The Most Beautiful Woman
Georgia had finished her breakfast and was drinking her morning tea. The same nurse from last night asked if she would like another vitamin shot. “Oh my, that would be nice” she replied with a soft smile.
Everyone at the hospital knew Danny was on his way and didn’t want to ruin the surprise. There wasn't much time left and Danny and Georgia would have much ground to cover. It was a bittersweet gift.
The warden’s sister in law, Judy Jones, was looking out the window, watching for Babbitt’s car to arrive with Danny. The Warden had given her all the details. As they parked, she moved swiftly from her office to greet them.
As the hospice administrator, Judy took on many unpleasant duties. Today she would be preparing a son to say goodbye to his mother. She studied Danny as the three men approached the main entrance. Was he really the desperate son that made a bad choice or was he a criminal at heart? Would he be reformed by his four years in prison? Raised in a law and order family it was natural for her to think in this manner but as she had become very fond of Georgia she set aside her judgement to focus on the task at hand. She introduced herself to Danny and hurried him away from his two companions, suggesting they try the cafeteria breakfast.
Danny followed her to a large office where they both took a seat. As they spoke she studied him for signs of post traumatic stress disorder. When they shook hands she could feel a bit of a reaction indicating some hypersensitivity to touch. She noticed the same with noise as he reacted to little sounds around them. Both were symptoms of SHU syndrome -- a condition that can affect prisoners with as little as a few months in isolation. He would certainly have issues to deal with but right now time was running out.
Judy got right to the point. “It's been several months since you’ve seen your mother Danny and I want to warn you that she has become very frail. She is also suffering from dementia and may not recognize you or realize some of the things she says. Her time is very limited.” There was a long pause between them, then she rose and asked if he was ready.
Babbitt and Mouse sat at the small cafeteria table, sizing each other up more than enjoying the company. Mouse opened up a conversation with a statement, “Ok, I’ll be the first to say it. This is weird Babbitt.”
“Well, it is different.” Babbitt wasn’t going to lie.
“You know, sitting here with you could get me killed back home.”
“Then I would say that's not much of a home, is it?”
“Yea, maybe not but those four blocks is all I got.”
“You don’t have to go back there. You can do something different.”
“You’ve changed Mouse. Look at what you did with Danny. He was starting to unravel. You held him together. Hell, now you’re here with him to help him though this. Have you ever thought of helping other people?”
“Well first I need to help myself.”
“That’s a great first step.” Babbitt responded.
The conversation was making Mouse uncomfortable and he ended it with a trip to the bathroom.
Judy entered Georgia's room first and in her bold voice she made the announcement she had been hoping with all her heart that she would be able to make that Christmas.
“Look who I have with me. Someone special wants to see you. Merry Merry Christmas Georgia!”
Georgia looked up and studied her son for a moment. Despite her weakened state she exclaimed, “Yes, that's just who I have been waiting to see.” Danny wasn't sure if she was lucid or lost in a space between this world and the next one. Then again, this all felt like it could be a dream to him too.
Georgia did her best to raise herself up in her bed but didn't have much strength left. She extended her right hand toward Danny as she pushed her left palm into the bed. Danny approached her bed and grasped her extended hand, taking her palm in his and gently holding it as he covered their joined hands with his other hand. He couldn’t believe how fragile she had become and barely recognized the strong hands that had clutched him tightly as a child. His consolation was the love that still there and it radiated up his arms right into his heart.
“I made it Ma” he almost choked as he spoke gently to her.
“Yes you did, my only child, my sweet precious boy.” Georgia responded. She then asked in a childlike manner, “Now, how do I look?”
Danny took his fingers and gently rubbed her left temple, whisking back her silver hair from her forehead. He whispered to her “You look absolutely beautiful Ma”
In the same soft voice she answered in amazement “I do?”
All Danny could say was “Yes, you are the most beautiful women in the world.”
She smiled at him as they sat together, quietly enjoying silent memories. At first, with the exception of her childlike behavior and her physical appearance, Danny felt they may have misdiagnosed the stage of her illness. His positive assessment waned as the minutes progressed and reasoning, judgement and visual perception confirmed what he had been told -- it was clear -- she was a very sick women and their time was limited. But he had made it... and in this moment, that was all that mattered.
The Morning Sun
After another review of the separation papers that would release the Mouse and send him back into the world, Babbitt looked up at the large wall clock -- the minute hand clicked forward hitting the large number twelve. It was midnight. Christmas Day. His self imposed deadline was here. He had exhausted all avenues to locate the missing orders that White now commanded. It was time to tell Danny the bad news.
After the Christmas story ended, Mouse and Danny had abandoned their positions on the floor. They were both alone in their thoughts. Mouse was surveying his surroundings. Without really thinking about it, he took his hand and slowly ran it across the cold cement wall -- a subconscious farewell.
Next door, Danny was overwhelmed with conflicted emotion. He had gotten too close to Mouse. Now he would have to pay the painful price of saying goodbye to yet another person he really cared for. Ma was dying, Mouse was leaving, clearly the compassionate release wasn’t coming. He wasn't sure his mind could hold up much longer. To organize his thoughts he started pacing.
