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Brian had to admit that he was amazed at what Justin had accomplished with the birthday party.
He'd seen a lot of things in his 9 years in the joint, but never anything as bizarre as Al and Wesley dancing together to Emmy's Frank Sinatra tapes. Or Officer Foster splitting a piece of birthday cake with the little red-haired drag queen Lou Lou. Or Juice Pig getting creamed at ping pong by Michelle. Or the tall and flashy black queen Loretta arm-wrestling with mousey Murray the Librarian.
The cake alone was a major accomplishment. Or, rather, both cakes. Angelo and Tony, the two guys Justin had strong-armed, bribed, and sweet-talked into making the birthday cake, had a last minute disagreement about whether it should be chocolate or buttercream. Consequently, there were two competing cakes, each profusely decorated with pink sugar roses and the words 'Happy Birthday Brian!' across the top. But two cakes turned out to be a necessity, since the party-goers soon overflowed the Rec Room and spilled down the length of the third tier.
Emmy and her friends had also done a bang-up job on the decorations. The Rec Room looked more like a New Orleans bordello than a prison, with feathers, tinsel, and a rainbow of silk scarves hanging everywhere, lending color to the otherwise drab space. Emmy kept the music going on her cassette player, changing the mood frequently, although she drew the line at playing Stormy's copy of the Sex Pistol's 'Never Mind the Bollocks' and put on Marvin Gaye instead. Michelle and Barbie passed out soft drinks and plates of cookies from the canteen, and they also took charge of the birthday cards and gifts.
Brian couldn't believe that people had actually brought him presents. And not just Justin. Brian had assumed that the kid would give him something. Maybe a shirt or a book or something like that. But Justin had a stack of gifts for him, all wrapped in Justin's special homemade paper.
But there were presents from other people, too. From Emmy and Barbie, and also from Michelle and Juice. Al and Wesley. Andy and Beemer. The guys on the b-ball team. A card sent in from Dave, who was out on parole. And other odds and ends from Brian's PLD clients. Brian, whose parents had never made any kind of fuss over his birthdays even when he was a child, was overwhelmed to say the least.
"Attention everyone!" Emmy called out. "I think it's time for the birthday boy to open his gifts!"
"Yes!" Justin agreed, pulling on Brian's arm. "Come on, Brian!"
But Brian was still hesitant. And embarrassed. It seemed strange to be the center of so much attention. Unnerving. For so many years Brian had done all he could to be unnoticed. To fly under the radar. To remain always in the background. His trial and the events surrounding it had given him as much fame as he ever hoped to survive. The cameras and people staring at him had been a nightmare he never wished to repeat. Then as a punk in prison it was easier to be anonymous. Easier to be nothing but a reflection of his old man. And since Ron adored the spotlight, it was simple just to stand behind him and feel the protection of being nothing.
But that was impossible now. Impossible with Justin, who was a magnet for attention wherever he was. And that meant that Brian, as his partner, had to step up into the spotlight.
Brian had been vaguely aware that he was well-known in the Quad, but he'd never thought about the implications of that. But now, with the party, Brian was seeing exactly what he was -- a man with status in Stanton Correctional. A man who, like Ron, controlled the Fates of a lot of men in the prison. A man who had done what cons called a 'righteous crime.' There was no higher offense than murder and the political element of the bombing and the show trial added to the outlaw nature of Brian's prison image. And the length of his sentence, the years he had survived there -- Brian was like a professor with tenure in the culture of the inmate. Brian had paid his dues. And now he had a punk who would do anything for him. That was strength. That was power.
Brian sat on the old sofa and opened his presents. The queens and punks seemed so excited by the trappings of the party, and Justin the most of all. His eyes were shining and he could hardly contain his glee as Brian unwrapped each gift.
Most of the presents were small, things that could be bought at the canteen for a few credits or made in one of the craft shops in the Industry Building. Some of the queens gave Brian candy or other treats from the canteen. Stormy had made Brian a leather belt with a cowboy buckle, and Wes a wooden plaque on which he'd burned the words 'Brian and Justin's Place' to hang on the front of their cell. Emmy and Barbie and Lou Lou had needlepointed a large throw pillow with a design of a running golden horse on it. Justin, of course, had provided the drawing that they used for the pattern. Even a group of the C.O.'s had signed a big birthday card in the form of a Monopoly card that read 'Get Out of Jail Free!'
