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Justin opened his eyes and sat up in bed.
For a moment he didn't know where he was.
And then he remembered. His mother's condo. In Pittsburgh. Not in Stanton. Not in the Quad. Not in E-320 with Brian.
Something was terribly wrong.
Justin switched on the lamp next to his bed. His mother had moved most of the things from his room in their house into this room, but it wasn't the same. Because Justin wasn't the same. The same posters were on the walls -- a travel poster of Italy, David Cassidy with his shirt off, Queen. And the same books were on the shelf -- paperbacks of 'The Great Gatsby' and 'A Farewell To Arms' from his Honors English class at St. James, all three volumes of 'The Lord of the Rings,' an old hardcover copy of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Even a baseball glove from Little League had been carefully placed on top of Justin's dresser. The entire room was like a little shrine to a Justin who once had been. The Justin his mother remembered.
But there was nothing of Justin's present. None of his drawings of Brian. None of the remnants of Stanton that he had brought back with him from the Quad. Justin was only waiting here, in this sterile, stuffy space. Waiting for when he could move into his new apartment. Waiting for his new life to begin.
Waiting for Brian to be freed.
Justin looked at the clock. It was 4:30 a.m. He would have to get up soon and get ready for his first day of work at the Liberty Diner. The Saturday morning shift. Mrs. Novotny had warned him that it would be busy, so he better be wide awake for his shift. Justin could go back to sleep for another half hour, but....
But something was definitely wrong. Justin could feel it.
"Brian?" he whispered aloud. "Brian!"
Justin climbed out of bed and looked out the window. It had snowed again last night and the street in front of the condo hadn't been plowed. The light looked eerie and the whole world seemed strange and ominous.
"Brian, I know you're there," Justin prayed. "Why won't you answer my letters? Why won't you come down to the Gallery and see me? Even for an hour -- even for a fucking minute! That's better than nothing. Please don't shut me out! Because I'm not going to give up! I'm not going to forget you! You can't make me forget you."
Justin switched off the light and tried to go back to sleep until his alarm went off, but it was impossible. He kept seeing Brian's face in his mind's eye. But that face was obscured, like it refused to come completely into focus.
Justin got out of bed again and slipped on his terry cloth bathrobe. He pushed open the door of his bedroom and padded down the hallway, not wanting to wake up anyone else.
But the light was on in the kitchen. Justin was surprised to find Ron sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and an untouched piece of toast in front of him.
"What are you doing up so early?" asked Justin. He sat in the chair across the kitchen table from his mother's boyfriend. And his lover's ex-lover. Jesus, thought Justin, what a complicated life! Why wasn't anything ever simple?
"I couldn't sleep," Ron replied. He turned the glass of milk between his fingers. Such simple things. A glass. Milk. Toast. A table. A warm kitchen. But not so simple if you were in prison. Not so simple for someone locked in a cell for 10 long years.
"Me neither," Justin admitted.
Ron stared up into Justin's eyes. Ron's eyes were blue, like Justin's, but they were more like steel than Justin's sky blue eyes. Ron's eyes had a hard, metallic edge. They cut into you. But tonight they were softened somehow. Muted.
"Brian is in trouble and I don't know what to do about it," Ron said bluntly.
Justin flinched. "I was dreaming about him just now. But he's... he's far away. And I don't mean the distance between here and Stanton. I mean that he's getting away from me. He's getting away from all of us, Ron!"
"I know," said Ron. "I tried to talk to Horvath. And I sent a message to Dr. Caputo. But there's not much they can do with an inmate who is... who is just not THERE!" Ron ran his fingers through his graying hair. "Until Brian tries to harm himself they won't put him on suicide watch. Horvath thinks I'm being hysterical. He thinks I've cried wolf about Brian too many times before. But... but I can't stand to see Brian fade away like this! Especially not now when he has so much going on!"
"You mean his book?" Justin nodded. "People are reading 'The New Yorker' and Brian is sure to get a book deal! Brian will be famous -- I know he will!"
