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.
The Prison Gets Ready for Christmas
That evening the prison was in a festive mood. A band of inmates had been working on Christmas songs for weeks and were now sharing their holiday spirit with their fellow convicts. No one seemed to mind the sour notes.
The Holiday dinner was the talk of the prison. It was always the best meal served all year. Rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole and a large turkey drumstick, one for each inmate. The prison bakers were preparing for Christmas morning and the warm, sweet smell of cinnamon rolls drifted across the south prison yard. That smell, the prisoners’ cherished sign of the holiday, never made it down into dungeon in the bowels of the prison.
The prison warden had made it clear to the staff that every turkey drumstick bone had to be accounted for from each food tray. This practice took place throughout the prison, the large bones had been made into crude but effective knives more than once over the years. In the main mess hall one by one each and every food tray would be turned in, if the bone was not accounted for, movement was stopped till the large bone made its way back onto the tray and out of the hands of any potential assailant.
It was much easier in the SHU to account for the leg bones. Officer White himself would pass the trays through the rectangle portal and then collect them afterward, accounting for each potential weapon.
The real motivation to get through dinner this Christmas Eve night was the gift each and every prisoner would receive. The Red Cross would service the prison mainline. Cassie and Scott from the Outreach Church would pass out gifts in the SHU.
The Red Cross would give each prisoners a gift of a tall hard plastic coffee tumbler, extra long plastic spoon, two instant coffee packs, two pieces of hard candy, a pen, a pencil and two stamped envelopes. White had decided no candy, pen or pencil for the SHU population.
This would be Danny’s second Christmas in the SHU and his fourth in custody. Sure writs were winding their way through the legal system but it usually took years. Danny didn't add his name to the list of legal battles. He knew it would never help him. His battle was with time and, a nasty demon, cancer. Both were formidable opponents.
Danny had seen people walk out the prison doors on religious holidays after receiving compassionate release orders and he filled his heart with hope that Christmas eve would bring his own gift of early release. As he sat in silence, he apologized to God for his earlier silent outburst and his rage toward another Father he wasn't sure even existed. Over the years, Danny had read the Bible from cover to cover and found the Father to be much tougher than the Son. Carefully contemplating he decided to place his trust in the Son who seemed much more caring and understanding. Danny dropped to his knees and prayed to the Son for an early compassionate release.
Scott wheeled the station wagon into the prison parking lot. Cassie nervously shifted in her seat as she focused on the gun tower. He pulled the shifter up into park and set the break. They had been to the prison before, on the main line, but never in the infamous underground Segregated Housing Unit.
They held hands as they walked to the front gate, in Scott's other hand was the big bag of Christmas gifts. From the top of the tower the guard yelled down to them through a white bull horn, “Open the red box and pick up the phone.”
Scott spoke briefly with the guard then hung up the phone and informed Cassie the tower guard would be buzzing them into the sally port. The sally port, also known as “no man’s land”, was a twenty foot patch of asphalt, an enclosed tunnel between the free world and this city of bars, wire and cement.
All movements throughout the prison were tightly controlled. The gates on each end were electrically synchronized and only one door could be opened at a time. This gave the tower guard complete control and the ability to prevent any unauthorized entry or exit.
The tower guard hit the electronic gate switch and the steel gate lock came to life as it buzzed loudly, allowing the gate to swing inward. Scott pushed the heavy gate open allowing Cassie to enter first, then he followed her in. He then let go of the spring loaded door, it swung back to its locked position and slamming closed, the sound of colliding steen echoing against the hard surfaces of the enclosure.
“What now?” Cassie asked.
“The guard said to wait here and that someone would be coming soon.” Scott replied.
Cassie felt as if they were now somewhere between heaven and hell. She was feeling nervous and starting to have second thoughts. She wondered if Scott felt the same. One look into his eyes confirmed it.
A group of Red Cross volunteers entered no man’s land. Finished with their charity work for the night, they headed through the sally port on their way out of the prison and back to their own Christmas eve plans. They were talking about what they had just seen. Cassie and Scott listened in.
“Did you see the faces on those scary men”
“O my God, I swear some had tears in their eyes.”
