Blake Johnson, author of Deal, have previously published short fiction Mud Season Review, Bridge Eight, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. His horror novella, Prodigal: An American Parable, has been published by Trouble Department.
I’d been sent to county, pending trial, for watching a man get tortured and doing nothing. Everyone was pushing me to give something up—the cops, the prosecutor, even the public defender assigned to shield me from the hammer of justice—but they were vague about what was expected of me.
The whole process was shrouded in miasmal double-speak; they were trying to suffocate me with my own ignorance. They wanted me to beg for clarity.
I’d been sent to county, pending trial, for watching a man get tortured and doing nothing.
I said nothing.
Not out of any sort of bravery, but the exact opposite. Had I asked for details, had they revealed each sparking gear of the system, there would be no hiding from how desperate my situation was. Knowing you’re damned will kill you faster than anything else. There were times in my life when I had wanted to die, too many to count. That didn’t mean I wanted to see the bullet coming. Let me close my eyes, and let it be over.
But it’s never that simple.
I told Spieler what happened, though, the closest person I had to a friend. We were sitting across from each other in the cell block’s common area, at a table bolted to the floor. He had recently bought a deck of cards from commissary and was trying them out. The cheap cardboard fluttered and danced under his touch, as if made alive by some mischievous miracle. He was so absorbed in his craftsmanship that I figured he wasn’t listening. I should have known better.
“I didn’t touch him,” I said. “Just held the gun while the other guy went to work.”
“Why was he working on him in the first place?”
“Debt. Probably. I wasn’t paid to ask questions.”
“That desperate for a dollar, huh?”
“The gun wasn’t even loaded.”
Spieler laughed, then spread the cards across the table in a perfect curve.
“It’s not funny,” I said. “I don’t deserve this.”
“No one ever gets what they deserve.”
Spieler reshuffled the deck. The cards rattled as they slapped against one another. He began dealing to me and the vacant seats, five cards each. When he finished, he leaned forward. His green eyes flashed under the fluorescent lights, gleaming reptilian.
“Then what happened?” Spieler asked.
“I told you—the guy went to work.”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s important,” Spieler said. “The amount of damage.”
“Amount of damage,” I repeated.
“He used shears. Pliers too, I think.”
Heat flooded my cheeks.
“I looked away for most of it.”
“You’re shitting me.”
Spieler heaved out a full-body sigh. He leaned over the table and tapped the loose stack of cards in front of me. I turned them over. Squinted at the near impossible hand—a royal flush.
“Better keep your eyes open. Otherwise, people are going to deal whatever they want to you. And they won’t be as generous as me.”
I flipped over the other cards. Royal flushes, all.
“How did you do that?”
Spieler said nothing. Re-shuffled. Began dealing again. His thin fingers worked with a deftness beyond man, beyond machine. I couldn’t spot how he was manipulating the deck. He knew it, too. His lips were pulled upward in a tight rictus.
From then on, he always grinned when he looked at me—the same way he grinned at the cards.
Our cells were painted a gaudy blue, the kind that might be found in a child’s playroom. I couldn’t stare at the walls too long—otherwise my eyes felt like they were getting sucked out of their sockets. The air tasted of cold sweat, chilled by self-loathing.
The rest you can probably imagine—the bunkbed, the stainless-steel toilet and sink. The mirror was just a slab of polished metal that showed only distorted reflections. It made my face look like something left to dry on a baking sheet.
I shared it all with a large, keg-shaped man who often stole my breakfast and would not tell me his name.
We took breakfast in our cells. Only breakfast. Every other meal we had in the common area. It was one of those small, absurd quirks that sent violent ripples through my gut if I thought about it too long. That someone in an office somewhere had waved their hand and implemented this arbitrary rule made me think of the laws of the universe, of gravity and entropy, and how I would never understand any mind or soul, not even my own.
We took breakfast in our cells. Only breakfast. Every other meal we had in the common area.
My first morning, I’d made the mistake of giving up my oatmeal and fruit cup. I had spent the previous night in nausea fueled nightmares; I made the offering in hopes the giant would protect me during waking hours. But the keg-man just slurped down my food, smacked his gums together. Snorted.
From then on, he took my food whenever he wanted. He would stare at me when the trays were slipped through the bars, lick his lips, daring me to try to take it back. I hadn’t tried, not yet. He could fit my head in his mouth. He could swallow me whole, and no one would care.
I’ve listened to him shit out what did not belong to him in bursts and splutters more times than I care to admit, all in hopes I’d lose my appetite.
After breakfast, they opened the cells. A few of the inmates, the rarities who would serve their full sentence here, went to pursue higher education or learn vocations. Even more would leave, either cut loose or carted away to someplace bigger, someplace worse.
The rest of us, those awaiting trial or sentencing, were left to wander around the cellblock. They let us meander like senile beasts and kept us hungry. They stoked our rage in hopes that we would eat each other alive, down to the bones.
And we did harm one another, but only rarely. Most of us were little more than simple drunkards, stoners caught with blood-shot eyes, misbegotten sons who sought to repay our fathers through thievery. We had set fires in our own private corners, but we did not want to watch the world burn.