"But that's not all, Justin," said Ron. He hesitated. Justin was the last person to whom he should confide. And yet Justin was the only person who really understood what was at stake. The only person who loved Brian as much as Ron did himself. And that made them rivals, but it also made them allies.
"What?" said Justin, anxiously.
"We... we have a real lead on the guy who set Brian up," said Ron. "If we can get him to turn himself in, to make a deal with the cops and tell the truth about what really happened at Penn State, then Brian might get a new trial. Or he might even get a reduction of his sentence on a lesser charge, which would mean that... that he could get out with time already served. He could get out soon. Very soon."
"Oh, God!" Justin pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes, trying not to let his emotions get away from him in front of Ron.
"That is... if Brian doesn't lose his mind before it happens," Ron added.
"What the fuck do we do?" Justin asked.
"This has happened to Brian before," said Ron. "After... after something bad that we both survived." Ron looked down at his hands, which were clenched in front of him on the table. "Did you ever hear about 'The Happening,' Justin?"
Justin frowned. "Isn't that a song? An old song? About a love-in or something like that?"
Ron shook his head. "It's something that took place at Stanton in the summer of 1973. A riot on the Yard between some skinheads and the black gang that spread through the entire prison. The black inmates called it 'The Happening' with great irony. It... it...." Ron paused. Justin noticed that Ron's hands were trembling. "It was horrible. Worse than horrible. A lot of men were killed, both by other inmates and also by the C.O.'s and the National Guard when they retook the place. Brian and I were... we were in the middle of it. We were almost killed."
Justin's eyes widened. "Why didn't Brian tell me about this? I don't remember anything like that in his manuscript!"
"It's not in there," said Ron. "He either destroyed those pages or else he couldn't bring himself to write about it." Ron shook his head. "Things were done to Brian then... things I still can't talk about. Can't think about."
"What kinds of... of things?" asked Justin.
"I can't...." Ron blinked his eyes, as if trying to wipe something out of his sight. "So don't ask me. And don't ask Brian about it -- ever! It wasn't so much physical, Justin, as an assault on his whole being. Brian has scars, but you can't see them. They're inside. It was like... like the last straw for Brian. And it almost broke him, except...."
"Except what?" Justin coaxed. "Tell me!"
"That riot was what got Brian writing in the first place," said Ron. "It was the only way I could think of to make him get all of his demons out of his head! I thought that if he started writing a journal about what had happened to him in his life then he could have a place to let out all of that pent up emotion. Because I knew that Brian was about to crack. He was so fucking traumatized by everything that had happened to him in the Quad that... that he couldn't handle it any longer. I was afraid that he was going to kill himself."
"Why did you think that?" Justin said fearfully.
"Because I found out that he was hoarding pills," said Ron. "And I knew that he was hoarding them for one reason."
"That's why you asked Emmy to find out if he was hiding pills in his cell!" Justin breathed. "You're really afraid that... that he's going to kill himself!"
"Yes, and that's why I asked Emmett to destroy anything he found," Ron sighed. "But that's just a stop-gap measure, Justin. Because if a man doesn't want to live, you can't make him live. You can't force him to care about life when it no longer has any meaning for him. And that's what I'm afraid of. Brian's book doesn't matter to him, and his work doesn't matter to him anymore. Nothing seems to matter to him. So he's... away. You know what I'm talking about, Justin. You understand what I mean."
Justin swallowed. "The beautiful place. Where he escapes when he can't deal with things. He sent me there, too, after... after the bikers ganged me. When the doctor was trying to fix me up. He told me about it while he held me. And then when everyone thought Brian was dead, I used to go there in my head, too. But I came back. We both came back."
Ron looked into Justin's eyes. "But one day Brian won't come back. And then it'll be too late. Do you know what I'm saying, Justin?"
"Yes," said Justin. "I know what you're saying."