“This is the first year I think I understand the act of giving.”
Cassie squeezed Scott's cold hand as they comment after comment reaffirmed this was the right thing to do. He looked at her and smiled. In the distance they could hear the sound of wheels rolling on the pavement -- a small stout steel cart made its way into the sally port, pushed by a guard. They would use this to bring the Christmas gifts down to the dungeon. Almost go time.
Georgia laid in her bed looking at the lights of her tree, blinking in no particular order. At times she thought it was a code of sorts, like a morse code. The nurse convinced her it was just random. Georgia knew the tree spoke and insisted on it. Her gaunt cheeks could no longer hide the pain that was overwhelming her. Although she refused morphine shots, she allowed the nurse to give her a vitamin shot. It took the edge off. It was clear a certain and unavoidable outcome loomed just around the corner.
Mouse called over to Danny to get on the phone when he had a minute. He was really asking Danny to talk to him in private through the vent. In the corner of his cell, behind the steel sink and toilet, Danny heard the familiar whistle of the phone ringing.
Danny took his perfectly folded winter blanket and tossed it on the floor to insulate him from the chill of the cement. With his mouth close to the ventilation grate Danny responded to his soon to be departing neighbor. “What's up Mouse?”
“How are you?”
“Ok” Danny said “Hey, what are you going to do with your stamps? Can I have them?”
“What for? We’re rolling out that front gate together” Mouse laughed.
“I don't feel it.” Danny said, his voice shaky and low.
“Ya and you won't until that gate opens up, but, me, I am feeling it for you.” Mouse asserted.
There was a long uncomfortable pause then Danny said, again in a low tone, “I had the dream again Mouse.”
Mouse responded quickly, without missing a beat, “Did you ask him what he was doing?”
“Yea, I did.”
“Did he answer you.”
“I told you he had something to tell you. What's on his mind?”
There was another long pause and Mouse could tell Danny was trying to compose himself. He would wait as long as his friend needed. He could hear Danny's breath rise and fall in his chest against the portal that joined the two cells. He sat in silence, giving Danny his space.
After a short while Danny spoke “It was my father.”
Mouse started to jump in then paused, deciding it was best to keep quiet and listen, and not interrupt.
Danny continued… “I asked him what he was doing and he explained he had everything ready for my Mom. I don't think I will be seeing her again. Hell, she could be gone already.”
Mouse shot back, before Danny's imagination consumed him. “No, you would have got the call. That's not what it is at all. Your old man is telling you it's okay, not to worry.”
“He wasn't old anymore, not much older than me.”
“You see, that's a good sign.” Mouse said, but he wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince more -- Danny or himself.
Before the conversation could get any heavier, White yelled for the count.
Corrections Officer White
At once, every resident of the SHU heard a crackling in their cell speakers. Next came the unmistakable high-pitched nasal voice of Corrections Officer White. A bad draw for the SHU residents for sure.
Corrections Officer John White was as tough and as petty as they came. Not many liked him, and that included his fellow CO's. He bellowed orders constantly through the speaker. Sometimes he would surf the cells, listening in for any activity that he could possibly write up, embellishing anything he’d heard, or thought he’d heard.
White’s harassment of the inmates was endless from tossing the cells to confiscating magazines, mail or anything that he thought was at all questionable. From time to time, most guards would play music into the SHU cell speakers -- especially during holidays. White wouldn’t allow a single note. It became hyperbole, not only with the convicts but with the guards, that if White could get away with it he would blast NPR pledge drives over the air ways and into the cells -- hours and hours of relentless demands for money to support another year of commercial free radio -- the only thing stopping him? Amnesty International. Humor was one of the few entertainments the inmates had left and they played it hard with the guards and each other.
White’s tendency for stirring up trouble finally hit the Warden’s limits and he kept him out of the SHU. Unfortunately this Christmas holidays found the prison short handed and the Warden had no choice but to let White fill in the SHU staff gap.
He started in on everyone right after his arrival for his shift. “Today's four o'clock count will be a standing count. Anyone not fully dressed will be subject to a write up.”
