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A long hallway. Into a dark room.
The Men from Hell.
That's where they are waiting.
"We're here to claim you. We don't give a fuck who you are. We don't want to hear you cry or beg. You'll do what we say. Or else you'll die."
No light. No hope. Nothing but pain.
Stop! Please, stop!
A flash, like lightning.
And Brian. Helpless. His head hanging down. Shivering.
"We can claim anyone. No one is safe. Nowhere is safe. Never even dream that you can get away. Or we'll do to you what we did to him."
"Justin! Wake up! It's all right!"
Justin opened his eyes. That's the way the dream always ended. He opened his eyes and saw the face of God.
"Brian...." He tried to say more, but he never could. It always ended in tears.
"What's the problem in there? Kinney?" The C.O. rattled the door.
"Nothing!" said Brian. "The kid had a nightmare."
The C.O. rapped on the door with his stick. "Tell him to shut the fuck up!"
"Jesus, Foster, give the kid a break!" Brian said angrily. "He just got out of the Hospital."
The C.O. snorted. "If he wakes the tier again, I'm writing him up. No fucking excuses!"
"Bastard," Brian muttered as the C.O. walked back up to his station.
Brian got out a cup and filled it with water. "Drink this, kid."
Justin sat up in his bunk and took the cup. His hands were shaking violently. "Thanks." He tried to drink a little, but the water kept spilling down the front of his tee shirt.
"Bad, huh?" asked Brian, gently.
Justin nodded. "That was the worst one yet. They gave me a pill every night in the Hospital and I guess that helped me to sleep through those bad dreams." He handed the cup back to Brian.
Brian didn't say anything, but he thought about the way the kid had tossed and moaned in his sleep every night in the Hospital. Maybe the sedatives muffled the nightmares a little, but they didn't chase them away. No, only time could do that. If even time could do it.
Brian sighed. "Climb down from there. Come on." He held out his hands and helped the kid down from the top bunk. Brian pulled back the blanket on his own bed. "Get in."
"There's enough room for two people," said Brian. "Believe me -- I know."
Justin laid down on the lower bunk and Brian nudged him over as he got in next to him. "No one can get you in here. They'd have to get past me first -- and no one is going to get past me. No one. Do you believe that?"
Justin bit his lip. "Yes."
"Okay, then," said Brian. "There's nothing I can do about what you're dreaming. That's inside your head, Justin. There's nothing anyone can do about that. But it's just a shadow of some memory. It isn't real. THIS is real. Where we are right now. And no one can get you here. I promise."
"I believe you." It felt warm under the thin blanket. Warmer than Justin had felt in a long time. He snuggled down into the worn mattress, the old pillow.
But he was afraid to touch Brian. Because he knew that this was all about how Brian felt sorry for him. Felt empathy for him. Because something bad had happened to Brian a long time ago, when he first came to Stanton. That much Justin knew. The low-riders had done horrible things to him. Worse even than what had been done to Justin.
Justin had asked Emmy about it one evening when they were sitting, just the two of them, in the Hospital. Brian, exhausted, had fallen asleep on one of the beds in the ward and Em had covered him up and left him there to get some rest.
"What was it, Em?" Justin said. "What did those bikers do to him? They aren't the same men, are they? They can't be."
"No, Sunshine. Those guys were gone long before I ever came to Stanton. But they were like the bikers here now. Mean as snakes. Different men, but the same breed of cat. You know what I mean, honey?"
"I think so, Em," Justin replied. Different, but the same. All low-riders.
"Now that was back before Warden Horvath came in and cleaned this joint up," Em explained. "Different gangs ran this place then and they fought each other for power. The low-riders ran the drugs in. And they also controlled prostitution. Those two things."
Justin had been puzzled. "Prostitution? But Em, how could they do that? Did they really bring women in here? Right into the prison?"