Over the soft Christmas music being piped in through the speakers Mouse could hear Danny's shower shoes slap against the hard cement as he walked. He knew Danny was grasping at his sanity, he had been there himself.
The phone rang in the control unit. Babbitt lifted the receiver before the first ring ended.
“SHU, Babbitt speaking”
The Warden’s voice caught Babbitt off guard. “Listen Babbitt, I want you to push Danny's release along. You didn't hear this from me but if you were to give him a ride to the hospital he might make it before his Mom passes.
“Warden, I never received the separation papers.”
“Well, someone has them. I think it was just a mix up”....The Warden had found out what happened and had chosen to deal with White personally. “I have signed them and I am telling you now I want him released ASAP. My wife is all over me, her sister is the administrator at the hospital and they are on my ass along with the Outreach Church. Get it done! Any problems, I want a call!”
“Yes sir, considerate it done.” Babbitt looked at the clock and watched the minute hand just sweep past twelve. He was still on schedule. He reached for the panel switch that would open the speaker system to the cells, then stopped himself -- his was a message to give in person.
Mouse heard Babbitt’s quick-paced footsteps approach his cell, then he heard the rap on his door. He knew what was next. The sound every prisoner’s can’t wait to hear, “Roll it up!” Then something unexpected followed. “You too Danny, you’re out of here, roll it up. Shift change is in 30 minutes and I’m walking both of you to R&R.”
The SHU cells came alive with whistles, shouts of approval and requests for any commodities that Danny and Mouse would leave behind.
Hours later, Mouse and Danny stood in the sally port waiting for the second door to buzz them to freedom. The morning sun peaked over the mountain range. Both men, unused to the natural light, shielded their sensitive eyes by using one hand as a visor. Even so, they welcomed the warm, bright rays. Each breath filled their lungs with fresh, crisp morning air that seemed to have a bit of a bite to it. They both blew out large clouds of smoke with each breath, like two children pretending to smoke.
They laughed together then Danny got quiet again. As he looked around a shadow passed over Danny’s face. Mouse knew how he felt. After the surreal world of the dungeon, the real world can feel overwhelming, rushing over you like a wave. Twenty four months underground had taken its toll on Danny. Mouse put his hand on Danny’s shoulder.
“A lot to take in, huh Danny.”
“It doesn't seem real.”
“Like I said last night, this is our new beginning.”
The buzz of the gate made them both jump. Mouse recovered first and pulled the gate open so that Danny could step into the free world. Mouse followed and the steel gate slammed shut behind them. The one or two taxis usually waiting to carry the newly released convicts to town were absent this Christmas morning and the parking lot only housed a few cars. In one of them was Babbitt, who had been cat napping behind the wheel, car idling and heater on for warmth.
Babbitt dropped his car into gear and pulled out of his parking space, blocking their path. “Jump in” he said. They both looked at Babbitt with reserved expressions. Mouse said with a serious tone, “Ain’t that against the rules Sarge?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Babbitt said as he shook his head. He reached across the seat and pushed open the front passenger door. “Not today, get in.” They all broke into laughter.
Danny’s Christmas Story
Danny was still organizing memories in his head when Mouse called out, “Do you have a story or you just selling wolf tickets?”
“Yea homeboy, I got a story. If you would quit interrupting me I’ll get to it.” The light banter felt good and morphed into Danny's Christmas story......
When I was growing up, my family didn't have much but we had a lot of love. There were four big holidays in our household -- my birthday, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The last one, always a bigger than life event. One year Christmas became magic.
Our family had a holiday tradition of waiting to get our tree until it was just a couple days before the big day. My parents would always say we wanted to have the tree fresh for Christmas Day. If we got it too soon it would dry out. Years later I learned our tradition was actually due to financial necessity. My Dad would wait until he could barter the price down knowing that the trees dropped in value as the holidays got closer. Every penny counted in our household.
This one year, my mother carried a fruit basket with us to the tree lot, one my Dad had been given at work in appreciation for another year of loyalty and service through the hard times.
My mother basket clutched the basket tightly as a new born baby.
And believe me that little act made that fruit basket extra appealing to the tree lot manager.
We walked the aisle up and down, my mom and dad rambling on in Greek, their native tongue, as we searched for the perfect tree. They spotted one and told me in Greek to go stand next to the most beautiful white flocked tree I had ever laid my eyes upon, playfully setting the trap that would snare the one tree we really wanted. I didn’t speak much of the language but I understood.
My mother clutched the basket as tightly as a newborn baby as the tree lot manager walked up to us. That little act made the fruit basket extra appealing to the lot manager. He sized up the basket and asked my mother if a trade would be possible. She coyly said “Oh no, we couldn’t. It’s a special basket. It was from my husband’s boss.”
The lot manager played right into her hand and replied “Not even for that tree your son is admiring? It’s the best on the lot.”
My mother looked at the tree and slyly said “Oh my, now that’s a special tree--isn’t it George?”
