Chris had thirty-five square feet to himself.
His cell was painted a strange shade of gray that sucked up all the light. The bottom bunk had a pillow and plastic mattress, and the blanket he'd been given. Beside it was a toilet and sink. His cell was sandwiched between two others, like a tight row of teeth. When the barred doors of the cell were open-most of the day, except for mealtimes-Chris could stand on the narrow walk that ran the length of the pod. At one end was a shower and a phone, where he could make collect calls. At the other end was a television, strategically placed on the free side of the bars.
Chris learned a great deal his first day, without ever asking for information. He discovered that from the moment you entered jail, your slate was wiped clean. Where you wound up-from the security level to the position of your bunk-was not determined by your charged offense or behavior prior to incarceration, but by the way you acted once you got there. The good news was that the classification board met every Tuesday, and you could petition for a change of locale. The bad news was that today was Thursday.
Chris decided that he would simply go for a week without speaking to anyone. Then, next Tuesday, he'd surely be moved out of the maximum security section, into medium security.
He'd heard that upstairs, the walls were yellow.
He'd just finished a meal, served in his locked cell on an insulated plastic tray, when two inmates came to the door. "Hey," one said, the man he'd spoken to yesterday. "What's your name?"
"Chris," he said. "You?"
"Hector. And that's Damon." The unfamiliar man with long greasy hair nodded at Chris. "You never did tell me what you're in here for," Hector said.
"They think I murdered my girlfriend," Chris muttered.
Hector and Damon exchanged a look. "No shit?" Damon said. "I had you pegged for a narc."
Hector scratched his back against the bars. He was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, with rubber thongs. "What'd you use?" Chris stared at him blankly. "Knife, gun, you know."
Chris tried to push past them. "I don't want to talk about it," he said. He broad-shouldered Damon, only to feel the larger man's hand on his shoulder. He glanced down to find a makeshift knife in Hector's hand, a razor blade pressed against Chris's ribs. "Maybe I do," Hector said.
Chris swallowed and backed off. Hector slipped the knife inside his shirt. "Look," Chris said carefully. "Why don't we try acting rationally?"
"Rationally," Damon said. "There's a five-dollar word."
Hector snorted. "You sound like a fancy-ass college boy," he said. "You from the college?"
"I'm in high school," Chris said.
At that, Hector crowed. "Actually, college boy, you're in jail." He rapped his hand against the bars. "Hey," he yelled out. "We got us a genius down here." He cocked one foot up against the lower bunk. "Tell me this, college boy. If you're so smart, how come you got caught?"
Chris was saved from answering by an officer walking down the length of the barred catwalk. "Anyone want to go to the exercise room?"
He stood up. Hector and Damon also started toward the door at the end of the pod. Damon turned around and whispered, "We're not done, man."
They filed through a corridor dotted with cameras. A few men called out to each other; this was the only time each day they had contact. As they went around the corner, Chris noticed Damon slipping behind, person by person, until he could jab a well-aimed elbow into the back of another inmate at a certain turn of the hall. It was, Chris realized, the blind spot between two cameras.
Just before the exercise room were two isolation cells. You could wind up in isolation two ways-by force, because you were acting out; or by request, because you were scared of the other inmates. Only one was occupied now. The prisoners started to holler, pounding on the door, one even leaning down to spit in the slotted opening.
The exercise room was small and sparsely furnished, with only a handful of equipment. But it filled like everything else in jail, by prearrangement. There was no waiting and no fight as two large black men claimed the stationary bicycles; as Hector and Damon picked up the table tennis paddies; as a tall guy with a swastika tattoo on his cheek began to bench press. There was a pecking order, Chris realized, that he was not privy to. But then again, why should he be? He did not fit in.
Frowning, he walked out to the exercise courtyard, a muddy square heavily ringed with barbed wire. Men were talking in small groups, gesturing with their hands. Others moved aimlessly, counterclockwise. Chris found someone leaning against the chain-link fence, staring at the mountains in the distance. "That guy in the isolation room," he said without preamble. "What did he do?"
The man shrugged. "Shook his baby to death. Frigging animal."
Chris looked over the barbed wire, and thought of honor among thieves.
He called home collect.
"Mom," he said, just that word, over and over, with his head leaning against the blue pay phone.
"Oh, honey. I tried to come to see you, did they tell you?"
Chris closed his eyes. "No," he said tightly.
"Well, I did. But they said visiting hours aren't until Saturday. So I'll be there first thing." She took a deep breath. "This is a horrible mistake, you know. Jordan's already got the prosecution's files. He's going to find a way to get you out as quickly as possible."
"When is he coming to see me?"
"I'll call him and ask," his mother said. "Are you eating all right? Can I bring you anything?"
He thought about that, unsure what was allowed in. "Money," he said.
"Hang on, Chris. Your father wants to talk to you."
"I... no. I've got to go. Someone needs the phone," he lied.
"Oh ... all right. You call here whenever you want, do you understand? We don't care about your reversing the charges."
Suddenly there was a tinny, recorded voice: "This call," it announced, "is being made from the county correctional facility." Both Chris and his mother were silent for a moment. "I love you, sweetheart," Gus finally said.
Chris swallowed, and slipped the receiver back into the cradle. He stayed there for a moment, leaning his head against the pay phone, until he felt the hard press of a body behind him.
Damon was rubbing his spine, his breath on Chris's neck. "You miss your mama, professor?" He pushed his hips forward, his groin coming in contact with Chris's behind.
Wasn't this what he had been expecting? Wasn't this what he had been afraid of? Chris whirled around, catching the bigger man by surprise. "Get away from me," he said, his eyes glittering, and he backed into his cell.
Even with the covers over his head, he heard Damon laughing.
Chris thanked God for his lack of a cellmate. He lived in fear of suddenly having Damon thrown into his bunk, because although the officers were fairly good about keeping control during the day, who knew what they bothered to hear at night? He picked up the story lines on Days of Our Lives. He went to an AA meeting on Wednesday night, just to get out of the pod.
He filled out a commissary order, which reminded him of the room service breakfast sheet at the hotel in Canada his family had visited last summer. An eight-ounce jar of coffee was $5.25; a Three Musketeers bar was sixty cents. Thongs were $2. His items were delivered to him that afternoon by an officer, and the total amount was deducted from his prison account.
He slept a lot, pretending even when he wasn't tired so that people would leave him alone. And when clusters of men gathered in the exercise yard, Chris was always standing by himself.
