I held onto the chain link fence like it was my life line. My knuckles were as white as the bone showing through. I held my breath and watched as they stepped off the heavily guarded bus. Through the haze of the afternoon and the dirt rising from the ground, I found him. With one glance my heart was already falling out of my chest. I didn't even have time to worry about the irregular beat, how it moved like a drum that had lost its tempo.
I stepped back and turned away, not ready to face the past that had so easily reentered into my life. I walked several paces away before my friend Tommy found me. He gripped my arm but I shoved him away.
"Isn't that the guy?" he asked in an even tone. All I could do was nod my head, yes, I thought to myself, this is the devil. I walked over to the beaten bleachers on the other side of the grounds. We called this area the pen. We were only animals walking around, searching for things we would never find. I took a seat and picked at the chipping wood of a bench, stared at the grass and wondered what I was going to do.
Could I run? No, that wasn't even an opinion, not anymore. I was stuck in here, my rights and my freedom revoked the second I stepped foot into Clinton State Penitentiary for Troubled Youths. The sun felt hot against my skin, more threatening than it had been in so many months. Everything looked too bright, felt too hot, and smelled too stale. I was outside, but I might as well have been back in my cell.
Tommy came and sat next to me. He sat hunched over, his face hidden from the others. We didn't want to cause any trouble but trouble always had a way of finding us. The scar on the Tommy's left eye was not an accident, nor was it from falling on the ground like the story we had told. When you're in the pen, you keep your secrets. Sometimes, that will keep you alive.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," I answered, still picking at the loose splinters from the bench. "I guess watch my back."
"Do you think he'll even remember you?"
I laughed without humor, of course he remembers me, I thought. "Yeah, he'll remember me. It's not like I have a forgettable face."
"I don't know, it's pretty ugly. I think I'd forget it." Tommy was always a joker, I punched his arm and we laughed, though it wasn't full of happiness.
"Maybe if you tell one of the oveja then you can be moved to another penitentiary."
"I don't think they would do that. You know how they are, they don't give a damn what happen's to us in here, as long as they get paid." We called the guards oveja, sheep, because they followed orders and did not question anything.
The whistle came for us to return to our cells. I got in line behind Tommy, checking over my shoulder now and then. You never know when a guy is going to put a knife into your back.
We walked into our cells which felt smaller than a closet. I fell into the bottom bunk and pulled out an old book, one I'd been trying to work my way through for the few month's I'd been there.
"Do you really get anything from that? It doesn't make any damn sense. How can a guy really part water?"
I had finally gotten to Exodus in the Old Testament. I had always liked the tale of Moses, a prince who had become a sheep herder. He had to go against everything he had ever known and bring his people to a better land. He sacrificed his own life to help people in need.
"He had a lot of holy power behind him."
Tommy made a noise as if he didn't believe anything I said. He wasn't big into religion and didn't see any point in believing in a god who would allow his life to be as bad as it was. I could understand where he was coming from, but I was more open minded. It wasn't god's fault I was here, it was someone else's fault.
We didn't talk much after that and soon I fell asleep. After what felt like no time at all, we were ushered out into the cafeteria for dinner. I grabbed my tray and looked at the mashed potatoes with disappointment, they looked like white rocks instead of fluffy clouds. I was shuffling along in the line when a sudden chill ran through me.
"Ryan Hays," a voice said from behind me. My heart felt like it had stopped. A long silence befell my irregular beating organ and it seemed like a long time before it started to beat again. My lungs felt as if a hand was slowly crushing them. I turned around and closed my eyes briefly, not able to believe who was in front of me.
"Santo," I said, my voice barley a whisper. He smiled at me, something that would make anyone tremble in fear. A single tear drop tattoo was crudely done by his left eye. The eyes themselves were darker than my greatest fears. Two scars colored his face like a crooked mask. His arms were littered in the names of his fallen aliado, allies, who'snames that would never grace the lips of any enemy again.
"You look at me as if you look at death," he says and urges me to move farther in the food line. I finally get myself together and reach the end, following Tommy to our usual table. Santo followed with two men flanking his sides. I had never seen before, and wasn't sorry to not know their names.
"You remind me of a rabbit, one who's tail has been snatched by the waiting snake."
I don't look at him, but stare at my food. I didn't want to look up at him, how could I without the fear showing so clearly in my eyes?
"Conejo," he said, his voice threatening. He was calling me a rabbit, a animal easily frightened in nature. "Look at me when I speak to you."