My father, playing along, nodded then leaned over to whisper in her ear. She shrugged her shoulders. Ten minutes later we said goodbye to the fruit basket, now in the arms of the lot manager, and hello to the six foot white, perfectly flocked Christmas tree.
Now the tree turned out to be the perfect fit for our humble home. There was only one thing missing… presents. There were not a single present under its beautiful white flocked limbs. The neighborhood kids wasted no time in letting me know -- especially Jimmy Smith.
What happened next was pure magic. My mother, out of nowhere, says, to me and all my friends, “You know this tree talks.” Of course they all challenged her, especially Jimmy. My Mother hushed them, telling them “If there is one person in the room without Christmas spirit it will ruin it for all the true believers.”
She instructed everyone to go home to get permission and be back at our house at five sharp -- not one minute early or one minute late. “Don’t be late” She told everyone how the tree spirit could be very temperamental, especially this time of year. She raised an eyebrow and said the tree spirit could also see everything. “Don’t try to fool it either or you could end up with nothing but a chuck of coal in your stocking.” The warning shut everyone up and they all left my house in orderly and quiet. As they left my mother added “Come hungry. I will have hot cocoa and homemade sweet bread for all of you to snack on.”
Then my mother looked at me. She lifted her right hand and extended her index finger, wagging it slowly in front of me. “You know Danny, jealously is not the Christmas spirit either. Don’t be a bad boy. Go out and play now. Be back here at five.”
As you can imagine, at one minute after five, every kid in the neighborhood was sitting around our Christmas tree. My mother told them all to join hands, close their eyes and to wait -- no talking. Less than a minute passed and Jimmy had started to mumble something about told you so when a voice came from the tree.
WHAT'S YOUR CHRISTMAS WISH THIS YEAR?
The kids all squealed with delight and, with eyes as big as silver dollars, looked at one another in wonder. They all started to talk at once when the tree said “Let's start with you Jimmy, what were you about to say?”
Jimmy looked amazed and a little fearful that he had been singled out. He answered loudly, trying to speak above the chatter in the room. “A bike, I need a new bike.”
The magic tree gently asked him, “What would you do with the blue bike you ride now?”
The kids looked around at each other, now speechless. Jimmy answered that he didn’t know as, he too, looked around the room. The magic tree suggested it would make a great first bike for his little brother. Jimmy smiled and said “Yes, yes I will give it to him, it will be a perfect fit.”
So it went from child to child -- from suggestions for the undecided to reprimands for troublesome acts that had been perpetrated during the year.
The tree then focused on me. It didn’t ask what I wanted but instead, it told me what I had been given. “You, Danny, have been a very special boy this year. This is your Christmas gift. The magic of making everyone in this room feel special.”
“And you know what Mouse? The tree was right. I did get a few things that year but nothing compared to what the tree had given me.”
Both Danny and Mouse were silent for a good minute and then Danny continued with his story. A few years later my Mother got a Christmas card from our old neighbor "Chubby" who had moved back to Texas. In the card was a line that caught my attention, "Hope you found a new voice for the tree".
At that point I was older and had come to terms with a lot of things about life… one being, Christmas is really a state of mind. That evening at dinner I confronted my parents about the magic white tree from many years ago. At first my mother told me she had no idea what I was talking about. My father scolded her in Greek and she answered him back saying “Ok George, if you want to tell him you go right ahead.” She abruptly excused herself from the table and left the room.
Even as he began the story my father was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. In the other room, my mother had positioned herself behind the door. I could see her shadow, casting a long image on the floor, and I could hear her muffled laughter.
“Well Son, remember, anytime that tree was going to talk we had to have you get out of the house so Chubby could get up in the attic crawl space. She would wiggle her way to the heater vent over the tree and then talk to you all.
Boy had I been fooled. Soon my mother returned to the table and we all laughed, recounting story after story of me and my friends sitting in front of the tree trying to get it to speak to us, asking question after question with no response. We tried everything -- holding hands, closing our eyes, changing places, you name it, we tried it. Jimmy and I had become best friends during that time -- from that point on we inseparable.
“Well Mouse, that's my story.”
“That's one hell of a story,” Mouse chuckled. “It sounds like you had some really good parents Danny. They loved you. So, whatever happened to Jimmy?”
Another pause, then Danny spoke in a low tone. “I went to prison. Jimmy went to Desert Storm, he never made it back.”
Cassie and Scott celebrated Christmas morning with their congregation and returned to see Georgia as promised. At first they were surprised to see Officer Babbitt in the hospital hallway, then their surprise turned to shock as Mouse made his way down the corridor towards the three of them. Mouse, as he approached them, was again reminded of the three wisemen. He brushed it off and joined them in what was soon to become a vigil outside Georgia’s room.
Dr. Phil walked up, wished the small group in the hall a Merry Christmas then entered Georgia's room. She looked up at him and immediately informed him they would need a larger turkey for the Christmas dinner. Georgia then looked at the tree and asked how many people they would joining them. Danny looked confused. While Dr. Phil laughed kindly and reminded Georgia once again that he was the doctor not the butcher. Having seen many pictures of Danny (the most recent in the newspaper public interest story run several weeks earlier supporting Danny’s early release), the doctor immediately recognized him as Georgia’s son and congratulated them on their reunion. He invited Danny into the hall to speak privately. As they left the room, Georgia carried on her conversation with the tree about the menu for tonight's Christmas dinner.