A LONG TIME AGO, Jordan had stopped believing in the truth.
There was no truth, at least not in his profession. There were versions. And a trial was not based on truth, anyway, but on what the police had, and how you could respond to it. A good criminal defense lawyer did not think about the truth, and focused instead on what a jury was going to hear.
Years earlier, Jordan had stopped asking his clients for the real story. Now he went in with a blank face, and simply said, "What happened?"
He was standing at the control area of the maximum security unit, waiting for the officer in charge to slide the clipboard out so that he could sign in as a visitor. For his first post-arraignment interview with Chris, he'd brought along Selena Damascus, a six-foot-one black female private investigator who seemed better suited to fashion runways than doing Jordan's legwork, but who had been doing a damn good job all the same for several years.
"Where are they keeping him?" Selena asked.
Jordan leaned against the table, next to Chris. "If you need someone to confide in," he said, "that person will be me." He began walking back to his seat. "Any other questions?"
"Yeah," Chris said. "Do you have any kids?"
Jordan stopped dead. "Do I what?"
"You heard me."
"I don't see why that has anything to do with your case."
"It doesn't," Chris admitted. "It's just that if you're going to know me inside out by the time this is all over, I thought I ought to know something about you."
Jordan heard Selena snicker. "I have a son," he said. "He's thirteen. Now, if we're finished with the introductions, I want to get down to business. Today's agenda involves getting as much information as possible. We need you to sign release forms so that we can get your medical records. Are there any hospitalizations we should know about? Physical or mental disabilities that would make you incapable of physically pulling a trigger?"
"The only time I've been hospitalized was after that night. For my head, and I cut that when I passed out." Chris bit his lip. "I've been hunting since I was eight."
"Where did you get the gun that night?" Selena asked.
"It was my father's. It was in the gun cabinet with all the hunting rifles and shotguns."
"So you're accustomed to firearms."
"Sure," Chris said.
"Who loaded the revolver?"
"Before you left your house?"
"No," Chris stared at his hands.
Jordan raked his hand through his hair. "Can you give me the names of people who would be able to describe your relationship with Emily?"
"My parents," Chris said. "Her parents. I guess just about anyone at school."
Selena looked up from her notepad. "What should I expect these people to tell us?"
Chris shrugged. "That Emily and I were, you know, together."
"Might these people also have noticed that Emily was suicidal?" Selena asked.
"I don't know," Chris said. "She kept it pretty close to her chest."
"We'll also need to show a jury that you were planning to kill yourself that night. Any counselors you spoke to? Mental health people you'd seen?"
"I wanted to talk to you about that," Chris said, licking his dry lips. "There isn't anyone who's going to tell you I was planning on killing my-self."
"Maybe you mentioned it in a journal?" Selena suggested. "A note you wrote to Emily?"
Chris shook his head. "The thing is, I wasn't." He cleared his throat. "Suicidal."
Jordan briskly pushed the admission aside. "We'll talk about that later," he said, silently groaning. It was better, in Jordan's opinion, not to know any more than you needed to about a client's crime. That way you could proceed with your defense without violating any ethics. But once a client told you his story, that was the story. And if he took the stand he had to stick to it.
Confused, Chris looked from Jordan to Selena. "Wait," he said, "don't you want me to tell you what really happened?"
Jordan flipped his pad to a new, blank page. "Actually," he said, "I don't."
THAT AFTERNOON, Chris got a cellmate.
Shortly before dinner, he'd been curled up on his bunk, his thoughts pulled close around him, when an officer brought the man in. He was wearing a jumpsuit and sneakers, like everyone else, but there was something different about him. Something removed and standoffish. He nodded at Chris and climbed into the top bunk.
Hector came to the cell door. "Get tired of seeing your own face, man?"
"Get lost, Hector," the man sighed, without turning over.
"Don't you be telling me to get lost, you-"
"Chow," an officer called.
As Hector left to get into his cell for lockdown, the man unfolded himself from the bunk and came down to accept his tray. Chris, on the bottom bunk, realized there was nowhere for the other guy to sit. If he crawled back into the top bunk, he'd have to eat lying down. "You, uh, can sit here," he said, glancing at the far end of his bunk.
"Thanks." The man uncovered his tray. An unappetizing tricolored lump sat in the center. "Name's Steve Vernon."
Steve nodded and began to eat. Chris noticed that Steve was not much older than he was. And seemed just as inclined to stay uninvolved.
"Hey, Harte," Hector called from his own cell. "You better sleep with your eyes open tonight. Youngsters ain't safe around him."
Chris's gaze flew to Steve, who was still methodically eating. This was the guy who'd killed a baby?
Chris forced his attention back to his plate, trying to remember that a man was innocent until proven guilty. He was proof of that.
All the same, Chris remembered the things Hector had said when they passed the isolation cell: Picked up his kid in the middle of the night, and went crazy, man. Shook him so hard to stop crying his neck snapped. Who knew what set someone like that off?
Chris's insides went to jelly. He set his plate down and started for the door of the cell, intending to head for the bathroom at the end of the hall. But it was lockdown for another half hour at least, and for the first time since his arrival, he did not have the cell to himself. He stared at the gray toilet, just inches from Steve Vernon's knee, and reddened with embarrassment. Dropping his pants, Chris sat down and tried not to think about what he was doing. He kept his arms crossed over his middle, his gaze on the floor.
He finished and stood to find Steve in the upper bunk again, his half-cleaned plate on the lower bed. Vernon's face was turned away from the toilet, toward the bare wall, offering Chris as much dignity as possible.
The TELEPHONE RANG JUST AS Michael was getting ready to leave for a house call. "Hello?" he asked impatiently, his body already beginning to sweat beneath the weight of his winter jacket.
"Oh, Mikey," said his cousin Phoebe, from California-the only person who ever called him Mikey. "I just wanted to call and tell you how very, very sorry I am."
He had never liked Phoebe. She was his aunt's child; she must have been alerted by his own mother after the funeral, since Michael had done no calling around of his own to let relatives know of Emily's death. She wore her hair in Haight-Ashbury braids and had made a career out of throwing pots that were intentionally lopsided. When Michael spoke to her, which was infrequently at family gatherings, he was reminded of the time they'd been four, and she'd snickered when he wet his pants.
"Phoebe," he said. "Thanks for calling."