Brian held up the card. "Will this work at the front gate?"
All the guys laughed.
"You wish, Kinney!" Sergeant Tully returned. Then he added, "Maybe someday."
"Yeah," said Brian. "Maybe someday."
Finally, Brian opened up Justin's gifts. He took care not to tear the wrapping paper, which was a work of art in itself, collages of magazine pictures and Justin's own drawings pasted onto large sheets of drawing paper.
Everyone laughed at the underwear, although the queens couldn't wait to see Bri Baby in the black wifebeater. And the gym shorts were perfect for basketball games and Brian's morning run.
"I LOVE this sweater!" cooed Emmy, running his finger across the red pullover. "This color will be PERFECT on you!"
Brian shrugged. "If you say so, Em. All these clothes -- I... I don't know when I'll wear them all!"
"Don't worry!" said Justin. "I'll dress you, Brian. Most people don't wear the same pair of pants and the same shirt every single day!"
"You're lucky they don't make you wear those striped uniforms, like in the old days!" Juice laughed.
"Ewww! Those horizontal stripes make my butt look big!" Emmy exclaimed. "No thank you!"
As nice as the clothes were, Brian was most interested in the books that Justin had requested. He hadn't read 'Catch-22' or 'Tender Is the Night' in many years and he'd never read 'The Persian Boy' or Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans.'
"Thanks, kid," said Brian. "Thanks for everything." And he leaned over and gave Justin a kiss, right in front of the whole party. Justin was so happy he thought he'd burst.
"It was nothing, Brian," said Justin, blushing deeply. "It was only what you deserve."
Emmy stood up and clapped her hands. "There's more cake, people, and the ice cream is melting, so eat up!"
"I'd like a piece of that cake, bitch," said a voice.
Everyone looked around to see Cisco, Hoss, and a couple of the low-riders standing in the doorway.
"Now that we're here this party is just gettin' started!" Cisco added. And the bikers pushed their way into the Rec Room.
Justin felt Brian tense when he saw the low-riders at the door. And Juice, who was in the corner with Michelle, immediately walked over to stand by Brian and Justin on the sofa. Justin looked around for the C.O.'s, but they had gone back to the guard station after the presents were opened.
Cisco strutted over to the food table and began helping himself.
Justin jumped off the sofa and was in the biker's face before Brian could stop him. "Excuse me? But I think you're in the wrong place. So I suggest that you leave my party! Now!"
Both Brian and Juice were behind the kid in a moment. Brian pulled at Justin's shoulder. "Justin! Come with me. I fucking mean it!"
"I think my invite musta got lost in the mail, pretty thing," Cisco snorted. "You throw a nice little do here. But it's kinda boring, fishy fish. You come back and party with us in the South Wing. We'll show you how to have a good time." Cisco trained his red eyes on Brian. "Isn't that right, Baby?"
"Get the fuck out of here," Brian said quietly, but firmly. There was only a slight tremble in his voice.
"Baby knows how to have a good time." Cisco picked up a slice of cake with his hands and pushed it into his mouth. "That's real tasty. But I can think of something even tastier. You understand my meaning, Baby? TWO things even tastier!" The biker leered at Justin.
Juice, Al, and Big John moved in closer behind Brian, backing him up, while a couple of the other jockers moved in around Hoss and his bikers by the door, clearly letting them know that they were outmanned.
Brian reached out and shoved Cisco away from the table. "If I catch you on this tier again or in this wing again, you'll be sorry they ever sent your ugly ass back to Stanton."
Cisco laughed. "Oh, yeah? You gonna do that, Baby? You're a big shot now, huh? A big fucking shot! That's the funniest thing I heard of since I came back here!"
Brian grabbed Cisco by the front of his dirty prison shirt, catching him off-guard. "I wonder if you remember what I'm in here for, motherfucker? Murder -- that ring a bell?"
