by Alice Mullen
Stratham County Prison,
Dover, New Hampshire.
When he first came in, he was all
fucked up. He was coming off heroin, cold turkey, no detox, no medicine, nothing. All
anyone knew of him was his moaning, and screaming, and being sick.
I didnt mind much. To be honest, his
addiction, and what it did to him, was the most interesting thing Id had going on
for months. I know its a little perverse, but every day it was something different.
My favorite part was the hallucinations and all the talking he did while he was sweating
it out, in fevers, half-sleeping. It was like listening to one side of a conversation and
guessing at what the rest is. I made up whole stories and scenarios in my head that
Id wrap around the things he said. I just about went nuts trying to imagine a face
for each name he called out. Mostly he called out for Tran and Lydia. Trying to picture
them, Id just come up with distorted versions of his face. When the fevers were real
bad, I spent a lot of time watching his face. His eyes would race around under his lids in
quick flashes. His lips were all chapped, and sometimes when hed go on talking and
talking, not making any sense, theyd crack and bleed. He has kind of a square jaw,
and you can tell when hes clenching his teeth because it seems to get wider, or to
stand out more under sideburns that kind of blur into scruff.
There wasnt anything he could hide from me
when he was that bad off. He cried like a baby sometimes and screamed like a nut others.
Around here, people are usually pretty guarded, no pun intended. Harlo didnt have
any of that. As far as the cleaning up goes, Im sure the guards would have assigned
me to it if I hadnt done it myself. Besides I have to live in the cell too, so it
might as well be tolerable. After two weeks he was starting to make sense. I remember I
was cooling him down with a wet face cloth one night and he looked me straight in the eye.
That was the first time he looked at me and knew who I was. He'd been here for two weeks
and thats the first time he noticed me, because it was me that was taking care of
It was strange, when he started to pull his shit
together, it was like the difference between seeing a suit on a hanger and seeing it on a
person. He seemed to come into himself and fill up every corner. I have to say, it was a
disappointment when he came around. Here I was, feeling like Id really gotten to
know him, like we were friends, and he wasnt feeling quite the same. Thinking it
over from his point of view I can see that though. All fucked up for a time, out of your
head, and when you clean out, your roommates all friendly? So Ive been backing
off, leaving him alone. Its been a few weeks now and we havent talked much. He
looks over at me sometimes with a strange look on his face while were in the cell
together, but most of the time when the cells unlocked and weve got access to
the common area, he avoids being around me. Which is just as well, because he seems to
take up the whole cell, but maybe Im just intimidated by all those freaking muscles.
Taking care of him was real good for me. I miss
it. Ive had a tendency since I came in here to fixate on the stupidest things. I
dont know if its the boredom or if Im just overly aware of things. For
example, I absolutely hate brushing my teeth. I like having clean teeth and all but
its the process that freaks me out. The way your vision shakes while youre
brushing. Ive spent hours trying to manage to do it without moving my head, but
its impossible. Along the same lines, I cant stand looking straight ahead of
me when I walk, because my vision bounces with each step. I look at my feet while Im
walking so I cant notice as much. I tried to just walk stiff, but the guards gave me
too much grief saying I was going too slow or just making 'em nervous. Taking care of
Harlo Id get so caught up in what he needed, or how he was doing, that I could
finally put shit like that out of my mind.
James, my old cellmate, he thought I was just
too high strung, too nervous. Sometimes I miss him, wonder what hes up to now. I
always felt more comfortable around the other guys once I figured out where I stood with
James. James is the one that gave me this damn name. Every morning when Im getting
dressed, I see this mole on my shoulder, every time I see it out of the corner of my eye I
think its a bug. So I almost always scare myself when Im half-asleep and jump
or brush at it. So James loved this, he thought it was the craziest thing that I would
forget my skin every night. He swore it looks just like a ladybug. So between the bug
thing, my red hair that looks more like orange than anything, and my rap sheet, he tagged
me, Glo-bug. Everyones been calling me by it since the first day James said it. Even
the guards. You get used to anything over time. What gets me isnt the name;
its this mole. Why is it I have to go through that every morning, the forgetting?
Sometime I think my brains just wired wrong, or I have to cut down on the coffee. I
I can see now why James wanted to look out for
me when I first came, like how I feel with Harlo. Its like a cross between nursing a
sick animal back to health, and making friends with the new kid at school. Maybe that
comparison doesnt work, because sometimes when he was real sick it felt more like
poking road kill with a stick out of some sick curiosity. As far as thinking of him as the
new kid in school, I can show him how things work. That is, if hed let me. But I can
also watch him fuck up with people and land flat on his face. Arent I the twisted
I guess hes right to be paranoid. He
doesnt know me, and he probably figures that the only reason Id have helped
him was if Id wanted something. Its impossible to tell someone that
youre interested in them for their entertainment value well, I just
dont think itll play. So Im trying to just leave him be.