Although Dr. Phil had suggested they speak privately, Danny stood firmly in the midst of his newfound friends and supporters. This was all hitting Danny fast and hard. His chest felt tight and his head was spinning. Dr. Phil’s words cascaded and bounced around the narrow hallway. Danny didn’t respond and just stared through the door at his mother who was still engaging with the tree, just yards from where they stood.
Mouse could see that Danny was confused and overwhelmed, and in an effort to help his best friend, he interrupted Dr. Phil. “So what you’re saying Doc is that Danny's mother won't let go and maybe Danny can ease her mind so she can move on in her journey?”
Dr. Phil looked at Mouse, his eyebrows raised. Looking Danny’s overwhelmed face he proceeded “Well, yes, basically, in laymen's terms, that is what I said.” then he looked at Mouse and asked “What was your name again?”
“They call me Mouse” said Danny’s best friend and held his hand out to Dr. Phil. They shook hands. Then Dr. Phil excused himself to continue his rounds.
Mouse then turned his attention to Cassie and Scott. “Hey, you’re the people from the church, aren't you?” For the next ten minutes the five of them exchanged introductions and thoughts how to best serve Georgia and ease her suffering. They entered the room together. Cassie adjusted Georgia's pillow and poured fresh water in her glass. She positioned the straw so Georgia could draw a little water from the glass with ease but no attempt was made. Cassie looked at Scott, they both knew the end was near. Georgia was still talking to the tree and asking it questions about her husband George.
Danny held his mother’s hand, it felt cold. He rubbed it to comfort her. It comforted him too. They sat in silence then all of a sudden the tree spoke. Everyone heard it.
In a soft firm voice the tree called out to Georgia. She asked the tree if it was the same magic tree from all those years ago. The voice reassured her it was. Everyone in the room exchanged glances and quietly watched as Georgia gazed deeply into lights looking for the source of the voice. The tree went on to speak of a strong handsome man waiting for Georgia under the grand old oak tree in the countryside of deep green rolling hills. The tree told her that her Christmas dinner was waiting there with him, her beloved husband George. “He is waiting for you Georgia. All you have to do to join him is let go.”
Danny stroked his mother’s hair. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine Ma. Go be with Dad. You shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer..” He choked on the words as he said them but she didn’t notice.
Georgia slowly drifted away, her breath cycling down until it stopped short, with a brief final gasp she let go. With his heart heavy and his eyes filled with tears, Danny leaned over and gave his mother one last kiss on her forehead and quietly said goodbye.
No one had noticed Mouse leave when he slipped out of the room and made his way down the hall to find the ceiling access entry point he had spotted earlier that day. He had entered the utility room, pulled himself up into the crawl space and crawled through the tunnel until he reached the blinking lights of Georgia's tree. Removing the duct from the vent and pushing it aside, he cleared his throat and brought life to the magical white tree. He just knew it was exactly what was needed to help Georgia let go and move on. After her last breath had passed, Mouse returned from the tunnel to the hallway outside Georgia’s room where the three wisemen, Cassie, Scott and Babbitt stood, watching over their new beginning.
That night Cassie and Scott enjoyed their Christmas dinner at the Outreach Church. Their guests were Babbitt, Danny and Mouse.
After Cassie and Scott married, they continued their work with the Outreach Church and both became defense attorneys.
Babbitt became the prison’s associate warden and later warden.
Danny had no more legal troubles, but it took him several years to recover from his time in the SHU. He later worked in prison reform.
Mouse decided not to return to the West Coast. He also became involved in prison reform.
Together, Cassie, Scott, Danny and Mouse started the Wyoming Center For Justice and worked closely with Warden Babbitt on prison reform and progressive detention techniques to help rehabilitation. They were instrumental in establishing a prison pet program that allowed inmates the privilege to be housed with a pet.
From that year on, each Christmas Eve, children from hundred of miles away would flock to the Justice Center to witness the magic of the talking Christmas tree. Danny organized the event and all the kids would delight in the way the magic Christmas tree would answer their questions. Of course, positioned above in the attic was Mike "Mouse" Sanchez -- the voice behind the magic and the spirit of new beginnings.
Three Wise Men
The annual Christmas Eve candy exchange was taking place all over the institution. It served as a great cover to move all forms of contraband within the prison. The dungeon was no different and was alive with trading. In the SHU all the convicts were busy fishing with the exception of Mouse and Danny. They were at the plumbing vents having a private conversation.
Mouse called for a summit. He had heard the message the young women had passed to Danny. He knew, better than anyone, how just one cryptic message could take out one’s mind in this empty environment. Mouse knew it was going to be a rough night for his friend and he knew he wouldn’t around much longer to comfort him. He would do all he could with the time he had left. That would be his Christmas gift to Danny. It had been a long time since he had committed a real act of kindness.