Of the many counts that took place each day, the four o'clock count was the most important. It was a system-wide daily tally completed in every prison across the country, ensuring that each and every federal prisoner was duly accounted for. Once the count was made at a particular institution it was passed on to the Bureau of Prisons in Washington DC. It was then calculated across the country at one main location. After each and every prisoner was accounted for the count was cleared. Then, and only then, could movements began again in prisons across the United States .
White’s fully dressed standing count was unheard of-- it didn’t make sense and nor settle well with the inmates. No guards did standing counts in the SHU, all the inmates were already locked down and a quick visual count did the job just fine. This fully dressed order added by White was unnecessary and just way for White to show he had power over them. Cat calls rumbled through the cells echoing off the metal walls.
White held his ground. He had nothing to worry about. He had all the power. All the convicts were locked in their single man cells. If the inmates refused to comply he would simply hold back their holiday dinner with its special Christmas treat, a large turkey drumstick. To prove he meant business he announced he had already unplugged the food carts keeping their meals warm.
The thought of those oversized legs being served cold was more than the toughest convict could take. Everyone fell into line. They would do what was necessary to keep that meal warm until it was pushed through the food slot in the steel doors that separated them from the outside hallway.
The speakers crackled once again as White set the rules for the evening activities.
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.
Enjoy Chapter 6! Starting today I will post a chapter daily until we complete the story on Christmas Eve.
Happy Holidays! -- George
A Little Christmas Magic
Cassie and Scott pulled in front of the hospice wing of the hospital and backed into the parking space reserved for staff only. Their car displayed a special permit issued to hospital volunteers. They made their delivery of assorted small gifts to each room. With only a handful of gifts remaining, Cassie finished up while Scott returned, alone, to the station wagon.
In the back of the car there was one more big bag of gifts and, just beyond that, a medium sized cardboard box. Scott grabbed the cardboard box and quickly assembled the flocked artificial Christmas tree. As he worked he thought about the past six months he and Cassie had spent getting to know Georgia Petros. He knew in his heart that her end was near and he choked up a bit, tears welling in his eyes, as he wrapped the sparkling lights around the tree. He cleared his throat, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and carried the tree back into the hospital where Cassie was waiting for him.
Scott and Cassie entered the room together with Scott holding the tree in one hand. “Surprise!” they called out in unison.
Georgia's face filled with delight and her eyes sparkled as brightly as the tree. Mesmerized Georgia asked them if it was a magic tree. For a moment the two visitors were slightly shaken and not sure how to react. Scott felt his throat tighten and became worried the tears would well up again. It wasn’t the question Georgia asked but the childlike manner in which she asked it. Cassie recovered first and answered “Of course it is.”
Georgia smiled radiantly from ear to ear as she stated matter of factly “You know all white Christmas trees are magic.”
The three of them sat quietly for awhile, watching the blinking lights on the magic Christmas tree. Cassie squeezed Scott’s hand and caught his eyes -- her look reminding him they had so much more to do that evening. They warmly said their goodbyes to Georgia and promised her they would return tomorrow, Christmas day, to visit with her. Georgia smiled and nodded, continuing to gaze into the sparkling lights as Scott and Cassie left the room.
Back down in the hospital parking lot, Scott opened the car door for Cassie, gently pushed it shut and stood for a moment outside the door watching the woman he loved sit in silence with her eyes closed and her head bowed ever so slightly. Her lips moved in prayer. He knew it was for Georgia. For the third time that night Scott’s throat tightened and his eyes welled up. He took a deep breath then watched for Cassie's eyes to open before he opened the driver’s side door and slid in. He grabbed her soft hand and squeezed it and started the car. It was getting late and it would still take them a half hour to get to the last stop before returning to the church for the Christmas potluck -- the federal prison just outside of town.
Georgia, now alone in her room, was almost hypnotized by the blinking lights on her white Christmas tree. When the nurse came into the room Georgia suggested they move the tree away from the overhead heater vent. She was worried it would dry out. Her mind was wandering again and she had forgotten it was an artificial tree.