So we were sitting in the cafeteria, and as
usual no one is talking because with only fifteen minutes to eat, there just isnt
any of that. I wasnt even looking down at my plate, just kind of shoveling it in
while I looked around kind of nonchalant. The chewing was distracting, vision jiggle, but
still, its easier to eat, and eat fast if I dont look at it. So theres
just the scrape of forks against the plastic plates, and the brown trays shuffling across
the tables, and Harlo spoke. So the room wasnt entirely silent, there was some
mumbling and grumbling on the other side as guys were finishing up and stuff but from
where I was sitting Harlos voice was like -Bam. All I could hear.
I guess thats because Ive been
waiting to hear it for a while now, anticipation being what it is and all. So in a clear
strong voice to everyone around him and no one in particular he says, "You know
wheres a scary place to be?"
Every one sitting around him turns to look at
him like hes a nut and he answers himself, "The inside of a chicken
And he looked around him, like he was looking
for someone to back him up, or agree with him, or something. He wore this serious
expression on his face, like total confidence, like he was passing down gospel truth
word. He was looking around, and I was outright staring, just trying to tear my
eyes off of him, and we ended up looking each other right in the eye. It was the look on
his face that did me in; he was dead-straight serious. I busted out crazy laughing so bad
it hurt like hell. Something happened then, I dont know quite what. While we were
looking at each other, its like we saw something we recognized.
Now hes talking to me, not a lot, just a
little bit here and there, but its like hes not all paranoid around me
anymore. Hes in here for armed robbery. Once his plea goes in, hell probably
get six years. I didnt offer up anything about myself. While he was undressing
tonight I saw his tattoo. On the top of his arm, hes got a picture of a lion
standing up holding a flag in one paw, like a cartoon, and on the flag theres his
name, Harlo. A tattoo of your own name seems like the stupidest thing in the world to me,
but somehow it suits him. The colors were faded into his skin like theyre settling
in for the long haul. Im guessing hes around twenty-seven but that tattoo
We went to the courthouse today. There were
seven of us in the bus. One of the guys was maximum so the guards were really tense. I
heard them call him Cuba but I dont know what he was going to court for. They had
three guards and two of them were like glued to this guy, so the rest of us were stuck in
a courtroom that wasnt being used while they dealt with him. For a while Adam told
stories. Hes always going on about some shit, and if he isnt just telling
tales about how tight he is with the mayor in Providence, hes going on about how
much money hes gonna make when hes out again. So that killed like two hours.
Not just Adams stories but all the back and forth between him and the guys. You have
to give him credit; he doesnt ever shake off a con. He could be on the friggin
Titanic and hed be going on about how safe the ship was and how much he paid for his
tickets till he was spitting up salt water. After a while though we all got kind of bored
and quiet. Some of the guys dozed off, and I realized how nice it is not to have a snorer
for a cellmate.
I was just waiting to stand in front of the
judge and get a date for my next parole review. Normally they just schedule them at
regular intervals but when I got sentenced, since I was young, they wanted to keep an eye
on my rehabilitation. I dont really know what rehabilitations supposed to feel
like, so I never know if Ive gotten any closer or farther away from it.
I was seventeen when I set the match to
Mistys house. Wed been going out for seven years, ever since we were in the
fifth grade. I dont know why she wanted to break up. Wed had breaks before but
that time it was different. I dont know what had gotten her so mad but she
wasnt going to see me again. Her mom was at work, and Misty was out on a date. I
know, because Id watched her leave with him.
Ive been to the counselor, the
psychiatrist, the psychologist, all of them. None of them have made me understand what I
felt that night. Ive never felt anything like that, before or since. I wasnt
me. The gas had that clinging oily sting in my nose and throat; breathing through my mouth
I could almost taste it. I could feel the cold sloshing around inside the red metal can
while I balanced the weight of it in my hands. I held it like I was watering plants,
thinking about the flames that would sprout up from everywhere I poured it. I poured a
long line across the flowered couch in the den Misty and I used to make out on. I watched
it soak into the fabric; the wetness spreading out and turning the flowers blood red.