“Hey, Danny, I heard what that church lady said to you.”
Danny cut him off before he could finish his sentence, and that was good because Mouse didn't really know where he was heading with his words. “The magic is back and the tree is talking…” He repeated the phrase several times, as much to himself as to Mouse.
Mouse said “What do you think that means?”
Danny said slowly and methodically “I just don't know.”
Mouse continued, “Listen, you and I have been down here together for awhile now. You know I have never gotten strange on you, have I?
Danny agreed with Mouse by saying “No.” He didn't know where this was going and let Mouse talk on.
“Listen, tonight when Babbitt and the two church people walked up on my cell.... I had this thought in my head.... No, it was more of a image, yea, this image of the three wise men.”
Danny interrupted his friend, and playfully stated that he hadn't seen one camel go by his cell. They both had a good laugh and it broke the tension.
Mouse told Danny..... “Now don't play me that way. Listen, you know what that represents. It represents a new beginning. You know, when Jesus was born. That's what Christmas is all about right Danny?, this is our new beginning. Danny had only seen Mouse’s face a handful of times, but knew the range of his voice well. He could hear the urgency and need to believe in something.
“Look Mouse I don't know much of anything anymore. I just know I'm running out of time.”
“That's my point Danny. The image I had could be part of the magic.”
“Look Mouse, I don't know about magic.”
There was a long pause of silence between them, broken by the crackling of speakers. Danny looked up as Christmas music filled his small world, the notes seemed to dance around his cell. Danny was filled with warmth -- slowly then quickly a childhood memory wrapped around him like a security blanket. He asked Mouse if he’d like to hear his Christmas story.
The morphine (or vitamin shot) had put Georgia in a state of calm contemplation. The end was near and she was surprised how easy and natural dying felt once she quit fighting it. She lay on her bed, comfortably reflecting on her life. It wasn’t flashing before her like they say in the movies. Instead it would come in little short stories. Memories played in no particular order. Some were in black and white, some in brilliant color. She spoke out loud -- asking if it was Christmas yet. There was no one in the room to answer her.
The bells started dinging, announcing an arrival and for all to back away from the cargo doors of the elevator. Babbitt extended and raised his left arm, his palm facing Cassie and Scott. The gesture caused them to back up, it was a natural reaction.
The doors parted and their escort stepped out. A young guard, the same one who had passed White the paper work less than a hour earlier. He was all smiles as he wished them all Merry Christmas.
“Hey Sarge, did you get those separation orders I gave White?”
“Orders for who?” Babbitt asked.
“I didn't know if I had clearance to read them, so I just passed them on. I figured since White was down here anyway I’d let him save me a trip.”
The Sergeant’s stomach knotted up as he questioned the young officer. “You know they were separation orders, you just told me that. Did you see a name?”
“I might have seen the name, but I'm not sure I remember.” The young guard looked pensive.
“It's not a trick question.”
“I’m sorry sir. Let me take them to no man’s land then I will find White and personally bring the orders back to you.”
Babbitt told the young officer to escort Scott and Cassie all the way out of the prison and once they had exited the front gate ask the tower guard if White had left. If he had, call and report what he had found out before chasing White’s ghost all over the prison.
Babbitt was in deep thought and the farewell to his guests was very lean. The young guard looked over his shoulder at Babbitt as the doors banged closed, he then turned his attention to Cassie and Scott with small talk.
The phone in the SHU control room rang over the radio Christmas music, the ringer always set to the highest volume. Babbitt answered with a single greeting. “SHU, Babbitt.”
He cut the young officer off in mid sentence, as he tried to announce himself in an official capacity. “Yea, I know who this is. I need you to go back to R&R and look for a paper trail on those separation papers.”
A brief pause then, again, Babbitt cut off the young officer. “Go look and then call me, something stinks here.”
Cassie and Scott made their way back onto the highway that would lead them back to town. Not much was said between them the first few miles. Scott reached across the seat and they joined hands. After a short time Cassie started squeezing Scott's palm. At first a steady pressure that would increase as she moved and positioned her hand, encircling his fingers with hard compression. This motion would become very familiar to him over the years -- when she was nervous or something was troubling her.
Cassie broke the silence, “I don't think I want to ever go back there.”
“To the prison?”
“No, that terrible place below ground. What did they call it -- the dungeon? It was awful. I could feel the pain and sorrow.”
“It was really different from the other times we’ve visited this place. We don't have to ever do that again.”
“I just can’t shake the feeling of despair. It was overwhelming.“ She went on to tell Scott how she had studied crime and punishment in college and had learned that isolation was one of the oldest forms of torture and that a basic human need is to interact with other humans. She talked about how records from the mid-nineteenth century had documented how the isolation and sensory deprivation affected prisoners mental health.
She started crying but couldn’t stop talking. She moved on to Danny Petros, telling Scott she didn’t think he was going to get to say goodbye to his mother. Scott gently reminded her that Danny had made a bad choice… he broken the law and that he owed his debt to society. She cried harder. He asked her to keep her faith in God and to join him in prayer. They both knew it was not in their hands.