"Then you understand why I'm so fucking worried," Ron replied. "And why I feel so fucking helpless." It wasn't the first time Ron had felt so impotent. And he didn't want to think about that time in the chapel. Didn't want to think about what he had seen done there.
Justin stood up. "I have to get ready to go to work. This is my first day at the diner, remember?"
"Right," said Ron. "We'll have to get you a car soon. You can't keep driving Jen's car everywhere." Ron stared down into the whiteness of the cold milk.
Justin walked back to his room and shut the door behind him. He looked out the window. It was getting lighter out and the fresh snow reflected that light, sparkling like a million diamonds.
"Brian!" Justin whispered. "I know you can hear me! Listen to me -- please. Come back! I need you! Don't leave me alone here, Brian. Come back from that beautiful place! Until we both can go there together."
"Please have a seat, Miz Emmy," said Loretta, inviting the white queen into her abode. Everyone in the Quad knew that Emmy, the self-appointed den mother of the East Wing queens, had crossed over the invisible line and was confabbing with the undisputed leader of the South Wing black queens.
"Thank you kindly, Miz Loretta," said Em, sashaying inside.
Emmy glanced around. Loretta indicated a stool covered with an embroidered cloth and Emmy sat herself down on it, crossing her legs in a very ladylike manner. It wouldn't do to offend Loretta on her own turf. South Wing queens were extremely fussy about things like that.
"Tea?" asked Loretta. She had a pan of water heating on a makeshift stove made out of a coffee can.
"Yes, please," said Em. "And I brought you this little token of my esteem." It didn't do to visit someone as important as Loretta without bringing a gift. Em pulled out a small jar of sugar. She had tied a pink bow around it for a festive touch.
"Why, what a fine thought, Miz Emmy," said Loretta. She took the jar and set it on her shelf.
Emmy took in Loretta's crib. She had some colorful bedspreads tacked up to decorate the walls and her extensive collection of scarves and blouses hung on hooks. Loretta also had a large pile of movie magazines stacked on the floor and photos of her favorite stars and role models -- Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and Billie Holiday -- were arranged over her bunk.
"My pleasure, Miz Loretta," Emmy replied.
Loretta produced the tea and poured two cups. Then they sat and sipped for a few minutes before getting down to the matter at hand.
"Your white boy," said Loretta. "The Baby. He been coming over here to make buys. That's what you wanted to know and that's what I'm telling you."
Emmy took a deep breath. "What's he been acquiring, if I may ask, Miz Loretta?"
"Pills," said Loretta. "Painkillers, mainly. Percodan. Darvon. Whatever he can get. Also some sleeping pills. All downs."
"Nothing harder?" Emmy inquired. "No smack?"
"No," said Loretta, flatly. "I would know if he was gettin' the hard stuff. Dope is in short supply lately and it's expensive. If your white boy was buying smack he'd be over here every day -- and he ain't. Plus, he'd need works. He'd need needles and a spoon to cook the junk. You find anything like that in his crib?" Baraka had obviously told Loretta that Em had been searching Brian's cell while he was out of it.
"No, I haven't," admitted Emmy. "Nothing like that."
"That's good, then," said Loretta, setting down her cup of tea. "He could be taking some of them pills every day. Lots of guys hooked on painkillers."
"He may be taking some of them," said Em. "But he's storing them up, too. I found a stash of pills under his bunk and another stash behind his books. I took them and flushed them down the toilet."
"That means he'll be over here for more," Loretta sniffed. "So what you want me to do, Miz Emmy? Baraka says I should do whatever you say. I'm under orders, as they say." Loretta tossed her head, sending her long braids flying.
"Cut him off," said Em. "Completely. If Bri Baby comes over here, send him back home. Can you do that? Can you make the people who are dealing him the pills stop?"
Loretta raised a carefully painted eyebrow. "I can do what I like, Miz Emmy! This is MY Wing." Then her voice lowered. "Besides, if Baraka say it should stop, then it'll stop."
"And Baraka says it will stop."
Both queens looked up to see the leader of the Bros standing at the entrance of Loretta's cell.