Cisco hesitated, but then he sniffed. "What you gonna do, Baby? Blow me up?"
Brian pushed the biker away and wiped his hands on his pants. "Maybe. Maybe I WILL blow you up. But I'm in here for 20 to life. Which means that I have nothing to lose by wasting you, Cisco. Nothing to lose at all."
Cisco frowned. He obviously hadn't expected Baby to give him any trouble. But the low-riders were in a bad way in the Quad these days. They were down to only two punks in the tip. Prostitution in Stanton was being run by the Mexican gang now, and most of the drugs coming up were bypassing the bikers. And that dumbass Hoss was a piss poor leader if he couldn't even manage to keep the blond punk after they had turned him out! They'd let another punk take him right out from under their noses! And not just any punk, either, but Baby! That stuck in Cisco's craw.
"Don't get in my face," said Cisco. "You might fool these guys, but don't think you can fool me, Baby. You're nothin' but a cocksucker and you always will be. Having your own little cocksucker don't change that."
"Nothing to lose," Brian repeated. His green eyes were burning into Cisco's face.
"Brian!" Justin cried. Now he was really afraid. He tried to move between Brian and the biker, but Ben held him back.
The two men stood, face to face, staring each other down. One was tall and straight and handsome, while the other was older, squat and ugly and broken-down. But they were both dangerous and they hated each other with an intensity that every man in the room could feel, even if they didn't understand the reason for it.
But then Officer Foster and Sergeant Tully came back into the Rec Room. Wesley had slipped out silently and run down the tier to the alert the guards that there was trouble at the party.
"You men are out of your wing!" Foster barked at the low-riders. "It's almost time for head count, so get your asses back where you belong!"
Cisco blinked first and turned away from Brian. "That fish belongs to us, Baby," he warned. "And we're gonna have him. You can count on that. Ain't nobody gonna cheat us out of what's ours. Not even you!"
"Fuck off, Cisco!" Brian spat.
"That's enough, Kinney!" said Sergeant Tully. "The party's over! Everyone clear out!"
Hoss and the other low-riders backed out of the room and stomped down the tier, with Cisco limping after them.
"We'll clean up in here, Officer honey," said Emmy, moving to pick up the paper plates and discarded soda cans. Barbie and Michelle hustled to do the same.
"Okay, but everybody else get back to your cells!" The C.O.'s directed all the men out of the Rec Room. Justin began scooping up Brian's presents and Wesley helped him carry them down the tier and back to the cell.
Justin's heart was pounding. He was proud of the way Brian had stood up to the low-rider, but he was also terrified. Because Justin knew that now that they'd been challenged the bikers would never give up. Justin would have to be extremely careful, even more so than he had been before. Because if the bikers ever tried to take him, Justin knew that Brian's life would be on the line to protect him. That's what it meant to be a jocker, even in a medium security joint. This wasn't a game. It was life and death.
In the cell Justin and Wes piled the presents in the corner. Then, as Brian undressed in silence, Justin shook out the new sweater and folded it carefully away on the shelf. Justin hadn't noticed before that the bright red color was exactly that of fresh blood. Justin shivered and wished that he'd asked his mother for a different color, but it was too late now.
Yes, too late for a lot of things.
Amy Carver had never heard the boys in her Creative Writing class so noisy. She could hear them chattering and laughing as she walked up the hallway and they didn't fall silent, as they usually did, as she entered the classroom.
"Well!" said Amy, setting her briefcase down on the desk. "What brought all THIS on?"
"Miss Carver, there was a PARTY on the third tier in the East Wing last night!" said Jackie. Amy noticed that Jackie was wearing more bracelets than usual -- and more make-up. "I helped decorate the Rec Room! And there was a cake and ice cream and presents!"
"Yeah, and a big fight!" added Stormy.
"It wasn't a fight!" Wesley countered.
"It was ALMOST a fight!" said Stormy, firmly. "I was hoping that the jockers would mix it up!"
"There's gonna be one!" said Lee. "Chuck says so! He thinks the bikers are gonna lay for Bri and cut him up good!"