"Your mother told me," she added, which Michael found interesting: How could his mother pass along information that Michael could not yet accept? "I thought you might want to talk."
To you? Michael almost asked, before he remembered himself. And then he recalled that Phoebe's common-law husband had hanged himself from a closet rod two years ago. "I know what it's1 like," Phoebe continued. "Suddenly discovering something you should have noticed a long time ago. They go on to this better place, you know, which is what they wanted all along. But you and me, we're still left behind with all the questions they couldn't answer."
Michael remained silent. Was she still grieving, then, after two years? Was she suggesting that he had anything at all in common with her? He closed his eyes and felt himself shiver, in spite of his heavy coat. It wasn't true; it simply wasn't true. He had not known Phoebe's husband, but she couldn't have known him as well as he had known Emily.
So well, Michael thought, that this would come out of the blue?
He felt a stab of pain in his chest and realized that guilt came from all angles: from not being able to see his daughter's distress in the first place; from being so selfish that even now he focused on what Emily's suicide said about his parenting skills, and not about Emily herself.
"What do I do?" he murmured, unaware he'd spoken aloud until he heard Phoebe's answer.
"You survive," she said. "You do what they couldn't." On the other end of the telephone line, Phoebe sighed. "You know, Michael, I used to sit around looking for a way to make sense of what had happened, like there was some kind of answer I could find if I just looked hard enough. Then one day I realized that if there had been one, Dave would still be here. And I wondered if this ... this feeling that I couldn't figure it all out... was what Dave had been feeling, too." She cleared her throat. "I still don't get why he did it; and I don't like that he did it; but at least I understand a little better what was going through his head."
Michael imagined Emily's stomach tied up in the same Gordian knots as his own, Emily's thoughts equally tangled. And he wished, for the millionth time, that he'd been vigilant enough to have spared her such pain.
He murmured his thanks to Phoebe again and hung up the phone. Then, still wearing his shearling coat, he trudged upstairs in the empty house. He entered Emily's room and stretched out on the bed, staring in turn at the mirror, the schoolbooks, the discarded clothing, as he tried to see the world through his daughter's eyes.
Francis Cassavetes had been sentenced to six months in jail, but he was serving it on weekends. It was a common punishment for those who were employed and contributing to society-a judge would have them come into the jail on Friday and leave on Sunday, allowing them to work the rest of the days in between. Weekenders were visiting royalty in the jail, and spent most of their serving time taking bribes from inmates less fortunate in their sentencing. They smuggled in cigarettes, needles, Tylenol- anything-for a price.
When Francis entered the maximum security pod, he cupped Hector's face in his hands. "Am I your man?" he said. He pushed past Hector, heading toward the John.
Francis returned, his hand fisted around something. "You owe me double for this, Hector. Fucking things made me bleed."
Chris watched as Hector's hand brushed Francis's and a small, white tube winked in the transfer. He turned and walked back into his cell.
Steve folded down a corner of the magazine he was reading. "Francis brought him cigarettes again?"
"I guess," Chris said.
Steve shook his head. "Hector ought to ask for a nicotine patch, instead," he muttered. "Probably easier for Francis to smuggle in, too."
"How does he?" Chris asked, curious. "Smuggle them in?"
"Used to hide them in his mouth, I hear. But he got caught, so now he's using a different opening." When Chris continued to stare at him blankly, Steve shook his head. "How many holes have you got?" he asked pointedly.
Chris turned bright red. Steve rolled away and opened his magazine again. "Jesus fucking Christ," he muttered. "How the hell did you get in here?"
As SOON AS CHRIS ENTERED the room with its long, scarred tables and collection of inmates and relatives, he saw his mother. She threw her arms around him as he reached her. "Chris," she sighed, smoothing his hair the way she had when he was a little boy. "You're okay?"
The officer gently tapped his mother on the shoulder. "Ma'am," he said, "you'll have to let go now." Startled, Gus released her son and sat down. Chris settled across from her. There was no Plexiglas window between them, but that did not mean there wasn't a barrier.
He could have told his mother that in the superintendent's rule book-a binder big as a dictionary-it was decreed that a visit could begin with a brief embrace or kiss (not open-mouthed) and end the same way. In this same binder were the rules against possession of cigarettes, against use of profanity, against pushing another inmate. Such slight infractions in the real world were, in jail, a felony. The punishment was time added to one's sentence.
Gus reached across the table and took Chris's hand. For the first time, he noticed that his father was there too. James sat with his chair back a bit, as if he was afraid to come in contact with the table. It brought him nearly up against an inmate with a tattoo of a spiderweb on his left cheek.
"It is so good to see you," his mother said.
Chris nodded, ducked his head. If he said what he wanted to-that he needed to go home, that he'd never seen anything more beautiful than her, right now, all his life-he would burst into tears and he could not afford to do that. God only knew who was listening, how it would be held against him.
"We brought you some money," Gus said, holding out an envelope stuffed with bills. "If you need more you can call us." She handed the envelope to Chris, who immediately signaled an officer, and asked him to put it in his prison account.
"So," his mother said.
She looked into her lap, and he almost felt pity. There was nothing to talk about, really. He had spent all week sitting in a maximum security pod at the county jail, and his parents would not consider that sanctioned conversation.
"You'll get a chance next week to be moved to the medium level, no?"
James's voice startled him. "Yeah," Chris said. "I have to petition the classification board."
A silence fell. "The swim team won its meet against Littleton yesterday," Gus said.
"Oh?" Chris tried to sound like he gave a damn. "Who swam my race?"
"I'm not sure. Robert Ric-Rich-something."
"Richardson." Chris scuffed his sneaker against the floor. "Probably had a crappy time."
He listened to his mother tell him about the history assignment Kate had received, for which she'd be dressing up as a colonial woman. He listened to her talk of the movies that were playing at the local theater and
The officer looked from Chris to Steve. "Save it for the DR," he said.
As the guard left, Chris righted his bed and crawled back into the bunk. "Hey," Steve said, shaking his shoulder. "I didn't plant it."
"I'm just telling you."
Chris buried his head beneath his pillow, but not before seeing the flash of Hector's grin as he passed by the cell.
