Breakfast time came a couple hours later. I stayed in my cell until I heard someone mention it, then I followed everyone else as they headed to the cafeteria. Nobody said anything about missing a blanket. Either they hadn't noticed, or they were just used to shit happening to them.
I half-expected there to be oatmeal for breakfast, since we had just eaten it for dinner. But nope. There were scrambled eggs, toast, grits, biscuits, which were from last night judging by their extra-dryness, and some kind of mystery-meat sausage patties. I slipped easily into line and got myself a tray.
In front of me was a heavy-set man in his fifties. His jumpsuit was fully intact, no modifications, but it had faded over the years so that it was more white than orange. He had a crop of dark gray hair hanging around his ears. He limped when he walked, but he wasn't the kind of guy you'd make fun of for that. I could tell just from the back of him that he was one of the men that nobody dared to mess with. I judged him as an old general from some army force. Turned out later that I was right.
The inmate behind the sneeze-shield filled a ladle with eggs, not paying attention to who he was giving it to, but when he looked up and saw the old guy, he flinched horribly, dropping the ladle and flinging eggs into the grits and onto the floor.
"Fever," the inmate blubbered out. He stabbed the ladle into the eggs and tried to keep his arm from shaking. "Here you go, sir." The nervous wreck heaped a generous portion of eggs on the older man's tray.
"Of course you'd have a nickname," I grunted in a low voice. I didn't think the old man would be able to hear me, but he did.
He turned around, his torso thick and swollen with musculature beneath his jumpsuit. His gray hair hung in a neat, straight line right above his bushy black eyebrows. Below them, his eyes stood out in crystal-clear blue. His high cheekbones jutted out of his face like a skeleton's, his jaw set with supressed rage. He towered above me, though he couldn't have had more than a foot on me.
"Fever is my name, boy," the man said darkly, his face contorted as though he was repulsed by the sight of me.
"Oh, sorry," I said, fluttering my fingers in the air, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "Fever."
His eyes narrowed. Without taking his eyes off of me, he placed his food tray on the counter. Then he unnecessarily rolled up his right sleeve.
I scoffed at him. "What are you gonna do?" I asked, my tone suggesting he was an imbecile. "Hit me? Right in front of these gua-"
Fever cut me off by walloping me in the mouth. I pitched sideways and smashed into the plastic shield, blood and spit shooting out of my mouth as fireworks exploded behind my eyes. My food tray clattered to the floor. My jaw immediately throbbed. Beneath my tongue puddled the heavy taste of blood.
I pushed off the counter and wobbled, then steadied. I could tell my teeth were coated in blood just by the feel of them against my lips. I looked at Fever and laughed. He was watching me, his hand still clenched in a fist, a couple of his knuckles cut open by my teeth.
"You fucking idiot, they're gonna lock you away now!" I told him gloatingly, my words barely distinguishable on account of my laughing.
But his eyes remained cooly unphased, and I grew worried. I glanced around and saw none of the guards were headed this way, though there was no doubt that they had seen what had happened.
Oh shit, I thought. Another enemy. I mentally face-palmed myself.
Fever snatched me by the loose fabric of my jumpsuit, jerking me to him. I felt my feet lift off the ground, only my toes still touching. I stared into his eyes, unable to look away.
"If you ever," he began, but his words were shattered away as a fist socked him in the eye. Fever released me and I fell flat on my ass, then scrambled to my feet to see who'd struck him.
It was Ben.
"You fucker!" Fever snarled, wiping the tears from his already-swelling eye.
He swung out at Ben, but he ducked and punched Fever in the ribs, then in the stomach. Fever grunted and flung out his arms, wrapping them around Ben's shoulders, pinning his arms to his sides in some kind of angry, feral hug. Fever cocked back his head to butt Ben, but Ben crouched down and jumped, his skull thumping into Fever's throat. His grip loosened, gagging from the impact, and Ben shoved out from beneath Fever's arms. He stepped back.
Fever covered his throat with his hand, struggling to take a deep breath, shivering with rage, pissed that he had been brought low so quickly.
"Keep the line moving, people," a guard said at last, knowing the fight was over.
Ben looked at me, his lips parted slightly as he panted with adrenaline. His eyes were sparkling. My heart was racing, too, and we grinned at each other. Then he turned and went back to his table, resuming his meal.
I picked up my tray and followed Fever down the line, happily accepting the wet, powdered eggs, the damp sausages, and brick-hard biscuits. Then I went and sat down next to Ben, grateful for his defending me. I dropped my sausage on his tray and told him happy birthday. He rested his palm on my thigh in a not-so-subtle way, but I didn't push it off. He deserved a little a tolerance on my part.
"You just can't stay outta trouble, can you?"
Damian was playing poker in the common room with four other men. He spoke without looking up as I passed by their table.
I chuckled, unconsciously licking at the swell of my busted lip. "It keeps me entertained, I guess."
"People are gonna start comin' after you if you ain't careful," he warned, raising his head to meet my eye.
"That's what the guards are for," I told him as if I knew everything. "They protect us from each other."
"You're wrong, kid," he said, shaking his head. "They just here to keep us from escapin'. Don't give two shits if we hurt each other, long as it gets settled before they have to intervene. Looks bad on camera if they don't stop it in decent time. But some of them guards'll take bribes, let the inmates beat the shit out of whoever they want s'long as they get a pack of smokes out of it. They just act like they wasn't fast enough."
"Whatever." I averted my gaze. What he said got me feeling weak, but I didn't want to believe it, so I pretended not to. "And if I drop the soap in the shower, I'm gonna get butt-raped. I've heard it all before. None of that shit really happens."
"I'm just tryin' to help you, kid," Damian said gently.
"Thanks." I looked at him. "But I don't need help."
Suddenly I thought of Fever, and what might have happened if Ben hadn't stepped in. I probably would have said something else sarcastic and foolish, and Fever probably would have stuck his hands in my mouth, grabbing my roof with one hand and my jaw with the other, and pulled my face apart. My gut twisted at the picture.
Damian's hazel eyes dulled a little. He looked down at the cards in his hands, but he didn't seem interested in them anymore. One of the men at the table wordlessly laid down a Royal flush. I turned and headed down the hall to my cell.