The nurse assured Georgia not to worry and that the tree had plenty of water. Then she smoothed Georgia’s hair and rearranged the bedding. As she tucked in the corner of the bedsheet the nurse reminded Georgia that the doctor would soon come by to check on her. As she left the room the nurse overheard Georgia talking aloud to the tree.
“Poor thing.” She thought to herself. “Such a sweet woman. I’ll be sad to see her go”.
As Dr. Phil entered the room Georgia looked up said “Oh good, you’re here Mac. I have been waiting to talk to you.” This was the second time she had confused her doctor for the butcher from Save Rite Market.
After 40 years of practice Dr. Phil was used to this kind of thing. The white overcoat didn’t help. Georgia laid into him “I’ve got to tell you Mac, that last roast was terribly fatty. By the time I cut it all out there was barely enough meat left for evening meal.”
Dr. Phil, too tired from his day to bother with correcting her, humored her and responded “Please accept my apology Georgia. Sometimes you just get a bad piece of meat. The next one is on me okay?”
He quickly changed the subject “What a beautiful tree Georgia.”
“Oh yes, thank you Doctor” she replied, recognizing him again. “it is a magic tree and it talks to me.”
“That's real nice Georgia.” Doctor Phil replied with a warm but superficial smile “I will try to stop in tomorrow for a visit, but... “
She interrupted him, “Don't worry doctor, my boy Danny will be here.”
“Congratulations Georgia! That’s great news. When did this happen?”
Dr. Phil and every staff member at the hospital knew Georgia and Danny's story and Danny’s vigil for early release.
“I just found out” Georgia said quickly with a sly smile “The tree told me.”
“I see.” Dr. Phil looked down at his feet. Then he buried his discomfort, flashed her a smile and said “Merry Christmas Georgia” as he walked out of the room. Georgia gazed dreamily once again into the bright white of the Christmas tree.
On the outside of town, Scott and Cassie approached the mid-to-high security Federal Prison. Scott heard Cassie breath in sharply and squeezed her hand. It looked like a city from a bad dream. That’s what it really was, a city you never really want to visit, a self-contained hive of misfits and miscreants. The gun towers looming in the distance were an ominous reminder of the population.
I hope you're all enjoying the Christmas story I have written. I figured everyone might like something that is a little different. Here's Chapter 5. The next chapter will be posted this Friday... after that I will post a chapter a day until the story ends on Christmas Eve. Happy Holiday to you and yours! -- George
The Tunnel Rat
Mike “Mouse” Sanchez hadn’t been in the yard more than two days when a big misunderstanding landed him in the SHU.
Larry, a white collar embezzler, working as a clerk in the inmate receiving office, read Mouse’s file, including his military records. Larry would scan incoming inmate files for information that he could sell in the yard. As he inspected Mouse’s military record, something jumped out at him -- "tunnel rat." He smiled broadly. With no street smarts and no military background -- all Larry thought of was the jar of pruno he would get for passing on this information to the crew of convicts that controlled the yard.
The rumor that Mouse was a rat spread rapidly through the yard. Mouse was barely into his second day when he was approached by three hard looking men -- regulars, a term used for well-seasoned convicts -- a hispanic flanked by a well-muscled black man and a small white guy. The three were known as “The Counsel.” The guards may have had the keys but everyone knew it was The Counsel that ran the yard.
Tension was palpable but it was clear no one wanted a problem on the yard that could lock down the prison. To avoid crossing race lines, Slim, the hispanic man in the middle nodded and spoke aloud to Mouse, “Where you from man?”
“You know where I’m from or we wouldn't be talking” Mouse replied. He knew that without his street ties and credibility he, most likely, wouldn’t even have a chance to have this conversation.
“Yea -- okay -- you got some smut rubbing on you” said Slim.
“The only smut on me is on the bottom of my shoes. Get to the point.” Mouse asserted.
“Someone put on a piece a paper that you’re a rat -- like a tunnel rat, man” Slim replied back.
Mouse shook his head and chuckled slightly. “Man, a tunnel rat is a term used to describe what I did as a Marine in Vietnam.” He went on for several minutes about the tunnel rats -- a class of compact marine rifleman who entered and cleared the underground caves of the Vietnamese enemy the Viet Cong.