"Hey, honey!" Loretta greeted him. But Emmy noted that Loretta seemed nervous to see the man at her door. Maybe Baraka's power was so great in the South Wing that even his mere appearance was enough to rattle Loretta.
"Get lost," Baraka ordered. "Now!"
Loretta jumped up like she'd been stung and hustled out of her own cell, leaving Em sitting on the little stool with Baraka looming over her.
Em swallowed nervously. She had never spoken to the infamous leader of the Bros before and, frankly, she was afraid of him. In the South Wing Baraka's word was law, especially since the demise of the low-riders.
"You talk to the lawyer lately?" Baraka asked.
Emmy nodded. "In the Visitors' Gallery. He and Bri Baby's punk came to see him, but Brian wouldn't leave his cell. Ron is very worried about Brian. He told me to search for the pills. Ron said that Brian had... had tried to hoard them before. Back when he was Ron's punk."
Baraka's face was impassive, but his mouth twitched. "I remember." Baraka paused, as if considering something. He was ordinarily a man of few words, especially with white inmates. But the exceptions to that had always been Ron and Brian. Em knew that Baraka had spoken to them regularly and had often conferred with them in the Law Library. Baraka had even come over to the Hospital Wing to visit Brian while he was recovering from his stabbing.
"How much you know about 'The Happening'?" Baraka asked.
Emmy shrugged. "As much as anyone in Stanton who wasn't here back then." Em knew that not many guys were still in the joint who had lived through the riot of '73. But Brian had. And, Em realized, so had Baraka.
"I was there," Baraka confirmed. "So was the lawyer. And Brian. We was all there."
"Was it... really bad?" Em knew that a number of men had been killed during the riot. It was the most infamous event in the history of Stanton, although it was considered bad luck to talk about what had happened on that bleak July day.
"Bad enough," said Baraka, abruptly. "Worse than you can picture -- if you can picture men being destroyed. And not only men killed, but their souls destroyed. It almost destroyed me. Almost did in the lawyer. And the Baby, too. But we still alive. We survived." Baraka glared down at Emmy. "And we gonna keep surviving, too. That's how we know that the Man didn't win in the end. That's how we know that there's still something to work for. Maybe there won't be no revolution. Maybe not. But the struggle goes on. You know what I'm saying?"
"I think so," said Em, hesitantly. She knew nothing about Baraka's revolution and didn't want to know about it. It sounded dangerous. And very messy. "You think that Bri Baby will be all right?"
"I don't know," Baraka conceded. "But we all gotta do what we gotta do. No more drugs will come out of the South Wing for the next month. Nothing. Not for nobody. That's all I can promise. And your boy can't come in here again. We stop him if he tries. I give my word on that. But you gotta do your part, too."
"I'll do whatever I can," Em promised.
"I'm holding YOU to it, cracker!" Baraka maintained. "And all of your men in the East. You keep Brian alive. Do what you have to do, but do it right."
Em gulped. "We'll try. Lord knows, I'll do my best."
Baraka narrowed his eyes at Emmy. "See that you do -- or you'll answer to me." Baraka turned to leave the cell. "Now get your white sissy ass back to your own wing."
Em stood up. "Thank you for doing this, Mr. Baraka. I don't know why you're doing it, but I'm certainly glad that you are. For Bri Baby's sake."
"I pay my debts," said Baraka. "I owe your boy." Baraka shook his head. "I owe him my life. And I ain't forgotten that. I'll never forget that. Never."
"Your life?" said an astonished Em. "How?"
But the black inmate didn't say another word. Em watched him stride out of the cell and down the tier.
Flashback to July 1973
When Turner and his compatriots finished with Brian they left him lying on the floor of the chapel.
There was no escape, thought Brian. Not even to his beautiful place. He hadn't been able to keep his mind there. He kept being dragged back into the bitter reality of what was happening to him -- now, in the last moments of his life.