Cassie, Scott and Babbitt now stopped at Mouse’s cell. He was on the door watching as they approached.
As Babbitt reached for his keys, Mouse razzed him “Hey Sarge you’re slipping, you need to do something about those wheels.”
“Oh yeah, maybe I should have you grease them for me on your way out” Babbitt replied.
“I won't have time, let White do it.” retorted Mouse.
They laughed. Cassie and Scott didn't understand their banter. Babbitt, resuming task asked Mouse if he wanted his gift.
“Yes I do. I’m gonna take it with me -- out of this place. I guess it will give me something to remember you by.” Mouse accepted his gift with a thank you and with that, three moved on to reach the last cell -- the cell housing Danny Petros.
Babbitt called out to Danny. Cassie quickly raised her head above the door. She looked below the seven numerals and focused on the letters spelling out Petros. Babbitt opened the slot then took a step back - something he had not done with the others. Cassie froze as she peered into the glass.
She recognized Danny immediately. He looked just like the picture Georgia had shown to her time after time. She could hear Georgia’s voice “...my only son.” He looked older and very pale after spending 24 months underground.
Babbitt looked at Scott and without making eye contact with Cassie, stated aloud. “I need to secure that elevator alarm. Stand down and I'll be right back.”
There was no alarm. Cassie quickly caught on that there was a short window of time to pass Danny the private message from his mother.
Cassie formed a fist and knocked lightly on the door, as if she was a frequent visitor. She looked at Danny’s face on the other side of the small glass window, then beyond it, surveying his small domain. A perfectly made bed, one pillow with an additional blanket folded and placed atop the headrest. Next to the bed was a combination meal table and desk. In the left corner sat a tall cup stuffed with drawing pens, most likely last year’s Christmas gift. The right displayed a small picture frame, centered within was a photograph of his mother Georgia. The design looked familiar -- had Cassie been a smoker, she may have recognized the pattern of the interlaced empty cigarette packs.
Cassie quickly understood why Babbitt left the slot open - talking through the thick steel doors was quite difficult, they muffled the sound. Danny was resting on one knee with his ear to the slot waiting for this young women to explain herself. Cassie bent her knees and steadied herself by holding onto Scott’s leg - pulling it tight against her. It not only supported her physically, it was tremendous emotional reinforcement.
She was now face to face with prisoner 84677-012. She was surprised at Danny's greeting. “Can I help you?”
“I have a message from your mother.”
“Yes, my name is Cassie I'm a volunteer at the hospital.”
“What's the message?”
“ ‘The magic is back and the tree is talking…’ Your mother said you would know what she is talking about.”
“Well, I don't understand.”
“She was very happy and excited about it and said you would know.” Cassie knew she couldn’t understand how Danny must be feeling and she paused, not knowing what to say next. Babbitt’s key ring signaled his return and the end of the conversation. He closed the small hatch leaving Danny alone with his thoughts.
Cassie rose and took one last look at the cell and its occupant through the small window that now separated them. Babbitt walked Cassie and Scott back to the elevator holding area, thanked them for their work and advised them there would be an escort to accompany them up to the main yard and back to the sally port and out of the prison.
Christmas Comes to the SHU, part 2
Babbitt walked over to the SHU entryway, inserted his key and pulled open the hatch. Without looking at Cassie or Scott he turned his head to the right and stated loudly, “Ready?!” It was more of a statement than a question. They looked at each other, Scott advanced first then Cassie followed behind both of them. After they entered Babbitt once again inserted his key and locked them in the dungeon hallway.
The concrete hallway echoed of movement from within the small cells. It was much different than Cassie and Scott had imagined. It was brighter than natural sunlight and it was cold. “Let's go to the far end and work our way back” Babbitt suggested as he pushed the cart down the long tomb like hallway. The squeaking wheels alerted the prisoners they had company.
Out of the corner of her eye, Cassie thought she saw some sort of a rodent scurry along the floor, first one then many. It was the convicts fishing between cells. The Sergeant yelled out “Reel them in if you want your gifts.”
The hall was clear within seconds and each door now had a face peering out the small glass portals. Some pressed so hard against the glass, the images appeared grotesque and monster like. Cassie quickly looked away, grabbing Scott's hand for comfort.
They continued down the long hallway pacing their steps to the noise of the wheels. They reached the hall’s end then started their journey back. Babbitt’s system of distribution was quick and efficient. Cassie was surprised at how grateful all the convicts were. Scott however didn't appreciate the gazes as they watched Cassie's every movement. His consolation was Babbitt’s ability to control each encounter, as he opened door slot after door slot, and they winded their way through the dungeon.
Cassie, amazed at how Babbitt knew every inhabitant’s name, applauded him for taking time to recognize and not further dehumanizing the inmates. The Sergeant laughed and pointed up, above the door. Cassie looked above the door in front of them then down the hall -- centered above each door was a sequence of seven numbers, the inmate’s identification numbers, and below that their name. “I'm not so great” were Babbitt’s only words.