“You see that's what I'm talking about, a misunderstanding” said Slim, who was a high power prison shot caller. Those watching in the yard nodded briefly in consensus. Everyone seemed to be satisfied with his explanation. This was good. No violence in the yard meant no interruption in the flow of commerce.
Mouse suggested they go over to R&R and fix the problem in the file. The two other guys excused themselves as Mouse and his new friend, Slim, went to resolve the problem once and for all. When they arrived and explained the situation, Larry the clerk’s pale skin turned a sickly shade of white. It was obvious he was nervous having Mouse in such close proximity after he had made such a huge oversight and rush to judgement. But with Slim there he felt protected.
Larry swiveled around in his chair to retrieve the file and nonchalantly stated “Let's get this straightened out.”
Mouse replied in a matter-of-fact tone “Yea, that's why I'm here… To straighten it out.” With that he reached into his right front pocket and produced a sock with a large bar of soap slipped into the end. He swung the sling-like weapon and connected firmly with the skull of the unsuspecting clerk. Slim, although surprised, offered no assistance to Larry, who was now rolled up in a ball on the floor.
Corrections officers swarmed Mouse and immediately delivered him to the SHU. He would spend the next year in the dungeon right next to Danny Petros.
Danny was a sharp young man and his first two years in prison were uneventful. He blended into the backdrop, making his spirit small and keeping to himself. After he got the feel of things he started a little barter business for extra commissary. He learned to weave picture frames out of empty cigarette packs. It was a tedious and time consuming task but time was something that Danny had in plenty.
Danny preferred the Camel shorts packs -- they made the best designs when folded properly. Folding and interlocking each section into works of art occupied his hands and mind as the minutes ticked away on his sentence. His small business was very successful until a dispute over payment and unavoidable fight brought Danny to the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU), a damp underground section of the prison, ending his business and taking away the little freedom he had left.
A prison inside a prison, the SHU (also known as “the dungeon”) housed the hard cases: the predators, the gay inmates caught in bizarre love triangles, the scared looking for protection and, of course, the always present trouble makers -- the non-compliant convicts.
Life in the SHU pushed the strongest minds to their limits. Residents remained locked in small, single man cells 24-hours a day, 7-days a week with little to no contact with the outside world. All meals were served in cell, there was no TV, no radio, and a very limited commissary. The freedom of the small confined yard quickly became a distant memory for Danny and the other SHU residents.
The SHU offered inmates 24 hours of bright artificial light with speakers and microphones going off regularly in each cell to facilitate constant surveillance and discipline. The lights were never extinguished and in the morning they would go from from night-time bright to daylight brighter. There was a rumor that portable showers would soon be implemented and then they would never get out for anything but attorney visits, the occasional no-contact family visit and, of course, discipline.
Isolation is one of the oldest forms of torture known to man. The sensory deprivation makes you feel obscure and nullified as a person. It serves the punishers as intended in every manner. Solitary confinement started as a short term punishment. Over time it morphed into a powerful tool that would be wielded against prisoners as swiftly as a Samurai would draw his long sword to cut down a defiant peasant in feudal Japan. Living in isolation, day after day, challenged even the strongest constitutions.
Danny had been placed in an end cell and, over his first year in the SHU, a variety of convicts were cycled through the only cell next to him. He couldn't see them but would communicate with them through the floor vent that carried the plumbing pipes from cell to cell. Using the piping system you could lay or sit on the floor and have a private conversation. A few of the passing inmates had been particularly colorful.
There was the schizophrenic who refused to take his meds and would talk to his imaginary cell-mate for hours and hours. Every so often, in a moment of clarity, he would ask Danny to confirm that no one was there sharing his cell. Danny would patiently remind him it was impossible because they were in the SHU in solitary single-man cells.
Then there was the gay inmate who had gotten caught in one of those oft-deadly prison love triangles. The warden took him out of general and placed him -- or actually “her” as she prefered -- in the SHU until everyone’s emotions simmered down. Although he would never admit it to anyone, Danny found her soft and rhythmic voice to be a pleasant change from the rough harsh voices of the all male SHU staff.