I don't want to obey his command, but I find that my will power is weak. I look at him and it was like looking at a real snake, one who's fangs are bared and ready to sink its venom into my neck. Tommy is shaking beside me, remembering the story I once told him about how I came to be in the pen.
"I noticed that your family moved," he says casually. I know what is behind his voice though. He finds it amusing that people would try to hide from him, knowing that running away would only make the chase more fun.
"I didn't know they did," I say and finally take a bite of food. It might as well be sand paper with the way it slides down my throat.
"Don't think I've forgotten conejo what you did to me."
He appears calm, collected, and casual. It wouldn't alarm anyone, not even one of the oveja.
"I haven't forgotten either," I say, my voice remaining steady.
"I bet you haven't. You thought you would be safe here, but this is the most dangerous place of all. Don't think for a second that these walls will keep you from my rage. I know who you really are," he says and then leaves the table with the two who had followed him there.
I look over to Tommy who looks like he's about to pee his pants. We eat our food in silence and then go back to our cell when the whistle comes. When we finally are away from ears and eyes, he freaks out.
"What the hell was he talking about?"
I shake my head, "who knows? He's insane."
"Is he going to try and kill you?"
"I think he's going to try."
Tommy becomes furious, "and you're going to let him kill you? You're just going to go down without a fight?"
"No, but it's better than waiting in fear! I don't have a long time anyway, so what would it matter?"
Tommy just shakes his head at me, "just because you have a heart problem doesn't mean you're going to die from it. The state is paying for your health, so don't even give me that. You better fight to stay alive. One of us needs to make it out of here, and it needs to be you. I'm looking at the rest of my life in prison's, you're the only one who has a shot in hell at having a normal life."
"Don't start talking about that again," I say but know his answer.
"I killed two people Ryan, do you really think they'll just let me out after some hard time? Even if they did, how do you even know I won't kill again?"
Tommy wasn't a killer, I knew he wasn't. It was an accident what happened, but sometimes, the law just isn't on your side, especially when they look at the face of a person and now who he really is.
"I know you won't. Let's just forget about it for tonight, okay?"
He finally gives up and mumbles something about me being difficult. I laugh and fall into my bunk. My heart's unsteady rhythm carrying me to sleep.
When I wake up I feel like I've been hit by a car. My limbs feel stiff and my head feels as if it's in a fog. I get up when the whistle sounds and get ready for breakfast. Santo does not join my table again, and I sigh in relief. He doesn't stay far for long, though. When time comes for outdoor exercise, he finds me.
"This is the day conejo, that you breathe your last breath."
I stand by the bleachers with Tommy at my side. We are out numbered and I worry that this might really be the end. No prison guards are paying attention. I take in a deep breath and wait for Santo to make the first move. He steps closer to me and looks at me from my head to my toes and laughs quietly.
"Did you think you would trick me? Take your brother's place in jail, have him move away with that sister of yours and think that I wouldn't find out?"
I don't say anything and he chooses to continue. "I know it was him that night. He shot up my gang, mi familia, and he thought he would bring me down. He is el muerto. Taking his place did nothing. I still have people on the outside, ready to find him when he comes out of his hole. Two scared rabbits."
I past ran in front of my eyes before I could stop it. My brother Jake always got into trouble when we were kids, always wanted to be something he wasn't. He would come home bloody and full of cuts and bruises that he couldn't even explain. One night he came home and told me he had really done it, he tried to take down Santo and his gang. I knew my brother would never make it in jail, so when the police came knocking, thanks to a witness who described my brother as the one to shoot up the neighborhood, I took his place.
No one ever bothered to investigate. I pled guilty and landed here and told my brother to take our sister and run. I told him to clean himself up and to never contact me again. I knew I didn't have too long. My heart wanted to give up, and I didn't have the drive to even bother coaching it on towards living.
I saw the blade before it pierced my side, and in a flash I took my elbow and jammed it into Santo's neck. I may have had a heart problem, but my brother taught me how to fight. You don't grow up in the neighborhood and not know how to kill someone who tries to kill you.
Everyone was on me in a second. I punched, kicked, and even bit, and before Santo could grab the knife that I'd kicked out of his hand, I jammed it into his throat. My heart beat loudly, erratically in my chest and I knew before my last breath that I'd protected my brother. It wasn't the way I had expected to die, but I wasn't going to go down without a fight. I could only hope that I took down Santo with me, and protected the one person I cared enough about. The cadenas, the chains, could not hold back my hope. It only one of my options for escape. I was free now at least, away from the heart that had caused me nothing but grief, and the man who had threatened my life. The rabbit swallowed the snake.