Emmy had laughed at Justin's naivete. "No, sweetheart. Not women. Punks. That's what the low-riders sold in those days. They took the prettiest boys and shot them full of smack and then sold their asses to every creep in Stanton who could afford the price of a pack of cigarettes." Em must have seen the look of horror on Justin's face. His voice softened. "That's what the low-riders did in those days, Sunshine. Bri Baby must have been such a pretty boy when he was 20 years old, because he's still so pretty now. And that's when they had him."
Justin couldn't get that thought out of his mind. Brian being hurt by the low-riders. Hurt the way Justin had been hurt. Except not just once, but again and again. That had become part of Justin's nightmare. The Men from Hell. What they had done to Justin, but also what they had done to Brian, too. As if they were joined by this common wound.
But now -- Brian was so strong now! And not afraid of anything! He had stared down the bikers in the Chow Hall. He had barked at the big guy in the cell next door. He had challenged them all. He was nobody's punk anymore. And nobody's whore.
Justin sniffed and moved his arm slightly. It was a little crowded in the bunk, but it was also safe. Brian's tee shirt smelled like sweat, but it was not a nasty smell. It was raw, like a man should smell. Justin leaned his face against the side of Brian's chest, burying his nose in that comforting smell.
He could be brave, too. If Brian had learned how to be strong, then so could he. Whenever one of the doctors had come to examine him or when one of the orderlies tried to bathe him, Justin had shrunk away. He didn't want them touching him. Not even Emmy. He let her prop him up on the bed or take his temperature, but he flinched when she held his arm too tightly or brushed against his chest. The fingers of those strangers felt like fire on his skin.
But Brian was safe. He had clung to Justin in that dark little room. Like something deep within the man told Justin that he understood his pain. Maybe that was it. That they were the same. One skin. And so Brian's touch was welcome. Even needed. Yes, Justin needed it. He thought about holding on to Brian's hand during the movie. Brian was sending strength into him through that hand. Justin could feel it. Feel the power bolstering him. Saving him.
Justin let his hand rest on Brian's chest, very lightly. It was rising and falling as he slept. Justin moved a little closer and Brian's arm wrapped around the boy as he groaned slightly and then was silent.
It was Brian between him and the outside world. Between him and the darkness that threatened to engulf him. But that was enough for now. Justin closed his eyes and the Men from Hell did not return that night.
Flashback to 1969
"Hey, Rosenblum," called one of the C.O.'s. Unlike some of the inmates, Ron tried to stay on friendly terms with the guards. They were a valuable source of information, not to mention the small ways they could make your life easier by not hassling you or by looking the other way when necessary.
"What's happening, Galuski?" Ron was just coming back from the new Law Library.
"You been working with some of the bikers, haven't you, Rosenblum?"
Ron frowned. "I work with anybody who asks me, Galuski. I admit that I have no particular love for the low-riders. I think they're scum. But, yeah, I've been working with some of them."
"Working with any of their punks?" the C.O. asked.
Ron shook his head. "No, just Cisco's men. But I've seen their punks." Ron thought of Baby, his beautiful back covered with cigarette burns. "Pitiful."
"You don't know the half of it, man. South Wing's in lockdown because one of their punks offed himself this afternoon."
Ron felt his blood run cold. "What the fuck happened?"
"Don't know," said Galuski. "I don't work South. But Corbett saw them carrying the kid out. Hung himself."
Ron took a deep breath. "Whose cell was it?"
"Cisco's," Galuski replied.
Ron walked back down the tier. Cisco's cell. Only one other person would be in that cell. Cisco's punk. Baby. Brian.
By the time he'd unlocked his cell and closed the door behind him, Ron was sick to his stomach and sicker at heart. He hadn't done a fucking thing to help that kid and now he was dead. Ron felt as responsible as the goddamn low-riders. They were all guilty -- everyone in Stanton, from the warden on down -- for letting this happen! And Ron knew that he could have tried harder. He could have tried to do more. Anything. But he'd let it slide. It was easier that way. Easier not to make waves. Ron cringed when he pictured the bruises on the boy's thin body. On his beautiful golden skin.