Then, one day, Mike "Mouse" Sanchez moved in. Mouse came from the west coast. A rumored member of an old school East LA street gang, 18th street, that had earned their street sway the hard way. He never talked about it but the signature single needle tattoo work and large number 18 across his back spoke for him. An ex-marine and hash smuggler, Mouse was a short slender man who had done his tour in Vietnam as a tunnel rat.
Danny heard himself tell Ernie he would be back to pick up the prescriptions in 15 minutes. He felt oddly removed and didn’t recognize the sound of his own voice. The emotions of the day had taken their toll and and he was no longer thinking logically.
At the prescription counter, Ernie calculated how much it would cost for the cocktail of pills needed to stabilize Georgia while Danny made his way down the aisle closest to the exit. It was almost Halloween and the aisle was filled with cases of soda pop, bright Halloween candy and costumes.
Danny stopped short of the exit, turned around and grabbed one of the masks from a bin at the end of the Halloween aisle. If Danny had paused to look he would have seen the mask had the face of a monster, a perfect metaphor for what was about to take place. But he didn't look. He didn’t care. He just had to keep moving forward. He walked out the Save Rite exit and straight for the car.
Danny made the short drive to Cattleman's First Bank and made a quick pass around it. He wasn't sure why but he had seen it once in a old gangster movie. He parked in the empty front lot in a spot just down from the entrance.
He opened the glove box, found a scrap of paper then grabbed the pen clipped to the sun visor. Quickly Danny scribbled out his demand note. He sat quietly in thought for a moment and took a deep breath. He placed the Halloween mask on his head as if it was a hat, grabbed an old soiled cloth bag from under the driver’s seat and exited the vehicle. He briskly walked through the front doors.
Danny avoided eye contact as he strode into the bank. As he approached the teller’s window he dropped his mask into position. Wearing the face of a monster Danny, handed the teller the note and then the bag. The note was short and to the point.
I AM DESPERATE HUNDREDS ONLY
The teller reacted quickly. She packed the bag as fast as she could and pushed it back to the monster facing her. Danny turned quickly on his heels and with his back to the teller he pushed the mask back up on his head and walked as fast as he could to his waiting car, the engine still running.
Danny’s mind was working hard to assure him that everything would work out just fine. He would stroll right back into the Save Rite and find his mother, still shopping. They would pick up her prescriptions and she would never know he had been gone. She would be his alibi if he was ever questioned.
He was surprised at how calm he felt as he pulled back into the same Save Rite parking space he had left just ten minutes prior. He took a deep breath and opened the bag to grab the money he needed to pay for his mother’s medication. As he peered inside, he heard a loud pop. A dye pack exploded, spraying a red ink-like substance which covered not only the money but the inside of the car and Danny's face and upper body.
Seconds later, red and blue lights surrounded the car. All Danny could hear were sirens then a loud voice was broadcasted from one of the vehicles, “You are surrounded. Step out of the vehicle with your hands on your head.” Danny’s heart sank and the hollow aching feeling in his stomach that was hunger just a few hours prior now spread throughout his body making him numb from head to toe. He looked up and saw everyone in the Save Rite looking at him through the front windows. He quickly looked away -- afraid to see his mother’s face.
Danny had failed. He was now a bank robber and not even a successful one at that. His single bank robbery had earned him a dubious honor usually reserved for successful robber with repeated approaches -- a title from the FBI. That day, in just one afternoon, Danny became "The Dye Pack Bandit." The media ate it up and the next morning’s headline read:
DYE PACK BANDIT CAUGHT RED HANDED
The local police held Danny in custody until the FBI took over and presented him before a federal judge. Despite his momentary lapse of judgement and ensuing misfortune, Danny Petros had some luck coming his way. He drew The Honorable George Wu, who, as the facts unfolded showed leniency toward Danny and sentenced him to just five years. The Judge also requested the Bureau of Prisons place Danny in the federal prison just twenty miles from home so he could remain close to his mother in her final days.
This would be where his mother would be making a courageous last stand.