In THE EIGHTEEN HOURS that passed between the finding of the cigarette and Chris's official disciplinary review, he fit together all the pieces of the puzzle. Hector had parted with one of his precious bootleg prizes because he could kill two birds with one stone: test Chris, the newcomer, for his loyalties; and fuck over Steve, the baby killer. If Chris ratted out Hector, he'd regret it for some time. If he pinned the blame instead on Steve- who, as his cellmate, would have the best opportunity to plant a cigarette in Chris's sneaker-Chris would align himself with Hector's crowd.
An officer led Chris to the small room where the assistant superintendent worked. Inside was the officer who'd wrecked the cell, and the assistant superintendent himself, a beefy man more suited to coaching football than pushing paper at a jail. Chris stood very straight while the assistant superintendent read a formal charge and advised him of his rights. "So, Mr. Harte," the man said. "Do you have anything to say in your defense?"
"Yes. Ask me to smoke it."
The assistant superintendent raised his brows. "I can't imagine you'd like anything better."
"I don't smoke," Chris said. "This'll prove it."
"It will prove that you can fake a cough," the man said. "I don't think so. Now: Do you have anything to say in your defense?"
Chris thought of Hector, and his razor-bladed pen. He thought of Steve, with whom he'd reached a tentative truce. And he remembered what he had been told about minor transgressions in jail-this cigarette could add three to seven years to his sentence, if he was convicted.
Then again, that was a big if. "No," Chris said quietly.
He looked the assistant superintendent in the eye. "No," Chris repeated.
The officers looked at each other and shrugged. "You're aware," the assistant superintendent said, "that if you feel we're missing part of the story, you can suggest we speak to another inmate."
"I know," Chris said. "But you don't have to."
The man pursed his lips. "All right, Mr. Harte. Based on the evidence, you've been found guilty of possession of an illegal substance in your cell, and you're sentenced to a five-day lockdown. You'll remain in a cell for twenty-three hours of the day, with one hour free to shower."
The superintendent nodded at the officers, who escorted Chris from the room. He walked silently through the maximum security pod, collecting his things without speaking a word to anyone. It was not until he was being led to his new cell that Chris realized he would sit there until Thursday, two days too late for his mother to visit; two days too late for the Classification Board to transfer him to medium security.
CHRIS SLEPT DURING those days. He dreamed often. Of Emily, the touch and taste of her. Of kissing her, tongue deep, and having her push something into his mouth, something small and hard like a peppermint candy. But when he spit it into his hand, he saw it for what it really was: the truth.
He did sit-ups, endless numbers of them, because it was the only exercise he had room for in the narrow cell. During showers, he scrubbed until his skin went pink and raw, just so that he'd get his full hour out. He relived swim races, nights with Em, class lectures, until his cell became uncomfortably full of memories and he started to understand why inmates did not bother thinking of what they had left behind.
He did not call his mother, of course, and on Tuesday he wondered whether she had come all the way to Woodsville just to be told her son was in a disciplinary lockdown. He also wondered who had been moved to medium security. Steve would have petitioned the Classification Board that day.
On Thursday morning he banged on the bars as soon as breakfast was finished and told an officer he wanted to be moved. "You will be," the officer said. "Soon as we get a chance."
They didn't get a chance until four o'clock that afternoon. An officer swung open the door of the cell and led the way to the other maximum security pod, the one he'd been in the previous week.
"Welcome home, Harte," he said.
Chris dumped his few belongings on the lower bunk. To his surprise, a figure curled out of the upper one. "Hey," Steve said.
"What are you doing here?"
Steve laughed. "I was going to head out to a bar, but I couldn't find my car keys."
"I meant that I thought you'd be upstairs by now."
They both looked at the ceiling of the cell, as if it was possible to see medium security, with its yellow cinder-block walls, its horseshoe day room, its spacious showers. Steve shrugged, not saying what Chris knew he was thinking: that following the discovery of the cigarette, anyone in the jail would have pointed a finger at Steve, although Chris had chosen not to. "Changed my mind," he said. "You get more room upstairs, but three more guys in your cell."
Steve nodded. "I figured I'd wait until I knew someone else up there."
Chris lay back on his bunk and closed his eyes. After all this time, he liked hearing the sound of another person's voice, another person's thoughts. "Tuesday's coming around soon again," he said.
He heard Steve's sigh. "That it is," he answered. "Maybe we'll go."
THE FUNNY THING WAS, Chris had become a hero. By not ragging on Hector about the cigarette, when he perfectly well could have, he'd been elevated to the level of a worthy inmate, one who was willing to take the punches for someone else. No matter how undeserving that someone else was.
"My man," Hector now called him. Chris was allowed to decide, from four P.M. to five P.M., what channel the TV stayed on. In the exercise room, he was given time on the weight bench.
It was on the way back from the exercise room one day that Hector cornered him in the dark curve of the stairwell, the place that the cameras couldn't see. "Shower," he hissed, "ten-fifteen."
And what the hell was that supposed to mean? Chris spent the rest of the day wondering if he had been issued an appointment to get the shit kicked out of himself, or if Hector had some other agenda for needing to meet him in private. He waited until ten, then grabbed his towel and walked down the small cubicle at the end of the pod.
There was no one else there. Shrugging, Chris stripped and turned on the water. He stepped into the stall and had just begun to lather up with the soap when Hector peered over the edge. "What the fuck is up with you?"
Chris blinked water from his eyes. "You told me to be here," he said.
"I didn't tell you to shower," he said.
Actually, he had. But Chris wasn't about to point that out. He shut off the water, only to have Hector snake an arm inside the stall and turn it on again. "Leave it," he said. "It hides the smoke." Then he drew from his jumpsuit a Bic pen that had been burned down into a curve and stretched at one end to make a small tobacco bowl. He unfolded a small square of paper and shook something precious into the makeshift pipe, then quickly flared a forbidden lighter. "Here," he said, drawing deeply.
Chris wasn't stupid enough to turn down hospitality from Hector. He bent his head away from the thin trickle of water and inhaled, exploding in a fit of coughing. It was not a cigarette, that much was true, but it didn't have the sweet taste of pot, either. "What is this?" he asked.
"Banana peels," Hector said. "Damon and me burn them down." He took the pipe and tamped it down. "For a jar of coffee I'll make you a packet."
Chris felt the water run cold down the back of his neck. "We'll see," he said, taking the pipe again when Hector offered it.
"You know, college boy," Hector said, "I had you figured all wrong."
Chris didn't respond. He fit his lips over the edge of the pipe, inhaled, and was not altogether surprised to find that this time, it came naturally.