Ron skipped dinner. He didn't think he could face eating anything. Instead, he trudged back to his new office and buried himself in work.
Around 8:00 Ron was surprised to see Red Wolf at his door. His meeting with the Parole Board was coming up soon and the biker was getting nervous. But Ron was in no mood to speak to any of the low-rider gang.
"I'm busy!" Ron snapped. And he went back to his paperwork.
But Red Wolf didn't leave. "Thought I'd come over and hang with you, Mister R."
Ron put down his pen in exasperation. "I'm not here to socialize with you, Mr. Hansen. Especially after what happened today."
Red Wolf made a face. "Oh, you know about that?"
"I may have heard something about it. Who was it, Lamar? Or don't you give a shit?"
Red Wolf grimaced. "It was Cisco's punk, Baby."
Ron's stomach turned. "Wonderful."
"And Cisco's pissed, let me tell ya. You don't know what kinda voodoo something like that puts on a cell! It's the worst bad vibes you can get, man!"
Ron glared at Red Wolf. "Poor Cisco. Nothing like suicide to put a dark cloud over your day, huh?"
But Ron's irony was lost on the biker. "You got it, Mister R. And it woulda been even worse if the bitch had died!"
Ron glanced up at Red Wolf. "Baby's alive?"
"Yeah. Cisco walked in and grabbed the bitch down before she croaked. Like I said, he's really pissed!"
"But one of the C.O.'s said he saw them carrying the kid out."
Red Wolf nodded. "Yeah, down to the Hospital. She could be in there for days. And she's Cisco's best earner, too," the biker confided. "But you know that, Mister R. You've had a piece of her. Some sweet stuff, right?"
Ron stood up. "If you would excuse me, Mr. Hansen? I have an appointment."
"Sure, Mister R." the biker said genially. "See ya in church."
Ron wasn't sure why he headed for the Hospital Wing. Maybe to satisfy himself that the kid really was alive. Or maybe to assuage his guilt. But he found himself walking into the ward, looking for the doctor in charge.
"Yes, the boy is in here," a frustrated Dr. Sherman told Ron. "But the damage done to him is more than just the suicide attempt. He was pulled down quickly before any real harm was done." Ron winced at the picture in his head. "However, it's obvious that the boy's been severely abused. Beaten and even burned. And addicted. If I see another addict come into my ward I think I'm going to give up this job. What's the point of putting these guys in prison if they can just continue their heroin habits inside? What's the goddamn point?"
"That kid wasn't an addict before he came here, doctor!" said Ron, his anger rising. "I know that for a fact. He was a college student. A smart kid. Then he comes in here and within months he's a junkie whore. Do you think that's right, doctor? Do you?"
"Of course not, Rosenblum! But what the hell am I supposed to do about it? When this boy leaves my ward he'll go right back into the general population. In other words, they'll send him back to the same cell that he tried to kill himself in. And there isn't a damn thing I can do about it."
"He can't, doctor!" Ron exclaimed. "There must be somewhere else he can be sent?"
The doctor looked tired. "I've already been given the word from the Administration, Rosenblum. No special treatment and a return to his tier once he's clean and back on his feet. He's detoxing now. The junk should be out of his system in a couple of days. Of course, he'll just start shooting up again the minute I release him. I told you -- it's pointless!"
"Doctor, Brian isn't shooting himself up! He's being given the drugs by the guys who are beating and abusing him! He's being drugged to keep him quiet and compliant!"
"And I'm supposed to do what, Rosenblum?" the doctor asked bluntly. "You tell me!"
"Can I see the kid? Please, doctor?" Ron asked.
"Why not?" said Dr. Sherman. "He's over in that little annex off the main ward."
Ron pushed open the door to the annex and saw the kid. He had a bandage on his neck and his hands were tied to the bed frame. That's the way they 'detoxed' you in prison. They tied you down and let you sweat it out. Then they untied you and threw you back on the dung heap.