Stormy snorted. "The low-riders are pussies! Did you see how that fat guy backed off when Bri told him to fuck off?" Stormy stopped and looked up at Amy. "Sorry, Miss Carver." Amy didn't allow the boys to use bad language in the classroom. "I'm just repeating what Bri said."
"What was this all about?" asked Amy. "Are you saying that you had a party in the prison?"
"Justin gave it," said Wesley. "For his... his cellmate's birthday. And we were all invited. I helped Justin get stuff ready. I carried the presents over to the Rec Room."
"And I helped bring up the pop from the canteen," said Stormy.
"Me, too!" Zack chimed in.
"Yeah, we all did stuff for it, Miss Carver." Stormy smiled. "It was great to go to a party."
"And you boys say that Justin arranged all this? Himself?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jackie replied primly. "My old man said he'd never pull it off, but I knew he would! Justin's so smart he can do anything!"
"Aww, you got a crush on him!" said Lee, curling his lip in disdain.
Amy had already taken note that Justin wasn't in class. He had never missed a class before. "Where IS Justin? Is he still cleaning up after his big party?"
The boys looked uncomfortable. "I don't think he'll be here tonight," offered Wesley.
"He's scared to come out of his cell," Lee sneered. "So's Bri Baby! They're both probably up on the third tier shaking in their shoes!"
"They are not!" snapped Stormy. "Bri's not scared of some biker scum! So, you take that back, you little weasel!"
Stormy and Lee had a rivalry going back to the time they both came in together as new fish the year before. Stormy, who had spent time in the Juvenile Reformatory and knew the score about prison, had immediately hooked up with Junior, an East Wing jocker with a good reputation. Junior was on the third tier basketball team and brought in a decent draw from his Industry job because he was a skilled machinist. The smaller, weaker Lee, on the other hand, had been claimed by Big Chuck, a South Wing jocker with a bad gambling habit. Consequently, Lee's jocker peddled his punk's ass all over the Quad to make up for his losses. Chuck, a known bully, also roughed Lee up pretty regularly, so the kid was resentful of punks, like Stormy and Wesley and Justin, who had what Lee considered an easy ride from their jocks.
"Boys, is Justin in some kind of danger?" said Amy with real concern. "Or his cellmate, Brian?"
That shut the boys up tight as a drum. They'd already said too much as it was, especially to some female from outside the joint.
"Boys?" Amy asked again. But they wouldn't -- or couldn't -- continue. Stormy and Zack stared straight ahead, while Wesley and Jackie looked away, and Lee slumped down in his seat. The wall went up and there was no way Amy was going to penetrate it.
Amy had pages from Brian's manuscript in her briefcase to return to Justin, and she had hoped that he would give her a new section that night. She was typing out the handwritten pages herself and then making Xerox copies of the originals before she returned them. Amy was also hoping that a friend of hers at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh would read the excerpts and agree with her that the story was as important as she believed it was. Amy had never considered that Brian Kinney would be in any kind of danger in prison. That made her anxious to read the later sections that dealt with his life in the Stanton Quad. She wished that Justin were here to give her the full story about the party and its aftermath.
"All right, then. Let's move on to your stories," said Amy.
The discussion of the stories that followed was a lively one, much more animated than Amy had expected without Justin to drive it, as he usually did with most of the classes. But without Justin in the room, Amy could see how the dynamics of the class had changed markedly. Stormy and Lee were openly at odds, one always taking the opposite position from the other. Zack, ever the follower, always took his cues from Stormy and agreed with everything he said. Wesley was quieter than usual without Justin there, urging him to speak. And Jackie seemed even more girlish, giggling and jangling his bracelets, playing up to the other boys, flattering them and batting his eyes at them.
Amy could clearly see how Justin's presence tempered the class, keeping the boys in line and also keeping the conversation on track. Now the discussion was constantly veering off in some tangent away from the story in question, typically grinding to a halt over some disagreement between Stormy and Lee. Then Amy had to stop, pull back, and get the class going in a more profitable direction.