On SATURDAY MORNING CHRIS was one of the first inmates taken down to meet their visitors. Unlike the last time his mother had come to the jail, she was standing painfully erect, fury and fear crackling around her like electric currents that Chris could see even this far off. She folded Chris into her arms and for the briefest moment he had the sense that years had fallen away; that he was once again smaller and weaker than she was.
"What happened?" she said tightly. "I come here on Tuesday to find out that I can't see you because you're serving some kind of disciplinary sentence, and when I ask what that is they tell me it means you're locked inside some ... some cage for twenty-four hours a day."
"Twenty-three," Chris said. "You get an hour to shower."
Gus leaned closer, her lips white. "What did you do?" she whispered.
"I was set up," Chris murmured. "One of the other prisoners was trying to get me in trouble."
"He was-he was what?" Shocked, Gus sat back heavily. "And you just . .. went along with it?"
Chris felt two flags of color rise in his cheeks. "He planted a cigarette in my sneaker; one that the officers found when they tossed the cell. And yeah, I went along with it, because sitting by myself for five days was better than having this guy come at me with the knife he made out of razor blades."
Gus pressed her fist against her mouth, and Chris wondered what words she was trying to hold inside. "There has to be someone I can talk to," she said finally. "I'll go to the superintendent when I leave here today. This isn't the way a jail is supposed to be run and-"
"How would you know?" Chris shook his head. "Don't go fighting my battles for me," he said wearily.
"You're not like all these criminals," Gus said. "You're just a child."
At that, Chris's head snapped up. "No, Mom. I'm not a child. I'm old enough to be tried as an adult; old enough to serve time in an adult jail." He looked past her. "Don't make me into someone I'm not," he said, his words laid like a frank hand of cards on the table between them.
On Saturday night there was a terrible windstorm, and even the solid cement walls of the jail seemed to creak and threaten. Lockdown was late on weekends-two A.M.-with most of the inmates rowdier than usual. Chris had not yet cultivated the art of sleeping like a log when the rest of the pod was animated and noisy, but he lay in his bunk with a pillow over his head, wondering if it was truly possible to hear the sound of the rain soaking into the bricks and whipping the ceiling.
There had been a fight earlier-an argument about whether to watch Saturday Night Live or Mad TV, which had resulted in two cells being locked down for an hour, the inmates screaming at each other through the bars. Steve had watched TV for a while, then come into the cell and crawled into the upper bunk. Chris had been feigning sleep, but he listened to Steve rip open the wrapper of the NutRageous bar he'd purchased from the commissary that week.
He'd gotten Chris some stuff, too. M&M's, and coffee, and Twinkies. Because of the disciplinary sentence, Chris had missed the commissary order day, and he supposed this was Steve's way of thanking him for not being a snitch.
After a while there was no more rustling in the upper bunk, and Chris realized Steve had fallen asleep. He waited until the officers called for lock-down, and then listened to the slap of rubber thongs on the floor; the soft sound of someone pissing in a urinal; the gradual slouch toward quiet.
The lights, actually, never went out. They dimmed considerably, but then again it was so dreary in the maximum security section that it took just as much time to get adjusted to seeing during the daytime as it did to sleeping in shadows. Chris listened for that wind, imagining that he was outside in the middle of a field so big that he couldn't see any of its boundaries. The rain would run over him, and he'd lift his face into it and all he would see was sky.
There was a whimper, and then another.
Chris smacked the flat of his hand against the upper bunk; he'd done that once or twice before when Steve was snoring. But instead of hearing the other man roll over and settle into sleep, there was a sharp, keening cry.
He got out of bed and stood up as Steve began thrashing back and forth on his bunk, chest convulsing with sobs. Stunned into immobility for a moment, Chris watched him. Steve's eyes were closed, his breathing labored. He was clearly upset, and he was just as clearly still asleep.
At the second cry, Chris clamped his hand on Steve's shoulder. He shook a little harder, and in the dim night light of the jail he saw the silver slits of Steve's eyes. Steve shrugged off Chris's hand, and he felt himself flush with embarrassment. The cardinal rule of jail was that you did not touch someone unless you were expressly asked to do so.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "You were having a nightmare."
At that, Steve blinked. "I was?"
"You were crying out and everything," Chris said, hesitating. "I didn't think you wanted to wake up the whole place."
Steve slipped out of the upper bunk. He walked around Chris and sat down on the closed toilet, cradling his head in his hands. "Shit," he said.
Chris sank onto his bunk. In the distance, he could still hear the whistle of the wind. "You should go back to sleep."
Steve lifted his gaze. "Did you know that sometimes you yell out at night, too?"
"I do not," Chris automatically countered.
"You do," Steve said. "I hear you."
Chris shrugged. "Whatever," he said, picking at a cuticle.
"Do you see her? Em?"
"How the hell do you know about Em?" Chris asked.
"That's the name you say. At night." Steve stood up, his back against the metal bars of the cell. "I just wondered if you see her, like I see ... him."
Chris thought about Jordan McAfee's warning, about rats that the cops put in your cell just to feel out your confessions. If he questioned, he would be questioned, and he was not sure that he wanted that sort of connection forged. But all the same, Chris heard himself whisper, "What happened?"
"I was home alone with him," Steve whispered. "Me and Liza had a big fight, and she stormed off to the hairdresser's where she worked. She wasn't even speaking to me by the time she left, but she told me to take care of the baby. I got pissed off, and I started drinking whatever was left in the fridge. And then he woke up, crying so loud that it was giving me a headache." Steve turned around, his forehead pressed against the bars. "I tried to give him his bottle and I changed his diaper, but he kept screaming. So I carried him, with him yelling all the time in my ear, and my head about to split. Before I know it I'm shaking him, telling him to just stop crying already." He took a deep, wet breath. "And then I was shaking him, trying to get him to start crying."
Steve spun around, his eyes gray and glazed. "Do you know what it's like, to hold this ... this little person in your arms ... afterward ... and to know that you were supposed to be the one to protect it?"
Chris swallowed past the constriction of his throat. "What was his name?"
"Benjamin," Steve said. "Benjamin Tyler Vernon."
"Em," Chris answered softly, a perfectly appropriate response. "Emily Gold."
His breath is so close I can taste him. His hands come to my waist, then slide up and up and pinch at me. I want to tell him it hurts, but I can't speak. I want to tell him 1 don't like this anymore.
He pushes me back and then his hand is down there and I start to scream.