Ron pulled a folding chair next to the bed and sat down. The kid's eyes were closed and his breath was ragged. His body looked in worse shape than the last time Ron had seen him, when he had lashed out at him in Ron's cell and Red Wolf had dragged him away.
Ron saw the kid's eyes flutter and he knew that he was awake.
"Go away," he whispered. "Leave me alone."
"That was a dumb thing to do, kid," said Ron. "You could have hurt yourself."
Now the eyes were fully open. Green and gold, like a feral cat's. "Hurt myself? I didn't want to hurt myself. I wanted to kill myself! Why can't you people just let me do it? Why do you all want to keep me alive just to fucking torture me?"
"But while you're alive there's still hope, kid. Even in a place like this," said Ron.
"You think?" he answered. "Then you're fucked. What kind of hope are you talking about? Do you all have some kind of bet going on about how much longer I'll last? Is that it?" The kid closed his eyes again. "The low-riders like bets like that. How many times they can hit you before you pass out. How many times they can fuck you before you completely collapse. All kinds of bets. But don't bet on my life, mister. Don't waste your money."
Brian turned his head away. Ron sat there, watching him, until it was time to go back up for evening head count.
But Ron knew that this time he had to do something for the kid. He didn't know what that would be yet, but he knew that it had to be soon.
Jennifer Taylor's hands were trembling so badly she could barely hold the package she was going to give to her son, Justin. Who was in prison. This prison -- Stanton Correctional.
She sat in the waiting area surrounded by other women, also waiting to see prisoners. Also holding packages to give them. But most of these women looked poor and many of them were minorities. They were cheaply dressed and haphazardly made up, nothing like Jennifer, in her stylish Evan Picone wool suit and fur-lined coat. These were not the women Jennifer lunched with at the Arcadian Country Club.
Some of these women stared at Jennifer curiously and a few of them with open hostility. She noticed only one other well-dressed person in the restless crowd -- a man in his 40's who stood close to the door, a briefcase at his feet and a brown paper bag in his arms.
"Don't look so scared, honey."
Jennifer glanced around. A chubby woman with garishly dyed red hair was sitting next to her. "I can't help it. I AM scared."
"First time?" The woman asked kindly. Jennifer nodded. "Just think how your boy must feel. How scared he must be," she said. "You're so young, honey. He must be pretty young, too."
Jennifer thought that she might break down right then. "He's only 19."
"That's rough," said the woman. "Real rough. But that's why you gotta be brave, hon. For your kid. He's got enough to worry about without also worrying about you."
"I... I can't help it!" And Jennifer really began to cry.
"What's your name, sweetie?"
"Jennifer Taylor," she replied, taking out a kleenex. "I drove all the way from Pittsburgh in all this snow. My husband refused to come with me. He's still too angry at Justin. And that makes me angry at Craig! So very angry!"
"My name's Debbie," said the red-haired woman. "Debbie Novotny. And I'm from Pittsburgh, too." Debbie patted Jennifer's arm. "Your husband will come around. He'll see that everyone makes mistakes. A young kid, especially. It happens."
"But not Justin!" Jennifer sniffed. "He was always the perfect son! An Honor student. And now... this!"
Debbie sighed. "What's he in for, hon?"
Jennifer shuddered at those words. "Drug possession. Marijuana."
"That's too bad. Especially when you know that all the kids do it, but yours was the one who got caught. It isn't fair, but it's reality."
"I know!" cried Jennifer. "It isn't fair!" She wiped her eyes on the kleenex.
"Now, my Michael knew better," Debbie confided. "At least I thought he did. But he did something stupid, too. A lot of guys do stupid stuff. And some of them end up in here."
Jennifer blew her nose. "What did your son do?"
"He passed some bad checks," Debbie replied. "And it wasn't even his idea, either. Michael is a good person and an honest guy -- basically. But his boyfriend was an accountant and he started dipping into his clients' money. Then he had to cover it up and he got Michael involved. Of course, they both got caught. Now Ted is in the State Pen and Mikey is in here."
