeping to the shadows. Payday, what a joke. $6.85 a day! I scrub floors all day for $6.85 a day. It’s a long fall after making millions as a young hot-shot banker. Big house, fancy car, hot wife . . . but that was before . . .
I stop at the fridge and look around, glancing left and right. No one is watching except the sign on the fridge that makes my heart skip a beat.
BOX THIEFS DIE!
I let out a chuckle at Jack’s muscle, Frank’s handwriting. He’s big, but not very smart. Still, the warning gives me reason to pause. Frank’s in for manslaughter. Not a guy to mess with. Not if you like your limbs attached to your body.
Screw it. I just want a drink. I reach in and grab a Diet Pepsi, closing the door quickly. The door bangs, making me cringe. I look up. No one is paying me any mind. Walking casually to my cell, I’m careful not to appear too eager. The guards are doing their thing, not paying attention to anyone really. The other inmates are engaged in their own lives: poker, working out, watching the tube. The lucky ones are smoking weed they’d smuggled in. The scent permeates the area in a sea of dense smoke. The guards are still engrossed in something else and don’t notice, or don’t care about the pungent odour.
In my cell, I fall on my bed, reveling in my evasion from detection. In another life I could’ve been a spy. As my heart beats madly in my chest, I flick the tab on the can, and the release of carbonation sounds like gun fire, making me cringe. Ok, maybe not a great spy. I don’t know why I needed a Diet Pepsi right now, but something compelled me. Need? Desire? Want? Aren’t they all the same thing? “Jack” is written in sharpie on the can. Fuck. I try to rub it off and force out a laugh. It’s hollow in my ears.
All in as they say. I down the contents in one quick motion. I’m not even sure I taste it, but the burn feels amazing going down my throat; like a shot of tequila! I don’t even like Diet Pepsi. But I can’t help myself. My little act of retribution. Jack’s an ass. He runs the yard and drinking his pop is a small revenge that plays out in my skull. In my head I giggle madly. Like Frankenstein, after he created his monster. It’s fucked up and twisted. I know.
I free-throw the can, like NBA star Lebron James, to the clear trash bag tied to the corner of the metal bed. The swish of the can hitting the inside of the bag makes me smile. The crowd goes wild, and I throw my hands in the air! Simple pleasures in jail.
I turn to leave my cell when someone blocks the door. Black spots dart before my eyes, making me dizzy. Frank grins evilly at me before moving aside as Jack’s daunting form takes his place, forcing his way into my cell uninvited. No one invites Jack anywhere. He goes wherever he pleases.
“Can you read?” Jack’s voice is deceptively calm.
I nod, rubbing my sweaty palms on my institutional jeans. Every part of my body tenses.
“You know what a box thief is?”
I nod again. “I didn’t do anything.” My voice squeaks and I cringe. Hit him, I encourage myself foolishly, knowing it’ll never happen. No one hits Jack. No one’s that stupid. I don’t have a death wish.
Sweat beads down my back.
Jack looks past me and I follow his gaze. The can of pop stares at me through the clear plastic garbage bag; Jack in black sharpie pushing against the sides like a neon sign. Shit.
My legs go weak, barely holding me up.
“Know what happens to box thieves?” His eyebrow raises and he patiently waits for my response. Jack is always patient. It seems to draw out the agony for those on the receiving end.
My heart skips a few beats and races in an irregular pattern.
I stare at Jack.
Jack stares at me.
Frank cracks his knuckles in the doorway; the noise like thunder in the eight by ten concrete room.
An interminable amount of time passes before reluctantly, I nod.