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by Nesly Clerge
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Frederick Starks has it all—a gorgeous wife, three beautiful children, and millions in the bank. His wife's gut-wrenching betrayal sent him over the edge and into a maximum security prison. In that place, where inmates and guards have their own rules and codes of conduct, Starks is forced to face the darker side of life, and his own darker side. He must choose which path to follow when the line between right and wrong becomes blurred: one that leads to getting out of the physical and emotional hellhole he finds himself in or one that keeps him alive.
Starks believed without a doubt that he was not born to be an underling. Low man on the totem pole did not suit him at all. Yet, here he was, lower than he’d ever been. And this was only the first day of the next fifteen years. The only advantage he had in this godforsaken place was money. Parker had greased a few palms to get Starks’s prison number as soon as it was assigned. Jeffrey had then promptly deposited four hundred dollars into his prison account and set up automatic deposits of the same amount every two weeks, with the agreement that if more money was needed, it would be there.
He edged his way slowly around the fenced-in prison yard, pausing to grasp the mesh of the chain-link fence and look past it at the twenty-foot wall that was ten yards from where he stood. A crow landed on the wall. It stared at Starks, tilting its head in crisp movements, seemed to study him with one eye then the other. The black bird sharpened its beak on the concrete, cawed once then flew away.
Nearby, inmates played a rowdy game of football, while others used exercise equipment or otherwise occupied themselves. He’d learned from Parker that there were several hundred more inmates incarcerated with him than the place was actually designed to accommodate, which was already a large enough number. He wondered what the ramifications of that compression of bodies, mentalities, and egos would be, especially in the hot months. Fortunately, if one could consider anything about prison life fortunate, at least in Massachusetts, there were fewer hot months here than in the southern states. This did not ease apprehension about sharing his confinement.
Fifteen years was a long time. Especially in a maximum security prison. Unless he got out early for good behavior. This, he decided, was what he’d strive for, unless what he dreaded happened and his sentence became life.
“What happens to me if Ozy dies?” he’d asked Parker.
“You don’t have to worry about the death penalty. Massachusetts no longer executes felons and hasn’t since 1947. Some enthusiasts have tried overturning that decision. It’s been up for a vote a number of times over the years, always defeated. Really, don’t worry about it.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“I know it’s a small comfort. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to small comforts. They’ll keep you sane.”
I’m in hell.
And I don’t deserve to be here.
He desperately wanted to return to his former life. Wanted everyone to say that what he’d done that landed him in this godforsaken place had been justified, excused. That he’d done what any man in his situation would have done, and had a right to do—if he had any self-respect at all.
He thought about writing a letter to Jeffrey or calling him on the phone, realizing he had no idea how either process worked here—derided himself for not getting more of this kind of information from Parker before coming here.
Jeffrey would understand if he told him “I’m scared out of my mind, man. I’m always looking behind me, watching my back. Inmates stare at me. The fear of being raped or stabbed is more than a fear, it’s a real possibility. If anyone other than a guard approaches me to talk, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t trust anyone in here. And no one tells you anything, unless you ask. Even then, you almost wish you hadn’t. You have to watch and learn what to do, not even knowing what the penalty might be for getting it wrong. Know what they call new arrivals, like me? New fish. That’s how I feel. Like a fish out of water, flapping desperately on dry land, gasping for breath. It’s a different world, Jeffrey. I’m seriously thinking of finding a way to kill myself.” He knew his last sentence would seem dramatic, and he broke into a sweat when he realized some part of him meant it.
He let go of the fence and continued to walk, taking note as unobtrusively as possible of inmates in the yard. None of them looked friendly.
His cellmate had shown up for the count at eleven that morning. The man was short and wiry, as was his salt-and-pepper hair. He also spoke almost no English, though he seemed to understand it well enough, which Starks found out when he asked, “What happens if you’re not in your cell for the count?”
“Big shit,” though the man pronounced it beeg sheet.”
Then the cellmate had babbled in his native language, which Starks didn’t recognize.
“Why the hell do they put people together who can’t talk to each other?”
His cellmate bobbed his head several times and smiled, revealing the seven tobacco-stained teeth remaining in his mouth.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Starks added, as he climbed onto his bunk, where he lay staring out of the slit called a window.
His stomach grumbled in protest. How did anyone survive on the crap they served? As soon as he was brave enough to ask, he’d find out. The lunch meal, his first in prison, had not only been inedible but the entire process was confusing as hell. He’d had to watch others, and be careful how he did that so he didn’t piss them off. It hadn’t taken long to realize why trays were pushed anonymously through a slot: Who’d want to be blamed for the poor excuse for food. There had also been the matter of figuring out where to sit, which he quickly learned wasn’t wherever you wanted to: Inmates had their usual tables and others were expected to treat this as a fact, if not practically a law. There was the discovery that he had to knock on the table before he sat and when he got up. He wasn’t sure why, but every inmate did this, so he imitated them. And he’d learned he had ten minutes to eat in the chow hall, as one guard who poked him with his nightstick informed him. The dinner meal was no different.
That evening, after resisting using the exposed toilet all day, Starks went to the seat-less, coverless steel fixture. It was bad enough he had no privacy, but his cellmate, whose name he still couldn’t pronounce, had pissed on the rim and not cleaned it. The small attached sink was littered with spat-out toothpaste and beard hairs. Starks gagged. He wanted to shout at the man and tell him, “You’re a pig,” but he didn’t want to be stuck like one while he slept. He also decided to keep his toothbrush far from this part of the cell.
Once he finally fell asleep, the nightmares haunted him: Ozy laughing as he plunged the knife in, Margaret’s grandmother’s bowl spilling blood over the rim like lava, and other disturbing images.
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Nesly Clerge received his bachelor’s degree in physiology and neurobiology at the University of Maryland, and later pursued a doctoral degree in the field of chiropractic medicine. Although his background is primarily science-based, he has finally embraced his lifelong passion for writing. Clerge’s debut novel, When the Serpent Bites, is due out in 2015, with the sequel to follow. His debut novel explores choices, consequences, and the complexities of human emotions, especially when we are placed in a less-than-desirable setting. When he is not writing, Clerge manages several multidisciplinary clinics. He enjoys reading, chess, traveling, exploring the outdoors, and spending time with his significant other and his sons.