The few who craved bloodshed got it. It always happened quickly. A face caved in. An arm broken. A man strangled in his bunk, handprints embedded on his neck like a brand.
These instances were isolated, haphazard, singular. Born of grudges between individuals, never factions. It couldn’t get any larger than that, not with this place being the revolving door it was. There was no way to form lasting alliances. The scale of brutality remained minute. You could make it if you kept out of the way and didn’t anger anyone. You could.
Spieler had no issues making it. He had something we were all desperate for, the only thing we craved more than freedom. With each card trick he loosened the noose of boredom hanging around our necks. He’d facilitate bets and run contests. He was better than Movie Friday because he was on every day of the week.
We were all eager to play Spieler’s games. We were all afraid of tedium and what it might do to us, to our bodies and spirits. In my panic, I realized it too late—that Spieler’s entertainment was us.
I want to hate him, but I can’t bring myself to. Even now.
A new batch of prisoners rolled in. They were worse than anything I’d ever seen. Two days after their arrival, a man was found in the shower, curled up like a bug in death throes, weeping. A series of obscenities had been carved on his back, presumably with the remnants of a disposable razor.
It was as if these new arrivals were all old friends and had somehow managed to coordinate their sins so they could all await their trials at the same time. At the very least, they had marked each other as brothers with a shared destiny. All would do hard time in a place where violence was not the exception but the rule. They milled about like people at a bus station, waiting to go home.
If things went sideways, I’d be going to federal, too. If that happened, I would not survive.
My stomach was making ripping noises. Shadows glimmered with hidden blades. One night, I caught my cellmate peering over my bunk, watching me. The whites of his eyes shone phosphorescent in the dark, bulbous and toadlike. I could have dreamed it, but I don’t think I did. I still feel it sometimes, the keg-man’s breath steaming over me in a fetid cloud. When I started flinching at every sudden noise, Spieler offered his sage advice.
“Pull it together.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“You could start by eating breakfast.”
I snorted. Spieler continued.
“He’ll just keep taking it unless you do something.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
“Whatever you need to.”
“What I need is to get out of here.”
“Fair enough.” Spieler leaned in. “What’s your lawyer say?”
“He doesn’t. Say anything, I mean. He hates me.”
Spieler laughed. He kept on laughing.
“You’re really good at that,” he said.
“Good at what?”
“Letting people jerk you around.”
“Recalibrate,” Spieler said. “Readjust.”
Recalibrate. Readjust. The words tasted foreign on my tongue. But I had to try.
Two trays, slipped underneath the bars. The keg-man and I stared at each other. I reached for one of the trays. A flash of movement. Buckled over, gasping, wheezing, lungs clamped shut. Slammed against the wall, held six inches off the ground. Keg-man pressed his forehead against mine.
“Hungry?” he said.
“No, man. Not at all.”
He grunted. Set me down. Patted my shoulder as if this had been some backyard skirmish between brothers. Then I watched him eat.
I didn’t tell Spieler what had happened, but I think he knew. He no doubt saw the way my shoulders drooped, heard the constant burble of my stomach.
His green eyes narrowed, probing the hollow spaces where my courage should have been. He shuffled his deck, tossed me a couple of cards. The two of spades and the seven of hearts.
“What’s this supposed to mean?”
“Worst hand in Texas Hold Em’.”
I flung the cards at him. He slipped them back into the middle of the deck, shuffled endlessly. He started to speak. Paused. I’d never seen Spieler hesitate before. I didn’t like it. If even he could stumble, then everything was beyond comprehension. All was unstable, down to the earth’s core.
“There’s something you ought to know,” Spieler said.
The cellblock wavered and tilted; his words sounded distant, far away. Rumor, he said, keep in mind it’s only rumor. That someone, a friend or a brother of my alleged victim, had found their way inside and was determined to do to me what I had done to their kin.
“I don’t know. Could be anyone.”
“I just held the gun.” Pressure mounted behind my eyes. “It wasn’t even loaded.”
“Better not let anyone else know that.”
“Are you just trying to fuck with me?”
Spieler’s lips flattened into a thin line.
“If I was,” he said, “it wouldn’t matter. You don’t do something soon, you won’t last.”
“What are you suggesting.”
“Have you ever stood up for anything? Anything at all?”
There wasn’t any point in responding to the question. We both knew the answer.
A few days later, Spieler insisted that I take part in a card game he was running that afternoon. I agreed. I thought it would be safer than sitting on my bunk, waiting to get cornered, or worse.
But as soon as I sat down at the table with three other men, my mouth went dry. All escape routes receded into the distance. A tickertape of paranoid thoughts, images, scenarios, surged through my mind, and all of them ended with me being put through some terrible ordeal. I thought about how my remains would look smeared across the floor in a nauseating stain; I imagined someone prying up what was left of me with a paint scraper.
One man kept sniffing in my direction, as if he could smell my pent-up fear. He had runic text tattooed on his neck, running upward in a spiral. Everyone called him Sven. I tried to avoid his gaze, and I tried to avoid looking away—there was no right gesture, only combinations of gestures, a machismo balancing act intrinsic to eaters of men. I was a clumsy hand at it.