THE SCREAM OF THE alarm clock made Emily bolt upright in her bed. The sheets were tangled around her feet; she had sweated through her nightgown. Swinging her legs over the edge, she stretched. She walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower, waiting until steam clouded about her head before stepping into the stall. As she passed the mirror, she turned away. There was something about seeing herself naked that didn't seem quite right.
She leaned back her head and let the water soothe her scalp. Then she picked up the soap and scrubbed at her skin until some spots were bleeding, but she still could not make herself feel clean.
For once, History was interesting. Gross, but completely riveting. Mr. Waterstone had taken a break from the dry unit on taxation without representation and was detailing life in colonial America. They'd spent the past week learning the going prices for a bolt of calico, a crop of cotton, a healthy slave. Today, they were studying the Indians.
Oops. Native Americans. The whole point of this diversion from the standard textbook was to give students an appreciation for what the life of a colonist was like. Which included not only interference from the English crown, but also studious lack of contact with the natives.
Emily's eyes were glued to the screen at the front of the class. As far as she could see, not even the biggest skanks in the class-total druggies-were passing notes now. Everyone was watching the remarkable, reenacted footage of a Mohawk warrior cutting open the chest of a captured French-Canadian Jesuit priest, and eating his heart before his eyes.
There was a thump in the rear of the class, and Emily tore her eyes away long enough to notice Adrienne Whalley, a cheerleader, sprawled in a dead faint on the floor. "Oh, shit," Mr. Waterstone said under his breath, but a curse all the same. He stopped the movie, flipped on the lights, and dispatched a student to run down to the nurse's office. Mr. Waterstone himself crouched over Adrienne, rubbing her hand, and Em wondered if that wasn't Adrienne's intention to begin with. Young Mr. Waterstone, with his shoulder-length jet hair and bright green eyes, was the most attractive male teacher in the school.
The bell rang just as the nurse waddled into the classroom with a bottle of ammonia that Adrienne, now awake, didn't need. Emily gathered up her books and headed for the classroom door, where Chris was already waiting. Her hand slid neatly into his as they began moving in tandem. "How's Waterstone's class?" he asked; Chris had History seventh period.
Emily squeezed closer to him as a crowd passed by, and then stayed at his side. "Oh," she said. "You'll like it."
She liked the kissing.
In fact, if she could have gone back to just that, she would have. She liked opening her mouth against Chris's and having him fill it with his tongue, as if he was slipping her secrets. She liked feeling his moan roll, candy-round and warm, into her own mouth. She especially liked the way his big hands cradled her head, as if he could hold her thoughts together even when they started running off in directions she didn't want to explore.
But lately, it seemed like they kissed less and spent more time fighting over where Chris's hands should stay.
They were in the back of the Jeep now-how many times had Emily wondered if Chris had picked this car because of the way the seats folded down?-with the windows all steamed up. On one, Emily had drawn a heart with their initials. She watched now as Chris's back rubbed against it, erasing.
"I want you so bad, Em," Chris whispered against her neck, and she nodded. She wanted Chris too. Just not quite in the same way.
In the abstract, the idea of making love with Chris was intriguing. Why wouldn't she, when she loved him more than anyone else in the world? It was just that the actual physical part of it-the way that he touched her body-made her feel sick. She was afraid that by the time she got up the nerve to have sex, she'd be too busy throwing up to actually finish what she'd started. The problem was that she'd look down at Chris's hand on her breast and she'd picture that same hand, albeit smaller, stealing a half dozen cookies from a fresh baked bunch before Chris's mom could see. Or she'd imagine the long fingers crossed in a game of Scissors, Paper, Stone while they sat side-by-side in the backseat on the way to some family vacation.
Sometimes she felt like she was rolling around in the back of the Jeep with this incredibly gorgeous, sexy guy. And sometimes she felt like she was wrestling with her own brother. Try as she might, she couldn't untangle one from the other.
She gently pushed on Chris's chest, trying to get him to sit up. When he lifted his head with a frown on his face, she smiled at him. His lips were still shiny and wet, and she felt a cooling ring around her nipple. She twisted her fingers with his. "Do you feel, you know, close to me?"
Chris's eyes burned. "God, yeah."
Emily faltered. "I don't mean it... like that," she corrected. "I guess, well, it's just that you know me better than my own brother."
"You don't have a brother."
"I know," Emily said. "But if I did, you'd be it."
Chris grinned wickedly. "Well, let's all thank God I'm not," he said, bending his head again.
She tugged at his hair. "Do you ever think about me like that?" she asked shyly. "Like a sister?"
"Not right now," he said in a strangled voice, and he touched his lips to hers. "I can promise you that I never," he kissed her again, "ever," and again, "have wanted to do this with Kate." He rolled away of his own volition, the thick ridge beneath his jeans going soft. "God," he said, shuddering. "Now you've got me all freaked out."
Emily placed a hand on his chest. She loved his chest, with its light dusting of hair and long muscles. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to." She moved into Chris's arms and felt them close around her. "Let's not talk," she suggested, and buried her face in the heat of his skin.
His BREATH FALLS into my mouth, the only air I have. His hands start at my ankles and slide up my shins, pulling them apart like a vise, and 1 know what is coming as his fingers stab into me.
He won't let me close my legs, he won't let me curl away. There is blood on his hand. He pushes against my shoulders and draws a red line down the middle of my chest. It cracks open and 1 feel him reaching deep inside me, tight and uncomfortable; then something snakes out like jelly and when I lift my eyes 1 see Chris's teeth sinking into my heart.
Emily tugged at the collar of Chris's shirt. "No," she repeated, and when his hands held her tighter, she pinched his neck. "No!" she yelled, rolling him off her with an unholy shove. "I said no," she panted.
Chris swallowed hard, his erection pink over the edge of his unzipped jeans. "I didn't think you meant it," he said.
"Jesus, Chris," she said. She rubbed her arms, covered with goose-bumps, and turned away. The problem was, in a Jeep, there was not all that far to go.
She waited for his hands to close over her shoulders, like they always did once they came to this point. It was like a play, coming to the same end of the act, every night. The curtain would come down, and they'd do it all over again tomorrow. But Emily didn't feel Chris coming toward her this time. She heard the rasp of his zipper as he dressed himself, the creak of the Jeep's flatbed as he came to his knees, maneuvering around her. "Move," he ordered tersely, and when she did he snapped the rear seat back up into place.