Brian's face was pressed against the filthy floor. There was a crisscross pattern in the linoleum. Crisscross. Crisscross. He lifted his head slightly, trying to turn to look over at Ron, but he felt the chilly nose of Turner's pistol against the back of his neck.
"I'm looking to put this bitch out of its misery," said Turner. "What you say, Cal?"
"Do it," said Cal. "Let's see how big a hole that mutha can blast."
"No!" Ron cried. And he flung himself across the floor to reach Brian.
"Shit," Turner said in disgust. "You wanna go first? That what you want, lawyer?"
"I'm sorry, Baby," whispered Ron. His hands were still tied behind his back, but he pulled himself against Brian's still form. "There was nothing I could do! Please forgive me. Please!"
Turner moved the pistol to the back of the lawyer's head. It didn't matter to him which of these crackers was wasted first. Didn't matter at all. They was dead already.
Turner looked up. Baraka was standing there, staying his hand.
"What you fucking with me for?" Turner spat.
"They laying for us outside, Brother!" said Baraka. "You know that. It's too quiet out there. So you gonna waste two good bullets on this trash?" Baraka kicked at Ron with the toe of his hard prison shoe. "Save your fire for the Man! Because he coming, Turner! He coming soon!"
"The brother is right, Turner," said Ameer, nervously. They were all holding their breath.
Turner backed away. He cradled the pistol against his chest. It was almost time. He could feel it.
Baraka nudged Ron. "Move back to where you was, lawyer."
"Not without Brian," Ron said desperately.
"I'll take care of him," said Baraka.
Ron crawled back and sat with his back against the mangled pile of pews. Baraka helped Brian sit up and then half-dragged, half-pushed him to his place next to Ron. Brian seemed dazed and he was trembling violently.
"Listen sharp," whispered Baraka. "I'm cutting your ties." He reached behind the two men and silently sawed through the material that bound their hands with his homemade shiv. "Keep your hands out of sight. Right behind you there's a pew turned over. When the shit comes down, you crawl in there. Crawl in there and stay there -- until its over."
"What about you?" asked Ron.
"I'll be okay," said Baraka, dismissively.
Then there was a crash. A tear gas canister smashed through the stained glass window and hit against the altar screen that was blocking it. But the canister began to leak, defusing the peppery mist throughout the chapel.
At the same moment there was a pounding at the door. The C.O.'s were breaking in.
"Get the door!" shouted Turner, covering his face with his shirt. "Take them out when they come through!"
"Now!" said Baraka, hoarsely. The tear gas was beginning to reach them. "Move your ass!"
Ron didn't hesitate. He crawled into the opening that Baraka had indicated. The pew was long and the space was more than enough for a couple of men to escape into.
"Brian! Come on!" Ron urged.
The door of the chapel had been breached and the folding chairs and tables that had been piled up in front of it went tumbling as the C.O.'s and other uniformed men crashed inside, shooting.
Brian grabbed Baraka's hand and pulled him along behind him into the tunnel of the pew. "Save yourself!" Brian exhorted. "For the struggle ahead. Don't lose yourself here."
Baraka paused only a second to discard his shiv, tossing it behind him. And then he followed Brian into the pile, where the three of them huddled until it was over.
And it was over in a matter of minutes. Turner and the others were dead. And so were the two captured guards. The autopsies showed that they had not been killed by the pistols Turner had confiscated from them, but by the automatic weapons of the C.O.'s and the National Guardsmen who retook the chapel.
Ron, Brian, and Baraka were taken into custody. It was obvious from Brian's condition and from the remnants of the ties on their wrists that Brian and Ron had been hostages of Turner's gang. But Baraka was another story. Ron and the Prisoners' Legal Defense took up the inmate's defense and, with Brian's testimony that Baraka had prevented them from being killed by the rebelling Brothers, Baraka got off with six months in total lockdown and isolation. But he was alive.
They were all alive. Baraka and Ron and Brian. Alive in Stanton.
For what that was worth.
Posted June 30, 2005.