The chow hall was busy with the holiday meal cleanup. The Christmas cinnamon rolls were all covered and in place, ready for the morning. It would be all-you-can-eat along with strong black coffee and cold milk It would be one of only two meals served on Christmas day. Late afternoon would be turkey sandwiches.
White dismissed the trustees to the corrections officer in charge if the kitchen and was ready to call it a day. The yard was closed and as he walked across the hard surface he imaged the prison regulars standing aside for him. He even said aloud “Make a hole.” His daydream was interrupted by the sound of a young fresh Corrections Officer. “Hey White, you’re working the Dungeon, right?”
“I have some separation orders. You can save me a trip.”
The young officer handed White the paperwork, then wished him a very merry Christmas. White didn't bother to answer, he was too focused on the document in his hand. He scanned it quickly, folded it and inserted in his right front oversized pocket.
White sat in his car. He surveyed the lot and when he was confident he was alone, he removed the folded paper from his pocket. He inspected it slowly, confirming what he had suspected. This was the order Danny Petros had been waiting for -- the early compassionate release dated December 25. Allowing him to leave midnight tonight. Holding back the orders wouldn't stop Danny's release but it could surely delay it until after Christmas... and this delighted White.
If confronted he would blame it on a miscommunication with the fledgling officer. He paused for a moment as he studied his own reflection in the rear view mirror. He turned the key and the motor rumbled to life, he then exited the lot and entered the main highway to town.
Christmas Comes to the SHU, part 1
As Babbitt approached the sally port, the gate came to life and with a loud buzz electricity pulled the plunger back into the lock allowing Babbitt to push the gate inward. He invited Cassie and Scott to join him in the prison yard. Once they were inside, Babbitt let the gate swing back to its locked position. Metal echoed once again across the empty asphalt surface.
Babbitt could see the couple was nervous and kept his posture soft. They exchanged names and shook hands. Scott saw Babbitt eyeing the bag containing the Christmas gifts that soon would be distributed to the occupants of the SHU. Scott grabbed the drawstring to open the bag so Babbitt could search it however stopped short when Babbitt raised his hand, waiving off the gesture to show him the contents.
Babbitt explained the protocol for the task they were about to undertake.
“As we approach each cell door, I will open the rectangular slot. I would like Cassie to take one cup out at a time. First, tip it so I may inspect the contents then hand the cup to Scott who is to grab it around the top rim and hand it to the inmate. Now listen carefully, the inmate will be allowed to extend his hand out of the slot to receive his gifts by taking the bottom portion of the cup. Scott, do not ever put your hand into the cell. If the inmate makes no attempt to accept his gifts or does not extend his hand we will move on to the next door. Keep the conversation limited. Understood?”
The three of them began their journey across the north yard to the SHU. Out of nowhere Cassie made a statement that stopped Babbitt in his tracks.
“I have a message for someone, and it's important that I give it to him.” The look on her face was somewhere between stern and serious. “I promised.”
Babbitt stopped for a moment in silent, deep thought. The wheels of the cart began squeaking again as they moved forward in unison. “What is the message and who is it for?” was all that was asked.
Cassie’s heart was pounding, “Georgia Petros has a private message for her son, Danny.”
Babbitt responded softly, “I’m sorry, I can't allow that.”
The rest of the walk was uneasy. No other words were exchanged until Babbitt told his guest to hold up as they stopped in front of a strange looking door. Babbitt unclipped a large ring of heavy looking keys and inserted a strange looking one into what looked like a light switch cover, only it was metal not plastic. They waited.
White had collected all the trays and was satisfied all the bones had been returned. He had double checked to ensure no inmates had held onto any of these potential weapons. He directed the prison trustees to return the empty food carts to the main kitchen. As they mingled between the entrance and elevator to the lower depths of the dungeon the bell rang several times in succession. At the same time a bell rang in the SHU control room. The alarms alerted the prison trustees to assume procedure and clear elevator door area while the duty officer was informed someone had arrived.
As the elevator doors opened, the trustees followed procedure and lined up themselves against the far wall. They stood attention-like however their their hands were placed in the small of their backs and they faced the wall.
The gate-door of the elevator opened and Babbett stepped out followed by Cassie and Scott . The heads of the trustee inmates turned right, in unison, as if they had been given a military drill order. They all focused on Cassie. Even in her conservative church uniform she turned heads. She became instantly uneasy.
Babbitt barked out “Are you men eyeballing me?”
Almost in unison they called back “No Sargent.”
Without turning his head Babbitt shifted his eyes in the direction of Cassie and Scott and gave them a reassuring wink.
Through the wire reinforced glass of the SHU control room, White could see Babbitt motion for him to join them at the elevator entrance. His first reaction was to compose himself. He was annoyed that Babbitt had gotten in the way of his plans today. He took a deep breath. Babbitt’s confidence always seemed to unnerve him. His one comfort was that he and Babbitt were on the same team.
White had an internal battle plaguing him. The truth was -- he walked the prison in constant fear, ever vigilant. Each day paranoia churned deep within his stomach, looking for a way to exit and it had become a daily struggle to keep it locked down.