It was not until the overhead light went on as Chris opened the front door to slide into the driver's seat that Emily realized he meant to leave. Scrambling over the steering console, she managed to lock herself into her seat belt as Chris roared out of the empty parking lot.
He was driving fast and frenzied, very unlike Chris's natural caution. When he took a turn in the road on two wheels, Emily put her hand on his arm. "What is the matter with you?"
He stared at her, his face so tight in the glare of the streetlights that for a moment Em did not recognize him at all. "What's the matter with me?" he parroted. "What's the matter with me?"
Without warning, he swung the car down a dead-end street off to the right and slammed the stick shift into Park. "You want to know what's the matter with me, Em?" He grabbed her hand and shoved it hard against his groin. "That's what's the matter with me." He released her wrist, letting her hand crawl beneath her thigh in hiding. "It's the only thing I can think of, the only thing that keeps me going. And night after night you say no, and I'm supposed to sit back and deal with it my own way, but the thing is I can't deal with it. Not anymore." Emily's face reddened and she stared at her lap, hearing Chris sigh after a moment. He rubbed his hand through his hair, making it stand on end. "Do you have any idea," he said, his voice soft, "any idea at all, how much I want you?"
She bit her lip. "Wanting isn't the same as loving."
He laughed, startled. "Are you joking? I've loved you for-well, Christ, for my whole life. It's the wanting part that's new to me." He stroked Emily's temple with his thumb. "Wanting isn't the same thing as loving," he agreed. "But they might as well be, at least for me."
"Why?" Emily managed.
Chris smiled at her, melting her strongest defenses. "Because wanting you, Em," he said, "has only made me love you that much more."
EVERYTHING WAS SHARPER. She could smell his black breath, feel the coarse hairs on the back of his hand, see her own face staring back at her. She was wearing something with elastic at the waist; it snapped back against her hips. There were the familiar sensations of his fingernails scratching at her, his palms grinding up against her nipples, the burning between her legs.
But this time there was more. The droning whirr of-what?-bees? The tang of disinfectant. And the unmistakable scent of a kitchen, of something being fried in grease.
RATTLED, EMILY WOKE UP, unable to remember what it was that had left her so alert and tense that going back to sleep was an impossibility. Prob' ably, she'd been dreaming of what would happen the next night. The night she and Chris had reserved to have sex for the first time.
Make love, she reminded herself, as if the euphemism might change it into something easier to accept.
She squinted in the dark, trying to locate her sneakers. She dragged them out from beneath the desk and slipped her feet inside, leaving them untied. Then she pulled Chris's swimming sweatshirt over her nightgown and tip-toed downstairs and out of the house.
It was warm for May and the moon was high and swollen, ribboning the path between the Hartes' and the Golds' like a silver stream. Emily hurried, her arms flashing white as the thin limbs of the birches she passed.
To her surprise, when she reached Chris's house, his bedroom light was still on. At three in the morning? On a Thursday night? She picked up a small stone and whipped it at his window, seeing his face appear almost instantly. The light winked black and suddenly Chris was standing a few feet away, in a T-shirt and boxers, his fingers flexing on the frame of the side door.
"I couldn't sleep," Emily said.
"Me neither," Chris admitted, with a smile. "Kept thinking about tomorrow and getting all worked up."
Emily didn't say anything. Let him think that was what had kept her awake, too.
He came off the porch, barefoot, wincing at the gravel and twigs that cut into the soles of his feet as he approached Emily. "Come on," he said. "Might as well have insomnia together."
He pulled her along the edge of the Hartes' lawn, to the point where it ran into forest. The ground there was softer-pine needles still wet with winter, moss that grew in a ratty green fringe. Chris's step grew more sure as they headed into the woods, toward a massive granite slab.
It had been years since they'd come there to play, with sticks for muskets and small cannonball boulders. Chris climbed onto the high, flat rock and helped Emily up. He curled his arm over her shoulders and looked back toward his house. "You remember when you pushed me off here and I had to get stitches?"
Emily's hand went blindly to the spot on Chris's jaw. "Seventeen," she said dryly. "You still haven't forgiven me."
"Oh, I've forgiven you," Chris assured her. "I just haven't forgotten."
"Okay," she said, spreading her arms. "Push me off, so we'll be even."
Chris lunged, rolling Em onto her back as she laughed and kicked her heels against his shins. They tickled and squirmed the same way Emily remembered them doing as children, like puppies intent on catching each other's tails. And then all of a sudden Chris's hands stilled over her breasts and his mouth hung over hers in the space of a breath. "Say Uncle," he whispered, and gently squeezed.
"Unc-" Emily said, and then his tongue filled her mouth and his hands swept her from collarbone to hip, a completely different kind of game. She closed her eyes, listening to Chris's breathing and the throaty call of that owl.
Just as quickly as it had begun, Chris levered himself off her. He hauled Emily to a sitting position and chastely settled his arm around her. "I think,"
he said, "that's enough of that."
Emily turned to him, mouth agape. "All of a sudden you can wait?" In the dark, his teeth were very bright. "Now that there's a light at the
end of the tunnel, I can," he said.
He slid his arm down to her waist. Emily shivered, and tried to convince
herself that it was from the cold.
They lay on the wooden plank floor of the carousel, watching the stars spin through the tangle of carved tails and hooves. They were touching at the shoulders, the elbows, the hips, all spots that seemed to burn. Chris covered her hand with his own, and she nearly jumped out of her skin.
He leaned up on an elbow. "What?"
She shook her head, her throat painfully tight. "I can't just sit here and wait for it to happen," she said. "I want to get it over with."
Chris's eyes widened. "It's not an execution, you know," he said.
"Says you," Emily muttered.
Chris laughed and sat up. "Well," he said. "What if we just talk for a little while, and see what happens?"
"Talk," Emily snorted, as if the very concept of that leading straight to sex was unthinkable. "What are we supposed to talk about?"
"I don't know. How about the time we watched the dogs going at it?"
Emily giggled. "I forgot about that," she said. "Mrs. Morton's poodle and the springer spaniel from Fieldcrest Lane." She felt Chris's fingers slip between her own, and speaking suddenly became a little easier. "I didn't think the poodle would be able to get on top of her."
Chris smiled. "Looked funny, didn't it?" Then he laughed.
"I was thinking fair's fair-we should find those dogs," he said, "and let them watch us."