Towards the end of the session Amy set the boys to work on what was obviously primary in their minds -- a description of the infamous party. While the boys wrote, Amy Carver sat back and wondered if it would be bad form to write a letter to Justin. After all, he had missed class. She needed to give him his next assignment, although telling Wesley to deliver it was probably all that was necessary. But Amy wanted to know that her star pupil was okay. The talk of a fight and some kind of feud between Brian Kinney and another man had Amy deeply worried.
Amy looked to see a tall man standing at the door of her classroom. He had shaggy brown hair and a handsome face, but his eyes looked tired and shadowy.
"Yes? What can I do for you?" Amy said, warily. At this time of the evening there were not supposed to be any other inmates in this part of the building except her students.
The boys looked up at the newcomer.
"Hey, Bri!" called out Stormy. "What's happening?"
Amy looked sharply at the man and then back at Stormy. "Continue with your work, please." She walked out into the hallway and closed the classroom door.
"I have Justin's story here. He didn't want to miss class, but he's not feeling well tonight." Brian held out a manila folder, like the kind Justin always used to turn in his work.
"Are you Brian? Justin's... cellmate?" Amy hesitated. She had about a million questions she wanted to ask Brian Kinney, but she knew that she could not. That would give away the fact that Justin was sharing this man's manuscript with her. And she had no idea what his reaction would be to that revelation. "He's mentioned you in class."
"Yes," said Brian. He kept glancing around the empty halls. "Although I don't know why Justin would talk about me."
"Oh," said Amy, carefully. "That you read his stories and comment on them. And that you allow him to take the class."
Brian smiled slightly. "I don't 'allow' Justin to do anything. He's has a mind of his own, as I'm sure you know."
"Yes, that he does," Amy replied. She kept staring at this man. Justin's lover. He certainly wasn't anyone's idea of a homosexual, thought Amy. Or, rather, anyone's stereotypical notion of a gay man. Amy wasn't sure how she had pictured this man, who Justin had described so often and whose words she had read so avidly, but it wasn't this tall and very masculine presence. "Have a mind of his own, I mean."
"I suppose the kids mentioned the party last night," said Brian, his face serious.
"Yes, they did. It made quite an impression on everyone."
Brian scratched his head, messing up his already disorderly hair. "That's an understatement. Justin... he... I'm sorry he didn't come to class. He'll be here next week. I don't want him to miss any more of his classes. His education is too important. Not falling too far behind." Brian licked his lips. "When he gets out I don't want him to be out of the habit of learning and studying, do you know what I mean, Miss....?"
"Amy Carver," said Amy. "And I do know what you mean." Amy paused. "Do you think Justin will get out of here soon?"
"I hope so," said Brian. "Now more than ever. Do you know the Prisoners' Legal Defense, Miss Carver? That prisoners' advocacy group? There are people there working on his case."
She was surprised to hear that. The way Justin spoke Amy had assumed that he was in for a while, at least a couple of years. "That is very good news... Brian."
Amy took a deep breath. She'd almost called him 'Mr. Kinney.' That would make him ask questions. His name was too well known in certain circles. And he seemed a naturally suspicious man. But he undoubtedly had good reason to be suspicious of any stranger, even a well-meaning stranger like her.
"Yes, it is," the man returned. He seemed ill at ease around her. Maybe he simply wasn't used to talking to a woman. "Justin loves your class. It gives him an outlet for his creativity. He's a very talented artist. I don't know if you realized that, Miss Carver."
Amy nodded. "He's written about his artwork. I hope he'll show me some of it one day."
"Maybe he will," said Brian. "Listen, I have to go now. Get back to the tier. I'm not supposed to be over here, but I... I wanted to explain why Justin wasn't in class. And give you his story."
"Thank you, Brian. I hope Justin feels better," said Amy. She didn't shake his hand. Touching inmates was forbidden. But then, he didn't offer his hand, either.
"So do I," he said. "Thanks." And then he hurried away, down the hallway and then down a side stairwell.
Amy watched Brian Kinney disappear and she felt a chill go through her. But she didn't know why.
Posted November 27, 2004.