A Different Christmas Story (Chapter 7)
Every Day is The Same
Each morning, the start of a new day in hell, the inmates would yell their daily greeting across to each other. So much more than a hello -- this daily greeting was to affirm they were still there, still intact, mind and body. The solitude had a way of punishing not only the mind, but the soul as well. It was the day before Christmas and this morning was no different than any other.
Mouse had woken up earlier than usual and listened for sound from Danny's cell. This would be his last day in the dungeon, his last day in prison. He had served his time and his life was about to be his own once again -- for real -- and he wasn’t dependent on any paper trail or answering to some nosy bureaucrat.
Mouse contemplated if he was ready this time or if he would come right back. But he pushed that thought out of his mind. Right now, he was mainly concerned with leaving Danny Petros behind. Mouse’s voice cut through the quiet cellblock, calling out to his comrade he shouted “Mighty quiet over there, my man.”
Danny didn’t respond right away. He was still drifting in and out of his recurring dream, somewhere between this world and, perhaps, the next. The dream had started a few months back. It was always the same setting -- rolling green hills, a deeper shade of green than he had ever seen on this earth. In the middle of this vast swath of countryside was a massive old oak tree and under the tree was a large white sheet, or blanket maybe, holding an old fashioned wicker basket that was, in turn, filled with an abundance of foods. The food was the one thing that was always different -- sometimes it was cold fried chicken, sometimes large french rolls stuffed with meats and cheeses and sometimes hearty pies overfilled with meat and vegetables.
Standing over it all was a man who looked like he was in his late forties. His face obscured somewhat by the shadow of the massive tree. Within the second or third dream, the man began to gesture with his right hand, palm up and arm open in invitation. After some time, he began to talk to Danny.
Each time Danny had the dream, the effects lingered long into the day. At first, he was scared by the mystery of the images and he would go to sleep fearing the dream would come again. Then he started to overcome his fear. He became interested and wanted it to come, wanted to know more. He invited the dream to come to him. When it didn’t, he challenged it to materialize. It responded to Danny’s challenge and soon it would come to him whenever he asked.
Mouse called out to Danny again, “What, you got me on no status?”
A smile broke out on Danny’s face and he yelled back to his friend, “You know what? With you outta here maybe I can finally get some sleep.”
Mouse laughed out loud “Oh, you’re going with me. You ain't getting away from me so easy!”
Danny looked down at his feet and slowly said “I don't think I'm going to make it.”
Mouse asserted “You’ll be in the car! We’re going out of here together, this very night, my man.”
They began their morning routine, this morning no different than the rest. Routine was their map to sanity and helped them maintain their course of true north. They ate their breakfast of cold cereal and warm milk to fuel themselves and started the exercise program they had developed over the last year.
Each morning they rotated the body parts they exercised: push ups, squats, dips off the steel beds, sit-ups and imaginative isometrics. Then the walk -- the 2,000 steps that made up their morning mile. The small cells allowed ten steps from wall to wall, 400 trips constituted two miles give or take a step. Walking warmed them up and cooled them down. It settled them - body and mind - bringing them back to their steel beds for some reading, quiet contemplation and on a good day, sleep, that would allow a temporary mental escape from the box that could suffocate, at times, even the strongest minds
Morning after morning they repeated this routine -- the only variance was order. Small changes that gave them a much needed illusion of control. Mouse didn’t mind the SHU so much. After his years spent exploring the tunnels of the Vietnam underground his cell seemed spacious and very comfortable. Maybe that's why he kept coming back to the confinement of institution after institution. He also had a secret advantage to coping in the SHU, one that had made him one hell of a tunnel rat. Something deep and dark that he hadn't even shared with Danny.
Mouse’s first dark tunnel experience was as a child -- trapped in his own toy chest by his own stepfather. An angry drunk, Mouse’s stepfather would come home from the bar and take out all his frustration on Mouse (Little Mickey as he was called back then) and his mother. One night, when Little Mickey was about four years old, he stood up to his stepfather to defend his mother from that evening’s tirade. His stepfather knocked him to the ground and dragged him into his room. He dumped the contents of Little Mickey’s toy box on the floor and without missing a beat shoved Little Mickey inside. The lid shut and all light disappeared. Little Mickey screamed in panic as his stepfather pushed the box under the bed. It was a perfect fit and kept the lid secure. Little Mickey lost control of his breath as fear took command of his body. The laughter of the stepfather was faint compared to his heartbeat thundering inside the small box.
Mouse never knew if he fell asleep or passed out from fear. When he woke he was no longer afraid. He became friends with the walls that confined him. Rubbing his hands against the surface of the box brought out the smells of his toys and stuffed animals -- familiar smells that brought him a comfort no one could take away. Right then and there he promised himself in the silence that he could overcome anything and would never allow fear to overtake him again.
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