I was standing in the doorway of that room when
I hit the match. No fancy toss of the wrist or flashy arc through the air, but it was like
it was in slow motion. I just let it drop. This tiny spark on the head of the match, it
flickered, turning small and pulsing blue till it hit the vapors rising up from the wet
rug. The sound was like a soft breath, a rushing whooomphff. I watched it spread away from
me in waves and it took over everything. There were so many layers of smell, like burnt
hair, scalded coffee, black plastic and tires. I would have stayed longer, just watching
it, if it werent for the heat. When I left, the flames were chasing each other up
the walls like squirrels up trees: crackling, snapping, and hissing at me. I stood in the
woods behind her house, watching it take over. I heard the fire trucks screaming and I
knew I should leave but I just couldnt tear my eyes off it. That small blue spark
that had started with me had grown into these huge flames surging up into the cool air of
the night, tearing big hunks of the roof down while they grew bigger. Small sparks carried
in an updraft rose like stars against the black night.
This is where my problem is: I understand in a
logical sense that what I did was wrong. Im ashamed of what I did because I
understand it was destructive and pointless. But that fire, I dont know. That fire
was the most amazing thing Ive ever had. When I think of those flames, how tall they
were, the heat that poured out of the place, the smell of the air turning crisp with ash,
I feel like Ive got a talent that no one here will ever see.
So were all waiting, thinking of the time
passing as the same time that skims past us while were in the prison. Im in
the back row of the jury box where theyve put us, and Harlos next to me.
He taps me on he shoulder and I jump from the
static charge that arcs as he does. Harlo points to the windowsill on our left.
"Look," he says, "A ladybug
I turn and see the small red and black dead dots
that litter the white edge of wood. The idea is neat, but I realize that Im
immediately suspicious, thinking that any remark involving bugs could be a veiled comment
towards me. But as soon as that thought is out of the way, another cruises in to replace
it and I answer him.
Harlo gets this big shit-eating grin on his
face, and he looks over at me beaming. No one else seemed to hear, it was just something
between the two of us. I dont even know if anyone else would get it, but the moments
passed and the chance of telling the others and getting more laughs just passed us by, and
Harlo and me watched it go on by.
Afternoon light spilled into the courtroom, and
the sunlight felt so good and warm wrapped around me, compared to the chill in the prison.
Eventually we all had our time in front of the judge down the hall. Harlo, I imagine, put
in his plea, and I was assigned a new date to go in front of the parole board. Adam left
for a bit and came back with a deflated look on his face but he didnt say much more
that day. By the time we were all back in the bus and on our way back inside everyone was
wiped out. Its strange that a whole day of doing close to nothing can make you so
tired but its been my experience that you get all wound up and tense in the courthouse and
that wears you out. It doesnt matter why youre tense, it could be just the
memory of facing sentence, it could be the cynical hope of getting out, but whatever it
is, it rolled over everyone like a steamroller.
The ride back to the prison in the bus was
quiet, you could practically hear all our brains jiggling in our skulls with the potholes.
I was spacing out looking out the window and Harlo was next to me. I was watching the bare
trees whiz by and looking at the mounds of snow by the roadside crusted dark with exhaust.
So out of the corner of my eye I saw Harlo make this weird gesture and I turned to look
closer and he was still doing it. He held his hand face down, parallel to the ground and
he kind of poked his head up from behind it and looked from side to side with his eyes
bugging out of his head and this strange pursed look on his lips. He didnt say a
thing. He just dropped his hand back down to his side and took back to looking around him
as if nothing had happened. I looked back to the road and tried do the same but to be
honest I was starting to wonder if hed snapped. After about twenty minutes I
couldnt get it off my mind and not asking about it was about to drive me nuts.
"So what was that?" I asked, repeating the hand gesture half way.
"What?" he says.
I repeat the gesture trying to force the
resemblance to what hed done a little harder, "that."
"Oh," he says as if he forgot
entirely. And then he repeated the whole thing, the wall of a hand, his head straining to
reach above it, the O look on his mouth, and he says, "Im a fire-hydrant,
Im trying to see from under the snow, and Im saying hello to anyone that
Never mind how fucking funny it was that he did
it in the first place, and then just let it sit until I asked, but he was so matter of
fact. It was like, oh, of course.
That night I had trouble sleeping. Court
stresses me out enough as it is, but on the days when I get to thinking about Misty and
the fire I have nightmares. I have dreams of the fire but they turn all haywire away from
what really happened. James told me about how I would talk in my sleep or toss and turn
but he never really made much of it. So, through the night I kept waking up sporadically.
Weird images kept chasing me into being awake and I just couldnt seem to steer
myself away from all of it. It must have been around three in the morning. I could tell
the time by the strange half-light creeping in the window, and the way it laid across
everything in this strange wet blue. The sheet was all tangled around my neck and it felt
cool to my skin, like thered been a draft in the cell.