Jennifer swallowed. "Your son is... is a homosexual? And you know about it? You accept it?"
Debbie smiled. "I've known Michael was gay since he was a kid. And I thought Ted was a really great guy and a good boyfriend -- right up until the cops came to the door and took both of them away in handcuffs. That was a REAL kick in the teeth!"
Jennifer felt a pang in her heart. "Sometimes I think that Justin... I mean, I used to think that... that Justin...." But Jennifer couldn't continue.
"You think your son is gay, too?" Debbie said gently. "If he is, it isn't the end of the world, honey. Right now you have other things to deal with. Being gay isn't the worst of them, believe me."
Jennifer reached into her bag and took out some letters. "Justin writes to me. He said that he was in the prison hospital. That he was sick! I tried calling the warden, but they wouldn't give me any information! They said he was out of the hospital and doing well. Do you know how that made me feel?"
"I understand, hon. You feel completely helpless. Welcome to the club." Debbie was so sorry for this woman. Nothing in her privileged life had prepared her for this -- her child in prison. Of course, thought Deb, who's ever prepared for THAT?
"And then he wrote me some other things that worry me." Jennifer opened one of the letters. "He talks constantly about his cellmate. He seems to idolize this man. This criminal! Why would they put an impressionable young boy in with this... this grown man?"
"That's how it's done, Jennifer," Debbie said. She chewed at her lip. It sounded to her like this kid and his cellie were more than just friends. Well, Mikey was hooked up with a guy inside, too. If you were young and not a big bruiser, then hooking up was the best way to go, especially for a gay boy. But she wasn't about to explain that to this lady. "Do you think that your son and his cellmate are having a... a relationship?"
Jennifer recoiled. "I don't know! But I'm so afraid! Justin sent me a list of things to buy for this man. Mainly clothes, like underwear and sweaters. But also a radio. And batteries. And books -- a long list of paperback books. All for this strange man!" Jennifer clutched Debbie's arm. "What if this man is forcing Justin to get him these things? What if he's threatening my son?"
"Some underwear and paperback books doesn't sound like the usual request of a blackmailer, honey," said Debbie, frankly. "It sounds like stuff that some poor guy who has no one on the outside might need. Maybe your kid feels sorry for his cellmate. Maybe this guy really IS his friend and Justin wants to do something nice for him. Some inmates have no families. Nobody to visit them or send them things. Me -- I bring Mikey stuff every time I come here. But I also bring things for his friend, Emmett. His family is way down in Mississippi and they're kind of poor, so they can't really help him. So Em is just like another son to me."
"But... what if...." Jennifer knew that she was going to start crying again.
"Honey, you'll know how things are when you see your son. No one knows a kid like his mother. You'll know if Justin's afraid or if he's being threatened. And if he is, then we'll see what we can do about it." Debbie pointed to the well-dressed man with the briefcase. "See that guy over there? He used to be a big lawyer, but he did some bad stuff and was an inmate here for years. Now he works for a group that does legal work for prisoners. He's the man to talk to, Jennifer. If your son is being harassed by his cellie, Mr. Rosenblum can try to do something about it. That guy knows all the ins and outs of Stanton Correctional."
"Does he come here every Visiting Day to meet with inmates?" Jennifer looked at the man with interest. He was tall, with dark wavy hair that was graying at the edges. His suit was custom-tailored and obviously expensive.
"No, hon," Debbie laughed. "He's not a lawyer anymore, so he can't meet with the inmates formally. He's here to see his boyfriend, who's still inside. His boyfriend is another pal of my son, Mikey."
Jennifer stared at Debbie. "My God! Is everyone in this prison gay?"
The door of the waiting room opened and all of the women stood and began lining up to go into the main part of Administration Building, where the Visiting Gallery was located.
"Well, sweetie, maybe they're not gay when they go in," Debbie shrugged. "But sometimes it's a different story when they come out!"
Posted November 23, 2004.