She thought of the long, stringy penis of the poodle, sliding out of the bigger spaniel and slapping between its prancing legs. Whatever she and Chris were about to do couldn't be any more awkward than that. Chris's arm snaked over her shoulders. "Better?"
"Yeah," she admitted, turning her face into the hollow beneath his arm. He smelled of sweet deodorant, sweat, and excitement.
"How about," he said, tipping up her face, "I just kiss you?"
"Just kiss," she said.
"For now. Don't think about the other."
Emily smiled against his lips. "Oh, right."
Chris's mouth curved with hers. "Humor me." He traced the line of her lips with his tongue, then trailed his kisses down her neck. She felt his hands shake as they came up beneath her shirt, and this made her feel better than anything else: the knowledge that Chris, too, was nervous.
Then, in that way time has during adolescence of going both far too quickly and entirely too slow, Emily realized her clothes were off, her skin prickled with tiny goosebumps. She watched Chris roll a condom onto himself, and was surprised that she found him beautiful, not strange or ugly. She let Chris come down on top of her, his chest burning against hers, his body neatly set between her legs. "Do you think," she whispered, panicked, "it will hurt?"
That stopped him. "I don't know," he said. "I think it's supposed to, a little." He rolled to Emily's side and stroked his hand over her hip, preoccupied. "What's the matter?" Emily asked.
"Nothing," he said, meeting her eyes. "It's just that I forgot that part."
"I'm sure it's not too bad," Emily said. "I don't think anyone's ever died of it." What am I doing? she thought wildly. Why am I urging him on?
Chris smiled and brushed the hair off her forehead. "If I could keep it from hurting you, I would," he said. "I wish I was the one who'd feel it."
Emily touched his forearm. "That's very sweet," she said.
"It's not sweet," Chris said, "it's selfish. I know that I can stand a little bit of pain. But I don't think I'll be able to watch yours."
Emily reached between his legs and wrapped her fingers around Chris, making him gasp. He rolled onto her and shifted his weight to his elbows. "If it hurts," he said, "pinch me. So we're in it together."
She felt him touching her, felt something wet that she realized came from herself, and then he was stretching her and stopping. She had a fleeting vision of the thousand-piece puzzles they'd done as children, how Chris had a tendency to try to jam pieces in where they would never comfortably fit.
"Em," he said, sweat standing out on his brow. "Do you want to do this?"
He would stop, she realized, if she shook her head. But she considered that what she wanted and what Chris wanted were inextricably tangled, and knew that he wanted this more than anything.
At her slight nod, Chris pushed himself gently inside her.
It hurt for a moment, and she dug her fingernails into his back. Then it wasn't so bad anymore. It felt odd, stretched from the inside out, but not painful. She felt her hips wobble as Chris began to push and moan, faster and faster, scooting her back a few inches on the planks of the carousel floor.
When he cried out, she was staring wide-eyed at the bare underbelly of a horse, aware for the first time that it had not been painted all over.
Chris rolled off her, chest heaving. "Oh, God," he said, sprawled on his back. "I think I'm dead." A moment later he gathered her close. "I love you," he whispered, touching his finger to her temples. "But I made you cry."
She shook her head, only realizing now that tears were still streaming. "You made me ..." Her voice trailed off, and she left it like that.
It's JUST a dare, she had told herself that day, and she'd pushed open the door of the men's bathroom in McDonald's, To her surprise it was exactly like the ladies' room, except for the two urinals on the wall, and the fact that it was more smelly. There was someone in the other stall; Emily could see his legs. Paralyzed by embarrassment-what if he noticed that her shoes were those of a nine-year-old girl?-she stayed rooted in front of the sink. There was a flush, and then the door to the stall opened. The Creep stood there, his clothes smelling of grease and disinfectant.
"Well," he said. "What have we here?"
Emily felt her legs trembling. "1-I must have gone in the wrong one," she stuttered. She whirled, heading for the door, but he grabbed her wrist.
"Oh, yeah?" he said, his voice curling tike smoke about her, pulling her closer. "How do you know it's the wrong one?"
He pushed her up against the door, barring anyone else's entrance. Holding her hands over her head, he slid his hand up her shirt. "No titties," he said. "Might be a man." Then he slipped his hand under the elastic of her shorts and rubbed his fingers between her clamped legs. "Don't feel no prick either, though," he said. He leaned forward, so close that she could smell his breath. "Gotta make sure," he said, and he jammed his finger inside her.
Panic was a shroud around her, stiffening her body and filling her mouth so that even though she screamed in her mind, no sound came from her throat. Just as quickly as the man had grabbed her, he let her go. Emily fell to the brown tile floor as he left, feeling the burn of disinfectant from his hands inside her. She was sick on the floor, then stood and rinsed her mouth. She straightened her clothing and walked back to the table, where Chris was waiting for her.
"Ssh," CHRIS SAID, holding her against his chest. "You were screaming."
She was still naked, and so was Chris, his erection stirring again against her hip. She shoved away from him, huddling into a ball. "I fell asleep," she said, her voice unsteady.
"Oh," Chris said, smiling softly. "Sorry things got so boring."
"It's not that," Emily explained.
"I know. Just come here and sit with me." He held out his hand, un-threatening, and Emily crawled onto his lap, trying to believe it was perfectly okay to do this although neither of them was wearing a stitch of clothing.
She felt Chris's hands on her, laying her down against the cool wooden planks again. When she tried to roll away, he held her, and she whimpered. "I know you're sore," he said. "I just want to look at you. I was in a hurry before."
He touched her breasts with his eyes, and then his fingers. He ran circles around her nipples, bit her collarbone. He let his hands pray their way down her belly, her hips, and then he parted her and stroked one finger over the folds. Trembling, she tried to kick him away, but he held her ankles. "No," he said. "Just let me look at you."
She felt his mouth make a damp mark on her navel, then slip downward. "You're perfect," he pronounced, and she blanched, knowing now that nothing could be farther from the truth. "Don't move," he said, his words vibrating between her legs, and by then she was sobbing.
He immediately reared up, alarmed. "What's the matter? Did I hurt you?"
She shook her head, sending tears flying. "I don't want to stay still. I don't want to stay still." She wrapped her arms around Chris, and her legs, and without intending it felt him slip into her again, a tight and startling fit.
"I love you," Chris mouthed, already past coherence.
Emily turned her face away. "Don't," she answered.