I scanned the rest of the players. Any one of you, I thought. Any one of you could be the one who makes me atone.
The game began. Spieler dealt standing up, spindly fingers twitching like spider legs. We were playing Texas Hold Em’, and we were playing for things that had no value outside but meant everything to us—coffee, smuggled cigarettes, favors which could be called in without warning. I had my eye on items from the vending machine—any of them.
First hand: I was dealt pocket aces and took the round. I won a granola bar from Sven. He let out a low growl.
Second hand: pocket aces. Again.
I blinked. Looked to Spieler, then to the men waiting for me to make my play.
“Fold,” I said.
It kept happening. Spieler kept tossing me pocket aces. He should have known. He should have known my fear outweighed my hunger, my greed. Or maybe he did—the whole thing, his motives, his reasoning, were beyond me. I knew he was trying to force some sort of confrontation, but I didn’t understand why.
“Fold,” I said for the fifth time.
“You going to play?” Sven said. “Or do you get off on wasting our time?”
The other players nodded their agreement. Sweat sprouted from my forehead.
“You look nervous,” Sven said, then addressed Spieler. “Doesn’t he look nervous?”
“Not everyone is cut out for Vegas.”
Stop it, I mouthed at him. Stop it. But he wouldn’t stop. He wouldn’t stop until I made him stop, and I didn’t know how. The next round, I didn’t even bother looking at my cards. I got up to leave.
“No,” Sven said. “Sit down.”
My heart splashed into my stomach.
“I can’t play with these cards.”
“You’ll play with what you’re dealt.”
I turned to Spieler one last time. He made a nebulous gesture—something between a shrug and apology. This was what he had wanted, what he was pushing me toward—this game of his, I was a part of it whether I folded or not.
Everything tightened, everything slowed. My brain throbbed, engorged on adrenaline and thoughts of potential violence. The faces around me came into focus, sharpened in detail. For a moment, I understood the archaic script crawling up my enemy’s neck. Ancient warrior rites were revealed to me in all their sacred brutality.
I made up my mind. I would bury my teeth into whoever came at me first. I would swallow as much flesh as I could tear away. Even Spieler. Especially Spieler.
We revealed our hands. Silence as the cards were scrutinized. Then a demure chuckle from Sven. The laughter spread across the table like a plague. I could only gawk at my cards. At their uselessness.
A two and a seven. I had nothing, not even with the flop. All aggression evaporated under Sven’s laughter. All except mine.
“Looks like you really did have some shit luck,” Sven said.
“Yeah.” I glanced sidelong at Spieler. “The dealer fucked me over.”
I tried to get a word alone with Spieler before lockdown, but he kept slithering away. He had done this to me. He had mixed my blood with gasoline, then lit a match. But he could not be caught. He danced in and out of my peripheral and remained untouchable.
I went back to my cell. I laid on my bunk and did not sleep and considered banging my head against the bars. Bash a hole in my skull. Alleviate all the pressure.
In the morning, I watched the keg-man eat my breakfast. He finished, made his way to the toilet.
His turned back drew me to him. Before I realized what was happening, before my brain could remind me that I was a coward, my hand whipped forward. His warped reflection rushed toward me as I slammed his head against the metal slab.
A crunch. Blood unfurled like streamers marking a special occasion, the day a child was born. His head lolled backward. His eyes swiveled in their sockets. Confused. Pleading. But the action had begun, and it could not be stopped.
I forced him into the mirror again. Again and again, in a brutal rhythm. Then his body went lax. Mine did, too.
Would you believe me if I told you that I faced no punishment for unearthing the white of another man’s skull, but instead gained the world? That action, in all its petulant barbarism, made my existence bright. Violent offenders nodded in my direction when I walked by. Sometimes I nodded back.
I would learn later that Spieler had bribed the guy in the cell across from mine to swear I had acted in self-defense. He came over to me and rested those lithe fingers on my shoulder. His touch was heavier than I expected. He whispered two words in my ear:
The whole scenario was hilarious in a way that should have tied my gut in ridiculous knots. I still can’t bring myself to laugh about it, not even now. Any of it. Locked up once is locked up forever.
The level of absurdity heightened; the universe churned out its snickering future. Mere days after I had learned to belong in this place, it was time for me to leave.
The case, the whole thing, had been thrown out. I like to imagine that the judge took one look at my picture and saw me for what I was—not a menace to society, but a mere nuisance better left to slip through the cracks of the world, to fade into the void where the state had no jurisdiction and thus was not responsible to feed or clothe me.
In truth, the evidence had been flimsy at best. It was easier for everyone involved to let the whole issue fade into obscurity. So I returned to the streets, guiltless only in the eyes of bureaucracy, where I would stain the world with trembling, filthy hands. I would hurt people and be hurt by them and clamp my ears shut against the terrible silence which always followed. I would wake each morning and imagine an asteroid crashing through the ceiling, obliterating everything in a single moment of celestial justice.
God, I hope Spieler’s right. I hope we never get what we deserve.
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