The SHU was much safer with their single man cells, affording him protection from the general prison population. White liked it there -- the bright lights kept it shadowless. But the powers that be didn’t appreciate his gifts for discipline. He was assigned to general where he knew, one day, his fear would be sniffed out by one of the predators roaming the yard. It was just a matter of time. Too many of the inmates hated him. White had become a prisoner, not much different than the inmates who would eventually break and seek the refuge of protective custody.
White removed his large round brass ring that housed the various keys that allowed him free movement in and out of the various sections of the prison above as well as below ground. He entered the elevator room entrance and relocked the door.
Babbitt told White to escort the trustees and carts back to the upper world, as the main prison was referred to when in the dungeon. Babbitt also told White not to bother coming back, then wished him a Merry Christmas. He started to protest and was cut off by Babbitt, “Wouldn't want those bones to fall into the wrong hands would we, White?”
White directed the the trustees to load the carts into the elevator. All four looked to Babbitt for approval, he nodded, and they proceeded to the elevator. White, again, reached for his keys to start the sequence to shut the door which in turn set of the bells alerting everyone the elevator was in motion.
In each section of each prison there is usually one guard that somehow balances things out. In this prison’s SHU it was former combat Marine Sergeant Doug Babbitt, now a senior corrections officer. Not only did he bring hope to the inmates, he brought some justice -- by heading the SHU disciplinary board. Stern yet fair, he was know as the "The Sergeant".
Babbitt knew that White would be on duty that day and likely up to his power plays. He arrived early for his shift, several hours before expected, and upon his arrival he found the unplugged food carts cluttering the hall. His first order of business was to plug the food carts back in then, as the meals began to rewarm, he pushed the cards into a line. He left the convoy of carts and continued his journey through the SHU, assessing each and every inmate with a quick visual evaluation.
He usually didn't intrude or interrupt anyone's program unless he was petitioned. This morning Babbitt made an exception. He stopped at Mouse’s steel cell door and called out to him, “Hey Marine! Tonight’s the night, you packed?”
“I am, Sergeant” Mouse replied, “I'm going out light too.”
“Smart move” Babbitt chuckled, “Less to bring back.”
Mouse laughed back then responded, “I'm not planning on coming back Sarge.”
“I think that would be a smart move.” Babbitt replied. “Listen Marine, I will do my best to get you out of here that first minute after midnight.”
“Anyone going out with me?” Mouse added.
Babbitt knew what he meant. Would Danny Petros be getting out that night too? “Nothing yet, it's still early.” With that he ended the conversation with Mouse and moved on with his tour.
As he walked away, Babbitt called out to his fellow Marine “Semper Fi” -- the Latin Marine Corps motto which means always faithful. Babbitt slowed his pace, just enough, to give Mouse time to respond. When he heard the motto echoed back he picked up his step.
Babbitt entered the command module. He didn’t look at White as he said to him “Keep those carts plugged in.”
The topic was not open to conversation. White knew it was best to keep his mouth shut and he did. Babbitt’s next order of business was to question White about the orders to dress out for the four-o’clock count.
White had heard about Babbitt’s early arrival and had already thought out his response. “We got four o'clock count, after the count is the holiday chow then the outreach church distributing their gifts. I believe there is a female coming from the church, it's proper they not be in skivvies.”
Babbitt took a long, hard look at White before he answered him. “Well, that's downright decent of you White. I did talk to the Warden and all Christmas gifts being passed out have been approved for all sections of the prison. There’s no need to hold anything back. Understood?”
White shrugged, conceding. He didn’t answer and left the module to avoid further conversation. If he would have looked back he would have seen a big smile spread across Babbitt’s face.
Babbitt had to decide whether to put White on the distribution of the gifts or meals. He thought about it and decided he would meet the representatives from the Outreach Church personally. He wanted the inmates to get every gift coming their way and couldn’t trust that would happen if it were in White’s hands. The meals, pre-made for the SHU, would be passed through the food slot directly into the hands of the prisoner. It was an easy task and didn't allow White much latitude.
White knew he could not withhold any of the items that graced the food trays but he couldn't resist the thought of what he would censor from the dinners of those dirty dungeon dwellers if Babbitt weren’t there. He laughed to himself as imagined extracting a single item off each tray before passing it through the small rectangular slot and the resulting reaction from the cell’s inhabitant. And he knew where it would go from there.
After he left the hallway the convicts would start a trading frenzy in an effort to replace the missing portions of food items to complete their holiday meals. From cell to cell, the inmates would fish between their small steel compartments. Used around the world by convicts to move industry through locked down sections of prison, fishing was an art form. Lines, up to twenty feet long and made from whatever resources were available, would be strung across the hallway, linking cell to cell. Cast with the expertise of a seasoned fly fisherman, the lines would cross the halls creating a web in which valuable commodities were exchanged. The practice was banned and, at times, at the top of the list of inmate violations. White fantasized about all the write ups something like that would garner him, and of course, in turn all the attention -- and surely a promotion.