Harlos hand was on my shoulder. The palm
of his hand was pressed against the top of my back, and his fingers were cupped to fit the
tendons joining my shoulder and my neck.
I didnt know what to do. It took me a
second to remember where I was, and to figure out whose hand that would be. I always err
on the side of caution. So I just restrained the breath going in and out of my lungs, to
keep my breathing like it would be when I was asleep. I was holding my lungs tight, easing
the air out slow, and his hand just stayed there. I could feel the imprint of his hand on
my skin in braille heat. This small piece of flesh connected the two of us. I was sure
that when his hand moved, Id have his fingerprints branded into me. I counted my
slow breaths while I tried not to tense up my muscles showing that I was awake. Fifteen
sets of slow deep breaths in and steady even breaths out.
All my concentration was on pretending to be
asleep, and the feel of his hand. I never knew that I could feel so much through my
shoulder. I never knew that my skin had that much to tell me. I could feel the bit of
moisture in the palm of his hand, like dew. And I knew his palms were sweating just a
little bit. I could feel his joints as they creaked in his grip. I could feel the cool air
touching my skin in between his fingers. And for a split second I thought I could feel his
breath. But I might have got it confused with my own. And then it was gone.
The first thing I felt was relief. Then, I
dont know. The weight of his hand lifted off of me so fast that I wondered if
Id imagined it. The tension his hand had built up in me, well that seemed to take
forever, easing up bit by bit. I didnt realize at the time, since I was trying so
hard to pretend sleep, my heart was racing. The heat from his hand had seemed unbearable
while it was on me, but as soon as it was gone it seemed as if every other part of me
surged up like a hot flood, a quiet inferno. But then I spent the rest of the morning
shivering against the cool blue light on my sheets. I must have finally dozed off at some
point. I woke up with a jolt as the alarm on the speaker screamed into the pod. Im
amazed the adrenaline-charged shakes of the night ever eased up enough to let me sleep at
I didnt want to acknowledge any of this in
the light of day. I just didnt know how to deal with it. So I acted like nothing
happened. And Harlo did too. Well we kind of did. I think we did. In the first part of the
day it felt tense, like we were forcing it not to have happened. But what am I talking
about? What happened? My roommate touched me. I know that this is nothing, but it feels
like something. But maybe thats just me. The way Harlo acted that next day made me
feel a lot better though. By the time I went down that night I was more confident that he
and I are tight, and that Id been freaking out over nothing.
After a while things got to feeling like normal
again. We were cracking jokes and wisecracking in the TV room making fun of the shit on
the tube, and the other guys. Adam made some remark about us always being in on things
together. I double-checked myself before I reacted. I couldnt figure out if him
saying that made me defensive because Im all confused about what happened the other
night, or if he just pissed me off because its such a cliché insinuation around
here. Harlo turned it around somehow to make it seem like the joke was on Adam.
A few weeks later the same things happened. I
was having a restless night, and I must have woken him up. His hand rested on my shoulder
for a moment. Like he was thinking of waking me, and couldnt decide if he should. I
understand it in these terms now. But part of it hasnt changed. The heat was just as
intense, but this time it felt like it was spreading out from the center of his hand, out
from his fingers. I kept my eyes closed but it seemed like flames danced on the back of my
eyelids. I was absolutely frozen but it felt like so much was happening at the same time.
So, its been like that. Every now and
then, in the night Im all restless, and he doesnt shake me. Just holds my
shoulder. Ive come to the point that I appreciate it. Im trying to take it
like its given. It is kind of comforting that he cares if I sleep sound. He
doesnt give me shit about waking him up, like most guys would, he just settles me.
It kind of anchors me when Im caught in the nights cross currents. The
heats still there. Sometimes I doze back off while its still on me.
I havent been tossing around tonight
though. Im just laying here on my right side, staring at the concrete in front of
me. I dont know if he knows Im awake or not. His hand is on my shoulder and
the heat is unbearable. It reminds me of the fire. Its a tight, small, intense,
spark. Set apart from me, flickering. The muscles of my right arm are wound up tight. The
first few bare breaths of movement almost hurt. The air is burning the inside edges of my
lungs; waiting for me to let this breath out. My teeth are clenched, and its feeling
just like that night. In one fast smooth move, the match is past the strike. I cant
take it back. My right hand is crossing my chest. Theres no hiding that Im
awake. I cant take any of it back now. My hand is cold and damp with sweat. I reach
up and put my hand over his.
Im just holding it there. He hasnt
moved and neither have I. I can feel the heat all over now. His warm breath on my neck.
Were inside this frozen moment as the match hits the wet cool gas. Harlo and me
-were catching the light.